Lovely War

Lovely War by Julie Berry



And when Hephaestus heard the grievous tale, he went his way to his smithy, pondering evil in the deep of his heart, and set on the anvil block the great anvil and forged bonds which might not be broken or loosed, that the lovers might bide fast where they were.

So they two went to the couch, and lay them down to sleep, and about them clung the cunning bonds of the wise Hephaestus, nor could they in any wise stir their limbs or raise them up. Then at length they learned that there was no more escaping.

—from The Odyssey, by Homer





OVERTURE





DECEMBER 1942


     I Hear a Rhapsody





IT IS EARLY evening in the lobby of an elegant Manhattan hotel. Crystal prisms dangling from the chandeliers glow with soft electric light. On velvet couches near the fire, couples sit close, the men in officers’ uniform, the women in evening wear, resting their heads on their gentlemen’s shoulders. Restaurant gar?ons seat couples at dim tables secluded by faux-Greek marble busts and showy ferns, where urgent kisses may remain unseen.

The orchestra warms up, then begins the strains of “I Hear a Rhapsody.” A lady singer fills the glittering stage with her amber-colored voice:


MY DARLING, HOLD ME TIGHT

AND WHISPER TO ME

THEN SOFT THROUGH A STARRY NIGHT

I’LL HEAR A RHAPSODY



She’s not Dinah Shore, but she’s really something.

A man and woman enter the lobby and approach the front desk. All eyes follow their progress across the Persian rugs. The man, colossal in build and stern of jaw, wears a fedora tipped low over his brow. When he reaches for a billfold from the inside pocket of his double-breasted pin-striped suit, the panicky thought occurs to the desk clerk that perhaps the man is reaching for a pistol. His black-and-white wing-tip shoes don’t look jaunty. They look dangerous. He makes half the men nervous, and the other half angry. He’s the kind of man who could crush you beneath his feet, and he knows it.

But oh, is he beautiful.

His lady friend, even more so.

She wears a tailored, belted suit of deep blue that fits her better than skin. Her figure is the sort that makes other women give up altogether. From the waves of dark hair, coiffed and coiled under her cocktail hat, to her wide, long-lashed eyes peering out through its coy little veil of black netting, down to the seams of her silk stockings disappearing into her Italian leather pumps, she is arrestingly beautiful. Impossibly perfect. The scent of her perfume spreads its soft fingers across the lobby. Everyone there, man and woman, surrenders to their awareness of her.

The tall man knows this, and he’s none too pleased about it.

He riffles a pile of bills under the nose of the stammering clerk and snatches a key out of his unprotesting hand. They make their way through the lobby, with the man urging the woman forward as though time won’t keep, while she takes every slow step as though she’d invented the art of walking.

They carry no luggage.

Even so, a stooped and bearded bellhop follows them up the stairs and down the corridor. The violent glares from the tall man would have sent others fleeing, but this bellhop chatters as he lopes along on crooked steps. They ignore him, and he doesn’t seem to mind.

They reach their room. Its lock gives way beneath the swift thrust and twist of the man’s key. They disappear into their room, but the persistent bellhop follows them in.

He clicks the light switch back and forth rapidly. “Bulb must be out,” he says apologetically. “I’ll be right back with maintenance.”

“Never mind,” says the man.

“Bottle of champagne?” the bellhop suggests.

“Scram,” the man tells him. He and his lovely companion disappear down the narrow hallway, past the closet and bath, and into the tastefully decorated suite.

“As you like,” the bellhop replies.

They hear the door open and shut. In an instant they are in each other’s arms. Shoes are kicked off, hats tossed aside. Jacket buttons are shown no mercy.

One might not trust this man, and one might even envy or condemn this sort of woman, but no one can deny that when they kiss, when these two paragons, these specimens of sculpted perfection collide, well— Kisses by the billions happen every day, even in a lonely world like ours.

