Since I’ve made frequent reference to it, I thought I’d clear up a few things about my history with Hephaestus. We weren’t involved for very long, just a couple decades. He was my first boyfriend; I was his first girlfriend. Eventually, our little romance faded into a comfortable friendship. We decided at roughly the same time to be honest with ourselves and call it what it was. Who verbalized the decision first isn’t important, especially if the other one was already thinking it.
Not long after that, a mysterious goddess floated to the shores of Greece on a giant oyster shell, her golden hair the only covering for her incomparable body. No one, including the goddess herself, knew where she’d come from or who her parents were. She was fully grown with no memory of a childhood. She was convinced she’d ever had one. All she knew was that she was named for the seafoam that had carried her: Aphrodite. Though Hephaestus has been completely smitten with her from the moment they met, he never would have had a chance with her if Zeus and Hera hadn’t arranged their marriage. I guess Their Majesties wanted some competition for the Worst Marriage on Olympus trophy. I’d say it’s neck-and-neck.
Anyway, somehow Hephaestus and I have managed to stay friends all these centuries. Sometimes he’ll do me a favor, like the time he made that contraband lead arrow for me to disenchant Apollo. Sometimes I’ll do him a favor, like in the story I’m about to tell.
Apollo had commissioned Hephaestus to build a stable for Pegasus. However, when Hephaestus showed up one morning to get started, we were all surprised, irritated, and slightly panicked to see that he’d brought Eros along with him.
“Sorry, but I have a strict policy about my contractors bringing their children to work with them,” said Apollo. A strict policy he’d made up two seconds earlier.
“What, do you think he’s babysitting me?” Eros scorned. “I’m a fellow contractor. An apprentice, if you will. Hephaestus and Son, Carpenters to the Gods,” he beamed as he clapped his arm around his dad’s shoulder.
“It’s true,” Hephaestus nodded, steadying himself against his cane. “He’s always been good at the forge. He invented those arrows and makes them all himself, you know. Son, go set up at the site I showed you.”
“Wait,” said Apollo. “Weapon check.” Eros resentfully handed over his quiver and bow, and then flew to the site and started setting up.
Once Eros was out of hearing range, Hephaestus said in a low voice, “Of course I’m babysitting him. Aphrodite is away for the day. So is Ares, naturally. The number of coincidences in their vacation schedules continue to defy the odds.”
“Calliope’s out for the day, too,” Apollo commented. “Maybe everyone just wanted to enjoy the weather?”
“I supposed there’s always that possibility,” Hephaestus replied, trying to convince himself, but failing as badly as Apollo had. “Anyway, you know Mom and Zeus won’t allow Eros to stay on Olympus without any parental supervision, so it was either invite him along or let him roam the earth unchecked all day. I had no idea he’d be this excited about it, and frankly, I don’t expect his enthusiasm to last more than an hour. So, Thalia, about the favor you owe me?”
“As Governor of the Muses, I forbid her from fulfilling it,” Apollo hastily interjected.
“I’m even less excited about this than you are,” I whispered, “but I owe him this favor in exchange for the reason you’re not currently composing love songs to a laurel tree. So I think we both owe this to him.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Apollo reluctantly conceded.
“Oh, good, so you’ll help her!” Hephaestus brightened. “If anyone can keep him reined in, you can.”
“Well, I -” Apollo hesitated. Even he couldn’t bear to crush the look of utter relief in that poor man’s countenance. “I’m the man for the job.”
“Thanks, you guys; I really appreciate this. And who knows, maybe he’ll put in a full day’s work after all. It doesn’t pay to underestimate people.”
Nor does it pay to overestimate people. Eros’ attention span lasted about half as long as Hephaestus had predicted. He wandered over to our dancing field and started flying in circles around us. I snagged him around the neck with my shepherd’s crook and dragged him away like a kite. Apollo put Terpsichore in charge of practice and followed us.
“Bored?” I asked Eros.
“Totally,” he said. “I’m going to have a talk with Dad about taking lame jobs like this. Hephaestus and Son aren’t mere barnraisers. We’re forgers, inventors, the Armory of the Gods. Now, if Ares was my dad-”
“You wouldn’t have a dad who cared enough to take you to work with him even though you can’t wait thirty minutes to start causing trouble,” I cut him off. Eros knows perfectly well that he’s probably either Ares’ or Hermes’ biological son. Hephaestus knows, too, but he’s in perpetual denial about it. He let Aphrodite give away all her other kids, but with Eros, her last one to date, he put his foot down and insisted they were going to have a real family.
