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 Cloud Nine, akin to the earlier tale-within-a-tale, “The Palace of Wonders”, but the short can stand on its own.
To the extent that this story has a message, it is an examination of the assassination market concept, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, 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.