|In The Amazone|
The chamber was the size of a small chapel. The sweet smell of sandalwood incense mingled with the dour, waxy smoke of votive offerings from dozens of lit candles, in thin metal racks, that lined the cold, stony walls. There were three rows of wooden benches separated by a short, central aisle to form a bank of pews: a place to come to pray at odd hours and to hold small worship services at which to commemorate the gods. A high but narrow altar tucked into the apse held larger candles in knurled brass candle holders along with a bowl of fruit, an offering, perhaps, to Cybele, Demeter’s Phrygian counterpart, in this season of plentiful harvest.
A tall, striking figure entered the chapel through a side door. His body was lean, his face markedly oblong and his beard trimmed in the angular, tapered style fashionable among the Persians and now, apparently, among the highborn men of Ilium. Highborn he seemed, from his golden robes with their frieze of scarlet edging along the hems no less than the naturally elegant way he carried himself; a man who seemed at ease in the world, even a world at war not two leagues beyond the gates of this quiet, dusky sanctum. He carried a small scepter whose tip was engraved with the twin gargoyle emblem of Ilium: two huge lions, their manes trailing behind them like tails, each facing the other, rearing on hind legs and pawing the mutual air. The depictions were in profile. Two rubies delineated the lions’ eyes.
"Good afternoon, ladies. Please: remain seated," the courtier smiled as he approached the women. "I understand you've had a rough and somewhat tiring journey. Perhaps you could do with some freshening up followed by a meal and some liquid refreshment. First I'd like to acquaint you with your surroundings while we see to arranging suitable accommodations prior to your conducting what business you may have with Queen Penthesileia."
"And who are you?" Xena said, unimpressed by this show of politeness.
"Deiphobus, King Priam's third son," the courtier replied. "My father has just been made aware of your arrival and is keen to hold an audience with you. I'm his major domo. Seeing to your comfort is my duty which I intend to discharge."
"Thank you," Xena said, relenting a bit.
"Just a minor matter before we begin," Deiphobus took a seat on one of the benches opposite the ladies. "Penthesileia, as you might imagine, is extremely busy, and there's a good deal of friendly competition for her attention. I suggest that you settle into your quarters and plan to attend this evening's banquet. At that time, the Queen will no doubt apprise herself of your arrival and, I'm sure, will take such steps she may deem appropriate to acknowledge it. Until then, you'll be free to wander about the grounds where the surveillance, though constant, will, I trust, be discrete. You are Greeks, after all, and, as you know, we're at war with your kind."
"Our 'kind' is Amazons," Velasca said in a none too friendly tone of voice.
Deiphobus smiled. "Indeed. But we may be forgiven if we fail to regard that distinction as precisely as you do. You are, after all, subject to divided loyalties."
"Not in the least," Velasca said, emphatically.
"Call it environmental influences, then," Deiphobus continued to smile, not in the least rattled. "We are necessarily, to some extent, products of our upbringing; even Amazons and Centaurs who manage, many of them, to live in relative isolation from the trends and fashions of the broader culture. I don't disparage your origins, whether Greek or...," looking pointedly at Velasca, "Lydian. We live in a complex and interdependent world. People naturally wear partially overlapping hats on the crowns of their nicely braided heads." Deiphobus looked at the thin, single, Amazon braid that each of the women exhibited except Gabrielle whose hair was cropped short and Lila whose hair was long and free. "In any event, leave us not quarrel. You will be our honored guests until such time as your business with Queen Penthesileia has been concluded. At that time, we'll attempt to arrange safe passage for your return. Any questions?"
The women shook their heads.
"Very well. My attendant, Sargon, will show you to your quarters. After you’ve bathed and dressed, you'll be escorted to an audience with the King," Deiphobus rose to his full height and bowed gracefully to the ladies. "Oh, one more thing. Just so that you'll be aware. Hector, our eldest brother and greatest champion, also my father's heir, fell in battle, not yet a week ago. Achilles slew him on the Plain of Scamander near the Tymbrian Gate. His body was then savagely defiled. My father negotiated its release for burial the day before yesterday. It's a difficult time for him. You might keep that in mind when you’re ushered into his company."
