WITH A PATIENCE DERIVED FROM long practice, Prosatio Silban measured his pain and disgust against the vast cold deeps of Time.
It was an old reflex, and a welcome corrective to the blood trickling from his arms and legs, not to mention the ropy brown slime soiling his apron, hands and face. The odor of putrid meat hung raggedly in the air, as did the fading echo of a soggy explosion which a lesser man would require weeks of strong drink to forget.
The banquet had not gone at all well. But what else could one expect, on Rifting Eve?
Jiva, m’Lord Eldotis Baran’s most quick-witted serving maid, stood nearby, offering up undisguised awe and a clean towel. He pressed the spongy cloth to his sticky face, his thoughts coalescing around that morning’s encounter with a certain butcher …
* * *
Of all epicurean Pormaris’ grand marketplaces (save one or two rarely mentioned in polite society), the oldest and most renowned sprawled adjacent to the teeming docks at the island-city’s southern end. It was famous throughout the Exilic Lands and around the Rimless Sea for the clamor of its leather-lunged hawkers, the superciliousness of its resident merchants, and the gullibility of its wealthier patrons. All three of these provided Prosatio Silban with a ready source of livelihood.
The Cook For Any Price had arrived the previous evening on the last ferry from Ruins-Across-The-Water, and could scarcely have wedged his galleywagon into the bazaar’s Itinerant Quarter had not the city guards been so taken with his buopoth, Onward. The great dray-beasts were naturally shy, but due to a subtle sensitivity and skill could appear to anyone as a favorite animal of comparable bulk, Prosatio Silban wondered just what the gruff one-eyed guard-captain saw who waived the stabling fee and personally took charge of Onward’s comfort.
Though credulous folk battened themselves indoors on Rifting Eve, the Heirs Second naturally scoffed at such superstition and for centuries had roistered through the night beneath perfumed and well-lit pavilions.
“I’ve not seen such a one since my far-off youth,” he said with delighted awe. “Never mind the silver, my friend – he can stay here as long as you wish, just for my privilege of watching him. What a beautiful fellow! Ain’t you the beautiful one? Ain’t you just?”
After a peaceful sleep, the beefy cook awoke, breakfasted on a poppyhorn and a strong cup of yava, and made himself presentable for that day’s ordeal. For tonight was Rifting Eve, and he would be cooking for m’Lord Heir Second Eldotis Baran as well as various guests of comparable wealth and position.
Prosatio Silban was both honored by and apprehensive toward the appointment. Heirs Second were scions of the Uulian Commonwell’s three founding clans; only the seldom-seen First Heirs outranked them on the five-rung Uulian social ladder. Whereas the Sacreants of the Flickering Gods directed the nation’s spiritual and cultural institutions, the Heirs Second had charge of its land, people and attendant fashions – often with blunt but inventive practicality. For example: m’Lord Tariovastus Ilhad, an otherwise competent tender of his birthright whose chief passion in life was birds (specifically the one-legged pippio, a small brown forager whose habits were as secretive as its charming voice was ubiquitous). Tariovastus’ villages had been somewhat over-inclined to trouble the Heir Second with contentious arbitration-seeking, but they became bywords of civic tranquility after he made the following proclamation:
“The Flickering Gods did not intend for us to live in disharmony; therefore, those who cannot solve their own problems by sundown of the day they conceive them will be summarily executed. Now please – leave me to my birds.”
This leisurely impatience was also apparent in the nobility’s treatment of Rifting Eve – the night which, countless millennia ago, had seen the fiery, land-cracking climax to a long war of which the primitive plains-dwelling Xao and arboreal Xai were now nearly the sole survivors. So all-consuming was this cataclysm that its annual echo still knocked a-kilter the subtle laws by which the world generally conducted itself. Eerie interlopers were said to populate the midnight landscape, unseen until horribly manifest, and kept in marginal check only by the respective drumming and piping of Xao and Xai shamans.
Though credulous folk battened themselves indoors on Rifting Eve, the Heirs Second naturally scoffed at such superstition and for centuries had roistered through the night beneath perfumed and well-lit pavilions. But superstition or no, even the coffeehouse-wits of cosmopolitan Soharis could not dispute that the strange musical wind fraying the edge of civilized night boded nothing good for those who listened too closely. And if the Uulians drank more deeply and chanted their own songs the louder, they told themselves that they were the happier for it.
