Once, the fields were replanted as soon as their bounty was harvested, the boughs of trees always hung heavy with flowers and fruit, and spring and autumn existed always in the same instant. In those days, men took for granted the grace of lady Demeter, but she had no concerns as long as her daughter was with her. When suitors came to pledge their love to the beautiful young goddess, Demeter turned them away, and admitted only the other maiden Olympians to her daughter's company.
Persephone was not content remain forever hidden from the world, no matter what her beloved mother's plans were. So after Demeter sent Apollo away, the maiden stole away from her nymphs and went to him as he stood in a bright meadow.
The sun god, beautiful even among the peerless Olympians, radiated his pleasure upon seeing her. She smiled at his praises and his smug confidence, and pressed a gentle hand against his chest when he swooped in to claim her lips for his own.
"I have three questions for you, shining Apollo, before I am yours. If I am to defy my mother, I wish to be certain of my choice."
He laughed. "Ask them, then. You will not be disappointed."
"What color is my hair?"
The sun god wrapped a lock of her long, long hair around a finger, raised it to his lips and kissed it. "Your hair is the color of the sky at sunset, with the glorious luminance of the sun as it descends into the western sea."
Persephone only smiled. "What would I be to you, my lord? What position would I hold in your heart?"
The god of music placed one hand on her waist and a hand against her cheek, leaning in to whisper into her ear, "You would be my lover, my mistress, my muse. I would compose songs to your beauty and make love to you on a bed of clouds."
Persephone sighed in pleasure. "And what, my lord, is my function as a goddess?"
The god of youth moved his hand from her waist to her belly, pressing hard and sliding downwards. "You are spring, my flower, you are birth and youth and nature."
Still smiling, Persephone twisted out of Apollo's grasp, her voice filled with poisonous sweetness. "You are eloquent, it is true, and beautiful. But you see only your own glory reflected in me, my lord. If you love yourself so dearly, I would advise finding yourself a mirror, or perhaps a twin?" She raised her eyebrows and smiled at his slowly growing fury. "You think of me as the maiden goddess of birth and youth, yet that is clearly your sister's role. I have heard of your jealousies, of how you murdered Orion, the only man who stirred her to reject her chastity. You would not marry me, because it is Artemis you desire. Be on your way, little brother, I will not be second to any woman in my lover's heart."
She bounded away, laughing merrily at his shouts, her only pursuers.
Next came Hermes, the forever-traveling messenger of the gods. Though he was fleet of foot, she caught him in a wooded grove, stripped nude and kneeling by a pool to drink.
He approached her with more deference than Apollo, but there was a light of conquest in his eyes and hunger in his smile. She lowered her lashes and smiled demurely at him. "I have three questions for you, cunning Hermes, before I am yours. If I am to defy my mother, I wish to be certain of my choice."
He lounged back on the grass, unconcerned. "If it is a test of my wits, my lady Kore, you will not find me lacking." His smile widened. "Nor in other areas, unlike my girlish brother Apollo."
Persephone giggled into her hand and blushed. "My lord, what color is my hair?"
"I am no poet, my lady, but to me, your hair is the color of copper veins in the earth, of warm red clay." The god of athleticism stretched his arms and arched his back as he spoke, letting the dappled sunlight play over well-sculpted muscles.
Persephone averted her eyes but stole an admiring glance every now and again. "What would I be to you, my lord? What position would I hold in your heart?"
"You would be my wife, for no other position would suit a daughter of Zeus and Demeter. You would keep my home and be there to welcome me when I return from my duties, to rub my feet and ease my aching heart, and I would see that you were well taken care of." The god of commerce and protection smiled and rose to his feet, pacing in circles around her, eyes tracking possessively over her curves.
Persephone caught her breath at the intensity of his gaze and lowered her own eyes.
"And what, my lord, is my function as a goddess?"
"You are the lady of life yet unborn, the untilled but fertile soil. You need only the touch of a god to make you into the goddess you were meant to be, a nurturer to rival the woman who birthed you. I will sow in you a new generation of divinity." The god who was Aphrodite's second-favorite lover smiled, the impressive manhood that graced his statues and temples on prominent display.
