Because I taught at least once a week at her Conservatory I feel I got to know Madam Jeen Snellflort reasonably well. I also got to know her ‘gentleman adventurers.’ I confess that out of all the adventurers who served Madam Jeen, I think Rizal Qualan was the best. It was he who took upon himself the ‘recovery’ of the Luck of Bedag Keep. Between ourselves I’m not sure how or why this artefact was even on the list.
The Luck of Bedag Keep was a not entirely prepossessing statuette of a kneeling cherub, in silver gilt. Initially, for reasons nobody now remembers, it was the finial of the war-standard of the lords of Bedag Keep. After a long string of victories, or at least battles that weren’t obvious defeats, the standard was considered lucky. Finally a wandering madman, watching the host of Bedag Keep march past him, announced that the Keep wouldn’t fall until the cherub flew away and abandoned it.
That immediately changed things. In a less superstitious age the madman would doubtless have been mocked or even beaten, but his words were regarded as coming directly from the court of the fates. From that day on the standard remained hanging high up in the great hall of the keep. The warbands of the Bedag house would ride out under other, lesser banners, to win or lose as their destiny directed. Yet even after the Bedag had suffered catastrophic defeat, no enemy force ever managed to scale the walls of the keep. Hence when Rizal took upon himself to acquire the Luck of Bedag Keep, it was not merely some minor artefact, it represented the legitimacy of the Bedag house and their right to rule over whatever area they currently claimed.
Initially Rizal allowed his imagination to run away with him. It has been mentioned elsewhere that he was a distant kinsman of Cavalier Qualan, the condottieri captain. Indeed he had received training in arms, wore a sword about town, and regarded his schooling in accountancy and commercial law as mere steps along the road toward becoming a condottieri captain in his own right. Thus and so he first contemplated raising a small mercenary company. This would entail recruiting only men of known excellence whom he would lead south to take the keep by coup de main. His innate honesty came to his rescue. Partann had seen many of mercenary companies, often large and competent. None of them had succeeded in taking Bedag Keep.
Then he contemplated disguising himself as a wandering Partannese sell-sword. As an itinerant mercenary he would make his way south, gain entry to the keep by nefarious means, and make off with the Luck. Here again, after a day or twos’ daydreaming his natural candour got the better of him. He wasn’t yet competent enough nor experienced enough to pass himself off in that manner.
Finally he had what was probably his best idea. He would travel to Bedag Keep in the guise of a clerk representing an avarice of usurers. He would travel with the ostensible aim of having the Bedag clan deposit their ill-gotten gains safely with the consortium in Port Naain, at a low rate of interest. Apparently this sort of commercial traveller is not uncommon, being found even in those areas where piracy and brigandage are at their most rampant. On mature consideration perhaps they should be found especially in the areas with rampant piracy and brigandage?
Still, a methodical young man, Rizal decided that if he was going to represent a usurer, he ought to have a usurer to represent. He was too wise to pass himself off as the representative of a well known establishment. What if he were to meet a supposed colleague when in the south? That could cause embarrassment all round. Similarly he didn’t want to create an imaginary employer, in case somebody thought to check. Instead he suggested to Madam Jeen that she register as a usurer in her own name. A brief discussion with her gentlemen of business indicated that this could be a wise move anyway, and so it was done. When he rode south, Rizal was the accredited representative of Snellflort’s.
His journey was remarkably uneventful. Dressed soberly as a clerk but wearing a sword, he seemed too much trouble to rob. If questioned by patrols on the road or guards at toll gates he remained courteous and entirely open about his purpose, although never mentioning the Bedag Keep. Indeed he got three or four interviews with various minor families, and all seemed impressed by the deal Snellflort’s offered.
Finally he arrived at Bedag Keep. He announced himself to the gatekeeper and was admitted. Lord Bedag granted him a brief audience in the great hall, the mighty war-standard with the Luck of the keep hanging high above his head. Rizal laid out in general terms the sorts of services Snellflort’s could offer the enterprising robber baron. Lord Bedag heard him out and announced that he would sleep on it. Rizal was given a small room to spend the night in. It was at the top of a tower overlooking the moat. It had two doors; or rather places where, had it been considered convenient, doors could be hung. One led out onto the tower’s parapet. The other opened upon a spiral staircase which went down and led through various doors into the great hall and the minstrels’ gallery that overlooked it.
