John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“But Ub-Shebbab came to me when I did no more than call his name,” said Meleagra, and at these disturbing words those closest to her chair drew as far back as they could without appearing rude.

Vengis on his high throne joined neither in the praising nor in the questioning; his heavy-jowled face remained set as stone. Had he not submitted himself to worse indignities? Had he not made pledges which in retrospect caused him to quail? And what had derived from his struggles? Nothing! Not even a pretty trick-siness like Messer Hautnoix’s shining bubbles!

He thumped on his chair-side again, and cut through the chatter with a furious roar.

“Enough! Enough! Are you children early out of school, that you disgrace our meeting with mere gossip? How far do these cantrips advance us to our goal? That’s the question!”

A little embarrassed, the company subsided into a period of asking each other with their eyes whether any was bold enough to claim progress in their central problem. At first they avoided looking at Meleagra; then, no other offer being forthcoming, they took that plunge and were rewarded with a sigh and a shake of the head.

“As I thought!” Vengis crowed in scorn. “You’re overwhelmed with bright spectacle, and have forgotten the urgent purpose confronting us..Next time you go to conjure, ask yourselves first this: if I succeed, what comes by way of benefit? Can I eat it? Can I put in on my back, or mend my roof with it? In fine, how will it serve not only me, but the nobility and commonalty of Ys?”

He glared at the now fidgety assembly. “It’s not going to be easy, I know that well. I’ve had no success to speak of, myself. But at least I haven’t been diverted down superfluous by-ways!”

The one standing in shadow shook his head once more. Here truly was a company of fools, and chief of them their chief Vengis: a man of consuming arrogance and vanity, blind to his faults and proud beyond description. This being so…

He gave a gentle cough, and heads whisked to see from whom the noise issued. Vengis half-rose from his seat in astonishment.

“What are you doing here?” he thundered. “Who let you in without my leave?”

The traveler in black walked without a sound along the aisle dividing the company until he was face to face with Vengis, and there was that in his eyes which stifled further speech prior to the answering of that double question.

At last he said, “As to what I am doing here-why, I am listening to and pondering what you’ve said. As to the leave that was granted me to join you, I go where my presence is required, whether you wish it or no.”

The ranked nobles of the city held their breath. This was the utterance of one holding an authority they dared not challenge.

“What-what do you want of us?” whispered Vengis when he had regained some of his composure.

“Say rather what you want of me,” the traveler riposted with a sardonic cock of his head. “From the confusion of your meeting I’ve been unable to make it out. Put it in words for me. That is, if you have any clear idea of your ambitions… ?”

There was a gently insulting turn to that last phrase. Vengis bridled.

“Of course we do!” he blustered. “Have you not seen the pitiable pass to which our fair city is reduced?”

“I have,” acknowledged the black-garbed intruder. “And as nearly as I can discern, you hold your ancestors to be to blame.”

“We do so!” Vengis snapped. “And we crave to make them rectify their crime. We seek to call them back, that they may behold the ruin they’ve bequeathed us, and compel them to set matters right.”

“Compulsion is no part of my nature,” said the traveler. “I am acquainted only with free choice. Yet you say you have chosen-what then restrains you from action?”

“What do you think?” That was Bardolus, half-frantic with the tension of the moment. “We want the power to bring about this aim, and so far all we’ve managed to achieve is some minor manifestations and a few personal calamities!”

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