PARTLY, IT HAD TO DO with the eyebrows.
In order to pass as a mercenary cook within the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell, and without the need for too many probing questions, Prosatio Silban employed artificial eyebrows made from grey mouse-fur. They were tedious to affix each morning and challenging to remove each night, but in their absence, his customers might ask something like:
“Why don’t you have any eyebrows?”
“Were you injured in some culinary mishap?”
“I thought only Sacreants were hairless…?”
This last question was the most painful. In a previous life-moment, Prosatio Silban had indeed worn the Rainbow Robe of a Sacreant – a servitor of the six-hundred-thirteen Flickering Gods – one of whose requisites for investiture being an all-over depilatory bath. But he had abandoned that path for reasons which seemed right at the time, if a bit inconvenient to explain to inquisitive strangers. Now, more than a quarter-century later, those reasons had only deepened.
However, he had never completely lost faith in his people’s divine panoply, and in addition to thanking his gods twice-daily for their myriad benevolences he still occasionally asked them for help. For example, right now, in the lake-island city of epicurean Pormaris where his faithful dray-beast Onward had apparently eaten a bad fatberry-cake. The animal was not exactly sick, but he was very uncomfortable, so in addition to administering an appropriate calmative Prosatio Silban took the opportunity to call upon one of his favorite deities.
“O Hartiz, Protectress of Companion Beasts, hear my plea and grant my boon,” he prayed. “You have gifted me with the comradeship of one of Your beloved charges, who now needs more assistance than I can provide unaided. Please – help me to help Onward return to good health, that he may continue in Your holy service. I shall relate Your kindness whenever and wherever I tell the tale. This I affirm.”
As he watched intently, Onward’s irregular breathing slowed and steadied; his eyes closed, and he settled onto the ground with a soft sound of sleepy relief.
A hairless woman, draped in the traditional Rainbow Robe and wearing a prismatic jewel set in a silver fillet, stood before him, her face the very picture of severe disapproval.
“That’s better,” the cook said to himself.
“It is most decidedly not better,” came a sharp voice behind him. “And it is, in fact, why I am here.”
He turned. A hairless woman, draped in the traditional Rainbow Robe and wearing a prismatic jewel set in a silver fillet, stood before him, her face the very picture of severe disapproval.
“High Sacreant Burya Arped,” Prosatio Silban said with a deep bow. “It has been some years since last I saw you.”
“Twenty-seven ago,” replied the holy official. “The Year of the Moonlit Oak, to be precise. I see you have become somewhat thicker about the middle.”
The beefy cook smiled and rubbed his belly. “I suppose that’s true. It comes from eating, or rather overly tasting, my own cooking.”
“But you haven’t only been cooking for yourself. And therein lies the problem.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“No former Sacreant ever leaves our scrutiny. You are neither the first nor the last to attempt it, but while others all had their reasons, most of them also had the good sense to make of it a tidy separation.”
“I do not understand.”
The High Sacreant scowled an annoyed schoolteacher’s scowl. “We know you have not entirely given up acting the wonderworker. And we will not have it continue. Your unauthorized ritual just now crossed the boundary which separates sacred from secular, citizen from Sacreant. You may not continue to take such liberties. You must either formally rejoin our order – or be done with it entirely.”
* * *
Time in the Uulian Commonwell (and the encompassing Exilic Lands) was measured much as it was in any other civilized locale: by lunar and seasonal cycles. In the Commonwell, that meant a thirty-day month of six-day weeks, reckoned respectively from the phases of blue-white Evyhr and its smaller green companion, Anod. (The third visible moon, a tiny but baleful red orb known as “the Eye,” hung eternally motionless in the southwest, where everyone tried their best not to notice it.) The twelve months were each named for the local wildlife, and seasons were called by their agricultural function: e.g., the balmy and sweet-aired Season of Rebirth (beginning on the first of Ape) marked planting time for one and all.
Appropriately, the High Sacreant’s six-day ultimatum had come in the last week of the cool and dry Season of Contemplation. Prosatio Silban couldn’t help but notice the irony. I’ll wager she planned it that way, he thought. One more twist of the knife. It seems I have some thinking to do.
He was not given to self-pity, and when he needed advice was not afraid to ask for it.
The cook’s first stop that evening was one of his favorite Pormaris taverns, Pelvhi’s Chopping-House. Its namesake was an old friend who had known Prosatio Silban since he had first begun life as a hired cook, so it seemed a likely place to commence his quest. The tavern was a famous haunt of the city’s professional-hospitality class, and accoutered accordingly: good food, deep mugs, and sympathetic ears aplenty.
