(Ten-and-a-half printed pages; the longest Prosatio Silban tale so far, and though it’s the third I’ve written, it’s actually the first one in narrative order. If you’re new to these, here are the (much shorter) preface and introduction. Enjoy.)
IT IS MUSIC. AND IT is Time. But mostly, it is Love.
Harpsong and drumbeat whirl through the broad moons-lit hollow like a flight of bright starlings air-dancing over a rain-pocked lake.
In a hollow atop a vast cliff squat two robe-wrapped figures: intent, eyes closed, one plucking, one pounding. Nearby lies a third, hands chest-clasped, contemplating the two moons gently contending overhead for celestial supremacy. The trio is edging across the tenuous bridge connecting youth to manhood, when the character which shapes the face has been poured but not yet hardened.
Far away below, across a natural miles-wide amphitheater, multihued webs of light converge on a gold jewel just below the level black horizon. Occasional bursts of overhead brilliance flicker colored fingers into the hollow’s shadowed corners, prompting murmuring applause to roll up through the balmy night and softly accent an all-surrounding, almost subliminal music.
The starlings melt into shafts of silver light; the lake dries to a desert sandstorm … and became a tap-dancing mastodon. The drummer grinned, raising his hands as in triumph.
“Vulture-picked heap of hot steaming lizard dung,” growled the harpist, glaring at the drummer and reining his own instrument into silence. “With withered rose petals on top.”
“Perhaps,” rejoined the drummer, “but I love you more.”
“Self-conscious irony cheapens your art and cheats the audience,” drawled the supine figure. “Do not so.”
“Did I so?”
“Paff. Were you my minstrel, I’d not pay you.”
“Were I your minstrel, you couldn’t afford me,” said the drummer, standing up and stretching his fingers in serene circles. “Oh, but we should have brought some women.”
“If we’d brought some women, I’d not be sitting here,” countered the harpist, laying aside his instrument and leisurely feeling inside his left sleeve.
“To be sure,” he said in a strangled voice, and reached toward his friend.
“If we were going to bring women, I’d have stayed home with them,” pronounced the supine shadow.
“If we had a home, the women would take care of themselves.” said the drummer, and cocked his head. “Excuse me – one of those boulders is calling.” He receded into rock-shadow.
The harpist began rhythmically tamping a mellow-colored bone tube into the opening of a curiously decorated suede pouch. “We have been here forever, yet again,” he said. “Is it far to midnight?”
“Do you see the music yet?”
“What is music?”
“Who is the musician?”
The harpist brought the tube to his lips, lit its tamped end, and puffed spicy blue smoke. “To be sure,” he said in a strangled voice, and reached toward his friend.
Sniffing loudly, the drummer returned. “Are you celebrating my absence?”
“Preparing for your return,” chorused his cohorts.
“Ah ha ha, and ha,” said the drummer in mock-injured tones, accepting the tube from his horizontal companion and sitting beside him. “We shall settle accounts later, for I predict company within some few heartbeats.”
“I seem to have stumbled into your midst,” said a smooth-headed man at least twice-older than the three friends, attired in cotton tunic and knee-breeches of random splashes of blue and red. “Forgive me, but the fireworks tend to encumber night-time vision.”
There was a brief, almost awkward, pause. By his utter hairlessness and cultured accent, the visitor might have been a Sacreant of the Flickering Gods – servants of those divine puppeteers whose centuried influence touched every aspect of life in the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell – except that he was dressed in local style, instead of the Sacreants’ traditional Rainbow Robe which wraps them until death or at least cremation. Moreover, his calloused hands and beefy, muscular build showed that he had obviously been long-acquainted with labors more physical than chanting and alms-collecting. Yet there was something about him; perhaps his smile, which welcomed without obsequiousness; or his wide, dark-set eyes, which seemed to have seen the entire world but decided to keep looking.
The three young Uulians were naturally disinclined toward moral instruction and clichéd homilies. Under the circumstances, custom dictated only one course of action.
“Allow us to encumber you further?” asked the drummer, proffering the still-smoking tube. “Unless you must needs be elsewhere…”
“One may only be here and now,” said the older man, and – much to their surprise – seated himself. “Thank you.”
