1.7 Please Be Seated

The Big Day was here. Aside from the general excitement surrounding the Pythian Games, my sisters and I were especially eager to begin our first gig as co-producers. This would involve a lot of meeting and greeting, and even more public appearances than usual. Along with Apollo, we got to the grounds before anyone else to make sure the whole staff was there and in their proper places. When the resident physicians showed up, I grabbed my goddaughter Aglaea right away and showed her to her medic tent.

“Wow, great setup!” she approved as she looked around her tent. “This is almost as good as my private lab back home. I shouldn’t have expected any less from an event hosted by Apollo,” she laughed. She went about opening all the drawers and chests, inspecting the equipment and adding her own to it. “I almost hope someone gets sick so I get a chance to try this stuff out. Kidding! I’m kidding.”

“Check this out,” I showed her a basin of water. The surface showed her reflection as well as any mirror. “Amphitheater,” I said. The Amphitheater displayed on the surface of the water. We could see the stage hands setting up for the opening act. I turned the basin, and the point of view turned full circle.

“That’s terrific! Hey, there’s been a lot of rebuilding on the Amphitheater since the last time I came to the games. I like the modifications.”

“They did structural reinforcement this year,” I remarked.

“With all those concussive pyrotechnics you, Mel, and Calliope always use, I can see why,” Aglaea approved.

“I knew that.” I am an artist who appreciates the sciences. Aglaea is a scientist who appreciates the arts. Her main focus is medical science, in which she is a genius, but she’s dabbled in other areas, too. The one other time she came to the Games a couple centuries ago, she was almost more interested in the architecture and engineering of the buildings than the events going on in them. After those Games had ended, it occurred to me that it might have been nice to introduce her to Hephaestus, but I never got around to it. Oh, well. Maybe this year.

“Main Arena,” Aglaea gave the basin a try. There it was in all its empty, anticipatory splendor. “Main entrance.” There were the mortals, camped out in a line, waiting to fill that arena.

“You have fun,” I said. “I’ve got to get ready for our opening ceremony.”

“Sure,” she waved me farewell. “Gymnasium,” she commanded the basin.

On my way out of the tent, I passed a vendor’s booth. Urania’s head popped up from behind the skirted table, followed by Hermes’. He was wearing her star crown and she was wearing his hat. “Let’s get a move on,” I told her.

“Save you a seat, okay?” she told Hermes as they traded headgear.

“I’ll be there.” He blew a kiss after her as she joined me. The kiss followed her with tiny white wings and landed on her cheek, where it dissolved into a puff of stardust. It would have been sort of cute if it weren’t so revolting.

“We were just making out, that’s all,” Urania assured me as soon as we’d teleported to the performers’ antechamber to the arena. Most of our sisters and the extras were there already.

“Need to know basis; I don’t need to know,” I put out my upturned palm. “Hey, Terpsichore,” I called, “need help getting the extras into the Python costume?”

“Nah, we’re good,” she said. “Twenty down, ten to go.”

I did my hair, put on my costume and headdress, and played with my makeup until it was just right. Not a moment too soon. The ceremony was about to start.

“Citizens of Delphi!” we heard Hermes’ amplified voice. I could see him flying over the center of the arena, his golden horn in hand. “Welcome to the Pythian Games!”

It was the biggest opening ceremony in decades. We’d convinced almost every member of the Twelve to participate. The only holdouts were Hephaestus, who hates being noticed, and Aphrodite, who had emphatically informed the whole committee that she wanted to spend the time alone with her husband. Oh yeah, and Hestia was absent, too. She’d graciously declined the invitation to the Games altogether, saying someone had to stay on Olympus and keep the hearth.

Athena was in full regalia – helm, breastplate, spear, shield, sword, and severed gorgon head (not facing the audience, of course). Artemis was grudgingly proving that she could, in fact, clean up nicely. She’d borrowed one of Apollo’s finest dress chitons for the occasion.

Demeter entered with her daughter, Persephone, Iron Queen of Hades. Hades himself never comes to the Games, but Persephone always represents him since the Games fall during her annual visit to Demeter. Those six-month visits to Olympus are barely enough to earn Demeter’s forgiveness for Persephone’s faking her own abduction and eloping with Hades. Demeter’s opposition to the match never made sense to me. Hades and Persephone loved each other from the beginning, and to this day, they have one of the most stable marriages in the Pantheon. Yeah, I know; like that’s hard.

In spite of the fact that Demeter is Persephone’s sole progenitor, the two of them don’t look a thing alike. It was funny to see them enter the Arena side by side. Demeter looked as warm and earthy as ever. Her suntanned arms and face, loosely bound auburn hair, and wheat-gold gown bespoke the glory of a bountiful summer. Persephone’s stick-straight black hair, porcelain skin, and blood red lips made her look slightly out of place above ground, a problem she never has in the Underworld. She was dressed in a slender, glamorous black robe reminiscent of the safe, enveloping darkness of home.

But none of the divine entrances could top that of the King and Queen of Olympus. It wasn’t the grandeur that made it stand out so much, although that was indeed a factor. It was the bizarre sight of Zeus and Hera floating in on a cloud hand in hand, peaceful and smiling. As always, they were the image of divine majesty. As never, they were the image of connubial affection. Hera shone with genuine happiness, not the studied serenity she usually displayed. Even her attire was lighter, more carefree. She wore her trademark veil, but her new gown showed her strong, white arms and shoulders to their best advantage. I had to give props to Eros. So far, these rose gold arrows seemed to be his best invention yet.

Later as I sat in the Amphitheater’s pavilion waiting for the first Combined Theater event to start, I watched with merry laughter as Eros flew around the grounds firing said arrows at unseeing mortals. Usually at the Games, we show ourselves when we’re on our thrones or in the judges’ seats, but we go invisible when we’re mingling with the crowds. Eros breaks this custom from time to time when he happens to be flying around a crowd of teenage girls.

“You’re in my seat,” said Urania as my sisters were filing in for the Combined Theater competition. Calliope and Ares were on the other end. I was right where I’d planned to be. Right where Apollo had prophesied I would be.

“No, I called the end,” I corrected her.

“I always sit on the end,” said Urania. “U comes after T. Move it.”

“Is your name on this seat?” I asked her.

“Yes, it is! It’s right…are you kidding me?” Urania’s name was, in fact, on her seat. I had asked Hephaestus to switch it with mine, and he had. “Come on,” she said, “this isn’t funny. I told Hermes we could sit together.”

“Doesn’t he have some competition to judge right now?”

“Not until this afternoon.”

“Sit on his lap,” I suggested.

“Calliope,” Urania called, “Thalia won’t get out of my seat.”

“Thalia, get out of Urania’s seat,” Calliope absently ordered, then went back to chatting with Ares. Enter Hermes, stage right.

“Hey, sorry about this,” Urania greeted him. “Thalia won’t get out of my seat.”

“Not ‘won’t’ so much as ‘can’t’,” I attempted to communicate. “See? I’m stuck.” Terpsichore, who had just seated herself a couple seats down from me, was cracking up.

“Will you guys sit down and shut up?” Polyhymnia begged in a harsh whisper. “The competition is about to start.”

“I’ll sit down as soon as Thalia quits playing around and gets out of my seat!” Urania hissed back.

“I am literally stuck,” I tried again. “If you sit in this chair, you will be, too. Look, try to pull me up.” Urania jerked on one arm while Hermes tugged on the other. Not one millimeter did I budge.

“Terpsichore, give me a hand,” Urania requested as she kept pulling. Terpsichore took off my sandals.

“Tickle, tickle,” she threatened, fluttering her long, dainty fingers.

“The chair is rigged,” I protested. “The only one who can release me is Hephaestus. The same thing’ll happen to anyone else who sits here.”

“Are you insane?” Urania finally let go of my arm.

“I asked him a week ago,” I said. “How was I supposed to know you’d get a date for the Games between then and now? I’ll have him fix it later, okay? This competition should only run about four hours, and after that I told Terpsichore I’d watch the beauty pageant.”

“Fine,” Urania grumbled, sitting in the seat with her name on it. “Hermes, I guess she’s sitting between us for now.”

Urania and Hermes held hands on my lap for the entire competition. Sometimes they’d lean across me to whisper to each other, completely blocking my view in the process. Hermes’ winged traveler’s hat and Urania’s huge star-studded tiara, both of which I normally find quite awesome, considerably amplified the effect. At one particularly romantic part of the drama, they made out for about ten seconds. I had just enough movement to bang my head against the back of the chair repeatedly. They seemed to take it as encouragement.

As soon as the competition was over and we’d all rendered our verdicts, I summoned Hephaestus to get me out of the stupid chair already. I asked him if he could fix it right away, but he said he was needed at the Main Arena for something and wouldn’t be able to get to it for the rest of the day. However, he was able to switch my seat with Urania’s so she could sit with Hermes for the next event. By this time, Terpsichore had already left for the beauty pageant.

I teleported to the enormous tent where the pageant was being held and invisibly took a seat behind the judges, namely Aphrodite, Apollo, Terpsichore, and Eros. The pageant had already started, so I tried not to alert the judges to my presence. About two dozen women in their late teens and early twenties were gracefully parading across the middle of the stage. They were all very pretty. Mortal pretty, but still pretty. The costumes were impressive for human attempts. I was flattered by one girl’s obvious tribute to me. The mask and the shepherd’s crook made her Thalia costume quite recognizable, but I didn’t understand the laurel wreath. I wear vines and flowers in my hair a lot, but I don’t have a consistent headdress like Urania.

After the promenade, the judges called the contestants to the front of the stage one by one. They asked each girl a few questions – her name, the inspiration for her costume, and some random irrelevancies that changed every time. When it was the Thalia chick’s turn, she confirmed that her costume was a tribute to me. Apollo asked her about the laurel wreath. She answered, “It’s because I totally ship you and her since I saw that play. Team Thalia!” she pumped her fist in the air. Several girls in the audience and some on stage clapped and cheered, while a few yelled out “Team Calliope!”, “Team Terpsichore!”, “Team Dionysus!”…you get the picture.

“Next,” Apollo declared.

“No, we have one more question,” Aphrodite stopped her with a conspiratorial smile. “If you were Thalia and I offered to give you Apollo with no strings attached, would you take my offer?”

“I think Thalia would prefer him with the strings,” said Eros, knowing perfectly well that I was sitting right there, but that I couldn’t smack him over the head with my shepherd’s crook without making the audience aware that someone was behind him. Apollo, meanwhile, appeared to be wondering whether Aphrodite cared about getting his consent before hypothetically pimping him out.

“You’re the Goddess of Love,” replied the little mortal kiss-up, “so I’d figure you’d know what you were doing.”

“You’re an even better Thalia than the real one,” Aphrodite approved. “Next?”

The next girl came forward. You know how, sometimes, a person will be invisible when they’re in a crowd, but once you see that person alone, you wonder how on earth you didn’t notice them before? How that person becomes so uniquely stunning and so stunningly unique in their own quiet, unassuming way that, if they were to rejoin the crowd, they wouldn’t fade into it, but the crowd would fade around them? How you know that, even if you were to suddenly go blind, you would never be able to lose sight of that person again? For the first time, Eros knew. Since I was right there watching him at the time, I can verify that his arrows had nothing to do with it. It was all her. We all saw it and felt it, and we could see that the mortals did, too. It was like this girl had the power to take one look at you and capture your soul.

“I think there’s been a mistake,” Terpsichore broke the silence with gentle laughter. “This contest is for mortals only. Who let a goddess slip through?”

The girl laughed with her, drawing the net even tighter. “I’m completely human, I swear. My name is Psyche.”

“Tell us about your costume, Psyche,” Aphrodite requested. I knew that toothache-inducing tone. I took a moment of silence for Psyche, whom I was certain was not long for this world.

“It’s the Four Humors,” she explained with pride, showing off the four quadrants of her colorblocked gown. The blocks of color were perfectly placed to show her figure to its best advantage, and were just the right shades to compliment her olive skin and ebony hair. “Black for melancholic, yellow for choleric, green for phlegmatic, and red for sanguine.” She proceeded to launch into a lecture on the Four Humors and the soul/body connection. It took all my divine willpower not to fall on the floor trembling in laughter at the absurdity of this graceful, delicate creature orating so charmingly and elegantly about blood, phlegm, and bile.

“Have you considered becoming a physician?” Apollo asked her when she was through.

“I’m more interested in the study of the soul – the mind, will, and emotions – than of the body,” she replied. “I think in time it could become a science in its own right.”

“You’re much too pretty to waste your life studying,” Aphrodite chided. “You ought to focus less on books and more on boys.”

“That’s the only area where I lack focus,” she laughed. “My father says if I don’t pick a husband soon, he’ll pick one for me. I have plenty to choose from, but I don’t love any of them.”

“You’re so refreshingly honest,” said Aphrodite. “You should tell your father that you’re not a prized heifer, a trophy in a game, or a pawn on a chessboard.”

“It sounds like you might have some unresolved issues,” Psyche said with genuine sympathy. “Have you considered the idea that your promiscuity is your way of establishing autonomy, something you’ve never truly had?” I guess it takes a teenage prodigy to be smart enough to think that, but dumb enough to say it. I hoped Psyche had led a full, happy life, and that her family wasn’t too attached to her.

“Have you considered that I could snap my fingers and make sure you die a lonely, bitter, virgin crone, you presumptuous little bitch?” Aphrodite snapped her fingers. Psyche disappeared in a puff of smoke. “Next.”

“That’s a little harsh,” Terpsichore ventured.

“Do you want to join Hestia’s retinue, Twinkle Toes? No? Then shut up. Next!”

“Before you all go judging me,” Aphrodite defended as soon as that round of the competition was over and we were all outside the tent and out of mortal sight, “I didn’t kill her. I just hid her someplace where no one will see her again.”

“Where did you put her?” Eros demanded.

“What do you care?” Aphrodite waved him off, evidently unaware of how much Eros obviously did care about the girl’s whereabouts.

“Mom, WHERE IS SHE?” Eros attempted eye contact.

“She’s perfectly safe,” Aphrodite assured him.

“You have to bring her back!”

“I’ll bring her back on one condition,” she proposed, dropping the flippancy and giving Eros her full attention. “You find the ugliest, dullest boy in Delphi, I put her in his line of sight, and you shoot him with a golden arrow. Him, not her.”

“I’m not going to do that!”

“What, she’s too good for such a fate?”

“She’s too good for any mortal,” Eros protested. “I’m going to find her, and when I do, I’m going to marry her, and I’ll take her someplace where you’ll never find either one of us.”

“Adolescence,” Aphrodite rolled her eyes. “So glad I don’t remember it.”

“I mean it,” he said, “I’m out of here.” With that, he shot into the sky and out of sight like a rocket.

“He’ll be back for dinner,” Aphrodite scoffed before she, too, disappeared.

I wasn’t so sure. It looked to me like the Fates had chosen Eros as one of Aphrodite’s beneficiaries. One down, one to go. For some reason, I had a strong feeling that if the first one was neither me nor Apollo, the other wouldn’t be either of us, either. Cool. One less thing to worry about.

“Seeing as I have no events to judge for awhile,” I said, “I’m going to go mingle in Dionysus’ tent. Anyone want to join me?”

“I’ll come,” Terpsichore eagerly accepted. “I hear he’s got a great dance floor this year. Oh, and I want to see if Pan’s there with his girlfriend!”

“Pan always has a girl,” I said, “but wouldn’t he have to keep the same one for more than twelve hours to call her a girlfriend?”

“When he RSVP’d, he said he was bringing his girlfriend,” said Terpsichore. “I didn’t believe it either, so I asked him in person. He said he did have a particular girl he wanted to bring, but didn’t want to say who it was. That was two months ago.”

“So he was anticipating that they’d still be together two months later? This I’ve got to see,” I decided. “Apollo, you coming?”

“I have to judge archery, but I might drop in when that’s done,” said Apollo. “Remember, nothing in excess,” he playfully admonished.

“Of course not,” we grinned in guileless unison, holding crossed fingers behind our backs. Apollo reached behind me and lightly slapped my hand. He teleported to the archery field, and Terpsichore and I went to the tent.

Dionysus’ tent is invisible and inaccessible to mortals. It’s where all the gods, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, and any other immortals you can think of go to meet and greet during the Games. And, as Terpsichore was anticipating, there is always a full bar and a great dance floor.

We quickly located Pan. As is often the case at dance parties, he wasn’t hard to find. “Hey, I was wondering when we’d get some Muses in here!” he called to us. “Save me a dance, will you?”

“If it’s okay with your mystery girlfriend,” said Terpsichore.

“Yeah, where is she? Who is she?” I demanded to know.

“I’m here and she’s me,” chirped a familiar voice. Her hair was much darker, her eyes were a different color altogether, and even her facial features were somewhat altered, but I still couldn’t mistake Echo.

“Wha…how…when…how did you two meet?” I marveled.

“Let’s go some place where we can talk,” Echo said.

“How about our cave?” Pan suggested.

“Sure,” Echo agreed.

Pan snapped his fingers, and a twin Pan appeared before our eyes. Pan’s ability to create doppelgangers was nothing new to us. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Pan admonished the duplicate. “Or anyone. Remember, we’re a one-nymph satyr now.” That done, we all teleported to the entrance of Pan’s cave.

Normally, the entrance to Pan’s cave looks like the entrance to any ordinary cave. Today, however, there was a stone walkway, a small lawn surrounded by a white picket fence, flowerbeds on either side of the mouth of the cave, a mat on the doorstep, a doorstep, and a bright blue door with a cheery curtained window. “I see you’ve done some landscaping?” I commented.

“It’s all her,” Pan beamed.

Echo nodded proudly. “You should see the inside. You wouldn’t know it was the same cave.” She opened the door and motioned for us to enter. Pan wiped his hooves on the mat. The inside was as bright as day thanks to a set of moonlight orbs, likely a gift from Artemis. The illumination revealed a quaint interior that felt more like a one-room cottage than a cave. “Please, sit down,” Echo invited. “Can I get you anything?”

“Story,” I said.

“I’ll have what she’s having,” said Terpsichore.

“Well,” Echo began as she sat down, “it started when Hera noticed me in Artemis’ retinue. We were hoping she’d forgotten me after all this time; maybe she had, I don’t know, but anyway, she started acting really suspicious, and Hera being suspicious is never, ever a good thing.”

“So Artemis asked me if I could help fake Echo’s death,” Pan entered the tale. “You know how I can self-replicate, right? The duplicates are just puppets, shadows. They can’t feel any more than a reflection in a mirror can. Anyway, it’s a little-known secret that I can do it to other people, too. But to do it to someone else, I need to know the subject really well. I need to be able to picture her from every angle with my eyes closed. I need to know her every mannerism, every expression, you get the picture.”

“And while he was getting to know me, I was getting to know him, too, and we fell in love,” Echo said blissfully. “But back to Artemis’ plan. One day when Hera was inspecting her hunting hounds – Artemis’ hounds, not Hera’s; Hera doesn’t hunt – Pan showed up and started chasing me. I ran into some bushes and my duplicate ran out of them, in full view of Hera, of course. Pan ordered the hounds after the duplicate. Artemis had already enchanted them to listen to him just this once. The hounds caught the fake me and tore it to pieces right before Hera’s eyes. So now Hera thinks I’m dead,” Echo concluded in cheerful triumph, curtseying from the waist as she crossed her tiny ankles. “Of course, I can’t go near Olympus now, and I can’t be on Artemis’ payroll now that I have a boyfriend. Union rules and all that. But I still hang out with the girls all the time when they’re off duty. The rest of the time, I live here.”

“We’re very compatible,” said Pan. “She can dance all day, and I can play the pipes all day.”

“I’d never been to the Pythian Games, and I really, really wanted to,” said Echo, “so Pan helped me make this disguise. You two recognized me because you know me so well, but Hera doesn’t, so she won’t even if she does see me, which she won’t, because she doesn’t like the Tent. But I do. You guys want to go back now?”

“Sure,” said Terpsichore. I was too busy processing the tale to respond. We all went back to the Tent, Pan reabsorbed his duplicate, he and Echo faded into the crowd, and Terpsichore and I looked around for people we wanted to talk to.

We saw someone we didn’t want to talk to.

We left for our pavilion immediately. Unfortunately, our pursuer followed us. “Look at this! All nine Muses together!” she observed with cheerful malice.

“Hello, Eris,” the nine of us said in unison through forced smiles.

“Hey, Sis,” Ares jumped out of his seat to greet his partner in crime, the Goddess of Discord. Although he and Eris are twins, they don’t look alike except for their dark, beautifully chaotic hair. Eris is slender and pretty in a generic sort of way. I suppose she’d be indistinguishable from a hundred other goddesses to anyone lucky enough to avoid looking into her eyes.

Eris kissed Ares on both cheeks. “Why haven’t I met your girlfriend yet?”

“You already met her,” said Ares.

“Yes, but she wasn’t your girlfriend then.”

“Oh, yeah! Eris, this is Calliope, my girlfriend. Calliope, this is my twin sister Eris.”

“We’ve met,” Calliope held out a resolute hand, not rising from her seat. In fact, all of my sisters were sitting steadfastly in their seats. I alone was standing in front of mine, doubting that Hephaestus had had a chance to fix it yet.

“I know that,” said Eris, ignoring Calliope’s hand. She turned and walked down the row as though she were a general inspecting her troops. “Something wrong with your chair?” she asked me when she came to me.

“Nope,” I said, carefully avoiding her eyes.

“Why aren’t you using it?”

“Something wrong with your brain?” I get snarky when I’m nervous, okay?

“Huh?”

“You’ll think it’s funny when you get it.” Of course, the Games would be over by then.

“You’re not looking at me,” Eris noticed. “Why aren’t you looking at me? You should look at me.”

“I’m looking at your hands,” I told her. “You have pretty hands. They look just like your mom’s.” They do.

“I haven’t seen Mom or Dad all day,” Eris considered. “What’s the next event?”

“Vocal solos,” I replied, feeling I didn’t have much of a choice. “It’ll be pretty boring.”

“Oh, no, Mom and Dad love singing,” Eris protested. “We should all watch it together. Mom? Dad?”

Zeus and Hera appeared on our pavilion before any of us could say a word. I was nobody’s favorite person at that moment.

“Isn’t this great? How often do we go out as a family?” Eris beamed. “I’ll sit down there by my brother, and you two can sit on this end. Thalia, Urania, move down to the extra chairs and let Mom and Dad have your thrones. The King and Queen of the Gods deserve better than common seating.” She added to me in a whisper, “I think you’re not looking at me because something’s wrong with your chair.”

And then it happened. I looked into Eris’ eyes. In the moments before I was able to turn away, the entire universe became absolute chaos. There was no connection, no foundation, no meaning, no cause, no effect. Only chaos. No one has been able to withstand the phenomenon long enough to determine whether Eris is its mistress or its slave. I’m not sure it matters.

When I was aware of my surroundings again, I saw Hera in my seat.

Zeus had Urania’s seat, Hermes had arrived and taken the one next to him, Urania was sitting next to Hermes, and I was sitting next to her. Then Apollo showed up. I had completely forgotten that he was judging this event. “Terpsichore told me about your incident with Urania this morning,” he whispered after he’d sat down next to me.

“Terpsichore’s a rat fink,” I whispered back.

“Tell me Hephaestus put the chair back to normal.” This statement was clearly imperative, not interrogative.

“Sure. While I’m at it, I’ll tell you Aphrodite’s a virgin.”

He squeezed my hand and gave me a meaningful smile. We settled in for a very disconcerting concert. I tried to concentrate on the singers enough to render a fair verdict after each act, but I was mostly concentrating on a way to get Hephaestus to fix the chair without Hera, Zeus, Ares, or Eris knowing about it. In spite of his posturing, I didn’t seriously think Apollo would punish me if things went awry. He’d just throw me to Hera and let her do it. And nothing sets Hera off like being publicly embarrassed. There’s a reason her sacred bird is the peacock. We’re talking about a woman who threw her newborn baby off Mount Freakin’ Olympus because he humiliated her by not being pretty enough. And I had convinced that baby that he probably wouldn’t get in trouble for rigging my chair. Were the Fates mocking me for selecting him as a test subject? I resolved then and there that I’d do whatever it took to deflect blame from Hephaestus, if only to stick it to the Fates.

As if my impending doom weren’t enough, have I mentioned how very, very unnerving it is whenever Zeus and Hera are getting along? Every time I glanced over to make sure Hera wasn’t trying to get up, she and Zeus were holding hands or happily whispering to each other or smiling at each other or something. Once I even caught him giving her a peck on the cheek. I just wanted to scream, Stop it! Get it over with! Go back to hating each other so we can all quit holding our breath!

And, for the last straw, Eris was loudly munching on an apple. I hate it when people eat loudly while I’m trying to watch a show. If she had to be that loud, couldn’t she at least take bigger bites and finish the damn thing?

The last singer finished the last song. We all dragged out our voting as long as possible. I had a plan, but it would only work if we could coordinate, and I couldn’t figure out how to do that without attracting unwanted attention.

