"Do you see her?"
"With all due respect, highness, unless she stops and waves into the camera you won't ever see her. It's what makes her so good in the forest arena of combat," answered Kip, captain of the royal guard assigned to the queen.
Sitting with Kip watching the monitors were Queen Audrey, her Consort, Boden, and Bear, the kingdom's most experienced trainer. The annual competition of elite warriors had begun two days prior and Princess Bebo was leading in points for most kills. Running second was Max, Bear's daughter and the princess' oldest friend.
The competition was for bragging rights among the eligible warriors and the last bit of fun for Bebo before she embarked on a diplomatic mission on behalf of her mother and Amazonia. Their nation had once again been called on and Audrey had answered willingly with the backing of her partner who was known throughout the realm as Bo.
"Ooh, she never saw it coming, did she?" Bo pointed to the screen as one of the young women tried to wipe the blue paint off her forehead. The color of paint was Bebo's signature and the point counter in the upper right portion of the screen changed.
"That poor child, it'll take her a week to get that stuff out of her hair," said Audrey, slapping Bo when she laughed. "It's not funny, she could aim for the chest like everyone else. One would swear you gave birth to her she's so much like you."
"Don't kid yourself, love. Those recruits would be disappointed without the sprout's personal touch. It's become a badge of honor in this year's contest. If you have to be taken out, then blue's the in color." The tall royal leaned over and kissed her wife tenderly.
After twenty-five years together, Audrey found it impossible to resist Bo's soft side. Deep down she cheered every time that blue paint dyed someone else's hairline, but the queen felt she had to be more reserved than her warrior partner. Bebo was no different in competition and fierceness than Bo had been at the same age. Audrey could still remember how she felt the first time she had laid eyes on the Warrior of Argase. It was the same feeling she still got when those blue eyes looked her way.
A buzzer rang out signaling the end of the contest. With the kill of two more contestants, Bebo had just registered enough points to put the contest out of reach for the others. For the first time in two days, proud parents watched their daughter as she flipped out of one of the high branches to the fern covered ground below and into view.
"Congratulations, your highnesses," said Bear bowing to Audrey. She reserved the hard slap to the back for Bo. "She will make us proud for years to come."
"Thanks to you, old friend." The two clasped arms in the greeting of warriors. "Max has done your own house proud today," Bo told Bear before turning to hug her wife.
"If you puff your chest out anymore you won't be able to fit it through the door to give the victor her laurels," teased the queen. She had given birth to the princess, but Bebo was almost a carbon copy of her second mother. Artemis, thank you for granting me that one request.
"To tell you the truth, love, today is a day of great pride for me, and yet, a day of great regret."
With a wave of her hand the room emptied for Audrey. "Warrior mine, we knew from the beginning we couldn't keep her forever. My greatest regret was not being able to give you a house full of Bebos for you to spoil and gloat over." The petite blonde moved closer into the arms that had offered comfort and protection for years. With slow movements she ran her hands up Bo's chest until she was able to link her fingers behind her lover's neck. "I love you with all the passion I possess."
"Then I'm a lucky woman who has nothing to regret; and neither do you. Never think of having just one child as a failure, my queen. In Bebo you've given me the world, and now it's time for us to share her. She's the best of both of us, so it gives you the right to puff your chest out a little as well." The dark head lowered and Bo kissed her wife with all of the passion the queen had spoken of. "I love you just as much, Adie. You complete the person that I am."
"Let's go find our winner, then we can speak of passion in a more appropriate place." The tease earned her another kiss, and that's how Bebo found them.
"I see," her voice did not part them. "I'm out protecting the family name and honor and you're in here making out. It's shameful I tell you." The princess was wiping away the camouflage paint with the towel one of the servants had handed her and enjoyed the love between her parents she had witnessed from the time she had memory. If there was one constant in her life, it was the love her parents had for each other.
"Get your own girl, then see if your opinion changes, sprout," said Bo while never taking her eyes off of Audrey's face. "Did you win? We've been too busy to notice."
"With more points than your first victory," boasted the princess.
"Did you now? I wanted to watch, but your mother's had other things in mind." She laughed when the queen blushed and slapped her backside.
"Can I have her exiled when I get the queen's mask?" Bebo asked Audrey when the queen wrapped her arms around her waist. "I can have a hut built for her in the Grazel Desert. You could take pity on her and visit her on weekends."
"You could, but think of all the trouble I'd get into with no one to look out for me." Standing on her toes, Audrey kissed her daughters' cheek. "Congratulations, baby, you did us both proud, but especially the prickly bear who lives with us." Audrey moved aside to let her girls embrace. "Not that she had any doubts in you at all."
By right of birth the queen's mask belonged to Audrey, but every so many generations a great warrior would claim the right to rule, but it had been years since one so strong led their tribe. When she joined with Bo, Audrey wanted to give her people a blend of what made them strong as individuals. Looking at the long bear hug the queen knew part of the mission was complete. Standing there embracing her wife was a child that was truly as much Boden's as she was hers. Bebo had a love of books and art like the queen did, but she was trained to be just as deadly as her second mother. Today was a day to celebrate the part of Bebo that Boden was responsible for.
Winning the yearly competition was no easy feat, especially when a royal competed. To be able to brag you brought down one of the ruling members was a prize for any serving recruit. Bebo's skill as a warrior had been learned a day at a time from the woman who now was being lifted off the ground by the young woman she affectionately called sprout.
"Put me down you overgrown cub," teased Bo. Now that her daughter topped her height by a couple of inches Bo loved using all the monikers she had come up with through the years. "Go get changed so you don't miss the helicopter back to the capital.
"Thanks, mom, but I'll ride back with my unit."
"The victor always rides back with the royal family," protested Bo.
"Only this time the winner already knows us, honey. The thrill of hearing your war stories is gone. Let her ride back with her friends if that's what she wants. There's no harm in it." Audrey shook her head when Bebo wasn't looking and gave Boden a beseeching look.
Bebo bent at the waist and bowed to her mother before moving to kiss the top of her head. "Thanks, mama, I owe you one. I'll see you both tonight at the ceremony."
"Don't be late, it'll embarrass your mother."
The young woman turned and shook her head at Boden. "I know better mom, I'll be there don't worry." With quick movements, Bebo feigned left with her upper body as she took Boden down with her legs when she lunged to the right, pinning her mother with a move Boden herself had taught the princess. "Besides," she started as Bo tried to free herself from the hold. "Now that I won't be there to cramp your style on the way back, our queen can kiss it and make you feel better for being caught so easily. You're getting old, warrior," teased Bebo. A slight twist of her hand got a yelp of pain out of her teacher.
Just as quickly, Bebo let go and ran from the room before Bo could retaliate. Her mother's peals of laughter were the incentive to move faster despite how tired she was from the competition.
The uniform consisted of soft brown leather pants and a tight vest. For this ceremony, her feet were left bare and her shoulder length hair had a few braids with beads and feathers woven in for adornment. The light armor covering her chest was embossed with the royal seal, the same seal both her mothers had engraved on the matching signet rings they wore. The royal guards assigned to her, helped Bebo finish dressing, excusing themselves when Emelda, the head priestess of Artemis' temple arrived.
"How does it feel to pass the one test you thought until now was the most important?" The old woman laughed, sitting even though the princess was still standing with her fists on her hips. "And with more points than your mother too, an accomplishment indeed."
"Can't you let me enjoy tonight without sarcasm?"
"Only if you promise to come by to see me before you leave."
Old gray eyes that had spent years reading books and scrolls of their history looked at this imposing young woman standing before her. It made her want to cry. Princess Bebo of Leon would go down in Amazonian history as one of their greatest rulers if the child found her path, a road of her own making and not one chosen by a parent or anyone else. Emelda just prayed to the gods she would live long enough to serve her as she had her mothers.
"I haven't decided to go yet, grandmother." Bebo used the term of affection everyone had bestowed on the old woman.
"A match of chobos with Boden in the morning to bring you back to earth a bit, and then come to see me. You'll need to hear what I have to say before you go." The comment was tossed casually out as if Bebo hadn't bothered to speak. It was always the same between them. Emelda talked to her as if she had a script of Bebo's thoughts and it aggravated the young woman to no end.
"If all it'll take to make you decide to go is getting the shit beat out of you with a pair of chobos, I volunteer," said Steph, one of Bebo's guards. They were about to begin and she didn't want her charge to be late so she pointed to the door.
"I'll do the mop up work," added Max. "Come on, Bebo, it'll be an adventure."
"For you maybe. You won't be the monkey on display everyone wants to knock off the tree branch because of who you are and what you're supposed to be. Let's move, we don't want to keep my mothers waiting." She helped Emelda up from her chair and escorted her to the door. As important as her part was tonight, Bebo knew the ceremony couldn't begin without Emelda.
The drums had started, and there were so many of them that they could be heard on almost every block of the capital. It was time for Amazonia to honor her traditions and her greatest assets - her warriors. Before the two thrones on the dais raised well above the crowd was the great fire, which burned to honor their patron goddess Artemis. Dancers moved in sync around the flames in traditional garb bringing the crowd to a frenzy as their steps picked up their pace along with the beat.
All sound and movement stopped when Emelda moved to a microphone set up on a lower stage. This was what Bebo and every other citizen looked forward to every year. To hear this story told by this woman made the princess pray to all their gods that Emelda lived to be three hundred. The only woman better at telling stories was her mother Audrey.
"Sisters, hark and hear me well. Tonight under a harvest moon we gather to honor a new warrior, one who will be added to the great scroll started hundreds of years ago. She has earned her right to be placed along side the great ones and tonight it will be so." The crowd erupted with noise because of whose name would be added to the scroll of honor. Bebo had been a favorite of the nation from her first breath and they had enjoyed watching her grow up.
"But first we must honor those who came before. Time to honor who we are by the telling of our history." Silence fell once again and everyone sat back anxious to get lost in Emelda's voice.
"In the beginning, we were outcasts and unwanted by the world as it was. Women who banded together to protect one another and build a place where we could thrive beholden to no one. We learned to plant to feed our families, to fight to protect our sisters, to toil to be better able to move our tribe forward and prosper, and lastly to choose our leaders well so all of this could be possible." She raised her arms and her voice grew stronger at the end, making the crowd break into applause again.
