IN THE WRONG HANDS, EVEN a small dose of thwarted authority could grow into a voracious lust for revenge.
Our tale begins one night at Pelvhi’s Chopping-House, where everyone who was anyone in the Pormaris hospitality-world repaired after-hours for commiseration and shop-talk. The Cook For Any Price was at the smoky room’s long rear bar, sipping from his second glass of white duliac and chatting with the tavern’s namesake, when one of his favorite grilled-meat-on-a-skewer vendors strolled up, shaking her head and sighing.
“I never thought I would have lived to see such treacherous days,” she said. “Pelvhi, may I please have a glass of barley-spirits, neat? And leave the bottle, if you don’t mind. I may as well spend the last of my honest coin to drown my sorrows.”
“Is something serious afoot, Ano Marl?” Prosatio Silban inquired. “Pray unburden yourself in my direction.”
“And mine,” added Pelvhi, filling the requested glass and placing it – and the bottle – on the well-stained and scarred bar top. “As the wise one said, ‘Light is the heart whose troubles are shared.’”
“Yours won’t be when you hear my account of woe,” Ano Marl said. “It concerns the end of my trade, and likely yours. All of ours, in fact.”
“Has the blue-rice crop failed?” asked the cook-errant.
“Has the blue-rice crop failed?” asked the cook-errant.
“Or perhaps the ubiquitous fatberry-bush?” asked the taverness.
“Worse,” said the vendor. “Those bastards from Tirinbar have done it again.”
A word might prove useful at this juncture, O Patient Reader. Grim-shadowed, stonyhearted Tirinbar was the northernmost of the Uulian Commonwell’s famed Three Cities, whose inhabitants had a reputation as cruel dominators and clever technologists. Prosatio Silban himself had helped to sweet freedom three of their escaped slaves, and been involved in various degrees with more than one mechanized instant-wealth scheme.
“What are those gentlemen up to now?” he asked, in a breezy tone tinged with venom.
“They call it ‘Minute Meals,’” Ano Marl replied. “A primary dish and two accompaniments come wrapped in molukka-leaves. After the customers choose what they want, the technician – I won’t call them ‘cooks’ – heats the fully cooked contents, and so! dinner! All for a mere four in copper. Including beverage.”
“Four in copper for a complete dinner?” cried Pelvhi in disbelief. “How can they do that? And more importantly, how can anyone else compete?”
“To your first question, they rely on voluminous sales, one of which is made every other moment of the day and night,” replied Ano Marl. “There is now a damned Minute Meals kiosk on nearly every corner of Pormaris’ four sprawling marketplaces. Each is doing a brisk business for people who want nourishment fast – tradesfolk, busy mothers and their broods, distracted merchants, novelty-seekers – and who can’t be satisfied by their usual victual-haunts, such as mine. And no one else can compete, whether private chef, restauranteur, taverner, even civilians who might otherwise cook at home. Already the yava-houses and other street-vendors are losing coin. By Esti, Goddess of Economic Undoing! All is lost!”
Prosatio Silban frowned. “This bodes not well at all,” he said, setting down his glass. “I shall have to see for myself what goes on there.”
* * *
“Welcome to Minute Meals!” announced the bright-faced young woman in colorful starched shift.
“Welcome to Minute Meals!” announced the bright-faced young woman in colorful starched shift. “My name is Toria. May I take your order?”
The kitschy red-and-white kiosk was positioned at the confluence of two major market lanes, half-encircled by haybales on which sat Minute Meals’ munching clientele. Despite the late hour, a number of other potential diners were waiting for their turn at the gleaming metal counter. The air about the kiosk was rich with the smells of cooking meat and the sounds of enthusiastic eating.
“What do you offer?” Prosatio Silban asked.
Toria pointed to the gaudy sign overhead. Eight food-items and three beverages were proclaimed in flowing Uulian script, each with complementary pictures. “Which of these would you like?” she asked.
“Do you recommend anything in particular?” the cook-errant persisted.
The quasi-cook dimpled. “My personal favorite is the fried tripes-patties. But our biggest seller by far is the fried fidget-hen. People really enjoy it!”
“Then I should like that as well,” he said. “Pulse of the population, and all that.”
Toria smiled and selected his order from one of the large wire bins behind her. She placed it into a massive, shiny box and pulled the prominent lever. The device closed and emitted an impressive hum. Sixty heartbeats went by, the heater popped open, and with one fluid movement, the now-steaming packet was set before him.
“That will be four in copper,” she said. “And what to drink?”
“Let me see … ‘Ginger-root Fizz,’ I think. Thank you.”
Toria handed him a brimming bamboo-paper cup and took in turn his payment. “Thank you! And enjoy your dinner!” She made eye-contact with the person behind Prosatio Silban. “Welcome to Minute Meals! My name is Toria – may I take your order?”
Prosatio Silban carried his repast to a half-occupied haybale and sat. A string protruded from the leaf-wrapped package in his lap; he gave it an experimental tug, and the parcel divided into two neat halves: crispy fried fidget-hen in one, butter-and-sugar corn and fried potato-spears in the other, with a snug space in-between for setting his beverage. The savory aroma teased his nostrils, and he was about to dig in when a shadow fell across his lap.
“So,” came a familiar if unpleasant voice. “Are you enjoying your meal?”
The puzzled cook raised his eyes, and a chill ran along his scalp. “Bulero Eol,” he said with slow distaste. “Why are you here? I haven’t seen you since you tried to oust me from the Refectionists’ Guild last year. Are you on assignment as the Ranking Culinarian’s lieutenant?”
