Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Unfortunately, the feast was not to be, at least not immediately. While Malia cleaned up the mess in Aenea, Seppo and I went to his maas to “have a chat.” A portal and a couple transfers later, and we were climbing the steps of Maas Bierg, headed for his throne room. Seppo plodded ahead of me, silent except for the occasional burst of steam from his exoskeleton. When I tried to initiate a conversation, he simply shook his head, his face serious.
I couldn’t tell if he was upset about something, but he certainly didn’t look happy despite his earlier words to Thane. He wasn’t unduly curt, though, and I couldn’t fault him for now wanting to air his thoughts in public. Still, I didn’t like being left to guess without direction as to his mental state.
We reached the top without incident. No sign of the previous earthquakes, although those had most likely been Malia and Tamiyat’s doing. Seppo’s guards uncrossed their spears to admit us, bowing stiffly at the waist as we passed. I couldn’t help falling into a parade rest as the doors swung shut behind me.
Seppo plunked across the cloudy field, his shoulders bowed. Instead of heading for his throne, however, he bent and scooped up a tuft of cloud, winding it around his fingers.
“So…” I let the word drag, unsure where to begin.
“Would you like a seat, Charax?” He kept his back to me, flicking the tail of the cloud past his shoulder, pulling it back, flicking it again. A nervous habit of his.
I coughed. “I’m good, thanks. You?”
He sighed. “Been better.”
Seppo caught the cloud in both hands and stretched it like dough. “It’s been a long time since we last fought elder gods.”
“And maybe a long time still before we need to again,” I said. “Malia can be very thorough, when she wants to. The Sea Mother won’t breach Carthian lands.”
“Yes, she’s always been dependable. You both have.” A shrill whistle of steam as he wrapped the cloud around his hand. It thinned from the rushing vapor, and he let it go. “I appreciate that.”
I shuffled my feet. “What’s with this melancholy? You drink some souls while we were gone or something?”
He laughed and half turned towards me. The cloudy expanse around us mellowed into a golden sunset, casting shadows across his wrinkled face. “You’d tell me if you were going to move against me, wouldn’t you? You’d at least give me that dignity.”
“What?” I felt my eyes bulge. That’s what he was worried about? “We would never.”
“You would never.” He pointed his finger at me. “But Malia…” He sighed and let his hand drop. “Well, you’ve seen how powerful she’s grown.”
I folded my arms. “What else?”
“Well, it’s just that—” he flung his hands down, an irritated frown on his face. “It’s never mattered before, how much I depended on Malia to manage our foreign affairs. Border skirmishes were always an unavoidable consequence of Carthia being a mercantile empire. And we’ve clashed with other pantheons before.”
“But none of this caliber.”
“Oh, we’ve been in a pissing contest with the Paedens for several decades now.” He waved his hand, scowling. “But against a primordial? How am I supposed to lead us against that?”
Now it was my turn to frown. “That’s what we’re here for. We’re your Gods of War for a reason. We keep the kingdom safe from threats without, and you protect us from fracturing within.”
“Yes, no better than the mortal paper pushers.” He shook his head and stomped across the clouds to his throne. Above, the clouds darkened to crimson, the artificial light growing dim as twilight descended. Grumbling, Seppo ascended his dias and clunked into his seat. “I don’t begrudge you your ability, you know. But I despise my own frailty.” He lifted his hands and stared at the brass tubing lining his limbs. “These….these can never do more than lead from the backline.”
I felt something tingle on the back of my neck, but I resisted the urge to slap it. “What’s this really about, Seppo?” I walked over and sat at the feet of his steps. He wasn’t too hard to see if I leaned back. “We’ve known each other long enough. You know I’ve always had your back. So what’s really eating at you?”
He scowled. “I hate you sometimes, you know that?”
I grunted. “Don’t we all?”
Seppo snorted. “Well, if you insist.” Sighing, he dropped his chin on his fist and watched the western horizon. He sat silent for a moment, his eyes reflecting the dying light. “That...creature, Tamiyat.”