It has to be said that with regard to comfort, the tower room offered none whatsoever. Still, Rizal unrolled his bedroll and made himself as comfortable as he was able. He waited until the keep gradually became quiet. Then he got out of the bedroll and placed a length of log in it, arranging the blankets so that in the gloom it looked as if there was still somebody sleeping. This subterfuge completed, he tiptoed down the stairway until he got to the door of the minstrels’ gallery which he opened carefully. It was in deep shadow, the only light came from the ashes of the fire in the hearth in the centre of the great hall. He approached the balcony rail and looked over. There were two guards seated on stools near the fire. They were engaged in huddled conversation. Around them were at least two-score of fighting men who obviously slept in the hall. From where he stood he could hear the gentle snoring.
Plucking up his courage he climbed up onto the pole of the great standard and sat astride it. Then he carefully moved along it until he could reach the Luck. When he glanced down he realised he had left the Minstrels’ gallery behind him. If the shaft was to break, he would fall all the way to the hall floor and might even roll into the fire. He leaned forward and could touch the Luck. From out of his pocket he pulled a short wire saw. He slung it round the standard pole just below the Luck, and then hung a cloth below it to catch any sawdust. Slowly he started to cut, trying to time his strokes to the loudest of the snores. Every so often he would stop and try to move the Luck. He didn’t want it to just come off and plummet to the floor.
As he leaned forward to tug the Luck again, there was a creak and he felt the shaft sag slightly under him. Frantically he grabbed the statuette and twisted. It came off in his hand. Hurriedly he thrust it down his shirt and started making his way back down the shaft. In his haste he dropped one end of the cloth, and sawdust spiralled slowly down to the hall floor below. He wiggled back more quickly and lowered himself onto the floor of the Minstrels’ gallery. He crept to the balcony and looked over. The two guards were examining the floor between them. Then without words both of them looked up at the standard. Rizal turned and fled for his room.
When he got there he could already hear shouting from below him. He grabbed the log from out of his bed, wrapped the saw round it and threw it off the balcony. When the guards burst in on him he was sitting up bleary eyed with his blankets round him pointing out toward the parapet.
“Big chap, armed, ran through, climbed onto the parapet and did a swallow dive into the moat!”
Both guards ran to the parapet and Rizal joined them. Below you could see the ripples on the moat surface in the moonlight. The log itself had disappeared, hopefully sunk deep in the mud at the bottom of the moat. The two guards pushed past Rizal and ran down the stairs. Rizal carefully put his boots and coat on and rolled up his pack. Then he went downstairs to the Great Hall. It was a scene of chaos, men in various states of dress were running round with drawn swords, and in the middle of it all was Lord Bedag. He saw Rizal and shouted him across.
“Master Usurer, are you still interested in a deal?”
Rizal bowed. “We are always interested.”
Lord Bedag called for paper and scrawled an IOU on it. He signed it, folded it and finally sealed it with his ring. “Here’s the deal, on the strength of this I want you to be back here in three weeks with a hundred lances paid for six months and I’ll deposit two mule-loads of silver with you at one percent per annum. Once word gets out that we’ve lost the Luck, we’ll need every man we can get.”
Rizal bowed again. “I shall leave at once.”
By waving the sealed paper at the master of the stables, Rizal acquired a spare horse, and rode out of the keep with something of a flourish. Indeed he kept up a fair speed for forty miles, changing horses every hour to try and rest them a little. He suspected that at some point skilled trackers would come to the conclusion nobody had dived into the moat. He rode north, sticking to the better roads where he could. His journey home was achieved in less than a third of the time of his outward journey, indeed he didn’t really relax until he took the Roskadil ferry across the Estuary to Port Naain.
He had given some thought to his arrival in Port Naain. Instead of bursting into Madam Jeen’s presence, still in his travelling clothes, he went first to the Goldclaw Baths. Bathed and properly dressed he took a Sedan chair to her town house and let himself in. The next part of the story I can vouch for in person. Madam Jeen was sitting listening to two musicians and a singer who was mangling some of my verse. I sat wincing in the corner wondering if any jury would convict me of assaulting the singer. They only had to hear him sing to believe my claim of self defence. Rizal made his way silently round the back of her chair and presented her with the Luck.
