I was given my own room to stay in. Honestly, I was a bit overwhelmed by the level of comfortable luxury in this room. I didn’t unpack right away because of it. Not that I had much to ‘unpack’ in the first place. Thankfully, there was a window with thin, almost transparent curtains that moved with the gentle breeze. If I pushed it aside, Erinys could perch there. I wasn’t so alone.
The guest room was spacious. The bed had an actual feather mattress and matching pillows. The blankets were light and airy. In fact, the bed was covered in decorative pillows. There were so many, I figured I could easily suffocate under them all. Tapestries hung on the walls. There was a decent amount of furniture, including a low rise table surrounded by cushions, some baskets and pots for storage, and a couch covered in more pillows. I had to admit it was cozy, but it didn’t feel like… home.
Atalanta and I had been intercepted after fetching a snack from the kitchens. A servant showed me to my room. I also had my dinner delivered to me that evening. Queen Klymene stopped by to see how I was settling in, but she was the only person I saw for the rest of the night. As kind as everyone had been, I enjoyed the solitude. It gave me a chance to breathe.
But the next day arrived. I woke up early so I could slip into the baths without anyone else around. It wasn’t because I was shy or embarrassed. It was just better that way, with Artemis’s and the Huntresses’ history of being caught bathing. My goddess would be furious if a man saw me. I had Erinys stay on the lookout and all went well. I was able to clean up and get dressed without any problems. When I returned to my room, I found breakfast waiting on the table.
I ate, feeding some bits to Erinys like I always did, and then cleaned up for when the servants came by. Erinys flew out the window once I was done. I gathered up my bow and quiver and stepped out into the hallway.
“-even bother with the race? Everyone knows I will be the winner.”
I quietly shut the door behind me, startled to hear someone talking. A little further down the hallway, I saw two people. There was Atalanta, standing in front of a door with her arms crossed, and a man I vaguely recognized from the bystanders yesterday. He was the one who had spoken.
This man appeared to be in his mid-twenties. He towered above Atalanta by quite a bit. He was broad, very much built like a warrior. He must have spent years training to achieve that level of muscle. His chiton fit him snugly, reaching down to his knees. It only had one sleeve, leaving half of his hairy chest bare. As unappealing as it was to me, it was a typical fashion sense for men. His black curls were short but loose, like his hair was growing out of a cut. Bronzed olive skin further supported the idea that he trained. He had a chiseled face, with an aquiline nose, and dark stubble covered his strong jaw.
“The footrace is happening,” Atalanta stated flatly, all but outright scowling at the man. “You can try to convince me all you’d like, but nothing is going to change my mind.”
The man rolled his eyes. “Come on, Atalanta. Have you seen the other challengers? You have tried sparring with them, yes? I am the only one who can keep up with you. In fact, I found our match quite informative.”
Atalanta bared her teeth. “Informative? Afterward, you tried to get me drunk and bed me. I’d call you a pig, but that would be disrespectful to pigs. Get out of my sight. Now.”
He scowled, his hand clenching into a fist. “You will regret this, Atalanta. Making an enemy of Sparta is the last thing you want to do.”
With that, he turned away and stormed off, disappearing down the hallway. For a moment, Atalanta’s shoulders slumped and she pressed a hand to her forehead. She looked… exhausted. I wasn’t sure if I should be seeing this either. She probably thought she was alone.
But then she looked up, glancing over at me by chance. Immediately, her stance changed. She stood up straighter. Her expression hardened. She nodded to me.
“Odessa. Morning.” She glanced back in the direction that the man went. “Sorry if you saw that.”
For a moment, I hesitated. But I forced myself to walk over to join her. “Who was that?”
“Nikandros.” She spat the name like it was a curse. “Prince of Sparta. All he is is an arrogant bastard. Like most men are.”
Ouch… someone must have burned her in the past. But that was none of my business. Or was it? I was here to help Atalanta. I was here to prevent the horrible future from Akantha’s vision. A man had been in that vision as well. Did that mean that in order to stop that from happening, I had to help Atalanta not get married? I would have to find a way to ensure that she won against every single challenger in the footrace… including Hippomenes.
I had to convince that idiot to quit the race.
“Don’t let him get to you,” I said. “Or any of them, for that matter. We both know why they’re here. No one who enters this race is thinking with their mind.”
“If they have minds at all,” Atalanta scoffed, turning away. “It’ll be over soon enough.”
I frowned. I wasn’t sure what exactly she meant by that. “The footrace? I suppose that’s one way to look at it.”
“Yeah. Sure.” Atalanta turned her back to me. “See you around, Odessa.”
And with that, she walked away. I thought of stopping her, but with my hesitation, it was too late. She was gone. I was alone in the hallway.
It was… odd. She’d been fairly warm and friendly to me yesterday. What had changed? It was so… sudden. Something clearly was bothering her… I hoped she would be okay. Perhaps my concern was ill placed, as I did not know her very well. But Nikandros had clearly put her on edge.
