Prosatio Silban and the Artful Dodge

HERE’S A SIMPLE QUESTION: WHAT is the essence and meaning of “art?”

I have never seen such beautiful food, Prosatio Silban thought. The village of Pastisi had made a name for itself by crafting the most picturesque baked goods in the Uulian Commonwell’s Three Cities and Thousand Villages – and charging a nominal fee just for the privilege of viewing them. Generally, such creations were either plain or adorned with the simplest of icings. Those inside the spotless glass-topped cases, on the other hand, could scarce be described in words.

These villagers’ reputations are well-earned, he thought, and glanced from side to side. I wonder if these recipes could be reproduced? With surreptitious fingers, he withdrew from his vest-pocket a writing-stick and palm-sized notebook and began to sketch…

* * *

Please, Scofi, Goddess of Culinary Impartation – let these finally look and taste as good as they smell, Prosatio Silban said to himself as he opened his oven door and removed a sheet pan laden with an impressive array of shortbreads in different shapes, sizes and colors. He set the pan on the preparation-counter and stepped back to admire its contents.

Perfect replicas, he thought, comparing the results to his hurried sketches.

Perfect replicas, he thought, comparing the results to his hurried sketches. Took me more tries than I thought, but – perfection. In my own unhumble opinion, at least. And now, to sell them – that is, should Hopmon, God of the Ever-Filling Purse, so dispose.

Late-afternoon shadows were creeping over the busy lanes and stalls of Pormaris’ South Market as he carried the sheet pan to one of the unoccupied tables-and-chairs in the shade of his galleywagon. He bent to set it down, but before he could straighten up, a different shadow fell across the display.

“Cookies, Moma! Pretty cookies!” cried a happy young voice. It belonged to a girl of no more than ten summers, whose well-dressed mother smiled with beneficent wonder at Prosatio Silban.

“Are you selling these, Master Cook?” she asked. “Did you bake them yourself?”

“Indeed I am, and did,” he said. “For a mere five in copper apiece, they can be yours.”

“A fair price for such beauty. I shall take three, if you please.”

“Of course.” They made the exchange, and he wrapped up her purchase in a beeswaxed slip. “Thank you for your custom,” he said.

“Thank you for delighting my daughter. Good afternoon.”

“Master Cook!” exclaimed a passing swain with a lady on each arm. “I had no idea you were such a talented baker. My dearest-hearts will love them! May I please have these two?”

“Two it is,” replied the cook-errant, selecting the desired treats.

Thus it went until early evening, when Prosatio Silban had divested himself of his handiworks. A heavy coin-jar is a beautiful thing, he thought, and smiled in modest triumph.

* * *

A week later, his legal troubles began.

“My name is Ractor Obo, and we represent the Pastisi Confectioners’ Guild,” announced one of three men gesturing in anger at Prosatio Silban’s reproductions. “And we demand that you cease making our confections. Such a privilege belongs to the guild-members alone, and as we all know” – he flashed a sinister frown – “you do not. For if you did, you would not have committed such an outrage.”

“Besides which, and more importantly,” stated one of his companions, “they are only to be beheld. Not consumed.”

“Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?” Prosatio Silban asked with annoyance. “In any case, I have done nothing wrong!”

While this was going on, a small crowd of curious marketgoers was gathering, some seeking to purchase the cook-errant’s cookies. Others started in to debate.

While this was going on, a small crowd of curious marketgoers was gathering, some seeking to purchase the cook-errant’s cookies. Others started in to debate.

“He baked them,” said a tall woman holding a full vegetable-basket. “He should get to sell them. And he’s right – food should be consumed.”

“Yes, but,” a slight man in middle-class garb rejoined, “they were not his idea. And they are direct copies of someone else’s effort.”

“I have been to Pastisi, and these three bakers have a valid claim,” agreed another woman. “They are hardly original. What they are is stolen.”

“In this, the most interesting of all possible worlds,” countered another man, “there is nothing original anymore. And he never said he invented them.”

“You are all missing the point!” snapped the third of the Pastisi delegates. “We created them to exhibit and celebrate our skills, for which our village is justly famous. They are meant to be admired, not eaten.”

“Which raises another point,” Prosatio Silban argued, raising his voice and shifting from foot to foot. ““Food is meant to be eaten. Form can only be appreciated when complemented by function. Take a shrine without worshippers, a theater without actors and audience, clothing without someone to wear it, a funerary pyre that’s neither smokily ablaze nor surrounded by grieving friends-and-relations, or perhaps –”

“ENOUGH!” cried the first Pastisi spokesman. “I can see we will get nowhere with you. We must have this matter settled by one of the market-Sacreants. Let us away!”

* * *

The Sacreants, those envoys and attendants of their six-hundred-thirteen Flickering Gods, served other offices than simply conducting worship ceremonies. They were also responsible for the Commonwell’s social and physical infrastructures. For example, in the South Market and other great Uulian trading-spaces, they were found healing injuries in the name of Galien, Goddess of Life; sealing contracts and overseeing other business arrangements on behalf of Hopmon; and acting as judges under the aegis of Maklun the All-Decider. It was to this latter deity’s representative that the Pastisi contingent and Prosatio Silban – and a few hangers-on – repaired for the blessings of the Dealer of Equitable and Long-Armed Justice.

“In the Name of Maklun, we claim decisive impartiality between those parties who require it,” intoned Ractor Obo in the traditional formula. “We will abide by the ruling of the All-Decider, in this and in all things.”

“I too will abide by the ruling of the All-Decider, in this and in all things,” Prosatio Silban recited. “This I affirm.”

“I too will abide by the ruling of the All-Decider, in this and in all things,” Prosatio Silban recited. “This I affirm.”

“This I affirm,” repeated the plaintiff.

The Sacreant, wrapped in her order’s characteristic Rainbow Robe, said, “Then state your case and hear the word of Maklun. What is your issue?”

With concise strokes the two petitioners sketched a verbal picture of their disagreement, to which the Sacreant paid rapt and impassive attention. At last she held up her hand.

“I see the difficulty,” she said. “In one scale-pan is the principle of private ownership. In the other is the nature and definition of art. Not the easiest of knots to untie. I shall now disclose to you both the god’s decision.”

Prosatio Silban lowered his eyes. Ractor Obo set his jaw. After a moment, the Sacreant cleared her throat.

“We say that this cook may continue making the confections in question …”

“WHAT?!” complained the Pastisi bakers.

Thank you!” exclaimed the cook.

“I have not finished saying His word,” the Sacreant said with a fearsome scowl. “You will both be silent until I do. Yes?”

“Yes,” chorused the chastened litigants.

“Now. The cook may continue to bake, but he may not derive either coin or bartery from so doing. And he must also disclose to the public the source of his inspiration.”

It was Prosatio Silban’s turn to complain. “But … that gives me no reason to continue baking!”

“Not unless you want to aid the Pastisi bakers in their quest for renown,” declared the Sacreant.

Ractor Obo bowed, almost hiding his victorious smirk. “The All-Decider is wise in all things,” he said. “Thank You for Your equity.”

“Thank You for Your equity,” mumbled Prosatio Silban. “The All-Decider is wise in all things.”

… whether I like it or not, he finished silently.

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want another 85 stories in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)

2 comments for “Prosatio Silban and the Artful Dodge

  1. Betty Clark
    2022.03.17 at 0954

    I liked this one a lot.

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