The Liliad
Chapter 40
Palace In Wonderland


Xena let herself into the bedchamber, quietly slipped off her leathers, slid under the covers and gave Gabrielle a gentle nudge.

"Shove over," Xena whispered.

"Hunh?" Gabrielle came drowsily awake.

"It's me. Go back to sleep," Xena whispered, settling down beside Gabrielle and making a spot for her head on the thin, linen pillow.

"Mmm," Gabrielle smiled, half-awake, as she sweetly draped a lazy arm around Xena's midriff now covered only by a thin camisole. "Where'd you take off to?"

"I had to go straighten something out with Diomedes. I'll tell you about it in the morning," Xena whispered.

"Diomedes?" Gabrielle drowsed. "The Commander General of Northern Hellas?"

"Yeah, ssh...," Xena responded.

"He wasn't at the banquet tonight, was he?" Gabrielle whispered, half-dreaming.

"No, he was holing up in his tent. Don't worry about it," Xena whispered back.

"Nnn...," Gabrielle let go a long, languid sigh, nuzzling against the full breasts and taut midsection of the Warrior Princess, "you do get around after dark, don't you..."

Then Gabrielle dropped off to sleep, leaving Xena to stare at the dark ceiling, seeing very little, before she too, not without some difficulty, began to drift off as Lila's and Ephiny's light breathing accompanied her gliding steps to dreamland.

The women rose at the crack of dawn, raring to snap on their leathers and meet up with the Themiscyrans for a full morning of maneuvers and workouts. Even Velasca was excited. Ephiny and the others wanted Xena to join them, but Xena said she had some pressing business to attend to and that she'd catch up with them later in the day.

"You know Bremusa? The really attractive one who was sitting next to Penthesileia at the feast last night? I heard the other girls saying that she's the one who wrote the scroll when it comes to advanced staff technique," Elana plopped herself down on Gabrielle's pallet while pulling on her boots. "You oughta come with me and we’ll watch this chick in action as she works out with the bo."

"That's what we'll start off with, then," Gabrielle hooked the strap of her gold and scarlet halter top.

"Shoot, I wanted Gabrielle to come with me to Clonie's sai workshop," Oriena came over with her armbands in hand. "Clonie's on the small side like you, Gab, but they say she's lightning fast."

"We'll all be there together," Gabrielle said. "We ought to have time to sample them both."

"And don’t forget to take notes in case we can’t remember it all!" Thelestria called from the next room.

"I heard that the big one, Thermodosa, asked you to help lead the mobile formation drills," Solari said to Eponin.

"That was really neat of her," Eponin said. "I've never trained guys before. I wonder if I'll have the patience. They’re kind of slow to pick things up."

"What about you? You gonna work on bows or swords?" Solari asked Ephiny.

"Both," Ephiny said. "I wanna see how they fletch their arrows. We could do with some help with that. Anybody gonna focus on the labrys?"

"I'm planning to," Velasca spoke up from the balcony where she was strapping on her wrist braces.

"Excellent," Ephiny called out. "You might be the only one here besides Xena who can wield that double-bladed thing."

In the patter of excitement, Lila slipped on her undergarments, then climbed into the draped chiton that she'd worn the previous evening.

"You gonna try and do some stuff with us, Lee?" Gabrielle looked into the mirror and fluffed her chopped mop. "Maybe you could get in on some of the basics."

"I think I'll have a walk into town and check in with you guys later," Lila said. "There's so much to see, so many cool places to explore."

"Then be careful," Gabrielle cautioned. "We don't want to have to bail you out of the brig if any of these jumpy guys on security patrol decide to bust you for not having a proper i.d."

Lila smiled. "Don’t sweat it. I'll see you at lunch."

The ten of them, with Xena back in her straps and buckles, trotted off to the refectory for breakfast while Sargon and the dormitory crew came with brooms and dustcloths to tidy up the ladies' rooms and then, courtesy of the management, to place vases filled with fall wildflowers on the little stands tucked into the corners of the belvedere that looked out on the mall, the lower courtyard and the entrance to the parade grounds.

"Have a good workout," Xena ran a soft hand down Gabrielle's smooth cheek after the ladies had eaten and brought their soiled trays to the bussing station.

