Silvery flakes drifted down, glittering in the bright light of the harvest moon. Blackbirds swooped low, filling their beaks, undeterred by the wind-blown flurry. Persephone stripped another stalk and scattered the grains.
The horses were getting restless. Hermes didn't really need them – hadn't in years – but after so many centuries it didn't seem right to set off without a pair. Hephaestian Motors still offered harness rigging as an option, just like manual transmission, but Artemis was the only other Olympian besides himself still driving one.
Balios stamped, and the flock rose like a dark cloud against the moon. "We should go," Hermes said reluctantly.
"Of course." She rose, dusting her hands against her sleeves. "Goodbye, birds. Keep warm."
Hermes waited while his passenger bid farewell to her mother. Demeter drew up her gray hood, fading into the forest, shrouding herself in mist for the winter.
The Messenger never ceased to be amazed at the change the seasons wrought. Each year when the ice broke on the river Styx, the pale and ageless Queen of Hell waited to receive him in the regal silence of her hall. Overnight, on the long journey from the Underworld, the golden Maiden bloomed in his arms, green-eyed and round-cheeked. By the last night of the harvest moon, those golden locks were shot with silver, the green of her eyes fading to steely gray, the cheeks high-boned and regal. It was this form of the Goddess that he most revered, this one who broke his heart as surely as frost splits granite from the mountainside – wise, strong, and confident in her own return.
"I'd still like to stop in at that heritage grain place in Pennsylvania, if we have time after dinner." The chariot rose unnoticed above the freeway, headlights chasing taillights at speeds once only Hermes himself could imagine.
"Sure - are they growing anything unusual?" Hermes asked, tapping the GPS.
"Surprisingly, yes. They put in an einkorn strain as close to unmodified as any I've seen in years…"
Hermes listened with half an ear - gluten structures in emmer wheat, the quinoa article her mother was co-authoring with some Incan deity he'd never heard of, the barley boom in the upper Midwest... He put his arm along the seat back, enjoying the feel of her head on his shoulder.
It used to be that they rarely saw each other during her months in the Upperworld. The pace of her summers was slower now, more supervisory than hands-on. They'd actually managed a ten-day Alaskan cruise in mid-July this year, staffed by water nymphs and retired nixies. The food was excellent, and Demeter had called no more than twice a day.
He set the cruise control to follow Highway 44 through the northern Ozark Mountains towards St. Louis. "What time are we meeting Hecate and Nanshe?"
"Didn't I put that in our shared calendar?"
"Um - probably..."
"Six, at that Bosnian restaurant on the Hill."
"Better step it up, then." Hermes slapped the reins. "Same place they held their wedding reception?"
"Uh huh - they just bought it, by the way."
"You mean they convinced the owners that they couldn't wait to sell it to them?"
Persephone laughed. "Whatever – Nanshe wants to introduce Mesopotamian food to the area. And it's supposed to be a surprise, so at least pretend to be excited for them, darling, please?"
They were served by the two elder goddesses themselves, as giddy as girls with their news. An hour later, stuffed full of burek and baklava, they were back on the road, buzzing the top of the Arch before plunging into the crazy air drafts rising from the Mississippi. Persephone grasped the dashboard, white-knuckled. "I forgot what that was like on a full stomach."
"Hang on – I'm going to take us up higher." Hermes checked the flight path and entered a new route. Within seconds they were above the clouds, flying straight and level. A brief stop to bless the winter seeds, lying dormant beneath an early snow, and they were headed for the coast.
"Do you two have much left to clear up?" Hermes kept his voice casual; he tried not to ask many questions, where matters of the Underworld were concerned. He was on good terms with Hades these days, and wanted to keep it that way.
"Not much – the river's been dredged, and there are some contract issues to iron out with Charon, but we filed our final plan with the Pantheon Dissolution board before I left. We're approved to move into the next stage."
The Queen of the Dead nodded decisively. "Absolutely. It just makes sense, you know? Built-in multi-lingual workforce, access to resources – transportation could be better, but we're working on that…"
His heart sank. What was I thinking? he asked himself. Who am I trying to fool?
"…and the Valkyries accepted the food service contract, with the proviso that we clear space in Elysium for a good-sized battlefield and recreational complex…"
I won't miss this, he told himself firmly. Not in the least.
It took a lot out of Hermes, this back and forth every year. He couldn't think straight in the spring, the longing would grow so strong, and the shock of seeing her as the Queen of the Dead was always the same. It took the entire long night of careful, patient, anguished lovemaking to eke any sort of response from her, and by the time the sun rose on the Goddess of Spring, lying warm in his arms on the reclining seat of the chariot, then it was time to say goodbye for the season. Demeter would be there, waiting at the gate of her estate in northern Iowa, tapping her foot with impatience, unable to accept her own superfluity in the modern world. And then the long trip back to the Underworld each year, returning her to a husband who had long ceased to wander free during his wife's reign; there was too much to do, and (let's face it, Hermes thought) Persephone was excellent company – even Hades had come to realize that.
