We settle into the seating area by the fireplace. I take the love seat and Connolly sits beside me, close enough that our hips touch. I could read something into that, but I understand it’s protection. He’s staying close, presenting a united front in case of trouble. After all, we did just unmask the god of war. Even if he is chilling in jeans and bare feet, drinking an IPA.
It does make sense. The clues were all there, not the least of which being that he’s an actual freaking arms dealer. Well, military technology, but it’s the theater of war, and that is his stage.
Still . . .
I begin. “I think we can be forgiven for not jumping to the conclusion that the people we’re hanging out with are actual Greek gods.”
He makes a face.
“Fine,” I say. “Not gods. Still the actual beings whose names and deeds we know two thousand years after the fall of Rome.”
“I’d be careful with the ‘deeds’ part. Think of mythology as classical tabloid stories and take them all with a boulder-size grain of salt. Lacking actual celebrities in the ancient world, people pushed immortals into that gap. Who’s sleeping with whom? Who’s . . . well, mostly who’s sleeping with whom. Or who’s raping whom.” He makes a face. “Like the one about me raping a vestal virgin and fathering the twins who founded Rome. Did not happen.” He pauses. “Well, the twins, yes. And the vestal virgin. But it was consensual. Like I said, celebrity status. Some vestal virgins figured banging a god was a loophole to their vow of chastity.”
“So you and Vanessa . . .?” I say.
“We were on a break. It’s been over three thousand years. There were a lot of breaks. Like the latest one. But . . .” He fingers the label on his beer. “I need to tell you a few things about Vess before she gets here.”
“Is she actually coming?” I say.
He nods. “I did ask her to invite you here and then I suggested she had plenty of time to change first. Before she arrives, you need to understand about the necklace and about Hector. She won’t want to talk about them or, if she does, she’ll gloss them over.” He gives a very-Vanessa dismissive wave. “Oh, it was nothing. The past is the past. It’s all fine now.”
“It’s not fine,” I say.
His lips tighten, and he glances to the side, looking so much like his statue that chills run up my arms.
“No, it’s not fine. It’s never been fine. That’s what I was—” He straightens. “More on that in a minute. What do you know about the Hephaestus and Aphrodite myth? How they got together?”
“Hera was caught in a magical trap. Hephaestus knew how to free her and demanded Aphrodite in payment. Zeus happily agreed, because it kept the gods from fighting over her. Not only was she the most beautiful woman in the world, but well, she was one of the few goddesses who wasn’t a blood relative.”
He chuckles. “True enough.”
“So Hector really is your brother. Zeus is your father. Hera’s your mother.”
“Et cetera, et cetera. Yep. There are other immortals, but we were the one family that reliably bred them. Vess was the daughter of an old immortal, who brought her to my father for fostering when she was twelve. I was a couple of years younger than her, so we became friends, and I was definitely not part of the potential bridegroom pack—I was only fourteen when she married. As for the myth, yes, my mother got caught in a magical trap, which I suspect Hector devised himself so he could demand Vess. He wanted her. She did not want him.”
Marius’s gaze travels to the other statue, Venus covering herself as she looks over her shoulder at an unwanted intruder. “She was sixteen. Handed over as payment for services rendered. That was hardly unusual at the time. Hell, it was hardly unusual until the last century. Vess did what most women of her time did. Accepted her lot and tried to make the best of it. Put that in a story today, and she’d seem weak. Vess may be much older and wiser than she was then, but one thing she never was? Weak. Or stupid. That’s always the story, though, isn’t it? The gorgeous, empty-headed goddess of love. Like the handsome, dumb-as-dirt god of war. No wonder we ended up together. We can just sit and admire one another and never be expected to make actual conversation.”
He shakes his head. “The point is that Vess was not weak or stupid. She knew there was nothing to be gained by fighting the marriage. The problem was that Hector didn’t want Vess the woman. He wanted Vess the thing. The object. The prize. The most beautiful woman in the world was his, and he sure as hell didn’t want to have to talk to her, much less treat her like an actual person. She was the ultimate trophy wife. A trophy to be kept in a very tiny box and brought out for display. These days, people see control for what it is: abuse. Back then?” He shrugs. “The older immortals told Vess she should be happy. Hector didn’t beat her. He put her on a pedestal. He protected her. What more could she want?”
He smiles, warmth setting his face aglow. “Agency. Exactly. So eventually she took it, which included . . .” He points at himself. “The biggest so-called cuckolding in history.”
He shakes his head and sips his beer. “In the modern world, she’d have left Hector the moment she decided she wanted to be with me. That wasn’t an option. Hector was her husband. Zeus was her foster father. They owned her. So we started our affair as discreetly as possible but . . .” He shrugs. “We were young, and the young are never as discreet as they think they are. You know the story, I presume?”
