John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Turning away, the traveler was addressed by a person in a cape of leaves who might have passed at a glance for seven years of age, either boy or girl.

“Good morrow, sir!” this person chirruped in a treble voice. “Think you to brace yourself for death by contemplating all these tombs-or have you cause to wish it might overtake some other before yourself?”

“In the latter case, what?” the traveler said.

“Why, then, I could be of service,” the person said slyly. “I have been for thirty-one years as you see me- dwarfed, sexless and agile. What better end could I turn such a gift to, than to become the finest assassin ever known in Barbizond? You stand surrounded by testimonials to my skill: here a miserly old ruffian whose daughter paid me half his coffer-load, there an eldest son who blocked his brother’s way to an inheritance-”

“You speak openly of this foul trade?”

“Why, sir, no one is around to hear me save yourself, and would folk not think you deranged were you to claim a child had boasted of such matters to you?”

“In truth, your childish form is a deep disguise,” the traveler conceded. “But tell me: do you speak to me merely to solicit new custom, or because that disguise grows oppressively efficient?”

The person scowled. “Why, I must confess that from time to time the very secrecy which benefits my calling does gall my self-esteem. I gain my living in a unique manner, but no one knows I’m the ultimate expert at my trade save those whom I have served, who dare not admit that they know it. Would that I might be famed far and wide as the past-master of my profession!”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler, and struck his staff against the nearest tomb. That very evening rumors took their rise in Barbizond, and everyone who had lost a relative in suspicious circumstances, to a poison subtler than the enchanters could detect, or a silent noose, or a knife hissing out of shadow, nodded their heads and remarked how marvellously well the appearance of a child of tender years might mask a killer.

The traveler passed the body next morning, sprawled on a dung-heap by the road to Teq.

Will it be now? The question haunted the traveler as he went. With half his being he was apprehensive, for all he had ever known throughout innumerable eons was the task allotted him; with the balance he yearned for it. Karth gone, Yorbeth gone, Jorkas gone-would there shortly also be an end for Tuprid, and Caschalanva, for Quorril and Lry and Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes?

On impulse, when he came to the grove of ash-trees at Segrimond which was one of the places where such things were possible, he constrained Wolpec to enter the customary candle, but when he tried to smoke a piece of glass over its flame and read the three truths therefrom, the glass cracked. With resignation he concluded that this was not for him to learn, and went his way.

In Kanish-Kulya the wall that had once divided Kanishmen from Kulyamen, decked along its top with skulls, had crumbled until it was barely more than a bank enshrouded with ivy and convolvulus, and roads pierced it along which went the gay carts of pedlars and the tall horses of adventure-seeking knights. Yet in the minds of certain men it was as though the old barrier still stood.

“Not only,” groused a certain Kanish merchant to the traveler, “does my eldest daughter decline to accept her proper fate, and be sacrificed in traditional manner to Fegrim! She adds insult in injury, and proposes to wed a Kulyan brave!”

The traveler, who knew much about the elemental Fegrim, including his indifference to sacrifices, held his peace.

“This I pledge on my life!” the merchant fumed. “If my daughter carries on the way she’s going, I shall never want to speak to her again-nor shall I let her in my house!”

“As you wish, so be it,” said the traveler. From that moment forward the merchant uttered never a word; dumb, he stood by to watch the fine procession in which the girl went to claim her bridegroom, and before she returned home apoplexy killed him, so that the house was no longer his.

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