Chapter 16:

All Rules

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess


The wooden plate over the peep-hole slid open. I shifted in front of the front door of the boarding house. “Who goes there?”

The voice was rich and low. It sounded like she’d been smoking a pipe every evening for years, gravelly as she ended the question.

I squinted up at the sign. Young Lady’s Boarding House.

Underneath it, in newer paint, Taking Boarders Upon Recommendations Only!

A second sign had been attached via chains. The text upon it was even smaller. By entering the premises you agree to follow ALL RULES!!

I was just reading the third sign- THAT MEANS YOU!- When Apis responded. “We’re from the Temple,” he said. “Here for Candida.”

The wooden cover thumped shut.

I turned to look at him. We were in the northern part of the Hammer, so close to the edge of the river Used-to-Be that I could see the rough gardens and overflow ditches, as well as the close-knit buildings across the channel.

The empty bed lifted up with dust as another gust of wind came through, rattling the front porch where we stood. The boarding-house was in a set of squeezed-in townhouses, all lined up and once painted in bright colors. Now they’d worn down to an even brown.

“She has to check that Candida’s there,” said Apis. Duran was down below us, offering the mare an apple. She’d been surprisingly tolerant of our long day, traipsing about the district. “It’s one of the rules. No visitors without approval.”

“Ah.” I leaned down as Duran yanked his hand back. The mare’s teeth snapped down on empty air. Maybe she wasn’t so tolerant. “Get up here before she kicks you.”

Duran made quick work of it. “I don’t know why she’s so angry,” he muttered.

We didn’t have many horses up north. Not that he got to deal with, anyway.

“She doesn’t like this boarding house,” said Apis. “The proprietress once-”

Before we could learn what the woman had done, the door swung open again. A large woman stood beyond it. She was tall enough she would have to bend down to get through the doorway. When she folded her arms, they bulged with muscle. She was wearing a very conservative dress. Even my mother couldn’t have disapproved of it.

I swallowed. So. This was why no-one tried to break the rules.

Behind her, nearly eclipsed by her massive form, was a girl in her mid-twenties at most. She peered around the woman’s waist. “Apis? Has something else- please tell me there wasn’t another fire.”

“Do you invite them in?”

“Of course I do.” The girl coughed impatiently. “I mean-”

“Please, come in,” said the massive woman. “Follow me. I will chaperone you while you have tea in the parlor. Curfew will begin soon. I hope you will be able to finish your business before then.”

I exchanged a glance with Apis as she led us in. Duran hid behind me- for all that sword, he seemed to quail at any real enemy. “She couldn’t find a more accommodating boarding house?” I said, under my breath.

“My boarding house is the best in the city,” said the woman in front of me. “It allows women to preserve their reputations without being forced to work long hours or entertain constant guests.”

I winced. “Of course.”

The woman gave me a squinting glance. “I would think you might understand, madam.”

“I’ve lived a more… unconventional life,” I managed. “Never needed a boarding house.”

“Let your first rule be to understand those outside of your realm,” she said, forcefully. That was a quote from a god, I was sure, but I had no idea which one. It didn’t sound like Andrena.

The parlor turned out to be a beautifully turned-out room next to a roaring fireplace. We were set down in plush chairs my mother would have been jealous of, given various teacups, and even offered biscuits. Duran took three before our hostess took the plate away. He ate all of them at once.

I watched him cough before I placed my own at the edge of the plate. It had been a long time since I’d used my proper manners, but it seemed I might actually need them here. I tried to focus on my posture.

Above the mantlepiece, there was an altar hung. Not the bee of Andrena, or a single creature for any of the major gods. Instead, it had hundreds of creatures, small and large, predator and prey- some flying, some walking- spilling out of a woven cornucopia.

An alter to the small gods.

I stared at the hostess again. She was quite beautiful, I realized, in a classical way. If you forgot she was twice the size of anyone I’d ever met. She ignored my gaze, drinking her own tea with perfect manners.

She worshipped the small gods. Not many people did that- not exclusively. This was turning out to be a very strange place, after all.

“What’s wrong?” said Candida, and I realized I’d gotten completely distracted, again. “Now that we’ve all had our tea.”

She wasn’t drinking anything. Her hands were on the teacup, and they were shaking. She was in her twenties, my initial assessment correct. Her hair was pale, drawn back into a neat bun. She wore a simple linen robe, matching the other priestesses. She’d gone so pale that all of her could have matched that robe. Hair, face, robe; she was nothing but a little piece of parchment, falling back into the chair.

Her eyes, though, they were bright. They pierced into Apis, dark and angry. “I thought we had increased security! I thought we’d promised it would never happen again!”

“No-“ he tried. “It’s not-”

“After everything that happened- the temple of Small Gods was so accommodating, and we-”

“There was no second fire!”

