Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
By the time the feasting ended, Ulti’s robes had flushed a brilliant orange, mirroring the cheerful sunrise of the land below. Many gods had fallen asleep on the table, faces plastered with half-eaten food and arms sprawled into the dishes. Loutro never minded the mess, since it meant his pigs would eat good. Most of the other partygoers who hadn’t crashed were piss drunk, their words slurred and their laughter raucous.
Someone must have forgotten to tell the satyrs only to give Hasda diluted wine, for the poor lad was passed out in his chair, snoring like a storm-flooded waterfall. Next to him, Seppo sat with his elbows on the table, chin resting on his folded hands as he brooded over the remnants of the feast. Malia and the water nymph had slipped out hours ago for girl time or whatever her excuse was. Thane and Phaeus, before they’d collapsed in each other’s arms, had been debating whether Peklo belonged to the earth, death, or deserved its own separate deity and now slept peacefully, leaning against each other, their argument settled by rest. Jade was hiccuping down the table, chittering her awkward laughter at some drunken joke.
As for me, I’d developed a hangover without the bliss of sleep to soften its arrival and sat glowering at the gods who’d found respite before me. Seppo caught my look and tapped the table.
“So, Charax, about these trials.”
I grunted. Raising my eyebrows hurt, like someone had spears on either side of my head and was slowly pressing the points into my skull in the soft spot behind my temples. But even with my splitting headache I wouldn’t spoil the chance to get a leg up on Malia. While I knew she’d figured out the first trial before tonight, I had no idea if she’d discovered the whole picture. I rolled my hand for him to continue.
“Have you decided what you’re going to do about them?”
I shook my head. “I’m afraid Malia is just as tight-lipped as ever. If she knows what comes next, she hasn’t told me yet.”
Seppo snorted. “She doesn’t know either because no one knows. Part of the reason I gave him such a difficult first task was I needed time to find two other heroic feats for him to accomplish.”
I nodded and winced at the pounding the movement gave my head. It made sense. “What will you do if he finishes quickly?”
“Schedule the next feast a long way off,” Seppo said, chuckling. But then he sobered, staring at the lad. “The equipment you’ve left in Phaeus’ care, does it have any celestial steel?”
“No.” I reached for a tankard that’d survived the festivities with a quarter of its contents left. Although I didn’t know what was in it, I was pretty sure I’d seen Malia drinking from it earlier, so it should be palatable enough. When I sipped it, I nearly spat it all over Seppo and only just managed to politely dribble it back into the glass. It smelled like strawberries but tasted like distilled cow manure. I frowned at the drink and set it back down. Wherever my train of thought had been going, it’d derailed and fallen from the heavens.
Seppo laughed quietly and downed his own drink. Brushing at his face, he said, “With your blessing on him, he could probably handle the steel.”
Oh, right. That topic. I shook my head. “I don’t think so. That anointing, I wouldn’t call it incomplete, but far less powerful than if I’d been a seated god.”
Seppo watched me over the rim of his mug. “Has he had any ambrosia?”
“No.” I caught my head shake just in time. The pangs of the headache weren’t quite anvil blows this time. “I raised him, but not as anything more than a mortal. My blessing might keep his eyes from burning out, but I don’t think he has the constitution for it yet.”
“He should, after this first Trial. I’d highly advise it.”
I nodded my thanks and ignored the cymbal crash in my head.
His eyes glowed like embers, his face contemplative. “If you’re up to it,” his pistoned hand clanked as he tipped his drink towards me, “I would also recommend scouting the Tingid mountains before your, er, Co-Seat returns.”
Frowning, I picked up a fork and twirled it, just to give my hands something to do. “You think Malia’s going to sabotage the Trial?”
“Are you really that drunk? Of course not!” His raised voice made several sleepers stir, and he scowled as he hunched back down. Softer, he said, “This is Malia we’re talking about, but because it’s her, I suspect she’s already set up several ‘convenient’ gifts for Hasda to discover along the way. She’s crafty enough that, whatever they are, I won’t be able to pin them on her. But I’d rather not have Kydon spoiling everything by opening an investigation and disqualifying the task the moment the first Trial concludes. And besides, I need the extra time to come up with the second Trial.”
