Every city has its foibles, this is self evident. I’d go so far as to suggest that every city has bizarre customs that seem entirely sensible to the citizens but which leave the populace of other lesser cities scratching their heads in puzzlement.
Hence apparently in the city of Battern it is not the custom to dine together in large numbers. Instead the inhabitants tend to dine in small groups, each a gathering of intimates, for quiet discussion over the food. Yet on the city will erect a great marquee for some grand event such as the ritual excoriation of the official holding the rank of High Chair. On these joyous occasions a thousand or more of them will dine together.
On the other hand, on the Incense islands, lawyers are treated almost as pariahs, or perhaps rather as if they were priests of one of the more masochistic religions. By strictly enforced custom, practising lawyers must wear sack cloth, smear their faces with ash and adopt a humble attitude at all times. They are obliged to lodge in a single building of forbidding appearance, where they apparently sleep in a dormitory on straw pallets. Fornication and drink are forbidden to them and they cannot charge or accumulate money but must rely on the largesse of their clients for food.
In Port Naain on the other hand we are an entirely reasonable people. Yet still, every year, we gather at the Nightbell Gardens to celebrate the Annual Frolics.
All of us have memories of long summer days, spent eating and drinking at the expense of the Sinecurists, whilst being entertained by the finest performers in the city. There was the pageantry, the parade of the Sinecurists in their coaches, the guild masters processing in their robes, the cavalcade of the newly married. There was glory and colour, every Condottieri captain in the city would lead all his men out in procession, with their armour polished so brightly that you were dazzled by the endless lines of prancing horsemen.
Many a couple plighted their troth on those long golden evenings, caution swept away by the romance of the occasion.
This year I was peripherally involved. For days before, folk were busy raising their pavilions. Petty traders would put up a simple shelter suitable to keep the sun off. A length of canvas thrown hastily over a simple frame is adequate for shade. In the centre of the Gardens a parade ground was lightly fenced off and round it were erected great marquees. The huge steam jennies would cough and belch as they tugged on rope cables thicker than a man’s thigh, hauling up six great poles at a time with the canvas already attached around them. At dawn the sun rose to survey an empty patch of ground. As it set it cast its waning light on marquees each large enough to seat a thousand people in modest discomfort.
As the sun rose on the dawn of the great day he would have seen me and others of the Society of Minor Poets erecting our little tent. A simple enough thing to keep the rays of the sun off a declaiming poet, it was nothing extravagant. When I say the sun could have seen, I am speaking metaphorically. All the sun would have seen was a bank of thick cloud moving at a fair speed above the city. Heroically we put up our tent in the driving rain. Successful we stood under the sodden canvas and listened to the guy ropes creak under the strain. It occurred to us that the only reason our tent wasn’t blowing across the city was that the canvas was too wet and heavy. When the guys finally broke, it would not blow away, merely collapse soddenly upon us. Sadly we admitted defeat and took it down.
Still we were not disheartened, as a troop of strolling poets we could entertain everybody everywhere. What could stop us?
That theoretically rhetorical question was soon answered. The mud would stop us. Whilst most of the Sinecurists didn’t parade in their coaches, and the guild masters were largely absent, the same cannot be said for the men at arms for whom the weather was no deterrent. But even half a thousand heavy horses can cut up the ground and as the driving rain continued the areas where people would pass degenerated into a brown soup.
Still the food was there, the drink was there and many still turned out for the occasion. I saw dowagers who had doubled up the bearers on their Sedan chairs to ensure they didn’t flounder in the mud. I saw nominally elegant ladies making heroic progress with pattens strapped to their shoes. Pattens so tall that I would have recommended their wearers to audition as stilt walkers.
Still, I was booked to address the cavalcade of the newly married at noon. Those of them who had splashed and wallowed their way through the mud and had finally made it at last to the tent of connubial bliss greeted me with heartening cheers. Even as I performed some choice extracts from Lambent Dreams for them, the rain stopped beating on the canvas over my head, and by the time I had finished orders were given to roll up the side awnings. There we dined; a small island of good cheer in a sea of mud.
With the mud glistening in the bright sunshine I joined the rest of the Society of Minor Poets as we shared round bottles of wine we had somehow acquired and watched a crowd of children playing on the mudslide they had made. One has to admire the ingenuity of youth. Given a natural slope and a modicum of persistence they had created a side of such excellent that it was possible to exceed the speed of a galloping horse. Mind you, it took a lady of the courage of Widow Handwill to travel their course in a borrowed Sedan chair propelled without bearers by way of settling a bet.
I almost forgot. It is entirely possible that you have missed the exciting tales of Port Naain which dwell, with rather more solicitude that I would have thought necessary, upon the antics of my good friend Benor. Obviously I play some occasional part in them, normally as the wise purveyor of excellent advice rarely taken.
But still they are apparently exciting enough tales, even if lacking poetic intensity. So I would suggest you try one.