THERE IS A RELAXED SENSUOSITY in winding down from a busy day, and Prosatio Silban always looked forward to it; in his case, the high point meant removing his artificial eyebrows.
AHHH! he sighed to himself, and rubbed his now-naked brow ridges. Much, much better.
The beefy cook-errant had been performing this nightly task for longer than he cared to remember, and it always filled him with gratitude: for the success of his chosen occupation, yes, but also for passing among his fellow citizens without provoking their curiosity about his earlier life.
For he had not always been The Cook For Any Price. Once upon a time, he had been a Sacreant – one of the Uulian Commonwell’s holy functionaries charged with maintaining social order, infrastructure, and convenience. He laid down the paired slices of grey mouse-fur and unreeled his memory toward his early youth …
* * *
“But I don’t wanna be a Sacreant!” six-year-old Prosatio Silban wailed at his father.
“But I don’t wanna be a Sacreant!” six-year-old Prosatio Silban wailed at his father. “I wanna go back home with you and Matra!”
The deep tolling of the Diamond Shrine’s iron bell almost drowned out the youngster’s objections. He and his father were standing outside the imposing temple complex’s carved ivory gates, where the young boy was but one of a few loudly balking children being separated for the first time from their parents. It was an old story, played out in multiple cultures: poor commoners who wanted for their children a better life than drudgeful tenant-farmers.
“None of that nonsense, Silban,” Prosatio Brior said in a stern voice. “Your place is here with the Sacreants now. You’ll learn a lot and get to be important. Listen to your Patra, and behave. We’ll see each other again. Good-bye.”
“But … but …” protested the youngest Prosatio to his father’s departing back, before a tall woman in multicolored garb loomed up before him.
“Hello there, young man.” She was cresting midlife, and of slender build, with a kind smile and denuded scalp. “I’m Proeira Uthong,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Prosatio Silban,” he said. “What happened to your hair?”
Her smile increased, if that was possible. “It’s all part of being a Sacreant.”
“I don’t think I want to be a Sacreant if I can’t have hair.”
“Don’t you sometimes get things stuck in it?”
Despite himself, Prosatio Silban twitched the corners of his mouth. “I once got a sweetstick stuck in it! Matra had to snip it out. She was very cross with me.”
“Well, nobody will be cross with you here. And we won’t ever snip your hair. You’ll take a bath and it will all just fall out by itself.”
“How does that happen?”
“You’ll see. You’ll soon see lots of fascinating things. Here. Take my hand and I’ll show you.”
* * *
She hadn’t told him about the itching. Which was fine, really, since it didn’t last long.
The blue marble depilatory bath was wide and deep, but not so much so for a little one to get lost in.
The blue marble depilatory bath was wide and deep, but not so much so for a little one to get lost in. One by one the mass of youngsters waded into its milky green waters, held their breaths, submerged, emerged, and were enfolded by soft white towels on the other side. Scratching their now-hairless heads, the children were led into a vaulted torch-lit room where they were all clad like Prosatio Silban in grey-shaded “Initiates’ Smocks” – white at the collar, black at the hem. Here and there, other Rainbow Robed Sacreants kept the chattering youngsters calm and curious. Proeira Uthong called for quiet and, with some collegial assistance, was gradually obeyed.
“You will now all take your Initiates’ Vows,” she told them. “A vow is a kind of promise – a very serious promise. We are asking you to promise to do and say certain things as part of becoming a Sacreant. Do you have any questions?”
One girl raised her hand. “When do we get to eat?” she asked.
Proeira Uthong’s smile took in the entire assembly. “Very soon. In fact, part of your vow has to do with food. Any other questions?”
Seeing none, she continued: “Raise whichever hand you use the most and repeat after me: ‘I dedicate my life to serve Galien the All-Mother and Angrim the All-Limiter, and Their Extended Family. May Their flickering lights guide my steps. May Their food and drink nourish my soul and spirit to grow strong in Their service. And let me come to know Them by what I can see, and what They want to show me. This I affirm – today and forever!’”
