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The Business Centaur’s Virgin Temp, Chapter Nine

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Need to catch up?

At first light, Fiona woke to Chariclo and her daughter, Melannipe, come to dress her for the trip to Hera’s temple. Though Fiona had only slept for what felt like a few minutes, she rose and let them drape her in a dusky rose-colored chiton held together at the shoulders by small seashell buttons. Melannipe used her watery fingers to deftly maneuver the sides of the garment together, overlapping the fabric and securing the folds with a golden cord around Fiona’s waist.

“This is beautiful,” Fiona said softly to ease the tension that had entered the room with the two women. Chariclo, who’d been so concerned and welcoming before, might as well have frozen over. That only made Fiona desperately, demonstratively grateful, which in turn just seemed to irritate Chariclo further. 

Fiona lifted the hem of the skirt carefully, fully aware of her lack of undergarments. Not that the nearly transparent material hid much, especially in the places where Melannipe’s touch had soaked it through. Fiona wouldn’t argue about it and risk upsetting Chariclo more. Fingering the embroidery along the hem, Fiona asked, “Did you do this, Melanippe?”

Before she could answer, Chariclo cut in with a flat, “I did it. I had hoped to wear this to my daughter’s joining in the temple of Hera.”

With her stomach churning at the awkwardness, Fiona quickly apologized. “Oh, I had no idea! I don’t want to take your mother-of-the-bride dress from you.”

It became instantly apparent that she had not responded appropriately. The white crest of a violent wave crashed through Chariclo. “You mean to insult me by turning down my gift?”

At what point did I piss in your ocean? Fiona held the retort on her tongue. She’d intruded on their lives. She was the inconvenience, not Chariclo. “I just meant, I came here with my own clothes. There’s no reason you have to give me such an important and sentimental item. And I would never expect you to. I’m a stranger.”

Chariclo wrinkled her nose, deep lines of sea foam forming a scowling brow. “And now you would prefer to present yourself before Hera in filthy clothes reeking of mortal blood?”

Melanippe stepped between the two of them. “This will be easier to ride in, anyway,” she burbled happily.

Chariclo glided away, still roiling with whitecaps.

Unsure of how well astrals could hear, Fiona waited far long than was comfortable before she spoke again. “I’m really sorry for all this trouble I’m causing everyone. And I didn’t mean to insult your mother. It seemed like it bothered her to give me this and the last thing—”

“It has nothing to do with you,” Melanippe interrupted gently. “But leave now, so she doesn’t have a chance to say another unfriendly word.”

Fiona took that as a warning against more than just words. But over a simple dress? Why not keep it?

“Come on,” Melannipe urged her. “Marcaeus is waiting.”

“Oh, my clothes,” Fiona tried to remind her as the watery woman splashed her with concern toward the courtyard.

“They were destroyed,” Melannipe bubbled. Her rapid shooing motion splattered water everywhere, giving Fiona no choice but to hurry away lest she wind up in a wet chiton contest on her wedding day.

At least, Fiona assumed it was a wedding day. It was hard to tell when she was not only seeing the groom before the ceremony, but she was doing so barefoot in what was basically lingerie.

Not that the intended groom would notice, since they were both on the same page about their fake marriage. That did peel a layer of awkwardness off the situation.

Marcaeus stood in the courtyard, still alarmingly shirtless, with a leather satchel slung over his shoulder. He didn’t bother to glance Fiona’s way as she approached, keeping his eyes on Chiron as they engaged in an intense conversation.

A few droplets of seawater dribbled down her bare arm, and she turned to Melanippe.

“Don’t be afraid,” the water-woman said in the low voice of a calm sea nudging the bow of a docked ship. “Not of Hera, or him.”

“I’m not afraid of him. He’s my boss,” Fiona whispered.

Melanippe’s head tilted. “Isn’t that who mortals fear most?”

“I…” Fiona couldn’t argue against that.

She also couldn’t truthfully argue that here, in this strange place, in his true form, Marcaeus wasn’t exponentially more intimidating than the kilted businessman who ran Chiron Corp. The fact that she was his enemy now didn’t help.

