It wasn't a very long walk from the Boat House to the Tower of Zeus, but it was long enough. By the time Forrester got to the Tower, he was feeling a lot worse than he'd felt when he left the bar. Being perfectly frank with himself, he admitted that he felt terrible.
The blow from the brass ashtray wasn't a sharp pain any longer. It had developed into a nice, dependable ache that had spread all over the side of his head. And his right eye was beginning to swell, probably from the same cause. He'd skinned the knuckles of his right hand, too, probably on Sam's face, and they set up their own smarting.
True, it wasn't a bad list of injuries to result from the odds he'd faced. But that wasn't the point.
You just didn't go up to the Tower of Zeus looking like a back-street brawler.
However, there was no help for it. He straightened his jacket and went in through the Fifth Avenue entrance of the Tower, heading for the first bank of elevators.
Zeus All-Father would know everything about his fight, and would know that it hadn't been his fault. (Hadn't it, though? Forrester asked himself. He remembered the joy he'd felt at the prospect of battle. How far would it count against him?) Zeus All-Father, through his priests, would make what allowances should be made.
Forrester hoped that the Godhead was feeling in a kind and merciful mood.
He reached the bank of elevators, and the burly Myrmidon who stood there, wearing the lightning-bolt shoulder patch of the All-Father. Ahead of him was a chattering crowd of five: mother, father, two daughters and a small son, all obviously out-of-towners. The Tower of Zeus was always a big tourist attraction. The Myrmidon directed them to the stairway that led to the second-floor Arcade, the main attraction for most visitors to the Tower. The Temple of Sacrifice was located up there, while the ground floor was filled with glass-fronted offices of the secretaries of various dignitaries.
Chattering gaily, and looking around them in a kind of happy awe, the family group moved off and Forrester stepped up to the Myrmidon, who said: "Stairway's right over there to your—"
"No," Forrester said. He reached into his jacket pocket, feeling his muscles ache as he did so. He drew out his wallet and managed to extract the simple card he'd been given in the Temple of Pallas Athena, the card which carried nothing but a lightning bolt.
He handed it to the Myrmidon, who looked down at it, frowned, and then looked up.
"What's this for?" he said.
"Well—" Forrester began, and then caught himself. He'd been told not to explain about the card to any mortal. And the Myrmidon was certainly just as mortal as Forrester himself, or any other hireling of the Gods. True, there was always the consideration that he might be Zeus All-Father himself, in disguise.
But that was a consideration that bore no weight at present. Even if the Myrmidon turned out to be a God in disguise, Forrester wouldn't be excused if he said anything about the card. You had to go by appearances; that was the principle on which everything rested, and a very good principle too.
Not that there weren't a few unprincipled young men around who pretended to be Gods in disguise in order to seduce various local and ingenuous maidens. But Zeus always found out about them. And …
Forrester recognized that his thoughts were beginning to veer once more. Without changing his expression, he said evenly: "You're supposed to know," and waited.
The Myrmidon studied him for what seemed about three days. At last he nodded, looked down at the card intently, raised his head and nodded again. "Okay," he said. "Take Car One."
Forrester moved off. Car One was not the first elevator car. As a matter of fact, it was in the middle bank, identified only by a small placard. It took him almost five minutes to find it, and by the time he stepped toward it clocks were ticking urgently in his head.
It would do him absolutely no good to be late.
But another Myrmidon was standing beside the closed doors of the elevator car. Forrester hissed in his breath with impatience—none of which showed on his face—and then caught himself. Certainly Zeus All-Father knew what he was doing, and if Zeus had thrown these delays in his path, it was not for him to complain.
The thought was soothing. Nevertheless, Forrester showed his card to the Myrmidon with an abrupt action very like impatience. This Myrmidon merely glanced at it in a bored fashion and pushed a button on the wall behind him. The elevator doors opened, Forrester stepped inside, and the doors closed.
Forrester was alone in a small bronzed cubicle which began at once to rise rapidly. Just how rapidly, he was unable to tell. There were no indicators at all on the elevator, and the opaque doors made it impossible to see floors flit by. But his ears rang with the speed, and when the car finally stopped, it did so with a slight jerk that threw Forrester, stiff and worried, off balance. He almost fell out of the car as the door opened, and clutched at something for support.
The something was the arm of a Myrmidon. Forrester gaped and looked around. He was in a plain hallway of polished marble. There was no way to tell how many stories above the street he was.
