THERE ARE FEW SITUATIONS AS disquieting as falling awake in the middle of the night convinced you’ve heard an intrusive sound, but with no aural evidence to back such an urgency.
Prosatio Silban lay still in his galleywagon’s sleeping berth, listening to his own breathing. He could have sworn there was something else that oughtn’t be. But try though he might, he could hear neither scratch nor skitter of mouse-paws, nor the enthusiastic chewing of a meat-seeking voonith. Two potential wilderness culprits eliminated, he thought. But why, then, am I awake?
When it had attained its usual measured pace, he sat up and struck a match.
The beefy cook had been involved in a particularly vivid dream, engaged in some sort of culinary contest which consisted, in part, of stuffing five handsful of flour into a one-handful sack. But now he was awake, his heart a thudding trip-hammer. He took a deep breath, then another, and his runaway pump began to slow. When it had attained its usual measured pace, he sat up and struck a match. The ceiling-mounted fatberry-oil lamp glowed pinkly, casting shadows here and there, but he could see no intruder. Perhaps it’s not in the sleeping berth, whatever it is or was. At any rate, a hot cup of yava and a snack would not go amiss at this hour.
He climbed out of the berth, parted the black silk curtain separating it from the rest of the galleywagon, smoothed his sleeping-robe, and padded barefoot across the ornate braided rug to his pantry. Soon, water was bubbling in a teapot, and the warm fragrance of bittersweet mint filled the galleywagon’s interior.
Prosatio Silban swung down the dining-counter from its stowage between pantry and coldbox and likewise deployed a lacquered folding chair. He selected from the pantry a packet of salty-sweet fried egg-curd crisps, poured a cup of yava and set it on the counter, opened the packet and sat down with a happy sigh.
What could it have been? he asked himself, munching on a crisp. I know I didn’t simply wake up for no reason – that’s not me. It must have been a reaction to an external but now forgotten stimulus. Perhaps it will make itself known –
A sharp aerial buzz cut through the midnight silence, as the black-and-yellow flicker of a wasp spirally descended to investigate the crisps.
Oho, thought the cook. There will be no sleeping tonight unless and until battle is joined. This calls for a steady eye and a swift hand – and no remorse.
Prosatio Silban waited until his enemy was in the perfect position, raised his arm, and struck with all his might.
He arose from the chair and reached out for the stack of paper news-bulletins he had bought two days ago before leaving cosmopolitan Soharis. Their contents fully browsed, they awaited their secondary office as fried-food wrappers and kindling – and now, as a weapon in humanity’s oldest struggle. He rolled them into a cylinder and waited a chance to strike.
The wasp, unconcerned, made a series of frantic circles around the open packet of crisps, landed, and began to feast. Prosatio Silban waited until his enemy was in the perfect position, raised his arm, and struck with all his might.
Broken crisps scattered everywhere: across the table, on the floor, behind the pantry, underfoot. The cook dropped his makeshift weapon and dove for the wire-handled swatter dangling next to the stove. He came up flailing wildly, but could catch no sight of his tiny adversary either living or dead.
A drone overhead! The wasp advanced on him; the cook swatted it in mid-air, but only succeeded in pushing it out of view.
Prosatio Silban cast purposeful glances around the familiar space, seeking his diminutive foe. But the winged invader was nowhere to be seen.
If only this were a bee, there would be no problem, he thought. I have a treaty with the Bee People: I rescue them from drowning and other imminent demise, and they don’t sting me. Unfortunately, wasps are the recalcitrants of the insect world.
A buzz sounded just next to his right ear. Ducking, he raised the swatter and tried to hide behind it. The wasp hovered among the utensils and ingredients dangling from the galleywagon’s ceiling, as if assessing its advantage, then alit on a thick wheel of jute-slung goat-cheese.
It’s laughing at me. And I don’t blame it – a forty-something-old man cowering in his home from an infinitesimal interloper. Quite the sight. Well, nothing ventured…
He reached back with the swatter, bent his wrist for maximum striking power, and attacked. The cheese fell from the hook on which it had been hanging, taking with it two saucepans and a small, shallow skillet. The latter grazed the side of the cook’s head, bounced off his left instep, and hit the floor with a loud clatter.
!!!!! he thought, grabbing the injured appendage and hopping on his other foot. Is it broken? Is it bleeding? Do I need a physician at this ungodsly hour?
Eyes red with pain and rage, he examined his foot and wiggled it experimentally, then supported himself on it with great delicacy. It moves. It aches, it’s bruised, but it moves. And I can stand on it. The damage can’t be all that bad. Oh, by Alasdori, Patron of Household Combat – help me to settle accounts with this minuscule monster!
He made to pick up the cheese, when an angry hum tickled his left ear.
Prosatio Silban sought in vain his adversary’s broken body. He made to pick up the cheese, when an angry hum tickled his left ear. He hobbled as fast as he could toward his berth, waving his arms in the air, and the hum diminished. He stopped, turned around, raised the swatter and advanced on his foe.
The wasp was still flittering among the overhead objects, then landed on a pane of the glowing fatberry-oil lamp over the stove. It beat its wings twice, then apparently settled itself as if it were a moth.
Could the answer be that simple? the cook thought. He doused the lamp above the berth and waited. The wasp didn’t. Two to go.
Prosatio Silban moved with glacial deliberation and snuffed the lamp over the dining counter, only leaving lit only the one mounted above the stove. Still his quarry did not stir. He waved the swatter in its direction, and it flew in great circles around the doorward part of the galleywagon before alighting on the wall above the stove. The cook slid forward, keeping the swatter between him and his prey, and extended his arm to the door. He unlatched it and slowly swung it open, the top half swinging further ajar than the bottom.
The wasp responded by flying frantic circles between the lamp and the berth; Prosatio Silban took the opportunity to unmount the stove lamp and carry it with raised hand outside. The cool spring night refreshed him, and the light of two moons revealed the surrounding roadside landscape: soft low hills, the hard dirt road between them, and occasional outcroppings of glinting bluestone. A rock-hound howled somewhere in the distance.
He waited, but the wasp was uninterested in the luminous target, apparently comfortable surveying the half-darkness between door and berth. I am a patient man, but even my patience has limits. Leave! Leave, damn your prismatic eyes! Leave!
The wasp approached in a tight spiral. The cook stood his ground, ready to spring either aside or into action as need dictated. The buzzing trespasser zizzed toward his head, circled him and the lamp once, then departed for the distant hills.
Prosatio Silban sighed. And so, he thought, to bed.
(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction.)