Do you ever take the time to read the fine print on any app downloads? How ‘bout when you buy a car or house? Most of us just allow the representative to explain what each section is saying and trust in their word. Aiden is not one of those people. He reads every byline twice, looking for loopholes.
He has been a solicitor and lawyer for well over a century, so he drafted our oath with the occasional input from yours truly.
First and foremost, we covered our own asses. We would harbor Loki for 31 days, so long as he agreed to remain enclosed in the location of our choosing. Interfering with our business in any way would result in a violation of our oaths, and he would experience the entirety of the repercussions outlined in the section titled Illegal Termination Clause.
In exchange for our mule services, he would secure a Finder Ship for us, along with safe transport to Earth. We intentionally left Victoria’s name off the agreement. In the end, we did not care who got us home, only that they did. Also, we did not want in writing the fact that we planned to take Victoria’s vessel. That would be illegal.
Once we finished, we copied much of the agreement for our oath to Victoria. Likewise, she would procure passage to Earth. But both Loki and Victoria will not be able to carry us back across Fae. No matter what, one of the two would fail to meet the obligations in the agreement. So long as one did not exchange notes with the other regarding the oaths, we would be able to burn one of them.
For Victoria, it was much more difficult filling in the Services Rendered section. After all, we could not say, “stealing the heart of the minotaur from Theseus” and leave the document for just anyone to find. Instead, it spoke of acquiring a valuable artifact, known to both parties and spoken at the binding. This was not unheard of when creating an oath.
“Take that, bitches,” Aiden said, writing the last line. “Finally, we are getting ahead on something.”
“I wouldn’t say that. We still have to steal the artifacts and get out.”
“Right,” he said, deflating somewhat. “But this way, we can take someone down with us. This proves Victoria is a co-conspirator. And Artemis. She’ll be as much on the hook as the rest of us.”
“And we will have it in writing,” I said.
“Why do I get the feeling something is going to go horribly wrong and that she has somehow already considered everything we are saying?”
My frown mirrored his. I sighed. “Likely, she has. But she likely has not considered Lo—uh … you know who’s working with us.”
“Are you ready to call him?”
He inhaled deeply, finished his wine in a single gulp, then nodded. “Do it.”
I dropped our sound shield and said, “Loki is a bitch.”
A white glove appeared and slapped limply across my cheek, followed by the rest of Loki. He held the glove in front of my nose. “And don’t you forget it, girlfriend.”
He had changed into a purple doublet with no sleeves and wore tight-fitted white leather trousers. He sauntered over to the bar and helped himself to a glass of rosé. Raising the glass high, he said, “Here’s to escaping Atlantis.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Aiden said, pouring himself some more. He tipped the bottle toward me with an raised eyebrow.
I shook my head. “One of us needs to keep a level head.”
Loki blew out his lips, spittle flying. “Fun-killer.”
Aiden frowned and put his glass on the bar, untouched. “Right. Business first.” He pushed our draft toward Loki.
The trickster god picked it up with a smirk. “How adorable.” He dropped it back on the bar and flourished his wrist. A volume thicker than War and Peace appeared in his hand. He slapped it down in front of me with a thwack. “This is our working draft.”
“Not a chance,” Aiden said. “I will go to Theseus myself and confess before glancing at that. It’s our draft or we walk.”
Loki’s smirk faltered.
“The way we see it,” I said, confidently. “You need us as much as we need you. Earthlings do not come here often. Those who do are mages and know all about the gods. It could be another century before you get an opportunity to leave. We are your only shot out of here, and you won’t mess that up.”
Aiden grabbed our draft and plopped it down in front of Loki. “We’ll give you a chance to read over the language and make any addendum you like. We will read over the changes then sign.”
Loki picked it up, thumbed through it. I felt ether flash as he glanced over the pages. His tone became more businesslike. “This is acceptable with one alteration.”
“Which part?” Aiden asked.
He flipped to the page and said, “Under Illegal Termination Clause, you must include the word intentionally right here.”
