Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I cleared my throat to center myself and knocked on the door. “Jade? Are you in there?”
The laughter inside halted, followed by the sounds of frantic scurrying.
“We just need to talk,” I said to the closed wooden door. “When you’re decent, I’d appreciate it if you’d come out.” And then I stepped back.
After a couple more moments of shuffling, Jade finally emerged from the sauna, one towel wrapped tightly around her body and another spiraling around her hair. She looked flushed, and not just from the steam. With how her eyes wouldn’t leave the ground and her legs had reverted to her smoky bronze snake tail, she looked embarrassed enough to melt right there.
Hasda, however, stayed inside.
I sighed. “Hasda, I know you’re in there, and this isn’t the worst thing I’ve walked in on you doing.”
His sandy hair poked around the left edge of the door, followed by his eyes. “I can explain.”
“I’m sure you can,” I said, folding my arms. “But it’ll have to wait, because Jade and I have some things to discuss first, and you have a feast to prepare for.”
“What’s there to prepare for?” His eyebrows pinched.
I gave him a look. “Your Second Trial. Which, I might add, you should have been training for in my absence.”
He ducked back inside. “Sorry. I’ve been…”
I didn’t need to see his ears to sense the heat rising on the tips of his ears. He’d never been a blusher, but that had always been a dead giveaway.
“Look, I get it. You’re young, prime of your life, yada yada. We’ll have that talk later.” I kept my eyes on the doorway to lessen how mortified Jade already felt, because she looked like her body hadn’t decided if puking or fainting was the correct response. “Head on back to Maas Bierg and see if Malia’s back. If she’s not, find Phaeus and have him give your armor a once-over.”
“Yes, sir.” Hasda slunk out of the sauna with his towel around his waist, doing his best to stare resolutely at the horizon as he shuffled past us with ears like dying sunsets. And I had to give them credit, all the...marks were on his shoulders, where they’d be covered by his robes.
I shook my head. His first romance, and he was already in deep. The thought gave me pause. I guess he’d had several weeks to spend with Jade already, hadn’t he? There’d been plenty of time for them to blossom while we were away. Or had it been months? I’d already fallen back on my usual disregard of the shorter mortal timespans. I’d had to care while Hasda was young, of course, but that’d been only a drop in my bucket of centuries.
I only realized I’d started drifting off, reminiscing, when Jade exploded into a frenzy of apologies and excuses.
“I’m so sorry. Please don’t be mad. Are you mad? Oh, I hope not. We didn’t mean to offend you or disrespect your authority, Tarrha talked to me and she said it was okay because I wasn’t sure it was. Hasda thought it was, too, though, and he’s really sweet. And handsome. And thoughtful. But we didn’t—”
“Jade.” I held up a hand to stop the verbal torrent. It’d been a while since we’d interacted, and she seemed to want to make up for the lost words in a single breath. “That’s not—I’m not mad, no.”
“You’re not?” Her eyes shone hopefully, although she still jittered with nerves.
I frowned. “No, but we do need to talk.”
“About what?” She had her hands clutched in front of her, and she picked at the edge of the towel.
“About what’s in your mines.”
The color drained from her face, and she went unnaturally still. She visibly shivered from her heart skipping a beat.
“Hey.” I held out my hand awkwardly. If she guarded what I suspected she did, she had every right to be terrified of this line of questioning. But I wanted to help ease her panic and had no clue how. “It’s okay.”
She started shaking. “Are you...are you going to send me back?”
Bewilderment spilled across my face. “Back to where?”
“To the Paedens,” she whispered.
“Okay, stop.” I held her shoulders and made her meet my eyes. “We’re not throwing you out of the pantheon, regardless of your past. Or, present, I guess. But Malia and I just dealt with an elder goddess in Aenea, and we have some gaps in our knowledge that you might be able to fill in.”
If I thought she was pale before, that had nothing on the pallor her face took on at the mention of the Sea Mother. “She’s awake?”
