The Liliad
Chapter 47
Silk Stalkings


Penthesileia had a hard time getting to sleep that night. She tossed and turned, wishing she could reach out and enfold Lila in her arms. So it was a slightly bedraggled Penthesileia that prepared to meet with Gabrielle and Xena the next morning after a spare breakfast and a lackadaisical workout with sword, mace and sai, followed by a lax candlemark of sun salutations, bondas and asanas, and a period of silent, disturbed meditation, concluded by chanting the "Aummm...".

"Pull yourself together, Penny," Penthesileia sought to take herself in hand. "There's so much more at stake here than the fate of a budding romance; though perhaps if you're a good girl, you may get to rendezvous with your new heart's desire at the panatheneia this evening."

"Your guests have arrived, Your Ladyship," The attendant poked her head into the Queen’s chamber. Penthesileia was standing at the sunny, eastern casement, having tidied up the sitting area and placed fresh flowers in the vases.

"Thank you, Ghisella; please show them in."

Penthesileia stood stock still by the open window as Gabrielle and Xena entered the chamber. For an instant, before any exchange of greetings, the women stared at one another: Gabrielle in her scarlet-gold halter top and short, burnished-gold skirt; Xena in her brass and leathers, Penthesileia in her plain, white chiton and her sliver of a hairband with its barely discernible arc of seven, tiny, glittering diamonds.

As if shaking herself out of an instant’s lethargy and recalling, in a rush of awareness, the identity of the woman in whose presence she now stood, Gabrielle, murmurring an embarrassed, "Oh...," whipped her sais out of their hip holders, twirled them once and a half around so that the sharp tips of the blades were pointed toward her, knelt low to the ground, set the sais on the floor, bowed her head and softly said, "My queen..."

As Gabrielle made her obeisance, Xena stood quietly in place, her sword sheathed in its scabbard.

Penthesileia slowly crossed the space between them until she stood towering over the kneeling Gabrielle, a shade taller than Xena, though not as broad in the shoulders or hips.

"Rise, Gabrielle," Penthesileia said in her clear, soft-spoken, cultured voice.

Gabrielle looked up at Penthesileia's face and beheld the Queen's light blue eyes, neither lake-blue like Gabrielle's nor ice-blue like Xena's but a mild sky blue as when the thinnest layer of cloud has come to sheet the sky with the least scrim of white. Then Gabrielle rose to her feet and stood silently in front of the Queen de la Queen of Amazon queens, struck, in the instant, by the initial impression that Penthesileia was even more striking in face and body than Gabrielle had been led to believe.

"Welcome," Penthesileia, smiling warmly, extended a long, strong hand, "I've very much been looking forward to meeting you."

Then, turning to Gabrielle's companion, Penthesileia said, "Xena..." and without the smile but with no change in the vivid cast of her light blue eyes, in a lightning fast motion too quick for Xena to anticipate and defend against, Penthesileia slapped Xena hard across the face.

With a short, startled gasp, Gabrielle, in reflex action, shot her hands to her hips where they paused and remained motionless on the rims of the empty sai loops as Xena stood equally motionless, the skin on her round, flush cheek slowly reddening with the afterblush of Penthesileia's sudden, sharp greeting, even as Penthesileia's eyes shot their gaze down to Gabrielle's clenched, immobile fists while the Queen’s lips parted with just the hint of a knowing smile.

"That's for Cyane," Penthesileia looked Xena in the eye. Then Penthesileia raised her hand to Xena's face a second time, this time gently to stroke and soothe the cheek which she'd just harshly slapped. "And that, too, is for Cyane."

Gabrielle looked aslant at Xena's face. The look on it was blank. And though Gabrielle could almost always tell from the look on Xena's face what the Warrior Princess was thinking or feeling, this time Xena's face was a pure cipher as Xena looked, without expression, into Penthesiliea's expressionless face.

No man on earth, or insanely few, could have done to Xena, without instantly suffering the most devastating consequences, what Penthesileia had just done. Xena might possibly have acquiesced in such a humiliating blow from Hercules or Herodotus, except that neither one would ever, in a thousand sunmarks, think or dare to do such a thing. And women? Xena's mother, perhaps. Lao Ma if she were alive. Callisto before her redemption and rebirth. Boudiccea possibly. Xena's failure to respond to such provocation betokened her immense esteem for the provocateur; and Gabrielle sensed, at once, that Xena's relationship with Penthesileia, whatever it might be, was founded upon a base of respect that encompassed far more than friendship, though the prevalence of the former in no way precluded the likelihood of the latter.

