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CHAPTER XXII
THE ANSWER

Mary laughed a little unsteadily. Surely it was a strange miracle that her gold cross had worked. She did not think it luck. In her woman soul there was no thought of fate. God's care had shielded the life of the man she loved.

Timur was speaking.

"Bassalor Danek is well content," she heard. "Beforetimes, he was warmed by the sight of your fairness. But now it is verily a thing assured. Gela, the Kha-Khan, son of my son, commander of the tumani, has conceived love for you. Bassalor Danek has granted his wish that you may become the wife of his abode and hearth."

Hearing, she did not yet understand.

"Gela?"

"He who took you from the evil priests. Because of the talisman you wear it is fitting that you should be his bride."

She looked from one to the other, in sudden discomfort.

"Thus will you truly become kin to the Wilson," nodded Timur.

"I?"

"Bassalor Danek, in his wisdom, has decided."

The joy of her brief victory faded swiftly. The reaction weakened her, made this new obstacle disheartening. But she drew strength from a fresh thought.

"Take me to the white man!"

"Nay—it is not fitting. The bond of Gela's love is upon you."

To their bewilderment, the girl laughed. For a brief moment hysteria had claimed her, wearied by the hardships she had undergone. In her sudden stress she clung to the thought that had brought her consolation.

She was a woman unnerved. In reality, she was instinctively calling upon the aid of Gray's strength.

"Are you still blind?" she begged unevenly, the tears not far from her eyes. "Have you not seen the love of the white man for me? How can Gela take me from him, when I am already bound to him?"

Gray had said nothing to her of his love. But she had read in his face what he had not spoken.

"Fools!" she stamped angrily. "You cannot take me from the arms of the One-Who-Kills-Swiftly. He will hear of this." She was speaking somewhat wildly now, feeling all her strength ebb from her. "He will claim me. He will keep me—— Oh, truly, you are blind."

To the Wusun her sudden emotion was a display of the temper that undoubtedly was the heritage of her royal blood.

Mary was, however, on the verge of a breakdown, and sought the shelter of her own room, since she could not see Gray. She hurried hither, with the woman who had waited without the shrine, at her heels. To tell the truth, she fled.

In her chamber she flung herself down on the cushions and gave herself up to a most unqueenly fit of weeping. The woman waited stoically.

When Mary sat up and dried her tears, the woman smiled. Mary's face was wan, and her hair disheveled. Glancing into a bronze mirror that the woman brought her, she was almost glad that Gray could not see her now. Whereupon she fell into reflection, and presently sent the handwoman for brush and black ink-like paint which is the writing fluid of the Wusun

Then she diligently sought for any scraps of white stuff that might serve as paper. She selected her handkerchief, but was forced to place it in a window to wait until it dried.

She watched it in the process, a very sad looking woman, her hands clasped about her knees and her head resting sidewise on her hands.

Meanwhile, the post-meridian shadows were lengthening across the enclosure of Sungan. Shepherds were driving their few flocks from the outer strips of grass; children who had bathed in the canals were playing in the last of the sunlight. Groups of warriors emerged from the ruins and walked slowly toward the fires where the evening meal was preparing. Elders sought the council hall.

There was even greater bustle without the wall, where the Chinese were gathering.

It was now the time of the sunset hymn. Gray, pacing the stone floor of his tower room, heard the chant of many voices. It came from the temple below, and the voices were repeating words the meaning of which the owners no longer knew. Gray glanced impatiently from his window, wondering why he had not heard from Bassalor Danek.

It might have been an hour after sunset that steps sounded outside the door of the chamber. Garluk opened the door and stepped back with a gesture of respect.

Gray looked up eagerly, thinking that Bassalor Danek or the lame Timur had come. Instead a tall figure strode into the room.

It was a young man of powerful bearing. He carried his shapely, olive head proudly. His dress was the white lambskin of the Gur-Khan, but without the gold ornaments. A broad, leather belt girdled his waist, and from this a straight sword hung in a bronze scabbard.

The newcomer lifted his hand in greeting—a gesture that Gray returned. He squatted down on the carpets silently, beckoning to Garluk. Gray eyed him appraisingly, thinking that he had seldom seen a man of such fine physique. The stranger's shoulders were shapely, his arms heavily thewed, his waist slender. He moved with the ease of a man poised on trained muscles.

The three sat in silence until Garluk bethought him to speak.

"This is the Kha Khan, O Man-from-the-Outside," the tumani observed. "Gela, the leader of the tumani, and grandson of Bassalor Danek."

"I give him greeting," returned the white man, wondering what his visitor had to say.

