The Cobra unit watched as Bebo walked towards them after handing her bow to Steph. If anyone was entitled to have a strut, it was the approaching princess. The rest of the crowd was starting to head back into the trees and to the barracks at one end of the forest. Their regular training would begin again in the morning, leaving only the women assigned to the royal family. They snapped to attention when Bebo stopped.
“General Curtis, thank you and the others for coming. My mother wanted me to extend you an invitation to dinner tonight before you head back, if that’s agreeable with you.”
“That’d be great, thanks.” From the set of her mouth, he guessed she had more to say.
“I don’t mean to insult any of you with my next statement, but this is the first time that what you saw here has been witnessed or participated in by anyone from outside the nation. It would do my sisters and Arthur a dishonor to ever speak of it again.”
“Highness, I believe I can speak for all of us,” Junis said, as he bowed his head. “We wouldn’t do that to you after Queen Audrey allowed us to come. It’s something none of us will ever forget but not anything we’ll ever talk about again.”
Bebo nodded and her face finally relaxed into a smile. “If you’d like, your escort will show you to your quarters in the city where you can change into something more comfortable. I know you’re here as representatives of the military but tonight’s dinner is casual, no uniforms allowed.”
“We look forward to it then.”
She turned and headed back to her family, who were now alone aside from guards on the beach. Her grandmothers were still grieving but their tears had stopped, and they looked almost complacent as the last of the pallet sank into the water. If they’d had a choice they would’ve had Arthur with them, but he had moved on to a place where he’d never know pain, so there was no reason for sadness.
When Bebo hugged her, Audrey kissed her cheek and then discreetly pointed to her mothers. “As broken as they’ve been about what happened, they’re excited beyond words to meet your girl. Let’s not keep them waiting any longer.”
Annie was happy to take her hand and move closer to the sitting couple. “Grand” she stopped in front of Bekka first, “Pal,” she said, using the nickname she’d had for Laine all her life, “I’d like to introduce you to someone.” She put her arm around Annie’s shoulders and smiled. “This is Annie Petkus. I’ve spoken with her mother Dothan and offered her a betrothal bracelet. Once her teachings are complete, we plan to join, with your blessing.”
“Welcome to our family, child,” Laine said, standing and offering Annie her seat. “You have my blessing already after seeing the size of the sprout’s smile.”
“Thank you, highness.” Annie bowed slightly then took the hand that Bekka was holding out to her. “And it’s a pleasure to meet you as well, Queen Bekka. Bebo has told me so much about you.”
“It’s early yet, but I’m sure Bebo and Laine have transportation back to the capital they have to arrange, so sit with me, Annie.” Bekka squeezed her fingers and waited for Bebo and Laine to take the hint. She laughed when Bebo looked back one last time before moving out of earshot. “She seems very protective already.”
“That’s a good thing, isn’t it?”
“When it comes to my granddaughter, it’s a good thing yes.” She laughed and to Annie it sounded very much like Audrey. “So, child, you’ve found your way home on the arm of the most eligible catch on the island. Impressive.”
“More like lucky,” Annie said with a smile. “Bebo has had her pick, I’m sure.”
“But she picked you. More importantly you chose her, and that’s how she sees it. Just look at her.” Down the beach Bebo was standing with Laine and Boden, but her eyes were on the two seated women. “I’ve never seen her like this. It reminds me of another young warrior once she caught the eye of her future wife. Boden was in my opinion extremely smitten, and would’ve swum around the island if Audrey had but asked.”
“Stuff like that makes a girl feel special, and while I’m not going to ask Bebo to go for a swim, I’m enjoying her very kind attentions.”
Bekka laughed again, feeling lighter after the sadness of the day. “I’ll just bet you are. I’m old but I’m still a woman in love.” She put her hand on Annie’s shoulder and moved closer to her as if to tell her a secret. “I can’t promise you a life free of any pain or sorrow. Days like this one prove me right. I can though promise you the love and the support of the Leon family. Welcome to your new home, and thank you for loving Bebo. Speaking as a proud grandmother, I can assure you of what a good and caring soul she is. After meeting you, I can see Bebo is rather fortunate as well.”
“You’re saying so means the world to me, highness. I promise I’ll keep her heart as safe as she’ll keep mine.”
“A promise I’ll hold you to,” she said before standing. “Come, let’s join the others before the frown line on Bebo’s forehead becomes permanent. There’s also someone else who’s been anxious to meet you and your sister, and I don’t want to keep you all to myself.”
Introductions were made between the royals and Reggie before Bekka waved her old friend over. “Emelda, the goddess has made you wait long enough, but you’re prayers have been heard.” Bekka gently wiped away Emelda’s tears and then pulled her close. “Dry your tears so you can meet your granddaughters.”
Emelda finished drying her face and turned to Annie and Reggie. She blinked furiously as if trying to hold back another onslaught of tears, a response she couldn’t help as she looked at the two beautiful young women. They represented the years she’d missed out on because of a son who refused to accept who he was. That refusal had cost them all dearly, but she didn’t want to dwell on that, instead she turned an eye to the future. An existence now that included more than just her son Greg in her family.
The sisters moved closer and together put their arms around her. From the human tangle, Emelda mouthed the words “thank you” to Bebo. The princess she’d loved for so long would soon become an official member of her family, which was gift enough, but what she’d brought back with her was beyond measure. After wanting and praying for so long, her family was finally home.
“It’s good to finally hold the two of you,” Emelda said without letting go of them. “Sporadic news of your lives was never enough to satisfy my curiosity.”
“You can be curious about other stuff now, grandmother, because we’re not going anywhere,” Reggie said.
“It’s good to be here and to be together finally,” Annie said, sounding very choked up. Growing up, a piece of her heart longed for a big family like her friends had, complete with grandparents who doted and spoiled you. That part of her that thirsted was now quenched.
“Don’t cry, beautiful girl, because I want to know all about you and your sister. And when you’re finished with that story, I want to know how my favorite warrior was able to win your heart.” Emelda squeezed them both before going to welcome Dothan home as well.