The drummer spoke first, with what he hoped was nonchalance. “Phytoris Ramu, at your service,” he said. “These others are Emasio Brullas” – the harpist nodded – “and Wolf” – the supine figure howled noncommittally.
The stranger raised the bone tube in salute, grinned. “Prosatio Silban.”
They sat for a bit, passing the tube in scented silence save for those lazily occasional comments appropriate to the budding beneficence of the Universe washing around and through them. Then:
“And how many seasons has Sir Silban seen hither?” asked Ramu.
“Here? Too many to count, though the first was almost twenty-five summers ago, in the Year of the Ripened Knife. But please, not ‘Sir.’ I work for a living.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Brullas.
“As am I,” the visitor said, but his smile deepened. “Like you, I much prefer the days of youth and newness, where everything unfamiliar is exotic and draws you along by the heart down the swiftest of paths to who knows or cares what end … but on the other hand, I like to eat.”
The three friends laughed.
“Well said, si – er, Master Prosatio,” said Wolf. “Do you live here in Aydnzmir?”
“As much here as anywhere, though I was born and spent a good deal of my early years in epicurean Pormaris. I’m a cook by trade, and a traveler by inclination.”
“A traveling cook?” asked Ramu in amazement. “I’d have marked you as a Sacreant due to your, ah …”
“My holy, and wholly depilated, carcass?” the cook said with a sudden grimace, running a sinewy hand over his smooth scalp. “I have been that also, long ago, but the world and I have seen stranger things since then. How did you all come to be, here and tonight?”
Three grins and six arms spread wide, embracing the night and all it contained.
The cook laughed. “Well, yes, but I meant here, on this particular hollow atop the Bordering Cliff.”
“We’ve been coming to the Aydnzmir Music Feast since slightly less than forever,” said Ramu, “and always seem to claim this spot. Either it’s ours by godsly proclamation, or no one else wants it.”
“No one else wants it,” said Wolf. “It’s too far away from the music, at least until midnight.”
“Then why do you keep coming up here?’ asked the cook.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But Ramu keeps talking us into it.”
“He’ll whine if we don’t,” said Brullas, refilling the bone tube.
“I don’t whine, I bellow,” said Ramu. “But there are sublime joys to be found here, despite that they loudly escape these plebeians’ notice. For one thing, you can see all the fireworks between here and the coastside Temple of Song, which is exceedingly deft if the evening fog is strong. And at midnight! When the Chord slips into sight the view is like no other.”
“I’d rather be on the plain, and in the middle of it all,” countered Brullas. “But we never seem to arrive early enough.”
“It is indeed, a long way from the Commonwell,” said the cook. “And not always the easiest journey.”
“I once knew a man who claimed to have seen the Chord from the inside – from the Temple of Song itself,” said Wolf with undisguised envy. “But he could never tell me what it was like.”
“Or much else, after that!” chimed Brullas.
I hope I’m doing this right, he thought, pretending that he was.
“For him, there was no ‘after that,’” Ramu said. “Alas, he’s only a proverb now.”
“That can be an overwhelming experience,” the cook said seriously. “Even years later.”
The trio fell silent in a way they hoped wasn’t obvious, and exchanged dubious glances. The cook laughed. “I would have had the same reaction as you, in those days,” he said. “Imposture is not a rare quality.”
“Is that why you’re up here?” asked Brullas at last.
“Partly,” said the cook. “And partly, because of a woman.”
“Oh, well, ” Ramu said. “Such a tale cannot remain only partly told – especially about women. But I hope you don’t think us naïve! Everyone knows the Temple is closed to all but the Auraculi and their gently fanatical minions. No Uulian, and certainly no servant of Uulian gods, has been or ever will be allowed within – or, if found within, released intact.”
