Brokedown Palate (A Prosatio Silban Tale)

SITTING ON THE SODDEN DRIVER’S bench of his tilted and storm-mired galleywagon, warm rain dribbling into crevices public and private, Prosatio Silban briefly flirted with his own demise.

The impulse, though not its brevity, was the oldest of his three reflexive reactions to unanticipated misfortune. But neither giddy laughter nor philosophical resignation seemed suited to the billowing mist soaking his body and soul, so dense that the plaited yak-hair reins in his left hand stretched tautly forward into apparent nothingness.

The Cook For Any Price sighed and shook his head before calling a single hoarse syllable into the all-enclosing grey wall before him. A rattling hoot rolled back in answer, and the reins slackened a bit. The cook jumped down from the driver’s bench and into calf-deep mud, swore softly, and made a slow sloggy circuit of his travelling home and portable livelihood. The thick-spoked rear wheels were sunk nearly hub-deep in what had been, an hour earlier, a passable dirt road. Retrieving a large leather sack from under the driver’s bench, Prosatio Silban put his free hand on the reins and plodded forward.

At the reins’ other end stood Onward, his sturdy buopoth. The quaint lumbering beast’s chatoyant skin rendered it nearly invisible in the wet murk, but two of its large brown eyes regarded Prosatio Silban with a mixture of warmth and anticipation. The cook scratched his friend’s stubby trunk, told it what a good buopoth it was, and produced from the leather bag a greasy maroon lump. Onward hissed with pleasure, daintily accepted the fatberry cake and seated itself with a dignified plop.

The beefy cook smiled despite his discomfort. Buopoths were perfectly happy to sit in the rain, or anywhere else for that matter, so long as food and kind words were offered without stint. He unhitched the animal’s harness, gave it a reassuring pat, and followed the reins back to the galleywagon.

The comfortable clutter inside usually cheered him, but Prosatio Silban found his thoughts wandering again toward self-dissolution. He slid out of his dripping clothes and began drying himself with a rough cotton towel, his hairless brow creasing as he contemplated the past six weeks. His recent patrons had been decent enough folk – at least, for residents of stony-hearted Tirinbar – but despite their grudging generosity, their strangers’ ways had quietly repulsed him. And even though their ample coinage had rescued the cook from his own empty belly, the acknowledged necessity did little to alleviate his humor.

Though he had prayed throughout his life with varying degrees of vigor under countless different circumstances, he was not generally accustomed to dramatic consequents.

Leaving his clothes in a soggy heap, the cook padded naked (and somewhat downhill) across the ornate rug toward the curtained sleeping alcove at the galleywagon’s rear. He parted the embroidered black silk drapery, cast himself prone on the parrot-down captain’s bunk with a sigh of finality, and began to pray for release.

O Lady of Life and Lord of Time, transcendent to the world and one with Your children, teach me where I stand. Though circumstance circumscribes me, though I know the way out is through, I know not where to find it; strengthen my legs and heart and fit them to finding Your answer in –

Knock-knock-knock. Knock.

Prosatio Silban jumped. Though he had prayed throughout his life with varying degrees of vigor under countless different circumstances, he was not generally accustomed to dramatic consequents. He sat up, parted the alcove-curtains and peered at the double door at the galleywagon’s forward end. No shape was visible through the upper door’s small uncurtained window, nor was any visitor thinkable along the rough road he had been traveling – especially in this weather, and especially unannounced by the vigilant and sensitive Onward.


Wrapping himself in a green silk robe, Prosatio Silban unsheathed the short-sword from under his pillow and quietly padded back up the tilted flooring. He unlatched the door’s top half and cracked it open.

A faceful of sopping mist greeted him. The cook wiped his eyes, looked out from side to side, then down. Two bright green eyes stared up at him from under a curly tangle of night-black hair.

Because he was old in such lore, the proverb flickered through his mind: When stranded, beware strange visitors. But also: At bottom, any diversion beckons.

