And just as I was about to ask from where he hailed, his eyes bore into mine and an urge hit me with acute power, shrouding all my other thoughts. There had been one area of the market I’d avoided—the animal farmers. And I suddenly had a huge desire to visit the pig stall. Why? I blinked. Piglets! Yes, that’s it! There had been other things on my mind I’d wanted to ask him, but they seemed of little importance now. I had to see the piglets.
“I must go, too,” I told the intriguing stranger. “I wish you safe travels.”
He turned from me, and I turned from him, lowering my face and tugging the hood of my cloak lower. As I walked, feeling sluggish and heavy, my mind became as muddled as the port on a foggy morning. I couldn’t think. All I could do was move through the throng of people to the pig stall on the other side of the market. I barely registered my guards following me, still keeping their distance.
I stopped outside of the stall, the pig excretions burning my nose. My arms and legs weighed me down, and my skin prickled as if I’d just walked into a patch of shade after being baked by the sun. I blinked, confused. I needed to be right here at this moment, but why? It was like the sensation of being stuck inside a dream. I felt as if I were being watched, but I couldn’t move my head to peer around, or get my limbs to work.
The pig farmer caught a glance at my form as he shoveled a mess of hay into a cart. “What do you wannn…” He peered closer and must have seen I was a young female, though I kept the top of my face hidden. “Hello, my dear.” His gruff voice turned sickly sweet, churning my stomach.
What did I want? My eyes moved across the area to where the larger pigs and piglets had been penned. One spotted piglet, in particular, was running in circles in the small space, bumping the door and sides until the door fell open and he came sprinting out. I nearly giggled at his adorable snorting sounds of freedom.
The farmer turned and shouted, “Damned vermin!” and kicked the piglet, making it fall to its side with a loud cry.
A guttural scream escaped me, and I covered my mouth as he manhandled the baby pig back into the pen, shutting it with hands that appeared swollen. Then he jutted out his belly with his hands on his hips, giving me a grayish smile of rotted teeth. I dropped my hands as my head seemed to clear a fraction.
“You didn’t have to kick the poor thing!” I shouldn’t have spoken to him, but in my anger, I’d blurted it out. At least I kept the top half of my face hidden.
“No worries, Miss, they don’t feel pain the same as us.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Say, what’s your name, Miss?” The pigman licked his lips. “You seem familiar.”
My name. My name. What in great Hades was I doing here talking to this cruel man? In a flash, my mind cleared, and I straightened, feeling my strength return just in time for a strong wind to whip through, clattering stall hangings and forcing people to grab belongings. My hood wrenched back, and I turned, hiding my face, but my hair was loose. I felt it lash out around me, the leather strap coming loose to unleash the long strands. I rushed to snatch my hair and shove it back into my hood, yanking the fabric over my face again. The pig farmer let out a gasp, and I turned from him. I had to get out of here.
“Hey!” the farmer called out as I turned, which made me move all the quicker.
He shouted again. “Don’t you know it’s rude to walk away from a man without responding?”
I hardly cared how rude I appeared. I don’t think he figured out who I was, only that I was a young woman. I saw Boldar’s feet nearing me, but he didn’t stop. He seemed to want to shut the farmer’s mouth, so I grabbed his arm and hissed, “Let him be.”
“What were you even doing there?” he asked.
“I…I don’t know. I suppose I wanted to see the piglets.”
But I was deeply shaken the entire walk back to the castle. What on Earth would cause me to want to leave the presence of the handsome stranger, especially when I’d wanted so badly to learn more about him, and to bring myself to the pig stall instead? My heart stuttered as my stomach swam sourly. Is this how people felt when their minds began to go? Was I ill? How could I let go of an opportunity to know a man who saw more in me than my looks?
I halted and turned to my youngest guard, the fastest runner. “Do you recall the man I spoke with at the wood carving stall?”
His eyebrows drew together. “I believe so.”
“His name is Leodes. He was set to board a merchant ship. Run to the port and find him. Learn where he is from and where he is headed. Delay the ship if you must. Do you understand?”
He didn’t appear happy about it, but he nodded. “Yes, Princess.”