But this is a kiss for the ages. Like a clash of battle and a delicious melding of flesh, rolled together and set on fire.

They’re lost in it for a while.

Until a cold metal net falls over them, and the electric lights snap on.

“Evening, Aphrodite,” says the stoop-shouldered bellhop.





DECEMBER 1942


     The Golden Net





THE PRISONERS, stunned and blinking, have the squashed and deformed look of criminals who pull pantyhose over their heads to rob a bank. The golden mesh of the net, supple and translucent, presses down upon them with the weight of a ship’s iron chains. It’s a work of exquisite beauty and extraordinary cunning, but neither god appreciates its craftsmanship just then.

Aphrodite’s lover tears at the net with savage fingers, but its glittering strands hold firm.

“I’ll skewer you, brother,” he snarls. “I’ll smash your skull like an eggshell.”

Most people would flee at the malice in that deep voice. But not Hephaestus. He’s not afraid of the massive god.

“Don’t waste your breath on him, Ares,” says beautiful Aphrodite. She turns a withering gaze on her uniformed husband. “For a hotel this expensive, the service here stinks.”

Hephaestus, god of fires, blacksmiths, and volcanoes, ignores the jab. He eases himself into a soft chair and stretches his misshapen feet before him on the carpet, then addresses the battle god, who is indeed his brother. Both are Hera’s sons. “Service everywhere has gone down the toilet since your latest war began. All the good men are overseas.”

“Where they should be.” Ares thrashes again at the golden net. He tries to conjure a weapon from thin air. Normally this would be effortless for him.

“No point,” advises Hephaestus. “Might as well be mortal, for all the good your power’ll do you. My net blocks you. Can’t have you escaping.”

Aphrodite, goddess of passion, turns her back upon her husband. He catches her gaze in a long gilt-edged mirror.

“You disgust me,” she tells his reflection. “Jealous, cringing dog.”

“Jealous?” Hephaestus feigns surprise. “Who, me? With a wife so loyal and devoted?”

If his words sting Aphrodite, she doesn’t let it show. She pulls her blue jacket back on over her blouse and knots a fetching little scarf around her neck. “Well, you’ve caught us,” she tells Hephaestus. “Netted like two fish in a stream. What do you plan to do with us?”

“I’ve done it” is his reply. “Step one, anyway. Put you under arrest.”

Ares and Aphrodite look at him like he’s mad, which is possible.

“Step two: offer you a plea bargain.”

Aphrodite’s eyebrows rise. “Offer me a what?”

“A deal,” he says. “Renounce this chump, and come home with me. Be my faithful wife, and all is forgiven.”

The clock on the mantelpiece gets two or three clicks in before Aphrodite begins to snicker. Ares, who has watched for her response, now guffaws with laughter. Too big, too loud, but he’s relieved, and he’s never been a good actor.

“You think she’ll leave this for you?” He flexes his many (very, very many) muscles. They swim like dolphins under his glowing skin. The removal of his shirt has done glorious things.

Hephaestus is drowning inside, but he’s come this far and he sticks to his plan. “You reject my offer?” he says. “Then I’m taking you to trial on Olympus.”

The net, which had lain over them like a heavy blanket, now encircles and encloses Ares and Aphrodite like a laundry bag, while a chain hoists them upward. Their divine limbs, so impressive in marble statues, jumble every which way uncomfortably. The netting bag rotates slowly through the air, like a ham curing over hot coals.

“What are you doing?” Aphrodite cries. “You put us down at once.”

“Your court date has been moved up,” answers the bellhop. “Father Zeus will officiate at the bench, and the other gods will form a jury.”

The goddess of beauty has turned a delicate shade of pale green. The spectacle of the entire pantheon of immortals howling and cackling at her mortification! Nobody knows the sting of gods’ mockery better than a god. And nobody knows your weak spots better than sisters. Those prissy little virgins, Artemis and Athena, always looking down their smug, goody-goody noses at her.

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