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Neon Gods: Chapter 7

Hades

She tastes like summer. I don’t know how it’s possible, not when she was just sleeping in a bathtub, not when it’s the dead of winter outside, but it’s the truth. I dig my hands into her mass of hair and tilt her head back, angling for better access. Sealing a bargain is the flimsiest of excuses to kiss her; I have no excuse to keep the contact, to deepen it. No excuse beyond wanting her. Persephone moves to close the fraction of distance between us and then she’s fully in my arms, warm and soft and, fuck, she nips my bottom lip as if she actually wants this.

As if I’m not taking advantage.

The thought slams me out of my haze, and I force myself to take a step back and then another. There have always been lines I refused to cross, boundaries sketched out that are just as flimsy as the ones keeping Zeus from the lower city. That doesn’t change the fact that I’ve never crossed them before.

Persephone blinks up at me, and for the first time since I met her last night, she looks completely real. Not the personification of a sunbeam. Not the scarily calm woman in over her head. Not even the perfect daughter of Demeter she plays for the public. Just a woman who enjoyed that kiss as much as I did.

Or I’m projecting and this is just another one of her many masks. I can’t be sure, and because I can’t be sure, I take a third step back. No matter what the rest of Olympus thinks of me—of the boogeyman—I can’t allow myself to prove them right. “We begin today.”

She blinks again, her impossibly long eyelashes fanning against her cheek in a motion I can almost hear. “I need to contact my sisters.”

“You did that last night.”

It’s fascinating to watch her gather her armor around herself. First comes the straightening of her spine, just the tiniest bit. Then the smile, cheerful and deceptively genuine. Finally the guileless look in those hazel eyes. Persephone clasps her hands in front of her. “You have the phones tapped. I suspected as much.”

“I’m a paranoid man.” It’s the truth, but not the full truth. My father wasn’t able to protect his people, protect his family, because he took things at face value. Or that’s what I’ve always been told. Even without Andreas coloring the events with his own perception, the facts remain. My father trusted Zeus, and he and my mother died as a result. I would have died, too, if not for sheer dumb luck.

Persephone shrugs that off as if it’s nothing more than she expected. “Then you’ll know that my sisters are more than capable of showing up on your doorstep if properly motivated, crossing the River Styx or no. They’re difficult like that.”

The last thing I need is more women like Persephone in my household. “Call them. I’ll have someone find clothing for you and bring it up.” I turn for the door.

“Wait!” A tiny fracture in her perfect calm. “That’s it?”

I glance back, expecting fear or maybe anger. But no, if I’m reading her expression right, there’s disappointment lurking in her eyes. I can’t trust it. I want her more than I have a right to, and she’s only here because she has nowhere else to go.

If I were a better man, I’d smuggle her out of the city myself and give her enough money to survive until her birthday. She’s right; if she has the strength to cross the river, she likely has the strength to leave the city with the proper help. But I’m not a better man. No matter how conflicted this deal makes me, I want this woman. Now that she’s offered herself to me in a devil’s bargain, I mean to have her.

Just not yet.

Not until it serves our mutual purpose.

“We’ll talk more tonight.” I enjoy her huff of irritation as I walk out the door and head down to my study.

There are consequences for my actions last night, consequences for the bargain I just made with Persephone. I have to prepare my people for them.

I’m not the least bit surprised to find Andreas waiting in my study. He’s nursing a mug that might be coffee or might be whiskey—or both—and wearing his customary slacks and wool sweater like the strangest cross between a fisherman and a CEO anyone’s ever met. The tattoos peppering his weathered hands and climbing his neck only add to the disconnect. What’s left of his hair has long since gone white, leaving him looking every minute of his seventy years.

He glances up as I walk in and close the door. “I hear you stole Zeus’s woman.”

“She crossed the border on her own.”

He shakes his head. “Thirty years and change of avoiding trouble and then you throw it all away for a pretty thing in a short skirt.”

I give him the look that statement deserves. “I bend too much when it comes to that asshole. It was necessary before, but I’m not a child any longer. It’s time to put him in his place.” It’s what I’ve wanted since I was old enough to understand the sheer scope of what he took from me. It’s why I’ve spent years compiling information on him. An opportunity that I can’t pass up.

Andreas exhales, long and slow, some remembered fear lingering in his watery blue eyes. “He’ll crush you.”

