TO THOSE WITH LITERALIST SENSIBILITIES, the phrase “ridiculously beautiful” may suggest mere hyperbole and labored contrivance. But take dawn by the western bank of an iridescent river – black sands washed by rippling indigo sparked with silver and rose – with a golden mist muting the eerie calls of magah-birds and other early risers, and add the clean smell of a cooking fire, and words will fail utterly.
Prosatio Silban was, at least for the moment, content. His previous client had paid him well enough to obviate immediate further employment, and the beefy cook had taken the unusual opportunity (and the lesser-traveled of two roads) to bumble along with no plan other than to see if one would occur to him. So far, one hadn’t.
A wide ring of waist-high obsidian boulders stood at the water’s edge, and on the flattest the cook had arranged a makeshift kitchen. Onward, the buopoth and dray-beast, was somewhere about, probably nibbling wildflowers or conversing with the local bees after his breakfast of two fatberry cakes. Prosatio Silban was contemplating three chicken eggs, a bit of hard yellow cheese, plump boar-and-apple sausage, waxy potato, sweet onion, and where are those capers?
The cook caught himself mid-frown, then grinned. He was, in most things, a traditionalist; not from stuffiness, or fear of either god or novelty, but for the sheer delight of playing the game. Though his galleywagon was a mere few gentle strides uphill, the morning was already too pleasant for such fussiness; five ingredients would have to do. He poked at the embers in his folding grill, laid a small, olive-oiled skillet on top, and began to chop the potato for a platter of Leisurely Eggs.
Leisurely Eggs dated from the earliest days of the Uulian Commonwell, when food was scarce and cooks inventive out of necessity rather than style. The dish could be thrown together in any fashion, and indeed looked that way on the plate no matter how talented its maker, but was also a time-honored test of skill. A bad cook would toss everything into the pan and hope for the best (including a forgiving palate); a good cook could use as many ingredients as obtainable, adding them in such order as to bring out the purest and most complementary flavor of each. So well-known was this principle and so beloved its demonstration that the dish was frequently cited as metaphor and suitorial standard (“Yes, she’s beautiful my son, but how Leisurely are her Eggs?”).
“Generally, there is a reckless dispute, followed by screaming, bone-cracking, and a sad head-shake at the folly of men.”
An earthy scent rose from the skillet as Prosatio Silban sprinkled into it the cubed tuber, and from behind him came the crunch of sand beneath massive feet. “No more fatberry cakes until high sun, Onward,” he said, reaching for the sausage.
“Who are you, and why are you on my beach?” rumbled a bone-trembling bass voice.
Prosatio Silban looked up, then further up. His visitor was as tall as five or six men stacked on each other’s shoulders, appropriately wide, with hair and beard the color of wet oak and black eyes more curious than suspicious. His belt, tunic and boots were of elephant hide; one hand gripped the mouth of a shoulder-slung cloth sack, the other rested on the hilt of a sheathed knife longer than the abashed cook was tall.
When in doubt, be polite, he thought.
“I am Prosatio Silban, the Cook for Any Price, who intends no encroachment beyond a restful breakfast,” he said. “I will gladly leave, but may I first know against whom I am inadvertently trespassing?”
The giant’s eyes widened with surprise, crinkled into a sudden smile. “I am Marutri Rus, and none have asked my name for thousands of moons nor been so willing to accommodate rebuff,” he said. “Generally, there is a reckless dispute, followed by screaming, bone-cracking, and a sad head-shake at the folly of men.”
“As a cook, I have long ago learned the benefits of accommodation,” Prosatio Silban said. “And as for reckless disputes, I share your disdain – particularly when one disputant’s argument profoundly outweighs the other.”
He made to remove his pan from the fire, and a forefinger the size of his hand rested lightly but firmly on his wrist.
“What do you mean by, ‘The Cook For Any Price?’” asked the giant.
“Exactly that,” Prosatio Silban said. “I travel in search of hungry patrons, and serve them whatever they like for whatever they will pay me.”
“A good question. Sometimes, I even ask it of myself.”
Marutri Rus smiled and removed his finger.
“It is long since I have tasted cooking other than my own,” said the giant, “and such monotony is as wearisome to the stomach as to the palate. Fix me a breakfast that will satisfy both, and you may stay here until sundown. Decline, or fail, and I shall breakfast upon roast buopoth – for it is also long since I have tasted that.”
Near the galleywagon stood Onward, chatoyant pelt muted in the golden haze, a winsome expression on his wildflower-specked face. Seeing the pair looking at him, the buopoth flapped three of his enormous ears and continued nibbling.
The cook’s inner calm evaporated, and within a heartbeat he passed through protective anger and helpless despair into grim resolve. Onward was more than a useful dray-beast – he had been a constant companion for many years, asking little more than a steady supply of affection and fatberry cakes. In many ways, Prosatio Silban considered the quaint animal his closest friend. Though generally not given to more than casual prayer – it felt to him as childish as asking his parents (whoever they might have been) for a shiny new toy – he closed his eyes and shouted with his heart.
