PROSATIO SILBAN SIPPED AT HIS glass of white duliac, savoring the wine’s herbal essence, and continued to enjoy the Arrow-and-Wheel’s boisterous patrons.
Rustic farmers occupied most of the plank tables, discussing the weather, the prospects, whose cows were ill and why, whose cart-zebra kicked whom (and why), and assorted small family matters. Many were drinking from deep clay mugs of the local ale, while a few attacked with gusto great wooden bowls of rich stew and plates of fragrant olive-bread paired with wedges of sharp yellow cheese.
Is there anything more soothing for the spirit than a happy noonday colloquy at the village inn? he thought. Any village will do. Solid citizenry discussing the ancient wisdoms of their solidifying livelihoods. Here’s to those who well know the land: her idiosyncrasies, strengths, and weaknesses only revealed to those with patience and –
The door opened, admitting a draught of cold wind and a well-dressed, somewhat pallid man in his mid-twenties.
The door opened, admitting a draught of cold wind and a well-dressed, somewhat pallid man in his mid-twenties. He wore a tailored-but-quiet suit of white tunic, maroon kneebreeches and long black vest, which was unusual enough given the workaday dress of the inn’s other customers. Even more peculiar was the precipitous quiet at the man’s appearance.
The stranger’s appraising eyes slid from one silent, mug-gazing customer to another. Finally his scrutiny lighted on Prosatio Silban’s, and he sauntered across the ale-stained sawdust floor and sat down at the bar beside the beefy cook.
“You are not from here,” he said.
“No, I am not,” Prosatio Silban replied.
“You will not find ready custom in this village.”
“Why do you say that?”
The stranger smiled, showing perfect teeth. “I know. For I am the Revealer of Secrets, and I will reveal yours unless you meet my price.”
“Well. I am Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price. It seems we are both mercenaries, after a fashion.”
The man smirked at his fingernails. “You do not wish it to be known that you once wore the Rainbow Robe of a Sacreant.”
A pause, then the cook lowered his voice.
“How if I told the innkeeper, who has some hostility toward what he calls ‘the pomposity of the scavenging Sacreants?’”
“Let us say rather, that I prefer it not to be known,” he said. “It is at most an inconvenience, and at worst, an obstacle. I serve the Flickering Gods in my own way now.”
“Let me see,” said the Revealer of Secrets. “How if I told the innkeeper, who has some hostility toward what he calls ‘the pomposity of the scavenging Sacreants?’ Perhaps your stay here would not quite be so pleasant. Paseolo? O Paseolo!”
“How if I buy you a drink,” the cook interjected.
Paseolo came over from the other end of the bar, his face stoic. “Gentlemen?”
The Revealer of Secrets nodded at Prosatio Silban’s glass. “I too will have a white duliac. For now. And please – put it on my new friend’s bill.”
* * *
After his fourth duliac – and much strained banter – the sallow extortionist clapped a tasteful fez on his head and his “new friend” on the arm. “Until we meet again,” he said with enunciative care. “That is, if you’re still foolish enough to be here when I return.”
Prosatio Silban watched him go with detestation in his eyes. I may have to leave before nightfall, he thought. I certainly don’t want to run into that again.
“You ain’t the only one that fellow has his hooks into,” came a bass voice from behind him.
Prosatio Silban turned and beheld a farmer in patched and mud-stained clothing. “I’m sorry?”
“Mino Phaban,” the man said, offering his open hand. “I don’t know what you two was talking about, but I know him. And that couldn’t have been a good talk. He can hear thoughts, seems as if, and is a man whose bad side it is best not to be on. Otherwise…well. A lot of good folk have left town because of him. So now he mostly preys on travelers like yourself.”
The cook grunted. “How do you all stand such rank and insufferable meddling?”
Mino Phaban scowled at the floor. “We have no choice. We be waiting for someone whose bad side it would be best for him to be on. Probably thinks it best for him not to be known by passers-through. We surely know him in this village, curse his name.”
“Does he live here?”
“A week, you say? That might be just long enough…”
“No. He come in fairly reg’lar, though. ‘Bout once a week at most. He knows a lot of people in a lot of places – but he always come back here.”
Prosatio Silban thought for a moment, and showed the ghost of a smile. “Does he, now,” he said, as if to himself. “A week, you say?”
* * *
The papyrus handbill tacked to the Arrow-and-Wheel’s front door the next morning excited no small attention. It read in big red block letters: COMMUNITY SOUP TONIGHT. Below that, in smaller script: “Bring an ingredient for an unprecedented dish of magnificent proportions as prepared and served by the Cook For Any Price in the interest of the entire community. All are welcome and invited to attend. Tell your neighbors!”
As evening fell, a large crowd had gathered in the inn’s great room. The day had seen the collection of a great and colorful mound of assorted roots, tubers, alliums and other aromatics, herbs, spices, and dressed meat of various types. The fragrant scent now wafting from the kitchen promised the meal would be as grand as advertised.
