Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Ah, the enticing smells of a bountiful feast. We sat at the long table in the Hall of Maas Bierg, anticipating the dryads’ announcement that the meal was ready. Seppo occupied his traditional place at the head of the table, the empty seat on his left and Hasda, his right. Jade had displaced Malia and I, so we sat across from her on Seppo’s left. With the empty seat on my right and the stupid table leg pressing against the inside of my left knee, I had a prime view of the minor goddess and my boy.
Malia sat on my left, watching them with a brooding look. Tarrha and Synnefo had moved up the table, with Tarrha in Malia’s former seat. The beauty goddess kept trying to catch Malia’s eye, but she ignored her and maintained her study of Jade and Hasda.
Azoria was strangely absent, as was Thane. Kydon sat next to Malia, eyeing the food on the table with an abnormally impatient look. Not that he never looked impatient, but for once I thought his mind was on the food and not the proceedings.
Resef, the water god, and Vrixia, the harvest goddess, had paired off on our side of the table. With the coming planting season, they’d be busy showering the earth with their respective blessings, so their reunion wasn’t surprising. What was remarkable was Ulti’s absence. They never missed a chance to flaunt their dress, and with the evening sunset fast approaching it was time for them to make an appearance. Not only that, they loved gushing over new and revived relationships, so to miss Resef and Vrixia getting back together made no sense whatsoever.
Seppo was also behaving strangely this evening. Rather than trying to impress Hasda with his wealth of stories or grilling the lad for every detail of the Trial, he sat staring at his plate, drumming his fingers with the most moody expression on his face that I’d seen in centuries. I could smell a battle brewing underneath the currents of tension eddying across the room, but I didn’t like that I couldn’t feel the lines of battle. And Malia was being no help, muddying my senses with her extreme concentration on Jade and Hasda.
Honestly, with the way they were chatting away, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tarrha paid them a visit later and blessed them with, if not a union, then at least a fling. I had no idea how the dynamics of a relationship between an immigrated minor deity and a barely demigod undergoing Trials would play out, but frankly, Hasda deserved his chance at love. I’d have to talk with him later to make sure they didn’t base their whole relationship around his having saved her village during his Trial, but beyond that, they could do as they pleased.
That is, if Malia would stop glaring daggers long enough for them to have any privacy.
I nudged her elbow. “Lay off them, would you?” I whispered out the side of my mouth.
“She’s as star-struck as he is,” she hissed back, barely covering her mouth to be discrete. As if hiding our whispers would make her ire or the object of its attention any less apparent. “They’re both inexperienced and liable to get burned confusing infatuation for love.”
“They have to learn some way,” I countered. “It’s not as if we knew what we were doing our first time, and you certainly can’t say you’ve become an expert in normal relationships since then.”
She smiled and blinked once, a slow, deliberate movement that made my skin crawl. “Have you noticed Hasda’s dress?”
“What? Yes, of course.” The lad had his scarred armor on over a light brown tunic, which complimented the red markings quite nicely. He’d bathed and paid some attention to his hair, which was more than could be said about its arrangement for the preceding decades of his life. Overall, he’d cleaned up quite nicely and, given his newfound motivation, added more depth to its significance than just celebrating his first major accomplishment.
Malia frowned. “That possessed chestplate is the only piece of armor he wore tonight. No bracers, no greaves, no hip guards. He didn’t even bring his helmet for the ceremony.”
I waved a hand. “That can be retrieved when it’s needed. No sense clogging up the table, above or below, with it before then.”
“Further,” Malia said, raising a finger, “half their conversation has been in whatever arcane language they used to bind the djinn during the Trial, and the other half has been in Paeden.”
“So?” My brows scrunched down as I frowned. “Everyone can understand Paeden, so it’s not like they’re keeping secrets, and Jade did say he needed to develop his connection with the djinn. Learning the language to control it sounds like a logical follow-up.”
Malia scowled as the satyrs behind us trumpeted to announce that the final roast had finished. A silvery-green dryad hovered up next to Seppo and ran through the list of prepared dishes: glazed ham, seared steak, roasted and bronzed vegetables of all kinds, even more varieties of meats, salads, and produce I couldn’t pay attention to because of Malia.
“He already knows the language,” she said. “Or did you forget the part where he bound the djinn, on his own, with no coaching through the incantations?”
I sighed. “While I know that this spirit is an unknown variable you have to adjust for, I’d have thought you could put scheming aside long enough to celebrate Hasda’s victory.”
“Of course.” She flashed a smile. “Because them conversing with the djinn in a language only they can understand is definitely a problem worth ignoring and saving for later.”
