Cook’s Honor (A Prosatio Silban Tale)

(Three-and-a-quarter printed pages. If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction.)

THE FIRST CLUE PROSATIO SILBAN had to the midnight intruder was the sound of someone rifling through his galleywagon pantry. The second was the paring-knife at his throat – his own paring-knife.

“Wake up, stranger,” came a frightening – or was it frightened? – whisper in his right ear. “I need your silver.”

“I don’t have any,” the cook whispered back. “It’s been a bad week. But if you let me live, I’ll cook you a meal more than worth your time.”

“A meal!” scoffed the would-be thief. “What do I want with a meal? I can make my own meals. What I need is your money. Fetch it now.”

“See that jar over the chopping block?” asked the cook. “You may have what’s in there, as little as it is. But I’m telling you the meal is worth more.”

The thief stepped away from the bunk and rummaged through the jar. “Twenty-three in copper,” she said with disappointed disdain. “You have had a bad week. But you’ll have a worse if you don’t rustle up some real money, and soon.”

“As I said, that’s all I have. But I can ‘rustle up’ something for you that will be worth more than the contents of that jar; I am not for nothing called ‘The Cook For Any Price.’ And I’ll even let you keep the recipe – one otherwise known only to me. Isn’t a livelihood worth more to you than my nonexistent silver?”

The thief pondered for some heartbeats. “An intriguing idea,” she said. “But no tricks now. I will be watching you like a caged hawk.”

“Of that I am sure,” replied Prosatio Silban. He drew back the bedclothes and rolled slowly out of his bunk, keeping his hands visible. “First, I must make a light so we may see what I’m doing…”

He struck a match and applied it to the wick of an overhanging lamp. As the flame grew, so did the faint lavender fragrance of fatberry-oil. In the pinkish light, the cook got a good look at his assailant: a wiry youth clad in black tunic and knee-breeches, with the lower part of her face obscured by a dark blue kerchief. She was holding the knife loosely, almost apologetically – but still, she was holding it.

The beefy cook’s thoughts raced. How did she get in? Why didn’t my dray-beast raise a warning-ruckus? And most importantly: how do I regain the advantage?

The thief creased the visible part of her brow. “On your honor as a mercenary cook?”

“This is a humble, one-pot sort of affair, deceptively simple to cook but quite satisfying to palate and gullet,” he said, taking down an appropriate vessel from its hook on the ceiling. He put it on the fatberry-oil stove, lit the latter with another match, and poured in a small dollop of olive oil. “Once this is hot enough, I will add some breast of fidget-hen. I’m going to open my coldbox now, and am saying so as not to surprise you with my actions.”

Prosatio Silban rummaged in the coldbox – a waist-high, hollow cube of magicked glacier-ice – and produced a generous lump of pale pink meat, which he placed on the cutting board and proceeded to dice before adding it to the pot. “While the meat is frying, you’ll want to chop and add the vegetables and aromatics…”

So saying, he made short knife-work of three giant’s-thumb mushrooms, two small carrots, a shallot and a plump garlic clove, all of which went into the pot and shifted the galleywagon’s olfactory spectrum from floral to savory. “Now where did I put those herbs?” he wondered aloud.

“Take care, now,” said the thief, gesturing with the paring-knife.

“Cooking is always best done with care, whether your customer is armed or not,” Prosatio Silban said. He searched through his overhead herbal array and found a handful of sleepweed sprigs, which only an expert could tell wasn’t thyme. He stripped the small round leaves from their stems and added them to the pot.

Back to the coldbox went the cook, this time for a jug of stock. He poured some of this into the frying-pot with a sound like heavy rain on cobblestone streets, tasted, added salt and pepper. He then fetched in a measure of blue rice from the large sack next to the stove, and stirred the pot’s contents with a long wooden spoon.

“The majority of the cooking time is getting the rice to simmer and absorb the stock after it comes to the boil,” said Prosatio Silban. He put a lid on the pot and turned down the flame. “This will take a third of an hour. With what shall we pass the time?”

“Let me see the recipe,” said the thief. The cook obligingly sorted through the yellowing scraps of paper tacked to a cork board over the stove, removed the one titled One-Pot Wonder: Domestic Poultry with Blue Rice, and handed it to the youth. She glanced at it and tucked it up one sleeve. “Thank you.”

“A lot of memories are attached to that paper,” the cook said, pointing. “I first cooked it long ago for a nobleman of cosmopolitan Soharis, who was slumming in one of that coastal city’s lesser-regarded markets. ‘Feed me what the poor eat, when they chance to eat well,’ he told me. I constructed it from my own ingenuity, only writing it down later once he had eaten and complimented me on my pragmatic imagination.”

“Why did he do that?” asked the youth, with genuine curiosity. “Want to eat as a festive poor person, I mean.”

“I never ask those sorts of questions,” said Prosatio Silban. “I don’t want to give anyone the temptation of lying about their motives. And in any case, it’s none of my concern. My only business is to feed the hungry. If they are desperate into the bargain, that’s their own affair; but if I can ease their souls by soothing their appetites, I am gratified.”

“You’re not like any cook I’ve ever met,” said the thief. “Most of those I have known are desperate bottle-seekers of low morals, who jump at any chance to make some coin – any coin.”

“Well, I am also a mercenary, and have done my own jumping at times,” said the cook. “But I have learned not to be desperate. How is it that you are?”

“Are what?”


The thief was silent for a long moment, not meeting his eyes. “My desires outstrip my talents,” she said in a low voice. “I have few tradeworthy skills, no inheritance, no one decent to whom I may be ‘prenticed. What would you do in my case?”

“You make an interesting point. Given all that, I might be so inclined. But how do you deal with the danger?”

The thief’s eyes crinkled. “To tell you the truth, you are the first person I have robbed. And judging from your quaint dray-beast and brightly painted and neatly kept galleywagon, I did not think you would be dangerous. I have worked as an assistant to a drunken cook, as a scullery maid, and most recently a marketplace porter. Thievery seemed the simpler course, but I am learning that it doesn’t pay – or feel – as well as I thought it would.”

Prosatio Silban smiled, and glanced at the paring-knife. “If I could ‘prentice you to someone, would you give up this newly set-upon life of crime?”

“Who did you have in mind?”

“I know someone of wealth and repute here in epicurean Pormaris who is seeking a new preparation-cook. It’s tedious work, true, but it instills discipline – and leads to better opportunities. I would be happy to make the introductions.”

The thief creased the visible part of her brow. “On your honor as a mercenary cook?”

“On my honor as a mercenary cook. And after all, you already have one good recipe.”

“Let’s see how it turns out before I commit myself and my possible future.”

“Fair enough. It should be almost ready by now. May I please have my knife?”

Without hesitation, the youth extended the utensil handle-first. “Of course,” she said.

Prosatio Silban thought furiously, decided. He picked up the wooden spoon and, with no show of pretense, let his hand drop on the pot-handle. The pot overbalanced and the contents spilled onto the galleywagon floor.

“By Donekar, Watcher Over the Unintended Mishap!” he said in a voice of perfect innocence. “I have ruined our little demonstration. My most humble apologies. Shall I run through it again?”

“I suppose you’ll have to,” replied the youth, removing her kerchief and exposing an elfin face with determined jaw. She began sopping up the spilt liquid, paused, and gave the ruined meal a knowing sniff.

“Next time, add more pepper,” she said. “And about that – you might want to also leave out the sleepweed.”

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