“I will let you go after breakfast,” Michel said the next morning, “on one condition.”
“And that is?” I asked, glancing over at Eos where she lay in the next bed. She rolled her eyes.
“You stay off that leg as much as possible for the next few days,” Michel said. “Yes, it’s healing, and healing well. But I don’t have a clear picture yet of just how much residual damage the Orichalcum-alloy bullets did. So take it easy! We’ll know for sure in a couple of days if there’s going to be any lingering problems. I doubt it, but…” He trailed off.
“Caution first,” I smiled. “Got it, Doc.”
He glared at me for a moment before he threw his hands in the air, turned, and headed towards his desk, muttering under his breath.
Eos laughed quietly, putting a hand to her abdomen and wincing a little. “Has…has he always been like that?”
“Ever since I met him,” I said with a smile.
Mel arrived then, pushing a cart laden with breakfast foods, and followed by Danae. My older sister looked pensive, and Mel looked uneasy. Eos eyed the nearly-overflowing cart with a mixture of eager hunger and astonishment.
“That is a lot of food,” she said dryly.
“I have been told,” Mel said, lifting her nose and adopting a snooty accent that was entirely unlike her, “that convalescents need hearty meals.” She giggled and parked the cart between us, pulling out a pair of lap trays and somehow contriving to put them in place across our laps at the same time.
“She has a tendency to make whatever comes to mind,” I said fondly, “especially when she’s not sure what people want.”
“Better to be prepared. And Minerva can join us!” Mel smiled over her shoulder at Danae, who was just pulling over two chairs.
“Please, Melinoë, call me Danae,” my sister said with a smile as she sat down.
Mel looked pleased. “Thank you, Danae.” Then she handed Danae a plate. “Eat up, there’s plenty for everyone.”
“Handy, this one,” Danae said teasingly.
“Dunno how I ever got through the day without her,” I said, quite seriously. “I mean that.”
Mel beamed, and it only looked a little like she was about to go for a knife. Progress.
Eos raised her voice to be heard by Michel. “Hey, Doc! Is it safe for me to eat solid foods yet?”
“Yes,” he replied, not looking up from where he was putting away books in one of the new bookcases behind his desk. “Fortunately for you, Gregor was running low on ammo and was a terrible shot.”
I winced and Eos grimaced. “Hey, Michel,” she said, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. My mouth has a tendency to run without consulting with my brain first.”
Michel’s shoulders slumped, and after a moment he turned and came over to us. “It’s okay, Eos. The hospital staff just weren’t equipped to deal with this kind of injury…heck, I didn’t know for certain why you weren’t healing until I got the first bullet out.” He patted her shoulder gently. “Not your fault at all. Just be glad he didn’t hit anything vital, and blood loss was your biggest problem. In my case, he got lucky.”
Danae rose and dragged over another chair for him. “Sit, eat.”
“I don’t need –“
“No,” Mel cut him off, giving him a little push that forced him to sit down or fall down. He sat. “You don’t. But you’ll feel better if you do.”
“It’s purely psychological!” He protested.
Mel beamed. “So is most of what I do. What’s your point?”
He opened his mouth to retort, and she stuffed a piece of toast in. He glared at her for a moment, started chewing, took a plate, and began heaping breakfast foods onto it.
To our credit, none of us laughed at him, though we were all smiling.
We ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, before I finally broached the subject that was sitting uneasily in the back of my mind. “Show of hands…Is anybody else bothered by not knowing where Juno is and what she’s up to now?”
Every hand went up, except Mel’s. Her hands were both occupied spreading apple jelly on some toast, so she somehow raised a foot instead. I didn’t try to figure out how.
“You’re all safer here than anywhere else,” Danae said. “I know that Hera’s busy trying to find Juno, and has Mother helping her. If they can’t find her, they might go to Artemis for help.”
“She’s the best tracker who’s ever lived,” Eos observed. “If she can’t find Juno, who can?”
“Nyx probably knows where Juno is,” Mel said.
I shivered a little and saw Michel make a face. But the reactions from Danae and Eos really startled me. Eos – already pale from the blood loss – blanched, and Danae shivered so hard she almost spilled some of the coffee she was drinking.
