PROSATIO SILBAN’S FACE WAS THE picture of dispassionate interest, but his heart gave a familiar tug of weary resignation. This is what comes of confusing prosperity with blessing, he thought.
The Cook For Any Price and his prospective client’s retainer, Ulud, were sitting on lacquered folding chairs in the shade of the cook’s galleywagon which, along with innumerable booths, stalls and stands, congested the dockside bazaar of cosmopolitan Soharis. Bright hawker’s cries and early spring sunlight cut the chill morning air, and the salty breeze rising from the bay tangled the market’s aromas and odors into a seductive mélange. A dozen languages spilled from dozens of mouths: porters and sailors, farmers and fishermen, merchants and buyers, all bustling about their perpetual business with customary gusto.
Though the retainer’s proposal was appealing, at least financially, Prosatio Silban felt a twinge of apprehension. Darpino Phaval, the wealthiest teak merchant in the Uulian Commonwell, was popular among those with sufficient leisure to indulge their ecumenical curiosity. His lavish banquets featured as their centerpiece religious teachers from throughout the Exilic Lands and around the Rimless Sea; the more exotic the speaker, the better-attended. As a self-defrocked Sacreant in former service to the Flickering Gods, such spiritual fare was not exactly Prosatio Silban’s cup of yava any longer. But he would go wherever a contract would lead.
Inside a cavernous and well-appointed kitchen washed by the warm glow of a fatberry-oil chandelier, Prosatio Silban was puzzled to find himself the sole occupant.
“I am, of course, aware of Sir Darpino’s reputation and humbled by his desire for my culinary and interpretive skills,” said the beefy cook. “But even the most learned cannot fully grasp the ways of the enigmatic M’zei mystics; I myself do not, despite having learned their language and resided with them for longer than was comfortable.”
Ulud smoothed the wind-rippled edge of his sequined robe and coughed a hired loyalist’s cough. “Sir Darpino’s skills in sacred counsel are without like. The M’zei do not generally travel this far from their holy city; but Sir Darpino heard late yestereve that one of their sages – an Intuid named ‘Avinadav’ – arrived here via a netfisher’s rig two days ago and will board a deep-water merchantman on the morrow. My master could not assemble a proper salon in that time, but neither could he forego the opportunity for colloquy and bade me proffer an invitation at first light. The Intuid accepted at once – or so I gathered from his pidgin Uulian, which did not exactly inspire my confidence in his people’s purported wisdom.”
“Do not be fooled, Ulud. The Intuids comprehend all tongues, but believe only their own suitable for true communication. As they say: ‘Can axes filet?’”
Ulud smiled dismissively. “Perhaps, if they are sharp enough,” he said. “But back to business. Will you prepare a traditional M’zei dinner for a total company of three including yourself, and smooth any verbal or conceptual difficulties that may arise? The offer-price is one hundred silver plus expenses, and a gift from the scented hand of Sir Darpino himself.”
Prosatio Silban made a show of deliberation for Ulud’s benefit. The M’zei were simple eaters; the sum excessive for a few hours’ minimal labor; and in any case, he took his seriously his professional duties.
“Done,” he said. “Where and when?”
* * *
Darpino Phaval’s expansive mansion sprawled across the north end of Soharis’ Busy Gold Street like a prey-sated lion, somewhat larger than but otherwise much like its neighbors: a three-story green marble ziggurat in the self-important style peculiar to self-made Uulian gentry. Each roof was surmounted by gardens of shade-palm and pomegranate beneath which singing fountains splashed; its streetside wall was pierced at staggered intervals by bronze shutters lustrous in the late afternoon sun. Over the wide, ivory-framed portico was a gold-leaf scroll: Welcome Stranger – Truth Lies Within. Prosatio Silban shook his head at the proclamation and entered the less obtrusive servant’s gate, concealed behind a demure hedge of blue fragrantia.
Inside a cavernous and well-appointed kitchen washed by the warm glow of a fatberry-oil chandelier, Prosatio Silban was puzzled to find himself the sole occupant. His “Hallo?” and “Anyone home?” went unanswered. He shrugged, deposited his well-worn leather bindle next to a massive mahogany butcher block, unrolled it and began arranging knives and utensils before sorting through a pile of the evening’s ingredients.
