Author’s Note: This is a stand-alone episode set centuries before the main story. The Muses still live at Helicon, and Apollo, one of the Nine Olympians, lives at the Royal Court and works in Zeus’ pastures.
“How’s the new God of Herding these days?” I asked Apollo, having just materialized by his sheepfold. He nearly fell off the stone fence he’d been sitting on.
“Don’t do that!” he laughed.
“So?” I asked, climbing over the fence to pet the lambs. “Is the job getting any less awful?”
“It is,” he replied. “It’s numbed my soul so much that I no longer feel the agony of boredom or anything else.”
“It’s not that bad,” I chided him as I pulled a fuzzy little black lamb into my cross-legged lap. “Who’s a cute widdle girl? Isn’t she teh cutest ittle ting? Oh, yes she is! Yes, she is! You wuvs your Auntie Thalia, doesn’t oo? Yes, oo does.” The lamb bleated back at me. Apollo rolled his eyes in derision. “Aw, give Auntie kisses,” I rubbed the lamb’s cool, velvety nose against mine just to irritate him.
“You’ve gotten that desperate since Hephaestus dumped you?” Apollo smirked.
“We mutually made that simultaneous decision,” I corrected him. “You know it’d been heading that way for awhile. At first I thought things would be weird, but actually, hanging out with him feels less awkward than it did before we broke up.”
“Is that why you’ve been spending more time here and less at the forge with him?”
“He likes being inside at work all day, I like being in a million different places doing a million different things,” I stood up, still holding the lamb. “One of the many reasons we’re better as friends.” I waved the lamb’s tiny hoof at Apollo. “Say hi to your daddy,” I cooed at her.
“Do not call me that creature’s ‘daddy’,” Apollo ordered. “I’ve never copulated with livestock, which is more than I can say for others in my,” he hesitated over the next word, “family.”
“I suppose tortoises technically aren’t livestock,” I teased him.
“That was different. I was the one in animal form. I left her human. And nothing happened.”
“Nothing happened because she dropped you and ran away screaming.”
“No, because I wasn’t trying to sleep with her.”
“But you were trying to get her to hold you,” I demonstrated by cradling the lamb against my bosom. “No need to be embarrassed. It’s not your fault you didn’t know tortoises aren’t cuddly.” I didn’t want to be laughing. Okay, maybe I did. Just a little bit. And suddenly I felt the urge to smother a lonely, naive tortoise with hugs and kisses. Huh. That was weird.
“Some girls like tortoises,” Apollo turned his attention to the mark his staff was making in the dirt.
“Of course they do,” I said. “I like tortoises. But if I’m going to pet one, I’m going to have it on the ground next to me. And if it puts its face in my chest, I’m going to get it away before it bites me.”
“Alright, we’ve established that I’m no expert in what girls like,” Apollo laughed.
“You should’ve consulted me. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m sort of a girl-type creature.”
“Okay. What kind of presents do girls like?” he asked with studied randomness.
“Depends on the girl,” I replied, feeling a surprising twinge of – what was this, exactly? Must be protectiveness, I concluded. In spite of the fact that he’d caught up to me in age over a decade ago, Apollo was like a little brother to me. Of course I’d have a critical interest in whatever girl he liked. Yeah. That made sense. “Is it anyone I know?”
“I don’t want to say,” he demurred. “You’ll just laugh.”
“Most likely. Suit yourself. But at least tell me about her.”
“Well, she’s snarky,” he began. “Very snarky. She’s got this really dark, sarcastic take on everything.”
“I like her.”
“You do,” he confirmed. “You’re pretty close to her, actually.”
“Oh?” I started getting a bit worried. Was Apollo crushing on me? This could be a problem. He was such a sweet kid. I’d feel terrible if I had to break his heart.
“She can be kind of intimidating,” he continued. Intimidating? I’d never thought of myself that way, but, yes, I supposed my combination of charisma, talent, superintelligence, and raw sex appeal could be rather unsettling to an inexperienced youth.
“Is she a goddess?” I asked.
