ANOTHER YEAR TRAVELED, PROSATIO SILBAN thought. And what has it gotten me except older? and perhaps, may it please the All-Mother, wiser?
The cook-errant consulted the small mirror hanging outside his galleywagon’s black-curtained sleeping berth. One artificial eyebrow was neatly applied; the other half-dangled like a drunken caterpillar. He frowned and shook his head. I’m out of resin-gum, of course. Do I have anything to substitute?
He unstuck the miniature hairpiece with one hand and opened his pantry door with the other. It is so much easier to find things, now that my gifted former intern taught me a new organizing scheme, he thought, reaching automatically for the wheat-flour.
He laid a small saucepan on the fatberry-oil stove, scooped into it a measure of the flour, and added almost twice that quantity of cold water from the hydrator mounted over the sink. Lighting the burner, he selected a bamboo beater from the overhead tangle of utensils and began whisking together the saucepan’s contents. Soon they were burbling away; when the mixture had thickened somewhat, he turned off the heat. Before long, it had cooled enough for its intended use.
“That should hold you until I can procure more resin-gum,” he told his image.
The cook loaded a short brush with the homemade adhesive, dabbed at his naked brow-ridge, carefully pressed the remaining disguise into place, and inspected his reflection. Satisfied, he set down his implements and grinned.
“That should hold you until I can procure more resin-gum,” he told his image. “And now, let us tackle the day.”
Prosatio Silban had performed this every-morning ritual for the better part of three decades. He cast his mind back with fondness over the long years…
* * *
“Do you have everything you need?” Trentum Urdoin asked with a proud smile.
“It has taken great effort and expense, and I cannot thank you enough for all your help,” replied Prosatio Silban from the galleywagon’s wide driver’s bench. “But I think so. The pantry and service-cabinet are well-stocked, the stove is full of fatberry-oil, and my draft-ox is ready and willing. What else could I ask for?”
“Customers,” quipped his mentor with an arched eyebrow. “Do not forget that your economics must be self-sustaining, or you will have made a grandiose and expensive error.”
The newly minted cook nodded. “I am certain that I haven’t. People will pay well for my services, if at first only for the novelty. It will likely be some time before I can show much of a profit, but in the meanwhile …”
“In the meanwhile, cook honest food for an honest price, and your reputation will both follow and precede you.” Trentum Urdoin reached up a hand, and they shook. “Good-bye, Master Cook.”
“Good-bye, my mentor.” Prosatio Silban released his grip, flicked the plaited yak-hair reins, and the portable kitchen started forward.
His first – and nearest – destination was Crosspath, a trading-village at the intersection of two well-traveled roads. A likely place to begin my new career, he thought as he trundled along the tamped-earth thoroughfare. Plenty of hungry folk, all with coin purses a-jingle. It’s nice to be going somewhere at last!
The weather, however, had other plans. Crosspath was two days distant from his mentor’s home, and the second day’s dawn was hidden behind low rainclouds which poured their watery contents over everything within eyeshot. Prosatio Silban drove his galleywagon beneath the spreading boughs of a great widow’s-thatch tree, which provided shelter for his ox while he repaired to the vehicle’s (mostly) dry interior.
This rain has to let up eventually! and when it does, I’ll just keep on trekking!
I dare not take this as inauspicious or otherwise foreboding, he thought with fierce resolve as he tended the leaking roof. This rain has to let up eventually! and when it does, I’ll just keep on trekking!
So it went throughout the night, but the third day broke with a glorious, cloud-free sunrise. This is more like it, thought the hopeful cook-errant, attaching to his grateful ox a nosebag of rich mash. He took a moment for his own breakfast of a poppyhorn and hot cup of strong yava, then seated himself on the driver’s bench to continue his journey.
Soon Prosatio Silban was passing through Crosspath’s hedge-gate and into the village proper. At the nearest edge of the market-square, he hopped down, deployed a table-and-chairs and painted menu-board, struck an anticipatory pose, and waited for business.
It wasn’t long before a small crowd formed across the road from him. He first thought they were murmuring about his never-before-seen business, but that notion vanished when one of the villagers approached.
“Are you a Sacreant?” the middle-aged woman asked in a voice tinged with astonishment.
“I … beg your pardon?” he replied, pulse throbbing.
“It’s just that you bear their trademark hairlessness. I never heard of a cooking Sacreant, though. Is that your holy mission?”
Other members of the crowd, emboldened, drifted nearer. “Where’s your Rainbow Robe?” “And your eyebrows?” “Do the Flickering Gods know what you’re doing?” “Have you turned your back on your divine duties?” they asked in overlapping turns and incredulous tones.
