|Made of Honor|
The palace guard ushered Lila into Queen Admete's main hall, a high-ceiling'ed chamber lined, on either side, by dark, high-backed, mahogany choir stalls. The chancel, at the far end of the hall, was surmounted by a dome under whose semi-circular cornice a rose window of colored glass shed an opaque light into the chamber. The light illumined, in a gauzy aureole, a golden throne whose seat and back were upholstered in soft velvet of rich scarlet and in front of which rested a small golden footstool whose padding was swathed in similar fashion.
On the smooth, polished stone of the wall behind the throne, a dozen vertical hand lengths above its topmost knurls, there hung the most brilliant object that Lila had ever seen: a jeweled belt of radiant splendor faceted with a wealth of precious gems -- emeralds, rubies, sapphires, garnet, opal, onyx, topaz and aquamarine -- and, at the buckle, two enormous, gleaming diamonds. The belt was a royal treasure, a queen's ransom. Lila marveled at the sight as morning sunlight, filtering through the transept, lit the belt with a thousand sharp, shearing sparkles.
Lila stood transfixed before the magnificent item that hung like a coat of arms above the empty throne. What an exquisite passion the God of War must have conceived for the Amazon Queen whose face and body, personality and character, had inspired the creation of a thing so resplendent and extravagant. Lila wondered if Ares had been struck by an equivalent passion for Xena and, if so, how Xena had managed to resist the God of War's charms and the forceful promptings of his unquenchable ardor.
And Lila found herself wishing that she might have met this astounding Hippolyte who'd not only won Ares' devotion but had commanded the love and loyalty of Penthesileia’s arduous heart. Hippolyte and Penthesileia had been lovers as well as sisters, Lila recalled, though such a relationship between siblings was difficult for Lila to fathom. Not only that: the Amazon queen whom Ares had been wooing with such fervor had been his daughter no less than his would-be paramour. Indeed, Hippolyte's and Penthesileia's mother had been Ares' daughter too -- and the father of his children. The quality of the energy bound up in that belt was more powerful than the energy that Lila had felt emanating from any object previously known to her. One would have had to be insensate not to feel it.
As Lila stood gazing at the belt, a tall, slender woman entered the hall via a door at one side of the chancel. The lady wore a long dress whose train followed a short distance behind her. The cloth was finely woven and colored a bright vermilion with gold buttons dicing the lean-breasted bodice. Her hair was long and straight, brown, parted on the side and silkier than Penthesileia's whose body type the woman resembled. Above the crest of her forehead, like a hairband, she wore a modest golden diadem offset by a row of blue stones, possibly amethyst. Her shoulders were straight but not broad, and her dress was open in a V above the cleavage of her breasts which were only slightly larger and rounder than Penthesileia's. Around her neck she wore an amber amulet strung on a thin golden chain. She carried a golden scepter with a small brass ornament at the top, possibly the somewhat abstract rendering of the head of a falcon or an eagle, the totem of the monarchy of Tiryns, duchy of Mycenae, viceroy of Achaia and princess of Argos.
Upon beholding this regal presence, Lila sank to one knee and bowed her head, remaining motionless as the woman took her time approaching until she’d come to tower over Lila. Then, in a tone of voice that was deeper and lower than Lila might have anticipated from the lady’s looks and dress, the austere vision said, "Rise, pilgrim."
Lila stood up and looked into the woman's eyes. They were soft, light brown, a trifle large, mildly playful and not unkind. Her eyebrows were full but shapely, her cheeks were smooth though not wide, her nose formidable but attractive, her mouth pleasant and well shaped, her jaw strong but not jutting, her teeth smooth and even. Her skin had begun to show mild wrinkles and crows feet at the corners of the eyes, but her complexion was fair and her expression, though a trifle reserved, wasn't cool or offputting. "What a handsome woman," was Lila's initial, unspoken impression.
"Your Majesty," Lila said courteously, looking up into Queen Admete's eyes, the Queen standing two handwidths taller than Lila.
"Lila, sister of Gabrielle, friend of Xena, I bid you welcome to my abode," the Queen extended her hand which Lila took and felt its grip to be firm and reassuring.
"My thanks to you, Your Majesty," Lila said, graciously. "I appreciate your granting me this interview."
"Would you mind calling me Admete? If I'm to call you Lila," the Queen said with the trace of a smile on her fine lips.
"Why... no, not at all," Lila said, a bit flustered at the Queen's lack of formality. "You're only the second queen I've ever met."
"And the first would be..."
"Penthesileia. And she asked me to call her Penny."
"Ah, yes. You've come to see me about the belt."
"Yes, I have."
"Care to walk with me? The air in the garden isn't so musty, and the sun will warm us better there. You’ll find that that the sunlight at this time of the year is bright without being harsh or oppressive."
Queen Admete led the way out of the chancel, through a crenellated overhang into the garth whose wide verandah, under corbelled arches, gave out on a broad view of the harbor and, down a steep flight of stairs, terminated in an enclosed garden of high, green shrubs interspersed with a grand spray of flowers; tall, blue delphinium, in full, autumn bloom, being the most prominent among them.
"What a lovely setting," Lila admired the careful arrangements of the decorative shrubs’ colors and textures, many of them rooted in earthen pots and the rows between them being mulched with a scattering of shredded stone. "Delphinium. Persephone's flower. It's warm for delphiniums to be in bloom. Where I live, these flowers bloom briefly when the days start getting colder and the fall rains are nearly upon us."
Lila thought of Anike and, for some reason, felt sad.
"Persephone," Queen Admete said, enjoying Lila's reaction to the royal garden, one of several, no two layouts arranged exactly alike. "I'm told that you're enareti kori."
