"Oh, god, we are funny,” Kat said, leaning against Jacky, who was still giggling and wiping her eyes.
“Will you help us?” Venus asked.
Kat looked up at the goddess. “What if I do my best, it doesn’t work with Achilles, and he goes back to fighting? My mythology is shaky, but everyone knows he was a famous warrior who was killed because an arrow pierced his heel, the only place he wasn’t invulnerable. He lived to fight and he died fighting.”
Venus rolled her eyes. “His heel is the only place he’s vulnerable?”
“Rumors,” Hera said, shaking her head. “More incredibly annoying rumors.”
“So the heel thing isn’t true?” Jacky said.
“It makes no sense whatsoever,” Athena said. “How could piercing his heel kill him, or anyone? Modern mortals will believe anything.”
“Hello! It was written by people back in your day—not by us. The tendon that runs behind the heel was even named after him. A long time ago,” Kat said.
“Hey, what about that Trojan horse thing?” Jacky asked. The goddesses turned blank looks to her. “The stupid war was won when, uh…”
“When the Greeks snuck inside the walls of Troy hiding inside a humongous hollow horse,” Kat finished for her. “Or something like that.”
Venus shook her head. “First we started the war. Then Achilles can only be killed though his ankle. Now there’s a huge horse that wins the war? It just gets more and more ridiculous. No,” she said firmly. “None of that is true.”
“Okay, so basically even the meager details Jacky and I can remember from our waste-of-time humanities classes are bullshit.”
“Sounds like it,” Venus said.
“All right. So what is the truth? Achilles is not invulnerable, but he is a warrior. That part is right. Right?”
“Achilles isn’t immortal, but the berserker rage makes him extraordinarily difficult to kill. And, yes, he has been a warrior his entire short life.”
“Oh, god, tell me he isn’t a teenager, too,” Kat said.
“No, he isn’t quite thirty. It was prophesied by Zeus that if Achilles chose a life of glory and battle he would not live to see thirty summers, but he would be remembered for thousands of years.”
“What? Achilles chose this? Then I don’t know what you expect me to do,” Kat said.
“He made the choice when he was a boy. He has grown and changed since then. Thetis says Achilles tires of his childish decision and longs for peace, but his fate seems set and he has lost hope of changing the path he is on,” Athena said.
“Okay,” Kat said slowly. “I’ll try to help Achilles. But only on the condition that, win or lose, help or not, Jacky and I are sent back to our world.”
“In the kick ass bodies of our choice,” Jacky added.
“If you succeed in ending the Trojan War, you will each be granted one boon.”
“Hera.” Kat faced the Queen of Olympus. “It really isn’t fair of you to expect me to swoop in and fix a guy I’ve never met before in a situation that is more than a little outside my normal realm of expertise.”
“Nevertheless, that is the deal we offer,” Hera said. “And keep this in mind—the more days that pass since your unfortunate accident, the more difficult it will be for us to seamlessly weave you back into your old lives.”
“So you can’t even guarantee what you say you’re guaranteeing?”
“I can guarantee that we will use all of our vast powers to attempt to do so,” Hera said.
Kat looked from the Queen of Gods to Venus. The Goddess of Love was decidedly unhappy about Hera’s “deal,” but she shrugged and shook her head sadly, making it obvious she couldn’t do anything about changing her queen’s mind.
“Fine,” Jacky spoke up. “Kat will take care of business, and she’ll do it quickly, no problem. You, Miss High and Mighty, just keep your end of the deal.”
“I always keep my word,” Hera said.
“Then we’re set,” Kat said.
“Not entirely,” Venus said. “I think it needs to be made clear that they are under divine protection.”
“Agreed,” Hera said.
“I, too, agree,” Athena said.
“Good. It’s your protection they’re going to be under,” Venus said to Athena.
“Well, it can’t be me because, according to Greek rumors, I caused the whole Paris/Helen problem. It can’t be Hera because she just told Agamemnon to take Briseis from Achilles. You’re the only one left. Plus, you have a history with Odysseus, as well as Thetis, who will have told her son that you assured her his war-prize bride would be replaced. So Polyxena has to be under your protection,” Venus said.
“Yes, well, I suppose you’re correct,” Athena said reluctantly.
“You know, I’m not sure that I like the sound of ‘war-prize bride.’ I’m no prude, but I choose who I sleep with. And besides that, I’m no one’s property,” Kat said.
“Ditto,” Jacky said.
“Thetis assured me that her son will not force himself on a woman,” Athena said.
“Okay, well, that still leaves the issue of me being his property.”
Athena’s smooth brow furrowed in confusion. “You are a woman and a war prize. You are his property.”
Kat’s hands went to her hips. “I am no one’s property.”
“Being Achilles’ property will help to keep you safe, and keep you with Achilles,” Venus said.
“Hey, whose property am I?” Jacky asked.
