3.11 Ashes To Ashes

Athena, Zeus, and Clio were huddled in conference over the score. Clio wasn’t an official judge, but her presence in the huddle wasn’t much of a surprise. Her observation and timekeeping skills were impeccable, so it was only natural that she’d be brought in to consult on the precariously close finish. More noteworthy was Aphrodite’s absence. She’d disappeared without a word as soon as the match was over, which made me think she’d been called to the medic tent. I couldn’t follow without making Apollo suspicious, so I just stayed in the box with him and waited for a verdict.

Which could not have been more awkward. After a few minutes, I opted for breaking the uncomfortable silence. “So, you want that hand job now?” I said.

“Do you mind explaining what all that was about?” Apollo said.

“Turns out if you eat one of these grapes, whoever holds the thyrsus controls your actions for a not-yet-conclusively-determined amount of time,” I said.

“I definitely wasn’t – Why would I even – We’re in public, for Fates’ sake!”

“But you’d be cool with it if we were in private?” I said.

“I – When have I ever asked you for anything like that?” he said, bewildered and embarrassed.

“Never in my recollection,” I said, “but evidently you were thinking about it.” Besides the schadenfreude factor, this line of conversation seemed to be distracting Apollo from the question of how I came to be experimenting with the thyrsus in the first place. So I continued it. “Here,” I tossed it to him. “Why don’t we see what else comes to mind?”

He dropped it like a hot iron and scooted away from it. “I swear, I wasn’t consciously thinking about anything like that,” he insisted.

“But you admit to subconsciously thinking about it?” I grinned.

“It seems I can’t reasonably deny it, but it probably would’ve happened with any sufficiently attractive person,” he said.

“Sufficiently attractive?” I repeated as I dramatically fluttered my eyelashes. “That’s just what every girl dreams of hearing.” I snapped up a small blank scroll and a quill. “Dear Diary,” I quoted aloud as I scribbled nonsense on the scroll, “Today Apollo called me ‘sufficiently attractive’! Happyface, heart heart heart, x-o-x-o.”.

Quite predictably, Apollo incinerated my props. Unpredictably, he overshot a bit and also incinerated the thyrsus.

“Wow. Hope Dionysus has a spare,” I said.

A fanfare from the royal dais saved Apollo from replying. “After careful deliberation,” said Athena, “we have concluded that Poseidon is the winner of this match, which means the tournament is tied. The next match will be tomorrow at the same time. Location to be announced. You are all dismissed. Those in attendance, go forth and celebrate. Those in the tournament, go forth and prepare.”

“What do we do now?” I said to Apollo.

“If I were you, I’d talk to Hephaestus about a new thyrsus,” he said.

“Me? You’re the one who burned it,” I said.

“You’re the one who borrowed it,” he said.

“I had a very good reason for borrowing it,” I said, “that reason being that whatever idiot was holding it could control my physical actions. You would not have been that idiot if you hadn’t taken it away from me in the first place.”

“How was I supposed to know you were holding it for a legitimate purpose?” he said.

“You weren’t,” I said. “But you could’ve given me the benefit of the doubt.”

“Maybe I wouldn’t have been thinking about whatever I was evidently thinking about if you hadn’t kissed me last night.”

“You kissed me back.”

We were quiet for a minute. “Do you really want to have this conversation?” I asked at last.

“I don’t,” said Apollo.

“Awesome. Me neither. I’ll get back to Dionysus and make something up, and you go do whatever you want to do. See you at tomorrow’s match.”

I teleported to the medic tent. Before I could so much as open my mouth to greet the small crowd therein, I felt Apollo summoning me to Parnassus. I ignored him. The sight of Beroe on an exam table struck me as more pressing.

Particularly since she had a huge gash that started on her outer thigh and ran down the length of her leg. Aglaea was doing her best to keep Aphrodite, Dionysus, and Euphrosyne from crowding her. Athena was standing off to the side, perfectly restrained on her own.

