"Well, you've caught on much more quickly than I thought you would," Athena nodded approvingly, "but then we are two of the smartest gods, so I suppose it's to be expected." As she spoke a cloud went over the sun and the sea spat water so violently that the sun loungers were sprinkled with spray. For a split second, it was like a storm was brewing over the little beach. Then, as quickly as it had disappeared, the scorching August day was back in full force.
"Oh, never mind them," laughed Artemis as Sophey and Ariel shared another glance, "they're just trying to keep us in our place... Zeus and Poseidon," she continued when the girls blinked at her uncomprehendingly. "They're two of the most powerful gods, but they're also two of the most proud. Never insult Zeus in a thunderstorm-"
"Or Poseidon near a river." Athena finished with a smile. "Now, girls, we need to get down to business." Her tone suddenly brisk, she brushed a lock of hair away from her face and studied the girls intently. "How much do you know about Greek mythology?"
Well, it's clearly not mythical, Ariel thought as she stared at the goddesses. "I know that each deity represents something…" she said slowly. "Aphrodite's goddess of love, and Poseidon's king of the ocean."
Sophey, who paid more attention in school than Ariel, squinted at the turquoise sea as primary school lessons about Greek myths started to come back to her. "Each god represents something that's important," she remembered. "The ancient Greeks would turn to a specific god if they wanted help with something, like if they wanted to win a war they would pray to…" she trailed off, staring at Athena. "They would pray to you."
"And me?" Artemis asked, turning her gaze on Sophey. "For what would they pray to me?" The fingers clutching her bow twitched.
"The hunt." Sophey decided. "If they wanted to catch a deer or something, or if they wanted good sport while they were chasing it, they would pray to you."
"You bless people who hunt animals for fun?" Ariel demanded. "That's disgusting." Sophey remembered that Ariel was a vegetarian.
Artemis blinked at Ariel, frowning slightly. "It is a sport – for fun." She repeated. "Like how you do your gymnastics for fun." Ariel's mouth fell open again.
"How do you know about that?"
"We are goddesses." Athena smiled. "We also know that you want to go home to go to a party with your friends, and that you wish your new stepsister would be a bit less…" she paused like she was trying to remember the English translation for a word. "Goody-goody."
Ariel turned bright red, looking anywhere but Sophey. How had Athena known what she had been thinking just before they had started talking about piercings? Sophey blushed too, hurt that Ariel had so low an opinion of her.
"So what do you want exactly?" she asked, mostly to break the awkward silence that neither goddess seemed to have noticed. They sat down side by side on the sun lounger next to Sophey's, and gestured to Ariel to sit next to her, so they sat facing one another.
"As you know, the Greek Empire existed over two thousand years ago," Athena began. "It flourished for generations and then was gradually replaced by the Roman Empire, and then others. Over the centuries, polytheism was replaced by monotheism – instead of worshipping many gods, societies began to worship one god. Modern international politics emerged around four hundred years ago, and since then countries and cultures have co-existed."
"Isn't that a good thing?" Ariel interjected. She was still embarrassed by what Athena had revealed and was overly-sharp in an attempt to cover it up. Artemis smirked a little, like she could see right through Ariel's façade, and took over the explanation.
"Of course it is. But over the years, as society has grown and changed, values have been lost. Values that we represent. Athena here-"
"There are plenty of wars going on." Ariel interjected. Artemis paused imperceptibly.
"My sister does not represent violent war but strategic war. Logic and planning, yes? She is also the protector of the household and representative of household crafts."
"And you?" Ariel pressed. "What do you represent?" Artemis' eyes glittered and she drew herself up proudly.
"I am the Mistress of Animals and goddess of the wilderness."
"And you think that good war, knitting and shooting deer have gone out of fashion."
Ariel spat her words with more spite than she had intended and for a moment the beach was in shadow again. Both Artemis and Athena seemed to flicker slightly, like a faulty light bulb, and for a split second Ariel thought she saw Athena's eyes turn stormy grey and Artemis' face harden into a cold glare. Then she blinked and they were two Grecian women again. Sophey, noticing what had happened, took a deep breath and prayed that neither she nor Ariel would get turned into a slug or something.
"So the gods want to re-establish the values they stand for," she said slowly. "Like I guess you would be pro-environmental and support arts funding..." or something. "But for some reason you can't just make people change their habits… so you need us… to do it for you?" Athena nodded.
"Yes. The gods have been in discussion for many years and have decided to choose representatives to return our values to the people of earth. Like your modern-day missionaries, I suppose."
