Seasons have not always existed in the world. Once, the fields were replanted as soon as their bounty was harvested, the boughs of trees always hung heavy with flowers and fruit, spring and autumn existing always in the same instant. In those days, men took for granted the grace of lady Demeter, but she had no concerns, as long as her daughter was with her. When suitors came to pledge their love to the beautiful young goddess, Demeter turned them away, and admitted only the other maiden Olympians to her daughter's company.
Persephone was not content remain forever hidden from the world, no matter what her beloved mother's plans were. So after Demeter sent Apollo away, the maiden stole away from her nymphs and went to him as he stood in a bright meadow.
The sun god, beautiful even among the peerless Olympians, radiated his pleasure at seeing her. In his presence, she was bathed in warmth and beauty. She smiled at his praises and his smug confidence, and pressed a gentle hand against his chest when he swooped in to claim her lips for his own.
"I have three questions for you, shining Apollo, before I am yours. If I am to defy my mother, I wish to be certain of my choice."
He laughed. "Ask them, then. You will not be disappointed."
"What color is my hair?"
The sun god wrapped a lock of her long, long hair around a finger, raised it to his lips and kissed it. "Your hair is the color of the sky at sunset, with the glorious luminance of the sun as it descends into the western sea."
Persephone only smiled. "What would I be to you, my lord? What position would I hold in your heart?"
The god of music placed one hand on her waist and a hand against her cheek, leaning in to whisper into her ear, "You would be my lover, my mistress, my muse. I would compose songs to your beauty and make love to you on a bed of clouds."
Persephone sighed in pleasure. "And what, my lord, is my function as a goddess?"
The god of youth moved his hand from her waist to her belly, pressing hard and sliding downwards. "You are spring, my flower, you are birth and youth and nature."
Still smiling, Persephone twisted out of Apollo's grasp, her voice filled with poisonous sweetness. "You are eloquent, it is true, and beautiful. But you see only your own glory reflected in me, my lord. If you love yourself so dearly, I would advise finding yourself a mirror, or perhaps a twin?" She raised her eyebrows and smiled at his slowly growing fury. "You think of me as the maiden goddess of birth and youth, yet that is clearly your sister's role. I have heard of your jealousies, of how you murdered Orion, the only man who stirred her to reject her chastity. You would not marry me, because it is Artemis you desire. Be on your way, little brother, I will not be second to any woman in my lover's heart."
She bounded away, laughing merrily at his shouts, her only pursuers.
Next was Hermes, the forever-traveling messenger of the gods. Though he was fleet of foot, she caught him in a wooded grove, stripped nude and kneeling by a pool to drink.
He approached her with more deference than Apollo, but there was a light of conquest in his eyes and hunger in his smile. She lowered her lashes and smiled demurely at him. "I have three questions for you, cunning Hermes, before I am yours. If I am to defy my mother, I wish to be certain of my choice."
He lounged back on the grass, unconcerned. "If it is a test of my wits, my lady Kore, you will not find me lacking." His smile widened. "Nor in other areas, unlike my girlish brother Apollo."
Persephone giggled into her hand and blushed. "My lord, what color is my hair?"
"I am no poet, my lady, but to me, your hair is the color of copper veins in the earth, of warm red clay." The god of athleticism stretched his arms and arched his back as he spoke, letting the dappled sunlight play over well-sculpted muscles.
Persephone averted her eyes but stole an admiring glance every now and again. "What would I be to you, my lord? What position would I hold in your heart?"
"You would be my wife, for no other position would suit for a daughter of Zeus and Demeter. You would keep my home and be there to welcome me when I return from my duties, to rub my feet and ease my aching heart, and I would see that you were well taken care of." The god of commerce and protection smiled and rose to his feet, pacing in circles around her, eyes tracking possessively over her curves.
Persephone caught her breath at the intensity of his gaze and lowered her own eyes.
"And what, my lord, is my function as a goddess?"
"You are the lady of life yet unborn, the untilled but fertile soil. You need only the touch of a god to make you into the goddess you were meant to be, a nurturer to rival the woman who birthed you. I will sow in you a new generation of divinity." The god who was Aphrodite's second-favorite lover smiled, the impressive manhood that graced his statues and temples on prominent display.
Persephone tilted her head and met his eyes for the first time, smiling, her voice as cold as the northern winds. "You err, lord Hermes. I am not the earth. I am not a mortal woman, to dote upon you and be awed by your godliness. I am fully divine, daughter of Zeus and his fourth wife, and I will not bow to the product of some dalliance. And most of all, I am not my mother. Go back to Aphrodite, little brother, for you are not worthy of me."
Persephone walked away, her head held high, and the forest rose up behind her, her dryads clinging to Hermes, slowing him as he followed until she could no longer hear his pleas.
