Moments after I’d fallen asleep the night of Persephone’s feast, I woke up on the floor of a dark tower at the top of the universe. The only lights were from the stars outside the high windows, and from the glowing white robes of the three goddesses who towered over me, cackling.
“Hey, you guys want to hear a joke?” I deadpanned. “How do you make the Fates laugh?”
“How do you make the Fates laugh?” Lachesis asked the question back in her hollow, sonorous voice, prodding me to my feet with her measuring rod.
“Tell them your plans,” I delivered the punch line.
“Like your plans for Athena and Artemis to ‘live happily ever after’?” Clotho gloated. “Since you avoided choosing a new test subject for so long, we arranged for one to choose you. Athena, you see, is a special case.” She placed her hand on top of my head and turned me so I faced her spinning wheel. “When Athena was called into being,” she went on, “we had a specific purpose for her. We needed this Goddess of Wisdom to dedicate her life to that purpose and not be distracted by such vain, judgment-clouding elements as love. So I decreed that she would never be wife nor mother. She was fated from birth never to desire the love of man.”
“And you didn’t see any loophole in that at all?” A tiny snicker eluded my most valiant efforts at solemnity.
“Not until we saw Athena invent the aulos,” Clotho said.
“I remember that,” I said. “One day we invited the Goddesses of the Twelve to a picnic at Helicon, and-”
“We are telling the story,” Lachesis interrupted. She waved her hand. A magnificent tapestry as long as time itself appeared on the wall behind the spinning wheel. The tapestry scrolled down so fast that it became a blur of light. Atropos poked me with her shears and shoved me into it.
The next thing I knew, I was in a scene that had taken place ages ago. It was, as I’d said, an informal feast on Helicon. All nine Muses including my past self were seated on the lawn. So were Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera. We’d invited Demeter and Hestia too, but Hestia didn’t like to leave Olympus, and Demeter had spent the day with Poseidon, King of Ocean Realm. This was before Poseidon had married Amphitrite. Back then, Demeter actually admitted to their on-again-off-again relationship.
Storytelling logic seemed to dictate that I was a mere observer, seeing but unseen. I crept up behind my past self and dangled my fingers in her face to test this theory. It was correct. My past self was sitting next to Apollo on a picnic blanket. Though the guest list was supposed to be goddesses only, we’d made an exception for Apollo as usual since he was kind of an honorary Muse. A mascot, if you will. Little did we know back then that someday he would be our appointed governor.
“I wish I’d been allowed to bring Coronis,” Apollo was telling Past Me. “I don’t know why Artemis and Calliope don’t like her.”
“Because they care about you and they know Coronis doesn’t,” Real Me replied unheard as Past Me sat in incredulous silence.
“I couldn’t ask for a more perfect girlfriend,” Apollo went on. “Of course, I’ve never really had a girlfriend before, so I don’t have anything to compare her to, but Coronis is truly incomparable. Did I tell you she loves music?”
“Only about a thousand times,” Past Me replied indifferently.
“She loves music almost as much as she loves cheating on you with her mortal ex,” Real Me shouted in Apollo’s unseeing face. “Don’t worry, though. The baby you don’t know about yet is yours. She’ll be faithful just long enough to get knocked up with a demigod.”
“And I mean real music, not that cheap crowd-pleasing drivel,” said Apollo.
“The inability to please a crowd isn’t an automatic mark of quality,” Past Me argued.
“Coronis knows quality when she hears it. She says my singing is the best she’s ever heard,” Apollo boasted.
“Coronis says a lot of things. A few of them might actually be true,” Real Me smacked him upside the head. My hand went through his unaffected skull.
“It probably is the best she’s heard,” said Past Me. “To her ears, you’re competing with mortals. If she ever heard another god or even a satyr or nymph sing, that might make a difference.”
“But I’m a music god,” Apollo defended himself. “And besides Hermes, I’m the only non-Muse who’s invented a musical instrument.”
Athena clinked her goblet with a fork. “Hey, everyone,” she announced. ”I want to show you this instrument I invented.”
Past Me was pleased. “I wish you’d brought Coronis, too,” she said.
“I didn’t know you were a musician,” Artemis said, interested and a little impressed. I moved closer to Athena so I could see the main action.
“I thought I’d try branching out,” Athena said with an unmistakably flirty smile as she produced a two-pronged flute. Hera watched with condescension, and Aphrodite with amusement.
“It looks like two-” Aphrodite started.
“Flutes,” Athena cut her off. “See? With it having two prongs and one mouthpiece, a single flautist can harmonize with herself.”
“If she’s such a good flautist, why is she single?” Aphrodite smirked.
“Because shut your face,” Real Me said. This was fun.
“Because no man can tempt me, not even the Sons of Hera,” was Athena’s cool reply.
