Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Malia laughed, her snake hair hissing giggles. “See? I knew you’d like it.”
“I do not.”
“You do.” She poked my side and grinned. “You’re trying to hide it, but I can see how pleased you are. Admit it, you think it’s funny.”
Blasted woman. It was a bit humorous, in a nonsensical way, but Seppo didn’t deserve such teasing. I tried once again to free my arm, but the clinging gorgon wouldn’t relinquish her hold. She gazed up at me with hurt eyes.
Fine. If you’re going to play hardball…
“Seppo!” I called, dragging Malia along behind me. She yelped at the sudden jerk but quickly balanced herself and slithered up beside me. “Wait!”
The god froze, his shoulders skyrocketing. “I already gave you your verdict, now go away.”
“When has that ever worked when Malia’s involved?” I asked with a sigh. She chuckled and I shot her a glare. “You haven’t even heard my side of the story yet.”
Slumping, he crossed his arms with a clank and turned to scowl at us. “Well?”
I pulled myself up to my full height. Little tufts of cloud floated over my feet. “I’m entitled to a peaceful retirement, free of meddling, as is my right by both my service to and former station in this pantheon. She,” I jabbed a finger at her, “has ruined a significant section of my forest with her powers, which has significantly disrupted said peace.”
Seppo grunted. “And?”
“And?” I echoed, bewildered. “That’s my sacred forest, on my temple grounds! As such, it, as well as I, should be free from divine interference for the duration of my retirement.”
Seppo’s scowl deepened. “Yes, for the duration of your retirement. But you have an outstanding offer from a member of our pantheon, an offer which you’ve engaged with. Multiple times now. So I fail to see how you’re still rambling on about being inactive.”
“What?” I spluttered. “There aren’t any ‘outstanding offers,’ and in case you didn’t notice I hold no Symbols of Office.”
He raised a brow at me. By the tugging on my arm I could feel Malia silently laughing. I looked down and saw a mischievous glint in her eyes.
“Well, it wouldn't be a surprise if I told you it was there,” she said, laughing.
I folded my arms as best I could, with her clamped on my elbow as she was, and tried to give her my best imposing scowl. “Explain.”
She examined the nails on the hand not fastened to my personage and affected an air of ambivalence. “I sent you a messenger.”
“When?” My confusion was growing, but so was the sneaking suspicion that I’d been outmaneuvered.
Polishing her nails against her scaly chest, she said, “You did get my letter, didn’t you?”
“This one?” I pulled out her most recent missive. Frowning, I turned to Seppo. “This would constitute an outstanding offer, wouldn’t it?”
He nodded, clearly unhappy. “Yes. A most unusual one, but I’d already discussed that with Malia before this whole fiasco. And I’m getting rather tired of your vagrant flaunting of your relationship.”
“She won’t let go,” I said, half pleading. Malia just laughed and tightened her grip. By now, dislodging her would not only be seriously embarrassing for both of us but might require hurting her, so I resigned myself to the position.
“Regardless,” Seppo said, “your complaints are moot because you’ve been engaging with her offers for years…” he trailed off, mentally tallying numbers in his head. “Decades now, so no, your argument is invalid.”
“Further, she’s already justified herself because, as she put it, she can’t properly demonstrate her abilities without showing the effects of her powers, hence the desert wasn’t an option.” He scowled. “And she has as much right to a proper demonstration for her new champion as you had for your retirement, which you’ve given up in all but name.”
“That can’t be right.” I shook my head. “I’ve done nothing but settle back into a peaceful life since I left the pantheon.”
“Nothing?” Malia gave me a sly look. “Are you sure you’ve done absolutely nothing?”
“Well, nothing except...you little snake.” That gods-damned woman was dragging Hasda into this. Of course she was. I scowled, furious with myself. Leave me to not read between the lines of that first letter. She never did anything without a reason, and she’d find a way to twist even a gift given without strings attached to her advantage.
Seppo nodded. “I’ve heard about this youngling of yours. Malia has kept me well-informed of his progress. Bright lad.” He grunted. “But that would make you, at a minimum, his mentor.”
“But I’ve returned him to Malia,” I said, my voice sounding hollow.
“And did you also give her the decades you spent raising the boy?”
“No, of course not.”
“Well all right, then.” Seppo brushed his hands, considering the matter settled.
I shook my head. “But what about my forest?”
“That was to get your attention,” Malia said. Fluttering her eyes, she gave me a sickly-sweet smile. “It worked, didn’t it?”
“I hate you sometimes.”
“I love you, too.”
Seppo made gagging noises and turned away. “If you’re quite done,” he said, back to us, “I have important matters demanding my attention.”
“Come along, dear,” Malia said, tugging on my arm. “Let’s leave the grumpy old bachelor alone.”
“But my retirement!” I called back as Malia pulled me towards the door.
“No!” Seppo shouted back. “You still haven’t responded to Malia’s offer, which you’ve read because the seal is broken, and I’ll not hear you rejecting it out of hand. You must consider it for at least three days, if you’re going to reject such an unheard-of invitation. Now go.”
The blue sky winked out as we exited the temple, replaced by the golden honey afternoon of Nebesa. I slumped in the warm air, my robes dragging against the steps as we made our way down the ziggurat. Malia batted my shoulder.
“Don’t slouch. You’ll get arthritis when you’re older.” She laughed but I just grumbled. Patting my arm, she said, “Why so cranky? This’ll be fun. Even if you decide not to come back to the pantheon, you can always accompany us as Hasda’s mentor.” She squeezed my elbow, drawing my gaze. Her eyes were intense. “Come on. You know how much this would mean to him.”
I sighed. “You’ve just got all the angles covered, haven’t you?”
“As I always do.” She beamed. “Now stop being a grumpy old toad and let’s get you to Maas Telos.”
“The armory? What for?”
Malia rolled her eyes. “To get your celestial weapons, silly.”
“I still haven’t accepted your offer,” I grumbled.
“You could leave at any time, yet you’re still here.” She poked my arm with a finger, her snakes tracking my eyes. “If you don’t like it so much, why don’t you just open your fizzy little portal and go home?”
“Because you’d take that as an invitation,” I said, scowling. Pulling back against her hold, I slowed us to a stop on the steps and faced her. “You’re serious about sharing office?”
She glanced away. “Well, if you’d like your old spot better, I’m sure Thane could be persuaded.” An uncertain laugh escaped her. “He’s been eyeing the party god spot for a while now. Reaping souls bores him, to be honest.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.” I sighed. “All right. Let’s go back to Maas Pirene.”
Her eyes lit up. “Fountain talk?”
I nodded. “Fountain talk.”
Beaming, she clapped her hands and bounced on the steps, flaring her wings to keep from pitching forward. With all the energy of a hare who’d forgotten to brew decaf, she drew a large oval in the air. Her portal flared to life, and we stepped through onto the stone plaza to revive our dead tradition of discussing serious matters beside the burbling fountain.