Trigger nodded. “Sounds like you’re right! You’d better stay our secret weapon for a while. Particularly—are the psis in the building, too?”
“No, I’m sure they’re not in the building. They’re close to us, but not that close.”
“But there’s a connection between them and Casmard’s Regent?”
“I’m almost sure of that.”
“Well—” Trigger shrugged. “Let’s freshen up and change our clothes before we have visitors. What do you wear on Askanam in the palace of a Regent who might be thinking of featuring you in the upcoming arena games?”
“Something quietly conservative, I suppose,” Telzey said.
“All right. Just so it goes with my purse.” The cosmetics purse didn’t contain cosmetics but Trigger’s favorite gun, and was equipped with an instant ejection mechanism. Conceivably, it could act as their other secret weapon here. “The door on the left looks like it should open on a refresher—”
In certain confidential Overgovernment files, Askanam was listed among the Hub’s experimental worlds. Officially, it was a world which retained a number of unusual privileges in return for acknowledging the Federation’s basic authority and accepting a few balancing restrictions. Most of its surface was taken up by the balaks of the ruling Askabs, ranging in size from something not much larger than a township to great states with teeming populations. It was a colorful world of pomp and splendor, romance, violence, superstition and individualism. The traditionally warlike activities of the Askabs were limited by Federation regulations, which kept Askanam pretty much as it was though individual balaks not infrequently changed hands. Otherwise Federation law didn’t extend to the balaks. Hub citizens applying for entry were advised that they were going into areas where they would receive no Federation protection.
Telzey was aware that the arrangement served several purposes for the Overgovernment. Askanam was populated largely by people who liked that kind of life, since nothing prevented them from leaving. They were attracted to it, in fact, from all over the Hub. Since they were a kind of people whose romantic notions could cause problems otherwise, the Overgovernment was glad to see them there. Askanam was one of its laboratories, and its population’s ways were more closely studied than they knew.
For individuals, of course, that romantic setup could turn into a dangerous trap.
Telzey discovered an intercom while Trigger was freshening up, and after they were dressed again, they used it. They were connected with someone who said he was the Regent Toru’s secretary, extended the Regent’s welcome to the Askab Casmard’s yacht guests, trusted they were well rested, and inquired whether they would be pleased to join the Askab and his cousin for breakfast.
They would, and were guided through a wing of the palace to a room where a table was set for four. The Askab Perial Casmard waited there, smiling and, to all appearances, at ease. Three other men were with him, and he introduced them. The Regent Toru, tall, bony and dark. Lord Ormota, with a bristling red beard, Servant of the Stone. Finally a young, strongly built man with a boyishly handsome face, who was Lord Vallain.
The Regent said, “I waited only to meet you and to express my regrets if any inconvenience has been caused you. I hope your visit to the Balak of Tamandun will be very pleasant otherwise. Political considerations made it necessary to bring you here, as the Askab will explain.” He added to Casmard, “Your taste in guests is impeccable, dear cousin!” Then he bowed to Telzey and Trigger and left the room, accompanied by Lord Ormota.
They took their seats, and breakfast was served. When the waiters had left, Casmard said, “I regret deeply that you two are involved in this matter! We can speak freely, by the way. I’m using a distorter, and Toru, in any case, would have no interest in what we have to say. He’s certain there’s nothing we can do.”
“Is it a very bad situation?” Trigger asked.
“Yes, quite bad!” Casmard hesitated, then shook his head. “I would be both insulting you and treating you unfairly by offering you false reassurances. The fact is then that Toru undoubtedly intends to have all four of us killed. He believes you’re my women and that he can put additional pressure on me because of it.”
“Pressure to do what?” asked Telzey.
“To renounce my right to the title of Askab of Tamandun, abdicate publicly in his favor. The reasoning is that my interests are no longer here. That’s perfectly true, of course. It’s been eight years since I last set foot on Askanam. For more than half my life, I’ve been a Federation citizen in all but legal fact. I’ve built up a personal fortune which makes me independent of the revenues of Tamandun. To act as the Balak’s Askab in practice is something I’d find dull, indeed!”
