“I hate Valentine’s Day!”
Mars chuckled as he thumped his grown son on the back. “Score two points for me!”
Cupid ignored him, glaring instead at the misty image in his crystal sphere. The mortal waitress was shaking her fist at a coworker and hurling yet another epithet towards his favorite holiday.
“Why should I be the one stuck here working, serving pie and coffee to couple after couple as they proclaim their undying love and devotion, when at least half of them are going to split up before St. Patrick’s! No, I won’t do it!” She slammed a stack of dirty dishes on the counter and stormed from the kitchen.
“Oh, please,” her friend begged, wiping her hands on the small apron bearing the restaurant’s logo as she hurried after her. “I’ll work two weekends for you, if you’ll trade shifts just this once! It’s our anniversary!”
“Oh, yeah. Which anniversary is it this time? The four-month anniversary of the first time you two ate spaghetti together? Or the nine-month anniversary of your first kiss? Give me a break.”
Cupid made a grand gesture towards the misty ball. “There! I did that! I should score a bonus for that couple. They’re still together, which considering the century, is a bit of a milestone.”
Mars shrugged, unconcerned. His thick, black hair fell in long waves past his shoulders, tied back with a leather cord. He was a brave, cunning, and brilliant war hero with but two weaknesses. For the ladies – Cupid’s mother in particular – and a nearly manic desire to best his equally handsome son at any game, bet, or challenge set before them. The last bet – begun in the mid nineteen sixties by mortal reckoning was that he could break couples apart faster than Cupid could bring them together. A sudden rash of divorces had stormed the planet, with the modern countries who no longer even believed in the gods leading the way.
“What challenge was that?” Mars sneered at the image in the ball. “They are a perfect match, of course they would stay together long after the effects of your arrows wore off. They think alike, talk alike – by Pluto’s gold! They even dress alike. They probably would have fallen in love even without your divine intervention.”
Cupid planted his hands on his hips and faced the fierce warrior. “When did you become such a cynic?”
Mars threw back his head and laughed. “Long before you were born, my son! Long, long ago. Love is but an emotion, and the least honest one at that. It is fleeting, here one moment, and then like the flowers of spring, vanished to only a memory. Men and women are just too different to ever really connect. And gods are no different from mortals where love is concerned.”
Cupid grimaced. He knew the relationship between his parents was strained at best. As a child he had blamed his father completely. Mars was arrogant, bullheaded, and insensitive. He forgot birthdays and anniversaries – never even sent a card. Then when he grew bored with whatever discord he was stirring up, he’d just drop by unannounced and uninvited, and expect Venus to be overjoyed at his presence, as though he were a gift from the gods himself.
Cupid followed in his mother’s footsteps, choosing to spread love instead of war, which he knew annoyed his father to no end. Mars saw love as weakness. But Cupid wasn’t a cute, chubby little baby anymore – hadn’t been since before 300 BC, when Mars, out of jealousy that Venus paid more attention to their child than to him, had spread that image among the Greeks just to embarrass him.
Cupid could help others find love, but had not found it himself. He knew from experience how it hurt to have a lover turn him away from her bed and he could see his father’s side with more clarity. Venus was not entirely blameless. “What do you suggest? That I try to bring two people together who have absolutely nothing in common? Nothing on which to build a future? That’s a recipe for disaster!”
“Ah, precisely. Yet it is our differences that create desire. We all want someone who is what we are not. Who will compliment us, be strong where we are weak. The trouble begins when our own insecurities kick in, and we argue with the very person we hold most dear, if only to protect our shattered egos.”
“Is that what happened between you and Mom?”
Mars spun around, slinging a ball of fire that narrowly missed Cupid’s shoulder as he let out a mighty roar. “I have no ego to protect, you bastard!”
“If I am a bastard,” Cupid said quietly, brushing ash from his tunic. “The fault is yours. Not mine.”
Silence hung between them like a shroud. Cupid wisely held his breath, but gave no outward sign of fear. Mars’s anger was legendary. He’d wiped out entire cities – destroyed tens of thousands – with less provocation. But then his father did something even more frightening. He apologized.
“Forgive me. I would never mean to hurt you.”
“I am unharmed,” Cupid spat. Maybe he would remain single, if love could turn his father into a weak-kneed namby-pamby.
Mars thumped him on back hard enough to drive the air from his lungs. “That’s my boy! Now, back to this wager. Prove to me that love is stronger than war. Take two people of my choosing – a couple that has absolutely nothing in common. They might not even like each other. Make them fall in love – and stay in love.”
Falling in love was no challenge. A couple of slings of his arrows would solve that. But staying in love was pure mystery. If he won this wager, ‘t would be by chance at best. “It is not a fair test of love’s power.”
