“Please do not thank me.” He let out a deep sigh followed by a heavy pause. “We need to speak about this morning.”
Heat rose to my cheeks as I shook my head and stared down at Mino. “I would rather not.”
“I am sure that is true, but I have things to say.” His voice trailed off, soft then louder, and I could tell he was pacing as he spoke. “You are already aware there are certain subjects I cannot breach, which makes having any conversations with you difficult.”
He paused again, and I nodded that I understood. Sphinx curled up in my lap, licking her paw.
“What happened this morn, and the other incidences in which we touched, will not happen again. Unless, of course, it is initiated by you.”
I let out a dry laugh. “What are you playing at?”
“You always think this is some sort of game to me.” He went quiet a moment. “Perhaps that is a metaphor I can work with.” He paused again, and I waited, my heart beating faster in anticipation. Finally, he gathered his thoughts and continued.
“Some games are played one to one. For example, Stones.” He paused, so I nodded. “And some games are played in teams. What would you say if I told you, Psyche, that I am not—” He made a garbled noise, followed by an ancient-sounding word that sounded very much like a curse. “I cannot say that. All right…imagine a game with two players on a team together against an opponent of one.” He exhaled and let it out in a rush, as if he’d finished a great task.
My insides tremored slightly at the strange feeling that we were at an important crossroad. I thought about what he had said. A team of two against a team of one. My eyes narrowed.
“Are you saying we are on the same team? Against another?”
He laughed, then cleared his throat again. “I cannot answer.” But he sounded joyful, as if we were on the same page.
“Well, I suppose that would change things,” I said, almost to myself. “If it’s true.” He growled, and my heart gathered speed. “I know you said you can’t lie, but you can’t blame me for being cautious.”
A lower growl this time.
“Does this mean you’re being punished as well?” I asked.
His answer was a whisper. “Not exactly.” He sounded decidedly sad. I was ashamed of the level his apparent sadness affected me. I felt bad for him for a moment, then shook off the feeling. Whatever he’d done to be punished, he probably deserved it, just as I did for allowing my family and people to revere me when I knew it was wrong.
“Wait,” I said. “What exactly is your punishment in this situation?”
Yet another growl, this one clearly a sound of frustration.
“Why must you think of things in terms of punishment? We are speaking of a game, if you recall. In a game there are rules, and there is strategy.”
“There are also winners and losers,” I said.
“Precisely.” He sounded as if he’d turned sharply to face me. “When I play a game, I do not want to lose. Nor should you. I have never lost.” I rolled my eyes to myself as he went on. “And I have realized certain games require gentler strategy than others.”
I gazed upward, scrutinizing his analogy. “So, assuming we are a team, and we must work together, what is our goal? How do we win?”
His feet were heavy against the floor as he approached the bed and two indentations appeared at the end where he leaned on the mattress with his hands.
“That is where you must trust your instincts, Psyche.”
I fell back with a long groan, holding my head. “This is too much.”
“You have no choice but to play. Some games, my wife, have more at stake than mere glory.”
That made my stomach hurt. Something bad would happen if we did not win this game. Wait, we? Was I truly believing this “team” nonsense?
“What else do you know about games?” he asked. “Think.”
I shook my head, letting out a long breath. “Some games are played on a point system. Are there points to be earned in this hypothetical game?”
A negative-sounding grunt.
“No points,” I said. “An end-goal, then?”
“Mm.” That was not a yes or no, but it sounded affirmative.
“All right, so we are supposedly working toward something. Together.” He was quiet, so quiet. But I felt a spark between us. “Can you give me a hint?”
“No,” he said. “That subject, above all, is something I cannot go near, verbally.”
“What else?” he asked. “Think.”
“So pushy,” I whispered as Mino stood and shook himself out, looking around, probably for a place to relieve himself. Before I could get up, Mino was lifted into the air toward the open window. The pup was still not used to this. His ears were back, and he peered over his shoulder at me helplessly.
“It’s okay, boy,” I said, trying not to laugh. I stood and went to the window to watch the puppy be lowered to the ground as I thought. “Some games have time limits, goals they must achieve in a set time. While others, like stones, have no limit. You play until someone wins.”
“So which type is ours?” I asked. “Do we have a time limit?” He was quiet again, and the silence ratcheted my anxiety. “How long, Husband?” When he still didn’t answer, I wrapped my arms around myself. “I see. Not long then.” His continued silence was all the affirmation I needed.
“What does your sensible gut tell you, Psyche?” He stood close. So close I could smell him when the breeze from the window caressed us. I had to swallow.
“I don’t know,” I whispered, but that was a lie. My gut told me to trust him. To learn him the way he was trying to learn me—that our end-game somehow vastly relied on building trust. My gut said he didn’t want to hurt me, a concept that was the opposite of what I’d firmly believed when I arrived. Could I trust my gut now, or had my instincts somehow been compromised along the way? I didn’t know, but I believed unequivocally that I did not have all the time in the world to contemplate it.
Either I would choose to believe my husband and do my best to act as his teammate in this mysterious game, or I would continue to listen to the paranoid voice in my head saying to fight him until the bitter end to save myself.
It was time to decide.
As I sat there contemplating, Mino was lifted back into the room. All at once, the bedchamber went dark as pitch, and the candles bloomed to life along the walls. My heart gave a great pound and I backed away from where I’d been standing near my husband.
“Psyche,” he said, disappointment in his tone. But he seemed to understand my trepidation, because he spoke softly now. “There is something intimate about darkness and candlelight.”
I nodded. “I’m going to wash up.” Then I hurried away to the closet to grab a fresh nightgown, taking it to the bathing room where I closed myself in. My body shook as I ran a damp cloth over my skin and brushed out my hair. I could not bring myself to believe him about not touching me anymore. Once I was dressed, I hurried back through the room to my bed but stopped short when I saw the indentation on one side, the cat curled up above the indentation in mid-air, and Mino on his back in the middle, appearing to get his belly rubbed. Was Sphinx laying on my husband?
“I will sleep beside you,” my husband said matter-of-factly.
My mouth fell open and stayed that way for a long moment.
“Y-you said you wouldn’t come to the bed unless I invited you.” And yet twice he had done that very thing, coming into my bed and forcing affection upon me.
“What I specifically meant, dearest wife, was that I would not consummate our marriage until you requested it.”
It felt as if a flame had been lit beneath my skin. I stared down at the edge of the bed, chewing my lip, heart galloping. He had to know I would never request that to happen, but he spoke with his usual characteristic, perplexing confidence, as if it would eventually be a sure thing.
“Tell me why you have decided not to touch me again?” I said, then quickly added, “I am not complaining. I’m simply curious.” My weight shifted from one foot to the other.
“It felt ingenuine,” he answered. “To force it.”
He sounded so sincere. It drove me mad that he did not consistently remain in the villainous box within my mind. And then he amended, “As with any game, if your strategy is not working, you must rethink it.”
Ah. So, his forced affections were not having the desired effect.
“It was wrong,” I told him, earning a low grunt in response. “But I do not understand your ultimate goal. Was it to…” I blushed. “Make me want you? Physically?”
He was quiet a long time before solemnly replying, “I cannot say.”
Of course, he couldn’t. For once, I found myself wishing I could know, not just the truth, but his heart. His true thoughts and feelings, all of them.
“Are you really going to…” I waved a hand at the bed. “Sleep there?”
“I am,” he responded. “And you are going to sleep…” He patted the open spot beside him. “Right there.”