“Lady Tabbris,” Athena started later, once lunch was over. She was standing by our table. “How would you like to spend the afternoon attending classes with the others here, while I have a little bit of a private training session with Lady Felicity?”
My little partner’s immediate reaction to that was to lean closer to me, staring up at the woman with wide eyes.“You don’t want me to be there?” she asked in a squeaky voice that seemed half-suspicious, and half-terrified that Athena was going to insist on separating us.
The Olympian gave her a reassuring smile, shaking her head. “Nothing like that, I promise. I simply would like to evaluate Lady Felicity’s skills without any other influence. I promise, I will also see how she does with your aid. And, I thought that you might enjoy an afternoon of simply being… yourself.”
Staring blankly up at her for a moment, Tabbris finally admitted in a soft voice, “But I don’t know who I am.”
Lifting her hand, Athena gestured to the plate in front of Tabbris, which held the remains of what had been a bunch of dark red meats and peppers. “Did you enjoy your lunch?”
The little blonde Seosten blinked at the question, tilting her head to look down at it before looking up again with a furtive nod. “It’s spicy. I guess I like spicy food. Really spicy. But Flick doesn’t like it, so I never really tried it before.”
Athena’s smile grew a little bit. “You have my word that I have no intention of forcing you to stay apart. My young warrior, all I wish is for you to find everything that is you. This love of spicy food, a new skill, an interest that you didn’t know before. My wish is for you and Lady Felicity to become the very best versions of yourselves that you can possibly be. I want you to know yourself, to know who you are. Because when you know that, when you have become everything you can be, and then the two of you come together… you will be unstoppable.”
Leaning up really close to my ear, little bunny-eared Bandy whispered, “If you think that was a good speech, you should see the one that she gives the little kids who are scared to use the bathroom.”
Tabbris worked her mouth a few times, opening and shutting it before offering a slightly weak, “And we do all that just by me going classes by myself?”
Chuckling, Athena raised a hand and gave a vague gesture. “It will be a start. But you will not be alone.”
“Yeah!” Richton put in. “We won’t leave you by yourself, promise. I mean, enough of our species are beaufstains as it is. Those of us to know better, we gotta stick together.”
“Language, Richton,” Athena gently admonished. “You are still in school, after all. But yes. A quite admirable point.”
The others all expressed their own eagerness to have Tabbris stay with them for the afternoon, and eventually she looked over to me.
“Sure,” I agreed. “I’m pretty sure I’m just gonna spend the afternoon getting beat up by the goddess of war over there, so maybe you’ll have more fun in class.”
“But… but…” Tabbris winced. “ I haven’t been that far away from you for… forever.”
“Hey.” Reaching out, I put my hand against her cheek. “You can always recall to me, right? Anything happens, you get too nervous, you think something’s going wrong, anything at all, you just come straight back to me just like that.” I snapped my fingers in demonstration.
“Whoa!” That was Meley. “You already know how to use recall like that? We can barely possess people on purpose.”
Kisea was nodding. “And your mom taught you all that, just in your memories? She must be the best memory-witch ever!”
From Athena’s soft smile and the look in her eyes, I had a feeling that there was a bit of a story there. But she just nodded. “Sariel impresses in many ways.”
“So what do you say?” I asked my partner. “Meet up in a few hours and exchange notes?”
She still looked a little hesitant, but it was obvious that everything that had been said had helped a lot. “Yeah, o-okay. But just a few hours.”
Turning back to Athena, I gestured. “Well, you heard her. I guess I’m ready for my ass-kicking, Sensei.”
Three sounds filled the room in rapid succession. First, there was my loud yelp, followed by the solid whumph of my body landing hard on the floor, and then the clatter of my staff bouncing across it.
“Ow.” I took a second to catch my breath, before rolling over onto my side to look up at Athena. “How many days have I been letting you beat me up for now?”
She gave me a small smile, head shaking as she informed me, “Apologies, my lady, but it has not even been half an hour yet.”
“Half an hour, and you’ve knocked me down about fifty-seven times.” I gave her a wry, self-deprecating smile. “I must be one of the worst students you ever had.”
“Only forty-one,” she corrected me. “And no, my lady. The only bad students I have ever had are the ones who do not get back up again after being knocked down. You get up so many times…” Trailing off, she extended a hand and helped me to my feet before adding, “I know that it may seem frustrating, but you truly do learn more from fighting those who are better than you than those who are worse.”
I nodded, rubbing the back of my neck a little. “Yeah, that’s what Avalon says all the time.”
The woman paused at that, squinting at me for a second. “Yes,” she murmured, “Avalon. The name that Liesje Aken’s descendant adopted.”
“Oh, right,” I realized. “I guess that name has special meaning for you, doesn’t it?”
