In the Hall of the Witch Queen
“Albion Nassar.” The goddess Circe tested his name on her lips. Every word she spoke was like honey in his ears, and Albion knew he had to tread very lightly with this woman. Her gardens were full of the transfigured remains of those who hadn’t.
“It’s a nice name.” She turned her golden eyes on him. “Not Greek though.”
“Italian-Egyptian” Albion nodded.
The pair of them were seated in one of Circe’s many lounges. The sun had set outside and this was their first real chance to talk. After letting him in, pleased by his deference, Circe had allowed him time to bathe and change before meeting him for a chat and a meal. At the moment they were sipping some of Circe’s wine as their dinner cooked itself in the floor below.
Her manor was magnificent, everything at the height of opulence without being overwhelmingly ostentatious. The lounge was warmly lit by a crackling fireplace that cast it in a soft orange-red light, and the pair of them were seated in plush lounge chairs that faced one another across a low table.
Albion knew he was moving on very dangerous ground with this goddess. There were rules, both magical and social, that needed to be followed. He was a guest in her house, and was as such expected to partake in her hospitality. Refusing food or drink, while the safe route, would have insulted her. On the other hand, Circe was known for her poisonous nature when it came to offering guests any form of hospitality.
Thankfully, Nassar was more clever than most. After changing, he had kept a pill hidden in his mouth near the back of his cheek. The list of ingredients was long, but its most potent agent was an extremely rare herb that once went by the name “moly”. When the pill was crushed, it could successfully neutralize any magical agent that was consumed for the next twenty-four hours.
Albion had bitten down on it just before his first sip of wine.
He did not know if the wine or the food would be tainted, but he wasn’t taking chances, and he was sure he saw the smile on Circe’s lips grow slightly wider as he drank and did not transform into a hog.
If there was one word to describe the goddess Circe, it would be “treacherous”. Not in the sense that a turncoat or a traitor was treacherous, but in the way a mountain was treacherous. With every move, Albion needed to be sure of his footing or else risk plummeting to his doom.
“So tell me, Lord Nassar,” Circe said, wine glass held elegantly in her perfect hands. “What is it that lured you all the way to my little island?”
“You of course, Lady Circe.” Albion said, dragging his eyes from her hand. She truly was dangerous in conversation. Seemingly innocuous gestures drew his eyes deliberately to where she wanted them. She was a legendary enchantress on top of being a goddess, and while there were many things Albion had spells, potions, or wards for, some he could only deal with through pure willpower.
“No one has come calling for me in a long time.” She said, and his eyes were drawn to hers, seeing how the firelight danced in her radiantly gold eyes.
“More fool them.” Albion said. “And I imagine those that come have only things they desire of you. Craving the legends of your power, your potency, or your bed.”
“That they do.” Circe said as her smile shifted into a slight smirk. “And now they play in my forests.”
“Then I must ask, Daughter of Magic, has anyone ever come to offer you something?”
“They have.” Circe said, sipping her wine. “They offer jewels, gold, promises of faithfulness and their own supposedly potent virility. All promises made empty by the end.”
“I offer none of these things,” Albion said calmly. “As they are the offerings of fools. What use has the daughter of magic for gold and jewels?”
“Then what is it you offer, Lord Nassar?” Circe asked, lowering her glass as she folded her hands. “Save for a commendable boldness.”
“In a word, empire.” Albion said, letting the word sink in. He was pleased to see a note of surprise on Circe’s face, her eyes widening slightly as her smile dropped for just half a moment.
“…do go on.” Circe said, her smile back in place as she gestured for him to continue.
“I am a well-placed senator in Rome.” He said. “With Rome being perhaps the most powerful state on the planet at the moment.”
“I could challenge that assertion.” Circe said. “But I am impressed by the city’s progress.”
“You’ve been watching?” Albion asked.
“I do like to stay informed.” She said enigmatically. “But please, do go on.”
“Well as I was saying, I am a well-placed senator and the leader of all of Rome’s mages. Already one of the most powerful men in the city, I am now putting my efforts towards becoming Consul.”
“Consul? Well that is impressive.” Circe said. “But I fail to see how that affects me where I am.”
“I was hoping to recruit some…divine aid, as it were.” Albion smiled, refusing to let his growing fear show itself. The next few minutes would shape the coming years.
“Aha…”Circe said lightly, her smile returning as she drank her wine. “You wanted the help of a goddess in securing your position.”
“Every little bit counts.” Albion said.
“There are many gods.” Circe mused. “What brought you so far afield to find this one in particular?”
“An arrangement.” Albion said. “You see, many gods demand absolute service for their aid, something I’m not quite willing to offer. Of course you can’t exactly negotiate with an Olympian.”
“Ah,” Circe said. “But you believe you can negotiate with me.”
“I do.” Albion nodded. “Because you are an exceedingly intelligent goddess. However, there is another reason as well.”
“Oh?” Circe raise a curious eyebrow. “Do go on then, Lord Nassar. What truth about a goddess have you unearthed?”
“I believe you are very bored, Lady Circe.” Albion said, and he silently braced himself for painful divine retribution.
Thankfully, as he had hoped, none came.
“Bored.” Circe repeated the word idly, looking at her empty wine glass.
“Bored.” Albion nodded. “You have your sailors-made-monsters and the occasional ill-bred suitor calling on you every few years, but what fills your time in between? I think you desire more than company, you prefer clever company and a game to play.”
