I suppose it is inevitable. If two attractive unmarried ladies decide to run a boarding house, specialising in providing homely accommodation for single men; there will be gossip.
All the more so when the aforementioned ladies seemed to have plenty of time to lean out of the windows looking attractive and exchanging cheerful banter with passers-by.
Still to be honest they might have escaped my notice, after all Port Naain is a large city. But Raswil Muldecker the usurer brought the situation to my notice. His was not the outrage of a man worried about the damage loose morals might do to society; his was a more specific outrage. He had a number of clerks, men of undoubted integrity. Single and of sober habit they would live in respectable boarding houses. But over the previous months he’d noticed a worrying trend. One of his clerks would move into the ‘Home from Home’ boarding house run by these two ladies. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he would fade from view. First his social life would go, and then finally he would disappear altogether.
One clerk would be a nuisance, two an unfortunate coincidence, but when he lost his third clerk he felt that this was becoming a drain on his business. So of all people he summoned me. It might be he remembered the good service I did when I acted as a Pecuniary Intermediary, but honesty compels me to say it is more probable that he regarded me as comparatively cheap and almost entirely expendable.
Still he dropped a gold coin onto my palm. As an aside this is an excellent policy. Remunerating poets in silver is unkind, there are so few reasonable rhymes should a grateful artist try and express his gratitude in verse. As for paying in brass or copper, I would suggest that you don’t even consider it, the rhymes are numerous and mainly derogatory.
Hence I was presented with the problem of the Mesdames Galfey and their boarding house. There were all sorts of possibilities to consider. In many areas it is almost traditional in these circumstances for the gentleman to be lured into an apparently respectable house, spend his night in wild erotic pleasures with his hostess, and to awake next morning in the charred remnants of a building which had fallen into ruin a century before. I couldn’t imagine this happening in Port Naain, people would eventually notice.
There were other possibilities to consider, but I remembered the old saw, ‘Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.’ Still the situation was not without its dangers, and whilst not single, I realised I could still be at risk. Then I had a moment of inspiration. I took young Mutt to one side and asked him to reconnoitre for me. Ten year old boys are notoriously immune from feminine wiles and given his speed and agility he should be perfectly safe. Admittedly I had to drop a silver vintenar into his outstretched palm, but given he has no aspirations to versifying I felt safe in doing so.
We discussed possible approaches and it was finally agreed that he would wait until after dusk. We felt this would be when most of those living there would be in the building and the ladies would undoubtedly be busy preparing meals and suchlike. Therefore I lingered a little way down the street, sitting outside an alehouse sipping ale and apparently a peace with the world whilst Mutt ventured upon our joint expedition. He returned half an hour later looking most perplexed.
“What did you discover Mutt?”
“It’s odd. Ev’y room ‘ad a man in it. All working damned hard, all talking to somebody, but there were nobody there.”
“Where were the two ladies?”
“Alone in their parlour drinking wine and reading.”
I have, in my time, stayed in a wide range of lodgings. Never had I stayed in one like this. As Mutt so profoundly observed, it was odd. I decided that I must investigate in person. So I finished my drink and followed Mutt back to the boarding house. We crept along the side wall and I peered through the first window. It was the kitchen. In it I saw an incongruous scene. A middle aged clerk had plunged into the task of cooking a meal for at least a dozen without having even loosened his tie. If that wasn’t strange enough, he was talking to somebody; even through there was nobody there. I listened; whoever he was talking to was obviously female, and as I lingered I began to hear the replies. A woman was replying in seductive tones which ran fingers up and down my spine. Yet there was no woman there.
But even as I watched I began to see somebody. One of the Mesdames Galfey was sitting in a pose that might be considered enticing, and was engaging in conversation with the man who was working so hard in her kitchen.
Luckily at that point Mutt tugged my leg, he had feared I was about to climb in through the window, so strong was the glamour cast. I shook my head to try and clear it and we made our way to the next window. Through this I could see another clerk, this time working busily with an iron, making steady inroads into a large pile of neatly folded laundry. He too was talking to somebody, and as I crouched there, I began to hear the lady’s replies and when I risked a glance over the window ledge, I caught a glimpse of her. On my guard after my previous experience I ducked down and scurried away.
Mutt and I made a circuit of the house, even entering through a back door and creeping upstairs to hear men busily cleaning bedrooms. In each room, if I waited long enough, I became powerfully away of the disturbing presence of one of the ladies, who seemed to be talking to the man in the room in the most intimate of terms. Yet when we looked through the parlour window, the two ladies were happily engrossed in their books; Mutt and I crept away, perplexed.
I reported back to Raswil Muldecker. He too was forced to admit his bemusement. It was agreed that I would continue to observe the place and see if anything else happened to explain why the men finally disappeared. It was two weeks before I had the breakthrough I needed. I saw Yoros Zare enter the house. He does not have an entirely salubrious reputation, for all that many of his family practice law. They also have other, less wholesome interests. I made my way back to the house and with Mutt watching out to ensure I wasn’t discovered; I listened at the parlour window.
I didn’t hear all of the conversation, but Zare spoke in glowing terms to the ladies. It appears that his contacts in Uttermost Partann were delighted with the gentlemen he had been sending them. Indeed so popular had these gentlemen become that satisfied customers were bragging to their friends and acquaintances. The market was growing and he would happily take all the men the Mesdames Galfey wished to put his way at four hundred alars apiece.
As Zare continued I could see why the scheme was such a success. The concubines of bandit chieftains lurking in squalid keeps in Uttermost Partann have no lack of overly muscular and excessively masculine company. But finding somebody who can press lace properly, or produce a soufflé which doesn’t collapse before it is even brought out of the oven can be a nightmare. If you find someone who can do all these, has a nice knack with silver polish and can keep your accounts in a good round hand, then obviously you snap them up before all your friends get one.
Next morning I was the first visitor to call upon Raswil Muldecker. I explained what I had discovered and we sat in thoughtful silence. The implications were profound. Obviously there was the matter of the clerks. The Muldecker family dislike going to the expense of training clerks only to have them whisked off to Uttermost Partann to become pastry chefs and laundrymen. But things didn’t stop there. Uttermost Partann is not an infinite market; sooner or later it would become saturated. What if the Mesdames Galfey were forced to sell their produce further north? Even more worrying, what if the ladies of Port Naain heard that such a service was available?
Muldecker is not somebody I normally warm to, but even I have to admit he is decisive. Within the day he’d worked his way through Port Naain’s ragtag assortment of petty mages for hire to see if they could tell him how this glamour could be countered.
Frankly dissatisfied by their evasive answers which all seemed to boil down to ‘this sort of thing is not our area of expertise’ he decided to use more direct action. One day when the gentlemen were at work and both ladies were out at some function or the other, there was a burglary at the house. In the course of which somebody must have knocked over a lantern and started a fire. If you’re foolish enough to ask why a burglar needs a lantern in the middle of the day, then you’ll probably express surprise that the Mesdames Galfey appear to have been storing a dozen barrels of spirit in the same room. It must be admitted that when I saw the building next day, it did have the look of being the charred remnants of a building which had fallen into ruin a century before.
The Mesdames faded from the scene. I heard rumours from Fluance, then again from Avitas, but my suspicion is that they crossed the Slash into the wild lands beyond. There, it must be admitted, their civilising techniques, however unethical, could well be regarded as a force for good.
As an aside, I have been prodded by my creditors who wish me to remind you that a collection of my tales is available for purchase for a mere 99p