“I need to check the stables,” Marius murmurs as he slips from the room. He stops and adds, “We’ll get this fixed. I promise we will.”
Connolly’s on his phone, madly texting and then calling his brother. “He texted just a few minutes ago. It must not have actually been him. I should have called instead. I—”
Silence as he cuts himself off mid-word. I barely hear any of it. I’m still staring down at the tablet. The screen is black, but that last image stays imprinted on my retinas.
“I’m sorry,” Connolly says, his voice moving closer. “I’m rattling on about my brother, while your sister . . .”
He doesn’t finish. We both know the rest. Putting that necklace around Hope’s neck was no mere symbolic gesture.
It transferred the curse. Hope “took possession” of the necklace in that moment.
She is cursed.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I should have said something. Your sister . . .” He clears his throat. “I’m sorry.”
I shake my head. “Rian has been kidnapped. Right after you got him free. That’s your concern, as it should be.”
“It’s all my concern,” he says, his fingers brushing my elbow. “This is our concern. Your sister and my brother, and . . .”
“The curse,” I whisper. “If we can’t lift it . . .”
If we can’t lift it, my sister is cursed to endless misfortune. To eternal beauty and youth, yes, but will she want that? No. There are thousands—millions—of people who might want that “blessing” but my sister would not, even without the curse that dooms her to misfortune. She’s had enough of that already, both parents dead by her eighteenth birthday.
“I need to . . .” I look around, suddenly lost.
“Call Ani,” he murmurs.
I give a start, as if he’s read my thoughts. Then I nod. I take out my phone and stare at it.
“Would it be easier if I told her?” he asks.
Easier, yes. Proper? No. I shake my head.
“Would you like me to leave the room?” he says.
I hesitate. When I shake my head again, he says, “You don’t need to be polite, Kennedy. I understand this is a private moment. I’m only offering to stay if it would help.”
“It would. I-I’m not sure—I’m not sure I can do this. I might . . . I might need you to take over.” A thought hits, and I inhale sharply. “You should call your parents. Let them know.”
“Let them know what?” Bitterness drips from his voice. “That my brother is still held captive? Hardly new information to them, considering they—”
He bites that off. “Sorry, you don’t need that.”
I reach over to squeeze his hand. “I’m hoping they lied about his situation to protect you and help him. But being totally selfish here, if you don’t need to tell them about the change in circumstance right away, I would appreciate a little moral support during this call.”
“Then you have it.”
That call. That terrible call. I would say it’s harder than any I’ve ever made, but that’d be a lie. I have a father who died in a car accident and a mother who died of cancer. I have made horrible calls and received even worse ones. This is still one of the toughest. I must tell Ani that I was in the same house as our sister—having a beer, chatting with the owner—while our sister slept under the same roof.
Of course I had no idea she was here. I’d have torn the place apart if I did. My guilt comes from feeling as if I should have known. Should have walked through that door and sensed her here. Should have found some way to get more information from Hope on our calls, so I’d recognize the setting.
I say all that to Ani. I can’t help it. This is my big sister, and I am a sinner at confession, blurting every possible misdeed. Connolly shakes his head and gestures and mouths rationalizations I can’t hear. I hear my sister’s rationalizations, of course. Hope couldn’t take the risk of saying more. Even if she could, how would I possibly recognize the house from the description of her room? The fault, clearly, lies with the person who kidnapped her. Marius wanted to make amends by returning her? Great. An hour earlier, and we would have had her, and what the hell was he stalling for anyway?
Why did Marius stall? He didn’t. He’d delayed his reveal to answer my questions, which bounces the guilt-ball back into my court.
I haven’t told Ani that our sister was kidnapped by Ares, god of war. That’s . . . a different conversation. To give it the space it needs would suck that space from Hope’s dilemma. That is our focus. The rest will come when Ani and I have had time to digest what happened to Hope.
Ani doesn’t sit still as I talk. It might be the middle of the night, and she’d been asleep when I called, but she’s up now, packing her bag.
“You need to tell Jonathan,” I say. “Bring him with you.”
“He has to work.”
“Seriously? If you take off to handle this without telling him, he’s going to kill you.” I pause. “No, he’ll just be hurt. Really hurt. Is that what you want?”
