THE THIRD DAUGHTER
On an island in the Aegean Sea during the Roman Empire, warm cypress winds blew across the cerulean Mediterranean, welcoming the isle’s third royal daughter. Never had such a beautiful child been born. Her mother, the queen, and every nursemaid present gasped at the sight of the babe’s perfectly formed face, lacking any of the usual misshapenness or wrinkles of newborns.
A sea breeze gusted through the arched windows as if even the lands sighed in awe. Full lips like pink blossoms. Chestnut waves of silken hair. Eyes round with golden flecks, surrounded by long, coal lashes.
Unlike the queen’s first two daughters, this child had no bout of frenzied crying when she entered the world. She was quiet, almost contemplative as she stared with rapt attention at each woman who held her. The absolute peace of her arrival was like a breath of fragrant air. And so, the queen named her after the word for breath and soul.
Psyche. Like a whisper…Syy-keyy.
As with the births of their first two daughters, the king and queen of the isle brought gifts and sacrifices to the temple of Venus, goddess of love and beauty, to thank her for their child, imbued with aesthetic fortune. For years they had been barren, yet faithful to the gods, earning themselves the gift of three daughters. But prolonged times of blessing had a way of making the most grateful hearts take for granted that which they once held high. Soon, their attention was only for the child, growing more stunning with the passage of time, and Venus’s role in their lives was forgotten.
All eyes and hearts on the island, royal or servant, belonged to Psyche. Even as a toddler, the youngest princess had a way of giving her full, unguarded attention to whomever she spoke, making them feel honored, even breathless. None could take their eyes from her. As she grew into a youth, word of her loveliness spread far and wide, bringing visitors to the island in hopes that they might catch a single glimpse of her famed beauty.
But what most saw as a holy fortune from the gods, gifted to this royal family, was not viewed as such by Psyche herself. For the third princess, physical perfection was not a talent or a blessing. Beauty was her curse.
“She is a mortal danger to all men. She is beautiful without knowing it and possesses charms that she’s not even aware of. She is like a trap set by nature—a sweet perfumed rose in whose petals Cupid lurks in ambush! Anyone who has seen her smile has known perfection. Venus in her shell was never so lovely…”
~Cyrano de Bergerac
I escaped the guards again.
By now they knew all the places to look for me, and they’d no doubt find me soon. Still, I laughed as I sprinted to the side of the cliff, my stomach tightening in anticipation of the fall to come.
With a scream of exhilaration, I leapt, never stopping, and soared into the blue sky, legs kicking, gauzy skirts whipping, stomach swooping. The salted air pulled at my face as I flipped to dive downward. I sliced sharply through the surface, caught in the warm arms of the lagoon. Deep under water, my lungs constricted in a satisfying way as I kicked, making it to the top in time to inhale and wipe my eyes. I peered up as I bobbed on the water and laughed at the three worried faces above. The guards never dived after me. I supposed if I were floating, dead, or failed to resurface they would jump to my rescue, but it was always the same. Me smiling up. Them frowning down.
I enjoyed another minute of seclusion as they quickly scaled down the side of the rocky cliff and stood at the edge of the lapping water, muscled arms crossed, guarding me once again as I paddled on my back, the thin fabric of my dress swishing soundlessly around my body. Their frowns softened as they looked upon me.
“Why must you give us such a fright, Princess?” Boldar asked. He was one of the oldest royal guards, as old as Papa, the king of our isle, and he spoke to me with barely concealed adoration, exactly as he had since I was a young girl.
“For two minutes each week, I must have my freedom or I will perish.”
All three men attempted to scowl at my dramatics but failed.
“You need but ask,” Boldar said. “And we shall escort you anywhere your heart pleases.”
“That’s not nearly as fun,” I said, running my hand along the water surrounding me. What my heart sought above all else was a chance to be alone in nature, and to be looked upon as an ordinary girl.
Well, I suppose “ordinary” was a lot to ask as a royal, but at the very least to be looked upon as my sisters were. Both were pleasing to the eye. People respected their talents—Dawn with her music and Miracle with her paintings—people conversed with them, speaking of literature, art and philosophy. If I attempted to speak of those things I got bizarre smiles and incoherent mumbling, eyes raking me from top to bottom. Even the women. I wasn’t a person to them. I was an object. After seventeen years I should have been used to it; however, I wasn’t. In every person I met, every new face, I sought the one who would finally lock eyes with me and see through to my soul within.