“The Passenger will not intentionally interfere with the Service Providers or their business in any way,” Aiden read, adding the change. He frowned, thinking. Finally, he shook his head. “Leaves too much to interpretation. You could honor the letter and not the spirit.”
“Oh?” Loki asked. “How so?”
“If your intentions are to further your own goals, this entire line is moot. You could push your own agenda and still not intentionally interfere with out goals while still fucking us six ways from Sunday.”
“Only if you let me, darlin’,” he said with a wink. “But I won’t sign it without the change.”
“Fine, but I am adding a line that says ‘Will not take actions which might knowingly harm the Service Providers, their duties as members of the Collective, or their attempts to preserve the safety and well-being of others.’ Agree to that, and we take the oath.”
Loki fluttered his eye lashes. “I take it back. You are the fun-killer. But we have an accord.”
Aiden pulled in ether and modified the language. We all read over the pages again, closed it, then sealed the pages with a bond of ether. No alterations could be made without the others noticing.
“You start,” I told Loki.
He shrugged a shoulder. Taking out a knife, he sliced the skin of his palm, making a thin red line. Holding it over the pages, he intoned, “By my essence and my blood, I bind myself to these words.” As he closed his fingers into a fist, crimson drops spattered onto the page. He repeated the oath, pouring ether into the red pool atop the page.
It sunk into the document. The pages glowed. He stepped back from the document, cheeks slightly piqued. Aiden and I spoke the words next, cutting our palms and spreading our blood atop the document. We both spent the ether to bind ourselves to the oath.
When the binding settled over me, I felt a weight impossible to carry. I stumbled, holding onto the bar to keep from falling. Aiden staggered but stayed upright by grabbing my arm. After a few moments, the heavy feeling passed.
Before I could grab the oath, Loki plucked it from the bar. “I’ll hold onto this.”
“We are the service providers,” Aiden argued. “Traditionally, we are the ones to carry the oath.”
“I loathe tradition. Besides, this has potentially incriminating evidence. I’ll keep it until the services are rendered.” Before we could raise further objections, wyther and ether surged, and the document vanished.
“Gods damn it,” Aiden said. “Fine. It’s done anyway. Go fulfill your part. Liam and I still have work to do.”
“As you wish.” Loki flourished his hand into a deep curtsey, vanishing before his eyes dipped too low to see us.
“Insufferable prick,” Aiden spat. “Let’s find Victoria and get this over with.”
We made our way back to the hover crafts and paid for a trip to the Lady’s Villa. They carried us a few blocks over to a single mansion overlooking the bay.
The style was late Victorian—which had always been Vic’s favorite—somewhere between Queen Anne with a dominate front-facing gable and loose goth with three asymmetrical towers. The main structure was off-white with crimson slate tiling the roof. In front was a colorful garden that complemented the mansion rather than pull the focus.
There was no place to return the flying Segways, so we parked them on the sidewalk in front the garden. The disembodied voice asked, “Would you like to pay a docking fee while I wait for your return?”
“No,” Aiden said. “We can fly ourselves back up the beach.”
“Thank you for choosing the Tinkers Guild. Good bye.”
The hover crafts took to the air, speeding away from us. Before we could take two steps, a team of minotaurs were rushing toward us, all armed with medieval weapons, swords, axes, and even a halberd.
The lead minotaur stopped just short of us. His nose was flat, like a pug with round saucers for eyes. He slammed the butt of his halberd on the ground and said, “This is private property. Leave at once.”
“Can’t,” I said. “We have bus—”
“This is your last chance to remove yourselves.”
“What is your name?” I asked.
“That is not your concern. If you do not leave of your own accord, we will assist you.”
“Fine,” I said with a shrug. “I’m sure Victoria won’t hold it against you when I tell her how you treated her guests.”
His eyes became even wider. He spoke with immense confusion. “Mistress Deletante invited you?”
“Yep,” I said. “And you are in our way.”
He turned to the other guards and spoke in a language I did not know. One of the guards ran off. The lead guard turned to me and said, “Wait here.”
Several minutes later the guard returned at a run. Out of breath, he whispered into the lead minotaur’s floppy ear, who nodded. When he turned back to Aiden and me, his expression was more subdued.