"Thank you, we will," Xena said and the others nodded.
"If you need anything or find, during your stay, that you require this, that or the other thing for your comfort, I'm your man. Feel free to make your requests to Sargon and they’ll be promptly attended to."
Deiphobus left the antechamber and Sargon, who appeared lame, hobbled toward the door, making unctuous, follow-me motions at the ladies whom he directed along a broadly circular corridor that terminated at a suite of rooms that included a bath and a foyer which led to a belvedere that commanded, between its pillars, a broad view of a combination courtyard and mall two storeys below.
"Ring when you're ready and I'll bring you ‘round to the refectory. The rope's over there. Give a hard yank and the bell will sound," Sargon said and then slunk away.
"Pretty fancy," Gabrielle looked around the grand suite to which the ladies had been assigned. "I wonder if all the guests get such royal treatment."
"They probably don't get many guests who've been summoned to a council with Penthesileia," Ephiny took a seat on one of the cushioned benches that lined the walls in the outer foyer. "Look: three rooms, each with three beds in them. There’s ten of us, so someone's gonna have to double up. And linens, blankets, towels, white gowns with sashes to tie around the waist. What do you make of it? Feels spooky. We’re used to feathers but not to frills."
"Are we actually supposed to sack out on those things?" Elana frowned. "Who could get any sleep lying on a pile of cotton batting crammed into a canvas bag? I’d as soon curl up on the floor. And what's with those dresses? Dresses are for slaves and for women who fawn on their men."
"When in Troy, do as the Trojans do, I suppose," Solari said.
"And what exactly do the Trojans do?" Oriena wondered.
"Get their butts beat in wars against the Argives," Eponin said, having glanced at the fortifications on the way into the city and having noted, however fleetingly, the armed emplacements along the walls' crenellated battlements.
"C'mere, everybody. Check out the view," Lila called from the balcony.
The women went padding out to the balcony and gasped at what they saw. The verandah, swooping out from the corridor, looked down on two interior courtyards, the smaller one colonnaded and sunk a full two footpaces below the larger one. The larger, central courtyard was braced on either side with huge columns supporting wide capitals on whose flat surfaces a broad architrave ran the length of the central mall. At the far end of the mall, a huge gate, perhaps a dozen times the size of Poteidaia's main gate, had been erected to open and close by means of a vast array of pulleys and levers that allowed entrance and egress to and from this segment of the city via a paved ramp wide enough to accommodate three chariots riding abreast. The smaller courtyard was limned with colorful flowers and green, fronded plants in immense clay pots. A pillared porch opened into the megaron, an enormous building which housed the great hall of Priam and whose four turrets, at the corners, were adorned with tall, stone-lined towers from the tips of whose coned belfries flew the tawny banners of Ilium’s twin gargoyles in all their leonine pride.
"What a huge place!" Lila marveled. "I've never seen anything like it."
"And this isn't a quarter of it," Xena said. "The homes and factories, shops and arenas, the giant citadel itself, lies on the far side of those great stone pediments. We can't view them from here but they spread out nearly as far as the eye can see."
"Even Athens can't be this big," Lila said, following the line of Xena's pointing hand.
"It isn't," Xena said. "Ilium is the crown jewel of the known world."
"Soon to be laid waste and reduced to rubble," Velasca, standing at the rear of the group, said, soberly.
"Velasca," Ephiny turned and looked at her rival, "I could swear I detect a note of regret in your voice."
"There's nobility in this place," Velasca looked out on the Court on Chalcas, one of the gathering places for the high and mighty of the city. "Nobility attracts the worms, mites and borers that stealthily seek to undermine it."
