“It’s a malady particular to artists,” Arachne said to her father one day, as he was watching her work.
That morning, he had made her a gift of sea-blue yarn that was said to have been touched by the gods themselves, or, at least, by a demigod, or, at least, by one of the Oceanids; the seller had been vague about the specifics, but assured Idmon that the material was, in some way, divine. It looked divine, different from the yarn that Arachne usually used, which was single-color and made of cotton. This yarn shimmered the way the sea shimmered when the sun shone on its surface: hues of algae green, river blue, and flashes of gold.
Arachne was using her father’s gift as the warp thread, the backbone for the tapestry she was weaving. She’d tried to talk to her father before about the technical and mechanical aspects of her craft, but while her father was a leader of men, there were some things you could only understand the significance of if you actually did them yourself.
And Idmon was getting older.
She liked it when he visited her, though, while she was weaving. She liked having someone to talk to who actually seemed to listen.
“What is?” he asked her.
She blinked. “What?”
Arachne blinked again, fingers tangled in her thread. She’d gotten lost in her head, lost in the figure-eights she was making across the back and front of her loom. She chewed on her bottom lip – her father called that her least attractive habit, but she swore it helped her focus – and tried to remember.
“The malady particular to artists,” he reminded her.
“Ah.” Her laugh was a puff of air, more lighthearted than the wind. “I meant the pursuit of perfection.”
Idmon’s head tilted to the side. She wasn’t watching, didn’t see.
“I know plenty without artistic talent who would disagree,” he countered.
Aranche glanced back at him, smiling wryly. “Are you about to tell me all the reasons I’m wrong?”
“I’m your father,” Idmon pointed out affectionately. “Isn’t that what I’m for?”
She grinned. “Don’t you have a city state to rule over?”
“A warrior pushes his body to its limits in the pursuit of physical perfection,” Idmon intoned, counting off each profession on his fingers. “A philosopher pushes his mind to its limits in the pursuit of intellectual perfection. A cook pursues culinary perfection, a charioteer pursues equestrian perfection, you could even say a prostitute pursues the perfect sexual experience –”
“You only mentioned the prostitute to shock me,” Arachne shot back, grinning.
“Did it work?” he teased.
She laughed. “No.”
Figure eight. Across the front, around the back. And again.
“I wouldn’t call any of those pursuits a malady,” Idmon said, eyes tracking his daughter’s eyes as his daughter’s eyes tracked the thread in her hand.
“There’s a difference,” Arachne insisted. “Those kinds of perfections can be measured. Artistic perfection can’t. It’s subjective. One man might look at a sculpture and be moved to tears by its beauty; another might walk right by, totally indifferent.”
“So, artists go mad trying to achieve something that can’t be achieved,” Idmon said.
“And you’re aware of this,” he continued.
She was holding back her laughter. “Yes.”
He grinned back at her. “And yet you’re still pursuing artistic perfection.”
She shot him a grin that bordered on devious. “Yes.”
“So, I’ll have a madwoman for a daughter?” Idmon shook his head, chuckling.
“You already have a madwoman for a daughter.” Figure eight. Another loop, across the front, around the back. Art could be tedious.
Idmon’s brows furrowed, the good humor gone. “Arachne.”
“That’s what people say,” she said absently. “Locked up in her room all day, only comes out to get more yarn...”
“If you’re locked up in your room all day, how do you know what people say?”
She scrunched up her nose. The thread had gotten stuck.
“Arachne,” he said softly.
“Give me a second.”
Idmon sighed and slouched into his armchair. He had a million things on his plate that had to be dealt with before dinnertime, advisors to consult with, politics to play, a government that needed someone to run it. Soon enough someone would come looking for him, and they would find him easily, because this was where he always came when he needed to think.
Arachne processed her thoughts through her weaving. Idmon processed his thoughts by watching Arachne weave. She could exist in silence for days; he couldn’t imagine how. The quiet would drive him mad.
“What?” she asked suddenly.
His head jerked to face her again. “What?”
“You asked a question, I missed it.” Arachne glanced back.
Idmon blinked slowly, combing through his own mind, and had to admit, “I don’t remember.”
“Good. Because I have a question.” She was chewing on her bottom lip again. Her hands had stopped moving across the loom.
“You can ask me anything,” Idmon said instantly. “You know that.”
“More of a request,” she said.
“You can ask me for anything, you know that.”
“This thread,” she said, fingers brushing over the yarn. “You said it was touched by the gods. Or something close.”
He rose from his chair to stand behind her to peek at the loom. So far it was a shimmering green-blue-gold rectangle of woven thread. Next, she would use plain yarn to weave patterns, designs, people, animals, flowers, gods.
“Yes. And it’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
Arachne took in a slow breath. “It is. Could you get me yarn like this again?”
He tugged teasingly on the back of her braid. “You can’t go back to mortal thread, now that you’ve worked with something divine?”
“That’s not why,” she said, swatting his hand away. “I want to make a gift.”
“You’re making me a gift?” Humor, again, but forced this time. “You’ve made me so many gifts. You don’t need to make me another.”
“I didn’t say it was for you.”
Arachne didn’t talk to people, though, that was the thing. She had told her father once, when she was just old enough to begin to use language, just beginning to study her first loom with her mother, that she wasn’t meant for people. He’d asked her what she meant by that and she hadn’t been able to come up with an answer, just repeated what she’d already told him. She wasn’t meant for people.
In this moment, Idmon wished, as he so often wished, that his wife was still with them.
“It must be someone special,” he said finally, “if you’re asking for thread like this.”
“Special,” Arachne echoed. She had gone back to weaving while her father was thinking, unbothered by the stretch of silence between her last words and his most recent response. “Yes.”
“You don’t hold a high opinion of many people, Arachne. People in general, really.”
She smiled faintly as she wove. “People in general have never given me a reason to think highly of them.”
One of his advisors appeared in the door, bowed; Arachne made a face and muttered something about sycophants, which Idmon elected to ignore.
“So, when are you going to tell me who this gift is for?”
“You’re trying to win someone’s favor. Did you think I wouldn’t be interested?”
She let go of the loom to pinch the bridge of her nose, taking just enough steps back that she could stand face to face with her father.
