“WHO IS WISE?” ASKS THE old sage-monk – and answers: “One who learns from everyone.”
Prosatio Silban squirmed in his damp sleeping-berth for the hundredth time, then finally rolled himself out of it and onto his feet. ENOUGH, he thought, passing a hand over his sweaty face and rubbing his wet fingers. Perhaps it will be cooler outside. I hope.
There was nothing for it but to endure by any means necessary Nature’s hot and moist embrace.
The weather was unusual for many-harbored Soharis, perched on a southeastern corner of the misty Rimless Sea, and had been so for the past two days. Like most coastal cities, cool wind and fog were more often the rule. But that summer so far was distinguished by meteorological anomalies, and there was nothing for it but to endure by any means necessary Nature’s hot and moist embrace.
The uncomfortable cook slid into a grey muslin tunic and complementary kneebreeches, forgoing for the nonce a long-vest and his trademark black silk fez. The top half of his galleywagon’s door was already open for a wishful but absent night-breeze, and he closed and locked both halves behind him before lightly descending three steps into the visitor’s section of the quiet Portside Market.
The looming dockside tower-clock sent three echoing peals across the slumbering cityscape and adjacent bay. Three-of-the-Morning, Prosatio Silban thought. The peak time for nightmares, hauntings, and other odd encounters. I wonder which, if any, will find me this night?
Beneath the two moons casting crisscrossed shadows, Soharis was a ghost of its daytime self: pools of green and blue radiance had transformed the workaday fishing- and commerce-hub into a motley devil’s playland, and the deserted cobblestone streets glistened with night-dew. Prosatio Silban turned the corner of Commerce Street and Rimless Way, and was surprised by a furtive trio of black-clad men intent on opening the massive iron doors of one of the waterfront’s many poured-stone warehouses.
“What are you doing?” the beefy cook demanded.
They jumped at his voice. “Nothing you need worry about,” replied one.
“Nothing illegal,” said another.
“Well…nothing immoral,” added the third. “At least, for us. Why do you ask such a thing?”
“Why? Because this is not your property!” the cook exclaimed.
“We could only afford these goods through a bit of after-hours business,” said the first.
“Our credit is no good here,” said the second.
“Or would be, if we had any credit at all,” said the third. “Would you like to help us?”
“Me?” cried Prosatio Silban, his face flushing. “Certainly not! Why do you ask such a thing?”
“We could use another lookout,” offered the first.
“To let us know when the constabulary is nigh,” explained the second.
“We would give you a quarter of our earnings,” said the third, flashing a conspiratorial wink.
The cook-errant opened his mouth for a lecture, but the men faded into the double shadows with abrupt silence. Perhaps an unexpected confrontation with an honest man changed their minds, he thought, and smiled at himself.
“Good evening, sir!” came a faux-friendly exclamation from behind him.
“Good evening, sir!” came a faux-friendly exclamation from behind him. “And what are you doing, here and now?”
Prosatio Silban turned. Two city guards in Soharis’ signature blue-steel chainmail were regarding him with polite suspicion. Each gripped an iron truncheon.
“Explain yourself, please?” asked one, gesturing with his weapon.
The cook was about to gabble a nervous reply when the other guard’s expression changed.
“Say! I know you,” he said. “You’re that mercenary cook who’s always in the Portside Marketplace sometimes! Among the traveling vendors’ stalls, am I right?”
Prosatio Silban smiled. “Guilty as charged,” he replied, and extended a hand. “So to speak.”
The first guard ignored the polite proffer. “Were you trying to break into this warehouse?” he barked.
“Not at all! I was trying to sleep – not easy, in this heat – and decided instead to cool down by seeing how the rest of Soharis was spending this unreasonably unseasonable night. So far, my shop-window reflection is the only other soul I’ve seen. If you believe the old wives, that is.”
The second guard placed a hand on his companion’s truncheon-arm. “Master Prosatio is not a thief, Gasto. He may sell his meals for a steal, but that’s hardly the same thing.”
All three laughed, and Gasto lowered his truncheon. “Very well,” he said. “We will leave you to your perambulations, then. But take care – there are always thieves hereabouts.”
“So I understand,” Prosatio Silban said. “Thank you, and good night.”
“G’night to you,” chorused the guards. As their nail-soled footfalls clicked away, the three thieves reemerged from the darkness.
“That was close,” said the first.
“Too close,” affirmed the second.
“’Twas a good thing they knew you,” said the third.
“I want nothing to do with any of you. You pilfer others’ fortunes to make your own.”
“No – it was a good thing they didn’t see me with you,” Prosatio Silban said. “I want nothing to do with any of you. You pilfer others’ fortunes to make your own.”
“Perhaps,” said the first.
“Sometimes,” said the second.
“More than we would admit,” admitted the third.
“It’s all part of the Thieves’ Code,” said the first.
Prosatio Silban stopped in mid-turn. “You have a code?” he asked.
“It’s not a code so much as a set of principles,” the second replied.
“Actually,” said the third, “it’s more of an attitude.”
“I do not understand,” said Prosatio Silban.
The first thief glanced from side to side, then adopted a hands-behind-his-back professorial air. “These long-ago words were taught by Ar Zusha, who said, ‘Seven lessons can we learn from a thief: Be discreet; be fearless; be mindful of all details…’”
“‘…Be patient; be eager and willing; be confident and optimistic…’” recited the second.
“‘…And always, always try again.’” finished the third.
Prosatio Silban shook his head. “I suppose there may be some wisdom in what you say, at least of a sort,” he said. “And it may even be of broad application. But there is greater wisdom in not preying upon honest business-folk. Even the lightest consequences do not balance your dubious rewards – which are always, always gained at someone else’s expense.”
“You’re certain you don’t wish to be our sentry?” asked the first.
“Please!” scoffed the cook. “Have you heard nothing I’ve said?”
“So it goes,” replied the second, and shrugged.
“G’night,” mumbled the third.
Without another word, Prosatio Silban turned on his heel. Some folk can never learn, he thought, and rounding the corner of Rimless Way and Busy Gold Street, he almost collided with Gasto and his partner.
“There they are!” exclaimed Gasto in triumph as the guards rushed past Prosatio Silban. “You three! Stop! Now!”
Make that the eighth lesson, the cook-errant thought with grim humor as he walked away. Don’t get caught.