Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The rest of the feast passed in a somber blur. Ulti came prancing in sometime after sunset, their dress a rich navy blue, speckled with warm stars. Shortly after, Malia excused herself, tapping Hasda on the shoulder on her way out. He left a very concerned Jade behind, but only because Malia glared daggers at her. I gave her some reassurances after Malia left, but there wasn’t much to say beyond yes, Malia could be prickly and no, you don’t have anything to worry about.
Their departure started a chain reaction of early withdrawals, most notably the two pairs across from me. Resef and Vrixia had the pantheon’s leave to keep to their own schedules, especially during growing seasons and harvest time, but Thane and Azoria were a new addition to the slight breach of protocol. Resef had pulled Thane away to discuss the deaths of the Oracles and the new replacement, however, so it made sense to have Thane help settle the matter, along with the help of our Goddess of Wisdom.
Kydon left not long after, and when Phaeus began passing sideways comments about the quality of the mirth and atmosphere, Seppo announced an official abstinence of formal festive procedure, and that the gods should feel free to leave whenever they felt so inclined. An exodus of opportunity-seeking minor gods followed this proclamation, although there were more than a few handfuls of deities dedicated to revelry who remained.
Phaeus at least restrained himself long enough not to bolt at the first opportunity. Ulti danced off, chasing a comet. Jade muttered her excuses and slithered away.
Seppo picked at a slab of meat on his plate. “Where did Hasda go?”
“With Malia.” I folded my arms and stared at my own half-eaten food. “She’s smoothing over things with him about the whole ‘meaningless execution’ thing.”
He nodded. “As she should. Well.” Setting his fork down, he pushed to his feet and brushed nonexistent crumbs off his robes. “The night is getting on, and I don’t fancy sleeping in this hard chair. Good night, Charax.”
I murmured a goodbye and watched Seppo thump away. The feast had mostly broken up, especially with the head of our pantheon gone, and I really didn’t feel like scavenging for conversation with the remaining gods. Leaving my plate half eaten, I slipped from my chair and through my portal into Maas Pirene.
The fountain splashed in the night, its energy muted by the veil of darkness and the cool of the late summer air. Malia would be along whenever she finished, and sitting alone by the water would give me time to get my thoughts in order.
We had so much ground to cover. Jade’s secret (and how we were going to defend Tingin against Tamiyat), Synnefo’s soon-to-be Seated status, Zephyrus’ parting gift. Whether we’d need to declare war on the Paedens, and what moves we’d need to take prior to such a declaration. That blasted prophecy that hung over my shadow like a bad omen. And that wasn’t even touching on the plans we’d need to make—or which ones Malia would be willing to share beforehand—about Hasda’s new Trial.
I sat on the edge of the fountain and let my mind wander, parsing the various threads without focusing on any as I waited for Malia to return. As my mind drifted, my body relaxed, the rough surface of the fountain digging into my palms with comfortingly familiar pain. Throughout the centuries, the bricks had remained uneven, refusing to wear down under decades of splashing water and divine caresses. They were stubborn, old things, like the gods who called this maas home.
Feathers brushed my shoulder as Malia settled down next to me. Wrapping a wing around me, she nestled against my arm.
“How’d it go?” I asked, hugging her close.
She sighed and leaned into the warmth. “Mm, he took it very well for a mortal.” Her nose wrinkled as she snorted. “I think he even expected something like that.”
“Getting predictable in your old age?”
She gave me a playful nudge. “You’re one to talk.”
“So what took so long?” I kissed the top of her head.
Leaning back onto my chest, she frowned up at me. “I took him through the maas to see if we could scout the Ibithian hydra before we officially journeyed for the Trial.”
“As expected.” I rubbed her shoulder. “So why the long face?”
The corners of her lips sank further and her snakes hissed. “All the avenues to Ibithia through the maas system are blocked.”
Now it was my turn to frown. “All of them? Like—”
“Exactly like the Paedens obstruction of Aenea,” she said, her voice annoyed. “I checked multiple of the adjacent maas. All obstructed.”
“Did you check with the Oracles?”
She shook her head. “I’ll pay Phemonoe a visit tomorrow and see if she still possesses the skills to keep her office.”
“Be nice.” I booped her nose. As much as I played it off, a second barrier was rather concerning. If Ibithia were shrouded from Carthian influence, we’d be potentially powerless going into this next Trial. Not to mention the unsettling fact that this new obstacle just so happened to coincide with the next major Carthian movement. But with the Sea Mother now loose in the world, there was no guarantee that this was the Paedens doing, and even if it were, there was no telling how long the barrier had actually been up.
Ibithia was a backwater territory that abutted the edge of the known world, with a vast, endless ocean beyond its western beaches. We rarely took our trade routes across the strait that connected the Great Sea to the endless ocean because Carthians had held maritime dominance for centuries now, and Ibithia held little value, strategically or resourcefully speaking. Its only alluring feature was how easy it made defending the Great Sea from truly eldritch abominations that occasionally sought to vacation in our smaller Sea, a job held by the hydra we were about to requisition.
