“In the beginning was the Sky. The Sky was lonely, so he dreamed of a mate. When he awoke, the Earth was with him. The Sky covered the Earth, and the Earth bore the Titans. At least, that’s what the Titans told their children.
“The Titans had power over matter, spirit, space, and time. There was nothing they couldn’t do. Nothing they couldn’t create. The Earth and Sky had only created plants and water. The Titans filled the earth with living creatures. You all know the tales of Hephaestus building Pandora, the first mortal woman, at Zeus’ command; tales spread by Zeus in his pride to claim the Titans’ work for his own. No, there were humans in the world long before Hephaestus was born — long before Hera and Zeus were born, if one could say they were born at all.
“The Titans created humans to take care of their world. The humans weren’t much like their creators. The Titans could assume material form, but they were immaterial by nature. Eventually, they decided the humans were so unlike them that they couldn’t even interact. The humans took the Titans’ caresses for a breeze, their smiles for sunlight, their shouts for thunder, and their tears for rain. So the Titans created a new race, one that combined their own powers, strengths, and immortality with the nature of the humans. Two by two, the Titans mingled their life forces to bring these new creatures into existence. The most powerful were the six created by Cronus and Rhea, the rulers of the Titans. Their daughters they named Hera, Demeter, and Hestia. Their sons they named Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. Uranus and Gaia, the Titan spirits that now inhabited the shells of the earth and sky, created Mnemosyne, Selene, and Helios.
“But this new race wasn’t as pliable or as easily cowed as the humans. The harder the Titans fought to control the creatures they called their children, the more those children resisted their control. Finally, Zeus and Hera united their brethren to overthrow the Titans. Zeus had a secret weapon: lightning bolts that could strike both matter and spirit. Against Hera’s demands, he had the bolts enchanted so that only he could wield them, swearing that someday, when the war was over and they were wed, enthroned as King and Queen of the Gods, he’d give her use of them as well. Hera accepted this, knowing full well that a divine oath must be fulfilled whether the god who swore it was willing or not. The Fates would see to it.
“Everyone knows the rest. On the day of the Winter Solstice, when the night was the longest and the heavens were the darkest, Zeus and Hera led their brethren to victory and banished the Titans to Tartarus where they remain bound to this day. As for the lightning bolts, Zeus only swore to give Hera use of them ‘someday.’ He had all the time in the world…
“But so did she.”
My sisters, Apollo, and I applauded as Calliope concluded her rehearsal. “That is the best recitation of that story in the history of recitations,” Clio proclaimed. “But the text could still use some work. Shouldn’t you say something about how Apollo killed the Cyclops, who was the only one with the formula to make the lightning bolts, so now Zeus has a finite supply and Hera’s just waiting for him to run out?”
“No, she really doesn’t need to bring that up,” said Apollo.
“It’s epic poetry, Clio, not history,” said Calliope. “It’s all implied in the ending.”
“Hey, maybe you could throw in something about Hera conceiving Hephaestus on her own and giving him the ability to reverse engineer the lightning bolts, but totally forgetting to throw in motivation,” I suggested.
“It would interrupt the flow of the story,” said Calliope, who was getting annoyed.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Polyhymnia. “You can’t use that script at the feast tomorrow, anyway. Hera would throw you in Tartarus right along with her parents for making her look that gullible. Actually, you sort of made Zeus sound like a bastard, too.”
“Oh, well,” Calliope shrugged, “you’re probably right. I’ll just use the old script, even though everyone’s heard it a thousand times.”
“Not everyone,” Euterpe tried to cheer her up. “This’ll be Psyche’s first Cronia with us. She and Eros were on their honeymoon during last year’s feast.”
“It’ll be Aglaea’s first Cronia on Olympus, too,” Apollo offered.
“It’s going to be a crazy day for her,” I laughed. “Morning with her family and evening with his.” Not that Hera would be too distraught if Hephaestus didn’t show up. As we’d all expected, once he and Aglaea got back from their honeymoon, Hera went back to barely being aware of his existence. Not a deliberate shunning, mind you, merely a general oblivion. Even with the recent announcement of Aglaea’s pregnancy, Hera had just plain lost interest in the couple, which was fine with Aglaea.
Aphrodite, on the other hand, had disproved our expectations by continuing in her conviction that Aglaea was her best friend. Aphrodite doesn’t really know how to have a friend.
“Isn’t this wonderful? Me and my bestest gal pal, together for Cronia,” Aphrodite gushed just loud enough for all around to hear as she stood by Aglaea with her arm around her shoulder. All the action was in the center of the lavishly decorated banquet hall, but a few guests were sitting on the sidelines. Hephaestus and Aglaea were among the latter, and I was taking a moment to visit with them. “You should go get us some wine,” Aphrodite told her BFF.
