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The Compleat Traveller in Black
By John Brunner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Brunner Fact & Fiction Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Imprint of Chaos
Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia coelum unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe quen dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles. —Ovid: Metamorphoses I, 5
He had many names, but one nature, and this unique nature made him subject to certain laws not binding upon ordinary persons. In a compensatory fashion, he was also free from certain other laws more commonly in force.
Still, there was nothing to choose as regards rigidity between his particular set of laws and those others. And one rule by which he had very strictly to abide was that at set seasons he should overlook that portion of the All which had been allotted to him as his individual responsibility.
Accordingly, on the day after the conjunction of four significant planets in that vicinity, he set forth on a journey which was to be at once the same as and yet different from those uncountable which had preceded it.
It had been ordained that at this time, unless there were some pressing reason to the contrary, he should tramp along commonplace roads, and with goodwill enough – it was not a constituent of his nature that he should rail against necessity – he so arranged his route that it wound and turned and curved through all those zones where he might be made answerable for events, and ended within a short distance of where it had begun. It ended, to be precise, at the city called Ryovora: that place of all places in his domain where people had their heads screwed on the right way.
He did this for an excellent reason. It was an assurance to him that when he subsequently reviewed his findings the memory of one spot where he might justly feel pleased with his work would be uppermost in recollection.
* * *
Therefore, on a sunny morning when birds were singing and there were few clouds in a sky filled with the scent of flowers, garbed in a cloak of black like any wayfarer's, save that its blackness was exceptional, he began to trudge along a dusty road towards his first destination.
That was a great louring city upreared around a high tower, which was called by its inhabitants Acromel, the place where honey itself was bitter. It was sometimes a cause of mild astonishment – even to him of the many names and the single nature – that this most contrary of cities should be located within a few hours' walk of Ryovora. Nonetheless, it was so.
And to be able to state without risk of contradiction that anything whatsoever was so was a gage and earnest of his achievement.
Before him the road began to zigzag on the slope of a hill dotted with grey-leaved bushes. A local wind raised dust devils among the bushes and erased the footprints of those who passed by. It was under this hill that the traveller had incarcerated Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes, to whom memories of yesterday were hateful. Some small power remained to this elemental, and he perforce employed it to wipe yesterday's traces away.
He took his staff in hand – it was made of light, curdled with a number of interesting forces – and rapped once on an outcrop of bare rock at the side of the pathway.
"Laprivan!" he cried. "Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes!"
At his call the dust devils ceased their whirling. Resentfully, they sank back to the earth, so that the dust of which they were composed again covered the exposed roots of the bushes. Most folk in the district assumed that the leaves were grey from the dust of passage, or from their nature; it was not so.
Laprivan heaved in his underground prison, and the road shook. Cracks wide enough to swallow a farm cart appeared in its surface. From them, a great voice boomed.
"What do you want with me, today of all days? Have you not had enough, even now, of tormenting me?"
"I do not torment you," was the calm reply. "It is memory of your past dreadful acts that brings the pain."
"Leave me be, then," said the great voice sullenly. "Let me go on wiping away that memory."
"As you wish, so be it," the traveller answered, and gestured with his staff. The cracks in the road closed click; the dust devils re-formed; and when he looked back from the crest of the hill his footsteps had already been expunged.
The road wound on, empty, towards Acromel. For some distance before it actually reached there, it ran contiguous with the river called Metamorphia, a fact known to rather few, because although it seemed that this was the same river which poured in under the high black battlements of the city, it was not the same – for good and sufficient cause. It was the nature of the river Metamorphia to change the nature of things, and consequently it changed its own after flowing a prescribed number of leagues.
The traveller paused by a wall of stone and mud overlooking the dark stream, and meditatively regarded objects drifting past. Some had been fishes, perhaps; others were detritus of the banks – leaves, branches, rocks. Those which had been rocks continued to float, of course; those which had been of a flotatory nature sank.
He broke a cobble from the crumbling parapet of the wall, and cast it down. The alteration it underwent was not altogether pleasant to witness.
He raised his eyes after a while, and descried a girl on the opposite bank, who had come forward out of a clump of trees while he was lost in contemplation. She was extremely beautiful. Moreover, she had been at no pains to hide the fact, for she was dressed exclusively in her long, lovely hair.
"You also are aware of the nature of this river," she said after gazing at him for a little.
"I have been advised," the traveller conceded, "that the nature of this river is to change the nature of things, and consequently it changes its own nature also."
"Come down with me, then, and bathe in it!"
"Why should you wish your nature changed?" was the reply. "Are you not beautiful?"
