AND THEN CAME ONE OF those days which every culinarian dreads.
“Master Cook? Master Cook!” called a well-dressed old man. He was sitting at one of the two tables-and-chairs Prosatio Silban had set up in the lee of his galleywagon, in the unassuming village marketplace of Boggy, not far upriver from many-harbored Soharis. The morning was bright with sunlight and promise, and the cook-errant fixed a professional expression on his face as he hurried over.
“Yes, sir?” he asked with practiced servility.
“This meal,” the man said with a frown. “It is unacceptable. Please bring me another.”
The Cook For Any Price regarded the plate of fried mudfish and fidget-hen eggs with chopped tomato-and-pepper relish. Everything looked copacetic, but he lived by the rule of the patron being always in the right.
“I am so sorry, sir. What is the matter with it?”
“This fish has turned. It is rancid and repugnant. Just smell it!”
He was about to utter a variation of I-shall-happily-bring-you-another, when he realized he couldn’t smell anything – anything at all.
Prosatio Silban raised the laden dish and took an experimental sniff. He was about to utter a variation of I-shall-happily-bring-you-another, when he realized he couldn’t smell anything – anything at all.
He sniffed again, this time in earnest.
Hiding his sudden consternation behind a deep bow and sincere apology, he carried the offending dish up the galleywagon steps and inside.
His second clue that something was amiss came when he tried to taste his customer’s serving. The relish was famed for its bold and spicy tang. But nothing of that sort, agreeable or otherwise, presented itself to his inquiring palate. No flavor whatsoever.
I am a painter gone blind, he thought with sudden hair-risen horror, or a newly deaf musician. What now? And – how shall I make a living if I can’t judge my own artistry?
* * *
The handpicked makara-herbs were reeky, and their milky infusion beyond foul, but thanks to Prosatio Silban’s condition, the viscous grey brew was easier to swallow.
One advantage of this disability: I can take the bitterest medicine with no ill effect, he thought. The question is – will it have any effect?
He sighed and put the steaming mug on his oaken preparation-counter. The herbal decoction had been his final attempt at a cure. He had, firstly, made abrupt apologies and refunded his customer, then stowed his tables-and-chairs; following which, he prayed with fervor to Arincenea, Patroness of Desperate Medicaments, and even made Her an offering at the local shrine. Then he had visited Boggy’s well-recommended healer, who examined him with care for a quarter-hour before pronouncing herself baffled. “I have never seen a case like yours, but makara-herbs are a sovereign remedy for many ailments,” she said with a perplexed headshake. “You have my sympathies.”
I need more than sympathy and a useless ‘sovereign remedy,’ he thought. I can’t decide which is worse – the loss of my essential senses, or the associated blue temper. What shall I do? O Manch’nage, God of Frantic and Final Resorts, what shall I do?
He closed his eyes and grasped the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. Phosphenes danced behind his eyelids, then coalesced into a human form: a familiar woman, ancient of days, swathed from neck to foot in maroon silk.
Of course! he thought with a tentative smile. I’ll harness my dray-beast and set off immediately.
* * *
“So you see,” Prosatio Silban said, “I am at the rope’s end. I have tried everything I can think of. And you are the last thing of which I can think. Please. Help me.”
He was sitting in a chameleon-leather chair set at right-angles to an ember-filled fireplace, within a curious room hung with peculiar tapestries. The crone, facing him in the chair’s mate, had been listening with eyes closed; one hand stroked an appreciative one-eyed tabby.
“I have good and less-good words for you,” she said, and opened her eyes. “The good – I can help you. The less-good – you will have to help me help you.”
“I am too old to learn a new and different trade requiring new and different skills. How can we begin? And when?”
“Whatever you ask, that I shall do,” the cook said. “I am too old to learn a new and different trade requiring new and different skills. How can we begin? And when?”
“With haste, and immediately,” the crone said. She lifted the cat from her lap, set it on the ornately woven carpet, arose from her chair, and strode over to one of the five-sided room’s towering bookcases. Murmuring to herself, she ran a finger across the spines of several dusty tomes before tapping one and extracting it from between its shelf-mates. She opened the volume and leafed through it, mumbling, and halted at one of its many dog-eared pages.
“Ah!” she exclaimed. “‘Harduin’s Restorative – for the most dire of sensory deprivations. ’ Let me see: ‘ritual words’ this … ‘arcane gestures’ that … ‘somatic components’ thus and such. Well. This certainly looks like the beast we’re chasing. Here is what you must do …”
* * *
The great and grassy waste east of the Uulian Commonwell was heat-oppressive at this time of year, but a shapeshifting dray-beast which could fan its driver with one enormous ear was a welcome asset.