"Houses rise and fall," Ephiny reflected. "Even great empires have their day and then pass away."
"I've heard too much of that kind of talk!" Velasca exclaimed. Her outburst was more sorrowful that critical, not finding fault with Ephiny so much as giving voice to her quarrel with the pettiness, drudgery and greed of a world falling forever short of her expectations. "Say that enough times, Ephiny, and you'll eventually come to believe it."
"Wishing things were different doesn't make them so," Ephiny replied.
"All I hear in those words is the sound of surrender," Velasca said. "Capitulation: that seems to be your vision of the future. That's why I'm opposing you and Gabrielle. I won't give in to defeat so easily."
"Not defeat. Realistic accommodation," Ephiny said. "We aren't gods. We're not exempt from the laws of the time and the tides."
"Perhaps not, but we are Amazons!" Velasca growled, then turned on her heels and walked away from the beauty that was but a capsule of Ilium before the coming of the smoke and flames of the approaching deluge.
"And it's precisely for that reason...," Ephiny's voice trailed off as it sought to catch up with Velasca who, outdistancing it, was on her way to ring the bell. Ephiny turned back to the others. "We're just repeating ourselves," she sighed. "We've been through this a hundred times. She'd have us go out in a blaze of glory, though to what effect I don't know."
"And what would be so wrong with that?" Xena said.
"Going out in a blaze of glory? For what end? To prove a point?" Ephiny said. "To show that we're capable of it? Wouldn’t that, in itself, be giving in to a kind of defeat?"
Xena shrugged. "Maybe. Just a thought."
"Velasca's right. There is nobility here," Gabrielle said, standing next to Lila at the balustrade, "and great turmoil. Can you feel it?"
The women stood quietly, basking in the aura of the great city.
"The land isn't at peace," Gabrielle said. "And it's not just because two great armies are contending on its surface."
"Go talk to Velasca," Thelestria laid a gentle hand on Ephiny's arm. "Let her know that her dreams count for something, that they’re not just fanciful mirages dancing in her head."
"I will," Ephiny said, fondly brushing Thelestria's fingers as they rested on Ephiny's arm below the leather bracer. "And yes, Velasca does stand for something noble. I won't take that away from her."
"Even though I'm grubby and famished, I don't think I can tear myself away from what we're looking at down there," Lila smiled at Gabrielle. "It's magnificent, isn’t it? We could be standing on the roof of the world."
"And there's still two storeys above our heads," Gabrielle said.
The castle, four storeys high, was only small part of the larger complex that made up a mere portion of the citadel. Ilium: the Lily of the Phrygian Valley and the Rose of the Aegean Sharon now caught in the iron grip of men's overriding need to possess and conquer.
"Think we'll get to see Helen?" Lila said as Sargon appeared in response to Velasca's summons.
"Wouldn't surprise me," Gabrielle said. "Though I don’t know how might we pick her out of the crowd."
Lila raised a startled eyebrow. "The face that launched a thousand ships and you think we'd have trouble spotting her in the crowd?"
"I’m teasing, silly," Gabrielle giggled as the ladies left the balcony to bathe and then to change into the plain white sheeting of their sashed and, as they then discovered, curvaceous and comfortable dresses, gifts of their hosts along with combs for their hair and strings of amber and turquoise stones for their plunging necklines. Coiffed and scented, they headed off to the refectory at one of whose long, polished tables a cornucopia of bread, cheese, melons and wine were set out in glass bowls, porcelain platters and frosted decanters.
"Woo!" Solari sat back on her chair with her hands draped on her belly after the women had eaten their fill, "them was mighty good pickin's!"
"And we didn't even have to chase it through woods," Eponin looked at the pile of melon rinds and the crumbly nubs of cheese.
"Mm," Gabrielle licked her fingers, "we even got seconds."
"For a little thing, you sure find places to pack it away," Solari said to Gabrielle.
"And does she ever put on an ounce? No," Eponin moped.
