The Curse of Higuchi

Chapter 5

By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Copyright © February 2001 L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
All Rights Reserved

Note to Readers:
I am taking great liberties with certain aspects of Islam and Arabia, as well as the story surrounding Indus and the Asoka reign. Much of this story is a work of fiction. Only when I list verifiable facts on the cover page, should this story be taken literally. Disclaimer:  Xena Warrior Princess, its characters, and all related materials are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures.  The other characters are mine.  Like the show, I am playing around with the historical time lines.
Major, Major Disclaimer!  Any similarities or resemblances of any character(s) in this story to anyone in real life, either living or dead are purely coincidental!
Rated:  NC17
Violence:  None
Sexual Violence: None
Subtext:  Yes

Historical Information:
* Asoka = Prince Asoka was crowned King of Indus in 272 B.C. After a bloody battle in the territory of Kalinga where thousands of warriors, men and women alike, were killed, and thousands more died because of the war, Asoka had an epiphany and turned away from violence and embraced the Buddhist philosophy. King Asoka became known as The Buddhist Emperor of Indus. He reigned as King for 37 years and during his reign, he built irrigation canals, roads, rest homes, hospitals and public gardens which specialized in medicinal herbs. Additionally, during Asoka's reign, the Indus civilization experienced an economic prosperity due to the peace and reformations within Indus. Owing to his past reputation in battle and victories over enemy warriors, the neighboring kings never waged war against Asoka or his people. The land of Indus, under King Asoka, experienced a renaissance of art, music, philosophy, and the sciences years before the European renaissance of the 14th century.
* Buddhism = The philosophy of Buddhism originated in 563 B.C., from the it's original founder, Prince Siddhartha Guatama, who later became known as Buddha. Although from India, Buddha's philosophies, which later became known as Buddhism, never found a strong following within India during its initial conception, as it did in the nearby Asian countries.
* Calicut = Not to be confused with modern day Calcutta, which is located on the East coast of modern day India, Calicut is located on the Western coast of Indus (Ancient India). Calicut was once the major port for merchant ships traveling between Greece and Chin.
* Indus = Archeologist and scholars have determined that India was known as Indus from c2550 B.C.E. to 1550 B.C.E.
* Sarasvati = the Holiday of Sarasvati Puja is celebrated on February 17, and is a Hindu festival honoring the Goddess Sarasvati. Sarasvati is the Goddess of wisdom, intellect, knowledge as well as inspiration for arts and music.

Part 23

As the afternoon sun beat down against the sails, Zara felt the sweat pouring down her back.  Being short-handed meant that everyone who was able, and knew how to work on a ship, had to join in to get everything done.  Not since she first joined a ship had she worked so hard.  Standing at the top of the main mast, the captain easily tied off the rope to the sail.  Zara took a moment to glance around her.  In the distance, she saw the main sail of their Arabian friends.  Like her, they were making do with a skeleton crew.  As the waves crashed against the ship, she held tightly to the mast and gazed out at the ocean waves.  She felt the cool breeze blowing past, fanning her hair out behind her and felt a happy peace steal over her for a moment.

“You've always felt more comfortable at sea?” the voice of the ghost suddenly sounded near her as a cold shiver crossed the captain's spine.  Since their return to the sea, Zara had become accustomed to the cold sensations as Xena spoke openly to her.  Like an inner voice, the Greek Warrior never seemed very far away.  As of late, the captain felt almost as if the ghost had wanted to tell her something, yet each time they had a moment alone, the voice had never revealed anything out of the ordinary.

Xena tried to find a way to explain the bond they now shared.  Each time she almost revealed the news, she drew away, not sure of how the captain would take the information.  'I know that Zara is grateful for my help, but how would she feel if she knew that I am able to feel all of her intense emotions and desires at the same time that she does,' Xena silently wondered, not for the first time.  'I feel her pain when she's hurt and I feel her sadness when she's unhappy.  I felt her pleasure when she….'  The warrior gulped, 'm-made love to Gabrielle after I sent her to Zara.  I definitely didn't expect those feelings to come to me.'  The warrior was awed.  'Gods, it was so intense… so… wonderful, even though it wasn't really me doing it, I felt like Gabrielle and I were together again, almost like in life.'  Then she thought uncomfortably, 'of course, when Zara went with that dancer who looked like her dead soul mate, I felt it all too.'  As she hovered in the air near the captain, she tried to find a way to explain her discovery.  But as she glanced down at the deck below, she decided against it, as she had with all the other opportunities, that this was not quite the right time to tell Zara that she now experienced every intense emotion that the Moroccan held.

“Yes, it is….peaceful,” Zara's voice pulled the warrior princess from her silent musings.  As the ocean waves crashed against Zara's ship, her grip tightened as the captain held the main mast.

“Those with difficult pasts….”  Xena said somewhere near her.

“…will often chose difficult tasks,” Zara smiled as she finished the statement that she had first heard in their shared dream.  For a moment, she stood in silence; just when she thought that the ghost had left, she felt an icy coldness on her shoulder.

“Just don't hurt yourself, an awful lot of people depend on you,” the warrior princess said right before her coldness went away.  Glancing down at the deck, Zara saw Nadrah smiling up at her.  As the child caught her eye, she waved happily, hopping up and down with excitement.  The captain emitted a tender chuckle at Nadrah's antics.  With a wave back, Zara pulled her attention away from the sea.  Deciding that she had rested enough, the captain began her quick descent down the ratlines to the deck. 

It had been nearly two weeks at sea and she was beginning to get used to the rigorous work out.  As she jumped down from the railing to the wooden deck, she glanced upward, admiring her handiwork.  When she turned, she felt a slight knot in her back, then twisted, trying to stretch the muscle out.

“Still have not lost your touch!”  Abu stood behind her, his eyes glancing up at the main sail.  Sweating, the bigger man smiled as he panted lightly.  Like Zara, Abu was doing additional duties other than his own.

“Thank you, I think I might actually have a career to fall back on should I not want to be a captain,” Zara acknowledged with a grin.  Then she grimaced as the pain returned to her back.  “But, my friend, I think I am getting too old for this,” she shook her head, lightly massaging the knot in her back as a hearty laugh escaped her friend.

“As Allah knows, we are both too old for this,” the burly man chuckled wryly as he twisted his head from side to side to work a crick out of his neck.  Then with a smile, he turned and made his way to the starboard side to help the crew pull up the day's fish nets.  With a shake of her head Zara moved across the deck to continue her part of the days chores.

Zara noticed Gabrielle moving across the deck.  With her satchel in hand, the healer went through the day checking on still injured patients, changing bandages, and cleaning wounds.  She was also helping Ayyub with daily meals and spending time teaching Nadrah to scribe in Greek.  Lately, the only time Zara had to spend with the bard was late at night, right before bed when Zara was soaking in the warm tub of water.  Because the captain woke before dawn, they seldom shared the morning together.  If this situation had put a strain on their relationship, it did not show.  The warmth and affection from the bard was always present when they laid snuggled together in sleep.

When the captain saw the Arab man at the helm yawn, she bounded up the steps to relieve him.  Although like her own, crew, the new Arabian crew members did their best to adjust, the long hours were beginning to take their toll on everyone.  Knowing that this man had been pulling almost eighteen candle marks at the helm, she relieved him of duty and began to steer her ship through the choppy waves.

As she watched the bard disappearing into the lower decks on her rounds of the wounded, Zara smiled as she held the steering steady.  Although they had managed to work through their misunderstanding over the dancing girl, the Moroccan was not certain if the bard was still interested in her.  Within a part of her mind, she thought she could sense the blonde's needs and almost believed that Gabrielle would welcome another encounter.  But before the captain could grasp a hold of this idea, her insecurities would convince her that it was her imagination. 

'How could a sweet and gentle woman like her, a healer-bard, a fierce warrior and Amazon Queen even desire someone like me?' the Moroccan thought as her brows creased into a frown.  'What would a wild and beautiful Amazon Queen want with the likes of you?'  Zara thought sadly.

With a shake of her head, Zara pulled her attention back to the task at hand.  Knowing that such line of thinking only lead to melancholy, she pulled her dark thoughts to the tasks at hand.  Sighing deeply as she stood at the helm, she pulled a tight control around all of her sad emotions.
Gabrielle had just finished releasing another crewman to light duties.  Pleased at the slow but steady recovery of her patients, she monitored their daily actions to ascertain whether they were working too hard.  Although she knew that their skills were needed, the healer kept a close eye on wounded and unwounded alike, to be certain that their recent injuries were not made worse by their work.

As she crossed the deck, she saw Zara turning over the helm to one of the newly released crewmen.  Then the tall woman moved near the rail.  With a healer's eye, Gabrielle cast her lover a critical glance.  She had noticed how tired the captain was and knew that she was doing the job of at least three men.  But as they were short handed, just about everyone was working for more than one, including the bard.  While standing quietly in the shadows, Gabrielle watched the movements of the Moroccan.  Once, when Zara stood up from a leaning position, she seemed to grimace as she stood still for a moment. 

“Zara?”  Gabrielle moved to her lover's side, the concern clearly etched on her features, “how are you doing?”

“Fine,” the tall woman smiled down as she continued to wind up a rope around her arm. 

Glancing up at the clouds, then out at the open sea, Zara nodded, then turned to the bard.  “Not more than another day,” she said as she noted the land on the distant skyline and the numerous birds flying above.  If it had not been the birds and clouds combined with the occasional fishing boats that they passed, the different scent of the air would have told her that they were nearing their destination.

“Till Indus?” the healer asked, still concerned about her lover.

“Yes, Calicut, Indus.  Then since we have made such good time I think we will rest there.  I believe the crew deserves a well-needed shore leave in a place of civilization.  Do you not agree?”  Zara asked the shorter woman as she dropped the rope to the deck, then unconsciously wiped the sweat from her brow.

“Oh, I'm sure that we can all use it ... at least, I know that I definitely have some ideas on how to utilize the down time,” the bard's voice was low and sultry as she glanced up at Zara.  Catching the captain off guard, Gabrielle laughed when she saw her tall lover's face suddenly blush from her comment.  With a shake of her head, the healer winked at Zara, then turned to go to the galley to help Ayyub with the noon meal.  Later she would tend to her lover's aching back, then, if she was lucky, she would tend to her own needs, Gabrielle thought as she left her perplexed lover on the deck.
Nadrah sat on the deck talking with Xena.  She listened to her friend's words, fascinated that the warrior had experienced so many things.  Although she had heard a lot of Gabrielle's stories, hearing them from Xena's point of view added new insights.

“….and then you get under the fish, like this,” the tall warrior explained as she held her hand out, and wiggled her fingers, “and then you tickle them, then when they get close, POW!  You slug 'em!” the warrior's face screwed up with a slight smile as her fist shot upward.  Nadrah giggled at her friend, who, encouraged by her laughter, reached out and began to tickle her.

“Xena!”  Tears of laughter followed the girl's giggles.  Before she could reach out to tickle her friend back, a voice for the main mast called down to the crew.

“Captain, a ship!”  Isa yelled down.

Xena stood up hurriedly.  'Gods, not more pirates,' she thought, grimly, 'the last encounter was nearly the death of us all.'  Nadrah stood up too, still giggling slightly. 

"Why are you worried, Xena?"  She inquired, looking up still smiling.

"Oh, it's probably nothing, Nadrah."  The warrior attempted levity.  "Just another merchant ship.”  'I hope,' she thought.

Just then Zara moved from the fishing nets at a run toward the bow to observe the approaching vessel.  Her body language showed that she was alert for any trouble.  Xena noticed the stiff tension in the captains stance.

“Oooo, if it's another ship.  I wanna go see,” shouted the child, starting to run off.  Then she looked back, her face excited.  "Are you coming, Xena?"

"No," the ghost smiled.  "You go on.  I've seen ships before, you go on with Zara now."

"Okay," called the girl, running off like a shot from a bow.  Xena watched her for a moment, then floated herself straight up the main mast to the crows nest to get a better view.  Isa, standing in the crow's nest, watching the approaching ship, suddenly shivered as a chill crept over him. 

"By Allah," he muttered.  "This wind has a bite to it."  He shivered again.  "Brrr.  I'd better get a coat."  Shivering, he swiftly began to climb down the ratlines to the deck. 

Paying him no attention, the warrior princess stared out at the incoming craft.  'This had better be nothing', she thought tightly.  'Short-handed as we are, I'm not sure this ship can handle an attack in force.'
Running across the deck, Nadrah moved to stand between Abu and the captain.  On tippy toes, she tried to see over the rail, but couldn't see anything.  Filled with excitement, the girl turned to Abu and tugged at his shirt.  As he handed the optical lens to Zara, he smiled down at her, then lifted her up to his shoulders.

Off in the distance, the colorful sails stood out against the ocean's waves.  The red, yellow, and orange sails flapped in the wind as the ship grew closer.  “Ohhhh, how pretty the sails are!”  Nadrah clapped her hands in glee.  "Captain, who is it?”  Zara stood silent for a moment, then smiled as she lowered the eyepiece and shook her head in wonder.

“Is it who I think it is, Captain?”  Abu's frown grew, his brows furrowed.  The big man looked almost afraid.

When she had first glimpsed the approaching ship, Zara did not know whether to laugh or be amazed.  Opting for a combination of both, the tall Moroccan only shook her head.  At the stricken expression from her friend, she shrugged as she clasped her hand on his shoulder.

“Do not worry, my friend.  All will be well,” the Moroccan captain half laughed.

“Captain?”  Nadrah caught her attention.

“That ship, little mouse, is a Ghorab.  Do you remember what I said about Ghorabs?”  Zara asked as she reached up to Abu's shoulders and pulled the little girl into her arms.

“Ahuh.  They're small ships that are fast, but only meant for short distant travels,” the child repeated as she watched the colorful sails approaching.

“And if you look at her bow, you'll see the name,” Zara explained.  “Do you see?” she asked the girl as the child looked through the eyepiece.

“Ahuh….  But I can't read it.  What is the word?”

“It says, Samaling,” Zara smiled as the ship grew closer.  Seeing Abu's deep-set frown, the captain smiled at her friend.  “Oh, cheer up, Abu.  It is not all that bad!”

“That's easy for you to say!”  The big man grumbled, his beard all but closing in on his frown, as he turned to make his way from the bow.
Gabrielle had heard the commotion and made her way to the deck.  As the sun blinded her momentarily, she shielded her eyes from the brightness, then glanced out at the approaching ship.  Seeing the smile on her lover's face, the bard felt at ease as she moved near the rail, leaned over, and watched the, well, she wasn't certain what it was that she was watching.  It was a ship, but one unlike any she had ever seen.  The body was a slick design and smaller than Zara's.  The hull was painted the most vivid purple she had ever seen.  Each sail was a different bright color and on the sail lines hung a line of numerous colored scarves that flew in the wind.  The multi-hued and clashing colors stood out against the calm blue-green of sky and ocean.

“Zara?” she asked as the Moroccan captain made her way from the bow of the ship, carrying Nadrah in her arms.

“It is all right, Gabrielle.  She is a friend of mine!”  Zara smiled as she put Nadrah onto the deck.  Then a slight wince escaped her before the tall woman turned her attention to the approaching ship.

With an arch of a brow, Gabrielle moved next to her.  She reached out and lightly touched the knot on her lover's back.  At her touch, Zara groaned in pain as she looked down at her.  “I'll take care of that later,” the healer promised as she returned her attention to the commotion in the sea.  “Then, you can explain who this 'She' is,” the bard failed to mask the tone of her voice.  Taken aback by the sharpness of her lover's words, Zara glanced down at the bard, then smiled broadly as she shook her head.

“You need have no fears of my friend; trust me!” the captain spoke softly as she patted the frowning bard's shoulder, then waved to the ship.

“Arjun!” she shouted to the smaller ship that was pulling along side Zara's larger ship.

Gabrielle and Nadrah leaned over the rail to look down at the deck below them.  Standing on the deck was a crew of very young, muscular, bare chested men who waved back.  As some men tied off the ship against Zara's larger craft, a figure on the main deck moved to the rope ladder that Zara tossed down to the ship. 

The captain's friend wore a bright red sari, which had gold embroidery running along its edges.  Her hair was very similar to Zara's.  The dark, long, wavy, locks fell past her shoulders.  With a high pitched squeal and scream, the tanned, dark figure grabbed onto the rope ladder and tried to climb up.  Moving closer to Zara, the bard watched as her lover reached down to offer a hand to her Indian friend.

“O-OOHHH!  Blessed Krishna!  What have I gotten myself into!” the figure squealed with exasperation as Zara easily lifted the smaller body to the deck but grunted as her back twinged.  Once on Zara's ship, their petite guest glanced down and straightened out the full-length sari, then reached up and pushed back thick locks of hair.  It was then that the bard smiled when she saw the Indian woman standing in front of her was actually a man, dressed in women's clothes with colorful make up on his smooth face.  The low cut top of his sari revealed a light patch of hair on his chest.

Gabrielle wasn't sure whether to laugh, or cast Zara a suspicious gaze.  Instead, she watched the newcomer with bemusement.  Gabrielle noticed that he was no taller than her and that his frame, although slight, was built solid like a man, yet his bearing seemed to be more feminine than hers.  The blonde noticed the small man's muscular biceps under the silk sari wrap.  The sash of his sari crossed over his chest covering the low cut top that he wore.  As the Moroccan moved forward to greet her friend, the bard smiled in amusement as she watched the exchange.
“So, Arjun, why are you here?”  Zara asked as she reached out to hug the short man.

“OHH, CAREFUL!  Careful… you big, muscular brute!” the smaller man playfully slapped the taller woman's shoulder, then smiled up at her.  “When my fishing boats reported your ship, I just had this special sari prepared for welcoming your arrival this morning!”  The slight man scolded as he lightly slapped Zara's shoulder, then glanced down and fixed his sari again.

“Ohhhhhh, look at all the lovely men!”  Arjun's attention was suddenly caught by the sight of the mixed crew who gathered on the deck to witness the strangers arrival.  The Indian man's white teeth showed through his large smile as he glanced lustfully at the crew that stood quietly on the deck. 

“Oh!  Zara!  SO MANY OF THEM!” he exclaimed as he pranced in front of each one, closely examining them as if he were shopping for his dinner, “and each one more delicious than the other!  OH, I shall never need to seek Nirvana again for it is here, on your ship!”  Most of Zara's men, who had met Arjun before, laughed and grinned at his antics.  The Arabs who had come from the Sultan's ship didn't seem to know what to make of the prancing figure and huddled uneasily together as if for mutual protection. 

Zara smiled at her posturing friend, then glanced at Gabrielle.  She had found it amusing to see her lover's initial reaction as the woman thought it was a female friend.  Now, as the bard watched the colorful man strutting like a peacock on the deck, her expression had turned from defensive, to amusement.  When Zara caught the healer's eye, the blonde stuck out a pink tongue, before turning to watch the eccentric Indian once more.

“So, Arjun, what are you doing here?”  Zara asked again as she watched Arjun moving across the deck, his eyes never wavering from the men.  “You know I would have come to visit with you.  All I had to do was get my injured men settled, then we would have been on your doorstep,” the captain offered.

“Injured MEN!” the petite man spun around in horror, his attention suddenly riveted on the captain, “How horrible!” he shuddered as if from the cold.  “Why do you have injured men?” the Indian man asked, then as an afterthought, he waved away Zara's reply, “Ewwww!  Never mind!  I don't want to know any grisly details if it's going to upset me!  You know how I loathe fainting from the vapors in public,” he said with a slight sniff as he faced the tall captain.  “Just tell me how many beds you'll need at the hospice, and I'll make certain that the poor, sweet, dears are all tended to by my very finest healers!”  He sighed gustily and looked ready to weep.

Relieved by the offer, Zara nodded her thanks, “That would be appreciated,” the captain said as she glanced at Gabrielle, “Perhaps you have a number count for Arjun?”

When the Moroccan turned her attention to the bard, Arjun instantly turned on the small woman, his expression suddenly predatory.  Like a mother inspecting a bride to be, the petite man sauntered slowly towards Gabrielle with a deep-set frown.  He kept one hand firmly on his hip, and the other slightly up as if ready to touch a thing of beauty, but refrained only to allow the wrist to hang limply in the air.  Then he tilted his head first from one side to the other, his eyes squinting as he sized up the bard.

“And WHO is this?”  The Indian man asked as he walked deliberately around Gabrielle's entire form looking her up and down.  With a frown on his face, he stopped dead in his tracks in front of the blonde as his eyes stared critically from the top of the bard's head down to her toes.  With a sudden tsking sound, Arjun gazed deeply into Gabrielle's green eyes, then spoke in a firm voice.  “Ooooo!  I hate you, I positively hate you!” then a sly smile crossed his lips as he reached out and took a hold of the blonde's chin.  “You are absolutely beautiful!  Ahhh, no one will ever look at me if you are around!  Zara, do not tell me that this delectable dish is with you or I shall have to go and join a hermitage right now!”  He lightly stomped a sandal on the deck, “And my father will have no one to blame for his lack of grandchildren but you!  Do you hear me?”

“Oh, my dear Princess, no other woman will ever outshine your beauty,” Zara said softly as she cast a sidelong wink at the stunned bard.

A slight smile crossed Arjun's features, as he looked from the bard, then to Zara.  As if assessing the relationship in an instant, the shorter man grinned broadly as he leaned toward Gabrielle.  “She is such a flatterer, be careful of this one, my small beauty!” he warned the blonde in the whisper of a fellow conspirator before turning and smiling up at Zara.

“Ah, if you were only a man!”  Arjun lamented with arms raised toward Zara.

“Ah, if you were only a woman!”  Zara repeated, clutched her heart as if cupid's arrow had pierced it. 

With a friendship built upon many years, the two figures broke out into an easy laughter as they hugged each other.  Once the laughter subsided, Zara turned to Gabrielle.

“Arjun, this is Gabrielle, healer, warrior, bard and as I learned only recently, Queen of the Amazons, and this,” Zara took Gabrielle's hand in hers, “is my dearest friend, Arjun….Prince Arjun Asoka.”

“Oh please!  When have we stood on formality?” he said as he moved toward Gabrielle, “If you don't make me bow down before you, I won't be envious of your Queen title!” he slyly smiled at the bard and flamboyantly kissed her hand, before adding, “You may call me Arjun….or, princess…or….well, you think of a beautiful name, and I'll answer to it,” Arjun's laugh was light and easy as he turned on the deck.  Suddenly seeing something of interest, he stood on the tip of his toes as he leaned over to see the object of his search.

“Abu!”  Arjun squealed, “You there, do not try to hide from me!  I can see you plainly!” the young prince yelled as the big man tried to escape the tiny man's view.  With a feminine gait, the small brown man pranced over to the burly mate who was trying to hide behind a group of crewmen.  “I need your help, so plan on staying at my estate with Zara, and do not argue, because I hate arguing.  It makes me cry, and then my eyeliner runs.”  Arjun said as Abu moved in front of the young prince.

“What do you need my help for?”  Abu half pleaded.

“You'll learn when you arrive at my place.  It's not important now,” he waved away the question as he turned and began to saunter lightly back toward Zara.  As if seeing a shooting star, Arjun stopped in his tracks as he glanced at Isa standing in the crowd.  Like a panther hunting its prey, the young prince smiled as he moved to stand in front of the suddenly nervous navigator.  Arjun's head tilted slightly as he examined the taller, bearded man.

“Magnificent!”  Arjun tsked with a shake of his head, then turned swiftly from Isa and strolled briskly back to Zara.  “Anyway, my friend, that burly, rugged Abu, is why I am here; to insure that he does not hide from me again.  I need his ... help.  So bring him along, if you know what's good for you, young lady!” his finely manicured, manly hand pointed a finger at Zara.