"Where to now?" Gabrielle said.

"The King asked me to look in on him," Xena said.

"Xena," Gabrielle said with a measure of concern in her voice, "King Priam seems like a good man, but I got the feeling, last night, that he’s kind of fragile right now. They say Achilles dragged his dignity through the muck when the King went to beg for the return of Hector's body. I'm guessing he's probably very much alone with his grief."

"I suspect he is," Xena said. Then, biting back a soft inbreath of sadness, Xena curled her lips inward ever so slightly and, in a voice that barely amounted to a whisper, she said, "See ya later..."

Xena left the guest quarters via the long, interior hallway as the ladies filtered out to the courtyard to wait for the Themiscyrans to arrive and lead them over to the morning workout session in the telesterion. Lila said her farewells to the group and went back to the balcony that gave out on the mall and courtyard to track down Sargon and ask him about interesting places that she might visit.

Meanwhile, Xena wended her way down corridors, walked through porticoes, passed oriel casements and dipped through an undercroft, then climbed a flight of stairs to enter the rear court of the royal apartments and their adjoining meeting rooms. Two guards, heavily armed, were stationed at the grille of the large, barred doors that slid on runners to lock and clang in the center of the court. No one went beyond this point without a pass. After some muffled discussion, the guards opened the gate and had a second pair of armed guards escort Xena through a network of inner chambers to the throne room where the King was deep in conversation with Aeneas, his son-in-law and now his ranking general, and several of members of Aeneas’ general staff.

"Xena," the King smiled when he detected her presence in the anteroom. "Busy yourself for a turn of the sandglass and I'll be with you shortly."

Xena settled down to wait, mulling over last night’s confrontation with Diomedes. The sword at his throat couldn't belie the fact that as Diomedes had gotten on in years, he'd matured into a top flite field marshall. Though he had too much professional reserve to let it show under the extremely narrow range of opportunity with which Xena's impromptu appearance in his tent had presented him, Diomedes had indicated, with the slightest tremor of his mouth, that he had not been enamored of being made party to such a cowardly, meretricious act of regicide. But he'd received an order from his commander-in-chief, and, however distasteful that order may have been to him personally, he could be counted on to carry it out.

With some regret, Xena recalled her initial encounter with Diomedes in the days when she'd begun to assemble her first army to assist in her vengeful pursuit of the slippery Cortese, the Scourge of Amphipolis, back when every pen, shed and byre which had stood in her path had burned as crisply as the fire which had crackled in the grate of her raging soul: in the days before she’d been duped by Caesar and had suffered her apotheosis on the cross: the crushed and malleted shin bones and the love of a small Welsh slave girl whose tiny, posthumous hand had been the first to reach through an ocean of bile and darkness to haul the crippled weight of this bitter and cynical wreck of a failed warlord one breaking wave closer to the shore of light and grace.

"Show me how to do that. Show me how to get my life back on track..."

Diomedes had approached Xena at a table in a tavern where Xena had been sulking and feeling sorry for herself. She was broke and had been abandoned by those who, only yesterday, it seemed, had been willing to shout her name and follow her anywhere.

"I could do with a warrior like you in my ranks," Diomedes had said, flipping a coin on the bar in payment for his cup of mead, the youthful field captain working his way up the ladder of responsibility and command.

"A warrior with big boobs and a gamey leg?" Xena had stared into her empty mug, feeling defeated. "Not your ideal soldier, I'd imagine."

"Wars are won in here," Diomedes had tapped the side of his head, "and in here," he touched his breastbone. "The rest -- and it's not much, really -- is strategy and tactics on the battlefield."

"Try telling that to Caesar," Xena had sulked, not looking at the soldier who'd hunkered down on the bench across the table from her.

"Caesar burns bridges," Diomedes had said. "I prefer to build them."

Diomedes had walked out of the bar, leaving Xena to contemplate, in her shattered state, the first vote of confidence she'd received, as a cripple, from a man who’d understood the rules of more than just a simple military engagement.

"I should have thanked him after I threatened him last night," Xena said to herself, awaiting her audience with King Priam, her body now -- thankfully -- hale and whole.

