I would not mingle with their feasts; to me
Their nectar smack'd of hemlock on the lips,
Their rich ambrosia tasted aconite.
Hades did not particularly enjoy Zeus's feasts. He attended them, of course, because to do otherwise would be considered a slight, but he looked forward to them as little as Artemis craved a man's touch.
Even among the deathless gods, the king of the underworld was not considered a popular guest. The gods offered awkward small-talk about how, er, good Hades was at his job, and then hurriedly found an excuse to meet up with another god or goddess across the room. And the rare half-mortals visiting Olympus tended to blanch when they realized to whom they were speaking, sidling away and obviously wishing they'd given him an assumed name.
Hades lifted his goblet of nectar to his lips, inhaling the warm, heady scent. While the ambrosia and nectar Hera created didn't quite make up for the unpleasantness, they certainly eased things a little. He took a careful sip. This time the nectar tasted of the finest spices and an unfamiliar wine; it brought to mind the distant east, where other gods dwelled.
"Do my eyes deceive me, or is the lord of the underworld smiling?" Dionysus was already flushed, though whether that was from wine or mere merriment, Hades wasn't quite certain. The younger god clutched at his empty drinking cup and smirked.
Hades ignored Dionysus's slightly mocking tone. "You should try the nectar," he said mildly.
Dionysus snorted. "That swill? I'll stick to my own, thank you very much." He took a quick gulp of his wine, which had refilled at his words. "Enjoying yourself?"
Hades didn't rise to Dionysus's bait. Let Dionysus stir madness in someone else's breast this banquet. Instead he let his long, level look speak for him.
After a moment, Dionysus snorted. "Once again you're dull as dirt, uncle. I think I shall go see if Ares or Comus is interested in a drinking contest." He brushed at his long hair, which had fallen into his eyes, and frowned. "Where's my crown?"
Hades looked around, but the ivy crown was nowhere to be found. "No doubt atop Hermes's head," he commented, quelling his amused smile before it could reach his lips. Each banquet he played a mental game of guessing what item Hermes would steal; last time the young god had stolen Poseidon’s trident.
Dionysus scowled. "If Hermes has stolen my crown," he began, and then stopped as a child shrieked with mirth. It was an unfamiliar sound at one of Zeus's feasts, and Hades found himself looking around to find the source of the laughter.
A small girl with midnight-dark hair dashed towards him, giggling as Hermes pursued her. Dionysus’s crown was perched atop her head, but, being rather too large for her, it kept sliding down her forehead and obscuring her sight.
Half-blind, she stumbled into Hades, crowing with laughter as the god automatically steadied her with his free hand. The other hand gripped his goblet tighter as cool nectar spilled upon his fingers.
“Sorry!” she said, not sounding apologetic at all as she pushed the crown away from her eyes and smiled up at him.
He recognized her at once, then, or at least those familiar features and those sky-blue eyes. This was Demeter’s child. “That is quite all right, child,” he said, trying to remember her name. “However, I believe that crown belongs to Dionysus.”
“Oh, I know, but Hermes said—” the child said, but Hermes caught up then.
“I said how Dionysus must have carelessly left his crown on one of the tables, and that we ought to return it at once,” Hermes supplied hastily, looking far too innocent to be believed.
The girl directed a frown at him that was puzzled and a little indignant. “No, you said you’d stolen—” she began, only to be interrupted once more.
“Persephone!” Demeter seemed to tower over them all in her fury; from the corner of his eye, Hades saw Hermes hurriedly making an exit. The goddess was flushed with anger. “You disgrace us both! Return that crown at once and come with me. I had thought you old enough to behave at one of Zeus’s banquets, but I see that I was mistaken.”
Persephone’s eyes widened. “But I was only—” She subsided at her mother’s look, pulling the crown off and handing it meekly to Dionysus. “I am sorry for the disturbance,” she mumbled, the apology directed at the feet of Hades and Dionysus. “And that I wore your crown without permission, cousin.”
“I don’t blame you,” Dionysus assured her, and then glanced at Demeter. “Don’t be too harsh, Demeter. It was all Hermes’s doing.”
Demeter shook her head and planted a firm hand between Persephone’s shoulder blades, pushing the child away from the two gods and towards the nearest exit. “Farewell,” she called over her shoulder.
“Farewell,” they echoed.
