She breathes, properly, for the first time in the Underworld, inhaling the damp, stale air of the caves like it belongs outside on a spring day. Her abductor dismounts from his chariot and holds his hand up to help her, hesitant worry on his chiselled features. He fears he has done something wrong, taking her down here so abruptly and quickly, without asking her if she truly wanted to go. As if she’d had another plan, or any plan, at that, for getting away from what waited back on Olympus.
It is sweet, though, that he should think of her before what he wanted. Oh, she knows what he wants, could see it the moment he first laid eyes on her pale limbs and her pretty eyes and the goddess’s body she concealed under her chiton. Every man, god or human, had looked at her the same way from the day she’d hit that undefined transition from girl to woman; her mother had whispered to her, when she was younger, that she might one day have beauty to rival Aphrodite’s. But Hades had shown restraint where others didn’t even think of doing the same, denying his desires to both himself and everyone around him because . . . why? Because he thinks that she won’t choose him, with so many other suitors practically kissing the ground at her feet? Because he sees no worth in himself? Or because he actually respects her enough to make her own choice, unsolicited?
Maybe it is a little bit of everything.
She takes his hand and steps delicately onto the dark pathway. At the guilty expression on his face, she offers him a radiant, reassuring smile and walks the path on her own.
This place is a desolate one, which disappoints her only a little, despite it being expected. The disappointment is, however, entirely outweighed by the emptiness of the caverns, where there is no Pantheon, no people to leer or ask for favours, and no mother to pressure her into being the daughter she is supposed to be.
There are no flowers, either, and that is where she finds her first purpose.
She knows that Hades is watching her as she crouches down by the edges of the barren, dark fields, their black grasses dancing in an invisible wind as the depressed, aimless shades darken them further with their passings. The divine glow of her skin lights her workspace as she takes the flower he’d used to lure her into his arms, half-dead and half alive and all the more delicate and beautiful for it, and plants it in the dark fields. There, she shapes it with her magic, breathing life into the jeweled petals and watching the dead leech the colour from it until it glows white, like a beacon. She plants the rest of her bunch, uprooted in her anger, and changes them until they mimic the first, glowing in shades of purple and blue.
They will grow to fill the fields and light the way for the dead and their keeper. This promise she whispers into the leaves, the roots, the delicate veins of supernatural light spreading in the petals.
In the folds of her chiton, she keeps a golden drachma, given to her in offering by a farmer’s wife in exchange for vibrant lilies to gift to the babe growing in the woman’s belly at her birth. Such a fanciful, innocent request. This coin she rubs between her fingers, thinking wistfully that it will be the closest she gets to seeing the sun for a long, long time.
She shakes the thought from her mind, but does not replace the coin as she follows her dark, brooding, silent hero through the Underworld. There is no use in being ungrateful for the gift of freedom, though this freedom, she fears, will come to be more a prison than marriage on the surface. She misses Helios’s sunbeams already, though surely he has not even begun the descent beyond the horizon that should be marking her wedding.
But she wanted this. She still wants this, this quietness and darkness and no marriage on the horizon. She gives her smiles and the gentle song of her voice to the shades as she passes, deciding that the brief sparks of bliss on their faces at this change is reward enough for her disobedience.
She expects to be offered a room, perhaps, or free passage to the library and the halls of Hades’s towering, obsidian palace. To her surprise, he instead gives her an entire wing without a second thought, guiding her himself from room to room.
‘What is mine is yours,’ he says, once they’ve reached the bedchambers at the end of the hallway. ‘Should you find that these rooms have become too restraining, the rest of the castle is yours to explore and claim.’
She blinks, shocked into silencing her idle comments, before swallowing hard. ‘You are far too generous to me. I won’t intrude.’
He offers her a small smile, genuine and rare. Something in her chest pangs to witnesses it, and she resolves, then and there, to attempt to coax it forward again. ‘It is no intrusion. It would be an honour to have you brighten these dull halls.’