“You told me she was fit for anything!” Aphrodite was screaming. “How did you put it? ‘War machine’?”

“I’m fine, Mom,” said Beroe.

“Losing a leg isn’t fine,” said Aphrodite.

“She’s not in danger of losing it,” said Aglaea as she kept working on the gash. “And I didn’t know she’d be fighting sea monsters.”

“Yeah, none of us did,” said Aphrodite. “Because I guess it’s against the rules of Athena’s game to give my daughter enough information to protect herself.”

“I know what Beroe’s capable of,” said Athena. “If I had reason to believe she couldn’t survive a battle with a sea monster, I wouldn’t have let her fight one.”

“I did fine!” Beroe insisted.

“You did better than I would have, love,” said Dionysus. “And if that scars, you’ll be no less beautiful for it.”

“Who friggin’ cares?” said Beroe. “And stop calling me ‘love’. You know we’re not a real couple. I’ve been very honest and – OW! – upfront with you about that.”

“How did this happen?” I asked. “I didn’t see anything, even with spectator vision.”

“On the second wave, I was thrown overboard and snagged my leg on one of Charybdis’ teeth,” said Beroe. “I shapeshifted an uninjured leg since the real Dionysus would’ve healed up on his own by the end of the match. It was just a cosmetic illusion. I can’t really heal a wound from a sea monster on my own.”

“It’s going to be just fine,” said Aglaea. “You’ll be feeling back to normal in no time. But Charybdis is an incredibly powerful creature, so there might be a scar.” Beroe seemed immensely pleased by this idea.

Aphrodite didn’t. “You’re supposed to be pretty powerful yourself,” she said to Aglaea. “What kind of healer are you if you can’t even keep my beautiful baby girl from being disfigured for life?”

“Disfigured?” said Beroe. “Really? Why does everything have to be about looks? Do you even care whether I can still race or hunt or anything else I actually like doing? Would you care about me at all if I hadn’t turned out looking like you and Dad? Or would you have given me away like all the others?”

“Beroe!” Aphrodite cried.

“I need you to stay calm,” Aglaea cautioned Beroe. She quietly motioned to Euphrosyne, who quickly joined her.

“I’m sure your mom just wants you to be happy,” said Euphrosyne as she gently placed a hand on Beroe’s shoulder.

“Yes, exactly,” said Aphrodite. “I’d be miserable if I had to live with a scar like that.”

“Then I guess it’s a good thing I’m not as shallow as you,” said Beroe.

“Yes, you are,” said Athena. “You want it to scar because you think it’ll look badass. It’s the same reason you chop the hair off your head and grow it on your legs. Wanting to look ruggedly masculine isn’t less appearance-conscious than wanting to look elegant, or sensual, or anything else.”

“Thank you,” said Aphrodite. Beroe, who was succumbing to Euphrosyne’s happy spell, didn’t say anything.

“No problem. I have this conversation at home a lot,” said Athena. To Aglaea, she said, “How soon do you think she’ll be ready to compete again?”

“You’re not going to be happy with this,” said Aglaea.

“I accept the full spectrum of emotion as a natural, essential part of existence,” said Athena. “Tell me.”

“I’d give her at least forty-eight hours,” said Aglaea.

Athena was quiet for a moment. I hoped she’d do the sensible thing and trust Aglaea’s judgment, because a struggle between these two goddesses over the well-being of Aglaea’s patient wasn’t something any of us wanted to see.

At last, Athena declared, “You’re the physician. I’ll make up some excuse to delay the next match. You,” she said to Beroe. “Do everything your physician tells you. I want you in prime condition by the next match. You,” she said to Aphrodite, “keep working on your side project. And you,” she said to me, “keep up the moral support.”

“What do I do?” said Dionysus.

“Whatever you usually do,” said Athena.

Dionysus clapped his hands. A wine barrel appeared next to him. “Drinks, anyone?” he offered. I thought about taking him up on it, but I had work to do.

