Prosatio Silban and the Dueling Perfumers

THE SENSE OF SMELL IS an important component for that of taste. But can it stand alone?

“I shall be brief,” said the woman in the jewel-bedecked caftan, smoothing a tailored crease upon one crossed knee. “My enterprise, ‘Sobor’s Scents,’ wishes to develop a line of toiletries based on the Uulian Commonwell’s fine-dining environment. We would be honored and grateful for you to cook a number of dishes, whose aromatic essences we could capture and render into crystal vials. You may not be aware that there’s quite a demand – from the new bride wanting her dinner guests to think she had cooked for them a more sumptuous feast, say, or the aspiring suitor whose courtship could be sweetened by a hint of something savory. You need only name your price, and we shall do the rest.”

With the earlier busy lunch-rush no longer competing for his attention, the cook-errant took a moment before replying.

She and Prosatio Silban were sitting at one of two tables-and-chairs set up in the lee of his galleywagon, parked that late afternoon in epicurean Pormaris’ fabled South Market. With the earlier busy lunch-rush no longer competing for his attention, the cook-errant took a moment before replying.

“I am flattered by your offer, Madam Minalsa,” he said with care, “and would be more than willing to have Hopmon, God of the Ever-Filled Purse, bless our mutual exchange. However, I must tell you: you are not the sole fragrancy concern wishing to engage me. Madam Pulquis from Pulquis Perfumery made the exact same proposition yesterday. I have said to her neither ‘yea’ nor ‘nay’ – only that I would consider the matter. Without a compelling reason to choose either of you …” He trailed off with a suggestive air.

“Did they proffer an exact compensation?” Minalsa Sobor asked, her voice brittle.

“Not yet. Like you, she said that it would be mine to choose.”

“Then perhaps we should speak in specifics. Would fifty in silver cause you to look with greater favor upon our proposal?”

Prosatio Silban sat back, his eyes wide. “A handsome sum indeed! To be fair, I should see whether or not Madam Pulquis can meet or exceed it. She did reach out to me first, after all.”

“Of course. Of course,” Minalsa Sobor said, rising. “I would not otherwise think of contracting with you. Take all the time you need.”

* * *

“Did that wine-soaked tart at Sobor’s Scents try to woo you away from us?” Pulquis Razol choked out from behind her enormous mahogany desk in Pulquis Perfumery’s spacious meetings-chamber. “We contacted you first – we should have the more robust claim.”

“Your overture does have a certain seductive primacy,” Prosatio Silban replied. “But I am known far and wide as the Cook For Any Price, and as long as that price remains in play …”

Pulquis Razol lifted a peremptory hand, selected a small rag-paper square from one of the filigreed desktop’s many piles, and scribbled on it with a writing-stick.

“This is our bid,” she said, sliding across to him the square. “The amount listed, plus items in trade.”

Prosatio Silban gave a soft gasp as he ran a careful eye down the list. “A new sink? Additional pantry-stock? An overhaul of my aging galleywagon’s undercarriage? And the fifty in silver? You must want my services dearly.”

“We do. We have not enjoyed Hopmon’s blessings as much in this year as others, and our offer – including the fruits of certain trading relationships – represents a bit of a dip into our cash reserves. But it is dogs-feed compared to what we will raise by featuring your cooking in a line of scents! In one projected month of sales alone, we expect the Commonwell’s wealthier classes to recompense us for our losses during the past year. Who wouldn’t want to adorn themselves with ‘Master Prosatio’s Masterful Aromatics?’”

A sharp knock sounded at the ornate carven door, and the liveried aide stationed there looked to his superior. “Come in!” she barked.

“Whatever she’s proposing, we shall double it.”

The aide opened the door, and Minalsa Sobor strode in, wearing a smirk that mingled suspicion and triumph. “I knew I would find you ingratiating him,” she said, and turned to the surprised cook. “Whatever she’s proposing, we shall double it.”

“You have not yet seen her proposal,” said Prosatio Silban.

“It does not matter. We must have your services, or our business will die.”

“Ours will die first,” Pulquis Razol interjected.

“You should have made wiser investments,” Minalsa Sobor retorted.

“Mind your own business!”

“I am doing just that!”

