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I hesitated when I reached the door, listening. Surf crashed against the sand, but no other sound penetrated the walls. A glance through the peephole only showed a shadowy figure with broad shoulders. “Who is it?”
Ares. Gritting my teeth, I tossed my hair back and unlocked the door. Fiery eyes greeted me, igniting months of pent-up anger toward my . . . what? Ex? Did our brief fling last summer even qualify as a relationship? Hell if I knew.
“Aphrodite.” He stepped forward, the motion seeming almost unintentional as his eyes drank me in. When he came up against my shield, he frowned.
My hand itched to slam the door in his face. Instead, I called up my most dazzling grin, dropped the shield, and threw myself into his arms. “Ares!” I made myself laugh—as if he hadn’t broken my heart—when he picked me up and spun me around. “I haven’t seen you in—”
The word forever caught in my throat. Gods can’t lie. Like, it’s physically impossible. But human sayings have a tendency to get stuck in my head. “Thirteen months.”
“You counted?” A cocky grin lit up his face as he set me down and crossed over the threshold. “Got you something.” He drew a long, thin brown paper bag from his coat and handed it to me.
I withdrew the picture book inside, smiling when I saw the cover. It was a children’s book on mythology. Flipping through the pages, I saw tiny envelopes begging to be opened, three dimensional cut-outs, and a hodgepodge of items fastened to the pages like a scrapbook. As a new goddess, some of the nuances of humanity eluded me. Reading their take on our history, particularly how they framed myths for their children, gave me some insight. It was amazing how much humans got wrong.
I flipped to a page that showed a young girl reaching down to pluck a flower from the edge of the riverbed, seemingly unaware of the frost creeping up the petals. The heading proclaimed the myth of Boreas and Orethyia to be the origin of winter. I turned to another section and my gaze landed on an illustration of Eris, the Goddess of Discord, holding a golden apple between Hera, Athena, and Artemis. I frowned, reading the section title. “The Divine Beauty Contest.”
Ares glanced over my shoulder, his breath familiar against my neck. “If you’d been around back then, you would have won that. Hands down.”
Whatever Ares saw on my face made his grin falter. He backed away. “I would have called, or come by, or something after—” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket. “I’m sorry. I was stuck in a jar. It’s a long story, and we’re already running late.”
Late? My insides went cold, and I set the book down on the kitchen countertop. “She told you.” Persephone might be a powerful patron, but I’d worried more than once that her naiveté would be my downfall.
“Poseidon got a lead on the missing demigods, so he pulled her into a meeting to talk strategy. Nothing they think I’d be any help with.” He smirked, stepping into my small living room, dark eyes flitting over the slim furnishings. No one took Ares seriously, and he liked it that way. “Hades stepped out long enough to ask me to collect you.” A flicker of concern lit up his eyes as he looked me over. “And I can sense that you have enough power to dreamwalk. So why did he send me?”
Dreamwalking didn’t take much power. But the ability to stay asleep long enough to slip into a dreamscape helped. Persephone understood why peaceful sleeping was an issue for me, so we’d arranged to meet early. If I couldn’t show, she’d ’port in to physically pull me into the dreamscape.
“Believe me, I’m asking myself the same question.” I moved backward until I bumped against the couch. Sitting down, I crossed my legs and studied Ares.
His gaze lingered on my legs for a split second before he caught himself and met my eyes. “Have the nightmares gotten that bad?”
You don’t get to ask about my nightmares. I flashed my teeth at him. After Zeus died, Ares, Adonis, Hephaestus, and I took off on a celebratory road trip, thinking Zeus would never trouble us again. Right up until I’d woken up screaming. “You’re really not going to elaborate on how you managed to get stuck in a jar for over a year? Seriously?”
“No, I’m really not.” His hands stayed in the pockets of his jacket as he leaned against the wall opposite me, putting as much space between us as the small room would physically allow. “Look, I get it. I’m the last person you want to talk to about this, but you need real help, Aphrodite. If this is the full extent of Persephone’s solution, I mean, it’s cute, but—”
“Cute?” I held up my hand. “Let me stop you right there. Our queen is not ‘cute,’ she’s—”
Ares rolled his eyes. “That whole queen thing was never made official.”
“We swore over our powers! How much more ‘official’ does it get?”
“She gave them back after she killed Zeus.”
Not mine. When Zeus created me, he’d thrown in an extra special quirk, making me obedient to anyone in his bloodline who outranked me. Only Persephone outranked me now. But refusing to break the vow of fealty that gave Persephone control of my powers made obedience my choice rather than his. Ares might see the distinction as meaningless; after all, I was hers to command either way. But some days, the subtle distinctions between Zeus’s choices and mine were all that kept me sane.
