The packets that the messenger-birds had brought were quickly opened.
The three message packets-all holding the same information, in deliberate redundancy-came from the Princess herself and were addressed to Mark, but under the circumstances Ben made no scruple about opening them.
He skimmed impatiently through the first short paragraph of personal communication. Kristin missed her husband but refrained from actually urging him to hurry home before completing the mission that he had undertaken. All was well at the Palace except that Zoltan was still missing, though his riding-beast had now been found unhurt. The boy’s mother was naturally taking it very hard, as was his sister Elinor. The efforts of the search parties continued and were now being directed more to the southwest. It was quite possible that Mark and his escort on their way home might encounter some of the patrols.
That was about it. Ben, seeing no reason not to do so, passed on the messages for others in his party to read. He ordered the resumption of the march while trying to compose in his mind a reply to send the Princess.
* * *
Back in the Palace at Sarykam, Princess Kristin was having a difficult interview with General Rostov.
He could report no further success by the parties searching for Zoltan. Except for one detail-the discovery, many kilometers to the southwest of the place where Swordface had been discovered, of the trail of what had to be a great worm. Such a trail was certainly a remarkable phenomenon in itself, in this part of the world particularly, but it was hard to connect directly with any of the strange and tragic events that had prompted the search.
It had to be assumed that Prince Zoltan had somehow come to grief. The one ray of hope was that as yet no ransom demand had been received, from the villain Burslem or anyone else.
Kristin, when her turn came, had some bad news to report to Rostov also.
A few hours ago a messenger-bird had straggled in, bearing word from her husband. The note it carried identified it as the last bird he had available, and she had sent out additional replacements. That was not the bad news.
The bad news in the message was that Shieldbreaker was now in the hands of the former Baron Amintor. And that Woundhealer, though obtained at such a great price, was doing nothing to help Prince Adrian.
Prince Adrian was not foremost in Rostov’s thoughts. On hearing of the loss of the Sword of Force, he raged, though out of respect for the Princess he almost managed to keep his anger silent.
Almost. As he stalked off, announcing that he could not
delay a minute in starting to adjust the defenses of the realm
to take into account this new catastrophe, he muttered
The Princess wondered if she could possibly have heard it
right. She summoned Rostov back to repeat what he had just said.
Standing before her again, the General burst out that the Sword of Force, upon which so much depended, had now been simply thrown away.
“You said something more than that, General. I thought I heard the words high treason. Is that true?”
“I am sorry, Princess,” he muttered hoarsely.
Color flamed in her cheeks. “If it were anyone but you, Rostov .. , understand, once and for all, that I will allow no such muttering in my presence. Especially when my husband is the object of it. If you have anything to say on the subject of treason, it is your duty to say it to me loudly and clearly. Now, have you?”
“No, Madam.” He was almost whispering. “I am very sorry that I said what I did.”
“You should be. Now off about your duties.” She waved a hand in a gesture of unusual violence.
The General was gone in a moment.
She had no more than a few moments to herself before she was informed that the chief wizard Karel wanted to see her. As soon as she was alone with her uncle, he announced his latest discovery: that Burslem and Amintor had now hooked up in an evil partnership.
What made matters even worse, their partnership was somehow related to a third party, the Ancient One, whose presence Karel had warned Kristin about earlier.
Karel was making preparations to dash off to the southwest, in an effort to forestall the enemy’s plans against Mark and Adrian-die wizard thought he could now see those plans taking shape.
Kristin’s uncle was still with her when the captain of the Palace Guard came to her with a report that a strange reptile
had just dropped a note on a high roof of the Palace. The unwelcome beast was now perched arrogantly upon an even higher steeple, as if awaiting a reply.
The Master of the Beasts seemed to consider this invasion a personal affront.
“Shall we have the damned leather-wings down at once, Your Highness?” he asked angrily. “My owls will rend it as soon as night falls. Or I could call upon the captain of the Guard for archers.” He did not seem to find this last alternative so pleasing. The hybrid birds that could have destroyed the formidable intruder by daylight were not yet returned from their escort mission to Prince Mark.
“Wait.” The Princess, despite her own jumping heart and nerves, managed to be soothing. “If the intruder brought a message, let us first find out what the message says. It is not impossible that there may be some reply.” In her own mind she was certain that a ransom demand for Zoltan had arrived at last.
Karel dispatched an assistant to the roof and presently had the message packet in his own hands. After taking all due magical precautions he opened it, and without reading the unfolded paper passed it directly on to the Princess.
Kristin took it, and read:
Ask your husband, dear lady, what has happened to the Sword Shieldbreaker that was once given into his care.
If he no longer has with him the Sword of Force, then he must begin to ‘ware Farslayer’s bite.
I will be glad to send you another message, confirming the continued good health of the noble Prince Mark, but such assurances are expensive and difficult to obtain.
Pray enclose with your reply to this two of the finest pearls for which the treasury of the house of Tasavalta is so justly famous. Such a present will ensure that your written answer is accorded the close attention that it will undoubtedly deserve.
Kristin read the message through twice. She made no comment, but passed it back to Karel, whose eyebrows went up as he scanned the neatly lettered lines. Otherwise he betrayed no surprise.
The Princess’s heart rose. All she could think was: Then they have captured no one yet. No one. All they can do is threaten us with Farslayer.
To her wizard she said: “Catch up with Rostov, who was just here, and have him read this too. He must know all the problems that we are facing.”
Then she turned her gaze to the Master of the Beasts. “Meanwhile, spare the leather-wings. Give it some water-it is only a messenger. I am going to compose an answer for it to carry back, and I do not want my reply to go astray.” She hesitated. “You may read the message too. There is nothing in it I want to keep secret.”
The two men bowed as the Princess left the room. Then Karel hastily sent a messenger, on two legs, after Rostov.
Alone in her own suite, Kristin sat at her desk and closed her eyes for a long moment. Then she took up a pen and a sheet of her personal notepaper, and wrote:
Amintor-I have learned that you are now in partnership with one who is, if possible,
more depraved than yourself. It seems to me that only one of you at a time will be able to possess the Sword of Force and benefit from any protective powers that it may possess. Therefore, I think that you and your notorious partner should both beware of sending me, my husband, or any of my friends, the gift of Farslayer, under any circumstances that might cause us to feel unkindly toward either of you.
Kristin, Princess Regnant of Tasavalta
As soon as the ink had dried she carried her reply back into the other room, where the two men were still waiting, and handed it to Karel to read. He scanned it quickly, smiled at Kristin as if he had expected nothing else, and then folded the paper and sealed it with something on his ring. Then he passed it on to the Master of the Beasts to see to its swift dispatch.
Having done all that, Kristin’s uncle bowed before her and remained in that somewhat awkward position until she told him brusquely not to be a fool but to stand up and get busy.