|The Eyes Have It|
The women took advantage of their leisure time to tour a portion of the city. They strolled through hanging gardens, along tree-lined promenades, up wide marble staircases of steep embankments, across espaliered terraces and down nimble escarpments. The broad panorama of this sector of the citadel gave out on a grid of workplaces, residences, forums specializing in various branches of trade and commerce, schools, infirmaries, granaries, warehouses, recreational facilities and grand concourses devoted to military training. In one respect, however, this large metropolis resembled the small villages surrounding Poteidaia: the land devoted to agriculture, the foundation upon which the city's manufacturing, commercial and service economy was based, lay beyond the city's environs, and its acreage -- far more spacious, of course, than simple village plots -- was zoned to permit the most efficient means of tilling, planting and harvesting the soil and to encourage the periodic rotation of crops.
As the women stood on one of the battlements, surveying Ilium's vast wheat, grain and barley fields, among the most arable and fertile soil in the known world, watered by the deltas of two converging rivers and basking, for months of the year, in a flood of unobstructed sunlight, the obvious question occurred to them: instead of laying siege to the city's immense, possibly impregnable fortifications for nigh on to a decade without apparent success, why hadn't the Argive forces sought to lay waste Ilium’s breadbasket, starving the city into submission and bringing the populace to its knees?
Then the women noticed the series of interlocking breastworks and barrows and trenches that went snaking in enormous, uneven avenues and broadways for what must have been leagues on end around the great perimeter of the city’s rich agricultural lands. These banked dugouts, mounds, drumlins and ditches were heavily fortified with a greater quantity of artillery and materiel -- and manpower -- than was in use on the battlefield. Beyond these emplacements, surrounding this gigantic agricultural bowl, channels, canals and conduits had been dug and dammed to create an artificial but nonetheless effective border of thick, gooey mire, about two hundred meters in width, through which it would have been impossible to maneuver without sinking in the muck and quickly becoming immobilized.
"The work that went into to creating and now goes into maintaining these massive grain fields must be immeasurable," Ephiny marveled at the sight.
"It's a mind boggling feat of civil engineering," Solari shook her head.
"To solve the drainage problems alone would have required a stroke of genius," Eponin stared at the sight with wonder. "We can't see what’s going on below ground level, but something must be sumping huge quantities of water away or that place'd be one homungous and very useless savanna."
"Velasca, what’s your take on all this?" Ephiny said.
Velasca shook her head. "I'm astounded. Those aren't rice paddies. They're fields and pastures. Look, see the horses?"
The women's jaws dropped even further. There were herds of horses grazing on the far reaches of the plain. A veritable prairie not twenty leagues from the city's walls.
"Well, Xena, tell us how they do it," the women turned to look at the Warrior Princess.
Xena shook her head. "I saw something like it in Chin. But there it was framed by a great wall that ran for endless reaches over hill and dale, like the wall we saw in Britannia that the Roman legions built to keep the Celts out, only the one in Chin very much greater. But how they do it here without the support of causeways and aqueducts I haven’t the slightest idea."
"Really?" Gabrielle needled. "You mean there's something you don't know?"
"I'm with Velasca on this one. I've never seen anything like it," Xena stared at the rich, rolling plains now largely harvested of their summer bounty.
"This must be a first," Gabrielle cackled good naturedly. Then she smiled to herself. She and Xena were seeing something new for the first time together. A wave of joy rippled through her. Here was a memory Gabrielle knew she'd treasure.
"Whadaya think of all this, Lee?" Gabrielle turned to Lila.
"I think it's our village times a thousand," Lila said. "Otherwise, it's not all that different in principle. You wouldn't need to dam any springs. All you'd need to make it work would be two dry months for the water table to subside before the fall rains came. I'll bet the threads of those two rivers narrow down quite a bit once you go a few leagues upstream. It really wouldn't take much else."
The women turned to give Lila a bevy of startled looks. Of course. Now why hadn't any of them thought of that.
