It’s sad really; people seem to think that Port Naain is a city that stinks of squalor and degradation. But there are many genuinely pleasant areas. One of the nicest is the Mercantile Quarter. It is to the west of the Grand Library and spreads down the side of the hill. The part that overlooks both the estuary and the wharves tends to be strait-laced and even fuddy-duddy. There you find the offices and homes of lawyers, usurers, shipping companies, actuaries, brokers, money-lenders and jurists. The other part of the Mercantile Quarter which looks down to the sea is far more iconoclastic, where the affluent free-spirits, dilettantes and dabblers gather in pretty cafes and moan together at how difficult life is for the merely well-heeled.
Over the years I have had dealings in that quarter, but to be honest, I’m more likely to be seen there running errands for Shena (when she’s dealing with brokers and various agents) than I am to be seen on my way to entertain a patron. By and large the more dissenting members of this prosperous community look down on those who have to make a living from their art.
Still I do have friends in the area and it doesn’t hurt to be seen there occasionally. Just make sure you are dressed casually but to perfection.
One of the more pleasant cafes is Ninno’s. Ninno is a thin faced, perpetually harassed woman who always looks as if fate is planning to destroy her. The tables are casually placed about an informal square, and one can sit and gaze out across the ocean. I have spent many pleasant hours there at table with friends, just enjoying the coffee and the conversation. The service is brisk but unobtrusive and the tariff reasonable. But about the whole establishment hangs the faint stench of fear.
Off to one side is a table a little by itself. There are two chairs; one is always occupied by Madam Jollie. The other chair is only sporadically occupied. The occupier, always a woman, always sits with her back to the rest of the patrons, and can enter and leave her seat without entering the café proper, she merely has to slip in or out through a gap in a trellis overburdened with climbing plants.
Madam Jollie does not talk to the other guests; indeed she does not leave her table. Those who wait upon the tables don’t venture near her unless she raises a finger at which point one of them will make their way swiftly across to see what she wants.
From her seat in Ninno’s, Madam has spun a web of treason and lies which spreads through much of Port Naain. Madam is hated and feared but never lacks polite invitations to events she rarely bothers to attend. The women who attend upon her fall into two classes; the betrayers and the betrayed. Anyone in domestic service who stumbles upon incriminating papers knows that Madam Jollie has a reputation as a generous buyer. Similarly many a lady has received a politely phrased and elegantly written note inviting her to take a glass of infusion with Madam Jollie at her table in Ninno’s. Those accepting the invitation know they go to tense and expensive rendezvous. Those who ignore the invitation, or having accepted refuse to pay the price will inevitably face ruin.
One afternoon I was intending to meet friend and appropriated the table nearest Madam’s table. In spite of the view being excellent, it’s normally empty. For myself I have no fears, it may be possible to blackmail a poet but I’ve never seen it done successfully. When I took my seat I noticed Madam sitting there, her hat brim shading her face, facing away from the sea as if waiting for somebody to occupy the empty chair facing her. I thought nothing about it, called for coffee and started work on some verse provoked by the view. My friend was late and I called for another cup of coffee. The young lady who served me placed the cup down carefully, looked round to see if we were being observed and then whispered, “Have you noticed any movement from Madam Jollie?”
I didn’t look up but merely commented, “I’ve heard no signs of movement.” As I thought about it this seemed strange, everybody will shift a little in their seat from time to time.
“She was there when we arrived and hasn’t asked for anything. But none of us want to disturb her.”
I smiled up at her. “I am a poet, a man without fear, and impossible to blackmail on the grounds I am perpetually penurious. I shall introduce myself to her.”
The young lady retired to the safety of the counter and from there watched me. I arose, turned and walked across to where Madam was sitting. I bowed low. “Madam Jollie, may I introduce myself, I am Tallis Steelyard.”
I am not sure what sort of response I expected to elicit but I was surprised to be totally ignored. I stood up again and stepped as if to take the chair opposite her. As I did so I looked at her, intending to match my next action to the expression on her face. Instead she continued to sit with her head a little forward as a lady might when dozing in the sun. But the front of her white blouse was stained red.
Hastily I stepped forward and removed her hat. Her sightless eyes stared unseeing at the table. Protruding from her chest was the slim hilt of a stiletto dagger, the sort a lady of good breeding might carry about her person if she felt she might have to defend herself. Gently I rested my hand on the shoulder of Madam Jollie’s corpse. I attempted to move it but nothing happened. The dagger had been driven in with so much passion it had pinned the cadaver to the chair, preventing it from slumping forward.
Quietly I made my way across to the counter to break the news.
For someone a reprieve
A web of tight weave
Slashed by one swift blow.
Some lady luscious?
Or cold and bloodless?
Has veiled the name of her beaux
Perhaps a dutiful wife
With one thrust of the knife
Gave Jollie a coffin trousseau?
Now anybody can travel to Port Naain, and join with Tallis and friends in peering under the surface of the city
As a reviewer commented, “An assortment of Tallis Steelyard tales to make the reader chuckle, laugh, wipe away a sad tear, and all emotions in between.
Every story is a stand-alone gem.”