Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The portal opened onto a marbled plaza, the stone mellowed to a warm golden hue from age. Thick columns ringed the plaza, stretching high into the heavens. In the center burbled a fountain, its pipes hidden within a bronze statue of a trio of dryad sisters. The youngest lay on the feet of the others, staring up with a longing expression. The middle dryad, hugging the oldest, reached for her sister’s raised hand, a wordless plea frozen on her face. And the oldest, eternally watching the water spill from the palm of her hand, had a look of pure ecstasy carved onto her features.
The Grove of Life, symbolizing the passing of time and the current that bound us all. Malia and I had first met under that fountain, and we’d spent many a decade planning our war efforts seated on its bowl. Where we had...had a thing, so to speak, and the Fates had taunted us. The damned harpies were flaunting their station again, because our reunion occurred in the shadow of the fountain as well.
She stood with her back to us, her dark wings a canopy shading her serpent hair from the crimson sun of Nebesa. Across her back was a quiver of divine arrows, the War Bow unstrung and seated next to the shafts. Absent from her waist were the other divine weapons, the signs of her station: the girdle, the dagger, and the sword. Her hands were empty of the spear as well. Maybe the old gorgon was being modest, and maybe she had some other scheme nested among the snakes writhing on her head. I’d bet my temple on the latter.
At her side stood a thin, pale man dressed all in black. Ropes, died even darker than his robes, served as a belt, the scythe of the God of Death wedged almost flippantly above his hip. Though Malia was by no means tall, my old apprentice still barely reached her shoulder, his lack of height accentuated by his constant half-bow. This position let him see under her wings, and he smiled and whispered something to Malia when he saw us.
I grumbled and approached the pair, and then paused when I saw Hasda gawking. His mouth mimicked the portal in miniature, his head tilted so far back I had to grab his shoulder to keep him from toppling. He snapped his jaw shut with a clack and gave me a sheepish grin. “Thanks.”
“It’s not really that impressive,” I said, half-dragging him towards the waiting gods. “They’re almost identical to the pillars of my temple.”
“Yes, but they’re so tall!”
“They can be shrunk.”
“Really?” His eyes popped.
I sighed as I hitched my robes out from under my feet. No need to send myself sprawling. “That was a joke, Hasda.”
Wings fluttering, Malia spun on her tail and smiled as we approached. Her light green skin, which matched her scales, showed no signs of wrinkles, although the pale yellow of her underbelly had encroached on her throat. The snake heads, mostly dark green adders with a few black coral snakes, flicked their tongues at me as I smiled.
“Charax,” Malia said. Her silky voice sent shivers down my spine, the bones jittering like an old dog asked to perform its favorite trick. Her golden eyes were as pleasant as her smile, and I’ll be damned but my treacherous heart was glad to see her again.
I nodded. “Malia.”
“It’s good to see you again,” she said.
“And you, for as short as my visit will be.”
“You’re not staying?” Her eyebrows rose, and a shade of a frown tugged at the corners of her lips.
I shook my head. “No. I’m merely here to return your gift, given as a child but a child no more, with my full blessing.” Folding my staff in the crook of my arm, I shrugged. “Plus, I’ve no Seat among these Halls. And I’ve a mind to get back to my retirement, which you so rudely interrupted twenty—”
“Thirty,” she interjected.
“—thirty-two years ago.” I glanced at Hasda, who was ogling Thane’s scythe despite having supposedly seen it before, and tried to keep the sadness from my voice. “Raising him was good for me, and I thank you for it, but it’s time for me to return to my peace.”
“If you must.” She shook her head, and her serpents swiveled, keeping their heads locked in place and their gazes firmly on me. “At least have a drink before you go?”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “No ambrosia. I haven’t touched it since I left and I’ve no plans to start today.”
“Of course.” Her eyes sparkled. “Thane! Be a dear and fetch us some refreshments, if you would.”
“At once, milady.” He bowed low, his reedy voice at odds with his grim attire.
She fluttered her hand at him. “And remember, no ambrosia for your once-master.”
He dipped his head, his chin nearly sinking into his chest, and scurried around the fountain, disappearing in a puff of black smoke.
When he vanished, it seemed to snap Hasda out of his haze. He shook himself and had his wits all collected, and then he laid eyes on Malia. His jaw dropped, and my hands itched to poke his eyes to keep them from falling out. “Wow.”
She chuckled. “It’s good to be appreciated,” she said, ribbing me.
I grumbled something about tomfool-cats in heat and she laughed.
“Don’t be jealous, you old salt. Just because the lad has eyes.”
“His eyes work perfectly fine,” I said firmly, my hands clenching on my staff. “If you’d be so kind as to stop overloading his mortal senses with your divine aura, I’m sure he’d be up to having a reasoned conversation with us.”
“I forgot how much fun you are at parties,” she pouted. The air shimmered as she withdrew her power, masking it for Hasda’s sake.
The boy—man—blinked, and blinked some more. “Wow,” he repeated, finally finding his voice. “Are we really in Nebesa?”
“Did you miss the portal I rent in the very air to get here, or did you hit your head on the mantle on the way in?” I said.
He flushed and dropped his eyes. “No.”
“So you mean to tell me that when you’ve been sneaking out to meet with Malia, it’s been in my own backyard?” I was more mad that he’d taken up lying and deceit so quickly, rather than his secret meetings with Malia (although I was plenty grumpy about that, too), so I switched tack to make sure the appropriate message was driven home. “How long have you lived with me, and you still haven’t learned not to lie to gods?”
“Be pleasant, Charax,” Malia said, sliding between us. A wingtip grazed my shoulder, and I had to fight to keep from breaking into shivers. Damn woman and her damned touch. She gave me a thin smile. “He is mortal, after all, and he looks slightly faint from his first visit among our Halls. If only he had something to drink.” She glared at the fountain.
A puff of black smoke, and Thane was back among us, a silver platter with four jeweled goblets perched on his hand. “Your refreshments, as requested.”
“Excellent.” She tugged Hasda forward, drowning him in a smile. “Please, help yourself.”
“No ambrosia.” My sharp voice froze his outstretched hand. “He’s still very thoroughly mortal. Raised by me or not, he’d need at least a quest and maybe a campaign under his belt before he could stomach it.”
“We would never.” Thane said, a false smile on his face. Faster than Hasda could see, he flicked the goblet the lad was reaching for, transforming the motion into an offering and placing it against Hasda’s fingers. “For you, fair mortal. A harmless gift from the gods.”
“Which gods?” I asked as Hasda sipped from the goblet.
That was enough for a frown to slip through Thane’s amiable façade. “His hosts and benefactors, myself and Malia.”
I grunted. “And is mine a gift?”
“It could be,” Malia said, a concoction of emotions lacing her voice.
Resting my staff on the ground, I stood tall and shook my head. “Mine will be given as a measure of your hospitality to a peer, and not as a boon.”
“So be it.” Thane plastered his smile back in place and lifted a bronze goblet. I watched his hand carefully as he proffered the drink for any divine sleight of hand he might pull. But he merely handed me the drink and moved on to giving Malia hers, his fingers caressing the stem as he did so.
I sniffed my drink suspiciously all the same. It smelled of grapes and pomegranate, with a hint of apple underneath. No telltale signs of ambrosia, and nothing citrus to mask its smell. If slipping me ambrosia wasn’t how Malia meant to lure me back, what was? I pondered the question as I tasted the juice. Hasda had already finished his, drops of cranberry juice staining the corners of his mouth, and held his goblet out for more.
“So,” Malia said, toying with her own drink, “I hope you’re not planning on wearing that to the feast tonight.”
Ah, so that was her game.