“Oh, Martin, I can make the tea,” Wendy Crieff said, pulling down the mugs. Martin held back a sigh.
“Mum, let me, I can handle it,” he said. But his hands relaxed on the tin as his mother took it away. He stood watching with hands empty of tasks as she spooned the loose leaf into the tea-ball, brisk in her movements. Red-gold hair, the faded match to his own, was lit by the sun through the net curtains. The kettle clicked off and his mother’s hand lifted it before his own hand reached the handle.
“It won’t be the same, now my last child is leaving the nest,” Wendy sighed. “Again. But you have your own place now.”
Martin grimaced. Bad enough that after so many unsuccessful goes at his licence that he’d been strapped enough for cash to leave his flat-share and move back home. His self-worth had been further abraded by his long hunt for a pilot’s position. His mother was the most supportive of his family, but it was time for him to, well, spread his wings in spite of the mild guilt he felt in leaving her alone again. He was sorry for it, but… And of course his mum was a wonderful cook, and the house so comfortable without Simon and Caitlin around… No. No, Martin had to go.
He winced at the thought of his new attic room. After his shattering interview with Carolyn Knapp-Shappey, the CEO of MJN, the first thing he’d done was check local listings. The house share wasn’t ideal but it suited his new financial situation. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t lived in penurious conditions before. After a night camping in his van, he’d returned to Wokingham to give his mother the good news. It was past time he got his own place. Gods, how much of his stuff would fit into his new accommodation? His mother turned back to him and he hastily schooled his worried face into a smile.
“And the interview was a success! I’m so pleased. I’m sure your father would have been proud. Sugar? No, wait, you like yours with a dash of milk.”
Martin pushed away the memory of his father telling him he should give up his foolish studies. “I’ll get it.” He beat his mother to the fridge and took out the milk, shaking the carton. “There’s only a splash left.”
“Well, you should have it.”
“Mum, you never drink tea without milk, really, it’s all right,” Martin began but again gave way before her insistence.
“No, it's fine, you go ahead and have tea the way you like it today. I’ll take mine black,” Wendy said.
“Thanks, Mum.” Martin gave up and poured the milk in his mug. Better not to mention his preference these days for coffee or there'd be no end to it. He doubted his mother had any, which meant she'd want to pop out and get some for him. Martin smiled at her, eyes crinkling. He supposed he would always be her little boy, even when he was fifty and fat. She never changed.
He looked around the tidy but dated kitchen. The tiny altar niche next to the telephone held his mother's statuette of Hera and his late father's Hermes. Several cheap votive repousse medallions hung around the pair, one for each child. Athena the wise was for Caitlin and Simon's was Eunomia the lawful. Martin had chosen Iris the winged for himself, she of sea and sky. The Elpis and Eros medals were newer additions he remembered from his teens, his mother's hopes for grandchildren already arising. Thank the heavens for Simon's two kids taking the pressure off Caitlin and himself.
All the votive pieces were dust-free and and well-tended. A flower bowl decorated the niche beside a flat wine cup of clay that was empty at the moment. Martin reached over and rubbed a thumb over Eros, tracing the feathered details of the handsome god's wings. Eros was the god he held closest to his heart, even above Iris, though he’d never told anyone why. He shut his eyes and sent the familiar prayer up, lips moving. A wave of goosebumps prickled up his arms and the hair rose on the back of his neck. Martin shuddered. The old house had always been full of draughts.
“One sugar in mine,” Simon called from the living room. “I’ve almost got the monitor cables connected.” Martin's shoulders tightened. Typical. His older brother Simon had to be here when Martin wanted to share his triumph uncontested. But, no, Simon had come today with a spanking new computer for his mother. Never mind that the old one worked as well as ever. He tried not to let Simon bother him, but it was hard. Simon exuded success and flashy gifts. Martin had been a perpetual student for years and now had to pretend he wouldn’t be struggling to cover his rent.
No, be fair - it’s not like he consciously means to show you up. Martin swallowed, thinking of his salary at MJN Air. Non-salary. With luck, no one would ever discover the truth. He still had his dad’s old van. He’d work it out. But now - now he was a captain! Of an airline - well, it wasn’t much of an airline but still - captain. He was so looking forward to telling Simon.
In his pocket, Martin’s old phone buzzed once - a text alert. He ignored his mother’s faint protest and gathered up the tea mugs. Shoulders squared, he marched into the living room and set Simon’s mug with a clunk on the coffee table. He caught his mother’s movement from the corner of his eye. Oops. He lifted the mug again and swept a coaster under it.
“Come out from behind there, Simon, and let’s hear Martin's news. Martin, sit by me and tell me all about it.” Wendy patted the seat of the chintz-patterned sofa.
Simon laid down his screwdriver on the old desk and picked up his mug. “Yes, do tell. After all those tries at your CPL, have you finally managed to land a job? Do they make you fly from the back-seat?”