"Xena," King Priam's warm voice recalled the Warrior Princess from her reverie. "Now that that complicated business is out of the way, let's go out to the balcony. Two mugs of mulled cider, hot! A stick of cinnamon to pique your taste? Good. Two cinnamon sticks as well! Bring the tray outdoors if you please! I'd offer you a mug of ale instead of the cider, but I can't swill the bubbly so early in the morning. Comes back up and gives me heartburn."

"I appreciate the offer, Your Majesty. The cider will do just fine," Xena smiled as the King guided them to a small, round, wrought iron table near the balustrade where they sat down on matching chairs placed side by side to look out over the nicely tended grounds bordered by square cut hedges and rounded topiary trees.

"Pfah, polite skiddly-widdle," the King waved the compliment, though not its giver, away. "I'd wash my own dinner dishes if they'd let me. Scrub my share of the pots and pans too and do a damned sight better job than most of the kitchen help. Not that I'm complaining: they work their fingers to the bone for every dinar they get, the good souls, and let me be the first to say that they don’t get nearly what they’re worth. Last night's splurge in the ballroom puts me and my grocery budget on C rations for the next moonmark. Won't be springing for another catered affair like last night's little doozie any time soon, I don’t mind telling you."

Xena chuckled and the King's eyes twinkled.

"So, then, Xena, Penny has summoned your Amazon friends here to mediate their tiff about who's to be their queen."

"From what I gather," Xena said.

"They could draw straws and save themselves the time and trouble," the King gazed over the railing with the hint of a smile on his deeply lined face. "But that's not the way of the world, is it? There's a queendom, so there’s got to be a queen; a tribe, so there’s got to be a chief. Now I know that you don't give a fly on a fishing hook for kings and chiefs, Xena." The shrewdness with which, for decades, King Priam had successfully ruled the known world's wealthiest, most cultured city-state came to the fore in his dark eyes that saw as deftly through the ambitions of lords and the pretentions of ladies as the spoon which appeared on the tray that brought the cider mugs to the table eased its way deftly through the honey in the honey pot that had been placed, top open, on a paper doily. "That's one of the reasons why I like you. That's part of the reason why I trust you. You've earned your stripes in battles of hand and heart. No one’s handed them to you. Would that I might have earned a few more stripes of my own."

"But you have, Your Majesty. Many times over," Xena said, all trace of false courtesy gone from her voice.

"That's nice of you to say," the King acknowledged the compliment. "And so, in my estimation, has Penny. Her mother, Lysippe, and I started out as rivals, you know. Friendly competitors, I'd like to think. Things between Ilium and the Amazons haven’t always been hunky dory. I assume you’re aware of that."

"I've heard bits and snatches of this and that," Xena said, sipping her cider.

"They're marvelous hunters, the Amazons. It’s their forte. Seem to have a natural empathy with the beasts of the woods who provide them with their food, shelter, clothing, tools and implements," the King said, picking up his mug of cider and then putting it down. "But they’ve been lax in their attention to agriculture. Perhaps that's to their credit in a strange sort of way. They could never abide the thought of taking slaves, not even male slaves. Something in their Amazon nature rebels against it. Only nation I've ever had dealings with that seems to understand -- and truly to cherish -- the meaning of freedom. Women! Can you believe it?" the King looked full flush at Xena.

Xena, with silent class, took another sip of cider.

"So, as I say, we’ve had our tussles from time to time, they on our eastern border, we to their west," the King continued. "In a sense, it couldn't be helped. They had to range about. Can't be blamed for that, I suppose. When you hunt, you go where the game is. You track. You camp. You divvy up the kill, haul out the guts, drain the blood, salt the meat, pack it up, carry it leagues over mountains and through rugged defiles back to your towns and villages. Hmpf, why am I telling you this? You know better than I do what's involved in the rugged, outdoor life.

"So, naturally, various disputes sprang up between the Amazon hunting parties and some of our villagers who dwelt in the outlying districts. The first time I laid eyes on Themiscyra... oh, yes; I’ve been to Themiscyra; one of the few male members of the species ever to set eyes on the place. It was the winter when I went in the ice and snow to negotiate a treaty with Lysippe, several sunmarks, as I recall, before that remarkable woman crossed over the River Styx or went to wherever it is that deceased Amazons go.

