IT BEGAN WITH A SIMPLE question: “What is the most challenging place you’ve ever visited?”
“The place where I learned not to drink,” Prosatio Silban replied, raising a glass of blue duliac.
“But you are drinking now!” pointed out his interlocutor.
“Yes – but no spirit other than duliac, and never now to excess,” said the beefy cook. “Allow me to relate to you the circumstances, which took place more than a quarter-century ago. I had just left the Sacreanthood, and the Uulian Commonwell entirely, and was looking for the next chapter of my personal story. I was also sorrowful over having recently met – and lost – the love of my life, and so decided to go to a place I had never been but of which I had often heard: many-fabled M’zir, home of inscrutable Intuids, masterful weavers, and abundant yava-brewers…”
* * *
Following an eventful sea voyage that would itself make a fine tale were it the one currently being told, the Uulian merchantman Meritorious Exchange docked one cold and cloudy day in the far northern Exilic Lands port of Ktaon, which served the timeless city of M’zir and was connected to it by a quarter-hour’s distance of walled road.
What shall I find here? thought Prosatio Silban as the Ktaon-to-M’zir coach neared its destination.
What shall I find here? thought Prosatio Silban as the Ktaon-to-M’zir coach neared its destination. Hopefully, something to sate my spiritual hunger and further dull the pain of my loss. I will never see Ashlaya again – nor will I forget her.
From a distance, M’zir resembled nothing so much as a squat, pale cerulean-and-rose marrying-cake. The layered city was perched somewhat haphazardly on a massive bluff overlooking tall bamboo stands, light purple-fir forest, and fertile fields dotted by small brick cottages and split-wood goat corrals.
The coach slowly ascended the bluff’s rising switchback road and pulled up to M’zir’s open (and gateless) gate. Prosatio Silban disembarked with a wonderstruck air, his eyes nearly starting out of their deep-set sockets. Two burly M’zei wearing light-blue tunics, grey turbans and sardonic smiles stopped him as he made to enter.
“What business?” one asked in heavily accented Uulian.
“I have none. To be honest, I am simply seeking Truth.”
The guards exchanged enigmatic expressions. “Right. Come,” said the other, gesturing with a welcoming hand.
“But – no magik miracles,” added the first with a stern grin.
Inside, the streets were narrow and fronted by single-story limestone-block buildings set amidst capacious and moderately peopled public squares. Fountains gurgled their watery music at random street corners, and the air was thick with the bitter-mint smell of yava – the stimulating national brew, and one of Prosatio Silban’s favorite beverages. The olive-complected, black-haired citizens, dressed in white tunics and colorful, complexly woven togas, regarded him with mild interest as he took it all in. They seemed friendly, if a bit standoffish. A sunny smile dawned on his face.
I think I’ll like it here, he thought happily. At least, I hope so.
* * *
It was not long before Prosatio Silban discovered that his was not an endless supply of coin. Fortunately, this discovery came in time to keep him from becoming entirely destitute. Outside one of M’zir’s many crowded yava-shops he found a large wooden board covered in bamboo-paper notices. Most were written using the angular M’zei script, but some were in curvilinear Uulian characters: “Bamboo Cutter – Strong Arms Required;” “Weaver’s Assistant – Must Know Heddle from Shuttle;” “Goat Milker with (Occasional) Herding Skills;” “Yak Pen Cleaner – Pay Commensurate with Experience.” He creased his brow at this last one; it was too much like his former Sacreantal duties. Might as well begin at the beginning, he thought, and removed the bamboo-cutter advertisement.
As the months wandered by, Prosatio Silban returned to the message board as many times as were dictated by his increasing dissatisfaction with M’zir’s available livelihoods.
As the months wandered by, Prosatio Silban returned to the message board as many times as were dictated by his increasing dissatisfaction with M’zir’s available livelihoods. His command of the M’zei tongue improved with each visit and its subsequent, if short-lived, occupation. It was a simple language to learn (apart from the unfamiliar alphabet), fostering a sense of non-duality in the speaker by flagging those terms and phrases which indicated or implied separation between self and other, now and then, or anything and anything else.
Along with his lingual development, Prosatio Silban’s familiarity with and appreciation for M’zei spirituality also grew. As far as he could learn, its goal and aim – as imparted by the “sleeping sage” Ezrinahu, M’zir’s first and greatest Intuid – was to attain a wordless, direct perception of reality rather than worshipping any god or godly influence. This primal awareness was known to its practitioners as “Hha,” a jocular reference to the sound one generally made on attainment. Although he had had similar experiences throughout his life – in fact, one reason he left the Sacreanthood was that he could not reconcile them with Uulian religious doctrine – they remained mere glimpses rather than an everyday vision.
But back to the job-hunt. He couldn’t help but notice that the more menial and unpleasant positions occasioned greater pay, something not always true in the decadent Commonwell. In M’zir, humble work was not to be avoided, but embraced as one of life’s offerings. Whenever Prosatio Silban browsed the message board, he kept eyeing the yak-pen cleaner notice – it promised high compensation, flexible hours, and much time to think.
Despite my time as a goat milker, bamboo cutter, marketplace porter, yava harvester, rice picker, bottle washer, artist’s model or any other temporary and unsatisfying occupations, I really have no other salable talents, he thought as he considered the advertisement. At least I will keep my belly full and body protected from this damnable cold. He nodded, noted the address, and set forth to find it.