Dionysus raised an eyebrow, looking a little amused as he inspected the crown for any damage. Satisfied that neither Hermes’s theft nor Persephone’s race through the banquet hall had harmed the crown, he put it on and adjusted it carefully. “Quite an unusual child,” he remarked.
“Indeed,” Hades agreed. He took another sip of his nectar. This time, it tasted pleasantly of pomegranates.
“Uncle,” Athena said with a polite smile. She greeted him with a raised goblet.
Hades echoed the gesture, nodding back. “Athena.”
“Shall I catch you up on the latest adventures and rivalries?” she asked with a wry look. It was moments like these that Hades suspected she detested Zeus’s banquets as much as he did. “I know you do not hear much of Olympus in your kingdom.”
“If you wish,” Hades said. Truth be told, he was not particularly interested, but at least Athena did not look at him with any sort of trepidation. It would be nice to have a conversation where the other person wasn’t staring at you as though you’d sprouted three heads.
“Apollo is still sulking over Marpessa,” Athena began. She arched a delicate eyebrow at Hades’s puzzled expression. “You didn’t hear about Marpessa? She’s a mortal princess, pursued by both Apollo and a mortal named Idas. Zeus had her choose between them, and she chose the mortal. Apparently she said that Apollo would tire of her once she grew old.”
“Wise choice,” said Hades. He caught sight of Dionysus across the hall, scowling into his goblet, and thought of Semele, who’d wept and cursed Hera as she’d stood before his throne. Dionysus had not yet asked after his mother, but Hades knew he would, eventually.
“Mortal-god entanglements rarely end well,” he added, more quietly.
“It was indeed a sensible decision,” Athena said.
Hades looked up from his nectar in time to spot the fleeting, pleased smile that briefly warmed Athena’s wintry gray eyes. Ah. Perhaps Athena had helped Marpessa along with her decision. It was either that, or she was simply proud of a mortal for making such a prudent choice.
“And then there is Persephone, causing her mother grief and scorning Aphrodite,” Athena continued. “She aims to become one of Artemis’s maidens, she says, and woe to anyone, god or mortal, who tries to woo her!” Athena sounded approving.
“The last time I saw Persephone, she was still a child,” Hades said. He tried to recall her face, but all he could remember was that she’d looked like Demeter, with the same dark hair and pale eyes. He wondered if she now looked more or less like her mother. “Time passes…” He paused to consider his words. “Time passes both slowly and swiftly in the underworld. I take it she has grown into womanhood?”
“She has,” Athena said a trifle dryly, “though she has done her best to hide it. She wears the garb of Artemis and runs through the woods without care for her appearance. Or so Demeter complains.”
Hades could well imagine Demeter’s reaction. “And Artemis has accepted her as one of her maidens?”
Athena pursed her mouth. “Well. She has told Persephone that she will, but she is taking her time in doing so. I suspect that she doesn’t want to anger Demeter. And, of course, she doesn’t want to incur Zeus’s displeasure either.”
“Zeus? Why would Zeus be angry?” Hades asked. He’d expect Aphrodite to be furious—her revenge upon those who scorned love was legendary—but what had Zeus to do with Persephone?
The look Athena directed at him was a little amused, but a little condescending as well, as though she sometimes thought Zeus alone of Cronus and Rhea’s children had been given the gift of intelligence. “Come now, uncle. A beautiful young maiden, scorning love? We all know my father takes that as a particular challenge.”
“Ah,” Hades said. “Yes.”
He found himself flinching away from the thought. He knew of his brother’s fondness for the chase, of Zeus’s delight in finding the most unwilling women and softening their hearts towards him—or, if that failed, using his powers as king of the gods to break their will and take what he pleased.
Hades thought of the merry child who’d raced around the banquet hall with Dionysus’s crown atop her head, soon broken to halter at Zeus’s whim, and felt a little ill. When he looked again at Athena, he couldn’t read the expression in her pale eyes.
“For now Artemis and I keep her by our sides at all times,” she said. It was only then that Hades realized Artemis was nowhere to be found in the banquet hall. “Zeus hesitates to do anything while Persephone is one of our guests. Soon, however, he will lose his patience, and then—” She shrugged.
“And then,” Hades echoed bleakly. Eventually Zeus would disregard the law of hospitality and do as he pleased. No one would be able to stand against him. He was king, after all. “There is nothing to be done?”
“Well….” Athena frowned and lowered her voice, so that Hades had to step closer to hear her next words. “I have been thinking lately, that if we could somehow hide Persephone away for a time, out of Zeus’s sight, he would turn to other pursuits.”
