I’m sure everybody has seen the painting. Two pretty girls in diaphanous clothing frolicking in the waves whilst one of them is kissed by a young man. Such pictures are always more interesting if you know the story and the people behind them.
The charming and distinctly beautiful young lady being kissed is Talkani. The gentleman doing the kissing is Boran, a junior usurer’s clerk. A bare three months after the picture was painted Talkani and Boran married. Within months he had risen to the rank of senior clerk, by the time the year turned he was accepted as a partner, and the year after that he purchased his first sinecure.
At this point his meteoric rise seemed to falter. Some of us wondered whether he had merely been promoted above his level of competence. In all candour most of us felt that he had been over-promoted when they made him a usurer’s clerk. There was an unspoken agreement amongst those who knew him best that kissing pretty girls was his sole area of proficiency.
It may be that Talkani had come to the same conclusion. Thus instead of propelling him ever upwards, she quietly took the lead. She was ‘invited’ to join the partnership and within months was senior partner and chaired board meetings. Within another three or four years she had quietly absorbed several lesser partnerships into her organisation. So far she had not really shown her hand. The Talkani you met was still the charming young woman whose friendly nature made everybody like her.
Then somebody crossed her. A petty Partannese noble defaulted on a loan. It was quite a large loan, so large that people said she’d been foolish to lend the money without security close at hand in Port Naain. Not only did he default but he sent insulting messages from the safety of his keep, deep in Partann.
Quietly, Talkani hired mercenaries, led them south and besieged the keep. Within a month she had taken it. She sold the entire family, their servants, retainers and dependants, into indentured labour. This was to help recover the value of the loan. She sold the livestock, she sold the growing crops. Then she sold the keep. She watched as it was dismantled, stone by stone, and carried away. Finally the lands pertaining to the keep she put up for auction. That done she had the foundations dug out and the whole area levelled and put down to grass. It is now known as the ‘Lost Keep’ and appears on no maps.
Whilst in Partann she decided to use the opportunity to meet other potential customers. On the books it records perhaps a score of large deposits being made with her partnership. The cynic might say that she enticed local dignitaries into depositing the profits of a generation of pillaging and oppressing the peasantry with her. In reality I suspect a lot of the lordlings who found her camped in their neighbourhood just paid her to go away.
Once back in Port Naain, she bought a number of sinecures in her own name and took her place in the ruling councils of the city. Whilst she didn’t thrust herself forward, or give speeches to fellow councillors, over the next few years everybody came to understand that if you wished your policy to go through, first you made sure that Talkani was in favour of it. In case you think that this wasn’t enough, in the first ten years of her marriage, she also gave birth to five children.
It has to be confessed that most of this passed me by entirely. Admittedly I knew about it, but it wasn’t as if it in point of fact mattered to me. After all I’d never crossed Talkani and as far as I could tell, she didn’t regard me as a problem. Indeed because she was now high in society, she had to entertain. Thus she obviously needed the services of a poet. So I was hired from time to time. Normally I worked with one of her secretaries. Sometimes I would perform at the family home, a large house with a river frontage on the north shore of the estuary on the edge of Port Naain. Sometimes I would be part of the entertainment given at one of the larger halls when she needed to entertain a large number of people. But it was through entertaining that I came to meet Boran again.
I had left the dais at one end of the banqueting hall in Talkani’s house. I decided I would make my way to the drinks table at the far end of the room because a lot of talking can leave me dry. As I ladled punch into my glass I noticed a curtain twitch. Curious, I watched it. An arm came out from behind the curtain, grasped a wine bottle and hastily whisked back behind the curtain. There was a glugging sound as if wine was being poured into a glass and then the bottle reappeared.
Intrigued, I looked behind the curtain. There crouched Boran, nursing a tankard of wine. When he realised he’d been seen he nearly dropped his tankard.
“Gods, Tallis, don’t go creeping up on a fellow like that. Damn near wet myself.”
“What’s up? Surely a chap can enjoy a glass of wine in his own home.”
“Keep your voice down.” He peered past me. “I’m not supposed to be here, I’m not to mix with business guests.” Then he froze, muttered, “Oh sod it all.” With that he slipped past me, out through a window and disappeared into the darkness. One of Talkani’s secretaries appeared. “Was that Boran I saw?”
“Boran? Now sure I’d know him now if I met him, it’ll be a lot of years since I last saw him.”
She glared at me suspiciously but said nothing and disappeared into the throng.
It was perhaps half an hour later I felt a tap on my arm. I turned to be greeted by a lady with a large but discreetly concealed bust and a posterior that was little smaller. I looked twice and realised it was Boran’s face that was framed by a slightly unfashionable bonnet. “Tallis, you have to get me out of here.”
“Why, have the fastenings on your dress jammed?”
“Idiot!” He glared at me over the fan he was fluttering to hide his short beard. “Out of this bluidy house and away.”