“Maybe ten years ago he was capable of it. He isn’t now.” I’ve been too careful, have built my power base too intentionally. Zeus killed my father when he was still new to the title, too inexperienced to know friend from foe. I’ve had my entire life to train to take that monster on. Though I was little more than a figurehead Hades before I turned seventeen, I’ve had sixteen years actually at the helm. If ever there was a time to do this, to draw my line in the sand and dare Zeus to cross it, it’s now. There’s no telling if I’ll get another opportunity like Persephone, a chance to humiliate Zeus and step into the light once and for all. The thought of all the eyes in Olympus on me is enough to open up a pit in my stomach, but it’s been far too long that Zeus overlooks the lower city and pretends he’s the ruler here. “It’s time, Andreas. It’s long since time.”

Another of his headshakes, like I’ve disappointed him. I hate how much that matters to me, but Andreas has been the strong guiding light in my life for so long. His retirement a few years ago doesn’t lessen that. He’s the uncle I never had, though he never tried to play the father. He knows better than that. Finally, he leans forward. “What’s your plan?”

“Three months of giving him the middle finger. If he comes across the river and tries to take her back, not even the other Thirteen will stand by him. They put that treaty in place for a reason.”

“The Thirteen didn’t save your father. What makes you think they’ll save you?”

We’ve had this argument a thousand times over the years. I smother my irritation and give him my full attention. “Because the treaty didn’t exist when Zeus killed my father.” It’s shitty beyond belief that my parents had to die for the treaty to be put into place, but if things become a free-for-all among the Thirteen, it hurts their bottom line, which is the only thing they care about. It was one of the few times in Olympus history that the Thirteen worked together long enough to challenge Zeus’s power and strong-arm an agreement that no one is willing to break.

Zeus cannot come here and I can’t go there. No one can harm another member of the Thirteen or their families without being erased from existence. It’s a damn shame that rule doesn’t seem to apply to Hera. That role used to be one of the most powerful, but the last few Zeuses have whittled it down until it’s little more than a figurehead position for their spouse. It’s allowed Zeus to act however he damn well pleases without consequence because Hera is seen as an extension of his position rather than one that stands on its own.

If Persephone marries him, the treaty won’t keep her safe.

“Hardly a foolproof plan.”

I allow myself a grin, though it feels haggard on my face. “Will it make you feel better if we double the guards at the bridges in case he attempts to march Ares’s small army over the river?” It won’t happen and we both know it, but I’ve already planned on increasing security in the unlikely event Zeus tries to attack. I won’t be caught flat-footed like my parents were.

“No,” he grumbles. “But I suppose that’s a start.” Andreas sets his mug down. “You can’t keep the girl. Thumb your nose at him if you must, but you can’t keep her. He won’t allow it. Maybe he can’t move against you directly, but he’ll bait a trap to put you in violation of the treaty, and then the full might of those pretty fools will come down on you. Not even you can survive that. Certainly not your people.”

There it is. The constant reminder that I am not a mere man, that the weight of so many lives rest on my shoulders. In the upper city, the responsibility for the lives of its citizens falls on twelve sets of shoulders. In the lower city, there is only me. “It won’t be an issue.”

“You say that now, but if it were true, you never would have brought her back here.”

“I’m not keeping her.” The very idea is ludicrous. I can’t blame Persephone for not wanting to wear Zeus’s ring, but she’s still a pretty princess who’s been given everything her entire life. She might like her walk on the wild side for the duration of the winter, but the thought of something permanent would send her screaming into the night. It’s fine. I have no long-term use for a woman like that.

Andreas finally nods. “I suppose it’s too late to worry about it now. You’ll see it through.”

“I will.” One way or another.

What would it take to incite Zeus to break the treaty? Very little, I expect. His rage is legendary. He won’t take kindly to me “defiling” his pretty bride for everyone to see. It’s easy enough to orchestrate a little show to the proper people who are guaranteed to get the rumor mill spinning, and the story will spread through Olympus like wildfire. Enough people talking and Zeus might feel he has to do something rash. Something that will have actual consequences.

More, the people of Olympus will finally come face-to-face with the truth. Hades is not a myth, but I’m more than happy to play the boogeyman in real life if it accomplishes my goals.

Andreas has a contemplative look on his face. “Keep me in the loop?”

“Sure.” I sit on the edge of my desk. “This would be when I remind you that you’re retired.”

“Bah!” He waves that away. “You sound like that little shit, Charon.”

