The orchard was so beautiful, peaceful. The leaves were a bright, breathtaking green that was punctuated by the red and golden apples that burst with sweet, succulent taste. Even the old, stone walls were tranquil, draped with flowering vines. No wonder Acheron prefers it to any other place at the palace. The summer air was fresh and warm and I could spend hours watching the way Acheron enjoys the simplest of things such as the sensation of sunlight on his skin. Grass beneath his bare feet. Of course, his life held far too little of either one. How I wish I could have given him another life. A better one. The life he deserved where no one had ever hurt him for things he couldn’t help. Where people could see in him all the beauty that I see and know what a truly gentle soul he has. He’s not the monster they fear. He’s just a boy in need of a good home and parents to love him in spite of his abnormalities.
As I watched him inhale the scent of an apple before he added it to the bunch he’d picked, I was struck with how much he had changed these few months. For once, he reminded me of a youthful fourteen-year-old boy and not a jaded, used up old man.
He had learned to finally trust me. To trust in the fact that here he was safe and secure. That no one here feared him. He could be himself without being obsequious or afraid of being grabbed or hurt.
Oh the pain I feel whenever I think of his life in Atlantis. How could our Uncle have treated him that way? I can still see Acheron held in chains. See the shallow emptiness that was there in his eyes the first time he looked at me when he had no idea who I was. Who he was.
I might have failed him earlier, but I vowed I would not fail him again. Here, he knows peace and happiness. Here, I will try my best to keep him far way from the world that cannot understand or abide him. While he picked the apples, he reminded me of the squirrel as he jumped from tree to tree, gathering his treasure. He was such a handsome boy. In my heart I know that he and Styxx are twins, and yet as I watched him, I was struck by their differences. Acheron moved much more gracefully. Fluidly. He was leaner, his hair a tad more golden, his muscles more defined. His skin softer. And those eyes... They were beguiling and terrifying.
After he was done, he brought his treasure to me and laid it out in a circle so that I could choose which apples I wanted first. He was always considerate that way. Thinking of others before himself. But then they had trained him that way. In Atlantis, Acheron had no will of his own. He had existed there as an animal who was only abused for the entertainment of others.
“Do you think Father will come and visit soon?” he asked as he lay on his side, watching me eat my apple. I could sense that he was probing me to see if I were lying. His silvery, swirling eyes were so disturbing whenever he held that gimlet stare. No wonder Uncle beat him for looking at people. It was so disconcerting and even frightening to be under such bold scrutiny. But he didn’t deserve to be hit for something he couldn’t help.
“He will come when he can.”
He looked away, disappointed as he toyed with his own apple. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep up my lying to both of them. Father thought I was here alone and that I wanted time to myself before my coming marriage. Acheron had no idea that I was keeping his presence here a secret and that I lived daily in fear of our discovery.
Wanting to soothe and reassure him, I reached out to brush his golden hair out of his eyes. He stiffened ever so slightly as a remnant of the boy I had found in Atlantis. I withdrew my hand from him which caused him relax instantly.
“Is that the tenderness of true affection you spoke of?” he asked me in hesitant voice. “The one where people who love you, touch you without asking for anything in return?” “Yes,” I answered. He smiled at me, open and honestly like a child. “I think I like it.”
And it was then that I heard something that made my heart stop beating. There were footsteps drawing near. I knew there shouldn’t be any such sound in our temporary paradise. The servants wouldn’t venture here while the two of us were picking apples. They knew better than to disturb the royal family. Only one person would come.
And I knew it was Father the instant Acheron sat up, his face overjoyed. I closed my eyes and ached in terror as I forced myself to stand and turn around to confront him. His face angry Father stood between the old stone columns that marked the opening of the orchard with Styxx by his side. My blood froze in my veins. I wanted to tell Acheron to run and hide, but it was too late. They were already too close.
“Father,” I said quietly. “Why are you here?”
“Where have you been?” he demanded as he moved forward. “It is already the middle of the year and no one has seen you.”
“I told you, I wanted time—”
“Father?” Acheron’s excited voice filled my ears. This was the first time the boy had ever seen him. Up until now, Acheron had held no real idea of what Father had looked like. Horrified, I watched him run to embrace his father. Unlike Acheron, I knew what reception he would receive. True to my fear, Father shoved him away ruthlessly and raked him with a repugnant grimace. Acheron frowned in confusion as he looked to me for an explanation. I couldn’t speak. How could I tell him that I had lied to him when all I had wanted was to make his life better? “What is he doing here?” Father demanded. I opened my mouth to explain, but was distracted by the way the twins studied each other. I was held entranced by their mutual curiosity. Even though each of them knew the other existed, they hadn’t been together in over a decade. Neither of them really remembered what it was like to see and interact with the other one. Joy was etched on Acheron’s face. I could tell he wanted to embrace Styxx, but after Father’s reception was hesitant. Styxx looked less than enthusiastic. He stared at Acheron as if he were a bad dream made real.
“Guards!” Father shouted.
“What are you doing?” I asked, unable to comprehend why my father would summon guards for his own son. “I’m sending him back where he belongs.”
Acheron’s jaw went slack. My heart thumped wildly in fear of his being taken back there. “You can’t do that.” Father turned on me with a hateful glare. “Have you lost your mind, woman? Why would you coddle such a monster?”
“Father, please,” Acheron begged, falling down on his knees before him. He wrapped his arms around Father’s leg as his eyes filled with tears. “Please don’t send me back. I’ll do anything you ask. I swear it. I’ll be good. I won’t look at anyone. I won’t hurt anyone. I swear.”
“I am not your father, maggot,” Father said cruelly as he kicked Acheron away. He turned on me with venom. “I told you, he doesn’t belong to this family. Those are not my eyes. Those are not the eyes of a human!”
“Styxx,” I said, knowing if I could win him to my cause, he could sway Father’s opinion of Acheron. “He’s your brother. Look at him.”
Styxx shook his head. “I have no brother.”Related: