“Seven blackbirds in a tree,
count them and see what they be:
one for sorrow, two for joy,
three for a girl, four for a boy,
five for silver, six for gold,
and seven for a secret that’s never been told.”
— “The Crow,” James O’barr
The Underworld has been unusually bereft. Not of life, as the goddess has returned to stay for the next six moons, but of souls, the very things it was created to hold. Rinsing blood from his hands, Estarossa frowns, his gaze returning again and again to the half of Tartarus that is his, noting the numerous cages that stand empty, the cacophony of anguished screams diminished to an irritating hum. If Meliodas has taken notice — and he should have, no matter how distracting his paramour may be — then he has given no indication, merely judging what few mortals pass through their halls before retiring to his quarters, his queen in tow. The demon responsible for punishing those who have visited harm against their fellows straightens his shoulders and grabs his tunic from where he had haphazardly discarded it before making his way to the throne room, intent on finding out why, exactly, he is running out of work.
On the way, he joins with Zeldris. Brothers by title and circumstance, they rarely agree on anything, but their duty is one of the few common threads they share. The younger eyes him critically, but says nothing as they pass through the doors that mark the end of Tartarus. The vast hall that serves as court and gateway, the final place every soul sees before being granted the eternal bliss of Paradise or the never-ending torment of Tartarus, is empty save for the king. Where his queen might have wandered off to, Estarossa does not care. A goddess of life has no place in a realm of death, and her presence only serves to make Meliodas more lenient. The blond opens his eyes at their approach, his eyes the uncanny shade of green that replaces the usual black with every visit from her.
“It is early for you to be done with your duties,” he says dryly. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
Zeldris narrows his eyes, but Estarossa replies blithely, “Our duties, of course. Tell me, brother, where are the souls you would have us punish? Surely you have not sent them all to Paradise?”
“We cannot,” Zeldris’s voice is sharp, “do what has been demanded of us if there is nothing for us to work with.”
Meliodas considers them, his brows drawn low. “Are you implying that I have been neglecting my duty?” Slowly, he stands, his power unfurling and filling the room with darkness that writhes and twists. Then he pauses, his head cocked to the side. “I have judged those who have come. I do not need your complaints to know that there are far fewer than there should be.”
“Have the gods decided to lengthen their lives?”
At that, Estarossa laughs. “Even they would never dare to do that. It would upset their precious balance.”
Zeldris crosses his arms. “I have yet to hear you make any suggestions as to why —”
“Enough.” Both of them fall silent; as lenient as he may now be, Meliodas is still their king, and both of them have felt the sting of his wrath before. “If the gods had done such a thing, they would have informed me, and they could not have done so without our aid. They may be life, but we are death, and, outside of granting immortality, there is nothing they could have done without us.” His boots click on the marble as he descends the stairs, his eyes focused on Estarossa. “You will investigate why. Go to the burial sites, the shelters where mortals house their sick and wounded. Find out what, or who, is responsible.”
Estarossa frowns. “I’ve only just returned. Why should I go?”
“Your recent experience,” Meliodas’s lips quirk slightly, and Estarossa bites back a curse at his brother’s humor to his newly-ended exile, “means you are the most familiar with their lands and customs. It will be easier for you to pass unnoticed than myself or Zeldris. If you will not volunteer, consider it an order.”
He grits his teeth, bowing his head. “As you wish, Your Majesty.” Then he gathers the darkness to his shoulders, wings unfurling from his back, and once again he leaves the Underworld on his king’s command.
Nefeli giggles, peering around the column and covering her mouth to stifle the noise. Her pursuer will never find her, and that means she can stay in the temple until morning and eat the candied figs that the priestess makes for children like her. Like all from the village, she is barefoot, and the early autumn chill makes her press her toes in the grass for warmth as she watches for any sign that she has been found; all she must do is remain hidden until her parents have left for the evening, by which time it will be too dark for anyone to expect her to return home, and then she can sleep in the temple and maybe, if the priestess is more amused than angry, listen to more of the songs she sings about gods. She peeks around the column again, delighted to find no one there, and is preparing to sneak back inside when a gentle hand lands on her shoulder.
