Prosatio Silban and the Avid Inspector

WE ALL HAVE THOSE DAYS when everything goes wrong – but not always do we have someone looking over our shoulder while it does.

Prosatio Silban stifled an exasperated sigh. Mustn’t show my impatience, either with her or my circumstances, he thought. After all, it’s my long-practiced livelihood being decided here.

“Why did you turn off that stove-burner?” Nira Llirb asked, arching a disapproving eyebrow. “The beans are still cooking. And what’s this in the blue-rice pot?”

She surprised the cook-errant, who was expecting a familiar face.

The very young woman in the official gold sash had engaged in this persnickety nitpickery for many hours now, She had arrived straight at the South Market clock tower’s tolling of six-of-the-morning, surprising the cook-errant, who was expecting a familiar face.

“What happened to Turna Qaat?” he had asked. “She is my usual Overseer.”

“Food poisoning yesterday at Dulio Thuon’s chicken-stick stall,” came Nira Llirb’s brisk reply. “I am her replacement. You have the honor of being my first-ever charge, on my first-ever day. And I intend to be very thorough.”

Periodic inspections were part of doing business in epicurean Pormaris’ four cardinal bazaars; especially in South Market’s storied Itinerants’ Quarter, whose motto was “Anything and Everything for the Right Price.” Keeping its day-merchants compliant with every detail was no simple task for the small but dedicated legion of Marketplace Overseers. A black mark by any of them could mean instant and everlasting dismissal for the smallest infraction. But the cook-errant had an exemplary record, and hoped to keep it so.

Please, Hopmon, Lord of the Ever-Full Purse, Prosatio Silban prayed from behind casually shut eyes. Please let me pass her inspection and obtain a clean Vendor’s Ticket with a minimum of trouble – if not less.

His first clue that the day wasn’t going his way was when he tripped over the ornate braided rug inside his galleywagon. The rug cushioned the fall of almost every dish he carried, and as he reached for the broom and dustpan, Nira Llirb scribbled something on her heavy clipboard.

“That was an accident,” he said. “They happen but rarely.”

“Please,” she replied, pursing her lips in concentration.

She repeated the curt monosyllable with rising vehemence when he tried to explain having cut his finger while slicing an oal-sausage, dropped a full container of cheese-curds, inadvertently served one customer grilled humblefish that was too cold and another one hot yava that was too hot.

“I don’t understand it,” Prosatio Silban muttered, “I hardly if ever make these kinds of mistakes.”

“PLEASE!” Nira Llirb replied, her voice just perceptibly cracking.

“PLEASE!” Nira Llirb replied, her voice just perceptibly cracking.

Things got worse in the afternoon. The hapless cook stepped on a customer’s foot, burned his cut hand on a hot skillet, almost sneezed into the same skillet, mistook salt for sugar in one instance, and vice versa in another. All the while Nira Llirb jotted on her clipboard, and all the while Prosatio Silban tried to ignore the cold quicksand seeping through his stomach.

WHAT is she WRITING? and why so much of it? Prosatio Silban wondered, almost aloud. Nothing good, I’m sure.

The climax came with Miscellaneous Pottage, one of his better-loved menu items. On cold days like this one, he would periodically add to a large stockpot various bits and ends of ingredients to contrive a thick and delicious stew. Every time he passed the fatberry-oil stove he would add a handful of this and that and give the pot another stir. However, for some reason – the always-fickle Hopmon hates me? he thought – today’s stew was unmanageably viscous; so much so that his favorite wooden spoon eventually became fixed and immobile.

As he struggled in vain with the stubborn utensil, the savory concoction’s dense steam began to get the better of his artificial-eyebrow adhesive. To his horror, the furry appliance began to unpeel, but before he could grab at it, it fell into the pottage with a silent plop – followed behind him by the sound of an inkstick scratching woodpulp paper.

That does it, he thought, turning about. Does she even have the experience to know a bad cook from a bad day?

“My good woman,” he began sharply.

“Are you going to discard that entire pottage?” she interrupted. “Because my late mother used to make something similar, and I … I …” Her face clouded and she began to cry.

“My good woman!” Prosatio Silban said in a softer tone. “Whatever is the matter?”

Shoulders shaking, Nira Llirb looked up at him through red-rimmed .eyes. “She always had a pot simmering on the stove, just as you do,” she sobbed. “She didn’t call it Miscellaneous Pottage – she called it breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was all we had to eat … all we had … and if anything ha-happened to it … oh …”

His denuded brow forgotten, Prosatio Silban opened his arms and enfolded the Overseer. “There, there,” he murmured as she wept unashamedly. “Early memories are the most powerful, and often the saddest. It’s alright. Everything is alright.”

They stood locked together for some minutes before she disengaged with a deep sniffle and wiped her eyes with the back of one hand. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “It’s just that your … mishap … brought back a time in my life that took me by surprise. Here.”

She crumpled the paper on which she had been jotting, then stuck it in her pocket and scribbled out a valid Vendor’s Ticket.

“For you,” she said, meeting his eyes. “And … for her.”

Prosatio Silban accepted the proffered certificate.

“For how long is this valid?” he asked.

Nira Llirb dropped her gaze with a bashful smile.

“For as long as I am an Overseer,” she said. “Good day to you – and good cooking.”

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want more of them, in two easy-to-read packages, here are the first and second e-books. Enjoy!)

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