ASIDE FROM BUOPOTHS, NO ONE knows exactly what a fatberry-cake tastes like. But measuring by how many the quaint lumbering beasts eat, the greasy maroon lumps (smelling faintly of lavender) must be a delightful treat.
Prosatio Silban pondered this mystery as he fed his own buopoth, Onward, a sixth cake of the day and wiped his hands on his faded green apron. It’s a good thing fatberries are ubiquitous, he thought, or I’d be out a useful dray-beast – and an equally useful traveling companion.
He scratched Onward behind one ear, told him what a good buopoth he was, and stashed the fatberry-cake bag under his galleywagon’s driver’s bench. He glanced at his brightly painted lunch-menu board and frowned. Not so much as a bowl of beans all morning, he complained privately. Is it just me, or has epicurean Pormaris lost its taste for my portable livelihood?
It was not an unjustified thought. Here it was high sun, and even though he was parked a-purpose near one of the great lake-encircled city’s dockside gates, busy merchants and prospective customers alike thronged past his galleywagon as though participating in a conspiracy of mutual silence.
The cook sighed and leaned against one of the vehicle’s great spoked wheels. Might as well peoplewatch, he thought, narrowing his eyes. Let’s see: a jewelry-adrip Heir Second and his liveried retinue … a poor woman browsing the bruised-vegetable stalls in search of cheap dinner ingredients … a boy and girl happily chewing on lollypop-root … two anxious young men, Gentry by the look of them, headed straight for me –
The pair, sharply dressed in matching belted brown tunics, long gold jerkins and yellow knee-breeches, wore faces creased with concern. Prosatio Silban didn’t recognize them as past customers, but as they swept up he noted their agitation and hoped it wasn’t pointed at him.
“Are you the Cook For Any Price?” asked the younger-looking of the two.
“Does he owe you restitution or satisfaction?” the cook replied.
The aroma of good things filled the Baello kitchen and spilled over into the adjacent and well-appointed dining room, where the Baellos waited with polite expectation.
“No,” they chorused.
“Then I am he,” Prosatio Silban said, bowing low. “With what may I please you?”
“Come quickly,” said the older. “Our father is dying, and we need your help.”
* * *
Prosatio Silban could not help marveling at Sir Baello Forbit’s large and impressive foyer. Expensive-looking tapestries hung on every wall, depending from the tall vaulted ceiling to the intricate teak parquet, recounting the illustrated story of the Baello family for the past ten generations. Bright braziers here and there cast warm pools of light. Three oubaq-leathered chairs were disposed behind a massive and low mahogany table; two were occupied by the brothers, and in the center chair sat – rather, half-lay – the limp grey figure of Sir Baello himself.
“You will forgive me if I do not rise to meet, you, Master Cook,” the old man said, drawing his embroidered gold dressing-robe more tightly around himself. “I have been unable to stand unaided for weeks. Such is life – it comes and goes, then comes and goes again. One cannot stand fast against such somber inevitabilities.”
“True enough,” Prosatio Silban replied. “I have seen many of them in my life as a traveling cook. One must be prepared to serve diverse kinds of the hungry, meal-seeking public. Speaking of cooking, if I may be so abrupt: your sons said you had a task for me. With what may I please you?”
“To be equally direct – I am approaching the time for my last meal,” the old man said with a wan smile, “and I should like for you to prepare it. Your reputation as a sensitive and attentive cook has impressed me. I will pay you handsomely.”
“Thank you for your confidence, Sir Baello,” said the cook. “Would you like something bold and spiritually restorative, or does your taste run toward more nuanced subtleties? The markets of Pormaris are, and I am, at your disposal. You have but to ask and I shall arrange what’s appropriate.”
Sir Baello raised a trembling hand. “Do not agree so swiftly,” he said. “The task may not be an easy one. You see, I desire, most of all, my mother’s noodle stew.”
Prosatio Silban thought for a moment. “Mimicking a mother’s tender cookery may prove challenging, but not I hope impossible,” he said. “All I should need is her recipe, and then I shall do my best to soothe your appetite and palate in a similar and maternal fashion.”
“Aha,” said Sir Baello with a grimace. “That is the challenge – she used no recipe, and I never stood at her side as she measured the ingredients with a long-practiced hand. I do, however, well know of what those ingredients consisted.”
Prosatio Silban produced a wax tablet and stylus from a small, shoulder-slung bag. “You may dictate them to me at your leisure. But to shape them to the project at hand, I would ask you to also describe to me her personality…”
* * *
The aroma of good things filled the Baello kitchen and spilled over into the adjacent and well-appointed dining room, where the Baellos waited with polite expectation. In large ceramic bowls Prosatio Silban set out the portions for the paterfamilias and his sons and stepped back from the table, awaiting praise or blame.
Sir Baello raised a trembling spoon to his pursed lips, blew experimentally, and slurped. His eyes closed; his raised eyebrows expressed a blend of joy, grief, recognition and deepest memory.
“MMmm…” he said, swallowing. “I haven’t tasted the like in more years than I care to admit. Master Cook, how did you so perfectly imitate the textures, the flavors, the subtle seasonings…?”
“Cooking skill can often be a guide to character, and vice-versa,” Prosatio Silban said. “Tightfisted people often cook badly, while the more generous-hearted are known for their abundance of both foods and flavorings. You described to me a woman who was fastidious, kindly and concerned about her family’s well-being. That suggested to me someone with an exacting eye, but lavish with healthful spices and herbs; whose noodles always reached the perfect doneness and who balanced the meat- and vegetable-ingredients precisely. It was a privilege to prepare this for you.”
The old man took another slurp. “My boys,” he said to his thoughtfully chewing sons, “this is what your grandmother fed us every weeks-end and holy day. She learned the dish from her own grandmother, and she from hers. I venture to say that this dish enabled the Baello dynasty to thrive for generations as successful Pormaris merchants. What do you think of it?”
“It’s good,” said the older. “Tasty,” affirmed the younger.
The dining room was near quiet for a time, as the three Baellos set to work on their brimming bowls with enthusiasm and Prosatio Silban beamed accordingly.
“Master Cook,” the old man said after some moments, “if you’ll allow me, I must have seconds. No, don’t bother getting it – I’ll see to the pot myself.” So saying, he pushed back his chair, arose, and, bowl in hand, walked to the kitchen on steady legs. They heard him putter with the stew-pot, then stop.
“By Galien the All-Mother,” he whispered, awestruck.
The brothers Baello looked at Prosatio Silban, then at each other.
“So much for our inheritance,” muttered the younger brother. The older one sighed.