Now with most of these adventures, that is basically where it ends. In this case things got more complicated. Two days later Rizal was working for one of the Usurers in the city and overheard somebody with a thick Partannese accent in the outer office asking for a Snellflort’s. Obviously nobody in the office had heard of it, but they had heard of Madam Snellflort and suggested they ask there. The thick Partannese accent thanked them and left. Seconds later Rizal arrived in the outer office and threw open the door in time to see a nondescript Partannese man join two mounted companions, one of whom was holding a spare horse which the nondescript man mounted.
Unfortunately for Rizal the mounting man glanced back and saw Rizal. Immediately he drew his sword, shouting, “We have the clerk.”
Rizal backed into the Usurers and barred the door. He turned and ran through the inner offices. Behind him he could hear the outer door crash open. Rizal accelerated, opened the door to the senior partner’s office and entered. Much to the senior partner’s astonishment, Rizal bolted the door behind him and then, ignoring the room’s eminent occupant, proceeded to open the window and dropped down onto the road. He then made his way to the front of the building. Two of the Partannese had gone into the building; the third was standing in the building doorway, holding the three horses. He was engaged in a flaming row with one of the women clerks who was threatening him with a parasol. Hence he never noticed when Rizal struck him unconscious with a scabbarded sword and rode off with all three horses. Twenty minutes later he swept into Madam Jeen’s study and as he explained the circumstances, he hustled her and the Luck of Bedag Keep out to where the gardener had the horses waiting. They rode north to a small cottage in the country that Rizal had inherited from an aunt.
At the cottage they remained in hiding for six weeks, until word came from Partann that Bedag Keep had finally fallen to the combined forces of a score of enemy factions. The Partannese assassins, bereft of a paymaster, rode south again and Rizal and Madam Jeen felt it was safe to venture forth once more.
Except that at this point the envoys started to arrive. These were somewhat better dressed than the assassins, and were more courteously spoken. They were also men of apparently limited vocabulary. Their message was uniformly, “Give me the Luck and you will not die.”
Finally in desperation Rizal invited all of these envoys to the same social function. Then with them all gathered together in front of numerous witnesses, announced that the Luck would go for auction on the last day of the next month. The place would be under the guns of the Roskadil Battery where everybody could see fair play. He promised them that all would be allowed to bid and may the claimant with the deepest pockets win.
Now the planning started in earnest. Rizal and Madam Jeen realised that they had to speculate to accumulate. Firstly they sought an interview with Rizal’s kinsman Cavalier Qualan. On explaining the situation he agreed to serve them for a week with his full company, to be paid out of the money raised during the auction.
They then rode to the Roskadil Battery south of Roskadil. It is a fort with thick earth ramparts, on which are mounted a score of elderly scatterguns of uncertain utility. By promising suitable recompense Madam Jeen and Rizal were allowed to hire the parade ground that lies to the south of the fort and is nicely swept by the guns.
The final thing they did was ask me to act as auctioneer. Now this struck me as ridiculous, our city has many more qualified candidates. Madam Jeen explained that I was chosen because she trusted me, but also because I was obviously neutral, had excellent delivery and my well proven ability to calm the querulous with a gentle word was far more important that any auctioneers famed abilities to speak rapidly and pull bids off the wall. I later discovered (after the event) than none of the professionals would touch the job, deeming it suicidal madness. One who had contemplated the job, demanded a fee rather larger than the hire of the Qualan company.
News started to come from Partann. It seemed that half the country was heading north. Finally Rizal got reliable information from one of his kinsman’s scouts. It appeared that various different factions had agreed a truce for the auction and they were riding north to attend. By way of security they were thought to have nearly a thousand men-at-arms with them. It was estimated they would reach the fort in three days at the most.
Cavalier Qualan took matters into his hands at this point. He led out his full company and they camped on the west flank of the fort. However it is impossible to lead two hundred lances through Port Naain without somebody noticing, and before the Qualan company was properly deployed than Lord Cartin appeared asking, curtly, “What in the forty-seven hells is happening?”
By mid-afternoon such of the Cartin company as was stationed in the city was drawn up on the east flank of the fort and messengers were riding out to gather the others.
By the time the outriders of the Partannese forces arrived within sight, every freelance in the city had signed up. Indeed as the Partannese drew up in ranks facing off the City Condottieri, a score of Urlan appeared, travelling in haste lest somebody have a war without them. Discovering they were in plenty of time they rode casually across the battlefield, exchanging greetings and banter with friends and foes alike. They took up station near the auctioneer’s dais because it looked like the place any fighting might start.
