Prosatio Silban and the Difficult Patron

FROM THE INEXORABLE RULES OF mercantile interplay comes the inescapable principle: “There’s Always One.”

“With what may I please you?” Prosatio Silban asked the stoop-shouldered man sitting down at one of two tables-and-chairs in the lee of the beefy cook’s galleywagon. The portable venue was assembled in one of cosmopolitan Soharis’ livelier marketplaces, and the milling morning crowd had promised – and delivered – a variety of hungry (and moneyed) clientele. Take the present customer: long in years, dapper of dress and mannerism, but wearing a face creased by a thousand petty disappointments.

“We shall see,” the man replied with a peremptory sniff. “I have barely sat down, without enough time to examine your menu, when up you come asking for my custom!”

“I am ready to order now,” said the man.

“My apologies,” said Prosatio Silban. “Please – examine it all you like. I will be back shortly to inquire after your pleasure.”

As the man squinted at the painted menu board topped by the three-color legend, “THE COOK FOR ANY PRICE,” said cook gathered up an armful of used dishes from the other table-and-chairs and made his slow laden way to the galleywagon steps.

“I am ready to order now,” said the man.

“One moment, if you please,” Prosatio Silban called over his shoulder. “I must –”

“But I wish to order now,” the man announced. “I am quite hungry, and will make the pay commensurate with your service.”

The cook sighed to himself – I could certainly use the coin, he thought – fixed a cordial smile on his face, set down the dishes, and came over. “With what may I please you?” he repeated.

“Let…me…see,” the man drawled, and paused for some heartbeats. “I can’t seem to choose between the garlic confit on wheat-toast or the pan-fried beef noodles. What are their respective advantages?”

“Both are strongly flavored, but the confit is somewhat lighter on the digestion,” Prosatio Silban explained. “And the noodles can be adjusted for your personal spice-palate. It all depends on what you prefer.”

“Honestly, I cannot decide,” said the man. “Bring me a small morsel of each.”

“Pardon me, but we would like to order lunch,” said one of a trio of expensively dressed young women. “Can you clear these dishes?”

“But I was here first!” the man cried with unexpected venom.

“One moment, please,” the cook told them, and turned to the man. “Sir, I must make way for these others. I will return within seconds.”

“But I was here first!” the man cried with unexpected venom.

“I understand,” Prosatio Silban said. “But Soharis’ food-service laws are very precise in these matters. I promise – I will return in a trice.”

He reloaded his arms and scampered up the steps and inside. Setting the dishes in the sink, he selected two nut-cups, partially filled one with pungent confit and the other with spicy noodles, grabbed two clean forks, placed everything on a bamboo tray, and reemerged from the galleywagon.

“Here you are, sir,” the cook said, and set down the tray. “Please taste at your leisure, and I will take your order momentarily.” He turned to the women. “Now – with what may I please you?”

“This tray has a food-spot on it,” the man said. “I can’t eat from it.”

Prosatio Silban closed his eyes for a quick moment. “That is a natural flaw from the bamboo. It’s rustic.”

“It’s stained. How can you give me a stained tray? It’s not civilized!”

The women arose. “Perhaps we should return later,” one said.

“Please! I beg your favor – wait a short moment?”

We could wait, but our hunger couldn’t,” said another. “I’m sorry.”

Prosatio Silban watched them go, his professional smile melting. He restored it in time to regard the stoop-shouldered man.

“Well?” the man said. “Will you replace this tray?”

The cook entertained thoughts of using it in a manner inconsistent with its design, and shook his head imperceptibly. “Of course, of course.”

“And the cups.”

“Sir, I would not have stayed in business for a quarter-century by serving my patrons on dirty dishes.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You served these cups on a stained tray. How do I know they’re not stained as well?”

“Sir, I would not have stayed in business for a quarter-century by serving my patrons on dirty dishes.”

“Natheless. I have not seen you until this day. Take the cups away and bring me two more.”

Prosatio Silban bowed, scooped up the offending tray and its contents, and retreated up the galleywagon steps. Inside, he briefly considered serving the same cups and contents he had just removed. No. I won’t give him the satisfaction of catching me out, he thought, filling two more.

