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Neon Gods: Chapter 28

Persephone

One minute I’m alone, trying to decide how long to give my sister in the bathroom, and the next I hear a rustle behind me and spin to find Hermes perched on the bed. I press a hand to my chest, trying to soothe my racing heart, but I don’t allow myself any strong reaction, not when she’s watching me so closely. “Hermes.”

“Persephone.” Her expression is carefully neutral. “I have a message for you. Will you hear it?”

Nothing good can come of this, because there are only two people who would use Hermes to send a message. The temptation rises to tell her to leave the room, to hide from what’s coming next. I’m stronger than that. I won’t allow myself to stick my head in the sand and ignore the consequences of my actions. “Yes.”

She nods and jumps to her feet. When she speaks, it’s with a distinctly male voice. It takes me two words to place it as Zeus. “There is war on the horizon, Persephone. I will crush the lower city and everyone who lives there. You know Hades can’t stand against the might the rest of the Thirteen can bring to the fore. Come back now and bring your sister, and I’ll reconsider my attack.”

I wait, but she falls into silence. “That’s his offer? He’ll reconsider?”

“Yes.” Hermes shrugs a single shoulder. “He apparently thinks it’s fair.”

“He apparently thinks I’m a fool.” Zeus won’t reconsider anything. He might want me and Eurydice back, either to appease my mother or to prove his might, but he’s not going to pass up this opportunity to strike at Hades.

Not unless I give him reason to hesitate.

My stomach twists and my head goes light and staticky. I promised myself I wouldn’t hide from the consequences of my actions, but some consequences are too high a price to pay. Hades is more than capable, but against such larger numbers and better-equipped enemies? And even with his precautions, what of his people? All those people I’ve met over the last few weeks as Hades has shown me around the lower city. Juliette, Matthew, Damien, Gayle. Everyone who frequents the winter market, who has stalls and shops and businesses that go back generations.

They might become casualties. There are always casualties in war, and it’s always the people who least deserve to bear the cost.

What if I can stop this?

Hermes is halfway to the door when I find my voice, though I hardly sound like myself. “Hermes.” I wait for her to face me to continue. If I do this, there’s no going back. The price might be too high to pay, but I can’t let everyone else fight my battles for me. The time for hiding behind Hades’s reputation is past. It’s time for action. “I would like to send a message to my mother.”

***

I second-guess myself a thousand times after Hermes leaves, watching the minutes tick into hours as I wait for a response from my mother. Taking care of Eurydice requires some concentration, but eventually she passes out on the bed and I’m once again left to wait with my own thoughts.

I don’t know if I’m making the right call. I wish with everything I have that I could run this plan past Hades, that we could come up with a solution together. A nice rational solution that steers us through these treacherous waters and to a safe harbor.

That’s the problem, though. I don’t feel rational. My panic doesn’t abate as time passes. If anything, it gets stronger. Zeus wants Hades’s head on a platter. He’s wanted it for years, and I’ve finally given him a way to make it happen.

I can’t let Hades die.

The thought of this world without him in it? The very idea makes me flinch as if my body can repel the thought. He won’t be thinking of himself, only of protecting his people. Of protecting me. He promised, after all, and I know Hades well enough to know that he’ll keep his word even if it means he goes under to keep me above water.

have to protect him. He’s got no one else who…

My breath catches in my chest, and I stare blindly at the tasteful blue walls of the room. In a daze, I finish the sentence, if only in my head. He’s got no one else who loves him like I do.

I love Hades.

I close my eyes and focus on breathing past the tightness invading my body. Love was never part of the plan, but none of this was part of the plan. I can’t tell him. If I tell him, it might rattle him past the point of reason. He won’t see my actions as anything less than a betrayal. He might even do something to put his people at risk, and that I can’t allow.

No, I can’t tell him. I have to bottle this up, shove it down deep. If I succeed, maybe there will be something left of us to salvage on the other side. If I fail… Well, we’ll have bigger problems at that point.

I’m still wrestling with my emotions when the window slides open and Hermes climbs through. I stare. “Did you just scale the walls? On the second story?”

“What, like it’s hard?” Her grin is a shadow of itself. The night’s events have worn on her, just like they have on the rest of us. She straightens and my mother’s voice emerges from her lips. “You have a deal.”

All the strength goes out of my body for one terrifying moment. I didn’t honestly expect her to agree. Now I truly have no choice. I close my eyes and take a slow breath. Things are now in motion. There’s no going back now.

