Prosatio Silban and the Gourmet Gallivant

IT BEGAN, AS DO SO many seriously frivolous matters, with an impassioned tavern-boast.

“Outside of present company, the best cookery in the Uulian Commonwell is found not in epicurean Pormaris but in its provinces,” burly, wise-eyed Apista Thurtok said. “And the best meal is roasted fidget-hen basted in honeywine, made at The Bouncing Wench in Yellow Meadows. And that is the final word.”

“The Soup Demons it isn’t!” rejoined the wiry and emphatic Olto Grex. “It’s One in Silver’s inwards-stew in Crows’ Path.”

“By my sainted great-aunt Tarka, that’s just not so,” put in petite Pireola Zash. “Everyone knows it’s the barley-sausages made near the Old Forest by Mother Arandra.”

“I’ll see your great-aunt and raise you a deity: namely, Scofi, Goddess of Culinary Inspiration,” countered the imposing Arriao Entar.

“I’ll see your great-aunt and raise you a deity: namely, Scofi, Goddess of Culinary Inspiration,” countered the imposing Arriao Entar. “And by Her holy name, you won’t find better or more sustaining than the fish-stock what Rolias Eyeop makes on his fishing boat, docked at Shellbright on the River Reaching.”

Prosatio Silban shook his head. “You’re all wrong,” the beefy cook said, raising his empty glass for emphasis. “Three words: Arrow-and-Wheel. Rose-garland. Bejeweled rice.”

“That’s seven words,” objected Apista Thurtok.

“True,” said the cook-errant. “Their food is worth the extra four.”

This culinary and congenial contretemps was playing out in Pelvhi’s Chopping House, the smoky locale where epicurean Pormaris’ kitchen and dining-hall professionals met after-hours for mutual and drink-lubricated solace. Such arguments were not uncommon, especially given the lateness of the hour and the disputants’ consumption of blue duliac; the powerful spirit was a known creativity enhancer and mild euphoric, so no one was surprised by what next came out of Apista Thurtok’s mouth.

“There is only one way to treat this matter with the gravity it deserves,” she said. “We will simply have to taste them each in turn to judge for ourselves.”

“Are you suggesting an extended meander?” asked Olto Grex. “That may take days! Weeks! Can we each be spared that long from our respective duties?”

“Yes!” “Time well-spent!” “I’m in!” “We’ve naught else to do this season!” came the others’ excited exclamations, their eyes bright and cheeks aglow.

“We should enrich the one whose candidate proves to be the most delicious,” Arriao Entar said. “Cash, perhaps?”

“What can we afford?” replied Apista Thurtok.

“Let us each contribute, say … six in silver?” proposed Olto Grex.

“Expensive!” commented Pireola Zash.

“Worthwhile!” answered Arriao Entar.

“How shall we sequester our coin-pool?” queried Pireola Zash. “Not that I distrust you all, or even some of you, but the question needed to be asked. And so I have.”

A thoughtful pause, then: “We shall ask Pelvhi to hold it for us, and divide the winnings between the worthy chef and their skilled candidate,” suggested Olto Grex.

Cries of “Excellent!” “Perfect!” “Well done!” “Wonderful!” resounded from around the table.

“Very well,” said Prosatio Silban, rising from his chair. “If we are all agreed, and it seems that we are, let us depart Pormaris at dawn – to return when our purposeful promenade is completed.”

Pireola Zash raised a tentative hand. “But will all those meals be worth the journey?”

“Ah,” answered Apista Thurtok. “There is only one way to find out.”

