There was a time when I used to play quite a lot of cards. I look back and think to my self that I wasn’t a bad player, just handicapped by a paucity of funds and an anxious craving to eat at least two meals a day.
But I would spend quite a lot of time in the ‘Vagabond’s purse.’ It was, and still is, one of the better inns. The food is uniformly good, and in winter the various snugs and common rooms pleasantly cosy. I had an informal arrangement with the landlord that I could sit all day in the common room, read or write to pass the time, and if a gentleman wished for someone to partake of a hand or two of cards, I would oblige. Indeed on the good days I was even fed, especially if they had something left over. Many the times I’ve carried back home to the barge a good slice or two of pie and a jug of gravy. Shena, my lady wife, took to calling the place my office.
Well it was mid-afternoon on a quiet day. To be honest I was dozing in the pleasant warmth, I was singularly failing to grapple with the verse I was trying to write. Someone poked their head round the door and asked, “Up for a game of Keeps.” Well I sprang to my feet with a well placed show of enthusiasm and followed the voice to one of the snugs, a little room with no more than a table, a few chairs, and a small fire. Sitting there I found Cruen Richpole and Lean Weans. Now they’ll need introducing, but twenty years ago their names were better known. Between them they did a lot of legal and illegal business in Port Naain. Hard men but I always found them fair enough. They even commissioned work occasionally, which probably biases me toward them. I took my seat and made up a third at the table.
Anyway Richpole had already shuffled both packs of cards and placed them in front of Weans. He pushed one deck back to Richpole, split the other deck into two reasonably equal halves and asked me to choose one. I did so and the half I had chosen was shuffled in with the full deck. In Port Naain we tend to play Keeps with one and a half packs of cards, it stops people being too cocky about what is and is not left in the deck.
Then Weans looked at Richpole. “Stakes?”
At this point I held up both hands. “Gentlemen, mercy; I know you two of old. You’ll be playing for alars and I can barely cope with dregs.”
Richpole smiled at me in that serious way he had, “Fear not good poet. We will play with silver vintenars and I’ll start you off with a pot. If at the end of the game you’re in debt, you’ll repay me with a poem or two.” Weans placed five vintenars in front of me. “Here, Richpole will match them.” Given that twenty-five silver vintenars is worth one gold alar and is a week’s wages, I felt I’d do very nicely if I came out of this with my stake money.
I dealt out six cards each, and then looked at my hand; a Keep, a Lord, a Knight Errant, two Maidens and a Fool. Well there was no way I could afford to play a Keep and a Lord. It would have been fine at the Misanthropes Hall where most of us played for dregs but here where silver was being tossed about with a fine disregard, I knew myself to be outclassed.
I discarded the Keep face up and the Lord face down.
Richpole looked at his cards, discarded one, face down, picked up my Keep and placed it in front of him and then placed a Lord on it.
He looked at Weams. “I’ll stake 20 vintenars on my Keep. He placed the coins down on the card.
Weams pushed two ten-vintenar pieces across and placed them on the card as well. “And I’ll take it.” He glanced at me. “And you?”
Here I had to pay to stay in the game. “I’ll put five vintenars on it falling.”
Weams placed two cards face down on the table in front of him and I dealt out cards so everybody had six in their hand.
Richpole studied his cards. “I’ve been wondering about Lanrig.”
Without looking up from his own hand Weams answered, “Darin Lanrig, the pimp.”
“That’s the one.”
I had acquired a Bandit and a Poet. I placed my Knight Errant face down on the table with the two Maidens face down to guard him. Richpole played a Merchant face up in front of him and placed 1 vintenar on it. Without looking at me he asked, “Tallis, do you know Lanrig?”
Cautiously I said, “I know of him. I haven’t knowingly met him.”
“Nasty piece of work,” Richpole replied. Weams placed the third card face down with the other two. “Very nasty piece of work and he’s getting to be a nuisance.”
Lanrig was a pimp, but he worked at the rough end of the market. He’d buy the indentures of both women and pretty boys and work them in his brothels. Then when they were no longer earning enough he’d transfer them to other branches of his business. He had a silver refinery in Partann where they crushed low grade silver ore and mixed it with mercury and other stuff. He lost a lot of staff every year due to poisoning.
I dealt the cards to make the hands up. I got a Merchant, a Dwarf and a Concubine. I discarded the Merchant; there was already one in play. Richpole moved his Merchant in front of me. I didn’t want to do anything to it yet so I allowed myself to grimace and dropped three vintenars on it (In Port Naain we play that you put triple on a Merchant.) He also played a Knight Errant on top of his Lord in the Keep. His defences were looking strong. He also placed another twenty vintenars on the card and looked across the baize at Weams, “Still in.”