“Show me how you hold it?” Hera requested. Athena demonstrated. “Aphrodite is entirely wrong about the resemblance,” Hera concluded. Athena was pleased. Aphrodite wasn’t. Both Past and Real Me were thoroughly amused at Hera’s observation.
Athena began playing a song on her instrument before any further heckling could delay her debut. True to her word, she was able to play both melody and harmony at once. Artemis listened with her eyes closed. A peaceful smile spread on her face. Her tawny head swayed gently to the rhythm.
Hera and Aphrodite started snickering. Athena ignored them and kept playing. Artemis ignored them and kept listening. Aphrodite elbowed Artemis. Artemis opened her eyes to discern the source of the jab and exact retribution accordingly, but Aphrodite directed her attention to Athena.
Past Me was doing everything she could to keep a straight face. She was, to my credit, succeeding. Since no one could hear Real Me, I went ahead and laughed. Not a mean-spirited cackle like Hera and Aphrodite were verging on, but a friendly, good-natured laugh at a genuinely funny scene. Athena always looks so regal and fabulous and dignified, never a gown rumpled, a hair out of place, or a piece of armor smudged. However, at the moment, playing the aulos was making the goddess’ face look like a puffer fish. Her inflated, reddened cheeks were reducing her fierce grey eyes to tiny slits. Her exquisite nose was changing shape with every puff. I still laugh when I think about it, though I don’t dare tell Athena.
No wonder Artemis couldn’t help letting a giggle escape.
Athena wrenched the aulos from her mouth in exasperation. “What?” she demanded.
“Athena, come here.” Artemis led her closer to the Springs. “Watch yourself in the water. You’ll laugh too, I promise,”
Athena watched her own reflection as she played about a measure and a half. She watched Artemis’ amused reflection beside hers. Her arms went limp, the aulos dangling in her right hand. She stared at Artemis, hurt and betrayal in her countenance. Hera and Aphrodite just laughed harder. Artemis put her arm around Athena. I remembered that Artemis was about to whisper something, and that I’d never found out what it was. I got right up next to her so I could hear this time.
“It’s alright,” she murmured to Athena in soft, comforting tones. “Ignore them. You don’t have to be pretty all the time.”
Ah. That explained what came next.
Athena furiously pulled away from Artemis and cast away the aulos, sending it flying over the horizon. “You know what? Screw this. The Muses and your prettyboy brother can keep this music crap. I’m sticking to wisdom, strategy, and crafting. Unless you want to come by and laugh at me next time one of Ares’ goons gets blood on my armor.”
“Athena, I wasn’t-”
“Just forget it,” said Athena. “Damn that stupid instrument and damn the next person stupid enough to pick it up.”
“You want to leave the party and go shoot something?” Artemis offered in an awkward attempt to make peace. “That always makes me feel better.”
“Just leave me alone.” Athena disappeared.
Aphrodite, delighted as always to see a fellow Olympian goddess humiliated, laughed, “I don’t know why she’s so obsessed with her looks, anyway. She’s made it clear enough that she doesn’t want a man. Why else would she care?”
A disembodied hand grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back into the Fates’ Tower. Clotho spoke. “Why else indeed, when I had ruled that Athena would be a virgin for eternity, knowing neither marriage nor motherhood? Though Athena’s heart knew not the desire for man, she had come to long for the favor of Leto’s daughter. However, we had made Artemis, as Hestia before her and Athena after her, immune to Aphrodite’s powers.”
Wait. Twelve times one is twelve, twelve times two is twenty-four, twelve times three is thirty-six, I chanted in my head, trying to mask my true thoughts from the Fates as I untangled them. How old was Aphrodite? No one, including Aphrodite herself, knew. No one knew who her parents were or where she’d come from, either. She had simply appeared, fully grown, with no memories whatsoever. She called herself Aphrodite, but she couldn’t even remember if she’d made up the name herself or if someone had given it to her. This had happened over fifteen years after Artemis’ birth and Athena’s creation, and over a hundred years after the Titans created Hestia. But Clotho had just said that she had fated all three goddesses to be immune to Aphrodite’s powers. Did that mean Aphrodite was born before any of them? Or did it mean Clotho had seen Aphrodite in the future? But if Clotho could see the future, why did Athena’s love for Artemis take her by surprise?
“What are you doing?” Atropos asked.
“I have a question.” I concentrated on my words for a moment rather than the multiplication table I was reciting. I scrambled for a random question unrelated to the chain of questions I was trying to hide from the Fates.
“Then ask it,” said Atropos.
“Can a sufficiently powerful goddess impregnate a woman?” I asked.
“What you really want to know is whether Artemis truly begat a child with Callisto,” Lachesis observed.