"Xena, no false modesty now: you're looking at one of the few men in the known world ever to have gained admittance to the capital city of the Amazons. Glorious place, Themiscyra. Put Ilium to shame in its way. I say 'put' because the place is only the shadow of its former self nowadays. Tragically, that, too, can’t be helped. Hemmed in on three sides by the Hittites, the Scythians and yours truly and the sea at their backs. And then that wretched business with Theseus and Antiope and Molpeidia, Lysippe's half-sister, and the deaths of four of Lysippe's five children. Enough to cut the heart out of any parent’s breast, I should say.

"Misfortune seems to have stalked the Amazons from the outset. Strange, when you think about it, given their wealth of energy and talent. Lysippe’s eldest, her only son, Tanais, dead by his own hand. Mad to lie with his mother, he was. She refused him for his own sake. Didn't want to see him end up a basket case like Oedipus or hounded by the Furies for spilling his seed in the womb that bore him. Who could blame her? But Tanais wasn’t resilient the way that Oedipus was. The poor fellow couldn't bear the strain or the shame of carnal desire for his own mother, and eventually that was the end of him. Bid the world farewell at the point of a dagger.

"Antiope -- beautiful girl, more fountains of bubbling charm bursting forth from that one than you'll find in the tumbling sprays of a waterfall -- Antiope gets taken prisoner by Theseus, who swears his undying love for her -- no fool he -- and then he proceeds to make Antiope his royal queen to the unbending chagrin of the Athenians who want nothing to do with what they take, in their conceit, to be an 'uncouth Amazon.' Antiope bears him a babe, Hippolytus, named for her sister, and then ends her life in the dust, the thrust of her Aunt Molpeidia's spear going in through the breastbone and out through the back.

"Medea's revenge, if you ask me, for Theseus' father making Medea his mistress when that enticing, infanticidal witch was persona non grata in all the royal courts of Hellas and was thus reduced to eking out a living, casting horoscopes and reading fortune telling cards in the streets and alleys of any number of Achaian backwaters. And what did the old bat turn around and do once he’d brought Medea home to his lusty bed and beer hall? He shut her up in some high vault of a flowery, Athenian pergola where she had nothing to do, day and night, but to fiddle and fuss with her detestable and ultimately self-destructive magic.

"Melanippe, Lysippe's middle child, inherited the Amazon throne upon Antiope's death. Versatile girl. Not terribly deep but awfully good-natured. She was good for Amazon morale. A team player, a role model for her subjects. Had the knack of hitting it off well with the Scythians, Hittites, Trojans, Argives, you name it. She'd listen to what you had to say and would offer to meet you halfway. Made you feel as though she respected you as an equal. Sort of a gym teacher in an evening gown: affable, flexible, not beautiful but pleasantly attractive. Excellent queen. Inspired her girls wonderfully.

"But Hippolyte, the fourth child, she was more of a mystery than the others. Absolutely stunning. One of those naturally beautiful specimens -- I'm sure you know of some -- who never has to do a thing about her appearance. She simply looked good. And she was bright as a torch on a moonless night. Melanippe made her queen of the Anatolian Amazons with Lysia and then Cyane as her second in command. One of the best appointments that Melanippe ever made. Some souls crumble when put to the test. Others rise to the occasion and shine. Hippolyte was one of the latter. Despite her privileged upbringing, she got right down in the dirt with her girls and taught them by example that the power of the will, when coupled with the feet of one's vision planted firmly on the ground of practical know how, really can move mountains.

"Hippolyte brought the spirit of warriorship and camaraderie to the fledgling Anatolian Amazons. She became a kind of mother superior to them but not in a patronizing or controlling way. By nature, she was as democratic as Penny, by nature, is aristocratic. Now see, I said I would do the dinner dishes. Hippolyte did do the dinner dishes. Needless to say, her girls adored her. Some even worshipped her. She lived chaste as a lady monk, except for... well, Hippolyte had a bit of a dark side. As does any soul of depth and complexity. Dark and... a bit sensual. Actually, she did have a lover in the early years of her queenship but she kept all knowledge of it very private.

