I looked around my freshly decorated but still heartlessly impersonal bedroom and sighed. I’d brought back several boxes of things from my old room in Mother’s palace, but it was mostly books and little trinkets. Even there, I’d never had much time – or interest – for accumulating decorative things. I simply preferred books.
My whole collection – philosophy, history, fiction and science alike – had barely made a dent in the bookcases that had been installed for my use. At least I’d have plenty of time to expand it now.
I set aside a newly framed picture that had been taken before I’d left Mother’s palace. It was of me and Danae in our uniforms, with Mother standing between us, her arms around our shoulders. I’d immediately decided that I was going to put it on my desk, to help remind me – at all times – of who I really was.
I wasn’t certain that being Lady Pluto would change me beyond recognition, but there was no harm in taking a preventative measure or two.
“Is that your mother?”
I jumped, startled, and almost fell off the bed in my rush to turn and see who it was.
Melinoë stood in the doorway, still barefoot, but now clad in just a short white silk robe. I was sure that was all she was wearing because it was just a little bit see-through. Her head was tipped to one side, her black eyes glittering strangely.
I caught my breath and convinced my heart to stop pounding, then nodded. “Yes, it is, and my older sister Danae. Would you like to see?” I gestured for her to join me.
She glided across the floor gracefully – I use the term ‘glided’ very carefully, since I wasn’t entirely sure her bare feet were actually touching the floor – and curled onto the bed beside me like a cat. She tucked her legs under her and took the picture from me to examine it.
While she did, I sorted through a few of the other items I’d brought back with me. A short sword that Danae had used during training, and had given to me when I began my own; a picture of me and Michel when we were sixteen, arms around each other’s shoulders, both of us laughing as I rubbed my fist in his hair; two toy Pegasi, one yellow, one blue; and finally, a few stuffed animals, including one rather worn stuffed griffin that had been my companion since I was five.
I held the griffin – whose name was, perhaps inevitably, Griff – and smiled to myself.
“Have you had him for a long time?” Melinoë asked, setting the picture aside with great care.
“Since I was little.”
“I never had many toys,” she said quietly. “Father felt it wasn’t appropriate. Mother and Grandmother snuck me in some small ones, but…I think Father meant me to grow up to take over the Avatar position from mother when I was old enough.” She sighed softly. “But living down here, in the Underworld…it changed me. Made me…different.”
She looked up and met my eyes, and this time I didn’t let myself flinch away from her oddly blank gaze. “When I came of age, and learned what I could do, it ended Father’s plans for me. I don’t think he ever really forgave me.”
“For what?” I asked, leaning towards her a little.
“For mother dying,” she said simply. “It wasn’t my fault, of course. But if I hadn’t been what I am, I would have replaced her decades before, and she shouldn’t have died, you see.”
“But you might have instead,” I protested, my heart aching for her.
Melinoë nodded. “Yes, I might have. But Father loved Mother more than anything else in all of creation. Even me.”
I supposed I could understand that, but it was still a horrible thing for her to feel, and I had no idea how to – or even if I could – help her. So I altered the course of the subject. “So, you never even had a stuffed animal?”
She shook her head. “No, I never did. Anyway, I came to tell you that I’ll be staying in the suite’s other bedroom. I hope you don’t mind a suite-mate. I’m very quiet, and I don’t snore. Besides, it’ll be easier working together this way.”
“I don’t mind at all,” I said. “I’m not used to having this much space for myself after all those years of training with the other demigods.”
She giggled, a rusty sound that somehow reminded me of the sound hand saws made when played as musical instruments. “I imagine I could sleep right on top of you then, and you wouldn’t notice.”
“I’d make a pretty lumpy mattress,” I shot back, and felt like I’d connected with her somehow. From the way she was looking at me – an open, vulnerable expression – I suspected I might have been one of the few people to treat her like a ‘normal’ person, and not just a disturbingly weird muse. Someone who could be…a friend.
Impulsively, I held Griff out to her. “Here. He’s pretty quiet too, but he doesn’t eat much, and he’s very good at keeping away nightmares.”
She blinked a few times and hesitantly took the stuffed griffin from my hands, holding him gingerly. Like she was afraid he might break, or disappear. “But…I give nightmares…”
I smiled. “True. But I’ll bet you have them, too. Give him a cuddle. He’ll help.”
She hugged him to her chest and gave me a shy smile that was so perfectly normal and happy that it was worth giving up my oldest stuffed friend to see it. I thought I saw a hint of purple irises appear in her eyes, just a thin ring of color in the black. “Thank you, My Lady.”
