“Are you eating?” I asked.
“I care not for human food, and I do not require sustenance at the moment. Eat.”
I stared down at the food, feeling uncomfortable. He could see me, watch me, stare at me. The sensation was beyond eerie. And could I trust this food? What if it was poisoned? I leaned in and gave it a sniff, causing my stomach to constrict at the pleasant scents.
“Eat,” he repeated, startling me.
I picked up a piece of bread with a fragrant sardine. It’d been smothered in olive oil and I smelled a hint of lemon. My hand trembled as I brought it to my lips and took a tentative bite, holding back a moan of pleasure. It was prepared even more deliciously than that of the chefs at home. When the first bite didn’t make me ill or dizzy, I proceeded to eat my fill. A sliced red fruit with white seeds sat on the side of the plate.
“What is this?” I asked nervously. “Ambrosia?”
“No,” he replied. “It is tomato from a part of the earthly realm you have never been. Your people do not have it yet, but I think you will enjoy it.”
The idea of food from around the world thrilled me, but I held back my excitement and took a tentative bite of the tomato. Slightly sweet and acidic. Very pleasant.
I’d no sooner finished when another plate appeared, roasted figs stuffed with creamy cheese, alongside a flaky, nutty pastry that dripped honey. A steaming cup of tea accompanied it, and though I was full, I continued to eat because I was not looking forward to what might come next.
“Do you require more?” my husband asked, and I shook my head. I couldn’t have forced another bite.
“Then come. It is nearly night. We will retire to your bedchamber.”
I couldn’t move. Every part of me was as heavy as marble. My stomach turned, a sickening mix of having eaten too much and being anxious beyond belief.
“I…but I’m not tired. I just woke.”
“Time works differently here.”
I pressed a hand to my lips and closed my eyes. To my surprise, he gave me that moment to gather myself. Also, to my surprise, I suddenly felt exhausted, even knowing I’d been sleeping soundly in the trees not long ago. Still, terror gripped me in tight talons and my body was leaden.
I shook my head. “I can’t. Please.”
“You will accompany me.” He paused as if gathering strength. “Either on your own two feet, or over my shoulder.” Each word was slow and deliberate, leaving no room for argument.
I took several breaths in, letting them out slowly. And then I stood, feeling like an invalid with each small, shuffling step away from the table.
“This way.” A small nudge at my lower back caught me by such surprise that I let out a squeak, stumbling. He let out a low huff of air as I quickly righted myself, breathing hard and wrapping my arms tightly around my middle.
“Is that how you will react to my every touch?” His voice was low, a mix of anger and disappointment.
I hated the tears that sprung to my eyes, burning, making me want to back myself against the wall and scream. He was a monster. Invisible, yes, but deadly. Powerful. And he was playing some sort of cruel game with me, attempting to lower my guard. Feigning concern. But why?
I couldn’t go down that hall. Panic flared to life, and all reasonable thoughts fled.
I made a break for it, sprinting toward the opposite hall from which we’d come. I had only run five paces when I felt my body lifted off my feet at the waist with impossible strength, and placed back where I’d been, facing the other hallway. He didn’t let go of my arms as I flailed and tried to stomp his feet. It didn’t work. He must have been holding me from behind at arm’s length because I couldn’t reach him. He gave me one firm shake and I stilled.
A scream wrestled its way from my throat, then he spoke with infuriating calm.
“Walk forward,” he commanded. “Into this first hall. You will follow my voice.”
I swallowed hard.
“Go,” he commanded. I forced my feet to move into the first archway, worried that the more I tried to fight, the crueler he might become. White marble streaked with soft gray surrounded us. Farther into the hall were etchings of scenes made with gold, everything from war and boats in sea gales to lovers entwined, causing me to blush and look away.
“You do not care for that one?” he asked, furthering the heat to my cheeks.
When I kept my head down and didn’t answer, he went on. “Rumors say you were a rebellious girl. You had a fire within. Did that defiant behavior not extend to taking lovers?”
