“Have you been sampling the wine?” Boldar asked.
“No,” I whispered.
“I ate.” But something had not been right tonight. “I feel fine now.”
He let out a harrumph. “You made yourself sick to get out of a bit of dancing?”
“No.” I crossed my arms, frustrated that I couldn’t reply truthfully without making it seem as if I’d lost my mind. And perhaps I had. “I haven’t been sleeping well. I just need some rest.”
“Well, you shall have it.” Boldar opened the door to my bedchamber and I entered.
Before he could close it behind me, I turned and grasped the edge of the door. “If you see the man, Leodes, from the market, you must get me.”
He tilted his head as if I’d lost my wits. “Princess. He’s not here.”
“Promise me, Boldar.”
He huffed. “I promise.” Then he closed the door.
I moved to the edge of my window, throwing open the wide shutters to invite the sea air to dance around me, moving my skirts against my skin. The gray castle cat, Stormy, who preferred my room over all others, leapt onto the ledge to garner my attention. I scratched behind her ears for a while, staring out at the sea in thought. When she bored of me, I twirled on my feet, head back, the air sliding like a physical thing over my arms and neck. Bright stars twinkled over the ripples of water below, always moving, never still, like the heartbeat of our world.
I didn’t speak to the gods nearly as much as I should. Guiltily, I leaned from the window and sent my words of worship on the wind: “Jupiter, god of the sky and king of the gods, I thank you for your creation. I thank you for the wind, my only dance partner this night. If it be your will, I pray for a true love to dance with me someday.” I kissed my fingertips and stretched my hand from the open window, letting the breeze catch my offering to send it high.
After that fluke of an evening, apprehension shrouded my courting period. It was hard not to think about it nonstop now that Dawn and Miracle were both gone, and Mother set her sights solely on me.
“Oh, how I’ve dreamed of your courtship since you were a child!” Mother took my hands as she and I sat in the garden looking over a scroll of possible suitors, listed from best to absolute-last-case-scenario. Mother chatted on, telling me tidbits of gossip about each man as my shoulders slumped further and further.
“Adrian Galanis is the talk of Athens—gorgeous head to toe!—and he knows it. Some say he’s ruined several well-to-do marriages.” My stomach lurched. “But have no worries, darling. If anyone can keep his eye and set him straight, it’s you. Sit up straight, dear. Oh!” Her slender finger found another name of interest. “Calix Floros comes from a strong line. It’s rumored he’ll be in the Senate soon. Gods know, half the bureaucrats in Athens have had their pockets lined with his father’s bribes.”
I made a face of disgust. “Are there any on the list who aren’t filled with greed or cursed with a wandering eye?”
“Pshaw!” Mother waved a hand as if I’d made a joke. “No family is perfect. Don’t be so picky! If you’re not satisfied by gorgeous, powerful men, perhaps you’ll enjoy the company of Orrin Castellanos, the scholar.”
I narrowed my eyes, remembering that name from Miracle’s wedding. “Didn’t he court Dawn? Didn’t she cry and beg Papa to turn down his offer because he was likely too old to sire children?”
“He’s forty-three, not quite on his deathbed.”
Actually, his age had been Dawn’s excuse. What she really didn’t like was that the scholar couldn’t see to his feet past his belly, and his bald head was covered in sun spots. I recalled feeling bad for him at Miracle’s wedding because he seemed jolly and kind, but Dawn wouldn’t dance with him. I’d been young. Only fifteen, and already a spectacle. But if I remembered it correctly, he was the only man who managed to carry on a semi-normal conversation with me, after a bumbling start with mottled cheeks.
“What number is he on my list?”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous, he’s not on your list!” She whapped my leg gently with the feather quill. “I was trying to put things in perspective. We’ve chosen the best for you, darling. Only the best.”
“Mother…” I sat up straighter and braced myself. “Is there a rush for me to marry?” Her mouth bobbed open, and I hurried on. “I’m just saying, let’s not force it. I don’t need to marry.”
“Psyche, really! Every woman needs to marry.”