Her response was a little chuckle. “Yes, somewhat. And the girl, she means a lot to you.”
I swallowed hard at that, looking away before bending down to grab my staff off the floor. “I try not to think about it, but I miss her.” I held my staff tightly, closing my eyes. “I miss her so much. Her and Shiori. My girls. I miss them, I miss my dad, I miss the rest of my team. I miss my friends.”
Athena‘s hand found my shoulder, and she pulled me into an embrace. “You will see them all again,” she promised me. “And when you do, you will be so much stronger than you were.”
Managing a weak little smile, I opened my eyes while returning the hug. “You know,” I remarked, “you’re pretty comforting for someone who keeps knocking me on my ass.”
Giving me one more squeeze, the woman finally released me and stepped back, while offering, “Perhaps you’re simply a glutton for punishment.”
I laughed at that. “Lady Athena,” I countered, “if you knew everything that I’ve gotten myself involved in, you wouldn’t say perhaps.”
“You should tell me more about all of it,” she offered. “While we train, of course.”
“Of course,” I confirmed with a vague wave. “After all, if I couldn’t even touch you before, trying to do it while I’m distracted talking ought to do the trick.”
She gave a genuine laugh at that, eyes twinkling a little bit. “Distraction,” she informed me, “is simply another part of training, my lady.”
“In that case,” I replied evenly while readying my staff. “Bring it-”
Aaaand I was on the floor again.
“So, how was it with the other Seosten kids?”
It was later that night, and Tabbris and I were alone in the bedroom that Athena had given us. Well, to be more accurate, we were in the bedroom of the house that the woman had assigned us, in the human section of the habitat that we had originally arrived in. This was where we would be staying for the next month, while they worked on the Sariel-locator spell using a bit of Tabbris’s blood that had been drawn earlier.
The younger girl paused, biting her lip as she looked at me. “It was weird,” she answered honestly. “But good too, I think. It was fun, but also scary. Neat, but I wasn’t sure what to say.” She paused then, her eyes looking down as she amended quietly, “I never know what to say.”
Sitting down on the bed, I reached out to pull her over to sit beside me, putting an arm around her. “Do you like them?”
”Uh huh.” Her head bobbed up and down, before she glanced over to me. “Do you?”
“Well sure,” I confirmed before giving her a firm hug. “But then again, I already knew the very best Seosten kid in the universe.
“Those other guys can’t hold a candle to my partner.”
“Mmmm, I love butterscotch pudding.” Three days later, I was sitting in Mr. Reinswield’s mostly-empty classroom, licking the last of that particular treat off the end of my spoon. “That Chef Gisby guy is really good at his job.”
The teacher smiled, taking the last of his own chocolate version of the dessert. “Yes,” he agreed, “the man does very good work. We are quite lucky to have him. Quite lucky indeed.”
Can you ask him how long he’s been a teacher here? Tabbris asked. She was back inside of me for the time being. We had been making a point of having her come out and act on her own more while we had the chance, but she was still more comfortable this way. It felt safe and secure to her. And I thought that part of her insistence on being with me so much also stemmed from wanting to fulfill the job that her mother had given to her, to protect me. Or rather, I amended pointedly within my own thoughts, for us to protect each other.
Obligingly, I looked toward the man in question. “Tabbris would like to know how long you’ve been a teacher here.”
The blond, scruffy-looking man raised an eyebrow at that. “Would she prefer to know how long I’ve been a teacher, how long I’ve been here, or how long I’ve been a teacher here?”
“Honestly, I think we both like to hear all of it.” After saying that, I paused to listen to my partner, that nodded. “Yep, if you want to tell us.”
Chuckling, Reinswield nodded agreeably. “As you might have guessed, I was a Heretic back on Earth. Well, I suppose I technically still am. But they don’t call us that out here.”
“Right,” I nodded, “it’s Bonded.”
“Indeed.” Continuing after that agreement, Reinswield added, “I was a member of Eden’s Garden since its inception. It shames me to say now, but I was one of the more… vicious of our kind. Enthusiastic, you might say. Eventually I managed to get myself in over my head, and ended up with my leg turned to stone. It was fixable, but doing so took several months. It was quite a curse. While I was incapable of fighting like that, I still wanted to make myself useful. So I chose to fill in as a teacher at one of our outreach schools in London.”
Clearly noticing my uncertain look, the man explained, “Heretics will often take the positions of instructors or other staff members in particular schools within high risk areas, both to protect the students there, and to watch for high potential recruits.”
“So you were basically under cover?” I asked.
He nodded. “Basically, yes. At first I resented it very much. I saw it as a waste of my abilities, but it was the only job they would give me, and I wanted to keep myself occupied. But over time, I came to…” he swallowed. “I came to quite enjoy my time there, and my students. I took up a permanent position. This was during the second World War, so there was quite a need for teachers who could maintain order and keep the children calm.”
