“What in Zeus’s name was that?” Eos asked, lowering and then extinguishing her lightning sword.
“Very clever use of magic,” Danae said, moving to stand on the other side of Eos. “She created the ice sculpture and used it as the base of an illusion spell.” When we both gave her blank looks, she smiled. “Illusions work best when they’re cast on something that’s similar to what they’re meant to be. What better base for an illusion of herself than an ice sculpture – ice being one of the easiest solids for magic to manipulate with precision, and temporary enough to not leave much evidence of itself behind. The end result was very convincing, wasn’t it?”
Eos nodded. “I thought it was really her until she turned to ice…”
“Me too,” I said softly. “Let’s take this as a reminder to tread cautiously, shall we?”
They both murmured their agreement and we started forward down the path again.
We didn’t have far to go before the path opened onto a large clearing in the woods, revealing a Parthenon-style stone building. It had seen better days…several of its decorative columns had collapsed, and ivy grew in tangles over and around every surface. The front doors were long gone, but a pair of lions – similar to the one we’d already met – sat on either side of the opening, apparently acting as guards. They didn’t react on seeing us, so I took the lead and started forward.
Inside was much the same, the furnishings displaying a shabby, run-down sort of grandeur. It was a single large room with a huge banquet table in the middle, a large bed to one side and a throne on a low dais at the far end. Animals, ranging in size from hedgehogs up to bears, roamed the room, moving here and there or lounging near the bed. These were, I reminded myself, the sailors who had been shipwrecked on the island before Athena and Hera improved the protections to stop that from happening.
Circe – looking exactly the same as her illusionary self – sat on the throne, watching us with narrowed eyes. She was resting her elbow on the arm of her throne and had her chin cupped in her hand, sizing us up as we approached, making our way around the table.
I stopped in front of her and curtseyed politely. “We thank you for your hospitality -”
“I offered you no hospitality,” she cut me off bluntly, but there was no overt hostility in her voice. “You mentioned the name of one I called friend, and it has been a very long time since I had anyone to talk to, so I granted you an audience. Whether or not I will offer you the hospitality of my table remains to be seen. What do you want?”
One she called friend? Interesting. “We are looking into Persephone’s disappearance. Her trail led us here.”
“About time. Do you think I killed her?” Now there was coldness in her voice.
“I didn’t say that,” I replied mildly. “I said only that her trail led us here. On the last day of her life, she visited the Gorgons and mentioned to them that her next stop was to see you.”
“And so you got Hera’s permission to come and see me, hmm?” She dropped her hand into her lap and leaned forward, examining me closely. “You remind me of Athena.” She nodded towards Danae. “So does she. Are you sisters?”
I nodded. “We are, daughters of Athena.”
Circe tipped her head to one side. “A daughter of Athena acting as Avatar to Hades? Well, I have lived to see interesting days, haven’t I?” She looked at Eos. “Your sire must be Zeus. You could be the offspring of no other.”
Eos bowed slightly in response.
Circe’s attention returned to me. “Well? What did you wish to ask me? I’m listening.”
“Was Persephone really coming to visit you?”
“On that day,” Circe asked, her voice dripping sarcasm, “or in general?”
“Both,” I said, hanging onto my politeness by a thread. “In general, first.”
She stared at me in silence for a minute before sighing and sitting back in her chair. “Yes, she really came to visit me. In general. As to that day specifically, I don’t know. To be totally honest, I don’t even know when, specifically, she died. She only visited me about once a month, usually. She said it wasn’t safe for her to do so more often than that.”
“Why did she visit you?” Eos asked.
“She was my friend,” Circe said quietly, never looking away from me for some reason. “Maybe the only real friend I ever had. We were about the same age, you see…we grew up together. Trained together. We were very close when we were both Avatars, though our work rarely overlapped in any way.” She smiled a fond, reminiscent smile. “That thing with Orpheus was one event we both watched with interest.”
Her smiled faded and she sighed. “After I was imprisoned, she kept coming to check on me. First she came to apologize, but I never blamed her or the others for what happened.” Her expression hardened. “Do you know why I was imprisoned here?”
I nodded, and saw Danae and Eos doing so as well out of the corners of my eyes.
Circe shrugged. “It was my own stupid fault for thinking I stood a chance of overthrowing Aphrodite. I mean…let’s be realistic here, even if I’d managed it, what are the odds that the other gods would’ve let my actions stand? No, I was exceptionally naive. It took me a few centuries to figure that out, and about a thousand years to come to grips with it after I did, but even before that I wasn’t delusional enough to hold a grudge against Persephone, Heracles and Juno. They were just doing their jobs.”
“So…she visited you…what, out of guilt?” Eos asked.
Circe rolled her eyes. “No, she visited me to play chess.” She thought about it for a moment, then snorted. “Actually, we did play an early form of chess on occasion. It was something to do.” She finally looked at Eos. “Persephone visited me because she felt sorry for me, and didn’t think anybody deserved to be totally alone. I accepted her visits because she never showed me she felt sorry for me, never showed me any pity…she just came to check on me, to talk for a few minutes. Maybe she was making sure I didn’t lose what was left of my sanity in my solitude. Maybe she was just hoping I’d talk about my problems and she’d finally understand why I did it.” She shrugged. “I won’t pretend to understand her mind. I was just glad to see a friendly face whenever she stopped by.”
That fit the mental image of Persephone I’d built up. It sounded like her – compassionate and understanding, but not necessarily forgiving. “So how did you know about her death?” I asked.