My blood was hot, pumping too fast, making my skin feel hot and swollen. The last thing I wanted to discuss with this creature was my love life, or lack thereof. But I had a feeling he knew more than he let on and lying would only make things worse. I slowly shook my head. No lovers.
I waited for his reaction, but he gave none.
“Yours is the room on the left.”
I looked up, surprised. Only one door was on the left, meaning that entire side of the wing would be mine. Before I could reach for the handle, the door swung open and I gasped as colors hit my eyes.
I stepped through the door just as the natural light dimmed and smaller lights around the space erupted. I stood, momentarily stunned into forgetting what faced me. My own room had always been beautiful, light and cheery, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. But this room was twice the size. The far wall had several floor-to-ceiling windows. The tops were stained glass depicting flowers and ferns. All around me were plush furnishings: lounging couches on rich, fluffy rugs, tables with tall, detailed vases holding lavish plants, and an ornate desk. Along the walls were bright, silk drapes. Tiny bunches of oil lamps in brass holders hung from the ceiling at different heights, along with strange pillars of lights along the walls, giving the room a twinkling effect from hundreds of flames.
I stepped toward one of the small, white sticks along the wall, burning from the tip in a small brass cup extending from the wall. When I reached out to touch the dripping white part, my husband spoke close to my ear and I dropped my hand.
“It is called a candle. Another invention your people do not yet have. Wax surrounding a cloth center that burns, melting the outer layer.”
But most breathtaking of all was the bed. I’d never seen one so large. One glance promised me it was the most comfortable bed ever created. The four posters were made of the same trees I’d seen in the magical forest, dancing in all directions and creating a canopy over the downy fabrics.
“It pleases you.”
Oh, gods. All the blood drained from my face. Even my fingers tingled. I couldn’t look away from the bed, but now it was for a different reason.
My marital bed.
I swallowed hard, attempting to wet my suddenly parched throat. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. My eyes fluttered closed, and I was so tense, waiting for him to touch me.
He was going to touch me.
With his scales.
“I can smell your fear, Psyche.” I sucked in thin air. He was close. So close. “Do you know the scent of fear?”
I gave my head a single shake.
“It smells like onions, sliced and left to rot.”
Fantastic. I smelled horrible. If only it would deter him.
He let out a long, guttural sigh. Was it frustration? He couldn’t possibly be surprised that I feared him. I was a human girl. A virgin. And he was a mysterious creature of power from the realm of the gods. A human was less valued than even the smallest of mythological monsters. We were nothing more than play things. So why did he react in such confusing ways?
“What do you fear most from me?” he asked.
“I…” Warm air shuddered from my chest as I searched for words that wouldn’t anger or offend him. “I don’t know.”
“Do not lie.”
My chest heaved for air.
He growled. “Tell me!”
“Everything!” I shouted. “I can’t see where you are at any given moment. I don’t know when you’re going to t-touch me, or, or…what you’re going to do to me. I don’t know how much pain I can withstand. And I don’t know why you’re pretending to be kind!”
I fought to take air in and out of my body. The only sound in the room was my heavy breathing for so long that I wondered if he’d left me. Finally, he spoke again, still standing far too near.
“What if I told you I only wished to bring you pleasure?”
His words, low and rumbling, caused a chill to sweep across my skin, bumps blooming. My teeth even chattered, because there was no way our definitions of pleasure were the same. My husband was a sick, dark creature. A patient sadist.
“I see,” he said with a deadly calm that made my breaths halt. I’d said nothing. What did he see?
“You are my wife, Psyche. But I will not touch you while the stench of fear is on your skin.”
“Then you will never touch me,” I whispered.
A growl reverberated from his chest, shaking the floor and making my eyes widen.
“You must learn to open yourself to me. There are things I cannot say or explain but know this…the alternative to me is far worse.”
“I don’t understand.” Why must he speak in riddles?