Prosatio Silban and the Sick Call

SOMETIMES, EVEN THE IDEA OF rolling out of bed is too painful for words.

Prosatio Silban was sick. He wasn’t quite sure with what, but the symptoms were plain: congested head and chest, sore throat, joint- and head-ache, cough, chills, and fever. There was something going around the Commonwell – but then, there was always something going around – and while he had taken all the expected precautions against infection, still, there he was. Sick.

O Angrim, Lord of Time, All-Limiter; please – extend Your stark fist in my direction, he prayed. And soon.

But beseeching the Flickering Gods for death did not come naturally to the beefy cook – so he followed this half-hearted supplication with one somewhat more sincere: O Galien, Lady of Life and All-Mother; Calman, God of Necessary Unpleasantness; and Hegwain, Patroness of Affordable Cures; hear my plea and grant my boon. Look with mercy upon Your suffering children. Restore to me my usually bright vigor, and –

“Come in,” Prosatio Silban said in a barely audible whisper.

Knock-knock. Knock.

“Come in,” Prosatio Silban said in a barely audible whisper.

After a pause, the knock was repeated. Grumbling, the cook sat up in his galleywagon berth and swung his legs to the floor. He weaved a path to the door, unlatched the top half and opened it to an older woman, clad in rustic earth-tones, concern darkening her otherwise warm brown eyes. She had been his affable if temporary neighbor in epicurean Pormaris’ South Marketplace for the past few days – an egg-seller from some village near the city. (What was her name? Abmellia … something. A widow?) The years had etched her comely face with wisdom and laughter, and he enjoyed their easy amity. But now he just wanted to creep back to bed.

“Master Cook!” she exclaimed. “I was worried when I didn’t see you set out your menu-board this morning. Is everything alright?”

Prosatio Silban turned away his head and coughed. “No,” he said after some heartbeats. “Seem to have caught whatever is going around. Pray leave me be so you don’t catch it too.”

She shook her head. “Not at all,” she said. “I have not lived out my many fruitful years by succumbing to every little illness that happens by. I shall take care of you.”

The cook groaned. “No, please. I can manage. Don’t want to put you out.”

“But you can barely stand!”

“I have a walking-stick…”

“Bosh! You need looking after, and no mistake. And so does your restive dray-beast. He is hungry, and you are in no condition to attend him. Where do you keep his fodder?”

With a deep, cough-punctuated sigh, Prosatio Silban surrendered. “Under the driver’s bench. Bag of fatberry cakes. He likes three for his breakfast, one for lunch, two for dinner. And a kind word or three at each meal. (cough) Thank you.”

“Of course. Now back to bed with you! Unlatch the bottom door so that I may tend you in a moment, too.”

The cook complied with a nod, shuffled back to his berth, and sank gratefully into the parrot-down mattress. It is good to have friends, even if only the transitory variety, he thought, and slipped into fitful sleep.

He awoke to a pungent smell – not unfamiliar, but not one either that he could clearly identify.

* * *

He awoke to a pungent smell – not unfamiliar, but not one either that he could clearly identify. And definitely not pleasant.

“You’re awake,” said the woman. She gestured with a wooden spoon at the steaming pot on the fatberry-oil stove. “Medicine. My own invention, but guaranteed to cure a fevered cough. As that’s what most ails you, that’s what we’ll attend first.”

Prosatio Silban made soft sounds of protest as she dipped a ladle into the pot and filled a large ceramic cup. “Please…(cough)…I just need rest.”

“You need that also,” she retorted. “But take this first.”

As she approached, the odor – garlic? Vinegar? Ginger? Old shoes? – grew stronger, as did his apprehension. She had found and set up a small folding table next to his berth, and placed on it the brimming cup. “Inhaling the vapor is good for unblocking the nasal cavities, but you must also drink it for the full antifebrile and cough-suppressing effect. Here we go…open your mouth…”

She held the cup up to his unwilling lips, and once again he acquiesced to her good intentions. The brew actually tasted better than it smelled, but not much. Guided by her ministering hand, he managed to quaff a good quantity before his head dropped back on the sweat-stained pillow.

“If you don’t mind my saying so, Master Cook, your bedclothes could do with some cleaning. Perhaps once your fever breaks and you can sit up…?”

He looked at her through slitted eyes. “Why so considerate?” he asked.

Her face creased with kindness. “The Flickering Gods bid us look after each other so that They don’t have to,” she said, smiling. “Besides – with my husband gone and my children off to seek their respective fortunes, it is good to care for someone again. Now here! drink the rest of this cup. It should help you feel better, and soon.”

An hour later, try as he might, Prosatio Silban couldn’t smell a thing.

* * *

An hour later, try as he might, Prosatio Silban couldn’t smell a thing.

Did my nasal passages open too widely? he wondered. Sitting up, he looked around but saw no sign of the woman (what was her name?). The nearly empty cup was still on the bedside table, and he raised it to his nostrils.


This can’t be good, he thought. I need my nose to earn a living! How can I tell when food is fully cooked, or about to burn? Abmellia (if that is her name)! What have you done to me?

The door opened. “You’re sitting up,” she said approvingly. “That’s a good sign.”

“I can’t smell anything!” he replied. “And that’s not a good sign.”

She frowned. “Perhaps I made too strong a dose,” she said. “I’ll see what I can do.” She bustled about, unpacking vials and bottles from the large wicker basket she was carrying.

“It is an easy-to-fix side effect,” she explained as she emptied some of the containers into a saucepan and stirred together their contents. “Just you wait, and all will be well.”

