WHEN SOMEONE THREATENS YOU WITH a knife at close quarters, your options may not be so limited as you might think.
“Do you know who I am?” the intruder asked.
“You mean, aside from my potential assailant?” Prosatio Silban replied.
It was a cool, late night in the city of epicurean Pormaris, and the beefy cook had made the mistake of answering his galleywagon door by opening it all the way instead of just unbolting the upper half. But Prosatio Silban was in something of a jolly mood, and not only from a celebratory glass of white duliac. He had just earned a sizable coin pouch by catering a special dinner for the Heir Second Vajang Chorl, Pormaris’ governing noble.
“My name is Filio Tharl. Does that spark a memory?”
“My name is Filio Tharl. Does that spark a memory?”
The cook sighed. “Vajang Chorl’s personal chef,” he said. “I see now why you’re here.”
At this point, an expository word should be placed in the Patient Reader’s ear. The Uulian Commonwell’s nobility, and much of its wealthier population, employed a sizable house staff to serve their daily needs and occasional whims. When these fancies were beyond their staff’s capabilities, it was not unknown for them to hire outside experts. Decorators, gardeners, and cooks were the usual casualties. Most accepted their temporary supersession with an easy grace. But sometimes, one or two would take enthusiastic issue with said provisional replacement.
Apparently, Filio Tharl was among them. He was clad in the sharp, warm tones of Vajang livery and the green apron of the Commonwell’s cooking-class. He was also young, slight of build, and holding a span-long chopping knife usually reserved for tough roots and sturdy meats.
I always knew this day would come, Prosatio Silban thought. And now it has. O Elindra, Goddess of Equitable Denouements, please help me find a solution.
“You should not take this personally,” he said quietly. “I have been practicing our craft for a quarter-century. You are newly out of cooks’ school. I know how talented you are, as well as the warm regard in which m’Lord Vajang holds you. But this assignment was somewhat beyond your abilities. Is your discomfiture a matter of payment? I’ll share it with you.” He reached for his coin jar above the well-used butcher block, but the house-cook gestured him with the knife into immobility.
“It is not the lack of silver that I mind,” he said. “It is that I am lessened in my employer’s eyes – because of you.”
“That is not the case at all,” Prosatio Silban said. “You have only been retained for less than a year, and already you have m’Lord Vajang’s kitchen as well-ordered and productive as a beehive. I know – I saw it. And that is no easy thing. You should take pride in such a difficult attainment.”
The knife wavered, steadied. “It does not matter,” Filio Tharl said.
The knife wavered, steadied. “It does not matter,” Filio Tharl said. “I can never recover from this failure. I certainly cannot go back to m’Lord’s service.” A shadow crossed his face, transforming his features from anger to deep grief.
He reversed his grip and pointed the knife toward his belly with a loose, tentative grasp, more of despair than intention. “And I certainly cannot go on elsewhere,” he said, touching its tip to his apron.
With one swift and easy motion, Prosatio Silban grabbed Filio Tharl’s knife-hand, pushed the house-cook’s body away from it, and twisted the blade from his grip. It fell to the ornate braided rug with a muffled clatter.
“It is poor form to murder oneself in someone else’s home,” the mercenary cook said. “These actions are rarely surficial. My interim substitution is not the only reason you are here. And one does not attempt suicide only because of a raw business arrangement. What are you really feeling?”
Filio Tharl heaved a rather sincere and soul-wracked sigh, cleared his throat, and gazed into Prosatio Silban’s eyes. “I do not know,” he said. “Useless, I suppose. Displaced. And embarrassed.”
“One can never underestimate the power of embarrassment. It has driven me to do foolish things as well. And as for ‘useless,’ do you not have the esteem of m’Lord Vajang as evidence of his need for you? One could make the argument that he was looking out for your interests by engaging me.”
“Oh?” The house-cook sounded unconvinced. “How so?”
“Because he did not want to see you suffer a professional defeat. He has placed not only his faith in your hands, but the health and well-being of his family. It takes a special skill to serve one master. I do not have those skills – so instead, I serve many.”
Filio Tharl stared at the rug for some heartbeats. “Cooking is all I ever wanted to do, and all at which I could excel,” he said in a distracted monotone. “I began by cooking for my family from a young age and found I enjoyed it. Later, at great cost and effort, I managed to get into the College of Culinary Craftship and apprenticed to the great Oseo Dreyas himself.”
“I know Master Oseo. He is wonderful both as a mentor and human being.”
“He is that. I was never more proud than the day m’Lord Vajang accepted me into his service. And then…and then…”
“Then you understand.”
“And then, an interloper comes into your kitchen and supplants you without even a consultation,” Prosatio Silban finished. “Anyone in such circumstances might feel as you do.”
Filio Tharl looked up. “Then you understand.”
“More than that – I empathize.”
The house-cook smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “I suppose it’s obvious that I never really meant to hurt you – or myself. May I ask a favor?”
The mercenary cook nodded. “Within reason.”
“Will you teach me the secrets of the banquet you cooked?”
“Young man,” Prosatio Silban said, “I can think of no finer kindness.”
(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction.)