Prosatio Silban and the Slipped Tongue

WHERE AND WHEN PEOPLE GATHER, so do their secrets.

Prosatio Silban slapped hot water on his back with a wet towel and let out a satisfied sigh. Nothing like a good steam to wash away the accumulated grime and cooking-grease, he thought with a relaxed smile.

Although epicurean Pormaris, like the Uulian Commonwell in general, followed a strict (though fluid) class hierarchy, one place where those social rules were somewhat relaxed was the city’s many public baths. Everyone from the highest Heir Second noble to the lowliest marketplace-porter or beggar – in short, all who could afford the two-in-copper admission fee – might occupy any of four tastefully frescoed ablution-chambers: hot bath, cold bath, sauna, steam-room. It was in one of the latter that Prosatio Silban now luxuriated, reveling in the all-surrounding invisibility.

Presently two men entered, deep in conversation. The beefy cook didn’t recognize their voices, but their accents and cadences pegged them as city-dwellers. He was about to offer a detectable greeting when their discussion took a professional turn.

“Ulpia Thenzi’s really leaving Pearl and Oyster?” asked one in disbelieving tones.

“Ulpia Thenzi’s really leaving Pearl and Oyster?” asked one in disbelieving tones. “She’s been the head chef there for decades!”

“I have it on the best authority,” replied the other. “Apparently, she’s dissatisfied, and wants to become house-cook to one of the Gentry. Jeweler, I think. Or was it a spice-importer? Sir Something-or-other, anyway.”

“Well, private work can be easier than restaurant work…”

“That depends on one’s employer. Some can be more demanding than the pickiest diner-out. Whatever it is, you’ll know more when I do. Meanwhile, please be discreet. You didn’t hear this from me.

“Of course, of course.” A deep sigh, then: “By the All-Mother! this steam feels good!”

“Truly!” A pause, then: “Say, what do you think of the current roster of racing-zebras? Is Morla’s Danger still hobbled?”

At that point, having lost interest, Prosatio Silban stood up and blind-fumbled toward the anteroom door. I can hardly believe it, he thought as he toweled off and shrugged into his dark blue tunic, grey kneebreeches, and trademark black fez. Ulpia Thenzi has been the heart and soul of that place since longer than I’ve been a cook. I wonder why she’s leaving? And – who will take her place?

He was still pondering potentialities as he strode into Pelvhi’s Chopping-House and up to the long bar at the smoky and crowded great-room’s rear.

“What say, Pelvhi?” he asked the tavern’s namesake as he settled onto his customary stool.

“I say many things,” she replied, handing him his usual glass of blue duliac. “Some may even be true. What do you say?”

“Tonight? I am wondering about one of our extended colleagues,” Prosatio Silban said, and lowered his voice. “Have you heard that Ulpia Thenzi may be leaving Pearl and Oyster?”

“No!” Pelvhi cried, and nearby heads swiveled. “How can she do that? Further, what will she do for work? She owes me for last month’s tab!”

To the cook’s left, a tall young man with red knuckles and wrinkled fingers spoke up. “How do you know this?” he asked, scowling. “I am one of Pearl and Oyster’s longtime scullions, and I never heard of such a thing.”

“Well, I have,” Prosatio Silban said, spreading his hands. “There is also talk of a private position in the offing.”

“You must be mistaken,” said the scullion. “I suppose I’ll have to ask her myself.”

“When you do, please be discreet,” said the cook. “You didn’t hear any of this from me.”

* * *

The next evening found Ulpia Thenzi herself at the long bar. Like many of Pelvhi’s customers, she was a routine visitor; tonight, though, she had appeared much earlier than usual. She also appeared agitated. And she was seated next to her mutual-nodding-on-sight acquaintance Prosatio Silban.

“That bastard Pomio Ytrid just fired me,” she said in a cracked voice. “Fired me tonight – just as I was about to begin my shift!”

“No!” Pelvhi exclaimed, and stopped mopping the bar-top. “I’m so sorry.”

Prosatio Silban’s stomach tightened. “Did he give you a reason?” he asked.

Prosatio Silban’s stomach tightened. “Did he give you a reason?” he asked.

“Oh,” Ulpia Thenzi said with a dismissive hand-wave, “he said he heard that I was leaving to ‘pursue other interests,’ and thus gave me leave to do so immediately. Dammit! I built that place into what it is today, and happy am I to have done so. You might say I put the ‘pearl’ in his ‘oyster.’ I don’t understand what happened.”