“Ha, ha, very funny.” Martin tasted his milky tea and put the wish of coffee out of his head.
“Oh, are you - what is the term? First boy?” his mother asked.
“No, Mum, that's first officer. You're confusing a few things,” Martin said, a flush beginning to creep up his neck as Simon guffawed. He paused, savouring the moment. “To tell the truth, I'm not actually the first officer. I'm going to be... I’m the captain.”
Simon grinned. “Captain Crieff! That’ll be the day.”
Martin raised his cup of tea and took a nonchalant sip. “No. You’re joking, right?” Simon gaped, his face a picture of astonishment. “You're not really a captain?”
Martin’s smile split his face. His mother gasped. “Martin, that's wonderful! Oh, wait until I tell everyone!” She hugged him and bounced to her feet. “Never mind tea. This calls for wine and thanks!”
“Mum, no, really, I've already done the libations at a temple!” Martin said, but she disappeared, presumably to dig out the bubbly.
“Well, well, my little brother the captain! So, Martin, where's this job at?” Simon asked. Martin ground his teeth. Couldn't he have just one moment? Just one minute to enjoy his bubble of happiness without Simon puncturing it with his know-all attitude and patronising moustache of... of superiority?
“MJN Air. It's a small company. They run chartered flights.” His phone buzzed twice against his hip. Martin pulled it out and powered it down without checking the texts, keeping his eyes fixed on the buttons. Here it comes. Martin was terrible at lying.
“Never heard of them,” Simon said. “Are they reputable? How big is their fleet?”
“Yes, um, they're pretty well known in the industry,” Martin hedged, laying the phone on the coffee table.
“How many planes?” Simon said, seeing the evasion.
Martin picked up his mug and took a hasty swallow, coughing. Simon chuckled. “Oh, come on, Martin. I can just Google it -”
“Simon, would you mind getting this cork out for me?” Martin's mother was back and never had one of her interruptions been more timely. Martin crashed his mug on the table and rocketed from the sofa.
“Let me! I can do it!” He took the bottle of sparkling wine and began working at the cork. “Good gods, is this thing glued?” He twitched as his phone buzzed again, a steady pulse now. He stared at it, a trickle of unease running down his spine. He'd turned it off. Hadn't he? Maybe the cursed thing was broken.
Simon raised a brow. “Aren't you going to get that? Might be your employer. I’ll answer for you since your hands are full.” He reached for Martin's battered phone which was doing its best to vibrate its escape to the table’s edge.
“No, Simon, no, don’t -” Martin said.
“Let it be, Simon,” their mother said, returning with three wine glasses. “We're going to have a quick toast to celebrate your brother’s good fortune... oh, who could that be?” The kitchen phone was trilling. Simon stood to answer it but paused when his mother’s clunky old hand-held on the sideboard began to bleat in unison. Again, Martin's skin prickled. It couldn’t be… could it?
“Mum,” he said. “Mum, I think...” He swallowed, tried again. “I did, um, pray recently. Giving thanks, and, and, you know. This - well, I just have a feeling. Something - someone wants our attention.” He thought of the secret prayer he'd just sent, one of many as yet unanswered. His heart hammered. Nervous sweat made him clutch harder at the now-slippery wine bottle.
Simon’s moustache moved as his lips moved but nothing came out. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Is anyone going answer that?” His tone said clearly it wasn’t going to be him.
The various buzzes and trills cut off. In the silence that followed the three of them moved closer to each other. The PC bleeped and the monitor flashed to life. Martin was glad he wasn't the only one that jumped.
Simon looked unnerved. “But I haven't even plugged it in yet.”
“I don't think that matters, dear,” Wendy said. Martin choked back a hysterical giggle when a browser popped open with an email inbox already opened. Apparently the gods did need Firefox, even if they bypassed the normal boot-up procedures. His mother peered at it. “I need my reading glasses. What does it say?”
With Simon’s elbow shoving him forward, Martin couldn't avoid reading. He scanned it once, twice, disbelieving. “It's for me. From Hermes.” With care, he set the wine bottle next to the keyboard.
“A little visitation would've impressed the neighbours,” Simon muttered and his mother shushed him. Martin forced himself to read on, voice a little choked.
To: Martin Crieff < email@example.com >
From: Hermes < firstname.lastname@example.org >
Cc: ??? [ unknown address - syntax error 54? ]
Unto Martin Crieff, mortal,
Χαίρε, Martin, favoured of the gods and blessed by their beneficence,
Thou hast been sifted out from all the population of the mortal realm and gained the favour of ??/unknownsyntaxerror!54??. Thou art to become their beloved spouse.
Give voice to praise for thy great fortune unto ??/unknownsyntaxerror!54??. Thou and thy godly love shalt be enjoined at the place known as Dover, upon the white cliffs within three days.
