A floating tray was waiting at the end of the hall and I slowed, calling out, “Renae? Is that you?”
“Yes, Highness. Care to eat in the garden?”
“I would. Thank you.”
She followed me through the wide halls until we got outside where she sat the tray down on the marble table. Both of us let out startled sounds when the nearby bush shaped as a Pegasus rattled, and Sphinx came bursting out with something in her mouth.
“What have you got?” I asked as Renae made a disgusted sound. Sphinx dropped a dead gray mouse at my feet. “Oh, poor thing.” The rodent, not my cat. “Have you brought it as a gift?” She licked her paw and leapt up on my lap, letting me pet her. “Very kind of you, kitten, but it’s all yours. I insist.” I kissed her head and set her down. She happily took the mouse and bounded away.
Mino sniffed the spot where the mouse had been, then began licking my toes through my sandals, which made me giggle.
“Need anything else?” Renae asked.
I sighed and looked at the empty spot where she stood. “I wish I could see you.”
“I’m not much to see, to be honest.”
“I don’t care how you look, Renae. It’s just…strange and lonely to never see anyone. I am glad Mino and Sphinx are visible, but it’s hard.”
“I can understand how that would be difficult. Are you at least enjoying your time with your husband more now that you’ve had a chance to get to know him?”
“No,” I answered too quickly, thinking about this morning and flushing with heat. I tossed half of a boiled egg to the eager puppy and hoped Renae couldn’t see my blush. She let out a small sound as if she did not believe me.
“I wish you were allowed to tell me something about him.”
“I wish I was, as well.” She patted my shoulder, and I held back the urge to reach for her hand and hold her there. In that moment I longed for my mother. Yes, she’d coddled me and been vain and proud, but she loved me. I never doubted that. Papa too. They must have been so worried. Did they think I was dead? Or tortured daily, at the very least? Pangs of anxiousness and sadness pierced me.
“Oh, please don’t be sad, Princess.” Renae smoothed the top of my head.
“I wish I could write to my family.”
Renae was quiet a long moment. “You should ask your husband.”
I snorted with derision. “He would never allow it.”
Now she snorted. “Well, you won’t know unless you ask.” With that, she patted my shoulder one last time and clomped away, back up to the castle. She was right, of course. But if I asked and he said no, I’d be furious. Maybe that’s what I needed in order to remember he was a monster. I needed to find ways to make him show me.
I picked at the food. It was strange not to have an appetite. I was always hungry at home. Mealtimes were usually full of banter, gossip, and laughter. Eating alone, even with an attentive dog, was not the same. I gave Mino several more bites and took a few myself before climbing down onto the ground with him. He got so excited, licking my face and jumping over me, back and forth, making me howl with laughter. Even Sphinx came out to rub herself on me and get scratches on her small head.
“Let’s take a walk,” I told them. “This time hopefully we won’t be mountain lion fodder.”
We walked together over the hills, the burn of exertion feeling great on my body. I stopped at the archery range to shoot a few arrows, making sure the animals stayed behind me. Then we headed for the trees. I laughed as Mino and Sphinx began to wrestle, only to topple down the hill together in a clumsy heap of fur. They played the whole way to the forest.
When the trees literally turned to me, as if opening their arms in welcome, emotions rose up within my heart. The trees, my pets, and an invisible maid were my only friends. But I shouldn’t take any of them for granted.
“Hello, beauties,” I said with reverence as I ran a hand up the closest smooth trunk. The tree shivered under my touch, making me smile. From the corner of my eye I saw Mino approach a tree and hike his leg. Before I could say a word, the nearest root rose up and gave the puppy a shove away. He stumbled and yelped, running for me. I squatted and took him in my arms, stroking his shivering body. Sphinx’s back went up and she hissed at the tree. She was way too small to be scary, but it was funny to see.
“It’s all right, everyone.” I looked at the tree. “I apologize. He meant no harm. Dogs are not very smart compared to you or me.” Sphinx moved closer, pacing around my legs. “I know you’re not accustomed to animals,” I said to the trees. “I promise they won’t hurt you.” I felt sad when they remained still. The trees did not care for my companions. That wasn’t good. Awkward, really. I let out a long huff and patted the tree again.
