The throne room was a massive cavern draped in shadows and cold, pewter light. Hades sat in a throne carved into the wall. The throne was studded in onyx and silver and dripping with black velvet. Beside Hades, there was an identical but empty throne. Jordan was very aware of the people watching as he followed the limping guard towards the throne. The cavern, for all its immensity, was crowded with guards, members of Hades's court, servants and curious onlookers, and every single eye was on Jordan, including the steel grey eyes of Hades himself. The guard bowed and scurried away, leaving Jordan standing alone in front of the god.
They stared each other down for a long, long minute.
"It gets tedious, you know," Hades said. "You weak humans can't accept that death is final so you come whining about how much you love your wife or your husband or whoever it is, and you have the balls to think you can actually undo Fate."
"I don't need to undo what's already happened," Jordan said. "I just need to -- "
"I know what you think you need to do."
"Eliot's not dead."
"Not yet, no."
"Then you don't get to say what I can and can't do."
"You're in my world, son. There is no say but mine."
"And so now I'm supposed to do something to move your stony heart to tears, right?"
Hades shrugged indolently.
"Fuck that." Jordan closed the space between him and Hades with quicker steps than he had ever managed before and thrust the head of his cane against the side of Hades's neck. The cavern clattered like batwings as the crowd stirred, but Hades held up a hand. The throne room was still and silent. Like a tomb. I'm going to die here, Jordan thought. And realized that he didn't care. If Hades killed him, at least he earned it. Eliot had done nothing to deserve what he was facing.
"Is he that precious?" Hades asked. "Is he really worth what you've done to yourself?"
"It doesn't matter what happens to me."
"So you'd rescue him and leave him alone again."
"He wouldn't be alone. He has Ganymede."
"And you believe he'd be content with that little catamite?"
Jordan angled his cane up and pressed down harder. "You're wasting my time, Hades."
"You can't kill me, you fool."
"I'll at least try."
As Jordan cocked his arm back to ram his cane through Hades's throat, he was aware suddenly of the small, sharp knife Hades held. He knew it would cut through whatever protection Styx had bestowed. He knew it ease through skin, muscle and bone as easily as through wet tissue. But the flask ... the flask would slow it just enough. He'd have just enough time before the blade pierced his heart to punch through Hades's throat.
Then Hades's eyes flicked to someone behind Jordan, someone Jordan felt a second later, like a puff of cold air into a stifling room. Persephone grabbed her husband's wrist with one hand and the collar of Jordan's coat with the other. She pulled Jordan away until she was between them. Hades looked at her, mildly astonished at her interference. Jordan still had murder in his eyes, but her cool fingertips on his chest held him still.
Unruffled, she stepped between them and sat on her throne. "Silly men," she said. "Always wanting to solve your problems with violence."
"I don't have time -- " Jordan started.
He did and marveled at her calm, cold power. She was a snowdrift in a white gown that somehow didn't dazzle in the gloom. Her skin was pale but fresh like a tender rose petal. Her hair was honey, and her eyes a deep blue summer sky. Her mouth was the color of the pomegranate seeds she'd eaten all those eons ago.
"Tell me, husband. What do you think you'll get out of keeping this man from his lover?"
"Dignity," Hades said. "If I let every man who comes for his lover walk out with her ... or him ... then everyone will think they can come and get their loved ones back without any trouble. This isn't a lost and found department. This is the goddamn underworld!"
Persephone rolled her eyes slightly. "And you think it's dignified to keep Koios locked up and dying in that theatre?"
"Why would I give a rat's ass what happens to Koios?"
"He is your niece's child."
Persephone looked at Jordan. Her red smile was frosty but softened by the summer in her eyes. "I think it's sweet," she said. "You've come all this way for a lover you've only known for six months. Is he really worth it?"
Jordan couldn't answer right away, too stunned by the echo of Leda's angry interrogation. He wondered what Persephone expected him to say. Wasn't the fact that he was standing in front of her and Hades enough of an answer?
"Of course he's worth it. Look what you've done to get here." Persephone stood up and held her hand out to Jordan.