Persephone tilted her head and met his eyes for the first time. She smiled, her voice as cold as the northern winds. "You err, lord Hermes. I am not the earth. I am not a mortal woman, to dote upon you and be awed by your godliness. I am fully divine, daughter of Zeus and his fourth wife, and I will not bow to the product of some dalliance. And most of all, I am not my mother. Go back to Aphrodite, little brother, for you are not worthy of me."
Persephone walked away, her head held high, and the forest rose up behind her, her dryads clinging to Hermes, slowing him as he followed until she could no longer hear his pleas.
For a long time, there were no suitors. Persephone spent her days picking flowers and avoiding her doting mother, losing herself amongst the babbling of her nymphs. Then, one day, as she bent to pluck a narcissus from the soil, the earth split open in front of her. Clouds gathered in the heavens and a chariot roared out of the chasm, driven by a pale man with black hair.
Hades grabbed her wrist and made to pull her into the chariot, but Persephone sought his eyes and bid him wait with all the authority she could muster. To her surprise, he calmed his horses but did not release her. She took a deep breath, and her voice did not waver.
"I have three questions for you, dread Hades, before I am yours. If you are to risk my mother's wrath, I would have you be sure of your choice."
He regarded her with unblinking colorless eyes. "Ask them, child, though it will make no difference."
"What color is my hair?"
She expected him to react with irritation – the elder Olympians had no patience for the games of the younger – but he merely stayed silent, as if giving the question great thought, and then answered. "Blood, fresh-spilled."
She tilted her head and stared at him. "What would I be to you, my lord? What position would I hold in your heart?"
"I would make you my queen."
The answer made her inhale sharply, and widen her eyes.
"Ask your third question, and let us be done with it."
Persephone leaned in and murmured, letting her voice drop from a girlish soprano to a rich, caressing contralto, "And what, my lord, is my function as a goddess?"
"You are rebirth. Through you, the denizens of my realm are given life and allowed to return to the sunlit lands. Through you, death is no prison." His regard was steady as he ascribed to her a power unattained by all the other gods of Olympus.
"Now, it is your turn to answer a question – what is my function?"
"You are the king of the dead, the ruler of the unseen lands." Any mortal child knew that much, though they were too afraid to utter his name.
He inclined his head, then his mouth split open in a ghastly death's head grin. "I steal, I snatch, I leave wailing and grief in my wake. But the things I take, I preserve, away from the ravages of wind and age. One beautiful thing next to another looks common. Beauty amongst ugliness is transcendent."
Finally, Persephone smiled, slow and inviting, and the earth shuddered closed, leaving only a scattered bouquet and warm golden laughter in its wake.
The underworld was like nothing she'd ever known. It had nothing of her mother or father in it, no chains made of love and flowers, no ever-watchful clouds. She walked among the dead and they threw themselves at her feet. She was the first breath of life to ever grace the halls of the underworld, and all its denizens turned their faces toward her like flowers to the sun.
She thought that the land of the dead would have been dreary, as colorless as it was lifeless, and it did seem that way, at first. But then Persephone started to see glimmers of gold veins in the ceiling, precious gemstones in the walls, reflecting the soft glow of phosphorescent crystals. The palette was dark, but somehow richer than all the bright flowers and trees of her home above. Hades had been right – surrounded by grey and black stone, the merest flash of color was enough to make her want to weep with joy, and notice it in places where she would have never bothered to look before. In the darkness, she could see more clearly than she ever could under the sun.
All the while, Hades haunted her footsteps, keeping a silent, respectful distance, and making none of the advances that she would have expected from a brother of Zeus. She asked him about it once, when she could take no more of the heavy hush that suffused the air.
The king of the dead looked somewhat amused – for him, anyways, though it was only shown by the barest quirk of his eyebrow. "My siblings tend to be somewhat predictable – the later they were conceived, the more foolish they are, the more they crave love and companionship, the greater the lengths they will go to obtain it. And Zeus is the youngest of us all."
Persephone tilted her head at her host-captor-uncle, the second eldest of Cronus and Rhea's brood, save only for wise, solitary Hestia, the forever-virgin lady of home and hearth. "That would make you almost not a fool at all, then, my lord."
"I never said that." His grey eyes were distant, unseeing and all-seeing, and Persephone thought of herself and why she was in the underworld at all, and she began to understand.