The Myrmidon seemed a more friendly sort than his compatriots downstairs, and wore in addition to the usual lightning-bolt patch the two silver ants of a Captain on the shoulders of his uniform. He nearly smiled at Forrester—but not quite.
"You're William Forrester?" he said.
Forrester nodded. He produced the ID card and handed it with the special card to the Myrmidon.
"Right," the Myrmidon said.
Forrester turned right.
The Myrmidon stared at him. "No," he said. "I mean it's all right. You're all right."
"Thank you," Forrester said.
"Oh—" The Myrmidon looked at him, then shrugged his shoulders. "You're expected," he said at last in a flat voice. "Come with me."
He started down the hallway. Forrester followed him around a corner to an ornate bronzed door, covered with bas-reliefs depicting the actions of the Gods among themselves, and among men. The Myrmidon seemed unimpressed by the magnificence of the thing; he pushed it open and bowed low to, as far as Forrester could see, nobody in particular.
Taking no chances, Forrester copied his bow. He was still bent when the Myrmidon announced: "Forrester is here, Your Concupiscence," in a reverent tone of voice, and backed off a step, narrowly missing Forrester himself in the process.
He waved a hand and Forrester went in.
The door shut halfway behind him.
The room was perfectly unbelievable. Its rich hangings were purple velvet, draping a large window that looked out on …
Forrester gulped. It was impossible to be this high. New York was spread out below like a toy city.
He jerked his eyes away from the window and back to the rest of the room. It was furnished mainly with couches: big couches, little couches, puffy ones, spare ones, in felt, velvet, fur, and every other material Forrester could think of. The rooms were flocked in a pale pink, and on the floor was a deep-purple rug of a richer pile than Forrester had ever seen.
And on one of the couches, the largest and the softest, she reclined.
She was clad only in the diaphanous robes of her calling, and she was stacked. Beside her, little Maya Wilson would have looked about eight years old. Her hair was as red as the inside of a blast furnace, and had about the same effect on Forrester's pulse rate. Her face was a slightly rounded oval, her body a series of mathematically indescribable curves.
Forrester did the only thing he could do.
He bowed again, even lower than before.
"Come in, William Forrester," said the High Priestess of Venus/Aphrodite, the veritable Primate of Venus for New York herself, in a voice that managed to be all at once regal, pleasant and seductive.
Forrester, already in, could think of nothing to say. The gaze of Her Concupiscence fell on the half-open door. "You may retire, Captain," she said to the waiting Myrmidon. "And allow no one to enter here until I give notice."
"Very well, Your Concupiscence," the Myrmidon said.
The door shut.
Forrester snapped erect from his bow, and then realized that he could do nothing but stand there until he had more information. What was the High Priestess of Aphrodite doing in the Tower of Zeus All-Father anyway? And—always supposing she had the right to be there, as of course she must have had—what did she want with William Forrester?
He heaved a great sigh. This was turning into an extremely puzzling day. First there had been the message and the card admitting him to the Tower. Then there had been (the sigh changed in character) Maya Wilson. And then (the sigh changed again, into a faint echo of a groan) the fight in the Boat House.
Now he was having an audience with the Primate of Venus for New York.
The High Priestess's smile gave him no hint. She raised herself to a sitting position and patted the couch. "Sit over here," she said. "Next to me." Then she changed her mind. "No," she added. "First just walk over here, stand up and turn around. Slowly."
Forrester's brain was whirling like a top, but his face was, as usual, expressionless. He did as she had bid him, wondering frantically what was going on, and why?
After he had turned completely around and stood facing her again, the High Priestess simply sat and studied him for almost a full minute, looking him up and down with eyes that were totally unreadable. Forrester waited.
Finally she nodded her head slowly. "You'll do," she said, in a reflective tone, and nodded her head again. "Yes, you'll do."
Forrester couldn't restrain his questions any longer. "Do?" he burst out. "I mean," he continued, more quietly, "what will I do for, Your Concupiscence?"
"Oh, for whatever honor it is that our beloved Goddess has in mind for you," the High Priestess said offhandedly. "I can certainly see that you will do. A little pudgy around the middle, but that's a trifle and hardly matters. The important things are there. You're obviously strong and quick."
At that point Forrester caught up with the first sentence of her explanation. "The—the Goddess?" he said faintly.
"Certainly," the High Priestess said. "Else why would I give you audience? I am not promiscuous in my dealings with the lay world."
"I'm sure," Forrester said respectfully.
