“I’m a woman,” Lesa said. “A female of my species. I know the situation is unusual, but—.”
“I used ‘man’ in the inclusive meaning of the word.” The Dean’s rear hooves shifted on the thick grass. “Unusual. Yes, it is unusual. You should not expect special allowances to come with your …” His mouth twisted. “Rarity.”
Lesa shifted her weight to spare her aching right ankle at the expense of her somewhat less tender left. Neither the Dean nor his office had offered anything resembling a chair, and she had not expected the three-mile hike——a near jog, really——from his office to the sculpture garden in the center of campus. They had toured several venerable buildings en route, all round, with gently curving hallways and long, low ramps instead of stairs.
The Dean had finally brought them to a halt near a statue of a noble-looking centaur being speared to death by five Greek soldiers. It appeared to be a common theme in the garden.
“I don’t expect any special treatment,” Lesa said.
The Dean whisked his tail. “I remain surprised a woman man would want to study here. Your kind usually frowns on the sciences.”
“Only the old sciences,” Lesa said. “It seems like we’re always finding new ones.”
“I have read about your space vessels and computers.” The centaur academic accented the third syllable of the word like it tasted bad. “Imagine trusting so much to soulless things.” He pulled a folder out of the haversack slung across his withers. “You’ll find a map of the campus in here. A meals schedule and the like.” He licked his lips.
Lesa took the folder. “Where should I go from here?”
“Your dormitory, perhaps. A lovely centauride—a female centaur—from a good family has been assigned as your roommate. You will meet with your program advisor Monday morning, so you are free until then.”
Lesa reached up to shake the graying centaur’s hand. “Thank you for this opportunity.”
“I did nothing.” The Dean ignored her hand and rested his own on his bare paunch. “I was simply outvoted.”
Believed a myth for much of the past two millennia, centaurs were rediscovered in 1996. In Ancient Greece, where they originated, centaurs once numbered in the tens of thousands. Today, there are less than 12,000 individuals, living in small communities in isolated parts of the world. Infant mortality among the centaur is extremely high, so, although they are long-lived, the population is in decline.
—Actor David Duchovny, narrating for National Geographic’s “Myths Among Us” (1999)
Lesa pulled the map out of the folder. The offer letter from Chiron Classical had come out of nowhere six months before. Lesa had never heard of the school and knew nothing about centaurs beyond what she could find online. Still, she reminded herself, the chance to study divination at one of the oldest universities in the world was too good to pass up.
The campus map was hand-drawn and beautifully lettered on thin parchment. Her dormitory was … She put her finger on the building’s icon as a placeholder and lined up the compass rose with the waning sun. Due west. She shaded her eyes with her hand. A low, stone building nestled in the crook of two hills about a mile and a half away. An easy trot on four legs, likely a half-hour slog on two. She stuffed the folder into her satchel and slung the bag over her shoulder. Another hike would be a great start on those ten pounds she wanted to lose.
The distance proved deceiving, and an hour later she reached the sliding door at the front of the building. The door handle was at least a foot over Lesa’s head, and she had to use both hands to operate it. Lesa’s satchel slipped off her shoulder and dangled in the crook of her arm as she slid the heavy door open. She put the pack on the worn tile inside the dormitory before using equal and opposite strength to get the portal shut again. The number δ was written in flowing calligraphy on the top-right corner of the folder. Lesa found the number’s mate within the dormitory and knocked.
“It is open,” said a voice within.
Lesa set her belongings down for the second time and stood on tiptoe to reach the handle. The door slid open with a screech.
“I put a repair request in for that,” the centauride inside said. “I will probably graduate before it gets fixed.”
“Maybe it just needs some oil.” Lesa wiped sweat from her forehead with her sleeve. “I’m Lesa.”
Her roommate was a chestnut with white socks, her human skin several shades lighter than Lesa’s own. From the waist up, she put Lesa in mind of a naked, Olympic-caliber, beach-volleyball player.
“I know who you are.” The centauride’s hooves pushed straw around the worn wooden floor. “Before you speak, I want you to know that this was not my idea. I do not like men, and I did not want one for a roommate.”
“Noted,” Lesa said. “Good thing I’m a woman.”
The centauride blew a fall of rust-colored hair off her forehead. “Whatever you call yourself. I do not like woman men, either.”
“It’s just ‘woman,’ or ‘women’ if you are disliking more than one of us.” Lesa hung her satchel on a peg beside the door. “It’s okay if I use this?”
The centaur swished her tail. “I am Rhiannon.” She pointed to the far end of the room. “That is your side.”
The floor was carpeted in fresh straw. On Rhiannon’s side, a canvas-covered wedge was mounted low on the wall. The centauride could lie down next to the wedge and lean her upper body on it to sleep. Her walls were covered in tapestries and warmly lit with alchemical lanterns. A sword, shield, and archery kit leaned in the corner next to a tall loom.
Lesa’s side of the room was empty. “There’s no bed,” she said.
“Try the campus stores. That is where I got mine. Otherwise …” Rhiannon shrugged.
Lesa nodded. Cost wouldn’t be a problem. Two years before, using numerology, a new algorithm, and coffee grounds from her neighborhood 7-11, Lesa had won $43 million in a nationwide lottery. After taxes and paying off all her friends’ student loans, most of the winnings had gone to charity, but she could still be comfortably and independently middle class for a few lifetimes. “I don’t see an outlet in here,” she said.
“Perhaps there is one near the toualeta. Outside the back door.”
“Are the showers there?”
Rhiannon’s face was blank.
“Baths are every other morning. Line up along the fence and wait for the helpers.” The clock on the wall chimed. “It is time for pémpto.”