"For centuries we were dedicated to our patron goddess Artemis and her sister Athena and we were rewarded with the island of Amazonia. It is a paradise we have enjoyed ever since, and we have built it into a thriving nation." A murmur of thanks to the two goddesses ran like wildfire through the audience.
"Under our first great queen, Selene, we vowed to serve one of four clans for our service, but only one queen. All of the queens and tribes of the Amazons came under Selene's rule to live in peace in this place. So it was then, and so it is now. Tonight we welcome the province of Selena and their regent Vivian," Emelda pointed to the red head sitting in the center of her clan. They all were wearing leather dyed a soft shade of green and none of them carried weapons. They were farmers and scientists; they had no interest or time for fighting. "We thank our sister and her people for their hard work and Vivian's leadership in our fields of agriculture and in our places of healing."
Next she pointed to an older woman dressed in a uniform very much like Bebo's. "We welcome our sisters from the Argase clan and their regent Leslie, blood sister of Consort Boden. Thank you, sister, for another great year of competition, and in continuing to train the next generation of warriors. Your tenure as the guardian of our sacred forest has done honor to our tribe." All of the serving recruits under Leslie removed their chobos and hit them together making the Consort smile at the racket.
The youngest regent sat with her clan facing the dais. Their leather was dyed a pale yellow and, like the women of Selena clan, wore weapons or armor. "Welcome our sisters from the northern province of Curasso and their regent Rena. The mines of copper and silver pave our way to a prosperous future and we thank you all for your tireless efforts."
Emelda turned to the last regent to be named and smiled. It was the largest contingency, simply because this ceremony took place in the capital, and they wore a shade lighter than Boden's blue leathers. " Princess Sean of the Leon clan, your sisters bid you and yours welcome. From the capital you drive our main areas of commerce and you welcome outsiders to our lands and beaches. You also serve our queen and her family well, and because you do, it brings honor to our tribe."
The blonde bowed slightly to the old woman then more deeply to the throne. Sean controlled the largest segment of the island, and a tremendous amount of power along with it, but Audrey never had cause to fear her. They were sisters by blood and devoted to each other.
"We come together tonight as Amazons to welcome a new champion into our fold," continued Emelda. The drums started slowly and softly again, and all the women rose to their feet. "We have known her since the time her mother carried her with love in her womb, but tonight she starts down the road to becoming the woman she is destined to be."
The roar that arose with the priestess' words shook the ground, rising an impossible notch higher when Bebo stepped into view flanked by Steph, Beth and Max. A sea of flashbulbs went off when she started down the aisle toward her mothers, but no one outside those present and those whom lived on the island would ever see the photos. Keeping the secrecy of their ceremonies was an unwritten law no Amazon had ever broken, and what made the world crave information about them that much more.
Audrey looked at the young woman moving closer and tears filled her eyes. It seemed like only days before when another stunning warrior moved just as confidently toward the dais to receive her prize.
"Pay attention, child, and close your mouth," admonished Queen Bekka, her consort Laine trying not to laugh as she stood beside her. "Not a word out of you, warrior mine," the reprimand made Laine lose her battle at trying to hide her humor and she turned her head slightly so Boden wouldn't think she was laughing at her.
"Come, dear, I would like to think you looked at me like that not so long ago. Hades, even on nights when the moon shines down just right, you grace me with the look of a young woman in love. Why should the gods not bless our own little one with the same pleasure? I know for me it has always been the greatest feeling in the world when your eyes turn my way and I see how you feel about me shining so clearly in their green depths."
The petite woman sent the woman standing with her the look of which she spoke, and it promised great things when the ceremony was done and they returned to the palace. "Now who is the romantic fool?" She loved Laine but it wasn't often that the tough warrior showed her softer side in public. As much as the queen wanted to play and see how far she could push her consort, there was a duty she had to perform. Before her stood not only the winner of that year's competition but also the woman who had captured her daughter's heart. "Warrior Boden, you have proven yourself in battle and to your tribe," Bekka felt she was wasting the words on the young woman whose eyes were so glued to her daughter. "What say you?"
The sword strapped to Boden's back came out of the scabbard and she laid it at the queen's feet. "To you I give my sword, my service and my life, Queen Bekka of Leon. Do with me as you will." As she said the words Boden dropped to her knees and lowered her head.
Bekka went to place the necklace of olive leaves around Boden's neck, but at the last moment, she stopped. The whispering that came from the crowd almost made Boden look up, stopping when she heard more than one sigh coming from the women watching. With a sigh of her own, Bekka handed the victor's wreath to her eldest daughter and waved her hand toward the future. She smiled when Laine's hands came to rest on her shoulders and a kiss was placed on her neck.
"You are still the romantic fool I fell for so many years ago. We make a good team in the arena of foolishness, my love," whispered Laine as she moved her lips to her wife's ear.
"Just tell me she's as honorable and loves our daughter as much as she seems to." She was happy for Audrey, but it was hard not to look at it as losing her little girl.
Audrey looked out at the watching faces and held the wreath of leaves high over her head. "I declare Boden of Argase the winner of this year's competition."
The queen's consort clapped along with everyone else as she leaned over and whispered the answer to her wife's question in her ear. "More so, love. Bo will give Audrey the balance she needs. With her she will have what we share and hopefully, if the gods see fit, even more than that. I've spoken to her and it is easy to see how much she loves our daughter. The woman you see before you is not someone hungry for power and she will see that Audrey keeps hers. It's a good match, and she'll be a good champion."
The two royals joined in the applause when the warrior threw protocol to the wind and kissed the girl she loved. It was a memory Audrey would love retelling for years to come.
"Where have you flown off to, love?" asked Bo.
"To a place where a very similar young warrior was walking toward my mothers and finished stealing every bit of my heart."
The dark head, now peppered in spots with white, bent and Bo whispered into her wife's ear. "She's a little older, but perhaps that same warrior can show you how good a kisser she still is later on tonight." From her position slightly below them Bekka rolled her eyes as Laine covered her mouth to hide her smile. Years had done little to dampen the ardor between the current queen and her wife. It was something Bekka and her partner loved to tease them about.
They bumped shoulders, but Audrey and her partner never took their eyes off the princess as she made her trek to them. "Trust me, honey, you've gotten better with age." Audrey stopped her teasing and watched as Bebo stopped before them. "Warrior Bebo, you have proven yourself in battle and your tribe. What say you?"
The sword the princess carried was a gift from Boden and a replica of the one she carried the first time she took this walk. "To you, my queen, I give my sword, my service, my love and life. Do with and command me as you see fit. This is my solemn vow to you, your consort and my sisters." The words were a little different than the ones Boden had used, but Audrey wasn't surprised. As much as Bebo loved her second mother, she always strived to be her own person.
"Thank you, warrior," said Audrey so just her family could hear. "Well said, love." She held the wreath high so the crowd could see it before repeating the words she'd first said for Boden. "I declare Princess Bebo of Leon the winner of this year's competition." With a kiss to the top of the dark head, the queen placed the wreath of leaves around her daughter's neck and laughed when mischievous blue eyes looked up at her.
"I asked your wife to recreate something for me, so I hope you don't mind, mama." With a quick tug she ripped a leaf from the wreath and tucked it over Boden's ear. Before Bebo finished her mothers were in a familiar embrace sharing a kiss that brought cheers from the crowd.
"I love you, my beautiful girl, and I'm so proud of you," Audrey told her daughter when Bo let her go and Bebo got a turn at hugging her. "Now is the beginning of your time, and I want you to choose that for your life which will bring you the greatest joy. Whatever that might be, I hope she or it will make you as happy as you and your mom have made me."
"Thank you, mama. I can only hope to be so blessed."
"Have you decided?" Bo moved and twirled the chobos in her hand with expert ease. There was nothing better than a good sparring match to sober you up after a good party. Her daughter made the first move and the fight was on. Gone were the days when Bo had to hold back when wielding the short clubs or any weapon against Bebo.
"I want to go, but I'm not sure I'm good enough to represent the nation for what's needed." She blocked a blow to her thigh and sent a swipe at her mother's head in retaliation.
"Doubt is not a word for warriors, Bebo. If you doubt a good outcome, the gods will make it so. Chance is what I want you to focus on."
"Chance?" They were both starting to breathe hard from the exertion, but Bebo knew her mother could go on for hours.
"If you never chance anything, then how can you know that you'll succeed at anything? Through chance, great leaders are made," Bo sped up the moves driving Bebo back toward the edge of a fountain in the courtyard where they were working out. "But the flip side to that is that chance also makes great fools."
Jumping up to the edge, Bebo used the height advantage to propel herself over Boden's head so she could go on the offensive. "Looking a fool is what I'm afraid of."
"That's something that doesn't worry me, sprout." A good strong down stoke knocked one of Bebo's weapons out of her hand.
The setback was no reason to surrender though. Bebo grabbed her mother's wrist with one hand while she used a disarming maneuver with the other to even the odds. Grunting to keep hold of the powerful limb, the young woman smiled. "Why is that?"
"I didn't raise a fool." Boden widened her stance and dropped her remaining chobo. "I raised someone I'd follow into Hades if she but ask it of me."
The words were more effective than any defensive move her mother could have used and Bebo bowed her head and gave Boden the match. "There's no one I'd rather have looking out for me."
"You do what's in your heart, sprout, and damn what the world thinks."
"And if what I decide is to do what's expected?"
"Then I'll be the one holding your mother during the days of crying that are coming when you leave." Boden grabbed Bebo by the back of the neck and pulled her forward into a hug. "But any excuse to hold the woman I love is welcomed, so don't worry about it."
Bebo laughed and held on to the solid body longer than usual. Later, during her shower she stood under the hot spray thinking of not having her mom to run to for advice in the coming months. The upcoming mission was something Boden had done for Audrey as her champion, but they'd had each other for the duration. Aside from Max, Steph and Beth, and a few other guards, she would be on her own.
In a pair of loose fitting cotton pants and t-shirt, Bebo walked to the temple, close to the palace. Along the street she greeted everyone who stopped and bowed in reverence to her title. She was beloved among the people, because like Audrey and Boden, Bebo never used her station to make others feel bad about their own.
When she entered the sacred place, she and her guards removed their shoes and walked to the altar. From her knees Bebo looked up at the large statue of their patron goddess. The likeness, carved from the trunk of a tree that once grew in their forest, had been in their tribe since the year they had settled on the island. Along with the national archives, it was one of the people's most treasured possessions.
Emelda watched as the dark head lowered and Bebo's hands went up in a position of prayer. The head priestess had been present the day the princess had been born and remembered how the queen had sobbed when they had placed the baby in her arms. They were not tears of despair or sadness, but tears of complete joy at getting everything she had hoped for. Audrey was a kind and giving person, and when she met and fell in love with Boden, she wanted to gift her with a child, but not just any child. She wanted Boden to help her raise a piece of both of them.
There kneeling in Artemis' temple was Audrey's wish. Bebo was tall and built like a fighter. Her body was lean and had just enough musculature to be extremely attractive. The eyes were the same sky blue of Boden's but her mouth and nose were more like Audrey's as was the texture of the thick black hair. Boden's hair was dark and slightly curly, but her mate's locks were on the other end of the color spectrum. The sun streaked blonde showed traces of red in certain lights in the straight tresses, so Bebo was, in a way, a compromise along those lines as well. The dark hair came from one mother but the thick strands showed no traces of Boden's curls.
A perfect blend of light and dark thought Emelda, just like her mothers and some of their ancient queens and their consorts. More importantly, the next generation would be blessed with a love story to continue where Audrey and Boden would leave off. The priestess had seen it in her visions and it was time to set the game in motion.
"Why does she look so sad, mistress?" asked Emery, Emelda's apprentice.
"The princess is conflicted about the future, Em, so we will do our best to ease her mind. Take her silent shadows for a walk so I can talk to her."
"Are you packed?"
Bebo put her hands down and cracked open an eye. With Emelda's arrival, meditation time was over. "According to you and my mother, all I need to bring is my wits."
"And your sharp tongue won't hurt either. Come and walk with me, highness, I wish to tell you a story."
The temple was surrounded by one of the most beautiful gardens found in the world. Every citizen pledged time here throughout the year to keep it in pristine condition. Beyond the flowered and manicured trails was the aqua water of the Aegean. It was along the white beach that the old woman wanted to walk.
"This is a story told for generations because it is worth the telling," she began. "The Amazons had lived in secrecy for awhile, feeding the rumors and myths that surrounded their existence, when the mask was claimed by someone very different from those who had worn it before. A bard who used words rather than her fists, and who tried to reach out to the world she lived in rather than hide in the trees. Beside her, throughout her life, stood a warrior who loved her and kept her whole so that her message could have an opportunity to grow in the hearts of the women she led. They both died with the tribe after a long and prosperous rule, but for years the bard would leave the leadership of everyday life to others while she and the warrior wandered the countryside fighting for the greater good."
"Grandmother, I've heard this a million times already," whined Bebo. A slap to the back of her head kept her from doing it again.
"The warrior, with time, came to believe in the ways of peace and chose only to lift her sword to defend the defenseless, or at the command of her wife. It is from her that our tradition of going when called comes, though history has been rather inaccurate when giving credit. But no matter, that's why the bard is so important to the story. She is just as important as the deeds of her warrior. The world may not have acknowledged her endeavors, but it doesn't mean they won't be remembered. "
"Because she keeps the warrior alive?through her stories," Bebo looked down the beach and then at Emelda's face. "I never thought of it that way."
"You never had to, sweetheart. Your mother was born the teacher and bard. It was her destiny to claim the mask and to keep our history alive through her words. She's a shining beacon of light who has moved her people forward in her time, but only because she was brave enough to claim that which was hers."
"The warrior who stands at her side."
"Precisely. Your mother understood the balance the first two created and what they brought to those who followed. Like our ancestors your mother is no dictator, but someone who speaks her mind and is confident to do so because she has your other mother's strength at her disposal. In you she has tried to forge the two parts together, but still you have much of Consort Boden's blood running through your veins. You need to leave so you may find your light. The one who'll sing your praises and keep your story alive for your children's children."
The pair stopped at a cove of rock by the water and sat on the sand. "Have you a vision for me then?"
"In history you will find your mate, highness. She's fair like your mother, and like her, finds comfort in words. When you find her though, you'll also find that there is a fork in the road to your ultimate decision."
"What do you mean?"
"Visions are just that, highness, a glimpse of the future, not an exact map. You'll know what the goddess wants you to know when the time comes. There is one thing though," warned Emelda.
"She belongs to someone else? Or perhaps she won't be able to stand me?"
A white brow went up at the princess' comment. "That's right. I guess the goddess didn't wish to make your journey too easy. Only through proving yourself worthy of her, will you manage to turn her heart to your own."
Bebo interrupted her before the priestess could go on. "Prove myself how?" She scooped up a handful of sand and watched it run through her fingers.
"Do you want me to be honest, or perhaps you want to go and find out for yourself."
"Wisdom tells me to wait?"
"But your instinct tells you otherwise?"
The tall princess threw her head back and laughed. "Are my instincts wrong then?"
"Can I tell you something first?"
"Grandmother, there'll never be a time in our existence that you'll have need to ask me that. You may ask or tell me anything whenever you please."
"I saw you as you slipped out of your mother's womb, just as I witnessed her own birth years before. But with you, Bebo, with you, I wept because I was born too early."
The young woman brushed her hands of sand and took hold of Emelda's. "Why would you do that?"
"I cried for the life some other woman would have at your side. Call it a jealous whim of an old woman, but what I would have given to be the one your eyes would fall upon on the day Aphrodite would make your heart melt."
The smile that had made more than one female in the realm sigh appeared for Emelda. "I would have been damned lucky if it were so."
"You're a charmer like your mother, the gods bless you for humoring an old woman. Now listen." She rested her head on Bebo's shoulder and squeezed her hands. "In your battle you will find two roads. The first is the one you'll take if you think this young woman worthy. But in your case, the choice will be as easy as taking on the whole of the US Army alone. What I mean is that when the time comes, you think that no matter what your choice is it will lead to happiness. One will be easier than the other to make, but that is where the problem will lie."
"I hate to ask again, but what's that mean? You're being as clear as fog here."
"What I mean is that only one path holds true happiness. The other only holds contentment, but comfort is not passion."
Thinking on everything Emelda had said so far, something else stuck out in Bebo's mind. "I thought I had to prove myself worthy of her? Which is it?"
"This is your heart, so what you think of her is just as important as what she thinks of you. Any partnership, especially for the two who will one day rule, is forged on mutual love as well as respect. What this trip will show you is the road to love starts and ends here in Amazonia. Perhaps if we are all lucky you'll return to us that which has been missing for far too long."
"And the other path?"
"The other will have to wait until you return to us. Its path leads to Grazel and its sand dunes. If you return alone, to the desert you go to find your own vision."
Bebo kept her counsel and asked no more questions making Emelda proud of her for not wanting too much information. "Thank you, grandmother."
"One last thing." The priestess released one of Bebo's hands so she could cup her face. "No matter the outcome with this woman, I see great things coming from your journey. Your skills will surpass Boden's and your reign will be chronicled as one of the best in our history."
The dark head lowered in respect to the priestess' observation. "Thank you for saying so. It is a humbling experience to even have the chance to lead my people."
They walked back to the temple in silence where they found the royal guards waiting at the gate with Emery. In a gesture of affection, Bebo brushed her lips against Emelda's softly. "Goodbye, my friend. I'll write to you as often as I can while I'm away."
With one hand on Bebo's forehead and the other over her heart, Emelda's lips moved in silent prayer. "Hurry home and good luck. Remember, Bebo, this is your time to shine."
The walk back toward the palace was more relaxed and the two holy women watched as the princess never looked back. "Will she be gone long?" asked Emery.
"Long enough. She will return to us changed by both battle and love. Let us begin to pray that it's the first path that I spoke to her of that rises to meet her."
"And if it doesn't?"
The hum of bees in the garden and the sound of waves in the background prevailed for a long while making Emery think there was no answer forthcoming. "Then she will return to us still, but will find happiness only in her responsibilities. Her heart though, will find solace in nothing because her true mate will never be replaced."
Emery couldn't help but let tears fall. "That sounds so sad."
"That is at times the will of the gods, child. Our job has always been to follow and not question them. You'll find with age that you can give of yourself and love unconditionally but it doesn't guarantee you the same in return. Sometimes the greatest pain can be done by those who are supposed to love us the most."
"What a shame," said Emery with a sigh.
"What a shame indeed."
Boden walked her sister Leslie to the war room in the palace; each lost in her own thoughts as they moved down the corridors. The world was a different place after the terrorist attacks of the previous years, and the two soldiers knew things would only get worse before they got better. It was their expertise in small unit warfare that had precipitated the call from the United States government. For the greater good, Audrey would send their best warrior, with just a bit of a heavy heart, to train an elite unit of soldiers until they could master the Amazonian techniques.
Sitting at the conference table were the queen, Bebo's royal guard, and the princess. They all wore their dress uniforms, and the young women stood when Boden and Leslie stepped into the room. The four soldiers placed a fist over their chest in salute to their commanding officers after turning and bowing to the queen.
"Sit, please," said Leslie. She walked to Audrey and kissed her hand before sitting across from the young women. "The situation as we know it now isn't one of combat, only training. The president has growing problems in Iraq from the first war there, and Iran and some of the other surrounding countries are heating up with the conflict. The recent competition has proven to your mother and I, Bebo, that you are the best person for the job. Granted desert terrain is different from the sacred forest, but you all have trained in Grazel as well. For the coming months you'll work with General Patrick Paddio and his unit of special operations forces."
Boden pulled out a file and placed eleven pictures on the table. "This is the general and his unit of soldiers. Remember you'll work with them but you take orders from no one outside Amazonian authority. From my own experience they'll push you if you give them the opportunity. Do not under any circumstances give them the opportunity."