For a moment, Hades felt hope briefly warm his chest. Then common sense took hold once again. “Zeus is lord of the sky, there are few places he cannot see,” he pointed out.
“Yes, indeed very little is concealed from him,” Athena agreed. She met his gaze squarely. “I will come to the point, uncle. Your kingdom is one of those places.”
At first Hades wanted to laugh. He tried to imagine the daughter of Demeter in the dark halls of his palace, and failed. “The underworld is no place for a goddess,” he said.
“It would only be for a short while, a few months at the most,” Athena said. A note of entreaty crept into her voice. “Please, uncle. Zeus would never think to look in your palace.”
“For good reason,” Hades muttered. Still, Athena was right. Zeus would not consider the underworld. Nor would he dare to venture there in pursuit of Persephone, should he discover where she was hidden. Hades frowned. “Persephone is willing to do this?”
“Artemis and I wished to get your answer before we broached the subject with her,” Athena said, rather evasively, he felt.
“In other words, she might refuse my hospitality,” Hades said.
“No,” Athena said firmly. “Not after I have spoken to her. This is the best way for her to avoid Zeus. She will see that.”
While Hades did not doubt Athena’s ability to persuade, he also didn’t doubt the revulsion a young goddess would hold for his kingdom. What child of the goddess of spring and life would enjoy the dark and somber hush of the kingdom of the dead?
“However she answers you, let her know she is always welcome as a guest in my kingdom,” he said, and was rewarded by Athena’s smile.
“May I have leave to speak, my lord?” Charon asked, leaning against his oar and frowning.
They were halfway across the Acheron. On the receding bank, Hades could see countless shades wandering dejectedly along the shore, waiting their hundred years, as well as the occasional flicker of silver as a more-fortunate shade clutched at his or her obolus and waited for Charon.
Hades raised an eyebrow. He had decided to tell each of his servants the news separately, just for this moment, when each one could speak his mind without fear. “You know I prefer honesty to evasiveness,” he answered. He waved his hand when Charon hesitated. “Speak.”
“Are you certain of this, my lord?” Charon asked, not quite meeting his eyes. “It is all very well and good to try and aid this Persephone, but what if Zeus does come here? You’ll excuse me for saying so, but I wouldn’t enjoy witnessing an argument between you and the king of the gods.”
“It will be fine, Charon,” Hades said, imbuing his words with as much confidence as he could muster. He would not admit—to himself or to his servant—that he was also nervous, waiting to hear from Athena whether or not Persephone had agreed to the plan. “Zeus would not dare to come here. Even when he appointed Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Aeacus as judges, he did not enter my hall but stood beside the bank of the Styx.”
“That is true,” Charon agreed. He still looked dubious. Then he brightened a little. “It would be a sight though, Persephone in your palace. A very different change than when Hermes, ah, graces the underworld with his presence.” A sour note crept into his voice.
Hades hid a smile. Charon did not have any fondness in his heart for the messenger of the gods. Hades suspected this was due in part to Hermes ignoring Charon and flying over the Acheron when he came bearing messages.
Charon cleared his throat. “What does she look like?”
“I only saw her as a small child, but she had hair as black as night, and eyes as blue as the clearest sky. And a laugh like a bell,” Hades said. He paused. “She must be beautiful, though, or else Zeus would not be so captivated.”
“You will introduce us?” Charon asked eagerly. “Not that I don’t love my job, my lord, but Persephone’s visit will be the most exciting thing to happen in centuries!”
“And it does not hurt that she is alive and beautiful, unlike your other passengers,” Hades said a little dryly.
“Indeed, my lord,” Charon agreed, and rowed them towards the bank of the Acheron with renewed vigor.
The field in Enna was filled with greenery and smelled overwhelmingly of flowers. Hades resisted the urge to sneeze as he landed his chariot. The winged horses snorted and stamped their hooves as they eyed the field.
Hades already missed the flowers of the Asphodel Meadows, which bloomed without scent. He squinted, raising his hand to block the bright sunlight. Three women stood before him.
“Hades,” Athena said as she came forward and clasped his free hand in greeting. She smiled warmly at him. “Well met, uncle.”
“I have spoken with my brother. Apollo will keep his silence,” Artemis said. She did not offer a greeting, scowling instead. No doubt she was irritated that her protection had not been enough for Persephone. Hades did not take offense.
