The Liliad
Chapter 44
Takin' A Stance On Love


Dear Lexie:

If you’re reading this letter, it will mean that someone has found it and gotten it to you, for which I'm grateful. Right now, I don’t know if we’ll make it out of here alive.

I'm off on a great adventure, the kind we talked about. But for the danger, I wish you were here to share it with me. I think of you every day. Say hi to The Big O for me. And tell Anike she has my blessing as she takes over the leadership of the enaretes kores. Tell her I believe in her and that I always have.

Xena says you might be pregnant. I don't know what to say. I'm so happy for you but also scared and confused. Mostly I just want you to know that I love you; my dearest and most wonderful friend.

We're in Troy. Can you believe it? We're here as King Priam's guests. He’s a fine man with a good heart. Achilles killed his eldest son, the one who was going to take his place as king one day. The King is grieving, but he seems to be bearing up well. He wishes Achilles and the Argives no ill. There's no hatred in his soul, only sadness for all the pain and the waste and the suffering which the war has caused for people on both sides. I haven't seen Helen. I'm told she's somewhere in the city and that she keeps mostly to herself. And I haven't seen or heard anything about Perd or Andros except that they’re out there somewhere, fighting for the Argives.

It feels funny to be saying, "fighting for the Argives." We could be seen as traitors even though Gab and the others are here as Amazons and Xena, being Thracian, is technically on the side of the Trojans, except that Xena's a Greek Thracian, so it gets very confusing. Since I'm not an Amazon like Gab or Thracian like Xena, I guess I'm the only one of us who has no real reason for being here. So I guess I could be seen as the biggest traitor of all, even though I don't understand what this war is about or why everybody seems so intent on fighting it.

Troy is incredibly beautiful. There are long, tree lined avenues and massive theaters and grand temples and courtyards and plazas, and the houses where the Trojans live are clean and quiet, and the marketplaces are busy and bright, and the people here seem to be relaxed and genuinely friendly, even though there's a war going on outside the gates. There are flowers in window boxes and bright colors everywhere and no one seems idle or poor. I guess people share what they have and work the land together except they don't have little cottages and farms like we do. People live in large buildings where families have suites and apartments. The fields are vast and the crops are stored in huge bins and silos and underground cellars, and there are factories and workshops which make everything from clothes and furniture to carts and wagons. Speaking of shops, guess what: I was poking around in a housewares shop the other day and what did I see sitting on one of the shelves but a row of Poteidaia pots! I dragged Gab in to see it and we had a good laugh, thinking back on how Xena outsmarted Latrinus; and, for just a turn of the sandglass, we felt a little bit homesick.

Lex, would you tell Mom and Dad that I love them and think of them always? Thanks.

Gab and the Amazons spend most of the day working out at one of the big training grounds inside this fantastically huge telesterion. They're helping the other Amazons train the Trojans for something big that’s in the works. I don't know much about it, it's all very hush-hush, but there seems to be some kind of a big troop mobilization going on. Xena seems a bit preoccupied these days. I think she may be hatching a plan that she doesn't want spread around. But the Argives -- maybe I should say "our guys" -- are apparently up to something too, something that even Xena may not be able to get a handle on.

Anyhow, it's really neat to have the chance to see Gab and Xena being with each other. Gab looks out for Xena in subtle ways, checking in with her a few times a day and just making sure that Xena knows that she's around. Xena seems to have mellowed a lot. We even joke around and trade punches sometimes, me and Xena. The other night, when everyone was gathered around the table in the dining hall where we have our meals -- we have these really nice rooms that get cleaned every day and a balcony with a breathtaking view of the mall and courtyard below this wing of the castle -- Xena challenged me to an arm wrestling match, can you imagine? So I figured what the heck, I'm rougher and tougher than Xena is, right? With grunts and groans and grimaces on her face, Xena let me win, and now the Amazons have started calling me their elinitha krataia, their "big, strong, Greek lady." Like Minya: "strong, like ox." What a kick. I told Xena that if she needs any help putting the screws to any of Caesar’s pals who might still be lingering in the shadows, never mind Vercinix and the Gauls, just call on "big, strong Lila." And you know what Xena told me? She said she’d think about it! {:>)