Culinary conventions are generally difficult for those uninitiated in their basic assumptions, but Prosatio Silban’s second career had begun with a long stay in the holy M’zei city and he knew the ancient principles by heart. (In the M’zei tongue they are a terse and opaque nine-word chant; roughly translated: “Don’t eat anything which comes when you call it, or its eggs or immature offspring, or unroasted – and pay attention!”) He offered a brief prayer to Plibo, Goddess of Anticipatory Patience, and began methodically detaching fish heads.
“Ah, the man from whom the evening’s success depends,” boomed a fruity baritone behind him. Prosatio Silban turned as an imposing figure in gold-threaded brown silk swept up, both arms extended in greeting. He grasped the cook’s left shoulder and fish-bloodied right hand; the cook stifled a smile as his patron’s florid face smothered reflexive disgust behind a wall of unruffled bonhomie.
“I am Darpino Phaval,” he said, adding in throaty M’zei, “(‘your’ presence may enlighten our eyes).”
“(futures precede us),” the cook said in automatic response, releasing his smile and offering a towel. “Prosatio Silban, Sir Darpino. It has been years since I have heard that greeting. Your accent is impeccable.”
Darpino Phaval nodded in self-approving deprecation. “It is only so through diligent practice, as I know little of the barbarous M’zei tongue beyond civil superficialities,” he said, drying his hand and tossing the used towel into an unused corner. “Do you lack anything?”
“(‘your’ presence may enlighten our eyes),” Darpino replied with a smile of relief.
“Not in terms of food; the M’zei enjoy the simplest fare cleanly prepared, and your victualer has been more than apt to that task. I am curious, however, that so large a kitchen – and so grand a house – is seemingly untenanted by servants.”
“I have dismissed them for the evening. The rare opportunity of conversing with an Intuid did not seem to me something to be done where there is danger of lurking ears. Such mysteries are best revealed in confidence, and were your own reputation not that of absolute discretion, you would not now be here.”
Prosatio Silban bowed slightly. “I hope to fulfill your culinary faith in me, Sir Darpino. However, I would appreciate a clearer idea of my other duties.”
“As simply put as can be to one less schooled than I in such mysteries,” Darpino Phaval began, “our Flickering Gods, as I am sure you know, weave among and through us; but by experience, observation and analysis I have deduced that they are not revealed exclusively to us Uulians alone. The gods have so blessed me to know that all known creeds and traditions of a divine nature have their root in our own noble faith. The M’zei, despite their inability to converse as do civilized men, have been my greatest challenge in understanding – but they are a challenge I hope to overcome.”
“Thank you, Sir Darpino,” the cook said. “That certainly gives me a clearer idea of the evening’s purpose. But you will perhaps be eager to know that the truths conveyed through M’zei teachings do not perfectly correspond –“
“Please,” Darpino Phaval interrupted, raising a gracious hand. “I realize that you have lived with these people in the past and gained some familiarity with their customs and habits. But I do not expect you to be able to understand them as I do, as brothers of the Hidden Truth. And now, the time for me is to meditate – and the place for you, at least now, is in this kitchen.”
Prosatio Silban bowed to the retreating swirl of silk and good intentions then bent to his task, raising knife and eyebrows as one.
* * *
There are moments in a formal dinner when uncomfortable silence settles over the assemblage like an itchy blanket. Generally, such conversational lapses herald the gathering’s end – but when the evening begins with such a gap, most arbiters of social form agree that little good will follow.
Sir Darpino softly cleared his throat for the fifth time in as many minutes. He glanced toward Prosatio Silban, opened his mouth, closed it. The cook nodded, and replied with what he hoped was a reassuring look.
Meanwhile, the Intuid Avinadav continued to stand in the exact center of Darpino Phaval’s opulent doorway — motionless, barely breathing, and apparently asleep. Short in stature, his deep blue tunic and curiously embroidered shawl were loosely gathered by a long grey beard encircling his waist and tied at the right hip. The creases at his closed eyes revealed ancient and frequent laughter, or perhaps wonder, and a faint smile graced his thick lips.
Prosatio Silban well knew the M’zei approach to new situations: “Pay attention, act as needed.” This was especially true of the Intuids, whose clarity of perception was not limited to the five basic senses.
