One problem with never needing to sleep is being unsure if something is keeping you awake or not. But it’s been three nights of insomnia after three weeks of blissful sleep here in the Underworld, and Hades is to blame.
I’ve been wracked with confusion since our date. The tension in the Gardens had almost been too much. If he’d known how light a touch it would have taken to push me over the edge that night…and then, he goes to all this effort, dresses me up to the nines, then lets me further inside his guard than I suspect he’s allowed anyone in a long time, only to end the night with a kiss on the cheek?
I’ve been avoiding him for three days for his own fucking safety.
Tired of tossing in my bed, I pull on the red silk kimono that has become my favorite in my time here and head for the library. There’s a bar in there, and I could use a drink. As I close the door behind me, the hallway is plunged into darkness, save for the shifting wash of firelight coming from the library. Against my better judgment, I decide to at least get a book and bring it back to my room.
Hades is sitting barefoot by the fire, wearing a tight black t-shirt and vivid red plaid lounging pants. A tall glass of whiskey sits on the table beside him as he writes in his journal. His eyes flick up to me, brighter for the reflection of the flames.
“Hekate.” Sliding his pen into the book and shutting it, he gestures for me to come in further, then takes a long drink from his glass. “Can’t sleep?”
“Insomnia for a goddess who doesn’t sleep. The irony, right?” I wander to the bar and pour myself a drink, then take up the chair opposite him. He watches me, gaze skimming the bottom hem of my kimono, roaming upwards. The casual intimacy in the room makes me avert my eyes, seeking something to look at besides him. I notice a highly decorated chessboard on a display table nearby.
“A lovely set. Do you play?” I ask him as I lean forward, picking up the white knight to examine it in detail.
“I do,” Hades says, lips on his glass, “not nearly as much as I would like to, however. Do you?”
“Of all the games I play, Hades, chess is my favorite.” I smile and put the piece down. “You can learn a great deal about a person by the way they wage war. And chess is nothing if not civilized warfare. You against another, equally equipped, striving to bring the other down using nothing but skill.”
He uncrosses his leg, sitting up straight now. “Would you like to play?”
Inside, I’m smiling. Three days of reining in my temper, and he wants to play a war game? He didn’t just give me the opportunity, he practically gift-wrapped it. I keep my face as neutral as I can and say, “Sounds better than another night poring over a book I could read tomorrow.”
Hades’ eyes flicker with something, before he pulls the board closer to us, assembling his side—black. “I can write in my journal any time.”
“Not even going to let me choose my own color? Where are your manners?” I tease. “Or are you defaulting me to white because ladies first?”
“I always aim to be courteous, Hekate. So, of course, you go first.” He grins wide.
“Far be it from me to deprive the Dark King of his own color in his own house.” I smile back, arraying my side of the board. I tap the rook against my lower lip as a wicked thought occurs to me. “Since I assume we both have considerable skill at this, what do you say to a wager? To keep the game interesting?”
Hades leans back, very clearly soaking me in. I wonder how long he’s been here, drinking and writing. “Did you have something in mind? Or may I make a suggestion?”
“Seeing as the wager was my idea, it’s only fair you should have to bring something to the table. Besides your…skills.” I give him a suggestive smile and cross my legs, lazily swirling the whiskey in my glass.
Hades chuckles. The sound is different. More throaty, powerful. “Very well. I propose we make wagers to be of a more…intimate nature if you will. If you win, I am yours for whatever it is you wish.” He smiles, a hint of something dark behind it. “If I win, you are mine.”
I watch him finish his drink, my mouth going dry as the full weight of his words settles in my mind. I force myself to sip at my whiskey instead of draining the glass. I’ve had nowhere near enough to drink to feel this warm.
“For whatever I wish…” I repeat in a low voice. “Very well. But when you lose, there will be no renegotiations.”
He laughs heartily. “Keep that in mind when I win, Witch Queen. So, tell me, what is it you will have me do if I lose?”
I bite my lip, realizing, first of all, I have no clue, and second of all… “I think it’s better we put it in writing, don’t you? Rather than just saying it out loud. To avoid any confusion on the backside about the price that must be paid.”
Hades nods once and opens his journal. He neatly tears out a sheet, then creases it and tears it again in two. He hands me my half and, with barely a moment’s hesitation, deftly writes his down, folding the page over and holding the pen out to me.
