WE HAVE READ MANY TIMES of the Heirs Second, who rule the Uulian Commonwell by solemn duty and occasional whim.
But who rules the Heirs Second?
Late one night, Prosatio Silban was hard at work scrubbing the inside of a large copper boiling-pot. A wave of frustrated fatigue washed over him; he had several times passed the vessel through his immaculator – a wide bone-hoop set on a heavy ironwood base, whose magik could (in theory) remove even the most intractable stains. However, after several passes, his work was still without any visible result. So it was no wonder that his surly mood was further aggravated by a loud knock at his galleywagon door.
It’s no longer the hour for visitors – and I should be abed myself, he thought, stepping with soft tread across his ornate braided rug and grasping a doorside cudgel. Steeling himself for the unexpected, he cracked open the door’s upper half to the cold Pormaris night-fog.
To his surprise, a young female face met his brow-creased scrutiny.
To his surprise, a young female face met his brow-creased scrutiny. She was holding high a fatberry-oil lantern, and her confident bearing and aristocratic garb somewhat calmed his reflexive suspicions. At least she doesn’t seem a brigand – unless she’s a well-dressed one, he thought, releasing the cudgel and opening wide the upper door.
“Yes?” he said in as welcoming a voice as circumstances allowed.
“You are Master Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price.” Her manner commanded immediate attention and respect.
“I am Mallia Orimand. I represent the First Heir Vajang, and am here on a culinary errand of some urgency,” she said. “The First Heir has conceived a fierce hunger for an Egg Sworl, and as you are its most renowned preparer hereabouts, he feels his hunger can only be appeased through your skilled hand. Follow me now to his manse and practice for him your art.”
The beefy cook had been looking forward to a small post-scrub and pre-slumber tot of blue duliac, followed by a thorough ablution and grateful climb into the warmth of his sleeping-berth. But when one is summoned by a not-to-be-gainsaid authority, one must adjust one’s expectations.
“It would be my privilege,” he said with a swift nod and automatic smile, thinking, So much for my sleep. What next?
* * *
The First Heirs, as the oldest lineal descendants of the Uulian Commonwell’s founders, administered that land’s Three Cities just as their subordinate offspring governed its Thousand Villages and attendant provinces. As a rule, they disclosed neither their presence nor activities, and were not often seen outside their austere but distinctive dwellings; this fearsome mystique rattled high- and low-born alike.
Has not the First Heir his own most excellent kitchen staff? wondered Prosatio Silban as he and Mallia Orimand approached First Heir Vajang’s abode. The three-story drab and windowless structure stood on a small rise in epicurean Pormaris’ exclusive central district, surrounded by the urban residences of the arch-noble’s eight Heirs Second. Like the city’s fortified walls, all were constructed of poured stone; but where the lesser nobility’s homes were adorned with frescos depicting their provincial assets, the First Heir’s manse gave no hint of its hidden inhabitant. Two liveried and armored guards blocked with crossed halberds its unadorned wooden door.
Mallia Orimand spoke a soft syllable; the guards uncrossed their weapons, and she knocked twice.
Mallia Orimand spoke a soft syllable; the guards uncrossed their weapons, and she knocked twice. After a handful of fluttering heartbeats, the portal swung inward without a sound.
“What you are about to see, few have seen,” the retainer intoned. “You must speak of it to no one.”
“I so promise,” the cook-errant replied, and they entered.
* * *
The well-appointed kitchen was squat but roomy, and a well-scrubbed coterie of skilled cooks and quick-footed scullions stood at the ready. The house-chef Palto Tambyl, a thirty-year veteran of First Heir Vajang’s employ, stood with folded arms in the kitchen’s far corner, identifiable by his stony silence and the daggers with which he was looking at the interloping visitor.
“Let us waste no time,” Mallia Orimand said. “What do you require?”
“Surprisingly little,” Prosatio Silban replied, trying to ignore Palto Tambyl’s malevolent stare. “Your smallest slick-finished pan, two eating-sticks, a whisk and bowl, and a serving-plate. Also three hen’s eggs, a dash of water, and a splash of heat-resistant oil.”
The retainer signaled to one of the scullions, who fetched the requested items and placed them on one of the stove-adjacent counters. The beefy cook lightly oiled the shiny pan and lit under it a medium-high flame, then cracked the eggs into the bowl and added the water. He whisked the bowl’s contents into a frothy gold, set aside the whisk, and held his palm above the pan. Satisfied, he poured in the egg mixture with a loud hiss; the edges at once thickened and the center bubbled.