The High Priestess looked at him sardonically. "Of course you are," she said. "However, the important thing is that our beloved Aphrodite has selected you, William Forrester, for some high honor."
Forrester caught her word for the Goddess, and remembered, thanking his lucky stars he hadn't had a chance to slip, that here in the Tower it was protocol to refer to the Gods and Goddesses by their Greek names alone.
"I don't suppose," he said tentatively, "that you have any idea just what this—high honor is?"
"You, William Forrester," the High Priestess began, in some rage, "dare to question—" Her tone changed. "Oh, well, I suppose I shouldn't become angry with … No." She shrugged, but her tone carried a little pique. "Frankly, I don't know what the honor is."
"Well, then," Forrester said, his bearing perfectly calm, even though he could feel his stomach sinking to ground level, "how do you know it's an honor?" The thought that had crossed his mind was almost too horrible to retain, but he had to say it. "Perhaps," he went on, "I've offended the Gods in some unusual way—some way very offensive to them."
"Perhaps you have."
"And perhaps," Forrester said, "they've decided on some exquisite method of punishing me. Something like the punishment they gave Tantalus when he—"
"I know the ways of the Gods quite well, thank you," the High Priestess said coolly. "And I can tell you that your fears have no justification."
"Please," the High Priestess said, raising a hand. "If the Gods were to punish you, they would simply have sent out a squad of Myrmidons to pick you up, and that would have been the end of it."
"Perhaps not," Forrester said, in a voice that didn't sound at all like his own to him. It sounded much too unconcerned. "Perhaps I have offended only the Goddess herself." The idea sounded more plausible the more he thought about it. "Certainly the All-Father would back up his favorite Daughter in punishing a mortal."
"Certainly he would. There is no doubt of that. And still the Myrmidons would have—"
"Not necessarily. You're well aware of the occasional arguments and quarrels between the Gods."
"I am," the High Priestess said, not without irony. "And it does not appear seemly that an ordinary mortal should mention—"
"I teach History," Forrester said. "I know of such quarrels. Especially between Athena and Aphrodite."
"It's obvious. Since I'm an acolyte of Athena, it may be that Aphrodite wished to keep my arrest secret."
"I doubt it," the High Priestess said.
Forrester wished he could believe her. But his own theory looked uncomfortably plausible. "It certainly looks as if I'm right."
"Well—" For a second the High Priestess paled visibly, the freckles that went with her red hair standing out clearly on her face and giving her the disturbing appearance of an eleven-year-old. No eleven-year-old, however, Forrester reminded himself, had ever been built like the High Priestess.
Then she regained her color and laughed, all in an instant. "For a minute," she said in a light tone, "you almost convinced me of your forebodings. But there's nothing in them. There couldn't be."
Forrester opened his mouth, and Why not? was on his lips. But he never got a chance to say the words. The High Priestess blinked and peered more closely at his face, and before he had a chance to speak she asked him: "What happened to you?"
"A small accident," Forrester said quickly. It was a lie, but he thought a pardonable one. The truth was just too complicated to spin out; he had no real intent to deceive.
But the High Priestess shook her head. "No," she said. "Not an accident. A fight. Your hands are skinned and bruised."
"Very well," Forrester said. "It was a fight. But I was attacked, and entitled to defend myself."
"I'm sure," the High Priestess said. "Yet I have a question for you. Who won?"
"Won? I did. Naturally."
It sounded boastful, he reflected, but it wasn't. He had won, and it had been natural to him to do so. His build and strength, as well as his speed, had made any other outcome unlikely.
And the High Priestess didn't seem to take offense. She said only: "I thought so. Just a moment." Then she walked over to a telephone. It was a simple act but Forrester watched it fervently. First she stood up, and then she took a step, and then another step … and her whole body moved. And moved.
It was marvelous. He watched her bend down to pick up the phone without any clear idea of the meaning of the motions. The motions themselves were enough. Every curve and jiggle and bounce was engraved forever on his mind.
The High Priestess dialed a number, waited and said: "Aphrodite's compliments to Hermes the Healer."
An indistinguishable voice answered her from the receiver.
"Aphrodite thanks you," the High Priestess said, "and asks if Hermes might send one of his priests around for a few minor ministrations."
The receiver said something else.
"No," the High Priestess said. "Nothing like that. Don't you think we have other interests—such as they are?"
Again the receiver.
"Just a black eye and some skin lacerations," the High Priestess said. "Nothing serious."
And the receiver replied once more.