Prosatio Silban raised his voice. “Please! There must be some way to resolve this situation before it turns into mercantile warfare and attendant mayhem.”

“What do you propose?” asked Pulquis Razol.

“Yes, what?” echoed Minalsa Sobor.

“That we divide my contribution between your respective enterprises,” he said. “I shall create sweet dishes for one of you, and for the other, savory.”

“That would leave one of us at an unfair disadvantage,” replied Pulquis Razol after a moment’s thought. “Sweet fragrances are more subtle than savory, and thus more expensive to reproduce.”

“Meaning one of us would be saddled with costly and inferior merchandise!” Minalsa Sobor cried.

“You already produce ‘costly and inferior merchandise,’” her rival said with a lurid sneer. “The public would never notice.”

“Outrageous! Why, I ought to –”

“Please! please!” interrupted Prosatio Silban, raising a conciliatory hand to both merchants. “I will accept a lower price for whoever commissions the sweeter scents. The twofold arrangement would enhance my own business; after all, my reputation is also at stake.”

“You would do this?” asked Minalsa Sobor.

“Yes,” he replied. “If we enter this agreement with good, honest hearts, how could we err?”

* * *

“What exactly do you mean by ‘ruined?’” asked the cook-errant.

“What exactly do you mean by ‘ruined?’” asked the cook-errant.

He was standing in Sobor’s Scents’ crowded production facility, at one end of a complex distillation apparatus, where he had been summoned with some haste. The sound and smell of busy machinery formed a curious backdrop to Minalsa Sobor’s urgent manner.

“Just smell this,” she said, uncorking a small vial and waving it under Prosatio Silban’s nose.

He took a cautions sniff, then whipped back his head in disgust. “What is that horrid odor?” he asked.

“It is a stench, not an odor,” she said. “And I’ve no idea – but I suspect sabotage.”

“Have you any evidence to support that suspicion?”

“Well … in a word, no. But a tankful of fragrance-foundation doesn’t ruin itself.”

“I see your point. What shall you do now?”

“I have no idea. But I suppose we had better start over.”

* * *

“What do you mean, ‘we had better start over?” asked Prosatio Silban.

This time, he was seated in Pulquis Perfumery’s cavernous warehouse, amid barrels and tanks marked with cryptic symbols. The owner paced to and fro, spitting out her words with impatient haste.

“Just exactly that,” Pulquis Razol said. “I have no clue as to how this happened – our scrutiny of the cooking-fragrance capture process was quite thorough – but I do suspect sabotage.”


“Does a tankful of fragrance-precursor ruin itself?”

“You do have a point.”

“I suppose we’ll have to absorb the cost, which will cut further into our cash reserves. But I see no other choice.”

* * *

“What now?” inquired Prosatio Silban. “More ‘sabotage?’”

“We have no other choice,” Minalsa Sobor said. “Frankly, this is getting ridiculous.”

“What now?” inquired Prosatio Silban. “More ‘sabotage?’”

“Twice. But this time, we have evidence …”

* * *

“… and the evidence points to Sobor’s Scents!” cried Pulquis Razol in triumph.

Minalsa Sobor put on an expression of scandalized shock. “You can’t be serious!” she said. “We have been so worrying over our own sabotage-related losses that we can barely give yours a second glance.”

“How convenient,” purred Pulquis Razol with venom. “I suppose our perfume-stock enabled its own sabotage? How naïve do you think we are? Master Cook, have you ever witnessed such effrontery?”

“Not until this moment,” Prosatio Silban said with closed eyes and shaking head, then fixed his gaze in turn on each businesswoman. “Under the circumstances, there is only one thing I can do – and that is to withdraw my services and endorsement from your respective endeavors.”

“You can’t be serious!” barked Minalsa Sobor.

“Why?” demanded Pulquis Razol.

“Because of this: I cannot allow myself to continue as a battleground for your professional animosity. I will return your payments and quietly withdraw, rather than be a party to strife. Good day to you both.”

Both women began stammering variations on, “Don’t go! We’ll not make those same mistakes again!”

“Nor shall I,” Prosatio Silban said, as he mounted the galleywagon steps. “Sometimes, the coin is simply not worth the bother.”

(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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