OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 23: Safe Returns
Cassius was on his knees, searching the desperately the still water for any sign of life. Nothing stirred, and in the cloudy blackness of the ocean there was nothing to see. It had been only moments since he realized that Tarsus Cole had passed beyond his sight, yet those moments felt like an eternity. Any time now, he expected Adulatio to say that Tarsus Cole had failed.
Then, he felt it: a surge, in the pit of his own stomach like the rising of the tide. It was a sensation he had never experienced before, but he was struck by the thought that this must have been what mortals felt when in the presence of the gods. An instant after the feeling struck him, he saw it - a light, small and golden, shone deep in the black of the Crystal Sea. Even from where Cassius knelt watching it, on the other side of the ocean, it felt warm and became warmer by the second. The light was growing bigger too, and was moving fast toward the surface of the water.
Cassius smiled, and inched back from the railing of the ship. He turned to face a grim Adulatio, staring down at him intently.
“You feel it,” Adulatio guessed.
“I’ve seen it,” a self-satisfied Cassius answered. “My chosen has succeeded.”
The words had just enough time to escape the demigod’s lips, when an explosion of seawater rocked the ship to one side. Cassius scrambled to his feet as the Defiance bobbed from side to side. He turned back to the railing and gripped it for balance, waiting for the ship’s rocking steady. Though as his body tossed about on a bobbing ship, his eyes were fixed firm heavenward.
Floating above the deck of the Defiance, bathed in golden light, was Tarsus Cole. He looked the same as he had when he jumped into the sea not half an hour ago, and yet, this was clearly not the same man who dove in after Malthir. His demeanor was sure, and his eyes were haunted with shades of the UnderIsle that now lived inside him. Yet Cassius cared not for the struggles Tarsus endured, he only cared about the outcome; and that outcome was gripped tightly in Tarsus’s hands.
“Hail, Tarsus the conqueror,” Adulatio’s voice boomed. “Welcome back to the world of the living.”
Tarsus said nothing, but descended slowly. He touched down onto the deck of the Defiance and brought the sword to his side, tightly gripping it in one hand. “I did not expect to find you here, my lord Adulatio.” Tarsus gave a slight bow to the god he had not seen since that night with Finnian in the Good Shepherd all those months ago.
Tarsus rose to his full height, looking the golden god directly in the eye. Something was different. He did not feel the pull in the pit of his stomach that the gods usually instilled in him when they were near. He did not feel the intense desire to serve and praise, the way he had before. For some reason, he felt unchanged in Adulatio’s presence. He felt himself; with all the jumbled thoughts, feelings and inclinations that came with feeling like one’s self.
“Is something wrong?” Adulatio asked, seeming to sense Tarsus’s awareness.
“I feel different,” Tarsus answered directly. “Unclouded. Clear.”
“You bear a relic of the gods,” Adulatio explained. “One that you have earned through trial, and the willingness to sacrifice your own life. The sword now shields you from the influence of another god’s divinity.”
A few sudden gasps caught Tarsus’s ear. He turned to find Cecily and Finnian nearby, fallen to their knees. They were the first few drops that signaled the rain; after they knelt so too did Amelia and the rest of the ship’s crew. They all began gasping, crying, raising their hands in the air and bowing their heads to avert their eyes.
“What’s wrong with them?” Tarsus asked.
“They are in the presence of two gods now,” Adulatio said. “Tis more than their frail forms can stand. The power is pulling at them, like two children pulling on a wishbone. Soon, they will break.”
“How do I stop this?” Tarsus demanded, turning back to Adulatio.
“Give me the sword,” Cassius spoke up finally.
Tarsus and Adulatio turned to the demigod, who was walking unsteadily from the railing toward them, with hand outstretched. “It is my birthright,” he continued. “Once I have it, I can save them.”
“A lie,” Adulatio said disinterestedly. “The sword in your hands would grant you power, but not understanding. The answer is clear, either I, or the sword, must leave this ship.”
“Then go!” spat Cassius.
“I shall,” Adulatio said slowly. “But only after I know what Tarsus plans on doing with Malthir.”
“He will give it to me!” Cassius roared. “It is mine!”
“That is up to Tarsus Cole, I’m afraid,” Adulatio said, offering a contemptuous smirk. “What say you, Tarsus? Will you give this halfling his father’s sword, and let him take his father’s place as ruler of all Malthanon? Or will you not?”
“There is no other way,” Cassius fumed. “To end my father’s suffering, someone must take his place. You know that. The power he commands cannot simply vanish; it must be contained…commanded. I am the last vestige of my father’s line. I am the only vessel fit to wield his power.”
“Is that so?” Adulatio goaded. The god turned to Tarsus, offering the sunsword a meaningful look. “Is there no other you can think of Tarsus, that could be more fit to rule in Malthus’s stead? No ambitious man, desperate to prove himself? Someone who has already done much in the noble service of the GodKing, while those who claim ties to Malthus’s legacy stood idly by, waiting to be given that which they did not earn?”