“I’m not trying to win someone’s favor. I’m trying to court someone. Purple, please, and silver, and gold. It should shimmer, like this yarn shimmers. I can order the rest myself, everything else I need, but for those colors, I need your help.”
“Daughters of kings don’t often court without their father’s approval,” the advisor mentioned from the door.
Idmon held up his hand.
Depending on what boy she had her eye on, this could end in disaster. His advisor was right; Arachne was old enough to know that her hand in marriage was political power, not just a gesture of love.
“Who is he?”
Arachne was nineteen years old and unbothered. She pecked her father’s cheek. “You have to meet with your advisors. I’m sure all of Lydia would fall apart without your hourly check-ins.”
He studied her. Took a breath.
“I’ll get you the yarn.” Idmon pressed a kiss to her cheek. “I just hope he’s worthy of it.”
“Of me, you mean.”
“I’ll see you at dinner, Arachne.”
The wrap thread had been woven. Alone in her room, Arachne trailed her fingers across the yarn. When her father told her it had been touched by the gods, she thought he’d just been tricked by a skilled salesman. But she could feel the power in the thread.
If this was what it felt like to touch something touched by the gods, how much more incredible, how much more humbling, how much more thrilling would it be when she got to touch the goddess herself?
Olympus was a place of eternal perfection. But the problem with anything eternal and the problem with anything perfect was that inevitably, no matter how much joy that thing brought at first glance, boredom settled in.
Athena was close with some of her siblings, but mostly, she kept to herself. Hera hated her because Hera was Zeus’s wife, and she had had no part in her creation. That was alright. Hera hated many mortals and many gods. Hera loved Zeus enough to still be hurt when his infidelities came to light. Hera hated Zeus because he was so often unfaithful, his lust forever unsated.
Hate was a useless emotion. So was vengeance. So was spite.
Athena had never hated anyone.
And she didn’t walk among the mortals often. It seemed wisest not to interfere unless called upon to interfere. They were the gods and goddesses of Olympus, symbols, in some ways, to give men hope; vital, in some ways, to the way the world functioned.
So, she stayed on Olympus, bestowing blessings and working her loom. And she got bored.
It was a peculiar thing, being prayed to, because if the person who was praying to her was doing it right, she could feel the sensation of their worship in her inhuman body. Sacred oils, dances, words of worship, songs, flowers, candles – they didn’t often offer animal sacrifices to her, but she felt blood sticking to her flesh when they did. There were those who oversaw her worship at her temple on the Acropolis, so, generally, worship always followed the same pattern. The way a mortal man would shiver when the air was cold; the cold air was how Athena felt the prayers sent to her.
This one was different.
“Aphrodite,” she said.
Her half-sister. The goddess of love, beauty, passion, sex. Athena used to think of Aphrodite as vain, but wisdom grows over time, and somewhere along the way she changed her mind: Aphrodite was beautiful, and valued her beauty, but that didn’t mean she was vain.
Wisdom was made up of nuance.
Her sister had been reclining nearby, lost in her own mind; Athena found that when they were at Olympus, the gods were often lost in their own minds. But she sat up at the sound of her name, and moved closer.
“Athena,” she said, eyebrow lifted. “How can I help you?”
The gods could see everything from the clouds. Anything they wanted.
Athena fidgeted with the hem of her dress; Aphrodite noticed and placed her hand on top of Athena’s to make it still
“I’m getting a prayer that was meant for you,” Athena said.
Aphrodite’s nose scrunched up. “How?”
“A candle was just lit in Lydia —”
“No,” her sister interrupted, “I mean, how do you know it was meant for me?”
Athena bit her lip. “It feels like love.”
Aphrodite was quiet for a moment, tapping her fingers against her sister’s hand.
“Where in Lydia?” she asked.
“A shrine. A bedroom. A loom. A girl. I know that yarn.”
“You sound like you’re receiving a prophecy.” Aphrodite’s voice was lightly teasing, but not cruel. “You know we give the prophecies, right, we don’t receive them?”
It was late at night in Lydia. Arachne stood before the shrine she’d built, carefully setting aside the match she’d used to light a white wax pillar candle. The shrine was clearly meant for Athena; she could see her symbols, a carved figure of an owl, a shining gold helmet, a dull, silver spear with a prayer to the goddess carved onto the handle.
“She’s not asking for wisdom,” Athena said softly.
Athena was staring at her own sandaled feet, watching Arachne at the same time. Aphrodite was peering at her sister with concern and curiosity, watching Arachne at the same time.
“Why do you sound panicked?” the love goddess asked.
“Prayer isn’t supposed to feel like this,” Athena replied, her voice insistent. “She’s not asking for wisdom, or battle-field valor.”
“Then what is she asking for?”
Arachne knelt in front of the shrine, murmuring a prayer. All the familiar words: I begin to sing the honored goddess, Pallas Athena, the grey-eyed, very clever one with a relentless heart. But the words didn’t feel the same. They’d never felt like this before.
“I can feel the pulse of her heart,” Athena said, careful to keep her breath slow, her words steady and even. “It’s beating fast.”
“Are you sure that’s not your own heart, beating fast?”
Athena’s eyes glared, but her cheeks blushed. “What are you suggesting?”
The girl in the bedroom finished her prayer, but she didn’t extinguish the candle. She stayed prostrate before the shrine, head bent, long, dark curtains of hair hanging in her face. The prayer should be over. She’d said the Homeric hymn. But she wasn’t asking for wisdom. This was something else. And she wasn’t extinguishing the candle.
“I know you weave,” Arachne said, her voice hushed. “I weave, too.”
She pulled herself to her feet. Her body was trembling, but when she spoke, her words were steady. For now, she was silent. She picked up the candle and carried it over to her bed, holding it close to the finished tapestry lying there – gold, and silver, and purple. Snakes, and helmets, and owls, and olive trees.
“She’s better than me,” Athena said.
Aphrodite frowned, forehead creasing. “That’s... not possible.”
“I know. But she is. She’s a better weaver than me.”
Wax spilled on Arachne’s trembling fingers, but this was the only light she had. She brought it a little closer to the tapestry, and Athena clutched suddenly at Aphrodite’s arm.
“She can’t burn it –”
“Shh, she’s talking.”
