I never got to sleep that night. I was sure that, as soon as I did, I’d be called before the Fates, and Calliope would be right next to me. My own trials with the Fates had been relatively simple. The hypothesis was that, as the Muse of Comedy, my blessing could invoke a happy ending in real life the way my worshipers write happy endings for their plays. But how might the Fates test Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry? Calliope’s art is the stuff of wars, intrigue, usurpation, great heroics, great betrayals, and great tragedies. An epic isn’t guaranteed a happy ending.
But my worries were for nothing. The Fates didn’t summon me that night, or the next night, or the one after that. Persephone came to Olympus like Calliope said, so Demeter quit the drama. Persephone wouldn’t leave Demeter’s quarters or take visitors, though, so I didn’t get to see her. Nothing eventful in any way, shape, or form happened.
Except freakin’ Aphrodite and her freakin’ baby living in my freakin’ room.
Calliope spent as much of her spare time with the baby as possible. The official reason was that she had solid childcare experience and she wanted to give Aphrodite a break. I was the only one she told the real reason. Calliope was watching for Beroe to start talking. She wanted to see whether Beroe only had Adonis’ memories, or if, like the Corybantes, she had all the memories of the dead. If it was the latter, Orpheus’ memories were buried somewhere in Beroe’s mind, and Calliope would finally have a chance to learn the secret Zeus killed him to protect.
But it usually takes baby gods about a month to start babbling and at least two months to form full sentences, so I was bored. I had no choice but to seek diversion elsewhere.
I’d been neglecting my mortal minions, so I decided to look in on Eustachys, one of my favorite playthings playwrights. Dude had come a long way from herding sheep. His entries at the last two Pythian Games had caught the attention of Ixion, King of the Lapiths. King Ixion had recently hired Eustachys to write, direct, and produce the entertainment for his impending nuptials with Princess Dia. Eustachys was given a suite in King Ixion’s palace and access to all the resources he needed to produce his biggest and best show ever. The wedding was only two months away. I figured if Eustachys was going to credit me in his production (which of course he was), I’d better start inspiring a performance worthy of my name.
I stayed invisible to Eustachys and the other mortals in the palace. It was more fun that way. I hung around his office, whispered an idea in his head every now and then, mocked the terrible ideas he came up with on his own. A good time was had by all.
In the interest of knowing my minion’s audience, I spent a lot of time exploring Ixion’s palace. Ixion himself wasn’t around much, but a person’s home can give you plenty of information about them. My main impressions were that he preferred simple comforts to grandiose opulence (borrring!), his servants were very well cared for (more boring!), his livestock was, too (awww!), and he was an extremely pious man (back to boredom). Okay, that last part was only boring since I wasn’t one of his household gods. He was all about Zeus and Hera.
Man, was he sucking up to Hera! Which made sense to me. If you’re about to get married, appeasing the Goddess of Marriage is a pretty good idea. His shrine to Hera was an amazing work of art for something human-made. His images of Hera had to have been made by people who attended her public appearances at the Games. They weren’t perfect replicas, since she never lets anyone see her up close, but you could tell that whoever made the images had put a lot of care and effort into making the best likeness possible. More than just the physical resemblance, they brought out the best of Hera’s spirit. The nobility, strength, and honor that was subsumed by jealousy, pettiness, and insecurity way too often in reality.
By the eve of the wedding, Eustachys had all the inspiration he needed for an awesome production. My work was done. I didn’t want to go back to Parnassus yet, so I decided to stick around the palace and spy on the almost-newlyweds themselves. King Ixion had returned to his palace. Princess Dia had just moved in, too. Under her parents’ supervision, of course, because we all know every virtuous mortal bride is a virgin on her wedding night, especially if she’s a princess.
When I located Ixion and Dia the night before their wedding, they were in an empty stall in the royal stable being good virtuous virgins. Um, not like I watched or anything. I just, you know, noticed. I kept my eyes averted as I maintained my vantage point in the hay loft.
