WHAT IDOL CAN BEAR CLOSE scrutiny without losing its magik over the spellbound?
Prosatio Silban sliced into his finger, swore silently, laid down his knife, and reached for the roll of self-sticking bandages tucked into his knives-bindle. Here it comes, he thought.
“Master Prosatio!” barked his client. “How many times must I remind you? You are here to work, not spectate!”
“My most sincere apologies,” the cook-errant murmured, not meeting her eyes. “You are correct. It shan’t happen again.”
His accidental wound was just one of numerous small errors leading to pointed reprimands in Prosatio Silban’s direction. To be sure, and also kind, it was not one of his usual engagements – a small gathering of some of epicurean Pormaris’ most noted creatives. And when such an assembly included the cook’s favorite author in all the Uulian Commonwell, the wide-famed and much beloved Barbatus the Elder, what else could one expect?
The eight guests had been chosen with a deliberate hand by the wealthy and influential Madam Lecotra Dziol, and included two poets of differing sensibilities, one visionary painter, an up-and-coming playwright, three musicians of various disciplines, and the not-yet-arrived author. The well-dressed attendees were displaying their manifold arts in Madam Lecotra’s kitchen-adjoining presentation chamber, and it was Prosatio Silban’s furtive attempt to view the painter’s piece that had occasioned the self-inflicted injury.
The intimate salon had commenced with the poets, who immediately broke into the kind of polite squabble only the literati can conduct.
The intimate salon had commenced with the poets, who immediately broke into the kind of polite squabble only the literati can conduct:
“Let me soar / like the proud birds / like the windy clouds / unshackled by the manacles of / stricture and structure / binding the words / as only the small-minded / may so do,” quoth the deadpanning free-verse advocate.
For her part, the other poet rejoined:
“A soul without a skeleton
Is like an empty jug.
No way to measure anything
Like those who dabble, smug.
Let me not see the endless churn
Of skeletonless men
Unable to themselves describe
What issues from their pen.”
“It is good that we are not gathered in competition,” Madam Lecotra said lightly over a smattering of applause. “One would be hard put to choose between your two elegant contributions! Indeed, you both stated your preferred forms with admirable calm. Thank you! And now, Glato Zoi will favor us by unveiling his latest composition, Indigent Study #6 – Mouthful of Diamonds. But before that, I must check on our refreshments.”
That done, and her caterer suitably chastened, the hostess joined in the other guests’ vocal admiration of Glato Zoi’s masterpiece.
“What ingenuity!” she enthused. “And originality!”
“The colors!” raved the playwright.
“The textures!” gushed one of the musicians.
“Such attention to detail!” declared the metrical poet.
“Such spirit! ” rejoined her lyrical counterpart.
Thus the aesthetic parade continued, from the playwright (who goaded each reluctant guest into cold-reading his most recent drama) to the solo musicians (a coloratura alto, a manic guitar-player, and a soulful flautist, of individual but competent skills), all meeting with appropriate accolades. Madam Lecotra excused herself and revisited the kitchen, where the cook-errant was tending to the final round of finger-foods (mumblefish caviar-topped truffle chips) and trying not to think about what he was missing in the next room.
“How goes it?” she asked Prosatio Silban in a firm yet kind voice.
“It goes well,” he replied. “In fact, my tasks are almost complete.”
“If you finish up here at speed, I will introduce you to my other guests, including the latecomer, who holds to his own unheeding schedule.”
“How if this,” Madam Lecotra said. “I well know your taste for the arts, and especially for one practitioner. If you finish up here at speed, I will introduce you to my other guests, including the latecomer, who holds to his own unheeding schedule.”
Heart pounding, Prosatio Silban bowed. “It would be my great joy and privilege,” he said. “I shall be ready within moments.”
“Excellent. He always arrives late, in order to heighten our tension, and you will fill that blank expanse of time most well.”
The cook blurred through his cleaning-up and putting-away duties, took a large and steady breath, and entered the lush but tasteful presentation chamber.
“Everyone, this is Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price,” said Madam Lecotra with an enthusiastic flourish. “Master Prosatio, this is everyone.”
“Donmar Qi” and “Dwar D’lyr,” said the free and metrical poets in turn, nodding toward the beefy cook.
“I am Glato Zoi, Pormaris’ most bold and outstanding visual artist,” said the painter.
“Mamta Davi,” said the playwright with a fixed smile. “Mine is the theatrical realm, in which I am unmatched.”
One by one, the musicians nodded and gave their names as “Ayne Voz” (the singer), “Jerigar” (the guitarist), and “Ianan Derzn” (the flautist). “Our pleasure,” they chorused, and Jerigar added, “We hope you enjoyed our thrilling musics.”
“I did, and thank you very much,” replied Prosatio Silban. “I could hear the proceedings from the adjacent kitchen – not as though I was in here, of course, but still well enough – and I hope you enjoyed the products of my own chosen art.”
“Tell us about your medium,” prompted Madam Lecotra.
“Gladly!” said the cook, warming to his topic. “There is often a controversy over whether one should ‘eat to live or live to eat,’ although we here in the City of Gourmands manage to do both. Let me offer a word or two about the art of eating. To begin with, I –”
Suddenly, there commenced a loud banging from the direction of the foyer. “Open the door!” thundered a spirituous if muffled bass. “I have an appearance to make!”