"I was, yes," Lila paused to look dreamily at the delphiniums. "For several thesmophoria I had the honor, as archegos, of playing the part of Demeter in the little skit we put on at our local telesterion. I think it's only now that those days are behind me that I may have begun to appreciate, if only a little, the sense of loss that Demeter must feel each year as the cold, dark season approaches."
"You seem rather young to be burdened by a sense of loss," Queen Admete and Lila walked side by side along the garden row toward a patio table and chairs where a balcony overlooked the sloping hillside and the busy shops along the waterfront's main thoroughfare.
"I would have thought so too, as recently as a fortnight ago. Since then, though, everything changed. Travelling alone to a queen's palace half a world away, who would have dreamt it. Yet here I am, come on an errand of..." Lila's voice tailed off above a patch of pink, late summer, tea roses.
"Mercy?" Queen Admete completed the thought.
"No, not mercy. It's something more forceful and self-defining than that," Lila said. "Perhaps more akin to a self-imposed obligation. It’s something's that’s driving me. I've ventured here from Troy."
"From Troy?" Queen Admete raised a curious eyebrow.
"I take it you’re aware that my sister's an Amazon queen," Lila said. "Well, a queen pro tem actually, though she might be crowned queen if she chose..., if she ever truly commits herself. It’s not that she'd have to give up traveling with Xena if she were to become the queen. It’s that I’m not sure that she truly wants to be queen. In any event, Velasca rose up to challenge Gab’s authority. And Ephiny's authority too since Ephiny was filling in for Gab while Gab's was gadding about with Xe..."
Lila paused in mid-sentence and had to battle back the impulse to burst into tears at the sheer horror of the memory: those armed men, the look of vile contempt in their eyes that had so quickly turned to murderous lust, the terror, the noble sacrifice that Velasca had made so that Lila and the others might escape impending doom at despicable hands.
"Yes? You were saying that Gabrielle -- your sister -- was gadding about with Xena, unsure if she truly wanted to be an Amazon queen," Queen Admete said, concerned at the sudden look of pained confusion on Lila's face.
"The Amazons were having a dispute over who was ultimately to succeed Melosa as the new queen," Lila returned to the topic. "Penthesileia summoned the contenders to Troy. I went as part of the entourage."
"That's rather adventurous of you," Queen Admete said. "Or foolhardy. My envoys tell me that the war’s been building to what could turn into an extremely violent climax."
"Apparently it has been," Lila said. "The island of Tenedos is teeming with military personnel. I've never seen anything like the sheer enormity of it."
"Do you think we might sit down?" Queen Admete guided their steps toward the patio table. "What do you say to some tea and a basket of shortbread?"
"Tea and a mid-morning snack. I'd be delighted," Lila beamed.
Queen Admete took a seat on one of the thatched wooden patio chairs and bade Lila to take the other chair. "In terms of tea: what's your pleasure?"
"Mint, orange, spice; anything really," Lila gazed down the tree-lined incline. Imagine taking morning tea here each day and enjoying the fabulous view of the market square, the harbor and the sun splashing everything a dazzling, glorious coat of white. Who’d ever wish to do anything else?
"A pot of mint medley; cups, spoons, napkins, the honey pot," Queen Admete signaled, "and a basket of shortbread."
Lila looked around but didn't see any servants. "Dragon's teeth," she chuckled.
"Dragon's teeth?" Queen Admete replied.
"You must scatter dragon's teeth behind you as you traverse the rows of these lovely flower borders. How else could a host of invisible men spring up from nowhere to fetch your tea and shortbread?" Lila said with a smile.
"Now there’s an idea," Queen Admete returned Lila's smile. "Invisible men who have no eyes can’t become distracted by gazing at such pretty company, leaving me to enjoy the sight unobstructed."
"Thank you...," Lila blushed slightly, her deep blue eyes sparkling in spite of the past instant's unpleasant memory. "I've heard reports that you're quite pretty yourself, and I see that they haven't been exaggerated."
"My, now you’re one who ought to be thanked," Queen Admete twinkled. "But you realize how very mortal you are when you’re a queen. It won't do for a queen to get old or, worse, to look old."
"I suppose not," Lila sat back and scrutinized Queen Admete's face. "But how old could you be? You're very young looking. I associate queenliness with curmudgeonly crochets and starchy propriety. That is, I did until I met Penthesileia... and now you."
"You might be taken aback if I were to tell you my age," Queen Admete said. "Cosmetics, when skillfully applied, can work wonders."
Lila gazed deeply at Queen Admete's face. "No," she shook her head, "you won’t ever lose your good looks. They're not skin deep. My instinct tells me that even though I know next to nothing about you except that you have the belt."
"Which is why, to repeat, you've come to see me," Queen Admete said.
"Yes," Lila said.
"And what makes you think you’re apt to succeed in your quest?"
"My friend, Lexie -- Alexis -- and I were doing our weekly food shopping not long ago when we managed to pry some news of the war out of the Felafel Man. As many as twenty young men from the villages surrounding Poteidaia have gone to seek fame and glory on the battlefields of Ilium. The Felafel Man told us that Penthesileia and her elite corps of Themiscyran Amazons had arrived in Ilium to challenge the Argive expeditionary force. Then he began and, later on, Chiron, the Centaur, concluded the tale of Hippolyte’s belt.
"What I found most curious and troubling was Herc's role... the part that Hercules played in the affair. The Herc I know is a gem among men. He’d give you the shirt off his back if you asked him for it. He's got a kind heart. He sticks up out for the little people, Herc and Iolaus both. Neither of them would ever take unfair advantage of a woman. Herc's no stranger to pain and heartache, though you'd never know it. It was Herc who turned Xena's life around before Xena met up with Gab. Yet, like a massive cloud darkening the sky, there’s this horrible business about Hippolyte's belt: Herc murdering Hippolyte and a dozen of her Amazons. Some say that Herc was still suffering from the madness that Hera had inflicted upon him, the fit that caused him to murder his first wife and children. That must certainly account for it. I don't know what else could.
