As we prepared to go before the queen I began to feel nervous. Marlowe explained that I only had to keep hold of her arm, and she would do the rest.
We walked between long rows of staring courtiers and their servants and men at arms, all of whom seemed merry and prosperous. Winking women in bright skirts with trails of gold and purple flowers braided into their hair smiled at me openly. Dark haired men, some with beards and some without, spoke in hushed tones to their companions, fair haired teenaged boys and graying old fathers. All of the members of the Queen's court looked so much more joyous then the members of Marlowe's. I remembered with anxiousness the stares and whispers I had endured when I first emerged from my boat.
But this was not like that, and here the revelry was so great that I wondered how Wavorly, with it's great white walls, still decorated colorfully from the passing festivals, could be so completely on the verge of ruin, and here, only a weeks ride away, a whole other people rejoiced in the light of their good fortune.
When we reached the head of the room the Queen invited us to be seated, the members of her court having already begun to stand. Marlowe seemed to be most apprehensive when the quiet hum of chatter fell to an almost uncomfortable silence, and the Queen of Alexander raised her hand to us in greeting. The Queen invited us to be seated beside her, a flurry of food and drink set before us by the Queen's own servants. After the Queen and Marlowe exchanged proper greetings the Queen of Alexander turned to me, having already signaled her lords and ladies to be seated and continue in their conversations.
"My lady, we have never before had the pleasure of meeting, and that is my mistake," the Queen beamed down at me, her bright blue eyes sparking. I could feel my cheeks turn red as I tried to think of what Marlowe had told me to say.
"The pleasure is all my own," I stammered, enamored by her eyes. She was radiant, and I could feel myself flush as Queen appraised every inch of my body with obvious lust on her face. Marlowe didn't seem offended by this woman's forward nature, even when the Queen took my hand in her own warmly, and reached to brush my growing bangs from my eyes.
"Marlowe how could you have possibly forgotten to bring this lovely woman to my land's sooner?"
Marlowe seemed proud that the woman was so taken by me, and she leaned back in her chair with an easy smile on her face. I knew she had some trick up her sleeve. "I knew you would want to steal her once you discovered that we are not yet married. But it is a match made in the City of the Goddess," Marlowe smiled at me and I smiled.
The Queen's reaction to this was different then I expected, however, and I frowned as she dropped my hand and begged my pardon, apologizing for her forwardness. I was more then confused. "The Goddess herself sent Rachel to me nearly sixty summers ago when I was still yet to become ruler over my Mother's people."
I snapped my jaw shut quickly to hide my surprise at Marlowe's age. When she first came to the Cove for four glorious days she'd told me, shown me really, that she had been only twenty, younger than me by almost a decade. But that was impossible, because here I was only a month older then I had been when we first spend a night in her cave, and by her standards she was almost eighty! Then I remembered her less than ordinary lineage, and I realized that longevity must have been another perk of having a Goddess for a great grandmother. The sparkle of blue in Marlowe's mischievous brown eyes confirmed this as she winked at me. It seemed when the Queen thought I was only Marlowe's plaything, it wasn't a breach of protocol for her to show her interests in me. But now, as Marlowe continued to make her interests in me clear, the Queen seemed more and more embarrassed at her behavior. I silently begged her to break the awkwardness.
"Surely, Maryanne, you nor I can be expected to know everything." Marlowe graciously came to my rescue. "Besides, I've been known to be in the company women." I stowed away the question this raised in my mind for later. I had dozens of questions for Marlowe, now.
The Queen nodded her thanks and then reintroduced herself to me. "I beg your forgiveness, my lady. I am the Queen of Alexander, distant cousin to your Marlowe, although certainly not as strong nor wise as she. May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?
"Rachel Allenwood," I replied, feeling shy. It was frustrating how timid the rulers and leaders of this world rendered me.
"Hello, Rachel. You of course may call me Maryanne," the Queen smiled, all the lust in her eyes now gone. "Pray tell me where you are from? You seem refreshingly foreign."
This was where the conversation got sticky and I looked to Marlowe again for an answer. She came quickly to my aid.
"From across the sea, Maryanne," Marlowe answered, and Maryanne looked from her and back to me, curiously. "She's sent to me by the Goddess."
Maryanne looked surprised, and then a look of pain flitted across her face and she seemed to withdraw into herself. Marlowe placed a hand on the woman's arm and whispered something to her that I couldn't understand. Maryanne seemed to accept this and then she smiled and cleared her throat, taking some bread from her plate and eating. "Your wife reminds me so much of my own," Maryanne commented to Marlowe, who graciously accepted the compliment. "Where across the sea are you from?"
"A state called Maine, near the sea," I told her knowing she'd be all but clueless. Maryanne nodded and I wondered if she had ever heard of my home, or even my world.
"Please, eat, and Marlowe," here she turned to my lover, "Tell me what brings you and your wife to my court?"
