IT ONLY CAME ONCE A year, but for Prosatio Silban, once was almost too much.
His galleywagon was parked in the small marketplace at the village of Whistleshoe, and he had begun this particular day by staring into his berth-side mirror. A bald, somewhat round and middle-aged face looked back at him with a forced smile. The twenty-second day of the month of the Mouse, in the Year of the Haunted Oyster. Happy Natal Day, he thought to his reflection. And many, many happy returns. At least, one or two.
The cook wiggled his eyebrows, but even that children-entertaining gesture failed to rouse his flagging spirits. Consider yourself lucky, my friend. Some people don’t have birthdays anymore. Remember three years ago, the Year of the Shattered Keep, when you were down for a week with the Galloping Gobbles? You almost ended your days then and there. So don’t give me that hangdog expression.
What is it that makes this day so…well, so spiritually perilous?
He dressed hurriedly (grey canvas kneebreeches, blue tunic, green vest, jaunty blue fez, black rubber-soled shoes), nodded at the mirror, and exited the galleywagon.
What is it that makes this day so…well, so spiritually perilous? You are a fairly merry fellow, mostly, especially when the morning dawns this brightly. And as a child, you couldn’t get enough of iced wizard-cake and well-attended parties. But these days, this day never fails to lay you out flat. No wonder you’d rather work than idly churn your brain with celebrations.
“Good morning, Onward,” Prosatio Silban greeted his buopoth, prompting a rattling hoot from his dray-beast of many years. He fed the chatoyant animal a pair of fragrant lavender fatberry cakes, told it what a good buopoth it was, and deployed a table-and-chairs from the galleywagon’s undercarriage. He then set up his painted signboard – topped by the legend, “THE COOK FOR ANY PRICE” – and steeled himself to welcome potential breakfasters.
Last year, the Year of the Weighted Table, I was in epicurean Pormaris catering a seasonal banquet for that city’s reigning Heir Second, Vajang. Nobles can make excellent clients, especially the more purse-padded ones, but what a time I had satisfying him! He found fault with everything I –
“Excuse me, but are you taking business at this early hour?” asked a young woman. She held a baby in the crook of one elbow, and her tone and expression marked her as in her mid-twenties. She shifted the infant to her other arm as she searched the cook’s face.
“With what may I please you?” he asked. “And is it you alone, or your child also?”
“He just ate, so to speak,” the woman replied, and smiled. “But I would appreciate a plate of marbled chicken-eggs, some vegetable hash, and toasted stone-rye bread for my own breakfast. I don’t often feast so richly, but the twenty-second of Mouse is my birthday, and such a date deserves a bit of a splurge.”
She held his eyes as she sat down.
“It’s your birthday too?” Prosatio Silban asked. “Mine as well. Which makes this meal half-price, as my gift to you.”
“Thank you!” the woman said, and her coquettish smile deepened. She held his eyes as she sat down.
The cook could feel his face redden. She’s young enough to be my daughter, if I had a daughter, he thought, then frowned to himself. In any case, I am too old for such improprieties. Perhaps she’s simply grateful for the discount?
His mentations were interrupted by another young customer, this time a male, dressed in the belted tunic and open jerkin of the rural working-classes. “I couldn’t help overhearing – you see, today also happens to be the day I was born. Twenty-three ago, in fact, in the Year of the Twisted Barrel.”
“What a coincidence!” cried the woman, and dimpled. “I was born the year before – the Sixteenth Year of the Lurking Jest. Master Cook, what year were you born?”
“Believe it or not, I took my first breath in the Fifteenth of the Lurking Jest,” said the cook. “I suppose that makes us all linked, somehow.”
“If we’re not, we should be – despite that you are two-dozen years my senior,” the woman said, then turned her seductive smile to the young man. “Here – share this table with me.”
Prosatio Silban groaned inwardly. A born flirt, he told himself. Not the most attractive quality. Still, don’t be unprofessional. To the late arrival, he asked, “With what may I please you?”
