EAST OF THE UULIAN COMMONWELL lies the shaggy, semi-marshy expanse called by Commonwell-folk the Emerald Incessance. Few of those outsiders traverse it without purpose, or dread, or both; its green depths do not long hold even well-known paths, and what they do hold rarely emerges.
Prosatio Silban clucked reassuringly to his buopoth, Onward, as the quaint lumbering dray-beast trundled the cook’s galleywagon over spongy ground beneath an overtopping growth of slender wicket-reed. They were following a narrow trail which so far led nowhere.
The beefy cook jerked the reins twice, and Onward ceased his forward trudge with a rattling hoot. Prosatio Silban climbed down from the driver’s seat, slid through the tall greenery and tapped the buopoth’s flank. Something like a trunk lifted him atop what might have been a shoulder. The reeds were now only waist high, and he strained his eyes against the fading sunlight.
He had been here before, and had expected to find his destination by memory. But save for a slim furrow left by his galleywagon’s passage, and occasional clumps of bird’s-nest trees, the breeze-rippled sea of reeds stretched through late-afternoon haze to the horizon. Unseen insects sang cryptic harmonies to a triangle of moons overhead.
“We’re lost,” said Prosatio Silban.
The buopoth coughed softly. The cook looked down at a half-circle of obsidian spearheads level with his chest. His gaze slid past razor-edged points to rawhide lacings on bamboo shafts, and up several pairs of muscular tattooed arms to a ring of deep bronze faces. Sharp dark eyes looked back at him with suspicion.
He looked as tranquil as any dead man: wrapped in a green leather sarong, lying supine with his gnarled hands folded on his chest.
Ah, he thought. That’s better.
“I am Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price,” he said, with what he hoped was a brave smile.
From beyond the human fence came a sibilant chuckle. A voice like dry leaves underfoot spoke two rough syllables; the men lowered their spears and faded into the reeds. A wizened crone clad in what looked like baboon-skin, with a large hawk’s head topping her own, materialized in front of Onward; she stretched up a hand, caressed him. A shudder ran through the huge beast, and its chatoyant bulk turned briefly pink.
“Follow,” she said in Uulian, and started forward.
* * *
The Xao now live in oal-skin tents, but they used to live in cities – or so they say. Prosatio Silban had heard the tales all his life: about the ancient civilization which had mastered flight and time, then destroyed itself leaving only curious ruins and a scattered handful of survivors. When the Uulians, fleeing their own catastrophe, arrived in these Exilic Lands from far across the Rimless Sea, the Xao first thought them saviors; then couldn’t understand why the saviors stayed after restoring the land for them in accordance with Xao legend.
Prosatio Silban could never answer that question very well. But unlike the Xao who lived near the Commonwell and regarded all things Uulian with superstitious awe, these didn’t seem inclined to ask. Except for the crone, none of these – neither the spearmen who had escorted him nor the tribespeople now lounging in the light of fatberry-oil torches – seemed to take the slightest notice of him. The buopoth, on the other hand, aroused great interest; the children especially crowded around it as though the peculiar animal were an old friend.
The Xao village was a double oval of domed tents surrounding a wide greenspace. At one curved end was a three-step grey stone platform; at the other was a vast tent thrice the size of the others, with smoke lazily wisping up from a hole in the roof. A beaten-earth pathway ran across the length of the green. On either side of the path lay a patchwork of large wicket-reed mats woven in geometric forms, some occupied by families sitting crosslegged on the large oal-hides that served the Xao as tables.
The galleywagon was drawn up behind the great tent. Prosatio Silban retrieved from its interior a worn leather bindle and climbed down. He bowed to the crone, who was flanked by two sturdy and impassive Xao spearmen clad mostly in intricate tattoos.
“I am ready,” he said.
“Do know our customs?” she asked.
“Not fully, but enough to know that this breakfast-meal honors my old acquaintance, the Headman Tanr, before your entire tribe,” the cook replied. “Long ago, he asked me to do this as his friend among the Uulians (may our time in your land grow not longer in your eyes). I will use all my skill to respect his wishes and your ways.”
“Then proceed. Everything at need, in his tent.”
Prosatio Silban bowed again, hefted his leather bindle, and stepped inside the tent.
The interior was smaller than it looked from outside. Across from the cook, and beneath the rawhide-edged roof hole, stood a blazing fire. From an iron tripod over the fire hung a great cauldron half-filled with water. Mounds of roots and tubers were piled to the right; and to the left, atop a scraggly bed of green demertine, lay all that remained of Tanr P’capin.
