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At 8:35, I was outside the Chamber door. I had expected to be early than almost everyone else, but at least a dozen immortals had beaten me to the spot. I saw Kaitlyn, who was dressed like a Wall Street executive in a black jacket, white blouse and black slacks. She was deep in conversation with a pair of women I didn't recognize, which meant they had to be full gods. One had skin the color of the night sky, a jarring contrast to her bright-orange "Oceans Make Me Wet" t-shirt, while the other appeared to have an Arabic heritage. Like Kaitlyn, she was dressed fairly conservatively, but the number of buttons undone on her dress shirt and the shortness of her skirt broke any stereotypes about Islamic women in burqas.
As the group started to swell toward its total of 24, I looked around. It was a definite cross-section of humanity, that's for sure. There were countless skin tones, hair colors, heights and sizes, and almost as many styles of dress. I'd say a majority of the deities went with "21st Century business casual", including my dark-green polo shirt and black Dockers. Others were in something approaching formal wear, including a man that looked like he was about to attend a session of the Continental Congress, including the powdered wig, and the Goddess of Death, who encouraged the Marilyn Monroe comparison with a gown that looked like it had last been worn to the Academy Awards. His companion, the God of War, was not from the formal school. He looked like he was ready to take a sail off Cape Cod - much like he had in a million photographs taken with his family during his presidency.
I was wondering how the War God felt about all of the horrible tragedies that had hit his family since 1963, but the thought was interrupted by a whisper in my ear.
"Ready to make food, cheri?"
I turned and was embraced by my favorite dance partner, the Storm Apprentice.
"Hi, Chantal! Thank you so much for the video of Tracy. I can't even begin to tell you how much that helped."
She released me, smiling.
"You are quite welcome. I owed you something cheerful after I fell apart on our first date."
The smile faded slightly as she continued.
"Of course, I hear that someone else did a much better job of cheering you up last night ... or was the lovely Miss Harvest discussing famine patterns with you all night?"
I'm sure I blushed, and I'm equally sure that I would have said something stupid, but Chantal never gave me the chance before she burst out laughing.
"I'm just teasing, Michel. I've told you before how much I love Kait, and there's tradition to be upheld. A new God always gets first dibs with their new apprentice."
"I see," I said, with mock affront. "Here I thought she found me attractive, and it turned out she was just going through with some medieval custom of the lord having first-night privileges."
Chantal nodded solemnly.
"Yes, you are correct," she said, deadpan. She doesn't find you attractive at all. She didn't choose you out of 3 billion men on Earth, then make all her friends watch you play soccer like she was showing off a new puppy."
"That must have been terrible."
"It was," she agreed. "I told her that if we had to have a jock, couldn't we have at least gotten a NBA player?"
"Geez, here I thought you liked me, and you've been wishing I were Chris Paul."
Her eyes grew wide in mock alarm.
"No! I don't want you to be Chris Paul - my Hornets need Chris Paul! Dwyane Wade would have been my pick. He's got a ring already, his team stinks, and I want to be in his Five."
"Sadly, you are stuck with me."
"Yes, indeed. You play a sissy sport and you are a truly terrible dancer. It has been a great disappointment."
Before I could continue the silly conversation - probably by insulting New Orleans for letting Utah keep the nickname "Jazz" - I heard Kaitlyn calling me. I quickly hugged Chantal, and could barely hear the sentence she whispered into my ear.
"Remember, starting tonight, Kait has to share."
She kissed me on the cheek, winked and headed off in a different direction. I stared after her for a second, shook my head, and went to join my boss.
Kaitlyn was still talking to her two friends, and as I walked up, she introduced me.
"Michael, this is the Goddess of the Seas. Goddess, this is my apprentice."
I got a handshake and a smile from the woman in the skin-tight "Oceans Make Me Wet" top.
"Please call me Nyota - I don't stand on ceremony any more than Katie does," she said. "I do hope you can forgive me for being Ghanian."
I winced involuntarily, which got a laugh. Ghana had knocked us out of the World Cup in 2006 - my last big game in soccer.
"It gets worse - she's an Iraqi!" she said, gesturing to her companion. "By the way, do you like my shirt?"
I started to stammer something about it being cute, but was interrupted by a groan from Kaitlyn and a laugh from the third goddess.
"She thinks she's being funny," the new Goddess of the Harvest said. Despite her assurances an hour earlier, she looked more than a little jittery.
"She is being funny," corrected the Arabic woman with a grin. "Michael, back when the three of us were lowly apprentices, we all had those made for parties and vacations. I got promoted first, and I remembered how nervous I was, so I wore my neon-pink t-shirt on Nyota's first day to make her laugh. Now its her turn to do it for Katie."