“This is bad. This is bad. This is really bad.” She tried to jerk out of my arms, but it was a panicked, thoughtless act. I held her firm as her breathing skyrocketed. “I have to go.”
“Look at me.” I waited until she calmed enough to do so. “Let’s play a game, hot and cold. I tell you what we already know and what I think, and you tell me if I’m close, okay?”
Jade bit her lip and nodded, looking like a rabbit ready to bolt.
“The Paedens bound the Sea Mother when they established their pantheon.” I kept my tone measured and slow, trying to project calm. “While she’s been bound a long time, that doesn’t explain why she’s stuck in the astral realm. I think she’s lost whatever physical anchor she had, and she won’t be able to interfere in the mortal realm until she builds or steals a new one. It has to be a physical anchor, because she said she reclaimed the souls she wanted from Aenean soil, yet she’s still stuck. Am I close?”
Jade nodded but said nothing.
“There was a minor goddess, Lazuli.” Jade flinched back, and I kept my grip steady but firm. “I couldn’t shake the feeling that you two were related, despite your obvious differences. Now,” I leaned down, trying to do less towering and more talking, “you’re both named after minerals. If I went back to Aenea, I’d find lazuli mines, correct?”
“Yes,” Jade breathed, her voice almost gone from the strain her panic was putting on her.
“And you’re both jailors. Or guardians, if you prefer.”
I could feel the threads singing in my mind as the dots connected, like a weaver’s loom nearly finished with its tapestry. “The Paedens were able to bind Tamiyat because she was heartbroken, because her mate had been brought down. They were both sealed away in the earth, weren’t they?”
“Yes, yes, yes!” Eyes squeezed tight, she thrashed as shivers racked her body.
It was all I could do to hold her. I wasn’t trying to hurt her, but I was definitely doing a piss-poor job of questioning her lightly. Maybe I could have waited for Malia, and maybe she would have laid the girl out if she thought she’d slept on revealing such a threat. Because I knew, from Jade’s face, that she hadn’t told Malia—hadn’t told anyone—what she guarded. Oh, she’d mentioned there being a powerful, elder “demon” during Hasda’s First Trial, but a vanquished demon was a far cry from the fallen head of one’s primordial pantheon.
“Jade, I need you to calm down. Breathe.” Although it put me off balance, I kneeled to try putting her more at ease. I still didn’t let go, though, because she really would split if I let go. And it’d be better to get it all over with at once than force her to go through this again to get the final answer. “Now, I think, but I need you to tell me for certain, that I know who’s in the deepest, darkest shafts of your mines. But I need you to answer honestly. Who is bound in your mines?”
Sobs burst forth, shaking her like reeds in a storm. “Please,” she hiccuped through cries, “I don’t...I can’t...”
“All I need is a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” I said, trying to keep my voice gentle. “Is it Tamiyat’s—”
“Don’t!” She nearly threw herself on the ground, wrenching away from me. Breath hitching, she collapsed on her knees and hugged her sides. “Don’t raise his memory. Please.”
“I need to know what we’re up against.” I couldn’t keep from giving a tired sigh as I sank down next to her. “And how likely he is to escape, if Tamiyat attempts to free him.”
“You don’t understand.” Jade looked up, eyes intense, then dropped her gaze again. Her voice barely lifted above a hushed whisper, so I barely caught her next words. “There’s a reason he’s not remembered.”
I frowned. Malia had threatened Tamiyat with erasure from all cultural consciousness. If a god ever fell that far out of memory, it would be nearly impossible for them, in any form, to be resurrected. Even a couple centuries often led to some strange bastardization, if a dead god were revived. Maybe someone had done the same to Tamiyat’s mate.
But if they had, then we were walking a very fine line. The harder we resisted his release, the more we strengthened the possibility of his return. So long as he stayed out of mortal thoughts, we should be able to contain him if he escaped, but if he found new worshippers...well, you could build a monarchy with how royally screwed we’d be.