“Yeah. She’s – now, I don’t want to sound shallow – but she’s very, very beautiful. Incredibly beautiful. Like spring’s first flower, or the rainbow after a hailstorm, or the sunrise after the winter solstice.” As he waxed poetic, his eyes shifted away from me and his cheeks flushed. I followed his gaze. Had his eyes always had that curious blend of wisdom and naiveté, of quiet strength and subtle vulnerability? I’d never noticed. This was going to be harder than I’d thought. He took a deep, nervous breath. “I might as well tell you,” he said. “Please, promise you won’t laugh at me.”
“I won’t laugh,” I assured him, feeling nothing but sympathy and compassion. A bizarre instinct told me to take his hand, but I didn’t want to make this any harder for the poor little guy, so I resisted it.
“It’s…” He took a deep breath and let it out. “It’s Persephone.”
Well. That was a relief. And, in hindsight, not much of surprise. Persephone was considered the most eligible bachelorette on Olympus, though “eligible” was a relative term since Demeter wouldn’t let any would-be suitors get near her. “You want to get her something special for her birthday tomorrow,” I deduced. Good luck, kiddo, I thought. Twenty-four hours is more than enough time to think of something special.
“Yeah,” he said. “It has to be something really thoughtful, you know? Something that says, ‘I care about you as a person’.”
“Something that would set you apart from Ares?”
“How did you know?”
“Please, everyone knows Ares has a thing for her. I wouldn’t worry about it, though. She hates his guts.”
“What about the rest of him?” Apollo muttered.
“If she wanted it, she would’ve taken it by now. Ares doesn’t exactly play hard to get.”
“Well, Persephone’s been acting more receptive than usual lately.”
“Really?” It had been almost two months since I’d been to Olympus, excluding Hephaestus’ shop. Had things really changed, or was this just the delusional observation of a guy with a crush? “How so?”
“She’s friendlier, kind of flirty, even. Not just with Ares, with all of us,” he said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t even go there. To be honest, I wasn’t sure she liked men. I mean, she spends a lot of time with Athena.”
“She likes men,” I confirmed, then chastised myself for doing so. I hoped Apollo wouldn’t ask how I knew that. I’d sworn not to tell anyone that Persephone had been in love with one particular man for years. I only knew because my family and I had been there when she’d met the guy. “Artemis spends a lot of time with Athena, too,” I tried to change the subject. “Do you ever wonder about her?”
“That’s different. They’re best friends.”
“So, what do you think?” he persisted.
“A present. I really want to make a good impression. I have as good a chance as any. Maybe better since Demeter likes me better than Ares.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to get his hopes up, but I couldn’t break my promise to Persephone. “Just be you,” I managed, ashamed at having resorted to such a trite platitude.
“That’s brilliant!” Apollo grabbed my shoulders and kissed me on the cheek. He said some stuff after that. I don’t remember exactly. I just remember the distinct feeling that I should get out of there before things got any weirder. I made some excuse that I also don’t remember and teleported to Olympus to investigate.
Once there, I decided to stop in and say hi to Hephaestus before I sought my ultimate goal, Persephone. As fate would have it, Persephone was in Hephaestus’ workshop with Athena. Demeter hardly let Persephone out of the house unless either Athena or Artemis went along as a babysitter bodyguard.
“So, you think you can take a little time off for my party tomorrow?” Persephone asked Hephaestus. No, she didn’t just ask. She coaxed. Teased. Tantalized. Flirted. Yes, that was the word. Persephone was flirting with Hephaestus. The way she leaned over his work table at just the right angle, the way she let her silky strawberry blonde curls fall beside her porcelain face, the lilt of laughter in her deep, provocative voice…yep, she was flirting with him.
I wondered if he noticed.
“Um, by, the, yeah, it, they, I can, sure,” he stammered. Yes. He noticed. “Thanks. I, I mean you’re welcome. Wait, you didn’t say- I’ll be there.”
“Thanks,” she half-smiled in grim amusement. He was silent.
“You can tell her she’s welcome now,” Athena prompted him.
“You’re welcome. Ha- have a nice day. Oh, um, Athena, I still need to give you your spear.”
“I’ll get it,” Athena protested, clearly worried about the current state of Hephaestus’ dexterity.
“No, I’ve got it,” Hephaestus insisted. Without leaving the stool he was seated on, he telekinetically floated the spear to Athena’s reach. I breathed in relief at the lack of damage along the way. “You know,” he told her, “your armor is terrific — I mean, Zeus created it and who am I to criticize Zeus — but I’ll bet I could mod it for you. I mean, sometime. In the future. If you wanted me to. I see potential for more mobility without sacrificing protection.”
