Ixion’s Curse, Chapter 1

Morpheus brought Nais pleasant dreams and sweet sleep for the first time since she’d arrived in Olympia. The centaurs’ appearance at Zeus’ festival caused quite the stir in the polis. Admittedly, Nais initially felt uneasy over the prospect of her centaur’s victory. Then she met, Amymone, a centaur’s mate. Whether it was Amymone’s calming influence, or Hera’s providence answering her prayers, Nais felt drawn to her centaur in a way she had never felt about a man before.
Her stomach fluttered pleasantly at the thought of Petraios. She stroked her pillow thoughtfully, unable to remember how she’d gotten to bed in her chambers. Neither her father or her betrothed had dismissed her from their company at the feast last night. Drowsy memories of her centaur carrying her to bed teased her consciousness. She bit her lip, blushing. She had fallen asleep on the dining couch in her centaur’s arms before the entire assembly of her father’s guests. Rumor and reputation had not held true of Petraios or she would have awoke in his arms still, and far from her father’s household. Her centaur was honorable like Kheiron Khronides, and the gods themselves had arranged her fate with him.
Noises of a busy household pulled Nais from her reverie, making her aware of happenings beyond the door of her chamber. The Queen’s voice, particularly distinct, barked orders which were answered by the clamor of footfalls as servants rushed to do her bidding. Her father’s new wife commanded the servants with a vengeance that could rival the Furies.
Her time in her father’s household had drawn to a close. Thoughts of her father brought a fond smile to her lips. The king had never spoken poorly of his young wife. He was too honorable to sully his reputation with gossip or ill will, but his marriage to the queen had, from the beginning, been one of pragmatism. Her father’s estate needed a male heir.
The door to Nais’ chamber creaked open.
“Good morning, Princess.” Her aging nurse hurried into the room with Nais’ spindly young handmaid at her heels, shutting the door as though to hide themselves. Chione’s greeting was an abrupt recitation rather than her usual chipper salutation. Neither woman met her eye, but bustled about the room attending their duties. Any encounter with the Queen drove the servants to more busied work, though rarely with quality results. Nais preferred her father’s more congenial, but firmly ruling hand and she had always striven to emulate his example. The king’s servants desired to please him rather than obeying out of fear. Nais’ role and responsibilities in her father’s household had been minimized with the Queen’s arrival, and she had been content to restrict her activities to waiting on her father, perfecting her skills at her loom, and tending her mother’s garden. She kept a modest personal staff, consisting only of her nurse and no more than two handmaids to wait on her. Only one accompanied her nurse this morning.
Khlidanope poured warm water in her wash basin.
“Thank you.” Nais washed her hands and face. Khlidanope gave a weak smile and nodded.
Nais returned her smile appreciatively as Chione helped her dress. “Where is Beroe?” Nais’ second handmaid had initially joined her father’s household as one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting, but Beroe had been eagerly attentive to Nais since the king had returned from Delphi with news of Nais’ betrothal.
The women exchanged nervous glances.
“Beroe has returned to her duties with the Queen.” Chione clicked her tongue dismissively as though the information were routine.
Nais blinked. If the Queen had merely loaned the services of her handmaid, perhaps it had been a gesture of good will after all. Nais had not needed additional servants, but she had grown accustomed to the girl’s enthusiastic company. There was much more work to be done before her father’s family returned home. “Of course, the Queen will bear the responsibility of readying my father’s household for the return journey to Boiotia. Certainly there will be duties for the Hellanodikis to finish with the magistrate and the Olympic council when they meet again with the Elean Senate. There will be a lot of work to do before my father can arrange my wedding to Petraios. I’m sure the kentauroi will…” Nais’ voice trailed off at the reactions of the women. Both wore grave expressions more characteristic of mourning than celebration. They waited on her with solicitude.
Nais bit her lip. This melancholy was quite a contrast from the festivities of the previous night. Shouldn’t her betrothal be a celebrated event?
