DESPITE A FERVENT BELIEF IN those of the Flickering Gods he felt had not been sanitized into irrelevance, it had been long since Prosatio Silban had thought of Them as answering Their adherents’ every prayer.
Not that this stopped him from asking, mind you. As the pithyism went: “Sometimes the answer to a prayer is ‘no’ – assuming there be any answer at all.” And though the beefy cook could perhaps rely over-much on the dicey art of divine intervention, even he had to admit that some prayers were more effective than others.
Although the crowds were generally genial, they were also subject to the age-proven principle of There’s Always One.
Take today, for example – a hectic morning in the populous village of Plum Dodge, where Prosatio Silban was doing his best to keep happy a near-endless line of customers. His two tables-and-chairs seated a total of six people at a time, the same number as the busy burners on his galleywagon’s fatberry-oil stove. It was an arrangement done a-purpose, and although the crowds were generally genial, they were also subject to the age-proven principle of There’s Always One.
“Master Cook! MASTER COOK!” shouted a petulant young man clad in the livery of a local noble. “I have been waiting here forever, and m’Lord Phatab Boleus is growing more hungry by the minute. Can you not hurry things along, at least for those carrying away meals?”
“I do beg your pardon,” replied the breathless Prosatio Silban. “I am moving with all the speed that my natural talents can provide, and I will serve you as soon as is possible. Meanwhile, I thank you for your gracious understanding.” He began to clear a just-vacated seating, but his not-soon-enough-to-be-patron was unmollified.
“Why can you not favor those of greater importance?” the young man persisted. “The needs of one who commands the public’s economic and social interests should take priority, and I –”
“By Melkyo, God of Orderly Fairness!” interjected the brawny woman in front of him, wearing manual-worker’s garb and an annoyed sneer. “Are not we of the laboring classes more important? It is our hands which keep the Commonwell alive and steady every day. Yet you do not see us trying to connive a more forward place in this queue. You should show more patience. Not to mention humility.”
While this was going on, the frantic cook gathered an armful of used servingware and trotted up the three steps to his galleywagon’s open door. Once inside, he closed his eyes and murmured, “O Ibelinia, Goddess of Small And Timely Favors, please – grant me the strength and endurance I need to survive what is surrounding me. In return, I shall quote Your kindnesses wherever and whenever appropriate. This I affirm.”
There came no apparent effect – no flash of insight, nor a disembodied voice, nor firm hand upon his shoulder – not that Prosatio Silban expected same, to be honest. Instead, he found himself more relaxed; his heartbeat and breathing slowed; his hands steadied; and he gave vent to a deep and grateful sigh.
Thank you, Ibelinia, he thought, and paused before returning to his stove-duties.
Thank you, Ibelinia, he thought, and paused before returning to his stove-duties. Perhaps this is how prayer works – not by overt miracles, but by tapping into reserves one did not know one had. In fact, the Flickering Gods themselves may have no hand in these matters at all. How curious! I suppose this bears further contemplation and study. However, right now I have a hungry multitude to feed – and that with haste.
So it went until after lunch, when the mercantile flood had diminished to a trickle before stopping altogether. The cook-errant wiped with a damp cloth his tables-and-chairs and, one arm akimbo, surveyed Plum Dodge’s pastoral panorama: a tawny dog wagging its way down the street; a weary mother disciplining an unruly child; thick clouds skittering across the sun’s otherwise warming face; two happy drunks staggering by, arm-in-arm; a wares-hawker engaging in his ancient trade; a stream-turned mill wheel creaking a musical counterpoint to bright birds’ song.
After such a vigorous morning and noon, I think I can afford a well-earned break, he thought with a smile. Wait – who is this?
A tall, tatters-wrapped figure was shambling toward him with unsteady gait, preceded by an all-pervading scent of something indefinable-yet-intoxicating. Before the cook could gather his wits, the apparition had taken a seat and regarded him with profound expectation in its deep black eyes.
A mysterious feeling of utter significance touched Prosatio Silban’s soul, as though whatever he next said or did would be forever etched into the fixed history of the universe-at-large. “With what may I please you?” he heard himself say.
“The Flickering Gods are more overt than you know,” the figure pronounced in a low and unplaceably familiar voice. “Attend.”
And with those simple words, the sun went black.
Heartbeat pounding in his ears, Prosatio Silban clutched the table-wipe to his breast and moaned in sudden terror. Something wrong had been done to the world, in a way that he could neither understand nor describe; everything visible had somehow reversed itself. Each color was now its opposite, with light and darkness trading places into the bargain.
“See,” said the transposed figure.
Beneath the surface of the mutated sight-salad flashed phantasmal forms; vague, but clear enough to the cook-errant’s crossed senses. Under the tawny dog flashed an image of Thiani, Goddess of Exuberant Fauna. The weary mother overlaid Edid, God of Parental Corrections. The sun-blocking clouds were Gwaven, Goddess of Intermittent Meteorological Shadows. The drunks manifested Weamon, God of Inebriated Camaraderie. The hawker bore the imprint of Broedalla, Goddess of Lucrative Attraction. And the mill-wheel spun courtesy of Glaevis, God of Victualing Mechanics. All were outlined and connected by glimmering edges whose nature was not quite discernible to the awe-filled cook.
“Cast not your gaze between,” the figure said.
Like flame-drawn moths, Prosatio Silban’s eyes were dragged against his will to the subject of his warning. Although he still couldn’t quite make it out, he knew with crystal clarity that he was seeing the eternal ballet of Galien the All-Mother and Angrim the All-Limiter.
As his eyes were pulling from their sockets …
‘Existence is merely the unending dance between Life and Time,’ he quoted to himself, and though he tried to wrench away his eyes, his head was as if gripped in a cosmic vise. Even his eyelids were frozen open. His heart beat even louder, and over its maddening thump-thump-thump he began to hear himself scream.
I will be lost – forever lost, he thought in a panic. O Galien, what shall I do now? Save me, I beg of You! Do not forsake Your unwitting child!
As his eyes were pulling from their sockets, a woman’s strong but soothing voice intruded on the fearsome vision.
“Enter,” she said.
His heartbeat steadied, then slowed.
“The,” said a man in calming yet powerful tones.
The pressure on the cook’s eyes lessened.
“Dance,” came the hint of a whisper.
A wordless calm engulfed Prosatio Silban, immediate and ecstatic, of which Life and Time themselves were dynamic and interlocking facets.
He inhaled a ragged breath, released a longer one, and closed his eyes with gratitude.
When he opened them, everything visible had been restored to its natural state: glowing yellow sun, spark-dappled stream, wordful marketgoers. Although he could still sense the Flickering Gods’ presence, he was no longer overwhelmed by it. He sighed, sighed again, and sought in vain the apparition whence his strange fantasy – if such it was – had commenced.
If you look into the gods, the gods look into you, he thought, and wrung the table-wipe into a dry knot before letting it drop with a grateful smile. That way can lie madness – but not, it seems, for me.