There are an inordinately large number of people in Port Naain. A fair proportion of them are in possession of considerable quantities of money. Thus the city spawns numerous individuals whose sole reason for existence appears to be to trick others out of their money.
To be fair, I prefer confidence tricksters to muggers, hoods, leg and arm men, flutterers and the like. Indeed there are small minded degenerates who feel that poets and other artists should be included in the ranks of cozeners and allied trades. Whilst obviously I repudiate this, it does leave the question open, how do you decide who is, and who is not, a swindler?
To make the issue clearer to both of us I will discuss Ballan Zealflurt. He entered Port Naain society accompanied by the delightful Velumina. The relationship between them was never quantified. Ballan already had a wife whom he still lived with and who seemed to take part in his business activities. So whilst there was speculation as to whether Velumina was his mistress, business partner, or a daughter by a previous marriage, nobody ever really knew.
Ballan started to teach dance. This is not unusual; there must be hundreds of people teaching dance in Port Naain, to every level of society down almost to the very lowest. But what made Ballan different to the others was he didn’t just teach the usual run of dances. He taught dance as an art. Not only that but he also taught dance as a way of life and to an extent, a form of exercise.
Now if you decide all dancing masters are frauds then Ballan, was a fraud. But few people would say that. (Save perhaps those so debased and degraded that they think poets to be frauds.).
Ballan’s method was simple. He advertised his ladies’ dance classes, allowing gossip to circulate as to how efficacious they were. When interested ladies attended, they were met by Velumina, demure in a diaphanous silk shift. She poured drinks (a light punch which did contain wine, but had plenty of fruit and other ingredients.) Ballan then described his programme. As he did so Velumina would demonstrate the training stances, the formal combinations and the elegant postures. He explained that a lady was encouraged to practice at home, dancing in front of at least one mirror, but ideally three or four. Finally he would explain the terms; there was a comparatively modest fee for classes. There was a slightly higher fee for those who stopped to dine in company at the end of the class. Finally there was the purchase of the costume.
When a lady joined, she purchased a burlap dancing costume. This sack-like garment was designed to allow a lady to dance without restrain, and even without embarrassment. When she reached a certain level, she could purchase a second level costume. This too was burlap but was dyed red. At a third level the lady could buy a third costume, again in burlap, but dyed white, and, especially significant, it came with a black cord which could be used as a belt.
There were three other levels of achievement where the lady would purchase a woollen costume, then one of linen, and finally she was entitled to dance in the ultimate costume, naked, comfortable in her own skin. But for the sake of decency there was a silken costume available every bit as filmy as that worn by Velumina.
In the interests of even-handedness, Ballan stressed that all costumes cost exactly the same amount. He didn’t want any lady to feel that her purse would prevent her from progressing. This is perfectly fair. Where I raised an eyebrow was when I was informed that the price of the costume looked remarkably reasonable for the silken shift, and was only grossly overpriced for the linen, but honestly, you could drape a bridge in burlap for the cost of one practice garment. (Here I wish to stress that I’m not casting aspersions on the size of some of his pupils.)
Still the programme was a success. Certainly it was a financial success. Soon, Ballan’s dance school was an annex of the rather nice house he purchased on the south-eastern edge of Dilbrook convenient to the Merchant Quarter. His pupils would dress in their inordinately expensive burlap garment and follow the silk clad Velumina through a series of moves appropriate to their ability. They would then relax with a glass of punch and finally a pleasant and entirely sensible meal, beautifully cooked. The meal helped turn a potentially disparate collection of pupils into a group of friends, enhancing pupil retention. At last they would make their way home, pleasantly tired.
Perhaps one in three of the ladies graduated beyond the burlap stage. Of them a bare handful made it to linen. This may seem as if the programme was a failure, but let us be fair, any woman who attended his classes and practiced the exercises at home did gain a great deal in the way of posture and grace.
To the best of my knowledge only three ladies made it through to the silk stage, and to a woman, they refused to take the silk. All had reached a stage where they were comfortable enough in their own skin to practice naked in front of the four mirrors. All three ladies had tremendous poise, and all three ladies were an embarrassment to their daughters (and in one case their granddaughters) being repeatedly taken for slightly older siblings.
Purely by chance, and as a part of my duties as a poet assisting his patron, I have danced with all three ladies. As their partner I immediately noticed their grace, their lightness, and their muscle tone.
So I was left wondering. Is Ballan Zealflurt a confidence trickster? True he sells an awful lot of burlap at amazing prices. Many of his ladies will stay with him for years, and every couple of years she’ll buy another burlap gown because the red one she wears is starting to look tired.
But were they cheated?
If you fear being cheated when you visit Port Naain then you really must read
As the reviewer said
“Someone has tried to cheat Benor and his young ‘apprentice’ Mutt. They set out, with a little help, to redress the balance. Another in this series of Port Naain novellas that had me smiling. They are not belly-laugh stories but full of wry, clever and thoughtful humour. Often, it’s the way he tells them. I’m always up for more of these stories.”