“Still in.” Weams pushed another twenty vintenars across. “So do you have an opinion of Lanrig, young Tallis?”
“I would not be willing to count him among my friends, but I might produce an ode to celebrate his passing without awaiting a commission.” That I felt was enough to put me in their camp without making a commitment beyond my significance.
Weams turned the three cards on the table face up; a Maiden, a Dwarf and a Herald. He pushed them across to the Keep.
Richpole looked down at them. “So the attack commences. So what about Lanrig, can you touch him?”
I dealt the cards, I got a Beastman. I discarded it as my play.
Weams scowled a little. “He never comes out and I cannot get people in.”
Richpole placed three cards down on the table in front of the three cards Weams had played. A Feroce, a Giant and a Dwarf. “Your Maiden finds her path blocked by the wilderness.” Then he moved his Merchant from in front of me and placed it in front of Weams.
Weams dropped twelve vintenars on the Merchant. “It appears my attack is stymied.”
I dealt cards. This time I got a Vagabond. Then I placed my Knight Errant with Weams’ Maiden. “I think this reinvigorates the attack.”
Richpole discarded his three card wilderness. He moved the Merchant back to his own part of the table, and discarded his Knight Errant onto Weams’ Maiden. Weams gave a satisfied little smile, scooped up the four cards and placed them on the discard pile. Richpole’s Keep was looking more vulnerable.
Richpole surveyed his hand. “I play the Honest Lawyer,” and put the card down on the table. The game was now into its final stages, no more cards could be drawn.
Weams played a Bandit on Richpole’s Keep. Not a move with any chance of success. Indeed Richpole merely dropped a Concubine on it and both cards were discarded.
Then in my turn I made my move. I played my Bandit on Richpole’s Merchant. He sighed, “So you want forty-eight vintenars from me now. Forgive me if I replace these with gold otherwise the coins will keep falling off.”
That done he moved his Lord out of his Keep onto the Merchant and captured it. I was a little downcast; I had hopes of getting the Merchant back into my area. But then Weams acted. He dropped an Assassin on the Lord, slaying him and capturing the merchant, and dropped a Lord of his own onto Richpole’s empty Keep. “I think it’s my game?”
Somewhat diffidently I said, “I have a play.”
Weams looked at Richpole, “And you?”
Richpole shook his head. “Nothing; let Tallis have the last play.”
I dropped my Fool on the Assassin. That’s the weakness of Assassins, they trump everything but everything trumps them. Then I played my Poet and a Maiden on the Merchant, taking it back.
Richpole leaned back in his seat. “An excellent game and I thank you both for the lesson. One can lure the Lord out of the Keep by greed alone. He pushed the money on the Keep to Weams and the money on the Merchant to me. I looked at it, a good two weeks wages.
“I think I really ought to give you two gentlemen your money back, it was you who provided the stake.”
I made to push it back, with I confess, a degree of reluctance, but when playing with men like these one does not take liberties. Richpole put his hand on mine. “Keep it lad. I think it’s worth it for the idea I’ve had. But in a day or two, you might get a message from me and you might want to write me a verse.”
Well we all got up from the table and went about our business. Two days later it appears that Darin Lanrig the pimp left his town house to deal with some urgent business. It was necessary for him to swear to some deeds otherwise he would lose the properties involved.
In the press on the street it seems he was separated briefly from his bodyguards by a group of children who burst through the crowd dragging a dogcart. Then four men carrying a large wardrobe blocked their way. When the wardrobe moved off, the bodyguards found Lanrig’s head on a metal pole thrust between the cobbles, his body had disappeared totally.
That evening I was sitting sipping wine with Shena in the barge when there was a knock on the door. Neither of us was expecting anybody so I hid a carving knife under a cushion beside me and shouted “Come in.”
A serious looking youth came in holding small envelope. “It is a message from master Cruen Richpole. He said you’d want to send him an answer.”
I opened the envelope. Inside were two playing cards, the Poet and the Fool. I looked at the youth. “An answer?”
“Yes, he said you’d probably want to send one of the cards back.”
I took my pen and on the back of the ‘Poet’ wrote
A gust of wind, the dust
I wiped my eyes, as one must
The city sweeter, I trust.
I slipped the card back in the envelope and handed it to the youth. “Pray present this to Master Richpole with my compliments.
A Keep, with a Maiden, a Knight Errant, and a Concubine in support.
If you wish to explore Port Naain further
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Includes the unexpurgated account of the Mudfold and Cockeren feud, the dangers inherent in light music, and how Tallis first met and wooed Shena.
As a reviewer commented, “The sheer ingenuity of Jim Webster’s short tales never ceases to amaze me as I work my way through this, and his other books.”