Prosatio Silban and the Perfect Ingredient

SOMETIMES, THE PERFECT INGREDIENT IS just beyond a cook’s grasp. And when that happens, said cook must either go without – or make good use of both resourcefulness and perseverance.

Prosatio Silban frowned at himself. He had been experimenting with a new recipe for fidget-hen confit, but it hadn’t been going well – and that was a disappointment, since he was developing the recipe for a new, moneyed, and potentially generous client. What it wants is a bright and briny note, he decided, and considered his jar of preserved lemons.

But where was it?

He could have sworn that the jar was on the bottom shelf of his otherwise well-stocked pantry. Surely he hadn’t made the tyro’s mistake of running out without restocking! It certainly appeared that way as he frantically searched the contents of his galleywagon’s food closet.

Ochre beans, artichoke essence, prepared mustard, smoked oil, dry mustard, malt vinegar, marinated beets, tinned redfish … what’s this? Sun-dried tomatoes? Haven’t used these in quite some time, he thought, scrabbling through packages, jars, bags, and bottles. Nothing. And nothing for it but a trip to the victualer’s. Rhobus Pilgor should have what I need.

* * *

Ordinarily, Prosatio Silban enjoyed the gastronomic diversions offered by the epicurean city of Pormaris’ main marketplace – dusky heaps of spices, long ropes of sausages, careful piles of fruits and vegetables, and the ceaseless cries of its leather-lunged hawkers. On any other day, he would have liked nothing better than to slowly browse, seeking inspiration or pantry-packing. But right now, he strode past the thronged shops and stalls with determined purpose.

Presently he caught sight of a capacious structure beneath a painted sign that read: RHOBUS PILGOR – CONCENTRATED ESSENCES and PRESERVES. Glass and ceramic jars of all sizes, shapes, and contents were carefully stacked and shelved to display each to its best advantage. Prosatio Silban knew exactly what he was looking for and where to find it. He swept down the appropriate aisle and sighted his target far at the back: one jar, alone on a high shelf. He smiled, then exclaimed sharply as a hand reached up and grabbed it.

The hand’s owner was an imposing woman with unforgiving eyes, wearing the livery of one of Pormaris’ nobles: tan skirt and tunic, gold belt, and long brown vest with an Heir Second’s prominent insignia on the left shoulder. Not a likely candidate for earnest cajolery, he thought as he approached, but worth at least a try.

He cleared his throat. “Excuse me?”

The woman looked at him as though he was some sort of beetle. “Yes?”

“I am Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price. And if you don’t mind, I need that jar of lemons.”

“As do I. I am Andwilla Thork, Head Cook of House Vajang. And I was here before you.”

“But I saw it first.”

“Very well,” said Prosatio Silban. “But the matter is not closed.”

“How do I know what you saw?”

“Madam,” he said, using the proper honorific, “I do not lie. I sighted the jar first. You were simply quicker to take it.”

“To your unremitting misfortune,” she replied. “My master, m’Lord Vajang Chorl himself, is entertaining guests tonight, and his favorite meal is braised lamb with preserved lemon and olives. What do you need it for?”

“I am experimenting with a highly requested dish that requires the same ingredient; a dish fit for the table of the Flickering Gods themselves, or at least in this case, one of their more prosperous servants. With his promised blessing, I will escape indebtedness for the coming half-year.”

“Well, then. My noble trumps your experiment, no matter how divine. Kindly allow me to leave.”

“I’ll give you one in silver for it.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The jar. Its price is ten in copper. I am offering you twice that.”

“My dear man, price is not the issue. I know you by reputation, and understand your difficulty, but m’Lord Vajang rules this city. He outranks you.”

“May I have at least one lemon to satisfy my curiosity?”

“No. I don’t yet know how many I’ll need.”

“I’ll teach you one of my more obscure recipes.”


“Two of them?”

“The matter is closed.”

“Give me that jar!”

“I won’t!”

“Please, friends,” said Rhobus Pilgor, materializing from behind them. He raised placating hands. “I will have no brawling or loud disagreements in my shop. Master Prosatio, if Madam Andwilla put her hand first upon this item, it is hers by ancient right and custom.”

“Thank you,” said Andwilla Thork. “And now, I should like to pay for my acquisition.”

“Very well,” said Prosatio Silban. “But the matter is not closed.”

* * *

House Vajang was an ornate and turreted brickwork manse perched atop a small hill in Pormaris’ center. Red-edged gold silk banners fluttered from tall poles in the morning breeze; pennants of smoke issued from a dozen chimneys; a large gatehouse commanded one side, with a smaller portal to the rear framed by tall, grey-green hedges of etherya.

From across the wide Boulevard of the Inheritors, Prosatio Silban eyed his quarry. In through the servant’s entrance, and the kitchen must be nearby…right under that double chimney, he thought. But first things first.

The cook picked up some gutter-dirt, rubbed it on his face, then on his yellow tunic and dark blue kneebreeches. From his pouch he withdrew a false mustache which he applied using a dab of stickit sap. Satisfied, he loped along the boulevard, then approached the appropriate gate.