Fifth meal. One of eight that centaurs consumed daily, according to the information in the folder. “You might want a jacket,” Lesa said.
“Or I might not.” The centauride slid open the door and clopped into the hallway. Lesa snagged her satchel off the peg and followed.
The shadows of the hills behind the dormitory had crept into the yard in front of it. “The dining hall is that way.” Rhiannon pointed roughly northeast and galloped away, leaving Lesa to close the heavy door and walk alone. She consulted her map. A two-mile trek in the growing darkness. No special allowances. Lesa shouldered her satchel and followed Rhiannon’s receding figure.
Former bush pilot [Charlie] Landsdowne gestured wildly as he recalled finding the centaur village.
“They were just, you know, standing there. I figured I’d gone crazy from the cold or something. I think they were just as surprised to see me!” Landsdowne said.
Landsdowne said he stayed in the centaur village for four weeks while he recovered from injuries he sustained in the crash and wondered what his hosts planned to do with him.
“They didn’t talk much to me,” he said. “But I could tell they spoke English. They knew what I was saying well enough.”
The centaurs eventually carried Landsdowne to Waterton Lakes National Park, on the US/Canadian border, and left him at a ranger station there.
“But not before I got pictures!” Landsdowne crowed. “You’d think they’d never seen a camera before.”
— New York Times, February 15, 1996
The dining hall was a high-ceilinged timber-framed roundhouse above the sculpture garden. Long before she arrived at the door, Lesa could see the light from the building’s large windows. Inside, a central fire pit warded off the cold, and dozens of centaurs stood at high trestle tables to eat. Chestnut and bare skin was a common color scheme, and Rhiannon was well camouflaged.
A centauride with gray braids yanked the pull rope of an iron bell and chased the din with a hoarse shout. “Kitchen closes in five minutes!” She held up her hand to show all her fingers. “Fill up and get out.”
Lesa lined up with six or seven centaurs while they ignored her and jostled for space. It turned out to be far safer at the end of the queue than in its middle, so Lesa was the last one at the serving window, which was at least a foot above her head. She jumped and waved her hands to get the attention of the serving staff.
“What do you want?” one of the serving centaurides said.
“Dinner,” Lesa said. “I’m a student.”
“The kitchen is closed.” The centauride ran her hand through her short hair, making it stand on end, and glared down at Lesa. “There is nothing left.”
“I don’t need much.”
“You are a man.” She squinted. “I had heard one of you was coming. We have bet on how long you will last.”
“I’m a woman.” Lesa pulled her smartphone and a deck of tarot cards out of her jacket pocket. The phone wasn’t getting a signal, but she didn’t need it to run her custom tarot app. “If I tell you something true about you, can I at least get a sandwich or something?”
“You are in the Divination College?” The centauride laughed. “If you tell me I am going on an unexpected journey and that I am going to die surrounded by friends, I am closing this window right now.”
“Hold on.” Lesa dealt a row of cards and took a picture of it with her phone. She opened the photo with her app and studied the results. She noted the pattern of age spots on the centauride’s face and added it to the data. “Your husband is cheating on you. She’s a blonde, bleached blonde, and she … likes the White Sox?”
The server snorted. “She has a white sock on her right back leg. She works in grounds keeping. Her name is Layla, and she can have him.”
Lesa put her phone and cards away. “I only said it would be true, not unknown.”
The server pushed a plate to the edge of the window. “All I have. Take it or leave it.”
Lesa balanced the plate on the end of her fingers until it was low enough to grasp firmly. “Thank you,” she said, but the serving window had closed.
There were no human-scaled tables and few openings in the barrier of horse posteriors surrounding the centaur tables. Lesa took her plate to a corner and crouched with her back against the wall to inspect her meal: four raw carrots, half a grilled onion, a wad of alfalfa, and a chunk of near-bleeding meat the size of her fist. And me with no way to reach Instagram. She took a picture anyway and put three carrots into her satchel for later. She ate the meat and onion first, then the alfalfa, with a carrot for dessert. Happy first day to me.
Back at the dorm, Lesa could not suss out how to light the alchemical lamps. So, she worked in the dark, kicking up a platform of straw on her side of the dorm room and piling clothes on top of it until she could no longer feel the scratchy poke of dry stalks. She used her satchel for a pillow and pulled her jacket over the top of her for warmth.
Things will get better, her great-grandmother would have said. The stars don’t lie.
Lesa woke at midnight with a full bladder and no idea where the door was. She powered on her phone, which she had switched off after dinner to save the battery, and picked her way past her sleeping roommate to the door. She opened it slowly, which only prolonged the screech, and glanced back to see if Rhiannon had been disturbed. The centauride smacked her lips and resumed snoring.
The hallway beyond the door was dark, too, and Lesa held the cellphone high in search of the back door. It opened onto an empty paddock. Right outside the door, Rhiannon had said. Lesa took two steps into the small and space and placed her bare left foot squarely in a pile of
“Shit!” No toilets, either. No toilets, no toilet paper, no beds, no food, no … “Shit! Shit! Shit!”
Lesa’s phone dimmed and buzzed to remind her it was running low on juice. The only thing worse than pissing outdoors was pissing outside in the dark, so she made short work of the task and went back inside. Rhiannon’s breathing was slow and steady, and the room was warm with beer breath and horse farts. Lesa returned to her pallet and pulled her jacket up to her chin.
The stars don’t lie. The stars don’t lie. The stars don’t lie.
