I feel increasingly like that music teacher when it comes to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, a feeling that's only grown since I took up reading those later stories that I somehow never read as a younger person. Taste being what it is, I suppose it's possible that someone, somewhere could read one of the Nehwon tales and not enjoy doing so, but I've never met one in real life. These adventures are near-perfect in achieving what Leiber set out to do and, while it's true that I do like some of them more than others, they're all impressively good.
A case in point is 1973's "The Sadness of the Executioner," which first appeared in Flashing Swords #1, an anthology edited by Lin Carter. A short story in every sense of the word -- it's only eight pages long in its original appearance -- "The Sadness of the Executioner" focuses on the character of Death and, like so many Leiber stories, opens in a fashion that makes it difficult to put down once begun:
Much as I would love to say more about the specifics of the story after this point, I cannot. To do so would be to spoil what is, in my opinion, one of Leiber's finest and most subtle tales. What I can say is that the story's strength is not so much in its actual plot, though there's little question that there's great pleasure to be had in watching Death's scheming to meet his quota for the Lords of Necessity. For me, though, the appeal of "The Sadness of the Executioner" lies in the surprisingly affecting sketches of some of the individuals whom Death uses to fill out his cosmic balance sheet and the depiction of the lives they lead.
There was a sky that was always gray.
There was a place that was always far away.
There was a being who was always sad.
Sitting on his dark-cushioned, modest throne in his low, rambling castle in the heart of the Shadowland, Death shook his pale head and pommeled a little his opalescent temples and slightly pursed his lips, which were the color of violet grapes with the silver bloom still on, above his slender figure armored in chain mail and his black belt, studded with silver skulls tarnished almost as black, from which hung his naked, irresistible sword.
He was a relatively minor death, only the Death of the World of Nehwon, but he had his problems. Tenscore flickering or flaring human lives to have their wicks pinched in the next twenty heartbeats. And although the heartbeats of Death resound like a leaden bell far underground and each has a little of eternity in it, yet they do finally pass. Only nineteen left now. And the Lords of Necessity, who outrank Death, still to be satisfied.
Let's see, thought Death with a vast coolness that yet had a tiny seething in it, one hundred sixty peasants and savages, twenty nomads, ten warriors, two beggars, a whore, a merchant, a priest, an aristocrat, a craftsman, a king, and two heroes. That would keep his books straight.
Leiber is generally thought of as a master portraitist and storyteller rather than a world-builder. This story suggests that perhaps that assessment is unfair, for, in the span of but a few pages, he reveals the breadth and depth of the world of Nehwon through some of its inhabitants as they face Death. I'm glad, in a way, that I only just read this story for the first time as an older person, because I doubt I'd have cared much for it as a young man. Death isn't something about which young people think much and, when they do, their thinking is rarely the stuff from which literature is made. But Leiber was over 60 years old when he wrote this story and it shows in the tale's combination of melancholy and gallows humor -- simultaneously mourning and laughing at man's response to his own mortality.
I highly recommend this story, which was later included in the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collection, Swords and Ice Magic, first published in 1977.