I managed to catch the flap of the tent from Ixion’s entrance and sneak in after him. It was dark inside. A shadow from the Amphitheater wall kept the moonlight from revealing that the tent was occupied. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, though, I could see without a doubt that it was Hera who stood waiting for Ixion, and who had just told him, “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“Why?” Ixion replied with slightly nervous laughter. “One doesn’t turn down an audience with the Queen of Olympus.”
Hera’s face tightened. “It was an invitation, not an order,” she said. “You were free to refuse. I’ll gladly send you anywhere you’d rather be.”
“Forgive me, My Lady,” said Ixion. “I accepted your invitation because I don’t enjoy loud, cramped festivities, and I do enjoy the privilege of your company. I assumed you extended the invitation because you share these feelings.”
And by “company” did he mean…?
Hera softened. “You’re right,” she said. “The food and wine are always good, but beyond that, I hate these kinds of events. Ceremonial appearances are different, of course.”
“The ceremonies give you a script to follow,” Ixion nodded in sympathy, “and appearing before a crowd isn’t nearly as taxing as mingling among it.”
“Before I met you, I never would have expected a mortal to understand,” she said.
“Before I met you, I never would have expected a goddess to be so…”
“So what?” Hera asked, with a faint look of interest that almost resembled a smile.
“I’m afraid that what I mean as a compliment may sound like an insult,” said Ixion.
“Please, tell me; I want to know what you’re thinking. Whatever it is, I promise not to smite you for it.” That look- Was that- Holy Fates, was Hera flirting?
Ixion laughed and stood more at ease. “So human,” he said.
I dropped to the ground, curled into fetal position, and held my hands over my head.
But Hera only laughed with him. “Many gods would rather have a human than a goddess, it seems, so I suppose I must take that as a compliment.”
“I can’t imagine someone having you and ever wanting anyone else,” said Ixion.
“You’re very kind,” said Hera. “Dia was a fortunate woman.”
“I was a fortunate man while I had her,” said Ixion. “And I must still be charmed by the Fates to have the favor of the Lady Hera. Not to imply that your favor toward me is the same as Dia’s. Rather, the favor of a benevolent queen toward a humble and grateful subject.”
“Are those the only kinds?” said Hera. “Can’t it be the favor of a person who needed a friend and found one in an unlikely place?”
Oh, who in freakin’ Tartarus were they kidding?
“I’m honored to be called your friend, My Lady,” said Ixion.
“Would you call me one, I wonder?” Hera mused. “If you’d never known who I was? If I were just the woman you found beside your bride’s dead body?”
“If I’d still come to know you as I know you now, yes, I believe I would,” said Ixion.
And by “know,” did he mean…?
“Then, would you do something for me?” asked Hera.
“Anything, My Lady,” said Ixion.
“Stop calling me ‘My Lady’. Call me by my own name. At least when we’re alone.”
And how often did that happen, exactly?
“Hera.” Ixion spoke the name with both hesitation and resolve. The hesitation didn’t seem to be from fear so much as from the knowledge that he was doing something inappropriate and improper. I could see a crack appearing in the dam that held back his feelings. “Hera,” he said her name again, with both more and less ease this time, “what are we doing?”
“Meeting. Standing. Talking.” She forced a laugh. “Why, what do mortals call this?”
“A dangerous thing for an honorable man and a married woman.”
Hera’s burning austerity returned. “You and I have known each other for over a year,” she said. “In that time, have I ever offered you my body or asked for yours? I wouldn’t have to ask, you know. I could come to you in another form the way my husband did to your bride. I could put you in an enchanted sleep and have my way with you. Or if I wanted you to be awake, moving, feeling, moaning, crying my name, that could happen, too. Have I done any of this?”
“Of course not,” he said. “You wouldn’t.”
“Well, I wouldn’t betray my marriage, either,” she said. “Although I seem to be the only one in the Pantheon who possesses this rare mystical power, I am quite capable of keeping my loins girded.”
“As am I.”
“Well then, why even mention it?”
“I feel a man and a woman in our situation can’t be too careful, that’s all,” said Ixion.
“Do you know what my situation is?” said Hera. “My situation is that my husband won’t harm you because he’d lose face with Poseidon, but when you say a pleasant word to me, show me any kindness, even look approvingly in my general direction, he takes it out on me.”
