“I have lost nothing! No single being is worthy of all the love I have to give! It is my right to love as many as I please!”
“And yet, if I love one, you deny me.”
“There are so many worthy goddesses and demigoddesses to choose from, son.” Venus pointed down at me. “And you choose this, a lowly human. The one human who has hurt me beyond any other. How do you think that makes me feel?” She sounded choked up, and it crushed my heart to know I had come between them.
“Let us make another compromise,” he said.
“Here is your compromise!”
She flung a hand to the spot beside me, and a massive diamond-headed snake appeared. Its wide head raised high and stared straight at me. Everything I knew about coming across snakes in the wild told me to remain still and calm. But we weren’t in the wild, and I had not been expecting this, so my body reacted. I screamed and shifted backward, causing the snake to dart toward me.
“No!” Cupid sprang forward.
The snake disappeared just as Cupid became rigid. My scream began anew as a thin, golden rope wound its way around my husband, from his ankles to his chest, fast like a whip. Struggle as he might—I could see the battle in his face and shoulders—he was not escaping.
“Don’t hurt him!” I begged. “Please!”
She shot a dark scowl at me. “Unlike you, faithless one, I would never hurt him. He agreed to this, and I will not have him interfering. Your first task begins now.”
Venus snapped her fingers, and my stomach dropped as everything around me changed.
My insides whooshed as if we had mounted a hill in a chariot and were plummeting steeply down the other side. My vision was a blur, and as it cleared, I spun, finding myself in a well-lit storehouse of some sort with open windows. All around me were heaps of wheat, barley, millet, vetches, beans, and lentils, all spilled out and flowing together in mixed piles.
It was quiet, but when I strained my ears I could hear the distant cooing song of majestic birds. Venus appeared beside me, giving me a fright.
“These are my grain offerings,” she explained. “However, my doves are picky, and each loves a different type. For your first task, you must separate these grains into their own piles.”
My eyes widened. It was a large room. It would take days, if not weeks to accomplish this. I swallowed hard and nodded. “Yes, goddess.”
“Very good.” She gave a dark chuckle of delight. “I shall attend a celebration banquet. You have until I return at nightfall.”
She turned to leave, and my heart staggered. “Pardon? My lady of love…you mean I must separate it all today?”
“That is exactly what I mean. And if you fail, there are a myriad of things I can choose as your fate. None of them is death—that was my agreement with my son—but trust me, dear…” She leaned close, a burst of dewy, lily scent striking my nose. “You will wish you were dead.”
She glided gracefully from the room, and my heart began to slam in my chest. All my thoughts were incoherent as I stared around blankly. I could not move. Where would I begin? It was too much! An impossible task.
Compose yourself, Psyche! I grasped my head, taking several deep breaths before crouching and beginning to sort. It was not only my life on the line. If what Venus said was true, and I believed it was, I was pregnant. My fingers shook, dropping several grains as the pressure of the situation rained down on me. This would never work!
I needed a better plan. I stood and ran, gathering an empty barrel from along the wall for each type of grain, lining them up behind me. They were heavy and unwieldy, leaving me sweating. I pushed back my damp, ragged mess of hair and began sorting as quickly as my fingers would allow.
With each hour that passed, I tried desperately not to look at the piles yet to be sorted. The amount I had finished compared to the abundance remaining proved my efforts would be wasted. Several times sobs of despair rose, threatening to choke me, but I shook my head and continued. For Cupid. For my love. For our child.
“I am trying to decide between slavery in the moors, prostitution in Rome, or truly marrying her off to a monster of Olympus.” Venus stroked one of her oversized doves as she sat outside of Cupid’s cell, ignoring how his fists were clenched. “She would enjoy prostitution far too much, I think.” Her son growled from deep within his chest, and she held back a smile. “I think the irony of a true beastly marriage would be the most fun.”
“You dared to tell her you would never hurt me, but you lie.” His voice was as sharp and scathing as a razor. “Nothing would ever hurt me more, and I swear to you…you will be no mother of mine if you go through with such a cruel punishment of the one I love.”
