The waters were rough. We normally wouldn’t venture out this soon after a storm, but we clung to the sides of the boat and gritted our teeth against the rolling waves, the smack of the boat up and down, jarring my back. After a while I stood, finding my bent knees took the impact of the rough waters better than my spine. Mother had closed her eyes, prone to seasickness. Papa stared, stoic, out at the sea, his expression never changing as we sighted land.
At the dock, I pulled a shawl around my face against the biting winds, hiding as much of myself as possible. The guards pressed back any locals who recognized us or wanted to greet us, but I felt their eyes watching as we boarded a large chariot pulled by two steeds. It would take several chariots and trips to get all of our party and offerings to the temple.
We made our way down the bumpy lanes of the fish markets to the temple of Apollo, complex god of the sun, music, art, archery, plague, medicine, and most importantly for our family at the moment, prophecy. Today we sought the powerful and ancient oracle of Apollo for wisdom and knowledge about how to get back into the good graces of the gods, and what the future might hold for us. For me.
I stood between my parents on the chariot, one hand holding the rail to keep myself steady, the other holding the shawl at my neck. The horses were swift, and I closed my eyes against the cool air hitting my face. Above us the clouds were still dark and angry. We rounded a corner and the large dome of Apollo’s temple came into view on the raised hill, strikingly light against the wrathful sky, held high by giant pillars in a circle. Our temple had been a smaller replica of this one, but it hadn’t come close to this majesty.
I itched to fall on my knees and beg forgiveness. Peering at both of my parents, I daresay they were not eager for the same thing. Mother’s regal jaw was set with worry and displeasure. Papa wore the same unpleasant expression he did when he had to barter and deal with enemies-turned-allies after war. Their lack of reverence made my blood feel electric with nervous energy under my skin. This was not something they could fake.
“No number of offerings will please the gods if you walk in there filled with pride and bitterness,” I said against the wind, leaning forward as the chariot inclined.
“Hold your tongue,” Mother chided.
But Papa wanted to argue. “Why are we to be punished? We work hard to rule our lands with justice. Surely the gods can see our daily work.”
I eyed him. “It takes more than good deeds, Papa. You know this. You must honor them.” He stiffened, his knuckles white on the railing until I pried his closest hand away, slipping my small hand into his large, calloused palm.
“Time has passed so swiftly,” he told me.
“I know, Papa. And you are busy with more responsibilities than any man I know. Tell this to the gods when you worship today. Explain that time got away from you and you never meant to offend them.”
I held tight to his hand until the horses slowed and came to a stop. The three of us were a shame-filled sight as we gathered as much as we could into our arms, the guards carrying the animals. We brought so much that the altar quickly filled, surrounding the stone statue of the deity. And then the hours of sacrifice and worship began. Chanting. Bowing. Kneeling. Singing. Begging. Promising change. All while the winds whistled through the pillars like small screams.
We were exhausted at the end of it, and the clouds still hovered above the temple. In the distance blue skies painted the horizon, but the sun did not show its face over us. A horrible chasm of despair opened up inside of me, causing my body to tremble as Papa helped me to my feet. My knees were numb and painful.
The three of us exchanged somber glances, telling me their level of hope was as low as mine. It was time to see the oracle and learn our fate. How would we be punished? Would the gods take away our lands? Would Papa’s reign be tumbled? Would our people suffer plague or famine? I couldn’t bear the thought of our small empire, so precious to our family, in ruin.
Gaining audience with the oracle was a difficult task. Only royalty and the very rich were granted prophecy. Our own guards filled the space around us while Miletus guards surrounded the old woman being brought gingerly up the steps. Two younger seers in white robes, marked with shaved heads, accompanied the oracle, holding her hands. The oracle stared with her chin lifted, but her eyes were a milky, whitish-blue.
As she took the final step into the temple the guards spread out, giving the four of us as much space as possible while still circling us. Papa, Mother, and I knelt and bowed our heads a long moment before Papa spoke.
“Most worthy oracle. We thank you. Your time is a gift.” Papa raised his head, taking Mother’s hand, then mine, and we stood together.
“A most blessed family on a blessed isle.” The oracle’s voice was scratchy like sand over rocks. I swallowed hard, my heart banging a fearful beat in my chest.
