We were discussing fundraising for the shrine and the meeting, under the stern eye of a lesser canon, made little useful headway. Eventually we all made our excuses and decamped to a quiet bar before we made our various ways home. One of our number, Paps Murgaton, who had been a usurer before becoming a minor cleric, purchased two bottles of wine.
Half way down the first glass I turned to Paps. “Come on, Paps. Surely somebody with your connections should be able to raise some money for us?”
He put down his glass and took his pipe out, purely to fiddle with it to gain time for thought. “I know somebody who used to be able to raise money, nobody better.”
“Who’s that, I enquired, intrigued.”
There was silence round the table, and the old man got his pipe going, the lichen in it glowing nicely. As he seemed happy to stare thoughtfully into the past I asked, “Maljie?”
Eventually I lost patience. “I assume there’s a story here, Paps.”
He drained his glass and waited until Laxey had poured him another. “Yes, I suppose it’s safe to tell, after all these years. It must be nearly forty years ago.”
He lapsed into meditative silence. One of the mendicants prodded him, “So what happened?”
“Well you must remember that we were all young then. I was just starting out in partnership with a couple of other young usurers, Maljie joined us, and things were going reasonably well. The problem is we didn’t have a lot of money behind us. We were having to borrow from other partnerships to get the capital to lend. This meant we had to put the money into higher risk ventures to be sure we’d get the return necessary to repay our loans. As you can imagine, it was a bit nerve wracking at times.”
I could well imagine it. But a lot of usurers go through the process. Those who survive and prosper are regarded as a cut above those lesser lights who merely joined long established partnerships and build their fortunes on the wisdom of others, long dead.
Paps continued. “We’d put a lot of money into a shipping venture in Partann. It was shipping goods out of the towns south of Prae Ducis.”
He’d been right about nerve wracking. I know pirates who won’t operate south of Prae Ducis, things can get rough down there.
Paps smiled a little sadly, “The venture was sound. We had the right man in the right place doing the right job. He delivered six cargoes on time and we were keeping up with our repayments and showing a significant profit. Then he went and died on us.”
“A little unfortunate.”
“More than a little, the pirates who killed him came very close to capturing his ship as well. If his wife hadn’t inspired the crew we’d have lost everything. As it was we nearly did. The ship needed quite a lot of work, we needed a recruit of new crew who were both tough, competent and trustworthy, and we needed time. We had a gap of several months during which we were going to get no payments but were condemned to help fund the repairs. Even liquidating our assets we couldn’t cover the gap in our payments to our creditors. We had a long meeting, late into the night, mulling over ideas. At one point, as a jest, I commented, ‘I suppose we could try stealing horses.’ Ten minutes later Maljie came back to the horse stealing. As she saw it, we only needed to steal four or five. One a month would cover our payments. But they would have to be really expensive horses.”
Well I could understand that. “But aren’t the best horses properly guarded.”
“Yes and no. Normally they’ll be stabled, but when they’re at stud they often run out as small herds.”
“So Maljie was thinking of stealing them then?”
“More than thinking, she was planning. She disappeared and came back an hour later bringing this chap with her. She introduced him to us as, ‘Attan, he knows about horses.’ Anyway this Attan gave us the names of a dozen horses valuable enough for us to consider. So, desperate as we were, we gave Maljie our blessing and she and Attan would arrange to steal them.”
One of the mendicants put down a crust he was gnawing. Dunking it his wine had softened it a bit. “So she went into horse theft.”
“Not only that, lad, she went into horse theft in Partann.”
Now let us not beat about the bush, Partann has produced more fine horse thieves than anywhere else. Just as they are unparalleled when it comes to treachery and murder, so they lead the world in horse theft.
Paps could see he had our entire attention. “But Maljie knows the Partannese. Whatever else they are, they’re romantics.”
Now this produced some mutters of disbelief around the table. But to be fair to Paps, he is right. Sly and devious blackguards though they may be, deep within the Partannese there runs a broad stream of romance. I noticed it long ago and realised that if you appear as the poet, innocent of the dangers you face because you were so bedazzled by your muse, then that is how the Partannese will treat you.
I have performed (admittedly not by choice) in the camps of the most depraved of bandit chieftains, yet have been entirely safe because I was the poet, an innocent abroad, who thought of nothing but my verse. But to be fair, you have to live the role to the hilt. So I never asked for payment and next morning as I left, they had to press upon me a package of bread and dried meat for my midday meal as it obviously hadn’t occurred to me to think about such trivia.
Others have noticed this. I could mention Mirthman Surefoot. He is a ‘knight’ in Uttermost Partann. Yet he is so honourable that even the Urlan speak well of him. He is absolutely loyal, sticks to the spirit as well of the letter of his word, and seems to have no qualms about behaving honourably even if it is to his disadvantage.
A petty brigand stole two young women from one of the farms that pay tithe to Mirthman. That very night, Mirthman left the Surefoot tower, rode alone into the bandit camp, and cut down their leader. He took two horses from the bandit’s horse-lines for the young women to ride home on, and informed the bandits that he would be back at dawn with his men and would hang anybody he found. It’s obvious they didn’t believe him because they were still there next morning when he turned up with two-score horsemen and a hangman.
But in spite of being the one honest man in Partann, Mirthman not merely survives but flourishes. It is as if the other Partannese can point to him and tell each other, this is how a true son of Partann lives. They cherish him because he represents what they could be if only they were willing to put in the effort.
But somehow I seem to have drifted away from the point. As Paps told the tale, Maljie knew all this. So she made her plans appropriately. She and Attan would ride into Partann. Attan would wear the dress of an old fashioned lady’s maid. They would find the horse and Attan would then ride back to Port Naain to make arrangements to sell it. He would take Maljie’s clothes with him.
Maljie, stark naked, would throw her saddlecloth over the horse’s back, put a bridle on her chosen mount, and would then ride for home. But this was no wild flight for safety. Maljie would make a sensible pace, but when she came to a place where she could expect to be seen, then she did gallop.
She was never once pursued. Fine-looking and naked young women, riding superb horses through the night, are not a matter for jurisprudence. They are creatures of legend, fey beauties treading the thin borderline between myth and tedious reality. Guards would treasure the moment they saw this fair enchantress, and would in old age bore their grandchildren with the tale. Indeed men who never came within a hundred miles of where Maljie was working have, in my presence, sworn on their mother’s soul that they saw her.
Once in Port Naain, Maljie, still naked, would ride through the streets as the sun slowly rose. She would be met by Attan, still dressed as a lady’s maid (So that decorum was preserved, tentatively at least) who would have with him her clothes. Maljie would dress and the horse would be sold to a private bidder.
This she did six times and it must be said that there was gossip. People commented that Maljie was in the habit of riding out naked on nights of the full moon. But here is the other advantage of the beautiful woman dressed as nature intended. Nobody noticed that each time they saw her, she was riding a different horse.
Should you wish to meet the lady herself, then purchase, in paperback or as an ebook
As a reviewer commented, “Maljie is indeed a Lady Par Excellence. From mountain climber to pirate, currency inventor to financial genius, balloonist to Temple Warden, and more – much, much, more…
The female reader will want her as a best friend, the male reader would be wise to exercise extreme caution if he knows another lady like her.”