Authors: Kendare Blake
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In Athens, stray dogs run free. The people have neutered and spayed them, taken away their instincts to fight and breed, and turned them into polite citizens. They roam in beggar's packs and split the take in back alleys. They pant on street corners, waiting for the walk signal to cross. They ride the metro and count the stops and nobody bats an eye.
In the shadows of the Acropolis Museum, a young woman watches as people make their way up the hill road, tourists from every corner of the globe, most wearing wide-brimmed hats and Bermuda shorts. Sandals they bought at a shop in Plaka and paid too much money for. They are a constant stream, so many more than there used to be back when the marble wasn't worn and pocked and sand-colored.
Barely twenty paces up the slope, a heavyset woman of around forty calls to her companions to stop. The day is hot and yellow. Sweat stains mar the back of the woman's red cotton sleeveless top and darken the waistband of her khaki shorts. She stretches her arm out as if expecting to find the supportive grasp of her husband, but finds nothing and leans against the stone of the wall instead. In the shadows, the young woman watches the heat press down on the would-be pilgrim's shoulders like so many weighted blankets.
“Go and help her,” the young woman says to the black dog sitting at her side, and the black dog flicks one pointed ear.
“Help her do what?” the dog asks. “You want that I should lick the sweat from between those pendulous teats?” She shakes her scruff. “I'm not about to let something that size try for a ride.”
The dog growls a growl that sounds like a grumble and trots away from the museum toward the ancient road and the distressed woman, whose husband and children stand farther up the hill, with hands on hips and impatient faces. They've come a long way, halfway around the world, to see the ruins and pretend to comprehend the age of the structures. To pretend to comprehend what the temples once meant. Who has time for a mother's heatstroke or heart attack or dizzy spell? They have to get to the top, so they can snap smiling photos with their faces eclipsing the backdrop of statues and pillars. They have to get to the top, so they can come back down and eat Greek McDonald's and swim in the hotel pool.
The young woman sees this, and knows this, but her face betrays not one ounce of distaste. Mortals are funny things. It's unpleasant, how the children roll their eyes. How ashamed they are of their mother's weight. It's unpleasant, but it isn't damning. Not when mortals can do so much worse.
The young woman crosses her arms, comfortable in the shade of the museum's massive rectangle. It's a strange design for a museum of classics. All those smooth curved statues locked up in science-fiction angles. But the people buzzing in and out of it don't seem to mind. It's air-conditioned, and there's food to buy that's wrapped in plastic. They walk past the young woman as if they can't see her. Even though, despite her infinite years, the Goddess Artemis is still the most beautiful girl any of them will ever see.
On the ancient road, Daphne has nearly reached her target. She weaves through the legs of other tourists tramping up the hill and slinks down low, almost so low that her belly touches the ground. Her long curved tail wags excitedly back and forth. She bobs her head and creeps forward to nuzzle the woman's hand.
The look on the woman's face is sheer surprise. Daphne's ears twitch. Her hindquarters wiggle.
You will feel better, I promise.
“Get away, you filthy thing!”
The woman heaves up and pushes off the wall. She knees the dog in the ribs.
It isn't hard enough to cause injury. A dog like Daphne, it doesn't even hurt. But it was undoubtedly rude.
Artemis draws back the bowstring in her mind and lets an arrow fly into the fat woman's heart. The woman snatches at her shoulder like she's trying to tear off her shirt, and stumbles. Daphne hops out of the way. One black ear twists toward Artemis before she trots back to her in the shadows of the museum. The fat tourist's family finally takes notice. They begin to squawk like chickens, shouting and fluttering their arms, wishing loudly that they were home where there are fast ambulances and clean hospitals.
“What did you do to her?” Daphne asks.
“It's nothing,” Artemis answers. “It's angina.”
“That wasn't really necessary.”
“I protect my pack,” Artemis says. “Even if my pack has become willful and learned to back talk.”
She looks past the crowd surrounding the fallen tourist, up the stone road to the crest of the hill and the golden Parthenon. Should they go to the summit, and walk through the ghosts? Like the others on the road and milling in and out of the museum, they too have traveled far to be here. But now the idea isn't particularly appealing. What seems grand to millions of visitors seems only sad to her. The Parthenon is a monument stripped bare. It's stood too long under the blasting Grecian sun. So long that it's only bones now, and to gawk feels indecent.