"Yet it all came to naught when Hercules showed up to get the belt. So now The Fates had cut the life thread of a third child. One reason why Ares has entered the fray on our side, if you'd like to know, is because of the unabated fury he feels toward Hera, his mother, for what she's done to Hercules on more than one occasion. Ares doesn't care much for Hercules, can't stand him to be perfectly blunt about it, but Hera's vendetta against Zeus, by means of the pain and grief which her chicanery brings upon Hercules from time to time, seems to have cost Ares his bid for Hippolyte's heart, or so he imagines. This after he'd paid through the nose to get Hephaestos to forge that immaculately jeweled belt.

"So now there’s the fifth and last child, Penthesileia, all that's left of the blood of Lysippe. The blood of Lysippe's mother, Otrere, for that matter. Wracked with grief on account of Hippolyte's death, Penny goes out hunting at the invitation of her sister, Melanippe, and snip, the life thread of a fourth child is cut. By the hand of her own sister. Can you imagine? And there are those, even among the Amazons, even among those who ought to know better, who believe that Penthesileia staged that accident because she was desirous of wresting the throne away from Melanippe. A larger crock of Mycenean horse manure has yet to fertilize the walled gardens of the House of Atreus, but there you have it. You cannot convince people of the truth when they're determined to put their faith in a lie.

"And now we come to Penny. She's the one I'm concerned about. With her, the royal line of the Amazons comes to an end. There will be no fourth generation. Not one of Lysippe's five children has produced an heir who can take the throne by inheritance or marriage. Hippolytus, Theseus and Antiope's son, lived a short and tragic life. Penthesileia won't bear a child. She's chosen her doom. The Amazons, as a society, as a nation perhaps, may persist in some form or other, but frankly, I'm not optimistic about their prospects for the future. The times don't seem to favor them. Even under ideal conditions, you're working with only half the birth rate of other nations, and few parents seem to want their daughters to run off and join the ranks of an all-female society whose life, in the wild and among the haunts of town and village dwellers, is not apt to be an easy one.

"So last comes Penny. She could have stilled every whispering tongue, quelled every rumor, by turning down the queenship and selecting a regent to serve in her stead: Cyane was gone -- as you well know -- but there was Lysia who’d been Hippolyte's second in command or even Melosa whose abilities, as queen, I understand, are only now being given credit for the excellent gifts that they were. That was, in fact, Penny’s inclination. To serve a queen, never to be one. But the girl has character. The blood of Lysippe has not been lost on her. She stepped into the breach, knowing full well that there would always be those who'd discern in her very competence and dedication evidence of a more sedulous and conniving nature.

"The community was beginning to disintegrate. A strong hand was needed at the helm to shore things up and guide it over the hump as it began to rebuild. Which purpose Penny admirably served. She restructured the Amazon administrative apparatus from the ground up. It's less top-heavy now, more fluid and consensual than it used to be. Here she followed in the footsteps of Hippolyte's reforms. Land use, technological overhaul, economic diversification: I could sing Penny’s praises for the better part of a candlemark. Suffice it to say that the Amazons have begun to plant their feet on firmer ground. I could say more but I'm sure you get the picture. Under Penny's leadership, the community at Themiscyra has acquired direction and stability even as, by necessity, it's had to pull in its horns and regroup. And yet..."

The King paused.

"What is it, Your Majesty," Xena leaned closer in her chair.

"I'm not persuaded that the girl is happy," the King said. "Oh, bloody bollocks, why beat around the bush. I think she's been depressed for quite some time now. She was attached to her sister, Hippolyte, in ways that many who don't know the Amazons and have no inkling of what it's like to be the child of a god might find... primitive and unnatural. Polly was the elder, so that, on Penny’s part, you might have thought it could have been a teenage crush, you know, a kind of puppy love; very flattering and all that but nothing to take seriously. Apparently Polly wasn't immune from sharing certain... feelings of reciprocity for Penny. We are, after all, dealing with extremely passionate women whose mode of life is, to say the least, atypical. Besides, their mother was their half-sister. They all have the same father. Just look at Antigone, the quintessential product of incest. A more passionate, sensuous and charismatic woman you could hardly hope to have laid eyes on. That's why Creon had her walled up in that dank cave. The official reason handed out for the girl's execution was balderdash and everyone in Thebes knew it. Creon wanted her for himself. She despised him for his many power plays and for what Creon did to her father, and she refused to have anything to do with him.

