Prosatio Silban and the Leg Up

THE NAME “EVERFAIRE” DESCRIBED THE village perfectly. It was a centuried and perpetual trading-center on the border dividing the lands and villages of epicurean Pormaris from those administered by cosmopolitan Soharis, and its shops, inns, and taverns never closed. Some said that dark deals were struck in the dead of night by mad scriveners, insomniac alchemists, braggart thieves, and others of dodgy but useful talents.

Daytime was a different matter, by degree rather than kind. The sprawling settlement roared with the sound of happy and fervent commerce, as sellers and buyers engaged in their ancient and eternal game. Harsh-voiced hawkers offered samples of their patrons’ wares to enthusiastic passersby; shoppers and shopkeepers haggled with loud abandon to each obtain the best possible advantage over the other; the air was thick with the musky scent of draft-animals, the metallic tang of diverse smiths’ work, and the smoky aromas of assorted cooking-fires. And where else could one expect to find Prosatio Silban but welcoming all comers to his famous galleywagon with the promise of a satisfying meal?

His melody was new to the moment, but with lyrics as old as the village itself.

The Cook For Any Price hummed a tuneless but joyful melody as he carried a hot plate of lizard-steak and grilled beets to a local pea-farmer sitting at one of the two tables-and-chairs, beamed reassurance at the well-dressed woman waiting for a light and still-to-be-cooked omelet, took an order from a man wearing the weather-stained garb of a courier, and continued his musical improvisation. His melody was new to the moment, but with lyrics as old as the village itself:

“We are here in Everfaire,
And something’s always in the air.
You cannot find it otherwhere
Do not try – you will despair.”

Prosatio Silban danced up the galleywagon steps. A lighthearted song for a lighthearted day, he thought. Once inside, he caught his breath and exhaled a chuckle. Now let me see about that omelet …

When the eggs were done, the cook plated them, added chopped greens and braised giant’s-thumb mushrooms, loaded it all onto a bamboo tray, then skipped outside and back down the steps. “I apologize for the wait,” he told the woman as he set the tray before her. “But here you are. May it bring you much enjoyment.” He turned to glance at the busy street and exclaimed with surprised delight.

“Saucemaker!” he cried. “I never expected to see you so far from your own lands. With what may I please you?”

The subject of his greeting was half as tall as the beefy cook and almost as thickset. He had deep green eyes and hair, skin the color and texture of chestnut bark, and his wide grin rivaled the sun in its splendor. “We are indeed some distance from Pastori,” he said, “but as the Greens-Poet writes, ‘The road to a friend’s home is never long.’”

“What brings you here?” Prosatio Silban asked.

“You do,” Saucemaker replied. “I have an accomplishment in mind, and I need your help.”

“Anything you ask, I shall try to accede.”

“Good! To the point, then: I should like to enter your field of endeavor – right here in Everfaire.”

* * *

That evening, after Prosatio Silban had stowed beneath the galleywagon his painted menu-board and collapsible furniture, he welcomed his visitor inside to expound the latter’s proposal over a mint-fragrant cup of yava.

“First of all, I do not wish to displace you,” said Saucemaker, who was called by no formal name within his own country and only a functional one without. He gazed into his steaming mug. “You admirably acquit the office of itinerant cook, and this world does not need another.”

“That is gratifying to hear,” said his host. “What, then, do you intend?”

Saucemaker raised his eyes to meet his friend’s. “You know that my people have no rivals when it comes to preparing simple, rustic fare in an economical and long-traditional way,” he said. “That is why we find such ready employment among your more affluent population as house-chefs and brewers. I would like to bring those preparations before the public. And, with hope, earn some coin.”

Prosatio Silban was silent for many heartbeats. “What you are asking is difficult,” he said at last.

Prosatio Silban was silent for many heartbeats. “What you are asking is difficult,” he said at last. “Perhaps ‘challenging’ is a better word. There no guarantees in this business, only a great deal of hard work and many sleep-chasing nights. But it is rewarding, in many ways, to make people happy with food and its consequent pleasantries. How, specifically, were you planning to realize your ambition?”

“My first thought was to open a small restaurant in Pormaris itself,” his guest replied. “But it is very expensive there. Likewise Soharis, which in addition is too distant from the lands of my home. Then I thought of Everfaire – bustling, eclectic Everfaire – as the perfect location for a small restaurant, or even a modest cooking-stall. Travelers and traders visit and transact here from everywhere in the known world. They will make a perfect captive audience for the storied cuisine and ales of the Pastori.”

“Well, you will certainly have novelty on your side,” said the cook-errant. “So far as I know, none of your people have ever embarked on a similar course. But I can only be of tangential help to you, I am afraid. I know next to little about running a restaurant, or even a food-stall, with their attendant predictions and frequent, dynamic contingencies. That sort of mercantile magik is too daunting for someone like me, who cooks almost all meals to order according to the season. I will, however, tell you all I know of cooking for a price.”

An enigmatic expression crossed Saucemaker’s face. “I did not expect you to offer me gratuitous advice,” he said with a somewhat injured tone. “But I also didn’t expect you to raise the issue.”

“Please!” Prosatio Silban said, raising a placating hand. “Don’t misunderstand me. I didn’t mean that I would help you for a price. I meant that the art of separating customers from their coin is its own unique beast – quite different from cooking for friends or family. As for any fee, our relationship has for years been of a warm and fruitful nature. Consider my advice a gift to a longtime and treasured friend.”

“Thank you, but I must insist otherwise,” Saucemaker said. “The Greens-Poet also tells us, ‘Free advice is worth what one pays for it.’ How does an offer of two in silver, and your choice of five of my sauces, sound to your professional ear?”

