There are those who claim, not unreasonably, that usurers and those in their employ are persons sunk deep in perpetual misery. Indeed I confess there are times when I wonder if they are not trapped in a world of piles and perpetual constipation. Yet do not let appearances deceive you. I assure you that on propitious occasions, such as when a client is paying, usurers, lawyers and the rest of their ilk, do indeed know how to celebrate.
Thus at the end of summer, most of the usurers offices close, (if indeed they have reopened) and everybody who is anybody travels to Avitas for the regatta. This ancient event is considered one of the highlights of the season. Originally it appears to have been founded to celebrate the city’s close relationship with the River Dharant. Thus at a profoundly moving ceremony which opens the revels, the Mayor and officers of the municipality are rowed out into the middle of the river in a barge. They each then ceremoniously empty a chamber pot over the side, symbolising their opinion of the communities downstream.
There are all sorts of events, rowing and sailing boats of various sizes compete, crewed by people of every age and degree. Indeed one of the most heavily backed races is the seniors’ race. Here crews of men and women, all over the age of seventy-five, will race skiffs under both oars and sail for a measured mile. This race is notorious because it is raced upstream and against the prevailing wind. Traditionally if the regatta is disrupted by driving rain, this is the race that is held then. So it is regarded as a test of cunning as much as anything else.
But Avitas also has the galley race. These river galleys are far smaller than the saltwater craft you see off the coast of Partann. They have at the most ten oars a side and a captain who is the helmsman. The supreme test of a galley crew is the three day race, Avitas to Fluance and back. Because the galleys are supposedly commercial boats, each carries the twenty oarsmen, the helmsman, and one passenger. The passenger is traditionally an eleven year old girl (the intent seems to maximise agility and courage whilst minimising weight.) who wears a white tunic which reaches down no further than the mid-thigh. At the end of the race, the tunic is supposed to be spotless and dry, showing what good care the crew took of their passenger. The tunic is kept and when the girl eventually marries, the material from the tunic is incorporated into her wedding dress.
On the evening of the first day the boats are pulled ashore on a designated landing ground situated just before the River Dharant meets the River Paraeba. Next day they are relaunched at carefully timed intervals so that each craft keeps any lead it has over the other competitors. The second day is considered the most dangerous. On this day they row down to where the two rivers meet. In wet years when there is a lot of water in the rivers, the Maelstrom forms, this is a whirlpool that can pull in a galley and tear it apart. The racing crews must row around the fringes of the whirlpool before rowing back up the River Dharant. As evening falls on the second day they once more pull in at a second designated landing ground. On the morning of the third day they once more take to the water at timed intervals. The third day is considered the hardest, rowing constantly against the flow of the river. Finally the crews arrive in Avitas and cross the finish line.
It must be said that whilst the winning crew is indeed idolised, all crews who finish the race are regarded as heroes. On the night after the race they are guests of honour at the ball which is considered to be the climax of the regatta. Indeed it is something of an endurance event in itself, it is the only ball I have ever attended which lasted, without ceasing, for three days. Guests who wish to sleep do so in chairs at the side of the dance floor. But throughout the city, every ale house, inn, bordello or other place of entertainment throws open its doors for the same period. Anybody wearing the tunic of a galley oarsman need pay for nothing during the festivities.
I suppose it was inevitable that Maljie, when she adorned the halls of commerce, would visit Avitas for the regatta. Indeed the avarice of usurers she was part of went to the extent of chartering the steamer, ‘Going cheap’, and took their entire staff. Given that it was funded as a fact-finding research trip to explore investment opportunities along the Middle Dharant all present were paid their salaries during the trip, as well as being paid suitable expenses to ensure that the rigors of the journey didn’t leave them out of pocket. The avarice reimbursed itself from the ‘management fund’ which was constantly refilled from the charges made to clients for services.
The problem I have telling this tale is that nobody present can really remember the details. There are just vague flashes of memory. Apparently the trip started with the chairman of the board pouring everybody a cocktail of porter and red wine. Before the chartered steamer had even reached Fluance, the dancing had commenced on the main deck and the boat had been delayed three times, having to stop to pick up carousers who had inadvertently fallen overboard.
Finally when they docked at Avitas it is probable that some senior staff left the boat for their hotels. The next few days seem to have been comparatively sober, and Maljie was introduced to one of the leading galley captains, Airton Xannah. It was obvious that he was more than a little smitten by Maljie, as he bet the other captains that he could still win, with Maljie as his passenger. He also bet Maljie that she didn’t dare to travel on his galley.
The result of this was that next morning, wearing a white tunic of appropriate length, (or inappropriate length, when you consider that Maljie was somewhat older than eleven) Maljie boarded the galley to the applause of all the crews. When the line was dropped and the galleys surged forward, Maljie could be heard singing Partannese pirate shanties to keep time. Soon the competitors were out of sight, and the only news came from the fast horsemen hired by the bookies to fetch news of how things were going.
There are various tales circulating about the race itself, none from reliable witnesses. It is alleged that Maljie’s boat sailed closer to the lip of the Maelstrom than any other has ever dared to do because she joined the helmsman on the steering oar. It is also recounted that on the final day she kept up the spirits of the oarsmen by constantly hammering out the stroke as she washed her white tunic in the river and then hung it from the mast to dry in the sun and breeze. Thus when they arrived home first, the winning boat, Maljie stepped ashore in a white tunic that was both clean and dry.
In point of fact when I say ‘stepped ashore’, some rumours talk about her being carried ashore, shoulder high, some even claiming that at this point she had still managed to retain the tunic.
Finally, the regatta was declared formally finished, and the various visitors made their way back to their boats to head for home. When the ‘Going Cheap’ finally sailed it has to be confessed that the passengers were somewhat more subdued than they had been on the way upriver. At one point the chairman of the board summoned Maljie to the deck and pointed out that they were being escorted by a racing galley, the one captained by Airton Xennah.
The chairman asked Maljie whether she’d like to transfer to the galley. Maljie just smiled quietly and commented that when you’ve captained a war galley, sailing on these river galleys was entertaining, but nowhere near as satisfying as the real thing.
Anybody wishing to see more of Avitas could read
As a reviewer commented, “When a story starts with the words ‘There are safe ways to kill an Urlan. No, let me rephrase that, there are ways to kill an Urlan that do not lead to their kindred hunting you down like a rabid dog’, you KNOW it’s going to be a classic Jim Webster tale.
True to form, this is indeed a great yarn, worthy of being sung about at feasts in Medieval, or, Valhalla-like, halls.”