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Chapter 27

“And that pretty much brings you up to date,” I said, then shifted my rook to an empty space. “Check.”

Circe, sitting across the chessboard from me, swore vehemently in ancient Greek, then rested her chin in her hand and examined the board. “This is what I get for playing chess with a daughter of Athena. What about Melinoë? I assume she was delighted to be reunited with her mother.”

I sat back in my chair and smiled. The memory of Mel’s joyous cry of “Momma!” as she threw herself into Persephone’s arms was one I would treasure all the days of my life. “I’ve barely been able to pry her from Persephone’s side long enough to get our daily paperwork done.”

Circe chuckled softly.

After a lengthy discussion with Zeus, Hera and my mother, I had received permission to visit Circe at least once a month to check up on her and give her someone to talk to for a little while. The first couple of visits had been…tense, until I’d struck on the idea of challenging her to a game of chess on the third visit. Since then, she had slowly begun to warm up to me, and I was beginning to see the remnants of the loving woman who had been the Avatar of Aphrodite so long ago.

She was also a vicious chess player. I had to work hard to beat her, but I had yet to lose a match, which was helping to keep her interested in my visits. As was my deal with her to tell her my story to date. Having just finished that, I hoped we’d found enough common ground for her to continue accepting my visits. I felt like I was making some progress with her.

“So,” Circe said, “Demeter has been stripped of her power and let loose to roam the Earth. I’m not sure if that’s better or worse than my fate.”

I shrugged a little. “She’s not roaming the Earth unwatched…Persephone and Ceres are both keeping a close eye on her movements.” I suspected Mother was too…nothing escapes Athena’s eye for long.

Circe nodded a little. “I suppose that puts me in a better position than her.”

“It’s not a contest,” I said gently. “Anyway, if it helps, both Persephone and I have been gently nudging Hades to have a word with Zeus about reviewing your case.”

She looked up, startled. “What?”

I nodded. “You’ve been stuck here alone for far too long. At the very least, we could move you somewhere -”

“No,” Circe said quickly. Then added, more calmly, “No, this is where I belong. What I did, how I’ve behaved, what I am…” She shook her head. “I cannot be trusted around most people. I do very much appreciate the sentiment though.”

I smiled a little. I’d expected as much. And, truth be told, she was probably right. She had self-identified as a high-functioning sociopath, and after spending time with her I was inclined to agree. “Well, at least let us try to get you regular visitation rights. Persephone asked me to let you know she’d be coming to visit as soon as she has the free time.”

Circe smiled, amused. “Busy catching up, is she?”

“Oh yes,” I said. “She has found many ways to fill her time…spending time with Hades and Mel, helping Ceres reorganize and start the search for an Avatar, working with several of the other gods on revising the Avatar system…and you might appreciate the latest burden she’s taken on.”

Circe was studying the chessboard again. “Oh?”

“Mmhm.” I couldn’t wait another minute to spring this one on her. “She’s been pestering Zeus, Hera and Poseidon to review Aphrodite’s treatment of her Avatars, and her behavior in general, with an eye towards retiring and replacing her.”

Circe dropped the knight she’d picked up and stared at me, her mouth opening and closing a couple of times.

I nodded. “Persephone is bent on spreading her reformation plans from the Avatar system to the gods themselves.”

She righted her fallen knight and sat back in her chair. “Well…I’d be lying if I said I was opposed to the idea. What’s the current Venus like?”

I smiled, thinking of Mina, the blond woman – just a few years older than me – who was Aphrodite’s current Avatar. “Very sweet, very loving, very caring. She has a big heart. But she can be a bit of a ditz.”

Circe dipped her head. “A…ditz? I’m not familiar with the term, I’m afraid.”

I chuckled. “Sorry. She can be a bit of an airhead.”

“Ah,” she nodded. “I’m not familiar with that one either, but it is a very expressive turn of phrase. Not the brightest candle in the fixture, hm?”

“Not quite,” I smiled. “But personally, I think she’d do very well in the position.”

“If she actually thinks of others before herself,” Circe said dryly, “it would make her significantly better suited for the role than Aphrodite herself.” She moved her knight and frowned at the board. “And what of you?”

“Hades and I are helping Persephone outline new guidelines for gods who want Avatars,” I said, tipping my chin up to show her bare skin where my collar had been. “Hades has shared his power with me more directly, and without the restrictions that were placed on me, or the potential for direct control that it gave him. I understand it’s very similar to the relationship Yaweh has with Jesus.” I shrugged a little. “Of course, Hades is still a god, and I am his servant, which means he could still take control of me at any time…but I trust him to only do so in dire need, and seriously doubt he would even then.”

“Mm,” Circe eyed me thoughtfully. “I’m not sure I could ever trust someone that deeply.”

“That level of trust is one of the things that Persephone feels will make the new Avatar system even stronger than the old one,” I said. “Athena has already implemented the same method with Minerva, and Zeus with Jupiter.”