“What do you mean?” Ixion asked, his voice full of the same concern that he’d shown the night they met.
“I mean you already know far more than you need to,” said Hera. “My point is that I take pleasure in your company, but if we were to keep company in the open, it would bring me more pain – literal, physical pain – than you could survive.”
“The more reason for us to be careful, then,” said Ixion.
“Which is what I’m doing,” said Hera. “And what I’m trying to explain to you. If we’re to keep company, we have to do it alone.”
“Wouldn’t it be safer for you if we didn’t keep company at all?” Ixion said, unhappy at the prospect but resolute in acting in Hera’s best interest.
“I’ve been denied the love of a husband longer than I care to remember,” said Hera. “I won’t be denied the love of a friend, too, as long as my friend is willing to give it.”
Ixion held his own hand in an obvious effort to keep it from reaching for Hera’s. “As long as I live,” he said, “whatever love I can give you with honor is yours.”
“How long do you want that to be?” she asked.
“No shorter than it has to be,” he said. “Is that a warning, a threat, or idle conversation?”
“An offer,” said Hera. “I can make you immortal. You’d always be as you are now. You’d never know old age or infirmity. You’d never have to leave anyone the way Dia left you. You don’t have to decide tonight, but please tell me you’ll consider it.”
“I’d be a fool not to consider it,” said Ixion, duly overwhelmed by Hera’s offer. “Does your husband know?”
“I don’t need his permission,” said Hera. “I’m a Daughter of the Titans. His equal in power and in rank. If I want to bestow blessings or curses upon my subjects, it’s my choice to make, not his.”
“What would I owe you in return?” he asked.
“Nothing at all.”
“I’ll give it some thought.”
“So,” Hera said with an unnatural nonchalance, “what did you think of the Games?”
“These were some of the best,” he said. “I’ve been to every one since I was a child. May I ask you something?”
“I may not answer, but I won’t punish you for asking,” she said.
“The origin story of the Pythian Games,” he said. “Is there more to it than we’ve heard?”
“You mean are there some extenuating circumstances that cast me as a maligned victim rather than a vindictive cuckold?” Hera said with a hint of bitter amusement. “There aren’t. Did you know Leto was Zeus’ first choice for queen?”
“I didn’t,” said Ixion. I hadn’t known that myself. I wondered if Apollo had kept this information from me by royal decree, or if he didn’t know, either.
“Few people do, and I prefer it that way,” said Hera. “She turned him down. Thought she was too good to be Queen of Olympus, but not too good to be the King’s whore after we were married. Leto did things for my husband that I never would, and I hated her for it. I still hate her children for being more loved by gods and mortals alike than mine. Since their earliest childhood, her twins have been so maddeningly beautiful. I don’t know whether I hate them more for looking like Leto or for looking like Zeus.
“I did, in fact, send a giant python after Leto. Because I could. She couldn’t be killed, of course, but I’d hoped to poison her at least, to cripple her somehow, something to make her less capable and less desirable. I couldn’t even accomplish that. Her goddamned son killed the Python before it ever reached her, and the mortals love him and hate me for the whole incident. That’s what really happened.”
After a moment of contemplative silence, Ixion said, “I think I can sympathize. Dia had these…fantasies? Desires? I don’t quite know what to call them.”
“Perversions?” said Hera.
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Ixion. “But whatever they were, I didn’t share them. I did my best to accommodate them because I wanted to please her, but I could only take it so far. I always wondered whether she was really satisfied with me. It’s my understanding that Zeus…when he…that he fully accommodated her. It’s beyond unfair to be jealous of any part of Zeus’ crimes against Dia, crimes that culminated in murder, but if I were to be perfectly honest, I’d have to say that jealousy is among the many and varied feelings I have over the whole scenario.”
“The murder was my crime,” said Hera.
“You don’t have to defend him,” said Ixion.
“I’m not,” said Hera. “If I hadn’t shown up, he’d have had his way with her and left. He may have come back, or he may have gotten bored with her and moved on to the next temptation. We’ll never know. In any case, it’s almost certain that, if I hadn’t come, Dia would now be your wife and you would be none the wiser.”
“I won’t let you blame yourself,” said Ixion. “Even if Zeus did kill her because you showed up, it was still his choice and his action.”
“Don’t do this,” said Hera. “Stop trying to make me better than I am. I killed Dia. Dia died by my hand. It is because of my actions that she is dead. Do you understand that? Do you care for the Hera that is, or for a paragon of virtue that exists only in your mind?”
