A lone figure stood awaiting my arrival.
Take the natural snobbiness of your everyday hipster, compound it by the regular arrogance of guys in their mid-twenties, and magnify it by infinity thanks to that whole god factor. You’d start to come close to the waves of disdain that just naturally rolled off this dude. The Eau de Smarm he exuded ensured that I wasn’t going to be cozying up to him any time soon.
It may have seemed like his denim shirt, worn unbuttoned over a white wife beater and skinny jeans had been picked up directly off of the floor that morning, but no. From the top of his rakish fedora sitting on his bright red- dyed hair to his pink socks and white vintage Keds, Hephaestus was calculated cool.
And weirdly cute, but I wasn’t going to give him that.
Not even the cane he sported, due to his left foot being twisted inwards could detract from his projecting an overall “don’t even bother reaching for my greatness” status. If anything, the cane was a sleek, black, way cool accessory. “Hephaestus, I presume.”
He crossed his arms. “It’s Festos. And you better have a damn good reason for showing up here with that password, honeybunch.”
“Theo sent me. Prometheus,” I amended, since I wasn’t sure if he knew Theo’s human name.
Given the double take I received, I guess he did. “I don’t believe you,” he said flatly. “I swear. He thought you could help break a memory spell.” “Too bad. I’m busy.” I took a step forward, my hand up to keep him from ordering me out.
“Please. I don’t think he would have sent me unless he believed you were truly the one person who could help.”
Festos considered me for a second, then rolled his eyes. “Lovely. You’re her. Did Prometheus mention any type of payment for my services?”
“His undying thanks?”
Festos looked a bit too hopeful at that. You know, if you looked past the “couldn’t care less” vibe.
“Not really,” I amended. “But you’re the only god he’s ever mentioned in a remotely respectful way.”
“Wow. Such flattery.” He sighed and waved me toward the machine in the middle of the room. “Get on.”
He limped over to the contraption. “You want it undone or not? Lose the pillow you’re wearing and move.”
I tossed my puffy coat onto one of the sofas. Then glanced outside. I couldn’t help it. I was worried the minions had come back.
“We’re warded up,” Festos said and flicked a switch. The machine came to life in a roar of sound. I bet you a bajillion dollars that if you made a list of all the ways you might remove a memory suppression spell, no matter how weird you got, none of the items would include being hooked up to one of those kinda grungy, video arcade dance machines and trying desperately to keep up with the patterns whipping past.
I win, right?
Aphrodite pointed her gun at me again, kind of casually. “Your problem is you’re too hung up on the past. You gotta move forward with yer life.”
I heard Hannah give a smothered laugh.
“You got this cutie pie in love with ya, and instead of enjoying his company, all you do is whine.” With a quick flick, Aphrodite opened the cylinder to reload.
“He’s not in love,” I said.
She peered at Kai. “Whattya talkin’ about? Sure he is. Everyone knows Kyrillos loves Persephone.”
“I’m Sophie,” I ground out. She waved the gun around. “Ya ya. That too.” That too? I took a deep breath, folded my fingers over my palms and looked
slightly to the left of her in case I accidentally started blasting. Didn’t want to go down in history as the girl who killed the Goddess of Love.
“Nope. It’s just desire,” I said with faked calm. “Kai is so resistant to the idea of being in love with me that your arrows don’t work. Besides which, when he actually does fall so hard for me that he doesn’t know which way is up, I want him to know he chose that of his own free will. That he chose me.” I threw him a sweet smile.
“Chose you?” Kai got this look of “have we had this conversation before?” on his face. My smile got tight.
Aphrodite scooped up a saclike pink purse laying on the ground. She rooted
around in it. “Desire is part of romantic love, silly,” she said to me. She pulled out a handful of bullets and dumped them in Festos’ hurriedly outstretched hands before turning back to Kai. She gestured with the still-open chambered revolver toward him. “Your body knows what’s what. Stop fighting it.” Kai glowered at her. She laughed it off, reloading. “And you,” Aphrodite said to me, as she plucked more bullets from Festos’ hand to load into the chamber. “Yer just as bad with your own issues.”
She couldn’t know about my insecurities around Persephone could she? Aphrodite narrowed her eyes at me. I gulped. Aphrodite shot me a look of disgust and popped the final bullets into the chambers. She gestured at each of us in turn with one pink, sparkly manicured finger. “I’m gonna start gettin’ real mad about how youse is all dealin’ with love.”
“There’s a whole bunch of drags around here where love is concerned,” Festos agreed.
“Thanks so much for inviting him along,” Theo said to me.
I grimaced an apology at Theo, then shot back at Festos, “Seems there’s a whole bunch of dogs here, too.” I looked between him and Kai.
“Oh don’t forget Pierce,” Festos replied cheerfully. “He’s a total mimbo.” “He is not,” Hannah defended. “He’s pure love.” Aphrodite threw her a fond smile. “I like you, girlie.” “Love in name, hormones in game,” Theo countered.
“Look at us all in agreement,” Festos replied. “No, because you’re talking about lust,” I protested. “Lust is pretty good too,” Aphrodite said, “but it ain’t nothin’ like the real thing.” She clicked the cylinder into place and looked at me. “We got a deal? You’ll get Jack to kill the campaign?”