“I’m so sorry,” Dothan said softly when she was close enough.
“Chris has been gone a long time, sweetheart, but I still remember what I was willing to do for her because I loved her. You loved my son and wanted to make him happy. How could I ever fault you for that?”
“How can you forgive so easily?”
“That’s easy – it’s because we love you so much,” said the woman standing behind Dothan. Hearing it made Dothan’s tears of shame fall that much faster. “Please turn around and let me see you.”
Dothan did but couldn’t find the strength to lift her head. When the very familiar arms came around her she said the words she’d longed to utter for years. “Oh, mama.”
Erica Cyr, keeper of the archives, held her daughter and felt as if she were dreaming. Her partner Teri stood back and just watched, her face showing nothing of what she was feeling. When the touching reunion ended, Dothan received a short embrace from her other mother but still Teri said nothing.
“Give her time,” Erica said to her daughter when her partner moved back again.
The hugs continued until the group was ready to move back to the comfort of the capital. During the family reunion, Bebo had stayed back wanting Annie and Reggie to take as much time as they needed to take in what she assumed had to be an overwhelming feeling of joy. Bebo was standing with her bare feet in the surf looking up to the star filled night sky trying to empty her mind of the million thoughts fighting for attention.
She smiled when she felt the small hand slip into hers and heard Kip’s feet in the sand not that far away. Bebo lifted her arm and felt her spirit calm when Annie’s body pressed close to hers.
“As much as I loved the garden of trees at the embassy, it pales in comparison to the real thing. I can see why you love it here so much.”
Bebo kissed the top of her head and sighed before answering. “The first day I have memory of coming here, I thought I’d never know that level of peace. The shamans of the island say that the souls of countless Amazons dwell in this place and they’ve entrusted their stories to the trees. If you listen close enough, you’ll hear them whispering in the wind.”
“That’s beautiful, honey.”
“The peace I felt before has been eclipsed by what I feel when you’re this close to me though.” She moved behind Annie and pointed to the sky. “I love you more than there are stars and I’ll always feel that way.”
“And Kip wonders why I miss you.” Annie turned around and put her hands on Bebo’s shoulders, her face upturned waiting to be kissed. Her princess didn’t disappoint her, taking advantage of the others going to the cars to making it exceptionally sweet. “I didn’t think I could love someone this much.”
“You still do after talking to my grandmother?”
“She did try to tell me what a pain you warrior types are, but she assured me that you are extremely trainable.” The laugh she felt rumble through Bebo’s body made her feel like she was being a bit of a comfort to her after what they had just finished. “Honey, for as sad as today was, it’s been one of the most wonderful days of my life.”
“Emelda and Erica are going to be easy when it comes to your mom, love. But I think you and Reggie are going to have to soften Teri up a little.”
She could hear the beat of Bebo’s heart since her head was resting on her chest. “I noticed she seemed less than thrilled that we’re here.”
“That couldn’t be further from the truth, love. Imagine having a child, pouring all the love you have into her and then one day she leaves and never comes back.” She pulled Annie closer and listened to the soft birdcalls flowing naturally through the trees. It was the first watch of the night moving silently through the branches behind them, keeping an eye on the shoreline. “I’ve never had much contact with her, but my mothers say she carries a sadness that got heavier with each passing year.”
“But we’re here now.”
“And with time, she’ll come to realize you’re not leaving her behind again.” When Kip cleared her throat, they laughed but did start toward the line of cars.
Since they were the last to arrive, Annie and Bebo got to share a car with Teri and Erica. All them stayed silent until they reached the gates of the forest and Bebo tried to begin the dialog of healing.
“Commander, how are our trade agreements going with the middle east?” She asked Teri.
“I thought you served under Boden, grandmother?” asked Annie before the woman could answer.
“I do. What the princess is referring to is trade agreements that are based on military training. We provide the trainers and they in turn provide other commodities the island needs.” She still looked stiff, but Annie’s apparent interest softened the set of her mouth and eyes. “Perhaps later you can tell me about Conger, highness.”
“I’ll be happy to, if you promise to do something for me in return.”
Teri’s back came off the seat and she saluted with a fist over her heart. “Just ask, highness.”
“Stop being wasteful.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Then my mother, Boden, gives you more credit than you deserve.” She waited for the blowup from the seasoned warrior and smiled at the chiding squeeze to her side from Annie.
Teri’s hands clenched into fists but she restrained herself after Erica squeezed her leg, knowing what the consequences would be if she attacked the princess of Amazonia. “I don’t believe I’ve ever done anything to disappoint the Consort.”
“A negotiator who is so prejudiced by the past it taints her future is of no help to anyone, especially if she’ll never see her way beyond that past.”
Her hands stayed clenched so tightly that everyone could see Teri’s fingers turning white. “You have no idea the kind of pain we’ve suffered.”
“Your daughter left for a life she wanted, and now she’s back with a family who wants nothing more than to be a part of your life. Arthur also left for a life he wanted and he paid the ultimate price for that choice. He’ll never be back so that his mothers can hold him or welcome the man he loved into our family, and we’ll never know the joy of his company again.” Bebo cocked her head to the side and never lost eye contact with her. “Given a choice I’d gladly trade with you for the pain you suffered, because now that suffering is at an end. To squander that opportunity seems rather wasteful to me.”
The earnestness in Bebo’s eyes was too much for Teri and she lowered her head in shame. Before she could say anything else she was shocked when the tears started flowing and then she started sobbing. She only cried harder when she felt her partner’s arms come around her and hold her. It was Annie’s voice and her hand on Teri’s knee that finally broke through her emotional breakdown.
“I know what my father did, and the fact my mother followed his wishes was unfair to both of you, but I can promise you’ll never know a future without your family. I can’t speak for my father, but I can for my mother and sister. Because of what I feel for Bebo, this is my home now. A home I hope to share with you and Grandmother Erica.”
“My dear, our home is open to you all,” Erica said as she continued to stroke her partner’s back. “And I couldn’t agree with you more. What’s done is done, and it’s time to look to the future.”
