I struggled to inhale. This was too much to be true.
“How do you know him?” I asked.
“Is he married?”
His long pause made my heart nearly die. “He is very much available to you, Psyche.” Oh, thank the gods.
I exhaled in a fluster. “I just want to be loved.” I covered my mouth, but it was too late. The pitiful words were out there, making me even more vulnerable to my monster husband than I already was.
“I know,” he whispered. “Sleep now. We will finish our game tomorrow.”
For a moment I didn’t move. His words, soft despite the natural guttural rattle in the depths of his chest, caused ambiguous feelings to collide inside me. Did I trust him? Not at all. Did I fear him? With every piece of me, yes. The worst was yet to come—I knew that unequivocally—and yet I felt calmer. Perhaps it was the false promise of seeing Leodes again. Whatever the reason, I readied myself for bed, peeking over my shoulder now and again, but instinctively knowing tonight was not the night he would touch me.
PASSAGE OF TIME
Several days passed without any unwanted touches. He’d taken up reading to me at night. Poetry and essays out of Rome and Athens. His rumbling, monstrous voice was oddly pleasing, the rhythm of the words comforting. I’d never admit that aloud, of course. In a way, his voice reminded me of Papa’s baritone when he’d rail at his soldiers to rally them for battle. I hadn’t heard that war cry since I was a young girl, but I remembered the pride I’d felt at the power in his voice.
My husband was nothing like Papa, though, so the comparison fell flat in my heart.
Just as I’d promised, I never invited him to the bed. I wasn’t sure where he slept, or if he slept at all, but I always felt his presence in the room, remaining still, as if lost deep in thought.
That night, I climbed beneath the downy covers and settled down, closing my eyes as the candles snuffed out all at once. Unlike the other nights, I could sense him prowling the room. In the pitch darkness, I could not see or even hear him, but that severe awareness was there. I felt him from across the room, near the windows, and then I felt when he was close. His nearness felt heavy this time. He wanted something. With my eyes closed, I felt him walk along the edges of the bed, back and forth. My heart beat steadily, listening to the silence, waiting.
And just like earlier, the air around me seemed to still.
“Husband?” I whispered.
“Yes?” I jolted at the sound of him so near, only a breath away. There was something akin to hope in his voice that shook me.
My voice trembled. “What is it that you want?” Ugh, why had I asked that? It was more out of annoyance than anything, but I heard him take in a surprised breath of palpable hope. If he wanted me to ask him to bed, he would be left wanting. Not now. Not ever.
“I suppose…I want to touch your face again, but this time with my hand.”
I gripped the blanket. “W-what did you touch me with last time?”
“The tip of my wing.”
Oh…it had been feathery soft. Could his wings be made of feathers? Not the waxy bat wings I’d been envisioning? I blinked the thought away, making myself concentrate. His wings didn’t matter right now. He wanted to touch my face with his hands. Hands that could shred me with their claws. Would he? I somehow didn’t think so, but he could.
“If I let you touch my face, will you settle down and stop stalking about the bed?”
He grumbled incoherently, then cleared his throat. “Yes.”
“Then fine. One small touch. Be fast.”
“Be fast? Are we an old married couple already?” He chuckled darkly, and I scowled, sitting up.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
He made a pleased sound as if my question were cute. “You are an innocent.”
I worked over the words I’d said and realized what he meant, embarrassment heating my skin.
“Enough. Let’s get this over with.” I sat up straight, pretending to feel brave when in actuality I would have passed out if I’d tried to stand at that moment. I closed my eyes tightly, grasping the blankets with all my might, expecting the scratch of rough appendages against my soft skin. What was he waiting for? Depths of Hades, how could I have been such a fool to give him permission? I was about to move away and tell him I’d changed my mind when I felt warmth cup my cheek and I stilled. My heart gave a low, slow thud. Then another.
