THE GUARD marched her twenty paces, turned, marched back again. She moved with a mechanical precision, breath pluming in the cold air, her footsteps hard on the frozen ground. From the darkness beyond the fringe of light thrown by the torches Dumarest watched, waiting.
He heard the sharp challenge, the mumbled answer, the sudden commotion. Megan was playing his part well. For a moment longer Dumarest waited, then, as the guard moved toward the disturbance, raced forward in a blur of speed. He had reached the wall of a tent, crouched, frozen into immobility before the woman had time to turn. A louder noise from where Megan argued with the guards distracted her attention long enough for Dumarest to squeeze beneath the wall.
He was lucky. The room was deserted.
He rose, eyes wide as he searched the dimness. A solitary lamp cast a shadowy light. A bench littered with instruments of metal and glass stood to one side. Something stirred in a head-high cage and he caught the gleam of watching eyes. Small animals scurried as he moved toward the door. The air stank with the acrid odor of antiseptics.
Beyond the room ran a narrow corridor, equally empty. He stood for a moment, listening, then moved softly down the passage. Footsteps echoed from around a corner and he backed into a room. It was dark, the air tinged with perfume. He tensed as the footsteps came closer.
"One of the travelers, madam. He wanted to see the Matriarch. Naturally I could not allow that."
"Did he give a reason?" The voice was deep, harsh, impatient. Elspeth, the captain of the guard, was not noted for her tolerance.
"No, madam. He just kept saying that it was important that he should see her. He refused to leave and grew quite heated." The voice rose, diminished as the speaker passed the room in which Dumarest was hiding. "I thought it best to call you, madam."
Elspeth's answer was lost as they turned from the passage.
Dumarest stiffened, inhaling the ghost-scent lingering in the room, hand searching for the light control. He found it, threw it, hastily reversed it as light stabbed at his eyes. The glare diminished to a faint glow. He saw a small room, painfully tidy, almost bare of furniture. A youth lay asleep on a narrow couch. He turned, mumbling as the light struck his eyes. Dumarest killed the faint glow and stood, waiting, as the man relaxed. Softly he left the room.
And felt something hard grind into his spine.
"Move and I will kill you," said a hard voice. "Now turn, gently, and let me see who you are."
He felt the gun leave his spine as the speaker stepped back, away from the reach of his arms. Slowly he turned and smiled at the physician.
"You!" Melga stared her amazement. "How did you get here? What do you want?" The gun never wavered in her hand.
"I wanted to test a theory," he said evenly. "Also it is important that I see the Matriarch. Will you take me to her, please?"
"Why should I? How did you get past the guards?"
"I sneaked past." He answered her last question first. "I wanted to see if it could be done. It can. Now I must see the Matriarch."
"Because she must know that the safety of her ward is threatened by the Prince of Emmened." He saw the grim resolution of her face. "I have just left the tents of the prince," he explained. "His physician was kind enough to extend help to those who had suffered from the storm. He is a man who is fond of his wine."
More than fond and he had also been loquacious. In Dumarest he had found a willing listener.
"The prince has been affected by the storm," Dumarest continued. "He has been interested in the Lady Seena since the fight and was determined to win her. He has left his tents with most of his guards. There can only be one reason."
"The Lady Thoth?"
He nodded, impatient with her lack of understanding, her apparent careless dismissal of his warning. Then she revealed the reason for her attitude.
"Interesting," she said dryly. "Interesting and very ingenious. Your story, I mean." The gun lifted, centered on his heart. "But we have seen nothing of either the prince or his guards. No one has entered here other than yourself. And the Lady Seena Thoth is perfectly safe in the company of the Matriarch. Or was—until you came." The gun gave emphasis to her words. "Assassin!"