I have learned the hard way it is often wise to be nuanced under these circumstances. “What help do you need?”
“All the doors are watched, but I can go into the garden. I need a boat and somebody to help me get to it.”
“Why don’t you just swim out?”
“Do you think she’d let me into the garden if I could swim?”
“How are you for funds? I suspect this sort of escape won’t be cheap.”
He pulled a purse out of his pocket. “She doesn’t let me have a lot of money.”
I looked in the purse, there were perhaps twenty-five silver vintenars in there, call it a week’s wages. I suspected most of this would go in expenses.
I sighed, “If you hear nothing, I’ll be in the river ready to collect you five nights from now. But if you want transport, they’ll want paying and this isn’t going to cover it.”
Obviously I had to look around for a co-conspirator. I needed somebody trustworthy, but frankly not too level-headed otherwise they would refuse to take part in this mad endeavour. Also, and perhaps most important of all, they had to be willing to do take all these risks for virtually nothing. Between ourselves I could not envisage Boran having the wit to put aside a useful sum of money. After all, he had a wife to do that sort of thing for him.
Mutt obviously thought I was mad. But he told me that if I got Lancet involved, he’d join in because he felt it could be a learning experience. Admittedly I paraphrase. Indeed some of his phrases, whilst descriptive, are alas impossible to precis without entirely losing the sense. Thus the need to avoid outraging public decency means I have left them out.
Still with Mutt’s ‘approval’, obviously I went to see Lancet Foredeck, self-proclaimed leading practitioner of performance art in the city. Let us not beat about the bush, he is probably the only practitioner. Even a city the size of Port Naain is unlikely to produce two like Lancet in the same generation.
When approaching Lancet, one has to know how to go about things. Remember always, one is not asking him a favour, one is proposing a joint project. Favours can become expensive, but joint projects have been known to provoke interest. To an extent I have an advantage over many when doing this. Not only have I known Lancet since we were street children together, but I have made a habit of assisting him over the years. (I confess that when pressed as to why, I merely shrug and mutter something about ‘helping an old friend.’ But in all candour I have managed to acquire a useful fund of stories from the experiences.) So I can legitimately approach Lancet knowing that he almost certainly owes me a favour.
So when I discussed the matter with him, he immediately agreed, claiming that things had been too quiet recently. Now once Lancet is involved in a project, he becomes intensely practical. In times of leisure he can be every bit the shambolic artist. But when he’s working he acts with the well-planned precision of an assassin.
He reached for his jacket. “Right, Tallis, let us go and view the scene.”
This we did by borrowing a dingy and a couple of fishing rods. We rowed up river past the house, continued for another mile or so and then allowed the current to take us slowly downstream again. It was obvious that there were things in our favour. The channel ran close to the north shore of the estuary at that point. Indeed there was obviously a deep pool barely a hundred or so yards from the house because stone barges and other vessels seemed to tie up there waiting for wharf space. Also the garden was built around several large beds with flowering bushes of a fair size. At least Boran wasn’t going to have to make his way to the river across a flat and featureless lawn.
Rather less in our favour was that as well as sundry gardeners there were two men who were obviously guards. It was somewhat worrying that they carried crossbows. Obviously life as a ‘player’ in city politics demanded that you took rather more precautions than were necessary if you were just a jobbing poet. As I studied the situation under the brim of the hat I had pulled down across my face, I congratulated myself on choosing the less stressful career.
Even before we gave the boat back, Lancet was bubbling with ideas. I took Mutt with me to meet him, three days later. My hope was that we would come up with a plan. When we arrived, Lancet’s work room was filled with even more bizarre apparatus than usual.
My part of the plan was simple. I had spoken to somebody who worked a sail barge on the river. He and his wife were happy to anchor in the pool with the other barges on the night in question. Then when Boran was on board they would sail east along the river and could deliver Boran anywhere between Port Naain and Fougar’s Bluff. They did rather assume Boran would be giving them something for their trouble, but I’d managed to keep that side of the matter vague.
Given that Boran couldn’t swim I would have to get him into the water and swim out with him. Ideally I’d have some sort of float for him but I wasn’t sanguine about that. We didn’t need something the guards could spot.
Lancet seemed happy with my pedestrian ideas and with great enthusiasm showed us his latest project. He gestured at what looked like an old tin bath.
“Here is our distraction. It should attract their attention.”
“Is that a steam engine?”
“Yes, I’ve been tinkering with the idea for a while now. I think they’ve got potential. It drives the two paddlewheels.”
I examined it carefully. “Without wishing to appear negative, it looks awfully like a kettle which somebody has soldered up.”
“Well I found it in the street, somebody had thrown it out. So it’s the boiler for the engine”
I gestured to the paddles. “Will they have enough power?”