Fiona’s night had been long and sleepless as she’d vacillated between self-pity and self-hatred. How had her brother gotten her involved in this? How had she made such a mess of it that now Greek gods and an arranged marriage had become involved? But the answer to those questions was always another question: why had she agreed to do it? Yes, she’d wanted to help Wren, but couldn’t there have been another way? If she’d just taken her time and thought things through…

She’d just gone along with whatever her brother asked because that’s what she’d always been expected to do. She wasn’t the hero of her own story. She was the evil henchman in Marcaeus’s. And he was treating her far better than she deserved.

Chiron glanced in her direction and she realized too late that she’d been staring. He gave a nod toward her and Marcaeus turned. His face entirely unreadable, he stated flatly, “You’re barefoot.”

Fiona looked down and wriggled her toes against the grass. “I guess I am.”

He walked over and extended his hand. “Get on.”

It wasn’t a friendly invitation, but she accepted it, anyway, and let him pull her up to sit on his back.

“Chariclo doesn’t intend to see us off?” Marcaeus asked, in a tone that suggested he’d already encountered her mood that morning.

“She’ll see reason. Eventually.” Chiron chuckled fondly. “My tempest.”

With a wave of his hand, Chiron opened one of those incredible portals. Of what Fiona could glimpse through it, Hera’s temple stood on a rocky outcropping over a lush mountain valley.

Mountain.

Olympus?

Fiona had somehow failed so badly at corporate espionage, she was going to end up on Mount Olympus. It could go down in history as the worst fuck-up of all time. She’d probably hold that record in more than one dimension, now.

Marcaeus moved toward the portal and Fiona scrabbled to grab his shoulders; riding sidesaddle, sans saddle, didn’t feel secure at all. On the other hand, it was unsettling to have her hands on her shirtless boss’s very broad shoulders. She turned her head to thank Melannipe again, but the moment Fiona said the woman’s name, Marcaeus stepped through the shimmering gateway, closing it behind them.

“Excuse me!” Fiona knew she was in no position to argue about anything, considering all she’d done to get both of them into this situation, but his rudeness had made her appear rude. “Your friends were not happy that I was there. The least you could have done was let me thank them again for their…patience.”

“Not kindness?” Marcaeus asked as he plodded their way through the lush, bluish-green grass of the mountain path.

“Melannipe was kind.” It was the only way to dodge the question. Fiona wouldn’t speak ill of any of the astrals who’d helped her. “They were all kind. In their way. You, included.”

“I’m protecting my company,” he reminded her.

As if she needed reminding. “I know. But you could have called the cops on me. Fraudulent glamour is a felony.”

“I’m aware.”

“I’m trying to make things right! Why are you being such a dick?” The word was out of her mouth before she thought twice, which she should have. What was keeping him from bucking her off? “I just wanted to say goodbye to your friend.”

“My friend.” The word came out practically screaming it was a lie. “I suppose that’s what she is, now.”

Fiona’s heart plummeted. “Wait, were you—”

“Yes.” He said nothing further.

Chariclo’s comments made sense now; she thought Fiona was the cause of Melannipe’s broken heart. And Chariclo was correct, which made the whole thing worse, as did Melannipe’s kindness. Fiona couldn’t imagine being so gracious to someone who was stealing her fiance.

“I don’t understand,” Fiona began again. “She didn’t say anything. She helped me get dressed and gave me advice and—”

“What kind of advice?” Marcaeus snapped, stopping so suddenly that Fiona nearly toppled off his back.

“She told me not to be afraid of you, for one,” Fiona grumbled, doubting that pearl of wisdom. “And she defended me from her mother. It just didn’t seem like she was that sad–”

She stopped herself at the unintended implication that Melannipe didn’t care about him.

 His sudden inhale betrayed the depth of the accidental wound. “Maybe she isn’t.”

Again with the talking before thinking.

They didn’t speak further until they reached the milky blue steps to the temple. From afar, it had looked like marble. Now that they were close, Fiona noticed the subtle variants of translucency and hue in the stone.

“Aquamarine,” he said, startling her.

“What?”

He held out his hand and she took it, but it still startled her when he swung her from his back to set her on her feet. “The stone. It’s Aquamarine.”

