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Warrior Rising, Page 2

P. C. Cast


  "The Iliad? Did I hear you right? You’re reading that misogynistic mess?” Jacqueline said as she searched through the pantry’s colorful collection of red wine for another Shiraz to open.

  “Are you having trouble sleeping? When I was in college Homer was a surefire remedy for insomnia,” Kat said. “Jacky, if you’re looking for another bottle of the Coppola Shiraz, it’s still in the bag I left by the door. ”

  “As usual you read my mind, Kat,” Jacqueline called over her shoulder as she headed for the foyer of the chic home, doing a little impromptu shimmy in the full-length vintage beveled mirror that hung by the front door.

  Laughing, Kat called after her. “Shake that thang, baby!”

  Jacqueline snagged the bottle of Shiraz and shimmied back to the group.

  “I do wish I could move like that,” Kat said.

  “Kat, honey, I love you, but y’all white girls do not have enough junk in your trunk to move like me. I am luscious. ” Jacqueline dragged the word out with a sexy purr as she ran her hands down her voluptuous body and made kissing noises at her best friend. Grinning, she disappeared into the kitchen to open the bottle and called, “So what were we saying?”

  “We were talking about poor dead Susie having to read the wretched Iliad. ” Kat winked at “poor dead Susie. ”

  “Remind us, just exactly why are you suffering through reading that thing?”

  Susie, who owned the fabulous 1920’s era home the group of friends met at twice a month for their girls’ night in, gave a long-suffering sigh and threw her hands up in frustration. “First, Katrina,” she used Kat’s full name in a very you’ve-been-bad-young-lady tone, “I’m not dead; I’m in college, so I only feel dead. Second, I’m reading the fucking Iliad because it is required reading by the asshole chauvinist professor in the third to last fucking class I have to finish before I am able to graduate and, finally, at the totally ridiculous age of forty-eight, get my damnable BA. ”

  “Okay, tell us all again why a woman who is so incredibly successful that the utterly fab boutique that she started as a tiny women’s accessory store in a not-so-good part of Tulsa and is now located smack in the middle of totally posh Utica Square, as well as the Galleria in Dallas, the Magnificent Mile in Chicago, and delicious downtown Denver, feels like she has to get a piece of paper that says she’s smart?” Kat said between sips from her tall, frosty champagne-filled flute.

  “No shit. ” Christy raised her red wine balloon glass. “I second that. ”

  “I’ll third it. ” Heather raised her glass, then frowned at it. “And may I just say one more time that I will be so incredibly, amazingly, inexorably glad when I can get off this bubbly grape juice stuff and back to an excellent chardonnay that I may just pee myself with pleasure—or, perhaps, treat all of us to a boozy party. Heavy on the boozy part. ”

  “Sounds good to me,” Kat said. “The party part, not the peeing part. ”

  “It’s just one more month. And you don’t want to pickle that baby,” Christy said, reaching over and patting Heather’s very pregnant belly.

  “I know, but I’m dying for a glass of wine!”

  “Focus guys! We were sympathizing with Susie about the horrid essay she has to write over the wretched Iliad,” Jacqueline reminded them.

  “And I was saying that I don’t think she needs a piece of paper to show she’s ‘smart’ when she’s already amazingly successful,” Kat said.

  “Easily said by a woman with a masters in psych,” Susie said and then hurried on before Kat could interrupt her. “Actually, every last one of you has that meaningless piece of paper—or a couple of them. Right?” She pointed first at Jacqueline, “Ms. ER Nurse, you have a bachelor of science. ” Then at Heather, “You have a masters in education, don’t you?”

  “Guilty,” Heather said.

  “Christy, you have a BS in physical fitness, don’t you?”

  “Yep, but if you want honesty I’ll tell you that I kick ass as a personal trainer because of my gym experience and not because my parents insisted I go to college way back when. ”

  “Okay, I get that, but can you guys not see the common theme here? College is part of your success. Christy could probably still be a trainer without her degree, but Kat and Jacqueline could definitely not do their jobs without those pieces of paper and the knowledge they gained getting them. Right?”

  Kat and Jacky nodded reluctantly.

  “And Heather, you couldn’t teach without the BS that came before getting your masters. Right?”

  Heather sighed and patted her pregnant belly. “Right, but today not having to teach and not being on my swollen feet while I scream at high school students as my ankles continue to balloon would be a lovely thing. ”

  Jacqueline shuddered. “God, teenagers. They’re so nasty. I don’t know how you stand all of their hormones. ”

  “You’ll get no argument from me. They’re disgusting creatures,” Heather said.

  “You’re just grumpy because your ankles look like tree trunks. You used to like teaching, remember? Way back in Prepregnancy Land,” Susie said.

  “I can’t remember back to a time when I wasn’t pregnant. I’ve always been this big and hideous. ”

  “Honey, have a chocolate. ” Jacqueline passed the tray of truffles to her.

  “It’ll be better in a month or so,” Kat said.