“No way,” Eos said flatly. “Yeah, she probably knows more than anyone except Athena, but she’s dangerous.”
“Even if she knows, I’m not sure it’s worth paying her fees,” Danae added.
I opened my mouth to ask something – probably what her fees were and why they were so afraid of her – but got a warning look from Mel. So instead I forked some scrambled eggs into my mouth and chewed.
“Well,” Danae said, setting her dishes back on the cart, “I should get back to work. Mother will probably want my help trying to locate Juno. Mel, thank you very much for a delicious breakfast.”
Melinoë beamed. “You’re very welcome, Danae.”
Danae gently ruffled Mel’s hair, then bent and kissed my cheek. “See you later, little sister.” Then she turned and gave Eos a stern look, pointing firmly to the bed she was sitting in. “You, Lady Jupiter, stay right there until Michel says you’re sufficiently recovered.”
Eos sighed. “Yes, ma’am. Heck, I can’t even walk to the bathroom yet without feeling wobbly. I’m not stupid enough to try to do anything feeling like this. Besides, like you said, we’re safer here in the Underworld than anywhere else.”
Danae nodded. “Good.” She smiled at Michel then. “Doctor, my thanks for your exceptional work here.”
Michel waved it off. “I always wanted to be an important doctor and make a difference. This isn’t quite the way I envisioned it happening, but I think I made out pretty well in the end.”
He was looking at Mel as he finished, and she beamed at him. Then Michel rose and looked at me. “You, Talia, are free to go as long as you promise to stay off that leg as much as possible for a couple of days. I think Eos is more likely to actually rest if you’re not here to distract her.”
“And we have paperwork to catch up on!” Mel said happily, gathering up dishes and handing a fresh glass of orange juice to Eos. She gave me a look over Eos’s head that was either her trying to melt my brain from the inside out, or her way of silently telling me that she wanted to talk to me in private. I assumed it was the latter.
“Sounds thrilling,” I said dryly. “Five years of paperwork wasn’t enough, huh? Down here, the fun just never ends.” I rose slowly, keeping my weight off my injured leg, which did indeed twinge a little in warning. I bent and – very aware of our audience – gave Eos a shy little kiss and murmured, “We’ll talk more later.”
She smiled up at me, then looked at the others, all of whom were giving us sappy smiles, even Mel. “Yeah, without the peanut gallery.”
Mel giggled and pushed the cart towards the door. “I’ll see you in our office, Talia.”
“I’ll be right -” I started to say, cutting off as Mel vanished halfway across the room.
Danae shook her head. “That one is just not quite right.”
Michel smiled at where Mel had been, nodding. “Isn’t she great?”
Eos and I exchanged an amused look.
I paused in my room to take a quick shower and changed into a fresh bodysuit and dress. My armor had been cleaned and put on its stand, and I briefly considered putting it back on…but under the circumstances, I just couldn’t bring myself to do so. I ached, I felt weary beyond what I should have – another side effect of the Orichalcum, I guessed – and I was just going to deal with paperwork. Shrugging, I left my armor where it was, limped across the hall and settled into my desk chair with a little groan of relief. Melinoë was already there, pulling folders out of one of the filing cabinets and stacking them on the desk.
“Requisitions are on top,” she said in her best ‘secretary’ voice, “followed by status reports that need to be reviewed. You missed a couple of days worth.”
“Thanks,” I watched her. “You wanted to talk in private?”
She gave me a small smile. “You noticed.”
I smiled back. “I know you pretty well by now.”
“You do,” she agreed. “Better than anyone has in a long time. What do you know about Nyx?”
I sat back in my chair, stretching out my injured leg. “She’s one of the four Primordials, the children of Chaos, older than either the Titans or the Olympians. She’s the personification of the night…Thanatos and Charon are two of her children. Right?”
Mel sat down across the desk from me and nodded. “Along with Nemesis, Hypnos, Geras, and Eris.”
“Heady company,” I said. “We were warned about the Primordials during our lessons, but our tutors never really went into why. Just that they’re very old and not well understood.”
Mel nodded. “Both true.”