“Athena,” Arachne said. Her voice was strong, but Athena was wise enough to know that didn’t mean she wasn’t scared. “This tapestry is my gift to you. The proof of my devotion and adoration. It is the greatest and most perfect thing I’ve ever made and will ever make.”
“How can I give you my gift, my adoration, my devotion?” Arachne asked. “How can I give myself to you?”
Beside her, Aphrodite let out a low whistle; Athena frowned and nudged her sister hard in the ribs.
“Should I burn it, like a sacrifice, so that the ashes rise to you?”
“She can’t burn it –”
“Or will you come to me?”
Arachne’s voice was beginning to shake. Athena hadn’t realized it, but she was gripping Aphrodite’s arm with inhuman strength.
“Show me a sign,” Arachne said.
“Show her a sign,” Aphrodite urged.
Athena took in a deep breath and blew it out from parted lips.
A gust of air came through Arachne’s window, extinguishing her candle. The room was dark except for moonlight and starlight; they were too far away from dawn for Athena to see the grin on Arachne’s face.
“I will be honored to receive you,” Arachne said.
She took a breath. “Hail to you, then, child of aegis-bearing Zeus. And I will also praise you with yet another song still.”
The end of the Homeric hymn. The worship was complete. Athena and Aphrodite watched in silence as the shadowy figure of Arachne returned the candle to its place on the shrine, carefully put away the tapestry, and crawled into bed to sleep.
“I think that was meant for you,” Aphrodite said with a teasing smirk.
“This is –” Athena stumbled over her words. “She’s not supposed to do what she just did.”
Athena squeezed her eyes shut tight, trying to process what had just happened. “I don’t even know her, and I... how do you live like this, sister?”
Rubbing circles around her shoulder blades, Aphrodite answered calmly. “Passion is... volatile. Love is, too. You’ve never let yourself feel anything like that before, have you?”
Athena let out a long breath. “No.”
“It wouldn’t be wise.”
“No,” Athena said. “It wouldn’t be.” She rubbed her temples, sighed, exhausted. “Aphrodite. I don’t want her to get hurt.”
Aphrodite stood and pressed a kiss to her sister’s cheek. “Her fate was sealed when you snuffed out that candle. Whatever happens next happens next.”
“Make me look human,” Athena said to Aphrodite.
She was gazing at herself in the mirror in a way Aphrodite could recognize all too well, trailing her fingers over her face, her cheekbones, her nose, her lips, as though trying to imagine how she might look in front of the one she loved.
Aphrodite gently grasped her sister’s wrists, moving to stand in front of her, each hand in each hand. “She’s expecting a goddess,” she said.
“Maybe I don’t want to be a goddess.”
Aphrodite let out a deep-throated chuckle. “First you lose yourself to the throes of passion –”
“No one said anything about throes –”
“And now you’re imagining a mortal life, all in the name of love.” Aphrodite let go of Athena’s hands, turning to the trays she’d assembled for her sister, full of gold and silver and gem-studded jewelry. She picked up a silver bracelet that was meant to wrap around a woman’s upper arm, shaped like a serpent with glistening onyx eyes. “Do you think that’s wise, sister?”
“It could be done,” Athena insisted. “If Zeus allowed it –”
“One prayer, and you’re ready to give up godhood for this girl?” her sister asked, and for a moment, her sister’s voice was so soft that Athena felt like an egg, cradled in a child’s hands.
She shook off the sensation. “Maybe our father will put me in the stars when I die,” she answered bitterly. She smoothed her hands over her naked body, her breasts, her hips. She had never found fault in them before, but now...
“Mm, if he doesn’t smite you first.” And just like that, the child’s hands smashed together, and the egg was cracked.
Athena glared. “Stop joking.”
“This is one night,” Aphrodite reminded her sister. “This is a fantasy.”
Athena huffed, crossing her arms beneath her bare breasts. “Then let me fantasize!”
Aphrodite chuckled. “A rare burst of anger from the goddess of wisdom. Of all of us, you’re the last I’d expect to lose her head.”
“Weren’t you encouraging me just a minute ago?”
“For a night, sister. Maybe two. Maybe three. Maybe for as much of her life as you desire.” Aphrodite brushed a lock of Athena’s hair out of her eyes. It was a plain, mousy shade of brown, which Aphrodite had woven into an elaborate braid that wound in a circle at the back of her sister’s head. The love goddess plucked a fluff of cloud from the sky around them, shaped it into a red rose, and tucked it into the updo, stepping back to inspect her work. “You’re the one who brought humanity into the equation.”
Athena rolled her eyes. “It’s just – I don’t want to intimidate her.”
“Oh, I think she knows exactly what she’s getting into.” She paused, a finger on her lips. “Maybe not quite.”
Athena’s eyes flickered to her sister, and then down to the small pedestal she was standing on. “Maybe not quite,” she echoed. “We both know I know better –”
“None of that, I’m not letting you out of this,” Aphrodite said with a cluck of her tongue. She circled the pedestal slowly, as an artist might do to his sculpture. “You gave the girl a sign. That’s as good as giving your word.”
“A goddess can break her word, to a mortal,” Athena muttered.
“Is that the kind of goddess you want to be?” Aphrodite asked, completing her circle.
Athena sighed. “For all my wisdom, sister, I’ve never known what kind of goddess I want to be, only the kind of goddess I am. This isn’t the kind of goddess I am.”
“If you were a god, not a goddess, no one, not even our father, would blink at the thought of you taking a mortal lover,” Aphrodite said, forehead creasing. “Regardless of who approached who.”
Athena laughed hollowly. “I like, sister, how quickly you alternate from mocking me to sympathizing with me.”
“I’m not mocking you –”
“Yes, you are.” Athena looked at herself again in the mirror. Apollo had pulled the sun almost out of the sky, drenching Olympus in the orange-red-yellow shades of sunset. The warm colors made her feel like her skin was made of magma. Like marble, she was meant for cooler shades. Dusk would suit her best, just as Apollo was stabling his horses.
“Will you dress me?” she asked. “Our brother’s chariot will land soon, and if I haven’t lost my nerve by then, I’ll go.”
Aphrodite picked up the silver bracelet she had been examining earlier and clasped it to her sister’s left arm; god-touched, the serpent’s black tongue flickered out of its mouth, the snake itself curling contentedly around Athena’s bicep.