I took my place at the auctioneer’s podium on the dais. Somewhat nervously, Madam Jeen took a seat on the dais, the Luck resting in her lap. Rizal took his place standing behind her. Matters now grew formal. A score of men dismounted and walked forward, announcing themselves to be the bidders. Madam Jeen rose gracefully and stood at the edge of the dais holding out the Luck for inspection. It was at this point, as the bidders started to jostle each other, that two of the Urlan vaulted from their horses onto the dais. They stood with drawn swords, one on each side of Madam Jeen, smiling casually at the Partannese below them. Judging by the amount of hair that hung below the bottom of their helmets, I rather assumed they were Urlan maidens. The bidders immediately became more considerate and were content to gaze upon the kneeling cherub from a distance. Given that few if any of them would have had a chance to observe it more closely in the past I felt this was adequate.
I cleared my throat, introduced myself as the auctioneer, and asked that serious bidders stand in a semi-circle, more than a sword’s length apart. They could see the sense in this and slowly moved into place. I looked around the half circle.
“Who will bid me ten thousand alars?”
I chose a ridiculous figure because then I’d drop down from there, but as many auctioneers do I was hinting at my guide price. To put it in proportion it would keep two hundred families for a year or buy a small farm.
“Will you take silver?” It looked as if one of the bidders was speaking for them all.
“Yes, we’ll take silver but it’ll have to be seen and weighed.”
There was a lot of shouting and gesturing from our semi-circle and men ran forward from the line of Partannese men at arms carrying chests.
One opened a chest, looked in it and said, “I’ll bid ten thousand.”
I looked round, “Do I hear twelve?”
A tall man with beard and eye patch nodded,
“Fifteen.” We were back with the original bidder, who wore a white eagle on a black surcoat.
“Twenty?” I was pushing them now, but our man with the eye patch just nodded.
White Eagle said “Twenty-five” in a calm voice.
From further along the line we had a new bidder, a short stout man notable for his red leather boots. “Forty.”
White Eagle, in a bored tone said, “Fifty.”
Eye Patch waved to the men at arms and one fetched him a second chest. “Can we have a valuer for gems please?”
This is one problem I had foreseen, I waved at the fort, and two jewellers made their way out and started going through the chests. There were a series of muttered discussions, and they would make notes and leave the notes with the owner of the chest.
Whilst this was going on I turned to those who hadn’t bid. “Gentlemen, it strikes me that this is getting a bit rich for some of us. Perhaps those who have decided not to bid would like to retire back to the lines.
“I’ll see you in hell first; no pretty boy auctioneer is going to say I’m not good enough to stand here?” The speaker was a bear of a man, wearing battered leathers. He was leaning on a long hafted axe like a more civilised man might lean on a walking stick.
White Eagle came to my rescue. “Those who haven’t bid but want to stay in can pay a thousand into the kitty. You’ll get it counted towards your winning bid, otherwise you lose it.”
The bear half raised his axe and White Eagle continued, “Or in your case two thousand. It’s putting your money where your mouth is and you’ve got a damned big mouth.”
I glanced beseechingly at one of the Urlan maidens who were standing between the bidders and the Luck. She nodded and made a hand sign. Quietly four of the other Urlan walked nonchalantly forward and stood between the Bear and White Eagle. Not a word was said and they drew no weapons but the Bear spat on the floor in White Eagle’s direction and walked back to the lines. Most of the other potential bidders followed him.
The jewellers had finished their weighing and measuring and withdrew. Eye Patch looked at the sheet of paper he’d been given. “I’ll bid one hundred.”
“And fifty,” Red Boots added.
“Two hundred,” this was from White Eagle.
“And fifty,” again from Red Boots.
“Three hundred,” said Eye Patch.
“And fifty,” added Red Boots.
“Four hundred,” said White Eagle.
Eye Patch moved across and whispered to Red Boots. There was a hurried conversation, which White Eagle watched with an expression of dispassionate amusement.
Eye Patch moved back to his place. “Five hundred.”
“And fifty,’ said White Eagle, winking at Red Boots. Red Boots remained silent, stepping back a little.
Eye Patch caught the eye of Red Boots, who nodded slightly. Eye Patch said, “Six hundred.”
“Seven hundred.” Eye Patch’s voice sounded strained.
