Kore held out a ripe pomegranate to Adrasteia. Her beloved mount, a faded brown bat the size of a pubescent cyclops with black streaks through her fur, flapped her massive, veiny wings and eyed the fruit. Her amber-colored eyes widened, and she squealed. With more enthusiasm than she'd had since arriving on Mount Olympus, Adrasteia snatched the fruit from Kore's palm. Dark red juice dripped from her muzzle as she chewed.
"Oh, you," Kore whispered, and stroked Adrasteia's chest. The bat made a noise like a lion's purr and snuggled closer to her mistress. "I know."
The Daemon Queen didn't enjoy the Upperworld any better and longed for the comfort of her home. Already, the intense pain all native under-dwellers experienced when away from the Underworld shrieked from every part of her body. It made it hard to concentrate at times, and it increased the frustration brought on from being on Mount Olympus for three days without any word about whether Zeus would grant her an audience.
If she'd been the only under-dweller, Kore wouldn't have been so angry by Zeus' rudeness. But she had a small company with her, and they weren't as strong as their queen. Half had fallen severely ill, and Mulstra, Kore's faithful attendant who'd pleaded to journey with her mistress, might not live through the day.
Not for the first time, Kore questioned her decision to come to Mount Olympus. The six other times she'd made the journey, Zeus had brushed aside her offer. Once, he'd laughed through her entire presentation and had thrown olives at her until she'd left.
What if the god did that again? How could Kore expect her people to forgive her for the agony her optimism had caused?
From the corner of her eye, Kore noticed Kakos, her most trusted advisor, striding toward her and Adrasteia. That morning, the ice daemon had coughed up a bucketful of blood, but one wouldn't guess that at his dignified demeanor. He sneered at every upper-dweller he passed and spit icicles at a young satyr that hadn't been paying attention and knocked into Kakos.
The satyr yelped and patted at her nicked fur. Kakos spit again, and the satyr scrambled away; called for her mother. Kakos smirked and approached Kore. He bowed.
"I don't approve of you terrorizing the locals," Kore told him.
Kakos stood and shrugged. "They deserve it."
He glanced away from the under-dwellers' camp to the bustle of activity that happened around it. Various creatures milled around small encampments, trained at a makeshift arena, or worked on building projects. Despite the severity of the war, most of the upper-dwellers moved with an air of revelry.
Their carefreeness made Kore wonder what lies Zeus told his people and which ones he chose to believe himself.
Kakos looked back at Kore, his face a mask of unbridled furious intent. "Let's shake their reality."
Kore stepped away from Adrasteia. "No." She advanced on her advisor. He paled a fraction but didn't draw back like expected. She hated doing it, but Kore struck him across the face. "You dare challenge your queen?"
Kakos held his injured cheek. His eyes blazed, but instead of angry, he appeared almost thrilled. "That's the first time I've seen my queen since we arrived here."
Kore frowned. "We must remain peaceful."
"Why? They want bloodshed as much as us."
"We'll gain nothing by strong-arming the gods."
"What better way than to show the Underworld's might?"
"That's not why we're here."
Kakos straightened his back. "Your idea is ridiculous. The gods are as unfit to rule as the Titans. We should let them destroy one another. What will it matter to us?"
Kore sighed. On several occasions over the past ten years, she'd explained why she cared about who ruled the Upperworld. She'd learned early on that the Underworld didn't exist on its own, that the Upperworld needed to be as balanced as she strived to make her realm for both to thrive. If one were chaotic, it'd only be a matter of time before it infected the other.
Many of her subjects refused to acknowledge this rationale. Kore's insistence had only served to drive a wedge between her and her people. Over the years, the discontent had grown from whispers to all-out shouting. The previous summer, she'd survived an assassination attempt.
"This will be the last time," Kore announced.
Kakos' eyes brightened. "Do you mean this?"
"I'm insulted you feel the need to ask."
Kakos inclined his head. "No insult intended, my Queen." He met her gaze. "How will we proceed when that imbecile declines your offer?"
It weighed on Kore's heart, but she said, "Prepare the Underworld for the Titans' attack. We'll not succumb like the gods."
Wicked glee radiated from Kakos. "I'll—"
"M-my Lady?" a familiar voice said behind Kore.
Adrasteia screeched as she spun around and placed herself before Kore. Her clawed feet stomped, ready to impale the frightened godling. Even Kakos responded by unsheathing the sword he carried at his hip. He brandished it; his long, thin-featured face contorted with contempt.
The godling, Zeus' son Hermes, scrambled back. His tan skin had faded to resemble the colorless creatures that lived in the bowels of the Underworld. "I'm s-sorry. I t-thought I'd made enough n-noise."
"It's our fault," Kore said as she stepped out of Adrasteia's shadow and knocked aside Kakos' blade. She smiled at Hermes. "We were too focused on our conversation. I'm sorry you got frightened."
Hermes gulped, and his blazing sapphire blue eyes (one of his traits that disturbed Kore. They reminded her too much of Cronus') remained huge, but he nodded. His back straightened, and he didn't flinch when Adrasteia snapped her jaw at him. Kore's respect for the godling increased, and once more she considered offering him a place in her court. Without a doubt, his potential would be ruined if he remained under his father's thumb.