“I’m pregnant,” Aglaea reminded her. Aphrodite responded with a blank look. “You aren’t supposed to drink when you’re pregnant,” Aglaea clarified.
“You just crack me up!” Aphrodite giggled.
“This explains so much about your kids,” I remarked. “And by the way, friends don’t tell friends what to do.”
“Hm,” Aphrodite considered this. “Hephaestus,” she directed her ex-husband, “get us some wine.” With some effort, she took his sturdy cane from its resting place against the wall and offered it to him.
“A friend would offer to get it herself,” Hephaestus replied, showing no intention of accepting the cane or rising from his seat.
“Oh,” said Aphrodite, letting the cane fall to the floor. “Well then, you’re not being a very good friend,” she laughed at Aglaea. ”I’m going to find Ares. Later.”
“I’m sure she’ll leave us alone once the baby’s born,” Hephaestus comforted his wife once Aphrodite had disappeared into the crowd.
“Don’t worry about it,” Aglaea sighed, half annoyed and half amused. “I’ve resigned myself to having been chosen by the Fates as Aphrodite’s bestie.”
“Bestie, handmaid, six of one,” I added. Aphrodite does have real handmaids, but due to a time-honored Cronia tradition, they had the day off. To commemorate Zeus overthrowing the Titans’ reign, masters are supposed to be subject to their servants, parents to children, etc., during the Cronia feast. Zeus, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia had waited table at dinner as they did every year. Now that the tables were cleared away and everyone was dancing and mingling, all of us gods and goddesses were supposed to be attending to our attendants. It is my great fortune not to have any attendants. It is my even greater fortune to have an official Governor.
“Here you are,” Apollo shoved a chalice in my face. “Hopefully this one is to your satisfaction, unlike the previous six.”
I took a tiny sip and thoughtfully swished it around in my mouth. “No,” I said at last. “This one has too much cinnamon. Try again.”
“Thalia,” he smiled with an ominous calm, “Sweet, thoughtful Thalia; I advise you to consider that Cronia doesn’t last forever, and that when it’s over and the new year begins, I may decide to reevaluate my leadership methods. You’re giving me some fascinating ideas.”
“I advise you to reevaluate the nutmeg to clove ratio in this drink. There’s a good boy,” I said blithely as I folded his fingers over the stem of the goblet.
“That’s right, keep it up,” he warned as he went to make another sad attempt at fulfilling my rather reasonable request.
A minute later, Apollo’s twin sister Artemis and her best friend Athena showed up. Athena was decked out in shining silver armor over a fabulous, richly-decorated golden gown. Artemis was wearing her long blonde hair loose and sporting a dress chiton, both things she only did on feast days, and then under duress. I’m not sure she even owned a dress chiton since she always just borrowed one of the plainer ones from Apollo’s closet. This one was a solid, muted eggshell white. I couldn’t remember for sure, but I’d thought it’d had a striking black braid around the hem when Apollo had worn it. Today it was unadorned.
“Hey there,” Artemis greeted me with a smile as she pulled a couple of chairs into a semi circle. “Apollo asked me to keep an eye on you. What hoops have you been making him jump through this year?”
“You’d think he could mix a simple drink,” I shook my head in disappointment.
“It’s about time he’s getting some Cronia torture,” she laughed. “My huntresses always have way too much fun with this holiday.”
“I’ll say,” Athena coolly agreed. “Honestly, how many times can one girl lose a- oh, here she is now.”
“Artemis!” a bubbly brunette nymph sang as she pranced over to her mistress. “My anklet fell off again. Can you put it back on for me? Please?” she pleaded as she held out a silver chain laden with diamond star charms.
“Hand it over,” Artemis smiled indulgently as she switched places with the petite young woman and knelt by the chair. “Everyone, this is Callisto. Callisto, you know who these people are.” Whether or not she did know, Callisto ignored these people, took a seat, and daintily set her tiny bare foot in Artemis’ lap. Athena, meanwhile, appeared to have lost the ability to blink. “See, this is why I don’t let you girls wear jewelry while we’re hunting,” Artemis chided, fastening the clasp.
“Not to mention you’d scare away the game with something that gaudy and…and jangly,” Athena commented.
“Look who’s talking,” Artemis teased her. “The ostrich feathers in your helmet serve what military purpose, exactly?”
“The design is meant to suggest a bird displaying its plumage,” Athena said. “Like it does before a fight to look stronger and more fierce than its opponent.”
“I thought birds did that when they’re trying to impress a potential mate,” said Callisto. Nymphs aren’t always the brightest little things.
“And you don’t think fights ever break out under those circumstances?” Athena replied.
“There you go,” Artemis said to Callisto. “Firmly fastened. If that thing falls off one more time, I’ll know without a doubt that you’re just trying to torment me,” she kindly reproached. With a giggle and blush, Callisto slid off her chair and returned to the dance floor, scampering like a fawn.