Still, he wondered what was taking the old man so long. Procrastinating? I would, if I were expected to be a wealthy boor’s philosophical plaything. But then, I’m not an Intuid. And they always have their reasons.
The ancient eyes opened and fixed on Sir Darpino’s. “(nice place ‘you’ ‘have’ here),” Avinadav said, adding in Uulian, “Honor you.”
“(‘your’ presence may enlighten our eyes),” Darpino replied with a smile of relief. “I am Darpino Phaval, your earnest student of the Hidden Mysteries. This is Prosatio Silban, my cook and translator.”
“(why do ‘I’ seem to know ‘you?’) he asked.
“(‘I’ learned in ‘your’ holy city ‘years’ ago),” the cook replied, “(and am ‘at now’ hired as Phaval’s intermediary. ‘he’ wishes to learn, but has pushed ‘his’ head through books while ‘his’ heart remains outside the covers).”
Avinadav smiled and said, “(always learn, or learn nothing. ‘I’ recall ‘you-then,’ student-of-discontent. why did ‘you’ leave us?)”
Prosatio Silban felt his ears reddening. “Student-of-discontent” was how the M’zei called someone whose learning was blunted by expectation. It was a term which had become uncomfortably familiar to him during his stay; a term, in fact, that he had been secretly applying to Darpino Phaval.
“(‘I-then’ did not know ‘truth’ was not found in hope),” he said.
“(and ‘you-now’ know … ?)”
“(only that ‘I-now’ must cook, or we-now will not eat),” Prosatio Silban replied with a reluctant grin. Turning to the demurely expectant Darpino Phaval, he said, “I have spoken of your wisdom, and he has responded with eagerness.”
Darpino displayed too-obvious signs of understanding. “Well,” he said, beaming. “How do you say, ‘Shall we begin our meal?’”
“(let us grow happy with food),” replied the cook.
“Ah. Well, (let ‘me’ grow wise with becoming), then,” repeated Sir Darpino, somewhat inaccurately and melodramatically, and gestured toward the dining room.
“(futures precede us),” said the smiling Avinadav, and waved them on.
* * *
The cooking of fish often leaves an odor offensive in inverse proportion to its palatability. But for reasons which Prosatio Silban could never quite fathom, this quality was notably lacking from those prepared in the M’zei fashion. Perhaps it was the scented fatberry oil-fueled fire which had grilled the fish, or the light hand which seasoned it, or the savory peasant-greens and dense seedbread which accompanied it, or the endless cups of yava – the potent and stimulating M’zei national drink – with which it was washed down.
“Words live in ear and mouth, not letters,” Avinadav answered, reaching for the yava pot. “No life, no words.”
Or, Prosatio Silban reflected, perhaps he was simply distracted by Darpino Phaval’s droning narrative.
The trio sat on thick floor-pillows in Darpino Phaval’s book-and-scroll-lined banqueting hall, at one end of an immense slab of teak supported by thick ivory legs: the merchant at the head, Avinadav and Prosatio Silban to either side. The copper bone-bowls were now as full as their ceramic plates had been an hour earlier, when the merchant had first laid his hand on the conversational tiller and steered a twenty-year course from his first day as sweeps-boy on a riverbound teak barge, through mastery of the vessel, a fleet, and finally of almost the entire Soharis teak trade.
“I have long had a talent for sifting the Actual from the Apparent,” he said, with a barely deprecating wave of his yava-cup. “Wherever I traveled, no matter how exotic the location or strange the customs and gods of those who dwelt therein, I saw that people are basically the same: each possessed of a sense of decency, of divinity, of commonality of feeling and portent. All mark the same seasons; all celebrate birth, majority, marriage; all grieve death. How could this universality have come so startlingly and wondrously about?”
Darpino Phaval answered his own question by explaining that, throughout his travels, he had bought (or bartered for) as many sacred texts as he could find in a decent Uulian translation. He had arrived at the inevitable conclusion that all of the world’s faiths were based on a vision and knowledge of the Flickering Gods. Years ago, he had even published what he thought to be a definitive pamphlet regarding his theory; although well-received by those with leisure and inclination to read it, Sir Darpino felt his scholarship somewhat deficient. He knew only the barest scraps of M’zei spiritual lore, but he was certain – certain! – that the Flickering Gods had not left the enigmatic M’zei unvisited.
