Iphicles knelt in front of the silk-draped altar, head bowed, arms lifted in supplication to the goddess' golden statue. A heart-shaped pink diamond, carefully selected from the Royal treasury, gleamed in his cupped hands.
"Aphrodite." Despite his anxiousness, the King's voice was steady. "I offer you this gift as a token of my worship, and beg a favor in return. Please. You're the only one who can help me."
Something soft tickled his hand and he looked up, startled, to find himself caught in a fragrant shower or rose petals and little pink hearts. The hearts dissolved as they fell, but the petals remained, settling lightly on every available surface. A shimmer of gold light followed this display, and when it cleared, Aphrodite stood next to the altar, one hand perched on her hip, the other reaching out to pluck the jewel from Iphicles' fingers.
"Oooh, sparkly!" She wiggled her fingers, and suddenly the jewel was set in gold filigree, and suspended from a slender chain. When she put it on, the pendant nestled perfectly right at the top of her cleavage. Aphrodite gave a happy jiggle. "That's better. Men never think of the details. So what's up, your royal gorgeousness?"
"Uhm..." Iphicles rose to his feet, brushing stray petals from his hair. "I need your help."
"You and everybody else in Greece." Aphrodite gave a great, long- suffering sigh, which made her bosom rise up about three inches and sink down again. Iphicles found he was having some difficulty breathing. "Let me guess -- it's about that surly brother of mine."
Iphicles stared. "How did you know?"
He hadn't told anyone about his feelings for the God of War. He'd only seen him a few times, all during the recent war with Sparta. The god had never spoken to him, but he was always there, watching, at every battle. Darkness and power and perfect, inhuman beauty, standing still in the midst of human chaos. Whenever Iphicles faltered during battle, whenever fear or exhaustion threatened to overwhelmed him, Ares had been there, and Iphicles had fought on. The war was won now, Corinth safe, and Iphicles was madly, desperately in love.
Aphrodite was looking at him as if he was a half-wit. "Like, duh! I'm the Goddess of Love, you think I wasn't going to notice? But if you want Ares, shouldn't you be, like, in his temple rather than mine? It's not like hangs around here much. Pink's not his color."
"I can't just tell him!" Iphicles blinked at her in shock. "He's the God of War, and I'm... I'm..." he bowed his head, reluctant to continue.
"And you're the King of Corinth," Aphrodite said gently. "That's nothing to sneeze at, you know."
"I'm still just a mortal," Iphicles said miserably. "And I don't want him to want me just because I'm King of Corinth. That's all anyone ever cares about. And it wouldn't be enough, not with Ares."
"I see." Aphrodite lay one hand on Iphicles' cheek. Her eyes were kind, and a little sad. "What do you want me to do, then?"
"Just… give me some way to find out if I have a chance, before I tell him. And if I don't, he'll never have to know."
"Hmm…" Aphrodite tilted her head and pursed her lips, looking pensive. "Well, I can't read another god's mind, and I don't think suppose you'd let me just ask him--"
"Figures. So what can I… oooh, I know!" She clapped her hands, beaming. "I have just the thing! Check this out, gorgeous!"
She held her hands out above the altar, and fluttered her fingers. More hearts and petals shimmered in the air, clearing to reveal a neatly folded pile of clothes. Aphrodite snatched the shirt off the top, and tossed it to the startled King.
"Here, put these on."
Iphicles held up the shirt. It was fine white silk, with an open collar and flowing sleeves. The collar points and cuffs were embroidered with red roses. A fine garment, but not much different from what he already had on, except for the showy embroidery. He gave Aphrodite a puzzled look.
"Because I'm the goddess and I say so." She made encouraging little motions with her hands. "Come on, gorgeous, get hopping. I haven't got all day."
"Uhm... all right." Iphicles snatched the rest of the clothes off the altar, and retreated behind a painted silk screen at the back of the temple. He stripped down quickly, then put on the new suit. To his surprise, everything fit perfectly: the shirt, the tight black leather trousers, the sleeveless red tunic. There was even a pair of boots, black to match the trousers, and they fit perfectly too. Iphicles pulled them on, ran his fingers through his hair, and stepped out from behind the screen.
"Okay, what now?"
Aphrodite had been primping in front of a full-length mirror at the other side of the temple. At the sound of Iphicles' voice she turned around and froze, eyes wide open, lips parted. A faint flush colored her cheeks, and her nipples suddenly stood out visibly against the tightly stretched silk of her bodice.
