Prosatio Silban and the Cryptic Cenotaph

WHAT WOULD LIFE BE WITHOUT the occasional unsolvable riddle?

In epicurean Pormaris’ far-famed restaurant district squats a prominent monument. It is an oblong, boxy affair, wrought of lavender marble, with carved ivory pillars framing each corner and a tasteful capstone covered in gold leaf. The street-facing side bears a simple brass plaque: “To the Unknown Gourmand.”

That is the first mystery.

Once yearly, but according to no otherwise-fixed schedule, an anonymous party deposits beneath the plaque a menu from a different local dining establishment.

And that is the second.

“Besides – who is leaving those menus?”

No one knows who, if anyone, occupies the ostensible tomb, but that does not keep the city’s resident wits from fervent conjecture as to its possible tenant and purpose. While Prosatio Silban’s colleagues enjoyed their macabre debate, he preferred to ask, “For what benefit can there be to disclose the identity of someone whose everlasting repose lends such quaint spice to the city’s conversational sociality? Besides – who is leaving those menus?”

That said, he made a point of visiting the gastronomical shrine whenever he could, to pay his respects and ponder the motives of its secret admirer/s. Thus it was that, late one night, his periodic rendezvous at last bore fruit.

Having left Pelvhi’s Chopping-House after consuming sufficient white duliac to spark his speculative faculties even more so than was usual, the beefy cook hummed a popular ditty as he walked along the near-deserted streets. The memorial marker lay between his favorite tavern-haunt and his galleywagon, parked as usual in the storied South Market’s Itinerants’ Quarter. You may imagine his sudden wonder when, on coming within eyeshot of the enigmatic stonework, he surprised a furtive figure setting before it a large printed placard. His astonishment deepened when this apparition looked up – revealing feral eyes and a short, pointed snout – then bolted from the scene with all speed.

“Wait!” Prosatio Silban cried, and began to run. “You there! Hold on!”

The pair raced through empty streets and dark alleys, past and between some of Pormaris’ most noted restaurants, some older than the cook himself: the staid Grand Stag; Cavalier’s Cross, famous for its terrines; family-friendly Lonesome Cow; the exclusive Regent; Scarlet Begonia and their atmospheric dining-music; the peerless Canto. Between the twists and turns and his general physical condition, Prosatio Silban was hard put to keep his eyes on the subject of his pursuit. He was soon gasping, and sweat leaked from his face in rivulets. He would have quit more than once had not feverish curiosity lent vigor to his efforts and strength to his legs.

Finally, a blind alley dividing Willio’s Hot-Stop from Mortar and Hod brought the chase to an abrupt halt.

Finally, a blind alley dividing Willio’s Hot-Stop from Mortar and Hod brought the chase to an abrupt halt. Prosatio Silban, out of breath but undaunted, laid a steadying hand on one ivy-draped brick wall. “Who … are … you?” he panted. “And … why … are you … doing … this?”

His quarry’s shoulders slumped; trembling fingers grasped the snout and pulled, disclosing the face of a frightened and somewhat winded woman. “Please,” she said, her eyes imploring. “He was my … husband. But … I beg you! … do not tell anyone!”

Regaining his composure, Prosatio Silban shook his head. “The greatest … culinary mystery … this city … has ever known? … How can I not?”

“When you hear my tale … you will understand what I am asking of you. My name is Macra Thujis. His name was Macra Dyar.”

The cook started. “Macra Dyar? The spice magnate and eminent gastronome? But he was one of my periodic customers! That is, until he moved to the provinces many years ago.”

Macra Thujis shook her head. “That was only a story we devised so that none would make a fuss over his unexpected departure.”

“What truly happened, then?”

She sighed, and shifted her weight from foot to foot. “We were chatting with one of his favorite chefs in the kitchen of one of his favorite restaurants when his heart gave out. With my help and his remaining breaths, we enlisted the kitchen staff’s silence so as not to taint their commercial reputation. The long-planned entombment was his final and fondest wish.”

“Incredible! How did you manage that without anyone noticing?”

“Some bribes, some masonic alliances, a few sympathetic officials. My husband was, as you know, both wealthy and well-connected. It was a seamless and sincere collaboration. But I entreat you to leave it at that.”

“I will not add to your pain by pressing you on that point. However, I must ask one further question.”

Macra Thujis narrowed her eyes in suspicious discomfort. “And what is that?”

“Why the menus?”

She offered a wan smile. “That was my idea. It honors his memory, promotes local business, and gives idle tongues a chance to wag.”

The cook returned her smile, and with interest. “That it does, on all counts. Well done.”

“Thank you. And now – now that you know, what will you do?”

* * *

The interior of Pelvhi’s Chopping-House was smoky and loud with its customary after-hours roistering. Prosatio Silban stood at the bar nursing a glass of blue duliac, a pensive expression written on his brow. The tavern’s namesake stood behind the bar, polishing a thick spirits-glass.

“You look preoccupied,” Pelvhi said. “What are you chewing over?”

“You look preoccupied,” Pelvhi said. “What are you chewing over?”

“Nothing in particular,” the cook replied.

Before his longtime friend could question him further, two familiar hospitality-professionals stepped up to the bar.

“Two date-brandies, if you please,” said one.

“At once,” Pelvhi replied, and went to fetch them.

“As I was saying,” said the other to his companion, “I don’t think there’s anyone in there at all. Can’t be. City regulations and all that. Besides, we don’t entomb our dead – we pyre them. And it’s much too big for an inurnment.”

“But it’s been done before,” came the head-shaking reply. “The Heir Second Tariovastus Patino has something similar, which he specified in his will so that he could keep a metaphoric and symbolic eye on his interests. I’m just saying it’s possible, is all.”

“Bah! Too complicated. Anyway, the nobility are different from you and me.” Turning to the cook-errant, the doubter asked, “What do you think, Master Prosatio? Crypt or commemorative?”

“Well, you know,” said Prosatio Silban. “It’s really not for me to say.”

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

5 comments for “Prosatio Silban and the Cryptic Cenotaph

  1. Kathryn Hildebrandt
    2022.07.21 at 1313

    These people really take their culinary arts seriously

    • 2022.07.21 at 1556

      It’s their raison d’etre entire. Their culinary traditions are based on the French; Soharis is based on Italian (not Italian-American), and Tirinbar (poo poo poo) is based on German. I actually feel I need to write fewer stories set in Pormaris, but if it ain’t broke …

      • Kathryn Hildebrandt
        2022.07.21 at 1628

        We’d probably be better off if we paid a bit more respect to food.

        • 2022.07.21 at 2128

          Well, I favor the Torah view (quelle surprise): taking a life to feed ourselves is a holy act, and one approached with the utmost seriousness and gratitude. AIUI, many indigenous/aboriginal cultures have the same idea; ask the animal’s permission, and thank it for its sacrifice. Makes sense to me…

          • Kathryn Hildebrandt
            2022.07.21 at 2328

            Yes. Life feeds off other life. It is a solemn thing.

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