Benor glared at his wine glass. Tallis was talking, and Benor was ignoring him and thinking about something entirely different. This wasn’t a problem, Tallis merely needed an audience and Benor just wanted to mope. He was a fully qualified cartographer, trying to produce a guide to the city of Port Naain, and instead of getting on with that, he found himself doing all sorts of casual work just to put food on the table. Tallis said, “So could you do that?”
Realising Tallis had stopped talking, Benor frantically tried to re-run the monologue in his head and realised he’d not heard any of it.
“Could I do what?”
Tallis sighed. “Could you find the Chevalier of Windcutter Keep?”
“I don’t know, who’s lost him and where?”
“Benor, have you listened to a word I’ve said?”
“Yes but I got distracted.”
“Well in short, this afternoon, at an ‘at home’ I was assisting a patron with, I was introduced to the Chevaleresse of Windcutter Keep. She is trying to find her husband. Could you find him for her?”
“It’s a damned long way to Windcutter Keep!”
“Apparently she thinks he might be in Port Naain, so you wouldn’t have to travel into Uttermost Partann.”
“Why did she think of me?”
“She didn’t, I suggested you because you’re getting bored and when you’re bored you get into trouble.”
Benor put down his empty wine glass. “So where do I find the Chevaleresse?”
“The celebrated ‘Golden Lady’ of Partann, the ‘Ginger Lily’ of the south? An attractive lady has arrived in Port Naain and you don’t already know where she lives?”
In exasperated tones Benor said, “Look Tallis, just give me her address.”
Benor had given some thought to his appearance. He didn’t want the Chevaleresse to think him too rough or common, but then he felt she wouldn’t be too impressed by somebody who looked too well dressed and prosperous. He wanted her to put him somewhere in-between. Luckily his one decent jacket and least patched pair of britches were perfect for this look. He felt he looked competent but probably respectable.
Tallis said that she’d rented a small house in the Merchant Quarter and had given him the address. He knocked on the door and was greeted by a maid who looked at him blankly.
“I have an invitation to meet the Chevaleresse of Windcutter Keep. Tallis Steelyard told her to expect me.”
The maid, a plain but muscular young woman said, “I’ll check,” and proceeded to shut the door in his face. Five minutes later she opened the door again. “You better come in.”
She ushered Benor into a small sitting room. Sitting in a chair on one side of a log fire was a woman of middle years. Standing behind her was a much younger woman with dark hair. She was similar enough in features to be a daughter. Benor guessed the younger woman was almost certainly not twenty, whilst the other woman was over forty, but not much. The older woman was slender, and when she stood up she’d probably be tall. She wore her golden hair long in a style Benor felt was younger than she was. There again, he was perfectly willing to admit he wasn’t really up-to-date with the fashions of Uttermost Partann. Still, the lady was attractive rather than pretty. He suspected that when she put her mind to it she could be stunning. At the moment the most obvious thing about her was her air of brisk competence.
“Are you this Cartographer fellow that Tallis Steelyard was talking about?”
Benor bowed, “I am indeed madam. Benor Dorfinngil at your service.”
The Chevaleresse pointed to the chair at the opposite site of the fire. “Sit down please. Minny, coffee for our guest.”
The maid poured a cup of coffee from the pot standing in the grate and handed it to Benor. She then retreated back to the door and stood there silently.
Benor sipped the coffee, it was strong and bitter. He looked up over the rim of his cup and the Chevaleresse caught his eye. “Can you find my husband?”
“I can try, I promise nothing. Could you tell me something about him, about when he disappeared?”
“Vortac Lilywhite was, or is, a great warrior, a paladin. For years he’d kept order in the area around Windcutter Keep and his word was law. The one day he rode out at the head of his men to patrol the land as far as Summer Fjord. When he came close to the fjord he spotted something, left his horse with his men and scouted ahead on foot. They waited a short while for him and then grew worried when he didn’t return. They searched for him for three days but found no trace of him. He has never been seen since. This was five years ago.”
Benor was a little puzzled. “So why look for him in Port Naain?”
“Last year one of my kinsmen was in Port Naain and chanced to browse in the shop of an armourer. He was quite taken by one helmet he saw there. He looked at it more closely and recognised it as the one my husband had been wearing. The decoration is distinctive.”