“I was not actually in the Temple but very nearby, and in fact no longer a Sacreant but a confused young man,” Prosatio Silban said. “You see, the Auraculi have for millennia enjoyed on this night such varied fare as could be obtained throughout the Exilic Lands and around the Rimless Sea. Through a combination of circumstances I found myself laboring in the kitchen, which – at, least, at that time – occupied a complex of chambers in the outer Temple …”
* * *
The vast smoky hall was filled with contrasting aromas and bustling cooks of every nation, illuminated by dozens of free-standing stoves and roasteries; innumerable counterblocks were piled high with prepared ingredients, as well as more than a few on which they were being prepared. The music trickling in from outside was unlike anything Prosatio Silban had heard or even imagined outside of dream. A sort of hazy golden whine shot through with long blue sparks caressed his inner ear, or so his mildly fatigue-crossed senses told him; whatever it was, it most excellently accented the warm lips pressed against his own.
I hope I’m doing this right, he thought, pretending that he was.
Not so long ago he would have thought his present circumstances improper, and possibly irreverent. But the now-former Sacreant had recently and emphatically shed the Rainbow Robe of his profession and was eager (if a bit anxious) for the looser-fitting clothes of the open road. The obvious destination for one of his age and frustrated soul-stirrings was ten days west of the Uulian Commonwell, on the forest-girdled edge of the Rimless Sea: Aydnzmir, City of Music, built ages ago of ivory and amethyst, coral and jasper; whose thousand slender silver towers each support a lamp of strange and different hue, glowing at a distance like the dawning sun through a lifting mist; whose inhabitants (unlike the Uulians, he thought) possessed an ancient wisdom and incomparable elegance; and whose sovereign guardians, the deathless Auraculi, kept alive through countless millennia the all-surrounding and world-sustaining Silent Chord, sliding it into visibility once a year during the city-and-land’s Music Feast.
But getting there wasn’t easy. So Prosatio Silban had learned after bidding farewell to his lifelong home. Ten dayrides didn’t look this big on the map, he thought, and anyway, where did all this rain come from? He could not help uttering a reflexive petition to Thupitor, God of Impeded Travel. The timely appearance of an Aydnzmir-bound caravan filled with caterers and expensive delicacies he ascribed to mere happenstance, and to sheer luck their need for another cook’s assistant. But babbling gratitude died on his lips when his eyes met … Hers. She gave him a dry towel and a warm smile; and over the next week, as the caravan rattled along the increasingly crowded road, the two professed to their peers that they weren’t playing the soft pleasant games common to all young would-be lovers.
And that is how Prosatio Silban came to be embracing the raven-curled and enticing Ashlaya in the kitchen-complex of the Temple of Song.
She kissed him again, disengaged herself and squeezed his hand. “You’ve never done that before.”
“How do you know?”
“It shows in your eyes. And in the way you kiss.”
“How do I kiss?”
“Eager. Yet tentative. You’re not used to it, yet. To love.”
“Well, no,” he said blushing slightly. “I’m not used to beautiful women kissing me in the middle of cooking corn-wraps.”
“You’re not used to women,” she said, and squeezed his hand again. “But you will be.”
Her words, or perhaps their inflection, or maybe just the way she returned to her mixing-bowl – seeming to study him through the back of her head – did something pleasant and new to him. Prosatio Silban rubbed his lips, which were still tingling with what he hoped was promise, or at least sincere invitation, or at any rate, please-Flouina-Goddess-of-Unexpected-Trysting, not his imagination. They had, as usual, been casting dewy glances back and forth all morning, and as he watched Ashlaya’s curvy hips sway gently in time with her stirring, her bead-embroidered skirt swirling about her shapely calves, the former Sacreant found he could think of little else. His fingers ached for her, then began to burn; cursing silently, he realized he was holding a hot and unprotected skillet-handle.
“Dolt!” barked a gruff voice behind him. “Mind the pan, not her bottom.”
Prosatio Silban’s face went red, and he grabbed a padded cloth to shield himself from further injury and humiliation. “My mistake, my mistake, no harm done,” he mumbled.
Apith Dumar, the voice’s formidably obese owner, glowered from under bushy brows. “I didn’t hire you to make moons-eyes at the help,” he said. “You Sacreants seem to think you’re the gods’ own gift to the Commonwell, is that it?”