"Polly placed duty above passion as every good ruler should. She sacrificed her personal desires for the sake of her royal calling as well befit a queen. Her love thus freed from any one mooring sculled about the heart’s harbor to be shared, with less intensity, first with one subject and then another, each shared instant unique and genuine until that love, from the fount of its powerful source, had seeped into the soil of nurture and compassion which the mortal soul craves as strongly as the gods crave their nectar and ambrosia. But a price was paid. So that the many might bloom and thrive, there was one who had to be pruned and nipped, parched and starved. And the irony, Xena, is that the one who was sacrificed was the most deeply beloved of her who performed the sacrifice."

"And now the sacrificed is about to become the sacrificer," Xena said.

"Of herself," the King nodded.

"Because...," Xena said.

"The sacrifice will restore life to the community and enable it to survive," the King said. "Like the beast who, in a time of famine, will sever her breast to nurse her little ones with her blood. Our end won't be long in coming, Xena. I trust you know that it's only a matter of time until the Argives will have starved us out, overrun the place or both. I don't trumpet this pessimistic assessment abroad. There's no need. The handwriting's on the wall for any and all to see. All that you behold here -- parks, plazas, stadiums, halls -- the crown of a glorious civilization, will soon be razed to the ground and reduced to rubble. Houses rise and fall, but life goes on. Not always nobly but still, it does go on. By riding out to meet Achilles on the field of hopeless battle, Penny teaches her sisters what a thousand skillfully devised lectures, seminars and forums could never impart: that the lover loses her life so that the loved one might live. Does that make any sense to you, Xena?"

"Yes, it does," Xena said softly, deep in thought. "It does, Your Majesty. Please believe me."

"I thought it might," the King said. "I think you know, courtesy of someone special who forced her way into your life -- bulled her way into it if the stories they tell are true -- what life is like on both sides of that equation."

Xena looked out over the balcony’s railing with the slightest hue of a blush on her Warrior Princess’ cheek.

"I want her to have the chance to know what it's like to love again, Xena," the King said, looking full flush at Xena's quiet face. "Penny. The last of a dying breed. I want her to have that one instant of pure, encompassing love to take with her to the grave. A love that will slip the lock on the bars of her own self-love that she might go to meet her death fulfilled in the arms of that love. And the love that slips the lock on those bars must itself be a selfless love, one that’s willing, forever after, to bear the scars of love made pure by sacrifice. Then the Amazons, in whatever future incarnations they may inhabit through the ages, will survive and thrive, and the life of a great queen who never sought her throne will be exalted and redeemed.

"I hope that might happen, Your Majesty; truly, I do," Xena said, returning the King's trenchant gaze. "Though I don't suppose there's any talking her out of her proposed course of action."

The King shook his head. "You might give it a try, but don't berate yourself if you fail. She's come here with a purpose in mind and she means to fulfill it. And the twelve who've come with her, she's urged, pleaded, commanded them to desist in following her to her mad, passionate end, but, in this one matter, they will not obey their queen. They will ride to redemption with her in the full glory of her sacrifice and there can be no stopping them. They are, after all, when all is said and done, a tribe of Amazons born and bred."

"Your Majesty," Xena said in a tentative voice, "are you taking any steps toward planning an eventual evacuation?"

The King smiled. "If you hadn't asked, I would have broached the subject myself. At present, there's no need to take immediate steps. My envoy has entered into secret negotiations with a highly placed member of Agammemnon's general staff, the one Argive general who, more than the others, seems to have retained a sense of... well, I'd call it empathy if not exactly honor, a commander who seems to lust for the blood of enemy conquest somewhat less than the others. I can't name the contact, obviously, but the point of making the effort is to explore, to whatever extent possible, a means of safe passage for those women and children -- and even men -- who are in no way responsible for the current hostilities and who may, with patience, luck and a bit of grace, have the opportunity to begin life anew elsewhere, being no threat to what will surely be the New Order that will emerge at the conclusion of this world-changing war.

