Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
A Centaur's Tail, Part One
PROLOGUE (Excerpted from the end of Liaisons Ridiculeuses, Part Five)
Just, something to get, whatever it was out of her system. Whatever it was that drew her feet and her gaze to Amphipolis repeatedly, even when she should have been thinking about something else. Whatever it was that led her to beat Ares senseless when he suggested that maybe he would go bed the woman, just to spite her. Whatever it was that led her to sitting on a rocky point on her island of Aretias, aching to have a woman she knew damned well was already married. Whatever it was.
And now she was standing in front of the bulk of the inn, in very different clothing from anything she had worn here before. No one knew her, and it was no wonder. No parti-coloured juggler's gear now. Instead, black leathers and solid armour that gleamed a metallic night sky blue. A long cloak curled about her ankles, and whispered in the wind. Artemis' pale eyes gleamed almost completely silver in the moonlight, and she looked like nothing so much as a hungry wolf. Which she knew, and that wouldn't do, would it?
So she stabled her mare, and pulled out her pack, and exchanged armour, cloak, and leathers for wool trousers and tunic, although she kept her boots. Under the tunic was a white linen shirt, only its collar and cuffs visible, marking a sharp contrast to the black wool and its blue trim. Three earrings in one ear, and the careful removal of every weapon she usually wore, and Artemis felt all but naked. A few moments thought, and then she sighed. Wearing armour to ward off painful truths was irrational, but it did seem to work.
A quiet walk to the front of the inn, and now eyes were lighting on her, not only with surprise or admiration, but recognition.
"She's back again!"
"What's Admetus here for this time, I wonder?"
"Why don't she stay, that's what I'm wonderin'. Atrius'll never come back."
Once inside the inn door, Artemis took a deep breath. "By my teeth – I've gotta snap out of this, you'd think I was going to the gallows – and it's not even the right time of year." she muttered. Boosting a hip onto a bar stool, she ran long fingers over the polished wood, brushing away water marks and nicks. An exquisitely minor miracle, homely almost. She laughed softly. Now that was better.
"Tell me, what's a gorgeous woman like you doing in a rotten place like this?" Cyrene grinned at the Goddess, and poured her a mug of ale.
"Being rotten, mostly." Artemis replied, grinning in her turn.
"Oh, I can't believe that – gorgeous women are never rotten. Foolhardy on occasion, maybe." Cyrene leaned closer. She had made up her mind. Admetus was going to tell her who and what she actually was, and why she was here again. After that, Cyrene had a few things of her own to deal with. All risky. Admetus wasn't the only foolhardy one tonight.
"Foolhardy. Well, I don't think I have ever been that before. I'm not entirely sure I like it."
"Nobody likes it. Sometimes you have to be foolhardy anyway. It's like gambling."
"Yes, aren't you?"
A long silence. "I always gamble, and I always win."
"But this time you think you'll lose." Cyrene refilled her mug.
"What! No – why would you suggest such a thing?"
"Because Admetus, if we beat around the bush much longer, there will be no leaves left on it." Cyrene chuckled wryly. "Come into the kitchen, I think we need privacy."
Artemis rose slowly to her feet, and followed the innkeeper. "I do not beat around the bush." she muttered sulkily, picking the ludicrous to go on about rather than the obvious and glaring into her mug. Cyrene laughed softly, and bumped her with one hip.
"Quit, I think this is supposed to be serious, even though other times I prefer your comedy."
"Oh, all right – if you want." Artemis hesitated. Where to start, when as far as she could see there were a thousand possible beginnings – and one rear end, which was incredibly distracting. She took a long breath, watching Cyrene as she closed the doors and made sure there would be no unwanted interruptions.
"I'll start – Admetus, why are you here?"
"Ummm..." Damn, that was the key question, and she couldn't explain that one. Artemis cleared her throat. "I – came – to – well, I mean..." 'I knew it, I knew it, I knew I should have written a speech!' she chided herself mentally. 'At least then I could beg off for medical reasons – terrible papercut, Cyrene, I think it needs a healer...'
Cyrene raised an eyebrow. Okay. Time for the big crossbows. "Right, you're wasting my time. Get out of my kitchen!" Artemis' eyes got round. That had come from somewhere in right field. She struggled to say something, anything, which of course just made matters worse. "Some days, the things I have to put up with from people..." Cyrene stomped up to the Goddess, and seeing that she had finally trumped both Admetus' reserve and her guard, slipped both arms around her waist and kissed her.
Quite awhile later, Cyrene let her go, and stepped back. "Well, that answered my question." Artemis opened and shut her mouth a couple of times in disbelief. It felt like Cyrene had given her an electric shock with her lips.
'Now how am I supposed to talk! You've stunned my mouth senseless! What if I start drooling!' She took a stunned step back, and bumped into the counter. She leaned back, trying to catch her breath and her equilibrium, which was running around in little circles, yelling happily. "Your question?" Admetus croaked.
"Mmmhmmm – at some ridiculous point in our very short acquaintance, at the very least I've fallen quite seriously in lust with you."
"Oh." What did you say to that? Me too? It might be true, but would you say it?
"That being the case, could you at least tell me who you really are?"
Oh, horse shit. Sometimes perceptive mortals were a real pain in the butt, and the heart, Artemis thought to herself, and jerked in surprise. "Okay..." she said finally, sitting on the counter. "I didn't expect this to happen, at all – usually – I mean – this – usually, I avoid this."
"Then it's like a guided arrow, I'm afraid." Cyrene smiled ruefully.
"Heh – yeah, I guess it is, huh?" Artemis took a breath. "I'm a Goddess." Cyrene nodded. That didn't surprise her too much. She had watched the phenomena of disappearing water rings and hunks and scratches from her tables and bar. "Artemis, mortals usually call me." The innkeeper sat down slowly in a chair, head spinning a bit in spite of herself.
"I kept telling myself, I shouldn't – I shouldn't come back, but I did anyway – it's the full Moon, sometimes it gets to me – look, I can just..."
"No," Cyrene interrupted. "No, you can't. It's not just you, now. We've got to think, both of us."
"I know." Artemis sighed. "I just don't like what I think. It all leads to the same spot, and there's no honest way among people like yours now, to do that."
Cyrene laughed sadly. Poor Artie was beating around the bush again, and this one represented her absentee husband, who was off drinking and whoring somewhere, never giving a thought to the woman he married, or the son he had. And she couldn't see a way out of that, yet. But there was one thing she could see.
"Why should he have all the fun?"
Artemis blinked at her in confusion. "You heard me, why should he have all the fun?" Oh – oh, that was a different story.
"Look, I'll just – go. I shouldn't have come around. My head must be back at Aretias. Yeah – ummm. – see yah." Artemis turned, her hands automatically grabbing something she almost knocked over, then mechanically tucking it under her arm. "Here I go." she smiled weakly, and headed for the door.
"Where are you going with that pot of stew?"
