John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

There was a scent of magic in this air. Echoes of half-forgotten cantrips resounded, incredibly faint, from the masonry of the walls. Here and there blue light dripped from a projecting cornice; shadows moved with no one to cast them.

Then a door of oak studded with brass swung open on silent hinges, giving access to a room across which slanted a thick bar of sunlight from a window standing wide. The sunlight illumined the shriveled mummy of a mandrake. In jars covered with black cloth, ranged on on oak shelf, were twenty homunculi. A brazier burned, giving off a thick, very pleasant smell like warm honey.

From behind a table on which heavy books were piled that served also as a perch for a drowsy owl, a person in dark red robes rose to greet the traveler, and spoke, inclining his head.

“It is traditional that no one shall pierce the mist with which I protect my privacy save an invited guest or one who has a single nature. And, the universe being as it is, only one-ah-individual has a single nature. I am the enchanter Manuus. Be welcome, sir.”

The black-clad traveler bent his head in reply. A chair was placed for him, not by visible hands; he sat in it, disposing his cloak comfortably over the arm. Manuus took from a cupboard a large flask and two mugs of pottery ornamented with complex symbols in blue enamel. From the flask-which bore symbols in green enamel-he spilled a couple of drops of sparkling liquid, muttering words which made the walls hum faintly. The drops vanished before they reached the floor, and the enchanter gave a nod of satisfaction and filled the mugs.

“What is your business here, sir?” he inquired, resuming his own seat after handing the first mug to his caller.

“There is an aura about Ryovora,” said the traveler. “Before I enter the city I wish to ascertain what its cause may be.”

Manuus nodded thoughtfully, stroking the wispy grey beard that clung at his chin like a wisp of the mist that guarded his home from casual prying.

“You will forgive me mentioning the fact,” he said in an apologetic tone, “but it is asserted somewhere in one of these books–in a volume, moreover, in which I have come to place some degree of confidence-that if your nature is single, then it must logically follow that you answer questions as well as asking them.”

“That is so. And I see plainly that you put trust in the tome of which you speak. The faceless drinker to whom you poured libation a moment ago is not elsewhere referred to.”

Silence ensued between them for a space, while each contemplated the other. There was, though, a certain distinction, inasmuch as the enchanter studied the outward guise of the traveler, whereas the traveler examined the totality of his host.

“Ask away, then,” invited the traveler at length. “And I may say that the more involved your question, the simpler and more difficult to understand will be my answer.”

“And vice versa?” suggested Manuus, his old eyes twinkling.


“Very well, then. Who are you? Note, please, that I do not ask how you are called. You have an infinity of names.”

The traveler smiled. “You are a talented man,” he conceded. “That is a good question, frankly phrased. So I will answer frankly. I am he to whom was entrusted the task of bringing order forth from chaos. Hence the reason why I have but one nature.”

“If your nature were such that you demanded honor in full measure with your worth, all the days of my life would not suffice to do you homage,” said Manuus seriously. “Ask now what you would know.”

“What’s the trouble in Ryovora?”

Maliciously, Manuus made his eyes sparkle. He said, “I am not bound by your laws, sir. Therefore I will answer in the human style-simply, to simple questions. There is dissatisfaction with the order of things as they are.”

“Fair,” the traveler conceded. “Ask away.”

Manuus hesitated. “Who,” he resumed at length, “imposed-?”

And his tongue locked in his mouth, while the traveler looked on him with an expression blending cynicism and sympathy. When at last the enchanter was able to speak again, he muttered, “Your pardon. It was of the nature of a test. I had seen it stated that…”

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