“Psyche,” Cupid whispered in anguish, the single word crushing my chest. I stared straight ahead.
My family and people had done much wrong, but so had Venus and Cupid. It would be necessary to wade through all of these conflicting thoughts and feelings before I could move on. The things Cupid had done, even in the name of love, had inadvertently hurt me and others. A god or not, I had to show him I wasn’t going to abide by that. I walked to Zep, letting him take me into his arms and straight into the skies, without looking back.
Zephyr set me down on the edge of the drop overlooking the lagoon, as I had asked. I patted his shoulder and thanked him. With a nod, he set off, raising the ends of the shawl over my head, and causing my skirts to twist around my legs. I smiled weakly at the cloudy sky where he’d disappeared, feeling a strange sensation of imbalance, though I’d stood at that ledge hundreds of times before.
I was at a new precipice. I had a choice. If I wanted, I could stay here on this isle and become a spinster, raising my child where I’d been born. Nobody would fault me after what I’d been through. Rumors would swirl unabashedly, and people would pity me, but I didn’t care about what anyone thought anymore. Not even my parents or sisters. It only mattered what I thought.
I turned and jumped.
When I hit the water, I had hoped to feel as carefree as the last time I’d taken that leap, but as I came up and gulped the fresh sea air, I only felt heavy and tired. And then I wondered if the jump had hurt the baby. Surely not. But I realized with a pang of sadness that it might be the last jump I made. At least for a long while. I was not the girl I used to be.
I was too weak to tread water for very long. My sea friends seemed to instinctively know this, because they showed up, nudging me, allowing me to hold their fins as they pulled me ashore. I thanked them with soft kisses and lay on the shore there catching my breath. Then I trudged up the path toward my family’s lands, securing the damp shawl over my head again.
The first bright sensation of joy hit me when Olive and Berry came baying down the path, ears flopping, recognizing me at once. I bent to scratch their ears, laughing as they plied me with wet kisses, causing me to wonder about Mino and Sphinx. How I missed their sweetness. Would they remember me? The hounds joined me as I walked the path.
It had been cloudy when I arrived, and now the skies darkened further. All around me I frowned at the yellowed grasses. At this time of year there should have been flowers blooming and green lushness all around, but the land appeared famished. Apprehension filled me.
Nearing the guarded tunnel into the royal fortress, I opted for covering my face with the shawl and continuing into town instead, the dogs on my heels. I walked through the market and the streets, keeping my head down. It was as I feared. The people appeared frail and hungry. Baskets usually overflowing with food wares were low, their fruits and vegetables pale and shriveled. Prices being shouted were higher than usual. A blight had overcome the isle.
When I came to the gates of our castle, I was relieved to see no piles of offerings.
“Sorry, miss, but you’ll have to move along,” said one of the guards. I approached the gates and pulled back my shawl, revealing my face and ragged, wet hair.
“Where is Boldar?” I asked.
The guard’s eyes squinted in confusion and then widened.
All at once, he was being shoved aside by a huge hand. I looked into the wide eyes of Boldar, whose mouth hung open as he stared at me.
“Princess!” He wrenched the gates open and dragged me inside, clutching me close to his chest in an embrace. I held him in return, letting his unconditional love flow over me.
“But what are you…? You escaped him!” He pulled back, holding my shoulders to look at me. “What happened to your hair?”
I pulled the shawl back up. “Take me to my parents. I will explain everything.”
It was a tale I only wanted to tell once.
The reunion with Mother and Papa was bittersweet. While it was wonderful to see them and to know they had turned their lives back around, they seemed to hold a sadness in their eyes that would not leave, and I knew my own eyes were the same. We had all changed, and it could not be undone. Even the castle seemed forlorn in a way it never had before I’d gone. I spent the afternoon purging the story from my soul without stopping, even for the sticky cakes the kitchen staff brought out.
“A god,” Mother whispered, raising a shaking hand to cover her mouth. “I cannot believe it. But we thought…oh, Psyche!” She grasped my hand and I held hers tight. Papa appeared ashen, dabbing a cold sweat from his brow.
