"That was awesome," Kardia enthused as soon as the Pope's throne was out of earshot. Degel knew he would have not hesitated expressing the sentiment even if Pope Sage could hear him. "Lady Athena is such a cutie, too."
Sisyphus shot Kardia a glance of mild disbelief. "And do you plan to make a habit out of kidnapping stray children to other countries?"
"What? No. But your nephew looks like the type who wouldn't mind an adventure or two."
To Sisyphus's credit, he made no response, although Degel could not tell if Kardia was only joking. He decided to steer the conversation toward safer waters. "I'm going to the book market tomorrow. Anything you want me to check for you, Sisyphus?"
"Nothing for now, thanks," Sisyphus said, walking ahead of them. "Don't try to convince my nephew to do anything silly, Kardia."
"The little guy doesn't need convincing, if you ask me," Kardia muttered to Degel, then grinned. "What's with the frown? I ran away a couple of times when I was his age. Didn't do me the least damage."
What joy it must be, Degel thought, to be such an uncomplicated person. "Just keep Lady Athena out of it."
New titles were available every other week, and today Degel went home with an armful of them. After dumping the books on the table, he scanned the shelves for extra space. What little there was had been reserved for the books Sisyphus was borrowing. He briefly toyed with the idea of learning carpentry and constructing a new cabinet himself. There were worse things one could do while waiting for Hades's resurrection.
On hearing soft footsteps behind him, he turned around. "Lady Sasha," he said, not trying to hide his surprise. "What can I do for you?"
"Good afternoon." She smiled shyly, stopped a few paces away. In her simple white dress, with the fading scratches on her face and bare arms, she looked like any other young girl. Her eyes darted to the clutter of books on the table and his glasses next to them. "Kardia said I should go here."
He politely waited for her to continue, having already guessed Kardia's suggestion to her.
"I don't suppose you have children's books?"
Suddenly aware that the book pile was leaning precariously over his glasses, Degel straightened up the former and put on the latter. "I believe there's no such thing as children's books, just books that younger readers can understand and enjoy. Do you need your books to have pictures?"
The rows and rows of spines seemed to intrigue her. "Not really. I don't get headaches from reading too many letters or anything." Standing on tiptoe, she peered up at a large atlas. "Don't your eyes get tired with looking at all these titles sideways?"
Briefly he pictured himself in the battlefield, wearing the Aquarius Cloth and his glasses. Not that it was likely, although she did have a point. "I'll get by. Here, let me get that atlas for you."
Afterward she came to his library once a month, always eager to discuss the books he had lent her. He knew that his was not the only Temple she visited regularly, although he had no idea what she did in the other Temples. Kardia probably taught her to play cards.
"Huh?" Kardia looked offended when Degel asked him point-blank. "Even if I do, what's that got to do with you?"
Degel refused to answer and said instead, "Maybe she shouldn't be doing this - building a rapport with us. Considering Gold Saints usually die in a Holy War."
"So what? Everyone dies. That's not the issue here. If she's happy to get close with the guys who will fight for her, good for her and for us. Stop being such a wet blanket."
True enough, and Degel was a fool if he wished this peaceful life would last forever. Still, he would miss the spark of delight that lit up her eyes at the latest batch of books.
Sasha's weekly lesson in mastering and improving her Cosmo took place in the arena, cleared of Saint candidates for the purpose. Gold Saints who were currently in Sanctuary would take turns in overseeing the lesson. Today, as usual, she stood with Pope Sage in the middle of the arena. Degel and Kardia sat on opposite sides of the tribune as per instruction.
Wings of golden Cosmo glowed outward from Sasha. Even from this distance Degel could sense her power, which was both palpable and soothing. The wings hung in the air, uncertain. Then they soared to the sky and shimmered over the tribune.
Pope Sage nodded calmly, but Kardia showed no such restraint; he shot out of his seat, whooping with triumph. "That was awesome - do it again!"
She glanced up at him, clearly trying not to laugh. "Thanks!" When Pope Sage also looked up, Kardia sat back down, but not before giving her a thumbs-up. Degel could tell the Pope was not angry - he had Manigoldo for a disciple, after all.
Among the Pope's duties was what Kardia called the neighborhood patrol. The route covered Sanctuary and the surrounding areas. Today being new titles day at the book market, Degel volunteered to go with Pope Sage. Kardia tagged along because he had never been in any of these patrols and was curious.
"Now I know why the Pope does this," he said to no one in particular. The three of them had just left the house of a man who kept insinuating that Sanctuary was not the safest place to live in, and the Pope had better protect the locals like he should. "It reminds him some people are good at nagging, but they could be wrong and Pope Sage is the best leader Sanctuary has ever had."
One of these days Degel would learn to become such a positive thinker. Pope Sage, on his part, was following another train of thought. "It's normal for them to be afraid. And it's my job as Athena's right-hand man to reassure them that they're safe with her."
