IT WASN’T OFTEN THAT PROSATIO Silban cooked and sold something he didn’t like to eat in a place he didn’t want to visit, but when one was near-penniless in stony-hearted Tirinbar – that least forgiving of the Three Cities of the Uulian Commonwell – one must be creative.
Through a combination of circumstances, he found himself standing behind a small portable roaster in front of Tirinbar’s Arena of Martial Virtuosity – a fancy name for the downtown stadium devoted to staged battles and other pugnacious sports. Great sums of money were wagered on the capable combatants, but few of those proceeds were making their way into his coin pouch. At least, so far.
“Fiery nuts!” he called to the unheeding passersby. “Piquant seeds! Spicy kernels! Hot and choice! Crisp and chewy!”
He sighed, and not for the first time that afternoon. If he couldn’t roust a decent amount of coinage, and soon, it could mean a vagrancy charge – his elsewhere-secured galleywagon and dray-beast confiscated, his sterling reputation as the Cook For Any Price tarnished. Already, a representative of the local constabulary was eyeing him with grim appraisal from across the street.
Prosatio Silban’s fearful reverie was broken by the sound of mildly drunken shouting. Two well-dressed men (earth-colored kneebreeches and vests, white tunics, tasteful jewelry) were having it out nearby.
“You’re wrong!” said one. “Potrus Mortarr is a better fighter than Archeo Tiblin, and anybody who says different is an ass’s mouth.”
“You’re an ass’s mouth!” said the other. “Potrus couldn’t fight his way out of a jute marketing-sack. Archeo is ten for ten this season, and will take this year’s Victory Helm for sure.”
“Damn your eyes!”
“My eyes? Damn yours!”
They began to strike each other, albeit ineffectively. The beefy cook strode over, intending to help and, hopefully, to mollify the watching city-guard. He forced himself between the combatants and pried them apart.
“Gentlemen! Gentlemen!” he said. “There’s no reason to fight over this small matter. Leave your quarrel be, and enjoy the Arena’s contests like civilized men.”
“Who are you?” “What business is it of yours?”
“I am the one asking you in the Name of Valmasorn the Defender, Whose patronage this place enjoys. Please – by the favor of the god – desist.”
“Well…” “I suppose…”
From the poorest marketplace porters to the most extravagantly dressed nobles, all eyes were fixed on the sandy Arena floor where a different match was displayed in each of three great rings.
Prosatio Silban glanced at the guard – who yawned, shook his head and walked away – then turned his attention to the now-shamefaced quarrelers. “Thank you. Shake hands and call it done.”
They did, and the devotee of Potrus Mortarr departed grumbling. Archeo Tiblin’s champion addressed the cook.
“You’re not a bad chap. Let me buy you a drink.”
“While I am charmed by your offer, I am engaged here in business. If you want to buy me anything, may I suggest taking some of these nut packets off my hands?”
The man smiled. “Done.” He examined the cook’s wares. “I’ll take all thirty. What do I owe you?”
“Two in copper apiece. That’s sixty in copper, or … let me see … three in silver.”
“That’s a tad expensive.”
“Not for spiced nuts of this quality,” Prosatio Silban said in his most convincing pitchman’s voice. “They literally cannot be found elsewhere.”
“Well, then. Here.” They made the exchange. “Thank you,” said the cook. “You have just saved me from vagrancy.”
“Then let’s celebrate! I want you to be my guest in the Arena. Ringside seats for the swords demonstration. You can’t beat that with a cudgel!”
Prosatio Silban hesitated. He was not at all interested in the Arena’s goings-on, and he hardly knew his potential host. But the man had been kind enough to rescue him from temporary poverty…
“I would be honored,” he said with a bow.
* * *
Inside, grey poured-stone bleachers were thronged with boisterous games-goers of every social class. From the poorest marketplace porters to the most extravagantly dressed nobles, all eyes were fixed on the sandy Arena floor where a different match was displayed in each of three great rings. One featured an archery competition, with a half-dozen shooters loosing arrows at moderately distant straw-packed butts. Another presented a pack-lizard joust, as two thickly leather-armored riders tossed what looked like heavy darts at each other as they slowly passed by. The third showcased a pair of chainmailed and longsword-wielding warriors, now circling each other in mutual search of an advantage.
Prosatio Silban and his patron took their seats in the front row, a good ten feet above the action and on the side closest to the swordfighters. The cook raised the corners of his mouth politely and settled into the bleacher.
As if reading his mind, his host – who had introduced himself as Tuptero Baar, a master carpenter by trade – turned in his seat. “I can see you’re not familiar with these games,” he said, with some excitement at sharing his passion. “What can I explain to you?”
“You could begin by telling me what I’m seeing.”
“What would you like to know?”
“Chiefly, how the contestants avoid inflicting serious injury on each other. If they do, that is.”