"Your instinct is to protect your friend," Penthesileia turned to Gabrielle, the Queen's steel-blue eyes fixed upon the empty sai holders on which Gabrielle's fisted hands now rested. "I'm glad to see that. And you, Xena," Penthesileia turned back to Xena, her eyes applying the blue of their softening steel to the blue of Xena's melting ice, "I hardly know whether to condemn or commend you. I think I should prefer to commend you. Your betrayal of Cyane and her chiefs cost us immeasurably. And then you risked everything to oppose Alti and set that wrong to rights. No one but you could have made it possible for Cyane and the others to pass over the peak of Claw Mountain and enter the Amazon Land of the Dead. Oteri and Yakut are in awe of you, as well they should be. And, for my part, I'm in awe of you, Gabrielle," Penthesileia turned to look at Gabrielle. "Though I know you only by reputation, I can think of no one else who could have had exerted such a profound and lasting influence upon the soul of the Warrior Princess. Your capacity for courage, dedication, loyalty and selfless service must be immense. I fancy I could learn a great deal from you if there were world enough and time."

Gabrielle winced with a slight, rosy blush. Whether Penthesileia's observation were accurate or exaggerated, Gabrielle was not one to go fishing for compliments. "You're very kind to say that, my Queen, but...," Gabrielle's voice trailed off.

"But...?" Penthesileia said, patiently.

"What gifts that I may have been able to give to Xena pale in comparison to the gifts that she's bestowed on me," Gabrielle said.

Penthesileia smiled at Gabrielle's modest sincerity. "Is it true, Xena? That the scales of give and take tip so heavily in your favor?"

Xena shook her head. "Gabrielle is my light and my life. As she lays her sais at your feet, I lay my sword at hers."

"It seems that your friend is under the impression that the scales of love and devotion are somewhat more equally balanced," Penthesileia smiled at Gabrielle. "And I think we can leave the 'My Queen...,' over there by the door... or down here on the floor," Penthesileia glanced down at Gabrielle's sais. "You'd best pick those things up and put them back where they belong. You wouldn't want to step on them accidentally and bend their finely tempered shafts."

Gabrielle reached down to retrieve the sais, twirling them once and a half around and replacing them, with a sharp snap of her wrists, in their waist rings.

"You are good," Penthesileia smiled more broadly. "She's become quite proficient with those little demons, hasn't she, Xena?"

Xena nodded.

"Come, sit down," Penthesileia gestured to the divan and the two chairs that she'd pulled up to the long, low table to face the divan's wide cushions. "Have you had breakfast? I’ll ask Ghisella to bring us something."

Gabrielle and Xena said they'd had a fine breakfast.

"The King looks after us exceedingly well, doesn't he?" Penthesileia said. "Meals, clothing, lush quarters. Fancier than anything we've got for guests when they come to visit us at Themiscyra."

The three ladies took their seats, Xena having long since cased out the chamber, its inventory of useful items and its several routes of entrance and escape.

"As I mentioned to Velasca and then to Ephiny, I know you’ve had a grueling journey," Penthesileia said. "I only hope it will turn out to have been a worthwhile one. I understand that several young men from your village, Gabrielle, including a former sweetheart, are encamped along the vast stretch of beach that lies under the gold and scarlet insignia of Diomedes and the Army of Northern Hellas."

"That's right," Gabrielle said, noting that Penthesileia's body, though perhaps not as formidable as Xena's, appeared deceptively slender, almost delicate. Lean and muscular, Penthesileia possessed, under her gracious, long-boned bearing, lightning quick -- and well-practiced -- reflexes. Even the meat of her small, dark breasts, which would have filled, to perfection, the twinkling rondure of a glistening champagne glass, gave no quarter to any easing of the flesh. She was all taut presence, ready, when necessary, with sword or sai, to spring.

"Then we want to be sure that your presence here doesn't compromise their safety," Penthesileia said. "You're an old acquaintance of Diomedes, aren't you, Xena?"

