OF THE NUMBERLESS CREATURES INHABITING the Exilic Lands, none are perhaps so quaint as the lumbering buopoth – and though no two descriptions agree as to the shy animal’s exact appearance, Prosatio Silban felt he knew every pore and curve in the great dray-beast’s backside.
His knowledge did not come from prurience; rather, he had stared at little else for the past few days.
The Cook For Any Price was driving his galleywagon eastward through the flat and sweltering Western Wides, and had been sandwiched between bright blue sky and featureless green plain for the greater part of a sweaty eternity. The only point of visual interest was the baobab tree known to travelers as ‘Climbing Gnarl,’ its gargantuan form slowly bloating up from the wispy grey horizon like a sea-worm scenting insensible prey.
Shade. Quiet. Nap, Prosatio Silban thought, plucking at his damp clothes and picturing cool melon slices and a tall mug of citronade. Then the Reckless Hills by sunset, and so into the Commonwell and whatever Hopmon, God of Commerce, may dispose.
The sun was beginning to crawl down the sky behind him by the time Prosatio Silban came abreast of the deciduous landmark. A slender figure was seated against the baobab’s swollen trunk, head resting on bony knees clasped by emaciated arms. Judging from the fashionable cut of his golden tunic, long russet vest and umber knee-breeches, the stranger was clearly an Uulian of the better-paying classes – and one who could obviously benefit from an affordable and well-cooked meal.
“Hail, traveler,” Prosatio Silban called out, halting Onward, his buopoth, with a slight tug of the plaited yak-hair reins. “May I join you?”
Receiving no reply, the cook slid from the driver’s bench. He shook the stiffly self-embracing figure’s shoulder — only to have it topple onto its side.
The cook’s hairless brow creased in mild aversion. So much for my itinerary, he thought as the familiar weight of obligation settled over his heart. “Let’s see what I can do for you, friend,” he murmured.
Though not unmoved by death, Prosatio Silban had seen enough of it to develop a patient acceptance of its inevitability and consequences. And though a self-defrocked Sacreant, the cook had never been able to abandon his natal faith’s responsibilities. However, such responsibilities were not without problems.
I’ve never actually built a funeral pyre, he thought. But how hard could it be?
The beefy cook unlashed a fatberry-oil barrel from the galleywagon’s undercarriage and rolled it some distance from the tree, then retrieved from the vehicle’s interior his most ornate (and least favorite) cotton robe. He laid the garment beside the body and readied himself to hoist – then sprawled backwards as the lighter-than-apparent corpse tumbled away, rocked once or twice, and settled on its back.
Prosatio Silban narrowed his eyes, shook his head, and sighed. He wrapped and tied appropriately, then carried to the bone-lumpy package to a suitable piece of ground and soaked it with oil. Perhaps not the most ideal of funerals, but the best his means could provide. Tradition asked no less, and only more when practicable.
The cook struck a match and applied it, grunting in satisfaction as fragrant pinkish flames took quick hold of the sodden bundle, then grumbling in dismay as the fickle blaze consumed the robe and puffed out.
More fatberry oil and another robe later, Prosatio Silban grimaced, ran a hand over his bare scalp and swore a soft oath to Hyntral, Goddess of Futile Sincerity. He looked about for suitable pyre-fodder, but saw nary a baobab branch on the ground or within reach.
Maybe I should just pour the oil on the damned ground instead? But the soil proved too well-draining and he wasted several matches before allowing himself to realize it. He threw down the box with a huff and briefly considered digging a shallow grave and pushing on to his destination, but his sense of duty was too strong. And despite his growing frustration, he grudgingly knew that he had not yet exhausted all possibilities.
Prosatio Silban found himself staring at the oil barrel. It was much like any other of its kind: a waist-high cylinder of cheap grey box-timber stenciled with a stylized fatberry cluster, its seams showing the dark streaks of long use. The ubiquitous berries were a cheap source of fuel (and buopoth fodder), and the discarded barrels could be found in quantity throughout the Commonwell. He smiled, thinking of happy boyhood hours playing inside the fragrant if slippery containers waiting to be broken into easy-burning firewood…
He glanced at the body, then at the barrel. Then at the body. He smiled.
The stars were sparking into brilliance and the smoking barrel dulling to embers when Prosatio Silban finished chanting the dirge’s last doleful cadence. He stood up, stretched crouch-stiffened limbs and bowed his head.
“‘Who saw you come, see you home,’” he quoted to the soft red coals, then dropped his voice to a spontaneous murmur. “And whoever you were, thank you for reminding me where the road ends.”
Behind him, Onward’s rattling hoot indicated a polite but firm interest in dinner. Prosatio Silban turned and smiled at the curious beast, its sleek chatoyant hide nearly invisible against the darkening sky.
“And thank you for reminding me where it begins,” he said, heading for the galleywagon.
 On the Uulian Commonwell’s western border, so-called because sensible Uulians consider reckless anyone who goes beyond them.