SOME SAY THAT IT IS not necessarily impossible to unite divided factions. But when the parties involved base their very identities on the division, matters can become a bit sticky.
With a silent prayer of gratitude to Ayeklet, Goddess of Brief but Eventful Travel, Prosatio Silban stepped ashore on Nearling Isle, a misty and almost uninhabited jungle just off the Uulian Commonwell’s southwest Rimless Sea coast. The beefy cook had traded his skills for passage on a crowded grain-barge direct from many-harbored Soharis, and while that brief but eventful voyage would itself be worth a tale, it is not the one now being told.
Half-clad stevedores scurried along the docks rolling barrels, toting parcels, goading loudly reluctant pack-zebras, and mingling idle boasts with colorful threats.
The busy trading port of Anala, Nearling Isle’s largest colony, was angular limestone storage-buildings with the occasional low mirrored dome and peak-roofed wooden longhouse. Moored at the settlement’s sprawling tarred-cedar quays were red-sailed dhows from abhorrent Khum; broad-beamed Commonwell merchantmen; long-oared M’zei galleys and their laughing crews; quaint polychrome skiffs from not-too-distant Aydnzmir; and assorted vessels hailing from far-off Azon, Anala’s imperial motherland. Half-clad stevedores scurried along the docks rolling barrels, toting parcels, goading loudly reluctant pack-zebras, and mingling idle boasts with colorful threats.
A dark blonde, black-eyed and muscular woman in a yellow leather hauberk was blocking the gate at the wharf’s landward end. “Who are you? And what brings you to our island home?” she asked the cook.
“I am Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price, and I am here to prepare a coming-of-age feast for the children of your Overlord and Overlady,” he replied. “And while I am aware of your nation’s gastronomic strictures, I am not yet clear regarding the specifics of my task.”
“Then you will wish to speak with Raoud, our royal envoy,” the woman said. “First, tell me: Are you carrying any dangerous objects such as magikal amulets or theurgic talismans?”
“No.” He hefted a worn leather bindle. “My knives are said to make magik, but that quality is not inherent.”
“Good.” She proffered a writing stick, paper-layered scrollboard, and supercilious smile. “Print and sign your name for our records.”
The cook did so. “Now tell me,” he said. “I hear your people count among your people workers of wonders both secular and religious. Why then the ban on those specific items?”
“We do not entertain alien influences,” came the curt reply. “Of any sort.” She jerked a thumb toward a squat limestone structure set off from the others. “Off you go.”
Despite its uninviting exterior, the envoy’s office was roomy and comfortable in a stark sort of way.
Despite its uninviting exterior, the envoy’s office was roomy and comfortable in a stark sort of way. Lifelike paintings of what Prosatio Silban assumed were the current Overrulers adorned a wall above and behind a great mahogany desk. Writing sticks, scrolls, scrollboards, sealing-wax, seals, spindles, and other tokens of officialdom littered its surface. The somewhat portly official seated below the portraits wasted no time or effort in coming to the point.
“We of Azon keep each to our own genders’ affairs throughout the year, excepting one week for matters of … public import,” Raoud said, creasing a fold in his butter-colored caftan. “The Presentation Banquet is one such. It will be attended by the royal family, their two children of course, and selected guests. Now. Your reputation in the Commonwell is matchless for competency and discretion, and your pay will of course be commensurate. Is there anything you need from us other than ingredients, a kitchen, and desired menu?”
“I should like to learn a bit more about the attendees,” Prosatio Silban said. “How old are the children? What are their personalities? Who are the guests? And most importantly, what can I expect in the way of complementary diversions? The food should accent all of these elements, without any being dominant or distracting.”