He looked as tranquil as any dead man: wrapped in a green leather sarong and lying supine with his gnarled hands folded on his chest. The Xao were masters of tattooing, but that art alone was insufficient to grant the body its nobility. In death, the face was craggy and composed; in life, it must have terrified with authority and gravity.
And laughter, Prosatio Silban remembered. Tanr was a formidable companion, and the cook was one of the few Uulians the old man trusted. But he had been sincere in wanting to learn whatever the old man would teach him about indigenous Xao foodways. Not only to gain a culinary edge over his rival chefs – Prosatio Silban was truly fascinated by what little Tanr revealed about Xao culture, and especially by their headmens’ overriding priority.
“Good headman keep his people’s bellies full,” Tanr often said, often adding, “Great headman does that from grave.”
Prosatio Silban had always wondered what the old man meant by that. Now, seeing him laid out with the ingredients of the farewell feast, he wished he’d asked.
They can’t be serious. Prosatio Silban’s mind raced. Can they? He had heard the legends of Xao cannibalism, but had long ago dismissed it as old-traveler’s tales – the sort of thing civilized folk always whisper about the Other. Surely in all his conversations with Tanr about Xao food and drink, the subject would have come up. Wouldn’t it? He couldn’t exactly bring it up now.
A low chanting became audible. The Xao were beginning their night-long funeral service, although the intonation did not sound in the least funereal: a slow rising and falling cadence more evocative of calling a beloved animal than mourning a king. Prosatio Silban knew the chanting would go on all night while the breakfast-stew cooked.
No, he couldn’t exactly bring it up now. Neither could he leave; there was only one exit, and it would also mean abandoning Onward, the galleywagon, and his livelihood.
“I am sorry,” he added. “Do what you will with me.”
And more than that, his word.
Prosatio Silban was well-traveled, naturally unsqueamish, and resourceful. He would think of something. Meanwhile, he might as well set to work. He unrolled his bindle, selected from it a short sharp knife, picked up a parsnip, and began to slice it into the cauldron.
What did he know, really know, about the Xao?
He knew that they lived by hunting the elusive oal, and by foraging throughout the Emerald Incessance; they loved to sing; and were honorable almost to a fault.
None of this shed light on the matter at hand. With resignation, the cook picked up a blue-skinned potato, contemplated it.
Could he hide the body? It was the obvious thing to do, but he couldn’t disguise its lack in the stew. He looked over the ingredient piles – yams, parsnips, carrots, potatoes, beets, ginger, assorted herbs, a large mound of volcano peppers – but nothing suggested a way out. He hefted another potato, set it back on the pile.
There was no sense putting it off any longer. He would apparently have to either filet his late friend, or explain to Tanr’s relatives and friends why he hadn’t.
Steeling himself, Prosatio Silban cast a professional eye over the body. He pinched it here and there, appraising.
It would be best to start with the legs, he thought, as they’ll yield the most meat…
He picked up his longest knife and honed it, then put the tip to Tanr’s hip joint. Paused.
I can’t. I just can’t.
He lowered the knife. The chanting became more insistent.
“Cook?” called the crone from the other side of the laced tent-flap.
Prosatio Silban’s heart leapt into his mouth, but he forced his voice to be calm. “Yes?”
“Do need anything?”
I could use some advice, he thought, or a bottle of strong spirits. “No, nothing,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Be right outside if change mind,” the crone said.
Just what I need – a sentry.
The cook thought for a moment. Change my mind. That’s it! It’s a matter of honor, after all.
With trepidation, he approached the tent-flap, opened it. “I need words with you,” he told the crone.
“You know that I am Uulian,” the cook said slowly. “I am bound by Uulian law and cannot break it. I am also bound by my word to the Xao Headman Tanr. But I must refuse his wishes that I serve him for breakfast.
“I am sorry,” he added. “Do what you will with me.”
The crone looked at him impassively.
“Tanr is in tent to oversee that all is done according to our law – fit and proper,” she said with an injured air. “At dawn, and before meal, spirit will escape and we bury body in the Fen of Ancestors. What did think we were going to do?”
Prosatio Silban paused for a heartbeat, then slid into a relaxed grin.
“Only to honor him,” he said, bowing slightly. “Now if you will excuse me, I have a cauldron to tend.”