There are patrons who patronise you for entirely the wrong reasons. Either you are this season’s fashion, or they hope you’ll put in a good word for them with another patron; or in the case of Madame Cockeren, because her husband damned well told her to. Now between ourselves, I rather like Old Bluffer Cockeren. He’s a cheerful, happy-go-lucky chap; casual, easy come-easy go, happy to stand anybody a drink. Not common traits in leading lawyers but then it wouldn’t do if everyone was the same.
If he does have a weakness (other than being a casual, happy-go-lucky lawyer) it’s that he is still labouring under the delusion that his lady wife is the same girl that he wooed and won forty years previously. Given that she fought a feud with my patron, Madame Mudfold which caused me to spend some time in the city of Oiphallarian waiting for tempers to cool, I would suggest, respectfully, that he is mistaken.
Still when things did calm down and Mesdames Mudfold and Cockeren had returned to Port Naain from their places of exile, Old Bluffer insisted that his wife did act as my patron from time to time. It was a nice gesture; I think he felt he ought to compensate me. Or perhaps, in retrospect, he merely wanted to ensure his wife didn’t conveniently forget the whole sad episode. Still when I was called upon to attend, they were strained affairs. But frankly with Bluffer in charge of finance I was in no position to be precious about the whole thing. Thus I would occasionally be asked to perform or even to bring other guests.
Now this brings me to a guest I took along with me. Port Naain is a city that craves novelty. So everybody is on the lookout for the strange and exotic. I feel that the nomad warrior Red Sun was exotic enough for anybody. At this point I am afraid I may have to go into some background. Pray sit comfortably for a while as I adopt a didactic pose.
On the Red Steppe far to our east there are four nomad peoples. The Uistac, the Scar, the People, and the Rathalan. It is relatively recently that the Scar tried to sack Oiphallarian. Fortunately this Jim Webster chap has written a novel about the whole thing, and you merely have to buy that and save me wearying myself with all this detail.
(It is available in both paperback and ebook formats, so those who wish to bring a little joy to his life could do worse than to see
where all will be revealed.)
Now where was I? Oh yes, Red Sun was a warrior, indeed a very senior warrior of the People. He was passing through Port Naain because amongst the nomads there is a tradition that a truly great warrior will wash his sword in two seas, the eastern (far away at Cienid Ul, a city of legend) and in the western sea. Given that Port Naain clings to the coast of the western sea like a carbuncle on the buttocks of a dunnykin diver, his presence was perhaps explicable.
Traditionally it appears that young bucks attempting this feat fight terrible battles against numerous foes, travel immense distances and generally barely one in ten makes it.
Red Sun on the other hand seems to have ambled across the world, supremely confident in his own prowess and whilst he did face challenges, most of those he slew seem to have been particularly irritating bureaucrats, overly officious frontier guards and in Port Naain at least, a remarkably stupid mugger.
I was introduced to Red Sun by an Urlan, Luft Vectkin. Strangely, Red Sun could stalk the streets of Port Naain in full war-gear, his face painted and with his knife dripping blood (the aforementioned mugger) and everybody seemed to assume he was an unemployed thespian hired to promote some new restaurant which doubtless claimed to serve to hitherto overlooked ethnic cuisine.
Luft Vectkin had recognised Red Sun as a nomad warrior (doubtless Urlan children are given lessons on such things, lest in later life they miss out on an opportunity to kill something a bit special.) He introduced himself, and being two men completely at home with their own reputations, the conversation was amicable. Indeed Luft offered to take Red Sun hunting gorlix. These loathsome creatures are, so we are informed, a hybrid of man, demon and a number of other distasteful creatures. Manlike, but supremely ugly, they can pass for human, and apparently even breed with humans; (the crossbred offspring are less hideous but no less prone to manifest anthropophagic tendencies.) In Port Naain there are colonies of these creatures in various of the Warrens where they are the toast of the criminal classes for the enthusiastic way they dispose of cadavers. They have been known to infiltrate respectable households over the generations, providing scullery staff. The Urlan claim they smell different to proper men and will recognise them by their scent.
It was as these two were returning from a pleasant days hunting, each of them with four or five fresh heads tied to their belts, that I met them. Luft introduced me, and then suggested that I could launch Red Sun in ‘society.’ Given that I had just been asked by Madame Cockeren to bring an interesting guest to one of her soirees I agreed immediately.