Lex, there's something else I need to tell you about. Do you remember the day when the Felafel Man and Chiron were telling us about Penthesileia, the Queen de la Queen of Amazon queens, the one who sounded like she might have put a contract out on Gab and Ephiny for usurping an Amazon throne, the one I got so upset about that I called her a bimbo in an iron bra? Well, I met her at a banquet we got invited to the night we got here, and she’s nothing like that. In fact -- I'm not sure how to explain this -- but the instant I saw her, I felt this incredible... I don't know what to call it, this magnetic pull or energy surge... something intense and immediate as though I'd just come face to face with someone who’d always been a part of me, someone whom I'd known and... I don't know how else to put it but... that I’d known and... loved all my life. It's different than anything I've ever felt before. Gab and Ephiny have noticed how it seems to have thrown me completely out of whack, and they've been teasing me mercilessly about it.

Then yesterday, when I was coming back from one of these intriguing, open-air museums they have here -- this whole place is one giant schoolhouse with study halls and discussion rooms that have all sorts of programs and activities going on through the day that people drop in on and take part in -- I saw her kneeling and praying in front of a shrine to Demeter. To Demeter of all divine beings! We're in Phrygia where you wouldn't expect to find a shrine to Demeter given that Cybele is to the Trojans what Demeter is to us. But there she was. And the Amazons, as you know, are daughters of Ares and devotees of Artemis while Troy's ruling deities are Aphrodite and Apollo. So it was really strange to see the Amazon queen making a request of Demeter.

And then this weird sort of energy came over me, and I went up to her and knelt down beside her and reached out with both hands and took her two hands in mine, and then I sanctified her as it's given to me to do as an archegos of the enaretes kores. And when I looked into her eyes, Lex, I saw pain and pride and great strength and the most vulnerable openness and tremendous need and an equally staunch determination and quiet dignity, and there was longing there and beauty; beauty more wondrous than anything I've ever seen. I've never beheld anyone as beautiful as the fierce, gentle, beautiful being whom I saw looking at me with those incredible eyes that seem to turn all sorts of colors.

And then I gave myself to her. I gave myself, Lex. I don't know how else to put it or if I'm making any sense, but something that I never knew might be locked away inside me just leaped out and... gave itself to her. And I've been wondering if this might be anything like what happened when Gab first looked at Xena on the day when Xena sprang out of nowhere and saved us from being carted away by Draco's slavers. I... presented myself to her as one soul might present itself to another in an instant of mystery and rapture where your body knows things that maybe your head hasn't become aware of yet. And something in her responded as though she were aware of what was happening in that electric instant -- her body, I mean -- her body and her soul too. Amazon queen and peasant girl, it was like it didn’t matter. It all just seemed to... I don’t know... come together.

She's come here to carry out a mission like we heard. She's really planning to do battle with Achilles, thought I don't know how or when. She knows what that will mean, yet she's intent on going through with it. She seems to feel that it’s going to involve making a sacrifice for the greater good in a way that I'm not sure I understand or might even want to understand. And twelve of her bravest sisters have come to join her in making that sacrifice. In the meantime, she's helping to resolve this Amazon queen dispute between Gab and Ephiny and Velasca. Far from seeming like she’s in trouble, Ephiny's been glowing like one of those huge, crystal chandeliers that Salmoneus keeps rattling on about, and Velasca seems to have become a lot nicer since she and Penthesileia had the chance to talk. Velasca’s even apologized to Gab for some of the crap that she put Gab through when Gab was taking Xena's body back to Amphipolis, and Gab... well, you know how Gab’s never been one to hold a grudge.

Lex, I don't know where this is all heading. It’s scary and yet it isn’t. I feel like I'm falling in love, but I don't know if that's really what's happening because I don't know if I've ever been in love, so how could I know what falling in love is like? But whatever it is, something inside me wants to see this thing through. It's funny. I've never been attracted to a woman in a physical way, except maybe to you a little and to Anike a bit, but this doesn't feel like it’s a girl thing as opposed to a guy thing. It just feels... I don’t know, like it’s its own thing. Anyhow, I've been real lightheaded and bumping into banisters, and this morning, in the dining hall, I dumped my breakfast into the barrel before I'd sat down to eat it, and that gave Gab and everyone a chuckle.