"At first I didn’t know what to make of these revelations. And then I began to think about the strangeness of the world -- something I haven't yet had the chance to talk over with my friend, Lexie, or another friend, Anike -- and, while all this pondering was going on, I met up with Penthesileia. She's a queen like yourself, but her reign isn't nearly as vast in scope. You rule a kingdom. She rules a scattered confederation of Amazon tribes and villages. But when I met her, everything changed."
"How so?" Queen Admete said.
"I discovered another person whom I’d long been harboring inside myself," Lila said. "I don't know exactly what to call her. Need? Ambition? Desire? Untapped potential? She can be graspy and greedy, but she’s also a bit like those delphiniums over there: infused with a dark fragrance that seems to bloom best in the fall. She seems to have set me on pathways that lead... well, to places like this... to people like yourself. I can't say where she’ll ultimately take me. I don't know yet."
The tea arrived and Queen Admete poured for Lila and then for herself.
"You know, Lila," Queen Admete offered Lila the honey pot, and Lila politely declined, though she happily dug into the basket of shortbread, "to a great extent, I feel responsible for the events that you've recounted. It was at my behest that my father ordered Hercules to procure the belt."
"So I’ve been told," Lila sipped her tea and munched a delicious square of shortbread.
"My father found himself in an awkward position. The madness you've spoken of, the fit of insanity that Hera inflicted upon Hercules -- the one that nearly put an end to him until Iolaus and Jason tracked him down, bound him in a net and dragged him to the Oracle at Delphi -- the only way for Hercules to purge himself of his guilt and shame, the Oracle told him, was to come to see my father who'd assign him twelve labors to perform. The reason Hercules was instructed to come and serve my father had something to do with an oath which Zeus had sworn on the day that my father was born. My father was born the day before Hercules. They were half-brothers as Zeus was their father.
"Now that course of action may have been well and good for Hercules and the Oracle, but it left my father in a bit of a bind when it came to finding things for Hercules to do. Herc enlarged the docks and lengthened the wharves in line with my father’s plans to expand the harbor's shipping facilities, and that was certainly a very great service to render. But then my father had to think up eleven more things for Hercules to do and, frankly, he was at a bit of a loss.
"'Have him do whatever you like,' the Oracle told my father. 'Just keep him busy ‘til he's sweated Hera's poison out of him.' So my asked me if I had any suggestions, given that things had to keep moving along at a pretty good clip. I was about to be married and I told my father, 'Well, one thing Herc might do is bring me the jeweled belt of the Amazons. I'll take it off Hippolyte’s hands and wear it as part of my trousseau.'
"We knew all about the belt. Everyone did. We'd heard through the grapevine that Hippolyte was looking for any excuse to be rid of it. Ares was trying to bribe her with it, and she'd found his behavior offensive. So I told my father, 'As long as Hippolyte has no objection, why not have Herc bring us the belt and we'll keep it here for a show piece after the wedding.' The idea was never to deprive the Amazons of the belt. Hercules was to retrieve it only if Hippolyte was willing to part with it. She said she was quite willing, and Hercules arranged the pickup."
"With the terrible consequences that followed," Lila said.
Queen Admete lowered the lids of her soft brown eyes. "If I had known that Hercules was vulnerable to a relapse and that Hera was going to strike again before Zeus could intervene and put a stop to Hera’s meddling, I'd have asked for... I don't know, a puppy and some training paper for a wedding gift. My father was aghast when he heard what had taken place. Twelve of Hellas’ finest Amazons dead and Hippolyte murdered. We'd never quarreled with the Amazons. They hadn't done anything to merit such a horrible fate. Hippolyte was a delightful person. I met her at a dance marathon once and we’d gotten on quite amiably."
"Everything I've heard about her has been extremely flattering," Lila said. "Nearly everything, that is."
"So we're partly to blame for that tragic affair, I’m afraid," Queen Admete said. "It all goes back to Theseus kidnapping Antiope and making her his bride and his queen in Athens."
"Wasn't Antiope killed by her aunt for supposedly betraying the Amazons after Antiope had consented to remain with Theseus and then bore him a child?"
"That was Molpeidia, Lysippe’s half-sister, the great Amazon war queen. Lysippe had crossed over to Claw Mountain by then. Her grief over her son, Tanais, the eldest child, who'd killed himself for love of her, took a terrible toll on Lysippe. She wore herself out building Themiscyra. She was the general contractor who oversaw the entire operation. It was only women who were employed on the job, by the way. The only city in the known world that’s been built entirely by women. When Antiope, heir to the throne at Themiscyra, decided to remain with Theseus in Athens, Molpeidia couldn't bring herself to accept Antiope's desertion. So she and the Themiscyrans joined forces with the Persian invasion.
"Persians, Hittites, Anatolians, Phrygians, Lydians, Phocians, even the Scythians from up in the Caucasus, the entire Ionian coast for hundreds of leagues inland joined in the invasion. Athens was deluged. The siege lasted for three, possibly four moonmarks. If Athens had fallen, the rest of the archipelago most likely would have followed suit and we'd all be speaking Farsi today. But Athens held on by a thread. Theseus was magnificent in its defense. It was the only time I can remember seeing poor Cecrops with a smile on his face. But before the end had come and Athens had withstood the crisis, while the outcome was still in doubt, Antiope, over Theseus' strenuous objections, ventured outside the city walls to meet with Molpeidia and her sister Amazons to beg them to withdraw from the siege and to return to Themiscyra in peace."