It was my turn to judge. “That number,” I began. “What can I say? It was just epic. Epic.” Calliope was ignoring me in favor of Ares. “Epic,” I said a little louder. That seemed to work. “It could even halt war and discord. Because sometimes all it takes to do that is a distraction. Music gives us that distraction. All the arts, really. Dancing, chorale, even astronomy. Do the stars not even guide those enthroned on Mount Olympus, giving them wisdom and direction? Eight out of ten points. Apollo, your verdict?”

I knew Apollo could ham it up with the best of them. Leaving him to do just that, I slipped around to the back of the pavilion. I could only hope that my sisters and Hermes had gotten the hint, and more importantly, that the Royal Family hadn’t. The moment I reached their collective blind spot, I silently summoned Hephaestus. I was waiting with my finger over my lips. Still mute, I pointed out the problem at hand. With a look that told me forgiveness was unlikely to be forthcoming, he gave a complicit nod. According to the plan I had mimed, I returned to my seat first and then Hephaestus started to sneak to the back of Hera’s. Sneaking is neither an easy task nor a quick one for a burly guy with a limp and a cane.

He hadn’t quite made it there when Apollo had given the last judgment and the competition was over. Apollo, Hermes, and my sisters immediately went about calling the Royal Family’s attention forward any way they could. Terpsichore chatted with Hera, doing everything possible to keep her seated. Fortunately, Terpsichore can be a very engaging conversationalist.

Hephaestus reached the chair. Apparently no one had noticed him yet. The end was in sight. It was just possible that we were going to get away with this. All he had to do was fix the chair and disappear. It would probably take longer than usual since he was balancing on his cane at a rather precarious angle in order to stay in everyone’s blind spot, but it could be done. Zeus and Hera seemed all too willing to be distracted by their host of fawning Muses.

Eris finished her apple and cast aside the core.

I could have sworn Hephaestus was outside of her peripheral vision, but I don’t know how that apple core could have coincidentally hit him squarely at the base of the skull. The shock threw him off balance and set him crashing to the ground. Everyone got up to see what the noise was – except, of course, for Hera.

Hera, having figured out that she was stuck in place, had the good sense not to make a scene. The whole thing could have gone off without a hitch if Eris had kept her trap shut. “Hey, look, it’s Hephaestus. What are you doing to Mom’s chair?” she laughed. “And why didn’t you let me in on it? You know I love a good prank.”

“I wasn’t doing anything to it,” he claimed, not bothering to right himself.

“Then why are you holding a wrench?” Eris asked.

“I left it here earlier. I came back to get it.”

“Why the sneaking, though?” she persisted. “You could have at least said ‘hi’ to your own par- I mean, your own mother.”

“You guys looked like you were having a good time. I didn’t want to interrupt.”

“Get up. Join us,” Eris invited. “You’re kind of like family, too.”

I jumped behind the row of seats. “Here, let me take that wrench from you,” I offered. “Can’t be that easy to get your balance while you’re holding on to this heavy- whoa!” I stumbled, swinging the wrench around and letting it fly from my hand at just the right moment. It collided with Hera’s seat, right on the panel to the release mechanism. “Oh my goddess, I am so, so, sorry,” I lamented, dashing around to the other side of Hera and kneeling beside her, my clasped hands in her lap. “Oh, and there’s a huge dent your throne. I hope you didn’t feel anything. Hephaestus, could you possibly fix it?”

“I’ll give it a try,” he grunted.

“Such a helpful, talented son, isn’t he?” I smiled.

“He’s a real treasure,” Hera strained the words through her gritted teeth.

“It’s no matter at all,” Zeus assured me. “We have better thrones on our pavilion, anyway. Hera, my love, why don’t we go back to the Arena? The chariot races should start soon.”

“Not for awhile yet. Besides, it’s so pleasant here,” Hera opined. “There’s a nice little breeze, and the sun’s at just the right angle.”

Zeus fingered the hem of Hera’s veil, brushing it ever so slightly away from her cheekbone. “Or we could go to Olympus and skip the chariot races.”

“Leave the Games altogether? What are you talking about?” she replied incredulously, although her flushed cheeks and ragged breathing suggested she might have an inkling.

“I think he wants a quickie,” said Eris. “You guys can go. You’ve got two of your kids here. Ares and I can represent you.”

“Go ahead, Mom,” Hephaestus encouraged, emphasizing the last word. “Everything’s fine.”

“In that case,” said Hera, drawing herself up to her full, rather impressive height and towering menacingly over Hephaestus, “I’ll be along in just a minute, darling. There’s something I need to take care of first.”

I helped Hephaestus to his feet, but knocked his cane out from under him in the process. Clumsy me. “Are you okay? You’re not okay. That’s going to leave a mark. I’ll get you to a physician right away. We’ve got to make sure that isn’t fractured.” In the blink of an eye, we reached the safety of Aglaea’s tent.

“What did I ever do to you?” Hephaestus despaired.

“Met me, I suppose,” I replied. “Aglaea, we’ve got a wounded god here. He’s fallen on a wrench. Take your time. Please.”

“Got it,” she understood. He got situated on her table, and she set about examining his injuries. “How long has your leg been like this?” she asked.

“Since the day I was born,” he said. “That can’t be fixed.”

“I see. Yeah, that’s not purely physical. I don’t even think my dad could do anything about that. The good news is, your new injuries aren’t serious. If you could just wait here for a little while, I’ll mix you a poultice for the pain and bruising.” She got the ingredients and equipment down with the speed of an unusually lethargic sloth. “You staying for the whole week?” she asked, likely making the same small talk she’d been making with every patient.

“Is it going to take that long to make the poultice?” he replied with a quiet laugh.

“It can if you need it to,” she laughed in return.

“But, yeah, I’m employed here,” he said. “I’m the master engineer. Sounds like a big deal, but it just means if anything breaks, I have to fix it or make a new one.”

Aglaea set down her potions and whirled around to face us. “You’re Hephaestus? No way! I am a big, big fa- uh, long-time admirer of your work. I have just so many questions I’m dying to ask you about your inventions, and my mind is a complete blank regarding every single one of them right now. I’m sorry. I’m really a lot smarter than I sound right now. I’m sure I’m sounding less smart the longer I keep talking, but my mouth just won’t stop. I don’t mean to go all fangirl on you; I’m sure you get that all the time.”

“Not really,” Hephaestus replied, very flustered and a little disturbed. He threw me a worried glance.

“She’s harmless,” I snickered. “I guess I forgot to introduce you two again. Aglaea is the granddaughter of Apollo, daughter of Asclepius and Epione, an excellent physician and scientist, and to save her most impressive credential for last, my goddaughter.”

“I should have noticed the family resemblance,” Hephaestus remarked. “I don’t know your parents, but I can see some of Apollo and Artemis in you.” Aglaea looks just enough like Apollo and Artemis that you notice it after you’ve learned they’re related. She has their blonde hair and a little of their bone structure, but she looks more like Asclepius, and the emerald green eyes are definitely from Epione.

“Thanks,” Aglaea replied, her fangirl rave having mostly gotten out of her system. “I’m sure you get this all the time, too, but you have Hera’s eyes.”

“I’m pretty sure I’ve never gotten that.”

Just then, Hermes flew in. “Zeus and Hera left for Olympus a few minutes ago,” he said. “This is only speculation, but I’m betting he’s already made her forget the entire incident.”

“Oh, good,” said Hephaestus. “I promised Aphrodite we’d watch the foot race together. Am I good to go?” he asked Aglaea.

“Sure,” she said, handing him the poultice she’d mixed in the fifteen seconds it had taken him to say all that. “Right. Aphrodite. Your wife. You two have fun. It was nice meeting you.”

“Nice meeting you, too,” he shook her hand.

I hung back awhile after he’d left. “What got into you?” I teased.

“The Demon Spirit of Fandom, I guess,” she laughed, burying her face in her hands. “Man, he must think I’m an idiot,” she ran her hands back over her hair. “He sure wasn’t what I expected.”

“What did you expect?” I laughed.

“Well…you know the reputation he has…about his looks? Sure, he’s not a prettyboy like Dionysus and Hermes or a block of solid testosterone like Ares, but…I don’t know, he’s kind of cute.”

“This is true,” I acknowledged. “I used to date him, remember?”

“Oh, yeah, I keep forgetting that. Did he break up with you before or after he met Aphrodite?”

“We mutually decided to end our relationship before he met her.”

“Gotcha.”

“Hey, you mind if I hang out here for awhile? The pavilion’s getting too crowded for my taste.”

“Be my guest.”

I visited with Aglaea until it was time for me to judge another event, namely the first Comedic Theater competition. Eris had gone on to create discord somewhere else, Zeus and Hera were on their pavilion at the main arena, and Ares and Hermes had events of their own to judge, so it was back to just the nine of us. My minions did me proud. Not a single frog fell off What’s-her-name’s costume. The acts got really good once the sun went down. One word: PYROTECHNICS.

When the events were finished for the night, I met up with Apollo to check out the after party. Most of my sisters either had found dates or were going with girlfriends. Normally Apollo disapproves of excess, of course, but it would be unseemly for him to miss his own festival. “Congratulations on your performance this afternoon,” he said with feigned reluctance when we’d reached the outside of Dionysus’ tent. “I thought for sure there was no way out of that for you or Hephaestus. In fact, I have to admit I’m a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see what kind of punishment Hera would concoct for you.”

“Probably nothing spectacular. She usually just turns people into stuff.”

“So you’re not immune to Hera’s transformative powers. Interesting. I wonder if I would have gotten to choose your new form since I’m your governor,” Apollo pondered. “You’d make a cute sheep. Black wool, of course,” he said as he stroked my black, curly hair. “You wouldn’t be using your shepherd’s crook, and I’ve had a little practice with such things. Or maybe a sheep wouldn’t be the best form after all. Something small like a mouse or a lizard would be better. I could keep you in my pocket so I’d know what you were up to all the time.” I felt the hand that had been stroking my hair slip down to the small of my back.

“You keep saying you want to stay close to me to stop me from getting in trouble, but I don’t quite believe you.” I plucked a laurel sprig from his crown and tucked it into the gold cord in my hair.

“Be careful,” he teased as he put his other arm around my waist. “Someone might think you’re Team Thalia.”

The Almost Kiss. Such a classic trope in romantic comedy. The concept I am about to reveal to you may be beyond your mortal comprehension, so listen carefully: Romantic Comedy is what happens when my domain and Aphrodite’s intersect. The fact that she and I have never gotten along terribly well is the reason works in this genre so often fail at being either romantic or comical.

“Have you two seen Eros?” the scene stealer breathlessly demanded.

“Nope, definitely not,” I shook my head as I moved an arm’s length away from Apollo.

“Why; what have you heard?” Apollo replied at the same time as he put his hands behind his back.

“I was sure he’d be back by now, but I think he’s still out looking for that beauty pageant bitch.” Aphrodite fretted. I’d thought I had all her emotions memorized, but this was a new one. After a moment or so, I determined it was Concern for Another Person. “Hephaestus and I have checked all his usual hiding places and we can’t find him anywhere. If you know where he is, you don’t have to give me his location. Just please tell me he’s safe.”

“I haven’t seen him since he took off after the pageant,” said Apollo.

“Neither have I. Why don’t you just bring Psyche back?” I suggested. “Take her to one of his altars and tell him he can make his suit.”

“Are you insane?” Aphrodite shook me by the elbows. “If I let him do that, she’d consent to marry him! I know he thinks he wants to marry her, but trust me, he doesn’t. There’s so much of my nature in him,” she sighed. “He’s not cut out for marriage any more than I am.” Naturally, Hephaestus appeared just as she was getting the last couple of sentences out.

“He’s my son, too,” he reminded her. “And I keep telling you, the only way he’ll come back is if you bring back the girl. If you’d ever really been in love, you’d know that.”

“Right, that beautiful angel is your son,” she scorned. I offered Apollo a box of popcorn. He took a handful. “Wait!” she cried. “I see him! He’s at my altar in Athens.” She and Hephaestus disappeared.

“Think we should follow them?” I asked Apollo.

“We’d spill the popcorn,” he pointed out. It was a good point.

It was also a moot point, since Aphrodite and Hephaestus came back before I could even reply. With her hand trembling, Aphrodite held out a piece of paper. Mom, it said, I still haven’t found Psyche, but I won’t stop looking. As of right now, I’m on strike. My arrows lose their effect until you bring Psyche back.

Our bubble of stunned silence was punctured by a loud, outraged voice from inside the tent. It was Calliope’s. “You’re breaking up with me? YOU’RE BREAKING UP WITH ME?”

1.6 Tempting Fate

There was dead silence for about five minutes following Aphrodite’s blessing. I can’t begin to speculate as to everyone else’s thoughts. Mine were entirely focused – nay, obsessed – with her choice of the word meet. Her subtle emphasis on that word hadn’t been lost on me. This was her revenge for my refusal of her offer. If the Fates chose either Apollo or me as the beneficiary of her blessing, it would mean we had no future together. Meet. The ones to fulfill the prophecy couldn’t be people the beneficiaries already knew. Worst of all, I had met all the gods and goddesses who would be attending the games. I knew Apollo had, too. If we were the ones, that must mean our true loves were mortal. As I’ve mentioned, mortal lovers have this tendency to die, something I’d seen Apollo suffer far too often. Sure, once in a blue moon Zeus will turn a god’s mortal lover into a demigod, but demigods can still be killed by gods even though they can’t die natural deaths. Calliope’s son and now Apollo’s served as a clear reminder of this tragic reality.

“Mom?” a young, impatient voice pierced the silence.

“How long have you been here?” Aphrodite cheerfully took Eros’ hand. Nothing in her countenance indicated any awareness of the effect her blessing had had on the room.

“Long enough to wonder if I count as one of the gods here,” he said, “because there are some really hot goddesses and demigoddesses on the guest list.”

“Oh, baby,” she laughed, giving him a bear hug, “you really think there’s a girl out there who can clip your wings?” Eros’ expression was a most amusing paradox of the mortification of being publicly shown affection by his mother and the smugness of knowing that every god in the room, and possibly a goddess or two, would give a couple of limbs to trade places with him.

“Aw, who’s Mommy’s little love god?” I teased.

“Hey, you watch it,” he warned with wicked glee, breaking away from Aphrodite and flying toward my end of the table. He took an arrow from his quiver. We all ducked. Athena raised her shield. However, instead of shooting the arrow, Eros just dropped it on the table in front of me. “Check out the arrowhead,” he urged. I made a close visual inspection without touching it. This was a different kind of gold than he normally used. It had a lovely pink tint to it. I made a mental note to keep it in mind the next time I’d make jewelry.

“Does it have different powers, or is the color just cosmetic?” I asked.

“It’s like the yellow gold arrows, but different,” he explained. “Instead of making you fall in love with the first person you see, you fall for someone you’re already attracted to, whether you know you are or not. But if you aren’t attracted to someone at all, there’s no effect.”

“Please tell me the lead arrows still work as an antidote,” I said.

“Well, yeah, but why would you want an antidote? These work on people who already want each other.”

“Because wanting something doesn’t always mean you should have it,” Apollo answered before I could.

“You can’t always have what you want,” my sisters and I harmonized.

“Whatever. You guys want a demonstration?” Eros offered.

“I’ll do it,” Urania quickly raised her hand. “What? My stars say I should be open to new opportunities.”

Eros swept the arrow off the table and into his bow. Urania stood still as he fired at her. The arrow hit her right in the sternum. She indifferently pulled it out, quite unharmed. “Hermes, you want to be my date for the Games?” she asked with the same apparent indifference as she sat back down.

“Sure,” he accepted, surprised but pleased. “My stars say never to turn down a date from a gorgeous astronomy goddess.”

“No, they don’t,” she said.

With the dove wings on his ankles, he flew over to her seat and took her hand. “Show me,” he challenged.

“You’re on.” They went outside to settle their debate.

“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” Eros bowed in triumph to his bemused audience, “is just a taste of what you can expect to see over the next week. Zeus and Hera said I could use the rose gold arrows at the games all I want.”

“Zeus and Hera?” I repeated.

“Yeah. Hera did add a stipulation: I’m not allowed to shoot anyone who’s already married. Naturally, though, she and Zeus are the exception to the rule. I tried the arrows out on them already. For the moment, they’re nuts about each other.”

The idea of Zeus and Hera being “nuts about each other” was as unnerving as it was bizarre. Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely an attraction there. Contrary to certain human rumors which Zeus may or may not have started, Zeus did NOT force Hera to marry him. No one can force Hera to do anything. No, they chose each other from the beginning. Both of them wanted to rule the gods, and each of them knew the other was the only child of the Titans strong enough to be a real threat to that ambition.

Though their marriage was primarily a political alliance of the “keep your enemies closer” variety, it wasn’t without passion in the beginning. Hera was enthralled by the romance and intrigue of a union of rivals, and Zeus…well, Zeus thought Hera was hot. And that ridiculous rumor about their honeymoon lasting three hundred years? Man, you mortals and your erotic fanfic. Do you have to sensationalize everything? It was only one hundred years, you pervs.

But needless to say, once the honeymoon was over, it was over. Zeus went back to being the skirt-chasing man whore he’d always been, and Hera became obsessed with punishing him and his mistresses without breaking the terms of their carefully crafted alliance. Every now and then they’ll act like they like each other for awhile, but it’s usually because one or both of them is up to something. We all walk on eggshells while this is going on, and we’re always relieved when they start fighting again and things are back to normal.

So I was fascinated by the idea that Eros may have invented something to keep them blissfully infatuated with each other. Zeus and Hera were a particularly interesting test case. Would the effect of the arrow keep its subject’s affection directed only at its object, or could the subject be attracted to other objects as well? Were the effects permanent, or would they wear off eventually? We’d gotten Zeus and Hera’s joint RSVP over two months ago. That must have been when Eros shot them. Apparently the effects hadn’t worn off yet.

Hm…

I grabbed Eros before he could teleport and pulled him into the vestibule where I could talk to him alone. “I get it,” he grinned. “You want to use the rose arrows, but you don’t want Apollo to know. Hold still.”

“No,” I stopped him. “No arrows. I just wanted to ask you a question. Did you use the rose arrows on your mom?”

“You think I would use my own mother for such an experiment?” he said, making a dramatic show of righteous indignation. “I would never do such a thing. Test an untested product on my mother! I’m a good kid. I love my mom.” He sighed. “Everyone loves my mom.”

“And she loves everyone,” I realized aloud. “You wouldn’t use it on your mom because you don’t know if she’d pick your dad.” Genuine undiluted sympathy, no sarcasm added. Available for a limited time only.

“It’s different with Zeus and Hera,” he said. “No matter how many chicks or dudes he bangs and what a psycho she is, at least they can always look back on a time when he was hot for her and she was hot for him. I don’t know if my parents even have that.”

“I don’t know what to tell you.” I’d known his parents forever, and I honestly couldn’t say whether Aphrodite had ever been attracted to Hephaestus beyond convenience, nor for that matter could I say that Hephaestus would be as much in love with Aphrodite if he were blind.

“It’s no big deal,” he brushed it off. “Hey, stop by the beauty pageant tomorrow if you get a chance, okay? I’m judging.”

“Yeah, so’s Terpsichore. I already promised her I’d check in. Remember, don’t take bribes unless they’re any good,” I solemnly warned him. “By the way, as much as it pains me to say this, good job breaking the tension with that joke about your mom’s blessing. Couldn’t have done better myself.”

“Duh, since you weren’t,” he smirked. “I don’t know why the room went dead, anyway. True love. Who wouldn’t want that?”

“For a love god, you sure don’t know much about the subject. It’s all a joke to you, isn’t it?”

“And for a comedy goddess, you sure can’t find much to laugh about when it comes to love.”

“Believe me,” I promised, “when you fall in love, I’ll laugh.”

After we went to bed, I sneaked out to see Pegasus. I like talking to him. He’s the perfect conversationalist. Apollo must have felt the same way, because he was already in Pegasus’ stall when I got there. “You should be asleep,” he admonished me, as pleased with himself at having caught me out past unofficial curfew as he was aware of his own hypocrisy. “I have half a mind to take you back to your room and put you to bed myself,” he teased.

“Look at you, being all authoritative,” I replied with a condescending smile. “You’d think you were in charge or something.” I went around to the other side of Pegasus and started finger combing the stallion’s silver-white mane, a task that demanded the full attention of my eyes and hands.

“Not long until Asclepius gets here,” I commented. Asclepius, his wife Epione, and their nine children had taken jobs as resident physicians for the duration of the Games. This would be the first time Apollo and Asclepius had seen each other since Asclepius’ at-death experience.

“Just a matter of hours,” Apollo confirmed as he stroked a brush across Pegasus’ back.

“How much do Epione and the kids know?” I asked quietly.

“Hardly anything. They know he was missing for awhile, and they know it’s better for all of them if they don’t try to find out why.”

“So, they know even more than I do,” I nodded.

“Exactly.”

“It’ll be great to see them,” I said, returning to normal volume. “I know things’ll be crazy during the Games, but I hope I’ll have some time to spend with Aglaea.” Each Muse has a godchild among Asclepius’ children. Aglaea, the youngest, is mine.

“I’ll definitely make some time for Asclepius, even if it’s only while we’re setting up the medic tents. Do you think your contestants are ready?” he changed the subject.

“As ready as they’ll ever be,” I said confidently. “I have high hopes for the woman with the frog chorus. But for now, I’m mostly concentrating on the opening exhibition.”

“You’ll be great,” he encouraged me. “Your dancing’s really improved.”

“Improved? My dancing was awesome to begin with.”

“Relatively speaking, but you were the weakest in the group when I first started training you. Now you’re as good as any of your sisters, except Terpsichore, of course. What was that dance you taught Aglaea when she was little?” he laughed at the memory. Aglaea’s childhood was centuries in the past. In fact, thanks to the human blood on her father’s side, she looks about ten years older than us now.

“The Dance of the Felled Trees,” I reminded him. “That was not bad dancing, it was great slapstick. And Aglaea loved it.”

“I never said it wasn’t entertaining,” he acknowledged. “Remember, I even gave you two a name for your dance troupe?”

“‘The Graces’,” I laughed.

“You were so good with her when she was little. I’ve often wondered why you never had children of your own,” he remarked.

“Have you been talking to my mother?” I teased. “Seriously, though, I don’t know if you knew this, but Mom didn’t give us the power to make our own children the way she made us. She wanted us to produce offspring with worthy gods whose powers would complement ours.”

“I didn’t know that,” he said, surprised by this gap in his Muse-related intelligence.

“It’s not really common knowledge.”

“So why haven’t you?”

“I’ve never been in a relationship where it seemed like a good idea,” I replied. “You remember how it was with Calliope’s family? I’d want it to be like that. Minus the whole ‘my lover and child dying’ part.”

“A happy ending,” he smiled in a contemplative sort of way. “It would be your story. Maybe it could happen.”

“So you think we control our own destinies when it comes to love?” I pondered, my mind floating back to Aphrodite’s terrifying blessing as I was finishing Pegasus’ forelock.

“I think you’re a much more powerful goddess than anyone realizes, you included,” he replied. “Maybe even close in power to the Fates.”

“Well, I won’t be very powerful tomorrow if I don’t get some sleep,” I reluctantly acknowledged. “See you in the morning.”

Sleep = rest. Ha ha. That’s one of the funniest thoughts I’ve ever had. See, I forgot about this little thing called dreaming.

Have you ever asked yourself who guards the guardians? The answer is the Fates, a trio of goddesses to whom even Zeus and Hera, even the Titans, must answer. No one knows where they came from or how long they’ve governed Earth and her gods. Maybe they were there since before the Earth and the Sky conceived the Titans. We’ll never know. They haven’t told, and we don’t dare ask.

That night, I had no sooner drifted off to sleep than I found myself in the company of the Fates in their tower at the top of the universe. Clotho sat at her spinning wheel, Lachesis measured each new thread with her rod, and Atropos stood ready with a pair of shears. Each thread, I knew, represented a life.

The raven-haired triplet goddesses were cold and austere. I’d heard that however tall you are, they’re twice as tall. It was true. Their tower was dark, lit only by the stars, the Fates’ gleaming white robes, and a light coming from Clotho’s spinning wheel.

And a spotlight that shone directly on me.

“So,” said Clotho, her voice deep and hollow, “Apollo believes your powers can rival ours, does he?”

“I don’t think ‘rival’ was his exact word,” I pointed out.

“We know what he meant,” said Atropos as she carelessly snipped a thread. “He thinks you can ordain a happy ending regardless of our decrees.”

“He says stuff he doesn’t mean all the time,” I assured them. “Remember when he said he’d ground me for a decade if I started one more food fight? I did; he didn’t.” Meanwhile, Lachesis was measuring me with her rod. I stood on my tiptoes. She put her enormous hand on my head and pushed me back to my flat feet.

“Her measure is greater than we had thought,” said Lachesis, showing her sisters a mark on the rod. “Perhaps we have underestimated Mnemosyne’s daughters. I believe a trial is in order.”

“Yes,” said Clotho. “The Pythian Games. You have blessed all in attendance with laughter and happy endings. It was a general blessing, and not a very powerful one. We’d like you to try again.”

“You want me to repeat the blessing?”

“No, we want you to give a new one,” she impatiently reiterated. “One to only a few. Choose one subplot among the greater story, one scene in the play, one image of the great tapestry. Only choose not your own.”