“No longer,” his old enemy said. “Crasso and I had a falling-out over some of his recent decisions, and I thought it wise to spend my energies elsewhere. With these.” He swept an arm toward the kiosk.
“What do you mean? I thought these were Tirinbar concessions.”
Bulero Eol snickered. “So does everyone. The heaters are their work, to be sure, but those impious inventors are not anyway so clever as I when it comes to practical application. No, these are entirely my enterprise. I decided to turn my dislike for you and your green-aproned fellows into a ready source of prodigious coin. And, into the bargain, engineer your ruin.”
“Because you all continue to flourish, despite having ousted me last year as Ranking Culinarian! What more reason do I need?”
Prosatio Silban set his purchase on the haybale and stood up; Bulero Eol took an involuntary step back. “You are an evil, evil man,” the cook said through clenched teeth. “Not for how you feel, which is your own business, but for what you’re doing. You would drive us all out of business over a petty grudge?”
“How nice that we understand each other. Enjoy the bitter aftertaste.” With a triumphant smirk, the amoral entrepreneur turned on his heel and departed.
I understand you all too well, Prosatio Silban thought, clenching his fists. The question is – what to do next?
* * *
“We beg of you to have the god intervene before the situation becomes direr than it already has.”
The following day, Prosatio Silban led a small handful of dour associates through Pormaris’ great and iconic South Market to make their case before one of the marketplace Sacreants.
“You are the legal authority overseeing commerce here in the name of Hopmon, God of the Ever-Filling Purse,” the cook-errant told the Rainbow Robe-wrapped representative. “Well, a threat has arisen to the stability and income of a substantial part of this city’s economy. We beg of you to have the god intervene before the situation becomes direr than it already has.”
The Sacreant shook her head and squinted in sympathy. “I hear what you are saying, but there is nothing we can do. We Sacreants have a strict rule when it comes to rival businesses of any sort. Hopmon wishes them all to flourish, and He – and we – can take no sides in any competition for mercantile custom. I am sorry, but you will have to find recourse from another quarter.”
That same sad song played over at the Ranking Culinarian’s office. Crasso, an old friend of Prosatio Silban’s and well-liked by one and all, spread his hands in a gesture of futility.
“Bulero Eol no longer wears the green apron of the Refectionists’ Guild, so I – and we – have no means to sanction him either for good or for ill,” Crasso said. “If there is another way to hinder his one-man crusade against us, I am not wise enough to know it.”
So time plodded by, and Prosatio Silban – as well as his professional associates – tried their best in vain to resist the drying trickle in both custom and their general sense of usefulness. Meanwhile, the throngs patronizing Minute Meals had steadily grown.
In more than one sense.
One night, during a brief lull in the dejected din at Pelvhi’s Chopping-House, the taverness raised a question to the mournful paying-on-credit crowd.
“Have you noticed anything … different … about the general populace lately?” she asked.
“Now that you mention it, they do seem to be a touch on the heavier side,” Prosatio Silban said. “Even the children.”
Crasso let out a sigh. “To be blunt: they are getting fat. Rather, fatter.”
“Master Prosatio?” Pelvhi continued. “You yourself have eaten one of those meals, yes? What was it like?”
“To be honest, and to my disappointment, it was quite tasty. Unsurprising, considering that it consisted of fried meat and bulk-vegetables, and a very sugary beverage, and … and … and. Wait a moment.”
There came a pregnant silence as each looked at the other in sudden surprise. Then Crasso spoke with careful deliberation.
“No wonder people so love Bulero Eol’s food,” he said. “It’s all grease, salt, and sweets – and they are now addicted to it. He has gotten people dependent on his cheap and shoddy product, to the point where they are not anymore interested in their accustomed dining habits; only in gratifying their palates and filling their gullets. He is lining his pockets from his engineered craving.”
Not five days later, Prosatio Silban was worn out.
“How did we not see this at first?” asked Pelvhi. “And: What can we do about it?”
“We can expose him,” Prosatio Silban said, grinning. “And then watch what happens.”
* * *
Not five days later, Prosatio Silban was worn out. His fortunes, and those of the city’s other cooks, had made a swift reversal with the publication of Bulero Eol’s perfidious scheme. Now his biggest worry was how best to fulfill the deluge of orders from his returning regulars.
“Welcome back, welcome back!” he cried to the line of customers waiting with polite patience to be served at one of his two tables-and-chairs. “It is good to see you all again. I have missed you!”
“And we have missed you,” said a stout young woman as she dabbed at her lips with a cloth square and rose from her seat. “It seems like forever since I have tasted real food!”
Prosatio Silban thanked her, brushed crumbs off the tabletop, and gathered up the latest collection of used dishes. Someone tapped his shoulder. He turned, and a boy in the red tunic and beret of the marketplace’s Dispatch Service handed him a folded rag-paper note. “I was bade to put this right into your hand,” the lad said before bowing and retreating into the busy street.
The cook tucked the paper into his vest-pocket, ferried the dishes into his galleywagon, and placed them in the sink. He unfolded the note; it was written in a blocky hand and contained but seven words and two initials: “You’ve not got rid of me yet. –B.E.”
Prosatio Silban shook his head, crumpled the paper, and tossed it into the catch-bin beneath the sink. We shall see about that, he thought. We shall see.
(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want another 85 stories in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)
Supersize me! The Golden Arches cast their ominous shadow over the Uulian Commonwealth…
I mean Uulian Commonwell.
I knew what you meant. 😉 This one was a lot of fun to write; I’m glad you enjoyed it!