“You also wouldn’t have a dad who encouraged your intellectual development,” said Apollo. “You think Ares gives a damn about your skills as an inventor?” Having grown up in the Olympian royal court, Apollo knew firsthand how much respect Ares has for scholarly, artistic, sensitive young men. It’s no secret that Apollo and the rest of the Olympian men have an equal respect for a mindless thug. Suffice it to say, Ares isn’t quite so ostracized among the women. He does have a certain barbaric animal appeal, but I prefer a guy with a brain. And talent. And a sophisticated sense of humor. And an understanding of the concepts of moderation and self-awareness. I’m sure there was point somewhere in here.
“I can’t invent while I’m stacking stones,” said Eros.
“I’ve got some materials,” Apollo offered. “Tinctures, powders, ores-”
“Fire?” Eros asked with a disturbing mania in his baby blues.
“You can build a fire IF you keep it contained in a designated fire pit,” Apollo stipulated.
Apollo went to get some materials, and I kept an eye on Eros while he prepared the fire pit. So far so good. He was just gathering dried twigs and grasses. I could identify all of them and knew that none of them had poisonous or explosive properties. He struck a piece of flint and started a safe, normal-colored fire well within the confines of the pit. Nothing suspicious so far. Which was suspicious in and of itself.
Apollo brought what he believed to be the safest materials in his collection, as well as a few empty vials for mixing. He and I sat down against a nearby tree and observed as Eros sorted his toys and got to work. We both kept a close eye on what exactly the kid was mixing with what. Science isn’t my specialty, but like all of my sisters, I do have an interest and a competent knowledge in the subject. Though I was familiar with the individual properties of each of the materials Eros was working with, I wasn’t sure about the effect of the particular combination Eros was brewing.
Asking Apollo was out of the question. It hadn’t always been that way. When I lived at my old place, Apollo would teach me about his specialties and I’d teach him about mine, and neither of us thought anything of it. Then he had to go and complicate things by making himself an authority figure of sorts. I couldn’t do anything to reinforce that delusion, now could I?
My reverie was interrupted when, with no warning whatsoever, Apollo and I were both hit in the face with a shimmering pink powder. Once the coughing, sputtering, blinking, and face brushing died down a bit, I demanded, “What is wrong with you?”
“I needed test subjects,” Eros shrugged his wings. “I couldn’t tell you what was coming. That would compromise the integrity of the experiment,” he said nobly. “Now I have to observe you two for the rest of the day to see if it works.”
“Do you have a hypothesis for an antidote?” asked Apollo.
“Once it really sets in, you won’t want one,” he grinned. He put his hand up for Apollo to high-five. Apollo left him hanging.
“You can’t guarantee anything if you’ve never tested the stuff before!” I protested.
“Did I use the word ‘guarantee’?” Eros pointed out. “Please, baby, I’m a love god. There are no guarantees when it comes to love. Now, the best thing you two can do is just go about your normal routine and let me watch. Your normal routine wouldn’t happen to involve doing it in the Corycian Cave, would it? I saw that play. It was total genius. I’ve got to get that guy to write me into the sequel.”
“Conference,” Apollo pulled me aside. He ordered Eros, “Don’t. Move.” Once we were on the other side of the tree, Apollo whispered, “Do you have any idea what this potion is?”
“Crazy stuff,” I nodded.
“No, really, what is it? I don’t know.”
“You can mock me about this later. Eros’ craft is beyond my understanding. I lost track of what he was doing around the time he finished the cosmetic part.”
“I don’t know what it is, either,” I said. “I hoped you did.”
“Do you feel anything?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean anything. I wasn’t aware of the effect of his arrow until after I’d been disenchanted.”
“I know, neither was- wait, when were you enchanted?”
“Who were you enchanted with?” he cracked a smirk.
“Come on, I could use a good laugh,” he persisted, leaning against the tree with one arm. “You’re the Muse of Comedy, aren’t you?”
“I’ll never tell and you can’t make me,” I smiled perversely as I backed against the tree trunk.
“I can be very persuasive,” he teased as he put his other hand against the tree, locking me in.
“I promised her I’d keep it a secret,” I said with subtle emphasis on the third-person pronoun.
“Surely you could make an exception for the Gover-” Abruptly, he stopped talking and pulled away from me. I came to the same realization he had at the same moment.
