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Goddess of Love

P. C. Cast


  V enus was restless.

  No. It was worse than restlessness. Restlessness could be calmed by a lovely chilled goblet of ambrosia and ordering a nymph to amuse her. (Which meant anything from plaiting the goddess's hair into an intricate crown of blond braids to receiving a full body massage from a water nymph - a deliciously sensual experience that was best performed on the seashore. Naked. ) But Venus didn't feel like summoning a nymph. And she was already sipping a glass of this season's excellent ambrosia, newly harvested from the Elysian Fields. Venus sighed and tapped her elegant foot against the smooth marble floor of her chamber in Vulcan's underground palace. She'd retreated from her own golden temple located high atop Mount Olympus (she did have a spectacular view) and come down to her husband's palace for the same reason she had for centuries: to find peace and solace from the exhausting duties of being the most beautiful, most desirable female ever created - of literally being love personified. It usually worked to hide away from the demands of being the Goddess of Love deep within the bowels of Vulcan's realm. After all, it wasn't as if there was anything romantic going on between Vulcan and Venus. The very thought made a musical little laugh escape from the goddess's perfect lips. That had been the point of marrying Vulcan. Well, not the whole point. For her, marrying Vulcan had given her an escape from the exhausting job of personifying love. For Vulcan, marrying the Goddess of Love had been validation, an attempt to show the rest of Olympus that he could fit in and be one of them.

  Apparently their passionless, loveless marriage had worked better in theory than it had in actual application.

  Venus put down her crystal goblet of ambrosia. Now where had that ridiculously cynical thought come from? There was nothing wrong with the arrangement she had with Vulcan. It had been working for centuries, and for centuries more it would continue to work. With a sudden inspiration, Venus stood up and hurried from the opulent chamber. That's it -

  she'd find Vulcan. They were, after all, friends. Perhaps he could help her figure out a good love match for Hermes. It was past time the Messenger God had those wings on his golden sandals fired up. Plus there was nothing like a little illicit love to brighten one's day. Vulcan wasn't hard to find. (Like there were any surprises about him - big or otherwise?) He was, as usual, in the center of his realm where the forge of Olympus and the great pillar of flame were located. She entered the room quietly. He was standing before the column of fire with his arms raised. Venus studied him with detached interest. He really was a splendidly built god, though not typically blond and lithe and graceful, as were most of the Olympians. Vulcan was dark and powerful. The rest of the gods shunned him because of his physical imperfection - the limp he'd had for eons. But his lameness was slight. It would hardly be noticed at all if he didn't live amidst the perfection of the golden gods.

  Yes, physically he was definitely attractive. Not that she had ever felt any desire for him (or he for her, as far as she could tell, and naturally, had there been desire, Love would be able to tell). Venus cocked her head to the side, considering how true it was that desire and passion often had little to do with the physical and much more to do with something as nebulous as a spark that passed between two spirits. And that spark was definitely missing between the two of them. Venus shook herself mentally. Such thoughts were a waste of time. She was, after all, Love. She could command that spark whenever she wished. So why not command a little fun and games for the flamboyant Hermes? It would be a good diversion for Vulcan, too. He was far too serious and too often did nothing but work, work, work. Venus moved closer to the dark god so that she could see just a little over his broad shoulder where the yellow and orange flames in the sacred pillar of fire were swirling in response to the magic the god was working - whatever that was. Within the flames she caught a brief glimpse of something that looked like the night sky filled with glistening constellations, which was odd but not particularly interesting. Venus had never understood what was so fascinating about the pillar of flame. Of course that might be because Vulcan had never shared details about his magic with her. Hmm. . . She stood there, chewing her lip. She'd never really thought about that before. Then she shrugged mentally. What difference did it make?

  "Vulcan!" she called cheerily at his back.

  He glanced over his shoulder and gave her a distracted smile. "Have you been resting well?"

  "Actually, darling, I'm terribly bored today. " She walked languorously over to the stone bench positioned near the flaming pillar and reclined gracefully. "How about you and I cook up something delicious between Hermes and say. . . " She hesitated, considering. "Between Hermes and Aeolus?"

  His attention still on the roiling flames, he answered her in a vague, preoccupied voice. "Aeolus?

  But doesn't the God of Winds prefer young nymphs, young female nymphs to other immortals?"