Considering Charon is his biological grandson and well on his way to becoming my right-hand man, “little shit” hardly fits as a descriptor. He’s twenty-seven and more capable than most of the people under my command. “He means well.”

“He’s meddlesome.”

A knock on the door and the man himself pokes his head in. He’s a spitting image of his grandfather, though his shoulders are broad and his dark hair covers his full head. But the bright-blue eyes, square chin, and confidence are all there. He catches sight of Andreas and grins. “Hey, Pop. You look like you need a nap.”

Andreas glares daggers. “Don’t think I can’t paddle your ass the same way I did when you were five.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” His tone says otherwise, but he always likes to play with fire when it comes to Andreas. Charon steps into the room and closes the door behind him. “You wanted to see me?”

“We need to go over the changes to the sentry schedule.”

“Trouble?” His eyes light up at the idea of it. “This have anything to do with the woman?”

“She’s going to stay on for a bit.” I might have been frank about my plans with Andreas, but he’s earned that after everything he’s sacrificed to keep me alive and keep this territory together. I’m not ready to talk about it with anyone else, though my window for keeping shit to myself is rapidly closing. “Have Minthe raid her closet for a few things Persephone can borrow until I have a chance to order more.”

Charon raises his eyebrows. “Minthe’s going to love that.”

“She’ll get over it. I’ll reimburse her for whatever she comes up with.” It won’t completely soften the request, not when Minthe is so damn territorial about anything she views as hers, but it’s the best I can come up with right now. I need all of today to get the defenses in place to protect my people from what I’m about to do.

And tomorrow?

Tomorrow we have to make our announcement with enough splash that even those golden assholes up in Dodona Tower hear it.

My phone rings, and I know who it is before I round my desk to answer it. I glance at the two men in my office, and Charon drops into the chair next to his grandfather. They’ll be quiet. I don’t allow myself a deep breath to brace. I simply answer. “Yeah?”

“You have some brass balls, you little shit.”

Satisfaction seeps through me. Zeus and I have had cause to deal with each other several times over the years, and he’s always been condescending and blustery, as if gifting me with his presence. He doesn’t sound anything but furious now. “Zeus. Nice to hear from you.”

“Give her back immediately, and no one has to know about this little transgression. You wouldn’t want to do anything to endanger the fragile peace we have going.”

Even after all these years, it amazes me that he thinks I’m that short-sighted. There was a time when his bluff would have sent panic searing through my chest, but I’ve come a long way since then. I’m not a child for him to bully. I keep my voice mild, knowing it will infuriate him further. “I didn’t break the treaty.”

“You took my wife.”

“She’s not your wife.” That comes out too sharp, and I take half a second to remove any emotion from my tone. “She crossed the bridge on her own power.” I should leave it at that, but cold fury takes me. He thinks he can fuck with people’s lives simply because he’s Zeus. That might be true in the upper city, but the lower city is my kingdom, no matter what the rest of Olympus believes. “In fact, she was so desperate to get away from you, she bloodied her feet and nearly gave herself hypothermia. I’m not sure what passes for romance in the upper city, but that’s not a normal reaction to a proposal down here.”

“Return her to me or you’ll suffer the consequences. Just like your father did.”

Only years of learning to mask my emotions keep me from flinching. That fucking bastard. “She crossed the River Styx. She’s mine now, by might and by terms of the treaty.” I lower my voice. “You’re more than welcome to her when I’m through with her, but we both know what games I like to play. She’ll hardly be the unsullied princess you’re panting after.” The words taste foul in my mouth, but it doesn’t matter. Persephone agreed the goal is to twist the knife. Playing this verbal game of chicken with Zeus is only part of it.

“If you lay one filthy finger on her, I’ll skin you alive.”

“I’m going to lay more than one finger on her.” I force a thread of amusement into my voice. “It’s funny, don’t you think? That she’d rather welcome every depraved thing I want to do to that tight little body than let you touch her.” I chuckle. “Well, I think it’s funny.”

“Hades, this is the last time I’ll make this offer. You’d do well to consider it.” The anger disappears from Zeus’s voice, leaving only icy calm in its wake. “Return her to me within the next twenty-four hours, and I’ll pretend this never happened. Keep her, and I’ll destroy everything you love.”

“Too late, Zeus. That ship sailed thirty years ago.” When he caused the fire that killed my parents and left me covered in scars. I let the pause stretch out several beats before I say, “Now it’s my turn.”


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