Lesa feigned sleep until she heard Rhiannon lurch up from bed and leave for próto, first meal. She had not rested well on the straw pallet, and her back hurt. Worse, she had to pee again. She pulled on her boots and went out to the paddock. She squatted behind a bush and tried not to notice the chill nor think about what she would have to do when her bowels caught up with the time-zone shift.
There was no power outlet in sight, but Lesa found a cold-water sink. She moved a log from a nearby woodpile and stood on it to reach the tap. The cake of soap on the sink side was rough-cut and smelled like pine tar.
Back in the dormitory, she ate a carrot and went through her folder. Próto was ending soon, but there would be another meal in about two hours. Lesa pulled on her jacket and hiked to the university’s library and stores, a multi-story stone building with white pillars in the front. A low, curving ramp brought her to the front door, which was locked. She leaned against the wall and ate the other carrot.
Before she saw the bookish centauride, Lesa heard her hooves clattering up the ramp. The centauride was carrying a parcel, and she clutched it to her chest when she saw Lesa.
“A man!” the centauride said. “How did you—?”
“I’m a student,” Lesa said. “Supposedly, a memo went out.”
The centauride’s throat bobbed. “I have never seen one of your kind before.”
“Well, I’ve talked to exactly four of you,” Lesa said. “I need to get into the stores.”
The centauride nodded. “I am here to open them.” She pulled a large brass key from a belt pouch she wore around her human waist and used it to unlock the door. She slid it open and waved Lesa in. The centauride activated the overhead lamps while Lesa found her way around the dusty room: pens, ink, parchments, tapestries, lamps …
“How do I turn those on?” Lesa pointed at the lamps.
“They respond to body heat,” the centauride said. She held up her hand. “Just touch them.”
Lesa put both hands on one of the lamps on the shelf. It failed to light. She added another hand. “It’s not working.”
“Nonsense.” The centauride clopped next to Lisa and put her hand on the lamp. It lit almost instantly. “See?”
Lesa tried a different lamp. It didn’t light, either.
“The stories are true!” The centauride drew back. “Cold blood! Men are descended from snakes!”
“Wait a minute.” Lesa rubbed her hands together, warming them with friction. This time, when she touched the lamp, it lit. “Centaurs must have higher body temperatures than people. Where are the beds?” Lesa said.
The centauride pointed to the back of the store, where Lesa found a half dozen wedges like the one on Rhiannon’s side of the room.
Lesa picked up two of the lamps. “How do I pay for these?”
“You use them until you graduate, then return them. You are allotted two more, plus a bed and academic supplies.”
“I don’t think I can carry more,” Lesa said. “I’ll have to come back.”
“We can deliver.” The centauride pushed a piece of parchment across the countertop. “Write down what you want and where you want to receive it.”
Lesa put the lamps back and scratched out a list with the centauride’s quill and ink.
“I can scarcely read this,” the centauride said.
“Scarcely will have to do.” Lesa wrung her cramped, ink-stained fingers. “When will all this be delivered?”
“This afternoon,” the centauride said.
Lesa looked at her smartwatch and swore. It had reached the limits of its battery life. “Can you tell me what time it is?”
The centauride considered. “It should nearly be time for déftero.” She looked longingly at her parcel. “I brought mine, but you should hurry along and get yours.”
Lesa steeled herself for another hike. “The dining hall is north of here?”
Imagine being half hoarse! [Host pretends to clear his throat.] Sorry, half horse! Four legs, two arms, one head, a tail … one little mouth! [Camera zooms rapidly in and out on the host’s mouth.] How do you feed a horse-sized body with a person-sized mouth? Lots, and I mean lots of food! Horses need up to 15,000 calories a day. That’s like eating seven cheese pizzas every day! Centaurs are hungry all the time!
— Bill Nye, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Season 4, Episode 21 (1997)
Getting to the dining hall was only a thirty-minute walk, so Lesa took her meal back to the library. The Divination section was in the basement, and she curled up in a quiet spot with her parcel of meat and vegetables and an original copy of the Prophecies of Socrates. The philosopher’s so-called guiding spirit had answered questions by sneezing — right for “yes,” left for “no,” so its answers were frustratingly one-dimensional. Compared to Nostradamus though, who pulled everything he wrote right out of his social-climbing butt, the old Greek was a paragon of accuracy.
Lesa made her food last until dark and reluctantly reshelved the sheath of scrolls. She answered nature’s call in the lee of the library building and set out for her dormitory.
Clouds had settled in and the night was even darker than the one before it. Lesa walked hard, trusting to the stars to bring her back to warmth and light. She shivered and pulled up the collar of her jacket.
She was passing the pond on the edge of campus when she heard it: an undulating moan for attention like a baby’s cry. It sounded as if it were coming from the water. She stepped off the path. The cry grew louder, then doubled. A second cry was coming from further along the bank of the pond. Then a third. A chorus of cries echoed off the water like a daycare of the damned.
Lesa backed away. Self-divination was seldom accurate, but it didn’t take a soothsayer to know the pond was bad news. She checked the stars again and got back on the path to her dorm. The cries dimmed as her route took her away from the water.
Without working electronics, Lesa had no idea how long she had been walking, and the sight of her dormitory’s front door was welcome. Lesa’s order from school stores was piled outside the dorm room’s screechy door. She set up the lamps and experimented with the wedge. It looked like a sex pillow a former lover had talked her into using once, but it was more comfortable than the pile of straw.
Lesa went over her reading notes until her drooping eyelids hinted at sleep. She reached for the closest lamp and swore. The centauride at the stores hadn’t told her how to turn the things off. Lesa draped them in clothing until the glow softened and lay down on her wedge.
“Lemme see that cup, baby girl.”
Lesa took the last swallow of mint tea and offered the cup to her great-grandmother.