I guess I'd better wrap this up. Everyone's out at the drill field and Xena's gone off in disguise somewhere. There's somebody here named Cassandra that I think I might want to touch base with. She's one of the King's daughters, the one who had a hissy fit when Paris brought Helen back here with him. It seems she warned everyone that Helen’s being here could trigger a war that the Trojans couldn't win, but apparently nobody listened to her. When I asked how come, I got told that nobody ever listens to her, even though her predictions always seems to be accurate. Sounds like the kind of trick that Ares might play on Xena except I was told that it's Apollo who hexed Cassandra because she wouldn't go to bed with him. Xena says that gods are like men only they’re worse because they're easier to kiss and harder to kill and either way, Xena says, it doesn't seem to make a difference.

Take care of yourself, Lex. I miss you. If you see the sibyl, give her a big monster hug for me and tell her thanks for everything, Tell her that little Lee is growing up just a bit, though I'm still not sure what it means to be a warrior without a weapon, a fruit-bearer without a seed or a leader who doesn’t have any followers.

hugs and squeezes,



Lila took a deep breath and put her quill down. She was alone in her quarters. The day was close and quiet. Helios' fire no longer burned as brightly in its narrowing arc across the sky as it had during the more intense days of mid and late summer when the shafts of grain had ripened to their rendezvous with the sickle and the scythe. The nights were longer than the days now. Only the last of the crops remained to be picked, examined for blemishes, sorted, stacked and carted to their stores. It was the season of "Come, you thankful people, come; raise the song of harvest home..." But home was far away as the crow of warring armies flew, and Lila was deep behind the lines of those whom her kinsmen and neighbors, for want of knowing any better, were pleased to call their enemies. And only a cockeyed optimist, looking out from atop the fortified battlements of Ilium, would have presumed to say that "..all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin..."

As Lila ambled out to the balcony for a look down at the mall and its adjoining courtyard and, beyond them, at the peaceful serenity of a cultured city in a state of war, an eye of calm in the storm of passion and possession, she wondered about the coming winter and the struggle that alert souls seemed to believe was brewing high on the windy promontories of Mount Olympus where prophetic word had it that the gods had descended to the level of becoming bitter partisans in this conflict of purely mortal making. Tales of Ragnarok and Gotterdammerung had reached Greco-Roman and Phrygian ears from the great northern wastes of Scandinavia and Germania, the future conquerors of Britannia and Gaul, horrid accounts of divine, mutually assured destruction which the gods, in their vanity and pride, had wrought upon themselves and the world over whose pitiful fortunes they ruled. How long could the Olympians hope to hold out against the rising tide of deities running amok in their chaotic, badly apportioned heavenly spheres? Should they hold out? Would they hold out? Wouldn't we all, Trojan and Argive, be better off without them as they, presumably, were better off without their parent Titans?

Lila gasped at the heretical thought. Not yet a week away from the garth and byre of her parents' homely spread and already she was on the verge of becoming a blasphemer and an atheist, she who presumed to serve as archegos of the local enaretes kores and had, only yesterday, pronounced absolution in the name of the deity to whose service she'd been pledged since birth. What's happening to me? Lila's dark blue eyes widened to take in the splendor of a city in which men -- and women -- had long since become the measure of all that was worthy and eternal.

Lila stood alone on the balcony, running her hand casually along the wide, marble balustrade, a puzzled look freckling her soft, pretty face like mums blooming in an autumn garden. Love -- if that's what she was feeling -- was supposed to endow a soul with the faith to move mountains, not inspire doubt sufficient to make a soul question a mountain's relevance as a superfluous geological monument. Or, in the manner of shifting balances at the counting house whose portico rose a storey above the booths and stalls in the market square of Lila's hometown, did Love, when it struck with the sudden force of a warlord sweeping down on a warehouse full of undefended stoneware, magically transform debits into credits and vice versa, throwing the whole of the carefully tabulated equation irretrievably out of whack?