Aphrodite gathered the clouds around them, shaping them around her sister’s body. For a moment all Athena could feel was the water vapor, and she remembered watching child-gods tossing these fluffs of cloud at each other as they played. She had never played. She had never –
“Have you ever had sex with a woman?”
“Aphrodite,” Athena hissed.
“What? It’s a relevant question.” Aphrodite’s hands moved to color the clouds in dusky shades of blue and purple silk. “An empire waist, I think. Have you?”
“Mortal or goddess?”
Aphrodite smoothed out the silk folds, circling her sister and creating a small train, bordering the entire dress in patterns of shimmering silver. “I’m guessing the answer is the same for both.”
Athena said nothing. Aphrodite tapped the rose that she’d put in her sister’s hair, changing its petals purple gray. “Your silence speaks volumes, sister. Is that why you’re so nervous?”
Athena sighed, but obeyed, stretching out her arms. “I never said I was nervous.”
Her sister laughed. “You didn’t have to.” She worked in silence for a moment, finishing the dress off with a neckline that dipped lower than any dress Athena had ever worn before. “Would you like some advice?”
Athena frowned at her reflection as Aphrodite fixed a silver and amethyst choker around her neck. She knew the frown made her look less beautiful, and expected to be chastised for that, but Aphrodite said nothing, just stepping back and examining her work.
“Do I need advice?”
Aphrodite cocked an eyebrow. “You’re about to be with a woman for the first time, and you don’t want advice from the goddess who specializes in that area? Does that seem wise to you, sister?”
Athena’s fingers trailed over the amethyst necklace. “You don’t have to speak so crudely.”
“Artemis is the goddess of virginity, not you.” Aphrodite held a hand out, and reluctantly, Athena took it, stepping off the pedestal.
“Fine.” Athena pinched the bridge of her nose. “I know the mechanics. I’m not sheltered. What else do I need to know?”
Aphrodite cupped her sister’s face in her hands, pressed a kiss to her forehead, and let her go. “Communicate with her. And I don’t just mean by talking, though you should talk to her. You’ll be able to tell if you’re doing something right, by the way she breathes, by the way she writhes, by the way she moans. You know where the...” She sighed. “If you insist on being embarrassed, I’ll be vague. You know the anatomy? Which button to press, so to speak?”
Athena chewed on her bottom lip. “Yes.”
“The rest is intuition, really.” Aphrodite grinned wickedly. “You’re wise. You’ll figure it out.”
“Again, I appreciate how you alternate between helping me and mocking me.”
“It’s not mocking, it’s teasing.” Aphrodite squeezed her sister’s hands. “You look beautiful.”
“Like a goddess? Or like a human?”
“Beautiful,” Aphrodite insisted. “Don’t think about the rest.”
In the distance, they could hear the clattering of chariot wheels and horse hooves as Apollo landed and the moon rose in place of the sun. Athena looked down from the clouds, then back, one last time, at her sister.
“You’re sure this is going to be worth it? Just one night?”
“Or two, or three...” Aphrodite’s smile was warm and fond. “Don’t be nervous.”
“Because it’s not becoming of a goddess,” Athena grumbled. “Can I see the mirror again?”
“No, or you’ll be standing in front of it all night.” Aphrodite grasped her sister’s shoulders and nudged her gently forward. “And it has nothing to do with godhood. You don’t need to be nervous. All that’s going to happen is that you get to feel good, and you deserve that.”
“And I might ruin this girl’s life in the process.”
“That’s tomorrow’s problem.”
Athena stepped onto a spare patch of cloud.
“Tonight,” Aphrodite said, “you get to feel good.”
“If this story isn’t a tragedy, sister” Athena said, as the cloud began to float away to Lydia, “I’ll thank you when it’s over.”
“And if it’s a tragedy?” Aphrodite called after her, that same teasing voice. But Athena either didn’t hear or chose not to entertain the thought.
“It’s even more stunning in person,” Athena said. She kept her voice soft as her fingertips trailed across the woven tapestry, tracing over a figure that she supposed was meant to be her, god-touched once more; where her finger traced, the threads shimmered. “I was begging you not to burn it the moment you picked up the candle.”
Arachne’s room was near the top of her father’s house, a spire, a tower with winding staircases; a great window stretched along the wall beside her loom. Usually, at night, she shielded herself from the wind with heavy curtains, but since that prayer, she’d left the curtains parted.
It wouldn’t have mattered. Athena was a goddess. She could have materialized in Arachne’s bed, if it suited her. But she chose to wait at the window and use the chirping and cawing of owls to startle Arachne awake.
She had stood, in her godhood, in her glory, the night skies and stars and moon behind her. And Arachne, in her shift, had scrambled out of bed, and she hadn’t fallen to her knees this time. She just held out her hand, and Athena had taken it, and here they were, sitting on the bed, Athena in all her finery and tinted lips, Arachne barefoot in a plain linen shift, silent distance between them even as their knees touched.
The quiet between them made the goddess’s heart strain against her chest.
“So, you weave.” Athena had to say something, didn’t she? “Do you have other pastimes? Do you play the lyre?”
“Weaving is a craft, not a pastime.” Arachne’s tone was such that Athena wondered exactly how many times the mortal girl had to make that argument. She softened quickly, though, staring down at her hands, which were folded on her lap. One thumb brushed over the other, a soothing, repetitive motion, like petting a cat. “I thought the lyre was Apollo’s symbol.”
“We’re more than our archetypes.”
“I guess that’s how we think of you. Symbols. Archetypes.” Arachne’s dark eyes flickered upwards towards Athena’s gray-purple ones, her fingers twitching in her lap. “But you’re real.”
A slight smile. “Was that in doubt?”
“No, I just mean... you’re actually here.”
Athena chewed on her bottom lip. Arachne’s eyes focused on those lips; she had a cupid’s arrow, that was what they called it, that little dip in the center of her upper lip. Had she been born with one, or was the goddess Arachne was now seeing a manifestation, a careful presentation of who Athena wanted to be? Her forefinger itched to run across that bit-upon bottom lip, she almost, she almost –
“Do you want me to light a candle?” she blurted out instead.
Athena’s bare shoulders shrugged; her voice was shy. “You’re the one who prayed.”
“That doesn’t mean I have the first clue what I’m doing.”