For a long time, there were no suitors. Persephone spent her days picking flowers and avoiding her mother, losing herself amongst the babbling of her nymphs. Then, one day, as she bent to pluck a narcissus from the soil, the earth split open in front of her. Clouds gathered in the heavens and a chariot roared out of the chasm, driven by a pale man with black hair.
Hades grabbed her wrist and made to pull her into the chariot, but Persephone sought his eyes and bid him wait with all the authority she could muster. To her surprise, he calmed his horses but did not release her. She took a deep breath, and her voice did not waver.
"I have three questions for you, dread Hades, before I am yours. If you are to risk my mother's wrath, I would have you be sure of your choice."
He regarded her with unblinking colorless eyes. "Ask them, child, though it will make no difference."
"What color is my hair?"
She expected him to react with irritation – the elder Olympians had no patience for the games of the younger – but he merely stayed silent, as if giving the question great thought, and then answered. "Blood, fresh-spilled."
She tilted her head at him and stared in wonder. "What would I be to you, my lord? What position would I hold in your heart?"
"I would make you my queen."
The answer made her inhale sharply, and widen her eyes.
"Ask your third question, and let us be done with it."
Persephone leaned in and murmured, letting her voice drop from a girlish soprano to a rich, caressing contralto, "And what, my lord, is my function as a goddess?"
"You are rebirth. Through you, the denizens of my realm are given life and allowed to return to the sunlit lands. Through you, death is no prison." His regard was steady as he ascribed to her a power unattained by all the other gods of Olympus.
"Now, it is your turn to answer a question – what is my function?"
"You are the king of the dead, the ruler of the unseen lands." Any mortal child knew that much, though they were too afraid to utter his name.
He just inclined his head, then his mouth split open in a ghastly death's head grin. "I steal, I snatch, I leave wailing and grief in my wake. But the things I take, I preserve, away from the ravages of wind and age. One beautiful thing next to another looks common. Beauty amongst ugliness is transcendent."
Finally, Persephone smiled, slow and inviting, and the earth shuddered closed, leaving only a scattered bouquet and warm golden laughter in its wake.
The underworld was like nothing she'd ever known. It had nothing of her mother or father in it, no chains made of love, or ever-watchful clouds. She walked among the dead and they threw themselves at her feet. She was the first breath of life to ever grace the halls of the underworld, and all its denizens turned their faces toward her like flowers to the sun.
She thought that the land of the dead would have been dreary, as colorless as it was lifeless, and it did seem that way, at first. But then Persephone started to see glimmers of gold veins in the ceiling, precious gemstones in the walls, reflecting the soft glow of phosphorescent crystals. The palette was dark, but somehow richer than all the bright flowers and trees of her home above. Hades had been right – surrounded by grey and black stone, the merest flash of color was enough to make her want to weep with joy. Enough to make her notice it, in places where she would have never bothered to look before. In the darkness, she could see more clearly than she ever could under the sun.
All the while, Hades haunted her footsteps, keeping a silent, respectful distance, and making none of the advances that she would have expected from a brother of Zeus. She asked him about it once, when she could take no more of the heavy hush that suffused the air.
The king of the dead looked somewhat amused – for him, anyways, though it was only shown by the barest quirk of his eyebrow. "My siblings tend to be somewhat predictable – the later they were conceived, the more foolish they are, the more they crave love and companionship, the greater the lengths they will go to obtain it. And Zeus is the youngest of us all."
Persephone tilted her head at her host-captor-uncle, the second eldest of Cronus and Rhea's brood, save only for wise, solitary Hestia, the lady of home and hearth. "That would make you almost not a fool at all, then, my lord."
"I never said that." His grey eyes were distant, unseeing and all-seeing, and Persephone thought of herself and why she was in the underworld at all, and she began to understand.
"Why me, my lord? Why choose me, from all the countless nymphs and maidens and goddesses in the world?"
"Because death cannot exist without life, and life is meaningless without death."
The words sank into her mind like a stone cast into still waters, and the ripples bounced against her heart. He was lonely, and she was without meaning or purpose. Her presence in the underworld was meant to change both of those things.
His quiet voice broke across her thoughts, and she turned to see his bone-white hand held out to her. "Come. I have something I want to show you."
It turned out that the underworld wasn't quite as lifeless as she'd believed, either. Hades had brought her down through the earth into the very heart of his kingdom, bypassing the five rivers and not going so deep as to breach the darkness of Tartarus, so all she'd seen was the austere beauty of the realm where Hades himself resided. After their talk, the first one they'd had since they'd arrived – and who even knew how long ago that was – Hades had hitched his chariot back up to his pale horses and helped her in.