"Why me, my lord? Why choose me, from all the countless nymphs and maidens and goddesses in the world?"
"Because death cannot exist without life, and life is meaningless without death."
The words sank into her mind like a stone cast into still waters, and the ripples bounced against her heart. He was lonely, and she was a goddess without meaning or purpose. Mortal girls wove flower chains for her, but none of them revered her. None of them feared her as she knew they rightfully should. Her presence in the underworld was meant to change both of those things.
His quiet voice broke across her thoughts, and she turned to see his bone-white hand held out to her. "Come. I have something I want to show you."
It turned out that the underworld wasn't quite as lifeless as she'd believed, either. Hades had brought her down through the earth into the very heart of his kingdom, bypassing the five rivers and not going so deep as to breach the darkness of Tartarus, so all she'd seen was the austere beauty of the central realm where Hades himself resided. After their talk, the first one they'd had since they'd arrived, Hades had hitched his chariot back up to his pale horses and helped her in, the horses' hooves churning the air as easily as they struck solid rock..
They didn't speak as the chariot plunged through the air, but the silence had been lanced and drained of tension, almost companionable by comparison. Slowly, the ground below them began to level out, to be covered by a thin layer of dust that eventually turned into dry dirt, unworthy of being called soil, which puffed up into little clouds when the horses and chariot landed. Rooted in the dirt were flowers, as far as the eye could see, ghostly pale and faintly luminous – asphodels, the flower of death and mourning. Persephone slipped, wordless, from the chariot and walked into the meadow, trailing her fingers along the flowers. They were more translucent, more unearthly than the ones that grew above the ground, but the buds opened when she touched them, alive in a way that little else in the underworld was – alive in a way that responded to her own nature.
Here and there, the dead wandered the meadows, looking more peaceful than most she had seen so far. They paid her no heed, and just walked aimlessly amongst the flowers.
"These are the Asphodel Meadows, where reside the dead who were too virtuous for Tartarus, but not righteous enough for Elysium. Here, they drink the waters of oblivion, and find peace, but not joy."
Persephone turned her head to look at Hades, who, for the first time since she had come to the underworld, wasn't watching her, but was looking out over the meadows with something like sorrow.
"This is the place that I would give to you for your own, so that instead of being trapped here, the souls could be reborn again into life. I would make you queen of all the underworld, but this would be your place, where I held no sway, and could not enter without your word."
The goddess of life inclined her head and climbed back into the chariot. "I should like to see the rest, my lord."
The king of the dead drove his chariot around the borders of the underworld, keeping always one of the great rivers to his left. Rivers of pain and lamentation, hatred and oblivion and liquid flame. Persephone watched with a kind of morbid fascination as human souls were caught in eddies and dashed against the rocks, screaming without needing to pause for breath.
"What did they do, that they are tormented like this?"
"This realm is not Tartarus, the humans here are not punished for their misdeeds in life. If a soul is caught in the great rivers, it is because they tried to escape, and now they shall serve as an example for others. Eventually, they will wash up on the shore, their wills broken, their humanity forgotten." Hades tilted his head at the almost-invisible ghosts that drifted among the more tangible spirits. Persephone recognized the voiceless, faceless servants who had provided for her every want since she had arrived in the underworld.
Across the river Phlegethon, a huge cliff rose, black even in the gloom of the underworld. By the light of the burning river, Persephone could just barely make out a path that wound its way up to a cave, set high up the side of the cliff. She waved a hand at it. "That cave, what is it?"
"You need not concern yourself with it, for it lies beyond the borders of the underworld." Hades's voice became even more distant and forbidding than it normally was, and a spark of rebellion stirred in Persephone's heart. She raised her chin and glared at her companion.
"I will concern myself with whatever I wish. And right now, I wish to know the importance of that cave."
Anger kindled in his grey eyes, the first flicker of true emotion she'd seen from him yet, and a part of her gloried in the small victory, even though she knew she ought to have been afraid.
"That is the cave of the Moirae, the three goddesses who determine the fates of gods and mortals. They are not to be crossed or trifled with."
The spinners of fate, the weavers of destiny, the casters of lots – even Zeus feared them. The Moirae would know what Persephone should do, for what purpose she was born, because they were the ones who had determined it. They would be able to tell her whether Hades was right about her powers, and her place at his side, or if he merely sought to trap her in the darkness forever. She shot Hades a sidelong glance.
