The Liliad
Chapter 52
Throne For A Loop


The sunlight was sliding through the open casement when Lila awoke the next morning. The first thing she felt, before she became fully aware of her surroundings, was an overwhelming sense of serene joy; perfect contentment that wanted nothing other than simply to be. With her eyes closed, she smelled the sweet scent of gardenia and the sweeter, natural scent of the warm body next to her. Then she opened her eyes a little and perceived, through a mist that took a few falling sand grains to come into focus, the most exquisite sight that she had ever beheld: a face of startling yet subtly graceful beauty such as might have caused the gods on Mount Olympus to rage at their immortality in despair of their ever being so vitally transient. Its eyes were open and smiling at Lila's opening eyes, and the look in those eyes was so filled with the limpid gloss of love that the pooling of that loving look, around the spot where Lila lay, was sufficient to drown the room. I've seen the light of the world reflected in the face of my beloved and I care not, in this glorious instant, whether I live or die.

But Lila was very much alive, and a long, sighing breath grounded her body to the spot where she lay. A gentle, brown hand reached out to stroke Lila's hair and cheek. With eyelids lowered, Lila's soft lips kissed the slowly sweeping palm and trailing fingers. Weeping, of various kinds, may last the night, it was said, but the utter bliss of unsurpassable joy comes in the morning. Lila's cup was full. It wanted no further drop.

"Good morning, my love," Penthesileia smiled and continued to stroke Lila's cheek.

"Mm...," Lila returned her lover's smile and looked with perfect love into her lover's eyes, gray eyes turning, as Lila looked at them, to a very fine shade of opalescent blue as a pre-dawn sky might give grudging way to the first intrusion of morning.

Penthesileia's smiling face hovered over Lila's smiling face before descending to grace that face with a soft barrage of gentle kisses. Then strong hands and arms embraced Lila's receptive, waiting body. Lips and hands and sweeping hair aroused Lila's awakening passion until, soft sighs evolving to sweet moans and then deeper gasps, Lila lifted her arms up over her head, spread her legs, raised her hips and offered herself, once again, to the hand that kissed her more tenderly than lips could until Lila came and came and came, their joint voices commingling in sounds of joy indistinguishable from those of pain, the giver holding nothing back, the taker taking all. And then the roles reversed. The giver's act of giving excited the taker to give in kind, and the giver now took all that the taker had to give. The force of Lila's orgasm triggered Penthesileia's own, the two women dissolving into one another's arms, merging fluently into one another's souls.

They lay together for a long while, givers and takers both, until the warmth of the morning sun coaxed them awake with its busy, yellow rays.

"Are you thirsty, my love?" Penthesileia, brushing Lila's matted hair away from her cheek and ear, whispered softly.

"Mm...," Lila nodded.

"Here, let me slip my arm out from under you," Penthesileia scooched over to the side of the pallet which was wide for a single cot but narrow for a double. "Ooh, it's asleep. I can feel the tingling in my fingers."

Penthesileia turned away from Lila to reach for a small jug that stood on the night table next to the pallet. Nearly lapping the contents over the rim, Penthesileia poured some water into a clay mug.

"Come, sit up," Penthesileia swerved back to Lila and offered her the mug. "Here, let me help." Penthesileia reached her hand behind Lila's back and assisted her to a sitting position. Lila took the mug and drank deeply.

"Thank you," Lila said and handed the mug back to Penthesileia who re-filled the mug and took a long drink herself.

"More?" Penthesileia said, offering Lila the mug.

"No, that's fine," Lila shook her head and Penthesileia set the mug down on the table.

Smiling, Lila placed the palms of both her hands on Penthesileia's cheeks, drew those cheeks toward her and then kissed Penthesileia tenderly on the lips as though, having drunk deeply of the water, Lila was now intent upon slaking her thirst with the wine. "Let's stay like this forever," Lila said softly. "The world can run on ahead of us while we stay behind."