"Oh," she breathed faintly, "oh my..."
"What?" Iphicles shifted from foot to foot, feeling a sudden self- conscious urge to duck back behind the screen. He couldn't imagine what Aphrodite could be getting so worked up about; there was nothing to look at except him in his new clothes, which hardly seemed worth the fuss. "Is something the matter?"
"Come here," the goddess ordered. Iphicles came over, and she tilted the mirror so that he could get a full view of his own reflection. "What do you see?"
Iphicles shrugged. "I see me wearing too much red. How is this going to help me with Ares?"
"How? It's magic, that's how." Aphrodite beamed at him, looking mightily pleased with herself. "See, anyone who's not interested in you will see what you see -- one very well-dressed King of Corinth. But to anyone who wants you--" She leaned over until her lips almost brushed Iphicles' ear, and dropped her voice to a dramatic whisper. "You'll look stark naked."
"What?!" Iphicles jumped back from the mirror, as if expecting his reflection to suddenly strip before his eyes. "Naked? I can't do tha--"
"Why not? If he's not interested, he'll just see the clothes, and if he's hot for you, then getting naked is the next step anyway, right?"
"But nothing, gorgeous. You asked for my help, this is what you get. Take it or leave it."
Iphicles sighed. "I'll take it."
"Good boy. Now, aren't you having a victory procession or something at big bro's temple next week?"
Iphicles nodded. "To offer thanks for the victory over Sparta."
"Perfect. Just wear these clothes to the procession. Big bro is sure to be there."
The possibility of appearing naked before the God of War in the middle of a victory procession made Iphicles break out in a cold sweat, but he could see that Aphrodite was not about to offer him any alternatives. The Goddess of Love could look very determined when she chose. And in the end, wasn't it worth the risk, for Ares?
"Thank you, Aphrodite. I will not forget this." Iphicles bowed, and retreated behind the screen again to put his old clothes back on.
"Uh, Mom?" Cupid drummed his fingers on the altar as he watched the door swing shut behind the departing King of Corinth. He had been present, invisible, throughout the entire conversation, because his mother had told him he might learn something; but now he was beginning to think that she'd made a mistake. "You do know, don't you, that pretty much ev--"
"Of course I know, silly!" Aphrodite gave her son a playful smack to the back of the head. "That's the whole point."
Cupid shook his head.
"I don't get it."
"You will, feather-head." Aphrodite rubbed her hands together, grinning in anticipation. "You will."
Iphicles' advisors couldn't understand their King's insistence on attending the victory procession draped in a voluminous velvet cloak that covered him completely from neck to toe. Still, it seemed like a harmless bit of eccentricity, so they didn't put up much of an argument. Iphicles knew they were whispering behind his back, but he didn't care. He had no idea when Ares might show up, assuming he would at all, and he wanted to pick his moment carefully. It was, he felt, the only point in the proceedings over which he actually had some control.
The temple was filled with people: old veterans and new recruits, families of fallen soldiers, priests, ministers, and ordinary gawkers. Children darted in an out of the crowd, waving toy swords and chanting battle cries. Women craned their necks, obviously hoping for a glimpse of the God of War in all his glory. The presence of so many bodies in an enclosed space, combined with the dozens of burning torches, made the room stiflingly hot, and Iphicles began to sweat profusely beneath his cloak. The nerves didn't help. He wiped his palms against his thighs, and hoped he could get through the ceremony without fainting or throwing up.
A drum began to beat, and the crowd fell silent as the procession started. Ares' high priest came first, then Iphicles, followed by four veteran soldiers, heroes of the Spartan war, bearing two large shields. Piled on top of the shields were the captured Spartan arms which were to be presented to the god. More soldiers and priests marched behind in orderly columns.
They reached the altar, and the priest turned around to recite the invocation. The air seemed to grow thicker as he spoke, and torches burned a little brighter. The back of Iphicles' neck tingled. He began to remove the trophy arms from the bearer's shields' and to arrange them on the altar, reciting his own carefully prepared speech as he did so. He wished the whole thing wasn't so ritualized; he would've preferred to thank Ares in his own words -- and with so much more than words, if the god would let him -- but there were rules and protocols for everything in his life these days, including this.