“How am I supposed to know what happened if you’ve never told me?” said Ixion.
“You were in mourning,” said Hera. “I wanted to respect that.”
“It’s been long enough,” said Ixion. “Tell me.”
“I struck her,” said Hera. “My magic isn’t nearly as powerful as one of Zeus’ lightning bolts, but it’s strong enough to give a god injury and pain. I aimed a blow at him, he dodged, and Dia was left in the line of fire. She died instantly.”
“That’s not murder,” said Ixion.
“It was killing,” said Hera. “Intent doesn’t change the outcome. What else do you want to absolve me of? My son’s limp? I really did that, too. I threw my own baby off Mount Olympus. That happened. Of course I wasn’t trying to cripple him. I honestly can’t say what the intent was in that moment, or whether there was any intent or coherent thought at all. It was such an overwhelming, incoherent tangle of emotion. This visceral sense that I had to get that screaming, useless thing away from me or I’d go even more mad than I already was. I was nursing him on a balcony. There was no thought. No deliberation. I just threw him. And now he’ll be crippled for eternity. That medical genius he married can’t even fix him. My lack of intent won’t change that.”
“I never asked about your son’s injury,” said Ixion. “I don’t know what to say, except that it seems you’re trying your best to make me hate you, and it isn’t working. I doubt you asked me here to tell me all the reasons I should be terrified of you. Isn’t there anything else you’d rather speak of?”
“How about if we don’t speak?” said Hera.
“That would suit me,” he replied with calm sincerity.
Hera reached out for his hand. He gave it. They stood side by side, facing ahead rather than toward each other, keeping a reasonable width between them. The ensuing silence was comfortable and amiable for them, but boring for me.
Until suddenly, a wild Aphrodite appeared. “Hey, slut!” she grinned. Hera dropped Ixion’s hand like a hot coal. Aphrodite wrung her own hands in delight. Ixion clearly couldn’t see the second goddess.
“This is completely innocent,” said Hera.
“Of course it is,” Ixion said in a reassuring tone. Man, did that guy have a White Knight thing going on.
“If it were innocent, I wouldn’t be here,” Aphrodite exulted. “The sexual tension here was so high, I just had to see who was generating it and if I could help resolve it. You know what this means, don’t you? You are never allowed to call me a whore again,” she laughed.
“Excuse me for a moment. Please don’t leave,” Hera said to Ixion, after which I presume she went invisible to him. “I’ll call you whatever I happen to think is fitting,” she said to Aphrodite.
“Will you, now? Let’s look at your file and see what would be fitting for a married woman who can’t keep her mind and who knows what else off her husband’s honored guest.” Aphrodite waved her hand. A scroll the size of a small tree trunk hung in midair. Hera disintegrated it. “Good thing that was a decoy,” Aphrodite gloated. “That’s okay. You’ve told me everything I need to know.”
“I haven’t done anything,” said Hera.
“Ohhh, but you’ve thought it,” said Aphrodite. “You’re thinking it right now. So is he. The tension between you two is almost tangible to me. I could snap my fingers and you’d both instantly lose the silly reservations that are keeping you apart.”
Hera leapt forward and grabbed Aphrodite’s hands. “Don’t. Even. Think about it.”
“But it would be the greatest, most benevolent act of my entire career,” Aphrodite pouted. “Would you like to see my ‘Hera Needs To Get Laid’ petition? I’m not sure the Amphitheater’s long enough to unroll the whole thing, but you’d get the idea.”
“You will not cast any spells. You will not speak of this to anyone, including me, again. You will not, for any intents and purposes, remember any of this after you leave, which you will do now,” Hera ordered.
“And why will I not do or do any of that?”
Hera sighed. “What do you want?”
“I want you to give Amphitrite that divorce,” said Aphrodite.
“What does that matter to you?” said Hera. “You’re the one who made her fall in love with Poseidon in the first place.”
“He wouldn’t back off, the marriage seemed inevitable, and it felt like the least I could do,” said Aphrodite. “But now he wants to let her go, and I want you to let him.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Hera. “Why didn’t you neutralize Poseidon’s desire in the first place?”