"Oh, Lila," Penthesileia swept her arm around Lila's shoulder as Lila sank into Penthesileia's shoulder and breast, "I would love that. More than anything."

"Then as your queen," Lila smiled, "I command it."

Penthesileia chuckled. "In short order, you would indeed be my queen, love. I have little doubt of that."

"Then I would make your lap my throne," Lila said, cooing and snuggling against Penthesileia's fine, lean rib cage, sliding an arm around the perfectly flat waist.

"And my sword would be your scepter, my dear," Penthesileia said, dreamily beginning to run her hand through Lila's hair, lifting the strands and gently stroking the scalp.

"Then I say letís have no more queens," Lila said. "We'll live in a village of huts and byres and I'll bear you many lovely children while I dote on you day and night, stitching up your britches when the seams begin to tear."

"And I'll work my fingers to the bone to feed and clothe and provide for you all," Penthesileia said, "and then make joyful love to you at night."

For a falling sand grain or two, they basked in the fantasy.

"Would you really give up your throne for something as silly and strange as love?" Lila turned to look at Penthesileia with a semi-serious expression on her face. "Oh," Lila fussed, beholding Penthesileia's bronze skin, sea-green eyes and wide, expansive features, "you're too beautiful to look at. This can't be real. You must be a goddess. You can't be a mere mortal. Your hair. Your face. The feel of your hands on my body."

"Oh, Lila," Penthesileia rolled her eyes, "you're going to get me all worked up again."

"Mm," Lila cooed, "perky breasts..." Lila began to massage Penthesileia's breasts which stiffened to Lila's touch. "Before I'm through with you, my love, you'll be jelly in my arms. And when you come to me in all your beauty and splendor, I'm going to tell you how I love you more than all the tiny diamonds in your headband."

Lila slipped a gentle hand between Penthesileia's legs and the Queen was, indeed, quickly reduced to breathless, moaning jelly in Lila's declarative arms until her orgasm carried her away.

Eventually they rose from the pallet and, slipping on one of Penthesileia's sashed peploi, they made their way, one at a time, first Penthesileia, then Lila, down the corridor to the loo where they tended to their morning ablutions.

When Lila returned to Penthesileia's chamber, the Queen was standing with her back to the chamber door, facing the sunlit casement, her arms outstretched, her bronze body fully visible through the sheer fabric of her lightest gauze. "Lila, come over here and look at this."

Lila went to the window and stood next to Penthesileia, the Queen's arm around Lila's shoulder, Lila's arm around the Queen's waist.

"See them down there?" Penthesileia smiled.

"Don't they have guest quarters for them to spend the night in?" Lila stared down to the mall and courtyard at a mass of sleeping bodies, some single, some in pairs, some in groups. "Aren't those tiles too hard to lie on for more than a few turns of the sandglass?"

"I expect that a lot of them must have gotten drunk and passed out," Penthesiliea said. "The last of them must have partied 'til dawn."

Then Lila recalled the young man who'd been castrated after having deluged the grain-maiden with the seed from his huge, swollen phallus. "I'm so naive," Lila shook her head. "I've never been farther away from home than Gab's surprise birthday party at Xena's mother's inn at Amphipolis, and here I go losing my heart to the Queen of all the Amazons, my sister's own queen. What must I be thinking?"

"Are you sorry for what we did last night?" Penthesileia said in a deeply caring voice. "There's a part of your life that's over now."

"No, not for the thousandth part of a falling sand grain," Lila said, emphatically. "I would do it again in a heartbeat. I would love you anywhere. I would follow you or you could follow me. It hardly matters. I have responsibilities to the enaretes kores now, and I intend to fulfill them, grooming a new archegos to take my place, but you should understand," Lila turned to look at Penthesileia, "that your being a queen means neither more nor less to me than if you were the poorest peasant in the most decrepit hovel. Wear your crown or toss it in a ditch, whichever you please. Just be to me as you are in yourself and, for my part, let the world spin madly on its tilted plane from Britannia to Chin. My globe is circumscribed by you. It needs no other axis."

