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XII

CAME the time of the divan, the assembly of the Refik, and closed gates that guarded the apartments of Halen ibn Shaddah in the cellars of Alamut swung open. In poured the followers of the Refik; fedavie, hillmen of Persia, men of the Khirghiz steppe, janissaries of Yussouf, prince of princes. Scattered in the crowd were magicians of Rashideddin in white tunics and red girdles, in company with white and gold Dais. Also came Khlit with the Khirghiz chief who had seen fit to keep at his side.

The throng moved in silence, and Khlit waxed curious at this, until he questioned the Khirghiz. For reply, he received a hard blow in the ribs.

"You are surely a fool, Cossack," growled the other, "to bray at what is strange. We are walking through the talking chambers of the Shadna, built by Ala-eddin. Harken." He lifted his voice in a shrill syllable. "Aie!"

Instantly the sound was taken up and repeated through the corridors. A hundred echoes caught the word and flung it back. Shrilly, gruffly, it rang further into the caverns. Men near them stared and cursed. Khlit observed that the corridors were lofty and vaulted, with pillars of stone.

"It is said," whispered the Khirghiz, gratified by the effect of his experiment, "that before the time of Rashideddin, when the Refik prayed to Allah, these were the chambers of prayer. A man could pray a thousand times with one word."

"And now?"

"We do not pray."

Pushing a way through the crowd recklessly with his elbows, the Khirghiz gained a place where he and Khlit could see the array of the divan. In the center of a cleared space in one of the larger chambers stood Halen ibn Shaddah, easily marked by his great height and the cloak that shadowed his face. Around him were grouped certain men in heavy turbans and green embroidered coats. These Khlit recognized as Daikebirs, emissaries of the master of Alamut. At his side was the bent figure of Rashideddin.

These were talking in a tongue that Khlit did not know, not loudly, for fear of disturbing the echoes. His eye wandered over the throng. Wandered and halted. A woman's figure stood out from the crowd and he swore under his breath. Arm's length from Rashideddin among the Dais, her blue cloak closely wrapped on her slender form, stood Berca. Her black curls were pushed under a fold of the cloak; her brown eyes, darting from under fringed lashes, swept about the gathered Refik and passed Khlit by in unconcern. Yet he felt that she had seen him.

No other woman was present. Khlit saw that the eyes of many searched her, and he touched the Khirghiz on the shoulder.

"Is there talk about the woman?" he asked softly. "Tell me."

The chief listened, tolerantly, for a space.

"Aye," he said, "there is idle talk. The woman is the daughter of a hill sheik. She was sent to be the wife of Kiragai Khan. That is a good jest, for Kiragai Khan loves not the Refik. She has said that she was sent without a dowry. So, the painted flower has come to one who tramples on flowers, to ask that the dowry be given her."

"And will it be done?"

"Will the tiger give up its slain victim? Nay, you are without understanding, Cossack. Halen ibn Shaddah does not play with such. The sheik's daughter will find a place among the slaves, not otherwise."

"Such is not the law."

"There is no law in Alamut but one—the word of Halen ibn Shaddah. And the law that the curved dagger must avenge a wrong."

Khlit made no reply, considering carefully what had been said. Rashideddin, then, had found Berca as he had declared he would. Was it Berca's purpose to come before Halen ibn Shaddah? Had she forgotten the cunning and cruelty of the man who had dishonored her? Perhaps the girl's pride had impelled her to appeal for justice and a wedding dowry to give the khan to whom she had offered herself. Yet Berca had not forgotten the manner of her father's death, of that Khlit was sure. Wise in the ways of men, the heart of the sheik's daughter was a closed book to him. He looked around for Toctamish. The Tatar was not to be seen.

Meanwhile, Rashideddin had been speaking to the girl.

"What said the astrologer?" asked Khlit.

"The old one is crafty," grunted the Khirghiz. "Aye, he has learned the secrets of magic where Marduk hangs by his heels in the hell of Babylon. He asked why a girl so fair in face and form should bear a gift in offering herself in marriage."

Berca, who seemed to ignore her peril, lifted her dark head and answered quickly in tones that stirred the echoes.

"Hah, the painted flower has a sharp tongue," grunted the chieftain. "She says that her beauty has moved the heart of Kiragai Khan as wind stirs fire. The khan, who desires her, would have taken her for his favorite wife. Yet would she not, being ashamed for reason of the trick Halen ibn Shaddah played her. So she has come back to ask a dowry from the hand of the master of Alamut, who is her lawful ruler now that her father is dead."

The giant form of Halen ibn Shaddah turned on Berca, and a peculiarly shrill voice reached the ears of Khlit. Once more he wondered what kind of man was the master of Alamut, of the giant figure and shrill voice.

"Halen ibn Shaddah says," whispered the other, "that Berca belongs to Alamut. She has returned to Alamut and here she must stay."

Khlit thought of the paradise of the master of evil, and understood why the eyes of the fedavie in the throng burned as they stared at the girl's slender figure outlined in the blue cloak.

"She asked for justice—" he began.

"Nay," interrupted the Khirghiz carelessly, "her father was slain by Halen ibn Shaddah. How is she then to be trusted?"

Khlit did not answer. For the gaze of Berca had met his. In it he read anxiety, and a warning. Slowly her glance crept to Rashideddin and back. Again. And Khlit saw the astrologer turn to leave the chamber.

Truly, he considered, the sheik's daughter was daring and proud. And, obeying her look, he followed Rashideddin, slipping away from the Khirghiz.

So it happened that when the astrologer left the divan, Khlit did likewise. Rashideddin made his way quickly and alone down one of the corridors without waiting for a light. Khlit followed him, keeping as close as he could without being seen. Presently both halted.

A voice called through the corridor clearly, and seemingly very near.

"A man must be crafty and wise," the voice of Berca came to their ears, "when danger is 'round his path, else is his labor vain."

Khlit crossed himself in astonishment. For a moment he had forgotten the echoes of the corridors of Ala-eddin.