Putting such speculative notions from her mind, Lila left the guest quarters, intending to take herself for a stroll over to the art and music studios where yesterday she'd paused to listen, for a few turns of the sandglass, to a dramatic chorus rehearsing their strophes and antistrophies and where she’d then stopped to look in on an atelier crammed full of art students who were sketching, in charcoal, from a male model, the detail of a very inspiring nude. Her path took her in the direction of the telesterion where the Amazons were supervising the day's military maneuvers. Before she'd gone very far along the avenue, a quick, flashing series of arm and leg movements, bronze and silver-gleam on white, caught her eye from the interior of a sheltered entresol, one of the many little practice areas where soldiers and athletes went to drill alone as they honed their skills in preparation for tourneys and contests in the stadium.

There was Penthesileia, draped in a loose-fitting chiton, her arms bare below the shoulders, her legs bare from mid-thigh to ankles, doing cottas with a sword. For an instant, Lila mistook her for Xena without the brass and leathers. Xena set time aside each day to maintain her sword-fighting skills, sparring when she could find partners to engage her; sometimes with Gabrielle but, these days, mostly with Velasca who was eager to learn all she could from the acknowledged master of long sword technique. But the woman who was parrying, thrusting, blocking and lunging was more lithe and slender than Xena, her movements more angular and precise, her rhythm more gracefully dance-like. One motion appeared to flow effortlessly into the next as she twirled and braced, then advanced forward and fell back. The pattern brought her full circle to the spot where she'd begun her exercise. At that point, she raised the blade above her head, its tip saluting the sky, and, with a sharp snap of the wrist, she twirled the hilt so that the sword revolved, lightning fast, in a flourish of one and a half revolutions to conclude with a downward thrust of the blade, it's tip coming to a halt a hair's breadth from the ground, the hilt tight to the rib cage, next to and slightly below the small, lean, muscular breast.

"That's quite an impressive series of moves," Lila said quietly, standing her ground at the edge of the ring, arms folded, face expressionless except for a pair of very bright eyes.

Penthesileia turned slowly to face the sound of the voice. "Beg your pardon, I didn't know that anyone was watching."

"I see you do more than merely hold audiences in your chambers," Lila said with the tiniest hint of a smile. "You work out solo when the others are training the troops in the telesterion."

"I do, yes. I try to keep up the pretense, at least, of being in good fighting shape," Penthesileia said.

Slender and wiry, with small breasts and wide shoulders, bronze skin and loose, black hair that fell straight and coarse like a mare's tail below her shoulders, Penthesileia looked as fit and keen in her chiton as she did in her more formally bloused and pliséed pelops and himation.

"Do you always wear white?" Lila said, arms still folded, most of her weight still resting on her hind foot.

"Nearly always," Penthesileia said, hiking the tip of her sword up from the dirt and replacing the shaft in the scabbard which she'd retrieved from the edge of the exercise area.

"You're a queen. You could dress in an array of brilliant colors," Lila said.

"I have worn blue on occasion," Penthesileia said, also with the slightest trace of a smile forming on her wide lips.

"You don't care to dress up?"

"I avoid it whenever possible."

"Xena does too. Xena has one outfit, except when she's pregnant. Then she has her pregnant outfit."

"Xena dresses functionally. Her occupation requires it."

"Sargon, one of the King’s servants, provided us with these," Lila looked down at her own dress, a chiton similar to Penthesileia's, except that Lila was shorter, had a rounder frame, fleshier arms and legs, and was a bit more softly generous in the bust.

"He's very considerate, the King," Penthesileia said. "He's gone out of his way to make my girls feel as though they have the run of the place."

"He should," Lila said. "You're doing him a good service."

"Perhaps," Penthesileia nodded. "I'm finished here. Which way are you walking?"

"I was on my way to the telesterion to look in on the drills," Lila said. "But I can do that any time."