* * *

Mornings are cold in Pormaris, more so in the wintry Season of Contemplation, and the quintet – some nursing hangovers and blinking in the thin sunlight – were well equipped to bear them. Apista Thurtok, who served the transitory clientele at the Journey’s Beginning inn, was wrapped in a dark ursine-pelt cloak and sat upon an enormous riding-boar. Olto Grex, known throughout the Commonwell as the chef overseeing the acclaimed restaurant Needle and Thread, and Pireola Zash, house-cook to m’Lord Vajang Nerio and family, were swathed in thick quilted cloaks; each drove a two-wheeled zebra-cart with the group’s camping supplies and other travel-necessaries. Arriao Entar, one of Prosatio Silban’s favorite marketplace-stall cooks and the oldest of the company, shared with his friend a seat on the galleywagon’s wide driver’s bench, the former sporting a tall wub-fur hat and matching tunic. The Cook For Any Price was clad in a long-sleeved, layered-flannel riding-coat. Their collective breath created clouds of steam in the chill morning light.

The boar’s pace will limit our own, Prosatio Silban thought.

The boar’s pace will limit our own, Prosatio Silban thought. My dray-beast, and the zebras, can make much better time. But we can fill the intervening days with camaraderie and song – not to mention dazzling each other in turn every night with our well-renowned culinary skills.

“Everyone ready?” he called, to an assorted chorus of affirmatives. “Then let us begin this Quest of the Five Chefs!” he declared, and flicked the plaited yak-hair reins to urge forward his dray-beast.

“Is that what you’re calling this expedition?” asked Arriao Entar with a grin.

“One must call something something,” Prosatio Silban replied.

The first part of the journey took them via ferry over ever-roiling Teardrop Lake to the busy port of Ruins-Across-the-Water. The ferry-port crouched beneath the shelter of a tall basalt cliff, atop which lay the ancient and eponymous ruins – a favorite haunt of Pormaris’ eager picnickers, would-be poets, trysting lovers, and similar furtive types.

“Our first objective is the Bouncing Wench tavern at populous Yellow Meadows, three dayrides west of here,” Apista Thurtok said after they landed. “We may as well get comfortable.”

“Does anyone know a good riding-song?” asked Olto Grex.

“We are cooks, not bards,” replied Pireola Zash.

“Why can we not be both?” queried Olto Grex.

“This is going to be a long voyage,” grumbled Arriao Entar.

“But at least we will eat well,” Prosatio Silban said. “It promises also to be a voyage of small pleasures – which, in my opinion, are the very best kind.”

* * *

Yellow Meadows was cradled between two east-to-west lines of rolling hills, divided by the icy Iranon Creek. The tamped-earth road had given the intermittently bivouacking adventurers few travel-related problems on their three-day trek, save for the odd voonith and night-creeping viper, and they arrived happy and hungry at the door of the Bouncing Wench.

The crowded tavern was loud with the sound of tipsy revelers. Freestanding tables were scattered here and there, and a long, L-shaped bar occupied most of two adjoining walls. The great brick hearth was aglow with flames, and a dog-turned, hen-burdened roasting spit made its slow rotations, giving off the most seductive aromas. A young girl dutifully mopped the birds with the brimming contents of a close-by bucket.

“We would like to order enough honeywine-basted fidget-hen to fill five famished bellies, please,” Apista Thurtok told the arriving servant-boy, and raised an inquiring eyebrow at his colleagues. “Do we want accompaniments, or …?”

“That would be my suggestion,” the boy said. “The hens are somewhat on the small side.”

“Then we’ll want it the way you want it,” said Olto Grex.

The boy smiled. “I would add jacketed new potatoes and sauced cauliflower. But then, I am hungry.”

“So are we,” Apista Thurtok said. “Order something for yourself as well – we’ll pay the charge.”

“Thank you! I shall return with all speed.”

A short time later he did, bearing fragrant and steaming platters. The hens shone golden and appealing in the light of both hearth and the ubiquitous fatberry lamps, the potatoes’ skins were dusky with hearth-roasted virtue, and a glistening greens-puree adorned the cauliflower. Prosatio Silban’s stomach began to growl in anticipation as the serving-boy loaded the company’s table, and after a brief communal prayer of thanks to the All-Mother for her bounty, the ravenous cooks set to work without further conversation.

“We will find it hard put to equal this heroic repast,” Apista Thurtok said, at last putting down her fork with a contented sigh.