Hungry as I was I was much too self conscious to eat anything, not when the whole court and the Queen herself was watching. Marlowe only picked at the food on the plate before her in between the conversation we were having with the Queen, so I followed her lead and ate little, hoping there would be more soon.
"Something more serious then it probably seems," Marlowe answered, the urgency in her voice reminding me that we should already be well on our way. Maryanne looked curious as she waited for Marlowe to continue. "Byron and his daughter have besieged Wavorly."
Maryanne appeared indignant, "Why are you here if your kingdom is besieged? Did not the Goddess lend you her power to save her people?"
Marlowe shook her head solemnly, her pride causing her to answer slowly. "The bastards cut off all access to the sea, I cannot reach my source of power."
Maryanne frowned and thought this through. I wondered if her being a descendant of the Goddess afforded her a power like Marlowe's.
"Truly I could not bear to be separated from the thing that gives me power for so many days," Maryanne smiled sadly and placed a hand on Marlowe's shoulder. With the other hand she gripped the stone arm of her throne, focusing her attention on it curiously. "Truly you are the bravest woman I have ever known. I envy your courage."
The Queen leaned forward and planted a chaste kiss on my lover's lips. I felt like melting, the sight of the two of them together squashing any reason for me to exist. I wondered why they weren't together, cousins or not. "Can you not travel to another sea? Anything to keep you from the city of the Goddess?"
It was Marlowe's turn to smile and she leaned back into her chair, catching my eyes and taking my hand. "The Great Mother has yet to bless our union."
This reassured me and Maryanne looked pleasantly surprised. "My dear Marlowe, congratulations are in order. Rachel is not merely your consort - she is to be your wife. A Queen in her own right."
I had never contemplated that fact before, and felt a quake in my stomach at the idea of ruling over others. But Marlowe as always seemed confident in her decisions.
"You will of course attend out wedding?" Marlowe asked, and the Queen nodded, a far away look in her eyes. "Claire would so have loved to see you as well."
Marlowe accepted this in silence, and I wondered who Claire was, and if I would ever meet her. "You understand how soon we must leave for the pass?" Marlowe changed the subject, gently, but with purpose. Maryanne nodded and explained that we were to be given fresh horses and provisions fit for the chill of the mountains. "You must entreat the Goddess on my behalf," Maryanne requested and Marlowe accepted this as well. "If the Goddess willed and I could no longer feel her power near I would travel with you to her city."
"But lucky you are so surrounded by Her," Elaine spoke and Maryanne nodded.
"I cannot imagine what my Queen's pain is like." I wondered what this woman's power was if she were constantly surrounded by it. Maryanne paused before she answered and when she spoke it was careful and deliberate. "Marlowe is lucky she has such close friends and lovers. I would die to loose both Claire and the Goddess."
"But She has not left me," Marlowe answered this firmly, "And soon we will be united again." She made to stand and excuse us from the festivities. "If our horses are prepared, then we must fly."
The Queen seemed alright with this and caught Marlowe up in a strong embrace. "Fly fast, my sister, fly for the land of our Mothers and may your kingdom and your marriage be blessed.
"Fast we shall certainly fly, and when I go before the Great Mother I will ask that you be blessed as well, my sister."
Their farewell itself seemed older than the words I had just heard. It seemed practiced, archaic, and ancient. Before I knew it, Marlowe and I were walking hand in hand between the rows of silent courtiers who were bent at waist in curtsies and bows.
Hastily we undressed, the easygoing air that Marlowe had worn earlier all but gone. She explained to me that we had a relentless mountain path between us and the realm of the Goddess, and our only chance was to reach the pass before a blizzard did. She helped pull the dress over my head and then helped me into fur covered coats and thermal underclothes.
"We will be in the cold faster than you could imagine," Marlowe explained to me the reason for the coats before I could ask. In the other room Marguerite and Elaine were dressing silently, the rustle of their clothes and boots against the stone floor audible past the hanging tapestry of the Queen I had just met. "And if it snows too heavily before we reach the pass then all is lost."
"I have questions for you," I told her, hoping I could remember everything that I had been asking myself. All that Maryanne had spoken of only served to confuse me further, and even though time was of the essence, I hoped that at least I could understand why reaching the City of the Goddess was so important.
"I'll explain everything when we're well on our way," Marlowe promised me, turning to have me untie her dress, my eyes on her body as she slid out of it. I would have liked to have a few moments alone with her in the bed that I had napped upon earlier, but I knew that was a wish I wouldn't be granted, at least not on this visit to Alexander.
"You promised you would take me to the marketplace," I responded, feeling like a child cashing in on promises from it's mother. It wasn't the marketplace that I wanted, however, but the chance to steady myself before I stood before some Goddess and became stuck in the land of La Portaille forever. If I could help it, I would take every chance I got to delay that from happening.
