THE THREE CITIES AND THOUSAND Villages of the Uulian Commonwell are home to a more disparate population than you are ever likely to meet. But sometimes, the more disparate are also the more desperate – and likewise, the more pitiable.
Prosatio Silban tugged his buopoth’s plaited yak-hair reins, halting his galleywagon in front of a village inn. Other than its being within the jurisdiction-lands of the city of Pormaris, he recognized neither village nor inn, but after a long pull from his previous location he was eager to taste someone else’s cooking – anyone else’s – for a day or so. He jumped down from the dusty driver’s bench and up the inn’s few steps to arrange provender for his hungry dray-beast and growling stomach. Before he reached the door, however, a tiny blue bird landed in front of him.
“You are a stranger here,” it said in a high piping voice. “We don’t like strangers in our village. Strangers are trouble. We don’t like trouble either.” With that, it flew away down the street.
What was that about? thought the beefy cook. He tried the door and found it locked, looked through a window but saw no one inside. By Hapoor of the Unexpected Inconvenience! this does not seem to be my day. As he turned to go, another bird fluttered up.
“This is his village. And he can do whatever he wants, so beware yourself.”
“I represent the most important person in this whole village, the Heir Second Ementior,” it said. “This is his village. And he can do whatever he wants, so beware yourself.”
“Who is this ‘Ementior?’” Prosatio Silban asked it. “I well know all of epicurean Pormaris’ nobility, and most of their demesnes, and I have never heard of…” He broke off as the bird, like its fellow, flew heedlessly away.
“I can answer that for you,” came a faint whisper behind him. He turned and saw a thin man, of nearly his own middle-years, standing behind the inn’s now-ajar door. The man was dressed in the dirty remnants of brown kneebreeches, gold jerkin and white tunic, bespeaking a member of the Uulian mercantile class fallen on hard times.
“Who are you?” asked the cook.
“Gallio Rhyar,” replied the other. “And you?”
“I am Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price. What has happened here?”
“Nothing good. Come – we can better converse inside.” So saying, he opened the door to admit the perplexed cook and locked it behind him.
A number of gaunt, formerly well-clad individuals looked up in suspicious fright as the pair entered the inn’s shadow-gloomed great room.
“Everyone, this is Prosatio Silban,” Gallio Rhyar said. “Master Cook, this is everyone – well, almost everyone of note, anyway – remaining in our village.” The room’s inhabitants nodded.
“”Everyone remaining? ’” the cook asked. “Why? What happened to the others?”
A woman raised one listless, ring-adorned hand. “They have all been arrested or exiled for displeasing our self-styled Heir Second,” she whispered.
“And who is that? ” asked Prosatio Silban.
“One of our more…persuasive merchants,” she continued. “We live near Pormaris’ border with the lands of stony-hearted Tirinbar, and have long sheltered from their cruel clutches their escaped slaves and other unfortunates. However, some of them turned out to be criminals who repaid our compassion with heinousness. Ementior made what we thought at the time were good suggestions: building a patrolled wall around the village, posting threatening signs along its length and beside the approaching roads, things of that nature. His scheme worked, and in gratitude, we made him our Mayor.”
“That was our first mistake,” muttered a short, round man wrapped in what remained of an embroidered cloak. “Once in office he appointed his friends to other important village posts – displacing those you see here – and illegally declared himself one of the nobility. The arrests and exiles began soon after: anyone who broke the law, or even disagreed with him, wound up either in his dungeon or out of the village. Now he sits inside his guarded and fenced-off demesne, plotting malevolence and training tiny birds to blanket our village with his base proclamations.”
“Can you not petition your real Heir Second for relief?” asked the cook. “I should think once he or she learned of the imposture, matters would be quickly settled.”
“Which suggests your homegrown strongman may not be so strong as he would have you all believe.”
“There is nothing we can do. The road-exits are too-well guarded,” murmured Gallio Rhyar. “I am surprised you managed to enter.”
“I encountered no resistance,” Prosatio Silban said. “Which suggests your homegrown strongman may not be so strong as he would have you all believe.”
The others exchanged dubious glances.