“How did you know I was wondering about that?” It was almost as unsettling as being treated like a backpack.

“You’ve never seen anything like it before.” He stated it as a painfully obvious fact, which it was, but the truth didn’t make his tone any less exasperated. “You’re not vapid enough to lack curiosity.”

“Was that an attempt to compliment me?” she asked.

He looked down, his expression shamingly humorless. “It was a statement of fact. I have no reason or desire to compliment you.”

He started up the steps, but Fiona couldn’t let him walk away without clearing the air. “Wait.”

With an annoyed sigh, he turned.

He could be as mad at her as he wanted, but damn it, she would apologize.

“What I did to you was wrong. I should have never listened to my brother. Before they put that mark on me, I could have chosen not to be a part of any of this. I couldn’t make a wrong situation right by lying. I knew that, and I did it anyway. And now I’ve hurt you and I’ve hurt a very kind, very thoughtful stranger.” A hiccuping sob caught her by surprise, and she swiped angrily at her tears. “You could have left me unprotected against the demon’s mark. You could have just sent me back to my brother and let him force me to do…god knows what.”

The thought chilled her.

Marcaeus’s stone features softened. “I knew my options. I couldn’t leave you in the demon’s–or your brother’s–control.”

Stunned speechless, Fiona could only stare.

“Doing the right thing sometimes means that innocent people are hurt.” He nodded tersely, his gaze moving to the top of her head. “Put your veil down. You’ll wear it until the anakalypteria.”

When she opened her mouth to ask, he answered before she could utter the question. “The unveiling,” he explained, coming close and reaching for the long veil pinned into the ornate braids Melannipe had worked for her. The veil covered her almost to the floor; no wonder it had felt so heavy.

“Thanks. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never been to Mount Olympus before,” she said, silently tacking on how grateful she was for the extra coverage; though it had begun to dry, her chiton hadn’t started out opaque in the first place.

“You’re not on Olympus,” Marcaeus corrected her, giving the veil one last, gentle tug into place. “This is Mount Pelion. My ancestral home.”

“Oh.” The knowledge she lacked shamed her. “I didn’t realize there were gods and goddesses on more than one…mount.”

He didn’t respond, but he took her hand again and resumed the walk up to the temple. Somewhere, a peacock let out its screaming call, and as they climbed higher, white feathers went from “scattered” to “carpeted” beneath her bare feet. Finally, they reached the top and he fell to his front knees, nudging her to kneel, as well.

“Bow your head,” he said in a low voice, before calling out, “Hera, exalted Queen of Olympus, wife of might Zeus, mother to—”

“Oh, shut up,” a lilting voice answered, a voice much younger than Fiona would have imagined it would be, but still commanding. “Get up. And take her stupid veil off. Do you think I don’t know why you’re here?”

Struggling to her feet, Fiona squeaked out, “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. I can’t stand the weakness of an insincere apology. Do you know how many I’ve heard since the day my father vomited me out?” The goddess snapped.

“Thank you for your cooperation. We know this is an inconvenience.” Marcaeus began, and Fiona noted his directness. She would follow his lead and only say what was necessary and to the point.

Marcaeus moved in close and lifted the veil. The silk caught on one of the pins in her hair. As she reached up to prevent him from dislodging her braids, he uttered a soft, shockingly charming, “Oops,” and reached to correct it himself. Their hands brushed and he jerked his back as if he’d touched something disgusting.

Hera’s laughter rang out like a crystal bell, and as the veil lifted from Fiona’s eyes, she saw the goddess—an actual goddess!—standing with one brown hand over her mouth. Her pile of glossy black curls shook as she barely took pains to stifle her laughter. “This marriage is a bigger sham than mine. Never marry a sibling, mortal.”

“I, um. Thank you.” The thought had never crossed her mind, but Fiona wasn’t about to correct a goddess.

“There’s no danger of that.” Marcaeus’s voice held no hint of humor at all. Astrals, she had quickly come to realize, didn’t seem to do a lot of joking.

Maybe that was just in the presence of humans. And liars.