A shrill cry echoed throughout the house. The women’s eyes grew wide before they composed themselves with more nervous glances.
“What is going on?” Nais furrowed her brow.
Chione and Khlidanope hung their heads and stared at the floor.
Gathering her skirt, Nais headed toward the sound, stopping short at the scene in the hall.
Servants scattered or cowered as the Queen rebuked one of her handmaids.
“No!” Beroe wailed at the sight of Nais. The cry had been hers. “I won’t go with the Princess. The ixionidae are beasts. You can’t send me away.”
The Queen struck the maid across the face. “How dare you disrespect me. Such ill manners may have been permissible to the Princess, but I will not tolerate such offense. You should have considered your fate before you abandoned me for another.”
Beroe stood, mouth agape, in horror.
A young girl, not quite in her maidenhood, stepped toward them balancing Nais’ little brother on one hip. The little Prince had taken a fancy to the Queen’s little handmaid. The girl reached for Beroe’s arm comfortingly. “I don’t think the kentauroi are beasts. They followed all the rules and the king trusts them. The Princess-”
“Silence! I’ve had enough of both of you.” The Queen’s voice rose with indignation.
The young girl shrank from her mistress’ censure, clutching the young prince.
“You will both go with the beasts, since I cannot count on loyalty from either of you. Let your insolence serve the Princess and her beastly new master. Get out of my sight.” The Queen snapped her finger at another servant. “Bring the king’s son.” She turned to discover Nais watching. Contempt soured her otherwise lovely features. She stuck her chin in the air before stalking off.
Beroe slapped the little girl’s hand away, scowling venomously.
The girl looked around, her jaw hanging agape as she fidgeted with empty arms. She hung her head at Nais’ gaze.
Chione ushered both girls toward the door in a hushed but firm tone. Khlidanope followed in chagrin.
“I won’t go.” Beroe stomped her foot, resisting the woman’s direction.
“You’ll do as you’re told, girl, or the Queen will have you whipped and sold, or worse.” Chione’s voice brooked no argument.
“The ixionidae are worse.” Beroe whined, shoving the little girl ahead of her.
Chione gave her mistress a weak smile and bowed. “The King waits for you in the courtyard, Princess.”
Nais nodded briefly and turned toward the gate. Surely her father could explain this melancholy chaos that preceded her wedding.
Beroe crossed her arms in defiance, bitterness and resentment evident in her expression. The women followed Nais outside.
The king greeted his daughter briefly with a smile and a kiss on Nais’ forehead. He held her hand on his forearm, a clear indication he was aware of of her, though preoccupied with the business of directing servants and soldiers.
A team of oxen stood outside the courtyard, hitched to a wagon. It was loaded with Nais’ dowry, which was a small fortune; her weaving loom, which had been disassembled for travel; her mother’s bronze mirror, and trunks of all her possessions, along with all of Petraios’ winnings from the Olympic Games. Servants rushed about still loading provisions including food, wine, a small tent for Nais’ privacy, and her favorite stool with the cushion embroidered by her mother. Undoubtedly, the servants had worked through the night to gather and load everything. More servants brought the last of her belongings from her chambers.
A pair of hoplites, waited to accompany them. Captain Sokos, her father’s personal bodyguard, and another young man Nais was not familiar with. The soldiers did not look any more pleased with the prospect of travel in the company of centaurs than the women had.
Her centaur appeared out of the garden and entered the courtyard when he saw her. Petraios trotted boldly toward her. He had infiltrated her garden before. A familiar flutter in her stomach sent a pleasant wash of heat coursing over her and her breath shortened at his approving smile. Her father gave her hand a gentle pat before turning his attentions to her centaur giving Petraios a thorough inventory of the business at hand as well as his daughter’s dowry. Nais had a drowsy recollection they had discussed all these arrangements the previous evening. Petraios listened attentively, nodding in intervals. Occasionally his tail mimicked the gesture. The movement reminded Nais of the wild undertones of her centaur’s nature. The part of him that had earned his race an unsavory reputation.
