2.6 Shooting Stars

Nothing worth talking about happened for the next couple of weeks. Unless you consider the Muses’ idiot governor spending most of his spare time on Helicon thinking he could save a two-faced liar from hirself worth talking about. I don’t.

I wished my sister Melpomene shared that sentiment. She and I had been hosting a joint theater workshop at the Corycian Cave in preparation for the Pythian Games. I was training my human worshippers in the art of comedy, and she was training hers in tragedy. “I’m so going to take home that trophy this year,” she playfully taunted me when practice was over and our contestants had cleared out.

“You wish,” I mustered a retort from behind my comic mask.

“I know I will if you keep this up,” she said. “You go back and forth between driving your contestants into the ground and hardly paying attention to them at all.”

“Part of comedy is the element of surprise,” I shrugged. “Gotta keep ’em guessing.”

“I couldn’t help noticing that sketch where the antagonist named Schmadonis-”

“A very common name.”

“- Gets carved into bite-sized pieces and fed to vultures,” Mel said. “I never would’ve thought to play that for laughs, but you did make it work.”

“Yep, I’m a friggin’ comedic genius.”

“Honey, are you doing alright?”

“I’m fine, Mel!” I snapped. “It’s just…everything’s so…I don’t…I’m fine, okay?”

Mel held out her hand and caught a teardrop that dripped out from under my mask. “You want to just sit here and be fine together for awhile?” she offered.

“Yeah,” I accepted. “I’d like that.” We sat down right inside the cave. Mel took my hand. I didn’t take it away.

“Maybe later we can find a human ignoramus and turn it into a famous politician,” she offered. “We both love that, and we haven’t done it in so long.”

“I do love that.”

Later that week, I tried escaping to my hollow for some me-time. Alas, I found Echo, who had been anxiously waiting for me.

“Did you ever tell Callisto whether her baby was a boy or a girl?” she asked before I had a chance to dismount Pegasus.

“Oh man, Echo, I forgot all about that! I’m so sorry.” I really had forgotten, and I did feel bad about it. I’d also practically forgotten about the whole matter with Callisto, Artemis, Athena, and the Fates. I’d been steering clear of Athena as per her request. Artemis had been avoiding everyone. She’d drive the moon, go to bed, get up, drive the moon again, go back to bed. Her hunters had been operating under a substitute commander chosen from within their ranks. Apollo would’ve never let this go on so long under normal circumstances, but he’d been preoccupied. Likewise, Artemis’ own preoccupation was surely the only reason she hadn’t put an arrow through Adonis’ excuse for a heart.

“So you don’t know where Callisto is?” Echo asked.

“No. Don’t you?”

“After the baby shower, she went home with a couple of the other girls. I didn’t think anything of it when she didn’t come back the first day, or the second day, or the third day, or the fourth day, and I was kind of worried by the fifth day but Pan said not to worry about it so I didn’t worry, but then it was a whole week, so I asked the girls she went home with and they both thought she was with me. She’d gone out for a run the day after the party and she never came back. We’ve talked to all the other hunters, and none of them know where she is. They all thought she was with someone else or with me, but I guess I’m someone else too.”

“Has anyone asked Artemis about her?”

“Artemis hasn’t talked to any of us and we’re all scared to,” said Echo. “But I thought maybe you could ask her or at least ask Apollo to ask her.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Meet me here tomorrow.”

Having a conversation with Apollo was the last thing I felt like doing, so I chose the much dumber option. Since I knew Artemis wouldn’t answer a summons from me, I teleported to the Olympian stables to wait for her. She should be there soon. Lately she’d been setting out in her chariot hours before Helios got home. But it turned out I wasn’t the only one waiting for Artemis.

Fortunately, I saw Hera before anyone saw me. I ducked behind a stack of hay bales and hoped it wasn’t feeding time. Artemis approached as I had predicted. When she saw Hera, she started to turn away from her.

“Artemis!” Hera’s sharp voice froze her. “I’ve been summoning you all day. Why haven’t you answered me?”

“I was asleep,” she said with a clenched jaw. “Does that offend you, my lady?”

“Please, not even a mortal needs the amount of sleep you’ve been taking,” Hera disregarded her. “There’s a bear near my pastures and I need you to take care of it.”

“Has it eaten any of your cattle?” asked Artemis.

“No, but it will soon enough,” said Hera. “You’re not leaving with this chariot until you dispose of it.”

“There’s no need to kill it,” Artemis said. “I’ll take it to my woods. There are plenty of deer there. Bears have to eat their fill so there aren’t too many deer to share the vegetation.”

“Artemis, I want it dead!” Hera ordered. “Now, you can take it down yourself with one clean shot, or I can find someone else who’ll try their best, inferior to yours though it may be. Those are your options.”

“Fine,” Artemis resigned. Her eyes were as numb as her voice. She was too tired to fight. She and Hera teleported to the pastures.

I ran to the kennel, took one of Artemis’ hunting hounds, and teleported to the pasture myself. “Find Artemis, but keep us hidden,” I whispered to the hound. She led me though brush and tall grass until we came in view of Artemis and Hera on the outskirts of the pasture. We laid under a shrub tree, shielded from the two goddesses’ sight.

“There it is,” Hera said quietly as she pointed into the thicket. I could see the bear perfectly with my spectator vision. It was gigantic, lumbering, almost grotesque in its massiveness. Its claws must have been a foot long, and I could’ve lost an arm in its fur.

“I can’t shoot her; she’s pregnant!” Artemis protested at a similar volume.

“How can you tell?” Hera was taken aback.

“I’m the protector of animals and pregnant women,” said Artemis, her tone warning Hera not to tax her with more stupid questions.

“Very well,” said Hera. “Protect that pregnant animal from being hunted by a clumsy amateur.”

“I can’t hunt that bear any more than you, the Goddess of Marriage, can cheat on your husband.”

“Don’t think of it as a hunt, think of it as an execution!” Hera hissed. “Get it over with before I rip that bow and quiver off your back and do it myself.”

“Whatever,” Artemis returned to her numb state. “I’ll shoot it and dispose of the body, and then I’m getting back to my real job.”

But then, the bear saw Artemis. She turned her enormous head and made deliberate, anguished eye contact with the golden huntress. She held up a paw and groaned, not as though she were pleading for her life, but as though she were praying for death.

“I have to do this,” Artemis cried. “It’s better from me. Please be still; it won’t hurt so much,” she begged. “One sting and then you’ll sleep.”

In the blink of an eye, the arrow found its mark. The bear let out a roar as her immense body heaved to the ground. I held the hound, calming her from the shock of the impact and keeping her from running to comfort her mistress. Artemis couldn’t muster the effort to stop her tears from falling or to accompany them with audible sobs or a change of expression. “Satisfied?” she said to Hera.

Hera flicked her hand at the carcass. The great she-bear shrunk from view.

In her place was a tiny, naked, obviously pregnant nymph.

“Yes,” said Hera. “Now dispose of the body as you agreed.”

“What have you done?” Artemis shouted, staring in disbelief at Callisto’s still form.

“Me? I haven’t done a thing. You, on the other hand, seem to have solved both our problems.”

“If I’d wanted to solve my problem by killing my friend, I wouldn’t have needed to be tricked into it. And why in Atropos’ name would you- it was him, wasn’t it? Zeus did this? As…he…” Artemis fell silent. With rigid jaw and burning eyes, she sprinted toward Callisto’s body.

The hound broke away from me and shot after her mistress. Artemis looked over her shoulder and shouted, “Stay!” The hound obeyed. Artemis reached Callisto’s body and dropped to the ground beside it. “Go,” she said to Hera through her numb, involuntary tears. “Just go. I’ll take care of this.”

“So dramatic,” Hera tsked. Thankfully, she left.

“Come,” Artemis called to the hound. Again, the hound obeyed. “Come!” she repeated. Silence. “Thalia, here, now!” Artemis shouted. Speechless and trembling, I obeyed as well as the hound had. Artemis picked up the corpse. “I’m summoning my chariot,” she said. “Hold on.”

I held on to Artemis’ shoulder. In a flash, we four were in her silver chariot high above Olympus with the moon trailing behind us in a darkening, sunset-streaked sky. Artemis quickly wrapped the horses’ reins around a hook. They knew their route. Her hands were freed to tend to Callisto’s body.

“Cover her,” Artemis said to me. “Do your theater goddess thing.” Wordlessly, I snapped a hooded dressing gown onto Callisto’s corpse. “It’s safe,” Artemis said. “You can talk now.”

“I don’t know what to say,” I faltered.

“Not you,” she brushed me off. “Callisto, please, say something. Open your eyes if you can. It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you. No one’s going to hurt you.”

Callisto’s eyes opened with much effort. “My lady,” she said weakly. “Please forgive me.”

“Don’t say that,” Artemis wept. “Don’t you dare apologize. Don’t you ever, ever apologize for any of this. I should have known. I should have believed you. Nothing can make up for the way I’ve treated you.”

“Dying in your arms is more than I ever dreamed of,” Callisto managed a faint smile.

“You’ll have to dream bigger, because you’re not going to die,” said Artemis. “At least not tonight. Not for Zeus’ crime and my stupidity. Thalia, can you hold her while I pull the arrow out?”

“Yes.” I could see now that the arrow had hit Callisto in a non-lethal spot. Removing the arrow should still have resulted in major blood loss, but as I predicted, Artemis used her healing powers to stop it.

“I’m so sorry,” Artemis kissed the closed wound. “I’m so sorry. I should have known.”

“I should have known it was too good to be true,” said Callisto. “It was so stupid, thinking there was any chance you could love me the way I love you. You’re one of the Twelve, and I’m just some silly little nymph.”

“Callisto, you were one of the best hunters I ever had,” said Artemis. “You being part of the team made it better. Seeing you always brightened my day. You were a very special part of my life, and I hated losing you. But that kind of desire, that kind of love, I don’t feel it for anyone. I never have. I don’t even think I can. But I do love you, the way I’d love you if you were my sister.”

“If I were your sister, I suppose this wouldn’t have happened.”

Artemis grabbed Callisto and held her tightly. She didn’t say a word for the longest time, but her face spoke volumes. Horror and rage fought for supremacy. Rage maintained a slight lead. At last, Artemis said, “I wish I could give you your old life back, but I’ll do whatever I can to give you a new one. I’ll build you a home in the night sky where I can protect you. Hera and —no one will be able to touch you. I’ll bring the other hunters to visit you as often as you want so you won’t be lonely. Will that be all right with you?”

“If you say it’s all right, I trust you,” said Callisto.

The constellations that you mortals see are only shells of the creatures that inhabit them. They’re kind of like houses, I guess, if houses were ships that sailed along a set course forever. The god who creates the constellation sets the course, and the creature inside the constellation has no power to change it. When the demigod Orion wouldn’t quit stalking Artemis, Apollo stuck him in the sky right in the path of the monster Scorpio, one of Zeus’ pets. They’ve been chasing each other in circles ever since.

“Where are you going to put me?” asked Callisto.

“I’ll put you between a couple of Athena’s pets,” said Artemis. “They’ll guard you.”

“Are you sure they won’t turn on me? A jealous Athena probably isn’t much better than a jealous Hera.”

“I don’t know why Athena would be jealous,” Artemis comforted her. Emotional intelligence, I concluded, must be in the blood.

Artemis worked all night on Callisto’s constellation. It was spacious and comfortable, and, in an act of poetic justice, shaped like a giant bear. Artemis set it between Draco and Leo, a dragon and a lion. Athena isn’t that original when it comes to naming her pets. My contribution was to give Callisto a new wardrobe and furniture.

“I guess I’ll go home as soon as we pull in,” I commented as the chariot neared Olympus

“Not until I can take you myself,” Artemis ordered. I couldn’t see any danger in teleporting back to the Museum. I could, however, see plenty of danger in arguing with Artemis at the moment, so I dropped the subject.

Artemis halted the chariot and Athena appeared in it. Athena’s countenance was that of a woman who’d been ignored by the object of her affection for weeks and was now being summoned as though nothing had happened.

“What?” she greeted Artemis.

“Teleport Thalia to my quarters now,” Artemis issued her rushed directive. “I’ll be there as soon as I put up the horses and the dog.”

“You can’t take Thalia yourself?” Athena replied.

“I can’t let her be seen with me.”

“Why? Is she pregnant, too?”

I silently but vigorously shook my head.

“I’ll explain everything as soon as I get there,” said Artemis. “Just please, take her.”

“Fine.”

Athena took me to Artemis’ quarters. “I don’t suppose you can tell me what this is all about?” she asked me.

“I think Artemis needs to be the one to do that,” I said.

“Can you at least tell me why she thinks you need a bodyguard?”

“Because she’s Apollo’s twin?” I attempted to lighten the mood. I failed. “I was somewhere I shouldn’t have been and saw something I probably shouldn’t have seen,” I tried again sans levity. To my relief, Athena accepted that answer without further question. We sat down on the couch and waited for Artemis. I wrapped myself in a blanket because I felt like it.

Artemis arrived. She sat down between us and told Athena the whole story. Though, curiously enough, she left out the conversation where Callisto said she was in love with her. “I don’t know what to do from here,” Artemis concluded the story.

“You’ve done everything you can,” said Athena, going into strategy goddess mode. “You’ve removed Callisto from danger, and you’ve made provisions for her future.”

“That’s not everything,” said Artemis. “I still have to make him pay for it.”

“Artemis, no!” Athena grabbed her arm. “Have you lost your mind? You can’t attack Zeus!”

“Why not?” Artemis demanded.

“Because you’ll lose! Why do you think no one in the Pantheon has ever challenged his reign? Why do you think Hera only goes after his mistresses?”

“Don’t you dare call Callisto a mistress,” Artemis shouted in a whisper. “Do not try to pretend there was anything consensual about what Zeus did to her.”

“I didn’t mean-”

“I’m sick of all the pretending,” Artemis went on. “When is someone going to call it what it is? When is someone going to stand before Zeus, face him, and call him what he is?”

“Can it please not be today?” Athena begged.

“And what about Hera? When is someone going to tell her to her face what we’re all thinking? That she could be using her power to aid his victims, but instead she punishes them because she’s a petty, self-centered coward who wants to make sure they’re as miserable as she is?”

“Not today,” Athena repeated, tightening her grip on Artemis’ arm.

“They can’t kill me,” said Artemis.

“And you think that’s the only way to hurt someone?”

“I don’t care about getting hurt. Callisto was assaulted on my watch, and I punished her for telling me it happened.”

“And now you want to punish yourself,” Athena deduced.

It was then that I remembered my throat could make sounds which, if arranged in recognizable patterns, would allow me to communicate with those around me. “Artemis,” I said, “please, think about what it would do to your brother if anything happened to you.”

“What could happen to me?” she said. “Say Zeus hits me with a lightning bolt. I’ll be stunned and in pain, maybe for an hour, maybe for days, who knows. It’s different depending on the target and the force of the attack. But I can’t die.”

“Will you please use your head for once?” said Athena. “You know Zeus’ lightning bolt supply is finite now. If you’re so set on getting revenge, wait until he runs out.”

“Use my head for once?” Artemis thrust Athena’s hands away from her. “Like you do every time someone suggests it’s just possible that you aren’t the hottest, most talented thing in the universe?”

“At least I don’t flip out every time someone suggests I am hot,” Athena shot back.

“Forgive me for thinking there’s more to being a goddess than making sure I’m the center of attention all the time.”

“You’re the only goddess who can’t handle any attention,” Athena accused. “Why? Why can’t you accept that you’re beautiful, and that people see that, and that sometimes they fall in love with you?”

“I know they do. That’s when I shoot them.”

“Desire doesn’t have to be a threat,” said Athena.

“You’re going to lecture me on threat identification? You turned that mortal woman, Arachne, into a spider because she said she was a better weaver than you,” Artemis argued. “How was that a threat? Unless it was true. It could’ve been, for all I know. None of us got to see Arachne’s tapestry. You shredded it before anyone had a chance.”

“You’d thank me for that if you knew what was on it,” Athena said quietly.

“And now I never will know.”

“That was my intention.”

“Yes, another fine example of the Goddess of Wisdom using her head!” Artemis seemed to be addressing me here. I shrank into my corner of the couch a little more, hoping they’d go back to ignoring my presence. I wished I could help the situation, but they were beyond the reach of humor. What could I do? I thought of summoning Apollo, but I knew he’d be even more freaked out than Athena at the thought of Artemis leading a charge against Zeus.

“Alright, you want to know what was on the tapestry?” said Athena. “Which was, incidentally, the finest work I’d ever seen by a mortal. Every detail was perfect. You would have sworn you were looking at a painting.”

“What was it?”

“It was a porno extravaganza of Zeus’ most famous animal shapeshifting ‘affairs’. Guess who made the center?”

Artemis fell silent.

That lasted for about three seconds. “My mom’s not a whore,” she said.

“I know that,” Athena tried to calm her.

“She only let Zeus do the quail thing with her so her sister could get away,” said Artemis.

“I know that,” Athena tried again.

“I don’t care who says otherwise; coerced consent isn’t consent at all.”

“Artemis, I know that! That’s why I didn’t want anyone, especially you, to see that damned tapestry! I didn’t want you to be hurt then, and I don’t want you to be hurt now. So I’m begging you, please,” she said as she took Artemis’ hands with a gentle urgency, “take some time to rest and clear your head before you run off on some vengeance kick.”

“If you were really my friend,” said Artemis, “you wouldn’t try to stop me, you’d help me.”

“Your friend?” Athena laughed in frustrated disbelief. “If I were really your friends? Yeah, okay. Maybe you have a point. You spend most of your spare time with me. You tell me everything about your life. Every triumph and every trial, I’m the first one you bring it to, and you’re always there for me to do the same. You hold my hand for no reason. You tease me all the time, and you blush when I tease you back. You get defensive when other people flirt with me. You tangle my hair just so you can comb it smooth again. You sleep in my quarters as often as your own. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I’m not really your friend.”