“Have you tried supplicating the Flickering Gods?” the cook persisted. “They are sometimes helpful in such circumstances.”
“Yes,” said a tall man in velvet tatters. “Mostly, we have prayed to Takavi, Patron of Furtive Scuffling, in order that we not rouse too much attention. But those prayers have not to date proved fruitful. As Gallio has said, there is nothing we can do.”
“This is no time for furtiveness,” said Prosatio Silban with a frown. “Boldness and direction are what’s needed now. It has been my experience that the gods are only apt to aid those who act. Were it me, I would recommend either leaving the village entirely, or brandishing whatever arms you have and entreating Obmar, God of Righteous Rebellion, or Abithar, the Wounded Champion, or even – ”
“Open! Open in the name of m’Lord Ementior!” came a powerful cry from the other side of the inn’s locked front door, accompanied by hammer-like pounding.
The group froze, with eyes wide; some covered their mouths with shaking hands.
Gallio Rhyar took the cook’s shoulder. “Follow me,” he whispered to Prosatio Silban, and bolted toward the great-room’s rear exit.
“We want the stranger! Deliver him immediately or we will break this door!” bellowed the voice.
As Gallio Rhyar and Prosatio Silban reached the exit, a splintering crash sounded behind them.
“HOLD!” shouted one of the intruders. “Or we’ll pierce you with crossbow bolts!”
The fleeing pair stopped, raising their arms in surrender. They turned to see three burly men in dark brown scale mail – two armed with crossbows, and the third with an enormous iron mallet – undisguisedly smirking. The mallet-man stood in front of his henchmen and spat his words with naked derision.
“A little bird told us that a stranger was in town,” he said with an unpleasant smile. “And I didn’t recognize the wagon out front, or its dray-beast. Seems the little bird was right. Who are you, stranger, and what is your business here?”
“My name, like my business, is no concern of yours,” Prosatio Silban replied, looking his adversary square in the eyes. “I am simply passing through your village. Now leave us – so that I can do the same.”
The smirk fell from the mallet-man’s face, replaced by momentary bewilderment. He looked around at the others, who were cringing and hiding their faces. “We know who you are, and you know what we can do about it,” he snarled at them, avoiding Prosatio Silban’s steady gaze. “The stranger and his conveyance will come with us, for the amusement of m’Lord Ementior.”
The crossbowmen pointed their weapons at the cook. “Come along,” said the mallet-man. “Now.”
* * *
From what Prosatio Silban could tell, this Ementior – whoever he was – was fond of barriers. Not only was there a gated wall around the village, but his residence was itself locked up tighter than a miser’s heart. A sturdy stockade fence enclosed the spacious, half-timbered structure in the village’s center; two pairs of guards constantly patrolled the perimeter.
They must think I am planning to escape, thought the cook. And they are correct.
The mallet-man (who had eventually identified himself as Rustio Corvax, Ementior’s favorite guard) strode briskly through the gate separating his chief from everyone else. Prosatio Silban, head erect, followed between his arresting guards.
They must think I am planning to escape, thought the cook. And they are correct.
He could not see his galleywagon, but Rustio Corvax said he had arranged for it to be brought to Ementior’s attention for entertainment and possible dismantling. What will become of my buopoth in the hands of such a deplorable man? Prosatio Silban thought. Onward is a shy beast, of delicate sensibilities despite his great lumbering size. If anything untoward should happen…
His mediations were cut short by his escort’s sharp rap-rap-rap on the thick front door. “It is I, Rustio Corvax,” he said. “Today’s password is ‘bottle.’”
“Mmlflg,” said the voice from behind the door. Latches were raised, bolts slid back and the door opened to reveal a sallow, turtle-faced man armed with crisscrossing bandoliers of throwing-knives. “Enter and be known,” he croaked, and waved them inside.
The first thing Prosatio Silban noticed was the giant throne in the middle of the large, tapestry-hung room. It was surrounded by an assortment of couched layabouts wearing upper-class garb, and occupied by a portly man whose mid-length yellow hair had been trained to cover his severe top-baldness. He was dressed in dark blue kneebreeches and matching long-vest over a somewhat food-stained white tunic. On the vest’s left breast was a small pin displaying the Pormaris national emblem: a thirteen-rayed golden sun. The man cleared his throat as Prosatio Silban was brought before him, and regarded the cook with piggish grey eyes.