"And I do mean to keep that promise, my love," Marlowe responded, never one to be caught off guard. She finished dressing and then explained to Marguerite and Elaine that while we waited for our provisions and horses she and I were going to the marketplace. "We will meet you at the gates before the hour."
I followed her through the halls through which we had came and out into the afternoon sun, the various vendors from the morning when we had arrived still sitting in their places, and now joined by twice as many carts and tents, the men and women beside each one enticing passing people with their goods or services.
"What do we need from the market for our journey?" I asked Marlowe, who smiled down at me as we walked slowly between the rows of tents. She wore a dark scarf over her head and mouth, covering her sparkling teeth and beautiful lips from view. I knew from the crinkle in the corners of her eyes that she smiled, though.
"Everyone who enters the City of the Goddess must bring the Great Mother a gift," Marlowe explained. She stopped to pick up gemstones spread upon a white cloth underneath a tent close by. The owner watched her closely, obviously not knowing who she was, but Marlowe didn't seem to mind the attention. She turned a sea green stone over and over in her hands and then held it up to the sun, looking for imperfections and finding none. "Beautiful things are the best, as the Goddess loves beauty almost as much as she does her children."
"Every year the people of Alexander flock around this table to buy the Goddess their offerings," the tall man who had been watching Marlowe stepped closer, pleased at the chance to brag about his business. "Surely the Goddess will be pleased yet again by the jade that you hold." I eyed him warily, realizing that he was probably an excellent salesman, and obviously good looking. He stroked the braided hairs of his goatee before continuing, although Marlowe hadn't seemed to notice him yet. "I will offer you a fair price for the gem."
Marlowe's eyes snapped up from the gem in her hand to the vendor's face, and by the look in his eyes and the fear that crossed his face as he stepped back and fell to one knee before her, he had not known who she was until then. "Please, stand up, Marco, and tell me more about this gem. Have you others?"
"Your Majesty graces me with her presence yet again," he replied, wiping the dust from his pants before taking the gem from her hand and setting it back down upon the table. "Follow me inside, I have gems fit for a Queen to offer the Goddess."
It seemed the two of them had a working relationship, and I wondered how and where they had met, deciding that it was likely Marlowe had passed through Alexander on her first trip to seek the Goddess, the trip she had told me she had taken when she returned from my world to her own. The Queen nodded, holding out her hand which the man grasped firmly, a sign of friendship between the two of them.
Inside the man's tent he offered us both a seat before pulling out a locked box, which he opened with a key from around his neck. As he slowly lifted the lid my eyes grew wide, the gems inside larger and clearer than anything I had ever seen.
"My lady, please," the man invited me to touch and I reached out for a diamond the size of my palm, my eyebrows raised at it's many facets. I wondered how such gems were even found or cut in a land as primitive as this. They had none of the technology afforded the gem cutters of my time, yet the rock in my hand looked twice as pure as any diamond I had ever seen. "Does the size surprise you?" the man ventured to ask, and I smirked, watching Marlowe eye him carefully. She knew a flirt when she saw one.
"Show me your sapphires, Marco," Marlowe requested, and the man nodded, bringing out yet another locked box. Inside were blue stones of similar cut to the first set, and just as large. From the box Marlowe chose the largest she could find, which Marco then dropped into a leather pouch and handed to her with a grin on his face.
"It is a pleasure to do business with the Queen of Wavorly," he smiled. Marlowe returned the compliment and reached into her belt, setting a pouch of coins on the mans outstretched hand. "The rest you shall have when I return."
He seemed to be satisfied with this answer, walking us out of his tent. I had little time to wonder what Marlowe could possibly need such a large gem for before she was telling me to chose something from any of the carts or tents I saw for myself, to remember our journey by. I walked through the marketplace with wonder filled eyes, as if I had never seen such things before in my life. It was a medieval farmer's market, full of produce and edibles, none of which were anything different than anything I could buy from a grocery store.
The yards and yards of fabrics and the trinkets and toys seemed to interest me the most, much to Marlowe's amusement. I fingered the tiny wooden animals with jade and sapphire eyes and chose a tiny elephant carved of the gray slate that seemed to form everything around us. The castle walls rose into the sky formed as one giant slab, the normal gaps of space between walls made of large stones fit together absent.
Something about the smooth edges of the elephant, the rounded corners and scratch free surface mirrored Alexander. It was something I would never quite forget.
Marlowe paid the merchant and took my hand, walking brisquely for the entrance to the city. Marguerite and Elaine would be waiting there for us, fresh horses and new provisions already loaded. Marlowe explained that this was to be the hardest part of our journey.
"The path up the mountain is thin and steep, at times too dangerous for our horses," she frowned. "It's going to be a hike."
I nodded, trying to push the idea of hard work as far from my thoughts as possible. As long as I could stay warm in the cold mountain air, I decided I could deal with everything else.