John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“Let us have news, then-encouraging news of our progress!” Vengis cried. “I call first on Dame Seulte, around whose home last time I rode by I could not help noticing an aura pregnant with remarkable phenomena.”

Silence. At length a portly woman near the back of the hall rose-with some difficulty, for her weight- and spoke.

“Dame Seulte, as you know, is my close neighbor, and as she is not here I think perhaps I ought to mention that yesterday she was in high spirits and confident of success in her experiments. She had obtained a freewill gift of a child to offer to-well, to a creature best not named directly. When I met her, she was leading the pretty thing home on a leash of green leather. Such a sweet sight!”

“Dame Rosa!” said a young man from nearer the front, turning in his chair. “A free-will gift-are you sure?”

And his companion, a pale girl of no more than eighteen in a dress of brown velvet, said doubtfully, “My maid referred to a fire at Dame Seulte’s house this morning….”

Vengis slapped the arm of his throne again, making a sound as sharp as a gavel’s rap. He said sternly, “No defeatist talk if you please, Lady Vivette!”

“But are you sure it was a free-will gift?” persisted the young man at Vivette’s side.

Dame Rosa said stiffly, “Dame Seulte had promised to raise the child as her own, and the parents were poor and hungry; they parted with it willingly.”

“Then there must have been a fire at her home this morning,” said the young man, and shrugged. “Our copy of the book she conjured from has a leaf that hers lacks, and on it the authorities are cited by dozens. Ingredients obtained by deception are of no avail in that ceremony.”

There was a stunned pause. Dame Seulte, after all, had only been trying to manifest a comparatively straight-forward elemental.

“I have more cheerful news,” said a sweet, enticing voice from the opposite side of the assembly. They turned gratefully; this was Lady Meleagra, whose eyes like sapphires, lips like rose-petals and skin like snow had broken hearts for ten of her twenty-one years. As Eadwil had once done in Ryovora-though she was unaware of that precedent-she had purchased her ability upon terms. Herself, she had not yet suffered in consequence; she was, though, constrained to impose a most regrettable proviso on anyone who craved to share the pleasures of her bedchamber. It was an efficacious precaution against undesired supernatural intervention, but it had signally reduced the number of her suitors.

“I sense a change here in Ys,” she mused aloud. “A great wonder has overtaken this city. So far I do not know its precise nature, but the fact is indisputable. See!”

She extended one graceful arm, swathed in white lace so fine her skin tinted it pink, and in the central aisle dividing the company a thing appeared. It was dark, and it writhed; apart from that it had no describable attributes save two glowing eyes alive with hatred. It lasted half a minute before it slowly faded, and at its going the air was permeated by a dank steamy odor against which those foresighted enough to have brought them buried their noses in bouquets of flowers.

By degrees a clamor arose, and on all sides the nobles strove to show they had been equally successful. “Look!” cried Messer Hautnoix, and between his hands he strung a chain of gleaming bubbles from nowhere, and again, and yet a third time before the glamour faded. And: “See!” cried Dame Faussein, shaking a drum made of a gourd and capped either end with tattooed skin from a drowned sailor; this made the hall pitch-black for as long as it sounded, and all present had the eerie sense that they were adrift in an infinite void. And: “Watch!” bellowed rough old Messer d’Icque, spreading a scarlet cloth at the full stretch of both arms; on the cloth, a mouth opened and uttered five sonorous words that no one present understood.

Smiles greeted these achievements, and loud approbation gave place to a babble of inquiry as to means. “Five nights drunk under a gallows!” boasted Messer Hautnoix-“A day and a night and a day kissing the mouth of the man who bequeathed his skin!” bragged Dame Faussein-“Doing things to a goat I can’t discuss with ladies present,” Messer d’Icque muttered behind his hand.

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