John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Despite such talk, however, visitors came frequently to Garch’s mansion, for purposes of trade. Notable among these, and arriving typically in the second quarter of the moon, were persons of a particular sort, who brought not conventional goods, but ideas, and treasures, and relics-it being at this specific time of the month that the thegn was readiest to receive them.

Few, nonetheless, passed the fierce initial scrutiny of his counselors; penalties for wasting the thegn’s time were severe, and all supplicants for audience must be grilled beforehand by these three. Each morning they assembled in an anteroom beside the great hall, with a scribe and a paymaster carrying a chest of coins, and saw everyone who had come intending to trade. Often the business was quick and simple, concerning only regular goods that might be swiftly bargained for, such as tapestry, or unguents, or fine handicrafts. Similarly, there were those who offered services, skill in carving or tailoring or cobbling, and were desirous to display the shield of warrant of their lord over their place of business; these were invariably permitted to undertake a trial venture for a small fixed fee-or, if they failed a first time, for no fee at all-then engaged on contract if their talents proved adequate. One of this sort had once been Master Buldebrime, and now he supplied the lamps and candles for the mansion, toiling monthly up from the town with a selection of his choicest productions.

Sometimes, however, the proceedings went slowly, and involved interrogation, and it was the hardiest and most venturesome of the visitors who endured this. A few such were on hand today.

Garch’s trusted counselors were three, as aforesaid. In a high-backed chair of horsebones pinned with bronze and padded with bags of chicken-down, the old crone Roiga sat to the left. To the right sat Garch’s sister, Lady Scail, on lacquered ivory made soft with whole sheepskins. And in the center, scorning luxury, presided one-eyed Runch on a common counting-house stool. He wore green; Roiga, brown; the lady Scail, yellow. All else in the room was sterile grey.

“Admit the first,” said Runch in a barking voice, and alert servants ushered in a man who wore the garb of the Shebyas, itinerant traders whose home on the Isle of Sheb had gone back to yellow jungle; no one was certain why, but enchantment was suspected. Doffing his cap, he placed before Runch an object in a small pink sack.

“Your honors, I bring a rare relic, from a city sunken in the depths of Lake Taxhling. Had I but the gold to finance such an expedition, I’d hire divers-of which as you are doubtless aware there are a plenitude in that region where they gather mussel-pearls-and go rake the bottom-mud to produce beyond a peradventure many other potent articles. He coughed behind his hand and dropped his voice. “I suspect it would be superfluous to mention that knowledge of an extraordinary kind was available to the inhabitants of that city, which I’m sure you will concede it’s better not to name aloud.”

Runch looked over the relic, which was a corroded axe-blade. He said, pushing it aside, “You cannot name the city, because it isn’t there. What you have is part of the cargo of a boat capsized by a storm. Go away.”

“But your honor-your grace-your highness…!” the man expostulated. The crone Roiga snapped bony fingers, and an attendant hurried him away.

“Next,” she said in a voice like rustling dried leaves.

A man entered who swept the floor with a blue cloak as he bowed. “I, sire and ladies,” he announced, “acquired a book at Pratchelberg. Lacking the skill to read the ancient language in which it’s couched, I thought to bring it to your thegn, as being the most renowned, the most expert, the most-”

“Save your breath,” murmured the lady Scail, having turned a mere half-dozen of the pages. “This text’s corrupt, and anyway my brother has a better copy.”

Protesting quite as loudly as his forerunner, the man in the blue cloak made a forced departure. To the music of his wails, a third supplicant approached, offering a small furry ball.

“This unique article,” he declared, “speaks when it’s gently squeezed, crying out in a small shrill voice. By repute it grew on the ranches of Yorbeth, and I laid out half my life’s savings so that it might be brought to Thegn Garch.”

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