AS A COOK-ERRANT, PROSATIO SILBAN perhaps knew better than anyone the importance of first impressions.
“What a charming turn of phrase!” exclaimed the elegant middle-aged woman sitting down at the beefy cook’s table-and-chairs in the afternoon shade of his galleywagon. She was commenting on his signature greeting, “With what may I please you?”
“Thank you,” he said with a slight bow, and waited for her order.
“How did you come by it?” she asked.
He hesitated, his cheeks coloring.
He hesitated, his cheeks coloring. O Derriet, Patroness of Pointed Questions and Clever Replies, he prayed. Please – guide, and forgive, my response.
“It was a long process, and not that noteworthy,” he said with a shrug. “Wouldn’t you rather place a lunch request?”
Her curiosity was not so easily parried. “I can do both,” she said, and glanced around the quiet cosmopolitan Soharis marketplace-corner where his galleywagon was parked. “I don’t seem to be intruding on any other customers…?”
Prosatio Silban smiled, but only with his mouth. “It is not the most interesting of stories,” he said. “A quarter-century ago, I was a new-minted mercenary cook, eager to distinguish myself from the bustling market’s other vendors. At first, I welcomed my potential clients with a cheery, ‘May I help you?’ However, that seemed lacking in originality and went mostly unheeded. I next progressed to, ‘How may I be of service?’ But that too seemed a bit flat, especially since I heard the same expression from other, more menial business-folk. One by one I experimented with alternatives, until, as though bestowed by the goddess Derriet herself, it simply fell from my lips with fluent ease.”
She reached out a hand and grasped his arm. “I thank you for telling me,” she said. “Now. If you don’t mind, I should like to order the fidget-hen confit with blue rice, and a glass of white duliac…”
* * *
That night, over a relaxing cup of yava – and with something of a bothered conscience – Prosatio Silban reflected on the falsehood he had told the elegant woman. He had been, as related, new to the traveling-cook trade and eager to distinguish himself within epicurean Pormaris’ crowded marketplace. His galleywagon had then been parked next to the horse-drawn conveyance-cum-residence of Truilla Thopar, one of the Uulian Commonwell’s most famous itinerant courtesans. Such diversions were not of great import to him but, rather than scandalized, he was curious – and struck up an idle conversation. It was a slow day for both of them, and at one point a would-be customer intruded on their chat to inquire after the courtesan’s price. She turned from the budding cook and asked, with perfect sincerity, “With what may I please you?”
Not the most tasteful of tales, the cook thought with a quiet if guilty smile, and only suitable for sophisticated ears. But isn’t that often the way of truth?
(With story assistance by the remarkable Ann Clark.)