Chapter 10:

Sweet Promises (Of Plague)

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess

We rattled. We squealed. Most importantly, we stank.

This time as we came down the street, people spotted us coming and gave us a wide berth. The cart was only half-full with garbage. It was what a short timeframe and some rooting around in the street could do, along with a brief visit back to Apis’s home. Hopefully, it was also believable. I had my cloak wrapped around the most bulging parts of me, making an unconvincing man covered in garbage. A jar poked into my back.

We rattled forward, moment by moment. We’d already passed the woman hawking the buns and one of the seafront attractions. I blinked. I thought I had spotted something else, too- darting through the stopped carts.

A pale gray cloak, the color of the dusk.

I couldn’t focus on it for too long. We were approaching the blockade. In front of me, Apis’s shoulders were stiff. Next to me, Duran’s hand was reaching back for the sword.

I reached over and grabbed his wrist. “Absolutely not!”

“What if we need it!” he whispered.

“They’ve all got better swords than you,” I said.

He frowned at that, but sulked back into his nest of garbage. We’d piled it up around ourselves so the guards would be less likely to recognize us, which worked great in the short-term but also meant I’d have to laundry sooner than I’d expected.

Unless you happened to give me some magic powers, Andrena. Any time, now.

The cart rattled to a stop. I closed my eyes and tried to look like nothing more than your average badly-paid raker.

“We aren’t letting anyone through,” said the guard. He sounded exhausted. “I don’t know why your partner didn’t tell you.”

“My partner?” Said Apis. He sounded mildly confused. I closed my eyes further, like I could stop the sound that way. Why had I let him do the talking? Because no one would believe you.

“Of course you didn’t let him through,” he continued. “You have a job to do. But they’ve summoned us back. Don’t you know how awful the trash gets near the harbor?”

“You rakers are all the same,” snorted the guard. “Thinking I’ll just let one through-”

“Think of it this way,” said Apis. “You let one raker through, you’re not doing your job. I understand that. I’m a godly man myself, I know you should always follow the rules.”

His voice had an almost hypnotic quality to it. It was soothing, quiet. Like honey.

“And yet,” he said, “It only takes one rat for disease to spread, doesn’t it?”

“What does this have to do with rats?” snapped the guard.

“You’re right,” said Apis. “Very right. I’ll go. You’ll just be able to let them feed on that garbage, then, and no mistake. No raker like me will get in your way.”

He clicked his tongue at the horse, and I swore to myself under my breath. Just like that, stewing in trash, all to fail? I couldn’t believe it. This should have gotten us through.

“Wait,” said the guard. “What did you say about feeding?”

“Of course,” said Apis. So mild, so even. “Well, the rats feed on the garbage, of course. The more there is, the more there are.” He let that rest for a while. “With that ship quarantining at anchor just off the harbor, of course, one would think… but no, no disease would come from that far off. Don’t listen to a silly raker. All one such as me should think about is rats and garbage. A guard such as yourself wouldn’t be worried.” He paused for a few crucial moments. “Although- you haven’t seen a rat, have you?”

“Why?” This was another guard. I heard the clanking of his armor as he approached. They had armed the guards, then? This must be a highly influential blockade.

“Well,” said Apis. “It’s only that- no, I wouldn’t want to worry you.”

“Just speak about it, man!” Howled the guard. I found myself gaining a smidgeon of hope. Although maybe it was just the smell of the stink finally maybe making it into my brain matter.

“Well,” he said. “I know I saw someone in line scratching themselves, and that’s the first sign…”

“If you go in, you’ll get the rats?” The other voice again. “I thought I saw one down by that building to the west.”

“I would never ignore a loose rat.” Apis never changed the tone of his voice. “The morgue buys them by the bag.”

“Just drive through,” said the first guard. There was a great clanking. “Who’s that with you?”

“My assistants,” said Apis, vaguely. “Not a problem, I hope?”

“Make it quick.”

Another whistle, and we were moving. I couldn’t believe it as I leaned back. The guard to my right didn’t even look at me as I passed; he was lifting up his plate armor and checking at his armpit, scratching with a worried expression. I looked to the left. The other guard was checking around his feet, as though disease might emerge from any cobble.

The road took a sharp turn downhill here. I held on and tried not to let any garbage fall out a we rattled down the cobbles. Only when the cart had stopped squealing did I manage to ask, “Where did you learn to lie like that? I thought Andrena was a goddess of Truth.”

Apis turned around and grinned at me. “I only told the truth,” he said. “If they mis-interpreted me, that is a failing of the guard service.”

We came to a stop at the end of the docks. The Infamy was out at anchor, just far enough that any swimming prisoners would be easy to pick out against the muddy brown of the silty water. I wrinkled my nose. It was hard to tell if the stink of the salt and the fish was worse than the garbage still sticking to my skin.

“Right,” I said. “Now we just need a boat.”

Apis was already waving a hand, like he was trying to bid farewell to a departing ship.

“What are you doing?” said Duran.

“They take visitors out to visit the warden when approved,” said Apis. “We came to the right dock, I think.” He pointed to the sign at the end of the dock. I hadn’t bothered reading it, but took a moment to look at it now. It was half-nailed on and streaked with weathering.

Tender goes twyce a day

If you have to ask when

It isn’t now

If you have to ask who

It isn’t you!!!

“Well,” I said. “That’s welcoming.” I squinted out at the Infamy again. They hadn’t bothered putting full sails on it. It was just a weathered hull, a few men with clubs strolling out on top of it. I could see where they’d repainted the name, the old words still half-bleached.

“I think they’re coming out,” said Apis. He smiled. “Andrena provides.”

“They’re coming with clubs,” I said. “Let’s hide the cart.”

The tender was a comically small boat that swamped dramatically to one side, on account of the massive cast iron cage stuck upon one end. It was big enough to hold four unfriendly adults or six very friendly ones. I stared at it as they rowed out. It was too tall, I decided. Whoever had built it had clearly only heard of the ocean as a theoretical object.

Once they were in shouting distance, I said, “No prisoners here! You can go and put that back.”

“Can’t do,” said the man rowing at the front. “This is our only boat.” He squinted up at me. “If you want the quarantine boat,” he said, “I think they already took the healers out. It’s three docks over.”

He must have been a guard. There was another man in the boat, also dressed in the guard uniform of dark gray, but he wasn’t looking at us. He’d propped his head between his knees and was breathing deeply with exertion, his club laying forgotten next to him. I was losing hope rapidly in our ability to get over to the Infamy.

“Do I look like a healer to you?”

The guard looked to Duran.

“We’re here to see the prisoners,” said Duran. “The letterboys.”

“We can only take family or solicitors,” said the man.

“Excellent,” I said. “Apis here is a well-respected solicitor.” I glanced over at Apis. His eyes were wide. He shook his head minutely. “Ah, Apis is his nickname,” I said. “He prefers… Mel.”

“A solicitor,” said the guard. “Right. We’ll take him. The rest of you lot can wait.”

“A solicitor hired by me,” I said. I winced. “The boy’s distressed mother.”

The guard stared at me for a long moment. “What’s his name, then?”

“I always call him sweetling.”

“I suppose this kid is his long-lost sibling,” said the guard.

“You’re getting it now!”

“Should I use the sword?” said Duran.

“Don’t use the sword,” I said. “We’re just coming to an agreement.”

“I don’t know how you got past the blockade,” said the guard. “But I really hope you have something to make this worth it for me.”

We hadn’t only looked for garbage. “How do you feel about mead?” I said.