“She’s adorable,” Aglaea laughed.
“I like her,” Artemis nodded, following Callisto with her eyes. “She’s a good hunter, and she’s very popular with the other girls.”
“And she worships you,” Athena remarked with a hint of disparagement.
“I’m a goddess and she’s in my service, so that goes without saying,” Artemis replied, Athena’s implication lost on her.
“I’ll bet those crushes happen a lot,” Hephaestus commented.
Artemis’ countenance darkened. “I cannot believe you said that. How could you even think that?”
“No, I meant her to you; I wasn’t implying that you-”
“I know what you meant, and it’s still sick. My nymphs look up to me as a leader and a mentor, and they know I care about them and would do anything to protect them. That’s all there is to it. Don’t turn it into something disgusting.”
“I would never, ever, ever think or suggest that anything inappropriate was going on in your ranks,” Hephaestus protested. “It was a poor choice of words. I just meant that she does seem to really look up to you.”
The fact is, in spite of Artemis’ obstinate ignorance, those crushes do happen a lot. Half of her hunters join her ranks because they’re trying to get over a guy or because they’re looking for a nice girl. Whenever any of them do pair up with each other, they’re honorably discharged. Artemis keeps a strict singles-only policy. Athena has pointed out to her that, one, most of the girls aren’t really virgins, they’re just celibate for the duration of their employment; and two, according to Zeus and Hera’s law, two women sleeping together isn’t a breach of chastity anyway. Artemis says that’s not the point. Some people, she claims, just don’t want to be romantically involved with anyone, and she wants to provide such women with a haven that offers a little more adventure than Hestia’s retinue.
So, where was I? Oh, yes. Clearly this was a job for the court jester.
“No big deal, you got the wrong twin, that’s all,” I teased Hephaestus. “You know how many Oracles have fallen for Apollo? It’s insane. But he never pays them any attention except for, like, the two out of every hundred who aren’t attracted to him at all.”
“Oh, that is so true,” Artemis shook her head in agreement. My distraction was working. “Remember Cassandra?”
“Who doesn’t?” I rolled my eyes. “Psyche has all kinds of theories on the subject, but they all come down to the fact that Apollo’s nuts.”
“Did someone summon me?” Psyche flew into our midst. As always, Eros wasn’t far behind. The Winged Wonders came in for a landing in the middle of our semicircle.
“And what about Apollo’s nuts?” asked Eros.
“Hey, Psyche,” I ignored him. “Enjoying your first Cronia on Olympus?”
“It’s great!” she grinned. “Do you and your sisters do that pageant every year?”
“Yes,” everyone in the circle said in unison.
“Well, I loved it,” she said. “And this is the best feast I’ve been to, except for all the weddings.”
“Just think,” said Eros, “this time next year we’ll be celebrating my baby sister’s first Cronia. Have you guys picked out a name yet?”
“We’re leaning toward Euphrosyne,” said Hephaestus.
“I still think Erato would be perfect,” Eros campaigned.
“But then she’d be confused with my sister Erato all the time,” I reminded him, knowing that Aglaea and Hephaestus had already vetoed the name for that reason.
“No, she wouldn’t,” Eros argued. “Your sisters are all brunettes. My sister’s going to look just like me. Right, Dad?”
“She could be blonde,” Hephaestus concurred with some hesitation.
“I mean, I’m not kidding myself; I know she’ll just be my half-sister,” Eros continued, “but still, I have a blonde mother and a dark-haired father.”
“That’s undisputed,” Athena said.
“And maybe the wings come from Dad’s side, too,” he considered.
“That’s also possible,” said Hephaestus. I wondered whether he was referring to himself or to his half brother Ares, Zeus and Hera’s only legitimate son. It’s also possible that Eros’ wings come from Hermes, one of Zeus’ innumerable illegitimate sons, which would make sense considering Hermes is the only one of the aforementioned who actually has wings. If Hermes is the father, Eros and Hephaestus aren’t blood related at all.
“For your sake, I hope it doesn’t have wings,” Psyche said to Aglaea in sympathy. “Aphrodite’s told me all about what it feels like to give birth to a winged baby. Those pointy little bones are right up there by the shoulder blades, and-”
“Whoa!” Eros cut her off. He flew away with his hands over his ears chanting, “TMI! TMI!”
“I knew that would work,” said Psyche as soon as he was out of earshot. “I’m sorry,” she said to Hephaestus. “I know that was uncomfortable for you.”
“It’s alright; I was there when he was born, and I’ve heard the story many times, usually at a much higher volume,” Hephaestus replied.
“No, I mean what Eros was saying,” said Psyche. “He’s been this way ever since he found out about the baby. It does make sense. You’re starting a new family, and he wants to make sure he’s a part of it. Which I know you want him to be. He should know you don’t care that you’re probably not his biological father.”
