Prologue: Misguided Angel
Yelan Li rested her hand across Sakura's forehead. The girl's face was pale, and her skin was cold with a sheen of sweat. Her eyes had become unfocused as she began to slip away. "Die quickly," Yelan murmured. Her soft words were the last that Sakura heard before her life fled her body.
A hard form lay under Sakura's tongue. She pulled it from her mouth and found what she had hoped: the splinter-small form of her staff, and a square-holed copper coin that left an unpleasant taste on her palate. Around her, fog-like gray shadows swirled and slithered into a deeper darkness beyond. A hushed lapping of water echoed out of the black. With a whisper and a twist of her hand, she magicked the splinter of sacred olivewood into its full size; the heavy base of it thumped against the stony ground while the jewel at its tip radiated a brilliant light. Sakura used the light to illuminate her path as she strode toward the sound of the water.
At the water's edge, a flat bottomed boat bumped against an ancient stone dock. The boatman wore long, hooded robes of sooty red that obscured his shape and his face. When he reached out his hand for her fare, only the tips of his fingers extended beyond his sleeve. Sakura surrendered the copper coin that High Priestess Yelan had remembered to send with Sakura's departing spirit. The coin must have been the correct token for the boatman; he pushed off into the silent river as soon as Sakura had both feet in the craft.
The mists hardly moved as the vessel crossed the inky water, but the boatman did not need to see his way across. "Ah," said the girl, timidity making her voice waver, "did an angel pass this way before me?" The boatman was silent. Sakura was surprised at the lack of answer, but she had needed to ask, if only to break the ominous quiet with the sound of her own voice. Because of course Yue would not have come this way. He had not needed a coin for the boatman when he had had the escort of the lord of this realm.
The curtains of fog slowly pulled away to reveal a stage of black stone: the far dock. Lifting her long skirts up to free her step, Sakura started her journey away from the river's edge. "Thank you," she called back to the boatman, but he was already lost again in the mist.
Even without the light from her staff, she would have been able to see the grand gates that glowed a hellish red, and the golden beast that paced across its entrance. Willing herself brave, she approached. The great cat blocked her way.
"I am Cerberus," he growled thunderously, "the guardian beast of the Underworld. Only the dead may pass this gate."
"But I am dead," said the girl. "And someone has passed this gate who isn't. And I'm going to bring him back to the living."
. . .
Pale Sun, Crescent Moon
"… and he scares me, but I want him by my side…"
Yue stood, arms crossed, in the temple atrium. Where his bare feet, the tail of his long braid, and the tips of his wings touched the smooth marble floor, he was reflected like another alabaster statue. With his stern and cold expression, he looked as unyielding as the carved figures spaced between the temple columns, but his goddess-given beauty set him apart. No mortal hand could carve male features as inhumanly perfect. In the pale light of pre-dawn, his silvery hair was like undyed silk, his wings just a tint darker, and his skin glowed like moonlight.
He was unaware or unbothered by the hidden eyes that assessed him. The newest temple novice stood behind one of the temple statues, peeking at the winged god. She held with one hand the fall of her dark, straight hair to keep it from betraying her against the paleness of the temple stone. She had been on her way back from collecting fresh flowers for Kythere's altar – a task newly assigned, and one that showed that she was favored by the High Priestess – when she glimpsed the winged god, and paused, hidden, for a better look. This was the first time that she had seen an Erote, one of the angels of Kythere, and his magnificence surpassed his description.
Just as the novice had decided to hurry on the completion of her task, the winged god was joined by a second figure, as brightly colored as he was pale. The newcomer, dressed in the rose-colored robes of a high level priestess, approached with trepidation. The novice leaned more closely against the statue that obscured her and spied on their meeting.
Quietly, the auburn-haired priestess stood a careful distance from Yue, waiting to catch his attention. The priestess and the novice were of the same youthful age, and the novice admired the other girl's bravery. At first, the angel seemed to take no notice of the priestess, but the novice noticed that his hyacinth eyes flickered her way long before he spoke.
"Do you have need of me, Priestess Sakura?" he asked. His voice was like the whispering of a veil.
"Lord Anteros," began the priestess, with a slight quaver in her voice, "will you grace us at the dawn ceremony? High Priestess Yelan begs your presence."
"The Dawn Celebration is more fitting to my other self… …however," answered the winged god, "I will follow." He waited for Sakura to lead the way into the temple proper, and then strode calmly in her wake.
The novice followed quickly after. She sprinted down a peripheral corridor, taking a shortcut to make up for her wasted time. If the Erote was kept waiting, she would certainly be punished. In her first few days of being pledged to the goddess Kythere, the girl had earned the approval of High Priestess Yelan, and had each day been given greater and more important duties. She did not want to lose her favor because of a moment's idle curiosity! Holding the basket of delicate blossoms carefully against her body, the novice pushed herself to run as fast as her racing thoughts.
