I was still sitting on the couch, the torn letter in my hand, when Zella walked in to begin dinner preparations.
"Oh!" she murmured when she saw me. "I did not realize you were home yet."
I couldn't move, couldn't respond to explain that I hadn't even gone back to school after that shell-shock at lunch.
Zella came around the side of the couch and sat opposite me. She picked up the letter and laid it out on the coffee table between us.
I opened my mouth to say something, and ended up bursting into tears instead. Why was I crying? It wasn't as if they were dead--they couldn't die if they were gods, could they?
Oh sweet mercy, they were gods! My parents were actual gods! I looked over at the dark-haired housekeeper, who didn't seem fazed in the least by the information imparted by the letter, almost like she'd known exactly what to expect.
"Is it true?" I managed. "People can't just... I mean, it's not like you can know someone for most of your life and they're perfectly normal and then one day they're just, like, By the way, I'm a god--that's gotta be some kind of farce!" I rubbed the tears from my face. "There had to be some kind of sign! How could they have passed for mortals all this time? Why was this never brought up till now?"
Zella waited through my outburst and took my hand. "Time runs differently when you're an immortal, Priscilla--and when you're a deity, the everyday humdrum of the whole world doesn't happen the same way as it happens for the people who live their entire lives without knowing of any other plane of existence."
I sniffed and rubbed my nose. "Is that why Mom decorates with art and sculptures instead of pictures?" I'd been to a few friends' houses, and without fail, the home decor always involved a hallway full of unflatteringly outdated portraits in oddly-shaped frames, or some sideboard or living room wall full of pictures from bygone generations. I'd always thought it was part of Mom's affinity for artifacts and her job as a museum curator that led her to decorate our house like one of her exhibit halls.
Zella grinned. "They have no family photographs from their past because they have no past--at least, not one that could be photographed. Patrick wanted to at least have a few photos they'd taken with you, as you grew with them, but Aurelia felt that it was too risky, that seeing only photos of yourself would lead you to ask questions they didn't want to answer before the right time came."
My eyes remained glued to the words "we are gods, Priscilla", and I blurted out my next question, "Did you know what they were, when you came to work for them?"
Zella's eyes lit up and she actually laughed at this. "Of course! It's because I belonged to a congregation that worshipped the Microtheon, as we referred to these 'second-tier' gods, that they hired me in the first place. In fact, my grandparents could trace their ancestry all the way back to the group of worshippers who built the temple dedicated to your parents, in ancient Macedonia."
I felt a small shiver across my back, and I rubbed my hands across my forearms. "So wait; are they gods, or are they not fully gods? What do you mean by 'second tier'?"
Zella folded her hands in her lap patiently. "There is the Greek Pantheon, which is populated by the major gods--Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, Ares, and all the rest. They are the most widely-known, but they are by no means the only gods in existence! The major gods, their power ranges from manipulating the elements to shape-shifting and altering reality any way they please. The minor gods are no less divine, but their power is limited to one particular thing, and therefore, many of them have collectively formed the Microtheon: a consortium of gods who answer to the Pantheon, but also see fit to direct and shape the world and its people via their respective specialties."
I picked the letter up and read the part where Mom explained all that. "So, my mom controls the wind, and my dad is the god of... waves? And that's all they can do?"
The housekeeper nodded. "Now you're getting it. They answered, of course, to Poseidon, him being god of the sea."
My head began spinning again, and I covered my eyes with my hands. Just imagining my parents actually physically speaking to an actual god was something out of a fantasy novel!
"Holy cow..." I sighed. "This is a lot to take in."
Zella gave a small chuckle. "You should check out your mother's office while I get dinner ready. That might help settle things once and for all."
I dropped my hands, ready to give the housekeeper a look--but she was already up and making her way to the kitchen.
I sighed and pushed myself off the couch. I'd been in Mom's office before--at least, the part in front of the door, just across the threshold. Never any deeper, since I never had a reason to. When she was in the office, she wouldn't let me come in any further, choosing instead to come out and sit with me on the back patio when we needed to talk; when she wasn't, there was this feeling I would get whenever I ventured near the door--a feeling like I was going to get "caught" at any moment. What exactly I was afraid of, I never knew--but this time, armed with Zella's invitation and the knowledge that I wouldn't be discovered accidentally by a mother who was afraid I might see something before she deemed me "ready", I marched through the double french doors and straight inside.
It looked like a normal office: her desk, a chair next to the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf full of leather-bound and hardback books. On the interior wall of the office was an old-looking map, with a couple framed diplomas alongside it. I sat in her desk chair, spinning freely on the swivel as I brushed my hands under the shelves and desk surfaces, in case of a hidden switch or something.
My cell phone went off in my back pocket, making me flinch so hard I nearly hit the edge of the desk with my face. I pulled it out to see a new message from Tony.
Tony: Where r u?
"Oh right," I muttered to myself, formulating a reply. "I've just had the shock of my life and I'm supposed to be in class right now."
Pris: @ home. Big family stuff happening RN. Needed the day to handle it.
Tony: U ok? Want me to come?
Pris: No, thnx. I'll get thru it. Just need rest. B better tmrw.
Tony: Ok. Hey, BTW, guess who's got a clean bill of health and is coming on the FRED trip?
Pris: Srsly? I thought they'd already picked 5 of us.
Tony: 1 backed out--Chelsea, I heard.
Pris: Her parents were pretty leery of the whole thing
Tony: Yeah, and now they're totally boycotting it. TBH, it does feel a little sketch that the school is letting us go when we dk 4 sure WHERE it is, even
I frowned at his message. Was he getting the same vibe, that something deadly awaited us in Fourtouna? Of course, only I knew the bit about the deadly demon (which I may or may not have released in my effort to keep Tony from dying) but if the "greater Pantheon" was aware of it, we wouldn't exactly be in danger, would we?
I opted to change the subject, only slightly.
Pris: So they're letting an anthropology guy go in place of the tech girl?
Tony: Hey! I do tech! I ran a successful robotics team in high school, JSYK! We were just two wins shy of making it to nationals!
Pris: Ok jeez didn't mean to offend. That's cool. See u in class?
Tony: No. Parents want me at home till they're 100% sure everything's ok. Doc says I'm fine, but they keep talking about relapsing.
Pris: that's rough. See you whenever, then!
I swiped over to my college email and sent some very apologetic emails to all my professors, explaining that I had to miss the rest of the day due to personal reasons, dealing with huge family stuff, and promising to make up for it as soon as I felt well enough to return to attending classes. As I re-read the email and thought about everything Zella told me, I could feel a pointed, stinging, hot sensation just below my collarbone. In alarm, I put my hand over the area, and I felt the round lump of my locket hanging around my neck--but it felt like the thing was on fire.
I twisted in the chair as I fumbled with the clasp at the back of my neck, intent on getting it off me before it left a brand on my skin. I stared at it--the locket was definitely glowing, but only the design on the front and back. I stared at the strange shapes, more like symbols, really, and as I turned in the chair, I noticed a pair of what I had assumed were paperweights on Mom's desk. They were round stones, etched with the same designs as the ones on my locket! I picked up one of the paperweights, and something clicked behind me. I turned toward the wall with the map.
The topmost diploma had moved! It now stood partially open on noiseless, hidden hinges. I scrambled around the desk to open the apparent hidden compartment. A second panel opened on the other side, and I stared at a set of ancient relics: a small plate, a few stones with Greek letters etched into them, and a small, hollowed-out stick of some sort. Behind it all was a colorful painting of a woman wearing a dress made of clouds, with her hands outstretched as the trees curved under her, and birds soared around her. The detail was so incredible that I recognized the woman's face immediately.
"Mom?" I gasped under my breath, cradling the icon in my hand.
I moved the other paperweight, and Dad's real estate license certificate also swung away from the wall, revealing a second set of relics, this time a tiny sealed jar of sand and water, another small incense plate, and a terrifying icon of a giant bearded man gesturing toward a foaming sea as waves curled around his feet and a pitiful boat caught in the storm. I set the two collections on Mom's desk. My instincts and my knowledge of world religions told me that I was most likely looking at remains of what might have been a pair of in-home altars. The icons left little doubt as to whom these altars were meant to worship.
Zella gave me a knowing look as she set a plate of spaghetti and meatballs on the counter in front of me. I noticed she'd already packed up the leftovers. Did that mean she was staying, and my parents wouldn't be back?
"Was your experience enlightening?" asked the housekeeper.
I nodded, running my fingers over my locket again. Once I left the room, it had stopped glowing and burning. "Found some things," I said, "and confirmed all that stuff you told me." I hesitated. "Zella, do you know anything about this demon Mom mentions in her letter?" The one that tore off the rest of her warning and low-key threatened me in blood-writing? my thoughts added.
Zella shook her head, her dark eyes gleaming. "They never told me about that part. I guess they weren't too worried about it at the time. I wonder what changed between then and now." She sighed. "I do believe that your mother kept some old books that happened to mention the Microtheon--it wasn't a very common subject, so information about it in this day and age is rare. Maybe one of those might mention some kind of conflict with the Underworld."
She turned to load the dishwasher, and I hid my guilt behind a mouthful of noodles. I knew exactly what changed. Only time would tell just how badly I'd jeopardized my own trip due to sheer stupidity. My one consolation would be that Tony would be there. If I had to explain the real situation to anyone, surely he would be the most understanding!
Atlantic Ocean, 1956
The SS United States bucked and rolled as the choppy seas pushed against her reinforced sides. Tourists in gaudy linen outfits clutched tightly to the edges of their chairs and tried to ignore the fact that a vehicle the size of five buildings could be pushed around so. Those who were drunk enough never noticed, attributing the movement to their own inebriation. Those who weren't drunk saw their staggering companions and fervently wished they could be also.