“That too.” I said, deciding to go with this line of inquiry. “No, see, you’ve basically established that Artemis and Athena have never gotten together because you decreed that Athena would never be married or bear children. Both of those seem kind of irrelevant. People, especially gods, live as lovers without a marriage contract all the time. Calliope and Oegrus did until he died. There’s no reason to assume Athena would want to marry Artemis if they became lovers. And one would assume that two females can’t conceive a child together. So, is there something different about this female? Would Artemis make Athena pregnant if they ever got it on?”
“Does Artemis know you cannot conceive alone as your mother did?” asked Clotho.
“Not unless Apollo told her.”
“Does she need to know?”
“I guess not,” I conceded.
“Likewise, what business of yours is the nature of her fertility?” Clotho concluded.
“What business do I have with any of this?” I complained.
“Perhaps now you will know your true measure,” said Lachesis. “You have gone against the direct will of the Fates, and already your blessing begins to fail. Athena does not believe for certain that Callisto’s story is true, but she doubts that it is false, which is even more detrimental. Athena’s own heart, which led her to defy our will in the first place, will lead her back to our will.”
Twelve times four is forty-eight, twelve times five is sixty, twelve times six is seventy-two, I resumed my chant. If they needed Athena to doubt Artemis’ story, why not just send me back with the news that Callisto was, in fact, pregnant with Artemis’ baby? So the story must not be true after all. Either Callisto was lying or her baby daddy – baby mama – baby co-producer – was a shapeshifter. I kept up my multiplication tables as I went over a mental list of suspects topped by the men of Olympus. Then I remembered someone who, on the very day I’d met Callisto, had shapeshifted into an uncanny replica of Artemis with the intent of seduction.
Was it possible? Aphrodite was, after all, a fertility goddess…
“We believe we now have all the data we need,” said Atropos. “Conclusion: your ability to influence fate only works in conjunction with a love god or another Muse. Withdraw your blessing now, and we will not trouble you again.”
“I won’t do it,” I quickly answered. “I gave Athena my word. Even if my blessing fails in the end, I have to see it through with all the power I have, whatever that is.” Twelve times seven is eighty-four, twelve times eight is ninety-six, twelve times nine is one hundred eight, I kept up my empty chant. The questions wouldn’t stop, and I didn’t want the Fates to hear them.
“Let her go anyway,” Lachesis stifled a yawn. “Looking too long and too deep into the mysteries of fate is beginning to addle her brain.”
Twelve times eleven is one hundred thirty-two…
“She is an artist. How can you tell?” said Clotho.
Twelve times twelve is one hundred forty-four…
“Your time here is ended,” Atropos slashed her shears shut. “Wake up.”
I did wake up. Much earlier than I’d intended. The sun still hadn’t risen, but the sky hinted that it would soon. With a couple snaps of my fingers, I traded my nightgown for a simple dress. I then floated out to the stable and located Pegasus.
Only the Twelve Olympians can teleport wherever they want. The rest of us are limited to sacred places. If we want to get to a profane place, we have to rely on other modes of transportation. Like Pegasus, my awesome, one-of-a-kind winged stallion. “My hollow,” I ordered him from astride his bare back as I took hold of his mane.
Pegasus walked out the open stable door, cantered about a dozen strides on the dancing lawn, and took flight. I held tight as he flew to the idyllic little hollow that I felt had been carved out of the side of Parnassus just for me. I and I alone knew about this splendidly isolated spot. Well, I guess Eros and Psyche did, too.
And the pale, platinum-haired nymph who had first introduced me to the hollow: Echo.
It could be argued that Echo, not Hephaestus and Aphrodite, was my first challenge with the Fates. When I’d first met Echo over two years ago, she was under a curse. My attempt to break her curse led to her death. I refused to accept that. Apollo brought her back to life with the Cure for Death that his son had invented against both Zeus and Hades’ law. I still wasn’t sure how much I’d had to do with Echo’s resurrection. Apollo remained convinced that he couldn’t have done it without my unrelenting pursuit of a happy ending to Echo’s story.
And here Echo was in my hollow, where I hadn’t seen her since the day we first met. She approached me as I landed Pegasus in a small clearing amidst a ring of trees. “What are you doing here?” I asked as soon as I’d dismounted. “Is everything going okay with Pan?” Pan was Echo’s satyr boyfriend, or had been the last time I checked. Satyrs and nymphs usually take to domesticity like a fish takes to the desert. But Echo and Pan had set up house together in his cave early in their relationship, and both seemed happy with that arrangement.
“Oh, yes, Pan’s great,” Echo assured me. “We’re together. I mean, we’re still living together. Well, we’re still together together, too. But we have to have our own lives, you know. It’s so important for people in a relationship to maintain their own identities. Who wants to be another person’s shadow, right? Pan has his stuff and I have mine. I still hang out with Artemis and the girls when they’re off duty. Pan’s totally supportive. I’m sort of an honorary huntress, even though I’ve been off the payroll for awhile because, you know, Pan. Can’t pretend to be a virgin anymore!”
