|Queen Of The Silver Dinar|
She's the Queen of the Silver Dollar,
she rules a smoky kingdom,
her sceptre is a wine glass,
and a barstool is her throne...
While Lila and the Amazons waited in stony silence, one of the commander's aides hustled over to the tavern and was immediately swallowed up in the ruckus. Skippers and their crews were scarfing down the landlady's supper of boiled beans, fried stovers and rancid black bread made more palatable by yards of cheap, foaming ale. The roaring to the rafters was rendered even more ear-shattering by the garrulous laughter of the briny salts in the corner who were rapt in their pint-swilling game of "The King of Greece.".
"The King of Greece has lost his fleece and don't know where to find it," one of the sloshed contestants howled, "so without a peep, he grabs a sheep and buggers up behind it!"
"Hoo!" the raucous players cried. "Down the hatch wi' ye, laddie! A neap, a taddy and a bleedin' pint of tasties to boot!"
"The King of Troy, he had a boy what diddled with his dickie," the orotund challenger started off the next round, "and when His Grace were done apace, his fingers got quite sticky!"
"Prurient louts! Have done with your onomastic eponymy!" the commander's aide raised his hand, wagged his finger and then kicked over the nearest table to grab the crowd's attention. "Attend to your suppers, Johnnies, while I put to you the question. I got six Amazons and a milkmaid marshalled in the barracks."
"How much’re you askin' for 'em?" a tipsy voice cried from one of the booths. "I'll give you a dinar for the Amazons and a drachma for the maid!"
"I'm told they got here on a boat," the aide cried. "They say they crewed for one of you harbor rats. Is that the truth?"
"I'll go this chap one better," another tipsy voice cried. "What say I'll give you a quid for each of the Amazons and half a bob for the maid!"
"And what were like to be your fate if you was to find yourself on board a scow in the company of six Amazons and a crocodile?" a voice cried out.
"I reckon as how me and the croc would float to the bottom with pie-eatin' grins on our faces!"
"I'm sent to learn what man among skippered the boat what brung the wenches from the port of Haniotis near a week past," the aide quizzed the guzzlers.
"Haniotis? I know the place," a voice came palavering out from one of the back tables. "The roads is tricky up thataway. Narrow banks and rocky shoals to poke holes in your prow. Sand bars what scrape your bottom rougher'n what you wipe yourself with when you duck inside the head. I weighed anchor at that port bare unto the half moon. Amazons, you say? I had me a crew of them busty bird women right enough. As good as any gang of men, they were. Better, bein’ as how they were wantin' no wages and never cursed the grub. Teached me a shanty what even now I can hum the tune of. Regular girls, they seemed, 'cept as they were wantin' no menfolk to be pawin' at 'em. Don't know how they breed, them Amazons, ‘less it were the gods done take the form of mighty behemoths and come down from Olympus to mate with 'em."
"So you'd give 'em a thumbs up for a crew, then, would you?" the aide shouted above the clatter and buzz.
"Aye and that I would," the skipper shot back, "but I wouldn't risk stickin' my finger in 'em, not if I valued me nails and knuckles."
The aide left the tavern and reported back to the commander that the Amazons’ claim of having originally crewed to Tenedos from the mainland seemed to be legit. All the Amazons needed now was a scow and a skipper to crew for and they'd be gone from Tenedos in the blink of an eye to...
way, haul away, we're bound for better weather,
way, haul away, we'll haul away, Joe...
"Very well, ladies," the commander flipped Ephiny Diomedes’ letter. "You get a night's bed and board. Then tomorrow, when the cock crows, it's down to the docks and the first merchant vessel that'll put you to work cleating the sails."
"Thank you," Ephiny said in a cool voice, "you're very kind."
"Always happy to oblige a damsel in distress," the commander grinned a smug grin.
Wisely, Ephiny said nothing.
At last, the women were free to use the toilet facilities and, before bedding down for the night, to order some supper from a take out place so they wouldn't be starving wretches in the morning. Their evening meal cost them some of their precious dinars and they would have been happier if they'd been let loose to stalk through the brush for rabbit or quail except that every inch of the island, as far as the eye could see, seemed to be dedicated to the massing of men and supplies in preparation for the huge assault that was about to be let loosed on the heretofore impregnable bastion of Ilium whose gates had been constructed by no lesser deity that Poseidon himself.
"When I think of Penthesileia and the others, in light of this enormous buildup, my heart could just break," Ephiny confessed to the others when they'd retired to their overnight quarters in the barracks where they occupied a cramped hangar, the rear windows of which looked down at the rising and falling seepage between the lashed, wooden poles of the locks. "Fully half the young men of Hellas must be crowded together on this island. They're going to throw wave after wave of a huge invasion force at the Trojan resistance. Our sisters and friends in Troy don't stand a chance."
"What about Xena and Gabrielle?" the Amazons fretted. "They aren't planning to ride out on a suicide mission too, are they?"