Trigger said, “Then why not simply abdicate?”
“For two reasons,” Casmard told her. “One is that, while I’ve intended to do it for some time, I also intended to wait another year and then make Vallain, who is my cousin as is Toru, my successor. He would have been of suitable age to become Askab then. He doesn’t share my dislike for the role, and, as Askabs go, he would make a far better ruler for Tamandun than Toru. I still feel some slight responsibility toward the Balak.”
“Which is why I’ve joined you on Toru’s death list,” Vallain informed Telzey and Trigger. He didn’t appear greatly disturbed by the fact. “Very many people would prefer me to the Regent.”
* * *
“Well, and there you have my second reason,” Casmard went on. “After my formal abdication has been obtained and announced and Toru has himself installed as Askab, he’ll lose no time in terminating my existence. If any of you are still alive at that time, you’ll die with me.”
Trigger cleared her throat. “You mean he might kill us first?”
Perial Casmard looked distressed. “Unfortunately, that’s quite possible. You three are in more immediate danger than I am. Since I’ve never given evidence of the blood-thirstiness which is supposed to distinguish a proper Askab, Toru feels that fear is a tool which can be used to influence me. He may decide to make object lessons of you.”
“Casmard,” said Vallain, “what difference does it really make? We can’t get off the palace grounds. We can’t get out a message. We’re not even being watched. The Regent is so sure of us that he can afford to treat us as guests until we die. He’ll become the Askab of Tamandun on Glory Day, and none of us will survive that day. Since it’s inevitable, don’t let it upset you.”
“When’s Glory Day?” Telzey asked.
Vallain looked at her. “Why, tomorrow! I thought you knew.”
Telzey pushed her chair back, stood up.
“Trigger and I saw some beautiful gardens from a window on our way here,” she said. “Since the Regent doesn’t seem to mind, I think we’ll walk around there and admire them a while.” She smiled. “My appetite might be better a little later!”
Casmard said uneasily, “I believe you would be safer if you stayed with me.”
“How much safer?” Telzey said.
Vallain laughed. “She’s right, Cousin! Let them go. The gardens are beautiful, and so is the morning. Let them enjoy the time they have left.” He added to Telzey and Trigger, “I would ask your permission to accompany you, but in view of the situation, there are some matters I should take care of. However, I’ll show you down to the gardens.”
Casmard stood up.
“Then be so good as to wait for them here a few minutes,” he told Vallain. “There’s something I’d like them to have.”
He led the way from the room, turned presently into another one and shut the door after Telzey and Trigger had entered.
“All things may be the tools of politics,” he remarked. “On Askanam, the superstitions of the people are a tool in general use by those who seek or hold power—and they themselves often aren’t free of superstition. When I was a child, my father, the Askab, made me promise to keep certain small talismans he’d had our court adept fashion for me on my person at all times. They were to protect me from tricks of wizardry. I’ve kept them as souvenirs throughout the years—and now I want to give one to each of you, for somewhat the same reason my father had.”
He took two star-shaped splinters of jewelry no larger than his thumbnail from a pocket, gave one to Telzey and the other to Trigger.
“Well, thanks very much, Casmard!” Trigger said. “They’re certainly very beautiful.” She hesitated. “Do you—”
Casmard said, “You’re thinking of course, that the danger we’re in is affecting my mind. However, I can assure you from personal knowledge that superstitions, on occasion, may cloak something quite real. I’m not speaking of technological fakery which is much employed here. You’ve heard of psis, of course. Sophisticated people in the Federation tend to believe that the various stories told about them are again mainly superstition. But having made a study of the subject, I’ve concluded that many of those stories have a foundation in fact. My parents’ court adept, for example, while he professed to deal in magic and to control supernatural entities, evidently was a psi. And I’m sure that a considerable number of psis are active on Askanam to an extent they couldn’t be elsewhere. The general belief in sorcery covers their activities—is simply reinforced by them.