My lips pulled to the side and my eyes narrowed. “What? You don’t believe me?”
“Any normal human woman would be disappointed to have an unattractive husband.”
“Even the most beautiful of men becomes hideous if his character is hateful and disgusting.”
“Well said,” he whispered. “Not every man can look like Leodes.”
“Why must you always bring him up? Are you jealous? You, with all your power?”
He laughed, the sound sending reverberations through my heart and down through my belly, even lower. When he quieted I heard him breathe deeply, and I pulled the blanket higher, as if it might hide the scent of my body’s reaction.
“You are blushing.” He ran the back of his fingers down my cheek and I shivered.
“I am not used to this.”
“An innocent in so many ways,” he remarked. “Always fascinating.”
Mino, waking now, made his way over the covers and came up right between us, stretching, yawning, and then wagging his tail as he licked my face. When my husband laughed, Mino flopped straight to his back, and it was my turn to laugh.
Sphinx, who’d been off who-knew-where, leapt onto the bed and curled herself on what I assumed was my husband’s stomach. She appeared to be floating in the air.
“She really likes you,” I said.
“Yes, well. She is brave. Most animals fear me, but felines, in general, do not seem to know their place. I woke with her across my face this morning.”
I giggled. “Our tiny queen.”
“So she believes.” I watched the kitten’s fur flatten out in a line down her back as he petted her, which set off a rattling purr from her chest. “You are more at ease today than any day here.”
I stared down at my gloved hands. “I don’t want to think about it. If I think about anything too hard, my mind fills with doubt and worry. I can’t live that way anymore.”
“Good choice.” He spoke close to my face, and I saw Sphinx leap from his lap as he pushed me back, holding my wrists beside my body and kissing me.
Yes, this was what I needed. To feel and not think.
But the kiss ended far too soon, with my husband saying, “I must go.” He placed one last kiss upon my lips before climbing from the bed. The disappointment I felt surprised me. I wanted to sit there and wallow, but Mino was dancing around the bed in circles, so I jumped up to take him out.
“Here,” my husband said, picking Mino up in his arms. “Let us walk out together.” So, we walked, him holding Mino, and Sphinx prancing along behind us. I kept my fingers folded together in front of me, fighting against the urge to reach out for his arm. When we got outside, the weather was perfect, of course, and my morning meal was waiting for me.
“’Til tonight,” he said, and placed another kiss against my lips before the sound of flapping wings filled the air and he was gone.
My heart sank as the familiar loneliness washed over me like a heavy, scratchy cloak. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I needed to be stronger than this. My circumstances were completely different, far better, than what I assumed they would be when the oracle had told me my fate. It was imperative that I remain positive and grateful. I’d chosen to believe that my husband was on my team, and together we would do our best to overcome our opponent.
And who might that be?
I contemplated as I ate and fed Mino. My husband was powerful. He’d become offended when I’d once alluded to him having a master. Who could wield power over such a mighty creature? Only a god. Or goddess.
I shivered. It made sense. My family and people had surely offended the goddess Venus when they had turned their attentions to me instead of her. Was it Venus who somehow controlled mine and my husband’s fates? What did she want from us? If she had simply desired to torture me, why hadn’t she chosen a despicable creature for me to wed? It was all so baffling.
The doors to the palace opened and the tell-tale clomp of Renae’s feet sounded. A checkered stones gameboard floated down the steps. I smiled.
“Good morning, Renae.”
“Same to you, Princess.” She pushed aside my tray of food and set down the gameboard. “Did my ears deceive me or did I hear laughter in the halls this morn?”
I thought about our walk together and warmth filled my chest. “Yes. We had a nice morning.”
She let out a matronly burst of laughter and clapped her hands. “Shall we play?”
“I would love that.” I scooted closer and set up my side of the board.