Artemis stared at Athena like a deer that knows it’s been cornered by a pack of hounds. “Let go of me,” the words forced their way out of her tightened throat. Athena let go. Artemis sprinted out of the room and into the corridor.

“Aren’t you going after her?” I asked Athena.

“Why did I say that?” Athena fretted, more to herself than to me. “I knew she’d do that. Why did I say it? Why is the one thing that means more to me than anything else in the world the only thing I can’t keep my head about?” She turned away from me. “Thalia, you go after her. Please. If I do, I’ll just make things worse.”

Still numb with shock, I obeyed. I ran out the door in the direction of the throne room, guessing that was where Artemis was heading. An unwelcome sight stopped me as I rounded the curve.

Eris.

2.5 Rumor Has It

“Alright, great dance practice,” said Apollo. “You all can do your own thing now. I might be late for dinner.” Having dismissed us, he teleported away almost before he’d finished his last sentence.

I ignored him and ran after Calliope. When I caught up with her at the steps of the Museum, I asked, “He’s going to Helicon, isn’t he?”

“Most likely,” she disapproved.

“And you’re not going along to chaperon again?”

“I think Persephone has that under control,” said Calliope. “Maybe a little too much control. Adonis is just waiting for an opportunity to rebel.”

“He’s taken it,” I whispered. “Last night at midnight I saw him with Aphrodite.”

“Were you spying on him?” Calliope was horrified at the thought.

“No! Aphrodite summoned me. It’s a long story that I’d rather not tell you.”

“And I’m sure I’d rather not hear it,” she concurred. “Are you sure she and Adonis were, you know, together?”

“I don’t know. I suppose he could’ve been in her bed spooning her naked body in a chaste, brotherly manner.”

“Oh dear.”

“He said Apollo knew. Do you think he was telling the truth?”

“I don’t know,” said Calliope. “I don’t have a good feeling about him. I think it’s entirely possible that he lied to you so you wouldn’t tell Apollo.”

“That was my thought, too,” I said. “Apollo being two-timed wouldn’t be anything new, but he usually doesn’t consciously know about it and accept it. He stays oblivious to it until it’s staring him in the face.”

“You really do have a type,” Calliope commented.

“What are you talking about? I don’t have anything, except a dilemma as to whether or not I should tell Apollo what I saw last night.”

“You know he’ll ask why you were in Aphrodite’s quarters in the first place if you do tell him.”

“I’ll tell him the truth,” I said. Defending Artemis’ virginal reputation was surely a worthy goal in Apollo’s eyes.

“And he’ll think you’re acting jealous.”

“I’m not.”

“Really?”

“I just don’t want him to get hurt again, okay?”

“And I don’t want you to get hurt again,” said Calliope. “You think nobody sees it. I think you even convince yourself that you don’t see it. But every single time, with every one of them since Coronis, when Apollo gets his heart broken, yours breaks right along with it.”

“So why put off the inevitable?”

“Has trying to warn him ever worked in the past?”

“No,” I sighed. “I guess I’ll just let him figure it out on his own. The kid goes home in three months anyway.”

“That’s what I’m counting on,” said Calliope.

“If you think Adonis is trouble, why did you rent out the Museum in the first place?” I asked.

“I thought it would be a good way to keep an eye on him,” she said. “Not only in regard to Apollo. It’s much more complicated than that. I don’t quite know how to explain it. I just have this feeling about Adonis. Like there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye.”

“Any of it good?”

“I don’t know,” she pondered. “I really don’t know.”

After lunch, I was feeling too restless to work on any of my solo projects, so I decided to take Pegasus for a long ride. “Cloud cover,” I directed my flying steed. Pegasus shot upward toward a wide patch of clouds. He landed on top of the cloud cover and cantered the length of it, twisting and turning around icy promontories at my command. As we rounded a particularly thick stalagmite, Pegasus stopped himself just before running into Hermes.

I was a bit startled by Hermes’ appearance on my cloudy course, but unimpressed. He has the power to find anyone anywhere. “What do you have for me?” I asked him.

“A question,” he said. “Who do you think knocked up that nymph? Artemis or Athena?”

“What in Tartarus?”

“Hey, I did not open the scroll. I never made the slightest attempt to open that scroll,” said the embodiment of innocence. “I just asked Aphrodite what it said after she opened it. And I went back this morning and asked her how your meeting went. Boy, was she pissed at you,” he laughed.

“Did she look anything like this?” I pointed to my face with both index fingers. “I guess it’s too much to hope that I’m the first person you’ve discussed this with.”

“Is there really such a thing as too much hope?” Hermes answered with that slick smile of his.

Evidently there was. “Who did you tell?”

“I mentioned it to Hera in passing. Figured any story that makes Artemis look stupid would put her in a good mood.”

“Anyone else?”

“I guess I said something to Dionysus. I don’t know which part he thought was hotter, one of the ‘virgin’ goddesses knocking up a nymph, or Stud Cupcake wanting a threesome with Apollo and Aphrodite. He said if Apollo keeps turning down the offer, he’d be happy to fill in for him.”

“Did you say anything to Apollo? Or Ares?”

“I thought about it, but I decided it’ll be more fun to see how long it takes them to figure  it out for themselves. Just this once, I’m betting on Apollo being dumber than Ares.”

“Goodbye, Hermes.” I cued Pegasus toward the open sky. Hermes flew after us, the little dove wings on his ankles beating away.

“You didn’t answer the question,” he persisted. “Who do you think it was?”

“I think I’m done talking to you,” I said.

“Suit yourself.” Hermes flew off en route to his next victim.

What was he thinking, telling Hera? I wasn’t worried about Callisto. The mystery shapeshifter couldn’t be Zeus since there was no way he was that familiar with Artemis’ naked body. But Hera wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to torment Artemis or Athena about this humiliating turn of events.

This train of thought sparked memories of finding out Calliope was pregnant by Zeus. Aglaea had used a sample of Calliope’s blood in a physician’s chalice to see that Calliope was pregnant with septuplet boys. Hera had swiped the chalice and used her prophetic powers to take the test a step further: a look at the babies’ conception and, therefore, their parentage. Fortunately, the image had been small and unclear enough that we were able to lie about it. Hera accepted that it was me and Apollo together in the moonlight and shadows, not Calliope and Zeus.

But memories of that incident got me thinking. If a prophecy goddess could use a physician’s chalice to see a shadowy image in a few drops of blood, what could a god who was both a seer and a physician do with a better sample?

Phase One of my new plot didn’t pan out. Neither Callisto nor Echo was in my hollow. So I went to Echo and Pan’s cave to look. Pan was gone, but Echo was home. Callisto was with her.

“I see you’ve moved from the hollow,” I said. “I hope this is a positive development?”

“Oh, yes,” Echo answered for Callisto. “Artemis has cooled off, and Callisto missed seeing the other girls. We’re having some of them over tonight for a baby shower. That’s not a real shower, it’s a party where everyone brings presents for the baby. And we all look at the presents and play games and talk about baby stuff and-”

“Got it,” I nodded. “Look, I need your help with something, and if you can cooperate, I might  be able to tell you whether your friends should bring presents for a boy or a girl,” I offered.

“What can I do?” Callisto asked, intrigued.

“I just need you to let Echo prick you with this needle.” If you recall, I have a crippling fear of handling sharp medical instruments. The need to solve a mystery did nothing to assuage that fear. “Echo, have you ever used a syringe before?”

Apollo was home about an hour before dinner. I grabbed him on the steps before any of my sisters could. “Hey, I need to talk to you,” I said.

“What about?” he asked in a nervous, embarrassed way.

“Science,” I said. He relaxed. “This,” I held out a glass syringe, “is fluid from the womb of a pregnant nymph.” I waited a second for him to make some wisecrack about my taste in collections. None came, so I continued. “Would you be able to use your physician’s chalice to get some information about the baby? Like sex, paternity, etc.?”

Intrigued, Apollo took the syringe. “It’s an interesting challenge,” he considered. “Let’s go to my store room and take a look.”

Apollo’s store room is really more of a laboratory. I don’t know why he doesn’t just call it a laboratory. That’d sound so much cooler. Anyway, once we were in his laboratory, Apollo located a chalice that was about twice the size of a thimble.

He transferred the fluid from the syringe into the chalice and gazed into it. “First sex,” he said. “That’s the easy part. It’s a boy. Now I’ll try paternity, which I’ve never achieved with blood. There. I think I’m getting an image. Hm, looks li- MY EYES!!! FATES, MY EYES!!!” he screamed as he dropped the chalice and syringe to better claw at his eyeballs. “Brain bleach! Give it! Now!” he shouted. I grabbed the jug thus labeled and handed it over. He tilted his head and poured the bleach into his ear it until it overflowed. Then he rinsed his eyes with some bleach for good measure.

“Putting this away now,” I took the jug from him. “You don’t want to give yourself total amnesia.” The brain bleach, invented by Apollo and named by me, was a very weak dilution of water from the river Lethe. A full-strength dose of Lethe water can make someone forget their entire life. The brain bleach just dims traumatic memories so you don’t have soul-scarring images seared into your mind’s eye forever. Images like a porno starring your sister.

Apollo sunk to the floor. “Okay,” he spoke in between slow, deep breaths. “Could…could have warned me?”

“You could have thought of a way to divine the paternity besides watching the conception,” I said as I swept up the broken glass with a whisk broom. “You know from experience that that doesn’t always give accurate results anyway. At least we’ve confirmed that Callisto believes she’s telling the truth. Did you get a good enough look to see if there was any possibility that it could have been someone else?”

Apollo answered me with a shell-shocked, open-mouthed look punctuated by silent blinks.

“I just don’t believe it was really Artemis, though,” I said. “Do you?”

“Uh uh,” he grunted as he shook his head. “Not her.”

“And I don’t think it was Athena, either. If she wanted to get rid of Callisto that badly, she could just kill her. Artemis would never have to know. If anyone could pull off the perfect murder, it’d be the Goddess of Battle Strategy.”

“Ri’,” Apollo nodded.

“So that leaves Aphrodite for means and motive. But then why would she lie to me about it? She doesn’t have any reason to. This is the kind of thing she’d brag about. Unless she thinks impregnating another female would damage her reputation as the paragon of feminine sexuality. Or unless blaming Athena is part of her revenge.”

“Maybe.”

“And it has to be a goddess, because there’s no way any of the gods have seen Artemis naked.”

“No!” Apollo affirmed. “No way. Never.”

“But I don’t know; some of your half-brothers are awfully pervy, and most of them didn’t even grow up with you two,” I reasoned aloud. “I guess one of them could’ve tried to peek. You think maybe Dionysus?”

“No!” Apollo repeated.

“He did make out with you at Hephaestus’ bachelor party, so the half-sibling deal obviously doesn’t mean anything to him.”

“I was so drunk when that happened, I barely knew my own name,” Apollo reminded me, having finally found his tongue. “Besides, Artemis isn’t as cautious as I’ve learned to be. If Dionysus had ever seen Artemis naked, she’d have gotten her revenge in such a spectacular way that we’d all have heard about it. We’d all still be hearing about it.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I conceded. “By the way, how did it go at Helicon?” Apollo pretended not to hear me as he mopped up the fluid. Apparently my cleanup job hadn’t been thorough enough. “This afternoon?” I persisted. “When you went to visit?”

Eventually, he replied, “Adonis is young and confused. Persephone doesn’t help matters by keeping him on such a tight leash. Of course he wants to explore and test his limits.”

“And where do you fall in this exploration of limits?” I asked.

“I’m his friend. Someone who’s there to look out for him.” He sighed. “Someone who’ll defend his reputation if he doesn’t look out for himself.”

“Come again?”

“I guess the rumor hasn’t made it to Parnassus yet. People are saying he’s already slept with Aphrodite. Can you believe that?”

“Can you?” I asked.

“That they’re saying it, yes; that it happened, no. And he can’t see that people believing it is not a good thing for him.”

“Where do you factor into the rumors? Or do you at all?”

“Depending on who you ask, I’m either a cuckold or part of a ménage,” he said.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said.

“It’s alright,” he shrugged. “It’ll blow over, especially as the summer goes on and people notice that Adonis isn’t being seen with Aphrodite.”

“And you’re anticipating that he will be seen with you?”

“Like I said, for now I’m his friend,” said Apollo. “I think that’s what he needs most right now. But, maybe, when he’s grown up a little more and he’s more sure of who he is and what he wants…I don’t know. We’ll see.”

“Got it,” I replied with a stoic nod. To myself, I added, Here we go again.

I’d planned to deliver Callisto’s test results after dinner, but I got a summons from Athena as soon as I left the table. I answered the summons right away.

“You brought Hermes in on this? What were you thinking?” Athena demanded as soon as I materialized in her quarters.

“That our friendly neighborhood delivery service was safe to use?” I said as Athena paced before me with angry strides. “I know, it was an incredibly stupid thing to think, and I’ll never think it again.”

“Now half of Olympus is speculating that I ‘fathered’ that child, and Artemis won’t speak to me! And everyone who doesn’t think I slept with Callisto is laughing about how I’ve been ‘jilted’.”

“Athena,” I said with as much penitence as possible, “I don’t know how to tell you how sorry I am. I really thought it was Aphrodite. I still think it might have been her. You’ve seen how perfect her shapeshifting is. You jilted her at Cronia, and this is exactly the kind of thing she’d do for revenge. Blaming you could be the next phase of her revenge for all we know.”

“Well, if it is, it’s working,” said Athena. “This is driving  me out of my mind. Ares actually guided an army to victory against Athens today. I’m the Goddess of Wisdom and Strategy and I can’t even think straight. Why is this happening to me?” She threw a dagger across the room. It skimmed past my shoulder and hit the center of a shield that hung on the wall behind me. “It seems like ever since I asked for your help, the Fates have had it in for me.”

“That’s totally not my fault,” I quickly protested, wondering how fast I could grab that shield if need be.

“This all started with your blessing.”

“We don’t know that my blessing caused any of this.”

“What did, then?”

“I don’t know! I told you, I don’t know how this works, or even if it works. That whole story in your tapestry? About Hephaestus’, Eros’, and Aphrodite’s happy endings? That could have been more Aphrodite than me. Maybe I can’t do anything without a love god’s assistance. Or maybe she’s outright working against me and I don’t stand a chance. I just don’t know.”

“I wish I’d never asked for help from either of you,” Athena resolutely refrained from crying or shouting. “I wish I’d never entertained the hope that anything could happen between me and Artemis. I’ve become just like Ares: ruled by passion, obsessed with the object of my desire, wanting nothing more than her and caring about nothing except her.”

“You know Ares doesn’t love Aphrodite the way you love Artemis,” I said, probably because a tiny part of my brain thought Tartarus must be lovely this time of year.

“That makes me feel so much better,” said Athena, “knowing he loves his woman less but has her anyway.” She telekinetically recalled her dagger and sheathed it by hand. “You can go now,” she said, putting on her stoic face. “You’re right, this isn’t your fault. You weren’t powerful enough to cause this, and you certainly aren’t powerful enough to fix it, so there’s really no point in you being here. I’ll see you at the meeting tonight.”

“What meeting?”

“The committee meeting for the Pythian Games,” said Athena. “It’s still at Parnassus tonight, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes! It is.” Right. That was happening. Was it that time already? I wouldn’t be able to get to Echo before the meeting, and I certainly wasn’t going to use Hermes to deliver the test results. Callisto’s friends would have to bring gender-neutral presents to the baby shower after all.

It was indeed that time already. The Pythian Games, a week-long competitive event in sports and the arts that Apollo hosted in his sacred city of Delphi every other year, were less than six weeks away. Apollo and my sisters were, of course, in attendance at the committee meeting. Athena came as promised. Hephaestus was working as master engineer, AKA Builder and Fixer of Everything, as always. Aglaea had volunteered as chief medic for the event. Ares was a judge and Hermes was overseeing the vendors. Dionysus would most likely handle refreshments for the immortal guests, but he never signed up until the last minute. Artemis, who was supposed to judge women’s archery, was notably absent from the meeting. Also on the notably absent list was Aphrodite, who had not been asked to join this year’s committee. The beauty pageant, once her pet project, had been stricken from the roster after last Games’ debacle.

Eros and Psyche flew into our dining hall right as the meeting was being called to order. “What are you two doing here?” asked Apollo.

“I heard your sis was going to be a no-show,” said Eros. “I’d hate to see the hopes and dreams of all those bow-slinging chicks get wiped out by a little Olympian drama, so I thought I’d volunteer to substitute.”

“You want to judge women’s archery?” Apollo reiterated. “That’s thoughtful of you.”

“Hey, I’m a happily married man, and I resent your implication!”

“Eros’ motives are innocent,” his empath bride confirmed. “As for me, Aglaea, do you remember what we talked about?”

“Right,” said Aglaea. “Psyche’s been working on something she calls ‘sports psychology’. She’d like to work under me and offer her services to the athle- Ares, shut your mouth, and keep in mind I’m sleeping with the guy who makes your weapons and armor.”

“Sure, keep telling people that,” Ares mocked. “Wait ’til the little bastard comes out with wings or horns or some other guy’s face.”

“Ares, where’s your girlfriend tonight?” Athena changed the subject.

“Girlfriend,” Ares scoffed. “We don’t need words for each other.”

“I’m sure a lack of words works best for both of you,” said Athena.

“Oh, yeah? Well, you knocked up a chick,” Ares taunted in reply.

“I did no such thing! I’ve kept my vow,” Athena protested.

“Then your girlfriend hasn’t,” said Ares.

“And what about yours?” said Athena.

“Don’t have one,” Ares maintained.

“Well, then,” Athena tried again. “Let me rephrase that. Where is the goddess who normally sleeps with you but, according to rumor, has been otherwise occupied since Persephone’s feast?”

“Huh?”

“It’s just a rumor,” said Apollo.