“You haven’t yet tasted the inwards-stew from One in Silver,” Olto Grex replied, wiping his mouth with a black linen napkin. “This was good, yes. But theirs … well. It must be tasted to be believed.”

* * *

Two days out from Yellow Meadows, en route to the One in Silver, their troubles began.

Two days out from Yellow Meadows, en route to the One in Silver, their troubles began.

“I still say you should have put less pepper in last night’s greens-and-meat porridge,” Olto Grex complained to Arriao Entar as the company progressed through the wide, fatberry bush-strewn countryside on their way to Crows’ Path. “For one thing, it will spoil our appetite for the stew we’ll eat tomorrow night. For another –”

“Please! We are wearied by your incessant whining!” interrupted Pireola Zash. “We will pitch tonight’s camp within the hour, and then you can take a turn at victual-duties. Meanwhile, leave the rest of us in quiet peace!”

Olto Grex opened his mouth for an incisive retort when, with a terrible splintering crash, his cart toppled to one side. “Help!” he cried as he tumbled to the ground, then cried out again in inarticulate agony. The party halted, voicing concerned variations of “Oh no!” and “What’s wrong?”

“My shoulder!” Olto Grex. “I’ve injured my shoulder!”

Prosatio Silban hopped down from the galleywagon and probed with light fingers. “It’s dislocated, and needs resetting,” he pronounced, then raised beseeching eyes to his companions. “Does anyone have a stronger arm and stomach than mine?”

“I do,” piped up Apista Thurtok, and dismounted from her boar. Taking firm hold of Olto Grex’s arm, she warned, “This may hurt more than a little.”

“It already hurts ‘more than a little!’”

“Even so. Brace yourself for a short, sharp shock.” So saying, she set her feet and yanked. Hard.

“YAAAH!” Olto Grex cried, and sucked in a lungful of frigid air. He lifted his arm, swiveling it with delicacy this way and that, then sighed with partial relief. “Better. Still sore, of course, but it is better. Thank you – and thanks also to Arincenea, Patroness of Desperate Medicaments.”

“Try to favor it until we can get you to a healer’s care,” Apista Thurtok said.

“That will not be easy,” said Arriao Entar. “We are still a dayride from semi-civilization – a one-zebra Reckless Hills settlement. Their medical options may be rudimentary at best. Meanwhile, we will have to do something about your cart and animal.”

“I suppose we, or at least one of us, could go ahead, and send back for you someone from the village?” Pireola Zash asked. “A cartwright, say?”

“You’re assuming they have someone, and a conveyance, to spare,” Prosatio Silban said. “We may have to break off our quest.”

“No!” said Olto Grex. “I won’t hear of it. We will leave the broken cart here, share my load among us, and tether my zebra to the other cart so it can follow. I am that anxious to share with you my best-meal candidate. Please. We may as well stop for the night anyway.”

The travelers looked at each other, then Pireola Zash spoke. “Very well,” she said. “Fortunately, our carts are not over-laden, and we can fashion for you a sling. We’ll manage somehow.”

* * *

The Reckless Hills divided the Commonwell from the vast and vacant Western Wides beyond, and were so-called by cautious Uulians who considered reckless anyone who passed through them.

The Reckless Hills divided the Commonwell from the vast and vacant Western Wides beyond, and were so-called by cautious Uulians who considered reckless anyone who passed through them. Blessed by a bountiful hot-spring, and located between a blacksmith and a wind-driven mill, One in Silver was the village’s only other main attraction. The inn was a rambling two-level affair, partly built into the side of one of the northern hills. Its half-timbered bulk was dotted with lozenge-paned windows and boasted a capacious stable. A young boy in a long, warm-looking coat climbed out of the porch swing he had been occupying.

“Welcome to Crows’ Path, what there is of it,” he said with a rueful but sincere smile. “We can offer food and shelter for you and your beasts, and a good relaxing soak.”

“Is there a healer hereabouts?” Olto Grex asked, wincing. “I have had a mishap, and require such services.”