“Wait.” The old woman held up one wrinkled hand, a gold band shining dimly on one finger. “Swirl it ‘round first. Like this. Three time.” She demonstrated. “Then shut yo eyes and think ‘bout what’s comin’.”
Lesa closed her eyes while her great-grandmother upended the cup over a saucer and let the remaining liquid drain away. She opened one eye to peek. “What’s it say, grandma?”
“Hol’ on a minute I’ll see.” The old woman picked up the cup and looked inside it. She tapped the rim. “Sez here you need to mind yo’ mama better. Stop givin’ her the fits.”
Lesa rolled her eyes. “I already know that! What’s it say about my future?”
Lesa’s great-grandmother, Lesa’s namesake, looked deeper into the cup. “Sez you goin’ to be important one day. Not famous, not powerful, but important to somethin.”
The old woman shook her head. “That’s all ah see. The stars don’ lie.” She put the cup down. “Let’s go out t’ yard and get some peaches for dessert.”
Lesa lined up near the fence for the Sunday morning baths but fled when she saw the army of helpers armed with scrub brushes and hoses. The centaurs chatted and laughed as the helpers, collared wendigos, hosed them down and scrubbed their hard-to-reach areas. Lesa went back to her room and applied another layer of deodorant.
Several groups of centaur cantered past Lesa as she hiked to the dining hall for second meal. Most ignored her, but one dark-haired centauride called her a pórni as she rushed by, and a scrawny male threw a potato at her. Lesa picked up the potato and put it in her satchel for later.
The dining hall was quiet and sparsely populated. Lesa got to the serving window before the last call.
“Where is everyone?” she said.
“Drunk. Or getting over drunk,” said the server with the adulterous husband. “Like this every Lord’s Day.” She handed down a plate of food. “Settling in?”
Lesa shrugged. “I’ll know better tomorrow. I have a meeting with my advisor.”
The centauride tapped the side of her nose. “Do not leave us too soon, man. I have money riding on you. If you hold out the week, I collect.”
Lesa turned from the window and found herself airborne as a centaur’s hindquarters struck her. She landed on the floor amongst her vegetables with the wind knocked out of her.
The offending centaur squinted and twisted his human torso to look around. “Feels as if I hit something. Did anyone see what it was?” His friends laughed. The centaur walked in a circle, pretending to look for something on the ground. “Something small, maybe.”
Lesa could not catch her breath. She spotted Rhiannon, who was hiding a smile and trying hard not to look at her.
“Smells like pórni in here!” The centaur who had knocked Lesa over grinned. “Does anyone else smell it?” He brought one of his front hooves to the floor in a hard stomp.
Lesa staggered to her feet. “Real mature, ass——.” Her words came out as a wheeze, but the centaur wasn’t listening anyway.
He pointed at her. “How did this get in here? I thought they set traps for vermin.”
“That’s enough, Polkan!” shouted a gangly centaur from the edge of the crowd.
Lesa stepped back to the serving window. “Can I get another plate to go?”
Lesa took her food and went back to the library. The stars may not lie, but sometimes they forget to mention things.
The Centaurs are best known for their fight with the Lapiths, which was caused by their attempt to carry off Hippodamia and the rest of the Lapith women on the day of Hippodamia’s marriage to Pirithous, king of the Lapithae, himself the son of Ixion. The strife among these cousins is a metaphor for the conflict between the lower appetites and civilized behavior in humankind. Theseus, a hero and founder of cities, who happened to be present, threw the balance in favour of the right order of things, and assisted Pirithous. The Centaurs were driven off or destroyed.
— Wikipedia, Centaur entry
Lesa had carrots for breakfast the next day and pulled the best-possible outfit from the pile of wrinkled clothing she had slept on. The Divination building was nearly five miles away, so she set out early, hiking as the sun settled into its track. She climbed the long ramp to the door of the round building and wrestled it open. Her advisor’s office was down the hallway on the right.
At her knock, the advisor, a centaur with a long white beard, bade her enter. The office smelled of old parchment and ink. “You must be Ms. Carter,” the centaur said. “I am Mentor Rhaecus.”
“I’d kill for a chair,” Lesa said. “I just walked five miles on two carrots.”
Mentor Rhaecus tapped his chin. “I’m sure we have something …” He rang a small bell. There was a rattle of claws in the hallway outside and a pit bull-sized creature made of black fetish rubber dashed in and slid to a stop in front of the professor’s desk. “We need … a chair,” the centaur glanced at Lesa as if awaiting correction, “for Ms. Carter.”
The dog thing licked its slavering jowls. Its fur was stiff and spikey like a toilet brush, and it had a long, muscular tail, which ended in a human-like hand.
“Go, now!” the centaur said.
The dog thing ducked its head to the centaur and dashed back out of the room.
“Was that …?” Lesa said.
“An ahuizotl. South American. Very hand-y fellows to have around.” His smile was self-amused. “They do most of our fetching and carrying.”
“They eat people!” Lesa said. She had received a mythological-animals coloring book for her eleventh birthday and filled in every page. Ahuizotls hid in caves near lakes and cried like human babies until a good Samaritan came around. At that point, the ahuizotl would drown the Samaritan and eat his or her eyes, teeth, and fingernails.
“Only the wild ones do,” the centaur said.
Lesa forced her eyes away from the door the man-eater had left through. “I suppose you want to talk about the caribou,” Lesa said.
Mentor Rhaecus smiled politely. “As you wish.”
Lesa scowled. She had assumed her work predicting caribou migration in northern Alaska had put her on Chiron’s radar. The algorithm she programmed compared data sets derived from astrological computations and austromancy (divination using wind patterns), and the result prediction proved accurate within five meters.