As if on cue, Nadrah poked her head out from behind Gabrielle.  Smiling down at the girl, Arjun leaned down, reached out, and brushed his hand over her head and cheek.  “And here she IS!  My little Princess!  You'll come for a visit too, yes?”

Smiling, the girl nodded.  “Good, then I will have a very special party planned just for you, would you like that?”  Arjun asked.  At the child's nod, “Excellent, then it's settled!”  He smiled as he turned and glanced around at the ship.  He inhaled deeply, as if the sea air could cure him of all ills, then as if a searing pain suddenly shot through his head, he closed his eyes sharply as he held the back of his palm against his eyes, then turned to Zara.

“Ahugh!” a high pitched shriek escaped his lips as he fanned himself, his motions indicating an impending fainting spell.  “Zara, it is no wonder you are the way you are!  I feel positively manly on this ship!  Just look at me!” he said as he held his arms up, “I am getting muscles by the minute!  Why, if I stay here too long I'm going to start to want to be with….ahhhh, WOMEN!” he spat the word out like poison.  Before anything more could be said, the prince waved away all comments, “Time for me to go before it affects me permanently,” the petite man said as he turned away from Zara's laughter. 

“No need to give me a count of your dear injured men.  There will be more than enough places available at the hospice and healers to tend to them,” he waved away all comments and questions, “And do not fear, I will have my people waiting to bring you all to my palace!” he added as he moved to the rail.  “I must go!  I have a Sultan to give an invitation to, then back home to prepare for visitors.  Do not forget, bring that big handsome man of yours, I have a task for him!”  Arjun ordered as he left Zara's ship the same way he had arrived; with great fan faire, squeals of fear, and many theatrics.

As she watched the multicolored sails of her friend's ship moving away, Zara smiled.  Arjun's smaller, sleeker ship easily crossed the waves, making its way toward the Arabian ship.  With a shake of her head, Zara sighed.

“What does that word 'Samaling' mean?”  Gabrielle asked, reading the writing on the bow of Arjun's vessel.

“It means, 'Same Gender' in Sanskrit,” Zara explained.

“Oh…So that is the 'she' you were referring to?”  Gabrielle chuckled as she snaked her arm into Zara's.

“Yes, that is the 'she' I was referring to,” Zara smiled, then looked down at her lover raising an eyebrow, “You weren't getting jealous, were you?”

“ME, JEALOUS!”  Gabrielle chuckled and looked incredulous, “Of course not ... I mean, um, what have I got to be jealous of?”  The bard's expression was innocence itself.

With only a snort, Zara wrapped her arm over Gabrielle's shoulder, then leaned down and kissed the blonde woman's temple.  At this, the bard smiled up at her, then leaned into the taller woman's embrace.  As she watched the colorful sails of the eccentric man's ship receding from them, she shook her head. 

What other surprises do you have, the bard wondered as she leaned into her lover's embrace.  Smiling, Gabrielle turned to her lover and snaked her arms around the taller woman's waist.
From the crow's nest, Xena watched the strange ship approaching and quickly ascertained that there was nothing to fear.  The ship was too small to carry a big enough crew to threaten the bigger Moroccan vessel.  'And gods, look at those colors.  Purple hull, three garish colors of sails?  Handkerchiefs hung up everywhere; not a fighting ship, for certain.  Hmm.  An Indian woman giving orders to a crew of men?  Interesting,' Xena silently mused.  She saw Gabrielle come out of the cabin, and then Zara and Nadrah came back to talk to the bard.  Xena watched the ship pulling closer, then brought herself down the mast to the deck once more.

Silently she floated up to about ten feet behind her soul mate, Zara and Nadrah and listened to their conversation.  Zara said, "It is all right, Gabrielle.  She is a friend of mine!”  As she put Nadrah onto the deck.  Xena saw the captain wince in pain, and saw her soul mate gently touch the spot, eliciting a groan from Zara.

The Greek Warrior grinned as Gabrielle said, "I'll take care of that later..." and was about to speak, when the small blonde went on sharply, “Then, you can explain who this 'She' is!”  Xena felt her heart falter within her at the jealous tone in her bard's voice.

Xena watched woodenly as Zara glanced down at the bard then smiled broadly shaking her head.  “You need have no fears of my friend; trust me!” the captain spoke softly as she patted the frowning bard's shoulder familiarly.

At the obvious closeness between Zara and her small friend shown by the captain's words and touch, Xena felt sudden tears.  "Oh, gods, Gabrielle..." she whispered brokenly and suddenly floated up to the now empty crow's nest again before Nadrah or her soul mate got a chance to see her.

Sitting miserably, she unhappily and without much interest watched the arrival of Arjun on deck and the little man's prancing and posturing.  She had eyes only for Gabrielle and Zara, and watched them closely, and her love and longing for the bard almost overwhelmed her.  Finally the small man left and his ship went away over the waves, but Xena still watched her bard.  She couldn't hear what was being said, but watched sadly as Zara wrapped what seemed to the warrior to be a possessive arm around Gabrielle.  Then her vision blurred as she saw her soul mate lean into the caress and wind her arms tenderly around the taller woman.

The warrior closed tear-blinded eyes, and found herself sobbing softly.  How long she stayed this way, she could not recall, but a sudden sharp pain in her lower back brought her head quickly up.  'Zara?'  Xena looked down on the deck, but the captain was nowhere in sight among the crew.  Neither was Gabrielle.  The pain ground on and on, and she felt/heard Zara groaning in her mind and Gabrielle was somehow there too.  Groaning herself with the transferred pains that raced through her/Zara's back, Xena cursed.  'Dammit, is she hurt?  What's going on now?  Where IS she?'

Part 24

As Gabrielle snuggled against Zara at the rail, there was a sudden noise of men laughing near them.  The bard noticed when Zara quickly turned and smiled, how the fast movement caused quite a bit of pain in her lover.  With a slight grimace, Zara turned back slowly to the rail and glanced out at her friend's disappearing ship.

“You've really hurt yourself, haven't you?”  Gabrielle asked as she lightly massaged Zara's back through her shirt.

“It is nothing, Gabrielle,” Zara attempted to feign a smile, then pulled away from her, “I need to return to work,” the captain added as she moved across the deck.  But when she bent over to pick up a rope to untangle, the Moroccan woman froze for a moment with a grunt of pain.

“That's it!”  Gabrielle crossed the distance as the surprised captain stood with the ropes in her hands.

“Wha-?”  Zara barely had time to say before the healer took the ropes from her and handed them to Abu.

“You can do without her, right?”  Gabrielle asked the big man, but did not wait for an answer, “Good, now let me see what you did to your back,” the bard started guiding the protesting captain to the cabin leaving Abu grinning behind them.

“No argument, now take off your shirt and lay on the bed,” Gabrielle was firm in her resolve as she closed the cabin door behind her.  “That wasn't a request, go,” she commanded at her lover's belated argument.  Muttering under her breath, the tall Moroccan moved to the bed and began to pull her shirt over her head.  At the movement, she winced as the pain gripped her lower back.

From the corner of her eye Gabrielle watched Zara undress.  As she pulled out an ointment from her satchel, she noticed the discomfort from the big woman who now lay prone on the bed.  With a shake of her head, the healer-bard stepped to the bed and began to lightly touch her lover's back, feeling for the area of discomfort.  When she felt a tight muscle ball, she opened the vial of ointment and poured it on her hands.

“Just like I thought.  I was worried about all the work you've been doing,” Gabrielle shook her head as she kicked off her shoes, and climbed onto the bed, straddling the captain's form, a leg on either side of Zara's long legs.  With deft ease, she began to massage the afflicted area.

“Gabrielle….ump….we…are…ouch….short of help….damn, woman!  That hurts!  I might  as well have Abu do this for me!”  Zara groaned as the healer was working on the knot.

“Stop fussing,” Gabrielle chided as she tried to work out the captain's tension.

“Has anyone ever told you that gentleness is not your strong suit?”  Zara's muffled voice asked.

“No, but I was once accused of having hands like a sailor,” the bard smiled when she remembered the comment Xena once made about her.  “Besides, this is your own fault.  You've been going every day from sun up to way past sun down, and now it's catching up with you,” Gabrielle kept working despite the groans of pain from the Moroccan.

“O-Once….ummm … OUCH! … in Calicut we'll have more help.  The last leg of the voyage will not be as bad,” Zara assured and groaned more with pleasure than discomfort as the pain finally began to abate.

As she felt her lover's pain slowly subside, Gabrielle could not help but smile at the sounds of pleasure that now came from the tall woman.  Glancing at Zara's back, the bard noticed her finely toned, muscular shoulders beneath the network of scars on her back.  At the base of her spine was a little dragon tattoo which she lightly touched.  It was smaller but so very much like the one that Akemi had tattooed on her own back and slim calves.  Then Gabrielle studied the scars again and, inwardly grimaced; knowing that whoever had done this had wounded her lover severely.  'If they were here now, I'd make them pay,' she thought grimly to herself as she ran her hands from Zara's painful muscle, then upward to her strong shoulders, the tips of her fingers lightly brushing over the scarred flesh.

Being so close to Zara, the feel of her skin under her fingertips, the musky fragrance of her sweat after a long day at work was having an unexpected affect on the bard.  Leaning lower, she inhaled deeply of the captain's scent.  At the sensory input, a vivid memory of a time long ago with Xena suddenly came to mind.  With a smile, Gabrielle leaned back, half of her mind concentrating on Zara's knotted muscles and the other half on erotic thoughts.  The healer bard could not explain why the very sight and smell of Xena after a hard work out caused Gabrielle to become aroused and very wet, but it did.  All she had to do was see the sheen of sweat glistening on Xena's shoulders and muscular back, the sweat pouring down her forehead, and she had to take her warrior right then and there.

With a slight smile, she glanced down at her Moroccan lover.  As her hands moved slowly up Zara's back, she leaned forward and smiled when she pressed her pelvis against the captain's firm buttocks.  As before with Xena, Gabrielle felt her own sweet wetness beginning as her desires grew.

“Zara, there is something that I have been wanting to talk to you about,” Gabrielle kept her voice softly soothing, although her hormones were raging.

“Ummm,” a muffled response came from the captain's prone form.

“We've made love once and you wouldn't allow me to touch or taste you,” Gabrielle made certain to keep her hands moving over her lover's back.  “I've got to tell you, I really want you.”

“Ummm,” Zara's response was low.

“Zara?”  Gabrielle smiled as she reached behind herself, unfastened the straps of her top, shrugged it off and discarded it beside the bed.  As she felt her breasts come free of the material, she took in a deep breath and felt her nipples stiffen pleasurably. 

“Ummm,” was the captain's muffled sound.

“I want to make love again,” the blonde whispered as she stretched out across her back, her breasts pressing against Zara's sweaty skin.  “Zara, I want to feel you again, but this time, I also want to make love to you too…” she softly kissed the nape of the Moroccan's neck, “I want to pamper and tease you…ummm, and I want to taste and drink you,” she softly purred.  Zara remained silently still as the bard pressed her pelvis against the captain's back, the hard firmness pressed against her clitoris, causing an exquisite pleasure.

“Zara?”  Gabrielle whispered close to the Moroccan's ear.  With an arch of a brow, the healer sat up as she glanced down at the still woman.  For a moment the bard was worried that her forwardness had offended the Moroccan.

“Z-Zara….I-I hope I didn't offend…” her words were suddenly cut off by a deep, resonating sound.  In slow, controlled breaths, the captain inhaled deeply, a slight snorkeling, snoring sound resonated against the pillow.

With a shake of her head, Gabrielle sighed.  “Great, how much of what I said did you sleep through?”  Visibly frowning, she shook her head and almost began chiding herself, then, with a big smile, she chuckled at the situation.
Quickly the ghost flew downwards from the mast, and following the feelings of Zara's pain, flew through the ceiling of the captain's cabin.  She came silently into the room behind the foot of the bed, where she saw Zara spread out on her stomach, with Gabrielle sitting on her rump and massaging her back.  The pain in Xena/Zara's back ground on, but seemed to be subsiding, so apparently the bard was doing the right things.  'Thank the gods,' the warrior thought with relief.  'That damn hurts, and I didn't even do anything to myself!  Feeling all of your emotions can really suck big time, Zara.'

She grinned as she heard Gabrielle mention that someone had once said, that she had hands like a sailor.  'Aw, come on, honey, I was just kiddin' ya know?  You have healing hands and the softest touch I have ever felt.  Why did I go and say that to you anyway,' she thought sadly.  'I guess I thought it was funny at the time, but listen to her; she still remembers it.  Damn, sometimes I have a big mouth.'  Xena felt Zara's emotions trailing off finally and felt her beginning to drift off to sleep, and decided to wait until the bard was done, then talk to her.  The ghost hadn't had a conversation with her soul mate for quite some time, and found herself missing her friend's chatter.

“Zara, there is something that I have been wanting to talk to you about,” Gabrielle said, her voice softly soothing.

“Ummm,” a muffled response came from the captain's prone form.  Xena grinned to herself, knowing that Zara was about totally out from the healing skill in the bard's nimble fingers, and was hearing practically nothing.  The warrior remembered those soft healing fingers with pleasure; she missed them a lot nowadays.  She wondered what it was that the bard wanted to talk to Zara about.  More help for working with the wounded?  What would they be doing when they reached Indus?  Where was this priestess friend of the captain's and when might they reach her?  Abruptly, Xena felt her gut tighten as she heard more than she had bargained for.

Gabrielle spoke to the dozing Zara in a low sultry voice, that made the watching warrior princess shiver.  “We've made love once and you wouldn't allow me to touch or taste you,” Gabrielle kept her hands moving over the big woman's back.  “I've got to tell you, I really want you.”

“Ummm,” Zara's response was low.  But the bard's words made the listening warrior tremble with need and want herself and she had to rein herself in from moaning aloud.

“Zara?”  Gabrielle reached behind herself, unfastened the straps of her top, shrugged it off and discarded it beside the bed.  She took in a deep breath that made her breasts seem to swell and then laid herself across the bigger woman's back.  “I want to make love again,” the blonde whispered.  “Zara, I want to feel you again, but this time, I also want to make love to you too…” she softly kissed the nape of the Moroccan's neck. “I want to pamper and tease you…ummm, and I want to taste and drink you,” she softly purred and wriggled on top of the bigger woman.

The ghost shivered with lust as she saw her friend's naked muscled back with the dragon tattoo, her breasts flattening out as the small woman stretched out on top of Zara and the words she was purring at her.  She abruptly remembered so many times that the bard had done those very things to and for her, and Xena's thoughts went spinning with lust.  Then she shook herself.  'Oh, by the GODS!  Come on, Xena!  You've gotta get outa here!  Once she starts you'll feel everything and start rolling around helplessly right along with Zara.  You can't let Gabrielle see you that way, you stupid voyeur!  She'd be totally embarrassed ... and so would YOU!'

Before she could hear any more of her bard's whispered conversation, she flew up through the cabin ceiling and fled to the main mast crow's nest once more.  Isa was once more in it, bundled up and sweating in a heavy coat.  Unexpectedly, he felt a sudden chill seep through his clothing like it wasn't there, and the tall man shivered looking around in wonder.  "Great Allah, protect me," he whispered paling.  "I must be coming down with a fever.  All this over-work."  He shuddered again, and began hastily climbing down the ratlines to the deck muttering about getting some hot tea from Ayyub.

Xena paid him no mind.  She steeled herself for the ecstatic pleasure she knew was coming at any moment when the captain awoke and the bard did all the things she had been promising.  However, the ecstasy didn't come and finally after a time, she allowed herself to relax.  Zara was apparently asleep for awhile, and Xena breathed a sigh, not certain whether she should be relieved or sad at the loss of so much promised sweetness.  Seeing a movement on deck, she watched the bard, once more dressed, come out of the cabin and go into the galley, apparently to help Ayyub with the next meal's preparation.  Looking glumly out over the sea, Xena sighed.  She heard laughter from below, looked down to the deck and saw Isa getting ready to ascend once more.  Some of the crew were looking at him and laughing, and with good reason.  The man was bundled up even more than he had been before, now wearing two coats and a fur hat.  He even had a steaming wine skin full of something hot to drink strapped to his back as well. 

"Sun or no sun, you have no idea how cold its gotten up there in the wind today," he shouted at the laughing crewmen.  Finally, ignoring their chortling comments, he began climbing towards the crow's nest again.  He was sweating profusely in the sun, and Xena could hear him muttering to himself about freak cold winds as he neared her.

Not really wanting to drive the poor man to insanity, the ghost floated herself away, and down to the bow of the ship.  Once there, she looked unhappily out over railing at the sea.  'Oh, Gabrielle,' she thought sadly.  'If only I were still alive.  Oh, how I miss loving you, my dear bard.'
When Zara awoke, the lanterns were lighted and a warm bath and clean towels waited for her.  With a yawn and a stretch, she rose from the bed, then stripped and entered the steaming water.  As she bathed the day's grime from her, Nadrah replaced the dirty linen with clean sheets all the while talking about their upcoming visit with Arjun.  With only an occasional word, Zara completed her bath and was drying by the time Nadrah put the blankets onto the bed.  After wrapping herself in a robe, the captain moved to her desk and noticed a plate of food.  As she glanced over the recent chart that Isa had mapped out, she began to double check his calculations.

“Good, you're awake!” The bard's voice pulled the captain from her concentration as she entered the cabin. “Did my little helper get you up?”

“I didn't have to, she woke on her own,” the child stated as she began to dip a bucket into the water to empty outside.

“You let me fall asleep when there was work to be done,”  Zara said, her tone accusing as she glanced at up at the bard.  Smiling, the petite woman shrugged.  With only a shake of her head, the captain took a bite of food from the plate.

“Look, you needed the rest, and besides, Abu took care of everything,” Gabrielle offered as she leaned over and laid a kiss on the top of Zara's head, then moved to the back of the cabin while Ayyub and his helper walked in with buckets to empty the tub.  Returning her attention to her work, the captain continued to jot notations down as she calculated their current route.  As soon as the old water was emptied, the men began to haul in steaming buckets of fresh water while the bard stowed away her medical satchel.  Once the new water was ready, the men left as silently as they had entered.

During the commotion, Nadrah moved to her bed and removed her rag doll and Prasha as well.  “Good night, Gabrielle,” the child smiled as she moved to the bard.

“Good night sweetheart, sleep well and…thank you,” the bard whispered in the girl's ear before depositing a good night kiss on Nadrah's cheek.  Giggling slightly, Nadrah turned and ran from the cabin arms full of purring cat and doll, slamming the door behind her.

“Where is…”  Zara raised a quizzical brow as she stared at the child's abrupt departure.

“Nadrah is spending the night with Abu tonight.  For tonight, it will be just you and me,” the blonde smiled mischievously as she shrugged her shoulders and turned away.

With only a shake of her head, Zara continued to work.  Once the calculations were double checked, she pulled out a clean scroll and began the day's journal entry.  On most days, the journals contained the course trajectory with minor notes on her observations.  The captain was certain that to the average reader, her scrolls would be boring reading but she knew the importance of such journals for other sea faring captains.  Without past scrolls to study, she might have never been able to journey as far as she had, she reasoned as she continued to write the day's events.

From the corner of the cabin, she heard the slight sounds as the bard made use of the chamber pot.  With a smile, Zara signed her name to the journal, then leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes.  Exactly when they had begun to feel comfortable with each other, Zara was not certain.  All she knew was that at some point in their journey, the modesty of their original meeting had vanished and now they were able perform their most intimate bodily functions in each other's presence without blinking an eye.  At the sound of splashing water, the Moroccan opened her eyes and watched Gabrielle washing her hands in the basin.

Noticing her gaze, Gabrielle looked around to try to see what had caught Zara's attention.

“What?” she asked as she finished washing her hands, then dried them off.

“Nothing,” Zara replied with only a smile and a shake of her head.  Confused, the bard shook her head, then took the covered chamber pot to empty the contents outside.  As Zara poured some drying powder on the wet ink, she waited until it dried then shook off the dust.  While she rolled the scroll tightly, Gabrielle returned to the cabin.  After storing away the pot, the bard moved to the steaming water and began to disrobe.

“You really should have awakened me,” Zara chided as she stored the scroll on the shelf with the other finished scrolls.  “I cannot believe that Abu was able to do it all himself,” the captain added as she moved to the water basin and mirror.  From behind her, she heard the sound as the bard submerged herself in the water.

“Abu wasn't alone, Isa did a lot of work too.  Those two work well together,” Gabrielle said as a sigh escaped her control.

“Yes, they do,” Zara agreed as she took her soft wooden pick and glanced in the mirror.  As she cleaned around her teeth, she glanced at the bard's reflection in the mirror.  Occasionally, the Moroccan took a sip of water from a cup, rinsed her mouth, and spit it into the basin.  When this form of hygiene was complete, she took her small brush that sat next to two other brushes and began to run it's short bristles over her teeth and tongue.  As an after thought, she turned to Gabrielle.

“Is this what it is like, you think?” she asked the bard.  Confused, Gabrielle stopped soaping her hair and glanced up at her.

“What is 'what' like?” she asked, confusion etched on her features.

“Bonded life….I mean,” Zara took a mouthful of water and gargled, then spit into the bowl.  “That is, I know we are not soul mates and not bonded, but I have never…. Well, that is to say….I have never lived with anyone for more than a few days.  I was simply wondering if this is what it feels like to be bonded to someone.  Do you understand?” she asked as she returned the small brush to its place along side Gabrielle's and Nadrah's, then went and removed a portion of dried mint from a jar and chewed it.

“Huh.  You know, I guess it does kinda feel that way,” Gabrielle replied as she returned to washing her hair.  “Like with Xena, she and I were always comfortable around each other, even before we became….”  Her words stopped for a moment, then she shyly smiled, “Even before we became lovers.  It was always easy just being myself around her.”

“Oh,” Zara nodded as she spit the mint remnants into the basin, then moved to the bed.  She dropped her robe and crawled under the sheets.  With arms folded behind her head, she stared up at the ceiling as she heard the bard splashing.  “Gabrielle, I-I do not think that I have ever been with anyone like you before.”

“How so?”

“Well….it seems that you are more human than the other women I have been with.  I mean, they were different, not as….open.”  She tried to explain as the bard completed her bath, then rose from the waters to dry herself off.  When she was dried, she took Zara's discarded robe and wrapped it around herself, its larger sizing seeming to swallow up her small body.

“What do you mean by 'human'?”  She asked as she moved to the cabin door, and opened it enough to poke her head out.  At her signal, Ayyub and his helper moved in to remove the second bath water.  As Zara watched the men moving in the cabin, Gabrielle went to the mirror and performed the same ritual that the captain had finished.  As soon as she was done, Ayyub took the basin along with his bucket of water and left the room.  With wooden comb in hand, the bard slicked back her hair as she watched the last of the water being emptied.  Once the tub was stowed away and the men had left, Gabrielle blew out all the candles except the one on the night stand and turned her gaze to Zara.

“What I meant was, all of the women I have ever been with, they never used a chamber pot in my presence let alone fus,” she explained as the bard moved to join her on the bed. 

“Fus?”  Gabrielle's puzzled expression showed her confusion over the word.

“Fus….ummm….to expel….”  Zara tried to think of the proper translation.  When one did not come to mind, the captain perched her lips and made a familiar pffts sound.  At the sound, Gabrielle slightly giggled as she nodded recognition of the sound that human bodies made.

“Here, sit up,” Gabrielle chuckled as she nudged the captain.  Seeing her intentions, Zara sat up and turned her back to the bard.  With comb in hand, the healer began to run the comb through the captain's damp locks.  “So, if they never used it, or had an occasional….mishap, so what would they do?” the bard asked.