They all looked at Lila. Could Xena and Gabrielle be preparing to join the Trojans in a glorious last stand? In a way, it would make sense. Better that a warrior and an Amazon go out in a blaze of glory, fighting for the good alongside Penthesileia and the Themiscyrans, than to leave the world on a bloody Roman cross at the behest of a double crossing tyrant like Caesar.
"Committing suicide in a fruitless engagement isn’t what Gab and Xena have planned as far as I'm aware," Lila shook her head. "Their hope is to save others' lives, not to lose their own."
Lila's insistence seemed to buoy the Amazons' spirits, especially Ephiny's. To have lost Velasca was bad enough. To lose Xena and Gabrielle into the bargain would be more than even a brave Amazon soul could bear.
Yet another item of concern was waiting to spring on Ephiny before the Amazons had settled in for the night. Lila quietly informed Ephiny that she was going out for a while and might be back quite late. "Don't wait up," Lila quietly said to Ephiny.
"You’re what? Going out, did you say? Now? By yourself?" Ephiny looked down at Lila, being several thumblengths taller. "Going where? To do what? There's nothing on this island but docks piled high with cargo waiting to be loaded onto vessels. That and red light honkey tonks and drunken sailors and millions of sea gulls crapping all over everything. Are you still hungry? I think we might have some crusts of bread and salted pork jerky left in our tote bags. Let me go check."
"No, Ephiny, I've had plenty to eat," Lila cinched the rawhide strips on the front of her tunic and laced the straps of her leather sandals good and tight. "There's something I have to do, and I have to do it alone."
"What’s so important that you have to venture out of here alone?" Ephiny looked at Lila with an expression of troubled concern. "This is just a stopover. We don't know anyone here. It's dangerous out there, even for an Amazon, never mind for you, Lila, not carrying anything to defend yourself with. You’ll be at the mercy of any drunken non-com who might take a fancy to you and decide he wants to show you a roaring good time."
Lila tied her hair back with a thin, cerise ribbon and, after thinking it over for a couple of sand grains, said, "Let me take your breast dagger. At least I'll have that."
"Lila, this is crazy," Ephiny started to put her foot down. "Just where do you think you're going and why?"
Lila looked into Ephiny's agate-colored eyes. "Trust me, Ephiny. I know it sounds weird, but I'm on a bit of a mission now, just like you and the others are. Just like Gab and Xena and... Penthesileia."
"Is this something that Xena and Gabrielle know about?" Ephiny said.
Lila shook her head. "Uh uh, it's something I need to do on my own."
Ephiny frowned. She couldn't imagine what Lila could possibly have in mind. "I'm sorry, Lila," Ephiny said, "but I can't let you do this. Go out there all by yourself? It's much too dangerous. And what kind of a mission could you possib... Wait, didn’t Joxer just arrive with crates of stuff to make buckets of black powder with? You're not going to blow something up, are you? They'll kill you on the spot if they catch you trying to sabotage their supply dumps."
"No, Ephiny, believe me; it's nothing that reckless," Lila said. "It's something personal that doesn't involve anyone but me. I promise you, it’s got nothing to do with espionage. I know what they do to spies when they catch them. I'm not that scatterbrained."
"I can't, Lila," Ephiny said. "You saw what happened to Velasca. What if anything like that were to happen to you while you were out there walking the streets alone? I’d never forgive myself."
"Ephiny," Lila said, her voice calm and resolved, "I'm not an Amazon. I'm not under your control. I’d like very much to be your friend. I mean that. During the time we’ve been on this junket, I’ve come to see what a fantastic person you are. I’d like the chance to be your friend in my own right, not just because I’m Gab's sister. The last thing I want to do is jeopardize that chance. But I have to do this. And I'm going to. If all goes well, I'll be back before the midnight candlemark."
Ephiny looked at Lila as though for the first time, and suddenly Lila wasn't just Gabrielle's sister any longer. She was a woman in her own right. Ephiny didn't know exactly who that woman was yet, but something in Ephiny was willing to invest the time and energy to find out.
"Here, then," Ephiny reached into her halter top and, from between her breasts, she withdrew the small dagger with the wide semi-circular handles on either side of the short blade. "Have you got a bra on? Okay, slip it into the space between the cups and don't bend forward fast. If it jiggles, loop the handles over the outside. In case you're planning to find some guy or girl to have a one night stand with... you say you're not. Okay, then, make what adjustments you need in the eyelets below your neck so you can loosen the cinched rawhide quickly enough to get your hand down there in time to whip it out. And once you've committed yourself to going for it, do it fast and don't back down, 'cause if you do, it'll be the easiest thing in the world for an attacker to grab it out of your hand and use it on you."
"Thanks, Ephiny," Lila took the dagger and inserted it between her breasts.
"Just promise me you'll be careful," Ephiny said.
"You have my word," Lila said.
Ephiny took Lila's hand. "You've become a part of us, you know; Amazon or no Amazon," Ephiny smiled. "Take care of yourself. Come back to me in one piece or I'll kick your butt from here to Poteidaia, you got me?"
Lila smiled in response to Ephiny's chiding smile. "Gotcha."
"May Artemis and Demeter guide your steps this night..., sister," Ephiny gave Lila a friendly cuff on the cheek.
