Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
A few days later, the feast finally arrived. After leaving Jade to refresh herself, I hunted Hasda down and berated him for leaving the wrong sword sheathed. I wasn’t too harsh on him, though, and I think he took the proper meaning to heart because we worked in several solid training sessions before the announcement of the Second Trial. The lad’s insistence on wearing the possessed chestplate despite them being relaxed bouts with wooden swords slightly unnerved me, but I tucked the feeling away to discuss with Malia when she returned.
By feast day, however, she still hadn’t returned. It was only Seppo’s reassurances that, yes, Malia was fine, she was just busy cementing Carthian rule and easing the new Oracle into her position in Karnak that kept me from barging through the maas back to Aenea. Our bond was quiet, which was also a good sign. But I’d have thought Malia a little more efficient than that. She’d been gone so long I’d started paying attention to the days again.
It was that thought, seated by myself as I was in the feasting hall, that made me realize that, maybe, I was just a little Malia deprived. The others had their partners, Thane and Azoria blushing as they fumbled through a conversation a few chairs to my right, Hasda and Jade speaking in hushed whispers in the language only they knew to my left. Despite my general leniency regarding their relationship, Jade looked uncomfortable being seated near the head of the table, her romance with Hasda on full display.
Seppo looked just as annoyed as I did, although for vastly different reasons. While Hasda hadn’t been disrespectful, he hadn’t given Seppo a chance to offload more stories onto him. In fact, beyond a cordial greeting I don’t think Hasda had spoken to him once. The old god sat with his chin in his hand, drumming his fingers around the edge of his plate with a sullen frown on his face.
Several other gods had found their places around the table while the dryads flitted about, setting places and platters. Phaeus was on the opposite side of the table from me, a seat further down than he’d been at Hasda’s celebration feast. Resef and Vrixia sat opposite Jade and Hasda, taking a temporary reprieve from their agricultural showers to honor the start of the Second Trial. Across from me sat Tarrha, her aqueous water nymph form nearly transparent, with Saffi on her left. Although she had her eyes on me, she was clearly flirting with him, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they left together tonight.
Aroma-laden steam rose from the table, floating peppery scents among the sweet honey smells of the glazes. Baked fish, boiled carrots, and black-peppered beans sat in tiers along the table, empty spaces next to them promises of desserts to come. The food was all very nice and bore Lutro’s signature style, but the atmosphere of the feast was as mixed as a shepherd’s stir fry.
Bunched at the opposite end of the table, most of the minor gods chatted away about the return of the Sea Mother, their excitement only dampened by Jade’s sudden elevation. I narrowed my eyes at them as I heard another unsavory comment about the lamia passed among them. While it wouldn’t do to fight Jade’s battles for her, I could always leave the minor gods a friendly reminder of who her boyfriend’s patrons were.
I scraped my tongue on my teeth. Now that was a word that was going to take some getting used to.
As for the other gods, they either seemed depressed, distracted, or downright giddy. Talk of a potential war with Paedaea clashed with expectations about Hasda’s Second Trial and his coming success. Tarrha’d finally tired of my inattention and had turned her full focus on Saffi. Phaeus and Resef were debating the necessity of the dwarf forging more scythes before the fall harvest, with Vrixia leaning against her husband’s shoulder, eyes closed and face content.
“Pardon me, but it seems you’re in need of a good conversation,” a gravelly voice said from behind me.
I jerked up as Zephyrus slipped his aged figure into Malia’s seat. I hadn’t heard him come up, and I was surprised that he’d come himself, instead of letting Synnefo handle his attendance like he had for the first two feasts. Wisps of gray hair trailed from his mustache into his long, wavy hair, giving him a strangely draconic look. Which fit, since he assumed various sky serpent forms, depending on which weather he wanted to manifest.
Shaking my head, I said, “Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes. I didn’t know they commissioned the Spartans to dig you out of the sand.”
“Hmph.” Zephyrus snorted, rattling his mustache. “Retirement hasn’t dulled your tongue a bit, Charax.”
“Glad to hear it. I take it that retirement hasn’t quite gotten ahold of you, then?” I smiled as his eyes flooded silver.