“I thought I would find you here,” a soft voice says, not unkindly. The girl turns to find the priestess standing behind her. As always, she reminds Nefeli of a doll, with dark hair and pale skin and a pretty face, her body modestly covered by a peplos of finely woven linen dyed a pale shade of lavender. A soft gray epiblema rests on her shoulders, and she unfastens it to drape it around Nefeli, warding off the evening cold. “What are you doing hiding behind the temple, little one?”
Nefeli’s lip quivers. “I want to stay here, priestess. I want to hear more of your stories!”
She laughs, the sound silvery and pleasant and warm. “You can hear more of my stories tomorrow, but this is no place for a child, particularly one with parents who are very worried for her.” When the first tear falls down Nefeli’s cheek — a tactic that always has her mother agreeing to whatever it is she wants — the priestess holds out her hand and uncurls her fingers. A candied fig rests cradled in her palm, and Nefeli gasps with delight as she snatches it away. “It is no longer safe to be out of town after dark. Will you return home if I give my word to allow you first pick of the stories in the morning?”
“Yes, priestess! Thank you!”
“Nefeli!” Her father’s voice has her whipping around, and she darts to him, squealing when he lifts her into his arms. “There you are! Your mother has been looking everywhere for you!” He spots the priestess behind the column, and his eyes widen and he drops into an awkward bow. “Priestess, I apologize for her. She wanders, and not even the gods can stop her when she sets her mind to something.”
“She was no bother.” The priestess smiles kindly. “Do you remember what I told you? Three drops, three times a day. No more, no less.”
“I remember. Thank you, priestess.” Her father bows again, and Nefeli glances between the two curiously. Her parents had come here seeking a blessing of some sort, something to do with fertility, and the priestess had drawn them into the temple to speak with them privately, leaving her with nothing to do but play with the other children. When that had become boring, she had found her hiding place. He glances toward the sky, where clouds move to block out the fading sun. “Will you be safe here? There are rumors —”
“There is no safer place for me to be,” she assures him.
He looks unconvinced, but does not press the topic. Instead, he holds Nefeli to him, murmuring a quiet farewell as he begins the trek down the hill. Nefeli watches the priestess as they leave; her mouth gapes when the priestess catches her eye and presses a finger to her lips, her eyes twinkling with mischief as a crow lands on her shoulder and sets about preening her hair. There is something lonely about the image despite the priestess’s good humor, and, years later, when she is older and has a husband and son of her own, Nefeli will wake in the night, the dream of a woman choked by darkness dancing behind her eyelids.
You cannot cheat death.
The man tries to breathe, only to find himself choking on blood. He had been warned more times than he can count not to traverse the path between his shop and the town after dark, yet every instance he had done so without running into trouble had only served to make him arrogant, and now he is paying the price for it. The bandit who had slit his throat as casually as he would have shaken his hand rummages through his chiton, letting out a triumphant chuckle when he extracts a pouch heavy with coin. The merchant tries to reach for him, to stop him, but the bandit merely crushes his fingers beneath his heel as he steps over him, and soon he is left with nothing but the weakening thunder of his pulse in his ears and the cold that creeps along his torso. His wife and son are waiting for him at home, as is the box in which he keeps the gold that will one day give his son a better life than his, and he wonders if it is worth dying for.
Then there are footsteps, careful and light upon the ground, and he turns his head to see a young woman standing next to him. Her face is obscured by a hood, yet he can make out the fullness of her lips and the delicate curve of her neck, and it shames him when the lust meant only for his wife dulls his fear. Her dress rustles as she kneels next to him, the shimmering fabric darkening as his blood stains the hem; he hates the sight, not because he is dying but because he instinctively knows the fabric is well-crafted and that it is now ruined pains the part of him devoted to his work. Her hands are cool and soothing when she places them on his chest, her hair dark where it slips from beneath her cloak. Are you a goddess? he wants to ask, but his voice is a raspy croak when he tries. The woman shushes him gently as her fingers probe the edges of his throat, tugging at the gash there with a sort of clinical curiosity.
