“Enough, both of you,” he said, his voice roaring like a lion. “You need to cease this constant nattering at each other.” Zeus ran his hand down his rich chestnut beard, stroking the curls.
Aphrodite gauged his temperament. Zeus’ anger simmered. True, she and Ares had been at each other’s throats for a few decades, but the confidence she once admired had become smarmy arrogance. She considered it her duty to remind him of his inadequacies. Otherwise Ares would be insufferable.
Zeus pinched the bridge of his nose. “A noble idea, Aphrodite,” he said. “But it is unpleasant to listen to. Everyone here…” He motioned behind him with a heavily muscled arm. “…is sick to the teeth of the noise.”
Several murmurs of agreement filled the room, rustling the trellised ivy.
“She started it,” Ares said. He blushed, seeming to realize how childish he sounded. His gaze dropped to the floor. “She goads me to occupy her time.”
Aphrodite opened her mouth to protest. Closed it again. She must admit, the endless tedium of her existence caused her moodiness. And Ares provided a convenient target for her frustration. She came to this dimension because of him, and for that he should suffer.
Zeus’ stormy blue eyes flashed. Lightning blinked over the throng and thunder shook the ground. The smell of ozone wafted to Aphrodite’s nose. “It must stop.”
His shoulders rose then fell with the weight of decision. “One of you will leave Olympus.”
“What?” Ares said.
“Are you mad?” Aphrodite asked. “This is my home.”
Ares sneered at her. “Mine as well.”
“Nevertheless, one of you has to go. Our sanctuary must have quiet,” Zeus stepped away from the quarrel to face the assembly. “Ideas, anyone?”
Voices rose in pitch as the other gods, nymphs and pet mortals weighed in. One opinion rang out over the din of the mob.
“A contest!” The voice belonged to Artemis. Aphrodite’s heart sank. Leave it to the huntress to suggest such a concept. “Winner stays on Olympus, loser departs.”
A wicked grin spread over Ares face. He liked to compete. Aphrodite used to find that desirable. Now it was to her disadvantage.
“But what kind of contest?” Zeus asked.
“I believe that one is obvious,” The slurred statement came from Dionysus as he made his crooked way forward. Judging from the alcohol and vomit stench of his last belch, Dionysus and his worshippers started devotionals early.
“She is the goddess of love,” The god of wine and ecstasy spilled dribbles on his violet robes, the floor, and his entourage as he gestured. “Let her do what she does best. She always goes on about how love is the strongest force on Earth.”
“And he always tells her love leads to hate,” Artemis said, her silver eyes dull with apathy. “That it is easier for humans to fight than to choose friendship, affection or goodwill.”
Several gods and goddesses nodded and applauded. They all remembered the fights between Ares and Aphrodite over the years. The topic remained the same.
Zeus pursed his lips. Aphrodite noted by the way he fingered the twists in his facial hair that he liked the idea. As did she. Aphrodite never doubted herself, not with love. Ares could do whatever he wanted. She never failed. She could almost taste the sweet victory like honey on her tongue.
“I accept the challenge,” she said. Ares eyebrows lifted high, lending him a comical vulnerability. “I anticipate having something new to do for a change.”
And she would defeat him. She pictured herself roaming the lush gardens of Olympus, dancing between the vine-covered marble monoliths…without the lewd and brash presence of the war god tainting its loveliness.
She studied the sharp angles of his handsome visage before staring Ares in his dark raven eyes. She wanted to remember this precise moment. Soon he would be gone. She may never have to see him again. “You can do your worst.”
Ares’ grin spread like a scourge across his face. “I will. I also accept.”
“Then it is settled.” Zeus rubbed his hands together. A static charge of blue light shimmered between his fingers. “We need to establish ground rules,” he said. “Everyone, be seated.”
Ares went back to his throne, and Aphrodite reluctantly sat in hers. She appreciated the splendor of the mother-of-pearl and sea shell inlays on her chair, but it was placed next to him. That meant enduring a whiff of his rank musk whenever breezes blew north.
Sure enough, once settled, Ares exuded the odor of sweat and alcohol. Aphrodite stopped stroking the scallop shells of her armrests and brought her hand to her mouth and nose.
First thing I shall do when he leaves is scour all traces of him from that spot.
Ares put both hands behind his head and smirked. Aphrodite refused to react to the overwhelming smell. Why encourage him?
“We need a location.” Zeus waved a hand, and a map of Earth appeared in the center of the room hanging like a translucent tapestry. “The duel will take place in the New World.”
The visual focused on the landscape of North America, with lush fields of wheat, corn and canola. Flat plains gave way to craggy mountains. Occasionally a city or village interrupted the open spaces.
The New World? That sparse wasteland of technology and materialism? Aphrodite uttered an unfeminine oath. The Mediterranean, or even Europe would have been preferable. There the humans revered her in art and books. Many still lived by the old ways.
But it was not the Middle-East or Asia where constant war and revolution made Ares strong. For that she was grateful.
The New World had no use for either her or Ares. They were too busy chasing wealth and power to either fall in love or fight.
“A wise choice, mighty Zeus,” she said.
“No advantages,” Ares said. “I concur.” A small wonder they had finally agreed on something, Aphrodite thought.
“I give you all of North America to choose,” Zeus said. “Aphrodite, you select first.”
She felt her lips widening. She knew just the girl. Aphrodite recalled her lineage and her love of cultures new and old.
“Her,” Aphrodite said. She waved away the map and placed in its stead a visual of her chosen champion. “I choose this human.”
Before them hovered the image of a young woman in her twenties. She wore her glossy black hair long but bluntly sheared. Streaks of pink and blue burst through her bangs. Her twinkling brown eyes were lined with kohl. Her skin shone a light shade of olive, healthy from within and etched with ink. Mythological creatures merged with tiger lilies, hibiscus, and roses. Silver jewelry decorated her ears and throat. A single diamond perched on her cheek like a teardrop.
“She is a strange beauty.” Zeus stared at the depiction, doubt crinkling his brow. “Hardly the epitome of femininity. Are you certain?”
“Your vanity is greater than your will to win.” Ares chuckled, a sickly imitation of merriment. “This mortal wears Aphrodite’s likeness across her back. Not to mention ‘Aphrodite’ is her second name.”
Aphrodite scoffed. “Those are not the sole reasons.” She faced Zeus. “This one has a Greek father. Her parents teach classic literature. They have a deep love of all legends of our time as well as each other. Good breeding and intelligence are more attractive then appearances.”
Ares guffawed. Aphrodite ignored him. “More importantly, she is newly single.”
She folded her arms and tilted her chin at Ares. “Your turn. Sarcasm oozed from her lips. ”Lover.”