“That is by design. Only the arrows are sharp enough to cause harm, but as you can see, the archers are shooting away from the other rings. The jousters are trying to stick each other in the chest as much as they can; other anatomical targets are out of bounds, and the darts themselves have short tips. As for the swordfighters, their weapons are heavy enough to mimic real ones but blunt enough to obviate any real damage. Also, these are not unskilled people. Some hail from the ranks of the city guards, some from the Commonwell soldiery. They train for years specifically to participate in these twice-annual games, in hopes of winning a heavy purse.”
“Do amateurs ever compete?”
“Occasionally. Some just have a taste and skill for simulated mayhem, but most are petty convicts seeking to shake off their fine or indenture. Also, a few are chosen at need or whim from the watching crowd. Those bouts can be among the most entertaining. I’ll show you.”
As if on cue, the larger of the swordsmen feinted low, provoking his challenger into a false thrust before striking him soundly on the helmet and driving him to his knees. “Game!” the victor cried, and removed his own helmet, showing a scarred face and broken nose. “Who will fight me now? Who of you is man enough to take his place in Valmasorn’s sacred ring?”
“Over here!” Tuptero Baar shouted. “I nominate Prosatio Silban!”
He felt a hand on his shoulder; it belonged to an official-looking man who bent down to his ear.
Hearing his name, the cook blanched and tried to shrink back into his seat. But the surrounding crowd took up the chant: “Prosatio Silban! Prosatio Silban! Prosatio Silban!”
“I’ve never wielded a sword in my life – not even a blunt one,” Prosatio Silban tried to explain, but his voice was lost in the swirl of excited noise. He felt a hand on his shoulder; it belonged to an official-looking man who bent down to his ear.
“Come with me,” he said. “We’ll get you properly suited.”
“But— but –” the cook sputtered, to no avail. The spectators laughed, eager to see fresh meat flung to the wolves. Prosatio Silban shot a dark expression back at the grinning Tuptero Baar.
“There will be a ten-minute recess for the melee ring,” the official shouted to the crowd. “Meanwhile, please feel free to order refreshments from the wandering providers.”
* * *
Prosatio Silban found the chainmail tight, but not uncomfortably so; what was uncomfortable was anticipating his impending humiliation. I don’t know anything of the ways of war. How am I supposed to acquit myself?
He was inside the Arena’s encompassing superstructure: a warren of dressing- and storage-rooms, cages, and dark passageways. It was cool, and quiet; a welcome counterpoint to the hot and noisy spectacle taking place just beyond the inner gate.
“Remember,” the official told him. “This stadium is holy to Valmasorn. What you do here honors the deity Whose place this is. Do your best, fight well, and no one will be ashamed.”
The cook managed a feeble smile. Except me, he thought. After some deliberation, he selected a buckler and rapier from a well-laden weapons rack. These are light arms; perhaps I won’t tire so easily. And anyway, they may facilitate my retreat.
The official capped Prosatio Silban with an openwork helmet – At least I can breathe! – pointed him in the direction of the warriors’ entrance, and clapped him reassuringly on the back. The cook took a deep breath and trudged forward.
The cook winced but stood steady.
Sunlight blinded him as he entered the open air and stepped into the appropriate ring. His massive rival held a two-handed sword in one gauntleted fist and flashed a savage grin. “Come meet your destiny,” he told the cook, and donned his own helmet.
“Here are the rules,” the official proclaimed. “Strikes are valid from the whole blade, both tip and edge. No strikes between the belt and the knees. Everything else is fair game. Each of the three bouts will last for five minutes, or until one of you scores three touches on any of the other’s target areas. Between-bout rest is two minutes. Winner takes five in gold. Questions?”
It was an exorbitant prize – about a month’s soldiering pay. Prosatio Silban opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it. “No,” he said.
“Good,” replied the official. “Cross swords, and begin on my mark.”
The cook raised his sword. His adversary did the same. Both blades touched at mid-length.
“Ready?” asked the official.
The would-be competitors nodded assent.
“Then fight!” the official cried, and stepped out of the way.
Prosatio Silban’s foe slapped away his blade and struck him on his helmet’s peak. The cook winced but stood steady.
“That’s one for Archeo Tiblin,” the official said. “Cross blades again and wait for my mark.”
I wonder who my host hopes will win? the cook thought as his sword again touched Archeo Tiblin’s. After all, this is his favorite swordsman…
“Ready?” asked the official.
This time Prosatio Silban was ready for Archeo Tiblin’s slap-attack, and raised his buckler in defense. However, his opponent thrust from below the small shield and struck the cook square in the chest, prompting a startled gasp.
“Two for Archeo Tiblin,” said the official. The crowd began to boo and jeer.
“He fights like my mother!” “I’ve seen better defenses in minor-trials court!” “Does he even know how to handle that sword?”
Prosatio Silban gritted his teeth and crossed swords again.
“Again, yes.” “And aye!”
Prosatio Silban lowered his sword and shield somewhat. “May we discuss this?” he asked in as reasonable a manner as possible.
“Talk won’t win the bout,” Archeo Tiblin replied, and lunged. The cook blocked his thrust with the buckler and swiped his own rapier at the space his antagonist had occupied a full second ago. The veteran fighter expertly recovered from his dodge, bringing his sword up and around Prosatio Silban’s defense to land with the flat of the blade on the cook’s back.
