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?
“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.”
“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?”