I waited to really observe them until they were resting in the afterglow with a large, empty wine cask off to the side. They made a beautiful couple. Ixion was dark, broad, rugged, definitely more of an Ares than an Apollo. Dia had silky black hair, a complexion that spoke of summers at seaside, and a body in the prime of mortal womanhood. And…wow, she looked a lot like those images of Hera. So much so that I wondered if I’d gotten the inspiration wrong and Dia herself had been the model.
“This would be so much safer in my quarters, you know,” Ixion said as he regained his breath.
“How much fun would that be?” Dia laughed. “Besides, there’s just something about being in a stable, don’t you think? The dust catching the moonlight, the scent of the straw…the horses.” I was a little disturbed at how thoroughly aroused she seemed by the last part. The resemblance to the Hera images was shoved out of my mind.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to understand that,” Ixion sighed, perplexed but pleased.
“I know,” said Dia, “but it’s sweet that you try.”
“Should I be jealous of the stallion?” Ixion teased.
“We could raid the tack room,” Dia teased back. “See if there’s anything that could aid your imagination.”
“Maybe someday,” said Ixion. “For now you have enough imagination for both of us.” Drowsy with wine and euphoria, the lovers rolled into each other and fell asleep.
Ixion did, anyway. Dia began to stir again after awhile. Seeing her bridegroom’s sleeping form, she laughed the laugh of one whose mate cannot hold their liquor, stretched her arms, and got up.
She walked around the stable in a slow, quiet haze. Every so often she’d stop and stroke a horse’s nose. At the far end of the stable, she came to a magnificent, pure white war horse. He nickered to her. “Well, hello there,” she said as she took his head in hand. “Aren’t you a fine one? Ixion didn’t tell me he’d gotten a new stud.”
She was right. Ixion had, in fact, just referred to the stallion, indicating that there was only supposed to be one. I could see a second one, a chestnut, in a stall near the entrance. Quickly, I snapped up my Helmet of Darkness and put it on. If this stallion was a shapeshifter, I hoped he didn’t mean Dia any harm, and more than that, I hoped he hadn’t seen me.
My suspicions were heightened when the stallion curled his lip at Dia. She laughed. “What I wouldn’t give for the Necklace of Harmonia,” she said. “Legends say it gave the Goddess Harmonia and her mortal bridegroom the power to transform themselves to any creature they chose. They chose snakes. Can you imagine that?” she laughed again. “Snakes, when they could have known each other in a glorious form like yours?”
“My poor, sweet princess,” the stallion said in a voice I would know anywhere. “It can be as you wish.”
I stayed still and silent, though I was panicking inside. Now that I knew the stallion’s true identity, I hoped more than anything that he hadn’t seen me. He knew that I had his wife’s favor, and that I might report to her. I wouldn’t really do any such thing. I’d love to get Zeus in trouble, but knowing Hera, I knew Dia would be the one to pay for whatever was about to happen.
“What’s going on?” Dia faltered. “Who’s talking? Show yourself!” Suddenly, Dia was transformed into a blood bay mare, as impressive a war horse as the white stallion before her.
“Shh, you’re dreaming,” said the stallion as he nuzzled the curve of her back. “You fell asleep after you made love to your bridegroom. He’s standing watch over you now, waiting for you to wake up so he can see you safely back to the palace.”
“This is only a dream?” Dia hesitated.
“Yes, my beauty. A parting gift from Poseidon, God of Horses, whose service you’ll leave as you leave your father’s household. Consider this dream a reward for remaining faithful to a bridegroom who doesn’t share your more imaginative desires. Come now, surely a dream can’t make you unfaithful?”
I wanted to scream. I wanted to wake Ixion. I wanted to run down to Dia and teleport her far away and hide her until I could gather my sisters and restore her form. But doing any of that would have alerted Zeus to my presence. I couldn’t risk making myself a target. Not when Calliope was still so terrified of him. The most I could do was stay put and see how I could help Dia once Zeus was done with her.
“It’s only a dream,” Dia repeated. She reared on her hind legs and shook her luxurious mane as she whinnied in triumph. She led the stallion on a chase out the stable door. I floated after them. Dia jumped the fence into an empty paddock. The stallion followed. Once inside the paddock, he cantered in circles around his delighted captive. I wracked my brain trying to think of who I could summon, but there was no one I could both trust and risk.
