Neethlie Mossot was destined for great things by her mother. She aspired for her daughter to be a quaintrelle, a social butterfly, an ornament to society. Neethlie rather spoiled that by running away at the age of sixteen with a Partannese soldier of fortune.
Just between ourselves there is some controversy over her age at the time. I remember discussing the matter with Calina Salin as we huddled together in a doorway for want of a better place to sleep. Our blanket was a comparatively new copy of the Port Naain Intelligencer, and Neethlie Mossot’s dramatic elopement was on the front page. To take our minds off the cold I took to reading aloud some of the more salacious stories. Calina was immediately dismissive, “I know her, and she’s twenty if she’s a day. She’s at least eight years older than me.’ Yet some years later, when Neethlie returned to Port Naain she celebrated her Thirty-sixth birthday. By my reckoning this meant she’d eloped at the age of seven.
Pity a poet trapped between two such formidable ladies. I merely report the facts and keep my own counsel.
Now where was I? Oh yes, Neethlie rode south with her paramour and disappeared. News occasionally filtered back to Port Naain society which always enjoys some titbit of sensational gossip. First the young lovers had recaptured his father’s keep by treachery. Then it had fallen, also by treachery. Then she had given birth to a boy. Three days later they had stormed the keep and waded in the blood of his father and sundry uncles to glorious victory.
After this everything went quiet, there was occasional mention of other children, hints of poisonings and similar but nothing you wouldn’t have expected from Partaan.
Then came news that set the gossips all of a flutter. Neethlie’s first ‘husband’ had died, slain in an ambush. Apparently Neethlie had rallied their guards, counter-attacked and had killed the attackers. She returned to the keep, married her guard captain and had taken a genteel second place to him. Until four days later when he found himself confined to the oubliette and Neethlie’s third husband, the lordling of a neighbouring keep found himself in charge. He joined his predecessor in the oubliette a fortnight later, by which time Neethlie had subverted his followers. For a while, peace reigned, Neethlie ruled two keeps, and we heard no more.
When news once more reached us, perhaps a decade or so later, it was Neethlie herself who was the bearer of ill tidings. According to one of her maids, a young lady prone to gossip when plied with drink, Neethlie had made her oldest son her lieutenant. He had schemed with her second son to overthrow her, so she’d blinded him, castrated her second son but had then been driven out of the keep by her oldest daughter.
The body of the maid, without a tongue, was found floating face downwards in Three Mills Beck.
Now Port Naain is used to exiled Partannese lordlings seeking financial backing to help them regain their previous position. Most of them enter society, making a modest display to win support. Almost inevitably they sink slowly, until finally they join the criminal classes and make an unchancy living as assassins or hired muscle. Neethlie was different. She arrived in Port Naain armed with a small black notebook full of names, addresses and various other dates and times. After she’d held her birthday party she passed through the city like a severe dose of diarrhoea, such was the speed with which an entirely improbable number of people poured forth cash, just to see her gone.
Indeed it must be admitted that I managed to ride on her coat tails somewhat. In two cases I took a chance and quietly informed gentlemen somewhat older than me that Neethlie had asked me to have a word with them and without hesitation they emptied their purses into my cupped hands and fled.
Within the week Neethlie had raised the money she needed and left. I will not attempt to describe in any detail the story of her travails. To summarise briefly, two years later both she and her daughter had two or three keeps apiece and the war between them (and most of their neighbours) was spluttering to a halt because even in Partaan there is a finite number of men you can hire to die for you. Not only that but apparently it was standing room only in the oubliettes.
It was as peace was declared between them (for the third time) that a missive came to Port Naain. Neethlie wished for a portrait painter and a poet to attend upon her. She named Falas Buttot as the painter, and myself as the poet. I have to admit her taste was impeccable, Buttot is one of the best of his generation and was certainly the best hand a portraiture living at the time. Modesty forbids me to make similar boasts about my own standing within my art.
Still it presented me with a quandary. Buttot packed and left the next day, I dallied. Frankly Neethlie is not somebody I would care to get on the wrong side of and who knew what casual remarks of mine might already have been reported to her. Doubtless to be taken in the wrong spirit or twisted by malicious tongues.
Eventually I cried off, explaining that I was remaining at home for the good of my health, but that when Buttot returned with his painting, I would base an ode on that, for which there would be no charge.
Buttot returned, having been feted and showered with silver if not actual gold. He displayed his picture which you have all doubtless seen, and I penned this ode.
The fairest daughter of Port Naain
Sweet Neethlie beloved by all
Lost to us to a noble swain
Her noble and unfurrowed brow
Gazes on a Partann serene
Peaceful peasants plough
A noble matron who never quits
The mother her people love
With truly magnificent children
Oh and to save you asking, I haven’t been into Partann recently. Indeed I rarely go south of the river nowadays.