The goddess’s smile widened. She reached, one hand covering Arachne’s joined fingers, stilling them into a gentle calm. “You’re assuming a lot,” Athena said, “if you think I have the first clue what I’m doing.”
“I mean, of course I know the –”
“The mechanics, of course, and I guess some of its intuition –”
“I figured you’d lead me –”
Athena’s heart was like the pitter-patter of rain on wet clay. “I figured we’d figure it out together.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to take a goddess’s maidenhood,” Arachne teased nervously; Athena blushed, but she also grinned, her hands gently taking Arachne’s hands, pulling them out of her lap and onto her knees. Arachne’s turn to blush, and she was glad she hadn’t lit the candle, though she supposed the moonlight exposed her well enough.
“I’m pretty sure we can worry about consequences in the morning,” Athena said, her body gaining confidence as she rose to her feet. What was this, anyway, except another way to worship? She untied the ties that bound her dress, letting the purple-gray silk spill onto the floor.
And for a moment Arachne couldn’t speak. All she wanted to do was touch, but Athena was standing a few steps away from the bed, and Arachne wanted the goddess in her bed, and the best way to do that, she figured, was to stay in it. She lifted her shift up and over her head, wondering if she should say it, deciding not to.
Marble-pale skin, lit by moonlight. Breasts like spring blossoms, a patch of dark hair between her thighs, toned arms and legs, the distinct impression that this woman – this goddess – could beat any man alive in a wrestling match if it so pleased her.
She must already know she was beautiful. So, there was no need for Arachne to say it.
“You intend to stay the night?” she said, surprised to find, suddenly, that it was difficult to breathe.
Athena stepped out of her sandals and began to undo the long, long braid that her sister had put so much work into. She took the rose that had served as a pin and set it on the altar to herself.
“Is that a problem?”
“I didn’t say that...”
Arachne’s hands were moving over her own body, decidedly more human, lumpy in spots, blemished, her fingers blistered from constantly working the loom. Just as her right hand slithered between her legs, Athena moved towards her like a gust of wind, grabbing her wrist.
“I’m pretty sure that’s my job tonight.”
“Do I need to tie your hands? Because I will. I think I’d enjoy that, actually.”
“If you start reciting a Homeric Hymn, I’m leaving out the window right now.”
Arachne laughed helplessly, breasts bouncing, stomach shaking, her entire body trembling.
“Don’t be nervous,” Athena said gently, though her voice was trembling, too. The pieces were falling into place. This was beginning to make sense to her. “I’m going to take care of you. And then you’re going to take care of me.”
It was as though the goddess had removed all words from her throat, all thoughts from her brain, except for Athena’s name.
And they hadn’t even really started yet.
Something was wrong. A rat in the house. Idmon could smell it.
His bones ached in the morning. They always ached in the morning. He was always cold these days, and he knew, once he threw off the woven blankets that he had bundled his body in for the previous night and lowered his feet to the floor, the marble beneath his soles would be cold, too, and the sandals he strapped to his feet, flat as wooden plank, would do little to ease his aches and pains.
Part of growing old, he supposed. Same as watching his daughter grow up.
Lydia relied on its trade for its power. Deposits of iron and limestone were scattered in quarries on the outskirts of the city, and many of his people found their work there. But something new was happening. There had always been markets, carts of fruits and grains and chickens in cages; there had always been those who bought and sold whatever they could.
He had a young advisor, barely older than Arachne, who wished to establish a new system of commerce. Flat little discs, made of silver and gold; he’d made up prototypes, and delivered them to his king. Idmon had taken to rubbing his thumb against the flat surface when he was restless. Gold warmed more quickly than silver.
The coins rested on a table beside his bed. He started to reach for one, fingers brushing against the metal, before stopping himself. What would they say about him, a widower king, an old man lying beneath enough blankets that they took effort to move, his fingers and toes cold even when the sun was shining, even when he was wrapped in those blankets, flipping a gold coin between his fingers like a toy, lying there brainless?
He was not brainless.
Diokles – the young one, the one who’d given him the coins – woke him in the morning. It should be a servant, it should be someone who blended into the walls so that Idmon didn’t have to look at them too closely, didn’t have to acknowledge their existence. But it was Diokles, every morning, a specter in dark curls and red robes that reminded Idmon of something bloodstained.
He’d never had a son. Diokles had never had a father. These things had a way of working out.
Diokles came with fruit, bread, and wine in a silver goblet, all of it on a silver tray, just like every other morning, and Idmon pushed himself up by his arms, which he could have sworn had been stronger just yesterday. He lurched over the side of the bed, legs dangling, the tray of food sitting beside them. Silently, he picked up a fig; as usual, he gestured for Diokles to take what he pleased, and as always, Diokles hesitated before obeying.
“There’s an infestation,” Idmon said, chewing.
Diokles’s gaze was even. Idmon had said stranger and more cryptic things in the morning, before he was in full possession of his faculties. “What kind of infestation, your Majesty?”
“You can’t feel it?”
The younger man shook his head slowly. Idmon frowned.
“It’s there,” he mumbled, taking another bite of fig, washing it down with the wine.
“Rats? Snakes? Moles? Vermin?” his advisor asked.
Idmon shook his head, not sure what he was shaking his head for. “Something foul. But powerful. As if Hades is lurking.”
Diokles nodded his head, understanding. He broke off a piece of bread, offering a piece to his king. “You have years ahead of you yet.”
“He’s not here for me,” the king said, sounding certain of that much. “If it’s him at all.”
“But something divine,” Diokles clarified.
“Divine, but... foul... and not Hades? Not death?”
“Not Hades, and not Charon, either.” Idmon managed something like a smile. “No burial rites for me yet.”
“I’m sure the princess will be grateful for that,” Diokles said, smiling back, much more warmly.
“All Arachne knows is her loom,” Idmon said, grumbly but loving. “It’s time I draft a will, isn’t it? Choose a successor.”
“So maybe it is Hades. Maybe that’s his message for you.”
Idmon pushed himself off the bed, moving to drape himself in purple. “I don’t think so.”
Diokles followed at a distance, taking the liberty of taking a sip of wine. “Why isn’t there a rug in this room?”
“A rug,” Diokles said patiently. “I see you wince every time your bare feet touch the floor. Marble is cold.”