Until then, under the sky, in the ocean, among fields of wheat, with the animals, I was accepted, and I was alive.
I sucked in a breath at the feel of a nibble against my toe. Small, bright colored fish hesitantly approached, their toothless mouths touching my feet and legs with curiosity. I was careful not to kick out at their tickling touches, but I giggled furiously.
I truly did believe I’d perish without these outings. Craggy cliffs shielded this deep lagoon of crystalline waters. It was peaceful in its ominousness, closed in like a dangerous, well-kept secret.
When the guards raised their chins and nudged one another about something they saw at the entrance of the shaded lagoon, I knew my friends had arrived.
I turned and smiled at the two dolphins, laughing as they circled me, sliding past and nudging me with their smooth noses. I always recognized the larger animal by the deep scar near its left eye.
“Hello beautiful and handsome. Lovely to see you, as always.”
My older sister, Miracle, used to shriek and swim frantically to shore when the dolphins came to us. She loved to watch them from afar, but up close they frightened her with their wild power. Miracle was also too cautious to ever jump from the cliffs. Dawn, the middle child, was half as cautious, jumping when she felt the whim. As for sea life and other animals, she wasn’t afraid, but neither was she outgoing. I think she wanted animals to like her, to come to her, but she found it hard to simply relax.
Dawn watched me with animals in the same way she watched me with men—too closely. Enviously. When it came to males, I did everything possible to quell her jealousies. I tried not to smile. I dressed modestly. I opted out of conversations. I swear, I attempted to be as boring as possible.
But no matter what I said or did, men stared at me with that same lost look on their faces. Mesmerized. Like I was a piece of art hanging in our castle to be gazed upon. I hated it. And I hated how my sister Dawn could never see how much I didn’t want any of it. Miracle understood. Perhaps because she was older, so there was less competition between us. But I’d spent a good part of my life trying to make Dawn understand me, seeking her full acceptance, yet always falling short.
When it came to animals, however, I couldn’t bring myself to downplay the connection for the sake of Dawn or anyone else. Wild beasts wouldn’t understand my brush off. They accepted me wholly and paid no mind to my beauty. For that, I would forever reward them with my affections.
“How do you get them to come to you?” the youngest guard asked. He stared so intently he probably wouldn’t have noticed if an army attacked from behind. “I’ve never once been approached by a sea creature.”
“It helps not being a brute. The three of you probably swim with your swords on, grunting and splashing about.”
They laughed, taking no offense.
One of the dolphins squeaked at me until I took him by his fin and he darted ahead. A peal of laughter gurgled from my mouth as water sprayed up and I held on tight, being pulled around the lagoon.
“Not too far!” Boldar shouted. “It’s nearly time for dinner and your father is expecting guests!”
My heart sank at the reminder of Dawn’s courtship dinner. I grumbled to my friends, “I have to go.” Papa believed this was the match. A prince from the mainland with grape vines and olive trees as far as the eye could see. Even Miracle and her husband, Alesandro Christos, a prince from a land near Constantinople, would be visiting. And while I adored time with my sisters, I loathed large gatherings.
When we neared the shore, I kissed each dolphin and patted their backs before swimming until my feet could touch the bottom. I trudged onto the pebbled sand. At least I felt like I was trudging, but from the outright stares of the three guards, a symphony had erupted overhead with me swaying toward them in a sensual dance. I crossed my arms over my chest, causing Boldar to blink and then smack the other two with the backs of his hands.
The men ripped their eyes from my body and cleared their throats, motioning me ahead of them. I squeezed out my long hair as I walked and flapped the fabric around my hips, trying not to let it stick to my backside. They’d seen me soaking wet countless times, yet the shock never seemed to lessen, especially since I’d entered my seventeenth year.
I breathed deeply of the fragrant flowering bushes that grew wild along the path, trying to clear my head. On one side was the hill where our fortified lands stood, enveloped in a wall of earthworks overlooking the cliffs. Within those walls was our castle of stone and the town market with the homes of our wealthiest merchants. On the other side of the path, guarded by thick brush, was a sheer drop to the sea—vibrant in the spring sunshine, glistening in bright shades of blues and greens. No person could be called beautiful in comparison to what the gods made and oversaw.