“The root is called ‘opearal,’” the crone had said. “It will be found beneath a certain tree which grows only in the depths of the Emerald Incessance. You must not eat of its fruit – it is noisome and malodorous. When you find it, you will know.”
What could she have meant by that? Prosatio Silban wondered, and shrugged. It’s not as though trees are easy to come by, here among the thick bladegrass. I suppose the grass draws the growth-virtue out of the soil, retarding the development of any other … oho.
He gaped, and tugged on Onward’s plaited yak-hair reins to halt the galleywagon. Before him stood a tree the likes of which he had never seen in all his far-ranging travels: massive dark-green trunk, gangling branches, with abundant indigo fruit about the size and rough shape of a seal’s head. Whatever roots it had were obscured beneath the ubiquitous grass.
“Well, Onward,” the cook said to his dray-beast. “It seems we’ve arrived.”
He stepped down from the driver’s bench and onto the springy soil, then deployed from under the galleywagon a short, narrow shovel. ‘Tis a bit of a pity that I can’t smell my surroundings, he thought. As reputedly disagreeable is this fruit, the Incessance itself is wonderfully aromatic at this season, and I –
“Halt, outlander,” interrupted a sharp voice from behind him.
“Halt, outlander,” interrupted a sharp voice from behind him. He turned. Two large, oafish men, dressed in the faded tunics and patched kneebreeches appropriate to the misfortunate Uulian underclasses, were approaching. They were armed with stout cudgels and measured him with inimical eyes.
“Who are you? ” asked Prosatio Silban.
“We’re the ones taking what you’ve got in your wagon,” said the man who had spoken. They both sneered as they lunged forward.
Before they could reach the startled cook, Onward shot forth a pair of tentacles, grabbed a couple of the low-hanging fruit, and hurled them at the would-be robbers. The fruit hit them square in the chest and burst on impact; the dastards dropped their weapons and, with loud choking and cries of dismay, fled.
Prosatio Silban watched them go with muted glee. “Well done, boy,” he said, and patted what passed for the great dray-beast’s flank. Whistling, he hefted the shovel and set to work.
* * *
How do I get myself into these situations? the cook wondered, clutching an obsidian precipice.
The Blacktooth Mountains were well-named: a jagged, miles-long black mass, thrust up like broken fangs, marking the Emerald Incessance’ eastern border. Myth (or was it legend?) held that the dark crags were the result of a divine disagreement; it was whispered that one of the pre-Uulian gods, displeased with its companions or colleagues, had unleashed fiery wrath on the landscape, with igneous results.
The crone had ordered Prosatio Silban to retrieve a hand-sized chunk of volcanic glass from any of the taller summits. Thus he found himself near the top of a forbidding peak, trying not to look down. The mountain’s otherwise smooth surface was pocked with opportune irregularities, making climbing surprisingly easy – at least, up to a point. Closer to the top, that surface was more slick and less forgiving.
Does the fragment really have to be from the summit? Prosatio Silban asked himself. If I could get away with whatever I can reach … oh, damn my inconvenient ethics! I’ll just have to keep going.
He gripped the rock-face as best he could with cramped and sore hands, and forced his tired feet to take hold wherever possible. Inch by precarious inch he climbed until he reached a likely place to chip away a sample of obsidian. He lowered one hand to his belt, withdrew the hammer he had earlier stowed there, raised the tool overhead, and struck.
A loud and piercing scream echoed in Prosatio Silban’s ears. He dropped the hammer, and almost lost both his wits as well as his montane grip.
“Why did you do that?” bellowed a harsh and somewhat flinty voice.
Prosatio Silban replied by reflex. “I beg your pardon?”
“Why did you strike me? I have done nothing to you.”
The cook thought for a moment. “My most humble apologies,” he said at last. “I did not mean to harm you. I am engaged in a quest.”
“And that gives you leave to pound away at me like a common ruffian? Have you never before heard the expression, ‘living rock?’”
“I have, but I thought it a mere poeticism.”
“Well, now you know better. What is this ‘quest’ of yours?”
With broad strokes, Prosatio Silban sketched a verbal picture of his current malaise and the crone’s proposed cure.
With broad strokes, Prosatio Silban sketched a verbal picture of his current malaise and the crone’s proposed cure. “So you see,” he finished, “I was sent here a-purpose. Believe me – I would much rather be elsewhere. But what am I to do? A cook with no olfactory or gustatory sense is no cook at all, or a poor one at best. And at my age, the alternative trades are none too welcoming.”
It was the mountain’s turn to pause. “I can understand your difficulty,” it said. “May I propose a possible solution?”
“By all means.”
“There is a process known as ‘erosion.’ Do you know the term?”
“What you may not know is that, to us mountains, the process is a welcome one. When the inevitable happens, and parts of us weather away, we experience a mild feeling of liberation. It is quite pleasant and, I imagine, not unlike a snake’s sloughing off its old skin.”