His fingers brush mine as I take the pen from his hand, and I find myself thinking about where else his hands could end up depending on how the game ends. I lean back in my chair and stare at the fire, tapping the pen against my chin, trying to decide what I could possibly ask of him that isn’t just as risky for me as it would be for him. The memory of another price paid comes to mind—freedom for a kiss—and suddenly, I have it.
For one hour, blindfolded, you are mine, and at my pleasure.
I cap the pen and hand it back to him, then fold my paper in half. “Do you think we should trade bets now? Or wait until the outcome has been decided?”
“Let us wait. For…a nice surprise afterward.” He finishes folding his, a small crane sitting beside the chessboard.
I slide my wager under my side of the chessboard and eye the tiny crane sitting there, waiting for the game to begin. I remember what he told me once before, about the meaning of the cranes, and say graciously, “I won’t even count that as cheating. You’re going to need all the wishes you can get.”
Hades winks at me. “It’s not a wish. It’s an intent.” He leans back casually, gesturing to the board. “I believe you start.”
I consider the board for a moment and decide against a classic French Opening. Hades isn’t the type to have a chessboard and not play. I move a pawn, beginning to clear the path for my bishops to wreak hell on his forces. “Your move.”
As he considers, I stand up and take his glass to the bar. I can feel Hades’ eyes on me as I walk. I give him a smile over my shoulder and ask a loaded question. “What will the King be having tonight?”
He doesn’t take the bait, but he doesn’t bother hiding the fact that he’s still staring at me, either. “A whiskey on the rocks, please.”
As he moves one of his own pawns, I pour our drinks and make my way back to him, setting his glass on the corner of the table before resuming my seat.
I move another pawn. “One of the reasons I like this game is the intensity, the psychology of it.”
“I would say it would be boring to those who play merely to try and win. For example, if I tried to play with Poseidon, he would be frustrated and leave. Not stimulating at all. Now, playing with you,” he moves a knight, “that is stimulating.”
We each make a couple more moves, and I slide my white bishop into the fray. “Perhaps the reason you find this stimulating is because you don’t know the price you will pay if you lose.”
Two moves later, his knight takes my bishop as his free hand toys with the wings of the crane. “I will not disagree with that. I have lived my life by rigid rules, and when I came back to my senses, I vowed I would do more than walk my own limiting lines.” Hades chews his cheek. “And why do you play?”
“Why do I play with you? Tonight?” I take a drink, trying not to rue the loss of my bishop. I move a rook from its corner and settle back in my chair. “To settle a score.”
He looks at me over the rim of his glass, eyes flashing. “And what score would that be? I was not aware we were playing a game. Aside from this one, of course.”
“You tell me you want to explore us being more than business. I agree to cross that line into your territory. You tell me you want me to come stay in the Underworld a while. I agree to cross that line, again, into your territory.”
I slide my rook across the board and take his bishop, a life for a life. I can hear the frustration in my voice. Some of it is sexual, and this game isn’t helping.
“I can barely keep my hands off you at the pool. Then, you ask me out on a date, dress me up as much for your pleasure as mine, tell me that you’d like me to stay longer. You show me your workshop, your studio. Don’t think I don’t know how few have crossed that threshold because I heard it in your voice. And then…you kiss me goodnight. On the cheek. Like a childhood friend.” I move my queen into play and glare at him. “So, yes. I want to know what game you’re playing. Besides chess.”
Hades rests his jaw on his fist. I didn’t realize how well his shirt fit him until he moved. He catches me looking and smiles.
“Do not think that what happened at the pool did not affect me. You were the truest form of the word goddess, I assure you.” He glances at the board, moving a pawn to challenge the queen. “But it does seem like you are in a bit of a frenzy over me, Hekate. Have I been too easy with you?”
“I never asked for you to go easy with me, Hades. But neither am I a thing to be toyed with.” I reroute my queen toward the side of the board, my eyes on a prize much bigger than a pawn. “Do you want me or not?”
“Correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to have enjoyed being toyed with.” Hades slides another pawn forward to flank a bishop, rolling his shoulders in a way that makes every muscle in his torso ripple, distracting me.
He leans forward slowly, elbows on knees. “Is that what this is about? Whether or not I want you? All over a little confusion by a kiss that was not what you expected? Tell me, Hekate, would you like me to correct that now? How would you like me to kiss you, to clear up this misunderstanding between us?”
I sit there for a moment, stunned into silence. The heat in his voice, the aggressiveness in his words…the chess match is still to be decided, but the war we’re waging off the field suddenly has me retreating.