“Talia,” I said. “Please, call me Talia. Can I call you Mel?”
A single tear slid down her cheek as she nodded shyly. “I…I’ve never had a nickname before…”
I was almost knocked backwards off the bed as she lunged forward and hugged me tightly, then vanished out of the room, wiping her eyes as she went. I looked after her, hoping I hadn’t offended her and feeling fairly certain that I hadn’t.
Quite the opposite…I was certain I’d just made a new friend.
The next morning demonstrated how profoundly right I was. Dressed in a fresh black mini-dress and bodysuit, and my new armor, I emerged from my room…and stopped, blinking in amazement.
Overnight, the floor everywhere but around the fire pit and in the kitchen had gained a soft, tightly woven carpet. It was almost the same color as the stone, but made the room feel warmer and homier somehow. The walls – where they weren’t hidden by bookcases – had been hung with paintings; pastoral landscapes, a painting of Mount Olympus from a distance, an abstract oriental design that reminded me of something from an Anime series I enjoyed, and more.
Melinoë was in the kitchen, once again dressed the same as me, but with a golden belt, bracers and necklace instead of armor. And, of course, she was still barefoot as she moved from burner to burner, making breakfast. Whatever she was cooking, it smelled wonderful, and my stomach grumbled.
She saw me and smiled a broad, toothy, Cheshire Cat smile, which I would have found unsettling the day before. As it was, I was pretty sure it was usually reserved for when she was about to slit someone’s throat…but the warmth behind it this morning was undeniable. “Good morning! I wasn’t sure what you liked, so I made pancakes and waffles and bacon and sausage and there’s fresh fruit and juice and four different types of cereal…”
I laughed and sat on a stool at the breakfast bar. “That’s too much for two!”
She shrugged. “I asked Father if he wanted to join us, but he declined. We can always have the leftovers for dinner.” She smiled again, and this time it was the more natural and charmingly shy smile I’d seen the night before, and there were definitely thin purple slivers of iris in her glossy black eyes. “I slept very well with Griff keeping me company. Thank you. He had a lot of very complimentary things to say about you.”
I wasn’t sure if she was serious about the last bit or not. “You’re very welcome. Are the carpet and paintings your doing? I didn’t realize that silent, high-speed decorating was in your portfolio,” I teased gently.
She giggled and nodded. “The household staff installed it all overnight. I hope it’s okay. I wasn’t sure what would really work well with the room, but I thought it would make things feel more like home for you.”
The household staff, huh? I guess the Unseen Servants were even more practical and useful than I’d expected. “It all looks great, and it really does make the room feel more homey. Thank you. Is breakfast ready?”
“Then let’s eat. I expect we have a lot to do today. Pancakes and bacon for me, please.”
“You know,” she said conversationally as she slid a plate across to me, then pointedly set an orange beside it, “I wasn’t sure I was going to like you. I thought you’d be…” Here she trailed off uncertainly.
“You thought I wouldn’t see you,” I said, plying my insight for all it was worth. “That I’d just see Melinoë the Nymph, Muse of Nightmares and Madness, and treat you accordingly.”
I smiled. “Mother made sure I learned to look at peoples’ hearts, not just their appearance. ‘Never judge a book by its cover or a person by their clothes,’ she’d say to me.”
Mel giggled. It really didn’t sound like something she was used to doing. “Well, I’m glad she did.”
I looked at the orange, then chanced a joke. “Not a pomegranate?”
She made a face. “I don’t like them. Besides, Griff told me oranges are your favorite.”
“They are.” I wondered how she’d really found out. “And I suppose I don’t blame you.”
She huffed, but smiled as she did. “Those old stories…some of them are so very wrong.”
We ate, cleaned up the leftovers together and packed them into the fridge, which appeared to be running on electricity, but wasn’t plugged into anything. Then we made our way across the hall to my…our…office. It was much the same as it had been when I’d left the day before, except that all of the dust was gone, electric lights had been installed, and several filing cabinets had been delivered.
We stood in the doorway together and stared at the piles of scrolls, envelopes, folders and loose paper that were piled high on the desk and overflowing onto the floor.
Mel sighed. “That is a lot of un-filed paperwork.”
“How much of it needs direct attention? I imagine a lot of it is so old that it can just be archived?” I asked, trying to smother the sense of despair I felt as we gazed at the piles.
“I’m not sure, really.” She looked at me. “What do you want to do first?”
We stared at the piles in shared horror for a few moments longer before I took a deep breath and let it out. “Let’s start by figuring out how old everything is. Anything that’s more than a few years old probably isn’t all that pressing anymore. Things that are recent go to the front of the queue, and we can keep an eye out for exceptions as we go.”