“Tell me what has happened here,” I said.
Mother and Papa shared a sad glance, my father pressing his lips tight and shaking his head.
“We have not seen a ray of sunshine since before you left,” Mother said. “We beg the gods daily for mercy. The temple is filled with what little we, and our people, can offer.”
A bout of illness shook me, and I closed my eyes. It was as I feared.
“I will join you at the temple tomorrow.” Exhaustion overpowered me. “I must rest.”
“Yes, of course,” Mother said, still shaken. “You and the babe.” Her eyes were filled with tears as she embraced me again, placing a hand against my stomach, warm and loving.
My parents helped me to my feet and stood silent as Boldar led me to my rooms, where I climbed on top of the bed without bothering with blankets and fell fast asleep.
I woke with Smokey the cat purring and sprawled across my face. I gently slid from underneath her, feeling parched and hungrier than ever. But greater than my need for sustenance was my need to honor the gods.
After dressing and running a brush through my hair, I found Boldar and he led me to my parents, who were already at the temple. I brought the cake, which I so desperately wanted, but would fast for the remainder of the day.
I bowed between my parents, my head down on the cool temple floor, open to the shady skies and cool winds.
“Proserpina,” I said, remembering the wife of Pluto’s smile. “I was humbled and beyond honored to meet you. I come to you now with my parents, giving all that we have, and forsaking my hunger, beseeching you to bless our lands. Our people and our leaders, have seen the errors of our ways. Yours is the glory, whether you take pity on our isle or not. We will honor you.”
We remained on our knees a long while as priests and priestesses chanted and burned incense, wafting the smoke around the temple. We worshiped for so long that my knees ached, my stomach twisting in on itself with hunger. Then warmth hit the back of my legs just as the priestesses and priests cried out.
We lifted our heads and turned to see the beam of sunlight breaking through the clouds, shining on the temple. Mother cried out, bowing again to kiss the temple floor.
“She has heard you,” Papa whispered.
We watched in awe and wonder as the dried vines along the edges of the temple began to fill out once again, brightening from brown to green, blossoms of red and lavender sprouting and opening before our eyes. Every human soul in the vicinity cried out. Cheers could be heard outside of the castle grounds.
“Thank you,” I said, lifting my face to the sunshine. “Let us remember.”
When all offerings had been burned and thanks had been given, I trudged back to my room once again, falling into the bed where I slept until the next morning. Immediately upon waking, nausea rolled through me and I dashed from the bed to a bowl in the bathing chamber. When I’d finished heaving, I touched my stomach.
“There you are, little one. Still with me, I see.”
And despite the ongoing feeling of sickness, I was ravenous.
It was time for those cakes.
I ate and drank my fill, and to my surprise, slept for another hour. When I next woke, I felt more like myself than I had in a long while, free from any fear, though something was decidedly missing. I felt like a visitor in my home, but not because of anything my family had done. Something inside of me had changed. I was a woman now.
Mother sent in a maid with shears to even out my hair. As it grew, I quite liked the way the short strands curled around my face and neck.
For those first few days, my parents and Boldar did not bother me, only checking in now and again with silent glances, as if assuring themselves I was really there, really alive. I was glad for the space, because my pregnancy sickness hit with full force during that time. And then my sisters showed, apparently having received messages from Mother about my arrival.
They both kissed me and swept their eyes over me. I felt numb toward them, which caused me remorse. It was not their fault for the part they played in my mistakes. They had been tricked by Venus. But I couldn’t help but wish they had listened to me and trusted my instincts instead of making me question my feelings for Cupid.
No, I told myself. They were not to blame for my actions. I tried to shake off the negativity and enjoy their visit.
“I have news,” Miracle said over tea, beaming. “I am finally with child!” I cheered. They had been trying for years. Dawn made happy sounds and I jumped to my feet to hug Miracle.
“How magnificent, Sister!” I said, taking her hands. “We shall be mothers together!”
Miracle’s brows tightened. “You are pregnant?”
“Did Mother not tell you?” I looked between the two of them, both shaking their heads, though Dawn’s frown turned to more of a scowl as the news set in.