These thoughts marched slowly around Prosatio Silban’s mind as he donned a clean white tunic, wine-colored knee-breeches and a long grey vest, stepped into black canvas-and-rubber shoes, and applied his artificial grey eyebrows. The latter were, in some ways, the most important (and uncomfortable) part of his daily costume, at least in the more affluent parts of the Commonwell where “self-defrocked Sacreant” was an unknown or socially awkward concept. The Sacreantal depilatory bath was as much a sign of holy investiture as the Rainbow Robe, and more permanent; but the cook preferred to address his clients’ needs rather than their curiosity and had eventually learned to ignore the itching. He set on his bald head a squat cylinder of dark blue felt tasseled with black satin and tried to smile into his mirror, but for some reason the ritual masquerade depressed him. He swallowed the rest of the yava and picked up his worn leather knives-bindle.
The marketplace was easing into activity around him as he hailed Onward and the buopoth’s new admirers, telling both that he’d be back late the next morning. Weighty clouds muted the bazaar’s usual bustle, as if merchants and customers were engaging in an unspoken conspiracy of nonchalant pretense. But the lack of mercantile colloquy was amply counterbalanced by the colorful panoply of fruits, roots, grains, greens, berries, nuts and other delectables courtesy of the Uulian Commonwell’s tireless farmers and herders. Prosatio Silban nodded greetings to various acquaintances as he strolled among ropes of smoked sausages; a cacophony of squawking birds, bleating beasts and hissing lizards; glass-captured potations of intoxicating or invigorating virtue; great aromatic wheels of yellow and grey cheese; sizzling grills topped by a smoking array of savory meats; tea- and coffee-sellers hawking steaming brews; bright and dusky spice mounds whispering sweetly pungent secrets.
Prosatio Silban’s purposeful saunter brought him to an imposing structure where four reed-woven roof panels were being raised and lowered by an ankle-chained quartet of wistful gibbons. Above the doorway, a somewhat overly decorated banner proclaimed, CEBALLO MARUSH – FINE MEATS FOR THE DISCERNING.” Six imperious house-guards stood a precise and liveried semicircle around a well-dressed woman in gold and green whose pearl-adorned auburn hair wound dramatically above her heart-shaped face. The cook had never before met either patron or patroness (his contract had been effected through one of m’Lord’s retainers), but he knew from her complexion and bearing that she was m’Lady Eldotis Tyula – like her peers physically beautiful, but in a way that commanded awe and respect rather than affection. The cook adjusted his hat to a stylish tilt and assumed an expression of polite competence.
The noblewoman was talking to one of her guards, but Eldotis Demina, m’Lord and m’Lady’s youngest daughter and given to sensitive fits, watched him approach from the protection of her mother’s skirts. Seeing the child, Prosatio Silban felt his spirits lift somewhat; he grinned, wiggled his brows and bugged out his eyes. Demina shrieked in laughter. Her mother’s blazing glance caught the cook in mid-wiggle.
“Is there a reason that you deliberately frighten my daughter?” she asked with calm hauteur. Six halberds glinted in his direction.
“Nothing that I would believe,” she said with a languid gesture.
The startled cook halted, half-awaiting some steely doom, but before he could reply Demina turned a winsome smile to her mother.
“I’m not scared, Moma,” she said, and giggled. “He makes me laugh.”
Prosatio Silban bowed deeply, hiding a triumphant smirk.
“Well,” said the Heiress Second, forcing warmth into her voice. “Then so shall I, little one, I’m sure. Rise, whoever you are, and explain yourself.”
The cook straightened and adopted his lightest tone. “Prosatio Silban, m’Lady Eldotis, at yours and your family’s professional service.”
“Ah, our Rifting Eve craftsman,” she said with a dismissive wave of one bejeweled hand. “It would not do to deal hastily with one who so amuses my Demina, or in whom my husband places the trust and celebrity of his table. You will accompany me in choosing tonight’s signature dish.” Without waiting for his answer, she entered the butcher’s shop.
Ceballo Marush was draped in the expensive silks and gold chains of the socially ambitious, and his manner dripped obsequity as he silenced his murmuring apprentices.
“Most gracious m’Lady Eldotis Tyula,” he said, bowing low enough to brush the sand-covered floor with his pomaded curls. “Your unexpected presence shines upon my humble shop more brightly than the noon-day sun over the bountiful Rimless Sea. By what agency may I satisfy your wants and appease your appetite?” He swept an ostentatious hand at the diverse carcasses hanging from rail-mounted ceiling hooks, doing his best to avoid Prosatio Silban’s eyes.
