This story belongs to me, the author, who created it from the wild, weird, fevered mutterings of his fetid imagination, wrote it by staying up well past his bedtime, edited it with a Websters Universal College Dictionary in his lap and the suggestions of his interfering know-it-all friends who dont understand him or the story or the glory that is his writing and was finally placed before you for your entertainment at great expense to me, the author. No one else may claim any credit for this story but me, the author, or copy any of it or use it in their creative writing class or refer to it in any way without crediting me, the author. Also, if you want to send me, the author, money...GO AHEAD!
This story contains no sex scenes, yet. Trust me, Im working up to that. Anticipation is truly the spice that flavors the dish. Without it the meal goes down way too fast and way too bland. Have a little patience. Let the characters draw you into their lives and emotions. This tale is about many things but behind it all its a story about the power of compassion and love.
The two main characters of this story are female. Mostly because I like females. Some of my best friends are females. It is the blossoming love of these two women that forms the heart of this story. If that offends you...GROW UP!
I hope to see this novel published some day but Im letting you, the reader, read it because people have been bugging me after I put part one on the Bards Corner that they want to read the next part and I am easily swayed by anyone showing the slightest interest in my work. If it ever does come out in book form Im trusting that you will still buy a copy even though youve already read a lot of it here on MaryDs page. Im putting my faith in you so dont let me down.
If you do read this work I hope you will let me know what you think. Feed back is always encouraged. An author (thats me) without an audience is a sad and pathetic creature. Dont leave me sad and pathetic, friendless and alone to die weeping bitter tears. Write me a nice little e-mail and pat me on the head and scratch my tummy. Its a cheap thrill and an easy way to do a good deed without getting annoying hairs on your clothes. I can be reached at my usual haunts.
So, enough of my blathering. I present for your reading enjoyment.
KEOLA AND ORESTA
BY JIM KUNTZ
(the aformentioned author)
I wont be long," Oresta said from the doorway. "I want to check on the horses before we leave."
Keola looked up from the pallet they had shared, the blonde sleeping with her back to the Amazon all night. She propped her head on an elbow.
"Does Farsala realize the depths of your devotion?" she asked.
"Oh, the bitch knows all right," Oresta answered breezily, not missing a beat. "Shes playing hard to get, but shell come around. The horse hasnt been born that can resist my charms."
"We already know donkeys like you, right?" the Amazon smiled.
"Please," Oresta said, putting up a hand. "A youthful indiscretion shouldnt be held against me. Ive grown and matured. Im trying to molest a higher class of animal now. Besides, if you look close on a clear night, Amazon, youll see it written in the stars. Since time immemorial, Oresta and Farsala, our hearts fated to be one, lovers, soul mates," the end of the blondes mouth twitched up, "or at least stable mates, for all eternity." She bowed out the door with a dramatic flourish. "Its our destiny."
"Uh, huh," Keola grunted. She laughed.
"Good morning, my Lady," Darius smiled as Keola entered the kitchen. "What may I get you this beautiful morning?"
"Just a cup of goats milk, sir," the Amazon smiled back. "If I eat in the morning I feel drowsy all day."
"You should call me Darius, my Lady," the man said as he poured a cup of milk from a tall pitcher. "I am but a servant, here to serve." He handed Keola the cup with a slight bow. A sparkle came to his eyes. "In any way that I might serve a young warrior of the Amazon people," he purred deep in his throat.
Keola took the cup and examined it a moment, eyes down. An enigmatic smile came to her lips.
"Thank you, sir." she said. She took a gulp. "Cows milk!?" she blurted, surprised.
"I keep a couple of old milk cows out behind the stable," Xenophon said from the doorway. "The milk agrees with me better, and the children seem to thrive on it."
"Children?" Keola repeated. "You mean those tiny terrors I saw in the courtyard yesterday?"
"The increase of my slaves," the old man explained. "Worse than damn rabbits. More all the time. But I like to see them do well. If they grow up strong and healthy I get more work out of them." He shrugged nonchalantly. "Just good business."
"Just good business my ass," Darius mumbled as he returned to kneading the days bread, knowing full well the cost of feeding and caring for two expensive bovines.
"What!? You have something to say you Babylonian bumpkin?" Xenophon demanded.
"Me, master?" Darius said in mock surprise. "What would I have to say? Only my master understands the mysteries of business. I am but a humble cook here to do as I am instructed."
"Quick, Keola, lets get out of here," he said. "We dont want to get singed by the lightening bolt Zeus is going to incinerate the old reprobate with for telling such a lie. Im shocked his tongue didnt swell up and explode in his mouth as he uttered the words."
Keola chuckled as she finished the milk and handed the cup to the Babylonian.
"I hope Lady Keola will visit us often," Darius called as the Amazon left.
Xenophon lingered by the doorpost.
"I am but a servant here to serve!?" he mocked with a laugh of derision. "Thats the best you could do?"
Darius smiled slyly and touched his prominent nose with a white dusted finger.
"I have the scent, master," he said. "This is only the first step of a long hunt. I think it will be a hunt worthy of the hunter, and the hunted."
"Arent you getting too old for this?" Xenophon asked, exasperated.
"Im not dead yet," Darius smiled.
"Well, Babylonian, that might change." There was no humor in the old mans face. "Mark my words, I believe theres another predator on Keolas trail who wont hesitate slicing you from gizzard to balls if you interfere. No woman is worth that."
"Perhaps not," Darius said with a smile and shrug that said the opposite.
"Well, dont say I didnt warn you, you old fool." Xenophon huffed.
"As Lady Keola opens her beautiful self to me I will certainly remember, master," the Babylonian answered. "If I should end my days gutted and skinned I know I can depend on you to give me a proper funeral, so my spirit may soar up to Baal and the heavens."
"Hardly," Xenophon scoffed. "Ill mount your worthless carcass on the wall here as a warning to the new cook to heed his masters good advice. And while youre hanging there maybe you could pay attention and finally learn something about cooking."
Darius cocked his head in his habitual pose.
"Has my master ever had the runs for four days?" he asked.
"How long have you and Oresta known each other?" Keola asked as she waited in the narrow street outside Xenophons door.
"Oh, about two, two and a half years," the old man replied, "ever since she started stabling Farsala here when she was in the city." He smiled. "She certainly made an impression that first time I saw her. Owning the stable I meet people from everywhere, but she was unique. Still is. I dont know anyone else like her. I value her friendship very highly."
Keola nodded. She rubbed her nose and shifted on her feet a little uncertainly.
"Uh, she..." the Amazon hesitated, "has, uh..., does she ever bring any of her other friends for dinner?"
Xenophon scratched his hairy gray chin a moment, eyeing Keola intently.
"Youre the only other woman Ive met who dresses so...," he paused and shrugged with a slight smile, "masculine. Do you know of any other women warriors in the world beside Amazons?"
Keola let out an embarrassed little puff of air. She smiled
"I see Oresta has a friend who respects her privacy," she said approvingly.
"I see the same," Xenophon smiled back.
"Youre both smiling," Oresta said as she approached. "I must be the topic of conversation. I affect people that way."
"No," Keola corrected, "if we were talking about you wed both be laughing. This may shock you but youre not the center of the universe."
"I am so the center of the universe," the blonde frowned. "All intelligent, educated people know that. Only ignorant mor...," she clapped her hand on Keolas shoulder, "oh sorry," she smiled, "nothing personal."
"Uh huh," the Amazon grunted. "So, was Farsala in a receptive mood this morning?"
"Its a gradual process, if its any of your business," Oresta answered. "Shes warming up to me. We shared a little kiss. She keeps trying to bite my chin off though. Im not sure if its a love nip or shes just hungry."
Keola snickered. She looked at Xenophon.
"Thank Artemis theyre both female. If one of them ever got pregnant can you imagine the little centaur that would result," she said. "Farsalas the pretty one of the pair and that would be the ass end of the poor thing."
The old man laughed.
"No, thats not a pretty picture," he said, "not at all."
Oresta snorted derisively.
"And what would you know about pretty pictures?" she asked. "You think that hack who painted those lame murals on your dinning room wall was an artist. Ill have you know my child would be beautiful. The most beautiful centaur you can imagine. An Athena among centaurs."
"And what possibly makes you think that?" Keola challenged with a smile.
"Because my baby would...she..." a shadow passed over Orestas face, only a slight momentary darkness, but Xenophon and Keola both noticed "...she just would be. Shed be my beautiful little centaur and Id keep her far away from randy old perverts and smart-ass Amazons who didnt appreciate her."
"And well you should," Xenophon agreed. "I know if I had a daughter Id certainly keep her away from the likes of us. Wouldnt you?" he asked Keola.
"Absolutely," she nodded, "far away."
The three shared a smile.
"Well, we should get going," Oresta urged. "Itll probably take us all day to find your Ambassador with those vague directions youve got."
"Vague?" Xenophon asked.
"I was told the Ambassador lives on a side street east of the Panathenia just before the Agora," Keola quoted.
The old man chuckled.
"Maybe two days," he said to Oresta.
Xenophon then did something Keola had not seen since she left the Amazon valley. He extended his arm to her. She took it immediately and gripped it warmly.
"A hot meal and a warm bed are always here for you, Keola," the man said. "I hope you will visit often while youre in the city." He cocked his head at Oresta. "You can bring her along if you want but you dont have to."
"Nice," the blonde grimaced, "and I thought I was to be your companion in hell."
"You will be," Xenophon smiled, "for eternity. But in the here and now Philestra thinks Keola is a better influence on me. I believe our young warrior has an admirer. I think my wife has secret fantasies of being an Amazon."
Keola smiled a bit awkwardly, eyes shifting from Xenophon to Oresta, who shared a look only friends can share. She squeezed the mans forearm.
"Sir, thank you for your generosity and hospitality. The food, the drink, the bed and the company were all excellent and very much appreciated. I certainly hope we will..."
"Come on, come on," Oresta chided impatiently, pulling on Keolas sleeve, "he gets the idea. You liked eating his food, drinking his wine and making me look bad in front of his wife. Now lets go."
Reluctantly the Amazon let Oresta drag her away. Xenophon smiled and waved a dignified goodbye. Oresta gave him a grin and a wink that said all that needed saying between them. As they walked the narrow dusty winding street toward the Panathenic Way Keola looked up at the blonde.
"I liked Xenophon very much," she said approvingly. "He seemed like a good man. Is he one of those men youd trust to watch your back?"
Oresta smiled and shook her head.
"That old man probably hasnt had a sword in his hand in twenty years. Id be in a lot of trouble if he were watching my back." The smile faded. "But hell never have to worry about his. Not as long as Im alive." She took a thoughtful breath. "Yes, Amazon, hes a friend, if thats what youre asking?"