“Doesn’t matter, I’ll be hiding on the barge which is taking Boran away. I will just pull this along on a line. The paddles are really for show. My idea is that observers will just assume it’s the work of a private inventor who is trialling his new invention when nobody is about.”
Mutt gestured to the front of the bath. “And these loops?”
“I’m going to put firework rockets in them, they can be fired off at the appropriate point.”
Lancet eyed Mutt up. “I was hoping you might be interested in doing that job.”
Mutt looked into the bath. “Where would I sit?”
“Well you could lie here, on these boxes.”
“What’s in the boxes?”
“I’ll be helping Tallis collect this ‘ere Boran. I’m quieter onshore than he is.”
“Oh well.” Lancet seemed disappointed. “I’ll just have to set up a fuse to fire them in sequence.”
“Good idea.” Mutt turned to me. “I think we’ve got as much distraction as we’ll need.”
Mutt and I waited in the water. We had made our way along the beach and now stood under the shelter of a bush not far from the edge of the garden. The house had two grand entrances, one at the ‘front’ with a carriage sweep leading off the road. There was another grand entrance at the rear with broad steps sweeping down to the gardens. The two crossbowmen stood chatting to each other at the top of the steps. Slowly Lancet’s steamboat made its way up the river. Mutt and I saw both guards stop what they were doing to stare at it. Mutt whispered, “I’ll go into the shrubs there and see where Boran is.”
With that he faded silently from view and I sat to wait. The two guards didn’t leave the steps (very wise, I would not have gone closer to a steam contrivance, especially if I’d known it was built by Lancet Foredeck). Thus I lowered myself deeper into the water so only my nose and eyes were above the level and made my way parallel to the shore.
In the shrubbery itself Mutt wormed his way through, finally he found Boran who was crouched down trying to remain hidden. Mutt laid a hand gently on the man’s shoulder but before he could say anything Boran let out a scream and crashed through the shrubbery, running for the water. Mutt followed.
Fortunately for us, at this point the first rockets fired. Whether Lancet had allowed for this, (I’m never going to ask as I know he’ll claim the credit whatever he planned) several of the first salvo struck the house. The crossbow bearing guards dived for cover. Mutt and I pulled Boran down into the water. We got him to float on his back and started towing him. Suddenly there was a tremendous pyrotechnic explosion. All the other fireworks exploded at once.
Mutt muttered fiercely in my ear, “Just lie here, on these boxes. Lancet is an idiot.”
I was not going to disagree with him at this point. Luckily I had my head turned away from the floating bathtup so hadn’t lost my night vision. The two guards remained out of sight. Obviously they were still taking cover. Then there was another detonation. This time, Lancet’s steam engine had exploded. Pieces of metal showered down around us. There seemed to be too many for it just to be the kettle. I suspected the bath had gone as well.
I was tempted to say something, but decided to keep my breath for swimming. We were almost at the barges, once among them we should be out of sight. I took a last look back towards the house. There was no sign of the guards. I started kicking more powerfully with my feet and we soon had Boran alongside the sailing barge.
As they pulled him on board, Lancet asked Boran, “Have you got any money.”
“Yes, in my bag.”
Mutt and I looked at each other with growing foreboding.
Lancet asked, “What bag?”
“The one I dropped in the shrubbery when the guards almost caught me.”
Hastily I said, “You lot just go, Mutt and I will try and recover the bag, we’ll share things out later.”
With that Mutt and I kicked off, leaving the boat behind.
All in all it went better than I expected. Mutt and I found the bag and got safely home with it. Three months later Lancet appeared. He’d worked his passage as a deck hand all the way to False Murchison and back rather than swim ashore and walk home. They’d put Boran ashore on the edge of the Northern Aphices. It seems that he’d heard of a monastery in the mountains that he felt would take him. Apparently it was run by one of the more penitential orders.
I occasionally hear from him. He did quite well in the monastery. After a year or two with them he decided that their rule was a bit too lax, so he moved out and became a hermit living in a cave three or four miles further into the hills. He would come to the monastery every week for supplies, and on some of his trips he would even talk to people. He wrote a lot, mainly about the dangers of succumbing to temptation and the need to mortify the flesh.
Oh yes, and the painting we started with. The third figure, the young lady in the water. That’s Maljie. Apparently three or four years ago she got a letter from Boran. Seemingly it was an apology for his misjudging her all those years ago. He admitted he had not valued her many good qualities as he should have. He praised her as a sweet, charming, innocent young woman. Apparently Maljie carries the letter around with her always, for old time’s sake. It’s all the evidence she needs to remind herself that you really can fool some of the people all of the time.
If you want to learn a little more about life on the river :-
As a reviewer commented, “Tallis Steelyard is a poet with champagne tastes on a beer budget. Chased out of town, and into the bay, by irate creditors, he’s rescued by a passing boat and given the opportunity to become a part of the crew. Thereafter follow a series of adventures, many funny, before Tallis can finally return home again.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend it highly!”