“What say, Pelvhi?” Prosatio Silban asked as he sat down at the bar.
“’To absent friends,’” he said.
“I say many things,” replied the landlady. “Your usual?”
“If you please. And two cups.”
She nodded. “Happy to oblige by joining you.”
Pelvhi selected a small glass bottle of blue duliac from the well-stocked rack behind the bar, placed it and two smaller ceramic vessels on a painted wooden tray, and set it all before the cook. The mellow-flavored wine was renowned for its creativity-stimulating properties; Prosatio Silban felt he needed all the help he could get. He popped the cork, filled the cups, and raised his. “’To absent friends,’” he said.
“I will always drink to that,” the landlady rejoined, and did. The cook looked at the countertop.
“Pelvhi, how well do you know me?”
“Only as much as you have revealed in the past two dozen years or so. You’re not very talkative as a rule, nor secretive, and you do have a refined reputation – at least according to those who mention your name within earshot.”
“That is gratifying to hear. Do you know what I did before becoming a mercenary cook?”
“I always thought you were of low-born tenant-farmer stock, but your family wanted better things for you and thus, with grand pretensions, ‘prenticed you to become a cook. Am I wrong?”
“Not terribly. They did ‘prentice me. But not to the business – to the Sacreanthood.”
There was a pause. “Well. That would certainly be a step up in the world,” Pelvhi said. “What happened?”
“Let’s just say I couldn’t square our traditions with my observations.”
“Few can. But that doesn’t mean they can’t live with the contradiction.”
“They can’t if their vocation dictates that they become hypocrites.”
“Truth. How does one leave the Sacreanthood?’
“Officially, so I’m told, one doesn’t.”
Prosatio Silban raised his eyes to meet Pelvhi’s. “I have been ordered by my former Sacreantal superior to leave off tangling with, shall we say, active prayer.”
“That’s certainly one opinion. But perhaps you should seek others.”
“Oof. Can they do that? Everybody prays.”
“Not as effectively as a Sacreant. Or even a former Sacreant.”
“If you want my opinion, you should quit working as a cook altogether,” interjected a newcomer. He was taller than Prosatio Silban, dressed in the green and indigo house-livery of a local noble, and had apparently been drinking something stronger than duliac.
“What would you know about it, Crasso?” asked Prosatio Silban with a smile.
Crasso smiled back and clapped the cook’s shoulder. “Only that we don’t need your competition. Go back to your damned gods and leave the business to the rest of us.”
Pelvhi looked at her longtime friend with sympathy. “That’s certainly one opinion. But perhaps you should seek others.”
* * *
“Why do you seek my opinion?” asked the diminutive saucemaker.
He was sitting with Prosatio Silban on one of two folding stools outside the cook’s galleywagon, now parked at the edge of a village nearly two day’s pull from the City of Gourmands. The cook had made the journey with some concern, given the High Sacreant-allotted time. But his green-eyed and chestnut bark-skinned friend – who, like the rest of his curious people, bore no formal name within his community and only a vocational one among outsiders – was wiser than he in many matters, and over long years Prosatio Silban had come to value his judgment.
“Your people have a unique relationship with your gods,” the cook explained.
“That is correct,” said the saucemaker. “We leave them alone, and they do us the same courtesy.”
“My own association is somewhat more…collaborative than that. I am deeply grateful for their aid, but my gods don’t always answer me – or do so in the negative. But to be deprived of their colloquy would be difficult.”
“Oh, one can get used to anything. What truly troubles you about this ultimatum?”
The cook sighed. “That it is being forced upon me. I do not take well to such peevishness. On the other hand, there is the matter of the eyebrows…”
“You are not wearing them now.”
“No. But you know me.”
“That is so. Do they trouble you that much?”
“To tell you the truth, I do not know anymore. They have become part of my daily routine, but I would like not to have to hide behind them.”
“If you sincerely want my opinion,” said the saucemaker, “it is this: Continue in your appreciation, but cease relying on your gods – and remain a cook. It is what you do well. It is what you love to do. And you have been doing it longer than you were a Sacreant. That is how everyone best knows you – and it is how you best know yourself.”
* * *
A day before Prosatio Silban was due to give his answer, he found himself in one of decadent Pormaris’ more run-down sections, searching for an Intuid. The mystical sages from the far north preferred to set up their worldwide embassies in unpretentious surroundings; they were unmatched, if blunt, scholars, whose residence in the Exilic Lands predated by ages the millennium-ago Uulian arrival.
