John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Yet… power.

He pressed the knob and the drawer slid open, revealing a packet made of a strange yellow paper and sealed with green wax. He broke the seal convulsively, and a fine powder spurted at his face, seeming to seek his nostrils of its own accord. He tried to dodge, but that was useless; he inhaled it all, and the packet lay empty on his palm.

Another few seconds, and vast elation filled him. Why, he could do anything! He was ten feet tall, stronger than an ox, more potent than the heroes of legend and so handsome no wench could withstand him if he courted her.

He threw down the packet and raced towards the street.

From the mirror drifted mists, that coalesced into the shape of his mother, and ultimately grew strong enough to lift the empty packet in gnarled old fingers and regard it out of bleary eyes.

“You deserve no better fate than the one who got you on my body against my will,” she whispered. “One hour, Bardolus-one hour of delirium! And afterwards despair. For it will be no use hunting for more of this drug, Bardolus! I never compounded more than one dose at a time, and it was by postponing for a day the next mixing that I held power over your father. There is no one to mix it for you, Bardolus! No one at all!”


But these were not all the calamities that overtook Ys, that once-fair city. For those whom the black-clad traveler had challenged truly did not know what would rescue them from their predicament, and out of greed and laziness had demanded the utmost they could conceive. Lost in this plethora of manifestations-somewhere-was precisely and exactly what was needful; that much the traveler was bound to grant. But, as he had warned them, he could not compel anyone to do the right thing. Choice was what he dealt in.

And those who made a wrong choice did so because of what they were.

His friends had generally liked Messer Hautnoix, who was engagingly like a child, what with his delight in such toys as the pretty colored bubbles he had displayed in the Hall of State. It was characteristic of him that, compelled to spend five nights under a gibbet for the privilege, he passed the entire time drunk to avoid excessive contemplation of his plight.

Yet when he repaired to his chosen ground of the execution dock and chuckled while he cut the throats of a white cock and a black hen, the one who came to him proved to be the first bearer of his line’s name, professionally the municipal hangman, who had so loved his work that more than once he paid the silence of witnesses who would have saved victims from the rope; this being discovered, they had set him swinging on his own gallows at the last.

Much time having passed since he last performed his office, he seized his chance with alacrity, and sunset found Messer Hautnoix dangling from a noose while his forebear walked back to the city gate, rubbing his bloated hands to think of what he could look forward to.

Dame Faussein, who had paid a drowned sailor so generously for the loan of his skin, made further use of her curious little drum when she came home, regarding tried and tested means as superior to any not yet proven workable. It was regrettable-and she certainly did regret it, though not for long-that this time the darkness to which its beating carried her was the musty interior of her ancestral vault, where the warmth of her living body, while it lasted, gave strange solace to an aunt and two uncles whose relationship, now as in their lifetimes, was more complex than the conventional ties of kinship. Her eyes continued to perceive darkness when the three together had lifted off the enclosing marble lid of their mausoleum and gone forth to see how things now stood with Ys.

Messer d’Icque was indeed of peasant stock-that was no secret in Ys. His inclinations were towards country matters, and it has never been any secret anywhere that events transpire in lonely country districts at which the sophisticates of cities would be nauseated or appalled. The whole of his urban residence had been stunk out for weeks by a dung-pile he had had made in the central courtyard, because it was said to be in the warmth of rotting manure that homunculi came to artificial life. This heap of foulness he ignored today, however; his mind was set on the proper employment of his stock of animelles, a springtime by-product on farms, where sheep and cattle are bred. His plan, moreover, was not to fry and serve them as a seasonal delicacy.

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