“Sure it is! You and your mother are always proclaiming the wonder of love. You forget, I was the god of farms and fertility for centuries before taking on armor. Love is nothing more than a means to an end. A seed must die before the plant is born. Your mother is not the goddess of love, but of lust. Love is not a mystery. It is a lie. And that is it’s power.”
Cupid shook with anger. His dark eyes, so like his father’s, grew hard, his brows drew together over a finely chiseled nose. A curly golden lock fell over the high brow, reminding Mars again of the cute little child he had once been, still was at heart. He might be the blood of his blood, the son of his loins, but he was his mother’s child through and through.
“I accept your challenge! Choose your victims!. And I vow they will not only fall in love and stay in love, but the duration of their love will not be measured by months or even years. Theirs will be a love that lasts forever!”
“Ha! I have won already!”
Cupid paced the marble floor of his bed chambers. Would he never learn! His father had goaded him with practiced ease. He’d allowed himself to get angry, and he knew he couldn’t think clearly when anger clouded his vision. Anger was his father’s favorite weapon. Mars used it to wage wars and win them. Well, he was not going to win this one! Cupid had to win, not just for himself or his mother, but for all of mankind. If he failed, they would be the ones to pay the ultimate price. The future of the planet rested in his hands. If he won, Mars would end his petty interference into mortal relationships. But if Cupid lost, he would have to sit back and watch while Mars brought the world to the very brink of mass destruction, total annihilation. And all because that foolish woman had cursed his holiday! When this was over, he would take his revenge on her!
He scrubbed a hand through his hair, tugging on the golden curls his mother adored. He’d shaved them off once in a fit of anger – that cloudy vision thing again. He felt the curls gave him too youthful a look, that lovers would never take him seriously until he looked more man than child. His mother had punished him severely for that. The poet had it almost right when he’d claimed that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, but he should try dealing with an angry goddess sometime.
Cupid picked up his crystal sphere. It had been a child’s toy, a gift from his grandfather on the third celebration of his birthing day. It rolled and bounced just like toys made of rubber – but then it was hard to break something when you lived among the clouds. Later he’d discovered that his ball would also let him see things. People. Places. Problems. He’d watched through the smoky mists when Mars had led Hannibal’s elephants to the edge of Rome. He’d seen Pompeii buried and the Titanic sink. But it would also show him the lonely at heart, individuals most in need of his special talent. He gazed at it now, hoping to take his mind off his fool’s wager for a time. There was nothing he could do until his father chose his victims. With only four more days until Valentine’s, there was still time to bring a few people together. Filling his quiver with arrows, Cupid flew to earth to spread a little happiness.
Mars chuckled all the way to earth. Perhaps he’d goaded the boy too far, but it was good to see him show a little spirit once in a while. Venus had all but ruined him with that love crap. Cupid was nearly a man now – ’twas time he started to think like one. For that reason alone, it was imperative that Mars not lose this wager.
That waitress would suit perfectly. She was pretty, but then most women were. Mars liked them thick or thin, short or tall, leggy and brainless, or stocky and brilliant. He liked them young, old and in between, with hair, without hair, with or without clothes, jewelry, or other adornment. He liked women, but he did not love them. Love was for milksops and, well, women.
He stopped outside the diner, snapped his fingers and altered his appearance to fit in with twenty-first century fashion. The cotton “tee shirt” was not as comfortable as his leather tunic, but he could get used to the denim breeches. And the leather boots with chains were a clear sign that mortals had not entirely forgotten their deities. He tucked a leather pouch filled with local currency into his hip pocket, then sauntered into the diner.
A few men hovered over their coffee cups reading newspapers. An old man nodded, a bit of drool leaking from the corner of his lips as his equally old wife prattled on. Poor fool. He’d gotten what he deserved. If he’d been a real man, he’d have died on the battlefield before old age and a woman had him castrated.
“Just take a seat anywhere,” the waitress snapped, gesturing at the vacant tables with a full pot of coffee.
Mars glared at her rudeness, but the little twit turned her back and went about her business without another thought in her empty head. He could break her in two with a mere flick of his little finger! His fists clenched, and his teeth gnashed, and smoke spiraled from his ears.
“No smoking, mister,” the waitress called over her shoulder.
His fury melted into a fit of laughter. If she could irritate a god in less than five seconds, no mortal would ever tolerate her. Mars straddled a stool at the counter to watch. Now all he had to do was discover the perfect man for her to hate.
“Larissa! How about a refill, sugar,” one of the news-readers bellowed.
“Don’t get your undies in a bunch, Junior,” she sniped. “You’ve had three refills already. How about ordering something, or I’ll throw you out for loitering.”
“I’d take a mess of pancakes, but the last time they gave me indigestion. Took two bottles of antacids to break up the lead bricks in my stomach. Can’t risk that now, I’ve got a long haul to make today.”