"Very well," the High Priestess said. "Aphrodite wishes you well." She hung up.
She came back to the couch, Forrester's eyes following her every inch of the way. She sat down, looked up and said: "What's the matter? Do I bore you?"
"Bore me?" Forrester all but cried.
"It's just—well, nothing, I suppose," the High Priestess said. "Your expression."
"Training," Forrester explained. "An acolyte does well not to express his emotions too clearly."
The High Priestess nodded casually and patted the couch at her side. "Sit down here, next to me."
Forrester did so, gingerly.
A moment of silence ensued.
Then Forrester, gathering courage, said: "Thank you for getting a Healer. But I'd like to ask you—"
"How do you know I'm not under some sort of carefully concealed arrest? After all, you said before that you were sure—"
"And I am sure," the High Priestess said. "Aphrodite herself has ordered a sacrifice in her favor. A sacrifice from you. And Aphrodite does not accept—much less order—a sacrifice from those standing in her disfavor."
"I'm sure," the High Priestess said.
"Oh," Forrester said. "Good." The world was not quite as black as it could have been. And still, it was not exactly shining white. A sacrifice? And outside the door, Forrester could hear a disturbance.
What did that mean?
Her Concupiscence didn't seem to hear it at first. "We will perform the rite together and—" The noise grew louder. "What's that?" she said.
It was the sound of argument. Forrester realized what had happened. "It's the priest from Hermes," he said. "The Healer. You forgot to tell the Captain of Myrmidons to let him in."
"My goodness!" the High Priestess said. "So I did! It slipped my mind entirely." She touched Forrester's cheek affectionately. "Of course, I imagine it's only natural to be a bit forgetful when—" She got up and went to the door.
The Captain and a small, fat priest in a golden-edged tunic were tangled confusedly outside. The High Priestess looked away from them in disdain and said regally: "You may permit the Healer to enter, Captain." The tangle came untied and the little priest scooted in. To him, as the door closed again, the High Priestess whispered: "Sorry. I didn't expect you quite so soon."
"No more did I!" The priest waved his caduceus furiously, so that it seemed as if the twin snakes twined round it were moving, the two wings above them beating, and the ball surmounting all, on top of the staff, traced uneasy designs in the air. "Myrmidons!" he said.
"I certainly regret—"
"If you boiled down their brains for the fat content, one alone would supply the Temple with candles for a year! Just beef and nothing more! Beef! Beef!"
Then, with a start, he seemed to see the High Priestess for the first time, and his tone changed. "Oh," he said. "Good evening, Your Concupiscence."
"Good evening," the High Priestess said in an indulgent tone.
"Well, well, well," the priest said. "What seems to be the trouble? My goodness. It must be important, sure enough—certainly important." His little round red eager face seemed to shine as he went on. "Hermes himself transported me here just as soon as you called!"
"Oh, my, yes," the priest said. "Just as soon as ever. Yes. Hm. And you can believe me when I tell you—believe me, Your Concupiscence—take my word when I tell you—"
"Hermes," the priest said. "Hermes doesn't often take such an interest—I may say such a personal interest—in a mortal, I'll tell you. And you can believe me when I do tell you that. I do."
"I'm sure," the High Priestess said.
"Yes," the priest said, waving his caduceus gently. He blinked. "Where's the patient? The mortal?"
"He's over here," the High Priestess said, motioning to Forrester sitting awestruck on the couch. Priests of Hermes were common enough sights—but a priest like this was something new and strange in his experience.
"Ah," the priest said, twinkling at him. "So there you are, eh? Over there? You are sitting over there, aren't you?"
"That's right," Forrester said blankly.
"Now listen to me carefully," the High Priestess said. "You're not to ask his name, or mention anything about this visit to anyone—understand?"
The priest blinked. "Oh, certainly. Absolutely. Without doubt. I've already been told that, you might say. Already. Certainly. Wouldn't think of such a thing." He moved over and stood near Forrester, peering down at him. "My goodness," he said. "Let me see that eye, young man."
Forrester turned his head wordlessly.
"Oh, my, yes," the priest said. "Black indeed. Very black. A fight. My, yes. An altercation, disagreement, discussion, battle—"
"Yes," Forrester cut in.
"Certainly you have," the priest said. "And what'd the other fellow look like, eh? Beaten, I'll bet. You look a strong type."