The cook wondered if the Heiress Second knew the proverb: Honest men speak; thieves ooze. Despite the esteem in which Ceballo Marush was held by his more naïve clients (he was, for instance, the sole Pormaris conduit for the wild game by which the nomadic Xao and furtive Xai sustained themselves), Prosatio Silban had long suspected the butcher of being motivated by some drive other than service or profit. He could not prove this to his own satisfaction, but nonetheless obtained his own ingredients elsewhere. This provoked Ceballo Marush’s rancor, especially since the cook did not conceal the identity of his vendors from his patrons. Each did his best to avoid the other.
“I have lately conceived a taste for tenderloin of Xao duarmu,” m’Lady Eldotis said. “It seems fitting that this barbaric Rifting Eve holiday be enjoyed with the barbarians’ own viands.”
“Indeed, indeed, and well put,” pronounced Ceballo Marush. “Just yestereve one of my suppliers, evidently anticipating such a festive need, furnished me three of the beasts, choicely fattened and freshly killed. I daresay there are none finer in all the Commonwell, or even outside of it.”
He snapped his fingers twice and a pale apprentice-lad appeared beside him, bowing to the Heiress Second. “The duarmu for our gracious Heiress Second. Bring all three.”
The youth withdrew into the dangling tangle of meat, then slid forth three large and skinned ruminants whose stumpy tails drew shallow furrows in the sandy floor. He bowed to Eldotis Tyula, glanced at Marush, hesitated, and retreated.
“Note the plumpness of the flesh, illustrative of the succulence within,” Marush gushed, gesturing with a silver-capped finger. “Stewed with sweet wine or braised in more savory fluids – perhaps roasted on a grill of iron over a fire of fragrant honeywood? – each mouthful will fill the night with sighs of gustatory pleasure.”
Eldotis Tyula inspected the butcher’s offering with surprising expertise; flexing sturdy legs and examining blunt teeth. The well-muscled animals were common denizens of the Emerald Incessance, as the Uulians called the endless reed-thick wilderness which formed the Commonwell’s eastern border, and though the Xao of that region regarded the beasts as a staple cuisine, their more civilized neighbors considered them daringly exotic.
“They are exemplary specimens,” said the Heiress Second. “Master Cook?”
Prosatio Silban and Ceballo Marush had been considering each other from the corners of heavy-lidded eyes. The cook produced from an inner vest-pocket a slender steel needle and poked the flank of each carcass in turn. An oily indigo sheen trickled out of the tiny wounds and down the animals’ bellies to clot on the sandy floor.
Demina sniffed. “Licorice!” she cried. “Licorice, Moma.”
“Actually, there should be no smell at all. Duarmu blood is green, and does not readily flow after death,” said Prosatio Silban, looking directly into m’Lady’s eyes. “These beasts have indeed been fattened for some time – but on purple asphyxinia, which for them is an intoxicating if ultimately fatal delicacy. No Xao would eat such a one. But they evidently desire that you do.”
The Heiress Second looked at the hapless butcher. “Well?”
Ceballo Marush was white-faced with fear. “M-m’Lady, I did not know. I did not know! What can I say to you?”
“Nothing that I would believe,” she said with a languid gesture.
Two of her armored retinue seized the butcher by his silk-wrapped arms, and Prosatio Silban felt a twinge of discomfort. True, he disliked Ceballo Marush, but not enough to be the agent of his undoing. Have I prevented one death only to cause another? he thought, and grimaced.
“Do you disagree, Master Cook?” asked the Heiress Second. “Or is there something else you find distasteful?”
The cook’s vitals became cold stone. “The Flickering Gods guide us toward mercy, m’Lady,” he said slowly. “But I have neither the wisdom nor the capacity to know their exact ways in this matter.”
To most Uulians, Ruins-Across-The-Water is the well-known ferry port connecting the island-city of Pormaris with the southwestern lands of the Uulian Commonwell.
An enigmatic expression crossed the noblewoman’s face. She turned to her guards. “Take the butcher and his apprentices, and close the shop. We will dine tonight at his expense.”
Ceballo Marush fixed her with venomous eyes. “If that is the case,” he said, “let be what will and will be.”
Icy spider legs danced on the nape of Prosatio Silban’s neck. He slapped, then frowned, feeling no broken shape beneath his fingers.
“I don’t like him, Moma,” said Demina as the butcher was led away. “Is he a bad man?”
“Yes, angel of mine,” replied her mother. “But harmless.”
I wonder, thought the cook, keeping his face impassive.
