Chapter 19:

Over-use of Cloves

Paladins of the Pickle Goddess


“Can they not re-consecrate it?” This time I spoke, walking further into the room even as Apis froze in horror. I heard Duran following me, his steps uneven.

The old man just rocked back and forth, back and forth. His salt-and-pepper hair shone strangely in the light from the window.

“Suppose they could,” he said. “I only follow orders. Orders were, close up the temple.” He made a vague, dismissive gesture. “If you had offerings, small gods are forgiving. I’d suggest giving at home.”

“We were hoping to speak to the Voices themselves.” I swallowed. “Were they- was anyone.”

“No. No one was hurt.” I stared at his hands as he rocked back and forth. What was he reading? I couldn’t make out the title. “Don’t know where they are, though. Some of them are at the Spine, no doubt. The others…”

He frowned. He stopped rocking as he did, reaching up to scratch at his chin. I tried not to be obvious about turning my head to read the title of the book.

Where Will the World Go?

I frowned. It was a children’s book. Read to small children, to help them learn to read. He didn’t have the illustrated version, but it was common- easy to copy, easy to distribute. Someone must have hand-written this copy.

“They were lodging at the tea-house on the upper side of the district, last I checked,” he finished. “Not that I’ve seen anyone lately. No one’s been eager to return here.”

“I see.” I glanced at Apis. He gave a faint nod.

“May we look at the altar?” said Duran.

The old man said nothing to reject us, so we all crowded around the ashes of the altar. They were fine-ground, pale gray and cold. It had clearly happened days ago. “When was it burned?”

“A week and a few days ago,” he said. “Wasn’t here when it went up. Everyone said it sparked up at an offering from the Voice of Celeres. One tiny flame, and it was gone. Once I got here, the Voice of Ludo was the only one remaining. He seemed shaken up himself, and I’ve never seen him with anything less than a smile on his face.”

Ludo. I squinted towards the altar. Who was Ludo?

“Games,” muttered Apis, from next to me. “Gambles, events of chance. One of the strongest Small Gods. If they left him here, it meant all of the rest were too afraid to take their chances. They thought they might be vulnerable.”

His hand clenched. I watched mine, on the wood only a finger-length away, and resisted the urge to extend it in comfort. The Voices had been right to worry. Only a few hours later, the Voice of a large god had been taken down as easily as this alter, and no power of Andrena’s had been able to stop it.

“What’s this?” Duran had pulled something out of the ashes. It was a piece of parchment, half-burned and torn.

I held up a hand to my lips. My pulse spiked in excitement. His hands, covered in ash, were an indicator of his guilt- but I wanted to read that letter. I had a feeling it was the letter Celeres had been sacrificing.

Trying to obscure the letter from the view of the old man, we all clustered around it and pried it open. The handwriting was spiky and difficult to read. It began with typical praises, for a bountiful month and for benefits beyond all reckoning.

It was the second part that interested me. I could only make out half of the words-

As has never been-

Bless us with-

Will need to-

I reached out, trying to un-curl the rest of it, and it crumbled away in my hands. I leaned back on my heels, restraining a growl of frustration, and finally stood to dust off my hands. Andrena, I could use some divine inspiration about now.

The air was thick with ash now, and I felt farther away than ever from our goal. “Did the Voice of Andrena come here often?” I said.

“Oh.” Said the caretaker. “No. I never saw her.” He indicated the doorway with a nod of his head.

“She said she was visiting you.” Apis folded his arms, standing up next to me. He looked almost nauseous, considering the Voice telling a lie. He should have been broken of such notions after a few hours with me.

“She might have been at the tea-house. Less prying eyes.”

The caretaker looked deliberately at my ash-covered body, to the remains of the alter. I coughed. “Yes. Of course.”

I may have fallen from what I once was, but I still was able to pick up a hint or two. After a few maneuvers, we were out on the street, squinting in the afternoon sun. “Have you heard anything of this tea-house?” I said.

“How many tea-houses can there possibly be?” Apis brushed himself off, too. The cloud of ash pushed halfway down the street. “I’m sure it will be fine.”

~*~

The first tea-house pushed us out as soon as they saw us enter.

“Not looking like that! We keep a proper establishment!”

The second tea-house was almost entirely workers, and as we pushed the doors open they all turned to look at us with sullen glares. We still proceeded to the counter, where I ordered a cup of their darkest spiced far-west tea they could manage. The woman gave it to me in a rough-hewn wooden cup with a glare and jerked her head towards the only empty table.

“We charge after the first half-hour,” she said.

I didn’t want to stay beyond the first five minutes. The tea was over-brewed and they had done the balance of spices all wrong. I gave it to Duran, who couldn’t tolerate it. He gave it to Apis, who pulled a jar of honey out from a sleeve somewhere and was still spooning it out from under his sleeve when the man from the table across from us turned in his seat to look at me.

“What do you want?”

“I’d like it if everyone could stop overwhelming their drinks with cloves,” I said, as a point-blank response.

I watched his face- he looked like the kind of crowd we got at the inn, although less a pilgrim and more of an industrial worker, probably a tanner by the looks of the stains on his hands- and decided that hadn’t been a politic answer. “I’m here for tea,” I revised.

“This is for working people,” he said. “We aren’t here for- for-”

Apis paused mid-sip. He put the cup down and turned around. “We’re here in service of Andrena,” he said, earnestly. I cast a glance up at the symbol of Ursus hung over the counter and grabbed at his shoulder.

“You know what,” I said, “I think we were just going. Thank you for your time.”

“You didn’t give them a chance!” he said as we left. “What if they were-”

“The Small Gods wouldn’t be in a place dedicated to Ursus,” I said. “He hates the small gods. Says it at every opportunity. Didn’t the last Bear’s Voice say he’d eat them?”

“How do you remember that, but not the names of any small gods?”

“It’s part of a menu,” I said.

The third tea-house was tucked in behind a laundry, the steam billowing over the sign and giving it all a rather mystical appeal. The actual shop-front was very small, even the door a step-down from the street. I squinted up at the sign to make sure, but yes, it was a tea-house; they had put it in the downstairs, with a brewing operation upstairs.

I stared dubiously at all of the kegs and pipes I could see. Didn’t brewing operations have explosions sometimes? I wasn’t sure I wanted to be underneath one of them.

“Well?”

I forced myself to push the door open and step down, past the slightly damp walls and into a nested basement of chairs.

This tea-house was nearly empty. A few older women chatted in one corner, their tea paired with a plate of a few biscuits. In another corner, a man and a younger woman sat a little too close to be polite as she fed him a piece of fruit.

In the center, around a great table, sat four people. A man with dark hair, his eyes low-lidded. He smoked a pipe indoors, the smoke winding around him. Next to him, a young woman- not even at her majority yet- tapping her foot unevenly, nervously, on the ground. An older man, stroking his beard, sat on the end. Then, writing a letter and otherwise ignoring the goings-on, a woman with hair plaited down her back and a long robe that would have fit in in any cleric’s hall.

The man with the pipe looked up and tapped out the ash, his face shrouded in smoke. “Say,” he said. “I like the look of that sword. Have a cup with us?”

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