“I’ll take them away and try to visit without them soon.”
They made no move, and I turned to leave, the burden of loneliness settling even heavier on me. Mino licked my chin. I waited until we’d crested the nearest hill before setting him down to run beside me again. Sphinx had followed, and they picked up their playful antics once more.
When we returned to the garden my tray of food had been cleared away. I went inside and headed for my room, feeling tired. But rather than get into the bed, I scoured the desk and found parchment and a dip quill with ink. Sphinx jumped on the bed and nestled in. Mino plopped at my feet and fell straight to sleep.
In the quiet of the room, I lost myself in words. I wrote Mother and Papa first, revealing information to ease their minds, while not giving any of the unsettling details, such as the fact that I could not see anyone. I am well. I believe I am somewhere in Olympus, and I am safe. The food is incredible. My husband does not hurt me, so please don’t worry. I wouldn’t lie to spare their feelings. They knew me too well for that. We all knew this arrangement was a punishment.
I told them about Mino and Sphinx. Then I wrote my sisters, chronicling my closet and all the details they would appreciate. I knew none of my family would read these letters, but it made me feel closer to them to write and imagine reconnecting.
As soon as I rolled the final scroll and tied a string around it, my sadness became an even heavier burden on my shoulders. I wondered how my guard, Boldar, was doing, and if he missed chasing after me. I wondered, if none of this had happened, if I would have found Leodes, or if another suiter would have made himself known and I could have had love.
Not all women loved their husbands. I knew that, of course. The lucky ones gave the rest of us something to dream of. Now, the knowledge that I would never have that opportunity added to the layers of hopelessness weighing on my heart.
I bent and picked up Mino’s floppy, sleepy body. He gave a wide yawn, showing all his sharp baby teeth, and I took him to the bed where we snuggled together with Sphinx until I eventually faded into sleep.
The moment I stirred, I sensed his presence and his scent, which sent my body and mind into a frenzy of conflicting sensations. Fear was there, always the initial terror that this would be the moment he would strike. But now fright was accompanied by more confusing feelings: wonder and curiosity mingled with the most unwelcome one of all…lust. For half a second, I’d felt happy not to be alone before I remembered that was exactly what he wanted.
He wanted me to need him and rely on him in all ways: food, shelter, safety, and companionship. I could take the first three things without getting my mind and heart involved, but the latter part was more complex. A tiny part of me was actually happy when he showed up after being gone all day. That’s the part of myself I had to keep under close watch.
“Sometimes you are at peace while you sleep,” he murmured. “But other times, like now, the worry still creases your face, even as you dream.”
Mino, who’d also been woken, rolled to his back, his skinny tail twitching with nervous excitement as he stared at the blank space. Sphinx pranced over to him and I watched as her fur smoothed down over her head, neck, body, and up her tail. My husband was petting her.
I sat up, frowning, smoothing back my hair and redoing the twist. I wasn’t sure how I felt about being watched while I slept. It was disconcerting, but I suppose harmless. Still, every moment he was with me he was learning me, which was not a good thing. More for him to use against me when the time came.
I scratched Mino’s soft, exposed belly, the pathetic pup. He still stared, wide-eyed, and it made me think.
“Do you suppose he can see you?”
“Yes. They both can.”
“Because I allow it.” A strange feeling of jealousy slithered through me. I narrowed my eyes at the air from where his voice carried, and he chuckled.
“Have you been writing?” His tone was careful.
I nodded, smoothing down the fabric of my dress over my knees. “To my family. I miss them, and I know they are worried. I’m sure you would not allow me to send them, but—”
“You assume much.”
My face lifted in surprise. “I can send them?”
He paused, cleared his throat. “I will have them sent, but you cannot receive return mail.”
He could be lying, despite his insistence that he never lied, but my spirits rejoiced at the thought of my family knowing I was safe. Or, at least, as safe as could be expected.