John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Lord Vengis glowered at the company, and they fell silent by degrees. Their attendants moved, silent as shadows, to the double doors of entrance, closed them, barred them against all intrusion-for this was no discussion which common people were permitted to overhear.

With the clanging down of the final bar, one leapt to his feet at the end of the front rank of gilded chairs, uttering a groan and cramming his fingers into his mouth. All eyes turned.

“Fool, Bardolus!” Lord Vengis rapped. “What ails you?”

“In that mirror!” Bardolus gibbered, trying to point and finding his shaky arm disobedient to his will. “I saw in the mirror-”

“What? What?” chorused a dozen fearful voices.

Bardolus was a small man whose manner was never better than diffident; he was accounted clever, but in a sly fashion that had won him few friends and none who would trust him. He said now, mopping sweat, “I don’t know. I saw something in that mirror that was not also in this hall.”

Time hesitated in its course, until Lord Vengis gave a harsh laugh and slapped the arm of his throne.

“You’ll have to grow accustomed to manifestations like that, Bardolus!” he gibed. “So long as the things stay in the mirror, what’s to worry you? It’s when they emerge into the everyday world that you must look out. Why, only the other day, when I was in my thaumaturgic cabinet testing a certain formula, I-But enough of that.” He coughed, and behind his polite covering hand glanced to see whether his words had had the desired effect. They had, even though the episode to which he referred was an invention. True, he’d spent much time in his cabinet; true, he’d rehearsed many formulae; alas, nothing had so far come of his efforts, not even a harmless spectre in a mirror.

Still, that would change. One could tell by the feel of the very air. There were forces in it that no man could put a name to, and sometimes scalps prickled as they do before a thunderstorm.

“We are here for a reason you know,” he said after an impressive pause. “We are agreed on the only course open to us. We admit that modern Ys stands on the shoulders of great men and women. Yet to what has their ambition led us? Unkind fate has burdened us with such difficulties as they never encountered, and we eat stale bread and rancid meat, where they gorged pies running with gravy and soft delicious fruits from the ends of the earth. We drink plain water, none too clean, where they enjoyed wine and mead, and beer like brown crystal!

“We have concluded that for all their-admitted- greatness, they are responsible, not us! We did not ask to be born at a time when our trees rot, our crops wither, our harbor is blocked. In every way they are responsible: for siting Ys where it stands, for breeding children to inherit such a miserable legacy!”

“Aye!” came a rumble of assent from around the hall.

“Some faint-hearts, some ignorant fools, have argued with us,” Vengis went on, warming to a speech he had not intended to deliver. “These, of course, are base-born, lacking the insight which is the birthright of the nobility. Jacques the scrivener, for example, would have had us turn to with hoes and shovels and clear the harbor-and if hoes and shovels were lacking, with our bare hands!”

This time the response lay between a shudder and a chuckle. “What’s become of Jacques, by the way?” someone asked audibly.

“Does it matter?” Vengis countered, drawing together his beetling brows. “We know we are adopting the right course. We have decided that we must employ more potent tools than crude-ah-agricultural implements to cope with so massive a disaster. We must, in short, restore all our fortunes, and the splendour of our city, and root out once for all the disaffection among the rabble spread by such as Jacques, by exploiting the mightiest means available to us. Magically, by decree of the will, by harnessing supernatural forces, we shall again make Ys the envy of the world!”

A roar of approval and a barrage of clapping. Unnoticed in the shadows, one listener alone did not applaud; instead, he stood leaning on his staff, shaking his head from side to side.

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