The king was seated atop a throne of solid gold. Dark strands were threaded through his silver hair, and his beard had thinned since the last time Atlas had seen him. Some of the age lines had even disappeared from his weathered features. He wore a long white robe, much like the prisoners of Tartarus. Why? Atlas had often wondered.
Only two explanations made any sense. Cronus had worn the garment for centuries and now felt most comfortable in it. Or he did not want to forget what he’d once been—and could be again if he weren’t careful. Atlas had been more than happy to shed his own robe. Would Nike do the same, if ever she gained her freedom? Not that she would.
You’re thinking about her again.
A woman stood beside the throne. She possessed one of the plainest faces Atlas had ever seen, and had pale, freckled skin. She was reed thin, with dark, curling hair and delicate shoulders. Power did not hum from her. Rather, she seemed…insubstantial. Ethereal, as he imagined a ghost might look. There, but see-through. There, but wavering. Her eyes were shadowy, vacant, as if no one was home.
When she reached up and brushed a lock of hair from her brow, he could only gape. The elegance of the movement was awe inspiring. More graceful than a dancer, more delicate than a butterfly wing. Someone was indeed home, she just didn’t care about what was happening around her.
Atlas pulled his attention from the female and studied the chamber. There were thousands of chandeliers overhead, each dripping with glistening teardrops. Multihued glitter sparkled in the air. Odd, he thought, head tilting to the side for a better view. That air was even sweetly scented with—he inhaled deeply—ambrosia. Ah. Now he understood the dizziness and the glitter. Dried ambrosia was being pumped through the room. To keep him docile?
“Atlas, god of Strength,” Cronus said with a nod of greeting, drawing him from his musings.
Atlas bowed, as was proper. “My king. It’s an honor to have this audience with you.”
Cronus leaned forward, silver eyes bright with anxiety. “All is well in Tartarus, yes?”
Relief instantly replaced the anxiety. “Why, then, did you request this meeting?”
There was no one who hated the Greeks more than this man, this Titan sovereign, and with very good reason. They’d stripped him of his power, humiliated him in front of his people. Even Nike had been a participant.
Just tell him. Get this over with. “I want to remove a woman from the prison and set her up—”
“Stop. Stop there.” Scowling, Cronus raised a hand. “There will be no removing anyone from Tartarus. It is too dangerous.”
He’d expected that answer. However, he persevered. “Perhaps the reward is worth the danger. I would keep her locked inside my home, Majesty. I would never remove her collar—” well, except to whisk her to his home, for she couldn’t be flashed out of Tartarus with it on, but he would recollar her the moment they reached their destination “—and she would be my personal slave. I would ensure her misery.” His first lie of the day, but probably not his last. He only wanted to give Nike pleasure.
Had he forgiven her for what she’d done to him? He wasn’t sure. All he knew was that he no longer wanted to kill her when he thought about it. He would tire of her eventually, and he looked forward to the day. Until then, this was his only recourse.
The king ran his tongue over his teeth. “Of which her do you speak?”
“Nike. Greek goddess of Strength.” He did not allow a single bit of affection to lace his tone.
The king’s eyes widened. “The one who…” Now those eyes dropped to Atlas’s chest, where his shirt covered his tattoos.
“Yes. The very one.” Hear my anger, only my anger. Except, what she’d done no longer angered him. The marks were as much a part of him now as his were a part of her.
“Interesting.” Cronus leaned back in the throne, the picture of contemplation. “Do you not think she is being made to suffer enough inside Tartarus?”
Time for his second lie. “No. I do not.” In truth, as dejected as she’d sounded at their last meeting, the goddess was suffering. And he didn’t like it.
“And what will you do to increase her suffering?”
“Much as she hates me—” desires me, he added inside his head, so that he wouldn’t reveal the depths of irritation thoughts of her possible loathing elicited “—she will take particular displeasure in cleaning my home, preparing my food and warming my bed.”
The king smiled up at the ghostly girl. “What you’d like to do to your Paris, eh, my Sienna? Make him your slave.”
Her expression never changed. She offered no response, either.
Paris, the demon-possessed immortal who used to haul new prisoners into Tartarus? Atlas wondered, and then shrugged. He didn’t care. Nike was his only concern at the moment.
