Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Evening came, and with it the sounds and smells of a feast in the Long Hall. As we approached the Hall, which was an open-roofed, pillared temple, we were bombarded with the smells of roast boar, sizzling steak, and grilled mutton. The aroma of ambrosia mixed with the heady scents of wines, most of which were tangy, grape-based vintages but I could smell strawberry, apple, and cherry mixed in. One softer blend stood out from the rest, a flat pear smell spiced up with raspberry.
I grinned. No insignificant feast was ever graced with one of Loutro’s new concoctions. Seppo must have high hopes for the lad, if he had asked Loutro to brew up something special. Malia must have had the same thought, because her brow quirked up and her eyes found mine as soon as she smelled it. I nodded. “If you’re asking, I’ve never tasted that one.”
She laughed. “I suppose you should be asking me. It must be new, then. A good sign.”
“What’s new?” Hasda asked. Walking between us, he positively flashed in his robes, which were royal purple with a golden sash.
“You’ll see soon enough,” Malia said, smiling mysteriously.
Even though this was his feast and he was the guest of honor, I still refused to let him go about half-naked in a toga. I wanted to keep the more experienced mortal women of Nebesa off him as long as possible, and those pesky minor goddess flirts as well. He could play that game when he had his feet under him, but for now he needed to focus on the task at hand. Despite being rather free with his body growing up in the forest, he seemed uncomfortable under the unfamiliar, searching eyes of the women we passed and kept tugging the shoulders of his robes up. And who could blame him? They looked like lionesses stalking their next kill.
Malia put a hand on his elbow. Face straight ahead, she whispered out of the side of her mouth, “Ignore the harpies. You can do far better than those gutter scum.”
Hasda peeked around behind her wings, his face scrunched up. “Those are harpies? I see elves...centaurs...that one looks normal but I think that’s a Selkie skin over her shoulder.”
“Metaphor, Hasda,” she said, tugging him along. “Although you will see some actual avians at the feast this evening. Seppo is especially fond of having harpies airlift seafood straight to his plate.”
We made it into the Hall without Hasda getting too much more flustered. Inside, the long, mahogany table was piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables, open spaces left at intervals for the coming roasts. The feasting table could seat hundreds, since it had to accommodate the dozens of major and minor gods in Nebesa, as well as their mortal servants significant enough to merit a seat at the divine table. Out of sight down the hill was the Mortal Hall, which held the table where less significant mortals and disgraced minor gods would feast during the major holidays. No smoke wafted into sight, so today’s feast would only merit the main pantheon and interested minor deities, at most.
At the moment, only Seppo sat at the table, lounging comfortably at the head, all the way on the other end of the Hall. Satyrs milled about like ants, arranging cornucopias, bringing place settings, and preparing the platters for the grilled meats. The leafy avatars of dryads fluttered along behind the scruffy goat people, critiquing their produce arrangements and badgering them about silverware order that none of the gods respected anyways. It was nice to see some things never changed.
We navigated down the left side of the table, careful to stay out of the way of the satyrs and dryads. With the table wide enough to seat three across at the head, Hasda had been given a place at Seppo’s right hand, the left reserved for his future wife, should he ever wed one. The place had been set and left empty for as long as I could remember. Malia and I would be right next to Hasda at the first two seats on his right, the left side of the table. As we neared our seats, Seppo smiled and straightened in his.
“Ah, so we finally get to meet Charax’s Annointed One. A fine lad, if a bit underclad.”
Hasda bowed, both to show respect and cover his bewilderment. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
“His armor is being repaired by Phaeus,” Malia said. “It will be ready in time for the trial, though.”
“That’s, er, good.” Seppo reclined and looked uncomfortable. “We wouldn’t want him going in unarmed, now, would we?”
“Of course not.” Malia’s voice was sweet.
Seppo shifted and glanced away. “Right. Er, please, be seated.”
I had no idea what had Seppo so unsettled until I pulled out my seat and noticed the warmth on my arm. Malia had threaded her hand around my elbow again. It was a comfortable, familiar feeling, and I’d paid it no attention. Poor Seppo.
“Do try to be cordial to our host,” I hissed under my breath as we took our seats.
She gave me a coy smile and released my arm as she coiled up in her chair. “Of course, dear.”