“I concur with Eros,” I said hastily. “We should just go about our normal routine, not for the sake of his stupid experiment, but so we know we’re surrounded by witnesses at all times.”
“Exactly,” Apollo agreed. “I have no idea what came over me.”
“Me neither. We can’t let that happen again.”
“Right. We don’t want to do anything we’d regret later.”
“Would we?” I wondered aloud.
“Would we really regret it?”
“I’m your guardian now,” he said with a wistful solemnity. “I would always wonder if you’d felt like you couldn’t say no.”
“I say no to you about all kinds of stuff, every day,” I said. “I always get away with it. Besides, what if you weren’t the one asking? Oh, what in Tartarus am I saying? You know this is the powder talking, right? Let’s get back to the dancing field.”
The only good thing I can say about the rest of the morning is that I’d never seen Eros so quiet, studious, or focused. He stood on the sidelines of the dancing field, calmly and unobtrusively observing. I noticed this not only because I had promised to keep an eye on the kid, but because the task gave me something to look at besides Apollo. From time to time I would glance at Apollo just to make sure it didn’t look like I was avoiding him. Then I’d wonder if I was actually looking at him more than usual, since I normally ignore him half the time anyway. The few times our eyes met, I could tell we were pretty much on the same page. I felt an ounce of relief when dance practice was over at last. I posed in formation with my seven sisters. Calliope, as Apollo had mentioned earlier, was out for the day.
“Thalia, your position isn’t quite right,” Terpsichore corrected, observing me out of the corner of her eye as she held her own pose like an exquisite marble statue. “Your back leg should be raised a little more.”
“Like this?” I said, adjusting the angle of my arabesque. I could feel my skirt sliding up my thigh.
“No, now it’s too high,” said Terpsichore, barely moving her lips. “Apollo, show her.”
“She looks fine.”
“You’re not even looking at her.”
“Well, the whole thing’s wrong anyway since Calliope’s missing,” he ended the discussion. “Practice is over; take fifteen and report for chorale. You know what? Take thirty.”
“You two sure have been weird this morning,” Terpsichore said to me. “Is babysitting really that stressful?”
“You have no idea,” I muttered. “I’m going for a ride, but I promise I’ll be back in time for chorale.” I went to the throne room, mounted Pegasus (hey, where else was I supposed to keep him?), and took off to the sky. Nothing beats a long horseback ride when you’re stressed. It creates the illusion that your soul can run away from its troubles. The illusion that it can fly away feels even better.
This illusion can be swiftly and cruelly destroyed when the source of one’s troubles can also fly. “So, how’s it going?” asked Eros, lounging on his back with his hands behind his head and his crossed ankles propped up on a nonexistent cushion. “In the interest of science, I need to ask if you normally go for a ride at this point in the day.”
“In the interest of you not being in pain, I need to ask you to shut it.” I took a sharp dive, but the little pest kept up perfectly.
“Negative effect on female subject’s ability to write a joke,” he jotted down on a tablet. “So you’re feeling angry? Frustrated? Can’t handle being around people? Or is it just men? Or one man in particular?”
Was that the effect of the powder? He’d implied earlier that Apollo and I might not feel its full effect for awhile. Of course. That made perfect sense. The powder caused lovers’ quarrels. It had probably made us flirt with each other at first just to set us up for feeling uncomfortable around each other later. Well, knowing was half the battle. I sped Pegasus toward the dancing field where Apollo was alone, waiting for chorale practice. Eros was behind me, but I had enough of a lead to buy some private conversation.
I dismounted and silently motioned to Apollo to come closer. “Thalia, you really should-”
“Listen,” I whispered hastily as I clapped one hand over his mouth and the other behind his head. “I figured out what the powder’s supposed to do. It’s not a love potion.” I could feel his lips and his tongue struggling against my palm, but I felt oddly unmotivated to move it. “It’s a lovers’ quarrel potion. He wants us to avoid each other. Divide and conquer! Don’t you see?” He grabbed my wrists. “Oh, sorry.” I let go and so did he.
“Alright, so, if we want to thwart his efforts, we have to present a united front and not let anything come between us,” said Apollo. By now the break was almost over and my sisters were coming to field. “Take your place,” he kindly directed, punctuating the sentence with a kiss on my cheek. I thought that was a little over the top, but saying so would have made it look like we weren’t getting along, and that would’ve spoiled the plan, now, wouldn’t it have?