* * *
To most Uulians, Ruins-Across-The-Water is the well-known ferry port connecting the island-city of Pormaris with the southwestern lands of the Uulian Commonwell. But to picnickers, poets, trysting lovers and other happily furtive types, it is the rambling remains of an unthinkably ancient city whose toppled basalt columns and lichen-stained foundations stretch uphill from the ferry dock. The Ruins’ northeastern edge is abruptly marked by a cliff of forbidding proportions, which offers a grand view of Pormaris and the whole of surrounding Teardrop Lake as well as a potential demise for those who venture too near.
Far enough from the edge for prudence, yet close enough for audacity, the Heir Second had arranged for a spacious red-carpeted dining pavilion of green and gold silk trimmed with breeze-tinkled bells. The festive table beneath was bright with gold and crystal service, and had been placed so as to reveal to the loud and sumptuously clad guests their entire dinner-producing apparatus. On the cliff side, half-naked servants of both sexes shimmered in the flickering firelight as they tended a line of spits heavy with dressed ox, lamb and venison; opposite these was an open kitchen-tent bedecked with wheat sheaves and grape clusters. Three immense beehive ovens formed the temporary courtyard’s far end. In the center of the compound squatted a huge pile of white ash, from whose top protruded a hollow iron triangle like the beak of an eager hatchling.
Just inside the kitchen, where he could see (and, more importantly, be seen by) everyone in the dining pavilion, Prosatio Silban inspected a wide bowl of wild-picked greenery and wished he could wipe the sweat from his face. But he was on display, and it would have been inelegant. And besides, he was afraid of dislodging his eyebrows.
With one expert motion he stripped the small round leaves from an aromatic stalk of pungentine and sprinkled them atop the salad. He nodded his approval to the young woman holding it – Jiva, she said her name was? The serving maid whose eyes lack servility – and waved her to his patron’s table.
Jiva hesitated. “Should I pretend I don’t hear it?” she asked.
She was referring, of course, to the drumming. It had begun at sunset, seeming to arise from beneath their feet: soft rapid beats, first at the very edge of hearing then growing subtly louder as the hours passed, winding snakelike through complex rhythms which could be neither ignored nor entirely muffled.
“If you need to ask,” he replied quietly, “you shouldn’t be here.”
She made a face at him – part impertinence, part apprehension – and glided across the carpet toward the dining pavilion, salad bowl effortlessly balanced on her head. He watched her go, smiled at himself, and reached for a peppermill.
The three-piece improvisto ensemble (lute, viol, horn and occasional voice) finished a classic historical ballad which emphasized the achievements of the glorious Eldotis family. They were about to begin another when Eldotis Baran rapped twice on a small tableside gong. His guests lapsed into reluctant near-silence, and the Heir Second addressed them in tranquil tones just perceptibly lubricated with wine.
“And now, my noble friends and relations, I present to you tonight’s culinary architect: Master Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price,” he enthused. “As many of you know, he has practiced his craft throughout the Commonwell and surrounding Exilic Lands for many years, and tonight, for our delectation and delight – and to help us, once again¸ prove the superiority of cuisine over mere food, of civilization over rank superstition – he has prepared for us a dish expertly combining the best of sweet and savory, crunchy and tender, meaty and, er … vegetabular” – here he took a birdlike sip from his brimming wine-glass – “and we, we have been deemed by the Flickering Gods as the fortunate tasters, on this most fortunate night.”
The guests applauded, if a bit over-enthusiastically, most peering at Prosatio Silban with a fair show of sophisticated appreciation. The cook returned their adulation with a slight bow. I wish he would let them form their own opinion, he thought. Ah, well, the evening won’t last forever.
He picked up an oak-handled metal hook and signaled to two burly servants. Armed with a shovel apiece, they advanced on the ash pile and began clearing it, exposing an enormous iron cauldron-lid.
“This signature dish has been cooking since this morning,” Eldotis Baran explained, raising his voice above the incessant drumming and taking another sip from his half-empty glass. “The cauldron has been in our family for generations” – his guests murmured approvingly – “and the ingredients come from our own South Market, including the meat – a gift from the once-peerless Ceballo Marush.” m’Lady Tyula smiled, and some of the guests tittered.
The cook inserted the hook into the lid’s triangular eyelet. “With your permission, m’Lord?” he asked in a theatrical tone.
Eldotis Baran nodded, swept a gracious hand toward Prosatio Silban, and, in that frozen way through which unexpected crises are often experienced, three things happened simultaneously:
– The drumming rolled to a peak then stopped without an echo, and
– The shovel-wielding servants screamed, and
– The cauldron’s contents exploded up and outward with a loud wet growl.
