Eros waved for the bartender. The stout man with a face that could frighten a harpy frowned. Eros had already drunk enough to kill a man, but the bartender didn't know that this customer was unlike any that had visited his establishment in the past. None of his mortal drinks could affect the god.
So why did Eros drink?
It wasn’t because he liked the burn of alcohol, and it didn't distract from his troubles. Nor was the company great, and the pub offered nothing in the way of a pleasing ambiance.
Yet his mother wouldn't look for him here. To have a reprieve from her constant gloating and condescension was a haven all onto itself. That alone was more than enough of a reason to consume so much whiskey it dripped from his pores, if that was the price to stay.
To ease the bartender's concern and suspicion, Eros set a ludicrous amount of money (more than the bartender had ever seen, judging by how his perpetually squinting eyes widened) on the counter. "Whatever will suffice," he said.
The hard glint didn't leave the bartender's too alert gaze, but he reached for a bottle of gin. He glanced at a shot glass, shook his head, and slid the full bottle in front of Eros.
Eros took the bottle with a wide grin. "Many blessings on to you and your kin!"
The bartender snorted and turned his attention to another waiting bar fly.
Eros opened the gin and took a long drag from the bottle. He purposefully avoided looking to his left, but that didn't mean he didn't sense the evil eye locked on him. In time, he'd have to address the issue, but he hoped it could wait until he finished his newly gained gin. Unfortunately, Eutychia was not smiling on him, though that didn't surprise Eros (long ago, she’d vowed to hate him until the end of his days, and Eutychia wasn’t a goddess that took vows lightly).
Argura, the water nymph that had been Eros' constant companion since the beginning of his troubles, pulled the gin bottle from Eros' hands. Her skin, currently magicked to hide its deep blue hue, was an amusing shade of red. She breathed through her nose so hard and fast Eros, if blind, would have thought she was the Minotaur.
Eros laughed. "I'll get you your own. No need to steal mine."
Argura poured the gin on the floor. The bartender's back was turned, and no one alerted him to the mess, but Eros was half-tempted to tattle. All it would do was get Argura kicked out of the pub and she'd wait outside for him to resume the fight, but the prospect allured.
"You're so wasteful," Eros chided instead.
Argura shoved the bottle away. "You're being obnoxious, and we're getting dirty looks."
Eros glanced around the gloomy room.
Sure enough, at least half a dozen patrons eyed the god and his nymph. Eros wondered when it had started. After he'd downed enough alcohol to get the Kraken tipsy or when he'd flashed too much money?
Regardless, Eros didn't care. His limbs itched for action, and though no mortal could best him, plenty in the room could give him a bit of fun.
"Let me be," Eros said once his focus returned to Argura. He sounded like a young godling being denied his favorite toy. It was the tone he'd often used on his mother to great success.
Sadly, it didn’t cajole Argura to do his bidding.
Her mouth puckered as if she’d just bitten into a spoiled olive. "Is this how you're going to spend your time?"
Eros wiggled his eyebrows. He ran his hand up Argura’s right thigh. "What should I be doing?"
The over-the-top flirtation was all a put-on. For one, he'd never considered Argura a romantic interest. Not that she was unattractive (when did a nymph not tempt?), but they'd been friends for so long he saw her as nothing else.
Besides that, his heart had been so thoroughly stolen over two millennia ago that he craved only his love. Argura, or any attractive female, could stand in front of him naked and beg for his attention, and he’d turn away without the slightest glance at their assets.
Argura kicked him in the shin. Eros yelped, but not from the pain. He hadn't expected the nymph to resort to violence.
"This won’t break the curse."
That he knew, but Eros had tried everything. For his effort, all he'd received were too many examples of how the mortal he loved could die. Even if he stayed away, she still perished.
What was the point?
If he was smart, he’d abandon hope.
"What if I don't want that anymore?"
The words scalded as he said them, but he wouldn't take them back. Maybe if he repeated them enough, he'd believe them.
Argura's light, stormy green eyes narrowed. "You're giving up?"
"What else can I do?"
"This is the perfect time to try Sekola's suggestion."
"Oh, yes, because her word is so trustworthy."
Sekola had been one of Apollo's prophetesses back eight hundred years ago, and she’d been hopelessly in love with Eros. Despite it being forbidden, she’d left her home to seek Eros to deliver a prophecy about him. How great the punishment for that blunder, Eros hadn’t had the stomach to find out.
She hadn't told him much, just that the answers he sought were in "a realm that thrives the more mortals innovate". For a hint on a prophecy, it was a shamefully easy one to decipher. The lack of difficulty would insult many (half the fun of a prophecy was the vagueness that allowed for wild speculation), but Eros had welcomed the simplicity.
Yet he hadn't explored the prophecy.
Eros couldn't say for sure.
Was he afraid of where he had to go?
Definitely. But that wasn't the sole reason. Maybe he dreaded exploring his last option. For what if he failed? What would he do then?