One subplot among the greater story. They were speaking my language. I thought about everyone who would be at the Games. I recalled Apollo’s words when we’d healed Echo – that I needed to know the whole story. So I chose a story I knew from the beginning, one that seemed to have no happy ending in sight. “Hephaestus’ family,” I said. “Him, Aphrodite, Eros. A happy ending for the three of them as a family.”

“You have chosen a hard trial indeed,” said Atropos. “The love gods are the only ones we know of who can dream of influencing the Fates.”

“Isn’t dreaming of influencing the Fates what I’m literally doing right now?”

“Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer another choice?” Clotho offered, ignoring my quip. “Only Hephaestus, perhaps?”

I thought of Aphrodite’s words when I had rejected her offer of a love spell. And yet I have more power, more influence, and a seat among the Twelve. I’m nearly as good as the Fates for guiding people’s lives. But now it seemed I might be, too. And the Fates were giving me a chance to prove it.

“I’m sure. A happy ending for the three of them. For the family.”

“The die is cast, then,” said Atropos. “We’ll be keeping our eye on you.”

1.5 Let the Games Begin

I don’t have many good things to say about Ares. He’s boorish, arrogant, and a complete ignoramus. He’s one of only four legitimate children of both Zeus and Hera, and he makes sure everyone knows it. He lives for destruction and violence. If you want help with the noble art of battle strategy, talk to Athena. All Ares does is line up a bunch of guys and watch them slaughter each other for the fun of it. He doesn’t even care which side wins or what the war is about. He’s just in it for the bloodshed. He’s as thoughtless with his relationships, if you can even call them that. I wish I could say that I don’t understand how he ever gets a woman in the first place, but the truth is, he does project a certain…some people just have this aura of…when a god and a goddess…okay, fine, Ares is HAWT. He is sex on a stick. You can cross the finish line just looking at him.

He is the last guy you want your sister to date.

“Well,” said Apollo, trying to process the fact that Calliope was apparently doing just that, “why don’t we all go inside and have a talk?”

“What’s there to talk about?” said Ares.

“Come on, it’ll make him feel better,” Calliope enticed, twirling her fingers in Ares’ thick, dark, curly hair. “It won’t take long, I promise.”

Ares reluctantly turned and started carrying Calliope toward the Museum. “She can walk,” said Apollo.

“That’s not all she can do,” Ares laughed, still holding Calliope as she laughed with him.

“Ares,” she giggled, “not in front of Apollo.”

“Can your arrows injure him?” I whispered to Apollo.

“I have no idea,” he whispered back, “but I may perform some tests in the near future.”

We all took our places on our thrones. Well, Ares was on Calliope’s throne holding her in his lap. Apollo stood in the center of the room. He waved his hand, and a small orb of sunlight appeared over each of our heads. “Calliope,” he opened, “please, tell us, how long this has been going on?” His tone was making an attempt at warmth and congeniality, but his countenance was screaming, How could you do this to me? You’re the good one!

“It started at the first committee meeting for the Pythian Games,” she said. “I’d never paid Ares much attention before, and I certainly didn’t think he’d ever noticed me. But he just swept me off my feet. He told he’d loved me from afar for years, but he’d always felt too intimidated to approach me because I’m so brilliant and talented.” I suspected that was a slight paraphrase.

“Yeah, but then she had to get all-” he interrupted her. She interrupted his interruption by gently placing two fingers over his lips.

“Shhh, I’m talking, baby. You can talk when it’s your turn. I told him we couldn’t be together as long as he had anything going on with Aphrodite. I did not want to get involved in that mess. To be honest, I thought he’d forget about it, but Hermes brought word the other day that Ares wanted to meet me in Delphi. I went out of curiosity. I had no idea what was going to come of it, so I didn’t tell any of you what I was doing. Ares told me he’d broken things off with Aphrodite, for good this time. So, here we are!” she happily concluded. “Okay, now it’s your turn,” she said to Ares.

“Good,” he said. “‘Cause you left out the part where we went behind your altar and-”

“Yes I did, because that is not a story for mixed company,” she reproved him.

“Your altar is in my temple!” Apollo realized in horror. Then he brightened considerably, as did the orb above his head. “Which gives me sufficient grounds to put a stop to this. Calliope, I forbid you to have anything to do with Ares for the remainder of your existence. Ares, put Calliope down and get out of my house.”

“Oh, forbidden love!” Calliope sighed in rapture. “But this isn’t your choice, Apollo. This is bigger than you. It’s bigger than all of us. We’re in love, and love is a force greater than any other power known to god or man. The light of the sun cannot outshine it, nor can the dark of night extinguish it…” And then, as she said a bunch of other stuff that I would love to be able to purge from my memory, I understood exactly what was going on. If only I could share my revelation with Apollo before he opened his mouth again.

Too late. “I’m your guardian,” Apollo said as soon he could get a word in edgewise. “Legally, I do have the final say in this matter.”

“You would if I were getting married,” said Calliope, “but we have no such plans.”

“I thought some Muse would eventually say that, though I never expected it to be you. So I had this clause written into my contract,” he produced a scroll. He pointed to a certain section and showed it to Calliope and Ares. “She can help you with the big words,” he patted Ares on the head.

“Yeah, I know,” Ares grinned. “None of my other girlfriends were this smart.”

“Have you considered that there may be a correlation?” Apollo suggested.

“‘Coffee date veto’? Really?” Calliope frowned in disapproval. “Are you sure you were of sound mind when you signed this contract?”

“Quite,” he nodded, “which is obviously more than can be said for you at the moment, which is why I need to make this decision for you. Ares, get out; Muses, get to bed.”

“What is your problem?” Calliope stared. “When I was in charge, I never would have interfered with my sisters’ love lives. I trusted that they would make good decisions most of the time, and I accepted that when they didn’t, they were strong enough to deal with the consequences. You know what else I didn’t do when I was in charge? I didn’t orchestrate every second of their day. I didn’t tell them how to do their jobs. I gave them some basic structure and guidance and then stepped back and let them handle their own work their own way. You and I have both been parents, Apollo. You should know as well as I do that holding on too tightly is the worst mistake a guardian can make.”

“One of the two,” he said softly, looking somewhat chastised. “The other is not holding on at all. The Golden Mean.”

“Baby, what’s this word?” Ares pointed to a spot on the document.

“‘Cur-few’,” Calliope sounded it out for him. “Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter.” She then returned her attention to Apollo. “I’ll only see Ares after hours,” she calmly stipulated. “I won’t bring him here if you don’t want me to. We’ll stay away from your temple. We’ll be models of decorum in public. If you’re the kind of leader I know you can be, you’ll agree that this is a reasonable, balanced arrangement.”

“I have to concede that it is,” he sighed. “I still don’t approve of your choice, but maybe I drove you to it. I’ll try to make things a little more relaxed around here. We’ll keep an hour of dance and an hour of chorale in the morning, but for the rest of the day, you’ll all be free to pursue your own arts as you see fit,” he said.

Oh, the ideas that were spawning in my eager little mind…

“Within reason,” he added. Bummer.

“I’m really proud of you,” Calliope smiled, at last climbing down from Ares’ lap to give Apollo a sisterly hug. “See you in the morning.”

“What?”

“Yes, I’m spending the night on Olympus. Don’t worry, I’ll be back for breakfast.”

Actually, she got back before breakfast. As she’d mentioned the previous night, she’s pretty sensitive about what she discusses in mixed company. However, while Apollo was on his daily visit to Mount Olympus, she had no reservations at all on filling us in on Every. Epic. Detail. I couldn’t wait for Apollo to get back.

When that blessed moment came, he reminded us that we’d only have two hours of structured exercises. Supposedly it was a change he’d been planning to implement anyway in preparation for the upcoming Pythian Games. “Uh huh, sure you were,” I teased him. “Whatever you need to say to feel like you’re in charge.”

“I only instituted so much structure in the first place to keep you out of trouble,” he reminded me. I can’t smack him while he’s doing the sun smile thing. He knows this. Bitch.

The Pythian Games have been a staple of life in Delphi for so long that the mortals have nearly forgotten the details of the Games’ origin. I will tell you. Long story short: When Leto, Apollo and Artemis’ mother, was hiding in Delphi, Hera sent a giant serpent called the Python to attack her. Apollo killed the Python.

Hera was mad that Apollo killed her pet, so she ordered him to hold a feast in its memory every other year on the site of its death. The planning committee – guess who! – made a few misprints on the flyers, and the affair got turned into a week of awesome competitions in sports, music, and theater, all in honor of Apollo and his heroic slaying of the monster who dared threaten his mother. Hera was less than pleased. Delphi loved the Games, though, and since the planning committee had gotten the part right about Hera ordering them, she had to play along. Just one of the many reasons Apollo is so dear to her.

Since the very first Games, my sisters and I have been Apollo’s co-producers. This would be our first year as co-hosts. Prestigious Muse is prestigious!

“All of our priests have been collecting a lot of entries in the Music and Theatre division,” Calliope headed off the Game talk, bringing my mind back to the dinner table.

“I hope we get some better singers than the last Games,” said Euterpe. “I’m tired of them all sounding alike.”

“They’ve had four years to prepare this time instead of just two,” Melpomene reminded her. “Hopefully that’s plenty of time for the playwrights to get some new material. I just want to see some logical, meaningful, entertaining death. Is that so much to ask?”

“I can’t believe Aphrodite got a beauty pageant added to the roster,” I complained. “She just wants to know who to smite.”

“I got outvoted,” Apollo lamented.

“And then they went and made you a judge! Poor baby,” I said, overflowing with sympathy for his sad plight.

“My trials are unending,” he replied.

“I don’t know, I think a beauty pageant could be fun,” said Terpsichore. “I’m on the judging committee, you know. I made sure the contestants will be graded on poise, carriage, grooming, and costume design. I’d enter myself if these games weren’t for mortals only.”

“If goddesses could enter,” I said, “Aphrodite would, and she’d win because she cheats.”

“You think she’d need to?” asked Apollo.

“Really? You really think out of all the goddesses, she-” I started, but Calliope cut me off.

“The more we avoid that conversation, the safer we’ll all be,” she cautioned.
“You’re right,” I admitted. Stupid Olympian goddesses and their stupid divine wrath. “So, what are the athletic competitions looking like, and will we get a chance to watch?”

“And most importantly,” asked Erato, “is the men’s uniform rule still in effect?”

“Yes to you watching, no to the uniforms,” said Apollo. “Hera found out about Ganymede, so she’s ordering all athletes to at least gird their loins.” Disapproval was loudly expressed by all those assembled. “Now, since these games will be your first under my governance, I would consider it a personal favor if you’d all be on your best behavior.”

“We’re always on our best behavior at the Games,” I said with huge, solemn, innocent eyes. My sisters nodded in support.

“Then make your best behavior better,” Apollo ordered. “May I remind you of the incident at the racetrack twenty years ago?”

“We were drunk,” Melpomene dismissed. “Blame Dionysus. No, blame the pathetic contestants in the Theater division who drove me and Thalia to the demon rum.”

“And demon wine and demon whiskey,” Clio recalled.

“My point is,” Apollo explained, “Zeus would blame me.”

“We’re just giving you a hard time,” I comforted him. “We’ll use common sense,” I looked at my sisters, “like we always do,” I looked at Apollo. “As supremely annoying as you are, we’ve gotten sort of used to having you around all the time, and none of us want you to get fired.”

“Sounds like someone wants to keep you around pretty bad,” Erato winked at him.

“Now, Calliope,” I changed the subject, “assuming you and Ares are still a couple by then – I’m just saying – he knows the Muses go as a group, right? We always go as a group. We have nine reserved seats at the Amphitheater built specially for us. All of them have names on them. None of them say Ares.”

“We’ve talked about it, and it won’t be a problem,” she said. “He’ll be judging wrestling, but other than that, I’ll sit on an end as usual, and he’ll sit next to me.”

“Who gets the other end seat?” I whispered to Apollo. It was usually Urania, but the seats could be rearranged.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered back. “I foresee you immovably rooted to the other end seat.”

“You don’t approve, either, do you?” Calliope asked me, more saddened than defensive. I’d made Calliope sad. I was a terrible person.

“Well, it’s just hard when one of your favorite people is dating one of your least favorite people,” I carefully answered. “But it’s your life. If I were dating someone you couldn’t stand, I know you’d back off,” I added kindly. See? Diplomatic Muse is diplomatic.

Tired of discussing Ares, Apollo suggested, “You all ought to consider using your free time to help your contestants.”

“I’ll see what they give me,” said Euterpe.

“Maybe we should post lists by our altars,” Terpsichore backed her up. “The least they could do is offer me a pair of slippers or something.”

“I try to help my contestants by providing a series of comic mishaps in their lives,” I said. “They never seem very appreciative.”

“I’ll be spending my free time with Ares,” said Calliope. Gag.

“Then I guess one of your sisters will win the contest,” said Apollo.

“What contest?” we demanded, our voices nowhere close to unison.

“This year I thought I’d try something new,” he explained. “Instead of just a general Music and Theater division, there would be a category for each of your disciplines. In the final round, all nine of your champions would compete against each other. I’d be the judge, of course. What do you think?”

Nine “Aye” votes echoed through the dining hall.

“Excellent. I’ll propose it to the Olympian committee members tomorrow.”

The next morning at breakfast, we were told that the rest of the planning committee had approved the measure unanimously. As soon as dance and chorale were over, we all rushed to the throne room to look in on our altars – even Calliope, who said Ares could stand to wait until after lunch to see her. I had five entrants in the comedy division already, and the notices had barely been posted. Naturally, they all wanted my help, and since I wanted that prize, I was going to give it to them. As I determined this, it occurred to me that Apollo hadn’t specified what the prize was. That must mean that either he was keeping it a secret, he hadn’t decided yet, or it was only bragging rights. Whatever the case, I still wanted it.

So did all of my sisters. We were each doing everything in our power to get our contestants into shape, especially Calliope. By that point we should have been over being shocked by anything related to Calliope and Ares, but in this case we couldn’t help it. She had drafted all her men into Ares’ latest battle campaign. The poets fought by day and wrote epic tales about their exploits by night. Apollo tried to point out that her chances of entering a winning contestant might be hurt by the fact that not all of them were surviving, but Calliope claimed they knew what they were getting into. To be fair, they did, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves except for the death part.

As for me, I held a comedic theater boot camp at the Corycian Cave for eight hours a day, six days a week, all summer. Sure, there was some thinning of the herd, but if they couldn’t handle the training, they couldn’t handle the competition.

“To think I assumed you were never given any kind of leadership position because you lacked the necessary order and discipline,” Apollo teased me one day at the end of a session he’d been observing. “It turns out you’re excessive rather than deficient in this area.”

“Excessive, shmexcessive,” I waved him off. “I’m just giving those maggots what they need. They’re weak. Sloppy. Unreliable. They shall rue the day they ever blamed their lack of success on their fickle Muse.”

“Why was that one woman covered with frogs?”

“They’re her chorus,” I explained. “I charmed them to ribbit in harmony, and to stick to her tunic like that. Hopefully their voices will drown out the fact that she has an awful stutter. I don’t even know what her name is; just that it begins with G. We’re trying to work the stutter into the act.”

“So you’re going with the over-the-top approach, as usual?”

“You know me well. By the way, what’s the Amphitheater’s structural limit on pyrotechnics?”

“You’ll have to consult Hephaestus on that one,” he admitted, “but I know his modifications this year are including more fireproofing. Calliope’s reenactment of the Battle of the Titans at the last Games’ exhibition was…”

“Epic,” I grinned. “But thanks for the suggestion. I’ll go ask him about it.” This was fortuitous timing. I’d meant to talk to Hephaestus about something else for weeks, but I had been waiting for an opportunity to do so without arousing Apollo’s suspicion. Here was such an opportunity just in time. The Pythian Games were only a week away.

I went home, got Pegasus, and flew to the game grounds at Delphi. I circled until I saw where Hephaestus was taking his dinner break. To my surprise, his family was with him. Aphrodite was draped next to him on a picnic blanket, the folds of her dress falling carelessly open, her skin gleaming in the sunlight like the palest of pink opals. If it weren’t for the fact that I know her, it would have been the loveliest, most alluring thing I’d seen in my life. It was a good thing the whole family had made themselves invisible to the mortal eye. Eros might not have enough lead arrows for the work crew.

Aphrodite looked my way when I landed, her golden hair fanning out behind her head in a perfect cascade. “Hello, Thalia, what brings you here?” she greeted me in dulcet tones.

“I need to ask your husband a couple things,” I said. “First, a question about pyrotechnics. What is the new, improved Amphitheater’s structural limit?”

“On pyrotechnics?” Hephaestus paused for a moment, probably to figure out a sufficient layman’s translation of the answer. “Remember Calliope’s exhibition on the Battle of the Titans?”

“Ohhhh, yeah.”

“She could put on ten of those.”

“Excellent,” I rubbed my hands together maniacally. “So you did add some fireproofing?”

“And structural reinforcement,” he confirmed, “which is also pretty important with concussive pyrotechnics.”

“I knew that,” I lied. “Next on my agenda, I had a question about our seating.”

“It’s in great shape,” he said.

“Well, I had a modification in mind. You know how Calliope always sits on the end at stage left? I’m wanting to reserve the opposite end seat, and…um…why don’t we just go there and I’ll show you what I had in mind? It’s sort of complicated.”

“Sure,” he agreed. “This won’t take long; don’t run off, now,” he softly chided his wife as she helped him up.

“Who, me?” she replied with a coy sparkle in her seafoam eyes.

Two more weeks, I silently begged her. I don’t know what you’re doing, but for all our sakes, keep it up two more weeks.

Mortals have come up with a lot of theories on how Zeus and Hera ever got the bright idea of marrying Aphrodite to Hephaestus. The correct one is that, as soon as Aphrodite’s existence became known, Zeus realized he’d have to act fast if he wanted to avert a civil war. That she should be married as soon as possible was obvious to him. That it was simply not in her nature to care that she was married was also obvious. So he betrothed her to the most even-tempered god he could think of, the one least likely to take revenge on her or her paramours.

Aside from the even temper, it didn’t hurt that Hephaestus has serious issues with being rejected and re-accepted by women. Hera, as I’ve mentioned, made Hephaestus by herself. It was her way of getting back at Zeus for making so many children without her. When Hephaestus was born, she was mortified by the fact that he wasn’t the divine specimen of physical perfection that Ares was. “Hideous” was her exact word.

So she threw him off Mount Olympus.

A full-blooded god can’t be killed, but one can sustain serious injuries, especially if those injuries are inflicted by a stronger god. Hera throwing an infant god out of the sky meant said infant would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. An old sea nymph found him and raised him. She recognized Hephaestus’ talent early on and, as soon as he was old enough, supported him in selling his creations for a cut of the profits. Within a few years, Hephaestus had developed a reputation as a brilliant smith/inventor/jeweler. It was then that Hera decided to acknowledge him after all. He’s been the official engineer of the pantheon ever since.

Hephaestus teleported to the pavilion above the Amphitheater, and I flew Pegasus up to meet him. The pavilion was at the top of a sheer wall where only the gods could reach it. However, with our divine powers of sight, we could see the stage from there as though we were in the front row if we wanted to. On this pavilion were three rows of seats. The nine central seats of the front row were permanently reserved for the Nine Muses.

If you recall, Apollo said he foresaw me immovably rooted to the end seat. That implied that someone was trying to remove me from it. And that could only mean my sisters and I were going to engage in a physical altercation over the privilege of sitting as far away from Calliope and Ares as possible. Yes, as improbable as it seemed, Calliope and Ares’ relationship had lasted three months and showed no signs of dissolving. None of us were any happier about the pairing than when it was first announced. If anything, we were increasingly more annoyed by its existence and by our beloved sister’s persistent departure from her usual good sense.

“Is it possible,” I asked Hephaestus, “to rig a chair so that whoever sits in it is stuck there until you personally release them?”

“Theoretically, who would be sitting in the chair?” he asked warily, not at all sure he wanted to get involved in whatever I had in mind.

“Theoretically, let’s say I would.”

“Is there any chance at all that I would get in trouble for whatever you’re planning to do?”

“There’s always some chance,” I acknowledged, “but in this case it’s extremely minimal. I don’t even think I’ll get in trouble.”

“How will I know when you want me to release you?”

“I’ll summon you, of course.”

“Well,” he said after some contemplation, “sounds like an interesting challenge. Come by in a week and we’ll test it out.”

I did. “This is great!” I happily approved as I struggled in vain to get out of the chair. “Here, you guys try to get me up.” Aphrodite pulled on my legs and Eros pushed on my shoulders. Yes, I was definitely stuck. No way my sisters were uprooting me from this spot. “Okay, let me up now,” I requested.

“Sure you don’t want a lap dance first?” Eros offered.

“Can you…?” I gestured.

“Sure,” said Hephaestus, smacking the little punk upside the head for me. Then he opened a panel at the base of the chair and triggered a complex-looking mechanism, and I was able to get up just fine. Once he closed the panel, it was seamlessly flush with the base of the chair. I wouldn’t have known it was there if I hadn’t watched him open it seconds ago.

“Nobody else knows how to work this?” I asked for reassurance, inspecting my chair. I wasn’t keen on the idea of bringing Aphrodite and Eros in on this, but Hephaestus had guaranteed it was safe.

“I’m just here to pose on the workbench,” Aphrodite dismissed.

“I could probably do it,” said Eros.

“I’m sure you could figure out the mechanism,” said Hephaestus, “but I’ve enchanted it so that I’m the only one it’ll open for.” To Aphrodite, he added, “You know, I’ve offered to explain this stuff to you a million times.”

“And I’ve told you a million times that I’m okay with the fact that you have the brains and I have the looks and never the two shall meet,” she said indifferently.

“I’ve got brains and looks,” Eros proudly protested, flexing his baby biceps.

“Highly debatable on both counts,” I ruled. Eros actually is quite pretty – very much a boyish version of his mother without a hint of any of his possible fathers – but he appears just young enough to be under my radar.

Eros flew away and Hephaestus teleported back to work, but Aphrodite lingered. “This whole thing still seems pointless to me,” she declared. “It would be a lot simpler if you’d have asked for my help.”

“I really don’t see how your powers are relevant here,” I said.

“Well, everyone knows you can’t stand Ares, but that’s not all, is it?” she probed. “Your sister is having this torrid affair with the god of testosterone, and you haven’t had a date in…what’s it been now, half a century?”

“That’s none of your business.” What, did she keep a calendar or something?

“Sweetie, I’m the Goddess of Love. It’s exactly my business.” She produced a ledger with entries on Thalia and Last Date. She made it disappear before I could make it disintegrate. “You’re not as upset about the fact that Calliope’s lover is Ares as you are about the fact that she has one and you don’t. Am I wrong?”

“I could get one if I wanted one,” I assured her.

“No doubt,” she acknowledged. “But, not having my wisdom in these matters, you’ll never understand that one man is as good as another. No, you want one particular lover, and you can’t get him. Besides the fact that he’s had his heart broken too many times, he’s so damned moral that he’d never get involved with a woman under his guardianship. And even if that weren’t the case, there’s you. You’re the goddess of happy endings. You cherish them so in the arts because you know how rare and precious they are in reality. As long as your love affair exists only in your mind, it’s safely within your domain. But if you bring it into the real world, other powers intersect and it’s beyond your control. You can’t guarantee your happy ending. That’s the other reason you can’t get him. You’ll never try.”

“What in the heavens, the underworld, or anything in between makes YOU qualified to pass that kind of judgment on me?” I demanded. “What’s the longest you’ve been faithful to one man? A year? A season? A month? Can you tell me with any certainty who any of your children’s fathers are?”

“Did you listen to a word I said?” she crossed her arms and drummed her fingers. “I’m offering you my help. I can make it so that you attend the Pythian Games as Apollo’s consort.”

“You’re suggesting I trick him into loving me? Hasn’t he been through enough of that?”

“When you help those playwrights and performers, are you tricking the audience into thinking they’re funny?”

“Of course not!” But now that she mentioned it, it wasn’t a bad idea.

“Right. The comedy is already inside them. You just help bring it out,” she said slowly and deliberately. “Same with you and Apollo. I wouldn’t be working with anything that wasn’t already there. What do you say?”

“I need more details,” I said, unable to believe I was even considering it.

“I wouldn’t do anything to increase desire. That’s obviously not the issue. I’d just remove some of the barriers in both of your minds to acting on those desires.”

“It still sounds unnatural,” I said. “How would that be any different than getting us both drunk? What would happen once the effect wore off?”

“I’m a goddess, not a keg of wine,” she said, consoling me with the knowledge that she was becoming as exasperated with me as I was with her. “I could make the effect permanent.”

“Which could result in an overall change in personality, or at least in our decision-making skills.”

“Damn it, why are you over-thinking this? It really isn’t that complicated. You want him. He wants you. Bang!” she clapped her hands together. “How many of my love affairs do you think would have happened if I’d thought about them?”

“Which is sort of my point.”

“Well, do consider my offer,” she persisted. “As a judge and a member of the planning committee, it’s my duty to offer some sort of blessing on the Games, and I’d really like to use it to get you and Apollo together – not out of generosity, or even out of sympathy for how very pathetic you are, but because I can’t abide seeing anyone remain celibate as long as you two have.”