“I have a feeling a lot of our time together will be spent in the archives trying to keep Reggie’s excitement down to a dull roar.” Teri returned Annie’s smile as she straightened out a bit and watched the look of pure delight take over her partner’s face. Her wife’s second love after her family was the library Audrey had put her in charge of.
The two warriors sat back and stayed silent as the two talked about ancient parchments and history, glad to see the bridge would be easy to gap from their common interest. Teri finally had to laugh when Bebo pulled Annie back, and the young woman looked at her in outrage.
“I just thought you might like to enjoy your first look at the palace, but if old parchments are more important to you,” Bebo teased.
Any words of protest died on her lips as Annie looked out the window at one of the most beautiful and unique buildings she ever remembered seeing. It was made of light yellow stones and parts of it looked like hanging tree houses along the sides. In the front, a large fire was burning and there were guards still in their leathers standing at the entrance.
“The original sections were built during Selene’s rein and it’s been added to by every queen who’s had the privilege of occupying it,” Teri said. “During Queen Audrey’s rein, she’s concentrated more on the gardens than on the building itself. Recently saplings from the Argase forest were planted along the back wall that my great grandchildren will someday climb.”
“If they’re anything like this one,” Annie pointed her thumb at the big kid beside her, “then tree climbing and mischief making will be at the top of their learning list.”
“Well that’s a relief,” Erica said.
“What, that she likes to make trouble?” Annie asked.
“No that there’ll be great grandchildren in our future.”
As fascinated as she was with the palace, Annie turned and looked at Bebo even though it was Erica she was addressing. “Grandmother, as much in love as I am with Bebo, I see many little ones for you to spoil in your future. She’s my life and I’m going to be thrilled to start and build a family with her.”
“If you make me blush in public, I’m putting you over my knee,” Bebo whispered in her ear.
“It might be interesting to see you try, lover,” Annie teased back as she ran her finger up Bebo’s red cheek. “Because I have a feeling your trying will only lead to Kip putting you in a head lock.”
Bebo bit down on the tip of her fingers, and from her peripheral vision could see their company was intently studying the window as if they’d never seen the building as well. “Just remember one thing,” she said around the finger in her mouth.
“Kip is good. That’s why my mother assigned her to you, but I’m better.”
“I should certainly hope so, baby.” They kissed just long enough not to embarrass their fellow passengers.
They stopped in the great courtyard at the front where Audrey welcomed guests and visiting dignitaries. More than a few staff members were there to meet them, all wanting to give the royals their condolences.
“For now your family will stay here, Annie, but as soon as it’s ready Queen Audrey has arranged for a house not far from the palace,” Erica said.
“Let me guess,” Annie sounded less than amused, “protocol.”
“If you were joining with any other Amazon most would be willing to bend a little on the dating part,” Teri said. She got out of the car and offered her partner a hand. When Bebo followed, offering Annie her hand she whispered the rest. “You though, picked the one that has the eyes of the nation upon her.”
“So no bending.”
“Sorry, highness,” answered Teri with a sympathetic smile. “No bending.”
A middle-aged woman with dark hair walked forward and bowed her head before speaking. “Highness, welcome home,” she said to Bebo.
“Thank you, Ruby. I’ve missed being here.” She took Annie’s hand and urged her gently to stand in front of her. “Ruby, this is Lady Petkus. She and her family will be my mother’s guests for a while. Could you see them to their rooms please?”
Bebo kissed Annie’s hand before letting go and gave her a wink as they started to follow the maid to one of the wings, trailed by Kip and a few guards. The princess then joined her mothers as they headed for the family quarters.
Her room was just as she’d left it, even the books were opened to where she’d left off. The last night Bebo had spent here had been consumed with nervousness about her first mission for her mother. That felt like a decade before and now all she felt was lonely without Annie.
“Eventually it fades to a dull roar.”
She turned from her desk to find Boden standing in the doorway. “What?”
“The ache in your chest when you’re apart. It’s been years since I’ve married her, but when your mother and I are separated because of duty – it’s a killer.”
“Good to hear, especially since I’m not allowed within ten feet of her without an audience.” She slammed one of the books closed and threw it back on the desk.
“About that,” Boden sat on the bed and patted the space next to her. “There’s a few things I know about you, sprout, so I want you to remember something important.”
“I know already. Stay away from Annie – I get it.”
“You’re no more going to do that than a flea can stay away from a cat. When you give it a try, and I know you will, just remember one thing. Don’t get caught.” It was all Boden was willing to offer as she slapped Bebo on the back and left.
Their leathers were put away and as Bebo had told Junis, everyone was dressed causally. The dinner turned out to be a memorial to Arthur, one that everyone who knew him believed he would’ve loved. His parents told stories of when he grew up and the Cobras told humorous ones of their time with him.
It gave a more complete glimpse of the man Arthur had been, and gave the Americans a better idea of Amazon life. There had been more than one of them who’d believed it to be barbaric to give up their sons at such an early age. Listening to Laine talk about their monthly visits and summers together until Arthur was accepted into the elite force, it seemed no different than sending a child to boarding school.
Annie and Bebo sat together reclining on a pile of cushions in the great dining room. Because Audrey had wanted to keep the night casual the furniture had been removed so they could enjoy a more traditional meal in the old ways.
As the laughter died down, Junis lifted his glass to Queen Bekka and Laine. “Your highnesses, I want to again convey our condolences on your loss. I also wanted you to know how proud I am to have known and served with Prince Arthur. As good a soldier as he was, he was a better friend and man. He’ll never be forgotten and I’m going to miss him.
“He made you think differently about a lot of things, especially when it came to your feelings.” He laughed as if remembering something Arthur had given him a hard time about. “So in his honor I wanted to tell you how much I cared about him. I loved Arthur. He was like the brother I always wanted.”