I smooth a hand over my sister’s hair. “Wake up, Eurydice.”

Things happen quickly after that. I take the time to change into another black gown that Juliette made for me. It’s long-sleeved with a generous scooped neck and a full skirt, but the real highlight of it is the underbust corset that goes over the top of it. It’s black threaded with silver, and it makes me think of stylized armor. In this dress, I feel like a dark queen.

Like a dark goddess.

Hermes gives me a long look. “That’s quite the statement piece.”

“Appearances always matter in the upper city.” I’ll only have one opportunity to get this right. “It’s important to strike the right tone.”

She laughs a little under her breath. “When you walk through the door, they won’t know what hit them.”

“Good.” I smooth my hands over the dress. There’s no more time to waste. “Let’s go.”

Eurydice stops me before I can open the bedroom door. “I’m staying.”

I stop short. “What?”

“I need time.” She wraps her arms around herself. “I’ll figure out what I’m doing in the morning, but I’m not going back to the upper city tonight. I can’t.”

I start to argue, but Hermes cuts in, “Look, if this all goes down the way you want it to, her staying won’t make a difference. If things go tits up, her staying here also won’t make a difference.”

She’s right. I hate that she’s right. Not to mention that the safest place for Eurydice right now is in Hades’s home. No matter what happens next, he won’t let any harm come to her. I swallow hard. “Okay.” I pull my sister into a tight hug. “Be safe.”

“You, too.” She squeezes me back just as tightly. “Love you.”

“Love you, too.” I force myself to release her and turn to Hermes. “I’m ready.”

I half expect Hermes to direct me to the window despite my wardrobe change, but she leads me out the door and down the hallway to the back staircase that comes out near the kitchen. Then we’re down in the tunnels that I haven’t visited since the night I met Hades. I silence my questions at her seeming magical ability to navigate Hades’s home. It’s uncanny in the extreme, but it works. We make it to the exit without being caught.

The night air has gained teeth since we were last outside. I shiver, part of me wishing I’d grabbed a coat, but the one Hades provided me doesn’t work with this outfit and I’ll only have one chance to make the impression I want to. Besides, it feels fitting that I fled to the lower city without a coat and return the same way.

Hermes glances at me. “Not far now.”

Two blocks away, we find a nondescript black sedan tucked between two buildings, an uncharacteristically serious Dionysus behind the wheel. Hermes takes the front seat, and I slide into the back. He looks at me in the rearview mirror and shakes his head. “Damn, looks like Hermes was right after all.”

“I’ll take my payment in cash.” She sounds like she’s just going through the motions of their banter, her mind on something a thousand miles away. “Let’s go.”

Panic gathers in my throat as we wind through the lower city and ease over Cypress Bridge. The pressure is lighter than before, barely noticeable. Because Hades invited me into the lower city. I shiver but resist the urge to wrap my arms around myself. My heart sinks as we leave the lower city behind. There’s no going back now. Maybe there never was.

I expect them to head west toward my mother’s penthouse, but they turn north instead. This is wrong. I lean forward between the front seats. “Where are we going?”

“I’m delivering you to your mother. She’s with the others in Dodona Tower.”

I’m on Hermes before she can move, my hand wrapped around her throat. “You tricked me.”

Dionysus doesn’t even slow down. He barely glances at us. “Don’t fight, children. I’d hate to have to turn this car around.”

Hermes rolls her eyes. “You’re the idiot who didn’t ask for more details. You offered a deal. Your mother took it. I just deliver the messages—and now the package. Sit back before you hurt yourself.”

Instead, I tighten my grip. “If this is a double cross…”

“What will you do, Persephone? Kill me?” Hermes gives a mirthless little laugh. “You can try.”

It mirrors something Hades said earlier. That Zeus will try to take me and crush the lower city. The first part of that is a nonissue because of my actions. It’s the latter I’m trying to avoid. Damn it, Hermes is right. I asked for this. I don’t get to threaten and posture because it’s not playing out exactly like I expected.

Even knowing that, it takes more control than I anticipate to unpeel my fingers from her skin and sit back. “I need him to survive this.” I don’t mean to say it. They might care about Hades, but they’re no friends to me. I can’t trust them.

Hermes finally looks at me. “You seem to have things well in hand.”

I can’t tell if she’s being sarcastic or not. I choose to take the words at face value and let them boost me when I desperately need it.