"I don't intend to cross them, I want to consult them."
His jaw twitched and tightened in irritation, and he drew the chariot to a stop. "No."
Persephone arched her brows and turned to face him. "You said you would show me your realm."
"And that is not a part of my realm, thus I am under no contract to take you there. The Fates are not beings to consult on a whim." He lifted the reins as if to snap them, when a soft breath of air stirred his hair on the way to Persephone's ears, three female voices all whispering her name. A shudder rolled through the earth, and stepping stones broke the surface of the burning river.
Persephone smiled in triumph and jumped out of the chariot, running towards the river before Hades could stop her. She paused before the stepping stones and gathered her filmy skirts, taking cautious steps onto the the oil-slick stones. The flames of the burning river licked at her ankles, and the rocks scorched the soles of her bare feet, but Persephone gritted her teeth against the pain and refused to look back, pride keeping her head high and her back straight, the whispered voices still urging her forward. Tears of agony rolled down her cheeks and evaporated in the heat. Once or twice she began to slip, leaving flesh stuck to the stones, but she recovered her balance and kept her eyes on the far shore, until finally her blackened, bleeding feet touched moist earth, so unlike the dry dirt of the underworld. She sank to her knees, gasping against the pain, and tilted her head back to take in the colossal height of the cliff before her. It was taller than she had thought, and much more shear – the path that was carved into the side was barely wide enough to stand on, and covered in sharp stones. Without the voice urging her forward, she might have given up and stayed there, crumpled in a heap, but not even a goddess ignores a direct summons from the Fates.
With difficulty, Persephone rose to her feet, biting her lip at the pain of it. She put one graceless foot onto the steep path and her legs buckled beneath her. Bladelike obsidian lined the path and gouged her flesh as she pulled herself along on bloody hands and knees, inch by slow inch. Time ceased to flow as she ascended, her immortal body providing endless amounts of blood to mark her passage.
After a seeming eternity of crawling, her body and mind numbed by pain and repetition, the stone beneath her hands flattened and smoothed. Feather-light fingers wrapped themselves around her arms, and Persephone found herself pulled, gently, to her feet by a translucent ghost with no face who slowly faded into nothingness before her eyes.
A shrivelled old woman, whose voice Persephone recognized as one of the three that had called her here, cackled with glee. "Unusual to see one of them up here. Seems they've taken something of a liking to you. Why ever could that be, hmm?" The milky-eyed crone snapped the long, cruel shears in her hand over a piece of thread, and Persephone could have sworn that she heard a scream, somewhere in the distance.
The young goddess tried to ignore her aching body and straightened her filthy hair and shredded dress, attempting and failing to find some semblance of her usual grace. She curtsied stiffly. "It is an honor to meet you, my ladies."
The seated sister, plump and matronly in a way that Demeter had never been, smiled with a great deal of warmth. "Oh, my child, you have met us before, and you will meet us again, before the world is through." She measured a long, silvery thread and attached it to the small hand-loom on her lap, weaving skillfully.
The last sister, a girl of surpassing beauty who teetered on the cusp of womanhood, looked up from her spinning wheel. Her eyes were without white or iris, like polished jet against the rich bronze of her skin. If the crone had the features of the northern barbarians, and the mother of the desert-dwellers to the east, then the maiden was cast in the mold of one of the warriors from beyond the rule of the Pharoah in Egypt. "You had a question, didn't you?"
Persephone drew a deep, steadying breath into her lungs and nodded. "What is my purpose? Am I my mother's daughter, or Hades's queen?"
All three Fates spoke at once, their voices blending into one. "Both."
The white-haired crone smiled. "And also neither. You are yourself, girl. Your powers do not come from your mother or your husband, but from within. You have been the ruler of the underworld since long before Zeus spurted you into Demeter's womb, and you will continue to be, regardless of whether you sit the black throne or pick flowers in the sunlight."
Persephone blinked in confusion. "Ruler of the underworld? But Hades..."
The middle sister shook her head and smiled, her silvery-grey curls bouncing beneath her veil. "Hades is the underworld, my child, just as Gaea is the earth. And you are his queen – not by virtue of being his consort, but because you were made to rule him. A marriage between the two of you would be symbolic of you taking up your duties, like the humans who wed king to priestess to show devotion to a goddess."
