TO SOME, DEATH IS AN unwelcome interloper; to others, a faithful ally. And to even others, its palpable presence can bring a type of hope.
Prosatio Silban swallowed the last of the blue duliac in his glass and sighed. He had been curled up in the Gold Piece Inn for what seemed like aeons, waiting on repairs to his galleywagon. One tavern, one wheelwright, and one ostler – that was all of the hamlet of Vetch’s Misery, a mostly abandoned village surrounded by fallow fields and muddy swampland.
For all that, the beefy cook was surprised that the inn was as crowded as it was. From the outside, it looked as though it would collapse at any moment, but the inside was well-lit and closely packed with the most dejected men he had ever seen. Some were at the bar, draining or gazing into their glasses; others were distributed more-or-less evenly at the occasional plank tables, their middle-distance stares accenting turned-down eyes and mouths. At the quiet, ember-filled fireplace, a serving-boy stirred a vast hearthside pot of grey stew, some of which was being eaten without pleasure by the hangdog assembly.
It’s as though it were a funeral, but with no guest of honor.
I have never seen the like, Prosatio Silban thought. It’s as though it were a funeral, but with no guest of honor. He raised his glass in the direction of the attentive innkeeper, who responded by selecting a bottle and walking it over.
“Is the duliac to your liking, sir?” asked the innkeeper.
“Very much so,” Prosatio Silban said with a smile. “It is living up to its reputation as a mild euphoric, which is more than I can say for this company. Has there been a recent local death?”
“Not yet,” replied the innkeeper. “But soon.” Seeing the cook’s puzzled expression, he indicated with a flourish a young man with his head in his hands.
“This is Jaro Darr,” he said. “He was a musician once, until the stark fist of Angrim, Lord of Time and Endings, took that away from him. He has been patronizing this establishment for nigh on a decade. Next to him is Octo Thundray, a former teacher of some repute, whose career was terminated last year when his village’s school burned down. The others here have similar pasts and histories.”
“Then why are they here?” asked Prosatio Silban.
Jaro Darr turned a mournful expression in his direction. “To live before dying,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
The former musician had just opened his mouth to reply, when the inn’s door flew open. A cold wind swept through the room. The breeze’s refreshing bite seemed to energize the crowd, who began an expectant murmur. A figure in a hooded black robe appeared in the doorway, and they fell silent.
“You,” he said.
The specter took a step inside, then another, and as he did so Prosatio Silban glimpsed a gaunt countenance with deep-set blank eyes. Slowly he went from man to man, wordlessly looking each full in the face before moving on to the next. When he got to Jaro Darr, he paused, raised a bony hand and pointed it at him.
“You,” he said.
Jaro Darr’s face lost its lugubrious pallor. The robed figure retreated to the open doorway, stepped through it, and disappeared into the night.
The inn was pindrop-quiet, but not for long. “Drinks are on Jaro Darr!” exclaimed the innkeeper. A lusty, many-throated cheer went up, and the men next to Jaro Darr clapped him soundly on the back and arms.
Prosatio Silban looked from face to face. Each was radiant with envious rejoicing, and the inn filled with cries of “congratulations,” “there’s a good fellow” and “couldn’t have picked a better man.”
“Will someone please tell me what is going on?” asked the perplexed cook. In answer, Jaro Darr – now as joyful as he had been sorrowful a moment ago – said, “I told you I would live before dying. Now, thank the All-Limiter, I can.”
“We gather here every year at this time in hopes of being selected by Angrim’s messenger. All of us have abandoned life for one reason or another; lost loves, failed businesses, inability to prosper. To be chosen is a great and happy honor. It means a year of success, of usefulness, and of memorability. We die at the year’s close, but what a life we lead until then!”
He paused to shake hands with two beaming patrons, and the innkeeper took up the conversational thread. “No man wishes to die a pauper, unloved and unknown. And nothing spices life like death’s ever-present shadow. The chosen one leaves here with a renewed zest for the art of living, a purpose and the means to implement it, and the promise that he will be remembered. And that is as happy as a man can be.”