"What my sister means, Bebo, is that there'll be one in these faces," Leslie pointed to the pictures on the table, "Who'll try to show his or her fellow soldiers that we as a people are overrated. A woman who lives on an island of only women is somehow a freak who needs to be taught a lesson. Soldiers having to take orders from you will be a different breed of people than those you have encountered on your travel thus far. The Cobra Special Ops Unit is one of their best, and so are the egos that come along with that, I would imagine."
"There is one other thing, love," interrupted the queen.
"I don't know if I could stand it, this sounds so good so far," teased Bebo.
"With you, are going quite a few treasures from the archives. The national gallery in Washington asked for an exhibition and I granted Erica permission to put together a good cross section of things to show the world the wonders of our lives and history. Just enough to keep them guessing, but I would like you to see that our generosity is being treated with respect. If one piece comes back full of sticky fingers I may never hear the end of it."
"As you wish, mama."
"It'll be in Washington for awhile then travel south with you to New Orleans later when you move to the field part of your training." The queen stood to let Boden finish her section of Bebo's briefing, prompting everyone to their feet until she left the room.
The meeting lasted four hours and when it was done, Bebo had an idea of how long this would take. Maneuvers of combat indoors until the unit got the basics of them down and then to the swamps of Louisiana to put the ideas into motion. The forests of the swamps were different than she and the guards were used to, but it was similar to some hotspots around the world into which the American forces could be called. From the easy part, considering there were places to hide in trees, to the desert section of their training would take at least four months if the unit learned fast.
In the time of Consort Laine's service, the states were at war in the jungles and her advice during training and combat weren't heeded. One of Boden's saddest days was standing at the wall of the Vietnam memorial with her mother-in-law and seeing the overwhelming number of names lost in that conflict. The one thing Boden prayed for more than anything was that nothing of the same sort haunted Bebo's memories for years to come.
"Do you have any questions?" asked Bo of her daughter.
"What, I'm not allowed to call you once I board the plane?"
"You call me whenever you want, I just need to know if you have any questions now."
"If you go over this again my eyes will gloss over, mom, I think we got it." Bebo stood and stretched. "Let's go find mama before she thinks you're in here telling me where all the good bars are."
"You mean you don't want to know?" asked Leslie.
"Some things are better researched on your own, my dear aunt. All those investments in computers my mother made years ago are good for more than one thing, and the Internet is a wondrous place." The others laughed at Bebo's teasing.
"And this is no time to share with your mother all the talks we've had on this subject over the years," warned Bo. "You have fun, but remember, you're there representing your queen. Not to mention my wife, and I have a feeling if you go over there and leave a wake of broken hearts, I'll be to blame some how."
They retired to a private dining area to share a last meal together as a family before Bebo left the next morning. There was much story telling and laughing as they ate and drank some of the wine bottled on the island the year of Bebo's birth. One by one their friends went to bed until only Bebo and Audrey were left.
"Mama, can I ask you something before I go?"
"If it's where to go to find women, sweetheart, ask your mother. She never left me alone when we went to fulfill my duty, but those guards of hers had stories that could curl even our hair."
Bebo laughed and relaxed back into the pillows they were lying on. "I think I have that one covered but thanks for the advice. What I want to know is how did you know mom was the one who held your heart?"
"Of all the questions you could ask me that's the hardest and easiest to answer." Audrey pulled on Bebo's sleeve to get the young woman to put her head in her lap. "The year I turned nineteen, my mother Laine took me with her on a trip to the forest to visit with the regent of the area at the time. The competition for the year was just over and the next class of recruits were starting their training. While your grandmother Laine met with the trainers I sat under one of the great trees reading a scroll. Not an hour had passed when an arrow came from somewhere above me and embedded itself just above my head."
"Did mom ever forgive Bear that infraction?"
"That's never discussed when I'm around, but I think bad weather is not Bear's friend after the broken arm your mother treated her to that afternoon. But that's not why I'm telling you this story," Audrey pulled gently on a lock of Bebo's hair. "When I looked up from my book and saw her standing there with a bow strapped to her back I almost fainted just form the overwhelming sight of her."
"Was it then?"
"Maybe this isn't something you want to hear, but no, it wasn't then. Instant lust is a little different than falling in love at first sight. Like you, your mother was as impressive sight when dressed for combat, she still is to me. It was when she dropped to her knees and took hold of my hands to ask if I was all right, that's when it happened. Her voice wove itself into my brain and into my heart, and all I could do was listen and nod."
"Have you ever heard her tell this story?"
"No, she always tells me I'm the storyteller in the family."
"One night you should ask her to recount the day for you."
"I'll have to do that, but to answer your question, it was then that I started to fall in love with her, but with time I knew my instincts were right. Our patron goddess is Artemis, but I feel that her sister Aphrodite is also always looking out for us. The outside world may not understand us, but as long as we respect what a precious thing we have in our families, then it is more than we need to be happy. Why all the interest in love?"
"No reason, mama, maybe I just wanted you to tell me a story before I go." She felt another tug to her hair and Bebo knew she wasn't fooling her mother. "Emelda thinks I will find my mate on this trip. If I do, I want to know if there's something I'm supposed to look for that shows me she's the one."
"Only this will tell you," Audrey placed her hand over Bebo's heart. "If you're lucky other parts of your anatomy will soon follow and the picture will be complete."
"And the realm thinks mom's the crude one between the two of you," teased Bebo.
Audrey laughed and leaned down to place a kiss on her daughter's forehead. "I hope that Emelda is right. I can only imagine Bo with a grandchild to spoil. It's a wonder you ever learned how to walk, she carried you around everywhere."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, mama. The vision wasn't clear and it might not happen at all."
"This face," Audrey pinched the cheeks between her hands together, "Will get the girl to be curious. When you spend time with her, she will be lost just as I was in the eyes of a warrior. That is if she's a smart woman."
"Thank you, mama. Mom may officially be your champion but you have always been mine."
"And you remain my greatest treasure. Have fun and you come back to me in one piece. Do you promise?"
"What do you think this is? A sex toy perhaps?" Terry Olsen held up a piece of the exhibit Audrey had commissioned and showed it to her two fellow employees and friends. Eris laughed but Annie stepped over and took the weapon out of her hands and put it in the case designated for its display. "Lighten up will you, Annie, I was just having a little fun."
"You do realize this is the first time in history that any Amazonian queen has allowed this stuff out of their national archive, so forgive me if I don't feel like fooling around."
The two assistant curators looked at their friend and shook their heads. Annie Paddio loved being able to handle history even though she may not agree with the people it pertained to. The Amazons were no different, and Annie was no less enthralled. An island full of women wasn't something any of them understood, but that wasn't their job. Their jobs were to lead people of all ages through the museum and try and teach them a little something about what they were looking at.
"Do you think you'll get all this information down in time for the opening?" Eris asked her two companions.
"Considering Queen Audrey wanted the first people through here to be grade school children what does it matter if we don't have the total package down yet. No one knows much about these women, so who's going to contradict you if you get something wrong?" Terry moved to the next box and placed the sculpture of a young woman in the glass case above it.
The blonde directing some of the men working with them for the larger pieces shook her head and counted silently to ten. Terry and Eris had been her friends since they had been in the third grade, and through the years they had attended different schools around the world together as their fathers were transferred with the service. It didn't mean though that the tall redheaded Terry couldn't be a huge pain in the ass.
"Over there, Stan, and be careful. Some of this stuff is made of wood and I don't think they would do well hitting the marble floor in here. For the most part though, I think we're done. Once all this is in its proper place we can call Mr. Baxter down for a final walk through, and then call the cleaning crew," directed Annie.
"What do you really think about all this stuff, Miss Annie?" asked Stan. "I don't know who did all the carving but it's the best I've ever seen come through here. Look at this one's features," he pointed to a statue of Aphrodite made from a piece of olive wood. "It looks like she could come alive and talk to you."
"That one's good, but this one is my favorite." Annie walked him to the center of the room where a velvet rope stood as protection for the marble figure behind it.
It must have taken the craftsman who made it a lifetime to complete it the statue had so much detail. The subject was a warrior dressed in full regalia as if heading out to war. On her face was a mask of stone feathers, much like the feathers braided into her hair. Into her boots were tucked what looked to be knives, on her back was strapped a sword and in her hand was a bow and the frozen figure was in the process of nocking an arrow.
"How scared the enemy facing hundreds of these women must have been when they got their first look. My father told me that in small fights, the Amazons have never been beaten they know the art of war so well."
"Yeah well, she's never met the unit he commands now, baby," said the masculine voice behind her.
Hearing Captain Titus Walker, Stan touched his fingers to his head and bid Annie good night. The cocky military man wasn't his favorite person and the construction worker was having a hard time picturing the sweet young woman he worked with married to him eventually. "Good night, Miss Annie, I'll see you in the morning. I'm anxious to hear you tell me about all this stuff during the tour tomorrow."
"Thanks for all the help, Stan, and please call me just Annie. We've sweat together too much putting all these exhibits together for you to still be so formal with me." She gave the older man a quick hug before giving Titus her attention. "How did you get in here?"
"I've been gone for three weeks, and all you can ask me is how I got in here?" He held his arms out and she met him half way, making him close the gap. "Miss me?"
"Just a little bit. How did it go?" asked Annie after she'd kissed him hello.
"We were in and out, and that's all I can tell you. Your father said he might give me command of the unit the next time out though. He was impressed with my thinking in the field as he calls it."
Annie laughed and pulled on the belt around his coat. "Don't be all impressed with that, honey, he's been telling Reggie and I that for years just when we make it back in one piece from a date." She took his hand and started for her office. "Can you come over tonight, or do you have some debriefing to go to?"
"Actually I'm free and ready to take you out to dinner."
"Sorry, but I have a lot of work to do tonight to get ready for tomorrow. The exhibit is opening and I'm first up in the docent role in the morning."
He opened the door and grabbed her coat off the rack and held it open for her. "We're going out to dinner, Annie, I've already decided. It's not like we ever get to see each other, so we have to take advantage of the situation when we can. Besides when we get married and start moving with my job, you won't have to worry about getting ready for anything except getting pregnant. The general says he wants a grandson since your mother only knew how to make girls."