Then Lila reached up and removed the necklace of seven kernels of corn from around her neck. She looked at them with love and gratitude. "I've been loyal and true," she said as much to herself as to her lover. "I never once dishonored my bond. I can be proud of that. Nothing can take that away from me. What we did," Lila looked back at Penthesileia, "was holy and good and I intend to honor it by being true to it."

"You amaze me, Lila," Penthesileia said. "I could learn a great deal from you. You may not be widely traveled in the conventional sense, yet your heart is anything but provincial. I suspect that you should soon become my pole and, wherever on the earth's surface I might be, the needle of my compass would point constantly at you."

The women hugged and wandered over to the divan.

"Come, sit close to me," Penthesileia said, patting the cushion next to her. Lila settled down in the warmth of Penthesileia's arm and breast. "This is a wonderful suite. My only wish, just now, is that it had some means of making us breakfast. For that, we'll have to rely on Ghisella's good graces and I don't think she quite approves of me."

"Why shouldn't she approve of you?" Lila said. "You're here at the King's invitation. And this palace is huge. There must be all sorts of courtiers, retainers and vagabonds who hole up in these walls."

"Yes, but I get the feeling she's decided that my conduct isnít queenly enough," Penthesileia said. "And I'd bet my last dinar that she doesn't, for one turn of the sandglass, countenance our being here together like this, you and me."

"It's none of her business," Lila protested.

"No, but people can form strong opinions about other people, even when they know little to nothing about them," Penthesileia said.

Lila sighed and snuggled more contentedly against Penthesileia's receptive warmth. "There's a boy in our village -- a young man -- who's got a gimpy leg," Lila said. "One leg drags a little ways behind the other. He was rejected for military service. The men don't take him seriously. Even my father doesn't take him seriously. But he's nice looking and very bright and he keeps all the accounts at the counting house."

"My friend, Alexis, is sweet on him. Xena thinks The Big O -- thatís what we call him -- may have gotten Lexie pregnant. That's been on my mind ever since we left home. What if Lexie's pregnant and Iím not there to help her or to stick up for her? I know her father. He's a good man, Clenesthides, but limited in his outlook and a bit hidebound by social convention. Lexie... Alexis," Lila craned her head to look up at Penthesileia, "is quite a sexy dish, if I may say, and her dad thinks that if she plays her cards right, she could snag a guy like Perdicas, the guy in our village who used to be sweet on Gab; a guy who's got the potential to go pretty far in life -- that is, as far as ambitious young men from rural villages are apt to go and yet hope to steer clear of the warlording trade. But the thought of climbing the social ladder doesn't seem to hold much appeal for Lexie. Lexie leads with her heart," Lila stuck out her chin, "and it may have gotten her into trouble."

"Your friend sounds very intriguing," Penthesileia let go a light laugh as she stroked Lila's hair.

"Iím sure you'd like her," Lila said. "I'm sure she'd like you. It took a while but Xena finally won her over. That's what the look on Lexie's face told me when she and I re-connected after Xena and Gab had freed her from Latrinus' grasp. That was just prior to Velasca, Ephiny and the others showing up to bring Xena and Gab your summons. Latrinus is... or was... a slimy warlord who was giving everyone in town fits 'til Xena stepped in and pulled the plug on him."

"It sounds as though you're anxious to get back home."

"No, not especially. I just donít want our parents to worry, though I know they will. About me anyhow. I think they've finally come to terms with Gab and Xena, with their travelling lifestyle, I mean. Also, I want Lexie to know that Iím there for her. And I want Anike, who's going to be the new archegos of the enaretes kores -- not that she's aware of that yet -- to know that she has my full confidence and support. There's something going on between Anike and me -- some odd sort of attraction -- though I'm not quite sure what thatís about yet. But what I really want...," Lila sat up and took Penthesileia's hand, "is for us to be together and to give whatever seed has taken root between us the chance to grow and blossom and spread; to see where it might lead us even if it's half way to Chin and back."

