mask. He began to whisper, insinuatingly:
"Jewels of the empire, viands and wines from the slopes of Ygoth, dancing girls from Ynema—perhaps even the Lady Thrine for yourself, oh father of a new dynasty!"
The thief's head lowered an inch or so as he contemplated a vision. His hand slipped from the hilt of his sword. Rald dreamed a dream of empire, as many powerful men had done before, as many more would do in ages yet unborn.
Below the golden shafts of the low-riding moon that was suspended, in magnificent splendor far out over the desert sands leading to the neighboring kingdom of Ygoth, the black towers of King Thrall's palace raised forbidding ringers into the midnight sky. An omniscience of the past hovered over those ragged skylines; a susceptible observer might have imagined the flickering spirits of bygone kings floating to and fro among the crumbling turrets, guarding the castle walls and casting watchful eyes over the mansions and huts of the surrounding countryside; ghosts watching over Thrall, the last king of the Ebon Dynasty—a king with no heir to carry on the ancient line.
On the rugged rocks below the outer walls of the palace grounds, his naked body immersed to the waist in green foliage, his brain seething with plans for the most daring, wildest attempt of his adventurous career, stood Rald, the cunning and intrepid thief of Forthe. His heart, for all his outward calm, pounded a little harder beneath his ribs; there was a tingling in his blood not born of wine. Bodily he responded to all the oft-known thrills of the prowl; only in his clever brain (now somewhat benumbed by the magnitude of his enterprise) dwelt the shadowy doubts engendered by the past prescience of the magician, Karlk.
He was too far removed from the patrolled gateways for guards to spy him in the desert moonlight, yet he slunk toward the walls more like an animal than a man. Desert winds and the erosion of time had emptied many crevices between the rocks comprising the stone barrier. Cat-like, his fingers and toes found purchase in these gaps, and in less time than he had expected he attained the summit of the wall. Here he paused to reach with cautious fingers so as to ascertain the positions of certain ragged sword-blades, spear-heads, cracked glass and other obstacles embedded in the ledge to dissuade an intruder. Having located these, he pulled himself upward, pushing several of the rusty defenses aside as he progressed, and glided across the few exposed feet of stone in a crouching position. The inner wall was even more eroded than the outer side; he experienced little difficulty in negotiating a descent. Easily he stood within the palace grounds. Without a sense of sacrilege, he reflected, many a thief would have been before him.
The kitchens of the palace were his first objective. At this hour he knew they would be deserted by cooks and staff. Accordingly, he proceeded in a semicircular direction toward the rear of the massive structure of the king's dwelling-place. He threaded his way through underbrush and gardens of flowers. Once he spied a carven statue so like the figure of a living man that he half drew his sword before discovering his mistake. Cursing, he set a foot in a shallow pool evidently intended for fish. This incident inflamed his temper, and he continued toward the palace with little nerves twitching in his throat and wrists. The discomfort of a soaked and dripping sandal did not decrease his anger.
A thin piece of steel, a thieves' implement expertly applied, soon forced the small kitchen door opening onto the ref-