“I am not certain.  I just know that they never used it in front of me and I never heard them fus.  It was as if they did not want me to know that they were human….am I making any sense?” she asked as she glanced back over her shoulder.

“Yes, and no.  Yes, I think I've known some women like that…but no, they were not close friends.  With Xena, I was just myself.  It didn't seem to matter.  And Xena…” Gabrielle chuckled, “Xena was never shy enough to not show her human side.”

“Really?”  Zara remained still as the comb was worked through her tangled hair.

“Oh, Gods yes!  Sometimes she'd just lift herself off the saddle and let one loose!”  The blonde chuckled at the memory of her lover's habits.  “And even when I'd be riding behind her!  Damn, sometimes she'd nearly blow me off of Argo's back!  She thought it was funny as Hades.”

“Really!”  Zara's brows rose as she looked back at the healer.

“Oh, yeah….”  Gabrielle chuckled.

Smiling somewhat sadly at the images of closeness between two women, which the bard's words conjured in her mind, Zara returned to staring in front of her.  She found it hard to believe that the dignified voice of the ghost she spoke to would have such a human side.  But as she thought of Gabrielle, she had to acknowledge that she had trouble believing that this woman, someone who was an Amazon Queen, would be comfortable enough around her to be able to show so much of herself without fear of ridicule or rejection. With a slight smile, Zara looked back at the bard.

“You know, you do that too,” she told Gabrielle.  With an incredulous look, Gabrielle's brows rose in surprise.  “Yes, you do,” Zara reaffirmed.

“I do not!” the petite blonde protested.

“Yes, Gabrielle, you do.  When you are asleep, I hear you sometimes.  Oh, you never release anything strong enough to blow us off course, but I can hear them,” Zara began to tease, smiling at the woman who had been sharing her bed all these nights.

“No, I don't!  You must be hearing yourself,” Gabrielle sniffed indignantly as she turned to put the comb on the nearby stand.

With a broad smile, Zara reached out and grabbed the smaller woman in her arms.  Holding her firmly, she began to lightly tickle her under the robe.  "Yes, you do, Gabrielle! I hear you when you are sound asleep.  Pop, pop, pop, little tiny ones!" the captain chuckled as the bard giggled hysterically while she fought to regain her freedom and tickled the Moroccan's back.  An occasional protest made it past the blonde's lips.  

The two playfully wrestled and tickled one another on the bed, until finally they had to stop, panting and out of breath.  Zara lay on her side facing the bard, the blanket barely covering her hip, her breasts and strong shoulders exposed.  Gabrielle's head rested on Zara's arm, the robe she wore now opened fully, showing her body, flushed from their struggles, her pert breasts with the hard, erect pink nipples.  As if to stop her tickling fingers, Gabrielle's left hand took the captain's right, and their fingers interlocked.  The Moroccan smiled down at the bard as she fought to catch her breath.

“N-Next to Alaya…I mean,” Zara stumbled on her words as she averted her eyes.  Then, she gazed back into the blonde's sparkling green eyes.  “Gabrielle. You are the most human, most honest woman I have ever known.  It…it has been an honor and a privilege to know you.”

She felt the blonde's eyes gazing deeply into hers.  As if searching for treasure, the bard's green eyes fixed on Zara's blue orbs.  Her smile never wavering, the blonde looked at their interlocking fingers, then back at Zara.

Taking a deep breath, the bard swallowed and asked softly, “Zara?  Where do we go from here?”

Zara nervously gulped as a sigh escaped her control.  “Wh-Where do you want us to go?”

For a moment, the captain felt her heart skip a beat.  Although she thought that the bard was interested in her, a part of her was not certain what Gabrielle, an Amazon Queen would ever see in her.  Zara felt inadequate when she compared herself to Gabrielle's former lover.  She knew that there was no way that a ship's captain could ever measure up to a Warrior Princess.  With this in mind, she steeled her heart for the inevitable fall it would take when the bard rejected her.

To Zara's surprise, the corners of Gabrielle's eyes wrinkled up as she smiled up at her.  Without saying a word, the bard lifted her head and lightly brushed her lips on Zara's.  At the feel of her, the Moroccan inwardly smiled.  If she had been out on the ship, she would have jumped for joy.  Instead, she held the bard close, her lips parted and opened wide to greet the blonde's exploring tongue with her own.  As their kiss deepened, she felt the smaller woman's movements against her, her hips pushing firmly against the Moroccan's in an attempt to convey her needs.  When they broke away from their kiss, Gabrielle's softly panting voice pleaded.

“By the gods, Zara….I-I need you.  Please?” her husky whisper sent a pleasurable jolt through Zara's soul and her chest seemed to rise upward with want. 

“Oh, Gabrielle…” she whispered as a kind of joy filled her.  Feeling her lover's urgency, she pulled the bard close, and kissed her deeply before turning her attention to pleasuring her.

As she had done before, the captain rained her kisses on the bard's lovely neck, cheeks, ears, eyes, mouth, chest, shoulders, and breasts.  Although the captain could feel Gabrielle's hands striving to touch her, she simply took her hands and held them at bay as her tongue left a wet trail of kisses and nips all over the bard's upper body.  Time after time, the blonde's hands attempted to snake down her body, yet Zara was able to fend her off until all that the writhing, moaning bard could do was to let go and allow her body to respond to Zara's touches.

'Gods, I want to touch her so badly, but she is oh, so good,' Gabrielle thought as a wave of exquisite pleasure surged through her being.  Relaxing under the Moroccan's gentle ministrations, she joyfully allowed herself to respond.  The touch of the big woman's mouth on her body took her higher and higher and made her unable to remember that she wanted to pounce on the Moroccan.  The skilled hands and fingers between Gabrielle's legs and deep inside her seemed too much to bear at times.  Rather than try to return her lover's touches, the bard gave up and allowed Zara to bring her to the highest peak of pleasure as time and again the small blonde released a cry as she came under the skilled captain's hands.  “ZARA!  Oh, Gods!  YESSS!” 

Zara never bothered with counting the number of times that Gabrielle orgasm; instead she gauged her lover's needs, knew when there was more desire and need left, and stopped only when it seemed that the gasping bard could come no more.  As the blonde laid in her arms, sweaty, panting and very exhausted, Zara lowered herself for a deep, soft kiss on the open and willing lips before flipping the surprised bard onto her stomach on the bed.  In this new position, the bard glanced back at her lover, a surge of desire rising in her as she remembered the times that Xena had done the same thing.  Smiling her assurance, Zara lightly kissed Gabrielle's shoulders before climbing onto her back and sitting astride her rump.

When the Moroccan reached down and parted her own nether lips, she involuntarily gasped at the sensations of soft flesh against her swollen clitoris.  In this new position, the captain felt the softness of the bard's bottom below her and shivered with the smooth firmness of it against her pubic region.  For a moment, Zara admired the magnificent dragon tattoo on her lover's muscular back and softly touched it, then leaned down to kiss it.  When she stretched herself out over the bard's strong back, she groaned at the soft warmth of the blonde's flesh against her nipples and breasts.  As she felt her own excitement building, she began a slow, steady cadence, her hips thrusting softly against the bard's tight behind.  Feeling her actions, Gabrielle began to push back into Zara's pelvis, her movements coinciding with the captain's thrusts.

“Ohhh, yes, Zara, that's it.”  The small blonde sighed as she moved under her lover, trying her best to give her the same pleasure she had just received. 

As she felt the taller woman against her, Gabrielle could not help but remember all the times that Xena had ridden her in this manner.  The act of her warrior rubbing against her flesh, Xena's juices spreading on her skin possessively, as if to claim her, was something that brought a heightened sense of excitement to the bard.  When the warrior princess had taken her in that manner, it never took long for the blonde to reach her own climax as the thought of being claimed by such a powerful woman filled her senses.  Now, with Zara doing the same thing, Gabrielle felt her own pleasure on the rise once more.

As the bard's sweet coaxing and the exquisite sensations seared through her being, Zara closed her eyes, feeling the bard's soft skin.  The supple body so enticing, the firm rump pressing backward against the captain's clitoris, became overwhelming.  With a groan, the Moroccan spasmed as she released her waters.  Before she could come down from the natural high, she continued to shudder again and again, her body's needs seemingly endless as she left her wet mark over the bard's bottom and lower back.

Before Zara was drained of energy, she straddled the bard's body.  In a deliberate move, she purposefully rubbed herself across the bard's back, leaving her wetness on the smooth skin as if to lay claim to her.  When she saw her own glistening moisture on Gabrielle's flesh, she sighed, and fell from the bard's back, collapsing on the bed beside her, panting loudly.

“Mmmm, it felt…. so very nice.”  Gabrielle smiled happily as she lay on her stomach and smiled up at the exhausted captain.  Still panting with her eyes closed in the aftermath of her orgasms, Zara only smiled.

The bard grinned.  And Ooooo, yes, she thought happily to herself, I finally got to feel your sweet warm wetness too.  With a smile, the bard reached behind her and felt the wetness from the big woman.  As a happy sigh escaped Gabrielle's control, she curled up, her back to Zara's front, and snuggled into the captain's strong embrace.  Reaching down, the dark-haired woman pulled the blankets up, then nuzzled the back of the blonde's head as she felt fatigue pull her into a deep sleep.

Some time later Gabrielle awoke from an arousing dream where she was kissing and caressing Zara and making her moan.  With a slight sigh of joy, she opened her eyes and felt the softness of her lover below her head.  As her eyes focused in the near darkness, she noticed the slight rise and fall of the Moroccan's chest.  The sight of the sweet brown nipple inches from her lips brought a pleasurable excitement stirring in her loins.  With a sly smile, she inched forward slowly until she was able to wrap her lips around the flaccid nipple.  As her tongue slowly swirled around the soft mound of flesh, she was rewarded with its growing hardness in her mouth.  When she reached over and softly massage the other breast, Zara began to softly moan in her sleep.  Before Gabrielle could move her lips to the other nipple, the tall Moroccan groaned as she awoke from her deep sleep.

“Wha…?” the captain mumbled as she looked around dazed.

“Shush, it's all right,” Gabrielle cooed as she reached up and lightly ran her fingers through Zara's dark hair.  “Relax, sweetheart, it's ok.”

“Gabrielle…if you want more...”  Zara smiled sleepily and reached down to pull the bard up to her.

“Shush, no.  I want to give you more.”  Gabrielle made sure her words were firm as she removed Zara's arms from around her and returned them to the bed on either side of her.  “This time I want to make love to you,” the blonde smiled down at her lover through the soft warm candlelight in the room.  

Zara stared at her small lover.  “T-To Me?”

“To you, my sweet,” Gabrielle whispered, as she leaned down and pressed her lips against Zara's slightly open mouth.  After a soft kiss, the bard pulled away and gazed deeply into Zara's wide blue eyes.

“Do you trust me?” she asked the tall Moroccan.  After only a moment of thought, the dark woman gulped once, then nodded; but she was trembling slightly.

The bard touched the frighten woman's cheek and spoke gently.  “Oh, Honey.  You know I would never hurt you?”

“Y-Yes…”  Zara whispered ever so softly.

“Then relax and let me do all the work, “ Gabrielle cooed as she returned her attention to her lover.  Rising slightly, she climbed onto her captain until she was straddling naked flesh.  Following her gaze, Zara glanced down at the blonde's short curl's that lightly brushed over the front of the Moroccan's brown flesh and swallowed.  Her eyes were wide, almost scared and as she looked back up at the bard, her expression was pleading. 

'Gods, I'd better go slow,' Gabrielle thought as she managed to rein in her own lustful needs.  At this moment in time, all she wanted to do was take the captain.  She wanted to run her hands and mouth all over the woman's muscular body.  She longed to lick every portion of Zara's form.  But at the look in her lover's eyes, Gabrielle made certain to go slow.

As she straddled her lover, Gabrielle lightly ran her fingertips over Zara's shoulders, her hands moving slowly over her chest and barely touching her breasts with her soft fingertips. Then she leaned down and began to leave a trail of kisses over her lover's shoulders.  As their breasts touched and their taut nipples dueled, she heard Zara's deep intake of breath.  Ignoring the urgency of her own needs, she made her way slowly down her lover's body caressing and kissing, the light scent of clean but aroused body greeting her senses.

Zara was not new to the feelings of arousal, but she had to admit that she had never felt this way before.  The Moroccan woman could hardly believe that Gabrielle wanted to pleasure her, instead of just taking the pleasure that she could give the blonde.  Zara was thrilled, but at the same time apprehensive.  Never before while making love had she surrendered complete sexual control to another, and the feeling was a bit frightening to her.  No one had ever touched her like this, except for that time long ago when she was held in the dungeon with her horrified lover looking on.  Zara closed her eyes tightly, willing the vividly painful memories of her childhood to disappear as she strove to concentrate on the fact that the bard was not doing those same horrible things to her.

With each new touch from the bard, Zara had to fight back her initial impulse to stop her lover and take over.  Instead, she tried to relax and allow the sensations to flow through her.  When she felt Gabrielle's soft, silky tongue move between her breasts, she groaned softly.  But it was not until the bard's lips circled her erect nipple that she threw her head back and released a sharp gasp.  Glancing down, she found her desires rising as she watched the milky whiteness of the bard's face laying against her own brown flesh.  The sight of the blonde's lips suckling her brown nipple brought a deep guttural moan from the writhing Moroccan.  Gabrielle's green eyes sparkled up at her from under her brows as she suckled, causing a jolt of lightning to surge through Zara.  Just when she thought the assault on her senses was over, the bard's mouth moved down into the valley between her breasts, her tongue dancing over the sensitive flesh.

“O-Ohhhhh...”  Zara moaned as she felt the bard move from one nipple, then to the other. 

Gabrielle paid special attention to her lover's reactions.  Encouraged by her sounds of pleasure, the bard left a trail of kisses over the captain's breasts, her tongue occasionally lapping out to lick a trail over the sensitive skin.  As her body slid down the Moroccan's legs, her mouth left soft, tender kisses over the firm abdomen.  When she reached her lover's belly button, she kissed it tenderly, then dipped her tongue into its crevice before she nipped softly on her tummy. 

“O-Ohhhhh…n-nooo, G-Gabrielle,” Zara softly pleaded as the bard continued her descent downward, her tongue leaving a trail of wetness over the slight downy hair below the navel.  When the bard felt Zara's hand's trying to stop her kissing quest, Gabrielle simply took her lovers hands and held them gently but firmly in hers.  Never once losing sight of her goal, her mouth moved lower, her body prying open reluctant legs as her mouth gently took a hold of the dark patch of hair between her lover's legs.

The tall Moroccan felt the pleasure of her body while also feeling outside of herself.  From somewhere in the back of her mind, she thought she felt the presence of the ghost.  When Gabrielle's lips moved between her legs, she almost jumped, tried to pull away or to stop the bard's actions, but her body was not responding to anything but the pleasure and she forgot everything but the sublime feelings.  Releasing all control, she groaned deeply as she arched her back, her body begging for Gabrielle's sweet, gentle tongue.

At the encouragement from her lover, Gabrielle slightly smiled as she positioned herself between her lover's long, muscular legs.  With eyes closed, she inhaled Zara's musky scent, the pheromones secreted from the captain's body spurring Gabrielle's own needs and she released a trembling sigh.  'Oh, yes, my sweet, sweet captain,' she thought joyously, 'at last I will taste you.'  When Zara's hips arched upward, she took the open invitation and lowered her warm mouth over the captain's swollen clitoris.

The immediate sensation Zara felt was a massive tingling that crossed from where the bard held her mouth, to the top of her head.  With a guttural cry, she felt her body shuddering out of control as she released her liquid into the bard's talented mouth.  Never before had the tall woman ever felt such exquisite pleasures, but then, she had never had a lover do to her what the bard now did.  Before she could calm down from the initial orgasm, another began to course through her like lightning and she all but sobbed with the sweet ecstasy of it all.

'Oh, my delicious Zara, I didn't know anyone except myself could react so fast,' Gabrielle thought with a sly smile as her tongue continued to explore her lover's nether regions.  Never once letting up, she licked down Zara's silky wet lips, her face nuzzling into the lusciously abundant patch of dark curly hairs, then back up to the Moroccan's throbbing clit.  As an afterthought, she moved her hand to her lover's opening, her fingers gently parting the wet lips. 

The instant change in her lover alerted her.  Glancing up, she noticed the deep panic as Zara's head came up suddenly and frightened blue eyes gazed down at her.  Not quite understanding her fears, the healer tenderly kissed her lover's lower regions as she withdrew the tips of her fingers from the warm opening.  At the change in sensation, the captain visibly relaxed under the blonde's gentle ministrations and fell back again.  Gabrielle wasn't certain of the cause, but she assumed her lover's reaction had something to do with the scars on her back.  Being as gentle as she could, she returned her attention to pleasuring her lover with her soft tongue and lips.

Once the momentary panic was over, Zara felt herself soaring once more in the wondrous sensations.  She did not know or care how long it continued, all she knew was that she was engulfed in the most exquisite pleasure she had ever experienced.  As she felt herself rising higher and higher, she heard a soft moan and realized that it was her own voice.

“Ohhhh, yes,” Zara heard the soft words, but did not register them as her own, “Oh, my sweet bard!”  She groaned aloud as yet another shock wave of pleasure sent her over the edge again, her body convulsing, as her waters flowed freely for the blonde.

Gabrielle heard the change in her lover's voice yet did not stop.  Although she had heard this exclamation many times before, it had been with Xena.  Knowing this, she took only a moment to glance at her Moroccan lover before burying her face back into the sweet flowing waters of her lover's body.  Later, she reasoned with herself, she would find out why Zara was uttering the same words that Xena would sometimes cry upon release.  For now, all she cared about was bringing her dark lover the wonderful pleasure of ecstatic release.

Finally it was over and Zara lay gasping and exhausted.  For the first time in her life, she was fully conscious yet unable to move, unable to even think coherently.  In all of her years with different women, no one had ever made love to her in this way and when the bard first began to show her desires, Zara had held her at bay.  But now, after experiencing all that the bard could do, the captain began to wonder why she had ever spurned the petite woman's advances.  When the bard climbed up her body and laid over her, the scent on Gabrielle's lips took the Moroccan by surprise.  As they kissed, Zara tasted herself on the blonde's lips and tongue and trembled with a sudden delicious memory of the bard working her sweet magic at her vital center.

“You taste so wonderful,” Gabrielle whispered as she smiled down at her lover.  With eye lids slightly parted, the Moroccan smiled weakly as her arms tightened for a moment around the bard and she sighed, before semi-collapsing beneath her.

'Oh, dear Zara,' Gabrielle thought, 'you are so responsive when you let yourself go.  Someone must have really hurt you,' she thought sadly as tears filled her eyes.  'You are such a good person; I hope I can help you to open up and live again,' she silently promised. 

Tenderly, she kissed Zara's closed eyes, bringing a faint smile to her lover.  Suddenly feeling a slight chill, the petite woman reached down and pulled the blankets over her bare shoulders never taking her gaze from her lover's face.  As she watched her captain's eyes close and her breathing return to normal, the healer leaned close to the dark woman's ear.

“Zara?”  She whispered.  When no response came, she whispered again, “Xena?”

“Ummm,” a slight mumble came from Zara's lips.

Gabrielle arched an eyebrow, and nodded to herself.  “We are gonna have a talk about this ... later,” she promised as she rolled to Zara's side and pulled the covers up.  Then she snuggled close to her lover's warm body and wrapped a protecting arm around her as she closed her eyes for sleep.

Part 25

True to his promise, Arjun had all of the preparations made for not only Zara's crew, but also the crew of the Sultan. When they entered the port at Calicut, a row of healers and stretcher bearers waited to take all the injured from both ships to the hospice. For a short time, Gabrielle was worried about the crew until she spoke to Healer al-Farabi. His confidence in the Indian healers helped the bard to understand that her patients would be well tended to. It also helped that the leading healer of the hospice took time to speak with both of them, in order to get the background information needed to care for his new charges. He even had a scribe with him, who took copious notes on every patient's needs, for him to refer to later. After half a day of transferring her patients, and once the ship was secured to the dock with some of India's best guards on and around it, they were finally able to begin to think about their journey to Arjun's home.

Zara and Nadrah had already gathered their gear together and waited while Gabrielle was throwing her items in a bag. As usual, she never left without the dull black urn that held the ashes of her soul mate. From somewhere nearby, she heard the ghost softly chuckle, then murmur something to Nadrah who was walking out the door. With a panicked expression, Gabrielle looked over her clothes, tossed them into a bag, then frowned and pulled them out and started sorting through them again. Shaking her head at her petite lover's actions, Zara took the large leather bag filled with their combined weapons, and heaved it to her shoulders.

“Oh, wait!” Gabrielle stopped her, then pulled down and opened the weapons bag to remove her chakrum and sais.

“Gabrielle, there is nothing to worry about at Arjun's place. I assure you, he has all of his guards on hand,” Zara tried to explain. Then, as she began to think of the distance that it would take to reach her friends estate, she reached into the bag and removed her short sword. “Oh, well. On second thought…” she smiled at her blonde lover as she strapped the sword to her waist. She shook her head negatively as she glanced at all of the bard's clothes strewn over the bed.

“By the holy beard of Allah! Why not take them all?” Zara chuckled as she glanced down at the pile of clothing, then back to the bard. She instantly regretted her words when the bard shot her a look that could have blistered paint, and cleared her throat nervously.

Hands on hips, Gabrielle glared at the taller woman and Zara looked at the ceiling, pretending to whistle. “Maybe it has escaped your notice, but your friend is a royal prince," the bard said heatedly, "and I want to make sure I'm dressed properly while we're there!” Turning back to the pile of clothes with a growl of frustration, she kicked them around, “damn it! Why didn't I think to pack anything nice,” she muttered miserably.

Seeing her lover's exasperation, Zara moved to the desk, reached into the top drawer and pulled out a ring. “Gabrielle, you can leave your clothes here, we can stop on the way and you can pick up whatever you want,” the captain said as she reached a hand out to her petite lover.

The bard lowered her eyes and remained silent as her brows furrowed, a slight blush crossing over her cheeks. Understanding her embarrassment and remembering the now empty bag of coins that the bard had used to secure her passage, Zara moved to the blonde and held her ring up for her.

“Look, you don't need funds, I can take care of it. Just show any shop keeper this, and you will be given anything your heart desires.” With an arch of a brow, Gabrielle looked at the signet ring, then turned away and shook her head.

“Zara….I-I couldn't,” the healer began to say, but was cut off by the captain's firm words.

“Gabrielle, you are my lover, and my friend. I wish to do this for you. But if your pride will not allow you to accept my offer, then please, consider it your wages for … acting as ship's healer, bard, occasional cook's helper….and for all of the things you've done for us!” Zara watched, as Gabrielle's resolve seemed to waiver.

After a moment of thought, the petite woman smiled, then reached up, and took the ring from the captain. “All right. Just a few things?”

“Whatever and however much your heart desires,” the tall dark woman smiled before leaning down and lightly kissing Gabrielle's lips. When she pulled away, she smiled as she grabbed the weapons bag, then turned to leave. “You know, Gabrielle, you may not realize this, but I am quite well off. Oh yes! I am…well, I know I do not look like it, but I am. So do not worry, get whatever you wish,” Zara skipped up the steps with the bag. With only a shake of her head, Gabrielle took the funeral urn with Xena's ashes and placed it into a small bag, then tossed in a few of her fighting clothes, before grabbing her medical satchel. Leaving the majority of her fighting clothes behind, she turned and followed Zara from the cabin.

Zara thought she saw Isa disappearing below deck. When she looked at Abu, he nodded confirmation, then shrugged his shoulders. “He stated that he had no where to go, and did not feel up to joining the men's revelry.”