Bekka unclipped one of the adornments from her hair and handed it to the maid behind her to give to Junis. “He taught you well, General, and he’s probably laughing now at the blush on your face.” He graciously accepted her token but because of his buzz cut, Bekka had to clip it to the collar of his shirt. “You should know my son did the same here whenever he came home. He always tried to broaden peoples’ minds beyond their preset beliefs. It’s one of the reasons my daughter invited you here. Arthur trusted you and to us that means a great deal.”
“We owe your family more than we can ever repay,” Junis said. He went on to tell them the story of their rescue by Bebo and her team. The Amazons that had been there with the Princess added the facts he didn’t know.
Before long, Bebo and some of the others were up and teaching the Cobras some new hand to hand maneuvers Bebo hadn’t gotten to before their training was postponed. She was dressed in a white cotton shirt and drawstring pants, but to Annie she looked just as wild as when she’d been wearing the traditional leathers when she stood to join in.
“This is the part of my daughter you have to balance out, Annie,” Audrey said when she moved to sit next to her. “It’s a sort of passion that started burning in Queen Selene generations ago and has never faded or been diluted.”
“It shouldn’t be, and I hope it burns just as bright in our children.”
The Queen winced as one of the soldiers went down hard when he tried to sneak up on Bebo from behind. “Why do you hope for that?”
“Because there’ll always be places like Conger and people like the Cobras who need rescuing. I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no one who’s willing to help.”
“Well spoken, sweetheart. At this rate your lessons will go by quicker than you think.”
The palace eventually grew quiet as their guests were escorted back to their quarters and the guards reported to their posts for the first watch of the night. The sentinels walked the corridors, occasionally stopping to listen to the birdcalls that echoed through the silence to tell them all was well.
What the watchers didn’t realize was that they in turn were being watched. The figure dressed in varying shades of black and dark green blended in so well with Audrey’s gardens that they were easy to miss. Careful not to move when anyone was close by, the intruder’s final destination was only a short climb away.
The room was one of the oldest in the palace. Two of its walls were perfectly preserved in honor of the woman who first lived there. To be able to run your hand over something so sacred to the nation was a gift from the queen to her future daughter-in-law even if she hadn’t had the chance to tell her the story.
Annie sat at the vanity in the bathroom putting her hair in a ponytail as she thought about Bebo. With so many outsiders on the island, Kip had been extra vigilant, cutting their goodnights short well before they reached the corridors that led to her rooms.
She finished feeling frustrated and hoping it wouldn’t prevent her from getting some sleep. The door to her room opened as Annie turned out the light in the bathroom and from the moonlight coming through the window she saw Reggie sitting on the large bed.
“This place is so cool it makes me want to fly home and slap daddy for keeping it from us.”
Annie laughed and took a seat in one of the chairs close to the window. The air was heavy with salt from the ocean and she could hear the faint hum of traffic in the distance. “I’d let that go and enjoy the now, sis. You don’t want to mar hitting the proverbial jackpot by being bitter.”
“All the single gorgeous women aside, getting Emelda, Erica and Teri in the bargain is like hitting the jackpot.” Reggie agreed then sighed as she fell back onto the bed. That’s when Annie saw it.
Standing in the corner shrouded by shadows, someone was watching them. She didn’t want to frighten her sister by shouting out so she acted as normally as she could. “Our grandmothers do give us a sense of completeness don’t they?”
“That they do, but you still owe me, Annie.”
“I do? Why’s that?” Her eyes betrayed her and she looked to the corner again but the person was standing motionless.
Reggie leaned up on her elbows and pointed a foot at her. “You hogged Bebo all to yourself and never gave me a chance. Now you have to get princess wonderful to introduce me to some buff warrior types.”
“Then get out of here and get your beauty sleep.” Annie walked her sister out and kissed her goodnight then waved to the guards outside their doors. When she closed the door, she locked it before turning around and leaning against it.
Her visitor never moved so Annie thought a little incentive was needed. First she pulled the tie from her hair and shook out the blond locks. She then pulled the tie on her robe and let her garment fall behind her. She took a few steps closer to the bed before pulling her nightgown over her head and tossing it on the floor, leaving her naked and exposed.
“Are you just here to watch? Because if you don’t get over here that’s all you’re going to be doing.”
“I need to work on my stealth techniques if you spotted me so easily.”
“Uh huh,” she pulled back the comforter on the bed, smiling when the camouflage shirt flew past her head. “By the way,” the pants came next, “Reggie wants you to introduce her to…”
“Some buff warrior types – I heard her.”
Annie hurriedly got in the bed so she could enjoy watching Bebo walk across the room. That she was there at all was making her smile from the heart. Bebo was taking quite a risk, but their being together was more important than what was expected of them and on that she agreed with her.
“I missed you so much,” Bebo said. The feel of Annie’s skin pressed up against her made her think that if that were all they did all night long – it would be enough.
The sheets felt instantly warmer when Bebo joined her on the bed, but it was the feel of skin on skin that made Annie hot. It still amazed her that to make her father happy, she would’ve gone through life not knowing what it was to crave a simple embrace of another person. To go through life being content to lie and listen to their heart beating and their lips kissing your forehead.
“Are you okay, honey?” Annie asked after feeling the long sigh that Bebo let out.
“Just a long day.”
Annie shifted so that Bebo’s head was now resting on her chest. The position made it easy for her to run her fingers through the dark hair. “I know the cure for that.”
“Tell me a story about this room.” She kissed the top of Bebo’s head and pulled her closer. “Your mom said she was going to when we got to spend time together, but I have you here so tell me.”
“Interested in Queen Selene are you?” Bebo laughed but burrowed closer to Annie enjoying the loving attention she was getting. “The archives tell us from the first parchments our ancestors wrote about the different nomadic tribes of the Amazons. In all there were about two hundred each with their own queen. For years they hunted, planted and raised families staying predominately female in makeup.”
“There were male Amazons?” Annie asked.
“We sent one to the sacred lands today, love.” They moved back to their original positions with Annie’s head pillowed on Bebo’s shoulder allowing her to run her hand in small circles on Bebo’s stomach.
“No need to apologize. It’s hard to imagine when you walk around here that people like Arthur and your father were born here.”
