The Ones Who Walk Towards Acre

Short story on assassination markets.
fiction, politics
2010-12-212019-02-24 finished certainty: fiction importance: 0


This story came to me sud­denly one night as a few lines; unhap­pily did I labor to write the rest of it and make it wor­thy of the orig­i­nal. Only when it was done did I real­ize I had writ­ten part of , akin to the ear­lier tale-with­in-a-­tale, , but the short can stand on its own.

To the extent that this story has a mes­sage, it is an exam­i­na­tion of the con­cept, ”, and cog­ni­tive bias­es; see also the con­tem­po­rary debate over drone strikes (“What if drone war­fare had come first?”), & the dark utopia Friend­ship is Opti­mal. Dis­cus­sion: LW, Red­dit.

In the dusk, a trades­man dressed entirely in fuli­gin walked slowly through the lanes of that bright city. The many cit­i­zens gave him a berth, but not a wide one: death was a nec­es­sary craft too.

He entered the great hall in the cen­ter of the Mor­taestrum, itself the cen­ter of the city. It was a cav­ernous hall, filled with art gifted by cit­i­zens, and con­sum­mate skill in stonework and all the arts of adorn­ment were not least lav­ished on it than the objects with­in; in a city of beau­ti­ful build­ings, the Mor­taestrum was unique.

To one side of him were sus­pended cylin­ders. And each hung at a dif­fer­ent height, held by oiled cords ris­ing from the depths to the ceil­ing. And upon each cylin­der was inscribed a name. The mer­chant looked at one marked ‘Sam­mael’. A man he had never met, and never would.

Into one of the holes by that par­tic­u­lar cylin­der, he dropped sev­eral heavy gold coins. Some time after their clink­ings ceased to echo, the cylin­der rose slight­ly. Into the other hole he dropped a pouch con­tain­ing: a parch­ment note list­ing a par­tic­u­lar date, a fat coin in fee, and a stout lock.

He noted that the cylin­der was noble sil­ver where oth­ers were base bronze. To those knowl­edge­able in his pro­fes­sion, this spoke silently of days past; of old men con­fer­ring in older build­ings, of old papers writ­ten with the old­est words, and blind num­bers sense­lessly increas­ing—the reward for the assas­si­na­tion would be redou­bled by the Coun­cil.

Noth­ing would hap­pen now. All that had hap­pened was that some pieces of metal had inno­cently lifted other met­al; noth­ing more. And that pouch would lie there in the dark for an unknow­able span of days, and noth­ing would hap­pen then, either. It is a mys­te­ri­ous trait of this world that the slight­est cipher or sym­bol of which one is utterly igno­rant can deter­mine the days of one’s life.

But the trades­man knew how it would be, when that span of empti­ness should come to an end: he knew that one day a mes­sen­ger would come gal­lop­ing up to the crowded gates of the city. The courier would be dusty all over from the stone roads, and weary from the haste of his trav­el, and he would beg to speak with the Coun­cil on a mat­ter of some urgen­cy, and to them deliver his mes­sage: that the one known as Sam­mael of Viron had died, had been cut down by the blade of a rogue on such and such a day.

And the Coun­cil and Mag­is­trates would lis­ten, and would go down into the depths to one door (locked dou­bly) and another (yet to be triply). Simul­ta­ne­ously they would take the keys entrusted them on their oath of office, and they would unlock the locks of the first door and open the con­tents where­of. The one cor­rect ‘pre­dic­tion’ of the date would be selected and the enclosed lock would seal the vault con­tain­ing the reward. The mag­is­trates and coun­cilors would remove their own locks from that vault, allow­ing only the happy pre­dic­tor the blood mon­ey. Through judi­cious use of an inter­me­di­ary (the mer­chant of death), the pre­dic­tor could make his pre­dic­tion, pay the fee, and col­lect the reward while remain­ing unknown to all save one.

This cus­tom had evolved over the ages and was their one great trick, whereby like a por­cu­pine, they could remain pros­per­ous and secure through the long years. They could not but be: the drift­ing scum of the world were at need their invis­i­ble army, for such rab­ble knew they had but to pre­dict the day of death of the oppos­ing gen­er­al—or sov­er­eign or mis­cre­ant offi­cial—and they would surely receive their reward. In a thou­sand years, not once had a pre­dic­tor gone unpaid; Acre’s rep­u­ta­tion for hon­esty was with­out peer.

The wise men of that city had devised the prac­tice when it became appar­ent to them that the end­less clashes of armies on bat­tle­fields led to no last­ing con­clu­sion, nor did they extir­pate the roots of the con­flicts. Rather, they merely wasted the blood and trea­sure of the peo­ple. It was clear to them that those rulers led their peo­ple into death and iniq­ui­ty, while remain­ing untouched them­selves, loung­ing in com­fort and lux­ury after crush­ing defeat.

It was bet­ter that a few die before their time than the many. It was bet­ter that a lit­tle wealth go to the evil than much; bet­ter that con­flicts be ended dis­hon­or­ably once and for all, than fought hon­or­ably time and again; and bet­ter that peace be ill-bought than bought hon­estly at too high a price to be borne.

So they thought.

And the unfor­tu­nate trades­man­—­for such he was: by lot, he and his were cho­sen for life—­con­cluded his busi­ness and turned his slow steps home­ward through the gloam­ing.

Per­chance there he would dream of a man he never met, and never would. Or per­haps he would dream of many lives now end­ed. It is cer­tain he would not dream of those spared.