Benor pondered this. Port Naain was a popular place to fence goods. He suspected that stolen property from all the lands west of the Aphices Mountains ended up passing through the city. He studied his potential client. She had a determined air about her; Benor might almost describe her as driven. She was a lady who was used to getting what she wanted, but she was used to working for it, it didn’t just drop into her lap.
“Certainly I can try looking for him, but it would help if I had a picture or a description of him.”
She smiled a triumphant smile, “That I can provide.” She passed him a heavy gold ring. “It is my husband’s official seal. He didn’t normally carry it with him, but wore it when he sat in judgement.”
Benor looked at the ring. Rather than initials or a coat of arms, the ring bore the face of a man. “Have you got an impression? It would be easier to make out the details.”
With a slightly smug air, she passed him a piece of wax with a very clean seal impression in it. Benor looked at the face. It was a strong face, a firm chin, a nose that was prominent but not long enough to be a source of mockery. The man had a moustache and his hair was close cropped, as befitted somebody who spent a lot of time wearing a steel helmet. “How good a resemblance is it?” Benor asked.
“Excellent.” The lady’s tone brooked no argument. “It was a self portrait. He did the work himself.”
Benor was impressed; the detail was intricate and beautifully done. The lady continued, “He did the ornamentation on his helmet, which is why it was so easily recognised.”
Benor sat in silence, pondering the face and what he’d learned. Then the lady asked, “Will you take the commission? Mister Steelyard said that you did take on this sort of work.”
This came as a surprise to Benor. But thinking about it, Tallis was a poet.
There were times he and the truth nodded to each other companionably as they passed in the street. You might describe Tallis’s relationship with reality as friendly but they didn’t live in each other’s pockets. “Did Mister Steelyard mention my rates, four alars a week, plus an extra alar for each apprentice employed. In this case I think an apprentice will be invaluable.”
The lady never turned a hair; she merely extracted a purse from her bag and produced five gold alars. “Then here is your first week’s money.”
Benor took the money. “Another question if I may, which armourer and what was so distinctive about the decoration on the helmet?”
“My husband carved his ‘crouching dragon’ emblem on the front of his helmet. Also he carved the family’s lily emblem on the roundels which decorated his helmet.”
Benor felt he needed to say something, “A very talented man.”
She made a dismissive gesture. “A great lord should be above such things but I suppose it helped him to relax between his forays and expeditions.”
“And the armourer?”
“Sniggits. His shop is apparently around the back of Ropewalk.’”
As the maid showed Benor out down the short corridor, Benor asked, “Did you know your master? Is there anything else you could tell me about him?”
The maid glanced back over her shoulder to the door of the sitting room as if to check it was closed. “He was a fair master, a decent enough man.”
Tentatively Benor asked, “And how was he with the maids?”
“Never laid a hand on any of us, as polite to the maids as he was to any lady who visited.”
In Benor’s experience that was enough to mark the Chevalier of Windcutter Keep out as distinctly unusual.
The maid continued. “My older sister worked at the keep, and after a couple of years she said that it would do me good to work there, so she made sure I got her job, and she went north to work in Port Naain. She said as how he was a proper gentleman. The Chevalier made me welcome and gave a nice little talk about the important of family and loyalty. That would be a year before he disappeared.”
Curious Benor asked, “Have you heard from your sister since?”
“No but then we don’t write much in our family.”
Mutt looked at the gold coin Benor dropped on the table in front of him. His eyes lit up. “I get to be ‘prentice cartographer again?”
Benor temporised. “Sort of; we’ll be trying to find somebody who’s probably not there. Cartographers do a lot of looking for things that probably aren’t there.”
Mutt clenched the coin in a somewhat grubby fist. “Tallis were telling me about maps and stuff that isn’t there. I’m no good drawing monsters.”
His heart warmed by the four identical coins nestled in his own purse, Benor smiled at Mutt. “We’ll have to get you drawing at some point, but today we’ll ask questions. First we want”, and here he looked at his notes, “an armourer called Sniggits, with a shop which is somewhere around the back of Ropewalk”
“Yeah well a shop shouldn’t be bad to find, you want me just go look for it?” Mutt was already on his feet.