Annie lifted up on her elbow for a minute to study Bebo’s face. “My father was such a traitor to his heritage in my opinion. Especially now that I’ve met my grandmother and know the kind of pain he put her through by keeping us away. All those years wasted.”
With a slow and gentle hand Bebo caressed the side of her face. “Listen to the advice you gave your sister and don’t let bitterness steal the years you have left with your newfound family.”
“How do you know it’ll be years?” The question posed in a way that made Bebo realize Annie wanted reassurance.
“Because Emelda’s too stubborn to let go of life without a fight. Much like the queen you asked me about, Selene.”
Annie didn’t miss the reverence in Bebo’s voice as she told the story of how Selene had united the tribes and brought them to the island despite the pessimists who said the queens would never give in and the sail would kill those who tried. There were those tribes that stayed behind and continued their ways and traditions only to be swallowed up by larger armies and conquering hordes.
“Before her death here, Queen Selene managed to united the tribes and set up the island pretty much like it still functions today. The doubters were put to rest when they saw that true strength came from unity.”
Her story was interrupted when Annie pulled her head down and kissed her. “Do her original writings still exist?”
“Yes, my lovely historian, they do. The first queen was much like America’s Thomas Jefferson. Her ideas and her passion for starting something new and good have survived the test of time.”
“I think she’d be proud of the family line she left behind.”
“Under Queen Selene, the nation prospered because each child was given encouragement to follow their heart. For some like my Aunt Sean, it is following a life of commerce and foreign relations, but when it comes to people like my mother, the choices are a little more limited.”
“You always have a choice, my love,” Annie said.
“I could be selfish I guess and live only to make myself happy by making you happy, but the nation has other ideas and I’d never dishonor them or my parents by turning my back on my responsibilities. My greatest hope is that you can live with that reality.”
“Can I live with someone who has honor, is courageous, caring and loves me?” Annie put her head back down and kissed Bebo’s neck. “The real question now is can I live without her?”
“Guilty, now finish telling me about this room.”
“When the first boats landed on the shores of Leon, Selene’s royal guards noticed this one large tree growing close to the beach. They were thrilled that even though they had moved to a large island, they still had the comfort of the trees they’d known before. This particular tree was set aside as Selene’s quarters and it had been occupied by every ruler after her.”
“But that would make it ancient.”
“The tree itself, like all living things, died decades ago, but our scientist have preserved a good portion of it and incorporated it into the existing palace.” Bebo turned her head and looked at the smooth walls pointing to different knots that gave you a clue as to what it was. “The room we’re in now was actually Selene’s quarters. Most queens, once they marry, use this room on their honeymoon night.” She ran her finger along Annie’s back, loving the way it made her move closer.
“Can we spend our honeymoon here?”
“We can spend our honeymoon wherever you like, love.” Bebo kissed her forehead again and sighed in obvious contentment. “But tradition calls for us to spend our very first night as a joined couple in this room.”
“Promise me you’re not going to completely hate me for what I’m about to say.”
“That’s an easy promise to make. Nothing you could ever tell me would make me hate you. What’s wrong?”
“You have to get dressed and go.” She kissed the naked shoulder she was resting her head on before moving away a little. “I can’t believe I’m saying this because I’m about to rupture something if I don’t touch you soon, but you really need to get going, honey.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
Annie immediately moved back and put her hand on the side of Bebo’s face. “Of course you didn’t. I miss you more than you can imagine, but I won’t disrespect what this room means to the past and to us. The night I lie here with you, I want it to be because we’re honoring what these walls mean, so no, it has nothing to do with you.”
“Just promise me one thing.”
“Promise me that you’ll really pay attention during all those lessons with my mother. The sooner you get all this stuff down, the quicker we’ll get back here without me having to come through the window.” Bebo kissed the tip of her nose to show she was kidding.
“Like you said, that’s an easy promise to make.”
Audrey was waiting in her room when Bebo made it back. She smiled but made sure to hold in her laugh when her daughter stumbled very uncharacteristically as she made it through the window. Sexual frustration could be the only answer.
“Are you here to tell me how evil I am for trying?” asked Bebo.
“Actually, I’m here to tell you how proud I am of you for showing such restraint.” Audrey moved closer and put her hand on Bebo’s cheek in a familiar gesture she’d done since Bebo had been a baby. “Either that or Bo’s going to have that talk with you again.”
“The talk of how to pleasure women, because if you made it over there and back in this amount of time and managed to ignore the meaning of where I put Annie for her stay…you obviously weren’t paying attention when your mother went through the finer points of the act.” She did laugh this time when the blush that painted Bebo’s face heated the palm of her hand. “But since you’re my daughter, I know better than that and I’m going with the fact that you know better.”
“You’ll be happy to know that Annie kicked me out once I told her the story, and I was more than willing to give into her wishes.” She bent down and kissed Audrey’s forehead. “That was really low by the way. You could’ve put her up at Erica and Teri’s. I’m sure they would’ve loved to catch up on their granddaughters’ lives as well as Dothan’s.”
“Not low, honey. I just know who I’m dealing with.”
“You don’t trust me to not humiliate Annie?” A crease formed on Bebo’s forehead as she looked down at her mother in confusion.
Audrey grabbed the front of the shirt Bebo was wearing and dragged her over to the bed so they could sit down. “Of course I trust you, but I happen to think you’re cut from the same cloth Bo is.”
“And it’s the kind of cloth you want to rip off and feel up close and personal.” She wiggled her eyebrows making Bebo laugh. “Face it. You’re good looking, smart and the future leader of the Amazons. It’s quite the burden, but I’m confident you’re more than up to it. And I wouldn’t be concerned that it’s all a one-way street. I’m sure Annie is hurting just as much as you are. I know I did when it was me Bo was courting.”
“Some of these rules really should be updated.”
“Uh huh, when you have some more little Bebos running around here, let me know what you want to update when some girl catches their eye.”
“That’s different, mama. This is me we’re talking about and I miss her.” Bebo lay down so she could put her head in her mother’s lap.