“Ohhhh…” Zara handed her bag of clothing as well as the weapons bag to an Indian servant who was waiting to take their bags. As an after-thought, she walked briskly across the deck, ran lightly down the steps and popped her head into the crew's quarters. When she spotted Isa laying in his hammock, his eyes staring at the ceiling, she called to him.

“Grab some clothing, you will be joining us,” she said. When she saw him ready to protest, she shook her head, “That was not an option. Now hurry along!”

“Look Gabrielle!” Nadrah pointed to their ride that was waiting. With their mahouts standing near, three large elephants stood at the dockside. Short ladders led up to their backs, where a large saddle called a Howdah was strapped. Each Howdah was almost a small room, with a floor, comfortable couch-like seats, low walls and a colorful fabric roof supported by poles. One elephant was being loaded with their bags, while two more waited to carry passengers. Excited by them, the girl ran down the gangplank and stood near the elephants, her small voice introducing herself to first one, then the other elephants.

With a shake of her head, the bard picked up the large basket that held a meowing cat. As the bard made her way down the plank, she glanced at the first one, then at the other elephant. “Remember the last time…?” Xena suddenly whispered next to her. The ghost's voice was a sultry purr. To her credit, Gabrielle was only a little startled at her friends unexpected appearance. With a wide smile, the bard nodded slightly at the memory of the last time that she and Xena had ridden on one.

“Oh, Gods! How could I forget?” Gabrielle smiled as she felt her cheeks get hot as she recalled the gentle swaying motion on top of the huge beast, and how she and Xena had utilized that motion in the couch-like seat.

At the sight of the bard's flaming cheeks, Xena chuckled and touched her soul mate's hair gently for a moment, before pulling back. The coolness of the ghost's touch caused the petite woman to frown slightly as she remembered feeling Xena when she and Zara had last made love. At the height of Zara's orgasm, the bard had recognized Xena's words of pleasure coming from the captain's mouth, and had been puzzled by it.

“Um, Xena?” She spoke carefully.

“Yeah?” The warrior's voice was casual.

“Will you be … coming with us on the elephant ride to Arjun's? We could have a chance to talk and there's … something I've been meaning to ask you about…” Gabrielle was watching the ghost's face closely.

The warrior princesses' face showed nothing, but then Xena's face almost never showed anything she didn't want it to. She shook her head. “No, I don't think so. I think I'm gonna take a day off and go fishin'. I'll see you maybe tomorrow.”

“But Xena, we need to talk about … something strange I noticed…”

For the first time the warrior seemed a bit flustered. “Well, uh, we couldn't talk very well with Nadrah there and now Zara can hear me too…” She cleared her throat. “Look, Gabrielle, you can call me when you get there and have a free minute. We'll have plenty of time to talk later. Right now, I think I'm gonna go say 'bye' to Nadrah and then get goin' … I, um, wanna get there before the fish start bitin'. You have a safe trip, honey, and have fun. You know you can call me if you need me.” Hurriedly the ghost floated away towards where Nadrah was looking at the elephants.

Thoughtfully Gabrielle watched her ghost lover talk to Nadrah, and then wave to both of them before she suddenly vanished. 'Yeah,' thought the bard sourly, 'She's hidin' something and that's for sure. But you can't hide it forever, warrior princess. You know I'll get to the bottom of it, Xena. It may take time, but I always do.'

As she reached the ground, Gabrielle heard the footsteps behind her, and turned in time to see Zara and Abu walking down together. Abu seemed to inspect their transportation, then nodded to the elephant in the front.

“I'll go on that one, Captain, if you don't mind,” he said as he began to move toward the elephant.

“Good, you and Isa….and Nadrah can ride together!” Zara called out as she began to move to the second elephant. At her friend's look of surprise, the captain smiled as she shook her head, “No, my friend, you cannot get lost! With Nadrah joining you, you will have no choice but to arrive at Arjun's place!” She chuckled as Abu grumbled under his breath, then climbed the ladder to sit in the seat of the large saddle strapped to the animal's back.

“Isa will be joining us?” Gabrielle asked as Zara climbed up the short ladder into the Howdah and took her seat, waiting for her lover to follow. She didn't get an immediate answer. With a big smile, Nadrah moved to take her basket from Gabrielle.

“Can Prasha and I ride with Abu?” She excitedly asked both Zara and Gabrielle.

Zara only nodded, while Gabrielle patted the child's dark hair, “Of course you can. Just be careful.”

“I will,” the girl smiled as she took the basket that held her cat and ran to join Abu.

As the bard joined Zara, she cast a questioning glance then settled down. “So you said, Isa will be joining us?”

“I managed to convince him. I think it will be good for him, better than sitting on the ship alone. I don't need to worry about someone watching it, I'm sure Jabir will be returning after tonight. He and his men just need to work off some steam, then they'll be staying here for the evenings,” Zara explained as she got comfortable, her long legs stretching out as she leaned back into the couch.

Gabrielle's green eyes shone. “That was sweet of you. I know he's been lonely and I'm glad he'll have something to do other than…” her voice caught, “…T-Than to sit alone with memories of his beloved eating at him.” The bard tenderly leaned down and kissed the surprised Zara. Then she snuggled against her on the couch. The captain hugged her lover gently, and Gabrielle laid her head on the muscled shoulder.

With a small bag in hand, Isa came running down the plank, then nodded an apology to the captain before joining Abu and Nadrah. As the large beasts rose to their feet with much swaying and a groaning noise, the group began to make their way down the busy port district. Zara could not help but smile as she watched Nadrah giggling each time the beast changed footing, her body swaying from side to side. When they left the port district and moved into the market area, Zara asked the mahout driving the elephants to stop for a moment in order that Gabrielle could buy what she desired. As the bard took Nadrah's hand and disappeared into the market, Zara laid down on the floor of the Howdah, her legs dangling over the edge, as she closed her eyes.

“You seem tired today,” Abu stood near the elephant as he glanced up at her. Zara answered her friend with a grunt as she began to drift off to sleep. She heard his knowing chuckle as he returned to pacing near them with Isa, the slight voices of the two men reaching her senses. When it seemed that only minutes had passed, the commotion of Gabrielle's return awoke her from her nap. Rising, she watched as the bard exited the market with Nadrah by her side, both wearing new garments. Nadrah wore the outfit of the local boys, lightweight indigo pants with a short sleeve tunic top and comfortable sandals, but it was not Nadrah who captured Zara's attention; it was Gabrielle.

The first things that Zara noticed were her lover's shapely tattooed legs and her beautiful feet that now had on comfortable sandals. A short orange silk skirt hung beautifully on Gabrielle's hips, its tapered waist caressed her below the navel and would have shown off her sculptured abs had it not been for the yellow sari warp that was swung over her shoulder. Thankfully, it hung between her knees and hips, so Zara was able to enjoy the view of her lover's shapely legs. Gabrielle's yellow silk top, covering little more than the red fighting outfit she once wore, managed to hang seductively to her body. With an arch of a brow, Zara waited for them with a big smile on her face.

Nadrah squealed with excitement as she raced ahead of the bard and swarmed up the short ladder to the saddle. “See my new clothes?” She said, all but dancing with joy in the new pants and tunic. “Gabrielle decided that I needed some new outfit too!”

Zara patted the cabin girl's hair. “You look beautiful, little mouse.” She smiled. “Just like an Indian prince.” She hugged the child, and took Nadrah into her lap.

“Can I ride with you and Gabrielle now?” Nadrah asked.

“Of course, little one, but don't you want to ride with Abu and Isa any more?”

Nadrah frowned. “All they both do is sit there staring at the road. They don't want to talk or play 'Guess what I see' or anything. I'm sure you and Gabrielle will be more fun.”

Zara sighed as she recalled Abu's reluctance to go to Arjun's in the first place, and Isa was probably still caught up in thinking about the loss of his partner
Rabeé. She said, “all right, you ride with us then, maybe we'll be more interesting.”

The bard now climbed the ladder onto the beast's back to join her lover and the excited child.

“Is it too much?” Gabrielle asked as she dropped some bundles in front of them on the floor of the Howdah and turned about with her arms spread for Zara to see her.

“If the rest of your outfits look like this….” Zara sighed deeply deliberately looking her up and down, “Then, may Allah, preserve me!” She shivered slightly as she felt a familiar stirring rising. With only an arch of a brow and a shake of her head, the blushing blonde settled down next to her for the trip to the country.

In a pleased manner, Gabrielle chuckled as she leaned comfortably against Zara's arm. "One track mind,” she said affectionately, as she took the captain's hand and kissed the palm. She winked over Nadrah's head and intertwined her fingers with Zara's, holding the taller woman's hand in her lap.
The ride to Arjun's estate was longer than Zara remembered. Stopping only once about half way so that the group could relieve themselves behind an outcropping of bushes, they arrived well after sunset. The large estate was located on a hill between the cities of Calicut and Cannanore. The only structure between the two cities, its bright lights looked like a beacon to any travelers on land and at sea. What it lacked in grandeur, it made up in beauty. A wall of ivy and flowers surrounded the estate. Although it could not be seen by the naked eye, Zara knew that the foliage covered a massive wall of brick, mortar and rocks. High in a tower, a sentry signaled down to another guard who stood at the massive gate. As the elephants approached, the iron gate was lifted to admit their entrance.

As the large pachyderms walked into the circular courtyard, Zara felt the sleeping bard stir next to her, yawn, stretch and blink lowly green eyes up at her. When Gabrielle noticed Nadrah still sleeping on the captain's lap, she crinkled her eyes and smiled tenderly, squeezing the big woman's arm. Like the bard, the cabin girl had fallen asleep shortly after their rest stop, and remained that way.

“You didn't sleep?” Gabrielle whispered, sitting up carefully so as not to disturb the child.

Zara shook her head. “I wasn't tired. Anyway, I had lots of natural beauty to look at,” she smiled, glancing at Nadrah and then back to Gabrielle. The bard looked deep into her blue gaze for a long moment then touched her cheek with the back of her hand. The captain noticed the hustling activity of the servants who suddenly moved in from all directions to help them down. With the child in her arms, the tall Moroccan managed to step carefully down the steps, guided by her smaller lover.

“Oh! Thank Krishna! I was so worried about all of you,” Arjun squealed as he came from the house, half walking, half running.

The petite prince greeted them wearing a pink bathrobe that reached to his ankles. Around the collar of the bathrobe was a mass of what looked like baby goose down feathers, the low cut bodice reached down to his navel and was closed by a belt made of gold. On his feet were matching pink furred slippers.

“Zara! Where have you been?” You just don't know what a fright I had! The Sultan's party arrived long before dinner, and still you hadn't showed up!” The little man exclaimed as he moved to them. “I was imagining lions and tigers and bears, and oh my, what else I cannot, I simply refuse to even imagine!” He panted theatrically, clutching the collar of his pink bathrobe closed.

When the young prince saw Nadrah's sleeping form, he covered his mouth, then smiled as his voice turned to a whisper. “Oh, look at the little dear, isn't she so precious?” He cooed before waving them into the house.

“I apologize, Arjun. It took us a bit longer to settle things in Calicut, than we thought it would.” Zara explained. As she carried the sleeping child, she slowed her steps to keep in line with their host.

“Zara, I was so worried! Why, I kept wondering what might have happened to all of you … wild animals…” The brown man's eyes grew wide with fear as he glanced at both Abu and Isa, and smiled coyly then turned back to Zara and Gabrielle, “Or worse! Bandits! Oh, how I would hate to think that bandits had gotten my friends and did Lord Krishna only knows what to them!” He waved his hand in the air for emphasis, then winked at Gabrielle as a slight smile broke across his face, “Better that I should have been in your place!” He winked. “But seriously. You worried me sick, Zara. I've gotten simply gray with worry, look, look here!” Arjun tilted his head toward Zara as he parted his thick wavy hair.

“Where? I do not see any gray hairs,” the Moroccan Captain tsked as she shook her head.

“Look closer! It's there,” Arjun demanded, then pulled away and waved Zara's words away, “Never you mind, I saw it there, just tonight! A hair was gray and it got that way from worry! I shall have to henna my hair first thing in the morning; wouldn't want to start looking older than I really am,” his smile turned down as he glanced around them for the first time. Upon seeing the new addition to the group, the prince smiled as he looked at Isa as if seeing him for the first time.

“Zara,” he whispered theatrically behind a hand “Who is this handsome guest that you brought me?”

“I hope you do not mind, Arjun. But this is Isa, our navigator; you met him on my ship. I thought he might be able to enjoy himself and rest here.” Zara explained.

“Oh, really?” Arjun lifted a questioning brow as he tried to understand why another man had been invited without his prior approval.

Holding the sleeping girl carefully, Zara leaned toward her friend, her voice low as she whispered in his ear. “You see …Isa lost his life mate,
Rabeé, during our voyage… he was another one of my crewmen … he died in our battle with the pirates.” Arjun looked at her for a moment as he began to fathom her words. Zara shrugged. “I could not stand the idea of him alone on the ship to grieve with no one near. I felt you would not object.”

Arjun's lips formed a silent O as dawning suddenly settled in. He looked at Isa with a sad smile, then quickly replaced it with a frown.

“Oh, you poor, poor man,” Arjun moved to Isa's side and snaked his arm into the navigator's as he began to lead him down a hall. “You must be so torn right now. Tsk, tsk! Why of course you may use my home as a respite from your loss,” the prince's voice was soft and soothing as he guided them toward their rooms. Isa glanced back at Zara and Gabrielle, and then looked back down at the shorter man who suddenly had a sympathetic arm behind the navigator's back as he led him gently down the corridor, then up a narrow flight of stairs.

With only a sigh, Zara cast her eyes to the ornate ceiling, and shrugged at the grinning bard as she followed her friend. When they came to a row of rooms, Arjun suddenly turned his attention away from the navigator. “I trust your regular room will be large enough for you and Gabrielle?” He asked as he opened a door, “And you'll find the adjourning door that leads to the little princess' room.” He turned to the navigator. “And Isa, I shall settle you myself in the room of my very own dear brother.”

“Your family has been here to visit?” The captain could not conceal her surprise.

“Are you kidding! Of course not! Why, the very thought absolutely makes my poor head pound! But I have this side of the house reserved just in case they ever do visit,” the Indian man explained in a conspiratorial whisper. Then he added, “I have the Sultan's people on the royalty side, so you should all feel free on my side of the house, you won't be bothered!”

Abu had been shifting nervously as he glanced around the corridors. When it seemed like he would bolt, he turned an imploring glance toward Zara. Seeing the distress in her friend, she stepped toward Arjun. “What of Abu?”

“What?” Arjun looked as if he had forgotten why he summoned the big man to his home. Then suddenly remembering, the prince shook his head as he waved away the question, “Oh, yes! No hurry, it can wait until the morning!”

“Umm, Arjun, for Abu's peace of mind, perhaps you should ask him the favor now, lest he loses his courage and tries to sneak out through the window?” Zara asked her friend as she shifted Nadrah in her arms. At her words, Arjun squinted at Abu as if trying to gauge whether or not he really would climb through a window for freedom.

“Well, very well, if you absolutely cannot wait,” the prince sighed. “I have a favor to ask of you, an important favor.” He began to say as he stepped closer to the burly man, “Abu, you are so strong…and so…Mmm, virile,” Arjun's voice grew low as he lightly touched Abu's bicep, his eyes barely masking the open lust he held toward the burly Moroccan. Abu did not look reassured at this news and glanced with pleading eyes at Zara. Meanwhile, as if to shake away a thought, Arjun shook his head as he turned away from the first mate and moved to a door at the end of the hall.

He sighed softly, and drew himself up. “What you would be doing, my dear Abu, is a great favor, for which I would consider myself truly, greatly, yes, even unendingly, indebted to you.” He said as he opened the door and stuck his head in, calling out to someone in the room.

Abu swallowed and looked all around as if seeking a window, but Zara frowned at him over Nadrah's sleeping head. Gabrielle's eyes crinkled as she smiled behind her hand. Then the sound of shuffling feet and soft voices reached them as a group of Indian women stepped in single file from the room. Each one was more beautiful than the last, but all were things of beauty.

“Arjun?” Zara exclaimed with a pleased smile as she glanced at the women. From beside her, she felt a slight jab in her ribs, then glanced down at the no longer smiling bard who was now frowning up at her. “I-I mean, um, you did not have so many on my last visit.” Two women smiled at her, remembering Zara's last visit. While one held an expression of open longing for the captain, the second winked as she licked her bottom lip seductively. At the memory of the weeks of love she had shared with these two beauties, Zara gulped nervously as a sudden heat crossed her cheeks.

“You remember Asha, the hope of my father and my first bride,” Arjun pointed with a tired sigh at a beautiful woman who smiled shyly at Zara, “and my second wife, Harinakshi. But, the rest are all new since your last visit.” He sighed and pointed them out tiredly. “This is Jaya, my third wife, Ela, my fourth, and Bina, my fifth. And then my well-meaning father sent Priti, the sixth. Well, when she arrived, I decided that I had better take matters into my own hands, so to speak, in order that my father would have the grandchildren that he wants and to stop sending me wives!” He shuddered. “Well, do I have to explain why THAT didn't work out? It was a disaster!” Arjun sighed as he rolled his eyes to the heavens, then looked directly at Abu. “So, that is where you come in, my dear, good friend Abu! Please, PLEASE, tell me that a man of your virility and stamina, and…and manly prowess,” he closed his eyes before continuing, “will be able to grant my father at least one grandchild?” The small man pleaded.

Abu gulped nervously as he glanced at each woman and their smiles beamed at him. “You wish for me to….” His brows climbed up his forehead as dawning came to him.

“If you don't mind, dear friend Abu. Dear, sweet, friend, Abu! Please tell me you will help me in this matter! Do not make me fall to my knees and beg….of course I will if that is what you desire. Krishna knows I've been on my knees before,” he winked at Gabrielle, then turned back to Abu, “but it would be so distasteful to beg!” Arjun pouted.

“W-Well…. I-I guess, as you are a friend of my captain…a-and if it will truly help,” Abu smiled as his gaze never wavered from the women who were now looking him up and down appraisingly and whispering to one another.

“Good! Then this will be your room for the duration of your stay!” The Indian man clapped his hands joyfully, then took Abu's arm and pulled him toward the women, “Now go, go, go! Scoot along. They will all see to your needs, simply relax and enjoy yourself, my dear, dear friend, Abu!” The prince all but sang as he pushed Abu and the women back into the room, closing the door securely to the sounds of giggling and leaned with his back against it gazing at the ceiling as if a crushing burden had finally been lifted from his shoulders.

“Oh, Krishna, that is all they do, giggle, giggle, giggle…it's enough to bring wrinkles around my eyes,” Arjun sighed dramatically, then turned and faced the remaining guest. “Well now, with that little matter taken care of, I'm sure you will all find what you desire in your rooms. My room is down the hall, that door there,” Arjun looked directly at Isa as his voice lowered slightly. “I often times stay up late…very late, so if there is anything you need, anything at all ... a shoulder to cry on… someone to listen to your pain … Please, don't be afraid to come to my room,” he cooed as he guided the muscular navigator to the guest room.

“We will see you tomorrow then?” Zara called to her friend.

“Yes…yes, as you wish,” Arjun absently waved away the Moroccan's question as he continued to talk softly to Isa.

Looking down at Gabrielle, she saw the questioning brow, then shrugged her shoulders and entered their private room. A truly gigantic bed covered with rich Indian silks and blankets first caught the eye. Near it, a large dressing table with a real glass mirror held combs and brushes, many perfumes, body powders and lotions. Then there were the extravagant painted wall hangings, deep thick rugs on the marbled floor, potted palm plants and more. A door sized window led to an outside balcony overlooking Arjun's gardens full of exotic flowers and plants, and other doors held their secrets as well.

Gabrielle took only a moment to appreciate the rich room before reaching up and taking the sleeping child from the captain as she handed the wiggling basket full of cat to her lover. As she walked to the adjourning room, she glanced around, noticing the beautiful marbled floors and exquisite tile work on the peach colored stone walls. Behind her, she heard Zara removing Prasha from his basket, her voice soft as she spoke to Nadrah's cat and took him to an outdoor patio area.

As soon as Prasha was placed on the dirt flowerbed, Zara moved into the room and glanced inside the drawers. She moved to the top drawer and opened it, then nodded as she saw the familiar pipe, and glass container with it. Ever thoughtful, Arjun knew Zara's fondness with chasing the dragon, and always kept a pipe and vial of opium in her room. Unlike hashish, opium had a sweeter quality that tended to work faster on the senses. It was the chosen luxury in India and since Zara's family produced its competitor, she seldom was able to enjoy the intoxicating pleasure except at Arjun's place. At the memory of its effects, she smiled and closed the drawer, then returned to the patio and waited for the cat to finish.
When the blonde found the smaller bed, the healer gently laid the girl down. As she removed Nadrah's outer clothing, she thought blackly of Zara's stupid grin as the Moroccan had lustfully stared at the Indian women. Biting back any comments at the time, Gabrielle simply sighed as she took the sleepy Nadrah's new clothes off, then her sandals and undershirt. 'Oh boy, I sure could have said something,' Gabrielle thought as she placed the child's clothing on the chair next to the bed, 'but what's the use?' She found the doll in the child's bag and put it in her arms. Gabrielle smiled down at the girl for a moment, before pulling the covers over Nadrah's shoulders.

The child stirred a little as she did so, frowning in her sleep and the bard leaned down and softly kissed the girl's cheek as she whispered, “It's all right sweetheart, you're safe and I love you.”

Eyes still closed, Nadrah's little mouth turned up in a faint smile, as she murmured, “G'night….mommy….” Gabrielle's eyes filled as she suddenly remembered two other little girls she had once cared for, and who were now both gone. One was her daughter, now dead. The other she had hoped to help raise had grown to womanhood while the bard had slept, and neither one had she been around to see and help as they grew up. Wiping away a tear, she smiled tenderly down at Nadrah, then raised a finger to her lips as Zara entered carrying Prasha.
When the cat had finished outside, Zara brought the purring fur ball into the girl's room. Approaching quietly to the bard's side she set him on the bed. Instinctively, the cat moved to the head of the bed and sat near his mistress as he licked the back of his paw and began to bathe before settling down for the night.

The two women looked down with tenderness at the sleeping child and the bathing cat for a moment, then the captain put a hand on the bard's shoulder, and they tiptoed away.

“Would you like a bath?” Zara asked as she led Gabrielle from the small room.

“Isn't it kind of late?” The healer was concerned that she would have to bother any servants at this hour.

“Come,” Zara smiled as she took the bard's hand and led her to another room. When she opened the door, the slight sound of running water against rocks was heard. The interior of the room was much like the bedroom, except in earth tones rather than light peach. Standing against one wall was a marble table that had two bowl shapes carved side by side. A single hole in the wall dripped a steady stream of water.

“Go ahead, touch it,” Zara smiled as she watched her smaller lover touch the running water.

At feeling it's warmth, the bards green eyes grew wide. “Oh, my! That's very nice!”

“Come, look at this,” Her smile was mischievous as the captain pulled the petite woman deeper into the room. Nestled against a corner were two identical marble seats, and a wall that separated the two fixtures.

“Wha … what are they for?” the bard was puzzled. She looked around. “They don't look that comfortable and is that a depression in the middle of them?”

“Look, Gabrielle,” Zara wiggled her brows as she reached up and pulled a handle on a chain hanging from the ceiling. At this, the bottom of the nearest seat opened to darkness as a swirl of water came from a tiny opening. Glancing up at the second hanging handle, Gabrielle reached up and pulled it down, watching the exact same effect take place in the second seat.