Persephone maintained a good working relationship with her husband, and a friendship that had grown warmer through the centuries. There had always been a physical thing between the two, Hermes knew that; it didn't bother him. Gods, no matter what their Pantheon-of-Origin, weren't particularly hung-up on fidelity. But that the woman he had loved for thousands of years had a life apart from his, that she shared secret smiles, inside jokes, and even a daughter, Melinoe, with that jackass Hades – it never got any easier to turn around and walk away as she placed the crown on her head.
Nanshe, Mesopotamian Goddess of Prophecy, had put out a call for a Pantheonic Futures Focus Group at the end of WWII. Hecate talked him into volunteering – Hermes was so burnt out with all the communication issues by that point in the war that he could barely haul himself out of bed. It was an eye-opening experience. Belief patterns were changing, splintering, becoming less dogmatic. Atheism was more socially acceptable and agnosticism was ubiquitous, even among those who actively participated in their religious community.
"On a daily basis," Nanshe had emphasized, "calls are no longer made to a deity – any deity - with expectation of direct, specific intervention in any area over which we have authority. For most of us, it's been centuries since we were last invoked with any seriousness. Let's face it, kids," she'd said, in her flip-flops and muumuu, "we can piss and moan about how nobody loves us anymore, or we can look at this as an opportunity…"
Over the next few decades, her ideas gained acceptance. Even the handful of deities still on active duty began to look for ways to move on. Demeter had finally come around, working as a consultant with Monsanto - although she would have her hands busy with the whole GMO controversy for years to come, Nanshe predicted.
By far the biggest changes had come in the various Underworlds. Hades convinced some of the newer Independents to cut back on their damnation rates in favor of an enforced period of reflection and re-education, with a heavy emphasis on sensitivity training. A small change, but the results were impressive. Soon Persephone was reaching out to Hel and Shiva and Osiris, working to position the Dead as a powerful force in the world to come. The Chthonic Group rapidly emerged as the most powerful of the sub-committees, and Persephone their most persuasive spokesperson.
The members of the tiny but powerful Messengers committee, not to be outdone, spear-headed a world-wide tech boom. Hermes had finally given up his position as Chair to Ninshubur once the World Wide Web was launched; he didn't miss the stress. Even Persephone had noticed the change in him. She, too, had concentrated more on getting her own Realm in order in the past few decades, leaving the day-to-day work to the Reincarnators (who'd been recycling their Dead for centuries and hadn't the sheer numbers to deal with).
"…so if all goes well, reassignment will be complete by mid-February," he heard her say. "By then we should have production up and running on the nanobot line, and Tartarus will be completely devoted to data storage – you'll be happy to know that we put Sisyphus in charge of testing, by the way."
Hermes snorted a laugh. "Serves him right."
Persephone sighed. "We've sent so many worse assholes than him down there since then, you would not believe…"
He let her talk on, focusing on the feel of each breath she took, his arm around her waist, his hand tucked under her sweatshirt against the velvet of her skin. No more back and forth, he thought. That arrangement would be at an end – everyone agreed it was no longer necessary. The last trip. The last time…
He pressed his lips to her hair, breathing in the scent of barley and rain. It would be hard to let go, even of the little that they had, but he knew it was the right thing to do. She had important work ahead of her, re-settling the Dead in productive occupations, overseeing the endless round of therapeutic groups, grief counseling, truth and reconciliation boards; death was the one business that would never – could never – die.
"…still need to work through the division of assets, but we have an agreement in principle. That'll become final by the solstice…"
Hermes had seen the rapid rate of change in technology slowing as end-users got comfortable with what they had. He knew the pattern – periods of game-changing advance inevitably gave way to standardization and stabilization. It would be decades before the next big thing came around. Just as her world was speeding up, his was slowing down.
"…it's beautiful, really. You'd never know it was that close to the city…"
Always before, he'd spent the quiet years between changes traveling the world, waiting for spring, then waiting for fall. His whole year, in such times, revolved around this twice-yearly journey.
"…no pressure, of course. I'm just putting it out there, something to think about…"
They hit the Gulf Stream and headed northeast. They'd make a right turn once the lights from the Spanish coast were visible on the horizon, splitting off from the North Atlantic current. There used to be an all-night café in Gibraltar where they'd stop for a midnight snack, but it was closed the last time they came through.
Gradually he became aware of the silence. He wondered if Persephone had fallen asleep. She's bored, he thought. It used to be their autumnal journey had been one long round of desperate, passionate, all-consuming sex before she took up her winter duties. She's bored with me. Can't blame her – it isn't her fault I've become - boring…
"So – I take it you're not interested."
