Prosatio Silban and the Tourist Trap

MOST DEVOTEES OF HOPMON, GOD of the Ever-Filling Purse, were honest souls. However, woe betide any who encountered their seeming opposites.

Prosatio Silban was sweaty, thirsty, and famished. The dust of the ostensibly endless road filled every visible wrinkle and crevice on both him and his dray-beast, and he longed to stop for refreshment. The pair were making their hot and uncomfortable way through a forbidding and sparsely populated part of the Uulian Commonwell’s northwestern periphery. Dry grass and scattered stone-scrub filled the eye, the random shrieks of carrion birds filled the ear, and conventional travelers’ wisdom held that halting there was ill-advised at best.

All I want is something wet for my buopoth and myself, the cook thought. A momentary pause wouldn’t hurt anything. Would it?

“Let’s get you some water, boy,” he croaked, and descended the galleywagon’s steps.

His fingers twitched the plaited yak-hair reins, and Onward came to a swift and grateful standstill. Prosatio Silban stood up from the driver’s bench and stretched sitting-stiffened legs. “Let’s get you some water, boy,” he croaked, and descended the galleywagon’s steps.

“Did you say, ‘water?’” asked a voice.

The beefy cook blinked road-dusty eyes in surprise and disbelief. Before him stood a young woman in the rough-cut tunic and skirts typical of the Commonwell’s more rustic classes. She dangled a brimming wooden bucket from one hand and a tin cup from the other.

“I have what you need,” she continued. “Cold, refreshing and satisfying – all that’s wanted on a day like this. And a mere two in copper for all that you and your animal can drink.”

“I have my own water, thank you,” Prosatio Silban said. “It’s in a cask slung on the rear of my vehicle, and all I need do is turn the spigot.”

“Ah, but your cask has been beaten about all day by this unrelenting sunshine,” the woman countered, and raised her bucket. “This is fresh-drawn from the wells of Porthunis, Lord of Storms and Streams, originating deep within the cool unlit earth. Yours cannot compare.”

The cook smiled. “Perhaps you’re right. Two in copper did you say?”

“For the water, yes. Plus one for use of the cup.”

“A bit steep, but worth it. Three it is then.” Prosatio Silban fished in his coin pouch for the appropriate sum, then handed it over. “Thank you.”

“No, thank you,” said the water-bearer, depositing the coins into her own pouch.

The cook dipped the cup into the bucket, lifted it to his lips, then lowered it. “Please – first water my buopoth,” he said.

“Of course. That will be three in copper.”

Another three?”

“At least. He looks to me like a deep drinker.”

“As you say.”

The woman jingled into her pouch the additional coins; she produced another, larger bucket from behind a convenient rock and saw to Onward’s needs.

“Fallgather. It’s on few maps and fewer minds, but the inn –the Arrow and Wheel – is unparalleled for the quality of its fare.”

Prosatio Silban sipped from the condensation-bedewed cup. It is better than what would have come from my own cask, he thought. I suppose it’s good to have stopped here, after all. “Where did you come from?” he asked. “Is there a village nearby?”

“Fallgather. It’s on few maps and fewer minds, but the inn –the Arrow and Wheel – is unparalleled for the quality of its fare.”

“Well. Thank you for your water and advice. It would be nice to eat someone else’s cooking for a change. What is the shortest route?”

* * *

Prosatio Silban had to admit – it was the best crawfish-beer stew he’d ever tasted. It was also the most expensive, which he discovered after the meal was eaten and the bill presented.

“Two in silver for a small plate of stew, an afterthought of olive-cheese bread, and a swallow of white duliac?” he exclaimed. “How can you demand so much and sleep well in the night, assuming you do so?”

“If you cannot afford it, sir,” the innkeeper said in a soft, measured voice, “I must needs complain to our magistrate and let her decide the cost. We are trying to stay in business during unprecedented times.”

The cook grumbled to himself and placed the contested price in the innkeeper’s waiting hand. “My compliments to the chef,” he said without warmth, and stood up from the table.

Outside, Fallgather’s general air of dilapidation further depressed his spirit. Flatrock foundations by the rushing creek supported a charred tangle of tumbledown timbers. The other visible buildings – a half-dozen or so of houses, and the inn itself – seemed one good wind-gust away from toppling, and a handful of listless sheep browsed the browning village common. Still thinking in general aspersions, the cook-errant climbed up and onto the driver’s bench.

“Sir? Sir! A moment please, sir,” came a voice to his lower left.

Prosatio Silban cast a peremptory glance at the official-looking youth accosting him. “Yes?” he asked with disdain.

“I am sorry, sir, but I must request from you the stopped-conveyance fee.”

“The what?

“Your conveyance has been stopped here for more than a quarter-hour. We have a strict law in Fallgather concerning all vehicles parked in our streets and obstructing traffic. Their drivers are charged ten in copper for each fourth-portion of an hour. You now owe double that amount, or if it’s more convenient for you, its equivalent: one in silver.”

“This is lunacy! I was at your inn, eating an overpriced meal. And in case it escaped your notice, there are no other vehicles about to cause traffic, or even anyone at all other than ourselves. Perhaps they have all been frightened off by your village’s institutional avarice?”

“I do not make the laws, sir, although I do enforce them. Or would you prefer to speak with our magistrate?”

“I do not make the laws, sir, although I do enforce them. Or would you prefer to speak with our magistrate?”

Prosatio Silban sighed. “Do you know, I think I would,” he said. “Someone must protest this vile down-shaking of visitors, and I am in the right temper to do so.”