"And at that fateful meeting, Molpeidia killed her," Lila said.
"In a fit of rage, Molpeidia slew Antiope with a thrust of her spear," Queen Admete nodded. "The beautiful Antiope. Theseus went berserk. It's not clear whether he killed Molpeidia in revenge for Antiope’s death or whether Molpeidia took her own life in the wake of her shame and grief. But after the siege had ended, when Athens had emerged victorious, it was no longer safe for Antiope’s retinue to remain in Athens. Quite a few Amazons had accompanied Antiope to Theseus’ palace. Their numbers in Athens and throughout the countryside were rapidly increasing. Melanippe, the next in line, became the Amazon queen at Themiscyra and dispatched Hippolyte, her younger sister, to be the queen of the growing number of Amazons in Hellas. I think Penthesileia, the last of Lysippe's five children, had hoped to accompany Hippolyte and to assist her in some way, but Hippolyte said it was too dangerous for Amazons in and around Athens and she wouldn't permit Penthesileia to remain. Then Penthesileia accidentally killed Melanippe during a boar hunt and so became queen at Themiscyra given that Hippolyte herself had so recently met her own unfortunate demise at Herc’s hands. It's all rather convoluted.
"The upshot was that Theseus could no longer guarantee the Amazons’ safety, especially after his wedding to Phaedra. So my father told Theseus to send the Amazons to us and that we'd find a place for them, which we did; farming them out in a sense, helping them to set up scattered settlements here in Greater Mycenae, up north in Boeotia and finally in Thessaly and as far up the coast as Illyria. Hippolyte took charge of these settlements. Tarandel was one of Antiope's Amazons whom Melanippe, acting on Hippolyte's recommendation, dispatched, along with a detachment of several dozen Themiscyrans, to found the Amazon community in Macedonia. Tarandel's daughter, Melosa, eventually became queen. We’d heard good things about Melosa until the news arrived that she’d been killed in some kind of an intramural squabble when one of the younger Amazons, her adopted daughter they say, rose up to challenge Melosa's authority. Life at the top, for an Amazon queen no less than any occupant of a throne, seems ever to be fraught with peril.
"The long and the short of it is that Hippolyte didn't mind my requesting the belt since she wanted to be rid of it anyway. Yet if I had known what the outcome was going to be...," Queen Admete left off her reminiscence.
"You wouldn't have asked her for it?" Lila said.
"No, I would have left it alone," Queen Admete said. "I had a perfectly nice wedding outfit. It wasn't that I coveted the belt. It is an amazing accessory, the belt. Very seductive. I think you saw that for yourself. But not for the price tag that came attached to it, twelve murdered Amazons along with their wonderful queen. They weren't angels, the Amazons. Few, if any of them, had Hippolyte's charm and flair. But Olympus knows that none of them deserved to end their days in such a wretched pool of blood."
"And yet you've retained the belt all this time," Lila said, helping herself to a second spot of tea.
"Yes," Queen Admete tilted the basket toward Lila, urging her to polish off the last of the shortbread which Lila gladly did.
"Even though the Amazons have asked for it back," Lila said.
"I'm not sure that they have," Queen Admete said. "After the belt came into my possession, I had a visit from Ares. He was as livid as I’ve ever seen him. His affections had been spurned by Hippolyte and then by Penthesileia, who'd apparently sworn that had Ares been mortal, she’d have killed him on the spot. And then, most recently -- and perhaps most devastating -- he’d been spurned by Xena whose rejection had sent his ego spiraling down into a deep depression.
"Ranting and raving up and down the parquet, Ares howled about an arrangement he’d made with the Fates and told me that I’d best heed his warning lest more blood flow on account of that infernal belt. Whoever deprives me of the belt against my will or without the consent of whomever I might endow with the belt will see their worst nightmares come true unless, mercifully, they’re struck down dead on the spot -- as might have happened to Autolycus had Xena not wisely prevented him from breaking in here and attempting to steal the cursed thing. Then Ares affixed the belt to the wall above my throne with some dreadful sort of a mechanism so that if you were improvidently to try and take the belt down, you'd be caught in the deadly crossfire of four bolts being shot at you instantaneously from four crossbows hidden in each of the hall’s corner arches, and a fifth bolt shooting out from the wall at point blank range in front of you."
"Why did Ares want you to have the belt so badly?"
"He knew that my father and I had been sympathetic to Hippolyte and the Amazons. I think he wanted the belt to remain in our hands until the day should come when Ares would find himself infatuated with yet another tender maiden whom he might wish to court as he'd courted Hippolyte and Xena. But to tell the truth, I don't think Ares has ever gotten over Xena. He may have indulged in a half-hearted dalliance with Callisto, but Callisto was less interested in becoming romantically involved with Ares than she was excited at the prospect of running him through with a dagger soaked in Hind's blood."
"Is that why you wouldn't let Xena and Gab have the belt when they came to ask you for it, because you feel an obligation to be its caretaker until Ares demands it back?"
"A caretaker for Ares? Not at all. I pose the identical question to each seeker after the belt. I'll only yield the belt to the one who answers that question to my satisfaction. I feel it’s my obligation as the one who’s responsible for initiating this whole unfortunate sequence. It's not a trick question. You don't need any special knowledge, and you don't have to track down any hidden clues. It's a straightforward question that calls for a straightforward answer."
"And what might that question be?" Lila took her last sip of tea and looked again into Queen Admete's eyes which had taken on a somewhat critical cast but without vendetta or deceit.
"Lila," Queen Admete sat back in her chair, "why have you come seeking the belt? That's not the question. I'm simply curious."