Jordan took her hand and squeezed it hard. She didn't flinch but looked at him quizzically. "I don't need any more obstacles," he said.
"I'm sorry," Persephone said. "There's one more, and I can't do anything about it."
* * *
In less than an eye-blink, Persephone and Jordan were in the lobby of a theatre. Golden light radiated from two huge crystal chandeliers. The carpet was deep burgundy and soft as a bed of moss. The walls glinted with flecks of gold, and marble columns framed the spaces where the doors should have been. The only doors in the lobby were the ones that went back out into the cold stone passage.
"I am truly sorry," Persephone said. She was still holding Jordan's hand and made no move to let go or to leave his side. "There are no doors here. There never have been."
"What is this?" Jordan asked.
"We don't know. Perhaps the place where we were all born. Hermes used to come down here when he was a child and try to break in, but even he couldn't figure it out."
"How did Ganymede get in?"
"He didn't. He's been with Aphrodite the whole time."
"I saw ..."
"A play, I'm sure."
"So there isn't a back door. There aren't any doors at all."
"Then how did Eliot get in?"
"I don't know, but you'll figure something out."
With that, Persephone was gone, and Jordan was left alone with a puzzle he didn't believe he could solve.
* * *
Jordan sat down and stared at the blank walls in front of him. It couldn't be as simple as drawing a door. He would have to draw the right door, and he wasn't sure he could. He searched his pockets for whatever was left of his pencil, but it was gone. It must have eventually fallen from his fingers after he moved past Cerberus. He didn't remember letting go of it. No matter. It was gone.
To the sides of the lobby, where there would be stairs to the balcony, were more blank walls. But there was a ticket window.
Jordan got up and hobbled towards the ticket window. It was closed behind an elaborately carved shutter of dark wood, but there was light around the edges. Something was back there. Jordan thought he could hear the faint clatter of old-fashioned typewriter keys.
He pounded on the shutter. The typewriter paused and then clattered on. He pounded as hard as he could. His fist left a dent in the wood. "Hey!" he shouted. "Open the fucking window!" When the shutter remained closed, he started to pound again, harder than before, with images of pulverized wood in his mind.
The shutter opened before Jordan's fist made contact. "Can I help you?" the ticket taker asked.
For a moment, Jordan was unable to answer. The ticket taker looked the way he always pictured Zoë would look as an adult.
"I need a ticket."
"For which show?"
"Which show ..."
The girl cocked her head towards a playbill pasted to the wall to the left of the window.
Jordan read the playbill with a growing sense of despair. The show was called The Lonesome Dead Cabaret, and there were five acts listed as separate mini-shows. Act I was called The Mask; Act II, Love and Curses; Act III, War of the Muses; Act IV, Falling in Love in the Falling Rain; Act V, Fiction. Below Act V, there was a listing for Finale with a starting time of Right Now.
"Finale," Jordan said.
"That'll cost something pretty big," the girl said. "Like majorly big."
"What? My soul? Take whatever the fuck you want. Just give me the ticket."
"Souls are overrated, really. But no, that's not the price. I don't set the price. You do."
Jordan curled his hands into tight fists and closed his eyes. He thought about giving up his psychic ability or his memories of his daughter or a hundred other things, but none of it seemed big enough. He wouldn't miss being psychic. He wouldn't miss memories he could no longer remember. It would have to be something that would leave a gaping hole in him. He opened his eyes. "My artistic skill," he said.
The girl blinked. "Damn, boy, you really are in love, aren't you?" She tore a yellow ticket off a large roll and slid it across the counter to Jordan.
Jordan snatched the ticket up and turned to the blank wall.
For a moment, the wall remained stubbornly blank. Jordan walked up to it, prepared to smash it down if he had to, but a door creaked open on a dark theatre. The stage was lit only by the footlights. Eliot was lying at the center of the stage, unmoving, still bleeding.
Jordan hobbled down the aisle as quickly as he could. He kept expecting something or someone to stop him, and the closer he got to the stage without resistance, the more nervous he got. It wasn't going to be that easy to get Eliot out. It couldn't be.