“Mm, but it nearly has.” The way his eyes glistened, it felt like there was some hidden subtext I wasn’t seeing.
I brushed the thought aside. “So what brings you out for the festivities?”
Zephyrus looked past me at the lad. “I have heard...things about your child. Good things.” He paused and blinked at me. “Strange things.” Lowering his head towards me, he whispered, “Is it true? The lad is a Beastwhisperer?”
Frowning, I swallowed at the suddenly-uncomfortable feeling that clawed at my throat. “Aye.”
“That will serve him well, I think.” Zephyrus nodded to himself. Eyes unfocused, he sat in a daze for a moment, then roused himself. “Would you mind?”
“If I bless him, before I go.”
The world tilted. After a couple long breaths I was back together. Although the air felt far heavier, conversations still swirled around the table, so only I’d heard what Zephyrus had said. And what heart-sickeningly significant weight it carried.
I couldn’t help my frown. “Are you sure?”
Zephyrus gave me a tired smile that mirrored the ones that had far too recently etched my own face. “The words I’ve heard whispered on the wind, Charax, tell me your boy will have need of such boons.” He chuckled. “And it’ll piss old Tammy off to no end.”
“You should know,” I said slowly, “that I’ve already given Hasda a partial bless—”
“I’m not so old as to be unsubtle,” Zephyrus said, waving my comment away. “I’ll give the boy his water lungs, and then be on my way.”
I hissed as Zephyrus pushed to his feet. “So you’re going to leave? Just like that, no goodbyes to anyone?”
His wrinkled fingers curled around the arms of the chair as he froze halfway up. Grunting, he regarded me with his expressive yet unrevealing eyes. “When have I ever been about goodbyes?” He sighed as he slipped out of his seat and straightened. “Besides, what would it matter? Seppo knows, Synnefo knows, and now you. Who else among our pantheon shares our history?”
Even though the thought annoyed me, I held my tongue. Zephyrus was right. Most of the old guard had passed on already. Pek, I’d tried to retire even before Zephyrus finally gave up. But it still grated, seeing him go.
Sensing my understanding, Zephyrus nodded and patted my shoulder as he moved behind me to reach Hasda. Quietly, he interrupted their conversation, said a few words to the lad, and then plunged his hand into Hasda’s chest. I could have warned him, but he took it with a brave face, smiling at the old god whose incorporeal hand was roaming around his chest cavity.
After only a moment, the gift was given, and Zephyrus mumbled goodbyes as he shambled from the feasting hall. Seppo tilted his head to watch the weathered old weather god go, and once Zephyrus was out of sight Seppo rose and clanged his mug with a spoon.
“I’ve half a mind to keep this short,” he said, his voice gravely with a hint of bitterness. “Several of us are, yet again, absent from this feast.”
“Apologies for the delay, Lord Seppo,” Kydon rumbled as he took his seat halfway down the table. The hairy ogre made the table sag and groan as he sat down, but he looked grieved only to have arrived late.
Seppo scowled. “Others who could not be here on time due to outside obligations. As you all know, Aenea was recently divided and a portion taken from us.” He paused to sip his drink. “That land has since been reclaimed. But the cause of that annexation was the Paedens’ failed attempt to prevent one of their elder gods from returning. A formidable primordial, one who wields an amphibious army in the depths of the Great Sea, who will no doubt make moves against both pantheons once she’s bolstered her position.” Digging at the table with the edge of his spoon, he sighed and kept his eyes down. “While it would’ve been better for both patrons to be present, Malia is otherwise occupied at the time, and Charax will suffice.”
He set his spoon down and glanced at Hasda. “To the west lie the Gates of Okher, guarded by the Ibithian hydra. You will travel there and forge an alliance with this hydra, as well as any merfolk who will bind themselves to our cause. Failing that, you will acquire one of the hydra’s offspring, be it egg, hatchling, or juvenile.” He turned to Resef and Vrixia. “No offense to either of you, but we need answers to a marine threat that you cannot provide.”
Resef nodded, but Vrixia merely pressed her lips together and tightened her grip on his arm.
Seppo’s exoskeleton hissed as he folded his arms. “Thus is the task I set before Hasda as his Second Trial. May he find success in his endeavors.”