“I know you do, but as hard as this is the time will go by sooner than you think. When you’re my age you’ll remember this time as some of the most special days of your life.” She pulled gently on a lock of the dark hair. “You’re a woman very much like your mother, and I have a feeling that Annie is very much like me.”
“In a way it was the fact she was like you that attracted me to her.”
Audrey nodded and smiled. “Annie will complete you in ways that will bring you everlasting happiness, so use this time to show her just how much she means to you in ways that have nothing to do with making love.” She placed her fingers over Bebo’s lips when she went to say something. “When your mother and I joined and I stood on that dais with her, and looked into her eyes, I got to see what pure love truly is. That’s what I want you to do for Annie.”
“I haven’t had too much time alone with you so this is nice.” Bebo smiled and appeared relaxed and content.
“Part of what I’m talking about is what you did tonight. I’m glad you went over there if only for a little while. Right now you need the comfort only Annie is able to give you. For that kind of happiness and strength a mother doesn’t mind being thrown over.”
“I’m not throwing you over, mama. I have Annie and I love her, but you’re someone I need in my life no matter what.”
“Thank you, my darling. Are you sure you’re all right after everything that happened?”
“I’m fine really. I’m just sorry I couldn’t bring Arthur back to you.”
She ran her fingers through the thick dark hair and sighed. “What happened is all Nazia Suire’s fault so don’t ever blame yourself. It’s shameful that some who are born here never really learn the lessons that Amazonia has to teach. The only thing she was interested in was besting your mother whenever she had the opportunity, and in the end that same passion spilled over onto you. What Arthur did, was something everyone here expected of him, and as with everything else in his life, he didn’t disappoint.” She put her hand on Bebo’s cheek again. “He loved you so remember that and carry what he did for you and Annie’s future in your heart always. That’s the best way to repay his gift.”
“Thanks for saying that.”
“I said it because I mean it. You and Annie deserve to be happy without anything standing in your way. Don’t squander this time no matter how frustrating it is. Try and make the next few months as special for Annie as your mother made them for me. Courting a girl is something she never forgets and cherishes for the rest of her days. The way your mother courted me are stories I’ve been clamoring to tell my grandchildren.” She leaned down and kissed Bebo’s forehead. “Remember that and do me proud starting tomorrow. Are you busy in the morning?”
“Of course I’m not busy, if I get to spend time with you and Annie. Where should I meet you?”
“Smart girl. Meet us at the Archives at ten. I’m giving the Petkus sisters a tour in the morning and I’ll be glad to act as your chaperone.”
“Think you could leave me in the stacks alone for a little while?” Bebo did some brow wiggling of her own making Audrey laugh.
“I’m sure you’ll find yourself alone with Annie more than you might think. Your mother isn’t a complete tyrant you know.”
The next morning Bebo was up early and at the airport with Boden to bid the Cobra Unit goodbye. That was followed by a workout with the guards so that by the time Annie and her family made it down for breakfast, Bebo and Boden were ready to eat again. Their meal was filled with light conversation and more educational matters of the realm for Annie before they ventured out to the National Archives.
“The bottom floor is actually over a hundred feet below ground and it’s where the original parchments are kept. Copies are found in every school book on the island but those first scrolls Queen Selene ordered kept are in my opinion our greatest treasure,” Audrey said as they sat together in the back of the car driving them over.
“I’ve wanted to see the whole collection ever since we received the small part you sent to the museum. As both a student and a fan of history I think it’s wonderful when any civilization realizes the importance of keeping a record of their culture.”
“If there’s one thing the Amazons pride themselves on, sweetheart, it’s our history. There’s more than enough paper in those archives to set the greatest of all bonfires,” Audrey said with a laugh. “But we pray to Artemis that day never comes to pass.”
When they pulled up Bebo joined them offering an arm to her mother first then to Annie. There were more than a few reporters from the island’s various newspapers on hand taking pictures, and talking with Audrey’s representatives about any questions they had.
The tour lasted four hours with Erica showing them the highlights of what was on hand so that Annie would have some idea of what she wanted to concentrate on in future visits. More than once, Erica took time to hug both Annie and Reggie as they listened to her fascinating tales of some of their more colorful history.
“There is one bit of business we have to take care of while we’re here,” Audrey said. She brought them into the largest room Annie and Reggie had ever seen. It was filled with rows of shelves holding leather bound books. On the cover of each book was a family name.
“This is the whole of the Amazon nation, girls,” Erica said proudly. She led them to where there were two books lying open on an ancient looking table at the room’s center. “Everyone who was born to a family here is recorded on the pages of these books. For too long your signatures have been missing from the day your names were added.”
“Our names are already here?” Reggie asked incredulously, dragging her finger down the page of one book searching.
“At your birth, your name is added to the books of the families you belong to.” Audrey pointed first to the book that chronicled the Petkus family. “Your mother married into the Petkus family so your name was added to that line, as well as to the Cyr family book.”
“What does our signature signify?” Annie asked, figuring it had to mean something.
“It shows for the rest of time you accept what being an Amazon is, my love,” Bebo said. “For all of time, our family will be able to enter this room and look upon what you do today and feel proud they have a history. Your name in these two books, then in a third will leave your mark upon your new home, and the life you will build here.”
“A third book?” Annie asked.
“The book of Leon,” Audrey said. It was the only one kept in a glass vault with a guard posted in front. The woman bowed to the Queen when Audrey slipped in a key and opened the door. Carefully she opened the book to the first page. There in somewhat faded ink was the name Selene of Leon. “This is our family’s book,” she then flipped to the very last page and the last two signatures of Consort Boden of Argase and Princess Bebo of Leon. “I am proud that before too long your name will follow my cub’s.”
Annie went first and with a feather pen signed her name to the two books. Once Reggie was finished Audrey accepted the royal seal from Erica and stamped the Leon crest to the front of the books forever marking them as having a member of the royal family among their relatives.
“Welcome home, both of you,” Audrey said.