They didn't speak as the chariot lurched over stone, but the silence had been lanced and drained of tension, almost companionable by comparison. Slowly, the ground began to level out, to be covered by a thin layer of dust that eventually turned into dry dirt, unworthy of being called soil. Rooted in the dirt were flowers, as far as the eye could see, ghostly pale and faintly luminous – asphodels, the flower of death and mourning. Persephone slipped, wordless, from the chariot and walked into the meadow, trailing her fingers along the flowers. They were more translucent, more unearthly than the ones that grew above the ground, but the buds opened when she touched them, alive in a way that little else in the underworld was – alive in a way that responded to her own nature.
Here and there, the dead wandered the meadows, looking more peaceful than most she had seen so far. They paid her no heed, and just walked aimlessly amongst the flowers.
"These are the Asphodel Meadows, where reside the dead who were too virtuous for Tartarus, but not righteous enough for Elysium. Here, they drink the waters of oblivion, and find peace, but not joy."
Persephone turned her head to look at Hades, who wasn't watching her, for once, but was looking out over the meadows with something like sorrow.
"This is the place that I would give to you for your own, so that instead of being trapped here, the souls could be reborn again into life. I would make you queen of all the underworld, but this would be your place, and yours alone."
The goddess of life inclined her head and climbed back into the chariot. "I should like to see the rest, my lord."
Eventually, news spread in the underworld, from the newly deceased all the way up to Hades himself, of a great famine that was sweeping the Earth. Crops withered in the fields, no matter how much care they were tended with. More souls than ever before crowded the banks of the Acheron, waiting to be ferried across, all while wailing of the cruelty of the Lady of Grain. She would permit nothing to grow until her daughter was returned to her.
Persephone had known that her mother would be furious with her for leaving, likely inconsolable, but to abandon her duties, to sentence countless mortals to death? Persephone didn't know whether it was rage, grief, or spite that fueled her mother's actions, but it was as if she had gone completely mad.
Hades seemed unsurprised. "The humans fear the power of the gods – Zeus's lightning, Poseidon's earthquakes, the very mention of my name – but it is the goddesses that they should truly fear, for their wrath is slow, but utterly without mercy. A dead race pays no tributes; I should expect Hermes to come and take you from here soon, once Zeus has gotten over his pride and acquiesced to Demeter's demands."
The flower goddess took a deep breath. "And if I chose to stay?"
Emotion flashed, almost too quickly to catch, across the death god's face. "Is that what you desire?"
Heavy red hair fell around Persephone's face as she stared at the stone beneath her feet. Her hair was darker than it had been when she left the sunlit lands, and her freckles had all but faded entirely, leaving her skin the color of flawless ivory. She looked like an entirely different goddess, and felt like one, as well. There was a large part of her that yearned for flowers and the companionship of her mother and maiden sisters, but there was another that looked at the underworld and saw beauty, possibility, and a kind of freedom that she'd never known – the freedom that comes from power and responsibility, rather than the lack of obligations.
She looked back up into Hades's grey eyes, and saw yearning there, and hope. If she closed her eyes, she could see her mother's anguish – her overbearing, overprotective, beautiful, wonderful mother, whom she couldn't bear the thought of never seeing again.
"I don't know."
Hades said nothing, just turned and walked into his dining room. Curious, and a little guilty for being unable to answer him how he wished, Persephone followed. On the stone table lay a single pomegranate, sliced neatly in half, and Hades offered one of the halves to her.
"No one, whether mortal or god, can escape the clutches of the underworld once they have tasted its fruit. Zeus and Demeter could not keep you from this place, but neither could your own desire."
Persephone took the profferred fruit and cradled it delicately in her palms. "But I would be permitted to leave? And how often would I have to return?"
"A few months out of every year, at the least – more, if you so chose."
"And if I did not return of my own accord?"
Hades grinned, black and horrific, as he had when he had first stolen his potential bride. It did not frighten her, though she felt it should have. "You would return to me, whether by your choice or by your death, transitory as that is for an Olympian."
"Would it be death that snatched me back, my lord, or would it be you?"
The dead god raised his eyebrows. "Is there a difference?"
"There is to me." And it was true. She did not love him, but there was a tiny piece of her that was intrigued by him, who had looked at a silly goddess with no purpose in life, and had seen a queen in death.
He was solemn again, as he almost always was, and placed a hand against his chest. "Then I promise, Persephone, that if anything tries to keep you from me, I will come for you myself."
Without any further hesitation, Persephone dug her fingers into the pomegranate and pulled them out, bloody and glistening. The red flesh disappeared between her red lips and wrote her fate in crimson, binding herself to the land of the dead.
The half-eaten fruit tumbled out of her hand, and Persephone pressed her mouth to Hades's own, the headiness of the pomegranate melding with the taste of bone and ash. Wordless and intent, she urged him down to the floor, crowning herself queen with pomegranate juice and a broken maidenhead.
