John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

Roiga took it and listened to its cry. She said as she threw it aside again, “Hah! Yes, indeed, it does speak -by forcing air through twin taut reeds! And do you know what it says? It says, ‘The man who bought me is a fool!’ Get you gone!”

“Will they never learn?” murmured the lady Scail as this man also was frog-marched out. She had taken a tiny pad of emery and was buffing at her blood-red nails. “Who remains-anyone?”

And there was a girl.

Suddenly there came an electric tingling in the air, and Scail laid by her emery-pad and Roiga closed her thin old hands on the reassuringly solid nearer edge of the table and Runch confirmed his balance on his stool.

She stood before them in a broad hat and fur breeches and a black mail shirt. For a long while there was utter silence.

Then, at length, she moved to place before them a small packet wrapped in parchment and bound with a white ribbon. She said, “Spices.”

The three counselors inhaled as one, and it was Roiga who finally said, “Vantcheen-yes?”

The girl nodded. She was very thin, as though a skeleton had been dressed again in its skin without the underlying fat and muscle, and her eyes burned like a black fire.

“Then name your price!” cried Runch.

“Ah, yes. A price.” The girl tapped a sharp front tooth with a nail even sharper. “Silver, then. A hammer-head. Three ounces’ weight.”

The three counselors tensed. Lady Scail said, “As to the shaft…?”

The girl shook her head ever so slightly, and gave ever so slight a smile. She said, “I thank you for the offer. But the shaft has already been-uh-given to me.”

“Oh, but you’re so young!” exclaimed Roiga. “And yet you’re so skilled!”

“Thank you again,” the girl murmured, and turned to go.

“Wait!” cried Lady Scail. “Do you not wish to speak with my brother the thegn? It’s long since one was here who was so adept!”

“If the constellations are proper for the meeting, I shall meet the thegn,” said the girl composedly, and took from the scribe a draft to cover her pay, authorizing the mansion’s master smith to forge the silver hammer-head.

There was a deep silence for some while following her departure. The handle of that hammer had to be gristly-and some, particularly men, would call it grisly….

Then they were poised, very well pleased, to adjourn for the day, the only other supplicants for audience being of the common run-disputants over boundary fence, or prospective parents-in-law come to determine the proper size of a marriage-portion-when there was a furious stamping and considerable shouting beyond the door, and at the head of a gaggle of stewards, secretaries and waiting-room maids, their master himself came blasting into the room.

The counselors beheld his expression of blind rage with amazement, rising to their feet.

“I have been cheated and deceived!” roared Garch.

By ordinary he was pretty much a fop, this wealthy lord of improbably rich estates, but now his brown hair and beard were tousled, the laces hung down from his dark red shirt, and his fine worsted stockings slopped over the tops of his boots. To emphasize his outburst, he hammered on the table, and came near to scattering the vantcheen spice.

“Search me this mansion, every nook and cranny!” he shouted. “Moreover, all the lands about! And if it be not found within the hour, send to the deceiver Bulderbrime and bring him here!”

“If what be not found?” countered Scail, who as his sister might most freely of the three ask that simple necessary question without inflaming him to further rage.

Garch mastered himself with vast effort, drew close, and whispered in her ear. By watching the change in her face, base attendants from whom he meant to keep the detailed facts deduced at once it was a matter of grave import. Some among the best informed put two and two together and when they received their orders a moment later-to go forth and bring in all the lamps and candles that could be found-decided it would be politic to go in search of service with some other lord.

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