“They are permanent self-emptying chamber pots! Can you believe it?” Zara shook her head at the ingenious convenience.

“So, in essence, we could both be sitting here, side by side, doing our, um, business, and then the water would take it away?” The bard shook her head. “And who thought of all this?”

“Arjun! Is he not a genius! He designed this whole place. Every nook and cranny! Do not let his appearance fool you. He is a smart man!” Zara nodded as she took her lover's hand and pulled her to the opposite wall. “And that's not all … Look,” she instructed as she parted a curtain of malachite beads to a smaller room.

Against the farthest wall was a rock formation that had water spilling from a thin open pipe in the ceiling, down to a pool in the floor. Floating in the water was a round basket, which appeared to hold fresh soaps, herbs and lotions. Around the pool were marble benches and ornate wooden shelves that held sponges, brushes and large warm looking towels. On the walls, iron oil lamps cast in the shape of tiger heads lit the place, giving it a warm and comfy feel. As the healer moved into the room, she smiled as she glanced at the clear water. Smaller than the one that Cleopatra had, yet bigger than the vat of water where she had shared a bath with Xena, this pool was already filled and ready to be used.

“Zara, it's beautiful,” Gabrielle smiled. “But I don't much feel like getting cold tonight. Maybe in the morning?”

“Don't be so hasty, come and look,” Zara grinned.

“The bard's curiosity got the better of her. “No one has to fill or empty it? Where does the water come from?” She asked as she knelt down and touched the water and exclaimed with wonder. “By the gods! It's warm too! A permanent warm bath? I can't believe it! How does it work?”

“I do not really know. Arjun tried to explain it to me once, but I did not understand. It is a mystery that only his mind is able to fully comprehend, I suspect.” She explained as she began to remove her clothes. “So, what do you think, Gabrielle, care for a bath?” She arched a brow seductively as she tossed her shirt to the floor, then quickly kicked off her boots while pulling down her pants. Without waiting for a response, the captain moved to the steps and made her way into the warmth. Following behind her, the bard sighed contentedly as she removed her own clothing and submerged herself under the warm waters.

"Ohhhh, by the gods..." Gabrielle sighed. "This is WONDERFUL! Heated water at your beck and call."

"Arjun certainly has some good ideas, does he not?" Zara groaned with pleasure as she stretched back luxuriously in the warm pool.

"He's a genius, no doubt about it," agreed the bard, investigating the floating basket. "Oh, look. Lots of soaps, all different! Mmmm. Here's one that smells like violets." She held the milky white bar up to her nose and sniffed deeply, closing her eyes. "Oh, how I love that fragrance."

"Jasmine is my favorite," smiled the captain, thinking fondly of the scent that Alaya had always worn. "Is there a bar of that too?"

Sniffing, Gabrielle investigated and then said, "Yep. Here, want it?"

"Actually ... I was just thinking how good you would smell with the scent of jasmine," Zara murmured.

The bard blushed faintly and grinned. "And here I was just thinking of how good you'd smell with the scent of violets all over you. Shall we trade?” There was no answer and the blonde looked up sharply from the basket to see Zara's head nodding toward the water. “Hey, wake up, silly! You'll drown!”

Zara's head came up with a start, then blinked with fatigue. “Sorry. I am a bit more tired than I thought. This water just feels so warm and relaxing.”

“It's been a long day for you, hasn't it?” Gabrielle said with sympathy. “You stayed awake all the time Nadrah and I slept when you could have rested too…”

“I enjoyed watching you two sleep so peacefully,” smiled the captain.

The bard shook her head. “I know better. You were guarding us.” She thought, 'Just like Xena always did with me.' Gods, you two are so much alike. She handed the violet scented soap to her lover. “Now here, you'd better wash and get into bed. You need rest.”

“But, I thought maybe we could…”

“No 'buts',” Gabrielle smiled tenderly. “You are to take a bath, go to bed and rest. No arguing; these are your healer's orders.”

“Yes, oh, great healer. I am but your humble servant to command.” Zara took the soap with a grin and kissed the bard's forehead.

At ease in each other's presence, the two women bathed, with only occasional words passing between them. When the fatigue of the long day began to pull at her, Zara left the tub to dry herself and retreated to the comfort of the bed. Gabrielle stayed in the marvelous tub longer, enjoying the warm water. Finally when she went to the bed, Zara was fast asleep. Smiling, the blonde took off her robe and found herself breathing the sweet scent of violets when she pulled aside the covers. When the bard nestled against her, the Moroccan awoke briefly and pulled the small woman against her before she sank deeper into sleep.

Part 26

The cool night breeze sent a slight fragrance of flowers into the room as the full moon cast a slight beam through parted curtains. With a yawn, Gabrielle rolled over in the bed to face her sleeping companion. After dozing through the day, the bard found it hard to sleep. On the other hand, having stayed awake the entire journey, Zara was exhausted. Her soft, light breathing kept a gentle cadence to Gabrielle's wandering thoughts. Reaching up, the petite bard pushed back a dark strand of hair that covered the sleeping captain's face. Smiling, she gazed at the woman through the faint silver light and breathed in the sweet smell of violets on her skin.

Looking at Zara in the faint moonlight, the healer bard's thoughts were troubled. 'Zara, oh Zara,' she thought, 'You are one of the sweetest, most generous people I have ever known. You took me aboard your ship when your crew feared me. You helped me when I was hurting from Xena's cold touch. You protected me, agreed to help Xena and I for free, you have given me safety and sweetness and …we have become close friends, as well as lovers.'

She found herself filled with conflicting emotions, feelings she was not certain that she understood. A part of her knew that she was protective of the captain, yet another part felt … a type of love for the tall woman. Yet she was not certain if it was the same love she held for her warrior princess. Gabrielle had always known that she loved Xena. There was never any question of her feelings. But now that she was with Zara, she began to wonder when her feelings had begun to be more than just friendship. As she watched the Moroccan sleeping, she wondered if Zara might be filled with the same conflicting emotions.

As she gazed at the Moroccan, Gabrielle began to remember the times she spent with Xena, their days of traveling together through new and different countries. In all of that time, there was never any question of how they felt, or of what they meant to each other. Even though Xena rarely spoke words of love, the bard was always assured of how the warrior felt about her. But it was nice to be called her soul mate, the blonde smiled as she remembered how Xena had introduced her to Akemi.

At the memories of that time, Gabrielle frowned as the pain of losing her soul mate filled her once again. 'Oh, Xena! Why did you have to die? This never would have come up if you were still alive … but you're not. You died and LEFT me alone! And here I am and we can't even touch without it hurting me. Oh, what AM I going to do? Oh, Gods. I've gotta stop thinking about this and get some sleep or I'll go crazy!'

Sighing with the thoughts that raged within her, Gabrielle rolled onto her back and stared up at the dark ceiling. The goose down mattress below her was as soft as the bed on the ship. The only difference was its size. In Zara's shipboard bed, they had room for two, but were always within contact. On this bed, they could very easily spend the entire night without ever touching, if they so desired. At this thought, Gabrielle smiled. No, I don't think there's any chance that we're going to desire being that far apart, she thought to herself as the scent of violets wafted from the captain.

Before her thoughts could wander any further, a slight groan from her lover caught her attention. Rolling back onto her side, she gazed at the sleeping Moroccan. Zara's lids were closed, but her eyes were moving rapidly from a dream. When a slight whimper escaped through closed lips, Gabrielle recognized the start of this all too familiar nightmare. Since they had been sharing a bed, the bard had been awakened numerous times from the slight cries that escaped the captain. The phantoms of her lover's dreams never seemed far away. Usually, Gabrielle was able to soothe Zara's fears, to calm her enough so that her dark nightmares would not pull her too far into whatever hell was locked inside of her. But when words were not enough to soothe the captain, all she could do was hold the panic-stricken form that awoke panting in fear until the memories of the nightmare abated.

“Shush, sweetheart,” Gabrielle cooed softly, her fingers lightly caressing her lover's soft cheek. The slight whimpering continued as the bard moved closer and wrapped her arm protectively over the big woman's shoulders. “It's ok, honey. You're all right …I'm here, you're safe … no one will hurt you, I promise… it's only a dream…” she whispered close to Zara's ear as she left soft kisses on the Moroccan's forehead. At her words, the captain seemed to sigh in her sleep, her whimpers subsiding as her nightmares turned to innocent dreams.

As she lay close to the sleeping woman, she remembered when she used to do this for Xena. When it first happened with the warrior princess, Gabrielle wasn't sure what to do. Following her instincts, she simply crawled under the Greek warrior woman's blanket and held her close. Like Zara, this was usually enough to soothe the warrior, but on the rare occasions when it did not, Xena would come gasping awake in fear, then become calm when she realized that the tender hands of her love were holding her safe.

With a smile, Gabrielle reflected on the difference and similarities between the two women. Although in some ways they were different, in many ways they were very similar. Their kindness, generosity, and loyalty were mirror images and they were both fiercely protective. Even though they both had difficulties in communicating, in this respect Zara seemed ahead of the game. When the captain was angry she didn't hold back her feelings like Xena did.

At this thought, Gabrielle wondered exactly what Xena was withholding from her. Even though Zara had never told her indeed, didn't seem to know, Gabrielle was certain that the words the Moroccan had uttered during her orgasm on the ship were not totally her own. But if Xena did have some hand in this, why wouldn't she have told me, Gabrielle wondered.

She had to find out. Slowly rising from the bed, the bard covered the peacefully sleeping Moroccan, then retrieved Zara's shirt that was discarded near the bed. As she pulled it over her head, the blonde walked slowly to the open patio adjourned to their room. When she parted the curtains, she glanced out at the silvery moonlit night as her eyes became adjusted to the lighter darkness outside their room and the scents of night blooming flowers came to her nose.

“Xena?” she whispered into the darkness. She waited for a response, and when one didn't come, she moved further out to the patio clutching the shirt around her. “Xena, we need to talk,” she tried to make her whisper sound serious enough to compel the warrior to come to her.

“Come on, Xena, I need to talk with you,” she pleaded again. When all that she heard was the silence of the night broken only by night birds and a few insects, she frowned as she moved near the railing on the patio. As she stared at the darkness, she wondered what was happening with her lover. Although the thought was always at the back of her mind, she hoped and prayed that her lover hadn't moved on in the afterlife, to heaven or the Elysian fields or…or wherever she was bound.

"Damn it, Xena, just when we may have a way to bring you back, don't you go running off on me thinking that you know what's best!" Gabrielle whispered furiously as her brows furrowed. “Xena! Don't you do this!” She hissed, and her whisper was angry.

She waited long moments, but there was no answer and her anger began turning to fear. “Please, Xena! Please! A-Are you there?” There was still no answer, and the bard felt coldness closing in on her.

The thought of Xena moving on began to weigh heavy in Gabrielle's heart. Although she had undergone losing Xena's body to death, she was not certain if she could survive losing her lover's warm, comforting spirit. Death was hard enough, but the idea of never being able to ever talk with the warrior, never being able to feel her spirit close again brought a deep sorrow. With an indrawn breath that turned to a sob, the bard covered her mouth as tears blurred her vision and she wondered what she would do without the closeness of her soul mate's spirit.

“Xena, where are you?” she whispered desperately, and the tears flowed unnoticed down her cheeks. “P-Please…. Don't leave me! D-Don't you understand, I n-need you! You're my soul mate, X-Xena, my heart … my soul, can't you tell how much I love you? I-I couldn't b-bear to lose you again. Please don't go, please don't leave me again,” the blonde softly whispered her plea into the wind, hoping that it would reach her warrior princess.

There was no answer and Gabrielle leaned against the balcony railing and stared into the dark flower gardens, tears running down her face. "Xena." There was no answer and Gabrielle leaned against the balcony railing and whispered hopelessly. "Where are you?" The night birds and insects were the only sounds she heard and she lowered her head into her hands and silently wept for a time.

At last, her tears spent, she raised her head forlornly and sniffled, wiping her eyes and nose. "I'm not giving up, Xena" She whispered through a throat that was tight with emotion. "I may not be able to talk to you tonight, and I may not know where you are, or why you aren't answering me but I promise you this. I will find you, my love, or I will find out what has happened to you." Slowly then, she turned and walked back into the dark bedroom, her expression filled with determination.
Inside of the room, Zara partly awoke and reached out for the warm body that should have been next to her. When she was greeted only with cold air and a faint scent of Jasmine, she looked around the darkness in search of the bard. At a slight noise from the balcony, she arose from the bed and moved silently to the open door. When she saw the bard standing in the silver moonlight and heard her words, she remained where she was. She listened to the angry whispers as the bard called out to the ghost. After a moment of silence, the captain heard the bard's soft plea and heard the choked sound of tears in her voice. The silent tears tore into the Moroccan's heart. For a moment she had the urge to run to Gabrielle and hold her close, to brush away her tears and soothe her pain, and then she heard the bard's words. Like a knife being dug into the center of her soul, the small woman's choked words of love for the ghost froze Zara in her place.

Filled with a sense of sorrow and rejection, Zara silently made her way back to the bed. As she pulled the covers over herself, she closed her eyes and fought for control. A part of her stayed calm and controlled, kept her breathing even. Yet another part of her was openly weeping for something that would never … could never be hers.

When she heard the slight rustle at the balcony door, she remained lying on her side, her back to the bard. At the sound of the woman's movements, Zara was able to steel her emotions and silence her pain. By the time the bard had crawled under the covers and lightly reached out, the Moroccan's demeanor gave no evidence that she was doing anything but sleeping. As she heard the soft sigh behind her, the captain grimaced in silence then closed her eyes against the silent tears that pooled in the hollows of her face and ran down onto the soft pillowcase.

The bard fell asleep quickly, but for what seemed an eternity, Zara thought over the situation. She had always known that if her Priestess ex-lover could bring the ghost back, Gabrielle would leave with Xena. And yet, a part of her longed for the bard to
stay with her. Despite this, the captain knew that she could never ask this from the blonde. No matter how Zara felt; no matter if she thought that the bard could love her; she could not make Gabrielle choose. Nor would she even begin to contemplate what it might be like to have the healer bard always by her side.

With this in mind, the Moroccan rolled over and faced the small woman. She watched for a moment as the blonde's even breaths came. Then, smiling tenderly, Zara reached out and pulled the bard close. With a slight mumble, Gabrielle snuggled in her embrace, then grew still as sleep pulled her under. 'No, Gabrielle; you will never know what my heart cries for,' Zara silently vowed as she held her close.
Xena baited her hook, and tossed her line into the pool. The sun was warm, the lake was blue and the trees were green. Birds called, insects hummed and fish jumped. 'It's a perfect day,' she thought sadly, 'just like when Lyceus and I were fishing here as kids. And can I relax? Tartarus, no. I'm sure Gabrielle knows I was inside Zara when they were making love that last time on the ship. Gods, it felt soooo good; almost like I was alive again. But I didn't even do it! Oh, I felt it when they started fooling around the first time and I could feel her excitement through our shared link, but I sure didn't GO there on my own. Zara does have good hands, damn her.'

She remembered seeing the moaning bard through the captain's vision, as with mouth and hands the woman brought the blonde skillfully to orgasm again and again. Then she shivered as she recalled the exquisite feeling of her bard's firm bottom against her/Zara's pubic region and Gabrielle's soft coaxing words to her lover as the captain came again and again.

'By the gods, that was good, but then I figured it was over after Zara went to sleep and I went back to fishing. Then right in the middle of it, Gabrielle woke Zara up and began to make love to her. Oh, my god. Gabrielle is so gentle, so wonderful. How I miss her making love to me that way. Poor Zara was so scared when she started,' thought the warrior uncomfortably. 'But my dear bard soon brought her around all right. Mmmm. Did she ever. But gods, when she started using her mouth on Zara, it was so wonderful. I was rolling around here by the lake, calling Gabrielle's name and coming when suddenly 'bam', there I was, INSIDE Zara! I didn't do it. I don't know how it happened, but there I was, just sucked inside her in an instant! Then it was so new and good for her that it affected me that way too, and I just couldn't keep my damn mouth shut.'

'And there was my mistake,' Xena thought sadly. 'Gabrielle caught it. I know she did. I was so high, I started babbling the way I always did when she made me come, and she caught it. I'm sure that's what she wanted to talk about during the elephant trip, but I'm not ready yet. I don't know when I'll be ready, but I sure wasn't ready then, and I'm sure not ready now!'

Absently, Xena pulled in her hook. It was bare of bait and she grunted at it. “Okay, you out there,” she yelled to the lake. “I know yer smart, Solaris, but yer only a fish and I'll get'cha yet! I caught you once before, and I'll do it again. I don't need Aphrodite's star gem to catch you, either! I'll get you and then I'll cook me a BIG fish dinner!” She baited her hook again, and tossed it back into the lake. “Although, what a ghost would do with a big fish dinner, Hades only knows.” She muttered and grinned.

As she began to fish again, her thoughts went back to her problem. 'I sure didn't see all this coming,' she thought morosely. 'I'm happy Gabrielle is feeling better and starting to live again. I'm even happy for Zara, but if this keeps up and Gabrielle's libido gets back to normal, heaven help us all. All three of us are really gonna have to have a talk.'

Xena remained by her fishing hole until she felt her bard call for her. The ghost gulped and steeled herself. 'Damn, does she know I was inside Zara when they were making love on the ship? If she asks, I can't lie to her. Oh gods; what a situation. Hell! She's calling again.' She sighed. 'All right, Xena, you can do this. Let's get it over with. Gabrielle is your soul mate. She is understanding and accepting and she loves you. We've been through plenty already; we'll get through this too.'

She closed her eyes and concentrated. As usual, the warrior had to picture Gabrielle to travel to her side. However, this time instead of the bard being there when she opened her eyes, she found herself standing on the outskirts of a large estate.

'Now, what in Tartarus is this,' she thought, a bit puzzled. 'Where's Gabrielle? Why would she be out here?' Looking around her, she noticed the lush green grass growing near the road. When her soul mate again called to her, she closed her eyes and tried to see herself next to her bard, but this time, the ghost was unable to move any further.

“Well, I guess this has to be done the old fashioned way,” Xena muttered to herself and sighed. She then began to cross the grass toward the darkened estate. She had barely taken two steps toward where she felt that her bard was waiting when she heard a low growl. Stopping dead in her tracks, the warrior glanced cautiously around the darkness. Instinctively, she reached for her sword.

Intellectually she knew that her sword was not real, nor were the brown leathers, armor, and boots that she wore. “But hey,” she thought wryly, “I can't run around naked all the time. That's not what the well dressed undead do.” In the spirit form, having the things connecting her to the living was comforting. They made her feel more normal. As she felt the weight of the sword's hilt, she crouched down, glancing through the darkness. Her hearing was acutely aware of every sound around her. From somewhere in the darkness, the growl was being carried in the wind.

As if rising from a mist, the head of tiger loomed nearby. 'Oh…my…' Xena thought as she watched the creature materialize. When the misty apparition became less transparent, she saw a golden hued woman with ten arms and three eyes sitting astride the tiger, which was the largest she had ever seen. The woman wore a red sari type dress, and a golden gem studded crown-like affair on her head. Golden chains and pendants jingled around her neck, and each of her ten arms was adorned with gold armbands and wristlets. Most strangely, her three eyed face wore a beatific smile of compassion, which never changed. The woman remained silent as the tiger padded noiselessly up to stand in front of the warrior ghost.

Xena remained still as the tiger's nose moved to within scant inches in front of her. The tall warrior's glance moved from the beast, to the woman as the tiger sniffed her leathers. As if inspecting her, the golden woman leaned near, her three eyes boring deeply into the warrior princess. The ever-present smile never faded as the ten-armed woman leaned back, her arms raised high, suddenly showing a full array of weapons that had appeared, one in each of nine hands. Two maces, a strangely shaped hammer and a bow and an arrow were in the five left hands. With intense interest, Xena saw what had to be a tiny chakram spinning around the index finger of one right hand. Three other right hands held two scimitars and a trident spear. The woman's remaining right hand was empty, held forward with the palm open as if giving a blessing.

“Whoa! Nice trick making the weapons appear,” the warrior grinned, feigning a confidence that she didn't feel. “And I love the eye makeup, but I gotta know, who's yer tailor? A ten armed blouse with bust room has got to be hard to come by.”

Without saying a word or changing her peaceful expression, the woman shook her head at the ghost as the tiger growled, then began to prance towards her.

The warrior dropped her grin and her eyes narrowed. “Look, I don't know who you are, or what you want, but my soul mate is over there and I intend to join her, so save the posturing and step aside,” Xena said as she refused to budge. Never once speaking, the silent apparition shook her head again, as she raised her weapons and some of them clinked together with slight ringing sounds.

“All right, that's it.” With a smirk, Xena put away her sword. “Sorry, I don't have time for this, I gotta fly. I have an appointment. Bye, bye; don't wait up for me.”

Concentrating quickly, the ghost lifted herself into the air as she had when she had moved up the main mast of Zara's ship and began flying herself towards the dark estate. Suddenly, the warrior became aware that she was not moving forward any more. She looked down and saw that she was hovering in the air about forty feet above the ten-armed woman and the tiger. To her disgust, the floating warrior saw that the smiling woman had nocked an arrow to her bow and was aiming it at her. As she watched, Xena saw her shoot an arrow and the shaft hummed towards her.

Having plenty of warning, the warrior princess caught it with ease, but then the ten-armed woman fired again. Xena caught this shaft as well, but the woman was firing faster and faster, her extra arms fitting arrow after arrow to her bow. Seeing that she was getting nowhere and that the woman showed no sign of running out of arrows, Xena decided that retreat was the better part of valor. The warrior ghost quickly floated herself back down to the ground where she had started and the smiling apparition stopped shooting. The tiger looked at her with seeming humor in its golden eyes, and Xena felt anger building.

With difficulty, Xena forced the anger back and raised her sword. “All right, you three-eyed, octopus witch! If that's how you want to do it, guess I'll have to show you the error of your ways. And if he gets in my way, I'll make a rug of your kitty-cat too.” The thought crossed the warrior's mind that she was after all, a ghost. What did she have to fear from swords or claws? But after seeing the way the beast and its rider had appeared from nowhere, she took nothing for granted and was wary just the same.

“Alalalalalaaa!” Shouting her battle cry, Xena rushed forward swinging her sword. With a roar, the tiger carrying the three-eyed woman was in front of her. The warrior swung the sword at the beast's nose, but it pulled back suddenly and crouched with head down and its back inclined upward. This gave the ten-armed woman a chance to swing her four right arms full of weapons at Xena. The warrior princess ducked the two scimitars and parried the trident with a clash of steel. The tiny chakram spun towards her and she deflected it with her sword. She tried to get in a blow, but the tiger arose quickly and a monster paw batted her blade aside. As it did so, the woman struck at the ghost with two left arms each holding a ball-headed mace. Xena barely managed to duck and roll aside as the hammer whooshed over her head.

“Damn, that was close,” she thought. Regaining her feet, she found her foes directly between her and the estate again. The tiger crouched again and the smiling woman attacked. Xena elected to stand there and fight, looking for an opening. She swung blows and parried return attacks. Time after time she thought she would get in a blow but another mace or scimitar from the implacable woman would clash her sword aside with ease. Then the tiger leaped at her, clawing and roaring and a paw caught her in the stomach. It did not get through her armor, and she rolled with it as best she could but the powerful blow hurled her through the air sideways to land rolling on the grass.

Suddenly deciding that perhaps she could avoid this fight altogether, the ghost flipped to her feet and made a dash for the darkened estate hoping to surprise her foes. Maybe once she was inside, she would not have to deal with them. With a roar, the tiger bounded after her, carrying its mistress. As she ran, Xena glanced back to see her foes and gaped. In mid-leap both tiger and woman suddenly vanished only to appear at the end of its bound in front of the running warrior. Xena came to a screeching halt as the they appeared, and the beast stood on its rear legs, spreading its front paws in open invitation.

