The door opened and a satyr who looked much like Renae stood there. Only this servant was not smiling.
“Hello. I need to see Goddess Proserpina. It is urgent. Goddess Venus requires something from her.” I wiped my sticky free hand on my filthy nightgown, then I reached into the pouch and pulled out the box. One glance at it had the satyr nodding and opening the door to let me in.
Deep Hades. I was in Pluto’s palace! I had made it! Safely inside, I slipped the coin from my cheek and let it drop into my pouch.
I followed the solemn servant through the halls. Much like the halls of Cupid’s home, these had paintings and murals of war, but these were far darker, gorier, the faces elongated and made more grotesque by the spattering of candlelight flickering at odd intervals. Layers of dust seemed to have collected on everything in sight. I looked away, facing forward. It was even colder in here than it was outside.
When the satyr opened a door and beckoned me in with a single wave, my spirits lifted. The room was brighter, filled with hundreds of candles that warmed the space. Everything was clean. Gleaming candelabras and silver platters were set out on a long table. In the middle of the room was a grand, plush chair of rich cream fabric. In it sat a vision of sweetness that caught my breath. Her skin was dark mahogany, her large eyes a soft green, lips pink. The Goddess Proserpina appeared as young as me with her hair pinned up in black ringlets, her body petite and innocent in appearance, with dainty ankles crossed.
My eyes met hers only for a brief moment before I lowered mine and rushed forward, falling at her feet.
“Oh, goddess. I am beyond honored to be in your presence. I am Princess—”
“Princess?” Even her voice was youthful, high and pretty.
“Yes, wondrous one. I know I do not appear so, but I am Princess Psyche, a mere mortal as you can see. I am on a mission from your dear friend, the goddess Venus, to obtain a bit of your beauty in this box.”
I held the box up without lifting my head, and she took it.
“My, my,” Proserpina said. “I cannot recall the last time Venus needed help. She must be going through a difficult time. What have you done to her, girl?”
I gritted my teeth as a multitude of emotions swam within me like lethal sharks, their tails whipping.
“I am the wife of her son.”
Proserpina gasped, paused, and then giggled. “Cupid has taken a mortal? Oh, the outrage!” She sounded utterly delighted by this bit of gossip. “That must have smarted his poor mother. No wonder she is in such a state as to require my essence.”
I heard the box snip open and felt a whoosh of magical wind warm my skin before the box clicked shut again. A nudge at my shoulder had me lifting a hand to receive it.
“Thank you, great one.” I began to stand, but she stopped me.
“I never have visitors. Stay a moment. Tell me the tale of how you and Cupid came to be. I find my own company to be tiresome.”
I understood that feeling. Although I could not stay long, her request seemed heartfelt. Who was I to deny her? So, I began my tale, starting with Venus’s blessing to my family. It felt good to say it all out loud. Even the horrible parts were somehow cleansing. Proserpina listened avidly, now and again making small sounds. Tears streamed down my cheeks when I admitted how I had broken my husband’s trust. I went on to tell her of my tasks and my encounter with Sorrow and Sadness.
At the end, she was quiet a long time before regarding me with softness and asking, “What, mortal princess, would you say is your greatest regret in all of this? Losing your beauty? Being forced to face these fearsome tasks?”
“No, goddess. My first regret is earning the ire of the goddess who granted me life. She never deserved that. But my biggest regret is hurting Cupid.” My voice caught, and Proserpina hummed her feelings.
“It seems he has forsaken you. Yet, you still love him?”
I wiped my eyes against my shoulders. “I will love him for all my days and into eternity.”
“Believe it or not, mortal,” she said gently, “even a god is capable of forgiveness. Unfortunately, sometimes it can take centuries. I should know. After what Pluto did to me, tricking me into being his wife…” Her lips pursed, then pulled to the side in a grin. “But now, there is no one who affects me as he does. None one I would prefer.” Her eyes became dazed and sultry for a moment as if imagining him. My cheeks heated.
“I am glad to hear that, High One.”
She pondered. “Do you believe you will be able to leave the underworld with your soul intact?”
“I can only hope, goddess.”
