People have commented that I haven’t mentioned Istri. Was this an intentional oversight on my part? Of course not, it’s just that Istri has always been there. Istri dances. She has done so for as long as anybody can remember. Every morning, early, she appears on the Old Esplanade and dances her dance.
I remember watching her with an Urlan who was in the city for the hunting (in his case, gorlix, not men). He thought her dance was a version of one of the old ‘dances at arms’, done well but danced with grace, not power. He also commented that when you enter into the dance, you lose yourself and become one with the movements. You cease to think, you just know. Apparently, when done properly, one of these war dances can be very calming and can centre a person. Thus from an Urlan perspective, they have the advantage that not merely do they make the movements, the parries, the attacks, totally instinctive; they will also change you from an angry and impetuous killing machine to a calm and centred killing machine.
In the case of Istri, I think it was the calmness she sought, and sought it with great success. From what I was told she was a maid in one of the big houses that still overlook the further reaches of the Old Esplanade. Little more than a child she had found the work unfamiliar but she learned fast. She had no personal worries, the Mistress and her housekeeper ran a decent house and there was no hanky-panky. If one of the footmen wanted to court a maid, then he would raise the matter with the butler who in turn would take the issue to the housekeeper. She would discuss it with the maid in question. If the maid was agreeable then word was circulated that the couple were indeed courting. Mistress was informed and matters were arranged so that they could have their evenings off together, and nobody frowned at small signs of affection.
But for all that there were undercurrents. Cook and Housekeeper didn’t get on. Thus kitchen staff and maids were on tenterhooks trying not to take sides. The butler was not the man he had been. Twenty years previously he would have stepped in and arranged a reconciliation, or with some sadness would have dismissed both. Now, anxious mainly for a quiet life he did nothing, and didn’t have a quiet life either. So each morning, in a quiet time, Istri would slip out, run down to the quieter end of the Old Esplanade and dance her dance. That done she would walk demurely back and return to her work.
She was fortunate in that her mistress was understanding. She could have been somewhat suspicious of a maid who used to reappear in the early morning, barefoot and wearing only her shift. But she asked, politely, for an explanation, and the one she got satisfied her.
On the Old Esplanade itself, the shore combers were her main audience and they accepted her in much the same way as they accept everything else. You get the good and the bad together, so there is no point getting too excited about the good or too upset about the bad. Istri dancing, whether in the rain, the wind or the morning sun, was something that would cause even the oldest and dourest shore comber to almost smile.
In the way of things she got married, (the new butler) and accepted the post of housekeeper. They had a number of children, but even when heavily pregnant, Istri would dance. Indeed she dances still, older than she once was, but still graceful and the grandsons of shore combers who saw her as little more than a child still smile at her as they pass.
People ask, was she ever bothered? Certainly not in recent years. After all, she is one of ours. She never asked to join the shore combers, and they never invited her to be one of their community, but it just happened. One morning, some reprobate, making his way home from a debauch, made improper advances. Smoothly and as part of the dance she started to garrotte him with the scarf. Luckily the tide was in and a group of shore combers ran to her assistance and stopped her killing him. Instead they beat the chap up in an entirely non-judgemental manner and threw him off the Old Esplanade into the tide. Apparently he crawled out a quarter of a mile further along.
But I can claim one thing, I am the only person who has ever danced with Istri, and in all candour I’ll be happy if I never have to do it again. It was one evening, so late it was when evening is really night and wondering when to hand over the torch to early morning. I was walking home from an event I’d been helping to host and I met Istri walking in the other direction. She had a determined air, but still, she was the properly dressed housekeeper, with her blouse, long skirt, white apron and sensible shoes.
“Tallis, do you know exactly where Chenselle House is?”
“I do, although I’ve never been invited to perform there.”
“I am going to collect my granddaughter, she has apparently ended up there.”
Istri’s granddaughter might have been eight at the time, and Chenselle House did not have a good reputation.
