She was already half in love with Death.
She hid among the hateful, golden sheaves – her mother's handiwork – and watched him pass. His horses were strong and wild, midnight black, and his chariot was a woven tangle of monstrous roots laid atop cold blades that scythed across the earth. Long before she had ever seen him, he'd won her loyalty with the thoughtless trails he tore through ripened harvests. She coveted that chariot, dreamed of seizing the reins and carving fresh scars across field and flower in gouges too deep to heal.
Demeter, her mother, was cruel. She had not always been so, but in her youth she'd given her heart to a god both faithless and powerful. When he left, her rage couldn't touch him, so she struck instead at the proof of her folly – her daughter. Afterwards, she would pull the girl close and whisper, sometimes of comfort, sometimes of blame, but never of repentance.
Kore lived a half-life, weathering tenderness and hate in turns.
She was sixteen the first time she saw more of Death than the marks of his chariot. For years she'd suspected that there was a secret entrance to his realm; she used to follow the thin lines of barren earth he left in his wake for miles and miles, waiting for the trail to vanish and reveal to her the hidden chasm. But always her mother called her away and bent to cover his tracks, spilling seed in showers from her cloak and calling forth fresh grass to hide the bare soil.
But at sixteen, Kore found him. It happened quite by chance – she had borrowed a bow of Artemis and an arrow of Apollo without her mother's permission (or theirs) and stole away to hunt in the olive groves outside of Thebes. She let a dozen harmless animals pass, saving her ammunition in hopes that something monstrous might emerge to offer her a challenge.
She did not hear the sound of hooves until the chariot was almost on top of her. She threw herself out of its path, rolling up into a crouch as soon as she hit the ground and bringing her weapon to bear. She lifted the tip of her arrow and sighted along its line into solid shadow. He was utterly dark, with raven eyes that swallowed light. In one hand he held the reins to his horses, while his other arm was wrapped around a boy, hardly older than she, clad in the armor of Achaea and covered in blood. The boy's eyes were blank and open, his body limp and his face ghastly, but Kore was caught by the gentle line of Death's arm as he cradled the youth. He held him as one would hold a child, fragile and precious.
Kore saw that he was no threat, but in the instant of disconnection between her mind and body, her fingers loosed the arrow. She watched in horror as it sang through the air – her aim true, always true – and Death turned into it, shielding the carcass he carried with his own body. The arrow struck his shoulder and cracked, splintering into a dozen shards of ice as it fell away. He let out a sharp cry and her heart lurched, but his skin was neither pierced nor bruised. His horses pulled up, startled and skittish, and before she could stand Death had lowered the body to the floor of his chariot and stepped to the earth to face her.
She set her bow on the ground and rose to meet him; they were almost the same height.
Death considered her, his eyes tracing her loose hair and dirt-stained tunic. She knew she looked savage.
"I think you must be mad." He sounded perfectly civil. His breath misted in the air, and chill poured off his skin – a fresh breeze.
She suppressed a smile. "You're not the first to say so."
"Persephone, isn't it? I'm not much in touch with that side of the family, but you've too much spirit for Aurora and too little sense for Nike."
Her chin tilted upwards. "I prefer Kore," she said. "As my mother didn't choose it."
They stood silent and awkward. Death seemed to be waiting for a sign from her; perhaps an explanation.
"Why did you turn into the arrow?" she asked.
His eyes were too dark to read, but his mouth hardened. "I did it for you, as it happens. It is shameful to rend the flesh of the dead, and he no enemy of yours." He leaned forward, the brush of his breath frosting her lashes. "Don't try anything so foolish again. Consider this your warning."
The hair on her arms was rising, but Kore leaned forward to match him, hovering near his mouth. He blinked, and for a moment the white plume of his breath stopped. "I don't take well to threats," she told him.
"Given your temper, I suggest you get used to them." He shook his head, almost brushing her nose, and stepped back.
Then he was climbing into his chariot, and she couldn't tell if he was still angry. She hadn't apologized.