"I'm on my way back to my quarters," Penthesileia said. "Life in a place like this offers many opportunities to broaden one’s horizons. At the same time, it can also invite one to go a bit soft in mind and body. Not an advisable option for an Amazon."

Lila began to walk with Penthesileia toward the castle.

"Coming, as I do, from a small farming village, this place is like a dream world," Lila said. "Endless rows of columns, arches, porches, pilasters. And the streets and grounds are so beautifully maintained. The orderliness, the quiet, the gentle music, the heavenly smells, that gorgeous man over there, without any clothes on, modeling on the plaza for those girls who are sketching him, these palace walls with their balconies and corbeils and the smooth curvature of their immense newel posts... is that why the Argives -- why we -- seem bent on destroying this place, because all this beauty is an affront to us, as though we need either to possess or destroy it?"

Penthesileia looked at Lila . "Deep thoughts for a young woman from a small farming village. Is that what you believe, that the victors in this war will ultimately be spite, mendacity and poverty of spirit?"

"I don't know. I suppose that's possible," Lila said. "I know nothing of war, only that the young men from my village have come here, many of them, to win honor on the battlefield."

"Regardless of the merits of the contending causes," Penthesileia said.

"Yes," Lila said. "Winning honor in battle will be useful to them when it comes to getting on in the world. It's a very negotiable achievement."

Penthesileia said nothing but kept walking, mounting the steps into the trellised courtyard now overhung with tendrils of green, leafy ivy and arbored grape arches. Across the courtyard, on the far side of the marble pavilion, was the entrance to the Amazons' suites and common rooms.

"I take it, then, they're not fighting for a cause that they'd care to die for," Penthesileia said at length.

"The young men from my village? I sincerely doubt it," Lila said. "Perdicas, Andros and Lexie’s -- my friend’s -- brothers probably couldn't care one way or the other whether Menelaus gets Helen back."

"But the Argive naval domination of the Eurasian basin and the resulting monopoly of every major trade route from Britannia to Chin," Penthesileia said, "even farm boys -- and girls -- from the rural hills of the Macedonian hinterland might stand to benefit, in a trickle down way, from victory in the current conflict, don't you think?"

"Even if that were true," Lila looked into Penthesileia's large, spectral eyes, "not all of us would eagerly mortgage our souls for notes redeemable in dinars and drachmas."

Penthesileia returned Lila's frank look with a frank look of her own, her mutable, watery eyes absorbing the fixed essence of Lila's unstinting violet. "No, of course not," she acknowledged.

"Before I arrived here with my sister and her companions -- your subjects -- and with Xena," Lila continued, "though I have to own as how I don't really know why I came, what unknown force drew me here..., it wasn't a week ago that a close friend and I were kidnapped and taken hostage by a warlord whose gang, when they made off with us, beat us badly enough to require stitches and bandages. Then I was sexually assaulted and came within a hair's breadth of being raped. More devastating, I think, was the air of uncertainty, the atmosphere of terror that was continually bubbling below the surface, the sure knowledge that, in the end, we had no recourse to anything that might have eased our situation other than the warlord's seriously debilitated conscience. If that's what war and conquest amount to," Lila looked again at Penthesileia, "I can't see that there's much glory in it or anything good to recommend it."

"What of your association with Xena, via your sister?" Penthesileia said. "Xena's done worse deeds than any warlord you’d care to name."

"Including what she did to Cyane and some of your finest Amazon chiefs," Lila spoke to her reflection in Penthesileia's malleable eyes.

"Quite so," Penthesileia said.

They were approaching the archway into the keep that divided the wing of the castle in which their separate quarters lay.

"War can be fought with honor," Penthesileia said. "Rules of engagement can be adhered to such that both sides contend as equals despite their varied size, proficiency and strength. To the victor who regards forbearance as a virtue need not go a disproportionate share of the spoils."

"That I wouldn't know," Lila said. "I've been a loyal daughter in my parents' home. My world hasn't been much larger than... a strip of wool lagging with which to sew a patch into the torn seam on the crotch of my father's britches."