"I'll be back before you know I've gone..., sister," Lila grabbed Ephiny's hand and, with a smile, gave it a warm squeeze.
Then Lila went to the door of the narrow hangar, opened it a crack, looked both ways to make sure the coast was clear, opened the door a little bit wider and then slipped out.
Watching Lila go, Ephiny exhaled a long, pent-up sigh and shook her head with the lightest hint of a grudging smile. "Gabrielle," Ephiny whispered, "I never knew your kid sister was such a tiger. But it would take a bit of a tiger to sweep Penthesileia off her feet, wouldn't it?"
Out on the avenue, Lila ventured in search of the red light district, hoping to find a club or tavern where she could ply her wares. She soon came to a maze of criss-crossing streets where the sound of bazoukis and lyres came crashing out the doors of night spots in which off-duty enlistees crowded into lounges and packed themselves tightly around bars and makeshift stages the better to partake of the evening's booze, broads and lusty entertainment. These off-base speaks were poorly lit dens of crowded bodies where the fetid air was layered and somewhat sweetened by the smoke of the pungent hashish that wafted upwards, in lazy cloud drifts, from the brass cups of glass water pipes blown in the shape of minaret-topped towers.
Lila took a deep breath, tugged on the lapel of her buff and buckskin tunic, hitched her short, suede skirt more securely around her waist, fluffed her long, dark hair and strode up to the entrance of a waterfront dive called The Silver Dinar in whose window was mounted a sign that said, "Open Mike -- Free Drinks For A Joke And A Song."
Lila pressed her way inside and immediately attracted the attention of the establishment's patrons. Squeals from one of the back booths revealed a gross seduction scene in progress. A very painted lady in what Lila guessed was a permed blonde wig was having her black lace stockings removed by a seedy looking character who'd slid his hand most of the way up the skirt of her long blue peplos. Protests of, "Not here, Aiestes, for Olympus' sake...," alternated with what sounded like squeaks of aspirated delight. "Ooh, Aiestes, I can feel your old crankshaft workin' its four-stroke, combustion cycle magic on the nattering valves of my exhaust manifold..."
Lila passed them by, not looking to the left or the right, lest the gapes and leers of the seated regulars distract her from her purpose.
"Say, honey; you be the flower, and I'll be the bee. They pay me by the hour but for you, I'll work for free...," one of the lounge lizards grinned from ear to ear as Lila floated past, looking to make her way down front to the stage.
"If that one’s a busy bee, I'm a horny hornet. Come over here, sugar pie. I may have a jacket on but I sure ain't yella...," another zootsuiter cried, wiggling on his tailbone.
At last, having been not too assiduously groped by hands too stoned to do more than lunge and limply clutch with no discernible follow up, Lila tracked down the emcee of the parade of amateurs who were getting up on the stage to shake their money makers in return for free drinks and munchies.
"Excuse me, I'm looking for Open Mike," Lila said to the fellow who was trying to keep a semblance of order among the waiting performers.
"Who’d you say you're gunnin' for, baby?" the emcee looked at Lila and was immediately struck by her pretty face, clean attire and out-of-place wholesomeness.
"Open Mike. The fellow who's in charge of lining up the talent," Lila said, looking around the lounge for each of the available exits.
"Open Mike?" the guy looked Lila up and down. "This little lady says the dude who's in charge of this joint goes by the name of Open Mike. Ha, ha, you should’ve been here earlier ‘cause you could’ve made my day. Well, honey, I may not be Mike, but I sure am open to a sweet, young thing like you. You say you wanna get on up there and do your thing for us prairie dogs and coyotes? Get on out the way, boobs and rubes," the emcee began to clear a path through the on-deck performers as he dragged Lila all the way down to the side of the stage, "’cause we got us the kind of corn fritters and apple dumplin's that your sweet, lovely mama used to make. Follow me, sweetheart, if you can groove and dig, you got yourself a gig."
Sandglass of truth time, Lila set her jaw as the guy shoved her in front of a chorus line of taffeta-skirted puffballs.
"Hey," one of the chorus girls shouted over the sound of the music that came blaring from the stage, "what's this Coney Island canary doin' bargin’ in ahead of us? I know a Bed-Sty bimbo when I brush boobs with one. I'm originally from Flatbush myself, ya know..."
"You came here to do a job, now do it," Lila muttered to herself.
"And now, folks, we got us a special little treat for all you lovin’ losers who’ve come out here to be with us tonight," the emcee got up on the stage. "We’re wantin’ to bring you, for the first time ever, a lovely little long-haired brunette who’s about to make her day-bue right here on the high risers at The Silver Dinar. What'd you say your name was, honey bun?"
"Um, um..., Amazella," Lila ad libbed.
"And where y'all from, Amazella?"
"From, um, a little town up in the hills," Lila said as the crowd quieted down and turned their attention to the small wooden stage.
"Som’bee, we got us a country cousin come down to the islands to have herself a look around," the emcee's face lit up with post-happy hour delight. "Well, I hope you're gonna enjoy your stay with us tonight, Amazella. What're you gonna be doin' for us, sugar pie?"