“What I don’t want is for him to lose his job.”
“That won’t happen, and you know it. You want him to come. You’ll want him there. You’ll need him to help drive while you and I talk. We need his research. Hope needs it.”
She pauses. A knock comes through the phone. Then, “Ani? Is something wrong?”
“He was sleeping downstairs?” I say. “Of course he was. You were kidnapped—he’s not leaving you alone. So what were you going to do? Sneak past him out the door?”
Outside our door, heels click through a distant hall.
“Marius?” Vanessa calls.
Connolly and I look at each other.
“May I take this?” he mouths.
I nod, and then continue talking to Ani while he goes to meet Vanessa.
When I end my call a few minutes later, Vanessa enters, as if she’d been just outside the door. I glance over her shoulder for Connolly, but she shakes her head.
“Aiden is helping Marius,” she says. “He found one of his employees in the barn. Dead. I understand the man betrayed him but it is still . . . difficult. They’re handling the body.”
She comes inside and closes the door. Then she motions to the sofa. “May we?”
I nod. This isn’t what I imagined. I told Marius I wouldn’t treat Vanessa any differently, and I meant that, but with everything that just happened, I’m not myself, and I’m painfully aware that my distraction and silence might seem like I’m seeing her with new eyes. Seeing her through a different lens, one she doesn’t want.
“Marius explained,” I say awkwardly as we sit. “That’s all . . .” I wave my hands. “That’s all fine. Sorry. I’m just not myself right now. It isn’t you.”
“You’ve just discovered that the god of war kidnapped your sister and now she’s been taken again and also cursed. I don’t expect you to be thinking about me at all, Kennedy.”
“And now,” she says. “Moments after recognizing your pain, I’m going to do something incredibly selfish. First, we will fix this. I am at your disposal, as is Marius. He owes you, obviously but . . .”
She inhales. “Here is the selfish part. I’m going to ask you to accept his help, however furious you will be with him. I’m also going to ask you . . . No, I was going to ask you not to judge him too harshly, but that goes too far. Judge him as you will. I just want to say that . . .”
She flutters her hands and leans back with a sigh. “There is no right way to say this. No way that won’t seem like me defending a man I love because that is exactly what I’m doing. No one in the world is more important to me than Marius, and whether we share a roof or not, a bed or not, it doesn’t change that. He did something incredibly thoughtless here.”
I choke on a snort. I can’t help it.
“Yes,” she says. “Thoughtless seems like a ridiculous word under the circumstances, but that’s exactly what it was. His crime isn’t cruelty but lack of consideration. He’ll tell you that he did everything he could to make your sister comfortable, and that will mean nothing to you because he kidnapped her. It just . . .”
“Doesn’t mean the same to him because we’re mortal?”
“Doesn’t mean the same to us because we’re immortal. You and your sister were a means to an end. He wouldn’t hurt either of you. That may seem silly. He’s supposed to be the god of war. But this isn’t war, and he understands that better than anyone. He was moving pieces on a chess board, preparing his strategy. You were pawns. Then he met you, and you became more. Once the necklace disappeared, he had no reason to hold her. You can be as furious as you want with him. That’s understandable, and no one will deny you that right, least of all Marius. Just, whatever you decide, don’t turn down his help.”
I want to. I want to storm out of here. Work with my sister’s kidnapper? Never. But that would be cutting off my nose to spite my face. If he can help, then he does owe me, and I’m going to need all the help I can get.
Marius is subdued when I see him again, and I’m sure it’s partly the awkwardness of being my sister’s kidnapper, but most is from what he found in the stable. As loyal as the man had been to his boss, he’d also been loyal to his former underboss, and that would be Havoc. He’d been with Marius for centuries and despite the man’s betrayal, Marius is grieving.
We get a crash course in immortality from Vanessa. Broad strokes only. It’s a power, like any other. A very limited power that they pass along to only some of their descendants.
Vanessa, Marius, Hector and the other surviving “Olympians” have other powers. That’s what made them revered as gods. The dead employee had been a more recent immortal—a descendant of Marius—with no other powers. Immortal, it seems, does not mean invulnerable.