She succeeded in getting to the altar room in time, and breathlessly helped the waiting priestesses arrange the flowers. The other girls pledged to the temple were as young as she, and conspiritorily hid her delayed arrival when the High Priestess arrived to review their work.
Unlike the other priestesses, High Priestess Yelan was not a girl. She was a woman of an unguessable age, past the blush of youth but without any of the damages of time. Her manner was almost as imposing as the Erote Yue. Her robes were persimmon red, as if color had saturated the cloth over time, staining from novice-white and deepening through attained rank. Her robes trailed across the marble floor like plumage as she glided toward the group of girls.
A composed smile touched her lips when she was done surveying the preparations. "Well done, Tomoyo," she said to the novice. "Well chosen."
The novice bowed her head. "Thank you, High Priestess." Tomoyo had noticed that Priestess Sakura had entered the room with the angel Yue only a moment after the High Priestess, whose manner was deferential only to the winged god. That she had spared a moment to notice Tomoyo was a great honor, for after that brief pause, her attention returned to Yue, and to the impending dawn.
"To honor our Great and Benevolent Goddess," began Yelan in a resounding voice, "Kythere, who is Love, we greet the dawn." The High Priestess raised her arms to the altar, making her bracelets of gold sing against each other. "As at dawn, the sea bore her forth." The first bands of true sunlight began to streak across the marble floor, lighting the room in rose and gold.
At the voicing of Kythere's name, Yue's countenance softened somewhat, evidence that even Love Unrequited held affection for his own mother. It was the nature of Yue, as the Lord Anteros, to be seemingly indifferent, and yet, he had gone to this rural temple in obedience of the goddess's will. He continued to stay, despite the lack of company beyond a handful of mortals, because she had asked him to wait for her in this place. He thought that the waiting would be over soon; he had been here, restless, for a full season. Spring was newly in the surrounding meadows now, dotting them with a confetti of wildflowers, like the ones on Kythere's altar. The goddess was fond of wide meadows, and leafy glades; surely she would be visiting this country temple in the next few days.
Yelan finished the simple ceremony as the disc of the sun formed fully above the horizon. The girl priestesses began to smile among themselves, and Yue overheard the words, "now we can eat!" whispered among their number. He pressed his lips together in disapproval. These girls were too young, he thought, to take their duties seriously. His glance was cold when Priestess Sakura once again approached him, and she shied when he looked at her. It was exasperating. After months, her reaction was always the same. She seemed afraid of him, and he found her reaction baffling.
"Will you join us in breaking our fast?" she asked timidly.
"I do not eat," he answered, stating a fact that she knew well.
"We would welcome your company," she insisted boldly. "I know that our conversation is the simple noise of country girls, and not very entertaining to hear, but… " she hesitated with returning shyness, "…it saddens me to see you alone."
"Lord Anteros does not need to be bothered by mortal chatter," said High Priestess Yelan as she walked up behind Sakura. "Forgive the intrusion, my Lord."
"There is nothing to be forgiven," said Yue, and strode away, outside into the new sunlight.
Yelan turned her head to Sakura. "Oversee the others," she said firmly. As the girl obeyed, the High Priestess beckoned Tomoyo away from the other girls. The novice clasped her hands and waited attentively. "Tomoyo, I will give you an honor above others. You will attend Lord Anteros; see to anything he requires. And if he requires nothing," she continued archedly, "then you will leave him to his solitude." She indicated that the novice should follow after the angel of their goddess, and then Yelan left to join the junior priestesses.
It was a great honor, Tomoyo understood, but she was hungry also. She did as she was bade sadly, walking out into the wild, tree-filled garden. The Erote was easy to find; he was standing silently under a tree's shade, in the same pose as when she had first seen him. When he saw her, however, standing away from him at an attentive distance, he did something that she had not seen before. He brought his wings up around his body, and when they pulled away and disappeared, another person stood in his place. This new person smiled her way, warmly but with a hint of mischief.
"Lord Anteros…?" questioned the novice uncertainly.
The man made a slight bow. "Lord Eros," he corrected kindly. "But you can call me Yukito."
This, Tomoyo reasoned, was what the Erote had meant when he had referred to his "other self." Eros was the god of passionate love; Anteros was the god of love unrequited. Unlike the other angels of the goddess, these two shared one body. She hid her surprize by returning his bow.
Yukito looked around, noting the earliness of the morning. "Where are the others?" he asked.
"My Sisters are attending to their breakfasts, my Lord," said Tomoyo.
His face brightened even more at the mention of food. "And why aren't you at breakfast, then?"
"I attend to you, my Lord," was the girl's soft answer.
"Well, then…" said the Erote, with a light chuckle, "why am I not at breakfast? Come with me," he beckoned. He waited until Tomoyo waited beside him, and then led the way to the open courtyard where the priestesses took their meals.