O Bohoran, Goddess of Strength, and your devoted children Penteget of Just Desperation and Wempernal Of Self-Made But Narrowly Averted Catastrophe — whatever happens, show me what to do and help me to do it. Prosatio Silban looked up at the giant, forcing into his voice what he hoped was an appropriate blend of bravado, concern and nonchalance.
“I have never declined a contract, nor do I intend to do so now,” he said. “However, I fear that my kitchen and provisions are unequal to your terms.”
Prosatio Silban tried not to look at Onward; the cook knew he had done his best – but he also knew it wasn’t his call.
“Size is a matter for philosophers, not men,” replied Marutri Rus, setting down his sack with a beach-quaking oomf and unfastening the thong at its mouth. “Just keep the pan hot, and well-tended…”
The smell of starchy smoke beckoned Prosatio Silban’s attention back to his previous task, where the potato had charred to a dark golden-black. He wrapped a towel around the skillet handle and with swift grace set it on the black sands.
“No matter,” said Marutri Rus, reaching into his sack. “Accidents happen even to the best of cooks. You may use this.”
“This” was a copper measuring spoon the size of Prosatio Silban’s chest, which the giant gently laid on the cook’s folding grill. The spoon’s mirror-smooth handle had been worn just thin enough for the cook’s firm grasp; an etched line circumscribed the bowl’s insides. It was large enough to cook four generous servings of Leisurely Eggs — at least, for diners of Prosatio Silban’ stature.
The cook could hear (or rather, feel) the giant chopping something behind him. Suddenly, red onion-dices began falling from above like pungent rain. One landed in the coals, nearly extinguishing them with an acrid crackle. Prosatio Silban flicked it out with a wooden spatula, then blinked twice in confusion.
Every cook had a Leisurely Eggs conceit. Prosatio Silban’s was to produce the largest possible meal from the smallest possible skillet, and for that reason he had chosen for himself the one just larger than his widespread hand. But the giant’s spoon was rippling at the edges…
Hand-sized cubes of yellow potato came next; then a vast slice of marbled sausage landed square on the arm-wide makeshift skillet’s edge, almost bouncing out before he steadied it with the spatula. A second chunk landed next to the first, then a third, then more. He arranged each to its best advantage amid sizzling mounds of onion and potato, then blinked again, an unholy oath dying in his mind as a dozen or more immense and quartered artichoke hearts dropped into the shield-sized skillet.
Prosatio Silban wielded his spatula with surprising ease given its apparent heft; though his right hand felt and looked no different than usual – mild morning stiffness, knife-callous at the base of his index finger, a white scar above his wrist from an early attempt at deep frying. But when he glanced at his left hand gripping the handle of a skillet now wider than his outstretched arms, his mind twisted with vertigo. He could either look directly at his work or well away from it – there seemed to be no in-between rest for his tortured eyes.
By this time, the vicinity was redolent with an aroma that would have brought any neighbors running with plates and hopeful faces. I may have to cancel this contract, Prosatio Silban thought, as capers larger than his fist began tumbling into the boat-sized pan.
And with that reflection, Prosatio Silban no longer fretted the strangeness of his circumstances. All sense of time and space (and their propriety) had dissolved, as though the line separating him from his surroundings had never been. The capers were followed in steady and gargantuan succession by sliced olives, mushrooms, garlic and spinach leaves; the cook simply shrugged and kept stirring. He was alert and aware – relishing with joy, but without judgment or curiosity, all that filled his singing senses: the dense wood-grain of spatula and warm copper of the courtyard-sized skillet; the pressure of his feet against the sand; each ingredient’s aroma, both distinct and fusive; the seamless mesh of immediate and long-acquired experience telling him that the dish was near completion.
A golden flood of beaten egg, followed by great curls of white and yellow cheese, filled the plaza-vast pan almost to its brim. Perfect? he wondered, and laughed at the novelty of thinking in words.
With a final stir, Prosatio Silban discharged into an enormous clay dish enough Leisurely Eggs to feed an army of laboring roustabouts. He emptied the rest of the now skillet-small measuring spoon onto his own plate and sat down on the sand.
Marutri Rus lifted a forkful of eggs to his nose, sniffed appraisingly, then put it into his cavernous mouth. Prosatio Silban tried not to look at Onward; the cook knew he had done his best – but he also knew it wasn’t his call.
The giant gave an experimental chew, swallowed, and smiled. “Roast buopoth is off today’s menu,” he said.
Prosatio Silban returned the giant’s smile. “Thank you,” he said. He put his head on his exhausted arms and, with a grateful nod to his various gods, dropped into a well-earned sleep.
Long shadows greeted him when he awoke, with sore arms but grateful that his departed patron had apparently done his own washing-up. After apologizing to Onward with three belated fatberry cakes, Prosatio Silban packed up his makeshift kitchen and harnessed his buopoth. A contract is a contract, he thought, climbing into the driver’s seat and smiling into the growing darkness.