John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Petrovic shook his withered head and opined, “No good will come of this.”

“Has anyone knowledge of Tyllwin’s whereabouts?” inquired the Margrave, for the gaunt one’s place was empty today.

A shudder went down the table, and those in earshot shook their heads, not without expressions of relief.

“Well, then, let us proceed to a decision,” said the Margrave. He shifted in his chair; his night in the open, although the weather was warm, had left him feeling bruised all over.

“The first point to establish,” said Gostala sensibly, “is whether this Bernard Brown is indeed a god. If not-well!”

“Agreed!” came a chorus in reply.

Ruman snorted and thumped the table with a ham-like fist. “And how, pray, do we set about that?” he demanded with honey-sweet sarcasm. “For we have all previously confessed that we do not know what a god is. Was that not the reason why we never had gods in the old days?”

“I fear very much,” said the Margrave heavily, “that the days of rational procedure in Ryovora may be finished. It would appear that the populace are already treating Bernard Brown as a god; unless, then, we arrive at disproofs adequate to disabuse them, life in Ryovora is doomed to become insufferable.”

“Hah!” said Gostala without mirth.

“I have a suggestion,” ventured Eadwil. “A god is reputed to have knowledge and power beyond what men may command. Let us therefore interrogate Bernard Brown on the most recondite and esoteric of our arts. If he fails to answer well, let us challenge him before the people, so that it may be seen his talents are small compared to ours.”

“The proposal is rational,” admitted the Margrave. “As I said, however, the days of rational thought here may be numbered…. However, if there is no better idea-.?”

None was forthcoming. Accordingly, the company betook themselves to the newly converted temple, that had formerly been the palace of the Margrave.

They found Bernard Brown-much worried, to judge by his expression-seated on a large silver and ebony throne above an enormous improvised altar. Before this throne the townsfolk were coming and going with gifts. Their most prized possessions were heaped about his feet, from their inherited table-plate to their newest garments. On the altar were piled luscious fruits and choice cuts of meat, together with bottles of delicious wine. Bernard Brown was sucking at one of the fruits and attempting to question the people. But they would not answer him; they merely listened respectfully, then went and wrote down what he said, with a view to creating a canon of mystical precepts.

The newcomers paused in the great hall to examine what had been done, and Eadwil spoke privily to the Margrave.

“Has not Tyllwin been here?” he said under his breath.

“You are right!” confirmed the Margrave. “I can scent his power in the air. Now what snare has that devious personage laid in our path?”

He advanced towards the altar. Taking his stand some ten feet away-because of the heaped-up gifts- he raised his voice and addressed the putative god.

“Sir! We are the nobility of Ryovora, come to determine whether or no you are a god, as the populace maintain!”

Bernard Brown gave a cautious nod. “I was advised about your intention,” he confided. “And I have been warned not to deny the possibility. Since meeting with Jorkas on my way here, I have acquired a healthy respect for the advice I am given hereabouts, no matter how lunatic it may seem. Contrariwise, however, being honest, I must state that prior to my arrival in your city the notion that I might be a god had never crossed my mind.”

The Margrave exchanged frustrated glances first with Eadwil and then with Ruman, who snorted characteristically and called to Bernard Brown.

“Are we to take it, then, that you believe it possible you’re a god?”

“I don’t know what to believe,” said Bernard unhappily. “Until yesterday I had always pictured myself as a perfectly ordinary man. But certainly I am not ordinary in this world, wherever and whatever it may be.”

“Come now!” said Ruman, bridling. “This is a reputable and well-regarded city! Or was, until you chose to intrude on its traditional sober existence.”

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