Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
It took him forever to eat. And considering that he dragged his feet long enough that even I noticed it, he must’ve really not wanted to have this conversation. He emerged from the subterranean kitchen when the moon had already been up for several hours, his face hidden behind his hair, his eyes tracing the well-worn cracks of the floor.
“So, Malia, eh?” I pushed him over the conversational cliff. He’d kick at the lichen on the brick for a good hour more if I didn’t kickstart this myself. Not that it mattered to me how quickly this got on, but he seemed to have reached the age where time mattered to him. Somehow without my noticing.
“Yes.” He rubbed at the strap across his chest. I squinted. His woodsman bag?
“Late hunting with the witch of the night?”
I didn’t need to see his ears go red to feel the warmth. “No,” he muttered, his fingers double-timing across the leather. Still not meeting my eyes, he shifted from one foot to the other. And back again. The whole time, his fingernails scratched an erratic rhythm on the strap.
My bones grated on the hard seat of the throne. Such creature comforts tended not to matter when all that remained of one’s body was the skeletal frame, but for once I wished I’d thought to pad it, if only to keep the noise down. My robes muffled the grating my shifting weight created, but not enough. Not nearly enough.
I tried again. “What did she promise you?”
“To see the world, as a man should,” he said. He added scuffing sandal sounds to the sibilance of the nervous noises. Finally he met my eyes. “If you would have me abstain from war, then why would you teach me to hunt? I could forage and survive, if peace truly mattered.”
“Again with her borrowed words,” I sighed, sinking my chin into my hands. The move made my elbow pop in a way that was nearly painful, and made Hasda jump. “Apologies. It seems my old age is finally catching up with me.”
He laughed. “It’s been catching up with you as long as I can remember, old man.”
“That it is.” I forced a chuckle. It felt hollow and made my mouth taste of a crypt, so I didn’t try it again. “So, will you take her up on her offer?”
Hasda straightened his shoulders. “I will.”
“And do you think she’ll keep her promise?”
This gave him pause. “I…”
“You seem to forget, Hasda, that I’ve known her far longer than you.” I rattled my ribcage with another sigh. “Before I gave my seat up, before she was the goddess of war, even.”
“Before you went into hiding?”
That was low, and we both knew it. But he carried the barb for her.
I cracked my neck and rose from my seat. “I want you to remember this night, Hasda. When you lay in your tent, wherever your war camp may be, I want you to think back on this and remember the peace you threw away. Weigh it against the lives you’ll spend for the life you want. And see if, in the balance, the trade was worth it.” I turned my back and examined the carving on the temple wall behind the throne. Not that I hadn’t seen the winged gorgon every day that I’d sat the throne, but to give my eyes something to see other than Hasda’s face. He was too young, too inexperienced even with Malia’s council, to understand the severity of the choice he was making tonight. But he would learn, in time.
“You know, she didn’t give just me an offer.” I heard leather sliding against bare skin, the sound of clasps being undone. His sandals slapped the stones as he ascended the steps to my throne. Went silent, stood behind me, waiting.
The hem of my robes rustled against the stone floor, whispering of premonitions I didn’t want to heed. I shoved the half-formed thoughts from my mind and focused on the scroll in Hasda’s outstretched hand. “What is this?” I didn’t ask from whom. The purple seal said enough.
An uncertain smile wrestled with his lips. “She wants you to come with. Not to send me alone, but to share this journey together. All of us.” His eyes shone in the moonlight, and gods damned the child, but he was happy. Thrilled, even. The call of the unknown, the wild, untamed world, with a god at each shoulder. Who was he to know how foolish that stance could be?
“No?” His smile lost its strength, a frown pinning it.
“No.” I shook my head and pushed the scroll away, creaking into my throne like the tired old god I was. “Those days are long past me, Hasda. She didn’t tell you, did she, how she got her seat?”
He shook his head but held the scroll out, a little too stiffly. “She said you’d be stubborn, but you’d read this in the end. Like you always do.”
“She outmaneuvered me, child.” I shook my head and laughed. “Those hunting skills?” I pointed past him, towards the forest. “I was the god of war. I, the great Charax. And Malia, with her silver tongue and her blue blood, convinced me that, with my superior skills in delivering death to the mortals, why, wouldn’t I be the best as the god of death! And in my youthful stupidity, and not a small dose of infatuation, I listened to her. Played like a damned fiddle and enjoyed every dance!” I sighed and took the scroll. “Steel your heart, boy, like it’s your first kill again. These are not the words you want to hear, but you need to hear them. I will not come with you. Not for a lack of love, as you should damned well know by now, but from an abundance of it.”
“Listen, boy!” I snapped. Malia’s offer had me rattled, and he looked like an oversized version of the orphan she’d left on my doorstep, all those years ago. Bones groaning, I forced myself to relax into my throne, my shoulders against the backrest. “Should this journey turn out to be...less than you’d dreamed it would be, I will be here, waiting, to welcome you home again. Further,” I held up a finger, because he had that interrupting look on his face, “if you would make your way in the world, it would do your confidence good not to have your father watching over your shoulder every step of the way. I may not agree with the decisions you are going to make, but you should be free to make them without second-guessing yourself and watching over your shoulder for my disapproving glance. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir.” He swallowed, his face stiff.
“Good. Are you still going to go with her?”
Hasda nodded, his fingers playing at that strap again.
“When will you leave?”
He looked away. “Tomorrow. At first light.”
So soon? But of course he would. And Malia expected me to come with him. Blasted woman.
“I see.” I slid from one side of my throne to the other, bones creaking like the worst, unoiled hinge. “You should rest, then. I expect you have a long journey ahead of you.”
He nodded and bowed, stiffly at the waist, something he hadn’t done since his youth. His teens? Where had the years gone?
I flipped the scroll around in my hands, over and over, and watched him head to his sleeping chambers. I would watch the stars, when I heard his telltale snoring. I needed the time to think.
The seal snagged on my finger and made me drop the scroll. I watched it roll down the steps with a frown. She would not bait me into another one of her schemes, oh no. It had been too many centuries, and I had grown smarter. Hasda’s fake snores ripped through the night, as he tried to lie to his brain that he truly had fallen asleep that quickly and no, his nerves weren’t tighter than a bowstring.
That’s right. No more falling for her schemes. Not a single one.
I sighed and forced myself up to totter after the fallen scroll.
Gods damn it.