Our shrine is unusual in many ways, one is that we have so mendicants. In our case we have an excuse. We provide them with ‘employment’ in that they keep the Sinecurists’ Grand Stair not merely clean but polished. This is all well and good, the Grand Stair is a credit to the city, but frankly the mendicants are not. Yes we robe them, but they still manage to look distinctly unkempt.
Thus we do get condescending comments from other shrines who are more nuanced in their generosity. Still we have broad shoulders, (Especially, it must be admitted, Maljie) and take their patronising comments in good part (Except, of course, for Maljie). Thus one shrine, which shall remain nameless because they may not have worked out how it happened, irritated her immensely. That night, assisted by four stalwart mendicants, (one of whom may, in some past life, have displayed criminal tendencies) she visited the shrine. Of course the door was locked. Still it apparently fell to the assault of the subtle fingers of the previously criminal mendicant. There was also an Ostiary who was asleep in his cubbyhole by the door. What actually happened is unknown but he later testified that a being of angelic appearance talked to him and he fell into a trance and knew no more until he was brought to his senses by the temple warden of the shrine.
Once she had access to the site, Maljie and her acolytes pushed into the aisle the dunny-cart they had borrowed earlier from Jaysen the night-soil collector. Obviously, after the event, Jaysen was tracked down, indeed he came to collect his cart. His story was similar to that of the Ostiary. He too had seen a being of angelic appearance, but being an unspiritual man he had fainted away. When he had regained consciousness his (recently filled) cart was missing.
Still, to be fair to Jaysen, when he saw his cart, the contents of which seemed to have escaped all across the shrine when the back of the cart had somehow come open, he offered to clean up the mess. For his usual fee.
Still since then, criticism of our shrine has been muted. But alas we probably still have a reputation with those in high places. Hence when one of the Grand Hierophants wished to visit us, he sent a clerk with a list of suggestions. Well they were framed as suggestions but we felt they were intended to be read as instructions.
Now the summer plague was still making its apathetic way through the better quarters of the city, so I suppose some precautions were necessary. Still I do feel he was making something of a fuss. I pointed out that for safety we merely had to disperse the dark humours. We could do that by lighting a fire in the centre of the shrine. The smoke would rise and exit from various windows in the upper levels. As it rose it would draw in clean air from outside. Laxey pointed out, regretfully, that thanks to Maljie’s apparent campaign to block up all the windows, this would no longer work.
Maljie merely intimated that we had done a lot of important people favours and at some point we would be able to call these favours in. Still whether we were likely to need the sort of favour offered by a criminal who wants to have a deceased rival walled up well out of the way is something that was never adequately discussed in my opinion.
Still it left washing as the only option. Fortunately our rainwater tanks were very full due to the wetness of the spring. Maljie suggested we boil the robes of the mendicants in one big cauldron whilst we had them bath in one of the tanks. She was willing to arrange for two men with clippers to be on hand to cut hair at the same time.
Admittedly it wasn’t the warmest of days, but Maljie had our mendicants singing rousing choruses of one of those hymns which are less fashionable nowadays. It gives ample opportunity for scatological improvisation, and the name of the Grand Hierophant fitted nicely.
Now it has to be remembered that the robes we issue to mendicants, dark brown, almost black in some cases, are all enveloping. When wearing one it is almost impossible to ascertain the gender of the wearer. If the hood is up it gets even harder. Indeed unless there is a beard that juts out aggressively, frankly it is just guesswork.
Anyway, Maljie drove them down the line. Their clothing was thrown into the cauldron, already boiling, and the now unclothed mendicants climbed into the bath. Soap was handed out in a liberal manner and the ‘barbers’ moved among them with their clippers. Maljie supervised, conducting the singing and beating time with her staff.
There was some complaint about the ‘barbers’. They had learned their trade as fellmongers and knew only one technique. Everybody had the same very short haircut and those with beards had them trimmed to within an inch of their life.
At this point Maljie produced two large boxes labelled ‘Mystol’s Intimate apparel.’ I’ve heard of concern but never dealt with them. They sell ‘small clothes’ in bulk and they are the place those establishments with a lot of staff go to buy for their employees. I looked at the boxes. “How exactly can the shrine afford these?”
Maljie produced a grin which showed a lot of teeth. “There is a usurer who spontaneously volunteered to pay for them.”
“Such generosity is creditable.”
“Indeed it was either that or his wife would learn about a collection of ladies’ drawers that he has built up over the years.”
