Ancient History (A Prosatio Silban Tale)

A CHANCE ENCOUNTER CAN SOMETIMES be profitable – but the profit, though rich, needn’t necessarily be monetary.

The sun was just kissing the golden-hilled western horizon when Prosatio Silban pulled up on the plaited yak-hair reins, signaling his dray-beast to halt for the evening. So much for reaching Possum Toss before sunset, he thought. Fortunately, as the Poet puts it, ‘Home is wherever you spend the night.’

He stepped down from the driver’s bench, raised the seat, and rummaged in the jute sack beneath. Producing a greasy maroon fatberry-cake, he fed this to his dray-beast, told it what a good dray-beast it was, then stepped back up past the bench and opened the galleywagon’s horizontally-split double doors. He yawned, stretched his sitting-stiffened legs, and absorbed his surroundings. A balmy evening, and what looks like a shady morning-spot. An outdoor supper is definitely what’s called for.

Prosatio Silban disappeared inside, riffled through his pantry and coldbox, and emerged with a well-laden bamboo tray. A moment later he unslung from beneath the galleywagon a table-and-chairs and small grill, and filled the latter with fragrant bilonga-wood. The cook was about to light it when a strange sound tickled his ears: an otherworldly but sprightly music accompanied by occasional soft sighs, approaching from some distance down the road ahead of him. He smiled. Ah! Company. And of the most agreeable kind.

Seeing the cook, the pair smiled and ceased their playing.

The music grew louder. A man and a woman appeared, clad in long, brightly multicolored and belted tunics, and carrying small harps. They were of medium stature, lithe, with heart-shaped faces and large, almost luminous sea-green eyes beneath crowns of short black hair. Seeing the cook, the pair smiled and ceased their playing.

“Hail, friend and traveler,” said the woman. “May two hungry wanderers share your cooking-fire?”

“The Aydnzmiri are always welcome where I am,” replied Prosatio Silban, and bowed.

The man cast a significant look at the cook. “You know of us, then?”

“Certainly. I have visited the City of Song often during my too-brief time ‘pon this, the most interesting of all possible worlds. Who does not know of the roving soul-singers and their fair Rimless Sea-side home, and most especially their annual Breaking Day Music Feast?”

“You would be surprised,” the woman said. “Few outsiders seem to care for much beyond their hands’ grasp. You are in the minority – an appreciated minority, but a minority nonetheless.”

“As are we,” the man said. “And we do not seek to share in your meal, only in your cook-flame.” He rummaged in a large, shoulder-slung cloth bag and withdrew two small broadleaf-wrapped parcels. “May we eat with you, and perchance keep company as the cold and starry night descends?”

“Of course,” said Prosatio Silban. “I hope you don’t mind that my own dinner is composed primarily of meat?”

“Ah! A barbarian, but a polite one,” said the woman. All three laughed, and the cook started the fire.

* * *

Beneath the light of two of the three moons, the wayfaring diners had reached that stage of their meal devoted to digestive pleasantries; when confidences are exchanged and tall tales told.

Beneath the light of two of the three moons, the wayfaring diners had reached that stage of their meal devoted to digestive pleasantries; when confidences are exchanged and tall tales told.

“You have not revealed to me your names,” Prosatio Silban said, sipping at a glass of blue duliac.

“You have not asked,” said the man with a smile. “I am called Ido.”

“And I, Izum,” said the woman.

“What brings you through this part of the Commonwell?” asked the cook.

“That we have never seen it before,” said Ido. “For us, that is reason enough.”

“Our appearance has largely been greeted by uncomfortable curiosity,” said Izum. “Except for you, I would judge the Uulian Commonwell to be a somewhat unfriendly place.”

“That may be true in the Thousand Villages, but not the Three Cities,” Prosatio Silban said. “Well…two of the cities anyway. Our history and theology are, sadly, not without their exceptionalisms. But at heart, my people are a good-natured if admittedly incurious lot. I think we have simply forgotten that we ourselves are long-staying guests in these Exilic Lands. Which brings me to a question about something which I have often wondered.”

