IT WAS AS BEAUTIFUL, BREEZY, and otherwise uneventful a day as any in the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell, save for one particular: the long queues of people, in every settlement of any size, waiting their turn for the Decennial Tally.
Prosatio Silban’s galleywagon was parked in the rustic riverside village of Frogbottom, near the end of the human line that stretched to the Tabulators sitting at a wooden table. The two bored-looking, guard-flanked officials, wrapped in the tricolor robes of Commonwell bureaucrats, asked each person the same three questions: “Name?” “Age?” “Occupation?” This slow parade of individuals, couples, and families had been going on all morning and looked as if it would continue into the afternoon as well.
Fortunately for the cook-errant, the attending throng was also a hungry one.
Fortunately for the cook-errant, the attending throng was also a hungry one. He was doing a brisk business in sandwiches, pasties, and other portable meals, and was vending a sausage-on-a-skewer when one potential countee caught his eye. This young man would step up to the queue’s end, shake his head, fall back, shake his head again, step forward once more, and fall back, all while brushing thick strands of chestnut hair over the left side of his face. He had performed this halting pantomime several times before Prosatio Silban took advantage of a brief lull to welcome him as he would any other prospective patron.
“With what may I please you?” he called in the friendliest tone he could muster.
The youth turned frightened eyes on him before stammering out a soft reply.
“There is … nothing you could … could do for me,” he said. “But … thank you for … for asking.”
“You look like someone who needs a favor, or at least a small measure of comfort,” he said. “Are you lost?”
“No! No … I am not. I have … ah, no good reason for … for being here. And now I … I … ah …” A sudden gust stirred his hair, revealing an iron chattel-earring.
The cook lowered his voice. “You are from Tirinbar, are you not?”
(At this juncture, O Patient Reader, a modest reminder may be apt: Of the Commonwell’s three provincial cities, only the laboring class of stony-hearted Tirinbar was comprised of its own debt-laden, desperate poor. Hence, the terrified look the young man shot in Prosatio Silban’s direction.)
“Please … oh please,” he moaned. “I beg you … don’t tell anyone!”
“I will do more than that,” the cook replied. “I will help you. Come to my galleywagon.”
“You there!” cried one of the Tabulators’ guards. “At the end of the line! I would speak with you.”
“Pay no attention!” Prosatio Silban whispered, and nodded toward his galleywagon. “Go up the steps and inside. Hide, if you can. I shall join you in a moment.” He then turned a smiling face to the approaching guard. “Yes, friend! With what may I please you?”
“Who was that youth?” barked the guard.
“Who was that youth?” barked the guard.
“My manservant,” the cook said. “Surely you don’t think I could serve this crowd by myself?”
“Why was he gadding-about so at the end of the line?”
“He was taking lunch orders. It has been that kind of a day.”
“Bring him out from your vehicle. I wish to talk to him.”
“I don’t know that he is in the vehicle.”
“Damn you! I saw him enter.”
Prosatio Silban frowned. “That is odd. I sent him into the village for more supplies. As I said, it has been that sort of a –”
“Bring. Him. Out. Now!” growled the guard.
“I will let you in, but you’ll not find him. Believe me.”
They ascended the three steps by the driver’s bench to the galleywagon’s door. The cook opened it wide, and the pleasant blend of a quarter-century’s cooking-smells greeted them as they entered.
“Let me light a lamp,” said Prosatio Silban, and did so. “There. You see? No one here.”
The guard took in the six-burner fatberry-oil stove, oaken preparation-counter, and dish-closet to his left; likewise the coldbox and honeywood pantry on his right.
“What’s behind that black silk curtain at the far end?” he snapped.
“My sleeping-berth. Why do you ask?”
“Open the curtain.”
“You can’t be serious. I’ve not yet made my –”
Tight-gutted and loose-handed, the cook obeyed.
Tight-gutted and loose-handed, the cook obeyed. Only scattered linen bedclothes and a rumpled feather pillow met their eyes.
The guard looked with apologetic suspicion at Prosatio Silban.
“Hmph. Seems I was wrong. Sorry for the inconvenience.” With that, he stumped across the ornate braided rug to the door and slammed both halves behind him.
After some heartbeats, the mattress rose up and toppled to the floor. The young man lately beneath it gulped for air.
“You may breathe now,” said the cook. “What is your name?”
