Up ahead on the worn path, the deep braying of hounds broke out. I smiled as Olive and Berry charged down the trail on long legs, tails wagging as they approached me for scratches behind the ears. They licked sea water from my arms, sniffing me all over as I walked.
In twenty paces, we would take a heavily guarded side door that tunneled beneath the castle and into our royal lands. Never could I walk the entire path to the open beaches and fields. Never could I ride a horse through the isle’s countryside, stopping to pick wild apricots and figs hanging heavily on trees, waving to commoners the way my sisters or parents could. Even flanked by guards, my presence always caused a disturbance.
Someday things would be different for me. Once Dawn was married it would be my turn. I would have a prince of my own and a home with more freedom. Once I was married, men would be forced to see me as a wife, a woman of value, not a maiden for their ogling. Someday.
PRINCE OF SOMEWHERE
Being late to dinner was the worst thing I could have done. I’d rather have been seated when everyone arrived, but alas, my grand entrance caused every eye in the room to lock onto me, even in layers of cream fabric up to my neck.
“I apologize for my delay.” I gave a small curtsy before glancing across the faces. Next to Dawn sat a slightly balding prince, his fine blue toga wrapped with a belt of gold to match the gold ringlet over his head. He stared openly, lips parted. When Dawn glanced from him to me, and back to him, I quickly looked away.
And there was Miracle, beaming next to her husband. She kept her curls short in the Roman style and swirled across her head with gold leaf pins.
I knew I should wait for introductions, but I couldn’t help myself. I ran to her, hugging her and laughing as she kissed my cheek.
“So good to see you, Sister,” I said.
“And you. Were you swimming in the lagoon again?”
I smiled, then glanced over when I heard Papa clear his throat. I knew my lateness bothered him, but when he looked upon me, all traces of anger evaporated into fatherly adoration.
“Prince Drusus, this is our third daughter, Dawn’s younger sister. Psyche.”
I gave the barest of glances toward our guest prince. “How do you do?”
“Psyche.” My eyes darted to him once more, a shiver of apprehension rippling across my skin at the way he said my name. His brown eyes bore into me. “The rumors have not been exaggerated.”
I peeked at Dawn, whose jaw had locked as she stared down at her plate. Papa and Mother, oblivious as always to the discomfort, both laughed with pride and took one another’s hand on the table top.
“Yes, well,” I said, swishing into my seat beside Mother. “Have you had the honor of hearing Dawn sing yet? Her voice is heavenly. I couldn’t carry a tune if you placed it in a basket for me.” That last bit was all truth, though my lack of ability didn’t stop me from singing. I actually loved when my sisters teased me about it. Everyone around the table chuckled.
Dawn finally lifted her eyes, and we shared a small smile. I still felt her prince’s eyes on me and couldn’t help being irked as my sister sat there, radiant in peach silk, her cheeks rosy, hair painstakingly curled into ringlets and pinned up.
“You’re a bloom this eve,” I told her before eyeing Prince Drusus. “Don’t you agree?”
“Hm?” He broke his staring reverie to look around, glance toward Dawn, then back at me with a partial smile. “Oh, um, yes.”
I clasped my hands tightly in my lap and vowed not to give him attention the rest of the night. Foolish, foolish man. Then I looked up at the assortment of food and spotted my favorite.
“Cake!” The table tittered their amusement as I eyed the fluffy white dessert with sweet cream drizzled over top. I’m fairly sure the sight caused my eyes to twinkle.
“Not until after the meal, darling,” Mother said with fondness.
As dinner progressed, I remained silent with my head down, eating every bite of fish and greens on my plate as the men spoke of Roman conquests and expansion, wondering when everyone would finish so we could cut into the cake.
“You have quite an appetite, Psyche,” Dawn’s prince murmured from across the table. “How do you keep such a figure?”
He likely meant it as a compliment, but my cheeks heated, and Dawn’s face fell again. Half of her food was untouched.
“She is young still,” Miracle said, giving me a wink. She had plumped up the slightest bit since marriage, especially in her hips and chest, and I looked forward to the day when I would as well. Thankfully Father asked the suitor his opinion about weaponry, and the men went back to war talk.