"No, my Lady, I'm quite all right." Though his color hadn't returned, his voice now held the mischievous lit Kore enjoyed. He bowed, then held out his hand. "My father has approved your audience."
Kakos sheathed his sword. "About time."
Kore ignored him. "Give me one moment," she said to Hermes. Kore turned to Adrasteia. "You behave and stay here. Another adventure like yesterday won't be tolerated."
Adrasteia grumbled and couldn't meet her mistress' firm gaze.
Kore fought a grin and patted her muzzle. She flicked her attention to Kakos. "Tell everyone to pack. Come evening, I want to leave."
Kakos frowned. "It may take longer than that, my Queen. Most can't..." He trailed off as he eyed Hermes.
"Oh! I almost forgot." Hermes fumbled with the bag tied around his hips. A moment later, he removed three jars that all fit in his wide palm. He displayed them to Kakos. "Demeter apologizes for not getting this to you sooner."
Kakos sneered. "What is it? Poison to end us sooner?"
The bright glow left Hermes upturned features. "Uh, no. Demeter says it'll help you feel better. It's not a cure for your sickness, but it'll make being on Mount Olympus easier. Just put a bit on your forehead."
"It's a cheap trick to—"
Kore took the jars and shoved them into her advisor's hands. "Make sure Mulstra receives this."
Kakos' face fell, and he gripped the jars tighter. "Y-yes, my Queen."
While he'd never admit it, he adored Mulstra. Kore's council of advisors didn't approve of Kakos' affection for the lowly attendant, yet Kore had never demeaned him for it. On several occasions, she'd even encouraged him to act on his feelings, yet Kakos never would. Despite how exasperated his job made him, he lived to counsel.
That didn't stop him from sneaking kisses and long nights with Mulstra, though.
Kakos strode away without another glance at his queen or the godling.
"Are you ready, my Lady?" Hermes asked.
"Yes." Kore held out her hand. The godling didn't hesitate to take her cold fingers, and no longer gawked at her white-and-black marbled skin. He didn't even glance at her missing left end finger.
Once he had her hand, Hermes peered at her face, much closer than she'd usually allow. But she knew he meant her no harm. Over the past three days, she'd spent a great deal of time with the godling, as he'd been the designated messenger between her and Zeus. When not occupied, Hermes had led Kore around Mount Olympus and had explained his father's grand vision for the city.
His childish eagerness had warmed her heart and had made her trip to the Upperworld much more enjoyable than any of the other times.
If she'd known her advisor could handle honesty, Kore would have told Kakos why she really was so determined to get through to Zeus. Youth like Hermes deserved a chance to flourish, and she believed the gods would offer the best opportunities. Would they be perfect? No, but the gods couldn't compare to the tyranny of the Titans.
Hermes concluded his inspection of the Daemon Queen. "You should have kept one of the jars, my Lady."
Kore shook her head. "My people need it more than I."
"Will you be all right?"
Kore flashed him a blinding smile that terrified the other occupants of Mount Olympus but not the godling before her. "I'm better now that I have more pleasant company."
Hermes blushed but tightened his hold on her hand. "You're too kind, my Lady."
Kore placed a finger against her lips. "Don't reveal my secret."
Hermes chuckled, and Kore nodded at the path closest to Adrasteia's makeshift stable. They started their journey.
It had upset many of Mount Olympus' occupants, but the under-dwellers' camp had been set up near the construction of Zeus' palace. Her people hadn't liked the mistrust the decision had displayed, and they'd even planned to move the camp whether their queen approved or not. The very night they'd set to act, many had succumbed to their illness.
In a way, the illness was a blessing. It'd stopped her people from suffering Zeus' wrath.
As they walked and avoided the sniggers and glares thrown their way, Hermes chattered about his morning. He'd confessed their first day together that he worried about boring her, but Kore had reassured him his prattling didn't bother her. She even welcomed it. It'd been a long time since she'd had a conversation that didn't revolve around the ruling of a realm.
"I'm going to miss you," Hermes said, his voice low, as they entered Zeus' palace.
Since Kore's last visit, marble floors had replaced the stone before them. More walls had been added and gave the colossal structure a sense of depth it had previously lacked. With each passing year, Kore had to admit, the palace grew more lavish and impressive. If the building continued, Zeus' palace soon would dwarf any ever constructed.
"And I you," Kore replied. "Hermes, how many more years do you have until you reach godhood?"
Should she do this? Her advisors would object, and her people would despise his presence. If Hermes did agree, he'd have a difficult time adjusting; would be miserable for centuries, if he was lucky. Yet, in Kore's bones, she knew he'd be beneficial to her realm.
"Yes, my Lady?"
"I would like you to speak with me once this war is finished before you reach godhood."
"Where you belong."
"Where I..." His eyes sparkled. "Do you mean—"
"I mean, don't get ahead of yourself. Just consider your options. Will you do that for me?"
Hermes nodded, and his light brown curls bounced.
Kore squeezed his fingers. "Good." She inclined her head toward the rose-gold doors big enough to accommodate four cyclopes at the same time. "Thank you for your time."
Hermes brought her to a stop before the doors. He bowed. "No, the pleasure was all mine, my Lady."
Kore smiled again, then opened the doors.