“Speaking of whom…” Circe said in a leading tone. There was still a part of her that liked romantic gossip.

“We’ll be performing a…a home-brewed marriage ceremony of sorts in a few weeks. Lots of old Greek traditions, mixed with some from my father’s heritage. Nobody was surprised when we announced it.”

“Nor am I,” Circe said. “Though, for what it’s worth, I wish you both all the happiness in the world.” She sounded completely earnest.

I looked up and smiled. “It’s worth quite a bit. Thank you.”

“Of course,” she said, lounging in her chair so that her semi-translucent gown very nearly put bits of her on display, “if you two ever find yourself in the market for a playmate, I would be willing to teach you both all manner of new things.”

I called her bluff and didn’t look away, taking a moment to honestly admire her. She was undeniably a beautiful woman. “I’ll be sure to tell Eos that. You never know.”

Circe laughed, and it was the most relaxed, delighted sound I’d heard her make. There was no bitterness in it at all. I was actually breaking down some of her barriers, which made me feel like I was maybe accomplishing something good.

“Well played, Talia, well played,” she said. “And kudos for not showing even a hint of embarrassment.”

I smiled and looked back down at the board finally. “Well, like I said, you never know. I mean…I certainly never thought that I’d become Hades’ Avatar, or that it would be a job that I’d both enjoy and do very well at. I’m not one to rule out anything after that life change.”

“An excellent point. Tell me…you mentioned at one point a deal Nyx had made with you.”

I nodded absently. “Yes…”

“Has she claimed her part of the bargain yet?”

There was something in her tone of voice – perhaps something a bit lascivious and genuinely curious – that made me look up. “No, not yet. Why, do you know something?”

She shook her head. “Not I.” She picked up a goblet and drank from it. “Personally, I never had dealings with her, nor would I want to. She is…Other.”

I nodded, understanding what she meant. “Persephone is completely at ease with her, and so is Mel.” I shrugged a little. “She unsettles me, but I’m pretty sure she’s doing that for the fun of it, so I see no reason to be afraid of her.”

“Well…perhaps you’d be willing to share the experience with me, on one of your future visits?” Circe asked hopefully.

I smiled. Success. “If I can remember enough of it. She and Persephone have both hinted that I might not be able to.” I moved my queen. “Check and mate.”

Circe looked down at the board, then leaned forward and frowned. Finally, she swore in ancient Greek again and tipped over her king. “Damnation, but you are a talented chess player.” She lounged back in her chair and sighed. “I suppose that’s all the time you have for me today, hm?”

I rose and stretched a little. “My work keeps me nearly as busy as Persephone’s does her. But I think she’ll be free to visit you in a few days, and I’ll be back in a couple of weeks. If you don’t mind.”

Circe smiled at me. “Surprisingly enough, I find myself enjoying your visits. I will look forward to the next one.”

“Until next time, then.” I bowed politely and departed, following the path through the woods and down to the beach before Stepping back to my office in the Underworld.

Persephone was sitting in my chair, behind my desk, in my office.

Well…they had been hers first. The desk and office, at least. The chair was a modern one, chosen for its ergonomics and support.

“Hello,” I said, a little uncertainly.

She smiled at me. “Oh good, you’re back!” She spun the chair in a circle, then rocked it back and forth and giggled. “Modern furniture is so wonderful! When I think of all the stone chairs I used…even with cushions, my butt would get cold. And the back pain! I love lumbar support.”

Maybe the apple hadn’t fallen all that far from the tree with Mel after all.

“Anyway,” Persephone said, “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

“If you want your position back,” I said quickly, “it’s yours. I’m sure -”

“What?” She stopped playing with the chair and stared at me in surprise. “No! No, that’s not it at all!” She laughed. “Oh Talia, no, I wouldn’t dream of trying to take over as Hades’ Avatar again. Not when you’re doing such a good job. And I am, after all, Goddess of the Underworld in my own right.”

“And of springtime and flowers,” I pointed out.

She gave me a wicked grin that reminded me of one of Mel’s and deposited a pot of beautiful little blue and purple flowers on my desk, simply plucking them out of thin air. “Is that better?”

I blinked. If there had been any question at all in my mind about who Melinoë’s mother was, it had just been firmly settled.

Persephone laughed. “I have you all wrong-footed. I’m sorry. I will certainly go to help Ceres with the spring, if she wants my help, and I will always have something to do with flowers…you’ll find my new throne beside my husband’s wreathed in a variety of flowers associated with death. But no, I don’t want to be his Avatar again.” She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Between you and me, I think he always felt there was something of an impropriety involved in being married to and sleeping with his Avatar. He always said it should be a professional relationship, not a personal one.

I sat down in one of my guest chairs across the desk from her, more than a little relieved. I’d grown rather fond of the job and the people I dealt with daily because of it, and didn’t want to leave it. Quite a change from when I started.