The weight of Petraios’ massive body shifted gently in his hindquarters and his tail swung against his leg as if he were aware of her gaze.
Nais bit her lip trying not to stare. She waited dutifully at her father’s side, acutely aware of her centaur’s stolen glances, lingering eagerly, just short of being rude to her father, and how his tail twitched in her direction each time her father monopolized Petraios’ attention with some new detail.
He winked, the corner of his mouth lifting in a covert smile as she blushed.
She returned his smile demurely, but her father had not noticed the exchange. Appearing modest and genteel was not difficult. Nais had years of practice in propriety, but distracting her mind from her centaur’s presence proved impossible. All the new emotions and sensations of sitting at his side the previous evening returned in force.
His companions appeared at the gate. Petraios lifted his chin in their direction and his tail snapped between his legs. The yellow centaur grinned and elbowed his young black and white companion. His brother crossed his arms over his chest and stomped a rear hoof on the ground, his own tail drumming a beat against his bronze hide. Unspoken communication had passed clearly between them, but Nais had no idea what it meant.
She had never given much thought to interpreting body language before. It was a subconscious effort, yet the novelty of a centaur’s form and movement brought a sudden awareness that made her blush at the effort to understand. His human form was generally straight forward. A smile and a wink made heat rise to her cheeks and she instinctively understood he communicated pleasure and the intent to flatter her by sharing a secret. His equine half was more a mystery. This silent language was foreign but enticing, both compelling and terrifying. His body responded in a way that betrayed his awareness of her observations. His hide twitched beneath her traveling gaze, and the weight shifted in his hind legs when it lingered. His tail snapped as if to communicate more than awareness, but also the ability and desire to command her attention. He met her sheepish eyes and grinned. With his teeth exposed, his tail snapped more forcefully. It was an intimate thing to communicate in such a silent manner.
Her father patted her hand again. His smile told her he knew more than he let on. He nodded to Petraios before releasing her to motion for his steward. “Open the gate for our company.”
Four more centaurs entered the courtyard. Petraios trotted to meet them. First was her centaur’s Alpha brother, the leader of their herd. They looked very much alike, save for the Alpha’s darker bronze coloring in comparison to the slightly honeyed tones of Petraios hair and tail. Standing next to each other these slight differences became exaggerated by their temperament. Petraios lighter coloring complimented his easy smile and made Nais feel warm and comfortable. His brother’s scowl only darkened beneath his hair, making him look imposing and stern. The Alpha was taller and trimmer than his brother. He surveyed the courtyard, his dark tail snapping between his legs, accompanied by the intermittent stomp of his hoof against the stone ground. A harsh and agitated gesture compared to Petraios’ easy flirtations. The Alpha’s disapproving gaze settled on her.
Nais shivered. A flash of yellow and black provided an unintentional rescue blocking the Alpha’s view. Isoples’ long, lanky hide glinted golden in the morning sun. The youngest centaur, Melankhaites cast an ever vigilant glance at the Alpha before taking in his surroundings.
Nais took a deep breath as her centaur’s companions clattered into the courtyard. Despite her growing admiration for Petraios, the herd still made her uncomfortable.
Isoples thrust an elbow into his young companion’s black hide before pointing at the women. He reared beating his yellow legs in the air laughing as they scurried to avoid proximity.
Beroe shrieked in disgust but Isoples did not pursue.
Last through the gate was Petraios’ trainer during the Games. Aristaios was a stocky centaur with a solid build and long, braided hair, not only on his head and tail, but around his ankles too. His hide was a rich red, like clay, but the hairs of his head and tail were black. A woman rode on his back, still wearing Nais’ gown and jewelery she gifted the woman the evening before. Her eyes found Nais immediately.
