Chapter 14:

Extra-Strength in Numbers

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess

As we approached the center of the festival, the chatter and laughter slowed. Atop it all, another voice floated. It was ringing and strong.

It irritated me. I thought I had gotten rid of this man a long time ago. I stopped in the middle of the crowd, which had thickened so much I had to elbow my way through, to stare at the stage.

There he stood. Lady Sylvia’s husband; The Lord Julian. He was the spitting image of his son. He sneered down at all of us, like he was surprised we had been clever enough to find the great massive stage in the middle of the only clearing in the city.

Behind him, at his right shoulder, was Sylvia herself. I couldn’t see her expression. Only the gentle swoop of her hair, the posture of her shoulders. Their son was nowhere to be seen.

“For too long,” the Lord Julian proclaimed, “We have relied upon the gods to do what we ourselves are capable of. Now, we see the weakness of relying upon such methods. Without the temple of Andrena, do we have city services to resume caring for the weak?”

There was a muttering among the crowd. He’d chosen a fine time to speak against the gods, in the center of the biggest festival of the year. I glanced around, looking for anyone ready to throw rotten fruit.

The woman next to me was staring up at the stage, but she wasn’t glaring. She looked thoughtful.

“As for the other Voices,” he said, scornfully, “Did they submit themselves to the council to be considered? Did they answer the questions of our lawful guardsmen?”

Lord Julian wasn’t wearing green, I realized. It was traditional for lawmen to wear green and gray robes. The gods and the law, working in tandem. He stood stiffly upon the podium, his robes ornate, and could have been just another stone column.

At his comment, the crowd erupted into chaos. I could feel myself shoved to the side as one man stalked up towards the podium.

“Take them all!” shouted the man. “He’s the one that killed her!”

As he tried to climb up on the podium, the crowd responded as one great mass with a hundred grasping hands. The space I had previously occupied safely- a good elbow’s distance around myself- was suddenly compressed. I was pushed from behind, jostled to the side. I was nothing more than one more piece of meat in a churning stew. I heard shouts from every side-

“Traitor! Godkiller!”

“The gods abandoned us!”

As I tried to stand up. Another foot kicked me down. It pressed further into my back. I was too-aware of every pebble stuck in the leather as I tried to shove myself up. The dirt pressed further into my cheek, the air all pressed out of my chest at once. The crowd was still going.

“There is no law but the moving of the world!” shouted one.

“Your guards are bloody useless!” cried another one.

“Why didn’t you take Celeres! She’s probably dead!”

“Dead? She’s the murderer!”

“Celeres didn’t do anything! It was that Voice of hers!”

“Celeres isn’t even real! It’s Ursus.”

“Andrena’s testing us!” That one came from above me. I was about to twist around and give comment on what I felt about that- I desperately wanted to see if the Lord Julian was running yet, but I was distracted by the way people kept kicking my ribs- when a shhhhing! noise distracted me.

I put my head back down. I knew the sound of a sword being withdrawn when I heard it.

“Get away!” shouted Duran. “You’re going to crush her!”

There was a swishing sound, then a firm thunk as the tip of the sword came crashing down a hand’s length in front of my nose.

The foot came off of my back instantly. I rolled over onto my back, heaving in air desperately. Above, it was a clear shot to the sky. A tree’s branches rolled gently. Dozens of faces all peered down at me.

The sun hadn’t set any further. Somehow, it felt like it had been forever.

I scowled up at everyone staring down at me. They’d all backed up into a careful ellipses. I was ready to bet it was the exact length of Duran’s sword.

“Right!” I said. I coughed. That boot to my back hadn’t helped anything. “Excellent. Thank you for not stepping on me.”

I groaned as I pulled myself up. Every muscle seemed to object to it. I tried not to look like I was aching as I stood up. Away from our little group, the shouts were still happening. I half-jumped. On the height of my jump, I could just barely see to the stage.

The Lord Julian was gone.

A hand grabbed my shoulder. I jumped back.

“Sorry!” Apis held his hands up, as if I was the one with the sword. “I just- you were coughing oddly there. I thought you might need help walking.”

I was limping. I could probably use the help. I breathed as deeply as I could instead and tried to look official. “There’s no issue. Lead us to the booth.”

The crowd cleared out quickly, shoving each other over in their speed to get out of the way, now that the sword was out. Usually I would have objected to all of it, since I didn’t really agree with using deadly weapons in a crowded area.

I was going to have a boot-print on my ribs later. I didn’t say anything.

“I’m really sorry about that,” said Apis. He was still hovering next to me, like at any moment I might topple over. If he didn’t get out of my elbow-room soon, I was going to give him something to actually worry about. “Usually it’s more- well- it’s usually chaotic, but people don’t usually get trampled.”

“Just let me know who I ought to stab!”

Duran swung the sword vaguely. He barely missed a couple in front of us, who had clearly missed the speech in favor of writing their wishes down underneath a struggling elm. The woman ducked with a squeak. The man yelped with anger.

“Hey! That was my favorite coat!”

I leaned down and pressed the piece of the lapel that had been cut off back into his hand.

“Time and effort makes even the best meal richer,” added Apis. “Such is the word of Andrena. Allow it time to grow and you shall be surprised by the result.”

