All she had known was rain-kissed fields, unfurling blooms and the smell of sunshine soaked earth—and her mother, her constant guardian, her omnipresent shadow. Since she was little, learning to crawl among golden stalks of wheat, she remembered her mother walking beside her, lifting her after each fall, stroking her springy curls, teaching her the names of flowers and trees. She remembered the feeling of her mother’s tunic against her cheek, the smell of warm, peeled apples and grass emanating from her hair. She’d memorized the lullabies her mother sang, felt the timbre of her mother’s voice beneath her skin. Her mother was her second skin, a comfort she grew to expect.

She knew of her mother’s brothers, hinted at in brief, bitter invective. Their names

were never spoken; she knew her mother did not trust them, that they were anathema to her sheltered creation.

With each passing year, she wandered a bit further from her mother, no longer the toddler tangled at her hem. As a young woman, her pretty face was blooming into a timeless beauty, a beauty her mother feared and dreaded. Her face would awaken desires and break promises. A collective of nymphs trailed her, always giggling, always delighted by the same things. While her mother worked her earthly, secret magic, her beautiful cousins accompanied her, gossiping about the family, gathering flowers, comparing their white arms, plaited hair, and jewels, flinging insults with sweet smiles.

She wandered beyond them, tired of their arrogant voices, yawning at the endless fields of flowers and wheat. Glistening ahead, a peculiar ruby flower blossomed, the only of its kind, beckoning—a perfect centerpiece to her floral crown. She smiled and bent to pluck it from the ground.

As the flower’s roots tore apart, the earth rumbled, rising and spitting, heaving upward a dark man and a team of black, snorting stallions.

He moved soundlessly, ceaselessly cloaked in shadow. The gloom was like an enduring garment, heavy on his broad shoulders, trailing behind him in a syrupy dark train. Eyes black diamonds, their gleam the only sign of life, shone above a heavy charcoal beard, a bramble of black and silver hairs. His name conjured inferior suppositions of his actual appearance, a name that spoken or even thought, prompted terror and disaster.

Somehow she wasn’t afraid.

The chariot passed, wraithlike; the ephemeral horses nearly floating above the earth, their black, robust bodies glossed in sweat. She held out a hand and touched the chest of the closest horse as he swept passed; his flesh was cold and supple, smooth like polished stone. The team cried out in booming unison, rising on muscled hind legs, cracking the ground as they landed. He rose from the chariot, locking her eyes in his icy stare.

The flowers fell from her hand as he approached, the crown she’d been weaving dispersing in a cloud of petals. He stopped, maintaining a fair distance between them, and breathed a low greeting. Awestruck, she watched him press her hand to his cold, full mouth. His face was pale, finely sculpted and ageless.

It seemed as though an eon passed between them, his black eyes meeting her green ones, the trees still, birds silent, the wheat standing straight as arrows. She could not detect a distinction between his iris or pupil; his eyes were cave-like, deep and black and enigmatic. Suddenly her green and fragrant world seemed ordinary, even boring. In his gaze she saw another place, somewhere foreboding and strange—but new. Heady desire flooded her limbs.

“You will be a queen, “ he whispered, his voice hollow, nearly undetectable, like a cloudless day’s rapid metamorphosis into a violent thunderstorm. “No longer a companion of nymphs or prisoner of my sister.”

She looked over her shoulder, where the nymphs froze in a twittering knot, her cousins caught in debate, and her mother a tiny spot at the field’s edges. He lifted a golden curl from her shoulder, ran the hair between his dusty grey fingers, scanning her

expression. Her eyes rose to his, her nod as delicate as a fan of perfume.

His lips managed a sober smile, and with ease he grasped her waist, lifting her before him, the horses cold beneath her tunic. She could not look away, could not hear the earth churning backward, the ghoulish cacophony of his horses, the harried panic of her cousins, the shrill scream of nymphs, and the distant, pure melancholic cry of her mother.

Instead, she only heard his promises of the rarest, brightest jewels, only found in the deepest terrain, the incomparable power she would hold over his ever-expanding domain, the ebony throne she would occupy, twin to his own. Here she would be the most beautiful, the fairest skinned, the holder of the scarcest metals. Lightly, she rested her head on his shoulder, and watched, wide-eyed as they descended, gasping at the embedded, shining gems of azure, violet, fuchsia and vermillion jutting from the clay walls, just as he’d vowed. His hand enclosed her waist, his fingers firm and shockingly cold—but gradually his temperature roiled into her body, the familiarly of warmth evaporating from her skin.

They passed a bleak, cloaked man, standing before a ferry; black rivers of impossible depths; armies of marching wraiths; soaring, iron gates, bars as thick as temple columns; and an enormous black dog, its multiple heads cocked, curious at her approach—each wet nose sniffed her, shining eyes softening. It knelt at its haunches, wagging tails belying its fearsome appearance.

He held her small white hand in his, and led her to the queen’s throne. She ran her fingers along the smooth, black material, a greyed reflection of her face smiling regally

back at her. He waited for her to sit, then bent to his knee and lowered a radiant crown upon her head, sculpted with delicately veined gold leaves, and rubies as large as anemone flowers.

He sat beside her and spoke in his strange, hollow voice.

Your mother will search for you. She will mourn you. She will fight for you, and eventually, she will find you.

He reached into his tunic and held up a gleaming red fruit; in his palm it split into halves, revealing globes of crimson seeds, as glossy as fish eggs. Mesmerized, she took a half, glancing at his cautious smile.

This can be your home, he said. Your kingdom.

She did not miss the constant supervision, the inane giggling, the overshadowing splendor of her cousins; her mother’s constant paranoia. Above, she would always be a virgin, never a queen.

She brought the fruit to her mouth, and guided a chamber of seeds to her awaiting tongue. The burst of tart sweetness elicited a pleased smile, droplets of juice coating her lips with a ruby stain. She looked up at the black abyss above them, sky and clouds fading from her memory; she could not remember the exact features of her mother’s face, the blinding glare of sunlight, or the sensation of grass on her bare feet.

Eagerly she took her husband’s hand, and consumed the remaining seeds, ravenous for more.