“That is excellent news,” he said politely. “I thank you and Apollo.” Then, at last he turned to the final woman. “And I greet you, Persephone.”
Persephone had indeed grown into womanhood. Her features were no longer anything like her mother’s but wholly her own, with a pale, high forehead and a mouth that promised stubbornness and an inability to yield. Her hair fell in windswept curls around her face. There was a leaf caught in one of the tendrils, pale green against the dark.
“My lord,” she said with cold disdain. Hades felt each syllable like a blow. “Shall we go?”
“I—” Hades said, taken aback. His gaze flickered towards Athena, who looked rueful, and Artemis, who looked a little satisfied. Apparently Athena had managed to convince Persephone that this was necessary, not pleasant. At last he bowed. “We shall go whenever you are ready.”
“Then let us go,” Persephone said. She turned and embraced first Athena and then, for a moment longer, Artemis. “Fare you well, Athena. Thank you for your help. Fare you well, Artemis. I trust I shall be back among your maidens soon.”
Hades offered her his hand but she ignored it, climbing into the chariot on her own. He stared at her for a moment, at a loss. Would she be like this throughout her entire visit, distant and aloof?
“Fare you well, nieces,” he said at last. Then, with a flick of the reins, he and Persephone were off, the chariot flying swiftly towards Arvenus.
(Demeter to Persephone) ...thou should'st dwell
For nine white moons of each whole year with me,
Three dark ones in the shadow with thy King.
“My lady Persephone,” Charon said, nearly stepping into the Acheron during his enthusiastic bow. “It is indeed an honor. Let me be the first to welcome you to the underworld.”
“Thank you,” Persephone said without any great enthusiasm. One of the shades drifted close to her, and she stepped quickly away, her eyes widening in dismay.
“This is Charon. He ferries the dead across the Acheron and the Styx,” Hades said. He glared at the shade until it drifted away, momentarily regretting that he had sent the chariot and his horses back home. Hades had intended a proper showing of the underworld to Persephone, but perhaps it would have been better to simply take Persephone to her chambers and let her adjust in private.
“Greetings, Charon,” Persephone said politely, and then backed away from still another shade. “Why do these dead wander here? Should they not be in Elysium or Tartarus?”
“They have not paid the toll, my lady,” Charon explained. “They died at sea, or were not buried with an obolus or danake in their mouths. They must wander the bank of the Acheron for a hundred years as payment instead.”
“I see,” Persephone murmured. She looked for a long moment at the milling dead, and at last shook her head. “May we go?”
“Of course, my lady, of course,” Charon assured her. As she stepped past him onto the boat, Charon shot Hades a curious look. Hades simply shrugged in answer. How could he convey in a glance that Persephone was not pleased with her situation?
He stepped onto the boat as well, keeping a polite distance from Persephone. “This is the Acheron, river of sorrow,” he began. “Perhaps you have heard of the other four. There is Cocytus, river of lamentation; Phlegethon, river of fire; Lethe, river of….”
“This is my home,” Hades said. The boat ride had been quiet save for his attempts to tell her of his kingdom. Persephone had simply stared at the river, and even Charon, after a few failed attempts at humor, had fallen silent and simply rowed.
He could not read Persephone’s expression, for all emotion had leeched from her face at the sight of the palace. He tried to view it through her eyes, and found it severely wanting. What goddess filled to the brim with life and youth would enjoy the sight of this dark, gloomy place?
Hades stepped into the forecourt, and was pleased to see all three judges at their posts, heads bent in conversation as an anxious-looking shade hovered before them.
“This is the court where the dead are judged.” Hades raised his voice. “Minos! Rhadamanthus! Aeacus!”
“My lord,” Minos and Aeacus said, Rhadamanthus a beat behind them. The three judges rose to their feet and bowed as one to Hades, then to Persephone.
“Welcome to the underworld, lady Persephone,” said Aeacus, smiling. “We hope you will be comfortable during your sojourn here.”
“I thank you for your greetings,” Persephone said. This time she almost smiled, Hades was certain of it. She glanced at the shade. “He stands in judgment?”
“Yes, my lady,” Minos said. “We are deciding where he shall go, to the Asphodel Meadows, to Tartarus, or to Elysium.”
“How do you decide?” Persephone asked, showing the first spark of interest Hades had seen. She stepped closer to the dead soul, studying him as the unfortunate shade looked miserable.