Once “pleasantries” were over, and I’d devoured my delicious plate of sticky cake, I couldn’t excuse myself from the table fast enough. Followed closely by Boldar and his two younger guards, I headed straight for the one place nobody would find me.
The archery range.
I wasn’t able to take a solid, full breath again until I passed through the stone archways into the open-air courtyard surrounded by the castle walls and lined with windmill palms and long feather grasses.
It was always empty this late in the day. During the early hours all of Papa’s soldiers were out there honing their skills, arrows whizzing toward fake soldiers and horse targets made of hay. I chose one of the smaller bows from a wall of weapons hung on wooden racks and examined the quivers.
“Must you?” Boldar asked.
I understood his apprehension. When I was eleven, Papa found me sparring with a ten-year-old boy using real swords. Dull, but real. I’d never seen my father turn so red, nearly purple.
“You could hurt yourself!” he’d shouted, no doubt worried I’d somehow mar my skin with scars.
“But look, Papa! Watch how good I am! No boy can best me!”
He’d snatched the hilt from my small hand and frowned. “A woman with a sword is as useless as a teat on a boar. Get inside with your sisters. Don’t you have music lessons?”
The only thing that kept me from touching a sword again was knowing the boy I’d sparred with had been whipped. I’d talked him into fighting me, and he’d been punished for it. I’d given Papa the silent treatment for weeks afterward, then taken up the bow instead, a solitary hobby. After I became quite good, I announced at dinner one night that I’d taken up archery in secret, and nobody could stop me.
“Archery?” Miracle had laughed. “Will you chop your hair and join the army?”
“Don’t jest!” Mother chided, clearly horrified at the possibility of my ruined hair and need for rebellion.
“If ever we are attacked, I will join the archers to protect our home.”
“You most certainly will not!” Papa had bellowed.
Dawn had giggled behind her hand as I stared him down until he softened and shook his head with a huff. I’d been twelve at that point, already appearing older than other girls my age, able to stop men in their tracks when all I wanted to do was run barefoot with my hair down, tangled by the salted winds.
Five years later, my arrows always found their targets. I took pride in the twang of a strong release, each thwump of the arrowhead embedding into the hay, and the thrill of challenging myself to shoot faster from farther away.
When my quiver was empty, my chest rose and fell with exertion. I looked at the three guards. They comically stood side by side, armored arms crossed, surveying arrows sticking out from the dummies’ eyes.
“If only half my men had such steady arms and impeccable aim,” Boldar murmured.
I walked to the hay figures to retrieve the arrows. “I wish to go to the market tomorrow.”
All three guards groaned. The seaside market was always bustling with islanders, foreign travelers, and soldiers. In the past year, the number of visitors had drastically risen.
“They will be looking for you,” Boldar warned. “You are the reason they come.”
I swallowed hard, regret slithering through me. For over a year, I’d doubted and denied the claims that people came to our island from far and wide to see me. I was a mere mortal girl. The very idea was ridiculous. And then the gifts began. Each week, Boldar gathered wreaths of flowers, small hand-carved maidens of wood I assumed were me—the long hair being the giveaway, and even live goats and sheep adorned with ribbons. He brought the offerings from the castle grounds entrance to me.
Papa and Mother laughed with glee as each week the gifts became more preposterous.
“You’re their own personal goddess in the flesh,” Mother had said, running a hand over my hair. I’d yanked away from her at the dangerous comparison.
“I am no goddess. I don’t want any of this!”
“Don’t be ungrateful,” Papa had chided.
“It’s not a matter of gratefulness,” I’d told him. My hands were in fists of frustration, words of explanation eluding me. “It’s just…wrong.” How could they not see?
But Mother had only laughed as if I were being silly, and Papa kissed my head, telling me not to fret over harmless flattery. After that, I ordered Boldar to donate any live gifts back to the market folk. As for the other baubles, I didn’t even want to see them. I was certain my parents were giving far more than this in their offerings to the gods, and I hoped Venus felt honored that my “gifts” were given back to the poor.