Around us, the streets quickly take on a glitzier look. Everything’s been renovated in the last few years, more evidence of the way the upper city cares so intensely about how things look and less about the content beneath. The businesses stay the same, the people working them the same, at least until they’ve been priced out. How many of them end up in the lower city? I’m so ashamed of myself for keeping my gaze on the horizon when there were things I should be noticing all around me.

Dionysus pulls up in front of Dodona Tower and stops. When I look at Hermes, she shrugs. “I was only joking about delivering packages. You made this deal, so you should walk in there under your own power. You were right before—perception matters.”

“I know,” I say faintly. I don’t apologize for attacking her, though. She’s not on anyone’s side but her own, and while I understand, I can’t help but hold it against her. Hades could use allies right now, and when he’s in his hour of need, she and Dionysus have abandoned him. From the outside, it might look like I’ve done the same, but everything I did from the moment I sent Hermes with a message to my mother is for him.

I get out of the car and gaze up at the skyscraper in front of me, taller than any of the buildings around it, as if Zeus needs this physical demonstration of his might to remind everyone in the city of what he can do. I find my upper lip curling. Pathetic. He’s a child, ready to throw a tantrum and cause untold destruction if he doesn’t get his way.

The very last thing I want to do is face him and his shining crowd of flunkies after everything that’s happened, but this is what I asked for. This is the price I’m willing to pay to avert war. I can’t afford to balk before I even step onto the battlefield.

The elevator ride to the top feels like it takes a thousand lifetimes. It’s been a little over a month since I was here last, since I ran from Zeus and the future he and my mother had mapped out for me without my consent.

It takes more effort than ever to school my expression. I’ve fallen out of the habit with Hades; I feel safe with him, not like I have to lie with my face and words to ensure a smoother path. Yet another reason I love him.

Gods, I love him, and if this goes poorly, I’ll never get a chance to say it aloud. It’s not as if he’s told me he feels the same. We’ve been so very careful to dance around any talk of deeper emotions, but I can’t help thinking about the conversation we had while naming the puppies. He wouldn’t have laid out an alternate future in which we were different people if he wasn’t feeling the same. He wouldn’t call me love. It’s too late to worry about it now. I have to set it aside.

One does not swim with sharks unless they’re able to focus fully on not losing a limb in the process.

I take one last breath as the elevator door opens and square my shoulders. It’s game time.

The room is packed, people dressed in all colors of the rainbow, glittering gowns and elegant tuxedos. Another party in process. It’s almost as if they’ve all been in this room the entire time I was gone, trapped in some warped reality where the party never ends. The clothing is slightly different, the dresses brighter colors tonight than they were last time, but the people are the same. The poisonous atmosphere in the room is the same. Everything is the fucking same.

How can they be partying when there is so much death on the horizon?

Fury snaps in my veins, searing away the last of my nerves and any lingering hesitation. These people might not care about the cost their decisions will have on those who don’t move in their circles, but I do. I stride out of the elevator, my gown slithering around my legs with each step. Every other time I was in this room, I wasn’t able to escape the clear power imbalance. They had it. I didn’t. End of story.

That’s no longer the case.

I am not merely one of Demeter’s daughters. I am Persephone, and I love the king of their dreaded lower city. To them, he might as well be king of the Underworld itself, lord of the dead.

I catch sight of my mother deep in conversation with Aphrodite, their heads bowed as they speak in low voices, and turn in her direction. I make it two steps before a voice booms across the room.

“My bride returns.”

Ice cascades down my spine, but I allow none of it into my expression as I look at Zeus. He’s beaming at me as if he didn’t deliver threat upon threat to drive me back to the upper city. As if I haven’t spent the last five weeks and change sleeping with his enemy.

As if everyone in this room is ignorant of both those truths.

People step aside as I move forward. No, they don’t step aside. They actually trip over themselves to put distance between us and clear my path. I don’t look at them. They’re beneath my notice at this point. Only two people in this room matter now, and I have to deal with Zeus before I can move into my endgame.

I stop just out of reach and sweep a hand over myself. “As you can see, I’ve returned safely.”

“Safe, but not untouched.” He says it low enough only to carry to me, but he grins as if I’ve promised him the world and lifts his voice. “This is a good day indeed. It’s time to celebrate.” He moves quicker than I give him credit for and slings an arm around my waist, holding me too tightly. It’s everything I can do not to flinch. Zeus waves an imperious hand and tightens his hold on me. “Smile for the camera, Persephone.”

