Normally it’s Shena that gets me caught up in other peoples’ problems. Or, to be more precise, it’s her friends who bring me trouble. In this case however, I lay the entire blame at Mutt’s door.
Thinking about it, Mutt’s door is actually ours, so I suspect I’ll get the blame anyway.
Still, I was making a leisurely luncheon when Mutt appeared. Unusually he seemed a little nervous. If he’d possessed a cap I felt sure he’d be wringing it.
I decided to break the ice in our conversation. “Problems Mutt?”
“No.” He paused, “Well not my problems.” He then looked uncomfortable, “Goffa, the colourist of artificial fish, has broken his leg.”
Now I’m not perhaps entirely up-to-date with the latest trends in the colouring of artificial fish, but I’m sure that it can still be done by somebody sitting down with their leg in plaster. There was obviously something else that Mutt wasn’t telling me.
I managed to sound perplexed. “It isn’t as if he was still a house painter’s gymnast. How does a broken leg stop him colouring artificial fish?”
“It don’t but he can’t lead the mule with a broken leg.”
I felt the conversation was escaping me. “What exactly am I expected to do about it?”
“Come and lead the mule.”
I have been well taught. Indeed I have studied under the master. I held out my hand. “It’ll cost.”
I finally arrived at the garret room Goffa shared with his wife Lilsa. Goffa was struggling to get about with a crutch. When she saw me, Lilsa’s face lit up. “I’m glad you’ve offered to help, Mutt said you would.”
“I’m totally untutored in the ways of artificial fish, although I’ve had more experience with mules.”
Goffa abandoned his attempts to walk about and sank down into a chair. “The problem’s the wine.”
I nodded wisely. “Yes, drink can do funny things to a chap’s sense of balance. I know any number of people who’ve had bad experiences after a glass or two too many.”
Mutt elbowed me. “You’re not ‘elping. Shut up an listen.”
Goffa continued. “Lilsa works for Burnet and Nephews, the wine merchants.”
I was impressed. Burnet and Nephews dealt only with the finest wines. Their cheapest bottle would be far out of my reach. They dealt direct with the finest vineyards.
I nodded, wary of interrupting his flow. He continued. “They had a customer who was looking for some Talvaet West Slope, year of the flatulent tax assessor.”
Even I had heard of the Talvaet family. Their vineyards were to the east of Fluance. Very little of their wine ever came on the market, the family preferring to drink their own vintages.”
I asked, “A good year?”
“Excellent. Apparently there was a family wedding and old Talvaet paid for it by handing out a handful of his finest wines to the suppliers. Ever since he’s refused point blank to release any more.”
I nodded wisely, wondering why on earth I was being told this. Goffa lapsed into silence as if he’d adequately explained everything. Finally Mutt stirred.
“What Goffa means is that he an Lilsa have been making Talvaet west Slope, year of the flatulent tax assessor, and selling it to Burnet and Nephews.”
“Making it?” I was intrigued. “Won’t anybody notice?”
“Not a chance,” Lilsa replied, grinning slightly. “It’s far too expensive to drink; people are buying it for an investment.”
“So how do you make it?”
Goffa lifted his plastered leg and Mutt kicked a stool across for him to rest his foot on. “Thanks Mutt. Making it is easy. I just buy a bottle of Teaser’s Folly. You know it?”
I did. Teaser’s Folly is a good red wine. It lacks pretensions but at six bottles to the silver vintenar it’s my first choice if forced to entertain.
Goffa continued. “Well I boil up three or four pieces of chopped fruit in a pan; then render the liquid down until there’s perhaps a wine glass full left. Into that I stir a spoonful of honey, and add just the faintest hint of blackstrap molasses. Then I share the contents of the wineglass between six bottles.”
I was genuinely intrigued; “Does it work?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know, nobody has ever opened one of them.”
“What happens when they do?”
He shrugged again. “They think they’re buying it from a bent steward who’s selling it off without his master’s permission. Because of this they’ve paid at least ten alars a bottle so they’ll damned well enjoy it.”
I was stunned into silence. Finally I managed to speak. “You buy six bottles for a vintenar and sell them for sixty alars! Why that’s….” Here I was genuinely struggling with the size of the numbers. “It’s, it’s….”