“None have before you. Indeed, I find myself hoping you will. I wish to see how this tale proceeds. In the meantime, you must eat. I have an assortment. Stand.”
I had been kneeling, hunched over for so long, that an embarrassing sound of pain escaped my throat when I tried to stand. Every part of me was stiff and sore. My energy was depleted, my mouth parched.
“Meats, oils, flatbread, wine, and fruit await.” Proserpina motioned toward the table of food, but I felt unworthy to eat at the feast of a goddess, especially in my state.
“Harvest Mother,” I begged. “I am undeserved. Have you any brown bread and water?”
Seeming to understand, she made that humming sound again, and a plate appeared with the rough ground bread Venus had been feeding me. I never let go of the cake in my hand as I used my other hand to devour the bread and drink the water.
“I must go, goddess.” I clung to the box. “I cannot thank you enough. If I make it through this final task, I will make an offering on your behalf as soon as I possibly can.”
“Indeed. One last thing before you go. You are aware that the contents of the box are not fit for a mortal, correct?”
“Yes, goddess. Venus told me.”
“Good.” She smiled, and warmth like an autumn breeze spread over me, smelling of sweet hay and sunshine.
I bowed my head one last time before the servant led me out, back to the doors of Pluto’s palace. I never saw him, and for that I was grateful.
The moment I was ushered out, the satyr shut the door, not bothering to see if I was eaten alive. I gave a shout of fright when Cerberus nipped closely at my legs, and without thinking, I threw the other cake, still wrapped. Like before, the dog leapt for it, his heads thrashing. I had not given myself much room to slip past and ended up getting smacked with a massive paw that left a stinging scratch up my arm and across my cheek.
I ran until I was out of its reach, then lifted my hand to my face. A long welt was already raising, but only a touch of blood showed on my fingers. I sighed heavily. I was alive. That was all that mattered. And now, without the cakes, my hands were freed. I would hold the box to keep it from banging against my leg as I walked. I took the coin out of my pouch and put it safely back inside my mouth.
The souls crowded me as I walked, their emotions rising like scrabbling vapors to fill the dense air with a feeling of dread and anticipation. I tried to make my way back to the river, becoming confused and turned around. Their emotions raked at me, and I felt the urge to drive forward with the souls being shepherded into the lines.
No, I told myself, pushing against them until I finally broke free into an open space. To my surprise, a woman sat in the opening with a spinning wheel. She appeared frail like the earlier man with the wood.
“Miss,” she pleaded while she spun. “I am so weary. Help me, please. Just one moment while I rest. Please.”
The dreamlike feeling of floating came over me, and I wavered. She was an old woman. I had to help her. I began to reach for the spindle, and then stopped as her eyes widened in victory.
“No,” I said, shaking my head clear. “I cannot stop.”
“Give me your coin!” She leapt on me with the same might as the old man had, knocking me to the ground as I clutched the box. “I saw it!” She screamed, ripping at my dress. Even in her half-solid state, she was strong and mad with greed. It felt wrong, so wrong, to hit an old woman, but so be it.
I brought the box up and whacked her in the face, earning an oomph, then elbowed her chest. When I rolled to get her off me, I felt the coin slip to the back of my throat, choking me. I leaned forward, coughing until it spewed from my mouth. We scrabbled ferociously, and when my hand enclosed over the sandy coin, she grabbed the shawl, ripping it from my head and stumbling back. I stood and ran, leaving her in a heap on the ground.
I had to get out of this hell before I lost my sanity.
I stumbled along the shore, feeling half dead, until I saw the boat flash into existence, releasing a shuffling soul.
His bony face turned toward me from under the draping hood, and a ghoulish smile slowly flitted onto his face. I held out the coin as I sprinted the last few steps, out of breath.
“Please,” I panted. “I need to get back to the other side.”
“Well, well,” he said. “This is a first.” He plucked the coin from my grip with wrinkled, stick-like fingers and moved aside for me to board. I nearly broke into a bawling fit at the relief of being on the boat as he began to row. Like last time, I stood with my back to him, clutching the box and watching the writhing waters. Every sting and ache pulsed at the surface of my skin and deep into my muscles, causing my eyelids to droop. My body begged to collapse into a deep sleep.