SOME MORNINGS, THE FOOD BAZAARS in many-quayed Soharis are a-bustle with moneyed and caffeinated customers; others substitute sustained novelty for their pitiful lack of custom.
Prosatio Silban sighed inwardly. The beefy cook’s galleywagon had been parked for three days near the entrance to the bayside city’s main victual market. While the first two days had been reasonably profitable, he was beginning to despair of the third. It’s still early yet, he reminded himself. And fortune’s wheel has many turns.
He considered his painted menu board, which advertised eighteen modest but effective satisfactions for the appetites of hungry marketgoers, under the three-color declaration “The Cook For Any Price.” It is as inevitable as the tides, he thought. Someone will supply an ingredient too delicious or exotic to share with those at home. Or they will have no idea what to do with their provender, and require consultation. Or perhaps they missed their early breakfast and will need aught to carry away with them. Or, like this gentleman, they will take a seat and, I hope, ask for something moderately expensive…
“What can you recommend for one who has walked farther than he thought himself capable?”
“This gentleman” had the look of a veteran traveler. His grey tunic and dark green cloak were weather-stained, his high leather boots muddy and worn at the toes, and the staff he carried appeared stout enough to fend off even the most determined highwaymen. He examined the menu board, nodded, and sat down at the nearest of the cook’s two tables-and-chairs with an audible exhalation.
Prosatio Silban hurried over. “With what may I please you?”
“What can you recommend for one who has walked farther than he thought himself capable?” asked the man.
“Resoled boots, but I am not one who supplies them,” the cook replied placidly.
The man raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Not a bad jape, but I was speaking of something hot and nutritious.”
“Well. As you can see by the menu board, I currently have four items simmering on the stove. I may also offer you some thick groatcakes swimming in tree syrup, fried filet of squid, smoked mackerel-spread with rye rounds…”
The man waved his hand. “Bring me what you yourself would eat on a wearisome day when you needed refreshment.”
“I have exactly the dish you need. Pray take your ease while I fetch it.”
So saying, Prosatio Silban marched up the three steps to his galleywagon’s open door and disappeared inside. In a trice he returned with a bamboo tray bearing a plain earthenware bowl surmounted by what looked like a baked pastry crust. He set the laden tray on the table, took from his apron’s chest pocket a red linen napkin and wooden spoon, and placed them next to the bowl.
“Confit of fidget-hen thigh, with garlic and pungentine, served under chive biscuits,” he said. “Light but sustaining, it is a known restorative for spirit and body – and it cleans the breathing passages something wonderfully.”
The man dug the spoon into the bowl, releasing steam and a strong savory scent. He raised the spoon to his lips, inhaled through his nose, grunted softly and took an experimental mouthful.
“By Oliento, Goddess of Small Pleasures!” he exclaimed. “I have never tasted the like. Perfection!” He took another bite, then another, and was soon cleaning the bottom of the bowl with what was left of the biscuits.
“Ahh!” he exclaimed in satisfaction, rubbing his belly and pushing away the bowl. “Now I can breathe. What do I owe you?”
“I would ordinarily ask ten in copper, but am willing to charge you seven if you regale me with how you came to be here in this particular city, on this particular day.”
The man nodded and rooted around in his coin pouch. Pulling out the requisite payment and placing it on the table, he began his narrative thus:
“My name is Elbao Ozar, and I once had a friend dearer to me than even my own born siblings. We went everywhere together – school, shrine, play-field, each other’s houses. We even courted twin sisters. Both of us were ‘prenticed to the same glassblower, and were looking forward to fine futures. We had planned to open our own bottle-and-flask shop.
“Then, one day, he left.
“While some of these measures have caught his footprints once or twice over the fruitless years, he has always stepped one crossing-stone ahead of me.”
“Not only my company. I mean to say that he left our home village entirely. He said something about wanting to see what was over the next hill. He took an armful of belongings including his blowpipe, pontil, shears and other tools, bundled them atop a pack-lizard, and departed. That was some years ago, and I seek him still.”
Prosatio Silban was silent for a moment. “I see why you would wish to find him,” he said. “If I had such a friend, I might involve myself similarly. But tell me – why is he still so important to you?”
