I confess that morning, as I breakfasted on the steam packet, the
Unrivaled, I awaited the rising tide with growing trepidation. Nonetheless,
from my position aft of the funnel, I could see no suspiciously casual groups
of overly muscled men moving in our direction. Indeed all our party arrived
on time, boarded and we cast off at the hour appointed.
But we were barely fifty yards from the wharf when there was a commotion, a
lady with two men and a handcart was waving and shouting at us. It was
Nilinda. She is a very accomplished marimba player. In all candor, she was
the person to go to in Port Naain if you needed a marimba playing. Whilst
her professional life was settled, her private life was less stable. She had
been the mistress of Hulan Dorca for at least fifteen years. During this
period Hulan had courted and married two wives, and Nilinda had raised no
objections. But for some reason when Hulan married his third wife (He had
divorced the two previous incumbents prior to this. Hulan may have practiced
serial polygamy but was never actually bigamous.) Nilinda seems to have
objected strongly. Apparently, she didn’t object to the marriage, she
objected to Hulan and his new wife going away for a week’s honeymoon.
Now whether she had expected to be invited along I don’t know. Indeed I
didn’t dare ask. But she took this slight (as she saw it) very badly. So
badly that when the happy couple left, Nilinda summoned Master Bullifant to
the house. He was at the time an auctioneer but did house clearances as
well. Because she had a key, she let him into the house, he appraised the
contents, (everything but the marimba) and listed everything for sale. Three
days later, he’d cleared the building. Even the cracked chamber pots stored
in the servants’ attic had been taken and listed. The sale was a big
success. Nilinda watched it from a shadowy corner at the back. Bullifant
paid her cash, less the seller’s commission, before she left.
The next morning when she awoke, in a house empty save for the marimba, the warm
glow of satisfaction that she had felt the previous day had evaporated
somewhat. Nilinda decided that she might be better savouring her victory at
some distance from Port Naain. Then remembering our enterprise she decided,
not entirely unreasonably, that it would proceed better with a marimba
player. So she stepped outside into the street, pointed to two men at random
and said, “You and you, fetch that handcart from over there and accompany me
to the docks with my marimba.”
The two men obliged. I suppose you can see their point. There was a
possibility this woman might pay them. Certainly, there was a story here and
they could probably get free drinks on the strength of it. Also at the end
of the day, there was the opportunity to sell on the perfectly good handcart
that she had apparently gifted them with.
With a marimba and one carpetbag, Nilinda and her small party almost ran to
the docks. After all, Hulan and his third wife were expected back that day.
When she saw us leave she was a little put out and tried to attract our
attention from the wharf. She succeeded in this and hired a boatman to take
her, her carpetbag and the marimba out to the Unrivalled. She even paid off
the two men who had pushed her handcart. They stood on the wharf and watched
her leave. Then over a beer paid for by their earnings, they decided that
they would go into business together. After all, they got along well, worked
together amicably, and had acquired a handcart. Prosperity beckoned.
Nilinda came aboard the Unrivalled and announced she had succumbed to our
blandishments and would indeed join our party. I shrugged this off. She was
a musician, she was Old Jerky’s problem. He merely pointed out to her that
she got the same rate of pay as everybody else and if she didn’t like it,
she could swim ashore taking her marimba with her. Graciously she acquiesced
to his terms.
The voyage itself was trying. The Unrivalled tended to roll a bit and many
of our party were seasick. Unfortunately, Nilinda seemed immune to the
condition and whatever the state of the sea she would insist on practicing
her marimba, and demanding that other musicians practiced with her. Thus it
was with some relief that I stepped ashore after our voyage on the steam
packet. Yes, steam might be more reliable than the wind, and there is a
certain majesty in the thrashing of the paddlewheels. Unfortunately the
Unrivalled had carried hides into Port Naain and then immediately loaded our
company and set off south. The stench below decks was not to be described,
never mind experienced, whilst above decks we had a lot of sick people
hanging over the rail being ill to a music accompaniment. I will merely
point out that whilst the little ship did not lack ambiance, it was an
ambiance that clung, and it took three washings before I could get it out of
As we steamed between Ragged Head and the Snaggles I thought there was some
mistake. On the south bank was Travitant Quay, a well-appointed little town
with quays and wharfs and all the panoply of thriving commerce. On the north
bank was Slipshade which appeared to lack all these things. Indeed Slipshade
had a disreputable air, the only thing in good repair seemed to be the
defenses. Still, when our captain blew the whistle, a bunch of sturdy rogues
lounging on the beach pushed out a floating jetty and we drew alongside
With almost indecent haste the crew got us and our impedimenta onto the
jetty and then backed away, apparently keen to collect another cargo of
hides from Travitant Quay. I advanced along the jetty, wearing my most
winning smile. “Greetings. I am Tallis Steelyard and we have come to perform
There was a general scratching of heads at this announcement. Finally, one of
ne’er-do-wells was pushed forward as a spokesman. “What you performing?”