Soon, the pot was a-boil with something which gave off thick clouds of purple steam. She mumbled in a language Prosatio Silban couldn’t catch, gave a final stir, eyed the result, nodded, and dipped into the saucepan a large square of thick gauze. “There we are,” Abmellia said (it was Abmellia! Abmellia Drroz!). “Lift up your shirt. This is destined for your chest.”

“What is it?” he asked, complying.

“A medicinal plaster. It will calm your lungs and restore your olfactory sense. But it’s only effective while still warm.”

So saying, she bent over and applied the now-lavender gauze to his now-bare chest. The warmth was soothing; was she caressing him as she sealed the fabric? He couldn’t exactly tell, but her eyes had a far-away look as she smoothed the wrinkles.

“This will take care of you,” she said softly. “And so will I.”

There was an awkward pause. “Abmellia?” he asked.


“I think it’s in place.”

She blushed, and removed her hand. “It is, isn’t it?” she said, rising. “There. I’ll return soon with something for your head-ache.”

* * *

This time, it was his hearing.

“Hello? HELLO!?!” Prosatio Silban cried, but heard neither outer shout nor inner echo. WHAT is going on? he asked himself. The plaster has healed my cough, but beclouded my ears. Surely there must be some medicine without noxious side-effects.

A shadow of worry passed over her face, and she fished in her basket.

The door opened, and Abmellia Drroz approached with a kindly smile. Her lips moved, but revealed no sound, so he tapped his ear with one hand. “I can’t hear you,” he said, gods-only-knew how loudly. “Help me, please.”

A shadow of worry passed over her face, and she fished in her basket. Holding up a small ceramic vial, she mimed drinking it, then handed it to him. He uncorked the top and gave an experimental sniff. Crushed banana peels and lilacs? he thought, putting the vial to his lips with a silent appeal to Bohoran, Giver of Strength Where None is Felt. The slippery liquid tasted as bad as it smelled, but stronger, and only with a manful effort did he refrain from gagging.

By degrees, the local soundscape seeped through – bright hawkers’ cries, heated haggling, even water dripping on dishes in the sink – and he felt his headache drain out of him. “Better?” Abmellia asked, taking his hand.

“Much,” he responded with a sigh.

She dimpled and held up an octagonal glass jar. “If you’ll allow me, I have an unguent for your joint-ache. It warms wonderfully. Would you like me to rub it on you?”

Prosatio Silban’s breath caught. “That is a bit more intimate than makes me comfortable,” he said. “Besides, I could probably use the stretching.”

“Are you sure? Can you reach all of your places?”

“Yes. All which ache, anyway. But I do appreciate the benevolence.”

There was the faraway look again, this time tempered with disappointment. “Well,” she said, producing from her basket a little hand-bell. “If you do need any more help, just ring this.”

“Thank you.”
She held his eyes for a heartbeat, then turned to depart. When she had closed the door, he sighed. Is it just me, or…? he thought, and shook his head.

The unguent was the most fragrant so far of Abmellia’s home remedies, smelling strongly of mint, eucalyptus and something nameless. It warmed as wonderfully as advertised, lulling him into a comfortable torpor. The heat thawed his pain-frozen joints, then slowly became more intense – and more intense still. Soon the sensation resolved into a maddening itch all over his body. He gasped and reached for the bell.

“Abmellia! Abmellia! Help!” he yelled over the ringing. “Help me!”

Shortly, the door swung open, and his medicinal savior was at his side. “By the All-Mother!” she said. “You must think me an incompetent monkey. Here, I have just the thing.” Taking from her ever-present basket a soft metal tube, she squirted some of its contents – a scarlet, kerosene-smelling ointment – into one hand before rubbing it briskly against the other.

“This will take immediate hold,” she said, covering first his twitching back, then his convulsing chest and belly, and finally his trembling legs. Her hands glided over his skin, soothing the itch but leaving crimson flesh in their wake.

“My goodness,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron. “I have never seen anyone react to home remedies the way you have. Surely it must be my fault. I am so sorry! If you’ll permit me” – here she offered two large green pills from a twist of paper – “this should finally put these strange symptoms to rest. Let me get you a glass of water?”

As their hands met she smiled shyly, lowered the glass, looked into his eyes and kissed him full on the mouth.

She returned presently with a brimming glass; he took it from her and swallowed the pills. As their hands met she smiled shyly, lowered the glass, looked into his eyes and kissed him full on the mouth.

It’s not just me, Prosatio Silban thought. Oh, dear. He disengaged and spoke gently. “Abmellia Drroz, we need to talk.”

Her eyes dropped. “Nothing good ever follows that four-word phrase,” she said.

“I hope this conversation puts those fears to rest,” he said. “I have enjoyed our comfortable camaraderie over the past few days, even before you became my well-intentioned nursemaid. And while I am both flattered and tempted, mine is strictly an itinerant life. And I like it that way.”

She sat down on his berth, still looking at the floor. “Is there no room in your heart for a companion? I have been so lonely since my husband died and my children left, that I … that I…”

“Please – don’t cry,” he said. “I am fond of you and grateful for your help, but I also know how this story ends. Perhaps your tender care for me awakened feelings that were better left undisturbed? And it is not me with whom you have fallen in love, but rather, with the idea of taking care of someone again?”

They sat together for a long moment, then she raised her eyes to his. “Perhaps,” she said. “Perhaps so. I am so unused to caretaking that I confused that for love. I am sorry.”

He smiled. “No apology necessary,” he said. “I ought to have been more clear about my way of life. But the sickness interfered with that, and so we are here. May I see you when next my travels wind this way, whenever that is? I would enjoy that.”

“So would I,” she said earnestly. “Until then…?”

He squeezed her hand. “Until then,” he said.

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