Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
I sighed and settled back in my chair. With sunset almost upon us, the other gods would soon join us. Hopefully soon. I was getting tired of not knowing the details of Hasda’s trials, and I wouldn’t dare stoop so low as to ask Malia. She’d never let me live it down if I did.
“What an energetic goddess,” I said, toying with the silverware before me. “What office does she hold? She can’t be more than a minor deity.”
Malia nodded into her chin, her free hand drumming the table. Although the goddess was well out of sight, Malia seemed to be able to track her movements through the stone. “She is, very originally, the Goddess of Jade.”
“She’s her own goddess?” My eyebrows scrunched.
“Jade is both her name and the new mineral the Tingins, her people, discovered in their mountains.” Whatever plots Malia had brewing in her mind clouded her eyes. “It’s a somewhat rare and very ornate stone, and the Carthians lost their collective minds over it when news of its discovery reached their lands. It’s only been three generations, but their fervor for the mineral still holds. Naturally,” she flicked a hand towards the departed goddess, “such a devoted following deserves a Person of affection.”
“You don’t like her.”
“I didn’t say that.” Malia blinked, clearing her eyes, and gave me a once-over. “The Tingins are almost as savage as you, but Jade herself is fairly civilized.” She shrugged. “But I won’t spoil any surprises for tonight.” Her eyes sparkled. “Speaking of nights.”
The air swooshed behind me as a robed figure swept past. “Seppo, darling!”
“Greetings, Ulti,” Seppo grumbled, annoyed at being interrupted once again.
“Where’s that fabulous enthusiasm of yours?” Ulti struck a pose, a hand on their hip as they fluttered their eyes at the king. With the sun setting and the twilight hours upon us, Ulti’s form blurred between their day and night forms. Their robes, blue beads that sparkled like a sea when the sun was up, bled black as the fabric sought to imitate the starry sky soon to come. As the God of Hours, Ulti reflected the time of day and the heavenly bodies, both the sun and the moon. It made for an interesting spectacle when the moon was visible during the day.
Seppo frowned and waved Ulti around to the right side of the table. “Be seated, Ulti, and save your theatrics for after the feast.”
Ulti pouted but did as instructed, taking their place three seats down on the opposite side of the table from Malia and me. Soon after they were seated, the rest of the major Carthian deities began to arrive. Some I recognized, like the heavily-armored Goddess of Wisdom and Justice, Azoria, and the gnarled Arbiter of Nebesa, Kydon (who still swore, millenia later, that he didn’t have a drop of troll blood in him). Others were new-to-me faces, like Tarrha, the water nymph Goddess of Beauty and Fertility and all that, who’d clearly exaggerated her curves, and the salt-crusted crab man who introduced himself as Resef, the God of the Sea, as he took his seat across from us.
I was surprised to see Phaeus walk into the Hall, and even more surprised when he took his seat directly across from me. Malia and I, as Hasda’s patrons, being seated so prominently made sense, but last I knew, the dwarf had been a minor deity, a simple forge god. He looked beyond pleased to inform me that he’d expanded his sphere of influence to God of Earth, not the world but the element, and had moved up the ranks to become a primary Carthian power. I gave Malia a sideways look, but she ignored it. Well, at least that would explain where Phaeus’ verbal boldness, beyond its usual degree, had come from during our visit to Maas Telos.
The arrival of dozens of minor deities took up the last few hours of twilight. I didn’t even bother trying to pick out names or faces among them. Their Offices, and the gods who held them, changed as often as the tides. With how long I’d been gone, I’d have a better chance of recognizing lint that’d once been between my toes than one of them. Of course, as soon as I thought that, Jade bounced her way back into the Hall, colliding with a satyr who’d been trying to light a torch. Apologizing profusely, she backed into the minor deities seated behind her. The clattering of disturbed plates and silverware made its way all the way to our end of the table, and the embarrassed goddess muttered more rapid fire apologies as she bumbled her way to her seat.
As darkness encroached on the Hall, the satyrs lit torches set in sconces on the pillars, their dryad supervisors steering clear of the open flames. The servants melted into the shadows as Seppo stood, striking his fork against the pistons on his forearm to get the gods’ attention.
“I’m sure by now you’re all aware of the occasion for tonight’s celebration,” he began, his voice augmented to be a rich, low tone that carried across the Hall. Rods hissing, he swept his hand towards Hasda. “This fine, young lad is to be our first Hero in many generations.”
Lots of cheering, clapping, and cutlery being cracked together.
