Welcome to the Hotseat of Truth, a device in which a protagonist is trapped. The only way to escape is to answer five searching questions completely honestly or the Hotseat will consume them to ashes!
Today’s victim is Tallis Steelyard, the creation of Jim Webster. Tallis is the leading poet of his generation. Married to Shena, he lives on a barge tied to the Fellmonger’s Wharf. Shena is a mud-jobber, a dealer who buys finds from the shore-combers who scour the mud of the estuary and sells them on. Tallis is a jobbing poet, earning his living from his art.
Port Naain is the largest city on the west coast of ‘The Land of the Three Seas’. It is situated on the estuary of the River Paraeba. Described by some as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, like all cities, it meets you half way and reflects back to you your soul. So Port Naain has erudite literary salons, delightful tea rooms, bordellos, respectable young ladies supporting themselves honestly, thugs, mages, sages, chivalrous condottiere, slums, fine houses, bad beer and reasonable coffee. All human life is here.
Question 1: What is the most important principle you adhere to in life?
When everything is said and done, I still have to be able to look myself in the face when I shave.
Question 2: As an observer of life in Port Naain, how much do you feel like a voyeur and how much a passenger?
An interesting question. A voyeur? Perhaps, but at times I sit at the table and play my cards in the great game. Other times I stand and watch the play over the shoulders of those who push coin backwards and forwards between them.
A passenger? Never. A passenger is cossetted and pampered, treated with respect and his or her welfare is a matter of supreme importance to the management. This, I assure you, has never been my experience of life in Port Naain.
Question 3: What decision do you most regret?
This is a tricky question. Indeed I suspect the answer changes over the years. But at the moment it has to be when I didn’t look in the package Sarl Onwater, the Sinecurist, gave me to look after. But in reality I don’t think I can start the story here. You see, at the time this all happened, Madam Galfin was an intermittent patron of mine. She was a beauty, no doubt about it, but on occasion she sported a mask. Now to be fair I know a number of ladies, and a larger number of gentlemen who would benefit from wearing a mask. But Madam Galfin was not one of them. I put it down to a personal eccentricity on her part and thought no more about it.
Until one evening when I was helping to tidy up after a soiree, I glanced in a wall mirror and noticed two identical, masked, Madam Galfins walking down the corridor. They had happened to pass the doorway when I was looking. This, I confess, intrigued me. Eventually I discovered that Madam had a younger, unmarried sister.
Now Madam had been sadly widowed young. To be honest there was not a lot of money, and Madam had to be careful. Still it was not unreasonable that she might want her sister to come and live with her, if only to provide company. But why hide her?
Still I continued to perform for Madam and by observing carefully I realised that sometimes it was Madam who was hostess and sometimes the sister. They never openly appeared together. Indeed the sister was never mentioned. I merely heard of her existence because I talk to the kitchen staff and the kitchen staff have to know. I was intrigued. Both ladies wore their hair in exactly the same manner. Both could wear the same clothes, but the younger Mistress Galfin was perhaps slightly lighter on her feet. Still, I could see no harm in it and I confess I remained fascinated by the whole thing.
It was about half way through the summer season, perhaps three months after I realised that there were two Madam Galfins, that Madam arranged for a party to go to the races. She took a private box, we had a tour of the various stables before the races, and personally I found it interesting. Madam Galfin was wearing a very long dress in a deep red colour. Personally I felt it was a bit long for the outdoors as it virtually swept the floor and even hid her feet. The younger Mistress Galfin didn’t accompany us, but in our party was a young stable lad who wore a bulky jacket and hid his hair under a large knitted cap. His purpose was never satisfactorily explained, but then why should it be? Nobody asked about him.
When we arrived at the box, the stable lad disappeared.
Now I had to slip out as well. I’d seen Sarl Onwater as Madam Galfin’s party had made its way round the grounds and he’d gestured that he wanted to see me. So as soon as I could slip away, I did and found him.
“Ah Tallis, when are you finished with Madam Galfin?”
“She asked me to stay with the party to the last race.”
“Then are you going home?”
“Well I’ll call in at the Misanthropes on the way home.”
“Excellent. Could you give this package to Decan, the manager?” With that he held out a small package that I could easily hold in a clenched fist.
“No trouble at all Sarl.”
He handed me it. “Tell Decan he owes you a drink.”
With that he smiled and turned back to talk to a jockey who had just joined us. I bowed politely and left. But on the way back to the boxes I noticed Madam Galfin’s stable lad slip inconspicuously into one of the long stables. My curiosity piqued I loitered inconspicuously. Ten minutes later I was surprised to see Madam Galfin leave the stable. I confess I stared. Pulling myself together I watched her summon a sedan chair. I was close enough to hear her instruct the bearers to take her back to her (Madam Galfin’s) residence. As they moved off she asked if they could find somebody to take a message to the Galfin box. One of them whistled for a lad who ran up, took the message and a coin and walked in my direction.
As soon as he was out of sight of the departing sedan chair I intercepted him.
“Ah young fellow, have you got the message for the Galfin Box?”
