Prosatio Silban and the Wavering Line

ACCORDING TO THE WISE, REPUTATION is everything. But that’s not always a good thing.

“I would like for us to enter into a commercial arrangement,” said Idino Tarz to Prosatio Silban. “You have a solid standing throughout the Three Cities and Thousand Villages of the Uulian Commonwell. And I would like to leverage that standing into a profitable enterprise.”

The pair were sharing a modest bottle of white duliac over the amiable late-evening din inside Pelvhi’s Chopping-House, where epicurean Pormaris’ professional hospitality-class came to relax and conduct occasional side-business. Idino Tarz was well-dressed and open-faced, two essential qualities in a wishful merchant, and his voice was the proper mix of confidence and flattery.

The beefy cook cocked his head. “What sort of ‘enterprise?’” he asked.

“I manufacture a line of concentrated and assimilable victuals, in different flavors and of various compositions,” came the reply.

“I manufacture a line of concentrated and assimilable victuals, in different flavors and of various compositions,” came the reply. “It’s a fine product; inexpensive, roundly applicable, portable, and suitable both for daily use and to mitigate the seemingly random acts of the Flickering Gods. But what it lacks is a spokesperson. Someone both affable and honest. Someone whose name-recognition could help me, shall we say, stay afloat in the Commonwell’s turbulent economic waters. Someone whose air of authentic credibility would impress Hopmon, God of the Ever-Heavy Purse. To the point: someone like yourself.”

Prosatio Silban smiled and shook his head. “I am intrigued, but I do not know anything about your product. I have neither used nor heard of such a thing. Why do you need me? I know nothing of spokesmanship, or for that matter, salesmanship.”

“On the contrary!” countered Idino Tarz. “Everyone in these lands knows you. From grim-shadowed Tirinbar to many-harbored Soharis, from the grass-thick Emerald Incessance to the vast Western Wides, where the Cook For Any Price goes many will gather – and with ready coin. Let me show you what I mean.”

The merchant dug into a bulging jute sack beneath the table and proffered a hand-sized package. “Just give this a try,” he said.

Prosatio Silban accepted the beeswax-paper parcel, labeled Tarz’s Simple, and unsealed one end. A savory scent caressed his nostrils; he took a small bite of the dusky slab within, chewed, raised his eyebrows, and swallowed.

“I must admit,” the cook said with a smile, “your product’s appeal is both compelling and unique. “How and where do you make this?”

“That is a trade secret,” whispered Idino Tarz. “All you need to know is how delicious and nutritious it is, and how to communicate those virtues to the prospective public. It is a quick and nourishing meal obtainable by minimal effort and cost, a foolproof commodity which practically sells itself with no harm to you. And for all that, if you’ll allow me to put your endorsement on the label, I will pay you fifteen in silver monthly plus a tenth fraction of all sales. What say you?”

Prosatio Silban considered. Fifteen in silver was ample money even without the sales-fraction, and all the more appreciated now that the Commonwell was one month into the stormy Season of Huddling – an annual slump for the cook’s primary marketplace-based business. Catering the odd private affair scarcely kept him in coin (and personal victuals) until the rainy summer turned to the dry autumn of the Season of Industry. It sounds a slim venture at best, he thought, but certainly better than starvation. What have I to lose?

“By Hopmon, the All-Vendor; Molegast, God of Culinary Boldness; and Yntra, Patroness of Productive Daydreaming,” he pronounced with a solemn nod. “Let us proceed.”

“By Hopmon, the All-Vendor; Molegast, God of Culinary Boldness; and Yntra, Patroness of Productive Daydreaming,” he pronounced with a solemn nod. “Let us proceed.”

* * *

At first, things went well. The pair’s Pormaris patrons were quick to show an interest, perhaps due to Prosatio Silban having plied his trade in the great island-city for almost half the quarter-century of his professional life. The printed slogan “Endorsed by the Cook For Any Price!” was a strong selling-point, and it was a rare soul who could resist it – especially when delivered in person within the city’s marketplaces – despite the weather.

“Is this truly as healthful as the label promises?” asked an older home-wife in a wide-brimmed and rubberized hat.

“Madam. Have you ever known me to lie? About food, at least?” the cook asked with a reassuring smile.

“What is in this?” queried an umbrella-carrying and youngish house-chef.

“Only what you yourself might prepare for your own supper, or perhaps your employer’s,” Prosatio Silban answered. “But with this one victual, that operation will be unnecessary.”

