Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
After the expansive astral plane, the calm familiarity of the fountain was a nice change. Lazuli had been frozen mid-shriek, much to Malia’s pleasure, and we’d headed to our maas after depositing the harpy among the other statues in Malia’s basement. Couriers had been sent to Hasda and Phaeus that training was ended and the lad should prepare to travel. Since this wasn’t an actual Trial, there’d be no announcements or celebratory feasts, which was fine by me.
Malia was almost back to full strength, but she’d strained herself petrifying Lazuli. So we rested by the fountain, Malia bathing her face with its healing waters, as we made our final preparations.
“Ready to tell me why I shouldn’t eat the pigeon now?” Malia said around a splash of water.
I chuckled and leaned back on the fountain stones. “Vehemence like that is hard to come by. It’d be a waste to just throw her away like that.”
Pausing her washing, Malia spread her fingers and scowled at me through them. “Seriously?”
“And…” I held up a finger to forestall any more reprimands. “The Sea Mother and her mate were bound in similar configurations. It’s very likely that Jade not only knows Lazuli, but they were once friends as well. Maybe Jade could help us, er, ‘de-fang’ her.”
Malia humphed. Water stained my robes as she poked me, not bothering to dry her hands. “This is why I give you all the strays.”
Smiling, I grabbed her hand and kissed the back of it. “And this is why I keep you from being needlessly wasteful.”
“Speaking of waste.” She brushed her knuckles against my jaw. “I don’t want to hear a word out of you about my next surprise.”
She had that mischievous gleam in her eyes again. I narrowed my own at her. “What did you do this time?”
Grinning, she splashed more water across her face. “Well, it wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you, now would it?”
I grunted and shoved off the stone. “Something more than getting Hasda a minor posting in the army before he’s able to lead?”
She hummed as she let her wings sag, exposing her shoulders. I set to work, massaging the knots out of her muscles, and she was practically purring in minutes. “Mmm, of course something else. Even if you didn’t know about it, that might surprise you, but it wouldn’t be your surprise.”
“Fair enough.” I didn’t press any further. Malia would never tell me what it was. If I could figure it out on my own, or discover it before the big reveal, that was fair game, but I’d never gotten her to crack. A smile slid across my face. Although I had pulled my own secrets over her during the centuries, the best one being my proposal to her. We’d been paired for a while, unofficially, but all the years of subterfuge and careful planning had paid off with the most priceless expression on her face when I’d popped the question. That had been centuries ago, and the memory still rewarded me with warm, fuzzy feelings.
“You’re thinking too loud,” Malia said. Eyes closed, she tilted her head to the side. “What?”
“Oh, just remembering that night on Carthia Major, all those years ago.”
“You were an absolute ass.” Her hair snakes hissed at me in mock annoyance.
“You still said yes.” I smiled.
“And a crazier decision I’ve never made since.” Her cheeks dimpled from her grin. “You’re lucky I didn’t raze the lot of them. I almost didn’t recognize that it was a mock invasion.”
“Was it the–”
“–‘the way the fires didn’t consume the city, or the chants praising the Gorgon Queen of Carthia?’” she said, echoing the words she’d heard dozens of times before. “No, dear. It was the sheer bafflement that you could’ve been so incompetent to let such a force that close to the main island.”
I kissed her ear. “I pulled the earth out from under you so completely, you couldn’t help but say yes.”
“Smug bastard.” She sighed happily and leaned back. “We do need to talk about Tingin.”
I kept massaging her shoulders. A particularly stubborn knot refused to budge. “What about it?”
She gave me a serious look over her shoulder. “There's a very real possibility that Jade is no longer in the region, and that we won't be able to recover her. The Sea Mother might not need her to free her mate. We also don't know whether Jade is the ‘best option’ or ‘only option.’ And if she’s the latter, the Paedens might off her rather than let Tamiyat take her.”
“I'm prepared for that.”
She gave a long, sad sigh. “Is Hasda?”