Yet another tangled thread to unravel. But before we went chasing that ball of yarn too far, I steered the conversation towards recounting the events that Malia had missed and needed to know. She lay mostly still as she listened, running her fingers up and down my robes or across the back of my arm.
I told her about Zephyrus finally retiring and leaving the pantheon, blessing Hasda with underwater breathing before he departed. About Tamiyat’s mate, imprisoned in or under Jade’s mines, and how we’d need to devise some strategy to protect that cell against the Sea Mother’s attacks. About Nanshe’s demeanor and the potential weak link in the Paeden pantheon she represented.
When I told her about the prophecy, however, she went still and held her breath until I’d finished. Moving my arm out of the way, she sat up and stared into my eyes.
“‘An Adder and an Apparition will be his undoing and his salvation, and a daughter of the Heavenly Bull will be his downfall and rule in his stead,’” she repeated. “You’re sure this was a prophetic vision?”
I resisted the urge to fold my arms. “I wouldn’t have called it that if I weren’t.”
She hissed and flared her wings, then pulled them back in. “Gods just don’t have those kinds of dreams.”
“Believe me, I know.” I ran my fingers through my scant hair. “But whoever this Sybil was, she felt like she was old enough to have watched Tamiyat’s grandmother grow up.”
“Does the Sea Mother even have ancestors that far back?”
I shrugged. “How should I know? All I’m saying is that, if we had to fight one or the other, I’d take a legion of Tamiyats any day.”
“She might be some sort of Paeden illusionist,” Malia said, brow pinched. “You were in mortal form, which could be just enough to let another god traverse your dreams. And with illusory abilities, they could have easily woven such a false identity, especially with Tamiyat’s maddening influence encroaching on the land.”
I shook my head. “Being with you as long as I have, you think I haven’t learned to recognize such sleight of hand?”
She puffed out her cheeks but said nothing.
“Don’t pout.” I stroked her face. “Although it is adorable.”
“Be serious.” She half-heartedly swatted my hand.
I smiled. “Okay. It’s ridiculously adorable.”
That earned a stuck-out tongue.
“In all seriousness, I felt a certainty in my bones about her authenticity.” I held her close as she raised her eyebrows at me. “I know, it sounds ridiculously cheesy, but it’s true.”
“All right.” Malia shifted to let her snakes flick their tongues without getting a mouthful of my robes. “So there’s possibly a being—so immensely powerful we don’t even have a term for it—with unknown motivations, running around and leaving vague forebodings intended to distract us and obstruct our success.”
“You’re not worried about what the prophecy means?”
She gave me a look. “Of course not. I figured it out already.”
I snorted. “I knew you’d say something like that.”
“Hey.” She thumped my chest. “Just because I didn’t figure out that gods splitting an Office was a possibility, it doesn’t mean I have no skill in interpretation. Besides, how was I supposed to deduce that—”
“So what do you think it means?” I said, cutting off another long-winded defense of her previous shortcomings.
“Well, the ‘Adder’ is obviously me.” She smiled in her self-confident way as she settled into her explanation. “And the ‘Apparition’ can only be that pesky djinn Hasda picked up.”
“Oh really?” I couldn’t help sharing her smile. “And how would you explain the betrayal part, then?”
“Simple. Since it’s not coming from me, then that has to be about the djinn.”
I nodded. “Which makes sense on the surface. And—” I held up a finger to forestall any celebration, “—is also far too straightforward. Prophecies are never that simple.”
“It’s still the most likely explanation, and you can’t argue that we shouldn’t have misgivings about that djinn,” she said, scowling.
I kissed her forehead to wipe the wrinkles away. “All right. Then what about the Heavenly Bull bit?”
“I’ve been digging up what information I can find about this Marudak.” Her eyes flashed with pride. “He’s some kind of minotaur, although all the reports on what makes him the uniquely Paeden variety disagree. Multiple horns, heads, arms, fish or avian features—I’ve heard it all.”
That made sense. What made things hard was whether the prophecy meant one of his literal daughters, so a Paeden goddess, or a Chosen One from among the multitude of Paeden children. Malia immediately suspected Jade and, even after explaining the whole “time vault” thing, still thought it could be her. And she was right, as much as I didn’t want to admit it. Marudak was exactly the kind of god who’d lock one of his own children in with their recently defeated elder god. Who knows, maybe having his own bloodline watching the crypt was a plus for him.
I wasn’t entirely sold on Malia’s interpretation of the prophecy, but since we both knew that and understood we weren’t going to get anywhere rehashing it repeatedly left it aside for now. We’d leave for Hasda’s Trial in the next few days, so we’d need to be as prepared as possible for it.