The youth looked at the rug. “Sirenio Fajar. I am impoverished, and … and can only repay you with … with my … with my …”
“Sirenio Fajar, I am Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price, and you need not repay me with anything. It will be my great privilege to help you; no one should have to live the life of a slave. The Flickering Gods seem to have brought us together for this circumstance, just as They have done for others in your situation. May I find for you something to eat?”
The young man smiled, and raised his eyes. “Please. And … thank you.”
* * *
“We are being followed,” Prosatio Silban called over his shoulder.
The galleywagon, with the cook on the driver’s bench and his new charge standing at the half-open doorway just behind, was making good time on the tamped-earth road twisting between ragged rows of scarlet-cypress and gingko.
Sirenio Fajar shouted a reply above the galleywagon’s clatter. “How do you know?”
“I know. It is an instinct. And likewise, I do not believe that guard would be so obliging as to leave such a doubtful stone unturned.”
“What can we do?”
“We can lay on more speed. Onward!” he cried to his quaint lumbering buopoth, and flicked the plaited yak-hair reins. “With alacrity, if you don’t mind!”
Onward responded by sprouting additional legs, and the galleywagon raced along, its accelerated pace intensifying the swaying and rocking. Sirenio Fajar clutched the painted doorpost.
“Onward!” Prosatio Silban called. “Find the next obscure clearing and bring us to a halt within it!”
After a tense moment, the chatoyant dray-beast slowed to turn from the road – but the galleywagon still rose up on its two left wheels before settling down with a crash.
“The road’s curves may have screened us from pursuing eyes,” the cook said, climbing down from his perch. “But in case they have not, close the door – and think invisible thoughts.”
Sirenio Fajar complied, and the afternoon stillness enfolded them without so much as a birdsong or insect-buzz.
A moment later, hoofbeats as of more than one riding-animal (and shouts as of more than one rider) sounded from the direction of the road. Prosatio Silban shut his eyes and spread his arms as the commotion grew closer.
“This is not the first time You have granted me the opportunity to help free the once-captive, and I am grateful to serve both You and them in this fashion.”
“O Atluuk, God of the Fortuitous Escape; Sojef, Goddess of Hard-Won Autonomy; and Galien, the all-embracing All-Mother, hear my plea and grant my boon,” he whispered. “This is not the first time You have granted me the opportunity to help free the once-captive, and I am grateful to serve both You and them in this fashion. Divine Ones, I beg that You again aid us in our flight. Do not let the unholy forces of constraint enwrap us with their cruel attentions; strike off the mental and physical manacles which bind my charge, and let us depart from here in peace and concealment. I shall tell the tale of Your kind grace whenever and wherever the occasion affords. This I affirm.”
With a rapid pounding in his chest and temples, Prosatio Silban waited. The hoofbeats’ volume continued to increase, and the cook wondered about mounting a suitable defense should matters take that turn. He hopped down from the driver’s bench and planted both feet with pugilistic resolve.
The pursuing noise grew louder still.
“This way!” came a shout from the road. “They went this way!”
Prosatio Silban raised his fists. When did I last fight? he thought. Whenever it was, I summon that memory now!
Another shout resounded.
The cook’s nails bit into his palms.
By degrees, the cries diminished. As did the hoofbeats.
Prosatio Silban realized he had been holding his breath. He released it with a gradual sigh as the sound of vain chase faded into forested silence.
The door’s top-half cracked open, and the cook-errant smiled.
“I believe we can continue on our way,” he said. “Are you ready?”
“Yes, but … what if they return and … find us?” Sirenio Fajar asked.
“Allow me to lay your fears to rest,” Prosatio Silban said. “Come down here.” After his charge descended, the cook stepped up to the galleywagon door and locked both halves with a curious-looking silver key.
“Why did you do that?” Sirenio Fajar asked.
By way of answer, Prosatio Silban reached up and stroked Onward’s neck.
“Old friend,” he murmured, “we need to fly. Can you help us?”
The dray-beast responded with a rattling hoot, and Sirenio Fajar gasped.
Onward seemed to be melting. The buopoth’s torso lengthened and broadened, and all but two of its legs merged into enormous wings. Soon, a giant bird of no particular species was looking down at them with expectant and iridescent eyes.
“Come,” Prosatio Silban said. He mounted Onward’s shoulders and extended a hand to Sirenio Fajar. The now-former slave took it and climbed up to sit behind his rescuer.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
As the great and ersatz avian flapped its wings and lifted them above the treetops, the cook grinned.
“To your new life,” he said.