“Wonders such as the fine metropolis of Slipshade has never seen before.
Dancers of breath-taking beauty, singers who can sing songs which will haunt
your dreams, musicians who can charm the birds down from the trees. Plus of
course a pie-eating contest and consummate prestidigitation fresh from the
theatres of Port Naain.”
Well, it was good to see we’d touched a chord there.
“You’ll have to go up to the Keep to get a license to perform. Just leave
your stuff here, we’ll look after it.”
I’m certain they would. The minute our backs were turned they’d diligently
search through our possessions, find anything of value and treasure it as if
it was their own. As it was I left the dancers to look after our luggage,
with Old Jerky and his band to protect the integrity of both luggage and
dancers. I took Flobbard and Malinflua with me to the Keep. Malinflua at
least was presentable, and she’d given evidence of considerable
intelligence. Not only that but frankly I didn’t really trust either of them
out of my sight. Flobbard’s larcenous instincts tended to override his
common sense at times.
It is a steep walk up to the keep, the road tends to wind backward and
forwards as if reluctant to be associated with so grim a destination. At the
gate we were nodded through, the dozing villain on guard barely bothering to
open his eyes long enough to look at us. He merely pointed to the main
tower, grunted and went back to sleep again.
As we entered the main hall of the tower we arrived to a shouting match. As
I stood at the door I could see Darstep Balstep, lord of the keep, seated on
his great chair obviously listening to some dispute. It might be he was
sitting in judgment. Certainly, he was wearing a scarlet cloak over his
battered leather armour and on his head he wore a heavy silver headband to
hold his hair in place. It was obviously a prestigious piece of jewelry,
it had three large stones in it, each perhaps the size of the end joint of a
man’s thumb. In a more well-regarded setting, you might even have described
it as a crown.
In front of him, there were two groups of men engaged in furious argument.
Nobody had pulled a knife but from the way the insults were flying it was
purely a matter of time. Then Balstep saw us, or rather I suspect he saw
“Oy, you by the door.”
I placed my hand on my chest as if to ask if it was me he was addressing.
“No, you streak of misery, the woman. Who is she?”
Malinflua stepped forward, “Do you mean me, Sire?”
“Well I don’t mean the beslubbering flap-mouthed moon calf you came in
I rather assumed it was Flobbard he was referring to at this point.
“Do you have a name woman? Or do I have to keep shouting ‘hey you!”
With this Balstep leapt to his feet and strode majestically through the
crowd towards us. Or at least that is what I assume his intention was. I am
reasonably positive he hadn’t intended to trip over something, whether his
cloak, his feet, or the feet of some other person, and measure his length on
the floor. His crown fell off his head and rolled across the floor towards
us. I ignored it and dashed forward to help him up, only to recoil from his
breath. He was impressively drunk.
“Where’s my bluidy crown?”
“Here your lordship.” Malinflua had pushed through the crowd next to me and
offered him the crown.
He stared owlishly at it and then took it off her. “The stones have gone.”
With this another argument started up. His followers split into rival groups
accusing other groups of stealing the stones. Then one, perhaps more sober
than the others shouted, “Search the woman, she picked the crown up.”
Everybody turned to Malinflua, who seemed to have acquired a wicked-looking
knife with a blade of obvious utility. “I’m not having you drunken sots
fumbling with me, but find a woman and I’ll let her search me.”
There was a long silence as those present contemplated the options open to
them. Finally one of the women who had been serving table stepped forward
and methodically searched Malinflua. The woman turned to Balstrep. “She
hasn’t got the stones on her.”
Malinflua stepped back next to me and ostentatiously sheathed the knife.
“Right, now you better search my two companions as well, before some drunken
fool makes more silly accusations. The serving woman, with a brief glance at
Balstrep, did as Malinflua suggested.
“Neither of these two has the stones either.”
“Well, who’s got the bluidy things then?” Balstrep asked, a little
“Sire, I am a poet
Not a watchman.
Still my advice,
Should I owe it?
Search the men of your clan.
In a thrice.”
I bowed. “I trust we have your permission to withdraw and prepare the
entertainment was have brought for your delight.”
“Entertainment?” Balstrep sounded suspicious.
“Pie eating contests, beautiful dancers and the usual sort of thing.”
Balstrep seemed to be contemplating my offer. “Aye, shut the door on your
way out. When I’ve got this lot searched I’ll be down to see what’s going
on. Will there be any poetry, I’ve always been fond of the rondel form?”
We’re still on tour so to read on, go to Annette’s blog at