“I don’t understand why you’re even trying to get my permission,” I said. Most of the time, she went around granting her “blessings” whether the recipients wanted them or not.

“If you must know, I’ve been feeling very underappreciated this summer,” she said. “People just aren’t as much in love with love as they used to be. They don’t want me as much as they used to. No, love isn’t good enough anymore. People want books and poetry and stupid black hair.”

“You lost me,” I frowned.

“The point is, I just don’t feel like putting forth the effort for someone who doesn’t even want my blessing to begin with,” she tossed her head. “It’s not like I need your permission. I have the power to do what I want to who I want when I want. I’m nearly as good as the Fates for guiding people’s lives.”

“I know that,” I said, positive she was deliberately speaking as though this common knowledge should be new information to me. “I wasn’t born yesterday. In fact, if you recall, I was born before you were.”

“And yet I have greater power, more influence, and a seat among the Twelve. In this random sample poll, people were 200% more likely to know the name of the Goddess of Love than of the Goddess of Comedy.”

“Random sample?” I grabbed the parchment. “This was taken at your temple!”

“My own temple,” she nodded. “One of my own temples.”

“Okay, so my followers are starving artists and yours are high-priced call girls and the men who love them. Whatever.”

“I’m bored now,” Aphrodite declared. “I’ll just have to come up with some other way to bless the Games – unless you change your mind, of course. Let me know at the committee meeting tonight.”

“Well?” Aphrodite approached me outside the Museum’s dining hall that night as we were assembling for the meeting.

“I can’t do it,” I told her. “If anything like that ever does happen between me and Apollo, I want it to happen on its own.” That was only part of the truth. The other part was that I didn’t want to be indebted to Aphrodite for anything I cared about. The Lady giveth, and the Lady taketh away. Still, I couldn’t help thinking – just thinking, not hoping – in a tiny corner of my mind that a general blessing on the games might end up affecting us indirectly.

The meeting was assembled in our dining hall. Besides Apollo and all of us Muses, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes, Artemis, and Athena were there. You may have noticed that Aphrodite is the only one on this list who has nothing to do with the arts or anything athletic. How, you may ask, did she get a seat on the committee? I was never entirely clear on that myself. When I asked Apollo, he told me he thought she’d make a fine addition to the planning committee, and that was that. So, yeah. I know he’s never slept with her, but he’s not blind.

On the subject of Aphrodite, it should be noted that she and Hephaestus were sitting as far away from Ares and Calliope as possible. However, the two ex-lovers had greeted each other quite cordially upon arrival. Ares’ behavior in general had improved a lot since he and Calliope had been dating. She doesn’t put up with much, and he was completely wrapped around her finger. Seeing Ares totally whipped was almost worth the aggravation of knowing my sister was the one wielding the whip.

Apollo called the meeting to order. The reports were pretty uneventful. Everything was going as planned. Construction was completed, the events were nicely populated, sufficient staff had been hired, and everyone’s exhibitions were ready to go. I don’t know how Clio doesn’t die of boredom when she has to take minutes at these meetings, but she seems to enjoy it.

“Ares,” Apollo said conversationally as things were coming to a close, “has your sister said anything to you about her plans for the Games?” I knew which sister he meant, and I noticed he was carefully avoiding the mention of her name. Ares didn’t.

“She’s right there,” he replied, thinking Apollo meant Athena. “Ask her yourself.”

“For the millionth time, I am not your sister,” Athena looked down her nose at him.

“Yeah, you are. Zeus is your father.”

“Zeus conceived you. He created me,” said Athena. “That doesn’t make me his daughter any more than this building is Hephaestus’ daughter.” Athena was correct. After Hera conceived Hephaestus solo, Zeus had to top that, so he created Athena in his mind and used his powers to bring her to life. She came to life fully grown and fully armed. Zeus called her a daughter, but she’s never called him father.

“Wait, my house is female?” Apollo interjected.

“Nine of us, one of you. The house is female,” I said.

“Athena’s right,” said Hermes. “By Ares’ logic, Zeus and Hera are brother and sister.”

“Aren’t they?” said Ares.

“Am I glad I dumped him,” Aphrodite stage whispered to her husband as she dramatically facepalmed. “You’re so much smarter than he is. I love smart, boring people.”

You dumped me?” Ares shouted. “Are you f-”

“Language,” Calliope chided. “It doesn’t matter anymore anyway, does it?”

“But you think of me as your sister, don’t you?” Artemis smiled as she squeezed Athena’s hand.

“Right. Of course I do,” Athena blushed. “Anyway, Ares, I’m pretty sure he meant your twin.”

“Oh, you mean Eri-”

Calliope clapped her hands over Ares’ mouth before he could get the word out. “Don’t. Say. The name. Please,” she requested.

“Apparently we don’t even need to speak the name to invoke the discord,” I laughed dryly, producing a box of popcorn. Apollo snapped his fingers and turned my popcorn to charcoal dust. The fact that he was unmoved by my consequent look of crestfallen sadness proved that he is among the evilest of the evil.

Aphrodite stood up. “I move,” she proposed, causing everyone in the room to shut up and listen, “that we conclude this meeting by granting our blessings upon the games. Apollo, if you’ll start, I’ll finish.”

“To all, clear days, good health, and good performing,” Apollo pronounced.

“To all, clear nights and straight shooting; and to the young women, safety,” said Artemis.

“To the contestants and the judges, wisdom,” said Athena.

“To the athletes, good performance; to the vendors, good profit; and to the thieves, good pickings,” said Hermes, “the latter two not being mutually exclusive.”

“To the fighters, kicking of ass,” said Ares. I could see Calliope’s eye twitching.

“To all, adventure,” said Calliope.

“To all, deeds worthy of remembrance,” said Clio.

“To the performers, performances from the heart,” said Erato.

“To the players and singers, sweet music,” said Euterpe.

“To those who face defeat, comfort and strength in the face of tragedy,” said Melpomene.

“To all the gods and goddesses, gratitude for the praise of our subjects,” said Polyhymnia.

“To all, the grace and passion of the dance,” said Terpsichore.

“To all, laughter and happy endings,” I said.

“To all, good fortune in the stars,” said Urania.

“To the buildings and equipment, strength and stability,” said Hephaestus.

“To whichever two among the gods and goddesses here whom the Fates will choose,” said Aphrodite, “may you each meet your true love at the Pythian Games.”

1.4 Love and War

Since I’ve made frequent reference to it, I thought I’d clear up a few things about my history with Hephaestus. We weren’t involved for very long, just a couple decades. He was my first boyfriend; I was his first girlfriend. Eventually, our little romance faded into a comfortable friendship. We decided at roughly the same time to be honest with ourselves and call it what it was. Who verbalized the decision first isn’t important, especially if the other one was already thinking it.

Not long after that, a mysterious goddess floated to the shores of Greece on a giant oyster shell, her golden hair the only covering for her incomparable body. No one, including the goddess herself, knew where she’d come from or who her parents were. She was fully grown with no memory of a childhood. She was convinced she’d ever had one. All she knew was that she was named for the seafoam that had carried her: Aphrodite. Though Hephaestus has been completely smitten with her from the moment they met, he never would have had a chance with her if Zeus and Hera hadn’t arranged their marriage. I guess Their Majesties wanted some competition for the Worst Marriage on Olympus trophy. I’d say it’s neck-and-neck.

Anyway, somehow Hephaestus and I have managed to stay friends all these centuries. Sometimes he’ll do me a favor, like the time he made that contraband lead arrow for me to disenchant Apollo. Sometimes I’ll do him a favor, like in the story I’m about to tell.

Apollo had commissioned Hephaestus to build a stable for Pegasus. However, when Hephaestus showed up one morning to get started, we were all surprised, irritated, and slightly panicked to see that he’d brought Eros along with him.

“Sorry, but I have a strict policy about my contractors bringing their children to work with them,” said Apollo. A strict policy he’d made up two seconds earlier.

“What, do you think he’s babysitting me?” Eros scorned. “I’m a fellow contractor. An apprentice, if you will. Hephaestus and Son, Carpenters to the Gods,” he beamed as he clapped his arm around his dad’s shoulder.

“It’s true,” Hephaestus nodded, steadying himself against his cane. “He’s always been good at the forge. He invented those arrows and makes them all himself, you know. Son, go set up at the site I showed you.”

“Sure, Dad.”

“Wait,” said Apollo. “Weapon check.” Eros resentfully handed over his quiver and bow, and then flew to the site and started setting up.

Once Eros was out of hearing range, Hephaestus said in a low voice, “Of course I’m babysitting him. Aphrodite is away for the day. So is Ares, naturally. The number of coincidences in their vacation schedules continue to defy the odds.”

“Calliope’s out for the day, too,” Apollo commented. “Maybe everyone just wanted to enjoy the weather?”

“I supposed there’s always that possibility,” Hephaestus replied, trying to convince himself, but failing as badly as Apollo had. “Anyway, you know Mom and Zeus won’t allow Eros to stay on Olympus without any parental supervision, so it was either invite him along or let him roam the earth unchecked all day. I had no idea he’d be this excited about it, and frankly, I don’t expect his enthusiasm to last more than an hour. So, Thalia, about the favor you owe me?”

“As Governor of the Muses, I forbid her from fulfilling it,” Apollo hastily interjected.

“I’m even less excited about this than you are,” I whispered, “but I owe him this favor in exchange for the reason you’re not currently composing love songs to a laurel tree. So I think we both owe this to him.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Apollo reluctantly conceded.

“Oh, good, so you’ll help her!” Hephaestus brightened. “If anyone can keep him reined in, you can.”

“Well, I -” Apollo hesitated. Even he couldn’t bear to crush the look of utter relief in that poor man’s countenance. “I’m the man for the job.”

“Thanks, you guys; I really appreciate this. And who knows, maybe he’ll put in a full day’s work after all. It doesn’t pay to underestimate people.”

Nor does it pay to overestimate people. Eros’ attention span lasted about half as long as Hephaestus had predicted. He wandered over to our dancing field and started flying in circles around us. I snagged him around the neck with my shepherd’s crook and dragged him away like a kite. Apollo put Terpsichore in charge of practice and followed us.

“Bored?” I asked Eros.

“Totally,” he said. “I’m going to have a talk with Dad about taking lame jobs like this. Hephaestus and Son aren’t mere barnraisers. We’re forgers, inventors, the Armory of the Gods. Now, if Ares was my dad-”

“You wouldn’t have a dad who cared enough to take you to work with him even though you can’t wait thirty minutes to start causing trouble,” I cut him off. Eros knows perfectly well that he’s probably either Ares’ or Hermes’ biological son. Hephaestus knows, too, but he’s in perpetual denial about it. He let Aphrodite give away all her other kids, but with Eros, her last one to date, he put his foot down and insisted they were going to have a real family.

“You also wouldn’t have a dad who encouraged your intellectual development,” said Apollo. “You think Ares gives a damn about your skills as an inventor?” Having grown up in the Olympian royal court, Apollo knew firsthand how much respect Ares has for scholarly, artistic, sensitive young men. It’s no secret that Apollo and the rest of the Olympian men have an equal respect for a mindless thug. Suffice it to say, Ares isn’t quite so ostracized among the women. He does have a certain barbaric animal appeal, but I prefer a guy with a brain. And talent. And a sophisticated sense of humor. And an understanding of the concepts of moderation and self-awareness. I’m sure there was point somewhere in here.

“I can’t invent while I’m stacking stones,” said Eros.

“I’ve got some materials,” Apollo offered. “Tinctures, powders, ores-”

“Fire?” Eros asked with a disturbing mania in his baby blues.

“You can build a fire IF you keep it contained in a designated fire pit,” Apollo stipulated.

“Cool!”

Apollo went to get some materials, and I kept an eye on Eros while he prepared the fire pit. So far so good. He was just gathering dried twigs and grasses. I could identify all of them and knew that none of them had poisonous or explosive properties. He struck a piece of flint and started a safe, normal-colored fire well within the confines of the pit. Nothing suspicious so far. Which was suspicious in and of itself.

Apollo brought what he believed to be the safest materials in his collection, as well as a few empty vials for mixing. He and I sat down against a nearby tree and observed as Eros sorted his toys and got to work. We both kept a close eye on what exactly the kid was mixing with what. Science isn’t my specialty, but like all of my sisters, I do have an interest and a competent knowledge in the subject. Though I was familiar with the individual properties of each of the materials Eros was working with, I wasn’t sure about the effect of the particular combination Eros was brewing.

Asking Apollo was out of the question. It hadn’t always been that way. When I lived at my old place, Apollo would teach me about his specialties and I’d teach him about mine, and neither of us thought anything of it. Then he had to go and complicate things by making himself an authority figure of sorts. I couldn’t do anything to reinforce that delusion, now could I?

My reverie was interrupted when, with no warning whatsoever, Apollo and I were both hit in the face with a shimmering pink powder. Once the coughing, sputtering, blinking, and face brushing died down a bit, I demanded, “What is wrong with you?”

“I needed test subjects,” Eros shrugged his wings. “I couldn’t tell you what was coming. That would compromise the integrity of the experiment,” he said nobly. “Now I have to observe you two for the rest of the day to see if it works.”

“Do you have a hypothesis for an antidote?” asked Apollo.

“Once it really sets in, you won’t want one,” he grinned. He put his hand up for Apollo to high-five. Apollo left him hanging.

“You can’t guarantee anything if you’ve never tested the stuff before!” I protested.

“Did I use the word ‘guarantee’?” Eros pointed out. “Please, baby, I’m a love god. There are no guarantees when it comes to love. Now, the best thing you two can do is just go about your normal routine and let me watch. Your normal routine wouldn’t happen to involve doing it in the Corycian Cave, would it? I saw that play. It was total genius. I’ve got to get that guy to write me into the sequel.”

“Conference,” Apollo pulled me aside. He ordered Eros, “Don’t. Move.” Once we were on the other side of the tree, Apollo whispered, “Do you have any idea what this potion is?”

“Crazy stuff,” I nodded.

“No, really, what is it? I don’t know.”

“You’re kidding.”

“You can mock me about this later. Eros’ craft is beyond my understanding. I lost track of what he was doing around the time he finished the cosmetic part.”

“I don’t know what it is, either,” I said. “I hoped you did.”

“Do you feel anything?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said, “but that doesn’t mean anything. I wasn’t aware of the effect of his arrow until after I’d been disenchanted.”

“I know, neither was- wait, when were you enchanted?”

“Long story.”

“Who were you enchanted with?” he cracked a smirk.

“Irrelevant story.”

“Come on, I could use a good laugh,” he persisted, leaning against the tree with one arm. “You’re the Muse of Comedy, aren’t you?”

“I’ll never tell and you can’t make me,” I smiled perversely as I backed against the tree trunk.

“I can be very persuasive,” he teased as he put his other hand against the tree, locking me in.

“I promised her I’d keep it a secret,” I said with subtle emphasis on the third-person pronoun.

“Surely you could make an exception for the Gover-” Abruptly, he stopped talking and pulled away from me. I came to the same realization he had at the same moment.

“I concur with Eros,” I said hastily. “We should just go about our normal routine, not for the sake of his stupid experiment, but so we know we’re surrounded by witnesses at all times.”

“Exactly,” Apollo agreed. “I have no idea what came over me.”

“Me neither. We can’t let that happen again.”

“Right. We don’t want to do anything we’d regret later.”

“Would we?” I wondered aloud.

“Huh?”

“Would we really regret it?”

“I’m your guardian now,” he said with a wistful solemnity. “I would always wonder if you’d felt like you couldn’t say no.”

“I say no to you about all kinds of stuff, every day,” I said. “I always get away with it. Besides, what if you weren’t the one asking? Oh, what in Tartarus am I saying? You know this is the powder talking, right? Let’s get back to the dancing field.”

The only good thing I can say about the rest of the morning is that I’d never seen Eros so quiet, studious, or focused. He stood on the sidelines of the dancing field, calmly and unobtrusively observing. I noticed this not only because I had promised to keep an eye on the kid, but because the task gave me something to look at besides Apollo. From time to time I would glance at Apollo just to make sure it didn’t look like I was avoiding him. Then I’d wonder if I was actually looking at him more than usual, since I normally ignore him half the time anyway. The few times our eyes met, I could tell we were pretty much on the same page. I felt an ounce of relief when dance practice was over at last. I posed in formation with my seven sisters. Calliope, as Apollo had mentioned earlier, was out for the day.

“Thalia, your position isn’t quite right,” Terpsichore corrected, observing me out of the corner of her eye as she held her own pose like an exquisite marble statue. “Your back leg should be raised a little more.”

“Like this?” I said, adjusting the angle of my arabesque. I could feel my skirt sliding up my thigh.

“No, now it’s too high,” said Terpsichore, barely moving her lips. “Apollo, show her.”

“She looks fine.”

“You’re not even looking at her.”

“Well, the whole thing’s wrong anyway since Calliope’s missing,” he ended the discussion. “Practice is over; take fifteen and report for chorale. You know what? Take thirty.”

“You two sure have been weird this morning,” Terpsichore said to me. “Is babysitting really that stressful?”

“You have no idea,” I muttered. “I’m going for a ride, but I promise I’ll be back in time for chorale.” I went to the throne room, mounted Pegasus (hey, where else was I supposed to keep him?), and took off to the sky. Nothing beats a long horseback ride when you’re stressed. It creates the illusion that your soul can run away from its troubles. The illusion that it can fly away feels even better.

This illusion can be swiftly and cruelly destroyed when the source of one’s troubles can also fly. “So, how’s it going?” asked Eros, lounging on his back with his hands behind his head and his crossed ankles propped up on a nonexistent cushion. “In the interest of science, I need to ask if you normally go for a ride at this point in the day.”

“In the interest of you not being in pain, I need to ask you to shut it.” I took a sharp dive, but the little pest kept up perfectly.

“Negative effect on female subject’s ability to write a joke,” he jotted down on a tablet. “So you’re feeling angry? Frustrated? Can’t handle being around people? Or is it just men? Or one man in particular?”

Was that the effect of the powder? He’d implied earlier that Apollo and I might not feel its full effect for awhile. Of course. That made perfect sense. The powder caused lovers’ quarrels. It had probably made us flirt with each other at first just to set us up for feeling uncomfortable around each other later. Well, knowing was half the battle. I sped Pegasus toward the dancing field where Apollo was alone, waiting for chorale practice. Eros was behind me, but I had enough of a lead to buy some private conversation.

I dismounted and silently motioned to Apollo to come closer. “Thalia, you really should-”

“Listen,” I whispered hastily as I clapped one hand over his mouth and the other behind his head. “I figured out what the powder’s supposed to do. It’s not a love potion.” I could feel his lips and his tongue struggling against my palm, but I felt oddly unmotivated to move it. “It’s a lovers’ quarrel potion. He wants us to avoid each other. Divide and conquer! Don’t you see?” He grabbed my wrists. “Oh, sorry.” I let go and so did he.

“Alright, so, if we want to thwart his efforts, we have to present a united front and not let anything come between us,” said Apollo. By now the break was almost over and my sisters were coming to field. “Take your place,” he kindly directed, punctuating the sentence with a kiss on my cheek. I thought that was a little over the top, but saying so would have made it look like we weren’t getting along, and that would’ve spoiled the plan, now, wouldn’t it have?

Chorale practice went much better than dance practice. My sisters and I sang a number in eight part harmony, so Calliope’s absence wasn’t as noticeable as it had been during our dance. I momentarily wondered where Calliope had decided to spend her day out and what she was doing there. Apollo hadn’t even bothered to ask her, whereas I had gotten the third degree last time I’d requested a day out. When I’d mentioned this to Apollo, he’d told me it was because Calliope is responsible and trustworthy. I’d wanted very much to smack both of them over the head with my shepherd’s crook.

I brought myself back to the present, realizing this must be Eros’ potion at work again. I had to fight it. I threw Apollo a congenial smile for good measure. He returned it. The more I thought about it, he was right. Out of all nine of us, Calliope probably was the most responsible and trustworthy. I couldn’t think of a time she’d caused any real trouble. She didn’t harass mortals, gods, or anything between for the fun of it. She always tried to interfere with them as little as possible while she observed them and recorded their epic adventures. She’d only been in one romantic relationship in her entire life, and it had been a remarkably stable one for a goddess. She and her mortal lover, Oegrus, were fully devoted to each other until his inevitable death. She hadn’t been with anyone since, and I didn’t blame her.

Now, me; I kid Apollo about his fear of commitment, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m just as bad. Dating Hephaestus was the closest I ever came to being serious about someone. (That doesn’t mean I haven’t been un-serious about a select few, but anyway…) I refuse to get involved with mortals because they have a habit of dying on you, and if I were to marry a god, we’d be stuck together forever. Eternal love is rare if it exists at all. With most divine relationships, worst case scenario, one or both gods turn out to be jerks; best case, one or both eventually get bored.

Speaking of bored gods, I’d thought Eros would be sorely disappointed over the fact that chorale practice had gone completely without incident, but he was ominously placid. Apollo sent everyone to the dining hall. Hephaestus and Eros were invited to dine with us, of course. Hephaestus sat at Apollo’s left hand with Eros on the other side, and at Apollo’s invitation, I sat at his right. Apollo and I were being especially courteous to each other, but not so much as to arouse suspicion. Eros smiled pleasantly and gave us two thumbs up. “Glad to see you two getting along again.” He made a couple of notes on his tablet.

Hephaestus let his forehead fall into his waiting palm. “What did you do?”

“I didn’t hurt them. I’m just involving them in an experiment.”

“Did they say you could?”

“Apollo let me use his stuff and everything.”

“As long as you had their permission,” Hephaestus wearily conceded. Eros looked at us hopefully. We kept quiet. “So, what did he do to you?” Hephaestus asked us.

“It’s complicated,” I said, “Eros, why don’t you explain to your dad how this stuff works?”

“Like she said, it’s complicated,” said Eros, “but you see how well they’re getting along? No passion, no antagonism, just plain, cool, drop dead boring niceness.”

“You ought to try that one on Zeus and my mom,” Hephaestus laughed. Eros smiled with ostentatious modesty. There is way too much of that boy’s mother in his face. Apollo dropped his fork and knocked mine off the table in an attempt to pick it up. Our heads met under the table.

“What do we do now?” he asked. “Whatever we do, he acts like it’s part of the plan. Either it’s a progressive potion or he’s just screwing with us.”

“He’s just messing with our minds because his little divide and conquer tactic didn’t work earlier,” I insisted.

“You know we can hear you both?” asked Hephaestus. We both rose slowly and sheepishly back to our seats. “Listen,” he said, “I’m sorry for the trouble he’s causing you. Eros, why don’t you just leave them alone and help me on the stable for the rest of the afternoon?”

“But I have to finish my experiment,” Eros argued.

“The experiment’s over. Collect your data and undo whatever you did to them.”

“Yeah, about that.” He paused. “I’m pretty sure this is impossible to undo.”

“IMPOSSIBLE TO UNDO?” I lunged across the table and knocked Eros on his back, chair and all.

“Observe as the female subject phases into unbridled sexual aggression,” Eros’ voice strained through his finger-wrapped trachea. “Don’t you want to tick her off just a little bit?” he winked at Apollo.

Apollo calmly got up and walked over to us. “Let’s take it outside, shall we?” he intoned. I got up, snagged Eros with my shepherd’s crook, and dragged him after Apollo. Once we were outside, I removed the crook, and Apollo rested his hands on Eros’ shoulders. “So, you don’t have an antidote for the potion,” he said with a cool stare.

“Nope,” Eros said, not intimidated. I silently observed that Apollo is nowhere near as intimidating as he’d like to think he is, which is probably why he’s so sexy when he tries to be. I slapped my own face, reminding myself that this was the powder talking.

“I suggest you think of one quickly.”

Eros pressed his fingers to his temples and squeezed his eyes shut. After about ten seconds, he said, “Sorry, can’t think of anything.”

“I understand,” Apollo said. “It’s hard to concentrate with your head in the clouds. If only you could feel just a little closer to earth…” He dramatically waved his hand, produced a pair of shears, and poised them above Eros’ pinion.

“Hey-hey-hey-wait! Fine. There’s no antidote because there’s no effect.”

“You cannot be serious,” I said.

“There’s no effect,” he repeated. “I just mixed stuff together to turn the powder pink and glittery. Everything that happened after that was all in your heads.”

I went to my room and stayed there until evening. Apollo never came to offer objection. Later I found out he had claimed he sent me there for my outburst at the table. He would pay. Oh, how he would pay.

My room is positioned so that Pegasus and I could watch the progress on the stable from my window. (Of course I took Pegasus to my room with me. Where else was I supposed to put him?) Not only was Apollo strictly supervising Eros’ assistance of Hephaestus, he had cancelled the rest of the day’s exercises so my sisters could help finish the stable. They were done before sunset. I flew Pegasus out the window so I could get him settled in and say goodbye to Hephaestus.

“This is perfect!” I looked around in ecstasy. “It’s like a little palace for a horse. Who did the mural on the ceiling?”

“Oh, let’s see, it’s a starscape, so it must have been Erato,” Urania crossed her arms and frowned.

“Could’ve been,” I considered.