“Three and bout!” the official cried. “Two minutes’ rest.” The crowd cheered their hero.
Prosatio Silban retreated to the edge of the ring furthest from his challenger, turned his back to him, closed his eyes and bowed his head. “O Valmasorn the Defender, and His brother Bohoran, Giver of Strength Where None is Felt, hear my plea and grant my boon,” he whispered. “I cannot hope to defeat or even defend against this man without Your help. Touch me with Your might, that I not bring upon You dishonor and shame. This I affirm.”
The cook waited for several heartbeats, but nothing seemed to suggest to him that his prayer had been heard, much less answered. He turned to face his enemy, who regarded him with amusement. “I know just how I’m going to spend this prize,” Archeo Tiblin gloated, his eyes narrowing in mirth.
Prosatio Silban met his gaze but smiled a desperate, caged-animal smile. “Don’t go squandering it just yet,” he replied.
“Cross swords,” said the official. “And … fight!”
The pair circled each other for some time, neither finding an obvious advantage. With a fierce cry, Archeo Tiblin slashed at Prosatio Silban, who ducked just in time to avoid the powerful blow. The latter made a few respectable stabs of his own, to no avail; his attempts were either parried or fell wide of the mark. But Archeo Tiblin did no better. Somehow, his most mighty thrusts and vigorous cuts failed to land anywhere. The cook sighed with relief as the official called time.
“It honors the god to have such an eager audience. Let’s make this last bout one for the scrolls. You know the routine.”
“Second bout ends in a draw,” he cried. “Two minutes’ rest.” The crowd began to mutter in confused disbelief.
This time, Prosatio Silban spent the respite by washing out his mouth with a proffered tankard of water before taking from it a long quaff. At least I’m not losing too badly, he reflected. I guess a little prayer can be helpful…unless I’m actually getting the hang of this business.
He vainly sought in the sizeable throng at least a glimpse of his host’s face, and was surprised to see that many of the other rings’ audiences had left their seats to see what was going on in the swordsmen’s circle. Even the other contestants were watching. Some were actually cheering him on.
The official looked at the new spectators with a smile on his round face. “This is why we have these games,” he told the duelists. “It honors the god to have such an eager audience. Let’s make this last bout one for the scrolls. You know the routine.”
The pair crossed swords once again.
Archeo Tiblin spread his arms wide. “I am defenseless,” he said with a deceitful smirk.
Prosatio Silban hesitated. “No, you’re not.”
As if to underscore his sincerity, the veteran fighter turned his back on the cook. “Yes,” he said. “I am.”
Prosatio Silban raised his rapier and buckler indecisively. The audience moaned its disapproval; some attendees catcalled the competitors, while others shouted rude suggestions not suitable for recounting in a tale of this sort.
The cook took a step forward, and the spectators quieted slightly. He took another.
Suddenly, rain began to pelt the assembled masses. The sky was clear and free of clouds, but the unexpected downpour commenced to soak the retreating crowd and quickly turn the arena’s sandy floor into a quagmire. Archeo Tiblin turned back to face Prosatio Silban.
“I suppose the Flickering Gods are against us today,” he said with a rueful grin. “Perhaps some other time…?”
“I am willing to stick it out now if you are,” replied the cook, and bowed. “Shall we continue?”
“No!” cried the official. “Only the reckless fight in a storm, and Valmasorn and his acolytes frown on unwitnessed desperation. The match is called due to an act of the gods, and by the laws of the god of this place, you both forfeit the purse. Thank you for the game, gentlemen.”
* * *
Prosatio Silban wiped the sweat from his forehead and clucked to his dray-beast. The pair were lumbering west, away from Tirinbar and through the city’s stark surrounding terrain of jagged boulders, thorny scrub, and dangerous-looking succulents. With luck, a few days’ journey would take them into friendlier lands. The cook had managed to procure with part of his hot-nut proceeds a goodly quantity of overpriced fatberry-cakes, his dray-beast’s preferred provender, and was looking forward to an event-free passage homeward.
“Master Cook!” called a voice from behind him. “Hold for a moment!”
Prosatio Silban reined his progress to a halt. A familiar figure on horseback trotted into view.
“Tuptero Baar,” the cook said with a weary sigh. “I certainly never expected to lay eyes on you again. What has you following me so far from your native Tirinbar, and on such a hot morning?”
“I wanted to apologize for the cruel mischief I played you back there. My only motivation was to repay you for plying me with your expensive snacks. I simply wanted to get my money’s worth. But it was an unseemly trick for one of my standing. Here.”
Tuptero Baar tossed over a small leather pouch which jingled when Prosatio Silban caught it. He cast the carpenter a quizzical look.
“It is the least I can do for your trouble,” said Tuptero Baar. “We men of Tirinbar have a deserved reputation for hard-heartedness. But we are also fair. I did not want you to leave with a false impression.”
“Thank you. I will certainly put this to good use.”
“Do you think you will ever return to our city?”
“Perhaps,” Prosatio Silban said with a smile, “I will now.”