As they walked through the trees, Yukito openly studied the young girl. "You are new here," he said in friendly manner. "I don't recall seeing you before."
"I was pledged three days ago," explained Tomoyo. "My mother seeks favor with the goddess, and other girls from my village have also been pledged here."
"It's good to have friends in a new place," the Erote commented.
Tomoyo's pace slowed slightly. "It would be good to have friends here," she said quietly.
The Erote's look became speculative. "In a temple to Love, there is no love here for you?" he asked in amused tones.
"No," answered the novice simply.
"That can be remedied," the young god mused aloud. Tomoyo cast him a questioning look, but he was otherwise distracted. "Ah, that looks delicious!" he exclaimed as the table came into view. With spring, a new bounty of early vegetables and fruits filled the serving baskets at meals. Foraged mushrooms, fern heads, and sprouts enhanced the dishes of prepared foods. Lord Eros approached the humble feast enthusiastically, and Tomoyo increased her stride to keep up with him.
. . .
Hard to Explain
"…don't cry, 'cause it's all right…"
Tomoyo stayed in attendance to Lord Eros during and after the meal. She was grateful for the chance to eat, and demurely ate her small meal as quickly as good manners would allow. Finishing in the same amount of time, Yukito easily ate not double Tomoyo's portion, but possibly double Tomoyo's weight; Yelan had begun to nervously relay the temple servants back to the kitchen in a constant loop. The priestesses kept their heads down to prevent open-mouthed gaping.
The young god thanked them graciously for the meal before wandering back into the tree-shaded temple grounds. Tomoyo followed, but at a polite distance that kept her in sight of both the Erote and the group of Priestesses. Her duties and lack of status kept her apart from them most of the time, and she was curious. Although they were from her village, and her village was a small one, she had not known these girls. Tomoyo was of the lowest status among them here, but in their village, the reverse had been true; she was from one of the wealthiest families.
She thought that she recognized some of the faces: the lively one who wore her hair in curling pigtails; the quiet one, who had finished her meal and was now practicing her calligraphy strokes against the table cloth with dove feather; and the pretty one, with the long, wavy hair, who was meant to return to the village when she became of age to marry her older suitor. And then there was Priestess Sakura, who Tomoyo had not seen since Sakura had left the village as a small girl. She was Tomoyo's cousin, but their families had vied for Kythere's favor since her mother's youth, creating an animosity that kept the families, and the two cousins, apart.
While Tomoyo was watching her cousin, Eros was watching Tomoyo. His silver bow was notched with an arrow of gold, and he aimed it at her heart. A smile of interest and mischief danced on his lips as he debated with himself. Would his mother approve of this little experiment? He decided that it did not matter - he would please himself – and let the arrow fly.
The arrow struck true, of course. Being mortal, the girl did not feel it pass into her, and would only become aware of it over time. Whether the arrow remained one of his, or became one belonging to his other self, would remain to be seen. He raised his bow with a second arrow, aimed now at the auburn-haired priestess, but she moved out of sight, and so he returned the arrow and bow to the ether. The stricken novice immediately followed after the priestess, her charge forgotten.
Now unattended, Yukito strolled through the trees, enjoying the dappled sunlight. He liked the darkness of the shadows for the contrast it provided, making the sunlight stand out in glowing shafts, like a volley of arrows raining through the lonely gloom. Flowers like tiny white bells sprung up among the trees, where the cool shade kept the more delicate, sun-loving wildflowers out in the grassy field beyond the trees' edge. The Erote picked a handful of the snowdrops as he walked and gathered a small bouquet in his hands. Their scent was as light as their color.
Among the trees' tall shadows, another shadow stood. He leaned casually against a trunk. Yukito was startled to see a man here, but as he stepped closer, he saw that the watcher was no more a mortal than Yukito himself was. The stranger's power was evident in his brooding, dark eyes, despite those shining eyes being hidden by unruly strands of thick black hair, and it drew Yukito to him.
"You are a god," said the Erote, questioning.
"I am," replied the stranger with a smirk.
"Then how is it that I don't know you?" Yukito asked.
The stranger straightened and walked with casual slowness toward the Erote. "But I know you," he said seductively. He continued to close the distance between them until he was standing close enough to touch; since he was a head taller than Yukito, Yukito had to tip his head back to look into the other man's face. "You may call me Touya," the stranger said languidly.
"To-ya," repeated Yukito breathlessly.
The dark-eyed god laughed softly. "You look lost," he continued lightly. "Are you alone?"
It was Yukito's turn to laugh. "Not really, no," he said. "There is a little temple girl watching me… well, she is supposed to be watching me," he amended with a smile. "But I gave her something else to think about."
