I make the walk back from the library trembling, knowing that the real torture waits for me in my room. Even though I know I will not sleep, I stretch out on the bed and give myself over to the slow and endless lash of hours, remembering. I can’t stop thinking about the way he fit my body to his like I was the softer, missing piece of him. The sharp press of his hip bones against my thighs is a phantom pain that makes me ache with desire. I could be, should be in his arms right now. Instead, I’m here, fighting the urge to run back and tell him everything, just to finish this.
I’m breaking. For someone being torn apart, I am lying far too still and silent. I have never questioned whether I made the right choice all those years ago. But that secret has never weighed as much as it does right now. Not during the millennia spent serving the Queen of the Underworld. Not the day of Hades and Persephone’s wedding when I realized I wasn’t strong enough to keep my heart and my promise, too. Not the day I found them together at the gazebo, when Seph begged me to stay, when the look in his eyes made it impossible to say no.
And yet, here I am, same crossroads, same decision. My happiness at the cost of another’s hurt, my pleasure at the price of their pain.
I lift the collar of his shirt, tucking my nose against it for the hundredth time, breathing his scent. It soothes my nerves even as it sets them on fire. I’m willing to burn a little for the peace it brings. It’s a small measure of comfort in this prison I’ve made for myself. Because Hades is right, in the literal sense. The only thing standing between him and me is the thing I can’t bring myself to say.
I can’t stay here.
I mean in this room, right now. Then, the bitch that is my mind twists it, tacks another word on the end.
I can’t stay here anymore.
The sudden pain in my chest at the thought of telling him goodbye is too much to take, and finally, enough to make me move. I sit up and glance out the window. It’s still dark, likely not for much longer. Reluctantly, I slip his shirt off and lay it over the chair. With shaking hands, I pull on a long gown of jade green silk and walk out the door leading to the gardens.
The early morning hours seem darker for the fog that rose during the night. I’ve walked the paths around the house enough times in the last month to know where I am, where I’m going. There’s just enough light to see as I follow the garden path to the gazebo. It’s where Hades once told me he goes to meditate. Maybe it will help me, maybe it won’t. But I climb the steps and sit down and close my eyes, longing for the stillness of the night, hoping the quiet will fog my mind.
The shiver that skitters up my spine has nothing to do with the cool air condensing on my skin. Some magic, ancient and old, trails its fingers across the back of my neck. My eyes fly open as I whirl to my right, in the direction of the pull, wondering how I’ve missed something like that for weeks. I glance over my shoulder at the house, its windows dark and dead, and slip off like a shadow into the night, seeking the source of what I felt.
The signature of power grows stronger with every step I take, the fog thicker. Barely able to see, I nearly walk into the pale, high wall that separates the garden from whatever lies beyond it. I feel my way down the wall until stone gives way to wood. The door is massive, meant to keep things on this side of it. The handle doesn’t turn beneath my hand. The dark thrum of magic is so strong here that I am unsurprised to find it locked. I’m tempted to force it open with magic of my own, but something stops me.
This place feels…so familiar. Why can’t I remember?
Unnerved, I take a step backward and turn to go. The quiet cry of hinges moving stops me cold as the door opens inward on its own. I look around, for all the good it does me in this fog, wondering if Hades has done this. If he’s watching. Fearing it will close before I make up my mind, I push the door the rest of the way open and pass beyond the wall.
The instant my foot crosses the threshold, something shifts, pulling on unseen parts of me. It takes a handful of steps for me to realize what that shift is. By the time I do, it’s too late. The door closes behind me, leaving my magic on one side and me on the other. The loss of my magic again, so soon after Ostasus, ties my stomach in knots. I dart back to the door and lay my hand on the smooth wood, seeking the handle, but there isn’t one, not on this side.
I lean heavily against the back of the door, shaking. It takes me a moment to realize it’s not fear rattling my bones. It’s the power of whatever this place is—under me, around me, pulsing through me. The fact I can’t name it is maddening, like a perfume whose notes I remember, but I cannot name the scent.
Unable to go back, I go forward, moving deeper into the fog. The trees here are massive and sprawling, but even their tangled limbs show signs of deliberate shaping. Their weeping branches spill toward the ground, dark and fragrant. A chill wind stirs and is passed like a whisper from one tree to the next, announcing my presence.
