Chapter 6:

The Hive

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess


The capital stank. It was too crowded, it had too many people, and, worst of all, it contained my mother. I was half-tempted to get back in the cart and go back to sleep. Hopefully by the time I woke I’d be halfway to the southern sea, where they could throw me out and I’d be taken over by the Squid Goddess, Teuthida. Maybe she’d have a different mission for me, like swimming to get the Geetle God’s lost elytra or stealing the stars from the sky. Something easy.

No such luck, though. As soon as we came to a stop, Duran jumped out. He had his hand on the sword, as though he might find someone to duel with on the street corner. The flower seller took a step back.

“Wow,” he said.

His foot was in a pile of horse shit. I stepped out and didn’t mention it to him. I sighed. It smelled of ash and offal and flowers. It was high season in the capital.

“Don’t stand still too long,” I said. “They’re going to try and sell you something.”

He began to argue with me- why did he volunteer to be my apprentice, if he was only going to argue with me?- but before he could, I grabbed him by the elbow and began to tow him along.
The capital was a barnacle on the great western harbor, a silted horrible thing that constantly had to be dredged out because of all the runoff. I wanted nothing to do with the harbor- I had no need for fish, imports, or returning pilgrims or tourists- so I’d had us dropped off just within the northern entrance to the capital, the nearest gate.

Northside was mostly residential and small businesses, although there were always a few vendors ready to spring upon new entrants to the city. I brought us past these leeches now, aiming for the nearest coach.

“So they’re real!” Said Duran.

“What, coaches?” I stuck out my hand, waving for the operator to stop for us. He did, although he stopped late with a great clanging of bells. Disrespectful. I should have used the staff. “Of course they’re real. Who would make up something like that?”

“Well, I just- it seems preposterous. A coach just to move people about, without goods on it? Without a noble on it?”

“It’s just a coach,” I said. I stepped back to make sure he was entering correctly. This conversation was not increasing my confidence.

“Tickets?” Said the conductor. He was wearing half of his uniform, the jacket slung over his shoulders. He held out a hand.

I pulled out a few coins and threw them in his hand. “Will that do?”

He pulled them up and sorted through. “Where you going?”

“Temple-side.”

He shook his head. “This will get you across Used-to-be, can get you halfway to Always if you’re going alone.”

I stared over at Duran, considering. The city was organized by rivers, all of which flowed from different parts of the plains and into the harbor. The northernmost, Sometimes, was- as it said- sometimes a river, and served as a border the Northern district. Used-to-be bisected the city, splitting the Central and Uptown districts, and was a brick divot in the ground that had flooded once in living memory, to great excitement.

Always was a wide river that meandered through the southern half of the city, splitting the rich Southern district from the Uptown district to its north. Its tributaries fed everyone- another reason I was glad to have left. I’d seen a few things I would rather not swimming in that water.
I was trying to get to the middle of the Uptown district, where the Spire of the great temple watched over all of the businessmen and clerics. There, I hoped, I would find Andrena’s pile of ashes.

Also, hopefully, someone volunteering an entire confession. Perhaps offering to escort themselves to the guards.

Was I willing to sacrifice Duran for it, though?

I sighed. “We’ll go to Central,” I said, and handed him the money. One river was better than nothing.

Duran and I had to crowd in alongside a set of grandmothers with a variety of weapons- why were they so prepared?- a young boy holding two chickens- and a dog which seemed to have come on the tram entirely by itself. At the next stop, it got off, also entirely by itself.

Duran watched with starry eyes. I was nursing a headache already. I was so glad I had left. I missed the quiet of the inn, where I could nurse a hangover and not have to watch a chicken attempt to fly into the roof of a stretched coach.

Another two stops, and then the coach came to a rattling stop after we watched the trickle of a few drops of water in the bed of Used-to-Be. I stepped off, just beyond the arched bridge for pedestrians.

“Good day,” said the driver. He was batting away the chicken. Someone else was boarding. I stepped away as quickly as I could. Duran almost didn’t make it; he had to jump off as the coach began moving.

“That was amazing,” he said.

“Next time,” I said, “Keep close to me.”

“So,” he said. “What next!”

Teenager. I had to remind myself he was a teenager, and new to the city. This was all exciting, and not a trial. I took a deep breath. “We’re walking to the temples,” I said.

“For your personal business?”

I should just tell him. If I told him, though, I would sound mad. I frowned.

“It’s very important,” I said, instead. “Come on.”

The sun was high overhead. I could begin to see the temple spire overhead as we crossed the district, buildings getting taller and better-built. Wood changed to brick.

The Spire was built of marble. The great circle of the world, the beetle cradling it overhead, cast a strange shadow. Below it, there should have been a set of guards and a few pilgrims waiting for entry. Instead there was a massive crowd. They chanted, held up signs and burning torches. They were shouting something about an unfair trial, about corruption.

“We aren’t going to the Great Spire?” Said Duran, when I turned away.

