When Gesner unbarred and opened the door at last, the two men outside started to push their way into the house. But then they halted on the threshold. The appearance in the kitchen of an unexpected stranger, armed and resolute, and of an unknown lady of queenly bearing, was enough to delay them momentarily. And that moment was long enough for the Lady Yambu’s commanding presence to take over. In a firm voice she demanded to know just who these intruders thought they were and what they thought they wanted.
“Captain Koszalin, ma’am. I’m in charge of the defenses here. This is Shotoku, first sergeant in my company.”
“Are you indeed? Those defenses seem singularly ineffective, not to say inoperative. My party was not challenged approaching the house, and I daresay that if we had been a full company bent on an attack, the result would have been the same. Were I your commanding officer, you’d be in trouble.”
Zoltan grinned inwardly, in admiration of the way Yambu had managed to suggest the presence of an armed escort besides himself.
Koszalin was not a large man, but gave the impression of fierce energy, now under tight control. He and the massive Sergeant Shotoku, who stood stoically behind him, both wore scraps of armor and dirty green scarves, evidently as a kind of company insignia.
Under pointed questioning by Lady Yambu, Koszalin claimed to have twenty men at his command. He had come pounding on the door, he said, to collect the gold that was due him in back pay. But after a brief hesitation he accepted four small pearls, and then withdrew with his sergeant.
“He’ll need a conference with his men now, I suppose,” said Yambu when the door was closed. “Very unreliable troops, in my judgment. Doubtless the two of them will now hold a conference with their men on how best to enjoy their sudden wealth. From our point of view it will be best if they go to the nearest large town to spend it how far is that?”
“A good day’s journey,” said Rose, thoughtfully.
Within a few minutes after the two mercenaries had left the house, a servant looking from an upstairs window reported that eight or ten of the ruffians, all heavily armed and moving on foot, could be seen at the bottom of the hill. They appeared to be going upon their way.
For a minute or two the members of the family were loud in their rejoicing. But the celebration was brief. First Bonar and then Violet began to voice their misgivings that the mercenaries would be likely to come back, as soon as they had spent the pearls.
Yambu nodded. “But in the meantime we can expect to enjoy a respite of about three days that should give us the time we need to decide upon our next move.”
When the servant on lookout reported that the irregular soldiers were now completely out of sight, the brother and two sisters more volubly expressed their gratitude to Yambu and Zoltan.
Meanwhile the party was drifting back into the great hall. There, some of the few active servants remaining in the household were called upon to begin a belated cleanup, and provide something in the way of hospitality for the honored guests.
But the survivors of the Clan Malolo and their visitors had not been seated long at the table before Bonar, unable to relax for any length of time, began to have doubts as to whether they might need the mercenaries after all, and before the three days were up. The damned Senones, he felt sure, were almost certain to mount a fresh attack by then.
Yambu spoke sharply to the young chief. Would he prefer that she and her companion moved on at once?
No, all three family members protested hastily. On that point all three siblings and Gesner were in agreement.
Thinking it would be hard to find a more propitious moment, Zoltan decided the time had come to let his hosts know the real reason he had come calling on them.
He cleared his throat and addressed the chief. “I wish to speak to you on a matter of some importance. To you in particular, Chief Bonar.” Zoltan avoided the eyes of Lady Yambu, though he could see that her face was turned toward him.
“Of course, friend Zoltan,” said Bonar in mild surprise. “What is the matter of importance?”
“It’s about a mermaid.”
Bonar blinked. There was a silence in the room. Lady Yambu, when Zoltan glanced her way at last, looked as if she were ready to tell him / told you so.
The clan chief cleared his throat. “Well, of course, if you wish to have a mermaid, friend Zoltan, we will do what we can to get one for you.” Bonar sounded dubious. “Usually only entertainers and magicians find those creatures of much interest.”
“I don’t think you understand yet, Chief Bonar. I do want to talk about a mermaid, and the subject will not keep indefinitely. It is a particular mermaid that I wish to talk about. Black Pearl is her name.”
The faces of the family members and Gesner grew even blanker than before, with incomprehension and vague anxiety. It was obvious that the name of Black Pearl meant nothing to anyone in the household. But before Zoltan could press his hosts on the topic, a renewed argument had broken out among them on the subject of the mercenaries.
He could see that it was going to be difficult to get them to think seriously on the subject of mermaids.
Turning back to face the sharp look Yambu continued to level at him, Zoltan sighed, and nodded his acquiescence. Any discussion of Black Pearl was going to have to wait.
Dinner began to arrive, piecemeal. And while the group was still at the table, Rose mentioned the subject of mermaids in passing once again. She thought vaguely that Cousin Cosmo, who had been the only current member of the clan much interested in magical research, had once tried to do something to counteract the evil spell that kept the poor fishgirls in their bondage. But all agreed with Rose that Cosmo had got nowhere in his efforts. There were just as many mermaids in the river as ever or there seemed to be. No one was actually counting them, of course.
Gradually the remnants of the meal were cleared away, and winecups were refilled. As desultory efforts to clean up the room continued around them, talk among the surviving family members turned, as it was wont to do again and again, to that damned cowardly relative of theirs, Cosmo. Bonar and Violet were particularly incensed. That scoundrel Cosmo, instead of retaliating like a man when he’d finally had the chance to do so on the Night of Death, had stolen the Sword and run away with it like a coward.
“He ran away?” asked Yambu. “Where?”
“We don’t know.”
Toward the end of that terrible night, Bonar, having become clan chief by default, and pressed by the other survivors to do something, had sent a search party of mercenaries after Cosmo. At the time the only conceivable explanation of his cousin’s behavior was that Cosmo had defected to the enemy. But the searchers had come back empty-handed, reporting failure to find any trace of Cosmo along the lake or river. And in the long days since then nothing had happened to confirm the supposed defection.
“I wonder if the mercenaries killed him. I wonder if they have the Sword now,” said Rose, and shuddered.
“If any of those men had come into possession of the Sword,” Lady Yambu sniffed, “they would have begun to kill each other over it by now. Whichever of them survived with such a treasure would take it to a city to sell. We wouldn’t have seen two of them begging at your back door today.”
“No,” said Violet. “The Senones must have it. But they’re waiting for something before they strike again.”
“Waiting for what?” asked Yambu. There was no answer.
Zoltan thought to himself that there had evidently been no more active feuding of any kind since that terrible night, unless you counted the aborted attack on the fishing village. But despite that fact, the people in this stronghold were maintaining at a high level their fears that a formidable force of their enemies must still exist, and that an attack by that force must be impending at any moment.
Rose had now begun to explain how she, her brother and sister, and Gesner, had been staying in each other’s company almost continuously, day and night, ever since the massacre. If at any moment the Sword should claim a new victim from among them, someone would be on hand immediately to exact revenge.
Listening to the hatred and determination in her youthful voice, Zoltan wondered if he ought to try to argue her and her siblings into a different frame of mind. But he decided to concentrate on his own problems, at least for now.