“Thank you,” said Hephaestus. “Discomfort: gone.”
Since her days as a mortal Delphian teenager, Psyche had dreamed of developing a science of the soul as a counterpart to medical science. Hera granted that wish when she made Psyche a goddess. Psyche became the Goddess of Psychology. Since then, she had yet to have a single patient. That didn’t stop her from psychoanalyzing everyone in range of her empathic senses.
“With both of us working, we’ll need lots of babysitting,” Aglaea said to her. “Would it help if I make sure Big Brother is the first one I summon?”
“Do that!” Psyche agreed, clearly excited by this prospect. “And me, too. I’d love to help. I love kids. I wish Persephone hadn’t had to take her baby to Hades right away. You think she’ll bring him with her when she comes back in the spring?”
“That’ll depend on who loses the coin toss,” I laughed.
“And if she does, he won’t be a baby anymore,” Athena reminded her. “He’ll probably be half grown by then.”
“He is a demigod,” said Aglaea. “Sometimes they take longer.” Hades and Persephone had adopted the baby in question. His birthmother, one of Aphrodite’s mortal priestesses, had died in childbirth. His absentee birthfather was the son of the moon goddess Selene and her lover, Endymion. If you can call an eternally comatose man a lover. Selene apparently can. Selene is kind of creepy.
“Barring prophetic vision,” said Artemis, “there’s no sure way to predict how fast we’ll grow and where we’ll stop. It took Apollo and me five years to get to our ultimate age, and our growth was pretty inconsistent.”
“I can only imagine what it’s like to grow,” Athena said wistfully. “To look in the mirror and see an entirely different person than you saw there a year ago.” Zeus had created Athena on his own to get back at Hera for conceiving Hephaestus without a father, and to prove that he had the same creative powers as the Titans who had created him. Athena was brought into being fully grown and fully armed, the pinnacle of Zeus’ creation, the wisest and strongest of all his children.
“You were lucky,” Artemis said to her. “I wish I’d never been a child.” Psyche had that odd look on her face that she’d get from time to time. I could tell there was something on her mind that was dying to get out, but even Psyche usually had the sense not to tell Artemis what she could see in her soul.
“You felt like, as a child, you didn’t have enough power,” Psyche ventured, unable to contain herself, needing to vent just this tiny revelation. Okay, scratch that about her having any sense. ”The Fates gave you more responsibility than you were ready for. Great responsibility requires great power.”
Artemis shocked us by mildly replying, “That’s exactly right.” But she quickly and smoothly changed the subject by saying, “Adonis – that is what Persephone named the baby, isn’t it? – won’t have that problem. You can’t get much more sheltered than a childhood in the Underworld with Persephone and Hades for parents. If the Laws of Inverse Luck hold true, he’ll probably be full grown by the first time Persephone leaves him,” she laughed darkly.
“If she leaves him,” said Psyche. “She doesn’t hate anything as much as she lets on, the baby included.”
“She hated her mom’s obsessive hovering as much as she let on,” I said.
“Yeah, and guess who got to hear about it all the time,” said Athena. “Me and Artemis, her loyal chaperones.”
“Artemis!” we heard Callisto calling.
“There is no way that anklet came off again,” Artemis laughed.
“No, but look, my hair fell down. Can you fix it for me?”
“Your wish is my command.”
Callisto stood up in front of the chair while Artemis remained seated. Artemis produced a comb and started the tedious process of repairing Callisto’s hairstyle. I pondered how horribly inconvenient it must be to not be able to do it with a snap of the fingers. Artemis isn’t a theater goddess or a beauty goddess, so she can only do that kind of thing by hand. Her hunters usually follow her example of simply pinning her hair up off her neck and out of her face. Feast days are a major exception. Callisto was in a state of absolute bliss as Artemis combed, braided, and sculpted her hair. Athena was engaged in an intense staring contest with a nearby pillar. It could have been my imagination, but I thought I saw tiny wisps of smoke coming from the pillar. The pillar got a reprieve when an approaching voice commanded all of our attention.
“I don’t believe I know this lovely lady.”
Some nymphs live for Zeus’ favor. The smart ones will do anything to avoid his mere acknowledgement. Callisto clearly fell into the latter category.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Zeus said with a smile that would probably be quite charming and seductive if you didn’t know him. Callisto backed into Artemis, who practically drew her into her lap. “Can you tell me your name, or do you have to ask your mistress’ permission?” he coaxed.
“It’s Callisto, My Lord,” she quietly answered.
“Callisto,” Zeus repeated. “What do you do when my daughter isn’t keeping you busy in the hunting grounds?”
“She does what I tell her,” Artemis fiercely answered in Callisto’s place as she shielded her with her arms, “because she’s mine.”
“Artemis, don’t be so tense,” Zeus laughed. “You never did have much of a sense of humor.”