Queen Admete's eyes looked interested and concern. Before attempting an answer, Lila looked out over the brightly scrubbed waterfront of Tiryns and up to the steep hills which overlooked the bay, the spot where Xena and Gabrielle had made camp on their visit to these lovely shores from which they’d been summoned home by Bellerophon's startling appearance bestride the vast wings of Pegasus.
"From up here on this pleasant patio, your city looks so neat and orderly," Lila said. "I could see myself hiking down the hill, late in the afternoon, to stroll leisurely along the wharves and piers, smelling the salt air and basking in the low, slanting sunshine, stopping for tea and delicacies at a seaside sweet shop and purchasing the evening's fish and olives, grapes and filo leaves, then returning to the castle to prepare a tasty and nutritious supper for the ones I loved. A little foretaste of the Elysian Fields," Lila looked back to Queen Admete's eyes. "That’s what it looks like on the surface anyhow. Not to change the subject but if you had a wedding, then I assume, naturally, that you're married."
Queen Admete nodded.
"Do you have any children?" Lila said.
The Queen shook her head.
Lila thought for a turn of the sandglass. "A month ago -- less -- I was a shy farm girl. At least that's how I thought of myself. For the most part, I was content. I'm blessed to have wonderful parents. They have their faults, of course; but on the whole, they're good and kind if, perhaps, a trifle stodgy. And I'm also blessed to have a good friend who I know would stand by me in a pinch. And there are others with whom I might become good friends. I'm thinking particularly of the young woman who'll be taking my place as the archegos of Poteidaia's enaretes kores.
"Yet a part of me was restless. When Gab and Xena, along with Ephiny and some of the Amazons, were summoned to Troy to plead their case before Penthesileia, I insisted on going along as though something were calling to me, not that I had the least idea who or what was doing the calling.
"There we were, having braved various obstacles, standing in the great hall of Ilium itself, as guests of King Priam, lodging in the visitors' wing of the grand palace, having arrived on the very night that the King was holding a feast in honor of Hector, his eldest son and heir, also his greatest warrior, whom Achilles had just slain in battle. It seems that Xena knew King Priam from some previous engagement. It was all very thrilling and wondrous, and I was having the time of my life.
"Then something unforeseen happened. I crossed paths with Penthesileia. She rose to deliver a toast to Hector's memory. I was immediately taken with her. A day or two after that first encounter, I saw her kneeling and praying at a shrine to Demeter. She was there by herself, looking tense and vulnerable, not like a queen at all. And praying to Demeter. That struck me as odd. First, as she was an Amazon, I would have thought she'd be offering her prayers to Artemis. Besides, Penthesileia isn't Greek. Why pray to Demeter? Why not Cybele or Inana or Ishtar? I don't know what came over me, but I went over and knelt down beside her and took her hands in mine and shrove her, which I have... which I had it in my power to do being an archegos of the enaretes kores.
"Penthesileia looked at me and said, in so many words, 'Who are you, a farm girl of no account, to shrive me, a queen of the Amazons?' And I said to her, in so many words, that love is the great equalizer, that one who shrives may also love and that a soul may know -- and cherish -- another soul, to the depths, in an instant, with no rational explanation. I spoke with utter conviction. Where might that sense of conviction have been coming from? I’d had no experience of such things. A turn of the sandglass prior to that instant, I was still of the opinion that the moon is made of green cheese.
"Forgive me," Lila began to blush, "I didn't mean to ramble. You asked me a question."
"No, please continue," Queen Admete said. "Speak as the spirit moves you."
"I guess the point is that I forgot myself," Lila said. "With no history or prior record of accomplishment, I presented myself to this extraordinary person, this magnetic and magnificent woman as... well, it was all so overwhelming..."
"As someone who could be her equal," Queen Admete said.
"Yes," Lila gave Queen Admete a penetrating look. "And I must say that I went about it rather shamelessly. I went right for the heart, not at all subtle or ambivalent or coquettish. I was rather blunt and brazen, I think. I was also a virgin. As you can see, I'm a bit out of my depth in these matters."
Queen Admete smiled. "I hear that Penthesileia is quite a stunning woman. Not as glamorous as Hippolyte, perhaps not as much of a standout, but nonetheless very striking."
"She’s profoundly striking," Lila said. "She's tall. A bit taller than you are. And very slender but wiry and strong. Extremely dark complexion and jet black hair that hangs loose below her shoulders. And eyes that change color from blue to green to gray to tan. It's truly remarkable the way they mirror the world around her. She dresses very simply. All in white except for a touch of blue on occasion and the thinnest filigree of a headband with seven gleaming diamonds each one as small as the point of a pin. She's tender. And sweet. And good. And loving. And absolutely determined to make a martyr of herself."
"Which distresses you," Queen Admete said.
"Immensely!" Lila exclaimed. "That's what's tearing me up inside. I'd follow her anywhere, much as Gab followed Xena in the early days. And for her part, she acknowledges that love has found its way into her life again, or perhaps for the first time, come to that. And I think that part of her has begun to live again and doesn't want to give that life up. But you asked why I've come in search of the belt. My reaction, when Penthesileia insisted that we say goodbye lest she be unable to fulfill the task that she's set for herself, was to feel hurt and angry and cheated. Something good was born when we were together. We both knew it and acknowledged it. Why deprive ourselves of it? Why deprive the world? How often have you looked into someone's eyes and known that you would give them everything you have and never feel an ounce of regret or think, for an instant, to count the cost?"
"Rarely, if ever," Queen Admete replied with a wan, lovely smile.