He spoke the final phrases, laid out the last item, and Ares still hadn't shown himself. Iphicles was sure the god was there -- his presence was palpable, like threat of lightning in the air -- but he didn't entirely trust his own instincts. How many times had he called Ares' name over the past few months, certain that the god was present, only to be met with cold silence? What if he made his move too early, and Ares missed it?
He couldn't wait any longer. The ceremony was over, the priest was already giving him an impatient look. He was supposed to leave the temple now, and lead the victory parade through the city. It was now or never. Iphicles took a step closer to the altar and let the cloak fall from his shoulders, revealing his new clothes beneath.
The drumbeat broke off abruptly. Someone gasped, someone else moaned. A woman at the front of the crowd swooned. Iphicles looked from side to side, blinking in confusion. What was the matter with everybody?
"He's naked!" Somebody yelled.
"He's gorgeous!" Someone else responded.
"It's huge!" A third voice piped up. The crowd churned as the people in the back tried to fight their way forward for a better look.
Naked? Iphicles looked down at himself in a panic. No, he hadn't forgotten to put his pants on. All his clothes were there, looking perfectly normal. Yet the whole crowd seemed convinced that he was nude. And Aphrodite said...
He was still standing there trying to work it out, when a flash of blue light seared the air, and Iphicles found himself face to face with an extremely pissed-off War God.
"What in Tartarus do you think you're doing?" Ares bellowed. Before Iphicles could reply, the god grabbed his arms, and suddenly they weren't standing in the temple any more, they were in a room Iphicles had never seen before. The walls were black stone, the furniture was mahogany, the massive four-poster bed was draped in black velvet and blood-red silk. Iphicles knew immediately this had to be Ares' bedchamber.
"What do you think you're doing?" Ares yelled again. "Showing up naked in front of half the city -- were you trying to start a riot or something? There are easier ways to seduce me, you fool!"
"I-I-I didn't know," Iphicles stammered. "I was only thinking of you, I never thought anyone else would see… that is, Aphrodite said..."
"Aphrodite?" Ares' eyes narrowed suspiciously. He ran his hands down Iphicles' arms, from shoulder to wrist, frowning as his fingers traced the folds of a sleeve. "You're not naked." His face lit with sudden understanding. "Why that sneaky little bitch, she's got you decked out in that magic suit of hers, hasn't she? How'd she talk you into that?"
"I asked for her help," Iphicles told him. "I love you Ares, I've loved you since I first saw you, I can't think of anyone else. I know it's presumptuous, I know I'm just a mortal, but I had to try, I didn't know what else to do, I--" He broke off, as the implications finally began to sink in. "Does that suit really work the way Aphrodite said?"
Ares lips curled in wry amusement. "Oh yeah. I got Caesar to put it on once, and the vain bastard looked in the mirror and saw himself naked."
"But then…" Iphicles shook his head. It was hard to concentrate with Ares standing so close, with those hot, strong hands gripping his wrists, and those dark eyes gazing down at him. "If that's true… they all wanted me..."
"Tough." Ares gave an abrupt pull, making Iphicles stumble forward into his arms. "They can't have you. You're taken."
And then he couldn't talk anymore, because Ares was kissing him, and Ares' hands were on his ass, and Ares' groin was grinding against his, and it didn't take long to discover that invisible clothes could be ripped off just as easily as visible ones.
"I told you so." Cupid smirked at his mother. "They all saw him naked, 'cause they all wanted him."
"And I told you." Aphrodite poked Cupid's chest with one perfectly manicured finger. "That was the whole point." She paced the length of her temple, absently scattering pink hearts in her wake. "He actually thought people only cared about him being King of Corinth, can you believe it? I mean, under-confident much?"
"Is that what it was all about?" Cupid's eyes widened. "To build up his confidence? To let him know that people think he's hot?"
"Like, duh! He can't go through life thinking he's some sort of loser, can he? Not if he's gonna last five minutes as Ares' lover. Big bro needs somebody who'll stand up to him. And besides…" She winked at Cupid. "Doesn't he look great naked?"
Cupid certainly couldn't argue with that.
Over time, it became a legend in Corinth: how their king stood naked in the War God's temple to prove his love. Those fortunate enough to witness the occasion would dream of it for years to come -- that glorious, bronzed body gleaming in the torchlight, reflected in the polished shields on the walls, and in the god's flashing eyes. Bards wrote scrolls, sculptors carved statues, and artists painted vases.
And Ares and Iphicles fucked happily ever after.