Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
We sat in the inner chambers of Malia’s Nebesan temple, Malia soaking in a tub of healing water. It had been ages since I last visited, since we mostly held conference by the fountain of Maas Pirene. Standing torches guttered with flickering flame, painting shadow murals with the evening sunlight on the marbled walls. The timid priestesses had followed us all the way back from Seppo’s temple and now kneeled next to Malia, changing the towels on her forehead and laving her wounds.
I sat on a lumpy pile of cushions out of splash range. It was nice to take a break, even if I’d be heading out soon. I’d sent word to Hasda that he should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice, but to enjoy Nebesa until then. Who knew when our next respite would come?
“So, what are my categories?” Malia asked. A towel covered her eyes, her snakes flicking their tongues in the steam rising off the cloth.
I sighed. “I’m not sure there’s ‘good’ news this time.”
“Ooh, I love those.” She smiled and sank deeper into the bath. “Chronological order, then.”
Settling back on the cushions, I recounted everything that’d happened after she left. Her lips twitched when I mentioned the hydra eggs, but what really got her attention was Phemonoe’s terrifying vision.
“She wouldn’t tell you what it was?” she said.
I shook my head, then grunted at the stupid towel and said, “No. But whatever it was, it must have been terrible.”
Malia hummed and drummed the rim of the tub with her fingers. “Will you take her to the astral plane again? It might help her stabilize these new abilities of hers.”
“I could try, after we handle the Sea Mother.” I poked her arm. “And by ‘we,’ I mean Hasda and I. You need to rest until you’re fully healed.”
She pushed the edge of the towel up and gave me a look. “When was the last time that worked?”
“I love you, and I’m serious.” I folded my arms and laid further back on the cushions. “The Sea Mother is going to be trouble enough, but then we have the Paedens making moves on our western borders now, and they still haven’t given up on Aenea. I can’t fight all these fronts by myself.”
“I didn’t hear enough flattery in that statement to convince me.” Smiling, she let the towel cover her eyes again and sat back.
I grunted. “I suppose you could find a way for the Second Trial to be certified, despite the Arbiter never arriving.”
She flicked a hand dismissively. “Child’s play. Your testimony should be enough, and with Kydon contesting the Paedens’ dispute over our western border, Seppo shouldn’t have a problem approving it.”
“Perhaps.” I glanced at the priestesses. “Aren’t those Phemonoe’s?”
“Were,” Malia said, emphasizing the word. “They were blessed with attending my person, and now belong to my temple. They know, of course, not to let anything discussed here slip beyond these walls, lest they find themselves minted among my statue collection.”
They paled even further and failed to hide the trembles in their hands.
I sighed. While her humor could be lost on others, it was sometimes hard to spot when she was joking. And, since she hadn’t had mortal priestesses inhabiting her Nebesan temple in…well, a really long time, I could understand these two’s hesitation. I gave them a thin-lipped smile. “She’s teasing, and doing a horrible job of it. Phemonoe’s attendants have always been above repute.”
“Don’t give away all my secrets,” Malia said, frowning. “I haven’t finished having my fun.”
I rolled my eyes, although Malia couldn’t see it to appreciate the gesture. Slapping my palms on my knees, I pushed to my feet. “Most threats are fairly innocuous. And, unless she becomes woefully attached to you, she’ll send you back to the High Oracle’s service once she’s better. She’s not actually going to keep you as retainers.”
While the shaking didn’t diminish, they did look slightly relieved, although the glances they shot Malia’s snakes made it clear they were afraid to show it in front of her.
Malia stuck her tongue out at me. “You always spoil things. I’m almost regretting my surprise.”
“You wanted my help with an unpetrified Lazuli?”
“Not that.” She pushed the towel all the way up this time, brow furrowed. “Who told you about Lazuli?”
“Phe did, on the way to Seppo.” Grinning, I wiped a bead of sweat off my chin. It was rather steamy in here.
“Everyone’s ruining my fun today.” Pouting, she crossed her arms and sank into the water, up to her nose.
I arched a brow. “So no surprise today?”
“Fine.” She splashed water over the rim sitting up. “Have you felt your war itch lately?”
“No?” Absently I scratched at the side of my neck. I hadn’t felt anything recently, but I’d been in close proximity to an important fight so it wasn’t surprising if I’d missed something more distant.
Her wings slipped out of the water, dripping pools on the floor behind her and flecking the priestesses’ dresses. “Azoria is remarkably resourceful. Did Phemonoe also tell you about the Desert Nomad temples she nurtured?”
I shook my head. “Vrixia did.”
“Do you remember the Numaedans?” She examined the backs of her nails, which she’d let grow nearly into claws.