Touya stepped more closely forward, and Yukito flirtatiously retreated backward, until his retreat was blocked by a tree trunk at his back. Touya placed a palm against the bark and leaned down to look into Yukito's eyes. "I could give you something else to think about, too," he whispered. "My chariot is waiting… want to go to my place? I could… show you… my etchings."
. . .
Priestess Sakura noticed that a figure in white was following her like an echo, and stopped and doubled-back until she was standing face to face with the other girl. The novice looked at Sakura with sparkling eyes full of wordless adoration. "Ah… Tomoyo," the priestess said nervously, "should you be following me around like this?"
Tomoyo clasped her hands to her chest. "But you are so very wonderful!" she exclaimed.
Sakura giggled with awkwardness. "But then… who is with Lord Eros?" she asked.
"Lord Eros…" Tomoyo said, as if she could not comprehend the words. She blinked, looking at Sakura silently. Then her eyes slowly widened, and covering her gasp with both hands, she turned and ran back to where she had left her duty behind.
Sakura ran after the other girl. Her behavior had been so strange, and Sakura had a bad feeling. They ran through the brightly sunlit meadow; Tomoyo was heading for the shadowed grove. When their path took them into the darkness under the trees, they had to stop for breath and to let their eyes readjust to the lack of light.
"Where is he?" panted Tomoyo with fear in her voice.
Priestess Sakura looked around. She rested her staff against a tree trunk while she inspected the grounds. She found a trail of snowdrop flowers, strewn carelessly in the dry leaves and dirt, in an area marked by the long, thin grooves of... tire tracks? They ended suddenly, and the earth at that spot was warm with the use of magick. She looked pityingly at the girl, who was as pale as a specter, except for the contrast of her wide, dark eyes.
"Where is he?" the novice repeated breathlessly.
Sakura explained to High Priestess Yelan her suspicions on what had happened while Tomoyo stood silently shaking. The novice stared at the floor, unable to meet the faces of any of her gathered Sisters. The priestesses listened to Sakura's story with dismay; they looked from one to another uncertainly.
High Priestess Yelan's expression was hard with disappointment. "The goddess must not know of this," she said to the young priestesses. "If Lord Hades has indeed taken her son, we will all be held accountable."
"Lord Eros may have gone willingly," Sakura offered.
"But Lord Anteros would not have," said Yelan. "We were charged with the well-being of both." She briefly closed her eyes, her first showing of fear.
The priestess with pigtails spoke up questioningly. "Can't we just ask for him back?"
"Lord Hades keeps to the Underworld," answered the High Priestess, "and no living mortal may enter his demesne."
"What if someone died?" asked Naoko, the priestess who was usually quiet, with uncharacteristic liveliness. "A ghost could enter Hades, right?"
"Ghosts…" repeated Priestess Sakura, suddenly looking her young age.
While Sakura's eyes widened, Yelan's narrowed with speculation. "If someone died…" she murmured. Her cold glance took in the young girls around her. A dozen innocent faces looked up to her without comprehension. "Which one of you," queried The High Priestess, "would willingly offer your life for your goddess?"
The novice Tomoyo's gasp was echoed by her Sisters as each of them understood the full meaning of their High Priestess's words. One of them would die. They were only being offered the opportunity to volunteer. Tomoyo fearfully raised her tear-filled eyes from the floor. She was the least of them, and the fault was hers. She opened trembling lips to speak.
"I will," said Sakura, before Tomoyo could find her voice. The young priestess held onto her staff with a white-knuckled grip, but her voice was pure and brave. Yelan turned to her with surprize, and Sakura turned her face up to her superior with strength in her expression. "If Lord Anteros is an unwilling… guest… of Lord Hades, then I will see to his return."
"But you'll die!" exclaimed Tomoyo with horror. Her tears spilled freely.
"Very well," said Yelan to Sakura, "the duty will be yours. Naoko, in my chamber there is a jar carved of crystal. Bring it." The quiet priestess made haste to obey the High Priestess. To Sakura, Yelan continued, "Within that jar are seeds of thorn apple. Death will be quick and certain. I can send you with payment for the ferryman and with your staff, but that is all. You must go quickly and send them back quickly." Her voice gentled. "As for you… our goddess will know that you are a dutiful Daughter. May you rest in Elysium."
"Thank you, High Priestess," said Sakura. Priestess Naoko returned with the described jar, and a chalice of water.
The priestesses prepared a pallet for their sacrificial sister in front of Kythere's altar. With the terrible taste of the poison in her mouth, Priestess Sakura lay herself down and turned her eyes to the image of doves, carved in the translucent stone; they were adorned with fresh wildflowers that still held the morning's dew. She would do this, she thought bravely, for Love.
Though, except for Yelan, the other priestesses watched from the edges of the room as she waited to die, Tomoyo kneeled at Sakura's side. Tomoyo's face was paler than the doves, and her lashes were flecked with tears. "You're eyes are the color of lupine," Sakura observed curiously.