"Look. Over there," Lila pointed away from the tracts of cropland to the oval shell of a great telesterion from which trumpet blasts were periodically issuing. "Sounds like some sort of a parade ground."
The women made their way through a maze of residential and commercial streets. There was no stench, no sewage running over curbs and into gutters. Could Ilium have developed indoor plumbing, something of which none of the women had, until that very instant, conceived? They pondered this potential miracle of building construction as they strolled toward the huge telesterion through which they entered via one of its many corniced archways. Within the vast, outdoor theater, they stood by a tall marble column and watched several companies of veteran enlistees and recent recruits going through the paces of their afternoon drill. The men in plume and mail were doing infantry maneuvers with sword, spear, pike and mace. They broke into ranks and files as they advanced and fell back under the tutelage of the commanders in charge of their training -- commanders who were women.
There were twelve squads with roughly twenty-five soldiers per squad. At the head of each squad, barking orders, demonstrating advances and retreats, adjusting one man's position, honing another's technique, correcting a third's misstep, was the woman whose task it was to whip the squad onto combat-ready condition. Like the men whom they were coaching, the women squad leaders were coated in plume and mail, but their helmets sported tall, curved peaks of gleaming silver with the crescent moon for an ornament, the signet of the Amazons.
"They must be the members Penthesileia's cadre," Gabrielle said, nodding at the women commanders.
Xena nodded back. "Twelve; and each one a formidable opponent."
"Look at those moves," Ephiny pointed to one of the Amazons who was executing a parry, thrust, hack, turn, hack, turn, swipe, thrust, parry, turn, retreat. "They're dancers."
"They're doing advanced cottas," Eponin said, looking on with a twinge of envy.
"So precise," Solari shook her head.
"Poetry in motion," Elana said.
"Splendid," Oriena said.
"Superb," Thelestria said.
The Amazons looked on with their mouths fairly watering.
"That takes immense practice and training," Ephiny said with admiration. "You can't just get out there and hope to wing that stuff, can you, Xena?"
"Nope," Xena shook her head.
"One of them's demonstrating staff technique," Gabrielle pointed at the Amazon closest to them. "Step, cross, turn, step; cross, break, step, turn; break, turn, cross, step: brace! Just like you were having me do only she’s doing it perfectly. Tai-kyoku sho-dan!" Gabrielle said to Xena.
"Bet those girls could teach you some fancy moves, Xena," Lila said, looking on.
"Bet they could," Xena nodded.
Velasca said nothing. She just stood there and watched as the Amazon captains melded the troops into a fighting unit.
A few turns of the sandglass later, the squads broke for the day. The men, removing their helmets and wiping the sweat from their fair and swarthy brows, lined up in rows to face their trainers. In one, crisp motion, the men bowed low to their Amazon instructors and filled the parade ground with a loud, respectful Hai! of thanks. The training session was over and the grounds began to clear.
"Guess it's time to head back and get changed if you ladies are going to make it over to the banquet," Xena ducked into the exit.
"Aren't you?" Lila raised an eyebrow.
"Aren't I what?" Xena said.
"Going to get changed for the banquet?" Lila said.
Xena chuckled. "You know who you remind me of, Lila?" she said in her most sultry, Warrior Princess voice.
Lila looked at Xena expectantly.
"Your nudgy sister!" Xena exclaimed with mock exasperation and then threw an arm around Lila's shoulder, tugging her to close to her side and, with her free hand, vigorously toussling Lila's hair, causing Lila to go "Waughhh...!" with a mixture of surprise, alarm and delight.
Gabrielle, meanwhile, twinkled with glee and guffawed at the big, fat grin on Xena's face as Xena let Lila loose from her affectionate embrace.
"You were awfully quiet back there," Gabrielle said to Velasca as the women made their way back to their quarters.