"He gave me a push when I needed it," Xena said.

"Because he saw the champion that you had it in you to become," Penthesileia said. "You've been tremendously blessed by those who saw the good in you before you were able to see it yourself."

"I know," Xena nodded.

"I know you know," Penthesileia smiled. "But blessings, I'm sure you also know, don't come without a price. So the corollary arises: which desires of the heart and longings of the soul are you willing to sacrifice for the sake of validating those blessings?"

Penthesileia's cobalt eyes scrutinized the soul-windows of Xena's baby blues.

"I’m willing to sacrifice my life," Xena replied without hesitation.

"Too easy," Penthesileia dismissed Xena's reply. "After Gabrielle's plunge into the abyss with Hope, perhaps such an answer might sufficed. Going after Alti as you did, aware that you might easily lose your life in the process, that was a brave and noble act. But now, given everything that's taken place since those days, sacrificing your life -- either of your lives -- would amount to a step backwards. No, I'm talking about something more difficult than giving up your lives in sacrifice to an ideal or on behalf of one another. I'm talking about the kind of loss that one might, in dire pain, be constrained to live with, day in and day out, perhaps for a very long time."

I can see what attracts Lila to this woman, Gabrielle thought as she pondered Penthesileia's suggestion. Here's a soul that won’t hesitate, when necessary, to go out on a limb. Perhaps, for that reason, she comes across as being vulnerable as well as competent. A queen who can be reached but not manipulated. An ass -- in Penthesileia's case, a tight, attractive one -- that's always on the line in a kitchen whose heat can’t, with grace, be gotten out of. If you haven't got the rhythm and you haven't got the jazz to sit humbly on the hot seat of a very rocky throne, Gabrielle could see reflected in Penthesileia’s regal bearing, get out of the Queen de la Queen business while you can and find a less bumpy road to travel.

"Xena and I have each lost our firstborn," Gabrielle said. "I think we've both learned something about that sort of sacrifice."

"Of course," Penthesileia said. "And I am sorry -- if such condolences amount to anything. I've been spared the pain of that sort of loss, so I can only apologize if I should prove a bit insensitive in the face of it."

"No need," Xena said.

"But thank you anyhow," Gabrielle said.

They sat quietly for a few turns of the sandglass. Feelings of mutual affection, like dust motes at the casement, began to gather, linger casually and drift lazily in the sun.

"It's sacrifice that I want to talk with the two of you about," Penthesileia eventually broke the silence. "Perhaps I should begin by saying, Gabrielle, what you may already have heard from Ephiny. I told Ephiny -- and I very much meant it -- that, in my view, she’s got the makings of a first rate queen. You and I haven't had the sort of contact that Ephiny and Velasca and I have had in the past, yet from everything I've heard, supplemented by what small degree of trust I feel confident to place in intuition, I suspect that you, too, would make an excellent queen. And, in a different way, I believe that Velasca has the makings of a first rate queen. So as I see it -- necessarily from a distance and in a limited way -- the Macedonian Amazons have been endowed with an embarrassment of riches. And that doesn't yet take you into account, Xena.

"So let me share with you the gist of what I've been thinking. When this war has at last come to an end, and I think we can count on it being over soon, the last of the current crop of Amazon leadership will have passed from the scene: ‘the blood of Lysippe,' I can’t tell you how I've grown to dislike that unfortunate phrase. A new phase will have begun. A new world is going to fashion itself from the ruins of the old one. The community will be impelled to envision and put into effect new and different ways to be Amazons. I can't foresee what those ways might be. Even if I could, it's not my place to try and rule from the grave, any more than my three sisters may have sought to do.

"Velasca's a fighter and a visionary, but I'm afraid that, up to now, she's been looking backwards through the mirror in the hope of reviving a past that's gone for good. Some of that desire may be conditioned upon the lingering guilt she feels for her part in bringing about Melosa’s death. Ephiny's a general and a diplomat, but I'm not sure how much of the big picture Ephiny tends to see. Both of them have a tremendous amount of courage and integrity. In that sense, they appear to complement one another nicely. My impression of you, Gabrielle, is that you combine each of these qualities in fine measure, though I understand that your inclination, up to now, has been to err on the liberal, hands-off side of things, perhaps not asserting your power, on occasion, for the sake of not wishing to abuse it; which strikes me an admirable quality in a leader, though it can make for irresolution at times. Hardly a shortcoming of yours, I think, Xena; impulsiveness, in the past, having arguably been your overriding fault.