"Stew? What?" Artemis looked at the crook of her arm, and stared in confusion at the pot she had wound up with. "Ummm..."
'Ooooooh, Gaea and Rhea and Cybele help me!' Artemis groaned inwardly, as entirely the wrong sort of hunger came to mind.
"Artie, are you asking me for a pity pass?" Cyrene grinned broadly. Artemis laughed.
"Yeah, I guess I am."
"Put that pot down, and I'll help you with those hunger pangs."
"We can have one night. It isn't going to hurt anyone." Logically speaking, Artemis knew she should say no. This wasn't the sort of thing she did. She was a rock, like at Aretias, like her statues in a thousand temples, and nothing, nothing touched her. But logic is rarely the foremost quality of a comedienne. So she set down the pot, tangled her fingers with Cyrene's, and let the innkeeper lead the way, to many places.
"What about this one?"
"No, no – the colour is all wrong – it's a nice colour, but, it just doesn't work."
A few moments of astounded silence. "It's white."
"So? Look, let's paint it something else."
"Goddess – Mache, I haven't even built the damned addition yet."
"Which brings up another good point – do you intend to do that before the baby is born, or afterwards?" Eumache grinned broadly, and ran a gentle thumb over Thraso's reddened cheeks.
"Before, of course..." Thraso sighed. "It's just so hard to take in."
Eumache smiled, and clasping her lover's hand gently settled it over her swelling stomach. "I suppose I do have an advantage, being as I'm the pregnant one – then again, you've never snored before. I'm sure that has something to do with it."
"I've been to the healer's and everything. She says I've got no allergies, and I don't drink enough to explain it. You know what she DID say?" Thraso sat up completely and turned around on the bed, expression suddenly quite animated. "She said, that snoring is supposed to make such a racket that intruders stay away, thinking there's some kind of wild beast guarding the door! I've never been so insulted!"
Eumache giggled helplessly. Thraso's sense of personal dignity could be a bit unpredictable anyway, but since she had gotten pregnant, some of the weaponmaster's reactions were comically extreme. The healer had advised her that partners as close as she and Thraso were tended to share a bit of the emotional riots that pregnant women could experience, due to shared exhaustion if nothing else. The healer had been doubly pleased with Eumache's pregnancy when she saw that her increased appetite had finally gotten Thraso eating enough to replace weight she had lost before she had gone travelling. That was a definite relief, because between that and Thraso's snoring, the healer had begun to quietly watch for signs of the Egyptian lung sickness, which was incurable and almost always deadly.
That thought caused her to squirm forward and wrap her arms tightly about her lover, squeezing until Thraso grunted a bit. "As soon as I find a way to sleep through it, I will be happy to brag about my significant other who scares away the nefarious by her breathing alone." She grinned up into Thraso's pale eyes, seeing the outrage seep out of them and turn clear and happy again.
"Okay." A pause. "Well, we had better get up. Tharjon is taking care of my classes for the next few days, giving me time to get a start on that addition. What are you up to today?"
"Council this, council that, council blah blah – then Queen Prothoë wants to talk to me. I think it's the official, 'thank you for helping add to the Nation' speech. Which I wish was the 'Congratulations, we're all very happy for you' speech." Eumache sighed a little, and tugged gently at the edge of Thraso's sleep shirt.
"I do understand, Mache – but, it's not because Queen Prothoë doesn't think that. She takes all the protocols of the tribe very seriously, and changing them makes her very uncomfortable." Thraso unconsciously played with her lover's hair, gently pulling the tangles out and arranging it behind Eumache's head.
"Hmmm – so why is she such a set of stuffed leathers, anyway?" Maybe, just maybe, Eumache reflected, she could get Thraso into storytelling mode – and win herself an extra candlemark or so of cuddling. As far as Eumache was concerned, being a weaponmaster was one more reason to insist on cuddling time, what with all the bumps and bruises that profession entailed.
Thraso smiled indulgently, seeing exactly what was in the wind. Leaning back against the headboard, she pulled Eumache a bit closer and crossed her legs, relieved to feel no pain from her back, which had stayed naggingly sore well after Callisto and Ephiny's joining at Arboria.
"From what I understand, Queen Prothoë has never been a wildly adventurous type. She doesn't like change or travel too much. There is a lot of danger in the inknown, I suppose – er, unknown."
"Both true, Artemisian slip aside." Eumache put in, eyes twinkling.
Thraso laughed. "I guess it is, huh? Gee – anyway, from what I understand, Queen Prothoë's mother never had being a warrior or queen in mind for her. The clan business, if you can really call it that – was the priestesshood of Athena. They had connections to Artemis' too, but they dabble in stuff even Prothoë's mother wouldn't touch – and she was an adventurous type."
"Like what?" Eumache asked, seeing no reason to allow her lover to continue uninterrupted.
"Oh – ummm – laurel chewing, first off. Tends to involve a lot of drooling and delirium. Undignified and all that. The Sacred Hunt most of all. It's not for the faint hearted – some say it isn't for the hearted at all, and the hunters are the Dead, and the Immortal. Queen Prothoë's mom believed in hedging her bets concerning that one." Thraso blew her hair out of her eyes, and made a mental note to have it cut again. "There's only so much I know about that, though, not being a priestess of Artemis."
"You could ask her."
"Artemis, what her priestesses do." Eumache answered, a bit impatiently.
"No? Why not?"
"It wouldn't be – proper." Thraso scowled a bit. And Artemis would give her silly answers, like rolling around in cookie dough and throwing grains of wheat at couples who wanted children. The trouble with said silly answers was that parts of them very nearly made sense. Artemis did that deliberately, since she disliked direct questions and giving direct answers, preferring to leave her questioners something to work out. Thraso recalled a time she had been left to work a rock out of her boot after a direct question to her mercurial aunt. Looking at it sitting on her dresser a few days later, she realized the answer to the question she had asked as myriad tiny lights seemed to wink from the dark matrix of the stone.
"Proper? This from the woman who can belch in public with no sense of embarrassment." Eumache snorted.
"I do not – and the time that happened it was an accident." replied Thraso.
"And the belching contest later waaaas?"
"A skilfully exaggerated tale concocted by Tharjon."
"Which everyone verified vigourously because they were so impressed by her talent?"
"Yeah!" Thraso grinned broadly.
"This conversation has descended into complete and utter dreck." Eumache tugged at a lock of her lover's hair for emphasis.
"Good point – what were we talking about again?" Thraso asked, having lost the thread somewhere between Tharjon's storytelling talents and the proper manner in which to ask her aunt questions.
"Why Queen Prothoë is such a set of stuffed leathers."
"Okay – well, anyway, her mother thought she'd become a priestess in due time. Except, Queen Prothoë had a lot of problems with the sacred scrolls, because they're written in an older dialect of our language. Lots of 'from all quarters arrived' and 'in third aspect removed' – if thee, will thee, won't thee, thouest thee – err, you get it, right?"
