Prosatio Silban and the Professional Contretemps

THERE ARE ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES to every collegial association: protective fellowship on one hand, and tedious bureaucracy on another. And as a more-or-less “free spirit,” Prosatio Silban sometimes found it a difficult balance.

The beefy cook was also a Freehander – a member of the Uulian Commonwell’s fluid middle class, those who profit by their own labor. He was happy and content to be both, as they respectively provided him with autonomy and social standing. Thus, he was surprised (and a bit taken aback) by a gnarled Cook’s Guild auditor late one busy afternoon in the village of Tollingdrum.

Although his visitor wore the same traditional green apron as Prosatio Silban – a symbol of the Commonwell’s cooking sector – the latter did not know exactly who he was until after offering his signature greeting, “With what may I please you?”

“You may please me by shutting down operations,” the Guild representative announced in an authoritative baritone. “At once.”

“You may please me by shutting down operations,” the Guild representative announced in an authoritative baritone. “At once.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You heard me. Here is my credential,” the man said, brandishing his organization’s Golden Spoon medallion. “Dare you defy the Guild?”

“Not at all.” Prosatio Silban turned to the three curious customers sitting at his two tables-and-chairs, partly eaten meals before them. “My profuse and sincere apologies,” he said. “This matter will be rectified quickly. Thank you for your patronage.”

As the trio left, muttering and whispering, the cook turned a severe face to the Guildsman. “Now. What is all this about?”

“It is about you, and your flouting of our standards. Our records show you to be in debt to us for the monthly dues of five in silver, calculated for the past six months, or a total of thirty in silver or one-and-one-half in gold. Payable on demand. Which this is.”

“Your records must be mistaken. I am paid up, and my dues have always been half what you claim.”

“They were. You are the only ‘floating’ cook in the Guild, or even the Commonwell. Everyone else has steady, fixed work. And for that distinction, special rules apply.”

“What ‘rules?’” Prosatio Silban asked.

“We cannot keep accurate track of your movements; you are here one day and somewhere else the next. Such slipperiness offends the Guild’s desire for orderly business. Hence the double dues.”

“This is absurd! In any case, you seemed to have no trouble finding me.”

“Still. Privileges come with a cost.”

“What ‘privileges?’”

“And if I refuse?”

“Unlimited access to the Archive of Gastronomic Artifice, for one. Insurance against lax employment for two. And for three, a voice on the Commonwell Council.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then we will forbid your Commonwell clients – and potential clients – from hiring you. You are still free to earn a living. But not in these lands.”

“You can’t!” Prosatio Silban cried. “By whose authority?’”

“The newly installed High Culinarian. He wishes to see you. In his chambers. In the island-city of epicurean Pormaris. Immediately. If you leave now, your galleywagon should arrive thither in four days. Do not fail to show yourself.”

* * *

Prosatio Silban’s mind churned as he was conducted into the guildmaster’s chamber. What is this truly all about? Why am I being singled out? And just who is this new ‘High Culinarian?’ The orange walls were hung with pots, skillets, chop-knives, roasting pans, and other cookware from each of the storied few who had serially held the esteemed position. The man himself was seated behind a great, well-used butcher block converted into a scroll-piled desk, and he arose as the cook entered.

Prosatio Silban’s jaw dropped. “Bulero Eol,” he whispered.

“How good of you to remember me,” Bulero Eol said with a knowing smirk. I certainly remember you. “But I am ‘Sir’ Bulero now. How long has it been?”

“Years. Actually, decades.”

“And now, here we are again.”

Prosatio Silban’s thoughts spun back down the years, to the last time he saw his now-adversary. Let us listen in on his memories of their final conversation…

“How do you do that?” Bulero Eol asked with his usual screwfaced exasperation. He and Prosatio Silban were stationed at adjacent preparation counters in the learning hall of Pormaris’ venerated College of Culinary Craftship.

“Do what?”