“You’ll undo the love thing?” I asked.
“Nope. You could do with a little love in your life. Kyrillos is obviously brimming with love for ya now,” she ignored Kai’s snort, “so you’re gonna enjoy it.”
“Meaning what?” I asked.
“A date,” Kai piped up. “I’d say I’m ready now.” He arched an eyebrow as if to say “ball’s in your court.”
“I think it’s a great idea,” I slid my arm around his waist and pressed myself up against his side. A look of surprise flashed across his face. “Perfect.” I could outdate him any place, any time. I brightened. This was going to be fun. The touching part wasn’t a downside either. “The fate of the world does dee-pend on you loving each other,” Aphrodite said. “So, good. We’ll start with a date.” “Still say it’s a euphemism,” Festos burst out. “And Kai doesn’t date.” Kai snaked his arm around my waist before pressing his fingertips into my
hip. “Never wanted to before. Sophie’s the exception.” “The euphemistic exception?” Festos asked. “Shut up,” Kai and I fired at him in tandem. Festos took it in stride, waggling his eyebrows cheerfully at Theo who
pretended to look disapproving but totally wasn’t. Even Hannah didn’t bother to hide her smile.
“Only thing is,” I told Aphrodite, “I have to be back at school by Sunday morning. I have a meeting I can’t miss. So I’ll have to get this thing with Jack done quickly to have time for the date.”
“Going together to find Hermes is the date.” Aphrodite looked at me like I was an idiot. “You two need as much together time as possible.”
No way. I needed all my wits about me to handle Kai. Something that couldn’t happen if I had to track down Hermes at the same time. I tried a new tactic. “A date involves dinner and a movie. Something romantic. Finding Hermes hardly counts.”
She pinned me in her gaze. “Had so miny of them, Miz Expert? All a date is, is two people spendin’ time to deepen their attraction.”
“Or kill it,” Hannah piped up. Aphrodite scrunched up her nose. “Huh?” “There are far more first dates than second,” Hannah explained. “Which means that after spending time, those people realized they were not a match.” “What she said,” I seconded. Aphrodite narrowed her eyes at Hannah. “I don’t get ya. You talk like that but you’re so brim up with love.” “I’m a confounding enigma,” Hannah replied cheerfully. Aphrodite threw her hands up. “Enough’a this nonsense. You’ll go together to find Hermes. And you’ll be date-like doin’ it.” That sounded like a threat. “Almost like you planned it that way,” I said to Kai.
His smile grew wider as he gave my waist a squeeze. “Told you I get what I want. Feel free to let that sink in.”
The tigers herded me along for about fifteen minutes over soft, spongy ground with the occasional tree root to stumble over. Nothing slithered or skittered over my feet, for which I was profoundly grateful.
We stepped into a clearing in front of a large, clear pond with a waterfall. It was beautiful here. I almost forgot about my keepers until one of them pawed at me gently. I jumped at the slight rasp of its claws on my skirt and glared at it.
“You prefer lunch with a view?” I asked the tigers, pleased with my bravado. They sat down, hemming me in along the shore of the pond. A woman began to sing. Not in Greek. Not a hymn or a chant or a lullaby.
Nope. She sang of how her loneliness was killing her. Which sounds poetic, but was actually Britney Spears.
Another woman joined her. And another.
It was the best unplugged cover of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” that I’d ever heard.
Three young women swam out from behind the waterfall. They looked like triplets, with dusky olive skin, and long black hair all threaded through with silvery flowers that glinted as they caught the sunlight. Their voices soared as they entreated the object of their song to give them a sign.
My toes were tapping. And yeah, I hummed along. Whatever. It didn’t get to be a massive hit without being catchy.
The Diana Ross of the group swam forward and held out her hand. As if. I wasn’t jumping in. One of my feline jailers nudged me hard enough to push me in. Instead of being wet, I found myself floating underwater but in the air. The women continued to sing, starting their song again as they somehow plucked orchids which did usually not grow underwater to weave in my hair.
By the time they had finished adorning me, I was singing, too.
I rose out of the waves. Light caught the spray of droplets, creating a thousand tiny prisms of color. Crooning my heart out with eternal angst, I was consumed with emotion. I had to sing.
This was the most poignant song ever written and I was the keeper of all the anguish.
Kai stepped out into the clearing and I sang to him. Sang this ageless story that was our tale. About misunderstanding. About confession. And this burning need to know.
I walked out of the water and took Kai’s hands. Enfolded him in my arms then returned us to the pond. I sank with him beneath the waves into this place of air, my voice raised in lyrical pleading to show me that sign.
That’s when Kai tickled me.
As I started to laugh and could no longer sing, I realized that I was drowning him—not in air but in cold water—while burbling Britney Spears lyrics off- key, tears falling from my eyes like an overwrought teenybopper.
Jack hadn’t attacked me, psychologically or otherwise. No, he’d put me under the spell of the sirens and then made me their lead singer in an attempt to take Kai out. Thankfully, it hadn’t worked. I stumbled out of the pond and said casually, “Well, that was awkward.”