 

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Despite all the chaos at the match, one thing hadn’t escaped my notice: that Hera’s absence continued to have escaped everyone’s notice. Even Zeus’. Athena was pretty damn good at creating a distraction. She’d keep making the spectacles more and more spectacular for as long as it took for Hera to make up her freakin’ mind about Ixion. And, while I was fairly convinced that Athena wouldn’t let Beroe die or be permanently harmed, I also didn’t believe she hadn’t seen this injury coming. She was putting pressure on Aphrodite to work her magic on Hera.

So it looked like the most helpful thing I could do was to join forces with Aphrodite. Telling Aphrodite this would probably be counterproductive. Thus I ended up en route to the grounds of Olympus for a bit of surveillance and reconnaissance.

But first I had an errand at Hephaestus’ workshop. I figured it’d be best to put in the order for a new thyrsus first and pick it up when my surveillance and reconnaissance was done for the day. The door to the workshop was closed. I could hear machinery and low voices inside. “It’s Thalia. Do you have a minute?” I called.

“I’m with a client,” Hephaestus called back. I translated this as You can come in if you’re invisible and I never find out, and acted accordingly. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d done it since I got my Helmet of Darkness.

I teleported inside the workshop. The client was Athena. “Do you think Thalia’s gone now?” she asked, at a volume barely loud enough to be called a whisper.

“I’m sure she’s not,” said Hephaestus. “She’ll probably wait outside until you leave unless she gets bored and distracted first.”

Well, that was insulting.

“Then we’ll have to keep our voices down,” said Athena. I was kind of suspicious. Fooling Athena shouldn’t be that easy. Whatever she was about to say was probably something she wanted me to hear. Wait, if she was about to say something she wanted me to hear, did that mean she already knew I was going to come here? How could she know that? Had she deliberately manipulated me into coming here, or had she just extrapolated this information and used it to her advantage? Or had she really not expected me at all, and was she now improvising? Was I capable of circumventing Athena’s plans the same way I was capable of influencing the Fates? Was anyone capable of circumventing Athena’s plans? Why bother with mind games and manipulation anyway? If there was something she needed me to do, why couldn’t she just say, Hey, Thalia, I need you to do this thing? I’d do it. Probably. Maybe. I think. If I didn’t hate it. Maybe it was something I’d hate and she’d have to make me like it. Did she do this a lot? How many things did I think I wanted to do that were really just things Athena had tricked me into thinking I wanted to do and I actually hated? Why in Tartarus hadn’t Athena taken over the whole Pantheon a long time ago?

“So you’ll take care of it?” I heard Athena say to Hephaestus.

“If you say so,” he said.

I had absolutely no idea what Athena had just asked him to do.

I silently beat my fists toward my forehead, stopping just short of clanging on my helmet. Athena walked toward the door. I hastily teleported out so she’d see me when she opened it. Then I took my helmet off so she’d see me when she opened the door. I held it behind my back and jammed it into a bag. Just in time.

“Hi,” I waved as Athena exited the workshop.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Athena said, “Had to go over some plans for the next match. The plans have to be kept a secret from both contestants, of course.”

“Of course,” I agreed.

“Because if either of them had an unfair advantage, the other could use it to contest the outcome,” said Athena.

“And we do not want contested outcomes,” I shook my head. “Of the outcome. Of the contest.”

“See you at the next match,” said Athena. Then, thankfully, she went on her way.

I entered the workshop and made extra sure to carefully close the door behind me. “I can’t tell you the plans for the tournament,” said Hephaestus. He was locking a roll of parchment, likely the plans for whatever he was supposed to be building for the next match, in a drawer in his workbench.

“Wasn’t even going to ask,” I said. “If, for example, you happened to know whether Dionysus will need to use his thyrsus in any of the matches, I wouldn’t expect you to tell me that.”

“Good, because I can’t,” said Hephaestus.

“But I guess if, hypothetically, Dionysus had lent it to someone and that someone’s idiot Governor incinerated it, Dionysus would miss it before the next match anyway, don’t you think?”