"Wait." Ariel was still hung up on the whole 'Greek god' thing. Up until now she had been pretty sure she was an atheist and needed to go back to basics. "Just… bear with me a minute," she continued, holding up her hands in case the goddesses got all angry again. "I'm really struggling with this. Could you please… show us that you are gods? Or… or do something that would be impossible for a human?" Athena and Artemis looked at one another for a second and seemed to reach an agreement without talking. There was a brief silence then Sophey and Ariel yelped simultaneously. Bright light had appeared in front of them – no, the goddesses were in front of them, the light was inside their heads, then replaced by images and sound-bites like a really close-up film trailer.
Ariel saw herself sometime around last Christmas, before her hair had been cut. Her boyfriend at the time was saying something about how he liked girls with that short style and Ariel watched herself at the hair salon getting her black ponytail whacked off by a trainee. Then she watched Sophey, sitting at home with her dad watching a wildlife documentary while a lady with Sophey's brown hair sat in the corner nursing a bottle of something alcoholic and lethal-looking. Sophey couldn't have been more than about four.
Sophey could see her classroom at her old school and realised that this was the lesson where the teacher had asked what students wanted to do when they were older. When asked, she'd said Oxbridge. The entire class had burst out laughing and even now, watching it back – did she really look like that from the back? – Sophey flushed with embarrassment. She hadn't even told her dad that she wanted to go to university, why had she blurted out that she wanted to go to the best ones in the country? She realised that she could also see aspects of Ariel's life – there was a man who looked like her taking a dog for a walk – her father? Sophey knew that he had died when Ariel was a child. Were they seeing events from one another's lives?
As quickly as the brain-movie had started, it stopped. In front of them were the goddesses and the bright Greek beach.
There was silence for a moment. Ariel ran a hand through her pixie crop and blinked several times; trying to remember the name of the boyfriend she'd had last Christmas. She couldn't.
"Sophey," she said quietly, forcing herself to meet her stepsister's eyes. "I'm kind of burning over here. Please could you put sun cream on my neck?" Sophey realised that they had both been sitting facing the sun the entire afternoon - the entire holiday - because neither of them had wanted to ask the other to 'do their back'.
Sophey nodded and while she was clumsily spraying factor fifty onto Ariel's almost deathly-white skin, the goddesses disappeared.
Ariel, who was still facing the spot where they had been sitting, sat bolt upright. "Where'd they go?"
Before Sophey could answer, both girls saw where they had reappeared: about fifty feet up the cliff-face that overlooked their beach was a tiny ledge from which wiry plants spread their branches. Artemis and Athena were balancing on the branches, which couldn't have been more than a few centimetres thick and were virtually invisible from the ground. Grecian dresses billowing in the breeze, they looked as though they were laughing - then they fell, faces first, toward the beach sixty feet below. Sophey clapped a sun cream-y hand to her mouth but before the goddesses hit the white sand, they twisted themselves upright so they landed on their feet like cats.
Right, then, these were definitely deities.
"Okay," said Ariel in a strangled voice. "Keep talking." Athena and Artemis smiled.
"We consulted the Fates about our decision to reappear to humans and they led us to you."
Sophey wiped away the sun cream and tugged at her plait again. "Us? Why?"
"You both have qualities that resonate with us." Athena replied as she sat back down. "For me, Sophey, I need someone who is intelligent but not so self-assured that they do not realise that there is always more to learn. Someone with the ability to reason and outwit the enemy but with skills in the arts. You are, I believe, an accomplished haberdasher?" Sophey blushed again.
"Well I can mend clothes," she mumbled, "and I do know how to play chess." Athena smiled again but this time the light really seemed to reach her eyes. Maybe, Sophey thought, Oxbridge wasn't such an unfeasible ambition. "What about Ariel? She hates hunting." This time it was Artemis who smiled.
"But she loves the great outdoors. You enjoy the snow, yes? And thunderstorms?" Ariel did have to admit that she liked jumping in puddles. "Besides, I am also the patron of young women – and your mother has taught you about her work?" It wasn't a question. Ariel's mother was a woman's rights campaigner and Ariel had the phone numbers of national women's charities stored on her mobile.
"Okay, okay," she conceded. "Tell us more."
"The Fates have decided that you will represent us," Artemis explained, "but you need to decide for yourselves, and prove that you are capable. You must both pass a test before you can go further. We will leave you now to discuss this but look out for a sign from us. I think you will find that the world is…different, now that we have met." Athena laughed and the women stood up simultaneously. "Goodbye for now, new stepsisters."
They turned together and walked back down the beach into the surf. Within a second they had melted back into the waves.
Yep, Sophey thought, the world definitely is different.
I'm aiming to upload a new chapter every month - not sure how it'll work out with school and everything, but I'm enjoying writing this! As always, reviews are very much appreciated.