Flower arranging is one of the fine arts. Wise ladies who are sagacious enough to number themselves among my patrons insist on this fact and who am I to gainsay them? And of course the fine arts are important and standards must be maintained. Indeed under almost no pressure I will agree that it is important that these things are done ‘correctly’. To be sure, in the past I have judged flower arranging, so I could claim some expertise in the matter, especially as I have survived comparatively unscarred.
So when ladies give time to doing the arrangements which grace the Shrine of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm, I join the generally muted chorus of appreciation. I make no suggestions and offer no unsolicited advice. Thus and so I am considered ‘sound’ in these matters and life proceeds in a placid, indeed genteel manner.
Then a problem arose. For reasons I cannot even pretend to understand, Madam Silvany and Madam Postulin fell out. Whether they first argued over a flower arrangement, or whether they argued over something else and the argument spread to the flower arranging I cannot now say, (if indeed I ever knew) but the breakdown in relations was serious.
Firstly they were never more than icily polite, but always addressed their remarks not to each other, but to a third person who happened to be present. Secondly their social circles tended to move apart. Close friends had to choose between one and the other (or neither, if you were too slow in making your choice). Fortunately I have been a poet for too long to be caught by this. Yes, when I was younger, I would have allowed myself to be swept along by partisan feeling, but now I was older and wiser. I fell back on the obvious unworldliness of poets and appeared not to notice that anything was wrong. To be fair this is not easy, but I have two advantages. Firstly I am obviously unworldly, otherwise why would I consider it possible to make a living as a poet? Secondly I am male and every lady will tell you that men go through life not seeing the obvious and are congenitally unable to take a hint. To be fair, I feel that in their better moments, both ladies were glad to have me as a potential bridge between them should the other wish to apologise. At other times they perhaps hoped that I would be available to pass on their triumphs.
Now if anybody is to be blamed, I would lay the blame firmly at the feet of Maljie. She maintained perfect harmony among the flower arrangers by the simple expedient of uniting them against a common enemy, herself. When in their presence in the shrine, she would talk lovingly of the clean lines, the harmonious proportions and the elegant simplicity of the building. She left nobody in any doubt that if she were to be left in charge, the shrine would stand unadorned and beautiful.
Obviously such talk is anathema. Her attitude to stained glass was similar. I have heard her comment favourably on a nice piece which showed the Dispensation of Aea, because she felt that not only was it a beautiful piece of work, but also she felt it helped the mendicants grasp the depth of the message. Other windows which displayed the heraldry, banners or mottos of families who many years ago had donated money, she regarded with distaste. Indeed we lost three windows due to ‘lead rot’ which meant that one night, the entire frame collapsed and we arrived next morning to find the shattered pieces on the floor. The incumbent had the lead checked of another, larger window, and it was agreed to be sound. Unfortunately it had a tree come through it during a storm. Had there been a tree nearby its presence would have been more easily explained. But these windows were replaced with plain glass, ‘until we are gifted with a piece worthy of being put into the shrine.’
Thus and so, the flower arrangers knew that Maljie was not a person to cross and in her presence they would walk quietly, speak to each other in whispers and made a point of not causing trouble, lest they inadvertently drew her wrath upon them.
But Maljie had been under the weather and was not perhaps herself. Managing the flower arrangers devolved upon Laxey who tried to maintain order. But frankly he made a major error of judgement. Initially he tried to be reasonable and see all points of view, with the intention of gently bringing people back into line. Alas it was a complete waste of time, he should have just ruled through fear, it’s the only method that works.
Indeed it was Laxey’s fault that the final outburst happened when it did. The two ladies should not have been allowed to do arrangements for the same event. Hence when Madam Silvany arrived, she discovered that Madam Postulin had totally rearranged all her arrangements. She raised the matter, and Madam Postulin explained that she had assumed that the vases had been knocked over and a helpful five-year-old had stuffed the flowers back in them at random to get them off the floor.