Circe shook her head. “I didn’t even know anything had happened to her until Hera arrived to strengthen the enchantments hiding this island from mortal eyes, and Hermes started checking on me. It was Hermes who finally told me that Persephone was dead, and started bringing me books. That was how I learned that idiotic story about how Hades kidnapped her.” She snorted. “Hades kidnapped her. I’d more easily believe a story about Persephone kidnapping Hades. No…I thought maybe I’d done something to offend her, or that she’d finally gotten in trouble for visiting me. Then Hermes told me she was dead, and…” She trailed off and covered her eyes for a moment, then returned her hard gaze to me. “Does that answer your question?”
“You don’t know anything at all about her death?” Danae asked.
Circe gave her a long, disgusted look. “Isn’t that what I just finished saying? Look, let’s be brutally honest…I am undeniably a high-functioning sociopath, which makes me dangerous in a variety of ways. Most of Aphrodite’s Avatars are, you know, at least from what Hermes has told me about my successors. We’re all a bunch of self-centered, egomaniacal narcissists.
“But I’m not lying about this…I would never, ever have done anything to hurt Persephone on purpose. As far as I know she didn’t visit me on the day she died. I don’t even know how long before she died the last time I saw her was, or how long after she died it was before I found out. Time has very little meaning here, beyond what books Hermes brings me to read.”
I decided that I wanted to drag the conversation away from mentioning any doubt about what Circe was saying. Partly because this wasn’t constructive and I didn’t want to make her angry, and partly because I actually believed her. She might be a consummate liar, but it felt like she was telling us the truth. And daughters of Athena are not easily lied to. “The last time you saw her,” I said, “did she say anything about anyone who’d been threatening her, or problems she’d been having on the job?”
Circe’s attention returned to me. “I find it highly amusing that the Avatar of Hades asks better questions than the Avatar of Athena.” She frowned a little and her gaze drifted up over our heads. “She didn’t mention any people…it takes quite a lot for mortals to threaten an Avatar, after all.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Eos’s hand drift to her stomach where she’d been shot. Of course, Gregor hadn’t been a mortal, but still…I knew what Eos was thinking. Juno could just as easily have put that gun and those bullets in a mortal’s hand.
“She was pretty badly overworked the last time she visited,” Circe said thoughtfully. “When I asked why, she said something about a problem with hydras breeding too quickly and too close to major population centers.”
“Ugh,” Eos grunted. “We still have problems with hydras occasionally. They breed like rabbits on Viagra.”
Circe gave her a blank look. “Viagra?”
“It’s…a drug for men that sort of…um…helps get them in the mood,” Danae explained.
Circe snorted in disgust. “I see. Are the women of today so uninteresting and unattractive that men need such things?” She eyed us. “You three are certainly attractive enough to make a corpse sit up and be interested.”
I saw Danae smile a little and heard Eos smother a chuckle. I laughed softly. “It was designed to help men with…problems in that area. From what I’ve read, it’s mostly used by men who feel inadequate.”
“So…all of them,” Circe said, nodding. “I find the concept entirely too amusing.”
“Not all of them,” Danae corrected, visibly having trouble keeping a straight face. “Just…a lot of them.”
“Ah,” Circe nodded again. “Well, the problem with hydras seemed like a long-term, ongoing one, based on what she had to say about it. I suppose you might look in that direction. Hydras are, after all, one of the creatures whose bite is toxic enough to quickly overcome an Avatar’s natural defenses.”
“It’s worth a try, at least,” Danae said. “Better than trying to pursue the alternative.”
Circe raised an eyebrow. “You have a suspect, then?”
The three of us exchanged looks, and I got little nods of assent from both Eos and Danae. So I shrugged a little. “Sort of, but not really. We have a vague intuition that Demeter might be involved, but no actual evidence pointing to her beyond hunches.”
Circe frowned a little. “Demeter.” She pursed her lips. “I wouldn’t rule her out completely, if I were you. She was furious about ‘Losing her precious little spring blossom’.” She mimicked a fretting, matronly voice as she said the last bit. “And Demeter could be as unpredictable and unstable as a hurricane.”
Eos, Danae and I exchanged looks again.
Circe leaned forward, meeting my eyes. “Pluto, I would ask a favor of you. A small one, a personal one, and I lay no obligation upon you to fulfill it. Please…if you find out what happened to Persephone, will you tell me?”
I looked into her eyes and tried to gauge the emotions there. Old pain, loss, and – I thought – a lot of loneliness. I nodded. “If we find out, I’ll come and tell you myself.”
She sat back and sagged in her chair a little, nodding. “Thank you.” She made a shooing gesture. “Off with you, now. I’m tired and sad, and actually want to be alone for a change.”
I bowed politely. “Thank you for your time, Circe.”
Eos and Danae mirrored my gesture, and we took our leave of her. I glanced back as we were going out through the open door, and was a little surprised to see her covering her eyes with her hand again, her shoulders shaking visibly even from a distance. I nudged Danae, who glanced back too and huffed out a surprised sound.
“Maybe she was telling the truth about her feelings after all,” Danae murmured.
I nodded. “One more reason to find out what happened.” And one more lead that hadn’t really panned out. Was I going to have to ask Hades directly if he’d had anything to do with Persephone’s death? I didn’t want to…it didn’t fit the mental image everyone had given me of their relationship.
But…right now, it was him or Demeter.
The idea that it might be Hades made me feel ill. It was utterly unreasonable based on everything I’d heard beyond what Ceres/Demeter had said. Why couldn’t I shake the idea?
Eos glanced back at me and frowned. “You all right?”
“Fine,” I said quickly. “Let’s go find out if hydras fit into the big picture.”
“What in Zeus’s name was that?” Eos asked, lowering and then extinguishing her lightning sword.