But then he was on the stage with Eliot just yards away, and he stopped thinking about anything but Eliot. He dropped to his knees beside Eliot and pressed his fingers to Eliot's neck. He felt a pulse beneath Eliot's cooling skin, and tears welled up in his eyes. He bent and kissed Eliot's lips, murmuring Eliot's name over and over and unable to do anything but that.
* * *
Eliot didn't open his eyes when Jordan kissed him. He surfaced somewhat from the slow, deep well of darkness he'd been sinking into. He opened his mouth, drew in breath from Jordan's mouth and tasted tears. He put his hand on the back of Jordan's head and clenched his fist around Jordan's hair.
"I'm here," Jordan whispered.
Eliot forced his eyes open. He tried to speak but could only manage a weak smile before he slipped back down into the depths.
* * *
There was applause from the front row. Jordan looked up. Through the footlights, he saw only suggestion of the figure there. Then the house lights came up, and the footlights went down.
"A masterful performance," the creature said. It looked like a man, dressed in a dapper neo-Victorian style in somber blacks and lurid reds, but it wasn't human; it wasn't even a god. It clasped its hands behind its back and walked towards the stage.
Jordan reached for his cane but didn't try to stand up. He couldn't make himself let go of Eliot. "What are you?" he asked.
"Do you really want to know, or are you just buying time?"
Jordan said nothing.
"A little of both, then. Well. You've come so far and done so much to get here. I could explain myself, but I don't owe you that. I'm the dramaturge, the playwright, the puppeteer, whatever term you'd like that gets across the point that I'm the one in control."
"What do you want?"
"What do I want? What do you think I want? I want a show. I want a spectacle. I want tragedy, comedy, love, lust, all of the above. And you've delivered that. I wasn't expecting to be so moved, but you brought tears to my eyes, sir. Which is not an easy thing to do."
Jordan glanced up the aisle. The door he had come through was gone. Of course it was.
"I gather from your expression the show's not quite over yet," the dramaturge said.
"You have no reason to keep us here."
"Well, it's not as if I'm the one who brought you here. You came here of your own free will, and Eliot's serving the sentence of Melpomene's curse. This show's been a gift. Why would I give it back?"
"If Eliot dies because of you -- "
"Oh, I know. He dies, you kill me, you eventually die because there is no way out. I'll tell you what. Give me an alternate ending. You got here through sacrifice, so stick with that theme. What else are you willing to give to save the man you love? And it can't be boring. I won't suddenly be so moved by your love that I just let you go. No deus ex machina. Be creative."
* * *
Jordan didn't need to be at the hospital, but he couldn't make himself go home just yet. Eliot had lost a lot of blood, and the wound was infected. The doctor was cautiously optimistic, but Jordan wasn't convinced.
He'd told the story so many times already that he almost believed it himself. Ilya and Sebastian had introduced him to Eliot that night at the Lost Tree. Fully aware of the situation with Kevin, Jordan had been escorting Eliot up to the converted attic apartment over the Lost Tree, possibly to spend the night, but he wouldn't say. Ilya and Sebastian, and Blake, too, were pretty sure Jordan and Eliot had hit it off, and Sebastian kept asking why the hell they'd never introduced them to each other before. Ilya could only guess that he'd never realized Jordan was interested in men.
At any rate, Kevin hadn't been put off by Jordan's presence. He'd made up his mind to hurt Eliot, and that's what he did.
Up to that point, the story made sense, and everyone agreed on the details, although Sebastian in particular kept saying the details didn't make sense. Jordan worried that Sebastian would somehow remember the previous storyline, but Sebastian, being what he was, knew enough to leave it alone.
So how did Eliot manage to leave the parking lot after Kevin stabbed him? How did he end up near Jordan's apartment building?
Jordan could only say he didn't know and it didn't matter. He'd found Eliot and gotten him to the hospital, and that was that. That was now the entire extent of his relationship with Eliot. At least as far as everyone else was concerned. Jordan remembered the past six months the way they'd actually happened.