"Right." Eumache snagged an apple from a basket on the nightstand with a flick of one foot, catching it in one hand and offering it to Thraso for a bite all in one smooth motion.
"But that wasn't the end of it. Lots of people have problems with the scrolls. Trouble was, the robes worn for sacred ceremonies were a real problem – it's, kind of difficult to tell the front from the back – until you realize your butt feels cold." Thraso accepted another bite from the apple and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "They can also be very heavy, and if you grab the wrong ones, there's no way to make it up the steps to the Sun dais – you get halfway up, and you can't lift your legs another step. I tried it. That still isn't the end of it. Robe troubles are why there are proctors, they keep track of them.
No, the end of it was during a summer solstice ceremony, when Queen Prothoë accidentally mixed up the oil for the sacred lamp and the wine drunk in the circle of worshippers – with, surprisingly unpredictable results."
"Unpredictable? How unpredictable can a person's reaction to a glassful of oil be?" blurted Eumache.
"No, no. That wasn't – it was the wine in the lamps, no one expected it to burn. Damn stuff burned bright blue, freaked out every last Emetchi at the ceremony." Thraso chuckled, the image of Prothoë younger and wide eyed with horror such a contrast with the now somewhat dour queen that it seemed nearly impossible. "Prothoë's mother clued in to what had happened fairly quickly, mostly because she tried to take a big drink of wine to calm her nerves..."
A small bird with black ringed eyes, yellow head, and yellow-grey barred wings watched the activity below her, perhaps wondering, in an avian sort of way, if the human's strange behaviour below her was cause for alarm. The human was carefully walking back and forth across a little clearing that stretched between the back of a stolid wooden building and the forest. She would walk one way, counting, then the other way, counting. Finally, she pulled a mallet and several wooden pegs from the heavy leather vest with no fewer than eleven pockets she was wearing. The entire pacing ritual was repeated, this time with pegs pounded into the ground at intervals, until a square and a semicircle had been neatly delineated. That finished, the mallet and remaining pegs disappeared, to be replaced by a bundle of coarse twine. This was soon run between each peg, and ended at the dark brown side of the building.
Artemis straightened up completely, and rubbed at her lower back. A glance around the twine boundaries, and she sighed. This was just the first part of the new addition that she had managed to get herself stuck doing, and it remained to be seen if Cyrene was going to speak to her yet. It had been a rather spectacular argument, although Artemis wasn't too certain how it had started, or why it had gotten so large.
It seemed to start somewhere around Cyrene showing her a tapestry which she was considering for the back wall of the inn. It was large, and well done, admittedly. It was also a picture of a sort of flower garden, with a wooden cutesy chair to one side and a winsome little girl in completely non-Amazon type dress on the other. Cyrene considered it adorable, which, yes, it was if you went for that sort of thing. Unfortunately, Artemis was not among the cute stuff appreciating public, and spoke before her diplomatic skills had a chance to kick in.
"Oh, Reenie – that thing is absolutely naff – look at all those flowers. Yech!" when perhaps, 'Could we go for the one with the flowery meadow and the forest scene in it instead?' might have been a bit more effective.
"There is nothing wrong with this tapestry!" Cyrene had shot back.
"Sure there is. Come on, whoever heard of a girl who actually runs in the meadows wearing stuff like that?" The answer had been a measured foot tapping.
"Could you come back after lunch?" she asked the tapestry vendor, politely. The man nodded vigourously, his expression having grown steadily more alarmed as the conversation between the two women had continued. "Artie, I need to speak to you – in the kitchen." The innkeeper then disappeared into the room indicated.
The tapestry vendor hesitated a moment. Then he shuffled closer. "Ye haven't been married long, have ye?" he whispered. Artemis blinked.
"Well – no – not really. The last time was cen – long ago." the Goddess breathed a silent sigh. No giving away the immortality thing at random, she reminded herself.
"Aye – well, I have been, and I have some advice for ye. When you go in there, apologize and agree, apologize and agree. Trust me on this one – 'tis no other way to repair a diplomatic gaff." the vendor nodded gravely. "Oh, and keep between her and the frying pans."
Artemis raised her brows. "Cyrene would not physically threaten me!" she blurted in an outraged tone.
"Ah, but 'tis the principle of the thing!" the tapestry vendor declared. Artemis grimaced. This guy was nuts. It was a little argument. How bad could it be.
Half a candlemark later, and Artemis had mentally run through every curse she knew, which covered over a hundred languages, and included one that involved fleas, fish, and nasal passages. End result, the inn was going to have two new windows in the common room, and the addition of roomier accommodations for her and Cyrene, and a real bathing room, among other things. It was fitting quite awkwardly between the edges of the forest and the back of the inn, and Artemis had fiddled with matters all day under the hot sun, feeling steadily more frustrated as time went on.
The day had ended on a more positive note, carpentry-wise. A farmer had brought his wagon to Artemis' shop, which was a rough leantoish affair attached to the stables. He looked quite sheepish about it, as he had attempted to fix a broken wheel and axle himself. The result was an extremely lopsided wagon, so much so he had to ride one of the draught horses that drew it, and the wagon bumped up and down with a 'plonk, plonk' sound all the way into the main village. The repair attempt was an honest one, however. At first glance, it did look like nailing some bits of wood across the break in the axle would work, and it did look like a barrel lid would do just as well as a wheel for awhile. Trouble with first glances was, they tended to make use of only one eye and no commonsense – insofar as sense can ever be common.
Artemis hadn't cracked so much as a smile, and dealt with the whole thing with complete gravity. No point further embarrassing the poor man, after all. After unhitching the wagon, they turned it over, which led to an astonished exclamation of, "Damn, you're really strong, Admetus!" from the farmer. Then he had watched in fascination as Artemis carefully pried out all the nails, and completely removed the ruined axle and its attendant wheels. A few more moments work produced a new axle, although the wheels had taken longer. At the end of it, a delighted farmer was riding his wagon home, perched cheerfully on the buckboard. A promise of two chickens and a box of beef jerky in exchange next morning closed the deal.
Cheered up a bit by a job well done, Artemis closed things up and made her way to the bedroom she shared with Cyrene. The innkeeper was already in bed, poring over a scroll that appeared to be the accounts. She looked up. "Yes?" Artemis blinked, a little nonplussed.
"Don't know." Which she didn't. Cyrene's demeanour was distinctly unwelcoming. It was either the scroll or the sleep shirt that made that clear, one of the two. The night shirt, because it was actually laced up. The scroll because – well, accounts don't make for great foreplay.
And then the clue bounced off of her forehead. "Oh – well – I, have some stuff left to do, in the shop. Night, I guess." and she retreated quietly out of the inn. She moped for awhile in the shop, but finding that tossing wood chips at dust bunnies was an exceedingly boring game, left for the forest.
