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Authors: Melanie Dugan

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BOOK: Dead Beautiful
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“That’s good to know.”

“And you?” he said. “What were you going to say?”

“It’s my mum, she’s kind of nervous about me being seen with you, well, not just you — any of the Level-1 cousins, really. She doesn’t want me drawing any attention to myself at all. It’s the Hera thing, you know?”

“I know exactly what you’re talking about.” He nodded. “I don’t know how Hera puts up with Zeus. If even half the stories about him are true, she’s a saint. Although —” he glanced warily at me —“You may not see it that way.”

I hadn’t thought of it in that light; I had always seen things from my mother’s point of view. I turned this idea over in my mind. It certainly was a new perspective on the situation. “In her situation, his behaviour would be very upsetting,” I said.

He seemed to relax. “I don’t understand him. Hera’s beautiful, intelligent.” He shook his head. “He’s lucky to have her, and yet he behaves like an adolescent.”

“But that’s not why we’re here,” I said.

He looked up sharply. “No.” Then he really turned his gaze on me, and I felt the power of him, like a strong pulse of dark energy, like life stirring deep down in the soil. From all around came a low rumbling sound, the earth muttering to itself. The air seemed to coalesce, thicken, and it was charged with movement. The smells of loam, the scent lilies — the flowers of the dead — and another sweet, vaguely familiar smell, suffused the air. “That is not why.” He gazed at me unblinkingly. I found I liked that gaze; I saw admiration there, and a challenge that exhilarated me. “And as long as we are here, in this grove sacred to me, no one can observe us, not your mother, not Hera, not the Father of Forms,” he said, using one of Zeus’ titles. “No worries on that account.”

“You brought me here,” I said.

“You came,” he replied.

I dipped my head, acknowledging this. “What do you want?”

“What do you want?” he asked.

I looked away, at the leaves shimmering in the breeze and sunlight, at all the dappled beauty of the world, the fickle, freckled, swift and slow.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking back at him. “I don’t really know. For one thing, I don’t really know you. I mean, I’ve seen you on Olympus, but we’ve never really talked much, never spent much time together.”

He stepped closer. Standing near him, feeling the heat of him, my heart raced; it felt like the wings of a trapped bird beating in my chest. He rested his hand lightly on my arm, and where he touched me it burned. “Here is who I am,” he said.

Then smoke rose before my eyes, or perhaps a cloud cleared away from my vision. I saw a vast landscape, dark and shadowy as the threshold of night, when evening slips further into darkness. And everywhere the shades of the departed; in the Fields of Asphodel and Erebus, at the two pools — Lethe and Mnemosyne — and in far Tartarus. I saw Hades’ palace and it was beautiful, glowing sweetly and mysteriously, a delicate filigree of dreams in that half-light. Before it, at the juncture of the three roads sacred to Hecate, sat Minos, Rhadamanthys and Aeacus.

Everywhere the souls wandered, grieving their lost; mothers worrying over their children left behind in the sunlit world above; children longing for their parents; husbands aching for their wives, wives weeping for their husbands; lovers pining for lovers; friends mourning friends. Some keened loudly, others mourned silently, but all carried a burden of grief and loss, and wandered aimlessly, blind to the beauty of the place.

Because it was beautiful, though its beauty was different from the striving, teeming beauty of the upper world. This was a beauty of quiet and calm. Cypress trees ringed Lethe and Mnemosyne, and the shadows they cast in that sunless world were flat and infinitely deep, for no wind disturbed the silent air. The waters of the pools glowed luminously.

The wandering souls, though, hunched over, clutching their grief and memories, walked the same routes over and over, oblivious to what was around them, loveliness that might have given them peace.

I looked at Hades. “They are lost,” he said. And in his eyes I saw ineffable sorrow.

“All?”

He shook his head, let go my arm, and the vision vanished. “Some find release. They learn to transform themselves to birds and fly up to see those they have left behind going on with life; after they have seen that, they make peace with their lot and move on to the Islands of the Blessed. Others arrive hoping to meet someone who has gone before. When they see each other again, both travel to the Islands of the Blessed. Some simply learn to give up sorrow and they, too, travel to the Islands of the Blessed.”