Hephaestus rolled his eyes and let out a long, weary sigh. “I’ll have a new one ready in about an hour,” he said. “It’ll be made to the exact specifications of the other one. Dionysus won’t know the difference.”

“Thank you so, so, SO much,” I said. “I owe you one.”

“Please don’t,” he said.

“And just out of curiosity, what are those specs, exactly?”

“The sooner you leave, the sooner I get started, and the less likely either one of us gets in trouble.”

“Right. Thanks again. I’ll be back later.”

An hour wasn’t much time, which was great in that it’d give Dionysus less time to miss the thyrsus and ask questions about it, but I’d have to be quick about spying on Hera and Ixion.

I put on my helmet and headed for Hera’s pastures. Eris had reported running into “Mom and New Dad” there the other night. Taking Eris at face value was an even worse idea than taking Athena at face value, but it seemed like as good a place to start as any.

I scouted around for awhile and didn’t find anything. Apparently Hera still wasn’t stupid enough to meet Ixion outdoors while it was still light. In that case, there was no way she’d meet him in either her quarters or his. I sat down on a tree stump in the pasture and tried to think. If I were Hera, and I wanted to meet someone without being found by Zeus or by anyone who’d snitch to him, where would I go? She’d never go somewhere like Persephone’s Doom, which had been Aphrodite and Adonis’ favorite hideaway. Helios would turn them in.

Now that I thought of it, that wasn’t the only reason. Persephone’s Doom had been an obvious choice for Aphrodite and Adonis to have an affair. It was a place of unbridled natural sensuality. The perfect spot for two people who wanted nothing more than to succumb to nature. Hera and Ixion, who I figured were still trying not to have an affair, would be looking for the exact opposite. Where would I go if I were with someone I wanted to sleep with, but I didn’t want to sleep with him?

I wouldn’t go.

I went to the palace ring with the guest quarters and knocked on the door of the best chamber. Pomp and circumstance dictated it should go to Poseidon, hence I guessed Zeus hadn’t kicked Ixion out of it in favor of Poseidon. But just to be on the safe side, I left my helmet on when I knocked on the door.

Ixion opened the door himself. This surprised me since I’d imagined Zeus would’ve supplied him with at least one servant. He stepped out and looked around. I darted inside, got rid of my helmet once I was behind Ixion, and went into mortal visibility mode.

“Hey,” I said. Startled, Ixion turned to face me.

He closed the door behind us. “I recognize you,” he said. “You’re that Muse, aren’t you?”

“Thalia,” I said. “I have eight sisters. Not a huge fan of being called ‘that Muse.'”

“Why are you here?” he said. “I did everything you asked regarding the playwright.”

“Oh, yeah, he’s doing great,” I waved him off. Apparently he wasn’t going to offer me a seat, so I betook myself to his chaise and flopped back on it. “The Lapiths are fine. Thessalay’s fine. I hadn’t seen you around at the big tournament that’s been going on, so I thought I’d come check up on you, see how you’re doing, all that. So, how are you?”

“I’m well,” he said. “I’ve abandoned hope of seeing my kingdom again and resigned myself to a life sentence in this gilded prison, but I am well-kept.”

“Do you ever leave your quarters?” I asked. “I’m a big proponent of cage-free, free-range humans.”

“I’m free to walk the grounds,” said Ixion. “Leaving them is another matter.”

“Yeah, I guess it’d be hard for a human to nail the landing,” I said. “Do any of the Olympians ever help you get off? I mean, off of the grounds? Leave the grounds?”

“At times,” he said. His countenance indicated that that was all the information I was getting on that subject.

“What about when you’re at home?” I asked. He seemed nervous, so I tried to let up on the eye contact and, instead, began tracing random squiggles in the grain of the upholstery. “Guests usually either bring their own staff or get one on loan.”

“Three fine meals appear each day,” he said. “I’m told the room reorders itself in the night.”

“Who told you that?” I asked. The existence of self-ordering room technology was news to me. We Muses didn’t bother with a household staff because we have a system and we don’t like people touching our stuff.

