Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The next day, Malia and I followed Seppo into his cloud-floored chamber to discuss whatever Azoria was investigating. Despite Malia’s reluctance, we left Hasda and Jade to themselves. Hasda had mentioned something about visiting the recovering tiger, and they’d disappeared together from the feast in the early hours of the morning. Seppo had concluded the feast later that morning with vague promises of another when the time came to announce the Second Trial, and then asked Malia and I to accompany him back to his throne room.
He now paced in front of his throne, kicking up tufts of clouds as he clanked back and forth. His frown from last night had returned, but deeper than before. Malia stood with her arms crossed, tracing his circuits with her eyes. Her flicking tail betrayed her annoyance more than the set of her mouth, but she wouldn’t say anything about being kept waiting.
I would, though. “All right, Seppo. We’ve given you plenty of time to get your thoughts in order. At this rate, your gears are going to rust shut before you get on with it.”
He grunted and waved his hand as he passed in front of his throne. “It’s a lot more complicated than you think.”
“I don’t know enough to have any thoughts on the matter.” I shrugged. “You haven’t even told us exactly what the matter is.”
He scowled as he retraced his steps. “Azoria is taking the measure of our opposition.”
“We knew that,” Malia said, frowning at the cotton ball clouds stirred up with each pass. One floated into her face and she blew it away. “The Ghorins finally established a pantheon?”
“Much worse,” Seppo said, his neck pistons hissing as he shook his head. “Much, much worse than that.”
I scrunched my eyebrows together. Why would that be a bad thing? Malia had been eyeing those elven druids for centuries, trying to finagle them under our influence for decades. If they had gods we could interact with, we could forge alliances, but with their shamanism and worship of primordial forces, it was hard to connect our cultures for coalitions without dominating them into subservience. Not that Malia would balk at that, but without gods they’d be harder to control.
“So it’s not the Ghorins?” Malia said. “I thought…”
“No, we have far greater concerns than some nature-loving druids in loincloths.” It would have been funny if Seppo didn’t look so deadly serious.
I sighed. “All right, give us a list of prioritized threats.”
He paused at the end of one of his passes, hands on his hips as he scowled at the tufts of cloud disintegrating in the steam jets venting from his exoskeleton. “Well...I’m going to succumb to bias and go with the one that affects me personally the most.”
We both waited for a moment, but when Seppo said nothing Malia rolled her eyes and threw her hands up. “Just spit it out, you rusty old automaton.”
With his back to her, she couldn’t see the pained expression that flitted across his face, but I did. He mastered himself as he turned around, though, and she was none the wiser. “I’ve been given a marriage proposition.”
Malia blinked, and I felt my jaw fall open. We both stared at him dumbly.
“A...a what?” Malia finally managed.
“Jade. Well, that’s what they implied, anyways.” His frown deepened, and he resumed his pacing. “But she wasn’t the one who propositioned. The Paedens sent one of their sages, an Apkalla, to deliver the message.” He shrugged. “He didn’t mention Jade by name, but he said their pantheon had ‘serious grievances’ with ours over some miscellaneous slights, and they were willing to overlook them if we were to join together through a union of some sorts. He suggested that I was already familiar with the minor deity they had in mind.”
I scratched the corner of my jaw. “Surely Jade wouldn’t agree to that, assuming she even responds to their attempt at exerting their authority over her.”
“Not to mention that such an alliance would make our pantheon pay homage to theirs,” Malia said. She narrowed her eyes. “But that’s not everything, is it? I’m noticing a distinct lack of reference to our Oracles’ auguries.”
Seppo shook his head. “You’re right. They’re completely blind to the Paedens. Motives, movements, what have you, they can’t get a single reading. Synnefo said Zephyrus thinks the Paeden Seers, priests similar to our Oracles, are interfering.”
“How is that possible?” I massaged my temples. The situation wasn’t even that complicated yet, by Malia’s standards anyways, but the lines were already blurring together and my head decided it wanted to act its age again.
“Who knows.” He shrugged. “That’s part of what Azoria is investigating down south.”
“Where, exactly, down south?” Malia asked, narrowing her eyes. “There’s a whole trail of breadcrumbs in this mess, and if you don’t start picking them up I’m going to rub your face in them.”