“We shouldn't have come here,” Daphne grumbles, meaning that they shouldn't have returned to Athens. Too many memories, the pack had said. Too many other gods, and no god was to be trusted except for Artemis. But they had found no other gods. Artemis had found no other gods for almost three hundred years.
“I don't like it here,” Daphne goes on. “There's nothing good to hunt. These cats are too thin. Their bones stick in my teeth.”
“Leave the cats alone, then,” Artemis says. “You're free here. Invisible.”
Daphne snaps her jaws.
“The pack needs a purpose, Goddess. We aren't neutered terriers content to steal meat skewers from the market. We need to take down game. We need to shred.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
At night, Monastiraki glitters. All of Athens glitters, every ruin glowing as if lit from within. Walled gardens flash light from black-and-white movies, and the wide black sky settles over it all. Looking up over the hills, Artemis feels like a goldfish in a bowl.
Around her, music rings off the stone street. Vendors sell roasted cashews and fried dough as appetites return in the cool dark. Lovers walk together with their footsteps in sync, happy to experience the city. They have so little time, to see and do all the things they wish. It must be frustrating. Artemis could close her eyes, and they would be dead and dust when she opened them. She could stay in Athens for a hundred years and consider it brief.
But she won't. There are no gods here. Only a graveyard of chipped marble cheeks and blank, all-seeing eyes.
Have others returned to this city, too?
she wonders. Perhaps they thought too that it was the likeliest place to find one another. As if they had marked it. In the unlikely event of Olympus falling, all gods should meet in Athens.
She smiles, slightly. The others have all passed through. She's certain of it. She can almost smell them on the wind, and taste them in the ocean. Perhaps it was her brother, Apollo. Perhaps he had been looking for her. She hasn't exactly made herself easy to find, wandering the wilds with the pack. And she hasn't tried very hard to find the other gods, either. If she doesn't see Apollo for five hundred more years, it will only be her fault.
A laughing boy bumps up against her shoulder as he passes from behind.
“Oh,” he says, and touches her arm. “I'm sorry. Excuse me. SigÂ â¦ signomi.”
“It's all right,” she says in English.
For a moment they stare at each other. Then he blinks, and puts his hand to his cheek.
“I'm sorry,” he says again. “For a second, I thought I knew you.”
He's a handsome boy. Tall, with yellow hair like her twin brother's, and a straight nose. Looking, she thinks she might know him, too. His face is familiar. More so than most. She almost thinks,
but then she places him correctly.
“Perhaps you do,” she says.
“But I couldn't, could I? I would remember your hair. Is it brown or silver?” He almost reaches out to touch it. “It looks both. I'm sorry. My friendsÂ â¦ they've gotten me drunk, and disappeared.”
“Stop apologizing,” says Artemis. “Be on your way.”
He bows his head and goes, obedient as if he really were poor Actaeon, whom she had once punished so severely, instead of only one of the millions of boys alive now who must resemble him.
Down the street, Daphne edges into view, her black snout emerging from an alley behind a restaurant. She sees Artemis and approaches, only pausing for a few moments to bark at a panhandler. One of the restaurant workers tries to reward her with a scrap of food. She sniffs it and turns up her nose.
“There's blood on your teeth,” Artemis says when Daphne smiles. “What is it?”
“Only a rat,” the dog replies. “But a nice fat one. Fatter than these flea-bitten cats.”
Artemis strokes Daphne's long nose and ears, and Daphne's tail thumps. She leans her large body against Artemis' leg. Daphne is a tall dog, a hound, made for running down prey. She can gallop for miles and miles alongside a stag, make it as tired as she likes before leaping for its throat and bringing it to the ground, opening its veins to slick the grass. She's fast enough, and strong enough, to take game by herself. But the rest of the pack loves tearing into things with her.
“Where is Iphigenia?”
“She and Erigone craved a swim,” Daphne says.
“Iphigenia doesn't swim.”
“But she does bark at fish,” the dog says, and reaches around to gnaw at her hindquarters. “They'll be back soon.”
Back soon, and smelling like sea salt. Erigone's sand-colored fur would be stiff with it. Artemis doesn't ask after Loxo or Phylonoe. They are somewhere in the city, or in the hills surrounding. Being dogs. Stealing and sniffing, and testing hands with wet noses and tongues. Artemis doesn't worry about her pack. She chose them to be her immortal companions for a reason. They are clever enough to survive without her.