“I can take you there, Istri. It’ll be faster than trying to explain the route.”
Silently she nodded and side by side we walked briskly back the way I had come, before turning along Snook’s Walk and then around the back of the Merchant Quarter. At the house we climbed the steps up to the porch that sheltered the front door. I went up to the door and knocked. It was opened by a footman. For all his lime green knee britches and his hair in a pigtail, powdered white in the old style, the man was a thug. Without a word he grabbed me by both lapels.
One does not grow up on the streets of Port Naain without learning some lessons. I brought my head forward so any attempt to head butt me in the face would lead to him hitting his face on my forehead. I brought my right leg across to thwart any attempt to knee me in the groin, all this instinctively and without conscious thought. Then I clasped my hands together to make a fist and struck upwards between his two arms. This meant I punched him in the face as he leaned forward, breaking his nose. Then I brought both arms outwards, breaking his grasp, grabbed his pigtail and the seat of his pants and ran him through the porch and off the edge of the steps. I turned to see Istri vanish into the hall. So I followed her, closing the door behind me as I did.
She passed through the double doors into a large but crowded ballroom. Over her shoulder I could see her granddaughter, along with three other obviously terrified children. Two more footmen attempted to grab Istri and at that point she started to dance. But rather than her scarf, this time she had a blade in each hand. You know the old carving knife, the one made of good steel. The one that has been passed down through the family from mother to favoured daughter, for a century or more? The blade has been sharpened so often it is perhaps half the thickness it was, but still it will carve a joint to perfection. Every good house has one, lurking like a feroce in the bottom of a drawer. Obviously in a big house with a really good kitchen, they have at least two. Equally obvious, as housekeeper, Istri was on excellent terms with Cook. The loan of such a knife is the sign of great trust.
Istri danced, bright iron shining around her. It was as if she was ignoring the footmen and other guests. None of them seemed to attract her attention, she just seemed to dance, to flow. But now there was more speed, more power, but still there was an undeniable grace.
Some fell back before her. Some tried to stop her, bled and fell back before her. I grabbed a ridiculously heavy, erotic, brass candle stick from off a table. Frankly if I had been less angry and frightened I would have struggled to lift it. With it I threatened somebody who tried to grab me. Calmly Istri said, “Collect the children please, Tallis.”
I advanced towards the children, somebody tried to interpose themselves between me and them, but I think they noticed me shift my grip on the candlestick and fled. The children ran to me and I shepherded them out of the ballroom. Istri danced after us, nobody venturing within the circle of bright iron. I stepped to one side and had one of the children open the front door. Then as the footman burst in, I hit him behind the knee with the candlestick and he went down again, Istri walked past him as if he wasn’t there and we quietly left.
Istri glanced down at her apron. “White is such a ridiculous colour.”
Frankly it was a little blood-spattered but I’ve seen worse on a butcher’s apron. She took it off with a sigh and bundled it up. I noticed that the knives had disappeared as well, but I decided not to inquire further.
Thus a casual observer might have assumed that it was Tallis Steelyard, with his newly acquired but preposterous brass candle stick, who was escorting the party back to the Old Esplanade. Between ourselves, it was Istri, utterly calm, who was in charge.
Next morning, as I went out early to find a buyer for the candle stick, Istri was there as usual, dancing as if nothing had happened.
Shena and I dined well that night on what I got for the candle stick. Mind you the buyer did say he could have paid a lot more if I’d got the set. So next time I spontaneously agree to help rescue people, I must remember to borrow a horse and cart as well.
Should you wish to discover more of the world of Tallis Steelyard, this is available, in paperback or on Kindle, from Amazon
As a reviewer commented, “What’s a poet to do when one of his lady patrons is being blackmailed and his own life may be at risk due to his actions in defending another from attack some time in the past.
How are both these events connected?
Well – read this tale and find out – trust me, it’ll be time well spent.”