I opened my eyes and straightened in Hekate’s chair. The embers of the fire pulsed red and hypnotic in the darkness as I waited, straining my awareness for whatever had woken me. The trailing edge of the sensation was faint and trembling, like the anticipation of touch, fading before I could hone in on it. I frowned, wondering what it could have been when a visceral tug pulled me to my feet.
In moments, I was standing in the garden. The fog drew close around me, cloaking things in its depths, twisting my perceptions. But I did not need to see to know where I was going. Someone was there, in the Weeping Orchard, in the most intimate part of me and my kingdom. And I knew who.
I reached the stone wall, pressed my hand against it, and passed right through onto the orchard grounds. The trees were massive and weeping, heavy with fruit. Trailing almost to the ground, their branches further limited my vision. It did not matter, because every one of these trees, every inch of this space, was a part of me. Sight was unnecessary when I could feel every step like a physical touch.
I saw movement to my left, my eyes catching the deep flash of green silk. It was her, but why?
I followed Hekate through the orchard, only a handful of steps behind her. I knew she would be unable to feel my personal energy because unknown to her, it was all around her. I watched her for a moment, admiring the way the fog dusted her dark hair with stars, the bare curve of her lower back through the deep cut of her gown, the graceful sway of her body as she threaded a path between the trees. Her heart was racing. I could feel it inside me, her pulse a faster echo of my own.
How was she here? How did she get in here? Only those who have become a part of me could access this place. Persephone. Dinlas. Perhaps Charon, but no one else. I stepped closer, an arm’s length behind her now as she peered into the fog, examining my trees, examining me.
“How did you get in here?”
My words came out forceful and brusque. It was not how I intended, but it came out that way nonetheless. Hekate whirled around to face me, the fine cloak of her hair sweeping the fog. I stepped towards her, and she retreated, eyes wide, lips parted. It took a moment for her to catch her breath, to find air to answer me.
“Through the door, in the wall. It…it opened.”
I frowned at her words. The door did not open for anyone who was not a part of me in some way. Yet it opened for her? How could this have happened so quickly?
“It just opened on its own?” I took another step toward her, watched as she danced another step back. Deep inside me, I felt a shudder run through her.
“It was locked, and I was going to leave,” Hekate explained. “But then it opened. I thought maybe you were here. That you had done it.”
“I did not open it, but I am confused about why it did. This place is…extremely special. Only a select few are able to access it.” I stepped toward her again. This time she held her ground. I stared down at her. “How is it that you bypassed that?”
I felt her energy layered with mine—me inside her inside me. A memory flashed through my mind, of the moment in my office when Hekate surrendered herself to me a second time. That day, when I returned her power, I gave her a part of me. It was not something I had meant to do, but it happened.
Hekate did not bypass the magic of the orchard door. And she did not intrude. I had given her part of me, willingly and without coercion. I had given her the one and only key to that door. That moment was no different than eating the fruits here. I was part of her.
I still had to be sure. “You cast no spell to enter here?”
“I did not,” she said softly. “Aside from being your guest, I know sacred space when I feel it. Not that magic would have mattered. The moment I stepped inside the walls, your wards stripped me of it.”
“So, your magic is null here? You did not eat any of the fruit here?” A look of worry crossed her face at the ominous tone in my voice.
“I can still feel my magic. I just can’t…lay hold of it here. That’s normal in very old, very ancient spaces where stronger magic holds sway. And no, I didn’t eat anything. I haven’t been here long. I wasn’t aware there was anything here to be eaten.”
She looked up at the tree beside us, focusing through the fog. Noticing the fruit in question, she reached out to touch one. She gasped as I grabbed her wrist before she could touch one of the demerodi fruits that hung heavy on the tree.
“This place is sacred, very sacred to me. The fact you were allowed to enter means we are a part of each other. I suspect it happened when we exchanged power in my office. You know of what I speak, Hekate. The piece of me I gave you that day.”
Her cheeks flushed, signaling that she remembered.
“However, you are not bound to me. If that were the case, then your magic would work here as well.”
“What do you mean, I am not bound?” Hekate did not move for a long moment, then glanced at her wrist, still held captive by my hand, then back at my face. “What is this place, Hades? Because I thought your workshop was where you kept your soul. I was wrong. It’s here.”
I drew her hand to my mouth and kissed the back of it.