Velasca had been tarrying at some distance behind the others; and Gabrielle, sensitive to Velasca's withdrawn mood, had slowed her pace so that Velasca eventually caught up with her as the others ventured on ahead, chatting with Xena about various kinds of martial arts.
"Mm?" Velasca raised a wide, expressive eyebrow. "Oh. Yes, I suppose I was."
"But you were watching the goings on intently."
"I caught a glimpse of what we could become. Imagine a field of three hundred Amazon warriors, moving as one body, with one goal, one objective, one will. In perfect unison. And in every hand a weapon of war, a means to greater glory." "The glory of...," Gabrielle chanced a rejoinder. Velasca didn't easily take her sisters into her confidence and certainly not her chief rival for power.
"Restoration," Velasca said. "Of reclaiming what we've lost."
"'We...,' you say; meaning... us."
"You are an Amazon, Gabrielle; if you choose to be."
"Not just Xena's little sidekick?" Take one chance, take another.
Velasca looked at Gabrielle with neither a smile nor a frown on her wide, sensuous face whose beauty, Gabrielle noted, would be even more compelling than it already was if only her expression might be a trifle less severe. "In the end, that's up to you," Velasca said and, as she seemed inclined to say no more, Gabrielle let the matter drop and sought to engage her instead in a discussion about the splendid architecture which engrossed them on all sides.
In the ladies’ absence, Sargon had replenished their lotions and bath oils, outfitted the rooms with commodes and then left, for each of them, along with brushes and combs, small stoppered flasks of mild, aromatic perfumes: attar of rose, eglantine, lily of the valley. Seated at what became her dressing table in the room she was to share with Gabrielle and Ephiny -- not, as it turned out, with Xena, for some reason -- Lila brushed her rich, dark hair which she pinned loosely behind her ears after wiping the pores of her skin with drops of a cleansing rinse sprinkled on a light, buff cloth. Gazing at her face in the mirror, Lila applied the tiniest smidgen of light, pink gloss to her soft, round lips and then, again with the lightest touch, tamped the tiniest stroke of dark, charcoal coloring to her low, lazy eyelids. Some scent on the inside of her wrists and behind her ears and then, on a lark, a single string of blue baby's breath draped like the thinnest headband over the backwards sweep of her lush, dark hair completed Lila’s toilette.
Gabrielle appeared behind her in the mirror and placed a warm hand on Lila's shoulder. "Looks like my kid sister's growing up," Gabrielle said with the slightest twinge of fond regret. "You look lovely tonight, Lee. You look like... a beautiful woman is what you look like. I wish Mom were here to see you now."
Lila turned and looked up at Gabrielle, the slightest trace of a smile on her beautiful face. If Gabrielle hadn't known her sister so well, she might have said that the face looking up at her was maturing into the stature, at odd moments, of a bit of an enigma and, in the process, was acquiring the first traces of the self-possession, competence and magnetism that transitioned a girl of promise into a woman of power.
Then Lila smiled more broadly and, without saying a word, reached up and covered Gabrielle's hand with her own. For an instant, Gabrielle saw, in Lila's face, what Alexis routinely saw and Anike was just coming to see: a gentle diffusion of grace that lotioned the soul and salved the heart of those who looked upon Lila with open eyes. The gods, it seemed, had not neglected Lila in their distribution of charismatic ways to live and breathe as a woman.
"Dressing up for someone special?" Gabrielle teased as she took Lila's hand and hauled her up from the seat in front of the mirror.
"Nah, just for you guys," Lila smiled. "Everyone here looks so nice, even Velasca. These slanting tops that vee our necklines and the short skirts bound at the waist by these sashes, I think they look good on us. And...," Lila paused. With a half smile, she failed to complete the thought.
"And what, Lee...," Gabrielle said, looking tight and fit in her own pleated drapery with its skirt as short as an Attic chiton.
"Maybe it's just the twilight, since we're up so high, but it feels like there's a trace of magic… of romance in the air," Lila said. "Silly, isn’t it?"