She wanted to argue, but Titus had just gotten home and if dinner was quick she could finish her reading. Dinner turned out not to be quick when a lot of his unit met them at the restaurant to relive their adventures through their little secret codes. He dropped her off after two and insisted on coming in, and Annie didn't argue again when he wanted to catch up on their physical relationship. After all the beer and stories it didn't take him long to fondle her a little and roll over and start snoring.
The alarm clock was set for five the next morning so she could make a dent in the last chapter of the booklet Queen Audrey had her librarians put together explaining the pieces they'd sent and their history. It was only two and a half hours of sleep but it beat getting none.
"Where are you going?" he said in a rough voice from the bed.
"To work, Titus. Try and get out of here before Reggie gets up. I'm not really in the mood to hear any lectures from my baby sister later if you're drinking milk out of the carton naked again."
"But it's still dark out," he complained, already heading back to sleep. "Come back to bed and I'll make it worth your while."
"Are you kidding, I'm still reeling from last night," she said as she picked up her coat and headed out to the living room to get her briefcase. To the man in her bed the comment sounded a little sarcastic.
"You and the crew did a wonderful job, Annie," said Carl Baxter the head curator as they walked the floor in the quiet of the early morning. "I'm hoping this goes well enough to be rewarded with a trip to the Amazonian archives in their capital. It's never been seen or entered by an outsider, but a man can dream. Queen Audrey, from my telephone conversations with her, seems to be genuinely interested in forging some lines of communications and sharing scholarly interests with people."
Not wanting to fool with it, Annie had pulled her hair into a bun at the base of her neck and it felt strange when she nodded her head. "That would be great. After all they can't blame people for getting the wrong idea of them, or writing inaccurate accounts of their lives if they don't want to share something as precious as books."
"Are you okay with all of this?"
"What do you mean, sir?"
"It's just that I've overheard some of the comments you girls have made during the unpacking and I don't want any trouble if you decide to interject your personal biases into this. The gallery and key people in the government have worked too hard to get to this point only to be shot down by someone who has a problem with Amazonia as a whole." His tone stayed even with no reprimand in it, but it was a clear warning to her. "We've worked together long enough for you to be honest with me."
"Mr. Baxter, I'd hope you know me well enough to know it doesn't matter how I feel about the Amazons as a people, I would never embarrass you or the gallery with any inappropriate comments."
They stopped at the statue of the warrior and they both fell silent to admire the workmanship once again. There was something about this fierce looking warrior that spoke to something in Annie's heart. It was like this unknown woman was not afraid of any outcome. She was unafraid of speaking out in defense of the life she wanted and the way she wanted to live it. Perhaps the tribe of women living on some far off island were happier than most if that's how they faced their days.
"Then you do have something about all this that's bothering you?" asked Baxter, being the first to break the silence.
"Trust me, sir, it's nothing I can't handle. I just don't see how they can be happy living in a society that excludes half the world's population. Not everyone living on Amazonia is gay; it can't be. Does that then mean they force women to live a life that doesn't make them happy? It doesn't make sense to me since they're supposed to stand for a place where women can be free to be whatever they choose." Annie stopped before she really got going and scared Baxter into a sweat. "I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean to go on like that. If you don't mind I have a few things to finish up before we open up."
"If you really don't feel comfortable, Annie, just be honest with me and I'll assign you to something else. I just thought you'd be as excited about this as I am."
"Thank you for saying that, sir, but I'm sure I'll be fine."
She kicked her shoes off as soon as the door to her office closed and she looked through her bag for the booklet she'd brought home the night before against museum regulation. The booklet was not to leave the building and everyone signed a contract not to copy or share it in any form. Annie had ignored the directive since they would be sharing the booklets content during the tours they would be giving in the coming weeks. Well it's not like I'm going to copy it and start selling it on Ebay. That thought crossed her mind as she leaned back in her chair and propped her feet on the desk.
Whoever had written the information guide had written it in the form of an adventure story. It was like no history book she'd ever read and Annie found that it kept her interest as much as her Nancy Drew novels when she was in school. Each piece Audrey had sent as her ambassadors had a story to tell since they were, to the Amazons, real people, even the goddesses. The warriors commemorated in either wood or stone had lived and done something extraordinary to help further the cause of the Amazons.
It was the knocking on her door that made Annie jump up and knock the booklet from her lap. Her bun had come undone and the last chapter of the material was left unread when she fell asleep despite the interest she had in what it had to say. She walked to the door hunched over from the pain in her back from the uncomfortable chair.
"I figured when your car was gone this morning you could use this," Terry held a large cup of coffee in her hand and she offered it to Annie. "I also stopped calling you at twelve when Reggie threatened to have me killed if I dialed y'all's number one more time and woke her up. Something about a big test today. And since your father is the head of some black ops group I decided to take heed of her threat." She pushed Annie back in her chair and pulled the hairbrush out of the top drawer. "Late night, honey?"
"You saw him here last night. Titus is about as easy to say no to as my father is. We didn't get in until two and then he wanted to have a little fun."
"TMI, honey. He's handsome as all get out, Annie, but you'd better start speaking up for yourself before you find yourself barefoot and pregnant in Guam or something. If that happens I'll be here all by myself and you're the one who talked me into this career in the first place."
Annie took a sip of her coffee and almost spit it out when Terry started whining. "Did you finish reading all this stuff?"
"You know something, Annie?" Terry brushed out the wavy blonde hair and started twisting it back into the bun her friend had picked that morning. "I couldn't put that thing down. Can you believe I turned down a date with Billy to finish it? Are you ready?"
"I wish I could say I was. You don't want to take the first shift do you?"
"I wish I could, but Mr. Baxter has me going over to the holding facility to accept shipment of the artwork heading over to the White House this afternoon. They're changing up some of the landscapes for a state dinner tonight."
"Shit, I forgot all about that."
"Care to share with the peasants?"
"My father wanted me and Reggie to go with him and my mother tonight. The dinner is for Princess Bebo and her royal guard."
Terry finished with her hair and twirled the chair around to see if her handiwork was all right. "That sounds like fun. You could ask her for a refresher course if you run into any snags today. Have fun and call me later."
Finishing her coffee, Annie tried to skim through the rest of the booklet as she picked up the phone and called her sister. "Reg?"
"Annie, you've got some nerve calling me this early. Your friends kept me up till all hours and I just got a treat when I headed into the kitchen to get coffee this morning. I'd love to talk to you but I'm busy packing all your stuff so I can put it out by the curb."
"Tell me at least that he was dressed when you walked in?"
"Trust me, there's nothing I'd like better than to tell you that, but sadly it ain't so. Now if all you called me for is to ask how your fiancé looks drinking juice alfresco in the morning light, I'll have to tell you all about it later. I have a test this morning and I'm running late since your Prince Valiant decided to take forever in the shower." Reggie pulled her mop of blonde hair into a ponytail and ran around her room picking up all the stuff she needed to bring with her.
"Wait, Reg, please don't hang up the phone, I need you to do me a favor." Annie was doing her own running as she stood hopping behind her desk trying to get her pumps back on.
"Make it fast, I really am running late and my morning hasn't exactly been peachy so far."
"I need you to run to the mall and find me something to wear tonight. You do remember about that dinner daddy told us about?"
"Shit!" The word was said just like Annie had uttered it just before.
"Yeah, thank God Terry just mentioned it in some other context or else the general would have had us spend the night in the brig. Could you go?"
Reggie grabbed her pack and keys and slammed the front door closed. "Fuck," she screamed when she saw Titus' car blocking her in.
"What?" Annie tried to get her attention.
"Your idiot blocked me in. Jesus, Annie, we're really going to have to set some ground rules for sleepovers." She pried open the door to her old jeep and started the motor.
"Reg, think about this before you do anything stupid." She knew it wouldn't do any good, but Annie was trying to avoid a fight later. Titus and her sister already hated each other and if what she thought was about to happen did, it would only make matters worse.
"Stupid is acting like you rule the world because you're licensed to carry a gun. You know there isn't some unwritten rule that you have to marry daddy incarnate just because that's what the general wants." She gunned the engine getting the front door to open again and it gave her a big feeling of pleasure to watch his face when she put the jeep into reverse and put her foot on the gas before he could make it down the steps of the brownstone she and her sister shared.
"Stop, you little idiot," Annie could hear Titus screaming in the background. His yells were drowned out by her sister's back bumper meeting the front of Titus' car. His Mustang, that Annie sometimes thought he loved more than he did her, left two huge rubber marks in their driveway when Reggie pushed it into the street.
"I'll see you tonight, Annie, have a great day," said Reggie with a laugh as she sped off before he could make it to her door.
"Sure you'll have a great day; I on the other hand won't hear the end of this for a long time to come," Annie said to the telephone receiver like it would answer her. There was no time to think about that now.
She walked to the front of the museum to a group of eager faces from the all girls academy started under the Clinton administration in the capital's inner city. In her talks with Baxter, Audrey had asked that they invite the magnet school's entire population of students to come and see the exhibit. Seeing how excited they looked, Annie had to agree with the woman's logic. To behold what women could do with help from no one but themselves would only inspire these young minds for years to come.
"Welcome, everyone, to the National Gallery. My name is Annie Paddio and I'll be your docent today. Together we'll try and learn a little about the citizens of Amazonia, and if at anytime you have any questions please just let me know and I'll try my best to answer them."
They walked around the gallery and the girls from the third and fourth grades pressed in whenever Annie stopped and started talking about whatever object they faced. They listened to her and their eyes lit up when she spoke of the weapons included along with all the artwork on display. As much as she and Reggie detested guns of any kind, Annie was just as curious as the young girls to see some of the things in the glass cases in action.
It was when they reached the last objet d'art that Annie ran out of words. The story of the great warrior in the pose of an impending fight was in the section she had yet to read. She was ashamed to not be able to tell the woman's story because she hadn't read the text. Going against her nature to just be honest and say she didn't know, Annie tried a different approach thinking there was no harm in it.
"What's her name, Miss Annie?" asked a young woman toward the middle of the group.
She looked at the sea of bright faces and tried to find something to say. From the back wall an amused woman watched and held her hand up so that her companions would stop their whispering. Annie closed her eyes for a moment and picked out the strange name she'd seen in her reading and christened the statue with it.