No one should have to deal with what Atalanta was going through right now. A footrace to determine who would marry her? It was so absurd. This simply made me more determined to help her. I had work to do today. The first step would be to survey the challengers and learn who they all are. Knowing who the greatest threats were would help. I had a gut feeling that Nikandros was one of them.
I headed out of the palace.
It was a beautiful day in late spring. I took a deep breath of fresh air as I stepped outside. Before leaving, I had stopped by to speak with Philon, the captain of the royal guard, to get a list of the challengers. I’d studied it a bit before heading out. Now that I knew all of their names and origins, I wanted to see them for myself.
So I found a nearby tree and sat down. I leaned against the trunk and crossed my legs, getting comfortable. I closed my eyes and let myself slip into Erinys’s. My vision was now sharp as the hawk’s, looking down below as she soared above the training field. She tucked in her wings and glided down closer. Several challengers were out on the field, training. Some were sparring. Others were practicing maneuvers. Erinys perched on a tree branch. I noticed that the dummies had been replaced, but the door to the shed still had a gaping hole in it from yesterday.
Gods, Atalanta was incredibly strong. I had no doubts she could beat me in melee. Not that that was very difficult in the first place. Speaking of Atalanta, she was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Argus. I wondered where they were.
But I focused. Erinys looked around the field, until her gaze landed on none other than the malaka I saw this morning.
Prince Nikandros of Sparta. Just like I’d been told, he was the prince of Sparta and younger half-brother of Xena, a famous—or infamous, depending on the source—hero. He was the heir to the throne and quite popular among women. And that made his desire to marry Atalanta a big deal. From what I could tell, him participating in the footrace was also huge in the world of politics. A marital alliance between Arkadia and Sparta posed a major threat to the rest of Greece. From what I gleaned from Philon, King Iasus supported Atalanta marrying Nikandros the most because of how beneficial such an alliance would be.
Rumors claimed that Nikandros was the son of Ares. And watching him spar with another challenger further supported that claim. As I watched them carefully, I could tell that Nikandros was holding back. And even so, he was much faster, much stronger, and much more skilled than the poor man he sparred with. He reminded me of a lion.
Nikandros of Sparta was most definitely a threat.
Erinys moved on once I was sick of studying the brute.
The other challengers on the field were… all right. I recognized them by the descriptions Philon gave, but none of them were princes. None of them particularly stood out to me at all. They were all… average. Incredibly average. Atalanta would leave them in the dust and they would die. It… saddened me, honestly.
These men were willing to put their lives on the line, all to marry a woman they didn’t know. And what for? To claim they beat the famous Atalanta? That they tamed the wild huntress who refused to ever marry? Was it pride? Was it lust? I had no clue. But it baffled me either way. They weren’t even taking the time to try to get to know her.
There were one or two that were good with a spear or sword. Eventually, I was done here. Erinys left, taking to the sky. She soared over the palace grounds, letting me see everything that was happening.
I spotted more challengers. I took the time to study them, only to be disappointed. More average men who were good as dead. I wished I could put an end to this completely so there wouldn’t be so many needless deaths.
Erinys left the palace grounds, flying over the rest of the city. She just so happened to pass over the local Temple of Aphrodite. And I just so happened to spot none other than Hippomenes enter the temple. That was… mildly concerned. I should go to the temple to see what he was up to. Aphrodite was known for meddling in the affairs of mortals, after all.
“Are you that bored?”
I pulled out of Erinys’s eyes and back into my own body. I looked up to see Diokles standing in front of me, looking down at me with amusement. He was dressed more casually, so he wasn’t about to go out hunting. I immediately stood up, brushing the dirt off my chiton. Gods, what did he want now?
“No,” I answered curtly. “I simply was communing with Artemis.”
There was no way I was going to tell him of all people about my special bond with the buzzard hawk. It was none of his business, or anyone else’s, for that matter.
“I see,” Diokles said, giving a nod. “You are quite a devout follower. The goddess is lucky to have you.”
“Can I help you?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. “I am a busy woman.”
“Ah, I don’t mean to intrude,” Diokles said, placing a hand over his heart. “Simply put, I am intrigued by you, Odessa. Tomorrow, I plan on going out on a hunt with some friends. Would you care to join us? We are both hunters, so what better way to become better acquainted than to go on a hunt together?”
I fought the urge to sigh. In theory, he was very much right. But I could easily see ulterior motives underlying his amicable invite. I couldn’t forget how he looked me over yesterday. Even if I tried being friends with him, with how much I angered Aphrodite, she was sure to meddle and destroy any chances at friendship. It was a depressing thought, honestly. But what could I do?
“I will have to decline,” I said, not speaking sharply to him for the first time since the conversation started. “I am far too busy. Lady Artemis wishes me to watch over Atalanta, you see.”
That wasn’t an actual lie for once.