"I'm sorry," she said, unbidden. "I'm truly sorry." In two strides she reached the chariot and knelt over the body of the young soldier. Reaching to the belt hidden under her tunic, she plucked a jewel from its lining and laid the stone to his lips. She touched her forehead briefly to his limp hand and whispered a word of blessing. Then she lifted his shoulders and supported his neck as Death gathered him back into his arms. They stood close, the three of them, but she was careful not to touch the god without his invitation. "What was his name?" she asked, stepping down and folding her hands.
"His name was Zacchaeus," Death said, and Kore was glad to hear his voice so soft. "He was favored of fortune, it seems, to have won such rites from the hand of a goddess." He took up the reins, but never shifted his gaze from her face. "My name is Hades," he added, "but I prefer Leonidas. My father didn't choose it."
Kore laughed, surprised, and caught the edge of his smile. Then, with a sound like the avalanche of rock, he and his chariot vanished.
She returned often to the site of that first encounter, searching fretfully for hidden seams in the earth. But the gateway to the kingdom below was barred to the likes of her; apart from Hades himself, only the mortal dead could pass, and she would never be of their number.
Still, she found chariot tracks from time to time and took to leaving her jewels tucked into the ruts. She hoped he would find them; she gave enough to cover the passage of a hundred worthy souls who lacked coin. Once or twice she glimpsed the god from a distance, most often along the dusty perimeter of battlefields. She ducked down amid tall-grown wheat and watched him lift broken bodies with reverence.
Her own body was often broken, though it bore no outward sign. Her skin was flawless but the bones beneath were thick with hidden damage. She healed quickly, ran fast, and fought back when her mother's moods turned vicious, but she was young yet. None of her generation could match the elders in power or pain.
At their next meeting, it was he who sought her out. She had fallen asleep in one of Apollo's sacred caves outside of Delphi, high upon the mountainside. When she woke, Death was kneeling beside her with a very young girl in his lap. The child was little more than an infant, her skin a livid grey, and though her eyes were filming white, tears trickled down her face. She was hideous, but the echoes of her living beauty lingered – she had plainly been a lovely child, and her snuffling, wordless sobs struck Kore's heart.
"I don't know how to help her," Death said, apologetic and strained. "I've tried, I truly have. When we reached the Styx she screamed and screamed – she knows she has no one waiting for her on the other side. I couldn't stand to hand her over to the ferry, not like that, but I've held her now for hours, sung to her, taken her across the world and under the sea and up to the foot of Olympus itself. She's found no comfort in anything I have to give. It's life she wants; it's all she's ever known. Please, can you let her feel it again, just for a little while?"
Kore held out her hands and Death passed her the child, careful not to brush his skin on hers. The girl was cold, but not achingly so, and the instant she felt the warmth of Kore's breath across her cheek she let out a ridiculous little squeal and mashed her face into the goddess's neck. Her tiny hands scrabbled across Kore's robe for a moment and then stilled, clutched just over her heart. She made tiny gurgling noises, and Kore soon realized the child was humming in time with her pulse. Completely unsure of herself, she awkwardly patted at the tiny back and rocked back and forth a little. The girl snuggled closer, and Kore threw a half-panicked glance in Death's direction.
He was looking at her as though nothing else in the world were worth his time. Ice clung to his skin, but his eyes were caught in a sunrise shift of color, with hints of brown and green and blue emerging from the dark.
Kore rocked the little girl until she fell asleep, then wrapped her carefully in her best cloak so that she would not feel the chill when Death took her back. "See that she wakes in Elysium," she whispered, and Death nodded as he sidled the child into his arms.
"Thank you," he said, and Kore stared as he tucked the child low to his stomach and bent to kiss the dust at her feet. Before she could speak, he flitted over to his horses, silent at the mouth of the cave, and departed.
The third time, she was reckless.
Life was unbearable, but immortality and the endless stretch of fertile ground robbed her of every choice; time would never free her from all that she hated in herself, and no place under the sky was beyond her mother's reach.