“She’s saying Aphrodite dumped you,” Hephaestus translated. I got the feeling Aglaea thought he was being a little more smug than necessary.

“For a twink,” Hermes added.

“Shut up, Hermes!” Apollo bristled.

“Is ‘himbo’ better?” asked Hermes.

“No, it isn’t,” said Apollo.

“Cool,” said Hermes. “I’ll go with that one.”

“Just leave him alone, will you?” Apollo ordered, going completely on the defensive.

“I’m not doing anything to him,” said Hermes. “I’m just saying, he’s kind of an airheaded skank.”

“He is not, and since when do you find those qualities objectionable anyway?” said Apollo.

“Hey!” said Ares. “Are you saying my woman’s been blowing me off for that-”

“Persephone’s son,” Athena finished Ares’ sentence for him, likely in much different words than he would’ve used. “And Aphrodite’s ‘your woman’ now? I thought you two didn’t need words.”

“Damn right she’s my woman, and if I catch that fruitcake with her, I’ll make him my woman, too.”

Apollo jumped up and gripped the table with his fists. “Ares, if I find you’ve so much as leered in his general direction, I will lay you out in front of the entire Pantheon. I’ve done it before, and you know I’ll do it again.” I believed him. When Apollo was about Adonis’ age, he’d taken up boxing for the sole purpose of getting Ares to quit bullying him. Suffice it to say, it worked.

“What, you jealous?” Ares taunted. “No problem, there’ll be some of this left for you when I’m done with your little boyfriend.” Okay, it kinda sorta mostly worked.

Calliope rose next to Apollo. “I will not have this kind of talk in my house,” she commanded. “Ares, you need to leave. Now.”

“I’ll leave when I want to leave, bitch,” Ares folded his arms.

“You want to leave,” Apollo said as the rest of us Muses stood in unison.

“Ares, get out or I’ll call Mom,” Hephaestus quietly told his brother. “She’s been pretty mad at you since you got blood all over the marble at Persephone’s feast.”

“Fine, I’m going. But you can’t watch your boyfriend all the time, Twinkletoes.” With those parting words, Ares disappeared.

“Can we discuss actual business now?” Clio suggested.

“Excellent idea,” said Apollo. “Now, Aglaea, are you sure you’ll be able to handle the medic setup so soon after the baby’s born?” Assuming Aglaea delivered on time, her baby would only be a few weeks old by the Games.

“Childcare? Heard of it?” Aglaea replied. Psyche’s eager smile and nod implied that she’d been chosen for this task.

“Maternity leave? Heard of it?” Apollo persisted.

“You know the baby’s going to be healthy and Aglaea’s future looks good,” I reminded Apollo.

“I also know that my ‘knowledge’ can be incomplete,” Apollo replied.

“Did you have a vision about the baby?” Aglaea gasped in delight.

“Who does she look like? I mean, what does she look like?” asked Hephaestus. Aglaea glared at him. “I just meant more like me or you,” he disclaimed. In any case, his question was overlapped by a chorus of demands from my sisters, all wanting to hear about the vision.

“Hephaestus,” Apollo said with a heavy sigh, “I…I’m sorry, I don’t know how to break this to you after everything you’ve been through.” He paused for dramatic effect before revealing the awful truth: “Your daughter looks just like you.”

Hephaestus was still for a moment. I wasn’t sure if he was going to laugh or cry. He went with a third option: grabbing his wife’s face and kissing her for all he was worth. Through some combination of the three, he kept whispering to her, “She looks just like me.” Aglaea held him and whispered back, “I told you she would.” The scene would have been picture perfect if not for a brave smile masking downcast eyes on the boy at the end of the table. Eros kissed Psyche on the cheek and quietly slipped out of the room, leaving his dad and stepmom to their celebration.

The meeting finally got around to some actual plan-making. As soon as the committee was discussing business that didn’t concern me (well, it might have concerned me, but I was bored to death), I followed Eros’ example and sneaked out of the Museum. I flew Pegasus to the place I knew Eros would be: the gazebo in my hollow. The gazebo he’d built there for Psyche when they’d first met.

“Hey, kiddo,” I said as I dismounted. Eros’ back was to me. He didn’t turn around.

“I’m not a kid anymore,” he reminded me. “I’m a lot older than I was a couple years ago.”

“I guess so,” I acknowledged. “It’s hard to remember since you still look the same, and half the time you still act the same. But, yeah, since we planned the last Pythian Games, you’ve fallen in love, gotten engaged, gotten married, your parents got divorced, your dad’s started a new family…”

“Do you know what a love child is?” he sulked, leaning against a birch pillar, still facing away from me.

“I’m familiar with the term.”

“It’s what I supposedly am,” he answered himself. “I’m not really as dumb as I wish I was. I know that my father is either that guy in there who was threatening to rape my mom’s shag-of-the-week, or that other guy who only hooks up with my mom when they’re both bored with the people they’re really into, and who doesn’t think twice about spreading gossip about her.”

He snapped a twig off the pillar and absently threw it in no particular direction. “Did you see Dad’s face when Apollo said the baby looks just like him? Did you feel him and Aglaea feeling at each other?”

“I’m not an empath,” I reminded him. Eros isn’t a universal empath like Psyche, but as a love god, he can sense feelings of love and desire as well as create them.

He turned to look at me. “What I felt was a woman who knows she made a baby with the love of her life, and a man who knows he’s going to be a father for the first time.” He carelessly flipped his hair, but his voice wavered. “Who’s the real love child?”

“I remember when your parents were expecting you,” I said. “You were all your dad could talk about. Every time I saw him, he’d tell me, ‘This time we’re keeping it. This time we get to have a real family.’ And when you were born, he was crazy about you. He’d take you to the forge with him whenever your mom would let him. Sometimes she’d even go with you guys and the three of you would have these cute little family moments. Your dad was so proud of you the first time you picked up a hammer, and when you mixed your first alloy. Do you remember that?”

“Kind of,” he smiled a little. “Hey, remember when I made that spear?”

“Oh, man,” I laughed. “Your dad must’ve told me that story a million times.”

“I was just a kid,” he remembered. “When are humans that size? Like, nine? Ten?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“I’d gotten this great idea for a love spear. You know, so I could get two people at once and have them stuck together so they couldn’t run away from their feelings? Dad helped me with the forging and Mom helped me with the love spells.” He laughed at his youthful naiveté. “It’d still be a great idea if I could figure out how to make it invisible. And if I could think of something to call it besides a love spear.”

“Ares came in just when you’d finished your first prototype,” I prompted him. “Your parents were both there.”

“Yeah, and the spear was really heavy, but I’d enchanted it so I could lift it easy,” he grinned. “So I’m flying around with it and Ares comes in to pick up some weapon. He’s all like, ‘Hey, you’re finally acting like a real man. Whatcha got there?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s a love spear.’ And I’m all excited because Ares never cared about my inventions before. And then he’s laughing at me, and calling it fruity and stuff. Mom didn’t say anything, but I could tell she was mad at him.” I was relieved to hear Eros falling back into his normal speech patterns. Philosopher/Poet Eros always concerns me a bit. “So then I’m like, ‘Here, you want to hold it?’ And I drop the spear into Ares’ hands and he practically falls over! Dad goes, ‘You want some help with that?’ But noooo, Big Bad Ares doesn’t need help with anything. So he stands there for the longest time holding the damn thing up like the moron that he is. After awhile he goes, ‘Here, kid, want your spear back?’ And I said, ‘Nah, keep it.’ He would’ve been stuck holding it forever if his troops hadn’t summoned him.” Eros ended the story with a real smile and real laughter. “Mom was pretty embarrassed about Ares looking so the way he is. Dad loved it.”

“Won’t it be cool when you and your dad can help Euphrosyne learn the forge together?” I suggested.

“Oh man, that’ll be awesome!” he grinned. “I’ll make her her own little baby quiver and bow when she’s born. Don’t worry, the arrows’ll be mostly powerless. Hey, I wonder what kind of powers she’ll have? Aglaea’s a healer. You think she’ll be able to do that?” He paused in rapture at the beauty of his next thought. “We can bring the spear back! She can heal people after I spear them!

“Your dad and Aglaea are so lucky to have you for a babysitter.”

“I just hope it kills Psyche’s baby fever,” he laughed. “Whenever we talk about it, she goes into empath mode and says I’m being selfish. I am, kind of, but not how she thinks. She thinks I’m afraid of the responsibility. That’s not it, though. We’ve got all the time in the world to make babies. I guess two years feels like a long time to someone born human, but I feel like I just met her. I want to keep her all to myself for a while.”

“Have you told her that?”

“Are you nuts? I’d sound like a total sap.”

“She married a love god,” I reminded him. “I think she’s cool with total saps.”

“She is,” Psyche said.

“How long has she been behind me?” asked Eros.

“Since about the time you were wrapping up your story about the love spear,” I replied. “Those butterfly wings are really quiet. You guys stay here as long as you want; I’m heading home.” I mounted Pegasus and urged him toward the Museum before the sapfest could begin.

“Hey, Eros,” I heard Psyche giggle as we flew away. “Turn around.”

2.4 Hey Hey, You You, I Don’t Like Your Boyfriend

I was able to grab a couple hours of dreamless sleep before breakfast. Apparently no one had noticed that I’d come in just as the sun was rising. Good. I didn’t want any questions about Callisto or the Fates. But I had plenty of questions myself, and I was scheming to get some answers.

I carried out my morning routine as usual to avoid arousing suspicion. To make extra sure my behavior was totally normal, I picked a fight with Apollo over our choreography. At least, I tried to. Apollo was too distracted to care. Oh, well. I could be distracted, too. I went over my plans in my head as I mindlessly ran through chorale exercises.

Once our morning practices were out of the way and lunch was over, I had the rest of the day to set my plan in motion. I locked myself in my room and summoned Hermes. When a goddess has to send a secret message, who does she call but the trustworthy honest reliable only Messenger of the Gods?

Hermes promptly appeared in the middle of my room. He observed our surroundings and gave me a suggestive smile. “I’m on duty right now, but how about tonight?” he winked.

“Slut,” I laughed, smacking him with a pillow. He laughed with me. “Sorry to disappoint you,” I said, “but I summoned you here on business. Business I don’t want my sisters or Apollo to know about.”

“Speaking of your sisters, how’s Urania these days? Is she seeing anybody?” he asked, as though the question were completely random and irrelevant.

“Why? Did the Platinum Princeling knock you further down the queue?”

“Just making a friendly inquiry about a friend,” he dismissed. “And I guess you’re not an Adonis fan either?”

“Why wouldn’t I be a fan of someone who turns in to a completely different person depending on who he’s hitting on?” I replied with biting laughter.

“And who he’s hitting on isn’t a factor at all, I’m sure?”

“Okay, enough about Bitch Boy,” I waved him off. “Give Aphrodite this message.” I handed him a sealed mini-scroll that I’d prepared. “I’ve enchanted the seal so that only she can open it, so don’t even try.”

“Of course not,” he winked as he reached for the scroll. Hermes really can be quite appealing if you’re into the smooth-talking gentleman con artist type. Which I’m totally not. Honest.

“Promise?” I jerked it away from him.

“Sure.”

“Promise what?”

Hermes smiled at me like a little boy who’d been caught stealing cookies and knew that, by the end of his scolding, not only would his mother have forgiven him, she’d be baking him a fresh batch of cookies to make up for the stolen ones being stale. “I promise not to open or read this top-secret scroll that you’re giving me for Aphrodite,” he pledged.

“Okay, then.” I smacked his palm with the scroll as I handed it over. I doubted his intentions, but the wording sounded as good as it could get.

Once Hermes was gone, I went to Calliope’s room. My level-headed sister seemed like the best choice for a confidante, and I wanted to sort through all this drama with someone. Well, the Callisto drama. Calliope still didn’t know about my trials with the Fates, and I wanted to keep it that way.

But Calliope wasn’t in her room or anywhere else on the grounds of the Parnassus Museum. I tried summoning her. She didn’t answer. I summoned her again. This time she summoned me back. I answered her summons and found myself in the throne room of our old Museum on Helicon.

Or what used to be a throne room. In place of the nine thrones were a few chaises, cushions, and low tables. Demeter was lounging on one chaise, holding a goblet that was being filled by one of her handmaids. Calliope, seated at the other end of the chaise, was dipping bread in olive oil. On another chaise, Persephone sat erect, alert, and vigilant between Adonis and Apollo. Apollo was trying to respect Persephone’s presence while Adonis was trying to ignore it.

“Thalia,” Apollo started. “What are you doing here?”

“I invited her,” said Calliope.

“Have a seat,” Persephone ordered, showing pleasure at this turn of events in her dark, severe way. She moved closer to Adonis to make room for me between herself and Apollo. Apollo obliviously followed her, closing the gap. She shoved him back. With great trepidation, I seated myself in the empty spot.

“Thalia,” Adonis rose and demurely shook my hand. “I’m glad you joined us. I didn’t realize who you were when we met at the feast yesterday. I know your sons, the Corybantes. We were just talking about them.”

“Right! My sons! Well, our sons,” I said, patting Apollo’s knee. “Did Mom set you guys up on a playdate or something?”

“Or something,” Adonis laughed, sliding onto Persephone’s lap. Which, at his age, should’ve been disturbing, but was somehow just plain adorable. I wanted to take him into my own lap. Then I noticed Apollo thinking the same thing, and suddenly I wanted to rip the kid’s jugular out with my teeth.

“Adonis was telling us that Mom finally gave up trying to give the Corybantes individual names,” said Calliope. “They won’t hear of it. It’s as if they’re one mind split among seven bodies.” Calliope had spent a few weeks in Hades with the Corybantes after they were born, but she’d never talked about it much. I wondered if she had tried to name them herself in that time.

“It doesn’t make sense to me how they all move in unison,” said Persephone. “What’s the advantage of having seven bodies if they’re all doing the same thing?”

“Who says there has to be an advantage?” Calliope defended. “As long as they’re happy and productive. Mom says they make great acolytes.”

“Whatever,” Persephone dismissed, bored already. “Really, though,” she addressed me and Apollo, “if you two have kids again, put some thought into it next time. Those guys are just weird.”

“We won’t have kids again.”

“It’ll never happen again.”

“We were drunk.”

“A one-night stand.”

“These things happen.”

“We’re just friends,” Apollo concluded our cacophony of protestations. I found myself wishing there was a spear handy.

“Excuse me?” Calliope scowled at the Iron Queen. “There is nothing wrong with those boys. Nothing. They’re unique, that’s all. They’re happy, and they’re not causing anyone any trouble, which is more than can be said for most of this pantheon. And if – if Thalia has a hundred more children-”

I’m not having a hundred more children, I mouthed as I subtly shook my head.

“- I wouldn’t care if every last one of them were exactly like the Corybantes, because they’d be my…nephews, and I’d love them no matter what.”

“I’m bored now,” said Persephone, in case her countenance wasn’t doing an adequate job.

“Adonis, do you have any other friends in Hades?” Demeter changed the subject. “Anyone special?” she gently teased.

“I don’t know anybody else,” Adonis said, more sad than petulant. “Unless you count Cerberus, and he’s really Dad’s anyway.” Cerberus is Hades’ dog. He has three heads and is awesome. “The river people are afraid of Mom, Charon doesn’t like company, and I’m not allowed into the Land of the Dead.”

“Really? Why not?” I asked, more to Persephone than to him. My sisters and I had never been allowed there even when we lived in Hades, but I’d thought the prince would have such privileges.

“Only the King and Queen are allowed in the Land of the Dead,” said Persephone. “You know Hades wouldn’t even let me go there alone until after we’d been married for a few decades.”

“But the first summer after your wedding, you told me you’d already been there alone,” I recalled.

“What’s your point?” Persephone replied.

“You won’t let me go because I might find someone besides you and Dad to hang out with,” said Adonis.

What little patience Persephone had for her son was wearing thin. “They’re dead people! You know who hangs out with dead people? Other dead people. Do you want to be dead people?”

“You might give it a try. Could be fun,” I suggested.

“Thalia!” Apollo remonstrated.

“No, I mean like how I tried to sneak into the Elysian Fields all the time when I was kid,” was my innocent reply that I totally meant.

“He’s a demigod. You shouldn’t joke about that, and neither should he,” said Apollo. Really? Nothing about admiring my optimism or any other such pathetic attempt at mockery? Just jump to the poor baby’s defense and ignore Thalia? This was bad. Adonis was looking at Apollo like Apollo was the hero in an epic and Adonis was a princess being saved from a monster. Apollo was totally falling for it. I wanted to smack both of them with my shepherd’s crook and then kiss Apollo to make it better.

Adonis reached over me and took Apollo’s hand. “It doesn’t bother me,” he reassured him. Persephone pulled Adonis’ hand back.

“See? It doesn’t bother him,” I said.

“No one would harm the son of Hades,” said Adonis.

“Actually, a lot of people would,” said Apollo. I could think of one person off the top of my head.

“Listen to him,” said Persephone. Adonis evaded her grasp and gracefully moved to a floor cushion on the other end of the chaise.

“I’m a demigod, not a mortal,” Adonis reminded Apollo once he was comfortably leaning against his lap. Apollo looked somewhat less comfortable, but nonetheless captivated. “I know you’ve seen mortal men die in horrible ways,” said Adonis. “The Corybantes told me about Hyacinthus, your lover. They have the memories of the dead, you know.”

“And they told you about his memories?” Apollo was doing a good job keeping his composure, but I could tell the memory was affecting him. Brining up Hyacinthus was a pretty cheap trick. I didn’t know if I was more upset at Adonis for doing it or Apollo for falling for it.

“They did,” said Adonis. “They told me Hyacinthus died knowing you loved him. He didn’t blame you for the accident, even though he knew you’d blame yourself. He knew you would never hurt him.”

“It wasn’t an accident!” I interjected. “It was murder.”