“Yes and no.” Mutt slumped back into the seat again. “What I intend to do is make a quick plan of the shops in the area. Not a map, just a quick list in the order you find them as you walk along the road. That I’ll add to a gazetteer. I’ll have to date it because these things go out of date almost as soon as you’ve published them, what with businesses opening or closing, so I don’t want them on the map. Still even a somewhat out-of-date list will be useful because it’ll give the person perusing it some idea of the main thrust of local commerce.” At this point Benor realised he’d lost his listener. Mutt was starting to fidget.
”Look Mutt, this man has probably been dead for five years or so, but I’m paid to look for him so we might as well do something useful while we look for him.”
Mutt stood back up. “Yeah, so let’s go.”
Benor hung his one decent jacket on a peg next to the sideboard and put on something older which had passed through the hands of a number of owners.
Some of them had doubtless loved it; others had apparently treated it with ostentatious contempt. “Oh and before we go looking, Mutt, we’ll see if we can check out the lady’s story first. I hate it when I’ve only got one source of information.”
“You mean she might be lying?” Mutt asked.
“She was talking about her husband. I’d never hang anybody on the sole evidence of their spouse.”
Mutt led the way out of the barge and Benor followed. He noticed, rather to his surprise, that Mutt was no longer bare-foot. Apparently cartography was something one needed shoes for.
Benor took Mutt with him into the Black Grapes. This inn could be noisy but there was rarely any violence. Many of the condottieri would drink there when they were back in Port Naain, and as professionals they knew everything they needed to know about violence. Thus they might drink deep and sing loudly but they could have all the fighting they wanted and get paid for it.
This perhaps militated against them putting in what they could only view as unpaid overtime.
Benor glanced around and then made his way across to where Xeston Thirwell was leaning on the bar talking to a male companion. Xeston saw him approach.
“Benor, don’t tell me you’ve decided to take up an honest profession and ride south with us?”
Ignoring Mutt sniggering behind him, Benor sighed. “Alas my services are always too sought after in Port Naain for me to even think of slipping away.”
Xeston winked at his companion. “I’ll put money on it that one day his much sought after services will lead to him riding south with us to avoid the attention of aggrieved husbands.”
Benor decided that it was time to get down to business. “Strangely enough, it was a husband I wanted to ask you about, but not an aggrieved one. Vortac Lilywhite, Chevalier of Windcutter Keep.”
Xeston turned to his companion. “Marrat, you’ve served a long way south.”
The other man looked sadly at his empty glass. “True but talking is thirsty work.”
Benor hastily ordered another bottle and two more glasses. His purse was still full but now it contained more copper than silver and no gold whatsoever. Shena, wise to the ways of poets and cartographers, had quietly extracted pre-payment for rent and vittles when Benor had funds, secure in the knowledge that this happy state was merely a transitory phenomenon.
Benor in this matter was wise enough and domesticated enough to just hand over the money. This might seem to show that in some distant future time he’d doubtless make somebody an acceptable husband.
Marrat sipped appreciatively from his newly full glass. “I never served Windcutter Keep, but I rode its borders from time to time when Vortac Lilywhite was Chevalier.”
“What happened to him?” Benor asked.
Marrat shrugged. “Disappeared, which normally means murdered, and no body was ever found.”
Mutt felt he ought to be playing a part in this. Even apprentices must have a role, so he asked, “Did he have any enemies.”
“He was Chevalier of Windcutter Keep, son, of course he had enemies.” Marrat paused as if a thought had just struck him. “But strangely he had fewer enemies than many. He had a reputation for being an honest man, looked after what was his and didn’t go out of his way to cause trouble for his neighbours. Our boss found him good to work with on border incidents.” Xeston asked, “Wasn’t there something about him not supposed to be Chevalier?”
“Yes, his older brother was groomed for the position and died in a raid before he could inherit. So Vortac suddenly found himself heir, and on top of that he found himself a husband. He married the lass his father had got lined up for his older brother. Waste not, want not, as they say. Still she was pretty enough, but some used to reckon she drove him hard. Apparently she’d married down when she married him and she was determined to prove to the rest of her kin that her husband was every bit as important as theirs.”
The search for Sniggits, the armourer, took them into the next day. Benor admitted to Mutt that they could have found it sooner, but on the other hand he’d now got a feel for the maze of small lanes, squares and ginnels that ran between the lesser roads which run parallel to Ropewalk.