Torchlight cast strange, flickering shadows on the walls of the throne room where Hades and his new wife held court, seated in two immense stone thrones of equal height. The sea of petitioning dead parted to make way for the torchbearer, a veiled maiden with black hair.
Hades regarded the interloper with his usual stony-faced stoicism, but Persephone leaned forward in curiosity. The woman was less ephemeral than the spirits surrounding her, and the shadows around her seemed to suggest two other female figures, also holding torches, facing to the side and away. She was three-in-one, with a hound pacing calmly at her feet.
The king of the dead finally inclined his head in respect, and acknowledged her. "Hecate. What brings you to my doorstep?"
The triple goddess smiled, and her three voices held at once amusement, derision, and seriousness. "Oh, I believe you already know the answer to that, great Aidoneus. Demeter rages and weeps for her daughter's absence, and has entreated me to return her, whole and unmolested." She narrowed her eyes and leveled a look at Persephone, taking in the crown and heavy dress of a queen, not a captured maiden. "I see that I am too late for that."
Persephone simply spread her hands in a helpless gesture. "What has been done has been done, and it was by my own choice, and no fault of anyone else. How long have I been gone from the upper world?"
"Half a year, my lady. Zeus is beginning to buckle under the pressure of Demeter and the mortals, and it is said that he will send Hermes to retrieve you any day now. I thought that perhaps you would prefer that I guide you. Considering how your refusal of him made him the laughingstock of Olympus, I doubt he would treat you gently."
The queen of the dead inclined her head and rose to her feet. "Very well. I will go with you. To be honest, my heart longs to see my mother and half-sisters again. And in half a year's time, you will escort me back here to my husband."
Hecate hesitated, two of her voices murmuring in surprise. "Your mother will not be pleased with that, and even the lady of the crossroads must fear the Corn-Mother's rage."
Persephone waved a hand towards the sapling that grew between her throne and Hades's, planted with the seeds of the pomegranate that had bound her to him. "I'm afraid there's nothing anyone can do about it."
With a small bow, Hecate walked to the entrance of the great room and held up her torch, lighting the way. Before Persephone could follow her, however, Hades rose from his throne and caught her hand in his.
"You will come back." He said it like a statement, but there was a question lurking beneath the surface, an baseless uncertainty that she would keep her promise.
She smiled, a brief flash of fondness blooming in her heart, and pressed a hand to his cheek. "Of course. And if I don't, you'll come and fetch me." With a light, lingering kiss and a smile, she slipped out of his grasp and out of his realm, leaving the underworld somehow more cold and dead than before she'd arrived.
The sun was brighter than Persephone had remembered, the sky a more dazzling shade of blue. These were the only beauties she found when she emerged from the darkness, however – the land, as far as she could see, was barren and desolate. Trees clawed the sky with bare branches, and dry flower petals crunched under her bare feet.
A small semi-circle of people stood a small distance away. In the center was a hunched old woman, with silver liberally threading her wheat-blonde hair. Directly behind her stood an enormous, bearded man, who spoke with a voice like thunder, "Well, Demeter? Are you pleased? Will you lift this thrice-damned curse now that you have you precious daughter back?"
Demeter straightened a little, casting a venomous glance back at her once-husband. "I would have been pleased that you had not sold her off like cattle to our elder brother in the first place. I have not forgiven you – you are merely rectifying your mistake by returning her to me." Appearing to give him no further thought, the earth-mother walked across the small field to where her daughter stood, small green shoots pushing themselves out of the ground around her feet. "Though it would appear that she is not to remain with me, is she?"
Persephone reached over and cradled her mother's wrinkled cheeks in her hands, watching silently as the skin tightened and the silver in her hair gave way to gold. "No, mama. I have to go back. If I don't, then he'll just come and get me again. We made a deal, though – half the year with him, and half the year with you."
Demeter drew her daughter to her in a fierce embrace, then stepped back, clearly unsure whether to feel grateful or betrayed. After a moment of staring in consternation, she threw up her hands and turned back to the assembled Olympians. "So be it! As long as Persephone walks the soil of the sunlit lands, I will permit things to grow. When she leaves the mortal world, so will life." Turning back to her daughter, she shook her head anxiously. "I would have kept you safe, forever innocent of the horrors of death and the cruelties of men, free from the demands of gods and men."
The lady of spring just smiled a little. "I know. But that innocence came at a price that I wasn't willing to pay anymore. I am sorry – I didn't mean to hurt you this way."
"Very well. When you are done with this lot," she waved a hand at the restless gods behind her, "come find me. There's work to be done, and you will help me with it."
Persephone watched her mother walk away, beauty restored but shoulders slumped with sadness. She raised her own chin and walked towards the rest of her family, greeting them without the obeisance she would have given before her time in the underworld. She was the goddess of spring and rebirth, the daughter of the earth. Even among the living and the deathless gods, she was still the queen of the dead.