“Quick! Go!” He left us at a sprint and I let out a sigh. Perhaps all was not lost.
Boldar grumbled. “Your father will not approve of you seeking a strange merchant.”
I hardly cared. “He will if he’s rich.”
Another grumble. “Come along.”
I allowed the guards to lead me the rest of the way, hope filling my heart to overflowing.
I will find you, Leodes.
I sent up a silent prayer to Venus, the goddess of love, as I paced within the palace gates.
“Princess, I implore you to come to the castle,” Boldar begged. “It could take a long while for him to check every ship in the port.” We’d even sent a crew of others to help him search. That was an hour ago. I sat on a low stone wall making a ring of flowers from the wild weeds.
“I am perfectly safe right here within the walls, Boldar. Leave me if you must.”
He let out a masculine sigh and sat. I pressed my lips against a laugh when his stomach gurgled with hunger. “Oh, go on. I’ve held you back from the mid-day meal.”
“No.” He crossed his bulky arms. “I want to see what this Leodes fellow’s reaction is when he realizes the famed princess has called him back.”
My face flamed as I concentrated on the flowers. What would Leodes think? Would he act differently once he knew who I was? A pang of guilt lodged itself in my ribs at the thought of negatively affecting his work by delaying the merchant’s vessel.
The sound of pounding feet and hushed voices had Boldar and me standing at attention as the young guard and the others made their way through the gates. My gaze darted around for Leodes but he wasn’t among them. The young guard found my face, then Boldar’s and he shrugged, shaking his head.
“Checked every single vessel, your highness, from large to small. Only one Leodes was aboard a merchant ship, but he was an old man. I’m sorry.”
Disappointment washed over me like a hot, angry rain. His vessel must have left the moment he’d boarded. I wanted to cry. How could my mind have become so addled in the presence of a kind, interesting man? I wasted a perfectly good opportunity. I would never understand the decision I’d made today. And I had a terrible feeling it would haunt me for a long while to come.
Dawn’s wedding would be the start of my year of courtship. That was usually how it went. As one princess married, all eyes immediately moved to the next in line. A row of suitors had been waiting to dance with Dawn at Miracle’s marriage celebration. I couldn’t help but be curious and nervous about who might show interest in my hand.
For months I’d secretly imagined the handsome foreigner in the market to be a prince in disguise. Gods, I’d give anything for him to appear at the celebration. Leodes. I replayed our meeting over and over again in my mind. In those first days I hardly slept, so overcome with thoughts of him. The way he’d looked at me, seeming to perceive more than my outward beauty—his sincere interest when I spoke.
Realistically, I knew I’d never see him again, but I couldn’t help but fantasize.
Mother made me wear my finest new dress to Dawn’s wedding. I planned to steer clear of her husband, Prince Drusus, who turned into a gaping buffoon every time he laid eyes on me. I truly hoped my sister would find joy in those fields of olive trees and grape vines. I hoped he would be more attentive to her there than he was here on our island.
After the ceremony, the masses gathered in our open-air courtyard of marble floors. Climbing rose vines wound their way around white pillars that held up grand arches, the warm air filled with rose fragrance. I attempted to make myself scarce so as not to take any attention away from the couple, but Mother was keen on parading me around to every family with an available son. Intelligent conversation was too much to hope for, no matter how hard I tried.
“Prince Lucius,” Mother said to a light-haired man. “Meet my youngest daughter, Princess Psyche.”
“How do you do?” I smiled. “Are you the Lucius known for his skill with architecture?”
“The only architecture I can fathom at the moment is you.” I held back a groaning eye-roll as he peered from my toes to my gold-leafed crown.
“Oh?” I asked. “Have you forgotten the beauty of the aqueducts you had a hand in creating?”
“The gods perfectly sculpted you, Psyche.” The way he whispered my name had me forcing back a cringe.
Mother elbowed me, and I cleared my throat. “Thank you.”
It’s not that I was ungrateful, but it irked me knowing I couldn’t tell any of these men about the mountain lion cub from my childhood and expect them to listen and appreciate the story. Yes, that had become my standard. Low, and yet still virtually impossible to meet.