"I reckoned I’d do a little song I made up," Lila batted her long, dark lashes at the crowd.
"Well, y'all c’mon up here now," the emcee reached out his hand and hoisted Lila onto the stage. "Folks, let's give a fine old hog callin’, Silver Dinar welcome to lovely Miss Amazella who's one day gonna bring a fat and happy smile to the face of some mighty lucky fella."
Lila climbed onto the stage and, for the fall of a sand grain or two, was dazzled by the lights and the dozens of faces now staring up at her amid the round of applause and catcalls that greeted her as she stood in front of the crowd, trying not to panic.
"Thank you... That’s real nice of you... Thank you ever so much...," Lila beamed at her claque of instant admirers. "One day, I was inside the house bakin' a cherry pie when I heard this strange stompin' sound comin' from up on the roof. It was Gida, the goat, and sure enough she climbed on top of the shed and somehow got all the way up onto the roof.
"'Amazella,' I heard my mama call, 'there's a hoof on the roof; you'd better go grab the broom and try to shoo her down.'
"So I gone to the room that had the broom so I could shoo the hoof off the roof when a mouse come scootin' in the house and I got so awful scared that I gone running down the cellar. And just as I got down there, a fire broke out in the byre.
"So pa comes runnin' and shoutin', 'There's a hoof on the roof and a mouse in the house; Amazella's in the cella' and a fire's in the byre. Where's the bucket?'
"And mama's cryin', 'Where you stuck it.'
"'Where'd I stick it?' Pa pouts.
"'In the thicket,' Mama cries.
"So Pa’s out the thicket where the wicket's on the picket but he can't find the spigot 'cause he stuck it in the bucket, 'cept you gotta have a spigot if you're gonna try to rig it else you can't douse a fire when it's burnin' in the byre.
"So Mama rings the bell and they all run down the well and they’re haulin’ out a hose and they’re tearin’ off their clothes, then it’s off to fight the fire 'cause the flames are risin' higher, but the hoof is on the roof and the mouse is in the house, Amazella's in the cella' and they think she's with a fella; so Pa takes a picket and he's just about to stick it when a cricket in the thicket in the bucket where he stuck it gone a-leapin' in the byre and it burns up in the fire.
"So I come out the cellar and I’m lookin’ kind of yeller; Mama says it was the mouse and she made me change my blouse."
"So did you ever get the hoof down off the roof?" a voice cried out.
"Naw, when the fire broke out, she come down by herself," Lila called back and then, with a nod to the musicians, she called out, "Can you boys gimme an intro, eight bars, sorta bluesy, key of Beta flat..." and then Lila segue'd into her song:
My daddy was a dirt farmin' hayer,
in the hills far away in Potei-dayer,
a high rollin', two-time player,
we were broke but I didn't cay-er,
I never heard him spit, cuss or sway-er...
The patrons cheered when Lila finished her song and, as she took a smiling bow, her eyes scanned the crowd. Many of the men, no less than the ladies, carried purses and small shoulder bags in which they stowed their valuables and the chinky jingle of their hard-earned or pickpocketed dinars. As Lila's gaze drifted from pillar to post, she made a mental note of the guys who appeared to be alone, lonely and laden with bulbous bags or purses.
"Thank you, Miss Amazella, that was real purdy," the emcee got up on the stage and called for the audience to give a Silver Dinar sendoff to the clean-looking, right-living young woman who'd come to try her neophyte’s luck in the gin mills and beer halls of Tenedos. "Y'all come back and see us again, y'hear? In the meantime, Bouncepheros," the emcee called to a burly guy who was checking i.d.'s at the door, "see that this here lady gets set up with a nice, tall glass of whatever brand of liquid refreshment her little heart desires."
The fellow escorted Lila to the bar where she ordered a tumbler of pink Rodity wine and then, as amateur night at The Silver Dinar went grinding along like the dismal scraping sound inside the poorly lubricated gear box of a dropped transmission, Lila sat back and waited for things to develop.
It wasn't long before a tall, good-looking chap in greaves and bracers came sauntering by and, pausing to gaze at Lila with a suave smile on his finely crafted face, asked if she’d mind if he joined her for a drink on the barstool beside her that Lila had been careful to make sure remained vacant. No, not at all, Lila returned the fellow's smile and rustled to the side to make room for him to squeeze down next to her.
"Not to pry or anything," Lila's admirer said warmly, "but a young woman like yourself, from somewhere in Macedonia to judge by your accent, traveling alone and coming unescorted to a place like this... it's hardly what one might expect to encounter at the end of a long, tiring day. Are you really looking to make your way as a country singer, hoping for a shot on the stage at the Grand Ol' Acropolis?"
Lila felt awkwardly flattered by the attention. The soldier was blonde and handsome, unhesitant to approach a lady and strike up an acquaintance. Like Ephiny and Amarice, Lila had a straight side to her that found men -- that is to say, certain men -- attractive, even sensually exciting. But there were degrees of attraction, and Lila, at that turn of the sandglass, had needs more immediate than those stimulated and possibly satisfied by male acquaintance, even the company of attractive men and the grace of their magnetic charms.