The warrior did a series of back-flips away from the slashing claws and teeth and the tiger charged after her. The flips took her back away from the estate. When she came to her feet, ready to face the foe once more, the warrior blinked with surprise. There was no sign of the tiger and its smiling rider.

Cautiously, looking all around she saw nothing to indicate that they were anywhere nearby, or ever had been. This is too weird, she thought with wonder. “Come out, come out, where ever you are,” she said softly, looking and listening carefully. The grass and bushes seemed empty of foes. In the distance the silent estate still stood, and she heard Gabrielle's voice calling from it. The bard sounded angry now and Xena couldn't blame her. Always before, she had come immediately when her bard had called.

“She must think I'm avoiding her cause I don't wanna talk,” she sighed. “She's right about me not wanting to talk, but she must know I wouldn't just not come to her when she's calling. After all, I did promise I would always be there.” With a grunt, the warrior sheathed her sword, just as glad that her foes were gone. “Come on, Xena, let's get to Gabrielle and find out what she wants. Later you can figure out what was going on with 'Miss Smiley Three-Eyes and her Big Vanishing Cat.'”

Closing her eyes, she pictured Gabrielle in her mind, and saw herself beside her soul mate. When she opened her eyes however, she had not moved. “Of course not,” she grumbled. “That would be too easy.” She started walking across the grass towards the estate, advancing slowly. Just as she reached the spot where they had appeared before, the huge tiger and its smiling rider appeared out of nowhere in front of her again.

“Aw, Hades.” She cursed. “I was afraid I hadn't seen the last of you two.” She waited for a moment, ready for anything, but the two apparitions merely stood there watching her. The warrior ghost thought back to when she had fought Indrajit. Without Krishna's help, I lost that battle, she mused as the tiger paced and the three eyed woman watched. Damn, I hate fighting these Indian guys who have more than two arms. Four arms, six arms, now ten arms and a tiger? I only have one sword here; it just isn't fair! Rather than attacking again, Xena frowned and thought quickly, remembering that Gabrielle's first inclination was always to talk rather than fight. What can I lose, she thought. Aloud she said, “Look, we don't need to fight about this. Can we talk? Can I help you in some way?”

The gently smiling woman said nothing, her ten weaponless arms folded peacefully across her chest. Next to her, the tiger stood looking at the warrior impassively.

Still trying to be reasonable, Xena asked, “Is there something you want from me? Money? Food? A password?” She took a step forward, but the woman shook her head and the tiger growled low. The warrior ghost stopped. She heard Gabrielle calling her and the bard sounded worried. When the warrior spoke again, her voice was almost pleading. “Please! Let me pass. I have got to get to that estate house.” Again the smiling woman shook her head, in silence.

Xena, warrior princess had fought against numerous foes, human, monster, demon, angel and god. Whether it was a physical fight, or a battle in the spiritual realm, the tall warrior usually thrived on the challenge. But this time she was deadly serious. She heard Gabrielle calling for her again, with growing desperation in her voice, and the ghost was becoming almost frantic to get to her soul mate.

Grimly then, Xena drew her sword. “Okay, you can't say I didn't try your way, Gabrielle. But like you said that time with Najara, sometimes when push comes to shove, sometimes ya gotta shove!”

On the last word, the warrior leaped forward into a flying front flip towards her foes. She flew through the air and landed against the smiling woman's chest with both feet, hoping to smash her unconscious. Still smiling beatifically, the woman bent backward with the blow and rolled upside down off of the back of the tiger. She landed on her feet and suddenly her hands were full of weapons again. She hadn't even lost her crown. Xena landed in front of her and attacked viciously, swinging blow after ringing blow against the three-eyed woman's weapons. She managed to smash one scimitar out of the woman's hand, but a mace caught her in the side and Xena felt pain blossom in her ribs like a flower of flames. The ghost gasped and rolled with the blow, coming to her feet ready to attack again. Before the warrior princess could do more, the tiger dashed between them with a gurgling roar and a huge paw smashed into Xena's chest. Lifted off the ground, she flew backward, crunching into a tree.

The pains she felt this time seemed to bludgeon her. “Ow,” she groaned, rolling over slowly. “And I thought … Grendel hit hard.” Staggering to her knees, panting, she looked dully at her foes, but the pacing tiger and the crowned, smiling woman had not advanced. Taking advantage of the momentary respite, Xena slowly checked herself for wounds. Gratefully, she saw no blood, but her ghostly body looked battered and bruised where the blows had struck and the pains were fiery and real. Psychic wounds, she thought with dull wonder; spirit damage. I guess I can be hurt in this state; what a nice surprise. She grimaced. I wonder if I can get … killed as well as hurt?

The warrior swayed as she moved towards her foe, raising the sword. Limping forward, she met the smiling woman, and managed to trade three blows before one scimitar and the trident both stabbed one into each thigh, and she dropped to her knees with a scream. The weapons withdrew from her skin and there were no wounds, but two ugly bruises showed. The pain was grinding and reminded her of when both of her legs had been broken. Lifting herself by sheer force of will she staggered to her feet. Dragging her sword in the dirt as she approached the gently smiling woman.

“GABRIELLLLE!” Xena hoarsely shouted her soul mate's name like a battle cry and panted. “I'm … coming … honey!” She swung her sword two-handed, a pitiful blow, which the woman easily dodged. Again and again Xena tried to hit the three-eyed, golden crowned woman warrior, who easily moved away from her pitiful attacks. The woman didn't even try to strike her, she just causally moved aside. Xena followed her slowly, moving like a wounded turtle. She had never felt so tired or hurt before, as human or ghost. The many bruises she had received hurt worse than anything she had ever experienced.

“Come on … fight me … damn you!” Xena sobbed, limping after her. The three-eyed woman shook her head, and the weapons vanished out of her hands. Looking at the tiger, she pointed at the staggering warrior. Before Xena knew what was happening, the beast pounced and struck her with an immense paw like a cat with a mouse. The blow hurled her backward once again, to roll over and over on the ground till she landed like a puppet with its strings cut.

Battered and beaten, the warrior princess found herself where she had begun. She was not any nearer to the estate and her body ached with the spiritual bruising that she had received. When she heard Gabrielle's last pleading words falter into silence, she crawled to her knees, using the sword to lean against.

“Gabrielle…I-I…can't reach you…oh, my sweet bard, please hear me,” she called out. She was answered with silence. “Gabrielle…” she sobbed, and felt as if her heart was breaking. As helpless tears poured down the ghost's cheeks, the ten-armed woman warrior began to approach, the beatific smiling gaze from her three eyes never wavering as the tiger pranced around, a slight growl rising from its throat.

I gotta rest, Xena thought wearily. I can't …win this way. Fight again … another day. With the last of her strength, the warrior princess concentrated her thoughts on taking herself to her fishing place. But she found that she couldn't go and the effort seemed to drain her remaining strength somehow. As she pitched forward to the ground in front of the smiling woman, she groaned, “I … love you ... Gabrielle…”

Xena's vision went black and for a moment, the world seemed to come crashing down around her like broken glass. Then, there was only silence.
Zara awoke early to the sweet smell of violets and jasmine and the sounds of birdsong from outside the balcony door.  She blinked and stretched luxuriously, then yawned.  At a slight noise from beside her, she turned her head to see Gabrielle's green eyes watching her from the pillow next to her.  Remembering the words of love she had overheard the bard speaking to the air on the balcony the night before, the big woman was determined that her friend would not know she had done so.  She put on a smile.  “Good morning.”

“I'm … not so sure of that,” the small woman sighed.  Her eyes were red as if she had been crying.

“What's wrong?”  Zara asked, already knowing the answer.

The bard made a dismissive gesture.  “It's probably nothing…” her words were calm, but her eyes said something different.  She cleared her throat.  “You've got enough on your plate.  I shouldn't bother you with my stupid troubles.”

The Moroccan turned under the covers and lay with her head on her arm regarding the bard.  She held out her hand.  “So, come on.  Tell me about it…”

After a moment, Gabrielle snuggled up against her and lay her head against the big woman's shoulder.  Zara held her close.  When she spoke her words were faint against the captain's chest.  “I … I couldn't contact Xena last night…”

The big woman was matter-of-fact.  “Has that never happened before?”

“N-No, it hasn't.  I tried and tried.  She … she didn't answer or come.  Oh, Zara.  I'm so worried.”  Gabrielle sighed against her.

“Perhaps … perhaps you shouldn't be.”  Zara gently stroked her hair.  “Are you sure she wasn't … um, busy doing something else?”

“Like what?”  The blonde's voice was plaintive.

The captain shrugged against her.  “I really have no idea what ghosts do when they are not around the living; do you?  Maybe … maybe she was at her pond fishing?  Maybe she was resting or asleep?  Maybe she had a …  a meeting?  Had to see someone on the other side?”

The bard pulled back and stared at the Moroccan who looked back calmly.  Gabrielle made herself consider the captain's words and when she finally spoke, her voice was surprised.  “You know, I … I've never thought about it.  I suppose any of those things are possible … I don't really know a lot about what Xena does when she's not with me.” 

“You see?”  Zara's smile was reassuring.  “It could be any of those things or something we can not even imagine.

“I know … I just get … worried.”  The petite woman swallowed.  She looked down and her voice was low.  “I-I'm always afraid she may have moved on and … and I'll never s-see her again…”

The dark woman tilted the bard's face up to hers and when she spoke, her words were firm and she found herself meaning them.  “Look, Gabrielle.  You know that Xena loves you just as much as you love her.  If she were going to move on to Paradise leaving you behind, she would tell you, I am certain of that.”  She nodded sagely.  “She will come back to you when she can.”

The bard looked gratefully at her.  “Thank you, Zara.”

Zara was surprised.  “For what?”

“For being so helpful; both to me and Xena.  I know this whole situation can't be easy on you…”

Zara smiled warmly as she spoke.  “Do not worry about it.  That's what friends are for.”  To her surprise, at her words Gabrielle's eyes suddenly filled as if she had said something profound.

“All right … f-friend…” the bard said as if quoting from something that she had heard.  Her voice was choked, but she smiled like the sun and touched the bigger woman's cheek gently.

Zara gazed at her, wondering what nerve her words had touched.  Gabrielle gazed back and their eyes were both full of feeling.  Then she moved forward slowly and pressed her lips gently to Zara's.  As she did so, she pulled herself firmly against the Moroccan under the covers and their nude bodies were warm and smooth as they pressed together.  Despite herself, Zara felt her desire for the small woman swiftly rising and she returned the kiss. 

The blonde responded with ardor and at last Zara pulled back for a moment.  “G-Gabrielle?”  She asked, her voice panting with need.

Eyes closed, Gabrielle smiled and kissed the bigger woman.  “Yes.”  She replied against her lover's mouth.

Part 27

For a moment, Nadrah forgot where she was when she first woke up.  When she glanced around the room, her memory returned at the sight of the colorful paintings on the walls.  Each painting depicted the story of the Mahabharata, the Indian epic from the Bhagavad Gita. The story told of the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas.  As Nadrah glanced at the pictures, she remembered the story that Arjun had told her of the battle between the two families and how the wise leader, Arjuna, the man who Arjun was named after, was unable to wage a battle against his cousins.  Each painting showed how the story unfolded and how Krishna incarnated as a charioteer to help Arjuna understand his duty to do battle.  As she remembered Arjun retelling the story, she smiled and rolled over onto her side.  'I wonder if he would tell Gabrielle the story too,' she thought to herself, 'I bet the only person who can tell a story as good as Gabrielle, is Arjun!' she reasoned as she sat up in bed.

With a smile, the child released a big yawn and stretched before she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, then absently rubbed her tummy as she glanced around the room.  Prasha sat at the head of the bed, his sleepy eyes looking down at the courtyard below.  Rising from the bed, Nadrah felt the soft rug between her toes as she glanced around the room for her clothing.

Gabrielle was always tidy with her clothes, she thought as she pulled on her new pants then tugged her shirt over her head, and picked up her sandals to carry.  Gabrielle was not at all like the captain, in yet they both were similar in some ways.  Both were strong and kind.  Neither one had ever raised their voice to Nadrah, not even when she made mistakes, like when she was curious about the bard's glass bottles of herbs and tonics that were on the captain's shelves.  But when Gabrielle walked into the cabin, Nadrah was startled and dropped a vial, causing the glass to break.  Nadrah thought she was going to get a whipping from the bard, but instead, Gabrielle was more concerned to make certain that Nadrah hadn't cut herself on the broken glass.  Since then, Nadrah had learned not to touch the bard's things, but she was still very curious about the magical items within each container.

As the child moved to the door, she pressed her ear up against thick wood and listened for any sounds.  Behind her, Prasha rose then after a yawn and a stretch he moved to the vacant pillow.  He watched her for a moment, then released a loud meow.

“Shush,” Nadrah placed her finger to her lips.  “Be quiet Prasha, you don't want to wake up the captain and Gabrielle.”  In answer to her, the cat made a gurgling sound then turned in a complete circle before nestling back down on the pillow.

Being as quiet as she could, the girl opened the door slowly, then peered out into the captain's room.  For a moment, she thought the two women were asleep, but then she heard the slight rustling of the sheets and faint sounds of pleasure coming from them.  At this, Nadrah realized that the captain and Gabrielle were rubbing against each other again.  With a soft sigh, the little one turned to Prasha, rolled her eyes to the heavens, and shook her head.  'They're at it again,' she thought to herself as she slowly opened the door.

From as far back as she could remember, she always knew the secrets of the adults.  The private behavior that grown ups did with each other were nothing new to Nadrah.  She remembered the first time she saw adults together.  Nadrah couldn't remember how old she was, but she knew that she was one of the youngest who had gone late at night to where the night women worked.  As she climbed onto the back of a friend, she peered through a crack in the window and watched the men and women together. 

None of the kids could explain why the adults liked moving against each other like this, and Nadrah assumed that it was like everything else they did.  It never made any sense, but grown ups were often times compelled to do foolish things, she had reasoned.  After that day, she never gave the adult secrets much thought.  Even the few times that she had awoken and saw Zara with someone, or caught a glimpse of the captain touching Gabrielle, Nadrah just silently shrug, rolled over and fell back asleep.  As the sounds came from the captain and Gabrielle's bed, she contemplated her next move.

Even though her need to go pee was great, her desire to go outside and explore was greater.  On bare feet, she tiptoed out of her room.  The slight sighs and moans were coming from both of the women under the covers.  Although Gabrielle was usually grumpy in the mornings, Nadrah knew that the bard would not be grumpy this time.  Every time the captain had woken the bard in this manner, Nadrah noticed that the healer was always in good spirits at breakfast.  While the girl didn't understand the grown-ups need to do this, she was grateful for the effect it had on both the captain and Gabrielle.

For a moment, the noise stopped and Nadrah froze in her tracks, then glanced over her shoulder afraid that she had been caught trying to sneak out.  Then, their sounds resumed as the sheets moved.  Assured that she was safe, the child continued her stealthy movements toward the door.  As slowly and quietly as she had opened her bedroom door, she carefully opened the outer door, then sidled her way into the hallway.  Only when she heard the slight snap of the door closing behind her, did she release a sigh.

Remembering her need to pee, she ran down the hall toward Arjun's bedroom.  At her sudden and impending urgency, she broke through his door and ran straight for the indoor chamber pot, running toward the one that had the seat down.  Once sitting on it, she sighed with relief as she relieved herself.

Although Nadrah had only visited this place once, she felt comfortable in Arjun's home.  Its vast rooms and corridors combined with the outside meadows always offered Nadrah a place to explore.  When she was finished peeing, she glanced up at the lever that was too high for her to pull.  With a sigh and a shrug of her shoulders, she turned and moved to the sink, but her nose barely touched the top of it. 

“I hate being little,” she groused to herself as she left the room and made her way to Arjun.

The prince's bed was even larger than the one in Zara's room.  It sat in the center of the room and was heaped with exotic coverings and pillows.  The thickness of the bedding was so deep that the prince looked as if he were being swallowed up in the mattress.  With a slight hop, Nadrah managed to climb onto the tall bed, then crawled toward the sleeping man.

The blankets were pulled half way up his bare chest as his head rested on a soft pillow, his head thrown back, mouth slightly agape as a low snoring sound came from the back of his throat.  Across his eyes, he wore a covering that had fine embroidery over the edges.  Nadrah took a moment to examine his face, which was completely covered with a greenish-yellow goo.  Curious, she reached out and lightly touched the stuff on his face and grimaced as she felt its hardness.  'How could that be comfortable,' she mused.  Then, she reached up and slowly lifted one side of the eye covering and peered at him.

“Arjun?” she whispered.  When there was no response, she spoke again, a bit louder.  “Arjun!”

“W-What!?” He sat up abruptly, lifting the covering as his eyes snapped open.  Suddenly alert, he glanced around the room quickly, then looked at her and groaned.  “Oh, Nadrah, honey, please don't scare your old auntie like that!”  He chided, then smiled as he held his arms out to her.

“Are you awake?” she asked as she snuggled next to him.

“Well I certainly am now, little princess.  But I really shouldn't be.  Don't you know that your auntie needs all of the beauty sleep she can get?”  He smiled as he lightly patted her hair.

“You don't need that much, you're already beautiful,” she told him as she wrapped her arm over his bare chest, her hand only reaching half of his length.

“Oh, you are such a sweet child!  No wonder you are my favorite niece!”  He cooed, “Now let your dear old auntie get back to trying to grow more beautiful.  There will be plenty of time for us to visit later, I promise.”  He groaned as he settled himself back down into the pillow and closed his eyes.

Nadrah waited and listened to the beating of his heart.  When she heard the slight snoring sound, she rose from his side and climbed off of the bed, then made her way back to the hallway.  Once she closed the door behind her, she slipped on her sandals, then walked down the hall toward the main staircase.  When she came to the second hallway, she noticed one of the guards from the Sultan's men standing at the opposite entryway.  When he saw her and recognized her, he smiled and waved.  With a wave and a smile she continued down the hall to the main stairs.  At the top, she climbed onto the baluster, lifted her feet and hung on tight as she swooped down the stairs squealing with joy.  When she reached the bottom, she jumped off and glanced back up at the top of the stairs.  For a moment, Nadrah contemplated another ride, but at the rumbling in her stomach, she turned and walked toward the kitchen.

The delicious smells of the morning breakfast encouraged her stomach to grumble all the more loudly.  With a smile and a sniff of delight, she moved toward the door and opened it.  All around her was an ordered chaos.  The largest stove Nadrah had ever seen sat in the center of the large room.  Lined against the walls were tall, brick ovens that held the day's bread.  With slight laughs, and quick words, the cooking women moved about the room, each one preparing their separate dishes for the morning meal.  In the center of the room stood an older, heavy-set woman named Bhuvana.  Her long, dark hair was covered with a sprinkling of gray, but her dark eyes were bright and lively.  Turning, the large woman looked down at her for a moment as if in surprise, then a big smile crossed her lips.

“Nadrah!” she called as she held her beefy arms out and ran toward her.  With a mighty bear hug, the older woman pulled her into a tight embrace.  “Oh, little one, we've missed you so! Haven't we?”  Bhuvana turned to the others for confirmation.  The women all cooed over Nadrah as she greeted them with good mornings and hugs.

“Papa, look who is finally here!”  Bhuvana lifted her up and carried her toward her husband, Mitul.  With an amazed expression, the gray-haired man smiled as he took Nadrah in his arms and hugged her close.

“It's the little lost one, come back at last! Where have you been for so long?”  Mitul asked with a smile.

When the greetings were complete, Bhuvana cast a critical eye over Nadrah, then shook her head in disapproval.  “Just look at the poor little thing, why, she's skin and bones!  And look, filthy as ever!” the older woman said as she took Nadrah into her arms, then carried her to the counter by the large basin. 

“Oh, mamma, she's not that bad!  And the skin and bones we can take care of, yes?” he tweaked Nadrah's nose before turning and retrieving a clean towel for his wife.

“We can take care of it, yes, of course,” Bhuvana tsked as she took the towel, wetted it, then began to wipe it over Nadrah's face.  “A child ought not to be out at sea with all those pirates and dangers!  Why can't Zara simply accept our princes' offer and leave the child here where she can be raised properly!”

“But I like being with the captain,” Nadrah offered when her face was free of the towel.

“You hear, mamma? She likes it,” the big woman's husband offered as he smiled down at Nadrah. 

“She's only a child, what does she know?” Bhuvana's sniff of disdain was eloquent.  “If she stayed here like our prince suggested, he would adopt her, make her a real princess, and then we could help raise her properly.  If you ask me, a child doesn't belong on a ship with a bunch of men.” The big woman's disapproval rang clear as she took each of Nadrah's hands and wiped them clean with the warm towel.

“But the captain is not a man, mamma.  The child will learn of womanly things from Zara,” Mitul offered as he took out his comb and began to run it over Nadrah's unruly hair.

“Huh!  I should be worried about just what she's learning from a woman like that!”  Bhuvana spat out as she shook her head.

“Now, mamma, we'll have none of that!  It is not our decision to make.”  Mitul's sudden sharp tone conveyed that he would not allow any disapproving words in front of Nadrah.  With a slight gasp, Bhuvana glanced at her husband, then her mouth closed tightly as she returned the towel to the dirty linen pile.

“Well, it's only that I wish we could have her here always,” the head cook smiled at Nadrah once more.  “There, that is the pretty little girl I remember!”

“Yes, and I will wager that she's hungry too, yes?”  Mitul asked as he reached over for a pastry and was ready to hand it to Nadrah, but stopped as he glanced down at her, a serious expression on his face.  “And what is the highest unity underlying reality?” the older man asked, his brown eyes narrowing to slits as he waited for Nadrah's answer.

With a slight frown, Nadrah stared at the floor as she concentrated on his question, then with a broad smile, she looked up at him.  “Brahma is the highest unity underlying reality!  Brahma is the beginning, and end, and Brahma is in everything and everyone!” she nodded with satisfaction.

Mitul turned a serious expression towards his wife, then turned and smiled at Nadrah as a big smile crossed his face.  “Such a smart child!” the man laughed as he handed the pastry to the girl.

“Yes, Pappa, such a smart child, why someday, I bet that she will even be a scholar! Just like our prince Arjun!”  Bhuvana exclaimed.

Nadrah took the offered pastry and smiled at their compliment as she devoured the treat. As she ate, Nadrah told them of all that she could remember of her adventures on the ship.  While the women continued their duties, they listened attentively to Nadrah's commentary.  Their eyes grew wide when she told them about the destruction at Higuchi, and when she spoke of the bard, they smiled at her description of the white woman.

“White as a dove you say!?”  one exclaimed in disbelief.

“Whiter even than our prince?” another asked.  With a nod of her head, Nadrah confirmed their questions as she ate the sausages and pastries that they gave her.  When she told them about the ghost ship, their eyes grew wide with fear as she described the ghost of the dead cabin boy and the menacing Hungry Ghosts of the crew.

“Och, see what I mean by dangers!”  Bhuvana wailed as she glanced at her husband, one arm wrapped over her round waist protectively.  “A dead cabin boy!  And what was to stop the same thing happening to our little one?”  She grimaced, then added, “May Shiva protect our little babe!”

“May Shiva protect them all,” one of the younger cooks added with a serious expression.

“Yes….yes, of course, may the great Shiva protect them all,” the mistress of the kitchen added.

At this interruption, Mitul waved a hand in exasperation.  “Hush, women, I want to hear the rest of her story,” he ordered, turning back to Nadrah.

