Mineekas watched Admasan’s swollen, bent fingers play with her hair, hair Mineekas’ mother always said reminded her of black onyx speckled with stardust. The long-retired nursemaid attempted several hairstyles and muttered under her breath when her newest attempt didn’t satisfy. After several minutes, the shadow daemon spun Mineekas, so she faced her instead of Mineekas’ green opal vanity.
“Are you having trouble?” Mineekas asked.
Old age had taken hold of Admasan over the last few years, and each day it seemed a new ailment plagued her. Mineekas hadn’t wanted her ex-nursemaid to care for her (she had several competent handmaidens at her disposal), but Admasan had been insistent, and Mineekas hadn’t had the heart to decline the daemon. Not today when her nerves twisted so that she could hardly reason or remain still.
Admasan’s milk-white eyes narrowed. “You think me too old to work a simple braid?”
“No, I just know—”
“Bah, my fingers work fine.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
Admasan sighed and gestured to Mineekas’ peplos. “Who created this monstrosity? It could frighten Tartarus.”
Out of love for her grandmother, Mineekas didn’t verbally agree, but the shadow daemon spoke the truth. The peplos Mineekas wore had been colored to resemble bleached wheat, and Mineekas wondered if it’d been crafted from the grain, it itched so. Small, fat pig designs decorated the gold belt around Mineekas’ hips, and the pin at her left shoulder resembled an overflowing cornucopia.
Despite having lived her twenty years in the Underworld, Mineekas had never set eyes on anything as ugly as the peplos Demeter had begged her to wear to The Deciding. Her grandmother hadn’t said it out loud, but Mineekas knew Demeter hoped the peplos would convince the Fates to grant Mineekas a Purpose in the same vein as Demeter’s. Hades had tried to explain the Fates wouldn’t be swayed by clothing, but his sister had ignored him.
Now, Mineekas wished she’d declined. In a few hours, she’d meet many gods for the first time. Already, she knew they’d whisper about her, but the peplos would make it worse.
Mineekas rubbed the back of her neck. “It’s traditional at least, right?”
Admasan snorted. “It’s one saving grace.” She shook her head. “Today you enter godhood. Why not embrace it by burning that eyesore?”
“I promised, and, besides, I’m sure others will look as ridiculous as me.”
Mineekas clung to the hope. It was the twenty-first century, and ninety-nine percent of the gods had adapted with the time. They only put on clothing best forgotten in Ancient Greece when they met for the summer and winter solstices. Why Zeus had made that a rule, no one could tell Mineekas, but he’d use anyone who ignored the dress code for target practice. When Hermes had visited last, he’d delighted in telling her Zeus only missed when he was drunk, and over the millennia he’d developed quite the alcohol tolerance.
Admasan cupped Mineekas’ cheek. “Oh, child.” She pulled a lock of her old charge’s hair. “I’ll make you as stunning as possible. Maybe if your face and hair dazzle no one will look lower.”
Mineekas’ optimism crashed, and she sighed. “Do whatever you think will help.”
The shadow daemon spun her back around and set to work. Though Demeter had requested a more old-school style of hair and makeup, Admasan settled on a loose, intricately braided bun that framed Mineekas’ pointed face and highlighted the green flecks in her bruised-purple-colored eyes. The ex-nursemaid didn’t add much makeup for fear of masking the paleness of Mineekas skin.
Mineekas went to scold Admasan’s brash behavior but paused. The shadow daemon had a point. Why should Mineekas hide the fact that she was an under-dweller? All of Mount Olympus already knew of her origins or would once the day ended. She had nothing to be ashamed of.
“Might I provoke Zeus, though?” Mineekas pondered. She didn’t wholly resemble Persephone’s first form, but more than once Hekate had called her by mother’s original name.
Admasan patted Mineekas’ knee. “With your father there, I’m sure Zeus won’t pay you any mind.”
“If he does though?”
Admasan grinned and displayed her platinum-colored teeth. “Make him regret it.”