“I ended a near famine,” Lesa said.
“Lovely.” The Mentor smiled again.
“Do you even know my work?”
“Work?” The Mentor’s breath made the quills on his pen rack flutter. Goose feathers mostly, although one or two might have been from a swan. Special-occasion quills, for writing letters to must-have students. There wasn’t a computer in sight. There was no way news of Lesa’s success with the caribou had reached him.
The ahuizotl re-entered the room with a drooling friend, each carrying one end of a low footstool with its hand tail. Tail hand. There were hands on the end of their legs, too, each rubbery finger tipped with a sharp claw. The ahuizotl sniffed eagerly at Lesa’s legs and mewled like a crying baby until the professor shooed them out.
“They’re quite safe. They prefer water to land,” he said and closed the door behind them. “But you should perhaps carry a weapon of some sort. One or two of the ahuizotl may have escaped to the grounds and returned to savagery. Not a problem for a healthy centaur, of course, but …”
Lesa thanked whatever intuition had kept her from venturing near the pond and sank onto the stool, which left her head at least three feet lower than the professor’s desk. “This isn’t going to work.”
“Nonsense,” Mentor Rhaecus said. “I saw it clearly. You absolutely must be here.”
“How did you find out about me?” Lesa said.
“A Norns cast. Runes are a specialty of mine.”
“You invited me here based on pulling three rocks out of a bag.”
The mentor shuffled his hooves. “I cross-checked, or course. With osteomancy. My teaching assistant narrowed the prophecy down to you. You’ll meet him —.”
“What do the rocks and bones say about what I’m supposed to do?”
The mentor’s tail swished. “Something of great import, no doubt. The runes were very clear: You must be here.”
“I want a bed,” Lesa said. “A real human bed. And a toilet. And a golf cart or something to get around in.”
“I am sure you were told that you would receive no spec—.”
“A bed that I can sleep in is not special treatment. Neither is a way to get to get to class on time.”
“There might be something in the muse—.”
Lesa rose from the footstool. “I want a weapon, too, something to keep away the ahuizotl.”
“And the wolves.”
“Wolves?!” The campus was in the Canadian Rockies. It stood to reason there would be wolves. “Yes, the wolves. And I want electrical power in my room.”
The centaur wrung his hands. “Your requests will take ti—.”
“I want them soon,” Lesa said. “If I ‘must’ be here,” she frowned, “I want them very, very soon.”
After the meeting with the mentor, Lisa followed his instructions downstairs to the Divination Lab. The large space reeked of tea and incense. A gangly centaur with curly hair and glasses pranced up to Lesa as soon as she entered. “You’re here!” he said. “I found you, but I never thought you’d …” He extended his hand. “I’m Pholus. That’s how humans do it, right? With hands?”
Lesa shook his hand carefully. “Lesa. Nice to meet you. You’re the mentor’s TA, right?”
The centaur was nearly dancing with excitement. “Your work is inspired. So precise!” He put his hand out again. “Read my palm. Will I get tenure?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Lesa said. “For something so specific, I’d need—.”
“We can do it later,” Pholus said. “Let me show you around the lab.”
In short order, Lesa got the tour and met the other graduate students: five nerdy centaurides and a dark-and-broody centaur named Elatus. “I studied your algorithms.” Elatus shrugged. “I was not impressed. I could do the math with quill and parchment.”
“It would take you twenty-five years to do the calculations,” Lesa said.
The centaur flipped long, black hair out of his eyes. “I could still do them.”
One of the centaurides, her name was Hippe, laughed. “By the time you finished, it wouldn’t be worth anything. Time doesn’t stand still!”
“Did you bring it?” Pholus said. “Your computer?”
Lesa reached into her satchel and pulled out the battered MacBook. “Do you have an outlet I could hook up to?”
They did not. Lesa set the MacBook on one of the lab tables, and the grad students crowded around to see it.
Elatus yawned. “I am going back to work. Some of us plan to graduate.” He trotted off, flipping his long hair insolently.
“Do not listen to him,” Hippe said. “He is still angry he couldn’t get his thesis proposal approved.”
“What was the proposal?” Lesa said.
“Anthropomancy. Reading the entrails of a fresh human sacrifice. He wanted us to adopt two human children for the purpose.” Pholus adjusted his glasses. “The vote was not even close.”
“I would hope not.” Not being alone with Elatus was suddenly high on her to-do list. “I thought there would be more students.
“Divination is not the most popular of disciplines,” Hippe said. A lot of the families do not believe in it.”
Before they broke for lunch, Pholus galloped down to the basement armory. “Most of us have our own. These are the best I could do.” He handed Lesa a sword, hilt first. “It’s a gladius. Third century.”
Lesa took the weapon. Her psychometry was not well developed, but she got flashes of a large battle under a torrent of rain. She shook off the sudden feeling that she was up to her sandal straps in bloody mud.
Pholus presented her with a second object. “You will not be historically accurate, but I thought you would prefer this to a scutum.”
The round targe, about the size of a large cheese pizza, was unexpectedly light. “I’ve no idea how to use any of this,” Lesa said. “I’m an academic.”
“We start weapons training as foals.” Pholus showed Lesa how to put the leather-covered shield on her left arm. “It’s Celtic. Sixteenth century.” He stroked his thin beard. “I have no idea how a human should stand. You want to present the shield first. Keep the gladius back to strike.”
Lesa experimented with her stance and adopted a left-foot-forward stance, her right foot angled in back.
