John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Facing the chair of bones, Achoreus-who had committed himself to the service of Lord Fellian when he was but seventeen and kept complimenting himself on his far-sightedness-grinned from ear to ear at the brilliant inspiration of his master.

“Before those fools learn that winning from me costs nothing,” Fellian declared, “I shall have taken the very roofs from over their heads! They will be shamed if they refuse to match my stakes, and I may climb as high as I wish, while they-poor fools!-struggle to clamber after me. Oh, how I look forward to seeing Yuckin’s face when tonight I bet him a hundred skillful servants, including girls fit for a royal bed! You’ve done well, Achoreus. Torquaida, come you here!”

From among the gaggle of retainers who by day and night attended Fellian, subservient to his slightest whim, there shuffled forward the elderly treasurer whose mind retained, so he boasted, even such detail of his master’s coffers as how many of the copper coins in store had been clipped around the edge, instead of honestly worn, and were therefore reserved to pay off tradesmen.

In no small part, Fellian acknowledged, his victories in the endless betting-matches with his rivals were due to Torquaida instructing him what they could or could not stake to correspond with his own wagers. He had rewarded the treasurer suitably, while those who served his rivals were more often punished for letting go irreplaceable wonders on lost bets, and grew daily bitterer by consequence.

“Young Achoreus here,” the lord declared, “has performed a signal service. We have now, thanks to him, one hundred or more extra servants surplus to the needs of the household, and additionally many children who can doubtless be trained up in a useful skill. How, say you, should this service be repaid?”

“This is a difficult estimate,” frowned Torquaida. His ancient voice quavered; Fellian scowled the musicians into silence that he might hear better. “There are two aspects of the matter to consider. First, that he has brought a hundred servants-that is easy. Let him have dirhans to increase his stake in the wager he has made with Captain Ospilo of Lord Yuckin’s train; our privy intelligence states that bet is won on odds of nine to four, whereas Ospilo is yet in ignorance of the result. Thereby the winnings may be much enlarged. I’d say: one hundred coins.”

Fellian slapped his thigh and chortled at the ingenuity of the deceit, while Achoreus preened his mustachios and basked in the envy of those around.

“Beyond that, however,” Torquaida continued in his reedy tones, “it remains to be established what the value of these servants is. As one should not wager on a horse without inspecting both it and its competition, thus too one must begin by looking over the captives.”

“Let them be brought, then!” Fellian cried. “Clear a space on the gallery large enough for them to parade!”

“Sir,” ventured Achoreus, “there were not a few among them who resented the-ah-the invitation I extended to enter your lordship’s service. It will be best to make space also for the escort I detailed to accompany them.”

“What?” Fellian leaned forward on his chair, scowling. “Say you that a man on whom Lady Luck smiles so long and so often is to be injured by-by some stupid peasant? Or is it that you neglected to disarm them?”

Seeing his new-found fortune vanishing any second, Achoreus replied placatingly, “My lord! There was hardly a weapon in the whole village, save rustic implements whose names I scarcely know, not having had truck with country matters-scythes, perhaps, or maybe hatchets…. Which, naturally, we deprived them of! But all of those’ we brought are able-bodied, and hence remain possessed of feet and fists!”

“Hmmm!” Fellian rubbed his chin. “Yes, I remember well a gladiator whom Lord Yuckin set against a champion of mine, in years gone by, who lost both net and trident and still won the bout, by some such underhand trick as clawing out his opponent’s vitals with his nails.” He gave an embarrassed cough; he hated to refer to any wager he had lost. “Well, then, bring them up, but have a guard around them, as you say.”

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