“Actually, I’m no longer a Sacreant,” Prosatio Silban began. “And Sacreants aren’t considered to be so much a gift as – ”
“Did I ask for your nonsense? You’re working for me now, you hairless sponge. Fry those corn-wraps – and don’t burn them again, or I’ll stick you in the skillet.” Apith Dumar pushed a massive index finger against the young man’s chest, glared impressively, then stumped off into the flickering darkness to find fault with another of his hirelings.
I don’t have to take his unlettered and uncouth garbage, Prosatio Silban thought, almost untying his apron and walking out. But as always, his sense of responsibility outweighed his resentment; and when Ashlaya smiled at him and returned to her mixing with what seemed a superfluous wiggle, the weight of his infatuation entirely bounced everything else into irrelevancy. He picked up the tongs and put another corn-wrap in the oil-slick skillet.
By Galien the Allmother, how could anyone be so beautiful? he thought, his eyes caressing Ashlaya’s loose-clad form, lingering at all the places he had long wondered about but until recently thought were barred from him forever. He had known few girls in his cloistered before-life, and all had been more interested in his office than his affection. Being too proper to press the matter, his natural desire naturally became an idealized yearning – thus, his first kiss had come only moments before, and with predictable results.
I’ll marry her, he thought, and we’ll love each other every day forever. He removed a crisped corn-wrap from the skillet, put it on the pile at his left, tonged a raw one from the stack on his right, slapped it into the pan, and looked up at Ashlaya.
Rather, her absence.
Prosatio Silban whipped his head from side to side, gasping silently. Where is she? Where is she? Ah … oh, no.
Ashlaya, one bare foot tucked fetchingly behind the other, was talking to another man. As the stricken youth watched, she reached out a hand and gave his arm an affectionate squeeze – but she might as well have been squeezing Prosatio Silban’s heart. She stood on tiptoe to kiss the hated rival on his bearded cheek…
And she kissed him again, waking odd corners of his body.
He could neither look at her nor away as the couple embraced quickly and then parted. But when Ashlaya began to turn in his direction, he lowered his eyes quickly to the smoke-spewing skillet.
“WHAT in the name of the Nameless One are you DOING?” bellowed Apith Dumar, smacking Prosatio Silban on the back of his head with a grease-towel. “You hairless, worthless, unmothered son of a – ”
“It’s not his fault. It’s mine,” Ashlaya said, appearing out of nowhere and emptying the smoking skillet. “He’s never before fried corn-wraps. So I set the heat for him. Perhaps too high. And forgot to caution him. Forgive me? I’ll make good the loss.”
The corpulent cookmaster raised an eyebrow as Ashlaya took Prosatio Silban’s hand in her own, held it over the skillet. “Like this. See? The heat? Perfect. Now some oil…”
“Just mix the batter, woman,” muttered Apith Dumar. He walked away, shaking his fat-cushioned head.
“Thank you. I can handle it from here,” Prosatio Silban said in a remote voice, slapping a raw corn-wrap in the skillet and not meeting her eyes.
“Are you angry?” she asked
“No. Well, no. I mean, no. I, ah …”
“Please don’t be,” she said, and he somehow wasn’t. “Gdil is a friend. Well. More than a friend. My sister’s man. Who brought me her greetings. Which I returned.”
Prosatio Silban felt his world reassembling itself. He looked around for Apith Dumar, but the rotund supervisor was on the far side of the kitchen explaining to his butchers their latest incompetence. “Oh. It’s not that I was jealous, mind you. But I did miss you.”
“That’s sweet,” she said. “But work now. Later…” And she kissed him again, waking odd corners of his body.
Senses engaged and soul singing, Prosatio Silban set to his task with a will. The stack of corn-wraps at his left grew steadily, was taken away, grew again more swiftly. He discovered that the process had its own rhythm – slap, smell, flip, smell, remove; slap, smell, flip, smell, remove – which seemed to coincide with the music wafting into the smoky kitchen. This is not hard at all, he thought, stealing a glance at Ashlaya’s perfect form and inadvertently meeting her amused eyes.
He opened his mouth to speak, when the cook to his left – a pale and skinny youth named Otlon, who had been filling and rolling the fried corn-wraps and arranging them on cloth-covered wicker plates – coughed loudly and made gargling sounds.