“You’re a guy who’s capable of making armor,” said Athena. “Sure. I’ll come by and look at your specs sometime. For now I want to get Baby home so I can go back to kicking Ares’ butt.” Persephone glared at her. “Now, don’t pout, or I’ll tell Mama,” Athena admonished, playfully swatting Persephone’s slender, shapely backside.
“I’ll tell Artemis,” Persephone deadpanned. Athena blushed, fell silent, and left with Persephone in tow.
“Hey, Persephone,” I called after her, “can I come by and see you when I’m done here?”
“Sure,” she said. “Maybe if we’re really good, Mom’ll let us play in my room without the grownups watching us!”
When they’d left, I turned my attention to Hephaestus. “So, I guess you’ll be at Persephone’s feast?” I observed aloud.
“I guess so,” he confirmed as though he didn’t quite believe himself. “I should get her something, don’t you think?”
“I would,” I said. “In fact, I am. But I’m not telling anyone what it is.”
“Jewelry,” he said, more to himself than to me. “Bracelets? Earrings? Necklace?”
“How about an anklet?” I suggested. “She’s got great ankles.”
“I – I wouldn’t…I…didn’t…”
“It’s okay,” I said with reassuring laughter. “We’re friends now. I don’t mind.” I was surprised by the fact that this was true. Until we’d made our breakup official, I hadn’t realized just how much I’d been thinking of Hephaestus less as a boyfriend and more as a friend.
“Do you really think she likes me?” asked Hephaestus.
“I think she doesn’t dislike you.”
He sighed as he began a sketch. “I don’t stand a chance with her, do I? I know she can do better. She deserves better. Someone who can get around a stupid workshop without a stupid cane, for one thing.” I started to say something, but then I decided that since I wasn’t his girlfriend any more, these issues were no longer my problem. “Do you see Persephone as more of a gold or a silver type?” he asked me.
“No idea,” I shrugged.
“You want to see what Ares is giving her?” he asked, his voice simmering with ridicule. He telekinetically rummaged through a line of hanging armor, selected a piece from the back of the line, and brought it to us.
It was the front part of a bronze cuirass. The female equivalent of a muscle cuirass, to be precise. For those of you who aren’t armor buffs, a cuirass is the “shirt” part of a suit of armor, and a muscle cuirass (the kind preferred by Ares and his men) is modeled after a naked beefcake torso. They tend to be extremely detailed.
This cuirass was as detailed as any I’d ever seen, only it was an absurdly idealized female torso. And by “absurdly idealized,” I mean perky molded knockers about three times the size of Persephone’s real ones. With nipples. Which looked very, very cold.
“Wow,” was all I could say.
“It goes without saying that Ares designed it himself,” Hephaestus disclaimed with a subtle smirk. “I’m just the humble smith. It’s my job to provide exactly what the customer wants, right?”
“Right,” I grinned. “I’m sure Persephone’s going to love this. I cannot wait to see the look on her happy, happy face when Ares gives it to her.”
“Ares ordered a shield and a spear to go with the cuirass, and I still have to finish the back of it,” said Hephaestus, “so I’d better get back to work. Nothing like last-minute orders.”
“Have fun,” I laughed.
Apparently I was still on Demeter’s approved playdate list, because she did leave me alone with Persephone. “So, what’s up?” I asked once Persephone closed the door.
“The sky? The clouds? Olympus?” she shrugged. “Everything but the damned Underworld?”
“Are you saying you and Hades are over?” I took a seat on the couch next to her.
“Technically Hades and I never were Hades and I,” she replied with forced nonchalance. “We never outright said we were a couple. We just kind of had this secret weird long-distance understanding. But we never outright declared that he’s my boyfriend and I’m his girlfriend. I mean, what are we, mortals? I’m free to host an orgy with every god on this mountain if I want to.”
“I guess he never told me he wasn’t going to see other people. And I never told him I didn’t want him to.”
“Whoa. You mean Hades is dating someone? Hades?” Hades is pretty hot, and he has that whole king of his own realm thing going for him, but I was shocked by the idea of him voluntarily seeking out companionship.
“Does ‘dating’ mean ‘naiad-banging’ now?”