“(‘i-now’ ‘am’ at ‘a’ life-crossing),” the cook replied.
One was seated on a discarded vegetable crate outside a makeshift shack of castoff boards, easily recognizable by his knee-length blue tunic, wide straw hat, and long grey beard. He and Prosatio Silban were conversing in the Intuid’s native tongue, which the cook had learned years before during an extended stay in their city.
“(it ‘is’ ‘long-since’ ‘we’ have spoken),” the savant was saying. “(why do ‘you-now’ request ‘my’ insight?)”
“(‘i-now’ ‘am’ at ‘a’ life-crossing),” the cook replied. “(‘i-then’ and ‘i-now’ respect ‘your’ wisdom. ‘i-now’ humbly ask: what would ‘you’ do ‘in’ such ‘a’ ‘place’?)”
“(‘we’ would not ‘be’ ‘in’ such ‘a’ ‘place’),” retorted the sage with a savage grin. “(‘we’ have no ‘gods,’ only ‘the’ stopless breath of ‘the’ ‘world-here.’ ‘you-now’ ‘are’ asking ‘the’ wrong ‘someone-else;’ it ‘is’ ‘your’ decision ‘alone’).”
* * *
The morning of the first day of Ape (in this Year of the Weighted Table) dawned warm and fragrant with breakfast-fire smoke. The deep tones of the Diamond Shrine’s bell sounded the second post-dawn hour, and at the carved and forbidding ivory gates, Prosatio Silban awaited the High Sacreant’s appearance with a mix of calm and trepidation.
The gates slowly creaked open to reveal the High Sacreant, flanked by two black-clad temple servants and regarding the cook with undisguised contempt. He approached, bowed, then stood and looked directly into her eyes.
“I have been introspecting as you directed,” he said. “And I have enlisted the aid of several long acquaintances as I sought my soul for some definitive answer.”
“And your choice is?”
“My choice is this: I am not wise enough to choose. And neither are you. That decision should be made by the gods themselves. After all, it is They who choose to respond, or not, to my sincere entreaties. Should They not also have a voice in this matter?”
The High Sacreant was silent for several loud heartbeats. “You raise an interesting point, I admit,” she said. “Come. We will approach the Shrine’s inmost altar, and put the question directly. But should They not deign to answer you?”
“Then I shall trouble you no longer with such existential issues.”
A pause, then: “Agreed.”
* * *
The Diamond Shrine was one of Pormaris’ oldest buildings. It was built to impress the laity: stout columns of diorite and porphyry supported a vast, three-cornered sapphire-brick pyramid overtopping a labyrinth of smaller chambers and courtyards. Tapestries adorned the marble halls, depicting centuries of Uulian history and the divine part played in its development. As the group made its purposeful way toward the center of the complex, the High Sacreant began to gasp. She clutched at her chest and faltered in her steps, groping with her other hand at one embroidered wall-covering.
Without thinking, the Prosatio Silban moved with a cougar’s speed, helping her to lie down on the rich carpet. He knelt beside the panting woman, bowed his head and let his arms drop, clearing his mind of everything but the struggling life before him.
“O Galien the All-Mother,” he said softly. “Healer of Life, Nurturer of What Exists, Quieter of Hurt, hear my plea and grant my boon. You have given me many undeserved gifts, but now, one of Your charges is in extreme need. Please – we two have been adversaries, but let me play a part in helping You to help her return to Your holy service. I shall tell this tale of Your mercy wherever and whenever I can. This I affirm.”
At first, there was no visible change in the High Sacreant’s condition. Then, so subtly as to be barely perceptible, her breathing quieted; her face, which had been a creased mask of pain, began to smooth. Within minutes she was looking up at her now-benefactor with different eyes.
“Perhaps I was wrong,” she whispered, as the temple servants helped her rise. “Perhaps you do have a gift.”
“Not I,” Prosatio Silban said. “Only the Flickering Gods.”
“Thank you,” she said with a bow. “And may the Lambent Ones light your happy path forever.”
He returned the bow with a smile, and the High Sacreant watched the servants lead him back toward the main gate. As they turned a corner, a one-legged brown bird fluttered down from under the roof; she extended a hand, and it landed with a wing-flourish on her outstretched finger.
“Thank you for your unsolicited participation,” it said in a musical voice.
Startled, she replied, “You did not give me a choice.”
“No, We did not,” the bird said. “And We do not apologize for using you to make a point. But all is now as it should be. And if you remember anything at all from this day, remember this: your parting words – and his.”