Prosatio Silban looked from person to person with ill-disguised apprehension. He stammered out a few non-syllables, then stowed his gear and climbed back onto the driver’s bench.
* * *
“It was humiliating,” the erstwhile Sacreant said, cheeks flushing. “I didn’t know what else to do. So I left.”
Trentum Urdoin gazed at his protégé with sympathetic eyes and shook his graying head. “It’s partly my fault,” he said. “I ought to have expected as much, and I didn’t. Fortunately, there may be a solution.”
“What’s that?” Prosatio Silban asked.
“Two words,” his mentor replied. “False hair.”
“I … what?”
“I know a fellow in the next village – Inacto Pyreen is his name – who can help. We’ll take my zebra-cart, as that’ll be faster than your galleywagon. It’s not far, and we should be back here by tomorrow afternoon. He works that quick. And he owes me a favor.”
“No time for that! We must leave at once. You can object along the way.”
* * *
“Your physical Sacreant’s initiation was quite thorough,” Inacto Pyreen said, examining Prosatio Silban’s denuded brow-ridges and scalp through a large magnifying lens. “Not a follicle left.”
“That is the point,” the would-be cook explained. “Our hair is symbolic of all that is vain and bestial, and our – their – depilatory bath is meant to shed such things. On the other hand, not having to fuss with it is actually quite liberating.”
The three men took up most of the free space in the cramped, cluttered workroom.
The three men took up most of the free space in the cramped, cluttered workroom. Wooden display heads – blank save for judiciously placed ersatz hair, eyebrows, and beards – occupied most of the shelves; piles of variegated hides and pelts were tucked into the odd corners. The smell of resin-gum adhesive was all but cloying, and Prosatio Silban found himself stifling a cough as he focused his attention to his mentor’s friend.
“As I see it, we have few options,” Inacto Pyreen said. “We want something that is realistic, yet easy to apply and remove. You are in your mid-twenties, yes?”
“Twenty-three, in fact,” Prosatio Silban replied.
“Good. What color was your hair, when you had hair?”
“Light chestnut, and wavy.”
“Excellent. Mind you, replacing your head-hair will be a challenge; there is no wig of any local manufacture, including mine, that looks entirely natural. So we will dispense with that and concentrate instead on your eyebrows.”
“Will that be enough?”
“You will wear a fez, as that is the Commonwell’s most stylish hat for a man of your projected social standing. Make its circumference rather broad. You may explain yourself as you please to any rude busybodies. But there are enough bald Uulian men, some even at your age, that you shouldn’t have any troubles.”
“Now then. Your initial eyebrows will be brown mouse-fur – that’s the most realistic. They will itch a bit but that can’t be helped. Should you live long enough to require something more age-appropriate, you may revisit me when the time comes. But I have known many men who went prematurely grey, and you may well be, or wish to be, one of them.”
“You make a convincing argument, may the Flickering Gods be so kind,” the cook said. “What will I owe you for this?”
Inacto Pyreen shook his head. “As Master Trentum explained, this first set of four appliances – two to wear, two to spare – will repay my debt to him. After that, yours and my relationship will be on a cash-only basis of one in silver per each set of two. Does this meet with your approval?”
Prosatio Silban looked from maker to mentor and back again, then nodded.
Prosatio Silban looked from maker to mentor and back again, then nodded. “Let us proceed,” he said.
* * *
Like Crosspath, Ballywheel was a quaint marketing-village – not as busy perhaps, but featuring more expensive and exclusive custom: woodcarvers, silk weavers, jewelers, and similar luxuries. Prosatio Silban smiled as he set out his table-and-chairs and painted menu-board.
As before, a small across-the-road crowd was not long in forming; neither was its representative – an old but well-dressed man – shy about approaching.
“How may I serve you?” the cook asked.
“‘Cook For Any Price,’ eh?” countered the man. “What exactly does that mean?”
“Just what it says.” Prosatio Silban indicated the menu-board. “This is what I offer. You tell me what you can afford, and we can proceed from there.”
“What if I don’t like it?”
“Believe me – you will.”
A second crowdling – this one a housewifely young woman – spoke up. “You’re new here,” she said. “I’d like to try a meal. But, er – what happened to your hair, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Potential answers danced on the tip of Prosatio Silban’s tongue: I was born without it / scars from a fire / practical joke gone permanently wrong / a long story and boring to boot, he thought, before deciding on: “I shaved it all off so it wouldn’t fall into the food.”
She dimpled. “Very considerate of you. What do you recommend for a light breakfast?”
* * *
And now, this public subterfuge is just a part of who I am, and my many customers take it as read one way or another, the cook-errant thought with a silent laugh. Secret Fame can be a powerful asset when it comes to being accepted.