“Praises, my dears, welcome home,” a musical voice floated out on the still air as Thanatos and Angela climbed the stairs to the entrance of the enormous mansion.
Looking up, Angela saw a tall woman wrapped in silks of rich colors—the purple of the grape, the gold of ripe wheat, the blue of a kingfisher. Her tight curls were crowned by a crown of golden leaves and her face and body were those of a simple, joyful country girl accustomed to herding sheep, gathering crops, dancing in festivals and swimming in sunlit streams. Her skin was chalky white and her smiling mouth bright red.
“Who’s that?” Angela whispered to Thanatos, amazed.
“The Mistress,” he said, as if it were obvious.
A ringing laugh echoed against the marble surfaces.
“My name is Persephone, darling. I’m your stepmother.”
Angela curtsied and took the hand that Persephone extended. It was as cold as a refrigerated cucumber.
“Did you have any trouble at the river?” Persephone asked Thanatos.
“Everything unfolded as you predicted,” he murmured.
“And the judges? Did that that stickler Rhadamanthus give you trouble?”
“Some, Mistress,” Thanatos admitted, “But your plan worked beautifully.”
“Excellent,” Persephone smiled broadly, her cheeks round as apples. She sighed happily and took Angela’s face in her hands. “Let me look at you, dear. Lovely. I think you will do very well.”
“What?” Angela asked.
Persephone laughed. “I mean, silly-cakes,” she said, pinching Angela’s cheek, “That you will be very happy here. Now come with me and meet everyone!” She took Angela by the hand and took her into the cool recesses of the marble mansion.
The first room they stopped at contained a very big man sitting on a throne frowning at a scroll of papyrus. His face was mostly lost in a bushy black beard and the dark curls of his head were tamed somewhat by a simple gold circlet. He wore a tunic of coarse black wool with a gold chain around the waist.
“Hades!” said Persephone. “Hades, hey!” She clapped her hands.
“Mmmfph?” He grunted, basso profundo, “What is it?” he looked up in alarm, as one who has suddenly been woken from a daydream.
“Hades, this is Zeus’ daughter Angelia—you remember her.”
“Oh Hades, she’s your niece! She’s the one Hera banished from Olympus after she threw her designer handbag into Mount Etna?”
He shook his head.
“You must remember. She’s the baby who replaced Hera’s face cream with a pot of snakes?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Was I really that bad?” Angela whispered.
“When she came to live with us she used to be so, er, vivacious that Cerberos used to come and hide under your chair, whimpering?”
“That pernicious little shrike?” He gripped the edge of his couch until his knuckles turned what. “What’s she doing here? I thought we banished her.”
Persephone patted Angela on the shoulder, “Not at all. She took a little holiday, that’s all. But now she’s back and look—all civilized and sweet.”
Hades looked her up and down.
“Hard to tell from appearances. Have you checked her for weapons?”
“He’s such a joker,” Persephone murmured to Angela.
“Just keep her away from my blueprints,” said Hades.
Persephone beckoned Angela away.
“Come away, I’ll take you to the women’s quarters to meet your house sisters.”
Persephone moved swiftly ahead and somehow to Angela it seemed as though she were floating. Her own feet made loud slaps on the stone floor, but Persephone was silent. She seemed to throw out golden specks of grain that caught the light of lamps blazing in niches carved in the walls. Angela noticed the sweet overripe smell of persimmons and apples.
They reached a hall at the end of the mansion. It was painted in rich reds, yellows, purples and oranges. In the center of the hall there was a huge loom being worked by a tall girl in a rose-pink peplos. She was just as pale as her mother, though her hair was blonde and wreathed with roses and baby’s breath. She gazed at Angela with wonder, with large child-innocent eyes.
“Praises, dear girls, your sister is here!” Persephone announced with a smiling voice. Angela felt genuinely important and proud, a novel sensation.
“Oh, I’m so pleased you’ve come!” the pink girl cried and flew over to Angela with the same eerie floating motion.
“I’m Elpis,” she said taking Angela’s hand in her cold one, “I just know you’ll love it here. Everyone will adore you, won’t they mama?”
Elpis turned her limpid eyes to Persephone, who nodded smilingly. “Just wait until we do your hair and put you in proper clothes and tend to your skin. You’ll be the belle of the ball!”
A nasty laugh came from a corner of the room. For the first time, Angela noticed that there was a giraffe standing there, blowing soap bubbles out of its nostrils.
