As I crossed the hall, I saw that the door to my new office was already open, and a young woman was bent over the desk inside.
I took in the office from the doorway. It was a fairly mundane office, in a classical Greek sort of way. It was almost undecorated except for a big marbled desk in the middle of the room, not unlike the one in my older sister Danae’s office. There was a surprisingly modern leather office chair behind it and a pair of matching chairs in front of it, a sofa off to one side near a fireplace, several empty bookcases, and a number of filing cabinets. All of which looked new.
Everything was covered in a thin layer of dust, even the piles of paper, folders, envelopes, and parchment that overflowed from the desk onto the floor.
I immediately decided that I was going to need a computer. A computer, and some area rugs. And a vacuum cleaner. And electricity, for that matter…the room was lit by torches and candles. I eyed the cobwebs along the edges of the ceiling, and considered getting a flame thrower too.
Either Hades took the whole ‘sticking to tradition’ think to extremes, or it had been a very long time indeed since anyone had been in this office.
“Excuse me,” I said quietly, “you’re my new assistant?”
“That depends,” the young woman said, straightening and turning to face me, “on whether or not you’re the new Lady Pluto.”
I took an involuntary half-step back. Her black hair, straight and a bit lank, almost hid her eyes…but even through the curtain of her hair, I could see that they were black.
Not just dark, mind you. I mean no pupils, no irises, no sclera. Just glistening black orbs that seemed to look right through me. They were so intense and absorbing that it took an effort to shake off the instinctive fear response they caused so I could take in the rest of her.
She was a few inches shorter than me, very pale, and dressed in an outfit identical to my own, but without the armor. And she was barefoot, where I wore boots. Somehow, it seemed perfectly…normal…for her.
I had to clear my throat before replying. “I am.”
She smiled, her lips curling without showing any teeth. Paired with her eyes, there was something decidedly unsettling about the expression. It was the sort of smile you expected to see on someone right before they lunged forward to slash your throat open with a knife.
“Then I am your new deputy,” she replied, curtseying politely. “I am Melinoë, daughter of Hades.”
“Talia, daughter of Athena,” I replied formally, then tipped my head slightly. “I’ve heard of you. Aren’t you a muse?”
She giggled. “Technically, I’m a chthonic nymph. But I have been muse to some.” She rose up on her toes and did a little pirouette. “I inspire madness and nightmares! Horror writers like Poe and Lovecraft adore me. And Jim Henson.” She sighed, and her expression shifted to sadness. “I miss Jim. He understood that nightmares and monsters didn’t need to be scary, and could be lovable and charming and useful.”
Her sadness vanished, replaced by a smile that showed teeth this time. The expression made me shiver a little. “I begged Father to let me act as your deputy until he finds someone more suitable. Until then, I,” she gestured to herself, “will see to it that you,” she gestured to me, “will know where you need to be and what you have to do when Father hasn’t given you specific tasks.”
She turned back to the desk and sighed. “We do have our work cut out for us, I’m afraid. I’m sorry it’s such a mess. Father would never let me – or anyone else – tidy up the office before now. I’ll do my best to make sure it’s cleaned up and organized before you’re done with your first assignment.”
“Thank you.” I moved to stand beside her at the desk, determined to get comfortable with her in spite of her decidedly creepy nature. “Is it strange?”
“Usually!” she replied in a rather whimsical tone. Then she looked up at me. “Is what strange?”
“Me,” I said without looking at her, “taking over this office. Taking over this job. And you, working for someone who’s a fraction of your age.”
She appeared to consider the question seriously for a moment, then shrugged. “A little, maybe. Mother’s death…unhinged me for a while. I don’t remember most of the first century or so after her death. But…You know, I’ve really hated to see this office empty. She would have too. She always said Father needed someone to be his eyes, ears and mouth with the other gods.” She lowered her voice, “He’s been very lonely and isolated.”
I could understand that. “His position can’t be an easy one.”
Her expression – she seemed to exaggerate her expressions a little, perhaps to compensate for the blank gaze of her eyes – clearly showed relief. “You understand how important what he does is?”
“I have an idea…but maybe you should explain it to me.” I gave her a tentative smile. “Just in case.”
She returned my smile, and it seemed somehow more natural than before. “That’s very reasonable, Talia. Father is responsible for the care and maintenance – and punishment, where appropriate – of the souls of the deceased. Not merely those who worship the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon, but also those who follow no other religious traditions.”