He gestured toward the cobbled path. “This way if you please.”
I could see the mischievousness in Aiden’s eyes. He hates bullies even more than I do. This guard found a rat in his garden that turned out to be a rare gerbil. Okay, maybe not the best metaphor, but I haven’t slept in a few days. Give me a break. The point is, I didn’t want Aiden starting a fight just to show he wasn’t a pushover. As he opened his mouth to speak, I stepped in front of Aiden, effectively upstaging him by blocking his view of the minotaur.
“Please,” I said to the guard. “After you.”
“Asshole,” Aiden whispered in my ear.
I smiled and kept walking. The rest of the minotaurs flanked us. I felt more like herded cattle than an escorted guest, but I left that thought unsaid. From what I understand, minotaurs are a bit touchy about how Earth treats cows.
They led us around a maze of hedges, covered in flowers of every imaginable color, patterned to create a mural of people in fine clothing. There was a subtle energy of the ether required to sustain the flowers in bloom. Looking more closely, I realized the smooth stones beneath the bushes were arrium. No wonder the guards shooed off people wandering near. Nothing spoke of wealth like leaving magical artifacts literally laying about.
The green maze opened to a patio of dark marble, polished enough that I could see my reflection. Gods, did I need a bath. And a rest. Both of those needed to happen before we hit Theseus. The walkway wound around a coy pond with lily pads. Small fairy-like creatures zipped above the waters, pulling weeds and leaves from the water’s surface. Their wings fluttered swiftly like hummingbirds, glittery dust flying from behind them. Each wore maid’s dresses with low cut bodices. No head color was the same, but they all had their hair up in a floppy bun, bobbing about as they worked.
Beneath the clear waters, I could see merfolk—mermaids and mermen—swimming between underwater buildings. They were even smaller than the fairies. I had read merfolk would grow to match their environment. It took an ocean-sized habitat for them to grow to the size of humans. The pond was no more than twenty meters across, and they shared the space with a multitude of fish and other aquatic creatures.
The minotaurs marched by as though the tiny habitat did not exist, oblivious of the beautiful fairies diligently cleaning the space. They escorted us to double-doors made of glass, propped open. Inside was a common room with old Victorian style furnishings. A grand sofa of dark wood and plush white pillows was the centerpiece. The frame was gilded with platinum scrollwork. Crimson throw pillows decorated the corners. In front of it was a coffee table with matching wood and design. Two chairs on either side mirrored one another to complete the set.
A woman of angelic beauty stood behind the sofa, white wings bound to her back. She wore a red dress, tight around her chest down to her thighs but loose about her knees. Gods, did she fly to work? Talk about distracting drivers.
“Greetings,” she said with a voice that sent shivers down my spine. “Victoria is expecting you. Would you like any refreshments while you wait for her to receive you?”
In my periphery, I could see Aiden gaping at the seraph—at least that’s what I thought she was— and I wondered briefly if I looked so entranced. Closing my mouth to avoid drooling, I decided I’d rather not know the answer.
“Thank you,” I said, voice squeaking more than I would have liked. Clearing my throat I added, “I would love some coffee. And maybe a pastry.”
She nodded to a servant I had not seen before. It was a goblin. She was no more than 3 feet tall, with dark beady eyes and green skin. Call me xenophobic, but she was too adorable to be sexy, even though I am certain that’s what the girl’s red dress was designed to be. No. She wasn’t really a girl. I know she was a fully grown female goblin, but she looked like a kid with green skin playing dress up to my barbaric, human mind.
The goblin curtseyed then bounded down the hall, disappearing through a double-hinged door. The seraph turned to us, gesturing to the sofa. “Please, make yourselves comfortable. If you need anything else, please do let me know. I am Charmeine.”
I turned to see the minotaurs had dispersed. Only one remained, standing by the entrance. He’d adopted a bored expression, while pretending not to watch us. Even though he looked straight ahead, I felt his awareness on us.
Apparently, Aiden noticed as well, because he said, “I would love a hamburger. And some chips.”