“Do you come here often?” I asked as she finally stopped for a breath. As much as I liked Echo and was glad to catch up with her, I hoped the answer would be “no”. This hollow was the best place for me to be completely alone, what with eight sisters and an intrusive governor hanging around the Museum all the time.
“Not very often, and I’ve never brought anyone else here before, not even Pan. But, I hate to ask you this, because you’ve done so, so, so much for me already, and I just want to help someone else the way you and your family helped me, and-”
“What is it?” I doubted the answer would include anything peaceful, easy, or trouble-free.
“One of Artemis’ hunters got fired because she’s pregnant. She’s my friend. She doesn’t have anywhere to go, so I’ve been keeping her here. But I haven’t told anyone, not even Pan, or Artemis. She’s kind of scared of Artemis right now because, well, it’s a long story. You won’t tell Apollo, will you? He and Artemis tell each other everything.”
“I don’t think they do,” I said. Actually, I knew they didn’t. Apollo was good at hiding information from Artemis if he thought it might hurt her, and I suspected she reciprocated. “But I won’t tell him. I would like to talk to your friend, though.”
“That’s fair,” Echo accepted. “Come on, she’s in the gazebo.”
Echo took me there. Callisto was reclining against a sapling pillar of the opulent, cushion-strewn gazebo, staring longingly at the moon. A sad melody played on a nearby wind harp. “Callisto?” Echo softly broke her reverie. “This is Thalia the Muse. She wants to talk to you. It’s okay, she’ll help us.”
Callisto turned to face us. Her hunter’s chiton just barely hid her pregnant belly. She probably had about a week before that was no longer true. Either way, the garment only accentuated the change in her breasts. “I remember you,” she said to me. “From the Cronia festival. You’re Artemis’ friend. Could you please talk to her for me? I don’t know why she’s treating me like this.”
“We’re not all that close,” I hastily disclaimed.
“She told you I’m spreading lies about her, didn’t she?” Callisto’s eyes started to mist. “I wouldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t. I just can’t believe she’s doing this to me.”
“What is she doing, exactly?” I asked. “I didn’t get very much of the story.”
“She made love to me and now I’m pregnant,” Callisto replied. “I can understand her doubting that it’s her baby, but she swears we were never even together. Of course it didn’t mean as much to her as it did to me. Why should it? She can have anyone she wants. She could say the word and Athena would be in her bed before she finished saying it. But to tell me it never even happened, and to accuse me of lying when I say it did?”
“And you’re absolutely sure it was her and not a shapeshifter?” I suggested with gentle trepidation.
“We hunters bathe together in the river all the time,” Callisto said, looking rather guilty. “Artemis says it’s safer that way. I’ve…believe me, I know what she looks like. I know some satyrs can shapeshift, but satyrs don’t see that much of her and live. Every mole, every birthmark…it was definitely her.” Well, that ruled out any man on Olympus. Any man in existence, really. My Aphrodite theory was looking more and more plausible. “In fact, that’s how Artemis figured out I was pregnant. I hadn’t told her because I wanted to keep hunting. I think she noticed earlier and was ignoring it as long as she could. My chiton hid it well enough, but naked, it was getting so obvious it was ridiculous. When we’d finished bathing and dressing that day, she took me aside, said she’d noticed I was gaining a little weight, and asked if there was anything I wanted to tell her. She was so nice about it at first. Smiling. Teasing.”
“Other girls have been discovered the same way,” said Echo. “Artemis prefers the hunters to resign before they get pregnant, because we’re supposed to be ‘virgins,’ but she’s still good about it when they don’t. And if it wasn’t their choice, she kills the father whenever it’s possible.”
“I told Artemis the truth,” Callisto continued. “I said, ‘The baby’s yours.’ She’d been acting so warm and maternal, I thought for sure she’d already guessed. But then she seemed confused. She said maybe, if it was a girl and wanted to join her when it grew up. I told her, no, she was the only one I’d ever been with. I hadn’t known it was possible, but the baby had to be hers. Ours.
“She acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t want to cry in front of her, but I couldn’t help it. Like an idiot, I told her how grateful I was she’d chosen me, and that even though I couldn’t expect her to feel as much for me as I did for her, I’d hoped this meant she loved me just a little. I’d never seen her as angry as she got after that, not even the times she’s killed satyrs for watching her bathe.” Callisto leaned into the sapling post and rested her arm around it. “She called me a liar and said she never wanted to see me again.”
I didn’t know what to say. I believed Callisto was telling the truth about what she saw. But in our world, what you see isn’t always what you get.