This tale comes from the latter part of Maljie’s life. I wouldn’t say that it was something that happened in her old age, as by her own admission, she is not yet old. Indeed occasionally she has confessed to ‘not being in the first flush of youth.’ I feel that we must be satisfied with that.
Now for various complicated and largely incomprehensible reasons, Maljie became a Temple Warden at the Shrine of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm. The shrine itself is a small one, tucked away rather out of sight, at the bottom of the Sinecurists’ Grand Stair. This leads up from the Merchant Quarter, starting at Exegesis Square and it eventually ends below the north side of the Council of Sinecurists building.
The shrine itself has had a number of names, initially it was just the Exegesis Square Fane, but was promoted to a shine of Aea in one or the other of her aspects perhaps a thousand years ago. Then a century or two ago the Sinecurists built the Grand Stair and the shrine became known, colloquially as the Stairway Shrine.
It appears that over the years the assumption grew that the Shrine was somehow responsible for the cleaning and maintenance of the Stairway, yet no money was formally forthcoming to defray the costs. On the other hand there were small individual donations from passers-by who seemed to feel obliged to contribute towards the care for the Stair.
The Priests who have been in charge of the Shrine over the years have struggled to cope with the fact that nowhere in the sacred writings is there any hint that Aea hoped that her worshippers would preserve historic buildings. Yet it was the building that brought the money in. So at some point somebody had a moment of revelation and decided that they would use the donations to feed the poor, and at the same time, those who were poor and lacked employment could clean the stairway.
There was the inevitable friction between the affluent who didn’t want their stairway cluttered with a lot of homeless beggars, and the Priests of the shrine who didn’t particularly care what the affluent wanted. Still a compromise was reached and the stairway was cleaned by ‘mendicants.’ The shrine has a selection of long shapeless brown robes and they just issue them to anybody who is happy to clean the stair. Ironically the stairway is now known, informally, as the Mendicants’ Stair. This name has become so prevalent that the Sinecurists affixed a brass plaque to the bottom of the staircase with the proper name on it. This plaque the mendicants polish until it gleams, and it is now worn so smooth that it is illegible.
But somehow I have been diverted from the story of Maljie. She became a warden at the shrine. Now it has been suggested that in some way, Temple Wardens are a mirror image of Sinecurists. The latter pay out money so that good works are accomplished and who knows, the Sinecurist might get a bit of money back. A Temple Warden does good works at no expense to the body politic and hopefully doesn’t end up too out of pocket personally.
The vast majority of temples will have two wardens. This is considered adequate for most purposes. The wardens are there to keep an eye on the non-spiritual side of things, letting the priests get on with tampering with the eternal verities. They help ensure that matters proceed with decorum. In a well-run shrine it only takes a slight nod or hand gesture from the priest for some malfeasant to find themselves outside on the street so fast that their feet haven’t touched the ground. Indeed in some shrines it’s not unusual for the evil-doer to find themselves floating in the estuary having been propelled forcibly off the wharf. Indeed in extreme cases it is the duty of the wardens to nail the reprobate upside down to the door of the shrine as a firm warning to others that certain behaviours will not be tolerated.
As I said, most shrines find that two wardens is adequate, but there are some, situated in rough areas, with congregations that are deviant, prone to blood feuds, or even anthropophagus, where the Hierophants of Aea allow four wardens. Legend has it that there is one shrine with eight wardens. In this case it is widely assumed that some previous priest grossly offended a Hierophant who retaliated in a manner generally considered malicious, even vindictive, but assuredly guaranteed that the offence would never be repeated.
Now growing near the door of the shrine was a yew tree. Half a millennium previously, some well-meaning incompetent had planted it there, doubtless for excellent reasons. For the last century there had been mutterings that ‘something will have to be done.’ Finally not entirely due to Maljie, something was done. It was cut down. A few mendicants set to work after eating their breakfast. They were promised an alar apiece when the tree was down, and the deed was soon done. But a yew tree lying down was still quite an obstruction. Getting rid of it might even have cost money.
Not only that but there wasn’t a lot of money about. Apparently somebody had taken the decision that the shrine would use a particularly good fortified wine which comes from several vineyards deep in Partann. This was poured with a generous hand during various ceremonies. It was welcomed by all, added to the gaiety of nations, and meant that the mendicants cheerfully attended not merely the services but also the minor rituals. It was considered a success from a theological point of view, but the treasurer was growing nervous about the expense.
