After a year of siege, Padima had lost her squeamishness about grinding insects into the morning bread. When a small, bluewinged beetle wiggled its way to the top of the barley bin, she almost ignored it—until she saw the way it skittered when Jari, her assistant, tossed it onto her millstone.
“Get me a ladle!” Padima snapped, lunging toward the stone. The grain stores were already contaminated, but she could save the rest of the food if she caught the beetle in time.
The boy looked confused, which was often the drawback of working with initiates, but all the other priests had fled—or died. “But nin-Padima, you said we can’t afford to waste the protein.”
Just once, she wished Jari would do as he was told without needing an explanation. Or that he’d memorized the Gardener’s scriptures like every other halfway competent initiate. “We can’t have half the garrison soldiers dripping incubated rove beetle venom onto the city walls either.”
Padima all but ripped the long-handled silver ladle from Jari’s shocked grasp. She swept the millstone with the ladle spoon, but the beetle was too fast and skittered onto the floor—toward the exposed toes of Jari’s sandals.
“No!” Padima shouted, but Jari flinched back and stomped reflexively.
Noxious ichor squirted out of the creature’s chitinous exoskeleton, etching a hole in the ceramic tile floor of the Temple sanctum. Jari screamed as the ichor ate through the sole of his sandal and blistered the bottom of his foot. Padima forced herself to ignore the mageborn toxins eating their way toward the bean stores and helped her initiate to a chair.
“Don’t look.” Padima removed the heavy damask of her outer robes and wrapped the linen around her hands. Only then did she remove the boy’s oxhide sandals and reach for one of the carefully rationed lemons hanging from a basket overhead. She channeled the last speck of the Gardener’s divine power she'd been hoarding into the fruit. A miraculously few seconds later, it was rehydrated enough for her to squeeze the citrus juice onto Jari’s scarlet slab of separated skin.
The blisters didn’t get any better–but at least they stopped getting worse. Padima handed Jari the mangled lemon slice. “Hold this against your foot if you want to keep it.” He obeyed, and she leapt over the contaminated grain scattered across the floor in her rush to inspect the storage bin.
“What are we going to do, nin-Padima?” Jari whispered, staring in horror as she carefully pulled three more rove beetles from the barley bin. “The city will starve if we can’t use that grain.”
“We’re going to make lemon-barley pilaf and hope the siege breaks soon,” Padima said grimly, but there was no other choice. Lemons were the only way she knew to neutralize the toxins, and even if it meant risking a bloody-gums epidemic, they couldn’t afford to lose so much barley.
Not when they'd already lost so much to the clever tricks of Keldehssi mages.
Beetle Siege is about a priestess defending the food stores for her city during a siege. The practical role played by ancient priests is a bit of a soapbox of mine, although temples & churches aren't the only organizations in history that have done important work redistributing surplus food to people in need. Storing excess in times of plenty to prepare for times of famine is a critically important role governments play and in many cases — for example, ancient Mesopotamia — the line between "religion" and "government" is a lot blurrier than we like to admit.
Civilizations, by definition, involve social hierarchy and complex government. Complex governments require some system whereby producers provide governors with resources, so they are freed up to accomplish something other than subsistence farming. The whole point of job specialization is to let some people focus on efficiently ensuring a food supply, while other people craft helpful tools and organize the resulting complexity.
Incidentally, a food surplus doesn't always result in civilization. Some societies just ritually burn their surplus food, sharing it with the gods or giving it away to less fortunate neighbors & distant relations. When there are food shortages, due to drought for example, ceremonial activities become limited and food sharing is reduced as people narrow the scope of who they consider kin.
But I digress.
There are two main ways governments can get excess resources under their control. The first is a tithe, i.e. taking a portion of a citizen's crop yield, or a percentage of their trade profits. The second is through corvée, or state control of the labor force, for example working for a certain number of days on land owned by the government or political official (which is probably how the Egyptian pyramids were built), or spending time during a certain age range doing public infrastructure work (or, you know, fighting wars).
Direct taxation as practiced by the Maya and Aztecs is a lot cheaper, because it requires a much smaller bureaucracy to manage. The Inca, however, were more autocratic, choosing to exercise state control over even the markets. The Incan mit'a system of mandatory public service allowed for organized road-building and other public infrastructure projects that, given the mountainous geography, needed more centralized planning.
Agricultural surplus isn't just a handy way of showing off one's wealth, or of paying specialized workers. A major reason for governments to preserve and store excess food is to redistribute it in times of economic stress. During periods of famine, Mesoamerican community stores would be opened up and food distributed to the needy. Aside from ethical and humanitarian concerns, providing citizens in need with free food from the government stockpile did necessary work to keep the labor force alive.
Just like Padmina is trying to do.
- The "bloody gums epidemic" referenced in Beetle Siege refers to scurvy, which I did a bunch of research for: the difficulty of inventing a carnivorous diet that can lead to scurvy.
- For more information about the research basis for the magic beetle toxins referenced in this story, check out toxic beetles, weird pets, and unusual foods.
- My article Five Unconventional Economic Systems as Imagined in SFF expands on the Incan mit'a labor collective and shows how other fiction handles unusual economic systems.
- The main source of information and insight for this analysis came from Domestic Storage Behavior in Mesoamerica: An Enthnoarcheological approach (1989). Normally, I try to read up-to-date research instead of spending time on articles almost as old as I am, but this one was a fascinating overview of a topic near and dear to my heart and I have no regrets.
Note: There are a couple of affiliate links & codes scattered around, but these always come from links I was already recommending and usually I share them because they benefit you too (i.e. getting you extra time on trials).