The “lesser immortals”—my term, not theirs—tend to align themselves with the Olympians. Working for the Olympians makes their lives easier. Eloise Hill-Cabot’s eternal youth and beauty forced her to retreat from the world. The Olympians—and others like them—have carved out their own world within ours, populated with minor immortals and mortals with magical abilities, those who’ve been brought into the fold, which I guess now includes us.
There’s a whole lot more there to understand, and any other time I’d be like the kid at the front of class, waving my hand and bouncing in my seat, desperate for all the answers. That will come. My mind is absorbed with Hope’s dilemma, and all I want is information that will help me free her.
Vanessa’s crash course in immortality isn’t meant to help us understand Marius’s grief over the dead man. It’s to help us understand Havoc.
“She’s immortal,” I say. “But without power.”
We’ve moved into a smaller sitting room, and I’m on one loveseat with Connolly, while Marius and Vanessa sit together on another.
I look at Vanessa. “That’s what you said at the party, right? She doesn’t have the right bloodline.”
The quick glance she shoots Marius almost seems apologetic, and she shifts in discomfort before saying, “Yes. That was . . . unkind of me. Her bloodline isn’t the problem.”
“Actually, it is the problem,” Marius says. He takes a deep breath. “Havoc is Eris. That’s her real name.”
“Eris?” Connolly says. “Discord?”
“She prefers Havoc,” Vanessa murmurs, with an unreadable look.
“But isn’t Eris supposed to be . . .” Bloodlines. I look at Marius. “She’s your daughter.”
As he nods, I look between him and Vanessa. Even before Marius shakes his head, I know the answer to my unasked question. It was in that guilty look Vanessa shot at him.
“Vess isn’t her mother,” Marius says. “We were on a break.”
“So many breaks,” Vanessa murmurs, and they share a quarter smile.
“Yes, so many breaks,” he says. “And many children resulting from them, at least for me. Which is the problem with being an immortal millennia before reliable birth control. The myths make it sound like we were banging everything in sight. When you live for thousands of years, though, a few dozen affairs is hardly outrageous. In our case, it wasn’t even affairs as much as flings and one-night stands, while we were on our breaks. Havoc was the result of a one-night stand. And a lot of wine. So much wine.”
Vanessa rolls her eyes.
“What?” Marius says. “You know what Denny’s bashes are like. You and I had just had a fight and you’d taken off to Macedonia. So I drank. Way too much. And I was . . .”
“Vulnerable to the designs of an ambitious woman?”
He makes a face but doesn’t argue.
Vanessa looks as us. “Havoc’s mother was mortal. A minor princess who wanted more. Having the child of a god was her way of achieving it. She came from a kingdom of warmongers—sorry, proud warriors—and so Marius was her choice. Havoc was the result and . . .” She glances at Marius, who nods that she can continue.
“We can make this light-hearted,” she says. “A romp between the god of war and an ambitious princess. There was a myth about it, which didn’t survive. The cunning woman plying the foolish and heart-broken god with wine until she got what she wanted. Along comes a child, and the seductress turns into a harpy, demanding marriage and mansions and whatever else he can provide. Such a lark, ha-ha. There are many stories like that, and what they all ignore is that a child was involved. A child born to two strangers—a father who wants nothing to do with the mother, and a mother who wants the child only as a tool to further her own ambitions.”
A moment of silence, as if for that child who became Havoc.
Vanessa continues. “Havoc’s mother wasn’t merely ambitious and driven. I would understand that. She was . . .” A glance at Marius and then she lowers her voice as she murmurs. “Monstrous.”
He nods, gaze averted.
“When she realized Havoc wouldn’t win her a god for a husband, she took it out on the child. Marius stepped in and negotiated to take custody of Havoc. He raised her for a few years, with the help of myself and a couple of his sisters. It . . . did not work out.”
“Havoc is her mother’s daughter,” Marius says. “To me, she was nothing but sunshine and light. To the women in my life—both her aunts and Vess—she was . . . she became . . . dangerous. We thought we could rechannel her aggression. She was my daughter, too, after all. We’d rein in her mother’s influence with training and love and a soldier’s discipline. We sent her to Hippolyte.”
