It’s peaceful here on the mountain, looking down from old Olympus. From here, The Tower juts upward from the valley below like a wicked thorn, every bit as sharp and distant as my thoughts. Hades has been a splinter inside my mind for days, too deep to remove. I’ve been trying to worry him out from underneath my skin, but he refuses to budge.
Skía butts up against my thigh and noses my hand. A hellhound in every sense of the word, her name means shadow, and it fits—she resembles me in her darkness and is never far from my side. I reach down and stroke the insides of her ears with my thumbs. Her eyes do the slow, lazy blink that tells me she’s happy. I give her a couple more seconds of attention and let her go, admiring her form as she lopes off toward the palace.
Since the God Complex was built, there’s been no need for this place. Like a shade of itself, ancient Olympus only begins to stir as night falls. The white marble columns of the palace blush beneath the setting sun, their warmth fading in the cold light of a full moon on the rise. The quiet is eerily beautiful, haunting, but the only ghosts here are the ones you bring with you, and I have more than a few.
I turn away from the palace and thread my way through the sleeping gardens. Even though the path is overgrown, I could still walk it blind. The arbored gate leading into the Moon Garden succumbed long ago to the ravages of time. The trellised walls surrounding the gazing pool still stand, moonflowers glowing against the dark foliage like earthbound stars, pale and constant.
The moon pool is dry, bracken clinging to its basin, like tea leaves in the bottom of a cup. I wish I could read the dregs of all the years that have passed and make sense of them. Not that I suppose it matters. Like that pool, Hades and I have come full circle, though only one of us knows it.
The moonlight is a little too familiar tonight, the way it touches my face, caresses my mind. It summons the memory I want — the same one that stirred when Hades kissed me. The one that woke when I kissed him.
The one that, now, won’t sleep.
I watch Persephone follow her mother reluctantly down the hallway. This always seems to happen. Just when things get good, Dem comes along and harvests her daughter. And of all nights for Seph to have to go home early! Olympus has been in a low frenzy for hours. It’s always this way when the Kings convene. Bring stone, sea, and storm together in any one place, and something’s bound to move.
I sit on the broad windowsill, watching movement below, people coming and going in the night. I think this cross-hallway is the best vantage point in the whole palace. You can’t get to Zeus’s Council Chamber from any other point than this one. It’s also the best escape route. Just around the next corner, five different stairwells and hallways intersect, offering as many ways out of trouble as there are ways into it.
The heavy door between the hallway and the room where the Three Kings are meeting is well-oiled, silent, and soundproof. The sudden rumble of Poseidon’s raised voice makes me jump. As the door swings open, the Sea King’s words grow louder, crashing down the hallway like an angry tide. I flatten myself against the window casing, pressing myself into the space between the heavy curtains and the wall.
I angle my head for a better view and see Hades storm out of the Chamber, looking frustrated and tired. He jams his hands into his pockets and heads down the corridor, bent on putting as much distance between him and that room as possible. His dark robes flare about him, reminding me of a pissed-off, oversized sugar glider. I clap my hands over my mouth to keep from laughing.
Now’s the time to see if Artemis’s lessons are worth their salt, I think. I ditch my shoes against the wall, knowing my own feet will make less noise, and slip down the hallway after Hades, keeping the trailing edges of his cloak just in my line of sight. I shadow him at a safe distance as he exits down the stairs and turns toward the gardens.
I’m an idiot. Of all the gods to test this on, he’s the one most likely to catch me. He sits too still, sees too much. He’s not like Dad who can’t see around his ego, or Poseidon, who’s just too fucking crazy to notice anything, much less care.
Then again, if I can stalk Hades without being seen, I can stalk any of them. The challenge is irresistible.
The path he is choosing only leads one place—the dual-walled and arbored Moon Garden. I track his movements by the way his body eclipses the pale blooms climbing the walls. The solid shadow of him walks around the edge of the moon pool, stopping on the far side.
My breath catches as he stares past me into the deepening night. His eyes are reflective, the same color as the silvered mirror of water at his feet. Standing there, haunting the darkness, he looks more Underworldly than I’ve ever seen, more primal than anything he’s ever shown himself to be.
I watch as he unbuttons his cloak and drapes it across the back of a bench. He begins pacing around it in a lulled way, running his hand over the line of his jaw. I wonder what he’s thinking about, stalking back and forth in the dark.
I curse myself for wearing white, for the assumption that I’d be blending into hallways instead of prowling in the darkness. Every move I make is like waving a white flag on a black night. I bite my lip, considering, and duck behind the edge of the garden arbor, stripping down to the short silk tunic beneath my gown. Looks more like what Artemis wears anyway, I tell myself as I drape the silk over a low plinth of white marble.
I untangle my hair from its braid. It falls past my hips, a dark, spiraling veil I intend to use as cover. Keeping my center of gravity low, I move like Artemis showed me: deliberate steps, seeing with the soles of my feet, keeping my eyes on my prey. Hades has widened his circuit, pacing the circumference of the pool. I wait for him to curve around, turn his back to me. On light feet, I dart for the outer wall that separates the Moon Garden from the rest of the grounds.
I flatten my back against the living barrier and try to silence my breath. The sound of Hades humming to himself does me a kindness, stealing it. If darkness had a sound, that would be it — warm, bone-drenching, full. I know better than to look, not this close. Better to rely on my ears to tell me when he has his back to me again. A few moments later, his resonant humming is muffled. I risk a glance and, seeing his back, dart forward again, from the outer wall to the inner, concealing myself in the moonshadows gathered between them.