She pressed her lips together into a single straight line. Color was returning back to her face now, flushing dark into her cheeks.

No one spoke for a long moment. I cleared my throat. Duran was still trying to chew the massive bite of biscuit he’d taken. “We’re here to investigate the first burning,” I said. “We don’t think the crime was investigated correctly. Would you- you look a bit peaky. Maybe a drink of tea?”

She looked so angry I thought she might storm away. Perhaps what she needed was something to calm her down.

“I don’t need tea.”

I lifted my own cup up and sniffed at it. “It’s a very nice brew,” I said. “Smells like it was imported.”

“Very nice.” The hostess nodded approvingly. “Far west. Accented with-”

“Clove? Strange, but it goes well.”

Defusing the situation wasn’t working. I cleared my throat.

“I just want to know what you saw, that night. Don’t you think Andrena deserves justice?”

She turned to stare at Apis. “You’re going along with this?”

He nodded once.

“I’ve never seen this woman before,” she continued. “For all you know, she could be involved with it.”

“She’s not.” He took another drink of tea. “She’s-”

“A concerned citizen,” I corrected, before he could admit it. “I care about Andrena very much. The other priestesses approved my investigation.”

I could hear the hostess shift slightly forward, staring at me.

“Really?” Candida turned to Apis again. “What did Lucia actually say?”

“She wanted to know her opinion on sweet pickles.”

The silence was longer this time. Duran finally swallowed and grabbed for the water, swallowing heavily.

Candida took a sip of her own tea, then leaned back, sighing. “Fine,” she said. “But for the record- I don’t think you should be involved.”

“Someone has to do it!” Apis put his teacup down, staring over at her earnestly. He’d taken the chair as far away from the hostess as he could, which meant he had to lean across me to stare at Candida. It made me feel like a bit of a third wheel. “After all-”

“You aren’t going to get a brewer’s license if you go around interfering with the law,” said Candida. “But what do I know! I’m just the one trying to help you. Go on and ruin your life if you want to.”

“I was never going to get a license. The money…” Apis stopped talking. “Anyway. We had questions.”

“Well?”

“I just want to hear your account,” I said. “Of the night it happened. You were the one there, yes?”

“Me and a dozen other people,” snorted Candida. I could still see her getting invested, the flames in the fireplace flickering across her face. The flush was receding now, her pale brow furrowing. A piece of hair had come free, falling down across her cheek.

“It was the middle of the week,” she said. “Not a big night for our temple. People come for our end-of-week fertility seminars, and they make appointments with specific priestesses all day, but that night nothing really was going on. I had a meditation and breathing exercise class going on for women approaching childbirth- I’m sure you’re familiar- but not many people were attending.”

“I’m not familiar,” I said. Why did everyone think I was Duran’s mother? He looked nothing like me.

“Oh.” She paused. “Well, it’s not like we can actually help with- any of that. It’s mostly just, mental.” She tapped her head. “It’s scary. I help them calm themselves. Trust in the goddess.”

“The goddess can help?” That didn’t sound like it fell under Andrena’s purview. Not really.

“Oh, no,” she said. “But it makes people feel better if they think it does. Anyway, I was midway through coaching the meditation when I saw a boy wandering through the temple. I stood up to shoo him away- some of the women get anxious, you know, and I thought he was interfering- when I saw he was with the postal service.”

“Was anyone else there?”

“Just the Voice,” she said. “She-“ Candida’s voice half-cracked, and she pressed her lips tighter together. “She always prayed late. She spent that day helping out the Temple of Small Gods- she was always so helpful to them- and ended up showing up even later than usual. It was just me and her.”

“What happened, then?”

“Well, I went to say it was a closed event, but I realized it wasn’t a boy when I got closer,” she said. “It was a young woman. I thought maybe she was there for the event, but-” She made a vague gesture.

“So she wasn’t-”

She shook her head. “It wasn’t the right event for her,” she said. “And they do have lettergirls. I told her to deliver her letter right away. She had a partner, too. I told both of them to leave right away. All I remember is that she was pretty. I couldn't catch specific features on her partner. All I remember is her eyes. They were light. Not many eyes like that, around here. They might have been green, maybe blue. Something strange.” Her finger traced the rim of the teacup. "The guardsmen didn't much like that description."

“Did they leave?”

Candida looked away. “I don’t know. After that, it all moved so quickly. I sat back down, started the next meditation, and then… everything was burning.”

A clock chimed. Our hostess stood up. “Curfew,” she said. “Please place your dishes upon the table. Thank you for visiting.”

We didn’t even have the chance to bid Candida good-bye. She stood up and turned away, walking up a flight of stairs quickly enough to nearly be running. I let myself be ushered outside, watching the building as I walked.

There had been no mention of letter-girls on the Infamy.

“Is the Temple of Small Gods open late?”

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