“Are the Islands getting crowded?”

“That’s not my department.”

“And Tartarus?”

“It’s really more of a re-education centre than anything else. We’re not really into eternal punishment. I mean, think about it, anyone involved in inflicting torment is altered by the experience, usually for the worse. To torture a soul for eternity would be as painful for the tormentor as for the tormentee. That said, there are characters who need, shall we say, remedial work, so we have very carefully designed and monitored — for want of a better word — courses that we run at Tartarus. The recidivism rate is remarkably low, only one to two percent, which beats most rehabilitative institutions upstairs.”

I looked at him. “It’s beautiful.” I wondered if the surprise sounded in my voice.

He nodded.

“And I would have to live there with you?”

“I can leave for short periods, a day, a week at the most, but if you become my consort, yes, you would have to live there with me.”

The air around us was full of noise: a blue jay scolded, a dove chuckled, a breeze rustled the poplars’ branches. Everywhere was movement: leaves dancing, the grass bowing beneath the wind. The jay launched itself into the air.

“I have to think,” I told him.

“I understand,” he said. From thin air he produced a convolvulus blossom, palest pink, still tightly-curled, which he held out to me.

Captivation. I saw he spoke the language.

In my hand the flower unfurled, revealing a throat of crimson red. “You know how to reach me,” he said and in an instant — half a heart-beat — he was gone.

The sun shone. A crow cackled. I brushed the bloom across my cheek.

 

 

Demeter

 

She looked pale, I thought, seemed a bit preoccupied. Maybe she was working too hard. Maybe she was tired.

“You need a break,” I said. “Take some time off.”

She shrugged my concern away. “I’m fine.”

So I left it at that. I didn’t want to be one of those interfering mothers. I wanted to let her make her own decisions and learn from them. That’s really the only way to become an adult. I tried to treat her as an adult, and in so doing I may have lost what I most treasure.

 

Hades

 

Have I done the right thing? When I showed Aphrodite my land she blanched and fled. Game over.

I understand why. Hades, my eponymous domain (and it wasn’t my idea to name the place after myself) is an acquired taste. It’s quiet and, I guess to some eyes, bleak, although I don’t see it that way.

To me it has a certain understated beauty. Olympus is full of noise and light, its beauty obvious and easy to see. Son et lumiere — the atmosphere of a party or a circus. Which is fine, in small doses, but isn’t an environment I’d choose to live in. There’s no time or space on Olympus for reflection, for sitting quietly and meditating on existence. Up there it’s all hustle and bustle and doing, not much analysis. They’re a reactive bunch, which sometimes results in unfortunate situations: people being turned into pigs, stones, trees, rivers; or being put to sleep for eternity. Curses and the like. Just ask Cassandra, although if you do, you won’t believe her any more than anyone else does.

If you grow up in those surroundings I understand how Hades might seem foreign and a bit daunting.

But Persephone isn’t like that. For one thing, she has spent a good deal of time away from Olympus. And I have noted in her an independence of mind that suggests inner resources and possibly a capacity for reflection and analysis the rest of the Olympians lack.

Nor did she flinch as Aphrodite did when I lifted the veil. Instead, Persephone stood transfixed, watching intently and I saw, kindling in her eyes, empathy for the souls I have care of, many of whom are so lost to longing or sorrow they are immune to the beauties and comforts my kingdom might offer them.

She said she had to think. Perhaps, or perhaps it’s the last I’ll see of her. She must come to me of her own accord. I don’t want a prisoner; I want a partner. I’m surrounded by enough souls who lament being in Hades — it’s not as if I need another one. And why would I want to spend a lot of time with someone who resented being with me?

