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The Gift of Her Name

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When she dreams, it is often of the sea.

 

Impossible, of course. Irrational. Her star has not held a drop of water since long before Inanna was born. It took all the magic they have as a people to eke out a life, in their mighty domes. Another thousand years to make it bearable, and perhaps another thousand to make it beautiful. There was no sea in anyone’s living memory.

 

And yet, Inanna dreams.

 

Bright shafts of sun piercing the water, her eyes stinging with salt. The rising pressure in her chest as she pumps her arms and kicks her feet in the coolness. Long hair clouding up around her and skin blue in the streaming light.

 

It is native to her, the blood of the goddess who rose from the foam, impatiently shook out her golden hair, and went out to speak life to their world. Inanna fell asleep to the story: how the goddess played among the seas and mountains, beasts and trees. The first queen of heaven, and so, too, her daughters.

 

Aphrodite, baptized and enthroned – but that is not for her. Not anymore.

 

And yet, Inanna dreams.

 

 

“You are waiting for something,” she observes, just behind him.

 

If he noticed her approach, or was surprised by it, he gives no indication. “Yes – rain.”

 

“Rain,” Venus tastes the unfamiliar word. It’s likely she came across it in her diplomatic studies, but equally likely it was lost among all the other things she had to learn of Earth in a short time: its peoples, languages, wars. More mundanely, its inconveniences, which Venus has learned are myriad: bees and other violent beasts, and a seeming inability of Earth’s engineers to fashion sanitary latrines.

 

Wars, in this day and age – she hadn’t believed it until she saw proof.

 

Kunzite turns his head just into profile. The red sun has colored him all over, turned his pale hair and eyes the hue of blood. Before them, the desert spreads wide. 

 

“Are you going to ask?” his voice is deep, inexpressive, but she feels its warmth.

 

She laughs. “And just the other day you were saying I ask too many questions.”

 

“Many questions,” he corrects her. “Not too many.”

 

“I must put something in my reports to the Queen, you know,” she teases, still smiling. “You’re too trusting a teacher.”

 

She knows that in his youth, Kunzite had studied to be a priest. A lecturer. It is not difficult to imagine him leading discussion over books and ink, just as it is not surprising to see him here now, exhorting his men. He is armored head to toe and scarred where he is not. The sword in his sheath has seen action. She wonders if he misses that other life of quiet. Of innocence.

 

His eyelids dip in acknowledgment. If he’s troubled by how much she knows, he doesn’t show it. He says, in a lower tone: “I must be, with such an eager student.”

 

Oh. But Venus rallies. “There are some things I could teach you, too, you know.”

 

He turns to face her more fully. His gaze, assessing, makes her shiver. The buzz of power under her skin – she has not felt this for a lover in a very long time. If ever.

 

She tilts her head. “Are you going to ask?”

 

 

Earth is very different from her world, obviously. There is so much sky, it makes her dizzy to look for too long. Her tutors said that Venus was like that once.

 

Its people dizzy her, too, being so unlike each other as to come from different worlds altogether. There is no one ruler to impose sameness upon them, so they seem to either live happily or die unhappily for their differences, depending on who’s in charge. It’s chaos.

 

Days-old bodies she had to avert her eyes from – dead-eyed women – clinging children. Their casual brutality took getting used to.

 

Everywhere they go, she’s earnestly assured that their young Prince will change all this, and were she in a toying mood, she’d ask what will happen after their Prince dies, sixty or seventy circles around the sun from now.

 

But that is something she will never voice in Kunzite’s presence.

 

He, too, is different. Her people are witty and playful, social and fond of intrigue. Little dramas excite them – the inspired plucking of a harpstring, a thumb trailed over open décolletage, empty seats at the dinner couch. She is Venusian to her fingertips and her manners have been polished like soft gold. For this reason, she was chosen by the Moon queen to leave everything she knew. To be of use.

 

It is all wasted on him.

 

Kunzite is straight-backed, uninterested in fallibility. It would be disappointing if he were unable to appreciate her graces, dull if he were overawed by them. Instead, she has the sense that all her considerable gifts are picked up, examined, and gently put away, in wait of the real prize. 

 

Venus does not know, yet. What that might be.

 

 

For the number of times he’s repeated it, his tone is remarkably patient: “Your left is weaker than your right – ”

 

“Touch me again and I will remove your hand,” the lieutenant says in clipped tones, with no honorific. Her color is high and she is sweating in a wholly unseemly way. 

 

None of them much like being shown up by savages, Venus included, but she'd be a fool not to see what’s before her eyes. The men of Earth – no women, she thinks, because of course – make war all the time, while her own people have not taken up arms in centuries. Thankfully, they have magic. Something Earth will never have.

