Finding Anansi and Dainmu in the din had been relatively easy from the balcony. They stood out because they were the among the very few number of human looking beings in the entire place.
“Hey, I see them over there!” Ryan said to Athena. She turned and nodded. On an impulse, Ryan offered her his arm. Smiling, Athena slid her hand into his elbow as they walked down the stairs.
“Athena, Ryan,” Anansi said when they reached the table, giving them his usually broad grin. “Glad you made it.”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Ryan said, as he and Athena slipped into seats. “Even if I’m the only one without Hungers tonight. Sorry again I didn’t make it until everything was over.” He nodded to Dainmu to include her in the apology.
Anansi waved dismissively. “Seeing as my advice is what got you shot in the first place, I don’t believe you owe me any explanation.
“About that – thank you. Even if it meant I got shot, I’m so glad I did.”
“You should always listen to me,” Anansi said in overly somber tones. “I am right most of the time – and when I’m wrong, at least it’s usually interesting.”
Ryan chuckled, and Athena rolled her eyes good naturedly. Dainmu raised her drink and took a sip. “The apology is accepted,” she said, almost too casually, “but I’d like to ask – what was the cause of the delay? You didn’t mention that.”
“One second,” Ryan said, raising his fingers to get the bartender’s attention. As he did, he noticed it was Brigit and smiled. “Hey, do you ever get time off?”
Brigit nodded somberly. “I think I took a vacation around the Battle of Waterloo.”
Ryan almost laughed, and then his eyes narrowed. “Are you serious?”
Brigit kept her face serious for another couple moments, until a smile cracked the facade. “It’s an Aos Si trick. I can create homunculi of myself. One’s always here, so technically I am always here – we share a brain.”
Helpless to tell if she was serious, Ryan glanced at Athena, who shrugged. “She’s been claiming something to that effect for three hundred years, but never offered a shred of proof. I take it with a grain of salt.”
Brigit just gave Ryan an enigmatic smile. “So, what’ll it be?”
Ryan got another one of those phenomenal pale ales from his last visit, while Athena ordered a glass of wine. Brigit put their drinks down and bustled off to the next patron.
Ryan turned to Dainmu after taking a sip. It was every bit as good as he remembered. “I passed out when I got back to my staging area for a bit, I think. I probably should have had Crystal put me right at my console, but I didn’t, so…”
Dainmu nodded slowly, accepting that. “I’m glad it wasn’t anything more serious. You’re still Nascent, after all.”
“Yeah, I wish I could forget that fact,” Ryan took another drink to hide his bitterness. “I hate being vulnerable like this.”
All three of his companions made various noises of sympathetic agreement.
“But we shouldn’t dwell on that,” Dainmu said, “And I’m sorry for putting it to the forefront of your mind. We should enjoy this chance to relax.”
“Then let us do so,” Anansi said, taking a drink. “In fact, I’ll be taking my leave for the moment. The music is calling me. Care to join me, Dainmu?”
Smiling, Dainmu took the offered hand. “We’ll rejoin in a bit,” she said, and the two were off.
Ryan glanced over at Athena, who was finishing her wine. “Penny for your thoughts?”
She smiled. “Just thinking about the first time we were here.”
“You mean when we got obliterated and then Crystal almost killed you?”
Athena laughed, and Ryan realized he’d never really noticed her laugh before. It had been such a rare occurrence in the early days that he’d been surprised each time he heard it. Now that it was becoming more common (something Ryan was thankful for), he was learning to actually appreciate its textures. Athena’s laugher was like a good wine. Full of textures and layers and hints of hidden flavors. “Exactly that. I especially enjoyed you bursting in, shouting “Nooo” before you tripped.”
Ryan tugged at his collar in mock embarrassment to hide the actual flush. “I couldn’t just let her kill you. Even if you would have gotten better, she would have felt terrible.”
Another laugh, this one a shade deeper. “Yes, she would have. In fact…”
Whatever Athena was going to say was lost as her eyes trailed over Ryan’s shoulder. He turned to follow her gaze.
Two people had just entered through the main doorway. Ryan recognized one of them immediately. He probably would have noticed her even without the red wings – Uriel had a commanding presence, even more so than the various deities he’d met so far. Which meant the man by her side could only be…
“Arthur,” Athena said to Ryan. “I did not expect to see him here.”
