Talopian Hearsan was one of those people I just somehow never took too. I’m not sure why to be honest; he was always polite and respectful to a poet of my status. The problem was perhaps that he was too polite and too respectful.
In the same way he was always too nicely dressed, too well turned out, too pretty. Indeed I’m willing to swear that he couldn’t walk past a mirror without stopping to rearrange his hair or the lace on his collar.
He earned good money working for the city. Now that’s a trick that few can manage in Port Naain, but he was an inspector of taxes. So he would greet each newly arrived ship, check the manifest and calculate the duty payable. Not only does the city pay well, but, if you follow my drift, so does the job. A chap would struggle to go hungry with that sort of employment.
The Hearsans were reasonably well connected and he appeared at a lot of function I worked at. Never the star of the show but you’d notice him on the edges chatting politely to some of the younger and less important guests.
Nobody ever said anything but I noticed that maids would subtly change course to avoid him, ideally keeping a solidly upholstered dowager between them.
It’s strange really. I vaguely knew him for perhaps fifteen or twenty years, and never heard anybody say anything against him. No accusations, no claims, indeed if his name was mentioned somebody was bound to say, “He’s very ‘nice’.” Only they’d say it in tones that hinted delicately that the speaker harboured doubts.
I was left feeling that I was the only person in Port Naain who had not noticed something obvious. It was to get worse. Shena and I were just finishing our evening meal when there was a knock on the door. I opened it and was met by a delegation of shore-combers so senior that even I knew them to be persons of consequence along the Old Esplanade. I stepped back out of the way and gestured for them to enter. They trooped in and stood round looking at Shena as if they expected her to do something. She learned back in her chair and asked, “Hearsan?”
There were nods of affirmation but no other reply so she turned to me. “You were going to the Misanthropes Hall?”
That was news to me, but I can take a hint. “Yes, I’d thought it might be worth dropping in and keeping up with the gossip. Problem is I’m a trifle short of cash.”
Well damn me, old Chesset Breamgrater reached into his tattered britches, pulled out a silver vintenar and slipped it into my waistcoat pocket. “Don’t let us keep tha lad.”
So obviously I left.
Whereas previously I had entertained a vague suspicion that I was not sure what was going on, now it was an absolute certainty. I arrived back at the barge one afternoon to find Much Driffild sitting at our table surrounded by papers. He was doing frantic calculations which took up multiple sheets of paper. (Paper which, between ourselves, I’d put away to use for when I had some particularly fine ode to gift to an especially discerning patron, but that is by the by.) Much is one of these madmen at the university who reckon they can simplify the world down to numbers. Actually if anybody ever manages it, I suspect it might be him. In the middle of the table was a sketch, showing what appeared to be a Sedan Chair with two barrels instead of bearers. It struck me at the time that I couldn’t see it catching on, but if it did, it was bound to be cheaper if only because of the saving on tips.
On another occasion when I arrived home, footsore and weary, after a long day pandering to the subtly malignant whims of my muse, I was met by our local blacksmith. He and Shena were looking at a bent piece of iron and comparing it to a sketch. Shena was even using the rule I use for marking out paper to measure the metal.
“I’ll have to get the angles a bit more square.”
Shena looked at the iron bar. It was bent so that it formed three sides of a square. “And how will you lock it?”
“Bend this end over to hold the fourth side, then rivet it to the other bit.”
She nodded seriously. “That should do it.” She then glanced up to me, “Can you be on the Old Esplanade at high tide tomorrow?”
I tried to look bemused on the grounds she might think to explain, but she ignored my pathetic expression and escorted the smith back to the quay.
Next day high tide was just after noon. There was quite a throng of people hanging about, mainly shore-combers waiting for the tide to go out. I was chatting idly to a couple of them when one stopped and nodded toward the Broken Steps. A Sedan chair was making its way down.
“Who’s here?” I couldn’t see the person in the Sedan chair.
I was wasting my time, the two women I’d been talking to had already moved away toward the Steps. At the bottom of the Steps the chair had come to a halt. It was obviously not going anywhere because of the crush of bodies, and then suddenly the chair bearers disappeared, dragged down into the mob without a chance to cry out. The chair door opened and I saw Talopian Hearsan step out.
Now he was no longer the pretty young man in the painting. He was older, puffy around the face and distinctly heavier. He started shouting something but one of the men slammed him in the chest with the flat of his hand. Hearsan staggered backwards into the chair and I wondered if he was having a fit. Two other men bundled him into the chair. It was then carried through the crowd to near where I was standing. Now the crowd was parting almost miraculously to allow it through.
Shena appeared at my shoulder, “Right Tallis, get your clothes off.”
I have an awful suspicion that my bottom jaw hung open at this point, so she repeated herself. “Get your clothes off; you’re going into the water.”
I shrugged and started to disrobe, handing my clothes to the woman standing next to me. All the time I was watching the chair. The black smith had his heavy iron bar and had fitted it round the chair, low down below the poles, so that it held both doors shut. At the same time a woman was painting the doors and windows with some thick sticky gunk. I made my way across to the chair. Three other naked men were helping Much Driffild strap barrels across the poles; there was a large barrel at the back and a smaller barrel at the front.
“So what are these for Much?”
“Buoyancy; and the gunk will stop water seeping in round the door.”
He shook one of the barrels and it seemed firm enough to suit him. He stepped back and gestured to the four of us who were stood round the chair. “Over to you gentlemen.”
Shena and Chesset Breamgrater stepped out of the crowd. Chesset said, “Right boys, take it out as far as you can.”
With that we picked up the chair and stepped out into the water. It was an awkward burden because the barrels stopped us gripping it properly. We made our way out until the chair was starting to float. I muttered to the chap next to me, “How much further?”
“We want it to catch the current to take it right out.”
With that we continued through the water. Now we were half walking, half swimming. Then one of the two in front raised a hand. “I’ve found the channel.”
“Let him be going then.”
With that we pushed the chair away from us. It bobbed away, remaining vertical. We watched it for a while until we were sure the current was taking it and then made our own way to the shore.
Chap nearest me commented briefly, “Job well done.”
Curious, I asked, “How long will it float for?”
My companion thought briefly and then said, “Much Driffild were talking. It’ll float on’t surface for an hour or two, but watter will slowly get in an it’ll start to sink. But he reckons it’ll float upright under water, and the current will carry it way out and deep.”
One of the others commented. “Yeah, he reckoned it’d carry on even when it’s full, the iron will ballast it.”
When we got to the shore the crowd had gone, Shena was there with a towel and my clothes. As we made our way back to the barge she asked me about a commission I had, and what with that and discussing supper and other things, Talopian Hearsan passed from memory.
But that night I woke with a start. I’d dreamed of a Sedan chair sailing deep beneath the sea, Hearsan staring with sightless eyes out of the windows at depths unexplored by man. The chair sailing onward, onward, deeper and deeper, as the bottom of the ocean dropped away below it.
I just wish I knew what the hell he’d done.