“Oh. The other kids were in the cave already, and Stephen and I were trying to find them-you know, playing hide-and-seek.”
“I know the game. I myself was a child once, believe it or not-go on.”
“Well, I didn’t think we were ever going to find the other kids; there were just too many places to hide. Then this funny-looking little old man popped up, like right out of the rocks on the hillside. He said: ‘Go on that way, Beth, Stephen, hurry, hurry.’ And it was like he was all excited. And he said: ‘Don’t tell anybody I told you, I’m not supposed to do this,’ or something like that.”
“And why didn’t you tell me all this before now? That same day, when I was questioning all the children about what had happened?”
“I-I guess I thought then that it was you. Someone said mat you were helping us that day. Later, when things got real dangerous. So I thought it was you, earlier. If it wasn’t you making the image of the funny wizard, who was it?”
“We will come to that later,” said Karel softly. “When I have made sure of a few more things-so, you and Stephen
ran on to the cave-very fortunately for you, as matters turned out.”
“And you found the cave, with the other children already in it, just where the funny-looking old wizard had indicated that you should go.”
Karel sighed. “I think I ought to talk to Stephen, too.”
The conversation was interrupted at this point while Stephen was located, summoned, and reassured.
By now the Princess herself had got wind somehow of what was going on and appeared in Karel’s tower, insisting on sitting in on the next round of questioning.
Stephen confirmed Beth’s statement, in its essentials.
“Why didn’t you tell me, darling?” the Princess cried.
“I thought the funny wizard winked at me, like to keep a secret. I thought it was part of the magic, not to tell. I thought I couldn’t.” For once the five-year-old looked alarmed.
“It’s all right,” Karel assured him. “AH right. But now, now is the time for all of you children to tell us everything else you can remember. I can make it come out all right-I think I can-if you tell me all about it now.”
Beth’s ten-year-old brow was creased in a thoughtful frown. “I thought I knew the wizard,” she said, “because I had seen him before.”
“There’s a book, I think,” she said at last.
The scrolled-up storybook lay on the little bedside table in Adrian’s quiet room. Karel held the book up in his two hands and felt of it and looked at it, not only with his two eyes. It had been much used and read and even chewed on, but the linen was strong and durable, and some of his own arts had been invested in the paints. The colors in the painted pictures were still quite strong and clear.
“This is the book?”
“Show me the picture.”
They found it immediately. The friendly, funny wizard, with some storybook name, helped the children in the story through the jolly adventures that befell them. Beth had read this book when she was smaller, and Stephen read it sometimes now, and Adrian had liked very much to be read to out of it.
The Princess was staring at the worn scroll. “I thought Adrian took that with him. I thought that the maid packed it. But it was probably here, in the bed or somewhere, and didn’t show up until they’d left.”
She took the book from her uncle’s hand and frowned at the pictured wizard. “I’ve seen that costume before, somewhere. I know, the Winter Festival.” And now she stared at Karel.
“That’s what I said!” chimed in Beth.
Karel gazed at the picture too. Yes, he remembered now. Years had passed since he’d done anything for the children at the Festival, and this imitation wizard hadn’t been a big part of it, even then.
He said: “I’m surprised that you remember that, child. I confess that I’d forgotten all about it myself.” And now Karel was on the verge of beginning to understand.
AMINTOR was standing in a tent, trying on his new uniform in front of a mirror. The tent was real enough-or at least he thought it was-but the mirror was certainly not glass, and perhaps it wasn’t there at all. Still, he could see himself as if it were. And the splendid new uniform had magic in it too, for it kept changing colors on him, slowly and subtly. Burslem, it seemed, had not yet made up his mind on the proper livery for his army. Right now the Baron was decked out in a plum-colored turban, trousers and boots of ebon black, and a jacket that kept shimmering between crimson and silver.
The uniform looked all right, Amintor supposed, allowing for the chromatic inconsistency, but right now he hardly saw it. His mind was too much absorbed in other matters. The Baron had been forced to put aside, for the time being, the planning and problems involved in attempting to create an army practically from scratch. Burslem was insisting on an immediate advance, and attack in some form, against Tasavalta. They were to march at once, with whatever forces were immediately available.
The wizard had promised to explain his change in plans en route. For the time being, Burslem’s three hundred or so armed guards-backed up, of course, by the power of the
great worm-were going to have to suffice as an army. It was necessary to move against Tasavalta at once, and Amintor would be told why in good time.
The man who had commanded the three hundred guards until Amintor’s arrival, a baby-faced scoundrel named Imamura, was naturally resentful of the Baron, who had appeared as if from nowhere to take over his command. Amintor understood this reaction perfectly, though Imamura did his best to mask it. Accordingly the Baron had done his best to placate his displaced colleague by promising him that he would soon have more people to order about than he had ever dreamt of-and, of course, all the wealth, rank, and privilege that went with such a powerful position as chief of staff of a large army.
But now even that problem was going to have to wait. Somehow, for some reason, they were going to have to move against Tasavalta, leaving at once and doing all their planning en route.
The urgency of Burslem’s decision had apparently been increased by an unpleasant discovery he had just made and had related tersely to Amintor: A hostage that the wizard had thought he was holding securely, one of the minor Princes of the Tasavaltan house, had somehow escaped or been set free. That in itself did not seem to the Baron a reasonable cause for panic. Obviously more was going on here than he had been told about, a state of affairs that he intended to rectify as soon as possible.
Amintor had already put forward the suggestion that if for some reason it was really essential to move at once against the Tasavaltans, the wisest idea would be to try to kidnap Prince Mark and his heir, rather than recapturing the hostage who had somehow got away. (And the mere fact of that reported escape preyed upon the Baron’s mind as well-had he somehow overestimated the quality of the magical power
with which he was making such an effort to ally himself?) It was almost certain that Prince Mark, traveling as he was with an escort including a caravan of baggage, had not yet reached home; though probably the invalid child, having benefited from treatment with the Sword of Mercy, was now riding as robustly as anyone else.
If both Mark and his offspring could be taken and held for ransom, there would probably be little need to do anything else to bring the proud Tasavaltans into the position of a subject state. It was even possible, thought Amintor, that then, with a little face-saving diplomacy, even the Tasavaltan army might become available for certain tasks.
The Baron had already suggested that possibility to Burslem, and it had been moderately well received by the wizard; but in truth Amintor himself had grave doubts about it. He had just received Princess Kristin’s answer to his demand for pearls, and that answer had not been at all encouraging. Possibly the lady was even tougher than the Baron had suspected-or maybe she really wanted to get rid of her husband.
He still thought the blackmail scheme had been a worthwhile gamble, but there had been several drawbacks to it from the start, not the least being, as in all extortion, that you had to reveal yourself as an active enemy before you really struck at your victim. And as for the weapon employed, the last line of its verse in the old Song of Swords certainly signaled caution: