Epilogue

Calliope spent some time in Hades with Mom and her sons. She came home before anyone outside the family could miss her. Our sisters didn’t ask questions, but Clio, the official historian of the Pantheon, always knows when a divine baby is born. She showed me her record of the Corybantes’ birth in her most secure archive, the one only she can access. Under “Parents,” she had entered:

Apollo and Thalia

Apollo and Calliope?

Zeus and Calliope?

I looked at her and said nothing. She looked back at me and locked the archive. We never brought it up again.

It was a mercifully quiet summer. Epione went home after the wedding, Aglaea and Hephaestus took a season-long honeymoon, Psyche kept Eros out of everyone’s hair, Zeus and Hera went back to overlooking us, and it was an off year for the Pythian Games. Then came the Autumnal Equinox, and it was time for Persephone to return to Hades. Demeter marks Persephone’s departure with far less pomp and circumstance than her arrival, when she marks it at all. That year, she held a small picnic on the slopes of Parnassus. My sisters were all there, as were Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Eros, and Psyche.

As the sun was beginning to set and the day, the party, and Persephone’s visit were coming to a close, Apollo sat down next to me under a very small shade tree I’d claimed. He was unusually eager to tell me about a vision he’d just had. “Was it a vision of you bringing me a cool goblet of pomegranate juice?” I smiled with hope, trying not to laugh at the almost childlike enthusiasm in his eyes.

“No, silly creature,” he laughed, “but you were in it.”

“I was in a goblet of pomegranate juice?”

“That’s an intriguing idea, one I’ll have to revisit in the future. But again, no. In this particular vision, you, Aglaea, and a third woman were dancing by the Springs of Helicon. I was playing the kithara for you.”

“Who was the third woman?” I asked. I didn’t go into questions like, Was she prettier than me? What were we wearing? What kind of dance were we doing? Was the interloper dancing better than me? Could she sing? Was she funny?

“You called her Euphrosyne,” he said.

“Never heard of her. Pretty name, though.”

“Pretty girl, too. Thick brown coils of hair that could keep an ironmonger in business for eternity. She had a shy, sort of awkward smile, but there was still this indefinable air of grace about her. Her most striking feature by far, though, was that she had Hera’s eyes.”

“Oh my goodness!” I felt my face involuntarily spreading into a grin. “You think?”

“I don’t think; I know,” he grinned back. “She called Aglaea ‘Mom’.”

“I always kind of wondered whether Hephaestus could have children or not,” I commented. “Of course, there is that whole Athens deal, but it’s a given that none of Aphrodite’s are his.”

“We’ve all wondered that. I wouldn’t count him out, though,” Apollo said dryly. “When the dance was over, I told Aglaea to start taking it easy since she had a baby on the way. She retorted that she’d handled the last four pregnancies just fine, thank you very much.”

“Did you see any of the other kids? Are they boys or girls? I hope they’re girls.”

“I didn’t see them, and yes, that’s just what this family needs, more girls,” he gave me a playful shove. I decided to simply enjoy the moment and not give him grief about the fact that he’d called us a family.

Our attention was drawn to Aphrodite’s appearing, which I’m sure was her intent. She strode forth in grandeur to Persephone and presented her with a handsome wooden box. “I couldn’t let you leave without giving you a farewell present,” she sweetly offered. “It’s the most wonderful surprise. But you have to promise that you won’t open it until you get back to Hades,” she sang.

“Sure, whatever,” Persephone took the box. She immediately produced a knife and started working on the lock. “Crossed my fingers.”

“No, no, no, wait, don’t do that, you’ll – well, it’s yours now anyway,” Aphrodite protested as the lid sprang open. “No givsies backsies.”

Persephone alternated a dumbfounded glare between the box and Aphrodite. “This is a baby,” she eventually managed to stammer the obvious.

“That’s what I thought, too,” Aphrodite confirmed.

“Is there a particular reason you’re trying to pawn your latest bastard off on me?”

“He’s not mine!” Aphrodite felt most affronted by this aspersion. “Honestly! Have I looked pregnant this year? Anyone? I thought not. No, one of my priestesses died in childbirth, and since I’m pretty sure the brat is a demigod, I didn’t want to leave him at the temple at the mercy of those ignorant mortals.”

“Fascinating little tale,” said Persephone. “Irrelevant, though, since it doesn’t answer the question of why you’re giving him to me.”

“Because you’re leaving,” said Aphrodite. “I can’t stand babies. If he leaves with you, I’ll probably never see him again. Please, just give it a chance. I never wanted a baby until Hephaestus talked me into keeping Eros, and the little guy really grew on me after awhile. He turned out to be quite endearing after he started walking, talking, flying, and feeding himself.”

“Love you too, Mom,” Eros waved.

“Oh, well you know Hades and I just love anything cute and cuddly,” Persephone grumbled. “Look at this thing. He’s like a living sunbeam. No, he’s worse than a sunbeam. He’s practically a damn prism.”

“Did you…?” I suspiciously eyed Apollo.

“Are you kidding? I have standards,” he said in noble indignation.

“You also have a terminal lack of sense when it comes to hot mortals.”

“Whatever you think, even I have the sense to stay away from Aphrodite’s priestesses.”

“It wasn’t Apollo,” said Erato. “I knew the priestess, Smyrna. I don’t think they ever met.”

“We didn’t,” Apollo confirmed.

“Smyrna was a minor princess before she entered Aphrodite’s service,” said Clio. “If the father’s who I think it he is, he’s a minor nature god, one of Selene and Endymion’s sons. They have so many, even I have a hard time remembering which is which.”

“Isn’t he just the cutest little thing,” Psyche was cooing into the box. “Yes, he is. Who’s a cute little thing? Eros, you think maybe we could take him if Persephone doesn’t want him?”

“No,” Eros quickly replied. “It’s, I mean, he was a gift to Persephone. You don’t ask a goddess to give up a gift. Besides, we can always make our own. When we’re ready. In a few years. Or decades. Or something.”

She gave him a meaningful look. “We’ll talk later.”

“No, really, I wouldn’t mind,” Persephone encouraged. “We could start a new custom. ‘Re-gifting’, we’ll call it.”

“We could take him,” Athena suggested.

“Who is we?” Artemis frowned.

“You and I.”

“Fantastic idea,” said Artemis. “That ought to take care of those two or three people who still believe we’re not a couple.”

“Good point; hadn’t thought of that,” Athena sighed.

“Parnassus seems like a good place to raise a kid,” Persephone observed. This was met by a cacophony of disapproval from all ten of us, especially Apollo, Calliope, and me. We’d already had enough baby drama to last an age or two.

“Honey, if I were you, I’d take advantage of this,” Demeter advised. “After all, in all these centuries, you and Hades haven’t been able to-”

“MOM!” Persephone groaned.

“I’m just saying, it’s a little embarrassing for a fertility goddess.”

“Not that it’s your or any of these people’s business, but we haven’t been trying. In fact, we’ve been deliberately avoiding it. Because we don’t want any damn kids. We hate kids. Kids, us, not happening. And even if I didn’t completely detest the idea,” she added, “which I do, what kind of place is Hades to raise a child?”

“I think I remember someone warning you that that might be an issue someday if you ran off and married the Lord of the Underworld,” Demeter lifted her eyes in thought. “Oh, that’s right, it was your stupid mother.”

“Persephone,” said Calliope, “we grew up in Hades, and we didn’t turn out so bad. And we didn’t even have a house. We just had a pomegranate tree on the shore of a magic lake. Your son would have a whole palace. I know parenthood isn’t for everyone, and I understand if it truly isn’t something you want. But if raising a child in the Underworld is all you’re worried about, I’m just letting you know that it’s not really anything to worry about. Now, Hades’ temper on the other hand,” she laughed.

“Screw Hades’ temper,” Persephone resolved. “He’s all bark and no bite, unless I want it otherwise. We’re taking the kid, and Hades’ll just have to get used to the idea. Which he will, because contrary to certain mothers’ opinions, he doesn’t completely suck as a husband.”

“Congratulations, dear. May your son’s choices in love bring you as much joy as yours have brought me,” was Demeter’s generous blessing.

“‘The adopted son of Persephone and Hades,’” Clio made the official record on her scroll. “Do you have a name for him, or are you going to wait and pick one out with dear old dad?”

Persephone laughed a dark, sardonic laugh that we knew meant all was well. “If I leave it up to Hades, he’ll be stuck with ‘Whatever’ or ‘That Kid’.” She gazed thoughtfully upon her farewell gift.

“Adonis is a nice name, don’t you think?”

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1.15 Fateful Secrets

By the time the wedding came around, we were very grateful for Hera’s dismissal, because Calliope was indeed showing. She looked like a mortal woman entering her third trimester. Out of necessity, we confirmed to the rest of the Muses that she was pregnant. They swore secrecy and didn’t ask any more questions. Aglaea didn’t ask questions, either, when Hera told her that Calliope, Apollo, and I wouldn’t be attending the wedding.

Hephaestus did. He wanted to persuade Hera to change her mind, but Aglaea managed to convince him that it was for the best. It was good that, with all the preparations for the next day’s twilight journey, the three of us didn’t have the time or energy to think about how much we would miss getting to see this wedding, and how much we wished we could tell Aglaea and Hephaestus why it couldn’t be helped.

Well, Apollo and I were making preparations. Calliope was in a deep, restful, potion-enhanced sleep. “I’m still worried about the lighting,” said Apollo as he checklisted his supplies for the thousandth time, packing and repacking them in waterproof bags and boxes. Being one of the Twelve, he could just teleport ahead with the supplies, but he didn’t want to leave Calliope at any point in the journey. “I’ve got plenty of candles and torches, but my sunlight orbs are the safest option, and they won’t work in Hades.”

“What happens when you smile in Hades?” was my not remotely serious suggestion.

“Nothing remarkable,” he replied, but the slight smile he was giving at that moment made me wonder.

“You packed plenty of potions to keep her calm and to numb the pain?” I surveyed, even though I knew the answer was the same as it had been half an hour ago.

“Right here.”

“And you have things for anything that might go wrong with the babies?”

“Anything we’ve thought of. Get some sleep. We’ll need you at optimum power for the journey.”

“Are you going to bed?” I asked him.

“I want to go over a few more things first,” he said.

“Well, then, I’m not going to bed either, and you can’t make me.”

He stopped what he was doing, picked me up, and cradled me in his arms. “We’ll see about that,” he smiled. He sat down in the corner of a cushiony chaise lounge, laid me down with my head in his lap, and put a blanket and an arm over me. Surely even you mortals understand that all of this was happening because I wanted it to. “We’re staying here until you fall asleep,” he stated.

“Can I sing myself to sleep?” I asked.

“If you must.”

I softly sang a few bars of an enchanted lullaby. As soon as I was satisfied with his lack of response and the rhythm of his breathing, I slipped out of his arms and onto the floor, still singing. As I finished the song, I laid him out on the chaise, put a pillow under his head, and covered him with the blanket. “Sweet dreams,” I quietly wished him as I removed his laurel wreath and set it on a small table next to the chaise. I tiptoed out of the room and into my own bed. It was late, and I needed to be at optimum power for the journey.

I slept a lot longer than I had planned to, but all three of us woke up in time to give Aglaea our love and blessings before she left to prepare for the wedding. She hadn’t put on jewelry or makeup yet, and her hair was still loose, but she was wearing the stunning red gown that my sisters and I had designed for her. Although red is a more ostentatious color than she normally likes to wear, she’d happily made an exception for the time-honored wedding tradition. Apollo had tears in his eyes when he saw her. I figured it would be embarrassing for him to be the only one crying, so I let a few tears roll down my cheeks out of pity. Pesky things wouldn’t dry up after she left, so I kept my mask on.

“How soon can we leave?” Calliope asked once we were sure we were alone.

“Stop pacing,” I urged her. She was making herself more agitated, and she was pacing right where I wanted to pace.

“Give it a few more hours,” said Apollo.

“How much could the babies possibly grow in just a few hours?” she argued.

“They’ve grown since last night,” he pointed out.

“Well, can’t we just get to Lake Mnemosyne and let them grow there?” she continued to pace with increasing fervor. “As long as I’m here, Zeus can find them, and Hera can find me. I wouldn’t put it past either one of them to reach up and rip the babies out with their bare hands.”

“If Hera hasn’t figured it out yet, she’s not going to figure it out in the next four hours,” I reasoned. “Apollo, do you see anything?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I haven’t been able to see any visions about these children, but I’d take that as a good sign. My visions don’t extend to Hades.”

“I hope that’s all it means,” Calliope fretted.

“They can’t die,” he reminded her. “You know they can’t. Whatever happens today, your children will be alive, and you will be alive.”

“That’s not always a comforting thought,” she sighed.

“I know.” Apollo took her hand and led her to her throne. “If you insist on pacing, you might as well be swimming. You wait here, Thalia and I will get the supplies, and we’ll get going.”

“Well, this is a nice surprise,” Mom rejoiced between a full round of hugs and kisses. “Calliope, I had no idea you were expecting again! Is it Ares’? As long has he has no hand in raising it, a child by you and him could turn out beautifully. Look at the Amazons.”

“Mom, it’s…it’s not Ares.”

We told her the whole story. “Oh, my baby,” Mom held Calliope. “I am so, so sorry. I can’t believe he did this to you after he…The best revenge I can think of is ensuring that he never knows about your children. If he does find out, so much the better. Let him suffer the knowledge that he has seven fine children with my beautiful daughter, and they’re forever beyond his reach. I’ll keep them here and bring them up as my priests or priestesses, whichever the case may be. You can see them as much or as little as you’d like. Either way, they’ll remember that you’re their mother and you gave them up because you love them.”

Calliope couldn’t speak. She just stayed in Mom’s arms for awhile and cried into her shoulder. After what seemed like both seconds and days, she wiped her eyes and said, “Let’s get this over with.”

Apollo and I unpacked the supplies and set up a field clinic. As I was sorting the scalpels for him, I was blindsided by a realization. Do you know the difference between a thought and a realization? It’s the difference between a cool, clinical description of a medical procedure and a cold, steel blade slicing through your sister’s abdomen so her seven babies can be cut out of her uterus. I’d never watched a surgery, and I’d assisted exactly one birth in my life. I resolved that I’d stay focused on the end of the story and do my best to overlook the middle, but resolution can only go so far. Stories are full of people who find that, in extreme situations, they’re capable of so much more than they imagined they were. Real life is full of people who find that they’re capable of so much less.

“Apollo, did we bring any wine?” I barely moved my lips to ask as I stood with my arms limp at my side.

“Why would I do that? A surgeon can’t drink on the job.”

“You do this sober?”

“This is no time to be funny. Hand me the numbing potion. Oh, damn it; Aglaea!”

“Thalia,” I reminded him.

“Aglaea’s summoning me,” he clarified. “She’s at the Museum, and she seems pretty mad. Go. Make something up. Just get rid of her.”

I swam to the Springs of Helicon and teleported to the Parnassus Museum as quickly as possible. I couldn’t have Aglaea going back to Olympus and telling people the three of us were missing. She was still at the Museum, in the middle of Apollo’s storeroom. Her face was painted, her hair was coiffed and decorated, and she was covered in jewels. While she looked absolutely breathtaking, anyone who knew her could recognize that she was the canvas, not the artist. “I summoned Apollo,” she scowled in indignation. “Why are you here?”

“Why are you here?” I threw back the question. “You’re getting married in…I actually have no idea what time it is.”

“The wedding’s in half an hour,” she said, the very personification of impatience. “Apollo and Calliope are at Lake Mnemosyne, aren’t they?”

“No.”

“Why are you soaking wet?”

“Because it’s good luck for the bride to see a drenched Muse before the wedding.”

“Hermes,” Aglaea summoned. The Wingfooted Wonder appeared in the store room. “Give this to Hephaestus. It should make his leg stop hurting,” she handed him a jar of salve. “It always hurts more when he’s stressed. Tell him there’s been an emergency, I might be a little late, and I can’t tell him why, so please don’t ask; and I love him and I can’t wait to be married to him; and if he starts to worry about me, to remember what I told him at the end of our first date. And, Hermes, if you alter that message or obscure its meaning in any way, shape, or form, I will cut off whatever part of your body strikes my fancy and feed it to the Hydra. Got it?”

“Never have I understood an order with such absolute clarity,” he blinked. He left to carry out her wishes.

“Now,” said Aglaea, “we’re going to teleport to the Helicon Museum, and you’re going to take me to Lake Mnemosyne.”

“No, you’re going to get yourself to Olympus and get your damn wedding over with,” I argued.

“Take me, or I tell Hera that you lied to her.”

“You wouldn’t do that. You care too much about Calliope.”

“Which is why I’m going back to Lake Mnemosyne with you,” Aglaea protested. “I can see what’s missing from this storeroom. I know what Apollo’s doing, and I know I can do it better. Medicine is only one of Apollo’s specialties. It’s my whole life. The only ones in my family who can do an Asclepian better than I can are Dad and Panacea. They’re not fully divine, and thanks to Hera, I am. You’re a citizen of Hades by birth. Once you invite me, there’s no risk in me going there. And you are going to invite me.”

“Thalia, I told you to get rid of her!” Apollo protested as Aglaea emerged from the lake, her wedding gown soaked through, makeup streaming down her face, loosened hair plastered to her head and back, and bracelets clanking down her arm.

“You weren’t seriously going to perform an Asclepian without a proper assistant, were you?” Aglaea chastened as she shoved her jewelry off her body and into a box. “Someone hand me a towel. Wait, what am I saying?” Upon remembering that she was a beauty goddess now, Aglaea snapped her fingers a few times in succession. By the time she was done, her dress looked like it had been wrung out to dry, her face was devoid of makeup, her hair was severely pulled up out of her way in a style that would make Artemis proud, and the one sandal she was wearing was still soaked. I didn’t dare laugh at the spectacle, or question the loss of the other sandal.

“I’m not alone,” Apollo defended while all this was going on. “I brought Thalia.”

“What was she going to do? Write a quirky screwball comedy about a group of physicians? If you want someone to assist with surgery, bring a damn surgeon. Hey, Calliope,” Aglaea instantly went from commanding to comforting. “Everything is going to be fine. You want to know if you’re having sons or daughters?”

“Surprise me,” Calliope said with a nervous smile. Mom was kneeling by the cot and holding Calliope’s hand.

“I’m Mnemosyne. You must be Aglaea,” she said calmly. “I’ve heard a lot about you. I hope your powers as a goddess of healing meet, even exceed, your powers as a goddess of beauty. Thalia, sweetheart, come sit by me and your sister.”

“Yeah, do that,” Aglaea agreed. “Is this all the lighting we have?” she frowned at the ring of candles.

“In case you were under a different impression, this is Hades,” Apollo sympathized with her dissatisfaction. “Sunlight isn’t allowed here.”

“But there is some natural light,” Aglaea pondered. “I wonder…” She reached for the box with her jewelry and pulled out Hephaestus’ wedding ring. The moonstone shone more brilliantly in the darkness of the Underworld than it ever had in Zeus’ kingdom. Aglaea gently breathed on the stone and, like the flame of a candle, it burned even brighter, until Aglaea appeared to be holding a star in her hand. “Mnemosyne, are you telekinetic?” she asked. Without a word, Mom levitated the ring out of Aglaea’s hand and positioned it at just the right spot over Calliope’s body. “Thanks,” said Aglaea. “If you could just hold it there until we’re done, that’d be great.”

“What can I do?” I asked.

“You know what you can do,” Apollo looked me straight in the eye. “I believe you can do it.”

As I sat next to Mom, I heard her voice in my head. She hadn’t spoken to me telepathically since I was a little girl. So you are learning, she said. She sounded concerned, resigned. My Thalia, my blossom; as you begin to remember the powers I’ve given you, don’t be afraid, but do please be very, very careful.

Remember? I repeated. What do you mean, remember?

I’ve said too much already, Mom shook her head. Right now, just focus your energy on the end of this story.

That I could do. Focusing on the surgery, not so much. I learned something about myself that day. Some people are not made to watch other people get carved up. I am one of those people.

The surgery went well, and the babies were just fine. Boys, all seven of them, each half the size of a full-term baby. They were all identical, and they all looked like Calliope – who, as she so appropriately thanked the Fates, looks like me. As Mom and I bathed the newborns one by one, we put a pomegranate seed in each of their mouths. Eating that one seed was enough to make them citizens of Hades, out of Zeus’ reach as long as they stayed in the Underworld. One by one we set the babies in the lake, and one by one they swam to the murky depths. My sisters and I had started out the same way. We knew the boys would be fine, and that we could summon them back to the shore to say goodbye before we left.

Aglaea sewed Calliope’s incision shut and applied a few drops from a tincture. “Apollo can take the stitches out when they’re ready,” she said. “Mom has a salve that’ll get rid of the scar. No one will ever have to know you had the Asclepian.”

“I wonder what time it is,” said Apollo. “I can never tell when I’m in Hades.”

“Probably late enough that hundreds of bored, restless, hungry gods want my head on a pike,” Aglaea laughed. “I’m almost scared to go back. Hera’s going to-”

“Be furious with both of us,” finished Hephaestus, who had suddenly appeared in our midst, holding Aglaea’s missing sandal.

Aglaea ran to him and threw her arms around him. “You got my message,” she said in relief as soon as she was done kissing him.

“Took me long enough,” he laughed. He kissed her again. “I was so worried,” he said. “I was afraid you were getting cold feet. For a moment I even wondered if you were off having one last fling. That’s when I realized that I was being a complete idiot. I thought about your message, about what you said at the end of our first date. It was ‘Let’s meet here again,’ right?”

“Right, at Helicon,” she grinned.

“Ohhhhh,” Apollo and I said together. So that was how Aglaea had kept her word not to go to Olympus when she was staying with us.

“I saw your sandal by the Springs, and it was easy to figure from there,” Hephaestus continued, “especially combined with the fact that two Muses were missing. Good thing Thalia never revoked her standing invitation. By the way, you want this back?” he offered the sandal. “I can dip it in the lake first if you want it to match the other one.”

Aglaea laughed as she took the sandal and smacked him with it. The sandal on her foot wasn’t as dripping wet as it had been when she’d first emerged from the lake, but it was still pretty damp, and the rest of her attire was still in the haphazard state she’d snapped it into pre-surgery. Hephaestus, on the other hand, was looking finer than I’d ever seen him, his first wedding not excepted. His groom’s chiton, like Aglaea’s gown, was the traditional scarlet, edged in gold to match the circlet he wore on his head. And his hair! Apparently he had decided to acknowledge the existence of styling products just this once. His cane was new. Its solid aesthetics and polished mahogany composition added to his characteristically rugged yet unexpectedly elegant overall appearance.

“I totally forgot that you could just teleport into Hades since you’re one of the Twelve,” Aglaea blissfully scolded as she dropped her sandal and awkwardly shoved her foot into it. “Don’t you know no one’s allowed to look better than the bride on her wedding day?”

He ran a hand through her hair, taking a few pins out. “Don’t you know that’s not possible?” She made a face at him as she snapped her fingers, sweeping her hair into the charming, unassuming updo she’d worn at Persephone’s feast. “It was cute the other way, but this works, too,” Hephaestus judged.

“Hera’s going to hate it,” Aglaea sighed. “I almost wish we didn’t have to go back. I don’t care about all that pageantry and stuff. I just want to say I want you and hear you say you want me and be married. We could do it here, like this, for all I care.”

“I know, so could I, but you know we can’t- no, actually, we could do that,” he said with sudden comprehension.

“We could!” she exclaimed in kind. “You want to do that? I would do that.”

“Let’s do that.”

“Oh, a clandestine wedding in the Underworld!” Calliope rose to her feet in rapture. “May I summon Hades for you? Please? I’d love to be a part of this.”

“Sure,” Aglaea consented.

“Oh, hi, Calliope,” Hephaestus finally noticed her. “Why were you lying on that cot?”

“Not important. Hades, Lord of the Underworld, we beseech your presence,” she cried with her face turned toward her upstretched hands.

Seeing Hades always makes me feel a bit nostalgic. He looked the same as ever that day. Once you get past the individual trappings, Hades’ face and figure bear a strong resemblance to Zeus’. However, both kings’ appearances are so influenced by their personalities that it’s hard to see the similarities. With his long, straight, black hair, his long, black robes, his iron crown, and his stand-offish demeanor, it’s easy to see how Persephone saw a soul mate in Hades from the moment they met.

“Muses,” Hades growled. “Always the drama queens. What do you want?”

“He’s always a little grouchy when his wife’s away,” Mom apologized.

“We want you to marry us,” said Aglaea.

“You I know,” he pointed to Hephaestus. To Aglaea, he said, “You I don’t.”

“I’m Aglaea, daughter of Asclepius and Epione, goddess of-”

“A name, I just need a name. Aglaea, do you consent to be given to this man?” he spoke the words Asclepius would have spoken if he had been there.

“I do.”

“Hephaestus, do you consent to be given this woman?” he asked in place of Hera.

“I do.”

“Then as guardian of this realm,” he said, speaking again in place of Asclepius, “I give her to you, that together you may create a home and a family with honor. Rings; let me see some rings and then I’m out of here.”

Hephaestus took Aglaea’s ring out of his pocket and put it on her left ring finger. She grabbed his ring from its place over the operating table and gave it to him.

“Alright, the rest you can do yourselves,” Hades proclaimed before he unceremoniously disappeared.

“We could do without this part if you want,” Hephaestus hesitated.

“Come on, baby,” Aglaea enticed as she held her wrists together and fluttered her fingers. “A wedding in Hades wouldn’t be complete without it.”

“Remember, it was your idea,” Hephaestus disclaimed.

“It was also Persephone’s. Get on with it,” Aglaea challenged.

With a strong, gentle hand that could forge a golden chain as thin as a spider’s web as well as an iron spear, Hephaestus grasped Aglaea’s wrists. She laughed as he held them over her head and proclaimed, “I have taken this woman. She is my own, and none can take her from me.” He led his captive bride into the lake until they were deep enough that he didn’t need to lean on his cane. Then he picked her up and carried her until they were out of sight.

Calliope put her arm around me and, with a contented sigh, declared, “That was truly epic.”

“What’s going to be epic is when Hera finds out she was cheated out a wedding,” I snorted a laugh. “Maybe we should stay down here for awhile.”

“I was actually going to suggest that,” said Apollo. “I don’t want Calliope to swim yet.”

“I think I can,” said Calliope. “Look.” She parted the wrap in her dress and showed Apollo her incision. It was completely knit together.

“Are you sure?” he cautioned. “You’ve been through a lot today. We understand if you want to rest.”

“I want to get back to my own room and my own house,” said Calliope. “Just give me a moment to say goodbye to my babies.” She made a silent summons.

Seven fully grown, bearded men strode up from the lake, moving in unison in a perfect V formation. They bowed to Calliope and addressed her with one voice.

“Mother,” they greeted her. “We are the Corybantes, created by Zeus to be his priests and keep vigil at his altar. We thank you for giving us instead to the service of Mnemosyne, for we find our father unworthy of our devotion.”

“Please, don’t,” Calliope begged. “If he were to discover you saying such a thing, he would curse you beyond your imagination.”

“As the sons of a Muse, there is nothing beyond our imagination,” they replied. “Our words will not reach his ears here. We renounce Zeus utterly. We cannot call ‘Father’ the god who murdered our brother.”

“No!” Mom shouted.

“I understand,” said Apollo. “Zeus has too often been neglectful and harsh with his sons, god or demigod. But I remain devoted to him so that, as one of the Twelve, I can influence his realm and thus his followers.”

“Not our brother by Zeus,” they corrected. “Orpheus, the firstborn of our mother, Calliope.”

“You’re mistaken,” said Calliope. “Orpheus was killed by Dionysus’ Maenads because he would serve only Apollo, Dionysus’ chief rival.”

“Zeus executed Orpheus for discovering a great secret of his,” her sons told her. “Our brother was going to share this secret with the gods and mortals. Zeus killed him with a lightning bolt, and afterward tore his body to pieces so that his death would appear to be the work of the frenzied Maenads.”

“How can you know that?” Calliope asked in a low, stunned voice.

“As your mother does, we share the memories of the dead,” they answered her. “The last memory of our brother Orpheus is of the Cyclops pinning him to the earth as Zeus hurls a deadly thunderbolt into his heart.”

Calliope slowly turned her face toward Mom, her wrath growing with every degree of rotation. “You knew,” she smoldered. “How could you keep something like this from me? How could you let me believe a lie about the death of my only son?”

“For the same reason you gave up your children to Hades,” Mom calmly defended. “I wanted to protect you. Obviously, Zeus framed Dionysus to cover up the execution and, more importantly, Orpheus’ ‘crime’. It made sense. If either gods or mortals knew the truth, they would want to know what secret Orpheus discovered. Even they,” she indicated her newborn minions, “have the sense not to tell you what the secret was. And besides, I was worried about what you would have done.”

“What do you think I would have done?” Calliope demanded. “Do you think I would have stolen Apollo’s bow and quiver and gone after the Cyclops? Led an army, stormed Olympus, and bound Zeus like he bound the Titans? I’m a poet, Mom! I didn’t do anything to Dionysus, and anyone could take that prissy little bitch. All I did when Orpheus died was host a grand funeral, erect a monument, read a poem about his epic adventures in which Dionysus sounded really bad, and lock myself in my quarters and cry for a few decades,” she choked. “I know what I am. Except for a brief, incredibly ill-advised affair with Ares, I’ve never tried to be anything more.”

“Maybe you’re right,” Mom considered. “Maybe I should have told you. But, sweetheart, please understand that I was just doing what I believed was best for you at the time. That’s all a parent can do.”

Calliope and Mom held each other in silence for awhile. “Mom,” Calliope said at last, “can I stay here for a few days?”

“As many as you need to,” Mom said.

“We’d better get back to Parnassus before someone misses us,” said Apollo.

“And I’ve got to give Hera some well-crafted lie before she tells the whole pantheon I’m pregnant,” I remembered. “Um, catch you later, guys,” I waved to my surreal gaggle of nephews. “Have a great life.”

“If it be the will of Calliope,” the Corybantes said to me, “we will name you as our mother to all who inquire after our parentage.”

“It is,” said Calliope.

“And you, Apollo,” they said to him, “with your blessing, we claim you as the father of our souls. You are our mother’s guardian, and though never her lover, you are beloved of her.”

“As a friend,” Calliope added, her voice slightly muffled by Mom’s hair. “A handsome male friend.”

“I would be honored,” said Apollo. “And I would be honored if your mother were to pursue me as a lover, but if she did, I would have to concede that my love for her is that of a brother for a sister. Which is a shame, considering she’s one of the few goddesses who isn’t.”

“Neither is Thalia your sister,” they observed.

“We really should be going,” Apollo decided.

“We should,” I agreed.

We got to Helicon, teleported home, and cleaned up. We met in the throne room, and I summoned Hermes. “What’s up with the wedding?” I asked him.

“You missed all the excitement,” he gleefully informed us. “Well, maybe not all of it. There’s a double reception going on, and I’m betting it’ll last at least a week.”

“Double reception? Okay then, can you give Hera a message for me? Tell her, ‘Story’s over; I lost them. A party would cheer me up. Can I please be re-invited?’ You got it?”

“As good as done.” He returned almost as soon as he’d left. “She said to come on over and to bring a date if you want,” he relayed.

“Will you be my date?” I asked Apollo.

“Because I don’t know who else a poor desperate goddess could get on such short notice, yes.”

“I knew I could count on you to have no plans.”

A double reception, you ask? Here’s how it went down. By the time the wedding had been stalled for about an hour, Zeus and Hera got into a huge fight. Zeus said Hera’s son couldn’t get a woman to stick with him, Hera said at least her son could stick to one woman at a time, Zeus said it looked like zero women to him, yada yada yada. Finally, Zeus threatened to call the whole event off, and Hera protested that she wasn’t going to let a perfectly good wedding go to waste, so somebody had better get freakin’ married. Though no one knows if Hera meant it or not, Helios and Rhoda actually volunteered. My sisters were very grateful that Aglaea and Hephaestus had unequivocally vetoed personalized song lyrics.

Well, just as Helios and Rhoda’s ceremony was coming to an end, Hephaestus and Aglaea got back to Olympus. By the time they’d reached Helicon, they were overwhelmed with guilt about having gotten married without either of their families present. So they cleaned themselves up, took off their wedding rings, summoned Hera, explained that Aglaea had been called away on a medical emergency, and, to Hera’s great delight, got married all over again.

Aglaea was still made up by Hera and accessorized by Aphrodite, but since she’d already had a ceremony done her way, she didn’t really mind. Besides, she was glad to have Asclepius do the father’s part in the ceremony. He was a little more into it than Hades. And this time, when Hephaestus took possession of his captive bride, her sisters got in a tug of war with him (each of them making off with a bracelet), and when he abducted Aglaea in a chariot at the end of the ceremony, her valiant brothers pursued them as Eros fought them off with a volley of arrows. They were quickly distracted from their noble errand by two random women and one random man in attendance.

Naturally, when I got to the reception, Hera wanted to speak with me right away. The story I gave her was that Calliope and I had taken advantage of the time off and paid our mom a visit, and Apollo had come with me so we could tell Mom about her impending grandchildren together. Unfortunately, while we were there, I lost the babies. Hera pointed out rather astutely that the child of a god and a goddess can’t die, even in a miscarriage. I explained that, kids being kids, as soon as they started crawling around, they were picking things up and eating them. She understood. The babies were citizens of Hades, and that was that. I also told her that Calliope decided she wanted to stay at Mnemosyne and catch up with Mom for awhile. Hera was charmed by the thought of a nice goddess so attached to her mother. So, apparently we were in the clear. Nothing left to do but join the party.

But neither I nor Apollo felt like it. Besides the exhaustion from the nonstop worrying and plotting of the last couple of weeks, the day’s work had left us drained of our powers and in desperate need of recharging. We stole away to Artemis’ quarters for some peace and quiet. We knew she’d understand, and that she’d probably be doing the same thing if, darn it, she didn’t have to work tonight. I crashed on her bed, which was very deliberately narrow enough for only one person. Apollo took a couch, which was bigger than the bed.

“I didn’t get a chance to say this earlier,” I told Apollo, “but I’m sorry you had to hear all that.”

“Hear what?” he asked.

“You know, about Orpheus,” I said. “It must have brought up bad memories. Some graphic narrative, huh? Those guys are their mother’s sons, alright.”

“Yeah.” He laughed a little. “It’s kind of funny, isn’t it?” he contemplated. “The idea of you and me being their parents.”

“See, that there is why I’m the comedian. Me, not you.”

“I wonder what our children would be like.”

“According to Psyche, Aglaea is the child you and I should have had but never did,” I recounted. “Of course, this is the girl who calls me Eros’ big sister figure, so I wouldn’t put too much stock in her assessment.”

At that, Apollo laughed like I knew he’d been needing to laugh for weeks. Exhaustion is even better than alcohol for enhancing the brain’s ability to find things funny. “Are you a little disappointed that she married Hephaestus?” he asked when he could breathe again.

“Get over it,” I threw a pillow at him. “I haven’t felt that way about Hephaestus in ages. I’m not even sure how much I felt that way when we were dating. I mean, I thought I did at the time, but who really knows what they’re doing the first time around?”

“You talked about him enough.”

“Because you made it too much fun.”

“Thalia?”

“Apollo?”

“The story we heard tonight?”

“Yes?”

“Promise me you won’t try to discover the secret.”

“Why?” I became alert. “Do you know what it is?”

“No, but that’s exactly what I’m talking about. You don’t mind not knowing something until you think someone doesn’t want you to know it.”

“No, I don’t. I mean, yes I do. I mean – the opposite of whatever you just said is what I mean. The thing you said is wrong.”

“Just promise me, please. You know how you felt today when you looked at my instruments and realized that you can’t handle assisting a surgery?”

“I’ll never forget it.” So he had noticed that. I’d been hoping he hadn’t.

“When I figured out what Zeus did to Calliope, I realized that I can’t handle losing any of you.” He paused. “I love you.” My throat swelled shut for the full second between this apparent admission and the hasty disclaimer that followed. “I – I mean, I love all of you. All nine of you. Your sisters feel as much like family to me as Artemis does, which is more than I can say for any of my real half-sisters.”

“And what about me?”

“I can’t lose you,” he repeated. “Please, promise me you won’t try to discover the secret.”

“I don’t want any trouble with Zeus,” I told him, “and I can’t lose you either. That’s all I can tell you.” Truth be told, I was getting the uncomfortable feeling that Apollo was right. I’d been so focused on the “Zeus murdered our baby” part of the story that I hadn’t even thought about Orpheus’ secret. However, now that Apollo was asking me to promise not to try to discover it, I couldn’t quite bring myself to make that promise. His response did surprise me a little. I’d thought he’d have been more focused on the execution part of the story, too. “Apollo?”

“Thalia?”

“You’re just like me. And you’re about to say ‘No need to be insulting’,” I informed him.

“So now you’re a prophecy goddess, too?” he teased.

“You think I’m dying to discover the secret because you are.”

“But I have enough sense not to defy Zeus.”

“Something you learned by defying Zeus. I’ve never done anything of the sort.”

“And what exactly did you do today?”

“Thought outside the box,” I replied in brazen bliss. “You know what, we should get home before Artemis comes to bed in the morning and finds us asleep in her room.”

“She won’t care,” he said. “She’ll just sleep in Athena’s quarters. She does it all the time.”

“Okay,” I dropped my arm off the side of the bed. Apollo got up, shoved my arm onto the bed, and pulled the covers over me. He smoothed the hair off my face and looked at me for a moment as though trying to make a decision. Apparently he made it.

“Sweet dreams,” he tenderly taunted. I pummeled him with my remaining pillow, and then rolled over and fell right to sleep.

Another dreamland visit to the Fates. I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming.

“So, how did I do?” I asked them.

“We remain unsure,” said Lachesis. “The Corybantes were our will to begin with.”

“Do you want to be on record as saying that what Zeus did to my sister was your will?” I warned.

“It was our will that she and Zeus create offspring together,” said Clotho, spinning out seven identical threads. “Zeus could have gone anywhere in search of a woman. We sent him to the Museum at Helicon. Any of the Muses, indeed, any woman from the feast could have met him at Helicon that night. We chose the Muse Calliope. Do not complicate the issue.”

“Well, my will was for the well-being of my sister and her children, something you obviously didn’t care about in the least,” I seethed. “All kinds of things could have gone wrong with the babies, with the operation,” I said. “None of them did. Zeus never checked up on Calliope to see whether she was pregnant or made any attempt to take the babies, which he usually does when he impregnates a particularly gifted goddess. And Hera! Hera always finds out, but she didn’t this time.”

“That may have been your influence,” Lachesis conceded with some reluctance.

“On the other hand,” Atropos offered, “what of Calliope receiving news of Orpheus’ death? Hardly the ‘happily ever after’ you attempted to conjure. It is, however, perfectly in keeping with Calliope’s domain.”

“So my power doesn’t cancel another Muse’s,” I accepted. “I didn’t think it would. It makes more sense that our powers would enhance each other’s, anyway. Our mother created us so that our strongest powers work in tandem. But forget about my sisters’ powers; wasn’t the real issue whether I could influence yours? In fact,” I theorized, “maybe Calliope influenced you choosing her to bear the Corybantes in the first place. She’s been wanting to have an adventure of her own, and this experience certainly qualifies. This was her story. And before you say her role was too passive to truly be a protagonist, that plot to have an Asclepian in Hades and deliver the babies to that kingdom? That was all her idea.”

“Perhaps we should test your sister as well, then,” Lachesis pondered.

“No,” I quickly protested. The Muse of Comedy deliberately challenging the Fates was one thing. The Muse of Epic Poetry doing so was a terrifying prospect.

“Very well,” Clotho sighed. “We shall restrict our trials to you for the time being. We see now that we must eliminate your sisters from the trials as well as the love gods. This will take some doing. The nine of you are so closely intertwined,” she fingered a thick, colorful cord.

“That’ll be a challenge, alright,” I agreed.  “Wait, you’re going to pick the subject? That’s not fair!”

“We can see the full picture,” said Atropos. “We alone can ensure that the subject is not under the influence of another Muse or a love god.”

“Okay, first of all, I think I have a pretty good idea of who the Muses are influencing. Second, a person outside the influence of either love or art ought to be pretty easy to spot. That sounds like the very definition of needing laughter and a happy ending. Third, if you tell me who to focus my hypothetical powers on, then you, the Fates, are predestining that person for a happy ending, which makes my contribution moot, which would give you more opportunities to toy with me and interrupt my sleep.”

“She is shrewd,” Clotho observed. “As to your second point,” she addressed me, “do you truly believe you would recognize such a one?”

“Yeah, I think I could.”

“Very well,” said Atropos. “When you do, you may speak to us about her.”

“Maybe I will, maybe I won’t,” I breezed.

They stood and surrounded me, holding their hands together like rails on a fence. In one icy, menacing voice, they stated, “We believe you will.”

1.14 Lucky Number Seven

When Zeus and Hera defeated the Titans and took command over their subjects, both divine and mortal, they instituted a lot of rules for the mortals to live by. This made sense, their divine brethren agreed. Mortals are weak and foolish. It takes plenty of regulating just to keep them from destroying themselves.

One of these rules was to give parents a certain amount of authority over their children for as long as the parents lived. The rest of the gods agreed to this. The more guidance in those pathetic humans’ lives, the better. Besides, mortal parents usually died pretty early into their children’s adulthood anyway, so no big.

But then Zeus and Hera decreed that it would be hypocritical for the gods not to follow the very rules they had established. Divine parents were given the same tenure of authority over their children as mortal parents. Since just about every god in existence at the time was a creation of the banished Titans, there was little opposition. For all that generation knew, their future children could end up being as unpredictable and rebellious as, um, THEY had been.

Then there was the question of what to do in the case of absent or unknown parents. Zeus made it simple. He was the default guardian for every remotely questionable case, like Aphrodite’s. My sisters and I were the first such case. It was determined that Mom was our guardian as long as we were in Hades, but when we were in Zeus’ kingdom, where no parent of ours had citizenship, Zeus was. Mom was pretty upset about that at first, but it turned out that Zeus left us alone for the most part. He’d call us to court when he wanted to be entertained or something, but overall, we just weren’t that important to him. It wasn’t worth the effort to exert that much control over us.

Though Calliope’s never outright said so, I think the main reason she never married Oegrus is that she didn’t want to get Zeus involved. Mom could have acted as her guardian if they had been married in Hades, but then the groom wouldn’t have been able to leave. They were married in all but name until his inevitable death.

Then there was Demeter. She created a child without a father, and she was a full-time resident of Zeus’ kingdom. There was no way for Zeus to get around it. Persephone was all hers. She had every legal right to forbid Persephone to marry the god of her choosing, namely Hades. That is, until Hades helped Persephone fake her own abduction and played the kingdom borders card as soon as they were home free. If Mom couldn’t be our guardian in Zeus’ kingdom, Demeter had no authority over Persephone in Hades’ kingdom. The only one who had to grant permission for Persephone to marry Hades was…Hades. Thus Persephone, the first of our generation to get married, set the precedent for the husband becoming the wife’s new guardian upon marriage. I suspect that’s another reason Calliope and Oegrus never married. Can you imagine, a goddess legally subject to a mortal?

The Year of the Virgin Mothers, Hera was the last to conceive and the last to give birth. The mother-as-guardian precedent was firmly in place. Hephaestus was Hera’s alone to do with what she pleased, even if what she pleased was throwing him off a cliff. I suppose it could have been argued that he was Poseidon’s while he was being raised by a naiad, but no one ever argued over Hephaestus.

And that, boys and girls, is why a centuries-old god enthroned among the Twelve couldn’t get married without his mom’s permission.

Apparently he couldn’t get married without his mom’s micromanagement, either. I was beginning to regret ever having introduced Hera to the joys of the stage. In the weeks before the wedding, she was summoning us practically every day to go over some addition, rewrite, or restaging of the music for either the ceremony or the subsequent feast.

This would have been bearable, possibly even entertaining, if it weren’t for the fact that being around Hera was making Calliope a nervous wreck. None of our sisters could figure out why Calliope had a near constant shudder, why she jumped every time Hera called on her, or why she was throwing up before every practice. Muses never get stage fright. Stage adrenaline rush or stage euphoria, maybe, but never stage fright. I reminded her that the best way to avoid arousing Hera’s suspicion would be to relax and act normal. As they always do, those words just made things worse.

One day when Aglaea came by rehearsal, she was so concerned about Calliope’s behavior that she offered to give her a checkup. Calliope agreed. Aglaea had been setting up a clinic on Olympus so she could have her practice there once she moved in. It wasn’t completely finished, but she decided to let Calliope be her first patient. Calliope asked me to stick around for the exam.

“I want to check your blood for poisons,” said Aglaea, pricking Calliope’s finger and squeezing a few drops of blood into a tiny divining chalice barely larger than a thimble. “You’ve seemed a little off since Aphrodite’s feast. Someone could have spiked your drink or something.”

“I think it’s just nerves,” said Calliope, surely at least as worried as I was that someone had made a connection to the night of the feast. “I’ve been going nonstop getting ready for the wedding.”

“I hear you there,” Aglaea replied with a grim laugh as she shook the chalice and gazed into it. “Having Hera looking over your shoulder all the time can’t be helping.”

“Why would you say that?” Calliope snapped.

“You’re right, I shouldn’t talk about my future mother-in-law that way, but I can’t help it. She’s been driving me insane with all this wedding stuff. The other day I was asking Hephaestus if it was always going to be like this. He said, ‘No, I’m sure as soon as I’m finished getting married, she’ll go back to forgetting I’m even here.’ We keep telling each other, let’s just get through the wedding.

“Oh.”

Oh is not a word you want to hear from your physician when she’s analyzing your blood. You especially don’t want the word to be accompanied by a bemused, perplexed countenance.

“‘Oh’, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with her, if she goes home and takes it easy she’ll be fine?” I said unhopefully.

“More or less,” said Aglaea. She addressed Calliope. “You were right about the nerves, but the main issue is that you’re approximately two weeks pregnant. Do you want to know if they’re boys or girls?”

We were silent for several seconds before Calliope said, “They?”

“Septuplets,” Aglaea replied. “You two don’t seem happy about this. Is there something I should know?”

“You can’t tell anyone, not even Hephaestus,” Calliope told her.

“No, never. All of this is confidential,” Aglaea promised. “But people are going to figure it out sooner or later. If you don’t mind me asking, are you and Ares back together?”

“I can’t believe I actually wish that were true,” she lamented. “Just don’t tell anyone. Anyone.”

“This doesn’t leave the room,” Aglaea assured her. “And if you need any help, please let me know. You know what? If you’re in trouble or something, you really should talk to Artemis.”

“NO!” Calliope and I said together.

“Okay, no Artemis. Guys, you’re scaring me.”

“You have no idea,” I said. I offered Calliope a steadying arm and started to open the door for her. The door opened without my aid. Through it walked Hera.

“Aglaea, darling, there you are. I wanted to talk to you about the bunting for the tables. I don’t think the colors you picked are going to work at all.”

“I thought for sure I said I was fine with eliminating it altogether,” said Aglaea.

“No, I don’t remember that. I only remember you saying you wanted blue and silver. You know what? I think we should eliminate it. Oh, hello, what are you girls doing here?”

“I wasn’t feeling well, so I came in for a checkup,” I said before Calliope had time to panic. “See? My blood. Aglaea says I’m fine. I just need to get home and rest. Calliope’s walking me home. Let’s walk home, Calliope.”

Hera picked up the chalice before Aglaea could stop her. “You’re pregnant,” she remarked.

“I didn’t know you could read a physician’s chalice,” I said conversationally.

“I don’t know much about medicine, but I am a prophecy goddess,” she reminded me. “Apollo based this invention on my divining chalice. In fact, I think I can…there. What a surprise,” she laughed with relieved sarcasm. “Apollo’s the father.”

“Even I can’t tell that,” Aglaea argued.

“I can see them together,” Hera showed her.

“I don’t see what you’re seeing,” said Aglaea.

“The picture’s very small,” said Hera. The chalice was only a centimeter in diameter. “But that’s definitely Apollo. Don’t worry, Thalia, the blanket’s hiding everything. All I see is your hair and your back.”

“I would really rather you weren’t seeing any of it,” I protested.

“Of course,” Hera said, handing the chalice to Aglaea. “I’m sorry to invade your privacy like that, but I had to be sure. You see, my husband was absent from Ares’ feast just long enough to make me worry, and since you obviously aren’t far enough along to be showing, I had to know.” Yeah, that totally excused picking up the freaking chalice in the first place. “Everything’s fine, though. It was unmistakably Apollo, and I could see that you two were nowhere near the forest where Ares’ feast was held.” Hera kissed my cheeks. “Congratulations, dear. You’ll be a fine mother. I’m just sorry you’ll have to share the little ones with Apollo.”

“They could do worse,” I thanked her. “My Lady, I just have one thing to ask of you: Please, please don’t say anything about this to anyone until after the wedding. This is Aglaea’s moment in center stage. We shouldn’t let anything distract the Pantheon from the celebration of this marriage, don’t you agree?”

“Absolutely,” Hera granted, “but the wedding is a week and a half away. With divine septuplets, you might just make the announcement yourself whether you want to or not.”

“I don’t know whether to thank you or strangle you,” said Calliope once we’d reached the safety of my room. “What possessed you to say that?”

“The knowledge that you’re my sister and you would have done the same for me.”

“We’d better tell Apollo and the others before they hear it from someone else,” she resolved. “Thank the Fates that my hair and bare back apparently resemble yours in the moonlight. Who knows, maybe Zeus thought I was you at first and that’s why he disguised as Apollo.”

“No, Zeus thinks Apollo’s sleeping with all of us, or at least that he should be,” I disagreed. “I doubt he knew or cared which one of us he’d end up with.”

“I keep playing the whole thing over in my head, but I honestly don’t know if he initiated things or if I did,” she fretted. “I want to believe it was all him, but I just don’t know.”

“You didn’t know it was Zeus,” I reminded her.

“That’s the point. Apollo’s my friend, and you – there are other considerations. I can’t know that I wouldn’t have done it if it really had been Apollo, and I hate that. I hate it so much.”

“Believe me, I’ve played it over in my head plenty of times, too, and I keep coming back to this conclusion: Zeus wasn’t acting like the real Apollo, so you weren’t responding the way you would have to the real Apollo. I’m sure he was manipulating you the whole time. It was not your fault, okay?” Yeah. I hated it, too.

I also hated telling Apollo that, within a month, the entire Pantheon would believe I was carrying his children. “Good,” was his wholly unexpected reaction.

“Excuse me?” I frowned.

“If Hera’s convinced I’m the father, Zeus won’t claim guardianship,” he explained. “I’ll be able to protect them. I doubt Zeus will connect ‘our’ pregnancy to his tryst with Calliope anyway. He’ll probably just tell me it’s about time, or something equally disgusting.

“Unfortunately,” he said to Calliope, “it won’t be long before it’s obvious that you’re pregnant and Thalia isn’t. Both of you can just lay low until the babies are born.”

“Actually,” said Calliope, “I’ve come up with a plan for the babies to be born before anyone finds out, and we’ll need you to make it work. We have until the wedding.”

As I’ve mentioned before, Asclepius’ mother, Coronis, was Apollo’s first love. She was a mortal princess. I never understood what Apollo saw in her other than, you know, what he saw in her. Anyway, while she was pregnant with Asclepius, Apollo found out she was cheating on him with the common mortal man whore she’d supposedly left for him. It’s a trick women of social standing use to avoid undesirable pregnancies – wait ’til after you’re pregnant by the preferred father to have an affair. Aphrodite tried this in reverse for the first century or two of her marriage, but when Hephaestus started marking eight months ahead on a calendar every time she propositioned him, she decided the jig was up.

Apollo told Artemis about Coronis’ infidelity. He didn’t ask her to kill Coronis, but when she threatened to, he didn’t stop her. He was overcome with regret about a minute too late. Artemis had already shot Coronis dead and thrown the body on a funeral pyre. Apollo’s efforts to bring Coronis back to life failed, but he was able to remove the baby in time to save it. He took the baby to a forest far away from both Olympus and the human cities and raised him with the help of Chiron, leader of the Centaurs.

Chiron taught Asclepius everything he knew about science and medicine, just as he’d taught Apollo before him. It was Chiron’s teaching that made Apollo a god of medicine. Their combined teaching, not to mention raw talent, made Asclepius The God of Medicine. One could say that Chiron saved Asclepius’ life. Based on his teaching, Apollo had invented a procedure for surgically removing an infant from its mother’s body.

If the baby is mortal, and the point is for the baby to live, the surgery can only be done very close to when the mother would have given birth anyway. Theoretically, if both parents are gods, the babies are immortal and therefore capable of surviving outside their mother as soon as they’re conceived. Theoretically. Apollo had never performed the surgery on a goddess before. Calliope’s plan was be the first. Apollo wanted to let the babies grow as long as possible, so we set the date for the night before the wedding.

We knew that, once the babies were released into the world, someone might still figure out that they were the children of Zeus and Calliope. Zeus would want them for his collection, possibly the reason he seduced a Muse in the first place. Hera would pour out her full wrath on at least Calliope, if not on all nine of us. She might even implicate Apollo somehow and target his demigod descendants. None of these were acceptable risks. That’s why the babies would be delivered by Lake Mnemosyne. We knew Mom would let them stay there. All they had to do was eat one bite of food grown in Hades, and they’d be citizens of that kingdom under Hades’ jurisdiction. Mom’s pomegranate tree would take care of that. Zeus would have no authority over the babies. And if worse came to worse, they could join the Inner Circle of the Mysteries, and no one could touch them.

Lying awake in my bed that night, I thought of all the things that could still go wrong. Someone could find out the truth in the week and a half before our plan was implemented. Apollo could make a mistake in the surgery. It had been decades since he’d done this kind of procedure, and a poorly-lit lakeshore isn’t an ideal medical facility. I knew the babies couldn’t die, but Hephaestus was living proof that permanent injury or disfiguration was a definite possibility. What if it was too soon for the babies to be born? What if they never grew, or if they grew wrong, or…something?

What if they were born without mouths? How could they eat the food of Hades if they didn’t have mouths? Or throats? Or stomachs? Nothing can be taken for granted with divine offspring, physically or spiritually. In planned pregnancies, a parent can will certain traits into a child, but even then, things don’t always turn out the way the parent anticipated.

Hera willed that Hephaestus would be a better man than Ares. He is, in every way but as a physical specimen. She also willed him to be unlike Zeus. That happened, and not necessarily in a good way. Zeus is all about gaining power. Hephaestus will accept power if you force it on him, but he’s not very good at claiming it when he deserves it. He never takes credit for accomplishments that were only made possible by his weapons and other inventions. Zeus is possessive to a fault. In spite of the fact that Zeus is an absolute slut, pity any other man who stares at Hera too long. Hephaestus hardly ever called Aphrodite out on her infidelity. On the rare occasions that he did, i.e. the Net Incident, it tended to be awfully passive-aggressive. I’m pretty sure the opposite of passive-aggressive is throwing huge freaking lightning bolts at whoever ticked you off.

Zeus’ creation of Athena was so much closer to conjuring than conception that Athena accurately claims to have no biological parents. Surely that method would give Zeus absolute control, right? His daughter would be perfect in every way, to his glory and Hera’s shame. That idea failed in so many ways.

First of all, do you know what happens when an artist is obsessed with a particular subject during a project, even negatively obsessed? Maybe especially negatively obsessed? That subject ends up being quite prominent in the finished work. Athena is more like Hera than any of Hera’s own daughters are. The strut, the attitude, the hair; it’s like Athena is a living statue for which Hera was the model. Also, through his intent to create a goddess who would be the wisest and most powerful of all his children, Zeus created one who was wiser than her “father” and who knew it from the second she came to life. As to whether she’s more powerful, thanks to her wisdom, we’ll probably never know.

No matter how much parents try to mold their children, I pondered, so much is still left up to the Fates.

The Fates.

I didn’t ask them to summon me. I hoped they wouldn’t. It had worked with Echo. Me and Apollo together, the God of Healing and the Goddess of Happy Endings. But what about Calliope? Plenty of epics ended in triumph for the hero, but nearly always a bittersweet triumph. So much personal loss for so little gain.

I went to her bed. Apollo had given her a sleeping potion mixed with a nightmare suppressant. I knew I wouldn’t wake her. With one hand on her head and the other on her womb, I silently proclaimed, Calliope, my sister goddess, known to many as the most beautiful, powerful, and wise of the Nine Muses. I claim an equal part in this story. Epics need comic relief. Heroes deserve happy endings. By all the power I have, that is my blessing to you and your children. You’ll be safe. You’ll be whole. All of you, I swore, will live happily ever after.

The next morning before breakfast, Aglaea came to our room and said she wanted to talk to us alone. “I altered the records to show Thalia as my patient yesterday,” she said. “I officially recorded that she is carrying Apollo’s children. The last part is true as far as I know, but I saw the way you two reacted to Hera yesterday, and I’m not stupid. I can be if you need me to be, but I just wanted to let you know that I’m not.”

“We need you to be,” Calliope said with stoic simplicity.

“If the occasion should arise, I can be blind and memory deficient, too.”

“Then you’re all set to live on Olympus, aren’t you?” I laughed dryly.

“I am all set to go on my honeymoon and spend an entire summer away from Olympus,” she laughed with me.

“Just the summer?” I teased.

“Hephaestus can’t be spared any longer than that. Besides, we’re really looking forward to setting up house together. Our quarters look incredible. I can’t wait to have you guys over. Hestia, unlike some goddesses I could mention, has been fantastic to work with. When I look at our home, I see us. When I look at our wedding plans, I see…”

“I know,” Calliope smiled in sympathy. It was good to see even that much of a smile from her. “Maybe you can convince her to stand at center stage flanked by peacocks while you and Hephaestus say your vows behind a screen.”

“Wedding peacocks,” I murmured in a faraway voice as my mind wandered to the realm of glorious possibilities.

“Speaking of which, don’t forget, Hera wants you guys on Olympus right after breakfast. See you.”

We ate a quick breakfast and carried out Hera’s orders. Calliope was the calmest she’d been since the night of the feast. I hoped my sisters wouldn’t ask why Hera kept giving me sentimental smiles and random hugs. While reviewing the staging of a chorale interlude, Hera called me aside to speak privately. “I hate to be the one to tell you this, dear, but you’re already starting to show.”

“I am?” My dress was getting burned the second I got back to the Museum.

“Yes. They’ll just get bigger and more obvious every day. I don’t think you should be in the wedding.”

“That’s fine, I guess,” I accepted. It was torture for a Muse to be denied the opportunity to perform, but I’d do it for Calliope. “Is there any particular place you’d like me to sit during the ceremony?”

“In your own house,” Hera clarified.

“What, you mean not come to the wedding at all?”

“That’s exactly what I mean.”

“But I’ve really been looking forward to this wedding,” I objected as reverently as possible. “Aglaea’s my goddaughter, and Hephaestus is one of my best friends.” I bit my tongue before I could add, I’ve known him longer than you have, Mommy Dearest!

“Which is exactly why you won’t want to draw attention to yourself,” she maintained. “A wedding is all about the couple being joined in matrimony and the goddess who made their union possible.” Oh, the irony. “In fact, I don’t think you ought to come to any more practices. Go home, lie down, have a cup of tea, take the whole day off. Not for yourself, but for your children.” Huh. Was that how it worked? I could get into this motherhood thing. It was rather unfair that I would have all that time off when it should be Calliope. Even for a goddess, performing in a wedding hours after a major surgery was kind of extreme. If only there was some way to – hey!

“But I’ll be lonely spending all that time by myself,” I said with a sad little sigh.  “Can one of my sisters stay home with me? That way you’ll have seven Muses, and that’s a luckier number than eight.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Hera ruled.

“Calliope,” I called before Hera could pick a companion for me, “I need you to take me home.”

Apollo was pleased with this new development. Calliope was safe in the event that she did start showing before the operation. Besides, with both of us conveniently excused from the wedding, he could wait another day to remove the babies. Getting Apollo excused was easy enough. We just had to convince Hera that he wasn’t worthy of the honor of performing at her son’s wedding, having knocked up a Muse and all. There was no need to reschedule with Mom since we had never scheduled a visit in the first place. We knew we were welcome to just show up, so that’s what we were planning to do. The least information given to the fewest people, the better. Everything was in place. Well, almost everything. One task remained before me.

I burned that damn dress.

1.13 The Beach, The Moonlight, and The Mourning After

My estimate regarding the length of Aphrodite and Ares’ breakup was roughly correct. Ares did come up with a gift after all: a pre-wedding feast for men only (entertainment excepted) held in Dionysus’ forest. The thought that Hephaestus might not want to hang out and do guy stuff with the man his ex-wife left him for was beyond Ares’ comprehension.

Likewise, Aphrodite was still utterly oblivious to any discomfort Aglaea might feel about being gal pals with the sex goddess who used to be married to her fiancé. She decided to borrow Ares’ genius plan and throw a women-only feast for Aglaea on the same night. Hera, Hestia, and Demeter thought it sounded too juvenile, but Artemis and Athena accepted once they found out my sisters and I would be there, as did Persephone and Psyche. All five of Aglaea’s sisters were coming, too. Aphrodite promised there would be two satyrs for every girl.

Apollo, meanwhile, had accepted the invitation to Ares’ feast. “Someone has to be the voice of moderation,” he resigned.

“Without a doubt,” I agreed. “Did you hear Ares booked the Maenads for entertainment? I imagine you’ll have no choice but to try to convert them from their sad, sad life of maniacal excess in the thralls of Dionysus.”

“Such is my lot,” he lamented with a grave shake of his head. “I’m a victim of my own compassion. Really, though, I’ll mostly be there to make sure I don’t need to kill Hephaestus.”

“He can’t be killed,” I reminded him.

“I could devise a suitable alternative if need be. Speaking of which, you’ll look out for Artemis and my granddaughters, won’t you?”

“Artemis has a body count a mile long,” I dismissed. “And she already promised the girls that she’ll teleport any of them away from the feast any time they want. My sisters and I will make sure they won’t be missed.”

“Why can’t the girls teleport themselves?” he asked.

“Didn’t you know? The party’s not going to be at a sacred place. It’ll be on the beach down from the Helicon Museum – a short walk for goddesses, so no need to offer us a lift.”

“A beach party hosted by Aphrodite,” he reiterated. “You want to trade invitations?”

“Not a chance. I am not missing this,” I said. “Amphitrite and Rhoda are going to bring lots of mermaids and naiads. I bet we’ll get to do some underwater dancing. And saltwater is murder on my clothes…”

“Rhoda’s coming?”

“As far as I know,” I said. “I don’t see why she shouldn’t.” Rhoda is the adopted daughter of Poseidon, King of the Oceans, and Amphitrite, his queen. She is the biological daughter of Poseidon and Aphrodite. Everybody knows, nobody mentions it; although Amphitrite doesn’t care anyway. Poseidon isn’t much better than Zeus in the fidelity department, but Amphitrite is nothing like Hera. In her eyes, her husband can do no wrong. That’s what makes me believe the speculation that she and Aphrodite are sisters, even more than the fact that they look a lot alike and they both appeared in the sea out of nowhere.

What, your mortal brain doesn’t see the connection? It’s like this: Amphitrite is every bit as annoying as Aphrodite, but in the opposite way. Apollo would say they represent an excess and a deficiency of the Golden Mean. Aphrodite has no concept of devotion as a part of love. Amphitrite is wayyyy too devoted to her husband for her own good.

Which may or may not be Aphrodite’s fault. I didn’t know Amphitrite before she married Poseidon, so I can’t say. But I know the story. One day, Poseidon saw Amphitrite riding the waves on the back of one of her pet dolphins, a sacred animal she shares with Aphrodite. He knew then and there that this was the goddess he wanted as his queen. Clue Time with Thalia: Informing a girl of your intention to marry her the first time you see her is a good way to scare her off, especially if you carry a huge trident. Amphitrite was so freaked out by his aggressive advances that she swam away and hid in the depths of the sea. Another segment of Clue Time: Hiding in the depths of the sea is a great plan if you’re not hiding from a sea god!

It didn’t take Poseidon long to figure out where Amphitrite was. However, considering the (true) rumors that she not only wanted nothing to do with him but was on the verge of taking Hestia’s vow, he thought a different approach might be a good idea. So he enlisted Aphrodite to court Amphitrite on his behalf. She was only too happy to take the job, since celibacy is a mortal sin in her eyes. As you may have noticed, even completely unintentional dry spells get on her nerves. Anyway, she sent one of her own dolphins to hunt down Amphitrite and bring her to Poseidon’s palace.

Like I said, I wasn’t there, so I can’t say with absolute certainty that Aphrodite’s dolphin was carrying a love spell. However, Aphrodite had told Poseidon that she wouldn’t help him marry Amphitrite against her will, but that she was certain it would be Amphitrite’s will to marry Poseidon. And it was. Amphitrite came back completely enamored with the god who had once repulsed her. They couldn’t get married soon enough to suit her. And their honeymoon…thankfully, I’m not privy to the details, but many, many ships were lost at sea that year.

If Amphitrite was indeed under a love spell, it must have been an unbelievably powerful one, because it’s never worn off in all these centuries. If anything, it’s gotten worse. I guess it doesn’t matter as long as she’s happy, which she does seem to be. Still, the whole thing has always felt un-right.

Actually, before Amphitrite came along, Poseidon had an ongoing on-again, off-again thing with Demeter. There are rumors that he still does, but Demeter emphatically denies them. She was pretty ticked off about the whole wedding thing, though. She’d thought Poseidon was as categorically opposed to marriage as she was. That year wasn’t any better for farmers than it was for sailors. Crops kept mysteriously rejecting water.

Where was I going with all of this? Oh, right, Aphrodite’s beachfest. My sisters, Aglaea’s sisters, and I got to the beach just as the sun was setting. Aphrodite had insisted on bringing Aglaea herself, so they were already there. So were Amphitrite, Rhoda, and a bunch of mermaids who were having a giggly water fight in a tide pool. There were also a number of naiads who were trying to drag some dramatically reluctant satyrs into the surf. If the purpose of the show of reluctance was to increase the naiads’ determination, and I do believe it was, it was working rather well.

A long driftwood table was loaded down with food and wine. Tide-washed logs and giant shells for seating were strewn about seemingly at random, but, to a trained eye, in an artful composition. A bonfire at near center still left plenty of open sand for dancing. Terpsichore was the first to point out the only glaring omission.

“Where’s the band?” she pertly demanded. “We can’t dance without music.”

“Silly, that’s why you’re here!” Aphrodite laughed. “You brought your instruments, didn’t you?” she motioned toward a strip of sand that looked perfect for a bandstand.

She was answered with a cacophony of “What?” “You cannot be serious.” “Are you out of your mind?” “Nobody told me; did you know?” “Don’t we ever get to just hang out at party?”

Calliope managed to raise her voice above the din. “Aphrodite, you never told us you wanted us to provide entertainment. We don’t have our instruments, and we don’t have anything prepared.”

“No problem,” said Aphrodite. She clapped her hands. Instruments for all of us appeared on the bandstand. Aglaea shook her head in apology while mouthing I had no idea. “And you girls are the best. I know you can improvise just fine. Of course, we can’t keep all of you on the bandstand all night.” Before we could breathe in relief, Aphrodite continued, “Terpsichore, you’ll be dance mistress as soon as the satyrs’ performance is done; Melpomene and Thalia, some of our guests – well, most of our guests – don’t have my stamina, so you’ll be entertaining the stragglers with stories. Oh, and Urania, you can tell fortunes.”

“Yay,” Urania deadpanned. As we got in place for the band, she muttered, “The stars foretell that a strong hand will collide with the upside of your empty golden head.”

“Hey, cool it with the blonde jokes!” Aglaea chided. “I’m really sorry about this, guys. Somehow I’ll make sure you aren’t working all night. If it makes you feel any better, guess who set up the tables and chairs.”

Athena, Artemis, Psyche, and Persephone showed up not long after the satyrs’ choreographed dance started. The satyrs were a fair mix of the half-man-half-goat type and the man-with-a-horse-tail type. Persephone’s countenance bespoke the lameness of the party, but she forced herself to watch the satyrs’ dance anyway. Psyche watched her watch them.

Athena was dressed outstandingly as always. Her royal blue gown perfectly matched the plumes in her sparkling bronze helmet. Artemis wore her hair down in unadorned golden waves. Once again, she’d borrowed a dress chiton from Apollo. She looked like she wanted to shove one of her own arrows through her temples. Once Terpsichore took over as dance mistress, Athena bribed a few naiads to help drag Artemis onto the floor. To humor Athena, Artemis stood in place for about half a song before she strode back to her seat.

I was glad to see that Aglaea did seem to be enjoying herself. She was mostly dancing with the naiads, leaving the satyrs for her contented hostess.

“Sure you don’t want one of mine?” Persephone called to her. By all appearances, she was bored stiff by the dancing and the three satyrs dancing with her, but then again, no one was holding a dagger to her head.

“I’m an almost married woman!” Aglaea objected.

“Oh, yeah, I remember those days,” Persephone smirked. “Give it a couple centuries. A few dances at a beach party won’t mean a thing to either of you.”

After the dancing had gone on for awhile, I noticed Psyche and Artemis sitting quietly on the sidelines. Artemis was holding a clay goblet upside down over her upturned face, ascertaining that no more wine would drip from the vessel. I motioned to Melpomene that now would be a good time for a break. “This party isn’t your style?” Mel asked as we both took a seat next to them. A serving satyr instantly showed up with goblets of wine for her and me. It was very good wine.

“It would be more fun if Eros were here,” Psyche said wistfully. “Aphrodite wouldn’t let me bring him. She said there was a strict ‘no husbands allowed’ policy on the guest list. No one here can sky dance,” she lamented.

“I don’t know why Athena likes this kind of thing,” Artemis slightly slurred, crushing her goblet into the sand, having come to terms with the fact that it was completely dry. “Does this seem fitting for the Goddess of Wisdom to you? Look at that shameless naiad dancing with her. If she jumps one more time, the top of her dress is going to- and there it goes. If that were one of my nymphs, every satyr in this place would be dead right now.”

“Athena’s fixing the girl’s dress,” I pointed out.

“Yeah, and she’s laughing,” Artemis observed.

“Why don’t you cut in?” Psyche suggested. “If Eros were here, I wouldn’t give these beach bunnies a chance to get near him.”

“What are you implying?” Artemis glared.

“That you and Athena have a very special relationship that is entirely chaste and not at all like the one I have with my husband?” Psyche offered a hasty disclaimer.

“Okay, then.”

“How long have you two known each other?” Psyche asked.

“All her life and most of mine,” Artemis replied, a little more relaxed now as she continued to watch Athena, who was now safely dancing with Terpsichore. “In fact, in the beginning, I was a little younger than her. Older than you, but a younger woman than I am now.”

“It must have been hard growing up on Olympus without your mother,” Psyche said, wisely keeping her eyes on the bonfire and not on Artemis.

“It wasn’t great,” said Artemis, “but Apollo and I had each other.” She laughed to herself. “And then there was Hestia. She would have adopted us if she could have, and Apollo would have let her.”

“Oh, can I tell this story?” I begged with clasped hands. “Please? Please? Please? Please?”

“No, this is my story,” Mel claimed. “It is definitely a tragedy.”

“Nobody dies or gets turned into anything,” I argued.

“This is the tale of unrequited love between a heartbroken youth and the woman who nobly clung to her sworn maidenhead in the face of his tender advances,” Melpomene protested.

“If it’s so tragic,” I posed, “why are you snickering?”

“There’s not much of a story,” said Artemis, “and you guys didn’t even know us yet. Apollo had an enormous crush on Hestia. That’s all.”

“No it’s not,” I said. “He asked her to marry him. He was a little younger than Eros at the time.”

“We’re talking about Hestia the Olympian? The hearth goddess?” Psyche laughed. “Is that why she has an altar in his first temple?”

“The very same. He had it put there to impress her,” said Artemis.

“That was when he proposed to her,” said Melpomene.

“She let him down easy,” said Artemis. “I don’t know what he was thinking. He knew she’d taken a vow of chastity, and she’d already turned down Poseidon.” I silently reasoned that a woman turning down Poseidon and going for Apollo wasn’t entirely inconceivable, but I hadn’t had nearly enough wine to consider that thought worth sharing.

“This story explains so much about Apollo,” said Psyche.  “Obviously he was attracted to Hestia because he missed his mother. Hestia has a very maternal presence. And then there’s the whole fear of abandonment issue with your mother. People like to prove themselves right, even if they hate what they’re right about.”

“Read your history,” said Artemis. “Our mother didn’t abandon us. We gave ourselves up to protect her.”

“Exactly,” Psyche explained. “It’s a parent’s job to protect a child, not vice versa. For both of you, your whole relationship with your mother has been about serving and protecting her. I’m sure she didn’t ask it of you, but circumstances called, and you answered. And either way, you lost her. Apollo’s internalized the idea that all relationships are destined to end with the loss of his partner. He’s turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy by only getting involved with mortals and demis, with the aforementioned exception of proposing to a virgin goddess, the ultimate unattainable. You know, that’s probably why he and Thalia never got together.”

“What, you think I’m too attainable? And who says us getting together or not was ever an issue?” I scoffed.

“Oh, please, it’s obvious,” Psyche waved me off. “Besides the way you two interact with each other, look at the way you are with Aglaea. She’s like the daughter the two of you should have had, but never did.”

“Okay, that’s not weird at all, considering she’s marrying my first boyfriend.”

“You were involved with Hephaestus? I never knew that.”

“No reason you should,” said Artemis. “Everyone’s forgotten about that except for Apollo. You know he told me he was afraid they’d get back together after the divorce?”

“And now Apollo will never make a move on you since he’s your guardian,” Psyche contemplated. “He’s made sure you’ll always be a part of his life, yet he’s created a line between you that he can’t allow himself to cross.”

“Isn’t it beautiful?” said Melpomene, her eyes misting over as mine rolled.

“He wants you close but not too close,” Psyche continued. “Close enough to protect you, but not close enough to be a danger to you.”

“That sounds like my stupid brother,” Artemis laughed. “He thinks all their deaths are his fault. Nothing can convince him that most of those lying, cheating bitches had it coming.”

“Daphne didn’t,” said Melpomene, causing me to wonder if she’d had more to drink than I realized.

Artemis lowered her head and motioned for us to listen. “Of course she didn’t,” she whispered. “I teleported Daphne away and put a laurel tree in her place all in the blink of an eye. I asked her for her side of the story; decided she hadn’t meant any harm and that something really was wrong with Apollo. She’s in my retinue now. Loves the job.”

“Eros told me about that,” Psyche admitted. “Apollo was so depressed after serving his sentence, and Eros thought making him fall in love would be the best way to cheer him up. He didn’t consider that a girl might not want Apollo, and the tree thing happened before he could shoot her. Then he thought Apollo being in love with a tree was funny, so he didn’t disenchant him. He really meant well. He always does.”

“All of us archers do,” Artemis commented, suddenly fitting an arrow to her bow. Alcohol does nothing to impair Artemis’ reflexes. All it does is make her a bit more defensive than usual. Before we could react, she shot the arrow at a satyr who was hitting on Athena. Athena caught the arrow in her hand and tossed it back into Artemis’ quiver, all without so much as turning her eyes. She smacked the satyr upside the head and came to sit with us.

“I had it under control,” she told Artemis.

“I was just looking out for you,” Artemis replied.

Athena held Artemis’ hand and stroked her fingers. “I’m the goddess of battle strategy. I think I can handle one idiotic satyr,” she half-teased.

“And I’m the goddess of virgins,” Artemis said.

Athena squeezed her hand. “I know,” she said softly. “Not for one second do I ever forget that.” She put her arm around Artemis’ shoulder. “It’s just dancing,” she soothed. “It doesn’t mean anything more to me than a chance to show off my beautiful, graceful, glorious self. You might like it if you gave it half a chance.”

“I don’t like showing myself off,” Artemis said, letting her head fall on Athena’s shoulder. Psyche’s lips parted, but Athena’s glance killed her words before they could leave her mouth. Even though I knew her silence was best for all concerned, I couldn’t help wondering what Psyche had been planning to say.

“That’s fine,” Athena squeezed Artemis’ hand, “but I do, and I need you to relax and let me do it. Come on, I can’t have any fun if I feel like you aren’t having any fun because you’re too busy hovering over me. You,” she called to a nearby serving satyr, “can you bring us a goblet of wine?”

“Make that two,” I added.

“Three,” said Mel.

Before Psyche could order a fourth, a golden arrow flew over her head and landed in front of her feet. She spun around and ran to a nearby boulder. I followed. “Eros!” she quietly exclaimed, finding him hidden behind the rock.

“Come on, baby,” he said, “you want to ditch this crowd and have our own party on Helicon? You can hear the music all the way from the Museum.”

“That sounds perfect,” she beamed.

“Hey, before you take off, how’s Ares’ bash going?” I asked.

“Dad drank himself into a coma right away, which doesn’t take much,” said Eros. “I think he knew that was the only way he was getting out of there. Dionysus strapped him to the back of a donkey and sent him up the hill to Olympus. It was pretty funny. I flew after him to make sure he got home okay, and then I came to pick up my lovely little butterfly here.”

“And the rest of the guests?” I hesitated.

“Oh, yeah, Apollo. When I left, they’d started a betting pool on how many drinks it would take for him to make out with Dionysus. I wanted to bet that Zeus would win the pool no matter how wrong he is, but Hermes wouldn’t go there. Kiss-up.”

“I never said Apollo specifically, but thank you so much for that mental image.” Gag. “You didn’t use any of your inventions to influence the outcome, did you?”

“Of course not!” Eros protested, thoroughly insulted at this affront to his guileless innocence. “They just have some really good wine. Come on, cutie bug, I sneaked a keg to the Museum.”

“What are we waiting for?” Psyche flew up behind him and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Go,” I told them. “Be sweet and revolting somewhere else. But not my old room!” I added.

“Why?” said Eros as he flew after his wife. “Afraid it’ll turn to dust if it sees some action?”

Before I could give a crushing response, Euterpe showed up and tugged on my dress. “Hey, Aglaea got a bunch of satyrs to take over the music so we can party,” she enticed. “Let’s go.”

There’s nothing like waking up on a beach with a mixture of sand and drool plastered to one side of your face. I wondered if Helios had made the sun extra bright as his revenge for not being able to drink much and having to leave for work right after Ares’ feast. As the blinding light brought Rhoda to the land of the living, she pulled an arrow out of her arm. “I think I’m in love with Helios,” she drawled.

“Really? When did you meet him?” asked Clio.

“I haven’t.”

“Give me that arrow so I can shoot your boyfriend out of the sky,” Persephone groaned, pulling her robe over her head. “Damn, I miss Hades.”

“No husband talk!” Aphrodite ordered as she struggled to dislodge herself from the half dozen or so satyrs who were sleeping around her.

“I meant my kingdom, bitch. And I’ll talk about my husband if I want to.”

“I should be getting back to mine,” Amphitrite dragged herself to the shoreline. “He misses me when I’m away. I hope the mermaids haven’t let him get too lonely. Rhoda, let’s go.”

“No, I’m trying to get Helios to wave back at me,” Rhoda waved an uncoordinated arm in the general direction of the sun.

“You can sober him when you’re summon,” Amphitrite promised as she led Rhoda into the tide. All of us who were awake covered our ears as Amphitrite clapped for her dolphin-powered chariot. The clapping and the dolphins’ farewell shrieks woke the Twerps.

“What a beautiful sunrise!” Terpsichore proclaimed in a clear, delighted voice as she stretched her dainty arms. I wanted her dead.

“Who didn’t last through the night?” Euterpe inquired in kind, looking around for the answer. “Aglaea and her sisters are gone, so are Artemis, Athena, and Psyche; Calliope, Polyhymnia, and Urania, big surprise; I think we have more naiads than we did at last count; Mel, you’re still here?”

“I knew this night would end in tragedy,” was Melpomene’s lethargic reply. “I had to bear witness.”

“We’d better get to Helicon before Apollo starts freaking out,” said Terpsichore.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” I said. “I’ll bet he’s at least as hammered as we are.” But my own bed and my own bathtub did sound nice, so I joined my sisters.

As soon as we got to the Springs of Helicon, we teleported to our throne room at Parnassus and immediately went our separate ways. The Twerps went to check on Urania and Polyhymnia. Calliope was staying in my room since Aglaea and Epione were staying in hers, so I’d see to her soon enough. First I wanted to check on Apollo. Hearing voices inside his room, I stopped at his door to listen.

“You have to tell Thalia what happened last night,” Calliope was saying.

“Why?” said Apollo. “You think she’s run out of reasons to mock me for eternity?”

“I doubt she’ll find it all that funny. As far as I’m concerned, it was nothing more than a drunken mistake of epic proportions, but I’m not sure how she’ll take it. I think it’s best that she hear it from you.”

“Nothing I love more than morning-after damage control. You’ll come with me for moral support, won’t you?”

“Naturally. I’d just tell her myself, but…I really think it needs to be you.”

I heard them coming to the door. I skittered down the hall and acted like I was just now approaching as the door opened. “Thalia,” said Apollo. “We were just looking for you.”

“Hey; just wanted to make sure you got home from Ares’ party okay. And there’s Calliope! Glad you made it home safe, too.”

“Thalia,” Calliope said gravely, “there’s something we need to tell you. Come sit down,” she invited me inside the room.

“It’s really not that big of a deal,” said Apollo as he closed the door.

“Not that big of a deal?” Calliope repeated in disbelief. Apparently she thought it was that big of a deal.

“It’s just very, very embarrassing, and I wanted to tell you the truth before you heard it from someone else, especially someone else who might embellish the facts a bit. Last night I decided that avoiding excess can in itself be taken to excess, so I completely let loose at Ares’ feast. Ares, Hermes, Dionysus, and I got in a drinking contest. I don’t recall exactly how this happened, the details are quite hazy, but…several witnesses have confirmed that my traumatic memories of making out with Dionysus aren’t a nightmare. All we did was kiss, I swear. I wish I could ask you not to tell anyone, but Hermes saw it, so that ship has sailed.”

“Excuse me for a moment,” I said solemnly. I picked up a throw pillow, stuffed it against my face, and had a long, muffled cackle. “I’m good,” I put it down.

“Is that all you were going to tell her?” Calliope prompted.

“Oh, no, was there something else?” Apollo despaired.

“You cannot mean that,” Calliope narrowed her eyes. “But you can’t be joking. Not about this.”

“That’s not what we were talking about?”

“YOU HONESTLY DON’T REMEMBER?”

“Honestly, I don’t have the slightest idea what you mean,” Apollo protested.

Calliope deliberately looked away from him and toward me. I got a little nervous as she clasped my hands together. “Thalia,” she said, her countenance full of remorse, “I don’t know how to tell you this, and I wish more than anything that I didn’t have to, but…last night, after I’d had far too much to drink, I went up to Helicon to sleep it off. When I got to the old Museum, Apollo was in the throne room.” Apollo’s countenance was as blank as a fresh tablet. “He invited me to share a blanket he’d brought, and we were reminiscing and Ares-bashing, and one thing led to another, and…Thalia, even I, the Goddess of Eloquence, am at a loss for the words to fully convey the guilt I feel. I think I can speak for both Apollo and myself when I say that we never would have slept together if we weren’t under the influence.”

I didn’t say anything. I didn’t feel anything. Everything before me, around me, and inside me turned to nothingness. “Calliope?” Apollo slowly entreated, my mind barely registering the sound or recognizing the speaker. “I don’t remember any of that.”

“That much is obvious,” she turned her head further away from him.

“Hear me out. I believe you, but I’m fairly sure that wasn’t me.”

“I suppose it’s possible that I could have been mistaken. We only live in the same house and share a friendship that spans centuries!”

“No, I think someone tricked you,” Apollo protested. “A shapeshifter or something. My memories of last night are awfully hazy, but I can swear I was never at Helicon. I stayed awake all night – who knows what the Maenads might have done to me if I’d fallen asleep, not to mention any of my brothers – and then I teleported straight here a little before sunrise. In fact, I left the same time as Helios. You can ask him.”

“Nothing like a bunch of drunkards’ memories for hard evidence,” Calliope retorted.

“Think about it!” he persisted. “Remember that time you walked in on Oegrus as he was getting in bed with, apparently, you?” I remembered that. It was decades afterward before our subsequent shun on Aphrodite was lifted. The graffiti in her temple never was traced back to us.

“Well, then, who do you think it could have been?” Calliope demanded.

“I don’t know, it might have been some obsessed fansatyr. It definitely wasn’t Ares, or Dionysus. I know they were at the feast all night. It couldn’t have been Ares’ sons. They aren’t that clever, and I don’t even know if they can shapeshift. I’m trying to think who else could – no. No, no, no, NO!” Apollo stood up and threw vase across the room, shattering it against the wall.

“What is it?” Calliope said, half concerned, half frightened. I was still too numb to react to anything.

“Zeus left early,” Apollo said in quiet rage. “This would be just like him. It makes perfect sense that he’d impersonate me. He knows I won’t call him out on it because I won’t risk incriminating you to Hera.”

“Oh, Fates,” Calliope trembled, her face nearly devoid of blood. “Oh, Fates. Oh, Fates.”

There is an unwritten rule among sisters that, when only two are present, both cannot have a breakdown at the same time. Calliope’s terror shook me back to the land of the living. “It’s alright,” I told her. “It’s not your fault. We don’t know for sure that it was Zeus, and if it was, we’ll do everything we can to make sure Hera never finds out.”

“She’ll find out,” Calliope strained for air. “She always finds out. You know what she’ll do to me.”

“No, we don’t,” I reminded her.

“That makes it worse!” she cried. I knew that.

“If that happens, you can hide at Lake Mnemosyne,” I told her. “Hera probably won’t look for you in Hades. And if worse comes to worst, you can join the Innermost Circle of the Mysteries, and Hera will never be able to touch you.”

“Neither will you. If I join the Innermost Circle, you’ll never see me again.”

“Then we’ll make sure the plan doesn’t go that far,” I determined. “And none of us will do anything stupid like try to avenge you and get himself banished to Tartarus in the process, right, Apollo? Right? Apollo?”

There was a long pause followed by a long sigh that sounded close to a growl. “Right.”

We questioned as many people as we could without arousing suspicion. The only possible conclusion was that it was, in fact, Zeus who had slept with Calliope. In any case, Calliope and I both believed it wasn’t Apollo. That he might have a drunken one night stand with a long-time platonic friend was remotely conceivable, but that he would lie about it and accuse another man after the fact wasn’t.

Still, for his own peace of mind, Apollo asked Helios to back up his account. Helios confirmed Apollo’s story. He also confirmed that Zeus had left early, but so had Hermes. And incidentally, Helios also let it slip that he and Rhoda were dating. Score one for Eros.

The thought that Hermes could have impersonated Apollo gave us short-lived hope. It sounded like just the kind of thing he’d do for laughs. Sadly, our investigation revealed an airtight alibi in the form of Urania. Urania was delighted with herself. She was the only one.

We never heard from Hera. Either she had given Zeus a free pass for the feast, or she didn’t suspect that he’d seduced one of us. We certainly weren’t going to press the issue. Apollo, Calliope, and I had kept the matter strictly between the three of us. For their own protection, we didn’t even tell our sisters. That included Artemis. Apollo knew that if Artemis found out Zeus had used her brother’s body for such an offense, she’d do something stupid and get herself banished to Tartarus. Nope, can’t tell those two are related.

Once we accepted that we weren’t in any imminent danger and acknowledged that we’d done everything we could, it was easy enough to shove the whole affair out of our minds. We had a wedding to prepare.

1.12 Merging Threads

The rest of the winter, or what passes for it in Delphi, was pretty uneventful. Then one day Hermes brought news that Persephone had come to visit Demeter. Demeter throws a huge banquet every year to celebrate her daughter’s return, and naturally, we’re always part of the entertainment. Polyhymnia writes an original song that we all sing in chorus (with Apollo as conductor since he became Governor of the Muses), and then we perform a dance to welcome the coming of spring. We always make amazing all-new spring pastel costumes. This year, I was wearing a rosy pink gown that perfectly complemented the sacred ivy and the five kinds of pink flowers that I’d woven into my hair.

Apollo was on stage. My sisters and I were waiting in the wings for our cue, which was taking awhile since Hera had appointed herself MC at this year’s gala. Thanks to her cameo at the Pythian Games, the Queen of the Gods had been bitten by the theater bug.

Terpsichore called me over to the spot from whence she was spying on the audience. “Oh, man, Thalia! Look, look, look! You have to see this! Look, by Hephaestus. Did you know about this? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Alright!” I grinned. “No, I so did not know he was going to bring a date. Good for him. Glad to see he’s putting himself out- oh, man, that’s Aglaea.”

“How cool is this?” Terpsichore bounced on her toes. “If she moves in with him, we’ll get to see her all the time! And she looks incredible. Simple; elegant; her. That pale blue is a nice color for her. I wonder if Aphrodite’s noticed they’re together. Look, there’s Aphrodite, between Ares and Hermes. You think she’s here with both of them?”

“It is possible. Dionysus is sitting pretty close, too,” I observed. “It’s weird, though; she really does seem like less of a slut now that she’s not technically cheating on anyone.” Ares had been her primary lover since the divorce, but neither of them made any pretense at monogamy.

“Ooh, there’s our cue!”

I filed onstage between Terpsichore and Urania. Aglaea smiled and subtly waved at me with one hand as she squeezed Hephaestus’ arm with the other. I promised myself that as soon as we could sit down and join the party, I was going to have a nice, long talk with my goddaughter.

Apollo apparently had the same idea. He also had the idea to teleport instead of pushing past a bunch of Muses; thus he got to the happy couple before I did. When I arrived, he was saying, “…and Orion. That was classic. He’s stuck in the sky, being chased by a giant scorpion for all eternity. Good times, good times.”

“I get it,” Hephaestus said with an impassive nod. “Bad things happen to beings who hurt, reject, harass, or otherwise threaten the women in your life.”

“So?” I amiably slipped my arm around Aglaea’s waist. “How long have you two been an item, and more importantly, why am I finding out about it here, now, like this?”

“Since I was staying with you guys, and because we didn’t want to tell anyone we were together until we were sure where it was going,” said Aglaea. “Also because theater gods are way too easy to distract.”

“Then you two are sure where this is going?” Apollo deduced. “I’d love to hear your conclusion.”

“We want to get married eventually,” said Hephaestus.

“We’ve already talked to Mom and Dad,” said Aglaea. “They weren’t crazy about the idea of me living on Olympus, but they like Hephaestus, and they think it’s great that I want to get married and start a family. As far as they’re concerned, we can become formally betrothed whenever we want.”

“Apparently your dad thought it was so great that he had to keep it from his own father,” Apollo murmured.

“We asked them to let us tell you ourselves when we were ready,” said Aglaea.

“Now, when you say ‘start a family’…” I glanced curiously at her midsection, wondering what else these cruel, cruel people had been keeping from me.

“I mean after we’re married,” she laughed, playfully slapping my face. “Come on, aren’t you guys just a little bit happy for us?”

“Just a little bit,” I conceded as I gave them each a rib-crushing hug.

Apollo clapped Hephaestus on the back. “You’re in one piece,” he smirked. “That should tell you something.”

“Coming from you, that’s the best congratulations I could hope for,” Hephaestus acknowledged.

“So,” said Apollo, “what’s holding up your betrothal?”

“The fact that it would involve talking to my parent,” Hephaestus sighed. “Believe me, I’ve tried, but since the divorce, she’s been acting like I don’t exist.”

“Hera and the Cold Shoulder of Death,” Apollo nodded. “I know it well.”

“She’s warming up a little. Yesterday I was trying to catch up with her in the hallway and she said, and I quote, ‘If I hear that goddessdamn cane clack one more time, I swear I’ll shove you off the mountain again.’ At least she spoke to me,” he said dryly.

“Can’t you go over her head?” I subtly nodded toward Zeus.

“Brilliant, Thalia,” said Apollo. “I suppose this could end up being the first time in history that Zeus giving Hera a direct order ended well for anyone involved.”

“What he said,” Hephaestus agreed.

“Does Aphrodite know about you guys?” I asked.

“If she’s observed us tonight, which is unlikely,” said Hephaestus.

Speak of the she-devil. “I never would have noticed you if it weren’t for this lovely creature who, beyond all reason, is apparently your date,” Aphrodite declared as she joined us. “Obviously one of mine. No, wait, I remember you from the Pythian Games!” she exclaimed in delight. “You’re that funny girl who sat next to me. We were never properly introduced. Are you one of mine? You could be.” I wasn’t sure, but I thought she meant it as a compliment.

“I’m Aglaea, daughter of Asclepius and Epione,” she confidently introduced herself. “And I’m not just his date, I’m his girlfriend. Practically his fiancée.”

Aphrodite giggled. “I hope you’re getting paid plenty to say that.” To Hephaestus, she added, “What is it with you and marriage, anyway? Even in your fantasies the girl is your future wife?”

“It’s my fantasy, too,” Aglaea persisted. “And my reality. I’m honestly planning to marry him.”

Aphrodite furrowed her brow. “Why?”

“Because I love him,” was Aglaea’s matter of fact answer.

“Huh,” Aphrodite pondered, her love goddess powers confirming the truth of Aglaea’s statement. “You really do. How odd. Do you not get out much or something? Never mind. Doesn’t matter. When you move to Olympus, look me up. I have plenty of open positions in my retinue. All those bitches quit when Hera started giving me the silent treatment. Stupid flaky nymphs.”

“Thanks, but I’m not sure I have the right resume for the job,” Aglaea smoothly apologized. “I’m a physician.”

“Perfect! Ares keeps breaking Hermes’ wings. I could use you on staff.”

“I’m not that kind of physician.”

“Whatever. Look me up anyway. You’re cute and funny and you’re going to be my best friend,” she declared. “Hey, I’m going to go mingle with those satyrs. You want to come?”

“No thanks, I’m good.”

“Suit yourself,” Aphrodite shrugged. She left as quickly as she’d come.

“I think that was the most bizarre conversation I’ve had in my life,” said Aglaea.

“Sure you don’t want to mingle with the satyrs?” Hephaestus laughed in his quiet way as he held her closer.

She kissed him. “I am exactly where I want to be.”

The next morning, I was awakened by a particularly urgent summons from Hera. I snapped myself into something presentable and rushed to answer her. Everyone had left the throne room except for Hera and Hephaestus. They were both sitting on their thrones, but Hera didn’t seem to be aware of her son’s presence. I couldn’t figure out why exactly my presence was needed.

“Thalia,” Hera said with a cloying menace in her tone, “my precious little clown. I seem to be immovably trapped in my throne. The funny thing is, this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened to me. The first was when I was at the Pythian Games and I sat in your throne. You wouldn’t know anything about this, would you, my pet?”

“I – I wouldn’t,” I blinked. “I truly would not. I can say with absolute honesty that I cannot think of a single reason why anyone in their right mind would do this to you deliberately,” I glared at Hephaestus.

“One possible reason,” said Hephaestus as he descended his throne and strode toward Hera’s, his cane deliberately and emphatically clacking against the marble floor all the way, “is that this is the only way one could think of to get her to sit down and listen.”

“I doubt you have anything to say that I would find worth listening to,” said Hera. “You’ve been nothing but a disgrace to me since the moment you were born.”

“I didn’t ask to be born,” he said. “That was entirely your choice. I didn’t ask to be a pawn in your ongoing conflict with your husband, either. In my entire life, have you ever once thought about what was good for me? What I wanted? What I needed? No, it’s always been about how I affected your status or how I made you look.”

“Oh, yes. When I gave you my consent to marry that harlot on a half shell, that was all about me.”

“Yeah, it was. You felt like you had to give me something to make up for the fact that you’d literally ignored my existence for the first years of my life. Once you’d done me that favor, as far as you were concerned, you never had to feel guilty again. Some favor. You and Zeus knew exactly what kind of marriage we’d have from the beginning. You knew I’d uphold your sacred institution, and you knew Aphrodite wouldn’t give a damn.”

“And you failed your role,” said Hera. “I believed you had the strength of character, the forbearance, the moral center, to keep that marriage together. I know better than anyone what an unenviable role that is, but you had what it took to fulfill it. I gave that to you. It was your choice to abandon it.”

“Yes, it was. And I can’t tell you how much I wish I’d never had to make it. It broke my heart to call the end of my marriage, because you did give me all of those things you just said. If you hadn’t, the divorce would have been as easy for me as it was for Aphrodite. Nothing changed for her, not really. Everything changed for me.

“And that, ultimately, is what I’ve been trying to talk to you about. I’ve fallen in love with an amazing goddess who, beyond all reason, as I’ve recently been reminded, is in love with me too. Not because of what I can do for her or how I can make her look, but because of the person I am. That’s what marriage is supposed to be like. And I want to marry her.”

Hera’s entire aura changed the moment she heard the magic word. “You want to get married?” she cried in rapture. “Why didn’t you just say so in the first place and skip all that pointless whining? Summon her at once, and let me out of this trap so I can embrace my daughter-in-law!”

“Sure, Mom; glad we had this talk. I feel like we understand each other so much better now,” he said as he tripped the release on the throne and deactivated the mechanism. Aglaea appeared before them.

“Oh, my darling!” Hera threw her arms around her and kissed her. “My blessings on you both. You and I must start planning the wedding immediately. We have to work quickly so that you can be married in my sacred month. You’ll make such a beautiful bride! What’s your name, my lovely?”

“Aglaea, daughter of Asclepius and Epione, granddaughter of Apollo, well, I guess you knew that part, you don’t need the whole genealogy, it’s – I – and that’s my godmother, but you didn’t really need to know that either, I suppose…”

“Everyone!” Hera summoned. As the Olympians appeared by their thrones one by one, I silently summoned my sisters, too, so they wouldn’t miss this. “Everyone, it is with great pride and greater pleasure that I announce the betrothal of Hephaestus, most beloved of my sons, to…”

“Aglaea,” the bewildered pair reminded her.

“Aglaea, daughter of – oh dear, you’re only a demigoddess. That won’t do at all. Allow me to grant you the first of my wedding gifts.” Hera took Aglaea’s hands and enveloped her in a blinding light, the same as she had done with Psyche. When the light had faded, she said, “You’re a full goddess now, immortal in every way. You can’t be killed, not even by one of us. The only thing that can stop you and my son from being together for eternity is yourselves.”

“I, too, would like to offer a gift,” Aphrodite proclaimed. We all held our breath as she approached Aglaea. I doubt anyone was worried that she’d be jealous of Hephaestus’ new bride, but it was entirely possible that she would feel some jealousy over Aglaea being Hera’s favorite for the moment. “There are six other goddesses of healing,” she said. “There’s only one goddess of beauty.” She kissed Aglaea on both cheeks. “Now there are two.”

“You don’t have t-”

“Oh, it’s alright,” Aphrodite assured her. She produced a full length mirror so Aglaea could behold herself in her new splendor. I wondered whether Aphrodite was aware that Aglaea looked exactly the same as before. “See? I didn’t make you as beautiful as me, just beautiful enough to be seen with me – which is going to be essential to our friendship. Now, I get final approval of your wedding dress. Can’t have my best friend looking shabby at her wedding. I’d make the gown myself, but, union rules and all that. I toil not, neither do I spin.”

“Quite right,” said Hera. “That task will go to my best seamstresses. You’ll be fitted later today. Oh, there’s so much I have to do. Demeter, Hestia come.” Hera and her girlfriends made a stately, dramatic exit.

“Better luck with this one,” Zeus granted, not bothering to descend his throne. He left, too. All the gods except Apollo and Hephaestus followed him.

“I’d better run; Ares and I were in the middle of something,” said Aphrodite. “You want to join us?” she offered Aglaea with generosity so pure and sweet as to bring a tear to one’s eye. “You can have him when I’m done.”

“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”

“Well, you and I can get together later, then. We can…actually, I don’t know what people do for fun when they’re not having sex with each other. But we’ll figure out something, alright?” And then she was gone, too.

“Do I have to be her best friend?” Aglaea inquired of no one in particular.

“I won’t stop you,” said Hephaestus.

“Can I stop me?” Aglaea clarified.

He laughed. “She’ll believe what she wants no matter what you do. But don’t worry, I imagine she’ll get bored with the idea soon enough.”

“This may be our fault,” Artemis apologized. She and Athena had been hanging back, waiting for Aphrodite and Hera to leave before they offered their congratulations.

“Yeah,” said Athena. “Recently Aphrodite directed one too many virgin jokes at us, so we pointed out that she and Ares are perfect for each other since neither one of them has any friends.”

“You pointed out,” said Artemis. “But it is true.”

“Although I’ll give her more credit than Ares. She actually felt the need to do something about it,” Athena added.

“Do you give anyone less credit than Ares?” asked Artemis.

“I think that’s mathematically impossible,” Athena considered. “By the way, I’m going to weave you guys a tapestry. It’ll be ready by the wedding.”

“And I’m going to plant a cypress tree for you,” said Artemis, the thought of a gift obviously not having occurred to her until Athena had spoken up.

“Is it just a tree?” Aglaea said suspiciously.

Artemis’ eyes shifted back and forth. “Yes.”

“Artemis,” said Apollo.

“Okay, I’ll give you each a moonstone. Happy?”

“Very,” Hephaestus accepted. He’d always wanted to work with moonstones, but Artemis almost never gives them away on account of the fact that if she chipped off too many, there would be no more moon.

Just after Artemis and Athena left and before the Parnassus crowd could say our goodbyes, a trumpet blast pierced the air. We all turned our attention to a gap in the pillars through which Eros and Psyche were flying. They landed in the center of the room, Eros as flamboyantly as ever, Psyche daintily and modestly and yet still commanding at least as much attention as her bridegroom.

“We’re back!” Eros announced the obvious. “Anything good happen while we were gone?”

“And you did all this without me?” Eros said at the end of his dad’s story.

“I wanted to tell you, of course, but I couldn’t summon you while you were on your honeymoon, and I had no idea when you’d be back,” Hephaestus apologized. “Even so, we were going to wait and announce our betrothal until I’d had a chance to talk to you, but my mother took over, and there was nothing we could do about it. You know how she is.”

“No, that stuff’s cool. I meant I can’t believe you got this far without my help!” he grinned. “And by the way, thanks a lot, this is just what I needed. Another woman in my life who’s way too hot to be my mom.” He kissed Aglaea on the cheek. “I hope you don’t mind if I call you Aglaea.”

“Of course,” she assured him. “You already have a mom.”

“You know,” Psyche presented with understated enthusiasm, “I’ve developed a theory that marriages would benefit from a series of joint soul-examination sessions during the betrothal period.”

“Sounds interesting,” said Aglaea. “We’re going to be pretty busy over the next couple months, but when we get back from our honeymoon, I’d love to hear more about your theories.”

“But you’ll already be married by then,” Psyche complained.

“It’s okay, sweetiekins,” Eros consoled her. “Now that I’m back on duty, it won’t be long before you’ll have more test subjects than you know what to do with.”

“You’re right,” she cheered up. “Eros has this incredible new invention. He developed it for us originally, but it was too good not to share.”

“It’s a torch that sets people’s hearts on fire!” he said. “Can I get a few Muses for a demonstration?”

“I think we’ll be heading back to the Museum now,” Apollo spoke accurately for all of us. “Good to have you back. We’ve just been beside ourselves with all the peace and quiet.”

Once again, Mount Olympus flew into a flurry of wedding preparations, and Mount Parnassus was flying right alongside it. Aglaea was staying with us, as was Epione. Aglaea, though the youngest of her parents’ children, was the first to be married, and Epione wanted to help with the wedding as much as she could. Her help mostly consisted in providing Aglaea and Hephaestus with another voice of reason and restraint throughout the wedding planning – not an easy task when you have a marriage goddess, two love gods, and nine muses involved.

Personally, I don’t quite see what weddings and restraint have to do with one another. What, you think I like weddings because they’re romantic? Please. A wedding, like any public ceremony, is a production, and that is irresistible to a theater goddess. However, neither Aglaea nor Hephaestus has ever been particularly theatrical. I’m sure if it were completely up to them, they would have just had a simple exchange of vows in front of the minimum number of witnesses needed to make it legal. Unfortunately, if you happen to be the son of Hera, it’s SO not completely up to you.

Clio’s wedding gift was to catalogue the wedding gifts. For starters, Artemis did indeed give a pair of marble-sized moonstones. Hephaestus used them to make the wedding rings. Artemis also promised to hunt the finest game in the forest for the wedding feast. Demeter, too, was contributing the best from her gardens and orchards; Dionysus, the best from his vineyards; and Hermes, the best from his herds. Hestia was helping Aglaea make over Hephaestus’ quarters, and unlike Hera, she was actually paying attention to what the recipients of her services wanted. Apollo, of course, was performing at the wedding along with us. Zeus told Clio to put down Hera’s gift of complete immortality as “from both of us.”

Athena fulfilled her promise and set to work on a tapestry immediately. We were all dying to see what she’d come up with. Sometimes she designs the tapestries herself, and sometimes she just puts herself in a trance and lets her fingers create what they will. As it turned out, I got the first and last look at the tapestry when I was summoned to her quarters one day.

“Look at this,” she directed, evidently most displeased with her final product.

“Aphrodite’s in it,” I said, commenting on the first thing I saw. Even in a tapestry, Aphrodite is the first thing anyone sees. “You can’t give them that.”

“So glad I summoned you. I might not have noticed. What else do you see?”

“Hey, that’s me! And those are – whoa.” Once I was able to take my eyes off Aphrodite, I could see the whole scene, which was set in the Fates’ Tower. In the center of the scene was a tapestry on a giant loom. Clotho sat at an angle with her spinning wheel. Atropos stood to the left of the tapestry, her shears poised in the air. Lachesis stood to the right, holding her measuring stick over the two figures kneeling before the tapestry: Aphrodite and me. Aphrodite was leaning on my shoulder with one arm, her chin resting on her hand. In one of my hands, I was holding a golden thread and a variegated thread. With the other hand, I was unraveling a brown thread and a seafoam green one that had been tightly woven together. Aphrodite held the loose end of the seafoam thread and was blissfully fraying it between her fingers. Clotho was taking the stray end of the brown thread and matching it against an emerald green thread, one that complemented it so much better than the seafoam.

“Aphrodite’s part is obvious,” said Athena. “She doesn’t let anyone forget that she has the power to influence the Fates, and we all remember her blessing on the Pythian Games. The gold and variegated threads are Eros and Psyche, and the brown and green threads are Hephaestus and Aglaea. But what I don’t understand is, what are you doing in this picture?”

Hephaestus and Aglaea. In the whirlwind of discovering their relationship, it had completely escaped my mind that they’d first met at the Pythian Games. It made so much sense. My blessing had worked after all, completely worked. Or had Aphrodite’s? Or had both of our blessings happened to coincide? Or was it more than a coincidence? Had both of our blessings worked because they had a similar purpose? Had Aphrodite and I actually had a successful collaboration?

“I think I’m making the Fates weave a happy ending.”

Athena agreed not to tell anyone what I’d shared with her. She knew as well as I did that the reason my sisters and I have always been relatively free from Zeus and Hera’s meddling is that we’ve never been considered all that powerful. We’re the Glee Club of the Gods, and that’s all we’ve ever aspired to be. Athena rolled up the tapestry and gave it to me to take home. I gave it to Apollo. He stowed it away along with Asclepius’ cure for death. My secret was safe. I went to bed that night feeling peaceful, content, and rather proud of myself.

I had it coming.

Once again, I found myself in the Fates’ Tower. “Perhaps this time you will remember the encounter beyond waking,” Clotho scowled from her spinning wheel.

“Don’t fault her; it was the drug,” Atropos ran the tip of her shears along my scalp.

“How am I doing, Lachesis?” I asked. “Grown any since my last birthday?”

“You have proven difficult to measure,” she replied, striking my heels with the tip of her rod. “As we have shown you in Athena’s tapestry, it could be argued that your blessing worked, but Aphrodite made her blessing first, and hers was likely the more powerful. It is possible that the outcome would have been the same whether you had made your blessing or not. If your blessing did add power to hers, it is still possible that yours did not have the power to succeed alone.”

Don’t say you want another test; don’t say you want another test, I chanted in my head.

“We will not,” said Atropos. Gulp.

“Not yet,” Clotho added. Double gulp. “Aphrodite revels in her newfound freedom. In her exhilaration, she bestows her blessings upon gods and mortals left and right, whether they seek these blessings or not. Eros returns from his honeymoon, eager to grant the joy he has found to all within his reach. It would be nearly impossible to target anyone without intersecting the will of either of the love gods.”

“But a happy ending doesn’t always have to mean finding true love, does it?” I argued. “Look at Aphrodite.”

“Aphrodite’s true love is herself,” said Lachesis. “That is what she now has, and as you have seen, she is happy with that.”

“But for want of a friend,” Clotho added. “And now she has claimed one.”

“Whether a happy ending requires true love is irrelevant,” Atropos ruled. “The fact is, the two are not mutually exclusive, and for our purposes, we cannot risk you accidentally working in tandem with the love gods again. But a time will come soon enough.”

“Yes,” said Lachesis. “The love gods are fickle creatures, both of them. Easily bored, quickly tiring of what they once embraced with utmost enthusiasm. Eros will, unlike his mother, be constant in his connubial love. That much he was given by Hephaestus. But when have you known him to be constant in anything else? Or Aphrodite to be constant in anything at all?”

“Annoyance? Oh, right, rhetorical question. Hey, are you saying Hephaestus really is Eros’ father?” I backtracked.

“Hephaestus is not his father in body,” said Clotho. “However, when he chose to raise the boy as his own, he became his father in soul.”

I couldn’t help asking. Who else could possibly give me an answer? “So, is it Ares or Hermes?”

“We fail to see why you need this knowledge,” said Lachesis.

“We have told you all that you need to know for what you call the present,” said Atropos. “When we have more to tell you, we know where to find you.”

Athena made a new tapestry overnight, this time while she was conscious. The new tapestry was an unbelievable rendition of the wedding rings. I think she’d seen them a total of one time. Who but Athena could get the threads in the moonstones to shine with real moonlight? I noticed that the border was laurel branches rather than roses, the more traditional flora for a wedding tapestry, but entirely inappropriate for this wedding since roses are sacred to Aphrodite. Same with doves. And swans. And pearls. Did I mention that the decor for this wedding was posing a bit of a challenge?

Anyway, Athena’s gift left Ares as the only Olympian who hadn’t offered a gift of any kind. When Hera broached the subject, it turned out that he wasn’t deliberately snubbing Hephaestus. The thought of giving a wedding gift just hadn’t crossed his mind, that’s all. Ares asked Hera if promising never to make a pass at the bride could count. She informed him that it could not, and also that she’d like very much to forget he was her son. Ares gave up on the whole gift thing.

Aphrodite was so outraged by this slight to her most bestest friend that she broke up with him, leaving Hermes to succeed him as her primary lover. I figured this arrangement would last a week tops, so I had to move quickly to implement a plan that had formed in my mind the instant I’d heard the news. As a refreshing deviation, this plan had nothing whatsoever to do with weddings, gifts, or Fates.

“Why did you summon me here?” Apollo asked in confusion.

“What do you see?” I asked from atop Pegasus, quite pleased with myself for having come up with this plan and eager to get on with it.

“Hermes’ pasture.”

“What do you see in it?” I persisted.

“Hermes’ cattle,” he said, still not getting it.

“You’d think a sun god would be a lot brighter. What do you not see in it?”

“A reason for being here, ever?”

“Or…drumroll…Hermes, who is with Aphrodite, who will be keeping him occupied for a long, long time.” I stuck my crook at him like a royal scepter. A light went on over his head.

“Tell me, O Great Thalia,” he mock bowed as he took the shepherd’s crook from me, “would it be good comedy for Hermes to return to this pasture and find every one of his cows missing?”

“It would indeed.”

1.11 Piper, Herdsman, Messenger, Thief

Late the next morning, I was in that barely-conscious, immobile state between waking and slumber when I heard voices in the room.

“I really didn’t think you’d have them ready this soon,” I heard Aglaea say. She was clearly impressed about whatever “them” were.

“I’ve had a lot of time on my hands,” I heard Hephaestus modestly reply. “My wife – my ex-wife – is gone, and my son’s away on his honeymoon, so…now, don’t get me wrong; the divorce really was for the best, and I’m happy for my son – I guess he had to grow up sometime – but it’s a lot to adjust to.”

“I understand,” said Aglaea. “It’s just nice to have family around. You’d think I’d enjoy getting a break from my huge, crazy family, but I miss them already.”

“Any kids?” he asked.

“Nope, no kids, no boyfriend. At the moment. It’s not like I’ve taken a vow of chastity or anyth – well, not to say I’m a party girl either, just saying, I don’t know what I’m saying, I probably shouldn’t be saying anything. I have this tendency to ramble on and on and on when I’m nervous, not that you make me nervous, you’re very…you don’t make me nervous,” she mercifully finished.

He chuckled. “I don’t mind your rambling.” After a minute, he said, “So, do the crutches look alright? You don’t need any alterations?”

“Everything looks perfect.” She paused. “Of course, they won’t try them out until this evening.”

“Maybe I should come over then?” he suggested. “That way I’ll be on hand if there’s any…well, I’ll be here. If you want. I don’t have to.”

“No, no, I’d love that,” she protested. “That’d be a big help. I’d love to see you again. I mean-”

“Okay, then. Summon me if you want me. I mean, if you want to.”

By the time I blinked my eyes open, Hephaestus was gone. Apollo opened his eyes at about the same time. “I was wondering when you guys would wake up,” Aglaea cheerfully greeted us. “Here, let me get you some water, and then I’ll bring you your breakfasts.”

“That’s a nice dress you’re wearing,” Apollo observed aloud as I drank my water.

“I had to change into something,” Aglaea defended. It was a nice dress. Almost too nice for the work she was doing. In fact, it struck me as more appropriate for lounging and mortal-harassing.

“Your hair looks really good, too,” I noted. “I like the flower.”

“It’s nothing,” she brushed me off. “I’m going to get you guys something to eat. Don’t try to get up.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I asked Apollo as soon as she’d left.

“Bitch stole your favorite hunter green dress, not to be confused with your favorite dress in any other color, hue, or shade?” he replied. The degree of his concern, sympathy, and interest was quite evident.

“Leave the mockery to me. It doesn’t become you. And yes.”

Thanks to Aglaea’s skills, Apollo and I were feeling much better. There was hardly any pain, and we were both feeling too energetic to be lying in bed all day. Tragically, that was exactly what we needed to do if we wanted our bones to heal properly. Even with my sisters dropping in to entertain us every so often, the day was agonizingly dull. Apollo and I livened it up as much as possible by congenially sniping at each other until Aglaea threatened us with the sleeping potion again.

I was ecstatic when Aglaea said it was time to try out the crutches. She summoned Hephaestus before we got started. He watched in silence as she showed us, one at a time, how we were supposed to use them. The crutches’ collaborative design made their use nearly effortless. The magic properties soothed the pressure on the arms, and the customized designs put our bodies at just the right angle for optimum comfort, or at least optimum lack of discomfort. And the decorative etchings were indeed pretty to look at.

“I guess you don’t need me, then,” Hephaestus commented, observing that everything was obviously in working order.

“I hate for you to come all the way here for nothing, though,” said Aglaea. “Won’t you stay for dinner?”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to be a bother.”

“Well, of course you don’t have to if you’d rather not,” Aglaea replied, seeming a little disappointed. “I’m sure you have all kinds of work you need to get back to-”

“Oh, good grief,” I cut her off. She’s way too nice, he’s way too shy, and I don’t have that kind of patience. “You want him to stay, you want to stay; he’s staying.”

Apollo and I got a little stronger every day. Aglaea carefully supervised our activity level, including some torture protocol she’d invented called “physical therapy”. By the second week, we were strong enough that she felt comfortable leaving us for a few hours every day. We didn’t ask her where she went, though she did assure us that she wasn’t going to Olympus when she saw how much the idea worried us. Apollo hates his family being anywhere near Zeus and Hera’s court. I don’t blame him, especially in light of recent events. Besides, there was always the chance Zeus might take a liking to my beautiful and partly mortal goddaughter, or that he wouldn’t but Hera would think he did anyway, and we couldn’t have that.

One day during the third week, while we were resting from our physical therapy, Aglaea asked, “You guys are pretty close to Athena, right?”

“More or less,” I said. “She’s a little out of my social stratum, but I’d call her a friend, and I’d hope she’d call me one.”

“She’s probably the most important person in my twin sister’s life after me,” said Apollo.

“After you,” I said. “Yeah, we’ll go with that. Why do you ask?”

Aglaea seemed pretty uncomfortable. “If something happened between her and Hephaestus, would you know both sides of the story?”

We immediately knew what she was talking about.

“Ohhh, boy.”

“Yeah.”

“That was-”

“So messed up.”

“Just a really stupid mistake.”

“Biggest disaster EVAR.”

“Athens?” we said together.

“Yeah, Athens,” she replied with an anxious frown. “The last time I saw Hephaestus, I asked him about it. I needed to know what happened with that – there are all kinds of rumors, you know – and I thought asking him directly would be the right thing to do. But he wouldn’t talk about it, and he seemed really, really guilty. I can’t believe he would hurt a woman, but…he just acted so guilty, I didn’t know what to think. I figured you guys would know.”

“It’s a long story,” I said. “Have a seat.” She sat down on my bed, and Apollo began the narrative.

“This was after your dad was grown up and I was living on Olympus for awhile,” he said. “Athena was in the middle of a war campaign, and she needed a new suit of armor. Naturally, she went to Hephaestus.”

“He took her measurements, and they were figuring up the order,” I continued. “You have to understand that when Athena is winning a war against Ares, everything in the world is good and beautiful and she absolutely loves everyone in this good and beautiful world. So anyway, she was going on and on to Hephaestus about how much she appreciated all the work he was doing for her, praising his craftsmanship, and so on and so forth. He replied, ‘It’s a labor of love’. He gets pretty flustered when people, especially female people, compliment him. So much so that he told Athena they could work out the payment when she picked up the armor the next day. She kissed him on the cheek and said, ‘Thanks, love ya.’”

“What Thalia left out is that Hermes came in to pick up a new hat while this was going on,” said Apollo. “Hermes is not one to pass up a potential prank.”

“Or a crack pairing,” I added. “He had figured out years before that Athena wasn’t attracted to men, but he also knew Hephaestus’ legendary clue deficiency in regard to women.”

“So, anyway, back to the story that I was telling because I was actually on Olympus when it happened,” Apollo took back the reins. “As the Fates would have it, the next day Athena was held up at the battlefield. She told Hermes to let Hephaestus know she was running late and wouldn’t be there until after dark. Hermes passed on the message – and took the liberty of slightly amending it.”

“If you call saying she wanted to pay him for the suit of armor by making hot, crazy, blacksmith-on-war-goddess love on his workbench ‘slightly amending’,” I interjected.

“That’s a bit of a paraphrase,” said Apollo. “Hermes’ exact message was, ‘I know we both have our vows to honor, but we might want to find a way around them someday. Would that be worth the price? Just you and me, no rules, no definitions. That workbench would be perfect.’ Remember, Hermes can’t lie in his messages, so Athena had to have really said all of those things at some point. I’ve never been able to figure out the original context, but I suppose it’s none of my business.”

“So he was already married?” Aglaea winced.

“Yes,” I said, not seeing the point in sugar-coating the incident. “Though, as far as I know, that was the only time he considered an affair.”

“I doubt he’d have considered it then, either,” said Apollo, “if he hadn’t been led to believe that Athena was propositioning him, while Aphrodite hadn’t spent one night at home in the past month.”

“He still hadn’t made up his mind when Athena came to pick up the armor,” I got Apollo back on track.

“She tried it on to check the fit,” said Apollo. “Once that was done, she told Hephaestus, ‘Help me out of this, and then we’ll talk about my payment’. So, he helped her out of her armor-”

“She was wearing a tunic under it,” I pointed out. “He helped her out of her armor and then decided to test the waters. He kissed her on the lips – probably the only man to do that to Athena ever. She pulled away, unfortunately in the direction of the aforementioned workbench, and laughed, ‘That’s not what I came here for. Let’s get down to business.’ He was on top of her in a second.”

“While I was on my way to the shop to pick up an order of arrows, I could hear her screaming, ‘No, stop, what is wrong with you?!’” said Apollo. “I ran to see if she needed help. I heard Hephaestus stammer, ‘So…what, are we role playing, or…?’ That was followed by a loud clang and a louder crash. When I got to the door, Athena was standing up holding her shield, looking ready to kill him or herself, and Hephaestus was on the ground holding another shield over his groin, looking like he wished the former were possible. He kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know!’ over and over. Athena was shouting, ‘What part of ‘NO’ didn’t you understand? The consonant, the vowel, or the shield bash to the kidneys?’ He said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you changed your mind when you first came in?’ She said, ‘What do you mean, changed my mind?’ He said, ‘Well, Hermes told me you said you wanted to-’ What in Tartarus are you talking about? Hermes can’t just make up a message!’

“Quickly, Hephaestus recited Hermes’ message. Athena’s fury simmered to a quiet rage. ‘That was from four different private conversations. The only part that had anything to do with you was the workbench. I wanted to borrow it to work on a new weaving loom, you idiot. You know, all this time I thought you were one of the few men here who understood me. I can’t believe you honestly thought I would want to have sex with you.’ She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. ‘Actually, I can,’ she shook her head. ‘You probably believe Hermes didn’t knock up your wife again, too.’

“Judging by Hephaestus’ resulting expression, I would say he had. Athena took her things and began a dramatic exit, murmuring oaths and epithets all the way. I didn’t blame her for being angry and shaken up, and I wanted more than anything to let her leave with what little dignity she could salvage. However, not knowing who she’d run across between there and her quarters, I took upon myself the unfortunate and exceedingly uncomfortable task of pointing out that she had something on her leg.

“Mortified into silence, she stalked back through the shop to the window. I was afraid she was going to jump until she picked up a knife. Hephaestus held his shield a little closer. She set her leg on the window sill and poised the knife over it. I didn’t dare make a move to stop her, for fear that she’d either hurt herself or me. Finally, to our relief, she just scraped her leg clean with the blade and hurled the knife out the window.”

“The knife landed in the ground, and a city sprang up,” I said. “Hephaestus was so humiliated by the whole ignominy that he didn’t want to claim it, so Athena said she would since she was the one who threw the knife. That’s how she came to be the official patron of Athens, and why it’s named after her. But they still have a temple to Hephaestus there, since he is technically the father of the city.” I can never say that with a straight face. Never.

“Does Athena hold a grudge?” Aglaea asked in bewildered concern.

“Are my eyes and tongue still in my head?” Apollo pointed out.

“Are Hephaestus’ man parts still intact?” I snickered.

“I guess you’re right,” she relaxed. “And I can definitely see why he didn’t want to talk about it.”

“Yeah, we never mention it around either of them,” I said.

“What about Hermes?” asked Aglaea. “It was all his fault. Didn’t anyone exact divine vengeance on him or anything?”

I was quiet, waiting for Apollo to answer or not. “Artemis killed his mortal lover,” he said, unperturbed and without hesitation. “Chione. Shot her clean through,” he snapped his fingers. “Artemis had had it out for Chione anyway. It turned out that when she left me for Hermes, she’d already been sleeping with him for months and ‘our’ twins were, in fact, his. She’d also claimed that Artemis was still a virgin because no man could possibly want her. In hindsight, I think the woman might have had a death wish.” Yep, I could tell that memory was no big deal to him. Nothing darkens the sun god. Uh huh.

“Um…wow,” said Aglaea. “You know what, thinking about things like that isn’t going to make it any easier for you to heal. Why don’t you tell me another story? How about the time you pawned God of Herding off on Hermes? I always loved it when Dad told me that one, but I’ve hardly ever heard about it from you.”

“Alright,” he accepted. This used to be one of Apollo’s favorite stories. How do you think Asclepius knew it so well? “The story starts a few years before Aphrodite came on the scene, not that she matters to this story aside from being the Eleventh Olympian,” he began. “By this time, Artemis and I were seated among the Olympians as well. In addition to being an archery goddess, Artemis had already established herself as the Goddess of Virgins, Pregnant Women, Hunting, and Animal Protection. She can be a little confused about herself.

“I realized that if I was going to keep up with my sister, I’d have to expand my resume. So far, I only had God of Archery, Science, and Theater. I’d claimed God of Theater hoping it would take me away from Olympus, and because I love the performing arts, of course, but there wasn’t much to do with that one since the Muses basically had it covered.”

“Not that he didn’t try,” I added. “He hung around the Helicon Museum every chance he got. Pesky little guy. Always underfoot. Constantly telling us how we could improve things that needed no improvement.”

“That should give you an idea of how unpleasant the atmosphere was at the Royal Court. I preferred to spend my time with a group of closed-minded, obstinate know-it-alls who couldn’t appreciate a little innovation and guidance. Recognizing that I wasn’t wanted, I took the opening for God of Herding, distasteful as it sounded.”

“You also wanted something more manly on your resume,” I reminded him. “Ares had plenty to say about you being the God of Theater. He had even more fun with that than with God of Science.”

“But there was no escape from the Muses,” Apollo ignored my contribution. “And did you forget God of Archery?” he quickly interjected. “Anyway, when I applied for the Herding job, I had completely forgotten that Thalia is a pastoral goddess.”

“Of all the luck,” Aglaea raised an eyebrow.

“She thought the job sounded just ‘AWE-some!’”

“I do not say that word like that,” I disclaimed.

“So practically every time Calliope let her off Helicon, Thalia would hang around my pastures. Pesky little thing. Always underfoot. Thought she knew everything about the craft.”

“I knew more than you did, which wasn’t setting the bar all that high,” I recalled.

“I was good at herding, I just hated it,” he defended.

“If by ‘was good,’ you mean ‘really sucked’,” I clarified. “Which brings us to Hermes.”

“The thing with Hermes didn’t happen until I’d had the job for years, thank you very much,” he protested. “And if you recall, it was completely your fault.”

“I do not recall that at all.”

“You were telling me this long, long story that you seemed to think was exceptionally entertaining, but evidently was so dull that it put me to sleep.”

“Could have been the story; could have been how very comfortable you were with your drowsy golden head in my lap,” I suggested.

“Could have been. Your lap was rather soft and ample. As you know, Aglaea, when your godmother is composing or performing, she is incapable of observing anything beyond the creation in her own mind. A herd of Pegasi could fly past the window and she wouldn’t notice. So it shouldn’t have surprised me when I woke up and found that every one of my cows was missing.”

“Again he blames me, but he didn’t notice this until after I’d gone home for the night,” I pointed out.

“So she didn’t even have to help me look for them. I checked for hoof prints, but the only ones I found led toward the middle of the pasture, where the cattle obviously were not. Then I spotted what appeared to be a small child’s sandal prints, also leading toward the middle of the pasture. None of it made sense. I could believe a thief would walk backward to disguise his trail, but how would he get the cattle to do the same? Having no other options, though, I decided to follow the trail in reverse.

“By morning, the trail had led to a dead end. I’d reached a part of the mountain slope that was so rocky, there was no way to leave prints at all. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I couldn’t go back to Zeus and tell him I’d lost all my cattle. I reasoned that he’d probably forgive me, but he also would probably fire me. I’d have to go back to working on Olympus unless I could think of another offsite job. I didn’t like hunting any more than I liked herding, and besides, Artemis already thought I was copying her by becoming an archery god. Which I wasn’t. We both came up with the idea at the same time.

“And then it happened: I had my first prophetic vision. I could see myself at the mouth of a cave talking to a little boy I’d never met before. He wore a garish traveler’s hat that was much too big for him, and he had dove-like wings growing out of his ankles. He was saying, ‘Oh, those? Those are my cows. Yours didn’t have legs like that, did they?’

“When the vision was over, I teleported to the cave I’d seen. My cattle were right there in a pen. They looked unharmed except that their legs were on backward. I also saw two tanned cow hides. I called inside the cave to see if anyone was there. A matronly, somewhat addled nymph came out to meet me. Her name was Maia. I asked her if she lived alone. She said it was only her and her son. I asked to meet her son. She said he was having his nap.

“We heard a dramatic, charming, childish yawn from inside the cave. I looked in and saw a small child bundled up on a small pallet. He crawled out from under the covers, found his hat, and toddled over to his mother. I thought he looked a little too big to be toddling. ‘Why is the big man here, Mommy?’ he asked right before he stuck his thumb in his mouth. I knelt down so that I was eye level with him.

“‘I’m here because I’m missing a herd of cattle. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?’

“‘No,’ he shook his curly head.

“I picked him up and carried him around to the pen. ‘You don’t know how those cows got in that pen?’ I asked him. He flew out of my arms and stood on the ground.

“‘Oh, those? Those are my cows. Yours didn’t have legs like that, did they?’

“‘It was the strangest thing,’ said his mother. ‘I woke up this morning and there they were. When my baby saw it, he said, ‘It’s a gift from a god!’ Isn’t that the most precious thing you’ve ever heard?’

“‘You’ve got a real jewel there,’ I told her. ‘The thing is, I’ve lost a herd of cattle, and I’m pretty sure this is it.’

“‘Are you suggesting I stole them?’ Maia asked indignantly. ‘You try running after a winged baby all day and see how much energy you have to steal a herd of cattle when you could be sleeping.’ The winged baby nodded his assent.

“‘Actually, I’m suggesting he stole them.’”

“‘He was with me all night!’ she protested.

“But you just said you were asleep all night,’ I reminded her.

“‘Look, young man, if you insist on slandering my son, I’m going to call his father.’

“Being young and stupid at the time, I replied, ‘Do it.’

“In a second, Zeus was standing in our midst. He complained, ‘Your son again?’ Poor man, being asked to do something about his own child. ‘Make it quick. If you keep me too long, I can’t be held responsible for my psychotic wife’s reaction.’

“‘On second thought,’ I said, ‘you’re not really needed here at all, My Lord. You can just go on back to Olympus. I’ve got it all under control. Really. We’re fine. Perfectly fine.’

“You know how it is with kids. You turn around, and the next thing you know, your baby is a teenager. In the time it had taken us to have this conversation, Hermes had grown three feet and his voice had changed. ‘Hey, Pops,’ he waved. ‘I guess you smelled the sacrifice?’ he indicated the two cow hides.

“‘Not unless it was at one of my designated altars,’ was his impatient reply.

“‘Damn. I knew I left out something. It was such a perfect sacrifice, too. I cut two cows into twelve equal portions, one for each of the Twelve Olympians.’

“‘There are eleven Olympians, ignoramus,’ I corrected him. ‘Aphrodite was named the eleventh when she married Hephaestus. Poseidon and Hades don’t count since they have their own kingdoms.’

“‘Oh, I wasn’t counting either of those guys. The twelfth was to me.’ He doffed his hat, which was still too big for his head, and bowed – not like a man bows to superiors, but like an actor bows to his enthralled audience. ‘Hermes, Son of Zeus, God of Travelers, Thieves, and Music.’

“Suddenly, I realized how I could keep from losing face in front of my father and get rid of that stupid job. ‘God of Music, huh?’ I said. ‘Show us.’

“He produced an instrument he’d just invented. ‘I call it…drumroll…The Lyre!…in honor of myself, the God of Liars.’ He strummed a few bars on it.

“‘That’s pretty cool,’ I told him. ‘What’ll you take for it?’

“‘How about your walking stick?’ he said with perfect innocence.

“‘It’s not a walking stick!’ I protested. ‘This is a sacred herding staff given to me by our father, Zeus, King of Olympus!’

“‘Dude, take it or leave it.’

“‘Fine,’ I handed it over with a great show of reluctance. That was the day I truly earned my place as a theater god.

“‘You know,’ Hermes wheedled, ‘this staff is pretty useless if I don’t have anything to herd with it.’

“‘What else do you have?’ I challenged. He showed me another invention of his – the shepherd’s pipe. It was crude and rustic, but it had a lot of potential. ‘I’d trade an entire herd of cattle AND a herd of sheep for that!’ I admired.

“‘Done,’ he handed it over. ‘HA!’ he triumphed. ‘Who’s the God of Herding now, bitch?’

“‘Damn! You win. I’m stuck with God of Music. Oh, and by the way, Your Majesty, I’m also the God of Prophecy now.’

“And so I was. I got my own temple in Delphi, my own house on Mount Parnassus, and my pick of the most beautiful Delphine mortals and nymphs to be my Oracles. Hermes did get a throne on Olympus, and to make sure he was never bored enough to get into too much trouble – as if – Zeus appointed him Messenger of the Gods. However, knowing Hermes’ love of trickery, Zeus made him swear an oath that he wouldn’t make up any of his messages. Zeus also made me swear that I’d be a good brother to Hermes and not fight with him anymore. It’s an oath I’ve always kept, though only the Fates know how.

“The end.”

“Bravo!” Aglaea clapped.

“Hey, that’s not the end,” I protested.

“My story, my ending,” Apollo ruled.

“Yeah, but you left out the part where you came to the Museum to tell us your big news.”

“I’ve never heard this part,” said Aglaea.

“While my sisters were taking a break from their shameless fawning to help Polyhymnia with a song she was composing for the occasion, Apollo offered me the shepherd’s pipe and said, ‘Here; I already have an idea for an improvement, but I know you like lame things, so…’ I said, ‘Take that back.’ He said, ‘Okay, I will,’ and he took the pipe back. Years later he presented it as a gift to Hermes’ firstborn. That’s why today the instrument is more commonly known as the Pipes of Pan, or the Pan flute. Pan made me one. I can make some awesome music on it, and it’s not lame at all.”

“It’s not lame because I modified it for you,” said Apollo.

“It’s not lame because I’m goooood,” I said, producing the instrument. “Listen.” I played the first few bars of a playful, peaceful melody. Not to be outdone, Apollo produced his kithara and played along. He started singing the melody, and Aglaea joined in on the harmony. She does have an excellent voice. It’s a shame she never devoted more effort to the arts.

When we were done with the song, she took our instruments away. “You two need to get some rest now,” she ordered. “I probably shouldn’t have let you play those instruments yet.” She pulled a dark screen across the window. “I’ll come back in a couple hours with your dinner. Summon me if you need anything.”

A few weeks later, Aglaea informed us that we were well enough to go back to our normal routine. She’d stay one more night with us. Although Apollo and I were more than ready to get back to our usual activities, all ten of us were awfully sad to see Aglaea go. We’d gotten so used to having her as part of our household.

But getting used to something isn’t the same as not wanting it to change. I thought of this as I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, realizing that this would be my last night with Apollo. I’d gotten used to it. Gotten used to him. That didn’t mean I wished things weren’t going back to normal. I couldn’t wait to be back in my own room. I knew I’d fall asleep easier when I couldn’t hear him tossing and turning, trying to get into the one and only precise position in which he could sleep. And it would be such a relief to wake up and not hear him breathing. It’s a very distracting sound.

I was startled out of my reverie as I felt an unexpected touch on my left arm, which had been dangling off the side of the bed. I relaxed and let Apollo raise my arm and push it onto the bed alongside me. “That’s been driving me crazy,” he said. “And I don’t know why you do it. You never fall asleep with your arm dangling. You always pick it up right before you roll over onto your side and curl into fetal position with your back toward me. It’s annoying.”

“You sleep with your mouth open,” I said. “You don’t snore, it’s just wide open. Sometimes I’m not sure whether I want to close it or drop a bug in it,” I softly laughed.

“Maybe you’ve dreamed of it,” he said. “You laugh in your sleep.”

In blissful obstinacy, I dropped my arm back off the side of the bed. I felt Apollo reach for it again. I grabbed his fingers and wrapped mine around them. We stayed like that for awhile; our clasped hands weighing down our arms like a pendant on a cord. I pondered whether, if this were a scene in a play, it would work for the woman to kiss the man’s hand before she let it go, rolled over, and went to sleep. Maybe she’d say something revoltingly sweet like Goodnight, Sunshine even though she’d never given him a nickname before, at least not a flattering one. It could be kind of funny.

I squeezed Apollo’s hand. He squeezed mine back. We let go and turned away from each other. No. It wouldn’t work at all.

1.10 Twisted Fates

As has been mentioned before, Hera is the Goddess of Marriage. She loves mortal weddings because she’s always invoked and praised at them. And divine weddings – well, according to her, they can’t come along often enough. Eros and Psyche’s wedding was the best thing to happen to her in decades. It was great for Psyche, too. She and Hera really bonded while they were planning the wedding together. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Psyche and her new mother-in-law. Aphrodite usually loves weddings, but she limited her involvement in this one to showing up.

Eros, on the other hand, was as much a part of the wedding planning committee as Hera and Psyche would permit. He’s too much of a romantic and a show-off to miss out on something like that. The end result was an insanely overblown wedding full of magnificence, opulence, pomp, splendor, glitter, and fire. I thought it was awesome. Maybe because, at the heart of it, it was all about a pair of crazy kids who were crazy about each other.

Nah. It was the fireworks. The pretty, pretty fireworks.

In spite of Hera’s proclamation at the Pythian Games that the wedding would be held within a month, she got so caught up in pre-production it that it was actually closer to three months. Can’t have an Olympian wedding without tons of music and theatrics, so my sisters and Apollo and I were insanely busy for awhile. We didn’t even have a chance to recover from the Pythian Games before the wedding planning got underway. As soon as the week-long wedding feast was over, we totally crashed. Apollo even cancelled our regular practice sessions so we could catch up on our rest. Believe it or not, we did in fact use the extra free time to do that. I went an entire month without doing anything creative or productive. I spent most of my time lounging and napping in my hollow. Eros and Psyche had kept their word not to reveal its location to anyone. Over the course of my vacation, it occurred to me that they hadn’t said anything about avoiding the hollow themselves in the future, but I knew they wouldn’t be coming back from their honeymoon any time soon, so I didn’t worry about it.

I’d thought Urania would be spending a substantial amount of her free time with Hermes, but they broke up somewhere between the Pythian Games and the wedding. Urania said they decided they had enough in common that they wanted to be better friends, but not enough that they wanted to be a couple. The former made sense, considering they’re both astronomy/astrology deities. The latter made sense, too, considering Urania has scruples and Hermes has doesn’t. Notably, Urania also said Aphrodite’s change in marital status had nothing to do with the decision on either of their parts. Since I’m a good sister, I decided not to make note of it.

Oh, and speaking of my sisters’ breakups, after Eros’ strike was over, he grilled Apollo on the effects of the strike. You know, for scientific purposes. In the course of the conversation, Apollo discovered that Eros had tested a rose arrow on Ares, but had done nothing to Calliope. Go figure. As for Zeus and Hera, Hera forbade Eros to use the new arrows on either of them again.

But during my much-needed vacation, I shoved any and all thoughts of court gossip and my sisters’ guy drama out of my mind. By the time the month was winding down, I was rested, replenished, and thoroughly bored. Apollo noticed this. He declared that a Muse in such a state of mind is trouble waiting to happen. I agreed with him before I realized he considered that a bad thing. He immediately re-instituted mornings full of dance and chorale practice. He also decided I needed more supervision in my free time. Yeah. He was bored, too.

“Look at this,” I said as we stood in Pegasus’ stable. “We have this perfectly good flying horse here, and all we use him for is a beast of burden and a mute confidant.”

“I’m sure I’ll regret asking, but what did you have in mind?” Apollo inquired.

“Athena said he was an expert military tactician,” I reminded him. “Maybe those skills have non-military applications.” Apollo mounted Pegasus before I could. I quickly jumped up behind him before he could fly off without me, which he had done before. “Spying, for example,” I suggested. “Who do you want to spy on? Take your pick.”

“This is quite a quandary,” he contemplated. “Everyone I can think of either would deliver severe consequences if he or she discovered us, or just isn’t that interesting.”

Hello? Why did he think I was leaving it up to him? Did I have to do all the work around here? “Do you ever wonder what your sister’s up to, all alone and unsupervised on Olympus?” I randomly commented in a way that was not at all meant to be taken as a suggestion.

“Come on, boy,” Apollo patted the horse. “Let’s gather some intelligence on Artemis.”

Let the record show that it was his idea, not mine.

Apollo and Artemis have literally looked out for each other from day one. Before they were born, Hera saw in a vision that Leto was carrying twins by Zeus, and that those twins would become two of the most powerful deities in the Pantheon. Hera’s own twins, Ares and Eris, had grown up to be an incredible disappointment to her. She knew Leto’s twins would easily eclipse them, so she made it her mission to destroy both mother and children. Zeus, on the other hand, didn’t care that Leto’s children were bastards. If they truly had the potential that Hera had prophesied, he wanted to claim them for his collection.

Leto quickly went into hiding in hopes of protecting her unborn children from both Zeus and Hera. She went into labor in the middle of nowhere. The Goddess of Childbirth, Hera’s loyal daughter Ilithyia, withheld her blessing, resulting in a difficult birth. Artemis was born first. By the time Leto was ready to deliver the second twin hours later, Artemis had already grown to the size of a four-year-old human. That’s still insanely young to help deliver her baby brother, which is exactly what Artemis did. By the end of the first day, Apollo had caught up with her in relative age. They aged in unison for the next five years, until they were fully grown.

By the end of the first year, Zeus and Hera’s scouts found the trio. Apollo and Artemis, by now nearing pre-adolescence, allowed themselves to be captured to save Leto. Leto’s stayed in hiding ever since.

Apollo and Artemis pretty much raised each other while they were growing up in Zeus’ court. They did their best to protect each other from Hera, Zeus, or anyone else who might not have their best interests in mind. Once they were old enough to have suitors, any actual or potential lover who scorned, betrayed, or emotionally wounded either twin in any way was doomed.

All of Artemis’ suitors have fallen into the “potential” category. When she had barely entered puberty, she made Zeus swear to her that she could stay a virgin forever. Apollo was and continues to be an avid supporter of this policy. The rest of us thought it was just a phase she’d eventually grow out of, but she never has. Some men find it particularly hard to believe that such a powerful, nubile goddess truly has no interest in sex, specifically sex with them. Apollo always tries to take care of these types right away, saving Artemis the trouble of killing them herself.

So, as you can see, it was only out of brotherly love that Pegasus, Apollo, and I were hovering in the air around Olympus just under Artemis’ window. If we held a little mirror at a certain angle, we could see the reflection from Athena’s shield, which was on the couch next to Athena, who was on the couch next to Artemis.

“This night worker, day sleeper thing is getting so old,” we heard Artemis yawn. “I’ve got to talk to Selene about working out a rotation.”

“I know,” Athena sympathized. “I missed you at breakfast this morning. You should have heard what Aphrodite said about my new helmet,” she complained. “Hera laughed, so of course all those kiss-ups laughed with her. This helmet is both functional and aesthetically pleasing, and it does not look like a rooster died on my head. Does it?” she added with a hint of doubt.

“Oh, quit being so sensitive, you big baby,” Artemis affectionately taunted as she knocked Athena’s helmet off and vigorously mussed her perfect hair in one fell swoop. She concluded this indignity by kissing the top of Athena’s head. It took all my willpower not to fall off the horse laughing. I could only recall one time I’d ever seen Athena looking less than impeccable. I knew from that incident that she didn’t appreciate being the object of laughter. I half expected her to sock Artemis, but she didn’t seem terribly upset. “I’m sure you looked lovely this morning, just like you always do,” Artemis assured her.

Athena slapped a silver comb into Artemis’ hand. “You broke it, you fix it,” she ordered.

Artemis dutifully set about combing the tangles out of Athena’s thick, dark hair. “It really is a nice helmet,” she observed. “That owl etching is a work of art. Did Hephaestus make it?”

“That he did. He’s been going at it nonstop since the divorce. Been leaving his customers more satisfied than ever.” There was a pause in which I bit down hard on my lips and Pegasus tried to knock the mirror out of Apollo’s hand. Apollo smacked him on the nose. “Come on,” Athena said with a wickedly enticing smile. “You want to say it.”

“I want no such thing,” Artemis replied with that annoying air of moral superiority that runs in the family. “I hate that kind of catty backstabbing in other women, and I refuse to participate.”

“You know what I hate?” said Athena. “When people see me with my hair messed up.” Pegasus started getting restless. Apollo tried to calm him while I tried to hang on to Apollo.

“I know you do, silly girl.” Artemis smoothed Athena’s hair and put her grand, flamboyant helmet back on, leaving a very deliberate fingerprint on the polished metal. “You know what I hate?”

“What’s that?”

“Idiot brothers.” The two goddesses snapped their fingers in unison. Everything went dark.

“Artemis, what the-?” Apollo exclaimed.

“Try spying on me now,” she triumphed. She sounded close now. She and Athena were probably at the window.

“Thalia, using my own creation against me? I’m disappointed. Very disappointed indeed,” said Athena. “And, Apollo, you’re familiar with the fundamentals of physical science, I believe. It really didn’t occur to you that if you could see our reflection, we could see yours?”

“He was probably showing off,” said Artemis. “You know how he completely loses his head when he’s-”

“Okay, joke’s over,” Apollo declared. “Lift the curse already.”

“Physician, heal thyself,” Artemis replied. We could hear her smirking.

“Pegasus,” Athena commanded, “take them home the long way.”

I felt Pegasus make a rapid, slopeless charge, my stomach following closely while the rest of me was dragged behind. I hung on to Apollo through the dips and twists, at first noting when I was upside down or sideways but eventually losing all sense of perspective. But just as I felt a rocket-like plunge (whether it was up, down, sideways, or diagonal, I still have no idea), I also felt Apollo slip through my arms. Having neither the orientation nor the coordination to regain my balance or grip, I slipped off after him. On the bright side, I landed on grass. On the not-so-bright side, the grass was at the base of a tree.

“Thalia?” I heard Apollo call out from a little ways away.

“I’m he- ohhhhh,” I groaned, the effort of speaking causing an unexpected pain.

“Try not to move,” he strained. “But keep talking so I can follow your voice.”

“Ow, ow, ow, ow,” I faintly repeated. “I can’t believe how much this hurts,” I gasped. “I might have actually broken something.” I finally felt Apollo’s hand on my foot. “Everything, in fact.”

“Combination of Artemis’ curse and Athena’s war horse, I guess,” he reasoned. “I’ll bet they threw in a vulnerability hex, too. Here, take my arms,” he squeezed my ankle to remind me where they were.

I groped around for them. “Are these them?”

“Yes. Put them around yourself. I’m going to teleport us to the Museum. Pegasus should already be waiting in his stall.”

“Apollo?” I queried as I awkwardly repositioned us and arranged his arms around my upper body. “Why didn’t we just teleport to the Museum as soon as Athena said, ‘Pegasus, take them home the long way’?”

“That’s an excellent question; one we don’t need to waste time or effort attempting to answer just now.”

The warm grass beneath me was soon replaced by cool marble. We fell backward now that the tree was no longer supporting us. The silence implied that my sisters were either outside or in their rooms. “Stay here,” Apollo told me as he tried to get up. “I’m going to get some medical supplies.”

“Is your sight back?”

“No, but I have a very well-organized storeroom.”

“Don’t even think about it.” I shifted my weight to pin him in place. “Even if you could make it there and back with the right supplies and without breaking anything, I can’t imagine you survived that landing completely unscathed. Call one of my sisters,” I suggested.

“They’re all useless at medicine. They wouldn’t know what I was asking them for.”

“Fine,” I said. “Summon Asclepius, or one of your grandkids.”

“I don’t want to bother them. They have jobs, lives…”

“And you don’t want them to think you can’t take care of everything yourself,” I finished for him. “You’ve never been able to see your descendents for what they truly are: potential minions. Observe as I cheerfully exploit my beloved godchild. Aglaea!”

“You summoned?” I heard Aglaea’s curious voice in the throne room.

“Yeah,” I said. “We were blinded and thrown from a magic flying war horse. We’ve probably broken everything. You’ll find a very well-organized storeroom in Apollo’s quarters just off his bedroom. Do your stuff.”

“Done,” she said solemnly. A minute later, we could hear derisive laughter echoing through the corridor.

“See?” I said to Apollo. “She’s delighted to make herself useful. What are you doing?” I asked, not at all minding what he was doing, but interested in hearing his answer.

“I’m trying to find your face so I can slap you.”

“And you think the fall moved my face to the side of my sternum?”

He slid his hand up to my face and patted my cheek. “In my defense, I’ve seen stranger injuries.”

I heard Aglaea’s footsteps behind the wheels of Apollo’s supply cart. I felt Aglaea’s hands carefully reposition me on the floor next to Apollo. “To make a salve for blindness, you need-” Apollo started.

“I know how to make one,” Aglaea cut him off, the sounds and smells in the room attesting to the fact that she’d already started. “Actually, I improved your formula. You should get your sight back within minutes of application.”

“But if the restoration process is over-accelerated-”

“I accounted for that,” she assured him. “Thalia, close your eyelids,” she directed me. I felt a large, soft brush coat my eyes with the salve. It had a soothing tingle to it. Aglaea bandaged my eyes to let the salve soak in. Once she’d done the same to Apollo, she examined our injuries. “You guys are going to be laid up for awhile,” she delivered her verdict. “You want me to stick around and take care of you?”

“We’ve got it under control,” Apollo assured her.

“He’s a pathological liar,” I said. “We’d love to have you stay.”

“Then it’s settled.” Aglaea took our eye bandages off and wiped the excess salve away.

“How often do you have to change the bandages?” Apollo disapproved. “My formula only requires a single application.”

“Open your eyes,” she answered.

It took a second for my eyes to focus again, but once they did, I was satisfied that they were as good as ever. “I’ll get some Muses in here to help me set your bones and dress your wounds,” Aglaea was saying, “and then I’ll move both of you to Apollo’s room, if that’s alright. It’ll be the most convenient spot since it’s right next to the medical supply room. And, yes, the supply room is very well organized.” We gave our affirmations. Aglaea summoned Calliope and Melpomene. After giving them their orders, she continued giving us ours. “Now, do not try to levitate until we’ve set all your fractures and sprains. If it turns out you can’t, we’ll move you on stretchers. Got it?”

“You have nothing to worry about,” I promised. “I’m a good patient.”

“Ha! Now who’s lying?” said Apollo. “You’ll want to place a guard on her,” he told Aglaea.

“I’m a good patient compared to him,” I specified.

“You are such a liar,” he maintained. “I’d turn you over my knee if it wasn’t in a brace.”

“Cheap slapstick,” I tsked.

“No, I’d just use my palm.”

“As entertaining as that would be,” said Aglaea, “both of you really need to stay as calm as possible.”

“So you’re confining them to the same room for a couple of weeks?” Calliope snickered.

“It does seem counterintuitive when you put it like that,” Aglaea admitted, “but it’ll be easier on me to have them in the same place. That’s good; you and Melpomene can go back to whatever you were doing.” They did. “Anyway, for at least the first day, I need you two to just stay in bed. After that, you’ll both need crutches for a little while. Apollo, where do you keep them?”

“They’re in the supply room with everything else. They should have been noticeable.”

“Those are the ones you actually use?” Aglaea stifled a laugh. “They’re so primitive! No thought whatsoever to the comfort of the patient.”

“They do their job,” Apollo defended.

“All of Mom and Dad’s are being used – the Amazons commissioned them as field medics in their latest battle – but they might be able to have a couple of new pairs made in three or four days,” Aglaea contemplated. “I could get your measurements to them right away.”

“No, I don’t want to take any more family away from their work,” Apollo declined. “Anyway, I get all my equipment from Hephaestus.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Summon Hermes, let him deliver your specifications, and Hephaestus should have the crutches ready by tomorrow. He always gets Apollo’s done overnight.” I liked the overnight part. Waiting around in bed any longer than I had to wasn’t an appealing prospect.

“Hephaestus?” she repeated uncertainly.

“He doesn’t bite,” Apollo laughed at the face she was making. “In fact, didn’t you meet him at the Games? You were sitting right next to them, weren’t you?”

“You have nothing to worry about,” I comforted her.

“I hope not,” she said doubtfully, “because I’d probably better summon him directly. The specs are pretty complicated. Can one of you…?” I silently carried out the summoning. In a second, Hephaestus was standing next to her and observing the two of us.

“What happened to you two?” he stared at our bruised, bandaged corpses. “Do I even want to know?” he asked warily.

“Just a little healthy sibling rivalry,” Apollo waved him off with his good hand.

“So healthy he had to call in a physician,” said Aglaea, taking command of the situation and of herself. “Hi, let’s say we’re meeting for the first time. I’m Aglaea, daughter of Asclepius and Epione, and I need you to make me two sets of these crutches.” She whipped out a blueprint.

“Hephaestus, son of Hera. Nice to meet you,” he played along, looking at the blueprint rather than the demigoddess holding it. “This part looks like it’ll need to be custom measured?”

“Yeah, and these parts here,” she pointed. “And this alloy also acts as pain reliever, so it’s vital to get the exact proportions.”

“It never occurred to me to build that into the instrument,” he commented as he studied the page. “I’ve been making my own crutches and canes since I could reach a forge,” he added.

“Well, you’re an engineer, not a physician,” Aglaea replied. “Infusing muscular regeneration properties was my dad’s idea, and my mom modified his design to include pain relief. This part was my idea – see how it increases the stability of the user-”

“While decreasing the user’s effort,” he finished. “Two sets?” he confirmed.

“Right.”

“No problem. I’ll have these finished by morning.”

“Now, you know the etchings are part of the design, too?”

“I have read a few blueprints in my time,” he said dryly.

“Sorry, I’m kind of a control freak about this stuff. Runs in the family.”

“On her mother’s side,” Apollo added.

“Anyway,” she ignored him, “these etchings here are part of the magical properties – see the runes? – and these ones are purely decorative, but I think people heal faster when they’re in aesthetically pleasant surroundings. I know, it sounds like a crazy theory, but I’ve been getting really good results with my test subjects.”

“Yeah,” I interjected. “That’s why Apollo gets to room with me.”

“And if you could not mention that on Olympus, we’d appreciate it,” said Apollo. “Enough people already think the Muses are my harem. If word gets out that Thalia and I are sharing a room, gossip will give us seven kids by the end of the week.”

“Of course,” Hephaestus agreed. “And if I accidentally let it slip, I’ll be sure to exaggerate the extent of your injuries,” he directed a mild smirk at Apollo.

“Or,” Apollo replied, “just tell them you and I are an item now that you’re on the rebound. Be fun to let Aphrodite think you’ve got someone prettier than her, wouldn’t it?”

“I do have a thing for blonds,” he acknowledged.

“Do you have a thing for swarthy brunettes?” I asked Apollo.

“Yeah, yeah, you guys are hilarious,” said Aglaea. “Now, if you’ll let me measure you.” She got a measuring tape and took measurements for what felt like a thousand different dimensions. I was impressed with how carefully and how efficiently she worked. “Here you go,” she scribbled the data on the blueprint. “These are Apollo’s, and these are Thalia’s.”

“In this column, the wider one is Thalia?” he confirmed.

“Right.”

“You both suck,” I informed them.

“Don’t you talk to my grandbaby like that,” said Apollo.

“Why not? She’s my godbaby.”

“You’d make such a wonderful mother,” Apollo shook his head as much as his neck brace would let him.

“Can you two levitate?” asked Aglaea. “On your backs?” We gave it a try. We were able to lift ourselves a few feet off the ground while staying flat on our backs. “Perfect,” she approved. “Let’s get you two into bed.”

“Anything I can do?” Hephaestus offered.

“We still need to get Thalia’s bed into Apollo’s room, but…you don’t need to help with that,” Aglaea politely replied.

“Do you know what a blacksmith-slash-carpenter does?” he asked. At first Aglaea blushed like crazy, but then she realized he was teasing her. It is kind of hard to tell with Hephaestus sometimes.

“Of course, if you want to help, I’d appreciate it,” she accepted. “Thalia’s room is the second one down. You two, up and out,” she directed us. We floated down the corridor after her. Hephaestus broke away when he got to my room. He stopped at my doorway and, with a casual, unassuming, and so very masculine wave of his blacksmith’s arm, he telekinetically moved my bed into the corridor and under me. I relaxed while he floated my bed into the room. He let it down once it was in the general spot it needed to be. His telekinesis isn’t very precise, so he got on his knees and, with one hand, pushed my bed the rest of the way until it was perfectly positioned about an arm’s length away from Apollo’s bed.

“Anything else I can do for you?” he asked as Aglaea made sure we were both comfortable.

“Just get me those crutches,” she said. “Can you go ahead and bring them yourself? You know, just to check everything out, make sure it’s all in working order, and all that.”

“Yeah. Definitely. And if there’s any other equipment you need, just let me know.”

“I’ll do that. Thanks.”

Then he was gone and it was just the three of us. Aglaea arranged our medicines on the cart, which was now between our beds.

“What’s in the red bottle?” asked Apollo. Aglaea showed him the label. “Why do you have that on the cart?” he asked. “That’s for insomnia.”

“I might need to put you to sleep for your own safety and my sanity at some point,” she replied.

“And why do you have that green potion out?” he persisted. “I don’t see what it has to do with-”

“You know, I’m pretty sure there’s something in your store room that will take away your ability to speak,” she threatened.

“That’s my girl,” I praised.

“I’ll use it on you, too,” she warned. We were both quiet. “That sure was nice of Hephaestus to come over and take care of all that on such short notice,” she commented.

“It’s his job,” I said.

“Helping me set up in here wasn’t,” she countered. A thoughtful, slightly guilty smile played at the corners of her lips. “Did his ex-wife ever watch him work?”

“Sometimes,” I said. When she was bored and every other man on Olympus was exhausted, I mentally added.

“She is his ex-wife now, isn’t she? Officially?” Aglaea asked.

“Officially and most definitely,” I confirmed. “Persephone took their marriage contract back to Hades with her when she left. They had the proceedings finished in less than a week – not soon enough as far as Aphrodite was concerned.”

“She even contributed a lot of her own assets to match the dowry,” Apollo said. “Mostly jewels, until Hera said that if she threw in her girdle, they’d call it even. Zeus protested until Hera put on the girdle.”

“Hera has the girdle?” I exclaimed. “How did I miss that?”

“You’re not attracted to women,” Apollo laughed, blushing a little.

“I thought the girdle was just a rumor,” said Aglaea.

“Nope, it’s real,” I said.

“And it works,” Apollo affirmed.

“Hephaestus was always a little clueless about women,” I genially rolled my eyes. “I hate to mock my friends, but-”

“You love to mock your friends,” said Apollo.

“But giving Aphrodite a magic girdle that makes the wearer irresistibly tempting is…him. Just, him,” I finished.

“Not completely irresistible,” Apollo added, “but pretty damn hard to resist.”

“He had enough of a clue for you to date him,” Aglaea reminded me.

“Not really,” I reminisced. “I thought the cluelessness was cute. Plus, in matters not related to interpersonal interactions, he was the smartest god I knew.”

“Hello?” said Apollo.

“You were just a kid,” I reminded him. “A boy. A lad. A youth. At the time I didn’t even think of you as a guy.”

“I’m older than you.”

“Yeah, but it took you years to look like it.”

“I would have been worth the wait,” he glibly persisted.

“What did you give him?” I asked Aglaea.

“Nothing mind-altering,” she laughed, “but the fall may have messed with his head. Anyway, how did all of you meet?” She sat down on my bed awaiting a story.

“My sisters and I met Hephaestus not too long after we moved to the Springs of Helicon,” I began. Talking was still a little difficult, but a theater goddess can’t pass up an opportunity to tell a story. “This was a few years before Hera took him back. He was still living and working on the coast near the old sea nymph who raised him.” I stopped talking and giggled at a memory.

“What?” Aglaea coaxed.

“Just remembering his assistants,” I said. “He had these solid gold, fully automated, mechanical assistants that he had built himself. Naturally, they were constructed in the form of very attractive women. Mel thought it was tragic; I thought it was hilarious. Anyway, I think he was just lonely. He dismantled them not too long after my sisters and I started hanging around his shop. He always let us use his stuff to work on our arts and crafts. We invented a lot of major musical instruments in those days.”

“I invented the kithara,” Apollo contributed.

“Yeah, after you conned Hermes out of every other instrument you’re known for,” I acknowledged. “Of course,” I continued my story, “my sisters and I were also frequent visitors at Olympus. That’s where we met Apollo and Artemis. The first time I saw them, they looked like humans in their mid teens.”

“I was taller than you, though,” Apollo felt the need to mention.

“I remember. You took great pride in that fact,” I grinned. “You were so cute back then.”

“So, Thalia was dating Hephaestus,” Aglaea redirected the story.

“Yeah,” said Apollo. “I first met him when Artemis and I got some weapons from him. We heard Hera had sent some monster after Mom, so, naturally, we were plotting to kill it. Getting weapons from the Cyclops was out of the question since he’d tell Their Majesties. We confided in the Muses, and Thalia recommended her boyfriend. That was when I found out she had one.”

“I still didn’t know Hephaestus was Hera’s son,” I added. “He knew, but he kept it quiet for obvious reasons.”

“He did help us out,” said Apollo. “Not only did he give us the weapons free of charge, but he’s kept it a secret to this day.”

“How did he get back to Olympus?” Aglaea asked.

“One day when I was visiting Hera,” I recalled, “she noticed my earrings and asked me where I got them. Those were some nice earrings. I wish I could remember what happened to them. Anyway, I told her my boyfriend made them for me. She asked me more questions, and I was kind of bragging about him, and she figured out who he was. It wasn’t long before she invited him to take his rightful place on Olympus among her children, blah blah blah. When Zeus saw Hephaestus’ work, he gave him a seat among the eventual Twelve and appointed him as the new official smith of the gods, making the Cyclops his subordinate. The Cyclops wasn’t happy about it, even though Zeus kept him on as his personal smith.”

“But Hephaestus was better than the Cyclops,” Apollo said.

“Not too long after that, Zeus made Athena,” I noted, trying to get Apollo’s mind off the Cyclops.

“Artemis and I were grown by then,” said Apollo. “She and Athena were the best of friends from the beginning. Did you know Artemis is the one who inspired Athena to take a vow of chastity?”

“I think everyone knows that,” said Aglaea.

“Man, what happened to those earrings?” I pondered. “That’s going to drive me crazy now! Maybe I gave them back when we broke up. No, I remember he insisted I keep all his gifts.”

“Why did you two break up?” Aglaea asked.

“There wasn’t any one thing,” I reflected. “We just weren’t meant to be. We faced the fact that we were more like friends than lovers, and decided to make that official.”

“Not too long after that,” said Apollo, “Aphrodite entered the stage, and everyone knows the rest.”

“And that was while you were the God of Herding?” Aglaea recalled. I could see her mentally sorting everything into a timeline.

“Right,” said Apollo.

“That’s it!” I realized. “I wore those earrings to your pasture one time. At the end of the day, I wasn’t wearing them anymore. We figured I must have lost them somewhere. You said you’d look for them, but you never did find them. Man, I really liked those earrings.”

“Wasn’t my lucky day, I guess,” Apollo shrugged, or tried to before discovering that shrugging was a particularly painful action at the moment.

“I’m probably wearing you guys out,” Aglaea apologized. “And here I’m supposed to be making sure you get your rest. Why don’t you just close your eyes and give your bodies a chance to heal?”

“That does sound nice,” I agreed.

“You’ll make sure the others know to keep up their daily routine?” Apollo requested.

“I’m guessing Calliope’s already taken over, but if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll tell them,” Aglaea promised. She put a few drops of the sleeping potion on each of our tongues, and we drifted off to sleep.

You know how it is when you distinctly remember that you had a dream, but you don’t remember what happened in it? That was how I felt when I woke up for a moment or two that evening. I felt tired, like experiencing my dream had taken more strength than staying awake would have. But what had happened in the dream? I couldn’t recall a single image. I didn’t even know whether I had been a player or a mere observer. All I could remember was a deep, chilling, hollow voice intoning, These two threads have unraveled, and these two are merging. I stayed awake just long enough to wonder what on earth was in that sleeping potion.

1.9 And They All Lived Ever After

It was the eighth and final day of the Pythian Games. We were gathered in anticipation of the concluding event: the final showdown between the Muses. My sisters and I had chosen a champion to perform in our honor. Apollo would judge their performances and award a prize to the winning Muse. I’d selected Eustachys and his troupe as my champions. I was glad to see we’d be going in alphabetical order. That meant I’d be next to last. Dead last would have been even better, but I failed to convince Apollo that Urania spells her name with a silent Q.

Most of the gods and goddesses present would be in attendance. There were enough rows of seats behind us to seat them all semi-comfortably. However, seating them was complicated by the fact that certain people were particularly disinclined to sit near certain others. Zeus and Hera were the easiest to deal with. Refusing to even sit on the same structure at the same time, they’d had their thrones set on clouds on opposite sides of the pavilion. When Hera arrived, I noticed her all-encompassing robe was back on. So was her hardened countenance.

Ares had been the hardest to seat. Calliope had, at first, demanded that he be banned. Apollo was tempted by the idea, but ultimately decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, so he worked out a compromise. Putting Ares in the farthest possible seat from Calliope wasn’t good enough. He actually measured the farthest possible point from Calliope and stuck a chair on it.

We’d hoped Eris would want to sit with her brother, but she insisted on a front row seat. We put her next to Hera, the parent least likely to encourage her little princess if she decided to create any mayhem. I was at the end closer to Eris, but at least Urania, Hermes, Persephone, and Demeter would be between her and me. Apollo was sitting between Calliope and Artemis, followed by Athena and Dionysus.

Hephaestus and Aphrodite could have fit in the first row, which would have befit their station; but all of the available seats would have put one of them next to a former lover of Aphrodite’s, something Hephaestus very much wanted to avoid. Some Muse whom I will not name had thought her boyfriend, the Messenger of the Gods, could keep a secret. Therefore, the whole pantheon knew Aphrodite was cheating again. Hephaestus had wanted to skip the event altogether for that reason, but it was vital for both of them to be there, so I sat them in the shorter second row, which, like the third, was otherwise occupied by Asclepius’ family.

Apollo had commanded the medics to take the day off unless there was an emergency since they’d hardly gotten to watch any of the events in person. I verified that neither Asclepius nor any of his sons had ever been involved with Aphrodite, but just to be on the safe side, I sat all the guys in the third row. Aphrodite has been known to shapeshift as innocent men’s wives or lovers. Asclepius’ daughters all said they’d kill themselves if they had to sit next to Aphrodite. The seating committee showed them the STFU sign and told them to slap on another coat of makeup and suck it up.

As I sat in my own seat waiting for the show to start, a pair of hands covered my eyes. “Guess who?” said Aglaea.

“You drew the short straw?” I laughed, turning to face her. Her siblings were milling around finding their seats. Aphrodite and Hephaestus had yet to show up.

“Yeah,” she made a face, “but, hey, at least it means I’m closer to you. How do I look?” she asked.

“Splendid.”

“I thought about doing something different with my hair, but I didn’t want to look like I’m trying to show Aphrodite up or anything. Unlike some crazy brothers I might mention.”

“One of your brothers wants to show Aphrodite up?” I doubted any of them were likely to be crushing on Ares, but you never know.

“No!” she laughed. “When Machaon found out he’d be sitting in front of Ares, he decided to test this new muscle-enhancing potion he’s been working on. See for yourself.”

“Oh. My. I’d say that worked just a tad too well.”

“Subtle, isn’t it?” Aglaea cackled. “I cannot believe that lame sap even tried to compete with Ares.”

Hephaestus has really, really bad timing.

Not only that, I could have sworn Aglaea’s voice was unnaturally amplified on the last sentence. My eyes darted over to Eris, but she was staring straight forward at the stage, seemingly oblivious to us.

“Oh, I wasn’t – I didn’t mean – Hi, I’m just going to keep my mouth shut for the rest of the evening,” Aglaea stammered.

“No, don’t do that,” Aphrodite crooned. “Unlike your friend here, you’re actually funny.” She patted me on the head, crushing my hairdo in the process.

“I was talking about my brother,” Aglaea pointed, having at last untangled her tongue.

“Oh,” Hephaestus noted with a self-deprecating chuckle. “You’re fine; I guess it’s a little arrogant on my part to assume the whole pantheon is obsessing over our personal lives. Nice to see you again, Aglaea.” I inferred from Aglaea’s expression that she’d hoped Hephaestus wouldn’t remember her.

“Hm,” Aphrodite observed Machaon, oblivious to Hephaestus’ comment. “I just might have to judge that competition.” She winked up at Ares.

“Fates forbid your tyrannical husband might withhold permission,” Hephaestus muttered, sitting down on the aisle seat.

“The fact that I have a husband is the only reason anyone cares,” Aphrodite retorted, seating herself next to my madly blushing goddaughter. “If it weren’t for you, people wouldn’t be calling me a slut all the time.” My lack of desire to get involved prevented me from offering a second opinion.

“When words come out of your mouth, do your ears just block all incoming sound waves?” Hephaestus incredulously inquired.

“It’s a trick I picked up after a few decades of listening to your mind-numbing excuse for discourse.”

“For the first few decades, plural, you did actually listen to me? I had no idea it was that long.”

Apollo stood up and made a thunderclap with his hands. He was now visible to the mortals below. He introduced the event and turned it over to Calliope, who introduced her champion. The champion recited an epic poem of his own composition. The subject was a battle between two armies, one of whom sought help from Ares and the other from Athena. We were all fraught with suspense as to which army would prevail. Athena threw a smirk over her shoulder at Ares. How she manages that perfect hair flip while wearing a helmet continues to mystify me. Ares snapped his fingers. Hermes appeared beside him in an instant, then next to Calliope, then back to Ares, then back to his seat.

“What was that about?” Urania whispered.

“He asked if she was going to rebound with Athena. She said it would be trading up,” Hermes whispered back.

“Aw, your boyfriend lost to his baby sister,” I heard Hephaestus sneer at the end of the poem. “Will you be comforting the poor guy after the Games?”

“Why? Did you put snare traps in our bed so you can invite everyone to come laugh at me and Ares while we hang from the ceiling by our ankles?” Aphrodite sniped. I filed away that idea for the next mortal who’d come begging me for a play.

“Why would I bother? They’d laugh at you for a day and me for a century.”

They stopped sniping at each other long enough for Apollo to introduce Clio. Her champions’ act was short: a tableau depicting the first Oracle. Next was Erato’s, a duet ballad about a divine shepherd and shepherdess. On the surface it was cute and romantic, but between the lines, it was awfully cheeky and bawdy. “Hey,” Aglaea leaned forward and whispered to me, “is this about Apollo?”

“Why would you think that?” I asked. I couldn’t remember if I was supposed to know that Apollo had spent his year’s sentence as a shepherd.

“Well, I know he was the God of Herding before he conned Hermes into trading for God of Music,” she explained. “I also know he hates herding sheep. I asked Dad about it, and Dad said Apollo told him he just took the job to impress some girl.”

“Man, that was ages ago,” I recalled. “Right after Hephaestus and I broke up. I’d almost forgotten about all of that. But Apollo was probably kidding. I hung out with him in the sheep folds all the time, and I don’t remember any girl.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Aphrodite grab my shepherd’s crook. The time it took me to realize she’d been eavesdropping was enough for her to smack me with the crook. “Hey, what was that for?”

“For being an idiot,” she hissed. “This is why Olympus needed me.”

Euterpe, Melpomene, and Polyhymnia took their turns. Terpsichore’s dance troupe had also been Euterpe’s choir. They sang and danced in both acts, but performed different songs. The crowd seemed to like them. At last, it was my turn. I introduced Eustachys and his troupe and settled in for a long ride.  The chorus got the show started.

“Thalia, our own patron and our Muse!
O’er laughter and o’er hap’ly ended tales
Does she preside atop her holy mount.
Enthroned sits she there among the Nine
Around the golden god Apollo, who
Does rule the Nine as well as any could.
With mercy and indulgence he regards
The merriment and mischief brought about
By charmed Thalae, whose impishness cannot
Exceed her sun-kissed favor in his eyes.”

Apollo looked down the row at me. He didn’t glare, grimace, threaten, frown, scowl, scold, or chide. He just stared. I smiled innocently and fluttered my eyelashes. He snapped his fingers. In the space of a few seconds, Hermes was at his side and then at mine. “He says ‘Don’t count on it, cutie,’” Hermes whispered.

“As once she blessed the winged god of love
When he and his true love requir’d her aid,
We ask that Muse to bless our efforts here.
Thalia, may our story end in joy.”

The play opened with Psyche sitting in her gazebo. As was customary, her face was covered by an actor’s mask. Half of the mask was frowning like Melpomene’s, and half of it was grinning like mine. She turned the comic side toward the audience.

“I’m safe from Aphrodite. The creature who rescued me says she’ll never find me here. This place is wonderful. Trees, flowers, birds, a waterfall, this arbor; it’s like something out of a fairy tale. The creature keeps me well. I never see him during the day, but he’s here all night, every night. Thick curtains of vines fall around my gazebo when the sun sets. Not even starlight can get though. He holds my hand. He talks with me. Sometimes we kiss.” She turned and faced us with the tragic side of the mask.

“But he never lets me see him. He says he wants to know that I love his soul, no matter what his body is like. I’ve told him I do. He says he wants to marry me someday. I want that, too. But a person isn’t only a soul any more than he’s only a body. I want to know who it is that I love. I need a name, a form, a face.”

Eros descended behind her. His mask was also divided. Thalia entered the stage behind him, a sheer, dark curtain showing the audience that she was invisible. “Psyche?” said Eros.

“You’re back! It isn’t even night yet.”

“Turn around.”

They circled until they were positioned so that the audience could see both of them take their masks off.

“That’s my son!” Aphrodite screamed. “You found him and you didn’t tell me?” she grabbed my shoulder. I pointed to my sign. She ignored it. “I’m going to send that little bitch right back where she- “

“No, you’re actually not,” I said. “The stage is enchanted. You can’t touch the players until the show is over. It’s a Muse thing. The show must go on.”

All attention was returned to the stage just in time. “You’re Eros, the love god?” Psyche tried to comprehend. “That’s where I knew your voice. From the pageant. I understand now. I understand everything.”

“That makes one of us,” he said with a nervous laugh. “Do you…can you…still love me?”

“Of course I still love you,” she cried. She ran to him and flung her arms around him. He shielded the two of them with his wings as they kissed.  On the pavilion, Erato and Calliope were sobbing again. So was Aglaea.

“What do we do now?” asked Psyche. “Your mother will never let us get married-”

“Damn right,” I heard Aphrodite murmur.

“-And you can’t hide out with me forever. You’re a god.”

“I have some vacation time saved up,” he said. “Olympus ought to be able to spare me for one human lifetime.” He paused long enough for the audience to laugh through their happy tears. The kid does have a flair for the theatrical. “Unless,” he continued, “things go the way I hope they will, in which case all the time I’ll need off is for our honeymoon. Psyche, one human lifetime with you isn’t enough for me. I want you for as long as I live. I want to ask Zeus and Hera to make you immortal.”

“Is that even possible?” Psyche marveled.  “If it is, I’ll do it. I would’ve had to leave my family behind to get married, anyway. And I can still visit them, right?”

“Sure. I don’t see why not. And you won’t mind the living forever part?”

“It would be forever with you. No,” she smiled, “I don’t think I’d mind. But what about your mother? Would you even get a chance to explain before she found you?”

Stage Thalia stepped out from behind the curtain. “I have an idea.”

“So mortal, god, and goddess did appear
Before the King and Queen of all the gods
And Aphrodite, she who had been wronged
By words that Psyche spoke in innocence
Yet in the folly of an untried youth.
Before these Powers on Olympus ‘throned,
Earnestly was supplication made
That Psyche of her wrongs might be absolved,
That she be granted immortality,
And that to Eros she might soon be wed.
The curtain shall be drawn while they decide,
And all shall by their ruling then abide.”

“I would just like to say,” Apollo protested, “that I didn’t know about any of this.”

“Apollo didn’t know about any of this,” I confirmed. “It was all me.”

“You didn’t know?” Eris snickered. “You’re her guardian. You should have known.”

“Why are you even here?” asked Aphrodite.

“Because of this lovely handwritten, embossed invitation,” Eris waved said object in the air. “See? That’s my name. I was invited, so I’m here.”

Hera took the invitation away. “Can’t you at least try to behave when we’re in public?” she whispered harshly.

Zeus stepped between them. “Princess, Daddy and Mommy have some business to take care of, alright?” He kissed Eris on the cheek. “Why don’t you go somewhere else and play with your toys?”

“Okay,” Eris delightedly complied. She vanished. We all expected to hear about a massive riot somewhere in Greece before long.

“Aphrodite,” Zeus turned his attention to her, “you really do need to make up your mind. If I were you, I’d forgive the girl, since that’s obviously the only way you’re going to get your son back. And I am telling you to get your son back. I’ll do the honors myself if you want to grant the girl’s wish for immortality. She’d make a fine addition to Olympus.”

I will do the honors,” said Hera, “and if she comes to Olympus as Eros’ bride, she’ll be under my protection,” she added with a pointed glare at her husband.

“Fine,” Aphrodite said in sullen resignation. “I forgive her. Change her, welcome her, whatever you two want. But I won’t give my son permission to marry her.”

“He’s asking,” said Hephaestus. “That should tell you something. Maybe he’s not as much like you as you think he is.”

“Really?” she lashed. “Who do you think he’s like? You? You’re the only one in existence who thinks there’s any real chance you’re his father.”

“It’s mathematically possible,” he insisted.

“I suppose it’s also possible,” Aphrodite ranted, “that Eros won’t come to hate the thought of waking up next to the same person day after day after day for the rest of his life, and that he won’t feel trapped in some useless institution that we only keep up to set an example for the idiot mortals who could care less.” My sisters and I all had a grammatical correction on the tips of our tongues, but Apollo shook his head.

“So it’s marriage in general that you hate, not so much being married to me personally?” Hephaestus shot back. “Well, that’s a comfort.”

“It’s a toss-up. If I’d had my choice of a husband, you would have been somewhere below the Cyclops, if you’d have made the list at all.”

“You think it’s been easy being married to you? Sometimes when you and I are together, I allow myself the delusion that you’re with me because you want to be, but if I’m honest with myself, I know it’s just for convenience’s sake. Even though I knew when we were first married that I wanted it more than you did, I kept hoping that maybe, in time, after you got to know me better…” his diminuendo faded into silence.

“Do you have any idea how pathetic you sound?” she scorned.

“It’s never going to happen, is it?” he said quietly.

“No,” she said in kind, her eyes welling up with angry, frustrated tears. “It isn’t. You want honesty? Fine. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t love you. I have never loved you. I will never love you.”

“Then maybe we should have just gone ahead with the divorce after the Net Incident.”

“I’m not the one who called it off.”

After a long, painful silence, Hephaestus said, “Is that really what you want?”

“Don’t toy with me.”

“Will you two stop all this nonsense and get back to the business at hand?” Hera interrupted. “No one is getting a divorce, especially not my own son.”

“Oh, am I your son today?” Hephaestus replied in mock flattery. “So glad to hear it. My Lord Zeus, if my wife will consent, I ask that you grant us a divorce.”

“Don’t waste my time,” Zeus brushed him off. “Now, about this mortal girl-”

“I mean it this time,” said Hephaestus.

“I think he really does mean it this time,” Aphrodite urged. “Please, my lord, say yes before he changes his mind.”

“I would,” said Zeus, “except that I’ve been through this with you two before. Hephaestus, do you understand that if you divorce her, you can’t have her back?”

“I finally understand that I don’t have her now.”

“Can I say something?” said Persephone, whom we’d all pretty much forgotten about. “I know dead when I see dead, and believe me, this marriage is DEAD.”

“Please, please, please, before he talks himself out of it?” Aphrodite implored on her knees.

“Fine,” Zeus conceded. “With your mutual consent, I declare proceedings begun. As soon as the dowry is completely repaid to me, your marriage will be null and void.” Since Aphrodite’s parentage was unknown, Zeus had been her guardian by default before she was married.

“Excuse me,” said Hera, “but this is my son and I am the Goddess of Marriage, so you can do no such thing without MY consent. Now, I can see that Hephaestus has chosen to disgrace me yet again, and there seems to be no way to change his mind, but I will allow him an opportunity to make amends in my eyes. I will grant the two of you a divorce if you permit your son, Eros, to be joined in marriage to this Psyche.”

“Done,” said Aphrodite.

“I would have let him, anyway,” said Hephaestus.

“Then,” I ventured, “if the Ladies Hera and Aphrodite will join me on stage for the conclusion?”

Eros and Psyche were facing each other and holding hands in the middle of the stage. Hera and Aphrodite stood together downstage and right from them, facing the audience. I was upstage, watching the results of my handiwork. Aphrodite spoke.

“Now, Psyche, most beloved of my son,
Your sin against me is hereby absolved.
I welcome both of you into my house.”

Hera took her cue.

“I grant your wish, that you two might be joined
In holy wedlock, that most blessed state.
And since this sacred union is, in truth,
Intended to be an eternal bond,
I grant you, Psyche, immortality.
When you are joined to Eros as his bride,
Among the goddesses shall you be placed.
As Eros rules the heart, so you the soul.
Your realm among Olympus’ gods shall be
The study of the soul, psychology.”

Impressive rhyming. I wondered if she’d made up the word with the meter in mind.

Hera laid her hands on Psyche’s shoulders. A bright light enveloped the two of them, obscuring them from even the gods and goddesses’ view. When they were visible again, not only was Psyche even more outstanding and captivating than she had been before, but she had a pair of rainbow-colored butterfly wings with a span as long as Eros’ bird wings. With a grand flourish, Hera produced a full-length mirror so Psyche could see herself.

“It is befitting that a wife should be,
In power, equal to her husband. So
I give you as your wedding gift, these wings.
Now, anywhere your husband seeks to fly,
He knows his wife can fly there just as well.”

Judging by the laughter and applause, the audience loved that one. Who knew Hera had a knack for improv? She was so good, I almost felt sorry for the chorus who had to close for her.

“The wedding will be held within a month,
And heart and soul together shall be joined.
With tragedy averted, joy abounds.
Thalia, Muse of Comedy, prevails.”

The audience went wild. We all took our bows. Eros and Psyche took hold of each other’s hands and flew into the air and out of sight together. Hera, Aphrodite, and I disappeared in a colorful cloud of smoke and stardust. As I left, I set off a full round of ground-shaking pink starburst fireworks because I could.

We all met up on the pavilion. After introductions and congratulations were exchanged all around, Hephaestus and Aphrodite took Eros aside. We all gave them their privacy. I couldn’t hear what they said to him, but I could just make out his satyr-may-care reply: “What took you guys so long?”

I lingered behind after everyone else had left the pavilion for Dionysus’s tent. I stood motionless, not looking at anything, not thinking of anything, not feeling anything. Before long, I was vaguely aware that Apollo had come back for me. He took my hand and sat down. I mechanically sat next to him. I still didn’t talk.

“You’re not moping because I gave the trophy to Urania, are you?” he gently chided.

“No, the star map built out of straw and tar was a work of art,” I replied with a half-hearted laugh. “Did you see that coming? At all?”

“Nope. Urania was quite the dark horse in this competition. Still, you had to know that using four – no, five – gods in your act would disqualify you. Besides, although your scheme was brilliant, the story really wasn’t that comical.”

“You know what I mean. I can’t help feeling like it’s my fault.”

“You were just trying to help Eros,” he said as he stroked my fingers.

“I’m not talking about the contest, alright?” I snapped.

“Then tell me what you are talking about. I can’t read your mind,” he said, making a very successful effort not to show his impatience. I hate it when he’s nice to me when I don’t feel like being nice to anybody. It makes me want to be nice, too.

I told him all about my encounter with the Fates. How they had challenged me to influence them with the blessing of my choice. How the blessing of my choice had been a happy ending for Hephaestus and his family. “So I guess it could be argued,” I thoughtfully concluded, “that it’s your fault. You were the one who compared my powers to theirs in the first place.”

“I didn’t tell you to try to make a happy ending out of that mess!” he said, about ninety percent bewildered and ten percent amused. “I guess when the Fates stick it to you, they really stick it to you.”

“Apparently so. Isn’t this the Pantheon’s first divorce ever?”

“You’ll have to check with Clio, but I do believe it is.” After a minute, he told me, “Look at it this way. Your blessing partly worked. I think this is going to be a great thing for Eros. He and Psyche seem really happy together.”

“But I don’t even know if my blessing did that,” I doubted. “That was probably Aphrodite’s.”

“Then you can take comfort in the fact that her blessing only half worked, too. The Games are officially over, and Eros is the only one of us who met his true love.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I perked up.

We were both startled when Aglaea suddenly appeared in front of us. “There you guys are!” she greeted us. “Come on, you’ve got to see this. Euterpe and Terpsichore are trying to teach Psyche this completely insane drinking song they wrote, and she’s getting tipsier by the second while delivering this lecture on why people have a psychological need to ‘babble mindlessly to an infectious rhythm while they’re innoximated’.”

Apollo offered me his arm. “Shall we?”

I took it. “Let’s.”

1.8 Heart and Soul

Apparently he was breaking up with her. We – meaning the ten of us plus Asclepius’ entire family – heard all about Calliope’s epic breakup over breakfast the next morning. “He said he wanted to see other people. I said, ‘You’re breaking up with me?’ He said no, he still wanted to see me, but he wanted to see other people, too. Too. In addition. On the side! Can you believe that?” Considering we were talking about Ares, yes, we could. “So I told him, what did he think I was? The entree in a five course dinner? He said, ‘No, baby, you’re the main course.’  Not only was that a complete and utter degradation, he didn’t even know the entree and the main course are the same thing! What was I ever thinking, going out with him in the first place?”

“Should we tell her?” Apollo whispered to me.

“Let’s wait ’til Eros gets back. If we tell her now, she’ll have time to cool off,” I whispered back.

“I’ll bet he left with the first blonde nymph to cross his line of sight,” Calliope continued her well-justified tirade.

“Hey, I resemble that comment,” Aglaea interjected.

“You know what I mean. I swear, I’d be perfectly happy if I didn’t see him again for the rest of the Games. I won’t if I stay away from the wrestling and boxing events. He never truly appreciated the Theater. He only came because I wanted him to.” She burst into tears. “He was so well-trained!”

Epione came around to Calliope’s seat and put her arms around her. “Shhh, it’s alright, it’s alright,” she chanted as she provided Calliope with a shoulder to cry on. “Let it out. It was great while it was, it’s horrible now that it isn’t, and that’s all there is to it.”

Unfortunately for Calliope and fortunately for the rest of us, life went on. We all headed for the Games as soon as breakfast was over. I had a big day ahead of me. Lots of comedy events on the agenda. I was looking forward to a sisters-only pavilion, but Urania and Hermes seemed unaffected by the strike. We hadn’t told them about it, either.

However, Hermes wasn’t able to spend too much time with Urania due to all the back-and-forth from Zeus and Hera. First they were both finishing out the Games, but they demanded separate pavilions. After we’d started setting up another pavilion no less but no more grand than the original, we got a message from Zeus saying that if Hera was going to be there, he was going to be absent for the rest of the week. Two seconds later, we got a letter from Hera saying the same thing. Then Zeus said that if Hera wasn’t coming, he might as well come. Hera, again, said the same thing. Finally, Zeus said screw Hera, he was coming whatever she did, and he was bringing some nymph we’d never heard of as his escort. Hera said screw Zeus, she wouldn’t let him and his whore keep her away. Yep, they were back to normal.

The mortals were noticing a change, too. Like I said, Eros had been shooting arrows left and right the day before. A lot of mortals were taking back the romantic overtures of yesterday, and their partners weren’t happy about it. Since they didn’t know it was Eros who had set them up in the first place, they were blaming Aphrodite for the breakups. But even with pressure from her followers combined with the uncharacteristic concern she was feeling for her son, Aphrodite still refused to even consider bringing Psyche back from wherever she’d hidden her.

One notable effect of this crisis was that Aphrodite and Hephaestus were actually united toward a common goal. (Throughout this quest, the two of them regarded Apollo and me as partners, or at least co-conspirators. I never could figure out a good reason why they did, and it never seemed like a good time to ask.) Naturally, the stress and anxiety of the situation was making them even more frustrated with each other than usual, but they still managed to stay focused on the search for their son in spite of their constant quarreling. In a little corner of my mind, I couldn’t help wondering whether this was a result of my trial with the Fates. What if this shared hardship would bring them together as never before and give them their happy ending? Suck it, Fates!

On the third day of the Games, Aphrodite told us that she couldn’t see Psyche any more, which meant she no longer knew where to look. At first she hoped Psyche had been killed by a monster or something. By the seventh day, however, she was thoroughly convinced that Eros had found Psyche and spirited her away somewhere. We were inclined to agree with her. This only caused more anxiety since Eros had sworn to take Psyche someplace where Aphrodite would never find either one of them.

She left our conference to continue her search, but Hephaestus stayed behind. “He’s not coming back,” he said quietly.

“We don’t know that for sure,” Apollo tried to reassure him. “I’ve tried to foresee his fate, but nothing comes to me.”

“Thank you, but I don’t need your foresight to know how this ends. If it were Aphrodite, I wouldn’t come back.”

“Are you doing alright?” I asked, seeing that he obviously wasn’t.

“Well, it’s…I hate to get into…never mind.”

“Okay, then,” I accepted. My likelihood to take the words never mind at face value is inversely proportional to the degree to which the speaker wants me to.

“Go ahead, we’re all friends here,” Apollo encouraged him.

“It’s probably nothing, but…last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and Aphrodite wasn’t there. I laid awake for over an hour, but she never came back. She was there when I woke up this morning, though. I’m sure it was nothing. It just brought back bad memories.”

“Did you say anything to her?” I asked.

“I don’t want her to think I don’t trust her.”

“I see.” What else could I say? “You know what, I’ve got to get back and judge the comedy troupes. Maybe you and Aphrodite should come watch. You guys probably just need a break.”

Last-minute sign-ups are allowed at the Pythian Games. They aren’t completely unheard of, but we hardly ever, and I mean EVER, get any. My sisters and I can tell whether an entrant really was inspired at the last minute or whether they’ve been secretly working on their entry for months. If it’s the latter, the entrant is disqualified. The entrant in question, however, really had been inspired just that morning. Guess who?

“Eustachys,” I said to him, “If you even think about entering that cheap, tawdry debacle-”

“No, My Muse, you can see it’s an entirely different work. It came to me last night in a dream. You must let me enter it! It’s the greatest thing I ever wrote!”

“Wow, you’ve set that bar so high, it just might hit me in the shins. Now, you’re sure this entry belongs with me and not Melpomene?”

“Oh, yes. Well, I think so. It’s a very sweet story with a happy ending, but it’s definitely open for a sequel. Besides, you’re in it, so it must be a comedy.”

“Hold on. I’m in this play? What am I doing? And with whom? And in what?”

“Your role is brief, I’m afraid, as is the Lord Apollo’s. But I have retained the same actors who portrayed the two of you in the first play with which you blessed me, My Lady.”

“Hm. Good thinking. Fans hate a recast. Okay, fine, you’re on the roster.” If the skit sucked, I’d pawn him off on Mel anyway.

Eustachys’ skit was about to start. Hephaestus and Aphrodite, having taken me up on my invitation, were seated at my end of the front row. Urania graciously offered to switch places with me since Hermes had a boxing match to judge. I tried to insist on letting her keep her own seat, but she wouldn’t hear of it.

As required by the format, a chorus began the act.

“O Muses, blessed Nine who sit enthroned
Upon Parnassus, Delphi’s holy mount,
We ask your blessings on this lovely tale.
And Aphrodite, fairest of the Twelve,
Save any goddess who might take offense,
We pray you find herein that which you seek.
Bless’d Eros, son of fire, war and love,
The merriest and youngest of the gods,
The best of all his parentage combined…”

The next five stanzas erased any doubt as to the source of Eustachys’ sudden inspiration. Crashing my Games? This play had better give some clue as to Eros’ whereabouts, I silently ranted, so I could find that little brat and mount his wings on a trophy. Finally, the chorus finished singing Eros’ praises. Time to actually listen again.

“…That all those present know for once and all
How Aphrodite’s wildest dove was tamed,
His heart forever bound unto his Soul.”

If this was going to be a literal interpretation of certain occurrences, I hoped beyond hope that it wouldn’t offend Aphrodite in any way. Since this was my event, I was sure she wouldn’t hesitate to take it out on me. Trading verbal barbs with Aphrodite in Hera’s court was one thing. Humiliating her unprovoked in front of practically the whole population of Delphi would be another.

As it turned out, the play was definitely a literal interpretation, complete with me hiding behind the four judges at the pageant. Well, it was literal from Eros’ perspective. And he did not go easy on Mommy Dearest. I sneaked a look at her to see how she was taking it. She was quietly sobbing into Hephaestus’ shoulder. He was holding her and stroking her back.

“You should tell your father that you’re not a prized heifer, a trophy in a game, or a pawn on a chessboard,” the Aphrodite actress delivered her line to the Psyche actress.

“It sounds like you might have some unresolved issues,” the Psyche actress responded, her heartfelt sympathy much more obvious and exaggerated than her real-life counterpart’s had been. “Have you considered the idea that your promiscuity is your way of establishing autonomy, something you’ve never truly had?”

“Do you really feel that way?” I heard Hephaestus quietly ask the real Aphrodite, who was still crying.

“Please, you think that bitch had a clue what she was talking about?” Aphrodite tearfully dismissed.

“You know I don’t think you’re any of those things you said,” Hephaestus protested anyway. “And I’ve always let you do whatever you want.”

“Might I remind you of the Net Incident?” she snarled.

“Apparently I was the only one who wasn’t already positive you were sleeping with Ares, so I don’t see the problem,” he replied, his warm, comforting demeanor cooling by several degrees.

“You dragged me and my lover to the throne room in a net, stark naked, and you don’t see the problem?”

“Given the fact that I caught you two that way in our bed, um, no.”

I snapped up a small STFU sign, attached it to my shepherd’s crook, and smacked them both over the head with it. I, for one, wanted to hear the stupid play.

Okay, maybe being able to hear the stupid play wasn’t the best idea.

“‘The ugliest, dullest boy in Delphi’?” Hephaestus quoted. “Really?”

“Why would you assume that’s a curse? Maybe he’d be a nice guy who lets her do whatever she wants,” Aphrodite taunted, “except, of course, take a lover who can actually keep her satisfied.”

“A stable full of centaurs couldn’t keep you satisfied,” he murmured.

“Why don’t we test that theory? It would be like one of your experiments, except I wouldn’t be bored out of my skull. You think I get anything out of hanging around your workshop?”

“I talk to you while I’m working.”

“Right, like I’ve been banging Ares all week because he’s a brilliant conversationalist.”

I smacked them both again. Wait a minute. “When you say ‘all week’…?” I asked.

“I mean since he dumped your sister. Take a chill pill. I still can’t believe he ever dumped me for one of you nerds. At least now I know it was just my stupid son’s stupid invention.”

“He dumped you?” Hephaestus quietly shouted. “You swore up and down that you broke things off with him because you – because we – you’ve been sleeping with him all week?”

“Technically not a full week,” she nodded.

“Is there anything in our marriage that you haven’t lied about?”

“I wasn’t lying when I said marrying you wasn’t my idea.”

“You could have said no. After all, I’m the only one you’ve never had any trouble saying that word to.”

“Zeus is who I would’ve been saying no to. You think I’d have a seat among the Twelve if I’d done that?”

“Do you guys want to find your son or not?” I hissed.

“Well, my son, anyway,” said Aphrodite.

I waved the sign over her head. She got the hint. Just in time, too, because unlike in reality, we were about to see where stage Eros flew off to.

Stage Psyche sat alone on a rock in the middle of the stage. Stage Eros, with the help of a harness, was hovering behind her. The cloth crescent moon indicated that it was the middle of a dark night. “My Lady,” stage Psyche beseeched, “I didn’t mean to offend you. I saw that you were in pain, and I just wanted to help. You’ve shown me mercy – there’s water here, and your doves bring me food  – but if you leave me to live out my days here, I’ll die of loneliness. Souls need the fellowship of other souls. Please, my lady, bring me home, or at least send me a companion.”

“Psyche,” said stage Eros, “Don’t turn around. Do you know who I am?”

“No,” she said. “I think I’ve heard your voice before, but I can’t place it.”

“Good,” he said. “I want to rescue you, but I can’t let you see me.” Interesting. Eros could have just gone invisible, but then Psyche wouldn’t have been able to hear him. So he wanted to communicate with her, but he didn’t want her to know who he was. What on earth was going on in that kid’s brain?

“Rescue me? You think you’re stronger than Aphrodite? She’s one of the Twelve. No one can control her, not even the Fates.”

“Yeah, but she’s not the only love god, and she’s never been able to control the other one. I promise you that, whatever you decide, you’ll have his blessing, because I love you. Not Aphrodite’s kind of love; the all-consuming, unending kind that you only feel for one person.” Whoa. I knew he was a hopeless romantic, but when had the brat turned into a poet?

“You’ve just met me,” she said. “What could you know about me? Thinking someone is beautiful isn’t the same as being in love with her.”

“Believe me, I know. But you have a gift. The first time I heard you speak, I felt like I was looking at your soul. That’s what I’m in love with. I believe you could look at my soul and only my soul and love that, too, but just to be sure…I don’t want you to look at me.”

“How are you going to rescue me if I can’t look at you?”

“Would you let me blindfold you? I swear by Hera, Artemis, and Athena, I won’t hurt you.”

“Go ahead,” she agreed. “I have faith that all three of them would avenge me in an instant if you broke your word.” Eros carefully and gently tied the blindfold around Psyche’s eyes. “Why do you think I wouldn’t be able to see past your appearance?” she asked. “Are you some kind of monster?”

“Something like that,” he said.

“You’ve already shown me a lot of your soul,” she said. “You’re impulsive and insecure, but you’re also sweet and sensitive, and you believe with all your heart that the world needs a lot more of that ‘all-consuming, unending kind’ of love you were talking about. Whatever you look like, I think you’re beautiful.” I heard sobs again. I was ready to smack Aphrodite, but then I saw that this time the crying was coming from Erato and Calliope. “But I suppose what I need to determine right now is, are you trustworthy?”

“Not really.”

“Good answer.” She held out her hand. “If I don’t get to know what you look like, do I at least get to know where you want to take me? I know you can’t take me home. Aphrodite would find me.”

“I can’t tell you where it is. I’m not even supposed to know. But I’ll show you when we get there. So, will you let me take you?”

“I will,” she decided. He picked her up and flew up behind a screen with her. The rigging was impressive. The chorus gave us an epilogue.

“Alone, the lovers flew into the night
Past forest, field, and city ’til they came
Upon a hollow Eros once had found
While haunting bless’d Thalia, our own Muse
Intending to infect her with that plague
To which her merry heart keeps her immune,
But seeing none about on which to aim
The sweet affections of that willful Muse,
He saved his arrows for another day.
Together in that glen the two will stay
Until the seafoam goddess shall relent
And bless the two that they may ever dwell
United on Olympus, heart and soul.”

The whole troupe took center stage and bowed to the audience, signaling the end. “Ten,” I quickly rendered my judgment. “Congratulations; you’re going on to the next round.” I teleported to the Museum, got Pegasus, and took off to my hollow.

I made myself visible when I landed, since I wanted both Eros and Psyche to see me. It wasn’t too hard to find them. As soon as this fiasco was over, that gazebo would be history. Or maybe not. It was rather pretty. The pillars were live saplings in full bloom. There were opulent cushions, probably from Eros’ room, scattered all over the floor. Psyche was lounging and reading a book on a large silver cushion. Eros was sitting on the railing above her, his back against a pillar, one leg bent and the other dangling. A nearby wind harp was playing an enchanting melody. That might stay, too.

At the sound of Pegasus’ wings, Psyche put her book down and faced me. She looked shocked and very confused. “You’re a woman?” she asked the obvious. Eros frantically mimed that he wasn’t there. He could have just talked to me since she wouldn’t have heard him anyway. Love makes you dumb, I guess.

“We haven’t met,” I told her. She breathed in relief at the fact that my voice sounds nothing like Eros’. It’s a little deeper. “I’m a,” I agonized over the next word, “friend of the boy,” Eros shook his head, “man – person – creature – the creature who brought you here. How are you doing?” I asked her. “Is everything okay? You’re not being held here against your will?”

“Oh, no, I told him he could bring me here,” she confirmed. “It’s the safest place for me. I guess you know the story?”

“Most of it,” I said. “I’ve heard his side. I’d like to hear yours. You really don’t know who he is?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t even know what kind of creature he is, only that he’s some kind of immortal. I know he has bird wings and human arms, but that could be anything. He did tell me he resembles some kind of sea creature. I think it’s a seal or a porpoise. He has really smooth skin. It doesn’t matter, though. It’s his soul I care about. And from what I know of it, I love him.”

“Have you asked to see him since you came here?”

“Only once,” she said. “He says he doesn’t want me to see him until he’s sure I love only his soul. I don’t know how to convince him. He’s really, really sweet, but I think he has a lot of issues, probably raised in a dysfunctional family. Do you know anything about his parents? I suspect his father’s a griffon and his mother’s a mermaid.”

“Close enough,” I decided.

“I knew it,” she declared, pleased with herself. “His father loved his mother for her physical beauty. She couldn’t see past his monstrous form, but he did have a soul worthy of her love. Somehow they still managed to marry, or at least mate. But their natures were just too different for the relationship to work.”

“He told you all that?” I marveled. Eros shook his head and shrugged.

“No, I guessed,” she replied. “It’s a gift and a curse. For example, I don’t even know who you are, but I can tell that you’re sort of a big sister figure to the creature. Maybe you’re an old family friend. You’re still more of a sister than an aunt, though. He picks on you, you pick on him, you two drive each other crazy. Sometimes you’re mortal enemies, and sometimes you’re partners in crime. I’ll bet you used to babysit him. Did he grow up in the ocean or a griffon’s nest? Never mind, I know you won’t tell me.”

“No, unfortunately, he needs to be the one to tell you. And he really, REALLY needs to tell you before Big Sister Figure plucks his wings like the little chicken that he is. It was nice to meet you, Psyche. I hope to see you again sometime.” I mounted Pegasus. As we flew off, I swung him around the gazebo, grabbed Eros under the arm with my shepherd’s crook, and flew off with him. We were going to have a little talk.

“Are you insane?” I demanded.

“Oh, like you never go invisible with mortal guys.”

“Sure I do, when I’m stalking them.” Duh. “But the whole point of stalking is that you don’t actually have to get involved with the subject. You are involved with this girl, and I’m thinking you want to get a lot more involved.”

“I’m going to marry her,” he said, quite matter of fact in this statement.

“Does she know that?”

“Of course she does! What kind of delusional nut case do you think I am?”

The kind whose girlfriend has no idea who he is or what he looks like! Lucky for you, she’s the kind of delusional nut case who doesn’t care because you have such a beautiful soul,” I rolled my eyes. “Man, the stuff I could tell her. Besides, it wouldn’t just be your soul’s babies she’d have. Have you two thought about that?”

“Babies?” he repeated.

“And she’s mortal. She’s going to get old and eventually die. Not only that, but your kids will be demigods. That means they can be killed. Have you thought about that, either?”

“Babies?”

“Yes, little screaming nuisances who take a whole year to grow up. A year! Sometimes two, or even as many as five.”

“Babies?”

“Do you need me to tell you how babby is formed?”

“Hello? Love god? Son of Aphrodite?”

Son of Aphrodite. There it was. “Yeah,” I said, much more calmly. “You’re definitely your mother’s son. You look just like her, you’re obsessed with romance, and you annoy me to death. But you’re still your own person. There are a lot of things about you that have nothing to do with her. The wings, the inventions, the fact that you have a personality…”

“According to you, an annoying one.”

“I’m your big sister figure, idiot.”

“Do you have any idea how often people tell me stuff like, ‘It’s a good thing you’re pretty,’ or, ‘If you weren’t so cute…’?”

“So? I get away with stuff all the time because I’m funny. You think I go into teen angst mode when a guy – o noes! – likes me because I’m funny?”

“That’s different.”

“Why? People enjoy laughing. They also enjoy looking at beautiful things. I don’t see the difference.”

“You think I’m beautiful?” he grinned.

“I think you are lucky you’re cute. But Psyche’s spent almost a week with you, and, without knowing how cute you are, she has yet to make an attempt on your life. If that’s not enough to convince you that she’s in love with your soul, then just give it up now. And whatever you do, you two have got to get yourselves out of my hollow. Do you know how hard it is to find solitude when you have eight sisters?”

He was quiet for a brief, treasured moment. “Can you go back with me?” he asked. “And maybe stick around for some invisible moral support?”

“Sure.” I let him off the hook and followed him back to the hollow. Pegasus and I turned invisible just before we reached mortal visual range. Eros quietly landed behind Psyche.

“Psyche?”

“You’re back!” she exclaimed with tempered delight, looking straight ahead. “It isn’t even night yet.”

“Turn around.”

1.7 Please Be Seated

The Big Day was here. Aside from the general excitement surrounding the Pythian Games, my sisters and I were especially eager to begin our first gig as co-producers. This would involve a lot of meeting and greeting, and even more public appearances than usual. Along with Apollo, we got to the grounds before anyone else to make sure the whole staff was there and in their proper places. When the resident physicians showed up, I grabbed my goddaughter Aglaea right away and showed her to her medic tent.

“Wow, great setup!” she approved as she looked around her tent. “This is almost as good as my private lab back home. I shouldn’t have expected any less from an event hosted by Apollo,” she laughed. She went about opening all the drawers and chests, inspecting the equipment and adding her own to it. “I almost hope someone gets sick so I get a chance to try this stuff out. Kidding! I’m kidding.”

“Check this out,” I showed her a basin of water. The surface showed her reflection as well as any mirror. “Amphitheater,” I said. The Amphitheater displayed on the surface of the water. We could see the stage hands setting up for the opening act. I turned the basin, and the point of view turned full circle.

“That’s terrific! Hey, there’s been a lot of rebuilding on the Amphitheater since the last time I came to the games. I like the modifications.”

“They did structural reinforcement this year,” I remarked.

“With all those concussive pyrotechnics you, Mel, and Calliope always use, I can see why,” Aglaea approved.

“I knew that.” I am an artist who appreciates the sciences. Aglaea is a scientist who appreciates the arts. Her main focus is medical science, in which she is a genius, but she’s dabbled in other areas, too. The one other time she came to the Games a couple centuries ago, she was almost more interested in the architecture and engineering of the buildings than the events going on in them. After those Games had ended, it occurred to me that it might have been nice to introduce her to Hephaestus, but I never got around to it. Oh, well. Maybe this year.

“Main Arena,” Aglaea gave the basin a try. There it was in all its empty, anticipatory splendor. “Main entrance.” There were the mortals, camped out in a line, waiting to fill that arena.

“You have fun,” I said. “I’ve got to get ready for our opening ceremony.”

“Sure,” she waved me farewell. “Gymnasium,” she commanded the basin.

On my way out of the tent, I passed a vendor’s booth. Urania’s head popped up from behind the skirted table, followed by Hermes’. He was wearing her star crown and she was wearing his hat. “Let’s get a move on,” I told her.

“Save you a seat, okay?” she told Hermes as they traded headgear.

“I’ll be there.” He blew a kiss after her as she joined me. The kiss followed her with tiny white wings and landed on her cheek, where it dissolved into a puff of stardust. It would have been sort of cute if it weren’t so revolting.

“We were just making out, that’s all,” Urania assured me as soon as we’d teleported to the performers’ antechamber to the arena. Most of our sisters and the extras were there already.

“Need to know basis; I don’t need to know,” I put out my upturned palm. “Hey, Terpsichore,” I called, “need help getting the extras into the Python costume?”

“Nah, we’re good,” she said. “Twenty down, ten to go.”

I did my hair, put on my costume and headdress, and played with my makeup until it was just right. Not a moment too soon. The ceremony was about to start.

“Citizens of Delphi!” we heard Hermes’ amplified voice. I could see him flying over the center of the arena, his golden horn in hand. “Welcome to the Pythian Games!”

It was the biggest opening ceremony in decades. We’d convinced almost every member of the Twelve to participate. The only holdouts were Hephaestus, who hates being noticed, and Aphrodite, who had emphatically informed the whole committee that she wanted to spend the time alone with her husband. Oh yeah, and Hestia was absent, too. She’d graciously declined the invitation to the Games altogether, saying someone had to stay on Olympus and keep the hearth.

Athena was in full regalia – helm, breastplate, spear, shield, sword, and severed gorgon head (not facing the audience, of course). Artemis was grudgingly proving that she could, in fact, clean up nicely. She’d borrowed one of Apollo’s finest dress chitons for the occasion.

Demeter entered with her daughter, Persephone, Iron Queen of Hades. Hades himself never comes to the Games, but Persephone always represents him since the Games fall during her annual visit to Demeter. Those six-month visits to Olympus are barely enough to earn Demeter’s forgiveness for Persephone’s faking her own abduction and eloping with Hades. Demeter’s opposition to the match never made sense to me. Hades and Persephone loved each other from the beginning, and to this day, they have one of the most stable marriages in the Pantheon. Yeah, I know; like that’s hard.

In spite of the fact that Demeter is Persephone’s sole progenitor, the two of them don’t look a thing alike. It was funny to see them enter the Arena side by side. Demeter looked as warm and earthy as ever. Her suntanned arms and face, loosely bound auburn hair, and wheat-gold gown bespoke the glory of a bountiful summer. Persephone’s stick-straight black hair, porcelain skin, and blood red lips made her look slightly out of place above ground, a problem she never has in the Underworld. She was dressed in a slender, glamorous black robe reminiscent of the safe, enveloping darkness of home.

But none of the divine entrances could top that of the King and Queen of Olympus. It wasn’t the grandeur that made it stand out so much, although that was indeed a factor. It was the bizarre sight of Zeus and Hera floating in on a cloud hand in hand, peaceful and smiling. As always, they were the image of divine majesty. As never, they were the image of connubial affection. Hera shone with genuine happiness, not the studied serenity she usually displayed. Even her attire was lighter, more carefree. She wore her trademark veil, but her new gown showed her strong, white arms and shoulders to their best advantage. I had to give props to Eros. So far, these rose gold arrows seemed to be his best invention yet.

Later as I sat in the Amphitheater’s pavilion waiting for the first Combined Theater event to start, I watched with merry laughter as Eros flew around the grounds firing said arrows at unseeing mortals. Usually at the Games, we show ourselves when we’re on our thrones or in the judges’ seats, but we go invisible when we’re mingling with the crowds. Eros breaks this custom from time to time when he happens to be flying around a crowd of teenage girls.

“You’re in my seat,” said Urania as my sisters were filing in for the Combined Theater competition. Calliope and Ares were on the other end. I was right where I’d planned to be. Right where Apollo had prophesied I would be.

“No, I called the end,” I corrected her.

“I always sit on the end,” said Urania. “U comes after T. Move it.”

“Is your name on this seat?” I asked her.

“Yes, it is! It’s right…are you kidding me?” Urania’s name was, in fact, on her seat. I had asked Hephaestus to switch it with mine, and he had. “Come on,” she said, “this isn’t funny. I told Hermes we could sit together.”

“Doesn’t he have some competition to judge right now?”

“Not until this afternoon.”

“Sit on his lap,” I suggested.

“Calliope,” Urania called, “Thalia won’t get out of my seat.”

“Thalia, get out of Urania’s seat,” Calliope absently ordered, then went back to chatting with Ares. Enter Hermes, stage right.

“Hey, sorry about this,” Urania greeted him. “Thalia won’t get out of my seat.”

“Not ‘won’t’ so much as ‘can’t’,” I attempted to communicate. “See? I’m stuck.” Terpsichore, who had just seated herself a couple seats down from me, was cracking up.

“Will you guys sit down and shut up?” Polyhymnia begged in a harsh whisper. “The competition is about to start.”

“I’ll sit down as soon as Thalia quits playing around and gets out of my seat!” Urania hissed back.

“I am literally stuck,” I tried again. “If you sit in this chair, you will be, too. Look, try to pull me up.” Urania jerked on one arm while Hermes tugged on the other. Not one millimeter did I budge.

“Terpsichore, give me a hand,” Urania requested as she kept pulling. Terpsichore took off my sandals.

“Tickle, tickle,” she threatened, fluttering her long, dainty fingers.

“The chair is rigged,” I protested. “The only one who can release me is Hephaestus. The same thing’ll happen to anyone else who sits here.”

“Are you insane?” Urania finally let go of my arm.

“I asked him a week ago,” I said. “How was I supposed to know you’d get a date for the Games between then and now? I’ll have him fix it later, okay? This competition should only run about four hours, and after that I told Terpsichore I’d watch the beauty pageant.”

“Fine,” Urania grumbled, sitting in the seat with her name on it. “Hermes, I guess she’s sitting between us for now.”

Urania and Hermes held hands on my lap for the entire competition. Sometimes they’d lean across me to whisper to each other, completely blocking my view in the process. Hermes’ winged traveler’s hat and Urania’s huge star-studded tiara, both of which I normally find quite awesome, considerably amplified the effect. At one particularly romantic part of the drama, they made out for about ten seconds. I had just enough movement to bang my head against the back of the chair repeatedly. They seemed to take it as encouragement.

As soon as the competition was over and we’d all rendered our verdicts, I summoned Hephaestus to get me out of the stupid chair already. I asked him if he could fix it right away, but he said he was needed at the Main Arena for something and wouldn’t be able to get to it for the rest of the day. However, he was able to switch my seat with Urania’s so she could sit with Hermes for the next event. By this time, Terpsichore had already left for the beauty pageant.

I teleported to the enormous tent where the pageant was being held and invisibly took a seat behind the judges, namely Aphrodite, Apollo, Terpsichore, and Eros. The pageant had already started, so I tried not to alert the judges to my presence. About two dozen women in their late teens and early twenties were gracefully parading across the middle of the stage. They were all very pretty. Mortal pretty, but still pretty. The costumes were impressive for human attempts. I was flattered by one girl’s obvious tribute to me. The mask and the shepherd’s crook made her Thalia costume quite recognizable, but I didn’t understand the laurel wreath. I wear vines and flowers in my hair a lot, but I don’t have a consistent headdress like Urania.

After the promenade, the judges called the contestants to the front of the stage one by one. They asked each girl a few questions – her name, the inspiration for her costume, and some random irrelevancies that changed every time. When it was the Thalia chick’s turn, she confirmed that her costume was a tribute to me. Apollo asked her about the laurel wreath. She answered, “It’s because I totally ship you and her since I saw that play. Team Thalia!” she pumped her fist in the air. Several girls in the audience and some on stage clapped and cheered, while a few yelled out “Team Calliope!”, “Team Terpsichore!”, “Team Dionysus!”…you get the picture.

“Next,” Apollo declared.

“No, we have one more question,” Aphrodite stopped her with a conspiratorial smile. “If you were Thalia and I offered to give you Apollo with no strings attached, would you take my offer?”

“I think Thalia would prefer him with the strings,” said Eros, knowing perfectly well that I was sitting right there, but that I couldn’t smack him over the head with my shepherd’s crook without making the audience aware that someone was behind him. Apollo, meanwhile, appeared to be wondering whether Aphrodite cared about getting his consent before hypothetically pimping him out.

“You’re the Goddess of Love,” replied the little mortal kiss-up, “so I’d figure you’d know what you were doing.”

“You’re an even better Thalia than the real one,” Aphrodite approved. “Next?”

The next girl came forward. You know how, sometimes, a person will be invisible when they’re in a crowd, but once you see that person alone, you wonder how on earth you didn’t notice them before? How that person becomes so uniquely stunning and so stunningly unique in their own quiet, unassuming way that, if they were to rejoin the crowd, they wouldn’t fade into it, but the crowd would fade around them? How you know that, even if you were to suddenly go blind, you would never be able to lose sight of that person again? For the first time, Eros knew. Since I was right there watching him at the time, I can verify that his arrows had nothing to do with it. It was all her. We all saw it and felt it, and we could see that the mortals did, too. It was like this girl had the power to take one look at you and capture your soul.

“I think there’s been a mistake,” Terpsichore broke the silence with gentle laughter. “This contest is for mortals only. Who let a goddess slip through?”

The girl laughed with her, drawing the net even tighter. “I’m completely human, I swear. My name is Psyche.”

“Tell us about your costume, Psyche,” Aphrodite requested. I knew that toothache-inducing tone. I took a moment of silence for Psyche, whom I was certain was not long for this world.

“It’s the Four Humors,” she explained with pride, showing off the four quadrants of her colorblocked gown. The blocks of color were perfectly placed to show her figure to its best advantage, and were just the right shades to compliment her olive skin and ebony hair. “Black for melancholic, yellow for choleric, green for phlegmatic, and red for sanguine.” She proceeded to launch into a lecture on the Four Humors and the soul/body connection. It took all my divine willpower not to fall on the floor trembling in laughter at the absurdity of this graceful, delicate creature orating so charmingly and elegantly about blood, phlegm, and bile.

“Have you considered becoming a physician?” Apollo asked her when she was through.

“I’m more interested in the study of the soul – the mind, will, and emotions – than of the body,” she replied. “I think in time it could become a science in its own right.”

“You’re much too pretty to waste your life studying,” Aphrodite chided. “You ought to focus less on books and more on boys.”

“That’s the only area where I lack focus,” she laughed. “My father says if I don’t pick a husband soon, he’ll pick one for me. I have plenty to choose from, but I don’t love any of them.”

“You’re so refreshingly honest,” said Aphrodite. “You should tell your father that you’re not a prized heifer, a trophy in a game, or a pawn on a chessboard.”

“It sounds like you might have some unresolved issues,” Psyche said with genuine sympathy. “Have you considered the idea that your promiscuity is your way of establishing autonomy, something you’ve never truly had?” I guess it takes a teenage prodigy to be smart enough to think that, but dumb enough to say it. I hoped Psyche had led a full, happy life, and that her family wasn’t too attached to her.

“Have you considered that I could snap my fingers and make sure you die a lonely, bitter, virgin crone, you presumptuous little bitch?” Aphrodite snapped her fingers. Psyche disappeared in a puff of smoke. “Next.”

“That’s a little harsh,” Terpsichore ventured.

“Do you want to join Hestia’s retinue, Twinkle Toes? No? Then shut up. Next!”

“Before you all go judging me,” Aphrodite defended as soon as that round of the competition was over and we were all outside the tent and out of mortal sight, “I didn’t kill her. I just hid her someplace where no one will see her again.”

“Where did you put her?” Eros demanded.

“What do you care?” Aphrodite waved him off, evidently unaware of how much Eros obviously did care about the girl’s whereabouts.

“Mom, WHERE IS SHE?” Eros attempted eye contact.

“She’s perfectly safe,” Aphrodite assured him.

“You have to bring her back!”

“I’ll bring her back on one condition,” she proposed, dropping the flippancy and giving Eros her full attention. “You find the ugliest, dullest boy in Delphi, I put her in his line of sight, and you shoot him with a golden arrow. Him, not her.”

“I’m not going to do that!”

“What, she’s too good for such a fate?”

“She’s too good for any mortal,” Eros protested. “I’m going to find her, and when I do, I’m going to marry her, and I’ll take her someplace where you’ll never find either one of us.”

“Adolescence,” Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “So glad I don’t remember it.”

“I mean it,” he said, “I’m out of here.” With that, he shot into the sky and out of sight like a rocket.

“He’ll be back for dinner,” Aphrodite scoffed before she, too, disappeared.

I wasn’t so sure. It looked to me like the Fates had chosen Eros as one of Aphrodite’s beneficiaries. One down, one to go. For some reason, I had a strong feeling that if the first one was neither me nor Apollo, the other wouldn’t be either of us, either. Cool. One less thing to worry about.

“Seeing as I have no events to judge for awhile,” I said, “I’m going to go mingle in Dionysus’ tent. Anyone want to join me?”

“I’ll come,” Terpsichore eagerly accepted. “I hear he’s got a great dance floor this year. Oh, and I want to see if Pan’s there with his girlfriend!”

“Pan always has a girl,” I said, “but wouldn’t he have to keep the same one for more than twelve hours to call her a girlfriend?”

“When he RSVP’d, he said he was bringing his girlfriend,” said Terpsichore. “I didn’t believe it either, so I asked him in person. He said he did have a particular girl he wanted to bring, but didn’t want to say who it was. That was two months ago.”

“So he was anticipating that they’d still be together two months later? This I’ve got to see,” I decided. “Apollo, you coming?”

“I have to judge archery, but I might drop in when that’s done,” said Apollo. “Remember, nothing in excess,” he playfully admonished.

“Of course not,” we grinned in guileless unison, holding crossed fingers behind our backs. Apollo reached behind me and lightly slapped my hand. He teleported to the archery field, and Terpsichore and I went to the tent.

Dionysus’ tent is invisible and inaccessible to mortals. It’s where all the gods, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, and any other immortals you can think of go to meet and greet during the Games. And, as Terpsichore was anticipating, there is always a full bar and a great dance floor.

We quickly located Pan. As is often the case at dance parties, he wasn’t hard to find. “Hey, I was wondering when we’d get some Muses in here!” he called to us. “Save me a dance, will you?”

“If it’s okay with your mystery girlfriend,” said Terpsichore.

“Yeah, where is she? Who is she?” I demanded to know.

“I’m here and she’s me,” chirped a familiar voice. Her hair was much darker, her eyes were a different color altogether, and even her facial features were somewhat altered, but I still couldn’t mistake Echo.

“Wha…how…when…how did you two meet?” I marveled.

“Let’s go some place where we can talk,” Echo said.

“How about our cave?” Pan suggested.

“Sure,” Echo agreed.

Pan snapped his fingers, and a twin Pan appeared before our eyes. Pan’s ability to create doppelgangers was nothing new to us. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Pan admonished the duplicate. “Or anyone. Remember, we’re a one-nymph satyr now.” That done, we all teleported to the entrance of Pan’s cave.

Normally, the entrance to Pan’s cave looks like the entrance to any ordinary cave. Today, however, there was a stone walkway, a small lawn surrounded by a white picket fence, flowerbeds on either side of the mouth of the cave, a mat on the doorstep, a doorstep, and a bright blue door with a cheery curtained window. “I see you’ve done some landscaping?” I commented.

“It’s all her,” Pan beamed.

Echo nodded proudly. “You should see the inside. You wouldn’t know it was the same cave.” She opened the door and motioned for us to enter. Pan wiped his hooves on the mat. The inside was as bright as day thanks to a set of moonlight orbs, likely a gift from Artemis. The illumination revealed a quaint interior that felt more like a one-room cottage than a cave. “Please, sit down,” Echo invited. “Can I get you anything?”

“Story,” I said.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” said Terpsichore.

“Well,” Echo began as she sat down, “it started when Hera noticed me in Artemis’ retinue. We were hoping she’d forgotten me after all this time; maybe she had, I don’t know, but anyway, she started acting really suspicious, and Hera being suspicious is never, ever a good thing.”

“So Artemis asked me if I could help fake Echo’s death,” Pan entered the tale. “You know how I can self-replicate, right? The duplicates are just puppets, shadows. They can’t feel any more than a reflection in a mirror can. Anyway, it’s a little-known secret that I can do it to other people, too. But to do it to someone else, I need to know the subject really well. I need to be able to picture her from every angle with my eyes closed. I need to know her every mannerism, every expression, you get the picture.”

“And while he was getting to know me, I was getting to know him, too, and we fell in love,” Echo said blissfully. “But back to Artemis’ plan. One day when Hera was inspecting her hunting hounds – Artemis’ hounds, not Hera’s; Hera doesn’t hunt – Pan showed up and started chasing me. I ran into some bushes and my duplicate ran out of them, in full view of Hera, of course. Pan ordered the hounds after the duplicate. Artemis had already enchanted them to listen to him just this once. The hounds caught the fake me and tore it to pieces right before Hera’s eyes. So now Hera thinks I’m dead,” Echo concluded in cheerful triumph, curtseying from the waist as she crossed her tiny ankles. “Of course, I can’t go near Olympus now, and I can’t be on Artemis’ payroll now that I have a boyfriend. Union rules and all that. But I still hang out with the girls all the time when they’re off duty. The rest of the time, I live here.”

“We’re very compatible,” said Pan. “She can dance all day, and I can play the pipes all day.”

“I’d never been to the Pythian Games, and I really, really wanted to,” said Echo, “so Pan helped me make this disguise. You two recognized me because you know me so well, but Hera doesn’t, so she won’t even if she does see me, which she won’t, because she doesn’t like the Tent. But I do. You guys want to go back now?”

“Sure,” said Terpsichore. I was too busy processing the tale to respond. We all went back to the Tent, Pan reabsorbed his duplicate, he and Echo faded into the crowd, and Terpsichore and I looked around for people we wanted to talk to.

We saw someone we didn’t want to talk to.

We left for our pavilion immediately. Unfortunately, our pursuer followed us. “Look at this! All nine Muses together!” she observed with cheerful malice.

“Hello, Eris,” the nine of us said in unison through forced smiles.

“Hey, Sis,” Ares jumped out of his seat to greet his partner in crime, the Goddess of Discord. Although he and Eris are twins, they don’t look alike except for their dark, beautifully chaotic hair. Eris is slender and pretty in a generic sort of way. I suppose she’d be indistinguishable from a hundred other goddesses to anyone lucky enough to avoid looking into her eyes.

Eris kissed Ares on both cheeks. “Why haven’t I met your girlfriend yet?”

“You already met her,” said Ares.

“Yes, but she wasn’t your girlfriend then.”

“Oh, yeah! Eris, this is Calliope, my girlfriend. Calliope, this is my twin sister Eris.”

“We’ve met,” Calliope held out a resolute hand, not rising from her seat. In fact, all of my sisters were sitting steadfastly in their seats. I alone was standing in front of mine, doubting that Hephaestus had had a chance to fix it yet.

“I know that,” said Eris, ignoring Calliope’s hand. She turned and walked down the row as though she were a general inspecting her troops. “Something wrong with your chair?” she asked me when she came to me.

“Nope,” I said, carefully avoiding her eyes.

“Why aren’t you using it?”

“Something wrong with your brain?” I get snarky when I’m nervous, okay?

“Huh?”

“You’ll think it’s funny when you get it.” Of course, the Games would be over by then.

“You’re not looking at me,” Eris noticed. “Why aren’t you looking at me? You should look at me.”

“I’m looking at your hands,” I told her. “You have pretty hands. They look just like your mom’s.” They do.

“I haven’t seen Mom or Dad all day,” Eris considered. “What’s the next event?”

“Vocal solos,” I replied, feeling I didn’t have much of a choice. “It’ll be pretty boring.”

“Oh, no, Mom and Dad love singing,” Eris protested. “We should all watch it together. Mom? Dad?”

Zeus and Hera appeared on our pavilion before any of us could say a word. I was nobody’s favorite person at that moment.

“Isn’t this great? How often do we go out as a family?” Eris beamed. “I’ll sit down there by my brother, and you two can sit on this end. Thalia, Urania, move down to the extra chairs and let Mom and Dad have your thrones. The King and Queen of the Gods deserve better than common seating.” She added to me in a whisper, “I think you’re not looking at me because something’s wrong with your chair.”

And then it happened. I looked into Eris’ eyes. In the moments before I was able to turn away, the entire universe became absolute chaos. There was no connection, no foundation, no meaning, no cause, no effect. Only chaos. No one has been able to withstand the phenomenon long enough to determine whether Eris is its mistress or its slave. I’m not sure it matters.

When I was aware of my surroundings again, I saw Hera in my seat.

Zeus had Urania’s seat, Hermes had arrived and taken the one next to him, Urania was sitting next to Hermes, and I was sitting next to her. Then Apollo showed up. I had completely forgotten that he was judging this event. “Terpsichore told me about your incident with Urania this morning,” he whispered after he’d sat down next to me.

“Terpsichore’s a rat fink,” I whispered back.

“Tell me Hephaestus put the chair back to normal.” This statement was clearly imperative, not interrogative.

“Sure. While I’m at it, I’ll tell you Aphrodite’s a virgin.”

He squeezed my hand and gave me a meaningful smile. We settled in for a very disconcerting concert. I tried to concentrate on the singers enough to render a fair verdict after each act, but I was mostly concentrating on a way to get Hephaestus to fix the chair without Hera, Zeus, Ares, or Eris knowing about it. In spite of his posturing, I didn’t seriously think Apollo would punish me if things went awry. He’d just throw me to Hera and let her do it. And nothing sets Hera off like being publicly embarrassed. There’s a reason her sacred bird is the peacock. We’re talking about a woman who threw her newborn baby off Mount Freakin’ Olympus because he humiliated her by not being pretty enough. And I had convinced that baby that he probably wouldn’t get in trouble for rigging my chair. Were the Fates mocking me for selecting him as a test subject? I resolved then and there that I’d do whatever it took to deflect blame from Hephaestus, if only to stick it to the Fates.

As if my impending doom weren’t enough, have I mentioned how very, very unnerving it is whenever Zeus and Hera are getting along? Every time I glanced over to make sure Hera wasn’t trying to get up, she and Zeus were holding hands or happily whispering to each other or smiling at each other or something. Once I even caught him giving her a peck on the cheek. I just wanted to scream, Stop it! Get it over with! Go back to hating each other so we can all quit holding our breath!

And, for the last straw, Eris was loudly munching on an apple. I hate it when people eat loudly while I’m trying to watch a show. If she had to be that loud, couldn’t she at least take bigger bites and finish the damn thing?

The last singer finished the last song. We all dragged out our voting as long as possible. I had a plan, but it would only work if we could coordinate, and I couldn’t figure out how to do that without attracting unwanted attention.

It was my turn to judge. “That number,” I began. “What can I say? It was just epic. Epic.” Calliope was ignoring me in favor of Ares. “Epic,” I said a little louder. That seemed to work. “It could even halt war and discord. Because sometimes all it takes to do that is a distraction. Music gives us that distraction. All the arts, really. Dancing, chorale, even astronomy. Do the stars not even guide those enthroned on Mount Olympus, giving them wisdom and direction? Eight out of ten points. Apollo, your verdict?”

I knew Apollo could ham it up with the best of them. Leaving him to do just that, I slipped around to the back of the pavilion. I could only hope that my sisters and Hermes had gotten the hint, and more importantly, that the Royal Family hadn’t. The moment I reached their collective blind spot, I silently summoned Hephaestus. I was waiting with my finger over my lips. Still mute, I pointed out the problem at hand. With a look that told me forgiveness was unlikely to be forthcoming, he gave a complicit nod. According to the plan I had mimed, I returned to my seat first and then Hephaestus started to sneak to the back of Hera’s. Sneaking is neither an easy task nor a quick one for a burly guy with a limp and a cane.

He hadn’t quite made it there when Apollo had given the last judgment and the competition was over. Apollo, Hermes, and my sisters immediately went about calling the Royal Family’s attention forward any way they could. Terpsichore chatted with Hera, doing everything possible to keep her seated. Fortunately, Terpsichore can be a very engaging conversationalist.

Hephaestus reached the chair. Apparently no one had noticed him yet. The end was in sight. It was just possible that we were going to get away with this. All he had to do was fix the chair and disappear. It would probably take longer than usual since he was balancing on his cane at a rather precarious angle in order to stay in everyone’s blind spot, but it could be done. Zeus and Hera seemed all too willing to be distracted by their host of fawning Muses.

Eris finished her apple and cast aside the core.

I could have sworn Hephaestus was outside of her peripheral vision, but I don’t know how that apple core could have coincidentally hit him squarely at the base of the skull. The shock threw him off balance and set him crashing to the ground. Everyone got up to see what the noise was – except, of course, for Hera.

Hera, having figured out that she was stuck in place, had the good sense not to make a scene. The whole thing could have gone off without a hitch if Eris had kept her trap shut. “Hey, look, it’s Hephaestus. What are you doing to Mom’s chair?” she laughed. “And why didn’t you let me in on it? You know I love a good prank.”

“I wasn’t doing anything to it,” he claimed, not bothering to right himself.

“Then why are you holding a wrench?” Eris asked.

“I left it here earlier. I came back to get it.”

“Why the sneaking, though?” she persisted. “You could have at least said ‘hi’ to your own par- I mean, your own mother.”

“You guys looked like you were having a good time. I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Get up. Join us,” Eris invited. “You’re kind of like family, too.”

I jumped behind the row of seats. “Here, let me take that wrench from you,” I offered. “Can’t be that easy to get your balance while you’re holding on to this heavy- whoa!” I stumbled, swinging the wrench around and letting it fly from my hand at just the right moment. It collided with Hera’s seat, right on the panel to the release mechanism. “Oh my goddess, I am so, so, sorry,” I lamented, dashing around to the other side of Hera and kneeling beside her, my clasped hands in her lap. “Oh, and there’s a huge dent your throne. I hope you didn’t feel anything. Hephaestus, could you possibly fix it?”

“I’ll give it a try,” he grunted.

“Such a helpful, talented son, isn’t he?” I smiled.

“He’s a real treasure,” Hera strained the words through her gritted teeth.

“It’s no matter at all,” Zeus assured me. “We have better thrones on our pavilion, anyway. Hera, my love, why don’t we go back to the Arena? The chariot races should start soon.”

“Not for awhile yet. Besides, it’s so pleasant here,” Hera opined. “There’s a nice little breeze, and the sun’s at just the right angle.”

Zeus fingered the hem of Hera’s veil, brushing it ever so slightly away from her cheekbone. “Or we could go to Olympus and skip the chariot races.”

“Leave the Games altogether? What are you talking about?” she replied incredulously, although her flushed cheeks and ragged breathing suggested she might have an inkling.

“I think he wants a quickie,” said Eris. “You guys can go. You’ve got two of your kids here. Ares and I can represent you.”

“Go ahead, Mom,” Hephaestus encouraged, emphasizing the last word. “Everything’s fine.”

“In that case,” said Hera, drawing herself up to her full, rather impressive height and towering menacingly over Hephaestus, “I’ll be along in just a minute, darling. There’s something I need to take care of first.”

I helped Hephaestus to his feet, but knocked his cane out from under him in the process. Clumsy me. “Are you okay? You’re not okay. That’s going to leave a mark. I’ll get you to a physician right away. We’ve got to make sure that isn’t fractured.” In the blink of an eye, we reached the safety of Aglaea’s tent.

“What did I ever do to you?” Hephaestus despaired.

“Met me, I suppose,” I replied. “Aglaea, we’ve got a wounded god here. He’s fallen on a wrench. Take your time. Please.”

“Got it,” she understood. He got situated on her table, and she set about examining his injuries. “How long has your leg been like this?” she asked.

“Since the day I was born,” he said. “That can’t be fixed.”

“I see. Yeah, that’s not purely physical. I don’t even think my dad could do anything about that. The good news is, your new injuries aren’t serious. If you could just wait here for a little while, I’ll mix you a poultice for the pain and bruising.” She got the ingredients and equipment down with the speed of an unusually lethargic sloth. “You staying for the whole week?” she asked, likely making the same small talk she’d been making with every patient.

“Is it going to take that long to make the poultice?” he replied with a quiet laugh.

“It can if you need it to,” she laughed in return.

“But, yeah, I’m employed here,” he said. “I’m the master engineer. Sounds like a big deal, but it just means if anything breaks, I have to fix it or make a new one.”

Aglaea set down her potions and whirled around to face us. “You’re Hephaestus? No way! I am a big, big fa- uh, long-time admirer of your work. I have just so many questions I’m dying to ask you about your inventions, and my mind is a complete blank regarding every single one of them right now. I’m sorry. I’m really a lot smarter than I sound right now. I’m sure I’m sounding less smart the longer I keep talking, but my mouth just won’t stop. I don’t mean to go all fangirl on you; I’m sure you get that all the time.”

“Not really,” Hephaestus replied, very flustered and a little disturbed. He threw me a worried glance.

“She’s harmless,” I snickered. “I guess I forgot to introduce you two again. Aglaea is the granddaughter of Apollo, daughter of Asclepius and Epione, an excellent physician and scientist, and to save her most impressive credential for last, my goddaughter.”

“I should have noticed the family resemblance,” Hephaestus remarked. “I don’t know your parents, but I can see some of Apollo and Artemis in you.” Aglaea looks just enough like Apollo and Artemis that you notice it after you’ve learned they’re related. She has their blonde hair and a little of their bone structure, but she looks more like Asclepius, and the emerald green eyes are definitely from Epione.

“Thanks,” Aglaea replied, her fangirl rave having mostly gotten out of her system. “I’m sure you get this all the time, too, but you have Hera’s eyes.”

“I’m pretty sure I’ve never gotten that.”

Just then, Hermes flew in. “Zeus and Hera left for Olympus a few minutes ago,” he said. “This is only speculation, but I’m betting he’s already made her forget the entire incident.”

“Oh, good,” said Hephaestus. “I promised Aphrodite we’d watch the foot race together. Am I good to go?” he asked Aglaea.

“Sure,” she said, handing him the poultice she’d mixed in the fifteen seconds it had taken him to say all that. “Right. Aphrodite. Your wife. You two have fun. It was nice meeting you.”

“Nice meeting you, too,” he shook her hand.

I hung back awhile after he’d left. “What got into you?” I teased.

“The Demon Spirit of Fandom, I guess,” she laughed, burying her face in her hands. “Man, he must think I’m an idiot,” she ran her hands back over her hair. “He sure wasn’t what I expected.”

“What did you expect?” I laughed.

“Well…you know the reputation he has…about his looks? Sure, he’s not a prettyboy like Dionysus and Hermes or a block of solid testosterone like Ares, but…I don’t know, he’s kind of cute.”

“This is true,” I acknowledged. “I used to date him, remember?”

“Oh, yeah, I keep forgetting that. Did he break up with you before or after he met Aphrodite?”

“We mutually decided to end our relationship before he met her.”

“Gotcha.”

“Hey, you mind if I hang out here for awhile? The pavilion’s getting too crowded for my taste.”

“Be my guest.”

I visited with Aglaea until it was time for me to judge another event, namely the first Comedic Theater competition. Eris had gone on to create discord somewhere else, Zeus and Hera were on their pavilion at the main arena, and Ares and Hermes had events of their own to judge, so it was back to just the nine of us. My minions did me proud. Not a single frog fell off What’s-her-name’s costume. The acts got really good once the sun went down. One word: PYROTECHNICS.

When the events were finished for the night, I met up with Apollo to check out the after party. Most of my sisters either had found dates or were going with girlfriends. Normally Apollo disapproves of excess, of course, but it would be unseemly for him to miss his own festival. “Congratulations on your performance this afternoon,” he said with feigned reluctance when we’d reached the outside of Dionysus’ tent. “I thought for sure there was no way out of that for you or Hephaestus. In fact, I have to admit I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see what kind of punishment Hera would concoct for you.”

“Probably nothing spectacular. She usually just turns people into stuff.”

“So you’re not immune to Hera’s transformative powers. Interesting. I wonder if I would have gotten to choose your new form since I’m your governor,” Apollo pondered. “You’d make a cute sheep. Black wool, of course,” he said as he stroked my black, curly hair. “You wouldn’t be using your shepherd’s crook, and I’ve had a little practice with such things. Or maybe a sheep wouldn’t be the best form after all. Something small like a mouse or a lizard would be better. I could keep you in my pocket so I’d know what you were up to all the time.” I felt the hand that had been stroking my hair slip down to the small of my back.

“You keep saying you want to stay close to me to stop me from getting in trouble, but I don’t quite believe you.” I plucked a laurel sprig from his crown and tucked it into the gold cord in my hair.

“Be careful,” he teased as he put his other arm around my waist. “Someone might think you’re Team Thalia.”

The Almost Kiss. Such a classic trope in romantic comedy. The concept I am about to reveal to you may be beyond your mortal comprehension, so listen carefully: Romantic Comedy is what happens when my domain and Aphrodite’s intersect. The fact that she and I have never gotten along terribly well is the reason works in this genre so often fail at being either romantic or comical.

“Have you two seen Eros?” the scene stealer breathlessly demanded.

“Nope, definitely not,” I shook my head as I moved an arm’s length away from Apollo.

“Why; what have you heard?” Apollo replied at the same time as he put his hands behind his back.

“I was sure he’d be back by now, but I think he’s still out looking for that beauty pageant bitch.” Aphrodite fretted. I’d thought I had all her emotions memorized, but this was a new one. After a moment or so, I determined it was Concern for Another Person. “Hephaestus and I have checked all his usual hiding places and we can’t find him anywhere. If you know where he is, you don’t have to give me his location. Just please tell me he’s safe.”

“I haven’t seen him since he took off after the pageant,” said Apollo.

“Neither have I. Why don’t you just bring Psyche back?” I suggested. “Take her to one of his altars and tell him he can make his suit.”

“Are you insane?” Aphrodite shook me by the elbows. “If I let him do that, she’d consent to marry him! I know he thinks he wants to marry her, but trust me, he doesn’t. There’s so much of my nature in him,” she sighed. “He’s not cut out for marriage any more than I am.” Naturally, Hephaestus appeared just as she was getting the last couple of sentences out.

“He’s my son, too,” he reminded her. “And I keep telling you, the only way he’ll come back is if you bring back the girl. If you’d ever really been in love, you’d know that.”

“Right, that beautiful angel is your son,” she scorned. I offered Apollo a box of popcorn. He took a handful. “Wait!” she cried. “I see him! He’s at my altar in Athens.” She and Hephaestus disappeared.

“Think we should follow them?” I asked Apollo.

“We’d spill the popcorn,” he pointed out. It was a good point.

It was also a moot point, since Aphrodite and Hephaestus came back before I could even reply. With her hand trembling, Aphrodite held out a piece of paper. Mom, it said, I still haven’t found Psyche, but I won’t stop looking. As of right now, I’m on strike. My arrows lose their effect until you bring Psyche back.

Our bubble of stunned silence was punctured by a loud, outraged voice from inside the tent. It was Calliope’s. “You’re breaking up with me? YOU’RE BREAKING UP WITH ME?”