The next morning, Hugh and Theoson returned to see the Sibyl, and they were greeted at the gate by several priests.
“You’re free to come in,” said one standing in front of the other priests, who was rather young compared to the others. “You are even free to have a reading done by the Sibyl. However, this much I can tell you with certainty: the answers you seek are not here. We consulted her last night so that we might have an answer for you, but there are no answers. I feel obliged to tell you this, not because we wish to turn you away, but because your time could be more effectively used finding what you are looking for elsewhere.”
“Where should I look?” asked Hugh.
“The world is full of answers,” the priest replied. “And in time, all of them will come to you. There is nothing she can tell you that patience will not reveal.”
Hugh frowned and nodded. He walked with Theoson back into town.
“Well… that was a waste of time,” said Hugh. “We could have been back in Polity by now.”
“Naw, the return journey is much longer,” said Theoson. “There are no favorable winds or currents headed back that way, so what we have to do is travel along the coast for a few days, go past Polity, then when we have the winds and current at our back, we sail for home. There’s a lot of fine cities we stop in along the way, it will be an opportunity for you to see more of how people live.”
Hugh stopped walking and turned to Theoson. “How long will the return journey take?”
“Five, maybe six days, depending upon the weather.”
Hugh sighed and continued walking towards town. They already had with them everything they brought (Theoson always carried all that he owned), so they made their way for the docks. They paid for passage on a ship transporting dirt.
“What is that for?” asked Hugh, observing the scores of enormous jars packed full of soil.
“The Ruby Isles.” The sailor picked up another jar. Hugh lifted one in each hand and brought it on board. Theoson followed Hugh.
“They don’t have any dirt there that wasn’t brought in,” said Theoson. “And it’s always being washed away by the heavy rains, so they need a constant supply of more if they want to grow anything.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to import food?” Hugh asked.
“They do import all of their food, but there’s a flower that grows there that does not grow anywhere else. It’s used to make a powder that eases pain. They produce tons of the stuff, and it’s only made from a tiny part of the flower.”
Hugh took off his satchel and helped the sailors load the cargo. Sailors manned the oars to get them into deeper waters, then the sails were hoisted and set. They sailed off along the coast.
“There are pirates all through these seas,” said Theoson. “The Politian navy has been under funded because of the war, so enforcement has decreased. There’re more pirates in these waters than ever, so we’ll be sailing within sight of the shore until we absolutely have to go into deeper waters.”
“I imagine pirates would be pretty upset to get a ship full of dirt,” said Hugh.
“They’d probably aim to hit us after we stop at the Ruby Isles, and in either case, they would sell us into slavery and make a tidy profit, especially for a big guy like you.”
They sailed into the night, and Hugh slept in a small stable beneath the deck, the ground covered in hay, a stall usually reserved for cattle. It was the only place that could accommodate him.
He woke up to the gentle rocking of the boat sitting in harbor. He went up on deck and saw a bustling city and sand… flat sand as far as the eye could see in every direction around the city limits. Hugh asked one of the sailors how long they would be docked, and he replied that they would sail after lunch.
He went into the city, getting several looks from people along the way. He found a cart selling fruit and bought several of them, putting them into his satchel. As he walked through the city, he took large bites from it, the juice running down the sides of his mouth.
He came to a small grassy square where people were packed in tightly to see something. There was a man in the middle of the green who was suspended in the air somehow. As Hugh looked around, he realized his each of his arms and legs were tied to ropes, which were being pulled by horses. The man was screaming in pain.
One of his arms slowly ripped out of the socket, then the other popped off. His legs continued to be pulled apart until one of his knees was slowly torn apart. The crowd cheered.
“What’s going on?” Hugh asked someone near him.
“Pirate,” they said between shouts.
The man was dragged through the streets by his remaining leg, leaving a smeared and uneven trail of blood behind him. Hugh left before the next man struggling for his life was tied to four more horses.
He continued to meander through the streets and came to a large temple. It was an enormous domed structure without any walls, only a ring of columns supporting the roof. He walked inside and found that each column had a statue carved into its interior face.
“Eighty-one,” said a voice behind him. Hugh turned to see an old man holding a large bronze staff.
“There are eighty-one statues,” said the old man. “One for each of the Divas.”
“Oh, is that who these are?”
“Indeed,” he walked up to one of them. “This is Suty, the patron Diva of the city.”
“And what city is this?” asked Hugh.
The old man laughed. “Why, you’re in the city of Aleksia. Let me guess… you wandered off a boat and you plan to set sail shortly? Perhaps you’re on your way home from the Triumphants?”
Hugh smiled. “Good guess.”
“Well, you do still have your coach’s badge on. Let’s see… looks like Polity to me.”
Hugh touched the pin.
“So, how do you like the city?”