It would be nice to have a woman’s touch around the place, though. I think I’ve done a pretty good job. It’s fairly tasteful — not like upstairs: marble thrones, gold this, silver that, flocked wallpaper. Olympus looks like a bordello, if you ask me. Down here it’s much more muted. We’ve done some planting, got some attractive shrubberies. It’s comfortable enough, although a bit stark, maybe even austere — a bit male. I think it could use a gentler touch, a bit more colour. Some decorative touches to liven it up.

I want someone to share my life, my kingdom with, someone I can turn to for suggestions and advice, someone I can spend a little down time with, because this can be a tough gig. I could see us going out for a night on the town, catching Sophocles’ latest, heading over to Poseidon’s for some seafood, and finishing off with a hemlock nightcap.

I’ve spent time with some very pleasant nymphs, dryads, Nereids. We go out, have a fun time. But there’s a definite lack of substance, if you know what I mean. They’re sort of flighty, always slipping off to one domain or the other – the forests and fountains, the trees, the sea. Nice girls, but unreliable. I’m looking for someone for the long haul, i.e., eternity. I’ve come to the conclusion that only a Goddess can really understand what’s required, the scope involved. I need a Goddess, but she can’t be a diva.

 

Persephone

 

I have to keep busy. I have to keep my mind off him. Whenever there’s a moment’s stillness, whenever there’s a lull, thoughts of him bloom in my mind. I see his dark eyes boring into me; I feel his touch burning on my skin. I hear his voice, deep and curiously seductive, in my ear.

And here’s the thing; he grows on you. I didn’t used to think he was particularly good-looking, but now I’ve spent time with him I can’t imagine anyone more attractive. Apollo’s handsome, sure, perfect, almost too perfect. Borderline pretty. And he knows it, he’s pretty full of himself. Hades, on the other hand, doesn’t have that arrogance. There is a quiet thoughtfulness to him that is really appealing. Where Apollo would just blow me off, Hades asks me what I think about stuff, listens to what I say and gives it some serious thought.

He has these deep, dark blue eyes touched a bit by sadness, but when he smiles — which isn’t often — there’s a hint of mischief in his expression. He doesn’t talk your ear off the way Hermes does, but he’s got more to say than that block Hephaestus. Poseidon, to be honest, is a bit of a jock. There’s none of that about Hades. And although I like Dionysus, you can’t call him dependable. Whereas Hades, you can tell, if he says he’ll do something, he’ll do it.

Plus he’s a pretty sharp dresser. Dad’s into purple and all that bling. Apollo’s big on brilliant white robes with details picked out in gold thread, but his outfits always look a bit fussy and I have to say they make him look a bit bloated sometimes. Hades wears these understated, well-tailored chitons that have a really nice profile and you can tell just by looking at them are expensive. Not in a showing-off way, it’s just that he’s someone who appreciates quality.

Would I die to be with him? Would I die for him? If that’s how it had to be, I think I would.

Mum thinks I need a break. I tell her no. As soon as I wake up I’m off to work: checking up on new strains, monitoring crops, fine-tuning humidity and ultra-violet levels. I keep going all day, moving from place to place, grabbing a snack when I can, until I fall into bed at night.

After a couple of weeks working at this pace I catch myself making a few errors. An extra bloom appears in a line of tulips I’ve been working on, too heavy for the stem, which bends and breaks. Somehow one of Hermes’ gag ingredients ends up mixed into a ground-cover I’m developing, a shiny, three-leaved plant. Before I can eradicate it, some mischievous nymph has lifted the plant and set it loose on the earth. From now on whoever touches it will be beset by painful itching.

The black pimpernels I have been fine-tuning find their way into mum’s hands. She comes to me one morning, frowning slightly, wearing a look of puzzled concern.

“What’s this?” she asks, holding out the plant.

I glance at it, my heart skipping a beat, then assume an air of nonchalance. “Oh, that.” I take it from her, shaking my head in irritation. “I wondered where that had got to. Just an experiment gone wrong. I was aiming for deep purple.” I stash the plant at the far end of my workbench, among dessicated tubers, deformed root stalks. “I think I’ll write it off as a failure.”

BOOK: Dead Beautiful
13.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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