 

Kunzite holds up his hands. “If I have given offense – ” he sounds uncharacteristically uncertain. Unused to these games.

 

“You have not. Out of line, Ariadne,” she dismisses the other woman, already an afterthought as she brushes past. “Difficult as you may find it to believe, not everyone wants to touch you for the pleasure of it. No – you may not go.” The lieutenant had been turning to leave, her face fully pink. “Clearly this is a lesson you need to learn. I am happy to be taught, Lord Kunzite.” Venus meets his eyes.

 

Are you going to ask?

 

The little ring they’ve made of soldiers falls silent, save for a few excited mutterings. The grass in the middle has been flattened by their steps. She absently notes that it is dry and cracking, and the stark trees around them have been denuded by tall, gentle animals, which in turn have been eaten by starving, toothed beasts. All the predators are out, and she one of them, anticipating her prey under the hot sun. The thought makes her smile.

 

“You are used to feinting in this direction,” Kunzite says after a pause, as though nothing untoward had occurred. He moves behind her. Like this, she’s better able to hear the serrated edge in his voice that was absent before. “It leaves this – ” he presses his palm to the lower left of her abdomen, “ – exposed to attack.”

 

Venus nods politely. His hand, broad and flat over her belly, makes her burn. 

 

“I would suggest that you compensate so – ” Kunzite still sounds the teacher, well within his comfort zone. Venus senses that otherwise, he has to consider what to say and do around her, whereas she hardly considers at all. It is not recklessness, only that she is a political animal. Born to think in curvature.

 

She wants to push him, just a bit. Make him react to her, as she reacts to him. “What if I…” she begins, smiling, and puts her hand over his. A flash of bright starfire, concealed by her other arm so their troops cannot see. 

 

He barely suppresses a pained grunt, fingers convulsing over her hip. There will be a bruise, come tomorrow.

 

But he says nothing, so she twists around to see his expression. There is a crease in Kunzite's brow that is easily read, though not so easily understood. Not pain or irritation.

 

He is fighting his want.

 

His grip on her is still tight. Venus does nothing to escape, not really caring that their semi-embrace has gone on long enough to be awkward. She wants to see what he will do. Why he denies himself as reflex.

 

As though he hears her thoughts, he lets her go all at once, like a sprung latch. Like she's burning him. Perhaps she is. 

 

Venus turns around, within his armspan. The furrow is still there, and she imagines no one has really trained him to hide that expression of slight bewilderment. She watches his face slowly sharpen, back into controlled focus. 

 

He looks at her like he’s seeing her for the first time. Perhaps he is. 

 

 

From what she understands of the Golden Kingdom’s priesthood, there is a great deal that Kunzite would have given up for those vows. His born rank of Middle Eastern king, for one (which seems to matter less to him than dirt under his boots). All his long hair, which would have really been a shame (a true, pure white, albeit coarser than hers). Wine (an Earthly agricultural triumph of which she greatly approves). Sex, and so obviously, children (for the best).

 

She cannot tell if Kunzite chose priesthood because self-denial was already his nature, or if years of studying made him this way. What she can tell is that he views his own desires with suspicion. 

 

As little as he has said of his days at university, it’s clear he found joy in his studies. The mental rigor, the taxation of discipline. He’d thought there could be nothing greater than to prostrate himself before the gods, to donate his life to their service. And yet all of this was nothing – raindrops in the sea – compared to his devotion to the Prince.

 

Of this, he has said nothing. He does not need to.

 

They had met in that final year before Kunzite was to assume the priesthood. The connection between them had been searing, immediate. To take his vows became unthinkable. And the physical affair may have ended (he does not say who ended it, but it is plain enough), but the love will remain in his bones until he turns to dust (which he does not say either, but this, too, is painfully obvious).

 

From all he has said and not-said, Venus gathers – when he wants, when he loves, when he chooses – he is incapable of reserve. 

 

It’s madness, she thinks uneasily. Like pulling water into his lungs.

 

She knows herself. All she wants – will ever want – is to dip her feet.

 

 

When they make love for the first time, it’s before they have even really kissed. It’s not surprising that Kunzite’s desires are like an arrow from the bow, once she’s strung it.

 

Venus senses that he has not done this much before. Not that it’s his first experience, or his only time with a woman (although she guesses she can count those times on a hand). But he brings to it a certain grave trust, a sobriety she is unused to. It’s not transactional and she can’t make it so.