I am conscious that so far I have provided you with an awful lot of background but very little story. I must attempt to remedy this. Let us press on to the point at which I introduced Red Sun to the ladies at Madame Cockeren’s affair. He was freshly bathed and laundered and greeted the various ladies graciously. Of course there were questions. Most were easily answered, yes he had travelled far, and no, he wasn’t thinking of settling permanently in Port Naain. One question did cause some disquiet.
“Red Sun, are you married?”
“Oh yes I have several wives.”
There was some concerned muttering but the questioner pressed on bravely. “How many wives is ‘several’?”
“Well I had eight, but I sold one and traded three for a really good brood mare, so I’m down to four now.” He paused thoughtfully, “But knowing my brother, he’ll have picked me up a couple while I’m away so I might have six or seven.”
Fortunately at this point the hostess started serving infusions. Red Sun produced the silver mounted skull that he drank from. Apparently it’s considered bad manners to take a head, turn the skull into a drinking cup, and then not drink from it. The family of the deceased might well be offended, considering it to be a gratuitous insult. Madame Cockeren admired the cup, so Red Sun produced from his pouch the shrunken face mask of the man to whom the skull had once belonged. Apparently he had been an Uistac brave of some renown. Red Sun’s offer to pass the mask round so all the ladies could admire the dead man’s features was not taken up with any enthusiasm. But when he opened his shirt to show the scar that he had taken in the fight with this warrior, there was far more interest. The scar started near one nipple and disappeared down into his trousers. Two ladies produced sewing tape-measures from out of their handbags and offered to measure the entire length of the wound. I felt obliged to step in at this point to point out (in a low tones) to the two ladies that doing so would mean they accepted him as their husband, and if they did not wish to be traded for brood mares or sold off to friends, they would be wise to desist.
I then moved the programme on and gave a piece of my own about rain falling on dead leaves. I adopted a sombre tone and it went down well with everybody. Then young mistress Chari sang a delightful little song about how she missed her love and how her heart burned for him and her stomach churned whenever she thought he might not come back.
When she finished Red Sun applauded politely with the rest of us and then quietly asked me quietly if songs about indigestion and heartburn were common among my people.
He then stood up to do his piece. He dropped into the dialect of the steppes and as far as I could tell it was the tale of how he killed the Uistac warrior. It was in verse of sorts, but the rhyming patterns were difficult to follow. But it was done with plenty of ululating, vigorous sword strokes and some cries of terror from the guests when sword blades passed so close to their heads they could feel the draught.
We were ten minutes into the performance when Red Sun froze, sniffed the air and said he smelled gorlix. None of us were quite sure whether he was still telling the tale or not, but then he made his way across the grand dining room to the back door which led to the kitchens, beckoning for me to follow. We moved through the kitchen and into the scullery. There were three of the ugliest kitchen porters I have ever seen. Madame had apparently hired extra staff to cover the function. On seeing a nomad warrior with a drawn sword I assumed they’d shriek or flee but instead one, with a feral snarl, snatched up a heavy pan and threw himself at us. His head leapt from his shoulders before he covered three paces. The other two snatched cleavers from the dirty water and ran at us. One died immediately on Red Sun’s sword but the other, by lunging at me, lived a little longer. I ducked out of the way and the creature made it through the kitchen and stood on the threshold of the grand dining room before Red Sun stuck a killing blow that dropped it on the carpet.
Unfortunately the spray of blood splattered those ladies who had thought to follow us, and then the screaming and shrieking started in earnest. I could no doubt have explained, but frankly I felt it would be far easier if we just left and I wrote a nice letter later, explaining our absence by claiming that Red Sun had run down the road in hot pursuit of other prey and I felt obliged to follow him. As we left I explained to him that whatever I did, it was unlikely I would be invited back, but that frankly I wasn’t too upset by this.
As it was, when Old Bluffer arrived home he was told the story, with my culpability stressed. Much to his lady wife’s irritation, rather than being indignant or even furious, Bluffer merely threw his head back and howled with laughter. Indeed over time he has dined out on the story, with each retelling ensures the story grows and acquires yet more detail.
So in all candour, the version I have just told the truth, such as it is. There may be some small additions but please regard them as merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. But then I am a poet and so not used to flights of fancy.