"It's my fault," Tomoyo said in a strangled whisper. "You shouldn't have to…"
"It's all right," Sakura assured her cousin, who she hardly knew. "Somehow, it will be alright."
High Priestess Yelan rested her hand on Sakura's forehead. The skin was cold; the girl's eyes were becoming unfocused. Yelan leaned close to the young priestess. "Die quickly," she encouraged her, "and do not forget your duty."
. . .
Beneath the Gate
"I'm tired of being alone, the teary night…"
"I am Cerberus," the golden beast bellowed, "the Guardian Beast of the Underworld. Only the dead may pass this gate!" He stood menacingly, the muscles of his splayed legs standing out powerfully. His immense feline form blocked the gateway, tail swishing like a serpent waiting to strike.
Priestess Sakura braced her staff before her. This first challenge would be the simplest; she could not fail here. "But I am dead," she stated in a strong voice. "Yet there is one beyond this gate who is not, and I am here to return him to the living."
Her words balked the Guardian Beast. "You look pretty lively," he said in a conversational voice, fixating on her first statement.
"Thank you," said Sakura. "But I really am dead. And I need to hurry."
Cerberus brought his powerful head close to her face. He sniffed, and eyed her with close scrutiny. "You died so young. That's kind of sad," he said.
"Ummm… may I please pass the gate?" the young priestess asked. The Beast moved aside, clearing the path that lead downward. "Thank you," said Sakura sweetly, and headed into the forbidding gloom.
"Do you know where you're going?" Cerberus called after her.
"Yes!" called Sakura back, encouraged by her first success. She gave Cerberus a little hand wave in parting because it seemed polite to do so.
The light of her staff parted the darkness before her, but shapes were moving in the shadows. Her pace slowed. There was no longer a road before her, just the vast gloom, and she was not alone. Sakura held back a scream when the thin remainder of what was once a living person drifted next to her; whether the wraith had been a man or a woman, adult or child, even it no longer knew. Ghosts were all around her, shades uncertain of their places in Hades.
Priestess Sakura clutched her staff and made herself think only of her quest. She quickened her pace once again, trusting that, with her purpose clear in her mind, she would find her way to her goal. A line of women crossed her path, carrying leaking clay jars in their blood-stained hands. She shied away from them and found herself walking along another river, one that moved fast. The water was crisply clear and looked inviting to drink, but Sakura knew the danger of the Underworld's temptations.
At the edge of the river, kneeling in the mud, the shade of a woman cupped water in her hands and watched it flow down her arms. "I've waited forever…" she murmured with confusion, "for… who?". She looked towards the young priestess without seeing her. "Forever…" the ghost whispered with longing.
Sakura fled from the river of forgetting, and from the lost souls that wandered its banks. She realized that she was running through trees, and once again on a clear trail. The gloom appeared more like twilight; perhaps, when the day died, this was its place in Hades, the young priestess contemplated. She caught her breath again by slowing from her sprint to a brisk walk. By the illumination of her staff and the extra light around her, she discerned that the short, fine trunked trees around her were flowering myrtles. The sight of this sacred symbol of her goddess bolstered Sakura, and she felt her earlier fright fading.
Ahead, a looming shadow against the horizon revealed itself to be a tower and a high wall. It seemed, to Sakura, that she was walking directly toward it. This, perhaps, was Hade's palace at last; it seemed forbidding enough. Priestess Sakura strode on.
From beyond the wall, a blood-chilling cry split the air, stopping the girl in her tracks. More terrible sounds followed: the cracking of lashes, screams, and noises like wet ripping. As the sounds continued, Sakura nearly screamed herself. She could not go back, only forward, so forward she went, even though she shook with every horrible new sound that assaulted her ears.
Tears streamed from her eyes as she drew closer to the dark edifice. Kythere forgive me, but I can't go into that place, she prayed silently. Yet she continued on, becoming more reluctant to place each next step. Sakura stared at her sandaled feet.
Then the path before her split, becoming a wider road that in one direction would continue to take her toward the dreaded tower, and in the other direction, obliquely away from that terrible edifice. Her heart heavy with guilt but lightened with relief, the priestess turned to walk down the narrower way. She blocked out the harpy screeches that she could hear echoing beyond her light, and hardened herself to the moaning of souls in endless punishment.
A soft, warm wind was blowing down the gently curving road. It dried the tears on Sakura's face as they streaked across her cheeks. She walked into a growing light that was as golden as a day in autumn, and up a slow rise. Myrtle trees had given way to laurels, and their hard, shining leaves of deep green fluttered in that same zephyr wind. Sakura dimmed her staff's light, and shrank the staff itself to small size. She picked blades of the long grass that was growing all around, braided it into a looped string, then tied her staff to it and slipped it on over her head. There was no path beneath her feet anymore, she saw, just the high meadow grass, and around her, vast fields dotted with trees.