A giant flash of smoke in peacock blue, green, purple, and gold interrupted the scene and enveloped the two horses. When the smoke cleared, Dia lay dead in her human form and Hera stood over her.
Zeus reverted to his natural form. “You couldn’t have waited until we were finished?” he shouted.
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I suppose you’ll just have to find some other whore who shares your particular perversions now,” Hera shot back.
“Maybe I wouldn’t have to if my own wife wasn’t a frigid shrew,” said Zeus.
“Maybe your wife wouldn’t be so ‘frigid’ if you actually showed some interest in her natural body!” said Hera.
“I might if it didn’t come with a voice,” said Zeus. “It obviously didn’t come with a brain. Did you even consider the effect Dia’s death is going to have on the politics of this region? Her and Ixion’s marriage would have been to the advantage of both their kingdoms. As the God of Law and Government, I have to keep an eye on these things.”
“And you didn’t see any conflict of interest in jeopardizing their marriage before it had even begun?” said Hera. “Believe it or not, as Queen of the Gods, I’m not completely ignorant of the complexities of political science. And as Goddess of Marriage, I’ve been keeping my eye on Ixion and Dia as well. Dia might have been a pervert, but she was at least a faithful one until you came along and made a whore of her. She would have had my blessing. And Ixion, a far better man than she deserved, would have had my blessing a thousand times over. You destroyed this match and any good that would’ve come of it, not me.”
“That woman lies dead by my hand?” said Zeus. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.”
Come to think of it, I hadn’t actually seen Hera strike the fatal blow. I went through a mental list of people Hera had allegedly cursed. How many did I have an eye witness report on? Callisto? Check. I had seen Hera order her death myself. Echo? Check. Her memories of being cursed by Hera were very detailed and particular. Io? Hm. I never did get the full story from her. She’d called being stuck in the form of a cow for three years “Hera’s curse,” but didn’t tell me if she’d actually seen Hera execute it. Artemis and Athena had said Hera turned Io into a cow, but neither of them had claimed to have seen it, either. In fact, the more I thought about it, I realized Callisto and Echo were my only two eyewitness confirmations. Two. Out of hundreds if not thousands.
“Why don’t we finish this conversation on Olympus?” said Zeus with a subtle but unmistakable threat in his tone.
“I’m not going there or anywhere else with you,” said Hera.
“Suit yourself,” said Zeus. He disappeared.
Hera stood alone with Dia’s corpse. I’d never seen Hera look so tired. So empty. Slowly, she looked around in all directions. I hoped beyond hope that she couldn’t detect me. She didn’t seem to. There was no recognition or focus in her eyes when she looked in my direction. Her whole demeanor begged the universe for something she could only get from herself: permission to cry.
She didn’t give or receive it.
Ixion came running from the direction of the stable. Hera stayed where she was. I assumed Ixion couldn’t see her. She had probably assumed that, too. But we were both wrong.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “What happened to my bride? If you’ve harmed her-”
“She’s dead,” said Hera. “I’ve guarded her body.”
“I awoke just now with a feeling, a premonition, that Dia was in danger,” said Ixion.
“Of course you did,” Hera sighed. I suspected Zeus was responsible for that. Hera probably did, too. I wondered if Zeus was also responsible for the fact that Ixion could see Hera.
“Who are you?” Ixion asked again. “You look like royalty, but I know every noblewoman in Thessaly.”
“I’m not from Thessaly,” said Hera. Technically, Olympus was inside the borders of Thessaly, but no mortal government would be stupid enough to claim ownership of it. Same with Parnassus, Helicon, and the rest of our sacred places.
“Since you won’t tell me who you are, will you at least tell me what happened to the Princess?” he pleaded.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I did.”
“Lady, are you in danger?” asked Ixion, concern for this strange, lone woman intruding on his distress.
“I am more dangerous than you could possibly imagine,” said Hera. “If you knew who I am, you would cower in fear. But I’ll not harm you. You were an honorable and faithful lover, even if your bride wasn’t. I’m sure you would have been a good husband.”
