THE “PURE CITY,” SO SAY the Sacreants, is the eternal home reserved for the souls of pious Uulians, where their earned rewards are consonant with their earthly deeds.
Capital criminals, on the other hand, are a different matter.
Ask any one of that sparse population their story, and they will all proclaim their innocence.
That thought preoccupied Prosatio Silban as he passed the Execution Garden outside Grimdark Gaol, at the northern tip of the great and epicurean island-city Pormaris. This was the temporary home of those lawbreakers whom the Commonwell’s judicial authorities had deemed impossible to otherwise rehabilitate due to birth, circumstance, or plain misfortune. Ask any one of that sparse population their story, and they will all proclaim their innocence.
All, that is, save the one whom Prosatio Silban was here to serve.
The beefy cook had been engaged the preceding day by the man’s distraught wife, who had come to his marketplace-parked galleywagon with a simple request: “Please,” she pleaded. “Cook for my husband his last meal. I will pay whatever you ask; he deserves no less than the artistry of your practiced hand.”
“I will do what I can,” said Prosatio Silban. “With what may I please him?”
“He is an unassuming man with unassuming tastes. Were I you – or were I less beside myself – I would cook for him a substantial breakfast-skillet of meat, eggs, and potatoes. I suppose he will not need strength where he is going …” She fought a sob, lost, and, shoulders shaking, looked down at the flagstones beneath her sandaled feet.
“My good woman,” the cook-errant said, with as much kindness as he could muster. “Take your time, and your ease, if you can. I can only imagine your plight, but I do not need to share it in order to respect it.”
She accepted his proffered handcloth and dabbed at her eyes.
She accepted his proffered handcloth and dabbed at her eyes. “Thank you,” she murmured in a not-quite-audible voice. “I’m so sorry to carry on this way …”
“No apology is necessary,” he replied. “It is my privilege to serve you both at this hopeless hour. How may I best begin?”
* * *
The visitors’ chamber for prisoners awaiting death was cold, grey, and reeked of stark desperation. As for the man sitting across from Prosatio Silban at the initial- and obscenity-scratched iron table … well. If you saw him walking down one of Pormaris’ fabled wide avenues, you would not give him a second glance, if even a first one. Here inside the claustrophobic, ill-lit stone room, he looked out of place: tall, well-dressed, a tad weary, and ready to bid a sincere farewell to whomever he encountered.
The cook cleared his throat. “Do you wish to talk about why you are here?” he asked.
“Not particularly,” the man said. “It has all been said, on both sides, and I for one have no desire to say it again – except that in my case, justice will be served.”
“Then you have my sympathies. Now. With what may I please you?”
“With nothing less than my favorite meal: pounded beef, fried in goose-fat until crisp, and covered in its own gravy. Grated scarlet potatoes, also fried crisp. Flame-toasted rye-slices with lashings of rich cow’s-milk butter. Three poached hen’s eggs, with firm whites and loose yolks. All of this should be served on the same plate, if you can manage it. And for afters, a deep mug of hot yava with liberal sugar and cream. A man should not enter the Pure City with a bitter palate or hollow stomach.”
Prosatio Silban nodded. “It will all be done to a nicety,” he said.
Prosatio Silban nodded. “It will all be done to a nicety,” he said. “But may I ask you – do you believe you are destined for the Pure City?”
The man shrugged, contemplating the tabletop. “I have to. Otherwise, I would go mad, wondering where else I might go – or indeed, if I will ‘go’ anywhere at all. My wife is too good a woman to be left alone through my error in this, the most interesting of all possible worlds.”
* * *
Under a forbidding ikon of Maklun, God of Equitable and Long-Armed Justice, sat the Sacreant in charge of Grimdark Gaol. Her Rainbow Robe was trimmed in dark purple, and she was enveloped within it like a lily’s pistil as she pondered Prosatio Silban’s question.
“There is no Uulian theology or teaching which speaks of any destination for de-bodied souls who have faced the ultimate sentence,” she said at last. “At least, none of which I am aware. If it gives him solace to believe elsewise, let him.”