"So my inclination is to recommend that the three of you... perhaps the four of you look to work out this matter of queenly succession together. Open your hearts to one another and see if you can find creative ways to share influence and leadership -- queenship -- in and for the benefit of the wider community. I respect tradition. Tradition has put me where I am today. But nothing etched in stone says that there has to be only one queen or that there has to be a queen at all. I'm not sure that queens lie in our future. The day of the woman at the top -- the day of 'My queen...,' -- may be coming to an end. Who knows but that may turn out to be a good thing. I don't necessarily mean a ruling triumvirate. Those arrangements can be notoriously unstable. Look at Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, as the two of you know far better than I; having despatched two of them and brought down the third. But an equal sharing of authority and responsibility, that’s a course of action that may have great promise.

"Anyhow, that's been my thinking on the matter. But there's something else to consider, something that may be just as essential to the hope for an Amazon future, and I want to toss out the suggestion for the two of you to mull over.

"Despite your considerable gifts, I don't think you can hope to play a meaningful role in the community, Gabrielle, certainly not in a leadership capacity, unless and until you commit yourself to living the Amazon life fully, in all its particulars, without harboring any doubts or reservations that you've made the right choice. You weren't born an Amazon. You weren’t raised an Amazon. For you, membership in the Amazon community is a calling, a vocation, an assumption of a voluntary identity. I don't think you can do that identity justice if you have one foot -- be it physical or spiritual -- in the community and one foot elsewhere. Which calls into question -- unavoidably -- your life with Xena."

"I've thought of that," Gabrielle said. "We've talked about it, Xena and I."

"Have you come to any conclusions?" Penthesileia said.

"If I were to make that commitment, there might be a place in it for Xena," Gabrielle said.

"In what capacity?" Penthesileia said.

"As a general, a warrior, a field commander," Gabrielle said. "And as my partner. And as the mother of any children... one of the mothers of any of the children that either or both of us might bear and/or raise together."

"Ah, but there’s where it starts to get sticky -- and where you may disagree with and decide to override me," Penthesileia said. "I don't think it's quite as simple as that, Gabrielle. We're talking about the Amazons forging a new identity and evolving new ways of life in line with that altered identity, ways of life that none of us, including you and Xena, can reliably discern at this point. There are some souls -- and I think you may be one of them, Xena -- who are too original, who can never truly bind themselves to life in community, even life in a community for which they may feel great affection and attachment.

"My sense is that you're a lone wolf, Xena, for whom freedom is the breath of life. No bonds of community can ever claim you that you don't, in the end, forge yourself. Your personality is too strong, your character too individualistic, your aura too charismatic. Without intending to, you would, I believe, shape in your image any community that you might choose to be a part of. You're a leader, not merely of armies at war or communities at peace, but a leader who sets a course and empowers others to follow. Wolves live in packs, Gabrielle, but the lone wolf lives apart, though she, like other wolves, may mate once and for life."

"Xena needn't be a lone wolf so long as she has me," Gabrielle said.

"For which blessing I’m sure that Xena would thank the gods if Xena and the gods were on speaking terms," Penthesileia said. "You would stamp the community indelibly, Xena. You couldn't help it. It would take place without your knowing or intending it. And were you to resist it, the others would impose it upon you, naturally following your leadership wherever it might take them. You would be doing violence to yourself -- and to Gabrielle -- if you tried to rebel against and suppress that brazen and glorious streak in your nature. At times, I think you should have been born an Amazon queen as I, perhaps, should have been born an innkeeper's daughter or a farm girl from a tiny village near a small coastal inlet."

"Not so," Xena spoke with the first hint of authority since she and Gabrielle had entered Penthesileia's chamber. "You say I'm the tallest tree who stands alone on Gabrielle's shoulders. You’ve acknowledged that you don't much care for the mystique of the 'Blood of Lysippe'. You know that you're a fallible human being, not an icon of more than mortal perfection. I don't much care for the mystique of 'The Warrior Princess'. There are times when I'm afraid, confused, hesitant, uncertain... tired and cranky.