Penthesileia looked at Lila and smiled. "I'm about to climb into something a little more comfortable. If you’re not otherwise engaged, I wonder if you might be in the mood to freshen up a bit and then to join me for tea in my quarters. It'll be a while before the gang starts trickling back in."

Lila looked a trifle surprised by the invitation. "Well, yes, I'd be... delighted."

"I can offer you your choice of mint or pennyroyal," Penthesileia said. "I'm afraid that's the extent of my tea selection."

"I'd be quite content with either," Lila smiled.

"In a half a candlemark, then," Penthesileia said. "If Ghisella’s not there to let you in, give a holler and I'll come open the door. As I recall from our introduction at the King's feast the other night, you're Lila."

"Yes," Lila said. "My friends call me Lee."

"And mine call me Penny," Penthesileia excused herself and ducked through the pointed archway to enter through the massive wooden door that led to the interior of the gabled wing of the castle.

Lila entered the opposite wing of the guest quarters and climbed the stairs to the landing where the suite that she shared with Gabrielle and Ephiny faced the open balcony. Back in her room, Lila searched, without success, for a fresh chiton and so had to settle for pouring some water from a long-necked pitcher into the shallow wash basin that sat on the night stand between her pallet and Gabrielle's. She scooped several handfuls of water and doused them over her face, letting the water splash into the bowl and onto the night stand. The feel of the water was cool on her skin as Lila rubbed her fingers slowly along the indentations of cheeks softened by a smooth sweep of dark, gentle down at the rear of her jaw alongside and below her ears. Then she toweled off and, reaching into the drawer of the nightstand, took out a tiny vial of lavender scent which she'd purchased, for five drachmas, at the commissary that fronted on the avenue which ran past the entrance to the telesterion. She dabbed some scent behind her ears and on the inside of her wrists and then, with a deep, wordless breath, she descended the stairs into the cloister that connected the two wings of the guest quarters, crossing in silence and entering, for the first time, the larger bank of suites which the Themiscyran Amazons occupied and at the rear of which were situated Penthesileia's apartments.

"Door's open," Penthesileia called when Lila knocked.

Lila entered the spacious room in which two large casements, set into walls that joined caddy-corner to form a buttress over the interior garth of the keep, let in a wealth of afternoon sunlight, bays of which sprayed the walls in a warm, luscious, sienna hue. A long divan sat under the sill of one of the casements, framed by two end tables holding porcelain vases filled with the asters, cosmos and cornflowers of the early Trojan autumn. A long, low, tea table sat in front of the divan. A thick pile of Persian run lay on the space of the floor which separated the sitting area from the small cooking alcove where Penthesileia, now gowned in a light shift that robed her slender body in down-drawing pleats with a swag below one shoulder, was tending the little fire which she'd ignited in a small brazier on top of which sat an iron grill and, on the grill, a kettle made of a lighter, burnished, metal alloy.

Penthesileia smiled a welcome and gestured for Lila to take a seat on the divan. Then she poured the scalding water from the kettle into one clay mug and then the other, setting the kettle down on the grill and gingerly carrying the two mugs over to the table in front of the divan. Then she came around to the near side of the table and sat down on the cushion next to the cushion on which Lila was seated.

"And then we have some of these," Penthesileia, still smiling, reached for a small tray on which, wrapped in a cloth napkin, were piled several sweet rolls and glazed brioche.

"Oh, my," Lila sat back and let go a light chuckle, "I've never been served by a queen. Oughtn’t it to be the reverse?"

"Not at all," Penthesileia said with a warmth of tone to match the warmth of her smile. "I rarely have occasion to serve tea and sweets to such charming company."

"You flatter me," Lila looked into Penthesileia's golden eyes and felt the slightest clutch of sensual desire beginning to spread like a soothing fluid through her loins and, a few falling sand grains later, into the softer, more porous parts of the rest of her.

"Oh, but I don’t," Penthesileia looked at Lila, the smile slowly fading from her wide, bronze face to be replaced by a look of almost childlike openness, even, Lila might have thought, wonder. "Really, I don't. Flatter you. You are, indeed, quite compelling. But then...," a light twinkle returned to Penthesileia’s almond-colored eyes, "I'm sure that all the girls must tell you that."