"Dunno," Gabrielle shrugged. "Maybe we'll find out."
Lila took Gabrielle's arm and entwined it in her own. "My date," she looked at Gabrielle and chuckled. "I suppose Xena can come and make it a threesome if she wants."
Warm in each other's company, Lila and Gabrielle left the room arm in arm and, smiling, went to meet the others on the balcony.
Ten lovely ladies -- eight Amazons, a Warrior Princess and a peasant girl from a small, coastal farming village in Macedonia -- wandered down the long galleries from the palace’s guest quarters and made their way through the adjoining cloisters to the banquet hall where the guests were milling about the buffet tables prior to the claxon's call to be seated for a formal state dinner. Deiphobus met them at the entranceway and offered his profuse greetings, expressing his hope that their afternoon’s turn about the grounds had been both profitable and pleasurable.
"Verrrry...," Xena said in her sultry voice with the matching panache of one raised eyebrow, the gesture that communicated to bumptious men that as between her and a pit viper, they'd run a less likely risk of enduring a lethal bite if they tangled with the viper.
"In that case, ladies," Deiphobus extended his arm toward the crowded hall, "mill, graze, mix, enjoy. The evening is yours."
Deiphobus evaporated and the women were left to fend for themselves as to the cocktails and the hors-d'oeuvres.
"Cash bar or drinks on the house?" Xena collared one of the uniformed busboys who was passing by, toting a tray stacked with platters of clams casino.
"Come on, lady," the busboy gave Xena a wizened look. "You think the government’s gonna spring for every lush who comes traipsing in here dressed in pearls and sleek brocade? Schmooze and booze on your own nickel. A dinar for mixed drinks, two for a highball." Then he buzzed off to the kitchen.
The women looked at Xena with wide-eyed stares.
"Just thought I'd ask," Xena said, defensively.
It wasn't long, in the crush and sway of the crowd, before the ladies began to get separated. The men in attendance, mostly tall, good looking and suave, had shed their armor and helmets for elegant evening dress: frilled doublets and nicely tailored robes with stitched designs down the borders and along the knee-length hems. The women in attendance, mostly tall, good looking and svelte, had shed their blouses and skirts for elegant evening dress: gossamer gowns, bodices embroidered with lace and, all over their persons, caverns of gleaming jewels.
"Autolycus would have an orga... would go hog wild at this diamond-decked swa-ray," Gabrielle observed to Xena.
"Who says he isn't here now, hiding under the belled lid of that silver serving dish," Xena pointed to the table on which sat a huge compote that held the triangular and quickly vanishing slices of a giant quiche.
In their white, unadorned attire, the ladies stuck out like sore thumbs. Their dress was obviously being supplied for the occasion from the castle's wardrobe as hundreds of flamepoints of light reflected from the massive, overhead chandeliers and then caromed about the hall at varied angles, supplemented by lit torches in fluted brackets at each entrance and exit. The dinner tables were set in the adjacent ballroom. Voices droned and wafted, creating a soothing, somnolent atmosphere that made Lila slightly drowsy while she sampled the appetizers. At one point she turned to run a stray thought by Gabrielle but found herself meandering alone in the crowd.
Lila had slowly drifted toward a rear corner of the hall. She was now within sight, though not in voice range, of the other members of her party who were floating about the hall in pairs or alone. Suddenly, Lila's heart began to beat with anticipation. Might Helen of the Dark Cheeks be here in this very hall? What about Paris, Priam's second son and now, in Hector's stead, the king's putative heir, whose judgment on Mount Ida, awarding the Apple of Discord to Aphrodite to the eternal enmity of Artemis and Athena, had sparked the abduction of Helen and the long and terrible conflict that had stemmed from that fateful enterprise?