“Not as such,” the youth replied. “Our Sacreant is a renowned healer, and rides a regular circuit between here, Woods’ Edge, Pastisi, Vineol, and Yellow Meadows. However, I do not know when she’ll next return. Three to five days, perhaps?”

“That is part of our route as well,” Prosatio Silban said. “With the All-Mother’s help and will, we may encounter her … somewhere. Meanwhile, we thank you for your kindness, and please” – he handed the boy a few copper coins – “see to our animals’ comfort.”

The interior of the One in Silver was warm and inviting in a fire-lit, noisy sort of way. The inn’s customers included travelers and local farmers, and the weary companions sat down at a round, six-seat table with grateful sighs.

“How is your shoulder?” asked Arriao Entar.

“Not as I would like,” Olto Grex replied. “It hurts less than before Apista Thurtok favored me with her kind attentions, but it still hurts quite a bit. I can introduce to you tonight’s offering, but I cannot travel further like this.”

“What shall we do?” wondered Apista Thurtok. “We can’t just leave you here.”

The others nodded their assent, but Olto Grex shook his head. “That is exactly what you must do,” he said. “Let us first eat, and see to our rooms afterward. Then fill me with enough spirits to dull my pain-wracked senses. I will see you off tomorrow and wait for the Sacreant. But now, we eat! The dish in question is called ‘inwards-stew,’ and the name is well-placed. It is composed of hardy greens, hearty vegetables, and such ‘cast-off’ meats as fidget-hen livers, ox heart, goat tripe, and other assorted offal.”

“Awful is right,” said Pireola Zash, making a face. “Sounds appalling.”

“You are used to cooking beef and lamb filet and other posh dainties for your Heir Second house-patron,” Arriao Entar said. “This is real food, as cooked and eaten by real people. I skewer and sell these meats by the tens every day.”

“At least taste it,” Olto Grex told the reluctant Pireola Zash. “That’s all I ask. Would I have brought you here if I thought it unworthy?”

“Gentles,” said a sudden serving-girl. “What can we provide for you?”

“Five deep bowls of stew, as many small loaves of your most excellent bread, five generous ales, and at least one bottle of your cheapest spirits,” Olto Grex said. “And please – hurry the spirits.”

As the girl departed, a gruff voice sounded from behind the injured cook. “Excuse us. You are sitting in our seats.”

A half-dozen rough-hewn men ringed the table, and glowered at the cooks. Prosatio Silban stood up across from the speaker and opened his arms. “Friends, there seems to be some mistake,” he said with a smile.

“Yes – and you’ve made it,” the ruffian growled.

“We have traveled long and far, and my friend is injured. Please – let us take our ease. There are other tables, and –”

“We want this one.”

“Why so?”

“It’s our lucky table,” a second lout said with an uncouth snort.

Arriao Entar stood up, muscles a-bulge beneath his furry tunic, and stared down the spokesman.

Arriao Entar stood up, muscles a-bulge beneath his furry tunic, and stared down the spokesman. “Find another,” he said with dead calm.

“And if we don’t?”

We are cooks,” the steel-eyed Apista Thurtok said as she too arose. “You do not want to find out.”

A moment passed, then: “Come on, fellows,” the first lout said. “Leave them be.” As the discomfited oafs retreated, the three cooks reseated themselves.

“How did you all do that?” Pireola Zash asked.

Arriao Entar let out a long breath. “Prolonged practice,” he said.

“It’s what you learn from working in a Pormaris inn’s kitchen,” Apista Thurtok added.

Just then, their serving-girl – trailing two assistants – arrived with the orders. They placed a red clay tureen before each diner, almost overflowing their rich, mahogany-colored contents. Tall ceramic mugs topped with creamy foam completed the picturesque array. Olto Grex lost no time in removing the spirits-bottle’s cork with his teeth; he puffed it onto the sawdust-covered floor and took a long pull. “Gah!” he said finally. “That will help dull something. Now – let us tuck in!”