I frowned. “He's a smart lad.”
“But it might be a good idea to make sure he understands. He needs to keep his head about him during battle and let us worry about Jade.”
I nodded. “I'll talk to him on the way.”
A crack as a portal opened startled us. Sun-bleached hair frazzled, Phaeus stumbled into the maas ahead of a cloud of smoke. He gave an apologetic smile as we stared at him.
“Er, sorry to interrupt your…private time.” He brushed his hands on his worn, leather apron. “I need to talk to you about Hasda’s armor.”
“You can’t fix it?” I tried to keep rubbing Malia’s shoulders, but she shrugged out from under me to stare at the dwarf blacksmith. With nothing to occupy my hands, I folded my arms.
“Not quite.” He slid a ball-peen hammer from an apron pocket and slapped the peen against his palm in a slow rhythm. “That djinn of his, do you trust it?”
“Of course not,” Malia said, baring her fangs.
“I had a talk with it,” I added. “It’s confined to purely beneficial behavior, including not allowing harm by omission of aid.”
Phaeus blinked. “How did you manage that?”
I shrugged. “Like I said, we had a chat. Still, a healthy dose of skepticism where the djinn is involved.”
“Right, well.” The hammer went back to plapping against his thick hand. “Whatever material it used to bridge the tear, I’ve never seen before. It held up under my hand and seemed durable enough, so I left it well enough alone, but it’s started spreading.”
“How so?” Malia asked, her brow furrowing.
“Like a termite infestation.” Phaeus’ mouth twisted in disgust. “It’s eating its way through the core of the armor. Not quite hollowing it, because the plate rings with a two-tone that sings about the new metal inside the steel, but it doesn’t sit right with me.”
“Will it keep him safe?” I said.
Phaeus pursed his lips and smacked his hammer a little harder. “I think so. But unless I could carve a chunk of the djinn’s material out and run further tests, I won’t know its full limits.”
“Why don’t you?” Malia flicked her wings once, a hand on her chin.
“Because–” He winced as he hit his hand a little too hard. “For starters, I don’t want to compromise the armor’s integrity any more than it’s already been. The djinn’s stuff has held up well enough under duress, based on the sorry state you brought it back in, and I’m not sure I could take a piece out, even if I wanted to. It seems tied to the djinn itself, so there’s a chance carving into it could hurt the djinn and, by extension, Hasda.”
Malia and I had both been on the verge of suggesting he try anyway until he mentioned that last part. Her scowl mirrored my own.
“So,” she said, “the bad news is his armor is being changed from the inside out. What are the benefits? If the djinn is being genuinely helpful, and not simply acting in a way he convinced himself is good, then there has to be a reason why he’s modifying Hasda’s protective gear.”
“I can’t say for certain.” He pulled on a glove to cushion the increased agitation leaking through his hammer. “I’m hesitant to call it inferior celestial steel, because I’m certain it’s better than mortal metals and not as good as divine. But it’s never displayed any magical attributes or enhancing capabilities, even when the djinn came out.”
The burbling fountain served as a counterweight to the strain of my thoughts tugging at one another. My own observations during Hasda’s Second Trial concurred with Phaeus’ assessment. It had been the djinn that had empowered Hasda, and not the strange, fleshy metal that had faded from the ugly, scar-tissue purple to a pale lavender as the surface had smoothed. If the weaponsmith thought the structural integrity of the armor hadn’t been impaired, then it would still keep Hasda safe. I trusted Phaeus’ assessment more than the djinn’s coerced oath.
But that left us with the uncomfortable why. I’d never heard of a djinn absorbing or replacing its vessel like this, so unless this was a natural consequence of the djinn being forced to repair the armor it had bonded to, then the supplanting had intent behind it. Even if the djinn had told the truth, and he was wholly constrained to helping Hasda, I would still need to keep an eye on my boy during this next excursion. No reason to let him suffer because his armor suddenly failed.