“Queen of the Amazons,” I say. “And another of your daughters, right?”
“Our daughter,” he says, nodding at Vanessa, and they share a smile. “The myths misname her mother.”
Vanessa rolls her eyes. “Because no one could believe the goddess of love and beauty could bear such a warrior.”
“Hippolyte is ours,” Marius says. “She is the best of both of us. Just as Harmonia was, in a very different way. One a sweet and giving child, the other a fierce and wise warrior. We asked Hippolyte to raise Havoc among the Amazons. She did her best, but when Havoc reached adulthood, it became apparent that she was a danger to her sister warriors. She respected no one. Obeyed no one.”
Vanessa clears her throat, and the look that crosses Marius’s face is an exhaustion and a frustration so deep that, for a moment, he is an old man, bowed by the weight of responsibility and miscalculations.
“There’s an exception, isn’t there?” I say. “Her father.”
Vanessa nods. “The one person she cares about. The one person whose opinion she values.”
I remember the party, when we’d walked in, Havoc kneeing beside that divan, talking to Marius. Talking to him. Offering him champagne. And him lying there, eyes shut, as if she didn’t exist.
Remembering that, my expression must render judgment because Vanessa leaps in.
“Marius has given her what she wants for centuries, for millennia. He gave her the attention she needed. Made her his lieutenant. Took responsibility for her. He has been her guardian since Hippolyte returned her.”
“It’s fine,” Marius says. “I accept resp—”
“You always accept responsibility.” Her words come sharp. “She was an adult. An adult immortal, and you still looked after her, and I respected the hell out of that, Marius, even when it drove me mad with frustration.” She looks at us. “We have nearly a dozen immortal children, most of them ours, some we consider ours. No matter how we raised them, no two are the same. There are those, like Hippolyte, who awe us—we can scarcely believe she’s ours. There are those, like Harmonia, who delight us, we are honored to have them in our lives. There are a few who frustrate us, but it is the loving frustration of doting parents. There are a couple, though . . .”
A pained glance at Marius. “There are a couple we have lost, not through death but through the eventual realization that we cannot parent them forever. That we cannot be responsible for them forever. We did our best, but they are not us.”
“Havoc is one of those,” I say.
“I only wish—” She stops short. “Sorry, that’s bitterness talking. We don’t consider Havoc ours. I would have happily done so, but she’d rather die a thousand painful deaths. Havoc, though, is the one we kept close for as long as we could. Eventually . . .”
“I fired her,” Marius says.
“Fired her?” Vanessa snorts. “You set her up in business on her own. Convinced her it was time to fly the nest and gave her everything she needed.”
“She felt fired.”
“That’s her problem.” Vanessa looks at us. “Things hit a tipping point. Marius and I separated because of her. I couldn’t take it anymore. He did everything he could to ease her leaving, and she acted like an abandoned child. So he did the only thing left to do.”
“I severed all connection last year,” Marius says. “I told her I didn’t want her as part of my life until she treated everyone in it—Vess, my siblings, our children—with respect.”
“You saw Marius ignoring her at the party,” Vanessa says. “That seemed cruel. It was calculated strategy. Hundreds of years of his attention didn’t help, so he’s withdrawn it.”
I look at her. “Basically, you’re telling us that all this is a bratty immortal throwing a tantrum because Daddy’s giving her the silent treatment?”
“I’m sure there’s more to it—” Marius begins.
“Yes,” Vanessa says, meeting my gaze. “There are side benefits to her scheme. Hurting me. Insinuating herself with Hector. Generally causing trouble, because that’s what she is—Havoc, goddess of chaos in war—but mostly, it’s a tantrum, and your siblings have been pulled into it.”
“I’ll fix this,” Marius says. “I’ll—”
“What?” Vanessa says. “Give her a hug? Buy her a pony?” She rubs her temples and makes a face. “I apologize. That’s three millennia of evil step-mother-frustration talking.” She looks at us. “If that would fix this—even just long enough to get your sister and brother back—we’d do it. But Havoc won’t fall for it. She might accept my head on a pike, but I’d rather try a few less fatal options first.”
“Then let’s talk.”