Prosatio Silban and the Harnessless Dray-Beast

GIVEN SOMETHING AS ESSENTIAL AND ubiquitous as fatberry-oil, it was perhaps unsurprising how little thought people gave to its source and acquisition.

Anyone in need of stove- and/or lamp-fuel could obtain it for themselves with little effort by mashing the abundant purple berries and collecting their unctuous fluid, leaving over fatberry-cakes – fragrant maroon lumps suitable for two purposes: 1) igniting funeral pyres, contract-sealing altars, and other important flames, and 2) feeding hungry buopoths.

Prosatio Silban had little use for the first of these applications and quite a lot for the second (as well as for the oil, of course). Like others of his countryfolk with neither time nor circumstance to press the berries himself, he often patronized those who did; not so much to purchase a product as to buy a convenience. This arrangement made everyone happy, especially the otherwise-indigent without a real trade or salable talent.

The chatoyant creature was curious in both senses of the word.

Whenever and wherever the beefy cook-errant parked his famous galleywagon to practice his own trade, he would remove the vehicle’s harness from what passed for Onward’s shoulders so the curious animal could nap away the day. The chatoyant creature was curious in both senses of the word: peculiar, yes, but also interested in and excited by everything which wandered past his unique senses. And if that everything included a favorite victual, well … there was no resisting its allure.

Now: “I’ve told you that,” quoth the comedic tale-spinner, “so I can tell you this.”

It was the eighteenth day of the month of the Jaguar, in the Year of the Haunted Oyster, at the busy Travelers’ Stalls of many-harbored Soharis’ fabled Dockside Market. Although the hot and stormy Season of Huddling lay not far off, one couldn’t guess that from the balmy and sweet morning – or from the market’s diverse browsing crowds. Prosatio Silban had already set out his menu-board and tables-and-chairs for a typically demanding breakfast service; Onward had just curled up behind the galleywagon for a comfortable snooze when he caught an unmistakable aroma of tantalizing proximity.

He opened two of his eyes. In the adjacent stall stood a two-wheeled cart laden with ripe fatberries. A mound of fresh-pressed fatberry-cakes was piled nearby, next to an assortment of fatberry-stenciled casks. The woman selling these items had her back to him, and while buopoths were not unknown within the Uulian Commonwell, Onward had long ago learned the value of concealing himself; so he used his natural shapeshifting ability to take the form of a mid-sized elephant. He extended his trunk to feast on his preferred provender when the fatberry-merchant turned her face to the unexpected visitor.

“Hello there, my fine fellow,” she cooed, reaching up to caress the underside of the buopoth’s chin. “Who’s the nice big boy? Who is it? Who?”

“You’ll do well for pulling me cart,” she said with a crafty smirk.

Onward lowered his head to facilitate petting, and before he could pull it away, the woman flicked a jute rope around his neck. “You’ll do well for pulling me cart,” she said with a crafty smirk, tying the rope’s free end to the cart’s frame. “My Horacio had just gotten me here when he up and died, and it’s a long way back to my home-village of Shallowford.”

The transformed buopoth, though possessed of moderate intelligence, could not understand a word of Uulian. But he caught the import of the woman’s expression and her eyes’ tell-tale glint, so when she turned back to serve a customer, he took advantage of her inattention to metamorphose into a giant, rainbow-feathered condor. He bowed his head, slipped out of the rope, and with two flaps of his wide-spread wings, slipped into the sky.

Soharis-on-the-Rimless-Sea spread out below him like a live relief map. Not for nothing was the city called “many-harbored;” nestled at the confluence of two rivers, the sea itself bordered its southwest jut. A low jetty kept the sea-borne waves literally at bay. At Soharis’ architectural heart sprawled a domed temple – the so-called Oceanary Fane – adjoining the spire-adorned Palace of the Inheritor, the latter housing the cosmopolitan settlement’s highest secular authority. These buildings sat within a vast plaza atop a small rise, with encircling streets crossed by others radiating out from the city center, terminating at the markets just inside the city’s four entrances (three imposing gates and a maze of seaside docks). A thick, all-surrounding wall of cerulean poured stone guarded Soharis from enemies both real and perceived.

Onward swooped low over the city’s contiguous countryside, about to land near a fine big fatberry-bush, when a barbed arrow whizzed past his beak. Two shouting hunters were pointing up at him – one with an outstretched arm, the other with a nocked arrow. He veered away and over the jetty, then shapeshifted into a great, iridescent octopus and dropped into the Rimless Sea.

The light beneath the waves was dim, but adequate for his new eyes.

The light beneath the waves was dim, but adequate for his new eyes. A school of mumblefish made its flickering passage not far from him, weaving in and out of a tall forest of blue kelp; his attention was drawn instead to the paddling feet of corsair-birds overhead, close by the dark oval of a boat’s hull and diving at whiles in search of their own preferred provender.

Suddenly, and with a violent splash of bubbles, Onward found himself – along with most of the mumblefish – enclosed in a fisher’s net, its open weave tight enough to forbid any captured quarry from escaping. Onward fluttered his tentacles in vain as the net was hauled above the water, then suspended over an open deck-hatch. When its bottom flap released, dumping the piscine load into the boat’s gaping hold, the temporary octopus exploited the operational chaos to change into a sizeable prismatic mantis and, once more, wing his way across the jetty to safety.

He landed in that part of the Dockside Market reserved for livestock destined for marketgoers’ homes and tables. Sad bleating, morose cackling, and other sounds of helpless and doomed animals filled his ears. Working by instinct more than design, Onward made use of his sharp forelegs to cut twine and unlatch latches. Soon the section was loud with the sound of scampering hooves, feet and claws, joined quickly by the surprised cries of farmers and porters scurrying without success to recapture their charges.

Having led his new friends to freedom, Onward’s nose was once again caught by the familiar and beloved smell wafting from the fatberry-merchant’s stall. This time, however, he restrained himself from the urge to dine on his favored fare, instead regaining his usual ambiguous form and curling up in his usual comfortable place, closing all but one of his eyes.

Just then, Prosatio Silban rounded the galleywagon carrying a lumpy, fragrant jute sack. Onward let out a soft rattling hoot and arose in expectation. “I don’t know how you can slumber so long and with such depth,” the cook said, reaching into the sack and withdrawing three fatberry-cakes. As Onward chomped his customary comestibles, his longtime companion added, “With all that time, I wonder what else you might do instead.”

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want another 85 of them in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)

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