"Um – " he shook his head, startled. "Well, I don't know – I mean – " What the hell was she just talking about? He searched his short-term memory for a clue – any clue at all.
"Don't worry about it." She straightened in the seat, pulling slightly away. "Forget I asked."
"Um – sure."
Persephone pulled out her Evo. "So," she asked casually. "What are your plans?"
"You mean for – for – from now on?"
"I hope you won't be a stranger." She shrugged, not looking up, "I appreciate you shuttling me up and back every year. You didn't have to, and I know it."
"I did it because I love you," he said truthfully. "I don't want to be a stranger, Persephone. I don't want this to end."
"But you don't want to go forward, either." She stopped herself with a sigh. "I'm sorry. That didn't come out right."
Hermes pressed the heel of his hand to his eyes, fighting back the lump in his throat. Gods don't cry, he told himself. Gods don't cry…
"It's not wrong to want something different than we have. It's not wrong to want to – to move on." She took out a pair of earbuds. "Let me know when we hit the Aegean Sea." She slid over, putting her feet up on the seat, knees bent, like a wall between them.
Foot traffic on the Styx Bridge was two-way now, and heavy. Ugly little shikome in polos and khakis were everywhere, making notes on their I-pads; harpies and efreet soared overhead. Hades was grilling steaks in the courtyard with Loki and Angerboda. Despite a friendly invitation, Hermes did not stay; he didn't need to feel like a fifth wheel today.
Months went by, but Hermes paid no attention to the passage of time – why should he? With his cabin windows shuttered tight, he didn't know whether it was day or night when he woke to the sound of dogs barking and a heavy fist pounding on his door.
"No, this not the ranger station," he called in a surly tone. "Go back down the trail and make a – "
The pounding continued. He checked the time – 3:00 a.m. The trails on Lamentation Mountain were dangerous at night – someone must be lost. Or he was being robbed. He summoned a godly aura about his naked form before opening the door.
It was a cold and moonless night. His aura shed no illumination of its own into the stygian woods. "Traveler," he intoned, "I bid you – "
"Woof!" Three black dogs knocked him flat, licking his face in a familiar way.
"Jesusfuckingchrist, Hecate, get them off me!"
It was a long time since he'd seen the Far-Watcher in her darker, three-faced form. Snakes wound through the shadowy veil of her hair and she bore a torch in each hand, lit, but casting no light.
"Is this how you always answer the door?" The torches, dogs, and extra faces faded. She put out a hand and pulled him to his feet before opening the fridge and tossing him a Guinness. "So - whattya want, Herm?"
Hermes opened his can. "What do I want? You're the one knocking my door down at three in the morning in full three-faced aura!"
Hecate kicked off her Birkenstocks and flopped down on the sofa. "Hey, when I'm invoked, I have certain standards."
"Invoked? I didn't – "
"Yes," she said firmly, "you did. 'Brimo Trimorphos, Hecate Nightwanderer, Daughter of Perses' - loud and clear, buddy."
"I don't know what you're talking about. I was asleep."
The Goddess of the Crossroads chugged her stout and belched discreetly. "Sent yourself a dream, didya?" she snorted. "Jung would have a field day with that!"
"Sent myself – oh." He had been dreaming. He remembered now; the fire, the wine, the sacrifice, howling his grief to the nightwind… "Sorry – my bad."
"Yeah, 'your bad'," she sniffed. "Do you have any idea what kind of ass-kissing Persephone had to render up to Hera and Zeus to get their consent? Do you know how embarrassing it was, to have to tell them you turned her down? Man, Nanshe was completely broad-sided – she did not see that coming!"
"I don't know what you're talking about. She's happy, and I don't want to interfere."
"Interfere? With what? She'd already done all the leg work, not to mention all the hoops she had to jump through to buy the farm and get the organic certification." Hecate rinsed her can and tossed it in the recycling bin by the door. "Sure, she can put it back on the market, but really, Hermes? You got something else lined up? Cause you don't look all that busy to me."
"'Buy the farm'?" He wrinkled his divine brow. "What farm?"
"Hermes Diaktoros, Luck-Bringer, Immortal Guide, and Comrade of the Feast," she sighed. "Persephone filed for divorce from Hades in September." Hecate paused in the doorway, pity on her face. "She bought a farm just down Highway 91 from here. I dunno how you missed it, but she asked you to marry her. And you, Hermes, God of Communication, you - weren't - listening. Schiller was right," she laughed into the nightwind. "'Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain'."
Hermes stood, open mouthed, staring out into the darkness, then ran to the hall closet. It took him five frantic minutes to find the winged sandals, staff and hat. He flung a bottle of wine out over the rocky cliff with a muttered prayer to Aphrodite as he flew, hoping he was not too late.