"What we wish for isn't so terribly different, then," Penthesileia said as she dreamily looked out the other, shadowed casement.

"There was a girl -- a woman, I should say -- who lived not far from our village," Lila said. "Her name was Lyla. She was wild and surly and got into lots of scrapes. Then Herc... Hercules came along and straightened her out. Not that I mean to bring Hercís name into the picture, only to say that Herc helped Lyla see things; crucial, vital, ultimate-type things. Lyla stopped getting into trouble after that and ended up marrying a Centaur named Deric, and they had a little boy whom they called Kiefor.

"Lyla was attracted to the Centaurs because she knew what it was like to be an outsider, and the Centaurs don't have many friends among us humans. So when she married Deric, the people in their village had a lot of trouble accepting it. So Lyla and Deric left home and went to live near Lyla's sister on Crete.

"But the Cretans turned our to be even worse than the people whom Lyla and Deric had left behind. One night, a band of troublemakers firebombed the cottage where Lyla and Deric were living. Deric wasnít home and Lyla was alone with Kiefor. Lyla got Kiefor safely out of the burning cottage but at the cost of her life. When Deric discovered what had happened, he went wild and gutted two of the Cretans and would have gutted more, but Herc showed up and convinced Deric that murdering more Cretans wouldnít bring Lyla back and would only, if Deric got lynched by the mob, destroy whatever chance Deric might have to be a father to and a role model for his son. So Deric turned himself in. For Kiefor's sake, so that the two of them wouldnít, forever after, be forced to live their lives on the run. Yet for all that, Lyla was dead and there was no good reason for her death. But in the time that they had together, Lyla and Deric, they found that they did truly love each other."

"And this is relevant because...," Penthesileia said.

"They chose to be different and they paid a heavy price for the choice they made," Lila said. "I think that's a price I might be willing to pay to be with you. To be different together. If what we had between us was real. I think that what Gab and Xena have is real, and itís taken them a long time to get to that place. Yet, in the very beginning, in that initial turn of the sandglass when the two of them first laid eyes on each other, it was all there in embryo. It was more than just the chemistry of the encounter. It was like they somehow knew that there was an unbreakable bond between them. I was there. I saw that bond spark into life. Not that I understood it at the time. I may not understand it still. But I believe it. That's the important thing. I believe that the bond that exists between Gab and Xena is true and right and good, and I'm glad it exists. I can finally say that and know, in my heart, that I mean it and that Iím truly happy for my sister and her chosen one."

"Do you think something like that may have happened between you and me?" Penthesileia said. "A spark like the spark that you say passed between your sister and Xena?"

"I'm sure of it," Lila said.

"And how do you know you're not just trying to outdo your big sister, hooking up with an Amazon Queen to rival a Warrior Princess?" Penthesileia quizzed Lila.

"I've thought about that during these past few days," Lila said.

"And youíve concluded...?" Penthesileia said.

"I don't think I am," Lila said. "Maybe before I got kidnapped and taken to Latrinus' camp, when I was toying with the idea of signing up for courses at the Warrior Training Academy. Maybe I was unconsciously competing with Gabrielle then. Maybe before I saw the potential lurking in Anike and began to realize, when I clamped my hand on her butt during our thesmophoria skit, that there's more to her than just a pretty face and a scatterbrain who can't seem to keep her sash pinned on straight.

No," Lila looked at Penthesileia, "I realize now that I don't need to follow in Gab's footsteps to be the woman Iím meant to become. Lexie had that part of it wrong. Whether or not I deserve to have a Warrior Princess -- or an Amazon queen -- has nothing to do with whether or not I'm good enough to be the person I am. I could settle down and have babies with and keep house for a fatherless young man who used to run with a gang of thieves and who may never have lifted a rake or a hoe in his life. If that's what my heart desired, that would be good enough for me. I know that now. And that's all I really need to know. My enaretes kores days are behind me now; and that, too, has been my choice."