I smile easily as a camera flashes, my chest sinking with the knowledge that Hades will see this photo plastered everywhere by morning. I’ll have no opportunity to explain, no chance to tell him that I’m doing this for him, for his people.

Zeus skates his hand over my side, though the corset creates a barrier that gives the impression of keeping him at bay. “You’ve been a bad girl, Persephone.”

I loathe the way he talks to me. As if I’m a child to be corrected, except the lust in his eyes gives lie to that perception. I’ll kill Zeus myself before I let him take me to bed, but saying so now will undermine my goals. So I smile up at him, sunny and sickly sweet. “I think I can be forgiven for a number of things with the proper penance. Don’t you agree?”

The lust in his eyes flares hotter, and my stomach gives a sick twist. He squeezes my hip, his fingers digging in as if he wants to rip away my dress. But he finally releases me and steps back. “Go to your mother’s home and wait. My people will collect you when this is finished.”

I fight to keep my smile in place, to lower my eyes like a good little obedient wife-in-waiting. I suspect he’ll have someone tail me to my mother’s home, and this time, there will be no terrified race to the River Styx. It’s just as well. My mother’s home is the destination I desire.

My mother sees me coming, and the relief on her face is real enough. She cares. I’ve never doubted that she cares. It’s the pride and ambition that get in the way. She pulls me into a tight hug. “I’m so glad you’re safe.”

I was never in any danger,” I murmur.

She moves back but keeps a hold on my shoulders. “Where is your sister?”

I match her low tone. “She chose to stay behind.”

Mother narrows her eyes. “It’s time to go home.” Where we can speak freely.

It’s the fastest exit we’ve ever made from a party. I barely look at the attendees. They only matter in which way they’ll fall in the coming confrontation. Without my interference, every single one of them will back Zeus over Hades. I can’t allow it. Hades is stronger than anyone I know, but even he can’t win a war against the other Thirteen on his own. I’ll ensure he doesn’t have to.

Mother doesn’t speak again until we’ve safely made the drive to our building and taken the long elevator up to the top floor. She spins on me the second the door is shut. “What do you mean, she chose to stay behind?”

“Eurydice is safe in the lower city. Or she will be as long as we succeed.”

She looks at me as if she’s never seen me before. “And you? Are you okay? Did he hurt you?”

I step back when it looks like she might try to hug me again. “I’m fine. Hades isn’t the one who wants to hurt me, and you know it.” I stare her down. “He’s also not the one who cut off supplies to half the city in a fit of rage.”

She draws herself up. My mother always seems larger than life, but we’re the same height. “Forgive me for wanting to protect my daughters.”

“No.” I shake my head. “You don’t get to talk about protecting your daughters when you sold me to Zeus without even asking if that’s what I wanted, when you know his reputation. He’s a modern-day Bluebeard, and don’t pretend everyone isn’t aware of it.”

“He’s the most powerful man in Olympus.”

“As if that makes it okay.” I cross my arms over my chest. “I suppose it’s also okay that he sent one of his men to chase Eurydice through the street like a doe before a hunter’s arrow? It wasn’t a bluff, Mother. He had a knife, and he fully intended to use it before Hades saved her. Your precious Zeus ordered that done.”

“You don’t know that.”

I study her. “It’s what he did to me. It seems he likes to let his prey get within reach of the lower city before striking, but we both know it was intentional with Eurydice. He set a trap, and if Hades hadn’t walked into it, Zeus’s man would have stabbed her. Look me in the eye and tell me that you have the utmost faith that Zeus will never, ever do anything to hurt one of your daughters to bring me in line. Do it truthfully.”

She opens her mouth, obviously determined to power through this, but stops short. “Gods, you are so damned stubborn, Persephone.”

“Excuse me?”

She shakes her head, suddenly looking tired. “You were never in any danger. You simply had to marry the bastard and play the good wife long enough for him to let his guard down. I would have taken care of the rest.”

The suspicion I’ve been harboring since the beginning rises to the fore again. “You had a plan.”

“Of course I had a plan! He’s a monster, but he’s a powerful one. You could have been Hera.”

“I never wanted to be Hera.”

“Yes, I’m aware.” She waves that away just like she seems to do with anything that doesn’t fit conveniently into her plans. “It’s a moot point now. Zeus is a liability.”

I stare. “You decided that before I made my offer.”

“Of course I did.” Her hazel eyes, so similar to mine, narrow. “He threatened two of my daughters. He’s outlived his usefulness. I’d rather deal with his son and heir in the future.”

