WAKING UP TO A BABY’S cry can be a normal thing for some people – but when the cry comes from just outside your front door, it bespeaks something strange afoot.
Prosatio Silban rubbed his eyes and sat up in the sleeping berth in the rear of his cozy galleywagon. The cries were coming from his portable home’s other end, where a double door separated him from the world of unwanted intrusion. Shrugging into a green silk robe, he padded across the galleywagon’s ornate rug and opened the door’s top half. Nothing but morning sunlight greeted him, so he opened the lower half as well.
There on the driver’s bench lay a worn wicker basket. In the basket, tucked into a soft blue woolen blanket, lay a small but full-lunged baby. O Blessed All-Mother, he thought. What have You set before me now?
The beefy cook’s galleywagon was parked in the marketplace at the village of Woods’ Edge, where the early morning bustle was just beginning. He could see no immediate sign of whoever might have encumbered his good will and resourcefulness, so he sighed, rolled his eyes heavenward, picked up the basket and brought it inside.
“Now then,” he said, lifting her basket. “Let’s see about finding your parents.”
Placing the basket and its precious bundle on the nearest level surface (his cold six-burner fatberry-oil stove), Prosatio Silban began rooting through his capacious pantry-cum-all-things-closet. He selected a beasthorn-and-rubber baster and set it aside, then opened his coldbox and lifted out a jug of rich, expensive black-goat’s milk; he gingerly filled the former with the latter, and slowly fed his new charge with just the expected amount of spillage. An enthusiastic appetite is a good sign, he thought as he cleaned up. At least, I hope so – because I know next to nothing about babies.
That done, he checked to see if the infant needed changing, which, thankfully, she didn’t. She burbled at him and he smiled; he bugged his eyes at her and she laughed. “Now then,” he said, lifting her basket. “Let’s see about finding your parents.”
The nearby vendors could offer no clue as to who had left the child on his driver’s bench. “Ain’t seen nobody like that,” said the one-eyed proprietress of the adjacent turnip stall. “Not this morning anyways. She’s a looker, though. Ain’t you, little mama?” The small-game butcher on the galleywagon’s other side was also appreciative but similarly unhelpful.
It was customary in the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell for orphans (and even children of ambitious lower-class parents) to be adopted by one of three agencies: the nobility, the merchantry, and especially the Sacreanthood. Fortunately, Prosatio Silban had been practicing his craft for long enough in this area of the Commonwell to have made passing acquaintances among all three.
He first called on the local Heir Second, benevolent m’Lord Urtman Harticor. After trading pleasantries, m’Lord cast an appraising eye over the cook’s little guest. “It greatly pains me to say this, but we cannot accept such a one in Demesne Urtman. At least, not at this time. My goodly wife Entica has just been blessed with triplets, and we have no room for a fourth. I’ll put in a good word for you at the shrine, however.”
The cook drained his cup and was about to pour another when a firm knock sounded at his door.
A similar story was told by Sir Arblio Ytan, a trader in lumber and spices, who was also the head of the Woods’ Edge mercantile guild. “While we generally welcome new shall we say additions to the working population, this girl is obviously too young for us to take command of her future. Return in five years and we will tell a different story – but meanwhile, I’ll put in a good word for you with the shrine.”
At the shrine, the resident Sacreant set her jaw and shook her head. “Although we are the court of last resort for raising unparented children, and despite what m’Lord Urtman and Sir Arblio say about you, I am the only Sacreant-in-residence here. We simply don’t have the resources for which to accommodate her. You might try the Diamond Shrine? In epicurean Pormaris? It’s nigh on a week’s travel, but the city’s means are far more apt to the assistance you seek.”
“Thank you for your kindness and direction,” Prosatio Silban told each of them in turn, and carried the now-sleeping infant back to his galleywagon.
He sat inside on a lacquered folding chair, frowning over his options with a hot cup of yava, while his young visitor happily played with her toes. What does one do when the social catch-all has such inconvenient holes?
The cook drained his cup and was about to pour another when a firm knock sounded at his door. He opened it to reveal an incongruous couple: a slight, nervous and copper-skinned young woman, and a stern-faced man apparently of his own middle years. Both wore the rough-cut but nondescript clothing of the Uulian underclasses.
“I’ve…come for my child,” the woman said. “I’m so sorry to have inconvenienced you, but… fortune’s wheel has turned and it seems…I can raise her after all.”
“I beg your pardon?” Prosatio Silban asked. “To what ‘turn’ do you refer?”
“My…husband” (she gestured at the man, who was the very picture of fidgety impatience) “is a…carter by trade, and just this morning managed to get paying work…after I despaired of caring for her. We are no longer as destitute as when I placed Tesia at your doorstep. She is my darling and delight, and…you see…well.” She stifled a sob and extended her arms. “May I have my baby? Please?”
“Of course, of course!” The cook transferred the laden basket from his stove to her mother’s arms. “It has been my privilege to have kept her safe and calm for these past few hours, and more so now to return her to her rightful parent. Good-bye, Tesia.”
“Thank you,” said the woman. The man grunted.
Prosatio Silban closed the door, listening to their fading footfalls and shaking his head with a smile at life’s always-surprising circumstances. He sat down and poured another cup of yava, mentally preparing for what he hoped could still be a profitable day. As he lifted the cup to his lips, there came a brisk knock at his door.