Madam Silvany merely retorted coldly that she had assumed that the new arrangements had been put together by somebody obviously colour blind. Madam Postulin, who was inordinately proud of her grasp of colour and form, was furious. She slapped Madam Silvany across the face with a gardening glove. Trust me those things can leave scars. Madam Silvany, white faced with suppressed fury, merely said, “Dawn, tomorrow, in the woods at Roskadil.”
Madam Postulin merely nodded curtly and said, “Don’t be late, I’ve got a busy day.”
Fortunately one of the mendicants overheard and ran to tell Maljie and me. We were contemplating the wine cellar.
Maljie turned to me. “You’ll have to be there and break it up.”
“What, and have two termagants combine together and turn their blades on me? I’ll have to be wearing armour.”
With that I left. The talk of armour had reminded me that I was on decent terms with Alman Ulkin who was the Urlan Sergeant serving the young Lord Cartin. At the very least he could lend me the armour.
Unfortunately I’d planted the seeds of an idea in Maljie’s mind. My comment about the two women combining against me struck her as entirely practical. She decided to arrange this. So she wrote a short note to a Partannese brigand, ‘Lord Backhold’ who she knew was lurking in Port Naain. His latest raid had ‘made a killing’ in all senses of the word and he had decamped to Port Naain to avoid retribution and to spend his money on fine living. He also owed her favours from the past, when she’d given him excellent investment advice. Obviously she didn’t know exactly where he was, but she was acquainted with somebody who would know. So she put Lord Blackhold’s letter in with another letter which went to her contact who knew everybody. She then handed the packet to a mendicant to deliver.
Unfortunately whether due to poor handwriting, lower than hoped for levels of literacy, or mere stupidity, but the mendicant gave the package to the wrong person. It went to Hobbling Jock, rather than Jobbing Hack. Jobbing Hack knows pretty well everybody in the Port Naain criminal world, including a lot of the respectable ones. Hobbling Jock has a handful of friends as stupid and venal as himself. So he read both letters.
Maljie suggested to Lord Backhold, via Jobbing Hack, that he get a couple of his bodyguards to play-act an attempted kidnapping and let themselves be driven off. Hobbling Jock decided that he and his friends would not merely attempt the kidnapping but would carry it out and then sell the ladies south into Partann. So Maljie’s plan looked as if it might inadvertently succeed far too well.
On the other hand my request to Alman Ulkin that he lend me a suit of armour was met with a degree of reluctance.
“Tallis, you cannot wear armour!”
“Alman, how difficult can it be? I can wear a coat and britches.”
Alman gestured at the paperwork on the desk. “I can write, I have pen and paper, I ought to write poetry, how difficult can it be?”
That rather brought me up short. Then Alman asked what was probably the obvious question under the circumstances, “But why do you want armour?”
So obviously I had to explain. If I’d claimed I needed it for amateur theatricals he’d undoubtedly have wanted tickets. So the truth was almost certainly easier than frantically having to put on a last minute theatrical performance.
“Tallis, they will doubtless kill you.”
“Well I don’t want them killing each other.”
“Right, I’ll collect you and we’ll both go, that way hopefully nobody gets killed.”
It could have been so embarrassing, just imagine if Madam Silvany, Madam Postulin and their seconds, Hobbling Jock and his companions, Alman and I were on the same ferry? As it was Hobbling Jock, to give him some credit, had thought about this and he and his thugs crossed on the late evening ferry. They intended to sleep out in the woods. Madam Silvany and Madam Postulin were determined not to be on the same ferry so they hired small boats and were rowed across with their seconds. Alman and I got the ferry, which was running late. This was worrying.
The duellists arrived at the chosen spot. As their seconds examined the swords the two ladies stripped to the waist. This is a wise move, there is more chance of a wound being clean. Then everything agreed, the fight being to the second blood, they started to duel.