Forrester relaxed. It was the only thing to do while the priest babbled on, touching his wounds gently as he did so with various parts of his caduceus. The pain vanished with a touch of the left wingtip, and the lacerations healed instantly as they were caressed with first one and then another of the various coils of the snakes.
But Forrester now was free to worry. Arrest was out of the question. As the High Priestess had said, on the evidence it was clear that Aphrodite intended to honor him in some way. And there was nothing at all, he thought, wrong with an honor from the Goddess of Love.
But another sacrifice? After the sacrifice to Aphrodite he'd made earlier, and the fight he'd gotten into, he just didn't quite feel up to it. It wouldn't do to refuse, but …
"Well," the priest said, stepping back. "Well, well. You ought to be all right now, young fellow—right as rain."
Forrester said: "Thanks."
"Might feel a little soreness—tenderness, you might say—for a day or so. Only a day or so, tenderness," the priest said. "After that, right as rain. Right as you'll ever be. All right, as a matter of fact: all right."
Forrester said: "Thanks."
The priest went to the door, turned, and said to the High Priestess: "Hermes' blessing on you both, as a matter of fact, as they say. Blessings from Hermes on you both."
The High Priestess nodded regally.
"And," the priest said, "merely by the way, as it might be, without meaning harm, if you would ask a blessing for me—Aphrodite's blessing? Easy for you. Of course, it would be nice curing—curing, as they say—stupidity, plain dumbness, as they call such things—curing stupidity as easily as I can cure small ills. Nice."
"Indeed," the High Priestess said.
"But there," the priest went on. "Only the Gods can cure that. Only the Gods and no one else. Yes. Hm. And not often. They don't do anything like that in the—ah—regular course of things. As a matter of fact, you might say, I've never heard of—never heard of such a case. Never. Not one. Yet … " He opened the door, spat: "Myrmidons!" and disappeared into the hallway.
The door banged shut.
Forrester sighed heavily. The High Priestess turned to him.
"Feel better?" she asked.
"Much," Forrester said, dreading the ordeal to come.
The High Priestess came over to the couch and sat down next to him. She put a hand on his shoulder. "Shall we prepare for the—sacrifice?"
Forrester sighed again. "Sure," he said. "Naturally."
When she was locked in his arms, it was as if time had started all over again. Forrester responded to the eagerness of the woman as he'd never dreamed he could respond; all his tiredness dropped away as if it had never been, and he was a new man. He touched her bare flesh and felt the heat of her through his fingers and hands; with his arms around her nakedness he rolled, locked to her, feeling the friction of skin against skin and the magnificence of her.
The sacrifice went on … and on … and on into endless time and endless space. Forrester thrust and gasped at the woman and her head went back, her mouth pulled open as she shivered and responded to him… .
Until finally they lay, panting, in the magnificent room. Forrester rose first, vaguely surprised at himself. He found a towel in a closet at the far end of the room and wiped his damp forehead slowly.
"Well," he said. "That was quite a sacrifice. What next?"
The High Priestess raised herself on one elbow and stared across the room at him. "There is no need for such familiarity, Forrester," she said. "Not from a lay acolyte."
Forrester tossed the towel onto a couch. "My apologies, Your Concupiscence. I'm a little—light-headed. But what happens next?"
The High Priestess reached into the diaphanous pile of her clothing and came up with a small diamond-encrusted watch she wore, usually, on her wrist. "Our timing was almost perfect," she said. "It is now twenty-hundred hours. The Goddess expects you at twenty-oh-one exactly."
A hurried half-minute passed. Then, fully dressed, Forrester went with the High Priestess to a golden door half-hidden in the hangings at the side of the room. She made a series of mystical signs: the circle, the serpent and others Forrester couldn't quite follow.
She opened the door, genuflecting as she did so, and Forrester dropped to one knee behind her, looking at the doorway.
It was filled with a pale blue haze that looked like the clear summer sky on a hot day. Except that it wasn't sky, but a curtain that wavered and shimmered before his eyes. Beyond it, he could see nothing.
The High Priestess rose from her genuflection and Forrester followed suit. There was a sole second of silence.
Then the High Priestess said: "You are to step through the Veil of Heaven, William Forrester."
Forrester said: "Me? Through the Veil of Heaven?"
"Don't be afraid," she said. "And don't try to touch the Veil. Just walk through as if nothing at all were there."
Forrester filled his lungs as though he were going to take a very high dive. He thought: Here goes nothing. That was all; there wasn't time for anything else.
He stepped into the blue haze, and had a sudden sensation of falling.