“By examining his actions,” Rhadamanthus explained. “If he has done nothing truly good or truly evil, he goes to the Fields of Asphodel. If he has committed evil, he will go to Tartarus. If he has led a good life, he will go to Elysium.”
“I see,” Persephone said. She turned to Hades. “If they are the judges, what do you do?” Her tone was curious rather than confrontational, and Hades felt something in him ease. Perhaps she might find this place bearable after all.
“If they cannot come to a decision, they come to me. I oversee the entire underworld and decide on the punishments of those in Tartarus. I make certain no shades escape to the surface, for many do try. I see that Cerberus is fed.” Hades hesitated, and then added, a little sheepishly, “I also tend the flowers.”
“The flowers?” This time Persephone definitely smiled, the gesture softening the severe lines of her face. “The ones in the Asphodel Meadows? They are beautiful.”
Hades smiled back. He made a mental note to bring a vase of the flowers to Persephone’s chambers. Would she enjoy them each night of her stay, he wondered, or would that be intrusive? “Yes, they are,” he agreed. He glanced at the judges. “You have my apology for our interruption. Be wise and well.”
“Be well, my lord,” the judges chorused. “Be well, Lady Persephone.”
“Now, let me show you my great hall,” Hades said to Persephone. “I trust you will find it satisfactory.”
“I hope so, my lord,” Persephone murmured, but she was back to looking dubious as she matched his pace and walked at his shoulder into the next room. There she stopped abruptly.
He turned to watch in astonishment as all the color drained from her face and fury darkened her eyes. “What is that?” she demanded in strident and accusing tones, pointing. “What do you mean by this?”
Puzzled, Hades followed the direction of her finger. He had crafted this gift himself, carving it from purest marble and polishing it so that it shone even in the murky darkness of the hall. “It is your throne,” he said.
“A throne.” Persephone spit out the words as though they were poison. “What need have I of a throne in your hall, my lord?” The title was mocking.
Hades stared at her, bewildered at her reaction. “I did not intend any offense,” he said carefully, feeling as though he were walking treacherous ground. “You are my guest, and a goddess. It would be discourteous to offer you anything but a throne.”
“You gave me a throne as a gift to your guest,” Persephone said. Now she sounded more puzzled than angry.
“Yes, of course. Did you expect to sit on the floor?”
Persephone stared at him for a moment. Then, to his further surprise, she dissolved into laughter. The clear, bell-like sound rang through the room, briefly muffled as she pressed her hands to her face and shook her head. “Forgive me,” she said, once she had stopped laughing. She looked at him then, with a warm, rueful smile that invited him in on the joke.
Hades spread his hands, still puzzled, but relieved as well. “What is there to forgive?”
“My abominable conduct, for one,” Persephone said wryly. “I fear I labored under a misapprehension. Artemis led me to believe you had tricked Athena and would force me to marry you instead of Zeus.”
“And you thought me clever enough to somehow fool Athena, goddess of wisdom,” Hades said. He felt an incredulous smile tug at his mouth. “You give me more credit than I am due, Persephone. Besides, I would not break the law of hospitality. You are free to stay, and free to leave whenever you wish.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Her smile, as it curved her lips, was more beautiful than any Asphodel flower, and Hades felt his breath catch in his chest. After a moment, he smiled back. “Welcome to my hall, Persephone.”
“Does it not get dull here?” Persephone asked. She sat on her throne, surveying the room with an interested gaze. She had taken off her sandals, and one of her feet tapped out a slow beat upon the floor. She rested her chin in her hand and eyed Hades. “You tend the flowers, and feed Cerberus, and oversee the judges, I know, but the days must drag on nonetheless.”
“They do,” Hades admitted. “But I am not alone. Charon is always willing to tell me stories of those he’s ferried. And Minos is an excellent storyteller.”
“My lord,” Minos said, coming into the hall as though Hades had summoned him rather than simply mentioned him by name. “We need your counsel. We have looked at this shade’s life and cannot come to a decision as to her fate.”
Hades waved a hand. “Send her in,” he said, privately pleased. Now Persephone could see him perform one of his duties. “Your name, shade?” he said to the flickering, distressed spirit who hovered before the thrones.
“I was one known as Eumelia, my lord,” the shade said, and then threw herself at Persephone’s feet. “My lady, my lady, I knew not your name or status to worship you while I lived, but pray send me to Elysium,” she begged, oblivious to Persephone’s startled expression. “I have committed a cruelty, I freely admit as much, but nothing terrible enough to deserve Tartarus. Please, my lady.”
