For once, none of this was Laxey’s fault. It couldn’t be, he wasn’t even in Port Naain, but instead was in a distant mountain monastery drinking coffee so strong that past and future seemed to fold into each other. All this whilst struggling to cope with the intricacies of the Hermeneutic Catharine wheel. So once we have understood this, I can proceed with the tale.
Maljie was unwell. She was suffering from severe pain from shingles. Confined to her bed and reduced to cursing feebly those who claimed this was a result of her doing too much, she was resigned to just waiting for things to clear up of their own accord. Until she heard of the arrest, trail, and sentence to public execution of the notorious Liehat.
Now Port Naain, being a thrifty and civilised place, rarely inflicts the death penalty. The normal penalty is to be sold into indentured slavery in the Houses of Licentiousness where you stand waist deep in cold water sorting young clams. The idea is that the harder you work, the sooner you are released. But there are occasions when the magistrate looks at the swaggering offender and asks whether those working in the Houses need protecting from such malevolent individuals as the one in front of them. In such cases the magistrate can recommend a death penalty.
But the judicial slaying of a citizen is a serious manner. It must be done in public lest people suspect the obdurate are merely being killed secretly in a cellar where they can be disposed of without political embarrassment. If it has to be done, it is felt that it is best done out in the open.
Over the years traditions have built up over how the various crimes are to be punished. But the default is the gallows and it was to the gallows that Liehat was sentenced.
Maljie was furious. She had been waiting some considerable time to see Liehat get his come-uppance. Indeed she had contributed in no small way to the evidence that led to his trial. And in her own words, “Damned if I’m going to miss out.”
But what to do about her illness. Obviously we could just have dosed her up with poppy juice until she couldn’t feel the pain, but she pointed out, not unreasonably, that in that condition she might end up seeing all sorts of things. She might miss the execution because she was staring in amazement at the host of bright yellow mott flying around the gallows.
Then somebody, (and nobody can remember the culprit) suggested that they smear the painful area with Devil’s Pomatum. This is a strong spice. The Devil’s Pomatum extracted from the leaves of the plant is strong but not dangerously so. If the spice is extracted from the seeds it is vastly more powerful. A very little goes a long way. So whereas you might include a couple of leaves in a casserole and be well pleased by the result; with the seeds you first crush them and place them in oil. Then when you come to use the spice, use one drop in a cauldron of stew.
Obviously there are others who cling to the belief that the spice is in point of fact edible. I have known a Toelar man who could eat the paste with a spoon. But myself I feel that in Devil’s Pomatum we have a genuinely homeopathic spice. The less one uses the more effective it is.
Still everybody knows that if you get any of the oil on the skin, it can sting. So somebody suggested that the stinging of the oil might cancel out the pain of the nerves. Faced with the choice of indulging in experimental medicine or missing a good hanging, Maljie decided to indulge.
On the morning of the execution, she was up early. After some discussion the decision was taken to spread a thin layer of butter on the area to be treated first, before applying the spice. The thought was that it would slow the effect and allow the Devil’s Pomatum to work more slowly and for longer.
The oil was applied somewhat gingerly and Maljie was hastily bandaged to keep everything in place. Then she was assisted into the governess cart by two mendicants who insisted on describing her as ‘hot stuff.’ Driven by her sister at a breakneck pace they hurtled through the city to the place of execution. Grimacing a little, Maljie abandoned the cart and made her way somewhat slowly to the scaffold. There was already a good crowd. Maljie could count three people selling ale from hastily set up trestle tables, whilst another enterprising individual was cooking sausages on a brazier.
By now it appears that the oil had penetrated the butter and was beginning to sting a little. But to be fair, the stinging seemed less painful that the shingles. Then in the distance Maljie saw the infamous Liehat being dragged through the crowd on a hurdle. By forceful use of her elbows, Maljie arrived at the foot of the gallows before him. Thus she was in a prime position to view the proceedings.
As she waited for the condemned man to be hauled onto his feet and frogmarched up the steps Maljie became aware of two things. The first was that the pain was almost forgotten, but the stinging was becoming more intense. The second was that there hung around her the odour of Devil’s Pomatum. Behind her were two men with sausages. One sniffed loudly and said to his fellow, “I just fancy a bit of spice on my sausage, they’re a bit flavourless.”
His companion replied, “Her in front has Devil’s Pomatum.”
The first speaker coughed politely to catch Maljie’s attention. “Excuse me Madam, I was after wondering if you had something spicy I could dip my sausage in.”
This earned him a slap across the face that loosened his teeth and knocked him sprawling. Maljie, diverted a little from the growing discomfort, turned back to the gallows.
Liehat was now standing on the trap. The executioner was standing behind him and a priestess of Aea in her aspect as the personification of Justice was starting her oration. Around Maljie there was a clear space. Admittedly some of this might have been due to the way she felled the man behind her, but more was due to the fact that the effect of the Devil’s Pomatum was now genuinely eye watering. As Maljie leaned against the scaffold, the priestess, her eyes watering, moved away. As she struggled to read her script, the prisoner had a fit of sneezing, and the executioner had tears rolling down his cheeks. Finally the prisoner, his eyes and nose red, turned to the executioner and said, “Look, just get on with it.”
As Maljie made her malodourous way back to the governess cart, through a dispersing crowd, she noticed a young man talking to his companion. The young man wore a note on his hat stating he was representing the Port Naain Intelligencer.
Maljie overheard the journalist say, “Have you ever seen anything so touching. The hangman, the condemned man, the priestess, and the contemned man’s mistress all in tears.”
What his companion thought about it we’ll never know, because Maljie reached out, grabbed the young writer warmly by the throat and brought his face down to her level. In doing so the action of her body, moving inside her clothes, acted almost as a pump, and it released a fresh cloud of Devil’s Pomatum into the face of her victim.
With her tearstained face barely inches from that of the journalist, Maljie growled, “You mention me as the mistress, and I will find you and rub this stuff in all sorts of sensitive places.”
With that she stumped back to the governess cart. Once seated, her sister whisked her back to the shrine.
Here Maljie was forced to strip and bathe in an attempt to remove the oil. It took three mendicants, armed with milk soaked cloths, to finally eliminate the oil. By that time even the bathwater was so tainted they took the bath outside and surreptitiously emptied it in a neighbour’s dunny pit.
Should you wish to know more of the details of Maljie’s life, then purchase
In his own well chosen words, Tallis Steelyard reveals to us the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. In no particular order we hear about her bathing with clog dancers, her time as a usurer, pirate, and the difficulties encountered when one tries to sell on a kidnapped orchestra. We enter a world of fish, pet pigs, steam launches, theological disputation, and the use of water under pressure to dispose of foul smelling birds. Oh yes, and we learn how the donkey ended up on the roof.