“I don’t know that my guidance will be that valuable, but I shall do my best to aid you,” replied the cook. “Let us first see of what use I can be.”

“Excellent! When can we begin?”

Prosatio Silban flashed an assuring smile. “We already have.”

* * *

By Everfaire law and its long application, anyone from anywhere could there set up shop to sell anything – even if the “shop” was a sparse, merchandise-strewn blanket. So, early next morning, the pair began mapping out the stage and auditioning players for Saucemaker’s culinary set-piece.

“To commence an enterprise of this sort, one must cultivate relationships,” Prosatio Silban explained to Saucemaker as they strolled along Everfaire’s main street, passing merchants setting out their goods in anticipation of the custom to come. “But before that, you will need to acquire a physical location – not very difficult in an unwalled village such as this. In fact, that is one reason why Everfaire is larger now than it was, and – may the Flickering Gods so ordain! – smaller than it will become. Ah. This will do.”

They had reached the village’s northern edge, its closest to – but many dayrides’ distant from – the great island-city of Pormaris. On one side of the street was a candlemaker’s booth; facing that was a paper-seller’s kiosk. Both proprietors were wearing looks of cautious interest.

“Good folk!” the cook said. “How do you feel about the smells of grilling, baking, frying, and so forth?”

“Good folk!” the cook said. “How do you feel about the smells of grilling, baking, frying, and so forth?”

“Nothing finer,” said the candlemaker with a welcoming grin. “Reminds me of home.”

“Depends on what you’re cooking,” said paper-seller. “Fry-grease could spoil my stock or distract my customers. Baking-heat could do the same, and also prove too hot for their comfort, not to mention mine. And grill-smoke could get in everybody’s eyes.”

Prosatio Silban dropped his voice. “How much would it cost to calm your disquiets?”

The paper-seller smirked. “Depends on what you’re offering.”

“How if we compensated you for any lost commerce or stock, as well as a token monthly offset?”

The smirk deepened. “Make it weekly, and we can call it even.”

They next engaged one of Everfaire’s resident blacksmiths to fashion a fatberry-oil stove, oven, and wood-fired grill; a former ship’s carpenter for constructing the stall proper; a tired-looking trash collector; a jolly fatberry-oil producer; and an easygoing if stoic porter for regular (and miscellaneous) daily errands. All agreed to trade their skills for appropriate fees, and all promised delivery of their products and/or services within a reasonable amount of time.

But they were less successful with the food purveyors. As a frequent client, Prosatio Silban knew them all by name, and a good deal about their families and small interests. Thus, he was taken aback by their singularly reluctant responses to polite introductions and inquiries on his friend’s behalf.

“All of these meats are spoken for,” murmured the butcher, scanning the street.

“As are these vegetables and fruits,” mumbled the greengrocer, plucking at his apron.

“Sorry, no flour today,” muttered the miller, avoiding their eyes.

“We are all out of … everything,” stammered the dairywoman, shifting from foot to foot.

Despite their unanimous denials, and their evident and ample stores, none explained their behavioral whys or wherefores. The one who came closest to doing so was the spice-handler.

“I cannot tell you why I cannot help you,” she said, looking from side to side. “You, Master Cook, are always welcome in my shop. But your associate is not. That is all I can say.”

As the confused colleagues wandered back to Prosatio Silban’s galleywagon, the cook shook his hairless head. “I don’t understand their conduct,” he said. “For as long as I have known those people, and that is some time, they have been as friendly and welcoming as everyone else in Everfaire. I almost wonder if our Flickering Gods had a hand in the proceedings.”

“They didn’t,” declared a cold voice. “We did.”

“They didn’t,” declared a cold voice. “We did.”

A handful of brawny, imposing men in the rough-hewn tunics and kneebreeches of the Uulian underclasses were blocking their way. They glared at the cook-errant and his companion with dead eyes set above mirthless smiles.

“We put the lean on those food-sellers,” said one of the grim-faced party. “And we’ll put the lean on them other tradesfolk too – that carpenter, the blacksmith, all of ‘em.”

“Why do you oppose this man’s humble and honest merchantry?” Prosatio Silban demanded. “He has done nothing to any of you!”

“It ain’t what he done, it’s what he is,” said another dastard. “We don’t like his breed. And we ain’t letting him do anything in our village.”

“That is not your decision to make,” said the cook. “By Everfaire’s oldest decree, no one may be refused a business here. No one.”

“We’re refusing him now,” said a third ruffian. “We don’t want no little brown men around here. Now get you gone. You too, brownie-lover.”

Before Prosatio Silban could stop him, Saucemaker took a step toward the men. “I don’t think so,” he said. “This place is open to everyone. I belong here as much as any of you.”

The men advanced until they stood toe to toe with the target of their prejudice. One of the speakers put a hand on the diminutive Pastori’s head.

“Please,” Saucemaker said. “Don’t.”

“Yeah, brownie?” his antagonist said with an emphatic sneer. “Why not?”

Saucemaker dropped to the ground. As Prosatio Silban opened his mouth to object, his friend swept one leg under both of his adversary’s, toppling him, then leaped high in the air to kick another man full in the chest. The man gasped and collapsed. In less time than it takes to describe, Saucemaker kneed, punched, and elbowed his way through groins, guts, and throats. Soon, all five lay stretched or crumpled in the dusty street, panting and moaning for help or mother.

Prosatio Silban realized that his mouth was still open. He closed it and regarded his friend with incredulous awe. “How did you do that?” he asked.

“It is an acquired and reflexive skill,” Saucemaker said, flicking dust from one shoulder. “Now – let us revisit your purveyors.”

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want them all (so far) in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)

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