Warning: This work has been rated 16+.
The first of the guests arrived as noon crept past its zenith. Of the major deities, it seemed only Resef was absent, dealing with the Paedens on the Great Sea. That was probably for the best as Vrixia looked cold and absent, her distance growing as harvest time approached. The pair would dissolve and abandon each other over the winter, then recouple with the advent of spring, Resef showering Vrixia with affection and rain as they had for centuries now.
Thane greeted the deities at the door, his bespotted robes exchanged for clean ones in the same carmine shade as before. Clad in storm gray robes, Synnefo nodded a curt greeting and settled near the end of the table, muttering to himself. Kydon followed after, wearing loose white shorts and a thin garment that barely passed for a shirt. The arbiter gave everyone a toothy grin as he passed, slipping into his seat at the middle of the table.
Surprisingly, Seppo arrived early. His bronze exoskeleton hissed and clanked, but it seemed cleaner than normal, only a few stray lines streaking the alloy. When Tarrha entered, dressed in a partially-shredded drape, she turned all the minor deities’ heads. A few of the side tables had already filled, but with the rumor of this being the final commencement feast, all of the wings would likely end up packed as well. As it was, Tarrha would likely empty a table or two before the celebration was over.
Azoria, clad in white and blue, hung by the entrance until the rest of the pantheon arrived. At first I thought it was to stay near Thane as long as possible, but then I spotted the jeweled brooch pinning her upper garment, a ruby fashioned like a pomegranate, wreathed with emerald leaves. Suddenly Thane’s wardrobe choice made sense, as did the blush on Azoria’s cheeks. Phaeus, who’d deigned to dust his smithing apron as his approximation of finery, must have whispered something to her as he passed, because her face went several shades of red deeper in his wake.
Almost last was Ulti, who danced a sweeping bow to Thane as they entered. Their golden himation hid as much as it exposed, the glittering cloth wrapping down their left shoulder to encircle their right arm while leaving the counterparts bare. Their legs were likewise clothed in tension, their left side all hip, thigh, and calf, their right sequestered deep within the mantle’s folds. Yet the flowing piece did nothing to impede their dance, which was graceful and fluid all the way to their seat.
Murmurs fluttered under the roof of the feasting hall, eyes casting furtive, barely-disguised glances at the two empty seats next to me. Malia had yet to return from fetching Hasda from Frischii. And this was the final feast. Under no circumstances would Malia waste the opportunity to make the most spectacular entrance possible, so it was just a matter of waiting until she thought the proper amount of suspense had built.
There were no doors to slam, but silence descended as if the air had been sucked out by such a disruption anyways. Wings spread, War Bow peaking over her shoulder, Malia swaggered in with not one, but two mortals flanking her. I saw Phemonoe outside, standing in the shadow of the pillar and frowning at Malia’s back, before she turned and disappeared into Nebesa.
Malia paid her, and the slowly bubbling hubbub, no mind as she made her way into the hall. Jerking into action, Thane dashed to the table and made room for a third seat near me. The wildness in his eyes matched the shock on Azoria’s face, confusion and consternation manifesting on the gods’ faces. Seppo hid his mouth behind his hands and gave me a measuring look.
It was hard to know what to think. Hasda I recognized easily, but the comradery from the bulky lad next to him was just as unexpected as the man next to him. Roughly Hasda’s age, or perhaps a few years his elder, he wore a tunic that flaunted the mass of muscles he’d been blessed with. A fist-thick beard of curly black hair adorned his chin, the apparent inspiration for the shadow that peppered Hasda’s face. But what caught my attention was the authentic warmth of his smile, which reached and filled his eyes. Whoever he was, he bore no mask of falsehood. His attention was on Hasda and the winged gorgon before him, and his disregard for the splendor of Nebesa was not arrogance, but a simple contentment at his current circumstances.