Keola nodded once and the feeling that had been forming in her chest hardened to a conviction. Xenophon might not know it for certain yet, but he had another friend.
The main thoroughfare of Athens, running from the Dipylon Gate straight as an arrow in flight to the center of the city, the Agora market place, was the broad paved Panathenic Way. The sun was just peaking above the roofs of the white marble temples on the Acropolis, the mound of a hill that erupted like a mole on the cheek of the city behind the marketplace, as Keola and Oresta joined the morning throng of workers, slaves, artisans, merchants, farmers leading donkeys pulling carts of fresh produce, herders with long staffs moving sheep and goats, dogs barking furiously around the edges to keep them together, all the rush hour traffic of a great city awakening to a new day. The congestion in the road and the buzzing spirit of the crowd was greater even than usual, to Orestas annoyance. The Panathenia Festival was to start on the morrow and the city was alive with anticipation, and gawking tourists. Keola tried hard not to be one of the gawkers. She was keenly aware of the eyes that followed her and her tall companion, accompanied by surprised, curious faces and sometimes pointing fingers and whispering behind a shielding hand. She consciously walked taller, back straighter, stride firmer. What did the blonde say? That she was the only Amazon warrior these people had ever seen, maybe ever would see? She wanted the sight to be a memorable one, an impressive one. And she had the confidence, perhaps the arrogance, to believe she could be impressive. Her first firmest belief, from which every other flowed, was always in herself. Still, it was very hard not to stare open mouthed. Everything was so new, incredible, unexpected. Senses wide open, trying to see in three directions at once so as not to miss anything, she was soaking in so much she felt on the verge of being overwhelmed. The beautiful silhouetted temples atop the Acropolis, dark shadows surrounded by magical glistening yellow light. The wooden Athena towering majestically, watching over all with a serene pride. The hum of so many voices, some babbling in strange barbarian tongues, the speakers dressed in bizarre, colorful costumes. The tactile sense of weaving in and out among such a tide of surging people, sometimes crowded so close she could smell their sweaty bodies in the rising heat as she rubbed shoulders and grunted perfunctory apologies, sometimes finding a little space where she could see the edges of the boulevard, lined with wine shops and restaurants, large open doorways letting in air and light, the patrons visible in the shaded gloom sitting on benches along the wall or at small tables on three legged stools, sipping beer or slurping a thick vegetable stew from a bowl held in both hands, all of them seemingly watching her watch them.
After half a league a great plaza opened up ahead. Long low buildings of marble and cement faced with simple, elegant fluted columns supporting high sloping red slate roofs bordered the space. Tall poplars and plane trees grew in scattered clumps of two or three, offering relief from the sun across the otherwise open, unpaved expanse. The tops of dozens of colorful awnings, blue, red, green, purple, undulated in the freshening morning breeze, kiosks containing the wonders of the world to be bought, sold, traded. The Amazon hurried her pace, anxious to see everything. Oresta caught her arm and pulled her up short. She pointed off across the street to the left at a wine shop with a portrait of a helmeted warrior painted above the entrance.
"Well ask about your Ambassador in there," she said. "Someone might know her."
"Why there?" Keola asked.
"Its where the generals and admirals of the Athenian military like to spend their mornings, before wandering over to the Strategoi on the other side of the Agora in the afternoon to plot on their maps and play with their toy boats as they plan the next massacre, er..." Oresta grinned her cynical grin, "liberation for the glory of Athens and the divine Athena. An Amazon Ambassador would be a real curiosity. Surely someone in there has talked to her, to see if a wild army of half-naked Amazon warriors is about to storm the walls and batter down the gates. Its their job to be ready for that sort of thing." Her grin broadened. "You can never be too careful when it comes to Amazons you know. Theyre insane."
"Uh huh," Keola grunted, hands on hips. "So, why would these important men be interested in answering your questions?"
"Oh," the blonde said, ire rising, " you dont think important people would talk to the likes of me?"
Keola did not respond.
"Well, Amazon, youll be shocked to learn I know quite a few important people in this city." The end of her mouth edged up. "I take their money on a regular basis."
"Of course," the Amazon said with a disapproving snort.
"Of course," Oresta mimicked. "Now come on, lets see what we can find out."
It took a moment for Keolas eyes to adjust after having the glare of the morning sun in her face. The room was rectangular, short end opening onto the street. The walls immediately drew her attention. They were painted from floor to ceiling with a dramatic mural of a great naval battle. Triremes crowded with warriors in hoplite armor rammed enemy galleys, spilling unfortunate sailors into the sea. Ships sank in swirling waters. Flights of arrows arched across a blue sky. The artistry was of a different quality than what she had seen at Xenophons. She could almost hear the cracking of wooden hulls, the frightened, screaming battle frenzy of the combatants assaulting her from the plastered brick. For the briefest instant that terrible sound was in her ears again but she cleared it out with a slight determined shake of her head.
Men, middle aged, old, paused in their conversations to examine the unexpected stranger standing next to the blonde.
"Come on," Oresta whispered.
She led the Amazon across the room, edging between tables, careful not to disturb any of the patrons. She stopped in front of a large man sitting alone on a bench against the back wall. His long black hair was braided into a tail behind each ear that fell down his neck to his breast, tied at the ends by a thick blue string. He was gray at the temples and his close cropped beard was peppered with gray. A white linen toga edged with elaborate purple stitching was precisely arranged over his shoulder and carefully smoothed down the front, not wrinkled and billowing as it was on most men as they sat. Past middle age his body was still thick and imposing, bare arms muscular, hands large and powerful as he took a slow sip of beer from a silver chalice inlaid with a portrait of an owl, Athenas beloved pet and symbol of her wisdom. Dark penetrating eyes stared out from a cold expressionless face.
"Sir," Oresta said with a respectful bow.
The man nodded slightly in return.
"I would like to introduce Keola of Kalvia, a warrior of the Amazon people," the blonde continued.
Keola smiled and put out her arm. The man slowly brought his chalice down to his lap. He made no effort to take the offered arm. Hard black eyes bored into the Amazon from a granite face. Keola lowered her arm as the smile disappeared from her lips. Oresta glanced at her, ready to speak to break the strained silence, but she hesitated, taken aback for the second time by the look she saw in the Amazons eyes. In an instant they had become a mirror of the mans, cold, intense, unyielding. Perhaps even more unsettling set in that youthful attractive face. Two warriors of iron sizing up a potential enemy, calculating weakness and strength.
Oresta cleared her throat.
"Warrior," she said, "this is Lamachus Hippeis Alcemaeonidae, First Admiral of the Fleet of Athens."
"A pleasure, sir" Keola said evenly with a slight formal bow.
Lamachus attention finally drifted from the Amazon to the blonde.
"So, Oresta," he rumbled in a deep bass voice, "back so soon to shear the flock? I thought you were headed to Corinth to milk more dinars out of that fat cow Themistocles and impale yourself on some virgin Acolytes of Apollo?" His upper lip pulled back, exposing his teeth, or perhaps a wolf showing his fangs. "Its well those boys dont know what theyre missing. Apollo might snuff out the sun in revenge if he ever found out the vixen had been in his hen house despoiling all his roosters. I wouldnt like living my life by candlelight."
The end of Orestas mouth edged up in a humorless cynical smirk. Keola shifted her shoulders as her hands came up to her hips. She leaned slightly forward. The blonde sensed the movement, and the meaning. Her hand moved over and long fingers encircled the Amazons forearm in a tight grip.
"Im much too clever a fox to be caught, you know that," Oresta said with a wink and smile. "Of course Apollo would never have eggs for his breakfast again. What cock could bear wasting his seed on some lifeless cackling hen after a visit from me?"
Lamachus chuckled in a low rumble and shook his head.
"I hope theres only one of you in the world, woman. Two would be one too many."
"Dont worry, sir, theres only me," the blonde assured. "The gods make a mistake like this only once."
Lamachus nodded. Oresta eased her grip on Keola.
"I came to ask a favor, sir," she continued. "Keola has come to deliver dispatches to the new Amazon Ambassador here in Athens but she doesnt know where she lives. I thought one of your people might know."
Lamachus eyed Oresta a moment, then looked around the room.
"Cleon," he called.
A tall man talking with several others on a bench against the wall looked up. He came over and presented himself with a slight bow.
"Cleon, didnt you interview that Amazon Ambassador and deliver a report to the First Citizen a few months ago?" the Admiral asked.
"Yes I did," the man smiled enthusiastically. "Who would have thought it? A real Amazon. I didnt think they actually existed. She was a most interesting and charming woman. Its funny you should ask me where she lives. Shortly after I gave the report Lady Aspasia came and asked me the same thing. She seemed very anxious to meet the woman. You know how Lady Aspasia is, always so curious about..."
"Cleon," Lamachus snapped harshly, cutting him off. "Where does the Ambassador live?"
Cleon frowned at the rudeness, but after clearing his throat indignantly he launched into a detailed description of twists and turns and landmarks and cross streets and number of doorways on the left. It was a jumble that made no sense to the Amazon. She was heartened to see that Oresta seemed to actually be following what the man was saying. Finally he finished.
"Thank you, sir," Oresta said, to Lamachus, not Cleon. He frowned again.
The blonde pulled on Keolas sleeve. The Amazon bowed and they weaved their way toward the door. They were almost out when a hand on Orestas shoulder stopped them.
"Youll be coming back soon I assume?" Cleon half asked, half demanded.
"Oh, I always come back, you know that," Oresta grinned. "If I didnt drain your purse now and then youd rupture something carrying the heavy thing around."
The tall man squinted at the blonde.
"Next time," he put a hand in a fold of his sky blue toga, pulled it out and opened it, revealing four polished white ivory cubes, "well use my dice."
"Cleon, my friend, well use whatever dice you want," Oresta said with mocking solicitude. "Besides, its not the dice that win." She smiled her cynical, mischievous smirk. "Its the player."
"In a game of chance no one should win consistently," Cleon said evenly, an undertone of accusation coloring the words.
"You would think so," the blonde agreed with a non-committal shrug, "but experience is often different than theory. Im sure youve found that out in war and so it is in other things. Who can explain it? A mystery of the gods I suppose. Anyway," she closed the mans hand around the dotted cubes, "dont lose those, well soon have a chance to test again the difference between theory and reality. I look forward to it."
Before Cleon could say another word Oresta swept out of the shop closely followed by the Amazon. As they mingled again among the crowd of the Panathenic Way the blonde mumbled under her breath, loud enough for Keola to hear, "only suckers play games of chance."