“The horse breeders? What about them?” Not quite nomadic, they were a desert people who lived deep in the heart of the Aenean continent and migrated to the coast to trade with the Aeneans and Carthian seafarers. Woven kite shields, bead-riddled dresses, and equines were their finest wares, although they sometimes brought gemstones and metals as well. But they’d never held close ties to any of our peoples, or the Paedens, for that matter. Where was she going with this?
Fangs glistened as a smile split her lips. “I may have enlisted a couple clans in the Aenean army.”
I blinked. “You’re recruiting?”
“Shouldn’t I be?” She gave me an innocent smile and fluttered her eyes. “The Paedens haven’t yet learned to leave well enough alone, and Hasda’s nearly ready to lead. Would you have him be the head of a non-existent force?”
I grunted. “Did you know about Kydon?”
“Not before.” She shook her head, discarding the cooled cloth. The priestesses scrambled to replace it, but she shooed them away. “I’m feeling better now. Go. I’ll call you when I need attendants.”
Faces pale, they gathered up the tools of their ministration and scurried out of the chamber. Their robes fluttered about their ankles in their haste. While technically a breach of etiquette, Malia hadn’t done them any favors, either.
“Don’t look so sour.” She pushed my arm. “I have to find my fun some way if you won’t let me go.”
“We both know you’re going to come, even if you have to physically hold your insides in, no matter how I plead.” I folded my arms at her frown. “And what’s this I hear about you wanting to depetrify Lazuli? You’re in no condition to be gazing or ungazing, for that matter.”
“I did say I wanted your help with her.” She pouted, splashing water as she sat back a little too quickly.
I sighed. “Gleaning what we can before we face the Sea Mother would be useful, but we also have to keep in mind your condition and hers. Tamiyat claims to have discarded her, but was the connection truly severed? You’re in no shape to take on the astral plane.” A frown pulled at the corner of my lips as I remembered how far the Sea Mother’s corrosion had spread. “The whole realm is becoming toxic.”
Her eyes flicked open, and she speared me without moving her head. “I’m not the only one with an astral form, you know.”
“Yours is far more developed than mine,” I countered. “I can barely hold its outline on my own. There’s no way I can guarantee that I could sever any communication attempt between Lazuli and the Sea Mother.”
“Are you trying to insult me?”
I scowled. “More than you, me, by refusing to rest properly?”
She rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t thaw her if I hadn’t accounted for her potentially warning Tamiyat.” That wolfish smile came back, and she didn’t even wince this time. “In fact, I’m counting on it.”
We glared at each other for a moment. Pig-headed woman. She was always taunting the world and expecting to get away with impunity. What constituted limit testing for me were just “suggestions” to her, although the fact that she was stubborn enough to insist on accompanying me to the battle meant she was on the mend. But antagonizing the Sea Mother while her injuries remained was foolish, at best. Some things never changed, Malia least of all.
I sighed. “Fine. But I need to escort Phemonoe to Peklo while you’re taking her out.”
Malia raised a brow. “The astral plane wasn’t enough, you need to take her to the depths now, too?”
“This time, it’s her request.” I grunted a laugh, trying and failing to mask the concern in my voice. “She wants to consult the spirits of the Oracles before her.”
Shock mingled with awe on her cracked face. “The vision shook her that badly?”
I nodded. “I will see what I can learn while we’re there. Do you know where those spirits might be?”
Malia looked off in the distance, her finger tapping her lips. “It’s been decades since I last went down. You’ll have to ask Thane. Or…” A smile curled her lips, and her eyes lit up.
I scowled. “No.”
“Oh, come on.” She splashed water at me. “You’re going to end up taking the Office back from him eventually. You might as well use the Scythe to guide you in the meantime.”
“We’ve skipped enough ceremony due to the circumstances.” I folded my arms and wore my best scowl. “I’m not taking the symbol of the Office, any more I am the station itself, until we can transition properly. I’ll just ask Thane about them.”
She slid to the edge of the tub, her elbows slipping over the rim. “You saw the condition he’s in. You think he’s going to be up to guiding you through Peklo, O Great Bedrest Physician?”
I rolled my eyes. “General directions will work fine. I haven’t lost my ability to track souls down just because I’m not the God of Death anymore.”
“Suit yourself.” Her smile was knowing.
“You behave.” I poked her nose. “And don’t let Lazuli out until I get there.”
“I’ll start from the feet.” Her eyes glowed as she said it.
Pity flickered in my mind. As Lazuli lost her petrification, the feeling would return to her exposed skin. Malia had said she would have her fun, and I didn’t envy the minor goddess for her role in alleviating her boredom.
“Be nice, okay?” I said.
Malia just smiled.