Among the waves, invisible to the mortal eye, Trikymios followed the trail of the ocean liner, scooping out huge whitecaps and rolling surges with merely a gesture. He enjoyed toying with the mortals on occasion, never really intent on harming them--just reminding them that, even with all their innovations and advancements, their grand ideas and noble predictions, they were never really in charge.
Trikymios coaxed a large curl up to a height that would break over the topmost deck of the ship, where most of the humans had already found someplace to hang on for dear life.
To his chagrin, the wave didn't even have a chance to form properly at the top before it disintegrated, slumping down to drench the lower decks instead. That got the god's attention. He roused a bit, nudging the cruise ship off course as he sent up a few more crests to discern the source of this disruption.
A sweeping wind thundered over the surface of the water, obliterating the waves and sending seafoam in all directions. When Trikymios produced another wave, the wind came from another direction, swirling along with the curl and pushing the water up to new and amazing heights. Trikymios sensed the presence of another divine, and he chuckled. He could discern a female presence flitting among the clouds overhead, toying with the air in the same way he toyed with the water. Nudging the waves into a pattern she would understand, he, like a gentleman, extended an invitation. Using the wind in much the same way, she communicated her acceptance.
The passengers of the SS United States had hardly begun to cope with the extraordinary chaos of the rollicking ship when it stopped, and everything settled. A whole team of waiters who had only recently figured out which position kept them upright suddenly collapsed in heaps on the dining room floor, as the ship righted itself and ceased its constant shifting.
"And what may we serve you tonight, sir?" the waiter asked, nodding to the menu in the man's hand.
The man's icy-blue eyes twinkled as he clapped the menu shut and handed it to the waiter. "Just bring me one of everything," he boomed.
To his credit, the young man managed to keep a steady, professional manner. "Very good, sir," he said, as if the man had just ordered a modest selection of dishes. One of everything? Some might attempt to order their way through a cruise menu as a joke, a dare, or out of curiosity... but this man had hardly looked twice at any of the dishes! The waiter wagged his head as he filled out the ticket and sent it off to the kitchens.
The man sat back as he waited for his food, surveying the array of faces before him: dark, light, old, young, happy, irritated, tired, excited, bored, awed--it was as if the ship carried a small sampling of all of humanity. "One of everything," indeed!
He heard the high-pitched, animated chatter of the three women before they even neared his table. The whole time, there were at least two of them talking over one another. When one would finish, the other would cut in and start talking, all the while the third would be airing her opinion, or relating some lengthy anecdote.
They stopped walking when they saw him, and one of them burst out laughing as her friend announced to the dapper gentleman, "Oh my! Sitting alone, are we? Wouldn't you like to sit with us, I wonder?"
"Our table's just over there," her friend added, pointing deeper into the dining room.
The man shook his head. "Thank you, ladies," he responded, prompting more giggles at the sound of his rich, rolling voice. "I am, in fact, expecting someone else to join me very soon." He gestured to them with his hand, and like the rolling waves of the sea, the women resumed dancing and babbling amongst themselves.
"Trikymios." She saluted him with the glass of wine.
He toasted her back with a polite nod. "Auraea, how good of you to join me."
"A lady doesn't get invited onto a Transatlantic cruise every day," she nodded to him.
He shrugged. "What can I say? I was bored, and this seemed the most likely place to find a new kind of entertainment."
Auraea sipped the wine and glanced around the dining hall with pursed lips, much in the same way that Trikymios had. "Yes, I suppose the sea does grow a little dull after a while." She met her companion's gaze with a flick of her eyebrow. "How fortunate that the sky can spread so easily over both land and ocean."
The bearded gentleman with the booming voice threw back his head and laughed at the jibe. "My powers may be limited to the water--but at least this world holds plenty of it!"
A waiter arrived, bearing a tray full of appetizers on single-serving dishes.
"The rest will be out shortly," he informed the impeccable guests.
Trikymios nodded, accepting dishes until the table was full.
He nodded to Auraea. "Shall we begin our mortal adventures?"
The goddess selected a rolled pastry and sank her teeth into its flaky crust. She swallowed and nodded. "You sure know how to treat a lady," she murmured.
Trikymios snapped a crab-shell in half with his hands and waved one of the legs at her. "Woman," he promised, "I'm just getting started."
Her grin widened, and she reached out to take his hand.
"Then, good sir," she murmured in that delightfully exotic accent of hers, "I believe this is the start of a wonderful relationship."
Late that night, the cruise ship experienced a second storm that had not been on the radar, though this one wasn't quite as chaotic as the first, and rather than fighting against their heading, the waves and wind seemed to be working in concert this time, to drive them faster and closer to their destination. The captain advised the engineers to adjust the motors accordingly, and watched the North American coastline skim by as he walked down the hall to his berth. The sooner this bizarre return trip was over, the better--and he hoped never to experience another one like it!