John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Relieved, Achoreus turned to issue the necessary orders. Accordingly, in a little while, to the music of their fetters clanking, a sorry train of captives wended their way out of the grand courtyard of the palace, up the lower slopes of the ramp leading to the gallery- which were of common granite-and stage by stage on to the higher level, where the parapets were of garnets in their natural matrix, and the floor of cat’s-eye, peridot and tourmaline.

Refused food on the long trudge from Erminvale to discourage the energy needed for escape, granted barely enough water to moisten their lips, they found the gradual incline almost too much for them, and their escorts had to prod them forward with the butts of spears.

At last, however, they were ranged along the gallery, out of the shade of the dragon-hide awning, blinking against sunlight at their new and unlooked-for master. At one end of the line was Leluak, his left eye swollen shut from a blow and testifying to his vain resistance; as far distant from him as possible, Viola, nearly naked from the struggle that had led to Achoreus ripping her clothes. And between them, every villager from Wantwich bar Granny Anderland, from babes in arms to gray-pated patriarchs.

Accompanied by the proud Achoreus, Torquaida went along the line peering into face after face, occasionally poking to test the hardness of a muscle or the flab of a belly, his forefinger sharp as one of the styli he used to post his accounts on wax tablets. He halted before one bluff middle-aged fellow in a red jerkin, who looked unutterably weary.

“Who are you?” he croaked.

“Uh…” The man licked his lips. “Well, my name’s Harring.”

“Say ‘so please you’!” Achoreus rasped, and made a threatening gesture towards his sword.

Harring muttered the false civility.

“And what can you do?” Torquaida pursued.

“I’m a brewer.” And, reluctantly after a brief mental debate: “Sir!”

“You learn swiftly,” Achoreus said with mocking approval, and accompanied Torquaida down the Line. “You?”

“I’m a baker-sir.”

“I? Oh, a sempstress!”

“And I’m a bodger, turner, and mender of ploughs.”

The answers came pat upon the questions, as though by naming their trades the captives could reassure themselves they still retained some dignity by virtue of their skill. At Torquaida’s direction a clerk made lists of all the names and crafts, leaving aside the children under twelve, and finally presented the lists with a nourish to Lord Fellian.

Scrutinizing them through his diamond lenses, the lord addressed Achoreus.

“And of what standard are these louts in their professions? Competent, or shoddy?”

“As far as I could judge, sir,” Achoreus answered, “they might be termed competent. Of course, their criteria fall far short of our own; still, their houses seemed sturdy, they kept their fences well mended, and they had sound byres and folds for their livestock.”

“I see.” Fellian rubbed the tip of his nose on the sharp facets of a gemstone ringed to his left middle finger. “Then there might be something to be said for keeping them instead of staking them. We have no brewer in the household that I know of. Some scullery drab or turnspit would be less useful than that man- what’s his peasant’s name? Harring? Therefore do thus, Torquaida: take away their brats and put them to nurse or be apprenticed, then sort the rest and for each one you judge to be worth adding to my staff select one servant we already have, who’s lazy or sullen or deformed, and set him at my disposal to be staked tonight. Hah! Was this not an inspiration that I had?” He rubbed his hands and gave a gleeful chuckle.

“Oh, how I long to see the faces of those dunderheads when I wager fifty servants against each of them tonight! I simply cannot fail to gain by this affair! If they win, which Lady Luck I trust will prevent, they will merely clutter up their households with extra mouths to feed, while I have acquired new tradesmen, and should I win-which I no doubt shall-I’ll have plenty of spare overseers to cope with the servants those two stake! Ho-ho! We must do this again, Achoreus!”

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