Pray heed and give thanks and assent in reply to this message ASAP.
Messenger of the Gods
Martin clutched at the desk edge while his brother exclaimed and his mother laughed in delight. No. No, no, no. His sight dimmed around the edges and he let himself go to his knees on the carpet before he lost his balance. The edge of the desk felt wonderful and sharp against his forehead as he tried to control his breathing.
“Martin? Martin, aren't you happy?” His mother's little pats brought his head up again. She was in middle-class ecstasies of snobbery. “A god! My Martin, marrying an immortal! I must tell Mavis!”
“No,” Martin got out. “No, I'm not. Not marrying anyone.”
“What?” Simon was incredulous. “Are you daft? You'll never need to work again! You'll be rich and influential! I’d be over the moon in your place.” He sounded as though he'd happily swap places with Martin, never mind about his wife and children. Martin drew in a restoring breath and levered himself up.
“No, I'm not over the moon! Why on earth would I be? Just when I finally made it, became a pilot, a captain, some god wants to just dump me in an arranged marriage? What about what I want?”
His mother's face was distressed and bewildered. “But Martin...”
“No. No, I'm sorry to disappoint you, Mum. But there are limits. I don’t want this.” Before Simon was able to stop him, Martin stabbed out a reply with numb fingers and pressed Send.
No thanjk you./
Simon groaned. “You idiot. Do you understand what you've done? Our whole family will be cursed.”
Martin was light-headed, floating untethered somewhere above his panic. He smiled giddily. “I don't care.”
A message window pinged up. It was Hermes again, the words in an obnoxious font large and bright enough to be read over two yards away. His mother ooh-ed.
H - Aren't you the troublesome one.
“Martin's never been a trouble,” his mother defended. “You tell him that, Martin. But politely.”
H - I can pick up everything through your computer's microphone.
“Oh.” Wendy patted her hair in a nervous gesture. “Fancy that, talking to Hermes.”
H - Yes, a great honour, I’m sure. Martin, you don't understand what you are doing.
“Yes, I do,” Martin said. His hands trembled and there was a sour taste at the back of his throat.
H - Reconsider. Have you not prayed for love?
Martin flushed in embarrassment. That was between him and the gods! “Yes. But -”
H - Your prayer has been answered. He says he longs for you. Zeus knows why, I don't see it myself. But understand, Martin: immortal beings are used to having their own way without arguments from petty mortals. Now get a grip. You have three days in which to pick out your finery.
“Oh, fine, then that’s what I’ll do, swan around and pick out a lovely frock -!” Martin heard his voice becoming shrill but was helpless to stop the torrent of words spilling out.
H - Er, frock? He... Oh. Oh, really? He says that’s fine if that’s what you wish to wear. Skies above, you mortals always surprise me.
“And swear my life to some.... some faceless... And just give up everything, I won’t, I won't do it!” Martin's voice broke on the last word. Simon had sunk down in an armchair with his hands covering his face. His mother seemed to have lost her voice.
H - You seem to believe you have a choice.
Martin’s thoughts flew at the speed of terror. He might be able to appeal to another god for intervention, but that too often ended with mortals being turned into trees or flowers and the like. Running away was likewise hopeless. There was only one thing left.
Martin gulped. “Mortals always have one choice.” His mother made a faint dismayed noise but he pushed on. “I can't have a life without flying. I won't. I've worked too hard and dreamed about it for too long. I can give up my prayers for... for the other thing but I won’t give up this. I’d rather... I’d rather die.” His voice was too loud in the small room. He stopped, breathing hard.
There was a long pause.
H - You dare to bargain, Martin Crieff?
Martin's mouth opened and closed but nothing came out. The message window beeped twice, imperiously.
H - He wishes to know... Yes, I'll tell him. I'm asking him now! Hades, this is worse than carrying actual love letters. No, let me do my job, I am not a singing telegram! Thank you. Are those your terms, Martin?
Simon peeked out through his fingers. His mother pressed her hands to her mouth. Martin stood swaying, the metaphorical sky hanging over his head and just within his reach. He managed to croak, “I want to fly. In an aeroplane. Not... not dropped or anything like that.”
H - If these are your terms, in his passion he will grant you this. In return, you must love your spouse and please him. Do this and you may continue to pursue your work in aeroplanes. He does not wish you to be unhappy. Ugh, stop making me send this revolting mush.
Simon spoke up. “Does he swear?”
H - Oh my feathered sandals, do you not have the smallest concept of - oh, fine. Yes, he swears it. What is your answer, Martin Crieff, oh most fortunate of mortals?
This wasn’t right. There was something else. His mother seemed to be speaking, soothing words about it being as good as could be hoped.
H - He is waiting.