"Well," Lila said, her dark blue eyes looking, with the mildest flirtation, over the rim of her tumbler, "life on the farm, if unrelieved by occasional forays into the wider world, does have its share of drawbacks and limitations."
"I suspect it might," Lila's companion said. "But don't your parents object to your leaving home for a solo walkabout through these littoral isles? Traveling alone, far and wide, can be a risky prospect for a young, unescorted lady, I should think."
"I've been fortunate up to this point," Lila said. "I've always been able to depend upon the kindness of strangers."
"Let's hope your good fortune lasts," Lila's companion smiled. "May I buy you a drink?"
"Please do," Lila smiled her pretty smile: a pretty smile on a pretty face.
"A flagon of mead," the soldier flagged down the barkeep. "Make it a Hellene brand, not Phrygian. There's something ungallant about imbibing the spirits of those whose blood you're about to spill."
"Is that so?" Lila said with mild curiosity. "You're anticipating an invasion of Troy in the near future?"
"Within a fortnight if not sooner," Lila's companion said with a huff of self-satisfaction. "Don't know if you've noticed the frantic activity that's been going on from one end of the island to the other. Troops from all over the Aegean have been pouring in to this mother of all naval bases. We're gathering the largest expedition force in the history of these sunny isles. Larger than the force that stood the Persians off at Salamis. No, I’m afraid that Ilium doesn't stand a chance. Not now. She'll be ours for the taking before the moon of Pyenepsion is full."
"You sound proud to be playing a part in it," Lila said.
"To be a part of history in the making? I suppose I am," Lila's companion said. "There’s nothing like a massive exertion of men at arms to make one feel strong and alive, able to press one's point and drive it home. War can do wonders to broaden a man's horizons. Or a woman's."
"I'm told that war has its glamorous aspects," Lila took a sip of her mead, trying not to gag on the taste, "the moreso, I suspect, when you're confident of being on the winning side."
"Which likelihood doesn't preclude the possibility of ending up a casualty once the boats have landed and the trumpet sounds and the charge up the beach gets underw... mm, that's a nice header on that yard of ale. Here, barkeep; let me pay you now so I won't have to call you away from rinsing your glasses later... You sound reticent. Do I detect a strain of sympathy for these Trojan dogs who thought they could swipe a queen and get away with it?"
"Not at all," Lila said in an offhand way. "It sounds like these thieving Trojans will be getting precisely what they deserve and not a turn of the sandglass too s... Haa-choo!"
Lila sent forth a mountainous sneeze which caused the contents of her flagon to spill onto the bar and then to go trickling down to soak the stools on which she and her companion were sitting.
"For Zeus' sake, how clumsy of me...," Lila hopped off the stool. "I hope I haven't stained your nice, fresh uniform."
"Not to worry, my dear. Here, let me go fetch something to mop that up with," Lila's companion went scurrying off in pursuit of a clutch of rags from the storeroom at the far end of the bar.
While he was gone, Lila reached into the lining of her tunic and took out the packet which contained the knockout potion that Cassandra had given her. Lila bit off the thread at the edge, tore an opening along the packet's seam and dumped the granulated mix into her companion's flagon of mead. Then Lila stashed the empty packet back into the lining of her tunic and stood up straight next to the wet cushion of her bar stool.
"There," her companion smiled when he'd returned and had chivalrously attended to the mishap. "No harm done, except for your lost drink. May I buy you another?"
"Thank you. You're very kind," Lila demurred. "But if you do, you mustn’t run away too quickly. I want to hear all about your regiment and how you came to be a soldier and what life is like for your family back home in..."
"Chalcis. Across the straits from the northernmost tip of the Peloponnese," Lila's companion said, taking a sip of his mead and signaling for the barkeep to bring them another.
"The Land of the Golden Fleece," Lila smiled.
"The Golden what? The Golden Fleece, did you say?" Lila's companion rolled his greenish eyes and took another sip.
"Isn't that where Jason and the Argonauts went dashing off to when they set out to track down the Golden Fleece?" Lila said.
"Ah, you're thinking of Colchis," Lila's companion held forth. "That's all the way on the further side of the Bosphorus. Far into the nether reaches of Anatolia. In the Black Sea north of Pontus and the legendary city of the Amazons, those frightful she-wolves. What's it's name now, that legendary city of those beastly man-eaters?"
Lila's companion took yet another hit off his glass of mead.
"Are you perhaps thinking of Themiscyra?" Lila said.
"Yes, I think that's it," Lila's companion said. "Strange: how did you know that?"
"I must've happened across the name somewhere. Now," Lila snuggled up to her companion and put some real body into her feigned interest, "I want you to tell me all about your home and family and what it's like for a young man to muster up the courage to join the legions of Agammemnon and sally forth to strike a blow for justice, fairness and the righting of the terrible wrong that’s been done to the noble King of Sparta when an honored guest made off with his sometime playth... with his cherished wife."
