I rarely despair of Port Naain. After all, who wants a gloomy poet? There is a school of thought which suggests we are merely a better class of buffoon. Between ourselves and in all candour, I’m not sure whether the terms ‘school’ and ‘thought’ should be used in connection with people which such a poor grasp of the higher arts. Still, back to the main point, the thing which keeps me from despondency is the kind gestures I see from my fellow citizens.
Obviously at times like this it would be undiplomatic to play favourites and to cast a light merely on one particular individual. But still I am going to allow the light to shine on Mad Jez. I have mentioned him before, a number of times. He is a large individual. A walking mountain of scar tissue, muscle and anger management issues. His anger is as sharply focused as the edge of his axe blade, and like the axe, the anger is barely concealed.
Now he is a thug. Still if you’re going to be anything, be the best you can, and as thugs go, Mad Jez is a thug nonpareil. He is the quintessential ‘thug’s thug.’ Young thugs starting off in their career of wickedness salute him respectfully in the street, older thugs are proud to be recognised as an equal.
Now Mad Jez is not some solitary figure stalking the city. A ruffian who isn’t tied to one of the great criminal concerns needs somebody to carry his weaponry. Frequently this is a lady who is known as the armourer. She is normally pretty in a way only achievable when one combines a degree of natural beauty with a lot of easy money and poor taste. She will carry her companion’s brass knuckles for him, often in a delicately feminine handbag. Mad Jez was normally accompanied by Athica. Doubtless when younger she would have answered to the description above but she and Mad Jez had grown old together, theirs was the easy companionship of long association. She carried his weaponry in the sort of bag a workman will carry his tools in. Still a handsome woman, I have known her act as a mother figure to the younger girls in her trade. Scolding those who deserved it, and being a shoulder to cry on for others.
It was Mad Jez who arrived at the shrine of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Tempered Enthusiasm accompanied by two children he had found. This isn’t uncommon. Small children will cling to Athica and in her presence they seem to regard Mad Jez as a charming but semi-domesticated pet she keeps under control. These children are usually very young, abandoned as little more than babes in arms. We can normally find a home for them, perhaps with a couple who haven’t been blessed with children of their own.
These two were older. Also, when they arrived with Mad Jez, Athica wasn’t with him. That in itself would be enough to make me nervous. Maljie came to look at the two waifs.
“They’re older than usual, Jez.”
He glared down at them as if this was somehow their fault, then said, “Yeah.”
Maljie tried another tack. “Where’s Athica?”
“Explaining things to the parents.”
“So they’re not orphans.”
“No, Athica will explain.”
Maljie beckoned him into the shrine and we bustled round to find something for the children to eat. Jez made an unsolicited remark. “They live in the same street as us.”
People nodded wisely and wondered what to make of it. Then he added. “Their home is a battlefield.”
Maljie squatted down and looked into the eyes of the girl child. “And you try to fix it?”
Silently the child nodded. Maljie sighed. “It never works, trust me.”
As she stood up we became aware of arguing outside. We emerged into a brawl. A middle-aged woman had just started belabouring a teenaged boy. Athica was trying to haul her off, whilst two more teenagers were promiscuously attacking each other, the woman, and Athica. Two middle aged men, one at least of whom was belligerently drunk, were bellowing at each other across the melee.
As Jez waded into the maelstrom, one of the combatants was flung casually in my direction. Looking at the spitting fury sprawled at my feet I thought to see a family resemblance to the girl child Mad Jez had brought to us. I stepped back sharply to avoid the blade the young woman at my feet swung in my direction. She hurled herself into the fray only to reel back out again as a backhanded blow from Athica caught her on the side of the head.
By now we had attracted a sufficiency of mendicants and we resolved the issue by catching those hurled out of the melee, disarming them whilst they were still stunned and having two mendicants hold them. Finally we were left with the woman as the sole combatant still standing. She divided her efforts between trying to kick the two men who were held securely, and proclaiming the fact that she was pregnant and we couldn’t touch her. Eventually Athica hit her full in the face with the contents of a bucket of water. This silenced her. Athica commented, “This one is Madam Stoggin, ‘silk embroideress,’ ‘purveyor of superiority nether garments to ladies of quality’, the head of the household and matriarch of the clan.”
As a blissful silence descended, Athica commented, “It’s always like this. The bright ones in this family move out. This morning Jez saw the little girl knocked flying in a brawl and decided he’d had enough. He wants you to adopt them.”
Madam Stoggin, who appeared to have recovered from her soaking screamed, “It’s kidnapping.”
Maljie said quietly, “It’s true, Jez. We cannot adopt them unless they’re orphans.”
Jez nodded slowly. He walked up to Madam Stoggin and just looked into her eyes. She shouted at him, “They’re not orphans.”
Quietly, so quietly I could barely hear it, Mad Jez said, “Yet.” Madam Stoggin seemed to wilt, and then shouted, “Aea rot them.” She gestured at the other members of her family who were being held securely. “Have the bluidy lot of them. I’ll start again but with a real man.”
With that she darted past Jez and kicked one of the two middle-aged men firmly in the groin, then ran off. At a gesture from Maljie the rest of the family were released and they followed their mother, limping and bickering.
We went back inside the shrine, and Maljie gestured for us to all sit down. The two children made their way to Athica and shyly clung to her. Maljie looked thoughtfully at Mad Jez.
Before she could say anything, he growled, “Don’t start.”
Athica said, “We’re criminals.”
Maljie commented, “So are most Sinecurists. But at least you two aren’t hypocrites as well.”
There was silence for a while, and then Maljie took up a pen and a piece of paper, and in a cheerful voice, said, “Anyway, they can stay in the shrine for now as mendicants and I’ll put you two down as their sponsors.”
Mad Jez asked, suspiciously, “What does a sponsor do?”
Breezily, Maljie said, “Not much, the most important part is they come and visit the child regularly. Some sponsors give money to help support them but in all candour it’s the visits that are most important.”
Athica said, “Put us down as sponsors.”
Maljie looked at Mad Jez. He gestured toward Athica and said with the weary resignation of a man who know what the future holds, “Just do what she says.”
Should you wish to know more about Port Naain
Benor arrives in Port Naain intent on the simple task of producing a handbook for merchants. Then there is a murder, and a vengeful family who will stop at nothing to silence those who found the body. Suddenly Benor’s life is no longer simple.
As a reviewer commented, “Benor is a cartographer and he’s come to Port Naain to produce a handbook. He makes a home with Tallis, a professional poet and his wife Shena. She’s a mud-jobber or as we might say, a beachcomber. Some of her combings include bodies. Everything has a price and families will pay for the privilege of burying their dead and, if possible, finding who caused it. Benor is a natural. He’s a nosy person and, with the aid of the wonderful Mutt, a ten year-old wise beyond his years, he sorts out the villains from the corpses. This first short story from The Port Naain Intelligencer bodes well for the rest of the series. A really great Whodunit.”