 

“Just...” she gasps, gripping his hair down to the scalp. “To the…” but he has already shifted his tongue on her cunt, stubble on her thigh. Venusians never keep facial hair; the scratch of it arouses her beyond reason. 

 

She has had both skill and zeal in past lovers. But he learns her with single-mindedness, gripping the curve of her bottom with both hands, nails making half-moons in her flesh, licking into her with enough roughness.

 

After she has cried out her release, breathless, she pulls him up over her. 

 

Kunzite is a big man, all broad shoulders and wide chest, but still she flips him, bracketing his hips with her calves. Every part of him is tight as rope. His dark, taut face watches her in silence as she runs palms up his sides, biceps, forearms. There she grips him, slender fingers squeezing thick bone, as she sinks down. Through the staccato of her pleasure, she feels the tension in his muscles. The effort it takes him not to rise up. 

 

“Good, oh, yes, you’re so good,” she babbles, hardly aware of what she’s saying.

 

He groans at that, long and helpless, stiffening. His wrists pinned to the bed, obedient to her, whitening under his deep skin. Venus brings him off like this, clenches around him until he can’t hold out any longer. His face in the firelight is snarling and uninhibited. He is a powerful man, in those moments, made entirely hers.

 

 

She dreams again of what she has never seen. The sea all around her, inside her, so she can’t breathe. The golden crown of Aphrodite on her head, tangled in her hair, bearing her down. But she can’t part with it. She can’t.

 

Venus wakes with a violent start, eyes flying open. 

 

It takes her a moment to realize where she is – her lungs sucking in air – his hands grasping her arms – she is chattering in her native tongue – he is soothing her in his. 

 

In her own home, she would've had the right to order him outside, and moreover, any Venusian wouldn’t need to be told to avert his eyes – she's horrified at her own ridiculous display but it doesn’t seem to faze Kunzite in the slightest.

 

“Come to sleep,” he says over and over, as if to a child, attaching endearments she doesn’t understand and he likely doesn’t mean. “Love, it was only a dream.”

 

Gradually, his voice pulls her back down into the bed. Before Venus succumbs, in the disjointed spaces between wakefulness and sleep, she thinks this:

 

She wishes she could tell him that it was the dream she craved, and the waking that hurt her. 

 

She wishes she knew that were true.

 

 

Venus doesn’t question the rightness of her service to the Queen. It was the best decision she could have made in service of her people. With the Moon’s limitless strength at her back, she’s capable of wielding far more power off her planet than on it. The Queen’s ear is hers; so too will be that of the Princess, when she’s of age. No better leverage, no choicer seat.

 

She thinks of the young Princess with affection, perhaps more than she’d like to admit. The people of the Moon mature slowly, compared to her own. But the girl has within her – grace.

 

Still, sometimes it catches her unexpectedly, a tug on her memory like a thorn caught on her dress. Watching the girl try (and fail) to study languages, arts, mathematics, poetry. Seeing her at the side of the Queen, where she’s intended to learn statecraft but daydreams instead. She is sweet, happy, openhearted – but what will that gain her? Her mother is indulgent, saying only that it will take time.

 

The Princess is being reared to rule a territory millions of times larger, more diverse, greater in complexity – than a single planet. And she will never be asked to give it up.

 

Venus bites her tongue until it bleeds, as she is so proficient in doing. She tells the Princess only that she is a lucky girl.

 

  

To this point, their little joint party has scouted from water to water, desert to plains; now, the water finally comes to them. 

 

Venus has to marvel at the confiding faith of these people: that rain will fall, that rivers will swell. That life will go on without their intervention. Water on her star is summoned, not prayed for.

 

Under a rocky outcrop, they are shielded from the downpour. There’s more flora here than she’s seen anywhere on Earth so far – low scrub, bursts of grass, thorned bushes – but she’s told there are other faraway places where the trees rise higher than towers. Tall monasteries of dark, silent green. Someday, she thinks, she’ll see them.

 

So this is rain. Venus puts out a hand and immediately withdraws it. Lets a little drip into her mouth, suspicious, but it tastes like nothing at all. She turns her head, lying as she is on a bed of stone.  “How long does it go on? Where does it come from?”

 

He’s amused, but circumspect about showing it for her sake. “It comes from the sea, which we're nearing. As for how long it goes on – it could be hours, or weeks, or months. Usually not long enough. At least where I am from.” 

 

“From the desert, isn’t that right?”

 

He nods, eyes drifting shut without dispensation. Last night had gone…late. “Some years there was no rain at all. We could bathe with a single cup of water when we were small, if necessary.” A pause; his expression is almost imperceptibly put-out, like a muscle memory. “My sister claimed most of it.”