“Ridiculous girl! Remember your manners,” Persephone said sternly.
The giraffe blinked placidly at her with long lashes, then suddenly disappeared.
Elpis let out a shriek as she saw a tarantula scuttling the floor in her direction.
“Mama! Tell her not to!”
The spider metamorphosed into a copy of Elpis, except that she wore a bushy beard.
“That’s enough young lady,” Persephone thundered. “Behave, or Hades will hear of it.”
There was a disembodied sigh and then a pop-eyed teenaged girl appeared. She was just as pale as the other two but wore a plain black peplos held in place by a brooch that looked like moonstone and gave off iridescent flashes apparently of its own accord.
“This is my youngest daughter Melinoë,” Persephone said somewhat apologetically. “You’ll be sharing her room for now. In fact, why don’t you make yourself useful and show Angela her room?” Persephone suggested to her daughter.
Melinoë scowled and puffed out her cheeks.
“All right. Come on,” she said without looking at Angela.
Melinoë didn’t wait but headed straight for the door and Angela had to hurry to keep up. They ended up in a little corner room with two basic beds covered with extremely thin cushions. Angela thought wistfully of her comfortable bedroom back home.
Melinoë sat down on her bed and stared at Angela, who squirmed under the scrutiny.
“Wow, that was amazing how you changed into different stuff like that,” Angela blurted to break the silence. “That was neat.”
The teen continued to stare.
“It’s my thing,” she said.
“Most people here have a thing, you know, a power. Mine’s changing shape and giving people nightmares. Elpis gives people false hope–she lifts their spirits even though something terrible is about to happen. My boyfriend Achlys is really good at making people feel like they’re being bitten by termites.” She chuckled. “What’s your thing?” Melinoë crossed her legs and put her chin in her hands, leaning forward with interest.
“Um. Well…” Angela bit her lip. “I’m not sure I have a thing.”
“Oh.” Melinoë looked glum.
Angela felt her smartphone in her pocket and took it out. Luckily the batteries had not completely died.
“But, I do have this. It’s a, uh, a sort of crystal ball that you can use to see into the Overworld.”
Melinoë definitely brightened up.
“Can I see?”
“Yes. I’ll show you a picture of the jazz band at my school.”
She played a video of the band playing ‘Misty’. Melinoë gazed at it intensely.
“They all look like you,” she said. “They have that healthy skin and look all happy. It looks nice.” Melinoë sighed.
Angela was surprised.
“Don’t you like it here? Aren’t you a princess?”
“Practically everyone’s a princess here,” Melinoë scoffed. “It gets pretty boring. Plus I hate my sister, she’s such a suck up. Also Persephone gets on my nerves.”
“I call her Persephone. The parental bond has been severely attenuated by the fact that she keeps cutting off my allowance.”
“Anyway, I should probably tell you something.” Melinoë screwed up her nose and scrutinized her black-lacquered nails.
“Well, I kind of promised I wouldn’t tell, but now that I’ve met you I like you so I probably will.”
Melinoë got up and put her head around the door, then returned to the bed and sat next to Angela.
“Persephone brought you here under false pretences. You’re not Hera and Zeus’s daughter. The real Angelia is violent and crazy so she got banished to an island when she was five years old. But Hera’s coming to visit for the wine festival in a few weeks and she said wants to see her daughter. Persephone’s been feeding her lines for years about how well Angelia is doing and now she’s terrified of Hera finding out she’s been lying all that time.”
“So I’m going to be the substitute?”
“But why would she lie about it?”
“Persephone’s really wants to move to Olympus, because it’s more prestigious, but she can’t do that without Hera’s blessing. Also, if Hera finds out about Angelia’s banishment she’ll be mad. I mean, like, really mad. She’ll have a conniption fit.”
“We’ll, I’m mad myself actually,” sputtered Angela.
“Yeah, but you don’t count. Hera is the Queen of Goddesses. Plus, you haven’t seen vindictiveness until you’ve seen her at work. Persephone’s terrified of her, and she’s hard to scare.”
“So, what am I supposed to do?” Angela asked.
“Just chill. Hang out with me. I’ll show you around. It’ll be fun.” Melinoë smiled, turned into a tabby cat, curled up and went to sleep.
Angela sat on the hard couch staring at the cat-girl wondering exactly what she’d got herself into.