  Venus waved a hand dismissively. "Such a small detail. I'll decide on the spell, you decide on the flame that will carry it, and - "

  "Forgive me, Venus, but I'm in the midst of some rather important. . . " - the god hesitated, choosing his words carefully - "research. " He did look at her then, but only long enough to give her a distracted smile. "Perhaps another time. "

  Venus glared at him, although it wasn't as if he noticed her irritation. By Neptune's phallusshaped trident Vulcan was dull! He'd never been wild and passionate and fun - like, say, Apollo or his twin, Artemis - and that had, in truth, been part of the reason she'd married him. To be safe from passion. Then why did she suddenly find their arrangement (as well as the god himself!) so annoying?

  "That's right. I wouldn't want to interrupt your precious. . . " - she fluttered her shapely fingers at the pillar of flame - "fire research. As usual, you're dreadfully dull. Perhaps another time. " She echoed his words sarcastically. Then the goddess stood up, and with hardly a glace at Vulcan, disappeared in a puff of glittering, ambrosia-colored dust.

  By Zeus's beard Vulcan was glad she was finally gone! Not that he disliked Venus. Actually he'd thought of her as a friend for centuries. It was only recently that the friendship had begun to sour. The god sighed and rubbed his forehead. That wasn't Venus's fault. It seemed that lately everything in his life had begun to sour. But the dissatisfaction was his own - with his life. And she was right. He was dreadfully dull.

  When had he lost his spark for life? For adventure? For love? The last question floated through his mind, surprising him. Love? He snorted. He'd married Love, for all the good it had done him. There had never been anything but respect and friendship between Venus and himself. Of course she'd gone ahead to have countless dalliances, but that had never bothered him. They had an arrangement, not a marriage.

  No, his relationship with Venus wasn't what was bothering him. It was his life in general. His gaze drifted back to the visions of the constellations he had summoned within the fiery pillar. They looked so peaceful. . . majestic. . . so free. Longing washed over the God of Fire. If only he could escape to the heavens and leave the tedium of his life behind. . .

  And why couldn't he? He was an Olympian. A powerful god. Nothing was impossible for him. Of course he couldn't leave his realm untended. Vulcan rubbed his face and began to pace back and forth in front of the burning pillar. Who could run his realm were he to leave it forever?

  None of the other gods would deign to take his position - it was too far beneath them, literally as well as figuratively. He had no flashy view, no frolicking nymphs, no glittering decadence. He controlled the fires of the earth and Olympus. It was an important job, but it certainly wasn't as flashy as, say, pulling the sun across the sky or bringing spring to the earth. Pacing did nothing to relieve his frustration. He'd walk. That would clear his head. As he climbed the stone steps that
led to the surface he tried to concentrate on the positives - he was a god, and even though it would take a miracle for him to be able to retire to the heavens, the Olympians were known for their ability to work miracles. . . .

  The God of Fire walked slowly across the grand ballroom of Zeus and Hera's palace. He could have moved more quickly. His lameness didn't prohibit speed; it just prohibited grace. Over the eons he had learned to be slow and steady to save himself from disdainful looks and muttered insults. How he loathed the immortals and their unceasing passion for perfection. They were shallow and selfish. Most had no comprehension of what real pain and sacrifice and loneliness meant.

  Vulcan uttered an oath under his breath. He should have gone to ancient earth and walked through a deserted forest there to do his thinking. What had made him come to his parents'

  temple? It was stupid of him because the perfection that surrounded him only made his own imperfections more obvious.

  "Vulcan? I called after you several times and you did not hear me. Is all well with you, my son?"

  He stopped and turned to face Hera, who was hurrying after him. Automatically he relaxed his expression and smiled at his mother. "All is well. I was just lost in thought. Forgive me for being rude. " He kissed her soft cheek.

  "You would never be rude, my son. " Her sharp eyes studied him. "You seem sad. Are you quite certain all is well with you?"

  "Mother, please don't worry about me. " Vulcan forced another smile.

  "You know I do. " She drew in a deep breath.

