I am constantly reminded that it pays to project a wholesome image. I was with Shena, my lady wife, at an event held to inform and encourage writers. If memory serves, Saon Keeber had organised it, and to be fair to him, had largely funded it. I think he’d convinced the Port Naain University that they should reach out to writers and ‘give us the tools we needed to make a success of our careers.’
In reality we’d all turned up because Keeber had promised there would be a good buffet and to be fair to him it wasn’t merely good, it was excellent. Indeed there was so much food laid on that even when we’d filled poacher’s pockets and in some cases, knapsacks and carpet bags, there was still enough to eat.
Interestingly Keeber did steer away from the technical craft side of our craft and instead concentrated on presentation. Again, he spoke a lot of sense. After all, a patron wants their poet to turn up clean, fragrant, sober and presentable. I realise some ladies expect the poet to add ‘rakish’ to the list, but I would stress that it is never as a replacement for one of the other four, it’s an extra.
As I mentioned, Shena was with me. She tends to shun artistic events, claiming they can give her a headache. Or, in certain circumstances, they give her an overwhelming desire to brain the speaker with a pie plate, as the only way to stop him droning on, apparently mesmerised by the sound of his own voice.
On this occasion Shena had a cold coming on but was determined to fight back. So the minute the buffet opened she started self-medicating on mott ham roasted with honey and mustard, grapes, and a number of glasses of a perfectly acceptable fortified wine. She felt this combination would not merely help her fight the cold, but would also help her cope with the sanctimonious twaddle she was sure was going to be part of the evening. One problem with this remedy is that fortified wine does tend to make her less tactful than normal. Still, given that she was surrounded by writers, tact would be wasted anyway.
Keeber had talked for some time about the need for a writer to create a wholesome persona, so that readers and patrons would, metaphorically at least, want to cuddle us and take us home. I’m not sure how he was going to develop this argument because it was abruptly derailed when, sotto voce, Shena said, “Sod that, I’m not having anybody else taking Tallis home to cuddle.” She seemed to have struck a nerve because various other spouses scattered around the room chimed in, agreeing with her. Keeber floundered a bit, then threw up his hands in mock despair and ordered the serving staff to open more wine.
But it did leave me thinking and it struck me that shrewder people than Keeber have said similar things to me. (Not that they wanted to cuddle me and take me home, but the importance of a wholesome image.) I remember Algon, a student who’d gone on to become a shore-comber. He had talked to me about image, and had even gone on to do something about it.
It transpired that he knew a couple of people who kept a few horrocks for their milk. So he got them together and suggested that if they gave some thought to image, they might sell more milk at a better price. This intrigued them, so they asked what he’d in mind. He suggested that they stress purity and innocence. Their milk was simple, unsullied, and unadulterated. So they’d get maidens to sell it, dressed in white.
Algon is persuasive, and his idea sounded worth a try. So they set to work to equip some milk maids.
Unfortunately Algon, caught up in the brilliance of his scheme, had overlooked one simple truth. No parent of a daughter who is pure and innocent is going to unleash her upon the streets of Port Naain without either giving her a crash course in the dangers of the world (thus automatically disposing of the innocence) or having her accompanied by a burly individual armed with a large axe.
So the ladies who took up the job of milk maids were neither pure nor innocent. I don’t mean to insult them, they were decent enough women, good mothers and in one case a much loved grandmother.
So whilst milk sales did pick up a little, the experiment wasn’t perhaps the success the participants had hoped for. Algon called everybody together for another meeting and there was a general discussion. It was then that some unknown genius commented that when he saw the milk maids he couldn’t imagine them drinking milk and enjoying it. Even as he heard the words the Algon realised that this was a self-evident truth. One only had to look at the ladies who had been hired to realise that whilst they struggled to convey purity or innocence. On the other hand they could certainly give the impression that they were ladies who knew the good things of life and how to enjoy themselves. He gathered the milk maids together and discussed the matter with them. They agreed with his analysis, and when he laid before them his new plan, they agreed to it with one proviso. So now they’re Urlan plum brandy maids, travelling round the city selling adequate plum brandy door to door, or even to people they meet. But as agreed, each is accompanied by a gentleman admirer, bearing a large axe. Thus propriety is observed.
Should you want to learn more about Port Naain,
As a reviewer commented, “Tallis Steelyard in his position as a jobbing poet frequently encounters situations where he is asked favors, something he is almost always willing to do as a normal part of the networking a jobbing poet needs to do. Word-of-mouth fame brings business. When his latest potential patron, Mistress Bellin Hanchkillian asks him to do a favor for an old friend of hers, for Tallis it is an offer he can’t refuse. Mistress Bellin knows a lot about Tallis; she knows of wife Shena, Mutt, Shena’s assistant, and Benor, the Toelar Roof-runner, and cartographer who is temporarily staying with Tallis and Shena. Mistress Belin gives Tallis permission to share information with his close confederates to help solve a vexing problem of blackmail.
In A Much Arranged Marriage by Jim Webster, someone is threatening to reveal an unfortunate incident from the past about Fidelia, the granddaughter of Sophire Eranis, the friend of Mistress Bellin. It seems that Fidelia has returned to Port Naain after a long absence. She has become engaged to Thrab Jisqueal, one of the last surviving heirs to a fabulous family fortune. The engagement would not have surprised the residents of Port Naain; Fidelia had been seen in Thrab’s company before she left for several months in the company of her father for Prae Ducis. One of the reasons she had gone with her father was to avoid Thrab. She didn’t want to escape Thrab, but her father disapproved of him.
Returned to Port Naain and engaged to Thrab, a new complication came to the attention of Tallis via his patron. Vargan Acatour of Prae Ducis had shown up in Port Naain to look for wife Fidelia and their baby. A housemaid from the house of Sophire Eranis informed him Fidelia was dead; another servant told him the child was alive and was being looked after at a Foundling Hospital run by The Order of the Illuminated Seditionists. Mistress Bellin knew all of this was going on; she gave Tallis the mission of unscrambling the mess and finding a truth that would avoid a scandal for her old friend.
The above summary set up illustrates a few things. One of the joys of a Tallis Steelyard tale is names. Names of characters are so improbable they have their amusement factor. There is The Order of the Illuminated Seditionists. The explanation of why this title was adopted is given in the story. The thinking behind it is revolutionary. Later in the story, readers will encounter an authoritarian body known as The Council of Sinecurists. What a great name for a governing body of officials!
Language for Tallis and all associated with these stories veers between Victorian English on one side and made-up words tinged with sarcasm and humor on the other. One example is: “ Tomorrow the midden is going to hit the windmill.” (Kindle location 622). During one incident, a character must unobtrusively enter a building. How to do it is a problem. As with many cases, money is the answer. Seeing a sum of money exceeding his expectations, Tallis states: “For that sort of money we could get you in there riding in a chariot, drawn by usurers being flogged by naked harlots.” (Kindle locations 635-636).
While the story content and world building of Tallis Steelyard adventures are superior, I am addicted to the language play. This short story is a five-star Amazon read. I will read more by Jim Webster. I highly recommend Tallis Steelyard adventures.”