At the last narrow cross street before the Agora Oresta stopped to examine the herm, a rectangular column six feet high with a prominent but well worn phallus carved halfway up and the head of the god Hermes, guardian of entrances and passageways, sculpted on top.
"This way," Oresta pointed.
As she passed the column she reflexively reached out and stroked the stone penis. Keola responded with a bemused, uncertain look. The blonde noticed the face and laughed. She took the Amazons hand and placed it on the phallus.
"You stroke it for luck and to get the gods attention, so hell protect you against any hazards on the road," Oresta explained, "like cutpurses or someone dumping a chamber pot from a second floor window on your head."
Keola took her hand away.
"You dont believe in gods," she observed.
Oresta chuckled and shrugged.
"I know. I just like to feel it. I havent run across any men so far who can keep it up as long or as hard as old Hermes can here." She patted the penis and grinned. "Hes my hero."
"Uh huh," the Amazon grunted. But there was a sharp, reproachful sound to it, the usual humor missing. Keola took a few steps down the narrow street Oresta had indicated, then stopped when she realized she was alone. She turned to see the blonde still standing by the herm, eyes dark, body rigid as the stone statue.
"Were you really going to pull on Lamachus back there?" Oresta asked, voice low, almost angry.
Keola squared her feet, hands on her hips, face stern.
"He called you a defiler and a whore," she rumbled.
"Fuck you!" Oresta barked. "I know what he called me, Amazon." Her sword hand balled up in a fist. "I dont need you to defend my fucking honor. You dont know me; maybe I am a defiler and a whore."
Keola leaned a little forward, because backing up was impossible for her.
"I dont give a damn if it is true," she said between clenched teeth. "Sometimes truth is truth and sometimes its a weapon people pull, a knife to stab someone because they want to hurt them. Whether you claim us or not, Oresta, youre Amazon. Your honor is our honor and I swore an oath to protect everything Amazon."
"I dont need or want your protection," the blonde almost shouted, people passing turning to look. "And dont presume to tell me who I am. Is that absolutely clear?!"
Keola did not answer. There was a long strained silence. But as Oresta stared into those indignant, unflinching brown eyes her anger drained, much as she wanted to keep it. She knew she should have been long gone and yet she could not take a step. This young woman had some mysterious hold on her she could not break. In fact she was even losing the desire to try. The one constant of her life was slipping away. Her complete detachment from the human race. How far would it go? How painful would it be? It was frightening. Only the dead can be trusted. She looked in those eyes and knew it was a lie. But how could she know? You can never know. Nothing is truly certain but death. Still, she believed. Or maybe for the first time she just wanted to believe. To believe in something. She let out a long breath. Her face changed as she gave up trying to be angry.
"You dont even know who you were about to challenge do you?" she said finally, the edge gone from her voice.
"The First Admiral of the Athenian Fleet," Keola repeated.
"No, thats just a title," Oresta said ruefully. "You were about to challenge Lamachus Hippeis Alcmaeonidae. Did you see that mural of a battle on the wall? Its the battle of Salamis Bay, thirty years ago, when the Persians were defeated and Greece was saved from invasion. Lamachus was there. The youngest Captain of a trireme in the Athenian fleet. He sank one war galley and captured another. In a dozen campaigns since, the last ten years as First Admiral, hes never been defeated. We both know theres lots of people who carry swords, but only a few true warriors. Hes the real thing, Amazon. Dont fuck with him."
Keola took a considered breath.
"Are you afraid of him?" she asked, not mockingly, but with an obvious desire to know more, to understand.
"No," Oresta answered, "Im not afraid of him. But if Im going to make a man like that my enemy I need a damn good reason. More than just a passing insult. Till I have one Im keeping my head out of the lions mouth. And so are you."
"I dont need or want your protection," Keola said evenly.
"Fuck you, Amazon," Oresta snapped back.
An amused smirk came to Keolas face.
"Not today, Im busy," she replied.
A smile came to the blondes lips.
"That was a one-time offer," she said. "Now youll never know the pleasure that kept so many donkeys awake nights. Your loss."
"Uh huh," Keola grunted.
The houses were crowded close, two, sometimes three stories tall. Often three or four were built together, sharing outer walls, doorways evenly spaced facing the street, an apartment block. Even when single only a foot or two separated one from another. The lanes were barely ten feet wide and at times the Amazon had the feeling she was walking down a corridor, or passing through a tunnel, rather than strolling a city street in broad daylight. The people she passed were almost all women, and most seemed to be slaves judging from the plain, shapeless, threadbare dresses that showed dirty unshod feet. Many expertly balanced a large round clay pot of water on their heads with one hand, a scarf wrapped around their skulls to cushion the weight. They would make a quick, respectful blink and nod as they eyed the strange women passing through their neighborhood. Oresta navigated, counting streets, counting doorways. It was instantly obvious how lost one could get. Every lane, every entrance appeared the same, whitewashed mud brick walls, red tiled roofs, plain wooden doors, all of them closed, no markings on the entrances identifying one from another. However, there was a fascinating creative effort that did distinguish one flat white surface from next, graffiti. On every wall, sometimes even burned into the wood of a door, drawings, many obscene, graphic, juvenile, sayings, personal insults, pornographic poems, but dominating all, political messages.
Pericles and his whore must go! Vote to banish Strintius the traitor!
Pericles has earned out trust! Our strength is on the water, vote for a bigger fleet!
Several times the Amazon stopped to take it all in, eyes dark, concentrated. Finally Oresta let out a disgusted sigh.
"Do you want me to bring a stool and a beer so you can read the walls in comfort?" she huffed impatiently. "I know I dont have anything better to do."
Keola kept reading, answering with a vague, annoyed wave of the hand.
"Look, what is it with you anyway?" the blonde demanded. "Its just the usual political garbage. Who has the power. Who wants the power. Why the hell do you care?"
"Its whats happening in the world," Keola answered, still reading. "Isnt that why you left the valley, to see whats happening in the world?"
"No," the blonde said, "I left to see the world."
Keola looked at her quizzically.
"I left to see the world, Amazon," Oresta continued. "The mountains, the valleys, the oceans, the cities, the beauty. Whos king? Whos first citizen? Who just conquered whom? Its no more important than what young ram just booted out the old ram to take over the flock. Therell be another ram and another after that, generation after generation. The flock will go on as it always has, from the beginning of time till the end. What difference do the details make? Theyll be forgotten tomorrow. Who cares?"
Keola turned to read the graffiti on the opposite wall.
"Im not a ram, Oresta," she said quietly, "or ewe or buck or doe or bird or fish or insect. Im a human being. What I do is important. What I add or subtract from the world is important. I dont believe in fate or destiny. I believe in me. And I want to know whats going on with the rest of the people in this world. Ill let the sheep take care of their own business."
The blondes eyebrows knitted together.
"Damn, you really are the most arrogant person Ive ever met," she said.
"So Ive been told," Keola replied absently. She finished reading. She looked at Oresta, brown eyes bright. "Doesnt make me wrong though. Just obnoxious."
Oresta snorted and shook her head in disbelief.
Keola knocked on the door Oresta indicated. They waited patiently. There was no response.
"Are you sure its the right one?" Keola asked.
"Damned if I know," Oresta shrugged. "Its where the directions lead. Maybe Cleon remembered wrong."
"Or maybe he sent us on a wild goose chase for a little payback," Keola suggested.
"A respected member of the Athenian Admiralty wouldnt do anything that petty, would he?" The end of the blondes mouth curled. "Or maybe he would."
"Great," the Amazon spit disgustedly. She stepped back into the street and examined the house. It was only one story and small. No window faced the street. The whitewash of the walls was dull and flaked, the graffiti unreadable in places where the paint had peeled away. Tiles on the roof were cracked and a few were missing. The other houses along the street, although bigger, with two stories, had the same weathered, neglected, aged appearance. Suddenly a small yellow mongrel came yelping around a corner and dashed past Keolas feet. Immediately a pack of dusty naked children boiled out from the same corner laughing and throwing stones. Several whizzed past the Amazons face chasing after the fleeing mutt.
"Hey!!! Enough of that!!!" Keolas voice boomed. The children froze like deer startled by the snap of a twig beneath a wolfs paw. They gazed up, stunned, into a stern, hard face. The Amazon picked out a boy of six or seven, matted black hair down to his shoulders, slightly distended belly, outsized feet at the end of long skinny legs.
"You, little man!" She pointed at the ground at her feet. "Right here! Right now!"
The boys brain said run, but the commanding voice, the authoritative, intimidating warrior presence said running was impossible. Reluctantly he did the only thing he could, obey. The other children watched wide eyed, afraid to move lest they draw the wolfs attention.
"Whats your name?" Keola demanded.
"Terzium, my Lady," the boy replied, eyes down.
"Well, Terzium, if youre quite done throwing stones, perhaps you could answer some questions?"
The Amazons tone clearly indicated Terzium was done throwing rocks and he was going to answer.
"Yes, my Lady."
"Do you know who lives in this house?" she asked with a nod at the residence.
"I...I dont know who she is," the boy answered. "A tall lady with gray in her hair. She moved in after old Philipi died last fall. I dont know her name."
"Mama says shes an Amazon," a thin voice piped.
Keola glanced up. A tiny girl looked back with sparkling black eyes in a dirt-smudged face.
"Mama says shes from the edge of the world where barbarians and demons live. Mama doesnt want my brothers to talk to her. Amazons kill little boys and eat them. Sometimes I wish shed eat my brothers."
A boy behind the girl punched her in the arm.
"Shut up! you little snot," he hissed. "Tonight well chop you up and feed you to the harpy on the roof."
"Liar!" the girl whined, holding her arm. "Theres no harpy; youre a liar, liar, liar!!"
"Enough!" Keola barked.
There was silence.
"All of you, right here, gather round," she commanded.
Quickly eight small faces stared up at her.
"Have any of you seen the lady who lives here today?" she asked.
"I saw her this morning," a boy said. "She left early, just after Apollo brought back the sun. She had a big basket on her back. I didnt see the men."
"The men?" Keola repeated, eyebrows coming together in surprise.
"There was two of them," another boy volunteered. "They were sneakin round after it got dark. The Amazon lady letem in. Didnt she, Terzium?"
Terzium nodded. "They didnt want the night watch to see um. But we saw um. We were playing ghost and we saw um. I bet they were gonna steal something. Thats why they were sneakin."
The other boy gave Terzium a shove.
"They werent gonna steal anything, stupid," he scoffed. "She let um in. If they were going to steal somethin they would have broke a hole in the roof or somethin. Youre so stupid."
"Am not!" Terzium shoved back.
"Stop!" the Amazon snapped.
Again there was silence.
"Does anyone else live here?" she asked.
"Just the ladys slave," another boy answered dismissively. "Shes out getting water. Shell be back soon."