Might Troilus be here, Priam's fourth son, whose devouring love for Cressida, the pert and pretty niece of Chalcas, Ilium's chief priest, now suspected of collaborating with the Argives, was sung in lays and ballads from Ilium's golden shores to the furthest keys of Hellas? Might Lila chance to catch a glimpse of Cassandra, Priam's eldest daughter and the greatest prophetess of the known world whose words of warning, though strangely never heeded, always seemed to bear chastising fruit? Was Aeneas somewhere in the crowd, Anchises' son, Priam's nephew, most noble of the Trojan warriors after Hector upon whose shoulders Ilium's hopes for victory now lay? The honor guard of Troy, her highest born sons and daughters, were present in this succulent banquet hall, and Lila was there to witness it. What in the name of a torn bedsheet and a busted table leg might Lexie say if she knew where I was tonight, how I was dressed and what I was doing? Would she be so green with envy that she might never speak to me again?
Then Lila noticed a striking group of young women entering the hall. They were tall, like most of the Trojan women, and dressed to the nines in flowing gowns and shawls, bedizened with jewels and constellations of glitter in their hair which they wore, most of them, in grand twists and flowery, fragile-netted buns. The murmurring in the hall subsided when these ladies made their appearance. They cut a striking figure in composite as they swept in en masse, graciously accepting the admiring gazes and vocal embellishments of the men, the most gallant of these gentlemen being the first to acknowledge the ladies' presence with courteous bows and elegant devoirs swept low to the floor.
"Clonie, how wonderful to see you looking so smashing this evening..."
"Evandre, what a glorious himation you've got draped across your perfectly square shoulders..."
"Derinoe, I adore the way you've done your hair; those golden ringlets frame your rosy cheeks with a verve that’s all your own..."
"Derimacheia, chartreuse is definitely your color, dear..."
"Look at Thermodosa, those absolutely magnificent arms. If ever a body cried out to be strapless..."
"Bremusa, there ought to be a law against someone as lovely as yourself being permitted to make utter hags of the rest of us..."
"Keep an eye on your husbands, ladies. I believe that Alcibie, Antandre and Antibrote have just entered the room."
"Polemusa, those gloves, shoes and handbag complementing that narrow-waisted dress you've picked out are simply a stunning combination..."
"There's Hippothoe and Harmothoe. I swear one is prettier than the other, but I couldn't tell you, from one turn of the sandglass to the next, which one it would be..."
"You wouldn't know them now to have seen them leading the field exercises in the telesterion by the Dardan Gate this afternoon," Lila overheard one of the men remark to the gentleman who was standing next to him, "but these Amazons are training the troops for the upcoming counter-offensive that's due to get underway at any time now. And doing a bloody posh job of it, I should say."
"They're Amazons, you say?" the fellow's interlocutor, snifter of Chivas over ice in hand, queried.
"The Amazon elite," the fellow affirmed with a knowing flicker of his eyebrows. "These twelve are a match for any score of Argive regulars save Achilles and that other three-hundred-stone bonehead, what's his name..."
"You mean Ajax?" the interlocutor said.
"That's the one," the fellow nodded. "Put these ladies up against Odysseus, Diomedes, Menelaus, Agammemnon himself, and we'll be having patie de fois Argive for dinner for many moonmarks to come. No idea what they put in these Amazon baby formulas, but damn if they don't turn out good soldiers and fine field commanders."
"Replete with the passion of avenging angels in bed or so I hear," the interlocutor muttered on the q.t.
"Oh, that," the fellow chuckled. "Well, I understand there's a day trader in Boeotia who actually survived a night under the covers with one of them. Couldn't see or talk or climb stairs for a moonmark afterwards, but that minor disability didn't seem to trouble him much."
"Corpore sane, copis mentis," the interlocutor rolled his booze-dampened eyes.
"Something along those lines," the fellow said. "But unless I miss my guess, I believe I've just detected none other than the Warrior Princess floating incognito about the place, so I'd say that the fire of upcoming battle is definitely about to be kindled in the grate."