Chorale practice went much better than dance practice. My sisters and I sang a number in eight part harmony, so Calliope’s absence wasn’t as noticeable as it had been during our dance. I momentarily wondered where Calliope had decided to spend her day out and what she was doing there. Apollo hadn’t even bothered to ask her, whereas I had gotten the third degree last time I’d requested a day out. When I’d mentioned this to Apollo, he’d told me it was because Calliope is responsible and trustworthy. I’d wanted very much to smack both of them over the head with my shepherd’s crook.
I brought myself back to the present, realizing this must be Eros’ potion at work again. I had to fight it. I threw Apollo a congenial smile for good measure. He returned it. The more I thought about it, he was right. Out of all nine of us, Calliope probably was the most responsible and trustworthy. I couldn’t think of a time she’d caused any real trouble. She didn’t harass mortals, gods, or anything between for the fun of it. She always tried to interfere with them as little as possible while she observed them and recorded their epic adventures. She’d only been in one romantic relationship in her entire life, and it had been a remarkably stable one for a goddess. She and her mortal lover, Oegrus, were fully devoted to each other until his inevitable death. She hadn’t been with anyone since, and I didn’t blame her.
Now, me; I kid Apollo about his fear of commitment, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m just as bad. Dating Hephaestus was the closest I ever came to being serious about someone. (That doesn’t mean I haven’t been un-serious about a select few, but anyway…) I refuse to get involved with mortals because they have a habit of dying on you, and if I were to marry a god, we’d be stuck together forever. Eternal love is rare if it exists at all. With most divine relationships, worst case scenario, one or both gods turn out to be jerks; best case, one or both eventually get bored.
Speaking of bored gods, I’d thought Eros would be sorely disappointed over the fact that chorale practice had gone completely without incident, but he was ominously placid. Apollo sent everyone to the dining hall. Hephaestus and Eros were invited to dine with us, of course. Hephaestus sat at Apollo’s left hand with Eros on the other side, and at Apollo’s invitation, I sat at his right. Apollo and I were being especially courteous to each other, but not so much as to arouse suspicion. Eros smiled pleasantly and gave us two thumbs up. “Glad to see you two getting along again.” He made a couple of notes on his tablet.
Hephaestus let his forehead fall into his waiting palm. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t hurt them. I’m just involving them in an experiment.”
“Did they say you could?”
“Apollo let me use his stuff and everything.”
“As long as you had their permission,” Hephaestus wearily conceded. Eros looked at us hopefully. We kept quiet. “So, what did he do to you?” Hephaestus asked us.
“It’s complicated,” I said, “Eros, why don’t you explain to your dad how this stuff works?”
“Like she said, it’s complicated,” said Eros, “but you see how well they’re getting along? No passion, no antagonism, just plain, cool, drop dead boring niceness.”
“You ought to try that one on Zeus and my mom,” Hephaestus laughed. Eros smiled with ostentatious modesty. There is way too much of that boy’s mother in his face. Apollo dropped his fork and knocked mine off the table in an attempt to pick it up. Our heads met under the table.
“What do we do now?” he asked. “Whatever we do, he acts like it’s part of the plan. Either it’s a progressive potion or he’s just screwing with us.”
“He’s just messing with our minds because his little divide and conquer tactic didn’t work earlier,” I insisted.
“You know we can hear you both?” asked Hephaestus. We both rose slowly and sheepishly back to our seats. “Listen,” he said, “I’m sorry for the trouble he’s causing you. Eros, why don’t you just leave them alone and help me on the stable for the rest of the afternoon?”
“But I have to finish my experiment,” Eros argued.
“The experiment’s over. Collect your data and undo whatever you did to them.”
“Yeah, about that.” He paused. “I’m pretty sure this is impossible to undo.”
“IMPOSSIBLE TO UNDO?” I lunged across the table and knocked Eros on his back, chair and all.
“Observe as the female subject phases into unbridled sexual aggression,” Eros’ voice strained through his finger-wrapped trachea. “Don’t you want to tick her off just a little bit?” he winked at Apollo.
Apollo calmly got up and walked over to us. “Let’s take it outside, shall we?” he intoned. I got up, snagged Eros with my shepherd’s crook, and dragged him after Apollo. Once we were outside, I removed the crook, and Apollo rested his hands on Eros’ shoulders. “So, you don’t have an antidote for the potion,” he said with a cool stare.
“Nope,” Eros said, not intimidated. I silently observed that Apollo is nowhere near as intimidating as he’d like to think he is, which is probably why he’s so sexy when he tries to be. I slapped my own face, reminding myself that this was the powder talking.