"I'm glad to hear you say that," Penthesileia hugged Lila closer, and Lila snuggled more firmly against her. "I had a thought as we were drifting off to sleep last night. It felt so good and right to be lying in your arms, and then a thought occurred to me as the vaguest kind of a cloud just as I was venturing off to dreamland. I caught myself wondering if I'd been untrue to Polly, if maybe I'd betrayed her."

"Polly. You mean Hippolyte, your sister?" Lila said.

"Mm," Penthesileia nodded.

"Betrayed her by... sleeping with me?" Lila said.

"Not exactly," Penthesileia said. "You seem to think of yourself as being inexperienced because all this travelling around, meeting up with kings and queens, witnessing an orgy, making love, is new to you. You say you've never been away from home except for the week or so you spent at Xena's mother's inn. You've never had a lover, though youíve confessed to having been romantically attracted to two women friends and a nameless young man. You've been brought up, to some extent, in your sister's shadow. Nothing like Xena has ever bulled its way into your life. And maybe you think that by virtue of my being an Amazon queen and a child of Lysippe, and because I may be a bit older than you are, that I'm a good deal more experienced. But the truth of the matter, Lila, is that I've led quite a sheltered life myself.

"My older sisters, Mel and Polly -- Antiope was long gone by that time, living as Theseus' queen in Athens -- they were more than just sibs with whom I had to compete for affection and attention. There was none of that when I was growing up. They were my friends, my guides, my examples, my role models. They were kind to me, and even though I was a good deal younger than Mel and a bit younger than Polly, they never patronized or excluded me. And though I may have looked up to them, I don't think I idolized them. When Polly and I became physically intimate, we had some rough going, as you know, but, as I believe I've mentioned, Polly was a soul who shone with a very bright light, and the fuel of those who shine with the brightest light, as Iíve come to see, is an equally great darkness. I was one of the few people -- I may have been the only person and believe me, I count it as a privilege -- who bore witness to and sometimes the brunt of Polly's darkness; her mercurial temper, her unreasonableness, her intense drive, her demanding need.

"It was a privilege to bear that brunt, Lila. She totally revealed herself to me. Only to me. She permitted no one else to enter so deeply into her. No one else saw. Not even Mel. Such trust there was between us. Such baring of our souls. Such love. I felt very much loved. Polly's spirit, it sometimes seemed, took refuge in the palm of my hand. To the world she presented a strong, gorgeous and immensely compassionate face. And it was a true face. You would have adored her, Lila. everyone did.

"To me, behind closed doors, that face was often supplanted by another face, one that the world would not necessarily have understood or approved of or forgiven. She was a queen in every particular. She had a people to serve. I was her friend, confidante, companion. She could be whatever she truly was with me, the whole range of what she was. I didn't judge. I was simply there. I told her: 'I'll come to Anatolia or Mycenae, wherever Mel decides to send you. I'll stay in the background. I'll be the silent sister at your side. I'll be your center when you veer too far to the left or to the right. Lean on me. Let me bear your weight. Just as I do when you ride me in bed and I spread my legs apart to bring you into as deeply as possible into the depths of me.'

"But youíve said she denied you," Lila said.

"She denied herself," Penthesileia said. "She told me that she had to eliminate that part of herself, the part of her that she shared with me, ruthlessly to extinguish and cauterize it, in order to devote herself, wholly, without diversion or qualification, to her royal duties. She said she had to extirpate the dark part of herself where her strongest need, most passionate longing and intense desire resided. So I had to go. And after I went, she lived chaste and celibate. Even our father, Ares, and his miserable belt couldn't seduce her, and, the gods know, he tried. He'd been lovers with Harmonia, then Otrere, then our mother, Lysippe, and he'd fathered children with them all. My father has a thousand daughters. Xena might have borne Ares' a child but for an accident of timing or her taking hidden precautions. But Polly wouldn't budge. He never had her. That was one daughter that our father never seduced."

