Antinous allowed a few minutes of silence while they both ate. Melinoe drank more of her water than of the wine, but she seemed to be enjoying the food. “Have you not seen your divine parents since you went to be fostered in the North?”
“I have seen them, from time to time, though only singly. Father visited only when Mother was in his realm, and Mother only when she was visiting with her mother. It will be a pleasure to see both of them at once, and in their own domain.”
Antinous refilled both their wine glasses. “Tell me of Hel’s realm. Until I came to escort you, I had never been there.”
“It is cold!” The goddess spoke so emphatically that Antinous laughed, and then so did she. “I remember that in my first few days there, I was terribly, terribly cold. I thought I would never be warm again.”
“You must have been very young.” The god signalled a hovering servant for more food.
“I was walking,” Melinoe said, musing. “I think this must be a difference between those who are born gods and those who are made so: I remember my infancy, which mortals do not.”
“True,” Antinous acknowledged. It was difficult to remember that Melinoe, so young and vivacious in appearance, was far older than himself.
“It was cold,” Melinoe repeated, “and I was lonely, at first, even though I knew Hel. She and Hekate midwived me, and I had seen her often. But I missed Mother and Father, of course, and Hekate, and our gardens.
“It is cold in Hel’s realm but dry, except near the Gjoll. In Hades there are small gardens Mother tends that have herbs and flowers, and there are orchards where the trees bear fruit. In Hel the lands have the appearance of late autumn. The leaves that cling to the trees are brown and gold, red and orange, like flames, but their fruit is rotted. Water is scarce, ice-cold, heavy with minerals. In one or two places, near the border with Muspellheim, there are hot springs, which smell horrid but feel very pleasant for soaking oneself. It is very quiet everywhere.”
Though her description did not sound at all appealing to Antinous, he could hear fondness in Melinoe’s voice.
“In my first days, my foster-mother took me to visit the god Baldur. He is one of the Aesir, but long ago he was slain by Loki and went to live among the dead. He has his own separate place in her realm, with his wife Nanna. It is warmer and brighter in their halls, and Baldur held me on his lap when I visited so that I got warm.” She smiled. “He and Nanna were very kind to me, and I visited them often. But once I got used to the chill, and had proper clothes, I liked being with Hel and going about her realm. The places of the dead all have much in common, after all, and Hel, too, is very kind in her way.”
Antinous privately thought that he had never encountered a goddess so fearsome as the Northern lady of the dead, but obviously her care had been a boon to Melinoe.
Servants came, took away the empty platters and plates with nothing but crumbs, and brought clean plates and a tray of baklava for dessert. They also brought, on a small table of its own, an urn of coffee with all the accompaniments.
“This, lady, is baklava, a wonderful pastry rich in honey. And this,” he got up to tend to the urn, “is a drink called coffee, made from the beans of a plant, which is excellent with sweet foods and stimulates the mind, especially in mortals.”
He placed a cup of the black, steaming brew in front of her, beside the triangle of baklava. “Try the coffee without any additions, first. If it seems too strong for you, cream or sugar or both can be added.”
Melinoe took a dainty bite of the pastry with one hand and a sip of the coffee with the other. Her eyes and her mouth alike grew round with obvious delight.
“How delicious!” She drank some water, then tasted the baklava again, washing it down with more water. She took a bold gulp of the coffee and licked her lips with relish. “I do like it just as it is. And it provides the perfect contrast to the flavor of the baklava.”
Antinous smiled. “From now on, lady, if anyone should ask you how you take your coffee, you may tell them that you take it black.”