We left Pegasus in the stable and went out to the lawn. While we were all going through the customary goodbyes and thanks, someone teleported into our midst. We naturally assumed it would be Calliope, so we all did a double take when Aphrodite fairly flew into her husband’s arms and planted her mouth on his.

“What are you doing here?” Hephaestus stammered once his lungs had recovered from Aphrodite having sucked the breath out of them. He was leaning on her since she’d knocked his cane out from under him, not that this seemed to bother him.

“I thought I’d surprise you,” she gleamed.

“You succeeded.”

“I’ve had such a lousy trip,” she sighed. “Visiting temples all day – you know how exasperating the mortals get after awhile. All those women want me to make them beautiful and seductive, but please, I have to have something to work with! Anyway, all I could think about all day long was getting home to my amazing husband, who is the only being in this entire universe who loves me selflessly.” She kissed him again, even harder. I almost felt like I shouldn’t be watching, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “Honey,” she said, looking up at him with huge, sad, penitent eyes as she brushed back her hair, “I broke it off with Ares. For good this time. You’re the only man I want. You’re enough for any woman. I’ve just been too blind to see it.” And another kiss. This time, Hephaestus kept his eyes open and threw a questioning look at Eros, who shook his head and showed his empty hands. “Come on, baby, let’s go home,” Aphrodite pleaded. “I just want to lock ourselves in our quarters and stay there for a month.”

“Can I stay with you guys?” Eros begged Apollo.

“No,” we replied together.

“I’ll see you guys later,” Hephaestus rushed.

“Wait, I haven’t paid you yet,” said Apollo.

“I have no idea what this is all about,” Hephaestus turned and whispered to him, a task of considerable difficulty since his wife’s face was buried in his neck, “but I’m getting home before she changes her mind.” Meanwhile, Eros was dramatically miming various methods of suicide. I thought the bit where he climbed an invisible hangman’s scaffold and hung himself in midair was rather clever.

“Can’t say I blame you,” Apollo replied in bemusement. With that, husband, wife, and son vanished.

“There goes the most dysfunctional nuclear family of all time,” I blinked. “I am so glad my family never has that kind of drama.”

“Since I’m responsible for your family, you and me both,” said Apollo.

We were afforded that happy feeling for another quarter of a second. How I would have savored that quarter of a second if I had known it would be the last in which my mind was free from the image of Calliope being blissfully cradled in the arms of a hulking, lunkheaded war god. What I wouldn’t give to erase the thought of her slender, graceful arms wrapped adoringly around his thick, hairy neck. If ever I am bound in Tartarus, that realm will punish me by setting eternally before me the triumph in that moron’s eyes as he held his conquest, namely my sister. Honestly. If I had to pick one particular god I hoped every one of my sisters would have the sense to stay away from, it would be –

“Ares?” said Apollo, not even bothering to hide his contempt.

“What, a guy can’t walk his girlfriend home?”

1.3 My Kingdom for a Pet

I love animals. When my sisters and I lived by the Springs of Helicon, there were wild animals all around our Museum. We never kept any in particular as pets because we never needed to. Deer, goats, foxes, rabbits, birds, lizards, bears, wildcats, you name it. If it lived in our forest, we’d feed it and play with it. Sometimes I’d go into the woods and divert mortal hunters’ arrows just for laughs.

Then we moved to the Parnassus Museum, which is in an area devoid of indigenous fauna. I suspected from the start that Apollo considered this one of the perks of the location. He’d gotten more than enough of the pastoral life during his year of hard labor. I didn’t blame him. He wasn’t that great of a shepherd even with divine powers, which Zeus took away for that year. Zeus also ruled that the other gods couldn’t provide help, which meant lending Apollo my shepherd’s staff was out of the question. Anyway, the point is, I knew the last thing Apollo would want around the house was a pet. Therefore, if I was to alter my pet-free lifestyle, I’d have to approach the subject with the utmost diplomacy and sensitivity.

“What’s this?” Apollo asked as he surveyed the scroll I’d placed in his hand at the end of dance practice. I’d waited until my sisters, especially Calliope, had left. “‘Reasons Why You Being Governor of the Muses Makes No Sense.'”

“Just a little document I prepared,” I said with a winsome smile. “Read on.”

“‘One: The Muses have done just fine all these centuries under only the nominal guardianship of Zeus.’ True,” he acknowledged, “but you never know when Zeus might decide to make his guardianship more than nominal. This way, I’m sort of a barrier between you and him.”

“Please go on to Item Two,” I waved.

“‘Two: You are probably going to give some absurd defense about being a barrier between us and Zeus. However, it’s occurred to us that the very act of requesting to be made Governor of the Muses would in itself draw us to Zeus’ attention,'” he read. “I did consider that, and I decided it was worth the risk. It doesn’t seem to have happened.”

“The list goes on.”

“‘Three: There is no precedent for an adult becoming the guardian of another adult except in the cases of adoption or marriage. So, did you adopt nine grown women who are arguably older than you, or do you have nine wives?'” Apollo appeared particularly unflattered by both implications. “First, if you recall, I was born a year before you. Second, you know Artemis is my guardian, right?”

“You just made that up!” I protested. I could have sworn Zeus was Apollo’s guardian since his mother, Leto, was out of the picture. “And, yeah, you were born earlier, but it took you longer to grow up. If you recall, my sisters and I were fully grown when we met you and Artemis, but you two were still adolescents.” They caught up to us in a few years. Now we’re all physically equivalent to humans in their mid-twenties, like most full-blooded gods. Actually, I think the only exception from our generation is Hephaestus. He looked my age when we started dating, but he ended up aging about ten more years.

“I remember it well,” Apollo responded. “I also remember my ridiculously overprotective sister demanding that Zeus make her my guardian because she didn’t think I was safe under his direct authority. He did. He always gave Artemis what she wanted. It made Hera furious.”

Huh. “Is that why you never got married?” Getting Artemis to approve a bride sounded like a task insurmountable even for one of the most powerful gods in the Pantheon.

“There are many reasons for that,” he dodged. “On to Item Four: ‘If you were lonely or something, you could have just asked to move in with us and left any position of authority out of the picture, you idiot,'” he read in a monotone voice. “I did it this way to protect our reputations,” he explained. He seemed annoyed, but not really upset. “Although,” he admitted, “that has sort of backfired.”

“You thought that if you just moved in with us because you felt like it, people would think you were sleeping with any given number of us, but you figured if you became Governor of the Muses and moved us to Parnassus, everyone would assume that there couldn’t possibly be anything between us?” I clarified.

“It made sense to me at the time,” he shrugged.

“You really are an idiot,” I concluded. “But,” I said brightly, “out of my kindness and magnanimity, I am offering you a chance to redeem yourself. I think we can all agree that the less we bring this whole Governor/Guardian/Whatever thing into play, the better. So I bring this petition before you as a tenant to a landlord, nothing more.”

“This ought to be good.”

“I want a pet.”

He briskly stroked my head a few times. “Is that enough for you?” he teased.

“See, that’s why I’m the deity of comedy, not you. And if that were enough for me, I never would have dumped Hephaestus. But seriously, like a deer or a lion or a unicorn or something? Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“I thought Hephaestus was the one who broke up with you.”

“I let people think that because I’m a compassionate soul. For example, if a mature, responsible goddess who lived in my house wanted a pet, I’d let her have one.” My smile was growing winsomer by the second.

“Calliope wants a pet? Why didn’t you say so? That’s different.”

“Come on, we could all share it,” I chose to ignore this slight. “Don’t you ever miss your horses? We could get a horse. We could get ten horses, one for each of us.”

“Do you know why I’m telling you ‘no’?”

“Because you hate me and you suck?”

“Yes, but also because I foresee that any pet of yours wouldn’t just be a pet, it would be your minion of evil.”

“You do not foresee that.”

“Prove it,” he smirked.

“If your prophecies don’t come true, they aren’t real prophecies,” I reasoned. “So by not letting me have a pet, you’re proving it.”

“I wouldn’t call it a prophecy so much as a vision.” He was keeping a straight face now, but it was obvious he was trying to irritate me.

“Maybe it’s not even a vision so much as you having one glass too many last night,” I suggested.

“I had a single glass of wine with dinner, as always. Nothing in excess,” he exhorted.

It should be obvious by now, even to you clueless mortals, that Apollo wouldn’t have gone to such lengths to provoke me if he hadn’t wanted the game to continue. He wanted to let me have a pet, but he had to save face on Olympus, so he couldn’t just hand it to me. He was practically begging me to prove that I was clever and crafty enough to deserve it. It was pathetic, really.

“Alright, just one horse,” I agreed, holding out my hand for him to shake. He took my hand, turned it over, and lightly smacked the back of it with my rolled-up document.

“No horse,” he ruled.

“How about this,” I proposed, snatching the ill-used document back from him and straightening the parchment. “If I can get one of the other Olympians to give me a pet, I get to keep it. I petition them myself fairly and without supernatural coercion, and you don’t forbid them.”

“On a few conditions. Item One: the pet must be pre-existing, not specially created for you. Item Two: ‘Olympian’ shall be defined as one of the Twelve enthroned in Zeus and Hera’s court, not someone who merely lives on Olympus – example: Eros, Hera’s three daughters – or anyone of equal power who resides in another realm – examples: Hades, Poseidon, your mother, et cetera. Item Three, the pet MUST be an animal. Item Four, the deal expires in three days starting…” he looked around at a nearby sundial, “…now. Now go inside, it’s time for lunch.”

“I think I’ll dine on Olympus this afternoon,” I said triumphantly. “Hera’s been wanting me to for ages.”

Zeus and Hera have the ring with the dining halls and other recreation rooms divided between two of them. The men dine with Zeus and the women dine with Hera, except on special occasions when everyone gathers in the main banquet hall. This way, not only do Their Majesties never have to see each other when they’re not holding court, but Hera can keep track of where all the women are – and more importantly, when they’re not where they’re supposed to be. Hera’s table is in the center of the women’s dining room. Only the ladies of the Twelve dine there. The rest of the female courtiers, including all three of Hera’s daughters, eat at other tables further out from it.

Hera sat at the head of the table with her friends Demeter and Hestia at her right and left hand. Since they were all created by the same pair of Titans, one could argue that they’re her sisters, but since that would also make Zeus Hera’s brother, one wouldn’t. Demeter was looking every bit the earth goddess, with her spring green gown, ruddy complexion, gloriously untamed auburn hair, and warm hazel eyes. Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth, looked the same as always. She has Hera’s brown hair and understated attire, though hers is matched by a tranquil, unassuming demeanor. Something about Hestia just makes you want to curl up in front of a fireplace with a good book and a cup of tea and stay there all day.

Down from Hestia and Demeter, Artemis and Athena sat across from each other presenting a study in contrast. Aphrodite once called Artemis a masculine version of Apollo. She wears plain men’s chitons, perfect for hunting and driving. Her golden hair is usually pinned up in a knot, out of her face and off her shoulders. I’ve seen her wear some light cosmetics at parties, probably at Athena’s beseeching, but today her face was completely unadorned as usual. All in all, Artemis’ attire was a futile attempt to downplay the fact that she’s an extremely attractive woman.

Athena likes to up-play the fact that she’s an extremely attractive woman. She enjoys being noticed, as evidenced by the dazzling plumed helmet she wore over her lustrous brown locks. Today she’d refrained from wearing a breastplate at the table, but that was possibly because the draping of her fabulous gown was giving Aphrodite a run for her money.

Aphrodite. In spite of the company that surrounded her, the goddess sitting alone at the foot of the table was the first thing anyone would notice upon entering the dining hall. It’s not just her voluptuous figure, her bewitching seafoam green eyes, or her gleaming mass of gold – not blonde, gold – hair. It’s all of her. She is beauty, love, desire, sex. Whether you find her presence a blessing or a curse, a delight or a nuisance, you can’t ignore Aphrodite.

But you can do everything in your power to suppress her. “Thalia, my darling little jester!” Hera greeted me with glee as soon as she saw me. “Come and dine with me. Aphrodite,” she commanded, “stand up so Thalia can have your seat.” Aphrodite had no choice but to comply. I almost felt kind of sorry for her. Then she opened her mouth.

“Nice dress, Thalia,” she said cloyingly as I settled into my seat. Well, her seat. “It’s perfect for someone of your station. Besides, it gives the illusion of a much larger bust. But it could do a better job of disguising the fact that you have a disproportionately thick waist.”

This was where being Hera’s pet snark made a visit to Olympus much more tolerable than it could have been. “Nice marriage, Aphrodite,” I deadpanned. “It’s perfect for someone of your station. Besides, it gives the illusion of respectability. But it could do a better job of disguising the fact that you’re a slut.” I do not have a thick waist. I have small hips.

Hera, Hestia, and Demeter laughed. Athena and Artemis whispered unintelligible things to each other across the table. I listened over them to Hera’s praise. “It’s always such a joy having you here, my lovely. Artemis, tell your bastard twin he should let this charming creature accompany him here more often. Artemis,” she repeated, louder and sharper. “Stop flirting with Athena and answer me.”

“Yes, my lady,” Artemis averted her eyes, trying not to show her embarrassment. “I’ll tell him that.” I hoped she would, and I hoped I’d get to see his reaction.

“Tell me, Thalia,” Hera goaded, “do you really believe these two are only friends as they say?” Artemis’ face turned to stone and Athena’s turned to embers. This, I didn’t like so much. But I didn’t dare show Hera my displeasure.

“Oh, absolutely,” I merrily grabbed the bait and ran with it. “They like each other way too much to be a couple.” Artemis relaxed. Athena gave me a subtle, grateful smile. Hera kept up her forced laughter to save face, but I got the feeling I should tread carefully from there out. Aphrodite, on the other hand, seemed to find my response genuinely funny.

“How are things on Parnassus?” Athena conversationally changed the subject.

“Great. You ought to come visit us sometime,” I invited her. Both she and Artemis used to accompany Apollo to the Helicon Museum all the time. “My sisters would love to see you.”

“Have you and your sisters settled into your new home?” Hestia joined the conversation, pleased that it was taking a gentler turn.

“We have; thank you for asking,” I said. “It’s a really nice place. Hephaestus did such a great job building it.”

“I remember that,” said Aphrodite. “He was gone for days. It’s so lonely and boring when he’s working.”

“I know,” said Athena. “My quarters are right next to yours, and I was kept up every night that week by your anguished moans.”

“Well, everyone’s sacrifices resulted in an amazing Museum,” I returned the conversation back in the right direction. “Have any of you seen the mural on the roof of our throne room? It’s incredible. The whole building is incredible. It has the appropriate grandeur, but it’s comfortable and homey, too. You know the only thing I miss about our old place, though?”

“The fields?” asked Demeter.

“The fact that it was your first house?” asked Hestia.

“The freedom?” asked Hera.

“The wildlife,” I answered.

“I’m sure Apollo put a damper on that,” Aphrodite snickered.

“Keep practicing; you’ll get there,” I condescended. “I miss the animals around the Springs of Helicon,” I continued my carefully-crafted dialogue. “Every spring, Terpsichore would teach the fawns to prance, Euterpe would teach the robins to sing, I’d teach the mockingbirds to mock. I was just saying the other day, it would be nice if we could at least have one pet.”

“Well, let me send a pair of peacocks home with you,” Hera offered. “No, even better; I’ll send you a cow! I know just the one.” She beckoned to a servant nymph and said, “Prepare the white cow in the south pasture, the one being guarded by my peacocks.” The nymph bowed and went to carry out her mistress’ command. Artemis and Athena looked stunned. Hestia and Demeter sighed in resignation. Aphrodite let a mean-spirited chuckle escape.

“My Lady, are you sure?” I said, hardly able to believe my good fortune. Apprehensively unable to believe my good fortune, actually. “She must be very special if your sacred birds are guarding her.”

“She is very, very special,” Hera emphasized, digging her knife into a thick piece of meat. “I know you and your sisters and your obsessive guardian would never let her wander off, or let anyone near her who would do her harm.”

When dinner was over, Hera, Hestia, and Demeter retired to the throne room. Aphrodite left the opposite way, probably to Ares’ quarters. Artemis and Athena walked me to the gate. Once we were there, they cornered me. “Listen,” said Athena. “You cannot take the cow.”

“Um, Hera offered me the cow, so I kind of have to take the cow.”

“She’s right,” said Artemis. “But…look, you have to…the cow is a woman. A demigoddess, actually.”

“Oh my…don’t tell me?”

“Remember Io?” said Artemis.

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember that one was totally Eros’ fault. Hera turned her into a cow? That’s a little on the nose, isn’t it?” I couldn’t help a teeny, tiny giggle.

“She only wants you to take the cow so you get the job of keeping Zeus away from her,” said Artemis.

“Doesn’t Hera know the antidote to Eros’ golden arrows? She can just stab Zeus in his sleep.”

“She did,” said Athena. “Trust me, that was not a happy day.”

“Look, I’m pretty sure I do have to take the cow,” I reiterated, “but thanks for the briefing.” The servant nymph reached the gate, leading a pure white cow by a silken halter and lead. A fly the size of a hummingbird kept buzzing around the poor miserable boviness, stinging her every chance it got.

“Here you are, my lady Thalia,” the nymph curtseyed. “A gift from Hera’s own pasture.”

“Thank you so much,” I said. I took the cow’s lead and teleported out of there as quickly as I could.

“Apollo!” I called, running to the field where he was leading my sisters in chorale practice. “Time out; I need my sisters for something.” I tugged on the cow’s lead, urging her to keep up.

“Congratulations, you win,” he quickly looked up from the podium, still keeping time with the silver arrow he was using for a baton.

“No, I don’t,” I said urgently.

He sighed. “Five minutes,” he told them, producing a small hourglass.

“Oh, you got a cow!” “She’s so cute!” “Look at those big, brown eyes.” “Someone kill that stupid fly.” “What are we going to feed her?”

“This isn’t a cow, it’s Io,” I said above the din. “Hera gave her to me, but I’m not supposed to know who she is. We need to change her back so we can get rid of her.”

This comment brought Apollo sprinting to my side. “You want Hera to banish me, don’t you?”

“I’ll tell Hera we ate the cow. She’ll love us forever. We are going to do this,” I said adamantly.

“Fine, just keep me out of it,” he folded his arms. My sisters and I formed a circle around Io, preparing to transform her. Our transformation powers only work if we use them in unison.

“Wait!” I stopped them. I ripped the cloak off Apollo’s otherwise bare torso.

“Now isn’t the time for a striptease,” he chided.

“Exactly,” I said, throwing it over the cow. With one casting of our hands, the cow morphed into a woman.

An extremely pregnant woman.

“Oh, thank you,” she breathed heavily, sinking to the ground and clutching the cloak around herself. “I’ve been carrying Zeus’ child for three years. I couldn’t give birth while I wasn’t in my true form – part of Hera’s- AAAAAAAAaaaaaaaaaaa, oh my god!”

“We’re right here,” we all answered together.

Apollo crushed the hourglass in his fist. “Chorale practice is cancelled; you’re delivering a baby. I’m going to go…be somewhere else.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “The divine patron of medical science is going to leave the glee club of the gods to deliver a baby? I don’t think so. This is one case where your supervision would actually be useful.”

By midnight, Io was the mother of a healthy baby boy. Both mother and child were bathed, clothed, and fed. “His name is Epaphus,” Io held her newborn son with pride. “I’m going to take him somewhere far away where neither Zeus nor Hera can find us. How can I ever thank you?”

“By doing that,” Apollo and I answered in unison.

“Well, that’s the end of that,” he said to me. “I hope you’ve learned something.”

“I’ve learned I am never giving birth,” I replied. “And that is so not the end of that. You said my pet has to be an animal, which Io is not. I still have another two days.” As I spoke, we were blinded by a spotlight from Artemis’ chariot. She parked it above the dancing field and teleported next to us.

“Hey, bro,” she greeted Apollo with a hug. “I thought I should stop by before I get back to Olympus. Hera says to tell you to bring Thalia with you more often. I’d do it tomorrow if I were you.”

“If I must, I must,” Apollo conceded.

That was it? What a let-down.

Apollo woke me up at the crack of dawn to accompany him on his Olympian check-in. “You get up this early every morning?” I groaned, having gotten only so far as kicking off my covers. “No wonder you’re always so…how you are.”

“Stop complaining and get dressed.” He threw one of my dresses and a handful of assorted jewelry on top of my lifeless form. I snapped my limp, exhausted fingers once. Nightgown off. I snapped them again. Dress, jewelry, and hairdo on. Apollo snapped his fingers right by my ear. “You forgot your makeup.”

I stood up and snapped my fingers in his face. “Forgot yours, too.” He looked in the mirror, snapped his fingers again, and removed everything but the gold eyeliner.

Apollo held my hand and teleported us to the center of Zeus and Hera’s throne room. “My Lord; my Lady,” Apollo bowed to them. I did the same.

“I see you’re getting along well with your charges,” Zeus teased him, his meaning all too clear.

“I’m keeping order as I told you I would,” Apollo deliberately ignored his father’s implication. “As you can see, the arts and sciences have flourished since I joined forces with the Muses.”

“Flourished, yes, but I expected them to be multiplying by now,” Zeus laughed. Ares, Dionysus, and Hermes laughed with him.

“Thalia,” Hera commandeered the conversation, “are you enjoying your new pet?”

“Well,” I said hesitantly, “when I brought her home, Apollo decided we should eat her.”

“Really?” said Hera, trying rather unsuccessfully to look disappointed. “I’m sorry, dear. But let us forgive him, shall we? Men do love a good piece of flesh,” she smiled calmly. “We’ll just have to find a new pet for you.”

“You don’t have to do that, my Lady.”

“I will,” Aphrodite offered. “A cow is no pet for a lady,” she sneered. “Let me give you one of my doves.” She came forward and clapped her hands together in front of her. When she opened them, an exquisite white dove was nesting in them. “Take good care of him. He was one of my favorites.”

“Thank you,” I accepted the dove. He cooed as he looked right at me with his bright, black eyes. “Aw, he’s so sweet.” I held the charming creature close to me. He was so soft and gentle. It was so cute the way he nestled his little white head in my bosom.

It was also rather suspicious.

“Apollo,” I alerted him, “Look, isn’t he precious?” I held the bird out to him.

“He’s adorable,” Apollo practically cooed, taking him from me. “You might just have to share this little guy with me, oh, yes you will.” He held the bird against the crook of his neck and started kissing his soft feathers. He was thrown back when the bird’s wingspan suddenly grew to ten feet and sprouted a thoroughly disgusted young god.

“Alright, alright!” Eros surrendered, rapidly wiping his face with his hands. The gods and goddesses, except for Eros’ parents, were nearly falling out of their thrones with laughter. “You guys win. Mom, that was child abuse. Next time you want to get back at some chick for calling you a slut, get Dad to help. Or better yet, just don’t be a slut. I have a reputation to think about, you know.” He flew out of the throne room like a bat out of Hades.

“Don’t you talk to your mother that way, you useless little brat!” Aphrodite screamed, running after him. “You want to talk about reputations? The damage control I have to…”

Apollo and I held hands and bowed to those assembled, all of whom were clapping and cheering wildly – except for Hephaestus, who was trying desperately to look as though he wasn’t there. Luckily for him, people tend to be unaware of his presence anyway. At least he had the sense to feel some shame, unlike Ares, who was clapping along with everyone else. I made a mental note to be sure to make a fool of Ares sometime. He needed it as much as the rest of his…whatever Aphrodite and Eros were to him. It’s hard to make a fool of Ares, though. Everyone already knows he’s a moron, and he either doesn’t mind or doesn’t get it.

Apollo interrupted my contemplation by whispering, “Fail.”

I went back home with Apollo, spent the rest of the day with my sisters, and went to bed right after dinner. An hour before sunrise, I woke up and went straight back to Olympus. I had a new plan, one that I must complete before Apollo made his morning visit. This time I’d bypass the full court entirely and just focus on my friends. So I went around the lowest ring of the palace, came to the stables, and found Artemis. Helios wasn’t up yet. Artemis was nearly done putting up her horses. Athena was with her.

“Hey, Thalia,” said Artemis. “If you were wanting a ride-along, you’re a little late.”

“No, I need to ask you something, either of you. Could you give me a pet? It has to be an animal, it has to already be in existence, and I have to have it by noon.”

“Seriously? Apollo’s making you jump through all those hoops just to get a pet? Why didn’t you come to us in the first place?” she laughed. “Athena, you want to take this one?”

“I have just the thing.” Athena clapped her hands together. Instantly appearing before us was a magnificent white stallion with wings like an eagle’s. “Presenting the amazing Pegasus,” she introduced him. He bowed to me on one knee. “I created him to be used in battle, but I made him such a brilliant tactician that his riders can’t get him to cooperate. He thinks he knows better, and he usually does. But he doesn’t know anything about the arts or sciences. He’ll get along great with you and your sisters.”

“And Apollo,” Artemis added. “Be sure to share with him, will you? He misses his old horses like crazy. I try to get him to visit the stables, but he says it’s too painful.”

“You swear this is just a winged horse?” I said with wary hesitation as I took his reins from Athena. “Because I don’t want him turning into anything else after I mount him.”

“I swear,” Athena laughed. “Here, let me give you a leg up…that’s right, get your thighs right behind his wings, there’s plenty of room…there! Perfect. Now just tell him where you want to go.”