Warming to his topic, with frequent pauses to diminish the level of the mead in his glass, Lila's companion happily obliged.
Half a candlemark later, Lila's companion sat back and let out a giant yawn. "You know," he said, "I wonder if we might be a tad more comfortable continuing this conversation in more spacious and private quarters."
Lila raised an eyebrow. "Where might you have in mind?"
"When my brigade arrived here several day ago," he said, "they had barracks space for Able, Baker and Charley companies but not for Dog and Easy. I'm a Dog."
"Ruff, ruff," Lila said, cuddling up to him.
"So they put us up at one of the taverns until they can get us crowded like netted sardines into a hangar along one of these nearby wharves," he continued. "But I know where there's a spare room in back of the tavern that seems to be vacant at present."
"Sounds copacetic," Lila coo'ed.
"How about let's take a stroll over there and see what sorts of ghosties and ghoulies and long leggety beasties we might roust from the comfort of their lair, shall we?" Lila's companion smiled a smile of anticipated conquest.
"You will protect me from the terrors of the night, won't you?" Lila leaned one of her lovely breasts against one of her companion's well-formed biceps. "I am, as you've perceptively observed, traveling these dangerous straits and channels all by my lonesome."
"Never fear. Stick close to me and you'll be in good hands," Lila's companion sought to reassure her as he began to rise from his barstool. "Now let's blow this pathetic popsicle joint before any more late night takers hop onto stage and make dreadful fools of themselves at that noxiously open mike."
"Don't you want to finish your drink?" Lila said.
"Hm? Oh. Indeed," Lila's companion downed the last of his mead and together, amid catcalls and batted eyebrows, they left the bar and lounge and emerged onto the dark, rattling, nighttime promenade and the commerce of the late night streets along the waterfront.
They walked in tandem for a while, Lila's companion increasingly subject to bouts of jaw-popping yawns. "Damn," he muttered, "I seem to be getting sleepy."
"It must've been a long day at the drill shed," Lila said, looping one of her arms around one of his.
"No, actually, we got up rather late this morning, fell in for roll call, checked in with our c.o.'s and then took the rest of the dayyyy yawwwfff... Ooh..., that was a big one..."
As the pair passed the armory that stood two wharves over from the wharf on which the Amazons had been assigned their overnight quarters, Lila's companion began to falter and sway. "Something's... not quite right," he mumbled.
"Are you ill?" Lila said, concerned. "Are you coming down with a stomach bug perhaps?"
"No, my stomach’s fine," her companion said woozily. "I can't seem to... get my bear... it’s my head... it's getting hard to focus... Things suddenly seem to be twirl... whirl... uurl..."
Sploosh! Down he crashed on the cobbled pavement. Lila helped to break his fall to prevent him from cracking his skull when he landed. Then she stretched him lengthwise on the ground and kneeled down beside him. "Psst, can you hear me?" she said, taking his jaw between the thumb and fingers of one hand and, with the other hand, giving his cheeks a few hard slaps. No response. The dude was out cold.
Lila took the fellow by his arms and dragged him to the doorway of an empty building, shoving most of him into the vestibule. Then Lila squatted down and took Ephiny's breast dagger out of her bodice. Looking to the left and then to the right to ensure that she wasn't being observed, Lila cut the rawhide strings that held the fellow's purse to his belt, opened the purse and poured its ample weight of dinars into her hands. There were more dinars than Lila's hands could hold, and they spilled over onto the fellow's chest and stomach.
"Mm, I picked a good one," Lila smiled as she scooped up the dinars and lined the inside of her tunic with them. She thought about taking the purse but declined lest it raise any suspicions upon her return to the barracks.
"I wish you no ill," Lila said softly to the passed out soldier who'd lately been her escort, "but if you should meet a Trojan on the field of battle and if the gods are determined to favor one of you at the expense of the other, let it be your family that mourns, not his."
Then Lila scrambled away from the scene of the heist, wondering what Autolycus might have made of her achievement. But the image of the raffish King of Thieves which flitted across Lila’s mind filled her with no great pride in accomplishment. For Autolycus, thievery and bravura escapes from impossible situations were an art which he practiced with joy and gusto. Marvelous feats of derring do brought him kudos from an admiring crowd and so endowed him with a self-esteem he might not otherwise have had. Even Xena had reluctantly ceded to Autolycus a measure of credit for working the kind of magic punctilios which few mortals could hope to achieve.
Lila suspected that Autolycus would perform his acts of larceny, with all the risks that those acts entailed, even if all he did afterwards was to give his stolen riches away or restore them to their owners. It was the thrill of the chase that owned Autolycus, and, knowing that he was thus owned, Autolycus was among the freest and most honest of men. When the ledger of his works of days would be tallied up, the debits and credits would probably show a balance of his giving away to the needy and unfortunate far more wealth and benefit than he would ever have kept for himself, even without prompting from Xena, Herc and lesser lights like Salmoneus. Yet for Lila, in the instant, there was no such buoyant uplift at her duplicitous success. She needed the dinars for the task at hand and their theft was merely a means to an end, one that was splinted in pain and bandaged in sorrow.