The decrepit old woman snorted in derision. "You've seen what happens when men rule things. Zeus's father and grandfather were tyrants. So when the Olympians came to power, we decided to have a few queens instead. Your mother got stewardship of the earth, you get the underworld, that idiot Hera was supposed to be the Queen of Heaven, but she and Zeus are both convinced that he's in charge." She hawked and spat, as if the royal couple's names had left a foul taste in her mouth. "Hades has just been keeping the throne warm for you. Well, figuratively speaking. I doubt he could keep much of anything warm." She grinned, her gums black and toothless.
A silence fell as Persephone stood, attempting to take in the crone's words, but it was broken by the girl's soft voice. "He came to us, you know. He knows that neither he nor the underworld are easy to love, and he didn't want to start out wrong with you. So he came by the same way you did, bloodied and humblr, and asked us for answers to your riddles that would please you, though it pains him to leave the underworld for long. The petitioner's route grants but one answer to one question – he owes us favors for the other two."
"No god likes to owe a debt, least of all him. I think you should give him a chance. He's rather cold, and not too good with women, but he has been longing for you. I know, I made him that way. Fate is even stronger than Aphrodite, you know." The mother smiled rather dreamily, her grey eyes distant.
The crone shook her head, mouth twisting in distaste at the sentiment in her sister's voice, but did not comment. Instead, she said, "You have three choices, girl."
"You can leave the underworld forever, and go back to your mother," said the maiden,
"You can marry Hades and take up your crown," said the mother,
"Or you can kick the stiff bastard out of your castle and rule alone," finished the crone with a sharp cackle.
"He spoke truly when he told you what your power was, you know." The spinner bent over her wheel, her rich voice almost a murmur. "You are rebirth, and because of that, you stand with one foot in death and the other in life. It is your nature to feel conflicted, but only you can make your choice."
Persephone closed her mouth, strangling the request for more advice. She had asked one question and gotten one answer, best not to press further. The older the deity, the more capricious they could be, and there was only one goddess in the universe older than the Fates. Instead, she executed another wobbly curtsy. "Thank you, daughters of Night, for your wisdom."
The Moirae had already turned back to their work, dismissing her without words, and Persephone turned with slowly-growing horror to look at the treacherous path that had brought her to the cave. Red flowers bloomed amidst the stones, growing wherever her blood had fallen. The path looked almost inviting, covered as it was with petals that were almost luminescent in their brightness. The flowers would only mask the edges and pitfalls of the obsidian, and the stepping stones that had allowed her to cross the Phlegethon were gone entirely. The fear of the trek back down bore down on her like a weight, nearly driving her again to her knees. She turned to ask the Fates for passage, and damn the debt, when a soft snort of hot breath stirred the hair over one ear.
Hades's chariot floated in the air, and its master leaned over, his face drawn with the effort of keeping the chariot aloft beyond the boundaries of the underworld. He extended a hand, and, grateful beyond words, Persephone took it and half-stepped, half-stumbled into the chariot. She watched him as he snapped the reins and smoothly drew away from the cave, back over the burning river and towards his – her? – stone palace, looming in the distance. He was not so ugly as she'd once thought. Gaunt, yes, almost to the point of being skeletal, and bone-pale, but without the heavy beard of his brothers, and with thick, straight black hair that looked almost soft in the half-light. No doubt feeling her eyes on him, Hades flicked a glance her direction.
"I sought to keep you from taking that road to save you the pain of it. I am sorry I did not succeed."
Warmth mixed with irritation flooded her, and she wasn't sure which one was stronger, so she just huffed and looked out at the underworld spread out beneath her. "It was my choice, though a warning might have been nice."
Her statement met with only silence. His motives might have been admirable, but Persephone had always been willful, always rebellious. To forbid her from something was the fastest way to drive her to it. After all, she hadn't started interviewing suitors until her mother had hidden her away from anything vaguely resembling a male.
She sighed, and they passed most of the way to the palace before she spoke again. "The ladies, they said I was born to rule here. And that they gave you the answers to my riddles."