Seppo whirled at the end of his circuit and double-timed his way through three more paces, puffing furiously. “All right, fine! Paeden warriors have been migrating into Aenea for the past few months. They’ve secured a hold on the river delta and begun taxing the Aeneans on both their fishing and crops. But they’ve made no moves against the Carthians downriver, and our people have seemingly conceded dominance of the region to them.”
Well, wasn’t that a mess. Aenea was a fertile region that stretched along the banks of the Barca river, which snaked its way from some unknown source to the Great Sea that filled the hollow in the middle of the earth. Carthians had conquered almost all habitable territory that abutted this Sea, save for the lands in the east held by the Paedens.
The Aeneans and Paedens had a shared ancestry, and had once served under the Paedens, so the latter’s claim on the region was arguably stronger than ours. But, from the sounds of it, they’d reconquered parts of the territory not by force, but by trade and taxes. And if the Carthians and Aeneans were cooperating with them, that would make it far more difficult to accuse the Paedens of a hostile invasion.
Not that saving face before the Paeden pantheon mattered, but our own acolytes might take less kindly to wanton slaughter and conquest over what they’d perceive as the peaceful reclamation of forefathers’ ancient homelands. Not theirs, of course, but who could fault the Paedens for wanting to return to their roots? And if the cohabitation was mutually beneficial, even more reason to further it. Of course, it would result in loss of land, authority, and prestige for the Carthians, not to mention forfeiting our own claims and established history in the region.
So if the Carthians were acquiescing, either they were short on supplies and stranded from acquiring more, or the Paedens had offered them something they couldn’t possibly resist. And with the Oracles blinded against Paeden activities, we had no way of finding out from afar what the true nature of the situation was. Sending Azoria was a prudent move, since she’d have the foresight to perceive what we needed and return without sparking a war.
But something was off, and I couldn’t quite place what it was.
“You said they’ve been taxing the Carthians for months?” I said.
“How long have the Oracles been silent about Aenea?”
Malia’s eyes flashed. “Longer than that. Phemonoe said her scrying pool was like muddied water a week before the earliest confirmed arrival of the Paedens. At the time, she wasn’t sure which region was obscured, only that somewhere was. We only figured out it was Aenea when they were late on their sacrifices.”
The highest Oracle had a clouded pool? I couldn’t remember a time when Phemonoe hadn’t been able to scry a region, and I had a longer memory than Malia.
“What of the mortal Oracles in Aenea? Rhea and Diona?”
Seppo sighed and shook his head. “Silent, but not as long as that. Diona managed to get a garbled message through, but with the interference, it made no sense.”
“So we just need to expunge whatever blasphemer has inhibited our Oracles,” Malia said, her eyes alight. “I’m sure Azoria will discover them, if they’re in Aenea.”
“And she will not be turning them over to you,” Seppo said, “until Kydon has properly questioned them. That is, assuming they’re not Paedens or under Paeden protection. Abducting foreign sorcerers, even foreign ones interfering in our affairs, could initiate a conflict between us and the Paedens, and I want to be wholly prepared before taking up arms against them.”
The niggling thought burst like a bubble in the back of my mind and brought along an unwelcome friend.
“Seppo, did you send Thane with Azoria?”
He scowled. “Of course not! Why would I be so stupid as to do that? I’d have to be expecting significant death, either of an important figure or sufficient quantity, to—”
“Then where is he?”
“How should I know?” Seppo spluttered. He waved his arms in the air. “I don’t babysit the lot of you. If I tried to supervise each of your movements, I’d be ripping out what little hair I have left.” He flailed a hand towards Malia. “Why don’t you ask her? She probably has him on some secret mission she conveniently forgot to inform all of us about.”
Malia raised an eyebrow. “While I appreciate the compliment, your faith in my abilities is misplaced, this time.”
Seppo scowled. “Well, if you don’t know, how am I supposed to?”
Malia opened her mouth to reply, then frowned as she slapped at her neck. Her eyes went wide as she dropped her hand, and she stared at her fingers. Still shocked, she looked up at me.
I nodded. “Yeah, I felt it too.”
“What, ‘Oh no?’” Seppo snapped.
When that backstage thought had finally cemented, it’d brought with it an annoying little itch at the base of my skull. A sensation that only happened on the eve of a big battle.
I sighed. “I think you should have kept better track of your God of Death.”