I swear, she sounded just like a history professor. Homer had sounded like that when we’d had lessons with his shade.
“On top of all of that, Father is responsible for keeping the monsters penned up and under control,” Melinoë said. “And for dealing with ones that escape and cause trouble in the mortal world. Though that task has fallen to some of the other Avatars in the absence of Lady Pluto. Lady Jupiter, Lady Juno and Lord Mars in particular have been very busy about it lately. Especially Lady Jupiter. They’ll be glad of your help, I’m sure.”
“I’m sure,” I agreed. “So in addition to monster hunting, what sort of work should I expect?”
Melinoë smiled again, more natural still. She seemed to be responding to my treating her normally. “Lady Pluto is responsible – in addition to monster hunting – for several things. You will,” she ticked off the items on her fingers, “represent Father in the mortal world – when needed – and often when he desires communication with the other gods. Including those of other pantheons. You will collect and escort the souls of certain people when they die, generally people of great importance or those who have earned specific punishment.”
“And you will do whatever else you are bidden to do,” Hades said from behind us. This time I’d sensed his approach, so I wasn’t surprised.
We both turned to face him, bowing politely. Then Melinoë pouted and said, “Do you always have to lurk nearby, Father, waiting for the perfect word to enter on?”
“I see you’ve met,” Hades said dryly, ignoring her question. “Will you be able to work together?” he asked her.
“Yes, Father,” she said softly. Then added, very shyly, “I like her.”
His face seemed to soften slightly. “Very good. Talia, I have your first task for you. It is much simpler than most I will give you, and I suspect you will not find it to be overly onerous.” He held out a scroll tied with a black ribbon. “Take this to Athena. Deliver it to her personally, and to no other.”
I thought I saw a spark of good humor in his eyes as I stepped forward and took the scroll from him, trying to hide a smile of my own. Well, he was right. I’d been afraid I’d never get to see Mother or my sisters and brothers again. It was a distinct relief to know that I would, at least in the course of my work. Though really, it was probably a silly thing to be worried about. “Yes, My Lord.”
“You needn’t rush straight back,” he added in a surprisingly gentle tone. Then he schooled his expression into something stony again. “That is, if you wish to gather any of your personal possessions, this would be an opportune time to do so, before you become very busy. And you’re not on so tight a schedule yet that you can’t take a few minutes to reassure your family of your resumed good health and wellbeing.”
If he was going to be stone-faced about it, so was I. I kept my expression totally neutral as I replied, “Thank you, sir. There is, as you indicated, a great deal of work to be done. I’ll keep my visit brief, for now.”
Hades nodded. “Very good. Off with you, then.”
I hesitated, not sure how I was supposed to go.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “I forgot. Your boots bear several useful enchantments: the ability to pass undetected, line of sight teleportation, and the ability to travel great distances instantaneously. Simply think of your destination and take a step…I believe you’ve had some training with such tools.”
“You might want to close your eyes when you go,” Melinoë said from behind me. “It can be very disorienting until you’re used to it. Unless you’re into that sort of thing, in which case, enjoy.”
“Thank you both,” I said, as sincerely as I knew how.
With that, I tucked the scroll under my arm, concentrated on the foyer of Mother’s palace on Olympus, and stepped forward. The world…blurred, for lack of a better term. It was rather like watching an oil painting spin, run, and smear around me. An instant later everything snapped back into focus, and my older sister Danae was catching me as I stumbled to my knees and retched as whatever my last meal had been (Had it been breakfast? A lifetime ago, literally…) tried to escape.
“You didn’t close your eyes, did you?” she asked, sounding amused.
“No,” I croaked. “M-message for Mother…”
Danae laughed lightly. “Now now, Lady Pluto. Is that any way to go about your business?”
I winced. She was right, even if she was teasing me. I’d just dropped the professional ball big time. “Silly me.” I forcefully called my rebellious stomach to heel, and in a few moments my equilibrium had returned.
Danae helped me rise and brushed imaginary dust from my shoulders. “That’s better. Now, try again.” She giggled.
I straightened my shoulders and met her eyes, surprised to find myself at eye-level with her. I hadn’t seen her in a little more than a year except in passing, and had always thought of her as larger than life.
But then, I suppose I was larger than life now, too.
“Lady Minerva,” I said politely, “I bear a message from Hades for Athena. May I enter and deliver it?”
She smiled proudly and nodded formally in return. “You may, Lady Pluto, and welcome.”
