A BUOPOTH IS A STRANGE beast: some say it is half-composed of dreams, others prefer not to speculate. But of the little that is known, one thing is certain: no matter what shape the beast takes, its eyes are the most soulful of any creature in all the Exilic Lands.
One of these eyes was fixed on Prosatio Silban as the cook approached with a bag of fatberry cakes. “Buopoths can lumber all day on a fatberry cake and a kind word” ran the proverb, and today had certainly proved it: a brisk sixteen-hour galleywagon pull along the Reaching Road through the light-forested countryside north of cosmopolitan Soharis. Prosatio Silban dug into the bag and surveyed his environs; a small clearing under a circle of maiden-oaks. A fine evening, and a good place to camp. He patted the beast, fed it, told it what a good buopoth it was, and made plans for his own dinner.
A small iron brazier was soon ablaze near the foot of the galleywagon steps. Prosatio Silban preferred to dine outside when traveling — travelers along the Reaching Road, the Uulian Commonwell’s main city-to-city thoroughfare, were not infrequent and he somewhat enjoyed the random company. The cook threaded some bladegrass skewers with plump chunks of fidget-hen breast and rolled them in a dark and musky red powder. These and a salad of foraged greens (and a glass or two of white duliac) would suffice for his meal.
He was just putting the skewers on the brazier when he heard a low moan behind him. Turning, he saw a scrawny man, tall, his clothes in rags, his arms outspread in supplication. “Please…?” the apparition whispered, and collapsed.
He came to a few moments later, with his head cradled in one of Prosatio Silban’s hands and some duliac dribbled between his lips. He coughed. “Thank you.”
Prosatio Silban smiled. “I have food cooking. Take your ease until it is finished.”
The man tried to rise. “I cannot! I can never take my ease! It would be my death!” His body was not equal to the effort, however, and he sank back to the ground, sobbing slightly.
Prosatio Silban let the sobs run their course, keeping a discreet eye on the skewers (which were beginning to smell as only fidget-hen can smell when grilled outdoors under a rising pair of summer moons). At the appropriate point, he said, “I must save our dinner from catastrophe.”
The man looked up. “You are kind.”
“No, I am hungry, and I suspect you are also. Please — allow me to serve you.” He tended to the brazier, then unslung a table-and-chairs from beneath the galleywagon. Plating the meal, he helped his guest rise and seat himself.
Their appetites did justice to the grilled hen and salad, and Prosatio Silban was pouring both of them a second glass of duliac when the man spoke. “I must thank you for your kindness. I must thank you for it, yet I feel it came too late to save me.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Prosatio Silban.
“I am the last of my village. It has been cursed, and oh Flickering Gods! I have nowhere to turn. They all fell prey to the coil, the coil…” He put his face in his hands, then folded them on the table before him and said:
“It began with the wandering stranger. He said he had delights to show us, pretty delights that sang and danced. We were a village of laborers, simple folk of farm and orchard, and in the evenings we were often too tired to do more than pluck a few cherished after-dinner tunes on our lyres before sleeping. The stranger said evenings were for more than sleeping, and showed us … the coil.
“It was about the size of my hand. It’s a simple twist of something mirror-bright that sits in a cage, and when you stroke it — even a little — it dances and shimmers for hours, with a sparkling music like zithered fairies. How it danced and sang! Once we saw it, we knew we had to have it. The stranger smiled. He had coils for all, for a small price which he pocketed after installing one in every cottage and hovel. We never saw him again.
“But we weren’t looking for him, for we had eyes only for the coil. Soon all we wanted to do was gaze at it, eyes agape, mouths slack, one hand plucking at it every now and again to keep it dancing and singing. And this was what I found, one morning, having in my sleep kicked over the cage and broken the blessed, cursed coil. My fellows dying from starvation, their once-lush fields in tatters, and myself with only enough will left to crawl away. And now I have nowhere to go but to die.”
“While that is true of all men in the aggregate, that may not be true for you right now,” Prosatio Silban said. “Few things look as dire in the dawn as they do in the evening. Please — let me make you a bed in the shelter of my galleywagon. Tomorrow we shall address the situation together.”
But by morning, the man was no more. As he cut wood for a funeral pyre, Prosatio Silban marveled that even in the enlightened Uulian Commonwell, one could die from too much distraction.