“Well, just because the special claims “all you can eat” doesn’t mean you have to gorge yourself. I’ll bring you three pancakes, and three pieces of sausage, and then you get your sorry ass out of here. Your stomach will thank me later.”
Mars shook his head at the encounter. Imagine! A woman telling a man what to do, and getting away with it! He’d largely ignored mortals and their petty needs since that whole Bay of Pigs fiasco, when he’d tried to wipe them off the face of the earth. Back in the days when men were men and women knew it, a saucy wench like her might find herself across her husband’s lap for a good, sound spanking! That’s just what the rude little waitress deserved. But no, he would restrain himself. By chance, a spanking might teach her proper manners, which could make her a more biddable lover, precisely the thing he had to avoid. He drew in a deep breath and let it out, as Minerva had suggested when the war lust clouded his wits. It helped, a little.
“What’ll it be,” Larissa asked, sloshing hot coffee in a cup before him.
He forced a pleasant smile and tried to reign in his irritation so he would not frighten the wench over much. “What do you recommend that would be fitting for a god?”
“Good grief! Of all the arrogant – is there a convention for conceited asses around here somewhere that I failed to hear about?”
“I do not understand your speech, wench,” Mars grumbled, quickly losing his patience. “But ’tis a wonder you still have employment with such a tongue. Set your best fare before me now, or I’ll tan your hide to hang upon my door post!”
The wench recoiled, a flash of fear in her pale blue eyes. Then she shrugged her shoulders insolently. “Certifiable, yep. Your ‘fare’ will be right up, oh lordship.”
Chuckles rippled around the diner. He’d filet them all if he thought they were laughing at him. ‘Twas the wench, most certain. Even now he could not decide if he wanted to ravish her or spank her senseless. She addled his wits faster than Venus on a full moon.
She bumped a metal door open with her hip and hollered a number to the cook. They were nice hips. A mite on the trim side, for she was but a maid. Motherhood would widen them, and with some fattening on the nectar of the gods, she would be much improved. Save for that shrewish tongue. Perhaps he could have it cut out.
Larissa went about her tasks efficiently, if a trifle brusque. More customers came than left, and all were served the bitter black soup she euphemistically referred to as coffee. Existing customers received their meal, and bent to devour the fragrant delicacies with little conversation. Mars’s stomach growled, juices filled his mouth. It had not been overlong since he’d last feasted, but if the wench did not bring his meal soon, he just might start eating the counter.
At last she set a small, oval plate before him. The scent was tantalizing, but there was not enough of it to satisfy a mouse, let alone a deity with a hunger such as his! “What is this, wench,” he growled.
“‘Tis your fare, my lord. And before you turn up your nose at it, stab it with a fork and give it a try. Here’s salt and ketchup, if you feel compelled to ruin it.”
He took the flimsy tin utensil and stabbed. Buttery yellow sauce splashed over his wrist. He licked the sauce, his eyes closing in ecstasy. ‘Twas sweet, yet tangy, thick and creamy, with a hint of lemon, and he wasn’t sure what else. “What name do you give this?” he murmured.
“Eggs Benedict. You can’t tell me you’ve never tried it before? God, where are you from!”
“Olympus.” Where else would the gods reside? Mars cut a wedge of the circular bread with the fork, scooped up bread and egg and sauce and brought it to his lips. He savored the fragrant aroma before gobbling the entire drippy mass. The bread was toasted, with a light dusting of meal, but was slightly soggy from the tangy sauce. The egg was still drippy in the center, just the way he liked it. The slice of ham betwixt the egg and bread was as thin as dragonfly’s wings and not fit to be called meat, but mayhap he would direct her to remedy the problem when she refilled his plate.
“Oh, sorry. That’s in Greece, isn’t it? Well, F-Y-I, guys don’t get away with all that macho stuff any more. If you’re looking for love, you’d better tone it down before someone super glues your family jewels.”
He was enjoying his Benedictine Eggs too much to draw offense at her queer language. Besides, she thought his jewels were super. He wasn’t entirely certain what she meant by that, but the wench was not as witless as he first thought. Nay, she was distracting him with this fine meal when he should be studying her more carefully. He sopped up the last of the sauce with a soggy wedge of bread, then shoved the plate aside.
More customers paid for their meal and left. Several of the news-readers flirted with the saucy wench, but she paid them no heed. The war lust simmered through his veins, though Mars did not understand why. Perhaps ’twas because not a one of them was worthy of the brazen harpy. He chuckled to himself.
“Okay, Zorba. What’s your story?”
Mars jolted from his musings. ‘Twas not often someone could take him by surprise, and he was not pleased that a mere bit of a woman had managed. “I know not this Zorba, of whom you speak,” he snapped.
“Zorba the Greek? It’s a movie. And I’d call you by another name, if I had one.”