“’Profitable’ is the word you’re looking for Tallis.” It was Lilsa who put me out of my misery. Sixty golden alars is one thousand five hundred silver vintenars. So we spend one and get fifteen hundred back.”
I looked round the garret. “On that sort of profit why are you still living here?”
Mutt obviously shared my perplexity. “Yeah, I wondered that.”
Lilsa rested a hand on Goffa’s shoulder. “We have a dream. We want our own vineyard.”
I was impressed. That was some dream. “How far are you off being able to afford it?”
“Oh we’ve bought it; we just need to move this last consignment. That’s why we need you. Goffa cannot walk with the mule, and obviously everybody at Burnet and Nephews knows me.”
“So what do I have to do?”
Lilsa kissed me on the cheek. “Just go with Mutt, he’ll sort it.”
Mutt took me downstairs to the ‘shop’ where Goffa coloured his fish. There were two dozen bottles, each with the authentic hand-painted Talvaet wine label. Each bottle was also in its individual hand plaited straw carrying case to protect it from the rigours of the journey. These we loaded into a wheelbarrow and covered with a pile of old sacking and took them down to Stonecutter’s Wharf. There I wheeled the barrow along a plank onto a stone barge that was returning upstream. Mutt and I sat in the hold with our barrow as the barge cast off, raised sail and made its way upstream. It was some hours later when the barge nudged against one of the small fishing piers to the east of the city. There we were met by a small girl leading a mule with a complicated pack saddle. Mutt handed her coins and together we loaded the mule.
Mutt then led me along quiet tracks that seemed to skirt hamlets rather than join them. Finally as night was falling we hit the road that comes into Port Naain from the east. Mutt relaxed a bit at this. “We’s almost there.”
He led me a couple of hundred yards to a hump-back bridge. On the other side there were two men waiting with a cart. As we crossed the bridge they stood up as if it had been us they had been waiting for. Mutt gestured for me to stop and stepped forward.
“We got it.”
One of the men stepped forward and studied me carefully. Even in the dim light it was obvious he was well dressed. “Who’s he?”
Mutt glanced back at me. “Oh him, yer man broke is leg. So we fetched the idiot to do the heavy lifting.”
The well dressed man checked the bottles in the panniers. “Two dozen? We got the money.”
Mutt watched him, his face featureless. “Yeah, and he said you’d tip the idiot as well.”
The man put his hand in his pocket; I saw a glint of silver. Mutt said, “He’s been promised gold.”
“Yeah, you can afford it. I sin the price you sell this stuff on for.”
The man handed me a gold alar coin, and passed a pouch of money to Mutt. Mutt stepped back behind me and opened the pouch to assess the contents. Apparently happy he turned to me. “Get the stuff on their cart. We’ve got to be back before we’re missed.”
I unloaded the mule and the other two stacked the bottles in the cart, packing them with lose straw and finally throwing a canvas sheet over it and tying it down.
Once the cart was loaded, Mutt nudged me and silently we crossed over the bridge and made our way back down the road. The girl came out of the shadows to collect her mule.
Mutt gave her another coin and as she faded into the darkness he pointed west. “I always take a different way back. Don’t feel safe carrying all this money. Someone might a bin following us.”
With that he led me down paths I’d never have found on my own in day light. Finally we crossed the Three Mills Beck and entered the city.
Once in Dilbrook he patted me on the back. “Right Tallis, you know your way home from here, I’ll travel faster and safer without you.”
With that he disappeared through a garden hedge. With no better alternative, I made my way back to the barge.
It’s funny, but it was only this morning this story came to mind. Obviously Goffa and Lilsa achieved their dream and within hours of getting the money from Mutt, they’d moved out of Port Naain to their vineyard. I just put the whole episode down to experience and got on with life.
But earlier today I picked up a discarded copy of the Port Naain Intelligencer in the Misanthropes Hall and cast an idle eye over it. There on one of the inside pages, amongst the hangings and spectacular adulteries, there was something that might even have passed for journalism.
Goffa, in his capacity as chairman of the Great Market Guild of Vine Growers, was waxing wrathful at the antics of those in Port Naain who were robbing folk by passing off cheap plonk as genuine Great Market quality wines.
I silently raised a glass to his memory.