The minotaur’s head swiveled and he frowned. But to his credit, he only glared at Aiden.
“My apologies, but we do not serve the flesh of sentient beings in this establishment. I can, however, offer you a delightful arcanine flank with a side of basted ciracorn and peas. ”
“Peas, eh? As in the green ones?”
“Imported from Earth Seven.” She smiled. But I sensed irritation in the expression. “Would you like to make a reservation in our dining hall?”
“No need,” a woman’s voice said. “I just made reservations for us.”
Victoria entered from the other hall and stopped just inside, resting one hand on the mantle of a grandiose fireplace made of pearl with ruby veins cutting across. A giant framed mirror rested on the wall above. Once more I could see myself. Dear gods, I would groom myself as soon as humanly possible. My facial hair was far too long to be called stubble but far too short to be considered a beard. Though I went for the out-of-bed look on most days, I appeared more like a crawled-out-of-an-alley sort of bum at the moment.
Of course, Victoria was stunning. She wore a green gown with a diamond cut down the center, just enough fabric to cover her but leaving very little to the imagination. She stood posed, half-turned so I could see her back, which was bare to the waist, where her dress was loose. Her hair was intwined with silver lace into an intricate braid, forming a circlet around her head. It came together in the back, held in place by a sparkling butterfly. The wings flapped when she moved.
Her saunter made cats look graceless. She came to within two feet of me and stopped. A barest hint of mascara and eyeliner was all the cosmetics she wore, but her cheeks were still flush as she studied me.
“Right,” Aiden said. “That outfit is utterly ridiculous. We know what you are doing. Tell her Liam.”
My mouth was dry. After working moisture back into my tongue, I said, “Um. Yeah. We know. Won’t work.”
Look out Cicero, I’m gunning for your title as most famous orator in all of history.
Victoria laughed. A full belly laugh. Aside from being musical, the motion did the most interesting things to the front of her dress. And though we’d been intimate, that had been a long time ago, before I thought she’d been brutally murdered.
“What?” she said, perfect imitation of innocence. “This is my favorite summer gown and is appropriate for my plans this evening.”
“Plans?” I asked. “You have plans?”
“I do,” she said. “Our reservations, remember? I just mentioned it.”
“Right. Yes. I remember.”
“Shall we?” She said, gesturing back down the hall she’d entered. “I booked a private business room to discuss our oaths.”
We followed her down the broad corridor and passed a room with marble perches, coming out of the walls like branches. Only one was occupied, a red-skinned man with black wings. Dark horns protruded from his temples and curled around like a ram around his head, coming to sharp points. He wore a suit and tie but no shoes. His talons gripped the marble branch. He held a magazine in one hand and coffee in the other.
Beneath the branches was a clear pool, where two children—smaller versions of the perched man—played. They flew out of the water and splashed into it. Steam rose from their skin and the top of the water where they touched it. The man’s awareness settled on me. I felt the weight of his annoyed gaze and snapped my eyes back on the hall.
Victoria stopped at the last door on the right. It was propped open. Inside looked like any board room I’d ever visited with the exception of the outer wall, which was made of glass, giving us a view of the private beach. It was virtually empty, save for a few gnolls down by the water.
“Gentlemen,” Victoria said, taking the executive chair at the table’s head. “Please, have a seat.”
I sat three chairs down from her. Aiden took the chair to my right, placing himself between Victoria and me. He pulled out our document and slid it up the table toward her. She smirked then read it much in the same fashion as Loki had, slowing at the section which discussed the consequence for failure.
“Upon failure, Primary Party—who you have listed as Artemis—will relinquish any and all claim to her nexus to the Collective.” Victoria looked up at me after she finished reading. “Really? Why would Artemis agree to that. And if she would, do you expect me to call Artemis to create a blood oath with you? She’s a god and has far too muc—”
“She is watching us now,” I cut in without raising my voice. I kept my tone neutral. “Or do you deny that she is seeing through your eyes?”
Victoria simply stared at me, but it was not her expression of irritation I saw. It was far too impatient for the Vic I knew.