Lila homed in for a closer look at these gorgeous Amazons in their jeweled evening gowns. These women didn't look anything like the highly skilled and disciplined warriors who'd led the men in their training exercises earlier that afternoon, but Lila knew that looks could be deceiving. Upon closer inspection, Lila noticed that the twelve Amazons, though hailed by the crowd and warmed to as figures of high status, appeared slightly ill at ease in the midst of the elegant gathering, not seeming to know quite what to do now that they'd made their entrance. Being the icons of some dreaded, avenging war goddess, all that the Amazons really had to do was just stand around, silent and icy, looking severely breathtaking. Instead, they moved in tandem toward the stage where the musical instruments had been placed for the band that was to play during dinner.
There they lingered, rather conspicuously, as a gleaming knot in the crowd as though awaiting further instructions from their superior. Born and brought up among women, having little to no contact with men, shy of the social graces and having trained their whole lives as fighters and field marshalls, these Amazons would have had no occasion to become adept at negotiating the hidden mines and booby traps of mixed company at formal state gatherings. But Gabrielle and her own klatch of Amazons had noted their arrival and were now, in the plain, white sheeting which constituted the extent of their formal wear, filtering though the crowd to make contact with them.
Just as Lila was about to make her way toward the musician's covert to join them, she chanced to catch sight of a young woman entering the hall via a side door. The new arrival climbed at once onto a raised dais where she placed a small roll of parchment on a heavy wooden lectern. Then she turned to survey the crowd before coming down and wending her way over to the mingling Amazon contingent.
The woman, who looked to be in her late twenties, was tall, though not quite as tall as Xena. She was more slender than Xena which may have caused her posture to appear slightly more erect. She wore a pleated peplos which gowned her body in a full, crepe skirt, open on the left side most of the way up the thigh. The skirt was loosely belted with a thin band at the waist and bloused across the breast with a diagonal sash that was also pleated and was pinned, at the right shoulder, with a gleaming gold brooch, the loose folds of the garment revealing her left shoulder, collarbone and the initial swell of her small, upturned breast.
The woman's arms, bare below the shoulders, were long and lithe; her hands and fingers well-shaped and tapered. Yet though her arms, like her midriff, were slender, the curves of each well-developed muscle were visible in the shadowy lines of her dark bronze skin, the color of warm terra cotta before being thrown on the wheel or the burnished amber of honey liquefying in the sun.
The woman stood with an elegant bearing as she looked out at a sea of faces, appearing not to be searching for anyone in particular but drinking the energy of the crowd as though she were being nourished by its hum and bustle. As her cool gaze swept slowly about the hall, it lighted on Lila and paused even as Lila's gaze had settled and paused on hers.
The woman's face tapered narrowly at the chin. Her lips were well formed, though not thick or protruding. The hollows of her cheeks were deeply indented under wide, powerful cheekbones. Her hair was jet black, slightly coarse and straight, and hung loosely down the fall of her face and neck to glide below her shoulders with the slightest fan where its sweep ended evenly between her shoulder blades. Her forehead was high, her brows wide and fine, her complexion flawless in the limpid glow of the wet light spilling from the chandeliers. Around her lean neck, the tendons visible even from a distance, there hung a thin golden necklace akin to Lila's but, in place of seven grains of corn, there were seven stars: tiny but brilliant diamonds. And in her hair, she wore a diadem as thin as her necklace, faceted with seven sparkling solitaires of equal size whose gleaming culets flung needle-sharp fillets of light across the hall, two of which pierced Lila's eyes as Lila gazed into the eyes of the woman who, having paused in her slow surveillance of the hall, was now gazing openly at her.
Lila was ordinarily circumspect in her gaze, and, to avoid embarrassment, would have wrenched her gaze away but found, in the instant, that she was powerless to do so. The eyes into which she was peering seemed to hold her in a gentle but iron-strong grip. And such eyes they were: neither ice-blue like Xena's nor sky-blue like Gab's nor deep, watery blue like her own but extremely pale blue, more gray than blue, and immense, covering nearly the entire surface of her eyes below their softly lashed lids.
