Prosatio Silban and the Centuried Stew

IF YOU’RE GOING TO STAKE your reputation on a single product, it had better be a good one.

The large, one-eyed woman behind the food-stall counter was brusque but not unfriendly. “We have stew,” she told Prosatio Silban. “That’s all we have. That’s all you need.”

“I cannot believe a gastronomic institution like yours went so unvisited by me for so long.”

“I know,” he replied. “That is, in fact, why I am here. I cannot believe a gastronomic institution like yours went so unvisited by me for so long. Consider this a pilgrimage by the Cook For Any Price.”

The woman smiled and nodded. “I am Ordvina Tharop, and pleased to at last meet you. We have entertained here a steady stream of ‘pilgrims’ for longer than I have been alive. I am happy and honored to count you among them.”

As an old Pormaris hand, Prosatio Silban thought he knew all the local purveyors of both raw ingredients and prepared food. However, the great island-city was famed for its ability to surprise even longtime habitués with its miscellaneous diversions, and the cook-errant himself was often enough delighted to bear witness to the occasional astonishment – especially in Pormaris’ fabled South Market, where anything could be obtained given sufficient price and circumstance.

The food-stall in question occupied one of the market’s more obscure corners, and sported no sign or identifying banner. The sole evidence for its existence was a luxuriant aroma pervading the immediate area. None but an informed nose such as Prosatio Silban’s could trace it to its source: a heroic stew that had been cooking since the city’s establishment eight hundred years ago.

“Cup or bowl?” asked Ordvina Tharop.

“I believe a cup will suffice for a first taste,” the cook said. “After all, one never knows how much or how little something will sit on one’s palate.”

She ladled his request from a simmering cauldron into an earthenware mug. “One in copper, if you please,” she said.

“Only one?”

“Only one.” She gestured to a modest pile of small wooden spoons on the counter. “Please enjoy.”

They made the exchange, and Prosatio Silban stepped back from the counter to examine his purchase: a viscous brown liquid a-swim with meats, roots, tubers, and other more fragrant constituents. Its rich bouquet intoxicated him, and as he raised the laden spoon to his open mouth, the heady scent caressed his tastebuds. He deposited the spoon’s contents across his tongue, and his knees almost buckled as he let out a soft moan of sheer pleasure.

His first impression was of the stew’s texture.

His first impression was of the stew’s texture, which was not at all what he expected – a thick but silky oral embrace, a satisfying snap to the vegetables and a congenial chew to the meats. It was well-seasoned and savory in the extreme, with a sharp undercurrent partaking in equal measure of sweet and bitter. Before the cook knew it, he was scraping his spoon on the empty mug’s bottom.

“Without a doubt, this is the most delicious thing to cross my lips since … since … since, perhaps, ever,” he said with a happy grin. “Please – may I have seconds?”

* * *

As afternoon began to shade into evening, Prosatio Silban secured for the night his own marketplace corner, stowing beneath his galleywagon his painted menu-board and two tables-and-chairs. His mind, however, was still occupied with his earlier diminutive but divine repast.

The stew’s quality derives not alone from its recipe, but its method, he thought. Low heat and long cooking will coax every hint of flavor out of ingredients and into stews and soups. But this is long-cooking on a level far, FAR above anything I’ve yet encountered. O Blessed and Merciful All-Mother! thank You for allowing me to live long enough to appreciate such a dish!

He hummed a tuneless melody, and was about to feed his dray-beast when two chainmailed city guards approached, clad in Pormaris’ sun-emblazoned livery. “Pardon us, Master Cook,” said one in a gruff yet polite voice. “Please do us the courtesy of answering a few questions.”

“Have I committed some wrong?” the cook asked.

“Not to our knowledge,” said the other guard. “Where were you earlier this afternoon?”

“For the most part, I was here at my galleywagon, serving an eager and hungry public. After that, I happened upon for the first time the Commonwell’s oldest dish. Do you know of it?”

The guards’ jaws tensed. “That is why we are here,” said the first. “We are speaking with everyone who visited its seller today, for that ancient admixture has been stolen.”

“Stolen!” exclaimed the cook. “How? When?”

“Stolen!” exclaimed the cook. “How? When?”

“By swift subterfuge, and within the past hour,” the second guard said. “Mistress Ordvina was tending to a minor errand, and when she returned, her stew and its storied cauldron had vanished. None of the neighboring merchants said they saw or heard anything of a suspicious nature. Did you?”

“I did not.”

“How long was your visit?”

“Not overlong. I did linger over a second mug after bolting the first, offered profuse and sincere praise, and left. Is there anything further I can do to aid either your inquest or Mistress Ordvina herself?”

“Not at present,” said the second guard. “I wish we could say you’ve been helpful. Thank you for your time, sir.”

They departed, and Prosatio Silban creased his brow in concern. It’s difficult enough to stay in business here by providing a variety of fare – but to provide only one? he thought. And such a unique one at that? I must find a way to help her.

* * *

The sun had just set when the cook came once more upon the crime scene. All was just as Prosatio Silban saw it during his earlier visit, save the missing cauldron. The fire over which it had sat was now ashes, but otherwise, nothing else had changed. Even the pile of wooden spoons was intact.

