A wave of noise, almost of applause, swept through the crowd in the room beyond the curtains of his box. Someone had won big.
Marland was bored.
And in fact no crisis of this magnitude had confronted Sha’s in many years. Tung-Hu had already communicated with his superiors, who were seriously considering suspending play for a time. By doing this the house would risk having to write off its already very serious losses.
But for the moment the luck of the house took a twist for the better. It was Amelia’s turn to place her bet unaided, and a fortune was swept away from her.
The security investigation of course was ordered stepped up. The next step called for the infiltration of some agent into Marland’s box to get a firsthand look at whatever might be going on there. Somehow the draperies, or some other obstruction, always prevented anyone looking up from seeing very much.
Usually probes of this type were most successfully carried out by one of the dancing girls who roamed the Temple, performing on request or with apparent spontaneity. Besides gathering information, there was the chance that the presence of such a girl might stir up some jealousy, and rob this strange Sir Marland of the full cooperation of the lady who now represented him at the table. At the very least it might distract the gambler from his endeavors.
Tung-Hu ordered that a certain girl be brought to him at once. Somehow his orders went astray.
Without waiting for the girl’s arrival, the suspicious house wizard next tried his most skillful and subtle magical method of scanning the interior of the box without making a physical approach. He could behold the result before him in a crystal globe. Yes, there was the gambler, seated, holding both hands clenched before him in a rather awkward-looking position, as if they were resting on something. But there was nothing under them. Irrelevant. Everything in Box Four looked clean. Tung-Hu’s most accomplished powers assured him that there was nothing magical for him to worry about.
“Even so, it seems imperative that we investigate the matter more intensely.” The High Priest of the local Red Temple himself was now standing beside Tung-Hu on the security dais. The High Priest was beginning to be desperate, though in keeping with his dignity he expressed it in a restrained way. This stranger’s winnings were once more mounting to the point where it would be more than embarrassing for the casino if things went on this way.
Wood had now entered the big room, secretly, and was standing inconspicuously against a wall while he conferred with Tigris. The Ancient One had disdained to adopt any special disguise for this occasion, wearing his usual appearance of a youthful demigod.
With the hilt of Shieldbreaker under his hand, Wood was able to see and recognize at a glance Rostov carrying Sightblinder, and Karel beside him; the odd behavior of others in the vicinity of the General proved which Sword Rostov was carrying. Neither Tasavaltan had spotted Wood as yet.
Wood was also able to identify Adrian without any trouble. But now he was no longer content with the idea of kidnapping Prince Mark’s whelp. Not when there were two other Swords besides his own in this room.
“We must,” he whispered to Tigris, “get at least one of those two into our grasp as well.”
“How, my lord?”
“As to Coinspinner, getting this mysterious man into a special game, and then challenging him to bet his Sword, would seem to be the way to go.”
“You will go right to his box, and challenge him?”
“Or somehow bring him to the table, and meet him there. Of course that will draw dear Rostov, with his Sword, as well.”
“I could go to his box,” said Tigris, “and tempt him to the table. Or to anywhere you like.”
Her master, hesitating again, hardly seemed to hear her. “Or would it be better not to win the Sword of Chance again, but to destroy it now? I wasted one opportunity to do so, and now here’s another; who can say if I shall ever gain another?”
Still, as before, Wood was tempted to keep the Sword of Chance and use it for himself-anyone, any being, human or otherwise, who managed to get Coinspinner and Shieldbreaker in hand at the same time would be very powerful indeed.
And Sightblinder was here, too, in the same room. The Sword of Stealth, with either of the other two Swords present, would also form a very powerful combination.
“Will you call upon the demons, sir?” asked Tigris.
“I think not. Many of them are still scattered. And I’d be surprised if the damned young whelp there lacks the power his father and grandsire seem to share against my pets.”
Suddenly the master wizard was decisive. “It will be the gaming table. Save your efforts, I’ll get him out of his box myself.”
Adrian, coming to the table with another bet chosen by Marland, in his hurry and concentration did not at first recognize Wood among the crowd.
Once Wood had reached the table, he observed Amelia’s next bet. Then Wood, having provided himself with the necessary tokens, placed his own wager in direct opposition.
There was, as on other crucial turns, a silence as the wheel spun. This time the silence was broken only by a sound as of a single drum, doubtless held by one of the musicians. Then came a gasp from the crowd. The lady had lost, a huge sum this time.
Marland, who had been watching closely, hurriedly left his seat. His first thought was that either Amy or Adrian had blundered. His second was that one or both of them were deliberately betraying him for some reason.
Only at the last moment did Marland remember to sheathe and conceal his Sword before he plunged into the crowd. He pushed his way through the crowd and toward the table.
Kebbi, seeing his employer rush out of the box in an agitated state, hastily followed.
Murat, still patiently observing from the post where he had established himself on the floor of the big room, decided that matters were somehow coming to a head, and started toward the table also.
Adrian had turned from the table when the noise of the crowd made him look back. Coinspinner’s choice had lost. For a moment the Prince could only gape. Then he realized that Shieldbreaker must somehow be arrayed against Marland.
And Shieldbreaker must mean that Wood was present. A moment later, the boy saw and recognized the Ancient One among the crowd that pressed around the table.
Wood smiled evilly in Adrian’s direction.
There would be no raising an elemental here. Not against this man’s effortless power. Adrian now realized that he was lost. There was only one way out. There was only one way, as every heir to a warrior’s throne must know, to fight against Shieldbreaker. Barehanded.
Resisting the impulse to run away, Adrian began to work his way through the crowd directly toward Wood.
Wood saw him coming, smirked at him at first, then frowned. Against an unarmed opponent, even one physically much weaker, there was only one way for the holder of the Sword of Force to win, and that was to rid himself of his peerless weapon as quickly as possible.
Adrian, having committed himself, darted forward with the speed of desperation. Wood, still fumbling to draw his Sword, could only jump aside. It was almost a panicked move, that of a powerfully built man avoiding in desperation the attack of a mere child.
Still in the act of drawing Shieldbreaker in order to throw it away, Wood attracted the full attention of the armed guards who had been steadily reinforcing the security presence near the table.
The guard nearest to Wood was extremely good at his trade. He had his short sword fully drawn, menacing this troublemaker, even before Shieldbreaker in Wood’s clumsy hand had finally and fully cleared the scabbard. But against the handiwork of Vulcan, mere human skill was futile. The drum-note of the Sword of Force was sounding now, and it laid a slight emphasis upon one single beat. The guard’s weapon was shattered into flying bits of steel that stung and bit at everyone they struck.
Wood paused, shuddering. Shieldbreaker was fully drawn now, hilt nestled in his right hand. It would begin, it was already starting, to meld itself into that hand. In another moment he would not be able to cast the Sword away, and it would mean his doom if he were attacked in that state by some unweaponed foe.
Meanwhile howling confusion, panic, had exploded in the room, following the blast of shrapnel from the shattered sword. Many here were armed, and weapons were now coming out. Accidental wounds were being inflicted in the crowd.
Rostov, Sightblinder in his right hand, was trying to fight his way toward his struggling Prince, but the General could make little headway against the mob of bodies. Half of the people surrounding Rostov saw him as some loved one, the other half as a dread enemy.