“I’ve spent the evening getting to know our new champion, and I can say that I’m pleased with his character, spirit, and motivation. He comes from good stock, and I’m confident his exploits will make a fine addition to our Annals. Once he’s accomplished his Trials, that is.”
Polite, yet supportive, laughter among the calls to get on with it.
“However, what you may not know…” he paused, slowly meeting each of their eyes, “Is that he comes under the auspices of not one, but two patrons.”
Confused murmurs swirled among the minor deities, although the major gods who’d known me settled for contemplative looks.
“Yes, a good omen for the lad.” Seppo smiled as he looked at Malia. “It seems our illustrious winged gorgon, fiercest war goddess we’ve ever known, has seen fit to turn the world upside down once again. Some of you will remember Thane’s predecessor, but most of you will not. For those who do, Charax has returned to our ranks as co-seat of the God of War. Make of that what you will.”
Shrill whistling and jaunty cheers.
“Now.” He held up his hand for silence and waited for the gathered gods to settle. “As for the lad, he will have three Trials before he can lead the army as our demigod, the first of which I have finally prepared. I’m sure you’re all eager to hear the details, but before that, the feast.”
Loud groans and vocal protests.
Seppo laughed. “All right, all right. But that was a good joke, eh? No? Fine.” He cleared his throat and drew himself up to his full height, his exoskeleton creaking against his weight. “One of our newer members, Jade, has had trouble with a Kydonian tiger terrorizing her lands and devouring her miners. As this affects the livelihood of her people and the extraction of her Symbol, the lad will be tasked with removing the scourge from Tingin, be that driving the tiger off or killing it. How he completes this first trial will be up to him, so long as the outcome is the same.”
Dozens of eyes pinned Jade to her seat. She dropped her gaze and fidgeted beneath the weight of so many gazes.
Seppo cleared his throat again, his face unhappy. “Stop that, all of you, or I’ll throw the tiger at you myself. Anyways.” Still scowling, he shifted the weight of his exoskeleton around, his shoulders bobbing in a wave. “The Trial shall begin in two days’ time, to give the lad time to study his foe and prepare himself. As always, he will be able to consult his patrons, but he must perform the task himself. Failure to do so will result in the Trial being voided and another two added to compensate. I’m sure I don’t need to explain what failing to complete the Trial ensues.”
Some awkward chuckles applauded Hasda’s concerned yet confident face.
“But enough of this gloomy talk.” Seppo whipped his head around, searching the crowd. “Where are those damned harpies with my fish?”
“They’re not damned, Seppo,” Thane called over the chatter that erupted as the feast commenced. “They just have the good sense to keep their distance from your ugly mug as long as possible.”
“I’d rather have my looks than your smell,” the old god retorted, squinting and wagging his finger at the young death god.
The harpies finally arrived, depositing steaming trout and salmon on Seppo’s plate, as well as Hasda’s, while the satyrs returned bearing spitted boars and mounds of heaped steaks. A cool breeze carried the leaves of the dryads around the table, the spirits flitting here and there to check on the feasting gods. As plates emptied and bellies filled, the gods turned jovial, their conversations flowing as freely as the wine.
For all their excitement, I found myself struggling to engage the smiley parts of my face. Kydonian tigers, unrelated to the god Kydon, were absolutely nasty brutes, and creatures you never wanted tasting human flesh. Nigh demigods themselves, they ignored mortal weapons like mountains ignored spring showers. It often took full-fledged gods working in tandem to kill just one, let alone corral it. And Hasda was expected to do just that. Alone, with mortal weapons, unaided by divine beings or powers. If Malia didn’t have her fingers in every pot, I’d think Seppo had sent Hasda on a suicide mission. But she could only meddle so much.
Whatever she’d done, she seemed confident in Hasda’s success. She was deep in conversation with Tarrha, the water nymph, smiling broadly as they whispered about—
I felt my face burning as I pretended not to hear what they were discussing. Variations among the different Kama Sutras was the last topic that I’d consider polite dinner conversation, and Malia painted far too detailed a picture with her words. Sensing my distress, she glanced at me and mouthed, “We’ll talk later.” Smile coy, she dove back into her conversation with relish.
I frowned. Oh yes, we’d talk later, but not about that, and she certainly wouldn’t be happy when we did. Hasda had two days to prepare himself for his impossible Trial, and I’d need her to lay aside her smoke and mirrors long enough to let me in on her plans. But she was a tough nut to crack. I grinned. I might be old, but I did have my ways.