Prosatio Silban and the Iron Dray-Beast

(Five-and-a-half printed pages. If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction.)

ALTHOUGH PROSATIO SILBAN’S COUNTRYMEN WERE were wary of most forms of magik – spells, illusions, conjurations, astral mucking-about – their phobia didn’t quite extend to items of convenience.

Amulets and talismans were generally tolerated throughout the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell, so long as they carried the patronage of one of the six-hundred-thirteen Flickering Gods. Difficulty staying awake? Finger a token sacred to Stueten, God of Energetic Determination. At your wits’ end over that crying infant? Zzyzzyvor, Bringer of Restful Relief has a charm just for you. Feeling the ennui of the jaded urbanite? A blessed figurine of Oliento, Goddess of Small Pleasures is what’s needed.

But woe betide any user of magik not divinely derived – save those whose hedge-wizardly putterings produced anything the Uulians might call useful, such as the entire panoply of the modern Uulian kitchen: e.g., self-sharpening knives; food-grinders, -mashers, and -mixers; coldboxes and other preservative measures; dish cleaners; portable waterspouts. These would be nonexistent were it not for the socially accepted products of alchemy, virtue-imbuing, and similar technologies.

However, in the opinion of some, matters occasionally went a bit too far.

“Come and see the glorious Iron Dray-Beast, the wonder of the age!”

To be economically effective, magikal contrivances needed to prove their worth. Such was the case with the Iron Dray-Beast, a single, manheight-tall wheel stuffed with flashing and spinning innards. Its function, according to its creator, Pecus Wro, was … but let us listen to him tell it. He was standing with arms akimbo, atop an overturned vegetable crate in the midst of stony-hearted Tirinbar’s crowded Makers’ Square, and declaiming thus:

“Come and see the glorious Iron Dray-Beast, the wonder of the age! Draws all day and never complains! Only needs fatberry-oil replenishment once weekly! Drives itself with minimal instruction! Conquers hills! Furrows straighter fields than mule or ox! And with the proper special attachments, it can pull anything from a plow to a cart, a carriage to…a galleywagon!”

This last, louder pitch was meant for Prosatio Silban, whose just-mentioned and famous vehicle, with “COOK FOR ANY PRICE” emblazoned on both sides, was entering the square, drawn by the lumbering buopoth he called “Onward.” The beefy cook reined the quaint animal to a halt, stepped down from the driver’s bench, and approached Pecus Wro with a dubious smile.

“It’s a fine piece of equipment, to be sure,” he said. “But replace an organic ‘form with something made out of metal? Where is the soul? The loyalty? The companionship?”

“Ah, but there’s where you’re wrong,” the inventor said. “With the Iron Dray-Beast, you’ll have plenty of spare time for as much ‘companionship’” (here he leered knowingly) “as you could want.”

“Not for me, sorry,” Prosatio Silban said. “I wish you well with your present and future endeavors, but that…thing could never replace my large and faithful friend here.” He turned to go, and Pecus Wro raised his voice a trifle, effectively pricking up the ears of several bystanders.

“You are known as a man who can be moved not by eloquence but by demonstration,” he said. “Let us enter into a contest: your buopoth versus the Iron Dray-Beast. Name your course and load, however difficult, and you will all see that my invention’s ability more than matches your terms. Or do you lack faith in your animal?”

The bystanders jeered and shouted. “Let the machine race!” “The buopoth is as good as defeated!” “I’ll wager money on the outcome!” “As will I!” “And I!”

Prosatio Silban raised a placating hand. “Very well. I am not eager to prove you wrong, but let us meet here on the morrow to decide cases. Perhaps a race to and from some local landmark…?”

“We should combine two elements into this contest,” replied Pecus Wro. “A race would demonstrate speed, but plowing would prove endurance. Are you agreed to a double challenge?”

Before the cook could reply, an onlooker raised an angry objection. “I call ox-dung! His buopoth is a shapeshifter. That kind of wizardry is an unfair advantage.”

“A fair point,” said Prosatio Silban. “I will not allow Onward to change forms for the duration of the contest. But in turn, you must not use any of your creation’s ‘special attachments.’”

Pecus Wro frowned for some heartbeats, then nodded. “Done,” he said with a smile. “I shall see you here tomorrow, at the height of the sun. And then I shall see you defeated.”

Prosatio Silban fed Onward a third fatberry cake of the day, told him what a good buopoth he was, and patted what passed for one of the lumbering animal’s flanks.

