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Studies in Shadow...from the team at Archimedes Presse
breaking news: book of the month for July at the Book Awards ~ 'The Diamond Seekers'

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Ingenuity of Vanity Doon

On May 26 2013, Jack Vance - master of fantasy and science fiction - died. We publish here, one of our most Vancean short stories as a tribute to a writer who has inspired and delighted all three of us for most of our adult lives.

The sun touched the jagged edge of the caldera; dusk rushed across the island. The moons, Faz and Chaz, were poised above the ocean’s rim and minutes later, they sank beneath the far horizon with an all but audible plop.

Three men climbed from the inky waters up to the foredeck of the Kathleen Meramor. Jos, one of these, nodded to Vanity Doon as they went below.

Vanity Doon rose from the chair on the after deck and made his way – quite slowly – toward the bows and along the port side of the inboard section of the bowsprit. In case he was under observation, Doon made a theatrical inspection of the rigging and solar charge connections with a very casual and patently uninterested glance at the Lady Eleanor.
Built entirely of native timbers and almost as elegant as his own vessel, it was owned and captained by one, Gin Fairing, a man with an excess of golden curls, with piratical blue eyes and many of those attributes that attracted admiring glances from young women.
      And older women too, thought Doon as he examined the water under the Lady Eleanor’s stern.
      A darker shadow beneath the surface might just be discerned if one knew where to look. Satisfied, he made his way back towards the gang plank which gave access to the quay. Doon acknowledged the salute from the seaman who guarded against unwelcome ingress and then seated himself on the rail – not an easy business for Captain Doon, the owner of the three master he had christened the Kathleen Meramor, a woman after Doon’s own spirit. Doon was not a big man, though to Doon, height was not an important matter; his other attributes: wit, intelligence, foresight, style and elegance – the list was almost endless – were all more desirable qualities.
      Both craft lay quietly alongside the quay, there was a sound of revelry from the doors of the quay-side tavern, the Scuppers, due mostly to Doon’s generosity in buying a keg of the tavern’s best ale for the crews of both ships.
      As the dusk became more intense, Gin Fairing, recognisable by his flamboyant hat, left the tavern and made carefully for the quay side.
      ‘That Gin Fairing?’ Doon enquired.
      ‘Captain Fairing to you sir, oh, Van, it’s you. Indeed. Were you wanting something?’
      ‘Well, I have a bottle or two of that wine I was carrying, you said you liked it and I thought we might make shift to finish at least one between us.’
      Fairing came towards the Kathleen Meramor, sighted on the gang plank and came up it’s incline at a run. ‘Permission to come aboard, Captain Doon.’
      ‘Permission given, Captain Fairing.’
      Vanity Doon bowed and indicated the after deck. ‘Fluck.’ He shouted.
      ‘Captain?’ The cabin boy stuck his head out of a hatch way.
      ‘That bottle of wine I was hoarding against meeting an old friend, Fluck. Bring it up will you? And a chair for my friend here.’
      ‘This is very fine of you Vanity Doon. Especially considering that I stole the contract right from under your moustaches.’
      Doon fingered the aforementioned items, giving them both a twirl. ‘Contracts – must I care, Fairing? Something will come in tomorrow or the next day. I don’t worry; it makes you grow old before your time.’
      The bottle was opened; the wine was poured, drinks taken, appreciative noises made. The process was repeated a number of times.
“What’s that?’ Fairing asked, cocking his ear as the squeak of a cart’s axle came to them.
      Doon looked up. ‘Cargo, Gin. Your cargo’s arrived.’
      ‘Ah. So it has,’ Gin agreed. He finished the last of his glass and went carefully down the gangplank to roust his men from the tavern.
As he departed so Jos le Guin, Doon’s right hand man, came up to him. ‘All’s well, Captain. Our surprise is set.’
Vanity Doon grinned into the gathering darkness and watched Fairing’s men, all in a very cheery state, begin to take the cargo on board - some seven or eight hundred furry looking cocoons as big as a man’s boot – and stow it below decks.
Fairing had secured the contract for transport by undercutting Doon by a substantial amount. Despite his gestures of generosity, Doon was not in a forgiving mood. Doon was seldom in a forgiving mood.