“It’s good to finally be here, highness,” Annie said as Reggie nodded her agreement. They both bowed to their Queen before accepting an embrace.
For the next couple of weeks Annie went back to the archives with Audrey daily so that they could have the information they needed at hand. In their time together they found that they were starting to forge a friendship that would last them a lifetime. In those hours Audrey’s pain at losing her brother didn’t disappear, but did fade somewhat in Annie’s company and her laugh returned. Annie was someone who was so eager about life, and starting a life with Bebo, that the queen found it infectious.
“Do you have any questions on that?” asked Audrey as she closed the book they’d been reviewing.
“I’ll go over it again this afternoon and let you know.”
“How about a break?” Audrey stood up and held her hand out to Annie. “Someone is coming home today and I thought you might want to be on hand to welcome her back.”
“I’d be happy to,” she took Audrey’s hand and started for the elevator that would bring them back to the main floor of the building.
“So have you and Bebo been having a good time?”
“I couldn’t ask for a better tour guide of the island.” The guards followed them at a good distance, keeping their conversation private.
“Been behaving then has she?” Audrey pulled her closer and laughed when Annie blushed. “Good, protocol has its place but it’s good to remember why you want to join with someone.”
“I haven’t forgotten anything about why I want to be with her, and while I love the courting stage, I’m more than ready to get to that next part.”
When they stepped outside, the statue of Larissa was being put back into place in front of the archives building. After seeing her in the museum in Washington, Annie thought she looked different standing in the sunshine, as if Larissa appeared more at home. There was a group of schoolchildren waiting for the workers to finish so that they could touch the boot. Bebo was waiting with them, and she had two little girls sitting on her lap with the others gazing up at her raptly listening to what she was saying.
“See this is the part of you that’s really strong in her,” Annie said, pointing to Bebo.
“She didn’t just inherit the love of story telling from me, sweetheart. Boden doesn’t like an audience but she does love to spin a tale when given the chance.” She winked at Annie and laughed. “At least I’m willing to sit and listen to whatever she has to say.”
“I definitely know the allure,” Annie winked back before turning her attention to her warrior.
“Do you have any other questions before I turn you over to Bebo?”
“Were you this nervous?”
Audrey stopped walking and closed her eyes for a moment as if remembering something important. “I was until I just spoke what was in my heart. Once I did, it was like it was just Boden and me there. It was her listening to what I had to say that was important.”
“Thanks for that.”
As much as Annie enjoyed her morning it was the next meeting that was making her nervous. With her mother and Bebo’s parents blessing it was time for them to put words to their feelings in front of someone who could put forth her own objections putting their joining on hold. Not that she thought it would happen, but the remote possibility was what was fueling the butterflies in her stomach.
When they walked up, Bebo was finishing her story so it took a minute for the schoolgirls to realize who else had joined them. They all bowed their heads along with their teacher and were thrilled when Audrey offered to tell a story as well.
With the attention off them Bebo took Annie’s hand and put it over Larissa’s worn boot. “Just for luck that my mouth doesn’t freeze up,” she told Annie with a smile.
“That’s one thing I never worry about when it comes to you, honey.”
“I can see my life is never going to be boring is it?” asked Bebo as she waved goodbye to her mother.
They chose to walk since it wasn’t that far, and Annie had to laugh when, while respectful, she noticed on more than one occasion how women openly appraised Bebo. “I figure if I keep you interested then you’ll go through life with blinders on. Can I buy you a leash as your wedding present?”
“Is this some hobby you have that you haven’t bothered to share with me?”
“I thought it might come in handy on an island where I can see there’s a lot of competition.”
Bebo laughed as she brought Annie’s hand up to her lips. “I would only throw you over for your grandmother, but we butt heads so often that I figure she’d kill me within the week.”
Emelda Petkus waited for them at the door to the great Temple of Artemis. Throughout the island there were smaller places of worship, but this was the spot on which the first temple had been erected and through the years it had become a place of pride. She shook her head at how in love the couple looked, so much so that they hadn’t noticed her standing there yet.
She opened her arms first to her granddaughter then to Bebo when they both bowed slightly in front of her. “Welcome to you both.”
“Thank you, grandmother,” Annie said, as a sense of belonging came over her as she enjoyed Emelda’s embrace.
“And you, troublemaker, what are you going to tell me?”
“That you’d better be nice to me because I’m going to be related to you soon,” Bebo said, making both of them laugh.
“I’ll be nice to you in a little while but right now we have lunch to eat then we’ll see if you’re going to be related to me.”
Emery Felder, Emelda’s apprentice was waiting for them at the table that had been set up in the back garden, gladly accepting Emelda’s invitation to attend. After a request from the Queen they would begin the process that afternoon so that the joining ceremony could take place as soon as possible.
While Emelda got to enjoy being a doting grandmother, Emery went through what was expected of them in the coming weeks. Once Annie learned the necessary rituals, then Audrey would call a meeting of the Regents and their representatives so the announcement of their engagement could be made official. After that, a call would go out to the island for the joining. It wasn’t often that a royal joined. Since the time of Selene, her line had chosen well and only death had separated the royal couples who had followed her.
They finished their afternoon with a prayer and the lighting of the alter incense to Artemis on. Both priestesses were impressed with Annie’s knowledge of the prayers, having learned them from Audrey starting on the flight over.
“You have chosen well, both of you,” she told the couple as she laid her hands on their heads. “Princess, as I told you before you left for your journey, you have found your fate. You have found the other half of your heart and your spirit. Guard it well, follow your path and your life will be fruitful.”
Their vows would be made again before the nation at their joining ceremony, but today the words came from the heart. It would be witnessed by only Emelda, Emery, and the goddess, so in Annie’s opinion it was all that more special. The woman kneeling next to her was expected to be strong always, but now those deep blue eyes softened and showed her all the love Bebo had for her.
“Today you truly begin down that path so it’s time to state before the goddess your feelings for Annie,” she said to Bebo. “And you, Annie,” she put her hands on Annie’s shoulders. “So many of us have been waiting for your return to Amazonia. That you have come back to join with Bebo has only multiplied our joy. What you both say here today will forever stay here if you like.”