“Hello,” said the little girl. She was about ten autumns old and dressed in a golden frock and olive sandals. Her hair was dry and her expression unafraid, as though she were some dreadfully unconcerned noble as certain of her place in the world as of everyone else’s.

Prosatio Silban looked down at her, blinking. She looked up at him, waiting.

“Who … ” he began, then tried again. “How…?”

“I’m hungry,” she said.

“Where are your parents?” he asked.

“Not here,” she said.

“Where do you live?” he asked.

“I’m hungry,” the little girl repeated, and gazed at him with the trust of a baby bird.

“Well … then I would say you’re in luck,” he said. “I was just about to prepare a miserable lunch to match this day.”

“Are you inviting me in?” she asked.

There are occasions in one’s life when everything stops as if poised, or etched; a deep timeless calm spreads like spilt oil, and all present become alive to an ancient and fragile importance. As a self-defrocked Sacreant, Prosatio Silban had once made his fortune by recognizing (and occasionally creating) those moments, and he knew that anything spoken in such circumstances must be precise – and acquires a soul-binding and powerful Truth.

“Not in the generally accepted sense,” he said. “But you may share a meal with me in the part of the world which, through no direct intention of mine, is temporarily aligned with my galleywagon’s interior.”

The little girl looked at him for a heartbeat.

“You talk too much,” she said. “What do you have to eat?”

Mildly abashed, Prosatio Silban opened the door’s bottom half, admitted his visitor, then closed both halves against the invasive weather. “Anything you like,” he said.

She stood by the door, looking around with amused interest. “Why do you have all those pots and sausages and things?” she asked.

“I’m a cook,” he said, gesturing at the small forest of vessels and utensils dangling over the fatberry-oil stove[1] on the galleywagon’s starboard wall. “I go from place to place, cooking things which people like to eat. That’s how I earn my living.”

“Then what?”

“Then what what?”

“After you earn your living, what do you do?”

“I go out and earn it again,” Prosatio Silban said. “That’s the problem with a living – it lasts as long as life does.”

“How long do you want to live?” the girl asked.

Again the feeling of cosmic import touched him. Prosatio Silban looked at his visitor more closely. His first impression had been incorrect; although small, the girl now seemed more timeless than young. Her hair – still dry, he noted, as was her dress – hung like a shadowed wreath about her slim shoulders, accentuating her pale skin and large, almost luminous green eyes. Her gold, calf-length frock was of unusual style even by the ever-changing fashions of the Uulian Commonwell: silk, it seemed, hung in artful blue tatters patched here and there with black velvet. Her woven-reed sandals were more appropriate for walking the marble flooring of a temple than the muddy, storm-soaked road. In fact, they were unmuddied and left no impression on the intricately woven carpet as she sedately stepped to the massive, translucent chest edged in silver opposite the stove, as high as her head and tucked between an oak pantry and a honeywood sideboard.

“As long as I can,” he answered, sounding ridiculous to himself.

“Hn,” she said. “What’s this?”

And then the blackness took him again.

“This,” Prosatio Silban said, pride coloring his voice, “is one of my most important tools. It was fashioned through strange arts from mountain-cracking glacial ice. I keep inside it such provision as would otherwise spoil in the warm summer air.”

“Do you have nutpaste and fruit compote?”

“I can make three kinds of each,” Prosatio Silban said. “I also have two kinds of bread. Of course, I also have the appropriate accompaniment.”

“Cow’s milk?”

“Yes. Warm or icy?”


“If you will excuse me for a moment, we shall eat within minutes,” he said.

The child nodded, seemingly enraptured by the coldbox’s warm sides.

Prosatio Silban stepped through the aft curtain into the sleeping alcove and opened the topmost of three drawers beneath his mahogany-framed bunk.