"Her name was Bebo, and she was a great warrior of the Amazons," started the blonde. "In her boots you see she carries knives, on her back a sword and a bow with the quiver of arrows on her hip. Right after she dressed and gathered her weapons she was in a battle with a group of barbarians during which she was able to turn the tide and beat back the invaders. One look at the warrior dressed in the feathered mask and one bellow of her war cry sent them running back to where they lived never to return."
The clapping coming from the back stopped her streak of imagination, and Annie held her hand over her eyes to cut out the glare of the overhead spotlights. "Can I help you?"
"I was just wondering if you didn't like the story she came with so much that you decided to make up your own. My clapping is to commend you on a wonderful attempt. Though your story had merit, your facts had none." The voice held a hint of teasing, but it made Annie blush all the same. It had to be a teacher, but the question was; how did the woman know her account was a complete fabrication?
"I don't want to argue with you, but Bebo was a warrior and fought for the Amazons," Annie had yet to see who was calling her on her bluff.
"When exactly did Bebo die to have this wonderful statue made in her honor?" The woman purposely stayed in the spotlight to keep Annie off balance.
"No one knows the exact date of her death, but the Amazons thought her contributions important enough to make this tribute."
"Would you mind if I try and tell her story?" The voice moved closer and yet Annie hadn't seen her face.
"If you think you could do better, go right ahead."
The petite historian watched as the tall woman came into view and moved the velvet ropes aside. When she looked into the blue eyes, Annie wanted to go and sit with the girls to see what this woman had to say. She was dressed casually but something about her made her as imposing as the statue behind her. Annie could just imagine her dressed in leather and holding off a legion of men by herself with just a sword and a smile.
"Thank you, I don't believe I'm as good a storyteller as you, but I promise to do my best."
Bebo leaned on the base of the statue and looked at the young girls looking up at her. This must be what mama feels like when she has time to head into the classroom. Before Audrey took the mask from Bekka, she had been a kindergarten teacher. To be so bold wasn't in the princess' nature, but like Annie had felt about her, something about the petite blonde drew her from her hiding place at the back of the room. If only just to see what color her eyes were thought Bebo as she took a deep breath to start her story. The conservative suit and hairstyle did little to hide the beauty of the blonde who had up to that point been right on her facts.
"A long time ago on the island of Amazonia there lived a great warrior who found herself alone on a patrol at the edge of the great forest in the province of Argase. To the Amazons the forest of Argase is sacred because it is believed that it is where the goddess Artemis spends most of her time and feels the most at home in the earthly realm. If you choose the path of a warrior you learn to move within the trees as a method of fighting but it is also where a warrior feels most at peace. In this warrior's case," she pointed up to the statue, "From the top of a tree she looked out to the water to find warships sailing to the side of the island where the Grazel desert is located. The hoard of barbarians," said Bebo before whispering to Annie. "At least you got that part right."
"What happened to her and what was her name?" the question came from one of the older girls in the audience.
"Her name was Larissa and if you'll give me a minute I'll share with you what happened to her." The princess stood and put a hand on the top of the statue's boot. "She watched to see where they would put down anchor, then set out at a run for most of the night to meet up with her unit and warn them. Before she did, our hero met up with some of the men who were there to take slaves and treasures back to their homelands."
"What happened? Did they kill her?" asked another little girl.
"Her first choice of weapon was the sais," answered Bebo putting her hand on the stone handles of the weapons that weren't coming out. "They aren't knives, but more like little swords that are just as deadly. With one in each hand she was able to take out four of the bad guys. Next she drew her sword and fought with five more."
For the first time in her life, Bebo felt what her mother had spoken of for so long, the pride for where she came from and what that meant. "As she headed back to the trees, her last chance to outrun them, one of the men was able to drive a spike through her leg. Even though she was bleeding profusely, she reached for the bow she'd left in the high branches and started making her way to the south. With her last act for her sisters, Larissa shot an arrow to the next guard post to warn them of the invasion. Her body fell to the forest floor forgotten by the men who had come to a land where they didn't belong, but to the Amazons, she will never be forgotten."
"Was she a great general then?" asked one of the teachers who had come with the children.
"No, Larissa was just, what in this country is called, a foot soldier. One of the many who make great armies, but she understood what some who serve do not. The sacrifice of the one can be the salvation of the many. To her sisters her story has been told for generations and a team of our best sculptors made this so that her tale will never be forgotten because for the many, she made the ultimate sacrifice. Larissa is visiting you now, but usually she watches over the entrance to the great archives in Amazonia. There every child who lives on the island visits her every year that they are in school. If you are lucky, one of our master story tellers is there the day you visit, and with their talents, you can feel the story come to life as you watch her as she takes her last shot to the trees beyond to warn of the oncoming invasion."
The guards with Bebo moved forward and removed the velvet ropes as the princess came to the end of her story with her hand on the right foot of the masterpiece. "When the story is done, the girls come and pay homage by rubbing her foot for good luck. If you like, I'd invite you to do the same. Perhaps some of Larissa's good fortune and bravery will stay with you after you leave here today." The girls in the front could see that the toe of the boot was worn smooth by the many little Amazons who must have rubbed it over the years. To actually be allowed to touch something so precious raised a din of young voices throughout the space.
"I don't think that's a good idea," whispered Annie as she tried to put herself between the little hands and the statue.
"What's your name lady?" asked the little girl standing on Bebo's feet to get her attention.
"My apologies, Miss?" Bebo bent at the waist and offered her hand.
"My name's Caroline."
"Miss Caroline, I am Bebo of Leon." Hearing the name made Annie move out of the way and let the children touch the statue. "And I want to thank you all on behalf of my mother, Queen Audrey, for coming today."
"Kill me now," whispered Annie to no one in particular.
"Don't worry, the penalty for not knowing stuff in Amazonia usually gets you more duty of some sort, but death isn't one of the options," teased Steph. "Well not yet anyway." The guard was still in shock at the passionate way Bebo had told Larissa's story. Maybe she was paying attention all those times Queen Audrey told it. "And please forgive our princess for interrupting you like that. But then again, if she hadn't, we all would've never known that she has inherited her mother's gift for storytelling. It's hard to imagine when she's running rings around us on the training fields that she has the ability to string words together so well."
"Are you all here to check up on me?" Annie watched as Bebo held up the children who couldn't reach and graciously accepted more than one kiss to the cheek from the braver girls in attendance.
"We just arrived this morning and Bebo was fulfilling a promise to her mother. I think maybe the queen is having a little separation anxiety having all this where she can't see it," Steph waved her hand around the room filled with pieces of their home. "Now I believe I'm the one being rude," she held out her hand. "I am Steph Pech of Amazonia, I serve as one of Bebo's royal guard."
"Annie Paddio, it's a pleasure to meet you," Annie accepted the woman's hand but her eyes never left the activity near the center of the room. "Is your boss the forgiving type?"
"She's more the pain in the ass type, but I think all the things we've seen in the city so far just from the car window have her excited enough to forgive any gaffs on your part. You did a wonderful job until the end."
"That she did, Steph. Perhaps our new friend didn't have time to finish the written text to give old Larissa her due," said Bebo when she moved closer. "Forgive my interruption of your lecture, dear lady, but my mother would've had my hide if you'd given me the credit for her contributions," she pointed to the statue behind them. "Audrey's many things, but a stickler for the facts tops the list. Though with someone so beautiful as yourself, I could be persuaded to listen to any story or yarn you wish to spin for me."
The compliment wrapped firmly in a flirtatious tone made Annie blush as well as nervous. In an old habit she lifted her hand and combed some stray hair back behind her ear. It was the motion that made Bebo notice the ring. "I'm the one who's sorry, highness, I didn't have the opportunity to fully prepare and while it's no excuse, it's the only reason I tried to fly by the seat of my pants as it were. The children were lucky you were here. Your story was much better than mine."
"Nonsense, my mother has always applauded people with quick minds and wonderful imaginations. I hate to tell stories and run, but we have to get going. I just wanted to come by so I could call our queen and tell her that Larissa and the rest of the exhibit are in good hands." Bebo bowed her head a little before turning and making her way to the back entrance. They did have a meeting at the Pentagon to attend, but she wanted to get out of there before she gave into the urge to take the small curator into her arms and kiss her.
The clear voice stopped Bebo before she could make it out. "Yes?"
"If you'd like, please stop by again when the children are here, or anytime you like. Hearing some of these stories from you would be invaluable."
"Just to the children?" Bebo wanted to laugh at the lost look on the blonde's face. "I'd love nothing better. Like I said, you were so delightful, I could listen to you for hours." The girl was taken but it didn't hurt anything to just play a little figured Bebo.
When she came in earlier and turned the corner with Baxter, Bebo had stopped and listened to the soft but strong voice describing what staffs were used for and why. She leaned against an alcove in the building and studied the blonde speaking so eloquently of her homeland and the traditions Audrey had included in the text. While she studied Annie, the guards studied the princess and smiled. Blue eyes devoured every move of delicate fingers as they brushed back strands of blonde hair that had escaped from the bun, and the way she bent to answer questions from short inquisitive listeners. With every move and every word, Emelda's vision resonated in Bebo's mind.
"Pretty girl," commented Max as they got into the car the army had sent for them.
"I hadn't noticed," said Bebo.
"Bebo, Larissa may shoot that last arrow in this direction for telling such lies," said Beth from the front seat. "You'd swear she was performing a striptease the way you couldn't take your eyes off her."
"I'm just an art lover," said Bebo with a smile.
"You're a lover all right, now clear your head of pretty things and put that tough warrior look on your face. It's time to scare the natives a bit," said Steph as they turned into the Pentagon.
The room they were brought to had no windows and the walls consisted of cinder blocks painted a pale yellow. Seated around a large conference table were twelve soldiers dressed in the casual khaki uniform that was just a shirt and matching pants. In front of each person sat the black berets every branch of the army had adopted as their headwear. There were two generals seated at either end of the conference table but the attractive man with blond hair accented with white at the temples who was closest to the door had one more star on his lapels.
A man seated next to the commanding general called everyone to attention and as a unit they stood and saluted their visitors. "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, but please stand at ease," said Bebo. They had stopped at the house her mother kept on embassy row and changed into their own military uniforms, dark blue pants and a shade lighter shirt.