"Just before Velasca arrived with your summons, Gabrielle and I were called back to Poteidaia to rescue Lila and a friend who’d been kidnapped and were being held hostage. A two-bit, petty, over-the-hill warlord nearly outsmarted me. If we hadn't been lucky and gotten a tip from the sibyl who'd come sneaking around, looking for us, and if Lila hadn’t been sharp-witted enough to seek her out after Lila had been ejected from the warlord’s camp with her friend’s life hanging in the balance, I'm not sure that Gabrielle and I would have been able to thwart his plans to rob the local pottery works. A guy with less smarts than Mezentius and fewer balls than Talmodeus, who couldn't hold a candle, in the warlording game, to Cortese or Draco or Krykus or, for that matter, to Borias or Ming T'ien or Najara -- or to me -- nonetheless almost got the better of me. Something new is stirring in me, Penthesileia, and something old may be passing away."

Penthesileia smiled. "Now that's something that the old Xena, Destroyer of Nations, Conqueror of Callisto, Victor over Alti, would never have thought to say. My skirt-chasing father must be rolling over in what, if he weren't immortal, would justly be his grave to hear you say something like that in the tone of humble questioning in which you've just said it. As much as Ares may have adored my sister, Hippolyte, I think his passion for you was... is even greater. Hippolyte got the jeweled belt, but you got the chakram."

"And I got the lake of fire and ice," Gabrielle said.

"So you did," Penthesileia smiled again. "Yet think of it: not one of the six of us -- the two of you, myself, my three sisters -- gave birth to Ares progeny. There's more than a measure of justice in that irony. Ares loved my mother. He gave her five children, so there must have been a bond of some kind of affection between them. But in terms of character, no child of mine would emulate him if I had anything to say about it."

On that note, the three women were in staunch agreement.

"I'll abide by and support whatever decision you make when it comes to resolving the leadership vacuum created by the tragic loss of Melosa," Penthesileia said. "Even if the community should fall apart under the internal strain of indecision, better it were so than to have a solution arbitrarily imposed from above. I mentioned to Ephiny that I'm terribly fond of Velasca. I should mention to you, Gabrielle, that I'm quite fond of Ephiny. And I suspect that one day, very soon, I may be saying to your sister that had you and I had the time to cultivate a relationship comparable to that which I've been able to establish with Velasca and Ephiny, I should have grown to be no less fond of you. And thank you, Xena, for what you did for Cyane and the others in the end. You owed it to them, yes, but no one made you cancel the debt. That you did on your own and, on their behalf, I'm grateful."

Penthesileia rose and accompanied Gabrielle and Xena to the door.

"I'll see you in council, Xena," Penthesileia said.

"You know I don't approve of what you're contemplating," Xena said. "For my two drachmas, I’d like to see you rule as queen for a long time to come."

"That's kind of you to say, and I appreciate it, though I don't imagine you're going to try and stop me," Penthesileia said.

"Not physically," Xena said. "But I may nudge you psychically. ‘To conquer others is to have power, but to conquer oneself...'"

"'...Is to know The Way...,'" Penthesileia said. "That's become a frequently repeated mantra around here and one that seems to be well worth dwelling on."

"If there's a chink in the armor of your resolution, I'll find it," Xena said.

Penthesileia smiled and nodded. "Meanwhile, Gabrielle, if you should decide, for whatever reason, to decline to commit fully to what may or may not be your vocation as an Amazon, and if such a decision should cost you your friendship with Ephiny -- meaning that if you should find that, for the sake of the well-being of the community which you care about but may not feel inwardly called to join because of an even more pressing commitment, and if you should then choose to offer up that friendship -- that's a sacrifice that I do know something about. And I know it isn't easy for either the sacrificer or the sacrificed. What I want you to take away from this meeting, though, is that, in the end, I'm going to give my blessing to whatever decision you make, you and Xena together. Until this evening, then, at the panatheneia."

Gabrielle and Xena left Penthesileia's quarters and walked through the shaded keep out to the sun-filled courtyard.

"I need to make a quick stop. C’mon," Xena said to Gabrielle.

"To find costume shop? What are you gonna dress up as Princess Leah or Diana for the party tonight when the Corybantes get here?" Gabrielle said.

"Nope," Xena said. "We need to find the Temple of Aphrodite."