Nais was relieved to see Amymone with her mate. Surely Amymone would provide some calm to temper both the agitation between her women and the centaurs, but also her own nerves at the prospect of their equine escort. Amymone had already cast a ray of sunshine on the otherwise bleak affair which her women threatened to make of her betrothal. They had become fast friends, a blessing from the gods.
The king greeted each of his guests and began including the centaurs in his orders of business.
The oxen bellowed as centaurs drew near. The women, also fearful in the presence of the centaurs, avoided any close proximity. They huddled near the cart and the hoplites, as they worked to arrange Nais’ belongings in the wagon. Only the young girl stood her ground, watching the centaurs with wide-eyed curiosity.
The centaurs themselves obeyed the king’s orders, though by their expressions, perhaps a little less tolerably than they pretended. Nais avoided the Alpha’s gaze. There was no misinterpreting his body language. Impatience was apparent in his manner as he alternately paced, barely inside the gate, and crossed his arms over his chest, his tail lashing at the ground with each interval. His companions eyed the hoplites warily and the women eagerly. Still, they did not object to her father’s wishes.
The little maid looked around, obviously unsure what her duties were. She hung her head when she saw Nais watching her.
“Come here, girl.” Nais motioned to her. “Tell me your name, child.” She was several years younger than Nais and on the brink of her maidenhood. She would not be a child for much longer.
“Melanippe, Princess.” The girl bowed and kept her eyes downcast.
“And how old are you, Melanippe?” Nais watched the girl sneak a peek at the centaurs.
“Eleven, almost twelve.”
“My father’s wife dismissed you?”
The girl nodded uncomfortably. She did not look up, but observed from the corner of her eyes.
The Queen had never been happy with Nais’ lingering presence in her father’s household, nor with her father’s decision to delay her betrothal. It seemed the woman wished Nais gone from the moment she’d wed her father and joined the family. The servants had whispered that she resented the competition of Nais’ presence, and so Nais had mostly stayed away from her. At least she maintained an emotional distance even when a physical distance was beyond her control. Nais didn’t see why the woman should resent her father’s love for her, but who knew what insecurities the woman harbored as a man’s second wife, despite that her father had been nothing but benevolent and gracious to her.
“Are you prepared to accompany me to my new home among the kentauroi?”
The girl nodded. “I am obedient, Princess.” Her voice cracked, and she fidgeted nervously with her feet, her hands behind her back.
“I believe you, Melanippe.” The girl bit back a smile and Nais turned toward Amymone. “Do you see the woman riding the kentauros?”
This time the girl looked up, her countenance brightened. “The one who looked so pretty last night?”
Nais smiled. “I want you to stay with her and serve her. She is my dear friend and she will be your mistress. Understand?”
The girl nodded again.
“Good, then follow me.”
Amymone smiled as they neared. She took her mate’s hand and lighted off his back. Her hair hung down in loose waves about her shoulders framing her face prettily.
“I will return your dress.” Amymone began to unclasp the necklace around her neck.
Nais shook her head. “They are gifts, I wish you to keep them.”
Amymone tried to object, handing her the necklace.
Nais held up her hands. “That dress never looked so well on me, it suits you much better.”
Amymone blushed with gratitude.
“This is Melanippe. She will be joining us from my father’s household. I have instructed her to wait on you.” Nais passed the necklace to Melanippe, and ushered the girl toward her new mistress and her imposing equine companion.
Amymone furrowed her brow, looking toward Nais’ other women and back. She didn’t question or object, though curiosity hung in her brow. She smiled at the girl.
Melanippe fidgeted nervously.
“Hello Melanippe, I am Amymone.” Amymone bent down and lifted the girl’s chin to look her in the eyes.
The girl’s gaze flitted nervously to Aristaios and back to the ground.
“Will you not look at me, child?”
“I am not supposed to look in my mistress’ eyes.” Melanippe stole another glance at Aristaios’ hooves.
Amymone clicked her tongue and took the girl by the hand. “Then we shall just have to be friends instead.”
The girl looked up hesitantly and returned Amymone’s smile. Her expression returned to nervousness when Aristaios stepped forward.