“And with what can his wife be comforted?” Prosatio Silban asked. “She told me, and I can see by speaking with him, that he is altogether a good man who had a bad day. Can there be no leniency, or will she –”
“Bad days do not excuse bad deeds! The criminal faced a lengthy deliberation by the requisite five-Sacreant court, and their decision was unanimous. Although an example must be made, he will die in peace and without pain. Let that be her comfort.”
* * *
“That was a fine meal,” the man said, wiping his mouth on a red linen napkin, “and the tastiest I have eaten in my soon-to-be-truncated life. Thank you, Master Cook. And now, shall we get on with this sad and sorry business?”
The party gathered in the Execution Garden under low afternoon clouds numbered just seven: the man, his wife, the Sacreant-in-Charge, two mandatory witnesses, Prosatio Silban, and the veiled executioner. The prisoner stood up from his solitary wooden chair at the small dining-table, smiled at his wife, and lay down on the adjacent black silk couch. “Farewell, my love,” he told her. “I do hope to see you later, somehow and somewhere.”
She took his hand, all but collapsing. “Goodbye, my dearest, my darling,” she said between racking sobs. “Without you, there will be no more light in my life.”
“When it reaches your heart, you will lose your sense of speech, and when it closes your eyes, it will have worked its final virtue.”
With a light but insistent grasp the Sacreant-in-Charge separated them, and Prosatio Silban guided the tearful woman to one of the low seats surrounding the couch. “By order of Maklun the All-Decider, here is the order in which this will commence,” intoned the executioner in his long-practiced rote. “First, you will eat from the fruit of the dispatch-tree; it has a bitter taste, as befits the circumstances. Next, you will begin to feel heavy, with a swift numbness creeping upward from your feet. When it reaches your heart, you will lose your sense of speech, and when it closes your eyes, it will have worked its final virtue.”
“Have you made your peace?” asked the Sacreant.
“Long ago, and such as it is,” the man replied.
“Then we shall proceed,” she said, and sat down by the condemned man’s head.
Over the next few minutes, and one by one, the executioner’s predictions came to pass. “It is bitter,” the man said, after swallowing the last bite of shiny yellow dispatch-fruit. “Thus and so for my yava-sweetened palate, Master Cook.”
A dozen heartbeats later: “I cannot feel my feet.”
Later still: “There goes my heart, and my … and my …” He fell silent.
As the man closed his eyes for the last time, his widow fell to her knees and embraced his body. “No,” she whispered, her throat tight with grief. “O Merciful All-Mother! Make this not be so! My husband … what will I do without you? What will I do?”
* * *
The next day, Prosatio Silban, on his way out of Pormaris via the decadent city’s ferry-docks, made an intentional detour by the woman’s home. He ascended the three steps to her front door, gave a gentle knock, and waited.
After a moment, the door opened. Is this the same woman who mourned so grievously yesterday? the cook thought. For the inconsolable widow who had been dragged from her husband’s still-warm corpse now stood before him with eyes shining, cheeks a-blush, and her voice a joyful music.
“Master Cook!” she gushed. “I am sorry that I did not get a chance to thank you for the exquisite last-meal you cooked. My husband enjoyed it very much; in fact, he could not stop praising you.”
“I am gratified to hear that,” Prosatio Silban replied, creasing his brow. “Truly I am. But I am also perplexed.”
“I do not recall hearing from him anything but the briefest of compliments. How do you know his opinion so well?”
“He told me so himself just this morning,” the woman said, and opened wide the door. It was dark inside the foyer, but chief among the gathered shadows seemed to be one suggestive of a tall figure with a triumphant grin.
A trick of the light, perhaps? Prosatio Silban thought, and blinked.
A trick of the light, perhaps? Prosatio Silban thought, and blinked. The figure had faded, but the woman’s face retained its angelic glow. Perhaps some mysteries are better left unplumbed.
“I’m glad to have been of service,” he said with a smile, and turned to go. An instant of mingled laughter was silenced behind him by the closing door.
The Pure City, so say the Sacreants, is the eternal home reserved for the souls of pious Uulians. Capital criminals, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter – at least, for those who love them best.
(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want another 85 stories in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)