Every so often the city is swept with a passion for masked balls. Those of us who have seen it all before sigh, retrieve the mask we placed carefully at the back of the drawer after the last time, and get on with the endless task of supporting our patrons.
The purveyors of new clothing obviously circle more closely around the pocket books of fathers and husbands. If a lady is of independent means, then her thinking is more nuanced, but not so who control the finances of a husband. His wife and daughters point out that as the purpose of the masked ball is anonymity, they obviously cannot wear the same dress twice otherwise people will recognise them. Suggestions that a maid ‘refresh’ a dress in a novel and interesting manner are dismissed as unworthy of him, and with his defences crumbling, he capitulates.
For himself the gentleman adopts the obvious way of achieving anonymity. He merely wears a dark suit in the same cut and pattern as virtually every other gentleman. Thus masked balls manage to achieve what some had considered impossible. They indeed allow men of a certain age or attitude to spend even less on clothing. Indeed I’ve noticed that some men, if the trousers are not too shiny, nor the jackets not already protected by elbow patches and cuff bindings, will wear their work suit. Indeed, had I a work suit, I would emulate them.
Ladies of independent means tend to be more eclectic in their choice of garment. They do not have to prove to their peers that they have the gentleman in their life well under the thumb. They can spend what money they have as they will. Personally I feel they are worth watching. I’ve noticed a tendency amongst them to wear classic designs, easily refreshed.
Still, the quest for anonymity is not without its drawbacks. Most of us know at least one married couple who arrived separately at one of these masked events, intent on an illicit liaison to add a dash of excitement to lives they considered humdrum. Only to discover at the unmasking that the enchanting partner who had so swept them away was the person they were already married to.
Indeed this leads to another question, should there be an unmasking? There is room for discussion, but frankly I am against it. When you spend a lot of time and effort creating an aura of mystery and romance, it seems counter-intuitive to shatter it by having everybody removing their masks at the same time. Let folk remove their masks at home, whichever home they repair to.
Still there are other problems with anonymity. I present for your edification the sad experiences of Maljie. Once firmly ensconced in the world of usury she found that she was invited to a lot of balls and other social affairs. Attractive single ladies with prospects are sought after. This was not a problem, Maljie appreciated the opportunities to meet people and she was also a fine dancer. Admittedly a masked ball is not the perfect place to get to know people. Indeed during one brief period when society was under the influence of yet another ridiculous fixation with pseudo-anonymity, she accepted dance after dance from a string of anonymous gentleman, universally clad in dark grey. Thus she judged them all on their ability to dance.
Now one has to appreciate that Maljie has always been somebody who knew her mind and was not shy about stepping forward to ensure she got what she felt were her just desserts. Indeed the story is told about her as a small child. A couple of Urlan had ridden into the city, not on destriers, but on great War Brontotheres. These are closely related to the common domesticated draught brontothere, but are trained and bred for war. I know little of the breeding but apparently there are bloodlines within the species which are more prone to short temper and mindless violence. These are cherished.
These two great beasts could not be kept in a stable, but instead were held in a great pen on the edge of the city. They were quite a popular attraction, people would stand and watch them, pacing backwards and forwards, roaring, and destroying trees that got in their way. Maljie’s mother would take her sweet little daughter to see the creatures. After all, they don’t appear in the city every generation. When Maljie and her mother arrived, the two great beasts were sleeping in the sun. Mother fell into conversation with a neighbour, whilst Maljie, bored, pondered the somnolent killing machines.
Minutes later another lady approached Maljie’s mother. “Madam, have you seen your daughter?”
Maljie, a slim, gamin child, had slipped between the bars of the cage and was kicking the War Brontothere in an attempt to wake it up and get it to do something interesting. Mother had a fit of the vapours, and eventually Maljie was coaxed back out of the pen. The Brontothere appears to have ignored the whole proceedings.
Still, you can imagine, when somebody like Maljie danced, dancing was done. She injected a certain verve and vigour. This was not a problem for a partner with a similar style. In this situation the two dancers would spur each other to greater efforts. But if Maljie danced with somebody less enthusiastic than herself, she found it entirely unsatisfactory. Still, at one masked ball, a gentleman did meet her high standards. She intimated to him that if he were to ask her to dance again later in the evening, her card would have space for him.
Suitably encouraged he did ask again, and during the course of the evening they must have danced six or seven times. Frankly I know couples who have married after less! Finally, exhausted, the couple would stop for a drink.
The gentleman escorted Maljie to a secluded alcove and went off to collect two drinks. He returned with two large glasses of porter, explaining that the queue for other drinks was ridiculously long. Now I can appreciate his thinking. Not only that but if you want a drink to refresh you after hard labour and set you up for more, porter is difficult to beat. Indeed I do know that Maljie (at least in her more mature years) was not adverse to a glass or two of this nutritious beverage. But elegant and desirable young ladies do not wish to go breathing beer fumes over their dancing partners. Maljie was less than impressed and informed her partner in no uncertain terms. Needless to say they did not dance together again that evening.
