There is a lot to be said for a life in trade, it can be one of comfortable prosperity allowing the merchant in question considerable disposable income from which he or she can fund the finest of all arts, poetry.
One such merchant was Yondal Halthorn. He started as a butcher’s boy and rose to become one of the wealthiest men in Port Naain, with a score of different businesses and ventures. He was a tough man, but was generally regarded as fair. He had one daughter whom he doted on, but interestingly he doted on her so much he insisted she was properly brought up and educated
Siecle Halthorn was an only, and very pretty, child. Thanks to her father’s policy of making sure she had to learn to darn her own socks and wash by hand every garment she owned, (he never gave her a dress allowance, but the fact she would have to wash the damned thing was a great incentive to checking how easy something was to wash) she was a remarkably practical girl. She grew up to be a level-headed young woman. In reality I do her a disservice, she grew up to be a remarkably beautiful, level-headed young woman. Thanks to money left to her by her mother she was wealthy in her own right, and after her father died, she would become embarrassingly rich.
Yondal Halthorn pondered the implications of this and finally shrugged. He felt he’d done all a father could do. Still he tried to lead her by example. He was always teaching her to judge people fairly and reward service appropriately. At the very least he felt that if she took this lesson to heart she would be surrounded by loyal and competent retainers. Now it so happened that, as a young girl of ten, her pony bolted on her. Disaster was averted because a young street child had managed to grab the bridle, and as he clung desperately to this, three other men managed to bring Siecle’s mount to a halt. A grateful father paid the three men generously and then turned to the boy. When offered money the boy refused with the words, “I’d rather have a job.”
Yondal Halthorn, already warming to the child, asked, “What job?”
“I want to be your man of business.”
Yondal lifted the boy onto his saddle with the words, “Well your training starts today, and if you’re good enough, then the job is yours.”
The boy, known merely as Nibby, started off as a stable boy. He was good, and after a couple of years was promoted to groom. Yondal kept an eye on him and was pleased with what he saw. Siecle also kept an eye on him and treated him as her personal assistant. This led, inevitably, to his next promotion, but not perhaps in a manner anybody expected.
Siecle, now fifteen, had been talking to her friends, and apparently the sophisticated ones claimed to have tasted a wine from Uttermost Partann. It was grown at Clegger’s Vineyard, southwest slope. Apparently a bottle of ‘The year of the Hangman’s Mistress’ was considered sublime. (Frankly, this is nonsense. Clegger’s Vineyard is a good one, especially when one considers the speed with which owners come and go, hence the vine tedders just work to their traditional timetable and ignore instructions coming down from above. Oh and the year of the Hangman’s Mistress is good, but not that good.)
Should Siecle wish to rise in the estimation of the sophisticated clique, she would have to be able to discuss this particular wine. After almost no thought she asked Nibby to get her a bottle. Without further ado, Nibby checked various wine merchants and discovered it was practically impossible to get. So he jumped ship and travelled down to Uttermost Partann. A month later, by which time Yondal had assumed they would never see the boy again, Nibby reappeared. On a stolen horse, bearing a crate of bottles for Siecle (including two of the much better year of the Two Blue Moons) and a contract for Yondal, granting him the sole right to purchase wines from the vineyard, and signed not by the owner but (far more usefully) by the senior wine tedders. Yondal did the obvious thing and promoted Nibby to his counting house.
Five years later, Yondal asked his Man of Business whether Nibby was ready for moving on. He was surprised by the answer. “No, because he’s too damned useful. He managed to extract the real deeds for our Ropewalk property from the vaults of a usurer, he faced down several of Jingling Graan’s bullies and ensured that we no longer had to pay protection on our warehouses; and if that wasn’t enough he hunted down a fraudster who had taken rather a large amount of money from the business. When he found the fellow, he recovered the stolen money, then delivered him to the watch without a mark on him, where the villain made a full confession.”
It was obvious that Nibby was due promotion, but it was about then that, sadly, old Yondal died. I confess I mourned him. He didn’t often use a poet, but I was called in to help organise those milestones that mark a young lady’s coming out into society. I have no doubt that Siecle mourned as well, but her training showed. She set her hands on the helm of the business, and almost as an afterthought, promoted Nibby to the role of ‘general assistant.’
