WHEN VISITING YOUR BOYHOOD HOME after the passage of too-many years, it’s only natural that it should seem quite a bit smaller than last you saw it.
But aside from towering over the landscape, Prosatio Silban was amazed by how little Bustan had changed: the same thatched creekside huts, the same arched stone bridge, the same goat-browsed village common, the same ivy-covered inn.
I should really get back here more often, he thought. But I know I won’t.
The beefy cook brought his galleywagon to a halt in front of the Inn of Four Wishes – a squat but rambling structure in the style usual to most mid-class public-houses in the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell, with its half-timbered walls, slate roof, lozenge-paned windows, and eager stableboy waiting to take the reins.
Inside was the typical controlled chaos of any ale-lubricated meeting place – men shouting for drink; a young girl turning a hearth-warmed spit burdened with capons; another ladling fragrant stew out of an enormous fireside stockpot; stout tenant farmers at oak plank-tables, conversing about weather and “the prospects;” and the familiar, behind-the-bar face of Trento Ilvad, pouring foaming golden liquid from a cask into a gaggle of tray-laden mugs and glancing up in wonder.
“Let me look at you! How long has it been?”
“Master Prosatio?” the innkeeper bellowed above the raucous din. “It has been a time! Permit me to dispatch these drinks…”
He handed the tray to one of the serving-maids, then bustled around the massive mahogany bar to seize Prosatio Silban in a fierce bear-hug. “Let me look at you! How long has it been?”
The cook returned the hug, clapping Trento Ilvad on the back before releasing him. “Not soon enough,” he said with a grin. “It is good to see you too, my old friend. How are my parents?”
A dark expression crossed the innkeeper’s face. “Your mother is well, may the Flickering Gods keep her so,” he said.
“And my father?”
Trento Ilvad squeezed Prosatio Silban’s shoulders and looked away. “You should first speak to your mother. Please – don’t ask me again.”
* * *
Like any parents anywhere, Uulian mothers and fathers of low estate wanted little else than improved circumstances for their offspring. This meant ‘prenticing them further up the Commonwell’s five-rung social ladder. At the inaccessible top stood the First Heirs – senior lineal descendants of the Three Cities’ founders – and the Heirs Second, whose latter occupations were managing and advancing their holdings (often with great intrigue) as well as establishing Uulian culture, custom and fashion.
Beneath these land-owning Inheritors resided three fluid classes of Folk: the Gentry, or those who profited from another’s labor; Freehands, who worked for themselves; and Commoners, who toiled for all the classes above them. Among the Gentry were trusted Heir Second retainers; wealthy merchants; and Sacreants, servitors of the Flickering Gods, who administer and regulate law, medicine, commerce, and all the other institutions which make whole a civilization.
Unfortunately, social climbing is not without its casualties. Such was the case with Prosatio Silban, the youngest of three from the family headed by Prosatio Brior. “One to the nobles, one to the merchantry, and one to holy office,” the proud father would say to any who asked about his children. Prosatio Silban’s sister and brother had flourished in their new situations, respectively as governess and clerk; he, however, had left the Sacreanthood a quarter-century gone for reasons that his father neither understood nor accepted.
“A traveling cook?! What kind of life is that?” the old man had loudly chastised his son at their last reunion. “You cannot give up on my dreams for you, after I’ve worked so hard to provide for your future. You dishonor me with your disobedience.”
“What about my dreams?” Prosatio Silban had shouted. “Surely you don’t want me to dishonor myself by acting the hypocrite. That’s what I’d be, if I continued wearing the Rainbow Robe. I’d rather bring happiness to people in my own way than disgrace myself – and, by extension, you.”
And with that, the erstwhile holyman had left Bustan for a long road – and longer years.
* * *
As with the village, the Prosatio family homestead also looked much the same. The whitewashed barn and modest tenant-farmhouse were in tidy repair, the pungentine fields were a rich green, and the goats bleated a loud welcome as Prosatio Silban drove his galleywagon into the well-kept yard. He didn’t see his father about, but his mother, Gali, was all kisses and warm embraces as he stepped down from the driver’s bench.
“Thank the All-Mother you’re here, my son,” the old woman said. “If only the Flickering Gods had sped your ‘wagon the faster…”
The words were a kick to Prosatio Silban’s gut.
The cook grasped his mother’s shoulders and peered into her face. “Matra? Where is Patra?”
She sighed. “In the Pure City, my son.”
The words were a kick to Prosatio Silban’s gut. He gasped.
“He’s dead? When…? How…?”
“Two weeks ago. He was trying to shoe one of the donkeys when it kicked him in the head. He died quickly, thank the All-Limiter. Your brother and sister attended the pyre. But they’ve left, and I can’t get used to…” Her voice melted into sobs.
“Oh Matra,” the cook said. “Mother, I was hoping to surprise you and Patra with a visit, perhaps effect with him a reconciliation. But now…”
Gali blotted her tears with one sleeve of her shift. “He would have welcomed it. The years had mellowed him somewhat. He never stopped regretting the harsh words he spoke to you at your last meeting.”