“The one who dismissed the servants I was first lent,” he said.

“Why did they do that?” I laughed. “Were they punishing you or experimenting on you?”

“Experimenting?”

“Oh, nothing. The science gods totally don’t experiment on humans without their knowledge or consent ever, so ignore that.” I noticed a loose bit of piping at the back of the couch cushion and suddenly lost the ability to unnotice it. I started picking at it, trying to tuck it back in. “Anyway, it must get lonely here. Do you get many visitors?”

“I prefer when I don’t,” he said.

“Yeah, the Olympians aren’t the best company,” I said. “It’s way more fun on Parnassus. You should visit sometime.” My fingers found their way to the underside of the couch cushion. It was soft and cool. I absently ran my hand back and forth in a soothing rhythm.

“I’ll take that into consideration,” he said.

“Bring a friend if you want,” I offered.

“Thank you.”

“So, um, out of curiosity, if you were going to bring a friend, who would you bring?” I was nailing this reconnaissance thing.

“I would let you know in advance, I assure you.”

“Good. Good.” What was this? I felt something metal poke my fingertips. Being a lover of gaudy, dangly jewelry, I knew that sensation and texture all too well. I hooked my fish and reeled it in. “Hey were you looking for…?” Oh. This ring definitely wasn’t Ixion’s. Pearls, diamonds, and opals were put together by gold to create an exquisite white peacock.

“That’s mine,” said Ixion, holding out his hand.

“Really?” I said. “In that case, you’re an idiot. If an Olympian goddess gave me one of her rings, I’d be a lot more careful with it. You never know what’s going to set one of them off.”

“Very well; no one gave it to me. I don’t know whose it is. It must’ve been left here by accident,” he said, trying again to reach for the ring. I pulled it back.

“Why didn’t you say so?” I said. “I’ll take it to Hephaestus and ask him who the owner is. It’s obviously his work. I’m sure he’ll remember who he made it for.”

Ixion surrendered. “I swear I’ve been with no one since Dia,” he said. “But I do know the owner of that jewel, and it would be best for all concerned if you’d let me return it to her while protecting her anonymity.”

“If you haven’t ‘been’ with her, what is there to protect?” I asked, still holding onto my evidence.

“Her husband would suspect the worst, and things would go very badly for her,” he said.

“Maybe if you tell me the secret, I can help protect it,” I offered. “It’s likely that I have more favor with the lady than with her husband, anyway.”

“Ah,” he nodded. “You’re like Athena.”

“Not that kind of favor,” I rolled my eyes. “And if your lady is who I think she is, she wouldn’t reciprocate anyway.”

There was a shift in Ixion’s countenance. It was then that I knew for certain that he knew that I knew. “She won’t,” he said, “with anyone, and I can’t ask it of her. I couldn’t ask it of any married woman. But for this one especially, it would be a betrayal of everything she is.”

“Maybe you two haven’t done it yet,” I said, with both sympathy and caution, “but can you honestly say you’ve done nothing?”

“We have done nothing,” he said. “Except fall in love.”

“Why not take it all the way, then?” I reasoned. “You’re kind of having an affair anyway. I mean, if I were married and my husband fell in love with someone else and lost jewelry in their couch, I’d feel cheated even if they never touched each other. In fact, honestly, if it came to that, I’d prefer he just left.”

“She can’t abandon her marriage,” he said.

“Then why don’t you back off?” I said. “If she’s so dead set against leaving her husband, things can’t be that bad between them.”

“Things are worse between them than anyone knows,” he said.

“Then why hadn’t she already left him by the time you came along?”

“Could you leave the theater?” he said.

“I have left individual theaters, for all kinds of reasons,” I said. “The acoustics were off, or the stage was too small, or the walls were crumbling around me and the only reasonable course of action was to tear it down and build a new theater. In all of that, I never left The Theater. In fact, if you ask me, staying in those theaters would’ve been a spit in the face to the institution of Theater. I’m a freakin’ goddess. The mortals look to me as their prime example of what comedic theater is. If I hadn’t put my foot down and said ‘This ain’t it,’ what kind of example would I be giving them?”