“This is my mate, Aristaios.” Amymone rested her hand on his flank. “He will not hurt you. He is gentle as a pony.”
Aristaios snorted and pranced at the suggestion, but did not argue.
“Even a pony kicks when you upset it.” Melanippe wrinkled her nose, staring up at him in curious awe.
Aristaios and Amymone laughed.
“I think I’ll like her.” Aristaios grinned and kissed his mate’s temple.
“Milady.” Melanippe held up the gold necklace. Amymone bent and the girl fastened it around her neck once more.
Amymone took the little girl’s hand smiling.
“Princess.” Aristaios gave a courteous nod and left them to join his companions.
“My father has already taken the liberty of seeing that my things are packed and loaded properly. Nothing remains but to bid farewell to my father.” Nais spoke to Amymone but watched the group of centaurs uneasily.
“You are nervous.” Amymone took her hand.
“Yes.” Nais sighed with a small nod.
“I understand, I was too.” Amymone gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
“My women are either scared or obstinate. The hoplites are on edge, ready to draw swords at any moment, I’m sure. The oxen are disturbed. The Queen wishes only to be rid of me. My father is distracted by duty and protocol. It is obvious I will be consumed with diplomacy between all parties, including my own nerves.” Nais took a deep breath. “You are the only one left to be happy for me.”
“I am happy for you, but you should be too.”
Nais gave a weak smile, grateful to her friend. She bit her lip as her tone turned to teasing. “Well, you saw how your mate could not keep his eyes off you last night. All the others admired you, even my father paid the highest compliments.” She nodded toward the centaurs.
Amymone laughed. “Yes, I believe with a little bit of makeup and a new gown you managed to make a simple goose look like a swan.”
“Nonsense, this little bit of finery can only serve to enhance the beauty which is already present, it cannot conjure beauty where none exists.”
Amymone shook her head. “You are too generous.”
“Surely you had some treasures and fine things in your father’s estate, did not your women dress you even for your own betrothal?”
“I had a nurse who had cared for my brother and me, but never a retinue of servants and handmaids. I learned and performed many of the household duties and also much of the work in the kitchen and garden usually done by servants in grander estates. I did not know any different. My father’s servants could not be spared from their duties in his fields, and my nurse met the All-Receiver before the years of my maidenhood.”
“Well, you have one now.” Nais rested a hand gently on Melanippe’s shoulder. The girl didn’t avert her eyes but smiled hesitantly back. Her smile vanished as she looked around and met the disapproving scowl of Beroe. She hung her head.
Nais’ gaze flitted back to the centaurs. The Alpha and Isoples watched her. Beroe’s disapproval was not the only ill regard she faced.
Isoples grinned when he saw her looking their way, and spoke to the Alpha. Nais couldn’t hear what passed between them in conversation, but their respective expressions did not change. Their seemingly opposite reactions to everything around them made her uneasy. As if Isoples were eager to cause trouble as the Alpha wished to avoid it. When Isoples grinned, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was the trouble he wished to cause. For the first time she felt glad Petraios was the Alpha’s brother. Her stomach flip flopped. Would that even matter?
Nais turned her back to them, avoiding their stares. She lowered her voice. “Will Isoples challenge Petraios?”
“It is unlikely.” Amymone chuckled. “Isoples is an eager flirt, though not entirely harmless, but he is loyal to the sons of Arktos.”
Nais raised a brow. “Because Petraios has already won?”
Amymone shook her head. “No formal challenge has been made for you according to their law.”
“What about the contests, my father awarded my betrothal to Petraios?”
Amymone opened her mouth, but it was Petraios’ deep voice that answered. “The games of men do not satisfy the laws of the kentauroi.”
Nais blushed as she turned to see her centaur standing over her with Aristaios at his side. She hadn’t noticed them approach. It was uncanny for a being so large to move so silently.