Back in the olive grove outside Thebes, she chose a tree and pummeled her fists into low, twisted bark until the trunk shattered, spilling its pale insides and splintering into her knuckles. She kicked at the gash she had made over and over, digging into the core, quick and frenzied and determined above all things to kill this tree. The impulse was futile, mean, and destructive, and she gave herself over to it.
"Not a fan of olives, then," Death said from behind her.
She hadn't heard his chariot approach – hadn't heard anything. She didn't know how long he'd been watching, but he looked unhurried, cool and perfect, and she found that hard to forgive.
Concern had flecked his eyes hazel, but she didn't notice.
"How much do you owe me?" she asked, wiping blood from her hand.
The tone was dangerously disrespectful, and the words more so. Death seemed unfazed, but warned softly, "Careful."
"Oh, are we standing on ceremony? Playing patriarch and supplicant?" She folded her hands in a mockery of prayer, and her mouth stretched too wide as she spoke. "Please save me, my lord – is that how I start?" She dropped the pose. "Try this instead: I bought peace and gave comfort away to strangers for your sake. Now I want my own back."
"There's no need to speak of obligation," Death told her, annoyed. "You have better ties to hold me, as you'd know if you paid the slightest attention to your own merits. If I could spare you pain I would, no matter the balance of favors between us. But your mother is queen in her own domain. I have no power here."
"Then take me with you. There's nowhere on Earth she can't find me, but in your kingdom nothing green grows. She has no power there." Death stepped down from his chariot and Kore drew toward him. "Take me, please."
The longing in his eyes surprised her, but he shook his head. "I can't."
"You won't, you mean."
"Do you honestly believe I haven't thought about it?" Frustration shifted quickly to anger in both of them. His words were sharp. "I can't drag a living soul under, much less an immortal one. The Gates are set against you, I would have to break them to get you through, do you understand? It would undermine all natural laws."
"I ask you for justice, and you hide behind the laws? I hadn't thought you such a coward."
"I am no – " his hand darted out to her arm as she turned away, and they both cried out. Searing cold burned deep into Kore's skin at the slight pressure of his palm, while his fingers blistered red and he reeled back, scalded.
Kore started to laugh, low and bitter. Death watched her, his face pinched. "I should have known. My touch is meant for the dead, for those beyond pain. I'm a blight on the living, and you are more alive than anyone I've ever known. I can't help you. I'll only hurt you if I try."
She crossed her arms over her chest, biting her lip and gathering herself.
He stepped tentatively toward her. "I'm so sor –"
She smashed her fist across his jaw. Her hand blackened in instant frostbite, agony bursting up her arm, but she'd caught him completely off guard. He staggered and dropped to his knees, his face scorched raw under her hand.
She leaped past him into the waiting chariot and snapped the reins. The horses shied but could not refuse her command. They plunged forward, and she drove them toward the grove that hid the doorway to the dead. The blades beneath her cut through root and undergrowth; she was flying over the forest floor as if it were ice or air, and the world swirled past in curving flashes of color. Wind tore at her face, and she did not look behind.
Then, with a roar, the ground split and dropped from under her; brimstone swallowed the sky. The bars of the Gate ahead shone blinding white, striping the gloomy stretch of the Styx beyond. She heard a triune howl go up from across the water, announcing her intrusion, but she drowned it out with a battle cry. Her steeds kicked and reared, struggling to break away or turn the chariot aside, but she was a goddess and they were bred to obey.
She rammed the Gate.
Light came, and then pain, and then nothing.
She woke to darkness and the rustle of clean linen.
She was lying on her back in an unfamiliar bed, wrapped in layers of blanket, cocooned in warmth except for her face and her left foot where it jutted out into the air. Her cheeks had gone a bit numb from the chill of the room, but otherwise she had never felt better.
"What happened?" she asked the ceiling.
"You killed my horses." Death's voice was wry and quiet, coming from somewhere near the foot of the bed. She didn't start – she wasn't surprised to find him there.
Still, that was the only thing he could have said to make her feel remorse. Guilt rose hot in her chest.
"I didn't mean to hurt them," she whispered.
"You also shattered my Gates and managed to impale yourself in the process. It's taken a long time for your body to heal. You've been senseless for two months."