I felt a thrill of intense pride to be treated as an equal by the older sister I’d looked up to all my life. Perhaps I could find satisfaction in this role after all.
“Thank you, Lady Minerva.” Then my formal facade cracked and I grinned at her. I just couldn’t help it. “It feels so weird!”
“What does?” Danae asked as we walked together up the steps that led into the main hall of Mother’s palace.
“You, treating me like an equal,” I said, looking anywhere but at her, feeling my embarrassment warming my cheeks.
She laughed and clipped my arm with her elbow. “Well, you are my equal now, little sister. Maybe not in experience, but you’ve always been a quick study.” Her laughter and smile faded quickly. “How is he as a boss?” She gestured to the choker around my throat.
I reached up and fingered the stone with the symbol of Pluto in it. Hades had a lot on his shoulders, and I felt reluctant to say anything bad about him, but…I sighed a little. “He’s very…stern. And distant. A bit abrupt, and very old-fashioned.”
“Bah,” she sighed too. “I was really looking forward to having you as my deputy. I don’t know what Mother’s playing at, and it’s not often I don’t understand her actions. I suppose we’ll both find out soon enough.”
“Think she’d tell me if I asked?” I didn’t think it was likely.
“Probably not,” Danae confirmed, then shrugged. “But you know what Mother always says. It never hurts to ask.”
“Something you should know that they don’t mention in training,” Danae said quietly. “Sometimes, he’ll use you as a mouthpiece…literally take over your body to speak through you. Mother’s done it with me three or four times over the years. It’s pretty disconcerting at first, and it would’ve scared the hell out of me if Mother hadn’t warned me. I have a feeling Hades didn’t mention it.”
“There’s a lot of ground to cover, I’m sure he’ll get to it eventually.” I wasn’t sure why I was defending him, except that he was my boss. “Thanks for the heads up though.”
“One Avatar to another,” she said warmly, clapping a friendly hand on my shoulder. “Come on, let’s go see Mother.”
She led me to the big double doors of Athena’s audience chamber, knocked twice, then opened them and preceded me inside. “My Lady,” she said formally, “Lady Pluto is here to see you. She says she bears a message for you from Hades.”
“Thank you, Minerva, I was expecting her.” Mother rose from her throne and walked towards us, meeting us halfway, between the room’s two big braziers.
I bowed politely, then held out the scroll to her. “My Lord instructed me to deliver this to you personally, Athena.”
Mother smiled warmly and took the scroll from me, but didn’t open it. “My thanks, Lady Pluto. Do you have a few minutes, or do you need to return to your duties straight away?”
“My Lord gave me leave to stay for a few minutes,” my lips quirked into an amused smile. “To reassure my family of my resumed health and well-being, he said.”
Danae looked surprised and Mother laughed delightedly. “Oh my,” she said after a moment, “I wasn’t sure the old curmudgeon still had a sense of humor. He was always rather reserved, but he became downright dour after Persephone died. Danae bring chairs and some juice so we can catch up quickly.”
Danae smiled. “Of course, Mother.”
Mother led me back to her throne and sat in it as Danae hurried off on her errand. “I see you found my gifts,” Mother said when Danae was gone. “Have you figured them out yet?”
“Partly,” I smiled. “I haven’t had enough time to find out all of their secrets yet. Thank you, Mother.”
She sighed. “You’re welcome, my little owlet. I fear I won’t be able to do anything more to help you directly, no matter how much I wish I could.” She smiled. “Though you are, as are all beings, welcome to ask for my advice.” She looked me up and down, nodding. “At least Hades has armored you well, and to match. I approve. When I saw you and Danae side-by-side…you looked almost like negative images of one another.”
I hadn’t realized it, but she was right. Danae and I were, as I’d already noticed, of a height now. But where I was dressed in black and gold, and had my father’s black hair and grey eyes, Danae was clad in white and gold, and had golden hair and blue eyes. Being daughters of Athena, our features were, of course, very similar. And very like our mother’s.
“I hope you don’t think that’s a bad thing,” I said softly.
Mother took my hand and squeezed it gently, her smile growing a bit sad. “No, little one, not at all. I am tremendously proud of you, though I do rather wish the decision had been yours to make. I’m sorry it had to be taken from you.”
“I cannot say.”
Which was not really an answer, especially coming from Athena. Depending on circumstances and what she actually knew, she could mean anything from honestly not knowing, to knowing but physically not being able to say anything about it.
I sighed a little. Mother smiled faintly.