Venus’s eyes darkened. “I never believed a child of my own flesh could be as fickle as other men. But I will forgive you. Over time we will forgive one another. Her life will end as quickly as a wind’s whisper across the earth, and then you have eternity to heal and see the situation with clarity. You will realize I am doing this for both of us. The hold she has on you is not healthy.”
“You speak as if what I feel is a madness, but it is not. It is love.”
“Is love not a madness?” She tilted her head. “Tell me, when was the last time you used your arrows of love to truly bring a couple together, to strengthen them, rather than to punish another or cause strife?”
Cupid’s lips pursed in displeasure. He sat on the floor of the cell, arms draped across his knees, with his head laying back heavily. “I have changed. I have no desire to use love as a weapon anymore.”
“Mother, be reasonable!” Cupid lurched forward, grabbing the cell bars, his eyes wide. “She carries a demigod within her! My child! Your own grandchild! No matter what you say, I know you must care. Think about it, Mother. Let yourself imagine cradling your own grandson in your arms.”
“Enough! I will not think about the bastard child, created with the single intention of trying to manipulate me. I already told you—”
“I swear, if anything happens to her or my babe—”
Venus stood. “I bore of your melancholy dramatics. The sooner this ordeal is over, the sooner we can move on and regain what we once had before she ruined it all.”
“Jealousy has never been a good look on you, Mother.”
“All the more reason to snuff out the cause. Now if you will excuse me, I have a banquet to attend.”
She turned in a swish of robes and left him on his own. Cupid gritted his teeth and gripped his hands into fists, striking the ground hard enough to make the room shake. He stood and peered through the small window to the storehouse below. Through the long sets of windows where doves could fly in to feed, he spied Psyche on her knees, her hands moving rapidly. His chest became impossibly tight. She was trying so hard, and for what? They all knew a mortal could not accomplish such an endeavor.
He slid back to the floor, pressing his palms into his eyes until his acute hearing picked up a tiny scratching sound at the window. Cupid stood again and found a black worker ant crossing the sill. Before his mother had decided to move the storehouse to her lands for the doves, she had brought in a few harmless bugs from Earth for them to eat. Often immortal birds from all over Olympus came to hunt the bugs that could not be found anywhere else in the immortal lands.
Most of Cupid’s powers were unable to work in the cell—his mother had warded against that—but there was something he had not tried. He whispered to the tiny insect in his godly voice, and its black body gave a tremor before climbing quickly out of sight, and down the side of the tower room. Cupid watched avidly, listening for sounds of his mother, but she was not nearby. To his complete joy, thousands of black ants climbed the walls of the storehouse, entering through the windows, and began to make quick work of separating the grains. He watched as Psyche leapt to her feet in surprise. Once she realized they were helping, she crouched down again and continued working, as well.
Yes, he thought, go, go, go!
As night began to fall, Psyche collapsed onto the floor, holding her face as the ants receded out of sight, finally finished with their task. Cupid, who had been restless the entire time, also slid down to sit, laughing with relief.
I had never been more nervous. Though the task was complete, and Venus had given no rule against receiving help, I feared she would not honor my win. I stood pacing until she stepped into the room, candles sputtering to life along the walls. I dropped to my knees as I beheld the goddess, crowned with a rose garland, smelling of sweet balm. Her expression of smugness dissolved into shock and anger as her eyes darted around the room.
“I see,” she said. “Who came to help you?”
“No person came, goddess.”
“Was it Zephyr? Sneaky little wind god?”
“No, goddess. I swear it.”
Venus breathed quickly, peering about for something, anything, out of order, but all was pristine.
“You think yourself clever, do you?” She glared down at me. “You and my son?”
“No, high one. Truly, I am not.”
“We shall see.”
The goddess reached into a fold of her dress and took out a small, dark hunk of bread, which she tossed hard at me. Then she flicked a finger and a wooden cup of cloudy water appeared on the ground.