* * *
Hatzel’s scooter came chugging up shortly. Trigger touched the gun’s firing stud, and Hatzel was sagging sideways off the scooter as the machine went out of sight behind bushes again. They worked their way hurriedly down to the path through the shrubs, found the scooter on its side, turning in slow circles. Trigger shut it off while Telzey went over to Hatzel who lay on his back a dozen yards away.
She knelt quickly beside him, lifted his head. Trigger joined her.
“Should be at the base of the skull, under a skin patch,” Telzey said. “Here it is!”
She peeled off the tiny device, blinked absently at Hatzel’s face. “Open psi mind—yes, I can do it.” She was silent then.
Trigger glanced presently at her watch, said, “Four minutes plus gone, Telzey. He could start coming around any moment now. Shall I tap him again?”
“No, I’ve got him. He won’t come around till I’m ready.”
“I’ll go plant the rock then,” Trigger said.
She went a dozen yards back up the terrace where ornamental rockwork enclosed a flower bed, returned with a sizable rock which she placed on the path ten feet from where Hatzel was lying.
“I’d think it was a little peculiar I hadn’t noticed that rock,” she observed. “But I suppose you’re taking care of that?”
“Yes. He’ll wake up with a small headache from having banged his skull. He’ll see the rock lying there and be irritated, but that will explain it, and he won’t want to tell anyone he wasn’t looking where he was going.” Telzey replaced the shield which wasn’t operative at the moment, smoothed in the skin patch, stood up and brushed sand from her knees. “Finished. Let’s move!”
They restarted the scooter, left it lying on its side, pushing itself awkwardly about in the grass, went quickly back up to the terrace and along it through the shrubbery, until they reached a grove of trees and came to another path.
Hatzel, still unconscious, reached into a pocket and switched his mind shield back on. He awoke then, sat up with a muttered curse, felt his head, looked around, saw the rock on the path and the struggling scooter in the grass. He nodded in annoyed comprehension, and got to his feet.
He couldn’t be left unshielded because one of the telepaths would have been bound to notice it. Every five minutes, however, Hatzel now would switch the shield off for a moment, unaware of what he did. If there was reason to take him under active control, Telzey would make use of such a moment. They had a glimpse of him presently on the network of paths ahead of them, nearing the Regent’s palace.
“Reacting just as he’s supposed to, isn’t he?” Trigger said.
Telzey nodded. “Uh-huh! It was a stupid accident, and that’s all. He’s got more important things to think about.” She added, “I’d like to give Casmard some idea of what’s going on, but there’s no way I can keep them from looking into his mind or Vallain’s, and anything we told him they’d soon know. We’ll have to work out this side of it strictly by ourselves.”
As they were approaching the palace entrance by which they’d left, a tall, splendidly uniformed man emerged from it and came toward them.
He introduced himself as Colonel Euran, head of the Regent’s Palace Guard. “It’s come to my attention,” he said, “that you weren’t informed of a security regulation requiring guests to surrender personal weapons for the period of their visit in the palace. I thought I should correct the oversight, to save you possible embarrassment. It’s merely a formality, of course—but do you happen to have weapons in your room or on your persons?”
Since they’d known their encounter with the cheola had been observed, they weren’t surprised. Trigger took the cosmetics purse from her belt and handed it to him.
“There’s a Denton inside,” she said. “Take good care of it, Colonel. It’s an old friend.”
He bowed. “Indeed, I will.”
Telzey said, “Could there be other regulations we don’t know about?”
Colonel Euran smiled pleasantly. “It’s no regulation. But the Regent Toru told me to suggest that you remain within the palace itself until he has the pleasure of meeting you again at dinner tonight. He’s concerned about your safety.”
“You mean the Regent’s own gardens aren’t safe?” Trigger asked.
“No, not always during the periods of arena games. There are subterranean levels here where beasts and criminals who’ve been condemned to the arena are kept. And it happens on occasion that some very dangerous creature eludes its keepers and appears unexpectedly in the palace grounds.”
They thanked him for the warning, went inside. Following the directions given them by Vallain, they presently located the suite of Perial Casmard and announced themselves at the door. He opened it immediately.
“Come in! Come in!” he said, drawing them into the room and closing the door again. He looked at them, shook his head. “I’m very glad to see you,” he said. “I wasn’t at all sure you were still alive! Shortly after you’d left, Toru hinted in his pleasant manner that he had some particularly brutal end prepared for you. I went down to the gardens to find you, but no one could tell me where you’d gone.”
They told him about the cheola. Telzey said, “We went on then and met some Federation people who’ve organized the Glory Day games for Toru this year. We thought we might be able to talk them into smuggling us out, but they weren’t interested in getting involved in an intrigue against the Regent.”
Casmard said he couldn’t blame them too much. “If Toru found out about it, they might become more intimately involved in the games than any sensible man would wish to be.”
“And we’re confined to the palace now,” Trigger said.
“That’s good—since it probably means that Toru is planning no further immediate steps against you. But the situation remains extremely difficult. Have you eaten?”
“Not since breakfast,” Telzey said, “and we didn’t eat much then. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I notice I’m very hungry.”
Casmard had lunch for them brought to the suite. He watched pensively while they ate, said at last, “There was an explosion a while ago on the Regent’s living level. Not badly timed—he’d entered the level shortly before the device went off. However, only one of his guard dogs was killed. Toru escaped injury.”
They looked at him expectantly. He shrugged. “Vallain’s now confined to his quarters. Toru rarely acts hastily. He’ll wait for the pre-Glory Day dinner in the House of Wirolla tonight before pursuing the matter.”
When they’d finished lunch, he said, “I’m reasonably certain the Regent also will hold his hand now as far as you two are concerned. However, it would be best if you went to your room and stayed there, so as to bring yourselves as little as possible to his attention.”
Telzey said, “You still don’t see how we can get out of this?”
“Oh, I’m not entirely at the end of my resources,” Casmard told her. “I shall meet the Regent again during the afternoon and may be able to persuade him to accept less drastic arrangements than the one he has in mind.”
* * *
They left to go to their apartment. Trigger inquired reflectively, “You had the impression Casmard wanted us out of the way?”
“Yes, he does want us out of the way,” Telzey said.
Trigger glanced at her. “Picked up things over lunch, huh?”
“Yes. Something about an elderly character in the palace who used to act as poisoner for Casmard’s mother, and seems to have kept his hand in. Casmard’s promised him a high spot in the nobility if he can get to Toru before dinner, and the old boy’s game to try it.”
Trigger shook her head. “Life expectancies would be awkward to calculate around here! Does Casmard think it will work?”
“Not really. He’s getting desperate. If he did get rid of Toru, there’d still be a serious problem with the Servant of the Stone—Lord Ormota.”
“How does he fit in?”
“After Toru, he’s apparently the most powerful man in Tamandun. If Toru died, he’d have a great deal more power here in the Regent’s palace than Casmard and Vallain combined could bring up. So he’d probably simply become the next Askab, with no other change in the proceedings.”
“The Stone he’s the Servant of is presumably the Stone of Wirolla, where they cut out people’s hearts?”
“And the House of Wirolla, where they’ll be holding the ceremonial dinner we’re supposed to attend—that’s where the Stone is?”
“Yes,” Telzey said. “I got that from Hatzel. Big black hall. The Regent’s table stands right across from the Stone.”
“Should be a great dinner party for ghouls!” Trigger said after a moment.
“Well, it all seems part of their local religion or whatever you want to call it.”