Finding her favourite oak, which was almost, but not quite as big as the one in her temple which crowned the top of a hill over the next rise, she squirmed into its hollow, curled up in her cloak, and gazed up at the Moon, which was a fine sliver of light in the midst of a mob of stars. After awhile she fell into the gentle, dreamy haze that deities sometimes did rather than sleep, eyes mostly closed, and far more silver than usual.
That description is perhaps not the best. No dreams were these, but replays of memories that sometimes seemed to have faded away forever, until they sprang back to clarity during the times that Artemis was quiescent – or dozy, anyroad.
The darkened forest blurred and faded into bright blue sky and turquoise water, Sun and splashing sea. Since her mother was a Sea Goddess, Artemis could swim like a fish, walk on water, become water – sort of – and generally mess around for an afternoon instead of doing serious type stuff. It was huge fun, especially chasing larger fish with her trident. A seagull skimmed over her head, squawking in disgust as Artemis let the creature go, depriving it of potential lunch pickings. Its black wing tips swung gracefully through the air as its white underbelly blended into the blazing sky.
Artemis watched that for a few moments in fascination, then pulled herself up on a rock to sunbathe. Bracing her shoulders at a higher point on it, she allowed one foot to trail in the water. After a few moments she dug a thick book from her tunic and a quill from her boot, and wrote for a few moments. She chewed at the quill and muttered, "Dreck, I think, but everybody has to produce some dreck – maybe this..." A bit more vigourous scribbling. Something disturbed her concentration, and her head popped up.
Just visible was a small figure standing on a rocky point, waving and calling, voice occasionally arriving on the odd gust of wind. Artemis smiled. "I wonder what's up." Putting away her things she stood up, gripping her trident. A breath, and she rose up into the air, the trident shifting into a silver bow. Then she flew easily over the water, silvery ripples throwing sparks of light off of her buckles and weapons. Dropping to the ground behind the caller of the point, she hollered, "Boo!"
The other woman nearly jumped out of her boots. "You damned brat!" she laughed, pale blue eyes dancing. "Why can't you behave yourself?"
"Behave myself? What does that mean?" Artemis asked, blinking guilelessly. The other woman laughed again. 'Why can't I think of her name?' Artemis wondered bemusedly.
"Come on. I want to show you the work I've done on the palace. All the trading my subjects do over land and sea has to be put to use somehow." the woman clasped one of Artemis' arms, and they strolled off together.
"Ah, making of use of your ill gotten gains, you queen-pirate you!" Artemis mock scolded.
A snort answered her. "My Sirens are not pirates – although any successful Amazon trading venture leads to accusations of raiding and pirating from the Dorians. What is with them, anyway? The other Greeks were fairly friendly."
Artemis frowned. "I'm not sure. Maybe it's because they're so busy being angry and beating on each other. Maybe they think they have to do that to everybody else. Then again, maybe they're just jerks." The Goddess grinned. "You know, the try to steal your lunch and call names type." Her companion laughed merrily, and twitched her robes a bit.
"That's one way to look at it. Now, I know you don't go for flowers or in between sort of colours, but let that go for now."
"Oh, I suppose." Artemis grinned.
The tour had taken several candlemarks. The queen – that much Artemis knew for certain – clearly loved experimenting and decorating. Tapestries and flowers were wherever she could arrange to have them, artfully arranged around the cool, clean stone corridors. The building had been cunningly built to keep cool despite the harsh North African sun, the embodiment of Athena's destroying gaze as often as her benign one. Artemis appreciated the smooth, mortarless joinings of the stones, the use of graceful arches and alcoves. She preferred a sparser look, but all of the fixings were making the Queen happy, and that was fine by her.
The Queen was Athena's Chosen, and famous for her wisdom and wit. No circumstances had forced her to prove her skills in war, and Artemis sincerely hoped they would never come. Athena disapproved strongly of her younger sister's fondness for the Queen, and the matter had resulted in a number of rows. For reasons Artemis didn't know, Athena seemed convinced that she was the vehicle of some sort of doom for the Queen of the Sirens. Ridiculous, Artemis felt.
The Queen's words and Artemis' musings between her sentences was interrupted by the clatter of solid hooves along the broad hallway. A tall centaur strode toward them, her long red hair and roan coat gleaming in the angling afternoon light. "I'm sorry to interrupt," she boomed in deep, musical syllables. "but I must ask to speak with the Holy One."
"Of course, of course." the Queen said gracefully, and giving Artemis a quick kiss on the cheek whispered in her ear, "Dine with me tonight?"
"Shhh – sure." Artemis replied, grinning. She watched the Queen stride away, the distinct sway of her hips striking an oddly familiar cord. Shaking herself, she turned to the centaur. "Yes, Manto, what is it?"
"There is discord between the Emetchi, Holy One. The problem seems to be between a group of those who worship you, and those who worship your sister." Manto folded her arms, expression unhappy.
"Is she standing between them literally, or switching back and forth among them, goading?" asked Artemis, tightening her belt as she ran through possible strategies to settle matters without fighting. Manto stared at her in confusion for a moment, then replied hesitantly,
"They are not lined up to fight, so the second thing seems more likely."
"Okay." Artemis smiled. "That's easy to fix."
"Holy One?" the centaur swished her tail unhappily. What was the Holy One talking about?
"I'm going to go over, and tell them that sibling rivalry is silly between large groups of people. It only causes big scraps and messy backyards. Come on."
"Yes, Holy One." sighed Manto. "I'm glad you know what you're saying."
"Of course, take into account that I have no real idea what I'm saying." Artemis added over her shoulder.
Night sounds were a real symphony, a particular blend of sounds and sighs that indicated in a thousand subtle ways that all was well in the inn. The sound of the building settling, the pops and creaks and cracks reminiscent of a venerable elder. The wind tapping tree branches against the window shutters. Water sloshing gently in a horse trough beneath the window. The bedframe groaning as Cyrene tossed and turned again. But one sound was missing, which showed that tonight, at least, all was not well. Artemis' long, eerily slow breaths were nowhere to be heard. Cyrene hadn't realized how much she had come to prize that sound, until it wasn't there.
She had overreacted to her lover's somewhat graceless comments earlier that day, she knew. Frustration and tiredness from a tough day haggling and dealing with several rowdy customers had left Cyrene short tempered and cross. The argument – well that had as much to do with Artemis' tendency to take Cyrene literally as both women's stubbornness. Now Artie was out sleeping in the shop, Cyrene reflected, and she felt lousy. Her mother had always told her, "Never go to bed cross. Stay awake and fight 'til there's no more fight in you." And now Cyrene understood why.
Getting up abruptly, Cyrene tossed on a robe and a pair of boots, then made her way out to the shop. A quick look inside revealed no Artemis, and the innkeeper's heart fell. That only happened when Artemis was really upset. Then she retreated to her beloved forest and her animals, and no amount of calling or searching had brought her back sooner than when she finally walked into their bedroom again, looking haggard and sad. It frightened Cyrene a little, to see how deeply things seemed to affect her lover. It gave her an inkling of how their daughter could become the Destroyer of Nations.