Kardia smacked a fist against his open palm. "I got an idea - how about Athena making these rounds herself? See if anyone dares to nag then."
"No," Degel replied, maybe a little too sharply. "Too risky. Hades's soldiers might be skulking about for all we know. Besides, she hasn't been trained for combat yet, unlike us."
"Hah! What do you think our job is, carry her staff for her? Meeting the people she defends counts as part of her training. I'm sure Sasha will agree."
"Enough," Pope Sage said, and both of them shut up. "A good suggestion, Kardia. I'll reconsider it when Lady Sasha has mastered her Cosmo better than she does now."
The response prompted no cheeky grin from Kardia, just a sufficiently demure expression. "Thank you. I'd be more than happy to escort her or teach her to use her Cosmo when you're busy."
If only Kardia treated his duty as a Saint this solemnly all the time, Degel mused. Then again, he would not have been Kardia.
Later that day Sasha arrived in the Aquarius Temple with Kardia. "I'm not lending you my glasses," Degel said before Kardia could. "Wearing glasses only makes you dizzy if your eyesight doesn't need to be corrected."
"I'm not here for that. Though it is a good idea. Sasha is wondering if you'd like to go with them this weekend."
Degel's plan for the weekend was to stay in his Temple and practice controlling his Cosmo. He could not afford another physical damage, or his stint as the Aquarius Saint might end before it fully began. "Going where, and who's them?"
Sasha looked both excited and guilty. "To the beach - me and Sisyphus's nephew."
"Regulus." Degel slowly took off his glasses, not caring that the gesture was cliché. "Does Sisyphus know?"
The twinkle in Kardia's eye was his answer. "That boy is a prodigy. We might have the youngest Leo Saint in history yet. The idea is to test if he's strong enough to protect Athena."
"You sound very happy about this."
Unabashed, Kardia winked at Sasha. "I told her they'd need another Saint to be on the lookout. You're perfect for the job. Aspros is weird, Albafica won't go near anyone, and El Cid is no fun as a nanny. Hasgard is good with kids, but he's busy with his own disciples."
"It's better to have Sisyphus go with them. He'd have every reason to make sure Lady Sasha and his own nephew are safe."
From the way Kardia's grin widened, Degel knew his suggestion had been ignored. "Yeah, but Sasha wanted you to come along."
"Because you may grouch but you won't tell Sisyphus or Pope Sage," Kardia replied with a straight face. "Right?"
Sasha spoke up. "Not just Degel. I'm planning to spend time with each of the Gold Saints. With the Silver and Bronze too, if I have the time. You are all going to fight by my side and I don't want us to be strangers."
More than once Kardia had stated his determination to live his life to the fullest. Somewhere along the way, Degel suspected, that optimism must have infected Sasha. Comrades in arms, indeed.
"I won't tell Sisyphus until we're home again safely," he promised, and was rewarded with Sasha's grateful smile.
Buoyant and talkative, Regulus did not resemble his uncle one bit. Or his father, if one went by Hasgard's description of the man. Sisyphus as a child might have been just as high-spirited, though Degel had a hard time imagining it.
He took them to a secluded part of the beach, where the sand was impossibly white and the view was generous. "I can see as far as the South Pole!" Regulus declared. He dashed off as the tide washed across the sand. "Sasha, come over here, the water's warm!"
She did and exclaimed with delight at the pulling sensation when the tide receded. "If only Tenma and my brother are here!" She looked around, shading her eyes. "No seashells? I thought beaches are full of them."
"Let's go see if we can find something else. Come on!"
Degel let them scamper away, chattering. At any other time he might want to sit down with a good book. Today, though, he would keep a close eye on the children while hoping Regulus would not challenge Sasha on a dare; diving into the sea from the cliffs had seemed so thrilling when he was young.
"No, because Lady Sasha can't swim," Degel explained, watching another fine crease appear between Sisyphus's eyebrows. "There's a river near the orphanage she lived in, but she never swam there. When Regulus was carried off by the tide, she called me. She was never in any danger of drowning."
Regulus had been caught in a strong, sneaky current while he was swimming. He yelled at Sasha, who was hunting for stones along the shore, and she called out to Degel. A combination of Cosmo, sheer determination, and competent swimming helped brought Regulus back to land. He found the experience exhilarating; Sisyphus did not, and grew even less amused when Regulus wondered aloud why he apologized to Sasha.
Now Sisyphus drew a shaky breath. "And both of them are all right, thanks to you."
"Don't be too hard on the kids - they just wanted to have fun."
The dawning relief on Sisyphus's face vanished, replaced by annoyance. "I bet this beach trip was Kardia's idea."
Since Kardia was more than capable of handling irate uncles, Degel chose not to speak for him. "Lady Sasha is going to lead us to war, so it's good for her to know she can rely on us. And that she has strength on her own. Today's just an episode, Sisyphus. It's not anyone's fault."
"I suppose," Sisyphus murmured, and Degel knew he was going straight to the Scorpion Temple after this.