If you missed the first part of this story, look no further! You can find part one of Literally Critical right here. And now, to pick up where we left off…
The problem we faced producing both the ‘Port Naain Re-evaluation of Literature’ and the ‘Port Naain Guide to Literary Merit’ was not the workload. The real problem was the need for anonymity. Had we been able to credit the authors of the copy then we could doubtless have hired plenty of contributors. In fact, the act of merely offering money would mean that we would have been forced to beat writers off with a stick. On the other hand, had the Port Naain literary world known who was writing the content for these two publications; it would most likely have been we who were beaten with sticks.
The anonymity did lead to problems for some. I had to do a review of an event Lancet Foredeck had featured heavily in. Now I will admit that I have never let my long association blind me to the flaws in Lancet’s work. Installation poetry has always struck me as somewhat overblown, after all what poet worth their salt cannot spontaneously knock off a few stanzas or even just a rhyme or two when the situation calls for it.
But still, Lancet is a better than middling painter, a perfectly competent teller of tales to large groups of young children whom he can hold spellbound, and to be fair, he’s not a bad poet. But at the event I attended, he surpassed himself. He launched into a mixture of pre-rehearsed and spontaneous work which was breathtaking in its comprehension and range. As he finally sank down into his seat the entire audience stood to applaud him. Even those who were merely present to drink at the bar rose to applaud him. Indeed the barman brought him a tankard of the bar’s best ale to quench his thirst without even being asked or staying for the money. On that day, in that place, I confess that Lancet was, if only briefly, the finest poet in Port Naain. So when I came to write the review, honesty demanded that I say this. Now in my first review, for the ‘Re-evaluation’ I stressed the quality of his work and said what an excellent night it had been. In the review for the ‘Guide’ I ought to have traduced him and denigrated his efforts. But frankly I could not bring myself to write the words. Even as I wrote the second review I found myself re-living the evening, and yet other examples of his wit and genius forced themselves upon me and I found myself mentioning them.
Of course, when the two periodicals were published, Lancet had glowing reviews in both. As this had never happened before, a number of people assumed that he was the person responsible for writing at least some of the reviews. So they hunted him down to where he was playing a listless audience on Rotten Wharf. Their accusations grew animated, his denials failed to soothe them until at last his accusers got quarrelsome, even confrontational. Finally Lancet was forced to calm the situation by throwing two of them off the wharf into the Paraeba. This seemed to impress his accusers far more than his denials and they departed, claiming they were late for other engagements.
As I have previously mentioned, Silac had a plan. We would just print another month’s worth of periodicals before broaching the subject of an impending marriage between the delightful Suzaine and a bashful Silac to Suzaine’s Grandmother, Mistress Hanchkillian. But this was delayed by another issue. We were making inordinately large amounts of money. So inevitably the loving couple would keep putting off the awful day when they had to face the aged relative.
Unfortunately there were now other problems as well. Both magazines had their partisans. For some ‘Re-evaluation’ was their guide to what was good in literature, whilst for others, the ‘Guide’ forced them to re-evaluate the current literary scene. Indeed the partisanship grew so fierce that various individuals started sending ‘letters to the editor’, courtesy of Silac at the printers. These we gleefully published, on the grounds they took up space, were popular with the readers, and cost us nothing. So whilst the two periodicals didn’t openly attack each other; in the letters columns, our readers vented their spleen on the other ‘opposing’ periodical. It got to the stage where the various sellers found their customers so polarised that they wouldn’t buy from a vendor selling ‘the other’ publication. So the street sellers and newsboys started to just sell either one or the other. Yet by this point we were delivering several hundred copies directly to the homes of readers, so desperate were they to ensure they got their weekly copy. Ah the problems of success.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, we had become fashionable. The bitterness of the letters columns, the vituperative nature of the reviews, drew to us a readership that had never before shown any interest in literature. Groups of people who were barely literate would gather round to listen to one of their more erudite members read the more stimulating passages.