“I suggest you think of one quickly.”
Eros pressed his fingers to his temples and squeezed his eyes shut. After about ten seconds, he said, “Sorry, can’t think of anything.”
“I understand,” Apollo said. “It’s hard to concentrate with your head in the clouds. If only you could feel just a little closer to earth…” He dramatically waved his hand, produced a pair of shears, and poised them above Eros’ pinion.
“Hey-hey-hey-wait! Fine. There’s no antidote because there’s no effect.”
“You cannot be serious,” I said.
“There’s no effect,” he repeated. “I just mixed stuff together to turn the powder pink and glittery. Everything that happened after that was all in your heads.”
I went to my room and stayed there until evening. Apollo never came to offer objection. Later I found out he had claimed he sent me there for my outburst at the table. He would pay. Oh, how he would pay.
My room is positioned so that Pegasus and I could watch the progress on the stable from my window. (Of course I took Pegasus to my room with me. Where else was I supposed to put him?) Not only was Apollo strictly supervising Eros’ assistance of Hephaestus, he had cancelled the rest of the day’s exercises so my sisters could help finish the stable. They were done before sunset. I flew Pegasus out the window so I could get him settled in and say goodbye to Hephaestus.
“This is perfect!” I looked around in ecstasy. “It’s like a little palace for a horse. Who did the mural on the ceiling?”
“Oh, let’s see, it’s a starscape, so it must have been Erato,” Urania crossed her arms and frowned.
“Could’ve been,” I considered.
We left Pegasus in the stable and went out to the lawn. While we were all going through the customary goodbyes and thanks, someone teleported into our midst. We naturally assumed it would be Calliope, so we all did a double take when Aphrodite fairly flew into her husband’s arms and planted her mouth on his.
“What are you doing here?” Hephaestus stammered once his lungs had recovered from Aphrodite having sucked the breath out of them. He was leaning on her since she’d knocked his cane out from under him, not that this seemed to bother him.
“I thought I’d surprise you,” she gleamed.
“I’ve had such a lousy trip,” she sighed. “Visiting temples all day – you know how exasperating the mortals get after awhile. All those women want me to make them beautiful and seductive, but please, I have to have something to work with! Anyway, all I could think about all day long was getting home to my amazing husband, who is the only being in this entire universe who loves me selflessly.” She kissed him again, even harder. I almost felt like I shouldn’t be watching, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “Honey,” she said, looking up at him with huge, sad, penitent eyes as she brushed back her hair, “I broke it off with Ares. For good this time. You’re the only man I want. You’re enough for any woman. I’ve just been too blind to see it.” And another kiss. This time, Hephaestus kept his eyes open and threw a questioning look at Eros, who shook his head and showed his empty hands. “Come on, baby, let’s go home,” Aphrodite pleaded. “I just want to lock ourselves in our quarters and stay there for a month.”
“Can I stay with you guys?” Eros begged Apollo.
“No,” we replied together.
“I’ll see you guys later,” Hephaestus rushed.
“Wait, I haven’t paid you yet,” said Apollo.
“I have no idea what this is all about,” Hephaestus turned and whispered to him, a task of considerable difficulty since his wife’s face was buried in his neck, “but I’m getting home before she changes her mind.” Meanwhile, Eros was dramatically miming various methods of suicide. I thought the bit where he climbed an invisible hangman’s scaffold and hung himself in midair was rather clever.
“Can’t say I blame you,” Apollo replied in bemusement. With that, husband, wife, and son vanished.
“There goes the most dysfunctional nuclear family of all time,” I blinked. “I am so glad my family never has that kind of drama.”
“Since I’m responsible for your family, you and me both,” said Apollo.
We were afforded that happy feeling for another quarter of a second. How I would have savored that quarter of a second if I had known it would be the last in which my mind was free from the image of Calliope being blissfully cradled in the arms of a hulking, lunkheaded war god. What I wouldn’t give to erase the thought of her slender, graceful arms wrapped adoringly around his thick, hairy neck. If ever I am bound in Tartarus, that realm will punish me by setting eternally before me the triumph in that moron’s eyes as he held his conquest, namely my sister. Honestly. If I had to pick one particular god I hoped every one of my sisters would have the sense to stay away from, it would be –
“Ares?” said Apollo, not even bothering to hide his contempt.
“What, a guy can’t walk his girlfriend home?”