“It is not me you should implore, but Hades,” Persephone said, a pale flush creeping into her cheeks.
The shade flinched at the name and darted a quick, terrified look at Hades. “Speak to Clymenus?” she whispered. “Oh, my lady, I couldn’t.”
Persephone glanced at Hades, and when he nodded, turned to Minos. “What has she done in her life that you cannot choose?”
“It is very much a quandary, my lady. She has committed both a great evil and a great good.”
“I see,” said Persephone, frowning. Then she turned back to Hades. “My lord, it seems to me that if she has committed both great evil and great good, then she has balanced the scales. Should she not go to the Asphodel Meadows?”
At that, the shade let out a howl of despair. “Not the Meadows, my lady! I could not bear the tedium!”
Persephone frowned upon the shade. “You do not wish to be thrown into Tartarus, and now, when offered a better option of the Fields, you scorn the offer?” she said, very low and deceptively mild. Only Hades was close enough to see the hard look in her eyes. “Perhaps you should have thought of this moment before you committed a great evil, Eumelia.”
“But my lady—” the shade began to protest.
Hades held up a hand, and the shade fell silent. “Persephone’s reasoning is sound. Escort the shade Eumelia to the Meadows, Minos.” This time he ignored the shade’s entreaties and cries. He turned to Persephone, letting pleasure color his voice. “That was well done.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Persephone said with a satisfied smile. She reached for the nearby bowl of fruit, lifted a ripe apple to her lips.
“Stop!” Hades said, panicked. He grabbed Persephone’s wrist, felt the warm skin and strong muscle move under his grip as she tried to tug her hand away. He tightened his grasp.
“What are you doing?” she snapped, the old suspicion back in her eyes.
“Forgive me, I had forgotten to warn you,” Hades said quickly, his gaze fixed upon the apple only a finger’s width away from Persephone’s mouth. “If you eat anything other than nectar and ambrosia here, you will not be able to return to the surface.”
The idea of Persephone staying here was…well, it had some appeal, if Hades was honest with himself, but the idea of Persephone trapped unwillingly for the rest of time was horrifying.
“I see,” Persephone said. Her expression softened a little. “Thank you for the warning.” He released her, and she dropped the apple back into the bowl. “Then might I have some ambrosia?”
“Of course,” Hades said, breathing a sigh of relief.
Persephone rested her chin on her fist and smiled at him, pale eyes gleaming with mischief. “And perhaps tomorrow I might be the one to feed Cerberus?” she suggested, and laughed once more at his expression.
“How often do you use your chariot?” Persephone asked after the first week. She was seated sideways on her throne again, feet swinging idly over the armrest, her eyes focused upon his face.
“Not often,” Hades answered, wondering why she was interested and trying not to be distracted by her pale bare feet. The goddess had not worn any sort of footwear in her time in the underworld, not since she’d first discarded her sandals. “I use it when Zeus has one of his banquets, but otherwise I do not venture outside the underworld. Well, except in emergencies, when shades escape and I must retrieve them.” It had never happened often, and occurred even less after he’d installed Cerberus at the gates.
Persephone arched an eyebrow. “The horses must grow bored. How do you keep them from idleness?”
“Well, they are immortal, so they do not run to fat as mortal horses do, but Charon also takes them on weekly flights.”
“Flights?” There was a gleam in Persephone’s eyes that Hades was beginning to recognize, one that promised mischief and upheavals in his life. “Do you think Charon would mind if we rode the horses today?”
“You want to…ride the horses,” Hades said carefully, in case he had misunderstood.
“Yes,” said Persephone. She smiled a little, no doubt at his expression. “If you do not wish to, I understand, I only thought it might liven up the day—”
“I will prepare the horses myself,” Hades said.
As he neared the stables, he caught sight of his reflection in the silver gate and paused, studying his half-pleased, half-bemused look. The faint smile felt odd on his lips, but he was growing used to Persephone and her unusual ideas, the way she seemed content to take the tedious routine of the underworld and turn it upside down.
Both horses greeted him with startled snorts, craning their heads and huffing puzzled but happy hellos into his shoulder as he patted them on the neck. “How would you two enjoy a flight?” he queried, not waiting for an answer as he opened the door and lead them outside.
