Later, the same day, still in the royal residence of Arythion.
Io won’t return.
And this time, there would be no ally to slash a way out. Boras had supported the high king’s demand and in all honesty, she had to assume that Serkon would back them as well.
Only a man, someone who did not know the Goddess and the ways of her honor, would be able to think of such a solution.
It was not that she could not comprehend Io wanting to marry Iasion and raise their son. Her decision disappointed Penthesilea, put obstacles in her way. But how- how could they demand of her to betray the Goddess, how could she agree to exchange Io for Deia – Amazon for another Amazon – so the provider would be be ransomed from the Goddess. Being no Amazon any more then, Io would be able to marry, to buy Chrysippos free for with his mother married to a Borathion, he would of course lose the status as a tribal son as well. And if Io and Iasion would have a daughter…
Life for life. She did not even want to imagine how much the kind woman would grieve after giving two children up to her in exchange for one, but apparently she had already agreed to the trade. What did she see in that boy, that he was worth abandoning two daughters consciously?
“You doubt the integrity of this trade.” Boras' voice was strangely hollow as he continued. “During the last two suns, Iasion has let the supervision of the warriors slide. At learning about your provider having conceived again, he disappeared for days.”
“Call it what you want, but you must admit that both your provider and my second commander can not keep living with the current situation. Consider it a compensation for my help in the case of Zeuxippe, if you will.”
Penthesilea swallowed. “I will try.” At the very moment that she had spoken the words out loud, a sigh escaped her lips. She felt the tension stream out of her body. Boras and her, they were both wandering at a small edge of their strength by now.
“A word in your ear. This time, Alexander was close to having you banished as well. But despite his bearing, he knows that he can only be a high king when other kings follow.
Alexander and you, you are my children. Both of you.”
Weary, the Amazon felt a wrinkly, light hand on hers.
“Restrain the Amazon blood flowing in your veins and you will one day be the base of the council. The youth of yore needs to carry on wisdom for when people like me am no more.”
Was... he talking about death? Now? Hastily, Penthesilea seized his hand. “Please, don't! You’re still far from dying.”
“My dear, I am old. Don't worry. I will be going in peace, knowing that I have forged my son a powerful alliance to defend Borathion's place in the council. Thycon of Light has agreed to send shipbuilders and resources to help rebuild part of the former Borathion fleet. With a princess of Light as his wife, Herchion will be so powerful that Arythion will look like an ant next to him.”
The smile surfacing at the thought only moved Boras' face marginally. The sudden realization squeezed Penthesilea’s heart painfully; Boras did not only feel old.
He felt tired.
And he wasn't afraid of his age. She was.
Trembling, the Amazon led the old king’s hand to her mouth, placed a respectful kiss onto it. Pressed it against her forehead. “What will we do without you?,” she whispered woefully.
A soft expression entered Boras’ features. “You will hold the council together. Chasten Serkon’s temper. Ensure that Evandros’ work has not been in vain. I would hate to imagine that after I’m gone, his testimony will be destroyed by quarreling leaders.” After a few moments of silence, he cleared his throat. “But right now, we should tend to more cheerful matters. It appears as if your Goddess has already given her blessing to you in advance, despite the questionable trade concerning your provider. Help me rise, there is something to show you.”
Escorting the old man outside, Penthesilea used an unwatched moment to brush a tear away.
What could have convinced Boras that the Goddess had awarded her her favor, her of all?
The Borathion directed her straight toward an aisle flanked by benches – the wall displaying beautiful colors that must have been vibrant before time had dulled them.
It was odd for joking voices and the peaceful gurgling of a fountain to reach her ear after her entire life’s work had been on the rocks only shortly before.
From one bench, the sounds died down when the two rulers drew closer. A brief scurrying, a last corner to be passed and a couple of figures appeared in sight. Penthesilea held her breath.
This time, Boras’ smile was indeed brighter. “They arrived yesterday in the evening, just in time to spend the night in the guest chambers of Borathion and be free of any suspicion to waylay your provider and Iasion. And they asked for you specifically.”
Penthesilea took a closer look at them. There was no doubt that they were warriors – even the youth. They bore the pride and determination of a fighter with the required easiness.
One of them, vigorous, with dark, wild hair and obviously the spokeswoman of the group, now stepped forward.
“We are traveling by order of great queen Xanthippe of Santrake. Our task is to find her sister, princess Penthesilea, daughter of Thestia. Are you, my lady, afore-mentioned princess Penthesilea?”
“Yes.” The queen's heart rejoiced in her chest, “yes, I am Penthesilea, princess of Santrake and in the meantime queen myself.”
“My lady, please accept our deference.” The three women and a black-haired, tall slave in their back fell to their knees.
It was so long since anybody had honored her in that way. Since she had left Santrake, in fact. Things were different here, in the middle of male territory.
Male? Right… she was on Alexander’s property. Seeing the group kneel before her while they had certainly not bestowed the same honor on him would certainly not meet with his approval.
“No, please! It is fine to stand before me. I am but the smallest tribe’s leader here, not a powerful princess.”
She did not notice the least that Boras retreated slowly but surely.
“My lady, my name is Trip of Santrake. Your sister and creator Amadahy Blessing Moon send their compliments and wish you well.”
So Amadahy had gone to meet Xanthippe again and reported about her long-gone sister living among men? She should have known. Amadahy had been such a sincere and warm person, of course she would spread the joyful news.