“Bring your bride.” Hera’s derisive snort seemed to amuse the snow-white peacock at her side; it squalled and fanned its tail with a rattle. “This won’t take long.”

The temple’s columns were even more intimidating when viewed from close up; despite how slender and graceful they had looked from afar, Fiona imagined their circumference could rival the long-extinct redwood trees she’d learned about in high school science class. The milky clouds in the stunning aquamarine glittered as they moved into the cool shadows beneath the pediment. They passed through the portico and into a sun-drenched courtyard lined with shimmering, gold-leafed trees bearing dazzling, gilded fruit. One stood in the middle, taller and more gnarled than the rest, its branches reaching out to nearly enclose a perfectly circular space.

“When human men cheat, they give their women diamonds.” Hera’s wry humor made Fiona realize she’d been staring, open-mouthed, at the orchard-bordering-on-forest. The goddess nodded to the branches of a sapling supported by a golden staff. “I presume those apologies are much easier to store. Or throw into a pit. But my husband chooses symbolism over ease of destruction. Drama queen that he is.”

Hera led them into the circle of branches and stood before them. The leaves rustled, and Fiona gasped in alarm as the tree seemed to enfold them, pulling a canopy of gold around them. Marcaeus took her hand, and Fiona thought he might have done so to calm her until he gave it a tug to indicate she should kneel again. He didn’t release her but carefully arranged her palm to lie across the broad, veiny back of his own hand.

The goddess pulled a length of twisted golden vine from within the branches and wrapped it around Fiona’s forearm, then Marcaeus’s, looping and crisscrossing the cord deftly until the couple was bound elbow to fingertips.

As Hera finished the final knot, she asked, somewhat annoyed, if Fiona guessed her tone correctly, “Did her father offer a sacrifice?”

Does an entire planet’s climate count? Probably not. She opened her mouth but couldn’t quite find an appropriate answer before Marcaeus could do it for her.

“Her father is dead, and her brother estranged. Chiron has taken on the role of her kyrios. This morning, he made a sacrifice of twenty million human dollars to your Swiss account.”

Hera’s brows rose and her mouth curved in a pleased smirk. “Sacrifice accepted.”

“Sacrifice is such an elegant word for ‘bribe’,” Marcaeus quipped, and Hera’s crystalline laughter filled the bower.

“Isn’t it? Just as calling this a wedding is preferable to naming it for what it is: a perversion of our customs and rites.” Hera sighed a deeply exhausted sigh. “Marcaeus, Chiron gives this woman to you as a newly furrowed field in which to sow the seed of your future generations.”

Gross.

“I take her,” Marcaeus answered, flat as tap water.

Grosser.

Was Fiona meant to say something back? She looked desperately to Marcaeus, but he wouldn’t make eye contact.

“Congratulations, I’m sure the two of you will be very happy.” The goddess’s use of air quotes around the final word was, Fiona thought, a bit mean and unnecessary, even though the marriage was a sham.

“Wait…is that—” she began.

“Yes, that’s it. I hope it was as romantic as you’d hoped.” Every time she spoke, Hera made a stronger case for why she should perhaps not be the goddess in charge of overseeing marriages.

Which was why Fiona asked for confirmation, just to be certain. “But I didn’t say anything.”

“Neither did I, at my own joining,” Hera said. “Brides are superfluous to the rite, really.”

And there Fiona had been thinking of the Astral as a magical realm of spiritual enlightenment. Despite its beauty and strangeness, Elyssia, at least, seemed to be the same shit, different plane.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Hera added, gesturing to the vine binding the couple’s arms. Instead of loosening it, she passed her hand over it, tracing the path without touching it. Before Fiona’s disbelieving eyes, the golden vine flattened and sunk into their skin in a scorching brand that made her hiss. It took only a moment and her arm was free from Marcaeus’s, but the mark remained, a thick, gilded line that broke wherever their skin had touched. Those breaks matched Marcaeus’s own mark; if they laid their hands over each other again and pressed their forearms side-by-side, the spectral rope would be unbroken.

She still marveled at the instant tattoo as Marcaeus bowed to the goddess. “Thank you. I know this is—”

“What did I say about apologies?” Hera snapped, and the tree jerked its branches back, leaving no trace of the circle they’d just stood in.