"I'm the one with the fat cells in the family," Lila said.
"You?" Solari looked Lila up and down. "You've got nice curves."
"And nice boobs," Eponin said.
"And a pretty face," Ephiny said.
"You are quite attractive," Velasca looked none too subtly at Lila who began to blush.
"Wanna come to my hut and fletch some arrows some time?" Thelestria smiled at Lila.
"Forget the arrows, wanna come to my hut some time?" Oriena said.
"Forget the hut, wanna come some time?" Elana said.
Lila, red-faced, looked to Gabrielle for help.
Gabrielle simply chuckled.
"You asked for it, Lila," Xena let go a rare smile and her eyes shone with an even rarer twinkle. "You wanted the truth out of this gang of no-counts and you got it."
"Oh, dear...," Lila's mouth made a cute, little moue.
Lila was spared further embarrassment by Deiphobus' appearance at the table. "Ladies," he said, "His Majesty will see you now. Come this way, je vous en prie."
"Oh, my...," Solari rolled her eyes facetiously as the ladies rose from the table. "Un, deux, trois; meet me in the bois. Who does this joker in his silken bathrobe think he's shaking down anyhow?"
"Ssh," Ephiny elbowed Solari in the ribs. "He's taking us to see the big guy."
"I didn't know you could talk Trojan," Eponin said to Solari as the ladies proceeded down the corridor.
"Honey," Solari couched in a low voice, "some lines come out the same in any language."
At the end of the corridor, a long, low portico led to the throne room, a moderate-sized arcade with pages and attendants standing at sideboards and seated at tables. The floor in the center of the room was covered by the thick pile of a huge Persian rug. A narrow strip of red velvet carpeting ran from the foot of the throne to the rear of the arcade where a retinue of the king's honor guard stood at attention while ministers and generals came and went from their offices and warrens. A great rose window above the throne let the late afternoon sunlight wash over the nave so that the king, seated on the throne, appeared not to reflect the light so much as to be its dispenser.
"Here's the protocol," Deiphobus explained. "You're going to follow me in. I'm going to line you up in front of the king. Then I'll say, 'Your Majesty, may I present...,' and then I'll say each of your names, beginning with you. Your name is..."
"Xena," Xena said.
"Xena what?" Deiphobus said.
"Just... Xena," Xena said.
"Allright, beginning with Xena," Deiphobus said. "Then onto you and you and you. As I say your name, kneel and say, 'Your Majesty...' Then, when you're all kneeling and looking discretely at the floor, His Majesty will tell you to rise at which point you’ll rise as one. Then the audience will formally begin. Any questions? No further questions? Good. Are we ready?"
In they went. King Priam was seated on his throne, wrapped in the royal gold and purple of his magisterial office. His face looked old and was etched with deep, gravid lines. He was bearded like most of the men but not heavily so, and his cheeks were bare to just below the hollows. He wasn't a handsome man, yet his features were striking, an amalgam of East and West. Gazing at them, for just an instant, the women felt the power of his jaw, the prominence of his slightly beaked nose, the clarity of his brown eyes that pierced but didn't sting. Even Velasca, who had little use for the male half of the species, felt a mixed tingle of affection and respect when she beheld the aging monarch. If there had to be men in the world, he didn't seem like a bad specimen.
"Your Majesty," Deiphobus held forth, "may I present..."
"Yes, yes, of course, you may," the King waved him away. Then the King rose from his throne with a surprising spring in his step, came down the two carpeted stairs, extended his hand and, in a fulsome gesture, with warmth in his voice and gladness in his eyes, he beamed, "Xena! How good to see you again. It's been a long time since last we met."
"Yes, it has, Your Majesty," Xena smiled and warmly accepted the King's outstretched hand. "It's good to see you again too."