All began eating but Pireola Zash. “I can’t at all tell what’s in here,” she said, dipping a tentative spoon into the thick brown stew and swirled it about. “What did you say it was?”

“Whatever it is, it’s delicious,” Apista Thurtok told her, taking a third mouthful.

Pireola Zash hesitated, then lifted the laden utensil to her nostrils and inhaled. “It does smell good,” she said. She touched her tongue to it, and her face lit up. “By my sainted great-aunt!” she enthused, and dug in with gusto.

“You see?” crowed Olto Grex. “I would never have brought you here otherwise. Excuse me.” He lifted the bottle to his lips and took another robust drink. “It’s not duliac, but it’s fiiiiine natheless,” he said, slurring a bit.

“Can you do that for ‘three to five days?’” Prosatio Silban asked, worry shading his voice. “The inn’ll run out of spirits before you run out of pain.”

“It’s a race, yes,” Olto Grex said. “But one I’m determined to win.”

The company fell quiet, save for chewing and slurping, as each member saw with diligence to his or her own portion. Afterward, and all together, they pushed their empty bowls aside, their faces shining with joy.

“That was good,” said Apista Thurtok. “Very good.”

“I stand corrected,” said Pireola Zash, “and am now a believer.”

“I believe I’ll have ‘seconds,’” said Prosatio Silban, and raised his hand to signal the serving-girl. “Miss?”

“Best inwards-stew I’ve ever tasted,” said Arriao Entar. “And that’s saying a lot.”

“I tole you all, din’t I?” pronounced Olto Grex with care, and belched. “Excuse me.”

* * *

“I don’t think it’s fair for us to have abandoned our injured brother,” Apista Thurtok said.

“I don’t think it’s fair for us to have abandoned our injured brother,” Apista Thurtok said. “Now we are but four, and with that many more meals to judge …”

“I see your point,” Prosatio Silban said. “Of course, what we did not realize in our zeal to begin this quest was that we might very well have each voted for our own favorite meal. O sweet duliac! You are balm to the soul, but play hob with the reason.”

“I suppose we’re just sharing now, rather than competing,” Arriao Entar said. “Not that there’s any harm in that. After all, we are at the far end of our journey, and will soon turn back to Pormaris by way of our next two stops. Speaking of which, what does Pireola Zash have in store for us?”

It had taken the party more than a day to arrive at their third destination, a lone freehold near the darkly rumored Old Forest. The village of Woods’ Edge lay another half-dayride to the south, but the substantial, thatched structure with its detached barn and adjoining grain-fields appeared strong enough to stand against any unwanted interlopers. And had there been any, the three stocky field-hands lounging by a split-log table in the front yard would have made short work of them.

“Let me tell you what awaits!” the house-chef replied, her eyes wide with excitement. “It is a type of sausage, but not at all of meat – save for its beef-intestine casing. Stuffed with barley-bran, chicken fat, and fine-chopped vegetables, it is both filling and flavorsome. I first discovered it when I passed through here and was offered a place to stay for the night. I only hope – aha! Mother Arandra! We are here to sup at your table.”

An ample-framed woman waved at them from the doorway. “Mistress Pireola!” she called. “So good to see you again. And who are these with you?”

Introductions were made, conveyances arranged, and the group took their seats at the table as their beaming hostess disappeared inside.

“’ Barley-bran sausage?’” Apista Thurtok whispered with a smirk.

“I’ll have you know she’s won quite a few Woods’ Edge Faire awards for her cooking,” Pireola Zash murmured to Apista Thurtok with a touch of heat. “And if it wasn’t tasty, we wouldn’t be here.”

“Sounds intriguing to me,” Arriao Entar whispered back. “I’ll try anything at least once.”

“… says the man who cooks guts for a living,” Apista Thurtok rejoined.

Arriao Entar turned to her for a rebuttal, but just then Mother Arandra reappeared bearing a wooden serving dish piled high with crisp-looking brown disks the size of Prosatio Silban’s palm. A tantalizing scent permeated the immediate vicinity, and the cooks’ mouths watered in expectation. Two young women, by their looks Mother Arandra’s daughters, passed around two other platters: one heaped with cubes of hot potato-pudding, the other with a salad of buckwheat groats and thumb-thick noodles.