I grunted and gave her a stern look. She never behaved, and at an event as important as Hasda’s inaugural quest, I’d trust her not to start scheming about as much as I trusted Hasda not to get lost in Nebesa, staggering around in awestruck wonder. Which was extremely likely, because the lad was ogling Seppo’s exoskeleton with the rapt attention a toddler gave a shiny beetle. The pistons hissed and pumped as Seppo spread his arms wide, regaling the lad with tales of his exploits and engineering accomplishments.
Hasda was safe in Seppo’s hands. The head god was arguably more lonely than I was, despite the constant demands for his attention, and he liked to brag. What god didn’t? But Seppo spoke in a straightforward manner. If Malia was the goddess of machinations, Seppo was the god of plain-faced truths. And the Carthians hadn’t had a sponsored hero embark on trials in several generations, so the old god wanted to dote while he had the chance.
“Sorry I’m late!” A pale goddess burst in through the pillars opposite us, stumbling to a halt behind a seat across the table. I didn’t recognize her, but she looked young, so I wasn’t surprised. Her emerald green chiton was surprisingly modest, the cloth flapping around her thin legs as she brought herself to an awkward stop. “I am late, right? Oh, I do hope not.”
“Hello, Jade,” Malia said, voice cool. Her face looked guarded, which was unusual.
“Hi, Malia. Hello, Seppo. Who’s this?” She tilted her head at Hasda. “Is he the new champion? He must be. Hi, I’m Jade.” She extended her hand across the table, but it didn’t even reach Seppo, let alone the lad. Flushing, she jerked her hand back and hurried around the table, apologizing to Seppo as she bumped into the back of his seat. “It’s been a while since we’ve had a champion in Nebesa. I heard you’re sponsored. Who is your patron?”
“Are,” Malia corrected. “Who ‘are’ your patrons. That would be Charax and I.”
“Oh wow.” Jade’s eyes went wide as she finally noticed me. She flitted around Hasda to stand right next to me, a little too close for my liking. Her sharp eyes matched the color of her dress, they were intense, and they were very much in my face. She didn’t mean anything by it, but I still heard Malia’s annoyed hiss behind me. “You’re really old, aren’t you?”
I coughed. “And you’re obviously new. Are you still wet behind the ears, or have you graduated yet?”
“Full goddess, almost finished with my first century. But, wow, are you really that ancient god Charax?” She tilted her head. “I thought you’d be more wrinkly.”
“He’s recovering from an early retirement, so all his wrinkles are on his heart,” Malia said, a hand on my arm as she leaned over to catch Jade’s eye. Her serpents tickled me ear as they flicked their tongues. “But your academy training is out of date. He’s a seated god again.”
“Really?” Her mouth fell open, she was so excited. If Nebesa suddenly lost its gravity, she’d shoot through the stars with all that energy. It was strangely refreshing, her enthusiasm. “Wow. We haven’t had a god abandon retirement since, well, I don’t know. The Anals don’t mention that ever happening.”
“It’s happened a couple times before,” I said. “Well before your time. The last one barely reached mine.”
“Really? What happened?”
“Well, there was this crusty old badger, nasty fellow,” I said, settling in for a good yarn. “And he—”
“There was a badger god?” Jade said, eyes lighting up. “That’s so cool.”
“No, as in, a grumpy old fart,” I said, frowning. “Now, he had this dame who was a total pain in the ass, and she kept pestering the whole time he was supposed to be retired, so he eventually came back so he’d have the divine strength to endure her nagging.”
Malia slapped my arm affectionately. “You’re thinking of yourself, you old sack.”
“Huh, I guess I am.” I smiled at her.
Jade gave us both confused looks. “So you used to be a badger?”
“Aww.” She sagged a little, but then she perked back up. “Well, it’s always cool seeing a living relic.”
“Anyways, I’m going to find my seat before I say something I’m not supposed to. Seppo was afraid I’d run my mouth and spoil that Hasda—”
“Jade!” Seppo thundered, his arm augments clinking as he thumped the table.
“Whoops!” She jumped and darted off, scurrying around the dryads and satyrs as she made her escape. Seppo hadn’t even gotten to his feet before she’d vanished out of the Hall. Sighing, the old god settled back into his seat and resumed his conversation with Hasda.