"Two months?" she gasped, sitting halfway up and then flopping straight back down as blood rushed to her head. She pressed the heels of her palms tight against her eyes and tried to think.
Death shifted a corner of blanket to cover her exposed foot. "Actually, from what I can tell you've been senseless your whole life. This is just the latest and most extreme example."
She groaned in a way that managed to sound pathetic and threatening simultaneously.
Unperturbed, he ran his thumb in tiny circles over the ball of her blanketed foot, the cloth shielding them both from the pain of contact. He sounded very calm. "When you didn't wake after the first week, I thought you might have managed to kill yourself. It should be impossible, but I'm learning not to underestimate you."
"I'm full of surprises," she agreed, sitting up more slowly. "You're taking all this fairly well."
"You're alive and awake. That puts minor matters like the welfare of my kingdom and the balance of mortality in perspective."
She grimaced. "My mother…"
"She's been in touch."
"Right. What did she threaten you with?"
"There's not much she can do to me directly. After the first few weeks she realized that."
"She's not going to give up. She thinks I belong to her."
"Oh, she hasn't given up. She's taken her case to my father."
Kore closed her eyes – this was worse than she'd thought. Her mother had bled out her youth in the war against the Titans; her whole sense of self was wrapped up in those terrible battles. To have swallowed her pride and recruited Cronos himself as her ally – it showed she would stop at nothing.
And Cronos, even bowed by defeat and decline, had a will of iron. It had once taken the full might of Olympus to defy him, and she had no such power. "Has he ordered me back to her?"
Death simply nodded.
"How long do I have?"
"As long as you please. I told them I'd kidnapped you."
The words were so nonsensical that they took her a moment to understand. "What?"
"You're my hostage," Death repeated. "Abducted in a fit of mad lust – I'm being quite unreasonable about you." He offered a weary, sharp little smile. "That's the kind of story they understand. Try to tell them what you want – what you deserve – and they won't care, but make it clear that you're my property and the message gets through: To come after you is to declare war on me, and the last time my father tried that, he lost."
Kore stared at Death as if she'd never seen him before, clamping down on the delight threatening to overcome her. "You told our parents that you're holding me hostage, indefinitely, in your bedroom?"
The blue tinge to his cheeks might possibly have been a blush. "Yes."
"Why would you do something so insanely unwise?"
"I've been waiting eight weeks to ask you the same thing," he said. "You're the one who put the two of us under siege. I don't know how long we can hold out, but I had to put up a fight, at least. You deserved better than to be shipped back to a life you hated in your sleep."
He stood and made for the door.
"Leonidas," she called. He braced one hand on the doorframe and dipped his neck, eyes falling shut.
"You know, don't you?" she asked. "Why I did this? You don't have to ask."
He said nothing, staring at the floor.
"I came for you. And if the choice is mine, I'll never leave."
The surprise on his face stole her breath.
The palace of Hades was stunning and cold. Intricate columns lined the massive throne room, an audience chamber built to accommodate the tragedies of war, when thousands poured daily through the hall on their road to rest or to torment.
Death hid nothing from her, and Kore soon knew his kingdom better than he. She wandered its five rivers – the Acheron boiled at her touch – and bent open-eyed over the brink of Tartarus, breathing its fumes. It did not repulse her. Ugliness was a part of death no less than life, and here at least no cruelty was arbitrary. Sulfur, ash, and dust were her comforts; her mother could find no foothold in such soil.
Yet she was her mother's daughter, little though she might wish to acknowledge it, and her presence day by day painted this world in different colors. Small, star-shaped flowers sprang up at her feet when she stood too long in one place, even at the lip of volcanic fires. The river currents reversed direction at times when she drew near their banks, with Forgetfulness churning to Memory and Sleep to Waking torrents. The dried, dead pomegranate husks piled on the sideboard of her room turned slowly lush in the hours she slept, their fresh scent flavoring the air. She looked on this with vague foreboding.
But Death himself was her most perfect canvas. His eyes had long since settled into steady blue at the sight of her. Strands of his hair streaked gold as if sun-bleached, and his arctic skin gradually warmed, melting frost streaking his cheeks like tears.