Keola looked over at Oresta, confusion on her face. The blonde shrugged her own mystification. Amazons were forbidden to own anyone. Oresta reached down and jingled out a handful of dinars from the coin purse at her hip.
"All right you little monsters," she said cheerily, "time to terrorize the shoppers in the Agora. Here," she put a dinar in each eager hand that reached up to her, "go and buy a treat for once instead of stealing it. Itll be a new experience. Maybe youll learn to like it."
Deliberately she avoided Terziums hand until the other children all had a coin and were disappearing up the street shouting and laughing. She grabbed the boys wrist and carefully placed two dinars in the open palm.
"Would you like to have more of these?" she asked seriously, looking him in the eyes.
"Then make it your business to keep an eye on the Amazon ladys door. I may ask you from time to time what you see. Youll get two dinars every time I ask, okay?"
"Okay, my Lady," the boy enthused.
"All right," she released his wrist, "now get out of here you little hooligan."
Terzium raced away, half running half skipping, his arm waving above his head, two precious silver spheres clasped tightly in his grip. Oresta watched him disappear. She glanced at Keola. The Amazons jaw was tight, eyes hooded, concentrated. Finally she nodded once, in silent agreement.
The two women squatted down against the wall opposite the Ambassadors door and waited. Keola observed the comings and goings on the street with interest. After half a dozen candle marks she noticed Oresta kneading with one hand the fleshy web between thumb and forefinger of the other. Looking closer she could see the dark thin shadow of a splinter under the skin. After watching the blonde uselessly dig at the painful irritant for a moment she grabbed the hand with an exasperated shake of her head.
"Here," she said, putting the hand in her lap, "youre just making it worse."
She pulled a long slender knife with a fine point from her boot and began carefully probing.
"Whered you get this?" she asked as she concentrated on her work.
"The stall gate this morning when I was checking on Farsala," Oresta replied.
Keola carefully maneuvered the sliver till the end was exposed through the skin. She brought the hand to her mouth and grasped the splinter between her teeth extracting it with a slow steady pull. Oresta winced.
"You should be careful of those," the Amazon said as she spit the sliver of wood away and replaced her knife. "They can get infected. A friend of mine in Kalvia lost a hand that got infected and turned black. The healer had to take it off before it killed her."
"Thank you mother Keola," the blonde said rubbing the sore spot.
"Fuck you, Oresta," the Amazon replied.
"Not today, Im busy."
They shared a smile.
Keola looked up and down the street.
"So, whats going on?" she asked. "Weve been here all this time and I havent seen a male over six or seven years old. Nothing but females. If I didnt know better Id think I was back in the valley."
"You would think so wouldnt you," Oresta chuckled. "The males are all gone, free and slave, men and older boys, working or going to school in the gymnasiums," she explained. "Theyre in the Agora or the wine shops or hanging around the court buildings listening to the law cases or being part of the juries. The richer citizens have farms outside the city worked by slaves so they can spend their time as they wish. The poorer ones work at a trade or own a restaurant or wine shop or one of the stalls in the marketplace. They leave home at dawn and dont return till dusk. During the day the neighborhoods belong to the women and small children."
The Amazon nodded her comprehension. Another candle mark burned quietly past. The blonde nudged Keola with an elbow. With a slight, cynical smirk she directed her attention down the street. A man walked quickly along the lane. A potter, Keola guessed, from the gray flecks of clay on his plain brown tunic and breeches. There were spots of dried clay on his hands and forearms as well, although it looked like he had made an effort to wash. He was middle-aged and stared straight ahead as he walked, deliberately avoiding eye contact with anyone. He passed the women and disappeared around a corner.
"Did you see that bulge in his breeches?" Oresta laughed. "Some citizen is going to wonder why one of his children looks so different from the rest."
"You think so?" Keola frowned, sounding slightly dismayed. "Maybe hes visiting his wife?"
"Not likely," she said. "He can mount the wife all night if he wants. He didnt leave his shop in the middle of the day for that. He wants something new and different and probably cant afford a mistress."
Keola rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. She took a breath and let it slowly out.
"Maybe he loves her," she said quietly, "and she him."
"Its a strange world, anythings possible," the blonde shrugged, "but Im a gambler and I play the odds. The odds are against it. Its more likely hes just a man with a stiff cock who knows a woman who will help him with it."
Keola shook her head sadly as she looked at Oresta.
"You think the odds are against love?" she asked.
"The odds are always against love, Amazon," the blonde replied. "From what Ive seen of the world love is just a temporary illusion. A...a..." she bit her lip in that nervous habit as she wrestled with the thoughts in her head, "a sickness almost. A case of the spotted pox is less dangerous than love. Ive seen it destroy people more painfully than the pox ever could. Ive been lucky so far, not to have caught that particular disease."
"You havent been in love?" The Amazon frowned doubtfully. "You loved Ortigya."
"No..." Oresta looked down at her hand and rubbed the sore spot, deliberately shooting pain through her hand and arm, something to fight the numb hollowness in her chest, "...no, I didnt love her. I was..." she looked away down the suddenly deserted street, empty like the feeling inside her, "I was, uh... fond, fond of her, thats all." She forced her eyes back to Keola and pushed the feelings back, down, away, to whatever hole she had dug inside herself to hold them. The mischievous glint came back to her eyes. "I was fond of all the things we discovered together about each other, and ourselves." She winked. "We did some things that would make an Athens brothel owner blush."
Keola smiled that brilliant, charismatic smile that still had a hint of knowing wickedness in it.
"Sara and I had our fun, too," she said. "That girl had a magic tongue and not a shred of shame. I found myself doing the most ridiculous things in the most ridiculous places." Her grin brightened. "I guess the truth is I dont have any shame either."
The smile slowly faded to a wistful, far-away look.
"But what made it special was the love. Whatever we did we always finished by laughing so hard our sides ached, her snug in my arms, her sweet breath in my face, those beautiful green eyes looking into mine." She paused and rubbed the side of her nose thoughtfully. "Theyre right you know. The eyes are the windows to the soul. Through them you can see to the center of the universe, and beyond to the wellspring of life itself."
"And the wellspring of life, warrior poet, that would be?" Oresta questioned skeptically.
Keola shook her head.
"You dont believe in the gods, you dont believe in love," she said. "Tell me, Oresta of Farsala, what do you believe in?"
A dozen witty, cynical replies raced through the blondes brain, but none escaped her lips. There was something about the Amazon. A serious, sober intelligence behind the warm smile and bright clear eyes that was unmistakable, compelling. A person not to be dismissed with glibness. A person with the capacity, and the desire, to understand. And Oresta wanted her to understand. It was important that she understand. She reached in a small pouch sown to the waist of her breeches at the hip. She opened her hand. It contained four ivory cubes. Keola regarded them for a long moment.
"Youre such a mystery," she said finally. "You rattle on and on about inescapable destiny, then tell me you believe in the randomness of chance and a throw of the dice." Her eyes narrowed as she gazed into Orestas. "Are there two of you in there?" The words seemed only half in jest.
"If you only see chance operating here, Amazon," the blonde said, "then youre a fool, like Cleon, who can only see the surface of things. You have to pull back the veil of reality, Keola. You have to see past it to the truth."
She let the cubes fall from her hand into the dust. The black dots totaled twelve.
"It only appears random," she continued. "If you throw these bones enough, a hundred, a thousand times, a pattern will emerge, predictable, consistent. The odds for a certain number will increase, decrease. You only need to understand it to know how to bet. The universe is like the dice. It may appear random on the surface, but underneath its mechanical, a mechanism, like the clock I saw in Alexandria. Wheels and pulleys and counterweights. Its workings are inevitable. Its rules unbreakable. Two and two are four. A coin flipped a thousand times will come up heads half the time. Objects always fall to earth. Were part of the clock, Amazon. Gears in the mechanism. The wheels turn and we fulfill our function. So its always been, so it will always be. Thats what I believe. Its what I know."
Keola studied the dice on the ground intently. Carefully she picked them up and held them tight in her hand. Finally she put them in Orestas palm.
"Squeeze," she instructed.
The blonde did as she was asked, looking at the Amazon questioningly.
"What do you feel?" Keola asked.
Oresta shrugged her incomprehension. They felt like dice, the sharp edges poking her flesh.
"Do they move, do they squirm, do they squeal and try to slither through your fingers?" the Amazon asked.
The blonde shook her head no.
"Theyre inanimate objects," Keola said, "lifeless, without brain or heart or soul. So is your clock, your mechanism. But the world is about life, Oresta. Its bursting with life, overgrown with life, overwhelmed with life. The mystery of the universe is the mystery of life. The glorious, unpredictable chaos of life. We cant control anything about it. We can only struggle to control ourselves. And hopefully make some positive contribution to it. And also enjoy the emotions that bubble through life and make it worthwhile. Like love. You told me to find out what a person fears if you want to understand them. Perhaps its the unfettered freedom of life that frightens you."
Before the blonde could answer Keola stood up and motioned with a nod of her head. Across the street a short round woman, wide hips filling out a plain blue dress, long brown ponytail down her back, tall black unadorned water jug perched atop her head, carefully jiggled a wooden key in the lock of the Amazon Ambassadors door. At last the balky latch slide back and the door opened.
"Excuse me, maam," Keola said.
The woman started at the words. Water sloshed from the full jug and dribbled down wetting her shoulder.
"Im sorry, I didnt mean to startle you," Keola apologized. "Im looking for the Amazon Ambassador. Does she live here?"
The woman stood in the open doorway as if deliberately blocking it with her considerable girth. She examined the two strangers accosting her with suspicious eyes.
"Im, uh, Keola, of Kalvia," the Amazon said, a bit surprised at the chilly response to her question, "Ive come from Queen Ephiny of the Amazons with dispatches for the Ambassador." She rested her hand on the dispatch cylinder that hung at her hip. "Does Ambassador Artemisia live here?" she asked again.
The womans face lost color. Her jaw slackened. Orestas eyes narrowed. What did she see in that countenance? Surprise? Shock? Fear? What could be so upsetting about the arrival of some dispatches that it would produce such a reaction? The woman seemed frozen in place. Finally she recovered herself enough to take several steps back and unblock the door.
"Yes..., yes Mistress, Lady Artemisia lives here," she stammered. She started to bow reflexively, and almost missed catching the water jug as it slid off her head. She put it hurriedly aside then made a deep formal bow. "I am Tia, Mistress, please come in."
Keola entered followed by Oresta.
"Lady Artemisia is not home at the moment, Mistress," Tia continued. "Shes in the Agora selling our weeks production of cloth. She should be back in the early afternoon." She bowed again. "May I offer you and your companion a cool drink while you wait, Mistress. Lady Artemisia would be most displeased with me if I did not make her guests comfortable."