As he dressed (blue knee-breeches, white tunic, long brown jerkin, rubber-soled black cotton shoes) he considered his visitor. He didn’t believe for a moment that she was really a small child, but he was willing to go along with the imposture for the sake of the company – and if she proved demonic, or unassailable by such arts as he still recalled from his days serving in the Diamond Temple, well … and if not, better. Despite a fervent belief in such of his gods as he felt had not been sanitized and civilized into irrelevance, he realized that it had been years since he had thought of them as actually answering the prayers of their adherents. He wondered just who it was had answered his most recent supplication, and what they intended, and when – and whether or not he was worthy, or even had interpreted the situation correctly. One could never tell about such things, and if one did it was likely the wrong telling.

And then the blackness took him again. He was just a middle-aged traveling cook of no fixed address, stuck in the mud between unwanted jobs, who had done nothing to merit his gods’ favors – had years ago walked out on them, in fact – and who now had an additional and indefinite mouth to feed. Prosatio Silban looked in the floor-length mirror hanging next to the bunk. A hairless, somewhat portly man looked back at him with an expression of vague shame.

The sad eyes narrowed to impenetrable slits; the fleshy mouth pursed in decisiveness.

Whoever or whatever it is, he thought, she says she’s hungry. Besides, didn’t I want to die anyway?

Parting the curtains, he saw that his visitor had opened one of his hard leather recipe cases and was sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by hand-lettered papers of every hue and make, one of which she was reading with great interest.

Incredulous anger swept through Prosatio Silban. “What are you doing?” he cried, charging over to her.

“Reading,” she replied.

He looked down at her, she up at him. The anger left as swiftly as it came, leaving a hollow, weary acceptance. Prosatio Silban began gathering up the papers and stuffing them back in their case.

“Don’t forget this one,” she said. He took the proffered paper: Baello’s Noodle Stew, for the heartiest appetites. Prosatio Silban grimaced.

“Don’t you like stew?” she asked.

“I used to,” he said. “But I’ve just finished cooking this particular recipe in great quantity every day for the past six weeks, and am now willing to make you a present of it.”

“Why did you have to cook so much? Were you earning a living?”

Prosatio Silban sighed, then complied: “O Life and Time and Everything Between,” he intoned, with the practiced shade of piety appropriate to public invocations. “Our food, our selves, our gods, all one.”

“I wouldn’t call it ‘living,’ exactly, but it was the only job I could get. Sometimes you have to do that, whether you like it or not.”

She sat with that as he prepared to prepare lunch: gathering from various cabinets and depositing on the honeywood sideboard an earthenware bowl, two wooden spoons, bread knife, and two broad chukka leaves (shiny side topmost).

“This is my favorite part,” said Prosatio Silban, and opened the coldbox.

She came over to peer inside on tiptoe, fingers on the rim.

“Why is this your favorite part?” asked the girl.

“Because I like to see and smell each ingredient, thinking about how it came to my hands and what it will look like after it passes through them,” he said.

Inside the coldbox was a three-tiered wrought-silver gastronomic treasury, stuffed with such provender as could supply a tasty myriad of different meals. Prosatio Silban retrieved from the middle tier two sealed vessels of similar size – one brown, one red –as a well as an earthenware jug, and a large oilskin package from the topmost tier, all of which he deposited on the sideboard. He closed the coldbox lid with a whooshy click and unsealed the pots, releasing in turn the earthy smell of groundnut and the sweet tang of sequinberry.

“How thick do you like your bread?” he asked, unwrapping the oilskin to reveal a rich brown half-loaf thick with various seeds.

“Thin, and with no crusts,” she replied.

Prosatio Silban sliced accordingly, adding two thick pieces for himself. Into a cherrywood grinding-pot he put a handful each of nuts, dried fruit, and spices. “Watch this,” he said, twisting closed the lid and giving a quarter-turn to the silver knob on top. He unscrewed the lid, revealing a fragrant and chunky multicolored paste which he spread abundantly on the bread. He handed down her sandwich, and prepared to bite into his.

Her eyes widened in concern. “Don’t forget the meal-blessing,” she said.

Prosatio Silban sighed, then complied: “O Life and Time and Everything Between,” he intoned, with the practiced shade of piety appropriate to public invocations. “Our food, our selves, our gods, all one.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you.” It was a statement, not a question.