“You know,” I hear him say, “you’re not bad for an amateur spy.”
I gasp, ears straining for any sound that he’s coming toward me. These walls are nothing more than well-trained vines. I look over my shoulder, between the leaves, trying to assess how close he is. He takes a seat on the bench where he left his cloak, speaking towards the moon pool.
“Don’t be afraid. I am not going to tattle. Though, I don’t see the point in it. Am I that interesting?”
I’ve never met Hades. There’s no way he would know my voice. There’s a slim chance he doesn’t even know who I am. I’m just bastard royalty, and we do our best not to be noticed. It’s safer that way. I wet my lips and lower my voice just above a whisper, trying to emulate the same steadiness in his.
“You’re one of the Kings,” I explain, leaving it there.
“So is Zeus, and Poseidon,” he replies conversationally. “And yet, here you are.”
How to answer this? I choose my words carefully, going for the most obvious and most defensible explanation. “Well, you were the one that walked out of the room.”
“And left the door open.” I can hear the smile in his voice. “What is your name?”
Of course, he would ask my name. I should have run. Too late now.
“You may call me… Skía.” I take another slow breath. My core is shaking. The butterflies in my stomach are made of iron. “Should I address you as Your Majesty?”
“No, Hades is acceptable. Skía, hmm?” He rolls it around on his tongue. It sounds better on his than it does on mine. “It is pretty. And a good name for a spy.”
“S-so, now what, Hades?” I’ve never spoken his name, not like this. It lingers in my mouth like ambrosia, making my cheeks warm.
“Why not come and sit and speak with me?”
There’s no way that’s happening. If Artemis knew Hades had caught me, she’d box my ears. He looks up at the sky, his eyes flashing quicksilver in the dark. I take advantage of him looking up and dart across the path, slipping down the passageway of foliage just behind him.
“We can talk just fine where we are,” I tell him.
“Well. You wish to preserve your identity, yes? How about a trade?”
“A trade? What could I possibly have to offer a King that he doesn’t already possess?”
I see him shift on the bench, adjusting his sleeves. When he speaks, the casual tone is gone, replaced by the persuasive edge of someone used to getting what they want. “If you give me a kiss, I swear to keep my eyes closed, and you are free to go, Skía.”
Whatever I was expecting him to say, that wasn’t it. “A kiss. Th-that’s it? And I can go.”
“Just as I said. It can be through the vines if that will assure you, I will not renege on my promise. I do not lie.”
“I’m not a child, Hades. I’m not afraid of a kiss.” I slip along the wall, to the corner closest to him, pausing. “How do I know you’ll keep your eyes closed?”
He chuckles. “You may blindfold me if you wish. I do enjoy a good game.”
“Whatever you like. A sash, perhaps? Be creative. The quicker you woo me, the faster you can leave, Skía.”
I don’t have anything I can use to blindfold him. Except the scrap of silk I’m still wearing, I’ve stripped off everything else. And those are my choices: either I trust him to keep his eyes closed, or I give up my slip to make sure he does. Which means, I’d be…
An image flashes through my mind: me, naked in the moonlight, in the arms of the King of the Underworld. My heart is pounding. He must be able to hear it thundering from where he sits. I wonder at the ache that winds its way through my body and why the night is suddenly so warm. I contemplate running for it, for all of two seconds, then remember that Hades can pass through earth the way sand slips through fingers, only faster.
“You have to promise. I kiss you, and you let me go. You don’t open your eyes. You don’t follow me. Swear the strongest oath you know.”
His voice drops to thick velvet as he walks towards the flowering wall that separates us. “Skía, I swear to you on my heart, home, and soul. I will not open my eyes, nor follow you.”
“Then, close your eyes. King.”
I watch his eyelids drift shut, hiding away the silver there like treasure. I take a breath, step around the edge of the wall, and draw close enough to him that I can feel the heat of his body, somehow even warmer than mine. Reaching up, I place my hands on either side of his face and touch my lips to his gently, quickly, letting go.
He chuckles but holds to his promise, eyes remaining shut. “What was that? I am not chicken feed. Kiss me like you mean it.”
And I realize…I want to.
I step in again, this time sliding my arms up around his neck, pulling his mouth to mine. His lips part, opening me. Suddenly, I’m drowning in his kiss, unable to breathe. The night has gone entirely silent, but for the soft moan he draws from my throat. Entirely still but for the movement of his tongue against mine.
His lips are far softer than I expected for a King, for some reason. He tastes of spiced wine and dark cherries. He explores my mouth gently but with genuine curiosity. His hands locked around my waist, pressing me to him. Then, the tide of the moment ebbs, pulling us apart.
I gasp his name as his body burns into mine like a brand, marking me. I know he can feel me trembling beneath his hands. His long fingers trail up my spine and into my hair, then back down over my shoulders and arms, gentling me.
His eyes are still closed. Part of me wonders what he would think if he opened them and found their silver matched in mine. The dangerous weight of that thought makes me lower my gaze, and I feel his lips move against my forehead.
“If I ever find out who you truly are, Skía, I would show you a great many things.”
I’m too afraid to admit it, but it’s a dark promise my body wants him to keep. He steps away from me, clasping his hands behind his back, letting me go.
Bounty paid, I slip around the wall and head for the path that will take me back to the palace. Something stops me at the garden’s edge to risk one last look. Hades hasn’t moved, hasn’t turned around, held by his oath.
Before running off into the night, I commit one final act of bravery.
“You would find me a fantastic student… your Majesty.”