"What have you got?" Oresta asked, slightly perturbed at being so ignored by a slave.
"Wine, apple cider," the servant smiled at Keola, "a very potent brandy from Carthage that my Lady enjoys very much."
"Sounds good to me," the blonde said.
Tia hardly acknowledged the words. Her attention remained fixed on the Amazon.
"Apple cider for me, thank you, maam," Keola said.
"Ill only be a few moments, Mistress," Tia said with a bow, "please make yourselves comfortable."
The servant turned and quickly disappeared into a room across the small barren courtyard.
"Well," Oresta said, looking around at the neat, clean but obviously old and run down dwelling, no tiles on the earthen floor, cracks in the plaster of the walls, the paint faded and peeling in places, not a bench or a chair or a single decorative vase or statue in sight, Spartan to a point that even a real Spartan might complain, "it seems Queen Ephiny and the Amazons would like the world to know that they place a high value on... how should I put it?..." she smiled her mischievous smile, "frugality. Wouldnt you say so," she turned and bowed very formally with a flourish of her arm to Keola, "Mistress?" the title dripped with playful sarcasm.
The word had begun to nettle the blonde. She had gotten used to Keola referring to everyone as sir and maam, even slaves that did not merit such a title from a freeborn person. She knew it was the politeness and respect Amazons always gave to elders and she could understand Keolas ignorance of the norms of the world outside the valley, although it made her sound quaintly old fashioned and provincial to more sophisticated ears, though she had to admit, also more charming. But Tia was no provincial. And mistress was a word a slave only called her owner. Or she might use it as a term of added respect to an older member of a distinguished noble family. But it was certainly not used to refer to a fresh-faced twenty-year-old dispatch rider. And Tias use of it was even somehow vaguely rude. Although Oresta was vain enough to think she still had a certain youthful beauty left, despite the adventures and years of hard travel, she did not kid herself that anyone who saw her standing next to the Amazon would have any trouble deciding which of them was older. Yet this impertinent slave had referred to the Amazon five times as mistress while almost totally ignoring her.
Keola crinkled her nose and waved her hand at the blonde in a disgusted, dismissive gesture. The look only deepened Orestas mystification. The Amazon should have been embarrassed, surprised, perplexed. Instead she seemed only annoyed. Gods, could she truly be that arrogant?
Tia returned with the refreshments in plain, undecorated cups.
"Will you be staying here, Mistress?" Tia asked. "If so I will prepare the extra room so you may rest. Im sure it must have been a long journey."
"Yes, Ill be staying, thank you, maam," Keola answered. "And my friend will be staying too."
"I am, huh? I dont remember saying anything about staying," the blonde said, a bit nonplussed at the presumption, although she had not really given a thought yet about where she was going to sleep that night.
"Of course youre staying," the Amazon replied, as if it were an order. But as Oresta looked in Keolas brown eyes there was no command, there was a request, a plea almost, please stay. The simple heartfelt eloquence in those eyes caused the blonde to take a breath. It moved her. If she were ever to leave the time was now. She had done her good deed. Helped the lost Amazon find her way. Now she could make her goodbyes and who could find fault. She could go on to Corinth. It was not to late. Back to her life as it was, no nagging regrets.
"What the hell, why not?" Oresta shrugged.
She could not even remember making a decision, the words just came out. Like someone had decided for her and was speaking through her mouth. Keolas face erupted in that brilliant charismatic smile. A smile of genuine pleasure. And seeing it a rush surged through Oresta that made her swallow in surprise at its intensity.
Early afternoon came, and turned into late afternoon. Tia finished arranging the spare room. She fixed a simple midday meal of bread and cheese and dates. Keola had a cup of watered wine. Oresta had two cups of the Carthaginian brandy and might have had three if the Amazon had not been watching. It was excellent, and expensive, brandy. The three couches in the dinning room were old and plain, the pillows on them crushed and hardened with age, the fabric faded. Except for one couch, which had new, plush, colorful velvet covered pillows, the only hint of luxury, aside from the brandy, in the house. It seemed strange to both women. An unusual indulgence by the Ambassador. She was an Amazon, used to sitting up at her meals. They lay on the other couches while eating.
As the sun lowered Oresta rolled her speckled cubes against the west wall, so that she and Keola could take advantage of the shade as she taught the Amazon the basic rules and strategies of shooting dice. The Amazon only half listened. The blonde noticed.
"So now," she said, "if I roll two pair I get to claim your first child as a slave and sell her to the highest bidder."
The Amazon nodded. Suddenly her eyes darkened. "What!?"
"If the price isnt high enough," Oresta continued, "I get your second child as well to sell in a package deal."
"What the hell are you talking about?" the Amazon laughed.
Oresta smiled. "I dont think youre really interested in the complexities of dice, are you?"
The Amazon took a breath. "Im sorry," she said sincerely, "I am thinking about something else." Her gaze shifted across the courtyard. Through an open door she could see Tia sitting at a spinning wheel working out a fine thread of wool from a pile beside her. She could faintly hear the tune the servant was humming as she worked.
Oresta glanced at the door, then Keola.
"Perhaps its time you went over and found out," she suggested.
The Amazon pursed her lips in thought, then nodded decisively. "Yep."
Tia saw a shadow come across her work. She looked up.
"Mistress, may I get you something?" she asked.
"No, Im fine, thank you, maam," Keola responded. She leaned casually against the doorframe. "I thought I might just watch you work for a while, if thats all right?"
"As you wish, Mistress," Tia nodded. "Im sure Lady Artemisia will be home soon."
The Amazon observed silently for a candle mark. The woman was expert at her craft and the thread of wool grew rapidly on the wheel.
"Youre very good," Keola finally remarked. "I can never get my thread to come out as evenly as that. I get so frustrated sometimes."
"You work your own wool, Mistress?" Tia said surprised, "a warrior?"
"If you dont want to run around naked your whole life you make your own in the valley," Keola replied. She smiled. "Although the truth is Im so bad at it that I usually trade for may needs. Im a metal worker and blacksmith back home. I care for my friend Livias horse, keeping its hoofs trimmed and putting shoes on it. Livia makes my clothes."
"Quality just comes with practice," Tia said, continuing to work. "I get lots of practice. I spin out the wool for Lady Artemisia and she makes it into chitons to sell in the Agora." Keola glanced at the big loom next to Tia, a square of wool cloth half formed on it. "My Lady is very good, very clever weaving decorative edges in different patterns and colors. We," Tia said the word proudly, "have built a good reputation in the marketplace. People seek out our work. Its how we earn our bread."
Keola nodded. She rubbed her chin uncertainly, searching for a way to begin.
"How did you...did you come to be in Lady Artemisias service, Tia?" she finally asked. "A talented slave like you would be expensive Id think. Lady Artemisia wouldnt have had much money when she came here."
"My Lady didnt buy me, Mistress, Im a gift," Tia answered simply. "And Im not a slave. My Lady gave me my freedom. I have it right here," the woman put her hand on her ample bosom. Keola could see a thin leather cord around her neck. "I keep it here always, my bit of parchment with the city seal that says Im free. Im a free person, Mistress." She looked up at Keola uncertainly, the pride of being a free woman still struggling to overcome a lifetime of subjugation and obedience. "I can leave here whenever I want."
Keola smiled with relief, and a genuine pleasure in seeing the spark of independence in this former chattel.
"Im very happy for you, Tia," she said. She cocked her head slightly. "Im curious, why have you decided to remain here, now that you have the freedom to go where you will?"
Tia shrugged. "Where would I go? I was born here a slave. I have no family I know of. No city but Athens. And Lady Artemisia is a kind mistress. She needs me. And gives me half of what our chitons sell for. I have a life here." She smiled shyly up at the Amazon. "And Im saving my money. Perhaps one day a freedman will find my dowry attractive and marry me and give me children. I would like to have a family. Freeborn sons to care for me in my old age, and Lady Artemisia too, if the gods spare her so long. She has no sons and is past the childbearing years."
The Amazon started to tell Tia that in the communal life of the Amazons the old were always provided for, if not by dutiful daughters, then by the village. No Amazon starved while others ate, no Amazon slept in the rain while others had fire and shelter. But she did not. It did not seem right, to demean in any way this simple, touching expression of loyalty and gratitude with an unnecessary truth.
"Lady Artemisia was certainly blessed when she received such a gift as you," Keola said quietly. But the sentiment sparked a thought as well. "Someone must have thought very highly of her. Who was your former master who showed such generosity to the Ambassador?"
The woman hunched over her wheel, body suddenly tense. The habits of a lifetime rose up and urged her to speak. To answer her better. But she clinched her jaw tight. She was free now, and free people did not have to answer every question asked of them she reminded herself. A slave has no friends, but a free woman does.
"Lady Artemisia will be home very soon, Mistress," she said, head down.
Keola understood the tone well enough. The conversation was over. She frowned and slowly rubbed the back of her neck. There were too many mysteries here. Too much unexplained. The uneasy feeling she had grew faster in her chest. She began to feel impatience at the Ambassadors absence. And the hint of an iron glow came to her brown eyes. She turned on her heel and left.
The sun was just disappearing below the crown of the roof when the street door opened.
"Tia, Im back," a low, slightly husky voice called.
The servant jumped from her stool by the spinning wheel and raced into the courtyard.
"My Lady, we have visitors," she said loudly and breathlessly before the Ambassador could say another word.
"Visitors?" Artemisia asked.
"Yes maam, visitors from the edge of the world, where only demons and barbarians live," Keola smiled as she emerged from the spare room into the courtyard.
Oresta was also in the room, but she remained back in the shadows, observing everything intently, unseen, as the Amazon had asked her too. She noted the momentary look of shock that passed over Artemisias face. But it was immediately replaced by a broad smile that showed straight white teeth and highlighted fine high cheekbones and a handsome, attractive face. The lines of age around the eyes might have been accented by the smile, but they were invisible beneath a covering of blue mascara that also covered the eyelids. The tall, almost as tall as the blonde, thin womans graying auburn hair was piled high atop her head, in the same fashion as Xenophons Philestra. She wore a sky blue chiton wrapped around her firm figure, held at the shoulders by delicate silver broaches. A thin, tan leather belt circled her small waist, the extra length tied at the hip and allowed to dangle down with silver baubles attached to the ends. Oresta knew of women of quality from the most ancient and noble families of Athens who would be envious of the aristocratic beauty and grace this woman effortlessly projected.
"Keola! What a delightful surprise it is to see you," Artemisia said in her low pitched voice.