"But then I realized how selfish I was being," Lila said. "A forgivable selfishness perhaps but selfish all the same. Selfishness in the sense of seeing only part of the picture, my part. She's made her decision and I know it's costing her everything. When she went to Troy to fight alongside King Priam's forces and to set an example for future generations of Amazons -- to show them, by her example, that truth and honor and love for one's sisters can sustain the most frightened soul through the darkest, most terrible night -- she hadn't counted on falling in love once she’d gotten there. Which makes her sacrifice and courage that much more painful and costly. I believe we could make a joyful life together, Penthesileia and I, and I believe she feels that way too."
"And so you've come in search of the belt because...," Queen Admete said.
"I believe its return will clear away the final obstacle in her path," Lila said. "The gift that brought so much grief in its wake can be redeemed by returning it forever to the giver. It will free both her and her beloved Amazons from its power to bury the silly, unlikely truth under a mountain of reasonable and convincing lies. I want her to hold it in her hands. To remove the twin diamonds that she placed there: one for herself and one for Hippolyte. Then to entrust the belt to whomever might bring it to Hephaestos' forge that it might be scorched and fired and broken into its constituent elements and at last reunited with Gaiamitros, Lamprotita Basilissa. Then the cycle will have been completed, and Penthesileia can make the ultimate sacrifice in peace and with a heart at rest, a beacon light for Amazons of the future, whoever they may be. 'There was once a queen, who never sought a throne, who gave her life as an earnest, through the ages, of what we might become.'"
"Do you believe that? Truthfully, Lila?" Queen Admete said. "The myth of sacrifice and redemption, of the promise of a dark light that will come to shine in the void? 'Earth Mother. Bright Queen.' Is that really how you see it?"
"Yes," Lila said. "I believe in Penthesileia. I have since the instant I laid eyes on her. Besides, I am... or was... enareti kori. When everything else has fallen away, light in the darkness is what sustains me."
"Then we’ll do this the right way," Queen Admete said. "Come with me."
Queen Admete got up from the table and, with Lila following behind, the Queen led the way through the rows of hedges and flowers back to the portico which took them under the stone-laden arches into the throne room and its high chancel.
"I'll go sit on that throne over there," Queen Admete pointed to the golden chair, "then you come and stand before me. I'll put to you the question that I put to Xena and to your sister and to every suppliant who's come to ask for the belt."
Queen Admete retired to her throne and, with her scepter in hand, she took her seat on its soft, scarlet cushion.
"What's your full name?" Queen Admete said as Lila looked on the from the side.
"Liliana of Poteidaia," Lila said.
"Very well," Queen Admete said, "Liliana of Poteidaia, you may approach the royal presence. Come stand in front of me on the next to the top step."
Lila did so. She and Queen Admete were separated by a space exactly wide enough to have inserted, parallel to the floor, a pair of Herodotus' torn and stretched britches.
"Are you comfortable?" Queen Admete said.
"I think so," Lila nodded.
"Then here's the question," Queen Admete said. "Why should I give you the belt?"
Lila stared at Queen Admete.
"That's not the same thing as asking you why you've come for the belt," Queen Admete said. "I asked Xena and Gabrielle why they'd come for the belt, and they told me that they were hoping that if the belt were returned to the Amazons, it might help to heal old wounds, restore a measure of harmony to the community and promote the forces of reconciliation. Those are all excellent reasons to come in search of the belt."
"But you didn't give it to them," Lila said.
Queen Admete glanced over her shoulder. "Up on the wall. There it hangs, as you see."
"Hmm," Lila frowned.
"I asked them why I should give them the belt," Queen Admete said. "I asked them one at a time, each one alone, without the other. They each gave their answer. So, Lila: it's your turn. Why should I give you the belt?"
A carousel of images flashed through Lila's mind: Alexis tumbling out the window and falling into the bushes; Anike stalking out of the telesterion after the thesmophoria skit with a hurt look on her face; the thin line of blood trickling out the side of Septix' mouth as Lila cradled his head in her lap; the tender yet pained look on Hecuba's face when, at the end of a routine, evening meal, she'd declined Lila's offer to help her clear the dishes; the blush that had stormed like a warlord's army over the unprotected outback of her cheek in response to her father's words -- their tone -- when he'd said, "No need to be thankin' me, little one. Twere me what should be thankin' thee. For gracin' our table with the gift of your sweetness and beauty;" the joy she'd felt at hearing Gabrielle's high-pitched shout, cracking with emotion, when she'd looked up from the row of flowers she'd been weeding to see "sister mine, hearts entwine..." come racing across the yard of her hiding place to fling her arms open for a huge bear hug; the warmth of Ephiny's embrace at the unfriendly barracks several nights before on Tenedos; Xena's teasing knuckles rubbing static in Lila's hair as Lila wiggled and squealed with delight; a vision of Penthesileia looking into Lila's eyes and saying, with her magnificent poise as her long, lithe hand swept a stray strand of hair from Lila's round, full cheek, "My dear, would you mind terribly if we sat down; my undies are soaked..." And the sibyl...
"Speak, child, and say, 'pon pain of woe if e'er ye waver, whence comest thou and whither art thou bound?"
"I come from out the weary world and thence would fain return."
"What seek'st thou in this humble hut, child?"
"Boon and benison; boon for the world, benison for mine own."
"A bold warrior shalt thou be, though skill in arms evade thee..." What's the greatest boon and benison of all? "A fruitful lover shalt thou be, though man's seed eschew thee..." What's the light that shines so brightly in the darkness? "A worthy master shalt thou be, though command of others elude thee..." What's the constant, unwavering truth visible in the variable looks on a thousand yearning, questioning, suffering faces?
Tears came to Lila's eyes and trickled their tracks down her round, puffy cheeks. The pearl of great price might roll like the chipped glass of a worthless aggie out of the circle of light and into the waste space of darkness but its trajectory would never be forgotten. Everything passes, everything fades; in the end, only one thing abides.
