Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
A few weeks of drinking ambrosia and toddering about my maas, and I finally felt up to attending a function. While the braces, Spear, and divine nectar helped me walk, I couldn’t shake a spot of coldness that had settled at the base of my spine. Malia said she wasn’t worried about it as her eyes said the opposite, and Phemonoe hadn’t determined its cause despite her best efforts. It didn’t seem to limit my range of motion or inhibit movement. After a few hours, it was little more than a numb void that I was coming to ignore.
As I plunked my way up the streets of Nebesa, I had a stab of empathy for Seppo. It’d been…a long time since his mother crippled him. He’d mostly recovered, as gods tend to do, but sometimes his limp came back. I wasn’t hobbling much. In fact, I had nearly reached the point where my Spear was for show as much as it was supporting me. Considering the damage the eldritch goddess had done, it would be a miracle if all I came away with was the ghost of the wound in my back.
The minor gods roaming the thoroughfare straightened at my passing. It was embarrassing how few of them I recognized. Before my retirement, I could’ve named at least half of them, but I’d yet to learn even a tenth since my return. Malia would know, but she’d disappeared over a week ago, so I made the trek alone. I might’ve asked Phe to keep me company, but it was her turn to watch the hydralings, and those crittons were the last things we needed at Hasda’s feast.
Mar might’ve had the poise to control herself, but she was still young. And her brother, Kas, well, he was an untameable devil. I’d already lost two robes and a bedsheet to his teething. And his incorrigibility was infectious. It was hard to tell whether it was exasperation on Mar’s part, or just trying to keep her brood mate out of trouble, but she ended up involved in most of Kas’ destructive escapades. Getting at least one useful hydra out of this whole affair would make all the lost sleep and cloth worth it, though.
When I entered the feasting hall, I found dryads hanging garlands of braided leaves, the foliage dripping with fall colors. The feasting table was bare, save a few sprigs of autumn wheat the dryads, or perhaps the satyrs, had sprinkled down its length. I settled into my seat, staying out of the way while I waited for the evening festivities to begin. While everyone likely already knew about the braces, it was still a good idea to project strength. With my legs still healing and rumors of Malia’s reinjury flitting along the celestial grapevine, the last thing I wanted was an immediate visual reminder of the aftermath of my fight presenting itself during my entrance. So, I arrived early to sit, rest, and settle my legs out of sight beneath the banquet table.
Satyrs joined the preparations, carrying trays laden with vegetables and meats of all varieties. Roasted gazelle, taken from the plains near Aenea, sat centerpiece and made a statement about our position in the land. Loutro had shifted from the God of Feasts to something we hadn’t quite defined yet when Thane assumed the role of Revelry. As Thane dealt more with the drinks and socializing, Loutro had taken to preparing the food and providing the foundation for the party. What he’d given Thane had been more an excess of his Office, duties he’d delegated almost to the point of negligence on his own part. Although the satyrs and the dryads weren’t technically his, with how often they served him they’d almost become the symbols of his Office.
As the first rays of orange streaked the sky, Thane slipped through a side door of the hall. He pulled up short when he saw me.
“Well, you’re here early.”
I grunted. “I could say the same to you.”
“I’ve new duties to perform, or haven’t you heard?” With a flourish, he manifested a silver platter filled with crystal goblets. “Ambrosia?”
“Once everyone’s arrived, perhaps.” I glanced at his flashy, pomegranate-colored robes. “New color?”
“For me, yes.” He vanished the tray with a flick of his wrist, replacing it with a golden drachma which he danced across his fingers. “Not exactly the best idea to show up to a party dressed in all black, eh?”
“And flashing that is?” I gave him a look. “That’s the one you won off Malia, isn’t it?”
He caught the coin and smiled at it. “Well, considering it’s the last bet she lost, I’d say so. She went on a rampage after you returned, and no one’s willing to put odds against her now. We’d have none left to circulate if we did.”
I nodded as he went back to spinning the drachma. “So you’ve adjusted well to your new position.”
“I have, but…” His eyes checked the entrances, his fingers spinning at a slower tempo. He stepped closer, his voice soft. “Charax, I…it’s not that I’m ungrateful.”
“Just spit it out.”
He caught the coin and stared at its face for a long moment. Finally, he said, “It feels haunted.”
I frowned. “The coin?”
