Sakes was one of those lady’s dress shops which nobody really talked about. No lady in Port Naain ever swept into a room in a new gown and announced, “This is what I got from Sakes.” On the other hand many ladies would whisper to a friend, “Nip into Sakes with that, he’ll get it right.”
One wet and miserable day, Sakes appeared in the city and started his shop. He came from nowhere, knew nobody, and just purchased a shop on Ropewalk, cash down, and opened it as a dress shop. I always felt that there had to be a story behind this. Sakes himself was impossible to place. He affected a somewhat superior Port Naain accent. He was in some ways rather effete in his manner but this seemed to be designed to reassure his clientele that he wasn’t lusting after them. Certainly he and his wife had four children and the boys are the very image of their father.
It was only when I met him at a somewhat tedious party that I finally got to the truth. I hasten to add that it was not an affair I had organised, they are never tedious. But I feel it necessary at times to grace with my presence affairs I know are doomed to be dull and boring, even if I have not been invited to them. Not only can one learn so much about what not to do, but one can win potential patrons as one quietly enlivens their evening.
Sakes had reached that state of ennui where he was prepared to attempt to drive back the encroaching melancholy by vigorous application of the wine bottle. I drifted into conversation with him and slowly we started to talk about the old days. Sakes, secure perhaps that there was just the two of us, told me a little of his tale.
He was born in Uttermost Partann, on a peasant holding controlled by some bandit lord squatting in a nearby keep. I can no longer remember whether Sakes told me the name of the place or whether I’ve just forgotten. Apparently as a boy he did all the usual boyish things, in his teenage years he worked on the farm and even rode on a few raids under his lord’s banner. But he’d always been good with fabrics, had an eye for clothes, and wanted something more in his life than grinding toil, brief excitement and equally brief periods of stark terror.
It was when the new Lord of the keep, Dagan, contemplated starting a harem that Sakes saw a bright new future opening up before him. Late one night, over too much red wine, he suggested to Dagan a plan. Sakes pointed out that Port Naain was known to have an almost infinite supply of beautiful women, and it was the obvious place to establish an agent of impeccable good taste who acquire extra wives for him. Sakes then proposed that he would travel to Port Naain, open a dress shop, and would kidnap beautiful women who came into his shop on their own. He’d drug them and send them south to grace Dagan’s harem.
As ideas go this one does have obvious flaws, but all were easily soluble in the next jug of red wine. In the small hours of the morning, completely sold on Sakes’ plan, Dagan reached into the pouch hanging on the back of his great chair. He pulled out a handful of heavy gold arm rings, plus an assortment of miscellaneous hack-silver and dumped it in Sakes’ cupped hands. He also assigned three men to both protect Sakes and also to watch over him and ensure he put his plan into operation. Before dawn and any risk of sobriety, Sakes and his men were on the road.
So one morning, as the driving rain blew along the estuary, Sakes and his three companions disembarked from the Roskadil ferry and rode along Ropewalk. Eventually after riding the length of the street twice, Sakes settled on an empty property. He enquired as to who owned it, purchased it, cash down, and proceeded to hire staff and purchase materials.
Apparently he had been practicing his new persona even as they travelled. He’d also given some thought to his business model and over the years he stuck to it. He realised that without a reputation, and ideally premises in one of the more expensive parts of town, he would have no hope selling new gowns to the wealthy. Instead he hired a couple of skilled needlewomen and they made a speciality out of making gowns fit. Ladies can change shape for any number of reasons, and Sakes and his ladies were on hand to ensure that a much loved dress changed shape with you.
Similarly a dress could be ‘refreshed’, or perhaps brought into line with modern fashions. There again, perhaps a lady had inherited some classic garments from her late mother. Sakes was the obvious person to ensure that they fitted the daughter at least as well as they had fitted their previous owner.
Soon his business was booming. Busy maids, given a cast off dress by their mistress, would bring it in. Wives would bring in dresses, never worn, that had been purchased for them by husbands whose grasp of size was flawed because they hadn’t grasped the fact that their wife was no longer the slim young woman they had married twenty years and six children ago.
Sakes’ three companions all found their niche. Initially they were restricted to standing about looking fierce. This lasted two days before the needlewomen started to use them to fetch and carry. The first to fall by the wayside was Erran. He was snapped up by a governess who married him and then carried him off to help run a tea room she was starting. At the aptly named ‘Barbarian’s repose’ the lady of the house served infusions and charmingly plated delicacies. Erran ran the crèche. This was the real source of their prosperity. Many busy women were perfectly happy to pay generously to leave their children for an hour or two whilst they shopped and met with friends. Erran, with his tales of murder, sudden ambuscades, betrayals, and house burnings, could keep a score of children listening in rapt silence.
Baddard became an asset to the business. He fetched, carried, and stood and watched. This he did without complaint or comment for six months. Finally, watching the two needlewomen struggling to fit a dress to a slender young woman, he finally snapped with a cry of, “Oh for the love of Aea in all her aspects, pass me the bluidy pins.”
He dropped to his knees in front of her, grabbed some pins from the jar, and swiftly drew the dress in below the bust and kept the line straight until he allowed it to swell out over the hips.”
The two needlewomen stood back and surveyed the scene. One commented, “It suits her, but it’s not fashionable.”
Baddard spat the last of the pins out of his mouth and into his cupped hand. “When fashion walks in to have her dress fitted, then we’ll fit it. But until then I suggest we fit dresses to suit the beauty and elegance of our clients.”
From that point onwards, Baddard was promoted to the fitting department. The fact that he still worked in his leathers, and had his long hair held back away from his face by a headband made from feroce skin seemed to add to his air of authority. Mind you I’ve been told that some ladies used to fetch dresses in just to hear the arguments that would flare up as the three staff fought to produce the best effect.
The third companion, Dullock, refused to fit in, he was fixated by their original mission. After twelve months Sakes sent him back to Dagan with the warlord’s share of the shop’s profits. The amount was nicely judged. Any more and Dullock would have needed an escort. Any less and Dullock would doubtless have delivered it to his master. As it was, there was just enough money to tempt him into taking the money and disappearing into Partann, never to be heard from again.
Not long after that, Sakes learned that Dagan had been poisoned by his wife who was attempting to rule in her own right. Weeks later he learned that the wife had been murdered by her lover, who in turn had been slain by an assassin hired, (or so it is alleged) by Dagan’s surviving brother. The brother ruled for weeks before being killed by someone Sakes had never heard of, but suspected might have been a concubine of the brother, cast off when the brother married somebody else (who’s name had also escaped Sakes). Still Sakes was now secure in the knowledge that nobody in Uttermost Partann was left alive who could link him and the shop to money loaned to him by Dagan.
As for the original scheme, did Sykes kidnap anybody to send them back to join Dagan’s harem? As the man explained to me, since when did the young women of Port Naain shop for clothes on their own? In the first year he did business, only three young women came into his emporium without having at least one friend with them, and even Dullock was forced to admit that none of them were really what Dagan had had in mind.
Should you want to explore further the world of Tallis Steelyard
Tallis Steelyard, Deep waters, and other stories
As a reviewer commented, “Yet another entertaining stroll through Port Naain, courtesy of Poet (and oft solver of life’s little problems), Tallis Steelyard.
We meet and learn about more characters who live there, some familiar, some new, some successful, some who hurriedly pass through.
Mutt makes one or two guest appearances to further demonstrate his enviable skills at obtaining funds with some well chosen words.
If squid wrestling is your favourite sport, or, learning about yet another ‘person of privilege’ who has been meted due justice, then this is the book for you.”
For American readers it’s available at