 

"Really?" Her skepticism shows. "In a royal house?"

 

"A leader should be strong enough to share the fate of his people," he answers implacably.

 

She tries to imagine him as a grimy princeling, squabbling with a sister at bathtime. A would-be priest, defying his rank. Someone with attachments and responsibilities, other than his liege. To look at him, speak to him, one would think he emerged into the world fully formed for one exacting purpose. But of course, this isn’t true.

 

Inexplicably, it saddens her.

 

Perhaps it’s because the rain has gone on for an hour, and the silence has grown comfortable. Because of the way he looks lying beside her, his face unguarded and boyish as she’s seen it. The creases in his forehead will never go – lacking vanity and unslowed age ensure it – but she’s noticed that they deepen or shallow, depending on his strain. Today, they are hardly there at all. Foreign to her as they are, Venus finds them beautiful.

 

Perhaps it’s because she can hear – she thinks – the distant murmur of the sea.

 

“Don't you ever think of it?" she asks.

  

She doesn’t bother to elaborate, knowing he will take her meaning.

 

Beside her, his eyes open. They train on the crag directly above them, without focusing on it. She can see that he is giving her question thought.

 

Beyond their shelter, rain strikes the earth in a shower of bright-tipped arrows. The sky they fall from has the same cold purity as his eyes, clear as a new blade. A smell of wet stone fills the air, unaccustomed and austere.

 

"I don't find it useful," he answers, finally. To her mind, Kunzite sounds solemn, almost doctrinal, as if speaking in symposium with his students. "Those lives belong to someone else now. I chose this one."

 

"I see," she says lightly, trying to keep the disappointment from her tone.

 

He turns to his side, rises to one elbow. Looks down at her. His free hand twines absently in her hair. It's slightly damp, dull-gleaming gold. In this bleak light, his lean, spare features approach something like softness.

 

"And you?" His voice is oddly gentle.

 

Rather than lie, Venus chooses her words carefully. Always more of a challenge, that. "I am who I am. It's far too late to become someone else." Her smile is razor-edged. "Particularly when I'm so good at being me."

 

She laces Kunzite's fingers with hers, presses her lips to his knuckles, blunts the bite of her words with affection. It's not what he asked, of course, but he won't press her further. He believes trust is a gift to the deserving, not a prize taken by force. He is very different from her.

 

"That you are," he agrees, simply.

 

Unabated, the rain goes on.

 

...

 

Often, the jewel of that other life turns round and round in her mind, its facets catching the light.

 

It is a fixed point, growing further and further away with time. She would have held her first hall of justice. She would have struck a subtle balance for her home, caught as ever between the Moon's play and the Earth's demands. She would have kept the peace, listened to all sides, sought and kept good counsel. She would have presided over a glittering court, patronized players and dancers. She would have taken a powerful lover, made a princess or two to show to the people and then pass to the nurses and tutors. And then another lover, just for her own pleasure.

 

It’s all she was trained for. Everything inside of her was made to be a queen: her education, her ability, her ambition. 

 

Venus does not care for false modesty. This she knows of herself: she would have made a brilliant Aphrodite.

 

 

They arrive at the coast by nightfall.

 

The dream comes to her again, leaving her staring rigidly into the depths before dawn.

 

Venus slips out of bed, out of the tent altogether. 

 

 

She is moving quickly and soundlessly through the scattered thickets of trees braced against the sea. Her eyes are wide open, but still she can't grasp the enormity of it. It spreads in every direction, to the ends of the Earth. What was a murmur a few leagues distant is now a deafening roar, filling her ears with continuous noise.

 

Venus looks down. The ground is not soft. Studded with rocks fined to points by the sea and broken shells. There are still creatures in some of them, digging vicious little claws into the sand, knowing by rote their way home.

 

Biting the inside of her cheek, she toes off her boots. Her thin linen shift follows, a heap in the slick kelp. The gold at her throat and wrists and ankles, she keeps.

 

The new Moon is wan and pale; only the stars wash the thin strip of beach in indistinct light. Venus licks her lips, tasting dried salt. The smell of the air is strange. Anticipatory. Almost offensively alive.

 

Without awareness, her feet are already in the water, foam rushing over her toes. Her own gasp startles her; everything – her tightening nipples, fine hairs on her limbs – prickles painfully from the cold.

 

Venus moves forward, impelled. When the floor under her feet gives way, she pulls air in, cuts a few decisive strokes with her arms, kicks out hard with her legs. Her body floats, swims, survives. As if by instinct. She doesn't look back, though she feels the shore grow far. Filling her lungs again, she pushes herself underwater, forces her eyes open. 