* * *

Came the morning, Makers’ Square, just inside grey-shadowed Tirinbar’s main gate, was the very picture of anticipatory bustle. Snack- and beverage-mongers hawked their comestible wares to the eager throng; here and there, spectators were setting odds and taking or making bets; pickpockets plied their furtive craft at the crowd’s periphery. Partisans for Pecus Wro and Prosatio Silban each held painted signs displaying their allegiance – in the former’s camp were plowmen; street-cleaners; tax, patent and license officials; fellow inventors; and fatberry farmers. Rallying for the cook were harness makers, ox-handlers, muleskinners, farriers, ostlers, and feed merchants. Blacksmiths seemed evenly divided between both contestants.

Prosatio Silban fed Onward a third fatberry cake of the day, told him what a good buopoth he was, and patted what passed for one of the lumbering animal’s flanks. The creature replied to this kindness with a low rattling hoot. He had not taken definitive form yet, and his human partner had been mulling most of the preceding night exactly what to request of him. Both buopoth and its rival were assigned equal burdens: as the galleywagon contained a variety of heavy cooking equipment, the Iron Dray-Beast would be drawing a four-wheeled cart filled with a matching weight of quarried basalt.

All that remained was for a retainer of one of Tirinbar’s nobility – from the House of the First Heir Gorrid himself, no less – to drop a incense-scented red silk handkerchief from the top of a tall, hastily erected platform by the city’s main gate. Pecus Wro waved to the mixed multitude, drawing cheers from his faction and jeers from Prosatio Silban’s, before stepping up to the cart’s driver’s bench. The cook was likewise mounted on his galleywagon, clucking softly to Onward, who had taken the shape of a large and handsome zebra.

The inventor smirked. “There’s still time to withdraw with your dignity intact,” he said.

“I carry my dignity lightly,” the cook replied. “Do not concern yourself on my account.”

First Heir Gorrid’s retainer, a slight man named Purgetto Yumar, dressed in dark brown and grey livery, raised his hand for silence. “We are witness today to a momentous competition,” he boomed, in a voice louder than his stature suggested. “Beast versus steel. Human ingenuity against animal strength. The terms are clear: race to a distant hillside plot, plow it, then return here. No time limit. All of this while laden as you see them. Who will be the victor? Only the gods themselves know. The victor will earn a heavy purse indeed.

“Challengers! Are you ready?”

I am!” shouted Pecus Wro.

“We are,” said Prosatio Silban.

“Then let us commence!” Purgetto Yumar cried, and let go the handkerchief.

With a roar and a snort, and accompanied by tremendous applause, the two draft-contestants bent to their shared undertaking and set off through the city gate.

From the beginning, the Iron Dray-Beast was acquitting itself well. Although the single-wheeled contraption at first looked as though it might topple over, it instead made a straight and swift line toward the course-marker an hour’s walk distant. For Onward’s part, his zebra-shape was proving ably suited to the task at hand, matching his opponent footfall for wheel-turn.

Halfway to the marker, however, trouble manifested for the much-ballyhooed machine. As it pulled a bit ahead of the buopoth, the Iron Dray-Beast made a sound as of copper coins dropped onto a flagstone floor, and ground to a halt. Pecus Wro wore the expression of someone who had just discovered rotting meat in his morning cup of yava.

“Shall I wait for you?” called Prosatio Silban.

“Don’t worry, my friend,” the cook told the ostensible zebra as he rubbed its affected leg.

“Not at all,” the inventor replied. “I will catch up – and then surpass you.”

Nonetheless, the cook slowed Onward slightly for some minutes while Pecus Wro could see to his wheel. With a clank and a rattle, the race was back on, and the Iron Dray-Beast began to gain on the galleywagon.

This time it was Onward who fumbled the course, having encountered an intransigent rock which caused him to miss a step and mildly bellow in surprised discomfort. Prosatio Silban leaped down to see to his animal and the Iron Dray-Beast pulled ahead, with Pecus Wro loudly chuckling in a display of poor sportsmanship.

“Don’t worry, my friend,” the cook told the ostensible zebra as he rubbed its affected leg. “The pain will pass. Feel better now?”

The buopoth whinnied in affirmation, and Prosatio Silban remounted the driver’s bench.