The wave of oily calm slid over him again. Am I dreaming? he thought.

“No, I don’t,” he said. “But I would like to.”


He sighed, and looked at her. “Because I spent a good deal of my youth believing it, or rather not disbelieving it, and helped people who did disbelieve it overcome what I thought was a character flaw. I know that there is more to the world than all of this” – he gestured with an outflung arm – “and yet, while I am no longer a Sacreant, I am still sentimentally attached to the Flickering Gods. But these days I find myself brooding more than worshiping. Actually, I call it ‘spiritual drudgery.’”

His visitor thought for a moment. “That doesn’t sound very happy,” she said.

“It’s not,” he replied. “But something else is.”

“What’s that?”

The cook closed his eyes as if in pain, the opened them again. “Since childhood, I have had occasional glimpses of … something. And I call these glimpses ‘Golden Moments.’ I personally know of six-hundred and three Uulian deities (aside from the core ten), but these experiences don’t seem to be attached to any god I have ever heard of. I don’t know what to make of these moments, but they are the reason why I left the Sacreanthood. They seem … bigger than the Flickering Gods. More direct. As if I were clearly seeing the universe, without any words blocking the view.”

Her voice was almost a whisper. “Then why do you need gods at all?”

Prosatio Silban started, as if a trap door had opened beneath him. Aloud, he said, “Because I need someone to whom I can express my gratitude.”

“Can’t you just say that in your living-making?”

“I … what?”

“Can’t you say ‘thank you’ to the people you cook for?”

“Well … I do. All the time. But I don’t see what that has to do with …”

“Sometimes the Lambent Ones wear the faces of people. You never can tell who you’re talking to, until after they leave. And when you serve other people, you are serving your gods. If everything is connected, so are they.”

Prosatio Silban was silent for a handful of pounding heartbeats. “That’s true,” he said finally.

“And sometimes,” she continued, “the people you’ve served would like to thank you.”

The cook raised his eyes in inquiry. Before he could say a word, a shadowy male figure dressed in thick leather armor entered from the rear sleeping berth. “Thank you for helping me overcome my cowardice,” he said, and disappeared through the closed double-door.

Another figure, this time a copper-skinned female. “And thank you for freeing me from a life under the lash,” she said, before making the same route and exit. She was followed in quick succession by an elfin woman who Prosatio Silban had turned from criminal to ‘prentice cook; a disconsolate wineherd with a ruined – but eventually profitable – crop of grapes; two cadaverous men who needed help entering the Pure City of the Uulian afterlife; a short, four-armed individual grateful for a brokered peace; a group of villagers the cook had saved from terminal and contagious illness; a ship-captain; an inadvertent warrior; a teak dealer with an insatiable curiosity for matters spiritual; and a broad, if obscure, collection of others. All had walked smilingly across his opulent rug, conveyed their appreciation, and slipped through the closed and bolted door.

Finally came one old man, supporting himself on a wooden walking-stick.

“Who are you?” asked the bemused cook.

“I am you; rather, the ‘you’ who you must still grow to be,” the old man said. “You must not die now, but live. Live for the adventures you have yet to experience.” So saying, the old man – like the other souls Prosatio Silban had met – departed.

Soon, the cook was alone again with his mysterious visitor, who smiled up at him like the sun breaking through clouds. “See?” she said. “That was easy.”

Then she disappeared, without so much as a whisper or a flash.

He stood for a moment, pondering. Onward’s rattling hoot cut through his meditations, and as if in a daze, Prosatio Silban made his way to the galleywagon door, opened it.

Warm sunshine spilled across his face, with no clouds in sight. He stepped through the door, marveling at the dryness of the driver’s bench, the road, the countryside, his spirits. Whistling suddenly, he stepped down and patted Onward. It all felt … easy.

[1] Fatberries grow everywhere throughout the Exilic Lands. Their rich fruit, only digestible by buopoths, yields a bountiful and fragrant oil much prized as fuel.

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want them all (so far) in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)

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