Obviously there were those who could rise above such partisanship, but they were few in number and were the objects of suspicion to those who showed unilateral devotion to their favoured writers. It was the plight of these brave few that brought our problems to a head.
From now on I must warn you that I am piecing my story together from what I’ve been told and very little of it comes from direct observation. Hence it is necessary for me to adopt a different ‘voice’, becoming more of a narrator, only occasionally interjecting my own thoughts.
Mutt, a bundle of papers tucked under one arm, walked confidently in the pre-dawn gloom. He made his way through the broken tenements of a particularly decrepit part of the Ropewalk. At one point he stopped and looked up. The building must have been quite impressive in better days. Each window had a balcony, but now these balconies had been converted into hovels. Mutt took his place beneath one particular balcony, glanced round than then stuck two fingers into his mouth. His whistle was piercing but produced no obvious result. He shrugged and said in a penetrating whisper, “Jillet, you about? Sun’s coming up.”
This seemed to have some result; from the apparently derelict shack on the balcony there came a grunt. “That you Mutt?”
“Jillet, come on, no time to bath or whatever, we got work to do.”
A grubby girl’s face appeared over the edge of the balcony. “Work? You?”
“Yeah.” Mutt flourished his bundle of newspapers.
“What yer selling?”
“Well yer can’t cause I’m selling t’Guide.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’ll be alright. Anyhow we’re not selling nothing at the moment. Come on.”
Jillet reached out and pulled herself forward until she could reach a metal rail that some previous generation had fastened to the side of the building. Then with her other hand she grabbed a pair of crutches. With the crutches hanging round her neck she climbed hand over hand down the rail until her feet touched the ground. She used one hand to hold the rail while with the other she got her crutches into place. “Right, I’m ready.”
“Where’s your papers?”
“Ad ’em delivered.”
Companionably the two children made their way along Ropewalk, eventually cutting up Cropper Lane to the junction with Drapers’ Walk. Jillet looked under a sack in one of the gardens. “Yeah, they’re here.”
Laboriously she picked up the bundle of papers and carried them to the corner. Then both children sat down, twelve feet apart, both leaning on the wall and waited.
Trade was brisk. Less than an hour after dawn Jillet had sold her last copy of the ‘Port Naain Guide to Literary Merit’. As her last customer made their way down the Walk, Jillet picked up her crutches and made her way to sit next to Mutt.
Mutt held up his diminished bundle. “Two left.”
Both children sat straighter as a young woman walked towards them. She smiled down at the two ten year olds. “You’re becoming a regular here Mutt.”
Rina passed Jillet a packet. “Here’s your breakfast, but I put more in because I thought you might have a guest.”
“Anyway what are you selling Mutt?”
Mutt held up the two copies of the ‘Port Naain Re-evaluation of Literature’.
Rina smiled at him. “Go on, I’ll buy one, it’ll do me good to read something different.”
She dropped the change into his hand and folded the paper neatly and placed it in her bag. “Have a good day children.”
Jillet watched her walk away. She turned to Mutt. “Come on, breakfast.”
After a breakfast of bread, cheese and fruit Mutt leaned back against the wall. He confessed to himself that selling papers was boring. But it was steady money, and given that he’d borrowed his stock from the pile that had been ordered by the Misanthropes Hall, in his case it was all profit. The sun was pleasant and Jillet was humming a tune to herself. Mutt felt himself slipping into a gentle doze when a voice said, “What paper yer selling.”
Even as he opened his eyes Mutt said “Revaluation.”
Standing in front of him was a short scruffy individual. The thin beard and spotty complexion indicated to Mutt that his potential customer wasn’t all that much older than him.
“Re-evaluation? You selling that crap.” With this the youth hawked and spat on the paper. Briefly stunned by the action Mutt started getting to his feet.
“What you playing at?”
“Just raising the tone of the neighbourhood.” With this he swung his foot at Mutt.
Trapped with a wall behind him and Jillet on one side Mutt dived right and the boot caught him a glancing blow on his shoulder.