Persephone smiled at the sight of the horses. “I was too distracted before. I didn’t notice how beautiful they were,” she said quietly, reaching out and stroking one’s glossy black mane. Then she turned the smile upon Hades. “Are you ready?”
Hades nodded. He started to ask if she needed assistance, and then watched without much surprise as Persephone expertly vaulted onto the back of the nearest horse.
“Artemis and her maidens often ride wild horses,” Persephone explained, laughing. In the next instant, she and her horse were aloft, her dark hair whipping around her face and a warm flush darkening her cheeks. “Shall we race to Lethe and back?” she asked.
“Race?” Hades echoed, but then she was gone, her laughter trailing after her. He watched her go for a second, before his horse’s impatient snort brought him back to his senses. He smiled at the stallion and mounted.
“Go ahead, catch her,” he murmured into that listening ear, and then closed his eyes as the horse leapt upwards, wind roaring in his ears.
“I think I shall never tire of these,” Persephone said happily, kneeling among the Asphodel flowers. There was a smudge of dirt upon her cheek; still more was caked upon her feet as she wiggled her toes in the dirt.
Hades stilled his tongue before what he wanted to say could spill out and betray him. These types of compulsions had grown during Persephone’s time here, as she had sat on her marble throne and shared his table and his duties. Flying the horses had become a near daily thing, and he knew both he and the horses would miss the flights once Persephone was gone.
The urge to say, ‘You shall always have these flowers by your bedside, even when you return to the surface’ or something equally impractical was overwhelming. He swallowed back the words and nodded his agreement. Then he offered her a flower, gesturing for her to tuck it into her hair.
She did so, the moon-pale flower made still paler by the darkness of her hair. Persephone smiled in delight. “Shall we have the judges to dine with us tonight? I find myself longing for one of Minos’s stories.”
“As do I,” Hades agreed. He stood, offering her a hand. She took it, hauling herself upright with a bright laugh. Her hand was warm in his; the heat lingered even after she pulled away.
She gathered up the flowers she had cut, and smiled at him. “Do you think Charon would like a bouquet for his boat?” she asked. “It might brighten the waters of the Acheron a little.”
Hades pictured Charon’s expression upon being handed a bouquet of flowers, and bit back a smile. “He would appreciate the gesture, I am certain,” he said. Then he looked up as a distant sound reached his ears. It almost sounded like wings, but the horses were all in the stable—
“Hermes!” Persephone cried, glowing with delight. The flowers tumbled, forgotten, to her feet, the whiteness spreading across the greenery like spilled wine. She extended her arms and laughed as Hermes landed and immediately swept her into an embrace.
Hades watched, fighting the urge to scowl. He had no claim on Persephone. Besides, Hermes was one of the few gods with whom Hades actually enjoyed spending time. Hades could not begrudge him a visit.
“Hermes,” he said, and winced inwardly at the coolness of the greeting. “Welcome, nephew.”
Hermes didn’t look at him though, grasping Persephone by the elbows and pulling back to study her. “You look well, cousin,” he said, voice warm with relief. “Better than I expected, after Apollo explained what happened. He has not harmed you?”
Puzzlement replaced Persephone’s joy. “Who would or could harm me in the underworld?” she asked. “There is no danger here, cousin. Even Cerberus is tame once he knows you are a friend and guest of Hades.”
“A guest of Hades? Does he insist you call yourself that and not his prisoner?” Hermes said, laughing harshly. “Apollo told us what he saw.”
“And what did Apollo tell you?” Persephone demanded, flushing a dark, ugly red and scowling at him. “Lies, apparently, or else you would not be so rude to Hades in his own kingdom. You have not answered his greeting and now you act as though he forced me here against my will!”
“But he did!” Hermes said, startled. “…Or at least that’s what Apollo told Demeter after she searched the world for you. He said that Hades snatched you from a field in Enna while Artemis and Athena were distracted.”
“I did not,” Hades interjected, seeing that Persephone was about ready to yell with fury. “She came with me of her own free will.”
“And why would she do that, uncle?” Hermes finally looked at him, and the cold suspicion in his eyes hurt. Hades had thought Hermes knew him better than that. “I do not mean to be rude, but no one visits the underworld willingly.”
“Hades extended an invitation to visit his palace for as long as it took for Zeus to lose interest,” Persephone said flatly. “Athena and Artemis, if you bother to ask them, will tell you the truth. They arranged it, after all.” Her eyes glinted, cold as ice. “And I shall have words with Apollo regarding his lies.”