At his enthusiastic nod, Nadrah resumed her narration.  She never once mentioned the presence of Xena, her ghost friend.  She had seen how Bhuvana and the women had reacted to the mention of the other ghosts in her story and she was certain that they would not approve of her being friends with a ghost as well.  What little she had seen of the battle, she told, and then of the new people that she had met from Arabia.  When the tale was complete, she sighed as her belly was full from breakfast. 

“So, that is the great guest we now have.  A royal sultan from Arabia and his servants,” Mitul nodded solemnly as he took another clean towel, wetted it, and then began to wipe the breakfast from Nadrah's face and hands. 

“No wonder we will have a full house tonight.  The prince has seen fit to invite the whole district over,” the older woman said with a sigh, “Well, little one, pray do not get under foot today.  We have much work and very little time to prepare the mighty feast that our Prince Arjun requested.”

“Can I help?”  Nadrah offered as Mitul lifted her from the counter and placed her on the ground. 

“No, little one, I suspect you are much better at eating our food than cooking it, yes?”  His eyes twinkled as he lightly touched the tip of her nose.  “So why don't you now go and play.  We will have time to speak more later.”

At his dismissal, Nadrah smiled and waved at them as she bounded out through the back door.  As she ran over the vacant patio, she hummed to herself as she alternated between hopping and skipping out toward the meadow.  When she saw a large bird flying high in the air, she stood still and watched it a moment, then when it swooped low into a nearby clearing, she took off in a run towards it.  With the effortless energy of the young, Nadrah found her way to the farthest part of the meadow.  At the wooden fence, she stopped when she saw a boy sitting on the top plank.  For a moment, he glanced down at her, then returned his attention back to the flying bird.

Nadrah ran to the fence and after a quick look at the boy, she began climbing up beside him.  Although it took her a bit of effort, and with no help from the boy who cast occasional glances at her from the corner of his eye, she managed to sit atop the fence comfortably.  With slight gasps, Nadrah smiled as she looked upward and watched as the bird dipped low and disappeared off in the distance.  When it rose back up, it held something in its talons.

“Wow!”  Nadrah exclaimed as she watched the bird returning to a woman, who stood in the open clearing, her leather gloved arm raised high toward the flying creature.

“That's a falcon,” the boy told her knowingly.

“Ohhh,” Nadrah exclaimed as the raptor landed on the woman's outstretched arm.  When the bird landed, the woman took the small wiggling rabbit and placed it in a canvas bag.  As the early morning chill slipped away, the two children sat on the fence watching the bird hunt for prey.  With slight gasps and words of amazement, Nadrah listened to the boy's explanation of the birds and how they hunted.

“She's a really big bird!”  The amazement was clearly shown in Nadrah's voice.

“It's not a 'she,' stupid, the falcon is a he!  And He is a raptor, not a bird!” The boy's words carried a mocking tone.

“Well I didn't know it was a he,” Nadrah explained as a flush of embarrassment crossed her cheeks.

“Anyone knows it's a he, you can tell because he's smaller, sleeker, and he's a better hunter than any girl bird!  Only a baby wouldn't know that,” he spat out.

“I am not a baby and besides, girls can too hunt!  Both the captain and Gabrielle are hunters, and they're both girls!”  Her brows furrowed as she glared at the boy.

“Yeah, but I bet they're not as good as men are!  You're just a baby girl who doesn't know the difference between a boy and girl!  No wonder boys make better hunters!” His voice was laced with a smug superiority that rankled.

Jumping from the fence, Nadrah glared up at him, her anger seething.  “Not so!  Take it back!”  She ordered.  At her words, the boy jumped down and stood in front of her.  He stood at least two head lengths taller than her, his eyes looking disdainfully down at her as a slight smile crossed his lips.

“And what can you, a little baby girl, do if I don't?”  He half laughed as he placed his hands on his hips.

If Nadrah had any common sense, she would have known not to get into a fight with a boy twice her size.  But common sense was not something she had a lot of, especially when she felt like someone was not only putting down the two people she loved the most in the world, but all girls in general.  At the determination in her eyes, the boy only chuckled as he reached out and pushed at her shoulder.

“Go and play house, little girl, and leave the hunting to men.  Men are better than women at everything anyway!”  He mocked as he turned to climb back onto the fence. 

Before he even took one step, Nadrah felt herself jumping on him.  Her growl of anger rose as she began to pummel him with her fists.  Wiggling under her, the boy released a squeal of pain as he managed to squirm around so that he was facing her.  He reached up and grabbed her, pulled her down as he began to hit and kick her back.  Seeing only red, Nadrah utilized everything at her disposal as she continued to fight the bigger boy.  With fists, feet and even teeth, she wrestled with the boy.  She landed a few good hits against him, while a few of his caused her to yelp with pain.  From somewhere in the distance, she heard a woman's shout, then a slight whistle, but still the two furious children continued to grapple on the grassy meadow.
When they had finished making love and cuddling, Gabrielle rose to relieve herself, then peeked into Nadrah's room.  When she discovered that the bed and room were both empty of all but Prasha sleeping on the pillow, the bard became worried and rushed back to Zara.

Ordinarily the captain would not have become concerned at Nadrah's absence.  In the two and half years that the child had been with her, the captain knew that Nadrah was able to entertain herself, and once in Arjun's estate, the girl was prone to disappearing for hours at a time, as she explored the various corridors and country of the estate.  In no other place had Zara felt more comfortable than staying at her best friend's home.  But Gabrielle did not feel the same.  She was worried to the point where even Zara at last felt compelled to rise and locate Nadrah, if for no other reason than to put Gabrielle at ease.  So with a silent grumbling, Zara dressed alongside Gabrielle and they left the room in search of the girl.

When they were standing out in the open, Zara contemplated calling out the girl's name, but thought better of it.  'Best not to wake any visitors who, unlike me, may be enjoying sleeping in,' she reasoned as she watched Gabrielle peering around the open clearing.  It was not until she heard a woman's shout then a high pitched whistle that her attention was drawn to the farthest area of Arjun's estate.  At a sudden sense of dread, Zara tore off running toward the path that would lead down to the stables.  Gabrielle followed closely as they made their way to the sounds of a scuffle.

On the other side of the fence, she saw Nadrah rolling around with a bigger boy, her little fists and legs kicking madly, then, when the boy tried to push her head back to the ground, Nadrah growled as her teeth latched onto a hand.  For a moment, Zara wasn't certain if she should laugh or yell until she saw another woman running toward the two children from the opposite direction.

The woman wore all leather and boots that reached halfway to her knees.  In complexion, she was darker than Arjun, and her features were finely chiseled.  With a thin, angular nose and dark, penetrating eyes, she appeared very much like many of the Indian people.  Her dark hair was long and flowing halfway to her waist. 

With a sigh that was equal parts of relief and exasperation, Zara ran to the opening in the fence and made her way to the children at the same time that the woman reached them.  When an opportunity presented itself, Zara reached in and grabbed the back of Nadrah's shirt and pants.  In an easy manner she lifted the child into the air and held her off of the ground as the other woman grabbed the advancing boy and held him back.

“Pritam!  What is the meaning of this?”  The other woman shouted at the boy.

“Nadrah!  Calm yourself!”  Zara ordered as the child wiggled in the air.  In a manner like her own mother had done to her long ago, the tall woman slightly shook the child and waited as the girl grew still. 

“She started it!”  The boy shouted as he panted for air.

“Did not!  Take it back!”  Nadrah screamed as she began to kick toward the boy.  The boy, seeing her attempt, lifted his hands and made fists.

“I said be silent!”  Zara's tone grew as harsh as she has ever used when addressing the girl. At the change in her voice, Nadrah grew deathly still as she stared up at her.  The child's dark eyes widened in shock as if she had realized for the first time that the captain was holding her.  At her expression of pure fear, Zara maintained control, not allowing a grin of pride to break free, for the bigger boy was in at least as rough a shape as the much smaller Nadrah.  Instead, she stared down at the girl with a stony expression.  When it seemed like the girl was under control, she set her down on the ground, yet never let her palm leave Nadrah's shoulder.

“Pritam, you are twice her size, and you will apologize right now!”  The woman held the boy's arm as she spoke sternly to him.  His cheek was visibly bruised as a trickle of blood fell from his nose past his lips.

“But she started it!”  He protested.

“Did not!”  Nadrah shouted, but grew silent when she felt Zara's hand clasp tightly on her shoulder.

“Nadrah, we are guests in Arjun's home.  You will immediately apologize to this boy!”  Zara ordered.  With a frown, Nadrah's eyes grew to slits as she stared defiantly up at the bigger boy.  At her stubborn determination, Zara reached behind the girl's neck and squeezed slightly, “Nadrah!”

“But he said that boys are better than girls!”  She yelped from the pressure on her neck.  At her words, Zara raised an eyebrow and looked down at the girl, then glanced to the boy.

“Did you say that?”  The tall, dark woman who held the boy shook his arm as she spun him around to face her.  With a frown, he lowered his eyes, as he seemed to examine the ground.  Her face became stern.  “Did you, little brother?”

“W-Well…..ummm….” the boy stammered.

“You either did, or you didn't; which is it?”  The woman was persistent.

“He said that boys make better hunters and that you and Gabrielle aren't as good at hunting as men are,” the girl looked up at Zara with pleading eyes, then turned and glared at the boy.  “Then he said that boys are always better than girls!”  Nadrah's high-pitched voice squealed as she cast the boy an evil glance, her little fists bunched up as if ready to continue the battle.

“Oh, really?  Little brother, is that what you said?”  The woman asked as the boy looked away sheepishly.  “Well, is it?”

With an affirming nod of his head, he glanced up at his sister.  Before he realized what was happening, the woman reached down and slapped his cheek.  “And what am I, little brother? Am I not a hunter?  Do I not keep food on our table?  Am I not daily fighting for my right to stand beside the men?”  Her voice was deep as she grabbed a hold of his ear and pulled him up until he stood on the tips of his toes.  “Would you then tell me that I am not as good a hunter as a man?”

“No!”  His voice squeaked as he closed his eyes against the tears that were forming.

“Then, I would say that whether you owe me an apology or not, you certainly owe her one, as well as these two guests, do you not?”  The woman ordered the boy.  With a slight frown, he rubbed his newly released ear as he glanced down at Nadrah.

“I apologize for my words,” he offered, then added, as he looked at Zara, then Gabrielle.  “I am sorry.”

“Nadrah?”  Zara glanced down at the child as she turned and looked up at her.  Blinking at the intensity of the captain's gaze, Nadrah frowned as she turned back to the boy.

“I'm sorry I bloodied your nose,” her voice was less than contrite.  With a sigh, Zara shook her head as she closed her eyes and she heard Gabrielle give a strangled cough as she tried not to giggle.  When she glanced at the other woman, she noticed her attempt to control her laughter as well, as they both realized that this was possibly the best apology the boy would receive.

“She is yours?”  The woman asked Zara, then looked at Gabrielle, who colored slightly and cleared her throat.

“Hummm,” Zara thought over her words as she glanced down at the sheepish girl, “That remains to be seen.”

“No harm done, and let me now apologize for my brother's conduct.  I thought I raised him better, but I guess I must strive to correct some notions he holds,” the woman said as she tilted her head to both Zara and Gabrielle.

“Apology accepted, and let me apologize for Nadrah.  I had not expected such actions, especially while visiting a friend's home,” the captain's expression remained stern as she gazed down at the girl.  She saw the child peek up at her for a moment, her dark eyes brimming with tears as her lower lip quivered in an attempt to keep herself from crying.

At the change of the situation, Gabrielle moved forward and knelt before both children.  She cast a healer's glance over Nadrah, then turned her attention to the boy's bloody nose.  “Here, put your finger against the side of your nose and tilt your head back,” she instructed as she smiled up at the woman.

“I'm Gabrielle,” the blonde introduced herself to the Indian woman.

“Nivedita,” the woman said in return.

“Zara,” the captain introduced herself, tilting her head in the process.

“I'll take them up to the house and help them clean up, check them over and make sure that they're really all right,” Gabrielle offered as she stood and began to guide the two little fighters away.

For a moment, Zara watched her lover walking with the two children back to the main house, then turned to the woman.  “Again, I apologize for the child.  She is a bit, um … rough around the edges.”

“No apology needed.  Under the circumstances, I would have done the same thing had I been in her sandals,” Nivedita smiled as she shook her head. 

Seeing the woman's bright white teeth, Zara couldn't help but chuckle as she too shook her head.  “I believe I too would have reacted the same,” she grinned.

“Your child certainly taught my brother a thing or two about underestimating girls and good for her!”  The Indian laughed heartily as she shook her head.  “But seriously, Zara, I am honored to meet you.  Prince Arjun has spoken often of you.”

“Really?  I hope you do not believe half of what he says!” Zara found her smile easy around this woman.  At a screeching sound, the captain looked out at the meadow and saw a large raptor tied to a perch, a leather hood covering his eyes.  “Yours?” The captain asked as her interest in the animal peaked.

“Yes, a peregrine falcon, one of my best hunters.  Would you like to see?”  Nivedita asked as she pointed toward the bird.

“Could I?”  A smile of childish delight crossed the captain's lips at the prospect of seeing such an animal up close.

“Of course, and then I will take you to the mews and introduce you to the others,” the dark Indian woman smiled as she led the way.

“You have more?”  Zara was amazed at the new addition of hunting birds to Arjun's estate.

“Oh yes, quiet a few, actually,” Nivedita laughed heartily.
Nadrah waited until they were out of sight from the captain before she allowed the floodgates of her tears to open.  With head down and tears flowing silently past her eyes, she was led through the big house up to the captain's room.  Having seen them enter the house, some servants were quick to bring a bowl of ice and bandages, then assured that Gabrielle was a healer, they left the three alone in the room.

“You're lucky, nothing seems broken,” Gabrielle said to the boy as she packed some ice in a cloth and had him hold it to his nose.  “May have some swelling, but it should go down.”

Never once lifting her head, Nadrah sat silent, her lower lip curled as silent tears stained her cheeks.  Kneeling before her, Gabrielle lifted her face and examined the slight bruising on her cheek, then gazed into the girl's eyes.  “Are you hurt?”  She asked Nadrah.  With only a sniffle and a gulp, the girl shook her head no.

“Are you sure?”  Gabrielle asked, then smiled softly as she reached out and touched where Nadrah's heart was, “Not even a little bit, right here?”

At her words, Nadrah's lower lip quivered uncontrollably as she closed her eyes and allowed her sobs to sound while she reached out and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle's neck.  The healer's strong arms held her close as she rocked the child gently.

“Oh, Gabrielle, what am I to do?”  The girl wept into the bard's neck.  “S-she was so angry at me…”

“Shush, honey, Zara didn't mean it.  She was upset and worried, that's all.  She didn't mean any of it,” Gabrielle tried to reassure her.

“B-But what if she d-did mean it?  What will I do, wh-where will I go if she no longer wants me?”  Nadrah's panic was clear and fresh tears ran down her cheeks as the bard held her close.

“You're not her mother?”  Nadrah heard the boy ask and felt Gabrielle shake her head no.

“And the other woman is not her mother either?”  He asked and was answered in the same way.  At the bard's slight smile, the boy's mouth formed an O as he realized Nadrah's sudden fear.

“Honey, listen to me,” Gabrielle held the girl away as she tried to calm her down.  “Zara would never, ever give you away, not willingly.  She loves you and cares very much for you.”

“B-But…w-what if…?”  Nadrah hiccupped uncontrollably.

“No what ifs, sweetheart,” Gabrielle's smile was reassuring.  “I think I know Zara, and I know she would not give you away.  You are not just a cabin girl to her; you are a part of her family.  Do you understand?”

“A cabin girl?  You live on a ship?”  The boy's eyes grew wide with wonder.

“Ahuh,” was all Nadrah could say in between hiccups.

“Wow, and you really go out into the sea!  Have you seen distant lands?  Pirates?  Was your ship in any pirate fights?”  The older boy's excitement was hard to contain.

“Ahuh,” Nadrah glanced up at him, then watched Gabrielle leave the room to return moments later with a warm wash cloth.  As the boy looked at Nadrah with a new respect, he smiled as the bard wiped the warm cloth over Nadrah's face, then her hands.

“Listen…” the boy was silent as he tried to remember her name.

“Nadrah,” she offered the boy as she gazed into Gabrielle's soft green eyes.

“Nadrah, if your captain doesn't want you anymore, don't worry, you can stay here with me and my sister!”  He offered.

“Thank you Pritam, but Zara is not giving anyone away anytime soon,” Gabrielle smiled at the boy, then nodded her assurance to the girl.  “I give you my word.”

“Well, you just remember my offer, ok, Nadrah?”  He smiled right before he squawked at the cold as Gabrielle took the ice and returned it to his nose.
Zara stood in amazement as she watched the raptor soaring high into the air, before it swooped down and captured its prey.  Like the peregrine falcon, the taita falcon demonstrated flying skills the like of which Zara had never seen before.  Each time the bird stooped on its prey, she felt her breath catch in her lungs until it rose with a wiggling creature in its talons.

At the sound of approaching figures behind her, the captain turned and watched as the two children walked toward her with the bard in tow.  While Nadrah was wearing the new clothes of the day before, Zara noticed for the first time that Gabrielle was wearing a different outfit from yesterday.  For the first time since they had awakened, Zara was able to fully appreciate the bard's new clothes.  The light blue shade of the shirt and dark gray pants with black boots clung suggestively to her body.  The slit up the side of the pants showed off the healers muscular, shapely legs.  When Nadrah stood in front of her, Zara pulled her attention away from the bard and looked down at the child, lifting the girl's chin as she tsked at the bruise on her cheek. 

“Now, that will be something very impressive,” Zara stated with a serious expression, then she leaned down and whispered in Nadrah's right ear, “I am proud that you took up such a fight against such odds, but please, do not ever do it again.”  The captain advised before rising to her full height, “At least, not until you have been properly trained.  When trained, you will know if a fight is warranted, or not.  Perhaps, I was negligent in not teaching you hand-to-hand combat.  Once we return to the ship, we will add physical training to your lessons.  Understood?”

With a pleased smile, Nadrah nodded vigorously, as her expression was suddenly bright.  “Oh, boy!”  The girl exclaimed.

“Good.  Now go play, and no more fights,” Zara warned as the girl went running behind her new friend to where the falconer stood.

“Gabrielle, come and look!”  Zara's attention turned to the blonde who followed the children. “You have to see this!  She is magnificent!  The most beautiful creature I have ever seen, she is so remarkable!”

Gabrielle folded her arms in front of her as a slight snort escaped her lips, “So I see.”  The coldness in her voice was clear.  Confused by her reaction, Zara glanced down at the smaller woman and tilted her head.  At the intense green stare from the bard the captain followed the blonde's gaze.  For a moment, the Moroccan was confused until her focus turned to Nevidita.  With a broad smile, then a chuckle, Zara shook her head as she pulled the bard into a hug.

“Gabrielle, I was referring to the falcon!”  She explained as she pointed up to the sky to where the tatia was flying. 

“What?”  Gabrielle's frown turned upward as she glanced at the raptor.  “Oh!”  Her voice was filled with surprise, then she glanced up at Zara and blushed slightly.  “I, uh, knew that, of course.  What?  You thought I was talking about something else?”  Silently cursing herself, the bard tried to recover from her initial emotions.

“No, of course not.  It was my mistake,” Grinning inwardly, Zara allowed the bard to cover up her jealous reaction as they watched the falcon hunt.  As the bird swooped down, a shadow moved behind them.  Turning, Zara smiled as Jamil walked across the open grass.  Although he wore cleanly pressed clothes, he was still dressed in the standard black colors of his uniform.  His eyes failed to conceal his interest as he watched the raptor on the falconer's hand.

“Jamil, my friend!  So you have finally awakened!”  Zara clasped his arm in greeting, as he smiled and bowed slightly to Gabrielle.

“The Sultan is safe here, so I thought I would investigate the area.  Glad I did!” he said with a smile as his eyes remained on the raptor.  “Remarkable!”

Zara returned her attention to the falcon that had just soared from the handler's leather gloved arm.  “Yes, she is….amazing!” the captain agreed just as the bird swooped down behind some tall grass in the distance.

“I have never seen anything more magnificent, she is absolutely beautiful!”  Jamil exclaimed with a wide smile.

“You think the taita is beautiful, you should see the peregrine!  And she has a red napped falcon and a hunting owl as well!!”  Zara added.

Jamil frowned at her in confusion, then shook his head.  “No, no, my friend, I was referring to the handler, not the raptor!”

“Oh,” Zara was taken by surprise, then she smiled as she glanced down at Gabrielle, remembering the mistaken impression the bard had reached.  When their eyes met, the blonde began to giggle, then turned her gaze away from Jamil's inquisitive expression.

“What did I say?”  Jamil asked as he looked at Zara, then down at the giggling bard.

“Never mind, my friend.  Come, I will introduce you to the falconer, and you may even want to meet the hawk too!”  Zara's chuckles subsided as she led her friend toward the center of the meadow.

Gabrielle remained standing back as she watched her lover interacting with the beautiful Indian woman and Jamil.  She couldn't believe how jealous she had felt when she thought Zara was describing the falcon handler in such glowing terms.  Then she couldn't help but laugh when she and Zara had both misunderstood Jamil's admiring words. 

Once the introductions were made, Zara made her way back to the bard.  They stood for a moment in silence as they watched the two figures.  With the widest smile the captain had ever seen on the guard, Jamil spoke to the raptor handler, his gloved hands following the Indian woman's instructions as he lightly touched the falcon's feathers.

“I think those two may wish for privacy while they get to know each other,” Zara's words pulled the bard's attention away from the two figures. 

“Yeah, I think so,” Gabrielle grinned as she began to follow the tall woman from the open meadow.  “Do you think we should, um, call the kids away?”

“No.  With the children near, at least those two will not do anything hasty,” Zara chuckled as she glanced back at the falconer.  Nivedita's smile and eyes failed to mask her genuine interest in the sultan's chief guard.  “No, I think it's best we let the children be their watchers.”

Part 28

Arjun Asoka was in his element when surrounded by adoring guests.  At the center of attention, he relished the task of entertaining company while also bestowing them with the most humble amenities that he had to offer.  On a day like today, when the palace was abuzz with life, he moved about with a seemingly endless energy.

For today's gathering, he chose to wear his most beguiling garments.  A medium blue sari with a mixture of silver and gold embroidery along the edge and bodice, shoes of the silver, closed toed, comfortable flat-heeled type.  Along his arms he wore a combination of gold and silver bangles that accentuated his slimness.  Adorning his head was a simple gold band that distinguished him as a prince within his country.  On his finger, the single signet ring of his family fit easily on his index finger.  With a slight shade of rouge on his cheeks, light blue eye shadow and dark eyeliner, he knew that regardless of what people thought of him, they could never accuse him of not being beautiful.

The early morning sun shone down onto the green grass of the courtyard of his estate.  The dew that looked like a thousand crystals of sparkling light had long since vanished under the rays of the sun.  Lined in perfect symmetry on the patio were numerous tables, which sat anywhere from four to six, depending on how cozy one wished to be.  The patio area was raised higher than the grass and for the flooring, Arjun had chosen the most exquisite marbled tile from his home providence in the north.  At this higher vantage point, each table had a clear view of the long, green grass, which was surrounded by green bushes and flowerbeds.  When the slight breeze brushed through the yard, the light scent of jasmine and heather combined with the lilacs to make the most intoxicating impression on the senses.