“I can tell a joke as well as anyone,” Artemis said, her voice as cold, hard, and ominous as an iceberg. “What did the King of the Gods swear to his daughter? Give up? That she would never be given to a man, that she could remain a virgin forever, and that her arrows would never miss their mark. Now, isn’t that just the funniest thing you ever heard?”
Zeus patted the fair wave of hair that draped around Artemis’ shoulder. “It needs work,” he smirked.
“Oh, oh, I got one,” I spoke up. “What did Hera say when she heard Zeus was banging Demeter? ‘Fine, but I get her when you’re done.’” As I predicted, Zeus thought that was a riot. He turned his attention from Artemis and Callisto and toward me. I subtly shifted position so that he turned even further. “But I kid,” I said as I leaned back on my heels. “I kid. We all know Demeter would never get involved with a married man. She was saying so just the other day while she was wringing salt water out of her hair.”
“And what business did you have with Demeter?” Zeus jovially played along. As I took a nonchalant step backward, he unconsciously took one forward.
“The usual; she needed some cheering up,” I continued to improvise. “Guess a dip in the ocean failed to satisfy. You know how she gets around the holidays, missing Persephone. Persephone, now there’s a piece of work…” My monologue went on and on. Eventually, I reached the other side of the banquet hall. That was where I ran into Apollo. Literally. He stood immobile as a pillar and let me back right into him.
“Will you look at that,” Apollo clucked his tongue as he turned me around. “I went to all the trouble to mix you this drink, and now you’ve gone and spilled it all over yourself.” Grateful for this fortuitous climax to my improv routine, which had naturally attracted the attention of those around me, I triumphantly bowed and waved in all directions. The crowd ate it up.
“Fix it,” I ordered Apollo by way of a finale. Apollo snapped his fingers. The wine stain on my gold dress turned into an all-over print. The color scheme resembled a leopard’s coat, but the pattern was more like that of an overo paint horse. “Nice,” I decided. “I like it better this way.”
“Me, too,” Hermes approved.
“Can I borrow it sometime?” asked my sister Urania, who was standing next to him, drink in hand.
“We’ll see,” I said. She hadn’t mentioned that she and Hermes were back together. Well, maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. Who knew. It was hard to tell with them. They had officially decided to Just Be Friends™ not long after Aphrodite’s divorce, but they’d hooked up at least twice in the year and a half since. Though Aphrodite and Ares were each other’s primary lovers, neither of them made the slightest pretense at monogamy, and whenever Ares was unavailable for whatever reason, Hermes was the next man on Aphrodite’s list. How my sister fit into that equation, I didn’t even want to know.
The attention of the crowd, including Zeus, was drawn away quickly enough by the myriad amusements that filled the hall. “You know,” Apollo said quietly to me, “with it being Cronia and all, if you ordered me to dance with you, I’d have to comply.”
“You would, wouldn’t you?” I said with a wicked little smile.
“You like this song,” he observed.
“I do,” I acknowledged.
“I am the best male dancer in this room,” he commented.
“Don’t let Dionysus hear you.” Dionysus, yet another one of Zeus’ bastards, was on the dance floor in full drag, demonstrating his prowess as a dancer in ways that defied imagination. Too bad he hadn’t brought the Maenads. I knew from past experience that watching him “serve” them could get interesting.
“I might even enjoy dancing with you, just a little,” Apollo persisted.
“I could see that,” I agreed. “But I couldn’t possibly ask that of you today,” I added with a dramatic sigh. “You just said yourself, you couldn’t say no. Of course, if you were to ask me to dance, technically my position of authority would become a non-issue, but I’m quite capable of making an issue of it anyway.”
“What, me commit to dancing with you? And be serious about something for once in my life? Day?” he countered. “Right, that sounds like me. Besides, once I start dancing with you, I might decide I don’t like it after all, or you might want to quit, and I need every story to have a happy ending.”
Aphrodite materialized in front of us. “Will you two cut it out?” she decried our charming little reverse-role banter. “I am trying to make out with Ares, and I can’t concentrate with all this unresolved sexual tension in the air. If you two don’t hurry up and get it together, I’m going to take matters into my own hands. My own very capable hands,” she ran her fingertips along Apollo’s chiseled, exposed pectoral. Bitch.
“Sorry, you’re not my type,” Apollo protested, more to himself than to her. He’s as hot for Aphrodite as is any other Olympian male. However, his moral code had prevented him from getting involved with her before she and Hephaestus divorced, and the knowledge that her moral code is a bit incompatible has kept any desire in check since. Therefore, Apollo is one of the very few gods who’s never slept with Aphrodite.
“Ares thinks women aren’t your type,” Aphrodite prodded him. “He doesn’t understand that some people are even more unlimited than I am in who they can love.”