Jillet grabbed one of her crutches with her right hand and brought it up sharply, catching the youth in the groin. He dropped to his knees and Jillet brought the crutch firmly down on his head. Her victim sprawled across the pavement. Mutt was on his feet now and from somewhere in the rags he was wearing he produced a poniard with a blade nearly as long as his arm.
“Put it away, he’s out.”
The poniard disappeared. “So who is he?”
The girl levered herself to her feet. “Trouble, that’s who. There’s a mob of them, hang about round here, bunch of nasty little creeps. Is mates will be round soon.”
Mutt said, “Then we better not be here.”
“Let’s just quietly drift away.”
“Not so easy, bastard knows me.”
The poniard appeared once more in Mutt’s hand, “Needn’t matter.”
“Where did you get that thing?”
“A friend give it me.”
“Why, did he expect you to be in a war or summat? Anyway put it away, people round here get upset if there’s bodies in the street. An they all know me so I’d be expected to know what happened. Remember, I’m the watcher, it’s my patch.”
“Right so I’ll get you home.”
“Not so easy, they know where I live, remember, folk know me round here.”
Mutt looked round, the youth groaned, so Mutt kicked him. “Right let’s go, I’ll think of summat.”
Together they made their way along Drapers’ Walk. Mutt kept looking over his shoulder, Jillet concentrated of keeping up the best speed she could. Mutt ran various possibilities though his mind. If they were followed, the barge was out, they’d have to walk all the way and with Jillet on crutches, they couldn’t travel as quickly or quietly as Mutt would like. Then he had an idea. “We’ll get the trolley-way.”
“Hark at him, I got me a prince. You loaded with money or what?”
“I got the money from selling the paper.”
“Yeah but you need that to buy tomorrow’s papers.”
“No I don’t, I borrowed them from the Misanthropes Hall.”
There was a brief silence. “Borrowed as in ‘have to give back’ or borrowed as in ‘nobody wanted them otherwise they’d have looked after them better?’”
“Well I weren’t ever going to give them back.”
“Well don’t look now, but that’s two or them on the other side of the road, they’ll find their mate soon.”
Mutt took one of Jillet’s crutches, put her arm round his neck and his arm round her waist and together they half ran down Chippers Gill. They’d barely got to the end of it before in the distance Mutt heard, “There they are.”
He grabbed Jillet more tightly and accelerated. They ran across Coopers Road, narrowly avoiding being run down by various carriages and drays, and in through the gateway of the Trolley-way halt. Mutt looked round. One of the carriages was coming, the four horse team stepping briskly. He manoeuvred Jillet so they were screened from the road by the other potential passengers and when the trolley stopped he helped her forward. The ticket collector reached out a hand. “Come on miss, you travelling far with us?”
Mutt said, “Dilbrook. I’ve got the money.”
“Take a seat at the front then.”
The weather was fine and the trolley’s awning had been rolled up. Mutt could see their pursuers running down Chippers Gill. He turned to Jillet. “I think they saw us as we moved along the trolley.”
“What we going to do.”
“Nothing, they’ll not get us on the trolley.”
The driver geed his horses and the trolley set off at a gentle trot. Mutt glanced back over his shoulder, “They might give up.”
“Nah, not after I took down their chief.”
Mutt was silent. The ticket collector came to the front. “Two to Dilbrook I remember you saying.”
Mutt counted coins into the man’s hand. “Yes….please.” He felt quite proud of himself for remembering. Jillet whispered into his ear, “Quite a prince, money an manners.”
Jillet wiggled round in her seat so she could look behind. “They’re following.”
“It’s a long way; I’m hoping they’ll be tired at the end.”
“I’m hoping you have a better plan.”
“Yeah well I got friends there.”
“Yeah, a good friend.”
“I just hope he’s bluidy hard, that’s all.”
Mutt half smiled, “Yeah.”