"The Temple of Aphro... You're kidding. How come?" Gabrielle made a face. "I’d think that Aphrodite would be the last thing you'd want to run into just now. It seems that every time you bump into Aphrodite lately, your consciousness ends up getting transferred to somebody else's body and I have to drag your carcass from place to place 'til I can figure out a way to bring you back."

"We need Aphrodite to deliver a message," Xena began strolling down the tiled arcade that led to one of Ilium's sacred, leaf-bowered groves.

"A message? Who to?" Gabrielle followed close behind.

"To the one person who might be able to foil a major Argive offensive," Xena trotted down a flight of broad marble stairs toward a short, square stucco building, fronted by several fat columns, the interior of which was smoggy with burning incense, sweetened by the pleasant aroma of freshly gathered flowers and crowded with sculptured reliefs and reliquary objects devoted to the Goddess of Love.

"You mean Herc?" Gabrielle cried out as they crossed the shrine's outer pavilion.

"No, Joxer," Xena called back, passing through the center portal.

"Joxer?!" Gabrielle howled, entering the sanctuary a footfall behind Xena and huffing incredulously. Xena walked up to the altar and, from between two large floor pots of effusive gladioli and lush amaryllis, she addressed the bronze representation of a luscious sexpot gowned in a braised, golden, see-through negligée.

"Aphrodite, it's me and Gabrielle," Xena called, "and we could do with some much needed help long about now."

Suddenly, there was a powdery vump! above the altar and there, in all her bouffiness, stood the love goddess herself.

"Aphrodite’s in her nightie and she's looking very flighty," Gabrielle murmurred.

"Hi, kids, what’s the hassle?" Aphrodite sauntered down from the altar in her gauzy, pink, transparency under which her bra and panties were extremely visible in their tight, frilly, lace design. "Gee, you’re lookin’ kinda bummed, Xee. Hi, twin. Hey, don't those mooshy mudpacks do wonders for your pores, though," Aphrodite winked at Gabrielle as she took out an emery board and began rounding a chartreuse colored nail.

"Aphrodite, we need you to deliver a message and we haven't got much time," Xena said. "The Argives are up to something out there, and we need to take some fast action to keep them from pulling it off."

"Eeuw, Creepsville," Aphrodite turned up her nose. "Can't those guys just chill for once? Poking holes in Trojan defenses? A sleek, slim-fitting Trojan isn't something you wanna run the risk of poking holes in, right?"

"Which is why," Xena sought to remain calm, "we need to get word to the one person who might be able to gear up the Trojan defenses."

"My sexy big brother?" Aphrodite said. "I may have a weakness for hunky studs, honey, but that doesn't make me the Pony Express."

"You're a goddess, you can teleport," Xena said.

"Yeah, but what do I tell it when I get there?" Aphrodite said. "Aw, wouldja look at that...," Aphrodite held out her hand for Xena and Gabrielle to examine her nails. "I gotta clue my worshippers in about how these cheapo sandpaper things they've been leaving for offerings on my altar just don't cut it. See how filed down they make my nails come out?"

"Aphrodite, you don't want Achilles and his Myrmidons busting in here and tearing your lovely shrine to itty bitty bits, do you?" Xena said. "Smashing the porcelain, busting the china..."

"Achilles?" the look on Aphrodite's vivacious face turned sour. "That overgrown sack of chronically erectile body tissue? Do you know that Mister Studly has never once remembered my birthday; unlike Paris, that cutesy wootsie, who brings me a big, juicy Golden Delicious every year. Been back to the Gemini Club, Bruna? I tried to work my way down to the mosh pit the other night, you know, and would you believe the bouncer had the nerve to tell me it was couples only? And with Hephy putting in all those extra hours at the blast furnace, guess who couldn't rustle up a date."

"Time's a-wasting, Aphrodite," Xena urged. "We gotta move if we're gonna have a chance to fox the Argives."

"'Kay, Xee, whadaya want me to do?" Aphrodite said. "Just don't ask me to give away Victoria's secret 'cause I don't want to be the one who spreads it around that Vicky’s implants aren't giving her the lift she was hoping they would. I mean if you wanna know the cold, hard truth, the poor girl's ship is slowly sinking out there in Sag Harbor."