Yaks were docile creatures and prolific producers of dung – which Prosatio Silban considered a sort of job security. But as the days passed, he still found himself thinking of the absent Ashlaya, and also of his last day as a Sacreant in charge of purifying epicurean Pormaris’ water supply. Mucking out yak-pens and filling dung-wagons was similar work, but in accordance with local law and custom (“no magik miracles”) he refrained, often with difficulty, from offering a plea to any of the Flickering Gods he thought he had abandoned.
He had just finished shoveling a particularly noisome dung pile and was about to break for lunch when one of his charges excreted a substance too difficult to bear for even his own practiced inurement. He closed his eyes, as much against the smell as to enable concentration, and murmured, “O Calman, God of Necessary Unpleasantness; Alimta, Goddess of Digestive Propriety; and Itturo, Lord of Sensory Protection, hear my plea and grant my boon. Help me overcome this sudden situation in a manner appropriate to –”
His supplication was interrupted by an angry shout from his employer. “(aha! what ‘is’ ‘this’)?” she exclaimed. “(‘you-now’ know our rules ‘and’ have flouted ‘them.’ how dare ‘you-now’)?”
“(‘you-now’ must come ‘before’ our court. ‘they’ will decide ‘your-now’ fate).”
“(please – ‘i-now’ meant no harm),” Prosatio Silban replied. “(‘it’ ‘was’ merely ‘a’ reflex ‘of’ ‘i-then,’ ‘caused’ by ‘an’ unexpected ‘circumstance.’ please – forgive ‘me’).”
The pen-wardess fixed him with a frosty glare. “(‘you-now’ must come ‘before’ our court. ‘they’ will decide ‘your-now’ fate).”
* * *
The “court” convened in one of the squares close by the city’s gateless gate. Three Intuids –dressed in deep-blue tunics, wide straw hats and prodigious beards – sat cross-legged before Prosatio Silban on woven sea-grass mats; two brawny ‘prentice Intuids (light-blue tunics, grey linen turbans, no beards) stood as bailiffs beside the seated offender. A small crowd surrounded the proceedings, pointing and whispering.
“(‘you-now’ ‘are’ accused of breaking our most basic law, ‘against’ workings magikal ‘and/or’ miraculous),” intoned the right-hand judge. “(‘this’ prohibition dates ‘back’ ‘to’ our ‘earliest’ ‘days,’ ‘when’ our land ‘was’ almost destroyed by ‘wielders-of-enchantment.’ we cannot have ‘that’ ‘again’).”
The middle magistrate spoke next. “(‘is’ ‘there’ ‘a’ witness)?”
The pen-wardess stepped forward from the crowd. “(‘i-then’ ‘am’ ‘a’ witness),” she said. “(‘this’ ‘man’ ‘was’ caught by ‘me-then,’ praying to ‘his-then’ false ‘gods’).”
“(‘which’ ‘ones’)?” asked the left-hand Intuid.
“(does ‘that’ matter)?” interjected the one on the right.
“(yes),” replied the one on the left. “(‘this’ ‘man’ ‘is’ not ‘from’ ‘here,’ ‘and’ may have ‘been’ resorting to instinct. ‘is’ ‘that’ not possible)?”
The middle judge pondered. “(allowed),” he said. “(‘which’ ‘gods’)?”
“(we cannot hold ‘him-now’ to blame for ‘his-then’ reflexes. ‘i-now’ move for release).”
The pen-wardess frowned. “(‘his-then’ ‘gods’ of unpleasantness, digestion ‘and’ protection).”
“(all very understandable, ‘from’ ‘the’ ‘stranger’s’ ‘viewpoint’),” said the left-hand judge. “(we cannot hold ‘him-now’ to blame for ‘his-then’ reflexes. ‘i-now’ move for release).”
“(‘the’ point ‘has’ ‘been’ made),” said the middle one. “(‘is’ ‘there’ ‘a’ counter-argument)?”
It was now the right-hand judge’s turn to frown. “(we cannot allow even ‘strangers’ to violate our laws. what would Ezrinahu say)?”
The left-hand Intuid smiled. “(‘he’ would bid us ‘be’ merciful ‘with’ ‘the’ ignorant – and lead by example).”
“(‘the’ counter-argument has ‘been’ answered),” said the middle judge. “(‘is’ ‘there’ another point)?”
“(instinct aside, ‘he-now’ cannot stay ‘here’ any ‘longer’),” said the right-hand judge. “(‘i-now’ move for exile).”
There was a pause, then:
“(concur),” said the other two.
* * *
“…And so I left – rather, was gently driven out,” said Prosatio Silban. “I took the first ship back to the Commonwell, and ever since, the name ‘Exilic Lands’ has for me carried a bittersweet connotation.”
“Fascinating,” said his companion. “But what has that to do with your drinking?”
“I was despondent over my circumstances, and the sailors provided me with strong spirits as a calmative. I began imbibing to keep my body warm, not knowing that I was actually freezing my soul. After I returned, I kept drinking out of habit.”
“Now,” said Prosatio Silban, setting down his empty glass, “I don’t.”