“Polyxena’s,” Venus said.
“Shit,” Jacky said.
“There will have to be an explanation to cover their oddness,” Hera said, giving Jacky a stern look.
“You are right, of course,” Athena said, studying Jacky and Kat as she spoke. “Their strange ways will be noticed.”
“You could say that Kat is your instrument, that you have imbued her with sacred knowledge,” Hera said.
“That’s it! Imply that she’s an oracle; they’re always behaving oddly,” Venus said.
“That explains Katrina, but what about her?” Hera pointed her chin at Jacky.
“Sweet baby Jesus I’m right here! God, it’s annoying when you talk about me like I’ve gone all deaf and dumb,” Jacky said. “Besides, I do not behave oddly.”
No one said anything for several breaths, then Kat sighed. “How about this—I’m a bizarre oracle, so it’s really not a stretch that my serv—” She caught the killer look in Jacky’s eyes and corrected hastily, “That my circle of friends would be bizarre, too.”
“That is not entirely believable,” Athena said slowly.
“But all we have,” Venus said. “All right,” she told Kat, “just make it work.”
“Hang on. I thought we were going to be under Athena’s protection. So why do we have to explain anything?” Jacky said.
“You will be under my protection, but I cannot stay with you.”
“Then how the hell will you protect us?” Jacky said.
“You will beseech my aid,” Athena said.
“Or mine,” Venus said.
“Or mine,” Hera said, even though she was still frowning at Jacky.
“Sounds weak to me,” Jacky said.
“But it’s all you have,” Venus said.
Jacky snorted and opened her mouth to comment, but men’s voices coming from outside the temple interrupted her. Athena waved one hand quickly in the air and it was as if a secret view screen opened, showing half a dozen warriors entering the temple.
Kat only caught a brief glimpse of a golden man who walked in the lead before Athena closed the view.
“It’s Achilles.” Eleithyia sounded a little short of breath. “I’ve only seen him from a distance, but his golden armor is unmistakable.”
Kat’s stomach instantly knotted. Jacky took her hand and squeezed.
“It’s gonna be okay. You’re one hell of a therapist. And, might I add, currently one very hot young chippie.”
“Versus the very hot old chippie I used to be?”
“Exactly, but you still got the old chippie up there.” Jacky pointed to Kat’s head. “And there.” She pointed from her head to her heart. “Berserker boy doesn’t stand a chance.”
“Okay, let’s do this,” Kat told Venus.
Venus smiled warmly at her. “Remember, the Goddess of Love believes you are perfect. You and your delightful friend.” Then she turned to Hera. “We must leave. Athena should face the warriors and establish her protection. Our presence would only confuse things.”
Athena nodded. “I shall meet with you in Venus’s temple momentarily.”
“Go with my blessing, odd modern mortals,” Hera told Kat and Jacky, then she kissed Eleithyia gently on her forehead. “You, my little priestess, have pleased me greatly today.”
As Eleithyia curtseyed deeply, Hera and Venus disappeared in a shower of glitter.
“It’s really kinda cool that they can do that,” Jacky said. “And you know what? I’m starting to believe them. We might not be in hell.”
“I like your erotica novel theory better anyway,” Kat said.
“Gird yourselves, mortals, and follow me,” Athena commanded before striding regally from the chamber.
Kat and Jacky rolled their eyes at each other and then, waving their good-byes to Eleithyia, they followed the goddess.
The warriors had just reached the center of the outer chamber of Hera’s temple, which had no real walls but was ringed by graceful marble columns and open to the sky. Kat was distracted from the men by the world that surrounded them. It was an amazingly beautiful day—clear and warm. The air smelled of the sea and sweet incense.
“If this is hell, it’s gorgeous,” Jacky whispered, gripping Kat’s hand even tighter.
The men caught sight of them, or more specifically, Athena, and Kat didn’t have any more time for the scenery.
“The Goddess! It is the Goddess, Hera!” One warrior cried and the half dozen or so men all fell to their knees.
Actually, Kat noted that all of the men, except two, were kneeling. The taller of the two had his back to the sun and the slant of the afternoon rays made it difficult for Kat to see him well. She just got an impression of lots of hair and muscles and height. The other man was closer to the goddess and Kat was able to get a good look at him. The guy was fairly ordinary looking—average height, brown hair, nice body (which could be easily seen in the short leather tunic thing he was wearing). There was nothing remarkable about him at all until he spoke, and then Kat was instantly attracted to his cultured, intelligent voice and his eyes that sparkled with wit. He walked to within just a couple feet of the goddess before he sank to one knee, but he didn’t bow his head in supplication as were the rest of the kneeling men. Instead he pressed his right fist over his heart and smiled with obvious affection up at Athena. His first words were spoken so softly that had Kat not been standing beside the goddess she would not have heard him.
“Hail Athena, my Goddess. It has been long since you have appeared to me and I have missed you dearly.”