"I need you to take a message to Joxer," Xena said in a calm, steady voice.

"Run that by me again?" Aphrodite's face mirrored the same quality of disbelief that had flickered on Gabrielle's face a turn of the sandglass ago. "Joxer. As in: ‘Joxer, the Mighty, roams through the count...’"

"Yeah, him, Xena said.

Gabrielle shrugged and shook her head.

"Honey, meaning no disrespect," Aphrodite said, "but I’m wondering if maybe you've been on the receiving end of one too many head butts with your helmet off."

"I don’t often wear a helmet, and I’m serious," Xena said. "We gotta get word to Joxer. He’s the only one who can show up and put the screws to this thing."

"It's not that I'd mind helping you out, Xee," Aphrodite dithered, "but I wanna get over to the poetry slam at Homer's Hideaway in time to cop a seat. The finals are pitting Band in Boston against Bard in Philly. Then they're gonna finish up the night with an open mike, Knock Knock Joke contest."

"Try thinking of it as something you could be doing for the greater good," Xena said. "Then imagine how much better you'll feel in the morning for having done it."

"I always feel better for having done it in the morning," Aphrodite said.

"Good: here's the message...," Xena said.

"Knock, knock," Aphrodite wrinkled her nose at a flake of lint that she picked off her sheer, gauzy nightwear.

Xena and Gabrielle gawked at each other.

"C'mon, just for practice," Aphrodite urged. "It's gonna be my one shot at getting my fifteen sandglasses of fame."

"Who's there," Xena obliged.


"Aphrodite," Xena urged, "there's a lot of advanced planning that needs to get done really fast if we're gonna have a shot at getting this little counter-intelligence operation off the gr..."

"C'mon, do 'Xena Who...'," Aphrodite said. "Shoot, look. My no-smear lipstick is smearing, isn't it? I'm gonna have to get Theseus' Minotaur to gore Vidal if this keeps up."

"Xena Who," Xena said through gritted teeth.

"Xena Warrior Princesses lately? I have. She’s standing right in front of me," Aphrodite retorted. "Pretty good, huh?"

"Very sharp. You’ll most likely find Joxer flipping burgers in his chef’s hat at Meg's tavern. Okay: here’s the best way to get there...," Xena said.

"Knock, knock," went Aphrodite.

"And here's a list of the stuff we need him to bring..."

"Do 'Who's There...,' C'mon," Aphrodite folded her arms over her sizzling, Venusian breasts and wouldn't budge attitudinally unless and until Xena accommodated her.

"Who's there...," Xena grimaced.


"Do I have to?"


"Athena Who?"

"Athena walkin' into Aphrodite's temple with Gabrielle followin’ close behind. Get it? I theen ‘a -- I theen Theena -- walkin’ into Aphrodite’s temp...?"

"Yeah, I dig. Now the first thing we're gonna need Joxer to make sure to get his hands on is...," Xena continued.

"Knock, knock."

"Who's There?" Gabrielle grunted impatiently.


"Artemis who?"

"It’s Artemis the Warrior Princess when Athena walkin' into Aphrodite’s temple with Gabrielle followin’ close behind," Aphrodite yukked it up.

"Put it this way," Xena said, straining at the bit of her patience. "If you don’t get a move on and take this message to Joxer, instead of finding Trojan nail files and tubes of non-smear lip gloss being left for offerings on your altar, you're likely to find Argive swords and lances sticking at various angles into the dead and wounded bodies of your lovely Trojan suppliants."

"Grossborough!" Aphrodite recoiled. "Okay, so like what am I supposed to tell the dude when I track him down?"

"Tell him to get his ear flaps over here as fast as he can," Xena said. "And tell him to round up as much sulfur, saltpeter, bicarbonate of soda, charcoal and powdered sugar as he can lay his hot little hands on. And bunches of twilly, glossy string that you can unroll and run for a distance along the ground. And tell him not to forget the recipe. He’ll know what recipe you mean. Also, when he gets here, he's gonna need to land a good ways south of the Argive emplacements and then wait to get picked up and brought in here by a Trojan shore patrol. So he'll need to be password protected."

"Ten-Seven, ladies," Aphrodite signed off. "I wanna be sure to get back here in time for the opening act of tonight's bigtime slave rave. I'm an avid virgin... I mean an Ovid - Vergil fan..."