His demeanor immediately changed as soon as I mentioned his adoptive sister. Anger and annoyance flashed in his green eyes. He scowled, his hands clenching into fists at his sides.
“It’s always her, isn’t it?” He glowered down at me. “Atalanta this, Atalanta that. Ever since she’s come back, it’s all about her. No one gives a damn about me. I had hoped you would be different, but apparently not.”
I opened my mouth to defend myself, despite my shock, but he was gone. He stormed away, leaving me alone. I stood there for a moment, unsure of what to make of what had just happened. This time, I did sigh. Gods… why did this keep happening? Why did I keep meeting men who were so melodramatic?
I did hope he would be okay. The feeling of inadequacy… was horrible. I knew that all too well.
But I didn’t have time to wonder about this. I needed to find out what Hippomenes was up to.
I followed Erinys to make my way to the Temple of Aphrodite. It wasn’t easy to miss. The temple was a beautiful and extravagant white marble building surrounded by lush gardens. The entire area smelled of roses and I spied quite a few doves nesting in the trees. But I felt extremely out of place stepping into the temple grounds when I was so obviously a follower of Artemis.
As I walked down the cobblestone paths, between the vibrant gardens, I did earn a few strange looks. Nevertheless, I walked on. Erinys swooped on ahead of me. I knew I did not belong here. The sooner I found out what Hippomenes was doing here, the better.
I reached the entrance to the temple. The massive double doors were slightly open—enough to give privacy but not to be shut in. I approached the doors, remaining quiet and cautious. I carefully peered through the gap in the doors to see who was inside. I hoped Hippomenes was still here.
I gave a silent thank you to Artemis, because he was. But unfortunately, he was not alone. No, he was talking to Aphrodite. Somehow, he’d gotten the goddess to appear in her temple. That could only mean more trouble.
Aphrodite was breathtakingly beautiful, as one would expect from the goddess of love and beauty. Her golden blonde locks cascaded down to the ground in graceful waves. She had a fair complexion, with a single beauty mark at the corner of her full, almost pouty lips. She was plump and voluptuous, her curves very visible underneath the sheer lacy chiton that hung off her body. There was a faint rose-gold glow to her, much like how Artemis radiated silver light.
“Take these,” Aphrodite said, handing Hippomenes what appeared to be golden apples. “During the race, when Atalanta catches up to you, throw an apple. She will become distracted and chase after them, allowing you to regain the upper hand and win the race.”
“Th-Thank you so much, Lady Aphrodite!” Hippomenes stammered, trying to juggle the three golden apples. “I knew you’d understand.”
The goddess flashed a dazzling smile. “Of course, darling. It is my pleasure to help such adorable lovebirds.” She reached out to pat him on the cheek. “My only request is that once you two are happily married, you give me the proper respect I deserve.”
Hippomenes bowed hastily. “O-Of course!”
My thoughts immediately shifted to Akantha’s vision. Weren’t Atalanta and her mystery man turned into lions by Kybele because they angered Aphrodite, who sent them into a fit of lust in Kybele’s temple? It… was all because of this, wasn’t it? Because Hippomenes would cheat with Aphrodite’s help and forget to honor her after, thus angering her. He was such a fool! Making a deal with a god… was a horrible idea in general. Nothing good ever comes of it.
I had walked right into what I was trying to prevent.
Aphrodite winked. “Good luck.”
I quickly turned away from the brilliant flash of light, as did Hippomenes. When it faded away, Aphrodite was gone. Hippomenes was alone, with three golden apples in his arms. I stood there for a moment, trying to process what I had just witnessed. From as far as I could tell, Hippomenes had come here to pray to Aphrodite for help. Perhaps he was worried about the outcome of the footrace after all.
I opened the door. “Hippomenes!”
He jumped, nearly dropping the apples and whirling around. “O-Odessa?!”
“What are you doing?” I demanded.
He smiled sheepishly. “Oh, uh, just praying to Aphrodite for her support during the race.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You’re going to cheat.”
He sighed in exasperation, actually glaring at me. “What do you expect?! I don’t want to die, okay?”
“Then drop out,” I stated flatly.
“No,” he retorted. “I love her. I’m not going to give up on the chance to marry her. Like you could ever understand what it’s like to love someone-”
I never got to hear all of what Hippomenes said, because out of nowhere, I was pulled into Erinys’s eyes. Suddenly, I was flying over the forest near the palace. Erinys swooped down closer, gliding among the trees. It was then that I spied a glint of red hair. Erinys perched in a tree so I could get a closer look.
It was Atalanta. She was cautiously stalking through the forest. In the distance, I could see where the woods turned into a swamp. She was… venturing into the hydra’s territory. But I had heard nothing from Iasus that he had asked his daughter to slay the monster. What was she doing? Was she mad? That thing would kill her!
I snapped back to my body. Hippomenes was staring at me with wide eyes.
“O-Odessa? Are you all right?”
“No time,” I said, turning around. “Atalanta is in danger.”
Without another word of explanation, I ran.