“So you’re the cook who is visiting us for the first time,” he said in a distracted, sing-song voice. “I am m’Lord Ementior, and I like cooks. But we don’t like strangers. Strangers are a bad influence. Nobody likes them. They are bad, bad people, the strangers. I don’t like them. So: What brings you to the greatest village in all of the lands of Pormaris, Mister Cook?”
“I am simply traveling from one part of the Commonwell to the other in search of people who appreciate a good meal at a reasonable price,” replied Prosatio Silban with a curt bow. “If you are one of them, I would be happy to demonstrate my art.”
“Well, I like food,” Ementior said, slapping his belly with a chuckle echoed by his sycophants. “All kinds of food – from Pormaris, Soharis, even Tirinbar. Don’t like the people of Tirinbar, but I like their food. Mostly fish; they have that bottomless lake near their city. Have you ever been there? Exquisite fish. If I didn’t dislike them so much, I would visit, just for the fish. I never met a meal I didn’t like. I won’t pay for it, though. Never did, never will. No, I take that back – maybe I could pay for one of your meals after all.”
The ersatz noble gestured at one of his guards, who drew back a tapestry to reveal a large side-door. The guard opened this and whistled; after a moment, another guard entered the chamber holding a long chain. At the other end of the chain was Onward, maintaining a mostly ox-like shape but whimpering in fear and confusion. The other guard prodded it with a spear, provoking a yelp of discomfort.
Prosatio Silban’s mind boiled with anger, but he kept his voice steady. “My dray-beast is not used to rough handling. Would you please treat it with greater care?”
The guard grinned and prodded Onward again, producing another cry.
Ementior raised one small, pudgy hand. “Easy does it there, Mombasio. We don’t want to hurt the thing – not now, anyway. Which brings me back to our business, Mister Cook. We don’t have any of that wonderful Tirinbar fish, but the very fine people of our village keep me well-supplied with delicious things to eat. Fruit, vegetables, meat, you name it. But I have to have them cook it, and between you and me” – here he lowered his voice – “they’re not very good cooks. They lack the, how does it go? The professional touch. But you, you could cook me a meal I would remember. And if you do, I might let your little friend here go – and you with him. We’ll see what happens. What do you think?”
Prosatio Silban smiled despite his seething detestation. “Show me to your kitchen,” he said.
* * *
Of course, there was a poison-tester.
“Nothing personal,” she told the cook. “But you know how it is.”
“I do indeed,” replied Prosatio Silban.
They were outside the residence, in a reasonably well-equipped open-air kitchen. Not far away were several long tables, on the other side of which was an openwork wooden fence topped with jagged pieces of obsidian. A guard was posted by the fence’s open double-gate; near the gate sat Onward – still collared and whimpering, his chain affixed to a great iron stake – and the cook’s galleywagon, which appeared to have been ransacked.
The poison-tester explained that Ementior enjoyed eating outside, where the villagers could see him and bear witness to his purported majesty. “When he eats, they eat,” she said. “But tonight will be special – a meal just he and his supporters will enjoy while everyone else watches. He wants to put on a show for his ‘subjects.’ He always wants to put on a show.”
“My husband is in his dungeon. I do my job because I know what will happen to him, and to me, if I don’t.”
“You sound as though you don’t like him,” said Prosatio Silban, hefting a slab of pack-lizard ribs onto the massive oak butcher-block.
The poison-tester smiled without mirth. “My husband is in his dungeon. I do my job because I know what will happen to him, and to me, if I don’t.”
“I can understand your difficulty. But believe me – tempting though it is, I will use no dangerous herb or spice in the construction of this meal. You have my word.”
“Thank you. But if you don’t mind, I’ll still observe your every move.”
“Of course.” And with that, he set to work.