He looked at me, “Yeah.”
“Excellent, I’m heading back to my box now so I might as well take it myself.” I held my hand out. It had a twenty dreg piece on it. The lad took the coin, gave me the message, and fled back to whatever he had been doing.
I quietly examined the message, it merely said, “Back Blue Marl.”
I sniffed the message. Rather than a hint of a lady’s perfume, I could smell poppy syrup. I guessed the piece of paper had been handled by somebody who had the substance on their hands. I pondered, briefly, and instead of going directly to the box, I went into the stable. There was nobody about, certainly there was no sign of the stable boy who had entered. On impulse I picked up a feed bucket and sniffed it. Again I thought I could smell the sweet aroma of poppy syrup. It struck me that somebody had been mixing the essence into the mash in the bucket. Had somebody been doping horses? It would certainly make sense of the message. I looked around more carefully and there, hung inconspicuously on a nail, was the big jacket Madam Galfin’s ‘stable boy’ had been wearing. It too had a slight odour of poppy syrup, especially one of the pockets. It struck me that if the ‘stable boy’ was Mistress Galfin, she could have had a dress hidden under the jacket, and a bottle of poppy syrup in the jacket pocket. After giving the syrup to the horses she could abandon the jacket, pull the dress over her clothes and it would be long enough to disguise the fact she was wearing boots and britches.
On my way back to the box I passed a bookie and asked for the odds on Blue Marl.
“Two hundred to one.”
I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a mixed handful of coin, all of it copper. It was probably every dreg I had in the world. “Put this on him to win.”
The bookie pushed the coins across to a clerk who painstakingly totted them up. Frankly it took an embarrassingly short time.
He gave me a slip and I made my way back to the box. Madam Galfin was present as I expected, so when nobody was watching I passed her the message, saying a boy had given it to me. She looked at it, thanked me and five minutes later she announced she was going to bet on a race. To the amusement of her guests she decided she would back Blue Marl because she thought the name lucky. There was a good deal of jollity as they tried to convince her to back a horse with some chance of winning. This banter continued as the party converged on the line of bookies who had their stalls set out along the track side.
Apparently a little irritated by her guests, Madam put ten alars on Blue Marl to win. But she did it at five different bookies. They took her money with the smug satisfaction of a sagacious man who has just parted a fool and their money. We then retired to watch the race.
Of course Blue Marl won. The other four horses trailed in two or three lengths behind it. With glee she led her party back to the row of bookies and proceeded to collect her winnings. I also collected mine, a mere five alars, but still, I’ve worked for a month for that amount of money and thought myself well paid. Madam pocketed, (metaphorically) ten thousand alars. A fortune. Not only that but she had a large party with her and the bookies couldn’t do a runner, nor even arrange for ‘their boys’ to snatch it back.
In great good humour Madam hired a coach and the party returned back to the city, Madam commenting loudly that she would deposit the money with her usurer before going home. It struck me that her financial worries were a thing of the past, even if she gave her sister half.
I merely walked to the Misanthropes and asked for Decan. He came out of his office and I passed him the package from Sarl. He welcomed me into his office and poured me a drink whilst he unwrapped it. To be honest he was as mystified as I was. Eventually he undid the package and found a purse. He opened it and emptied it onto the desk. Four, ten alar coins rolled out. They lay there, glinting in the way only gold can. I sat, staring open-mouthed at them.
Decan asked me what was wrong. I obviously never heard him because he had to ask me three times before I answered. Quietly I explained the events of the afternoon. Had I known I had forty alars on me, I could have gone home eight thousand alars richer.
He smiled at me and handed me the almost full bottle. “Knowing your luck Tallis, the damned horse would have tripped and broken a leg and you’d have ended up forty alars in debt.”
Still, it’s not all loss, if Decan sees me in the bar, he’ll often send a drink across to my table and when I look round to see where it has come from, he’ll catch my eye and wink at me. So I raise the glass and wish him good health.
Question 4: If you could change one thing about Port Naain, what would it be?
Strangely enough this is a discussion we often have in the bar at the Misanthropes, and all sorts of suggestions have been made. Moving the whole place three hundred miles south to get the advantage of warmer weather is often popular. I have suggested that we orientate the city differently. If the river flowed north-south into the sea, then the westerly gales wouldn’t blow straight up into the heart of the city.
Others have suggested that we have better beer, or fewer people, or perhaps more people who appreciate poets.
Then you get people who tell you that we want to get rid of the slums, or for people to be wealthier, or healthier, or just nicer. Personally I’d be happy if we got rid of the poverty of aspiration that hangs like an anvil around the necks of so many people. If people are sure we can be better, we will be.
Question 5: You are a professional poet and also write prose, which art do you feel has the greatest impact and why?
Lancet Foredeck once commented that for all the effect I’ve had on the city, I might as well abandon literature and take up the four holed Ocarina. Still, within the city I am not without influence, my verses have, on occasion sold, and have even been set to music. But frankly and just between ourselves, I suspect that it is my prose, my habit of anecdote, which is the most effective.