“Thank you so much,” I said. “Is there any way I can repay you?”

“Not at all,” she happily insisted. “That’s why it’s called a gift.”

“The Museum on Mount Parnassus,” I cued Pegasus.  He cantered out of the stable and down the runway. As we neared the edge, he spread his wings and rose into the air.

You know that one glorious moment at the crest of a jump where you feel like your horse is flying? The entire ride felt like that. I didn’t have to steer Pegasus at all. He was flying in a straight line toward the Museum at the most efficient speed possible. That was definitely Athena’s battle strategy influence at work. I couldn’t wait to see what other abilities he had. What was his top speed? Did he know how to hide in a cloud? Could he hover in place? I had forever to find out. This fantastic creature was all mine.

Well, mine and the rest of my household’s. The first glimpses of Helios’ chariot gave Pegasus an opalescent glow as I landed him in the middle of the dancing field. My sisters, awakened by the beating of Pegasus’ wings, swarmed around to see him. “He’s beautiful!” “What’s his name?” “Is he ours to keep?” “Can we share?” “When do I get to ride him?”

“This is Pegasus, my new minion of evil,” I threw a triumphant look at Apollo, who was standing a little way back from the swarm. “He’s a gift from Athena for all of us to share.”

Apollo came forward and stroked Pegasus’ strong, arching neck. Pegasus nickered and lowered his head. “It’s an outright gift?”

“It is.”

“No one created him especially for you?”

“Nope, he was meant for Athena’s warriors.”

“You’re sure he really is a horse?”

“I have the word of Athena.”

“Six hours to spare,” he noted. “Then I suppose I have to let you keep him.”

I held my hand out to Apollo. “When I said we can all share him, I meant all of us. Helios just pulled out of the stables,” I tempted him. “I’ll bet this guy could give him a run for his money. Come on, you know you want to.”

And there was that smile that some mortals believe lights the sun. I’m not always entirely sure they’re wrong. Apollo took my hand and climbed up behind me, and we flew off into the sunrise.

1.2 Echoing Memories

I mentioned Mom in my last installment, but it’s occurred to me that since not much is known about her, some introductions are probably in order. Our mother is Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory, Daughter of the Titans Uranus and Gaia. She lives in the kingdom of Hades and presides over a lake at the mouth of the Five Rivers. The lake is named after her. When most mortals enter the realm of Hades, they drink from the nearby lake, Lethos, to forget their earthly lives. A chosen few drink from Lake Mnemosyne. What happens to them, you ask? Can’t tell you. It’s a secret. That’s why they’re called the Mysteries. There are also a few different ceremonies in which select gods drink from Lake Mnemosyne. I can’t tell you what happens to them, either.

On the subject of our parentage, it’s commonly believed that Zeus is our father. We actually don’t have one. Mom made us herself. She gave birth to us in Lake Mnemosyne. We lived with her at the lakeshore for the first year of our lives. Then, once we were fully grown, we swam through the depths of the lake and sprung to the surface, creating the Springs of Helicon. All Hades broke loose.

It didn’t take us long to develop a reputation for being just a tad chaotic. We’re nowhere near the level of gods like Dionysus and Pan, and Aphrodite’s misadventures continually defy even our imaginations, but we are the goddesses of the arts and sciences. We challenge the status quo. We live for subversion. We think outside the box.

Then we tear up the box and Calliope writes an epic poem about the box’s journey, Clio records an accurate and detailed history of the box’s existence, Erato writes a song about the box’s loves, hopes, and dreams, Euterpe uses some pieces of the box to invent a musical instrument, Melpomene weeps over the box’s tragic end, Polyhymnia composes a chorus in nine-part harmony praising the God of Boxes, Terpsichore invents the box step, I fold scraps into smaller boxes, put them over my hands, and call them boxing gloves, and Urania uses the leftover pieces to make a perfect scale model of the stars’ positions on the day the box was destroyed. The day Apollo took up the newly-created position of Governor of the Muses, he became the box; but that has little to do with this story.

If anyone needed our help getting out of a box, it was Echo. I met her one day while I was exploring the slopes of Mount Parnassus alone. I’d been on good behavior long enough that Apollo had given me a day pass. I’d been wanting to go exploring ever since we’d moved from our old Museum by the Springs on Mount Helicon. I don’t know why Apollo couldn’t have moved into our place since there’s one of him and nine of us, but that’s beside the point. So anyway, I was exploring the slopes. I found an idyllic little wooded hollow so remote that it was surely inaccessible to mortals. There was no evidence of our kind, either. It was completely secluded.

When you have eight sisters, one overprotective glorified nanny, and a multitude of worshippers, solitude is the most rare and precious thing in the universe. I resolved that this hollow would be my secret. I would tell no one of its existence, not even Calliope or the Twerps. And then I saw her.

She was a dainty, pale slip of a nymph, and she looked as disappointed to see me as I felt to see her. I figured I should be polite, so I apologized, “I didn’t know anyone was here. I’ll leave.”

“I didn’t know anyone was here. I’ll leave,” she replied unhappily.

“No, you were here first. I just got here,” I protested.

“No, you were here first. I just got here.”

“Then I guess we both got here at the same time,” I smiled. She seemed so shy and scared.

“Then I guess we both got here at the same time,” she agreed.

“We can both stay. I promise I won’t bother you,” I offered.

“We can both stay. I promise I won’t bother you.”

“My name’s Thalia, by the way. Nice to meet you.”

“My name’s Thalia, by the way. Nice to meet you.”

“Really?” I was quite delighted by this. “Am I your godmother?”

“Really? Am I your godmother?”

At this point, I started to suspect something wasn’t right. “Random salad Cyclops griffon pickles,” I said.

“Random salad Cyclops griffon pickles,” she replied, looking like the personification of despair.

“You’re Echo,” I concluded. “I’ve heard of you.”

“You’re Echo,” she nodded her head vigorously. “I’ve heard of you.”

“You came here after…you were tired of just speaking other people’s words, weren’t you? So you came here, where there wasn’t anyone else. No, don’t talk, you can just nod yes or no.”

“No, don’t talk, you can just nod yes or no,” she repeated while shaking her head.

“Okay, so this complicates things. You have to speak when you’re spoken to, but you can just say the last sentence. Is that it?”

“Is that it?” Echo nodded her head.

“Can you speak your own words when there’s no one around to copy?”

“Can you speak your own words when there’s no one around to copy?” she shook her head no.

“So you can’t speak at all unless someone gives you words? That’s awful!”

“That’s awful!” she nodded sadly.

“Was it really Hera who did this to you?” I asked.

“Was it really Hera who did this to you?” she affirmed.

“Oh, boy.”

“Oh, boy.”

As I’ve mentioned before, if Hera were ever to determine that I was working against her in some way or was even in allegiance to someone who was…she couldn’t kill me, but Echo was proof that she could do worse.

“Look, I’m one of the Nine Muses,” I explained. “I don’t know if your curse can be broken, but my sisters and I can try our best. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll at least teach you ways to express yourself without talking. Follow me.” I held out my hand.

“Follow me,” Echo took it. Together, we floated back to the Museum.

Since my sisters were busy in the throne room writing out epics by hand, Apollo met us on the steps of the Museum. “Back so soon, Thalia? Who’s your lovely friend?” he gave Echo a warm, friendly smile.

Echo shyly turned her face to me and blushed. “Who’s your lovely friend?” she repeated.

Yeah, yeah, we get it. Nymphs are adorable. “Her name is Echo.” I gave Apollo a pointed look as I said my guest’s name.

“Her name is Echo,” she repeated, practically burying her head in the folds of my dress.

Apollo’s countenance dimmed significantly at this revelation. “Bring her inside, quickly,” he ordered.

“Bring her inside, quickly,” Echo concurred.

We took her in the back way and closed her in my room. Outside my door, Apollo demanded, “Have you lost your mind? Do you know what could happen to us and our families if Hera finds out we’re giving her victim aid and comfort?”

“I thought you’d be totally on board with this.” I honestly had. “‘Know Yourself’ is one of your creeds, and I can’t think of anyone who needs to get reacquainted with herself more than Echo does. Besides, Hera won’t find out,” I insisted. “She never spies on us. She likes me and my sisters, and as much as she hates you, she knows you’re an honorable, protective guardian who would never let any of us near her husband. We’re not worth her surveillance as far as she’s concerned. In the very, very unlikely event that Hera does find out, I promise to take full responsibility. You can claim you didn’t even know Echo was here, and I’ll back you up on it.”

“How would that help me?” he argued. “I am responsible for you and your sisters whether I own up to that responsibility or not.”

“May I remind you that it was a responsibility you personally requested?”

“Not unless you want to be confined to quarters.”

Sending me to my room? Was he freakin’ serious? “You personally requested this responsibility.”

“Go to your quarters and stay there until dinner.” Apparently so.

“Thanks.”

It took Apollo one second to realize that he’d just exempted me from sculpting class. It took me half that time to lock myself inside my room with Echo, leaving him outside in defeat.

“Thanks,” said Echo. I could tell she meant it. She looked worried, though.

“Hey, everything I said to Apollo about Hera not finding out? It’s true. We do have to be careful, though. We can’t let any visitors see you, and we definitely can’t let them hear you. But it’s no big deal; we hardly ever have visitors. And in case you haven’t heard, Narcissus died a long time ago, so you never have to worry about him again,” I comforted her.

“Never have to worry about him again.” She actually looked a little sad. I wished Melpomene or Erato were there. They were so much better with this sensitivity stuff. I’m a good neutral listener, but that technique sure wouldn’t work with Echo. Deciding against elaborating to Echo that her ex-lover had starved to death staring at his own reflection, I changed the subject.

“I know Apollo made it sound like I’m being punished, but there are all kinds of things to do in my room.” I directed her attention to my multitude of shelves, chests, bookcases, and wardrobes. “I’d rather stay in here and do my own thing anyway. Look. I have books, ink and paper, clay tablets, maps, musical instruments, paints and paintbrushes, clay and marble for sculpting, tons of costumes, materials for more costumes…what do you want to do?”

“What do you want to do?” she repeated earnestly.

“You can use whatever you want,” I urged her. “Pick something.”

“Pick something,” she motioned to me.

I could only conclude that she really did want me to pick something for her. “Do you play music?” I asked.

“Do you play music?” she nodded.

I got two kitharas and handed one to her. “We can sing rounds,” I suggested. “I’ll sing through the first time, and then you can repeat it after the first phrase starting the second time. Will that work?”

“Will that work,” she agreed.

 

We sang rounds for the rest of the afternoon. I made sure to use a wide variety of music. I tried to pay attention to which ones Echo liked, but it was hard to tell. From what I could figure, though, it seemed like our tastes were pretty similar.

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner. I showed Echo through the south wing that held our bedroom suites, through the empty open-air throne room that divided the Museum, and finally to the north wing that held our ballroom and dining hall. “Wait here,” I told her, positioning her in a vestibule just off the dining hall.

“Wait here,” she complied.

I went to the dining hall. My sisters and Apollo were already seated. I announced, “Everyone, I’m bringing a guest to dinner, and nobody can say a single word until she introduces herself, okay? Not a word.” I ran back and grabbed Echo. When we entered the dining hall, I whispered something in her ear.

“Hello, I’m Echo. I’m pleased to meet all of you.” She beamed at me in gratitude.

Melpomene snatched up the guest right away and sat her between herself and Erato. Terpsichore waved her hand at me from the other end of the long table. “Saved you a seat!” The seat she’d saved me was between herself and Apollo and across from Calliope. Apollo always sat at the head of the table, but other than that, there was no set seating order. It was impossible since the Muses have no seniority and no ranking system. Who can say which art or science is greater than another? Well, I can when I want to start an epic food fight, but this was no time for such things.

“I can’t believe you found Echo,” said Terpsichore. “Everyone thought she died or faded or something.”

“What are you planning to do with her?” Calliope asked.

“We’ll try to break the curse,” I said.

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Calliope declared. I knew I could count on her compassion and sense of a great story to override her need for order. Apollo, meanwhile, was choking on his wine. “Thalia, help him,” Calliope urged.

“He’s fine. It’s not like he can die or anything,” I brushed it off. “So, about Echo, I was thinking-”

“I thought you just wanted to shelter her!” Apollo hissed, having re-opened his windpipe. “Are you insane, trying to break one of Hera’s curses? And if you do break it, do you think you can get away with it? You are insane. I am officially declaring you insane.”

“Ooh, I’d need a full-time personal guardian then, wouldn’t I?” I taunted. “Someone to watch over me constantly. And this guardian and I should probably be isolated so I don’t pose a danger to anyone else. Do you know anyone who would volunteer for such a position?” I innocently inquired.

“The paradox is that whoever would volunteer must also be insane,” said Apollo. “How do you plan to break this curse, exactly?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I imagine it’ll take all ten of us to figure it out.”

“Nine,” Apollo corrected. Calliope said nothing, but her expression told Apollo that she was Very Disappointed in him. How could he just sit there knowing Calliope was Very Disappointed in him? I’d be rethinking my life. Though, to be fair, I’d be over it in about fifteen minutes.

“We’ll see,” I said, more to Calliope than him. “Anyway, I thought we’d start by helping Echo communicate through the arts.”

“You’re brilliant!” Terpsichore snapped her arms around me, causing me to drop my fork. “Dancing is the perfect form of wordless self-expression. I’ll start teaching her first thing in the morning.”

“You have your own dance practice first thing in the morning,” Apollo reminded her.

“But that would be all wrong for Echo,” Terpsichore argued. “The dances we’ve been doing are technically perfect, but they’re so structured and regimented. Most of the time, I feel like I might as well be drilling with Ares’ legion. No, Echo needs to just cut footloose. I’m sure she has the talent for it. She’s a dryad, after all.”

“I can’t let us abandon all semblance of order because we have a guest,” Apollo argued.

“A different order is still order,” Calliope admonished him. “I’m sure Thalia has some sort of structured plan in mind?” she looked expectantly at me.

As a matter of fact, I did. I don’t get much credit as an organizer since that was Calliope’s job until it was Apollo’s, but like any other theater deity, I’m a natural director. “The nine of us will work with Echo in three shifts of three. Whoever is on duty at the moment will set the present agenda as she sees fit.”

“I think that’s an excellent plan,” Calliope praised.

“Because it is,” I proclaimed.

“Do I get any say in this at all?” Apollo asked in mock deference.

“As long as you say yes,” I smiled sweetly.

“It is a decent plan,” he reluctantly acknowledged. “But I will be supervising all of these sessions.”

“You do realize we got along for centuries without a governor, don’t you?” I reminded him.

“Technically, Zeus was your guardian,” he reminded me.

“In name only. We were completely without outside supervision,” Calliope pointed out. “I made sure of that.”

“Those were the days,” Terpsichore sighed.

“…my friend, we thought they’d never end,” I joined her in singing. Everyone erupted into song, keeping time by beating their fists on the table. Everyone except Apollo, who motioned for me to join him in the vestibule.

“You can’t see why I want to supervise these sessions?”

“I see your logic, but look at it this way: three Muses training Echo leaves six Muses doing something else. In the unlikely event that Hera does look in on the Museum, it’s going to look better if those six are still following their normal routine, and you’re following it with them,” I explicated.

“You make a good argument, but I still think there should be one constant supervisor, if only for the sake of record-keeping. This seems like an interesting scientific study,” he countered.

“Then I nominate Clio. She is, after all, the historian of the family.”

“Fine. Every shift will be comprised of Clio and two others. Calliope can decide the pairings. There will be four shifts instead of three since eight will be rotating. Echo will sleep in your room.”

“As I intended.”

“Then it’s settled.”

“Whatever you say.”

 

That night, Echo was exhausted from all the dining room chatter. Good hostess that I am, I gave her the softest couch in my room to sleep on. I also kept silent all night to give her a break.

I’m a light sleeper, so I was able to more or less keep an eye on her. Gods and other immortals don’t need sleep to survive the way humans do, but sleep restores our powers, and sometimes our dreams tell us things.

And apparently, sometimes we talk in our sleep. I could hear Echo murmuring in anguish, “It wasn’t my fault…I didn’t know…Why me? I never touched him…no, please don’t!” over and over again. I didn’t know if I should wake her up or not. I did think it was very interesting that she was speaking her own words in her sleep, probably the last words she ever spoke on her own.

“Do you remember your dreams?” I asked her in the morning.

“Do you remember your dreams?” she shook her head. I let it go.

After breakfast, she went with Clio and the Twerps for her first lesson of the day. I joined everyone else for chorale practice. It wasn’t my turn with Echo until the last shift. Calliope had matched me with Erato. Comedy and lyrical poetry. It could work.

“Any progress?” I asked Echo.

“Any progress?” She pointed to a pile of swag on the lawn. There was a dancing costume obviously made by Terpsichore, a newly-made aulos (a funny-looking two-pronged flute; long story; I’ll tell you sometime) that had Euterpe’s style stamped all over it, a mournful stone bust of Echo that bore a distinct resemblance to Melpomene’s work, and an epic poem about her tale signed by Calliope.

“Play something for us,” Erato suggested. Clio, in the role of impartial observer, was silent as she scribbled away at her magic scroll.

“Play something for us.” Echo picked up the aulos and played a cheerful little tune on it. She was very good. I laughed at the way her dainty cheeks puffed in and out as she blew on the absurd instrument. She stopped, looking hurt.

“No, no, it’s okay, I was laughing in a good way,” I hastily comforted her. “It was a compliment. Making people laugh is an art.”

“Making people laugh is an art,” she repeated resolutely. She resumed playing, this time exaggerating her facial contortions to make the effect even more comical. As Erato and I laughed, she began tilting her head from side to side to the rhythm of the song she was playing. Before long, she was doing a funny little dance while she played the tune faster and faster.

“She’s hilarious!” Erato praised when Echo was finished.

“She’s hilarious,” Echo repeated proudly.

“You really have a gift for physical comedy,” I told her. “You want me to teach you how to mime?”

“You want me to teach you how to mime?” came her eager affirmation. Erato and I developed a story together with as much clumsy input from Echo as we could muster. Echo was a dream student. She had practically mastered the art of comic mime by the time our shift was over and we handed her over to Urania and Polyhymnia.

It went that way for the rest of the week. By day, Echo got better and better at whatever art or craft Erato and I showed her. But by night, she continued to relive her last true words. I was still far short of accomplishing my goal: breaking her curse. On the eighth day, I decided to call a meeting with my sisters. I left Apollo in my quarters with Echo so he could keep an eye on her. She had stopped flirting with him after the first day, so I figured it was safe. Not that it’s any of my business if girls flirt with Apollo. I was just thinking of poor Echo and her fragile psyche.

 

 

The nine of us were seated in the throne room. Calliope brought the meeting to order and delivered the floor to me. I strode to the center of the room and pounded my shepherd’s staff on the floor just to make sure I had everyone’s attention. “It looks like we’ve done a great job teaching Echo to express herself through the arts,” I opened, “but we’re nowhere near breaking the curse. If she still can’t converse beyond repeating whatever’s said to her, it’s not going to do her much good to be a brilliant comic mime.”

“And musician,” Erato reminded me.

“She’s the best dancer I’ve seen outside of our family,” said Terpsichore.

“And she can dance and play the lyre at the same time like nothing I’ve seen,” added Euterpe.

“That’s impressive that she’s so adept at comedy, because she has a real flair for tragic art, too,” Melpomene commented.

“She can’t write, though,” Calliope pondered.

Okay, that was interesting. “Are you sure? I could swear I’ve seen tablets and scrolls in a new handwriting,” I recalled. “In fact, you signed at least one of the tablets.”

“Well, she can spell,” Calliope clarified, “but she can’t compose. One could say I ghost wrote those epics.”

“Echo just writes down the last thing she hears,” Polyhymnia confirmed, “the same as when she talks.”

“She’s an outstanding astronomer, though,” Urania chimed in. “One look around my bedroom, and she was able to copy my star charts perfectly.”

“Clio, you’ve observed all her sessions,” I said. “Can you share your observations with us?”

“I was withholding judgment for as long as possible, but I think it’s safe to say that her curse extends past her speech,” Clio gravely replied. “She isn’t merely able to perform whatever art or science she’s shown. When she’s around it and its Muse, she acts like that art or science is the most wonderful thing in the world to her. I don’t think it’s a natural affinity.

“As you know, we’re all talented beyond mortal measure in our own and each other’s arts, and Apollo has powers in each of our domains. Still, we all have relative strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, we all have our preferences. I’m good at astronomy, and I like it, but I love history more, so I’m the Muse of History.”

“Sure,” Urania griped. “Anyone could do Urania’s job, it’s just not as cool as yours.”

“Echo, in contrast,” Clio ignored her, “seems to switch preference as well as skill according to whom she’s with at the moment.”

“She’s been alone with Apollo for awhile now,” I considered. “Urania, go tell him to come here. Stay with Echo while he’s gone.”

“Why do I have to go?” she resisted.

“It’s written in the stars,” I shrugged. She gave me a dirty look, but she went anyway. When Apollo arrived at the throne room, I asked him, “What have you and Echo been doing all this time?”

“Oh, give it a rest!” he defended. “You think I’d take advantage of that poor girl after everything she’s been through? I’m not Zeus. No need for you to turn into Hera.”

“A faulty comparison, seeing as we aren’t a couple,” I disclaimed with haste. “Besides, it was an innocent question. What did Echo do while she was alone with you? Rest? Sing? Play? Dance? Paint? What?”

“She didn’t do anything,” he reported. “I was curious to see which of your arts or sciences she’d taken to the most, so I brought some of my materials and instrument and offered her her choice of them. I was very careful not to steer her toward anything in particular. She just got this blank look on her face, sat down in the middle of the room, and didn’t move.”

“That confirms it,” Clio pronounced. “Either Hera’s curse extends beyond Echo’s tongue, or after centuries of having to repeat others instead of expressing her own original thoughts, Echo doesn’t even remember what her own thoughts are anymore.”

“She does when she’s asleep,” I contemplated aloud. “She dreams her last words, right before Hera cursed her. She speaks them over and over. Clio, maybe it isn’t either/or. Maybe not remembering is part of the curse.”

“Which means if she could remember, the curse would be broken!” Apollo reasoned. “I’d heal her if I could, but if you’re right, the curse isn’t just on Echo’s tongue, it’s on her soul. I can’t counter that kind of magic from a daughter of Titans.”

The answer came to all eight of us in a single moment. “MOM!!!”

“It’s alright, my darlings, I’m here.”

We could hear Mom, but we couldn’t see her. No one can see into the Underworld, not even Zeus and Hera. No one can teleport in and out of it except Hades, Persephone, Poseidon, and the Twelve, and even the Twelve need an invitation from a resident deity. “Mom, we need a favor,” I started.

“Of course you do. Fates forbid you should call your mother just to say hello.”

“You really should call your mother more often, Thalia,” Apollo admonished with a superior look that made me want to smack him.

“Is that Apollo?” Mom perked up. “I’ve always liked that boy. You know, you’re not getting any younger, and with nine daughters, you’d think I’d have more grandchildren by now.”

“And she wonders why I never call,” I muttered.

“I hear you, young lady! Don’t you talk like that to your mother!”

“Dearest darlingest Mumsie?” Terpsichore tried as she twirled to the middle of the room. “A friend of ours needs help, and we think you’re the only one who can give it to her.”

“What does she need, sweetie?”

“She has a curse on her soul. Do you think you could break it? Pleeeease? If anyone can do it, you can.”

“I’m sure I could,” we could hear the smile in Mom’s voice. “Bring her here and I’ll take care of it.”

“Bring her – what?” Calliope cried. But Mom was gone.

“Calliope, it’s okay, you can stay here while we take her,” I assured her. Calliope hadn’t been to Hades in ages. The last time she was there, she’d stood on the banks of Lethe crying after the soul of her only son as he disappeared into the Realm of the Dead, the only part of Hades barred to all but its King and Queen. The passing of Calliope’s mortal lover, Oegrus, had been natural and peaceful. But the murder of their demigod son, Orpheus, had sent her into mourning for a century. You’d think she wouldn’t have anything to do with Dionysus since his minions were responsible for the murder, but once her grieving had run its course, she reasoned that if everyone in the Pantheon stopped associating with people who’d wronged them, there would be no more unified Pantheon.

“No,” Calliope resolved. “Healing Echo may require all of our powers. There’s no other option. I’m going.” Stoic devotion to duty. I should have expected no less from the Muse of Epic Poetry.

“I’ll stay behind and guard the Museum while you’re gone,” said Apollo. “If anyone drops by, someone should be here to lie to them.”

“I hope this works,” Clio worried. “There’s no precedent for a nymph returning from Hades. Even for demigods, it’s a gamble.”

“Precedents don’t mean much to Mom,” Polyhymnia encouraged us. “There was no precedent for our birth, but here we are.”

“Then let’s go,” I rallied my sisters. We went to my room to get Echo. And Urania, whom we’d forgotten about by then. “Echo,” I brightly announced, “we’ve figured out how to break the curse.”

“Echo, we’ve figured out how to break the curse!” she sprang up and ran to us. She held her hands apart as if to ask how.

“It’s not that big of a deal,” I shrugged. “You just have to go to Hades and back.”