"I don't belong here," she said aloud to herself. "I abandoned my duty. I don't belong here." There was no one around to hear her, only the little birds that tittered in a nearby cherry tree that was thick with pink blossoms.
She grew accustomed to being alone. The light never changed; it was always the merry glow of late afternoon. She found fruit hanging from trees that were still thick with blossoms as well, the natural order of flower-to-seed suspended. She felt no desire to eat, so she ate nothing. She would sleep, and wake up again to the unchanged day, and not know how long she had slept.
Eventually, she longed for company, and when she did, she came across a gentle-faced man who was brushing at a broken piece of pottery. He was sitting on the bare dirt of an area marked off in small squares; each square patch had been dug up at differing levels. The man, whose dress and manner made Sakura think "teacher", was surrounded by small, neat piles of earthenware and other discards of past lives.
"Hello," he greeted her, with a kind smile that reached his soft brown eyes. He looked like a young father, and had a handsome face.
"Hello," she answered back. She kneeled at his side. The dirt was dust-fine and soft beneath her knees.
"Lovely place, isn't it?" he asked.
Sakura looked into eyes that seemed full of understanding and ready forgiveness. "I don't deserve to be here," the young priestess said.
The man set down his brush and the clay shard. "Why not?" he asked simply.
"I was too afraid to enter Hade's palace. It was my duty to do so for my goddess, and for my sister priestesses, but I just couldn't !" She looked at the man pleadingly. "It's a terrible place! I was so afraid!"
"You were afraid of the Villa?" the man inquired with bemusement.
Sakura wiped her eyes. "The… Villa?" she echoed back without understanding.
The man pointed out across the low hills of waving grass. "That's the palace of Lord Hades," he explained. He was indicating a tile-roofed building bordered with cypresses.
"But…" said Sakura.
"The pines are a little gloomy, but I have never thought it looked frightening," the man continued to muse.
The priestess smiled with elated hope. "Thank you!" said Sakura, jumping to her feet. Impulsively, she quickly embraced her benefactor. While the man recovered from her enthusiastic hug, she set her sights on the Villa and her sandaled feet barely touched the ground as she ran.
She raced through Elysium, whose deep grasses, laurel and flowering cherry trees called to her to stay. Her heart was light again, making the place beautiful to her, but hope called more strongly. In short time, the low buildings guarded with flame-shaped pines met her approach.
The palace beyond the fields stretched out with open and airy architecture. Sakura walked beneath a pergola entwined with wisteria, down the brick paved corridor that led to the entrance of Hade's palace. At the corridor's end, the peach trees that framed the portico were blooming. Sakura pulled open the heavy door and entered.
The interior was nothing like Priestess Sakura had expected. Cold slate and granite would have suited the Lord of the Underworld's reputation, but the palace entryway was brightly lit with windows that spilled warm sunlight across the terracotta floor. Sakura walked cautiously down the hallway, seeking the throne room that would be jarringly out of place with the décor. Among the furnishings were tables of richly dark wood that held bowls and baskets of pomegranates and golden apples. The rooms held the presence of home, albeit the home of a god, with lavish accents like the fig-sized rubies that were piled around the base of an arrangement of dried strawflowers. Yet the villa seemed uninhabited. Sakura found a cooking area, a dining area, and a bedroom with doors that opened to a garden. She walked past the bed that looked recently slept in, its crisp white sheets spilling carelessly to the floor, and out through the doors.
There was an orchard beyond the patio: pomegranate, quince, persimmon, and fig. Water splashed and danced in a fountain, sending up droplets that made a rainbow path, should Iris ever choose to visit this realm. At first, Sakura thought that the giggling sounds she was hearing also came from the fountain. When she realized that the sounds of mirth were coming from within the orchard, she sought their source with curiosity.
Lord Eros lay with his head in the lap of the dark god while Lord Hades playfully fed the Erote fat Medjool dates. The god of the Underworld carefully picked the fruit free of its pit before holding it teasingly to Yukito's lips. Lord Eros was giggling, and Touya was answering with his own low laugh. Watching them, Priestess Sakura felt herself coloring as pink as her robes.
They continued to be completely unaware of her presence, and Sakura was paralyzed with indecision. She was already standing in the sunlight, in full view, but their attentions were locked only on each other. She tried to make a noise, and succeeded only in a small squeak.
But the squeak was enough. In an instant, Priestess Sakura learned how it felt to have the attention of the Lord of the Underworld.
. . .
Rock and Bird
"…his smile, his anger, and his kisses."
The eyes of Lord Hades were as dark as the terrifying depths of Tartarus, all the light gone from them when they turned from Eros to Sakura. He fixed her in place with a level gaze that was not cold, but burning, and Priestess Sakura had no doubt that she was facing a god. If before she had been hesitant to speak, now she was completely unable.
