In spite of some of the memories, (Who now remembers the nipple-tassel poisoner?) I fondly recall performing at the house of the younger madam Oliphal. Her maid, Lottie, was determined to keep on top of things. She’d even prepared a wide selection of mop overshoes. So every guest who arrived, no matter who they were, was handed an appropriately sized pair of these to slip over their shoes, to ensure they didn’t trample dirt into the house.
When I first performed there, Lottie was probably about twelve or thirteen and it was her first position. Thus she was perhaps more influenced by the younger madam than an older maid would have been.
When there was only the two of them living in the house, Madam Efilia Oliphal only used one upstairs room and Lottie of course slept in the maid’s room off the servants’ pantry next to the kitchen. The unused upstairs rooms were immaculate. Each had its bed aired, and each got clean linen every week even if nobody had slept in the bed. Indeed so tidy were these rooms that other ladies would send their maids to see what could be achieved. These young women would tiptoe around the house, (wearing the overshoes obviously) and would carefully open the doors (whilst wearing gloves to prevent fingerprints) and peer, awestruck, into the rooms.
Downstairs was less pristine. Madam and her maid had to live somewhere. But still it had not always been like this. In the time of Master Oliphal and his wife, the older madam Oliphal, the house had been a hive of activity. The Oliphal School for young assassins was well regarded by those who keep abreast of such things. So at any given time there would be half a dozen young men and women going about their studies.
Master Oliphal was happy enough to provide a home for his younger sister Efilia when she was widowed, and so she joined the household but in all candour never entirely entered into the spirit of the enterprise.
Assassination in Port Naain and in Partann generally is not a respected trade, but is regarded by all and sundry as a necessary adjunct to civic life. In Partann there is plenty of work available, although the practitioners favoured by the locals tend towards the more brutal end of the spectrum. In Port Naain, attitudes are more sophisticated. It is generally held that killing one’s opponents is a barbarous act. Whilst it might indeed remove a rival, it does so with one brief period of suffering. Within Port Naain it is considered far better if the rival is kidnapped and disappears into indentured servitude somewhere, far from prying eyes. Thus and so the successful striver can sleep peacefully in her or his bed, secure in the knowledge that their fallen rivals live on in anonymous poverty and suffering, capable of doing no more than calling down futile curses on their name.
Master Oliphal it was who created the syllabus. He wished his assassins to be persons capable of blending into society at any level. Thus he brought in poets and playwrights to teach them, as well as usurers and apothecaries. His wife, the older madam Oliphal, was more interested in technicalities and technology. She it was who invented the armoured corset. To create this she replaced whalebone with strips of sprung steel and over this foundation she fastened overlapping ribbons of steel which could block a knife blow. The whole was padded on the inside to ensure it fitted the wearer perfectly. It was then finished by being sewn into an elegantly ornamented silk covering. I have been told that when presented with one, you couldn’t tell it was not a conventional corset. (Until you picked it up and the somewhat greater weight gave it away.)
The gentleman’s version was worn with a heavily starched white shirt, the stiffened fabric of the wing collar being sturdy enough to deflect a knife thrust.
Feeling that her assassins were adequately protected the older madam Oliphal then produced the Assassin’s Bustier. This garment could be worn with the corset, and instead of padding used compressed air reservoirs to achieve the same effect. When the bustier was aligned properly with the dress and various catches were fastened, the wearer could use the compressed air to fire two darts at her target.
Finally for men she produced the Oliphal Hat. This was a formal hat of common design which hid within it a compressed air reservoir and a blowpipe. When a gentleman bowed to greet his target, (in itself no mean feat if wearing the wing collar,) he merely had to press a catch on his belt buckle which allowed the front of the hat to rise. The mechanism would slide the blowpipe out and blast a choking cloud of powder into the face of the victim. Normally this powder would anaesthetise the quarry, thus allowing them to be smuggled away. By the time they awoke they’d almost certainly be shaved bald and dressed in rags, chained as a drudge to some dismal mechanism in a great machine shop with no windows.
As well as these more sensational developments, there were other techniques, other mechanisms and other students who were regarded as expendable and were taught only one procedure. Over these I draw a veil; there are things too distasteful for discussion even in Port Naain. Even the lowest in society shun those whose conversation turns to nipple-tassels.
Now there are problems which arise when you run a school for assassins. The major one is that your fellow citizens lack appreciation of your efforts. Strangely folk do not seem to care that the person trying to kill them is the beneficiary of an excellent education. The fact that they are to be killed by somebody who has learned poetry sitting at the feet of the finest poet of his generation weighs not at all! Hence the Oliphals acquired enemies at almost the same rate that they acquired clients.
Eventually the inevitable happened. The Law, which in Port Naain can move at a tardiness which sees continents waft past it, finally turned its dreadful gaze upon them. The school dispersed and husband and wife disappeared west over the mountains leaving the younger madam Oliphal to deal with the consequences. Given that the whole process took less than seven minutes, the younger madam was a little taken aback. I was peripherally involved on that day. I was giving a lecture on the poets circle in Nineteenth Aeon Prae Ducis. In the time it took me to expound on their four different variants of the sestet, the house emptied.
Madam, Lottie and I were left staring blankly at each other. Finally Lottie went to see just who was hammering on the front door and returned bearing the visiting cards of several senior members of the judiciary. Madam told Lottie to invite them in and five minutes later they arrived, shuffling a little in their mop overshoes.
After a lot of havering, the assembled worthies decided that Madam was hardly to be blamed for what had been going on but instructed her to contact her erring sibling and inform him that the Law wished to have what would obviously prove a difficult conversation with him. This she promised to do, sending a letter by carrier to an address in Meor.
She did this faithfully until the year she died, and since then Lottie has taken over that task. Lottie now lives alone in a house that for much of the time is a fane dedicated to the worship of order and silence. But even Lottie feels the need to be sociable from time to time. Thus and so, occasionally she will act as hostess for a poetry reading in the kitchen. This room, a haven of homeliness in a house that is preternaturally clean and tidy, becomes briefly a place of hospitality and good cheer.
And so, for a short time, some of the old crew will forgather. It will be a pleasant evening, a happy meeting of old friends, all of whom are far too circumspect to mention the nipple-tassel poisoner.
As an aside I think I mentioned that I have decided to produce a second volume, to be called
‘Tallis Steelyard, a harsh winter and other stories.’
It is to be available at the start of June.
It struck me that it’s time I did something about promoting this work, lest excellence go unnoticed. So if there is anybody reading this who would like me to write a short piece on their blog, pray contact Jim Webster to whom I’ve delegated this project.
Don’t be shy, get in touch.