Vump! Aphrodite de-materialized into the dysfunctional aether of Olympian instant messaging.

"Knock, knock," Gabrielle scowled.

"Who’s there?" Xena turned around and said.


"Ditzy who?"

"I ditzy see Aphrodite bug out with a message for Joxer just now, didn’t I?"

A few turns of the sandglass later...

"Jock-sur! When I said I needed a ham on rye, I wasn't tawwkin' about a whiskey-drinkin' meatball comin’ out here to serenade the lunch crowd!" Meg shouted into the kitchen from the front counter where the midday trade at the tavern was getting impatient as they waited for Joxer, in his tall chef's hat, to dish up the day's blue plate special.

Gowned in a greasy white apron, the chef's hat tilted askew, Joxer hustled to keep up with the growing pile of orders.

"He's kinda slow behind the grill," Meg, lounging against the counter, said to one of her hungry customers, "but I keep him around 'cause he's a real animule in bed when he's not moonin' over his long, lost Gabrielle."


"Gahh!" Joxer jumped back from the flaming grill as though he'd accidentally spilled the grease bucket on a red-hot pile of glowing briquettes.

"Be totally cool. Only the manic panic," the Goddess of Love emerged out of a twinkling bolus of light. "Whoa, is it ever hot in here. You really oughta switch on the ceiling fan. Okay, Jox-man, drop the flipper and grab your zipper. Xee and Ree need you on the double."

"Aphrodite! Is that you?" Joxer stood there amazed.

"Shelve the butter and ditch the cutter. Your pals say there isn't time to slice that lime," Aphrodite wrinkled her nose at the sour smell of the stale cooking oil Joxer was using to fry the onions.

"You mean Xena? Gabby? Bu-but they're all the way over in Troy, meeting with the Queen of Pennsylvania to try and figure out who's gonna be the next mayor of Pittsburgh. ‘Course I told 'em my brother, Jayce'd be great for the job, ‘cause before he got busted, he was a real Steeler," Joxer looked wide-eyed at Aphrodite, his chef's hat nearly toppling off the crown of his head.

"Awright, I’m supposed to tell you what to bring," Aphrodite put on her thinking cap. "Foo, I forgot. Sodium nitrate? Ammonium sulfate? Hydrobenzoate? High pressure canisters of carbon tet? Anyway, you’re supposed to get hold of some salt for your peter, and don’t forget your special recipe." "They need me. They want me. When the chips are down, ''s Jox-surr... and sweet Aph-ro-di-tee...,'" Joxer sang to the tune of his ardent theme song.

"Apoplectic," Aphrodite said, unimpressed. "Tell you what: you do what you have to do to save my shrine and I'll make sure you get on the scalpers’ list for a couple of tix to the next dance marathon at the Crystal Phallus. So let’s get a hard on..., I mean a move on."

"Jock-sur!" Meg cried from out front. "Whadaya doin' back there? Who ya tawwkin’ to? I hope you didn’t get up by your Jox trap and can't wiggle out of it."

"I got a hot tip and I gotta move on it quick," Joxer shouted as he tore off his apron and chucked his chef's hat. "I mean I gotta move quick on a hot tip."

"You need to wash up on the shore and find a ditzy bitch, I mean a bitsy ditch, to hunker down in and not let yourself get blown by... blown away by those keen and minky Argives," Aphrodite said. "And you're gonna need a password. Let's see. How about..."

Filled with a renewed sense of purpose in life, Joxer was off and running.

"Hey, Knock, Knock," Aphrodite said, filing a ragged nail.

"Who's There?" Joxer said as he began assembling the needed materials even as Meg was beginning to fume at the stalled lunch counter.


"Menelaus Who?" Joxer replied as he opened the footlocker in which he kept his Joxer the Mighty outfit.

"Menelaus if we let ‘em, which is why it’s a good idea for us girls to ignore ‘em and go out in groups at night," Aphrodite observed and vump! she was gone.

As, a turn of the sandglass later, dressed in his ear flaps and barrel top, his arms loaded down with hazardous materials, with Meg throwing down her waitress pad in disgust and storming into the kitchen to raise Hades with her tardy and now absent short order cook, was Joxer.

Continued - Chapter 48
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