“But that doesn’t explain why Eos and Danae were so afraid of her.”
“Well…” Mel said slowly, “it’s…complicated.”
I sighed. “That’s not an answer.”
“It might be easier if she explained herself,” Mel said.
“Not really,” an unfamiliar female voice said from the far side of the room. “I’m just very different. So different that most younger minds simply can’t understand me.”
The shadows by the door darkened and coalesced, seeming to gather substance and depth as they expanded, filling that part of the room. The darkness deepened, and little pinpoints of light began to appear in it, like stars and nebulae in the night sky. After a long moment, two of the pinpoints took the shape of luminous eyes, blinking, and a gorgeous, pale woman stepped forward.
She didn’t emerge from the shadows so much as they wrapped around her lovingly, cloaking her body in a form-fitting gown made of an ever-shifting and changing fabric of star-speckled darkness. The effect gave glimpses of the pale skin beneath, but never enough to be immodest. Her hair – as black as the shadows around her and likewise speckled with stars and nebulae – flowed over her shoulders and down her back in lustrous waves.
She curtseyed, a motion so impossibly smooth and graceful that my eyes had trouble taking it in. “Lady Pluto, I am Nyx. I have wanted to meet you for some time.”
Mel rose and smiled. “Hello, Godmother.”
Nyx glided forward to her – I wondered if that was where Melinoë learned her method of walking, since Nyx’s feet never appeared and her movement was too smooth to be walking – and cupped her cheek in a pale hand. “Hello, dearest. I’m sorry it’s been so long. Your mother has concerns about how my nature might influence your abilities.”
Mel nodded. “I know.” She took Nyx’s hand in hers and kissed it. “I’m glad you came.”
“As if I’d ever ignore such an open invitation.” She smiled at Mel, then at me. “I will not go where I am not invited…and though your predecessor gave me an open invitation to her office a long time ago, it is yours now.”
I swallowed a little, feeling a bit of out of my depth. This was, short of the primal Chaos itself, one of the oldest beings in Creation. “Thank you for coming…” I trailed off, uncertain how to address her.
She seemed to intuit my problem and laughed softly, the warmth and sensuality of the sound sending a shiver down my spine. “Just Nyx will do, child. It is who and what I am.” She spread her arms, the darkness flowing out like silk, displaying stars, nebulae, galaxies, and stellar objects that I had no frame of reference for. “I am the night.”
“Just like Batman!” Mel said cheerfully.
The smile that appeared on Nyx’s face was surprisingly gentle and affectionate, and much of the affected sensuality fell away from her, making her look almost motherly. “Yes, child, just like Batman.” Her attention returned to me, her expression sharpening to one of consideration and interest. “But my time is short today, and my Goddaughter would not have summoned me if one of you had no important questions to ask.”
I cleared my throat. “Yes…Mel suggested that you might know the whereabouts of Lady Juno.”
Nyx’s smile deepened into something more complex and, I thought, devious. She spread her arms, displaying the shadowy night sky again. “Secrets are a thing of the night, and so I am a keeper of secrets. Any whispered confidence is within my realm of knowledge.” Dimples appeared in her cheeks as her smile deepened further. “Does that answer your question?”
“What will it cost me to find out?” I asked. One of the lessons I had taken to heart during my training was that when dealing with the Elder powers of the universe, one should always know precisely where one stood. I just hoped she wouldn’t be offended.
Fortunately, she didn’t seem to be. Nyx laughed softly, a delighted, caressing sound. “I see my reputation preceeds me.” Her eyes narrowed, but it wasn’t a dangerous look. Instead, there was something devious and amused about it. “This one time, there will be no charge for my answers.” She gestured with one hand idly, taking in the office. “I owe your predecessor a favor, and my actions today will pay that debt.”
Mel’s expression sharpened, focusing on Nyx in a way I’d never seen her focus on anything before. “Owe?”
“Later, child,” Nyx said gently. “While time means little to me personally, it presses upon you both now.”
“Do you know where Juno is?” I asked. I was on painkillers, my brain was a little fuzzy, and the idea of playing games with Nyx made me want to panic.
Nyx smiled widely. “Yes, I do.”
