"I really did think it was a good idea,” Venus said with a long-suffering sigh after Patroklos and Jacky had disappeared. “I mean, how was I to know he’d run into Hector? Hector and Achilles have avoided each other for an entire war. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“It does if you factor in divine interference,” Kat said.
“What? Me? I didn’t do anything to Hector. I barely did anything to Patroklos except to maybe nudge along an idea he’d already been playing with and sprinkle a simple glamour over him.”
“I don’t mean you. But we all know that there are several goddesses playing in this sandbox.”
“And gods,” Venus said, considering. “Hera did have to keep Zeus busy. He was showing far too much interest in Troy, and she said he said he’d heard the Olympians were interfering in the war.”
Venus frowned at Kat. “I am not talking about Hera, Athena and me. Well, at least not about Hera and me. Athena has lost her head a little, but it was bound to happen some time. By Apollo’s hard shaft she’s just so repressed! Nevertheless, what the three of us have done is really inconsequential. We shouldn’t have attracted Zeus’s attention.”
“I think you’re underestimating the effect the three of you have on mortals, but whatever. Here’s the point—this war needs to end before anyone else dies.”
“Exactly our point, darling.”
“Fine. Let’s get it done.” Kat glanced nervously at the tent door flap. “First, what in the hell am I going to tell them about where Patroklos and Jacky went?”
“Don’t tell the Myrmidons anything except that your maidservant, a healer gifted by the gods, must be alone with him to pray and fast and heal him. They’ll assume divine intervention, but they’ll stay fairly quiet about it unless they see Patroklos, healed and healthy, walking about.”
“And I’ll tell Achilles the truth.”
“If you must, although you know there are some things Love even keeps to herself.”
“I told Achilles the truth about us. Patroklos knows, too.”
“Oh, of course they do.”
“You don’t seem surprised,” Kat said.
“Darling, you and your delightful friend are many things; unobtrusive is not one of them.”
“Okay, well. As long as you know. Now, how are we going to stop this war?”
“If you will remember, this is the point at which I brought the two of you—you in particular—into this mess,” Venus said. “If we’d known a quicker way to stop the war, we would have done it ourselves, but short of starting a war in Olympus—another war in Olympus, which none of us are willing to do, we settled for you.”
“I keep coming back to the horse.”
“Darling, what horse?”
“The Trojan horse. The one written about in the stupid Iliad,” Kat said.
“You mean the enormous horse that carried the Greek army inside it within the walls of Troy? Like Achilles can be killed if you kick his ankle? That horse?”
“Okay, yes. Clearly there was fictional license taken by whatever his name was, but maybe there’s a sprinkle of truth to it. I did see some of the war brides wearing pendants that looked like horse heads.”
“And some of them also wear pendants that look like erect phalluses, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to build a giant penis, fill it with warriors and roll it into Troy. If that would work I would have thought of it years ago. I am rather a penis specialist.”
Kat rubbed her head. She felt terrible—all hot and sandy and salty and bloody. And Venus was giving her a headache. And she needed to tell Achilles that everything was going to be okay with Patroklos. At least, she hoped everything was going to be okay with him. “I have to go talk to Achilles,” she told Venus. “Patroklos is really in Tulsa, right?”
Then Kat’s stomach flipped. “Venus, you are going to bring them back, aren’t you? Jacky and Patroklos? You can’t just leave them over there, what with Jacky being in the wrong body and all.” And in a different world than me, her panicky mind voice added.
“Of course they will return. Both of them. If he lives. If he doesn’t I’m not certain that Jacky would want…” The goddess paused, noticing Kat’s wide-eyed look, and then shook her head. “No, he simply must live. And, yes, I will bring them back. In the meantime I’ll just do a little zapping here and there, quickly, before word leaves this tent that they’ve, well, left. Actually…” Venus raised her hand. “Darling, you should go now. I’m going to seal the tent.”
“But what if someone notices? Or tries to get in?”
Venus smiled. “It’s the ancient world, Katrina. If they can’t open the tent they’ll believe it’s cursed—or blessed. It all depends upon point of view.” The goddess fluttered her fingers at Kat. “Go on.”
“Okay, I’ll take care of Achilles. You keep thinking about ways to end this war,” Kat said.
“Yes, yes, of course. Call if you need me,” Venus said.
“Count on it,” Kat muttered, and ducked out of the tent, feeling a weird slam and lock as the flap closed behind her.
She blinked, adjusting her eyes to the bright, midmorning sunlight. She couldn’t believe it was barely noon. It seemed like years had past. Where the hell was everybody? Not one warrior was in sight. “Achilles?” Kat called, walking around the side of the tent. “Odysseus?”
No one. Not a warrior or a war-prize bride stirred. “This is giving me a bad feeling,” she said to herself, as she hurried to Achilles’ tent.