Ryan was about to turn back to her, but then Arthur met his eyes. “Me either,” Ryan said, motioning for them to come over. “But I’m glad we did.”
Athena gave him a raised eyebrow. “Trust me,” Ryan said.
The king of Hell had been integral in defeating Enki, and they’d paid their debt to him by breaking the Underworld deities into Heaven so he could force a Mexican standoff with the Archangel Michael. But he’d come across as being fairly…ruthless.
“Ryan!” Arthur said, giving him a grin wide enough to rival Anansi’s. But whereas the god’s was natural and welcoming, Arthur’s was deliberate. A mask. “So glad to hear you managed to win your little war while I was winning mine.”
Ryan returned the smile with as much sincerity. “And I’m glad your plan came together. Of course, if it hadn’t, we probably would have been on the hook for it.”
“Likely,” Uriel chimed in, offering Ryan and Athena her hand in turn. “Michael is many things. Forgiving is not one of them. Since we were victorious, however, I think he’ll focus his attention on us.”
“Wonderful,” Athena added, “Not that I would wish Michael on anyone, but I prefer his attention was focused on someone who could match his strength.”
Ryan did his best to contain his gratitude towards Athena. Without even knowing what he had planned, she had figured out he wanted something from Arthur and trusted him enough to back his play. Sure, it was a fairly blatant buttering up, but Arthur hadn’t seemed to mind compliments before.
He certainly didn’t mind them now from the way a hint of actual pleasure began to creep into that smile of his. “Don’t you worry about Michael. You’ve got enough on your plates right now, anyway. How goes the end of the world?”
“Slowly,” Ryan admitted. “We’ve got several problems we’re dealing with, and so far still don’t have any ideas for how to end it that doesn’t make a ton of work for your census-takers.”
Arthur nodded at that. “Anything I can help with? Now that I’m free to walk around, I’ve got a good deal more flexibility.”
“Not directly.” Ryan hoped his response hadn’t been too quick, because the truth was he wanted to minimize how much debt he ended up in with Arthur. “But there’s something else that’s bothering me I was hoping you could help with.”
Arthur leaned forward. “I’m all ears.”
“I have a sister,” Ryan said, and watching Arthur’s face he knew he’d called that risk correctly. Just like the military, once Arthur knew who he was, he’d gone digging. Still, at least Arthur had the courtesy to feign surprise. “And she’s mortal.”
“You want me to fix that? Because I can but here’s the thing, Ryan; you might not like my manner of making her immortal.”
Ryan shook his head, trying not to imagine what that would entail. “You’re probably right about that. But there’s a chance that there’s a new nanoverse out there, one of the first of the Next Age. I’d like you to see if you could locate it.”
“I’ll be honest; I’m surprised you even mentioned it. At this point, why wouldn’t I just give it to one of my followers?”
“Because I’ll owe you a favor if you let me have it. On top of that, if you give it to one of your followers, you’ll have to train them in all the powers and abilities of godhood before they’ll be of much use to you.”
Arthur studied Ryan’s face. “You’re not wrong. You understand that giving up an item of that value would be worth a pretty big favor.”
“I’m willing to accept that risk.”
“And I want to add a caveat. If you end up dying before you can fill the debt, or if you’re not available when I need the debt filled, this debt transfers.”
Ryan shook his head. “I can’t put my sister in debt without her permission.”
“I wouldn’t want you to,” Arthur said, grinning. “Instead-”
“I’ll do it.” Athena cut him off before he could even ask.
Ryan looked at her. “You don’t have to.”
“Please. She’s your sister.” Athena turned her focus towards Arthur. “Do we have a deal?”
“Absolutely.” Arthur shook both their hands, and Ryan hoped he hadn’t just made a huge mistake.
“Ryan,” someone said, tapping his shoulder. He turned to see Crystal and Isabel.
“Hey!” he said brightly, glad they hadn’t arrived any sooner. “Crystal, you remember Arthur?” He turned towards Isabel as Crystal gave Arthur a nod. “Arthur, this is Isabel, my sister. Isabel, this is Arthur, current King of Hell, and the Lady Uriel of Hell.”
The bow Isabel gave was extremely awkward, but seeing his sister again, Ryan was sure it would be worth the price.
He just hoped it wouldn’t be up to Athena to pay it.