"Why, no," Lila gave out a little laugh and stared at her tea mug which she lifted, then turned so her opposite hand looped a finger through the space between the handle and the barrel, "no, they don't, actually." Then Lila looked up at Penthesileia's inviting face, all trace of her light laugh gone. "No, to be perfectly honest, they don't."

"Then they're not doing you justice," Penthesileia said, sipping from her tea mug. "But forgive me, I didn't mean to put you on the spot."

"The other night, when I saw you at the banquet," Lila said, setting her mug down on the table, "you were standing at the lectern, gazing around the room as though you were looking for something -- or someone. And then, when your gaze fell on me, you paused. As I gazed back at you -- as we gazed at one another -- I felt as though I’d known you for a very long time."

Penthesileia sat and listened.

"Did you feel anything similar?" Lila asked.

"I don't know," Penthesileia said. "I don’t know what I was feeling. Sorrow at Hector’s death possibly."

"Did you know what you were looking for when you were looking around the room and then paused to look at me?" Lila said.

"Other than merely gazing at a pretty face in the crowd, you mean."


Penthesileia thought it over. "I'm not sure," she said, setting down her mug in turn.

"You said yesterday, when I accosted you in the alcove by the icon of Demeter, that I was either very pure or very bold," Lila said.

"I did," Penthesileia nodded.

"I wonder, then," Lila looked at Penthesileia.

"Wonder what?" Penthesileia said.

"Whether I may simply have been rising to a superb occasion," Lila said.

"Now you’re the one who’s flattering me," Penthesileia smiled and took another sip of tea. Unconsciously, Lila followed suit.

"I meant what I said to you yesterday," Lila said, again placing her tea mug on the table.

"Yes, I believe you did," Penthesileia replied.

The two women sat gazing in silence at one another for several turns of the sandglass.

"You're a daughter of Ares and a devotee of Artemis," Lila broke the silence. "Yet you were praying to Demeter, not to Cybele whose shrine I would have expected to find in this place. Care to explain?"

"One's devotions aren't restricted to a single deity or even a plethora of deities," Penthesileia said. "I made a request of the mother of Persephone. You happened to catch me at it."

"You wouldn't care to disclose the nature of that request," Lila said.

"A girl must be permitted to have some secrets," Penthesileia twinkled. "Wouldn't you agree?"

Lila returned Penthesileia's enigmatic smile with a twinkling smile of her own. "As a general rule."

"I'll give you a hint," Penthesileia said. "It either has either to do with love or with war."

"In either of which, by definition, all is fair," Lila said.

"No gloating on the part of the winners, no whining on the part of the losers," Penthesileia said.

"Speaking of war, I do know why you're here," Lila looked flush into Penthesileia's wide, gray-green eyes. "And I know what you're planning to do."

Penthesileia responded with the slightest nod.

"Though I’ve yet to grasp the necessity of it," Lila said.

"Perhaps that will come with time," Penthesileia said.

"And there’s to be no talking you out of it?" Lila said.

Penthesileia set her mug on the table next to Lila's. "One can embrace one's destiny, Lila, or let oneself be swept away by it."

"I'm not sure I go along with that," Lila said. "Take Xena. If Xena had looked at it that way, she would have let Callisto destroy her. Instead, Xena chose to forge her own destiny and permitted Callisto to destroy herself."

"Xena's an exceptional woman," Penthesileia said.

"And you're telling me you aren't?" Lila shot back. For the first time, the stiffened spine of a flame of blue fire capable of burning with the heat of a fiery passion arose in Lila's twinkling eyes.

"My course was set a long time ago," Penthesileia said, not unresponsive to the blue glow of that fiery passion. "Perhaps it was ordained when I was a child. When you and I were both children."

"Then we have some lost time to make up for," Lila said. "The Queen of all the Amazons and the farm girl from a nameless village near the little town of Poteidaia."

"And not much time to make it up in," Penthesileia said with the hint of sad smile.