Well, she’d certainly chosen an appropriate amount of drama. Bringing the War Bow into the feasting hall, especially during a celebratory event, was about the loudest declaration that we were at war she could’ve made. Even during times of conflict, it was uncommon to bring weapons within the pillars. And then to come accompanied by a mortal who wasn’t the subject of the Trials…that shattered all precedent. Not even the partners of previous champions had been allowed within Nebesa, let alone a commencement feast.
Malia paused at the foot of the table, eyeing each god in turn. When she saw the hungry look on Tarrha’s face, she scowled. “Now is not the time for that. We have more pressing issues.” Snakes hissing, she leaned against the table and spread her wings. “I come bearing news of this Trial’s development. While it has not yet begun, its significance continues to grow. Ghorin coilna have infiltrated the region, bringing confusion about the true origins of the Staff that Hasda is to collect. Rumors of the Serynis Sisters, bound twins that Charax has fought once before, and the Weeping Queen, a former deity of the land, increase in frequency as the days go by. And the shadow of the Sea Mother thickens the air with its stench. I can’t find the source, but she’s close.”
The shards of decorum tinkled in the silence that followed.
Seppo was the first to find his voice. “That is…unfortunate news. But it seems as if this will be a fitting Trial, proving Hasda’s worth beyond all shadow of doubt.”
Kydon nodded. “Have you determined whether the Stitcher has achieved godhood himself?”
Shooing the two men in my direction, she scowled at the arbiter. “My task was simply to retrieve Hasda from his training grounds for this special occasion. It’s a wonder I was able to determine as much as I did before returning.”
Which was coded for she’d tried her best and failed. Granted, we’d still been cloaking our presence, so she likely couldn’t have probed the Stitcher’s divinity without alerting him to our proximity to Frischii, but Malia had her ways, and they usually worked. The Sea Mother’s presence might have interfered somewhat, or the Serynis were doing more than just being rumors. Whatever the case, she’d probably need a good fountainside massage to destress before we left.
Hasda and his companion sat down next to Malia’s empty seat. After going back and forth with Kydon for a bit longer, Malia slid into her place as well. She pointedly avoided looking at me or the humans while she carried on her report. No, the Stitcher hadn’t left Batavii. Yes, the Frischians still feared trading beyond their normal grounds because of the undead. Yes, the fire had worked, but it was more effective at night, when the sun wasn’t drowning out its light. No, they still hadn’t found an effective way to deal with the zombies beyond decapitation.
Tarrha kept trying to start a conversation with the new mortal, and Malia kept flicking her wing in front of his face. Eventually Tarrha gave up and switched to Vrixia, who sat next to her, although the way the beauty goddess kept glancing his way said she hadn’t abandoned the hunt. But when Phaeus poked his arm and launched into a sales pitch for a war hammer, Malia let them be.
Everyone not engaged in conversation with Malia kept glancing between me and the man. There was something I’d clearly missed. Maybe he had a storied history, or had established himself with our pantheon during my absence. Eventually, I had enough of the looks and tugged at Malia’s elbow.
“Yes?” she hissed, not even facing me.
I sat back and folded my arms. “We can do this with an audience, or you can calm down. You’ve already made your scene with your arrival. And put that Bow away.”
Baring her teeth, she folded her wings to block Hasda and the man while vanishing her Bow and Quiver in one smooth motion. Her smile was carved, her eyes devoid of gleam. “It would be best to wait until after the feast.”
“I wouldn’t have said anything, if you weren’t acting like someone stuck a live coal in your cloaca.”
That got an eye twitch out of her. Her smile broadened. “This is Thrax, Hasda’s chief general and foremost bodyguard. Their meeting was my gift to Hasda.”
I frowned. That was far from everything. What wasn’t she saying?
Giving an exasperated sigh, Malia rolled her eyes and leaned in. “This is a champion’s feast.” Straightening, she flashed Seppo a fang-filled smile. “Perhaps we should begin, before the hour grows too late.”
As Seppo rose, it hit me.
Oh. Pek below, no wonder everyone was staring. Malia had brought her champion to Hasda’s feast.