Kaitlyn chuckled despite her nerves.
"Damn, it was fun to see the reaction of the old fogeys," she said. "They couldn't decide if they were horrified by your shirt or if they just wanted to stare at your chest. It was so bright that they certainly couldn't ignore it."
"I thought Benji was going to have a stroke, but Johnny looked like he wanted to start ripping my shirt off with his teeth. The Deathsicle was getting pissed."
I must have looked utterly baffled, because all three goddesses started laughing. Nyota recovered first.
"Since Katie is neglecting common courtesy today, let me introduce you to our idol, the wise, beautiful and talented Goddess of Justice."
We shook hands. Given the amount of cleavage she was showing in a dress shirt, I wasn't surprised that a certain God had been ogling her.
"I'm Zara, and don't listen to Ny's crap about idolizing me. She's just jealous because I finished first in 2008, and she was way back in fourth."
Nyota threw up her arms and twisted her face into a mock pout.
"It was my first year! Besides, I'm just a glorified travel agent. It's hard to wow the scoring system when my job is to keep anything exciting from happening."
As Nyota and Zara bantered, I glanced at Kaitlyn, having just realized that I had no idea where we were in the pecking order. She must have read my face, because she gave me a twisted smile and flashed nine fingers. I winced, but it wouldn't have made sense for her boss to quit if things were going well.
I turned back to the conversation, and hoped my superiors wouldn't mind a question.
"I don't want to seem dense, but who are 'Old John' and the 'Deathsicle'?"
They all laughed, but it was Zara who answered.
"The Deathsicle is the blonde bombshell Goddess of Death - the icy Marita. Benji is the guy running around in 18th Century clothing. He's one of your famous American fathers, and now he's the God of Diplomacy. He loves modern gadgets, but he makes a game out of acting like it is still the 1770s when he's on duty - poor Yvonne has to read notes that he writes using a quill pen."
I stared at the man for a long time, but I had to mumble a query to Jeeves before I got an answer.
"Benjamin Franklin? He's almost 300 years old, and he died in his 80s! I thought godlings were harvested young."
Kaitlyn flinched at my final words, and I tried to wordlessly apologize while Nyota answered my question.
"They almost always are - we've found that young energy works a lot better. That was before our times, but apparently the Goddess of Diplomacy only got three months as an apprentice before she got stuck in the big job, and she went for wisdom over energy. It didn't work all that well - she didn't stay more than a couple years - but he's been in charge forever."
Kaitlyn, still looking vaguely hurt, nodded.
"We're only two sessions away from his bicentennial year - he started in 1811 - and he swears he can make it to 400. He loves it here. Challenging work and lots of hot women."
"Plus iPods. He loves his iPod."
A bell chimed softly and all the conversations stopped. I remembered from my orientation sessions that the bell meant the doors would open in 60 seconds.
Our group of four quickly became six as we were joined by Alek and Claudio, both of whom I had met at my welcome dinner. Alek was very quiet and looked eerily like Vladimir Putin, which was slightly surreal given that he was the Justice Apprentice. Claudio, on the other hand, was the one person who had seemed excited by my previous life.
"I see you met my boss? Between Ghana and Italy, we have almost all of your World Cup opponents! Too bad there is no Czech god, no?"
I wasn't sure how to respond to that, but it didn't matter, since everyone was getting in place for the grand entrance. We lined up in seating order - gods on the left, apprentices on the right - so we were far in the back. As it turned out, we were one spot behind Diplomacy, so I got to shake hands with the greatest American in history before he turned his full attention on Kaitlyn.
"My dear, it is so good to see you finally where you belong," he said, kissing her hand. "Now that we are equals, I hope you will treat an old man with more kindness."
Kaitlyn blushed, but I was distracted from her response by a tug on the back of my hair. I turned to see Chantel lined up behind me.
"You ready, cheri?"
"I think so."
She quickly introduced me to the God of Storms, Saqr. I knew he was Bangladeshi, because Chantel had mentioned his anguish after the tsunami when she was talking about her own sleepless post-Katrina nights.
Before we could do more than shake hands, the line began to move. We solemnly marched into the Chamber of the Gods as "Sunrise" from Also Sprach Zarathustra played, which seemed a little over-the-top since there wasn't a audience to see the entrance.
When all 26 of us were in the room, the door closed with a bang, and a Chinese woman took the seat at the head of the table. Her apprentice followed, sitting behind her at an adult-sized version of a school desk-and-chair combination. Zara and Claudio were next, taking the furthest seat on the left side of the table. After a blonde man and his equally fair-haired apprentice took the top seat on the right, Nyota took her place next to Zara, while Alek sat down alongside Claudio.