"And you're another," Lila said.

"Yes, but his desire for me was perfunctory, discouraged in a night," Penthesiliea said. "Polly he adored and pursued with all the fervor he could muster. And with good reason. Polly was exceedingly beautiful to look at and had an equally beautiful soul. All light and no darkness isn't beauty, Lila. It's sterile monochrome. But I wouldn't let Polly go that easily. 'Extinguish your darkness,' I told her, 'and you'll put out your light. Starve your passion and your empathy will die of thirst.' She told me I was being selfish, but I wouldn't relent.

"'Mel needs you here in Themiscyra,' Polly told me. 'Cyane is gone. Xena murdered her. Alti's spirit is out there in the aether, malevolently wrecking havoc. Mel needs all the help she can get. Forget about your herbal teas and home decorating and flower arranging, Penny. You're an Amazon princess whether you like it or not. Shoulder some responsibility and lend a hand.' Polly was right about that. I knew it then and I know it now. But still I kept pressing her. 'Hand me a crown and I'll throw it in the trash,' I said with headstrong conceit. 'My life is with you. Otherwise, let me finish out my days down in some anonymous pit or bog of quicksand like the one that Xena pitched Callisto into.'

"And then the truth came out. The truth that Polly had tried so hard to keep from me. It was for my sake, not for hers, that Polly felt she had to bring to an end what we had between us and to retreat to the safer ground of more conventional, sisterly interaction. It was because she loved me and felt that if we were to keep on as we were, that her love -- perhaps she felt it was a twisted love, I don't know -- but that her love would ultimately corrupt and ruin me. She would rather have denied herself than to have been the cause of seeing me hurt and destroyed. And when Hercules, under Hera's influence, as everyone has always said and as I've come to believe... when Hercules cut her down in her prime and I never saw her again..."

Penthesileia paused and bit her lip. "I swore to be true to her for evermore. And I have been. But then... since we've crossed paths, you and me, something that I thought was dead and gone from my life seems to have come alive again. And last night, I wanted you, Lila. With my whole being, I wanted you. And when you reached for me, I responded to you from my heart and I came to you and held nothing back as you held nothing back from me. And Polly was gone from my mind and memory and heart in that instant as though she'd never existed.

"And it leaves me wondering if I've betrayed her. If I were to fall in love with you, Lila -- if the seed we've planted within one another were to ripen to the fruit of a deep and abiding love --what of Polly? What of faithfulness and sacrifice? What of keeping that love alive? What of honor? What of my word which is my bond, more than...," Penthesileia reached up and ripped the thin filigree of her diamond band from the smooth sheen of her blue-black hair, "these seven bits of twinkling Amazon glitter could ever hope to be? And yet, Lila, what I said to and did with you last night and again this morning was and is true. Every word and breath and motion and desire that I've shared with you and have felt for you, from the instant we met, is true."

"Would you sister want you to live your life lonely and alone?" Lila said. "Sublime, austere and loveless as a perfectly sculpted marble statue?"

"No!" Penthesileia replied vehemently. "Polly would never have wanted that for me. She didn't want that for me when she was alive."

"Then why would you feel that loving another, meeting love with love, would betray the love you feel for her?" Lila said.

"I don't know," Penthesileia said. "I've never wanted anyone else until you came along."

"Don't you think it's pride?" Lila said. "That it would hurt your pride to let her go?"

"I'm not half the queen that Polly was," Penthesileia said. "That awful belt. If I could only get it back. I'd take the diamonds out of it that I placed in the buckle -- one for Polly and one for me -- and then I'd have it destroyed in Hephaestos' fiery forge and free the Amazons from our father's destructive influence forever."