The others, not knowing quite what to make of the King's greeting, began, a bit awkwardly, to kneel, but the King reached out a hand and, flapping his wrist, palms up, he cried, "Up, up, up! Stand up so I can get a look at you. Welcome, ladies, to my humble abode. I trust you've been well looked after." The King shot a peppery glance in Deiphobus' direction.
"Oh, yes," the women concurred, "very well looked after."
"Good," the elderly monarch said. "I understand, from my intelligence sources, that you arrived safely on Tenedos, courtesy of a pressed olive oil merchant who put you to work as his crew and that your two rather tense candlemarks on the island fortunately passed without incident. Further, that you ingeniously availed yourselves of a vacant galley to row the twenty-five leagues across the channel, landing on the beach some twenty leagues to our south where you spent a seasonably chilly night camping out by a fringe of woods. This morning, you hiked, some distance from the side of the road, to a spot within sight of the great plain where you wisely arranged to be apprehended by one of my patrols."
The women looked at each other and then at the King. "You knew all that?"
"Yes, of course," the King chuckled. "You're not surprised that you were spied on, are you, Xena?"
"No, Your Majesty," Xena smiled at the king's display of mirth. "I suspected as much."
"In fact, I should say that you rather expected that your movements would be monitored more or less from the time you left... what village was it? The one that some troublesome warlord, trafficking in stolen merchandise, was harassing," the King tried to recollect the name.
"Poteidaia," Xena said.
"Yes," the King said. "Quaint fishing village as I recall. Rather well laid out. A port town on one of those Lower Macedonian capes that dip down to the sea. It's known for something industrious. Pots, yes? Poteidaia Pots. Very good ones. We have a few lying around in the kitchen. They're quite heat resistant, as I recall. It comes from something they mix into their glazing compounds. There was a day," the King let go a light sigh, "when we traded quite extensively with one another, you know, Trojan and Argive. Did more than just trade. Worked together. Played together. Roughhoused together. Ah, this damnable war. I'm telling you, Xena, no good will come of it. Not for us leastwise. Not for most of you Greeks either. Anyhow, you needn't trouble about the stolen galley. We've towed it, along with its oars, back to its owners."
A bit befuddled, the women could only stammer an embarrassed thank you.
"Not at all," the King graciously replied. "It took no small measure of pluck to get yourselves here. Frankly, we didn't know if you'd make it. Forgive us for snooping. If the Argive sappers on Tenedos had tried to detain you for the purpose of locking you up and extorting information out of you, we'd've stepped in and ferreted you out of there. Happily, it didn't come to that. Which one's Gabrielle?"
"I am," Gabrielle looked with surprise at the King. "You know my name."
"Indeed, I do," the King came over and gracefully took Gabrielle's hand. "This is truly a pleasure, to have the opportunity of meeting you at last. Though you look to be more slight of build than I’d imagined. It's true, though; isn't it, Xena? Good things so often do come in relatively small packages."
"I didn't realize that I might be known to Your Majesty," Gabrielle said, her cheeks blushing like mad.
"Known? Heh, heh, known and admired," the King smiled. "I hear you've been a good influence on our formerly bellicose Warrior Princess, harnessed her wild streak for good ends; something that the God of War himself couldn’t do."
"How do you know Xena, Your Majesty?" Gabrielle said.
"Who hasn't crossed paths with the Warrior Princess? Xena -- and, I believe, yourself -- did some of my people a good turn four, five sunmarks ago. Darius, if you remember the name. Poor chap. Lost his wife to the foul machinations of some warlording charioteer by the name of Cycnus. Cycnus had a son, Sphaerus, whose life seems to have been changed for the better due to the timely intervention of a rather generous, warm-hearted and youthfully blue-eyed companion of the terrible Warrior Princess. The name ring any bells?"
Gabrielle’s cheeks turned even redder. "That was our first adventure after we left Amphipolis. I'm glad things seem to have worked out well for him," Gabrielle looked down, in an instant of reverie, at the dark, swirling pattern on the Persian rug.