There were not many people left on the trolley by the time it passed through Three Mills. Mutt could see their pursuers, they might be a quarter of a mile behind, but were still following. During the gentle final stage into Dilbrook the trolley did at a fair clip and Mutt and Jillet were waiting to disembark even as the trolley halted. Mutt helped his companion get down and then put her arm over his shoulder again. “Right, we’ve had a nice rest, now we run.”
“Lord Cartin’s place.”
They were running now, and Jillet’s comment came in jerks as she struggled to run, “Personal friend…is he?”
Mutt looked over his shoulder; their pursuers were closer, so they’d obviously got a second wind now their quarry was in sight. “Not him. Chap as works for him, name of Taldor Vectkin. He’ll help.”
By Mutt’s reckoning they’d got perhaps a hundred yards to go, but he suspected that they’d be caught before that.
“Right, go like hell, it’s the place with the big gates ahead, they’ll be open, go in and ask for Taldor. Tell him as I probably need him.”
“Why, what you doing?”
With this he took his arm from round her waist and gave her the other crutch back. “Right, you go.”
Mutt had assessed his position. The street was wide and open, there was nowhere to hide, but at the moment he didn’t want to be hidden. He stood in the middle of the road and watched the group of youths running towards him. They might even have accelerated a little. Mentally he congratulated them on their unwelcome fitness. He knew that he couldn’t have covered the ground in the time they had. He drew the poniard and stood lightly as he’d been taught; his weight on the balls of his feet and his shoulders relaxed.
They slowed as they saw him waiting for them. That was good; hopefully Jillet was getting away at this point. He remained watchful. Although he stood in the middle of the road, there was a gate to his left into a large garden and another, to his right, which he preferred because it let to a narrow passage which ran round the side of a house. His plan involved them concentrating on him and forgetting Jillet. Then at some point he would cut right. Once he got them down in that passage, he had every confidence he could lose them.
The youths had slowed to a walk and were spreading out. He gently moved the poniard backwards and forwards, drawing their eyes to it. The outriders were almost behind him now when the leader said, “Jump the bastard.”
Mutt sprang at the leader, sweeping the blade to the right to deter the youth nearest him on that flank. Then he brought the blade back and thrust at the leader. The youth managed to parry the blade with the club he was holding, but Mutt allowed the club to turn both the blade and him and sprang at the youth who was behind him. This was not expected and his target recoiled, bumping into another youth. Mutt dashed through to their left, and swapped his blade into his left hand to slash at a youth trying to grab him from that side. A club struck the side of his head and he stumbled, recovered, but he’d lost momentum and he desperately slashed around him to try and keep people away until he could work out where everybody was. He caught a glimpse of another club and dived away from it, rolled over and slashed upwards but a boot caught his shoulder, and the blade flew out of his hand.
Desperately he rolled over onto his front and tried to get to his feet. Something struck him on the leg and he went down again, this time curled into a foetal position. The kicking started and Mutt curled up more tightly. Suddenly the kicking stopped and he heard running footsteps. Slowly he uncurled and looked around. Taldor Vectkin stood nearby, broadsword held casually in one hand, picking up the poniard. The youths were fleeing, and had already split up and were disappearing in different directions to confuse pursuit.
Taldor handed him his blade back. “Well I see I’ll have to give you a few more lessons.” Mutt nodded silently.
It strikes me that it was Mutt’s experiences that were the final straw. Taldor decided that after his experiences it wouldn’t do Mutt or Jillet any harm to spend a little while being pampered. Taldor then rode over to the barge to tell us that Mutt was all right and we had nothing to worry about.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I was out, so it was Shena that Taldor told. Now you’d have thought that she’d have been pleased to know that Mutt was fine, but she seemed to rather focus on the side issue that he might not have been. As a result of this she decided to deal with matters once and for all. Thus she would rise from her sickbed (although to be fair she’d started working earlier in the week) and would go and discuss matters with Mistress Hanchkillian.