“Anyway,” she went on, “I know how excellent a job you’ve been doing, and how much you mean to my daughter as a friend and colleague.” She gave me a warm smile. “I can’t thank you enough for being her friend.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I said honestly.

Persephone nodded. “And that’s one of the things that sets you apart. You accept people as they are without intentionally trying to change them, and in doing so inspire them to be better than they were. It’s very impressive, really.”

“Thank you…” I tried very hard not to make it sound like a question.

“And you’ve done a marvelous job of following in my footsteps,” she said, “trying to bring non-human creatures in unharmed…we really do need a good designation for them other than ‘non-human’, which seems rather degrading.”

“I call them ‘mythological’ or ‘supernatural’ beings,” I said, “depending on their nature.”

Persephone considered that, then nodded. “It’s a dramatic improvement over ‘monsters’ at any rate. Maybe we can come up with something better, you and I. We’ll talk to Daedalus about it, I’m sure he has ideas.”

I nodded. “Undoubtedly. So…” I trailed off uncertainly, not wanting to seem rude by asking why she was here.

“I’m here to come clean to you about something, because my co-conspirators vowed silence on the matter,” Persephone said, “and I feel it’s important that you have the last piece of this particular puzzle.”

“Which puzzle?”

She smiled. “Why it had to be you that became my husband’s Avatar.”

I sat up a little, my curiosity piqued. That was definitely something that had gnawed at my mind since…well, since day two. (Day one I’d been too bewildered in general to even think of the question.) “Oh?”

Persephone nodded. “Yes.” She sat back in my chair and looked at me. “I am profoundly thankful to Nyx for having come to me, talking to me, engaging my mind and keeping my sanity from slipping the way my mother’s did. I owe her far more than just the demotion of my mother!” She laughed softly. “But…when we saw the direction mother’s mind was going in, and when Nyx told me of how my husband had isolated himself…we hatched a plan together.

“She would watch the up-and-coming young demigods,” Persephone continued, “and report on them to me. Together, we would pick one who was a likely candidate to replace me as Pluto, then find a way to convince Hades to accept them as his new Avatar. But we had to choose carefully…this prospective Avatar had to be intelligent, kind, caring, clever, wise, and a fierce warrior.” She smirked. “As you might imagine, such a combination of traits is rare indeed.”

I nodded.

“There were a few over the centuries who might have worked,” Persephone said, then laughed. “For a while, we actually thought Eos might be a good candidate…until we saw how quick she was to resort to violence. And, of course, there was no way we were going to pry her away from Zeus once he saw how she was developing. Still, she made a good stand-in, keeping the real monsters under control well enough.

“And then there you were,” she said, gesturing to me. “Top of your class in everything except combat…from what I hear, the daughter of Ares you trained with is rather a blunt – but effective – fighter. All we needed to do was convince Athena, to whom Hades owed a favor for a past service, which worked in our favor. I don’t know precisely what arrangement Nyx made with your mother, but when all was said and done, you were the new Pluto.”

Persephone beamed at me. “And what a wonderful job you’ve done. I couldn’t be more proud of you if you were my own. What you’ve done for my daughter, and for Charon, and Daedalus, and everyone here…why, even Hecate seems mellower than the last time I saw her.”

I found that hard to believe.

She rose, came around the desk, and sat down beside me, taking my hands. “I think that in time people will forget that I ever held the post. You are better suited to it than I ever was. We chose very well indeed.”

“Wait,” I said, “Mother told me Apollo had advised her that it needed to be this way…”

Persephone tipped her head a little, blinking. “Oh? Well, prophesy has always had more leverage over the Greek gods than it really ought. Perhaps Nyx put a bug in Apollo’s ear to get the ball rolling.” She smiled. “It’s not like I told Nyx what to do…as if she’d let me. She has her own way of doing things, and the rest of us are none the wiser, even after the fact.”

“That much I believe,” I said fervently.

Persephone laughed again. “Yes, I’m sure. But be confident, Talia, that I chose you for your position, and I am very, very pleased with how well you’ve turned out.” She patted my hands gently. “What I would like to be is your friend. Melinoë speaks so highly of you that you’d think she worships you.”

I smiled warmly. “She’s a dear friend, and I’d be absolutely lost without her help. Even if my filing cabinets are impossible for anyone except her to figure out.”

Persephone squeezed my hands gently. “It warms my heart to hear you say that.” She released my hands and sat back, looking content. “All is well at last, yes?”

I relaxed and smiled. “Yes. Although Nyx still hasn’t collected the…payment…for the information she gave me.”

Persephone giggled. “She will in due time. Don’t worry about it. I’ve made similar deals with her several times. Which reminds me…” She reached over and plucked a tote bag off the desk and offered it to me. “Eos was here a little while ago. She left this for you, and told me to tell you…and I quote…’You’ll know what to do with it.’”

I took it and peered into it. Brightly colored bikini, matching beach towel, sunblock. I laughed. “Yes, I do indeed.”