I hummed in acknowledgement.
“She’s just so…” He screwed up his face, trying to find the right words. “Well, she unearthed emotions I’d thought long decayed.”
“Like no other.” His eyes, intense, found mine. “She was like an older sister to my mother. Took her under her wing, taught her how to get the most out of her cruelty. Of course, I never met her, but I felt the ripples of her influence.” Voice soft, his eyes glistened with emotion. “And seeing Tamiyat, it was like seeing my mother’s fingerprint. But not just that, the whole hand of the monster the print came from. And as strong as Malia’s become, even she could barely withstand her.” He shook his head. “How are we supposed to?”
“We’ve already discovered one weakness,” I said, adjusting my seat. “She’s lost whatever physical avatar she once had, so she’s forced to rely on underlings to move for her outside the astral plane.”
“Bah.” Seppo drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne. The metal tinged with each tap. “That won’t be enough to stop her. It may not even slow her down. A being who considered my mother—my mother, Charax—a kid sister isn’t going to be slowed down by some paltry limitation like losing her physical avatar. And it took so many of us to put my mother down.”
I felt my gut go cold. Yes, it had. His siblings, my friends, countless worshippers clinging to their gods through the decimating droughts and plagues that ravished the infant Carthian lands. We’d barely managed, Seppo and I and the gods whose names only we two remembered. But we had, in the end. Oh, more than just he and I had survived his mother’s wrath, but most had since retired, and old Zephyrus was nearly there. The thought made my bones creak, reminding me of my own age.
Seppo nodded. “Maybe I’m just feeling old. But there’s always been two heads of our pantheon, and you know it.” Sighing, he patted his chair. “I owe my throne to you, of course. Without your help, I—”
“Are you done?”
He blinked. “What?”
I gave him a stern look. It was like scolding Hasda all over again, only I never expected to be doing it to my peer. “Did you mean what you said earlier? About trusting us?”
“Well, yes, but I—”
“Good. Then shut up.” I pushed to my feet and folded my arms. He gaped like a fish, gulped a couple times uncertainly. I bit the insides of my cheeks to keep from laughing involuntarily. “We’re not coming for your crown, especially not with two pantheons armed and at the door. I wouldn’t even use your throne as a pisspot if you did give it to me. So if you’re done having your pout, there’s some serious things we need to discuss.”
“I—” He swallowed and shook his head. “Asshole.”
I laughed. “It’s been forever since I’ve heard you swear.”
“Yes, well, you always did know how to draw out the worst in me.” He grumbled as he pushed up off his throne. “Fine. I’m better now.” He shook a finger at me as he came down the steps. “I should have you demoted for insolence.”
“Oh? And how do you propose to do that?” I grinned and ignored the stupid itch on my neck, which had decided to come back.
He gave me a sour look. “You don’t have to rub it in. Although, I could make you Co-Head of the pantheon?”
I stumbled. Coughing to mask my recovery, I fell into step behind him. “You wouldn’t.”
“No, but I could have you hold a full office again.” He clanked across the cloudy platform, his exoskeleton catching the last few rays of light.
“Funny you should mention that.” I tugged at my robes, which had twisted from sitting on the ground. “Thane mentioned wanting to abdicate in favor of me. Said he’d prefer to be the God of Wine or something. While he was fairly addled by the souls he’d just annihilated, there was an air of authenticity I couldn’t shake.”
“Perhaps a discussion for after the feast, then.” Seppo placed his palm on the door, sagging a little. “That…” He rolled his free hand. “Whatever that was. Is that what you felt? When you decided to retire.”
I sighed and nodded. “A bit. When the decades start feeling like centuries, the millenia really start to get to you.”
“And the weight.”
“It never goes away.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “I didn’t think it would, but one can hope. Well, let’s get on with this feast, shall we? I finally found some inspiration for Hasda’s Second Trial, and I’m sure the lad is eager to be on his way.”