"When do you ride against Achilles, you and your sisters?" Lila said, soberly.

"Soon," Penthesileia said. "I'm telling you this in confidence. We'll need the element of surprise to be in our favor. Assuming, of course, that we get this messy, who's-going-to-be-the-queen business at least partially resolved by then."

"You needn't worry. I can keep a secret."

"I trust you can."

"Are you going to choose a queen from among Ephiny, Velasca and my sister?"

"No, they're going to choose their own queen."


"Or they may decide to forego having a queen."

"That would be a novel development for the Amazons, wouldn’t it?"

"Times are changing. It may be time for the Amazons to change as well. Because in the end, Lila...," Penthesileia left off her train of thought and her voice faded into the surrounding stillness.

"In the end...," Lila said.

"Queens or no queens, we have only ourselves and the love we bear one another. That’s a cliché, I know, but I believe it to be true."

"Is that something you learned from your sister?"

"From Hippolyte, you mean?"


"Yes, she taught me that. And she was gone before I could thank her for it. Perhaps it was only because she was gone that I could, in fact, thank her for it."

"I'm told that you loved her very much."

"It was very intense and passionate between us, though passion and intensity can, in some ways, be the least of it."

"I’ve heard it said that love is one-tenth pour it out of the bottle and nine-tenths rub it on with a cloth," Lila nodded.

"With a very worn and frayed cloth," Penthesileia said.

Some bustling in the outer corridor signaled the return of the Amazons from their drill session.

"Let’s leave it here for now," Penthesileia said. "I want to have a word with your sister and Xena. In the meantime, the Corybantes have just arrived. The King has invited them to officiate at the upcoming panatheneia."

"I'm sorry, but I'm not familiar with the...," Lila hesitated.

"Corybantes," Penthesileia said. "Adepts of Cybele. Your respective numbers among the Phrygians, though they're hardly what you'd call enaretes kores. Quite the opposite as you'll discover if you attend the celebration. There may be a war on, but I'm coming to see that war or no war, this town knows how to have a good time."

"This I have to see," Lila brightened.

"I hope you might," Penthesileia rose and escorted Lila to the door.

Just before opening the door, Penthesileia looked down into Lila's pool-blue eyes and said, "Actually, there is one secret that you don't appear to keep very well." Penthesileia placed a bent finger under Lila's lower jaw and her thumb on Lila's chin, lifted Lila's face, bent her own face forward and kissed Lila gently but not tentatively on the lips. Then she swung the door slightly ajar.

"I'll be back," Lila looked into Penthesileia's sea-green eyes.

"I'll be here," Penthesileia said softly in reply.

Then Lila slipped out the door and scooted out the exit.

Down in the cloister whose arched columns gave out on a view of the garth which separated the Themiscyran from the Macedonian Amazon quarters, as Lila traversed the distance between the former and the latter, her heart racing, her senses exploding, she caught sight of a line of indecipherable writing impressed into the protruding lintels on the wide balusters whose pediments supported the series of arches that shaded the cloister. Lila stared at the foreign script, wondering what the various jots and glyphs might mean. Possibly the designation of the year in which the structure had been built or, perhaps, the didactic engraving into the stone of some lofty, Ciceronian sentiment meant to provoke or inspire the deeper sentiments of the curious or observant passerby.

The sight of the lettering etched along the walkway suddenly put Lila in mind of another bit of glossolalia on stone that she'd lately encountered on the island of Tenedos, the graffiti she'd seen splashed on the cracked masonry of a foul-smelling alley wall on the way to the purloined skiff in which the ladies had rowed and ridden the tides on the last leg of their journey: i festooni kori leri... With a passion as pure as any she'd felt since the day in the marketplace when she'd absentmindedly snitched a pomegranate from a fruit stall and, in so doing, had triggered the sequence of events that had taken her many leagues and what seemed like a lifetime from home, Lila wanted nothing more than to apprehend the foul hand that had scribbled those obscene words and then, beyond any appeals to conscience, to break into tiny, irremediable bone fragments every paint-flecked or chalk-stained finger on it.

Continued - Chapter 45
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