It isn’t often that Tallis Steelyard, the leading poet of his generation, is summoned to assist a maiden in distress. This, I would hasten to add, is not due any lack of chivalric feeling on my part, but frankly as a poet I am not the obvious choice when a lady wants a champion in armour bearing sword of obvious utility.
But still, it is a strange world, and Penaloe Shortwheel was a strange young lady. She was brought up to aspire. Her family were poor, but not so poor that they didn’t value soap. Their clothes might be threadbare but they were always clean. Also her mother always told her to aim high and marry the best man she could.
So at the age of fourteen Penaloe, petite, pretty and apparently self-possessed got a job in a shop selling clothes for women; a shop so prestigious that it was really an emporium. In reality she should never even have been considered for the job but she was so self-assured and ostentatiously competent Madam Deal was left quite flustered by her and hired her instead of picking an older woman with experience.
At the shop she flourished. Older ladies found her competence and obvious self-possession reassuring. Younger ladies were not challenged by a pretty child. She learned her trade, had a good eye for colour and line and was obviously going to go places.
Now in all these emporia, whilst they are largely female worlds, there is always, tucked away somewhere, rarely on display, the token male. Somebody has to be on hand to do the dirty jobs, the jobs that might end up with nails being broken or hair left disarrayed, or clothing left grubby. Somebody, quite frankly, has to clean out the privies and carry in coal and kindling.
In this establishment this all fell to Braddoe. When hired he was a charity boy of thirteen, thin and gangling, and lived in awed terror of Penaloe. Girls mature earlier than boys, so a fourteen year old girl is a terrifying thing of wonder to a thirteen year old boy; devastatingly sophisticated and utterly beyond reach.
As time passed, Penaloe grew older, blossomed into beauty as opposed to mere prettiness, but retained her cool self-possession and capability. But she now reached the age when a young lady could expect gentlemen admirers. Unfortunately in Penaloe’s case these did not appear. Some of it was fate. Selling clothes to ladies means that the only males you meet tend to be bored husbands, and their wives watch them like a hawk in your presence. Outside her working life, she would have nothing to do with the boys who lived around her, they were going nowhere and she was not going to be dragged down to the life her mother had led. Hence the only male in her life was the gangling and perpetually grubby Braddoe whom she ignored totally.
Between ourselves, I suspect that there was also a deeper reason. Penaloe’s competence cannot be denied. Yet I suspect her self-possession was a façade. There were hints perhaps that it masked a terror of failing, of falling back, of not being as good as she could be. Setting sail on the seas of romance may have frankly petrified her; what if she proved to be ‘no good at it?’ So she retreated even further behind the façade.
Yet to be seen as successful, a young lady needs admirers. If she didn’t have one, she would be seen as a failure. So she had to have one. In the end she invented Calan Jest. Calan was one of the many mercenary horsemen who form the retinues of our great Condottieri. Obviously he was away for long periods, performing valorous deeds and whatever it is such soldiers do. (Penaloe was a little vague on the details and hadn’t ever worked up the courage to discuss these matters with a real horse soldier; even though there was no shortage of gallant young men who would have been delighted to take a beautiful young woman like her out to dinner.)
Still she now had an admirer, whom she could drop into conversations when necessary. He even had the advantages that he was very low maintenance and never got underfoot.
Unfortunately there was the sad incident of the robbery. Penaloe was working late and stayed to help Mistress Bostock to lock up. Mistress Bostock was a frankly terrifying old termagant who handled the money for Madam Deal. Penaloe was working in the back storeroom when she heard shouts. She rushed through, still carrying her pinking shears. She was in time to see somebody strike Mistress Bostock with a dagger and grab a bag with the week’s takings in. Mistress Bostock collapsed, but fell clutching at the bag. This spilled some of the coins onto the floor but the robber kicked the dying woman’s hands away and fled.
Penaloe, faced with a woman dying in a pool of her own blood immediately tried to staunch the bleeding. She sat on the floor with Mistress Bostock’s head cradled in her lap and tried to stop the older woman’s life blood ebbing away. She shouted for help but none came. At this point she may even have suffered from shock, because she picked up the coins she could reach, promising Mistress Bostock that if she didn’t die, Penaloe would wash them for her. She stuffed them in her apron pocket as a guarantee of her promise. Eventually she realised that Mistress Bostock was indeed dead. In a state of shock Penaloe made her way through town, sodden with blood. It was in this state that she was picked up by the watch who went back to the shop with her and found the dead body and next to it a pair of blood soaked pinking shears.
Next day Penaloe was in front of the judge accused of murdering Mistress Bostock and stealing the money. The evidence was that Mistress Bostock had been stabbed using Penaloe’s pinking shears, and Penaloe still had some of the money on her.