“So we sort everything by when it arrived,” Mel summarized, “and go from there. An excellent plan. Let’s go.”
When we broke for lunch four hours later, we’d barely made a visible dent in the piles. I’d been mistaken in my assessment…it wasn’t just a mess, it was a disaster area.
“This one,” I held up a scroll I’d just unrolled, “is from Pompeii. Apparently, they needed a fire elemental taken care of. It had taken up residence in Vesuvius and was causing problems.”
Mel sat back on her heels and shook her head. “That wasn’t long after Mother died. There was nobody to look into it at the time.”
We both fell silent, letting that one sink in. Until we’d started going through the paperwork, I’d honestly had no idea of how important the position of Hades’s Avatar really was. When I thought of the thousands of people who died when Pompeii erupted, I finally started to get it. At least, I think I did.
“It’s funny,” I said finally, wanting to break the dark mood that had descended on us.
“You don’t look that old.”
Mel blinked in surprise, then started giggling. It sounded more natural this time than it had earlier…less deranged serial killer, more harmless stalker. “Why thank you,” she said between giggles. “I think that’s the first compliment anyone’s paid me in a very long time. I don’t really feel that old…most of the time, I still feel like a teenager. Immortality is funny that way.”
“You certainly look like a teenager.” I rose and stretched, arching my back and listening to it pop. I’d been sitting for too long. “Lunch?”
I nodded. “Sounds good.”
“What would you like?” She rose and stretched too.
“Ham and Swiss, with some lettuce and mayo if we have any.”
She smiled a slow smile that the day before would have had me making sure there were no knives handy. Now it just looked impish to me. It’s funny what a difference one day could make. “Not a problem. I’ll be right back.”
She took a step forward, seemed to blur, and was gone with a soft pop as the air rushed in to fill the place she’d occupied a moment before.
With a sigh, I turned back to my desk…and was startled to find a man standing beside it. He was taller than me, but not as tall as Hades, and was wearing black robes with a heavy cowl. His face was pale and gaunt, with dark eyes and heavy eyebrows, and he leaned on a dark wooden staff. He reminded me profoundly of Christopher Lee, and I knew him immediately.
Charon, who ferried the souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron.
He bowed politely. “My apologies for startling you, Lady Pluto,” he said in a rich, melodious baritone. He even sounded like Christopher Lee.
“That’s quite all right,” I said, bowing in return. “To what do I owe the honor of your visit?”
“When I heard that you had taken up your Office,” I could actually hear him use the word ‘office’ as a proper noun, his voice was so well trained, “I thought perhaps you would be willing to let me bend your ear, and take a long-standing annoyance to Hades for me.”
“I’m always willing to listen,” I said, diplomatically. “If there’s something that should be brought to his attention, I will.”
Charon nodded his understanding. “Very kind of you, Lady Pluto. It’s a small matter, really, but one very close to my heart. You see, I miss receiving coins as payment from the souls of the dead.”
I shifted mental gears. “Sorry?”
“Coins, Lady Pluto,” he said gently, and just a little bit sheepishly, possibly aware of how flat-footed the comment had caught me. “As you are aware, it is traditional to pay for ones’ passage across the Styx and Acheron with a coin. These days, however, souls arrive used to dealing in paper currency and…credit.” He said the last with such distaste that his disdain was almost a tangible thing. “Frankly, the matter of payment is less of an issue than modern currencies being staggeringly uninteresting.”
If a lightbulb had actually appeared above my head, I wouldn’t have been surprised. “You’re a numismatist!”
He bowed slightly. “Indeed. It has been one of my greatest joys, collecting all of the different coins brought to me by the souls of the dead.” He sighed longingly. “All of the different values, materials, what was minted on them. Beyond its obvious importance, that is what has made my work of such great interest to me.”
“And now they bring credit cards and paper money,” I said.
“Things of no intrinsic value and little interest to me,” he agreed with a nod.
“I believe I understand the problem,” I said. “Job satisfaction is extremely important. I’m not sure what can be done about it, but I’ll give it some thought and bring it to Hades’ attention.”
Charon bowed deeply. “That is all I ask of you, Lady Pluto. You have my thanks.”
“Would you consider accepting postage stamps?” I asked curiously. “I’m told they can be very unusual. Or perhaps other collectables of some sort?”