“The ‘sausage’ is baked whole, then sliced and pan-fried,” Pireola Zash explained. “She uses the same recipe as her grandmother’s grandmother.”

“In those days, meat was uncommon,” their hostess commented. “We had to make do with what we found at hand. When times grew more prosperous, we kept making this because it tasted so good.”

This time, it was Apista Thurtok’s turn to pick gingerly at her food. She cut a tiny piece of sausage, put it in her mouth, and chewed with care. She raised her eyebrows and took a bigger morsel. “My apologies,” she said. “This is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten!”

“You see?” Pireola Zash crowed. “Food doesn’t need to be fancy to be good. There’s a reason peasants are so sturdy.”

“And strong!” one of the field-hands added, forking into a sausage-slice.

At that moment, a broad-winged raptor with iridescent green feathers flew into view and circled over their heads. As they watched in astonishment, it descended by degrees, then landed next to Pireola Zash.

“The Jade Hawk!” exclaimed Prosatio Silban. “For whom is it bound?”

“The Jade Hawk!” exclaimed Prosatio Silban. “For whom is it bound?”

The bird wore a soft leather harness festooned with small, tightly folded slips of rag-paper, each bearing a name. Pireola Zash fingered through these, then sat bolt upright.

“It’s for me!” she exclaimed, plucking the note from the harness. Opening it, she read the contents aloud. “‘Mistress Pireola: Please return with speed. (signed) m’Lady Vajang Durella.’”

“Does she say why?” Arriao Entar asked.

“No. The Jade Hawk post-service is expensive and needs be concise, even for the nobility. By the All-Limiter! It is five dayrides back to Pormaris taking the most direct route, and I must leave at once. Fortunately, the roads are good and well-trafficked, so I will have no lack of fellow-travelers.”

“What about our shared equipment?” Apista Thurtok asked. “With no zebra-cart …”

“I suppose the greater part of that task would fall to me and my galleywagon,” Prosatio Silban said. “Your mount can take on a few extra bundles – the bedrolls, say – and I can haul the victuals and water. The question is, though: shall we continue, or quit?”

“I was looking forward to sharing with you our next destination, and the one after that,” Arriao Entar said. “However, whether or not we continue, it will still be some dayrides further ere we behold once again Pormaris’ homely spires and mélange of cooking-aromas. Master Prosatio” – he turned to the cook-errant – “you are my carrier. I am at the mercy of your kindness and forbearance. If you feel the food is still worth the journey, let us keep going.”

The remaining three assessed each other in silence while Pireola Zash began to off-load their common property. Apista Thurtok broke the quiet with a light but deliberate cough.

“I say we go on,” she said. “It is worth our journey, at least at this point, and I can bear my share of the load. And truth to tell, I am curious to see how this tale turns out.”

“As am I,” Prosatio Silban said. “So, then – let us continue.”

* * *

Though armed with high hopes, the traveling trio hadn’t counted on yet another depletion of their diminished ranks.

It had been six still-merry days since they left Woods’ Edge, and their arrival at Shellbright had almost gone unnoticed. The Heir Second Eldotis Baran’s opulent southernmost demesne counted the industrious village as its home, as did an active working-port. The River Reaching connected all three of the Commonwell’s provincial capitals – many-harbored Soharis on the Rimless Sea; decadent Pormaris, City of Gourmands; and grim-hearted Tirinbar, City of Toil – and the riparian artery was thronged with painted fishing boats and lines of low-sailing mercantile barges.

“Wait until you taste Rolias Eyeop’s stock,” Arriao Entar told his companions as they approached their objective. “It simmers for a week before he decants it into bowls, and the depth of flavor – by Scofi! No words can describe it, only enthusiastic animal grunting. Master Pletum! Oi! How long has it been?”

