Most religions are actually a pretty broad church. The grown-up ones have realised, often through harsh experience, that the ability to tolerate different interpretations is one of those gifts that leads to a longer and more tranquil existence. Once you start burning people at the stake for thinking the wrong thing, it’s only a matter of time before it’s your turn at the stake.
So while the various religious denominations seem to have realised this, it must be admitted that their arguments can be convoluted, protracted and even rancorous. In spite of this they still manage to join their voices in harmony at the next formal plain-chant Querantur. Life would be so much more pleasant if both students and sinecurists learned this lesson.
Still, whilst Port Naain isn’t a spiritual pilgrimage centre, its sheer size and ponderous gravitas seems to exert some sort of attraction to those on the denominational fringes. Thus it wasn’t entirely surprising to see an almost naked holy man lying on a bed of nails in the Rope Walk. I mentioned it to Laxey who commented that he’d come across others of that order in their distant mountain monastery. This had been when he was a seaman. It was at this point that Maljie started to laugh, but the laugh turned into the sort of cough you get from an elderly steam engine where one of the valves is malfunctioning.
Eventually, once she had been restored by the simple expedient of holding her breath, counting to twenty, and taking great gulps of a colourless liquid from a bottle secreted about her person, she commented that his navigation must have been a little adrift as the monastery in question was over six hundred miles from the sea and nearly as far from a navigable river.
The thing is, Laxey is a navigator. Even without looking he knows the state of the tide in the estuary. I suspect that even high in the mountains, at some forsaken shrine, had they asked, he could have told the monks exactly how high the water was in a dozen minor harbours up and down the coast at that very moment. But he is also a sub-hierodeacon so he has developed other skills. Not for him the icy glare of the temple warden that can drop a drink fuelled bully at fifty paces. The sub-hierodeacon is trained to use different tactics. The bully is met by an avuncular uncle who listens courteously to his every moan. Indeed the bully is initially reassured that he is being taken seriously when the sub-hierodeacon takes copious notes. It is only later that the bully begins to wonder whether he was entirely wise to say the things he did.
Similarly a temple warden will reply to a trouble maker using short sentences; often in colloquial language, deploying the argot of the street to best effect. The sub-hierodeacon will merely raise an eyebrow and say ‘Indeed’ in a manner that would both chill the blood and loosen the bowels.
Somebody once described it to me thusly, “The role of the sub-hierodeacon is to appear behind you in a dark alley and to whisper into your ear, ‘The incumbent is not happy with you.’ The role of a temple warden is to merely ensure that the alley is dark.”
But I seem to have become side-tracked. A wandering holy man appeared with his bed of nails. The day after I’d seen him on the Ropewalk he appeared at our shrine. I must admit, he was cheap to entertain, he merely wanted water to drink and asked for a vegetable broth. Undeniably our vegetable broth had meat in it and was so thick you could stand your spoon up in it, but he ate it with every sign of enjoyment. It was after he had eaten that I, as the most junior present, asked why he was in the city.
“I’m here collecting money for my order. Our monastery is very old and is frankly decrepit. It needs a lot spending on it. So the holy siblings met in council and decided to send me to Port Naain. It’s well known that the city is wealthy and we had no doubt that if approached properly the Combined Order would be generous to us.”
I looked at Maljie and Laxey and it was obvious that they agreed with me that his assessment was naïve in the extreme. Nobody bothers going to the order for financial support. Indeed it has been said, somewhat inelegantly, that the only way to get a drink out of the alms-master of the Combined Order is to stick your fingers down his throat. At the level of the shrine, the wise incumbent tells the order as little as possible, and keeps copious notes of the mistakes the order has made when dealing with them. Thus should the order decide to interfere in some way, they can be reminded, in detail, of the previous errors they have made. Errors which can be shown to have contributed materially to the dire straits the shrine is now in. Whilst this technique rarely produces funds, it does at least ensure those coming from the order remember a previous appointment and leave, promising to return at some never agreed future date.