"What I would like to enlist your help with, Xena -- and I believe I can appreciate your divided loyalties: you're Greek but a Thracian Greek; you're not an Amazon but they're your close, personal friends; your celebrated deeds, first in their venality, then in their valor, have won you a secure place in the hearts of men and yet your own heart has been given to a woman. By your own admission, you care nothing for kings and their wars, yet a king who is very much at war is appealing to you for assistance -- what I would very much like you to do if, after thinking it over, you find that you're willing to do so, is to assist in the evacuation if and when the need for it should come to pass. Your bravery, your determination, your cool head under fire could be invaluable in saving many lives. Even if it's only a handful of nondescript civilians whom you might assist to safety, the effort will be enormously appreciated. I won't spell anything out. I'll only say that should you make yourself available, in whatever capacity, if and when the time should come, you would have my undying gratitude -- not that you lack my gratitude and affection as it is."

Xena set her mug down gently on the table and looked out at the beautiful grounds and halls and residential neighborhoods and commercial districts that composed the tenth part of Ilium. Where were the dirt, the grime, the poverty, the hopelessness? They seem to have been banished from the realm like a childhood fantasy of elves and gnomes and satyrs and fauns banished from the workaday world of farms, factories, schools and shrines.

"You honor me, Your Majesty," Xena said, softly.

"Nonsense, Xena," the King scolded the Warrior Princess in a voice that, though lightly humorous, underscored the genuineness of his affection for her. "If anything, I merely try, in my clumsy way, to acknowledge true quality when I'm blessed to find myself in the presence of it. Come," the King rose to his feet and Xena followed suit, "the sky blazer is making his way across the heavens toward sundown and there remains a great deal for you and your companions to hear and feel and taste and see of our lovely city. Let these walks and gardens be your home for the time that we're fortunate to have you among us and then, when you feel that you must be on your way, take these emblems of friendship with you."

The King clapped his hands and a page approached, carrying a flat wooden box, the dark, glossy color of burnished teak. The King thanked the page, then pried open the lid. Lying on the red velvet interior, held in place by their pins, were ten golden brooches in the shape of the gargoyle of Troy, a male lion raised up on his hind legs, pawing the air, his huge mane billowing out behind him.

"For you and the members of your company. Take them as a memento of the time you've spent with us and the effort it cost you to get here," the King said. "It would give me great pleasure if you'd be so kind as to accept these humble tokens of our esteem."

Xena looked at the gleaming jewels. "They're lovely, Your Majesty. Thank you. Yes, we'll be honored to accept them."

"Good, I'll have Sargon deliver them to your quarters," the King said. "The door to these chambers -- and of my heart -- is open to you, Xena. Feel free to knock and enter whenever you wish."

With a nod that was almost a curtsey, Xena took her leave and was shown out of the royal apartments. She stood in the rear vestibule, behind the locked grille, for an instant while she caught her breath and re-oriented herself inwardly to carry on with her day. A fleeting image of Lao Ma darted through her consciousness and released itself into the aether around her. Here, too, if in a more practical and less inwardly encompassing way, was a royal presence that she could serve proudly and with the full force and commitment of her being; the warrior pledging fealty to her lady.

"I miss you, Lao Ma," Xena spoke softly to the floating motes of dust that hung suspended in an immersion of indoor sunlight. "You would have liked Gabrielle. You would have approved of her."

Xena bit back a tear of regret, then quickly gritted her teeth and shoved all trace of lachrymose longing far down into the pit of her belly. "Gabrielle is right. I am getting soft in my old age," Xena muttered.

Bound and determined not to give in to the temptation to succumb to simpy sentiment with so many unspecified deeds left to perform before the day was done, Xena took herself in hand and lifted her spirits up by the heartstraps so that, on her way out of the gate into the courtyard, heading for the telesterion -- yeah, a good, solid workout with the sword and staff is just what this body needs right about now -- she hit the ground running.

Continued - Chapter 41
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