Oresta frowned. This damn warrior from Kalvia is the most well known dispatch rider Ive ever heard of. Artemisia advanced with her arm out. Keola came and took it with a respectful bow. They touched cheeks in the traditional formal greeting between Amazons who have not seen each other for a period of time. Keola inhaled a pleasing aroma, newly blossomed roses in spring. She had to resist the urge to suck in an exaggerated breath and savor such an unexpected and alluring scent. Could this be the aphordisiac made by Orestas alchemist?
"I hope the long journey was safe and uneventful?" Artemisia asked.
"Yes, quite uneventful," Keola answered.
Oresta had to suppress a snort at such a bald statement.
"What news do you bring from Queen Ephiny and the people?" the Ambassador asked. "Everything is well?" There was tension in the question, as if she knew it were possible everything was not.
"All is well," Keola assured immediately. She put her hand on the cylinder at her hip. "Ive brought news and instructions from the Queen and also some letters from your friends. Im to take back whatever reports youve written on your activities here. Also the Queen is very anxious to hear your personal impressions of First Citizen Pericles and the other leaders of Athens you may have met. She wants to know what kind of men they are."
Artemisia put out her hand. Keola took off the carrying strap around her shoulder and put the cylinder in the Ambassadors palm.
"It may take me several days, perhaps longer, to write the reports. I hope theres no rush," she said.
"None at all, Ambassador," Keola replied with a slight bow. "Take as much time as you require. I will wait most patiently."
In the gloom Oresta watched and listened, head cocked, eyes questioning. Every word spoken had been correct, polite, but where was Keolas bright warm smile that turned strangers into friends in a moment? Where was Artemisias excitement at seeing her first fellow Amazon in months, in receiving letters from home. The chill in the air was so cold the blonde thought she might soon see her breath.
Artemisia glanced a her servant.
"You said there were visitors, Tia?"
"Yes, Lady," Tia nodded discreetly toward the spare room," there are..."
"I met someone on the road," Keola interrupted. She turned as Oresta emerged into the fading light of the courtyard. "This is my friend Oresta." the Amazon introduced. "Oresta, this is Artemisia of Trikkala, the Amazon Ambassador to Athens."
Artemisia studied the blonde intently, tunic, breeches, sword on her back, as she offered her arm. Oresta took it without hesitation.
"A pleasure, maam," Oresta said with a bow of her head.
Any doubts Artemisia had that the blonde was Amazon were laid to rest. Whats this obvious lie about meeting on the road? Her jaw tightened with suspicion.
"I hope Tia has welcomed you properly and made you both comfortable," she said. "Please consider this house your home while you are here. We will provide for you in every way we can."
The two guests nodded in appreciation to their host.
"Speaking of providing," Artemisia smiled as she pulled a jingling leather pouch from a fold of her chiton and tossed it to her servant, "we sold all of our work today. And could have sold more with all the people in the city for the festival. Your jar will soon be full, Tia. You should think bigger. Instead of trapping some struggling freed man with a dowry you should buy a slave of your own, some muscular young man with a pretty face and the right equipment. Better to satisfy that itch of yours from on top than trapped underneath, dont you think?"
Tia laughed as color came to her cheeks. She turned her head in self conscious embarrassment. Oresta chuckled at the joke and Tias reaction. Keola only smiled. It quickly faded.
Dinner was eaten reclining on the dinning room couches. The food was plentiful but plain, fish, bread, cheese, grapes, figs, dates, watered wine. The conversation was plentiful but plain as well. Small talk. Mundane observations about everyday things. Oresta listened with great interest. Every word spoken, and not spoken, every look, every action, only heightened the mystery, and whetted more the blondes deep seated desire for answers. Oresta of Farsala craved clarity, and the room was shrouded in fog. The Amazon had an insatiable appetite to talk politics, yet she never mentioned the word once to the Amazon Ambassador, a woman whose job was to immerse herself in the politics of Athens. And the Ambassador, cut off for who knew how many months from any contact with her home, seemed ridiculously uninterested in what was happening there. She asked only the most routine questions and seemed perfectly satisfied with Keolas perfunctory, unexpounded answers. Although the Amazon had said nothing to her, Oresta found herself instinctively falling in step with Keolas reticence. She responded to the few questions she was asked with polite evasions that revealed as little as possible. And again Artemisia seemed content with the non-answers. And most annoyingly Tia continued to treat the Amazon dispatch rider as some damn royal personage, serving her first, fluttering around attending her every need instantly, and occasionally flicking nervous glances at her mistress, which the Ambassador studiously ignored.
Finally dinner ended and polite goodnights were made. Everyone retired to their separate quarters. Keola plopped down on the only chair in the spare room and pulled off her boots. Oresta lit a few candles from the candle she had brought from the dinning room. The Amazon rubbed her bare foot absently, deep in thought, oblivious to the world. Oresta walked up and stood over her. She did not respond. The blonde tipped the candle in her hand till one drop of liquid fell.
"What the hell!" the Amazon exclaimed as the hot wax splashed on her big toe.
"I let the servant ignore me all day out of politeness," Oresta said. "I dont have to be polite to you."
Keola flicked the stinging wax off her toe and wriggled it.
"If I ever had any doubts why only donkeys can tolerate you, you just cleared them up," she whined.
"Farsala likes me," Oresta smiled.
"Horses are mercenaries at heart," Keola said. "They like whoever has a carrot in their hand."
"Are you implying I buy her affections?" the blonde frowned.
"No, Im not implying it," the Amazon replied, rubbing her toe, "Im saying it out loud."
"Fuck you, Keola," Oresta snapped.
"How could I do that? I could never look Farsala in the eye again," the Amazon replied.
The two women shared a smile.
Oresta put her candle down on a table by the pallet and started to undress. Keola pulled off her tunic and folded it neatly. She stopped and stared into space, again lost in thought. Finally she blinked and focused on the blonde, who was sitting naked on the edge of the pallet patiently watching.
"So, what do you think?" she inquired.
Oresta did not have to ask about what.
"I think Artemisia of Trikkala is a very handsome woman, intelligent, well spoken, impressive," she said deliberately, measuring each word. "Is she a warrior?"
Keola nodded. The end of the blondes mouth twitched up.
"She certainly has blended in," she said. "The hairstyle. The makeup. Those broaches on her shoulder holding the chiton are the latest fashion among the upper class Ladies of Athens. A jeweler named Argestimian makes them and hes very particular about his clients. He makes his living on snob appeal."
"She smells of roses," Keola observed quietly.
"Roses?" Oresta grinned. "That is something. Most Amazons are lucky if they smell like they take a bath more than once a month."
"And she didnt have her sword," Keola said, ignoring the remark. "A sworn warrior always carries her weapon."
"Theres a saying," the blonde shrugged, " when in Rome, do as the Romans."
"This isnt Rome," Keola said, eyes hooded, dark, "and shes an Amazon, not an Athenian. She was sent here to represent us. To stand out as one of us, not blend in."
The blondes eyebrows came together in surprise. Such harsh criticism of an elder, and an Ambassador, from one so young, the presumption was shocking. In a society of orphans, where the natural hierarchies of blood relationships, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and the authority they conveyed, were missing, an absolute respect and submission to age and experience was substituted. Childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, maturity, finally the gray hair of seniority, an Amazon was always keenly aware at every stage of her life where she ranked in the order of society. Who she owed submission and respect to, and who owed it to her. Orestas regard for authority had never been strong. And three years of living mostly in Athens, where every citizen, from the voting age of twenty to the most ancient and decrepit old man, regardless of wealth or accomplishment, felt himself the equal of every other, qualified to rant ad nauseum on every subject, had eroded much of what she did have. Still, even after so many years, there was some remnant of an Amazon sensibility that was offended by Keolas words.
"Im sure shes doing what she thinks best," Oresta said defensively, more of an edge to her voice than she intended, or even realized.
"I dont know what shes doing," Keola snapped. "I dont understand it and I dont like it."
"Well now, its not really something for you to like or dislike, is it?" Oresta replied warmly. She swallowed. She was about to lose her temper and she did not even know why. She took a breath to calm herself.
"Whats going on, Keola?" she asked. "Secret visitors in the night? The way you and Artemisia acted, so suspicious of each other? Whats really happening?"
"Whats happening is of concern only to Amazons," Keola replied distractedly, coldly.
Orestas face hardened. She bit her lip in that nervous habit. Keolas shoulders suddenly slumped, a self reproaching sigh escaping her lips, as her words echoed in her head unpleasantly.
"Im sorry I said that," she said softly.
"And what are you sorry for?" Oresta demanded. "You dont owe me any explanations."
"Im sorry because it was hurtful," Keola replied.
Oresta looked into brown eyes that reflected genuine regret, sincere apology. Eyes that held hers and stirred uncomfortable emotions in her chest. She cleared her throat.
"I think you overestimate your ability to hurt me," she said, trying to sound defiant, and failing.
After a long pause, eyes still riveted on the blondes, Keola whispered, "Do I?"
A rush of air came out of Orestas nose. She blinked and forced her head to turn.
"Yes," she said. She blew out the candles on the table by the pallet, plunging the room into darkness. "Now come to bed, we have to get up with the cocks crow if were to get a good place to see the Processional tomorrow."
Keola sighed. She finished undressing and crawled into bed. She could feel Orestas warm body next to her, lying on her side, back to her, as always.
Oresta awoke to the sound of a soft rythmic grunting. She rolled over. In the half lit gloom of a freshly dawning day she could see the Amazon by the doorway. She was doing pull ups on the end of a support beam that jutted from the wall above the entrance. Biceps bulging, knees bent, ankles crossed, sweat rolling in glistening rivulets down her body, she did them quickly and easily, chin touching the beam each time up.
"Arrrrrghhh," the blonde grumbled through a yawn.
Keola dropped to the ground and flexed her shoulders and shook her arms, muscles rippling on her nude form.
"What are you doing?" Oresta asked disgustedly.
Keola smiled. "I havent done a good workout since I left Farsala. I dont want to get out of the habit." Her smile broadened. "I dont want to wind up like you, too weak to string my own bow."
"Ha, ha, ha," Oresta laughed sarcastically as she stretched and arched like a cat waking from a nap. She crooked her right arm, raising a firm lump of muscle. "I can pull back a string well enough," she said. She flexed the arm rapidly several times. "And the elbow works just fine," she smiled. "Besides, now I have you, Hercules, to do all the heavy lifting, while I do the things that actually require skill and intelligence."
Keola waved a finger. "If you want that bow strung and not shoved up your ass you better be nice," she grinned.
"Yes, mistress," Oresta mocked playfully.
"Fuck you," the Amazon mouthed silently. She offered her hand. The blonde took it and was hauled to her feet. Keola bent down and kipped easily into a hand stand.