"Lila," Queen Admete's soft, concerned voice floated from the velveteen throne to Lila's buff and buckskin ears, "what's the matter?"
"It's such a hard lesson to learn," Lila wept, "and I didn't know that I was going to have to learn it so quickly or that I was going to have to land with such a rough bump."
"What lesson is that?" Queen Admete said.
"You ask why you should part with the belt, why you should give it to me to take away," Lila said. "There isn't a good reason, only a silly, ridiculous, absurd and childish one. I ask for the belt in the name of love."
"Anything else, Lila?" Queen Admete said. "Can you give me no other reason why I should give you the belt?"
"No," Lila bit her lip and shook her head, "I can't."
"Not a single one?" Queen Admete stared at Lila with an expressionless look on her face.
"None," Lila said in a tone that was barely above a whisper and then looked down, with fiercely blushing cheeks, at the chancel step on which she was standing.
"Guards!" Queen Admete's voice rang through the hall with stern authority. "Enter and approach the throne!"
Two armed guards approached from the wings and came to stand behind Lila, one on Lila’s right, the other on her left.
"Disable the mechanism and take down the belt," Queen Admete gave the command, then stood up, walked around the footstool that had been sitting in front of the throne and went up to Lila, reaching out to take Lila by the shoulders, "and place it in the hands of this young woman!"
Then Queen Admete gathered Lila into her arms and held her long and gently as Lila's great, gaping sobs echoed through the hall.
"Ohh," Lila wept, "even the happy parts of love hurt, don’t they? Even the golden turns of the sandglass ache with a dull, burnished throb. It's all so sweet and it’s all so painful."
"I know," Queen Admete said and softly stroked Lila's hair. "I know."
"Do you? Do you really?" Lila looked up through her shower of tears in the direction of Queen Admete's face.
"As much as it’s been given to me to know," Queen Admete said.
Lila wept more softly, breathing slowly, feeling the warmth of Queen Admete's breasts against her won as the guard who was holding the belt, now folded twice upon itself, came to stand at attention beside the Queen.
"Find a suitable pouch for it," Queen Admete instructed the other guard. "And see that it's fitted out with secure buckles and straps. The belt will be going on a long journey."
Lila took a hankie out of the lining of her tunic and, as she did so, she felt the jingling weight of the last of her stolen dinars. "I guess," Lila said, blowing, "I've made a fool of myself. I seem to have done that quite a bit lately."
"No doubt you'll get used to it," Queen Admete said warmly as she led Lila away from the chancel toward the opening that led to the spacious grounds within the parapets that enclosed the walls of the castle. "Now we need to think clearly as we’ve got some important preparations to make. First, if you have no objection, I'd like you to be my honored guest at dinner tonight. You might want to rest up a bit beforehand, perhaps have a bath and a massage after exploring the precincts or, if you like, you can spend the afternoon in leisurely pursuits at the waterfront. At dinner, we'll go over some suggestions I may have for your return trip to Ilium. In the meantime, I'll see to the belt as well as tending to a few other arrangements that I’ve got in mind."
"Your Majesty, you're so very kind," Lila said as they emerged into a cascading wealth of sunlight that lit the outer court with a glare that was strong enough to make Lila's eyes squint.
"Admete," Queen Admete gently corrected Lila. "I don't know that I'm particularly kind, though it's good of you to say so. I've never had a good conscience about that belt; yet for my father's sake, while he was alive, I felt an obligation to retain it. It cost him one of Hercules' twelve labors to get it for me. And yet, once it came into my possession, I felt as though I ought not part with it except to the right person and for the right reason. The fact that it came with a curse attached to it -- that one could forcibly take it from me only on pain of suffering the most dire consequences -- buoyed my conviction that I was meant, for some reason, to be entrusted with the belt until my successor came along. And at length, she did," the Queen smiled and escorted Lila to the entresol by the guard station where the Queen took her leave until later in the day when she and Lila should meet and go down together to dinner.
Lila left the palace, ambled down the hill to the waterfront and spent several candlemarks poking around the wharves and the shops, admiring the masts and yards and captains’ walks, then stopping to buy a couple of souvenirs; a small, golden brooch for Gabrielle to pin on the breast of the jacket she wore over her glittering gold-and-maroon halter top, and a tiny nautical sextant for Xena to hook onto her belt in case it might come in handy when Xena and Gabrielle were mucking about coves and inlets in the company of lost mariners or were out on the high seas being chased by tsunamis. Later in the afternoon, Lila went back to the palace to avail herself of Queen Admete's generous invitation to a bath and body rub with a rich, heated jojoba oil that made Lila's skin and muscles feel relaxed and heavenly. Not that the sadness of her errand escaped her for a single turn of the sandglass or that her concern wasn't for the safety of Ephiny and the Amazons not to mention Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer still inside Ilium's besieged walls. But Lila had been travelling hard and deserved a day of rest, courtesy of her kind hostess.
At dinner that night -- lamb stew, wheat pilaf and fresh ratatouille from the garden; these southern nights not yet frost-nipped as may already have happened at home -- Lila couldn't help giving vent to her curiosity.
"What did Gab and Xena say when you asked them why you should give them the belt?" Lila asked Queen Admete next to whom she was seated at the royal table.
"I asked them why they'd come looking for the belt, and, as I indicated, the told me they could be trusted to return it to Penthesileia and the Amazons, which I have no doubt they would have done," Queen Admete said, between sips of wine. "First I put the question to Xena. Why should I give you the belt? Xena said -- and if you know Xena, you know that she doesn't mince words -- Xena told me that I should give her the belt in the name of justice. Restoring the belt to the Amazons would be the right thing to do; and, of course, Xena was right. Then your sister -- who's fluent on the verge of being glib when it comes to making her very keen points -- told me that I should give her the belt in the name of compassion. Restoring the belt to the Amazons would be the decent thing to do, and, of course, Gabrielle was right too. They were both right."
