John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“Where else shall I go, then?” Jacques countered, and for a second despair looked out from behind his eyes. “I set off thinking no place could be worse than my home-town had now become-yet on this brief journey I’ve seen wonders and marvels that make me question my own good sense. I met a creature on the road that was neither man nor beast, but a blending; I saw a shining sprite washing feet like alabaster in a cloud rimmed with rainbows; and once when I bent to drink from a stream I saw pictures in the water which… No, I dare not say what I thought I saw.” “That would be the brook called Geirion,” said the traveler, and appended a crooked smile. “Don’t worry- things seen there can never become real. The folk round about go to the brook to rid themselves of baseless fears.”

Jacques glanced over his shoulder at the motley crowd and shivered with dismay. “Nonetheless, sir, I’m not minded to remain in this peculiar city!”

“It would be more comfortable for you to adapt to the local customs than to go home,” the traveler warned. “A certain rather spectacular doom is apt to overtake Ys, if things are as you say.”

“Doom!” cried Jacques, and an unholy joy lit his face. “I told them so-over and again I told them! Would I could witness it, for the satisfaction of seeing how right I was!”

The traveler sighed, but there was no help for it now; his single nature bound him to unique courses of action. He said sourly, “As you wish, so be it. Go hence towards the city men call Acromel, where honey is bitter, but do not enter it. Go rather around it towards the setting sun, and you will reach a gray hill fledged with grey bushes where there are always dust-devils, which will wipe out your tracks the moment you have passed. From the brow of that hill you may behold Ys at the moment of disaster.”

“Now just a moment!” exclaimed Jacques, rising. “From my boyhood up I’ve wandered around Ys, and I know of no such hill as you describe!”

The traveler shrugged and turned away. Jacques caught his cloak.

“Wait! What’s your name, that you say such strange things and send me on such an improbable errand?”

“You may call me Mazda, or anything you choose.” The black-clad traveler shook off the grip with a moue of distaste.

“Hah! That’s rich!” Jacques set his hands on his hips and laughed. “But still… Well, sir, for the sake of wanting to see how Ys goes to its doom, I’ll follow your instructions. And my thanks!”

He parodied a bow, flourishing a hat that was not on his head.

“You may not thank me more than this once,” said the traveler sadly, and went his way.


Lord Vengis sat in the Hall of State at Ys, and gazed at the nobility assembled in his presence. He tried to ignore the sad condition of the hall. Once this had been a building to marvel at: mirrors higher than a man lined its walls, set between pilasters of marble, gilt and onyx, and the arching roof had been painted by a great master with scenes in eleven bright colors, depicting the birth of Saint Clotilda, the martyrdom of Saint Gaufroy-that one was mostly in red-and the ascension of Saint Eulogos to heaven on the back of a leaping dolphin. Moreover the floor had been carpeted with ermine and bear-pelts.

The pelts had gone. Or, to be more exact, some of them had gone away and returned-but in unusual fashion: they had been cut into coats for the nobles, and now enveloped impressive paunches and bosoms with the assistance of gilt girdles. Moreover, half of the mirrors were fly-specked, and some were cracked, while worst of all some of the slabs of marble forming the floor had been prised up to expose crude foundations of rubble-a rumor having run around as to the effectiveness of marble for sacrificial altars-and on an irregularity due to this cause, in an ill-lit corner, Lord Vengis had twisted his ankle en route to his throne.

This place was a condensation of the trouble afflicting the whole of Ys. The harbors that once swallowed the twice-daily ocean tides were blocked with stinking silt; grass grew on the stone moles, as in the wheel-ruts on the fine old roads leading away from the city-at least, according to report; none of the personages present could vouch for the assertion, all having declined to venture out of Ys since things took this turn for the worse. So also in the gardens of the great houses a plant like, but not identical with, mistletoe had spread over the handsome trees, letting fall a horrid sticky fruit on those who walked beneath; in the deep sweet-water wells servants claimed that they heard ominous voices, so that now they refused to let -down buckets for fear of drawing up those who spoke; last week’s market had reduced to two old men squabbling over a cracked earthen pot and a comb of dirty wild honey.

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