“And fifty.” White Eagle was calmness personified. He might have been ordering a cup of coffee in a Port Naain coffee house for all the excitement in his voice.
“Eight hundred.” Eye Patch finally got the words out.
“Nine Hundred.” White Eagle remained entirely unruffled by it all.
I looked at Eye Patch. He glanced at Red Boots who shrugged. Eye Patch looked once more at his paper. He opened his mouth to say something, stopped and looked at Red Boots again. This time Red Boots refused to meet his eye. Eye Patch sagged a little. “Let him have it.”
With that he gestured to the line of men at arms. Several came forward to help him carry away his chests. Red Boots just stood watching.
“I am bid nine hundred thousand alars. Are there any more bidders?”
I raised my hammer. “Asking once? Twice? Three times?” I brought the hammer down. “Sold.”
White Eagle climbed up the steps onto the dais. The Urlan followed him with the chests. The two jewellers appeared and rechecked the contents, and indeed handed three or four nice pieces back to the successful bidder.
I proffered White Eagle a pen and a paper to sign saying he agreed to the transaction. He scrawled a signature across the bottom of the paper. I looked carefully at it. “I’m afraid I’d better write your name underneath, just for the records.”
In a careless tone he said, “Jador, Lord of Bedag Keep.”
“Congratulations.” Then curiosity overcame me. “Do you actually hold the keep?”
“Yes, but barely. With the Luck, they’ll accept me.”
I gestured silently at the money. He smiled, genuinely, “I’ll get it back comfortably in five years and that’s after usual expenses.” Then he turned to Madam Jeen and held out a hand. “Madam, I believe you have something that belongs to me?”
She stood and walked towards him, handed him the Luck and bowed slightly. He raised it above his head and from one section of the line there was cheering. “And now I must leave you. We swore a four day truce, but I don’t want to put too much temptation in the way of my colleagues out there. So I want to be a long way away from them by the time the truce runs out.”
With that he walked across to where his men at arms awaited him, mounted his horse and led them south. Slowly the other groups reformed and started south after him.
Now it has to be admitted that it is an almost ridiculously large amount of money. Especially as it lies in chests in front of you made up of a mixture of gold and silver coin, jewellery, hacksilver and bullion. But then Madam Jeen had to meet the out of pocket expenses.
The very next day the Council of Sinecurists met. One speaker pointed out that it had come to her attention that private citizens were stirring up Partann, leading to warbands riding north and the city having the expense of deploying fighting men to face them.
Somebody raised the point of order that the city had not actually paid anybody. This was brushed aside as irrelevant, but that view was shouted down by others. It was voted to discover who had paid whom.
I was then summons. I suppose they assumed I knew what was going on, and I suppose to some extent I did.
Madam Jeen had honoured Rizal’s deal with his kinsman, so the Qualan company was paid. It was also agreed that Lord Cartin should be recompensed, and the various Freelances get at least a day’s wages. This I reported honestly to the Council. They seemed satisfied with that and when I went on to detail payments to the garrison of the fort and the jewellers they were less interested.
I was allowed to stand down but was told to remain at hand in case there were more problems. It seems that some of the Sinecurists were still somewhat incensed that two comparatively unknown citizens had brought a potentially hostile army almost into the city suburbs. Others seemed to view this more lightly, and in the end it was agreed that Madam Jeen and Rizal should be talked to firmly by somebody and told not to do it again.
This was done, I again was present, and a small subcommittee of the Sinecurists suggested, most strongly, to Madam Jeen that perhaps she ought to look to other ways to raise money for her various charitable works. It was pointed out in a kindly manner that dances were always popular, and that good money could even be made at charitable dinners. It was stressed that neither of these two events ever seemed to lead to people putting armies in the field. Madam Jeen agreed with this. I thought she seemed a little tired and drawn. I wondered if the strain of the past few weeks had been too much for her, she seemed unwell. Rizal escorted her home and then met me at the Flensers to clear up some final details.
It was with everything settled, (they even remembered to pay me something, which I felt was nice), that I poured the last of the wine into Rizal’s glass. “So, of all these challenges, who among you gentleman adventurers do you think has won?”
Rizal picked up the glass. “Some of the others might have made a little more profit, but I reckon I won.”
I raised a quizzical eyebrow. “You do.”
“Indubitably; they might have won larger sums of money, I won Jeen. We are to be married soon, and our first born will hopefully arrive in seven months time.”