Hades stared out at nothing for long enough that Persephone began to wonder if he was just ignoring her, but eventually he spoke. "I did not want to have to take you against your will. If I answered right, then you would come of your own accord, and you would not hate me for bringing you here."
"But you would have taken me anyway, regardless of how I'd reacted to your answers."
No hesitation in his voice, nor remorse. Persephone tilted her head in thought. "Why?"
"Because you belong here. Because you were made for me, and I for you. Because the Fates have decreed it."
Persephone sighed and looked down at her hands, the cuts sealed and healing slowly. The scars would fade in time, where they wouldn't on human hands. In time, she would have nothing but her memory to tell the tale of her trial. What would her mother say, if she knew? She would wail, most likely, and rage and vow vengeance against he who permitted her to injure herself this way. Demeter would have swooped in and snatched her off the stepping stones of the Phlegethon without a second's thought, for her own good, of course. Hades, though he sought to keep her from choosing, at least let her go through with her choice once she'd made it. It was a poor freedom, but better than any that love had ever afforded her.
"My mother loves me. Do you love me, Hades?"
He looked at her, long and searching, until finally, grudgingly, as if he had pulled out his own liver and served it to her on a bed of leafy greens: "I need you, Persephone. Is that not enough?"
She turned away, and would not meet his eyes. Only the Fates yet knew the answer to that particular riddle.
Persephone knelt in the Asphodel Meadows, digging up a few of the luminous flowers to be transplanted into pots, to brighten up her drafty stone bedroom, and perhaps to take with her when, or if, she returned to the surface. The ghosts paid her no heed and just drifted along, as if they were unconsciously giving her a wide berth. Hades was in his castle, holding court, and she had slipped out the back door and made her way alone, if one could ever be alone in a place that was teeming with human souls.
She had just extricated the root system of one of the smaller plants when the flowers to her right rustled and then abruptly stopped. Persephone glanced up, and found herself eye-to-eye with the shade of a small girl, who was staring at her with slightly vacant eyes. The girl said nothing, but that was more acknowledgement of the goddess's presence than she had previously received, and to be honest, she craved female companionship.
Persephone smiled in a way that she hoped was reassuring, and lifted a hand in a wave. "Hello there."
"Hello." Her voice was wispy, and her face was still expressionless, but Persephone was heartened by the response.
"What's your name, little one?"
The girl just blinked. "Name?"
"Yes. What are you called?"
A brief flicker of confusion passed over her face, and then disappeared into emptiness again. "I am called nothing. No one calls me." The girl turned her head and wandered off, her steps light but aimless.
Persephone had known that the souls in the Asphodel Meadows had drank of the river Lethe, which induces them to forget their lives, but she had not known that it stripped from them even their names. The girl in front of her was empty, and she would wander the meadow until the end of time, without even the memories of her short life to occupy her. This was what passed for peace in Hades. This was the best that those who were not blessed by a god would ever achieve after their death.
Persephone finished embedding the asphodel she had uprooted into the pot as she thought. She had been selfish, thinking only of her own place in the world. The deathless gods rarely gave more than a passing thought to the mortals who worshipped them, and never at all after they were dead. It seemed cruel to have created these people in the image of the gods, but then doom them to brief lives that give way to nothing but darkness.
"Through you, death is no prison." Hades's words had caught her attention first for the power they held, but Persephone was beginning to see the deeper layers beneath.
Her parents would tell her that it was the right of an Olympian to put her own wishes above that of humanity. This was her chance to be different from her family, to set herself apart from her philandering father and brothers, her jealous aunt and sisters. It was just one more choice to make.
Persephone sighed and picked up her potted asphodel, heading back towards the castle. Her entire future had narrowed down to a single hard choice that nothing in her life had ever prepared her to make.
Eventually, news spread in the underworld, from the newly deceased all the way up to Hades himself, of a great famine that was sweeping the Earth. Crops withered in the fields, no matter how much care they were tended with. More souls than ever before crowded the banks of the Acheron, waiting to be ferried across, all while wailing of the cruelty of the Lady of Grain. She would permit nothing to grow until her daughter was returned to her.
Persephone had known that her mother would be furious with her for leaving, likely inconsolable, but to abandon her duties, to sentence countless mortals to death? Persephone didn't know whether it was rage, grief, or spite that fueled her mother's actions, but it was as if she had gone completely mad.