“And you think you can offer that to me?” Circe asked. “A game fit to amuse even a goddess? I am not some nymph so easily amused by the wiles of society. I am the daughter of Helios and Hecate, Sun and magic. I might not live on Mount Olympus but I am not to be underestimated.”
“I have no intention of underestimating you, Lady Circe.” Albion said. “I ask that you return with me to Rome, see the games I play and how far my reach can spread. Has any man offered you a hand in deciding the course a nation takes?”
“I cannot say they have.” Circe said. “Most petty kings who come to my door have the irritating habit of already being married.”
“Come now, Lady Circe,” Albion teased her. “We haven’t even had dinner yet.”
“I expect you have rules by which games are to be played.” Circe said as their wineglasses refilled themselves.
“Naturally.” Albion nodded. “But we have some time to work those out.”
“Share the basics.” She said. “So I have some idea of what I might be getting into.”
“Very well.” Albion began. “I would not be working at your bidding, you would be…like a treasured adviser. I take your thoughts and recommendations to heart, but they are not commands.”
“Oh they wouldn’t be commands.” Circe smiled “But you would find them very hard to resist.”
“I expect I would.” Albion said. “Which brings me to the next rule. While we are free to nudge and influence by other methods, I won’t have mind control of any sort within the city.”
“Hardly necessary.” Circe said, running her hand along the table before moving it to her own leg. Albion’s eyes were drawn there as she ran it up her thigh. “Controlling minds is for the poor politician anyway.”
“Of course.” Albion said, forcing himself to meet her eyes. “And we need to keep your presence somewhat secret.”
“And why might that be?” Albion saw a flicker of annoyance in her eyes.
“Well, Lady Circe, this is not just my opinion but a known fact that your reputation in the outside world is less than sterling.”
“Bold for a man to say the aid of a goddess might weigh down his reputation.”
“One needs to reveal their allies carefully when it comes to politics.” Albion said cautiously.
“Though I won’t ask you to be invisible, merely to…take a guise.”
“As who?” Circe asked teasingly. “Your running mate? Your wife?”
“Were I so lucky.” Albion smiled. “My political adviser I think would suit you well.”
“So if I’m hearing this correctly.” Circe said. “You wish for me to come to Rome in disguise as your political adviser, and use a fraction of my tremendous power to manipulate and influence your opponents into becoming your allies and supporters. And in return I get…to hide in the shadows and do little but whisper in your ear.”
“Your power is prodigious and legendary, Lady Circe.” Albion said. “But sometimes the greatest challenges are not in finding the limits of your power, but how you can apply it when more stringent limits are put in place. When was the last time you felt truly challenged?”
“Several thousand years, it’s true.” She admitted, though she maintained an air of detachment. “So you think having such inordinate limits put onto my power is something to relish rather than an irritation?”
“Despite what common belief might tell you,” Albion said. “Becoming Consul takes more craft and skill than sundering a mountain.”
“And if you win?” Circe asked. “If you become consul with my aid? What then do I receive?”
“You will still be my adviser and close confidante.” Albion said. “And Rome and all of its growing holdings will be at our fingertips.”
Circe sat in silence for an increasingly uncomfortable few moments, eyes looking idly into the fire as she weighed her options and left Albion to sweat in his seat.
He retained his calm, however. Nothing would be served by showing weakness here. He needed to remain resolute if he wanted to convince Circe that he measured up to everything he had promised. The silence hung between them for quite some time before the goddess leaned back in her seat.
She didn’t say it with any emotion at all, her face showing just her smile once again as she rejected him. Albion kept his face void of any thoughts as well as he repeated her response back to her.
“You are clever, but you have wrapped yourself in your own cleverness. You would seek to make a goddess a servant rather than serve one, which is amusingly refreshing, but I am no fool. I get little but to make you stronger and myself weaker. You would be consul…But it does not do for a daughter of the sun to be in the shadows.”
Albion sipped his wine as he took the time to regroup and think of something else he could offer. He had hoped his first option would be enough, that he could tempt her with the lure of power, but if she needed more there were always other possibilities. He simply had to make sure he was not keeping himself vulnerable.
“You seek amusement, Lady Circe, and I believe I have someone you will find suiting your tastes quite well. Well most of your tastes.” He said with a smile. “There are an increasing number of young and impressionable magi appearing within Rome these days. I, in fact, have an apprentice of my own, but the number grows. If you were to return with me, there would be a veritable generation of young mages you could teach. Impressionable young mages with minds open to your lessons.”
Silence fell again between them as Circe stared at him intently. Albion sat there as still as he could. There had been talk of creating a group or a guild among the mages to help teach those finding themselves with magic and did not know to use it. If putting Circe quietly at its head was what it took to become the ruler of the city, it would be a fine trade.
“Very well.” Circe said, turning again to him with a smile. “I will join you in this venture, Lord Nassar. I will see you made Consul of Rome and in return you will offer me…this amusement.” She added with a smirk as she raised her full glass of wine to him, a toast which Albion gladly met.
“It is an honor to be able to work with you, Lady Circe.” Albion bowed his head to her.
She rose from her seat, seeming to glide over the floor before sitting down on the arm of his chair, gently she reached out and ran a single long finger from his neck to the tip of his chin.
“Well then, Lord Nassar, we will depart for your Rome in the morning, but for now I would have you for dinner and then we shall have all evening to talk. I wish to see the other ways in which you can amuse me.”