"Welcome to Washington, Princess Bebo, I'm General Patrick Paddio," the man held out his hand and smiled. He didn't particularly care to participate in this exercise but sometimes the life of a soldier was to just follow orders. There was nothing a pack of lesbians living on an island and playing at war games could teach him or his unit, no matter what he'd told his girls in the past. Now was his opportunity to prove he and his men were better, as well as rid himself of the few women who'd managed to be assigned to him.
"Thank you, general, allow me to introduce my companions, Commanders Steph Pech, Max Blackard and Beth Carmouche. Once we start field training, we'll be joined by a few others of my mother's personal guard."
"We're looking forward to getting down to business and completing the training as soon as possible. I'm sure that once we begin you'll be able to report to your government and mine just how exceptional our training has been so far. I'll let my men introduce themselves," said the general ignoring the fact some of the people present were women.
"Captain David Norris, ma'am."
"Lieutenant Douglas Triggs," said the brunette standing next to him.
"Lieutenant Brian Turner, ma'am."
"Lieutenant Lacey Lecompte, ma'am. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Lieutenant Billy Wade, ma'am."
"Captain Titus Walker."
"Captain Michelle Redmond, ma'am. Welcome."
"General Junis Curtis, highness," said the man at the other end of the table with a slight bow to his head.
"Lieutenant Frances Burke, ma'am."
"Lieutenant Carey Sanders, ma'am."
The last man hadn't taken his eyes off Bebo from the time she stepped into the room and it took Carey bumping shoulders with him to open his mouth. "Forgive me," the blond stammered. "Captain Arthur Leon, highness. It's so good to see you here," he added with great emotion. "Finally."
It was to him that Bebo offered her hand next and she looked into his green eyes for a long time without letting go of him. To have the time to talk to him was worth making the trip since it had been over two years that she'd had the opportunity to see him at all. Finally she released him and turned to General Paddio.
"We're looking forward to the exchange of ideas and techniques. If you want, general, we can begin in the morning. From your comments I can see you're anxious to be done as soon as possible. I hope you and your people understand this venture will be done with as much hand-to-hand combat as you can stand. What I mean to say is we'll not be holding back and I hope you don't as well."
"Don't worry, highness, I'm sure we're more than capable of defending ourselves against any well placed slaps you can land. I command one of the most lethal black ops units in the army. Once this is done, I'm sure it'll be you and your soldiers who learn a few new moves."
A black brow arched and Bebo held back a laugh. "We'll try and keep up and keep the slapping down to a minimum then. I hope to see you all tonight."
Titus was one of the last to leave and he looked Bebo over from head to foot. When he had the opportunity in the morning, he was going to try and take the big Amazon down. Aside from the personal satisfaction it would give him to show them that women didn't have any place on the field of combat, it would earn him points with the old man. He winked and gave her a little smirk before donning his beret and following his fellow soldiers out the door. It was his way of trying to intimidate her.
"Something in your eye, Capt. Walker?" asked Bebo.
"No, ma'am, just trying to be friendly. I know you don't probably go for that sort of thing, but I can't wait to get you on the mat tomorrow. Like you said, I promise to not hold anything back. When we're done, you might find you liked it."
She held up her hand when Max opened her mouth to put him in his place. "You're right, you aren't my type, but I promise to give you a time on your back you won't soon forget."
Arthur laughed and thought if he closed his eyes, he could imagine Boden standing before him. He had been just as braggadocios once and like the trainer Bear, the broken arm it had earned him was good for telling him when it was going to rain. The little girl he'd watched grow up in pictures and during their frequent visits was like a pillar of power.
"Highness, if I didn't know any better I'd say you were flirting with our Titus," he teased.
"Please, Arthur, I think our relationship allows us to drop the formality of titles when it's just us," said Bebo. She moved closer and put her arms around him and kissed his cheek. "And trust me, flirting is the last thing on my mind."
"If you're anything like your mother Boden, and just looking at you that's more than obvious, Titus will be sporting a weather vane of his own when you're done. I tried to warn Patrick, but he bleeds army green and women aren't part of his world when it comes to teaching him anything."
"We'll discuss these people enough while I'm here, let's not waste time doing so now. How are you?"
"Good. I'm happy and thinking about retirement soon. The life of a soldier is one you can't keep forever. More importantly how's your mother?"
"She's good, looking forward to your next visit to Leon. I think mama sometimes regrets that the Amazons don't have room for princes in the realm. She feels like she missed out on a special relationship when you came to live here."
He nodded and tried to choke back his emotions. Bekka and Laine had spent a lot of time with him, but the visits were never enough time. The relationship he had with his sisters was just as special to him and he had served Audrey and Boden with pride when they had called on him not long after their joining. Before him stood the one person who made him regret the distance between their worlds. Audrey had carried Bebo, but her existence was owed to Boden and Art. If he were to leave his mark in her life, it would come in the next few months.
"My sister tells me otherwise, and she insists on calling me Prince Art whenever it's just the two of us." He hugged her again as if to convince himself she was really there with him. "I hear congratulations are in order. Boden must still be walking on clouds that you won the annual competition."
"Mom's like the trees of Argase, they grow older but they seldom change much. Thank the gods she found someone who thinks she's just perfect the way she is, but yes, she's as proud as any parent could be."
"You're smart, kid. You waited until you were taller and faster than she is before you started teasing her."
"I inherited her skill for fighting, but I got the smarts from the Leon side of the family, and I should thank you since you had a lot to do with that part. Are you free for the afternoon? You can come back to the house with us and we can spend the time catching up."
"I'd love nothing better."
The president wasn't in attendance but top officials who worked for him at the Pentagon stood around the room in tuxedos drinking champagne. Secretary of Defense Moines watched the door as he spoke to Patrick Paddio and his wife Doris. It didn't really matter to him that the general wasn't happy with Bebo being there, he was just thrilled Audrey was willing to work with them. If he played it right, there would be soldiers from Amazonia along on some of the more covert operations in years to come.
For the welcome dinner, the White House staff had chosen one of the small dining rooms, but the space was one of the more ornate the stately home possessed. The food was a blend of some American favorites along with a selection of appetizers that would remind Bebo and her party of home.
"Will it be some sort of international incident if one of my guys breaks her nose or something?" asked Patrick.
"Not that you'd encourage that kind of behavior I'm sure," answered Philip Moines before finishing his whiskey. He detested champagne almost as much as he did stupidity. For the first time since the couple walked up to talk to him, Phil took his eyes off the door and looked at the soldier. "If she and her fellow soldiers could so easily be beaten, general, we wouldn't be here. What you and your unit have to understand is that the wars of today and the future will in no way resemble what we're used to. Princess Bebo holds one of the important keys, as will those who come after her, for us to continue our winning ways. Just for added incentive, how about a little wager?"
"What kind of wager?"
"A friendly bet, if you will. Five hundred bucks says she ends up sending someone to the infirmary before you lay a hand on her. I promised her mother we wanted the princess to give you her all without fear of reprisal. That means the fights will be for real." The Secretary held his hand out knowing Patrick wouldn't back down from the dare.
"Easiest money I've ever made," said the general with a laugh. Earlier he had seen the fire in Titus' eyes when the Amazons had walked into that meeting. He had a feeling the boy wouldn't let him down.
"We'll just have to wait and see as they say. I know we're early but you and Doris should mingle. This could be a good opportunity to talk some of us bureaucrats out of some funds for your operations. After all, you do have other responsibilities besides the Cobra Unit."
Patrick gave the Secretary a smile then escorted his wife to a corner. "Where are the girls?"
"Annie was running late, but Regina promised they'd be here as soon as they could. Don't worry, dear," the still attractive blonde put her hand on his arm. "They won't let you down or embarrass you by being fashionably late."
"She should've come with Titus," the general said referring to his eldest child. "She keeps putting him off and he might just move on. That would be a pity, the boy's a good soldier."
"That isn't always what a girl is looking for, General Paddio."
"Annie knows what's important, Doris. Our job is to set Regina on the right path."
Doris shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Not tonight, you promised."
Outside two cars pulled under the portico slowly. The two women in the sedan wondered who was in the limo behind them. It had been a rushed job to get what they called presentable, but the two blondes looked vastly different from their everyday personas. One of the attendants opened Annie's door and took her hand to help her out of the car. He welcomed her as she smoothed down the dark green, off the shoulder full-length gown she'd chosen. From the passenger side, Reggie went through the same ritual with her maroon strapless dress. Each had forgone wearing a coat figuring they wouldn't be outside for very long.
When they reached the door, Annie was surprised to find Bebo standing there with her hand on the knob. The attendant whose job it was to open the door just stood back looking amused. The princess opened the door and bowed for them to go in.
"Ladies, I'm glad I was on time to provide such a pleasant service," said Bebo without looking up.
Reggie laughed along with the three women standing behind the chivalrous stranger. They were all wearing dark blue coats with an insignia embossed over the left breast, the difference, the younger blonde noticed, was that the woman at the door had a few other things written under hers. Another big difference was that the woman at the door had a sword in her other hand.
"Thank you, highness," said Annie, giving the now visibly smiling woman a slight bow of her own.
"It was the least I could do since I had to run off this morning without properly introducing myself. As my mother Boden would say, 'I was raised better than that.' I'm just glad to see I'll have the opportunity to deliver that apology sooner than I thought."
"Highness?" Reggie mouthed the word when they stepped in and had turned their backs on the woman outside. "Oh my God, she's gorgeous." She didn't say anything when Annie gave her a look before facing the door and watched as the coats came off.
"I didn't have the chance to give you my own apology. As a student of history I should never have attempted to make up my own just because I didn't do my homework." She wanted to go on but the sight of Bebo standing there with the dark blue uniform that made her eyes seem brighter just knocked the wind out of her lungs.
The blue wool jacket was held closed by silver buttons with her mother's royal crest embossed on them, whereas those the guards wore signaled their positions as Bebo's personal guardians. On each shoulder a thin silver bar for each year they had completed in warrior training gleamed, and on the front was a symbol for every weapon they had mastered. The white shirts underneath were pressed with a stiff starch and the shoes peeking out of the blue matching trousers were black and shiny enough for the sisters to apply lipstick if they chose to use them as mirrors.
