In less time than it takes to draw a breath the river around the fishing boat was once more silent, sunlit, and serene. There might never have been such things as demons in the world.
Prince Mark sat for a moment with his eyes closed.
Then, leaning forward in his seat, he put a hand on the shoulder of one of the collapsed rowers. Gently he tried to shake the man out of his paralysis. But for the time being, at least, it was no use. The prince sighed, moved himself to the rowers’ bench, and reached for an oar.
His nephew Zoltan had already taken the other one. With a couple of good strokes they overcame the boat’s drift, and were once more headed upstream toward the islands.
Bonar, looking shamefaced, had by now managed to regain an upright position on his seat. For a time there was silence except for the creak of oarlocks. Then the chief of Clan Malolo, looking about him in all directions, asked softly and wonderingly: “Where is it?”
“The demon is gone,” said Mark patiently. “It’s all right now.”
The young clan leader turned back and forth in his seat, gaping at the Tungri, which ran calm and undisturbed. The day was peaceful. “But gone where? Is it likely to come back?”
“It might very well come back here sometime. But there’s no immediate danger. We can go on and talk to the mermaids, visit the islands as we planned.”
Hearing calm human conversation around them, both of the original rowers presently revived. Seeing their three passengers serene, and the danger gone, they rather guiltily went back to work, Mark and Zoltan relinquishing their oars.
Bonar was certainly not going to let the matter rest. “But what happened to the demon? It was a real demon, wasn’t it?”
Zoltan said: “Oh, it was a demon, all right. As real as they ever get. But my uncle enjoys certain powers over such creatures. Mainly the power to keep them at a distance.”
Mark shrugged, under Bonar’s awestricken gaze. “It’s true that I’m no wizard. But I do have such a power, from my father, who happens to be the Emperor.”
“Ah,” said Bonar. But he did not really sound as if he understood, or was convinced of anything. Zoltan could scarcely blame him. Many if not most of the world’s people thought of the Emperor as nothing more than some kind of legendary clown.
The clan chief persisted in trying to puzzle it out. “This power over demons that you say you have indeed, that you have demonstrated. Does it never fail?”
Mark smiled grimly. “It hasn’t failed me yet, or I wouldn’t be here. Though I must admit I’m never completely sure it’s going to work at the moment when I start to use it.”
The boat was moving steadily on toward the islands. Now in the forward seat again, Zoltan talked and sang, hoping that his voice would be heard and recognized beneath the water, trying to summon up a very special mermaid.
HAVING done the best he could to set the mermaids searching for the Sword, Chilperic was not disposed to dawdle on the riverbank. After making sure that a couple of militiamen remained on the shore to carry news from the fishgirls should there be any, he started back to the manor as soon as possible. He was intent on keeping in close touch with the healer Tigris, and wanted to be first to hear of any change in the condition of her patient.
By the time he and Hissarlik got back to the manor, Chilperic’s modest hopes of success for the mermaid project were already fading. He remembered all too well their sullen unwillingness, and he doubted the efficiency of Hissarlik’s spell. Chilperic’s remaining enthusiasm for that effort diminished steadily as the remaining hours of the afternoon wore on. By sunset he had virtually abandoned hope that the fishgirls were going to prove at all helpful. And he supposed that any program of underwater search they might have begun would have to be abandoned with the onset of darkness, since there was no way to provide the creatures with Old World lights, the only kind that might be used beneath the surface. Meanwhile, Chilperic was only too well aware that time was passing and his mission here was no closer to being accomplished. The Ancient Master was not going to be pleased. Soon, Chilperic thought, he was going to have to overcome his reluctance to summon the demon, and order Rabisu to make a direct search for the Sword. There were moments when he wondered uneasily just what the demon might be up to on its own.
Just after sunset, when Chilperic was in his room alone, Tigris the healer came in secrecy to see him. The small blond woman held a finger to her lips for silence as soon as he saw her in his doorway, and she slid quickly past him into his room without waiting to be invited.
“I have news regarding my patient,” was her greeting.
“On the road to recovery.”
“The Lady Megara’s conscious now, and in fact ready to have a visitor, if the visitor is careful to treat her gently.”
“I certainly shall. But I must ask her some questions. Have you said anything about this recovery to any of the family yet?”
“Of course not.” Tigris lifted her pretty chin. “You and I, dear Chilperic, serve the same master, and so my first report must be to you whenever that is possible.”
“I should hope so. Tell me, has the woman said anything of importance to you?”
“Not really. She’s asked a few questions as to how long she has been ill. I saw no point in lying to her about that.”
“No, I suppose not. Anything else?”
“Not that you’d find interesting. Mainly she was curious about my identity. Natural enough. I’ve already warned her that I might be coming back to the room with a professional colleague, though I haven’t actually said you are a physician.”
“Better and better.” Chilperic smiled briefly, then looked grim again. “Tell me, what exactly was wrong with her? Had it anything to do with her practicing magic?”
“In my opinion which is valued highly, as you know, in some rather high places-”
“Yes, I concede that.”
“In my opinion, the Sorceress Megara’s disability was not due so much to magical backlash though something like that may have contributed as it was to a mere shock of a much more ordinary kind.”
“Emotional trauma. Such as might be caused, for example, by the death of someone to whom she was closely attached. They tell me that her father was Farslayer’s first victim, on that famous night when the feuding clans all but destroyed each other. And that she was found lying unconscious beside his body. An experience like that would be quite enough to send some people into extended shock. Perhaps to make them lie in a trance for a month.” And Tigris smiled a brittle smile.
Chilperic said: “That’s right. They were both found out on Magicians’ Island. Evidently for some reason he’d gone out there that night to visit her. Or spy on her perhaps.”
“So, having her father killed before her eyes could very well have done it. She would be standing there talking with this familiar and dependable figure then zip! Sudden death comes in the window. Do you have any wine on hand, by any chance? Or maybe a drop of brandy?”
Chilperic had, as a matter of fact. While finding a bottle and a glass, he shook his head. He could not generate any respect for people who allowed themselves to be disabled by things that happened to others. “Well, let’s go see her, then. She may know something that will help us find the Sword, and in any case we’ll have to deal with her if she resumes some position of leadership here within the family. You say I can talk to her now?”
“If you try not to disturb her too much. Ah, that’s very good.” And Tigris set down the empty glass.
Chilperic started to open the door to the hall, then stopped in the act of doing so. “I wonder if it would be wise to bring some member of the family along to the lady’s room. Naturally they’ll want to know of her recovery as soon as possible.”
“As you wish. Perhaps that’s a good idea. It might be wiser not to confront the lady just now with two relative strangers, and no familiar face in sight.”
It was just as well they had made that decision, for as soon as they went out into the corridor they encountered Hissarlik, who, as he said, was on his way to learn the latest on his aunt’s condition.
A moment later the three people entered the sickroom, and the servant who had been on watch there bowed and curtsied herself back from the bed.