“What is your greatest prayer request?” asked the oracle.
“My wish…my greatest prayer is for my daughter Psyche to have a husband.” Papa closed his eyes, and in that moment, I watched as all pride shed from his shoulders and he stood before the oracle as a mere man and father. My eyes burned, and I swallowed back the moisture building as Mother sniffled beside me.
“Princess Psyche.” The oracle’s voice tilted up at the end of my name as if contemplating. “Indeed, the famed beauty should have a husband by now.”
Mother shivered, taking my hand, and Papa lowered his head.
“I fear,” Papa choked out, “that I have cursed her with my…unfaithfulness.”
I wiped a tear from the corner of each eye before it could fall. I wasn’t prone to crying but seeing Papa at such a low point was tugging at my goblet of emotion, causing it all to spill forth.
“The root of her curse goes much deeper than your own actions,” the oracle said, making all three of us gasp at the truth. “’Twas the unfaithfulness of you and all your people that brought the ire of the goddess Venus. And ‘tis only the one you so love and admire who can be sacrificed to bring blessing back to your lands.”
“Wh—” Papa’s breath left him in a whoosh as he spun to me, eyes wide.
My stomach dipped but I remained still. In my mind, this had been the worst case. I knew the price would be great, and that it would somehow pertain to me. As much as my body wanted to fall and beg, if I did that, my parents would break. I had to be strong for them.
“No,” Mother said. “Not Psyche. Not my baby. She has done nothing!” She gripped my forearm tightly, as if she could save me from the gods.
I put a hand over hers. “It’s all right, Mother.”
At this, the oracle chuckled, and craned her head to the side as if hearing something nobody else could decipher. Her slow nod sent a hot zap of fear across my skin.
“The gods have spoken. Hers will be a funeral wedding to a dark-deeded winged serpent. Many call him a monster. Your dear Psyche will call him Husband.”
My eyes fluttered and for a moment the temple spun. I barely made out the sounds of Mother and Papa fighting to breathe, their hands holding me.
“I won’t have it!” Papa shouted. I wanted to tell him to keep calm, that even his immense power could not save me from this, but I couldn’t find my voice.
“It is decided,” the oracle told Papa again, never raising her voice.
“What if we refuse?” Mother asked.
“Then the curse on her head spills onto those who share her blood and all who reside on your isle.”
Mother covered her mouth and started to drop to her knees, but Papa lifted her, scowling at the oracle, as if this were her fault, but it wasn’t. It was mine. I should have put a stop to the nonsense years ago. I should have insisted Papa forbid the people from idolizing me. My parents thought it was innocent flattery, but in my heart I’d always known better. I had kept too quiet, hoping the issue would resolve itself over time. Now, fear for my parents and our people rose like a wild fire inside of me—a deadly thing only I could control.
“Please,” I said to my parents as calmly as possible. “You cannot fight this. It is mine to bear. I can handle it.”
His eyes still boring holes into the oracle, Papa yelled, “He will kill her!”
“He will have her as his wife.” At that simple statement, Papa flinched, and Mother dissolved into tears, sagging in Papa’s strong arms and gripping him with all her might. The pain in Papa’s eyes killed me. He was thinking of all that my husband would do to me—the things I couldn’t bring myself to imagine.
My stomach lurched. A wave of dizziness threatened to knock my feet from beneath me, but I tensed my muscles to stay upright.
A dark-deeded winged serpent.
I would not survive it, that was certain, but I couldn’t let my parents see the terror that burned through me.
The oracle nodded slowly, her frightening eyes staring at my own. “On the next full moon, you will climb to the highest point on your isle, alone, and there you will stay until taken to your husband.”
“Who will take her?” Papa demanded.
“That is not for you to know.”
His jaw clenched. Papa could bully the mightiest warriors in all the lands, but this frail old woman would not be cowed. She spoke with authority of the gods, and what she envisioned was what I deserved. Perhaps my entire favored life had led to such an ending as this. The sardonicism nearly made me laugh with hysterics. I should have ended the people’s fascination with my appearance long ago. I didn’t know how, but I should have done something. I should have been diligent about my family’s worship and offerings. But it was too late to go back.