I was home first that evening and had brought supper with me. A good chunk of game pie, half a bottle of wine, and even some vegetables, although it has to be admitted that these had a sad a wilted air. Still, chopped, seethed in the juice of a punnet of boelits (also somewhat past their best) and a little butter, the result would compliment the pie adequately.
When Shena arrived back she passed me a small packet wrapped in rotting sailcloth.
I inspected the contents, a metal object the size of my hand with the mud of the estuary still on it. So I dropped it in a bucket of water drawn from the river and left it there until we’d eaten.
Finally after our meal I emptied the bucket and looked at what Shena had given me?
“Miscellaneous metal debris?”
“I bought it by weight, so it’ll be worth you cleaning it off to see what it is.”
Shena and I have had this discussion. In spite of my protestations she cannot see how I cannot write peerless poetry while at the same time cleaning the muck off anonymous rusty metal lumps. To be fair, while three lumps in every four remain anonymous even after cleaning, the fourth comes up a treat and more than pays for the time spent. So I set to work with my brushes and probes to see what I had.
It was a fruitful evening. After a little while the one object separated into two. Then I got down to the surface and discovered that it wasn’t corroded. I glanced towards Shena who was totting up a column of figures. “I think it could be bronze.”
She grunted in a positive and affirming manner so I continued my work. It seems somebody had wrapped the two items together using cheap wire, and that was much corroded. But once I’d got rid of that I was left with a pair of bronze knuckle-dusters. I washed them with soap and warm water to divest them of the last of the grit and examined them carefully. Judging by the size of the finger holes and their spacing, this was a set of knuckle-dusters for a woman or boy. The ornamentation of delicate, with flowers, bunches of grapes and a lot of scroll work. Carefully I passed them to Shena. She inspected them carefully and passed them back.
“Try ‘Nodd the knife’ at the Shalan Street morning market. Don’t take less than an alar for the pair.”
As an aside I like the Shalan Street morning market. It can be endlessly fascinating. While you do get some peasant women fetching in their produce, the vast majority of stallholders sell items which they have salvaged. It is rare anything new appears on one of the stalls.
To be honest my favourite stall is Rassan’s Books. She buys books which people offer her, but also will just buy all the books in a house being cleared. She lives in Shalan Street and her stall is just outside her front door, so she carries more stock than a lot of the other stalls. Her prices are reasonable. I once acquired the complete works of Rustward Blare (a private printing on reasonable paper) for the cost of an afternoon spent hauling five trunks of books the length of the Ropewalk on a handcart.
Another favourite is Peadles. He sells cutlery. In Port Naain there are many large houses with busy kitchens who feed a lot of people. There are also a considerable number of public eating establishments. As you can imagine, almost by definition at the end of the day each of them will have any amount of food that diners have chased round the plate but not eaten. In the kitchens this is salvaged. Normally it is scraped off the plate into a bucket and this is collected by the mott-feeders who fatten their mott on this swill. Obviously in some less discriminating establishments there is a process of triage first, where salvageable meat might be put on one side for tomorrow’s stew, but all these concerns will have a swill bucket and the kitchen porter values the few dregs he gets for taking the bucket outside and pouring it into the tank on the mott-feeders cart.
Human nature being what it is (would you roll your sleeve up to the elbow to retrieve a fork dropped into a swill bucket) the swill contains a fair quantity of cutlery. Peadles makes a tour of the mott-feeders, buys the cutlery, cleans it and slowly builds up complete sets which he then sells on his stall. To be fair I rarely buy anything from him, but he’s one of those people who are worth just standing and talking to. And occasionally I’ve been able to delight a patron by retrieving for her cutlery her staff has managed to lose.
The stall of Nodd the knife isn’t somewhere I normally linger, but still it is not without its fascination. When I arrived, the knuckle-dusters in my pocket, Nodd was laying out a fine selection of fighting knives. I don’t know where he acquired them, because they looked like a complete set. It’s probable that one thug had divested another thug of them and had visited Nodd to cash them. Whether the original owner would turn up to buy them back probably depended on whether the original owner was still alive and solvent.
I produced the knuckle-dusters. He perused them contemptuously.
“A lady’s set. No call for them now. Give you five vintenars.”