“I’ll sniff around and see what I can find.” I glanced down the table towards the wasted minor gods. “Do you think she’d be lucid enough to help?”
“Even sober, I don’t know how much help Jade would be.” Seppo shook his head. “No, this is something you need to look into yourself. You might as well get the lay of the land and the measure of the task while you’re there. And it wouldn’t do for you, as the lad’s advisor, to go in blind yourself.”
Across the table, Thane snorted in his sleep and smacked his lips as he readjusted his position.
“One more thing.” Seppo set his drink on the table and drummed the rim with his fingers. “Because this is Malia, and we both know she can’t help sticking her fingers into everything and I happen to like the lad, I’ll give you this one failsafe. Anything Malia pulls over on you, she gets. You know her better than any of us, and if you can’t catch it, well, that’s some damned good meddling, then.”
I grunted. “She’ll have Hasda seated at this table as one of the Twelve if you give her that caveat.”
“That’s why I’m sending you ahead.” Seppo tapped the side of his head and smiled. “Any traps, any surprise gifts, you’ll be able to spot them before she can cheapen the spectacle.”
“I’m not as adept at catching her as you think.” I pointed at myself and shrugged. “You think I’d be here if I was?”
Humming to himself, he folded his arms and sat back in his seat. “I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Besides, you wouldn’t have your Sword or Spear on you if you truly didn’t want them.”
That wasn’t the only thing I’d wanted, but I wasn’t going to state the obvious.
“Just don’t let any of the obvious tricks through,” he said as he rolled his neck. “I know you can do that much.”
“I’ll try.” I sighed. “I really have been gone long enough to be out of practice and, as you mentioned, this is Malia we’re talking about. Subtlety is her signature, and I haven’t had to read it for centuries.”
His exoskeleton hissed as he waved the comment away. “Bah. You’ll sniff it out. Use your link as Co-Seats, if you have to.”
I stiffened at the suggestion, but Seppo didn’t seem to notice. While I could stalk Malia’s mind, to a degree, through our connection as war gods, I would never invade her privacy like that. Not that I’d get far. Her mind was a well-guarded catacombs that I wasn’t sure even she could navigate successfully all the time. But Seppo had been a bachelor for far too long to understand just how gross his suggestion was.
“Where exactly is Tingid?” I asked. Best way to get my mind off the suggestion was to move on from it.
“Out east.” He waved his hand behind him, gesturing vaguely. “If you head through Maas Falgo, you’ll come out at the edge of the forest that marks the edge of the Tingin tribal lands. The jade mines and the Kydonian tiger will be to the north.”
“I’m assuming you want me to go now.”
Seppo nodded. “If you want to get a head start and investigate before the Trial begins. I’ll inform Malia of your whereabouts when she returns from...whatever she’s doing.”
I grunted and pushed to my feet.
Immediate regret. Hangover headache rushed my brain, making the room tilt and my vision blur. I stumbled against my chair, gripping it for support. My fingers dug into the wood as I gritted my teeth and waited for the dizziness to subside. Once it did, I waved a portal open and hoped it was to the correct Maas.
Cold wind hit me as I stumbled through, snapping me awake. The dull ache in my skull was still there, but the warmth from the festivities was gone. I seemed to remember Maas Falgo being a frozen wasteland the last time I’d been through, and it didn’t look like anyone had claimed it in my absence. Or maybe they had, and they’d left it as an experiment to see what an arctic Peklo would be like. Either way, I wouldn’t be staying long. Orange energy froze in spikes as I traced a new portal in the air.
The sylvan land of Tingid was much warmer but blanketed in night. Ulti must not have pranced this far yet, so I probably had another couple hours of pre-dawn before day caught up with me. Grumbling, I set off into the forest to find whatever Malia had stashed away for the upcoming Trial.