“I think you have me confused with Dionysus,” Apollo defended. It was pretty hard to confuse the two of them at the moment. Apollo was the one not doing a striptease. “It’s not like I’m out to screw everything with a pulse. Some of the people I’ve fallen in love with were men, that’s all. And I was in love with every one of them.”
“I loved every one of mine, too,” said Aphrodite.
“Did you really? Did you love any of them so much that you wanted him and only him forever?” asked Apollo.
“Impossible,” Aphrodite laughed. “That would be like expecting one of you theater gods to have an audience of one, and to want to perform for that person and only that person for eternity. Well, enough of this,” she switched gears. “I’m going back to — damn it, don’t I get one day off?” she whined right before teleporting out of sight. Before I could comment on her disappearance, I was summoned away, too. I obeyed the summons and teleported to Athena’s quarters.
And so had Aphrodite. I deduced that Athena must have summoned her away to annoy Ares, and that she had summoned me to watch the fun. I produced a box of popcorn. A small one, since I had no intention of sharing. Athena disintegrated it. That made me sad.
“No gag props,” Athena ordered. “This is serious.”
“It had better be,” said Aphrodite. “I left Ares waiting.”
Athena drew a deep breath. Slowly, regally, she began to pace her floor. “In all my centuries as a battle goddess, none of the wounds I’ve received have caused me as much pain as what I’m about to say.” She faced Aphrodite, but averted her eyes. “Aphrodite, I want your help.”
“Think carefully, Bright Eyes,” Aphrodite sang with a perverse smile. “Is ‘want’ really the word you’re looking for?”
“Fine, I need your help,” Athena growled, looking like shards of glass were being crushed into her temples.
“Remember that time you claimed you were more beautiful than me?” Aphrodite contemplated.
“It wasn’t an unjustified claim. If you recall, I could have stolen your husband if I’d wanted to.” Athena’s rather proud of her looks. She’s rather proud of everything about herself, actually. She’s sort of how I imagine Hera if Hera were less power-hungry and more compassionate.
“Sorry, I mistook you for someone who needed a favor from me,” Aphrodite perused her own fingernails and randomly changed the color of their polish. Athena said something under her breath. “What was that?” asked Aphrodite. “I couldn’t quite make it out.”
“I said ‘Fine’,” the word forced its way through Athena’s clenched teeth. I didn’t think that was the word she’d said before. “You’re as beautiful as me.”
“Wow. You really do want my help,” Aphrodite looked up. “Where would you like me to bestow my good will? Is this favor for a friend, or has someone actually caught your eye? I really hope it’s the latter. I would be the happiest creature in the universe if one of you three finally sought my ultimate blessing.”
The three Aphrodite referred to are Athena, Artemis, and Hestia. Hestia, the Goddess of the Hearth and a daughter of the Titans, had first taken a vow of chastity long before anyone from my generation was born. She’s always seemed pretty happy with her relationship status. Not merely content or resigned, but genuinely happy.
Artemis was a little different. She didn’t actually take a vow; she asked Zeus to take one. He granted her request and swore that she could keep her virginity forever. Everyone figured she was freaked out about the prospect of Zeus arranging a marriage for her, but that she’d grow out of it and find a loophole eventually. She never has.
When Artemis was grown, Zeus created Athena. Athena and Artemis hit it off right away. After a year or two, Athena vowed that she’d keep her virginity as long as Artemis did. As with Artemis, most of us suspected Athena was preventing Zeus from marrying her off. Since she wasn’t Zeus’ (or anyone’s) biological daughter, any of his and/or Hera’s sons would have been fair game. Athena hated Ares from day one, and though she considered Apollo and Hephaestus her friends, she wasn’t attracted to either of them. As the Olympian court grew, neither Dionysus nor Hermes inspired any regret over her vow. Some of us, blessed with keen observational skills and extraordinary intuition, discerned that Athena was, to put it in the proper scientific terminology, into chicks. However, for reasons she’s kept to herself, she’s never gotten involved with anyone, even for a chaste romance.
“I love Artemis.”
Apparently she was through keeping the reason to herself.
“I knew that,” said Aphrodite.
“Of course you did,” Athena murmured. “I’m sure everyone does, even without love goddess abilities.” She sighed. “Everyone but Artemis. It’s like she has some kind of mental block. And not just with me. You’ve seen how she reacts to the thought of anyone being attracted to her, or her to them. That’s why I’ve never told her. She’d have a nervous breakdown and probably never speak to me again.”
“Tell me about it,” Aphrodite nodded in enthusiasm.
“Now, I don’t want you to enchant her if she truly doesn’t feel this way about me at all and she can’t think of me as anything more than a sister.” She paused a moment. “Sister,” she quietly repeated. There were those glass shards again. “It’s all I can do to keep from falling on my sword whenever she says that. We’re not sisters. If I’m Zeus’ daughter, Pegasus is my son.”
“Who’s Pegasus?” Aphrodite wrinkled her eyebrows.