“It’s a coat!”

“You would argue with a god?”

Apis smiled. I pushed Duran away. Somehow, we didn’t get in a duel.

At this point, I considered anything that didn’t involve blood a win. I tried to walk faster. There was one booth near the stage with two women, one behind and another leaning over, engaged in quiet conversation.

A wooden bee was hung over the awning. At last- Andrena’s priestesses.

The clacking of their bobbins became audible as we stepped close enough to see. They were both in their fifties, maybe early sixties, as far as I could tell. They wore loose open tunics, not matching but in pale colors. Both of them looked far too comfortable for this place.

On the table, there were jars of pickles and ointments set out. A small piece of incense was lit in front of an carved hive, a single bee crawling out.

The main feature of the booth was the great drum upon which they were weaving the lace. It was the width of the booth. They passed the bobbins back and forth to each other, working an intricate pattern.

Who were they weaving lace for? A giant?

“Apis!” said one of the women, looking up. Her hair was cut short to her skull. It was peppered dark gray, with white around her temples. When she smiled her whole face erupted in soft wrinkles. “We worried about you. You’re usually more prompt than this.”

When he didn’t respond quickly enough, she put down a bobbin and leaned forward, putting out a hand. “Have you been by?”

“I was there yesterday. I- we were hoping-”

“Let the boy sit down,” the other woman interrupted. She’d picked up the other bobbin and kept on weaving, clicking her tongue in disapproval. “Always so pushy, Stella.”

“There’s no need for me to sit,” said Apis. “No-”

The woman- Stella, it seemed- had already bustled off to get a chair. As she disappeared into the crowd, the other woman resumed her weaving. It was a hexagonal weave, with a few dots and drips. Honeyed comb.

Flowers spotted the rim.

“What is the lace for?” I ventured.

“For?” said the woman. She flipped a pair of bobbins. “To win,” she said.

Stella came back with three stacked chairs, her face red. As soon as she emerged from the crowd, Apis darted forward to help her. “Go get one,” I told Duran.


Before Duran could decide what to do with his sword, Apis was back and helping lay out the chairs underneath the awning of the booth. It was no use; I found myself ushered underneath with the others.

“It’s not about winning,” said Stella. She was ignoring the rest of us. It seemed this argument was old and tired. “It’s about honoring-”

“They’re going to burn it, anyway,” said the other woman. Her hair was long, and braided intricately. “The only thing I’ll have to warm myself with is the glory we’ve earned for Andrena.”

Her knuckles were swollen. It looked painful for her to grip the threads, but she moved continuously with no complaint.

I cleared my throat. “Would you like to- could I-”

“Stay back, girl,” said the long-haired woman.

Stella cackled. “Only person Lucia lets near her lace is the match-man, and even he’s afraid some years.”

“This one is good.” The bobbins clicked, back and forth. Another drop of sweat trickled down my back. In the darkness of the tent, everything seemed to focus in on that pale, pale lace, the gleam of the pickles in the jars. The shine of Lucia’s teeth as she smiled. “Very good.”

“She says that every year.” Stella turned back to take the bobbin seamlessly. “You’re doing well? Like your place? No problems with the brewing? I heard there’s some trouble with permits. No trouble with you? Of course not, it’s permitted by the temple. Anything else I should know about? Is this your young woman?”

The bobbins clicked in rhythm with her questions. They moved so rapid-fire that Apis wasn’t able to get a word in edgewise.

Finally, when she stopped for breath, he said, “No. I’m not here about- any of that. This woman-”

They both stopped at that. “She’s your young woman?” Stella, for all that she seemed the kinder option, didn’t sound impressed.

I wasn’t a young anything. “I’m investigating what happened at the temple. Were you there when it happened?”

“She’s the voice of Andrena,” added Apis. “She’s here at the goddess’s blessing.”

“Voice of Andrena, eh?”

Stella shifted to stare at me further. Behind her, Lucia folded her arms.

I closed my eyes in defeat. I shouldn’t have told Apis.

“Sweet pickles.”

I opened one eye again. Stella stared at me, one eyebrow raised. Her eyes were piercing.


“Sweet pickles,” she repeated.

Was I meant to… comment?

“I’d use the same brine as I do for sour pickles, but add in half the same ratio again of sugar,” I said. “But I don’t usually make sweet pickles.”

“Why not?”

I glanced over at Duran. He stared over back at me. He was perched on the edge of the chair, still holding the unsheathed sword. The sound outside was starting to increase again; people must be wandering out of the chaos of the fight.

“I think they’re a waste of cucumbers,” I said, finally. Best to be honest. “All that pickling solution, and that dill, for something that can’t decide what kind of food it wants to be. I can accept- maybe- a sweetened pickled pepper, but…”

I paused and cleared my throat. “I don’t usually make sweet pickles,” I finished.

Someone shouted outside. I shifted on the chair. It was so hot in the booth; the overwhelming weight of their judgement came in upon me all at once. Why was I so worried about their good opinions? They were just a couple of priestesses.

Lucia nodded firmly and resumed moving the bobbins. “Marcia chose her. No one else could have such an awful opinion about pickles.”