John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

In the high-vaulted banqueting-hall, as the sun went down, the rival lords Yuckin and Nusk came to feast with their respective retinues at the expense of the current greatest winner prior to the onset of the night’s gambling. They had come to his palace too often of late; there was no friendly chat between them. Gloomily-though with fair appetite, because their own kitchens did not boast such delicacies-they sat apart, growing angrier and angrier as platters of gold succeeded those of silver, goblets of crystal replaced those of enameled pottery… and often recognizing items they had formerly owned.

Lord Fellian, who should have been delighted at the discomfiture of his rivals, was downcast, and the talk at his long table was all of the strange intruder in a black cloak who had laid down so threatening a bet.

“It’s nonsense!” roundly declared Achoreus, who was seated beside Fellian as a mark of special favor. “As you rightly said, sir, it’s absurd to expect someone of your standing to wager with a penniless nobody-and moreover the bet he named is by definition incapable of settlement!”

But his brow was pearled with sweat, and when he had repeated his assertion for the third time his voice was harsh with a hoarseness no amount of wine could relieve.

“And how say you, Torquaida?” demanded Fellian, hungry for reassurance-though not for food; course after course was being removed from his place untouched.

“There is no need to worry,” the elderly treasurer wheezed. “Like you or dislike you, Lords Yuckin and Nusk would have to concede the propriety of declining such a wager. One cannot conduct important affairs on an arbitrary basis!”

Even that, however, did not set Fellian’s mind at rest. “Ah, would I knew the outcome of the wager, however foolish!” he grumbled, and at that the black-clad traveler, standing apart in the secrecy of an embrasure, gave a sad smile.

“As you wish,” he murmured, “so be it. You have won your bet with me, Lord Fellian-and there are and have been few in all eternity who can make that claim. Yet in the same instant when you won, you lost beyond all eternal hope.”

The question settled now, he went away.

Shortly, they cleared the dishes from the hall, bringing in their place the hand-carved dominoes required for the game shen fu, the lacquered plaques destined for match-me-mine and mark-me-well, the tumbling gilded cages full of colored balls known as The Lady’s Knucklebones, the gaming-wheels-those with four, those with nine, and those with thirty-three divisions- blind songbirds trained to pick out one and only one among three disparately dyed grains of corn, jumping beans, silver-harnessed fleas, baby toads steeped in strong liquor, and all the other appurtenances on which the Lords of Teq were accustomed to place their bets.

Additionally, from among their respective trains, they marshaled their current champions at wrestling, boxing with cestae, and gladiatorial combat, not to mention tumblers, leapers, imbeciles armed with brushes full of paint, dice-throwing monkeys, and whatever else they had lately stumbled across upon the outcome of whose acts a bet might be laid.

It was the practice for one of the challengers to name a game, and of the challenged to declare the stakes. Thus, in strict accordance with protocol, Lord Yuckin as the last to lose to Lord Fellian cleared his throat and began with a single hand of shen fu, to which Lord Fellian consented, and won a basket of desert-hoppers-a typical low stake for the early hours.

Then Lord Nusk bet on a jumping toad, and won a purse of coins from Barbizond, to which Lord Fellian replied with a spin of the four-part wheel, and won a bag of sapphires. He nudged his companions and whispered that the old fool on the gallery must have been wrong.

Thus too he won the next five bouts, on toads again, on fleas, on two hands of shen fu, and lastly on the pecking birds. After that he lost a spin of the nine-part wheel and had to concede to Yuckin a chased and jeweled sword that Torquaida dismissed as pretty but not practical; its blade was inferior. No special loss.

“Now, I think,” murmured the pleased Lord Fellian, and on Lord Nusk naming shen fu as the next bout, declared his stake: fifty male servants on this single hand.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76 77 78 79 80

Categories: John Brunner