Tonight, however, Cyrene threw whatever she knew from before to the wind, and went to search.
The forest wasn't her element. In fact, Cyrene preferred rocky shorelines, but raising three children on her own had precluded that. Still, she made her way in relative silence among the dark trees, startling an owl on her way. Mostly, she was wandering at random, hoping to sense Artemis' presence in some way. The Moon was near to setting, and the innkeeper had begun to falter with exhaustion, when a silvery gleam in the midst of a hollow tree stopped her short. Keeping absolutely still, she held her breath, concentration so intense it felt like her ears had grown.
The two silvery chips gleamed in spite of the failing light, and Cyrene caught the sound of a long breath. It held for a long time, and then blew out again, followed after another while, with a long breath. Tucking her robe about herself more tightly, Cyrene hurried forward, then stopped abruptly by the edge of the hollow.
Artemis was curled up in her cloak, body eerily still. Cyrene could see her irises flicking rapidly now, and the slight movements around her eyes. A moment's hesitation, then she stepped inside the tree, getting as close to Artemis as she dared.
"...between them literally, or switching back and forth among them, goading?" Artemis said, with startling clarity. The innkeeper jumped, smacking her head on the low roof. She hesitated, unsure if she was being spoken to, or if she would be heard if she answered. That was how matters remained until the Moon was gone, and a stronger breeze indicated that the dawn was coming.
"Isn't your ass getting a bit sore, sitting on that root?" Artemis asked quietly, her eyes flicking back to outer awareness.
"No, no – it's only asleep." Cyrene replied.
"What are you doing here, woman? You should be inside, comfortable and warm." Artemis pulled herself upright, flexing her arms and legs a bit.
"Well, I was inside, and I wasn't either of those things. So I decided to find the person who makes me comfortable and warm." Reaching out, Cyrene laid a hesitant hand on Artemis' knee.
"I see – and have you found this person?"
"I think so."
"And what you're going to do about this is?"
"This." With that, Cyrene worked herself into Artemis' arms, who obliged by shifting her cloak until it covered them both. Both women sighed, and Cyrene mumbled groggily, "I am so beat."
"And you were expecting something else after wandering around in the woods for half the night?" Artemis murmured wryly, and chuckled when the only answer was a long, sleeping sigh. Leaning back until Cyrene was supine and she was braced comfortably against a sloping section of the tree's interior, Artemis closed her eyes and relaxed.
It had taken the better part of three days and one complete collapse of the structure, but Thraso, daughter of Enna, Weaponmaster of Ankitheas, had finally finished the frame of the addition to her hut. The addition would contain a new storage area, a room for the young person on the way which would be little used for a good while, and a small study.
"I'm very much afraid having scrolls and tapestries and the rest all over the hut won't work too well with a baby in the midst of it." Eumache had said, and her partner had agreed. It was after all, best to start new habits now, when there was neither pressure nor diapers to deal with.
Thraso set down her hammer and stretched, grimacing at the assorted twinges and pops in her back. "What is going on with that?" she muttered. "I am well aware of how NOT old I am."
Checking that the tools were all undercover, Thraso ran a hand over a smoothly joined corner, feeling irrationally pleased at its evenness. It was such a far cry from the bird house she had struggled to put together for her mother's birthday.
Athena had a great fondness for birds in general, let alone her owls. A walk in the woods with her always came with the identification of every sort of bird from feathers, nests, and calls. Then came the various summaries and theories on their behaviour, and why some birds had crests, and whether their three toed feet meant that they were related to some kind of lizard somewhere in the distant past – Athena had always said her own mother would know for certain. Which was true, after all, Metis had actually come up with them.
In any case, making Athena a birdhouse for her birthday seemed a great idea. It had been far from square, with rough corners that didn't even half-heartedly match, and a roof constructed of tiny wooden shingles. Thraso had enjoyed making those the most. Her usual clumsiness always deserted her during fine work like weaving or carving. So even though the tops of the bird house walls looked like a stylized rendering of the rough sea in wood, the roof was precocious. It was sound, and even had a slope to it. The result was actually like a rumpled, folded pillow. Her mother had loved the whole thing, and spent days showing it off. Thraso had been embarrassed and completely delighted at the same time.
Thraso and Eumache had visited her to give her their news personally, despite the fact that Athena probably already knew. The Goddess had made a point of spoiling Eumache, remembering all too well her struggle with her lover's parents. They had considered her feckless and bird obsessed, which while perhaps true on some levels, in general struck Athena as a highly unfair characterization. She was determined to be nothing like them, except where unavoidable. As a general rule, people have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. When Athena was in human form, so did she. That kind of unavoidable.
Thraso had been wandering in the garden behind her mother's house, occasionally tripping over straggling ivy and hitting her head on the low slung branches of a pear tree. While disentangling herself from a raspberry bush, she found something which sent her mind on to old memories of tiny wooden shingles. The birdhouse, now lined and venerable, had been carefully attached to a ledge near a study window, and was home to a family of chattering sparrows.
Shaking herself out of memories for the moment, Thraso thudded up to the hut door, grace pre-empted by tired muscles. A pause to throw some water on a dazed looking creeping plant that sprawled in a pot to one side. Then into the hut, where Eumache was sitting at a work table, finishing a set of scrolls between piles of leather tack and tinny looking armour bits.
"What sort of ceremony did you say you wanted again?" she asked distractedly, looking over at her partner and pushing over a mug of tea. Sipping at it and putting her feet up, Thraso muttered,
"A short one."
"What did you mumble, dear?"
"Not one of those monsters that people have sometimes – eight candlemarks and a bunch of extra people from other villages, getting drunk and brawlworthy. Yech." Thraso scowled at her tea. Eumache laughed.
"I had an immediate family and priestess sort of thing in mind, myself. Everybody else can entertain themselves." A slow nod.
"Okay. You want Akantha to do it?"
Eumache fiddled with a wooden pen, a carefully carved trinket that had found its way into her things after a long series of complaints about how messy quills were. She added a few curlicues to the surface of the table, then sighed. "No, actually. Thraso, she uses flowers so much that it makes me nauseous to imagine a whiff of the smell. She'd want us to wear them in our hair – and you do remember where she stuck that lily during the spring festival." The weaponmaster winced, remembering Eumache's loud, aghast reaction to when the priestess had stuck the wet stalk of the flower down her partner's cleavage. It had been a cold, uncomfortable addition by someone whom Eumache firmly believed had no business near her breasts. It had taken the better part of two candlemarks after the flower was removed to calm Eumache enough to keep from grabbing the priestess and decking her.
Akantha didn't quite deserve a decking. She tended to be a little over enthusiastic at times, resulting in the occasional mishap. The accidental drugging of almost the entire village into a giggling haze, for example. The change of watch had found themselves stuck on duty, watching their replacements giggle and stagger around, periodically corralling the ones that wandered too far into the forest.