“You cannot remain,” she says quietly. “This is no place for you.” Anger simmers beneath his skin. He has a family to return to. He cannot die here! She must read this in his expression, because her voice is apologetic when she adds, “I wish I could heal you, but I cannot. Whoever bound you here did so cleverly, and the only freedom for you is the afterlife.”
He opens his mouth to speak, yet she continues, “You have been buried for many moons, and dead for many more. Your son came to me today to ask me to guide you into rest. Will you allow it?”
No. You lie. I am not dead.
“You are. I am afraid it was sudden and violent, the two things that make this much easier for those who wish to defy the rule of the gods.” She sounds sad, but she is smiling when she leans down so he can see her eyes, likes flecks of steel in the shadows of her hood. “Your permission makes this easier, but is not necessary. You cannot remain. Your son is old and gray with grown children of his own. I spoke to his daughter this evening, and she has one child and wishes for another. They mourn for you, and for the fact that you cannot find peace.”
I need to see them. I must. I have to!
But she is already moving away, and her voice is sweet and melodious when she sings a song he does not know in a language he does not understand. Warmth floods him, the warmth of the sun and life and love and all of the things that he had forgotten. The song continues as she reaches into a pouch by her side and draws out two silver coins before pressing them into his palm, and they sear into his skin in a way that is pleasant and agonizing all at once. He wants to ask her what she is doing, what is happening to him, but his eyelids are heavy and body is no longer his to command. Inch by inch he relaxes, keeping his gaze on her until his eyes close and he feels the dirt shifting beneath his body.
“Rest,” she murmurs, and he does.
Pushing her way through the crowd, Moth clutches her basket, keeping a wary eye on the fruit within. There are only two days until the harvest festival, and the market is packed with traveling merchants and townsfolk alike, bodies pressed so closely together that it is hard to breathe, let alone walk. And, with what she has and how much silver she paid for it, she has no desire for someone with nimble, wandering fingers to make off with her bounty. Her mind catalogues what is yet to be done and what can be finished the next day; the floors and walls still need scrubbing, her robes must be finished, and there is food and poultices and little charms to prepare. It means another night with no sleep, but such is the life of a priestess dedicated to her service.
So caught up is she in her musings that she fails to notice the man in front of her until she collides with a broad, firm chest. Her first instinct is to rub the tip of her nose, which is aching quite horribly, but that would mean losing her grip on her basket, so she settles for wriggling it to soothe the sting as she takes a step back. Perhaps it’s the pale, silvery hue to his locks, but she mistakes him for an elder until she sees his face, which is handsome despite the indifferent expression he wears. One of his brows lifts in what she assumes to be bemusement, and her sense returns to her as he crosses his arms and cocks his head.
“I am terribly sorry!” Shifting the basket to one hand, she does her best to bow, the movement clumsy and a bit off balance. “I was lost to my thoughts and did not notice you.”
He grunts at that. “I see.”
Moth reaches into her basket and pulls out one of the fruits. The pomegranate is ripe to bursting in her palm, plump and delectable, and she holds it out to him apologetically. “Please take this. It is all I have to offer you at the moment.”
The man eyes it, his lips twisting disdainfully, and the way he takes it from her hand makes it seem as though he would rather not touch it. Moth bows once again, her grip on her basket tight to keep it from tipping over, and then darts around him. It doesn’t take long for the crowd to swallow her up. Because she is gone, she does not see the critical way he studies the fruit before he takes a tentative bite, nor the astonishment that lights up his features when the flavor explodes richly across his tongue. The man turns, his gaze sharp as he scans the people around him, but she is gone, and with her goes the warmth he had felt when her body brushed against his.