“‘I dedicate my life to serve Galien the All-Mother and Angrim the All-Limiter…’” chorused the children, verse by verse and hands aloft, finishing with, “‘… This I affirm – today and forever!’”
“And now, my good Initiates,” Proeira Uthong finished, “we eat!”
* * *
The victuals were of a kind Prosatio Silban had never before tasted, and completely vegetarian: some eaten hot, like the tomato pies; some cold, like the six-leaf herb-and-whatnot salad. Some were even at room temperature – banana-cashew bars and lentil fritters, for example.
There was a lot of it. And it was all delicious.
“To eat a thing is to become a thing,” Proeira Uthong told them before they dug in. “Along with your hair, with this food you are shedding your animal nature. Part of that means not eating animals anymore.”
After their feast, and before the tables were cleared, the omnipresent Sacreants led them in a short prayer: “Blessed be the Flickering Gods, Rulers of this most interesting of all possible worlds, Sovereigns of this bread. This we affirm!”
I think I might like it here, Prosatio Silban thought, chewing meditatively on a sweetstick. I think I might like it very much.
* * *
After lunch, the newcomers (and some accompanying Sacreants) gathered in one of the Diamond Shrine’s spacious courtyards.
“There are still a handful of things to do before your actual training starts tomorrow, but they are all important,” Proeira Uthong said. “This is Palito Unmar. He will explain.”
Palito Unmar was a short man whose impressive belly hung over his thrice-plaited greencloth belt.
Palito Unmar was a short man whose impressive belly hung over his thrice-plaited greencloth belt. “Welcome, Initiates,” he said in an affable, almost distracted tone. “Let me tell you how pleased we are to have you join us! Being a Sacreant is one of the most important jobs in the whole Commonwell. So important, in fact, that we must put on our serious faces. May I see your serious faces?”
The youngsters adopted diverse expressions of solemnity, which they held for about four seconds before catching sight of each other and shrieking in laughter. Palito Unmar joined them; he raised a mollifying hand, and the children by degrees grew quiet.
“I see that we must work on that,” he said with mock severity. “Meantime, let me tell you about the rest of today.
“First, we will divide you into smaller groups and assign your teachers. They will introduce to each of you your own special god or goddess, and what a jolly time that will be. Following that will be dinner, then evening prayers, and then you’ll pick out your bunks. Your bunkmate will be your learning-partner for as long as you’re here, may the All-Limiter so favor you.
“And finally, it’ll be time for sleeping. You’ll need it for tomorrow’s big day. Any questions?”
“What’s for dinner?” asked a boy.
“Whatever Hopmon the All-Provider and Alimta, Goddess of Digestive Comfort, have decided and decreed,” Palito Unmar replied. “Any other questions?”
“What if we don’t like our teachers?” one girl asked.
“Or our bunkmates?” asked another.
Palito Unmar shook his head. “As Sacreants, we’re supposed to love everyone. Sometimes we need to work at it a little, and sometimes a lot. But in time, you’ll learn that it comes easily. Anyone else with a question? No? Alright. In the first teacher’s group will be…”
Some minutes later, Prosatio Silban found himself one of eleven students in a large poured-stone room hung with tapestries depicting such of the Flickering Gods as the weavers thought most conducive to meaningful study. They had been assigned to Indrida Fhorst, a wizened woman with the most compassionate eyes he had had ever seen. He was immediately entranced, only to be jolted when his teacher spoke.
“Greetings, learners,” she said in a voice like crushing gravel. “It is so nice to finally meet you! This is our own private Learning Den, where, by the All-Mother’s grace, we’ll spend the next several years together – when we’re not praying or eating, that is. But for that, you must know which of the Flickering Gods – from Aarein, Goddess of Humble Propriety to Zzyzzyvor, Bringer of Restful Relief – will be your personal way-guide.”
Indrida Fhorst produced from an intricate basket a head-sized black sphere with a hand-sized hole in the side facing her students. “This is a g’homjabarr,” she said. “That’s Old Uulian for ‘god-giver.’ One by one you will place your hand in here – the hand you raised when you took your vows – and it will magikally mark your palm with the name of Whoever wants to give you special attention. The mark will only last a day or so, but your helper-god will watch over you always. Won’t that be nice?”