The very picture of focused intensity, Prosatio Silban next dragged the two eating-sticks through the eggs’ perimeter to their center, then rotated sticks and pan in opposite directions to form a close spiral pattern. When it could swirl no tighter, the cook-errant slid the still-moist result onto the serving-plate and sprinkled on it a pinch of flaked Rimless Sea-salt and a half-grind of white pepper.
“The eggs will continue to cook,” he said, “but I can work for them no further magik.”
“I will take this to His Scionry’s dining-room,” Mallia Orimand said, and did so.
“Now what?” Prosatio Silban asked when she had departed.
“Now, you wait for the old man’s approval,” Palto Tambyl replied, a sarcastic edge to his voice.
“Now, you wait for the old man’s approval,” Palto Tambyl replied, a sarcastic edge to his voice. “If it comes, that is. What did you think?”
Prosatio Silban swallowed a flippant retort, and after a tense and silent quarter-hour – during most of which he contemplated the spotless triangular floor-tiles – Mallia Orimand returned with the empty plate. “‘Delicious,’ quoth he,” she pronounced, then handed the anxious cook a small but fat coin-purse.
“Your task here is done,” the retainer said. “Thank you for your service.”
* * *
Later the next night, the same pantomime was repeated step-for-step, save for Palto Tambyl’s increasing ire.
* * *
And the night after that, even later – and more acrimonious.
* * *
On the fourth night, a yawn-weary Prosatio Silban had had enough. After preparing the signature dish, he told Mallia Orimand, “I am grateful to His Scionry for his interest in and appreciation of my culinary efforts – not to mention a generous stipend. But it is possible that I may become indisposed and unable to perform as requested, which could incidentally rob my gracious employer of his nightly meal. Might it not be prudent for me to pass on to Palto Tambyl my skills and method before such a thing occurs?”
The retainer speared him with a frosty glare. “Certainly not!” she barked. “How dare you even suggest such a thing!” And bearing aloft the steaming Egg Sworl, she left the kitchen.
The house-chef approached Prosatio Silban, malign wariness flickering at the corners of his eyes and mouth. “I don’t need you to tell me my business,” he muttered. “Frankly, I don’t see why you’re here in the first place.”
“Look here,” the cook-errant whispered back. “I no more want me here than you do. The pay is most considerable and welcome, but I have not had any sleep in the past half-week and all I want is my own warm, undisturbed bed. So be a good fellow and allow me to teach you!”
Palto Tambyl bit his lip, then nodded. “‘Make it so,’” he growled, waving one hand in dismissal.
* * *
The following night, after Prosatio Silban had again supplied the desired dish, he was just finishing his tidying-up and awaiting payment when Mallia Orimand appeared in the kitchen doorway. Her expression held a hint of frosty reprimand.
“First Heir Vajang wishes to see you,” she told the beefy cook. “Go.”
“First Heir Vajang wishes to see you,” she told the beefy cook. “Go.”
His heart hammering – The Heirs Second are known for their capriciousness, he thought. What of their superiors? I’ve never met one, but they’ve ears everywhere! – Prosatio Silban entered the dining room.
At one end of a plain oblong table sat the First Heir Vajang, wrapped in a flame-colored, cowled robe. He seemed altogether ageless and ancient; his thin build, pale wrinkled skin, hairless head, and bright black eyes gave the indirect impression of an alert but genial cobra. He raised one hand in greeting.
“We are grateful to you for serving us as you have,” Vajang said. “But that is not the sole reason we called you here.”
“Is there some mistake or other issue, O Child of Uul?” Prosatio Silban asked, eyes downcast in formal respect.
“Not one,” the arch-noble replied, beaming beneficence from every pore. “We only wished to compliment your faultless handiwork, and to make a gentle but important suggestion.”
“It occurs to us that you might at some point – may the Flickering Gods forbid it! – become indisposed and unable to perform your requested duties, which could, incidentally, rob me of my nightly meal. Please instruct the most excellent Palto Tambyl in the appropriate skills and method before such a thing occurs.”
Prosatio Silban smiled, raised his eyes, and bowed. “An excellent suggestion, Your Scionry,” he said. “Thank you – I shall make it so.”
(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want the first 85 stories in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)
Lucky he didn’t go to their version of Gitmo. People in power are scary.
If I managed to convey that, I’m a happy man.
You mean the general scariness of those in power, or specifically, the Gitmo analog?
The former. I tried to make it scary without going over the top…
Heh. Yup. Do you read any E.L. Doctorow? I liked Ragtime. But when I read Andrew’s Brain, it scared me good.
I haven’t, actually, but last time I was scared by a book would either be The King in Yellow or any of John Keel’s weirdological volumes. Brrr.