“Our horse,” I reminded her. “Athena made him.”
“You have a horse for a son? What’s the father? When did you have a baby, anyway? I thought you were still a virgin.”
A subtle glimmer of suspicion showed itself in Athena’s countenance. “Show me my file,” she requested.
“What file?” Aphrodite asked modestly, her hands innocently clasped behind her back.
“The file you keep on everyone’s love lives,” Athena persisted.
“You have no love life, therefore you have no file,” said Aphrodite.
“Let’s see Thalia’s, then,” Athena suggested in a conspiratorial tone. “I’ll bet a Muse has all kinds of juicy stuff in her file.”
“You’d think so,” I scoffed. But then, to my horror, Aphrodite gleefully produced a scroll as thick as a tree trunk.
“What on earth is that?” I gasped in indignation. Sad truth be told, my love life really isn’t that active. I’ve had a few little love affairs; they didn’t last very long, and they’ve been pretty scarce.
“I don’t just keep track of full-fledged romances,” said Aphrodite. “Every major or minor flirtation, every romantic or sexual thought; it all goes in the file.”
“Every stray thought of that nature in my entire life is in that scroll?”
“No, silly girl!” she laughed as she pinched my cheeks, leaving the scroll hanging in midair. “That’s from this week. I’ll start with today.” She waved her hand, and several feet unrolled. “Midnight: Highly unoriginal erotic dream. 8:00 a.m.: ‘Sun through the window. Golden sun. Warm sun. Sun god. Apollo. Golden hair. Warm skin. I’m so lonely’,” she read my transcript aloud. “8:02 a.m.: ‘Getting dressed. Apollo likes this dress. Forget it, I don’t want Apollo to think I’m dressing for him. Damn, I’m hot. Has Apollo seen me naked? I can’t remember.’ By the way,” she told me, “he has, twice, one less time than you’ve seen him. Oddly, all five occurrences were before you two moved in together. 8:15 a.m.: ‘Awesome, Apollo decided to go with the shirtless look. Does he know I like it? Pecs. Abs. Biceps. Want. Aw, he’s putting on a cloak.’ 8:30 a.m.: ‘Oh my goddess, Apollo’s touching me. I could just-’”
“Okay, this has been loads of fun,” I cut her off, feeling a distinct ingratitude for my immortality, “but how come you don’t have a file like this on Athena? I mean – with all due reverence – I know she’s never been involved with anyone, but if you keep track of all these random thoughts that I’ve never acted on and half the time didn’t even notice I was having, wouldn’t you at least have something on Athena?”
“The lady has an excellent point,” Athena said in unhappy satisfaction.
“Your pretty, shiny helmet protects your thoughts?” Aphrodite suggested.
Athena took off her helmet. “What am I thinking?” she asked, casually observing Aphrodite’s décolletage. Besides the fact that Aphrodite must have been keeping that gown’s neckline in place supernaturally, Athena is a lot taller than her.
“That I’m helping you already by making you forget all about what’s-her-name?” Aphrodite said with a seductive smile. “I can be even more of a help,” she enticed. “Believe it or not, I’ve never been with a woman, so in a way it would be my first time, too. Now you’re thinking you want Thalia to give us a little privacy,” she purred, suggestively fondling the hilt of Athena’s sword.
“Not even close,” Athena said quietly as she removed Aphrodite’s hand. From her sword, not from Aphrodite. “You can’t read me because your powers don’t work on me. I should have figured it out when you had to ask me what I wanted from you. I suspected when you couldn’t concentrate on my petition. Prayers for love are the only things that ever hold your attention.”
“And nothing gives me more pleasure than answering them,” said Aphrodite. Her form began to change, growing taller, more slender and less voluptuous. Her pure gold hair turned to a still brilliant but more natural shade of blonde. Her gown turned to a masculine silk chiton that would have looked irresistible on Apollo, yet equally so on his twin if she’d ever bother to wear one so luxurious.
Athena drew a sharp breath at the figure before her. Anyone who entered the room at that moment would have sworn it was Artemis. “Athena,” she spoke. I jumped a little. Athena took a step back and involuntarily clutched her shield against her breast. The voice was a perfect copy. “There’s no need for that,” the apparition said as she placed her hands on Athena’s and gently lowered the shield. A flush started on Athena’s cheeks and spread in all directions. “I know what honor means to you, but by our laws, you’ll still be a virgin. Isn’t this what you really wanted when you took that vow?” She kissed Athena’s neck. Athena’s eyelids shut as her lips parted. “The two of us,” she kissed Athena’s neck again, “together,” she kissed her cheek, “forever,” she came within a hair’s breadth of her lips and whispered, “virgins.”
“STOP!” Athena shouted, jerking away. “Stop it. This isn’t right. I can’t do this to her. Change back,” she ordered, shielding her eyes. “It isn’t right,” she repeated to herself. “You’re not her.”
