You know what it’s like, just when you think things are difficult, somebody in high authority finds a new and exciting way to make them worse. I mentioned that one year we had a worse than usual summer plague in Port Naain. I suppose that there’s one every year, but they rarely escape from the Warrens and the Sump where the foul airs and general miasma seem to breed them. But every so often the dark humours drift across the city.
Even so they rarely have an impact on the more prosperous areas, so in the Merchant Quarter or in Dilbrook you’re far more likely to have your cook kidnapped by the hirelings of a Partannese Warlord’s favourite concubine than you are to be struck down by one of these summer illnesses. Even then, if you’re fit and well fed, you’ll normally shake it off.
But in those years where somebody in one of the better areas of the city falls ill, questions are asked and it is generally agreed that ‘something must be done.’ Indeed I remember one year the Council of Sinecurists suggested putting the Sump to the torch. I confess I can no longer remember whether this was before or after asking the inhabitants to leave, or where they were expected to go.
But this was one of those years. We’d already started passing round the collection bowl filled with vinegar to ensure the coins were safe. Then we were told that we were about to be visited by one of the most senior of the clergy of Aea. The Grand Universal Patriarch in person would be visiting us. Apparently he was on a ‘Preaching Tour.’ Let us be frank here, he was so senior neither he nor any of his predecessors had been known to visit Port Naain. They tended to issue formal pronouncements of great theological weight that were received in a resigned but respectful manner by the Autocephalous Patriarch of Port Naain. He would gather together a small committee of Rassophore Archimandrites who rather specialised in this sort of thing, and perhaps a year later this august collective would have produced a suitably loyal and canonically sound reply that at the same time committed them to nothing. The rest of us rather ignored it, assuming that none of this would filter down to our level.
Anyway we rather disregarded the threatened preaching tour in the hope that he’d think better of it and spend the summer in his villa on the coast. Apparently not, we heard later that he was still coming. Apparently somebody had realised that the Staircase Shrine is one of the healthier parts of the city. So not only was he coming but he was fetching an assortment of other clerics, theologians, and ecclesiastics. Seemingly they would have a day of theological discussions among themselves, a veritable colloquium. Then the following day, after a morning session where they discussed mere administrative details there would be a magnificent banquet where they would dine and discuss matters of weight with invited guests.
For some reason, perhaps because of the much touted magnificence of the banquet, the arrival of ‘The’ Patriarch elicited curiosity outside mere clerical circles. Indeed various patrons of mine showed an interest. Several who had previously treated my connection with the Shrine of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm as a vaguely worthy hobby suddenly displayed a most thoughtful attentiveness. Indeed a number intimated that they had oft-times contemplated making generous donations for the work of the shrine. At some point during the conversation it would be assumed that I could ensure for them a seat at the banquet. I admitted that it might be possible, given that we were apparently the hosts, but I could promise nothing. Yet.
So in all candour we thought we ought to make the best of it. Our hope was that with such a feast being held on our premises, we could quietly put a little aside for our mendicants. Indeed several people were running a book on just what proportion of the provisions set aside for the feast Maljie would contrive to secrete in various storerooms.
It wasn’t until we were sent a programme for the great day that we discovered that the banquet would be held in the building which housed the Council of Sinecurists. At the end of the morning session our assortment of clerics would process with due majesty up the staircase to be welcomed by their hosts. But as if in recompense our incumbent would be invited to attend the colloquium. Apparently the topic of discussion was ‘Integral Dynamic Monotheism.’ For the rest of us there would be a day of prayer and meditation where we would receive training which would lift our spirituality to an entirely new level.
As the day drew near it was decided that we must salvage from the occasion as much as we possibly could. It was decided to play on our ostentatious spirituality so Maljie and Laxey led a group of mendicants (freshly scrubbed and dressed in clean robes) in procession to the Council Building. There we processed around it, chanting various hymns whilst old Prophet Weden led the throat singing. Then we passed inside, Laxey swinging the thurible like a man-at-arms laying about him with a mace. As we processed through the building, anybody who attempted to stop us was met by blank stares from the mendicants until I could come up and explain that we were expected to bless the building in preparation to the arrival of the Grand Universal Patriarch. We explained that traditionally this had to be done three times but because we were present in strength we need only disturb them once.
By the simple expedient of processing, now a little hoarsely, into every room, we found the one with the guest list. The elderly prophet abandoned throat singing and danced a jig of amazing complexity with Maljie. The mendicants, rapidly joined by those clerks working in the office, clapping out a rapid beat. As they did this, screened from observation by Laxey twirling at speed in his robes, I added several names to the guest list.
A week later, Laxey and Maljie returned to the office that had been preparing the guest list. They asked for a copy of the list so that we at the shrine would know who would be present. Poring over their copy of the list we discovered that our ruse had been successful. Six of my patrons who otherwise would not have been invited now would be. Also there was a number of my patrons who had been invited, ‘as of right.’ So Maljie and Laxey set about visiting these people, pointing out that they had expressed an interest in supporting us and that the invitation was guaranteed. Rather than accept cash, Maljie had written letters which the grateful patron could sign and would ensure that their usurer would pay not unreasonable sums into the shrine’s account at reasonable intervals.
On the day itself the colloquium apparently proceeded well. The incumbent insisted that she had sat, entranced by the level of the teaching. The day of prayer and meditation was interesting but I confess that I am probably unworthy. The teacher, ostensibly a man of great wisdom and considerable reputation for scholarship, took old prayers in a long forgotten dialect and expounded upon them. This, to be fair was both fascinating and enlightening. Indeed I could see the possibilities of a whole new rhyme scheme for my own work.
Then he taught us to pray them in a meditative manner. This involved breathing in through the nose with the first word, and breathing out through the mouth on the second. We practiced this for a while and I could manage that. Indeed because you were concentrating so much of getting your breathing right, the process did concentrate your mind on the ‘now’ and your troubles faded into the background. Then for the next two words you had to breathe in and out through your nose on the first word and in and out through your mouth on the second. Once he felt that we had mastered this he would have us run through the entire prayer, all sixteen lines. Alas before we had got half way I was utterly lost and at one point feared I had forgotten how to breathe. Laxey had to slap me hard between the shoulder blades lest I collapse in an unedifying heap. Then at the end of the prayer he announced that we were going to do this again and because of our raised spirituality we, “Were to concentrate on breathing through the pores of our skin.”
I confess that at this point I realised I was far too unspiritual for this sort of thing. I slipped out of the back, put on my kitchen porter’s overall and accompanied by a couple of the burlier mendicants, made my way up to the kitchens of the Council Building to see if there was anything lying about that they probably wouldn’t need. Mendicants take a lot of feeding. As, for that matter, do poets.
The world of Tallis Steelyard is further explored in several works of the finest literary merit. Not the least of which is
As a reviewer commented, “What’s a poet to do when one of his lady patrons is being blackmailed and his own life may be at risk due to his actions in defending another from attack some time in the past.
How are both these events connected?
Well – read this tale and find out – trust me, it’ll be time well spent.”