Now it can well be imagined that Siecle was not without gentleman admirers. What young, beautiful, accomplished, and ridiculously rich young woman isn’t? She did wonder at the comparatively high quality of her admirers, before discovering that her loyal employees were quietly evaluating the prospective applicants for the post and dealing with them appropriately. Thus anybody entirely unsuitable was ‘actively deterred.’ In the case of one notorious rake this involved him dangling upside down over the side of a boat as it made its way from Port Naain to Prae Ducis. When he was finally allowed back on board he was told in no uncertain terms that if he was ever seen again, they would take him back to Prae Ducis. But this time they would drag him behind the boat, tied to an anvil.
Hence she discovered that her admirers were all decent men, indeed some could be classed as nice. What intrigued her most was there appeared to be no checking for competence. Some of her admirers would struggle to tie their own shoes in the dark. There again, given her staff assumed she had competence enough for two, she took that as a compliment.
Still she felt that checking for competence would be a useful test. Thus truly favoured admirers, (those who she would consider seriously) were given little jobs to do. They were often dangerous, but still, they were the sort of thing a lady must surely expect from a suitor. It was at this point that she experienced a degree of disappointment. Without exception they failed. Now she wasn’t a fairy-tale princess demanding dragons slain. She was a sensible business woman sending people on difficult, even demanding, missions, but they weren’t obviously impossible.
Nibby had to rescue one suitor from Partann, where his casual arrogance had led to a local lordling casting him into the oubliette.
Another fled Port Naain on discovering that his attempt to purchase a particular racehorse had led to three different betting syndicates howling for his blood.
Another was asked to check out the commercial potential of a small business in Oiphallarian. It wasn’t the poor chap’s fault that he happened to be there when the Scar besieged the city. Still the fact he spent the siege in hiding, surviving on a diet of cheap red wine, counted against him. As did the fact that if Nibby hadn’t travelled to the city, found him, and dragged him on a hurdle through the streets to the wharf, even as the Scar broke through the walls and rampaged across the city, he would have died.
Finally one suitor distinguished himself by his utter inadequacy. A couple of years after the Oiphallarian episode he was sent upriver to look, cautiously, at the possibility of trading with the Scar. Again, it was hardly his fault that the People, a nomad tribe notorious for their treachery and guile, attacked the Scar, who were already weakened by their disaster at Oiphallarian. This provoked a major political upheaval. The Urlan and the Rangers, realising that they needed the Scar to help keep the People in check, rode to their rescue. The Scar, somewhat bemused by this, accepted the help they desperately needed. Siecle’s suitor, caught up in all this, was captured by the People.
He was rescued. Nibby broke into the People camp at the head of a small force of six Urlan. These he had recruited by the simple expedient of betting them that they couldn’t do it. They proved that they could and he graciously granted them all the loot, save for the captured suitor, cut free from a slave coffle. As Nibby escorted the rescued suitor back to safety, there were further adventures. On one occasion, Nibby helped ‘man’ a scattergun in the company of an injured Ranger gunner who was too badly hurt to do anything but give instructions, two Scar maidens, and a tribal matriarch who would ram cartridges into the breech whilst all the while complaining that the world had gone to the dogs since she was a girl. Indeed when the People broke through, she knocked one rider off his horse with a sweeping blow from an artillerist’s worm. As he attempted to regain his feet she kept hitting him, all the while cursing his ineptitude and lamenting the passing of the days when warriors were fierce and competent.
Still, Nibby got the suitor back. Both of them were showing the signs of injury and hard usage, but still, Nibby reported for duty. He took his normal place, seated on the stone bench that ran round the great house’s entrance hall. It was there that Siecle found him, fast asleep. She did the obvious thing, she married him.
Should you want to know more of life in Port Naain
As a reviewer commented, “Another set of stories from Poet Tallis Steelyard. Amongst other short tales, he advises on selling your written word. The world, even the invented world of Tallis and friends, has much to say on this. As we know, people you’ve never heard of will offer you a book on how to sell your novel and get rich. Jim Webster has once again sorted the gold from the dross and presented it as stories. There’s a lot of truth in them!”