FROM HIS GALLEYWAGON AT THE edge of epicurean Pormaris’ busy South Market, Prosatio Silban could see the dockside funeral pyres at their greedy task.
It wasn’t the best location, but the result of being last through the gate of the City of Gourmands that morning with all the good spots already taken. And it wasn’t so much the spectacle which bothered Prosatio Silban as the lack of custom; mourners were a notoriously unhungry lot. Here it was approaching dinner, and he had not sold so much as a bowl of beans. Such is life, he thought, opening the ‘wagon door to a light salt breeze. Life’s only constancies are death and hunger, and like most extremes they make a poor mix.
The beefy cook stepped down from the galleywagon and stood, stretching, between the two tables he’d deployed earlier. His eyes swept the pyres: a long row of smoke- or flame-crowned mounds at the water’s edge, surrounded here and there by bowed figures. The muted rhythms of Uulian death chants were just audible under the bustling of the market-throng, like a burnt undercurrent in an otherwise delectable pilaf.
One mound was unaccompanied save for someone tall in a black robe and golden sunhat. Prosatio Silban’s eyes narrowed. The pyre couldn’t have been burning that long. The cook had noted the solitary mourner when he set up his tables.
The figure knelt, then arose, shoulders drooped. When she turned, Prosatio Silban looked into one of the saddest faces he’d ever seen. Each line had been etched by a hundred sorrows; the otherwise clear blue eyes were red with weeping; her gaunt cheeks were daubed with tears. She sighed, wiped her face with a handkerchief and looked vaguely about. Seeing Prosatio Silban’s galleywagon, she started toward it with surprisingly brisk step.
“Yes, madam? Something to comfort soul, or body?”
Her voice was like wheezy reeds, but warm. “Thank you,” she said, seating herself. “A simple cress-and-cheese horn would satisfy both, please. And a glass of blue duliac.”
Prosatio Silban bowed and stepped up into his galleywagon. He retrieved from his cold box a bundle of greens and three slices of pale yellow cheese, then selected from a basket a thick blue-rice crescent. He sliced open the latter, tucked in the former, and drew a thin stream of sapphire liquid from a large cask into a fluted glass tumbler.
He arranged it all on a painted wooden tray and set the meal before his customer. “Thank you,” she said. “What do I owe you?”
“I am the Cook for Any Price,” Prosatio Silban replied. “But this has been a slow day, and I am tempted to charge accordingly.”
She looked up at him. Her smile was like the sun rising behind a thunderhead, so much so that Prosatio Silban took a half-step back.
“Well, then, I am at your mercy,” she said. “I am not a woman of that many means.”
“Fortunately, your tastes are inexpensive,” Prosatio Silban said, then dropped his voice a touch. “And I am sympathetic. You have been at the pyres all day.”
“Was the passed-on someone close to you?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“I never know. That is why I am here.”
“I don’t understand …”
“It is a kindness I cannot repay.” Her voice was even, but her eyes remembered. “Do you have a family?”
“Neither do they.”
She held Prosatio Silban’s eyes; realizing it, she looked away. “May I pay you for the meal?”
Prosatio Silban bowed. “You already have.”