Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The sun was setting, the tree trunks casting long shadows as twilight dawned. I stood at the edge of the forest, waiting for Hasda to return with his evening meal. He'd grown, since that day many years ago when Malia had left him on my doorstep. Or was it decades now? I could never keep track. But I'd stuck to my guns with his training. Absolutely no warfare or nefarious villainy. I'd set Hasda on the straight and narrow, and by my old bones I was going to keep it that way.
Croaking crows took to the sky in a flurry of wings and discarded feathers. Hasda emerged from the forest, a handful of hares strung over his shoulder. He'd taken to trapping them, too...efficient to hunt them down properly with a bow like I'd taught him. Lazy, I called it, but then again it kept him fed without my having to do the hunting myself, so I let it slide.
"How many today, Hasda?" I called.
The youth grinned, his dark beard thick on his face. Wait, thick? Wasn't that just stubble?
"Five." He held the string up proudly, letting the hares dangle between us. Ducking back under the string, he straightened and flashed me a smile.
Oh, not again.
"Charax, today you promised to teach me the sword."
"I did no such thing. After all, I am a god of peace, these days."
"Mmm." He pushed past me, headed for the temple. "Yet you were once the god of death."
"And that makes you think I would know the art of the sword?" I turned and followed him, my maroon robes dragging in the dirt. I frowned and pushed my shoulders back. I didn't think I'd been sagging that much lately, but if this kept up I'd have to teach him how to take in a hem or, worse, call in outside assistance. I shuddered. A man could do with learning the needle, and one was never too young to learn.
"Yes, you do," Hasda said, interrupting my thoughts. He glanced back over his burly shoulder. When did he get so bulky? "You told me so yourself."
"Last week, when we were discussing world history and its significance to a group of eligible bachelors living a hermit's life."
Ah. So that's what this was about.
"Child, the day will come when you have earned the luxuries of life. Women are fine creatures, worthy pleasures to be enjoyed and to give oneself to before the grave claims you, but you've yet to demonstrate you have a stable enough head on your shoulders to court or lavish appropriate affection upon such majestic beings."
"Mmm, they're better than cattle?"
He had quite the tongue on him, and he'd bent that analogy a thousand different angles, making me regret ever trying to teach him about intimate human relationships on my own. Explaining the cycle of life, and why the forest animals would yowl in heat, had led to my fumbling the concepts of livestock and reproduction together, and he'd held that like high ground ever since.
"They're better than cattle, they're better than animals, and they're certainly better than trophies."
"Ooh, a new word. I was afraid you'd go this year without divulging one."
My steps slowed, and I drilled holes into his back. "What vocabulary is this? Where did you even hear such a word? Certainly not from me."
He froze, shoulders skyrocketing as if he'd stepped in something unpleasant. "Shit."
"Hasda." I gave him my best battlefield commander voice. I'd filed the rust off that one and employed it quite a handful of times in his early years. It'd never kept him out of the braziers, but it had stayed his hand at some of the more poisonous forest plants.
When he turned around, he had that same abashed look on his face that he'd had the first time I caught him masturbating. "Uh, the mockingbirds migrated recently. I think they passed through the southern village."
"Not only is it the wrong season," I said, knuckles creaking as I folded my hands together, "but they don't possess nearly the mimicry skills you credit them."
"She said it was worth a shot."
If I'd still had eyebrows, they would've lifted off my face. As it was, my expression must've spooked him, because he glanced away immediately. "She?"
"I think the heat's been getting to me," he said, his favorite excuse and a poor attempt at a subject change. Rubbing the back of his neck, he said, "Let's get these rabbits skinned and dinner cooking. I remember you saying you wanted another rabbit's foot? For your fetish collection?" Without waiting for an answer, he spun and strode purposefully towards the temple.
I hadn't moved, and my tone made him freeze.
"Who is the woman?"
"Would you believe I swore a blood oath not to reveal it?"
"GODS DAMN IT!"
He jumped a good foot off the ground. When he landed, he crouched and ventured, "What?"
Even if he'd managed to sneak across the forest and set up a liaison with some peasant girl, which was practically impossible since the journey took over a week and we'd never been apart for more than three days, no one, not even the highest noble or most secretive priestess, would merit telling a god, retired or not, that their relationship merited a blood oath. And only one goddess would have the gall to make such a joke with me.
"How long have you been speaking to Malia?"
He choked and went beet red in the face. When he finally stopped gagging, he said, "I beg your pardon?"
"Quit stalling. You've had your head in the clouds for weeks—"
"Months, actually." His grin reflected the full manifestation of that impish smirk of his youth. "Well over a year. She was beginning to think you wouldn't notice."
I was going to stab her. I was, quite literally, going to march across the whole of Piovar and thrust her through with a good solid iron. Maybe sprinkle in a little celestial steel so it had some bite to it.
"And what, exactly, has she been showing you?"
"Nothing of the, er, 'carnal matters.'" His ears went red, and I could feel the heat from here. "She said to tell you that."
"Indeed. And what celestial matters did she discuss with you? I'm sure it had nothing to do with fate, or your future among her ranks?"
By the way he wouldn't meet my eyes, I knew she had. I sighed. "You are still a child, Hasda, and you've no place in war."
"Right, because I'm to be your peaceful priest." He clenched his fists, and his voice was hard.
I frowned. This wasn't like him at all. "Yes, exactly."
"Do you know," he glanced up sharply, "how old I am, exactly?"
"Um, er, well," I stammered. My mind raced, trying to count the years. "Perhaps a couple decades now?"
"A couple?" He huffed a laugh. "I'm thirty-two. I know you immortals have precious little concept of mortality, but I'm already a third through my life, maybe more even, given plagues or famine or war."
"It's not a plague year," I muttered. "There's another four decades or so before the next one's due."
"That's besides the point." He threw the string of rabbits on the ground. "I am a man, fully grown, and getting on in years. I've put up with your coddling and senility out of respect for the kindness you showed me, for the years you've invested in my life, in raising me as your own. You've always been kind to me, for the most part, but can you really say that this life of isolation is good for me? It may suit you, but it certainly doesn't suit me."
I stood silent for a moment, soaking it in. "Helped you prepare that all, did she?"
"She gave me a few pointers," he said, nodding. He thrust out his chin. "But the thoughts are my own."
"Indeed." I rubbed my palms together, suddenly cold. "And what are you going to do about it?"
He blinked. Evidently my acquiescing, or at least considering his request, hadn't been in their battle plans. "I, er, well."
I laughed, a dry chuckle. "You puff yourself up about your years, yet you're still as innocent as a fawn."
"I resent that remark."
"Be that as it may," I waved a hand, "you know as much about the world at large as you do of the 'carnal matters.'" I laughed when his ears went red again. Then I sighed, gesturing at the rabbits. "Your dinner will soil, if you don't tend to it soon. But when you've finished eating, I expect to hear your thoughts on your future. Well-articulated thoughts, not these raging, passionate tantrums. You're a man. Conduct yourself as one."
He bowed and collected the rabbits, then scuttled into the temple. If he'd had a tail, he would've been tripping over it, tucked between his legs. The cold I'd felt earlier became chills that settled in my elbows. I had a feeling I knew what he was working towards, and I was afraid to hear it. And unlike him, I didn't have the menial task of consuming food to distract me while I waited. After a moment I followed him into the temple and settled onto my throne, to await the conclusion of his meal. It seemed I was going to have another significant audience again.