“So?” said Ava, crossing her arms. “He likes me, and I like him. I don’t see the problem.”
How Ava could look at Ella’s face and not cower, I had no idea. But Ava was going to be Ava no matter how long Ella glared at her.
“If you hurt him, I will hunt you down and kill you all over again, and this time I’ll make sure you won’t have some pretty little afterlife to come back to,” snarled Ella.
I opened my mouth to tell Ella exactly what was going to happen if she even tried, but Ava cut in before I had the chance. “And what if he hurts me?”
“Then I’m sure you’d have done something to deserve it.”
From then on out, Ava and Ella could barely stand to be in the same room together. I couldn’t blame them.
Slowly I adjusted to my new reality, and Henry was right. Once I accepted that maybe this all wasn’t just one big crazy joke, things got much easier, and I didn’t constantly exhaust myself trying to rationalize the incomprehensible.
While I still didn’t like the idea of the guards or Calliope testing my food—a job which Ella strongly encouraged Ava to take over—pretending I was stuck in the eighteenth century helped me come to terms with everything that was happening around me, with the exception of my strange relationship with Henry. As the weeks passed, the evening quickly became my favorite part of the day, aided by the fact that I didn’t have to listen to Ella and Ava bicker all the time. We talked about what I’d done that day, though even when he tried to distract me, it never escaped my attention that we never talked about how his day had gone. I taught him how to play my favorite card games, and he seemed to enjoy learning, asking me polite questions and not interrupting my rambling responses. Sometimes I worked up the courage to ask him questions as well, which he would answer vaguely, if at all. He still refused to tell me what the tests were, but to his credit, he seemed eager to keep me as comfortable as possible.
Everything about my day was timed. Half an hour for breakfast, which was always full of my favorite foods. I didn’t gain weight, and that only gave me an excuse to eat as much as I wanted. After breakfast, I had five hours of lessons, where I studied mythology, art, theology, astronomy—anything Irene thought I needed to know. Daydreaming wasn’t an option either, being her only student, and she seemed to develop a distinct lack of compassion about what I was and wasn’t interested in learning. Still, there was one plus: at least Calculus wasn’t on the curriculum.
We spent an inordinate amount of time on the Olympians, the Greek gods who ruled the universe and who would decide my fate.
“Most people typically think there were only twelve,” said Irene. “But if you look carefully throughout history, there are fourteen.”
The significance of that number wasn’t lost on me. Fourteen Olympians and fourteen thrones. They would be the ones deciding my fate, and because of that, I paid extra attention to my lessons about them, as if knowing everything I could would somehow give me a leg up.
I learned about Zeus and Hera and their children; the children Zeus fathered with other women, as well as Athena, who sprang fully-grown from his head; about Demeter and her daughter, Persephone; and about the role Hades played. This was Henry, as my mother had mentioned, and it was strange to balance mythology with the knowledge that to these people, this was history. That apparently Henry had really done all these things. But the more I learned, the easier it became to accept it, and once Irene was sure I knew as much as I could about the members of the council, we moved on to other myths. But the Olympians were always present in those stories, too, and it did nothing to help calm my nerves.
In the afternoons, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted. Sometimes I stayed inside and read or spent time with Ava, and sometimes I went outside and explored the grounds. Past the edge of the elaborate garden was a forest that grew wild, and it extended through the other end of the property, hiding the river I knew was back there. I stayed within eyesight of the manor, not wanting to get anywhere near the water. I’d had enough excitement there to hold me for a very long time.
At the end of October, I ran across Phillip, head of the stables. He was a brusque man who didn’t speak very often, and his hair was wild, making him look intimidating, but he seemed passionate about his horses.
“Horses have as much personality in them as people,” he said gruffly as he introduced me to the fifteen horses in the stables. “If you don’t connect with any of them, don’t try to force it. S’like forcing a friendship–awkward and useless, and it’ll make both of you miserable. Long as you remember that, you should be all right.”
His stallions were powerful and fast, and with my luck I’d have fallen and broken something, so even though I liked spending time grooming them, I never asked to ride them. At first Phillip refused to let me anywhere near them with a brush, but I didn’t take it too personally. He didn’t let anyone near them; even allowing me inside the stables to see them was more than Ava got. On my third attempt, however, he grudgingly gave me permission to help groom them, as long as he was supervising. I had a sneaking suspicion Henry had something to do with his change of heart, but I didn’t ask. For the rest of the autumn, it was how I spent my afternoons, and though the weather grew colder, it remained warm in the stables.
As the weeks passed, I grew more and more comfortable in my new home. The rest of the staff stopped staring as I went by, and slowly we all got used to one another. It was almost peaceful, with my days spent with Irene, my afternoons with Phillip and Ava, and my evenings with Henry. And my nights— I lived for my nights, when I told my mother everything that was happening, and she was there to listen. Past the hedges, she was dying, but inside my dreams, she was still very much alive, and I wanted to keep her that way as long as possible. I knew I wouldn’t be able to escape the dark reality waiting for me once this was over, but for now, I could pretend that living in Eden meant remaining untouched by the real world.