  "There is no need. Now I must get back to my realm. It was good to see you, Mother. " He kissed her cheek again, and before those knowing eyes of hers could see further into his soul, Vulcan hurried away. The last thing he needed was his mother - or may all the gods forbid, his father -

  looking too closely at his life. He followed his own path, chose his own destiny. And he definitely didn't want interference from the king and queen of the gods. Had Vulcan hesitated and glanced over his shoulder at Hera, he would have been surprised to see her circling her fingers in the air, which instantly began to glitter. And had he been listening carefully, he might have heard her whisper, "I grant my son a single dose of mother love to aid him in whatever it is that is making his heart heavy. "

  Vulcan didn't turn around, though, and he didn't listen to his mother's whisper. He definitely didn't notice the almost invisible thread of power that followed him. Vulcan continued through the palace, intent on leaving before he ran into any of the other Olympians. He still moved slowly, but his gait wasn't awkward and self-conscious. Actually he moved silently, with a strength that was none-the-less obvious because of its pace. He had just come to the exit of the grand ballroom when he heard laughter that was so uninhibited and joyous and musical that there was no doubt at all to whom it belonged. No. He did not want to face her again today. He stopped and stepped silently into the concealing shadows as Venus approached. She was laughing and having an animated conversation with the Goddess of Spring. Obviously leaving his realm had instantly cured her boredom.

  "All right Persephone! I concede to you. After one glimpse of those divine boots, I'm willing to admit that I was too harsh in my judgment of your little kingdom," Venus said as she laughed.

  "How many times do I have to explain it to you? Tulsa, Oklahoma, is not a kingdom, nor is it mine. " Persephone's laughter was light and carefree, beautiful in its own right, even though it didn't have the seductive lure of the Goddess of Love. "Think of Tulsa as you would one of the ancient cities, like Pompeii or Mediolanum, only the sewage systems in Tulsa are better. " She paused and frowned. "But I cannot say the traffic has improved. "

  "Are you telling me that you spend six months of the year in a city with fabulous marbled baths like Pompeii?" Venus asked eagerly.

  "No. Sorry. Tulsa doesn't have Pompeii's baths. "

  "Then does it have Mediolanum's delicious red wine?" Venus moaned in remembered pleasure.

  "Red wine from Italy's Mediolanum region is sinfully rich and wondrous. "

  "Uh, no. Tulsa isn't a wine region, although they do import wines from all over the world. "

  Persephone chewed her bottom lip delicately while she paused and thought for a moment.

  "Actually I've found myself falling in love with a drink called a specialty martini. And they are definitely made right there in Tulsa. "

  "That only sounds vaguely interesting. Certainly not enough to account for your obsession with that place. "

  "I'm not obsessed!"

  "Of course you are," Venus said. "You spend six months out of the year in Tulsa. And right now it's not even spring or summer there, but you've just returned from yet another visit. You can't fool Love, Persephone. I know obsession when I see it. "

  Vulcan assumed the Goddess of Spring would be angered by Venus's words, so he was surprised to hear her respond with good-natured laughter.

  "Maybe I am obsessed. And why not? I do adore Tulsa. There's something about walking the streets of a modern city, one where no one recognizes me as an immortal, that is just so wondrously freeing. Think of it, Venus. No one prejudges you by what you may or may not have done for uncounted centuries. No one knows who your parents are. No one cringes in fear if you get annoyed. And here's the best part - no one worships you because you're a goddess. If you're worshipped" - she smiled seductively - "it's because you're a desirable, intelligent, fascinating woman. Can you imagine what a lovely change that is?" Persephone didn't give the goddess a chance to answer. "And the men! Modern men are different than ancient mortals. They don't have their hang-ups. "

  Venus's smooth brow wrinkled in confusion.

  "Hang-ups - it means that they don't think like archaic, barbaric dolts. Well, most of them don't. Modern men don't have the prejudices the ancients have; they know how to appreciate women as equals, and that is very, very sexy. "

  From the shadows Vulcan watched understanding dawn over Venus's beautiful face at the same instant he felt a shock of something that he didn't recognize at first because the emotion was so foreign to him - hope. What Persephone had said about modern men being different had given him sudden, sweet hope.

  "I wouldn't be recognized as Love?" Venus said at the same instant Vulcan realized that he wouldn't be recognized - or judged or shunned - as the God of Fire. Persephone smiled impishly. "You could practice your skills of seduction without anyone knowing that you are the incarnation of love. " The goddess sighed romantically. "Sounds intriguing, doesn't it?"

  "It does indeed. "

  Yes, Vulcan agreed silently. Not being recognized did, indeed, sound intriguing.

  "And don't forget the excellent shopping," Persephone added, gracefully pointing her toe and holding up her foot so that she could show off her black alligator-skin cowboy boot.