“She was a virgin,” said Aphrodite, “and I was getting sick of it. I knew from experience that Poseidon was great in bed. Especially underwater. You should try that sometime. Anyway, I thought she’d eventually fall in love with him for real or at least start liking sex for real. As it turned out, neither one of those happened. But let’s get back to you and your mortal boy toy. Would you like me to send you to a private seaside resort? I’ll keep Zeus distracted. He’ll never know you were gone.”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” said Hera.
“Suit yourself,” Aphrodite shrugged. “Keep playing the perfect marriage goddess with Zeus and being ‘friends’ with your little pet alone at night in the shadows of an abandoned theater. But if you want to keep that friendship a secret, there’s more that you’ll have to do.”
“You’ll start being a lot nicer to me,” said Aphrodite. “You’ll STFU about me divorcing your son. You’ll stop freezing me out of your clique. You’ll never again call me any name that implies there’s anything wrong with the proud and noble profession of sex work. You’ll never again speak to me in a disparaging way of any kind. In short, you’ll be my bitch.”
“Hypocritical much?” said Hera.
“Take it or leave it,” said Aphrodite.
“I’ll take it,” Hera conceded in desperation as much as in anger. “Now, go. Tell Amphitrite that I’ve yet again authorized the blasphemy of my sacred institution.”
“Ah, ah, ah!”
“That was about her divorce, not yours,” said Hera. “Go.”
Aphrodite obeyed. Almost. She made a quick detour to stage-whisper in Ixion’s oblivious ear, “She wants to nail you.” Then she teleported away before Hera’s hand could collide with her face.
Hera made herself visible to Ixion again. “All taken care of,” she said. But she kept her hands to herself.
“What happened?” Ixion asked. “Is everything all right?”
“It will be in a moment,” said Hera. She waved her hand. She and Ixion morphed into a middle-aged human couple that bore no resemblance to their real forms. Ixion looked at his changed form with some discomfort. “I should have done this from the beginning,” said Hera. She brushed a stray lock of grey hair out of her face. “If anyone else finds us, there’s no way they’ll recognize us. I hate shapeshifting, though.”
“But Leto didn’t?” said Ixion. “That’s how the tale goes, anyway.”
“I don’t know whether she liked it. I can’t say I care either way,” said Hera. “The fact is, she did it.” Hera was silent for a moment. Then she laughed. “Quail,” she said. “Honestly…quail? Who does that? Who even thinks of that?”
“I can’t imagine,” Ixion said with an apprehensive laugh. “Then again, as I said, I never understood Dia’s horse fantasy, either.”
“Is it really so dull for two people to come together as themselves?” said Hera. “No pretense, no artifice, no theatrics, just a husband and wife uniting their bodies to reflect the union of their souls?”
“Yes, when did that fall out of fashion?”
“I’m well over a thousand years old,” said Hera. “I don’t think it was ever in fashion. Even among my disciples.”
“I’ve worshiped at your altar since my youth,” said Ixion, “and for what little this is worth, it sounds perfect to me.”
Holy Fates, Hera, just take him already! I wanted to scream. But she didn’t, as I knew she wouldn’t.
Where was this thing headed? If they really believed they were just friends, they were shoveling more crap than the Augean stablehands, but I actually found it entirely plausible that they weren’t doing anything physical and that they both had the capacity to keep it that way. Would anyone else believe it? Aphrodite didn’t. And while Hera believed Aphrodite was the only one who knew, I knew she was wrong on at least one count. She had been pretty stupid to meet Ixion in her own form, even in such a secluded meeting place. How many other times had she been this stupid? With as many frenemies and enemies as Hera had at court, it was only a matter of time before this got back to Zeus. What would happen then? What if that was what Beroe saw? What if the thought of Hera cheating on him with a mortal would drive Zeus to create a new weapon that could actually kill her?
And if he had the power to kill a child of the Titans, what would that mean for the rest of us? What about the Furies? Could they fight back? Did they need all three for their powers to work? Would Amphitrite remember she was a Fury now that the love spell was broken? Could we resurrect Adonis without getting in too much trouble with Hades and Persephone? Good grief, was I actually wanting to bring back that little blond bitch?
The horror of this thought shocked me back into the present. Where I remembered a party was going on. A party to which I had been invited. A party with wine and dancing and wine and beautiful men and wine and food and wine. Screw court intrigue. Screw Hera. Screw the Furies. Screw Adonis. Screw anyone screwing Adonis. I had come to party, and that’s what I was going to do.