The mendicants were chased into the shrine out of the wind and were issued with appropriate underclothes and one of those shirts which comes down to the knees. Meanwhile we tackled the robes. Once boiled and cleaned they proved to be of various shades of brown. We hung them up in the warming room and waited for them to dry. A suspicious silence prevailed, punctuated by occasional giggling from where the mendicants clustered together for warmth.
Next morning when our mendicants, properly dressed and well-scrubbed, paraded for breakfast inspection, I was genuinely impressed. Admittedly they looked like they had escaped from a coffle taking them to a particularly unpleasant penal institution. I was standing next to old Weden. He muttered quietly, “They’re as lean as a pack of good hunting dogs.”
“Well I notice that Maljie didn’t order much in the way of small clothes in larger sizes.”
“Lean and keen, Tallis, Lean and keen. You heard about Widow Muran?”
I’d heard something about the widow but I guessed there was as story that was worth listening to. The old Prophet, secure in an audience, told his tale. Basically Widow Muran had been quite a wealthy woman. Her husband, to ensure that she was supported properly after his time, set the family estates up as a company, with her as an equal shareholder to him and their son. When he died, he left his share to his son, which was reasonable enough. But three years later the widow was suddenly out in the street, her house sold to pay her debts. Her son and his wife refused to see her, blaming her for the troubles that had befallen the family concern and apparently drove her from their door. She ended up as one of our mendicants.
Now the thing about the mendicants is that they have all fallen pretty well as far as you can without crashing to permanent destruction. To them we were a ledge they were clinging to by their fingertips. Under these circumstances I’ve noticed people either stamp on each other’s fingers to make more room on the ledge, or alternatively, they band together to keep each other safe. Our mendicants had obviously chosen the latter course. They took the Widow Muran to their collective (if somewhat emaciated bosom). They listened to her tale and they wondered what had been going on.
Quietly they had asked Maljie about how you went about proving fraud. Maljie explained the concept of ‘forensic accountancy’, mentioned the ladies Marisol and Chesini Clogchipper as exemplars of that particular dark art, and sat back to see what happened. Apparently a couple of the mendicants visited the offices and asked how much the service cost. They’d refused to let themselves become downhearted, returned to the shrine and shared the information they’d gained with the others.
Now let us not beat about the bush, if our entire mendicant body had turned out its assorted pockets, they wouldn’t have raised enough for a bottle of half reasonable wine. But still they were persistent. One of two of them thought to look into the rights and perquisites of the shrine. Then they sprang into action.
Firstly when somebody was about to ascend the stair, they were met by a most humble (but burly) mendicant who offered to carry their burden for them. To be honest, it is a steep climb and a lot of people took advantage of the offer. The proffered gratuity was accepted gratefully and went into the ‘Muran fund.’ Those mendicants who had carried burdens to the stop of the stair would then offer to carry other burdens back down. This was less popular but still brought in some money.
Then there was the case of the sedan chair. I know what they cost, so I had been a little surprised, not to say suspicious, when our mendicants suddenly acquired one. The fact that when I saw it, the paint was still wet, didn’t exactly allay my suspicions. Still a team of four mendicants could carry the chair, with its passenger, up the stairs at a jog. The monies received were of course added to the fund.
Once you get to the top of the stair you are at heart of the city with the Council Chamber, the Hall of Records, and the Insane Asylum. (Plus a lot of shops, offices and similar that snake away from the centre down narrow streets) A lot of important people will visit the area, and a lot of them will come in their own coach or gig. Now there are children who will stand by your gig for a few coins, “To stop anything happening to it.” The mendicants didn’t want to muscle in on somebody else’s racket, but entered negotiations with the children. Now when you left your coach, not only was there the obligatory small child looking after it, you merely had to pay somewhat more and a group of mendicants would wash the coach and groom the horses under the eye of your coachman. It was a rare owner who refused this service.
Eventually when they had a reasonable sum to offer as an earnest of their good will, the emissaries of the mendicants returned to the offices of Mesdames Clogchipper. They tipped the money on to the counter and the nice young gentleman (a man-at-arms who was currently recovering from a leg wound) counted it for them. It was agreed that the Clogchippers would take this as a deposit and would start investigating.
Apparently the investigation went swiftly, and soon got to the nub of the matter. Barely a week after the start the mendicants received word that they better hide the widow Muran, for her own safety. Apparently her son had been drawing money out of her share of the business and investing it in his own projects. He had set things up so all the profits of the business came to him and all the losses devolved upon her. They immediately moved her into the sanctuary of the shire, and there was never fewer than a dozen of our toughest praying nearby. It has to be said that their sudden excess of devotion quite surprised the Incumbent. One group of thugs did appear at the shrine looking for the widow, but rather than fisticuffs they were met by one of the older female mendicants. She explained the situation, and to be fair to the ruffians, they were horrified. It appears that the old cliché still holds true, that even the most hardened heavy remains devoted to his aged mother. After all, she is perhaps the one person left who still remembers how, when he was a small child, he would always save the best of the fruit he stole to give to his invalid little sister.