Fiona waited until Marcaeus stood to get to her feet. “Thank you. Without apology,” she added, so as not to offend the goddess further.

To Fiona’s surprise, the goddess graced her with a slight incline of her head.

Marcaeus cleared his throat awkwardly. “I assume, based on her…species, that you’ll not require the rest of the ceremony?”

Since things had been so slapdash already, and since Hera had already made her feelings on the fake marriage clear, Fiona wasn’t surprised when the goddess responded, “Only if you’d like to explain to your bride what such a ritual entails.”

Fiona had seen stop signs less crimson than his face.

“I thought not,” Hera said with a smug twist of her lips. She waved a hand and one of those clever portals appeared—Fiona wondered why none of the Astrals had thought to monetize that ability as travel agents—but whatever lay beyond was blank, blinding silver. “Enjoy your honeymoon.”

Marcaeus made a grim noise and stood back, gesturing to Fiona to enter the shining doorway ahead of him. She did so without hesitation. He’d proven himself trustworthy; she was the one who’d been dishonest.

It took her a moment to realize that the strange new world she’d entered was her own. The white marble floors and walls gleamed despite the night above the skylight, and the gentle trickle of moving water in the shallow, square pool in the center of the space could have blended easily into the homes she’d seen in Elyssia. So too would the keyhole-shaped door surrounded by a ceiling-high plate of intricately embossed, patinated copper, though which she glimpsed a sunken circular pit of satin sheets and mounds of pillows.

He’d brought her directly to his bedroom, on their wedding night.

That set off alarm bells warning her about things she was not interested in imagining, let alone experiencing.

“Hobb will be here in the morning with the paperwork to make it legal on the mortal plane,”  Marcaeus told her as he closed the portal behind him. “After tonight, our spiritual bond will be complete in Elyssia.”

“What happens tonight?” Fiona asked, trying to disguise the nervousness in her voice while every instinct in her urged her to scream, “I don’t want to have sex with a horse!”

“Normally, we would have gone into the valley, where I would have bred you at the ceremonial altar before the males of my clan.” How could he state something like that so casually?

Fiona’s jaw dropped, heedless of her brain’s plan to remain accepting and open to their cultural differences. She’d found the line. Public breeding was that line.

He gestured over his shoulder.  “We could go back if you’d like.”

“No!” She cleared her throat and calmed her voice. “Sorry, that’s just not something mortals…do. That I am aware of.”

“We are required to sleep in the same bed to seal the union. At least, this first night.” He waved his hand at the sunken pit of cushions beyond the key-hole door. “But sleeping is the only requirement.”

“Good,” she blurted in relief.  And she had never seen anyone look so offended without moving a single facial muscle before. “That’s not what I meant. It’s not that I think you’re gross, it’s more about the…anatomical…”

His laugh broke some of the tension between them. “You’d be surprised at what some humans are eager to prove anatomically possible.”

“Oh, I’m sure.” She wished she hadn’t said it the moment it crossed her lips. “I wasn’t implying that you—”

That made him laugh again, and her stomach unclenched a bit. Maybe it was because they were standing in her realm, where she knew the rules and the consequences. No fearsome creature would end her if she offended them with the wrong remark.

Fiona immediately regretted the thought. Everyone she’d encountered in the Astral—with the exception of the water that had tried to kill her—had treated her fairly. They’d been under no obligation to treat her warmly. That didn’t make them violent, vengeful creatures any more than a snotty remark made an exasperated restaurant server a potential assassin.

“Marcaeus?” she asked in a near-whisper. “There was something about the veil, too. Did I make you miss out on that?”

He couldn’t disguise how off-guard the question had taken him.

She used his surprised silence to add, “You said it was an unveiling.”

He cleared his throat. “In a real joining, we would have arrived here to a meal with our families, after which I would lift your veil and present you with gifts. I’ve always found it a charming tradition.”

“I don’t have a meal prepared,” she began, attempting a smile. “But I’m still wearing the veil. Would you like to…”

He looked down, color coming to his cheeks as he smiled to himself. “It is my favorite part of a joining celebration.”