Gently, Maljie asked, “How much do you need?”
“Perhaps a thousand alars.”
Let us be honest, to get that sort of money you’d have to be holding the Patriarch’s mistress hostage! And she’d have to be the new mistress, not just any old mistress.
Laxey asked, “Can you do the magic?”
“You mean prestidigitation?”
“Yes, sleight of hand, distraction, that sort of thing.”
“Of course, the perfect way to gather a crowd before you start your homily.”
Laxey smiled the sort of smile that made Maljie and I step back.
It was three days later that four ragged holy men, one with a bed of nails, approached the Shrine of Aea in Her Aspect as the Personification of Forgiveness. We’ve had dealings with that shrine before. They made slighting comments about us so Maljie had Jaysen Fanshaw, one of the city’s most amenable night soil collectors, abandon the contents of a night soil cart in their nave. Thus we didn’t have Maljie with us. She might be too memorable.
Still we let our itinerant holy man lead our small shambolic procession. With absolute confidence he placed his bed of nails in front of the high altar, below the golden statue of a seated Aea, and proceeded to sit on it and deliver a homily. Because of his obvious sanctity, not only was he not ejected as unconscionably scruffy and disreputable, he was listened to. Indeed there was a respectful silence.
Then he made a significant gesture and Laxey and I assembled four poles and a cloth screen. The screen was behind him but in front of the high altar. Our holy man then produced a basket and out of it climbed one of our smaller mendicants, wearing a red jacket, and a red turban. The holy man proceeded to stuff the mendicant back into the basket (which was bulbous and larger at the bottom than at the top). He then produced a sword from a bundle of props and proceeded to stab the basket, repeatedly.
At this point every eye was on the holy man and the basket. Behind the screen, Laxey started pressing the side of the golden status.
“We cannot just steal that, they’ll notice.”
Laxey just shrugged, “It’s only gold leaf anyway.” He continued probing and suddenly the back of the statue opened. He put his hand in and started pulling out small bags. I looked into one. Gold coins. Laxey continued, “It’s the incumbent’s retirement fund. He’s been making a lot of money on the side. You wouldn’t believe how keen some people are to be forgiven.”
We slipped the gold into pouches we wore below our robes. Laxey closed the back of the statue. In front of us the holy man had reached into the basket and had produced a red jacket and turban. He peered into the basket, there was no sign of the boy. He tossed the clothing back into the basket with every sign of chagrin and picked up a large cloth. He then stalked round the area, as if hunting. Suddenly he pounced, covering something with the cloth. Even as he manoeuvred the cloth back to the basket it was obvious that there was somebody under the cloth who was fighting to escape. With some effort he lifted the cloth up and thrust it into the basket.
At this point Laxey and I packed away the poles and screen. That done, the holy man took the lid of the basket and out popped the junior mendicant, resplendent in red jacket and turban.
We left to the applause of the assembled congregation. The holy man, his mission accomplished reached once more into his basket. He pulled a rope out of it and threw one end of the rope into the air. It stayed there as if tied to a beam. Our holy man climbed up the rope and just disappeared. The rope fell back into the basket. Laxey placed the basket on the bed of nails and we headed for home. Obviously people at the shrine wanted to know what had happened and as Laxey took the bed of nails into the building I gave people a somewhat edited version of events. Eventually, wondering where Laxey had got to, I wandered into the shrine to find him fast asleep on the bed of nails.
There is always more to learn about Port Naain, Tallis Steelyard and his friends.
As a reviewer commented, “Every time Benor is at a loose end, wondering where his next Alar, or even Dreg, is coming from, a messenger arrives for him…
Mutt gets to help, in his own unique way. Tallis feels decidedly unnerved and Shena gets to buy some new dresses.
This tale contains several mysteries to be solved by our Toelar Roof Runner Cartographer, but not before some interesting events and experiences.”