"Come on," she said upside down as she headed out the door. "Lets get a quick breakfast before we clean up and see the Processional. Im really looking forward to this."
Oresta came to the door.
"Im not a damn baby sitter," she called as Keola crossed the small courtyard. "Im not going with a five year old."
"I couldnt do this till I was six," the Amazon laughed. "You can go with a six year old cant you? I promise to behave."
Oresta shook her head in disgust. But at the same time she could not help marveling. The Amazon truly was the most natural, graceful athlete she had ever seen, male or female. Had the myths somehow forgotten to mention Hercules little sister?
Breakfast was notable for the Ambassadors absence. Tia explained, as she prepared Oresta a thick slice of rye bread smeared with butter and honey and gave Keola a cup of goats milk, that her mistress had left before dawn to take her place with the other Ambassadors and foreign dignitaries in the Procession as it formed outside the Dyplon Gate. She smiled proudly as she said the Ambassador appeared most dignified and impressive in her best deep green tunic and black breeches with the dark tan leather boots and sword on her back.
"My Lady looked like a most noble warrior," she enthused.
"She wears her sword often?" Keola asked non-chalantly after a sip of milk.
Tias smile disappeared. She was talking too much. She new she was talking too much. Why ask such a strange question? There was a trap somewhere. She could sense it. But where? Yes or no, what answer would do no harm?
"Uh, would..." Tias smile reappeared, "would my Mistress like a slice of bread and honey as well? I have some grape jam too? Very fresh?"
Keola and Oresta exchanged a glance.
They quickly cleaned up with a water and oil bath, scraping each other down with a strigil stick Tia provided from the Ambassadors room. After dressing Oresta unbraided her hair and pulled out a small jade comb from the same pouch that held her speckled cubes. She started running it through her long blonde tresses. After watching a moment Keola walked up behind her.
"May I?" she smiled.
After a hesitation Oresta placed the comb in the Amazons hand. Keola held it out and examined it closely in the golden light streaming through the open door. It flashed violet in the sun, the hue changing as she varied the angle. Etched in black was a strange slithering beast with wings and a fantastic head of flaring nostrils and gaping mouth. The delicate workmanship and artistry was wonderful to behold.
"This is beautiful, truly beautiful," Keola murmured.
"Its made of jade, from Chin." Oresta said matter-of-factly.
"Where did you ever..."
"Subatio gave it to me. Booty from some caravan headed west," Oresta answered. "The animal is a dragon. Supposedly they fill the skys of Chin, although Subatio said hes never seen one, and hes been close enough to Chin to look over the great wall and see their sky."
"What a wonderful gift," the Amazon smiled, but a strange sensation surged through her veins. Such a gift was more than she could ever give. How foolish to feel jealous. But the feeling was there, and it took a moment to pass. She began pulling the comb through Orestas hair in long slow strokes.
The blonde let herself relax. The gentle tug on her scalp was soothing, intimate. How long had it been since she enjoyed this feeling? A hollow coldness gripped her stomach as the memory floated up out of the dark. Subatio had combed out her hair that night. The night she left. Before he passed out. It had been that long since she trusted anyone enough to turn her back. She bit her lip. With a conscious effort she forced her mind blank. For a few precious moments there was only sensation, only pleasure in the presence of another human being. Somehow the Amazon pushed loneliness out to arms length again.
"How are we going to see anything?" Keola whined.
The narrow street emptying on the Panathenic Way was blocked by a wall of people four deep. Small children sat patiently on their fathers shoulders waiting for the Procession. Even jumping up and down it was impossible to see from the rear of the crowd.
"We should have gotten here sooner," Oresta said. "We wasted too much time braiding my hair."
"I dont think it was a waste," Keola said, "I had fun."
"You tied my hair to the chair," Oresta said darkly.
"I know," Keola answered brightly. "That was a lot of fun. And it was an accident, I swear."
"Would it surprise you if I said I dont believe you," the blonde said.
"Come on, one little mistake and Im ruined for life? You know thats not fair," the Amazon smiled.
"Have I ever done anything that would lead you to think Im interested in being fair?" Oresta asked, hands on hips.
"Actually..." Keola frowned, "no, you havent." She looked around for an opportunity at redemption. "Well, if I get us a place to see the Procession will I be forgiven?"
"Maybe," Oresta said. "You have an idea?"
Keola looked up.
"I thought of that," the blonde said, "but theres nothing to climb on."
"We dont need any ladders," Keola scoffed.
She went to the side of the street where the building was only one story. She put her hands together. "Come on, Ill boost," she instructed.
"Im not a damn acrobat," Oresta said.
"What are you worried about, Ill do the work. Now come on," the Amazon challenged.
The blonde shook her head at her own stupidity. She put a foot in Keolas hands.
"One, two, up," the Amazon grunted.
Orestas waist was even with the eve before the upward momentum stopped. With Keola pushing on the bottom of her foot she scrambled easily onto the roof. She turned around on her belly to help the Amazon. Keola jumped, grabbed the eve and tried to pull herself up. Oresta caught an arm and hauled as hard as she could without losing her precarious perch. The slate shingles were just too slippery. The Amazon could not get a good grip and Oresta was not strong enough to bring her up. Finally she dropped back to the street.
"This is ridiculous," she grumbled.
She examined the area again. Across the narrow street a wooden awning pole protruded from above a barbers small shop entrance, the awning rolled up till the suns shifting rays made its shade necessary.
"Perfect," she smiled. She took a few quick steps, leapt up like a bounding deer and in one fluid motion pulled herself up, caught a foot, and with a grunt was standing balanced on the narrow beam.
"Keola, youre not going to try..."
Before the blonde could finish the Amazon launched herself with a powerful spring toward the opposite roof. She landed on her hands and one knee. Immediately she began slipping back, till a firm grip circled her wrist and yanked her to safety. The Amazon stood quickly and looked back where she had almost fallen. In the street below several people were gazing up open mouthed at the stunt. A girl in her mothers arms pointed excitedly and waved, laughing. Keola grinned and shot a small wave back. She turned to find un-amused blue eyes boring into her.
"If you want to be a damn circus act you should go to Rome," Oresta said between clinched teeth. "Thats where all the best performers go. I once watched a man do summersaults along a rope stretched between two platforms thirty feet in the air. It was quite a trick. A few days before I left I heard the city crier coming around at dawn announcing the death of the famous Flavius Arterus. Seems he lost his balance and broke his neck."
Keola put her hands on her hips, the smile leaving her face.
"Uh, huh," she said slowly. "And your point would be?"
"No point," she said, eyes still flaring, "just sharing a story from my trip to Rome."
"Well, thank you for that," Keola said blandly, "you know I always enjoy the stories of your travels. Now come on, lets get over on the other side where we can see."
She stepped around Oresta and quickly disappeared over the crown of the roof. The blonde gazed down at the people still smiling at each other and shaking their heads in amazement. She examined the quivering awning pole across the street. Could her judgment of the situation be off? Maybe she was not allowing for Keolas superior athleticism, mistakenly holding her to a more normal standard. But, she would have fallen. There was no doubt in her mind about that. If I hadnt grabbed her she would have went over. To what, break an ankle, a leg, worse? The whole incident was reckless. She started to turn, then glanced back again before continuing. Yes, disturbingly reckless.
The view of the Procession as it marched along the Panathenic Way was a grand one. The broad boulevard was lined on both sides by the slaves of Athens, almost one third of the population, enjoying the day off from labor. The more well off were dressed for the occasion in their best tunics, heads covered by flat, broad brimmed hats, the women in flowing chitons, their hair done up mimicing their mistresses style. Slavery in Athens was more a legal classification than a social or racial one. Slaves were paid for their work, at a rate commensurate to their skills. Common laborers usually made so little that they never escaped ownership, slaving their lives away in mines or factories or construction projects. But those with a special expertise and a bit of self discipline and ambition were expected to save enough to one day buy their freedom, becoming part of the large freedmen class of the city, with all the rights of a citizen except the most precious one of all, the right to vote in the Assembly. Only freeborn native males, sons of freeborn native fathers, could claim the ultimate right of citizenship.
As Keola and Oresta settled themselves on the slanted roof, leaning back on an elbow, legs extended, the head of the Procession was just passing. Four small girls, garlands of flowers in their hair, daughters of Athens most powerful families, walked with a dozen dignified matrons, Priestesses of Athena. They had spent the last year aiding the Priestesses in weaving the new peplos, the chiton that clothed the great wooden statue of Athena that watched over the city. Each year the old one was removed and discarded and the new one draped over the statue, a symbol of renewal and re-dedication to the Goddess. Behind them came a large boat mounted on wheels and drawn by citizens chosen by lot for the honor. On the spars of the mast the beautiful new peplos was displayed for all to see and admire. After the peplos ship came the noble women of Athens, bedecked in their finest jewelry, hair and makeup done to perfection by the finest dressers of the city, the onlookers snidely commenting to each other on who had gained weight and who was using too much mascara to hide the advancing years, bearing gifts they had made personally for Athena, to be laid at her wooden feet. Next came the sacrifice leaders holding up their sacred knives, again Citizens chosen by lot for the official religious duty. They were followed by hundreds of sheep and cattle raised especially for this day, herded by shepherds with long staffs and dogs racing and yipping, to be sacrificed to Athenas glory, the meat then cooked and distributed to all in the city. For many of the poor, free and slave alike, it would be one of the few times all year they would taste red meat and they looked forward to it with eager anticipation.
Following the sacrificial animals came the metic population of Athens. Foreigners who had moved to the city to do business or practice the arts in its atmosphere of freedom and tolerance, dressed in the colorful garb of their native lands. Next came the Ambassadors from other Greek cities, and foreign states and empires, wearing their most impressive costumes, each carrying the traditional gift of peace and goodwill, bread and honey. Artemisia walked with this group, beside the clean shaven Publius Flavius, the ambitious young Ambassador from Rome, dressed in a white silk toga trimmed in red, a former Tribune gaining experience in the world before joining the Senate, and Totep Ra, cousin and representative of the godking Imhotep, Pharaoh of the Upper and Lower Nile, his bald, waxed head flashing in the sun. Keola waved. She was answered with a nod and a slight smile.
