EVEN OVER THE CLANK OF his galleywagon, Prosatio Silban could hear the sobs.
The weeper, a well-to-do farmer by his dress, was standing beside a smartly-appointed and -laden oxcart at the crossroads near Vineol, a town renowned throughout the Uulian Commonwell for the delicacy and refinement of its wines. The day was hot for the region and season, and had been so for many days – hot, cloudless, but with an occasional breeze at the right moment. The cook wondered why the man was giving such unguarded vent, and reined his galleywagon to a halt.
“It’s too warm a day for such distress,” Prosatio Silban offered, dismounting.
The farmer produced a large blue handkerchief, blew noisily. “Not if the sun has blasted your crop, and with it your hopes for purchasing wintertime eating,” he said, and bowed. “Pars Killiup.”
“Prosatio Silban, The Cook For Any Price. May I be of service to you?”
Pars Killiup turned to his cart. “Only if you can turn dross into gold. Look.” He drew back the wagon’s canvas cover, revealing several barrels, then pried the lid from one. Inside was a tight-packed mass of black wrinkled berries, glinting here and there with rainbow sparks. A musky, tangy aroma rose from the barrel; unfamiliar, yet not unpleasant.
“Some of the finest winefruit this side of the Rimless Sea, or was before the heat ruined it,” he said. “I harvested the raisings anyway, just to give the field lads something to do, and was taking it to the river for disposal. But the thought was more than I could bear, and so you found me.”
Prosatio Silban thought of the Uulian proverb, Disaster: Opportunity for the attentive. Aloud, he said, “Everything has its proper place. We will take these to market.”
“What? Why? So my neighbors can share my disgrace?”
“Not in Vineol. In Pastisi.”
“Pastisi? But Pastisi is nothing but brewers and bakers! They don’t even buy wine, let alone winefruit. Besides, it’s at least a dayride from here.”
“Nevertheless,” said the beefy cook. “You will sell these for more than they would bring if fresh.”
“Eh? Are you some sort of wizard?”
“No. Simply a cook who knows his customers.”
“Well, then. I have already lost my livelihood; I suppose you can’t make things worse.”
And so, following a journey divided by supper (braised rabbit and beets with a half-bottle of white duliac), a peaceful sleep, and breakfast (eggs with gravy, biscuits, sliced citrion and a bracing pot of yava), the pair wedged themselves into the bustling marketplace of Pastisi.
“Now, then.” Prosatio Silban opened the barrel they’d unloaded. “Within an hour, you’ll be the richest man in Vineol.”
The cook’s reply was cut off by a gruff “What are these?” from a brawny chap in a brown baker’s apron.
“‘These?’” Prosatio Silban asked, raising his voice a trifle. “‘These’ have never before been seen on this side of the Rimless Sea. Taste one.”
The baker sniffed, raised an eyebrow. “Hm. Sweet.” He chewed, eyes closed, nodding. “Not cloying. Fruity. What are they?”
“That is the secret,” said the cook. “My friend here has developed a method whereby the essence of a fruit may be concentrated within its skin by removing its waters.”
“Eh? Magik?” asked an old woman who had stopped to listen.
“No, madam,” Prosatio Silban replied. “Not magik, but a simple process sanctioned by the Flickering Gods.”
The woman wrinkled her brow. “Looks like ruined winefruit to me,” she said.
The cook closed his eyes as if in pain. “Ruined fruit is garbage. One does not sell garbage in the marketplaces of the Commonwell.”
“True,” said a boy leading a goat. “What are you selling?”
The old woman chewed, raised her eyebrows. “Something tasty, whatever else it be,” she said.
“How much d’you want for them?” asked the baker.
“What are you selling?” asked a man with the bearing and dress of a noble.
“Something good for custard,” said the boy with the goat.
“Or bread,” said the baker.
“Or biscuits,” said the woman.
“How much for that barrel?” asked the noble.
That evening, Prosatio Silban and Pars Killiup dined on a truffled squab apiece atop a rich pilaf of rice, jaraanga-beans and cashews, sweetened with the last handful of the wineherd’s crop. “This is delicious,” said the latter, raising his empty glass. “But how did you know?”
“Everything has its proper place,” the cook replied. “You just have to know where it is.”