“Persephone,” Hades said. “Doubtless Apollo was trying to protect you from your mother’s wrath.”
“Trying to save his own skin from my mother, more like,” Persephone muttered darkly. She shook her head. “Hermes, I swear to you by the river Styx that I came here of my own free will. I swear that Hades has given me leave to go whenever I wish. I swear that I have enjoyed my time spent here.”
Hermes, who had winced a little at the mention of the river Styx, nevertheless looked relieved. “I am glad to hear it,” he said, and then turned to Hades. “Forgive me, uncle, for my discourtesy.”
Hades waved a hand. “You are forgiven. You had no reason to doubt Apollo’s word.”
“No reason but my own common sense,” Hermes said, frowning. “I knew you for a better god than that.” He looked at Persephone. “Your mother has caused uproar on Olympus, Persephone. No flowers, no fruit, nothing blooms on earth. The mortals are struggling to survive this endless winter Demeter has cast upon the world in her misery, and Olympus wants for sacrifices. She will only relent once you are returned to her side. I have orders from Zeus. You must come with me.”
Hades closed his eyes for an instant, the words like a blow. He’d known this moment was coming, after all. He should have been ready. Now Persephone would return to the surface, and he would have to…adjust to the hole she’d leave in his life. It was as simple as that.
“And what if I do not wish to return?” Persephone demanded.
Hades opened his eyes to stare. “Persephone,” he said, her name tentative on his lips. He watched a pale flush spread across her cheeks, noticed the way she kept her gaze focused on Hermes.
“Do not—” Hermes, Hades was relieved to see, looked just as bewildered as Hades himself. “Cousin, Zeus has given you an order. You must obey.”
“I see,” Persephone said. Hades recognized this look at least; it was the miserable, angry one she’d worn in the field of Enna, when she’d thought she had no choice or voice in her own life. She took a deep breath, then turned to Hades. When she spoke, her voice was low. “I am sorry, my lord.”
Hades wanted to speak, to assure her she had nothing to apologize for, but the words cluttered up his throat and he couldn’t breathe a single syllable. Instead he shook his head and caught her hand between his, squeezing it gently.
There was a long silence, and then Hermes cleared his throat, looking unusually hesitant. “Shall we go, cousin?”
“I need a few things at the palace,” Persephone said, pale eyes not leaving Hades’s face. “I’ll be but a moment.” With that, she turned and walked away, trampling the discarded flowers under her feet.
Hades watched her go, his chest aching.
“Uncle, I—” Hermes began, and stopped with a sigh. “I am sorry, uncle.”
“So am I,” Hades said bleakly and turned away from the sight of Persephone’s receding back.
“She is truly gone, my lord?” Charon demanded, bursting into the hall.
Hades didn’t look away from the empty marble throne next to him. He would have to get rid of it, somehow. Simply looking at it brought fresh pain. “Hermes escorted her to the surface yesterday,” he said.
Charon swore. “Forgive me, my lord, but why? She seemed happy here!”
“She was, I think,” Hades said. “But Zeus ordered her to return.”
“Zeus,” Charon muttered darkly, and then paced before Persephone’s throne, scowling at the floor. Finally his frenzied pacing eased, and he stood between the two thrones, shoulders bowed. “I shall miss her, my lord.”
‘So will I,’ Hades didn’t say. He didn’t need to. He rested his head in his hands, closing his eyes against the weariness.
“My lord,” Charon said after a moment, with forced cheer. “That is a waste of perfectly good fruit!”
“Charon, what are you talking about?” Hades demanded irritably.
“The pomegranate, my lord,” Charon said. “You’ve split it open and left everything but the seeds. Isn’t the flesh the best part?”
“I have not had a pomegranate in days,” Hades began, and then looked up. Slowly he turned to look at the bowl of fruit, the pomegranate that Charon held in his hand. “I—” He felt himself smiling, an incredulous overwhelming happiness welling up inside him. Laughter burst from him, making Charon jump.
“My lord?” Charon said, looking at him as though he had gone mad.
“I did not eat those seeds, Charon,” Hades said.
He watched realization steal slowly upon Charon’s face, and then together they both gave into their delight, their laughter ringing through the hall.
Hades took the pomegranate, and held it up, watched how it caught the torchlight and glittered like red jewels. “Pomegranates,” he murmured after a moment, “shall forever be my favorite fruit.”