THE LAW IN STONY-HEARTED Tirinbar mandated that all escaped slaves and their liberators were to be killed when located – but that could not deter Prosatio Silban from trying to do the right thing.
The beefy cook, born and raised in the less-pitiless parts of the Uulian Commonwell, acted with decency as a matter of course. But when the slight, copper-skinned young woman appeared late one evening on the figurative doorstep of his buopoth-drawn galleywagon (parked in the only location he could find, which had turned out to be a seldom-visited spot hard by the mountainside city’s main marketplace) his first motivation was profit.
“With what may I please you?” he asked as he was folding a table-and-chairs to stow beneath the galleywagon. “I am about to close, but there is still time to cook something that fits your fancy and, hopefully, coin-pouch. What do you desire?”
She looked at him with tentative eyes. “Kindness,” she said. “And, perhaps, a humble bowl of blue rice.”
Prosatio Silban moved to unfold the portable seating, then stopped. “Where did you get those scars?” he asked in alarm.
“What scars?” she asked in return.
“My good woman – I can see them through the holes in your tunic. You are not originally from Tirinbar, are you?”
She is young enough to be my daughter, he thought. How can I help her? And…at what cost?
“Not by choice. I am of the Xai.”
He dropped his voice. “Are you in need of helpful shelter?”
She glanced from side to side and nodded, her eyes wide with prey-fear.
Prosatio Silban gestured toward his galleywagon. “You should be safe for the moment in there. If anyone asks, I will tell them you are mine. They may not believe me, however, so to obviate inquisitiveness you should make yourself as hidden as possible.”
She mounted the steps and flashed a grateful, if sad, smile. “Thank you.”
“One more thing,” he said. “You will find some clothes in a drawer beneath the bunk in the rear alcove. We are hardly the same size, but if you find anything that does not fit ridiculously, you are welcome to it. I will join you shortly.”
He watched her disappear into the galleywagon. She is young enough to be my daughter, he thought. How can I help her? And…at what cost?
* * *
The Exilic Lands’ first inhabitants were the so-called “Ancients,” who had mastered both technology and magik before nearly destroying themselves hundreds of generations past in a brief but continent-devastating war. Their diminished descendants – the nomadic Xao and the forest-dwelling Xai – were all that remained by the time of the Uulian arrival nearly a thousand years ago. While two of the Commonwell’s fabled Three Cities were on cordial terms with the reclusive peoples, this was not the case within the city and lands of grim-shadowed Tirinbar. These callous colonialists saw in the Xao and Xai an easy source of free and abundant labor, and set about enslaving all that could be found – including women and children.
Such were Prosatio Silban’s meditations as he stowed his collapsible furniture and considered his frightened and somewhat inconvenient guest. There is nothing for it but to spirit her back to her people, or at least somewhere – anywhere – more hospitable.
He knocked softly on the galleywagon’s upper door. “Are you clothed?” he asked.
“Please – come in,” was the reply.
She was sitting in the middle of the ornately carpeted flooring, wrapped in a voluminous blue silk robe and eyeing a sack of kobi-nuts in the open pantry. Her patched and dirty clothes were rolled into a pile in the corner. The fatberry-oil lanterns lit her face with a lambent pink glow; she now wore a look of such relaxation as to appear even younger.
The cook closed the doors and put a finger to his lips. “I have an idea,” he said quietly. “It may not be feasible, but we shall see how it plays out.”
“What is that?”
“Simply put, we escape. What is your name?”
“My master called me ‘Trollop.’ But my birth name is Eqliana.”
“Eqliana, I will try my best to see you out of this place. But before that, I will prepare for us both a simple meal. Meanwhile, help yourself to some nuts.” So saying, he began to busy himself at the stove and counter.
“Why are you aiding me?” she asked, a hint of suspicion coloring her voice.
“It is the right thing to do,” he said, filling a small pot with water and placing it on a burner. “And I always try to do the right thing.”
He turned to face her. “Because nothing else is challenging enough.”