“What are you talking about? Dia loves – loved – me as much as I love her! There was never anyone else!” Ixion protested.
“She was with him tonight,” said Hera. “He left her for dead.”
“How would you know?” asked Ixion, distraught and overwhelmed, but still not directing any anger at his trespasser. “Was he your husband? Were you following him?”
“Why do you say that?” said Hera. “Do I look like a woman whose husband couldn’t be content with her?”
“Not a minute ago, you said I didn’t deserve Dia’s alleged infidelity and that I would have been a good husband,” said Ixion. “How you know anything about either of us, I still don’t understand, but why would that apply to me and not to you? Though, of course, I don’t know that it was your husband, or whether you even have one. I still don’t know anything about you, including why you’re standing over my bride’s corpse.”
“Don’t worry about who I am,” said Hera. “Just be grateful you were spared.”
“Spared from what?” asked Ixion. “Was I your husband’s target? Was Dia a hostage? None of this is making sense.”
“Spared from marriage,” said Hera. “It isn’t worth it.” She gave a bitter smile that couldn’t quite muster an accompanying laugh. “When I was young, and I learned what marriage was for the first time, I thought it was the most wonderful thing I had ever seen. A man and a woman pledging their lives to each other and to the children they would create together. Each dedicating themselves to the other’s care and keeping. Making a home together. Each being the other’s safety. Being able to share themselves with complete vulnerability, without fear of harm, judgment, or rejection. But it doesn’t exist. Any of it. It’s all a cruel illusion, and my life has been nothing but a futile attempt to protect that illusion.”
“Well, you’ve answered my first question about your husband,” said Ixion, his sympathy evident. “You are in danger. If you seek refuge within my walls, it’s yours.”
Hera doesn’t like sympathy. She turned away from Ixion and became the proud ice queen again. “I’m done here,” she said. “Unless you’d like me to stay and witness to your bride’s parents that you didn’t kill her.”
“Then he did?”
“Leave him out of this.”
“You won’t be a very useful witness if you won’t identify the real killer,” said Ixion. “Where will you go? Not back to your husband, I hope?”
“I have nowhere else to go. You offer me refuge only because you have no idea who I am and what I’m capable of,” said Hera.
“I believe you’re innocent,” said Ixion.
“Why?” Hera asked.
“Because you haven’t tried to convince me that you are,” he said. “And I fear that if I turn you away, your fate will be the same as Dia’s. I’m trying to help you. Please let me.”
“You? Help me?” Now Hera did laugh. “My dear, foolish creature. I’m one of the two most powerful beings on earth. I married the other one.”
The mysterious robed noblewoman disappeared before King Ixion’s eyes. He knew then that he’d been visited by Hera, Queen of the Gods.
I took off my helmet, approached Ixion, and made myself visible. He didn’t startle. He seemed too dazed and bewildered to be affected by trivial things like fear. “Ixion?” I said softly.
“Who are you?” he asked. “Hestia? Demeter? Persephone, come to take my Dia to the Underworld?”
“I’m sure she’s already there,” I said. “Hades is one of the most fair and honorable gods in the Pantheon. He decides where mortals spend eternity, not Zeus or Hera, and I just know Dia’s already resting peacefully in the Asphodel Meadows. And I wanted to make sure you knew that she didn’t cheat on you. Zeus shapeshifted, and he convinced her it was just a dream, and they didn’t even get to do it before Hera showed up. Dia loved you. There wasn’t anyone else.”
“Then you saw her die?” said Ixion. “How did it happen?”
“I saw her and Zeus, then I saw a huge cloud of smoke, then I saw Hera, and Dia was dead,” I said. “I didn’t see how it happened. I’m sorry.”
“Can you stay and tell Dia’s parents your story in the morning?” he asked.
“I wish I could,” I said, “but I can’t afford to get stuck in Zeus and Hera’s crossfire. I’m taking a huge risk just by having this conversation.”
“Thank you for taking it,” he said. “It means more than I can tell you. Is there some sacrifice I can thank you with?”
“Can you make sure Eustachys and his troupe still get paid? They’ve been working really hard. Dia would’ve loved the production he came up with,” I said with half a smile. “Lots of horses.”