“Fine,” Aphrodite crossed her arms and morphed back to her petulant, scowling self. “You know, I don’t even like women. I was doing you a favor.”
“Because you can’t do me the favor I requested,” Athena accused. “Your powers don’t work on Artemis, either; do they?”
“Or Hestia,” Aphrodite conceded. “Believe me, I’ve tried to get to all three of you a million times over the centuries, but you’re completely immune. You won’t tell anyone, will you?”
“Not if you don’t tell anyone that I’m in love with Artemis, or that I confessed under duress that I’m not necessarily objectively more beautiful than you.”
“Deal,” said Aphrodite.
“And I’m guessing I shouldn’t bother with Eros, either?”
“He won’t go near Artemis,” Aphrodite shook her head. “He likes staying in one piece.”
“Then please go now.”
“A lot of help you were,” Athena lamented as she sunk to her couch.
“Who, me?” I blinked. “What did you expect me to do?” I had been so absorbed in her story that I’d forgotten all about the lack of apparent reason for me to be there.
“I had some crazy idea that you were a good luck charm,” she explained. “You know. The tapestry?”
About a year and a half ago, Apollo did a very stupid thing. Very sweet, but very stupid. He told me he thought my powers were greater than anyone imagined, maybe even powerful enough to influence the triune goddesses who rule us all: The Fates. The Fates couldn’t let that statement go unchallenged. They set up a test for me. Since my domain is comedy and thus happy endings, I was to offer the blessing of a happy ending in real life and see if it came true. I picked Hephaestus, Aphrodite, and Eros as test subjects. It worked. Hephaestus and Aphrodite finally got a divorce. Then Eros married Psyche, Hephaestus married Aglaea, and Aphrodite was free to be with whoever, whenever.
Then another opportunity to test my alleged power came up. Calliope was pregnant with Zeus’ children. (She was drunk and she thought he was someone else. Long story.) I offered my blessing to her and her unborn children. Calliope safely hid the pregnancy until the babies were born. Apollo and I were able to convince Hera that the babies were really ours (like I said, long story). The “babies” were now fully grown and living with Mom in the Underworld. They call themselves The Corybantes. Apollo was the only one I ever told about my encounters with the Fates.
Except Athena. In addition to being the Goddess of Wisdom and Battle Strategy, she’s also the Goddess of Weaving. Yeah, I know, those totally go together. Anyway, one of her magic tapestries had shown her my first test. She’d agreed to keep it a secret, and we hadn’t spoken of it since. I’d forgotten she knew about it. I’d been trying to forget I knew about it. The Fates and I had left each other alone since the day Hephaestus had married Aglaea and Calliope had given birth to the Corybantes. I had been perfectly content with our mutual silence. The last time I’d spoken with the Fates, they’d threatened another test. For the next one, they’d stipulated, my subject must be beyond the influence of both the love gods and the other Muses.
“You want me to give you my blessing?” I summarized.
“Yes,” said Athena. “It worked for Hephaestus and Aglaea, Eros and Psyche, and Aphrodite and the male half of the Pantheon. I know it’s stupid for the Goddess of Wisdom to want some romantic comedy cliché, but I do. I just want me and Artemis to live happily ever after.”
“Can I ask you a few questions?”
“I suppose so.”
“Do any of your arts or crafts overlap with any of my sisters’?”
“No,” she said. “I swore off music after the aulos incident. I can dance, but I’m not exceptional at it. I just think it’s fun. I certainly wouldn’t qualify as a dance goddess. Artemis, on the other hand…have you ever seen her dance?”
“Does seeing her stand in place for thirty seconds while a couple of naiads maypoled her at Aphrodite’s beach party count?”
“That was nothing. She only really dances when she thinks no one’s looking,” Athena blushed. “When you lived at the Springs of Helicon, she used to sneak out to this little clearing in the forest near your Museum, just close enough to hear your music sessions. She’s as gifted as Apollo. Never wanted to be a theater goddess, though. She hates people staring at her.”
“Perfect,” I said. One possibly influenced by Muse powers, one definitely not, both immune to the influence of the love gods. Excellent test subjects. “Now, before I offer my blessing, I should let you know that these things never turn out the way I expect them to. I mean, when I said ‘a happy ending,’ do you think I expected Hephaestus and Aphrodite to have the Pantheon’s first divorce? Also, I’ve never directly offered this kind of blessing to someone who already knows about my – you know. Basically what I’m trying to say is, don’t smite me if things don’t turn out the way you want.”
“Things couldn’t get worse,” said Athena.
“Please don’t say that when you’re asking me to influence the Fates. In fact, please don’t say that ever.”
“Whatever,” said Athena. “Just do it. I’m desperate.”
“Then, by whatever power is vested in me, may you and Artemis live happily ever after.”