She spins the coin in her fingers, behind her back, watching his retreating back, the swish of his shadow-cape against the fine rugs as he leaves her to explore the chests of gowns on her own. Hecate’s, he’d claimed, though when she opens the first one, the rich fabric in shades of soft pink and green mixed in with the royal purples and sapphire blues and night-blacks give away the game. Her suspicions are confirmed when she chooses one of the darker ones, such a change from the virginal whites and pastels her mother had insisted and expected she wear, and the dark blue fabric, dotted and interwoven with magic so as to imitate the night sky, fits her slight frame perfectly. So he’d prepared, then, for the possibility of her arrival.
She flips the coin again. Heads. Stay. Tails. Go.
The evening of her interrupted wedding passes as she sits at his table, rolling a dark red apple between her hands and watching him eat the meats and fruits set before him by invisible hands. The smell of it is mouth-watering. She doesn’t cave in so easily. He doesn’t press her to imprison herself; instead, with the option before her, he has a veiled servant bring her a goblet of nectar and a square of ambrosia from Olympus. She smiles gratefully and sips from the honeyed liquid. Silently, they watch the sundial across the room, operated by some mysterious light in lieu of Helios’s beams, as the time of sunset comes. Both breathe a sigh of relief as it goes without a disturbance in Hades’s realm.
She flips the coin. Heads. Tails. Heads. Tails.
Days pass. She visits the dead, speaking to the spirits in Elysium of the ongoings of the world before she left it and weaving flower crowns for the children torn too early from their mothers’ breasts. She resolutely refuses to think of her own.
Heads. Tails. Heads. Tails.
One memorable eve, Hades takes her hand and presents to her a throne of wrought iron and plush velvet. She reaches forward with shaking fingers to stroke the lining, and cannot speak beyond one word. ‘Why?’
He turns his eyes to the dirt at her continued silence, as if afraid of her response. Ha! That she, gentle nymph of spring, should make the god of the dead avert his eyes is empowering and heart-wrenching at the same time. Then he looks back up, tilts his chin high, and finally sacrifices his pride to speak.
‘There is nothing I would not offer you,’ he admits. ‘I cannot give you the freedom of the world of the living, for it is not within my power. But I can shield you from their eyes, and I can give you all I have to attempt to compensate.’
Her eyes reach the top of the throne beside the one offered, to the crown of flowers she had made for him so many suns ago, still fragrant and full of life. That, along with the look on his face, is enough for her to speak.
‘You are beautiful,' she says, and that odd feeling in her chest expands, flares with warmth at her decision to speak. It’s love, she realizes. ‘You alone give yourself boundaries and allow yourself no kindness.’
She watches his careful words die in his throat and cannot help but laugh, cannot stop herself from reaching forward to stroke the inky curls away from his eyes. ‘You do not see yourself as I do. To me, your eyes are the ocean lit by moonlight. Your voice is velvety coolness of the night creatures. Your darkness is radiant. You are my savior. You, alone, do not force me to be anyone.’
She does what he will not, for which she finds that she loves him, and makes her choice, dragging him close by the collar. Irritation briefly takes her at his hesitation, always too shy, too sure of his own deductions about her, to even ask. She takes satisfaction in the widening of his eyes, the startled expression on his face as she shoves him back sprawling into his throne, freezing him into place with the press of her body against his black armour. ‘Have you thought to ask me what I want, Hades? Do you never press a thing because you think I wouldn't want it? Would you presume to know for Kore, like they all do above?’
She holds him by the throat, sweetly loose but threatening in the positioning of her fingers. She can feel him swallow against her touch, feels his breath increase as his chest rises and falls under her.
‘What does your heart desire, fair nymph?’ he asks her, and she feels a thrill at the breathiness of the question, robbed of all its gravitas by, oh, by her, and her alone.
This is power.
Heads, tails, heads. She drops the coin on the ground, not caring, anymore.
‘I crown myself queen,’ she says with an even calmness to her voice that reverberates with her newfound power. ‘Do you accept?’
He does, cannot do anything but accept, and the coin stops spinning for the Queen of the Underworld.