Ixion looked down at the corpse in his arms. “So that’s why you couldn’t save her,” he said. “You’re only a Muse.”
Having done everything I could, I went home and got some sleep. The next morning I told Calliope everything I’d seen. She was heartbroken over Ixion and Dia’s tragic ending. And, as I’d expected, she was pretty freaked out about my narrow escape with Zeus and Hera, though she was glad I hadn’t kept it from her. She was adamant that it must have been Zeus, not Hera, who’d actually killed Dia. I still didn’t know what to think about that.
Calliope had news for me, too. Big news. Beroe still wasn’t speaking in full sentences, which was a bit of a developmental delay at her age. But Calliope had found a way around that. Remember our Fountain of Imagination? Calliope had discovered that its water could be used as a projection screen for any image in the user’s mind. She’d been using a basin to entertain Beroe. Beroe had tried it a few times herself. She’d used it to project images of Calliope. At first Calliope thought Beroe was just projecting what she saw, but then Calliope’s long-dead lover, King Oegrus, started showing up in the images. He looked the way he had when their son Orpheus was Beroe’s size. Beroe was projecting Orpheus’ childhood memories.
“Does anyone else know?” I asked.
“Only Aphrodite and Apollo,” she said. “We’re keeping it a secret for now. We think it would be best for Beroe to stay here until the end of her growing year.”
“No kidding,” I said. “And she’s still not talking at all?”
“No,” said Calliope. “She doesn’t even babble.”
“Well, let’s hope she’s not saving up.”
Hermes paid us a visit at breakfast the next morning. “Business or pleasure?” asked Aphrodite, who’d joined us in the dining hall as had become her custom.
“Business for now,” he said, lacking his usual jocularity. “You haven’t checked in at Court since the baby was born. Zeus and Hera are getting pretty ticked about it. They had a huge fight this morning, and now they’re ordering you to move back to Olympus and present the baby at a feast they’re throwing tomorrow.”
“I’ll check in all they want, but I’m not moving back, and I don’t want them throwing any feast for my baby,” Aphrodite replied.
“The feast isn’t for Beroe,” said Hermes. “They just want to kill two birds with one stone. See, there’s this mortal king, Ixion, who’s a pretty big deal right now. He was supposed to marry some princess named Dia, but she was found dead the night before the wedding. Her parents think Ixion had her killed to get out of their alliance. He’d promised them half the broodmares in his stables as a token. But he was really pissed off about them accusing him of murder and all that, so he said he wasn’t paying them anything. So Dia’s father got some of his soldiers to extract the horses from Ixion’s stables themselves. Ixion saw that coming. His guards were waiting for them. Dia’s father died in the fight.”
“Charming breakfast conversation,” said Apollo, “but what does this have to do with Aphrodite and Beroe?”
“Well, here’s where things get interesting,” said Hermes. “Poseidon is Dia’s father’s patron god.” Ah, yes, Poseidon. King of the Ocean Realm. As in Hades rules the Underworld, and Poseidon the Seas, because I in my wisdom allow it…I granted them their realms, and I could take them away in a moment if I chose. Thus spake Zeus in the infamous monologue he delivered at the previous year’s Pythian Games. The same monologue in which he’d declared himself Leader of the Fates. Neither Poseidon nor Hades had made any formal comment on it yet, but no one was naïve enough to think they’d disregarded it.
Hermes continued his story. “Right away, Poseidon demanded that Zeus punish Ixion for his ‘treachery’. Which, technically, legally, is not all that inaccurate an assessment of the situation. Ixion had signed an unbreakable contract with Dia’s father, and there was nothing in there about it being contingent on the bride living until the wedding.”
“Let me guess,” said Apollo. “Zeus would’ve punished Ixion anyway, but since Poseidon told Zeus to punish him, now Zeus has somehow come up with a reason to reward him instead?”
“I kid you not,” said Hermes, “Zeus is throwing a feast in this mortal’s honor on Mount Freakin’ Olympus. Tomorrow. And he wants the whole Olympian Court and the Nine Muses to be there, or else.”