(Two printed pages. If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. Enjoy.)
NOT FOR NOTHING HAD PROSATIO Silban parked his galleywagon outside cosmopolitan Soharis’ main military barracks. Soldiers are a notoriously hungry lot, and use any excuse to spend their extra pay on the sort of food they aren’t able to obtain in their daily mess.
His location was perfect – not so far from the bayside city’s bustling fish market as to discourage the attentions of peckish shoppers, not so close to the barracks as to be thought a security risk. The wind rising from the bay was also cooperative, keeping the market’s fabled aroma at a discreet distance.
But the beefy cook’s eye, trained by years of serving a varied public in varied places, was quick to spot anything out of the ordinary. Such a one was the skinny, diminutive and leather-armored warrior who approached now, taking a tentative seat at the portable table-and-chairs and squinting at the painted menu board beneath a legend which proclaimed, “The Cook For Any Price.”
“With what may I please you?” Prosatio Silban asked.
The soldier thought for a long moment, then replied in a quavering voice, “What do you have for cowardice?”
“By Thykol of the Unlooked-For Grace, man! Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Strong drink,” replied the cook, “but I am not licensed to sell it.”
“I have tried that, and to no avail,” said the other. “It is the curse of my professional assignment.”
“What are your duties, that they so reduce your bravery?”
“I am a drummer,” the soldier replied. “And the primary rule of war is, ‘First, shoot the drummer.’”
“Why is that?”
“Because the drummer is the one who rouses men to battle,” said the soldier. “Without its martial music, an army has no immediate motivation beyond self-survival. The men are armed, but without a unified purpose.”
“A sound tactical strategy,” said Prosatio Silban. “And I can certainly understand your trepidation. Do not your compatriots rise to your defense?”
“There is no defense against crossbow bolts sent by an expert hand,” the soldier said in grave tones. “My armor is light so that I may move quickly, and my fellow warriors are justifiably more concentrated on attack.”
Prosatio Silban creased his hairless brow in perplexity. As a self-defrocked Sacreant, he was not unused to serving people’s souls – and this was certainly a soul in need of service. But his years as a mercenary cook had taught him to wield a light hand when it came to seasoning a complex dish, and the soldier’s problem was complex enough. He asked, “How did you arrive at such an unenviable station, and one involving such danger?”
“It was my foolish choice,” replied the soldier. “I wanted to see the Uulian Commonwell and surrounding Exilic Lands outside the confines of my home village. But I was not fearless enough to be a combatant. I am also a natural musician, and the military offered what seemed to be the perfect compromise. Only afterward did I discover the assignment’s hazards, and by then it was too late to transfer positions without being branded a coward.”
“There is a difference between cowardice and fear,” said the cook. “The latter is one’s natural reaction to danger; the former, an involuntary fixation on and submission to that reaction. Yet you do not seem to me to be submitting. How have you managed to stay alive for this long?”
The soldier paused, reflecting. “I am not sure. Perhaps the Flickering Gods are sparing me for some other, yet unglimpsed, fate.”
“That has been known to happen,” said the cook. “Tell me – do you pray?”
“With all my heart and soul, and to every god I can think of, from Angrim, Lord of Time to Galien, Lady of Life,” said the drummer. “But so far, my heart remains that of a craven poltroon.”
“Perhaps you are addressing the wrong circumstance,” the cook said. “It seems that, while you are fervently praying for courage, you are overlooking the sheer and mere fact of your continued survival.”
The soldier gaped at Prosatio Silban with a look of incredulous understanding. “By Thykol of the Unlooked-For Grace, man! Why didn’t I think of that?”
“It is not easy,” said the cook, “to concentrate on life when one is obsessed with confronting death. Now – with what may I please you?”