“Sometimes.” Okay, it made more sense now. Companionship had likely sought him out. Hades may be the ultimate misanthropic introverted loner, but he’s still a guy. “How’d you find out?”
“He wrote me. Actually, I’m surprised you didn’t know. Calliope’s been taking letters back and forth for us since you guys moved to Helicon.”
“I knew she was, but Calliope’s good about confidentiality.” That traitor. To think I once called her my sister.
“So she brings me this letter from Hades, and he’s telling me about this woman who’s moved in with him! At first I thought, ‘Alright, slow down, maybe he doesn’t mean it like that.’ So I wrote him back for clarification.”
“And he did mean it like that.”
“Was that when we had that earthquake?”
“Yep. I hope a square mile of ceiling landed on his bed while they were in it.”
“You and me both,” I said. “Did he give you any kind of explanation? I mean lame, pointless excuse?” I quickly corrected my grave error.
“He said – get this – he said he didn’t know I was still into him. Can you believe that? Yeah, like I wrote him all those damn letters because I wanted an inter-realm pen pal so bad. And like I care about his damn problems because I’m so interested in the minutia of everyone’s damn lives. And I just go around baring my soul and sharing my deepest feelings with anyone and everyone because that’s the kind of warm, open person I am!” She picked up a vase and hurled it against the wall.
Demeter rushed in without knocking. “Honey, are you alright?” she fretted as she knelt by Persephone.
“I’m fine, Mom,” Persephone stood up and walked away to pick up the pieces. “It was just this stupid vase.”
“We were talking about how men suck,” I said.
“Glad everything’s okay,” Demeter relaxed. “You girls have fun. I’ll be with Hera and Hestia if you need anything. Thalia, say hi to your mom for me the next time you see her.”
As soon as we were alone again, Persephone threw the pieces of broken terra cotta into the fire pit to watch them singe. “I don’t understand how he didn’t know,” she said to no one in particular as she stared at the blackening shards. “It makes sense that he’d move on if he thought I’d forgotten about him, I guess, but I don’t know how he could think that.”
“I know. I mean, with all that ‘soul-baring,’ how you felt about him was in there somewhere, right?”
“Well, what in Tartarus was I supposed to say?” she ranted. “‘Oh, my love, my darling, every moment without you is torture!'” she mocked in a high-pitched voice accompanied by dramatic gesturing. “‘Everywhere I look, something reminds me of you! Would that I were by your side, holding your pale hands, pressing your irresistible lips to mine! Each night I lie alone, crying myself to sleep, longing for your presence that I might make sweet, sweet love to you! Kissy-kissy, your adoring widdle Persie-face.’ Can you see me saying any of that crap? Me?”
“Did you ever even sign a letter, ‘Love, Persephone’?”
“What kind of pathetic loser do you think I am?”
I was quiet for a moment. “What’s the man-stealing whore’s name?” I ventured as soon as I thought it was safe.
“Minthe,” she spoke the name with scorn. “Isn’t that the dumbest name you’ve heard in your whole life?”
“It’s definitely in the top ten,” I agreed. “Hey, you mind if I give you my present early?”
“Why not?” was her apathetic reply.
“You know how, as a theater goddess, I can do stuff like this?” I snapped my fingers and my hair turned blonde. “And this?” Red. “And this?” Blue. “And this?” Pink.
“You want to give me a fashion show?” She was unimpressed.
“No, I want to give you a makeover,” I said. “I can do this stuff to other people, too. I’ve been practicing with my sisters. You’ve always said you wished your hair were darker, and I know your makeup is how your mom likes it, not how you like it. Tell me what you want to look like, and I’ll make it happen.”
A faint glimmer of interest appeared in her countenance. “I like black.”
I ended up spending the night with Persephone so we could work on her look for the feast. I sent Calliope a message through one of Demeter’s attendants so she wouldn’t worry about me. It sure would be handy, I considered, if the Pantheon had one person whose job was delivering messages.
At noon, everyone gathered in the banquet hall for Persephone’s feast. The Nine Muses were there, not to be confused with the Nine Olympians, all of whom were in attendance as well. Poseidon was there as Demeter’s date. Apparently they were on again. The presence of both Zeus and Poseidon, two of the three ruling gods, made Hades’ absence particularly conspicuous. I don’t think anyone really expected him to be there since he almost never leaves the Underworld, but I was sure Persephone was thinking of it.