“My king?” Atlas prompted. “I lack only your permission to begin Nike’s torment. My determination is unparalleled. You will not be disappointed in the results.”
Cronus faced him once again, his smile falling away. A minute passed in silence, then another. Then the king sighed. “I’m afraid my answer has to be no. While I like the thought of Nike’s anguish intensified at your hands, I’m unwilling to risk the removal of her collar, even for the few seconds required to flash her. She is Strength, and were she to somehow escape you and free her brethren, another heavenly war would erupt. I cannot afford to have my attention divided now. Well, not any more than it already is. I find I spend most of my time observing the Lords of the Underworld.”
The Lords of the Underworld. So. The girl named Sienna did wish to enslave the immortal Paris. Atlas had never dealt with the man or any of his friends, as they’d been his enemy and he’d already been incarcerated before Zeus created them.
But he’d heard stories and knew they were vicious…brutal.
“My king. If you will just—”
“I have declared my answer, Strength. I do not understand why you are still here.”
Atlas’s own sense of dejection—and fury—bloomed. He wanted to stalk up that dais, grab the king and shake him. How dare his request be denied? How dare his desires be discarded? Instead, he said, “Very well, my king. I thank you for your time,” and pivoted on his heel. To do otherwise would have invited punishment.
He strode from the chamber, his determination overshadowing all else. He’d already decided that nothing would keep him from claiming Nike. Now he realized that not even this would do so. The king’s will be damned. He would have his woman, just as he wanted.
“COME WITH ME.”
Nike’s heart raced at the sound of that deep voice. Hesitant, she rolled over on her cot. Sure enough, her skin tingled when her gaze found Atlas. Gorgeous as ever, he stood at the bars—bars that were now open. His hand was extended, and he was waving her over. There was fury in his too-tight expression.
What had she done this time?
She’d tried to ignore him. She’d tried to pretend that she felt nothing for him. Anything to stop the madness. But gods, she couldn’t stop thinking about their kiss. She couldn’t stop wishing she’d allowed him to take her all the way. That she’d have experienced everything before being taken back to nothing.
So what if he would have tired of her afterward? So what if he would have been smug about her capitulation? So what if he found someone else and paraded her before Nike? For a few blessed hours—who was she kidding?—for a few blessed minutes, because it wasn’t as if either one of them would last beyond that, she would have known the joy of being with him again. Of simply feeling, giving, taking, sharing…loving.
Have all the rest, common sense piped up, but deny the love.
That would be my pleasure. But I have to get him to offer me the rest first. She still would not beg. A girl had her pride, after all.
Pride will not make you come.
“Come,” he repeated.
What did he have planned? Did it matter? Anything was better than this monotony.
Slowly she sat up. Her hair was in desperate need of a brush, and gods, the rest of her needed a shower. How long since she’d had one? Prisoners were given a bowl of water each day and that was it.
A muscle twitched in his jaw. “Do you want to spend a few hours outside the prison or not?”
Wait. What? Leave Tartarus? She was on her feet before her brain could process what she was doing. Her knees almost buckled, she’d spent so much time prone, bored, but she managed to stay upright. She even reached out and twined their fingers together. The heat of his skin should not have shocked her, but it did. The calluses should not have ignited a fire in her blood, but they did.
“You’re taking me outside?”
“Yes. But do not say a word when we reach the guard’s station. Understand?”
“Yes.” This could be a trick. A trick to build up her hopes only to dash them cruelly, but she didn’t care. If there was a chance, slight though it was, that he would actually stay true to his word, she would do anything he asked.
Without a word, he led her from the cell and down the hall. Other prisoners spotted her and gasped. Some began to murmur amongst themselves, gossiping as they’d once enjoyed doing in the heavens. Some gripped their bars and simply watched her through wistful eyes.
Erebos even shouted, “Hey, where are you going with her now?”
Atlas ignored him, and Nike followed suit. A sense of urgency pounded through her. If Atlas did this, took her outside, even for a few hours… Why would he do such a thing?
“Did you get permission for this?” she asked. “And we’re not at the guard’s station yet, so it’s okay that I’m talking.”
“No. I didn’t get permission.” His words were curt, clearly meant to end the conversation.
As if she’d ever done what was expected of her. “Then why are you—”
“Just be quiet.”