We played for a while—maybe an hour?—talking about my life before I had been brought here. She was especially keen to hear about how I’d vexed the guards by running off on adventures. When I tried to talk about her life, she always veered away from the subject. I adored Renae, but one-sided conversations lacked true meaning. I forgave her, knowing she was bound to whatever rules also bound my husband.
“Well, you beat me soundly,” she said, tapping the board. “I never was great at stones.”
“Let us play something you enjoy more,” I suggested.
“Oh, I enjoy it just fine,” she told me with a laugh. “I don’t mind losing. But I had best get back to the kitchens.” She patted my hand and took the tray with her.
“Do you need help in the kitchens?” I asked, desperate not to be alone.
“Certainly not!” This time she patted my head. “You relax and enjoy the day.”
If only I could enjoy it. Too much relaxation all by yourself was a bore. Still, I stood and walked toward the hills, going about my daily routine and finding comfort in it.
Do not take it for granted.
The day passed slowly. I even napped in a treetop, waking to find myself protected in a bed of twined branches. They hadn’t wanted me to fall out. As always, I kissed the trunks before I left them.
Back in my room, the animals crashed on the bed from running and wrestling all day, and I climbed into a hot bath. Like yesterday, I had a heightened awareness of my body. My husband had awakened my womanhood, opening a new world to be explored. The idea fascinated me, bringing about opposing feelings of shyness and excitement. I ran my hands over my silken, wet skin. As I got to the place where his fingers had been last night, I heard a rustle in my bedroom: the window opening.
I went still, listening to Mino’s whimpers of excitement, and my husband chucking in a low voice, saying, “Yes, boy, Papa is home.”
Papa is home.
And if I weren’t already feeling pliable, those words melted me into mush.
“Is your mother in the bath?” he said, making Mino yip and cry in that happy puppy way of his. “Oh, you think I should go see for myself, do you?”
I bit my lip, nervousness flooding me as I covered my chest and crossed one knee over the other. Silly, I know, since he had already seen me naked, but it felt different in the bright light of day.
His footsteps sounded deliberate, as if he wanted to make sure I knew he was coming, and then his voice came to me from the open doorway.
“Mm. Good day?” How could such simple words feel like molten sensuality to my ears? I stared at the seemingly empty doorway, marveling at how thoroughly I could feel him.
“It was fine.”
“Just fine?” He sounded closer now, and I closed my eyes when his hand brushed the wet hair back from my shoulder.
He quietly brushed my hair from the other shoulder and began to massage them. I let out a small groan of pleasure as his fingers kneaded my muscles with the perfect amount of pressure.
“I told Renae she could join you. Did she?”
“We played a game of stones, but she couldn’t stay long. And, of course, she cannot open up to me, so…”
“So, you are lonely.”
Yes. But I wanted to be positive. “I am better now.” I reached up to touch his hand. All at once I remembered the rule as he hissed, and his hands left my shoulders. I sank lower, pulling both my hands into my chest and making an anguished sound.
“I am sorry!” I said. “I’m so sorry. I forgot.” I had not touched him, but my whole body shook, making the surface of the water ripple.
“That was close,” he whispered, and I swore I heard anguish in his own voice, as well.
“I will be more careful,” I promised, still hugging my hands under my chin.
He touched my head. “No harm was done.”
The water felt cold now. I stood on unsteady legs, still covering my chest, and he handed me my wrap.
“Thank you,” I whispered. I dried myself quickly, but when I headed for the closet to dress, my husband’s warm mouth caressed my ear.
“Is that necessary? For you to dress?”
I flushed, clinging to the soft cloth around me. “Are you clothed?”
“Do you wish me to be unclothed?”
My face was on fire. “Well.” I swallowed. “It seems only fair.”
He paused for a moment before I heard the rustle of clothing, and then a soft thwap. My eyes widened as his pile of clothes became visible on the floor: a rich brown chiton, pleated neatly and edged in thick, gold thread. It was large, the size that would accommodate a tall, muscular man. Two sizeable sandals landed on top.
I covered my mouth to hide the wide smile.