The armourer’s shop was located on a small square. It was unusual in that it had an open front window. There was a big timber shutter that would swing down to fill in the hole at night, otherwise the window acted as ventilation and allowed people to see what was happening. It also allowed Sniggit to work at his forge at the back of the shop and keep an eye on everything that was happening on the street. Benor, with Mutt at his heels, browsed the assembled merchandise. Sniggit obviously made equipment, but he also sold on a lot of stuff that was second hand, whether battlefield salvage or merely surplus to requirements. He also seemed to do a lot of repairs as well. As far as Benor could tell there was nothing in the shop with either a crouching dragon emblem or a lily emblem on it, but he’d not really expected to find either. What he did find was a number of nice poniards with exquisite ornamentation on the hilts.
Eventually it was obvious that Sniggit was watching him suspiciously. He put his apprentice to work sweeping up and leaned on his anvil, glaring at Benor. To be fair, Benor hardly looked like the normal class of customer; indeed he looked more like the expendable junior retainer whom a customer would send to collect something.
“Can I help you?” The tone was gruff, and Benor noticed that there was no ‘sir’ to end the question.
“Why yes, I think you can. A friend of mine picked up a helmet from here. It had a crouching dragon on it, and also a lot of lilies. He wondered if you’d got anything with similar decoration.” Sniggit’s response was swift and definitive. “He never got it here. I’ve had no stuff like that. Just do solid workmanlike stuff here, nowt fancy.”
Benor decided not to mention the poniards. “Ah well, sorry to have troubled you.” With that he led Mutt out of the shop.
“What were that about?” Mutt asked. “You saw them blades, beautiful work worth serious money.”
“Yes, he lied to us in that so I’m assuming he lied to us in other matters. You nip round the back and see if anybody leaves, and follow them. I’ll loiter out here and see if anybody comes this way.”
Benor spent an hour browsing the other shops in the square. Finally Mutt materialised next to him. “He sent ‘is ‘prentice on an errand.”
“Just to the next street but then a thick kid took the message on.”
“A thick kid?”
Mutt’s tone was contemptuous. “I could have followed him in a horse an’ cart. He’d not ‘ave noticed it.”
“And where did he go?”
“Round the back of the Warrens, into the Commercial, along Togger’s Gyll. Stopped at a small house with a big yard out the back, talked to a big man with a moustache.”
“Looks like you and I need to have a word with him as well, Mutt.”
Benor knocked briskly on the door and it was opened by a tall man, dark haired, with a moustache. As far as Benor could tell, this was the man whose face appeared on the seal ring.
The tall man stared at him. “It has been some years since I’ve heard that name.”
“It isn’t my intention to use it again either.”
“You’d better come in then.”
Benor followed the man through a sparsely furnished kitchen and out into the yard. Here there were a number of outbuildings, one of which was a well appointed engraver’s workshop. The tall man sat down on the only chair and gestured for Benor to sit on the bench.
“You were going to explain the name?”
Benor said, carefully, “I was hired by the Chevaleresse of Windcutter Keep to find her husband, Vortac Lilywhite. I don’t necessarily want to find him.”
“Blackmail?” There was weary contempt in the man’s voice.
“No, I have no intention of asking you for money. I just want to know your reasons. If they’re good, then I see no reason why the Chevaleresse cannot learn of the sad death of her husband all those years ago.”
“You take a lot upon your shoulders. Are you now my judge?”
“No.” Benor realised he’d answered too hastily. “No, I took this job in good faith, assuming you were dead. On discovering that you are still alive, I don’t want to make things worse for anybody.”
“I am Vortac Lilywhite, although now I go by the name of Vortac Saltwrack. I was the second son of my father, and was never intended to inherit the title. I have a knack with things; I’m a fair engraver and metal worker.”
“Better than fair,” Benor interrupted, “I’ve seen your work.”
Vortac smiled briefly in acceptance of the compliment. “My father encouraged it. Obviously I was trained in arms; a lad of my lineage had to be capable of defending his lord. But the feeling was that if I was tied up in my craft I would be less likely to try to overthrow my brother.” Vortac laughed briefly with little humour. “They were right.”
“And then your brother died?”
“And my father died not long after. So within six months I went from being a carefree young man, to being married and the Chevalier of Windcutter Keep.”
“And your wife?”