Priests bearing urns of holy water and musicians with pipes and lyres and drums playing hyms to the divine patron of the city were next. In their footsteps came the leading citizens of the city, prominent politicians and military men, rich landowners and merchants. The men whose wealth and influence formed and guided the politics of the city. Men of ambition not above bribing the electorate when it suited their purpose, though they did so at their peril, for the voters could easily turn on a benefactor and vote him banished from the city if he over reached in his desire for power and control. Oresta pointed out Pericles as he came past. Keola sat up and studied the man carefully. He was of average height, wide shouldered and sturdily built. His hairline was receding, revealing a broad forehead. Gray was liberally sprinkled in his dark thick beard. His woolen toga was a dull crimson; plain leather boots covered his feet. He wore no jewelry or rings or anything that bespoke of wealth or priviledge. In his hand he carried a simple gray felt hat, flat crowned and broad brimmed like those of the crowd watching him. He walked with a firm, steady gait. He seemed preoccupied, his gaze fixed forward, no smile lightening his dignified, serious features. He could as easily have been strolling to the Agora to buy bread for dinner as walking in a great Procession viewed by tens of thousands. And as Keola watched she was struck by one singular, visceral impression. The First Citizen of Athens was profoundly alone. Men walked around and behind him in twos and threes and fours, shoulder to shoulder, talking, gesturing, waving at familiar faces in the crowd of onlookers. She spotted Lamachus and Cleon and another man a half dozen steps behind Pericles deep in conversation. But no one walked beside the First Citizen. No one spoke to him. None in the audience waved or called his name. But there was no sense of a man shunned or ignored. Just the opposite. Every eye was on him. Every person aware of his presence. Yet in all that crowd he was alone. Alone because he willed it. Separated by an aloofness that was palpable, unmistakable.
"Hes not the man I imagined," Keola said as the First Citizen disappeared from view. "I expected... I dont know," she shrugged, "someone more open, friendly...," she laughed at her thought, "happy. Someone people were drawn too."
"He is a strange one," Oresta agreed. "I dont think anyone actually likes the man. Ive been around him a few times. He shops in the Agora and attends the theatre and the chariot races like anyone else. Sometimes Lady Aspasia is with him. He holds her hand in public, and even kisses her, right out where everyone can see. No other Athenian male ever shows affection like that in public. Its considered very impolite, even crude. But that man honestly doesnt give a damn what anyone thinks of him. And he never seems to talk to anybody. You always have the feeling that he doesnt really want to hear whatever stupid, ignorant thing it is you have to say. But Ill tell you, Amazon, when he gets up on the dais before the Assembly of Citizens, everyone wants to hear what he has to say. And by the time hes finished speaking with that golden tongue of his most of the citizens heads are nodding. And when they vote its to endorse whatever hes proposing. Hes been running things for twenty years and Athens has become an empire, one of the most powerful in the world. An amazing thing considering its size. There are a lot of cities out there bigger than this one, but they dont have a Pericles." She looked at Keola. "I guess hes as close to a great man as well ever see." The end of her mouth edged up. "But that still doesnt mean anyone actually likes the arrogant son of a bitch."
The Amazon chuckled.
Chariots came next, pulled by teams of four high strung, nervous, prancing thoroughbreds. A stableman walked by the head of each with a firm grip on the bridle. In a few days, in the annual races to honor Athena, they would fly down the Panathenaic Way from the Dyplon Gate, around the Agora and back again, as frenzied throngs shouted themselves to the brink of hysteria. Now the proximity of the crowd had their adrenaline flowing in expectation. It took all the handlers strength to keep them under control. The chariots were light racing vehicles, large four spoked wheels and a simple wooden frame covered with wicker. The platform of each was big enough for only a single charioteer to ride. The chariots, drivers and equines were all decorated with garlands of flowers, the horses tails and manes entwined with colorful ribbons. Each driver had a sack of candied apples and nuts and figs that they occasionally threw out to the children in the crowd when they heard their names being called, for all Athenians had a favorite charioteer. A dozen had passed when Oresta elbowed the Amazon and pointed.
"Pelops," she said simply.
The driver she indicated was short, with a shock of curly ebony hair hanging to his shoulders and a clean cut baby face, distinctive in a land where the vast majority of men did not go through the painful process of shaving. His hairy chest and arms were thick and hard with muscle. Easy to see and admire since he wore no tunic, only a kilt around his waist. Four sleek black stallions snorted and bobbed their heads, dancing with barely contained explosive energy as they drew the chariot, the reins wrapped around Pelops forearm, biceps bulging as he held them back with the help of his stablemen. There was a ripple of cheers and applause as he moved along, people calling his name. Many of the voices were accompanied by a high pitched squeal. Pelops acknowledged this with only a slight, coy smile and nod. Keola gave the blonde a blank look of incomprehension.
"Im sorry, I forget sometimes," Oresta laughed. "Pelops has won the grand prize at the last four Panathenic festivals, and he won the laurel wreath at the last Olympics two years ago. Hes Greeces greatest charioteer, and a Athenian citizen. Hes already a living legend here and still hes younger than me. The women all but throw themselves down and spread their legs at his feet." She leaned toward the Amazon till their shoulders touched, head down as if sharing a secret. "The gossip is," she said in a low voice, "that hes made a few late night visits to some of those rich old women who just passed, while their husbands were out at symposiums drinking all night. My favorite though is the story that theres a wealthy old noble in Thebes whose old wife died barren and hes paying Pelops a small fortune to come over and get his new young wife pregnant. Seems hes afraid his old juices will only spawn some milky eyed weakling and he wants to see a young Hercules as his heir before he leaves this world."
Keola shook her head and snorted disbelievingly as she watched the man disappear from view down the boulevard.
"He looks more like a pony than a stallion," she commented.
"Shhhh," Oresta frowned. "Not so loud. Youll have a hundred screaming women up here. Thats no way for warriors to die. Pecked to death by a flock of outraged hens. Hades will laugh us out of hell. Xenophon will spend eternity alone."
The Amazon smirked.
The Procession continued with a display of the citys military might, to honor Athena in her role as goddess of warfare and to impress foreign visitors. The sons of the wealthy, for only the rich could afford the expense of maintaining a well bred warhorse, paraded in a long column of cavalry four across and several hundred deep. Each warrior carried a large round shield strapped to his left arm, big enough to cover him from hip to chin as he sat his mount, a burnished bronze helmet with a golden horsehair crest sat atop his head, a bronze breastplate covering his chest. A short wide sword bounced at his hip. The column came on at a steady, disciplined walk, every rider erect, haughty, proud. Proud of his city, proud of his elite cavalry, proud of being young, rich and part of an empire that stretched from the great Black Sea to the shores of Sicily. Keola watched intently.
"They show themselves well," she admired.
The blonde shook her head.
"The arrogance of ignorance," she sneered disdainfully. "A single Hun clan would ride circles around those children, then cut them to pieces and eat them for breakfast. In the hills and narrow valleys of Greece the infantry phalanx is king. Greek cavalry is nothing but a social club for boys with rich daddies, to show off their wealth and spare them having to rub elbows with the sweaty poor folk who do the real fighting. Out on the steppe where cavalry rules, they would be hopeless, helpless and dead."
Keolas eyebrows went up in surprise at the vehemence of the words.
"You sound pretty definite," she smiled. "Perhaps you should share that insight with your good friend Lamachus and his colleagues."
Oresta regarded the Amazons lightly mocking grin. She looked back toward the marching horsemen.
"I have, more than once," she said quietly.
Keolas smile faded. The words had some meaning in them deeper than the surface. She could sense it. But what? Once again the tall blonde was a mystery. A tantalizing enigma the Amazon could not quite grasp.
Finally the end of the Procession began to pass. The end, however, was longer than the beginning and the middle put together. All the citizens of Athens, wives and children in tow, strolled together down the Panathenaea to the Acropolis, the sacred hill at the center of their city, adorned with the most beautiful temples ever conceived and built by mans imagination, to honor the goddess whose benevolent goodwill and inspiration had brought them greatness. The parade extended five leagues and took many candlemarks to pass. Oresta spotted Xenophon and Philestra walking hand in hand. She named for Keola the three tall, handsome sons that walked behind them, pretty wives at their sides, and the ten grandchildren, two still babes in their mothers arms, who crowded around their grandparents taking turns, after some pushing and argument, holding their hands. The old man saw the duo perched on the roof and smiled and waved, as did Philestra.
The sun was approaching its zenith as the last citizen and his family straggled past. The crowd of onlookers spilled onto the boulevard after them, following at a leisurely pace, children clumping together into packs to race among the adults, shouting, laughing, playing tag and keep away, releasing the pent up energy of a long morning spent watching instead of doing. The blonde and the Amazon stood up and stretched muscles sore from sitting.
"So, what happens next?" Keola asked.
Oresta pointed toward the Acropolis. In the distance could be seen two wide columns of stone steps, separated by a ramp, going up the steep hillside. A line of men ascended each row of steps while cattle and sheep were herded up the ramp. At the top they disappeared between the Ionic columns of the magnificent Propylaea, the covered white pentelic marble Gateway to the inner sanctum of temples. Athenas wooden head was visible above the roof of the Gateway, watching the procession coming to honor her on her birthday, the day Great Zeus the Creator pulled her from the top of his head fully formed, born of his wisdom and intelligence, not his lusts and carnal desires. A goddess ruled by her intellect, not her passions.
"A contingent of citizens from each of the ten tribes, and some of the best sacrificial animals, go up to the altar in front of the Parthenon," the blonde explained. "The animals are sacrificed and the signs in the entrails for the coming year are augered by the chief priest of Athena. Then the thigh bones are removed, piled on the altar, covered with fat, sprinkled with incense and burned as an offering to the goddess. When you see the smoke its a signal for all the other animals to be sacrificed. Theyre in an open field on the other side of the Acropolis now, beside the Amphitheatre. Theyll be butchered there and put in big boiling cauldrons for cooking. When its ready the meat will be passed out to everyone in the city."
"I didnt know Athenians belonged to tribes," Keola said. "I thought they were just Athenians."
"They are," she explained. "The citizens are divided just as a convenience for administration. There are ten tribes. One day a certain tribe has to provide citizens for jury duty in the law courts while another is responsible for having citizens manning the emergency assembly, to handle urgent business that cant wait on a vote of the whole assembly. On holy days like today men are chosen by lot from each tribe to fill the various religious offices. Every citizen is expected to be able to perform any duty hes given, from First Citizen to street sweeper. Its a strange way of doing things. Nowhere else Ive been uses such a bizarre system as democracy, but it seems to work. At least here anyway," she shrugged.
"Im hungry, are you sure theyll feed outsiders like us?" the Amazon asked doubtfully.
"Dont worry, youll get your share," Oresta assured. "They call the people one tribe at a time. The slaves go with their masters. Well find Xenophon and eat with his family. You wont starve." She reached out and patted Keolas flat, firm belly. "Although I doubt theres enough meat in Athens to fill up that bottomless pit of yours."
"Fuck you." the Amazon mouthed silently.
Return to The Bard's Corner