Tarsus gripped the sword even tighter in his hand. He raised it close to his face, so that his eyes could take in the beauty of its make. All manner of runes, foreign to Tarsus, etched the blade. A history had been written on that sword, and Tarsus felt a yearning to understand it. His eyes followed them down, along the central ridge, to the rainguard which bore the signet the GodKing that all his KingsGuard wore on their shoulders: the sunstroke, neither beginning nor ending, encircled in gold. The crossguard was a brilliant gold, made all the brighter by the golden light that surrounded the entire weapon, and the grip was the white of ivory.
“Do not listen to him, boy,” Tarsus heard Cassius whispering, as though the demigod were a small serpent on his very shoulder, hissing in his ear. “You do not wish the burden of rule. You have done much for my family, and for that you shall be greatly rewarded. Let your trials end here. I am willing. Give me the burden of the blade you hold, and I swear to you I shall be a greater GodKing than my father ever was.”
Tarsus kept his eyes on the sword. He never imagined he’d be faced with this decision. He knew it was inevitable, but it always seemed so distant. He, Cecily and Finnian were always so focused on what needed to be done to find Malthir that the idea of what to do once the sword was found had never been something they truly considered. Nevertheless, here he was. He had found the sword, and now the burden of choice was on him.
Yet he knew the right choice to make. It came to him instantly, for this was a problem that always had a clear solution. The question for Tarsus was not what to do, but whether he had the strength to do it.
“Adulatio,” Tarsus said, looking intently at the god. “Will you honor and uphold my decision, whatever it may be?”
“You seek protection,” Adulatio surmised. He turned to look at Cassius coldly. “From him.”
“Yes,” Tarsus said.
“NO!” Cassius wailed. “If you betray me, sunsword, I swear that there is no protection this dandy god can offer you. He will leave, and I will bide my time. In the dark places, in the uncertain moments, I will dwell. And I will catch you there, and take back what is mine.”
“Enough!” Adulatio proclaimed. “He has earned the right to choose. And I offer my protection over that choice. Tarsus, do what you will with the sword. Your decision will be upheld, and no lesser god will interfere.”
“Good,” Tarsus said, squeezing the grip of the sword tightly again. He closed his eyes and bowed his head, bringing the grip to his chest and placing it over his heart. “Malthus,” he prayed silently, “I don’t know if you can hear me, but grant me strength. The strength to do what is right.”
Tarsus raised his head, eyes open, and turned from both god and demigod toward his friends. He stepped in close to Cecily, who looked up at him with the lifeless, reverent eyes of someone not in control of their own being. Tarsus bent to his knees, to be level with her, and took her forearm with his free hand, raising it to her breast. In her hand, he placed the grip of Malthir. Then he closed her hand around the grip, and let go of the sword he had done so much to claim.
Cecily’s eyes went from a wide-eyed stare to an alert gaze. Discernment was coming back to her, just as it was leaving Tarsus. The two of them had a quickly fleeting moment of recognition. In an instant, they shared the joy of reunion, the pain of realization, and the gratitude of dedication. Then, the moment was gone, and Tarsus was lost. He let out a sigh and bowed his head.
Cecily rose, Malthir in hand. She looked upon Adulatio and Cassius, standing not far from her. The pair looked back at her; Cassius with wrathful contempt, and Adulatio with mild surprise. She looked at the men and women of the crew, all on their knees with heads bowed. She looked down at her friends, Tarsus and Finnian, and heard their meek voices begging her to show them how they could be of service.
“So you are to be GodQueen then,” Adulatio said airily.
“I do not pretend to know,” Cecily replied in a sure and commanding voice. “I will do what I was asked to do by my GodKing. I will return this blade to Him. What happens after that, none can say.”
“You are wiser than I thought,” Adulatio said, clearly impressed. “Malthus chose well in you. Tarsus chose well to trust you. And I would do well to honor you. You are the caretaker of Malthir now, and I will watch over you until you have passed it on to its rightful master.”
“And you?” Cecily asked of Cassius, pointing the sword at him. “Will you take us safely back to Malthanon?”
Cassius glared at Cecily, “That sword is mine!”
“That may yet be decided,” Cecily said. “I have no wish to keep it. Only to return it. Let Malthanon bestow it on whomever he deems worthy.”
“You have nothing to fear from Cassius,” Adulatio said easily. “He will see you safely back to the city.”
Cassius glared at Adulatio for only a moment, before offering a half bow of his head to indicate that he would do as he was commanded.
“Good,” Adulatio said, bringing his hands together. “Now I must depart. Take care, young maiden. I am sure we will see each other again…in Malthanon.”
With a flash of bright light, Adulatio was gone. The crew of the ship Defiance raised their heads, as one, and looked on Cecily and her sword in reverence.
“Back to your posts, all of you,” Cecily commanded. Amelia, and the rest of the crew immediately stood and retook their positions on the ship.
“Is my birthright not enough for you?” Cassius asked derisively. “Now you take my ship as well?”
“For a little while,” Cecily said sympathetically.
“Where to, my lady?” Amelia’s voice echoed from the forecastle deck.
“To Malthanon, Amelia,” Cecily answered, her voice booming without the slightest effort of a yell. “It’s time to go home.”