  Heather gave Kat a tired smile and popped the truffle in her mouth. Around the orb of dissolving chocolate she said, “You know, Kat, it always amazes me how optimistic you are. What with all of those abusive asshole men you have to deal with in that clinic you run. I know if I had to deal with the jerks you’ve met I’d be a man-hating shrew, but you’re not. ” Heather peered at her like she was a science experiment. “You actually like men, don’t you?”

  Kat’s laughter was uninhibited and contagious. “Yes, I definitely like men. And not all of the assholes I counsel are men—there are women jerks, too. Plus, they’re not all abusive assholes. Many of them actually come to me before they’ve graduated to full abusive asshole status. ”

  “Just like me,” Susie proclaimed. “I’m going to graduate some day. ”

  Jacqueline frowned. “Uh, Susie. I don’t think graduating to an abusive asshole is something to which you want to aspire. ”

  The older woman rolled her eyes. “I’m talking about my BA and not about their asshole-ish-ness. When I get out of this awful lit class in a couple months it’ll be way better. My final two classes are going to be a breeze. This is the last really horrid one I have to take. As soon as I get this stupid paper on The Iliad written I’ll feel lots better. ”

  “I know!” Kat said through the truffle melting on her tongue. “How about you write your paper on how ridiculous it is that women got blamed for every damn thing in the Trojan War? I mean, I haven’t read the thing in a zillion years. ” She wrinkled her brow. “Wait, I might never have actually read it and just faked my way through with the CliffsNotes, but what I do recall is that Helen took the fall for causing the war. ”

  “Hey, I remember that,” Jacqueline said. “And wasn’t there something about three goddesses starting the whole thing?”

  “Yeah—Hera, Athena and Aphrodite,” Susie said. “The goddess Discord was pissed about not getting invited to a wedding, so she threw a golden apple that read ‘for the fairest’ into the group. None of the gods were stupid enough to judge that beauty contest, so a guy named Paris, who was the son of Priam, king of Troy, got stuck with the job. But he didn’t actually choose which goddess was the prettiest. He chose which bribe he liked best. Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful mortal woman in the world as his own. He took that bribe. Helen was the most beautiful mortal woman, but she was already married to the Greek king, Menelaus. Paris stole her from Menelaus, with Aphrodite’s blessing, and the Trojan War started. ”

  “Huh. ” Jacqueline snorted. “Sounds like bullshit to me. I mean, please
. Why would goddesses give a shit about what some mortal guy thought?”

  “That’s true, Jacky,” Kat chimed in. “You’re not a goddess, but you rarely give a shit about men—mortal or otherwise!”

  Jacqueline’s perfectly shaped brows went up almost far enough to reach the hairline of her short, curly, Halle Berry-like hair. “I’m not a goddess? Did you just say I’m not a goddess, Kat?”

  Kat put her hands up in mock surrender. “It must be this bottle of champagne talking. ”

  “How about that little ‘don’t give a shit about men’ comment?” Christy asked.

  Jacky shrugged. “Whatever. I like men okay. In theory. ”

  "See, that’s why Jacky and I are such perfect BFFs,” Kat said. “I am an eternal optimist and she’s Ms. Pessimist. She reels me in when I get too far out there, and I remind her to give folks a chance—they’re not all bad. ”

  “Folks aren’t all bad—men are another matter,” Jacky grumbled.

  “Down, killer!” Kat said.

  Jacqueline fixed her dark chocolate eyes on her best friend. “I do believe I’m going to cut you off from your second bottle of champagne. ”

  Kat grinned at her. “No you’re not! Remember our deal—I pay for our cab and I get to drink entirely too much champagne. ”

  “Uh, ladies, before you talk about calling cabs and such, could we please talk a little more about this paper I’m going to write for my jerk of a professor?” From somewhere Susie had produced a thick, college-ruled notebook and a well-sharpened number two pencil, which she held at the ready.

  “Your jerk of a professor is not going to like a feminist paper,” Kat said.

  “Hey, I said I wanted the BA. I didn’t say I wanted straight As. ” She grinned mischievously at her friends. “To misquote the fabulous Bonnie Raitt, ‘Let’s give him something to talk about. ’ ”

  Venus laughed aloud. “Darlings! This is exactly why my oracle found you. ” She cooed and clapped her hands even though the group of modern mortal women could not hear the goddess and were oblivious that she observed them through her shining oracle, which acted like an infinitely long telescope from Olympus to Tulsa. Venus focused her vision on the woman with the infectious laugh, sparkling blue eyes and the adorable nickname of Kat.

  “By Hermes’s flamingly gay buttocks, she is absolutely perfect!” The goddess held up a manicured finger for each point she ticked off. “She counsels men, so she should be able to handle Achilles and that silly berserker rage issue of his. She’s optimistic and likes men. ” The goddess’s smile was sultry. “Liking men is always a plus when seducing them. And she’s astute enough to know intuitively the falseness of the ridiculous fiction about the Trojan War that has been repeated for…”—Venus paused and grimaced in annoyance—“longer than I would have believed possible. ” Venus focused her attention back on the little group of girlfriends and laughed along with them as she listened to them composing a very funny, very literate, very feminist essay for the professor they were calling Mr. Anus.