I sighed at the unfairness of it. “An extra year or two with you and Papa wouldn’t be too much of a scandal, would it? We can travel and meet people. A natural courtship progression would be more palatable than this.” I brushed a hand across her list of men.
Mother tilted her head and smiled at me, then patted my cheek. “This is fun for me. Finding husbands for my daughters is my joy—my only true job, really.”
“You’re a queen. You have many important jobs.”
She waved that fact away. “None more important than this.”
“Mother, please.” I took her hand and held it tightly until she looked at me again. “I don’t want to rush this. I want a husband who loves me, not a man who sees me as a prize of some sort.”
“Okay, darling.” She patted the top of my hand with her free one. “I will make you a deal. Allow me to continue the courtship, asking men to visit and meet you, but I will speak with Papa about not rushing the actual wedding part.”
“Thank you!” I beamed at her, but she shook her head.
“This is not an endless agreement. By the age of twenty, we must choose, together, and you must marry. Preferably someone who can further Papa’s standing. You want that, don’t you?”
I swallowed the bile rising up in my throat but nodded my agreement, and she kissed my head. One way or another, I’d become someone’s wife. There was no getting out of it.
“What did you say to him?” Mother asked, pulling her shawl closer against a blast of chilled wind as we walked the stone path from our living quarters to the dining area.
“I said nothing that would cause such disinterest in me or turn his eye to his bath maid instead,” I assured her. My appeal to her to slow the process of my courtship period had gone unheeded. She’d rushed head-in, bombarding me with man after man, failure after awkward failure.
The latest suitor had been one of mother’s last hopes for a suitable match. As a bonus he was a warrior of high ranking in the military with bloodlines that traced back to ancient Athens. I’d quite liked the look of his strong thighs. Our initial meeting had been positive, even hopeful—he’d only gawked at me two long minutes before gathering his wits and being able to carry on a conversation. But last night while everyone had slept, he found Boldar and explained he was leaving, hand in hand with the bath maid we’d assigned him. A girl even younger than me. Boldar said his eyes were crazed and he couldn’t stop proclaiming his love for the girl.
If I wasn’t so scandalized and concerned for mother’s state of mind, I’d have laughed at the irony of one lost suitor after another, and me supposedly the “best catch” in all the lands.
“How is it possible?” Mother exclaimed, raising her palms to the world in frustration. “To choose a plain-faced servant of the Metics class over a Princess!”
“She was a kind soul. And I wouldn’t call her plain-faced,” I said in her defense, but Mother raged on.
“The fool! And now I have to find a replacement maid!” Mother’s shouts were lost to the winds. A storm was blowing in, and from the churning, sooty look of the skies, we’d do well to stay inside the remainder of the afternoon. We rushed through the doors of the dining hall, held open by two soldiers, and exhaled loudly in the sudden quiet of the windless room.
Both of us shook out our shawls and placed them across the backs of our chairs, joining Papa at the table. He sat heavily, elbows on the table, peering at us menacingly over his goblet of wine. From the droop of his eyes, I was certain it wasn’t his first drink.
“What did you say to him, Psyche?” Papa accused.
I turned to him as if my eyes could lash back. “I said nothing to turn him away! I was cordial and kind and, and—”
Papa slammed a fist to the table, making Mother and I jump and his wine slosh up like a red wave on an angry sea.
He pointed a finger at me. “You must be sabotaging our efforts in some way!”
I trembled inside because Papa never spoke harshly to me. “I swear to you, Papa. I’m not.” But I understood his frustration. It had been nearly a year. Soon, rumors would start to spread.
Mother took my hand and spoke gently to Papa. “Could it be they are too intimidated by such beauty?” He grunted, and Mother continued. “Ever since she’s grown breasts no man has been able to talk to her like a normal female.”
I pressed a hand to my forehead and rubbed it down my face. “Every woman has breasts, Mother.”
“It’s not just that, Psyche,” she told me. “It’s the entire package. The more you become a woman, the less men know how to behave around you!”