Idmon smiled to himself, stepping into his sandals and sitting down so that he could lace them properly. “Surely I’ve told you that story before.”
“No, I don’t think so.” Diokles held out the wine goblet. “Tell me it’s not some Spartan aesthetic.”
“You drink it, I’d rather have water.” The flat leather of his sandals slapped against the floor as Idmon stood once more, circling back to the plate of fruits. “There was a weaver my late wife admired. I wanted something simple to keep the floor warm. She wanted something exquisite, something specially made. She liked to leave personal touches. You can still find them. The paintings she chose to hang on the walls. The dinnerware she chose for special occasions. Wine goblets.”
Diokles looked down at the half-empty goblet in his hand. “And when she was lost...”
“You would have been too young to remember,” Idmon said, picking up a grape. “Arachne was five, you would have been – eight? Nine?”
“I remember the late queen’s absence more than I remember her presence.”
Idmon grunted. “This entire palace has existed in the shadow of her absence ever since that spear went through her gut.”
The king’s voice was bitter; Diokles raised his eyebrows at the tone, the brutality of the language, but said nothing at first, picking up another grape and holding it to his lips.
“I don’t even know her name,” the younger man said, biting into the grape. He licked his lips to savor the juice.
“Arachne doesn’t know her name. I don’t allow her name to be spoken. Why are we talking about this?”
“I was just asking about the rug. It might comfort you.” Diokles took another sip of wine. “You might even go to that same weaver. A way to keep her with you.”
“She never left. Not really.” Idmon took a breath, brushing his fingers through his silver-gray hair. “An infestation, I said.”
“You did. A divine one.”
“Maybe ‘invasion’ is the better word.”
Diokles chuckled, setting down the empty goblet. A servant would be along to collect it later, along with what remained of Idmon’s breakfast. He was eating less and less these days. His cheeks were getting hollow.
“I’m sure that if there is something divine here,” Diokles said delicately, careful to keep his voice light, “they’ll be very flattered at their presence being called an invasion.”
Idmon snorted, shrugged as he gestured to the door. “I haven’t had any use for the gods since my wife died.”
“Maybe not. But they have their pride. You know the stories.” Diokles paused at the doorway. “If there is something divine here... You don’t want to be a story, your Majesty.”
“You know by now you can call me Idmon, if no one else is around.” Idmon pushed past his youngest advisor into the hallway, that ever-beating slap of leather sandal against marble.
“Isn’t there some great battle between two great nations you should be presiding over, sword and shield in hand?”
Sleep felt different in the mortal realm than it did on Olympus. More luxuriant, somehow. Athena had responsibilities, as a goddess, technically speaking, but she was also free to ignore those responsibilities, because everyone knew the gods were fickle and operated by their whims. Which meant she was free to lose herself to sleep anytime she pleased, day or night. But the mortals, or, at least, Arachne, who was the only mortal Athena had spent any time with, had routine; they had to think about work, because they had to work to get food, and they needed food to survive.
Athena hadn’t been fully awake when a servant had come with a tray of fruits for her lover. Just awake enough to hear Arachne send them away and to roll over beneath the tapestry, blinking slowly in the dim light of dawn to see the way Arachne blocked the doorway, blocked her from sight.
It wasn’t because Arachne was ashamed. It wasn’t. It couldn’t be.
“I’d rather be here.” Athena snuggled her face into the plump, feathered pillows at the head of Arachne’s bed, then twisted her body so that she had a full view of the other woman working her loom. “So, I’m here.”
Arache laughed softly. “Must be nice to get to stay where you want to be.”
“You’re bolder in the morning than you are at night.” Arachne turned her head in indignation, only to match Athena’s grin once she saw it.
“You’re shyer,” she said.
“I think so.”
They lapsed into silence. Arachne’s fingers crawled across the loom like spiders, just as dexterous and deft, and Athena lay on her side, hugging a pillow to her stomach, her legs tangled up in sheets and blankets. The goddess had the thought that she could lie here all day in complete silence, just watching those fingers work.
“You’re better than me,” she said suddenly.
Arachne’s fingers halted. “What?”
“Your weaving.” Athena propped her chin up on the pillow. “I didn’t say you should stop.”
Arachne didn’t turn from the loom, but neither did she resume her weaving. “You’re a goddess,” she said slowly. “You are the literal embodiment of perfection, by definition.”
“So, they say,” Athena acknowledged.
“So, I can’t be better than you.”
Athena yawned, taking a moment to stretch out her body beneath the blankets, face warmed by the sun streaming through the open window. Her brother and his chariot.
“But you are,” she said simply, once the yawn was done. “It was the first thing I said when I saw the tapestry, when you prayed to me.”
Arachne shook her head slowly, and again, and again. Her hands dropped to the side, and she backed up to the bed, slumping onto the bed beside Athena, hands folding on her lap.
“I thought you’d take it as a compliment,” Athena said softly.
Arachne shook her head again, staring blankly at her newest piece of woven work – greens, and earthy browns, and golden centaurs. ”If I’m better than perfect, what’s... what’s even the point?”
Athena propped herself up a little, just enough to crawl over and lay her head in her lover’s lap. Arachne didn’t object, her fingers absently stroking the goddess’s hair.
“Tell me what you mean,” Athena said, looking up at her.
“I mean, if the point of art is to create something great, something beautiful, something perfect, and I’ve already done that, I’m better than a goddess, what is the point of continuing to weave?”
Athena blinked slowly. She’d forgotten that mortals were mortal and their lives were short, that they sought purpose, that they sought a point.
“Who says that that’s the point of art?” she countered gently.
Arachne chewed on her bottom lip. “Apollo’s patron of the arts, not you.”
“Yes, but I am the goddess of wisdom.” Athena reached up to brush her fingers across Arachne’s jaw. “So, I do know a few things, actually.”
A snort, a smile, that Arachne quickly suppressed.
“So, the tapestry. Which I intend to keep, for the record.” Athena tilted her head in her lover’s lap. “Why did you make that?”
“To win your favor.”
Athena frowned. “Is that all?
Arachne shrugged, the hand in Athena’s hair coming to a standstill. “To... make the best thing I could make. I told you. It was the greatest thing I’ll ever make.”
“So, it’s about perfection?”