“Mars,” he started, then cleared his throat. ‘Twould be best if she did not know his true nature. Mortals could be so unpredictable when faced with all-powerful deities. “Marco. Marco Luigi Valerius.”
“Sounds Greek to me,” she said, giggling at a private joke. She was a witless maid. It was as sound a Roman name as he could come up with, given a moment’s notice. “So, why are you hanging around my diner all day?”
“My purpose is not for common revelation,” he said, stroking his chin thoughtfully. When she wasn’t flinging insults, there was a sweetness about her face he felt deep in his groin.
“Is that a fancy way of telling me to mind my own business? You speak English well – not hardly even an accent, but I sure don’t understand your meaning, if you get my drift.”
“‘Tis water that flows in both directions.”
“Huh? Oh, you mean you don’t understand me, either! I got that. Okay, big guy. Here’s the scoop. If you sit in my diner, you eat. When you’re done eating, you pay and go. Simple, huh? We don’t rent booths by the day.”
“I am still fair famished,” he admitted. “The Benedictines were a tasty morsel, but insufficient to sate a hunger such as mine. Bring me meat. And much of it. And perhaps you would consent to join me while I partake? I am a stranger in these lands, and have need of company.”
“Well,” she said, with an eloquent roll of her eyes. They were blue eyes. Large, expressive eyes, now that she had lowered the hardened shield she’d worn throughout the morning as if she were prepared for battle. “Since you asked me nicely, I can take a fifteen minute break when your steak is done.”
She sauntered off behind those metal doors again with a quick twitch of those girlish hips.
Cupid shook his head disgustedly. Kayleigh Breighton and Thomas Renfield were perfect for each other. He’d brought them together a year ago, and it had been love at first sight. Then Mars had stepped in and managed to convince Kayleigh that Thomas was thoughtless and inconsiderate. He then planted the suggestion in Thomas’s mind that Kayleigh would suffocate him with her insecurities. They’d had a terrible spat, and it had taken Cupid months to bring them back together. With smug satisfaction he’d watched Thomas slip into an upscale jewelry store to buy a ring, knowing he was planning to give it to her on next Valentine’s Day, yet now the two of them were once again not speaking to one another.
He’d love to strangle his father, and demand to know what manner of curse he’d put on the hapless couple, but Mars was no where to be found. So Kayleigh sat at her desk, sobbing into a box of tissues, Thomas drove in a dazed stupor that might result in his untimely demise, and Mars was too busy to even enjoy fruits of his labor. Cupid slung his quiver across his back and snatched his bow. They were small weapons against the greater power his father wielded, but it was all he had.
“Going somewhere?” The chilling voice stopped him in his tracks.
“Grandmother,” he said slowly, dropping to one knee in obeisance. He lowered his head and drew in a deep breath, hoping to still the flutters in his breast.
Juno was Goddess of the Gods, wife of Jupiter. She was beautiful, perhaps even more so than his own mother. Venus’s beauty was coupled with desire. All men who looked upon her – except her son – were driven nearly insane with a need to fill her. She was lovely, yes, but lust clouded mortal vision. They could not see that she was also vain, quick-tempered, and possessed a malicious streak that had no doubt been what first attracted his father.
Juno’s beauty was not perceived through lustful eyes. Her smooth complexion, silken hair and olive eyes were set against a backdrop of maturity and wisdom. She could be hard, but never cruel. Her punishments were severe, but never unjust, and Cupid adored her. He feared her – she made his heart pound, the ringing of bells echoed in his ears, and at times he felt near faint, as though he could scarce draw breath into his lungs.
“In what manner of sport are you and that witless son of mine now engaged!”
He gulped, fearful that if he were not on the receiving end of her anger, his father would be, and it would no doubt trickle back to him anyway. “Tis but a wager, grandmother,” he mumbled, trying to make light it. ‘Twas the wrong answer.
“A wager! A moment for your amusement, but the outcome could be disastrous to all mortal life! Have you no shame, child!”
Child! He was not a child, why could she not see it! Perhaps because he had acted like one. He bowed his head, dropped the other knee as well, and touched his forehead to the ground. It was the formal posture, one only the youngest of the gods were expected to assume, or any god who through raising Juno’s ire had cause to fear for their continued existence.
“Forgive me, my queen,” he said sincerely. “I spoke wrongly. Yea, I know ’tis no simple matter. My heart grieves, and if I could recant the wager, I would. I have no wish to assume the future of an entire world upon my youthful shoulders. I bow to your greater wisdom, grandmother. Speak, and I shall obey.” The formal apology was not as hard to give as it once had been, for he had had many eons to practice. He had been a willful child, prankish in nature, and had oft been required to kiss the floor at her feet.
“Arise, child,” she sighed, lifting his chin with the tip of a finger.