Taking another pull at her tea, Thraso suggested, "We could ask Tharjon."
"Tharjon?!" Eumache burst out incredulously. "Tharjon the cliff diver? Tharjon the recreational four horse chariot race driver? Tharjon the Emetchi who went toe to toe with a cyclops, and won?"
"Tharjon, one of our best friends, and a great priestess of Artemis." Thraso finished gently.
Her lover grinned a little sheepishly. "I forgot – shouldn't have, with that profile. Who else would be willing to travel with us who isn't related or intimate with someone one of us is related to?" A few moments of silence while Thraso worked that one through.
"Yeee-ah – whoa, Mache, take a breath, okay?" Fiddling in her turn, with the now half empty mug. "Honest, I think Tharjon would do a really good job. She's kinda crazy, but she'd never ignore what we want, and what's right for us."
Eumache settled her head on her hands. "Okay." Thraso looked a little surprised.
"You're sure?" she asked hesitantly. It wasn't like Mache to agree so easily.
"Yes, I'm sure." Eumache laughed softly. "All my fuss aside, I think you're right. Don't mind me – just nerves."
"You gonna sit there and be aloof all evening?" Thraso asked after another of those curiously pregnant pauses that butt their way into conversations.
Eumache's response was to bounce out of her chair and into Thraso's lap. "Better?"
"Mmhmm." skilfully hiding a wince due to one of Eumache's hipbones digging into her thigh. "Much better – so Tharjon it is. Damn, Mache, you're making me into a big cuddle toy."
"Good. Kids love cuddle toys." Eumache declared, without a trace of guilt.
"Okay, but I don't want to be just your 'cuddle toy.'"
"And what else would you like to be, besides my cuddle toy?" Eumache asked, running a hand under Thraso's tunic to caress her collarbone.
"Oh," Thraso sighed deeply, eyes fluttering shut. "Girl toy works – but not chew toy, you bite kinda hard," pausing to make a token protest of a mock slap. "Sex toy, definitely."
"Brat! Since when did you become such a tease?" laughed Eumache.
"Since you've been giving me lessons, mostly." Thraso winked at her, and moved Eumache even closer. "I'm a slow, but steady study."
"Mmm – you pass with flying colours and some sort of certificate." sighed Eumache, wrapping her arms around her lover's shoulders and nuzzling her neck.
"Even though I couldn't figure out Two Kingfishers Embracing With One Leg Raised in the Lesbian Karma Sutra?"
"Honey, I don't think anyone can figure that one out. I mean, who's knees bend that way?" voice muffled by Thraso's neck, Eumache was beginning to lose interest in the speaking part of the exchange. Her nimble fingers soon had Thraso's tunic untucked.
"Did you take your boots off?"
"Ummm – yeah, why?"
"Because you don't need them where we're going." Eumache's head popped up.
"What?" asked Thraso.
"I just figured out Two Kingfishers Embracing With One Leg Raised."
"Yeah. There's a third person in it." A moment of disbelieving silence. Then, in unison, "Ewwww!"
"That whole three people thing – can't deal with that." Eumache declared.
"No kidding. You've gotta be the jealousest person I know." teased Thraso, her hands getting busy again.
"You'd better believe it!"
The tree branch kept bending lower and lower, which was beginning to be a problem, Tharjon decided. The whole point of tying stuff on the branch was to keep it off the ground. But if the branch kept kept bending, the stuff would wind up on the ground anyway, sooner or later. At the moment, Tharjon was more worried about sooner, since she was standing on the branch itself.
In the middle of it, to be precise, the bundle already tied to one end. "Perhaps choosing a willow for this purpose was unwise." Tharjon mumbled out loud. She moved up and down a little, which reverberated along its length, causing the bundle to jump around like a maniac. "But that is quite neat, how you can get things to vibrate like that – sort of like a lyre string..." Tharjon was a very go lucky, happy sort of woman, who also tended to absentmindedness. This resulted in the phenomenon of standing in strange places, thinking.
Queen Prothoë understood this about the larkish priestess of Artemis. Every now and again Tharjon turned up in council missing her boots or her collar of office, with a mug of tea in one hand and a hunk of spicy fruit bread in the other. Typically Tharjon started the meeting by trying to bite her mug, at which point she realized that there was a need to begin other proceedings. Prothoë would never admit it, but she enjoyed the young priestess' penchant for making life interesting. In another life, or given a few years back, she would officially express interest. She laughed at herself. Probably in exactly those stuffy, nearly pompous sounding terms, too.
She cleared her throat. "Tharjon?" Nothing but a bit of muttering and slight bouncing. "Omicron Tharjon!" loud enough that the priestess jerked sharply and fell off the branch, resulting in her bundle being flung off into the sky. It flew rapidly away in an arc that looked lazy anyway, and finally fell to the ground again, well out of earshot.
"Darn." Tharjon declared from the forest floor, where she was nicely bedded in leaf litter and pine needles. "I think I might want what was in that bundle."
"What was in it, that you were hanging it in a tree as if you were afraid of the bears getting it?" asked Prothoë.
"Oh, lunch mostly – my extra pair of boots. A hunting net. Nothing much." a sigh.
"I'll have someone go find it. We need to talk." A pair of alarmed green-grey eyes looked up at her, unblinking despite a few strands of hair that had to be tickling them unmercifully.
"About our two weaponmasters. I believe that tradition dictates that Thraso in particular participate in certain ceremonies?" Prothoë, seeing the priestess intended to remain supine, chose a sizeable dead log to seat herself on.
"Yeah – I suppose. I'm a priestess of Artemis, not Athena, your majesty. Unless you want me to take the booster course, except..." Here Tharjon twisted around to look at the redheaded queen earnestly. "I really don't like the part where you have to do the Sun test. I'm against cooking myself."
"No, no, that's quite all right. I've seen the Sun test, none of that is necessary." Prothoë said hurriedly. Tharjon coated in scented oil, soaking up the Sun was a little too much imagery for that topic. "An Artemisian ritual. The patron Goddess of the tribe is Artemis, and I suspect that Athena would go easy on her."
"Okay." the priestess tucked her hands behind her head, and blew a few strands of hair out of her eyes. "Said ritual to concern..."
"They're having a baby, Tharjon."
"I know that! I was only making sure you didn't mean a joining related ritual. Artemis doesn't have any, really, that come before the ceremony. Anyroad, yes there is an Artemisian ritual for the partner of the woman who is having the baby."
"Good. Good. Salient points?" all business now.
A few pine needles scattered through the air as Tharjon threw a handful or so about. "Salient whatsis?" she asked, her attention having wandered to the ceremony itself, rather than attending to the queen, who dragged her fingers through her hair and prayed for patience.
"How many days?"
"Dark of the Moon."
"The cliffs an hour's walk from here."
"Excellent. Will I have to worry about keeping an escort ready to bring you home?"
