Prosatio Silban and the Tourist Attraction

IT WAS A DAY LIKE many another at Prosatio Silban’s galleywagon, now parked in South Market’s Itinerants’ Quarter: hectic, rushed, and profitable. The beefy cook was scurrying up and down the portable kitchen/domicile’s three wooden steps – up to prepare orders, down to serve them – but for the most part, he enjoyed such moments’ manic velocity.

Busy shifts go by fast, he thought, a smile on his face and four lunches balanced on his outstretched arms. To a point, anyway. I’m glad it’s abating soon – I can’t wait to get off my aching feet!

No sooner had he formed that thought when a buzz-saw voice cut through his customers’ animated rumble: “And here, gentlemen and ladies, we have, by all accounts and with absolutely no doubt, the Commonwell’s finest cook, The Cook For Any Price – Prosatio Silban!”

Polite applause clattered behind said cook and, setting down a plateful of pan-fried tumblerfish with roast asparagus, he turned. A young man in flamboyant scarlet tunic and bright yellow kneebreeches was addressing a large group of out-of-towners from Soharis, judging by their cool-colored and conservative garb. “Please! A few words, Master Prosatio!” the apparent tour-guide bellowed.

He turned back, but the loud interloper was not so easily appeased.

“I only have time for two: Thank you!” the cook-errant shouted, prompting a delighted laugh from his customers. He turned back, but the loud interloper was not so easily appeased.

“This man is held in esteem not just here in Pormaris, but throughout the entire Uulian Commonwell and parts of the Exilic Lands themselves,” he proclaimed. “He is a mercenary cook, which you may tell by his nickname. And that name is legend from stonyhearted Tirinbar in the north to your own many-harbored city to the south. Even residents of the Thousand Villages applaud him. Glad mention of his remarkable work is not far from the lips of educated gourmands wherever he goes.”

“I am but a simple breakfast-and-lunch man,” Prosatio Silban protested, his cheeks a fierce crimson. “By the kindness of the All-Mother, I can satisfy my customers without pretense. But true culinary skill is better demonstrated by the Commonwell’s more able fine chefs and restaurateurs. Now, if you will please –”

“I see more than a few happy, shiny patrons surrounding you, Master Cook,” the tour guide interrupted. “What do your customers think?”

To Prosatio Silban’s mild dismay, eager answers to that question came from those both at table and in line.

“I’ll say this: He knows his way around a small kitchen,” said a middle-aged man with a pronounced double chin. “To be honest, I can’t fathom how he does it.”

“His is the best deal in Pormaris for the price he charges,” added his buxom female companion.

I wouldn’t eat anywhere else,” put in a well-dressed woman mopping her plate with the remnants of a wheat-roll. “In fact, I don’t.”

“And what do you say, friends?” the tour guide asked his charges. “Shall we see if Master Prosatio is being too modest? Let’s eat!”

With one horrified glance, Prosatio Silban took in his six seated customers, the dozen or so already waiting, and the sizable, chattering throng now joining them. How am I going to feed all these people? he thought as his heart sank. I could use the extra coin, but the extra effort may well kill me. On the other hand, I can’t very well say ‘no.’ He adopted his most amiable air and prepared for battle.

* * *

The galleywagon’s interior was the ideal picture of a valiant and hard-fought struggle: dirty dishes piled in the sink and on the preparation-counter, pantry door hanging ajar, grease stains on the oven-door and stove, and various spilled liquids mixing with blue rice on the floor.

Well. That was grueling, Prosatio Silban thought as he munched his usual close-of-business meat porridge. He sighed in mid-chew – I can barely get through my dinner! – finished, swallowed, closed his eyes, and opened his mouth for another bite when the door-knocker sounded. Raising himself with a grunt, he padded with footsore steps to open the door’s upper half.

Illuminated by the fatberry-oil streetlamp-light was the man who had that afternoon made the beefy cook’s life so difficult.

Illuminated by the fatberry-oil streetlamp-light was the man who had that afternoon made the beefy cook’s life so difficult.

“Yes?” Prosatio Silban asked with thin civility.

“How good to see you again,” the man said. “We had no chance earlier for introductions. My name is Morla Akkar. And I am here for my fee.”

“Excuse me?”

“You owe me a percentage of what you earned from those tourists. You made substantial coin because of me, yes?”

“Yes. But as I never asked for your help, I owe you nothing. Because of you, I must rise much earlier than usual to replenish my depleted supplies before I can even do tomorrow’s breakfast. I always know how many I can serve each day, and you more than tripled that number. I must likewise replenish my strength, which your actions profoundly taxed.”