"We've come too far to—"
A familiar, horrible burning sensation shot through Eros' skull and the next moment his vision tunneled to black. He lost all sense of his surroundings and his body. All that mattered was the darkness and what it would soon reveal.
The blackness seemed to last forever, but Eros knew it wasn’t longer than a few seconds. Then a pinprick of light appeared, and the more Eros fixated on it, the bigger it grew until he was looking at a fully colored scene playing out in real-time.
A heavily pregnant, laboring woman lied on a hospital bed. A doctor sat between her bent legs, his nondescript face stoic. Two nurses flitted about like startled birds, more a hindrance than any help. A third nurse assisted the doctor and experience oozed from her every movement.
The scene did not surprise Eros. He had seen it hundreds of times. The people always looked different, but there was always a doctor of sorts, their three assistants, and a pregnant woman.
As before, Eros witnessed (against his will) this delicate moment right before the baby was born. Without fail, he saw the exact second the woman's heart gave out. Then there was the mad flurry of movement from the doctor as he raced to pull the baby from her mother before she suffocated; the tears in the nurses' eyes as they realized they could do nothing to save the woman.
Eros hated it all, though the horror of it had long ago faded. Now all he felt was a pang of elusive sympathy for the child that would grow up without her mother and as a constant reminder to her father and two older sisters of the sacrifice made to bring her into this world. Maybe this time the child's family would think she was worth it, but Eros doubted it.
The scene was mute until the competent nurse was swaddling the newborn and barking orders at the other two nurses. Then he could hear every word she said, the mutterings of the doctor, and the baby's fusing. It was all said in a language Eros hadn't come across in some cycles. The dialect was different, but that would make it easier to seek the woman the child would become.
All at once, Eros was ripped from the scene and unceremoniously tossed back into awareness at the pub thousands of miles away. The pain in his head grew worse and his stomach rolled, making him regret all the alcohol. It took all his willpower to not vomit on the bar.
"Don't you dare get sick!" the bartender said. His voice was as ugly as his appearance.
Argura rubbed Eros' back. "He won't."
"Not enough money in the world to get me to..." the bartender continued muttering as he walked to the other side of the bar.
Eros swallowed a huge mouthful of air. That, combined with Argura's touch, helped soothe his nausea.
After a time, he sat up straight. Argura offered him her glass of water, but he shook his head. He'd lost any desire for food and drink.
"Where is she?" Argura asked.
Eros swallowed twice before answering. "The Southern Americas."
Grim determination gripped Argura's fair features, made her look less likely to frolic in a fountain and more likely to lead a coup. "We'll leave tonight."
Eros sighed. "No, we won't."
"But we have to move now. We take forever to—"
Eros held up a hand and Argura quieted. "You will seek her out. Even without a connection to her, you’ll find her without me."
Eros closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat. As much as giving up tempted, the hope that he could beat his mother and break the curse overrode his cowardice. He'd made a vow and he couldn't go back on it, not if he truly sought peace. Even if he couldn't be with his love, at least she would no longer suffer.
"I'm going to the Underworld."
Sweat dripped into Antonia's eyes, the salt stinging. As much as it bothered her, she pushed past her discomfort. Just in time, too, for Maron, her dueling partner for the afternoon, chose then to change his kick mid-strike.
Antonia jumped as Maron's foot came to her knee. She cleared his kicking radius, and at the same moment struck him in the stomach with her own kick. Maron groaned, guttural and pathetic, and stumbled. Concern swept over Antonia as she landed on the ground in a low crouch.
She opened her mouth to question his condition, but the sharp sound of a cane striking the nearby patio tiles stopped her. Steel determination silenced her worry. Inquiry would come once she defeated her opponent.
With a minor struggle from Maron, Antonia had him on his back a few seconds later. He smacked the ground twice with an open palm—the designated sign of surrender.
Antonia bent over him. "Anything ruptured?"
Maron had an arm slung over his face, which muffled his, "God, probably."
Antonia winced. "Will you live?"
"Only because God wants me to suffer."
Despite her guilt, Antonia smiled. If Maron could joke, then he wouldn’t die soon because of what she'd done.
"Would you like me to call for the doctor?"
Maron waved away her question. "Let me rest a few minutes and I'll be able to take you on again."
"Today's sparring has ended," a raspy growl said from behind Antonia.
"Damn," Antonia breathed and stood.
She faced the one in control of the tapping cane, her mentor Mr. Ignotus.
Since her tenth birthday, Mr. Ignotus had been Antonia's fighting instructor. Why her father decided she'd train while her older sisters wouldn’t, Antonia had never dared ask for fear her father would fire Mr. Ignotus.
She used to wonder if her father intended to make an example out of her joining the military to encourage women to step outside their docile roles and aim for other aspirations, much like the United States had done in the second Great War. That idea died when she'd turned seventeen, the legal age to enlist, and her father had rejected her offer.