“Our actions,” I continued, speaking to Artemis rather than Victoria, “are the most important aspect of your plans on Earth. You need us more than we need you. After all, though not ideal, we can survive here in Atlantis for a while. Eventually, the Collective will come for us. And messengers will carry our plight to them. We are not without means. Likewise, we can hire a solicitor to represent us against any accusations you level against us. However, you, are on a time crunch.”
“Why would you say that?” she said. The voice was Victoria’s but that tone was not. I did not know the person looking back at me. Loki had commanded Aiden and I like puppets. What Artemis did to Victoria was far more sadistic. She wore the love of my life like a suit. And there was shit-all I could do about it. In fact, if Artemis decided to smite us here in this semi-private place, there was nothing we could do to stop her, which made what I was about to say a huge gamble.
I swallowed and wet my lips. “Poseidon’s seat of power waxes and wanes based on currents and weather. La Nina is ramping up and will peak around November. You won’t be able to take his seat after that, because he will build up power from the movement of that energy. It will be another year before that power wanes. The new pantheon wants to act sooner than that. If you wish to be included in their coup, you have to act now. Aiden and I don’t. In fact, one might say, our duty is to run to Theseus and tell him all about your plans. After all, that would be in the best interest of the Collective.”
Victoria’s face was emotionless. She studied my face for what felt like minutes. I pushed every ounce of will into maintaining a similar stony resolve. I could not speak first or break the gaze. If Artemis sensed weakness, this would be over. I do not know how I knew this to be true, but I do not doubt for a moment, she would obliterate us if she believed we would hinder her goals or thought us too weak to carry out her needs.
And maybe there was an Allfather, Allmother, or some other all powerful being out there who gave two shits about me.
Because the goblin came in, carrying my coffee and a red danish on a plate. Victoria’s gaze snapped to the inn servant and she said, “Close the door on your way out. We are not to be disturbed for the remainder of our meeting.”
“Thank you so much,” I said as she placed the coffee and pastry in front of me and scurried out.
Victoria’s glare did not have as much weight as it had before. “I will agree to your terms; however, I will add a caveat to this section. If you fail to meet my obligations, you will bind yourselves to the deity of my choosing.”
Believe it or not, we’d considered this a possibility. And it didn’t matter because we already planned to burn her. Not only would we get the artifact necessary to free Victoria, we would knock Artemis from her seat of power and gain an arrium that would help other people and better protect the Collective and Earth for centuries.
I tried not to let the excitement show on my face as I asked, “Are we ready to do this?”
We stood for the oaths. Artemis—in her Victoria suit—reached out her hand and used ether to draw a cut across her palm. She spoke the words. Aiden and I quickly followed, naming the artifact we would recover as the heart of the minotaur, currently owned and possessed by Theseus.
After we finished the oaths, Aiden snatched the document and held it close to his body. Victoria’s smile twisted into a self-satisfied sneer, as if it didn’t matter. But I could tell it was not an act. Like us, she had ulterior motives for making this oath. My confidence faltered. I feel like that moment in Texas Hold’em, where I’ve gone all-in and my opponent calls and pushes her chips in. That flutter in the chest where you wonder if you miscalculated is the best and worst feeling you can feel. In the next few seconds, you would find out if you were the biggest winner or the biggest loser at the table.
Only, no cards would be revealed today. We placed the stakes on the table, and now we played for it. Dear gods, what the fuck did we do?
“Excellent,” she said, smile becoming arrogant. “We will speak again very soon, little ones. So very soon.”
The expression vanished. Victoria looked down at her body, which was standing now. She blinked a few times, confusion clear in her eyes. Biting her lower lip, she looked off to the distance as if listening intently to someone only she could see and hear. She nodded and turned back to me, lips tight in an obviously fake smile.
“That wasn’t so bad,” she said, but her voice shook and fingers trembled as she gestured to the document in Aiden’s hand. “We came to an accord.”
“Aye,” I said, voice also trembling. “It’s done. There’s no turning back now.”
Dear gods, there was no turning back. We had to rob a powerful force without getting our heads lobbed off. If we failed and somehow survived, Artemis would own us.