“It is right that you miss me, Odysseus. The price of being beloved of a goddess is that you are subject to her whims, not she to yours as with a mortal woman.”
Athena’s voice was sharp, but Kat was shocked to see how amazingly tender the goddess’s expression had become as she gazed down at him.
“Foolish Myrmidons!” The tall man barked in a deep, gruff voice at the other warriors. “How could you mistake Athena, Goddess of War, for Hera?” He stepped forward to kneel beside Odysseus and bowed his head respectfully. “Hail Athena! Forgive my men. Their brains have been addled by Trojan sea and sun. They meant no disrespect.”
“I forgive them, Achilles. You and Odysseus may rise.”
Achilles! His name shivered against Kat’s skin. Then he stood and lifted his face.
Her first thought was that she understood why he scared maidens. Her second was that she wondered how, in this ancient world without penicillin and blood transfusions, he had ever lived through so many wounds. Kat kept her expression carefully neutral. She heard Jacky’s muffled “huh” from beside her, but knew the ER nurse’s reaction wasn’t shock or fear, but that she also had to be wondering how the hell he’d survived such horrible injuries.
Kat needn’t have worried about fixing the expression on her face. Achilles didn’t have so much as a glance for anyone except Athena.
“By your presence here I assume Thetis has spoken to you,” Athena said.
“She has, Goddess,” Achilles said.
“Agamemnon has taken your war prize.”
Even though Athena didn’t frame the words as a question Achilles gave a tight nod and said a clipped, “He has.”
Kat noticed that the men behind him scowled at this and stirred restlessly.
“Then I shall replace that which you lost. I bring to you Polyxena, Princess of Troy, Daughter of Priam!”
Athena made a grand gesture and stepped aside. Achilles’ gaze turned to her and Kat thought her feet had grown roots and sunk into the marble floor of the temple. He had the most incredibly blue eyes!
Jacky coughed, and as she covered her mouth managed to push Kat forward.
“Princess Polyxena, greet Achilles, Leader of the Myrmidons,” Athena prompted.
Thankfully, Kat managed to put on her therapist face. She smiled politely and, in a perfectly modulated, perfectly calm, perfectly fake voice said, “Hello, Achilles. It’s nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Then she walked purposefully forward and, still smiling, held her hand out to him.
Achilles hesitated. He looked from her hand to her face and then back down at her hand again. Kat kept the smile plastered on and the hand hanging out there in the breeze. Finally he took it, gingerly, and bowed quickly over it as if he would kiss her, but stopped well before his lips touched her skin. Then he dropped her hand and took a quick half step back.
“I greet you, Princess,” he said, but his gaze had already shifted back to Athena.
“I must return to Olympus. Achilles and Odysseus, let me make it clear that Polyxena is unique. She will never be a normal war prize—she is much more. I have decided to imbue her with sacred knowledge. Think of her as you would my beloved oracle. She and her maidservant are under my protection. Anyone who would dare harm them shall evoke my eternal wrath.” Athena raised her voice so that the power in it brushed physically against the kneeling men.
“We understand, Goddess,” Achilles said.
“Be sure you keep her safe,” Athena said. “Odysseus, a word.” The goddess motioned for Odysseus to follow her out of hearing range, leaving Kat and Achilles standing awkwardly together. Kat wanted to stare at him. Of course staring was what all women probably did when they first met him. Or they wouldn’t look at him at all. Just like she wasn’t looking at him at all. God, she was acting like an idiot. Resolutely Kat looked at Achilles to find him staring over her shoulder at nothing with his jaw clenched.
He must hate first meetings like this, she thought.
Kat cleared her throat and, almost reluctantly it seemed, Achilles’ gaze met hers.
“Achilles, I’d like to introduce you to my servant,” Kat stumbled just a little over the word. “This is, uh, Melia,” she blurted, almost forgetting her best friend’s new name.
Jacky stuck her chin in the air and made a weird little half-curtsey, half-bow. “Pleased,” she said.
Ignoring Jacky completely, Achilles said, “You would introduce me to your slave?”
“Well, yes,” Kat said.
“Jesus god, it’s like I’m not here again,” Jacky muttered.
“Highborn!” Athena’s commanding voice made all of them jump. The goddess walked briskly back to them. “Melia was highborn—a princess in her own land before she was abducted and sold to Troy. Polyxena has chosen not to break her spirit. As I told you, the princess is unique.” Athena turned her back to the warriors so that she could give Kat and Jacky severe looks. “I depart now.” She faced the men again and raised her arm majestically. “Be forewarned that I will be watching, and one never knows when I shall return.” The goddess disappeared in a glittering cloud of gray smoke.
“Such a drama queen…” Jacky whispered to Kat.
“Come, Princess. I will show you to your new home.” Without waiting to see if she followed him, Achilles marched away, leaving his soldiers to form a column around the women and follow behind him.