This was a fifth of what Shena had told me to get. I put them back in my pocket. “Offer me ten times as much and we might have a deal.”
He held out his hand. “Let me see them again.”
I passed them back to him and this time he peered at them through his eye glass.
“I could happen go to ten.”
I mimicked his accent. “I could happen take them to one of my patrons and she’d be so delighted by the novelty that I’d get two alars worth of groceries out of her kitchen.”
He shook his head sadly at this. “The way you rob those poor innocent ladies is a scandal.”
“I was well taught, look at how often I come to the morning market.”
“I might have a customer for them. I’ll go out on a limb and give you twenty-five.”
Twenty-five silver vintenars is worth one gold alar so I was getting close.
“Twenty-five and a year’s free board.”
He looked surprised, “What do you need board for?”
“If I go back to Shena with only twenty-five for these, she’ll throw me off the barge and it’ll take months to charm my way back into her good books again.”
“Thirty, but put fifty on the table and I’ll try and pick the thirty with the least lead in them.”
Sighing he emptied a purse onto the table and allowed me to pick thirty vintenars from the heap. I pocketed them, thanked him and left. Already the market was packing up. Dinner time was approaching and after dinner the afternoon market took over.
The Shalan Street afternoon market is very different. They sell indentures. People can turn up with a creditor, raise money by becoming indentured and pay off the creditor before being packed off to work for their new master. I’ve seen indentures auctioned there. The indentured labourer will stand on the stage and the auctioneer will sell the labourer’s indenture to the highest bidder. The money goes to the previous master and the labourer goes along with the new master.
Shalan Street in the afternoon is not a happy place and frankly I avoid it. Indeed there is only one stall that stays open the whole day and that is Mothroyd’s. Mothroyd deals in dead indentures and dead souls.
A dead indenture is what you can be left with after a poor auction. If the labourer is sold but the price they fetch doesn’t clear the original indenture, the vendor retains a ‘dead indenture.’ This is for the amount of the shortfall. So if the person sold manages to pay off the indenture to their new master, they still have to go back to the holder of the dead indenture and pay them off. Given the workings of compound interest this can be considerably larger than it was when they were sold. Once somebody has a dead indenture hanging over them they’re unlikely ever to be free.
The indentured servants auctioned tend to be those whose earning capacity is falling. So you normally find labourers in late middle age, whores whose looks have gone, the injured and the sick.
To be honest it’s very unlikely these people will pay off their new master, never mind return to pay off the dead indenture so a lot of masters will sell the dead indenture to somebody like Mothroyd. Mothroyd’s customers are a mixed lot. Some are speculators, gambling on the servant living long enough to pay them. Some are collectors who like the unusual or just strange. Then there are the mediums and spiritualists. They buy them because they feel it gives them a claim on the person’s soul which they’ll use when the person dies.
It’s the mediums and back street apothecaries who also buy Mothroyd’s other stock, dead souls. When somebody sells their soul and they eventually die, the goods are, by some means, claimed. So except for immediately after death, the paper contract is therefore of no value. Except that apparently it is. The apothecaries claim that there is some residue of the soul still bound to the contract and by grinding it fine they can use this residue to give extra bite to their potions.
The mediums feel that holding the contract enables them to more easily find and dominate the dead.
Needless to say, it’s not a trade I wish to involve myself in.
But should the subject interest you, I there is now a story about young Benor and what happened when he got peripherally involved in this whole distasteful business.
It’s called ‘Keeping body and soul together.’
It’s available for pre-order from
As a reviewer says
I came to this from reading of the exploits of Tallis Steelyard. Knowing that this story was set in the same world, and with some of the same characters, I looked forward to more of the same. It isn’t the same, but is none the worse for that. Tallis lives by his wits in a fantastical city, Benor, the hero of this tale, is likewise quick-witted but lives by the sword, which makes this much more standard fantasy fare. Having said that, the hero is considerably brighter and more engaging than most fantasy heroes and has a fine sense of morality, albeit one suited to his particular place and time. If you fancy a story of swords and sorcery, lost souls and battling mages, which doesn’t take itself too seriously, you’ll enjoy this.
What more could you want for 98p?