Danae returned then, carrying two folding chairs. A serving girl followed her bearing a tray with a pitcher of orange juice – my favorite – three glasses, and some small cakes.
When Danae and I were seated, and the serving girl was gone, Mother leaned forward and smiled. “Well, you look healthy and alive…”
“I had a spectacular headache when I woke up,” I informed her dryly. “I’m going to have words with Heracles at some point.”
Danae snorted and hid her smile behind taking a sip of her juice.
“I hope you aren’t too upset with him,” Mother said, “or with me.”
I hesitated, decided that total honesty was the best policy, and sighed. “I’m not happy about the situation. It’s not at all what I wanted. But I’m determined to make the best of it.”
Danae gave me a proud look. “That’s my little sister.”
“Indeed,” Mother said. “I would expect no less from one of my daughters. But you didn’t answer the question.”
“Must run in the family,” Danae said with a smirk.
Mother kicked her shin lightly. “Hush. Talia, you’re not too upset with Heracles, are you? It really wasn’t his decision to make.”
I shook my head. “Not really. I recognize and understand the necessity of it, I think. A little warning would’ve been nice, though. Or perhaps a less violent method.”
She smiled. “I’ll tell him that. Though hopefully he won’t have to do anything like that again for a very long time.”
I sipped my juice and finally asked the question I’d really been dreading. “This posting is for life, then?”
“Or until you choose to retire,” Mother said carefully. “Though I would strongly advise against doing so without a very good reason. It took a great deal of effort and persuasion to convince Hades to take you as his new Avatar. I shudder to think of having to do so again.”
“Why did you do it, Mother?” I asked, pleased that there was no hurt or anger in my voice, only curiosity.
Mother pursed her lips and set her glass down, looking at me closely. “There’s a good reason why I did this, Talia, and made the decision only after long consultations with Apollo. I wish that you could be by my side with your older sister, but this is so much more important. I would never have done it this way otherwise. Don’t ever doubt that I have my reasons for everything I do. You are where you need to be.”
And that, I understood without her having to say more, was all she would – or perhaps could – say on the subject. I knew from studying the writings of Cassandra and the Delphic Oracles how dangerous trying to interpret prophecy could be, even for the gods. If Apollo had been involved in mother’s deliberations, it was likely that there was a prophecy involved.
Mother read my face and smiled slightly. “You’ve always been a quick study, my little owlet. I knew you’d understand.”
I nodded reluctantly. “I do, I think. Not everything, but the basic framework of it.”
“It’s for the best,” she said gently. “For everyone, you included.”
“All right, then.” I sipped my juice, then looked up in dismay. “Did anyone tell my friends I wasn’t actually dead? Or…wasn’t dead for long, I guess.”
Danae smiled. “I personally made sure messages were sent out as soon as we received word from Hades that you were resting comfortably after being revived.”
“Revived,” I said dryly. “That makes it sound much prettier than it was.”
We all sipped our drinks in silence for a minute.
Finally, Mother sighed softly. “Will you come and visit often?” she asked hopefully.
“Whenever I can,” I promised. “From the mounds of paperwork that were waiting for me in Pluto’s…in my office, I have a feeling I’m going to be very busy for a while.”
“I hope you have help, at least,” Danae said. “I know I need to find a new deputy soon. I’m going mad trying to keep track of everything myself.”
I nodded. “Hades’s daughter Melinoë is my new deputy.”
They were both silent for a moment, Danae looking alarmed and Mother amused.
“Poor choice of words on my part, then,” Danae said weakly.
I reached over and patted her arm gently. “I’ll make sure she knows not to visit you and inspire true madness.”
“Thanks ever so much.”
“What’re sisters for?”
Mother laughed softly. “I’m sure you’ll be a good influence on her, Talia. And I suspect that she’ll be an excellent – if unconventional – organizer.”
“I suspect you’re right,” I agreed. “Will you have a response for me to take to Hades?” I gestured to the scroll I’d brought, now resting on the arm of Mother’s throne.
She looked at it in surprise, then laughed. “That?” She untied the ribbon and unrolled it to show us a blank scroll. “That was an excuse to get you here so I could check up on you.”
I laughed, rising as she rose and moving into her arms as she embraced me. “Never forget that you’re my daughter, Talia Redowl. No matter where you go, no matter what you do or who you become, you are always my daughter. Now, I’m sure you’d like to collect some of your things…”
I made sure my eyes were closed before making the trip back.