Eleven dubious faces regarded her. “Right,” the teacher said, and gestured with her other hand at Prosatio Silban. “You may go first. Come. Put your hand in here.”
He took a tentative step back. “I don’t want to,” he said.
“Why not? It won’t hurt.”
He shook his head. “I’m afraid.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“I dunno. I’m just afraid.”
Indrida Fhorst’s compassionate eyes held a suspicion of glare. “You have to. It’s part of becoming a Sacreant.”
“But I don’t wanna be a Sacreant!”
“My dear young man, it’s a bit too late for that. You’re already an Initiate, which is the first part of Sacreanthood. You can’t stop now. What did your father say when he dropped you at our doorstep?”
Prosatio Silban’s lower lip quivered. “He said I had to be here.”
Prosatio Silban’s lower lip quivered. “He said I had to be here.”
“You don’t want to disappoint him, do you?”
“Well …” Moisture gathered in his eye-corners.
“Hush, now. Come here. I promise it will be alright. After all, somebody has to be first.”
Prosatio Silban gazed at the floor, sniffling, and shuffled forward. She may have nice eyes, he thought as he stuck his right hand into the sphere, but I don’t think she likes me. I want to go home. Can’t I go home?
* * *
Dinner was as excellent as lunch had been, if not better, despite Prosatio Silban’s swallowing a couple of silent sobs with his lavish supper. You may imagine how his private evening prayers departed from the after-meal liturgy in the Diamond Shrine’s ornate and be-candled Initiates’ Chapel; such are the ways of small sad folk far from home and familiar comforts.
* * *
At last, stomachs full and spirits more-or-less scrubbed, the children came to their bunkroom. Dozens of double-stacked and blackwood-framed beds arranged in neat rows filled the capacious, lightstone-lit chamber. A different Sacreant greeted them at the door, bearing what Prosatio Silban had come to think of as a pretend-smile.
“I am Omela Yr,” the buxom woman said, and spread her arms in welcome. “Here is where you’ll be spending the nights during your time as an Initiate. The beds are both comfy and cozy, and there are exactly as many bunks as there are of you. So please – find your bed now!”
The excited-albeit-sleepy children wandered through the ebon-lined lanes, staking out or softly arguing over their future territories.
The excited-albeit-sleepy children wandered through the ebon-lined lanes, staking out or softly arguing over their future territories. Prosatio Silban spied one that he thought was the perfect location: equidistant between bathroom and hallway. He clambered up the short ladder – but alas! “his” bed was occupied by another boy.
“Hey!” the boy said, scowling. “This is my bunk.”
Prosatio Silban thought for a heartbeat. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Casto Orlan,” was the sullen reply. “What’s yours?”
“Prosatio Silban. Can I have the top bunk?”
“Like I said, it’s mine. Go find another.”
“But I want this one! I had the top bunk at my house, and I can’t sleep anywhere else.”
“How if I make a deal with you?” Prosatio Silban said with a crafty grin. “Let me sleep in the top bunk, and you can have my desserts.”
The interloper considered. “All of them?”
“All of them. That fat Sacreant said we’d have to be study partners and friends for the next long while. I don’t need my desserts, but I do need a friend.”
A pause. “I need one too,” Casto Orlan murmured.
“Then I’ll get the top bunk, you’ll have my desserts, and we’ll both be friends.”
They briefly locked digits, and Casto Orlan climbed down, sullen no longer; Prosatio Silban ascended, joyful for this small but significant triumph. Maybe this place won’t be so bad after all, he thought, settling in. I miss my home, but at least I have a friend. And that’s something.
* * *
Prosatio Silban drew back the black silk curtain concealing his sleeping-berth. I have come a long way since then, and not by the straightest of roads, he thought, snuggling in with a satisfied sigh. Some things haven’t changed, though – I’m still sleeping in a bunk, and still working for the Flickering Gods, in my own way anyhow. If I knew then what I know now … but I suppose that sentiment hasn’t changed either. I wonder if it ever will.