The first thing she noticed was Aetnia, sitting slumped over on the bench by the campfire. She looked up at Kat, cheeks washed with tears.
“Aetnia? Are you okay?”
“Oh, my lady! It is so terrible! He’s going to kill Prince Hector—I know he will!”
“What, slow down. Who is going to kill Hector?”
“Achilles, of course! That terrible brute! Agamemnon is bringing him the news of Patroklos. The berserker will take over then, and our poor prince will be doomed.” The maidservant clasped Kat’s hands suddenly. “Perhaps you can warn him, my lady! We’ll go now. Agamemnon might not have reached Achilles yet. The day is young. Hector is probably still on the battlefield. You could be within the walls of Troy in no time.” She pulled at Kat’s hands as if she would drag her into Troy.
“Stop it, Aetnia. I don’t have time for this.” The girl let go of her hands, face filled with shock and confusion. “Tell me where I can find Achilles.”
Aetnia’s head began to shake back and forth slowly. “What has happened to you, Princess? Has Melia truly bespelled you?”
“Aetnia, that spell stuff is utter bullshit. Why in the hell are you, and all the other women here, so willing to believe that when a woman acts against the norm she has to be under a spell, or wrong in the head, or something else bizarre? How about this—how about considering that maybe I’ve made my own mind up about Achilles and about this stupid war, and it might not be what the…” She paused, almost saying government, and then amended it with what would make more sense to Aetnia. “It might not be what the rulers of this place want us to think.”
Aetnia’s mouth opened and closed, reminding Kat of a carp.
“I’ve gotten to know Achilles and some of these other men. You’ve been with Diomedes for how long now? Two years? Maybe this war is wrong on both sides, and maybe it just needs to be over. Oh, and by the by, Achilles is not a monster,” she added for good measure. “Now, where is he?”
Aetnia pointed to the sea behind Kat. “He and Odysseus went to the shore. Agamemnon followed them there not long ago.”
“Thanks,” she said quickly and started off. Then called back over her shoulder, “And you might want to consider thinking for yourself.”
Agamemnon had seen the berserker before, many times actually. Although it was usually from a distance as Achilles defeated the champion of this or that tribe and saved the Greek army a nasty battle. All of those times the king had never been frightened of the creature that possessed the warrior. Not so this time. What Agamemnon witnessed this time petrified him.
He’d caught up to Achilles and Odysseus at the seashore, where the scarred warrior paced back and forth at the edge of the waves, obviously attempting to control his roiling emotions. Odysseus had been speaking to his friend in a low, calming voice when he noticed Agamemnon approaching, and both men went silent and still as the Greek king joined them.
“Tell me,” Achilles said.
“He is gone. Patroklos is no longer of this world,” Agamemnon said with perfect honesty. “I honor his memory by telling you myself.”
“Honor?” Achilles snarled. “There is no honor is this world or justice or hope. My cousin died pretending to be me, that isn’t honorable.”
“I disagree, Achilles,” Agamemnon said, carefully controlling his sense of glee as he watched the rigid control with which Achilles usually held himself crumble like the support column of an acropolis. “His sense of Greek honor is what made him create the pretense. It was Fate who put Hector in his path.”
“Fate! I curse Fate and all of her minions in Olympus! This world has no honor or justice or hope, but it does have vengeance.” The word came out as a growl.
“Achilles, my friend. Let us go back to camp and plan your cousin’s funeral games,” Odysseus said, stepping between the king and the warrior.
“Listen to Odysseus, Achilles. I will even agree that no Greek will go to battle for a full ten days of gaming to honor him,” Agamemnon said with exaggerated concern. “Though we will have to wait until the fighting is over for the day. Many of the Myrmidons are still battling Hector. He has been fighting like a man possessed since he cut down Patroklos,” Agamemnon finished, loving the irony he evoked by using the word possessed.
Odysseus grabbed the king’s arm. “Enough, Agamemnon. You know the Myrmidons followed—”
Agamemnon wrenched his arm from Odysseus’s grasp. “You dare too much, Ithaca!” Then the king’s eyes widened and he stumbled back several paces.
Odysseus whirled around, shouting, “Achilles, no!”
It was too late. Achilles’ eyes were already beginning to glow a rusty, bloody scarlet. “Tell her the dream has ended. She should return to her home. Ask her to forgive me.” His voice was already beginning to deepen into the guttural snarl of something decidedly not human. Then he lifted his arms to the heavens and let loose a deafening roar as, with a rush, rage cascaded into his body.
Agamemnon continued to back away from what used to be Achilles. This possession was different. His body grew and twisted with obscenely exaggerated muscles. His scars, always grotesque, overtook the rest of his skin so that he appeared to be pieced together by wounds—defined by pain. His face retained only the bare structure of the man, but built on that structure was the visage of a beast, monstrous, inhumane, a creature who knew nothing but anger and pain and the lust for blood. Agamemnon realized what had happened and, even in his fear, had to repress a shout of victory. Until that moment Achilles had always battled the berserker. He’d fought to retain a vestige of humanity so that he could find his way back to himself.