It seems that Mistress Hanchkillian also preferred to focus not on the positive side of the story but rather to dwell on what I feel was a somewhat morbid matter of what might have happened had Mutt not been the competent and inventive individual that he is. So when I got back to the barge I found a note telling me to go to see Mistress Hanchkillian, immediately. One obeys, immediately.
I arrived, and was shown without delay into a private drawing room with Suzaine and Silac. When I discovered they also didn’t know why we’d been summoned I started to get a little nervous, and when we were finally escorted into the private parlour, we felt like three naughty school children. We were somewhat surprised to find Shena and Taldor sitting with the Mistress. We weren’t invited to sit, but Taldor was invited to tell Mutt’s story.
Fortunately for us, Taldor had obviously enjoyed the story immensely and told it with the verve and enthusiasm that only a true professional fighting man could. Indeed he so lauded Mutt’s achievements that Shena and Mistress Hanchkillian took to glaring at him so fiercely that anybody but an Urlan killing machine would doubtless have shrivelled up or spontaneously burst into flame.
Finally he finished, reassuring us that both Mutt and Jillet were safe and well. Then we were treated to a silence which seemed to last a considerable period. Fortunately I am wise enough to know that one should never say anything just to fill the silence, and my two companions were either equally wise or just totally abashed.
Finally Mistress Hanchkillian spoke. “I have reached a decision. It has to stop.”
This was followed by silence, and then, hesitantly, Suzaine asked, “What has to stop?”
“The publishing of the two periodicals.”
The silence continued. I confess to feeling that this was unfortunate. After all we had intended to stop; indeed we could have stopped at any time. It was just never quite convenient.
Mistress continued, although now her voice was more conversational. “Silac, I believe you had something to ask me?”
I felt for the poor beggar. He had spent a lot of time trying to create the right circumstances under which he could have a meeting with his beloved’s grandmother, and instead he had this. Still, Silac was no coward. He stepped forward, bowed formally, and said, “I wish to marry your granddaughter Suzaine. We would both like your blessing in this matter.”
I wasn’t entirely sure about this; there was a hint of defiance. The subtext read, ‘We will get married, but we hope you like the idea.’
Suzaine stepped forward and took Silac’s arm. “Yes, we really do want your blessing and your approval.”
That was better. I felt that we were now treading the right road.
Mistress Hanchkillian looked at the pair of them. “Suzaine, whilst I cannot entirely approve of the recent joint business venture in which you were both involved, I am pleased that the pair of you can boast the wit and initiative to run such a thing successfully. It strikes me you have found yourself a perfectly acceptable young man, and I congratulate you on your foresight in this matter. Please have a word with my factotum Baltan, and with him to guide you, I think you’ll find a wedding far easier to arrange.”
With that she turned to me. “Master Steelyard.”
Now the use of what my late father always referred to as ‘Full title’ is never a good sign. Fortunately Shena was there and I knew I could trust her to have made the best possible case for me. Mistress continued.
“I confess I did wonder where you have been these past months. I heard your lady wife was ill and I assumed you were perhaps at her bedside nursing her. Still, I suppose it is some consolation for me to discover that even in old age I am an incorrigible romantic. At some point in the next few days you will call upon me and over a selection of fruit infusions, you can tell me the full story of what you have been doing. I give you fair warning because I think I deserve a properly told tale, nothing as bald and unimaginative as the literal truth.”
Obviously I could tell you more, there are anecdotes aplenty, who said what about whom and why, and the comment made about the temple dancer which led to a leading essayist having to spend the night cowering in the privy, but I have been somewhat abruptly reminded that I have to say a few words on behalf of my main sponsor.
It strikes me that some people seem to assume the world revolves around them. Thus I shall gracefully make way, and trust that their stilted and inelegant prose does not spoil your appetite.
Jim Webster here. My thanks to Tallis Steelyard for that most courteous introduction; it gives one a nice warm feeling to feel that you are held in such high regard by a fellow wordsmith. Still I shall not take up too much of your valuable time.
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To quote from the blurb:
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