The thickset fisherman-cook looked up from the well-deck of a well-built fishing craft, where he tended a bubbling number of lidded pots set on brick-built sailors’ cookstoves. He broke into an enormous grin as he heard his name and saw who had named him.

“Arriao Entar! The actual man himself!” he said. “I am surprised that they let you out of the city. How goes it?”

His friend returned the smile. “Rolias Eyeop, I am pleased to introduce to you my colleagues Prosatio Silban and Apista Thurtok,” he said. “They have not yet broken bread at your table, and that is an oversight I cannot wait to correct. May we have some of what you’re famous for?”

Rolias Eyeop set a wide board atop a nearby barrel-head and tapped it with one hand. “Here is where reputations are made,” he said, and winked. “I will return with dishes and implements of destruction. One moment, if you please.” He withdrew into the boat’s forecastle.

“What are we in for?” Apista Thurtok asked.

“What are we in for?” Apista Thurtok asked.

“Something wonderful,” Arriao Entar replied, and stifled a cough. “Patience.”

Their host returned with a modest armful of servingware, which he laid out on the improvised table, then lifted the lid from a large stock-pot, releasing a cloud of savory steam. The visiting cooks’ eyes grew wide with pleasant expectancy.

“This is rendered from a dozen different types of river-born seafood,” Rolias Eyeop said with pride as he ladled a clear but viscous liquid into three large wooden bowls. “I fish them myself, and prepare them to boot. Been doing it that way for nigh on forty year, and is second-nature to me now – as is never sending away anyone who’s still hungry. Eat up now! No good when it’s cold.”

The cooks lifted their bowls and inhaled. They could not put their olfactory fingers on exactly what the stock smelled like, save a redolence of brine and fish-meat. Prosatio Silban dipped his spoon, placed it in his mouth, and his eyes rolled back with a satisfied groan.

“Oh, by all that’s holy!” he breathed.

“Where has this been all my sheltered life?” Apista Thurtok exclaimed. “I cannot believe I’ve never had the like!”

“The aroma. The texture. The flavor,” commented Arriao Entar, stifling another cough.

“Are you alright?” Prosatio Silban asked with concern.

Arriao Entar shook his head. “It’s just a dry throat. I’ll be fine,” he said, and sneezed into the crook of his elbow.

“You don’t look ‘fine,’” Apista Thurtok said. “Your face is flushed, you’re sweating on a cold day, and your eyes are sagging. Are you sure you’re alright?”

Arriao Entar raised a hand to his moist forehead. “Now that you mention it (cough), I could use a bit of a lie-down,” he said.

“I have just the thing,” Rolias Eyeop said. “Hot mint-root tea, and a comfortable berth. Come aboard with me.”

Coughing openly now, the suffering cook allowed himself to be led away. “I’ll be back soon,” he said. “An hour’s nap and I’ll be right as spring rain.”

Prosatio Silban and Apista Thurtok squinted at each other. “This is getting ridiculous,” said the latter. “We have gone from five travelers to two! He’ll need more than an hour’s nap, I’ll tell you that, and we’d better be prepared to leave him here under the fisherman’s care.”

The cook-errant frowned. “I am afraid I agree,” he said. “My galleywagon only sleeps one, and our travel-mate is in no condition now to ride with either of us. But anyway, we are heading home. If we leave here at dawn, we’ll reach my best-meal candidate by nightfall, may Angrim’s stark fist so will it! Then it’s a steady and quick two-day push to Ruins-Across-the-Water and home.”

“We will leave him enough coin to join us in Pormaris by coach,” said Apista Thurtok and lifted her loaded spoon. “Meanwhile, we might as well finish this truly delicious soup. I’m sure it’s what Arriao Entar would want us to do.”

* * *

“Stop! Thieves!” a female voice cried.

The sign for Rose-garland’s Arrow-and-Wheel was almost invisible in the growing dark, but the inn itself was well-lit and welcoming even from the outside. Like the other lodgings bearing that name, it was two stories and a barn of half-timbered solidity, and an amber glow flowed from the hostel’s many small round windows.