“Hold on.” Pholus trotted away and came back with his own sword and shield. “This is completely unfair, I have experience and reach on you, but let us try it. Slowly. Block with the shield.” He swung the sword at Lesa’s head, giving her plenty of time to lift the targe. “Now, attack … thrust, not cut … with the sword. Slow. Step forward on your right hoo—foot—as you do.”
Lesa thrust with the sword, stepping forward for power and reach.
Pholus pushed the gladius aside with his own sword. “Now recover backward.”
Lesa’s feet crossed in the attempt, and she nearly fell. “I’m never going to be good at this.”
“You do not have to be all that good to hold off an animal. Use the shield to push it away. Strike it when and if you can.”
“Easy to say when you’re an expert.”
Pholus laughed. “I am terrible at this. Ask anyone.”
“Well, I am more terrible.” Lesa dropped her arms to her side. “What do I do with this stuff when I’m not fending off wolves and ahuizotl?”
“The shield goes on your back. The sword goes in this.” He handed her a belt and scabbard.
“I’m just supposed to wear these all the time.”
Pholus slung his shield over his withers and returned his sword to the scabbard on his back. “When you are traveling between buildings. At least when you are alone. But you should not be alone. It’s not just wolves,” he said. “There are bears, too. Have you ever used a bow?”
“That is harder to learn. I will get you one and find you a tutor.”
Lesa tried a slashing cut with the sword. “This is ridiculous. It’s 2018.”
“Is it?” Pholus said.
“What’s a pórni?”
Pholus lowered his sword. “Literally it means “slut,” but it is also a derogatory term for any human female.” He cleared his throat. “I am sorry about what happened in the dining hall.”
“It was you who shouted at him.” Lesa nodded. “What’s his problem with me?”
“Mostly he was showing off for his friends, I think. But centaurs and men do not have the best history.” He sheathed his sword. “Polkan’s older brother was a fetishist. A human lover. He had tapestries of women all over his walls. Killed himself when it was discovered. Polkan does whatever he can to distance himself from that.” The massive astrology clock in the corner bonged. “Middle meal! Do you want me to walk you to the dining hall?”
Lunch was friendly but awkward. Pholus introduced Lesa to some of his circle, but the conversation was made difficult by the fact she couldn’t see over the table. Pholus and his friend, Endeis, a second-year Alchemy candidate, accompanied Lesa back to her dorm.
“What is that?” Endeis pointed to something parked to the side of the sliding door.
“It’s a lot better than a golf cart,” Lesa said. She caressed the handlebars of the black and chrome motorcycle. “A 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. I’ve never seen one in this condition. Where did it come from?”
“Probably the museum. All kinds of strange things in there. Experiments.” Pholus said. “Can you ride it?”
“Will it have gas?” Her father had been a Harley Davidson fan and had given her a rebuilt 1963 Sportster for her sixteenth birthday. She began the finicky process of starting the antique. Build compression and … it fired up and started to rumble.
“It’s really loud!” Pholus pointed to a brass cylinder incorporated into the gas tank. “Looks like it was converted to run on alchemy. Probably need to refill that once a year or so.”
Lesa adjusted the choke to smooth out the idle. There was a helmet attached to the saddle. She put it on and slung her leg over the bike. “Race you guys back to the Divination Lab?”
She won easily and waved them on before returning to her dorm. Only a very unusual wolf or bear would brave the noise the Vincent produced. She parked near the front door of the dorm and shut the bike down.
Rhiannon was in the room, working her loom. “You found your machine.” She nodded toward Lesa’s side of the room. “They delivered that monstrosity at the same time.”
The bed was humongous, gold-leafed wood with a canopy, the thick mattress filled with down. A set of portable steps was required to mount the thing. Lesa climbed the steps and sank so deeply into the mattress that she lost sight of the rest of the room. “What are you making?” she said.
The loom sounds paused. “I am a history major, so I am making a historical tapestry.”
Lesa clambered out of the bed with some difficulty and moved the stairs so she could see the tapestry her roommate was weaving. “It’s beautiful!”
Rhiannon grunted noncommittally. “King Pirithous’ wedding. The bride seduced a centaur guest and accused him of trying to rape her when her fiancé found out. Your ancestors cut off his ears and nose and drove him into the woods.”
“Pirithous was king of the Lapiths, right? That’s in Greece. My ancestors came from a lot further south and a whole different continent.” Lesa studied the tapestry-in-progress. “Did you spin and dye the wool, too?”
Rhiannon stomped her front hoof. “I told you I was not interested in being friends with a man.”
“Woman,” Lesa said.
“Regardless.” She pointed toward Lesa’s side of the room. “That is your space. I expect you to stay out of mine.”
Lesa stepped off the small flight of stairs. “Your call. I just figured, since we’re living together, that it would be easier if —.”
“It would not.” The centauride wheeled and headed for the door. “And do not touch my things!”
Lesa pulled the stairs back into place near the bed. The business end of a heavy-duty extension cord was poking through a crude hole in the wall. Lesa followed the cord outside to where it petered into a clay alchemical jar. She shrugged, added a power strip to the chain, and plugged in her phone, watch, and computer to charge. On the wall next to the bed was a rack for sword and shield, and Lesa hung her weapons. Beneath it was an ornate box with a round lid—a chamber pot.
“Just what the doctoral candidate ordered.”
She used it and tugged experimentally at a jeweled chain at its side. With a hiss, a thin film of blue liquid poured into the bowl, dissolving everything inside it before vanishing. The bowl sparkled. An alchemical chamber pot, even better. There were a sink and small shower unit, with hot and cold running water, in the corner.