“Hephaestus put a golden net over the marriage bed, which caught Ares and Aphrodite, and he then brought in all the gods to witness it.”
“I sure as hell was never sleeping with Vess in Hector’s bed. And there was no magical net. Just my greedy bastard of a brother who wanted his marriage gifts back . . . and wanted to humiliate his wife. He found out where we had our love nest and brought witnesses. Then he demanded I repay the marriage gifts. According to the myth, I defaulted. I didn’t. I paid every last drachma—happily, because it meant Vess would have her freedom. Hector’s the one who defaulted. Took the money and refused to let her go. Said if she ever left him, he’d kill me, which meant she’d never leave him.”
“He still calls her his wife,” I say.
His jaw tenses. “A technicality. One can’t obtain a modern divorce when one can’t prove a marriage. They’ve been apart for over a millennium, and she still isn’t free of him. Whole damned world to live in, and he’s two hours from her doorstep.”
I could say Marius is, too, but that’s different. They may not be together, but I get the feeling they’re never really apart either, and that’s by choice. A romantic might prefer to imagine a love so deep that a couple stays together for eternity, but this seems more real. Friendship is what truly lasts. I see that sort of love in the way he talks about her, in the anger he’s struggling to tamp down when he discusses her past.
“On to the necklace,” he says. “That’s the part you really need to understand.”
“Why she had to leave the room at the party,” I say. “Why she won’t be around it.”
He looks at his beer, then puts it aside, pours an inch of Scotch into a glass and downs half.
“Time . . . is different for us,” he says. “It passes differently, perhaps because we have so much of it. Some of our children are immortal. Most are not. Vess and I have seen our children grow old and die, our grandchildren grow old and die, great-grandchildren, too. I say ‘our’ children. The myths say that, too. We consider them ours because . . .”
He finishes the drink. “Vess was still Hector’s wife, and for a very long time he expected everything that comes with that. To my shame, I never thought much of it in the early days. You’ve seen how Vess is. That airy dismissal. This was the same. Just another wifely chore, like managing his household. She loved me, not him. I actually congratulated myself for being so forward-thinking, understanding her situation and not being jealous. I often wonder whether that’s the one thing she can’t quite forgive me for.”
He eyes the bottle, but then sets down his glass with a decisive clink. “She was his wife. That meant she could not refuse him sex. So when I talk about ‘our’ children, that’s because he refused to recognize any of Vess’s children as his, even when some very clearly were. I happily claimed them and parented them with her.”
“Especially Harmonia.” His eyes light. “She was our first and almost certainly not mine. I didn’t care. Hector rejected her, and I embraced her. Our first child. An immortal, no less. She would always be ours.” His gaze drops. “She should always have been ours.”
“Hector cursed her. With the necklace.”
He nods. “And fools that we were, we thought he was actually acknowledging her as his own. The necklace was supposed to grant eternal youth and beauty and health and success. Harmonia already had most of that, but she appreciated the gesture from Hector. She married happily, and we had her and her husband for centuries. But to us, that’s a blink in time.”
“What happened?” I ask softly.
“Death. Death happened. In the myth, Harmonia and Cadmus turn into snakes. The necklace is two snakes, and so her and her husband supposedly became that. They didn’t. The snakes symbolize us. Vess and myself. The jewel is Harmonia—our jewel. The loom represents time. A limited amount of time for our daughter. The curse grants things she already had at the cost of great misfortune, and for an immortal, death is the greatest misfortune of all.”
“Even death after a long and happy life?”
His gaze lifts to mine. “The misfortune was for Vess. Her first child. The one who loved her unconditionally. The bright joy of her life. Gone.”
“No, I’m sorry. Sorry I didn’t destroy the damned thing before it ever touched our daughter. Didn’t find a way to destroy it after that, so Vess hasn’t had to live knowing it was out there, cursing innocent women. But now, finally—”
He stops short and rises. “That can wait. This can’t. I have something for you.” He hesitates. “First, two things. One, please don’t treat Vess any differently now that you know who she is. It’s an open secret in our corner of the world. It’s not as if anyone’s going to publicly out us, and it cements our power base. But for Vess it’s different. I gain something, being the so-called god of war. Added clout. Added respect. The goddess of love and beauty, though?” He glances at the statue of Venus crouching. “It diminishes what she is.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” I say.
“Thank you. The second thing?” He takes a deep breath. “I have a lot of explaining to do, which I will. Just bear that in mind when you see . . .”
He waves vaguely toward a dark hall.
“All right,” I say. “Building the suspense, I see.”
He glances at Connolly. “You can wait here, please, Aiden. This is for Kennedy.”
“Perhaps,” Connolly says, rising. “But I’m not staying here while you take her out of my sight. That’s a matter of safety.”
Marius hesitates. Then he nods. “All right. Come along then.”