"Lexie," Lila said silently as she hurried back to the hangar, truly frightened of being stopped and searched by a military patrol or of getting mugged by robbers, "I don't think you'd approve of what I've just done. I’ve stolen far more than a pomegranate, and I’ve done so intentionally. But I hope that you might one day understand."
Lila heaved a great sigh of relief when she slipped, without incident, into the Amazon's hangar of the cold, drafty barracks, three bunk beds in a room that was little bigger than a walk in closet, and only a slit in the wall to let the light and the air in. Thelestria, being the smallest, was sharing a bunk with Oriena. Elana, Solari, Eponin, Ephiny and Lila had bunks to themselves.
Ephiny was sitting up awake, her arms around her shins, her knees drawn up to her breasts. She heaved a great sigh of relief when she saw Lila sneaking quietly in the door.
"Mission accomplished?" Ephiny smiled.
"Mm hmm," Lila nodded and then Lila, too, let go a little smile. "Ephiny, I told you not to wait up. But you know what?"
"What," Ephiny said.
"I'm glad you did," Lila said.
Ephiny smiled more broadly. "I couldn't sleep, knowing you were out there somewhere. I would have done the same for any of these lovely ladies."
"But you're not the queen. You needn't take it all on your shoulders," Lila said, warmly. "You're going to try seeing how it goes without a queen."
"Yes," Ephiny said. "And you know what I've discovered since we made that decision? I've discovered that this sense of wanting to be there for you and the others doesn't depend on being a queen or wearing a crown. It's just a feeling I have, a feeling that I think Velasca was beginning to have."
"Largely because of you. Because you kept faith with her," Lila said.
"Possibly," Ephiny eyes began to grow sad with reverie and loss.
"Ephiny, when we leave here tomorrow, I won't be going with you," Lila said.
Ephiny looked up into Lila's eyes with sudden concern. "What do you mean?"
"I'm... going on a journey," Lila said. "I've got a week to complete it. If the gods are with me, I'll accomplish what I've set out to do. If not, then... it doesn't matter whether I sink or swim."
"What are you setting out to do, Lila?" Ephiny slid her legs down onto the thin, hard pallet, her eyes searching Lila's, hunting for an explanation that her heart might grasp even if her mind might not understand.
"I can't tell you," Lila said. "But I promise you this: before the falling of the old moon and the rising of the new, you'll know what it was."
"But if you're not coming home, where could you be going?" Ephiny said. "Back to Troy? To be with Penthesileia until the end? But it that were so, why would you have left?"
"Not to Troy. At least not yet," Lila said. "That's all I can say. You'll have to trust me, Ephiny. I may succeed or fail but at least I’ll know I’ve tried. If nothing else, I know what I'm doing and why I'm doing it, maybe for the first time in my life."
Ephiny shook her curly head and let go a chuckle of equal parts aggravation and empathy that merged, at length, into kindness. "It's been barely more than a week out of my life, yet my world has been turned upside down. I've learned, along with much else, that there are things more important in life than being a queen," Ephiny looked at Lila. "Until last week, you were mostly Gabrielle's little... Gabrielle’s younger sister. Not that you weren't your own person, but now I'm coming to see you in a different light. You're still Gabrielle's sister, of course, but that's not all of you are. I've grown fond of you, Lila. I've grown to think of you as one of us. You've become very real to me. I want to be your friend and I want you to be my friend, and I don't want anything bad to happen to you; not now, not ever."
Then Ephiny reached out from her heart, with both arms, and gave Lila a warm hug. Lila hugged Ephiny back with her heart as well as her arms. It was a hug they'd both remember.
"You do have something in common with Gabrielle, though," Ephiny said. "Once you've set yourself a task that you know you want to accomplish, Olympus and Gaia won't deter you from it. When you've made up your mind to achieve something, nothing and nobody is going to turn you around."
"I hope you're right," Lila said, a trifle embarrassed. "There's something I want to achieve very badly, and I haven't got much time."
"It took Gabrielle a long time to tame Xena," Ephiny said. "No one else could have done it. And when you set eyes on Penthesileia..."
"She'd already determined on a course of action, and nothing -- at least, not me -- was going to turn her from it," Lila said.
"I suppose not," Ephiny said. "You aren't blaming yourself for that, are you? Or letting yourself feel inadequate on account of it? The Amazons have a history. Penthesileia has a keen sense of destiny and fate. She wants the Amazons to have a future in a world that's rapidly changing. Do you want to get Penthesileia really angry? Tell her she's a greater queen than any of her sisters. She'll take your head off. She thinks she can't hold a candle to the other three, but I won't be surprised if she's remembered as the greatest of them all."
Lila chuckled and then sighed. "No, I can't blame myself for not turning Penthesiliea away from what she's got her mind and heart set on. It's good to have a will, but I don't want to be willful. I don't want to let love go to waste."
"Go to waste?" Ephiny wrinkled her brow. "How could love ever go to waste?"