Apista Thurtok and Prosatio Silban, having seen to the comfort and provender for their mount and dray-beast, marched up the broad front steps and through the iron-hinged doors. They had just time enough to survey the well-filled tables and warming hearth when a scream cut through the room like a bloody scalpel.

“Stop! Thieves!” a female voice cried.

Two young men bolted from the long bar opposite the doors. They wore the rough garb of laboring-class Uulians, their lower faces were wrapped in identity-obscuring scarves, and they would have reached the doors but for the well-placed and -timed legs of Prosatio Silban and Apista Thurtok causing them to trip and sprawl forward on the sawdust-and-sand-covered floor.

“I don’t believe this belongs to either of you,” Prosatio Silban said as he retrieved a heavy coin-purse from one would-be thief’s grasp.

“Thank you, thank you!” gushed the proprietress, a short and buxom woman in a long purple caftan. She took the pouch and signaled to a pair of brawny farmers, then turned to her two benefactors.

“Whatever may I do to thank you?” she asked as the strapping farmers dragged away the thwarted miscreants.

“Two plates of your famed citrus beef, preceded by a tall bottle of white duliac,” the cook-errant said, and cast at his companion a significant look. “Also, if you please, an ample serving of bejeweled rice.”

The proprietress winked and nodded before sashaying toward the kitchen. Prosatio Silban smiled after her and turned his gaze to Apista Thurtok. “There is always something going on in this place,” he said.

The duliac bottle and glasses arrived almost immediately, and Prosatio Silban lost no time in filling first his companion’s vessel and then his own.

Apista Thurtok raised her glass. “’To absent friends,’” she quoted.

“That is a toast to which I shall always drink,” the cook said, and did so.

Until the rest of their order arrived, they reminisced about the sights they had seen and the experiences they had shared. As they discussed the apprehended thieves, a serving-boy brought a generous portion of deep-fried, orange-sauced beef cubes with sliced and scattered green onions. A great dish of blue rice accompanied it, studded with raisins and diced dried figs, apricots, and dates.

“Is it not everything I said it would be?” asked Prosatio Silban after their first taste.

“And more,” Apista Thurtok replied, chewing with enthusiasm. “You’d think the beef would overwhelm the rice, but it doesn’t. It is a perfect complement in every way.”

“Just as our journeys have complemented our repasts,” the cook-errant said. “For all that, I think we should divide our collected monies between our two under-weathered companions. When they return to epicurean Pormaris, that is.”

“I agree, and I am sure that Pireola Zash would as well,” Apista Thurtok said, helping herself to seconds. “And yet, for all that, I feel an inexplicable stab of guilt at being one of the only two who have tasted everything we five set out to taste.”

“I can understand your saying that,” answered Prosatio Silban with a contented, if enigmatic, smile. “But life’s little pleasures are always there for the taking, no matter who takes them – or how, or when.”

“So. Was all this excellent food really worth our long journey?” Apista Thurtok asked.

“Depending on the particular journey,” the cook-errant replied, raising his glass, “everything is.”

(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!)

4 comments for “Prosatio Silban and the Gourmet Gallivant

  1. Kathryn L Hildebrandt
    2022.03.01 at 1233

    Ah, now there was a nice, long story, with a satisfying ending. Pleasantly descriptive and sensuous, nothing to wrack my brain. Tolkien interspersed his stories with tales like these.

    • 2022.03.01 at 1339

      Thank you! I can’t think of higher praise.

      • Kathryn L Hildebrandt
        2022.03.01 at 1358

        Yes! Not everything needs to be thought-provoking. The mind needs a break, I have come to realize.

        • 2022.03.01 at 1633

          Surely so. You know me — I’m always up for a focused critique; “the quest for excellence,” &c. Speaking of non-headbreaking texts, I think you might like this week’s — as always, let me know! (If you’re feeling really ambitious, you are cordially invited to leave a review on my Smashwords page. Go to this blog’s front page and click on the book cover.)

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