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?”
“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?”
“Yes, little screaming nuisances who take a whole year to grow up. A year! Sometimes two, or even as many as five.”
“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?”
“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.
“You’re back!” she exclaimed with tempered delight, looking straight ahead. “It isn’t even night yet.”