“And the taste?” demanded a middle-aged farmer garbed in moist oilskin. “I don’t like anything without a bold flavor.”

“We offer a variety of six well-seasoned and -concentrated repasts,” the cook replied. “If one is not to your liking, any of the other five should suit your palate.”

“You have won me over,” the home-wife said. “I’ll take three. No, four.”

“And I, two – and the possibility of more, assuming I and my patron like them,” said the house-chef.

“As for me, I’ll buy one of each flavor,” the farmer said. “I trust you – as who does not? – and at least one of the six is bound to strike my fancy.”

It was not long before word of the gastronomic device had spread to Pormaris’ immediate villages, aided and abetted by Idino Tarz, who insisted on accompanying his spokesman on his circuitous and soggy rounds. Wherever they stopped, the eager maker-merchant lightened his load by a significant degree. Home-wives, house-chefs, farmers, porters, day-laborers, tradesfolk, other merchants, city guards, fishers, and anyone else braving the ceaseless rain for marketplace provisions: all were attracted by the idea of a “quick and nourishing meal with minimal effort.” Soon, Prosatio Silban found himself somewhat sidelined by his own success.

“Why should I engage your services, when I can take home a tasty and wholesome meal for a fraction of the cost?” asked more than one client. Prosatio Silban could not assail such logic, but as his coin-jar grew heavier with the fruits of his endorsement, he ceased to worry overmuch.

All was well. Until the day it wasn’t.

All was well. Until the day it wasn’t.

“I don’t like the way it makes my stomach feel,” said one customer.

“The texture is more crumbly than it used to was,” said another.

“The flavor is all wrong now,” said a third, adding, for emphasis, “Blecch.”

“I want my money back,” added more than one. And more than one added: “How could you so abuse our trust, Master Cook?”

Presently, the trickle of complaints became a torrent; the torrent, a flood; and soon the pair’s metaphoric merchantman was in danger of capsizing.

“I thought you said this would be foolproof,” Prosatio Silban demanded one day, after assessing what remained in his once-full coin-jar. “I thought you said no harm would come from it.”

“I don’t believe I used those exact words,” Idino Tarz replied in injured tones. “What I meant was that, in this as in any endeavor, a certain amount of risk would be involved. Due to the season’s economic constraints and unpredictable conditions, not to mention a deficiency of raw supplies, I have had to make certain … adjustments to the recipe in order to keep it affordable for the majority of the purchasing public. I should have informed you of the change, and for that I do apologize. I shall change it back, though we must needs charge accordingly.”

But by that point, the purchasing public had purchased enough. “You want me to pay more money for an inferior product?” was the typical (and profuse) reaction. “You are fortunate that I am only asking for a refund!”

The pair made their dejected way back to Pormaris, both sitting on the galleywagon’s wide driver’s bench. As they approached the ferry port of Ruins-Across-the-Water, Prosatio Silban broke the gloomy silence.

“My reputation is broken because of you; my name is now anathema throughout the vicinity of Pormaris, and who knows how far away,” he muttered, fixing Idino Tarz with a hard stare. “And why? Because my customers trusted me. And I trusted you. Now, those trusts have been broken.”

“Meaning what?” asked Idino Tarz.

“Meaning what?” asked Idino Tarz.

“Meaning that I want my share of whatever profit is still due me, if any is left. And then I want nothing further to do with you.”

* * *

“No, madam, I am not here to sell you anything. At least, anything other than a hot breakfast, or a cold one if that’s your pleasure,” Prosatio Silban said over the bustling autumnal hubbub of Pormaris’ busy South Market. “I am no longer affiliated with Idino Tarz, nor he with me, and from now on I will be again doing business for myself only – and for my once-steady customers, should the kind Hopmon so provide.”

The well-dressed older woman smiled in sympathy as she sat down at one of the cook’s empty tables-and-chairs. “I suppose you’ve learned after all to not trifle with a good thing,” she said. “I for one am glad to see you here once again, in the morning shade of your galleywagon, serving the hungry and the curious. You may always count on my business whenever you visit the City of Gourmands.”

“Thank you, madam. That is a great kindness. Now – with what may I please you?”

“I should like something that is more muscled than milled. And please – make it hot.”

“At once.” He bowed deeply, then turned and mounted the galleywagon steps.

One redemption down, he thought with grim resolve. And thousands to go.

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want them all (so far) in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)

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