“The Overrulers’ seventeen-summer twins are typically Azon in their values, attitudes and predilections,” Raoud replied. “The man-to-be, Yamir, is an accomplished wizardling and beginning to make his name in tradecraft. His sister Zafima, as is traditional with our females, has become a promising warrior with a fierce love of the priestess-hood. They will of course declare and seal those specific life-paths at the banquet, to which their teachers, servants, and other intimates have also been invited. Your task is to make the program’s culinary components accord with the setting. Now. As to the menu, you will see that it, like the entertainment, rides the line between frugality and luxury …”
* * *
Anala’s spiritual heart and cultural centerpiece was a trio of silver domes housing the Shrine of Ama, the Traders’ Guild headquarters, and the Overhouse. The latter contained a capacious audience chamber, the royal family’s living quarters, and a well-appointed kitchen; rumors of the latter had piqued Prosatio Silban’s professional curiosity.
First, however, he went to meet and pay respects to his interim patrons. The audience chamber was pillared inside and spacious enough for more than a hundred visitants. It was sparing of décor save for a broad, double-throned dais at one end; the thrones were occupied by a tall man and woman in resplendent garb. A short stout man stood before them, clothed in a yellow caftan similar to Raoud’s. He glowered with importance as he swept one arm toward the cook.
“All honor to the Overlady and Overlord Abuar,” he said in a rich tenor, then turned and bowed to the couple. “Beloved Superiors, this is Prosatio Silban, famous in his own land and its surrounds as the ‘Cook For Any Price.’ His hands will provide for you the celebratory feast.”
The richly armored Overlady nodded in the cook’s direction, and the opulent-robed Overlord cleared his throat. “We approve of your appointment,” he said. “We will now introduce to you our soon-to-be-presented children, Yamir and Zafima.”
Two androgynous and almost identical adolescents in light brown, ankle-length and belted tunics stepped out from behind their parents. “Can you make date-fritters?” asked the more female-appearing one.
“I can prepare many foods, date-fritters included,” Prosatio Silban replied. “With what may I please you?”
The other twin grinned approval. “We like them crispy outside, chewy inside. With pits intact.”
“Then that is how I shall prepare them. Your tastes are sophisticated, and I am here to serve.”
“Excellent,” said the Overlady. “We appreciate a man who minds his place.”
The cook dipped his head to conceal his reddening face.
The cook dipped his head to conceal his reddening face.
“We are simple but serious eaters here in Anala,” said the Overlord. “You are aware of what is expected of you tomorrow night, yes? That the feast’s success is, in large part, incumbent upon your efforts?”
Again Prosatio Silban nodded. “It often is,” he said. “And I assure you that, culinarily at least, it shall be a meal to remember.”
* * *
By the next evening, the audience chamber had been transformed from austere to lavish. It was warmly lit by glowstones and flickering braziers, and filled with the appetizing aromas of slow-cooking lamb and grilled anglefish. Long, delicacy-laden tables had been set between the ribbon-hung pillars, with a smaller table before the Overrulers’ thrones. The quasi-royals were joined on the dais by four well-dressed men and women. At the hall’s other end, a raised gallery held a melodious quartet of serious minstrels (flute, piccolo, and two singers). Dancers and jugglers wove their intricate way among the chattering crowd. The seating arrangements struck Prosatio Silban as odd – half of the tables were occupied by men, the other half by women. Even the minstrels were divided by gender.
When the merriment was at its height, the Overlord stood up and raised a jeweled hand for silence; by degrees, the happy cacophony faded away.
“Tonight marks a most significant moment,” he said. “In one fashion or another, you all have been party to the raising of our twins from their sixth to seventeenth years.”
“We are grateful for your dedication and assistance in grooming them for the responsibilities of Azon adulthood,” added the Overlady. “Let the results of your concerted labors be presented to you now.”
At a cue from the Overlady, the minstrels in the gallery struck up a complex and annunciatory tune. The earth-toned curtains beneath the gallery parted and two slender figures in long, pale brown tunics entered, veiled to the eyes in golden silk. One bore a double-headed spear, the other a merchant’s scales. They approached the dais and knelt, eyes fixed on their parents, as the four functionaries of Anala’s societal institutions rose from the table.