Persephone’s makeover did not go unnoticed. I was proud of my work. Her hair was now jet black and stick straight. Thick black liner surrounded her eyes, and steel-colored powder shadowed them. Her lips, without any help from me, stood out blood-red against her bone-white face. And her gown was so black that it threatened to suck in all light within a yard of its wearer. So different was Persephone’s new look from yesterday’s springtime princess that I’d wondered if the Three Stooges would be a little turned off by it. It had the opposite effect.
“You – man – whoa,” Ares articulated on behalf of his brethren.
“Tell me about it, stud,” Persephone winked.
“Persephone!” Demeter abandoned Poseidon and jumped to her daughter’s side. “You behave yourself, young lady.”
“Why don’t we open presents?” Calliope suggested. “Who wants to go first?”
Ares, Apollo, and Hephaestus instantly started a shoving match, in which Hephaestus lost his cane and his balance. Apollo and Ares landed on top of him. “Let’s see,” Persephone contemplated under her breath. “Rebound, Manslut, or Babyface. Ba- Apollo,” she called aloud. “You first. What’ve you got?”
Apollo speechlessly presented her with a harp-shaped package. She took the paper off and, lo and behold, it was a harp. “This is really nice,” Persephone smiled. “Maybe you can play it for me sometime.”
“One of the Muses can play it for you,” said Demeter.
“I could teach you how to play it,” Apollo found his tongue. “That’s part of the present, sort of, I mean, if you want to, you know.”
“Aw, you’re so sweet,” Persephone squeezed his hand. “I’ll bet you’re a great teacher.”
Demeter stepped between them. “Artemis knows how to play the harp, too, doesn’t she?”
“W-well, yeah, she does, but-”
“I’ll bet she’s a good teacher, too,” Demeter dismissed him with a pat on the back. “Who’s next?”
“Hephaestus,” Persephone invited. Hephaestus, who had finally picked himself up from the bottom of the dogpile, came forward. His limp was exaggerated, as it usually is when he’s nervous. He let the thick, velvet pouch under his arm float up to face level. The pouch fell away to reveal a gold necklace set with about a square foot of multicolored jewels, impressively suspended in midair. Everyone looked on in awe as the sunlight on the necklace sent out a blinding rainbow of sparkles in all directions.
“That’s incredible!” Persephone praised. “Can you put it on for me?” she requested with a come-hither smile. Demeter accompanied it with a stay-thither glare. Hephaestus compromised by floating the necklace to Persephone’s décolletage.
But the second the metal touched her flesh, her smile gave way to an expression of absolute pain and a long, agonized scream to match. “HOT!” she managed to form a word as she flung the necklace away. “Ah!” she cried again as she shook out the hand that had touched it. Faint, intricate burn marks decorated her ivory chest.
“What were you thinking?” Demeter berated Hephaestus as he tried to pick up the pieces of the now-broken necklace. “Was this some kind of sick joke?”
“I thought it would be completely cooled by the time I got here,” he apologized. “I had so much work today that I barely had time to finish it. I brought it straight from the forge.”
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t have brought it at all,” said Demeter. “My baby could be scarred for eternity now!”
“It’s already healing, Mom,” Persephone rolled her eyes. “And you know I’ve been wanting a tattoo anyway.”
Persephone subtly turned her head to me and mouthed, I have one.
“My turn,” Ares declared. “Minions, bring it in.” Six of Ares’ soldiers entered, carrying three cloth-covered objects two by two. The first pair unveiled a spear.
“Cool,” said Persephone. “Maybe I’ll take up hunting.”
“Yes, that would be something nice you and Artemis could do together,” Demeter encouraged.
The second pair of soldiers unveiled a shield. In the center was a crest with the letters A and P intertwined. “Enhanced ability power. Nice,” Persephone admired. Hephaestus and Apollo high-fived each other.
“No, it’s for-”
“What’s the last one?” Persephone cut Ares off.
“This last one’s the best,” said Ares. “It’s awesome. You’ll want to thank me for this one over and over again, if you know what I mean.”
“No, you’re a master of verbal subtlety,” Persephone replied. “Let’s see it.”
We all saw it.
