"The gods don’t hate you, Acheron. How could they?"
He wrenched his arm from my grasp and gave me a look so insolent that I was shocked by it. Never had he shown this much spirit. "If they don’t hate me, then why am I like this? Why has my father denied me? Why would my mother never even look at me? Why have I been kept as an animal whose only role in life is to serve as my master bids me? Why can’t people look at me without attacking me?"
I cupped his face in my hands, grateful that he no longer tensed when I touched him. "That has nothing to do with the gods. Only other people’s stupidity. Has it never occurred to you that the gods sent me to free you because they didn’t want to see you suffer anymore?"
His gaze fell. "I can’t hope for that, Ryssa."
"Because hope scares me. What if this is all I am? A whore to be bartered and sold. The gods make kings and they make whores. It’s obvious which role they chose for me."
I winced at his words. Honestly, I preferred the weeks when he refused to mention being a whore. I hated the reminders of what had been done to him against his will, especially those wretched balls in his tongue that flashed every time he spoke.
"You are not cursed!"
"Then why when I tried to gouge out my eyes would they not stay out?"
Paralyzed by those words, I couldn’t breathe for several seconds. "What?"
"I’ve tried three times to gouge out my eyes so that they couldn’t offend others, and each time they returned to my skull by themselves. If I’m not cursed, why would they do that?" He lifted his hand to show me that cut that had already started to mend. "Injuries that take weeks for others to heal, heal in days if not hours on me."
Tears stung my eyes at the pain in his deep voice. I didn’t know what to say to that. "You get sick. I’ve seen it."
"Not for long. Not like a normal person and I can go three weeks without a single morsel of food or drop of water and not die." The fact that he knew how long he could go without nourishment told me it’d been done to him. But even though he could go that long and not die, he starved just like the rest of us. I knew that too from being with him.
I closed my hand around his. "I don’t know the will of the gods, Acheron, no one does. But I refuse to believe that it’s their will to hurt you so. You were a precious gift that was scorned by the very ones who should have cherished you. That is a human tragedy that shouldn’t be laid at the feet of divinity. The priests often say that the gifts of the gods are sometimes hard to accept or identify, but I know in my heart that you are special. That you are a gift to humanity. Never doubt that you were placed here with some higher purpose and that purpose was not with malice or to be abused."
I swallowed before I kissed his injured hand. "I love you, little brother. And I see in you nothing but goodness, intelligence, compassion and warmth. One day I hope you’ll see it too."
He placed his other hand on mine. "I wish I could, Ryssa. But all I see is a whore who’s tired of being used."
February 15, 9531 BC
Time has flown by as I’ve watched Acheron grow from a timid, frightened boy into a man who is more confident to voice his own opinions. He no longer cringes or holds his head down. When I speak to him, he now meets my gaze levelly. Truly his transformation has been the most beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed.
I’m not sure if I’ve had the most impact on that, or if it was Maia who finally reached him and brought out this new side. The two of them are inseparable.
Today they were in the kitchen while Petra was cooking. I stood in the doorway watching them closely.
"You have to pound the bread like this." Maia chopped at it with her tiny hands as she knelt on a tall stool so that she could reach the table. "Pretend it’s somebody you don’t like," she whispered loudly as if imparting a great secret to him.
Acheron’s expression glowed with warmth. "I didn’t think there was anyone you didn’t like."
"Well, I don’t, but there’s probably someone you don’t like."
I didn’t miss the torment in his eyes as he averted his gaze. I wondered who topped his list. Our father or our uncle?
"We need more milk."
Acheron dutifully handed it to her.
Petra glanced over, smiled and shook her head at them as Maia added much more salt than was needed.
Maia wiped her runny nose before she put her hands back in the dough. I cringed, making a mental note not to eat any of the bread they were cooking, but Acheron wouldn’t be so squeamish. He’d even eaten a bite of a mud pie several days ago to make Maia happy.
"Now we have to shape it into loaves. Let’s do little ones because those are my favorite."
Acheron dutifully complied.
The dog started barking.
"Shh!" Maia said as she tore a part of the dough and handed it to Acheron so that he could make a loaf. "We’re working."
The dog jumped up and pushed Maia who lost her balance. Acheron caught her against him at the same time the dog jumped at his leg, unbalancing him. One instant, they were upright, the next they were on the floor with Acheron on his back and Maia on his chest. The dog barked and danced around them, bumping into the table.
The bowl of flour they’d been using tumbled over the edge and landed on top of them. I covered my mouth as I looked at them, saturated with dough, flour and milk. All that was visible were startled wide eyes.
Maia squealed in laughter and to my utter amazement, Acheron laughed, too.
The sound of it, combined with an honest smile from him, stunned me. He was absolutely beautiful when he smiled . . . even when he was covered in flour and dough.
His eyes were bright as he wiped the flour from his face and helped Maia clear some off her cheeks.
Petra let out a sound of disgust as she shooed the dog out of the kitchen. "You two look like shades out to scare me to an early death. What a mess!"
"We’ll clean it, Petra, I promise," Acheron said as he set Maia on her feet. "You’re not hurt are you?"
Maia shook her head. "But I fear our loaves are all a ruin." Her tone was dire indeed.
"True. But we can always make more."
"But they won’t be as good."
I bit back a laugh. Yes, it was true, the swipe of Maia’s runny nose had been the perfect spice necessary to all good bread. Without that, I was sure the next batch would be nowhere near as good. However, I kept that comment to myself while Acheron comforted the poor child.
Acheron took Maia outside so that the two of them could shake the flour out of their clothes and hair while Petra set about cleaning up the kitchen. Within a few minutes, they were back to help.