“That’s not who I’m here for,” I said. “Besides, it’s not for praying.” It was for wasting time and paperwork. I cast another irritated glance upwards. If that was what Andrena wanted from me, she had chosen poorly. I went instead to the nearest tourist I could see.

He was holding a map upside-down. He’d chosen a bad time to come see the city. It was hot, thick with rain.

He began to speak to me, smiling. “Hello there, madam!” He had a horrible accent. I ignored everything he said and took the map out of his hands.

He began arguing with me, trying to pull his map back. Duran said something about my honored position as a chef. I ignored their conversation and scanned the map. There, pointed out in pink on the map, was a temple of Andrena.

Perfect. I gave the map back and turned away. “Come on. We’re losing daylight.”

“You aren’t going to apologize? Why did you take that man’s map?”

“I gave it back.”

Duran just stared at me. I sighed and turned back to the tourist. “I apologize.”

He swallowed. He looked at my staff. I realized I was holding it up in a rather threatening way.

Habit had come back. I really hated the capital.

“If you wanted to go to the Spire, it’s to your left,” I said.

“They turned me away!” He said. “Said they’re closed! How can they close the Spire! With all of the people trying to visit, besides!”

“How am I supposed to know,” I said. We both cast a glance towards the ever-growing crowd of protesters. A group of guards were approaching the protesters, spears-out; the protesters were using their signs to beat them back. I turned towards him.

“The city baths are nice this time of year,” I said. “They have scented oils.”

I took Duran by the arm and left before the chaos expanded to take us with it as well. The temple was down the block, a few minutes walk. I knew we were getting closer because it stank of ash and sweat.

The buildings surrounding the temple weren’t untouched. First the stone was only slightly greyed, as though the buildings had aged further than they should have. Wood was a darker brown, the knots standing out in stark relief. Passerby were holding scarves up to their mouths, scampering from place to place. The food-stands hawking fried breads and fresh fruit had slowly disappeared, leaving only the pubs behind their closed doors and the businesses, counting their money and selling their goods behind barred windows.

Finally, behind a tall wooden building that had been shored up with a few planks and was creaking unsteadily in the wind, I saw it. All that remained of Andrena’s refuge.

A pile of ash. Like the bones of some strange creature, spikes of wood and pillars of stone stood out of the rubble. Some of them were nearly intact, glowing half-clean, while others were so dark they could have been made of night itself.

I blinked, eyes burned by the sight, then coughed. It stank. Of ash, of something darker- like the oil that went rancid, in the back of the kitchen when I didn’t clean it properly. This place had been treated badly.

The streets had been clearing out as we approached, but now they were empty. A desecrated temple was a bad omen. The gods gone awry, casting anger upon each other. Best not to interfere, lest they pay attention to you.

“What-” Duran grabbed onto my cloak, as if he’d gone back to all of five years old. “Madam Elysia, this isn’t right.”

“No,” I said. “But we have to fix it, I suppose.” I hiked up my skirts and stepped into the ash. “Duran,” I said. “Pull your shirt up over your nose. You’ll catch a cough.”

He was standing behind me, jaw open so wide he’d probably inhaled half of Andrena’s ashes. At my reminder, he startled and pulled his tunic up over his jaw. His reply was so muffled I couldn’t make it out.

It was slow going, through the ashes of the temple. My feet were hampered by piles and piles of ashes, of broken plates and glass. I tripped over something I thought was bone, my heart thumping in fear, before I finally leaned over and realized it was only a clay doll. Her eyes were still open in a rictus of fear.

The muffled speech and cries of the city, the cawing of chickens and the skittering of rats, the ever-present squealing of carriage wheels and braying of horses, all had been muffled here. It was as if the walls of the temple still served as refuge, regardless of their current state. I couldn’t help but shiver and pull my cloak a little tighter.

As I did, holding in a sneeze from the ash, I heard it.

At first it was only a small weeping. I thought it was an animal, rooting around in the ash, and darted a look over my shoulder- but Duran wasn’t moving, and I couldn’t see the tail of any creature.

Then the weeping came again, and a few small words over the wind.

“How…..”

Duran opened his mouth, as if he wanted to say something, and I held up a hand to stop him. My heart was racing. Could it truly be this easy? Only a few steps, and my quarry already found?

The weeping was louder as I stepped forward, past another pillar and a half-collapsed wall. A figure was knelt before what must have been an altar.

“All my fault…” Came the voice. “Should have been here earlier. Mercy, mercy.”

It was a man. His man was raspy, as though he’d been here begging for hours. His form was pitiful, slumped across the slab of the temple.

I grinned. With two large strides I crossed the main room, where once a great statue of Andrena would have supervised anyone coming to beg for her help. Now her face was streaked with ash. The man lay across her lap.

If I’d known it would be this easy, I wouldn’t have resisted so much.

“Right,” I said. “You can go to the guardsmen now, or I can make you.” I let my hand rest on the wooden spoon in my apron. “Either works for me.”

He stammered, looking up at me. I lifted the spoon.

Finally, he managed to make his mouth form words.

“Please,” he said. “Not the guards. I have to watch the hive.”

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