I look down at the board, searching for a move, buying time, when I see it. I give Hades a victorious smile. With a sweep of my wrist, I slide my white queen across the checkered row and take his black one, left undefended by his last move. I hold his queen between my thumb and forefinger, admiring her before setting her down on top of my wager card.
I give him what I hope is an infuriating smile. “I’m surprised, Hades, that you gave up your queen so easily.”
The sharp look he fires at me tells me I hit a mark. Hades straightens again, eyes moving down the open neck of my kimono, down to the ties around my waist, before moving a knight. “I only let go of what is not needed anymore. Your move.”
The satisfaction I feel is intoxicating. It’s one thing to best an opponent. It’s another to best an equal. The fact he feels the tension, that he knows I’m not what he’s grown accustomed to, that he’s actually having to work…I slide my rook across the board and sit back, waiting for his next move.
Hades’ movements are concise now. He takes a swallow of whiskey as he deftly captures the rook I just moved. “I recall you telling me that you play to win, once upon a time.”
“I do,” I tell him, moving my knight into position.
“Then why is it you hide things? It is becoming increasingly obvious that there is something you are not sharing, and no one wins if that is the case.”
He shifts himself closer to me, leaning over the board. His free hand is draped casually over his knee. He wouldn’t even have to move to run his hand up my leg. He captures my knight in three moves, his eyes barely leaving mine, hardly looking at the board. I curse myself for being careless and consider my strategy. The queen may be out of play, but he’s rallying everything else he has, pushing me into a corner of the board, one move at a time.
I move a pawn forward, hoping the ruse will divert him towards other targets on the board. “I won’t lie to you and say I don’t have secrets. You haven’t told me everything in the short time I’ve been here either. You have a rather unreasonable expectation of honesty.”
Hades slides a bishop in to take my remaining one, left untouched. His eyes burn into mine, and I can see the tension in his chest, his arms.
“My expectations surrounding honesty are very simple. If you are mine, I expect you not to have secrets from me. Right now, you do. We have established, I hope, that I want you. The question is, do you want me enough to tell me your secret? Because make no mistake, Hekate, the only reason I am torturing you in my library instead of pleasuring you in my bed is this thing you are keeping from me.”
There is nowhere to run from his eyes. He knows. Well, he doesn’t know, but he knows something. I stare down at the board, at the wagers flanking it on either side and notice that Hades has my queen in his sights. Saving her means losing my king.
Saving the Queen means losing the King. Game over. In more ways than one.
I take a tremulous breath and meet his eyes. “Go ahead, Hades. Take the queen.”
Hades considers the board for a moment, then me, then moves to take my pawn, my last inconsequential piece on the board. I look across the board at him, incredulous, not understanding his decision to throw away such an advantage.
The King gives me a long, smoldering look. “Because the Queen is not ready to be taken. Unless she has something she would like to tell me?”
I let my silence answer him, moving my next piece. Even with my queen on the board, within ten moves, Hades has moved us into a stalemate. Fitting, considering that’s exactly where he and I have ended up. I sit back in my chair with a sigh and stare into the dying fire, unwilling to look at him. I reach for my wager and hold it out to him across the checkered battlefield between us.
“In case you were curious about what your fate would have been in my hands,” I say, still not looking at him. “Since you don’t want me keeping secrets.”
Hades leans forward and takes it from me, his fingers lingering on mine. He leans back in his chair, turning it over and over in his hands like a precious gem, as he watches me avoid his eyes. He stands up and walks over to stand beside my chair, waiting for me to acknowledge that he’s standing there. When I don’t, he tilts my chin up, forcing me to look at him. His eyes are shadowed, unreadable.
“A secret for a secret then,” he says, placing the crane in the center of my palm. His hand falls away from my face. “I think I will read yours in private. Perhaps you would like to do the same?”
I sit there for a long while after I hear him leave, crane balanced in my hand, like I’m waiting for it to come to life and fly away. Finishing the dregs of my whiskey, I place the glass on the table and return to my room, unfolding the crane as I go. I lie down on the bed, smoothing the paper against my chest by feel. I’m nervous to see what he wrote down, what would have been my fate tonight if he had not deliberately thrown the game.
Heart racing, I hold up the page, reading by moonlight:
Dance for me, naked, as though we were lovers.
His request is exhilarating. And terrifying. Because now, I know.
What he really wants naked is my heart.