John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“On the contrary,” the traveler replied. “You did this to yourself.”

“I never asked to be locked up here, waiting for some gross-”

“Ah! But you’re reunited with your man Leluak, and that’s what you said you wanted. You are both under the same roof; when Lord Fellian tires of you, you will be cast forth together to share the same dank alleyway and the same fevers, chills and pestilences. This in essence constitutes reunion.”

“I should have thought longer before choosing,” Viola said after a while for reflection. The traveler nodded. At least, then, this cruel experience had battered some sense into her skull.

“You had, I believe,” he said, “encountered Achoreus before the rape he supervised on Wantwich.”

“I did so. I companioned him when he joined us for the spring dance.”

“Out of courtesy?”

“Of course.” In the dark, the girl bridled.

“Or was it because he was a stranger, and handsome, and every other girl in the village would have changed places with you?”

“A little of that too,” she admitted meekly.

“Is it not true, my child, that you were more concerned to regain the handsomest, most eligible bachelor in Wantwich, for whom you had competed against all the other girls less attractive than yourself, than you were to right the wrong done to your family and friends upon the day of your projected wedding?”

“I must have been!” Viola moaned. “Would that hasty wish of mine could be undone!”

“The second time a person calls upon me,” said the traveler, “I may point out the consequences if I choose. Do you truly wish to find yourself again on the green at Wantwich-alone?”

There was an awful silence, which she eventually broke with a sob.

“However,” the traveler resumed, when he judged she had suffered long enough to imprint the moral permanently on her memory, “you may rest easy. All is due to come to a satisfactory conclusion. Though if I were to tell you the name of your savior, you’d not believe it….”

He tapped his staff against the bed she sat on, and concluded, “Sleep, child. Wake at dawn.”

Dazed with elation, when the returning sun began to gild the turrets of Teq with the promise of a new day, Lord Fellian struggled to the high gallery of his tower in order to witness the departure of his defeated rivals. On their own! No one in the history of this city had won so fantastic a victory in a single night! Stripped even of their closest body-slaves, Lords Yuckin and Nusk were creeping like whipped dogs into the morning twilight. It had been more by grace than necessity that they had been permitted to retain clothing.

Lord Fellian leaned drunkenly over the parapet of the gallery and whooped like a falconer sighting quarry; when the cowed face of Lord Yuckin tilted upward to see what the noise was, he spilled on it the contents of his latest beaker of wine.

“So much for that old fool who bet that Lady Luck’s visage has turned away from me!” he bellowed, and laughed until the racket of his boasting was reflected from the nearby rooftops.

“Are you sure?”

On the edge of his politely voiced question the traveler in black appended the faint swish of his cloak as he advanced across the jeweled floor.

“Why, you… !” Lord Fellian gasped and made to draw back, but the parapet was hard against his spine and there was no way to retreat save into insubstantial air. “Guards! Guards!”

“None of them have followed you up here,” said the traveler gravely. “They are persuaded that upon a winner like yourself-if there has ever been one-Lady Luck smiles so long and so favorably that no harm can come to you.”

“Ah-hah!” Fellian began to regain his composure.

“I conclude from that statement that you admit you lost your bet with me!”

“Why, no,” said the traveler, and his expression showed regret, for it had always seemed a shame to him that a person of intelligence-and Fellian was far from stupid-should be seduced into a self-defeating course of action. “I have won.”

“What? You’re insane!” Fellian gasped. “Prove your claim!”

“I shall,” the traveler said, and smote with his staff against the wall that screened this gallery from sight of the tallest tower in Teq. A slice fell away like a wedge cut from a cheese. Beyond, there where Fellian’s reflex gaze darted before he could check himself, Lady Luck’s pinnacle loomed on the easterly blueness of the dawn.

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