“She’s strong.” Ares held out his hands in appeasement. “I’m not contesting that.”
I rolled my eyes and picked up my phone, making a show of looking at the time while he talked.
“But strength doesn’t trump knowledge. I’ve been around a lot longer. I know a thing or two about—”
“And we’re officially late.” I tossed the phone toward him before he could elaborate. He didn’t know anything about what I’d been through. If he did, that night would have ended a lot differently.
Ares caught the phone by reflex. “You can’t afford to be seen as weak.”
My nails bit into the palms of my hands. “I know.”
“I don’t think you do.” He crossed the living room, pausing to set my phone down on the arm of my couch. “You bound yourself to Persephone. On one level, her claim to you may help, because no one is going to touch you unless they want to deal with her. But if they do want to get to her or send a message, then you’re a good way to do it.”
“I knew the risks when I swore to her.”
“Did you? Because you made a statement that you didn’t have to. You chose a side—”
“There are no sides anymore.” Zeus’s death might have set me free, but the circumstances of his demise created a major power vacuum and completely upset the hierarchy of gods, who were long accustomed to picking sides and petty squabbles anytime they got together. Right now, everyone had fallen into an uneasy truce. I knew Ares didn’t expect it to last long, but I had hope. This was a new Pantheon. There weren’t as many of us left, and our issues were a bit more meaningful than beauty contests and scandalous gossip.
“In this moment, yes. But peace never lasts. Persephone might slip up or Poseidon could go off the rails—hell, he’s halfway there already. But something is going to happen and we’re going to be at each other’s throats again. We all know it. Why do you think we all spent the last few thousand years in our separate corners, ignoring one another?”
“To make it easier for Zeus to pick you off?” I suggested, studying the half-moon indentions my nails left in my palms. Zeus had been systematically killing off his offspring and absorbing their powers, unbeknownst to the Pantheon. That was, until he abducted Demeter’s daughter and Poseidon’s son. Going after the children of realm-rulers was too great an offense to ignore, so the Pantheon came together and fought Zeus in a bitter battle, heavy with loss.
“You made a statement, Aphrodite. But the only advantage you’ve got to back it up is charm. That’s not always going to be enough.”
I could do shields, healing, glamours, and all the standard stuff as well, but most of the gods that were left had received something extra from both of their parents. I only had one—Zeus. “You mean the charm I used to completely incapacitate you?” I snorted. “I’d say it’s enough.”
Charm, or charisma, is like mind control. If used correctly, I can look any human, and most gods, in the eyes and make them do whatever I want. Lucky me, since gods need worship to survive. Since I’d only been created a couple of years ago, I didn’t exactly have a cult following to support my existence.
Ares shifted, visibly uncomfortable at the reminder. “I’m not one of the gods you should be worried about.”
I frowned, trying to figure out who he thought I should worry about. Athena, probably, though she’d always been friendly enough to me. Poseidon maybe? Only an idiot would let their guard down around him. Still, I considered everyone else in the Pantheon to be a friend.
“Let me help you.” Ares stepped forward, closing the space between us.
I narrowed my eyes. “What I need, you can’t give me.”
Ares gritted his teeth. “Fine. But for now, we need a convincing reason to explain why we’re late, not to mention why we’re showing up together.”
He had a point. The other gods wouldn’t actually ask, but I didn’t want to start the rumor mill churning with the idea that either Ares or I were too weak to dreamwalk without assistance.
“Okay, so it’s the middle of the day in Bangkok.” Ares’s face screwed up in thought. “If we ’port into a traffic jam there, then we could say that we got caught—”
“How did you even survive before me?” I slid my arms around him, shivering when my skin came into contact with his cold jacket.
“Oh.” Ares said, catching on. He lowered his mouth to mine. “Yeah, that’ll work, too.”
His lips burned against mine, warm and eager. Familiar. The kiss deepened, then multiplied. Ten kisses as short as one, one as long as twenty, and the entire universe dissolved into Ares’s touch. For one precious second, I felt like more than a tool. More than Zeus’s abomination willed to life. Someone, not something.
But his kisses were lies. And they hurt more than any truth I’d ever faced. Memories sprang to my mind unbidden. The whisper of fabric, a gentle caress, his lips against mine. What you’re looking for, he’d whispered, I can’t give you.
My back hit the couch, pinning his arm beneath me.
“Are you ready?” he asked, breaking away.
“Yeah,” I whispered, my voice hoarse with what? Pain? Wanting? Whatever this feeling was, I didn’t like it. Or maybe I liked it too much.
Ares pressed two fingers to my forehead and pushed me into the dreamscape.