“Isn’t that obvious?”
Athena sighed. She took one of Arachne’s hands, playing absently with her fingers. “Do you love to weave?”
“I feel like I’m being walked into some kind of logical trap,” Arachne said, but her voice wasn’t unkind, even amused.
“You’re not.” Athena pressed a kiss to her lover’s knuckles. “Answer the question.”
“Yes, I love it. More than anything.”
“And if I told you, you could never weave again?” Athena raised her eyebrows. “You’ve achieved perfection, after all, and the first thing you did when you woke up was go to your loom. So, what would you do, if I, in my almighty godly power, forbid you from ever weaving again?”
Arachne frowned. “I’d go mad. I’d fall to pieces.”
Athena entwined their fingers. “See? You don’t do it to achieve perfection.”
“You do it because you love it. And you don’t need any more reason than that.” Athena pushed herself up so that she was sitting, wrapping the tapestry around her torso. “It doesn’t matter if you’re great at it or terrible at it. If you love it, you’ll do it regardless of skill or ability.”
She could see Arachne thinking, and she let her lover have that moment. She’d given mortals revelations before, or helped them get there on their own. It was a lot for the human brain to process. Kind of like restructuring the brain. Seeing things in an entirely new light. She always loved watching it happen, but this was truly special.
It took some time, but Arachne pressed a kiss to Athena’s forehead and gently lifted the goddess’s head from her lap. She was still in her shift from last night, didn’t really see why she should ever have to wear clothes again actually. Athena’s dress was in a puddle of silk on the marble floor, and the goddess was in no hurry to slip it back on.
“I want to weave,” she said, brand new excitement in her eyes, and she started stepping barefoot over to the loom –
Athena was a goddess. Lauded. Worshiped. Exalted. But the moment the king of Lydia stepped into his daughter’s bedroom, she was like any young lover caught somewhere she wasn’t supposed to be, scrambling to cover her body with sheets and blankets and any piece of fabric she could find.
The gods were supposed to be proud.
Then again, mortals tended to lump all of them together.
Athena shouldn’t have stayed for so long.
But while the goddess was consumed with nerves – as if this man, this mortal, had any power over her at all – Arachne seemed barely aware that anyone had spoken her name. She was unspooling forest green yarn laced with traces of gold, focused on nothing but the thread in her hands.
“He doesn’t want me here,” Athena said abruptly.
Idmon was staring at her with a look in his eyes she had never, ever seen directed at herself before. But she’d seen it enough on the battlefield, when one soldier locked eyes with another.
Athena’s words were enough to get Arachne to look up, and the yarn jumped out of her hands, rolling across the marble floor.
“Arachne,” the king said slowly, “you should leave.”
Athena’s eyes darted back and forth between the king and his daughter, fingers clutching the blankets with a grip like a vice. For some reason, the only thing she could think about was putting her dress back on, but she couldn’t do that without leaving the bed, and she didn’t want Arachne’s father to see her naked, and she didn’t understand why she cared.
Arachne’s hands trembled as she bent to retrieve the green yarn, but her voice was as steady as she could make it. “I told you I was courting someone –”
“This is Athena.” Idmon’s voice was so cold that Athena shivered, shrinking further beneath the blankets.
Arachne took a deep breath. “I am a grown woman, and – and if I –”
“Leave, Arachne.” Idmon’s eyes hadn’t left Athena’s gray ones since the moment he’d stepped into the doorway.
Arachne caught Athena’s gaze –
“Don’t look at her. Just leave.”
Arachne couldn’t remember the last time she’d fought with her father, and she’d never seen him like this before. She bit down hard on her lower lip, clenched her hands into fists at her side, and stalked past Idmon and out of the room, out of Athena’s reach.
This. This was why Athena had never allowed herself to fall in love before. Mortals said the gods were fickle, changeable, unpredictable, and perhaps they were. But humans themselves were so much worse.
Hate was a useless emotion. So was vengeance. So was spite.
Athena had never hated anyone.
The silence stretched between them, and Athena wondered how she had drifted so far away from her core purpose, the very essence of her existence. She had no wise words now, she thought, she hadn’t had any wise words since she’d floated through Arachne’s parted curtains.
“Is that any way to greet a daughter of Zeus?” she said finally, pulling the tapestry tighter around her naked body. Her voice was flat.
Idmon seemed to shrink into his own body. His eyes flickered to the floor. After a moment’s hesitation, he gripped a post at the foot of the bed and bent his aching knees until they hit the cold marble.
He should have a cane, Athena thought to herself, watching him kneel. But she said nothing.
She had to be as cold as the marble floor.
“Avert your eyes,” she said.
His eyes were already focused on the floor. Idmon said nothing, just bobbed his head in a slow nod. He was in a prostrate position of worship, kneeling, like his daughter had been the night she prayed to Athena, but the energy wasn’t the same. The goddess could feel anger squeezing his heart like a fist.
Carefully, she folded the tapestry, leaving herself bare. Bare-footed, she climbed down from the bed and reclothed herself in the dress Aphrodite had made for her. The silk, purple-gray, made her feel more like a goddess, somehow; so did the necklace she’d taken off in their awkward, fumbling rush to bed.
The snake bracelet around her bicep hissed audibly, obsidian tongue licking at her skin. Idmon looked up quickly at the sound, lowered his head just as quickly.
Athena’s braid was disheveled and ruined by now; it was a simple enough matter to undo it. The mortals rarely depicted her with long, flowing hair, but it seemed a better solution than the mussed and messed updo. She slipped on her sandals and turned to the shrine dedicated to herself, picking up the rose she’d set there last night. Long after Arachne was dead, the rose would still be in full bloom.
“You may rise.”
Idmon gripped the edge of the bed again, grunting as he dragged himself off the floor. He held onto the bedpost for balance, gaze still focused on the floor.
It wasn’t just anger gripping his heart.
She turned, took in the sight of him. “You can look. You needn’t be afraid.”
Idmon looked up, something wild, desperate in his eyes.
“You don’t need my permission to speak,” the goddess said softly. “You wouldn’t have asked your daughter to leave if you didn’t have something to say to me.”
The king exhaled. “No. I wouldn’t have.”
But he didn’t say anything more.