"He's out in the field at this very turn of the sandglass, serving in one of our ordnance battalions," the King looked across the arcade in the direction of the hostilities that had been taking place on the plains beyond the secure walls of the citadel. "Better that, I trust, than following his father's misguided footsteps into a life of crime. Well, Xena," the King turned to gaze at the Warrior Princess, "what's to become of us, eh? What do you suppose that you might do at this juncture if you were the one who was sitting on that purple seat cushion over there?" The King stared with something less than total affection at the vacant throne.
"We heard the news about your son," Xena said, softly. "I'm sorry. Hector was one of the finest men I've ever met."
"That's kind of you to say," the King gave Xena a serious look, worn and heavy with age. "I went to see Achilles in his tent. I went alone and shared a pitcher of ale and some wheat cakes with my son's killer. He's more astute and complex than I'd given him credit for being. Afterwards, I brought the body home. We lit the pyre with full honors. Achilles' day won't be long in coming. He knows that. So both sides, in this damnable conflict, will have lost the finest flower of their youth. If you're ever blessed to have a child, Xena, if you should ever have a son," the King turned to look Xena in the eye, "I pray that you might never live long enough to bury him."
Xena bit her lip and nodded. "I do, too, Your Majesty," she said in a voice barely above a whisper.
Lila quietly reached over and gave Gabrielle's hand a squeeze.
Or a daughter, Lila said silently.
"Well, enough catering to the crochets of a tedious old man," the King rallied. "What about yourselves. Have you ladies been fed and refreshed and shown about your quarters?"
The women nodded.
"Everything in ship shape?"
"Everything's copacetic, Your Majesty," Ephiny said.
"Well, you be sure and come straight to me and let me know if it isn't," the King shook a kindly finger at them. "And never mind the formalities. I want your stay within these walls to be warm and welcoming. If you should need anything at all, you let Sargon know and I expect that your needs will be seen to at once. And do enjoy the run of the place. Get Deiphobus or one of the courtiers to show you around. Who knows how much longer it will all be here."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," the women said.
"Your Majesty?" Ephiny spoke up.
"Mm?" the King responded.
"Some of your people may balk at our presence here because we're Greek," Ephiny said.
"Greek, Shmeek," the King waved the potential objection away. "You're my guests. You're Amazons. And from what I've been able to gather from my various sources, you appear to be forthright and honorable women. The world could do with many more such accomplished ladies. Still, you're right to be concerned. Best to take an escort with you and not wander about the streets and alleys alone. But don't let yourself be bullied. You have legitimate cause to be here and need apologize to no one."
"Do you have any idea when we might meet with Penthesileia?" Velasca said. "She is here, isn't she?"
"Oh, yes," the King nodded. "Come see me in my apartments some time in the next day or two, Xena. I'd like to have a word with you about our friend, Penny. I know you ladies want to meet with your queen," the king addressed Velasca, "and I know she's anxious to meet you. You'll see her this evening. We're holding a banquet to honor the memory of my eldest son. I hope you might break bread with us and join us for a mug of wine. His soul was sullied by hatred of no man, neither Argive nor Trojan, not even for his appointed slayer. I'm sure he'd be complimented by your presence among us."
"We'll be there, Your Majesty," Xena spoke for the group. "And thank you for including us."
The King glanced at Deiphobus who stepped forward to indicate that the audience had come to an end. "I hear good things about you, Xena," the King extended his hand once again. "You're out of the limelight now, but never imagine that your kindnesses and struggles go unnoticed. Nor yours, young lady," the King turned to cast his gaze on Gabrielle. "And the rest of you: take a lesson from the Warrior Princess and her young companion here. The key to a soul's greatness lies not in conquering warring legions in the proud sight of the nations but in giving humbly of yourselves when you imagine that no one's looking."
Then the ladies left the King's chamber to spend the balance of the day strolling about the royal courts and gardens.
|Continued - Chapter 38|
|Return to The Bard's Corner|