Lila nodded and let her gaze drift around Penthesileiaís chamber as though something flitting in and out of the casement were distracting her attention. Then she turned back to Penthesileia and said, "I think your feeling inferior to your sister as a queen has something to do with pride as well. Letting yourself believe that you're somehow less a queen than your sister was. As I heard the story related by sibyl back in my village, you became Queen when Antiope, Melanippe and Hippolyte were gone and Cyane had been killed and you had no one of their stature to call upon for help; only Melosa and she was far away. Oteri and Yakut were too green. They were little more than lost children, wandering around in the forest, when Xena tracked them down, took on Alti and freed them from the power of the Berserker. I heard that you stepped in, took Themiscyra and the Amazons in hand, restructured things from the ground up, got Oteri, Yakut and the Anatolian Amazons back on their feet, salvaged what was left of Antiopeís Mycenean Amazons and somehow prevented Gab's Amazons from going to war with each other when Ephiny and Velasca had their falling out after Melosa's death. Tell me that anyone, simply by virtue of having an Amazon tiara bound across the rich flow of her dark and beautiful hair, could have done all that. I don't believe it."

"You're making too much of my meager achievements," Penthesileia said.

"I don't think I am," Lila said. "And you accomplished all that in the face of those in your own tribe who suspected you of having killed your sister so that you could take over as queen. Don't tell me those suspicions didn't dig the knife of vexation into your flesh and make you bleed inwardly."

"They did. They do," Penthesileia said.

"You may go down in history as the greatest Amazon queen who ever lived. Don't seek refuge in false humility by trying to discount that possibility," Lila said.

"Going down in history as this, that or the other thing isn't an aspiration of mine, Lila," Penthesileia said.

"I know that," Lila said. "I've known that from the instant I laid eyes you. You're a woman whom I would follow to the ends of the earth. Do you think that's because I'm a small town girl with stars in my eyes who doesn't know her left foot from her right? I wouldn't follow Xena as far as the next county, as much as I'm coming to like and respect and admire her."

"I don't quite know what to say," Penthesileia shook her head and looked away.

"It's because of who you are," Lila took Penthesileia's face in one of her hands and turned it to face Lila's own face. "It's because of what you are. A woman of honor and compassion and power and grace. And don't tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about because I know bloody darn well what I'm talking about. I'm in the presence of the real thing, and I won't be sweet-talked into denying it."

"You shame me, Lila," Penthesileia dropped her gaze and mildly began to blush.

"I only tell you the truth," Lila said, and, as Lila said those words, something explosive flashed in the depths of her consciousness, the welding, under intense heat, of another unshatterable bond of truth. She was her sister's sister in every pore of her being. Wasn't that the essence of Gabrielle's message to Xena, the foundation stone of their love and companionship: I only tell you the truth. Not all the gods on earth, above or beneath it, could undermine that bond which made these peasant sisters the equal, in every breath they drew, of Amazon Queens and Warrior Princesses.

Penthesileia let go a light smile and took Lila's hand. The two of them sat together in silence for a long time in the bright morning light. At length, Lila chuckled, then raised Penthesileia's hand to her lips and kissed it on the knuckles.

"What's so funny?" Penthesileia said, raising a dark, rather thick and finely formed eyebrow.

"You and Xena," Lila's eyes sparkled with the lightness of ironic appreciation. "The two of you are peas in a pod, you know."

"How so?" Penthesileia was curious.

"You'd rather crawl through a den of poisonous snakes with a gang of ruthless thugs on your tail and not so much as a breast dagger to defend yourself with than to accept a heartfelt compliment," Lila said. "Because accepting a heartfelt compliment...," Lila let go of Penthesileia's hand to free up her own hands for a tickle attack, "is far more fraught with danger, isn't it?"

Then Lila started tickling Penthesileia who squealed as she tried, not very successfully, with shakes and wiggles, to fend off her giggling tormentor.

"And you're just as ticklish as Gab says Xena is," Lila guffawed and piled it on with delight until the two of them, tumbling off the divan, landed on the floor, in one another's arms, at which point the tickling gave way to a lax and lazy interval of more sonorous and sensually satisfying body contact.

Continued - Chapter 53
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