When all was going well, Fairing returned to Doon’s after deck and they resumed their appraisal of the purple wine from Andovan until shortly before the wine was finished, when a great cry went up from the Lady Eleanor and Fairing got clumsily to his feet.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ asked Doon.
‘Hanged if I know,’ returned Gin Fairing but I’m about to find out.’
Fairing’s own second officer met him at the gangway. ‘We’ve got a leak, Captain. We’re sinking by the bows,’ Doon heard him say, ‘slowly, but we’re going down.’
Fairing groaned and stepped ashore. He groaned again as Pollock, the export agent accosted him. Pollock was thin and reedy, he wore a beard that was thin and wispy and tugged a thin and shabby coat across his thin and bony chest. ‘This is disastrous,’ whined Pollock ringing his hands, ‘the cargo…’ At that point they passed out of earshot but Doon didn’t need to hear the conversation, he could make it up as they went along.
Lights were lit in the rigging and hissing gas jets ignited along the quay. The bows of the Lady Eleanor were low in the water, the stern correspondingly high. As Gin Fairing tore off his hat and stamped on it, the cargo was rapidly removed from the danger of a soaking in the holds. Doon watched as the cocoons were piled up in conical heaps on the quay side and wondered how long it would take for someone to notice the vessel’s bows rising from the water as the pile grew.
No one noticed.
Fairing went below with two of his officers and re-appeared on the mid-deck a few minutes later with puzzled faces.
‘What’s the trouble?’ Doon called in an anxious voice.
Fairing shrugged. ‘No sign of a breach that we can see...’
‘What of the silk?’ Pollock queried in his reedy voice. ‘The cocoons will spoil, without good quality silk, your ships cannot be rigged.’
All seamen of the southern ocean knew where their rigging came from and what the silk cocoons were for. Doon smiled a smile of immensely reassuring duplicity and put his arm around the trader’s shoulders.
‘Well we cannot trouble Captain Fairing at this time,’ Vanity Doon told him in tones of reason and sympathy. ‘From the goodness of my heart, I will transport them for you. Hmm? Can I say fairer than that?’
Pollock looked relieved, his shoulders straightened a little, he took in a good breath of night air. ‘You are a good man, Captain Doon. Have I not always said so?’
‘You have and you know it to be true, so bring me the contract and let’s be signing it.’ Vanity Doon tried to wipe the smile from his face as Pollock went off to recover the contract from Fairing. He remained poker faced as it was handed to him and he bent to look at the terms in the light of a flaring gas jet. ‘Oh goodness,’ he said. ‘Oh goodness me, oh my. Oh no.’
He pointed to the end of the contract. ‘The price my dear Pollock. My offer was two thousand royals and now I see the contract is for twelve hundred. That is impossible, I’m afraid.’
‘But Captain Fairing was willing to take it for that much.’
‘Do I have a wide floppy hat that has recently been trampled on? No.’ Doon tapped Pollock on the chest. ‘Do I wear galoshes on my feet instead of sea boots? No. Is there maybe some other way that I resemble Gin Fairing? No. This is because I am not Gin Fairing and I do not work for Gin Fairing’s…’
‘No matter.’ Gin Fairing had come across and must have overheard the discussion though he gave no indication ‘There is no sign of a leak anywhere. The Eleanor is as tight as a duck’s… she’s watertight and is riding level again. We put the cargo back and we’ll be under weigh in an hour or two.’
Doon nodded. ‘This may be your cheapest option, Master Pollock.’ He raised his arm and pointed to the moon. ‘It will be low water soon and then there’ll be nothing coming or going at all.’
There came a grinding noise from the water. Everyone looked at the Lady Eleanor.
‘Too late I think.’ Vanity Doon shook his head. ‘I had no idea your vessel drew so much water, Gin. She’s aground even without the cargo.’
And so indeed it proved. The Eleanor’s stern was perched on small pile of rocks which now stood clear of the falling tide. Once more, the bows were dipping as the water level fell. Fairing looked at the mound of stones that, to a suspicious mind, might have seemed artificially placed.
Gin Fairing did have a suspicious mind; he held up a gas lantern and looked carefully at the rocks. ‘Those are new since I last made fast here.’
Doon shrugged. ‘Come, come Fairing, you are being paranoid. Perhaps some road maker has tipped a load of rubbish into the harbour.’
‘Those are carefully placed.’
‘I’m surprised you can see that far,’ Doon said in a dismissive tone. ‘After the amount of strong wine you drank tonight, I’m surprised you can see as far as your feet.’