Presently Gela turned his dark head to Garluk and spoke in a low tone that carried resonantly, from a deep chest. Evidently he did not know the dialect that Gray spoke. The majority of the Wusun were ignorant of Chinese.

"Bassalor Danek," interpreted Garluk, "has seen the talisman on the breast of the Kha Rakcha. He has pondered, in his wisdom, the words you spoke. And he has made answer to Wu Fang Chien."

Once more Gela spoke, while Gray waited impatiently.

"Bassalor Danek, who is lord of the Wusun, listened to the complaint of Wu Fang Chien, governor of Sungan. And his decision was as follows: Undoubtedly both you and the white woman came to seek the Wusun. While you have slain many of the men of the Buddhists, they also have killed the men of the caravan. So, there is no debt to be avenged."

Gray smiled at this simple, but logical way of looking at the situation.

"Furthermore," interpreted Garluk, at Gela's prompting, "since you have sought the Wusun, you may stay here. In the covenant it was agreed that the penalty of attempting to escape is death; still, there is no punishment for entering Sungan. You and the Kha Rakcha will stay in Sungan."

This was good news. Gray was surprised, but he did not permit this to appear in his face.

"What said Wu Fang Chien?" he asked.

"He will try to seize you and the woman. He will call in the soldiers with guns from the desert."

"Will Bassalor Danek protect us?"

"He has given his word. Moreover, he is bound to guard the woman."

Gray did not at first heed this last remark. He was wondering just how far the Chinese would go in their attempt to gain possession of himself and the girl. Probably, he decided, Wu Fang Chien was not over-desirous of forcing an entrance into Sungan. But the mandarin would lose no chance of capturing himself, or possibly of sniping him from the outer wall.

But for the present he reasoned that they were safe. Then Garluk's reference to Mary returned to his mind. He recalled that Timur had mentioned that Mary must remain with the Wusun.

Gela had risen, his message delivered. Gray halted him with a gesture.

"Why is Bassalor Danek bound to keep the Kha Rakcha?" he asked, inspired by a new and potent uneasiness.

Gela himself answered this, and Garluk interpreted.

"Have you not heard?" he smiled. "Gela, the Kha Khan, desires the White Spirit for himself. To-morrow night he will marry her, according to the custom of the Wusun. Bassalor Danek has agreed."

Gray checked an exclamation with difficulty.

"That may not be," he said sternly. "The White Spirit is not one to marry among the Wusun."

Garluk laughed. "Did not Gela, the strongest of the Wusun, take her from the yellow priests? Does she not wear the talisman which is the same as that of our shrine? Gela as yet has no wife. Why should he not marry?"

While the two watched him, Gray considered the new turn affairs had taken. All his instincts prompted him to cry out that the thing was impossible. Mary must be protected. Yet he knew the futility of a protest.

"Has the Kha Rakcha agreed to this?" he asked, playing for time.

"She does not know of it," asserted Garluk complacently. "Why should a maiden be told before she has the armlet"—he pointed at the bronze circlet about Gela's powerful arm—"of her lord bound about her throat?"

Gela interrupted brusquely.

"The Kha Khan asks," said Garluk, "if you are the husband of the Kha Rakcha?"

"Good Lord!" meditated the American. He thought of asserting that he was. Then reflected that Mary, who knew nothing of what was passing, would hardly bear out his story. But he could not let the opportunity go by without asserting some claim to the girl. "I was to marry her," he compromised, "when we returned from the desert."

Gela barked forth a curt word and strode from the door, after a keen glance at the American.

"The Kha Khan says that he will take her. Doubtless there are many women where you come from. He desires the Kha Rakcha, whose life he saved. Wu Fang Chien would have slain her. So said the yellow priests."

Gray glowered at Garluk, who smiled back.

"Gela has never seen such a woman as the Kha Rakcha. She is as beautiful as an aloe tree in bloom," chattered the tumani. "She will bear him strong children, and a son to wear his sword when he is old."

"If she does not agree—what then?"

"It will make no difference. Bassalor Danek has said that she will be a worthy wife to his grandson. Does she not wear the talisman at her throat? That is a good omen for the Wusun. Did she not come here to seek the Wusun? Moreover, if Gela marries her, then Wu Fang Chien cannot take her."

"What if I forbid?" asked Gray dryly.

"No one will heed you," explained Garluk frankly.

Gray considered the matter, frowning.

"Take me to the Kha Rakcha," he ordered.

Garluk made a gesture of denial.

"It is forbidden. To-morrow night the maiden is to be married. There will be a feast, and a great chant. We will drink wine of mare's milk."

"Then send Timur to me."

"It is night, and he is lame. After sunrise, perhaps he will come."

With that Garluk slipped from the door. Gray heard the sound of a bar falling into place. He was shut in for the night.