Well, one thing had changed. Ordvina Tharop was staring at the empty space that her lifelong livelihood had of late occupied.

“May I join you?” the cook asked.

She looked up with tear-moistened eyes. “Please,” she said.

He put a hand on her arm. “I would like to help.”

Ordvina Tharop sighed with deep feeling. “That may not be possible,” she said. “I have been turning over in my mind the afternoon’s events, and can only come to one conclusion: someone wishes to ruin me.”

“Who would want to do that?”

“I do not know. My great-grandmother’s great-grandmother’s great-grandmother inherited that stew and its prodigious vessel from her extended forebears, along with instructions for what to add, and when and how to add it. I have been tending my charge with diligence and good faith since I was young, making substitutions as availability dictates, all the while keeping the essence intact. Why would anyone rob me of that?”

“Why indeed?” Prosatio Silban said. “Perhaps together, we may arrive at a solution. It is not yet full night, and I do have some small influence which may prove useful in detecting the culprit. Let me try.”

A hopeful expression crossed Ordvina Tharop’s face as the cook closed his eyes and quieted his breathing. When he deemed the moment favorable, he recited in a low tone an old but familiar formula:

“This I, or rather we, affirm.”

“O Hopmon of the Ever-Filling Purse, and Everwen, Finder of the Otherwise Obscure, I seek Your boons and plead for Your intercessions in the matter of this most grievous offense. Shed Your light in the direction of its perpetrator, that the fruits of this hardworking woman’s trade not go for naught. In return, and on the occasion of its restoration, we will publicize Your miracles whenever the opportunity should arise. This I, or rather we, affirm.”

Practical theophany can often be a dodgy affair and, for several heartbeats, Prosatio Silban almost despaired of anything happening at all. Then, by slow degrees, a soft green light grew behind the counter until it took on the dim semblance of a man – a short, bearded man dressed in a suggestion of ancient clothing, embracing in his ghostly arms the very real cauldron of stew.

“Why have you disturbed me?” the spectre asked in a hollow, breathless voice.

“That depends on who you are,” replied the cook. “And what you are doing with Mistress Ordvina’s property.”

“I am Jegs Urmano, First Cook to the Architect Bold Sir Merianus Ydren, and it is not her property. It is mine.”

“By what right?”

“By right of creation. I first cooked this stew to celebrate Pormaris’ founding and its future, and have been shepherding its flavor ever since. But this one” – here he pointed at the stew-mistress – “has corrupted it!”

“I object!” cried Ordvina Tharop. “I have not so done!”

“You have. Where is the preserved apple? Or the spiced vanth? The twile, the jugged harrian, and, most important of all, the potent moon-wine?”

“Such things have not been seen in the Commonwell, or even these Exilic Lands, since long before my great-great-great-grandmother’s birth. She improvised replacements, as did her mother and her daughter, and the improvisations took root and flourished to become a vital part of the stew’s particular taste. After all, adaptation is essential to any transmission process.”

“But it is not the same stew! As the saying goes, ‘Traditional flavors are traditional for a reason – because they tasted right the first time.’ You cannot change something and call it by the same name!”

“Would you rather we had stopped cooking it at all, and lost it to the All-Limiter?”

“We have only ever called it ‘stew’ – which it is! Would you rather we had stopped cooking it at all, and lost it to the All-Limiter?”

Prosatio Silban raised a mollifying hand. “Please!” he said with quiet politeness. “It seems to me that you are both arguing the same point. As the originator” – here the cook pointed to Jegs Urmano – “you wish your recipe to live forever in the hearts and mouths of your descendants. Your descendants also wish that. But they are living in a world different from the one in which you lived, and must make certain necessary adjustments as scarcity and situations dictate. The question is: What would be the least egregious way to satisfy your desire for integrity?”

There was a pause, during which Ordvina Tharop and Jegs Urmano contemplated the flagstones beneath their respective feet. Then the spectre spoke.

“What would satisfy me would be to trace the stew’s history and transmission-chain for everyone who wishes to eat it. If you cannot prepare it as I did, you should at least describe the ways and wherefores of its present iteration. I would be happy to teach these to you.”

“I am the twenty-seventh link in your chain!” Ordvina Tharop exclaimed. “Speaking those names would take longer than the act of eating – to say nothing of ‘publicizing the miracle’ invoked by this cook!”

Jegs Urmano’s eyes flashed, but before he could reply, Prosatio Silban spoke up. “How if a standing sign could be fashioned, serving the same office?”

“Well …”

“I suppose …”

“Good! In the interests of intergenerational amity, I will even contract for the sign. Bello Ryarin is the local limner who painted my own menu-board, and I always enjoy handing him more work, especially in these uncertain times. I ask only one price.”

The spectre smiled and returned the cauldron to its place, then Ordvina Tharop ladled some of its contents into a mug and presented it to the grinning cook. “Is this it?” she asked.

“You are both as wise as you are exacting,” Prosatio Silban said. “Yes, this – but in a bowl, and another whenever I visit this epicurean city. Think of it as the price … of peace.”

(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!)

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