Hades seemed unsurprised. "The humans fear the power of the gods – Zeus's lightning, Poseidon's earthquakes, the very mention of my name – but it is the goddesses that they should truly fear, for their wrath is slow, but utterly without mercy. A dead race pays no tribute; I should expect Hermes to come and take you from here soon, once Zeus has gotten over his pride and acquiesced to Demeter's demands."
The flower goddess took a deep breath. "And if I chose to stay?"
Emotion flashed, almost too quickly to catch, across the death god's face. "Is that what you desire?"
Heavy red hair fell around Persephone's face as she stared at the stone beneath her feet. Her hair was darker than it had been when she left the sunlit lands, and her freckles had all but faded entirely, leaving her skin the color of flawless ivory. She looked like an entirely different goddess, and felt like one, as well. There was a large part of her that yearned for flowers and the companionship of her mother and maiden sisters, but there was another that looked at the underworld and saw beauty, possibility, and a kind of freedom that she'd never known – the freedom that comes from power and responsibility, rather than the lack of obligations.
She looked back up into Hades's grey eyes, and saw yearning there, and hope. If she closed her eyes, she could see her mother's anguish – her overbearing, overprotective, beautiful, wonderful mother, whom she couldn't bear the thought of never seeing again.
"I don't know."
Hades said nothing, just turned and walked into his dining room. Curious, and a little guilty for being unable to answer him how he wished, Persephone followed. On the stone table, amidst the golden apples, nectar, and ambrosia, lay a single pomegranate, sliced neatly in half. Hades offered one of the halves to her.
"No one, whether mortal or god, can escape the clutches of the underworld once they have tasted of its fruit. Zeus and Demeter could not keep you from this place, but neither could your own desire."
Persephone took the proffered fruit and cradled it delicately in her palms. "But I would be permitted to leave? And how often would I have to return?"
"A few months out of every year, at the least – more, if you so chose."
"And if I did not return of my own accord?"
Hades grinned, black and horrific, as he had when he had first stolen his potential bride. It did not frighten her, though she felt it should have. "You would return to me, whether by your choice or by your death, transitory as that is for an Olympian."
"Would it be death that snatched me back, my lord, or would it be you?"
The dead god raised his eyebrows. "Is there a difference?"
"There is to me." And it was true. She did not love him, but there was a piece of her that was intrigued by him, who had looked at a goddess who had been permitted no responsibilities or purpose in life, and had seen a woman who would command even death.
He was solemn again, as he almost always was, and placed a hand against his chest. "Then I promise, Persephone, that if anything tries to keep you from me, I will come for you myself."
Without any further hesitation, Persephone dug her fingers into the pomegranate and pulled them out, bloody and glistening. The red flesh disappeared between her red lips and wrote her fate in crimson, binding herself to the land of the dead.
The half-eaten fruit tumbled out of her hand, and Persephone pressed her mouth to Hades's own, the headiness of the pomegranate melding with the taste of bone and ash. Wordless and intent, she urged him down to the floor, crowning herself queen with pomegranate juice and a broken maidenhead.
Torchlight cast strange, flickering shadows on the walls of the throne room where the queen of the underworld and her consort held court, seated in two immense stone thrones of equal height. The sea of petitioning dead parted to make way for the torchbearer, a veiled maiden with black hair.
Hades regarded the interloper with his usual stony-faced stoicism, but Persephone leaned forward in curiosity. The woman was less ephemeral than the spirits surrounding her, and the shadows around her seemed to suggest two other female figures, also holding torches, facing to the side and away. She was three-in-one, with a hound pacing calmly at her feet.
The king of the dead finally inclined his head in respect, and acknowledged her. "Hecate. What brings you to my threshold?"
The triple goddess smiled, and her three voices held at once amusement, derision, and gravity. "Oh, I believe you already know the answer to that, great Aidoneus. Demeter rages and weeps for her daughter's absence, and has entreated me to return her, whole and unmolested." She narrowed her eyes and leveled a look at Persephone, taking in the crown and heavy dress of a queen, not a captured maiden. "I see that I am too late for that."
Persephone simply spread her hands in a helpless gesture. "What has been done has been done, and it was by my own choice, and no fault of anyone else. How long have I been gone from the upper world?"