As though the lightness of their hue and the alacrity of their gleam had endowed them with a resilience and clarity unavailable to the common run of mortal, shielded eyes, the eyes that now battened upon Lila's eyes and bore with soft precision into Lila's soul seemed able to read the glyphs and codes of that soul and so to decipher the text of Lila’s mind and heart. And then, as though the light in the hall were playing a trick on the air through which it danced and careened, the woman's eyes appeared to change color, transposing from pale blue-gray to the mildest shade of almond or pecan, a light beige, the slightest hint of garnet. Then this play of colors, too, faded in the candle gleam and the woman's eyes morphed into the ginger sparkle of lemon and jade.
Pooling, narrowed and down-drawn to the in-sucking funnel of the light points of a gaze from whose spiraling depths she seemed unable to extricate herself, Lila found herself being borne backwards in time to the instant when, firmly gripped in the clench of her mother's arms against the onslaught of Draco's slavers, Lila had looked on in horror and panic as Gab had stepped forward to meet their attackers and had cried out, in a firm, clear voice, "Take me and let the others go." Instantly, a second image superimposed itself upon the first: Gab standing stock still, open and unafraid, gazing with a curious sense of familiarity at the sudden storm blast of the revealed Warrior Princess whose thundering eruption among them had been as frightful, at first, as that of the menacing slavers.
And then a third image: Gab, dressed in blue top and brown skirt, hunched over the edge of Lila's cot, sweeping Lila into a murky, pre-dawn embrace and whispering, "I'm leaving to follow the Warrior Princess. It's something I've got to do." And then back to the current instant of twinkling rays cascading from the chandelier and the swaying crush of the crowd in the hall and the massing of the Amazons in splendid evening wear by the bandstand and a slender and elegant young woman, bronze, lanky, composed and (Lila could begin to see it now) serenely beautiful, who'd just placed a small scroll on the lectern and was about to come down from the dais as Lila stood midway between the buffet tables and the friendly swarm of the Amazon women whom she’d begun, ever so tentatively, to regard as her friends.
And then, without a rumble of warning from within and for no discernible reason, the walls of Lila’s world came tumbling down around her.
"Take me and let the others go," Lila's lips mouthed the words before her mind could order her teeth to bite her tongue.
The woman in the nicely folded gown, attired more simply than the others, nearly as simply as Lila and her companions, the woman dressed in the white peplos as Lila was dressed in a white chiton, slowly released her intangible hold on Lila's gaze and, without acknowledgment, without, perhaps, having perceived Lila's silent, spontaneous communication, permitted her eyes to continue their slow, sweeping scan of the hall. Then, apparently satisfied, the young woman descended from the dais and went to greet her associates and to introduce herself to the newcomers.
"Pardon me," Lila buttonholed a Trojan knight as he passed by with a tumbler of Phrygian brandy in one hand and a large cracker whose rumply, seeded surface was strewn with a blob of Bel Paese cheese in the other, "the young woman in white over there, might she, by any chance, be Lady Helen of the Dark Cheeks?"
"The tall, slender one with the skin as dark as mocha? The Lady Helen, you say?" the mildly tipsy gallant replied. "Ha, I can see that you haven't been in these parts for very long. That's Penthesileia, the Queen of the Amazons. You won't see her in a dress very often. Whht, whht, whht; slit your throat with a dagger as quick as give you the time of day, that one. She thinks she's going to save us all from rowing across the River Styx by going up against Achilles, don't you know. Believe that one and I'll tell you how your can double your dinars in a fortnight by investing in waterfront property to be developed by Scythian contractors along the tidal inlets of the Caspian Sea."
"Thank you; you're... very kind," Lila nodded and floated away, a bit disoriented as to her whereabouts.