“Are you honestly suggesting that I persuade this woman to leave her husband for me?” said Ixion.

“I’m not suggesting anything,” I said. “But if I had a friend in that kind of situation, I think I’d encourage her to leave her husband for herself.”

There was a knock at the door. “I was never here,” I hastily whispered right before I teleported away.

Once I was safely in my throne room at Parnassus, it hit me that I’d just missed a great opportunity for information-gathering, and that I should’ve stuck around with my helmet on. But I was still too spooked to try it. It would, of course, not be the first time I’d spied on Hera with my helmet on. I was pretty sure that Mom could see through it at will, though. If she had that power, Hera might have it, too. I couldn’t risk that. Not for myself or for the greater plan.

And, I reasoned, I had done my part for the greater plan. Aphrodite was taking the wrong approach with Hera. Getting her to sleep with Ixion was incidental and basically useless. She’d already fallen in love with him. What needed to happen now was for her to leave Zeus. It could be done. There was already a precedent for divorce among the Olympians, even among the known children of the Titans now. The royals. And who had more authority over the matter than the Goddess of Marriage? I hoped my little pep talk had influenced Ixion, and that he would, in turn, influence Hera.

“Thalia,” Apollo called to me as he entered our throne room. “Can we talk in private? This is very important. I’ve been trying to summon you all afternoon.”

I was out of excuses. “Might as well get it over with,” I said. “My quarters.”

I led the way and kept my mask up the whole time. I wracked my brain trying to think of a good answer for when Apollo would inevitably ask why I’d had Dionysus’ thyrsus. Fates, the thyrsus! I still had to pick it up! Oh well. I’d get it later. Hephaestus wouldn’t mind.

As I led Apollo into my quarters and closed the door behind us, I decided on an incomplete version of the truth. That I wanted Dionysus to win the tournament, so I’d been helping him experiment. A pastoral theater goddess was the last person qualified to teach anyone the noble art of self-defense, but it would be far from the craziest thing I’d ever tried.

I sat down on my couch and invited Apollo to sit next to me. He did. “Spit it out,” I said.

“Once I was home from the match,” he said in a low voice, “I realized that I had no idea why you’d been experimenting with the thyrsus in the first place. I tried summoning you so I could ask, but you ignored me. This gave me a lot of time to formulate my own theories. You’re doing this for Beroe, aren’t you?”

“How did you know?” I went along with it.

“It was obvious once I thought about it. You were right. I’d been so wrapped up in protecting ‘my’ little girl that I hadn’t thought about any of this rationally. And, as much anguish as it brings me to acknowledge this, you have.”

“Go on,” I smirked.

“Someone has to win the tournament. Dionysus is the best candidate. He’s so much more malleable and easily distracted than Poseidon. While either man is likely to forget all about Beroe sooner or later, Poseidon would keep her and neglect her, the same as he did Amphitrite. Dionysus would literally forget all about her eventually, and she’d be free of him.”

I patted Apollo’s shoulder. “I knew you’d catch on sooner or later. Who’s a smart boy?”

He rolled his eyes. “It is a good plan,” he said. “Except for the fact that you’re probably the least-qualified fighting coach imaginable.”

“Hey, bitch came really close to winning today, didn’t he?” I reminded him.

“Close to winning is still losing,” said Apollo. “And while you were away, Hermes brought news that the next game is being delayed because of technical difficulties, which means Athena has more time to come up with something even more spectacularly challenging.”

“You do have a point,” I said. “After I give him the new thyrsus, I’ll back out if that’s what you think is best.” Damn it, why did I say that? Why didn’t I just hold up a Suspicious Behavior sign?

“It isn’t,” said Apollo. “The play is perfect. It’s the casting that needs work. I’m going to help train Dionysus myself.”

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