She stared at him a moment longer, then turned back to the shrine Arachne had made for her. She pressed the pad of her forefinger against the tip of the blunt spear leaning against the shrine. “She’s not in danger.”
“Because she pleased you?”
Bitterness, there, barely concealed. Athena glanced over her shoulder. “Because she hasn’t done anything to displease me. She hasn’t done anything to displease anyone.”
The slap of his sandals against the marble as he moved closer. She hadn’t given him permission to approach, but she didn’t mind that he was. “All she’s done is weave and pray, pray and weave. You have nothing to fear from me.”
“Men always have something to fear when the gods come meddling,” Idmon said.
A breath of laughter. “Meddling is a bold choice of words.”
“Isn’t that what you’re doing? Meddling with my daughter?”
She turned to face him. There were only a few feet between them now.
Athena should be frightened, maybe. The woman she’d been when she was with Arachne, that woman would have been frightened. But she wasn’t a woman. She was a god.
“What did Phiobe do to displease you?”
Athena considered the question, tilting her head to the side. When she spoke, her voice was even. “There are thousands, tens of thousands, more than that in Greece alone. Many share the same name. You’re going to have to be more specific.”
Another step forward. A dangerous growl in his voice as he said, “You don’t remember.”
You are not a woman. You are a god.
The spear was within her reach, but too blunt to be of much use. She’d forgotten she could strike him down with a single thought.
“Remind me,” she said.
“There was a battle,” Idmon said. Another step closer. “I don’t remember why. These things... you wouldn’t understand, you’ll never understand, but these things get blurry over the years. I don’t remember what we were fighting for, if we were trying to invade, if we were protecting ourselves from invasion. But there was a battle.”
Another step forward. One more and he’d have her pinned against the shrine. Athena sidestepped, closer to the gap in the wall, the window.
“You fight amongst yourselves often,” she said, careful to keep her voice soft. Around men, women had to be –
You are not a woman. You are a god.
She straightened her spine. “I have been called upon for many battles. You’ll have to be more specific.”
“It’s not the battle that matters,” Idmon insisted, voice rising. “Phiobe. My wife, my queen, your devotee’s mother. She wanted to go to the fields, to inspire the troops.”
Idmon stepped closer. Athena inched back.
“That was brave of her,” she said softly.
“It was foolish of her,” Idmon spat. “I begged her not to go, but she said a queen should be among her people. Like a goddess should be among her worshippers, wouldn’t you agree?”
Athena would be lying if she said that didn’t sting. “Tell me what happened,” she said.
He stared at her. “You don’t remember.”
“I don’t think I was there.”
Athena’s back hit the wall just next to the window. She clung to the fabric of the curtains for safety. She could disappear at any moment, but to leave Arachne like that –
“You were there.” Idmon laughed, and he was closer, much closer, than Athena wanted him to be. She could order him to back away; she could strike the fear of the gods into him. But however, many times she reminded herself of her own divinity, she only felt like a woman.
“The spear is your symbol, isn’t it?” Idmon said, his voice deathly low. That’s what struck her down. A spear, with your name carved into the handle.”
Athena breathed slowly. In, and out. In, and out. “Many warriors carve my name into the handles of their weapons. I’m not to blame for the loss of –”
“You are to blame for the loss of my wife!”
It happened in a matter of seconds.
Idmon’s hands shot forward like an arrow from a bow, wrapping them tight around Athena’s throat.
Athena started laughing, hysterical laughter, because she couldn’t die by a mortal’s hand, surely, he knew that; because while the restriction of her airflow left her head feeling dizzy, Idmon was old, and weak, and his grip wouldn’t have been tight enough even if she had been mortal and –
And he seemed to realize that, and started dragging her to the window, and –
And from a clear blue sky, sunny, not a trace of clouds, an ear-shattering bolt of lightning crackled through the sky, striking the king dead.
Athena’s chest heaved.
In, and out. In, and out.
She had to get out.
So she did. She ran. She ran on air, she ran on clouds; she ran back home, to her sisters, her brothers, her father, who had seen fit to kill a grieving, reckless old man. And on Olympus, Aphrodite held her numb, frozen frame, telling her that it was okay to cry.
I could’ve told you so, Athena kept thinking. I could’ve told you so. This is what happens. I could’ve told you so.
Zeus hadn’t been concerned for his daughter’s safety. He hadn’t even taken the attack as an affront to her honor. It was an offense to him, that some little human king would try to hurt his daughter.
Arachne had never thought much about Zeus before, but she knew. It was hubris, to try to hurt a god. And someone like Zeus couldn’t let hubris that strong be left unchecked.
They didn’t talk about it. They never would.
Arachne used the curtains to hang herself.
It must have been difficult, Athena thought, when she found out. The fabric was heavy, and rough-hewn, and rope usually worked better for that kind of thing. But the princess she’d bedded seemed the type to do things the hard way. Maybe the curtains reminded her of her father; maybe they had been hung there by her mother. Athena didn’t know.
Aphrodite was the one who told her. Athena couldn’t bear to watch the mortal world in the days after Idmon’s death. She felt prayers coming from Arachne, but they felt different. Bittersweet.
She would’ve liked to think the girl didn’t blame her. But she wouldn’t have blamed Arachne if she did.
The guards hadn’t found Arachne when Athena stepped through the window once more, a shining figure in gold and white with bags beneath her eyes. She stepped over her lover’s body and moved to the loom, where a tapestry was waiting to be finished, the gold and green one, with the centaurs.
It seemed a waste just to leave it like that. It seemed like hubris to finish it for her.
Arachne had said she wanted perfection, which was the point of her work. She’d only just realized that she could weave for the joy of it, not for anyone’s pleasure but her own. It seemed a shame for her to die so soon after having that epiphany.
So, Athena rested a hand on her lover’s dead body and turned her into a living spider. The creature crawled over her knuckles, beneath her palm, between her fingers. She could not read its mind. She did not know if this spider had any of the memories that Athena would keep with her for as long as gods ruled over men.
She lowered her hand to the windowsill. The spider crawled off her palm and onto the stone, seeking out a corner.
“Weave,” Athena said. “Because you love it. Weave because it’s the only thing you know how to do. Weave, and when they tear down your cobwebs, weave new ones. Weave, and if you can, remember me.”
She’d never know if the spider understood.