It was Harl Bronnen who solved the problem. You see Port Naain can occasionally have a trouble with house fires. How they are tackled depends on the area. If you are in Dilbrook then your household staff rally round, and the neighbours turn up with their servants and pretty soon matters are under control. In the Sump a good house fire that takes out half a street is merely a redevelopment opportunity.
Various ideas had been tried in the past. One was to just expect the city watch to deal with the problem. This had been the theoretical stance for most of my lifetime. It had the advantage that the watch were largely respected, well disciplined and had been known to put themselves at risk to rescue their fellow citizens. It had the disadvantage in that the watch was so small it couldn’t adequately police the city, never mind provide a fire service.
The watch was funded from a miscellany of import duties and tolls. One of the main tasks the watch had was cutting down on smuggling which of course reduced the income for the watch. The argument was made that if there were no smuggling then we could have a force large enough to adequately police the city. The counter-argument was also made that if there wasn’t a watch, and therefore no import duties and tolls, we wouldn’t have smuggling anyway.
It was suggested that a fire fighting force also be funded from tolls, but as these tolls didn’t adequately fund the city watch, it was obviously that it wasn’t going to fund a further body. It was suggested by some that increasing the level of tolls would produce more income that could be directed towards fire-fighting. This was shouted down by those who commented that it would merely increase smuggling. The interesting suggestion that the increased number of smugglers should be given the duty to fight fires in return for a guarantee that they would not be prosecuted did not, in my opinion, get the discussion I felt it deserved.
Some even suggested that there be a scheme where homeowners and landlords could pay into a fund which would cover the costs of fire-fighting. A scheme was floated in Dilbrook which worked reasonably well, but in other areas of the city it fell at the first hurdle. In the Sump most landlords and home owners were of the opinion that a good fire amounted to creative destruction, enabling the building of new properties with higher pretensions toward being structurally sound.
It was after a particularly serious fire in one of the warehouses along Ropewalk that people decided that ‘Something must be done.’ There was a full meeting of the Sinecurists and it was agreed, at the end of the day, that it was a problem the Sinecurists had to tackle. But how? City policy has always been that no Sinecurist should have a force of trained men at their command. That is one reason why the watch is paid, reluctantly, by the city. If would probably be easy enough to make it a sinecure. But of course the watchmen would then look to their paymaster. We adopt the same policy with the Men-at-arms that the city needs. The city as a whole hires Condottieri who provide the soldiery.
The meeting was adjourned for a week, and when it was resumed, it was Harl Bronnen, my occasional Patron and treasured acquaintance, who came up with a solution. A fire watch would be formed, and all the Sinecurists would contribute. Payment would be proportionate to the number of sinecures held, and, to sweeten the pill as it were, officer positions would go to those offspring of Sinecurists who wished to serve. On top of this Harl had a moment of true inspiration, he recommended a uniform for the men of the brigade which involved a helmet to protect their heads, and boots, trousers and jacket in a good black leather. This was chosen because it is reasonably fireproof. He dressed his son Arlan in the uniform. Arlan is a handsome young man, personable and well liked. His helmet glittered like gold and the black leather shone as if polished. There were even brass buttons and a big belt buckle, and any man wearing such an outfit could fancy himself a hero. It was even suggested that there be a cloak for officers, to be worn on formal occasions.
Harl’s suggestion was passed by acclamation, the uniform was universally admired, and a salary scale was set. Recruiting began. Salaries were adequate for the men, and there was an adequate supply of suitable recruits.
Yet it has to be admitted there were problems. When it came to recruiting officers there was a rush of well connected young men, (and some young women,) lured by the glamour of the uniform. However when it was discovered that being an officer meant that you were the one to lead your men into the burning building to rescue anybody trapped there, this tended to dampen enthusiasm. Not only that but after dealing with a few fires, the leather tended to look battered.
Harl Bronnen, temporary acting head of the fire-watch went back to the Sinecurists. He proposed opening up the officer role to offspring of the Sinecurists Minor. The Sinecurists Minor might need explanation. These people are holders of lesser sinecures, often those which cost their holders comparatively small sums of money to fulfil. So, for example, maintaining the lamps along Stonecutter Wharf is a minor sinecure. Lotti Hardstal is the Sinecurist, and she’ll personally top up the three lanterns and light them, on those nights where there are enough folk working for the lamps to be deemed necessary. Frankly I doubt it costs her the price of a couple of decent bottles of wine a year but most people try to avoid these because other than a sense of a job well done, there’s not advantage to be gained.
Harl’s suggestion changed all that. If you take on a sinecure minor, your son or daughter was eligible to apply for an officer’s rank. Thus there was something of a rush for those minor sinecures that came available.
Still there was the issue that the role of an officer in the fire-watch was at least as dirty and as dangerous as that of his or her men. There was a feeling that it was a role that lacked glamour.
It was Harl’s son Arlan who inadvertently supplied the glamour. He was a young man who was not really cut out for the family business. Not only had he no interest in usury but he was chronically sea sick. After modelling for the uniform he applied for a commission as an officer and threw himself into the role. At last he found something he excelled at. His team of fire-watchers were devoted to him; not only was he brave and competent, he looked after ‘his people’ on duty or off.
Finally, there was the Newell Square fire. The true story has yet to be told, but from my sources, it seems that it was deliberate arson. A small band of desperados broke into the house of Usurer Galas Bant with two aims. The first and obvious one was that they hoped to steal any cash they could find. The second, theoretically more valuable, was that they wanted to burn the usurer’s records. It was only when they broke into the first floor office that the criminals discovered just how many records there were; far too many to carry out. Indeed they tried burning them in the fireplace but realised this would take them all night and well into the next day. So in a moment of madness they decided to just set fire to the room. They were discovered as they did this, and fled leaving the room well alight.
Galas Bant was absent at the time, and his wife took command and concentrated on getting the children out. Unfortunately their oldest daughter had a room on the top floor and by the time Madam Bant had got the youngest children out, she was driven back by the flames as she tried to get back in.
It was at this point that Arlan and his team arrived. They turned their hand-pumped hoses onto the doorway and Arlan charged in, having instructed his team to keep the hoses pumping. After a harrowing few minutes he rescued the daughter and carried her out of the door. This would have passed unremarked by polite society had not Ingenious Trool, an accomplished young painter, not been one of the spectators.
It is his interpretation of the scene that we’ve all seen. I was with Arlan when the painting was unveiled. Privily Arlan assures me that he left the building running so quickly that three of his fire-watchers had had to catch him lest he end up running into their hand-pump. His face was blackened, he’d lost half of his moustache, and he had the girl slung over one shoulder. Finally his helmet was askew where he’d run into a door jamb in the smoke. In spite of this the painting won him several proposals of marriage which he turned down citing his being wedded to his work.
Still, according to my niece, Grisla, who knows the daughter of Usurer Bant surprisingly well; in two or three years time, Arlan is going to have to come up with a far better excuse than that if he wishes to remain single.