Chapter 18:

Small Gods

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess


A cloak, the color of dusk- barely gray, slightly orange like the setting sun had barely tinged it with color. At the edges, burned. Only long enough to cover the upper shoulders. A tunic. Light linen. Good fabric. I pressed it between my fingers. Burned, too. Easily. It smelled ever-slightly of grease.

A cosmetic product? Or something else?

I held the tunic up to my eyes, turned it back and forth. I couldn’t see anything except for the soot clinging on the edges, the spots where embers had jumped up and burned holes in the cloth. I pulled it out and glanced at it.

It was large, that was true. Not large for an adult, but for a letterboy…

It could have held a young woman. She would have to be slender. I tried to assess the width of the arms, the length of the torso. It would be too short, if she had anything up top. It might reveal part of her back and torso unless she had a shift underneath.

“This is standard for a letterboy?” I turned to Apis. It had been years since I was in the capital. Long enough for small details, uniforms, to change.

His brow furrowed in concentration. He picked up a shoe and rotated it. Water still squished out from under his hands at any application of pressure. “Yes,” he said, eventually. “There’s a name inscribed in this one. Or- initials, at least.”

I leaned in to peer at it. Sure enough. Two letters. I couldn’t quite make them out, as swollen from the water as the leather was. I pulled down the tunic and inspected it everywhere I could think of from a similar marking. Did the letterboys get their uniforms cleaned at a single location?

There. Inside the neck. Someone had marked L.L. inside the neck.

“Know any letterboys by those initials?” I said.

Apis frowned back at me. “She said there was a young woman wearing it.”

“Sorry. Lettergirls.”

“No,” he said. “I mean- do we know that a letterboy was wearing this at all?”

He flattened his hand on the pieces of the uniform I hadn’t touched, the neatly folded breeches. The waistband was scorched as well. “Why would both the waistband and the bottom of the tunic be scorched? They should overlap. Whoever was wearing this, it didn’t fit correctly.”

The door to the other room in the apartment creaked open, Duran stumbling out and muttering sleepily. I ignored him for the moment and turned back to Apis. In the morning light, his face was illuminated in concentration, his brow furrowed.

“So you think someone was- what, paid off?” I traced the letters again. Who labelled their clothing? “Do you know where the letterboys congregate?”

“No,” said Apis. “But the Small Gods might.”

~*~

The Temple of Small Gods was all the way over in Northside. Apis’s friend had apparently requested his mare back, so we had to go by foot. It was most of a day’s walk, the city bustling with activity for Flight’s Feast. I had to endure Duran’s excitement the entire way. He nearly bounced off of the cobbles, going from stall to stall.

Eventually, I broke. At the third stall, I relented and paid for him to get a honey-sweet root candy. As we walked, Apis leaned over. “Excellent choice,” he said, under his breath.

I chewed on my own candy. “This is just for the boy,” I replied. “It helps his learning.”

I swallowed. The candied root was my favorite. They hadn’t added enough spice to this one, though.

Apis chewed on his own. “I can tell.”

I shot him an accusing look, but he’d already resumed his casual amble. We were out of most of the crowd now, passing over the footbridge to the Central district. To our left, I could see the more dangerous alleyways and narrow passages of the darker parts of the harbor. That was where all of the more seedy types anchored in port; the ones that didn’t need deep water.

I reached out and pressed my hand to Duran’s shoulder, pushing him a little further to the East. The last thing we needed today was a fight with pirates. We’d brought the sword again, and a weapon like that could give all sorts of people bad ideas.

In the Central District, people were still clearly crowding into the city for the festival; here, people were permitted to camp in alleyways for extra housing as pilgrims for the festival. They had set up cheerful little encampments, pods of tents that were little more than waxed canvas stretched between alleyways with a cook-fire and a few bright flags to show they were friendly. Others, as we got closer to the bridge to Northside, were more elaborate.

In the square where a building once was, a man that must have been a district noble had set up with an entire entourage. His tent was set up on a built wooden plinth, and a juggler was outside, burping gouts of flame. Duran stopped to stare, and it was only a poke in the back with the stick from the honey that got him going again.

“What did he eat to get that going, do you think?”

“Grease, I must think,” said Apis. “But don’t repeat it. Andrena frowns upon those who risk for no reward.”

“Cabellus would love it, if you’re still considering it.” I shot Apis a smug look, and then remembered who I was speaking over. “If you’re going to steal someone’s cooking grease, though, don’t take mine.”

“I would never!” Duran coughed. “I remember the pan.”

There was a temple in this district, I thought, but it was somewhere in the edgeways where the City started to get dangerous and less-settled. Here, where the buildings were well-maintained and the guard’s sigil shone on every other corner, the symbols of the gods were shockingly well distributed. Mostly the beetle, yes, but there were bees, squids and bears, many horses, and even a few sheaths of wheat and overflowing cornucopias. This was a district that was playing their bets.

Finally we reached the bridge over the Sometimes.

Today it was a hopeful trickle. I stared down, watching the water wind in between the few coins that had been thrown down- mostly bronze, though a few silver still hadn’t been scavenged this early in the day- before stepping along.

Northside awaited.

Here was another part of the city I had rarely entered in my previous life. It stank higher than the other parts, was more densely packed. The buildings were twice as close and twice as high. I saw more people, bustling around, but they weren’t decorated in shining wings for the festival. They had heads down and dark clothes on, moving fast.

The Temple was in the southern part of the district. I found myself surprised, gazing up at it.

It was unremarkable. It looked more like a run-down home than anything that was meant to host dozens of gods. The cornucopia hung over it, and two buckets hung to either side of the door. A single stick balanced them over the entry. They were meant to hold gold, but as I entered, I peered in to see both were empty.

“It’s been a rough year,” Apis said.

We didn’t knock. He only pushed open the door, and we entered. Inside, an old man sat. He leaned back in a rocking chair, underneath a round window. He was reading a large book, glasses pushed to the end of his nose.

There was no one else inside. He seemed perfectly content in the silence. It went against everything I expected of gods- but then, wasn’t that what small gods were? They weren’t even included in most temples.

As we entered, the man looked up, eyebrows raised. “Ah!”

He closed the book and leaned forward. “I’m afraid we’re closed.”

“For the day?” Apis looked behind him. “It said nothing. The door was open.” He coughed. “I apologize, of course, Priest..”

“Oh, I’m not a priest.” The man smiled mildly. “I’m not anything, really. I just clean here.” He gestured vaguely. “And I meant what I said. There’s nothing for you to see here. The temple’s done with. Permanently.”

Apis was the first to say what I was thinking, which was, of course, “Well- what are you doing here?”

“Here to scare off all the visitors,” said the old man. He was surprisingly genial for his task. He hadn’t taken his hands off of the book, still smiling mildly. “Besides, I’m the caretaker for this old house. Someone has to keep an eye on it.”

“Is this just about the feast?” Said Duran. “Are you watching it while they’re at the Spire?”

I glanced at Duran in surprise. It was an unexpectedly astute observation from him.

The old man shook his head. “It’s been desecrated,” he said. His hand rose, shaking, and pointed to the back of the room.

Where the altar should have been, surrounded by all of the holy objects, there was only ash.

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