In a closet of their room they found games, provided for the entertainment of guests. They were unfamiliar and looked complicated enough to be interesting. They set up one designed for two players. It was cover—Telzey would be mentally active on other levels.
Hatzel’s shield had been opening regularly on schedule. She’d caught the opening a few times, checked him out briefly. There was nothing of interest there at present. She’d dropped her contacts with the unprotected minds in Sams’s group. They had no immediate value.
She spent a little time hunting around for traces of the navigator of Casmard’s space yacht, located him finally and told Trigger, “Kewen’s not in the palace any more. He’s been transferred to the place they keep the criminals they’ll start feeding into the arena games tomorrow. That’s what’s scheduled for him.”
Trigger looked startled. “Does he know it?”
“He knows, but I sort of tranquilized him this morning after I picked him up. It isn’t bothering him.”
“It bothers me,” Trigger said. “Of course, he might last longer than the rest of us, at that.”
“Yes. And if we get out of it, we should be able to get him out.”
A palace courier had announced himself discreetly at the door half an hour after they’d returned to their room, and handed them a formal invitation from the Regent. They would be sitting at his table during dinner in the House of Wirolla that night.
Telzey spent the remaining hours scanning the minds in the palace and its vicinity. There were many she could have entered without much trouble, but finding minds that would be useful in the present situation was more difficult. Colonel Euran of the Palace Guard had been a primary target but turned out to be as thoroughly mind-shielded as the Regent and the Servant of the Stone. Telzey wasn’t too disappointed. Toru hardly would want someone in that position to be subject to hostile psychic influences.
She developed some selected contacts presently. There were others she would have preferred, but they couldn’t be made available to her quickly enough.
Then it was time to prepare themselves to be taken to the House of Wirolla. It was one of the buildings on the Palace grounds, serving both as a personal palace for the Servant and as a temple for the Stone.
The ceremonial hall in the House of Wirolla lived up to Trigger’s expectation that it might have made a good place for the festivities of ghouls. Walls, ceiling and floor were of black stone. On the lower level, the only light was provided by torches flaring sullenly from the walls and along the tables, where the top rank of Tamandun’s nobility and dignitaries dined tonight. It was separated from the upper level by a flight of low stairs, running the width of the hall.
On the upper level, there was light. The curved table of the Regent stood there by itself, the Regent’s honor guests seated along the outer edge of the curve. The arrangement provided them with a good view of the Stone of Wirolla on the far side of the hall. The Stone was huge and seemed almost formless, while somehow suggesting a hunkered shape which could have been human as much as Wirollan. It was gray-green, and there was an indication of scales over parts of its surface. A thick hollowed projection near the lower end might represent a pair of cupped and waiting hands. Supposedly, the Stone had been in the Hub for some centuries, having been found on the destroyed flagship of a Wirollan war fleet. But the early part of its history was uncertain.
Nowadays, at any rate, it represented a deity, or demon, who periodically indicated an appetite for human sacrifices. Traditionally, it should indicate that appetite tonight. The circumstances didn’t make for light-hearted dinner conversation, but most of those who sat along the curving table, Casmard and Vallain among them, hadn’t seemed much affected. Hatzel, three seats from Telzey, ate in stolid silence. From the lower level came an indistinct sound of voices. Glory Day music washed through the air, incongruously bright and brisk.
Weapons weren’t allowed in the hall. But guns pointed through concealed openings in the three walls of the upper level; and the Palace Guards who held them had every section of both levels under observation in scanners.
Three of those Palace Guards and their guns were now Telzey’s. The Regent’s guard dog, a great arena hound standing twelve feet back of its master’s chair, was nearly hers. It was, at any rate, no longer the Regent’s.
It wasn’t till dinner drew near its end that tensions began to be noticeable. At last, Telzey became aware of a faint tremor in the stone floor under her feet, in the chair on which she sat. It continued only a moment; but when it stopped, all talk had ended and the music had faded away.
Now the tremor returned, grew stronger, swelled into an earthquake shuddering. Again it lasted only a few seconds. By then, no one near Telzey was stirring. She found herself holding her breath, released it. A third time it came, accompanied by a distant roaring sound, suggesting a blurred giant voice. As that stopped, a low black table was rising out of the floor before the Stone of Wirolla. Two gray-clothed men, gray masks covering their faces, came out from behind the Stone on either side and stopped at the ends of the table, ropes held in their hands.
* * *
Lord Ormota, Servant of the Stone, got to his feet and strode out in front of the Regent’s table. He raised his arms, and his amplified voice sounded deeply through the hall.
“The Stone of Wirolla will take two hearts tonight!”
Ormota paused, bearded face turned up in an attitude of listening. The roaring sound came again; the black hall shook, and grew still. Ormota turned toward the Regent.
“Two traitors to Tamandun sit with the Regent Toru tonight, believing themselves unknown! The Stone of Wirolla will point them out and receive their hearts.”
Two traitors? Vallain, whose face had paled at last, must be one. The other? Telzey had seen in Casmard’s mind that while his poisoner had found no opportunity to practice his arts on the Regent, he’d at least aroused no suspicions. But perhaps Casmard was mistaken in that. Or perhaps—
Telzey’s thoughts broke off. Out of the hollowed projection on the Stone a black object like a cane or wand floated up into sight. It lifted swiftly into the air, impelled by a mechanism which Ormota presumably controlled. It hung quivering for a moment in the center of the upper level of the hall. Then, emitting a high singing note, it drifted down toward the Regent’s table, swinging left and right like a compass needle. No one moved at the table; but there was an expectant stirring on the lower level, as diners shifted about to have a better view at the instant the Stone’s device would indicate the night’s sacrifices.
It came closer, still swinging back and forth along the curve of the table. Then, the singing note surging shrilly upward, it halted, pointed at Hatzel.
Telzey felt the shock of utter surprise in Hatzel’s mind, saw for an instant a look of incredulous consternation on Ormota’s face.
The wand vanished.
There was a crystal shattering against the face of the Stone. Black shards clattered down into the hollow below. The Regent Toru staggered half up out of his chair, eyes and mouth grotesquely distended, made a groaning sound and went over backward with the chair. Ormota clutched his chest, looked for a moment as if he were trying to scream, collapsed in turn.
One of the gray-clothed men uttered a high-pitched yell of horror. His shaking hand pointed at the hollowed projection of the Stone.
Two human hearts thumped and thudded bloodily about in it. A din of screaming arose in the black hall.
* * *
“Your Askab showed such extraordinary presence of mind in taking charge of the situation that I’m convinced you’re controlling him,” Hatzel told Telzey and Trigger in hurried undertones. “However, that was, in fact, the best immediate way of handling this unexpected turn of events. Toru obviously intended treachery against our group. I had to make him and the Servant appear to be the Stone’s intended sacrifices or allow myself to be butchered.”
He added, “I’ll have to let Larking know about this at once—but first I want to warn you. Your lives and those of Casmard and Vallain are no longer endangered, so be satisfied with that! Don’t try to make use of what’s happened to interfere with our plans. They remain essentially unchanged, though details must be modified now. Sams Larking, in other words, will still be the new Askab of Tamandun at the end of Glory Day. Casmard and you two will be seen to a Federation spaceport, and if you’re wise you won’t lose too much time then getting off the planet!”