I work carefully to arrange my ingredients just so, that I may cook with greater efficiency. But you seem to grab them willy-nilly without any thought at all.”

“To tell you the truth, I hadn’t noticed,” Prosatio Silban said. “But now that you mention it, I suppose I like to challenge myself, so I keep ingredients and flavorings grouped by similarity: sweet with sweet, savory with savory, and so forth. It surprises and delights me to see how the different combinations present themselves.”

“My mentor and sponsor taught me that it takes a special skill to serve only one client – and that is a skill I lack.”

Bulero Eol pressed on, scowling. “Another thing I don’t understand about you,” he said. “After graduation, you are planning to simply wander from place to place in a galleywagon, taking whatever jobs ‘present themselves.’ How do you expect to make a living? And don’t you think you’re making a laughingstock out of all of us hardworking cooks laboring in restaurants, inns and nobles’ houses?”

“Not at all. My mentor and sponsor taught me that it takes a special skill to serve only one client – and that is a skill I lack. Discipline is my ally, not my lord. The Commonwell and surrounding Exilic Lands are vast. I would like to have an excuse to explore them, and after all, food should bring joy, not drudgery. However, no matter where I go in my travels, I would not presume to intrude on another’s territory…”

Back in the present, Bulero Eol fixed Prosatio Silban with a triumphant glare. “I remember that conversation. Vividly. But you have intruded,” he said. “On me. With your structureless, random ways. And I am now in a position to stop you. For years, I have been biding my time, saying and doing the correct things to and for the correct people, until I reached the apex of my profession. You have annoyed me greatly for years. And now, I will have my requital.”

The mercenary cook eyed him though slitted lids. “You have allowed yourself to become old and embittered,” he said, “and it will affect your leadership of this honorable institution. If this is your attitude toward our virtuous craft, I want no part of it. You wish to drive me out? Well. I hereby resign my Guild membership. Perhaps the peoples of the Exilic Lands will have work for me. I will not give you another half-copper.” With that, he stalked out.

* * *

It was said of Pelvhi’s Chopping-House, the (in)famous haunt of the City of Gourmands’ professional-hospitality crowd, that one was not a true and accepted culinary crafter unless they had set at least one foot inside. The capacious and spicy-smoke-filled tavern was known for its well-prepared food, deep mugs, and sympathetic ears aplenty. Its eponym was a wily and wiry woman who had known Prosatio Silban since he first began his career a quarter-century ago, and she smiled in welcome as the cook approached the crowded bar.

“What say, Pelvhi?” he shouted above the intoxicant-lubricated din.

“I say many things,” she replied. “And sometimes, they are the right things.”

“I could use a ‘right thing’ now. You wouldn’t believe what brought me to our fair island-city today.”

“Your Guild fees have gone up. And you have resigned.”

Prosatio Silban started. “How do you know that?”

“People talk. And sometimes, they talk to me.”

“What shall I do? Bulero Eol is a majestic pain in the belly, and he is dunning me over for a petty quarrel we had years ago. Now that he heads the Guild, he feels he can do what he wants. And so I said good-bye to the Guild and, apparently, my hard-won and Commonwell-based career.”

“He is hardly the first to attempt such pettiness. Power is not something some people should have.”

“But more ale is,” rumbled a gruff bass from behind Prosatio Silban. A hand clasped his shoulder, and the cook turned to see a familiar figure clad in the three-toned livery of one of the local gentry.

“Nobody likes that neck-breathing prickle.”

“What would you know about it, Crasso?” the cook asked with a wry grin.

“More than you would think,” Crasso replied. “Nobody likes that neck-breathing prickle.”

“In many ways,” Pelvhi added, “you are his antithesis. But with the ferries docked, it is too late to leave Pormaris now. At what hour tomorrow will you depart?”

“Third after sunrise. It will take at least that long to collect some foundational necessaries for my coldbox and pantry.”

“Too early for me,” Crasso said. “A decent cook would still be abed then.”

“By the All-Mother,” Prosatio Silban grimaced, “I wish I could lie abed then too.”