"How about if we pretend this morning never happened?" offered Bebo as she passed the sword to Steph to free up her hands. "I am Bebo of Leon, miss, and I'm glad to make your acquaintance." Bebo offered Annie her hand with a smile.
"Highness, this is my sister, Regina Paddio and I'm Annie."
Bebo shook hands with both of them and turned to retrieve the gift she'd brought. "Could we walk with you? It looks like we're headed to the same place," said the princess.
"We'd love to," Reggie jumped in and took Bebo's arm. "This might not turn out to be a boring evening after all."
"I'm glad one of us is confident then," joked Bebo. "Shall we, Lady Paddio?"
"We shall, highness." Reggie pulled the princess in before Annie could say anything. The Amazon went willingly when she noticed for the second time that day the diamond ring on Annie's left finger. It wasn't their custom to give rings for the purposes of betrothal promises, but she still knew what one meant.
After being announced, Bebo gave Philip the sword Boden had sent him as a gift. When the consort had accompanied Audrey to Washington to provide training and advice, she had met a young man assigned to one of the under Secretaries and they had become friends. Philip graciously accepted the gift and the meaning behind it. It was Bo's way of asking him to look after her child. The only surprise of the evening came when they sat for dinner and Bebo noticed who sat next to Annie and held her hand for most of the night.
Engaged to an asshole, and straight. The gods do have a sense of humor, thought Bebo as she sat back in her chair and sipped her wine. If Emelda was right and this was her destiny it made her tired just thinking about it. There were just certain things in a person's heart and mind that no amount of charm and affection could change. Her luck would run better if it were Regina. At least that blonde was willing to talk to her and looked a little miffed that she wasn't invited to sit at the head table with her parents.
Bebo spent the evening talking with mostly Philip and Arthur. Every so often she would look toward Annie and more than once found the young woman looking back at her. Her date was so busy talking to his buddies he never took note of the more than one blush that had colored Annie's cheeks.
As soon as the servants came to clear away the dessert dishes Bebo folded her napkin and placed it on the table. "Philip, thank you for a lovely evening. We really do appreciate the hospitality."
"Are you leaving us so soon, highness?" asked Philip when she offered him her hand and bid him good night.
"I'd like to take the opportunity to take a walk in your beautiful city before it gets too late. Don't worry, Mr. Moines, I promise not to get into any trouble or stay out too late," she said with a wink.
"It's amazing you know, how much you look like your mother."
"And to my other mother's bad fortune I act like Boden all too often. Before my time here is done, I'd like to have lunch or dinner with you so you can tell me about the time you spent with her. I feel like I've known you for years my mothers speak so highly of you."
"That would be great. I'll have my assistant set something up."
They walked out together and separated in the foyer. With a wave of his hand, Moines sent an escort to tag along with the princess without asking her. The men would follow far enough behind to give her privacy, but close enough to keep anything from happening to her.
"Excuse me, Titus, I have to go to the ladies room," said Annie, prying her hand out of his. She used the excuse to be able to talk to Bebo before she left, not knowing when she would have the opportunity again. Without too much thought, she walked out the door and followed the little entourage headed towards the mall.
Bebo walked at a slow pace toward the Lincoln Memorial seeming to be oblivious to the cold wind blowing in their direction. At the steps, the royal guard stayed behind as the princess proceeded up at the same unhurried pace. When she stood in the middle of the Greek temple styled structure, she just stared at the sad looking man sitting in the great chair.
"What do you suppose people think about when they come here and look at him?" The question went unanswered so Bebo turned and lifted an eyebrow to get the woman to say something. Without another word she took off her coat and wrapped it around the shivering Annie.
The gesture warmed the blonde almost as much as the material, still cozy from Bebo's body heat. "How did you know it was me?"
"I heard your teeth chattering from the moment we left."
The historian laughed and looked up at Lincoln to find a good answer to Bebo's question. "I wish I could say they saw something deep, and perhaps some of them do, but for most it's a place to take pictures. What do you see when you look at him?"
"I see another form of the statue I told the story of today, with only one variation aside from the obvious."
It was Annie's turn to lift a brow to go on, only Bebo had turned back to study the president and didn't see her. "Well?"
"Your Abraham Lincoln was a brave warrior in his own way, but unlike Larissa, he sacrificed the many for just the one."
"I've read a lot about him and none of the texts portrayed him as an egotistical man," she replied a little indignantly. Under the coat she ran her hands up and down her arms trying to get warm.
"Miss Paddio, I think you misunderstood me. It's sometimes easy to sacrifice yourself for the greater good of your people, but think of how difficult it is for a leader to sacrifice the sons, husbands and fathers of so many to preserve the whole of his country. To go to bed each night and realize your orders and actions have sent so many to their deaths in your name and for the cause you think is the most just. President Lincoln sent thousands of his countrymen to their deaths to preserve the United States, that's what I meant. It had nothing to do with him as a man; but then again it had everything to do with what made him a man. He was very deserving to have such a place built in his honor, even if only to take pictures as you say."
"For someone here to further the cause of war, you're an eloquent speaker, highness."
Bebo laughed and it echoed through the empty chamber. "And for a student of history, you are a cynic, Miss Paddio."
"Touché, highness," said Annie bowing her head.
"Now that we've finished our verbal sparring, I'm hoping, and I believe we're done with apologies - to what do I owe the pleasure of your company?"
"You left without saying goodbye."
"You've walked all this way in the cold dressed like that to tell me I displayed bad manners because I didn't tell you goodbye?" Annie smiled instinctively knowing that Bebo was kidding. "Can I be totally honest with you?"
"I'd like that. After all it's just you and me here," Annie turned her head to the Doric columns. "The same can't be said for out there."
"A woman with the sense and courage to voice what's oblivious to everyone else, how refreshing." Bebo took a step closer and lowered her voice. "The truth is I'll begin sparring with Capt. Walker soon enough, there was no reason to ruin a good dinner and start tonight. That's why I left without saying goodnight. I try to pick my fights carefully, Miss Paddio. I meant no slight by doing so."
"A woman with the courage to voice the truth of the obvious to everyone else, how refreshing. Army personnel have certain feelings about how the world should treat the women in their lives. I've heard it's started wars over the course of human history, petty jealousies that can turn into major skirmishes. What I've found is that usually people form their own opinions of a situation and it never resembles anything close to the truth?"
Bebo put her hand up and stopped her before she could utter the title of respect again. "Like you said, Annie, it's just you and me here. Just Annie and Bebo." The princess pointed from the blonde to herself.
"Okay. These fights you choose, are they only the ones you think you can win?"
"My mother told me recently I must have the courage to take chances, for it's the only way to know if you could succeed at something. She was trying to bash my head in with a small stick at the time, but I was only trying to return the favor. What I'm trying to say I guess is that, I was raised to think I'd win all the fights I choose to fight or not fight. When I choose not to fight it's because I'm using judgment, not hiding behind fear. It is the most important trait in a good leader."
"Good answer, it's a shame more of the world's leaders don't think along the same lines."
"Now that we've gotten all that bullshit behind us, why are you really here?"
The curator laughed and wondered if all of Amazonia's royalty was this charming as well as blunt. "I wanted to talk to you before you disappear to play war games. That's the best answer I can give you I guess. You could have called me on my little story today, and yet you didn't. It just made me curious about you, and tonight hasn't helped any."
"What, I have something stuck in my teeth or something?"
A small hand made its way out of the warm coat and slapped Bebo in the arm. "No, I just pegged you for the escape to a bar type. This is the last place I figured you'd come."
"You think I'm spoiled and shallow? Then I should've given you Hades for telling that story today."
Annie's small evening bag started ringing and she put up a finger to keep Bebo from going on. "Hey." She listened to the person on the other end as Bebo wandered over to the wall with the Gettysburg address to give her some privacy. "Actually I'm at the Lincoln Memorial so can you come and pick me up? No, I wasn't dragged out by my hair." Her voice stopped and the small laugh from the end of the building made Annie smile. "Thanks, sis, I owe you another one."
"So the world finds a way in after all. It was nice talking to you, Annie, and if you like, I'll walk you to the street."
"I'd like it better if you agree to have lunch with me and tell me some more stories. You don't have to, but I thought it might be nice."
Bebo pulled the coat open just a little and the blonde mistook the action for her wanting it back. "No keep it before you catch something in this weather." The tall woman just wanted to find the hand she'd seen earlier. When she did, Bebo leaned over it and kissed the fingers gently. "I would love nothing better than to see you again."
Annie pulled back in a panic. "I'm not?it's only lunch."
"I'm not going to attack you, calm down. I could say it's just an old Amazon custom when accepting an invitation, the kissing of a woman's hand."
"I said I could've said that, not that it's true."
"Then why did you do it?" Annie felt a small dose of her courage come back when Bebo moved further away from her.
"Because I wanted to. I don't consider myself shallow, but spoiled, there you've got me pegged." Bebo put about four feet between them and started toward the stairs. "Please keep the coat and I'll send one of my guards with you to the street. I'm thinking it'll make you more comfortable if it's not me, and me more comfortable that you're not alone. Good night, Miss Paddio."
"What happened to Annie?"
"The world awaits us out there, my lady." Bebo stopped at the top step and smiled at her. "I see that it provides the gulf between us that makes you the most comfortable, and it will always be there to separate us I'm afraid. I thought we were done with apologies, but I was wrong. I'm sorry for my actions in there, I really didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. It will never happen again."
Annie looked on as Bebo took the steps down at a rate that looked unsafe, her heart torn between anger and sadness. She was angry at herself for acting the way she did and making the princess think she was some prude, and sad that she believed what Bebo had said last. Anyone who spoke with such conviction actually had some and Bebo's honor wouldn't allow anything to happen between them again.
She turned to the statue in the building. "What are my chances here, Abe?" Trying to stay warm, Annie pulled the coat around her tighter, catching the slight aroma of what she assumed was Bebo's perfume. It smelled like the clean scent of rain after a summer shower. "Well, old buddy, you don't have to be that honest about it." The fingers of the hand the princess had kissed were still tingling making Annie feel light despite what had just happened.
Continued in Chapter 2
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