She returned to the Divination Lab the next morning, clean and well-rested, for the daily department meeting. She commandeered a small bookcase and climbed on top of it to put herself at eye level with the centaurs. Mentor Rhaecus led the meeting, asking each student for an update on their projects. There were thirteen diviners in the program. Elatus was focusing on entrails. Hippe was heavy into fractomancy. Pholus was doing a dual degree in geloscopy (divination through laughter) and nggἀm (divination through spider behavior). Another centauride in the group was studying ambocomancy, or divination through dust, which Lesa had never heard of, and the I Ching.
“Et tu?” the mentor said when Lesa’s turn came around.
“Still finding my feet,” she said. “But I can already see where I could help everyone else out. It’s like you’re stuck in the Dark Ages. Elatus, your project alone —.”
The gloomy centaur glowered. “Stay away from my work, human.”
“Speak for yourself,” Hippe said. “I’d love to some help with my project.”
Mentor Rhaecus brought his hands together sharply. “Hippe, I doubt your thesis committee would think well of such methods. Perhaps the man should keep to her own studies.” He held up his hand to forestall debate. “That’s enough for the day. Meeting adjourned.”
Lesa waited until the mentor was out of sight. “That’s ridiculous. Just cataloging your fractals in a searchable database would save you hours a day, but I bet we could —.”
Hippe shook her head. “Rhaecus is my thesis advisor.”
“Pholus?” Lesa leaned in so she could see the centaur’s face. “What about your project? I could—”
“You could bring us all to ruin,” Elatus said. “The way your kind always has.”
Pholus smoothed his beard. “Give it a little time, Lesa. Maybe start working on something for yourself and in a couple of months see what happens.”
“Did you actually just say that?” Lesa said. “We’re diviners! If anyone can see what happ—.”
“Have you had breakfast, yet?” Hippe interrupted her. “Let us get something to eat and talk about this later. Pholus?”
The gangly centaur shook his head.
“Just we mares, then.” She helped Lesa off the bookcase. “Food will help.”
Lesa kept the Vincent down to about 15 mph, allowing Hippe to cover the distance at an easy canter, but a twist of the throttle could have left the centauride and everything she represented in the dust.
“Let us take them outside,” Hippe said when they’d gotten their trays of food. They walked a little ways from the building. Lesa sat on the remnants of a rock wall while Hippe folded her legs and lay down.
Lesa frowned at the meat and vegetables on her plate. “What am I even here for?” she said.
“I could not say this in front of the others,” the centauride said, “but I want your help. Pholus does, too. We have talked about it.”
“What about Mentor Rhaecus?”
“As you said, we are stuck in the Dark Ages. He is one of the reasons why.”
Lesa gnawed on what she hoped was a hunk of mutton, but it might have been ahuizotl. “What about Elatus? Who shoved that stick up his—?”
“He is a descendant of Eurytion. He and his cousin, Rhiannon.” She whisked her tail. “It will take much to get them to think kindly of a man.”
“That was thousands of years ago!”
“The families have long memories.” Hippe finished her meal and heaved herself to her feet. “I will not go back to the lab with you. I believe my estrus is beginning.”
“Your estrus?” Lesa put her hand to her mouth. “Oh.”
The centauride smiled. “I do not have to exile myself but doing so can prevent bad choices.” Hippe’s hooves moved restlessly. “We will talk more about my fractals and your algorithms in a few days.”
Lesa finished her breakfast alone and headed back to the lab. With her electronics fully charged, she began experiments with shufflemancy, telling the future by what song came up on a random playlist. If she could write an algorithm that correlated it with ambulomancy (divination by walking), she might be able to create an app that would keep exercisers safe. She worked the problem until lunch, then returned to it until it was time to head back to the dorms.
Pholus shook his work lamp, disrupting the alchemical process that kept it alight. “Are you coming to the party?”
“What party?” Lesa had been wandering around the lab listening to a randomly-generated punk-rock playlist to gather data. If there had been a party announcement, she’d missed it.
“One of the frats at the War College.”
“When does it start?” Lesa said.
“Nine. But if you go, don’t go until ten, ten thirty. No one gets there early.”
“Maybe.” The music had put Lesa in a dancing mood, but she doubted it would last through the evening, and she wasn’t sure she’d survive a dance floor full of centaur. She rode back to her dorm in the dark. The air was chilly, and she made a mental note to research snowmobiles when she went back to New York for the school’s Sagittarius holiday in November. If she picked up a few more MacBooks and some routers, she could set up a local network for the Divination College and …
Lesa parked the Vincent and went through the now-familiar process of sliding open the door. Inside the room, she hung a few posters and unpacked a quilt her great-grandmother had made her. The down mattress had far too much acreage for the quilt to cover, so Lesa folded the blanket and put it on the foot of the bed.
Rhiannon came in around 9:30 and failed to greet her roommate.
“Are you going to the party?” Lesa said.
Rhiannon propped her sword and shield against the wall. “Are you?”
“Doubt it.” Her experiments combining shufflemancy and ambulomancy were showing promise. Few divination methods performed accurately on the diviner, but Lesa had made it around the room four times, blindfolded, using the beta version of her new app.
“Wise choice.” Rhiannon clopped to her mirror. “You might get stepped on.” She put a tea kettle in the room’s brazier and let the water heat as she washed her face, ran a brush over her short hair, and rouged her nipples. When the tea kettle whistled, she spooned loose-leaf tea into a pot and poured water over it.
“Is that some special centaur-party tea?” Lesa said.
“It is Earl Grey.” Rhiannon retrieved her sword and wiped the blade with a rag. She took a jar of oil from a shelf and applied a light coating to the blade.
“Are you expecting a fight?” Lesa changed a value in a line of code and the user-interface of her app turned green.