I think this taught her a salutary lesson. At the next masked ball, when she found a partner who could dance, during the inevitable pause for rest and refreshment, Maljie volunteered to get the drinks. She returned bearing two glasses of an entirely acceptable white wine. Her partner watched her walking to him across the dance floor with obvious admiration. When she joined him, he commented, with the air of a man bestowing high praise, that she reminded him of Savina Lucious. This lady, entirely fictional, is the ‘heroine’ of a score or more of those ‘fifty-dreg dreadfuls’ set in Uttermost Partann. She is normally pictured on the frontispiece in considerable dishabille, her hair in complete disarray, wielding a short dagger. Maljie, whose dress did, legitimately, display considerable embonpoint, (which she considered one of her finer features) was entirely unimpressed and tipped both glasses of wine over him.
At the next masked ball, Maljie had more luck. She found a dancing partner who could not merely cope with her but who could push her to greater feats. Greatly exhilarated but now a little tired, the couple retired to rest and her escort went in search of drinks. Maljie, thoughtfully, suggested he get her something light, feminine and refreshing. The gentleman returned with a two tall glasses of some cocktail. He had watched the table carefully and had noted four young ladies speaking most highly of this particular, bright red, cocktail. Thus he had got a glass for Maljie, and (most self-sacrificially) one for himself.
Maljie found herself sipping the sort of drink one gets if one adds a sugary fruit syrup to a little bit of wine and an awful lot of lemon juice let down with water. It is the sort of thing that thirteen year olds drink when they wish to appear achingly sophisticated. It is not the sort of thing one drinks if one is wearing a gown in a pale pastel shade unless one wants to give the impression one has fled from the murder scene. The damned stuff gets everywhere, no matter how delicately you sip it. Needless to say, Maljie danced with somebody else for the rest of the night, her shawl adjusted to try and cover the worst of the stains.
Whatever you say about Maljie, she does not quit. At the next masked ball she missed out the first dance or two, just to watch the dancers. Thus and so, she spotted those gentlemen who danced best, and then only accepted invitations to dance from them. Things went well, but if anything the evening was more exhausting than normal. After all she was only dancing with fine, and energetic, dancers. Still, somewhat warily, she accepted the offer of a drink. Here her partner merely summoned a waiter who arrived with a well laden tray. Maljie chose an appropriate drink and sipped decorously. She then commented, innocuously, about one of the pictures that was hanging near them. Her partner glanced at it and agreed that the painting was perfectly competent. He then intimated that he preferred a more modern artist, feeling this individual to be supremely gifted.
(Some of his work may be seen here. https://tallissteelyard.wordpress.com/2020/04/05/seems-like-a-nice-girl/ )
Maljie rather sneered and commented that he seemed to focus on painting pretty girls in diaphanous clothing. At this point her partner decided he would attempt a gallant compliment. Given that Maljie’s gown, if not technically diaphanous, came remarkably close, the young man commented that he personally rather liked pretty girls in diaphanous clothing. Fortunately by this time Maljie had finished her drink so she merely turned on her heel and snubbed him.
Still, probably much to Maljie’s relief, the next dance she was invited to was specifically announced as ‘no masks to be worn.’ It was with some relief that she surveyed the dance floor, seeking to recognise people. The host, a senior usurer, a partner in the avarice of usurers she worked for, asked her for the first dance. He pointed out, sotto voce, that this would enable her to survey the floor for prospective partners. She agreed and danced with him. Towards the end of the dance she noted one young gentleman who was repeatedly glancing in her direction with the look of somebody working up the courage to ask a lady for a dance. She quietly asked her partner who the young man was.
The elderly usurer glanced across, “Oh him, it’s Halin Horseforth. You must know him, a fine dancer. You’ve toyed with him at the last four balls.”
Should you wish to learn more about Maljie then there is always this.
Available from everybody else at
As a reviewer commented, “
Maljie and Tallis start by taking action to protect their incumbent from being involuntarily removed from her post in order to serve the ambitions of Battass Droom. They then have to go on to protect each other from being elected Patriarch, which is, by definition, a job best done by somebody who does NOT want the appointment.
The efforts to achieve their aims become steadily more and more tortuous, including an attempt to delay a key meeting by employing such diverse methods as elaborate food poisoning and a trebuchet with an unusual payload, a race against time involving a one way balloon ride and having, temporarily, two Patriarchs (or are they non-Patriarchs?) with too much time on their hands.
Along the way, Jim takes delight in lampooning bureaucracy and its devotees, with some jaw-dropping moments that challenge the way things work. What would be non sequiturs anywhere else are hilariously believable in Port Naain and make you consider “real life” in a new light.
Do NOT read this book anywhere that full volume belly laughs are not socially acceptable.”
The complete Maljie stories can be found at