Shaking his head, he laughed. “No, not that.” His eyes met mine. “It’s like…like I never stopped being the God of Death. The weight still follows, and taints everything. This feast?” He waved his hand towards the table. “As life gathers, it gives birth to a festival spirit. The spirit grows as the revelry progresses, blossoming into a chorus that celebrates the celebration that bore it. And then, it ages, slowing as the revelers ebb away, until it perishes.” Shrugging, he went back to spinning the coin. “I know I’m not much of a poet—Azoria’s always been better with literature—and maybe I’m just being overdramatic, but it feels like I’m witnessing another death at every event. A metaphysical one. And I can’t seem to change my perspective.”
“You’re not being overdramatic.” I sighed, shifting in my seat. “Death is a part of your history, so it’s only natural that an aspect of it follows you now. By your own admission, you’ve gained a reflection of birth and life as well. The challenge becomes how to incorporate those symbols into your iconography to build yourself up, instead of weighing yourself down. And an afterlife always follows death. What, then, is your underworld?”
“What indeed?” Frowning, he rubbed the coin with his thumb. “I’m not sure. I’ll have to think about it.”
“In the meantime, you can gather the spirits to yourself until you’ve found their resting place.” I gave him a reassuring smile. “You can start with this Trial.”
“I think I will.” He jerked a shallow bow. “Thank you, Charax, for your continued guidance.”
“Bah.” I waved at his formality. “You’re not my apprentice anymore. You came into your own ages ago, and you’ve no need to grovel.”
“Still, I appreciate your mentorship, official or otherwise.” Swapping the coin for a chalice, he sipped at a dark liquid.
“Well, while you’re in a receptive mood.” I gave him a wide grin. “Have you given any thought to a new temple yet?”
He spluttered and had to turn away to keep from spraying his drink all over me. “You could do with some subtlety sometimes, you know that? There are less sudden ways to ask about my love life.”
I laughed. “You as well. All of Nebesa knows you’ve had no problems sheltering yourself, despite the fact you’ve yet to establish your new sanctuary.”
“I move at a pace Azoria is comfortable with.” Leaning against the table, he eyed me over the lip of his wine glass.
“And Malia and I, bonded and with Offices so tangled I fear for our successors, have distinct abodes.” I sat back. “Your own place might give you insight into your underworld problem as well. How can you hope to home those spirits when you yourself have no home? Or would you rather bring those with you into Azoria’s sacred place?”
“Of course not.” Swirling his drink, he stared at the cyclone that formed. “A bit of my reticence was that shade of death plaguing me so, perhaps, now that it’s defined I can move forward with my new temple.”
“Will you bond with her?”
Dark spots stained the front of his robes as he sloshed his drink a little too quickly. “She’s mentally preparing herself for us to be a public pair. I haven’t broached the subject with her.”
I nodded. “Being bonded is a weight unto itself. It’s not a fit for everyone. Don’t feel the need to force yourselves that far if either of you don’t think you can handle it.”
“Why did you two decide to bond?” He tilted the chalice, almost spilling more liquid.
“It felt right.” I shrugged at his questioning look. “That’s the long and short of it. Yes, our bond allowed us to synchronize our fighting at an unparalleled level. No, it wasn’t a level road from the first. It took time to adjust, and we had plenty of conflict as we adjusted to the tether. There’s a logic in favor and against the decision, no matter who’s involved. Your heart can talk you into anything, if you give it long enough. But sometimes you have to trust your gut. Mine told me that, with all her problems, bonding with Malia was the right choice.”
“And you didn’t regret it?”
“Never.” I paused. “Well, there was a brief moment when our minds first touched and our hearts connected, when unfiltered ‘us’ had its maiden mixing, that I felt like, ‘what have I just done?’ But, no, the ups and downs are a part of the experience. And if she’s worth bonding, she’s worth weathering that storm for.”
He downed the rest of the glass and set it on the table. After wiping his mouth, he said. “You’ve given me much to think on. It’s almost time for the feast, and I should prepare to greet the guests.” He pushed off the table and headed for the door. When he reached the pillars, he stopped and turned back. “Thank you. And, take care of yourself.”
I raised an imaginary glass to him. Azoria could hardly do better with him. And he would do right by her. They’d make a strong pair, but… I shook my head as I watched him go. No new pair needed to be tested by war. I would do my best to see that its reach didn’t touch them.