I have done many things in my time, but I must surely be one of the few people who can claim to have brought the joys of civilisation to an entire municipality. Some kind souls have suggested that the place my benign influence has been most profoundly felt is Port Naain. Candour compels me to admit that whilst I might well have spread the healing balm of literature to some small areas within the city, my influence has, by and large, been mainly superficial. It must be further confessed that for many people, the words and actions of Tallis Steelyard, leading poet of his generation, are nugatory. But the same cannot be said of the small community of Slipshade which lies on the coast between Port Naain and Prae Ducis.
This small coastal village lies north of the river Travitant. Facing it across the river mouth is Travitant Quay. Both of the two villages have castles on the headlands above them, reminders of the area’s wild past. The castle on the south side of the inlet is large but essentially ruinous. The castle above Slipshade is in better condition, perhaps because it is smaller and more easily maintained.
Up until a few years ago Slipshade castle or Keep was the dwelling of the Kastair family. This family fell upon hard times when the Balstep clan, notorious pirates, smugglers, and insurance fraudsters, gradually took over the village of Slipshade and used it as their base. They diverted for their own purposes the feudal dues the villagers would normally pay to those who held the Keep, and at the same time proceeded to farm the farmland owned by the Kastairs. Combined with this they took over the existing protection rackets and put their own bullies on the doors of the temple to collect ‘peace offerings’ from all the worshippers. Thus, within a year or two, and with no more than a couple of inconclusive skirmishes, the Kastairs could no longer afford to maintain a force strong enough to even man the walls of their keep and were forced to decamp by night for Port Naain. The Balstep clan moved into the Keep, and Darstep Balstep appointed himself Lord of Slipshade Keep.
The Lady Kastair joined Port Naain society and as is inevitably the case, she was lucky enough to attend an event that I organised. Indeed at the same event, I also performed some of my latest work to general acclaim. Obviously, a lady of good taste and breeding, she was both deeply moved and properly impressed. Thus, on a number of occasions, she asked me to perform at affairs held in her residence. Whilst not regular, I would be summoned at least twice a year.
Finally I got an unusual summons. The Lady Kastair had me brought through to her private study. There she asked me to perform a most unusual service. “Tallis, I have an event to organise and I’d like you to organise it.” This was obviously the sort of thing a jobbing poet likes to hear. I composed my expression to be one of enthusiastic competence. “I’d be delighted to oblige, Madam.”
“I knew I could count on you”. In short, every ten years the Kastair family must organise an entertainment for the populace of Slipshade. It is one of our feudal duties and if we fail to provide the performance, it weakens the legitimacy of our claim over Slipshade Keep. Thus I want you to lead a party south to put on this event. Remembering that you are to amuse the inhabitants of a fishing village I would recommend a very wide programme. Money will be forthcoming to enable the expedition to be mounted. I will pay all those going on this trip two alars a week and you as the leader will get an extra alar per week as well as a sensible sum to cover expenses.” On one hand the money was excellent, especially is it was agreed she would pay in advance. On the other hand, the entertainment was going to be in Partann, rather than Port Naain. Also it was obvious that I couldn’t merely take poets, I would need a full range of performers. Not merely poets but singers, musicians, and even novelty acts like Flobbard Wangil. In the case of the latter, years of practice have given his mouth and throat an almost obscene flexibility so he can swallow an egg whole. Whilst not what you might call high art, an eating contest of some sort always draws a crowd and he was the man whose performance in this field would set the standard other competitors would have to meet.
So who to include in my company? I gave considerable thought to the issue. For dancers, I asked Calina Salin if she could lend me a troupe. After some prevarication she agreed, but insisted I pay her and she would pay them. Between ourselves not only is she a fine dancer, but she is a very competent business woman. Personally I suspect that she was nervous at the idea of her girls earning too much; she has often commented that many a dancer has been spoiled by easy money earned too young. So she tended to collect the money herself and dole it out in small quantities to her girls. Whether she felt that once one reached one’s middle years one was better able to cope with the temptations of too much ready cash, I’m not really sure. Still she seemed to feel that she was strong willed enough to ensure that a surfeit of money wouldn’t change her for the worse.
For musicians I approached Old Jerky. He has played drum and whistle in rough bars, honkytonk piano in rough bordellos and the fiddle in seedy dancehalls. Not only that but I’ve worked with him before. His face is as battered as that of a prize fighter and he rarely bothers with airs and graces. But he is both competent and reliable. Unfortunately respectable hostesses look askance when you introduce him to their home; preferring instead some pretty boy who can neither sing nor play, but will flatter them and seduce their daughters. I asked him to find me a singer he could work with, and then to put together a small group who could support both singer and dancers. In his case I just told him the pay was two alars a day, and he promised me he’d have his ensemble ready within a day or two. Flobbard Wangil was hard to find but easily hired. He was lying low after being accused of begging without a licence. Frankly I was somewhat surprised at his audacity, beggars are precious about this sort of thing. I’ve known one cast aside his crutches and run as fast as his two sound legs could carry him in his enthusiasm to inform on an unlicensed imposter. Flobbard was glad of an excuse to be out of the city for a while. He was staying with his sister, Malinflua Wangil. She is a most accomplished prestidigitator or stage magician, and he suggested that I might like to hire her as well. I had seen her work and was delighted to.
I returned to Lady Kastair with the names of my company. I had also given some thought to how we would proceed. We’d need a number of horse drawn carts, and my fancy was to travel slowly to Slipshade, performing as we went. This, I felt, would give us chance to bond as a company, and perhaps even earn a little extra money on top of the honorarium we were to receive. When I arrived at the appointed time, I was surprised to find Lady Kastair closeted with Eran Klun. I know Eran, a pleasant young man and a man-at-arms in the service of Lord Cartin. I greeted him warmly.
“Eran, it is good to meet you again. Are you coming south with us, we need a good man on a bladder pipe. Alternatively can you dance? Whilst I have already filled the ranks of my gallant band, I am not averse to adding another fine artist to their number.”
Eran rose and bowed to me. “Alas that the harsh dictates of duty forbid me from taking you up on your most generous offer. When I was a child, my sister, ever my harshest critic, was forced to admit that she had seen worse dancers than me.”
At this point Lady Kastair interrupted, “Tallis, I have been giving thought to the logistics of your trip, and I felt that Lord Cartin, a dear friend, was the obvious person to ask for advice. So Sir Eran here is present to advise us.”
It did make sense. After all, Lord Cartin would move considerable numbers of men across Partann. Admittedly they were more numerous, more heavily armed and better disciplined than the party I was intending to lead, but I was sure some of the experience was transferable.
Eran spoke. “We’ve considered various options and it’s been decided that we’ll send you south on the steam packet, the Unrivalled. Lord Cartin charters her from time to time anyway, so it’ll be quite economical and we are pretty sure that you’ll be there in time to perform on the correct day.” Well that put paid to my plan of earning money whilst being paid for travelling. Still one has to learn to bend with the wind, no matter which way it blows. “I trust the Unrivalled will remain with us to fetch us home.” “Actually no, but I’m sure you’ll be able to make good money performing on the way back. After all, once you’ve finished at Slipshade and we’ve paid you off, your time is your own and you might want to go on an extended tour.” He paused, and then added, “After all after your inevitable success at Slipshade, you’ll be the toast of Partann and I’m sure you wouldn’t want to miss out on a chance to build on your triumph?”
The tour continues and now we’re with Stevie at
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