"Half a year, my lady. Zeus is beginning to buckle under the pressure of Demeter and the mortals, and it is said that he will send Hermes to retrieve you any day now. I thought that perhaps you would prefer that I guide you. Considering how your refusal of him made him the laughingstock of Olympus, I doubt he would treat you gently."
The queen of the dead inclined her head and rose to her feet. "Very well. I will go with you. To be honest, my heart longs to see my mother and half-sisters again. And in half a year's time, you will escort me back here to my husband."
Hecate hesitated, two of her voices murmuring in surprise. "Your mother will not be pleased with that, and even the lady of the crossroads must fear the Corn-Mother's rage."
Persephone waved a hand towards the sapling that grew between her throne and Hades's, planted with the seeds of the pomegranate that had bound her to him. "I'm afraid there's nothing anyone can do about it."
With a small bow, Hecate walked to the entrance of the great room and held up her torch, lighting the way. Before Persephone could follow her, however, Hades rose from his throne and caught her hand in his.
"You will come back." He said it like a statement, but there was a question lurking beneath the surface, an irrational uncertainty about whether she would break a promise bound in blood.
She smiled, a brief flash of fondness blooming in her heart, and pressed a hand to his cheek. "Of course. And if I don't, you'll come and fetch me." With a light, lingering kiss and a smile, she slipped out of his grasp and out of his realm, leaving the underworld somehow more cold and dead than before she'd arrived.
The sun was brighter than Persephone had remembered, the sky a more dazzling shade of blue. These were the only beauties she found when she emerged from the darkness, however – the land, as far as she could see, was barren and desolate. Trees clawed the sky with skeletal branches, and dry flower petals crunched under her bare feet.
A small semi-circle of people stood a small distance away. In the center was a hunched old woman whom Persephone only barely recognized as her mother, with silver liberally threading her wheat-blonde hair. Directly behind her stood an enormous, bearded man, who spoke with a voice like thunder, "Well, Demeter? Are you pleased? Will you lift this thrice-damned curse now that you have you precious daughter back?"
Demeter straightened a little, casting a venomous glance back at her once-husband. "I would have been pleased that you had not sold her off like cattle to our elder brother in the first place. I have not forgiven you – you are merely rectifying your mistake by returning her to me." Appearing to give him no further thought, the earth-mother walked across the small field to where her daughter stood, small green shoots pushing themselves out of the ground around her feet. "Though it would appear that she is not to remain with me, is she?"
Persephone reached over and cradled her mother's wrinkled cheeks in her hands, watching silently as the skin tightened and the silver in her hair gave way to gold. "No, mother. My place is in the underworld. It always has been. I'm needed there. I have power there. We made a deal, though – half the year below, and half above. One foot in the grave, and the other in the meadow."
Demeter drew her daughter to her in a fierce embrace, then stepped back, clearly unsure whether to feel grateful or betrayed. After a moment of staring in consternation, she threw up her hands and turned back to the assembled Olympians. "So be it! As long as Persephone walks the soil of the sunlit lands, I will permit things to grow. When she leaves the mortal world, so will life." Turning back to her daughter, she shook her head anxiously. "I would have kept you safe, forever innocent of the horrors of death and the cruelties of men, free from the demands of gods and mortals."
The lady of spring just smiled faintly. "I know. But that innocence came at a price that I wasn't willing to pay anymore. In protecting me, you denied me purpose and fulfillment, denied me the potential to be anything but a silly little girl who spent her days picking flowers. Your experiences are not my own - not all husbands are cruel, death holds more joy for me than horror, and there is no true escape from the demands of gods or men. I know you feared that I would fall victim to the same empty promises that you did, but I chose this. In doing so, I became not merely a vessel for life, but the life that follows death." She indicated the slowly blossoming meadow, an expanding circle of greenery with herself at its heart.
"Very well. When you are done with this lot," she waved a hand at the restless gods behind her, "come find me. There's work to be done, and you will help me with it."
Persephone watched her mother walk away, beauty restored but shoulders slumped with loss. She raised her own chin and walked towards the rest of her family, greeting them without the obeisance she would have given before her time in the underworld.
She was the goddess of spring and rebirth, the daughter of the earth. Even among the living and the deathless gods, she was still the queen of Hades.