In time, they touched without pain. The brush of his lips could leave a pleasant numbness or a brisk shock that shivered through her limbs.
They spoke little of the future, but much of the past, of the war that she had never seen. Her mother had painted images in her mind of hardship and sacrifice, suffering and the glut of vengeance. But Death spoke of purpose, of honor and freedom from tyranny. "I wish you'd been with us," he told her.
"You won," she reminded him. "You didn't need me."
"We didn't know we needed you," he corrected. "But it took us an age to fight our way to this settlement, such as it is. With you, we could have won sooner, spared ourselves and the world so much loss."
"You truly think this way," she said, trailing a finger across his brow in wonder. "In terms of life spared and time saved. Where is your sense of destiny, of glory?"
"Here," he said, reaching for her.
It couldn't last.
He still travelled through the world above, collecting the dead, and as the weeks passed she began to see darkness reentering his features. Each night when he descended from his chariot his limbs seemed heavier, his movements slow. When she greeted him, he hesitated to look her in the face.
"She's gotten to you," Kore finally said, squaring up to him. "My mother – she's hurting you, I can see it. Tell me how."
He let out a long breath, and her heart sank to see the old trail of fine-spun ice pouring out of him into the air.
"These months you've been with me," he said slowly, "have been the best of my life. I thought there was nothing that could break us, nothing that could justify surrender. I wanted to go out fighting, then at least we'd have…"
He wound his hands around hers, and she clutched them hard, bracing herself.
"Your mother is punishing the earth. She's wilted the harvests across every corner of the world, stripped orchards bare, and dried the grasses under hungry flocks. She's turning her domain into a mirror of mine, and soon both will be peopled with the dead."
Kore stared at him. "I can't believe it. She's holding the whole race of mortals hostage, just to get her hands on me. She'd starve them all before their time rather than let me go."
Death wrapped an arm around her, then helplessly shifted into a full embrace. "I don't know what to do."
"I don't care about the earth," Kore whispered, fierce, against his neck.
"Neither do I." He clung tighter. "Neither do I. But…this isn't about you and me."
She buried a low, muffled scream in his shoulder. "It's my life," she hissed when she could speak, "not yours. Don't pretend this is 'our' sacrifice you're considering – it's not about you at all. I'm the one who'll suffer."
"I know," he said. "I hate that most of all."
Bursting away, she overtipped the table by her bedside and spent the next quarter hour demolishing every scrap of furniture in the room.
When she'd exhausted herself, she bent over and caught her breath. Death had sunk to the floor with his hands clasped around his knees and his face lowered.
He looked up when she started to laugh. A breathy, bitter, but powerful sound, he could see it moving up along the skin of her throat. She swung her arm low and picked up one of the pomegranates that had rolled into a corner and survived the wreckage. Then she plopped herself down beside him, rolling the fruit between her palms.
He blinked at her, concerned, and her chin jutted forward in a strange, decisive smile.
"Half a life." She tore the pomegranate open down the middle.
"I'll give half a life for duty and sorrow and Earth. Half my life for the race of men." She set one handful of glistening red seedlings aside, then held the other up. The dripping slice hovered, crimson, between them. "But I'm taking half for us."
She started to raise the pomegranate to her mouth, but Death reached out to cover her lips. "Kore, I'm not sure what will happen to you if you eat the food of this kingdom and then return to the world above. You'd be rooted here, it's true, but that might become more of a curse than a blessing. You'd be stretched across the border of life and death, unable to rest in either. You might never…belong again; you might never feel whole."
She lifted his chin with her free hand. "I know where I belong. I'll move between worlds for eternity, for your sake – for our sake. I wish I didn't have to, but I know I can do it. We can do it."
Her eyes were fearless.
Awestruck, he nodded mutely and tucked a strand of her hair back into place. "I don't know if I've mentioned it before," he said softly, "but I'm a believer in compromise."
He plucked the first seed and lifted it to her. She opened her mouth.
"I love you," he said. She smiled into his fingertips, sweet against her tongue.