‘Ah.’ Fairing stood up straight. ‘My galoshes.’
‘Two thousand royals,’ Doon insisted. ‘You had my price yesterday. Scratch out Fairing’s price when you scratch out his name and we will put in the two thousand when I sign. Hurry now, there is still time to move the Kathleen Meramor before low water.
‘And that,’ he told the bosun when the sun came up, ‘is how to steal your cargo back.’
Doon ordered the sails set, tall gleaming expanses of silver that gradually turned black as the solar charging came on line. He set a leisurely course that took them along well-known routes. Fine breezes took them from one island to the next and, on one leg of the course, where Gin Fairing would have shown flamboyant insouciance in skirting a great whirlpool, Vanity Doon did not. The Kathleen Meramor detoured a hundred and forty sea miles and remained safe and sound.
Far to the north, a layer of roiling clouds turned the horizon blue-black; they stalked the Kathleen’s crossing on crook-legged lightning bolts. Doon ordered more canvas out and the vessel’s wake lengthened, outdistancing the storm by many miles.
      All went well and smoothly. The final evening arrived and Vanity Doon took his repast upon the after deck as usual, tomorrow morning they would dock and Doon would profit from Gin Fairing’s bamboozlement. The soup was kelp and writher eel, the fish was black flounder, the main course was hind wing of cairie…
      ‘What was that?’ Doon asked and stood to see the black shadow that flitted from mast to mast and finally off into the dark airs.
      ‘Looked like a murk-wing.’ Young Fluck told him.
      ‘Here?’ Doon asked, a puzzled note in his voice. ‘Surely not. They cannot fly so far as we have come from Silk Reef.’
      ‘Well…’ Fluck said no more and pudding was served: jellied aberinds from Tuly.
      As the sun heaved itself gently above the eastern horizon, the dawn light revealed the cluster of islands called the Mantorese, five stretches of coral of considerable size enclosing a stretch of calm waters where docks held a number of vessels in various stages of construction. Mantor Salis was a long narrow island which bulged above the water line to rise little more than seven yards at its highest. It was half a mile wide and two long, the only stretch of land long enough to take the extensive ropewalks and cord manufactories that the island was famous for.
      Here was Vanity Doon’s destination. The Kathleen Meramor took in its sails and was warped alongside the key where Pollack’s client waited eagerly for the cocoons. As soon as the cargo was unloaded, the cocoons would be steeped in hot salt water and then unravelled – the raw material for all of the cordage and rigging that went into the sailing craft built at the Mantorese.
      The Kathleen Meramor was made fast, her deck hatches undogged and opened and…
      ‘May the Gods give me comfort,’ gasped Doon collapsing onto a coil of rope as a cloud of long black and grey creatures erupted from the hold and swirled about the quayside for several minutes.
      ‘You brought them too late,’ Jebbins the rope maker shook his head and stuck his hands in his long pockets. ‘The silk is all chewed up by the hatchlings, it’s spoiled and now we shall run out of cordage before we finish our contracts.’
      ‘Surely not all of the stuff is useless,’ Doon lamented, pulling at his cuffs and waistcoat.
      ‘If the murk-wings have eaten their way through the silk, all that’s left will be tufts, none of it can be made into rope. Tip it onto the quay here and we will dispose of it.’
      ‘But there were only a dozen or so murk-wings flew away.’ Doon looked at Jebbins through half-closed eyes. ‘Most of the cargo will be perfectly useable.’
      ‘Several score will be damaged,’ contradicted Jebbins, ‘it will not be worthwhile trying to sort the good from the bad.’
      ‘We shall see.’ Vanity Doon gave the necessary orders.
      The damaged cargo was unloaded and dumped immediately into vats of hot water. Even so, more of the large insectile creatures struggled free of the cocoons as they were moved.
The whole ones were counted. Jebbins took paper and pen and calculated. ‘You are fortunate,’ he told Doon. ‘I made the best decision. Thanks to my swift action almost a quarter of the consignment is saved. I will pay you a quarter of the price agreed. Almost a quarter,’ He amended. ‘Shall we drink to that?’
But Vanity Doon was not in the mood.
After the port dues were paid and salted meats and vegetables were taken on board, he sailed away with a money chest as empty as the Kathleen Meramor’s holds.

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