"Oh, hello!" said Yukito brightly, sitting up from Touya's lap. "I know you, don't I?" Lord Eros leaned backwards into an upright snuggle against Touya; the Lord of Hades slipped his arm around Yukito's waist possessively. "Sakura, right?"
"You know this one?" Lord Hades murmured into the Erote's ear.
"She's one of my mother's little priestesses," Eros murmured back, his lips a breath away from Touya's.
"I don't entertain visitors," said Touya to the priestess. "Go back to Elysium."
"But she isn't one of the dead, To-ya," the Erote argued sweetly.
"Trust me to know these things?" Lord Hades responded. To Sakura, he said in a harder tone, "I told you to go. Do not make me ask again."
Lord Eros pulled his gaze away from the Lord of the Underworld and turned his concerned attention to Sakura. "You are dead? What happened?"
Priestess Sakura found that she could form words as long as she focused only on the kind Erote. "I had to come to bring you back," she said.
A strange look crossed the Erote's face. He stood up slowly and stepped back from Lord Hades. A sudden pair of glowing wings covered him, replacing Eros with Anteros.
"Why would you do such a thing," demanded Lord Anteros. "A mortal's death cannot be taken lightly!" His eyes flashed silvery in his stern face.
Touya sighed heavily. He stretched out on his back across the grass and crossed his arms behind his head.
"It was the only way…" the priestess began, her voice quavering.
"Ridiculous!" Yue said with a toss of his head, but there was a quality of fear in his expression. "Yelan chose you over herself –"
Sakura dared to interrupt him. "I volunteered," she said emphatically, "Lord Anteros, to ask for your return." Wide eyed, she searched his face for a wisp of understanding. "I know my duty," she added in a whisper.
A frown crossed Lord Anteros' countenance. "It should not have been you," he said quietly.
"You must return to the temple," the young priestess continued. "If Our Lady were to find you missing, it would be terrible for my Sisters."
"I would have returned in due time."
"We were uncertain if you had been taken against your will," Sakura replied. She risked a darted look in the direction of Lord Hades, who was watching their conversation disinterestedly.
"I can leave at any time," the Erote said.
Touya suddenly took interest. "No, you can't," he said.
"Why not?" asked the winged god. His ghost of a smile had a slight challenge to it.
Lord Hades grinned. "Because you've eaten the food of the Underworld," he answered.
"Oh!" exclaimed Sakura in dismay.
"I do not eat," said Yue emphatically.
Sakura knew the truth of his often-repeated declaration. "What has he eaten?" the priestess dared to ask.
Touya laughed heartily. "What hasn't he eaten?" he answered with a peculiar quality to his question. "More than a few pomegranate seeds."
"I do not eat," the Erote said again.
"Lord Hades," Priestess Sakura began humbly, "was it Lord Anteros who… partook of the Underworld's food? Or was it Lord Eros?"
The laughter of the Lord of the dead faded into suspicion. "What do you mean?"
"I have eaten nothing," Lord Anteros proclaimed. "My other self is the glutton."
Touya studied the Erote for a few moments in silence before one eyebrow slowly went up with understanding. "Now, that's a problem," he said.
"You have no idea," Yue answered back.
"Yukito is your other self. You, yourself, don't eat, and haven't eaten anything here," Hades mulled. "So he has to stay… but you can go." Touya turned his focus to Priestess Sakura; she cringed involuntarily. "I don't suppose you have a solution in mind for this," Lord Hades inquired of the frightened girl.
Yue sighed theatrically, drawing the other god's attention. "Shared time," he stated with a note of familiar defeat. "It's always like this," he added in a subaudible grumble.
"Um?" voiced Sakura with confusion.
"Six months on, six months off is too long of a separation," bargained Touya. "What about splitting the week?"
"Or day and night?" Yue negotiated, clearly unhappy about any option.
"I would want some nights," claimed Lord Hades. "Can we work in an occasional trade?"
"That would be acceptable," Lord Anteros agreed wearily. "Now, then – may I go?" He tipped his chin up with a haughty glare.
Touya made an open handed, slow wave in a wide motion. "If nothing is keeping you here," he said.
"Come, then, priestess," said the Erote to Sakura, beginning to walk away.
"She can't go with you," said Hades as if explaining the obvious. "She's dead."
Yue turned back around sharply. "Her death was necessary to reach this place. But it was not her time."
"She's still dead," said the dark god coldly.
The Erote looked at the young girl. Her face was brave, though her eyes were sad. "Priestess!" he said.
"I knew what would happen," said Sakura plainly. A small and trembling smile touched her lips. "I knew that I couldn't return with you."
Yue's cold face changed; it softened with understanding. He walked the few steps toward the young priestess and dropped to one knee before her. Taking her small hands in his own, he looked into her eyes and told her, "Your sacrifice is not unappreciated. You have shown yourself to be above all others in your devotion." He pressed his forehead to her hands before standing. "I will not leave without you," he announced.