A liveried and chain-mailed guard stopped him. “I don’t know you. Name?”

“Prospero Ilvan, the new scullion. Let me in before I earn a whipping.”


Inside, the manse was a labyrinth of low corridors, but Prosatio Silban’s practiced nose led him swiftly to his objective. The kitchen was abuzz with activity; pots boiling, skillets a-sizzle, ovens roaring, and a company of servants washing, peeling, chopping, skinning, and otherwise preparing a battery of ingredients under Andwilla Thork’s critical direction.

“Quickly there!” she barked. “I need those onions diced and ready for the pan! You! Unbrace those quail for the roastery! And you” – she pointed at the counterfeit scullion – “go slice those lemons. Now!”

Chortling to himself, Prosatio Silban moved to a block-counter where sat the lemon jar. As Andwilla Thork turned to berate another kitchen-hand, he nonchalantly slipped the jar into his tunic. He was about to disappear when he felt a hand grip his shoulder. Hard.

“You told me you wouldn’t quit,” Andwilla Thork said in icy tones. “And I believed you. I’ll take that jar, if you please.”

Abashed, the cook obeyed. “Leave!” she snapped. He left.

Outside the servant’s entrance once again, the cook pondered his next course of action. “Which way to the kitchen-garden?” he asked the guard.

“Along this wall, down a narrow path and there you are,” said the guard. “Why?”

“I have been instructed to furnish parsley and pungentine for m’Lord’s table.”

“Why don’t you use the connecting door from the kitchen?”

“It’s currently engaged. And I need the fresh air.”


In the garden, Prosatio Silban surveyed the landscape and considered his options. Across from him was a closed wooden door connecting the garden with the kitchen. There was an open window next to and above it; he climbed a convenient apple-tree and peeped inside.

Directly below him was the block-counter; there was the jar, with some of its contents lying next to it. No one was watching him. He fished in his pouch and withdrew a length of black cord, in one end of which he tied a loose slipknot. Heart pounding, inch by inch he lowered the loop of cord until it encircled the jar. He gave a quick jerk and the loop tightened. Hardly daring to breathe, he began to raise the jar to his perch.

“Of course,” he whispered, pursing his lips. “There all along … and I … damn.”

That was when Andwilla Thork appeared. She grabbed the jar and yanked the cord out of his hand.

“You really don’t know how to give up, do you?” she called up to him. Flustered, he slid down the tree and made good his escape.

“Found the garden, did you?” asked the house-guard.

“Yes,” replied Prosatio Silban. “All out of pungentine, however. I need to get back to the kitchen.”


Once inside, the cook made good his return passage. He stood just outside the kitchen doorway, on the other side of which a busy scullion was peeling his way through a pile of rock-turnips. Andwilla Thork was nowhere to be seen.

“Pssst. Psssssst!”

The scullion looked up. “What?”

“How would you like to earn two in silver?”

“What do I have to do?”

“See that jar of lemons? Make it mine and I’ll make you rich.”

“I’ll be right back.”

The scullion crossed the kitchen floor, retrieved the jar, recrossed, and handed the vessel to Prosatio Silban. An exchange was made, and the cook tucked the now half-empty jar into his tunic. This is what comes of not knowing how to quit, he thought in triumph.

* * *

The rich smell of fidget-hen slowly cooking in its own fat filled the galleywagon. It was an otherwise delectable aroma, but Prosatio Silban was still uneasy concerning his minor crime. I’ll make it up to her, he vowed to himself. Somehow. Someday.

An hour earlier, the cook had selected a preserved lemon from its fellows in the jar, sliced it into strips, and added it to the confit pan. He now dipped a spoon into the molten fat, blew on it thrice, tasted, and grimaced. The addition had soured and overwhelmed, rather than accented, the confit.

“By Scofi, Goddess of Culinary Inspiration, that’s foul!” he exclaimed. “All that fuss, and for what?”

He closed the jar and opened his coldbox: a massive, hollow cube of magicked glacier-ice. There, in plain sight and on the bottom shelf, lay another half-empty jar of preserved lemons.

“Of course,” he whispered, pursing his lips. “There all along … and I … damn.”

There was nothing else for it. He opened both jars, emptied one into the other, and tucked the result into his tunic. The time to make this up to her, Prosatio Silban thought as he exited his galleywagon, is now.

* * *

“So you see,” he explained to Andwilla Thork, “it was all for naught. My Grand Experiment failed. Grandly. I am so sorry.”

“One can never tell these things in advance,” she replied. “As it happens, I had exactly what I needed before your … intervention. I could have made you a present of the remainder.”

“I would have accepted it.”

“Then do so now,” Andwilla Thork said, handing him the jar. “We cooks must support each other.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I will take it, with one proviso to ease my heart.”


“Let me give you that ‘obscure recipe or two’ in exchange?”

Andwilla Thork smiled. “Done.”

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction.)

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