Aristaios grinned. “However, as my lovely mate has pointed out, it is unlikely as neither Isoples nor Melankhaites could beat Petraios and they know it. A challenge would only give Petraios an opportunity to humiliate them for trying.”
“That’s probably not a bad idea.” Petraios slapped his friend’s shoulder jovially.
Nais bit her lip. “That doesn’t stop their flirtations though.”
Both centaurs laughed. Even Amymone smiled at the concern on Nais’ face.
“You needn’t fear any threat from Isoples.” Petraios cupped the side of her face in his palm. “By Kheiron’s hand he would pay dearly for any trespass against you.” The gesture was pleasant but hardly reassuring.
Nais swallowed. The bustle of packing had stopped. Her father stood with his steward across the courtyard. The moment had come. Her life was about to change permanently.
“I must say boodbye to my father.” Nais’ voice was a whisper.
Petraios nodded and offered his arm, taking her hand in the crook of his elbow without waiting for her to accept.
A lump rose in her throat at the tender expression on her father’s face as she approached.
Petraios stood behind her, his hand rested against her back. She took a deep, resolute breath. “Farewell, Father.”
“I am proud of you, my daughter. Your mother would be proud too. You look so much like her.” Her father embraced her. “I wish you every happiness in your new life.” He paused and blinked as he kissed her forehead. “You will forgive an old man for his emotions. I will miss you as I have your mother.” He pulled her close and held her again, tightly.
Nais felt weight in the finality of his farewell. She would not see him again. Tears flooded her eyes.
Petraios addressed the king. “My brother is impatient to begin our journey. We have been away from home longer than anticipated. You will forgive our abrupt departure, but we do not wish to prolong the upheaval our presence has caused in the polis.”
The king released his daughter slowly, and reached to clasp Petraios’ hand. “Take care of my daughter.”
Her centaur nodded.
“Princess!” A frantic voice called from the house.
The king turned to see his son’s nurse come running into the courtyard carrying the child. She looked nervous as the king surveyed her.
“I thought the Princess would like to bid farewell to her brother.” The woman bowed awkwardly and attempted to catch her breath with discretion.
Her father’s wife had not come to bid Nais farewell. She knew they had not been close, but she’d not expected the Queen to shun her either. Did she honestly think that permitting a farewell to her brother and sending her off with a pair of serving maids would suffice as a gesture of well wishes?
Nais kissed the little boy’s head. He was a sweet child. She wished him a happy life.
“And my wife?” Her father frowned.
“She sends her best wishes for the Princess’ happiness.” The nurse avoided the king’s stern glare as she stammered.
Nais doubted the Queen even cared.
Her father exhaled through his nostrils, visibly upset that his wife had not appeared. Nais wondered what words would pass between them later. He did not take it out on the poor nurse, however, and thanked her for bringing his son. Nycteus took the child from his nurse’s arms and waved goodbye encouraging the boy to do likewise.
The boy cooed and reached toward Melanippe.
The girl stood with the other women watching. She grinned hesitantly until the king nodded his approval and beckoned to her.
“You have taken good care of my son, child.” Nycteus patted her head.
“Bye, little Prince” Melanippe sniffled, hugging the boy.
Nais embraced her brother and father a final time. It would not be the Queen who would take Nais’ place in her father’s affections.
Petraios knelt as Nais seated easily, but gently, atop his back, rather than swinging her through the air as she had seen Aristaios do with Amymone. His movements were startling, but Petraios held her securely. She clutched his shoulders as he stood.
Amymone smiled from her own perch atop Aristaios’ back. Petraios held Nais’ hand on his shoulder. It was exhilarating to feel his powerful body beneath her.
Her father, brother and the nurse watched from the courtyard as the centaur turned and headed toward the gates.
Nais held her breath. The walls of the courtyard held everything familiar about her safe, comfortable life. Outside the courtyard the mountains stood in the distance. Riding her centaur’s strong back, it was Fate that truly carried her. She was headed straight for the wild unknown of life among her centaur’s herd.