I stretched in the luxurious sunshine and tried to work out the cricks in my neck. It wasn’t easy, between my years and the added weight of my silver braid hanging half-way to my knees. My right elbow popped, a disconcertingly loud sound in the quiet calm. I winced as my left knee twinged, letting me know its displeasure at my long hike yesterday.

A smoky gray Maine Coon sat on the chair opposite me and stared at me with mocking golden eyes.

“Mock me all you like, Brutus, but growing old isn’t for the faint of heart. I’ll laugh at you when you can’t catch those grasshoppers anymore.”

He sniffed and turned his head aside, deliberately tracking the passage of a cloud with great attention.

I lowered my arms, relieved when nothing else cracked or popped. This body was nearing seventy and it was starting to be insistent about reminding me of that fact, even with the boost to healing and longevity due me as a goddess in a human form.

Curling my fingers around my teacup, I buried my face in the warm scent of  the Iron Goddess of Mercy tea and sighed.

The day stretched ahead of me, with nothing more pressing than my own comfort and amusement to take heed to.

Much as it was inconvenient some times to be older, it was worth it to be rid of the tempestuous mess that many people liked to call youth.

I shuddered.

Hormones. Awkward collisions that were called relationships. Jealousy, love, envy, lust, and all those fun things that tore lives apart.

I took a sip. The clear fragrance of the tea filled my nose and mouth, clearing my head, and I sighed again in contentment.

A shiver in the air, a vibration in the energies around me was all the warning I got before everything went sideways.

“Oh damn.” I set down my teacup with a clatter.

Between one blink and the next, the two empty seats at my dining table were filled.

Brutus yowled in protest and streaked out of the sun room.

The man opposite me arched a brow, twirled his fingers in the air, and pulled forth a crystal goblet filled with red wine. “Such language in the face of an old friend, Amarantha.”

“I’d be a lot more welcoming if you wouldn’t simply pop in without invite or warning, Alexandros.”

I turned to the woman sitting on his left. “Dawn, I didn’t expect better from him, but you…”

Dark-chocolate eyes met mine, serene and unruffled. “You haven’t been to the latest meetings and you’ve been very hard to contact in recent years. We didn’t want to take the chance of sending you to ground.”

Alexandros tossed back his wine in one smooth swallow, his goblet refilling as soon as it left his lips. He drank that as quickly as he did the first, barely waiting for the goblet to replenish before he lifted it his mouth again.

“Do you want some of my special blend?”

He flicked a glance at me from deep blue eyes, his lips twisting in a grimace. “No. The last time I had some of your special blend, I lost a decade or two.”

“Why do you even care? It’s not as if you could actually affect anything. Why not drown yourself in oblivion more effectively than you are now?”

“The pater cares and so I must, my darling Amarantha.” A sharp look came and went in his eyes, the lines around his mouth tightening before he took another healthy mouthful of wine.

“When are you going to stop being such a …”

Dawn raised a hand, cutting me off. “Much as it’s amusing to see you two bicker, that wasn’t the goal of the visit today.”

I swallowed the words, more than a little relieved for Dawn’s interruption. Alexandros was one of my oldest friends and much as I hated to see him use drink to blunt the pain, it wasn’t my place to jab at him further. It was just so painful to watch that I often caught myself saying things I really shouldn’t.

It was one of the reasons I’d withdrawn. Eternity was long enough without alienating your friends.

“So, what brings you here?”

Dawn leaned forward, clasping her hands before her. “We need you to represent Earth at the celestial summit this coming summer solstice.”

I blinked. “What?”

Alex lifted his goblet in a mocking toast. “The celestial summit. We need a god or goddess to go and stand for the Earth. You’re it.”

I reached over and plucked the goblet from his hand and drained it in one smooth swallow. “No.”

The wine burned pleasantly down my throat, the fragrance of roses and jasmine intertwining with the sweetness of strawberries and passion fruit.

The celestial summit.

I hadn’t heard of that in an age.

I tossed back the refill just as fast as I threw back the first cupful. “They didn’t want us there, remember? Our planet was too unformed, our people too barbaric, us gods too provincial for them.”