"Lee, there you are!" Gabrielle finally caught up with Lila. "I thought I'd lost you. C'mere, I want you to meet somebody."
"I've been hanging around the, um, buffet table," Lila managed to stammer as Gabrielle led her toward the bandstand where the Amazons had assembled.
"Lee," Gabrielle paused when she noticed the slightly distracted look on Lila's face, "are you okay? You look like somebody just clobbered you over the head with the mortised end of a Dorian two-by-four."
"I'm fine, really; I'm... fine," Lila scowled defensively.
"'Kay, c'mon," Gabrielle escorted Lila over to the circle of milling Amazons. "These are some of our Themiscyran sisters and this...," Gabrielle dropped her voice and bowed ever so slightly in deference, "is Queen Penthesileia who's summoned... who's asked us to come here."
The Queen, her gaze still expressionless, proffered her hand, and Lila, without a nod or any acknowledgment other than a silent stare into those vast, bottomless eyes, reached out to accept it. The two women locked eyes as their hands joined. Penthesileia's grip was firm and sure. And Lila responded in kind.
"Well, I see that you ladies have wasted no time in getting acquainted," Deiphobus came strutting over to herd the women into a cordon by the entrance to the spacious, high-ceiling'ed ballroom. "Your Majesty," he addressed Penthesileia, "these are the guests whom you wanted to see...? Very good, I'm glad we haven’t importuned them for naught. I take it you know the Warrior Princess, who, ha, ha, just so happens to be an old acquaintance of my father's. You... have met before, you say. Uh huh. Very good. Well, bon appetit. The wheels of tonight’s meal are about to start turning."
It took a while but the guests were finally seated. At length, from his high-backed chair at the center of the head table, King Priam rose to welcome the guests. Tributes and accolades were then paid to the fallen Hector, felled by Achilles' spear in single combat, with the help of Pallas Athena, who'd guided the point of the spear home to Hector's brave and noble breast.
At one point during the toasts, the King called on Penthesileia to come forward. Amid the smiles and encouragement of her entourage, the Queen rose from her seat and went to the dais. She graciously accepted the King's hand as she climbed the two steps to the lectern where, acknowledging the head table with a nod, she removed the small scroll which she'd placed in the open drawer, untied the ribbon and, after a long, silent look at the crowd, spoke in a low, clear, well-cadenced voice, perfectly attuned to the rhythm, inflection and idiom of classical Greek.
"Hector was a man whom any father might have been proud to claim as his son," Penthesileia began her prothalamium, "and whom any son...," she looked at Andromache, Hector's widow, and their little son, Astyanax, who were seated at the King's table, "might be proud to claim as his father. His greatness as a leader lay not merely in the force of his arms but in the dignity of his spirit; his integrity, courage, compassion and high sense of honor. Some men shine forth as a beacon light, inspiring others, rallying them to their standard. Other men -- and women -- no less gifted or skilled by nature, grope from darkness to darkness until...," Penthesileia looked at Xena and Gabrielle who were seated a few tables away, "a torch in the night comes to illumine their darkness and lead them, step by step, ever closer to the light. Let those of us who know something of the darkness be guided, then, by the light that our own sacrifices and those of others may shed on the bleakest candlemarks of the long, murky night."
To a polite round of applause, Penthesileia, never breaking a smile, nodded at the assembly, stepped down from the dais and resumed her seat.
Lila followed the Queen's every move, her spirit quickened and magnified -- she neither knew how nor why -- in every breech and pore of her being. I Festooni Kori Leri? Never in a thousand revolutions of Helios' chariot around the fecund girdle of his cherished Gaiamitros. With the power of instinct, Lila knew a lie when its foul stench was smeared across a cracked and dripping alley wall even as she knew, with the surging flame of an inner certainty, that there was more to this reserved, adamantine and chaste young Queen of all the Amazons that met the unaided eye.
|Continued - Chapter 39|
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