John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Achoreus bowed low, and once more stroked his mustachios.

“Take them away,” Fellian commanded, and leaned back in his throne, reaching with fat pale fingers for the mouthpiece of a jade huqqah on a lacquered table nearby. An alert slave darted forward and set a piece of glowing charcoal on the pile of scented herbs the bowl contained.

Frightened and angry, but too weak to resist, the folk of Wantwich turned under the goading of the soldiers to wend their way back to the courtyard below. Fellian watched them. As the end of the line drew level with him, he snapped his fingers and all looked expectantly towards him.

“That girl at the tail,” he murmured. “She’s not unattractive in a country way. Set her apart, bath, perfume and dress her, and let her attend me in my chamber.”

“But-!” Achoreus took a pace forward.

“You wish to comment?” Fellian purred dangerously.

“I…” Achoreus hesitated, and at last shook his head.

“Let it be done, then,” Fellian smiled, and sucked his huqqah with every appearance of contentment.


Furious, Achoreus turned to superintend the final clearance of the captives from the gallery, and thought the task was done, but when he glanced around there was one stranger remaining, who certainly was neither a household officer nor a slave: a man in a black cloak leaning on a staff.

“Achoreus!” Fellian rasped. “Why have you not taken that fellow with the rest?”

Staring, Achoreus confessed, “I have not seen him before! He was not with the villagers when we assembled them-Ah, but I have seen him, not at Wantwich. Now I recall that when we were on the outward leg from Teq he stood beneath a tree to watch our army pass, having that same staff in his hand.”

“And he’s come to join the captives of his own accord?” Fellian suggested with a laugh. An answering ripple of amusement at what passed for his brilliant wit echoed from his sycophants. “Well, then! We shall not deny him the privilege he craves!”

Faces brightened everywhere. Fellian was a capricious master, but when he spoke in this jovial fashion it was provable that he was about to distribute favors and gifts at random, saying it was to impress on his retinue the supreme importance of luck.

“So, old man!” he continued. “What brings you hither, if it was not the long chain Unking those who have been here a moment back?”

“A need to know,” said the traveler in black, and paced forward on the jeweled floor.

“To know what? When the gaming-wheel of life will spin to a halt for you against the dire dark pointer of death? Why, go ask Lady Luck face to face, and she will tell you instanter!”

At that, certain of his attendants blanched. It was not in good taste to joke about Lady Luck.

“To know,” the traveler responded unperturbed, “why you sent armed raiders to rape the village Wantwich.”

“Ah, yes,” Fellian said ironically. “I can see how a stranger might put a question of that order, lacking proper comprehension of the priorities in life. Many think that all they need ever do is act reasonably, meet obligations, pay their debts… and then some random power intrudes on their silly calm existence, perhaps with a leash, perhaps with a sword, and all their reasoning is set at naught! That then is their opportunity to learn the truth. Not sense but luck is what rules the cosmos-do you hear me? Luck!”

He leaned forward, uttering the last word with such intensity that a spray of spittle danced down to the floor.

“See you that idiot who turns a gaming-wheel for me? Ho, you! Bring the creature here!”

Retainers rushed to obey. Fellian peeled rings from his fingers, decorated with stones that might bring the price of a, small farm or vineyard, and threw them on the soiled skirt of the idiot’s robe.

“Turn her free! Luck has smiled her way today!”

“Not so,” contradicted the traveler.

“What? You gainsay me-you gainsay Fellian!” The lord was nearly pop-eyed with horror.

“Say rather I see two sides of this good fortune,” the traveler murmured. “Is it not great luck for an idiot to be fed, housed and clothed by a rich lord? Is this not worth more to her than to be given some pretty baubles and left to fend alone? Where is the benefit if next week she starves?”

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