Word was now spreading through both the criminal and merchant communities. A process hastened by the fact that the two communities have so many people and interests in common.
Finally the ungrateful son and his wife fled and the Widow was escorted by her loyal allies back to her rightful estate. To be fair, she never forgot us. She was wise enough not to merely give money. After all old Weden himself commented, “You can have as many mendicants as you are willing to pay for.” What she did was to quietly provide a route out of the life for those mendicants who were ready for it. So one young man would get a job as a gardener, a young woman would find a place working in a bakery. Apparently Maljie would decide when a mendicant was ready and would send them to see the Widow. This lady lowered a rope down to those who were still trapped on the ledge from which she herself had escaped.
But yes, at one point I was telling you about the visit of the Grand Hierophant, and seem to have allowed myself to be side-tracked.
The great man arrived and dismissed our newly washed mendicants with a contemptuous gesture and had his own servile minions minister to him. Because of the danger of plague he insisted on washing his hands in a bowl of alcohol before, during, and after both the service and his lecture. He’d even fetched his own alcohol, and rather more ostentatiously, his own bowl. It was gold and took two of them to carry it. Obviously he had to take his heavy and much bejewelled gold ring off lest it be damaged and this was given to one of his senior lackeys. He condescended to use our towels to dry his hands but suggested we dry them lest our mendicants try wringing the alcohol out of them. Note that all this was said in a loud voice with our people lining the walls of the shrine.
Then the leader of his minions asked if they might take the bowl in which he’d washed his hands for the healing of the poor. I’ve seen this done before, the poor are allowed to dip handkerchiefs in the water and use it to mop the brow of a relative who is running a fever. It is hoped that some of the saintliness of the worthy who washed in the bowl will rub off on the invalid and heal them.
He smiled graciously and said they could, and they simpered prettily and scurried off out. I confess I was a little worried when I saw some of our minions follow them but decided it was not my problem.
Finally, his lecture finished, he rose to leave and realised he had not got his ring. Not only that, but his various servers had not returned. Maljie immediately ordered a search. The minions had vanished, taking both the ring and the golden bowl.
Of course we tried hard not to sneer, the incumbent restricting herself to commenting sadly it was so difficult to recruit reliable staff nowadays. He went on his way, sadder and possibly wiser. Maljie started making serious enquiries. To be fair to our mendicants, their story hung together well enough until a search produced a white robe, such as the minions had worn. I then found a goldsmith cum pawnbroker cum fence who finally admitted to having purchased ring and bowl from somebody wearing the robe.
Finally I tracked down a slaver. Now to be fair, he isn’t a slaver, the profession is illegal in Port Naain. But it is legal to sell indentured labourers south into Partann. So with Maljie leaning over him and toying ostentatiously with her staff, he admitted that he had paid good money for half a dozen young men who would do well as fieldworkers in Partann. He also commented that they were seriously the worse for drink, but pointed out this was not unusual. Most of his clients preferred to fortify themselves with a drink or two before contemplating the career change that was in store for them.
At this point we felt that asking further questions was nugatory. The mendicants remained on their best behaviour for several weeks after this. Then a particularly well-scrubbed and polite deputation approached the incumbent. They explained that they had all been working really hard and have saved the coppers that had come their way. So they wondered if they would be allowed to give the money to the shrine so that a bathhouse be built for them. They hoped for somewhere they could bathe out of the wind and rain. They even held out the hope that there might be the possibility of hot water.
The incumbent granted their request and marked off a patch of ground around the back where there had always been an intention of tidying things up anyway. The simple bathhouse was built and funded entirely by the mendicants. Some people talk in awed terms about the cold plunge room. Others feel the hot room is the match of anywhere. Personally I feel the mosaics are works of art, and the hypocaust is as good as anything you’ll find in the city.
Should you wish to read more tales from the life of Tallis Steelyard, there is always
As a reviewer commented, “Tallis Steelyard is a poet with champagne tastes on a beer budget. Chased out of town, and into the bay, by irate creditors, he’s rescued by a passing boat and given the opportunity to become a part of the crew. Thereafter follow a series of adventures, many funny, before Tallis can finally return home again.
I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend it highly!”