IT IS THE HARDEST THING in the world – any world – to escape a cage of one’s own making. And yet …
Prosatio Silban strode through the swinging doors of Pelvhi’s Chopping-House and made straight for the long bar on the other side of the loud and smoky great-room. The tavern was always crowded, and more so tonight for additional reasons other than just Pormaris’ hardworking hospitality-class drinking and commiserating. For tonight, Tono Byrrden had arrived once more, fresh from an eventful and roundabout tour of the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell and adjacent parts of the Exilic Lands.
Tall, lean, and with a handsome, deep-lined face given to frequent convulsions of cynical laughter, Tono Byrrden had made a career of finding obscure gastronomic treasures. These he would share with the general public through a series of collected broadsheets describing his travels and the fascinating sights, dishes, and people he encountered. His Byrrden’s Bulletins had elevated the one-time professional chef out of the kitchens in which he had long worked and into the lofty realms of fame – at least, among food-enamored Uulian literati.
He and Prosatio Silban had met while the author was working on his third Bulletins collection, featuring a broadsheet or two devoted to the Cook For Any Price. That was many years ago, and although they had kept in such sporadic touch as was made possible by their crisscrossing lives, it had been some time since they had last seen each other. Nevertheless, they maintained a warm collegiality and mutual affection.
As the cook-errant approached the bar, Tono Byrrden was holding court to a circle of eager admirers and would-be friends. “No, I didn’t visit Rose-of-Amber this time,” he was saying to a star-struck young woman. “Perhaps on the next voyage, if they breed them as pretty as you, I wouldn’t mind – MASTER PROSATIO! I did not know you were also in town?”
Prosatio Silban grinned a reply and raised his voice above the genial din. “I never left!” he said. “Welcome back to Pormaris.”
“It is good to see you, too. Let us find a place where we can speak more audibly. Excuse me, good folk.”
Tono Byrrden disengaged himself from his disappointed but adoring hangers-on and followed Prosatio Silban to a seat at one of the tavern’s banquette side-tables. “Two blue duliacs, please,” the cook told an arriving waitron. “Mark it on my accounting.”
“Ah! the perquisites of cosmopolitan rootlessness,” said the author with a friendly sneer. “People do love to buy me drinks.”
“For you, always,” Prosatio Silban replied. “So – of what new and exotic playthings have you brought news to your doting readership?”
Tono Byrrden considered the red gingham tablecloth with sudden sad eyes. “That is my job, isn’t it?” he said. “I am recognized everywhere, and always asked the same question. I miss the occasional and once-standard, ‘How is your health?’”
“Forgive me,” said the cook. “I did not mean to –”
“It is not your fault; I am just in a strange mood. Travel has changed me; I have now completed my ninth collection and sent it to the printers, and am feeling somewhat … adrift.”
“In what way?”
“In the way that happens to all of us, who have seen too much. The palate deadens, the senses dull, and I more and more feel as though I am playing the impostor’s role. What’s left to do after you’ve done it all?”
“The world is large, my friend, and you are too authentic to be an impostor. Surely you haven’t ‘done it all?’”
Tono Byrrden snorted. “Perhaps not. But … ah, me! I visit our world’s unexplored quarters, and the wealthy follow in my train and ruin them all. I am more and more at a loss in terms of wondering who and what I am, and whether or not what I do is good.”
“You increase people’s knowledge of the world beyond their own limited scope. That is no little merit!”
“Yet I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. It has come to the point that I have taken to describing the what and how, and deliberately concealing the where and when. I am like the man who created a magikal automaton of initial usefulness, then watched as it ran wild and destroyed everything he loved. I … I …” He fell silent.
Prosatio Silban examined his friend’s face. He had always looked up to Tono Byrrden for his unfailing kindness, uncompromising honesty, and matchless mastery of his craft as both a writer and a chef. But now, he felt a stab of intuitive unease. This is a wounded soul, he thought, and by the All-Mother, I wish I knew what to say. I suppose I must say something.
“I once felt as you do – that I had reached the end of my own usefulness,” the cook said finally. “In fact, I was ready to end my life because of it. I have no answers for you, but I beg you to reconsider your situation. I understand your sense of responsibility, and commend you for it, but some good must come from what you do. You are too kind and capable for that not to be the case.”
An expression of frustrated indignation crossed Tono Byrrden’s face. “I do not believe you understand at all,” he said, rising from the table. “It is not a question of good. It is a question of consequence – and of whether or not I can survive its inexorable pull. I am not certain that I can.” With that, he slipped into the crowd and was lost to view.
* * *
The next day, all Pormaris was abuzz with the news that Tono Byrrden had taken his own life. Memorial speeches were made, sad songs were sung, and the colorful banners atop the Archive of Gastronomic Artifice – one of the departed raconteur’s favorite haunts – were replaced with a single black mourning-flag. The printer who had brought all nine of Byrrden’s Bulletins before a receptive audience could not keep up with the precipitous demand for back issues, and in his galleywagon, Prosatio Silban pondered the unexpected event with a choked throat.
I will not judge your final act, my dear sad friend, he thought, except in this: I do understand. And what’s more – I hope to see you later.
(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want another 85 stories in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)