Mamta Davi muttered, “Oh, dear – someone is a touch squiffy.”
An expression mingling compassionate concern and anticipatory dread crossed Madam Lecotra’s face, and she signaled to a liveried servant. After a few expectant heartbeats, the door creaked open.
“There’s a good fellow! I’ll see that your wage is raised,” boomed the newcomer, and breezed into the presentation chamber with arm-waving bravado. “Let the revels begin!”
Like the other guests, Barbatus the Elder was dressed according to Pormaris’ latest high fashion – in his case, black silk tunic, brown corduroy kneebreeches and matching long-vest – and his squat figure and thick beard suggested a genial werewolf. His untasselled fez was of the same material as his shirt, and he swept it off his head as he bowed to his hostess.
“I am here at last – what would you have of me?” he asked Madam Lecotra in a theatrical tone, head still lowered.
“So good of you to come,” the host replied through a smile more akin to a grimace. “I believe you know everyone, yes?”
Barbatus straightened, his warm brown eyes sweeping the room.
Barbatus straightened, his warm brown eyes sweeping the room. “Everyone except the man in the green cooks-guild apron,” he said, and faced Prosatio Silban. “Who are you?”
“This is Prosatio Silban, the well-known mercenary cook, and also tonight’s caterer,” Madam Lecotra replied. “He is one of your most keen admirers.”
“Is this true?” the author asked. “Do you enjoy my creations?”
The cook-errant smiled, trying not to blush or stammer. “I have many times re-read everything you’ve written – from Dropping the Line to Tale of a Tourniquet, and all three volumes of Across the Rimless Sea,” he said. “It is an honor to meet you at last.”
“Yes, yes, we all know I am famous and beloved,” Barbatus said with a deprecating hand-wave. “Now, Master Cook – will you fetch for me a dram of duliac? And something to eat? Make sure it’s a meal, and not any of those dreadful drinker’s-nibbles.”
Despite his singular self-control, Prosatio Silban’s face reddened. He was about to loft an indignant retort, when Madam Lecotra quickly intervened. “Master Prosatio is also a guest here, as an artisan in food as it were. You should sample his wares – you will be delighted.”
“I’ll say this,” Barbatus said with a grin and a wink. “Why don’t we swap recitation for refection? You bring me something to eat, and I will grace you with a few lines from my forthcoming opus. As I have not tasted your food, and you have not heard Letters in the Air, it will be a new experience for us both.”
The cook paused, then forced a smile. “I would be happy to,” he said.
“Of course you would,” the author said. “But first! that dram, if you please.”
* * *
So the party staggered toward its inevitable, and earlier than first intended, close. Barbatus the Elder had imbibed enough for three, when, while servants brought cloaks and wraps, Madam Lecotra put a gracious conclusion to the festivities.
“Thank you all for sharing your art, and for participating in such a memorable event,” she told the guests milling in the foyer.
“Lift me atop your mounts, sweet servant of love,” warbled Barbatus from the presentation chamber.
“Lift me atop your mounts, sweet servant of love,” warbled Barbatus from the presentation chamber. “Let me be your surreptitious visitor.”
“What about him?” Glato Zoi asked, nodding toward the crooning author.
“I shall see him home,” Prosatio Silban said. “Someone has to, and he mentioned he lives not far from here.”
“Are you sure?” his hostess asked. “I could always call for a zebra-cart.”
“It is no trouble for me. The night-air will be good for him, and anyway, few carters will even want to be awake at this hour.”
With some effort, they stood Barbatus up. “What is this about?” the author protested.
“It is about time for you to leave,” said Madam Lecotra. “As always, it has been a distinct pleasure.”
“’Course it has,” said Barbatus. “And the distinction, also as always, is mutual. What say to a nightcap?”
“We’ll put one on or in you when we arrive at your house,” Prosatio Silban said, steering for the door.
Once the pair began walking the city’s cold and foggy cobblestone streets, the author was able to maintain a surprising gait. The cook kept a steadying arm around his charge as the latter kept trying to sing, and this provided ample time for reflection.
What an evening, the cook thought. Here is a man whose works I have enjoyed for years, who I have admired from afar, and he is, in truth, a bit of a vain sot. My disappointment is profound; but must I rethink my admiration? Can one separate art from the artist? And if so, how?
The author gave up his musical attempts and sighed. “I have a secret to tell,” he said in a clear, serious tone. “It is nothing I have told anyone. Yet I feel I can tell you, because you have come to know me through my words – and such knowledge imparts a certain intimacy.”
Prosatio Silban braced himself for a rambling drunkard’s despondency. “Go on,” he said.
“For me, writing is a welcome and essential escape. My inner life is not the best – oh, the details are unimportant – but while I write, I am distant and distracted from what is otherwise too harsh to endure. That is, in point of fact, the sole reason for my literary abundance. That my books are so well-received puzzles yet pleases me, and to know that I have touched the souls of so many others is the greatest of gifts.
“To be concise: your appreciation touches my soul,” Barbatus finished. “Deeply. I just wanted you to know that, sir – and to humbly thank you, as well as every one of my readers.”
There was a pause, while the cook tried not to choke on the sudden lump in his throat.
“Thank you,” he said at last. “Your confidence will be safely preserved by me. Forever.”