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The midday heat bakes the earth and makes me yawn. Eternity is long; gods have a lot of empty time.
But then my eyes pop open, for a girlish voice zigzags about my ears.
The voice lilts closer.
I push up onto an elbow and look around.
A human child comes through the grasses. The gnarled olive branches filter the sun to silver. Shadow hides her face as she stoops to pick red and yellow and black anemones.
I scamper behind a thick tree trunk. Is she alone? How can that be? A girl child of her tender age shouldn't go unattended. Artemis, my most beloved aunt, protects maidens, especially when they romp in forests and meadows. Nevertheless, the girl's parents are neglectful to let her stray alone.
This Part of Arcadia is sparsely populated. The only road runs from Argos, in the northeast, to ugly Sparta, in the central south. The difference between the two is like the difference between the sun and the moon. Which is she a child of?
I don't care for human adults, who scream when they see me.
But I like human children. I've watched them play, almost like goat kids. Nowhere near as nimble, though. On my two legs I can never run as fast as goats or climb with as much agility. But I can best any human at both.
I peek out from around the tree. The child talks to a flower.
She comes closer.
I pull my head out of sight. A long while passes. I scratch my rump against a low broken-off branch. A breeze shakes the narrow leaves, green-silver-green.
What is she doing?
She rolls in the grass in full sunlight. Her hair picks up bits of stick and leaves. She's as blissful and free as some sort of cub.
I jump into view.
She gets toher feet, eyes instantly wet and bright, hands out to each side; at the first hint of evil, she'll take flight.
I sit on my haunches, thinking, Stay, child. Stay a while.
She bends at the waist just enough so that her face
comes forward slightly. Her small breasts press against her shift. She's older than I thought. "What are you?"
What, not who. She's taken me for a beast. She's an idiot, after all. The sharp points of my horns could pierce her soft belly like a knife through fresh cheese.
Her full face watches me, open, waiting.
And I see there is nothing dull in her eyes, nor any hint of superiority. Her purity deserves honesty. "A freak," I say.
She withdraws a step, blushing. She thinks I am embarrassed to be as I am. Silly girl. I am the delight of the gods.
"Do you mean me harm?" she asks.
"Are you nasty like other hybrids?"
A nasty question. "Which hybrids do you speak of?"
"The centaurs," she says.
"Some centaurs are noble," I say.
"They're known for rape."
I shrug. "No, I'm not nasty."
Her arms lower slowly. She looks over her shoulder, then back at me. Her hands grip at the folds in her shift. And now I can see that she is a rare beauty.
I lift my nose and breathe deep. "You smell of thyme." A smell I favor; thyme honey is the best.
She touches her hair uncertainly and picks out debris. "Everything lives in these grasses."
"It's rash to roll here. You're lucky you aren't stinging from thistles."
"I checked first," she says. "None of these flowers or herbs is poisonous."
I grant her a small smile. "Who taught you so much about plants?"
"I learned on my own. I love the outdoors." She looks over her shoulder again.
"Are you expecting someone?" I ask.
She smiles shyly and shakes her head. "They don't know I took a walk. They forbid midday walks."
She could have said yes. She could have used a cloak of lies to protect herself. "And who are they?"
"My mother and sister and the servants. We stopped because of the heat, and Electra, she's my sister, she cried of thirst. Now they're napping."
"Did you cry?"
"I never cry."
I tilt my head. "You expect me to believe that?"
"Believe it or not, as you wish."
She's saucy. This time I hold in my smile. "I didn't mean to offend. Why would you refuse to cry?"
She hesitates. "Why should I answer you?"
"For the same reason I answer you."
She stands there silent.
I put both hands on my knees and rub my palms in circles. The knots of hair that form come off in clumps.
She picks one up. "Are you ill?"
I almost laugh. "Just molting."
She drops the clump and sucks in air. "Can you keep a secret? "
Why would this girl trust me so fast? I nod.
She looks at me hard. "I'm not my mother's daughter. Or, well, not her blood daughter. My real mother abandoned me at birth. So I have to be extra good to be loved. Before my sister was born, I didn't have to be so careful. But it's different now."
Her matter-of-factness steals my breath. A newborn abandoned by a mother--this is a story I know. Mothers can be cruel. After a moment, I ask in a quiet voice, "Why is this a secret?"
The girl shrugs.
"Do you know your real mother?" I ask.
I have to ask. "Do you know why she abandoned you?"
"She wasn't married."
"How do you know all this?"
"I overheard the servants, so I asked my mother."
"You asked her outright?"
"And why shouldn't I have?"