“Thank you, Trip. Please return the compliments to both, Xanthippe and Amadahy.” Her look traveled over the other two women. “And who are your companions?”
“Faidra, a warrior from Saan tribe. Saan was devastated by a plague.”
“We heard of your tribe’s misfortune. My condolences, Faidra. How have you managed to escape the illness?”
The redhead gave a brief shrug.
Penthesilea turned to the youth at Trip's other side. How old might she be? Maybe at Hippolyta’s age, 16 or 17 summers? “And who are you?”
“Cassiopeia of Nerusa, my lady. From the South.” A spirited, tuneful accent lent her voice the tinge of her home – much like a fast, rhythmic dance.
It was the same accent Protego still possessed, too - a tiny rest of it, sometimes, when he did not talk to her or Hippolyta.
“Nerusa! The Nerusa, the famed Amazon seaport?”
“Yes, my lady. The Nerusa. But,” her eyes were suddenly clouded, “it fell years ago. We were sacked by pirates. Our queen and princesses are dead.”
“Oh, that… I am most sorry that you have been forced to make this experience so early in your life.”
“It’s alright,” although the girl’s voice did not sound as if it was, “I’m still alive and here now.”
Talking to these women who had lost everything was hard, particularly now that she had not led such a discussion for suns. Many of the once well-mastered rhetorical skills must have withered away during the seclusion in the Arythions’ sphere of influence.
“The queen wishes to commend these two to your care. Please allow them to stay with you.”
“And she sends you two gifts.” Trip waved toward her back. “Thersandros of Theranor. Creator Amadahy mentioned that your master slave was breeding, so the queen thought you might accept this one to replace him.”
Ther- For the blink of an eye, Penthesilea was convinced her heart had stopped beating.
The women of Theranor were widely known for their excellent slave breed, so famed that tribal leaders came from afar to purchase a slave or two. For their trade and the wide-stretching wheat fields, their territory was called “the land of gold” and their riches were rumored to surpass those of Santrake by far.
She should have recognized it. Although direct neighbors to Santrake, the Theranors had never let the southern blood of the descendants of Justice* mix with theirs. So unlike the Santrakians, they had preserved the fair skin and bright eyes of Loyalty’s* eastern children.
And the young man in front of her displayed just that very prominently.
“My queen.” He bowed, held one fist up.
The gesture was old. Older than Penthesilea herself or her mother or the generations before her. A request from a prisoner of war or slave toward a new master for mercy, for protection and care. And in return – the promise of devoted service and surrender of their life.
Nobody- nobody had ever directed the ancient gesture toward her yet. Overwhelmed, she enclosed the presented fist with her hand.
“...and this is the last part of your sister’s gift, my lady.” Trip offered her a bundle, larger in size than her own palm. Almost reverently, Penthesilea opened the cloth.
It was a diadem. A diadem with a giant, deep blue lapis lazuli incorporated in the middle.
“It is beautiful,” she stuttered before her voice could fail her entirely. Sure, Thestia's two daughters had never been enemies - but rivals, still. As the oldest, Xanthippe had always had the edge over her. More attention. More allies. Many must have breathed a sigh of relief when Penthesilea had left. One potential danger to the throne less.
This wasn't only gifts. This was an offering of peace.
Well... Sooner or later, she would have to say something. “Will you stay as well, Trip?”
“Goddess forbid! I mean, of course it would be my honor to stay with you, my lady. But the queen has commanded me to report her back, and I am longing to see my beloved again, my Thari.”
“Please bring my sister my most sincere thanks for all the beautiful gifts, then.”
“I will, my lady. But I would be very much grateful if you allowed me a night of rest and a meal to restore my vitality. Tomorrow, I will leave at at sunrise. No need to linger in this goddess–forsaken, menfolk–polluted nest any longer! I long to enfold Thari's warm body in my arms again. When will we leave? I will have to search for Bud first. Bud, my boy, where are you? Come here!” And before Penthesilea got a chance to understand, the dark-haired warrior was already on her way.
“The only male she tolerates closer than ten steps within her reach. And blind as a bat!”
“We had to carry him in turns but she utterly refused to let him stay at home with her lover.” Cassiopeia giggled quietly and they watched a small figure trudging into sight from behind a bush, slowly following his mistress’s incessant yells.
“Aaah, there you are! Tell me, how many men have you run into and knocked down today with those blind eyes of yours? Good boy!”
“Bud is… a dog?” Penthesilea shook her head in disbelief.
Such a strange group. And yet, pride filled her every bone when they set off.
These - the women her sister had sent - were the survivors, the strong ones.
Women capable to build a new tribe with, to be outsiders until they had found a firm place in the web of power among the locals.
They would fetch Hippolyta and Phyllis from Dekanos, hope that the new slave was a better cook than Protego and have a feast. Finally. For diversion.
She would miss Io a lot and not all problems were solved yet, but all of them could use a little joy at the moment.
And after all, she was more confident now than she had been for a long, long time, and with good reason so, she believed.
Poses by Atashi77 and MrsRacooney and a bunch of spontaneously used standing poses that I'm unable to remember
* Justice and Loyalty, daughters of the Great Goddess of Santrake, according to the myths ancestresses to the southern (Justice) and eastern (Loyalty) Amazon tribes
This chapter has extra screenshots in the gallery