Prosatio Silban sat down with a breathy “wumph,” clawing at whatever was trying to strangle him. He grabbed slippery tentacles and pulled; his forehead crunched something which yelped and battered a retreat.
The guests were scattering in all directions from a slick sinuous blur making a shambles of the dining pavilion. Several of the Eldotis house-guard lay strewn about the carpets and table. The Thing knocked over the turning spits, broke open the ovens, then reeled toward the cliff. As though drawn by an invisible tether, the cook found himself in pursuit.
It is my mess, after all, he thought.
Outside the warm glow of the feasting area, night wrapped Prosatio Silban in almost palpable darkness. He saw nothing at first, then his eyes adjusted and he could dimly make out the lights of Pomaris far to his left. A twisted silhouette of uncertain form was visible against the distant pinpoints.
Because he couldn’t think of anything else to do, the cook ducked behind a fallen column to consider his next move. A moment later, a distorted face dropped before his and hung leering within a lambent aura of deep purplish blue. Despite its otherworldliness, for some reason it looked familiar.
“We meet again, cook,” the Thing said in Ceballo Marush’s oily accents. “But this time, it will be I who gets the better of you.”
Prosatio Silban was nonplussed, but only for a moment. Charging his voice with authority, he replied, “I cannot allow you to trouble us. Not only is it bad form, but bad business – the blame would be laid at my feet.”
“Then you will be laid at mine,” the Thing said, and lunged.
The cook ducked to the left, barely sidestepping his onrushing adversary. I have no weapons, he thought. How will I survive this?
A frigid tentacle wrapped itself around his neck, squeezing. He could feel the Thing’s cold body on his back and warm slime running down his chest. He grabbed at the entacle with frantic fingers, found purchase, and tore it from his throat. Another tentacle encircled his right shin, dragged it behind him and drove him to one knee.
“Pray, Sacreant,” said the Thing. “Pray to your useless gods.”
“I am not … a Sacreant … anymore,” Prosatio Silban said between gritted teeth. As the Thing shoved him onto his back, however, he inwardly summoned his courage for a voiceless supplication. O Bohoran, Giver of Strength Where None is Felt, he began, as icy fire burned his ankles. Grass and dirt slid up his back. The Thing was dragging him to the cliff’s edge.
Jiva moved closer. “And what else?” she asked.
…please give me what I need to overcome this adversary, and I will publish your mercy to as much of the world as I can reach, he finished.
No answer. Not that he expected one, but still: “Pray for strength, always answered,” the proverb ran.
The cook put out his hands to either side, scraping them on the rocks but slowing his pace. He raised his head and saw the Thing heaving in front of him, a gaping void not far beyond.
With perfect clarity, a voice sounded in his head: What cannot be repelled, must be embraced.
He dug his elbows into the ground and twisted hard to the left. One of the Thing’s tentacles slipped off his right leg, further retarding his cliff-bound progress. He sat up with an effort and jabbed with stiffened fingers at his left ankle. The unexpected maneuver caught the Thing off guard and off balance; it yelped and withdrew its other tentacle.
Prosatio Silban stood, wrapped his opponent in both arms and squeezed. The Thing gasped, screamed, and clawed at him. He squeezed harder, then harder still.
With a searing pop, the Thing exploded into a sticky brown cloud reminiscent of chicken carcasses left overlong in a too-warm waste barrel.
The cook ran a hand over his slime-slick face, flung away the malodorous mess, and sighed.
The night was silent save for the songs of mate-seeking crickets, and the only drumming he could hear was his madly beating heart.
What was that? he thought.
“What was that?” someone echoed behind him. Jiva, with a torch in one hand and a towel in the other.
“It was … well, it’s gone,” he said with a smile – to his surprise, unforced. “With thanks to the ever-beloved Bohoran.”
She looked at him curiously. “Weren’t you afraid?”
He met her eyes. “Everyone is afraid, but it is not always appropriate to admit it.”
“No,” she said. “But that’s not what I meant. Something unholy happened here tonight. Only a Sacreant would go charging after a danger like that.”
The cook was silent, suddenly aware that his eyebrows had fallen off.
“Everything has its time and place,” he said. “And ours now is to go clean up what remains of the evening.”
Jiva moved closer. “And what else?” she asked.
Prosatio Silban returned her smile.
“I’ll tell you all about it,” he said. “… later.”