“Will you tell me?” I asked, starting to sweat a little as I got the distinct impression that I was being toyed with a bit.
Nyx was silent for a long moment…then she laughed. “Not even Hades can keep me from where I choose to go, but getting others past his sight? Within his own domain? A delightful challenge.” The shadows gathered about her, concealing her from sight and beginning to fade away. “You have a visitor.”
As she vanished, the door to my office crashed open, slamming into the wall so hard that the doorknob actually embedded itself into the stone a couple of inches.
A wild-eyed woman stood there, glaring at me from across the length of my office. Her hair was copper-colored and piled atop her head in curls that looked a little matted, like her hair hadn’t been tended to in a few days. She wore a floor-length Greek-styled gown, its hem painted to look like peacock feathers, the colors tapering up to white at her collar. She had a light copper-colored breastplate on, with bracers and arm-guards, and had a pair of short gladius swords at her hips. A Corinthian-style helmet was held loosely in her left hand.
Her right hand held a compact, short-barreled automatic pistol, which was pointed directly at me.
Evidently, I was going to have words with Nyx at some point. Polite ones, but still.
“Juno, I presume?” I asked tentatively, silently calling to Hades for aid.
“You!” she spat. “You…you pathetic little whelp! You ruined everything!”
The opening salvo was a pile of clichés. That was a good sign. If I could get her monologuing, maybe I could talk her down, or at least keep her busy until Hades arrived.
“Juno,” I said with a conversational sort of nod, doing my best to stay calm. Not easy with a gun pointed at your face. “Nice to finally meet you. Hera’s been looking for you.”
“I can’t believe the youngest Avatar ruined a hundred years of planning!” she shouted furiously.
That was not a good sign. Furious shouting often led to furious shooting. I had to calm her down.
Unfortunately, I don’t respond well to threats. And I’d grown used to hanging around with Eos, with whom volleying snark and smart-ass comments while faced with dangerous situations had become something of a hobby.
And I was on painkillers. That’s an acceptable excuse, right?
“Careful,” I heard myself say, “you’re treading pretty hard on those clichés.”
That…was definitely the wrong thing to say.
Juno snarled and pulled the trigger on her pistol. It cracked, and I dropped, sliding out of my chair to the floor beneath my desk as the back of my chair’s headrest exploded in a cloud of leather and foam filling.
Mel cried out and vanished with a soft pop. Good.
A second shot put a hole through the back of my chair. I really liked that chair too, damn it. It had taken ages to find one that comfortable.
“What the hell, Juno!” I shouted from behind my desk. “I didn’t do this to you!”
Her gun cracked twice more, but my marble desk absorbed both shots. I was suddenly tremendously glad that my desk was made of hard stone. Until that moment, I’d never really appreciated it as anything other than a sturdy, smooth writing surface.
“You saved her life!” Juno shouted back, her voice ragged with fury. “You stopped him from killing her! I’ve had to watch Zeus besmirch and despoil Hera’s name since more than twelve hundred years before Christ was born! No more!”
Right. Rationality had taken a vacation. I guess serving as an Avatar for almost four thousand years might do that to a person. I wondered how the gods maintained their sanity, before realizing two things: First, they weren’t human. Second, if I didn’t get moving, she was going to come around the desk and shoot me where I crouched.
Wait, three things: I hadn’t put my armor on after my shower, and had left my shield behind as well. My leg still ached too much for me to want to bother, and I hadn’t seen the point. I’d be spending the whole day sitting at my desk, after all. Apparently, the dull pain and mild painkillers had ganged up on my brain and made me a little bit dumb.
How many shots could her little automatic hold? She’d fired four so far. I needed to keep track.
I lashed out with my right leg, kicking my chair out of the way and lunging to my feet, ignoring the stab of pain from my left leg. I scooped Cerberus – in its spear form – off the wall behind my desk where it hung, and dropped back into a crouch just ahead of two more bullets. They left surprisingly small holes in the marble wall, and I immediately resolved to leave them there as a reminder of why I should put my armor on every morning before going to work.
They might make a good reminder to not mouth off to someone pointing a gun at me, too.