This time Achilles had no intention of returning.
What Agamemnon was witnessing was the utter destruction of the man—the fragmenting of his soul. Though Achilles might still be somewhere within the twisted shell, he had given up and finally completely accepted his fate.
With another frightening roar, the thing that had been Achilles sprinted off toward the walls of Troy.
Agamemnon drew a long, relieved breath. Then he felt Odysseus’s eyes on him. He gave the Ithacan king a bland look. “I did him a favor. He’s done fighting it now, and, doubtless, his name will be remembered for ages for what he’s about to do.” That piece of the puzzle, Agamemnon added silently to himself, was annoying, but unavoidable.
“You bated him on purpose.”
“He chose glory long ago. I was simply giving him his wish.”
Odysseus’s sharp gaze studied the aging king. “You lied.”
Agamemnon lifted one golden clad shoulder. “No. Patroklos is no longer in this world and the Myrmidons are on the battlefield, as, I’m quite sure, is Hector.”
Odysseus was shaking his head and looking at the Greek king with pure disgust when Kat stumbled over a dune and rushed up to them.
“Achilles!” She gasped, trying to catch her breath. “Where is he?”
“Embracing Fate instead of you, Princess,” Agamemnon said with a sarcastic sneer.
“What have you done, you old shithead?” she said.
“Don’t you dare speak to me in such a manner, woman!”
“Oh, fuck off!” Kat yelled, stepping forward into his face, which shocked him so badly that he actually took a step backward. She gave him a disdainful look and turned her back on him, speaking instead to Odysseus. “What’s happened?”
“Achilles knows Patroklos is dead. The berserker has utterly possessed him and he’s gone to kill Hector,” Odysseus said.
Kat felt the world tilt. Over a bizarre humming in her ears she said, “No… no, he’s not dead.”
“He will be shortly. There is no stopping it. The monster has already defeated the man,” Odysseus said.
“Not Achilles, Patroklos,” Kat said, fighting not to sob in despair.
Odysseus rounded on Agamemnon. “You said Patroklos was dead.”
“I said he’d left this world, and he has.”
Kat gasped, reading the truth in Agamemnon’s smug eyes. “You knew Patroklos wasn’t dead. You saw them disappear.”
“What I saw was proof that you are not a princess of Troy.”
She curled her lip at Agamemnon. “You’re finally right about something. No, I’m not an ancient woman you can bully.”
“Really? You look soft and weak to me.” Agamemnon made a threatening move toward her, but Odysseus stepped swiftly between them.
“You won’t touch her,” he said.
Agamemnon hesitated, and then chuckled mockingly. “I suppose it’s only right that you have her now that your friend is finished with her. But you should know that she’s been lying to you, too. She’s not Athena’s oracle. She’s in league with the Goddess of Love. I saw them together.”
“Perhaps you should return to your camp, great king.” Odysseus’s voice was flint. “Your battle is about to be won for you, and you should be there to seize the glory.”
Agamemnon narrowed his eyes at Odysseus. “She’s only a woman. Will you stand with her against your king?”
“God, you’re such an asswipe!” Kat blurted before Odysseus could speak. “You think I’m just this?” She pointed down at her body. “This is just a shell—it’s temporary. It’s the spirit inside that lasts and really counts.”
“Oh, I believe you, Princess,” Agamemnon said, voice rich with sarcasm. “Which makes what has happened to Achilles even more tragic. What was inside of him is gone. But don’t despair. His name will certainly last forever.”
Kat felt rage build within her. Acting purely on instinct, she wrapped her hand around Venus’s pendant and with the other pointed a condemning finger at him. “Today is your lucky day. You were right twice. I am not an ancient princess, and I am in league with the Goddess of Love. So it’s with Venus’s power that I say love will betray you, like you betrayed my love. Love will be your death and your curse.”
Agamemnon shuddered, but recovered himself quickly. “You can’t curse me, witch creature. I have the protection of the Queen of Gods herself.”
Kat’s laugh completely lacked humor. “Really? Last time Hera and I chatted about you she said you were an arrogant fool.”
“If I’m lying, then let the sea monsters Hera helped save me from come up here and grab me.” Kat took a couple resolute steps to the edge of the water. The waves washed over her shoes as she waited, looking seaward, and then when the placid water didn’t so much as stir, she slowly turned her gaze back to Agamemnon. “You’re screwed.”
Agamemnon stared at her and what he saw in her eyes made his face drain of color. “Stay away from me, witch!” he cried. The king began to hurry back down the beach toward the Greek camp, golden robes flapping behind him like he was an oversized, gilded gull.
Kat stared after him and prayed with every fiber of her being that curses really did work in this world.