“It’s great, isn’t it?” Ares grinned. “Want to try it on? I’ll help you with the buckles.”
Persephone stared. “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FRIGGIN’ MIND?”
“Well, don’t look at me; he made it!” Ares quickly pointed to Hephaestus.
“According to your specifications!” Hephaestus protested.
“I don’t even know what that means!”
“I don’t ask for much,” Hera told her BFF with a frustrated shaking of her head. “All I want is for my sons to get through one event without making me ashamed to be their mother.”
“You have five children,” Demeter comforted her. “It’s easier when there’s just one.”
A dark-clad naiad passed the squabbling siblings and knelt before Persephone, holding a long, rectangular box. By her hair and clothes, I recognized the naiad as native to the River Styx, one of the natural wonders of the Underworld. “Mnemosyne sends this to you with best wishes, My Lady,” she said.
Persephone took the box. I looked on in curiosity, as did my sisters. Apparently they had as little knowledge of Mom’s gifting plans as I did. In the box was a bouquet of white asphodels bound with a black ribbon. I leaned in to peek at the note:
I think it’s your birthday. Here.
PS, Naiads are fickle bitches. Who knew, right?
I couldn’t tell what Persephone was thinking. I’m not sure Persephone could tell what she was thinking, either.
“What lovely flowers,” Demeter admired. “Let me see the note.” She grabbed it before Persephone, dumbstruck and motionless, could stop her. “‘Happy Birthday to Spring’s fairest flower. May your heart’s desire find you. Love always, Mnemosyne.’ Well, isn’t that sweet? You’ll have to write her a really nice thank-you note.”
I made a mental note to have Mom teach me that spell.
A week later, I was hanging out with Persephone in her quarters when Demeter came in to check on us. We were sitting cross-legged on cushions with stationary scattered all around us. “How are the thank-you notes coming?” Demeter asked as she knelt beside us.
“Great,” said Persephone. “Thalia’s been a lot of help.”
“I wish she’d help you get your hair back to normal.”
“I like it black, Mom.”
“Alright, I’m sure this is just a phase,” she said, more to herself than to her daughter. “Can I see your notes?”
“Here’s the one to Mnemosyne.”
Demeter took the note and began to read aloud. I trembled a little, fearing the worst if I failed this test. “‘Dear Mnemosyne, How appropriate that the Goddess of Memory would remember my favorite flower. The bouquet is arranged in a vase in my room. Mom charmed it to stay alive as long as I want. Sincerely, Persephone.’ That’s a very nice letter, honey. I’m sure the rest are, too. I’ll get out of the way and let you finish them.”
“I can’t believe that worked,” Persephone laughed in relief as soon as Demeter was gone.
“Hey, it’s me,” I grinned. I couldn’t believe it, either. “Want me to take the note back to Calliope now?”
“Sure. See you later.”
When I got back to Helicon, I took one more look at the note before I sought out Calliope.
Who knew?? Only everyone who’s ever dated one. And in case you can’t get this through your stupid Helmet of Darkness either, I friggin’ love you, you friggin’ moron.
PS, I liked the flowers.
Reader, she married him. But you already knew that. What you might not know is that, when Minthe found out Hades had gotten married, she had a change of heart and decided she wanted him back. Persephone told us the story the following summer while she was visiting the land of the living. We were all lounging around the Helicon throne room, sipping these citrusy, sugary drinks she’d made.
“Hades said he’d handle her,” she said, “and I was like, uh huh. Right. No chance in Tartarus. So I went to the palace gate to meet the bitch. Can you believe she had the nerve to tell me to my face that Hades deserved her because she was hotter than me? Please! She’s a naiad. I’m a goddess. Do the math.”
“Probably too much to ask,” said Urania.
“Naiads are terminally stupid,” said Melpomene. “They’ve inspired more tragedies than I can count.”
“These drinks are amazing,” said Terpsichore. “Sorry to interrupt the story, but you have to leave the recipe with us.”
“Yeah, I love the flavor this sprig adds,” said Euterpe. “And it smells so good. I don’t think I’ve seen it before. What’s it called?”
Persephone rubbed a tiny green leaf between her fingers, looking far too pleased with herself. She dropped the leaf and gleefully crushed it with her heel.
“It’s my own creation. I call it ‘mint’.”