At the course-marker the Iron Dray-Beast was ahead by three cart-lengths as it turned left to climb a small but steep hill. It was turning with some difficulty – Pecus Wro having to swing wide to the right to enable the movement – and Onward closed the gap between them by one-and-a-half cart-lengths. The rival drovers could see the agreed-upon plow-field at the hill’s summit, but as Onward made the turn, the galleywagon clipped the marker and slowed, eventually dropping a half-cart-length back.

“This is a contest of skill as well as of luck,” Pecus Wro cried over his shoulder. “And you apparently need both!”

“Wait until we reach the city gate before you say that,” Prosatio Silban replied, and clucked encouragement to his buopoth.

As if the cook had spoken precognitively, the Iron Dray-Beast sank somewhat into the rise’s soft loam. The wheel spun almost in vain as the galleywagon came abreast; Pecus Wro jumped down and tinkered with the controls, slowly rocking the wheel back and forth until it popped out of its self-created groove. But by that time, the galleywagon was two cart-lengths in front of him.

So they stayed until the rise leveled out. With a sturdy ox, the matched fields could be plowed to a shallow depth in nearly three hours – meaning that, if all went well, cook and inventor would make it back to Tirinbar in time for a well-earned supper.

Prosatio Silban dismounted, unhooked Onward’s galleywagon-harness, and replaced it with one of the two waiting plows as the Iron Dray-Beast chugged into position beside him.

“Remember – no special attachments,” the cook told the inventor.

“I don’t need them,” Pecus Wro replied. “This plow will do nicely. Prepare yourself for awe.”

“I shall see you in the field of battle,” Prosatio Silban countered. “Literally.” He mounted the plow’s narrow seat and flicked the reins.

“Onward! No! Not now! Not yet!”

Onward plowed a good portion of the field while the inventor worked out how to harness the Iron Dray-Beast. But once done, and Pecus Wro had managed to steady his contraption in the uneven ground, it swiftly made up for lost time.

Prosatio Silban furrowed his brow. That is, until the mechanical marvel made a sound like a cracked gong and heeled on its side.

“Do you require assistance?” asked the cook, still driving his buopoth.

“What I require are tools and space, and I have those in abundance,” replied Pecus Wro, reaching into the wheel’s complex hub and removing a small bag of implements. He made the necessary repairs and was back to plowing within minutes, but his opponent was still a goodly distance ahead of him.

As Prosatio Silban reached the end of the appointed task, the inventor still had a portion left to plow. Although the cook took his time reharnessing his buopoth, he nonetheless started descending the hill before the Iron Dray-Beast. The sun was partway down the sky when Prosatio Silban reached the course-marker. He turned right, this time swinging amply enough to avoid his earlier mishap. But Pecus Wro used the downhill slope to his advantage, and rounded the marker with his creation nearly at the galleywagon’s rear axles.

It was all over but for the last sprint. Already they could see the cheering crowd, which had spilled out of the city gate to greet the racers and root them to victory.

Now, it should be mentioned at this point that, though buopoths are generally blessed with a steely determination, they do have one weakness – fatberries. The ubiquitous fruit was grown for its oil, which provided cheap and plentiful lamp- and stove-fuel. It was also fuel for the Iron Dray-Beast. As Onward reached the site where the device had earlier broken down, not far from Tirinbar’s main gate, he couldn’t help but notice the fatberry-oil staining the ground. He sniffed, sniffed again, stopped, lowered his head, and began to lap at the fragrant puddle.

“Onward!” cried Prosatio Silban, flicking the reins. “Onward! No! Not now! Not yet!”

Pecus Wro laughed with derision as he reached, then passed, the blissful animal. Before the cook could jump down from the driver’s bench and reason with his beast, the inventor and his invention had swept through the city gate.

Prosatio Silban sighed, then patted his draft-animal – no longer a zebra –behind one of its ears. “Don’t worry, boy,” he said. “Drink your fill.”

They were still standing there as the crowd approached, making soft noises of disappointment and consolation. Behind them, come to gloat and revel, was Pecus Wro and his victorious contrivance. The spectators ignored them both and milled about Onward, some reaching out tentative hands.

“What a beauty,” said one man.

“I’ve never seen a finer animal,” said another.

“Does he bite?” asked a young girl.

“He is very gentle,” said Prosatio Silban. “You may pet him if you like.”

The girl beamed at the touch of the buopoth’s sleek, chatoyant hide. “It’s too bad you lost, Master Cook,” she said. “He deserved to win.”

The cook locked eyes with the inventor, who was standing alone with his wheel and wearing a thwarted expression. “Not to worry, young miss,” Prosatio Silban said. “We did.”

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