“Thalia, it’s alright, he didn’t know,” Apollo tried to quiet me.

“Obviously, so I’m telling him,” I said. “Another god wanted Hyacinthus, but Hyacinthus wouldn’t cheat on Apollo. So one day while Apollo and Hyacinthus were throwing the discus, this other god turned invisible, caught Apollo’s discus in midair, and threw it at Hyacinthus’ head. Apollo didn’t do anything to cause it, and there was nothing he could’ve done to stop it.”

Adonis seemed less upset by the story than by the fact that he’d gotten it totally wrong. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I had no idea.”

“It’s fine,” Apollo comforted him. “Of course you didn’t.”

“How could you?” I said. “You weren’t even here.”

“Neither were you,” Apollo reminded me.

Touché. It’d happened when I was living with Triton, Son of Poseidon, Prince of the Ocean Realm. “I would’ve been there if I weren’t dealing with some issues of my own,” I said. “Like the fact that Hestia turned me into a mermaid and wouldn’t turn me back. I came home as soon as I was back to normal.”

“You came home because you broke up with Triton,” said Apollo. “The timing was a coincidence. You didn’t even know Hyacinthus was dead.”

“How was I supposed to? I lived in the ocean for months, and I got maybe two messages from you the whole time.”

“Sorry I only replied to two of the three I got from you,” said Apollo.

“Oh, I remember this now,” said Demeter. “Wasn’t that when Hestia had your sense of humor for a few months?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I accidentally traded her my sense of humor for a mermaid body. I can’t shapeshift.”

“I’m glad she traded back in the end,” said Demeter. “It was an interesting diversion, but she just wasn’t our Hestia that way.”

“I’m glad, too,” I said. I left it at that. But as far as I knew, Hestia actually hadn’t traded back. She’d refused when I’d asked her. I never did figure out the identity of my secret benefactor. I knew it had to be one of the children of the Titans since they were the only creatures powerful enough, but the only ones who’d known about my problem at the time had all denied it. “And,” I said to Apollo, “you know I would’ve come home as soon as I heard about Hyacinthus if I had heard. Even if I’d had to walk on my hands and drag my fishtail all the way to the funeral.”

“If I’d written you about it,” Apollo sighed, “that would’ve made it real.”

An impulse told me to take Apollo’s hand or put an arm around him or something. Slut Boy beat me to it. “Humans are so fragile,” Adonis rested his head on Apollo’s thigh. “And I can understand why you’d worry about me after seeing something like that. But it takes more than a stray discus to harm a demigod.”

Apollo gently raised Adonis’ head. “Demigods aren’t invulnerable,” he said. “All it takes is angering the wrong god who wields the right weapon.” Like maybe a shepherd’s crook? “Which is why you really should stay away from Aphrodite. You’ve already got Ares’ attention. The only reason he doesn’t commit more crimes of passion is that his ego blinds him to competition. If he sensed a true rival, especially in someone like you, he would find a way to hurt you.”

“Someone like me?” Adonis slowly blinked his eyelashes in that coy, affected way he had.

“Someone who doesn’t fit Ares’ idea of what a man should be,” Apollo took his dainty pink hand.

Adonis pressed Apollo’s hand to his cheek. “Ares has nothing to worry about,” he said. “When I’m with you, I hardly think of Aphrodite.”

“Oh, get a room,” I said.

“No one is getting a room,” said Persephone.

“Of course,” Apollo blushed, becoming mindful once more of other people’s presence. “Persephone, I hope you know, I would never do anything to take advantage of your son.” Yeah, Apollo taking advantage of Adonis was not the scenario I was worried about here. “But do you mind if we take a walk on the grounds? We’ll stay where you can see us.” An incoherent jumble of thoughts and images rolled around in my head, with the phrases MY house, MY grounds, bitchwhoreskank, and kill it with fire!!! featuring prominently among them.

“Aw,” Demeter cooed with a sentimental smile. “You’re just as cute as when you gave that speech to me all those centuries ago.”

“And I turned him down flat all by myself,” Persephone reminded her.

“You made him cry,” Demeter reminisced.

“I did not cry! I didn’t cry,” he assured Adonis.

He’d cried.

“Honey, let them go. What could possibly happen?” Demeter chided.

“He’s nine months old!” said Persephone.

“Remind me, how old were you when I so foolishly took you with me on a fateful visit to the Underworld?” Demeter asked.

Ten months, and I was very mature for my age,” said Persephone. She had been. That was when my sisters and I first met her. We were still living at Lake Mnemosyne at the time. I’d liked Persephone. She was snarky, sarcastic, and awesome. Then she met Hades and turned into a lovestruck mental case right before my eyes. I contemplated how glad I was that that had never happened to me.

“And did my mature little princess listen to me when I told her to stay away from Hades, or did she just invent ways to court him behind my back for a couple of decades?” Demeter queried.

“Whatever,” Persephone gave up. “You two go ahead. But you will stay where I can see you. And think about the host of monsters in Tartarus who would give half their teeth and tentacles for a day pass.”

“You be careful,” Calliope sighed, the words Here we go again written all over her face.

“I won’t let anything happen to him,” Apollo laughed.

“Right, him too,” Calliope nodded. “Thalia, you want to come on home with me?”

“Sure.” I jumped up to follow her home. I’d seen enough.

I forgot all about filling Calliope in on the Callisto situation until long after everyone was in bed. I decided the conversation could wait. I didn’t want to wake Calliope, nor did I want to be late for the next stage in my plan.

At midnight I paced my floor, fully awake and dressed for company. The instructions in my secret message to Aphrodite had been clear enough. That was, alas, no guarantee that Aphrodite would follow them.

Sure enough, instead of teleporting to my room as I’d asked, Aphrodite summoned me to her quarters on Olympus. I answered her summons and hoped very, very much that she was alone. No such luck. Upon glimpsing figures in Aphrodite’s sumptuous canopy bed, I quickly shielded my eyes. “It’s okay,” she laughed. “We haven’t even started.” With much trepidation, I took my hands away from my face.

I stared dumbfounded at the sight of Aphrodite nestled into Adonis’ shoulder, her head resting on his pecs, his arm shielding her bare breasts. This was not the boy I had seen sitting at Apollo’s knee less than twelve hours earlier. This was the man who had swept the Goddess of Love off her feet and challenged the God of War for mating privileges.

“Wha…?”

“It’s alright, Apollo knows,” said Adonis in that voice that sent vibrations from my chest to my ankles and threatened to collapse everything in between.

“Okay,” I managed.

“I’d have invited him to join us, but Aphrodite says he’ll only do one at a time,” he half-apologized, absently petting his companion.

“It’s true, isn’t it?” said Aphrodite.

“Um, I don’t, what, you. Lady. Goddess person. I really need to talk to you in private.”

“I’ll just be a minute,” she gave Adonis her regrets. “Don’t start without me.” She got out of bed without bothering to cover up, and led me through a doorway to a room with a large heated pool. She closed the door behind us. “What’s so important that you have to talk to me about it alone in the middle of the night when I have company?”

“When don’t you have ‘company’?”

“Do you need me or not?”

“I do,” I admitted.

“You want me to make Apollo fall in love with you!” she clasped her hands in eager delight. “So in love that he won’t even look at another woman or man! It’ll be the easiest thing in the world. The feelings are already there. I just need to push them to the forefront and remove the obstacles in his mind. It’ll only take a second. When you get  back to Parnassus, he’ll be waiting for you.”

“No! No, no, no! That’s not at all why I’m here. Where is this coming from? Look, I just need some information.”

“I can’t show you anyone else’s files,” she said.

“It’s about you.”

“Oh. Well in that case, your curiosity isn’t my problem.” She turned to go.

“It’s about Artemis.”

She turned back.

“Callisto, one of Artemis’ hunters, believes Artemis slept with her and got her pregnant,” I said. “I don’t.”

Peals of laughter followed. “Why not? I’ve never heard of a goddess getting a woman pregnant, but Artemis would be the one to do it,” she said between gasps for air. “I’ve always wondered how much alike those twins are under the chitons, haven’t you?”

“No, I haven’t, ever.” Ew. “And you know what I’m getting at.”

“Do I?”

“You’re a shapeshifter and a fertility goddess,” I said. “Your ego was bruised when you couldn’t grant Athena’s request. This has your fingerprints all over it.”

“My fingers haven’t been anywhere near Artemis or her hunters,” Aphrodite dismissed.

“No one has to know except me, Artemis, and Athena,” I persisted.

“But I didn’t do it.”

“You’re the prime suspect,” I said.

“But why would I lie about this?” she argued. “I wish I did think of it, but I didn’t. It was probably a male shapeshifter playing out some goddess-on-girl fantasy.”

“Callisto said she was perfect. Every mole, every birthmark. What man could have seen that much of Artemis?”

I haven’t seen that much of Artemis. She won’t bathe on Olympus. Just in her own river. If you ask me, Athena’s the ‘prime suspect’.”

“Athena?”

“Everyone knows she and Artemis swim together. You don’t think Athena’s paid attention during their little splashfests? Getting Artemis to believe Callisto made up something like this would be the perfect way to get rid of her. And, sure, Artemis wears the man’s chiton, but Athena’s the one with the huge sword. Now, go on back to your lonely little bed in your lonely little room and leave me to my company.”

2.3 Fated Memories

Moments after I’d fallen asleep the night of Persephone’s feast, I woke up on the floor of a dark tower at the top of the universe. The only lights were from the stars outside the high windows, and from the glowing white robes of the three goddesses who towered over me, cackling.

“Hey, you guys want to hear a joke?” I deadpanned. “How do you make the Fates laugh?”

“How do you make the Fates laugh?” Lachesis asked the question back in her hollow, sonorous voice, prodding me to my feet with her measuring rod.

“Tell them your plans,” I delivered the punch line.

“Like your plans for Athena and Artemis to ‘live happily ever after’?” Clotho gloated. “Since you avoided choosing a new test subject for so long, we arranged for one to choose you. Athena, you see, is a special case.” She placed her hand on top of my head and turned me so I faced her spinning wheel. “When Athena was called into being,” she went on, “we had a specific purpose for her. We needed this Goddess of Wisdom to dedicate her life to that purpose and not be distracted by such vain, judgment-clouding elements as love. So I decreed that she would never be wife nor mother. She was fated from birth never to desire the love of man.”

“And you didn’t see any loophole in that at all?” A tiny snicker eluded my most valiant efforts at solemnity.

“Not until we saw Athena invent the aulos,” Clotho said.

“I remember that,” I said. “One day we invited the Goddesses of the Twelve to a picnic at Helicon, and-”

“We are telling the story,” Lachesis interrupted. She waved her hand. A magnificent tapestry as long as time itself appeared on the wall behind the spinning wheel. The tapestry scrolled down so fast that it became a blur of light. Atropos poked me with her shears and shoved me into it.

Apollo and the Muses on Mount Helicon, by Claude Lorrain

Here’s a good picture of us and Apollo at the old Museum on Helicon. We painted Pegasus in later. You can tell by the pixels.

The next thing I knew, I was in a scene that had taken place ages ago. It was, as I’d said, an informal feast on Helicon. All nine Muses including my past self were seated on the lawn. So were Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera. We’d invited Demeter and Hestia too, but Hestia didn’t like to leave Olympus, and Demeter had spent the day with Poseidon, King of Ocean Realm. This was before Poseidon had married Amphitrite. Back then, Demeter actually admitted to their on-again-off-again relationship.

Storytelling logic seemed to dictate that I was a mere observer, seeing but unseen. I crept up behind my past self and dangled my fingers in her face to test this theory. It was correct. My past self was sitting next to Apollo on a picnic blanket. Though the guest list was supposed to be goddesses only, we’d made an exception for Apollo as usual since he was kind of an honorary Muse. A mascot, if you will. Little did we know back then that someday he would be our appointed governor.

“I wish I’d been allowed to bring Coronis,” Apollo was telling Past Me. “I don’t know why Artemis and Calliope don’t like her.”

“Because they care about you and they know Coronis doesn’t,” Real Me replied unheard as Past Me sat in incredulous silence.

“I couldn’t ask for a more perfect girlfriend,” Apollo went on. “Of course, I’ve never really had a girlfriend before, so I don’t have anything to compare her to, but Coronis is truly incomparable. Did I tell you she loves music?”

“Only about a thousand times,” Past Me replied indifferently.

“She loves music almost as much as she loves cheating on you with her mortal ex,” Real Me shouted in Apollo’s unseeing face. “Don’t worry, though. The baby you don’t know about yet is yours. She’ll be faithful just long enough to get knocked up with a demigod.”

“And I mean real music, not that cheap crowd-pleasing drivel,” said Apollo.

“The inability to please a crowd isn’t an automatic mark of quality,” Past Me argued.

“Coronis knows quality when she hears it. She says my singing is the best she’s ever heard,” Apollo boasted.

“Coronis says a lot of things. A few of them might actually be true,” Real Me smacked him upside the head. My hand went through his unaffected skull.

“It probably is the best she’s heard,” said Past Me. “To her ears, you’re competing with mortals. If she ever heard another god or even a satyr or nymph sing, that might make a difference.”

“But I’m a music god,” Apollo defended himself. “And besides Hermes, I’m the only non-Muse who’s invented a musical instrument.”

Athena clinked her goblet with a fork. “Hey, everyone,” she announced. “I want to show you this instrument I invented.”

Past Me was pleased. “I wish you’d brought Coronis, too,” she said.

“I didn’t know you were a musician,” Artemis said, interested and a little impressed. I moved closer to Athena so I could see the main action.

“I thought I’d try branching out,” Athena said with an unmistakably flirty smile as she produced a two-pronged flute. Hera watched with condescension, and Aphrodite with amusement.

“It looks like two-” Aphrodite started.

“Flutes,” Athena cut her off. “See? With it having two prongs and one mouthpiece, a single flautist can harmonize with herself.”

“If she’s such a good flautist, why is she single?” Aphrodite smirked.

“Because shut your face,” Real Me said. This was fun.

“Because no man can tempt me, not even the Sons of Hera,” was Athena’s cool reply.

“Show me how you hold it?” Hera requested. Athena demonstrated. “Aphrodite is entirely wrong about the resemblance,” Hera concluded. Athena was pleased. Aphrodite wasn’t. Both Past and Real Me were thoroughly amused at Hera’s observation.

Athena began playing a song on her instrument before any further heckling could delay her debut. True to her word, she was able to play both melody and harmony at once. Artemis listened with her eyes closed. A peaceful smile spread on her face. Her tawny head swayed gently to the rhythm.

Hera and Aphrodite started snickering. Athena ignored them and kept playing. Artemis ignored them and kept listening. Aphrodite elbowed Artemis. Artemis opened her eyes to discern the source of the jab and exact retribution accordingly, but Aphrodite directed her attention to Athena.

Past Me was doing everything she could to keep a straight face. She was, to my credit, succeeding. Since no one could hear Real Me, I went ahead and laughed. Not a mean-spirited cackle like Hera and Aphrodite were verging on, but a friendly, good-natured laugh at a genuinely funny scene. Athena always looks so regal and fabulous and dignified, never a gown rumpled, a hair out of place, or a piece of armor smudged. However, at the moment, playing the aulos was making the goddess’ face look like a puffer fish. Her inflated, reddened cheeks were reducing her fierce grey eyes to tiny slits. Her exquisite nose was changing shape with every puff. I still laugh when I think about it, though I don’t dare tell Athena.

No wonder Artemis couldn’t help letting a giggle escape.

Athena wrenched the aulos from her mouth in exasperation. “What?” she demanded.

“Athena, come here.” Artemis led her closer to the Springs. “Watch yourself in the water. You’ll laugh too, I promise,”

Athena watched her own reflection as she played about a measure and a half. She watched Artemis’ amused reflection beside hers. Her arms went limp, the aulos dangling in her right hand. She stared at Artemis, hurt and betrayal in her countenance. Hera and Aphrodite just laughed harder. Artemis put her arm around Athena. I remembered that Artemis was about to whisper something, and that I’d never found out what it was. I got right up next to her so I could hear this time.

“It’s alright,” she murmured to Athena in soft, comforting tones. “Ignore them. You don’t have to be pretty all the time.”

Ah. That explained what came next.

Athena furiously pulled away from Artemis and cast away the aulos, sending it flying over the horizon. “You know what? Screw this. The Muses and your prettyboy brother can keep this music crap. I’m sticking to wisdom, strategy, and crafting. Unless you want to come by and laugh at me next time one of Ares’ goons gets blood on my armor.”

“Athena, I wasn’t-”

“Just forget it,” said Athena. “Damn that stupid instrument and damn the next person stupid enough to pick it up.”

“You want to leave the party and go shoot something?” Artemis offered in an awkward attempt to make peace. “That always makes me feel better.”

“Just leave me alone.” Athena disappeared.

Aphrodite, delighted as always to see a fellow Olympian goddess humiliated, laughed, “I don’t know why she’s so obsessed with her looks, anyway. She’s made it clear enough that she doesn’t want a man. Why else would she care?”

A disembodied hand grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me back into the Fates’ Tower. Clotho spoke. “Why else indeed, when I had ruled that Athena would be a virgin for eternity, knowing neither marriage nor motherhood? Though Athena’s heart knew not the desire for man, she had come to long for the favor of Leto’s daughter. However, we had made Artemis, as Hestia before her and Athena after her, immune to Aphrodite’s powers.”

Wait. Twelve times one is twelve, twelve times two is twenty-four, twelve times three is thirty-six, I chanted in my head, trying to mask my true thoughts from the Fates as I untangled them. How old was Aphrodite? No one, including Aphrodite herself, knew. No one knew who her parents were or where she’d come from, either. She had simply appeared, fully grown, with no memories whatsoever. She called herself Aphrodite, but she couldn’t even remember if she’d made up the name herself or if someone had given it to her. This had happened over fifteen years after Artemis’ birth and Athena’s creation, and over a hundred years after the Titans created Hestia. But Clotho had just said that she had fated all three goddesses to be immune to Aphrodite’s powers. Did that mean Aphrodite was born before any of them? Or did it mean Clotho had seen Aphrodite in the future? But if Clotho could see the future, why did Athena’s love for Artemis take her by surprise?