Maljie suddenly realised that she had the answer to the problem. She walked into the Black Grapes. This isn’t a particularly rough place to drink, indeed it’s quite civilised. A lot of the Condottieri drink there when they’re in Port Naain. They get quite enough violence when they’re working and see no reason why they should have more in their own time when they’re not being paid for it.
Also in the Black Grapes you’ll find wandering and largely anonymous fighters from Partann. They’ve drifted into the city with a message for somebody and are kicking their heels waiting for an answer to take back. They sit, surly and suspicious, huddled in quiet corners, watching everything that goes on. Maljie walked up to the nearest and before he could make a disparaging comment about the sort of woman who would come alone into this place, she bent forward and whispered two words into his ear. He immediately leapt to his feet and bowed low. She handed him a letter and he left the bar at a run without even stopping for payment.
A week later she announced to the temple committee that she’d managed to get rid of the tree trunk and it had only cost three hundred alars. There were gasps around the table. She then said that because of this, they would be supplied with free wine. Given that the tree trunk was, at that very moment, being removed by a particularly infamous and vicious group of Partannese rogues, it was agreed to give them the money. Actually Maljie gave them the money, the treasurer promised to reimburse her later.
Six months later the first barrel arrived. Actually it wasn’t a barrel, it was a butt, and it took some manoeuvring to get it into the vestry. Every six months from then on, another butt arrived.
The treasurer also paid her back. He explained that for the look of the thing, in his accounts, he was paying her three hundred alars to cut the tree down, and six alars for the wine. He felt that when the accounts were eventually scrutinised by higher authorities, this would cause far less comment.
Finally I asked her to explain what had happened. She explained, casually, that she had merely contacted an old friend in Partann, and pointed out that she had a lot of prime yew, and did he need it for making bows. Then in the same letter she’d pointed out there was no charge for the yew, but she would stump up three hundred alars to help him hire mercenaries to expand his territory at the expense of his neighbour. Apparently this latter individual had control of a number of excellent vineyards and was using this control to raise the price. Her friend had accepted both the wood and the money and had mounted a daring attack which had led to the sacking of one keep, the storming of a small town (whose name I cannot for the life of me recall) and the acquisition of the vineyards. The wine has been delivered with remarkable regularity ever since.
She did comment, “Once a banker, always a banker.”
This begged my question, “Do bankers always start small wars?”
She commented, “No dear, it wasn’t a war, it was merely correcting market failure.”
Still if it is any consolation, even Maljie can be thwarted. It was decided to put a seat where the tree had been. It was felt that it was ideally placed for meditation, contemplation and incidentally would also allow a warden to sit and survey the length of the Mendicant’s Stair. There were various ideas discussed, stone and wood were both considered. Finally Maljie decided to do things properly and she contacted the Office of the Combined Hierophants of Aea, to ask for permission to install a rather nice wooden seat, made by local craftsmen.
Now it is entirely possible that a committee of those exalted worthies did contemplate the issue, but frankly I think some clerk embittered by many years of being refused preferment, dealt with the matter. If stone seats were good enough for him, who had sat on them, man and boy, for over sixty years, then they were good enough for everybody else. So this petty tyrant, doubtless so wracked with piles that dysentery was a blessed relief, sent a strong letter refusing permission to install a wooden seat and insisting that it be stone. Personally I feel that some people live lives of so little meaning that the only pleasure they get is from preventing other people from doing things.
Maljie mentioned this to me afterwards. I was forced to remind her that the world is full of really busy people who have far too much to do without having to worry about what simple folk like us get up to. It has always struck me that it is actually my civic duty not to add to their already overwhelming workload. Thus my conscience insists that in her circumstances I would merely have done it and not told them. I suspect that this is one mistake Maljie is unlikely to repeat.
Should you want to know more about life in Port Naain, then perhaps you might enjoy reading
As a reviewer commented, “Another great collection of short stories about Port Naain poet Tallis Steelyard. This is the second collection I’ve read, and I enjoyed it as much as the first one – if not more so.
The individual stories are amusing, and a little quirky, and well suited for a quick read to disconnect from reality after a long day.