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Lexi asked Jules to share her chariot on the way to their next stop – the minotaur encampment. She wanted to talk to him and make sure he was comfortable meeting those responsible for puncturing him. Of course, she needed to approach the subject carefully, so they did some sightseeing, although Jules fidgeted through most of it. Lexi guessed this was not due to fear but rather his need to control the chariot.

"Would you like to take over?" she said as she handed him the reins.

"If you're sure." Jules snagged the straps from Lexi, and a moment later he was grinning like a fool as they pulled ahead of the others. Lexi knew an opportunity when she saw it.

"Jules, how do you feel about our next stop?"

Jules' lips tightened, but the gesture barely disturbed his handsome features. "When you mentioned the scavenger hunt, I had a feeling we would be paying the minotaurs a visit. I know you've been working hard to create peace between them and the gods, and although I have my doubts, I still support you. How's that coming, by the way?"

"Very well. If not, I wouldn't have put them on our route. I want everyone to see what an intelligent and gentle race they are."

A snort erupted from Jules' mouth, and he quickly offered his apology. "I'm sorry, Lexi. That slipped out. But in my defense, I was raised to believe minotaurs are savage animals with just enough intelligence to know how to spear you, but I am willing to suspend my judgment until I have left the minotaur encampment free of holes."

He smiled at her, and Lexi knew he meant what he said. It was a trait he shared with his father, although unlike Ares, Jules didn't make her want to punch him. Lexi directed Jules to land next to Hecate's cabin where Lars and Cole waited at the entrance of the forest path. Lars hurried to get to their chariot, his polite intentions clear by his outstretched hand. Jules didn't appear to notice Lars' intent and quickly escorted Lexi off, forcing Lars to take a step back. Lexi made a point to acknowledge Lars with a smile before offering the traditional minotaur greeting to both he and Cole, placing her hand on her heart as she clicked her tongue.

"Hello, my friends. Thank you for meeting us." Lexi spoke for the benefit of her guests, who were dismounting from their horses and chariots somewhat tentatively. Odessa walked up to stand beside Lexi, surreptitiously wrapping her fingers around Lexi's wrist as introductions were made. "Everyone, this is Lars. He is the son of one of the herd leaders and will soon be taking his late father's place. And next to him is Cole, his close comrade."

There was a general bowing of heads, and Gunther spoke as he widened his stance next to Jules. "How much of their language do you understand, Lexi? Will you know if they're planning to skewer us?"

Lars stiffened and Lexi cautioned Gunther with a scowl. "They are not going to skewer us, Gunther. I am teaching Lars some of our language, so he will be able to understand a small amount of what you say, and he is very good at reading body language. Manners and respect is the name of the game, you follow? Don't give the minotaurs a reason to put you in your place."

Gunther's eyes widened in understanding, and he directed a deep bow at the minotaurs. Lars spent a moment surveying their group, and when he seemed satisfied, he offered Lexi his muscular arm, gesturing to the path with the other. Lexi let him assume his role as aspiring leader, and soon they were trekking through the minotaur forest. Their journey on foot started out deathly quiet, apart from the crunching of leaves, but Lexi had planned for the awkward silences.

"As I said earlier, Lars and a few others have learned some of our language, but they cannot speak it because it is too difficult for them to enunciate words," she explained to her mute audience. "Their mouths are built more for clicks and grunts, but they use hand gestures to communicate as well. Once we get to the encampment, Lars is going to speak to you using the minotaur language. Whoever can guess what he is saying will receive a coin."

"Couldn't we have done that back there?" Jolie pointed a trembling finger behind her, and Lexi reached out to take her hand. She could sympathize with Jolie, having been in her position not so long ago.

"I suppose we could have, but I wanted you to see the minotaurs in their habitat. And they have been working on a special surprise for us."

Eyes wide, Jolie caught her bottom lip between her teeth as if she expected the surprise to be something awful, and Lexi hurriedly continued her discourse. "The minotaurs of the underworld supply at least one quarter of the pomegranates you all enjoy in Olympus. They have been interacting with the gods on a peaceful basis for centuries."

This sparked more conversation, and soon they were greeted by a group of minotaurs at the encampment clearing. Cheni, one of the herd leaders and the aunt to Lars, acknowledged them first, and after she finished addressing the party, Lexi translated.

"Cheni welcomes us and asks that we follow her to the fire pit."

Jolie's eyes were still as round as plates, and in a friendly gesture Jules swung his arm over her shoulder as everyone followed their hosts to the center of camp. Cheni motioned toward the felled trees circling the pit and the gods took their seats. Lars assumed a standing position behind Lexi, while Cheni and two others used sticks to disperse a pile of hot embers, unearthing three large zucca gourds from the ground. Because Lexi knew all about the surprise, she shared more with the gods as the surprise was being revealed.

"The minotaurs are excellent cultivators. They sow the same seeds that have been used by the gods for centuries, cooking their food above and below the ground. It was only recently that they adopted the concept of recipes. The forest nymphs are to thank for that."

"I didn't know minotaurs could cook," Odessa said as she and the others watched the minotaurs curiously. Cheni and her assistants were now opening the gourds and scooping out an assemblage of grains, herbs and pomegranate seeds onto fronds. It smelled delicious.

Lexi would never tell Odessa she was disappointed in her lack of knowledge on the subject of minotaurs. The herds in Olympus were left to their own devices, left to be savages. It was no wonder all her guests looked pale and pasty. "When I first came to the underworld, I knew nothing about minotaurs," Lexi said. "Now, I can confidently say they exhibit similar traits to mortals and, by extension, the gods. They are intelligent, resourceful, and they feel compassion."

"And it took a goddess of your immense compassion to bring the minotaurs and gods together," Jules said as his cheeks filled with color. "No one else could have coaxed me into this forest again but you."

"I appreciate your trust in me, Jules. Thank you."

Lexi felt Lars shuffle from hoof to hoof behind her. She noticed he became agitated whenever Jules spoke to her. Was it jealousy? She had seen how male minotaurs handled conflict, and she didn't think Jules would survive head to horn combat with Lars. When food was served, Lexi took the opportunity to relax against Lars' strong legs, grateful the day had progressed just the way she'd hoped. With any luck, Hades and his team were experiencing the same success.


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