"By squandering itself in foolish and useless ways," Lila took the pile of dinars out of the lining of her tunic and to Ephiny's amazement -- though Ephiny's instincts guided her rightly and told her not to ask how, when, where or why Lila may have happened to come by such treasure -- Lila let them clink down on the surface of the pallet where they bounced lightly and piled up on top of each other. "By throwing it away on things that glitter, including gold."
On the following morning, over the warm, caring protests of her companions, with Ephiny keeping well out of the way since she'd already been informed, Lila bade farewell to the Amazons and, with hugs and firm handclasps, she told them she'd be reuniting with them in the near future. When the military escort came to take them to the merchant wharves and a bloated freighter that was willing to take them back to the port of Haniotis at the toe of the Pallene Cape of the Chalkidiki peninsula -- provided they worked their butts off and asked for no compensation other than three squares a day and hammocks below decks to toss and turn in at night -- Lila walked along the wharves with the group and then, at an opportune turn of the sandglass, she slipped away when the escort's attention was taken up by some peripheral matter which the group encountered along the way.
Under a burst of sun and a cleansing current of fresh, sea-strained air, Lila felt a load of weight rise from her chest and lift like the burning of a vaporous fog off her heart. She was free and on her own now. The knowledge that the others were safely on their way filled her with a lilting lightness of being. Every object in her line of vision was crystal clear and sharp edged. Every sound was acute and reverberated with harmonious overtones. Every smell was intense with its zest and tang. Everything she touched rippled with panache.
Away from the waterfront, blending with the crowd, Lila saw that she wasn't the only civilian or, indeed, the sole unattached woman on the island. Dearly as she'd grown to treasure her budding friendship with the Amazons, it was a relief not to be at the center of curious or hostile attention wherever she went. If the fellow she'd shanghai'ed on the previous evening was awake and moving by now, he'd probably never find her amidst this randomly flowing crowd, and, for the sake of his pride, which was likely to be worth more to him than his dinars, he most likely wouldn't want to.
"You know what? I'm hungry," Lila said out loud. "Maybe one day I'll be able to live on tiny slips of quail and rabbit like the Amazons seem able to, but that day isn't today." Whereupon Lila promptly stopped into a café where she ordered a breakfast of two goose eggs, a thick slice of ham (with a twinge of conscience on account of her little choiros mikros) and a basket of brioche with a pot of green tea seasoned with honey and lemon.
Her tummy content and the rest of her well fortified, Lila spent the next several candlemarks walking along colorful byways and following the signs that pointed from the eastern to the southern coast of the island until, late in the afternoon, she closed in on the commercial wharves where military transport was fairly light in comparison to merchant marine shipping. What little civilian life there was on Tenedos seemed more in evidence here. There was even a park in which a klatch of young mothers had gathered with their toddlers who were playing on makeshift swings and teeter totters or were swirling in gleefully shouting circles on the circular wooden bench seats of a roundabout. Looking out at the harbor, counting the large ships and the smaller triremes and outriggers, Lila guessed that she had likely come to the right place. She went up to the window of the nearest ticket agent and told the man behind the thin iron slats that she wanted to book passage on a cruise ship, at which request the elderly ticket agent gave Lila a suspicious look.
"A young woman travelin' by herself?" the agent said. "Very irregular. What's your business and why haven’t you an escort?"
"My sister is very ill, the poor dear," Lila explained, "and I'm all she has in the world. I'm going to attend to her in what may well be her last illness. My late husband, may the gods rest his soul, recently fell in battle on Scamander's sandy plain, defending one of our crucial Argive outposts. King Menelaus issued him a posthumous commendation for bravery under fire. As his only next of kin -- both his parents are deceased -- I had to come here to Tenedos to claim the body. That done, I'm now hoping to be able to offer my dear sister some small modicum of comfort and solace during the short time which she may have left on the earth, praise the incomprehensible wisdom and unfathomable mercy of the gods."
"Well," the ticket agent relented a bit, "most of the big ships will take you as far as the port of Salamis where you've got to change to local rigs and trawlers to get to where you're going. You got enough dinars to pay the freight? Bein' at sea for some days and nights'll cost you plenty. Passage to ports more distant than Salamis and its sister city of Athens don't come cheap."
Lila let her two handfuls of dinars open. The large, heavy coins came jangling down on the counter of the ticket window.
"I'm sure that this will more than cover the cost of the necessary tickets and transfers," Lila said.
The ticket agent looked down at the pile of dinars, then up into Lila's determined eyes and was impressed by the money and, even more, by Lila's resolve. But the gruff demeanor of the wizened old coot, who'd seen much folly pass through his turnstile in his many sunmarks spent selling tickets and punching stubs, masked that impression under a chronic look of cold boredom.
"You can ante up for your passage here if you want," the ticket agent said, reaching for his stamp to make the transaction official. Then he counted out the relevant quantity of coins and slid the remainder back across the window counter to Lila who scooped them up and shoved them into the lining of her tunic. "Now where is it you're wantin' to go?"
"To Tiryns," Lila said.
"Queen of the Silver Dollar" lyrics by Shel Silverstein
|Continued - Chapter 63|
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