Hades scoffed. "Have it your way," he said, also standing. "Stay."
"No!" cried Sakura in distress. "You have to return!"
"I will not go," insisted the winged god gently, "unless I take you with me."
"I'm not in the habit of letting mortals return to the living," said Touya.
They were at an impasse. Lord Hades was unyielding; he leaned casually against a tree and stared down the Erote. Lord Anteros was equally stoic, only the silver flash in his eyes betraying his anger. Priestess Sakura finally sat down on the ground, waiting without hope for one of them to surrender.
A sudden colored blur of motion broke the silence. With a squeal, a prismatically colored young woman appeared and latched herself onto the Lord of Hades fiercely. "Iris!" Hades shouted. "Get off of me!"
The rainbow messenger fluttered her giant butterfly wings coquettishly while attempting to maintain her grip on the god. "Touya," she cooed. "I've missed you! Aren't you happy to see me?"
The Lord of the Underworld glared. "Do you have a message for me, Iris?" he growled.
"No, no message," she said with flirtation.
"Then why are you here?" Touya interrogated with exasperation.
"Oh, just to announce…" the colorful girl purred, leaning in to his face seductively, "…your visitor."
A vision of light filled the orchard, and Kythere appeared. She floated into the clearing with a spangle of stars shining around her like a crown, and when her feet touched the ground, flowers began to spring up. They were delicate wildflowers, their frilled petals a rich pink color, and they perfumed the air with the vanilla scent of wild carnations. The goddess of Love had the guise of a young woman with flowing waves of hair and amused green eyes. When she spoke, her voice was musical. "Hello, Touya," she said. She then strode toward the Erote. "Hello, Yue," she said.
"Mother," Anteros said, his surprise apparent.
"Welcome, Kythere," said Lord Hades brittlely. "What brings you to my home?"
The goddess crouched by Sakura. "This one," Kythere explained. "Don't be afraid of me, my dearest Daughter," she said, "my most dutiful Sakura." She stood up again and looked at the Lord of the Dead. "I know it's breaking your rules, but you won't refuse me if I ask for her return, will you?" she petitioned sweetly. "You already have my son. Perhaps you could give me back my Daughter."
Hades looked like he might argue, but in the end his words held only an edge of sharpness. "Who can refuse you, oh goddess?" he rhetorically asked. "Take her, if you like. She will return to me eventually."
"You have my thanks," said Kythere. "Well, then," she continued, taking the girl priestess by the hand, "Amor Vincit Omnia. Lead the way, Iris." The butterfly-winged woman finally freed Touya from her tenacious embrace and danced ahead, with a spectral aurora for a shadow. With a final look toward her son, and Sakura in her protection, Kythere followed after the rainbow messenger.
Yue began to follow, but stopped. Without preamble, he changed his form and, as Eros, walked back into Touya's arms. "We won't be parted long," he assured his lover.
Touya pulled Yukito into a tender kiss. "The nights are getting shorter and the days are getting longer," he said afterward.
"We'll have to renegotiate in autumn," said the Erote. "I have to go now," he sighed merrily. "My mother is waiting."
AUTHOR'S NOTE and DISCLAIMER: I've used an alternate spelling for Keroberos, and I hope this world counts as a completely new universe. The universe may be free, but each of the characters and anything else CCS is the property of CLAMP. Song quotations and song titles (yes, they're real) were written by Michael Timmins and belong to the Cowboy Junkies.
Things you might want to know:
Kythere is another, little used, name for Aphrodite, the goddess of Love. She is associated with doves, sparrows, and rabbits. The myrtle is sacred to her. That is Nadeshiko, by the way; her actual flower is a "wild pink", but it looks like a wild carnation. I chose not to use the name "Aphrodite" because I felt that it was too well known.
She is the mother of the Erotes, winged young men that are the representations of love.
Eros (Cupid) is the god of passionate love. [Yukito]
Anteros is the god of unrequited love. [Yue] This is sometimes said to be "mutual love", but there seemed to be more evidence in favor of "unrequited love" when I was brushing up on my mythology.
I have used elements of several myths, including the story of Aeneis in Hades, the kidnapping (or was it?) of Persephone, Orpheus and Euridice, Cupid and Psyche, Echo and Narcissus. That's Tartarus, not Hade's palace, that scares Sakura. Medjool dates are really good; I highly recommend them with a walnut half in place of the pit. Iris [Ruby Moon] is a less important messenger of the gods than Hermes, and she uses the rainbow as her path to her destinations.
Amor Vincit Omnia = Love Conquers All
Look for Madoushi. Fujitaka should be obvious. Priestesses are Naoko, Rika, and Chiharu. I was being intentionally silly with this story. In a story full of gods, I could not resist the Deus ex Machina ending.