Heracles was here, staring at me. Doubting me. A greek god. The sheer ridiculousness of this position ran back and forth through my mind - and then reality sprang back to life.
Every second I wasted here was another second for him to figure out how full of shit I was. I peeled my hand out of his, stumbling back. “W-Well. I’m truly honored that...that someone like you would greet one such as me, sir, but, ah...I should go.”
He didn’t move, as such. But when I again lifted my foot, he raised himself a few inches taller. “You should hurry to the temple. But...you do seem to be the last handmaiden here. Hermes seemed convinced that whatever was going on, it was somewhere in this vicinity.”
“I don’t know anything about-”
“Have you seen anything?” Heracles said, looking down the length of his nose at me. “Anything out of the ordinary, anything that worried you? Someone you didn’t recognize? A beast wandering somewhere it shouldn’t have been?”
“I haven’t seen anything. Sorry,” I said, inclining my head. “It was quiet until you showed up. I should have realized everyone had left. Thank you for the warning.”
The chirp of birdsong cut me off before I could flee again. Despite myself, I looked up, and I saw Heracles do the same.
The birds from earlier were back - and they’d perches across the pillars surrounding the fountain, layering the stone in a thick coating of feathers and flesh. They stared down at us, chirping madly.
Go away, I thought at them, willing them to obey - but if they heard me, they only shrieked all the louder.
“Well, that’s different,” Heracles said, his voice still cheerful and bright. “Very odd indeed.”
“Maybe they’re worried too,” I said, tearing my eyes off them and turning back for the door. “I shouldn’t waste any more time - and I don’t think Mistress Terra would want me to waste any more of your time.”
When I stepped forward, though, his hand came up. He didn’t grab me. He just laid a hand against my shoulder, stopping me in place. I looked up, my pulse racing.
His eyes were black, and completely unreadable as he held my gaze. “You must be new indeed,” he said, slowly and carefully. His hand came up, waggling at me. “Most of the other handmaidens aren’t so familiar with the greetings common in the modern mortal world.”
Shit. “I...I am,” I said, still smiling. “Very new. Thankful to be here. Please excuse-”
“I haven’t heard anything about the Earth Mistress having a resurgence,” Heracles said, lifting his hand to cradle his chin contemplatively. “It’s not that big a mountain. Word does tend to get around. Odd.”
Oh, he fucking knew. I could already tell - or at a minimum, he was suspicious. Shit, shit, shit. “I’m quite sorry, sir. It wasn’t my intention to catch you off guard. I look forward to speaking again. In the future.” It was hard to keep the polite, perfect tone up when he was looking at me like I was a cockroach that’d just crawled from under the fridge, as though he was debating if I’d brought friends.
“Her birds like you,” he said, his eyebrow sliding up higher as he cast a glance towards my guides. “Not that they’re mean, normally. They’re birds. It’s only fair that they’d recognize one of their lady’s servants, I suppose.”
My smile grew, packed with every bit of confidence I could get my hands on. “Yes, of course. So, if that’s all, I’ll-”
His hand caught me again before I could trot off. I stopped, my cheer fading.
I could run. That was always an option - but if I ran, he’d know something was wrong. He already knew I was a liar, if his questions were any indication, but that’d slide me straight from an unknown to an enemy. If I could still find a peaceful way out, that’d be better. Much better.
The look he gave me was cold enough to freeze fire itself, though. “But I don’t think you’re one of her girls.”
“Even if you’re new, even if you managed to enter the mountain without word getting around, I’m quite certain someone would have instructed you on how to properly address your master.” He shifted, dropping his hand to the hilt of his club. It was a tiny gesture, but with my heart already racing, he might as well have screamed his distrust of me for the world to hear.
My hand twitched, yearning to pull the knife from its hiding place beneath my skin. I bit down on the urge. It was there, ready and waiting when I needed it.
His fingers tightened around the metal ball set in the end of the weapon, sliding across the smooth surface. “Anyone with even a scrap of common sense would know better than to refer to a goddess as one of her shades. I cannot believe such a thing would be overlooked in your education - and yet, you refer to your mistress as her counterpart."
“But her birds know you.” He steamrolled my objections effortlessly, waving his off-hand towards the gathered creatures. “The mountain allowed you onto its slopes. And the temple does not reject you. I am puzzled, girl.” The look he gave me was too knowing. “Would this have anything to do with Hermes warning me of something unusual wandering the Hollow?”
I opened my mouth - and then shut it again with a snap. His fingers rapped against the hilt of his weapon, drawing closer still as I stepped back. His expression was carefully neutral, but there was a light in his eyes that screamed of a madness lurking just underneath. A smile played at his lips, without even a trace of humor to be found.
“Who are you, really?”