“What is that?” asked Izum.

“You have lived in these Lands longer than we have.”

“Much,” said Ido.

“Then tell me, please: why exactly are they called the Exilic Lands? I always thought that was an Uulian expression, but in speaking to some of the Lands’ indigenes I have learned it is not.”

The Aydnzmiri exchanged enigmatic glances, and Ido nodded to his companion.

“It is a long tale,” Izum said. “And it begins with the Treeborn, those reclusive forest-dwellers whose occupancy predates everyone save the bucolic Pastori and subterranean Delvers. The Treeborn’s cryptic origin myth – or is it a legend? – tells that, millennia ago, they were exiled from the sky; specifically from the so-called Sapphire Star. They alit in what you call the ‘thick-wooded Greenlanes’ which cover the northern part of this land, and there went about crafting a small civilization.

“They subsequently met a friendly and mystically inclined population of humans – the inquisitive M’zei, from the Exilic Lands’ northern coast – with whom some Treeborn eventually intermarried. Our grandmothers and -fathers founded a coastside city in the small southwestern region of Aydn. There we built our own small civilization, but stayed on cordial terms with both of our increasingly distant-in-time blood-ancestors.”

“Some thousand years after that,” Ido continued, “a dissatisfied faction of M’zei exiled themselves from their northern home city and headed south in search of new territory. Some say that seminal disagreement concerned the use of magik, which the M’zei forswear save for what satisfies their eternal curiosity. Others say the dispute involved dangerous technologies shunned by the Treeborn. Still others say it was both.

“However the case, this sizable offshoot – calling themselves ‘The Ancients’ – settled in the Exilic Lands’ middle and southern parts. Closed off for centuries, these Ancients were free to putter with both technology and magik. Perhaps inevitably, discord again arose, with three tribes vying for supremacy over each other – and over the land and sky as well.”

Thus sequestered, they attacked each other with weapons whose unholy power spanned the long expanses between them…”

“By that time, the three bands of Ancients dwelt apart: one in the city of Sanari, near Aydn; one adjacent to what is now your own city of ‘epicurean Pormaris;’ and one in a sky-castle whose name is lost to history. Thus sequestered, they attacked each other with weapons whose unholy power spanned the long expanses between them – and dripped hellish infernos on whoever and whatever occupied the middle distances.”

“After the sky-castle’s attacks had torn great holes in the midst of the Lands, we, the Treeborn and M’zei decided to put an end to the destruction,” Ido said. “Each had become powerful in magik, with the M’zei strong in their own secret arts. So we conjured a joint conjuration such as none had ever imagined. It destroyed Sanari, locked shut the sky-castle, and earned the third settlement its present name of ‘Ruins-Across-The-Water.’

“We did not kill a single one of the Ancients, but displaced them and stripped them of their might. You know them now as the Xao, the Xai, and those only whispered of as Xx. Neither will have anything to do with the others, save for the occasional skirmish when by chance they should meet – and that infrequently.”

“But we have not relaxed our guard,” Izum concluded. “And every year, we hold the Music Feast to mark the pivotal day of the Exilic Lands’ near-unmaking.”

Prosatio Silban was quiet. His mind was filled with images evoked by Ido’s and Izum’s rousing accounts; and as a younger man, he had himself experienced the annual soundless echo of the City of Music. He felt somewhat chastened, as though his simple request for knowledge had called forth timeless shambling spirits better left forgotten and unnoticed. Then he saw the twinkles in the others’ eyes.

“That is how we heard it from our grandmothers and -fathers,” Ido said. “And it is what we tell our young children on Breaking Day Eve to keep the nightmares at bay, and the young visitors from your Commonwell too when they ask why we do what we do. After all – one must tell the children something. Wouldn’t you?”

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction.)

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