  Venus liked all five of the women, which made her even surer that Kat was a suitable choice for the goddesses’ mission. A woman’s friends reflected who she was—and Venus definitely liked the reflection she was seeing from Tulsa. She especially liked the exotic-looking Jacqueline, who was obviously Kat’s closest friend among the group. Jacky, as they called her, was sassy and saucy and compelling with her quick wit and her lovely caramel-colored skin. Venus considered for a moment whether she may be a better choice than Kat—and decided no, Jacqueline was wonderful, but Kat had more of the much-needed skills to conquer Achilles. Besides, Jacqueline’s lovely dark skin would be too hard to explain among the golden Greeks. “Mores the pity for them,” Venus mumbled.

  Venus narrowed her study down to Kat, concentrating with all of her vast powers. The Goddess of Love smiled in relief. No, Kat was not in love with any mortal man. Had she been, Venus, who was Love personified, would have sensed it. Actually, now that she was thinking about it, the goddess realized that out of the five of them, only the very pregnant Heather was committed to and in love with a man. “Well…” Venus drummed her fingers on the side of the marble oracle. “Perhaps when I’ve finished with this little Trojan War issue I’ll return for some lovely matchmaking. ” The thought made Venus hum happily. Finding a lover for the fabulous Jacqueline would be her first order of business.

  “No!” Venus reined in her enthusiasm. “First Achilles. Then I can dabble with matchmaking in the modern mortal world. ” She grinned. “Again. ”

  But first things first. She needed to bring Kat from the modern world to Olympus, which would not be particularly difficult. The goddess raised her hands and began summoning the power that as one of the Twelve Olympians would eternally be hers to command. The air between her palms started to shimmer with tiny specks of energy brilliant as miniature diamonds. As soon as Kat was alone, Venus could reach through the oracle and transport her to the portal from the modern world to Olympus that stood open, but invisible, in Tulsa. Then Venus would simply zap herself there and speak with Kat briefly. The goddess tapped her chin as she considered. She’d probably have to work some kind of obvious magic to prove to the mortal that she was truly Venus, Goddess of Love. But that shouldn’t take long. She’d get that over with, and then return to Olympus with the mortal and call Hera and Athena here to her temple so that they could all explain in detail to the girl what was needed from her.

  As her mortal friend, Pea Chamberlain, would say, easy-peasy.

  Still building the power between her hands, Venus looked down through the oracle to see a giggling Kat and Jacqueline making their way more than a little unsteadily down the front steps of Susie’s pretty home to a waiting car. Venus laughed. “Good thing they aren’t driving. Neither of them appears to be sober enough to handle one of those metal machines. ” Nor were either of them—specifically Kat—sober enough to bring to Olympus that night. Well, that was probably for the best. She needed to get with Hera and Athena again and decide the best way to move Kat into Achilles’ camp. Kat would need to have some kind of royal status… or perhaps one of them could appear to Achilles and foretell the coming of a priestess who would need his protection…

  Venus sighed. This might be more complicated than she’d originally thought it would be. But no matter. She’d just use the oracle to follow Kat home—make note of where the mortal woman lived—and then pay her a little divine visit on the morrow.

  Smiling, Venus turned her attention back to the oracle in time to see the huge Suburban run through the stop sign and crash into the little yellow car that held Kat and Jacqueline.

  “No! Stop!” Venus screamed, instantly throwing the power she’d been generating through her oracle to protect and surround the car, freezing time temporarily so that the scene looked like a gruesome painting. But even as she gave the command she knew it was already too late. Venus drew a deep breath and waved her hands over the oracle. “Let me see Katrina and Jacqueline,” she said solemnly.

  The oracle’s vision telescoped inside the crushed car. Venus’s breath caught in a sob of sympathy. The women must have seen the accident coming. They’d thrown their arms around each other so that now they looked like broken dolls clinging to one another. Kat had a horrid gash on her head and her neck was turned in an unnatural angle. Jacqueline was closest to the spot of impact. Her chest had been completely crushed.

  The two women were dead.

  Venus felt a terrible sense of loss out of all proportion with how briefly she’d known the mortals. “I should have been paying closer attention. I should have been able to stop it from happening,” she whispered in a tired, broken voice. “They were so young—so vibrant. Their lives were cut off too soon. ” As the goddess watched, two glowing golden orbs lifted from the broken bodies of the mortal women. Venus’s eyes widened. “Maybe there is something I can do!” Focusing her power she spoke the command through her oracle.

bsp; “Alight with life and love these spirits are—free to begin anew, to travel far. So Love herself commands of you—spirits, come to me to complete the task I would have you do!” Venus threw more power into the oracle and, like a flame drawing the mortals fluttering spirits, the souls of Katrina and Jacqueline lifted immediately to enter the stream of energy the goddess created until, with a sound like a champagne bottle being uncorked, they popped through the marble basin to hover in the air in front of the goddess.

  When she glanced back through her portal she saw the yellow car burst into fierce flame.

  Venus sighed. “Well, darlings, now what are we going to do?”