|Clara Peeters - Still Life with Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels|
Cheese. Cheese is made from milk. There’s all kinds of cheese you can make. There is hard cheese, there is soft cheese, there is cow cheese, there is goat cheese, and of course, there is god cheese.
Curdle is a city made from cheese. At least the core is. The old city. The rest only sort of looks like cheese, all flat blocky structures of yellow-orange stone, algae crusted into the streets and creeping up the walls when the baths flood.
It's laid out like a fan: the old city at the top of a hill, the Exarchs' observatory and cenobium, the garrison (and beneath all that, the tunnels stretch and the wellspring flows), then spreading out and down the hill like ribs are the waterfalls, the healing baths in increasing dilution, and up the hill climb the aqueducts bringing in water from the mountains. Nestled between those ribs are the resorts, the sanitariums, the dance-halls, delight after delight. At the bottom is a great wide drainage basin, a soggy slum for all the menial sorts who keep the baths comfortable, where the poor pilgrims wash themselves and pray to a god who no longer answers.
An aside - The Exarchate could be called a religion, it could be called a church, but never a faith. The archons have no need for faith. Look to the sky! The mangled runt of their litter is called the Sun by the ignorant and impious. By obedience alone does humanity make itself of use to the archons, make itself worth raising above the other beasts.
So: Curdle is a city made from cheese. That cheese is a god's cheese. That god was a powerful god, a mother of mountains and monsters, who nursed heroes, birthed pantheons, and devoured civilizations. That god became an annoyance for the archons, and so they struck her down in an instant.
But gods don't die like mortals do. You can stone a prophet, you can martyr a saint, you can't kill a god.
Beneath Curdle's old city is a maze. The maze is also made from cheese. It gets softer the deeper you go, less aged, less dried. There's milk in there too. Pockets here and there, a lake vast and white if you get deep enough. It was once much larger. All of Curdle is drawn from that lake, from the coagulated bricks to the healing baths. That is Curdle's true purpose. You can't kill a god, but you can transform one, neutralize one.
The work is slow, and dangerous. Only a small slice of the maze is under the Exarchate's control. The pure, undiluted milk carries the wrath of a deposed god. Those who drink from it are transformed in body and mind. The flesh remembers antediluvian shapes. They become the Unweaned. Giant fetal mouse swarms are a big problem down there.
The maze beneath Curdle is also used by the Exarchate to store people and things too risky to let loose or destroy, because excavating labyrinthine underground facilities is expensive and they have performance metrics to meet.
So: the most visible business in Curdle is international diplomacy, espionage, conspiracy. Wealthy, influential people come from all over to partake of the baths and adjoining pleasures. It makes a convenient excuse to meet for under-the-table dealings. Most believe there's nothing to the city beyond that. This may soon change.
The leader of the Exarchate in Curdle is ambitious, ruthless, incautious, a swift riser in the ranks. Cernuiceph Praecipuria intends to accelerate the timetable of the god-neutralization project, completing it in centuries rather than millennia. For this she needs outside, deniable, and disposable help to go into the maze and turn forbidden weapons against the Unweaned and their maker. There is a real risk of either or both breaking out into the city above.
Unknown to the Exarchate, the cult of the deposed god was not entirely broken, and has not remained idle. They've gathered knowledge, instruments, supporters, and set up laboratories in Curdle's slum. Their plan is to distill the divine dregs out of the water dumped from the baths. They will use it to create an army of the Unweaned, and bring about the rebirth of their god.