“What are you doing?” Atropos asked.

“I have a question.” I concentrated on my words for a moment rather than the multiplication table I was reciting. I scrambled for a random question unrelated to the chain of questions I was trying to hide from the Fates.

“Then ask it,” said Atropos.

“Can a sufficiently powerful goddess impregnate a woman?” I asked.

“What you really want to know is whether Artemis truly begat a child with Callisto,” Lachesis observed.

“That too.” I said, deciding to go with this line of inquiry. “No, see, you’ve basically established that Artemis and Athena have never gotten together because you decreed that Athena would never be married or bear children. Both of those seem kind of irrelevant. People, especially gods, live as lovers without a marriage contract all the time. Calliope and Oegrus did until he died. There’s no reason to assume Athena would want to marry Artemis if they became lovers. And one would assume that two females can’t conceive a child together. So, is there something different about this female? Would Artemis make Athena pregnant if they ever got it on?”

“Does Artemis know you cannot conceive alone as your mother did?” asked Clotho.

“Not unless Apollo told her.”

“Does she need to know?”

“I guess not,” I conceded.

“Likewise, what business of yours is the nature of her fertility?” Clotho concluded.

“What business do I have with any of this?” I complained.

“Perhaps now you will know your true measure,” said Lachesis. “You have gone against the direct will of the Fates, and already your blessing begins to fail. Athena does not believe for certain that Callisto’s story is true, but she doubts that it is false, which is even more detrimental. Athena’s own heart, which led her to defy our will in the first place, will lead her back to our will.”

Twelve times four is forty-eight, twelve times five is sixty, twelve times six is seventy-two, I resumed my chant. If they needed Athena to doubt Artemis’ story, why not just send me back with the news that Callisto was, in fact, pregnant with Artemis’ baby? So the story must not be true after all. Either Callisto was lying or her baby daddy – baby mama – baby co-producer – was a shapeshifter. I kept up my multiplication tables as I went over a mental list of suspects topped by the men of Olympus. Then I remembered someone who, on the very day I’d met Callisto, had shapeshifted into an uncanny replica of Artemis with the intent of seduction.

Was it possible? Aphrodite was, after all, a fertility goddess…

“We believe we now have all the data we need,” said Atropos. “Conclusion: your ability to influence fate only works in conjunction with a love god or another Muse. Withdraw your blessing now, and we will not trouble you again.”

“I won’t do it,” I quickly answered. “I gave Athena my word. Even if my blessing fails in the end, I have to see it through with all the power I have, whatever that is.” Twelve times seven is eighty-four, twelve times eight is ninety-six, twelve times nine is one hundred eight, I kept up my empty chant. The questions wouldn’t stop, and I didn’t want the Fates to hear them.

“Let her go anyway,” Lachesis stifled a yawn. “Looking too long and too deep into the mysteries of fate is beginning to addle her brain.”

Twelve times eleven is one hundred thirty-two…

“She is an artist. How can you tell?” said Clotho.

Twelve times twelve is one hundred forty-four…

“Your time here is ended,” Atropos slashed her shears shut. “Wake up.”

I did wake up. Much earlier than I’d intended. The sun still hadn’t risen, but the sky hinted that it would soon. With a couple snaps of my fingers, I traded my nightgown for a simple dress. I then floated out to the stable and located Pegasus.

Only the Twelve Olympians can teleport wherever they want. The rest of us are limited to sacred places. If we want to get to a profane place, we have to rely on other modes of transportation. Like Pegasus, my awesome, one-of-a-kind winged stallion. “My hollow,” I ordered him from astride his bare back as I took hold of his mane.

Pegasus walked out the open stable door, cantered about a dozen strides on the dancing lawn, and took flight. I held tight as he flew to the idyllic little hollow that I felt had been carved out of the side of Parnassus just for me. I and I alone knew about this splendidly isolated spot. Well, I guess Eros and Psyche did, too.

And the pale, platinum-haired nymph who had first introduced me to the hollow: Echo.

It could be argued that Echo, not Hephaestus and Aphrodite, was my first challenge with the Fates. When I’d first met Echo over two years ago, she was under a curse. My attempt to break her curse led to her death. I refused to accept that. Apollo brought her back to life with the Cure for Death that his son had invented against both Zeus and Hades’ law. I still wasn’t sure how much I’d had to do with Echo’s resurrection. Apollo remained convinced that he couldn’t have done it without my unrelenting pursuit of a happy ending to Echo’s story.

And here Echo was in my hollow, where I hadn’t seen her since the day we first met. She approached me as I landed Pegasus in a small clearing amidst a ring of trees. “What are you doing here?” I asked as soon as I’d dismounted. “Is everything going okay with Pan?” Pan was Echo’s satyr boyfriend, or had been the last time I checked. Satyrs and nymphs usually take to domesticity like a fish takes to the desert. But Echo and Pan had set up house together in his cave early in their relationship, and both seemed happy with that arrangement.

“Oh, yes, Pan’s great,” Echo assured me. “We’re together. I mean, we’re still living together. Well, we’re still together together, too. But we have to have our own lives, you know. It’s so important for people in a relationship to maintain their own identities. Who wants to be another person’s shadow, right? Pan has his stuff and I have mine. I still hang out with Artemis and the girls when they’re off duty. Pan’s totally supportive. I’m sort of an honorary huntress, even though I’ve been off the payroll for awhile because, you know, Pan. Can’t pretend to be a virgin anymore!”

“Do you come here often?” I asked as she finally stopped for a breath. As much as I liked Echo and was glad to catch up with her, I hoped the answer would be “no”. This hollow was the best place for me to be completely alone, what with eight sisters and an intrusive governor hanging around the Museum all the time.

“Not very often, and I’ve never brought anyone else here before, not even Pan. But, I hate to ask you this, because you’ve done so, so, so much for me already, and I just want to help someone else the way you and your family helped me, and-”

“What is it?” I doubted the answer would include anything peaceful, easy, or trouble-free.

“One of Artemis’ hunters got fired because she’s pregnant. She’s my friend. She doesn’t have anywhere to go, so I’ve been keeping her here. But I haven’t told anyone, not even Pan, or Artemis. She’s kind of scared of Artemis right now because, well, it’s a long story. You won’t tell Apollo, will you? He and Artemis tell each other everything.”

“I don’t think they do,” I said. Actually, I knew they didn’t. Apollo was good at hiding information from Artemis if he thought it might hurt her, and I suspected she reciprocated. “But I won’t tell him. I would like to talk to your friend, though.”

“That’s fair,” Echo accepted. “Come on, she’s in the gazebo.”

Echo took me there. Callisto was reclining against a sapling pillar of the opulent, cushion-strewn gazebo, staring longingly at the moon. A sad melody played on a nearby wind harp. “Callisto?” Echo softly broke her reverie. “This is Thalia the Muse. She wants to talk to you. It’s okay, she’ll help us.”

Callisto turned to face us. Her hunter’s chiton just barely hid her pregnant belly. She probably had about a week before that was no longer true. Either way, the garment only accentuated the change in her breasts. “I remember you,” she said to me. “From the Cronia festival. You’re Artemis’ friend. Could you please talk to her for me? I don’t know why she’s treating me like this.”

“We’re not all that close,” I hastily disclaimed.

“She told you I’m spreading lies about her, didn’t she?” Callisto’s eyes started to mist. “I wouldn’t do that to her. I couldn’t. I just can’t believe she’s doing this to me.”

“What is she doing, exactly?” I asked. “I didn’t get very much of the story.”

“She made love to me and now I’m pregnant,” Callisto replied. “I can understand her doubting that it’s her baby, but she swears we were never even together. Of course it didn’t mean as much to her as it did to me. Why should it? She can have anyone she wants. She could say the word and Athena would be in her bed before she finished saying it. But to tell me it never even happened, and to accuse me of lying when I say it did?”

“And you’re absolutely sure it was her and not a shapeshifter?” I suggested with gentle trepidation.

“We hunters bathe together in the river all the time,” Callisto said, looking rather guilty. “Artemis says it’s safer that way. I’ve…believe me, I know what she looks like. I know some satyrs can shapeshift, but satyrs don’t see that much of her and live. Every mole, every birthmark…it was definitely her.” Well, that ruled out any man on Olympus. Any man in existence, really. My Aphrodite theory was looking more and more plausible. “In fact, that’s how Artemis figured out I was pregnant. I hadn’t told her because I wanted to keep hunting. I think she noticed earlier and was ignoring it as long as she could. My chiton hid it well enough, but naked, it was getting so obvious it was ridiculous. When we’d finished bathing and dressing that day, she took me aside, said she’d noticed I was gaining a little weight, and asked if there was anything I wanted to tell her. She was so nice about it at first. Smiling. Teasing.”

“Other girls have been discovered the same way,” said Echo. “Artemis prefers the hunters to resign before they get pregnant, because we’re supposed to be ‘virgins,’ but she’s still good about it when they don’t. And if it wasn’t their choice, she kills the father whenever it’s possible.”

“I told Artemis the truth,” Callisto continued. “I said, ‘The baby’s yours.’ She’d been acting so warm and maternal, I thought for sure she’d already guessed. But then she seemed confused. She said maybe, if it was a girl and wanted to join her when it grew up. I told her, no, she was the only one I’d ever been with. I hadn’t known it was possible, but the baby had to be hers. Ours.

“She acted like she didn’t know what I was talking about. I didn’t want to cry in front of her, but I couldn’t help it. Like an idiot, I told her how grateful I was she’d chosen me, and that even though I couldn’t expect her to feel as much for me as I did for her, I’d hoped this meant she loved me just a little. I’d never seen her as angry as she got after that, not even the times she’s killed satyrs for watching her bathe.” Callisto leaned into the sapling post and rested her arm around it. “She called me a liar and said she never wanted to see me again.”

I didn’t know what to say. I believed Callisto was telling the truth about what she saw. But in our world, what you see isn’t always what you get.

2.2 Adonis Rises

Right on schedule, Artemis’ workday grew shorter and Helios’ grew longer as winter turned to spring. But this year there was one major upset in this schedule: unlike every Spring Equinox since the beginning of her marriage, Persephone didn’t come to Olympus. She sent word through Hermes that neither taking her young son to the Olympian court nor spending six months away from him during his growing year struck her as a good idea. Demeter, being the patient, understanding goddess that she is, took it all in stride and graciously accepted that she’d have to spend a summer without her daughter just this once.

Excuse me for a moment while I catch my breath and wipe the tears of laughter from my face.

Demeter immediately sent word back demanding that Persephone honor her long-standing agreement. When Persephone refused, Demeter tried getting to her through Hades. Hades replied that Persephone was determined not to take Adonis to court, and he’d be damned if he was going to be stuck alone with that kid all summer. (I’m sure the prospect of six extra months of wife time was a trial he was doing his best to bear.) So Demeter threw a fit, and by a fit I mean a famine. The projected wave of migration caught Persephone and Hades’ attention. Contrary to popular belief, neither one of them enjoys a mass influx of dead people. They hate the paperwork.

Persephone, Demeter, and Hades worked out a compromise. Persephone would stay home with Adonis and Hades, but only until the Summer Solstice. Adonis would be nine months old by then. At the fairly average rate he’d been growing, it was a reasonable projection that he’d be a young adult. At the Summer Solstice, Persephone would take Adonis to Olympus with her, but she’d return to the Underworld at the Autumnal Equinox as usual. Next year, she’d resume her normal schedule and Adonis could choose to go or stay as he pleased. Demeter was appeased just in time for the farmers to get some passable crops in. Paperwork averted!

Come the Summer Solstice, Olympus prepared a celebration to welcome Persephone and her son. The Muses & Co. were the main attraction. While we were backstage waiting for our customary production to start, I saw some of my sisters crowding around a slight gap in the curtains.

“Wow.”

“Oh my goddess.”

“That’s just unreal.”

“I’m feeling very inspired,” said Erato.

“He’s too beautiful to live,” Melpomene swooned.

“Hot guy? Let me see,” I joined them. “Who are we looking- whoa.”

Yes, Adonis was all grown up, just past the border of adolescence into adulthood. I wondered how much older he’d get. Demigods aged more than full-blood gods, and we weren’t sure whether Adonis’ grandfather Endymion counted as a god or just a frozen human. If it was the latter, Adonis was only one-fourth god by birth. I could see both Selene and Endymion in the adopted Prince of Hades. Silver light, eternal slumbering beauty, a mingling of divinity and humanity…

The curtain started to rise, and we all jumped back to our spots. Apollo entered from the wings to start the show. “Summer comes at last,” he proclaimed in his best stage voice, “and with it our beloved Persephone.” As Apollo faced the guests of honor, Adonis offered him a coy, demure smile with just the slightest flip of his iridescent silver-blond hair.

“Well, there goes that,” Terpsichore lamented under her breath through motionless lips.

“No kidding,” I laughed in kind, marveling that the guy I’d been ogling a few seconds ago was now making me feel like I was looking at a nymph. I made a mental note to torment Apollo about his adorable little fanboy later. Then I went back to Professional Showmanship mode and waited for Apollo to give us our cue. And I waited. And waited. And waited.

Then, as I realized what was going on, I felt like the core of my soul was evaporating.

“This…performance…” Apollo stammered, “We have…I…” Adonis slowly blinked his disgustingly long, thick eyelashes. No blond should have eyelashes like that. It’s just not right.

“It is our privilege as always,” Calliope strode forward, taking the position that had been hers before Apollo’s tenure as our Governor, “to welcome the Lady Persephone, Hades’ queen and Demeter’s princess, to the home of her youth. This year we are pleased to extend this welcome to the young prince Adonis, chosen son of Persephone and Hades. May their visit be a joy to Demeter, and may Demeter’s blessings bring a wonderful season to us all.”

We began our chorus. Apollo continued standing silent and immobilized in front of us. Slut Boy kept making eyes at him. While Apollo remained helplessly transfixed, Persephone scowled at Apollo as only the Iron Queen of Hades can. Once the song was over, Persephone, in an unprecedented move, joined us on stage. She acknowledged the audience, braced her arm around Apollo’s shoulder, and turned him to face us at an angle along with her. “Thank you so much, that was lovely,” she projected with a glorious stage smile. “Now let’s conclude this pageantry so I can greet my Olympian brethren.” As my sisters and I bowed to the applause and cheers of the audience, I edged close enough to hear Persephone whisper in Apollo’s ear, “Keep your eyes, hands, and everything else off my son if you know what’s good for you. That goes for your musical Maenads, too.” Seriously? Where was she getting that the musical Maenads would be an issue? I briefly recalled that the actual Maenads are essentially Dionysus’ harem. Still, I just couldn’t imagine Adonis being into women.

I stuck by Apollo as we descended the stage. So did Persephone. She tried to steer him away from where Adonis and Demeter were waiting for her, but they caught up with us anyway.

“Mom, aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?” Adonis said with the shy, inviting smile of an ingénue. I managed to keep myself from vomiting.

“Go sit with Demeter,” Persephone gently (for her) ordered Adonis. “Mommy’ll be right back.”

“Persephone, the boy just wants to meet some of your friends,” Demeter chided with the mirth of a grandparent’s schadenfreude. “Apollo, I’d like you to meet Adonis. Adonis; Apollo.”

“I hope I’ll be seeing a lot of you,” Adonis smiled as he wrapped his delicate fingers around Apollo’s hand.

“He doesn’t even live here,” said Persephone.

“I…am…I’m here a lot, though, like, every day, I, I come here once a day to, you know, check in, and stuff, and…” Apollo’s voice, briefly found, was soon lost again. Maybe the heat from his flushed cheeks had burned it away.

“Well, when you do, come up and see me sometime,” Adonis blinked those absurd eyelashes again. “I’m getting my own quarters.”

“No you’re not,” said Persephone.

“Zeus said I could,” he told her.

Persephone took a second to massage the space between her eyebrows. When that was done, she said, “Do you know what being the demigod prince of Hades means? It means your mother can kill you and thereby ground you for eternity.”

“Sweetie, stop trying to ruin his life,” Demeter comforted her.

“Can I give you a little friendly advice?” Apollo finally recaptured his voice for good. “You want to stay under Zeus’ radar. Trust me, I grew up in this place, and let’s just say that the less attention you get from Their Majesties, the better. Do you know who Ganymede is? The mortal boy that Zeus- he was Zeus’ cupbearer? One in a long line of ‘cupbearers’?”

“Mom told me,” Adonis sighed. “And you guys are probably right,” he relented with downcast eyes. He looked so fragile, so vulnerable. Had I not hated his marble-covered guts, I would’ve volunteered to be his nanny/bodyguard on the spot. “I can’t imagine you ever had to worry much, though,” he rested a hand on Apollo’s arm. “You’re so strong. Is it true that your arrows always hit their mark?”

With his warmest, shiniest sunbeam smile, Apollo said, “Listen, if you ever need to get away from the court, come to the Museum on Parnassus. You’re welcome any time.” Yep, me and my knuckles would welcome the little punk, alright.

“He won’t need to,” Persephone ruled. “I can look after him just fine.”

“My sister’s summoning me,” Apollo reluctantly excused himself. I spotted Artemis and Athena on the other side of the room. Judging by Artemis’ expression, I knew I could count on her to talk some sense to her mentally impaired brother. “Hopefully this won’t take long,” said Apollo. Adonis impulsively kissed him on the cheek. Apollo’s face turned bright red as he vanished. I thought of following him so I could have the fun of hearing Artemis’ lecture, but I decided to stick around and keep an eye on Goldilocks.

“What is wrong with you?” Persephone demanded of her son. “I raised you better than that.”