"Yet you refused them," Lila said.
"I did," Queen Admete said. "I believe they thought I was being catty and coy, possibly perverse, but justice and compassion, as spectacular as these achievements may be, are not what the belt ultimately represents to me. I'm not an adventuress like Xena and your sister. They have the stuff of which heroes are made. History will record their names. But some of us also serve who know the soundings in the depths of the lonely heart yet keep faith with the pain and sorrow and even the suffering that no one may sense is there and which may never be visible to the outer eye. We're a confraternity of souls who stumble upon one another with the muffled footfalls of our yearning. The names mean nothing to history’s rolled scrolls because the sacrifices we make and the losses we endure have no names. Those losses and sacrifices constitute the coin of our private realms in which each of us, from royalty to riffraff, is worth a king's ransom in silently shed tears."
"I wish you great happiness, Admete," Lila said, taking the Queen’s hand. "And joyful company with whom to share it."
"Thank you, Lila," Queen Admete smiled a sad, enigmatic smile. "Your good wishes mean a great deal to me. And now we have some plans to make."
Queen Admete reached under the table and produced a square satchel that was dense and heavy for its modest size. "You'll want to keep this strapped to your person at all times, and woe to the beggar, braggart or thief who relieves you of it by force after you've given them fair warning, for they shall fall dead at your feet -- or worse. This shoulder strap and waist buckle should assist you. If I'm not mistaken, you boarded at the Pomegranate last night, a hostel for transients and young women who are traveling unescorted. I hope I might prevail upon you to spend tonight here in the castle."
"Gladly," Lila said.
"In the morning, a frigate of armed troops will be leaving for Ilium," Queen Admete said. "I know this can't come as pleasant news to you, but all over Hellas, in every kingdom of the realm including this one, there's a massive mobilization going on. Agammemnon means to wrap this conflict up within the fortnight. It's been dragging on for ten long sunmarks, and the House of Atreus has decreed that the time has come to put an end to this enervating strife. Men are streaming over to Ilium from all points in these isles. Neither I nor my father, if he were alive, have ever seen anything like it. As one of Athens' closest neighbors and as their nearest Mycenean kin, we're naturally expected to do our part -- and more. So a large bivouac is shipping out first thing in the morning.
"I propose to put you on it. You won't have to waste precious days and dinars on slow-moving commercial traffic, ferries and cruise liners that take forever to get you where you're going. If you're going to have the chance to get that belt to Penthesileia before all Hades breaks loose, time will be of the essence. You'll be stopping to take on additional men and materiel in Lemnos, and then it's a straight shot to Ilium, bypassing Tenedos."
"Good," Lila said. "I've had two altercations thus far on that island. I have no desire to become embroiled in a third."
"Once you've arrived on Scamander's sandy plain, my men will convey you straight to Diomedes," Queen Admete said. "There's a double advantage in taking that tack. As a civilian from Macedonia, you're under Diomedes' martial authority from the instant you step off the boat. Diomedes commands the Army of Northern Hellas and that makes you his adjutant, whether you like it or not. No one, not even Agammemnon, should interfere with that iron rule of military protocol. By sheer coincidence, Diomedes also happens to be my subject. He thus has a strong incentive to treat you with respect and to have a care for your wellbeing. He's an honorable man. At least, he was before the current hostilities got underway. I know his family. They're cultured people. You're to go to him and tell him that I've said you're to have safe passage across the bloody plain to Troy. Once you're back inside Ilium's walls, there's nothing more I can do for you but wish you every possible chance of success."
"I don't know what to say," Lila said softly and humbly. "This is more good fortune than I could ever have expected."
"You're a good soul, Lila," Queen Admete said. "Would that there were more souls in the world like you."
"Thank you," Lila fought to hide a sudden rush of blood to her cheeks. "Your friendship, at this crucial juncture, is a gift that I'll treasure for a long time to come."
Dinner wore on until fairly late in the evening. At length, the guests and staff rose from their places, said their good nights and made slowly for the exits. Queen Admete walked Lila to the corridor of the palace's spacious and well-appointed guest quarters.
"If things were less weighty and hectic, perhaps I'd invite you to my chamber," Queen Admete said with a fond look at Lila.
"To spend the night?" Lila said.
"Mm," Queen Admete smiled.
Lila took the Queen's hand and looked into her eyes. "I do find you attractive," Lila said, "and I’ll confess that I am drawn to you. But I'm rather wrought up inside. I'm about to lose someone I love or, at the least, someone whom I believe I could grow, rather deeply, over time, to love. If it weren't for that..."
"I understand," Queen Admete said after a short pause as she and Lila stood together at the threshold. "Perhaps, at some future time, when this wretched war has come to a close, you might consider returning for a less frenetic visit. I'd like that."
"I think I'd like that too," Lila said and then, after shaking hands, Lila and Queen Admete embraced briefly. Admete smiled with composure when Lila gave her a kiss on the cheek.
"Oh, by the way...," Queen Admete called out when Lila had taken several steps down the corridor in the direction of her assigned room.
"Yes?" Lila turned around and called back.
"Just to be sure," Queen Admete said, "you are enareti kori. That is, you were until you became lovers with Penthesileia."
"That's right," Lila said.
"Just checking," Queen Admete said. "Well, good night. Secure that belt. Make it good and safe and I'll see you off in the morning."
Lila nodded, smiled and turned to continue down the hall to her room. What did her being enareti kori have to do with procuring Hippolyte's belt for its return to Penthesileia and the Amazons? Funny the thoughts that popped into lonely queens’ heads late at night.
|Continued - Chapter 66|
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