Despite her close eye on him, as he went about his various preparations the cook managed to ellipsize his way through a soft-spoken but rather heartfelt prayer. Strung together, it sounded like this:
“O Galien, the All-Mother (peel) … Obmar, Lord of Righteous Rebellion (slice) … Hartiz, Protectress of Companion-Beasts (grind) … and Atalhea, Goddess of Satisfying Conclusions (sprinkle) … hear my plea and grant my boon. (blanch) You have done much for us by saturating us with (fry) … the blessings of life, high spirit and foresighted appreciation. (flip) … Please! Look down upon Your children (braise) … who are suffering under the (baste) … fat thumbs of one to whom charity and decency are (season) … unknown. Let him be (taste) … revealed for what he is. (mix) … Let his true (sear) … colors be known to one and all. (taste) … In return for this favor, we will publish the tale of (stir) … Your kindness wherever we gather. This. (taste) … I. (plate) … Affirm.”
At this point, a copious amount of food had been cooked and was ready for consumption. The gate guard stopped throwing pebbles at Onward, and snapped to attention when the shrill call of a golden horn announced his sovereign’s appearance. Ementior waved at the villagers peering through the fence, nodded at his cronies standing by their tables, and seated himself with prodigious pomp.
“Friends, be so kind as to sit down,” he singsang, and they did. “We are in for a treat tonight. Mister Cook here has used all his skill to provide us with an exquisite meal. A perfect meal. Everybody seems to like his cooking. I haven’t tasted it yet, but just looking at it makes me hungry. I am looking forward to eating it – is that roasted chicken? It’s odd how so much meat tastes just like chicken, isn’t it? This promises to be a great, truly great evening. A memorable evening. Let the meal…commence,” he said. “And – make sure the portions are huge.”
* * *
It was some time before the assembly noticed anything amiss. It began with the quiet tittering and surreptitious pointing of the villagers, but Ementior and his small crew of minions paid them no regard.
“What is happening to him?” whispered the poison-tester to Prosatio Silban.
As his oblivious associates stuffed their mouths full of well-prepared food, Ementior was taking on the form of a large, round infant. It didn’t stop him from eating and talking simultaneously, though.
“I can’t remember the last time I ate so well,” he was saying. “This is a tremendous meal. Much better than the usual slop I have to eat here. It has a certain … I don’t know what. Sizzle? Presentation? A certain look? Reminds me of how I duped the villagers into making me their Mayor. What saps! I could have told them anything and they would have lapped it up like the dogs they are. And those fools I appointed as village officers! ‘Fools’ is too good a word to use. To use. They never knew how much I was using them, and still don’t…”
Ementior’s comrades looked up. But the babbling bully plowed on regardless.
“But then, I use everybody. Anybody who can get me what I want,” he said in a somewhat softer, but still audible, voice. “Whatever I want, all I have to do is tell people what they want to hear, and they give it to me. It’s a gift, I suppose. I just hope no one ever finds out. That would be bad. They might kick me out, and then where would I be?”
While cronies and villagers looked on, Ementior’s lower lip trembled, and his singsong tones grew more pronounced.
“They don’t know what it’s like,” he said to himself. “Having to put on a show all the time. But they love me for it. I hope. That’s what I really want. Love. Want, want, want. Baby wants love.” He picked up a chicken leg, threw it on the ground, and began to sob. “Baby wants love…baby wants lo-o-ove…”
Their chief undone, Ementior’s followers – including even the loyal Rustio Corvax – tried to flee the scene, but were met at the open gate by the angry villagers. “You have much to pay for!” one shouted above the mob’s rageful growl. As the inevitable took its toll, Prosatio Silban hurried to unchain and soothe his aggrieved buopoth.
“It’s okay, boy,” he said through an emotion-tight throat, as a grateful Onward nuzzled him and trilled with affection. “It’s okay. The bad man is gone now. And he won’t be coming back. I’ll see about getting you some food.”
Heedless of the chaos around him, Ementior continued to weep. The poison-tester looked at Prosatio Silban. “What was in that food? What did you do?”
“Nothing but offer a fervent prayer for things to be seen as they are,” he replied. “And so they have been. You may now retrieve your husband. And please – have more care in choosing your future mayors.”