“You know what I meant.” I leaned back as a satyr set a plate with gravy-bathed lamb chops in front of me. “Time and place.”
“Right.” She flashed me an angry smile as a satyr set a bowl of soup with unidentifiable chunks of meat floating in it in front of her. When the satyr was gone, she muttered something else under her breath, but I didn’t catch it.
When all the food had been set, Seppo grunted and clanked to his feet. He scowled down the length of the table, frowning especially at Azoria’s empty seat, but brightened when his gaze reached Hasda.
“Well, my boy, you certainly did well your first Trial.” He clasped his hands together and beamed. “I’ve heard great things about your exploits, and you’ve certainly done us all proud.” Glancing down at Kydon, he arched a brow. “I trust you have no objections to his successful completion of the Trial?”
The big man rose to his feet, his thick hands making the table groan as he put his weight on it. Though his protruding jaw made it look like he was scowling, he wore what was his closest approximation to a satisfied expression. Never a smile (I wasn’t sure he was capable), but about as happy as he got. “None, my lord. He concluded his Trial within the confines of the stipulations set forth.”
“Excellent.” Seppo grinned and clapped his hands.
“My lord, if I may,” Kydon continued.
Seppo frowned. “You may not.” After Kydon sat back down, Seppo scanned the seated gods, drawing out the silence. His hissing pistons almost hid his sigh. “It is unfortunate that this celebration should be marred by a serious calamity befalling our people. You may have noticed certain gods absent among us, who would not normally be so remiss.” His eyes found Malia and me. “I doubt you’ve felt anything yet, since as of yet there’s no war to speak of, but soon there will be. Azoria and others have gone ahead to gather information. I felt it best to hear her wisdom on the matter before sending our War Gods after them.”
I folded my hands in my lap and frowned as I sat back. The fact that Seppo had waited until now to make a public statement, instead of saying something privately before the feast, meant that this threat, whatever it was, was serious. I hadn’t felt any itches in any of the old places, so no major battles had flared up yet, and I doubted Malia had either, else she would have said something or I might have sensed it through our bond.
Seppo nodded. “I say this now, so that we may dispel the somber atmosphere and properly enjoy the festivities. But I will need to consult with both of you tomorrow, when we’ve recovered from the feast. With that out of the way, let’s move on to the fun parts, shall we?” And just like that, he plunged headfirst into an hour-long victory monologue that was half verbal pats on the back for Hasda, half recounting similar feats other heroes had accomplished.
From the way he detailed their exploits, I could sense his fishing for inspiration for the second Trial. Gimish, who wrestled the father of all sea serpents to win the rights to dry land for humans to live on. Nosa, who crossdressed with the help of an enchantress to steal the headdress of the Nazaroni chieftess. Acal, who stole the divine sword from the ancestors of the Ghorins. And a host of others, who accomplished such wonders as riding the great island turtle, snuffing the eight extra suns to keep the world from burning, and moving mountains to free the four hundred sons trapped beneath them.
When he started into Zagut’s story, a clang and splatter interrupted him. Jade reached across the table, her face beet-red, as she failed to catch her wine glass. Scarlet juice splashed across the platters, adding a fruity glaze to the ham between us. Fruitlessly trying to claw the drink back into her glass, she slipped into a torrent of muttered apologies until Seppo gave her a look. Hasda, to his credit, tried to help mop up the wine, but the dryads fluttered over and soaked the liquid into their leaves before he could find a cloth.
With the mess cleaned up, Seppo finished with the tale of Yote, who bred hydras until he was forced to cull them or risk flooding the world, and looked none too pleased to have concluded his speech still at a loss for what to do next. He put on a brave face, however, spread his arms, and blessed the food, which most of us had halved during his long-winded oration.
Though the meat sizzled and the gravy tingled my taste buds, I couldn’t help but notice how often Hasda ducked his head and whispered down at his chestplate. It reminded me of an interrogation, but not one Hasda was directing. That djinn had a nosy streak to rival Malia, and who knew what his intentions were. Not being from our pantheon and recently re-imprisoned, it was unlikely they were anything but pure.
Hasda was a good lad, and I trusted him not to reveal anything too damaging, but I didn’t trust that he had the experience to discern between harmless and Trojan questions.
Malia noticed the conversation as well and gave me a loaded look. Thankfully, though, she held her peace and silently committed to waiting out the feast before unleashing her own torrent of questions on the djinn. The air hanging over the meal was subdued, even with Seppo’s prodding for joviality, and without Ulti’s spectacular dance to usher in the night, the revelers departed for their nocturnal roosts in unnerving silence.