If he had expected to frighten Buvrai by speaking his name aloud he must have been disappointed.
“Hello yourself,” said Buvrai. “But you have my name wrong. I am Sir Marland, baronet of-of somewhere out in the Far Reaches, I suppose.” Confident, smiling, he toasted his visitor silently in a sip of wine. He wasn’t about to ask the little swine to sit down, though.
The little man standing just inside the doorway frowned, considering this unexpected response. “I know who you are,” he finally said bluntly. “It’ll take more than a beard and a getup to fool me. I wonder, does the house know you’re here, gambling under a false name? I rather doubt it. I rather imagine they think you went to a different world, some time ago.”
The curtain at the rear of the box opened, and Adrian ducked in. He stopped short, watching the men. After glancing at him they both ignored his presence.
“Do you know something, Thurso? Someone told me that was your name. I really don’t give a good fart what you imagine.” Marland was still smiling.
Thurso paused, opened his mouth and closed it, then with an air of determination tried again. “All right. Play it tough. I don’t know what the game is and I don’t care. I could use a loan, though. Say a hundred, and I go play in the other rooms tonight. I haven’t seen you and I don’t know you’re here.”
“You’re right, little man, you don’t know where I am, or where you are, either, come to that. Go play wherever you like. You’ll get no gold from me.”
The other nodded, indicating the middle of the big room before them, beyond the half-concealing curtains. “There’s Tung-Hu in his little pulpit. I could go play there, and I might profit.”
“If you see a good bet there, why don’t you take it?”
The other, flushing, turned away instantly. But with the curtain to the corridor raised he turned back for a last effort. “All right. But don’t say I didn’t give you a chance. The High Priest of the Temple will be pleased to know you’re back and playing, Buvrai. And that you’re in the big game this time.”
Marland only chuckled. When the curtain had dropped behind Thurso, he turned eagerly in his chair to see what might be going to happen. Adrian moved up to watch over his shoulder.
Soon the dark little man was visible, approaching the floor chief of security, whose raised dais gave him a good outlook over most of the room.
Just as Thurso began to mount the steps to the dais, a startled expression flashed over his face. His arms began waving, in the manner of a man losing his balance, as he toppled from sight beyond a throng of customers. A waiter who had been hurrying past carrying an upraised tray went down also, and a crash of shattered glass was audible above the room’s babble of background noise. The waiter reappeared in a moment, but the little blackmailer did not.
Security began to make a fuss around the spot, and presently the heads and shoulders of two guards could be seen carrying something heavy away between them.
Thurso was not seen again. Marland glanced at Adrian, then sighed and said nothing. Adrian was still staring out over the crowd. Obviously the great majority of the people in the huge room were not aware that anything of importance had happened. With unobtrusive efficiency, servants and security people were now cleaning something up. The Prince wondered if it might be blood.
His sense of adventure was suddenly much diminished, and fear was starting to take over. He had thought himself free at any time to walk out on Marland. But now he had grave doubts that the Sword would allow it.
Carrying Marland’s next bet down to Amy at the table, Adrian thought that her nerves were getting worse, though she maintained her position at the table and continued to play. A catastrophic failure of her nerves, thought Adrian, had become a distinct possibility. He wanted to say something encouraging to her, but the right words were hard to find.
Since entering the great Temple of Bihari, Adrian had been aware of all types of entertainers, almost everywhere in sight, performing for the customers or pleading for the chance to do so. Here, in Sha’s Casino, the entertainers were less obtrusive than elsewhere in the Temple. Here in Sha’s, so Marland had informed him, were also to be found the best house wizards in the world, and the worst chances of cheating. These wizards were superbly good at their very specialized job, which was primarily to make sure that none of the customers were ever able to cheat the house.
The legend, which the management of the casino took pains to propagate, was that no one in all the centuries of its operation had ever managed to succeed in that endeavor. Marland said that it was very possibly true.
Each day the house wizards, having made sure that their reputation with regard to their primary responsibility would remain untarnished, next did their best to keep the customers from cheating one another. In this they were often successful, though here their record was not unblemished.
And naturally this evening, after the man in Box Four started winning strongly, some of the house magicians began to take notice. It was barely possible that something strange was up. But security’s preliminary look discovered nothing, no reason to harbor the faintest suspicion of Marland or his people.
The chief of floor security in the big room, the wizard named Tung-Hu, frowned, catching the shadow of a potential magical disturbance of quite a different kind. But the shadow had come and gone before Tung-Hu could even attempt to identify it.
Wood was the source. But he was able to soothe away the nervous apprehension of the house magicians almost as well as if he had been armed with one of the subtle Swords.
In the casino only Karel, and through him Rostov, were certainly aware of the Ancient One’s ominous approach.
At the entrance to the great private room, Sightblinder, invisible but powerful in Rostov’s fist, caused the attendants to back away in confusion. Several of them hastened to wave the General and his companion in.
On entering the big game room, Rostov thought it was high enough to allow the great god Draffut to stand upright. He also observed that the huge gaming wheel on the far wall took up most of the height with its diameter.
“The Prince is here?” he whispered to the wizard beside him, sheathing the Sword of Stealth again.
“Adrian is here. Somewhere in this room. Be ready.”
Before the eccentric knight in the curtained box had been an hour at play, he, and the nervous lady at the table who was so obviously his partner, had established themselves as considerable winners.
Observers could readily see that there was rarely time enough for the young page, who served this couple as messenger, to make his way from the box to Amelia’s side and back again between successive spins of the great wheel. The great wheel made a distinctive noise, and on some spins, when particularly great sums were known to be at stake, the huge room grew so quiet that that noise could be distinctly heard to its far corners.
Play continued, with the winnings of the mysterious man in the box steadily mounting. Amy’s own, unaided luck was not bad tonight, and as usual the Sword was invincible.
Such success attracted yet again the attention of the guardians of the house. Still the interest they were taking in Marland was hardly more than routine; during the last month Sha’s had survived one or two bigger winners.
But when two more lucky numbers had come in for Marland, Tung-Hu decided it would be a good idea to listen in on what the young messenger was saying.
Word was passed down from the security chief. One of the floor agents of the house, who circulated continually among the crowd, and looked like nothing but another harried player, managed to do this. He heard Adrian tell Amy only that her next bet should be on red.
She acknowledged the message with a nod, and placed her bet.
And red happened of course to win.
Marland was less happy at his impending victory than he had anticipated. Coinspinner was with him, what could possibly go wrong? The bank here, of course, had huge reserves. But he had already mentioned to his confederates the probability that as soon as it became obvious that he was on a really tremendous winning streak, other bettors would flock to ride his choices, piling their wagers atop the winning categories or digits enforced by Coinspinner.
This, if the house allowed it to happen, would break even the biggest bank in short order.
Marland slumped in his chair, staring at the dyed hilt of his Sword. He hoped that nothing really fatal had happened to Thurso. He hadn’t really wanted to kill the little bastard, after all.