John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

So presently he came to Barbizond, where there was always a rainbow in the sky because of the bright being Sardhin, chained inside a thundercloud with fetters of lightning. Three courses remained to him: he might free Sardhin and let him speak, and from here to the horizon nothing would be left save himself, the elemental, and that which was of its nature bright, as jewels, or fire, or the edge of a keen-bladed knife; or he might do as once he had done under similar circumstances-address himself to an enchanter and make use of powers that trespassed too far towards naked chaos to be within his own scope–or, finally, he might go forward in ignorance to the strange city and confront the challenge of fate without the armor of foreknowledge.

Some little while remained to him before he needed to take his irreversible decision. Coming to Barbizond, therefore, he made his way down a fine broad avenue where plane and lime trees alternated in the direction of a steel-blue temple. There stood the altar of Hnua-Threl, who was also Sardhin when he chose to be; the people invoked him with daily single combats on the temple floor. They were not a gentle folk, these inhabitants of Barbizond, but they were stately, and died-in tournaments, or by the assassin’s knife, or by their own hand-with dignity.

A death had lately occurred, that was plain, for approaching the city gate came a funeral procession: on a high-wheeled cart drawn by apes in brazen harness, the corpse wrapped in sheets of lead, gold and woven leaves; a band of gongmen beating a slow measure to accompany musicians whistling on bird-toned pipes no longer than a finger; eight female slaves naked to the ceaseless warm rain; and last a straggle of mourners, conducting themselves for the most part with appropriate solemnity.

He who passed penultimately of the mourners, however, was a fat and jolly person on each of whose shoulders perched a boy-child, and the two were playing peekaboo around the brim of his enormous leather hat. The traveler stared long at him before stepping out from the shelter of the nearest tree and addressing him courteously.

“Your pardon, sir, but are you not named Eadwil?”

“I am,” the fat one answered, not loath to halt and let the funeral wend its way to the graveyard without his assistance. “Should I know you, sir?”

“Perhaps not,” said the traveler in black. “Though I know you. I’d not expected to see you here; you were formerly one of the chief merchant enchanters of Ryovora.”

“A long time ago, sir,” Eadwil answered with a deprecating smile. The two children on his shoulders giggled, and one of them tried to catch hold of the traveler’s staff, almost lost his balance, and righted himself with the aid of a pat from Eadwil’s broad soft hand.

“May I ask what brought about your change of residence?” the traveler murmured.

“My change of employment,” Eadwil shrugged, again nearly dislodging the more venturesome boy. “You spoke of me as a merchant enchanter; so I was! But when the decision was taken, many years ago, to let rational thought rule Ryovora and put an end to conjurations there, certain consequences followed. For myself I have no regrets; there was a geas upon me which made my feet glow red-hot when I walked, and now nothing worse attends a long tramp like today’s than an occasional blister. And these my grandsons too -hey, you little nuisances?-they’d not be here today if I’d continued to submit to the other main restriction which purchased my powers.” He rubbed the boys’ backs affectionately, and they responded by pulling his ears.

This was quite true, as the traveler was aware. Eadwil had postponed the growing of his beard until unusually late in life by making the trade on which his command of magic had been founded.

“So there came an end to my conjuring of fine silks and spices, of rare wines and exotic perfumes!” Eadwil pursed his lips. “And there were, one must confess, certain persons in Ryovora who felt the lack of these luxuries and accused us retired enchanters of-ha-hm!-betraying them. Therefore I removed to Barbizond. It’s a fair city in its way, and even though the local customs are not wholly to my taste, here they do at least have scores of enchanters of their own, so that no one plagues me to be about magical doings…. You have late news of Ryovora, sir? For it comes to my mind that I’ve heard nothing from my old home in quite a while.”

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