“Don’t mind me,” Otlon said apologetically. “I can never get used to whatever plants or flowers or weeds they have around here. Don’t they bother you?”
Schooled in politeness, Prosatio Silban refrained from putting his hand over Otlon’s thin lips.
“Not as such,” he said, one eye on Ashlaya. She had finished her mixing and was now shaping raw wraps for the skillet.
“Why not? They surely bother me.”
“Ah… I don’t know. Sacreant’s Privilege, I would think.”
“Well…” He noticed Ashlaya listening out of the corner of her ear. “In exchange for our ministrations to the faithful, Sacreants receive from the Flickering Gods certain benefits. We … the Sacreants don’t get colds or headaches and the like, for one thing, and tend to heal faster.”
“Does that include hearts?” murmured Ashlaya.
Prosatio Silban looked at her, ready to spill a flirtatious reply.
“I wish I didn’t get colds,” Otlon said. “But every summer, it’s the same thing – three weeks of dripping hackery. And my sleeves! I wish I were a Sacreant.”
“No, you don’t,” Prosatio Silban said, feeling as though his heart was running at full speed and going nowhere. He turned again to Ashlaya.
“Why don’t I?” asked Otlon.
“Why don’t you what?”
“Why don’t I wish I was a Sacreant?”
“It’s not exactly the transcendent delight it might seem,” Prosatio Silban said.
“Why not? Get to live in the Diamond Shrine, eat well every day, get to be in charge of everything and tell people what to do. I’d like that better than slaving for old Ape-piss.”
“You only say that because you …” lack the experience to contrast it to your current station, he almost said. Am I going to speak this pompously for the rest of my life? No wonder people dislike us … dislike the Sacreants, I mean. “You don’t have anything to compare it to,” he finished.
“Compared to this, anything’s better,” grumbled Otlon.
“Be gentle,” Ashlaya whispered to her would-be lover. “You’ll learn to like yourself. In time.”
Prosatio Silban was about to ask her how she knew what he was thinking, but Otlon didn’t give him the chance.
“Why did you quit being a Sacreant anyway?” he asked.
The self-defrocked holy functionary thought for a moment before replying. “Sometimes a thing isn’t as nice up close as it is from a distance,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s nicer,” Ashlaya said softly. “But you can’t tell that. Before you know it.”
“I think everything’s wretched, from a distance or otherwise,” said Otlon. “You’ll see. Especially here.” He picked up a plateful of filled corn-wraps and ambled off.
Prosatio Silban sighed in relief. Finally. Now for some real conversation.
But when he turned to Ashlaya, she was looking at him apologetically.
“The pitcher’s empty. I must get some more water,” she said. “Wait for me?”
“Every heartbeat is an eternity until you return,” Prosatio Silban replied with a bow.
“Then. I shall always return.” She smiled enigmatically and padded away.
“I can’t believe how many wraps these people eat,” Otlon said, returning. “I bet they don’t get colds either.” Prosatio Silban sighed.
Slap, smell, flip, smell, remove. Slap, smell, flip, smell, remove. It’s like a dance, he thought. Why did this seem so hard? It’s easy, if you just let them cook themselves. As easy as falling in love …
“Sacreant! Quit that and come over here. Otlon! You take his place.”
Across an age-cracked pavement of sapphire and emerald stood a vast amethyst dome supported by immense pillars of ivory.
Prosatio Silban wiped his hands on his apron, looked in vain for Ashlaya, and walked over to where Apith Dumar was standing next to a large butcher-block surmounted by an immense pile of ground meat. “Shape these into balls for the frying-pan, and mind that you keep them even,” he said.
“What kind of meat is this?” Prosatio Silban asked.
“It’s the kind you’re shaping into balls for the frying-pan!” bellowed Apith Dumar.
“How big should I –“
“Big enough to fry, and fry quickly. Now get to it.”