“Make who regret what?” came a soft, firm voice from the opposite side of Mineekas' bedroom.
Daemon and young goddess turned to face the tall, sturdy figure. Mineekas smiled while the retired nursemaid made a rude sound. “Where is the privacy, my Lord?”
Hades tilted his head, and his brown-blonde hair brushed his square jaw. “Forgive my intrusion. Though in my defense, I did knock, several times.”
Admasan waved away his words. “Not loud enough.”
Hades nodded again and winked at Mineekas when Admasan’s attention dropped to a wrinkle in Mineekas’ peplos. She didn’t dare respond with the shadow daemon so close but offered him the smallest of grins.
“Are you almost ready?” Hades asked as he stepped farther into Mineekas’ room.
He wore a simple gray monochiton that hung to the middle of his calves. No gems or jewels adorned his belt. The only embellishment on his person was his crown, made from a material forged from the darkest shadows in Tartarus and a bit of water from each of the Underworld rivers. At one moment it seemed solid, then it would pulse and look as substantial as a spirit. As a child, Mineekas had thought it changed with each beat of Hades’ heart, but Admasan had set her straight: the crown had a mind of its own, and if Hades persisted on being a fair, worthy king it would remain on his head.
She remembered asking what would happen if someone else wore the crown (Mineekas had contemplated ‘borrowing’ it for years). The daemon had smiled, as wicked as she’d ever appeared, and explained that the shadows would render the breath from the individual as the rivers’ waters melted the flesh from their bones. They wouldn’t die, though, but stay forever trapped in their petrified body.
Mineekas had never pretended to be the ruler of the Underworld again.
“Am I?” Mineekas looked at Admasan. “Can any more be done with me?”
Admasan kissed Mineekas’ forehead. “Nothing that won’t change you.” She narrowed her eyes at Hades. “Be sure to watch our child. The vultures will come in waves today. I don’t want her returned to me, pecked and worse for wear.”
Hades extended his hand. Mineekas took it, and he helped her from her seat. “Don’t worry,” he told the retired nurse. His eyes, blacker than the purest coal and as shiny as the pebbles Mineekas used to polish and put in her parents’ personal garden, flashed. “Our child will be safe.”
Mineekas gulped. It wouldn’t be all that bad. Despite all the stories she’d heard over the years (most of which didn’t favor the gods, especially those told by under-dwellers), she knew, at least at the solstices, they controlled themselves.
They might not with her, though. Not if they only considered her an under-dweller. Besides it making them sick, there was a serious reason why under-dwellers stayed below the earth.
The fruit Mineekas had eaten that morning churned in her stomach. Maybe she shouldn’t go. Sure, if she didn’t attend The Deciding, the Fates wouldn’t give her a Purpose, and she’d be barely stronger than a godling, but at least she could avoid the potential disaster that awaited her on Mount Olympus.
Mineekas had been staring around her room as she considered chickening out of The Deciding, and her gaze fell on the framed picture on top of the television Hades had paid Hephaestus a small fortune to customize so it could operate in the Underworld. Mineekas’ personal hero Kallolee, a legendary Bollywood actress who’d died the moment Mineekas had been born, smiled like always, and Mineekas hardened her resolve. Kallolee had overcome so much to reach stardom so Mineekas could endure what awaited on Mount Olympus. Plus, while her entourage was small, Mineekas had a few heavy hitters on her side.
Mineekas nudged her father with her hip. “Are you ready?”
Hades quirked his left eyebrow. “Oh, I’m the one holding us up now?”
“Well, you and Admasan.”
Her father chuckled, but the retired nursemaid refused to abandon her sour mood. She ushered her old charge and king from the bedroom, kissed Mineekas one last time, and slammed the door shut.
Hades shook his head. “Woe, the chambermaid that sets foot in there.”
“Do you think she’s just overreacting?”
Her father squeezed her fingers. “Most of the tales you’ve heard are highly exaggerated.”
The deadpan expression Hades wore when before a spirit in judgment gripped his strong, handsome features. “I hope you don’t find out today.”