What have they forgotten? thought the cook as he opened the door’s top half. The one-eyed turnip-seller looked concernedly up at him.
“Ye might want to know,” she said in a breathless voice, “them two ain’t what they seem. At least, one of ‘em ain’t.”
“What do you mean?” asked Prosatio Silban, a cold knot tightening his stomach.
“Just this: when they left yer door, they had ‘emselves a little conversation. First, he said, ‘Now we can return to Tirinbar.’ His woman ast him to leave her and her baby alone. Then he said, ‘You are my slave – and so’s my daughter.’ Then they climbed into a donkey cart and left town by the Tirinbar road.”
The cook’s heartbeat increased. “But Tirinbar is a slave-state! Are you certain that was their destination?”
“Hope to shout!”
“Thank you for your help.”
As the Jade Hawk (doughty backbone of the Commonwell’s aerial mail-service) could fly, Tirinbar’s countryside-border was only four hours away from Woods’ Edge.
Closing the door, Prosatio Silban pounded his fist on the counter. What to do? he thought, then grimaced. Only one thing. Pursuit.
* * *
As the Jade Hawk (doughty backbone of the Commonwell’s aerial mail-service) could fly, Tirinbar’s border was only four hours away from Woods’ Edge. Donkeys, being somewhat slower, made the same trip in four days. But even while pulling a galleywagon Prosatio Silban’s buopoth, Onward, could travel twice as fast. The sun was not far from setting over the landscape – thick forest to the left, grassy river-flats to the right, hard-packed road in between – and it wouldn’t be long before the cook caught up with the deceptive slaver and his prey. He had plenty of time to worry.
It may come to fisticuffs, or worse, he thought. Tirinbar slavers will stop at nothing to keep a hold on their human chattel — especially their children. And I am not the Commonwell’s best fighter. O Galien, I will need Your help. Badly.
The cook closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and recited to himself (and, he hoped, a divine audience) the following formula:
“O Galien, Blessed Mother of All That Lives; Bohoran, God of Unlooked-for Strength; and Bulwar, Goddess of Righteous Purpose: hear my plea and grant my boon. You have each and all exalted me with many gifts in this life, and my gratitude to You is beyond words. Please: Help me in this just cause, that this woman and her infant may escape one who would exploit and dominate their two innocent lives. Help me help them to help You manifest Your goodness and presence in this, the most interesting of all possible worlds. As for me, I will publicize this miracle whenever and wherever Your names are mentioned. This I affirm.”
The last syllable was no sooner out of his throat when he caught sight of a two-wheeled cart by the side of the wide road. He and Onward had made good time, but Prosatio Silban flicked the plaited yak-hair reins to urge his dray-beast on. The woman was holding her blanket-wrapped baby to her breast, crying and pleading with the man, who was repairing a broken cart-wheel. The donkey browsed the roadside grass.
The man looked up at the oncoming galleywagon. “What do you want?” he called.
“I want you to leave this woman and child and return no more,” Prosatio Silban replied.
The man stood up, drawing a long knife from behind his back.
“Oh? Or what?”
“Or I will fight you.”
The man stood up, drawing a long knife from behind his back. He pointed it at the approaching cook. “Try,” he said.
Now, if you have been attentive to these stories so far, O Patient Reader, you know that buopoths are no ordinary dray-beasts, but can alter their shape at will. And Onward, who had been pulling Prosatio Silban’s galleywagon for a quarter-century, had with his human companion one of those unbreakably subtle connections whereby much may be said by saying nothing at all. As the gap narrowed between cook and slaver, the buopoth slowed to a stop.
The man grinned, then widened his eyes as Onward melted out of his harness and into the form of an enormous raven, its wingspan three manheights across. Its wings began to beat in earnest, raising dust from the road surface. The slaver dropped his knife and clutched his eyes; Prosatio Silban leapt from the driver’s bench and tackled his opponent around the waist. They both fell to the roadway, the slaver blindly reaching for the cook’s throat.
This is not going as I planned, Prosatio Silban thought as he grasped the slaver’s wrists and tried to wrest his hands away. His foe rolled them both over until he was atop the cook, then started choking in earnest. “I will kill you,” he snarled.
As the light faded from Prosatio Silban’s eyes, he felt the man’s grip loosen. The slaver toppled to the side. The cook coughed mightily.
The young mother was standing next to him, holding her previous owner’s bloody knife. “No,” she said, as if to herself. “You won’t.”
The cook coughed again, slapping the dust from his clothes as he stood on trembling legs. He regarded the dead man with appraising eyes, nudged him with one foot, and nodded a brief and silent thank-you to his divine helpers.
“Thank you,” he said to the woman, strength returning with each intaken breath.
“I have wanted to do that since he…forced me,” the woman said, not meeting his gaze.
“Are you alright?” he asked the woman.
“Better,” she said with a wistful smile.
“And your child?”
“She’s better too. Thank you for rescuing us, sir.”
“Some would say you rescued yourself. What do you want done with the broken cart?”
“It’s not mine. Whatever you think best, sir. Can you build a pyre?”
“I have an axe, and some small acquaintance with that craft. And you now have a donkey. If I may suggest, you can make a living from it.”
“Now that I can,” the woman replied, “I think maybe I will.”