“Sorry, I guess I lost my head,” Adonis shrugged. “Everything’s so dead in Hades. It gets lonely. I mean, you and Dad have each other, but I don’t have anyone.”

“You’d have every naiad, male or female, in the Five Rivers if I let you have your way,” said Persephone.

“I know, I know, they’re bad company,” Adonis replied with adolescent petulance. “Wasn’t that one of the reasons you brought me here with you? So I could make some friends you approve of?”

“I brought you with me because I knew I couldn’t leave you alone for three whole months,” said Persephone.

“Try three whole minutes,” he murmured.

“And I sure didn’t get the impression that you want to be friends with Apollo,” she continued. “Stay away from him, alright? I can’t think of one demigod he’s been involved with who hasn’t ended up dead.”

“Did they die virgins?” Adonis asked.

“In case you’re wondering, my darling flower child,” Demeter put her arm around Persephone, “they don’t outgrow this.”

“I believe I heard a cry for help,” Aphrodite proclaimed with delight as she appeared in our midst. The alluringly disheveled state of her hair and clothes gave an obvious explanation for her hitherto absence.

“You must be the one my mother warned me about.”

The voice was vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t remember any voice having this much affect on the various organs in my chest cavity. I realized the speaker was Adonis only because he was standing in the same place and his physical features hadn’t changed a bit. However, the same body was now inhabited by an overwhelmingly masculine soul. His very gaze, though not even aimed in my direction, made me want to melt into his arms and beg him to have his way with me.

“I certainly hope so,” Aphrodite breathed. “I haven’t had the pleasure,” she extended a hand, wrist up, palm down.

“No one is having any pleasure!” Persephone stepped between them and shoved a forceful palm against each of their sternums.

“Speak for yourself,” her mother deadpanned.

“Aaa aa,” I concurred.

“You’re that orphaned baby I gave Persephone?” Aphrodite tried to process the evidence.

“I grew up.” With an unassailable posture that even Ares would have envied, Adonis sidestepped Persephone and drew Aphrodite close by the waist. “Hard to get acquainted in the middle of a crowd,” he subtly tipped her chin up so that her eyes met his penetrating stare. “I prefer a more intimate setting, don’t you?”

“Come with me,” Aphrodite invited as her arms encircled him. Before Persephone could protest, they were gone.

“If by some miracle that kid makes it through the summer alive, I’ll kill him myself,” Persephone groaned. With that, she was after them. Demeter shook her head and wandered off.

Eris, Goddess of Discord, appeared in her place. I was still too stunned by Adonis’ transformation to have the sense to teleport away.

“Aphrodite left with him,” Eris observed. “No, he left with Aphrodite. It’s different, don’t you think?”

“Aaa,” I confirmed.

Eris answered with condescending laughter. “Apollo left without him. But he left without you, too.”

“Aaa?”

“He left without him,” she repeated, “and he left without him. But he hasn’t left yet.”

Eris’ characteristically chaotic ramblings made me forget about the infatuating Adonis I had seen with Aphrodite and remember the infuriating Adonis I’d seen with Apollo. “You failed to identify your pronouns in the last sentence, so I don’t know who’s the subject and who’s the object,” I said, trying to get a grasp on order and sanity.

“You lost me.”

“If only.” I looked around for Apollo and Artemis, but Eris grabbed my shoulder. Apparently she wanted to toy with me some more. She summoned her brother. I guess I should be more specific. Eris has a ton of half brothers, including Apollo. The only brother she acknowledges is her twin, Ares, the only legitimate son of both Zeus and Hera. Said twins might be the reason Zeus and Hera don’t reproduce together very often.

“Hey, babe,” Ares leered at me. “Finally got a clue and came back for some more of this?”

“Okay, first, I’m Thalia. Calliope is the Muse you dated a couple summers ago. Second, ew.” The prospect wouldn’t have been terribly repulsive – okay, it would have been downright tempting – if Ares’ body came with a personality to match. The fact that his personality can turn a woman off to his body says a lot about his personality.

“Huh.” He took a moment to process this. “Want some anyway?”

“Weren’t you just with Aphrodite, like, five minutes ago?”

“Yeah,” he said, evidently thinking this irrelevant. “Where’d she go anyway?”

“He left with her,” Eris taunted.

“Who?” asked Ares, with an attempt at nonchalance. He and Aphrodite had an arrangement. He didn’t complain about her lovers and she didn’t complain about his, as long as they came back to each other.

“Persephone’s son,” said Eris.

“Persephone has a kid?”

“Not a kid,” said Eris, “a son. A kid is a child. A son is a man. I think her son is a man. So does Aphrodite. I also think her son is a girl. So does Apollo.”

“Like the God of War has to worry about some fruitcake,” Ares dismissed. “What did you say the kid’s name was?”

“Adonis,” said Eris. “And I told you he’s not a kid. He’s a man. A very sexy man. Don’t you listen when I talk? I don’t think you listen.”

He must not have been listening, because over Eris’ speech, he was saying, “Adonis? Yeah, sounds like a real tough guy. How long did you say they’ve been gone?”

I took advantage of Eris and Ares’ mutual distraction and teleported to where Apollo, Artemis, and Athena were chatting.

“Don’t you give me credit for having any sense at all?” Apollo was laughing.

Artemis wasn’t laughing. “When it comes to pretty demigods, not even a little bit.”

“I’ve always let you make your own decisions about your love life,” said Apollo, now more serious.

Let me?” Artemis said incredulously. “I’m the oldest and your guardian. I let or don’t let you.”

“You’re the oldest by an hour.”

“In that hour, I grew old enough to deliver you,” Artemis reminded him.

“I caught up with you by the end of the day,” he reminded her.

“I think all Apollo’s trying to say,” Athena ventured, “is that he’s a grown man with his own life, just like you’re a grown woman with yours.”

“That’s it, exactly,” Apollo agreed. “Well said.”

“That’s why I’m the Goddess of Wisdom,” Athena said in triumph.

“I know,” Artemis relented. “I’m sorry, I’ve just had a really bad week.”

“Why don’t you tell me about it?” Athena offered. She sat down and took Artemis’ hand. Artemis sat down, too.

“If you need to talk, I’m here to listen,” said Apollo as he sat on the other side of her. I took the seat on the other side of him.

Artemis accepted their invitation. “I had to fire one of my favorite hunters,” she lamented, letting her head sink to Athena’s shoulder.

“Anyone I know?” asked Apollo.

“I had been meaning to ask you,” said Artemis. “Her name’s Callisto.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” said Apollo. But it obviously did to Athena.

“Are you sure?” asked Artemis. “She’s pregnant; about five or six months along, and I wondered if you were the father.”

“I’m quite sure I’m not. Why would you think I was?” Apollo asked, not defensively, but definitely taken aback. “It’s not like I go around seducing your hunters whenever the mood strikes me.”

“Well, she- It’s- This is so embarrassing. The reason I outright fired her instead of giving her an honorable discharge is that she insists it was me.”

There were a few seconds of silence. Athena broke it. “Could you please elucidate on that last part?”

“She swears she became pregnant after she and I slept together,” Artemis reiterated.

“After she and you what?” Apollo and Athena demanded in chorus.

“Are you two insane?” Artemis defended. “Of course I didn’t really sleep with her, and I certainly can’t impregnate a woman!”

“Two questions,” said Athena. “One, do you mean you weren’t at all involved with her, or that you had sexual relations but didn’t literally sleep together? And, two, how do you know for certain that you can’t impregnate a woman?”

Artemis stared at Athena in outrage. “How could you even consider that I would be romantically or sexually involved with anyone in my service? And, forgive me, ‘certain’ may have been too strong a word, but it’s something I’ve always taken for granted, being female and all.”

“You’re one of the most powerful goddesses in the Pantheon,” said Apollo. “You can’t take things like that for granted.” He did have a point. I’d never heard of a goddess impregnating another female, but some goddesses can make themselves pregnant. That’s how Mom had my sisters and me.

“You’re one to talk! How many women have you knocked up?” Artemis retorted.

“Asclepius is the only one who’s definitely mine,” Apollo protested. “The rest of them are probably either by Hermes, Ares, or Zeus.”

I cleared my throat.

“Except the Corybantes, which I’m absolutely positive are mine,” he amended.

“The whos?” said Artemis. “Oh, that’s right, the septuplets that Thalia lost in Hades last year. See? Didn’t I tell you not to sleep with any Muses when you took that job?”

“It was totally just a one-time thing,” I said. Actually, Apollo had never slept with me or any of us. I was impressed but not surprised that he cared enough for Calliope’s safety to maintain our cover story even to his disapproving sister.

“I know I have no right to ask this,” said Athena. “You don’t owe me an answer, but please, for my own peace of mind, give me one. Were you ever involved with Callisto?”

“This is exactly why I fired her,” Artemis seethed. “How can I let someone go around saying those things about me if even you wonder whether they’re true? You, my best friend?” Athena winced at the last word. “I don’t mean to be harsh with you,” Artemis went on, “but it’s so maddening. I am not now, nor have I ever been, involved with Callisto or anyone else. It sickens me to think anyone would believe I’d take advantage of those girls. They’re like little sisters to me.” Athena seemed to be calming down. Artemis should have stopped there. “I don’t think of them that way anymore than you and I do each other.”

Without a word, Athena stood up and hurled her spear across the banquet hall. The spear went through Ares’ stomach and pinned him to the floor. I can’t say for sure that I saw Eris push him in the line of fire before she disappeared, but I can’t say for sure that I didn’t.

“Damn it, Athena, is it your time of year or something?” Ares roared. “Mom! Dad!” he summoned. “Did you see what Athena did?” he raged as he tried vainly to remove the spear. Zeus pulled it out.  Hera silently observed the scene with her silk-covered arms folded in regal disgust. Servants crowded around and set to work mopping up the blood flow that was creating a small creek.

“Athena, what have I told you about impaling your brother in the house?” Zeus called with slight exasperation, tossing the bloody spear back to her.

“She’s your creation; what do you expect?” Hera sneered.

Smoke rose around Athena as she protested, “I AM NOT HIS SISTER!” With a flash of fire, she disappeared. So did Artemis. Whether she went after Athena or to her own quarters, I wasn’t sure. I teleported near Ares to observe the carnage. Most of my sisters had gathered around, too. Calliope was enjoying herself. Nothing like watching your idiot ex-boyfriend get taken down by his little not-sister.

“Someone get the blonde medic to patch me up,” Ares ordered.

“You called?” Apollo appeared beside him.

“Not you; the chick!” Ares pushed him away. “Not that there’s much difference.”

“I’m right here,” Aglaea, the resident physician, reported for duty. Hephaestus appeared next to her. Aglaea knelt over Ares and produced a physician’s bag. “Are you able to roll on your side?” she asked her patient. “I need to see both sides of the wound.”

“I think- ow! No,” Ares groaned.

“Hephaestus?” she requested. Hephaestus telekinetically shoved Ares onto his side. Hephaestus wasn’t being terribly conscientious, and Ares wasn’t being particularly stoic. Aglaea snapped her fingers. Off came Ares’ chiton. His loins were girded. I wasn’t disappointed or anything. What kind of goddess do you think I am? Okay, maybe I was a little disappointed. But only because it would have been funny.

“Yeah, this one doesn’t miss a chance to rip my clothes off, either,” Ares taunted Hephaestus.

“Don’t tick off a woman who knows her way around potions and scalpels,” Aglaea warned him as she went about sprinkling blood-stopping powder on his wound.

“It’s just like old times, isn’t it?” Ares ignored her and continued addressing her husband. “You spend all day at work, your wife spends all day with me and my men, and now she’s knocked up.” Aglaea poured half a bottle of some potion into Ares’ open mouth. “Keep it up,” Ares encouraged her. “I’ve taken so much of your silencing potion, I’m almost totally immune.” Ares and his men are Aglaea’s most frequent patients. The demigods, who can be mortally wounded by gods or monsters, really do need the medical care. The full-blood gods just like the convenience and the physician/beauty goddess. As evidence of her beauty goddess powers, Aglaea being eight months pregnant hadn’t deterred said gods.

“Since you’re such a big, strong war god, how about I let your wound heal on its own?” Aglaea threatened. “It’ll take weeks, and you still might end up with a permanent injury. Definitely a scar. I’ll tattoo ‘got this from my baby sister’ over it so you can’t tell women it’s a battle wound.”

Persephone, Adonis, and Aphrodite returned to the hall together. “You must be Ares,” Adonis smoothly surmised, standing behind Aphrodite with his hands clasped under her bosom. “I don’t think you’ll be a problem.”

“Shut. Up. Now,” Persephone whispered harshly.

Aphrodite left Adonis’ embrace and knelt next to Ares. “He just meant he’ll be happy to share,” she assured Ares as she smoothed his furrowed brow.

“No, I meant-” But Adonis never got to finish his sentence. Apollo grabbed him and silenced him with a kiss. The two of them spirited away, probably under Apollo’s power. My first instinct was to follow them, but at that moment I was summoned by Athena. It is not in one’s best interest to ignore an angry battle goddess. I obeyed the summons.

“What on earth was that?” Athena demanded once she and I were alone in her quarters.

“What was what?”

“When Artemis said she’d fired Callisto, I thought that was your blessing at work. But what about everything after that? People have speculated about Artemis and her huntresses for ages, but this is the first time one claimed Artemis got her pregnant!”

Oh, right, that had happened. I was losing track. “You don’t really think that’s true, do you?” I asked.

Athena sighed as she sunk to her couch. “I don’t want to,” she said. “I want to believe they were never involved and that’s that. But the way Artemis answered me…She swears we’re like sisters, but I’m sure that’s not all it is to her. She’s different with me, especially when we’re alone. She just won’t see it. After all this, I can’t help wondering if she had ‘nothing’ with Callisto like she has ‘nothing’ with me. Callisto is…I don’t know. Safe. Passive. Charming. Cute. Maybe she managed to get Artemis to turn their nothing into something. Maybe Artemis wants a girl who doesn’t spear idiot war gods at nice parties.”

“People who spear idiot war gods are awesome,” I comforted (?) her.

“I know. But maybe awe isn’t a feeling Artemis wants to have for a lover,” Athena contemplated. Nope; comfort fail. “Anyway, maybe the worst is over. Callisto’s out of the retinue now, and it looks like Artemis is going to be busy keeping Apollo out of trouble.”

“Speaking of which,” I cautiously segued, “with your permission, I’d like to get home and see what happened to Apollo.”

“Go.”

When I got back to Parnassus, Calliope filled me in. Apollo had taken Adonis to our old Museum on by the Springs of Helicon and had promptly summoned her, Persephone, and Demeter. Apollo had then suggested that, with Calliope’s permission, the family spend the summer at the empty Museum.

“He couldn’t have put it to a vote?” I complained. It was my old house, too. My first house. I’d moved there on my first birthday and lived there until a few years ago when Apollo became our Governor and built us a new Museum on Parnassus. What if Adonis took my old room? My first room? I didn’t want some demigod slut turning my room into a bachelor pad. Did anyone think of that? Well, did they?

“I was always the de facto proprietress, and Apollo didn’t want to waste time,” Calliope reasoned.

“Yeah, he just couldn’t wait to get his new boyfriend set up in a love nest,” I grumbled. I wondered which persona Adonis had shown while these negotiations took place; Aphrodite’s man or Apollo’s girl.

“Persephone had the same thought,” Calliope said dryly. “Apollo won her over by telling her that he’s worried about Adonis living on Olympus. I don’t blame him. That was awfully dense, mouthing off to Ares like that. Impressive and entertaining, but dense.” Mouthing off to Calliope’s idiot ex-boyfriend. The willingness to rent out the Helicon Museum made perfect sense now.

“Where’s Apollo now?” I asked.

“He’s helping them get settled in,” said Calliope. “He’ll be back before too long.”

“Sounds good,” I absently acknowledged. But I wasn’t so sure. I had a sinking feeling that I wouldn’t be seeing much of Apollo this summer.

2.1 Solstice

“In the beginning was the Sky. The Sky was lonely, so he dreamed of a mate. When he awoke, the Earth was with him. The Sky covered the Earth, and the Earth bore the Titans. At least, that’s what the Titans told their children.

“The Titans had power over matter, spirit, space, and time. There was nothing they couldn’t do. Nothing they couldn’t create. The Earth and Sky had only created plants and water. The Titans filled the earth with living creatures. You all know the tales of Hephaestus building Pandora, the first mortal woman, at Zeus’ command; tales spread by Zeus in his pride to claim the Titans’ work for his own. No, there were humans in the world long before Hephaestus was born — long before Hera and Zeus were born, if one could say they were born at all.

“The Titans created humans to take care of their world. The humans weren’t much like their creators. The Titans could assume material form, but they were immaterial by nature. Eventually, they decided the humans were so unlike them that they couldn’t even interact. The humans took the Titans’ caresses for a breeze, their smiles for sunlight, their shouts for thunder, and their tears for rain. So the Titans created a new race, one that combined their own powers, strengths, and immortality with the nature of the humans. Two by two, the Titans mingled their life forces to bring these new creatures into existence. The most powerful were the six created by Cronus and Rhea, the rulers of the Titans. Their daughters they named Hera, Demeter, and Hestia. Their sons they named Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. Uranus and Gaia, the Titan spirits that now inhabited the shells of the earth and sky, created Mnemosyne, Selene, and Helios.

“But this new race wasn’t as pliable or as easily cowed as the humans. The harder the Titans fought to control the creatures they called their children, the more those children resisted their control. Finally, Zeus and Hera united their brethren to overthrow the Titans. Zeus had a secret weapon: lightning bolts that could strike both matter and spirit. Against Hera’s demands, he had the bolts enchanted so that only he could wield them, swearing that someday, when the war was over and they were wed, enthroned as King and Queen of the Gods, he’d give her use of them as well. Hera accepted this, knowing full well that a divine oath must be fulfilled whether the god who swore it was willing or not. The Fates would see to it.