“Is that what others before us have done?” Annie asked.
“For everyone this process is different, and I won’t betray their trust like that.”
“I’m sorry if I wasn’t supposed to ask.”
Emelda moved her hand to the bottom of Annie’s chin to lift her head a little. “Nothing you ask is wrong. I’m sure Bebo has told you that as well as Audrey. I can’t speak for all the others who’ve knelt here before you, but I can speak for myself when it was my turn with Chris. The day we joined my words weren’t all that different from the day I met her here to tell her how much I loved her. I did it because I wanted everyone there celebrating the day with us to know what I held in my heart.”
“I appreciate you sharing that with me.”
“I have so much I want to share with you, love, but I think that it’s Bebo who wants to say something now.”
“Thank you, grandmother.” Bebo bowed her head to the Emelda, and then took Annie’s hand. “Annie Petkus of the house of Cyr is my chosen. In my life there will be no other. I will defend her and our children with my life if necessary. She will never know another day of loneliness, just as I anticipate a life full from what we will have together.” The betrothal bracelet she had given Annie before she left for Conger was back in her possession and she pulled it from her pocket. “With her I will share my crown, my life, my love and I will protect all with my sword. On this, I give Annie, the goddess and you as her head priestess, my solemn vow.” She turned to Annie and held up the bracelet that represented their short history so far and chronicled their beginning. “I ask you to entrust me with your heart, and in turn I will give you mine. Will you have me, Annie?”
“What say you Annie?” Emelda asked.
“I have waited for you all my life. Before the goddess I make my vow to love Princess Bebo of Leon, bring her happiness, raise a family with her and to stand by her side as long as I draw breath. With me she will never know another day of loneliness, and I will belong to no other but her.” She put her hands over Bebo’s and looked her in the eye. “I’ll have you until the end of time, my love.”
“Then today accept the blessings of Artemis and the joy of your sisters. May your days always hold such happiness,” Emelda said. Both she and Emery then bowed their heads and prayed as Bebo once again fastened the bracelet on Annie’s wrist.
Three weeks later Dothan, Reggie and Annie were moved to Erica and Teri’s house for the night so that the last tradition before the meeting of the regents could be carried out. Bebo arrived by horseback with her royal guards and presented each member of the family with a gift.
The last gift she presented to Annie with a smile was a small rendition of the statue of Larissa as a remembrance of the first time they’d met. No one said anything as Annie accepted it, handed it to her mother then kissed Bebo like they hadn’t seen each other in months.
When the meal was done, Boden and Audrey asked the couple to join them outside. “You have both done well with everything that has been asked of you,” Boden started.
“Including the forced separation,” Audrey said with a smile. “Tomorrow I’ll call together the regents to make this official, so please don’t take what I’m going to say next as an insult to what you have and share.”
“Please, highness, if we need to do anything else we’ll be happy to. What Bebo and I are about to enter into shouldn’t be taken lightly, and I wouldn’t want to insult tradition by taking any shortcuts,” Annie said.
“You’ve done everything beautifully, honey. I just wanted to give you both the last chance to back out if you have any grain of doubt about what you’re getting ready to embark on. Please know that I’m not telling you this because Boden or I have any doubts about you, but because it’s the last nasty bit of business we have to get out of the way before we get onto more happy times.”
“We’ll give you a few minutes to talk about it,” Boden said with a wink.
“Have I told you lately how much I love your parents?” asked Annie when they were alone. She took her time walking over to Bebo using the new set of leathers she’d been fitted with to full advantage.
“Stop talking.” Bebo quickly closed the gap between them and turned her around so she could put her hands on Annie’s bare stomach and provide them some privacy since her back was to the window. Slowly, just using her fingertips she dragged them up until she was just under Annie’s breasts. Very gently, she cupped them and squeezed wanting to feel the nipples harden under the soft leather. “Do you have any doubt about how much I love you?”
“Oh, honey, you have to stop or we’re going to be adding one more tradition to all this pomp and circumstance. And I think sex on my grandparents’ patio is going to be hard to explain.” Bebo’s hands squeezed a little harder but not anywhere in the realm of being painful. “I know you love me, and I hope you know how much I love you. But do you have any doubt about how much I want you right now?” she asked, her voice dropping a few octaves making her sound sexy as hell to Bebo.
“You know what I’m looking forward to?”
“Moving your hands in the other direction and under this skirt?” Annie sounded hopeful but laughed along with Bebo.
“Besides that yes. I’m looking forward to joining my life with yours because it means I’ll wake up beside you for the rest of my life.”
“You are a sweet talker,” Annie turned around and kissed her long and hard. “How lucky does that make me?”
From inside Audrey and Boden looked on but since Bebo still had her back to them they didn’t see much. “Think her argument is as persuasive as yours?” Audrey asked Boden.
“Yes I remember how reluctant you were to marry me.” She slapped her wife softly on the butt. “What is it about you short blondes that makes us so crazy?” The walk Annie had done for Bebo was the only part of the alone time they had caught. “And does someone in that temple show you how to walk in this outfit?” She pulled on the strap of Audrey’s top.
“If I told you that I’d have to exile you to the Grazel desert, my love.” She turned away from the window and kissed Boden just above her heart. “And I do believe her words will put to rest any worries Annie has, which I’m sure are none. She’s about to learn something I did a very long time ago.”
“What’s that, beautiful?”
“That along with all the lessons on what to do with things that are sharp and pointy, there’s someone in the Argase Forest that teaches you tough warrior types to be the biggest romantic fools on the planet.” She looked over her shoulder one last time. “Our cub is all grown up, my love, and while I’m sorry that our time as the center of her world has come to an end, I’m proud of the job we’ve done. She is my greatest wish aside from you because she is so much like you.”
“The sprout will be a good mate only because she has a lot of her mama in her. She is the balance of us both, love, and now comes the reward for all our hard work.”
“Grandchildren,” Audrey said.
“Grandchildren,” Boden echoed.
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