“You will have to wait, sir,” said the youth. “Ours is a circuit-magistrate whose rounds won’t bring her here until tomorrow after lunch. If you do wait here, you will be subject to an overnight vehicular lodging fee plus what for your stopped conveyance. That is, unless you wish to patronize the inn, in which case –”

“Enough! Give me the total reckoning, and I will pay it. I will lodge in my galleywagon, eating my own food, on your village’s outskirt, free from monetary distraction.”

“Very well. There will be an additional fee, of course, in part due to my having to include your interests in my nightly rounds. I reckon the total to be” – here he scratched his nose and pondered – “no less than six in silver.”

“Six in silver?! Are you mad?”

“No, sir. I am but the village sentinel.”

“Oh, very well.” Prosatio Silban dug into his coin-pouch and counted out his remaining resources. “Three, four, five … five. Five is all I have. Will you take for the balance a promissory note or an in-kind barter?”

“No, sir. If you cannot meet your fiscal obligation, I must detain you for incurring unpaid fines, and since you have no more money, for general vagrancy. And of course, I must also confiscate your vehicle and beast.”


The youth produced a cudgel and gestured suggestively. “The magistrate will decide the most useful way you will work off your debt. If you’ll come with me, sir?”

* * *

The jail, a one-story burnt-brick structure behind the inn, was Fallgather’s sole well-kept edifice. Its small size and immaculate cleanliness bespoke a low tenancy, an impression confirmed – after the sentinel and his prisoner had entered – by a single large cell. One of the cell’s two bunks was occupied by a supine man of about Prosatio Silban’s own middle-years, who regarded him through the bars with patient curiosity.

At least I won’t be deprived of company, the cook thought. Another ‘vagrant?’

The youth unlocked the cell door and indicated with his cudgel. Prosatio Silban stepped inside, then jumped as the door closed behind him with an iron clang of finality.

“Here you are, sir,” the youth said. “That is, until the magistrate arrives tomorrow. A modest break-fast will be served at first light. Good day.” With that, he took his leave.

“Public drunkenness,” the man said with a grin, and sat up. “What brings you here?”

The sudden silence was broken by the other occupant’s dry chuckle. “Public drunkenness,” the man said with a grin, and sat up. “What brings you here?”

“Vagrancy. My needs apparently exceed my resources,” Prosatio Silban replied with a glum expression. “I have never seen, or even heard of, such depredation! And where are the other villagers?”

“Do not judge the residents too harshly. They have good reason for their apparent greed, and it is related to the population’s absence.”

“I cannot imagine how anyone can justify such lavish costs for so little in return.”

“Believe me, it is not by choice. They are as poor as you or I.”

“You speak in riddles, friend.”

“Then I shall speak with a straighter tongue. A flour-explosion at the creekside mill destroyed that building and the adjacent library, taking from us the miller and his wife who lived in and operated them. With their death, we lost our staple foods and communal memory. We are simple farmers with no builders’ aptitude to speak of, nor could we afford to engage those who had any. So our population is off soliciting for carpenters, and taking the odd job or three in order to pay them. Now do you see why things are as they are?”

Prosatio Silban was silent for long moments as he pondered the man’s words. I have never heard a sadder tale of woe, he thought. There must be something I can do for them. But what? He thanked his cellmate, lay down on the other straw mattress, and drifted into a fitful though pensive sleep.

* * *

“Case number 47,” announced the official-looking young man. “A vagrant who cannot pay for his incurred fines of one in silver.”

The sentinel, magistrate, and Prosatio Silban were sitting at a broad table in the Arrow and Wheel’s otherwise empty great-room. The magistrate wore the Rainbow Robe of a Sacreant – this one devoted to the service of Maklun the All-Decider, Dealer of Equitable and Long-Armed Justice. Her hairless brow creased as she measured the cook with unrevealing eyes.

“What account do you make of yourself?” she asked.

“This youth has told my account with accuracy and concision,” Prosatio Silban replied in his most respectful voice. “I do not gainsay him.”

“Very well. You are a strapping, if somewhat aged, man,” the magistrate said. “The court rules thus: you will work out your debt of one in silver, plus one for penalty’s sake. Have you any construction skills?”

“I am known as the Cook For Any Price, and have practiced that trade since more than twenty-five ago, the Year of the Moons-Lit Oak. I travel throughout the Commonwell and Exilic Lands in search of hungry people to feed. In short – I construct meals.”

The Sacreant raised an eyebrow. “The court knows you by repute, though not by acquaintance or sight.”

Prosatio Silban nodded. “I am honored to be so recognized. May I offer to the court an alternative sentence?”

* * *

The Arrow-and-Wheel’s kitchen was hot, and not only from its blazing hearth and cook-stoves.

The Arrow-and-Wheel’s kitchen was hot, and not only from its blazing hearth and cook-stoves. A sultry wind blowing in through the open windows was doing its best to braise the Cook For Any Price and his scullions in their own sweat.

“Another order of citrus-beef noodles for the seventh table,” a serving-maid shouted to Prosatio Silban.

“Right away,” he replied, and blotted his brow before shaking a skillet filled with quick-frying vegetables.

From one corner of the stifling kitchen the innkeeper watched with undisguised appreciation. “What made you think to invite the surrounding villages, and auction off a reasonably priced feast to help us raise money for the new buildings?”

The cook smiled. “It is in my nature to aid and to serve. Trading on my reputation seemed the obvious thing to do.”

“And charging one in copper to let the children pet your buopoth?”

“He enjoys it,” Prosatio Silban said, his smile widening. “And besides – for a cause like this, no price is too small.”

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want them all (so far) in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)

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