I realize what she’s implying, and it leaves me breathless. I knew my mother could be ruthless in her ambition, but this is another level entirely. My legs feel a little shaky, but I’ve come too far to buckle now. “What was the plan? The one I ruined by running away?”

“Nothing too complicated.” She shrugs a single shoulder. “A subtle poison to put him out of commission without killing him.” Because if he dies, Perseus takes over as Zeus, which means I’m no longer Hera.

“Fuck, Mother.” I shake my head. “You’re terrifying.”

“And you’ve learned from the best.” She motions at herself. “It’s quite the deal you’re offering.”

“Yes. It is.” I clear my suddenly dry throat. “I’ll stay in Olympus and encourage Hades to make several appearances annually with our family.” The latter I have no business offering, but I’ll do anything to prevent this war. Anything.

Mother frowns. “You’ve been planning to leave Olympus since I took this position.”

Of course she knows my plans. I don’t have the energy to be surprised by it any longer. “That didn’t stop you from handing me over to Zeus.”

She flinches the tiniest bit. “I’m sorry you were hurt by that.” Which is not the same thing as being sorry she did it.

I lift my chin. “Then make amends and take the deal I’m offering. If you really want me to stay, this is the way to do it.” I can see her wavering, so I have to press her on all fronts. “Think, Mother. The only people a war benefits are the generals. Not the supply lines. Not the ones working in the background. If you let Zeus pursue this personal vendetta and drag our entire city into a conflict, it will undermine the power you’ve been building since you became Demeter.” Nothing that I’m saying is new information. She wouldn’t have agreed to my bargain if she wasn’t already thinking the same things.

She finally looks away, her jaw tight. “It’s a huge risk.”

“Only if you really believe Zeus is more powerful than the rest of the Thirteen. You said it yourself; he’s become a liability. He’s not the only legacy position. He’s not even in charge of the most vital resources. Food, information, import-export, even the soldiers who will fight in a war they didn’t choose. All of it is handled by others within the Thirteen. If they—if you—withdraw your support, what recourse does he have?”

“I can’t speak for the others.”

I give a mirthless little laugh. “Mother, now you’re just being difficult. You know as well as I do that half the Thirteen owes you favors. You’ve worked too hard to ignore your influence when you finally have the chance to use it for something good.”

She finally looks back at me. “It will create enemies.”

“It will bring enemies you already have out into the open,” I correct.

Mother gives a strange little smile. “You’ve been paying closer attention that I thought.”

“As you said, I learned from the best.” I don’t agree with the choices she’s made, but I can’t lie and pretend that the persona I’ve worn for so long is one I came up with on my own. I watched her move among the power players in this city and molded myself accordingly to travel those eddies and flows without making waves. “You have to do this.”

She takes a slow breath, and it’s as if all her hesitation leaves her on the exhale. “Six events.”

“Excuse me?”

“You will ensure that Hades will attend at least six events throughout the calendar year, preferably of my choosing.” She holds my gaze. “In addition to that, he will allow himself to be seen with me enough to suggest that we’re allied.”

I narrow my eyes. “You don’t get to control him.”

“Of course not. But perception is everything. If the rest of Olympus thinks that Hades is in my back pocket, it will boost my power exponentially.”

It’s a huge risk. The Thirteen might know Hades exists, but until recently, the rest of the upper city didn’t. If they think he and my mother are allies, it will influence any number of deals she makes. No one wants to open their door and find Olympus’s boogeyman waiting because they pissed off Demeter.

But that’s the deciding factor. She’s asking for the perception of an alliance. Hades will not be trapped into supporting her unless he actually wants to. He just has to be seen with her. “Okay.”

“Then we have a deal.” She holds out her hand.

I stare at it for a long moment. Once I agree, there’s no going back. No escaping Olympus. No avoiding the power plays and politics and backstabbing that come with living here. If I do this, I’m immersing myself right up to my neck and doing it willingly. I can’t pretend that I had no choice. I can’t change my mind later and cry foul. I’m walking in with eyes wide open, and I have to be okay with that.

If I don’t seal this bargain, there will be war in Olympus. Hundreds of people could die—likely more. Hades could die. And even if he makes it through to the other side, what will the cost be? He’s already survived so much, fought his way back from so much loss. If I can save him from more, I want to.

If I don’t seal this bargain, I’ll never see him again.

I take my mother’s hand and we exchange a firm shake. “Deal.”


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