“Everyone knows the rest. On the day of the Winter Solstice, when the night was the longest and the heavens were the darkest, Zeus and Hera led their brethren to victory and banished the Titans to Tartarus where they remain bound to this day. As for the lightning bolts, Zeus only swore to give Hera use of them ‘someday.’ He had all the time in the world…

“But so did she.”

My sisters, Apollo, and I applauded as Calliope concluded her rehearsal. “That is the best recitation of that story in the history of recitations,” Clio proclaimed. “But the text could still use some work. Shouldn’t you say something about how Apollo killed the Cyclops, who was the only one with the formula to make the lightning bolts, so now Zeus has a finite supply and Hera’s just waiting for him to run out?”

“No, she really doesn’t need to bring that up,” said Apollo.

“It’s epic poetry, Clio, not history,” said Calliope. “It’s all implied in the ending.”

“Hey, maybe you could throw in something about Hera conceiving Hephaestus on her own and giving him the ability to reverse engineer the lightning bolts, but totally forgetting to throw in motivation,” I suggested.

“It would interrupt the flow of the story,” said Calliope, who was getting annoyed.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Polyhymnia. “You can’t use that script at the feast tomorrow, anyway. Hera would throw you in Tartarus right along with her parents for making her look that gullible. Actually, you sort of made Zeus sound like a bastard, too.”

“Oh, well,” Calliope shrugged, “you’re probably right. I’ll just use the old script, even though everyone’s heard it a thousand times.”

“Not everyone,” Euterpe tried to cheer her up. “This’ll be Psyche’s first Cronia with us. She and Eros were on their honeymoon during last year’s feast.”

“It’ll be Aglaea’s first Cronia on Olympus, too,” Apollo offered.

“It’s going to be a crazy day for her,” I laughed. “Morning with her family and evening with his.” Not that Hera would be too distraught if Hephaestus didn’t show up. As we’d all expected, once he and Aglaea got back from their honeymoon, Hera went back to barely being aware of his existence. Not a deliberate shunning, mind you, merely a general oblivion. Even with the recent announcement of Aglaea’s pregnancy, Hera had just plain lost interest in the couple, which was fine with Aglaea.

Aphrodite, on the other hand, had disproved our expectations by continuing in her conviction that Aglaea was her best friend. Aphrodite doesn’t really know how to have a friend.

“Isn’t this wonderful? Me and my bestest gal pal, together for Cronia,” Aphrodite gushed just loud enough for all around to hear as she stood by Aglaea with her arm around her shoulder. All the action was in the center of the lavishly decorated banquet hall, but a few guests were sitting on the sidelines. Hephaestus and Aglaea were among the latter, and I was taking a moment to visit with them. “You should go get us some wine,” Aphrodite told her BFF.

“I’m pregnant,” Aglaea reminded her. Aphrodite responded with a blank look. “You aren’t supposed to drink when you’re pregnant,” Aglaea clarified.

“You just crack me up!” Aphrodite giggled.

“This explains so much about your kids,” I remarked. “And by the way, friends don’t tell friends what to do.”

“Hm,” Aphrodite considered this. “Hephaestus,” she directed her ex-husband, “get us some wine.” With some effort, she took his sturdy cane from its resting place against the wall and offered it to him.

“A friend would offer to get it herself,” Hephaestus replied, showing no intention of accepting the cane or rising from his seat.

“Oh,” said Aphrodite, letting the cane fall to the floor. “Well then, you’re not being a very good friend,” she laughed at Aglaea.  “I’m going to find Ares. Later.”

“I’m sure she’ll leave us alone once the baby’s born,” Hephaestus comforted his wife once Aphrodite had disappeared into the crowd.

“Don’t worry about it,” Aglaea sighed, half annoyed and half amused. “I’ve resigned myself to having been chosen by the Fates as Aphrodite’s bestie.”

“Bestie, handmaid, six of one,” I added. Aphrodite does have real handmaids, but due to a time-honored Cronia tradition, they had the day off. To commemorate Zeus overthrowing the Titans’ reign, masters are supposed to be subject to their servants, parents to children, etc., during the Cronia feast. Zeus, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia had waited table at dinner as they did every year. Now that the tables were cleared away and everyone was dancing and mingling, all of us gods and goddesses were supposed to be attending to our attendants. It is my great fortune not to have any attendants. It is my even greater fortune to have an official Governor.

“Here you are,” Apollo shoved a chalice in my face. “Hopefully this one is to your satisfaction, unlike the previous six.”

I took a tiny sip and thoughtfully swished it around in my mouth. “No,” I said at last. “This one has too much cinnamon. Try again.”

“Thalia,” he smiled with an ominous calm, “Sweet, thoughtful Thalia; I advise you to consider that Cronia doesn’t last forever, and that when it’s over and the new year begins, I may decide to reevaluate my leadership methods. You’re giving me some fascinating ideas.”

“I advise you to reevaluate the nutmeg to clove ratio in this drink. There’s a good boy,” I said blithely as I folded his fingers over the stem of the goblet.

“That’s right, keep it up,” he warned as he went to make another sad attempt at fulfilling my rather reasonable request.

A minute later, Apollo’s twin sister Artemis and her best friend Athena showed up. Athena was decked out in shining silver armor over a fabulous, richly-decorated golden gown. Artemis was wearing her long blonde hair loose and sporting a dress chiton, both things she only did on feast days, and then under duress. I’m not sure she even owned a dress chiton since she always just borrowed one of the plainer ones from Apollo’s closet. This one was a solid, muted eggshell white. I couldn’t remember for sure, but I’d thought it’d had a striking black braid around the hem when Apollo had worn it. Today it was unadorned.

“Hey there,” Artemis greeted me with a smile as she pulled a couple of chairs into a semi circle. “Apollo asked me to keep an eye on you. What hoops have you been making him jump through this year?”

“You’d think he could mix a simple drink,” I shook my head in disappointment.

“It’s about time he’s getting some Cronia torture,” she laughed. “My huntresses always have way too much fun with this holiday.”

“I’ll say,” Athena coolly agreed. “Honestly, how many times can one girl lose a- oh, here she is now.”

“Artemis!” a bubbly brunette nymph sang as she pranced over to her mistress. “My anklet fell off again. Can you put it back on for me? Please?” she pleaded as she held out a silver chain laden with diamond star charms.

“Hand it over,” Artemis smiled indulgently as she switched places with the petite young woman and knelt by the chair. “Everyone, this is Callisto. Callisto, you know who these people are.” Whether or not she did know, Callisto ignored these people, took a seat, and daintily set her tiny bare foot in Artemis’ lap. Athena, meanwhile, appeared to have lost the ability to blink. “See, this is why I don’t let you girls wear jewelry while we’re hunting,” Artemis chided, fastening the clasp.

“Not to mention you’d scare away the game with something that gaudy and…and jangly,” Athena commented.

“Look who’s talking,” Artemis teased her. “The ostrich feathers in your helmet serve what military purpose, exactly?”

“The design is meant to suggest a bird displaying its plumage,” Athena said. “Like it does before a fight to look stronger and more fierce than its opponent.”

“I thought birds did that when they’re trying to impress a potential mate,” said Callisto. Nymphs aren’t always the brightest little things.

“And you don’t think fights ever break out under those circumstances?” Athena replied.

“There you go,” Artemis said to Callisto. “Firmly fastened. If that thing falls off one more time, I’ll know without a doubt that you’re just trying to torment me,” she kindly reproached. With a giggle and blush, Callisto slid off her chair and returned to the dance floor, scampering like a fawn.

“She’s adorable,” Aglaea laughed.

“I like her,” Artemis nodded, following Callisto with her eyes. “She’s a good hunter, and she’s very popular with the other girls.”

“And she worships you,” Athena remarked with a hint of disparagement.

“I’m a goddess and she’s in my service, so that goes without saying,” Artemis replied, Athena’s implication lost on her.

“I’ll bet those crushes happen a lot,” Hephaestus commented.

Artemis’ countenance darkened. “I cannot believe you said that. How could you even think that?”

“No, I meant her to you; I wasn’t implying that you-”

“I know what you meant, and it’s still sick. My nymphs look up to me as a leader and a mentor, and they know I care about them and would do anything to protect them. That’s all there is to it. Don’t turn it into something disgusting.”

“I would never, ever, ever think or suggest that anything inappropriate was going on in your ranks,” Hephaestus protested. “It was a poor choice of words. I just meant that she does seem to really look up to you.”

The fact is, in spite of Artemis’ obstinate ignorance, those crushes do happen a lot. Half of her hunters join her ranks because they’re trying to get over a guy or because they’re looking for a nice girl. Whenever any of them do pair up with each other, they’re honorably discharged. Artemis keeps a strict singles-only policy. Athena has pointed out to her that, one, most of the girls aren’t really virgins, they’re just celibate for the duration of their employment; and two, according to Zeus and Hera’s law, two women sleeping together isn’t a breach of chastity anyway. Artemis says that’s not the point. Some people, she claims, just don’t want to be romantically involved with anyone, and she wants to provide such women with a haven that offers a little more adventure than Hestia’s retinue.

So, where was I? Oh, yes. Clearly this was a job for the court jester.

“No big deal, you got the wrong twin, that’s all,” I teased Hephaestus. “You know how many Oracles have fallen for Apollo? It’s insane. But he never pays them any attention except for, like, the two out of every hundred who aren’t attracted to him at all.”

“Oh, that is so true,” Artemis shook her head in agreement. My distraction was working. “Remember Cassandra?”

“Who doesn’t?” I rolled my eyes. “Psyche has all kinds of theories on the subject, but they all come down to the fact that Apollo’s nuts.”

“Did someone summon me?” Psyche flew into our midst. As always, Eros wasn’t far behind. The Winged Wonders came in for a landing in the middle of our semicircle.

“And what about Apollo’s nuts?” asked Eros.

“Hey, Psyche,” I ignored him. “Enjoying your first Cronia on Olympus?”

“It’s great!” she grinned. “Do you and your sisters do that pageant every year?”

“Yes,” everyone in the circle said in unison.

“Well, I loved it,” she said. “And this is the best feast I’ve been to, except for all the weddings.”

“Just think,” said Eros, “this time next year we’ll be celebrating my baby sister’s first Cronia. Have you guys picked out a name yet?”

“We’re leaning toward Euphrosyne,” said Hephaestus.

“I still think Erato would be perfect,” Eros campaigned.

“But then she’d be confused with my sister Erato all the time,” I reminded him, knowing that Aglaea and Hephaestus had already vetoed the name for that reason.

“No, she wouldn’t,” Eros argued. “Your sisters are all brunettes. My sister’s going to look just like me. Right, Dad?”

“She could be blonde,” Hephaestus concurred with some hesitation.

“I mean, I’m not kidding myself; I know she’ll just be my half-sister,” Eros continued, “but still, I have a blonde mother and a dark-haired father.”

“That’s undisputed,” Athena said.

“And maybe the wings come from Dad’s side, too,” he considered.

“That’s also possible,” said Hephaestus. I wondered whether he was referring to himself or to  his half brother Ares, Zeus and Hera’s only legitimate son. It’s also possible that Eros’ wings come from Hermes, one of Zeus’ innumerable illegitimate sons, which would make sense considering Hermes is the only one of the aforementioned who actually has wings. If Hermes is the father, Eros and Hephaestus aren’t blood related at all.

“For your sake, I hope it doesn’t have wings,” Psyche said to Aglaea in sympathy. “Aphrodite’s told me all about what it feels like to give birth to a winged baby. Those pointy little bones are right up there by the shoulder blades, and-”

“Whoa!” Eros cut her off. He flew away with his hands over his ears chanting, “TMI! TMI!”

“I knew that would work,” said Psyche as soon as he was out of earshot. “I’m sorry,” she said to Hephaestus. “I know that was uncomfortable for you.”

“It’s alright; I was there when he was born, and I’ve heard the story many times, usually at a much higher volume,” Hephaestus replied.

“No, I mean what Eros was saying,” said Psyche. “He’s been this way ever since he found out about the baby. It does make sense. You’re starting a new family, and he wants to make sure he’s a part of it. Which I know you want him to be. He should know you don’t care that you’re probably not his biological father.”

“Thank you,” said Hephaestus. “Discomfort: gone.”

Since her days as a mortal Delphian teenager, Psyche had dreamed of developing a science of the soul as a counterpart to medical science. Hera granted that wish when she made Psyche a goddess. Psyche became the Goddess of Psychology. Since then, she had yet to have a single patient. That didn’t stop her from psychoanalyzing everyone in range of her empathic senses.

“With both of us working, we’ll need lots of babysitting,” Aglaea said to her. “Would it help if I make sure Big Brother is the first one I summon?”

“Do that!” Psyche agreed, clearly excited by this prospect. “And me, too. I’d love to help. I love kids. I wish Persephone hadn’t had to take her baby to Hades right away. You think she’ll bring him with her when she comes back in the spring?”

“That’ll depend on who loses the coin toss,” I laughed.

“And if she does, he won’t be a baby anymore,” Athena reminded her. “He’ll probably be half grown by then.”

“He is a demigod,” said Aglaea. “Sometimes they take longer.” Hades and Persephone had adopted the baby in question. His birthmother, one of Aphrodite’s mortal priestesses, had died in childbirth. His absentee birthfather was the son of the moon goddess Selene and her lover, Endymion. If you can call an eternally comatose man a lover. Selene apparently can. Selene is kind of creepy.

“Barring prophetic vision,” said Artemis, “there’s no sure way to predict how fast we’ll grow and where we’ll stop. It took Apollo and me five years to get to our ultimate age, and our growth was pretty inconsistent.”

“I can only imagine what it’s like to grow,” Athena said wistfully. “To look in the mirror and see an entirely different person than you saw there a year ago.” Zeus had created Athena on his own to get back at Hera for conceiving Hephaestus without a father, and to prove that he had the same creative powers as the Titans who had created him. Athena was brought into being fully grown and fully armed, the pinnacle of Zeus’ creation, the wisest and strongest of all his children.

“You were lucky,” Artemis said to her. “I wish I’d never been a child.” Psyche had that odd look on her face that she’d get from time to time. I could tell there was something on her mind that was dying to get out, but even Psyche usually had the sense not to tell Artemis what she could see in her soul.

“You felt like, as a child, you didn’t have enough power,” Psyche ventured, unable to contain herself, needing to vent just this tiny revelation. Okay, scratch that about her having any sense. “The Fates gave you more responsibility than you were ready for. Great responsibility requires great power.”

Artemis shocked us by mildly replying, “That’s exactly right.” But she quickly and smoothly changed the subject by saying, “Adonis – that is what Persephone named the baby, isn’t it? – won’t have that problem. You can’t get much more sheltered than a childhood in the Underworld with Persephone and Hades for parents. If the Laws of Inverse Luck hold true, he’ll probably be full grown by the first time Persephone leaves him,” she laughed darkly.

“If she leaves him,” said Psyche. “She doesn’t hate anything as much as she lets on, the baby included.”

“She hated her mom’s obsessive hovering as much as she let on,” I said.

“Yeah, and guess who got to hear about it all the time,” said Athena. “Me and Artemis, her loyal chaperones.”

“Artemis!” we heard Callisto calling.

“There is no way that anklet came off again,” Artemis laughed.

“No, but look, my hair fell down. Can you fix it for me?”

“Your wish is my command.”

Callisto stood up in front of the chair while Artemis remained seated. Artemis produced a comb and started the tedious process of repairing Callisto’s hairstyle. I pondered how horribly inconvenient it must be to not be able to do it with a snap of the fingers. Artemis isn’t a theater goddess or a beauty goddess, so she can only do that kind of thing by hand. Her hunters usually follow her example of simply pinning her hair up off her neck and out of her face. Feast days are a major exception. Callisto was in a state of absolute bliss as Artemis combed, braided, and sculpted her hair. Athena was engaged in an intense staring contest with a nearby pillar. It could have been my imagination, but I thought I saw tiny wisps of smoke coming from the pillar. The pillar got a reprieve when an approaching voice commanded all of our attention.

“I don’t believe I know this lovely lady.”

Some nymphs live for Zeus’ favor. The smart ones will do anything to avoid his mere acknowledgement. Callisto clearly fell into the latter category.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Zeus said with a smile that would probably be quite charming and seductive if you didn’t know him. Callisto backed into Artemis, who practically drew her into her lap. “Can you tell me your name, or do you have to ask your mistress’ permission?” he coaxed.

“It’s Callisto, My Lord,” she quietly answered.

“Callisto,” Zeus repeated. “What do you do when my daughter isn’t keeping you busy in the hunting grounds?”

“She does what I tell her,” Artemis fiercely answered in Callisto’s place as she shielded her with her arms, “because she’s mine.”

“Artemis, don’t be so tense,” Zeus laughed. “You never did have much of a sense of humor.”

“I can tell a joke as well as anyone,” Artemis said, her voice as cold, hard, and ominous as an iceberg. “What did the King of the Gods swear to his daughter? Give up? That she would never be given to a man, that she could remain a virgin forever, and that her arrows would never miss their mark. Now, isn’t that just the funniest thing you ever heard?”

Zeus patted the fair wave of hair that draped around Artemis’ shoulder. “It needs work,” he smirked.

“Oh, oh, I got one,” I spoke up. “What did Hera say when she heard Zeus was banging Demeter? ‘Fine, but I get her when you’re done.'” As I predicted, Zeus thought that was a riot. He turned his attention from Artemis and Callisto and toward me. I subtly shifted position so that he turned even further. “But I kid,” I said as I leaned back on my heels. “I kid. We all know Demeter would never get involved with a married man. She was saying so just the other day while she was wringing salt water out of her hair.”

“And what business did you have with Demeter?” Zeus jovially played along. As I took a nonchalant step backward, he unconsciously took one forward.

