Kristin at first had real difficulty in believing this. There was always someone in that square. “And what of the guards inside the Temple?” she demanded. “Where were they? Where are they now?”
The old man sighed, and gave such explanation as he could. Inasmuch as White Temple people were notoriously poor at guarding such material treasures as came into their hands from time to time, the rulers of Tasavalta had never trusted the white-robed priests to guard the Sword. Instead, a detail of men from an elite army regiment protected Woundhealer.
At least two of these soldiers were always on duty inside the Temple’s supposedly secure walls and doors. But last night, at the crucial hour, one guard of the minimal pair, though a young man, had collapsed without warning, clutching his chest in pain, and died almost at once. A few moments later the victim’s partner, reaching into a dark niche to grasp the bell rope that would summon help, had been bitten on the hand by a poisonous snake, and paralyzed almost instantly. The soldier’s life was still in danger. The snake was of a species not native to these parts, and so far no one had been able to explain its presence in the Temple.
Scarcely had Kristin finished listening to this most unlikely story when more news came, a fresh discovery almost as difficult to believe. A lock on one of the Temple’s doors had accidentally jammed last night when the door was closed, effectively preventing the door from being secured in the usual way. The defect was a peculiar one-highly improbable, as the locksmith kept insisting- and it must have seemed to the woman who had turned the key at the hour of sunset that the door was securely locked as usual.
Karel gave a slight shrug of his heavy shoulders. “The theft was accomplished by means of magic, Princess,” he said in his soft voice. “There’s no doubt of that.”
“And a very powerful magic it must have been.” After a momentary hesitation, she asked: “A Sword?” Already she thought she knew the answer; and it would not be hard, she thought, to guess which Sword had been employed.
“Very likely a Sword.” The old man nodded grimly. “I feel sure that Coinspinner has been used against us.”
Once more their talk was interrupted. Now at last a witness had been discovered, one besides the poisoned guard who could give direct testimony. A shabby figure was hustled before the Princess. One of Sarykam’s rare beggars, who had spent most of the night huddled in a doorway on the far side of the square, and who now swore that at the height of the rainstorm he had seen a man wearing the blue-and-orange uniform of Culm carrying a bright Sword -it had certainly been no ordinary blade-carrying it drawn and raised, into the White Temple. Meanwhile, the beggar related, others in the same livery had stood by outside with weapons drawn.
“This man you saw was carrying a Sword into the Temple, and not out of it? Are you quite sure?”
“Oh, oh, yes, I’m quite sure, Princess. If I’d seen a foreigner taking something out, I would’ve raised an alarm.
Thought of doing so anyway, but-you see-I’d had a bit too much-my legs weren’t working all that well-”
“Never mind that. Did you see him come out of the Temple again?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did. And then he had two Swords. I tried to raise an alarm, ma’am, like I said, but somehow- somehow-” The ragged man began to blubber.
After hearing this testimony of the sole witness, Kristin made her way into the inner sanctuary, and carried out her own belated inspection of the actual scene of the crime. There, on the very altar of Ardneh, she beheld the crystal repository in which the Sword of Healing had been kept, a fragile vault now standing broken and empty under the blank-eyed marble images of Draffut-doglike, but standing tall on his hind legs-and Ardneh, an incomprehensible jumble of sharp-edged, machinelike shapes.
The actual breaking of the crystal vault and carrying away of the Sword would have been simple, and staring at this minor wreckage told her nothing.
Leaving the Temple now, the Princess went to survey the status of the Swords still kept in the royal armory, beside the Palace and only a short walk distant.
If the Princess and her people were able to speak of Coinspinner with a certain familiarity, it was because the Sword of Chance had reposed for some time within the stone walls of the armory’s heavily guarded rooms. But about seven years ago that Sword had vanished from the deepest and best-watched vault, vanished suddenly and without explanation. Under the circumstances of that disappearance there had been no need to look for thieves. One of the known attributes of the Sword of Chance was its penchant for taking itself spontaneously and unpredictably from one place to another. Forged by the great god Vulcan, like all its fellow Swords, Coinspinner scorned all obstacles that ordinary human beings might place in opposition to its powers. Coinspinner was subject to no confinement, and to no rules but its own, and exactly what those rules were no one knew. By what progression, during the last seven years, the Sword of Chance had passed from the Tasavaltan armory to somewhere in Culm would probably be impossible to determine, and would be almost certainly irrelevant to the current problem.
Deep in the vaults Kristin encountered the senior General of her armed forces. Rostov was a tall and powerful man in his late fifties, whose curly hair had now turned almost completely from black to gray. The black curve of his right cheek was scarred by an old sword-cut, which his perpetual steel-gray stubble did little to conceal.
Rostov was taking the theft personally; he was here in the armory looking for weapons of particular power to take with him in his pursuit of the thieves, who had several hours’ start. A number of people could testify to that. Everyone in Sarykam had been expecting the delegation from Culm to leave this morning anyway, so no one had thought much of their moving up their departure time by a few hours. It had seemed only natural that after their unsuccessful pleading they would want to avoid anything in the nature of a protracted farewell.
Now, as Kristin ascertained with a few quick questions, three squadrons of cavalry were being made ready to take up the pursuit, which Rostov intended to lead in person. As far as she could tell, her military people were moving with methodical swiftness.
The Princess informed her General that Karel the wizard planned to accompany him; the old man had told her as much when she spoke to him in the Temple.
“Very well. If the old man is swift enough to keep up. If his wheezing as we ride do not alert the enemy.” Rostov was staring at the three other Swords kept in the royal armory, and his expression showed a definite relief that these at least were still in place. Dragonslicer would probably be useless in the kind of pursuit he was about to undertake, but he now asked permission of the Princess to bring Stonecutter, and thought he would probably want Sightblinder as well.
Kristin, after granting the General her blessing to take whatever he wanted, and leaving him to his preparations, returned to the Palace. There she gave orders for several flying messengers to be dispatched from the high eyries atop the towers. The winged, half-intelligent creatures would be sent to seek out the absent Prince Mark and bear him the grim news of Woundhealer’s vanishment.
By the time she had returned to the Palace, the sun was well up, but veiled in clouds. She could wish that the day were brighter. Then it would have been possible to signal ahead by heliograph, and there might have been a good chance of intercepting the fleeing Culmians at the border. But the clouds that had brought rain last night persisted, and if Coinspinner was arrayed against the realm of Tasavalta, today was not the day to expect good luck in any form.
At about this time, staring at the gray and mottled sky, Kristin began to be tormented by a truly disturbing thought: Was it possible that Murat’s whole story regarding a crippled consort had been a ruse, and that the Sword was really now bound for the hands of some of Mark’s deadly enemies?
The Princess’s only comfort was that no evidence existed to support this theory. The fact that no attempt had been made to steal Dragonslicer, Stonecutter, and Sightblinder, or do any other damage to the realm, argued against it. Apparently the Culmian marauders had been truly interested only in obtaining the Healer.
The rain was still falling when the pursuit was launched, a swift but unhurried movement of well-trained cavalry, flowing out through the main gate of the city, every man saluting his Princess as he passed. A beast master with his little train of load beasts, carrying roosts and cages for winged fighters and messengers, brought up the rear of the procession. General Rostov and the wizard Karel rode together at its head.