"No, of course not. This isn't a bunch of fool neophyte warriors messing around with vision quest herbs, you know."
The queen nodded. A group of young warriors had dared each other to try laurel chewing, and gone out into the forest for the attempt. After a day and a half during which what they were up to was deduced by the horrified Tharjon who had found several of her herb jars emptied, a search party had been hurried out to find them. Another day and a half had been needed to round them up, all still intoxicated to varying degrees. It had never occurred to any of them that you weren't supposed to have more than a leaf or so when it was fresh – or that you weren't supposed to swallow the things.
Tossing a few more pine needles and a cone that happened to be nearby, Tharjon watched the queen walk away. Tradition had been satisfied, and now Queen Prothoë was relaxed and happy. 'After all,' Tharjon thought to herself with a wry grin. 'I'm the one who's on the hook now, as Thraso would say.' She gazed at a blue jay, leaping between branches, chattering furiously. The jay spread its wings for a moment as it coasted down to a lower branch, still scolding what turned out to be a large crow working over an unfortunate frog. Apparently the jay had had designs on it.
"Enough procrastinating," Tharjon muttered. "Time to talk to folks."
Cyrene opened her eyes, checked that she was completely wrapped up, snuggled back into the warm body behind her and the leaf litter underneath her, and went back to sleep. Her partner watched her, smiling. Shifting her shoulders, Artemis settled her head back into a gentle swell on the floor which was spongy with moss and leaves. Outside the sky was growing pale and blue like Cyrene's eyes again, bits of cloud floating overhead. The scent of opening flowers tickled her nose near to sneezing, and Artemis tucked her head behind Cyrene's shoulders in self defence, eyes closing. It would be another two candlemarks before any moving happened.
"But what will you do, Holy One?" Manto danced unhappily, hooves bumping a bit more loudly than usual.
"I will take care of Eris – Discord, you call her."
"No, no, I can clear this up. Watch." Shaking loose her cloak, Artemis swept it around herself, then swirled it back and about Manto. One moment they were standing in a clean, quiet alcove, next they were in the midst of a noisy camp, placed in a great field. Several groups of Amazons had sent envoys there to foil the rapidly moving Dorian Greeks. Somehow matters had devolved into an argument over whose Goddess was better.
Several Amazons were arguing vociferously. One in particular always seemed to put in a word as soon as the argument flagged. Artemis gathered her cloak again, expertly wrapping it across her body and around her waist once, adding the extra cloak pin near her waist that kept it in place. Then she stalked right up to the instigating Amazon, grabbed her by one shoulder, and spun her around.
"Hey!" the woman blurted angrily.
"Oh my Goddess! It's you!" Artemis hollered, as if meeting a long lost friend. She hurled both arms around the other woman and hugged her fiercely. The Amazon responded by squirming uncomfortably, which resulted in Artemis lifting her bodily off the ground and shaking her a bit. "I've missed you in spite of myself! It's because you always start out so wonderful, and only become a total bitch toward the very end. I know what to expect, so it makes me nervous when you are delayed." Spinning the Amazon around again to face the others, she declaimed, "Say a polite hello to the embodiment of Discord among us. Sadly, she always outstays her welcome until she becomes a negative force."
"The embodiment of Discord?" someone else said aloud. Said embodiment sputtered angrily.
"Yes. She always raises interesting and even valid points, but she also always pisses people off. She's trying to channel some of my sister and I's sibling rivalry onto you. Well, I simply can't allow that." Artemis turned and placed sober hands on the younger woman's shoulders.
"Your work here is done, embodiment of Discord. Please go rest." A pause. "Rest." Artemis' voice dropped as if it derived from her very toes. The Amazon stared at her, turned slowly, and walked away.
"Now," Artemis continued. "What can I do to help resolve tensions here?" Silence. "Isn't there anything?" Shamefaced expressions were her only answer. "Okay, you go on back to council and play nice." The Amazons shuffled away, all a bit nonplussed.
"What were we arguing about, anyway?" one of them hissed to a compatriot.
"You see?" Artemis boomed merrily, clapping Manto on the shoulder. "Come on. I've got a date."
The Queen of the Sirens was standing by her window, gazing restlessly out at the sea. She hadn't been to sea in a long time, not since before her coronation. Not even to circumscribe the harbour. The sound of the surf and the gulls was calling like a long lost friend. And she was curious. Curious about the strange lands to the East and North Artemis described so vividly and with such relish, as she should, being as they were her homelands. The Goddess had a knack for description that made her feel as if she could shut her eyes, imagine it, and then step into the dream. Homelands that the tall Queen would cheerfully give her crown up to see forever, if only to keep Artemis nearby. She knew Athena, the Goddess she served, did not approve. Athena considered her sister feckless and irresponsible – and a womanizer to boot. But how much of that had to do with the infamous 'sibling rivalry' the Queen wondered, for Artemis had been oblivious to every woman in the city of Cyrene.
Except, and her ego preened at it, her.
And, somehow, the Queen had found herself in much the same position, except, of course, it was Artemis who held her gaze.
Turning back to the room and the problem she had been faced with before she had allowed the clanking of a ship's bell to distract her, the keen eyed woman surveyed her choices. None of them were too formal, since Artemis rarely got overdressed anyway, and found robes tended to bring out the 'your majesties' and 'good my ladies' in spades. So instead, the choices were red, blue, or green. One azure eye shut to help the process along.
Red was likely to send poor Artie scurrying, the Queen reflected. The Goddess was such a character, and among her endearing traits was a discomfort with direct answers that led to the occasional bit of comic relief. A colour like red, which at intimate dinners said, 'I am certain that I am interested – potentially with your clothes off.' was likely to strike Artemis silent for the night. Silent, hot, and bothered. No, no, no – hot and bothered should happen more gradually, if at all tonight, she decided.
Blue was likely to send Artemis into paroxysms of poetry. Excellent, charming poetry, marvellous stuff. Mainly about her eyes. The Queen chuckled. That was liable to send her scurrying. Anything above one extravagant, well curlicued compliment a candlemark tended to leave her at a loss. Then she had to start complimenting back, after being dazzled with words, which was hard, because 'I think you're so built – and sexy, yeah, real sexy!' didn't quite mesh with iambic hexameter. Plus, after the eyes, Artie's poetry tended to get – raunchy.
Now, green, green, would work for both of them. A nice balance of formality and compliments, so both of them could get some artful stuff in, since both brains would get a chance to run smoothly – barring Artemis wearing some drop-dead-sweat-and-fall-down gorgeous number – and she could wear this fabulous piece of jewellery. The queen gazed at it, picking up the piece in question.
It was a beautiful silver filigreed belt that would hang low on her hips, adding a bright contrast to the emerald hue of the dress. The craftswoman who had made it had decorated it with lapis lazuli, emeralds, and a strange green stone that was nearly as rare, but a different sort of green. The crown of it though, was the finely worked centrepiece. By some odd twist, it matched the silvery green of Artemis' eyes all but perfectly.