“The usual; she needed some cheering up,” I continued to improvise. “Guess a dip in the ocean failed to satisfy. You know how she gets around the holidays, missing Persephone. Persephone, now there’s a piece of work…” My monologue went on and on. Eventually, I reached the other side of the banquet hall. That was where I ran into Apollo. Literally. He stood immobile as a pillar and let me back right into him.

“Will you look at that,” Apollo clucked his tongue as he turned me around. “I went to all the trouble to mix you this drink, and now you’ve gone and spilled it all over yourself.” Grateful for this fortuitous climax to my improv routine, which had naturally attracted the attention of those around me, I triumphantly bowed and waved in all directions. The crowd ate it up.

“Fix it,” I ordered Apollo by way of a finale. Apollo snapped his fingers. The wine stain on my gold dress turned into an all-over print. The color scheme resembled a leopard’s coat, but the pattern was more like that of an overo paint horse. “Nice,” I decided. “I like it better this way.”

“Me, too,” Hermes approved.

“Can I borrow it sometime?” asked my sister Urania, who was standing next to him, drink in hand.

“We’ll see,” I said. She hadn’t mentioned that she and Hermes were back together. Well, maybe they were, maybe they weren’t. Who knew. It was hard to tell with them. They had officially decided to Just Be Friends™ not long after Aphrodite’s divorce, but they’d hooked up at least twice in the year and a half since. Though Aphrodite and Ares were each other’s primary lovers, neither of them made the slightest pretense at monogamy, and whenever Ares was unavailable for whatever reason, Hermes was the next man on Aphrodite’s list. How my sister fit into that equation, I didn’t even want to know.

The attention of the crowd, including Zeus, was drawn away quickly enough by the myriad amusements that filled the hall. “You know,” Apollo said quietly to me, “with it being Cronia and all, if you ordered me to dance with you, I’d have to comply.”

“You would, wouldn’t you?” I said with a wicked little smile.

“You like this song,” he observed.

“I do,” I acknowledged.

“I am the best male dancer in this room,” he commented.

“Don’t let Dionysus hear you.” Dionysus, yet another one of Zeus’ bastards, was on the dance floor in full drag, demonstrating his prowess as a dancer in ways that defied imagination. Too bad he hadn’t brought the Maenads. I knew from past experience that watching him “serve” them could get interesting.

“I might even enjoy dancing with you, just a little,” Apollo persisted.

“I could see that,” I agreed. “But I couldn’t possibly ask that of you today,” I added with a dramatic sigh. “You just said yourself, you couldn’t say no. Of course, if you were to ask me to dance, technically my position of authority would become a non-issue, but I’m quite capable of making an issue of it anyway.”

“What, me commit to dancing with you? And be serious about something for once in my life? Day?” he countered. “Right, that sounds like me. Besides, once I start dancing with you, I might decide I don’t like it after all, or you might want to quit, and I need every story to have a happy ending.”

Aphrodite materialized in front of us. “Will you two cut it out?” she decried our charming little reverse-role banter. “I am trying to make out with Ares, and I can’t concentrate with all this unresolved sexual tension in the air. If you two don’t hurry up and get it together, I’m going to take matters into my own hands. My own very capable hands,” she ran her fingertips along Apollo’s chiseled, exposed pectoral. Bitch.

“Sorry, you’re not my type,” Apollo protested, more to himself than to her. He’s as hot for Aphrodite as is any other Olympian male. However, his moral code had prevented him from getting involved with her before she and Hephaestus divorced, and the knowledge that her moral code is a bit incompatible has kept any desire in check since. Therefore, Apollo is one of the very few gods who’s never slept with Aphrodite.

“Ares thinks women aren’t your type,” Aphrodite prodded him. “He doesn’t understand that some people are even more unlimited than I am in who they can love.”

“I think you have me confused with Dionysus,” Apollo defended. It was pretty hard to confuse the two of them at the moment. Apollo was the one not doing a striptease. “It’s not like I’m out to screw everything with a pulse. Some of the people I’ve fallen in love with were men, that’s all. And I was in love with every one of them.”

“I loved every one of mine, too,” said Aphrodite.

“Did you really? Did you love any of them so much that you wanted him and only him forever?” asked Apollo.

“Impossible,” Aphrodite laughed. “That would be like expecting one of you theater gods to have an audience of one, and to want to perform for that person and only that person for eternity. Well, enough of this,” she switched gears. “I’m going back to — damn it, don’t I get one day off?” she whined right before teleporting out of sight. Before I could comment on her disappearance, I was summoned away, too. I obeyed the summons and teleported to Athena’s quarters.

And so had Aphrodite. I deduced that Athena must have summoned her away to annoy Ares, and that she had summoned me to watch the fun. I produced a box of popcorn. A small one, since I had no intention of sharing. Athena disintegrated it. That made me sad.

“No gag props,” Athena ordered. “This is serious.”

“It had better be,” said Aphrodite. “I left Ares waiting.”

Athena drew a deep breath. Slowly, regally, she began to pace her floor. “In all my centuries as a battle goddess, none of the wounds I’ve received have caused me as much pain as what I’m about to say.” She faced Aphrodite, but averted her eyes. “Aphrodite, I want your help.”

“Think carefully, Bright Eyes,” Aphrodite sang with a perverse smile. “Is ‘want’ really the word you’re looking for?”

“Fine, I need your help,” Athena growled, looking like shards of glass were being crushed into her temples.

“Remember that time you claimed you were more beautiful than me?” Aphrodite contemplated.

“It wasn’t an unjustified claim. If you recall, I could have stolen your husband if I’d wanted to.” Athena’s rather proud of her looks. She’s rather proud of everything about herself, actually. She’s sort of how I imagine Hera if Hera were less power-hungry and more compassionate.

“Sorry, I mistook you for someone who needed a favor from me,” Aphrodite perused her own fingernails and randomly changed the color of their polish. Athena said something under her breath. “What was that?” asked Aphrodite. “I couldn’t quite make it out.”

“I said ‘Fine’,” the word forced its way through Athena’s clenched teeth. I didn’t think that was the word she’d said before. “You’re as beautiful as me.”

“Wow. You really do want my help,” Aphrodite looked up. “Where would you like me to bestow my good will? Is this favor for a friend, or has someone actually caught your eye? I really hope it’s the latter. I would be the happiest creature in the universe if one of you three finally sought my ultimate blessing.”

The three Aphrodite referred to are Athena, Artemis, and Hestia. Hestia, the Goddess of the Hearth and a daughter of the Titans, had first taken a vow of chastity long before anyone from my generation was born. She’s always seemed pretty happy with her relationship status. Not merely content or resigned, but genuinely happy.

Artemis was a little different. She didn’t actually take a vow; she asked Zeus to take one. He granted her request and swore that she could keep her virginity forever. Everyone figured she was freaked out about the prospect of Zeus arranging a marriage for her, but that she’d grow out of it and find a loophole eventually. She never has.

When Artemis was grown, Zeus created Athena. Athena and Artemis hit it off right away. After a year or two, Athena vowed that she’d keep her virginity as long as Artemis did. As with Artemis, most of us suspected Athena was preventing Zeus from marrying her off. Since she wasn’t Zeus’ (or anyone’s) biological daughter, any of his and/or Hera’s sons would have been fair game. Athena hated Ares from day one, and though she considered Apollo and Hephaestus her friends, she wasn’t attracted to either of them. As the Olympian court grew, neither Dionysus nor Hermes inspired any regret over her vow. Some of us, blessed with keen observational skills and extraordinary intuition, discerned that Athena was, to put it in the proper scientific terminology, into chicks. However, for reasons she’s kept to herself, she’s never gotten involved with anyone, even for a chaste romance.

“I love Artemis.”

Apparently she was through keeping the reason to herself.

“I knew that,” said Aphrodite.

“Of course you did,” Athena murmured. “I’m sure everyone does, even without love goddess abilities.” She sighed. “Everyone but Artemis. It’s like she has some kind of mental block. And not just with me. You’ve seen how she reacts to the thought of anyone being attracted to her, or her to them. That’s why I’ve never told her. She’d have a nervous breakdown and probably never speak to me again.”

“Tell me about it,” Aphrodite nodded in enthusiasm.

“Now, I don’t want you to enchant her if she truly doesn’t feel this way about me at all and she can’t think of me as anything more than a sister.” She paused a moment. “Sister,” she quietly repeated. There were those glass shards again. “It’s all I can do to keep from falling on my sword whenever she says that. We’re not sisters. If I’m Zeus’ daughter, Pegasus is my son.”

“Who’s Pegasus?” Aphrodite wrinkled her eyebrows.

“Our horse,” I reminded her. “Athena made him.”

“You have a horse for a son? What’s the father? When did you have a baby, anyway? I thought you were still a virgin.”

A subtle glimmer of suspicion showed itself in Athena’s countenance. “Show me my file,” she requested.

“What file?” Aphrodite asked modestly, her hands innocently clasped behind her back.

“The file you keep on everyone’s love lives,” Athena persisted.

“You have no love life, therefore you have no file,” said Aphrodite.

“Let’s see Thalia’s, then,” Athena suggested in a conspiratorial tone. “I’ll bet a Muse has all kinds of juicy stuff in her file.”

“You’d think so,” I scoffed. But then, to my horror, Aphrodite gleefully produced a scroll as thick as a tree trunk.

“What on earth is that?” I gasped in indignation. Sad truth be told, my love life really isn’t that active. I’ve had a few little love affairs; they didn’t last very long, and they’ve been pretty scarce.

“I don’t just keep track of full-fledged romances,” said Aphrodite. “Every major or minor flirtation, every romantic or sexual thought; it all goes in the file.”

“Every stray thought of that nature in my entire life is in that scroll?”

“No, silly girl!” she laughed as she pinched my cheeks, leaving the scroll hanging in midair. “That’s from this week. I’ll start with today.” She waved her hand, and several feet unrolled. “Midnight: Highly unoriginal erotic dream. 8:00 a.m.: ‘Sun through the window. Golden sun. Warm sun. Sun god. Apollo. Golden hair. Warm skin. I’m so lonely’,” she read my transcript aloud. “8:02 a.m.: ‘Getting dressed. Apollo likes this dress. Forget it, I don’t want Apollo to think I’m dressing for him. Damn, I’m hot. Has Apollo seen me naked? I can’t remember.’ By the way,” she told me, “he has, twice, one less time than you’ve seen him. Oddly, all five occurrences were before you two moved in together. 8:15 a.m.: ‘Awesome, Apollo decided to go with the shirtless look. Does he know I like it? Pecs. Abs. Biceps. Want. Aw, he’s putting on a cloak.’ 8:30 a.m.: ‘Oh my goddess, Apollo’s touching me. I could just-‘”

“Okay, this has been loads of fun,” I cut her off, feeling a distinct ingratitude for my immortality, “but how come you don’t have a file like this on Athena? I mean – with all due reverence – I know she’s never been involved with anyone, but if you keep track of all these random thoughts that I’ve never acted on and half the time didn’t even notice I was having, wouldn’t you at least have something on Athena?”

“The lady has an excellent point,” Athena said in unhappy satisfaction.

“Your pretty, shiny helmet protects your thoughts?” Aphrodite suggested.

Athena took off her helmet. “What am I thinking?” she asked, casually observing Aphrodite’s décolletage. Besides the fact that Aphrodite must have been keeping that gown’s neckline in place supernaturally, Athena is a lot taller than her.

“That I’m helping you already by making you forget all about what’s-her-name?” Aphrodite said with a seductive smile. “I can be even more of a help,” she enticed. “Believe it or not, I’ve never been with a woman, so in a way it would be my first time, too. Now you’re thinking you want Thalia to give us a little privacy,” she purred, suggestively fondling the hilt of Athena’s sword.

“Not even close,” Athena said quietly as she removed Aphrodite’s hand. From her sword, not from Aphrodite. “You can’t read me because your powers don’t work on me. I should have figured it out when you had to ask me what I wanted from you. I suspected when you couldn’t concentrate on my petition. Prayers for love are the only things that ever hold your attention.”

“And nothing gives me more pleasure than answering them,” said Aphrodite. Her form began to change, growing taller, more slender and less voluptuous. Her pure gold hair turned to a still brilliant but more natural shade of blonde. Her gown turned to a masculine silk chiton that would have looked irresistible on Apollo, yet equally so on his twin if she’d ever bother to wear one so luxurious.

Athena drew a sharp breath at the figure before her. Anyone who entered the room at that moment would have sworn it was Artemis. “Athena,” she spoke. I jumped a little. Athena took a step back and involuntarily clutched her shield against her breast. The voice was a perfect copy. “There’s no need for that,” the apparition said as she placed her hands on Athena’s and gently lowered the shield. A flush started on Athena’s cheeks and spread in all directions. “I know what honor means to you, but by our laws, you’ll still be a virgin. Isn’t this what you really wanted when you took that vow?” She kissed Athena’s neck. Athena’s eyelids shut as her lips parted. “The two of us,” she kissed Athena’s neck again, “together,” she kissed her cheek, “forever,” she came within a hair’s breadth of her lips and whispered, “virgins.”

“STOP!” Athena shouted, jerking away. “Stop it. This isn’t right. I can’t do this to her. Change back,” she ordered, shielding her eyes. “It isn’t right,” she repeated to herself. “You’re not her.”

“Fine,” Aphrodite crossed her arms and morphed back to her petulant, scowling self. “You know, I don’t even like women. I was doing you a favor.”

“Because you can’t do me the favor I requested,” Athena accused. “Your powers don’t work on Artemis, either; do they?”

“Or Hestia,” Aphrodite conceded. “Believe me, I’ve tried to get to all three of you a million times over the centuries, but you’re completely immune. You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“Not if you don’t tell anyone that I’m in love with Artemis, or that I confessed under duress that I’m not necessarily objectively more beautiful than you.”

“Deal,” said Aphrodite.

“And I’m guessing I shouldn’t bother with Eros, either?”

“He won’t go near Artemis,” Aphrodite shook her head. “He likes staying in one piece.”

“Then please go now.”

Aphrodite obliged.

“A lot of help you were,” Athena lamented as she sunk to her couch.

“Who, me?” I blinked. “What did you expect me to do?” I had been so absorbed in her story that I’d forgotten all about the lack of apparent reason for me to be there.

“I had some crazy idea that you were a good luck charm,” she explained. “You know. The tapestry?”

“Oh, yeah.”

About a year and a half ago, Apollo did a very stupid thing. Very sweet, but very stupid. He told me he thought my powers were greater than anyone imagined, maybe even powerful enough to influence the triune goddesses who rule us all: The Fates. The Fates couldn’t let that statement go unchallenged. They set up a test for me. Since my domain is comedy and thus happy endings, I was to offer the blessing of a happy ending in real life and see if it came true. I picked Hephaestus, Aphrodite, and Eros as test subjects. It worked. Hephaestus and Aphrodite finally got a divorce. Then Eros married Psyche, Hephaestus married Aglaea, and Aphrodite was free to be with whoever, whenever.

Then another opportunity to test my alleged power came up. Calliope was pregnant with Zeus’ children. (She was drunk and she thought he was someone else. Long story.) I offered my blessing to her and her unborn children. Calliope safely hid the pregnancy until the babies were born. Apollo and I were able to convince Hera that the babies were really ours (like I said, long story). The “babies” were now fully grown and living with Mom in the Underworld. They call themselves The Corybantes. Apollo was the only one I ever told about my encounters with the Fates.

Except Athena. In addition to being the Goddess of Wisdom and Battle Strategy, she’s also the Goddess of Weaving. Yeah, I know, those totally go together. Anyway, one of her magic tapestries had shown her my first test. She’d agreed to keep it a secret, and we hadn’t spoken of it since. I’d forgotten she knew about it. I’d been trying to forget I knew about it. The Fates and I had left each other alone since the day Hephaestus had married Aglaea and Calliope had given birth to the Corybantes. I had been perfectly content with our mutual silence. The last time I’d spoken with the Fates, they’d threatened another test. For the next one, they’d stipulated, my subject must be beyond the influence of both the love gods and the other Muses.

“You want me to give you my blessing?” I summarized.

“Yes,” said Athena. “It worked for Hephaestus and Aglaea, Eros and Psyche, and Aphrodite and the male half of the Pantheon. I know it’s stupid for the Goddess of Wisdom to want some romantic comedy cliché, but I do. I just want me and Artemis to live happily ever after.”

“Can I ask you a few questions?”

“I suppose so.”

“Do any of your arts or crafts overlap with any of my sisters’?”

“No,” she said. “I swore off music after the aulos incident. I can dance, but I’m not exceptional at it. I just think it’s fun. I certainly wouldn’t qualify as a dance goddess. Artemis, on the other hand…have you ever seen her dance?”

“Does seeing her stand in place for thirty seconds while a couple of naiads maypoled her at Aphrodite’s beach party count?”

“That was nothing. She only really dances when she thinks no one’s looking,” Athena blushed. “When you lived at the Springs of Helicon, she used to sneak out to this little clearing in the forest near your Museum, just close enough to hear your music sessions. She’s as gifted as Apollo. Never wanted to be a theater goddess, though. She hates people staring at her.”

“Perfect,” I said. One possibly influenced by Muse powers, one definitely not, both immune to the influence of the love gods. Excellent test subjects. “Now, before I offer my blessing, I should let you know that these things never turn out the way I expect them to. I mean, when I said ‘a happy ending,’ do you think I expected Hephaestus and Aphrodite to have the Pantheon’s first divorce? Also, I’ve never directly offered this kind of blessing to someone who already knows about my – you know. Basically what I’m trying to say is, don’t smite me if things don’t turn out the way you want.”

“Things couldn’t get worse,” said Athena.

“Please don’t say that when you’re asking me to influence the Fates. In fact, please don’t say that ever.”

“Whatever,” said Athena. “Just do it. I’m desperate.”

“Then, by whatever power is vested in me, may you and Artemis live happily ever after.”