“I’ve often thought of that day, and not with joy. Natheless, I’d like to think we could have eventually squared our differences.”
“I’m sure you would have. But you cannot speak to him now.”
“No, I cannot. But I know someone who can.”
* * *
Searching for a wizard is rarely an easy task, especially in the magik-wary Commonwell, where most people shy away from anything weird that doesn’t originate from their gods. Fortunately, Prosatio Silban had a connection to the quasi-demonic demimonde through a previous client, whose feast the cook had catered rather triumphantly some time ago in a suburb of epicurean Pormaris.
He had first encountered the wizardess begging outside one of the island-city’s four opulent marketplaces, tucked between a perfumer’s stall and an incense shop, not far from Pormaris’ greedy dockside funeral-pyres. As he had hoped, she was squatting against one poured-stone wall, dressed in once-lavish maroon rags, with a dirty bandage over her eyes and a dented metal cup in one hand. She slowly turned her head in Prosatio Silban’s direction, but said nothing as he approached. He bent down until his mouth was close to her ear.
“I need to speak to my father,” he explained without preamble.
“Put a coin in my cup and we shall see what we shall see.”
“I cannot help you,” the beggar replied.
“He is in the Pure City.”
A pause. “Perhaps I can help you,” she said. “Put a coin in my cup and we shall see what we shall see.”
Prosatio Silban fished in his pouch, flourished a small silver disc, and dropped it into the woman’s cup with a musical tinkle. Immediately, the mercantile scene dissolved into sparks of dancing light.
They were now sitting on leather chairs in the middle of a drapery-hung parlor smelling faintly of old roses. Gilt-framed paintings thick with figures and scenes both peculiar and bizarre decorated the five walls. The beggar looked a beggar no longer, but a wizened crone in dark red robes, her eye-bandages replaced by an expression of sharp attentiveness. Curled on her lap was a handsome brown tabby with white gloves and boots. One golden feline eye regarded him gravely; its mate was milky and apparently sightless.
“That’s better,” the crone said with a happy sigh. “Beggary makes a good disguise, and one that helps me survey the doings of the Commonwell’s market-going populace. But it can also be rather itchy. Well. I do remember you. The ‘Cook For Any Price,’ isn’t it? How may I be of service – and how can you meet my price?”
Prosatio Silban smiled a fellow-conspirator’s smile. “My mission is of some urgency,” he said. “I am not very moneyed, but I do have other talents and resources which may be considered tradeful. What are your terms?”
“My fee will be contingent upon making successful contact with your decedent. It may be easier than you think, or perhaps more difficult; I shall charge accordingly. The banquet you once provided me spoke well of your skills and ingenuity. Whatever the outcome, I promise that you will be able to afford it.”
The wizardess indicated the cat. “This is Germ,” she said. “As he is wiser than I in many ways, he will be our conductor on this journey.”
She gently lifted Germ from her lap and deposited him on the flagstone floor, then picked up a large piece of blue chalk and enclosed him within a careful circle. She stood up, brushing chalk-dust from her fingers, and commenced to chant in a language Prosatio Silban had never heard before. As the cadences rose and fell, Germ’s filmed-over eye began to glow with the intense blue of an evening star.
What now? thought the cook.
The crone’s chanting abruptly ceased. “Speak, spirit, speak,” she whispered. “Tell us what only you know.”
Germ’s mouth opened wide, showing clean white teeth. Prosatio Silban was expecting a purr or some sort of meow, but was startled instead to hear his father’s unmistakable voice.
“Son, o son,” the cat said in perfect mimicry of Prosatio Brior. “Why do you trouble the quiet dead?”
“Life is hard on a person. And if he is not equally hard he will not long survive.”
“Patra?” Is that you?” asked the cook.
“It was me. Now I am only the spirit of a memory.”
“I do not mean to disturb your rest, sir. But I would have words with you – in place of the words we last spoke.”
“I am listening.”
“Patra. What did you want for me?”
“That you would rise above your low estate and become something…more. Nothing else.”
“But I have. I have a livelihood that brings pleasure to all I encounter, that lets me set my own hours, and makes me dependent on no one save eager and grateful customers. It poses its occasional challenges, but that is true of anyone’s life. I am quite content.”
“That was all I could ever have asked of you.”
“Then why were you so hard on me? On my dreams?”
“I had to be. Dreams are insubstantial. Life is hard on a person. And if he is not equally hard he will not long survive.”
“That I have also come to learn. In many ways, we are alike.”
“You are looking well. Please continue to flourish.”
Prosatio Silban’s voice caught. “Thank you, Patra.”
“I love you, son.”
The cat’s mouth slowly closed; its glowing eye faded back into milkiness. The cook realized his cheeks were wet.
A deep silence stretched for some heartbeats, then – “Does that conclude our business?” asked the wizardess.
“It does,” said Prosatio Silban quietly. “Thank you.”
“My privilege. It is good to help familial reconciliations,” she said. “I shall name my price now.”
The cook sighed. “And it is?”
“’Continue to flourish,’” said the wizardess. “And when next I need you – pray come when I call.”