Mind made up, the Queen dressed, smiling when a glance out the window revealed Manto and Artemis strolling up the clean walkways in front of the building, the centaur hopping about in a way that reminded her irresistibly of a filly. Manto was delighted, which could only mean Artemis had settled matters satisfactorily – at least, from the centaur's viewpoint.
Manto was bouncing delightedly, but Artemis was distracted by the next problem on her list. "What do you bring to a dinner date, Manto?" The centaur stopped short, nearly tripping herself up. Resettling her hooves and flicking her tail in irritation, Manto growled, "Flowers."
"No, no, everybody does that – and look, she's got lots of 'em!" the Goddess gesticulated to the front of the palace, which was skilfully bedecked with desert blooms.
Manto rolled her eyes. "Which means she really likes them, Holy One. You should take her some." How did this Goddess acquire a reputation for beguiling even the celibate devotees of Hestia out of their robes? Pushing her red hair out of her eyes, she continued. "I must go on, Holy One. There is a council meeting in Kallipolis."
"Of course, of course, Manto. You do well, as always." here Artemis presented the centaur with one of her rare smiles. "It is an honour to have you in the Nation." The smile broadened into a sexy grin that made the roan centaur sweat. "Flowers are optional, Manto. Remember, I can hear your thoughts." Manto flushed.
"Th – thank you, Holy One. It is I who am honoured." A bow, then the centaur cantered off to the docks where the ship to Kallipolis waited.
Artemis smiled and murmured, "Must give Hera another pat on the back. She truly knew what she was about when she created the Centaurs."
Now, back to the problem at hand. An apple tree came into view, an inviting branch stretching out in the sun. Artemis paused to take off her boots and tuck them into the impromptu bag formed by her cloak, then shimmied up the trunk. Soon anyone who passed by would have been treated to the sight of a tall woman with dark hair sprawled on the branch in a pose reminiscent of a panther.
One thumbnail got chewed on. 'Flowers wither. I don't want to give her something that she'll only get to enjoy a little while.' Switch to an index fingernail. 'Not something she has to find a vase for. She's always got window boxes.' Fingernails were abandoned in favour of the end of the leather strap to a pouch she wore slung across her chest. A broad grin. 'I know!'
Half a candlemark later, she stood outside of the main dining hall, a finely carved wooden box in one hand. An Amazon came around the corner, carrying a sturdy spear ornamented with two feathers and a leather snake. "The Queen has sent me for you." she intoned.
"I'm quite sorry, but you're not my type." Artemis deadpanned. The Amazon stared at her stonily. "Joke. That was a joke. You know, short sentence or story meant to inspire laughter? A funny? You know, funny ha-ha?" If possible, the Amazon's expression got stonier. "Gaea the Great! What has my sister done to you? Lead on, lead on."
The walk took them through the airy main halls that smelt of sea air and the clean grass used on the floor. These were left behind as they moved deeper into the building, to rooms cunningly lit by well placed window slits and ceiling openings. They turned into another corridor, this one a long, brighter counterpart to the one in Artemis' hidden home in the mountains. It was lined with statues and pictures of the Queens of the Sirens and their daughters, all Athena's Chosen. If nothing else, many of the women had their pale, azure coloured eyes in common.
Artemis had pulled her notebook out of her boot and was sketching as she walked. Concluding from solidly bumping into her guide's back that they had arrived, she looked up. A solid wooden door looked back at her. The Amazon rapped it with the butt of her spear, then opened it and motioned Artemis inside. The Goddess stopped short in the doorway.
"Do you know who I am?" she asked imperiously.
"No." the Amazon replied sullenly.
"Good." with that, Artemis popped the door shut in her face. "I can't abide by a rotten audience."
Walking in to no one visible to her normal sight, she yodelled, "Hellloooo – isn't at least Nobody home?" The Queen stepped out of the alcove where she had been nervously rereading the same paragraph of a book for the last quarter candlemark, with no idea what she was looking at.
"I'm afraid you've just missed Nobody. Maybe next time."
Artemis chuckled. "I've never had dinner with you in here before." she commented, looking around curiously.
"Before you were having an official dinner with the Queen of the Sirens. Today you are having dinner with me. And no calling me by any goofy titles or anything. I was born Xenoklea."
"Xenoklea." very slowly, as if Artemis was tasting the name.
"Mmmhmmm. Now five times fast." Xenoklea strode over to a small table, and picked up two bottles. "The wine, or this other nasty stuff?" she asked, holding up the more scratched of the two.
For a moment Artemis simply stared at her, captivated by the way the setting sunlight pooled in the dips and curves of the other woman's body that the shear dress allowed her to see. "The nasty stuff." she breathed, licking her lips. Trance broken when Xenoklea moved, Artemis unconsciously stuck her thumbs under one side of her bundled cloak and a strap as she sat down, causing her fingers to collide with the carved box. "Oh – I brought you something."
Xenoklea had finished pouring, and she looked up curiously as she took her seat.
"Flowers, but for your window boxes." The box left the Queen a little confused.
"I don't..." Opening it revealed thirteen carefully labelled packets of seeds. Artemis grinned proudly.
"These flowers you can have as long as you like."
Xenoklea laughed. "Now, here is one of the most unusual, and well thought out gifts I've ever received." She looked more carefully at the box, observing the carvings of panthers, bears, and wolves on it. "Who made this?"
"I did. My mother insisted I develop an interest that involved neither weapons nor competitions."
"It's beautiful, like you."
Artemis blinked, caught unawares. Her eyes automatically traced the room as she tried to pull her thoughts together and produce a simple 'Thank you.' A smooth, oak panelled cupboard caught her eye.
It had the nerve to blur into the ceiling of a hollow in an oak tree, and the sudden awareness that her foot was asleep. Artemis looked over at Cyrene, who was still nestled into her chest, breathing even and measured. Opting not to disturb her partner, Artemis tried jiggling the offending foot. Her toes wouldn't move either, and things were getting extremely uncomfortable.
"For Gaea's sake, Artie. Get up and walk on it." Cyrene mock growled, giving her lover a poke and divesting her of her cloak. Rolling up in it, she added, "Go on. Things are all clear and ready for you."
"So nice." snorted Artemis, climbing to her feet and hopping about awkwardly. The innkeeper giggled helplessly as her lover grabbed her sleeping leg in both hands and tried to shake, then rub it. The onset of pins and needles threw Cyrene into outright chortling, even as Artemis stutter stepped, desperately trying to shake them.
"Oh – on a scale of one to ten, that's a one hundred for nice ways to get up." Cyrene's expression turned thoughtful. "And I had a really fine dream. I was picking what to wear to have dinner with you."
Clonk – Artemis reeled about and sat down with a thump, clutching her head where she had hit it on the ceiling. "For sure?" she asked, both hands clasped to the top of her head. Her lover flopped flat on her back and just laughed.