 

Darkness, entire. She has never been surrounded by water like this.

 

Her hair swirls around her like a creature of this deep, brushes sinuous fingers over her arms and legs. She swims down further, wanting to press her palms to the Earth. Holds her breath as long as she can and searches the vast nothing. Fire builds in her chest. The pressure around her, inside her, is almost pleasurable.

 

When she finally breaks the surface again, hair flying in a long arc, a whip striking her naked back –

 

He is idling in the water, sedate, only a few armspans away.

 

His eyes on her are sharp – glittering. But he says nothing.

 

Venus has no idea what he is thinking.

 

How long has he been there? She answers her own question with another. How long was she under? They are out far enough that the night-dark sea is tranquil, great currents gliding beneath them like the backs of snakes.

 

It had not occurred to her to be frightened.

  

"On V – where I am from – " she doesn't know where the words come from, hissed out between her chattering teeth. " – queens were baptized in the sea. For – for the goddess."

 

He regards her with absolute calm, as though she’s making sense. "Aphrodite.”

 

She nods, though it's doubtful he can see it. They bob up and down in the water, buoyed like toys by the depths below them.

 

Every part of her feels like ice, which makes the heat on her cheeks all the more puzzling. Venus prods with numb fingers under her eyes, belatedly recognizing that they are streaming tears. "We – there is no sea anymore," she tells him, suddenly furious with herself. She squeezes her eyes shut in an effort to stanch the scalding flow. “And even if there were – ” the sentence refuses to complete itself.

 

Kunzite's voice lifts over the booming tide with ease. Perhaps he’s just come closer. "You have never told me your name."

 

The fatigue of her swim, of the months that have passed, of the years before that – all this slams into her bodily, a wave. Her next inhale comes in a hitching sob. More follow, fits and hiccups. Every part of her is wracked by their violence, until she is nearly choking on seawater.

 

A detached part of Venus witnesses this latest scene with contempt. She is behaving like a fool, but there is nothing left of her precision, not even a semblance of control she can seize.

 

When was her name last spoken?

 

She becomes aware of a hand cradling the back of her skull, another pulling up under her knees, as though she is an infant. It is unnecessary; drowning was never a possibility. She does not push him away.

 

Like that they tread water. It might have minutes, or hours. After a time, the spasms give way to stillness, her body too tired to go on. Everything has been wrung from her; she cannot even feel shame.

 

 

"We would come here." It takes her a moment, fatigued as she is, to understand whom he’s referring to. The strain in his voice finally opens her eyes. Up close, he looks wearier than she feels, if even possible. "Before, we..."

 

Quiet, lightheaded with cold and exhaustion, she waits.

 

Kunzite’s gaze is remote, on another faraway shore. The words emerge deliberately, but with certainty. "If things had not...ended as they did, I would have ended them. Nothing else was possible. He will be King, and I...I must be of use."

 

You are more, she thinks, but holds it in.

 

He breathes sharply; his jaw works hard. "I must have clear eyes. He needs that most, from me."

 

Venus levers herself upright, her cold hands taking his. Instinctively, she presses her nakedness to him, chilled skin to skin. Only a sliver of daylight between them. Even this, she would blot out. To protect him from what, she does not know. Perhaps herself.

 

He looks down at her. His face is profoundly shadowed, eyes flashing silver from their recesses.

 

"I do think of it." His fingers flex around hers, almost convulsive. "But I do not regret it. Or where it has led me."

 

As she stares back at him, mute, her thoughts wind together, one coalescing into the other. Two schoolboys and nothing more than that, chasing each other down a deserted coast. A girl signing over her birthright, without pause or comprehension. Their choices were made for them. But no, they had chosen. They had chosen over and over, in the years since. They will choose again. Here and now.

  

In the silence, the sea laps gently at their bodies, bears their weight with equanimity. Like this, she could almost be lulled to close her eyes and let it take her. She has grown accustomed to the way the water flows into their loosely cupped, wet-wrinkled palms, just as she has grown used to how it ebbs away through their fingers.

 

There has been nothing Venus has wanted that she has not first imagined losing. She has never been afraid of desire, chained tightly as it is to her fist.

 

But floating here, in his embrace and not, a wish has formed inside her, forbidden.

 

Behind him, the horizon line grows bright, and the sky softens into blue. She notices, without meaning to, the morning star hung there like a pale beacon of fire. It flickers once, and then is gone from view.

 

"Inanna," she tells him, and savors (with sharp, strange pleasure) the new taste of fear.

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