IT WASN’T UNTIL THE CHEESE course that Prosatio Silban realized that his clients weren’t silk merchants at all.
Enchanters, he thought. I should have tumbled to it earlier in the evening. There was something not quite mercantile about his clients’ whispered and mumbled conversations, their curious hand-gestures, their piercing eyes.
The setting, too, should have clued him in. For one thing, it was in what looked like a small shack located in a furtive alley off one of cosmopolitan Soharis’ myriad back-streets. Entering, though, one had the impression of a larger room than the outer walls bespoke, hung with lavish tapestries and gilt-framed paintings thick with figures and scenes both peculiar and bizarre.
One attendee in particular stood out – a wizened crone in dark red robes sitting near one end of the long teak dining table, who raised neither glass or fork, but whose goblet and plate emptied as gradually as her countenance melted into satisfaction.
“Delicious,” she said. “My compliments to you, Master Cook.”
Prosatio Silban bowed slightly. “You are kind,” he said.
“Not at all. May I tell you a tale by way of slight repayment?”
The cook signaled one of the trio of busy waiters, then sat in an empty seat by the woman’s side. “Certainly,” he said. “As long as it does not distract from my duties…”
“Not at all,” she said. “It goes like this:
“Once in space and time, there were rumors of a fabulous treasure, the wonder of the ages, which was locked in a castle atop a lonely mountain. Adventurers the world over sought it in vain, for it was guarded by fierce sentinels and forbidding topography. One after another tried to attain it, only to die or be disappointed.”
“I believe I may know this story,” said Prosatio Silban, trying to phrase it as politely as he could.
“Well you may scoff,’ replied the crone. “It is an old tale, but has the potential to reward patience.”
“My apologies,” said the cook. “Pray continue.”
“One day, a youth motivated less by avarice and more by curiosity attempted to reach the castle. He defeated the sentinels and bridged the surrounding grounds to arrive at the great castle’s doors. Three loud knocks brought the castellan, who set the youth to guessing three riddles; all of which he answered by the purity of his heart’s wisdom. The castellan bade him enter.
“Up a spiral staircase the youth climbed, until he was short of breath. He came to a final door, opened it, and stepped inside a lighted chamber. There before him lay Something on a dais, covered by an embroidered tarpaulin. He drew off the cloth and beheld … a full-length mirror.”
The crone looked the cook in his eyes. “Such is the tale, as it was told to me longer ago than I care to name,” she said.
There was a pause. Prosatio Silban raised an inquiring eyebrow. “That’s it?” he asked.
“It is,” she said. “You must understand that the ultimate quest in life is simply to find ourselves – our true selves – which only emerge after everything else is taken away. Hence the mirror, which reveals to the seeker his or her self. Of course, you must know that everything a mirror reveals is reversed.
“That is a secret of life, but unrevealed in the tale: that life only is life with someone else to polish our jagged edges and, most significantly, to act as parallax. How else would one answer the question, ‘Is it just me, or…?’”
“I see,” said Prosatio Silban. “And who is your reversor?”
The crone smiled a fellow-conspirator’s smile. “Everyone I meet,” she said.