She, too, was being careful. There were at least half a dozen screened telepathic minds involved here—perhaps a few more. They seemed experienced and skilled. The best they weren’t, Telzey thought; they shouldn’t have been quite so readily detectable—though it was possible, of course, that they didn’t much care whether she detected them or not. There was one psi mind around, at any rate, from which she could catch no thought flickering at all, but only the faintest suggestion of a tight shield with a watchful awareness behind it, unnoticeable if she hadn’t been fully alert for just such suggestions.
That mind seemed highly capable. She concentrated on it, ignoring the others more or less at the moment, prowled lightly about the shielding. Then, for an instant, she caught an impression of the personality it concealed. Her eyes flickered in surprise. That personality was no stranger! Here—on Askanam? But she knew she hadn’t been mistaken.
She directed a thought at the shield, self-identification accompanying it. “Sams! Sams Larking!”
A moment’s startled pause, then:
“Telzey! You’re the one old Toru was trying to do in?”
“That’s what it looks like.” She gave him a mental picture of the short-legged animal. Quick thought flow returned. Confirmation—a short while ago, on the Regent’s orders, a cheola from the arena pens had been transported to the palace grounds. One of the telepaths had been curious to see what Toru intended with the dangerous creature, and entered the mind of the vehicle’s driver. When he reported that the cheola apparently had been killed by its intended victims, the group became interested.
“At that point, we didn’t know there was a psi involved,” Sams concluded. “Come on over and see us! They all want to meet you.”
Telzey hesitated. The probing attempts of the others had stopped meanwhile. “Where are you?”
“You’ve been moving in the right direction. When you come into the open again, it’s the building ahead and to your left. The Old Palace. We’re the only ones quartered here at present. I’ll meet you at the door. Toru doesn’t have any other surprises prepared for you in the gardens, by the way. We’ve been checking, and will cover for you.”
Thought contact broke off. Telzey told Trigger what had happened. Trigger studied her face. “You don’t seem delighted,” she observed. “Isn’t your acquaintance going to help us?”
“Well . . . I’m not at all sure. It might depend on why he and the others are here. Sams tends to look out for his own interests first.”
“I see. So we stay on our toes and keep shields tight. . . .”
“I think we’d better.”
“I’ve been arranging this for a year,” Sams Larking said. “Toru is stingy, but he knows he has to come up with the best in arena games on Glory Day—particularly on the Glory Day he plans to be announced as Tamandun’s new Askab to the multitudes. I offered him the best the Hub could provide at a price that delighted his shriveled soul. We’ve brought in the greatest consignment of fighters and performers, human and animal, in Tamandun’s history! Hatzel”—he nodded at a chunky man with a round expressionless face on the other side of the big room—”will be sitting in the Regent’s box with Toru, as Lord of the Games tomorrow. We’ve arranged the whole show. Toru keeps purring over the schedule. He feels he’ll be the envy of Askanam.”
Trigger said, “From what I’ve heard, more than half of the people you brought in for the arena should be dead before the games are over.”
“Considerably less than half in this case,” Sams told her. “We picked the best, as I mentioned. Local fighters aren’t in their class!” He studied her a moment. “You disapprove? They all know the odds. They also know that the ones who survive the games will be heroes in Tamandun—wealthy heroes. Some will have a good chance of making it to the nobility. They know that more than one Askanam arena favorite wound up among the Askabs. They’re playing for high stakes. I feel that’s their business.”
Telzey glanced around the room. Eighteen in all, half of them telepaths, the others an assortment of talents. In effective potential among non-psis it was an army. Dovari, the illusionist, had regained consciousness before they reached the building. She was a slender woman with a beautiful and, at present, thoroughly sullen face.
“What are you people playing for?” Telzey asked. “You can hardly be making a profit on your deal with the Regent.”
Sams shook his head. “That’s not what we’re after. You’ve heard of the Stone of Wirolla?”
Telzey nodded. “Casmard’s mentioned it. Some old war relic with supposedly magical qualities. They used to sacrifice people to it by cutting out their hearts.”
“The Regent’s revived that practice,” Sams said. “It’s a form of execution now, reserved for criminals of note and for special occasions. The Stone then indicates its satisfaction with both offering and occasion through supernatural manifestations in the Grand Arena. The manifestations have been on the feeble side—Toru’s too miserly to have had equipment for anything really spectacular installed. But it’s traditional. The people love it.”
“And?” Telzey said.
“This Glory Day, the manifestations will be spectacular. We have the talent for it assembled in this room. I’m grateful you didn’t do more than tap Dovari because she’ll be responsible for much of it. But we aren’t confining ourselves to illusions, by any means! It’s going to be a terrible shock to Toru when he sees his miracle gadgets producing effects he knows they can’t possibly produce—all in honor of the new Askab showing how highly the Stone of Wirolla approves of him! As it happens, that won’t be Toru. At the end of Glory Day, I’ll be Askab of Tamandun!”
He added, “And you see around you Tamandun’s new top nobles—psi rulers of one of the wealthiest balaks of Askanam. You and Miss Argee are herewith invited to join their ranks! I’ve told the group of your ability, and they’re ready to welcome you.” He glanced at Dovari. “With the possible exception of our illusionist! However, she’ll soon get over her irritation.”
* * *
Telzey shook her head. “Sams, you’re crazy!” She looked around the room. “All of you must be, to let him talk you into something like this.”
Sams didn’t lose his smile. “What makes you say that?”
“The Psychology Service, for one thing. You start playing around with psi stuff openly, they’ll be here to investigate. You don’t think they’ll let you use it to control Tarnandun, do you?”
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Sams told her. “I checked out our Askanam maneuver with them. Anything too obvious that could be attributed to psi is out, of course. But there’s no objection to goings-on that in Tamandun will have the flavor of the supernatural and at more sophisticated levels will be passed off as superstitious gullibility. We’ll have to keep to our balak, but, with those restrictions, what we do here is our business.”
“If they’re letting you do it,” Telzey said, “they’ve been letting other psis do it.”
He nodded. “Oh, they have. I said I’ve been preparing this for some time. I’ve been around Askanam and I know that plenty of psis have established themselves in the culture here and are operating about as freely as they like. But almost all of that’s on a minor level. We’ll be the first group that really gets things organized.”
“You might have been the first to get shuffled out here as a group,” Telzey said.
Sams’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Meaning?”
“Isn’t it obvious? The Federation exempts Askanam from normal restrictions because it’s a simple way to keep a specific class of lunatics corralled. The experiment’s worked out, so it’s being continued. The Service evidently has expanded it to include irresponsible psi independents. Put them where whatever they do can’t really add much to the general mess! I wouldn’t feel flattered if they told me I could make Tamandun my playground but was to make sure I stayed there. What kind of playground is it? Being little gods among some of the silliest people in the Hub is going to bore you to death—or you’re lunatics!”
“I have no liking,” Dovari remarked, “for the girl’s insults.”
The man called Hatzel said, “There could be a difference of opinion about the opportunities waiting for us in Tamandun. But the point is, Sams, that you seem to be mistaken in believing Miss Amberdon would be interested in lending her talents to the group’s goals.”
“I still hope to be able to persuade her,” Sams told him.
“Why not try it, Telzey? It may not be at all what you think. You can always pull out, of course, if you find you don’t like the life.”
“If I thought I might like it,” Telzey said, “there’d still be the fact that Tamandun already has an Askab.”