I watched in awe that a prince would be so considerate. But Acheron never flinched at helping Petra whenever he and Maia were in the kitchen with her. It was just his nature.
And he always doted on Maia like a patient older brother.
"Acheron?" Maia asked as he set out a new bowl for her. "Why do you have those silver things in your tongue?"
He glanced away. "They were put there when I wasn’t much older than you."
He feigned a menacing face. "So that I could scare little girls who annoyed me."
She giggled as he gently tickled her. "I don’t think you could ever scare anyone. You’re too nice for that."
He didn’t comment as he helped her measure out the flour.
Maia scratched her head as she watched him with innocent curiosity. "Do the balls ever hurt?"
"Oh." She cocked her head to study his lips. "Do you ever take them out?"
"Maia," Petra said gently as she returned to the lamb she was seasoning, "I don’t think Acheron really wants to talk about them."
"Why not? I think they’re pretty. Can I have some?"
"No," Acheron and Petra said simultaneously.
Maia huffed. "Well I don’t see why not. Princess Ryssa has small silver balls in her ears and Acheron’s are very pretty too."
Acheron tweaked the end of her nose. "They hurt when they’re put in, akribos. It’s a pain you never want to know and it’s why I don’t take them out. I don’t want anyone to hurt me like that again."
"Oh. Is that like the burn on your hand that you told me about?"
Petra turned toward them. "What burn on his hand?"
"The one Acheron did when he was young. It’s very pretty, too, like a pyramid. He said he got it because he didn’t listen to his mother. He said it’s why I should always listen to you when you tell me what to do."
A dawning light came into Petra’s eyes. Acheron didn’t miss it. Lowering his head submissively, he mumbled an apology to Maia before he left.
I followed him. "Acheron?"
He paused to turn back toward me. "Yes?"
"She didn’t mean anything by her questions."
"I know," he breathed. "But it doesn’t make it any less painful, does it?"
I wanted so desperately to hold him. If only he’d allow it. But only Maia in her innocence was able to reach out to him. "You can take the balls out and we can disguise your hand. No one would ever know then."
"I would still know." He laughed bitterly. "You can’t undo the past, Ryssa. Marks on my body or not, it’s always there and it’s always brutal." His eyes seared me and in them I saw an anguish no boy so young should ever know. "Because of the way I heal, have you any idea how many times and how deep they had to burn my hand in order to scar it?"
Nausea welled up inside of me. It was something I’d never considered. "Your past is over, Acheron. All that remains are the two parts you won’t let go of."
He shook his head in denial before he waved his arm toward the palace. "This . . . this is all a dream and I know it. One day, all too soon, I’m going to wake up and it’ll be over. I’m going to be right back where I was. Doing things I don’t want to do. Being groped and shoved around and beaten. There’s no need to pretend otherwise."
How could I make him feel safe and secure? "Why won’t you take my word and believe me? The past is over. You have a new future now. Boraxis is on his way to Sumer to deliver my letter to my best friend. Once I have her word, we’ll have a safe place where you can go and no one will ever harm you again.
His expression was bleak and cold. "I don’t know how to trust, Ryssa. Not you or anyone else. People are unpredictable. The gods more so. Things happen that are out of our control. I want to believe you, I do. But all I hear are the gods’ voices, and yours. And then I see things . . . things I don’t want to see."
"What kinds of things?"
He turned away and headed for his room.
I ran after him and pulled him to a stop. "Tell me. What do you see?"
"I see myself begging for a mercy that never comes. I see myself cast out into the streets with no place to rest and no one around me willing to help without exacting a payment I don’t want to make."
Gods, how I wanted to make him trust in me and the future I was going to make sure he had. "This isn’t a dream, Acheron. It’s real and I’m not going to let you return to Atlantis. We will find you a home that is safe."
He looked away, his eyes stormy. "Why hasn’t Father come? If he loves me as you say, why hasn’t he come in all these months to see me? And why are you trying to find me another home?"
"He’s busy." I couldn’t bear even now to tell him the harsh truth.
"You keep saying that and I try to believe you. But do you know what I remember of him?"
I was almost afraid to ask. "What?"
"I see him holding you away from me while Idikos jerked me out of the room. I’ve never forgotten the hatred that burned in Father’s eyes as he glared at me. I had nightmares for years over that look. And now you tell me that he’s forgotten it." A muscle worked in his jaw. "Should I really believe you?"
No, he shouldn’t. I was lying, but I couldn’t ever let him know the truth. "One day you’re going to believe in me, Acheron."
"I hope so, Ryssa. I really do. I want to believe desperately, but I can’t afford to be disappointed again. I’m tired of it."
I watched as he turned away and left me standing there. He was so beautiful. Tall. Proud. In spite of everything, he still maintained a dignity I couldn’t fathom.
"I love you, Acheron," I whispered, wishing that I wasn’t the only one in my family who felt that way toward him.
Why couldn’t they see what I did?
And inside was the pain that knew just how right Acheron was. Sooner or later, our father would come. Should that day happen, Father would never forgive me for taking Acheron out of Atlantis. He would never forgive me for the lying letters I’d written about my whereabouts or the people I’d had Boraxis pay on his journey to fool him. I had no doubt that by now both Father and Estes were looking for us while Boraxis scouted a safe haven for Acheron in another country or kingdom.
But I was doing what I thought best for my brother. All I could hope for was that I could guarantee his freedom and happiness-to keep my promises to him. Once he was safely away, I’d return to Didymos and face my father and his wrath.
For Acheron, I would do anything, even jeopardize my own freedom. I only hoped that Boraxis returned before my father thought to search for us here.