“Here you are, sir,” he told the man, presenting the cups. “Fresh from the stove.”

The man sniffed, piled a fork with noodles, and opened his lips to receive it. He chewed once, exclaimed, and began fanning his mouth. “Hot! Hot! Hot!” he cried, spitting the contents on the ground.

“Do you allow all your customers to so soil the surroundings?” came an authoritative alto. Prosatio Silban turned in the voice’s direction. His heart dropped. A tall woman in the gold and blue-striped tabard of a marketplace inspector stood before him, taking in the scene with practiced disapproval.

“Certainly not!” said the cook, thinking, Please, Omriol, Dispenser of the Unexpected Benefit! Chase this persnickety patron away with an official sanction! “In any case, he was just leaving.”

“But I’ve only just gotten here!” complained the stoop-shouldered man, and addressed the inspector. “He has served me food that’s too hot, on a soiled bamboo tray, rushed me to order, and let others place their orders before me! I have never been treated so disrespectfully.”

The inspector measured Prosatio Silban with her eyes. “I know you,” she said. “’The Cook For Any Price,’ yes? You have never before given us any trouble. What happened?”

“It’s difficult to explain,” the cook said. “But he is telling only one side of a tale that –”

“Are you calling me a liar?” the man demanded, neck vein a-throb.

“Not as such. If I may say, sir, I have been, and am, more than happy to cater to your gastronomic pleasure. But you have chased away other paying customers, asserted yourself most impolitely, prevented me from maintaining my business in a fit manner and insisted on things that aren’t so. Do I look” – here he implored the inspector – “like someone who keeps an unclean kitchen?”

“Not as such,” said the inspector. “But I shall examine your premises to be certain.”

Prosatio Silban could hear her puttering about inside, lifting pot lids, opening the oven door, running water in the sink.

So saying, she ascended the galleywagon steps. Prosatio Silban could hear her puttering about inside, lifting pot lids, opening the oven door, running water in the sink. She emerged, wiping her hands on a shoulder-slung towel, and addressed the man.

“I see only a rustic bamboo tray bearing two filled nut-cups, and a sink containing some dirty dishes – but not so as to warrant penalty,” she said. “Everything else is prodigiously clean and well-ordered. How did you come to have such exacting standards and such a forbidding disposition? You are making this poor fellow” – here she indicated Prosatio Silban – “miserable. And all he wants to do is serve you.”

“And so he shall,” the man said with a warm smile. “I meant this honest vendor no disrespect, but I needed to test his cooking and under-fire diplomacy.”

“I don’t understand…?” said Prosatio Silban.

“I am the Heir Second Phatab Mencus, whose family oversees the lands to the northeast of this city,” the man said, standing erect. “My youngest daughter will be marrying within the month. Family and well-wishers will be arriving from all over the Commonwell to honor that important day, and some of them have…well, difficulty restraining their opinions. I have known Master Prosatio by repute only, and needed to discover for myself what sort of cook he is – and what sort of a man.”

“And?” asked the cook.

“I find you live up to your reputation: skilled, polite, unflappable. If you will forgive me, sir, and also allow me to compensate you for those women’s lost custom, I would like to ask you to provide the feast for my daughter’s happiest day.”

Prosatio Silban was nonplused. A moment ago, he had been eager to throw the Heir Second out of the marketplace. But now? He looked Phatab Mencus directly in the eye.

“I am honored to have been asked to serve you on this most cheerful occasion,” he said. “But honestly, I am not eager to subject myself to such abuse. Emotions run high at weddings, the more so as flows the sparkling wine, and I am not certain that I could remain as professional when the ill-treatment comes from more than one simultaneous source.”

The noble nodded and leaned in close. “I will pay you one month’s standard wage for three days’ engagement, plus a generous stipend should the social environment not meet with your strict approval,” he said, extending a hand. “And there will be a lock on the kitchen door – from the inside.”

Prosatio Silban thought for a moment. “Make it two locks,” he said, taking the Heir Second’s proffered palm with a bow. “After all, we want the day to be happy for everyone.

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