She took a disconsolate pull at her mulled ale as Pelvhi flashed a brief but significant glance at Prosatio Silban. The shamefaced cook-errant toyed with his empty glass before addressing Pearl and Oyster’s now-former head chef.

“I think Iunderstand,” he said in a small voice. “It was a misunderstanding, actually, and one for which I take full responsibility.”

“What do you mean?” Ulpia Thenzi asked, her brow creasing.

“I overheard a rumor at one of the public baths yesterday of your imminent departure. So surprised was I that I repeated it here as a mere point of interest – which I oughtn’t have done without first checking its veracity. From here my words doubtless flew into the ears of Pomio Ytrid. I cannot tell you how sorry I am.”

“How dare you!” Ulpia Thenzi shouted, nostrils a-flare, as curious heads swiveled once again. “You had no right to do that! and this is the result! I am quite disappointed in you, Master Cook. Such a thing is beneath your reputation.”

“You are, of course, correct,” Prosatio Silban replied to the floor. “I am disappointed in myself.”

“You should be! Now – what are you going to do about it?”

He contemplated the floor for another moment, then smiled a sudden conspirator’s smile. “What I can,” he said, meeting Ulpia Thenzi’s eyes. “I shall at least do what I can.”

* * *

Pearl and Oyster was one of those proverbial places whose centuried and well-deserved reputation for detailed excellence reached throughout the Commonwell’s entire Three Cities and Thousand Villages. Chandeliers and crystal in profusion sparkled in the capacious dining room, accenting spotless white table-linens and bright silver cutlery. In the raised gallery, a quartet of improvisto-minstrels regaled the diners with soft musics, and it was the restaurateur’s practice to greet arriving parties with efficient enthusiasm – including those quietly paid to attend.

“Master Prosatio!” cried Pomio Ytrid with a wide smile and wider arms. “How rare and wonderful to see you here tonight! and with an entourage, no less! To what or whom do I owe this singular delight?”

“Hopmon the All-Provider has thoroughly blessed me this week, all praise to Him,” Prosatio Silban replied. “I decided to share His good fortune with my companions here. We are in the mood for one of your far-famed cook’s specialties. You may dispense with the menus – we will have six orders of truffled ice-capon with the appropriate accompaniments, rendered as only Ulpia Thenzi can so do. Our mouths are already watering!”

“I am terribly sorry,” he stammered, “but Ulpia Thenzi is no longer employed by this establishment.”

Pomio Ytrid adopted an expression of nervous discomfort. “I am terribly sorry,” he stammered, “but Ulpia Thenzi is no longer employed by this establishment.”

“What?!” exclaimed one of Prosatio Silban’s hired entourage, and the indignant quintet began complaining as one: “Outrageous!” “How can this be?” “Why is she not here?” “What will we eat?” “Where else will we eat?”

Suddenly aghast, the other patrons took up the heated cause: “Who is cooking this food?” “I thought something was amiss!” “This wine-porridge did seem a bit off!” “Didn’t I tell you the pan-seared blue trout’s flavors were muted?” “I will put this before the public’s eye!” “So will all my friends!” “Bring her back!” “Yes! Bring her back at once!” Then an angry chant arose, complemented by stomping feet and fist-banging: “Ulpia! Ulpia! Ulpia! ULPIA!”

Well, now, Prosatio Silban thought, hiding a smile as his planned chaos loudly unfolded. That is much more like it.

* * *

“…What’s more, he also gave me a substantial wage increase – and hired for me two additional scullions!” Ulpia Thenzi gushed, and raised her glass of mulled ale. “Truly, Master Cook, I cannot thank you enough.”

“You shouldn’t thank me at all,” Prosatio Silban said. “I should not have opened my mouth in the first place. Mark my words: I will never again pass on unsourced information.”

“That is a lesson for us all,” Pelvhi said, and winked. “But ‘everything’s fine that finishes fine,’ I always say. And speaking of fine finishes: Shouldn’t you do further penance by buying the house’s next round?”

The cook grinned. “I suppose that’s the least I can do,” he said, reaching for his coin pouch. “And as you know, that’s all I can do.”

(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!)

3 comments for “Prosatio Silban and the Slipped Tongue

  1. Kathryn Hildebrandt
    2022.10.06 at 1344

    The boss is the one who should have verified the rumor. Talk about a knee jerk reaction.

    • 2022.10.06 at 2032

      Point taken. But haven’t we all had bosses like that? 😉

      • Kathryn Hildebrandt
        2022.10.08 at 1913

        And worse.

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