That, and not the voyeuristic breeding? That was a relief.

“Here—” she tried to reach the veil hanging down her back, but she realized quickly that the length would hinder her in putting it over her face.

He moved closer to help her. “These are ridiculous, really,” he admitted with an embarrassed chuckle. “And I don’t have a gift to give you.”

“You can always send someone shopping later. Nothing under two carats, please.” She hoped he knew she was joking and that she didn’t actually expect anything.

He’d already given her more than she deserved.

Despite his protestations, Marcaeus carefully arranged the veil and stepped back. Fiona wondered if there were ceremonial words to be said, or some kind of prayer he held sacred, but he waited for a second, then knelt before her and took the hem of the fabric. In his true form, he didn’t need to stand to reveal her face; with his legs tucked beneath him, he still towered over her.

The silk obscuring her vision lifted and she looked up, blinking with surprise at the intensity of his gaze as their eyes met. His mood, playful only seconds before, had changed to that of someone watching their stocks plummet in real-time.

“Did I do something wrong?” she whispered. “I didn’t mean—”

“No. It’s not…” He seemed at a loss for words, finally settling on, “No.”

“Oh. Good.” It wasn’t good. She’d been raised in a family of liars and she could spot a bad one instantly. That didn’t stop her from babbling on, “I thought, um, maybe I was supposed to, you know, say something or there was—”

“Not at all. Thank you for indulging me.” He delivered the statement as though he’d thanked her for dropping off his dry cleaning. “The bed is there. Human facilities are across the hall. The ensuite is not—”

“Not human-compatible. Got it.” Some things could remain perpetual mysteries.

“I have work to catch up on. I will be up most of the night, but I will return to sleep before dawn so that joining is sealed properly. There’s a television, if you’re bored. I would rather you not wander the rest of the apartment yet. Until I can make sure any sensitive material is out of sight.” The implication that she might rifle through drawers on an espionage quest wasn’t entirely unfair. Especially considering that she had no idea if the demon’s mark could still control her.

She watched him go and heard the painfully obvious and slow scrape of a lock turned by someone failing to make the act as silent as they tried to. Fiona looked down at the substitute wedding band tattooed around her forearm and hoped that its magic outmatched that of the demon’s.

After all Marcaeus had sacrificed for her, she would do whatever it took to not harm him further.

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7 Comments

  1. Annbell
    Annbell

    Fiona!!!
    You’re so hard on yourself. Don’t be girl.

    I also love cross-cultural narrative! I’m already loving this marriage of inconvenience.

    And Hera, love her, fear her, just great!

    November 22, 2021
    |Reply
  2. Avery Knight
    Avery Knight

    I’m so sad for Marcaeus and Melanippe, and poor Fiona is just caught in the middle of everything, hurting so many innocent people because she was trying to protect her friend. This is not what I was prepared for when I realized we were heading for a fake marriage! The whole thing is just so tragic! Why do you make me feel things like this, Jenny? Whyyyyyy?

    November 23, 2021
    |Reply
  3. Le
    Le

    I love absolutely everything about this. The tropes! The feels! The tempo! I get stupidly giddy every time you update. Thanks for continuing this. <3

    November 24, 2021
    |Reply
  4. Gen
    Gen

    This story continues to be the best thing ever.

    November 24, 2021
    |Reply
  5. Mischa
    Mischa

    I’m finally all caught up! This is delightful, thanks Jenny

    November 25, 2021
    |Reply
  6. JerryBlank
    JerryBlank

    I’ve never posted here before but I have to tell you how much I’m enjoying this story as well as JHBC. I’ve been reading this blog for years and it’s such a breath of fresh air. Even though you post less often now, I still check in just as regularly in the hopes of finding a new post. Yesterday I was rewarded with two! Always a pleasure! I love your humor, intelligence, healthy cynicism and devotion to craft. It’s educational and enjoyable. Thank you for your particular contribution to the creative landscape:)

    November 26, 2021
    |Reply
  7. Agm
    Agm

    Another excellent chapter. Thanks!

    November 26, 2021
    |Reply

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