“Since his departure, I have become lost in both life and love,” said Elbao Ozar. “He was the only one in whom I could confide. Such a one holds our secrets and can tell them back to us in a manner we can better comprehend.”
“I am sorry to hear of your personal futility. But that sort of a friend would indeed be missed, and sincerely worth finding again. How exactly have you gone about doing so?”
“I have hired practiced trackers utilizing arts arcane and profane, consulted with sages and wizards, offered at the shrine of Toth-Ar the All-Knowing, and even employed various talismans with seek-and-find virtues. While some of these measures have caught his footprints once or twice over the fruitless years, he has always stepped one crossing-stone ahead of me. Truth, I am almost wearying of the chase. But the promise of reunion guides me forward.”
“You seem to be a man of resourcefulness,” said the cook. “This must have cost you greatly.”
“It is a pittance to what I could receive should I complete my pursuit.”
“That is the nature of deep friendships. If those who complete us should depart, that empty half is not easily filled.”
Elbao Ozar fixed Prosatio Silban with sad but resolute eyes. “You are also a traveler?”
“And have visited many places?”
“Then I will ask you what I have asked countless others: ‘Have you seen a man who looks much like me, save taller and with black hair and eyes instead of brown and grey? Who laughs readily at life and its discontents? Keeps his word without a vow? Whose conversation never touches on trivial things? Who drinks deep from the well of experience and asks for more?’”
Prosatio Silban pursed his lips. During his quarter-century as a mercenary cook, hundreds had engaged his services within and without civilized lands. He had served the palates and gullets of all social stations, from refined nobles to the bowl-of-beans poor. Yet he could remember no one matching the traveler’s description. Such a journey should not go unfulfilled, he thought. Yet the chance that I could have been in the same place and time as this man’s companion seems somewhat remote.
“What will you do if you cannot find him?” asked the cook. “What if the Angrim the All-Limiter has taken him out of your reach?”
“I have pondered that possibility,” replied Elbao Ozar. “But I will not abandon my search unless I know that for certain. I have invested into it too many years to end my quest prematurely.”
“Where did you say you commenced this trail?”
“I didn’t, but it was in Sirenna. My home village, and in truth, not far from here. Why do you ask?”
“It has been a privilege to serve you,” said Prosatio Silban with a shallow bow.
“It seems to me that someone who wanted to ‘see what was over the next hill’ would eventually revisit his place of embarkation. That does not always happen, but often enough for a decent try.”
“I have already done that, but to no avail.”
“Perhaps you should try again. Pieces in constant motion on life’s game board rarely occupy the same, or even adjacent, spaces; and sometimes the Flickering Gods enjoy jests at our expense by directing us to the obvious.”
The traveler rose to his feet. “True enough. I will consider your advice.”
“It has been a privilege to serve you,” said Prosatio Silban with a shallow bow. “Good hunting.”
The cook began to clear the table. He watched as Elbao Ozar made his purposeful way through the marketplace and in the direction of Soharis’ main landward gate.
“Sir.” A quiet female voice, just behind him.
Prosatio Silban turned. The voice belonged to a woman sporting weather-stained clothes and gear, with weary age showing both in her eyes and the grim set to her jaw.
“With what may I please you?” the cook asked automatically.
“I require nothing from you,” the woman said. “But you require insight into your previous customer.”
“You are related to him?”
“Not for years. You know him as Elbao Ozar – but to me, he is the Mad Quester.”
“I do not understand.”
“He did not tell you all about himself. He is and has been suffering from a delusion: far from conducting a noble pursuit for his missing boon-companion, he killed this best friend in a melancholy rage. Painfully remorseful, he went into self-exile and now wanders the countryside in a tragically endless search. It has been more than ten years now, and his madness has yet to abate.”
“How do you know this?”
“I was his beloved. Wherever he goes, I follow at a discreet distance to watch over him and worry. What would you do in my place?”
Prosatio Silban met her gaze with compassionate eyes. “Truly, I do not know. What will you do now that he is headed back to his earlier home?”
“I do not know.”
“Then please sit,” said the cook. “I will bring you, complimentarily, what I would recommend for one who has walked farther than she thought herself capable.”