* * *

The first hour past sunrise found the cook-errant sitting in his galleywagon, gazing into a mug of hot yava. The stimulating beverage usually refreshed him, but today was not a usual day. Please, All-Mother, he prayed. Grant me the strength I need to endure the trial You have placed before me. Because I simply cannot do it alone.

Just then, a double knock sounded. Prosatio Silban stood and opened the top half of the galleywagon door to a florid, breathless youth in the rough garb of a marketplace porter. “Yes?”

“Sir Bulero wishes to see you, Master Prosatio. Immediately.”

He always wishes to see me immediately, Prosatio Silban thought. He thanked the messenger, tipped him two in copper, drained his yava-cup and opened the door’s bottom half.

The High Culinarian’s chamber was located atop the three-story Archive of Gastronomic Artifice near the city’s center, and as Prosatio Silban climbed the wide marble steps his stomach began to ache. All-Mother? Are you listening?

He was less than one flight from his destination when he heard a low, irregular din. Angry bees might make such a sound, but the closest hives were on the flat roof – and their residents were never perturbed. Still, he thought, bees can travel, and…hello. What’s this?

“This” was a large crowd blocking the hallway outside the chamber’s entrance. Some were dressed in colorful livery; others in the sharp, warm tones of urban Uulian style; but each wore a green apron and an irate expression. A few held placards: “SAVE MASTER PROSATIO;” “DOWN WITH BULERO;” “ONE RULE FOR ALL.” Seeing Prosatio Silban, they burst into spontaneous applause.

“What are you doing here?” he asked in wonder.

By way of reply, they began chanting his name: “Prosatio Silban! Prosatio Silban! Prosatio Silban!”

He raised placating hands, but they continued shouting. Suddenly, the chamber door flew open, revealing the rageful High Culinarian.

The crowd changed its chant: “Reinstate him! Reinstate him!”

This time, it was Bulero Eol who raised his hands, and by degrees the assembly fell silent. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

The color which Bulero Eol’s face turned could do justice to a beet.

Crasso shouldered his way to the front. “It is just this,” he said. “Either restore our valued brother in good standing, or we will, all of us, resign from the Cooks’ Guild. Your coin-stream will dry up, and you will no longer have anyone to represent – or lord over.”

The color which Bulero Eol’s face turned could do justice to a beet. “You can’t do that!” he cried. “Order must be maintained!”

“No,” said Pelvhi. “Service must be maintained. The people’s satisfaction must be maintained. And these cooks can well do both without you. Your tenure is over.”

“But…but…” sputtered the ex-Guildmaster. “You can’t get rid of me! I’m too important!”

“No,” declared a tall man toward the crowd’s rear. “You’re not.”

With that, Crasso and two of his more brawny associates seized Bulero Eol and wrestled him to the flagstone floor. Things would have gone worse, had not Prosatio Silban spoken up.

“Wait, brothers and sisters!” he shouted above the raucous ruckus. “Please! There is a point to be made!”

The noise abated somewhat. “What is that?” someone asked.

“Our Guild fees go toward supporting each other in lean times, and maintaining the Archive – without which store of culinary history we would all be less creative and able than we are,” Prosatio Silban said. “They also give us an important political voice. We do not need Bulero Eol for that, but we do need the Guild. And we need someone to administer it. Someone well-connected, well-liked, and well-intentioned. I nominate…Crasso!”

“Yes! Yes!” “Crasso!” “A perfect choice!” “I second that!”

“But I hate scroll-work,” the nominee objected.

“That is why you have assistants,” the mercenary cook told him. “And for that – you could have Bulero Eol. He is nitpickery personified, which is a fine quality in a lieutenant. And with you to keep an eye or two on him, he should prove rather harmless. What say, Crasso?”

There was a pause, during which Bulero Eol looked anxiously from face to face. Then Crasso spoke with deliberation.

“Coins in our coffer,” he said, “are better than blood on my hands.”

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

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