John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Fellian began to redden as the validity of the point sank in, and he glared fiercely at someone to his right whom he suspected of being about to giggle.

“You chop logic, do you?” he rasped. “You’re a schoolman, no doubt, of the kind we take to gaze on Lady Luck, who thereupon die rather horribly!”

“Which event,” the traveler remarked mildly, “puts a term to the possibility of persuading them to share your views. The dead are not the easiest persons to convert; their attitudes tend to be somewhat fixed.” He shifted his staff from one hand to the other, and continued.

“Let me see if I understand these views of yours. You maintain, I believe, that life is one long gamble?”

“Yes, of course!” Fellian barked.

“If this is so, why should one need to make more wagers? Is not any other, compared to the wager which embraces the whole of life, too trivial to be worth attention? Clearly you do not agree, I grant, inasmuch as you propose to stake human beings against your rival lords tonight, and for this purpose kidnapped the inoffensive folk of Wantwich.”

“Nothing gives spice to life but winning wagers!” Fellian snorted. “I sit here-is it not plain by that token that I already won a great gamble? I staked my very existence on the right to be a Lord of Teq, and that I am here proves that the lady on the tower smiles my way!”

The traveler cocked his head sardonically. He said, “Call yourself a great gambler, a great winner, whatever you like. But I can name a bet you’ll not accept.”

“What?” Fellian howled, and all around there were cries of shocked dismay. “Think you can insult a Lord of Teq with impunity? Guards, seize and bind him! He has offered me a mortal affront, and he must pay for it!”

“How have I affronted you-how? To say that I can name a bet you will not accept is not to insult you, unless you can but will not match my stakes!” The traveler fixed Fellian with a sharp stare.

“Am I to bet with a nobody? I bet only against my coevals! It takes uncounted wealth to bet with me!” Fellian snorted. “Why, were I to treat you seriously, any bumpkin could come to me and say, ‘I wager my rags and clogs, all I possess, against all that you possess -and that’s a match!’ ”

“But there is one thing any man may bet against any other,” said the traveler. “For no man can have more than one of it.”

There was silence for the space of several heartbeats. “My lord,” Torquaida said at last in a rusty voice, “he means life.”

Fellian went pale and licked his lips. He blustered, “Even so! A life that may have fifty years to run, like mine? Against one which may snuff out tomorrow, or next week?”

“Regrettably,” Torquaida creaked, “that is fair stakes. However”-and he gave a tiny dry smile and wheezing chuckle-“it’s over-soon to name the stakes before one knows the bet, is it not?”

Fellian flashed him a grateful grin; this was the outlet he had been unable to spot himself. He said loudly, “Yes, a crucial point! What bet is this that you wish to make with me, old man?”

“I bet you,” said the traveler into a universal hush, “that the face of Lady Luck is turned away from your throne.”

There was an instant of appalled shock. But with a great effort Fellian forced a booming laugh.

“Why, that wager’s lost already!” he exclaimed. “Is it not proof of the lady’s favor that I sit here among unparalleled riches?”

“They are what you woke to today,” the traveler said. “Tomorrow is yet to eventuate.”

“Why stop at tomorrow?” Fellian said. “Next week, next month, next year if you like, when I have won still more bets against Yuckin and Nusk, we’ll take you and hoist you on a tall pole that you may look on the lady directly and see that she does smile towards me. Meantime, enjoy the hospitality of my dungeon. Hey, guards!”

“Thank you, I am in no need of lodging,” the traveler said. “Moreover, a week is too long. One day will suffice. I will see you again tomorrow; let’s say at dawn. For now, however, farewell.”

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