"Beautiful I may be!" the girl cried passionately. "But I am without sense!"
"Then you are Lorega of Acromel, and your fame has spread far."
"I am Lorega, as you say." She fixed him with honey-colored eyes and shrugged the garb of her hair more closely around her. "And how do men call you?"
"I have many names, but one nature. You may call me Mazda, or anything you please."
"Do you not even know your own name, then? Do you not have a name that you prefer?"
"The name matters little if the nature does not change."
She laughed scornfully. "You speak in resounding but empty phrases, Mazda or whoever you may be! If your nature is unchangeable, give demonstration! Let me see you descend into the water!"
"I did not say that," murmured the traveller peaceably. "I did not say my nature is unchangeable."
"Then your nature is that of a deceiver, for you made me imagine that you did. Nonetheless, come down and bathe with me!"
"I shall not. And it would be well for you to think on this, Lorega of Acromel: that if you are without sense, your intention to bathe in Metamorphia is also without sense."
"That is too deep for me," said Lorega unhappily, and a tear stole down her satiny cheek. "I cannot reason as wise persons do. Therefore let my nature be changed!"
"As you wish, so be it," said the traveller in a heavy tone, and motioned with his staff. A great lump of the bank detached itself and slumped into the water. Its monstrous splashing doused Lorega, head to foot, and she underwent, as did the earth of the bank the moment it broke the surface, changes.
Thoughtfully and a mite sadly, the traveller turned to continue his journey towards Acromel. Behind him the welkin rang with the miserable cries of what had been Lorega. But he was bound by certain laws. He did not look back.
Before the vast black gate of the city, which was a hundred feet high and a hundred feet wide, two tall and brawny men in shabby clothes were fighting with quarterstaves. The traveller leaned on his own staff and watched them batter at one another until they both found themselves too weak to continue, and had to stand panting and glaring while they recovered breath.
"What is the quarrel between you?" asked the traveller then.
"Little man in black, it concerns not you," grunted the nearer of the pair. "Go your way and leave us be."
"Wait!" said the other. "Inquire first whether he likewise is bent on the same errand!"
"A good point!" conceded the first, and raised his cudgel menacingly. "Speak, you!"
"First I must know what your errand is," the traveller pointed out. "How else can I say whether mine is the same or not?"
"A good point!" admitted the second, who had now also approached to threaten him. "Know that I am Ripil of the village called Masergon –"
"And I," interrupted the first, "am Tolex of the village called Wyve. Last week I set forth from my father's house, he having six other sons older than I –"
"As did I!" Ripil broke in. "Exactly as did I! Stranger, you've registered my name, I trust? You'll have good cause to remember it one day!"
"All men will!" snapped Tolex with contempt. "They will recall your name to laugh at it, and when mocking boys scrawl it on a wall with charcoal old women will spit on the ground as they hobble past!"
Ripil scowled at him. "Booby! Possessed of unbelievable effrontery! Go your way before it is too late, and the people of this city hang you in chains before the altar!"
"Your errand, though!" cried the traveller, just in time to forestall a renewal of their conflict.
Tolex gave him a huge but humorless grin. "Why, it's all so simple! This idiot called Ripil came hither thinking to make his fortune, dethrone Duke Vaul, and claim the hand of the beauteous Lorega! As though a dunderheaded lout like him could do more than dream of such glories!"
"And your own ambition?"
"Why, I have come to make my fortune and be chosen heir to the duke, whereupon naturally I shall be assigned Lorega's hand!"
On hearing this the traveller laughed aloud. Thinking it was Ripil's foolishness alone which afforded cause for amusement, Tolex too guffawed, whereat Ripil, his face as dark as storm clouds, caught up his quarterstaff and began to belabor him anew.
The traveller left them to it and went onward through the gate.
At the midpoint of Acromel there stood a temple, crowning the black tower round which its buildings clustered like a single onyx on a pillar of agate. In the said temple, before the red idol of the god Lacrovas-Pellidin-Agshad-Agshad, Duke Vaul yawned behind his hand.
"Take her," he said to the chief priest, nodding his large black-bearded head to his left. The priest bowed to the hard slippery floor and beckoned his minions. In a moment the consort who had shared Vaul's life for fifteen years, and until that moment had also shared his throne, was hanging from the gallows in front of the altar, her heart's blood trickling into Agshad's hands.
And still that was not enough.
Duke Vaul knitted his brows until his forehead creased like a field trenched to grow vegetables, and his thick fingers drummed on the arm of his ebony chair. He stared at the idol.