“Some would be grateful for such an economic boost.”

“A younger man, or one possessed of more vigor, would be. My regular customers come first; I have known some of them for years, and they depend on me. When I go to the market at dawn, it is their needs I must keep in mind. This is how I conduct my business.”

“So you are denying my fee?”

“Count yourself lucky that I do not deny you bodily! Good night.” Prosatio Silban made to close the door, but Morla Akkar stopped it with one outstretched hand.

“See here, my thick-headed friend,” he said. “This is how I conduct my business. I bring custom to those who need it, and in exchange, they pay me. You are the first who has been ungrateful for that service. I am not leaving here without my fee, which I reckon at no less than twelve percent of what you raised by my intervention. Please – hand it over with all speed. Or there will be consequences.”

“‘Consequences?’ Are you making a threat?”

“I am stating a fact. Will you pay me?”

“In a word: no.”

“Then I shall see you on the morrow.” With an impressive sneer, the would-be extortionist withdrew his hand and clumped down the galleywagon steps.

There goes one of the most unpleasant men I have ever met – and daresay ever will meet, Prosatio Silban thought as he closed the upper door. I do hope he won’t return.

* * *

As it happened, the cook’s hope was short-lived.

As it happened, the cook’s hope was short-lived.

Once again the tables-and-chairs were filled with lunch-rush customers; once again, twice their number waited patiently for seating. And once again, Morla Akkar hove into view, trailing a different but still-considerable coterie of lookers-at-everything-and-nothing. This time, however, the guide flashed Prosatio Silban a malevolent smirk.

Oh no, the cook-errant thought, descending the galleywagon steps with another armsful of lunches. Not again. Please – just go away!

“Over here, good folk, is one of South Market’s more infamous characters, the so-called ‘Cook For Any Price,’” the tour guide cried. “‘Any Price’ indeed! He will go to any lengths to bilk and cheat the dining public: he puts ditch-water in the yava-pots and sawdust in the fruit-relish, chops rats into the potato hash, uses past-prime eggs, and other even more underhanded and stingy tricks. I could go on, but I wouldn’t want to further disgust you.”

“Why is his business so crowded then?” one of the visitors asked in a provincial brogue.

“And his diners so happy?” added another.

“No one is wise to him,” Morla Akkar said. “He disguises his misdeeds with sauce and seasonings. After all –”

“Just one damned minute,” said the well-dressed woman, standing up from her table in obvious wrath. “I have been eating Master Prosatio’s food for more than a decade. He is a good cook and a remarkable man: kind, accommodating, and personable. I will not stand by while you assassinate his character!”

“Nor I!” said the man sitting next to her, garbed in the livery of a local noble’s servant. “You clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I too was here yesterday when you brought by a different group,” said a burly porter at the head of the line. “He was ending his afternoon, yet he served you and yours with grace and a grin. He does not deserve your ill-worded diatribe. Get out!”

“Yes! Out!” “Liar!” “Begone!” “Dastard!” “Make haste!” came a chorus of angry voices.

Morla Akkar’s face fell. He balled his fists, stammered twice, then departed without another coherent word as customers and provincials cheered his retreat.

It’s as the old adage goes, Prosatio Silban thought with appreciative pride as the chastened blackmailer slunk away. A good name really is everything.

(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!)

4 comments for “Prosatio Silban and the Tourist Attraction

  1. Kathryn Hildebrandt
    2022.08.11 at 1332

    Does anyone do that kind of thing in our world, anymore? I’ve heard of the old vacuum cleaner sales trick of ringing the doorbell, and when the unsuspecting housekeeper answers, dumping a pile of dirt and dust directly on her carpet. But I don’t know if that actually happened or was myth.

    • 2022.08.11 at 1407

      That’s a good question. I guess if someone tried that these days, they’d wind up with a faceful of buckshot or pie or something worse. Back in our parents’ day, it might have been different. But it’s a great gimmick if the vacuum cleaner is up to the task!

      • Kathryn Hildebrandt
        2022.08.11 at 1436

        Great gimmick, if totally obnoxious. Wouldn’t work on me. I’d make him vacuum every last speck, then not buy anything, on principle.

        There is an old joke about some dude doing that, giving his spiel, then the homemaker saying “Um, yeah, but we don’t have electricity here.” Joke isn’t funny anymore, though, because people have no shame these days. He’d just shrug and say “oh, sucks to be you.”

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