As the process continued, I glanced over at Kaitlyn. Her eyes were the size of frisbees and she was paler than normal. I reached over and took her hand. She blinked, and glanced at me just as I heard a soft "awwwwwww" from behind me. Kaitlyn stifled a giggle, stuck her tongue out at Chantel and squeezed my hand for a second before releasing it as Benji began to move.
As he and Yvonne got into their seats, Kaitlyn closed her eyes, took a deep breath and started toward her new chair. As soon as she took her first step, everyone in the room began to applaud, which caused her to stumble slightly. It was only a few feet to her seat, the last one on the left side, and she looked quite relieved to get into it. I was right behind her, taking my spot next to Talora, a dark-haired Israeli woman that had the silly-sounding title of Love Apprentice.
Saqr and Chantel were next, followed by a tired-looking Hispanic woman that took the seat at the foot of the table. She was teamed with an equally haggard man with coal-black skin. I had met Musa at dinner the other night, and he had barely spoken, but being the Evil Apprentice couldn't be much fun.
Finally came Justine and Daisuke, representing the Earth. I had met both of them at the party, so it was painful to see the sadness on their faces as they settled into their homes for the next four weeks.
When the last person was seated, the music stopped. I started slightly as a tray shimmered into existence on my desk, but as I looked around, the same thing was happening at every place. As the breakfast finished appearing, the woman at the head of the table rose to her feet.
"Jeeves?" I mumbled.
"Yes, sir?" came the instant reply in my head.
"Who is that woman? I know I met her the other night."
"She is the Goddess of Art, sir. She did not tell you her given name."
She waited until she had everyone's attention, then bowed slightly.
"Welcome to another year. This is my third time in this chair, and I hope I enjoy it as much as I did the other times. That said, I didn't do anything to earn my spot other than to wait my turn, so I want to congratulate the Justice Goddess on her first time in Chair 2. Given that you started your career in Chair 13, it is a very impressive accomplishment to be here in just four sessions."
There was polite applause, and Zara mouthed a thank you before the speech continued.
"It should be an interesting year with Art and Justice in the first two seats - that hasn't happened in a long time. Also, as this year's host, I want to officially welcome the Harvest Goddess to the Table. It was an honor to work with my fellow countryman for so long, but I know Yi felt that you are very deserving of a spot here."
I saw Kaitlyn's head nod, but I couldn't see her face. That hadn't exactly come across as a ringing endorsement, but maybe it was a translation error.
"If my math is correct, that means a majority of the infamous 'Gang of Five' have now made it here," continued Madame Art, looking slightly disapproving. "I suppose that is a victory for the party lifestyle."
OK, I guess the translation had been right. Apparently, she didn't approve of Kaitlyn and her friends. It was a good thing that there were iron-clad rules about taking personal problems into the Chamber, not that I could see any reason for us to work for or against the Goddess of Art.
She continued in her slightly cold style, making some meaningless announcements and offering Justine some empty condolences. After that, everyone ate in relative silence. The food was fantastic, but I'm sure I wasn't the only one that just wanted to get started.
Finally, about 10 minutes after I had eaten everything on my tray, it vanished back into the desk.
"OK, everyone, it is time to get robed. We will begin in five minutes."
As soon as I stood up, the little desk sank into the floor and my cubicle slid silently into position. I idly wondered how they switched the cubicles around from one session to the next, but I decided it didn't matter as I grabbed my robe off the coat rack. I handed Kaitlyn hers and put mine on. As soon as I flipped up the hood, I heard her voice.
"Can you hear me?"
"Stop it, or I won't show you my t-shirt after work."
"I was trying to think of a polite way to ask about that. By the way, what's the 'Gang of Five'?"
"Long story, but the short version is a group of apprentices that a few older gods felt had too much fun and, to be honest, too much sex. It never bothered us, since none of our bosses thought it was a problem."
I clearly heard her chuckle through the communication system.
"You looking for new girlfriends already? Qi - the Art Goddess - is really the only one who ever used the phrase 'Gang of Five'. Yi called Ny, Zara, Talora and I the 'Gang of Four', but Qi's also counting Chantel. That's not really accurate - Chan hadn't been here all that long before Zara got bumped up, and that changed the dynamics."
"Are you trying to distract me with meaningless small talk?"
"It's working. Thank you."
"Any time, Goddess."
Her reply was cut off by a voice counting down from 20. As it got to zero, I realized I was holding my breath.
The Earth flickered into sight, covered in green and a lot of red. Before I had time to take it in, I heard Kaitlyn's voice.
"Give me that table that you showed me yesterday - the one with the population-density adjustments."
She was a goddess. I was her apprentice.
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