John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“Seize him!” Fellian bellowed, and the soldiers who had remained behind, on Achoreus’s signal, when the party of captives was led away, dashed in the direction of the traveler. But they went crashing against one another, as though they had sought to clutch an armful of empty air.


In the great cave-like kitchens of the palace, a cook sweated with ladle and tongs at a cauldron of half a hogs-head capacity. The fire roaring beneath scorched his skin, the smoke blinded his eyes with tears.

From the dark corner of the hearth, a voice inquired for whom the savory-smelling broth was being prepared.

“Why, for Lord Fellian,” sighed the cook.

“But no man can engulf such a deal of soup. Will he have guests?”

“Yes, so he will.” The cook grimaced. “They’ll eat two ladlefuls, or maybe three.”

“And you then will enjoy what is left over?”

“I, sir?” The cook gave a rueful chuckle. “No, on my soul, I wouldn’t dare. What my lord leaves in his dish goes to his hounds! Tonight as ever I shall sup off a crust of dry bread and that chunk of moldy bacon-rind. Still, hounds have no taste for wine, so if I’m quick I may claim the dregs from the goblets at the high table, and liquor will soothe my grumbling belly enough to let me sleep.”

Among the fierce ammonia stench of guano, the falconer worked by an unglazed window, tooling with gnarled yet delicate hands a design of rhythmical gold leaf onto the hood and jesses of a peregrine falcon.

“This leather is beautiful,” said a soft voice from over his shoulder. “But doubtless you put on far finer array when you go forth of an evening to enjoy yourself at a tavern?”

“I, sir?” grunted the falconer, not turning around; the light was wasting, and he was forbidden the extravagance of lamps or candles. “Why, no, I’m in the service of Lord Fellian, and have no time to amuse myself. And had I time, I’d be constrained to wear what you see upon me now-old canvas breeches, bound around the waist with fraying rope. Besides, with what would I purchase a mug of ale? With a scoop of fewmets?”

In the stables, a groom passed a soft cloth caressingly over the fitments of a stall; they were of jacynth and ivory, and the manger was filled with new sweet hay, fine oats fit to have baked bread, and warm-scented bran.

“Palatial,” said a voice from behind the partition. “This is merely for a horse?”

“Aye, sir,” muttered the groom, declining to be distracted from his work. “For Western Wind, Lord Fellian’s favorite steed.”

“By comparison, then, I judge you must take your repose on high pillows filled with swan’s down, beneath a coverlet of silk, or furs for winter!”

“I sleep on straw, sir-do not jest with me! And if I have time to gather clay to stop the chinks in my hovel against the night’s cold, I count myself lucky.”

Beside a marble bath, which ran scented water from a gargoyle’s mouth, a slender girl measured out grains of rare restorative spices onto a sponge, a loofah, and the bristles of a brush made from the hide of a wild boar.

“With such precautions,” a voice said from beyond a curl of rising steam, “beauty must surely be preserved far beyond the normal span.”

“Think you I’d dare to waste one grain of this precious essence on my own skin?” the girl retorted, tossing back a tress of hair within which-though she could be aged at most twenty-there glinted a betraying thread of silver. “I’d be lucky, when they detected my pilfering, to be thrown over the sill of that window! Beneath it there is at least a kitchen-midden to give me a soft landing. No, my entire fortune is my youth, and it takes the powers of an elemental and the imagination of a genius to spread youth thin enough to satisfy Lord Fellian from spring to autumn.”

“Then why do you endure his service?”

“Because he is a winner in the game of life.”

“And how do you know that?”

“Why,” sighed the girl, “everyone says so.”

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