“Ah…what do you recommend?” the man asked.
“I am preparing some eggs and hash for our birthday-mate already,” the cook replied. “It would be simplicity itself to double the serving. But then, it’s your birthday too, yes? You should have whatever you like.”
The man winked at the woman. “That remains to be seen,” he said, and grinned. “But it’s also your birthday, Master Cook. Make it easy on yourself.”
Prosatio Silban bowed. “Your food will arrive momentarily,” he said, and made for the galleywagon steps.
Inside, he tried not to think about the young woman’s inviting eyes as he cracked four eggs into one well-seasoned iron skillet and began sizzling hash in another. Such transparency, he thought, breaking the yolks and stirring them into the whites. Still, it is nice to be made eyes at occasionally.
She was wearing a long blue dress and a distracted air, with an artless comeliness of the comfortable variety.
When the meals were done to a nicety, he deposited them on two woven-bamboo plates, set these on a lacquered wooden tray, retrieved and added the toast, and stepped outside. As he descended the steps, he saw that his two customers had been joined by a third – another woman, and one closer to his own age and social station. She was wearing a long blue dress and a distracted air, with an artless comeliness of the comfortable variety.
“Here you are,” he told the first two. Turning to the newcomer, he asked, “With what may I please you?”
“I doubt you can,” she said with a frown. “You see, today is my birthday, and I –”
“Wonderful!” interrupted the young woman. “We are having a party. Won’t you sit and join us? It’s all of our birthdays too.”
“I am in no mood for parties,” said the older woman. “I have not celebrated my birthday since twelve ago. The Year of the Flowing Bottle? That is when my husband died.”
The requisite awkward silence fell.
“I am sorry to hear that,” Prosatio Silban said.
“As are we,” chorused the other two.
“Well, there’s nothing to be done about it,” said the older woman. “Since his death, my birthdays have seemed somewhat macabre. They only remind me of how little time I have left in this, the most interesting of all possible worlds.” She focused warm and experience-wise eyes on the cook, as if seeking his understanding.
Prosatio Silban bowed sympathetically. “I think I know how you feel,” he said. “The very thought occurred to me just this morning, in fact. How little time remains, that is, and how quickly it passes. But today, that thought inspired me to open for business. It is what I know how to do, and it seems to gratify people.”
“It certainly gratifies me, ” said the young woman, and raised a laden fork. “If you weren’t here, I would have started my natal day hungry. And that would not have been happy at all.”
“No,” agreed the young man. “Life always seems better with a full stomach – especially in the morning. Thank you for that, Master Cook.”
“Yes, thank you,” echoed the young woman.
The cook nodded his appreciation; the older woman’s frown deepened, then turned sheepish. “Well. Far be it from me to be a soggy cloud on such an otherwise fine morning,” she said with an uncertain smile. “However much time I have left, I’d really rather spend it pleasantly. And I suppose I shall begin with breakfast. I should like a plate of marbled chicken-eggs, some vegetable hash, stone-rye toast…”
“That seems to be today’s birthday special,” he said.
Prosatio Silban returned her smile with warm sincerity. “That seems to be today’s birthday special,” he said. “I shall return momentarily.”
* * *
Alone in his galleywagon at last, Prosatio Silban fluffed his pillow and drew back the bedclothes, looking forward to some well-earned rest. It had been a busy day; in addition to the fortuitous breakfast custom, he had hopped up and down the galleywagon steps in service to a steady and lively throng of patrons. His coin jar was nearly full, and his heart likewise: he had enjoyed a genial dinner assignation at the village inn with the older woman, spending the evening in more pleasant (and lengthy) conversation than he could remember having had for some time.
He glanced in the mirror. There was no trace of sadness or even irritation in his face, and he smiled – this time, without force. All in all, he thought, a better natal day than I thought it would be. He climbed into his sleeping-berth, extinguished the overhead fatberry-oil lamp, and closed his eyes in thankful supplication to his own private gods.