"Jordan?" Someone shook his shoulder gently. He blinked and looked up at Brendan Montoya, Eliot's father. "I'm sorry to wake you," Brendan said. "It is Jordan, right?"
"Yeah, it is." Jordan rubbed his eyes, a little surprised that he'd fallen asleep.
"Thank you for helping my son."
"I ... you're welcome. Is he ..."
"He's awake. He's weak and a little scared, but he's gonna be okay."
Jordan closed his eyes on sudden tears of relief.
Brendan sat down beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Jordan wiped his eyes. "Yeah, I'm fine. It's just ... the whole thing was really terrifying."
"Not a great first date, huh?"
"Well ... well, maybe you can try again? The first thing he did when he woke up was to ask where you were."
"I think he liked you a lot."
"I liked him, too."
"Go home and get some sleep. You've done more than enough."
Jordan went home, but he didn't sleep. He kept staring at the empty side of the bed where Eliot was supposed to be and now never had been.
After seven months in Pale, Eliot was still pretty happy with his decision to live there. Things had been going well aside from the shit with Kevin. Unfortunately, that wasn't quite over. There'd be a trial; Eliot would have to testify, which would mean missing time from work and having to see Kevin.
The only thing Eliot thought he was lacking was a boyfriend. He didn't need a relationship; he didn't need to define himself by who he was with, which was a huge, unexpected, but extremely welcome change. It just would have been nice to have someone to share life with. He hadn't had a single date or even a futile one-night stand since he got to Pale. So maybe he was just horny, but that didn't lessen the lack.
He was standing in line for coffee at the Ark, thinking these thoughts, thinking about Ilya and Sebastian's friend, Jordan, the man he'd met the night Kevin stabbed him. He seemed to recall they'd clicked. Not that it mattered. Eliot couldn't blame Jordan for not calling him after that. But still ...
Eliot decided he'd be the one to call. Maybe right now. Why not? He took his cell phone from his pocket, vaguely registered movement in front of him and started to step up to the counter.
And nearly ran right into Jordan.
"Eliot," Jordan said. His tone of voice and expression were puzzling. He looked, not surprised, but hurt.
Eliot pretended not to notice. He smiled. "Hi, Jordan," he said. "I was just thinking about you."
Jordan didn't smile. "I, um ..." He waved indistinctly towards a corner table. "I'm gonna sit over there." He walked away without offering an invitation.
Eliot had no idea what to make of Jordan's reaction to him. He wondered, suddenly, if the things he thought were hallucinations -- the cavernous stage somewhere deep in Hades, the dramaturge and Jordan's journey to rescue him -- weren't hallucinations at all. He got his coffee and walked hesitantly over to the table where Jordan was sitting, drawing in a sketchbook with furious concentration.
"Hey," Eliot said.
Jordan looked up. Eliot remembered Jordan's face as an indistinct blur; he remembered general attractiveness but not the details of Jordan's smoky grey-green eyes framed with lush black lashes, the steep angles of his cheekbones and jaw and his thick black hair that seemed to barely contain the chaos of unruly waves. In focus, these details were very pleasing.
"Can I join you?"
"Yeah, sure. I'm sorry. I just ... wasn't expecting to run into you."
Eliot sat down. "Were you staying away because of Kevin?"
Jordan said nothing for a moment and then looked down at whatever he'd been drawing. "I guess, yeah."
"I wish you hadn't."
"You had enough to deal with. You didn't need me."
Jordan looked up again.
"Actually, I think I did."
"Eliot, I can't."
Eliot looked down at his coffee. Maybe what had happened that night was too traumatic for Jordan. Well, that was no surprise, but Eliot still couldn't fully gauge Jordan's reaction to seeing him. Something seemed off. "I should just go, shouldn't I?"
It was a long time before Jordan said anything, and when he did speak, he sounded calm, like he had made a decision he was comfortable with. "This has been a whole lot harder for me than I thought it would be. So yeah, maybe you should go."
"Oh. Okay. I -- "
"But I want you to know that if you do go, I will come after you. I'll go through hell to get to you as many times as I have to. So it would be easier for both of us if you stayed."