Avinadav sipped at his fourteenth cup of yava, seemingly unaware of the implied question.
Sir Darpino looked at Prosatio Silban, who shrugged.
“The M’zei value clarity over indirectness,” the cook said.
“Ah,” replied the merchant, and shifted on his pillow. “May I ask the Intuid if there is a reason why you do not publish your spiritual writings?”
“Ask,” Avinadav replied, taking another sip.
“Why do you not publish your spiritual writings?” Darpino asked with exaggerated tolerance.
“No writings,” Avinadav replied. “Speakings.”
“’Speakings?’ How do you mean that, exactly? Is it a metaphor?”
“Metaphors are alien to M’zei thought,” Prosatio Silban interjected. “They have never in three thousand years recorded a single word of their teachings.”
Sir Darpino’s mouth opened, closed, opened again. “Three thousand years? How …?”
“Words live in ear and mouth, not letters,” Avinadav answered, reaching for the yava pot. “No life, no words.”
“Wisdom must flow from teacher to student as a river, not stagnate as a marsh, and can only do so if unconfined by writing,” Prosatio Silban explained. “The M’zei place great importance on wordless, immediate perception. They know no other reality.”
“I do not understand,” Darpino said. “What of the great and cosmic tension? What is more basic than the tension between the Now and the Eternal, between Galien, Goddess of Life and Angrim, God of Time?”
“No symbol, no tension, no gods!” Avinadav said, banging his cup on the table with a fierce grin. “Alive, dead – illusion. What lives? What dies? ‘Not-The.’ Not ‘the’ at all.”
Darpino Phaval looked at Prosatio Silban in uneasy bewilderment.
“A basic technical concept, Sir Darpino,” said the cook, feeling the evening start to slide in a strange direction. “The M’zei language has no cognate for ‘the,’ a word they see as implying separation where none exists.”
The merchant rubbed his forehead. “Ah. Interesting, and no doubt enlightening in its way. But I don’t quite see…”
The Intuid’s voice was low and intense. “Watch now.”
The lights went out.
“Watch,” Avinadav repeated.
A searing scarlet pinpoint of brilliance exploded past them from the center of the room and into deep indigo darkness.
Sourceless rumbling climbed up through the hush, like shoots pushing through endless soil. The blackness lightened slightly into deep sea-green laced with shafty gold; fading further into a vast ocean extending beyond the horizon.
But the ocean was alive and rhythmic, and aware – terribly, wonderfully, ceaselessly aware – of itself and its own awareness, of its edges and all they contained. Countless waves rolled over its surface, rising, falling, spraying, roaring, crying, shouting, calling with human voice: “I! I! I!”
One wave wore Darpino Phaval’s face, another Prosatio Silban’s. Both dissolved into the all-embracing sea, replaced by other waves no less assertive.
* * *
Prosatio Silban looked around the kitchen to see if he’d forgotten anything. Avinadav had gone to meet his ship, and Darpino Phaval – still sitting at table with a peculiar look on his face – had answered both their farewells with an inarticulate grunt. There was little else for the cook to do but gather his tools and wait for his pay. He picked up a set of fish tongs – the last item to go into his well-worn bindle – and paused, fascinated.
Though he had handled this utensil countless times over the years, Prosatio Silban realized he had never really seen it. The elegance of the design – spring-bent weaver’s steel with serrated grips – now struck him as both simple and obvious, with each nick and scratch making the tool as much a part of himself as the hand that held it. He wondered why he’d never noticed this before.
He also wondered why he could not stop grinning.
I do have much to learn, he thought, tenderly tucking the tongs next to their fellow utensils and trussing the bindle.
Darpino Phaval wandered with unfocused eyes into the kitchen, saw Prosatio Silban, stopped, raised his hand, opened his mouth, closed it, cocked his head, shook it, smiled, lowered his hand, and wandered out of the kitchen.
The Cook For Any Price watched him go, heard unsteady footfalls receding down the hallway and up the stairs. There was the click of a bedchamber latch, then silence.
Next time, Prosatio Silban thought, I’ll ask for payment in advance.