She pondered that while he added to the pot a measure of blue rice, then lit the stove-burner.
They froze. Prosatio Silban indicated the black-curtained alcove. “Go,” he whispered, and extinguished the stove.
The voice from the other side of the entrance was gruff and unforgiving. “Open in the name of the Scionry!”
The cook opened the upper door a crack. “Yes?”
“As a matter of policy, we keep the house-slaves half-starved and moneyless so that they can’t run from us. But now and then, somehow, one finds the strength. It is an old story, and does not end well.”
The voice’s owner was as brutal as he sounded: a heavy-set man in the black chainmail and stone-grey livery of Tirinbar’s constabulary. His eyes looked as though they had seen the world and judged it to be lacking.
“I am the city-guard Bulio Tra, and I am looking for a young slave, a Xai handmaiden, who slipped from her master’s household within the past hour,” he said, pushing open the upper door and peering into the galleywagon’s interior. “Have you seen such a one?”
“I have seen many handmaidens this day, in the marketplace and otherwise,” Prosatio Silban replied. “All of them were Exilic Land indigenes, but I could not say specifically whether they were Xao or Xai. Has she done her master some wrong?”
“Only by her absence,” the guardsman said, his eyes narrowing as he tried to look past the cook’s bulk. “As a matter of policy, we keep the house-slaves half-starved and moneyless so that they can’t run from us. But now and then, somehow, one finds the strength. It is an old story, and does not end well.”
“I can see that. I wish you well in finding her.”
“Oh, we will. We always do. You are from epicurean Pormaris, yes? Your clothing reveals your residency. What business do you have here?”
“I am Prosatio Silban, The Cook For Any Price. Wherever hungry bellies are found, you will also find me and my galleywagon.”
“Do you make it a custom to feed hungry slaves?”
“I feed anyone who can afford my bill. If they have no coin or barter, they must go elsewhere. I am nobody’s benefactor.”
“A sound economic practice. Well, then. If you see her…”
“I understand. And I will lose no speed in letting you know. Good night.”
The cook closed the upper door. As the constable’s steps receded, he exhaled sharply and ran a hand across his face.
Eqliana parted the alcove curtain. “Thank you,” she mouthed, pale with fright.
“Do not thank me yet,” Prosatio Silban replied. “You will have greater cause for gratitude once this meal is cooked, and perhaps later, when you use my bunk as your bed-place.”
She frowned. “And where is your bed-place?”
“I will sleep where I always do when unexpected guests are about – on the carpet.”
* * *
As dray-beasts go, the quaint and lumbering buopoth offered many advantages. The chatoyant polymorphs were tireless laborers, and those qualities were useful in areas where the appearance of exotic draft animals could be a liability. A popular saying went, “Buopoths can haul all day on a fatberry-cake and a kind word.”
The buopoth named Onward, who had been faithfully pulling Prosatio Silban’s galleywagon for his quarter-century as a mercenary cook, was especially talented. Take now for instance: Although the creatures were not unknown in Tirinbar’s general territory, the cook felt it better not to overdraw attention; thus Onward’s current manifestation as a large and enthusiastic ox.
The rough, hilly landscape – twisted scrub, grey boulders, an occasional dwarf baobab – rolled by at a seeming sloth’s pace. From time to time, Eqliana would partly open the upper door just behind the driver’s bench and ask, “How much farther to the Tirinbar-Pormaris border?”
“Less far than when you last inquired,” Prosatio Silban replied with a patient smile. “Actually, at this speed, we will reach the border within half an hour.”
“I’m sorry to be so inquisitive – I was born into slavery, and freedom seems a dream. What shall I do after we leave these lands? How will I make a living? My only skills are fetching, carrying, enduring beatings, and tending the flog-marks of my sister-slaves.”