The pile was red, cold, and gave off a rich blood-smell as Prosatio Silban sank his hands into it. He lifted his upper lip in reflexive disgust. Though not averse to meat of any sort, neither was he skilled in its manipulation. He pinched off a measure that looked like something he himself would expect to eat, and tried rolling the greasy mass between his palms. It stuck to his fingers in clots and peaks. He tried scraping his left hand with his right, then his right hand with his left, then impatiently fluttered both hands – and watched in horror as the dislodged flesh arced more-or-less gracefully across the kitchen to splat against the back of Apith Dumar’s immense neck.
Silence fell among the dozen or so cooklings of Apith Dumar’s party, but was compensated for by the loud laughter from elsewhere in the kitchen. Prosatio Silban froze as the caterer swept a greasy paw over his neck, inspected it closely, and slowly turned.
“Let’s see what ground Sacreant tastes like,” he said, starting forward.
With a squeak of terror Prosatio Silban bolted from behind the butcher block and into the kitchen’s interior, Apith Dumar in shouting pursuit. The youth jumped over sacks of flour, through racks of raw sausages, and past huge vats of bubbling fry-oil. He turned for a second to see Apith Dumar gaining on him, turned back, twisted and almost avoided crashing into a basket of apples, recovered. His pursuer either didn’t see or couldn’t negotiate the sudden obstacle, and with a roar went sprawling, knocking over a tower of plates with a satisfying crash.
The young man didn’t stop until he had run through several darkened doorways, hiding to the side of the last one. He doubled over, hands on his knees and panting, then caught his breath, stood up, and gasped.
Across an age-cracked pavement of sapphire and emerald stood a vast amethyst dome supported by immense pillars of ivory. Silver beads and figured silk banners threaded on near-invisible gossamer hung woven in the spaces between, swaying softly in the perfumed breeze. Far away, beneath the darkness within, a pale blue glow revealed some sort of platform dark with moving figures. He could not quite see what was going on, but the hum of tuning instruments and the low drone of voices set his heart thudding. With part of his mind, he wondered where Ashlaya was and if he dared go back into the kitchen to bring her here. Desire wrestled with fear, narrowly triumphed. He began to turn back to the door.
And then the Silent Chord sounded.
It engulfed him while he was still watching it approach, sliding with a steely crackle of blue fire from everywhere and nowhere. Prosatio Silban felt as though warm throbbing honey were oozing into and out of every cell in his body. He looked at his hands, and was amazed and a little frightened to see the left one receding – getting smaller and younger, folding into itself like a baby’s hand – while his right hand grew calloused, then withered and spotty with age. He had the curious sensation of being poised at the exact balance point between past and future, as though his life was a giant string singing along in both directions. The-string-that-was-Prosatio-Silban was bound to every other, knotted and woven into discrete events and moments of knowing. Some strings set up great resonances; others knocked their neighbors into chaotic noise far down the shadowed future. He looked back at his hands, and saw everything they ever had held and ever would hold, as well as a shadow of what those objects touched: incense sticks, scrolls, a jug of water, an inadvertent knife-edge, a pen, a pot, Ashlaya’s hand …
His awareness of her absence struck him like an iceberg dropped from the summit of the universe. The Aydnzmiri guardians about to apprehend him would eventually release him, but only long after the sad-eyed Ashlaya had climbed aboard Apith Dumar’s departing caravan. Dimly he sensed her through the cross-connecting web: a woman-shaped hole running through and around him, almost-but-not-quite intersecting with his own spiraling soul, here and in all the places he had yet to visit, her not-there-ness bending the more substantial harmonies around him. He could smell her hair, her breath, nearly touch her skin … she was right behind him and at his side, just behind a veil that he almost broke through … that he would spend his life shredding … and then …
And then the Chord subsided back the way it had come and gone, leaving only the present: the Year of the Weighted Table, atop the Bordering Cliff where Prosatio Silban sat with three young men the same age as he had been a moment ago.
They listened to the cheers welling up from below and around them, applauding the rhythmic pulsing of a music bigger than the world and more ancient.
“You didn’t see her this year, either,” said Brullas softly.
Prosatio Silban’s expression mingled joy, sorrow and resignation.
“Then why do you keep coming back?” asked Ramu.
The cook’s arms spread as wide as his sudden grin, embracing the night and all it contained – or ever would.