“Best part of a centaur party.” Rhiannon poured tea into a travel mug and slung her shield over her withers. “Do not wait up.”
The temperature in the dorm room was chilly by human standards, and Rhiannon’s Earl Grey had smelled good. Lesa waited until her roommate had slid the door closed before getting up to see if she had left any tea in the pot. She lifted the lid and inspected the leafy dregs inside. There wasn’t enough to make a decent cup, but —
Lesa nearly fumbled the pot while setting it down and ran to Rhiannon’s mirror. She pulled two hairs out of Rhiannon’s brush and dug into her pocket for her Zippo. Lesa lit the hair on fire and used her smartphone to film the smoke as it curled to the ceiling. She sent the video to her laptop, added the information from the tea leaves, and crunched the data.
Lesa grabbed her sword and shield and ran for the Vincent without closing the door behind her.
Howard Stern: You know, I saw in the news the other day that centaurs, part-person, part-horse, are real. Swear to God. [Leans into the microphone] Do we have that clip? Play that clip.
[The clip plays. In it a centauride runs toward the camera in slow motion, breasts bouncing]
H.S. That is something. Can we see that again?
[The clip plays again, with a bow-chicka-wow-wow soundtrack]
Robin Quivers: Guess they’ve never heard of sports bras.
H.S..: Why cover that up? If my wife had breasts like that, I would never let her cover them up.
H.S.: Apparently centaur women are only interested in sex four days a month.
R.Q.: Do they go into heat? Like a horse?
H.S.: They do. For those four days, they are the hornier than college girls on spring break. For the rest of the month. Nothing.
R.Q.: I wonder how the male centaurs feel. Can they even reach their, you know, to take the pressure off?
H.S.: Maybe they get each other off. Would you [bleep] a centaur, Robin? [Ten seconds of the clip plays.]
— The Howard Stern Radio Show, CBS. (1996).
The party looked like a blending of a livestock auction and a free-love festival. Centaur dancing consisted of rearing and wheeling while clutching ceramic jars of strong beer. Lesa climbed on top of a table and spun until she spotted her roommate, who was filling her jar from a freshly tapped barrel.
“Rhiannon!” She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Don’t drink it!”
Rhiannon did not hear or opted to ignore. She lifted the jar to her lips.
Lesa jumped from the tabletop to the back of the nearest centaur. Another leap, another centaur, and Lesa was atop the drinks table and in range to dash the jar out of Rhiannon’s hand. For good measure, Lesa pushed the just-tapped barrel of beer onto the floor, where it burst.
“What are you doing?!” Rhiannon said.
Lesa dropped to the floor. Her roommate towered over her, nearly a thousand pounds of angry, human-hating muscle and bone with heavy hooves and a newly oiled sword.
Four legs and a gangly body came between them. “What’s going on?” Pholus said.
“The beer is laced with something!” Lesa said. “It’s going to —!”
“Get the jar,” Pholus said. “Give it to Endeis.”
Lesa picked the jar off the floor and gave to the gray alchemy student. He sniffed the jar and ran his finger around the rim. “Smells like ….” He licked the tip of his finger. “Definitely.” He turned to Rhiannon. “Did you drink any of this? It’s a hormone simulator. It will bring you into season almost immediately.”
“Shit!” Rhiannon flushed. “I feel it. Which one of you basta—?”
A centaur on the other side of the table whooped. It was Polkan. He flared his nostrils. “Smells like a paaaarty!” The males around him began to react, too, excited by his pheromones as well as the ones Rhiannon was beginning to emit. They jostled each other and pawed the floor with their front hooves. Someone started a war chant.
Lesa slipped her arm into her shield and drew her sword. She put herself between her roommate and the approaching centaurs. “Any fucker who touches her gets gelded!”
“We will get her out of here,” Pholus said.
Lesa looked at him suspiciously.
“She does not affect me the same way,” the gangly centaur said. “Endeis and I, we are lovers.”
Lesa and Endeis provided cover while Pholus led Rhiannon out of the dining hall and into the cold air outside.
“How are you feeling?” Pholus asked the drugged centauride.
“Better.” Rhiannon rubbed her forehead. “I think I am okay to get home.”
Four centaurides came out of the dining hall. They were disheveled, and their swords were drawn. “We will go with her and make sure she gets to her room safely,” one said. “The party is over. Polkan will not sleep comfortably tonight.”
Pholus watched them leave and ran his hands through his hair, making it stand on end. “That could have been a real mess. How did you know?”
“Smoke patterns. I burned some of her hair.”
They studied the stars for a while.
“Do you think this is why the Mentor said you had to come here?” Pholus said.
Lesa rested her head on his lower shoulder. “Maybe.”
“Want to go the Alchemy Lab with us and get drunk?”
The Alchemy Lab had a hookah bar, and Endeis insisted Lesa try his favorite smoking blend while she and Pholus talked about his thesis. The night ended at dawn with a draught Endeis gave her that took away her hangover and made her feel like she’d had a full night’s sleep. Lesa got the Vincent started and powered back to the dorm for a shower and a change of clothes.
Lesa parked in front of the dorm and stopped short. Someone had put a stepladder out, which made it much easier to reach the latch and open the door. There was another ladder in front of the door of her room, with a note. Lesa pulled the scrap of parchment off the ladder and puzzled out the scrawling calligraphy. I still do not like men, it said. But women might be acceptable.
Lesa put the note in her pocket. She didn’t need to see the future to know it was a good sign. There you go, Great-Grandma. Not famous, not powerful, but I might be important to something here. Lesa climbed the ladder to open the door.
The stars don’t lie.