“Will you use the principles of secular magik for the good of our people?” asked a man in enchanters’ dress.
“Will you be true to our traditions of Ama, the Great and Infinite Matron?” asked a woman wearing clerical robes.
“Will you keep an honest and well-balanced measure?” asked a mercantile-looking man.
“Will you protect our race through the strength of your bone and sinew?” asked a woman in scale mail.
To each of these questions came the chorused response: “Aye, and on my life and life’s blood!”
“Then take your rightful place among the proud and free women and men of Azon!” cried the Overlady and Overlord in one voice.
With one swift motion, the twins swept off their face-coverings.
With one swift motion, the twins swept off their face-coverings. There was a pause, then the audience chamber echoed with the sound of a hundred sharp in-breaths. Cries of “This cannot be!” “How did this subversion happen?” “A crime against nature!” “Banish them!” burst from indignant throats. For illuminated by the bright brazier- and stone-light, Zafima was holding high the merchants’ scales, while Yamir clutched the spear to his breast.
Their parents were dumbstruck, but not for long. “What is the meaning of this treachery?” and “What have you done?” they demanded in turn. The four mentors – Supreme Mage, Great Priestess, High Merchant, and Lady of the Guard – turned to address their rulers.
“Please hear us,” said the Lady of the Guard. “Since their fifth summer, Zafima was balking at her traditional studies and instead showing promise as a hedge-wizard, while Yamir’s interests lay in the arts of war and worship. We at first tried to deny their true natures, but they persisted – and so we encouraged them to exploit their Ama-given blessings.”
“I have never had a more adept or devoted student of scientific magik than Zafima,” put in the Supreme Mage.
“Nor I of Ama’s crafts than Yamir,” added the Great Priestess. “Quite simply, their skills are unmatched. It is they who were able to work for so many years a seeming that each was the other. It fooled everyone – but it was done a-purpose, and without malice.”
The High Merchant next took up the defense. “Think what this means! Yamir and Zafima have proven that either of our genders can learn the other’s talents,” he said. “Far from subverting our civilization, they have shown that we need not divide ourselves in order to live well.”
The Overrulers cast angry eyes on the noble quartet. “You know the penalty for one gender practicing the other’s occupations,” snarled the Overlady. “The same applies to their co-conspirators. And afterward, you will be banished from Anala to whatever nation will have pity on you.”
“As for you two,” the Overlord began, but was interrupted by his daughter. “As for my brother and I, we will have no part of a society that will have no place for us,” Zafima said. She took her sibling’s hand, and chanted with a high and fast voice words in an unknown but musical language. A pillar of utter darkness descended from the ceiling, obscuring the twins. A moment later it had disappeared – and so had they.
The ensuing silence was only momentary, then broken by puzzled exclamations and unanswerable queries.
* * *
“I see you didn’t stay here long,” said the imposing woman blocking the harbor gate. “Were our ways not to your liking?”
“It is not that,” Prosatio Silban replied. He took the proffered writing stick and scrollboard, and signed where he ought. “My business here was short-lived but profitable, and now it is concluded.”
He patted his bulging coin purse, hefted his knives-bindle, and proceeded down the dock toward the Soharis-bound vessel in which he had arrived. Exchanging pleasantries with the gangway-stationed sailor, the cook stepped aboard, eager to reach the galley.
In the below-decks gloom, he overtook two slight figures standing mid-passageway. As he came abreast of them, he nodded in automatic greeting – then started with recognition.
“Yamir! Zafima!” Prosatio Silban whispered. “What are you doing here?”
“Escaping,” Zafima said.
“And looking for a new home,” Yamir added.
The cook opened his mouth, but the thousand questions consuming his curiosity died away before he could ask them. Instead, he smiled with what he hoped was encouraging sincerity.
“Living authentically is hungry work,” he said. “Come with me to the galley – and I will cook for you another meal to remember.”