Tildus Thallawell was the judge. Back then he did a few criminal cases. He admitted considerable disquiet about the case for the prosecution, then he called the case for the defence and Penaloe told her story.
“Ah,” said Judge Thallawell, “have you any witnesses?”
Now this was a problem, there were none. Then still probably in shock, Penaloe said, “Yes Calan Jest had called to collect me having just returned from the south and he saw it all, he even set of in pursuit of the killer. Perhaps he’s followed him back into Partann.”
To be fair to old Thallawell he was no fool. He announced that Peneloe would not be sentenced but must remain as a ‘guest’ in the Houses of Licentiousness. There she would not be indentured and made to sift through the clam eggs in the great tanks of cold water, but instead would be placed on the staff. She would be allowed to leave when Calan Jest arrived back to vouch for her.
Thus she worked in a small cell-like room, cleaning and drying the thin towels that the indentured inmates were allowed to use.
It is at this time that young Braddoe came to see me. He told me the full story. Then he added, “Tallis, you must help me rescue Penaloe.”
Now I have got people out of there before, but they were not held as she was. So I wasn’t exactly rushing to put forward my ideas.
“What exactly had you got in mind, Braddoe?”
“I’ll dress up as a soldier and claim to be Calan Jest and vouch for her, and then they’ll let her go.”
I looked at him. Yes he was filling out, but frankly he still looked like the token male in a ladies’ clothes emporium. Still we could try.
I took him to meet Lord Cartin. I explained what Braddoe wanted, but was somewhat vague as to why. Lord Cartin summoned Taldor Vectkin as his master of horse and pointed to Braddoe.
“Taldor, how long to make a soldier of him.”
Taldor looked at the young man. “Three months training and then he’ll be ready for a season in Partann. So in a year’s time he’ll be a soldier.”
Lord Cartin turned to Braddoe. “I assume you’re trying to impress a young lady? Is she worth a year of your life?”
Braddoe looked a bit sick to be honest but in a small voice said, “Yes, I think so.”
Lord Cartin merely smiled at him, turned to Taldor and said, “He’s all yours.”
Well as always these things take longer than you’d think. In three months Braddoe did ride south as a young recruit on his first campaign, but because of the way these things happen, it was nearly two years later when he rode north. He would send me occasional letters, mainly asking how Penaloe was and whether she was still incarcerated, and I’d always go to visit her and then I’d tell him she was fine.
Finally he rode north, collected me and we went to see Judge Thallawell. He listened to the young man, and whatever he actually believed, accepted his statement in support of Penaloe. So he gave us a warrant for her release and with that we made our way to the Houses of Licentiousness.
Now what you must remember is that whilst Braddoe had ridden south, Calan Jest had returned. He was bronzed, thick set, and carried not an ounce of spare flesh. He walked briskly through Port Naain in his travelling mail, his long sword banging against his leg at every step. At the Warden’s office we presented the warrant and Penaloe was brought out of her room and handed over to Calan Jest as a free woman.
If she had been left in shock by the murder, then I think the return of her imaginary gentleman admirer, now solid and made flesh, was as big a shock. We took her back to the barge, and Shena, my lady wife made her welcome and kicked Calan and I out to fend for ourselves. This we did with modest success, and next day we presented ourselves once more at the barge. We had slept in the barracks at Lord Cartin’s mansion and Calan’s comrades had come to his assistance. By the time they’d finished polishing his armour and his other accoutrements; he would have out-shone a prince.
Fortunately Shena had summoned friends and they had done much the same service for Penaloe. So when I ushered Calan into the barge, he was greeted by Penaloe, radiant beautiful and dressed to perfection, sitting waiting for him.
As in all these things, both had to compromise. Penaloe got Calan but she got a Calan who was not entirely as she imagined. Similarly Braddoe acquired Penaloe, but he acquired both the Penaloe he loved and the Penaloe he was in awe of.
But over the years it seems to have worked out not too badly for them.
Should you wish to know more of Port Naain, and perhaps rub shoulders once more with Lord Cartin and Taldor Vectkin
As a reviewer commented, “Reading these Port Naain stories is like revisiting old friends. I’m very fond of the character Benor, the cartographer, who has been engaged to map a tomb-yard, measure the mausoleums and note down the inscriptions. He’s assisted by young Mutt who now demands higher pay as he’s an apprentice. While at the tomb-yard, they overhear evidence pointing to who is responsible for the death of young girls from a local large estate. As the title implies – things turn a tad spooky.
As always, the humour’s wry, the characters are believable and there are more stories promised.”