A thought was niggling at the back of Martin’s mind but he couldn’t concentrate on it over the din of rushing blood through his head. What was it? “Just... just... “ he stuttered. Simon was at his elbow now, lips moving.
The PC made a rude bleating beep.
H - I wouldn’t disappoint him if I were you, Martin. How quickly love turns to wrath, after all.
“For the sake of us all, Martin!” Simon blurted, his nerve broken.
“Yes,” Martin said, then clapped both hands over his mouth, eyes wide. Yes? Oh ye gods, had he just agreed to be the consort husband of a god? Had he argued with one? About the terms of his arranged marriage?
What have I done?
H - Agreed, Martin. He says he greatly looks forward to your joining. Ugh. Why you, I’ll never understand.
Martin’s chest hurt. Simon’s hands were around his, prying his hand away from his nose and mouth, muttering, “Breathe, Martin. And congratulations. You did the right thing.”
Martin gasped a lungful of air. He lunged at the computer, his elbow knocking over the wine bottle. “No! Wait! Don’t go!” He pounded at the keyboard.
But the PC was dark.
Wendy was jubilant. “Oh, Martin. I'm so proud of you. All my prayers for you, answered! A call from Hermes and a wedding with an immortal!” She was beaming at him as if he’d done something wonderful. Oh, but I haven’t. The thought that had been evading him finally came to the fore and blew up in an annihilating burst of realisation.
“Oh, gods.” Martin’s hands went to his hair and clutched. “No, no, no! This can’t be happening!”
Simon was mopping at his brow and scowled at him. “What? Managing to deflect the wrath of the gods? You didn’t want that to happen?”
“No! Well yes! I mean...” Martin tugged ferociously until the pain cleared his head. He whirled on Simon, hands outstretched. “Simon, weren’t you listening? I get to keep flying - if I love him and please him. I have to please him.” He needed Simon to understand. If there existed a list of mortals best suited to please immortals, Martin’s name would be so far down it’d be in danger of falling off.
“Oh, Martin, I’m sure you’ll be able to to that. You’re such a sweet boy, of course you’ll make him happy.” Wendy took his hand and pressed it. Martin throttled back a wail of despair at his mother’s blind confidence.
Simon’s face grew solemn but he shook his head. “Well... well, think of our family.”
“Well, pardon me for not wanting to throw away my life’s dream for the sake of family!” Martin drew away from his mother. “Not to mention my life!” His eyes widened and he began to breathe faster. “Oh, gods, I think I have. What is he? Simon, we don’t know anything.”
“Well...” His mother seemed reluctant to concede that this might be a legitimate worry. “Well, perhaps it’s so you won’t be intimidated?”
“Or terrified. What if he’s some, I don’t know.” Martin paced a tight circle, gesturing. “Some horrendous thing, a monster from the Abyss, or a Titan! I -” Not even in front of his mother would Martin allude to death in the bedroom by ravishment. Or just dying at some immortal’s whims. He felt his face drain of colour. “We don’t even know who.”
His mother’s brow furrowed. “Yes, a name would be helpful. But I’m sure you needn’t be afraid, Martin.”
Simon had his glossy smartphone out, fingers flying. “Subscribed to the Delphic Oracle app ages ago... sometimes use it to consult about council business. Never mind the credit charge, this will mean very big things for... I mean, it’s important for our family to know.”
“Oh, please, Simon,” said Wendy. “Do ask her!”
“‘Who...or...what,’” Simon said as he typed.
“Oh, thanks for that, thank you so much,” Martin said. His hands had curled into tight fists. Please, please, he’d prayed for love, please let there be at least the smallest chance...
“‘...will... Martin Crieff... marry in three days time?’” Simon finished. He pressed Confirm. Martin held his breath. The answering chime was very loud. Simon swiped to open the message and read. He lifted stunned eyes to Martin.
“What does it say?” their mother breathed. Simon turned the phone so they could read it.
Terrible and pure, an ancient creature of darkness and fire is to be the mate of the mortal Martin Crieff.
“But can’t... can't I know who?” Martin could hardly force the words out.
Simon shook his head but typed some more. The reply came almost at once.
My sources say no.
Martin stared at the text until the letters blurred. He didn’t cry, faint, bemoan his fate or do any of the other traditional responses to an old-fashioned arranged marriage. His mother was stroking his arm but the sensation was distant. That was it, then. He was going to marry some horrible monster. With his luck it’d a primordial snake-thing from the Abyss. He was going to die like a virgin sacrifice, except he wasn't one, really. There’d never been any need for him to bargain with his life in order to keep flying planes.
It was over.
He turned towards the family altar, legs not responding quite as they should. The last of the afternoon sun picked out the side of Eros’ face casting a shadow that made it seem as if the handsome face was smirking. “Oh, thank you,” he said to his god. “Thank you so much for finally answering my prayers.”