NO ONE HAS YET DEVISED a satisfactory agency for long-distance intimacy – but in every world, there’s at least one that tries.
With a protracted high-pitched scream, an enormous emerald-hued bird circled Prosatio Silban’s galleywagon in descending spirals as the vehicle made its careful way along the tamped-earth road between the villages of Bottle and Wardhaven.
At last, the cook-errant thought, and smiled in anticipation. He gave a light tug on the plaited yak-hair reins, bringing his loyal dray-beast to a gradual halt as the muscular broad-winged bird alit on the wide driver’s bench. His smile grew wider as he plucked his message from the dozens bristling the Jade Hawk’s blue silk harness like the pelt of a broad-quilled hedgehog, then opened and read the sweet-smelling missive:
Dearest P.S. (it began) –
I too enjoyed our most recent colloquy, and am writing to tell you where and when I shall be next. I hope to see you again soon in Truedale, and am counting the days until I do.
Prosatio Silban held the page to his chest and sighed.
Prosatio Silban held the page to his chest and sighed, then withdrew an inkstick from one of his long-vest’s inner pockets. I must be hasty or the magikal messenger will depart without my sentiments, he thought, turning over his lover’s note:
My dearest T.M. (he wrote) –
I too am looking forward to our upcoming reunion with fondness and anticipation. Rest assured that I will make it worth both your wait and your journey!
Satisfied, the cook tucked his note into the Jade Hawk’s harness and gazed into the bird’s intelligence-bright eyes. “You must take this to my lover with all speed, wherever she is,” he told it. “And thank you!”
The bird nodded gravely, emitted a short squawk, and rose into the afternoon sky. Go with Hartia, Goddess of Affectionate Dispatch, Prosatio Silban thought, and waved a brief but wistful farewell.
* * *
Not for the first time, or second, or even fifth, did the cook-errant consult the sundial in Truedale’s square. She is late, he thought. Something must have gone amiss – but what?
The settlement was like many of the Uulian Commonwell’s Thousand Villages: small, rustic, full of life. Half-timbered cottages lined its one main street, which also bisected a wide marketplace featuring shapely produce, local crafts, and other wares appropriate for a rural population of tenant-farmers and the like. Small children played and laughed nearby, and a gurgling mill-stream lent its happy music to the proceedings.
Dressed in his best green tunic, grey long-vest, dusky kneebreeches and black fez, Prosatio Silban had just opened his mouth to heave a frustrated lover’s sigh when a familiar scream sounded overhead. As before, the Jade Hawk ended its helical descent on the galleywagon’s driver’s-bench and awaited the cook’s attentions. His inamorata’s pink rag-paper fairly leapt into his hand, aromatic with her trademark scent. Unfolding it, he read:
Dearest P.S. –
My sincere apologies for having to cancel our planned engagement, but my riding-zebra threw a shoe and left me without transportation! If you still desire to see me, as I do you, may I suggest a meeting at the crossroads near Hillsward? It is not far from Truedale and may prove more conducive to our shared yearning. Do let me know by soonest post.
A disappointed frown creased Prosatio Silban’s mouth as he released his pent-up sigh.
A disappointed frown creased Prosatio Silban’s mouth as he released his pent-up sigh. He reversed the missive and wielded his inkstick with a swift hand:
My Dear T.M. –
I am of course saddened by your absence, but eager to see you once again. A crossroads is a fine place (and metaphor) for our long-awaited tryst, and I shall proceed with all speed.
With increasing anticipation,
He folded the note into thirds and replaced it on the Jade Hawk’s crowded silk harness. “Your destination is as before!” he told the bird; it nodded and flew off. We shall see, he thought in mild despair as his winged proxy soared out of sight.
* * *
As the sinking sun balanced itself on the undulating horizon, Prosatio Silban wondered when his one-time tavern-mate would appear – or even if.
The setting could not be more romantic – an amply laden table-and-chairs set at a tamped-earth crossroads, lit by small fatberry-oil lamps and surrounded by purple hills and splashes of blue fragrantia. A soft summer breeze and the harmonious songs of distant magah-birds completed the picturesque scene.
She ought to have been here an hour ago, he thought in dismay. What could be keeping her now?
His answer was not long in coming. Just as the fiery orb dropped into twilight, a shriek sounded overhead. Sure enough, the Jade Hawk was making an orbiting descent to its accustomed roost. The cook reached automatically for the usual pink note, but instead, a plain fold of vellum met his probing fingers. He waved it under his nose but it was unscented; the pit of his stomach hollowed as he opened the tidy packet. In place of the usual warm salutation was a terse:
I am sorry once again, but I cannot see you tonight. I shall explain all when I do see you.
He bit his tongue to keep from stabbing out a retort.
He bit his tongue to keep from stabbing out a retort, and wrote instead:
I shall look forward to it. Whenever that may be.
He tucked the note back into the messenger’s harness and waved distractedly. “You know the recipient,” he told the bird, and it flew off without hesitation.
I do believe I am getting too old for this sort of heartsickness, he thought, and began collecting dishes.
* * *
So the cycle repeated over the ensuing days: proffers made, times agreed-upon, connections missed, another proffer. With each passing note Prosatio Silban’s heart grew by degrees both heavier and more fragile. One more engagement shattered, and I will look no longer for love, he thought at the last.
* * *
Once again a large bird-shadow passed over the galleywagon, this time parked in the village of Heartstead; once again the Jade Hawk perched on the wide driver’s bench; and once again the beefy cook dug out his message. This time, however, the message was a curt:
I can see you no longer. You are not the problem – I alone am.
Prosatio Silban’s face clouded. That’s the stone that breaks the merchant’s scale, he thought with a silent snarl. Damn. Damn it all.
He tore the rag-paper into halves, then quarters, then eighths. A cold weight settled in his chest, and he turned red-rimmed eyes to the Jade Hawk.
“You may now go where you will, my good and faithful friend,” he said in a low voice, and shrugged. “I will trouble you no further.”
The bird regarded Prosatio Silban with concerned eyes, rubbed its head along his cheek, and sprang into the skies for the last time – at least, this time.
(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want the first 85 stories in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)
Well that sucks.
But what does the bird get out of this deal?