Gods…that did not feel like a monstrous hand. His fingers moved outward, enveloping the skin around my ear, his fingertips—talons?—moving to touch my hairline. And then he added his other hand, and my face was fully embraced. The pads of his fingers moved, and I swore, I could not sense scales, only smooth, warm skin. Thumbs skimmed my cheekbones, then traced my closed eyelids. Nothing sharp. But that couldn’t be. How was he doing this? Disguising the feel of his true self?
“You are so soft.” His voice was a low murmur. A caress. My eyes fluttered at the scent of summer honey, drizzled fresh from the comb onto my tongue. “Psyche.”
I felt his breath against my lips and gasped, coming back to myself. When I instinctively began to lift my arms to push him away, a blast of air smacked my hands down and he released me.
“Must I bind your hands?” he said. “How many times must I remind you—you are not to touch me!”
“I’m sorry!” I scrambled back and pulled the blanket over me. “I forgot!”
“You must not forget,” he ground out emphatically. “One touch from you and everything changes. For the worst. Do you understand?”
“Yes!” No, actually, but I believed him because he sounded upset. If I broke this rule, it would change things for him, as well. I wished I could figure out how it all fit together. This mystery of my husband and who ruled him.
He didn’t move away. I sensed him still close to me, perhaps even leaning against the bed. His voice softened.
“Now tell me…how would you describe my touch?”
My face heated, and though it was impossibly dark, I dropped my eyes. “I…you…” I swallowed. “Your hands felt normal. I don’t understand.”
“What does that mean? Hmmm?”
“Trust your senses, Psyche.”
I quieted and felt him move away.
“I will not stalk about anymore,” he said, sounding disgruntled about how I’d described him earlier. “Sleep.”
I hunkered down, practically pulling the blanket over my head, hoping I could suffocate the uneasy feeling in my stomach. I thought of my husband’s strong, smooth, warm hands on my face. What kind of creature was he? And exactly what sort of mind-altering punishment was I up against? Was I strong enough to fight this?
I slept without dreams. At least, none that I could recall. I slept deeper than any other night I’d spent here. Surprise coursed through me as I sat up, fully rested, wondering why I’d let my guard down so much. It was dangerous. I couldn’t help but to question everything, even my own thoughts, feelings, and actions. How much of that was his power influencing me? He was clearly trying to soften me with his odd gentleness, but why? Getting comfortable would be a grave mistake.
Renae brought my morning meal and urged me to explore the property today.
“Your husband will be gone longer this day, to return at dusk.”
“What does he do?” I asked, sipping my hot tea.
“Oh, Highness.” Renae giggled, and for the first time she touched me, patting my shoulder and giving it a soft squeeze. “You know I cannot say.”
I smiled into my tea. “Off terrorizing villages, no doubt.”
Renae let out a high laugh. “Some might consider it so. His work is…complicated.” She tsked. “I’ve said too much. Listen. Why don’t you visit the archery range today? There is a bow just your size. But I should warn you—an enchantment has been placed so that your bow and arrows cannot leave the range. If you try, you will feel an unfortunate zap.”
A zap? I shivered. And he knew of my interest in archery? It wasn’t something most females enjoyed. It was disturbing how much he knew about me.
“Ring if you need me.” She bustled out with the clomp, clomp of heavy feet.
I pondered her responses so long my tea cooled. Then I brushed out my hair, dressed in a sky blue stola that clipped on one shoulder with a golden beetle pin, and found my way out of the grand palace.
Just as the other times I’d been outside, I found the quiet perfection unsettling. I walked the gardens, marveling at the plant sculptures of creatures celebrating. They were dancing animals—bears, leopards, and monkeys—with arms and legs lifted in glee. Centaurs with drums and satyrs with lutes at their lips. The garden party seemed endless with hybrid creatures I’d never heard of, every combination of human and animal one could conceive. I found myself imagining the lure of the music as I walked between them, the sounds of their laughter and banter floating up from my imagination. Flowers as small as ants and as large as my head, every color and variety, wound around the gardens with vines that made pathways for my feet. I followed them so far and for so long I wondered if I might get lost.