SOMETIMES, EVEN AN ENCHANTER NEEDS a bit of mundane help.
Prosatio Silban was sitting, chin in hand, at one of his galleywagon’s two tables-and-chairs in cosmopolitan Soharis’ eastern marketplace, watching potential customers walk by and wondering what he could do to tempt them into spending some time (and coin!) at his portable establishment.
Here it is time for afternoon nuncheon, and I have not sold so much as a bowl of beans all day.
I think I picked the wrong spot, he thought. Business has never been this bad. Here it is time for afternoon nuncheon, and I have not sold so much as a bowl of beans all day. Have I angered or annoyed one or more of the Flickering Gods? Perhaps if I make proper obeisance to Scofi, Goddess of Culinary Impartation, or more appropriately, Hopmon of the Ever-Heavy Purse, they might – oho. What’s this?
“This” was an ancient beggaress dressed in the tattered remains of once-fashionable finery. She was almost the beefy cook’s height, but emaciated and bent in a way that made her look shriveled and short. A dirty bandage covered one eye, and she limped along with the aid of a broken and imperfectly repaired crutch, ragged black robes dragging in the street-dust. As she approached, Prosatio Silban was surprised by the scent of faded roses.
By Tulate, God of Unpleasant but Illustrative Alternatives! the cook exclaimed to himself. At least I shall have the opportunity to provide charity. Money is important, yes, but kindness more so.
“May I help you, old mother?” he asked in his gentlest intonation. “With what may I please you?”
The beggaress fastened on him her good eye, and a crooked grin split her seamed face. “I am no one’s mother,” she said in a voice like cracking crystal. “But you can help me.” She made as to whisper something to him, and he lowered his head to listen.
“I am back,” she murmured. “And you owe me something. Something of importance.”
“Eh? Pardon me, but I don’t believe I have ever met you,” Prosatio Silban said.
“How soon they forget,” she said, and stamped her crutch on the pavement.
With a flash and a bang, the crowded market scene shattered.
With a flash and a bang, the crowded market scene shattered. In its place was a large, well-appointed and windowless kitchen. The woman too had changed – she was no longer twisted and withered; her rags had transformed into a tasteful maroon silk robe, the eye-bandage now a rose-colored glass monocle on a silver chain. Her face had lost some of its age, and she smiled the smile of someone who has set down a cumbersome and long-carried burden.
“That’s better,” she said in a throaty contralto. “Do you remember me now?”
Prosatio Silban started, then regained his composure. “How could I not?” he said. “You and your cat helped me reconcile with my late father. I apologize for not recognizing you at once.”
“The years do that to a person – we meet so many people over a lifetime that their faces and names can blur together. I do not blame you for not tumbling sooner to my true identity. And now that you know, do you recall my price for that earlier service?”
“You said then that I should come if you had need of my skills. I seem to have done that, though I am at a loss to understand how or why – or where.”
The enchantress nodded. “Then let me dispel your perplexity. What can you make of this?”
She proffered a scrap of inscribed parchment, which the cook accepted and examined with a professional eye. “The first thing I notice,” he said, “is that this was written long ago. It appears to be a list of ingredients.”
“I know that,” she said. “Do you notice something else, or perhaps the lack of something else?”
He thought for a couple of heartbeats. “There are no given quantities, or even proportions,” he said. “And likewise, no mention of necessary actions or equipment.”
“Exactly so. I have…well, inherited this list, and need to know those missing particulars. To the point: The completed dish will be a component in a magikal endeavor. And I need it soon.”
“What sort of ‘magikal endeavor?’”
“That is not your concern. Can you cook it, or not?”
Prosatio Silban considered. “Let us find out,” he said, thinking, Whatever it is.
* * *
Although he preferred working in the coziness of his galleywagon, doing so in a strange kitchen had become second-nature to Prosatio Silban in his quarter-century as a mercenary cook. And this kitchen was certainly strange – equipped as it was with more spices, herbs, flours, oils, staples, dressed fauna, flora, cookware, utensils and other culinary constituents than were familiar to his long experience. And as far as he could tell, all were of the highest quality.
As for the listed ingredients, they were simple enough.
As for the listed ingredients, they were simple enough: fidget-hen thighs, oil of olives, onions, carrots, vegetable broth, cardamom pods, dried apricots, wine-dark raisins, slivered almonds, plum vinegar, citrus-blossom honey. But with no other instructions, Prosatio Silban had only his cook’s intuition to aid his quest.
The first attempt, however, did not at all turn out well. Just put everything in one big soup pot, with a light hand on the flavorings, simmer, and there-you-have-it, he had said to himself. An hour later, he stopped his weak-smelling experiment. No use in continuing – I can already tell it will be dismal. He sighed.
Next, he tried grinding the meat and adding to it the other ingredients (save the broth, which he used as a braising medium). It did make for an attractive and fragrant loaf, but the flavor failed utterly. He sighed.
However, once again he rallied, and once again he missed the mark. This time, he ground the floral constituents into a marinade/cooking paste and smeared it all over the meat before roasting same; the results were far less than encouraging. He sighed.
Prosatio Silban turned dejected eyes heavenward, marshalled his powers and prayed as he had seldom done before: O Scofi, Goddess of Culinary Impartation; Dalclla, Lord of Suitable Cookware and Process; and Atalhea, Guarantor of Satisfying Conclusions; hear my plea and grant my boon. You have all blessed me generously over the years of my service to You, and I am grateful. Please – revive my flagging spirits and skills, and point me along the correct path whereby I may be made worthy of Your unending kindness and representation. This I affirm.
He waited, but could discern no reply. He looked at the makings and shook his head, and an idea began forming in his mind. Oh. What if I…oh. Oh!
First, the cook selected from the vast collection of vessels a large, cast-iron pot with a lid, which he placed on one of the stoves. In the bottom of this he heated some oil; when the temperature was just right, he browned the fidget-hen thighs on each side while he sliced the onions, then added them. After these became translucent, he put in carrot coins, a handful each of the fruits and nuts, four of the unopened cardamom pods, a small measure of the vinegar and one smaller still of the honey. He filled the pot with enough broth to cover everything, stirred, brought it to a simmer, put the lid on and sighed.
Four hours later, the kitchen was redolent with the smell of good things. Prosatio Silban was beginning to wonder to where the crone had gotten, when she appeared from behind a man-high coldbox.
By way of reply, the cook lifted the pot-lid, dipped in a spoon, and offered a taste.
“How goes your project?” she asked.
By way of reply, the cook lifted the pot-lid, dipped in a spoon, and offered a taste. On receiving it, the enchantress’ eyes rolled back in her head and she let escape a soft moan.
“By my stars!” she exclaimed. “This is what the Flickering Gods eat, if they eat. A well-earned triumph, Master Cook!”
Prosatio Silban bowed. “Do not thank me,” he said. “I did have a bit of divine assistance, without which I would be one frustrated cook. Does this settle our accounts?”
“Indeed, and with interest,” the crone said with a smile. “By way of additional payment, you may keep the recipe for your repertoire – after copying it out again for my thaumaturgic research.”
“Gladly. As it was for your service that I developed it, I shall give you partial credit in the recipe’s notation. What is your name?”
She narrowed her eyes to slits. “You must not ask my name,” she whispered. “Names are powerful magik, and not to be shared lightly. ‘The Maroon Crone’ will have to do. But what is the title you have chosen for this dish?”
The cook grinned. “Fidget-Hen Divine,” he said. “After all, it only seemed appropriate.”