From the vantage point where he sat, he saw Agshad in the attitude of accepting sacrifice: mouth open, eyes closed, hands outstretched and cupped to receive the victims' blood. On the left Pellidin, who shared Agshad's body but not his head or limbs, was portrayed in the act of exercising justice: to wit, wringing the life from three persons of indeterminate sex – indeterminate, because Pellidin's cruel grasp had compressed their bodies into a gelatinous mess and left only their arms and legs sticking out between his carven fingers, much as a child might crush a captured beetle. On the right, Lacrovas was depicted in the mode of obliterating enemies, with a sword in one hand and a morning-star in the other. And finally, facing away from the spot where by preference Duke Vaul had his throne located, there was the second Agshad in the posture of devotion, with hands clasped together and beseeching eyes cast heavenward. That was the aspect of the Quadruple God with which Duke Vaul was least concerned.
Below the dais on which he presided, priests and acolytes by the hundred – predominantly sacrificers, expert in every art of human butchery – wove their lines of movement into traditional magical patterns. Their chanting ascended eerily towards the domed roof, along with the stench of candles made from the fat of those who had earlier hung in the clanking chains before the altar. There was no point in letting their mortal remains go to waste: so held the duke.
But on the other hand there was no point – so far – in any of this ritual. At least, the desired effect had not been accomplished. If even his own consort had not provoked the sought-after reaction, what would? Duke Vaul cast around in his mind.
On impulse, he signalled the deputy chief priest and pointed a hairy-backed finger at the chief priest himself. "Take him," he directed.
And that was no good, either.
Accordingly, half an hour past noon, he dispatched the temple guard into the city under orders to drive all idle citizens into a courtyard adjacent to the fane. If it wasn't a matter of quality, reasoned the duke, it might perhaps be a matter of quantity. The second priest – now the chief priest by right of succession – had been consulted, and given as his considered opinion that a hundred all at once might have the desired effect. Duke Vaul, to err on the safe side, had ordained that a thousand should be brought, and had set carpenters and metal smiths to work on extra chain-jangling gallows to accommodate them.
The guardsmen carried out their duties with a will, all the better because they feared the lot might fall on them when Duke Vaul had used up his supply of ordinary townsfolk. They brought in everyone they could catch, and among the crowd was a small man in a black cloak, who seemed to be consumed with uncontrollable merriment.
His hilarity, in fact, was so extreme that it became infectious. The duke, noticing the fact, bellowed across the temple floor in a fit of fury.
"What idiot is that who dares to laugh in such a sacred spot?" his bull voice demanded. "Does the fellow not realize that these are serious matters and may be disturbed by the least misconduct in our actions? Drag him forth and make him stand before me!"
After some delay, because the throng was so dense, the black-clad traveller was escorted to the foot of the dais. He bowed compliantly enough when the rough hand of a guardsman clouted him behind the head, but the cheerful twinkle did not depart from his eyes, and this peculiarity struck Duke Vaul at once.
He began to muse about the consequences of sacrificing one who did not take the Quadruple God seriously, and eventually spoke through the tangle of his beard.
"How do men call you, foolish one?" he boomed.
"I have many names, but one nature."
"You claim so? Well, we'll see about that! Why are you laughing at these holy matters?"
"But I am not!"
"Then are you laughing at me?" thundered the duke, heaving himself forward on his throne so that the boards of the dais creaked and squealed. His eyes flashed terribly.
"No, I laugh at the foolishness of humankind," replied the traveller.
"Do you indeed? Hmm! Pray, then, explain in what impressively mirthful manner this foolishness is manifest!"
"Why, thus," the traveller murmured, and told the story of Tolex and Ripil.
But Duke Vaul did not find the anecdote in the least degree amusing. He commanded that the temple guard should at once search out these two, and fumed while they were hunted down. When they arrived, however, it was as corpses they were laid upon the stone-flagged floor.
"Your Mightiness!" the guardsmen cried respectfully, bowing their heads as one, then let their captain continue.
"Sire, we found these two clasped dying in each other's arms. Each bore one bloody cudgel; each has a broken skull."
"Throw them in the river," snapped Duke Vaul, and resumed his converse with the traveller.
"You arrogate to yourself the right to laugh at human foolishness," he said, and gave a wicked grin. "Then tell me this: are you yourself entirely wise?"
"Alas, yes," was the answer. "I have but one nature."
"If so, you can succeed where all my so-called wise men have failed. See you this idol?"
Excerpted from The Compleat Traveller in Black by John Brunner. Copyright © 1986 Brunner Fact & Fiction Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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