“This place is me, Hekate. It is the nexus of where Hades the man intersects with Hades the Underworld. I created this place, shortly after the kingdoms were chosen, from a recurring dream. It is ancient magic, and I have never totally understood it.” I released her hand, resisting the urge to take it again. “And you are right. My library is my mind, my workshop my heart, but here…here is my soul.”
Hekate gave me a thoughtful look. Her gaze drifted to the tree and traveled upward. Red and globular, like dark drops of falling blood, ripe demerodi dotted the sweeping falls of leaves, smaller than pomegranates, but not so different to the casual eye. I felt her tense, like prey in a predator’s sights, as her eyes flew back to mine. She took a reflexive step away from the tree as the shadow of truth fell long across her face.
“It wasn’t a pomegranate that Seph ate,” she whispered.
I smiled. There was little Hekate could not see. “It was not. I did not plan it, but that was a story I never bothered to correct. Why would I acknowledge a place such as this to outsiders?”
“That’s why…” Hekate looked away, voice fading. Her eyes flashed back up to mine. “That’s why you were so concerned if I’d eaten it. What would have happened if…?”
I cleared my throat and thought how best to phrase it. “To eat the demerodi against my will is to be sentenced to a living hell in Tartarus. Death and misery, but without the dying, just the hope for death.”
Hekate’s eyes went dark with fear. I closed the distance between us and tilted her face up to mine. “Given as a gift, it ties the recipient to me, to this place. We share everything. No secrets. No lies. Two souls bound as one.”
I could almost see the avalanche of thoughts behind her eyes. She closed them for a moment and whispered, “This is why. Why you won’t let it go. Why you keep pressing me for what I won’t tell you. You’re not setting a price. You’re telling me the cost.”
I lowered my hand from her face but did not step away.
“I did not set this price, Hekate, but yes. This is the cost of loving me. Of being mine. It is powerful magic that creates a bond that can last forever. It was the reason that Persephone and I stayed together for so long, even after we knew the love was gone. It is not for nothing that we remained faithful, despite having drifted so far apart.” I thought about my words for a moment and how they sounded. “I loved Persephone. I still do, in a way. We were not together because of magic, but at some point, that became the reason we stayed together.”
Hekate winced. “She’s still bound to you, isn’t she?”
As I said, there is little Hekate doesn’t see. “She is, for now. But not forever.”
Hekate reached out to stroke the leaves of the tree nearest her, avoiding touching the fruit. “All this time, I thought this was some game kings like to play. Wanting everything because you can have everything.” As she looked up at me, something in her eyes changed, softened. “But it wasn’t a game at all, was it? You asked for all of me because you have no choice but to give all of you.”
I nodded, relieved that she now saw the full scope of the relationship. “Hekate, I am, as you say, a King. However, I have little interest in taking things just for the sake of taking them. I learned long ago that the gift freely given is far sweeter than what would be taken by force.”
Hekate looked up at me, some unspoken tension in the line of her neck, the set of her shoulders. “Hades, this secret I’m keeping…it’s less a secret than it is…a story I never want to tell.”
She took a deep breath and looked away for a moment, gathering herself.
“It’s about choices, Hades. Choices I made. Choices I had to make, some out of love, some out of pain.” When she turned her eyes to me again, they shone bright with tears. “If I tell you, then all those choices were for nothing. The pain I tried to spare others…for nothing. The love I put first…for nothing. It’s not something I’m ashamed of. It is something that will hurt everyone who means anything to me.”
I brushed her hair back from her face, saying nothing.
“But now, I understand the cost. I understand that if I don’t tell you, this is as far as this goes. That the piece of you that unlocked that door will be the only one I will ever have.”
Staring down at Hekate, I could feel her struggling. Secrets do that. They twist us and torture us and silently tear us down. It bothered me that she thought she would get nothing out of being honest with me when I offered her no less than all.
I took her in my arms. Her eyes fluttered shut as I stroked the curve of her cheek. “Well, Hekate, for all your choices, it would seem you have one choice left. Do you tell me this story and take the chance on what we might be together?”
A blink later, we were standing in the gazebo. I waited until she opened her eyes before finishing, “Or do you continue to keep your secret and remain safe and alone?”
Hekate let out a shaky breath and stepped out of my embrace. She looked at me for a long moment before lowering her head, turning away to stare out over the water.
“I will leave you to it,” I whispered, then turned back toward the house.
The sun was rising, warming the fog, turning it pink and gold. Things would clear soon. I hoped they would for Hekate as well.