As one of the seconds explained to me later, both ladies were competent, neither particularly wanted to die, and to be honest, neither was keen on killing her opponent. But both wanted to win. From the way it was described it was a cold, tactical combat with both participants trying to out-think their opponent rather than to defeat them using passion and fast footwork.
Whilst they weren’t making a lot of noise, they were making enough so that Hobbling Jock and his mates could locate them. They burst upon the scene armed with knives and cudgels but were a little disconcerted to be greeted by two bare bosomed ladies, sword in hand. Now whilst I can understand Hobbling Jock not expecting his victims to be bare bosomed, surely if two ladies are fighting a duel, he should have expected swords. As it was, seeing the interlopers burst onto the scene the two duellists stood ready to repel them whilst their seconds, clutching umbrellas, stood behind them to cover their backs.
Hobbling Jock and his companions charged in and things got a little fraught. It was at this point, as Hobbling Jock went down with a rapier in his chest; that Alman and I finally arrived on the scene. Knowing we were late, we had ridden hard. So we crashed into the clearing with Alman in the lead, his sword already drawn. Our arrival, combined with Hobbling Jock’s gurgling demise, shocked the thugs so that another neglected his guard and he too died, skewered by a rapier. The others, seeing an Urlan with a drawn sword bearing down on them, scattered into the wood. Alman and I ostentatiously hunted them through the bushes, returning when we felt the two ladies would have had time to get themselves properly dressed.
Alman explained to the ladies that he had suggested to me an early morning ride, took the heads of the two dead men and promised that he would have them properly prepared. Thus with the two cadavers slung over our horses, we walked back to the ferry. It must be said that the ferryman was obviously used to Urlan bringing headless corpses into the city because he didn’t turn a hair. He merely charged us for two loaded packhorses as opposed to riding horses.
At this point I am the first to admit that Maljie’s idea had worked. As the ladies walked home they made up their quarrel. Indeed the following month, when the shrine celebrated the start of the Greater Lamentation, Mesdames Silvany and Postulin produced the arrangements that stood, one each side of the great altar. Normally one person would be chosen to do both but the two ladies had an idea and worked together in perfect harmony. It has to be said that the arrangements, each arising out of a silver mounted grinning skull, with a shrunken head spiked on the apex of the arrangement, were very effective. I heard Maljie give a grunt of approval when she saw them, but I’m not sure our incumbent entirely approved. There again, theology and art rarely march in lockstep.
It strikes me that you might want to learn more of Maljie and her antics
In his own well chosen words, Tallis Steelyard reveals to us the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. In no particular order we hear about her bathing with clog dancers, her time as a usurer, pirate, and the difficulties encountered when one tries to sell on a kidnapped orchestra. We enter a world of fish, pet pigs, steam launches, theological disputation, and the use of water under pressure to dispose of foul smelling birds. Oh yes, and we learn how the donkey ended up on the roof.
As a reviewer commented, “
Where to start with this review? First of all a health warning. Do not read this book when drinking coffee/beer/WHY. Neither is it a great notion to read somewhere sudden bursts of laughter could be seen as inappropriate.
I must confess upfront to being a fan of Jim Webster’s writing as he has a talent for making the most wildly inconsequential of observations seem matter of fact and perfectly believable. Any of the tales he weaves around the imaginary but utterly believable city of a port Nain are going to be chuckle worthy at the very least.
Therefore I approached the chronicles of Maljie’s varied and exotic life with great expectation.
I wasn’t disappointed.
In fact there were places where I actually howled with laughter.
Our heroine veers from situation to situation – rarely finishing without a profit. And some of her jobs are so silly and improbable. But you still keep reading and chuckling.
The ease with which Jim, in the guise of Tallis Steelyard (poet, visionary and unreliable witness) pilots this rickety craft through the shoals of Maljie’s life is exemplary.
But don’t just take my word for it. Read for yourself. But don’t forget the health warning.
Five big shiny stars.”