“Hades and back?”

 

We Muses teleported Echo to our old, empty Museum at the Springs of Helicon. From there we dove into the springs, carrying her with us, and swam through the dark tunnels to the Underworld until we surfaced in Lake Mnemosyne. The Kingdom of Hades was the same as ever. Cold and dark, at once foreboding and peaceful. Like the dark of night, it’s frightening because it’s full of the unknown, but it’s welcoming because it means a rest after a long, hard day.

I put an arm around Echo. Calliope boldly took the lead and strode to the bank. The Goddess of the Lake met her at the water’s edge. To the rest of the Pantheon, this dark, regal beauty is a mysterious spirit, a force who sought the deepest secrets of their souls and who somehow made them desire for her to discover those secrets. To us, she’s Mom.

“Calliope, my darling,” she embraced her. “I’ve missed you so much. Don’t stay away so long next time,” I heard her whisper.

The rest of us gave them a minute before starting the necessary rounds of hugs and kisses. When that was done, we introduced Echo to Mom. “I know who you are,” Mom gently took Echo’s hands. Echo returned her grasp without fear. “Narcissus passed this way ages ago. I have all of his memories. You were at once everything he wanted and everything he didn’t. On the one hand, you had no words of your own. You only had the words he gave you, and you only spoke them when he spoke to you. But on the other hand, you showed him what he truly sounded like, whether he wanted to hear it or not.”

“Whether he wanted to hear it or not,” Echo repeated. She started to cry.

Mom took Echo into her arms.  “I know your story with my old friend Hera, too. She tells me many things. She told me how you would distract her with your pleasant chattering while Zeus was with your mistress. Hera was hurt, and instead of turning her wrath on the source of her pain, she turned it on the person she could hurt the most. You didn’t deserve this,” she softly soothed.

“You didn’t deserve this,” Echo said through her tears.

“Do you want your soul back?”

“Do you want your soul back?” Echo nodded. Mom carried Echo into the lake until both of them were submerged. Then Mom returned alone.

The Lake appeared eerily undisturbed, as though the ritual had never taken place. As though no nymph lay at the bottom. “Her soul is sleeping,” Mom told us. “Take her back through the Springs. If Hades and Persephone allow her soul to return along with her body, the curse will be broken. If not, Echo will still be happier than if she had continued in that existence.”

We carried Echo up through the Springs and laid her on the steps of our old Museum. Her eyes were closed. She was still, speechless, lifeless. We waited anxiously for her to open her eyes or say something, but it never happened. “There’s no heartbeat, no breath,” Clio ruled. “She didn’t make it.”

“We’ll have her funeral pyre here,” Melpomene declared. “At least we gave her one happy week before the end. Maybe she did remember herself, right before…”

“NO!” I shouted, shoving them away from Echo’s body. “This can’t be the end,” my voice broke. “It can’t be.”

“Honey, not every story can be a comedy,” Calliope tried to calm me. “Lots of heroes don’t get happy endings. We’ll mourn her death, we’ll remember her life, and before you know it, the world will feel right again.”

“I don’t want things to feel right, I want them to BE right,” I wrestled Calliope’s hands off my arms. “We’re taking Echo back to Apollo. He’s a god of healing. There’s got to be something he can do.”

“He can’t save her,” Melpomene insisted. “If he could restore life, don’t you think he would’ve brought back Coronis? His first love?”

“He only tried to bring Coronis back out of guilt,” I thundered, spitting her name out like poison. I had reached full-blown divine wrath mode. If I were able to wield Zeus’ lightning bolts, I would have been hurling them left and right. “That damned mortal cheated on him while she was carrying his son. Don’t you think there had to be some part of him that was content to let her die? Besides, he wasn’t working with me then, and I AM THE GODDESS OF HAPPY ENDINGS!”

“We’ll take her to Apollo,” Melpomene agreed, though I knew she expected to be mourning with me within the hour.

 

I had expected Apollo to be hesitant and doubtful when I petitioned him. I’m not sure he’s ever completely gotten over the whole ordeal with Coronis, the first and last time he ever tried to restore a life. Still, I hadn’t expected him to respond with silent terror.

“Look, I know you can do this,” I urged. “Her body’s still whole. You just have to restart it. Her soul can’t have even reached the mouth of the Styx yet. This isn’t like…like anything you’ve tried before.”

“Bring her to my chamber,” he said at last, his voice faint and almost quivering. “Only Thalia,” he added. I followed him, carrying Echo’s nearly weightless body in my arms. She was still whole as I’d told him, but she was starting to fade. I knew we didn’t have much time.

Once we were in Apollo’s quarters, he locked the door, covered the windows, and sent an orb of sunlight to the middle of the ceiling. He lifted a board in the floor and pulled out a small box. He waved his hand and produced a key. He opened the box with it and took out a vial labeled Gorgon’s Blood. As I held Echo in my lap, he put some of the black liquid from the vial on his finger and dabbed it under her tongue. “Keep holding her,” he ordered as he placed his hands on her. “Claim the ending of her story and pray Atropos’ shears are rusty. This cure was made for humans. I don’t know if it will work on a nymph.”

“What did you give her?” I asked. “Is it one of Asclepius’ potions?” Asclepius, Apollo and Coronis’ son, is the God of Medicine. Apollo is a great healer, but Asclepius, having devoted his entire life and all of his power to the craft, is the best.

“I’m telling you this because I think you need to know the story for this to work, and because I trust you not to retell it,” he warned. “Yes, this is Asclepius’ potion. I took it and hid it while he was dead.”

“Did you say ‘while he was dead’?” I clarified. Asclepius was alive. He and his wife and kids had sent us a lovely card at Solstice.

“When Zeus sentenced me to a year of hard labor for killing his pet Cyclops, did you ever wonder why I killed it?”

“I thought you were protecting your mom from another one of Hera’s attacks. We all did. But now that you mention it, Zeus never actually said that.”

“I killed the Cyclops because he killed my son. Asclepius had accomplished his life’s work: creating a cure for death. For that, Zeus ordered the Cyclops to execute him. I went after the Cyclops only because I knew that was the only way I could hurt Zeus. It worked. Zeus now has a finite supply of lightning bolts.”

I’d deduced that as soon as I’d heard of the Cyclops’ death, and found it rather ironic from the beginning. See, Hephaestus is only Hera’s son like I’m only Mnemosyne’s daughter. Because of that, Zeus kept the Cyclops as his private smith after Hephaestus joined the Twelve, even though Hephaestus was better. The Cyclops made the lightning bolts with a secret enchantment that allowed only Zeus to wield them. The lightning bolts are the only thing Zeus has on Hera, who is otherwise his only equal in power. So Zeus’ obsession with staying a step ahead of his wife caused the expiration date on his only means of doing so.

If it weren’t for the lifeless nymph in my arms, these musings would have completely distracted me from the story Apollo was still telling. “Zeus would have banished me to Tartarus,” he was saying, “but I was able to reason with him. Once the other gods found out Asclepius was dead and I was banished, they’d want to know why. They would learn Zeus wasn’t the only one with the power to restore life. So he resurrected Asclepius on the condition that Asclepius would never attempt to restore life again, and let me off with a relatively harmless (though soul-crushingly banal) sentence on the condition that we keep the whole affair secret.”

Wow.

“I…I had no idea you’d been through all that,” I began a lame attempt at a response.

“Then I guess I’m doing a good job,” he laughed grimly. “But for all intents and purposes, you still don’t know. You can’t know. I don’t want you to be any different with me than you were before.” I knew he’d say that, and I had a pretty good idea the request wasn’t just for the sake of the cover-up. “Surely it goes without saying that you can’t repeat any of this to anyone, not even your sisters.”

“Of course I won’t,” I swore.

“Neither will I,” said Echo. “I’ll never repeat anything again if I can help it.”

 

“It worked, it worked, it worked!” Echo chanted as she pranced out to meet my ecstatic sisters. “I can talk now! Thank you all so much for everything; not just breaking the curse, but the lessons, and all the stuff you gave me, and just being there and being my friends! I haven’t had friends in so long! I haven’t had anyone in so long! I know what a dangerous thing it was for you all to do. Defying Hera like that, I mean. Scary stuff. Apollo says he’s going to get me a job with Artemis. She won’t tell anyone who I am, of course. It’ll be our secret. It’s going to be so much fun with her and her hunters! All girls, no boyfriends, no boyfriend drama. I leave tonight! I can’t wait! But I’m going to miss you all so much.”

“Well, before you leave, I have to know,” Clio jumped in while Echo took a breath. “Which of our arts is your favorite, really?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Echo answered, “Dancing!” Terpsichore gave a silent cheer as the torrent continued. “But the rest was fun to learn, too. I’m going to be the most well-rounded nymph in Greece! There’s so much I can talk about now! Oh, I can’t tell you how great it is to be able to talk again, and have something to talk about, and friends to talk to, and…”

Mel came close and whispered to me from the side of her mask, “Did we really do the right thing here?” But even though her mask was up, I could tell she was smiling.

 

“All packed?” I asked Echo as the sun was setting. We were alone in my room getting ready for her to leave. Artemis was going to pick her up on her way out.

“All – I am,” Echo laughed. She’d been going out of her way to avoid repeating people. “I’m really looking forward to it, but I’m still a little nervous.”

“You’re going to do great.” I was sure of it. “I’ve known Artemis for most of my life. She’s an honorable woman. I can guarantee she’ll never ask you to do anything stupid like distract her lover’s wife, or take the fall for her crimes. She always looks out for her own. And you’ll have all kinds of friends in her retinue. I’ve met a lot of her hunters, and they’re all really nice girls. Artemis has no patience for catty bitches.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fun,” Echo grinned. “Before I go, can I ask you something? I don’t expect you to answer right away, in fact, I don’t think you’ll be able to, it’s a complicated question, but promise me you’ll think about it, okay?”

“Sure.”

“If you have the power to speak what’s on your mind and in your heart, why wouldn’t you use it?”

“Quite the philosophical riddle,” I soberly pondered. “Thanks. This’ll keep me occupied for days. I’ll need it, since it’ll be back to the old routine once you’re gone. It’ll give me something to do while I’m supposed to be paying attention to Apollo.”

She laughed. “I’d better get going. I want to say goodbye to Apollo and your sisters, too. I wish I could say goodbye to your mom, but I don’t think I ought to try that trip again. Oh, and don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone about the hollow where you found me. It’ll be our secret. I know you’ll want to go back. I left you a present there. You know, so you’ll remember me.”

“I could never forget you.”

 

But I was intrigued about the present. Once goodbyes had been said and everyone was asleep, I sneaked out to my hollow. I looked around, but I didn’t see anything that looked like a present. And then I heard it. The waterfall had been enchanted with Echo’s laughter. “Echo!” I cried with delight.

“Echo…Echo…Echo…” I heard my word dance around the hollow until it faded away. I laughed. My laughter joined with the laughing waters. The sound repeated and multiplied until it filled every corner of the hollow. Echo had enchanted the hollow so that it would be to me what she’d hoped it would be to her: a place where I could hear my own thoughts loud and clear.

I thought about Echo’s question to me. If you have the power to speak what’s in your heart and mind, why wouldn’t you? I could think of no simple reason and a lot of complicated ones. Most of them revolved around the idea of protection. But if none of those reasons existed, what words would I speak? What words would I let ring from every corner of this enchanted sanctuary? Which of my deepest secrets would I bare, secrets I had been keeping even from myself?

Whatever. I’d think about it more tomorrow while I ignored Apollo. In the meantime…well, the gleefully immature use of Echo’s gift that followed is best kept hidden in the hollow forever.

1.1 Playwright Laureate

I like to screw with people. No, not like that. Well, yeah, like that, but that’s not what I’m talking about. See, the loser mortal playwrights and poets have to beg me for inspiration if they want to hack out a decent comedy. And believe me, I like to make them work for it.

Take this guy Eustachys, for example. Please. Take him. If I never hear from him again, it’ll be too soon. The first time I heard from him, I was peacefully planting a rubber snake in Melpomene’s throne when the sweet sound of praise caught my ear. It was coming directly from my altar. I’m a sucker for praise, so I went to have a look-see. My petitioner couldn’t see me, of course. I was watching from the Museum on Mount Parnassus, and he was at my altar in Apollo’s temple down in Delphi, the city at the foot of the mountain. Don’t trouble your mortal head about it. It’s maaaaagic, get it?

Where was I? Yeah, Eustachys. The second he had my attention, the praise turned to supplication. Stupid mortals, always wanting something. Can’t they ever just tell me I’m awesome and leave it at that? This guy couldn’t. He wanted me to help him write a play. Oh, how novel, I thought. It’s not every day I get a request like this. Every minute maybe, but not every day.

“O Muse, O Thalia, O Goddess of Comedy,” he wailed, “If you will aid me in this endeavor, I shall give you whatever you require of me. Name your price, My Muse.”

Okay, this could get interesting. Usually they just offer me whatever sacrifices the useless priests suggest. This is stupid. The priests make these suggestions because they want the sacrifices for themselves. I never get them, and if I don’t get paid, the mortals don’t get help. Hey, a goddess has to make a living. And here was a mortal willing to help me do just that.

“If I may suggest-” began a nearby oh-so-helpful priest.

“Hey, not so fast; let the guy talk,” I called down on the loudspeaker. I hardly ever do that, because interacting with the mortals gets annoying very quickly. The priest panicked and dropped face down on the ground in front of my altar. Eustachys looked to the ceiling with this combination of terror and hope. Right where I wanted him. “When you say any price…” I prodded.

“I mean any price at all,” my worshipper said in full earnest. “I’m desperate. If I don’t have a play by the end of the week, I’ll have to go back to herding sheep. I don’t think I could bear that.”

“You seem to have a good handle on pathos,” I noted. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather talk to one of my sisters? Melpomene? Hey, Mel!”

“No!” he begged. “I don’t write tragedy. Surely you of all the gods would agree that comedy is the superior art?”

I was liking this guy better and better. “Yeah, but not everyone aspires to superiority. I think you may just have what it takes, though. So here’s what you’re going to do: bring me Apollo’s laurel wreath.”

“The wreath that the god Apollo wears on his head?”

“No, the one the kitchen boy Apollo wears on his pinky toe. Of course the one the god wears on his head.”

“But why?”

“Yours is not to question why, mortal. Just bring me the stupid wreath, put it on my altar, and burn it. As soon as I smell those barbequed laurels, you’ll have plenty of material for THE comedy hit of the season. Goddess’s honor,” I held up my hand in promise, not that he could see it.

“Thalia,” Terpsichore chirped as she twirled into the throne room, “come on, you’re going to be late for dance practice.”

“Hang on, Twerp, let me get off the line with this mortal.”

“I really wish you wouldn’t call her that,” admonished Calliope, who was with her. We Muses don’t know which of us was born first. Mom never told us. However, given the fact that Calliope’s always acted like Mom 2.0, we suspect it’s her.

“It’s just a nickname,” I waved her off. “They like it.” Terpsichore and her fellow Twerp, Euterpe, nodded in confirmation.

“Well, I don’t,” said Calliope. “It isn’t very nice.”

“Okay, then I won’t call you a twerp,” I muttered, getting a little irritated by these interruptions. “Let me get rid of this mortal, and I’ll be right there.” I turned my attention back to said mortal. “So, is it a deal? This is your last chance, take it or leave it.”

“I…I will try my best, my Muse.”

“Oh? Then I guess I’ll try my best to help you with your play.”

“It shall be done.”

“That’s better. The sooner I smell that laurel potpourri, the sooner you get your brand new comedy. Get to it.”

“Laurel potpourri?” Calliope repeated suspiciously as I followed her and the others to the dancing field. Calliope doesn’t approve of my interactive approach to my petitioner’s prayers. Since she’s the Muse of Epic Poetry, it’s probably for the best that she has a more hands-off style.

“It’s a pretty smell, don’t you think?” I evaded.

“I know why you like laurel offerings,” Terpsichore said in her perky little sing-song voice. “They remind you of a certain god, don’t they?”

“Yeah,” I groused, “and my desire for a certain god’s head to catch fire.”

“He has gotten kind of boring,” Terpsichore concurred as she skipped in circles around me. “What’s with these stately formal dances every single day? What’s the point of being the Muse of Dance if you can’t just turn loose on the dance floor?” She did a few spins on her toes with her legs at 180 degrees.

“He’s never up for a good practical joke any more, either,” I agreed. “Things that used to immobilize him with laughter now just get me a ‘Nothing in excess!’ reprimand.” Terpsichore and Euterpe fell into a giggle fit at my impeccable impersonation.

“He’s just trying to maintain order,” Calliope defended. “Speaking as the one who filled that role until Zeus gave it to Apollo, it’s not as easy as it looks.”

“And you were great at it,” I argued. “A lot better than Apollo is. If you weren’t so busy defending him, maybe you’d notice that he hasn’t been himself since he served his sentence. I guess a god having to spend a year as a common shepherd is a good setup for a personality change.”

“Are we talking about Apollo?” asked Erato as she joined us. “I know, right? What was up with that oracle? Daphne or whatever? She was so not his type. The whole thing just seems off.”

“I suppose you have a point,” Calliope admitted. “And it’s not like Apollo to keep pursuing a woman who’s unequivocally rejected him, especially one in his service.”

“True,” said Clio, who was walking alongside Erato, “but other than that, Daphne does fit his profile. Think about it. Coronis, Chione, Aria, Dryope, Cyrene,” Clio rattled off, “and even Hyacinthus and Cyparissus if you think about it – except they were, you know, men. He’s pretty good at picking people who eventually either leave him or die tragic deaths. Thalia used to say that Apollo in a stable relationship would be the biggest joke in the world.”

“Joke’s on him, considering a tree is about as stable as you can get,” I snapped. Sure, Clio was the Muse of History, but did that mean she had to record every mortal, nymph, and demigod that Apollo ever…Whatever. Who cared? I didn’t.

“Are we talking about Daphne?” asked Melpomene as she joined us. “How can you joke about that? It was so beautifully tragic.” A tear dripped out of the corner of her eye. She grabbed the tip of the scarf Terpsichore was waving and dabbed the tear away. “Which isn’t unusual for Apollo’s relationships, but this girl never even wanted him to begin with. No matter what he did or said, all she did was run.”

“I thought it was pretty funny,” I smirked.

“I’m glad someone is able to see the humor in the fact that my sister turned the love of my life into a tree.” I wasn’t expecting to hear Apollo’s cold voice just then. Ironic how “cold” could so perfectly describe the god who used to pull the sun across the sky in his chariot. But those days were over. Zeus had given the job back to Helios when he had condemned Apollo to a year of hard labor. Apollo could now devote all his energy to fulfilling the exciting new job Zeus had given him when the year had run out: governing the Muses. Yay, us.

“Love of your life?” I repeated. “Please; if you ask me, she preferred Artemis.”

“Well, I didn’t ask you, did I?”

“Shutting up.”

“Take your places,” Apollo ordered the nine of us as he mounted his pedestal and brought his kithara into position. He played the most boring song ever while we practiced the most boring dance ever. Calliope, Melpomene, and Polyhymnia had liked Apollo’s stately, somber approach to the dance at first. Real Art, they called it. But after all these months, even they were starting to get a little bored with it. The Twerps and I exchanged looks, wishing we had the guts to stage a coup. I’d memorized this dance ages ago, so I let my mind wander for the next hour. At least, I think it was an hour. I lose track of time when I’m daydreaming. I fixed my eyeballs on Apollo so he wouldn’t notice that I wasn’t paying attention.

The sight of Apollo’s crown made me wonder how long it would take that pathetic mortal to get his hands on it. The solution was simple. Apollo took the crown off while he slept. All the mortal had to do was figure out how to scale Mount Parnassus, get into the Museum, sneak up on Apollo, pry the wreath out of his hands, get back to the temple, and burn it on my altar. I couldn’t give Eustachys any help, of course. That would be cheating. He could do it himself. Maybe he’d have it done by the end of the week; by tomorrow, even. I could smell those laurels cooking now…

I actually could smell the laurels cooking.

“Excuse me,” I raised my hand. “There’s something at my altar that I have to take care of.” I ran to the throne room before Apollo could deny my request. “What in Tartarus?” I hissed.

“I have done what you asked, my Muse,” Eustachys proclaimed with upstretched arms.

“You would lie to a goddess? That is not Apollo’s crown. I know this because I was just with Apollo, and his crown is on his head. I can see him through the columns of my throne room. Still there.”

Eustachys broke down at the foot at the altar and tore at his hair. “I tried,” he wailed. “I plucked the branches from his sacred laurel tree at the Oracle. I thought you would not see him while his chariot is still in the sky.”

“There’s been some reshuffling of the Olympian workforce lately. Now, give me a reason I shouldn’t strike you dead this instant.” One reason was that I didn’t have the power to kill humans supernaturally. I could kill them the way another human could, and I was much stronger than a human, but I couldn’t snap my fingers and kill or transform something the way the higher-level gods could. Fortunately, most of my subjects don’t know that. “Or maybe I’ll give you a fate worse than death: let you go back to being an ordinary shepherd.” That I could do.

“No, O most gracious Muse! Give your humble servant another chance!”

“My humble servant? You call giving me a fake wreath ‘humble service’? I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you another task to see if you’re even worthy of a second chance. If you do this right, I’ll reassign the first mission. Got it?”

“Anything, my Lady.”

“Call Pan and Dionysus to the Corycian Cave on the slopes of Mount Parnassus and host a feast.”

“A feast, Lady Thalia?”

“Yes, a feast, a festival, a party. Not just any party, a party so awesome that Dionysus will wish it was his idea. Loud, crazy music; tons of wine; a huge bonfire; and, of course, the most uninhibited dancing imaginable. Oh, and do it tonight.”

“But if I do this on Apollo’s very doorstep -”

“You can’t see why this is a good idea? Man, no wonder you can’t write comedy. Look, if you want my help, do it. If not, it’s back to the sheep.”

“What if Dionysus and Pan refuse my supplication?”

“Trust me, there’s no way Dionysus would pass up an invitation to harass Apollo,” I rolled my eyes. Due to some family history, I’m not really a fan of Dionysus, but I don’t have a problem with taking advantage of an old frienemy. “And Pan will take any excuse to party with the Muses.”

“Very well, my lady. I shall do what you ask.”

I hurried back to the dance field just in time to slide into my position in the final formation. I gave Apollo a cheeky grin. He acted like he didn’t notice, but he gave me an affectionate pat on the back of my head when he came around to check our poses.

“That’s all for today,” he declared. “You’re all dismissed.”

As soon as he was out of earshot, I whispered to the Twerps, “Party tonight at the Corycian Cave. Don’t tell Apollo. Pass it on.” Terpsichore pranced one way to spread the news and Euterpe ran the other. Thus the chain was started. My work here is done, I thought with a silent evil chuckle. I was a little concerned that Calliope might foil my plan, but the Twerps can be very persuasive, so I left things in their capable hands.

“Oh, my god!” I heard Melpomene scream from the throne room.

“What?” Apollo sighed, annoyed at being interrupted just as he was leaving to his temple.

“Snaaaaaake!”

“Thalia!” Apollo called.

“What makes you think it was me?” I asked innocently as I floated in through the pillars.

“The fact that this is exactly the kind of thing you think is funny.”

“I think many things for which I am not directly responsible are funny.” I kept up the innocent act, hoping to get a laugh out of him as I would have in days of yore.

“The snake says ‘Property of Thalia’,” he held it up by the neck showing its stamped underbelly. He showed no signs of laughing any time soon.

“Urania steals,” I said sadly.

“I do not!” she looked up indignantly from her star charts and brushed the hair out of her eyes.

“Look, when I took this job, I promised Zeus I could keep you in order,” Apollo said in exasperation.

“Before you make promises, you really ought to evaluate whether you’re capable of keeping them,” I pointed out. “‘Know yourself’ and all that,” I quoted his second-favorite mantra to him. “Which I imagine you’re doing a lot of these days since your girlfriend is A TREE.”

“You couldn’t possibly begin to understand my feelings for Daphne.”

“I wrote this poem about it,” Erato offered, unfurling a scroll out of midair. “Sound about right?”

“Just try to stay out of trouble,” Apollo scowled. “I’m going to the temple. Thalia, you’re coming with me.”

“What? Why?” I objected.

“Who, When, Where,” Clio added.

“Because apparently you can’t be left alone without causing chaos of some kind,” Apollo ignored her.

“Awesome, somebody caught the symbolism!” I praised. “People normally just think of the snake as a phallic symbol, but it’s actually a universal symbol of cha-”

“Shut it and come with me.”

“Alright, alright.” Amused by his increasing delusions of authority, I decided to play along. I made a great show of following him with heavy footsteps, my dejected body language contrasted by the comic mask I held to my face. My sisters laughed, even Mel and Calliope. I peeked around the side of the mask. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll be here all week!” I said out of the side of my mouth.

I joined Apollo in the center of the throne room, and we teleported to his temple. Once we were there, I quieted down. I hoped that idiot mortal wouldn’t try to sneak back to the temple while Apollo and I were there. I could guess where Apollo was going. My guess was proved correct when we walked out of the temple to a divinely beautiful laurel tree in a little courtyard just outside it. Apollo and I had rendered ourselves invisible to the mortal eye, so if the moron tried to take another cutting, he’d be doing it right under Apollo’s nose.