“Your beating-days are now over,” Prosatio Silban said, his eyes sad. “And as I am somewhat well-connected to epicurean Pormaris’ culinary community, I’m certain I can place there someone of your other talents. Perhaps we could even ‘prentice you: to the kitchen of an Heir Second or other noble, or a restaurant, or an inn, or even —”
“Halt in the name of the Scionry!” Even over the clank and clatter of the galleywagon, the shout from directly behind cut through like a jagged knife.
“I am charged, by the First Heir Gorrid who rules our city and lands, with tracking down and punishing slaves and their thieving ‘emancipators.’ Now both of you – put your hands behind your back.”
Prosatio Silban drew up the reins and, as Onward halted his forward progress, a rider on horseback came trotting into view. Eqliana immediately shut the upper door, but not before catching a glance from the same constable who had troubled them the previous evening.
“Aha!” Bulio Tra cried, dismounting and drawing an evil-looking mace. “I knew something was amiss when I accosted you yestereve. Come down from there at once, both of you. You know the penalty.”
Prosatio Silban raised both arms and slowly descended from the driver’s bench; Eqliana followed suit. “She is my responsibility,” the cook said. “She only asked for a meal. It was wholly my idea to remove her. I stand behind my actions, and am willing to accept the consequences. But please – let her go.”
“That is not our law,” said the sneering guardsman, retrieving from his saddle two lengths of twine and a large coil of rope. “I am charged, by the First Heir Gorrid who rules our city and lands, with tracking down and punishing slaves and their thieving ‘emancipators.’ Now both of you – put your hands behind your back.”
As Bulio Tra tied Prosatio Silban’s wrists, Eqliana began to weep. “I’m sorry,” she said through her tears. “I never should have left my master’s house.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” said the guardsman, tying her in turn. “And now, you’ll suffer for it.”
The hapless pair watched as Bulio Tra selected a convenient baobab, threw one end of the rope over a high overhanging branch, and tied in the other end a noose. “You first,” he told the cook, pulling the loop over his head. “I want the last thing she sees to be the dangling carcass of her benefactor.”
“May I claim the right of last words?” asked Prosatio Silban.
The guardsman paused. “Ordinarily not, but you are a stranger to Tirinbar’s ways,” he said. “I grant you one minute.”
“What you are doing is wrong,” said the cook. “The Flickering Gods created all of us – even the Xao and Xai! – as free and equal partners in this life and the next. We are here, not to enslave each other, but to help and guide one another on the winding path along which the gods see fit to beckon us. We are Their property alone, and in the name of Galien the All-Mother, we –”
“That is all you have time for,” interjected Bulio Tra. He began to tie the rope’s free end to the pommel of his saddle, but was interrupted by a loud and fearsome roar.
It belonged to an enormous and approaching lion, on whose back was perched a bronzed and tattooed Xao warrior wielding a nocked longbow. The arrow was aimed directly at the guardsman’s chest. Onward was nowhere to be seen.
Bulio Tra laughed. “Please,” he scoffed. “Transforming your buopoth into a terrible beast and formidable rider is nothing for anyone to fear. The placid creatures can only mimic form, not function. If you think this will –”
The arrow struck him in the right thigh. Bulio Tra screamed and clutched at it, falling to his left knee as the warrior nocked another arrow.
“Go,” said the Xao in accented Uulian. “Or, your heart.”
“Do not shoot me again!” the guardsman cried from behind placating hands. “Please! Please! I am going.” He mounted his horse and, with some difficulty and much cursing of his situation and its other players, slowly rode out of sight. The Xao lowered his bow, dismounted, and drew a flint dagger with which he cut Eqliana’s and Prosatio Silban’s bonds.
“Thank you,” the cook said, rubbing his wrists. He clucked his tongue, and Onward appeared from behind a low rise. Eqliana gasped.
“Buopoths can do more than transform,” Prosatio Silban said with a relieved smile. “They can also act as messengers – and, sometimes, summon help from unguessed quarters. Thank you, boy.”
As the trio watched, Onward’s outline softened and flowed into that of the immense ox he had been before. Eqliana embraced it by its thick neck.
“Let us go,” she whispered. “Onward.”