  "Persephone, my friend, perhaps you would like to show me around your entertaining little kingdom?"

  "It would be my pleasure. "

  The two goddesses linked arms and, laughing, walked off in the direction of Persephone's mother's temple, where Vulcan knew Demeter kept open a portal to the modern city Tulsa.

  "Fascinating. . . " he murmured to himself. Leaving his parents' temple he hurried to the stairs that would return him into the bowels of Mount Olympus and his own fiery realm. By the time he reached his great hall, Vulcan's mind was buzzing like the brown bees of Greece. Modern men didn't have the ancients' prejudices. . . . They wouldn't even recognize divine Venus as the physical incarnation of love. So it wasn't entirely impossible that maybe, possibly, there might be a modern man in the shining Tulsa Kingdom who could be enticed into stepping into his immortal place. Especially if Love herself was unknowingly involved in the enticing. . .

  With a new sense of purpose, Vulcan strode to the heart of his realm, stripping off his toga as he went so that by the time he faced the pillar of open flame that heated the world his muscular body was naked and already glistening with sweat.
br />   He raised his hands, palms open. In recognition of the presence of the Fire God, the orange pillar rippled and flashed. Vulcan closed his eyes and concentrated. Then he began the incantation. Fire swirl and burn, strong and clear,

  like passion does love, to Venus stay near.

  Follow Love's sweet path through Demeter's portal,

  search, test, seek, find a modern man who is mortal.

  The fire danced around Vulcan's palms like an exuberant child, mirroring the unusual excitement that suddenly burned within his breast. He was so intent upon the spell that he didn't notice the thread of Hera's power that snaked from around his body and joined the pillar, making it flare and swell with magic straight from the queen of Olympus. Vulcan clapped his hands together and completed the spell.

  With the unbreakable strength of an immortal's belief,

  find a mortal man who can grant me relief!

  The pillar of flame exploded with a roar that would have instantly deafened a mortal man. Unscathed, the Fire God watched as a sliver of golden flame, invisible to all except for the God of Fire himself, formed within the pillar and then split free of it to hover in the air in front of Vulcan.

  "Go! Do my bidding!" the god commanded. Quick as one of his father's infamous thunderbolts, it dashed from the heart of Mount Olympus. Vulcan knew its path. The questing flame would follow Venus all the way through Demeter's portal and into the Kingdom of Tulsa. There it would seek and search for something it could never find in the ancient world of man - a modern mortal who could take his place as God of Fire.

  Vulcan smiled in satisfaction and settled down to wait.

  Hera felt the tug of her power being used. She glanced surreptitiously at Zeus. He was busy with Demeter. The two of them were arguing good naturedly over the quality of the ambrosia harvest.

  "Dearest, I need to check on some last minute details for the feast this evening. Will you excuse me?"

  Zeus nodded and waved absently at her. Demeter caught her eye and Hera winked quickly at her. The Goddess of the Harvest nodded slightly and launched into the ambrosia argument with new zeal. Hera hurried from the Great Hall, sure Zeus was well occupied - at least for a few moments. She ducked into a shadowy alcove and closed her eyes, concentrating on the gift of power she'd given her son.

  There! Under her closed lids she could see the thread of invisible fire Vulcan had bespelled. She watched as it snaked through Olympus toward Demeter's temple and then vanished into the portal that led to the modern city of Tulsa. Surprised, Hera concentrated harder, and her consciousness expanded, hooked into the thread of questing fire by the power of the queen of Olympus. Through the spark of connection she saw Venus and Persephone enter the modern world, and she could feel the weight of Vulcan's incantation as it followed the Goddess of Love. Why was Vulcan following Venus and Persephone? Had he finally tired of that sham of a marriage of his? Hera smiled. She sincerely hoped so. Her son deserved more than the shell of a marriage. With a mother's determination she reached out to the thread of fire that carried the gift of her power and spoke to it.

  Hear my command; do my divine will.

  It is my son's empty heart I wish to fill.

  So seek what cannot be found amongst the gods.

  One who will complete him against all odds.

  He has long been alone, the God of Fire.

  Find that special touch to awaken his desire.

  Hera flung out her hands and new power, filled with her words, flew invisibly through Olympus, joining the thread of fire and augmenting its already white-hot strength. Hera smiled in satisfaction and retraced her steps back to the throne room.