“I had no idea!”
“Most small, quick forms do not; it is their clueless curse to be trapped into the narrowest definition of ‘living.’ To the point: our discarded rock does not tumble all at once from summit to base; rather, it collects here and there on the occasional ledge. I can direct you to the resting-place of its most recent accumulation. Would that be satisfactory?”
Prosatio Silban smiled. “It would,” he said. “And I am more than grateful to you. However, I cannot help feeling as though I may have climbed all this way for naught.”
“Not at all,” the mountain said. “You have acquired your objective and learned something about the world – and also, made a new friend.”
* * *
No one knows for certain why the Azure Void is cloaked in the perpetual twilight for which it is named, or even how that natural feature was created. Thus, despite its sparse and commercially desirable flora and fauna, the vast flat-floored crater at the Commonwell’s southwest edge was shunned by most of the Uulian general public as well as by the many indigenes of the surrounding Exilic Lands.
Prosatio Silban swabbed the sweat from his hairless brow and continued waiting. He was alone; Onward had shied away from the Void as they approached, so the cook had alighted at some remove to carry an quick-built but sturdy cage on one shoulder. His final assignment was to capture alive a certain creature and fetch it to the crone’s lavish hovel. “You will have to keep it fed,” she had said with a grimace. The cook shivered at the prospect; nevertheless, he persisted in his vigil.
Does true night ever fall in the Void? Prosatio Silban asked himself. Or does the light remain as blue as it is now? Perhaps I shall find out.
He shifted squat-stiffened legs and ignored his increasing hunger. For most of a day he had been waiting near the trap, with so far nothing to show for it but an empty, growling belly. I should have brought some provisions, he thought. But who knew how long I’d be down here?
Then came the scuttling.
Prosatio Silban froze, stilling his breath in mid-sigh. The noise, from somewhere off to his left, drew closer. He risked a sidewise look, and almost gasped.
It was a thing out of nightmare: a riot of glittering eyes, flailing tentacles, snapping claws, and jointed legs.
It was a thing out of nightmare: a riot of glittering eyes, flailing tentacles, snapping claws, and jointed legs. With every ounce of his resolve, the cook resisted the urge to shriek as it crawled over his foot and toward the trap – a simple spring-cage with a drawstring trigger, baited with a moist red square of gauze. The monster paused at the trap’s rim, twitching its eyestalks in all directions.
Come on … closer ..
Satisfied by what it saw, the creature dragged its obscene body into the trap, save for a few exploratory tentacles.
… closer still …
The tentacles caressed the trap’s open bottom, but only for a moment. Prosatio Silban forced himself not to look away.
Please, O Bohoran, Giver of Unfelt Might, share with me Your bountiful and blessed strength …
The writhing mass was now entirely beneath the suspended cage. The cook twitched trigger-clutching fingers, and the trap dropped with a satisfying click.
The Thing twisted round and round its small prison, chattering with a sound irreproducible in human speech or writing. Seeing Prosatio Silban, it reared up and tried to transfix him with a look of brooding hate, but the cook averted his eyes. “Whatever you do, do not meet its gaze,” the crone had said, “for in that, you will meet your death.”
The cage-floor was locked tight, making it a simple matter for the cook to lift his quarry. Carrying it was less than simple, however. He couldn’t balance it on his shoulder as he had earlier, but had to hold it in front of him, so the Thing couldn’t pierce him with a vengeful claw. With much effort and puffing, he managed to trudge up the switchback path to the Void’s rim.
Onward isn’t going to like this at all, he thought as the galleywagon loomed in the near distance. I suppose I can sling the trap under the galleywagon’s aft end; that should put it far enough away for my companion’s comfort. I’ll have to feed this horror before we leave … and I am not looking forward to that.
Prosatio Silban lashed the trap to his vehicle’s undercarriage, then clenched his left hand into a tight fist. With his right hand, he unsheathed a sharp stiletto, then grimaced as he drew the blade’s edge across the fist’s scarred and bulging thumb-mound. He blotted the wound with a clean square of white gauze and dropped the gory dressing into the cage.
The Thing regarded the crimson cloth, extended a pair of wriggling mouth-tentacles, and sucked the bandage into its slavering and fanged orifice. Prosatio Silban tried not to retch.
I can’t leave here soon enough, he thought. I hope my will holds out – not to mention my blood.
* * *
Soft chanting and pungent incense-smoke greeted Prosatio Silban as he opened his eyes. He sat up on the crone’s low divan; she ceased chanting, and proffered a steaming ceramic mug.
“Yava?” she asked.
“Please.” The cook took the mug, inhaled the beverage’s minty aroma, sipped, and savored its bittersweet bite. With a grateful smile, he added, “And … thank you.”