Alex sighed and pulled out another drinking vessel, this one of paper thin transparent jade. “They changed their minds.”

“And so now we jump to their tune? No thanks. I’m quite content to remain as I am, provincial and all.”

She bit her lower lip, an unusual sign of stress for her. “The problem here is exactly that: if we do not find someone to represent the Earth, then the end of days will commence.”

I stared at my goblet. “There isn’t enough wine in the world to help me deal with this amount of bullshit.”

A white jade amphora appeared in front of me, complete with a glass straw that bent at an angle perfect for the height of my mouth. The goblet in my hand disappeared.

I glanced over at Alexandros, who only gave me a single mocking look before lowering his eyes to his own cup.

“There is a challenger. If we do not meet his challenge, then he lays claim to all of Earth as salvage. All of Earth, all of its inhabitants — devoured.”

“By what right?”

It was Alex who answered. “By right of failure to ascend before achievement of interstellar travel.”

I threw up my hands in disgust. “We are so far from interstellar travel it isn’t even funny.”

“Actually…”

I gaped at Dawn, who only shrugged, her answering grimace wry.

“Remember those alien ships that crashed a few decades ago? Well, they think they’re on the verge to cracking the riddle.”

Exhaling a slow breath out, I pinched the point between my brows. “How close is on the verge?”

“It could be anything from decades to mere days. Breakthroughs are hard to predict.”

I slumped back into my seat, cuddled the amphora to my chest, and took a good long swig.

There really wasn’t enough booze there to make the situation even vaguely tenable, but no sense in heading into a quandary sober when I could do it sloshed.

We did end up breaking out my special brew after the fifth bathroom run between the three of us. Having a super charged metabolism wasn’t all it was fired up to be when it meant that you spent more time running to the toilet than you did drunk.

“All right. So tell me again: why me? I’m just a little, minor goddess out of mostly obscured Chinese legend. Hells. Most people don’t even know I’m a goddess.”

I lifted my cup and pointed at Alexandros. “I can see why Mr. Sunnyface over there doesn’t want the job, but why not any of the numerous more well-known gods out there?”

At this point, Alex’s drinking problems aside, none of us wanted to give his worshipers the satisfaction of knowing that they were right about his existing. Not to mention that he already had more than enough on his plate to deal with all the problems his followers dreamed up on a daily basis. If we put more on his shoulders, he could very well decide that he was better off perpetually floating in a vat of wine rather than not.

Dawn flicked me a look. “Most of ’em have gone the reincarnation route.”

“But not all. I mean, if you’re scraping the barrel, you could consider Bast, Tiamat, or who’s that one with the gorgeous accent and the feathers?”

Alexandros raised his hand and started ticking down fingers. “Bast is currently reincarnated as a cat who is pet to the principessa of some rich country. She’s hardly going to give up her foie gras and cream for this posting. Your hot stud with the gorgeous accent and feathers recently went on tour of another world to find more worshippers. And do we really need to bring up Tiamat? If we let Tiamat be the representative of Terra, we might as well let the challenger have it. It’ll be less embarrassing.”

I tsked at him. “Tiamat would be heartbroken to hear you say that about her.”

He arched a brow. “Tiamat can…”

Dawn sighed. “Children…”

“The buddhas are busy. Alex can’t and won’t do it. Hells. You don’t want Alex doing it because you don’t want to give his followers the chance to be smug. I can’t do it because I have descendants and they don’t count me as an impartial party. Almost everyone else has reincarnated. Tell me, Amarantha, who would you leave the future in the hands of right now?”

Alex gave me an oddly sweet smile, untainted by cynicism. “It’s your choice, Amarantha. But I know you. You’ve already made it, haven’t you?”

I took a swig of special potion number five. It hit me like a ton of bricks, a warm sensation floating up from my abdomen, my memories blurring slightly, my emotions clouding just enough for me to say the fateful words.

“Fine. I’ll do it. What does it entail; where’s my entourage; how do I kill the big bad; and where is the bling?”