Apollo knelt down on one knee and just stared at the laurel, playing a heartbroken melody on his kithara and singing along. I sat down beside him, grabbed a twig off the ground, and used it to draw comical stick figures in the dirt.

“Do you really think this is moderate?” I asked after about an hour of this. He just gave me a dirty look. “You’re all about the Golden Mean,” I continued unfazed, “but how is this not excessive?”

“What’s excessive about fidelity?” he argued as he kept playing.

“Fidelity requires a relationship, which requires two people,” I spoke up to be heard over the music. “Daphne didn’t want you. She begged Artemis to turn her into a tree just so you’d quit stalking her. That worked well, obviously.”

“Do you not know the difference between stalking and courting?”

“Sure I do. I’ve done both. It’s stalking when they turn into a plant. The fact that this is not the first time it’s happened to you should tell you something.” Okay, maybe that was a little low. The others had turned into plants when they’d died. But all of those times, Apollo had done a pretty good job of moving on. Like Erato said, this just seemed off.

He set his kithara aside. “How is it that no one’s ever turned you into a plant, or a rock, or something that doesn’t speak?”

“Try it,” I suggested. He waved his hand at me. Nothing happened. “That’s why,” I said. He waved his hand again, this time letting his fingertips lightly collide with my cheek. I returned the gesture, only not to the cheek on his face. He turned and glared at me.

“Don’t give me ideas,” he warned. I was about to retort, but then I noticed something in his eyes that didn’t look right. How long had he had those unnatural golden flecks around the edges of his grey irises? I tried to think of the last time I had really looked at his eyes. I couldn’t remember. “What is it?” he asked impatiently.

“I haven’t heard news from Olympus in months,” I abruptly changed the subject. “You still check in every day, don’t you?”

“Yes, which you would know if you ever got out of bed at a decent hour. Have to pay my respects to Zeus and Hera. Well, mostly Zeus. Hera isn’t speaking to me.” Zeus is Apollo’s father, but only Zeus’ legitimate children are allowed to address him paternally. Zeus doesn’t have many legitimate children.

“Again?” I laughed in disbelief. “What did you do this time?”

“I think she’s still upset about the ‘me being born’ thing.”

“If she’d just focus her anger on her husband instead of his innocent bastards, she could rule Olympus,” I opined.

A tiny, oh-so-moderate smile broke out of the corner of Apollo’s mouth. “Did you just call me innocent?”

“Innocent bastard,” I corrected him. “Hera likes me,” I commented with apparent randomness. Hera likes me because I’m the unofficial jester of the Olympian court, and she can always count on me to deliver pure, brazen snark to the other goddesses and gods. “I should visit her soon.”

“You visiting Olympus without a chaperone? Sounds like the ultimate disaster.”

Funny how centuries of Muse history had apparently left his memory when he was appointed our governor. “It’s not like it would be the first time. I don’t need a chaperone, and contrary to what Zeus seems to think, we don’t need a nursemaid, either.”

“I’m not a nursemaid.”

“Pedagogue, then.”

“Fair enough,” he sighed. He went back to playing his kithara.

“Now I can’t get Olympus out of my head,” I said, half to myself. “Seen Eros lately? I wonder how he’s doing. Probably still being a total brat. But what do you expect? We’re talking about the offspring of Aphrodite and…” I moved my hands up and down like the balances on a scale as I pondered, “Ares, Hermes, Ares, Hermes; had to be Ares. If you calculate the length of time between Eros’ birth and the Net Incident…”

Once again, Apollo smiled a little, though he was desperately trying not to. “You were the only goddess who didn’t leave the scene out of respect,” he recalled.

“Respect, shmespect. Hephaestus dragging the two of them to Zeus’ throne room in their birthday suits in a practically invisible net? How could the Muse of Comedy pass that up?”

“I knew there was a reason no one calls you the Muse of Dignity.”

“Yeah, whatever. Who was it that was teasing Hermes, ‘I’ll bet you wouldn’t mind trading places with Ares?’ I know it wasn’t me. In fact, the voice bore a distinct resemblance to that of the Pantheon’s champion of moderation.”

“I didn’t say I wanted to be trapped in the net with her, I was just pointing out that Hermes did.” It was very slight, but I’m positive I heard a genuine laugh. “Poor Hephaestus. I don’t think he knew what he was getting into.”

“Maybe he did,” I shrugged. “And maybe he didn’t care. She is, after all, Aphrodite.”

He laughed again, still slightly, but it was definitely a laugh. “So she is.” He paused for a moment. “He would’ve been better off if he’d stuck with you.”

“We were never that serious,” I dismissed. “No one even remembers we used to date.”

“You do.” Apollo returned his attention to the tree.

“You never forget your first,” I shrugged. But I was straying from my purpose. “So, can I go?”

“To see Hephaestus? Two wrongs don’t-”

“No!” How dare he suggest such a thing? “Just to Olympus.”

“I guess so. Have Artemis bring you home on her way out tonight.”

“I can teleport home.” My sisters and I can teleport from one sacred location, such as a temple or a god’s home, to another. More powerful gods like Apollo and Artemis can teleport from anywhere to anywhere.

“I want Artemis to bring you so I know you only went to Olympus and back.”

“Whatever. Enjoy the rest of your date.”

 

I teleported to the gates of the throne room on Olympus. The whole castle is a series of ascending rings built on a cloudy plateau that balances on the mountain peak. The throne room is the topmost ring. It’s open air, surrounded by columns and roofed by shining white clouds. Zeus and Hera are really into clouds.

A pair of servants led me to the throne room, where I paid my respects to Zeus and Hera. They were seated on their thrones at diametrically opposed points of the circle. I bowed to them both.

“Is Apollo keeping you out of trouble,” Zeus ribbed, “or have you been getting him into it?”

“Who, me?” I grinned. I responded to Zeus in accordance with the jovial way he spoke to me, but as always, I felt a little intimidated on the inside. Zeus is quite an imposing figure on his throne. His snow-white hair and beard just add to the glare of his crown. He has the face and figure of a warrior in his prime. And last but not least, he keeps a stash of lightning bolts right next to his throne at all times. I briefly wondered when the stash would start running out, since the Cyclops wasn’t alive to replenish it.

“What have you and your sisters been up to?” Hera smiled serenely. Hera, like her husband, had the appearance of a strong, magnificent human in the prime of life. Her regalia was as grand as his, though the silken veil that covered her long brown hair and the robe that covered her arms and shoulders presented a stately modesty in contrast to Zeus’ bare right torso.

In spite of Hera’s smile, her tone gave the distinct impression that I was to leave Apollo out of whatever story I told. It also gave the distinct impression that she did want a story, and she wanted it now. So I launched into a short but satisfying stand-up routine. This was not going according to plan. Naturally, I hadn’t really come here just to hang out. I wrapped up the routine as quickly as possible without seeming obvious. Zeus, Hera, and the random gods and goddesses scattered around the throne room applauded and threw roses.

The only deities enthroned besides the Royal Couple were Hestia and Demeter. It was a busy time of day, I supposed. The others must be at work. The rest of the handful present weren’t numbered among the Twelve. I noticed Zeus and Hera’s daughters, Hebe and Ilithyia. They had just been passing through and had stopped to hear my routine. A few of Hermes’ and Ares’ sons were hanging around, too. None of these people were very prominent, but all of them held status that demanded my recognition. I bowed and curtseyed dramatically to all sides.

“Will you stay all night?” Hera invited.

“No, Arte- I have to be home just after sundown.” I was careful not to name Apollo’s twin sister before Hera.

“I’m sure Apollo won’t mind if you stay a little longer,” she coaxed. “He’s so obsessed with that tree these days, I doubt he even realizes you’re gone.”

It was then that I heard a distinct snicker.

“I’ll see,” I smiled and nodded. “With your pleasure, my Queen, I’m going to catch up with some friends.”

“Go right ahead. Be sure to come back and visit soon, my lovely.”

“I will.”

I like Hera. I really do. She’s everything a goddess should aspire to be; powerful, beautiful, virtuous. I would never admit this for the world, but sometimes I feel sorry for her. The thing she’s always wanted most in life is the one thing beyond her power: a happy marriage. (Okay, being Queen of the Gods was a close second.) Her husband has had more children without her than with her, and many of those children have a place at her own royal court. Not even I can find any humor in her constant humiliation, though I have to admire the fact that she never gets mad, she gets even.

And that’s exactly why, in spite of my sympathy and admiration, I’m scared to death of her. It doesn’t take much for Hera’s vindictive side to come out. I’ve always had her favor, but that would make things even worse if she ever felt betrayal from me, real or imagined.

So it was very, very carefully that I lured Eros away from the throne room and through the next rings, the ones with the living quarters. I hummed one of Erato’s songs about unrequited love as I meandered down a short flight of stairs toward Eros’ quarters, which are right down from his parents’. When the timing was just right, I leaped to Eros’ sniper spot outside Aphrodite and Hephaestus’s door with blinding speed and pinned him down with his own bow.

Mortals usually think of Eros as a perpetual child. The truth is much more dangerous and infinitely more irritating. He’s a perpetual adolescent. “Stay there as long as you want, baby,” he smirked as I straddled him.

“Shut up, you disgusting little bitch,” I ordered, pressing his bow to his throat for emphasis. “I’d tell your mom to spank you, but you’d probably enjoy it. I want to talk to you about Apollo.”

“Oh, man,” he cackled. “I knew if any of the Muses caught on, it’d be you. You’re going to have to hand over the comedy crown.”

“What’s the antidote?” I asked.

“When my parents’ sisters fall in love with me. Zing!”

“Don’t quit your day job, perv. Here’s the deal. You tell me the antidote for your golden arrow and prove to me that it works, and I don’t tell Hera that you made her husband fall in love with not one, not two, but three of his paramours.”

Finally the fear of goddess started to creep into his ever so slappable face. “It’s the lead arrow,” he said quickly.

“Proof, or I go to Hera,” I reminded him.

“I can’t prove it while you’re sitting on me.”

“Oh, right.” I stood up and gave him back his bow. “Let’s see, test subjects…not your mom, she falls in love with everyone anyway; your dad’s a nice guy, I hate to toy with him; hey, what about-” I felt a sting, and then I felt an intense erotic euphoria that I’d never believed existed. At just that moment, Athena walked by on the way to her quarters. Athena. What an incredible name for such an incredible goddess. Nothing could turn me on like that combination of wisdom, strength, and sensuality. I knew in that moment that I wanted nothing more out of life than to spend eternity as Athena’s love slave.

“Athena!” I called out, falling at her feet and grasping the hem of her dress. “Please, take me with you, wherever you’re going. Never leave me again. I can’t live without you, my love. Come on, we all know why there’s never been a man good enough for you.”

“Um…Thalia, I don’t know what to…wait, look at me.”

She took my face in her hands and turned it up toward hers. How I love a forceful woman. I gazed deeply into her piercing eyes, grey as a storm on the horizon and every bit as wild and overpowering, as her melodious voice cried out, “Eros, get your diapered butt down here and fix this!”

I was only scarcely aware of a depressed sigh that made Mel’s tragic groans sound like giggle fits. “Fine,” he mourned. “And it’s a loincloth.” I felt another sting.

“Let’s just keep this between us,” I suggested, backing away and dusting my hands off.

“No problem,” Athena laughed indulgently. She turned to go, but looking over her shoulder, she winked, “For future reference, you’re right.”

“No! I – I like men! I really, really like men! I…oh, boy. Okay, kid, you’ve made your point. Give me a lead arrow.”

“I don’t think so.”

What in Tartarus? “What do you mean, you don’t think so?”

“I mean I promised to tell you the antidote and prove that it worked, not to give it to you,” he explained in smug triumph.

Hm. So he had. I thought about trying to force it from him, but he had those stupid wings, and I could only float a few feet above the ground. “Fine, I’ll figure out something else.”

“Good luck with that.” He flew out of sight.

Oh, well. There were other sources. I thought about checking Hephaestus’ quarters since I was right there, but I knew he’d be at the forge at this time of day. Besides, it sounded like Aphrodite had company. I went down to the last ring, made my way to Hephaestus’ workshop, and entered without knocking as always.

“Thalia,” Hephaestus smiled up from his anvil. “Is this a social visit, or are you here on business?”

“Can you make Eros’ lead arrows?” I avoided the question. “I know they’re his design, but surely you’ve reverse engineered them.”

“Naturally,” he nodded. Hephaestus is the inventor of just about every magic weapon ever used by a god. The ones he didn’t invent, he can reverse engineer in his sleep. It’s fortunate that the only one of the Twelve capable of forging divine superweapons is also the only one who has no interest whatsoever in wielding them. In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure he could reproduce Eros’ arrows since I’d never heard of him using them on Aphrodite or her lovers. If my spouse stepped out on me as often as his did, I’d be shooting lead arrows left and right. “Wait,” he said warily, the thought having just occurred to him that I might have a motive beyond idle curiosity. “Why do you want to know that?”

“Would you be able to make one for me?” I asked. “I promise it’ll be destroyed after a single use, and I’ll make sure you’re well paid.”

“I might as well,” he gave in. “Just keep it a secret. And for you, no fee.”

“How about I owe you a favor?” I offered.

“I’d rather you didn’t,” he insisted. “Your favors tend to have mixed results.”

“Did you really hate the trick cane that much?”

“Lack of people laughing at me has never been a problem I’ve faced,” he said shortly as he got to work on the arrow.

“I should have thought of that,” I admitted. He generally has a pretty good attitude about the fact that he needs a cane to get around. It’s easy to forget how much it hurts him that most of the Pantheon, including his wife and his mother, can’t see him as anything more than The Crippled Guy. “Next time, you pick the favor,” I offered.

“How’s Apollo?” he changed the subject. “Still in love with the laurel tree?”

“Still in love with the laurel tree,” I chuckled softly.

He looked up from the forge, though he kept working. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said sincerely. “If anyone knows what it feels like to love someone who’s in love with someone else…”

“I’m not in love with him,” I said.

“Whatever you say.” He looked unconvinced, but he refrained from pressing the issue and turned his face back to his work. “Daphne took everyone by surprise, though. A lot of us thought you were the reason Apollo asked for that job in the first place.”

“He didn’t ask for the job,” I corrected him. “Zeus assigned it to him.”

“No, he didn’t. Zeus offered him back his old job, but he turned it down. Governing the Muses was Apollo’s own idea. He claimed it was because influencing the arts was the best way to promote his newfound creed of moderation and temperance, but no one who knows the two of you believed that was the only reason. He’d never come out and say it, of course, but he really missed you while he was serving his time.” He picked up the arrow and gave it a visual inspection. It was perfect, completely indistinguishable from Eros’ work.

“There you go,” he handed it to me, shaft first for safety. “One lead arrow, guaranteed to inspire loathing in its victim.” Or indifference, if it was being used as an antidote. “You were never here.”

“Thanks,” I shook his hand. On my way out, I noticed a silver necklace with dozens of glittering strands, and a girdle that looked like it was made from a golden spider web. “These are gorgeous,” I admired them. “I’ll bet you’ll make a killing on them.”

“Nah, those are gifts,” he said. “The necklace is for Mom and the girdle is for Aphrodite. You think they’ll like them?”

I put up my laughing mask even though I couldn’t look at him. Mel’s mask would’ve been more honest. “I’m sure they’ll love them.”

 

 

But Hephaestus and his mommy issues weren’t my problem. Getting to the stable and hitching a ride with Artemis before she and her chariot took off for the night was. I caught up to her in the stable, situated on the lowest ring, just as she was leaving. She parked above the Museum, let me teleport down with a couple of her attendants as escorts, and continued her route as soon as they returned to her.

I went to Apollo’s room to make sure he was asleep. He was. Getting to bed at a reasonable hour was all part of his Moderation agenda. The fact that none of my sisters were in their beds indicated that they had already made pretense of going to sleep and sneaked out to the feast. I was relieved to see that even Calliope was gone.

What to do, what to do? Stabbing Apollo now while he was alone and helpless was the most logical course of action. On the other hand, if I woke him up, I’d possibly miss my own party. But back to the first hand, if I broke his enchantment, I might be able to persuade him to accompany me to the party as my date. He’d be the prettiest man there, even with Dionysus as competition. Apollo’s long, wavy golden locks, solid lean muscles, and smooth chiseled face were looking awfully tempting in the moonlight.

“Ow!”

“Just killing a bug,” I shushed him, patting his shoulder with one hand and hiding the arrow behind my back with the other.

“You chased a bug into my bedroom?”

“It was a magic bug. It could’ve poisoned you.”

“Where is it?”

“It vaporized when I killed it.”

“Get back to- what’s that sound?”

“The Twerps like to sing each other to sleep.”

“That doesn’t sound like a lullaby.”

“What does one sound like?” I asked, lying down beside him and nestling into the crook of his arm so he could give me a demonstration. He stood up and grabbed his wreath, causing me to tumble out of bed. I turned the fall into a somersault and rolled to my feet.

“Not like that,” he said. “In fact, that sounds an awful lot like a drinking song, don’t you think?”

I could hear the Twerps’ voices sing/chanting, “Wake up in the morning, feel like Dionyseus, going down to Athens, gonna party with Theseus. Put on a little of that and a lot of this, cause no one’s taking me home except for Artemis.”

“Mummy used to sing us to sleep with that song every night,” I dabbed a crocodile tear from my eye.

I followed him around to all the bedroom doors, which were opened one by one to reveal the absence of their occupants. I took the opportunity to ditch the arrow when we reached mine. I’d destroy it later. We could still hear the Twerps loud and clear. “Keep on, beat the drum, til the rising of the sun; work fast, make it last, sand in the hourglass…”

“Why are your sisters singing drinking songs on the slopes of Mount Parnassus?” Apollo asked at the end of the last room, his tone attempting to impress upon me that the jig was up.

I’m not easily impressed. “How should I know?” I held out my empty hands. “I was with you all afternoon, then I went to Olympus, and then I came home with Artemis like you told me. You can ask her.”

“I still can’t help feeling you’re somehow responsible for this.”

“That’s because you suffer from paranoid delusions.”

“I suffer from living with you.”

“Which you asked to do.”

Apollo’s nonverbal reaction was not unlike that of a child caught eating sweets before dinner.

“Who told?” he asked.

“Hephaestus. Go easy on him. Anyway, let’s get to bed. It’s so late,” I yawned and stretched, turning him toward my doorway.

“I don’t think so,” he said as he grabbed me with both arms and lifted me over his shoulder. “We’re going to a party.” I laughed as he carried me out the door and down the hill like a keg of wine. The party was so loud that he didn’t realize it was all the way down at the Cave and we both could have just teleported. I couldn’t think of a good reason to tell him.

When we got to the scene of the crime, he dropped me in astonishment. I caught myself in midair and gracefully floated to the ground. The party was everything I had asked for and more. Pan was leading the band. Dionysus was tending bar. Terpsichore and Euterpe were at the center of the dance floor, jumping and gyrating to their increasingly ridiculous drinking song for all they were worth. “All the mortals lining up ’cause they wanting to snag us; but we throw ’em to the wolves unless they look like Priapus.” I wondered how much wine they had consumed to think that song was worthy of public performance. They’re both nearly capable of drinking Dionysus under the table. We know this because he once turned a group of lakes into wine for a drinking contest, which ended in a three way tie.

The rest of my sisters were there, too, surrounded by their devoted worshippers. Urania, usually the shy one, had an astronomer on each arm and one in her lap. Calliope, upon gleefully noticing our arrival, threw her goblet against a boulder and gracefully staggered over to greet us. “Hey, handsome,” she said to Apollo, running her palms down his bare chest. “Glad you finally got here. This party is EPIC.” In a rather amusing state of discomfort, Apollo took her hands and moved them away from his person. “Wanna dance?” she giggled as she spun herself into his arms.

“I might if you ask me when you’re sober,” he attempted to untangle himself.

I untangled them. It wasn’t as hard as he was making it look. “Calliope, want to get me some wine?” I suggested. “And hit on someone you won’t regret in the morning?”

“Sure, I’ll totally do that!” she agreed enthusiastically, leaving for the bar.

Eustachys, meanwhile, had been surveying the whole affair with nervous satisfaction. I’d hoped to avoid catching his eye, but the Fates apparently had other plans. I subtly gestured for him to stay back. Unfortunately, drunk people don’t notice subtlety that well.

“My Muse!” he cried as he tripped and stumbled his way toward me. “I have done alllll that you asked! Dionysus and Pan have been summoned – all four of ’em,” he illustrated by holding up three fingers on each hand.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I shrugged.

“But you promised!” he whined. “You said that if I held this feast as you commanded, you would give me another chance to-” he gasped as he saw Apollo next to me. “There it is!” he grabbed the wreath from Apollo’s head. Speechless and immobile, Apollo did nothing to stop him. The resulting combination of astonishment and wreath hair was quite adorable.

Eustachys threw the crown into the bonfire. “I have done it, My Muse! The wreath from the god Apollo’s head is burned as you asked. Now give me the comedy hit of the season as you promised.”

“Now?”

“Give it to him, Thalia. You promised,” my uncrowned escort deadpanned.

“Don’t you get it?” I ranted. “I shouldn’t have to tell you anything. You stealing laurels from Apollo’s tree to make me think it was his wreath? Funny! Me yelling at you for being that stupid? Funny! You throwing this party on Apollo’s doorstep, as you put it? Funny! Goody Two-Sandals being all up on Mister Moderation? Funny! Getting the Twerps so drunk that Terpsichore can’t dance straight and Euterpe wrote that song?”

“Funny!” the two of them clinked their goblets high above their heads, showering themselves with wine in the process.

“Aw, I never got a cute nickname before,” Calliope sobbed tears of utter delight. I doubted she’d be as pleased in the morning with the many nicknames she was likely amassing.

“Apollo consulting with Hades on an appropriate sentence for a wanton Muse?” Apollo suggested.

“Cheap pseudo-drama,” I brushed him off. “The point is, there’s comedy everywhere if you know how to see it. Write about what happened to you today. Write about your struggle to find something to write about. Write about how much you hated herding sheep. Write about that thing that happened to you that one time that you think only happened to you. It probably happened to everybody in your audience, and they’ll laugh once they realize that. So go. Write. Just let the thoughts tumble out of your head. And get them all out before you regain sobriety.”

“I shall, My Muse, I shall!” he swore, kissing the mask in my hand before he staggered away toward his home.

“He’ll be back to the sheep in a week,” I predicted.

Apollo clapped his hands together, making a sound like a thunder clap. “Everyone,” he ordered, “party’s over. Clean this up. Thalia, come with me.” Dionysus and Pan disappeared instantly, but Calliope rallied our sisters and the mortals to carry out Apollo’s orders.

Apollo and I ended up at the laurel tree. Really? The laurel tree? Had Eros tricked me? Had Hephaestus betrayed me or made a mistake? “Pick some branches,” said Apollo with a suspiciously benign calmness, “fit to make a crown with.” I did. It was no big deal. I figured all along that I’d end up doing this. “Twist them into a crown,” he directed. It was a lovely crown, better than the old one. “Put it on my head.” I smoothed his hair a little before I complied. I’m nearly as tall as he is, so there was no need for me to reach or him to bend. As I placed the crown on his head, he clasped his hands around my waist. Our faces were close enough to…be really close together, I guess.

And in the moonlight, I could see his clear, grey, laughing eyes. “Thank you,” he said. “I know what you did. When I look at the laurel now, I just see a tree.”

“How did you know?” I laughed. “I thought I hid the arrow well enough.”

“I destroyed it while you were distracted by Euterpe’s charming song.”

“Then why did you want another crown if you’re over Daphne?”

“Because I look good in it,” he grinned as though that were the most obvious thing in the world. “Don’t you think so?”

“Meh.”

 

“So, I saw Eustachys’ play,” Apollo approached me with a subtle smirk as I was lounging in my throne. Sometimes being immortal really sucks. This was one of those times.

“Trash,” I shook my head. “Pure and utter trash. I should smite him for giving me credit for it.”

“That love scene in the Corycian Cave was-”

“Tawdry sensationalism.”

“It was a work of art. So was the actress playing Thalia, though their Apollo left so much to be desired.”

“I thought he was more than adequate,” I remarked. “He actually made the pairing look somewhat believable.”

“Let’s go,” he said. “You’re late for dance practice.”

“I hoped that would quit once you were over Daphne,” I chided. “You’re still not as much fun as you used to be.”

“I’m grateful to you for undoing Eros’ enchantment, which is why you’re off the hook, unlike the fictional Thalia in the play. Now that I think of it, her rather inventive comeuppance was my favorite scene. Anyway, I realize now just how much I neglected you and your sisters while I was obsessing over Daphne. You couldn’t be held responsible for your actions.”

“I couldn’t?”

“No. You were bored and undisciplined. So from now on, we’re going to double the dance practices, add in a few hours of chorale practice, and…”

I was distracted from Apollo’s very long, very boring list by an unknown voice coming from my altar. “Oh Muse,” the strange man called, “If only you would bless me with a comedic sonnet!”

I bolted for the dancing field.

No Muses, gods, or laurel trees were harmed in the making of this episode.