“Chosen for my brother, they were betrothed but had never met. When he died, the two fathers agreed that I would marry her.” He sighed. “I actually rather like her, but gods she can be intense.”
“Some might think she married down and she was determined to show that she hadn’t. To be fair, she did everything she could to build me up, and never once put me down, but it was damned hard work being her husband. I spent more time in the saddle than I did in my own keep! Eventually I’d had enough. I organised my own disappearance, a small boat picked me up and I disappeared into Port Naain.”
“The problem is somebody found your helmet in Port Naain.”
Vortac shrugged. “I needed the money, and I also had to produce proof of my work. It was a risk I had to take.”
Benor sat, thoughtful. “I assume you don’t want to go back.”
Vortac leaned back in his chair. “You assume damned right.”
“Then the obvious place for you to die is back when you disappeared. Perhaps the person who killed you was the one who sold the helmet to Sniggits?”
Vortac unconsciously rubbed a scar on the back of his hand. “Ideally whoever did this would also have died since. That way they’re no longer available to confirm or deny it.”
Benor stood up, “I’ll ask about and find a likely suspect. I’ll send Mutt to you and let you know the name.”
Benor waited until the end of the week before he returned to meet the Chevaleresse. She remained seated as he delivered his report. The younger woman, perhaps her daughter, was not present.
“Madam, I have talked to a number of people who can cast light on the matter. Firstly a couple of condottieri who served in the south rode with a Partannese fighter by the name of Alisten Glade.”
He noticed the Chevaleresse raise her head slightly at the name. Benor continued, “He never actually admitted killing your husband when in their company, but there were some who thought he’d done it. He disappeared a year or so after your husband, and the description Sniggits the armourer gives of the man he purchased the helmet from does fit Glade well.”
“And where is this Alisten Glade now?”
“I am afraid he died in a bar room brawl here in Port Naain a year or so ago.”
The Chevaleresse stared at Benor for some time. “So you’re telling me he’s probably dead but so are all the witnesses.”
Benor started to speak but she cut him off. “Look, just sign me something to say that he is dead. Living or dead he has obviously moved on. We have to do so as well.”
And now the hard sell
I’ve thought long and hard about blog tours. I often wonder how much somebody reading a book wants to know about the author. After all, I as a writer have gone to a lot of trouble to produce an interesting world for my characters to frolic in. Hopefully the characters and their story pull the reader into the world with them. So does the reader really want me tampering with the fourth wall to tell them how wonderful I am? Indeed given the number of film stars and writers who have fallen from grace over the years, perhaps the less you know about me the better?
Still, ignoring me, you might want to know a bit about the world. Over the years I’ve written four novels and numerous novellas set in the Land of the Three Seas, and a lot of the action has happened in the city of Port Naain.
They’re not a series, they’re written to be a collection, so you can read them in any order, a bit like the Sherlock Holmes stories in that regard.
So I had a new novella I wanted to release. ‘Swimming for profit and pleasure.’ It’s one of the ‘Port Naain Intelligencer’ collection and I decided I’d like to put together a blog tour to promote it. But what sort of tour? Then I had a brainwave. I’d get bloggers who know Port Naain to send me suitable pictures and I’d do a short story about that picture. It would be an incident in the life of Benor as he gets to know Port Naain.
Except that when the pictures came in it was obvious that they linked together to form a story in their own right, which is how I ended up writing one novella to promote another!
In simple terms it’s a chapter with each picture. So you can read the novella by following the blogs in order. There is an afterword which does appear in the novella that isn’t on the blogs, but it’s more rounding things off and tying up the lose ends.
Given that the largest number of pictures was provided by a lady of my acquaintance, I felt I had to credit her in some way.
So the second novella I’m releasing is ‘The plight of the Lady Gingerlily.’ It too is part of the Port Naain Intelligencer collection.
So we have:
Swimming for Profit and Pleasure
Benor learns a new craft, joins the second hand book trade, attempts to rescue a friend and awakens a terror from the deep.
Meddling in the affairs of mages is unwise, even if they have been assumed to be dead for centuries.
And we have:
The Plight of the Lady Gingerlily
No good deed goes unpunished.
To help make ends meet, Benor takes on a few small jobs, to find a lost husband, to vet potential suitors for two young ladies, and to find a tenant for an empty house.
He began to feel that things were getting out of hand when somebody attempted to drown him.