“It’s nice, though it’s only the third city I’ve ever seen,” said Hugh.
“I imagine,” he said. “Your kind are known for being quite reclusive.”
“Maybe it’s all the people calling us ‘your kind’ that scares us off.”
“I meant nothing by it,” said the old man. “I wouldn’t have thought someone so big could be so sensitive.”
“If I could have been born normal, I would have.”
The old man walked up to him. “You are normal, for what you are. If I went with you to a land full of… cyclopses?”
“Ahh. Well if we were in a world full of cyclopes, then I would be the weird one, and everyone would stop to stare at me as I walked by.”
“Where is such a place?” asked Hugh.
The old man shrugged. “If I knew, I certainly wouldn’t go.” He winked.
Hugh shook his head and smiled. “This is a lot of gods.”
“Oh, there are even more gods. These are just the Divas. If you wanted to include foreign gods… well, I don’t know if there’s enough columns in the city to represent each one.”
Hugh walked up to one that seemed familiar. The inscription beneath is read, “Dyas.” He began to realize something as he looked around. “Do they all have four-letter names?” he asked.
“Yes,” said the old man. “Don’t tell me you know nothing about the Divas? You couldn’t have lived in Polity for long.”
“I’ve never much cared for any of the Divas I’ve met, so I don’t pay much attention when people speak of them.”
The old man blinked several times, furrowed his brow, and let his jaw slack a bit. When he regained his composure, he asked, “And how many Divas have you met?”
Hugh took a deep breath and let it out slowly, looking off for a moment. “Oh… maybe six or seven, perhaps a one or two of them were the same, only in disguise, and a couple of them might not have been Divas.”
“So… somewhere between zero and seven?”
“No, definitely at least two,” said Hugh. “I’m pretty sure of two more, and three I saw recently may have been sent by Divas, but might not be Divas themselves.”
“Hmm,” the old man buzzed. “Well, you know, I never met a cyclops before today. Maybe it’s not unusual for your kind – I mean, for folks like you to interact directly with Divas.”
“You aren’t missing much,” said Hugh. “They’re vindictive bastards.”
The old man winced. “Come, let’s step outside. If we’re going to discuss matters of this nature, I would rather not have a hundred and sixty-two eyes staring at us.”
“They’re just statues,” said Hugh.
“Perhaps,” said the old man, turning to walk out. “But still, it makes me uncomfortable.”
They walked outside and took a seat near a fountain.
“Where do you get all the water?” asked Hugh.
“This may be a desert,” said the old man, “But the city was built upon a vast store of underground freshwater. We have wells and pressurized pumps bringing water into the city. Most of the nobility even have running water in their homes, and no home is more than a few blocks from fresh water.”
“Makes sense that someone would have decided to build a city here, then.”
The old man smiled. “No man was wise enough to build here. It was a Diva who led a ship off course, stranding the people here. He showed them how to live here, and the fact that we have flourished is solely thanks to him, Suty.”
Hugh thought for a moment. “You know… Divas are complex beings. They can be so cruel… like how Suty stranded those people here. There are few greater fears than being shipwrecked on some desolate shore. And yet, he showed kindness in showing them how to survive.”
“It was all part of his plan for them to be marooned here on this island. It is small and bleak, too far to swim to the main land, with seemingly no way of sustaining a village, much less a bustling city. Yet, Suty had plans for it, and he now has a great city which pays him homage.”
“What good are sacrifices and prayers to a Diva?” Hugh asked.
“You know…” the old man began, stroking his chin. “I suppose it wouldn’t much matter what people do for the Divas. They need nothing from us. Yet, we are grateful, and we want to show our gratitude somehow. At the very least, we want to keep their memory alive. We don’t want them to be forgotten.”
“They do desire something,” said Hugh as he shook his head. “They want attention. If you forget about them, they perform some grand gesture of their power and they make sure you know it was them. They’ll stab your loved ones in the back while they sleep and leave the dagger with their name inscribed on it.”
“Perhaps what you say is true,” he said. “I suppose I don’t know. But assuming you are correct… you ought to pay them more respect.”
“Oh, they don’t care what kind of attention they get,” Hugh said. “They just want to be remembered. If they’re remembered as assholes, they’re just as happy.”
“I wouldn’t chance it,” said the old man. “But then again, I’m not as big as you are. You’re probably invincible, huh.”
“Quite the contrary,” said Hugh. “I’m already dead.”
The old man stood up and walked in front of Hugh, stuck out his hand to shake, and asked, “And who is it that I have had the pleasure of conversing with?”
“My name’s Hugh.”
The old man gave Hugh a few firm shakes. He seemed stronger than he looked. “And I am Suty,” he said. The hand never withdrew from Hugh’s, it just seemed to melt away, and the old man and his staff blew away, leaving only sand and a heap of clothes.
To be continued…