Prosatio Silban ladled the thick, chunky soup into mugs, bowls, tankards and other ready containers as brought by the massed populace. When everyone was served, he raised his hand for quiet.
“Let us thank the All-Mother for bringing us all here and providing such hearty provender,” he said, and they all bowed their heads. “O Giver of Life and Love, Waymaker Through Chaos, and Source of All That is Good and Real, accept our humble and heartfelt thanks for Your bounty. Give us the strength to persevere when all seems dark, and help us to help others through what seems impossible. Let us be worthy of Your tender affections and stand before You as one, doing Your work in Your world in Your way. This we affirm.”
“This we affirm!” the throng echoed, and dug in with relish. The room filled with sounds of happy eaters; when their hunger showed signs of abating, the cook rapped on the bar with a meat-mallet.
“Many of you must be wondering why I have convened this gathering,” Prosatio Silban said. A chorus of agreements greeted this statement, and he pressed on. “It is not only by my wish to feed the entire village, though I hope to have done that as well. To the point: There is someone who has held this village in his crooked grip for far too long. I speak of the so-called ‘Revealer of Secrets.’”
Silence, sudden and profound.
“Secrets, some say, can be poisonous to the keeper,” the cook continued. “If they are shameful, they can make a soul sick – and also be used by the unscrupulous. But if the secrets are revealed amidst mutual understanding and acceptance, the venom and shame can be removed, thus defanging the exploiter.
“Just as everyone in this room brought an ingredient of this soup, everyone has also brought a secret that we’d rather others not know. Tonight, I would like for us to share them with each other – and break the hold of the man of whose presence we would all dearly like to be rid.”
The crowd murmured its disapproval – “I can’t.” “I don’t think I…” “The shame is too great!” Prosatio Silban held up placating hands.
“I will go first,” he said.
“I will go first,” he said. “My greatest secret, and one which I have scarcely told anyone beside my mentor and immediate family, is that I once wore the Rainbow Robe of a Sacreant. A self-defrocked holyman is not something that the public takes lightly, and while I understand that rancor, it is also, obviously, something I have always wished to avoid. It left a great chasm in my relations with other people. But now” – he sighed, and smiled – “I can stand before you all knowing that I am not alone in my shame. And to be honest, it is a shame I now no longer feel. Who will stand with me now?”
There was a pregnant pause, punctuated by nervous shuffling and a cough or two. Then the wealthy village miller spoke up.
“This does not concern me,” he said, making for the door. “I do not have a secret to share.”
“Yes you do,” replied a comely woman. “And if you don’t share it, I will.”
“That will not be necessary,” rejoined the blushing miller. “Let me see; oh yes. It began like this…”
And so the evening proceeded, as each person, reluctant and timid at first, confessed their inmost disgrace and misdeed. Marital affairs, business cheats, lies large and small, surreptitious thefts, unsociable or antisocial behavior, a few who had led others astray; one by one – some with tears, some with shoe-gazing murmurs, but all with eventual and heartfelt sighs – smiled with the relief of those who have set down a long-carried burden.
“Look!” someone said, pointing at one lozenge-paned window. “Brother Sun is rising!”
A flurry of reactions arose: “Have we been here all night?” “How did the time go by unglimpsed?” “My goodness – I must see to my cows!” “And I to my fidget-hens!” “I haven’t breathed this freely since I don’t know when.” “Thank you, Master Cook!” “Yes, thank you – I can face my wife again with no regrets.” “And I, my sons and daughters!” “Perhaps there’s no such thing after all as a ‘scavenging Sacreant.’” (This last, from an appreciative Paseolo.)
“It was not I who worked this miracle,” Prosatio Silban said. “You did it yourselves, and you did it with each other. Take pride in that – and go with glad grace into the new day.”
* * *
A week later, the Revealer of Secrets walked into a different inn.
A week later, the Revealer of Secrets walked into a different inn. Oh, it was the same old Arrow-and-Wheel in the same old village. But this time, no eyes slid away from his. He stopped just inside the doorway, mild puzzlement pulling at the corners of his mouth. He spotted Prosatio Silban at the bar, and glided over with his usual smirk.
“You are still here,” he told the cook. “Good. I am thirsty for duliac, and also for what you have in your galleywagon’s coin-jar. O Paseolo!”
As before, Paseolo came down from the other end of the bar. But this time, his expression held a hint of amused malice. “I will take no more orders from you,” he said. “You are no longer wanted here, you low piece of lizard-dung.”
“I beg your pardon?” retorted the Revealer of Secrets. “Do you know who you’re talking to?”
“I do. Listen to my thoughts now, if you dare.”
The reaction on the psychic blackmailer’s pale face was nothing less than electrifying. His eyes grew wide, then frightened, as he cast reflected glances at the inn’s other patrons.
Mino Phaban gripped his arm. “Now walk out of here,” he hissed. “Before you can’t.”
Prosatio Silban smiled. “I suppose you’ll need a new line of work,” he said. “But by the Flickering Gods, I would make it an honest one.”