“I’ve considered it from time to time, but fear it would set a bad precedent,” Charon said thoughtfully. “I remember one fare several years ago who offered me a Star Trek commemorative plate…he’d just been run over by a bus at a science fiction convention, as I recall. I felt sorry for him, and rather like Star Trek, so I took it…but it has no intrinsic value in and of itself, and frankly I have no idea what to do with it. It’s sitting under a potted plant right now, depreciating as we speak.”
I resisted the urge to laugh and managed to respond with matching gravity. “Yes, I can see how it could get complicated if you started accepting other things.”
He nodded. “Quite.” There was a soft rushing sound behind me and he smiled. “Good day to you, Melinoë. It’s very pleasing to see you smile again.”
“Hello, Charon!” Mel said brightly from behind me. “I have a friend!”
Charon gave me a slightly surprised look, then a warm smile. “I see. Congratulations, my dear.”
“Thank you!” Mel replied.
He bowed to me once more. “I know you have a great deal to do, Lady Pluto. I won’t take up any more of your time with my trivial problem.”
“It’s not trivial at all,” I said firmly. “As I said, job satisfaction is very important.”
“I’m glad you understand. I think you will do well in your new position.” He bowed once more. “Have a very pleasant afternoon, ladies.” He stepped backwards, and was gone with the same blur-and-pop that Mel had vanished with.
“Can anyone just Step in here anytime they want to?” I asked Mel.
She shook her head as she came up beside me. “Only beings who are part of Hades’ staff. When you went to visit Athena, where’d you end up?”
“The visitor’s foyer…” I nodded, getting it. “That’s pretty neat.”
“Yes,” she agreed, then held up a bag from Subway. “Lunch!”
I looked at the bag, first startled, then amused. “You went and got lunch at Subway?”
“Of course!” She carefully cleared a space on the desk and started unpacking food and drinks. “I mean, no matter how hard we’ve tried to make it work, Jimmy John’s just can’t deliver down here. And while I might be a fair hand at breakfast, sandwiches have a tendency to turn out rather oddly when I’m making them.”
Somehow, that fit. I wasn’t quite sure why. It just did.
After lunch, we went back to sorting and clearing papers. Many of them, like the one from Pompeii, would have been of tremendous historical interest to the right people. Like me, for instance, unfortunately. Several times over the course of the afternoon I was distracted by finding a document written by someone famous, or about a historic event which the Avatar of Hades would have seen to.
For example: I spent almost ten minutes grilling Mel about a collection of papers in a very old form of Gaelic, which appeared to have been written by Merlin himself.
“This is really his handwriting?” I asked, feeling a bit dazed. I’d always known he was a real person, but to actually have something in my hands that he’d held himself…
“Oh yes,” Mel said from where she was beginning to sort things into the filing cabinets, using some criteria I was having trouble identifying. I thought it might have something to do with the age, composition and color of the paper. “I never had anything to do with him personally, but I know Father did, and I’m sure he conferred with your mother once or twice.”
Another example: In the middle of the afternoon, Mel handed me a file folder marked ‘Bacchus.’
“You’ll want to look through that one yourself, I think,” she said. “It’s an open case, and still relatively current.”
“Bacchus?” I asked, taking the file. “As in Dionysus’s Avatar?” I opened the file and my jaw dropped open. “John Belushi?”
“Oh yes. He was a famous comedian, wasn’t he?”
I nodded. “He died in 1982, I think. From an overdose of cocaine, or something like that.”
“An overdose? Bacchus?” Mel gave me an amused look. “That seems rather unlikely, doesn’t it?”
I smiled lopsidedly as I flipped through the file. “I guess it does. This is weird, though. There’s a coroner’s certificate, but this says that his soul was never collected. And there’s a sheet here listing some of the work he did for Dionysus, but the most recent dates are in August of 2002.”
“Pretty spry for a dead guy,” Mel giggled. “I’ll bet Dionysus had a big task he needed done, and Bacchus had to drop out of sight. Having him ‘die’ of an overdose is just someone’s weird sense of humor.”
“Probably his own. It sort of sounds like him.” I frowned at the file. “According to this, the last time he was seen was in Columbia in 2002.” I closed the file and set it in one of two slowly growing piles on the desk. “I’d better have a word with Dionysus about that. If his soul needs collecting, that would be my job, right?”
And so it went. By the time we broke for dinner, we’d just about managed to get through barely a quarter of the enormous piles of old paperwork. We had, at least, managed to make the rest of it look more organized.
Or maybe it already was organized. Mel already seemed to know where everything was in the piles and filing cabinets. I had a feeling I’d be relying on her very heavily to keep me organized.
When I fell into bed later that evening, too exhausted to do more than shed my armor and mini-dress, I’d already decided that I was going to prefer the field assignments to the office work.