The man trailed off, clearly lost in thought for a few seconds before he gave a sharp shake of his head. “They wanted to recruit one of my girls. But she was too innocent. Too bloody pure for this kind of work. So I objected. I took my objection as high as I could, made a stink about it. My objection was noted, and I ended up out here, as the puppet for one of the Seosten warriors on the front lines of the Fomorian war. I spent about a decade out there before Athena rescued me, and brought me here so that I could go back to what I love doing. Teaching children.”
He had glossed over it, probably for both my and Tabbris’s benefit. But I couldn’t help shuddering a little at the thought that he had been enslaved by the Seosten and forced to fight the Fomorians for a whole decade. That was just… I shuddered once more. No wonder he was content to be a simple teacher again.
“Well,” I offered, “you seem happy here, at least?”
“Quite,” he agreed. “I do miss my old students quite often. And I regret never finding out what happened to little Sonya Eulcid. I am very sorry that my attempts to convince the leadership not to turn her into a Heretic and put her into this life led to my not being there to help her when she was recruited anyway.”
Swallowing hard, I repeated the name. “Sonya Eulcid. I have friends in Eden’s Garden. I promise, when I get back to earth, I’ll find out if she still alive. I’ll get a message from you to her, if I can.”
Reinswield smiled at me. “You know, that is a promise that deserves another pudding.”
Crack, crack, thump, yelp, thud.
Four days after my conversation with Reinswield, I was back in the training gym with Athena. We had been coming here every day, for at least a few hours. She knew that I didn’t really get tired very often, and took advantage of that, putting me through my paces as often as possible. She was just as much of a taskmaster as Avalon, if not more so.
Picking myself up off the floor that I do not to once again, I asked, “Is there any news about contacting Larissa, Haiden, and the others?”
Athena’s head shook while she stood there holding her own light staff. “We are trying, but it is slow going. As I said, this is a very large galaxy, and the last thing we want to do is be too obvious, and draw unwanted attention to either ourselves or the others.”
I nodded, as much as it pained me to think of what they were going through by that point. Leading the bad Seosten right to them wouldn’t be good for any of us.
From where she was sitting on the sidelines, Tabbris called, “Hey, I think you almost hit her once that time!”
Athena and I exchanged glances. I knew it wasn’t true. The only reason I ever even got one swing off, let alone multiple ones before she put me down each time, was because she was giving me a chance to actually learn. She took it slow and easy on me. For her, it was probably like when an adult play fights with a toddler and lets them think they’re actually getting somewhere. She kept adjusting my stance, correcting where my hands were, telling me when to choke up on the staff, when to turn faster, where my feet should be positioned, and more. Every move I made, she had advice for it. And she drilled it into me over and over again. She had taught me so much in these past few days, and she kept doing it, kept helping me. She was unbelievably patient.
And quite honestly, I still couldn’t get over the fact that I was actually learning from the real Athena. Honestly, how amazing was that? Every time I actually thought about it, I got a little giddy.
After a few more rounds of me ending up flat on my back, or on my face, Athena relented and sent me to get a drink of water from the bottle that Tabbris was holding. While I was gulping it down, she looked to the younger girl. “I have something for you,” she announced.
Tabbris blinked a little in obvious surprise. “For me?”
Nodding, Athena stepped over while extending her hand with what look like a small metal button about two inches across in it. “Go ahead,” she offered, “turn it on.”
Taking the small button, Tabbris put it between her thumb and index finger, and pushed them together. There was a distinct click sound, before she quickly put the thing in the center of her palm. From the little disc, a hologram about a foot and a half high appeared, floating above her hand. It was of a blonde woman.
The girl gave a soft gasp, staring at it. Her voice was soft. “Mama…”
Nodding, Athena explained, “That was the hologram that was taken for your mother’s identification on the Olympus. I thought that you would like to have it.”
While Tabbris nodded fervently, I examined the hologram a little closer. The woman was beautiful, with an intense gaze, and the kind of raw—
Crack. Suddenly, there was a sharp pain in my leg, and I yelped, looking up to find Tabbris staring intently at me. She had kicked me.
“Stop it!” Her face was scrunched up as she pointed at me. “I know that look. I know that look! You were doing the whole ‘oooh, it’s a pretty older woman, let me pretend I don’t notice how long I’m staring at her’ thing. That’s my mama! Gross!”
Flushing guiltily, I shook my head. “I wasn’t looking at her like that.”
From where she was standing, Athena cleared her throat. “Well, it’s clear to me that you require another avenue of training as well.”
“I do?” I blinked at that.
“Yes,” she confirmed. “Training in lying, of course.
“You are quite terrible at it.”