Since then, Antonia had believed Mr. Ignotus could have offered to teach her how to make toucans waltz, and if his rates were reasonable, her father would have agreed. Keeping Antonia out of sight had been her father's goal for as long as she could remember, and he went to great lengths to accomplish it. Most times it benefited Antonia, as she had more freedoms than either of her sisters, though at what price?
Mr. Ignotus evaluated Antonia head to toe; narrowed his dark amber-colored eyes that glowed so deep they seemed almost red when he was furious or when the sun hit them. Then his gaze took in Maron, and his thick, always chapped lips pursed.
Disappointment gripped Antonia. While she'd won the sparring match, she hadn't impressed Mr. Ignotus. More than her momentary pause before she’d finished Maron must have upset him. She thought through what she'd done, but she'd executed each kick, punch, somersault, jump, and dodge perfectly.
Where had she gone wrong?
Mr. Ignotus' weight shifted from his good leg to his bad one as he readjusted his donkey-headed cane. A fleeting grimace crossed his haggard, bearded face, and a pang of kindness shot through Antonia. Though Mr. Ignotus wasn’t the easiest man to like, he never seemed an unemotional automaton like her father. Occasionally, he allowed a flash of his humanness to peek through his gruff exterior.
"You both were slow today," Mr. Ignotus said, his brief show of pain gone.
Maron hadn't moved, but said, "Late night with the missus."
Fighting or loving making? Maron didn't elaborate. Both scenarios were equally likely.
Mr. Ignotus grunted, and Antonia swore a flash of sympathy softened his intense, hooded gaze. "Not a valid excuse."
Maron's shrug was his response.
Mr. Ignotus didn't press the issue.
A jolt of jealousy made Antonia stand taller. Mr. Ignotus was always more lenient on Maron. Maybe he feared pushing the royal guardsman too far and upsetting Antonia's father. Like her, Mr. Ignotus did everything he could to avoid drawing too much of her father's attention.
Antonia understood the politics behind Mr. Ignotus' actions, but it didn't help ease the sting of his outward favoritism. By now, at twenty-three, she should be above her envy, yet it always cut like the first time.
Mr. Ignotus looked at Antonia. "What is your excuse?"
"I...didn't think—I believe I performed well," Antonia said, her tone measured. Mr. Ignotus would tear her apart if he sensed her irrational thoughts.
"Only because Maron wasn't in peak condition. If he had been, you'd be in his position right now."
Antonia doubted that. Maron wasn't her sole sparring partner amongst the royal guard, but he was the one she'd had the longest. She knew his actions inside and out. He was one of her father's best and most loyal guardsmen, yet he was as predictable as the rising and setting of the sun. Antonia could beat him blindfolded (and had on two occasions).
Today Antonia was in no mood to kowtow. "I disagree." Her voice was steady and strong; so powerful, not unlike her father's.
"Oh, you do?"
The corner of Mr. Ignotus' mouth twitched, and she realized what his aim had been all along.
Mr. Ignotus often stressed the importance of a steel constitution, along with a well-crafted body. Without both a fighter or a leader was a few agitated nerves away from being worthless.
Though it hadn't been his place, Mr. Ignotus had gone over countless examples from history. Some he'd spoken about as if he'd known them, but that had been wishful, childish thinking on Antonia’s part. If anything, Mr. Ignotus could have interacted with those from the two Great Wars, but Antonia doubted it. Mr. Ignotus didn't seem the type to hang around rulers or soldiers.
Mr. Ignotus stared Antonia down; made his misshaped face a terror to behold. Yet it did not shake Antonia, and she met his challenge with a calm, solid one of her own. They stayed like that for a long, tense minute.
Finally, Mr. Ignotus grinned.
The genuine expression crinkled the fine wrinkles around his eyes and brought much-needed smoothness to the hard planes of his features. Antonia wished he smiled more, for when he did, his happiness overrode the less than desirable qualities of his appearance. Maybe then he could find a good wife to mend his broken heart (Mr. Ignotus never discussed his romantic dealings, but he didn't need to for her to see how badly love had burned him).
A wicked glint lit up Mr. Ignotus' eyes. "You still owe me ten laps."
Antonia sighed. "For hesitating?"
Of all her training, Antonia hated doing laps the most. Not because of the running, but because Mr. Ignotus forced her to run around the outskirts of her father's property, so dozens of eyes watched her. It was a way to humble her, she knew, but she often asked him when she’d achieve peak humility. He never answered her.
It was pointless to argue, so Antonia bowed her head to Mr. Ignotus. She checked her shoes, wished Maron well, and took off for the nearest part of the high marble wall that enclosed her property. Within a few moments, more sweat drenched her forehead and back.
She clenched her jaw and told herself it wouldn't be long until she finished and could go for a dip in the pool. The thought whisked away enough of her discomfort that she'd complete her laps without internally whining the whole time.