As the sounds of numerous voices reached his hearing, Arjun smoothly sauntered toward the gathering.  Showing all of the splendor, which he was accustomed to, he walked past the crowd.  He made certain to greet each and every guest by his or her names or titles.  Occasionally, he observed and smiled at the servants who were moving through the various tables where the guests were enjoying their meal.  On this day, he vowed to be the perfect host.  A host who indulged and pampered each of his guests as if they were all visiting royalty.  When he moved to the Sultan's table, he was pleased to see the men's smiles as they eagerly ate of the morning delicacies. 

“Good morning one and all!  I trust you have all been served properly?”  Arjun pitched his voice a tone higher than he normally spoke.  With the manners of a gallant, the Sultan of Hadhramaut rose from his seat, took Arjun's extended hand and lightly kissed the back of it. Following their leader's actions, the gathered Arabs arose and stood silent, each one bowing a head to their host.

“Princess Arjun, your hospitality honors us!” The Sultan's wide smile broke through his gray beard. 

“Oh, Sultan, you are too, too kind!”  Arjun cooed as he batted his thick lashes.  “Please, don't let me interrupt your breakfast, return to your meal, you and all your lovely men.”

Arjun smiled as he moved around the table, his eyes scanning all of those within the Sultan's party.  As the young prince moved near the Sultan's bodyguard, he maintained his smile as he assessed the group.  “Ah, Jamil, you rascal!  I see you looking at me!”  Arjun wagged his finger as he teased the dark clothed man, “Sultan, you will have to keep a tight rein on this one, or he will sweep me off my feet!”  Arjun's voice was light and airy.

The full dark beard of the warrior failed to conceal his blush.  With a slight cough, the tall man gulped nervously as he slightly smiled, never once maintaining eye contact with the prince.  Arjun couldn't help but chuckle at the nervousness of the man.  Shaking his head, the Indian man gave the warrior a reassuring pat on the shoulder as he turned his attention to the rest of his guests. 

Like a butterfly showing off his wings, Arjun fluttered from table to table.  Each time he was greeted with smiles, cordial bows, light kisses on the back of his hand or gentle words.  At the numerous accolades and love, Arjun's heart was filled with warmth.  When he neared the center of the patio, his smile broadened as he held his arms open.

“Zara!  How wonderful!”  He called as he moved to where his long time friend sat.  The tall Moroccan rose easily and turned to him as if ready to take his hand and kiss it.  Arjun frowned mischievously as he waved away the captain's formality.  “Don't even think it!”  He stopped his friend, then tapped his cheek, to indicate where he wanted her kiss to be placed.  With a shake of her head and a smile, Zara leaned down and lightly kissed each side of his face.

“There!  Why should we stand on formalities, we're family!”  The prince waved away any protest from his friend.  “Now then, are you all being taken care of?”  Arjun's smiled never wavered as he turned his attention to the party around the table.  Sitting between Zara and the Greek woman named Gabrielle, was the impish figure of the child.  As she ate a small treat from a plate, she smiled broadly as she waved at Arjun.  With a wink and a smile, the prince glanced momentarily to the tall, handsome navigator who had tagged along with Zara from her ship. 

“It's wonderful, thank you,” Gabrielle smiled as she rose slightly to her feet, but was waved back to the chair by the host.  As Arjun gazed at the women in full light, and dressed so beautifully, he could see why his friend was now with her.

“My, my, what an appetite!” he said as he noticed the blonde's clean plate, knowing that his servants were more than generous with their servings.  With a slight wink at the tall captain, Arjun commented slyly, “Need I ask how she works off all that food?”  True to form, the Moroccan captain turned a slight tinge of red as she lowered her eyes.

“Oh, please!  I'm just teasing,” the prince added as he snaked his arm around his friend's waist, then turned and winked at the blonde, and mouthed the words, “Good for you!” as he began to lead Zara away.  “You don't mind if I borrow my friend, do you?  Good, Zara and I have so much to catch up on!”  He added without waiting for a response from the blonde woman.

As they walked past the tables, Arjun continued to greet his guests as he whispered comments about various ones for Zara's hearing alone, her slight chuckles having the desired affect on the prince.  When they walked down the steps that led to the open garden area, he sighed as he returned to his normal tone of voice.  “Now, my friend, come and tell me all that is happening with you,” he kept his voice low and neutral as they walked down the path, the sounds of voices receding behind them.

“What would you like to know?”  Zara was her normally reserved self as they moved to a bench.  Stopping in his tracks, he glanced up at his tall friend, arched a brow, then shook his head slightly.

“This is me you're talking to, my dear!  I could tell the moment I saw you on your ship that something was different…and it isn't all good.”  The prince chided as he motioned for his friend to sit beside him on the bench.

With a smile and a sigh, the tall woman joined the prince.  She leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees, as she was absently examining the grass in front of her.  When it seemed as if she had found words, she began to explain how she met the blonde Greek.  In silence, Arjun listened to his friend's narrative, with only an occasional nod, or a word of understanding as the description of the ruins of Higuchi and the tale of the woman as well as the discovery of the murdered Arabs and the ensuing battle were laid out for him. 

The prince listened with interest to what his friend said, but his attention was not so much on her words, as on what she did not say.  When she finished, Arjun nodded as he glanced up at his company.  Now late in the afternoon, the guests were dispersed throughout the estate.  The blonde and Isa sat at the table as Abu was eating a late meal. 

As Arjun glanced at the Greek woman, he felt the familiar sensation from the night before.  As if something or someone was attempting to gain entrance past the barriers of protection he had set up, the sharp, slightly stabbing sensation registered somewhere in his consciousness.  For a moment the prince thought he could discover the cause of these feelings, but then it was gone.  With an arch of a brow, the lightly tanned man looked down at his hands as if examining his newly polished nails.  As he focused his concentration, he felt a new sensation.  Like a phantom that stood waiting at the door, the coldness stood just outside the line of his estate's boarders.

With a sharp look, Arjun kept his stony gaze as his voice was neutral.  “Zara, what is there that you are not telling me?”

The Moroccan captain glanced at him, the look of surprise clear.  Then, after glancing up at her group on the patio, a heavy sighed escaped her.  As if afraid of what Arjun's reaction would be, the captain spoke in a slow, controlled tone as she explained about the Greek woman's situation, the loss of her soul mate and how the ghost was always near.  His best friend explained how her life was saved by the quick actions of Gabrielle's dead soul mate and how Xena had healed Zara's serious wounds in only days.  Although the prince wasn't certain about this ghost person, he had to be grateful that his best friend was alive and well.  When the tall woman was finished explaining the rest of her story, Arjun sighed as he nodded understanding.  Then, with only a slight arch of a brow, he gazed at his friend.

“So, Zara,” Arjun's voice broke through the silence of his friend, “Tell me, do you love this woman, Gabrielle?”

At his words, the Moroccan sighed deeply as she sat back, her eyes scanning somewhere in front of her.  With a slight smile, she turned and gazed at him.  Her shoulders shrugged slightly.  “Would it matter?”  Zara asked.

Arjun knew his friend so well.  He had been with her through her highs and lows and knew that her lows far outnumbered her highs.  From deep within his heart, the young prince wished that just once his friend would find the one who would return everything that she was willing to give.  But as he thought over her words, remembered the images he had received upon first meeting Gabrielle, how he had known that there was something very wrong… something that was not being said and now he understood it completely.  With only a slight smile, he reached out and covered Zara's hand with his.

“My friend, you are far too giving of your heart, and this, I am afraid, is your undoing every time,” he kept his voice neutral as she turned to him.  He saw the indecision in her eyes, and then she turned away and remained silent.

“Very well then,” he sighed.  “If you must be in love with her, at least tell me that she is in love with you too,” a part of his soul pleaded to hear good news.  At his friends continual silence, Arjun felt a sad sigh escape his control.  “Oh, my dear friend,” he gently patted her hand.  She chuckled as she smiled at him.

“I am a mess, no?”  Zara asked as she shook her head.

Arjun could only shake his head as he cast a glance back up at the guests.  He noticed the bard watching them from the distance, her curiosity visible.  He smiled, then waved to give his assurance, which brought a slight smile from the small woman, then he turned back to his friend.

“Well, at least you have not lost your taste.  She is….so beautiful!”  He tsked as he shook his head.

“Yes, she is that!”  The Moroccan allowed a smile to cross her lips.

Arjun knew where this would lead.  It had happened in the past.  His dear friend would fall head over heels for a lost soul, and in the process of helping the woman, the Moroccan would end up with a broken heart while the woman of her desires would leave her behind.  And Arjun knew that just as he had been there before, he would be there again.  Knowing this did not necessarily make it easier for him to accept.
Zara found it easy to be herself around Arjun.  After all of their years, there was an unnatural calmness to their friendship.  She knew that Arjun would never push her for more answers than she was willing to give.  As if to call an end to their private conversation, he rose from the bench and glanced up at the patio.  With an audible gulp, the prince seemed to cringe as he turned to Zara.

“Oh, blessed Krishna!  I completely forgot about HER!”  He exclaimed in horror.

The tall Moroccan glanced up in time to see a familiar face walk onto the patio.  As stunning as ever, the Indian woman stood on the patio and glanced around.  She wore a long, luxurious light tan Sari trimmed with gold.  On her arms she wore gold bangles that matched the golden chains around her neck.  One look at the woman, and Zara's heart fell to the bottom of her boots.

“It's Shikha,” Zara whispered with dread.  “What is she doing here?”

“I'm sorry, I completely forgot that I invited her long before I met you on your ship.  Oh, honey, this is all my fault!  I thought that you would be happy to see her again.  How was I supposed to know that you would be bringing someone else with you?”  Arjun asked as he kept his back to the patio area, then glanced up at Zara.

She said nothing, merely shrugged, but her mouth was tight.

“I am so sorry.  Once you were here, I completely forgot to notify her to not come after all,” Arjun apologized, then, inhaling a deep breath, the short prince smiled up at her.  “Well, we must try to make the best of a very bad situation.  Don't worry, I'll see that you won't be subjected to her.”  He added as he snaked his arm into hers and began to walk back toward the patio.  Throughout their walk, he felt the nervousness concealed within his friend.  When he glanced up at her, he saw her emotions completely masked behind a stony silence.  With a sigh, Arjun began to rack his brain for ideas on how to handle this sticky situation that he had not anticipated.

Part 29

Zara had not seen Shikha since her last visit with Arjun.  In that time, the captain had managed to heal the wound in her heart that Shikha had left.  When the Moroccan glanced at the man standing near the Indian woman, she frowned as she looked over his military uniform; then she pulled her gaze away from the dark-haired beauty and her tall husband.  At the top of the patio stairs, Gabrielle stood waiting for them, turning occasionally to glance at the figures that had caught Arjun and Zara's attention.

“Zara?”  Gabrielle had an eyebrow raised and her voice was filled with concern. 

Arjun patted the bard's arm reassuringly as he came up. “I shall handle this, don't you mind!” he said in a low voice as he moved toward the two new guests. 

Predictable as always, Arjun's mannerism changed from one of calmness, to the sudden facade of giddiness as he greeted his newly arriving guests.  “The lovely Captain Daruka and his beautiful wife, Shikha!  I cannot tell you how pleased I am to see you both.”  He batted his eyes at the tall man, then offered his hand to kiss.  With a slight grimace, the captain took it gingerly and shook it.  The prince sighed theatrically and turned to the woman with a pop-eyed look of bemusement.  “Ooooo, my dear Shikha, you are absolutely radiant! And what a magnificent sari!  I just don't know how you do it all on a captain's pay!”

As Arjun went on gushing, Zara came up beside the bard.  Her expression was closed tighter than a clam under siege by a hungry starfish.  Concerned by the Moroccan's expression, Gabrielle moved close to the tall woman.

“Zara?”  The bard's arm rested gently on her lover's as she looked a question.

The tall woman said nothing, but swallowed.

“Can I go play with Pritam?”  Nadrah's excited voice pulled Zara from her thoughts.  The child glanced up first at Gabrielle, then Zara.  In the corner of the open meadow, the Indian boy stood waiting for the child.  With only a nod, Zara excused the girl as she turned and began to stride quickly back toward the estate.  The bard glanced at Nadrah and nodded assent as she turned and hurried after the Moroccan captain.

“Zara?  What's going on?”  The captain heard Gabrielle by her side, the concern in the blonde's voice evident.  She took a ragged breath and slowed her steps, but before she could respond to the bard, Shikha's voice called out to her.

“Zara!”  The Indian woman pushed her way past the chattering Arjun and moved directly in front of the Moroccan.  “Zara, I cannot believe you were not going to at least say 'hello' to me!”  The beautiful, dark woman pouted as she stood right in front of the tall woman, effectively blocking her way.  The faint hint of jasmine perfume was not lost on the captain as she gazed into the familiar dark eyes that smiled up at her. 

For a moment, Zara allowed her gaze to wander over the woman's familiar form.  As meticulous as ever, Shikha's delicate facial features were enhanced by the light shade of eye shadow, the dark eyeliner accentuated her large, dark, Indian eyes.  The lip rouge she wore was a slight tone deeper than her natural shade.  The gold necklaces and bangles shone under the bright sun and her sari, made of the purest silk, was a light tan that offset her smooth, brown skin.  All of this Zara noticed in a matter of seconds as her memory replayed the last painful time when she had been with this past lover.

“Shikha,” Zara nodded, careful to maintain a neutral voice, as she felt Gabrielle move closer, her worry evident when her small hand moved to clasp Zara's in a protective grip.

“Oh, come now, Zara!  You are not still angry with me, are you?”  Shikha broke out into a light laugh as she shook her head, “Why, one would think that you still loved me!”

“You overestimate your powers,” Zara slightly smiled as she shook her head.  “Not since the day you married have I given you a single thought.”  The Moroccan added as she glanced up at the silent Indian captain who stood nearby.  With an obvious frown, the bearded man gave Zara a curt nod, before reaching for his wife.  Brushing away his silent command, Shikha moved closer to Zara.

“I thought that perhaps we could get together on this visit … for old times sake?”  The Indian woman cooed as she reached up and lightly brushed the back of her hand over Zara's cheek.  Her scornful gaze only passing momentarily over Gabrielle's petite form, before smiling broadly at the tall Moroccan captain.  The bard arched an eyebrow, then narrowed her eyes, but said nothing.

As if her touch were a fire's flame, Zara pulled away from the contact, her frown evident as she glanced down at her ex-lover.  “That is not a possibility,” her voice was steady and calm. “You made certain of that!”  Zara's last comment was a low hiss for only Shikha's hearing.

Before more could be said, Arjun intervened and pulled Shikha away.  “Of course that is not possible!”  Arjun half chuckled as he began to guide the Indian woman to the farthest corner of the patio, his falsetto voice loud and penetrating.  “Why, Zara and Gabrielle are practically on a honeymoon!  I doubt they'll have any time to catch up with old friends with the way they've been going at it!  All the time, non-stop, why they hardly even leave their room and when they do!  Oh, blessed Krishna, it makes me blush just to see them together.  Why, you'd think they couldn't stand to keep their hands off of each other!  My, my, my; it makes one wonder where they find their energy!  Ahhh, youth!  If only I were that young again!  The places I'd do!  The things I'd see…”  Arjun sighed as he cast a sidelong wink toward Zara, smiled coyly at Gabrielle, then took Shikha's hand and batted his eyes at her husband, who swallowed and winced.

Gabrielle heard the exchange and felt the underlying tension of the encounter.  At Arjun's words, the blonde smiled coyly, leaned into Zara, the back of her palm reaching up, and lightly touched Zara's soft cheek.  Surprised by the contact, Zara glanced down at the bard, her brow arched in a silent question.  With a soft, seductive smile, Gabrielle pulled Zara's head down toward her and kissed the taller woman.  Her lips parted, and her tongue lightly touched Zara's closed lips until they opened, accepting Gabrielle's deep kiss.  When they pulled apart, she smiled and leaned into Zara until the taller woman's arm moved around her shoulder.

At their closeness, Gabrielle made a point of smiling at Shikha.  As if angered by the demonstration, the Indian woman glared at the bard and her eyes filled with hatred.  With a slight smile, the bard gently tugged at Zara's hand until the taller woman began to follow her lead.

“Come, sweetheart … I just can't wait any longer,” the small blonde made a point of speaking loud enough for those around them to hear.  Zara's cheeks turned a slight shade of red as she gulped nervously then followed her lover with a slight smile.

At this opportunity for escape, the tall Moroccan turned to the estate, holding the door open in order that Gabrielle could enter first.  With a look of concern that only Zara saw, the bard entered and was about to speak, but stopped when she saw the Indian military man suddenly come up behind Zara. 

Before the tall Moroccan could enter, she felt a strong grip on her forearm.  Zara maintained her silence as she glanced at the man's hand on her, then her expressionless gaze wandered to Daruka's face.  His bearded features were unable to mask the contempt he held toward the Moroccan captain.

“You will not touch my wife!  All that is over!  If you do, you will answer to me, do you understand?”  His voice was low, but the tone was threatening.

Zara only scowled as she took the man's fingers and pulled them from her arm.  She held his fingers in a firm grip and bent them backwards.  Daruka visibly flinched, the grimace clear as he tried to pull away. In disgust, she released her hold and watched as he rubbed his digits.

“Then, I suggest, Daruka, that you keep a tight rein on your wife,” Zara whispered softly against his ear, then gave a parting nod.  Without sparing him a second glance, the dark captain turned, took Gabrielle's hand in hers, and began to lead her into the estate.  Before they moved, the bard smiled back at the Indian man.

“You know, it helps to offer a … wild ride every now and then,” Gabrielle's voice was low and sultry as her eyes gazed up at Zara seductively, the tip of her tongue lightly brushing her lower lip, which brought the desired shocked reaction from both Zara and the man.  Without another word, the bard glanced out the door to the patio and winked at Arjun who was attempting to control his fits of laughter behind a velvet scarf that he held in front of his mouth.

“Come, Gabrielle,” Zara's voice was softly commanding as they moved further into the estate.

When they had moved far enough away that they could not be heard, Gabrielle turned to her lover.  “All right, Zara what's going on?  What was that all about? I thought you and that Daruka guy were going to punch each other out.  And Shikha!  She seemed like a real piece of work.  How do you know her?” 

Zara tried to think of a way to explain this part of her past without it sounding like an epic tragedy-drama.  With only a smile, she tilted her head as she gazed around at the decorative walls.  “Arjun certainly does have many works of art.”  She tried to divert Gabrielle's question as she waved to the silk hangings and statues.  “I will have to get him to give us the grand tour…”

As if seeing through this form of distraction, Gabrielle squeezed her hand slightly and stopped the taller woman in her tracks.  “Zara?”  The bard's voice seemed to be a plea as she remained in her place.

The captain glanced down into green eyes and the pleading evident in the bard's expression.  With a sigh, Zara nodded as she pointed to a door at the far end of the hall.  Complying with her unspoken request, Gabrielle held her questions and followed silently behind the taller woman.  Once inside Arjun's private sanctuary, Zara secured the door behind them and walked into the brightly lighted, open room.

Gabrielle's eyes glanced over the numerous murals that covered the walls and ceiling, her amazement clear as she saw the images of various Indian gods and goddess.  The underlying color of the room was a light blue that seemed to send a peaceful essence through the area.  In the far corner of the room, the bard noticed a pile of soft pillows.

“Shikha was a woman I was … familiar with,” the captain finally spoke as she walked across the hardwood floors to some large glass doors.  “At the time, I had contemplated leaving the sea to remain with her on land,” she explained as she opened the door and stepped out into the private garden beyond.

When they stepped into the garden, Gabrielle's eyes grew wide as she glanced around the colorful enclosure.  Having the effect that Zara hoped for, the bard was momentarily distracted as she moved into the grassy knoll.  Lovely plants and flowering trees bloomed everywhere.  Orchids and rare flowers that the bard had never seen before filled the eye with a riot of color and the nose with a heady perfume.  As the fragrant scent of the flowers wafted to them, the wide-eyed blonde moved further into the garden.

Zara smiled, enjoying the petite woman's reaction to the beauty around them.  “This is Arjun's private garden.  No one can come in here except through that door where we entered … and very few go into his private area,” she explained as she took the bard's hand and pulled her deeper into the garden. 

“Come,” Zara felt an easiness as she weaved her way through the shrubs, flower beds and trees until she found the secluded spot she was looking for.

The small area had a large shrub wall surrounding a smaller enclosure.  The thick grass was neatly trimmed and inviting to sit on.  With a sidelong glance, Gabrielle arched a brow as she stepped into the opening, her hand pulling at Zara until the taller woman joined her on the soft green grass.

“So, you were saying that this woman … Shikha, is an ex-lover?”  Gabrielle smiled as she pulled Zara down to sit on the lush grass, facing one another.  “You were in love with her, then?”  She asked gently.

Zara thought over her response, picking at a blade of grass as she tried to think of a way to phrase her words.  “Gabrielle, I-I did not love her … at least, I do not think I did, besides … I am … n-not even certain that I even can love,” Zara shrugged, her voice so low, as to make her words barely audible.

“Oh, honey, that's not true!  Of course you can love!”  Gabrielle exclaimed with assurance.

“But it is true, Gabrielle.,” Zara said wanly.  “I-I am beginning to think that I do not know what love even feels like,” she said softly as she returned her gaze to the bard's green eyes.  “Tell me, what is it like?  Is-Is it what you feel for Xena?”  Her voice was almost pleading.

Gabrielle felt the intensity of the captain's words.  She felt the dark blue eyes searching her, patiently waiting for an answer.  With a slight smile, Gabrielle leaned back slightly, her head tilted as she closed her eyes and remembered all of the emotions she held for her soul mate.

As a warmth of love filled her soul, the bard spoke in a soft voice.  “It's as if … everything changes.  When you're laying in their arms, you finally know what it feels like to be home. You no longer think in terms of me, but we, and everything is focused on the future that you both will share,” the petite woman smiled as she looked into blue, inquisitive eyes.  “With Xena, it's as if nothing else that happened to us over time really matters except the love that she and I share with one another.”

As the bard's quiet voice spoke, Zara thought over her words.  She remembered what it was like with other women, and although she was reluctant to admit it, she realized that there were very few whom she had really been in love with.  'Even Alaya did not fall into this category, she reasoned, 'at least not where it concerned our future.  All we thought of was the time that we shared, hoping it would last forever.  We were so young that … living together forever … that never really crossed our minds.'

“You really were going to walk away from your ship for Shikha?”  Gabrielle's soft voice pulled Zara from her thoughts. 

Zara smiled slightly at the absurdity of her past actions, then nodded assent.  “I believe that I may have had … a lapse in judgment,” the captain offered in her defense.

“What happened?” the bard asked as she moved closer to Zara, her legs absently draping over the taller woman's as her hands lightly rested on the captain's sleeves.  At the smaller woman's movement, Zara reached behind the blonde and pulled her closer, her arms offering support as she sat crossed legged, with the bard's bottom nestled in the circle of Zara's legs.  Once comfortable in the new position, Zara sighed and smiled when she felt the bard's legs wrap around her waist.

“I would like to say that I came to my senses, but I cannot,” Zara began to explain as the bard wrapped her arms around the captain's shoulders.  “When Shikha realized that I was giving in to her demands, she seemed to lose interest in me.  It was as if the thrill of the chase was all that she had wanted.  Once I was caught...”  Zara's eyes glistened and she blinked rapidly, looking away for a moment.  Then she cleared her throat and continued.  “When I … agreed to join her on land, she suddenly informed me that she was engaged to marry Daruka.  He came from a higher caste than her family, he was financially stable and had a distinguished military career, and he was able to give her something which I could not,” the taller woman explained.  At the bard's arched brow, the dark haired women smiled wanly, “He could give her the respectability of marriage.”

“Oh…”  Gabrielle's voice was low as she gazed down, thoughts seeming to fill her mind.

Zara used the bard's silence to her advantage.  She gazed at the smaller woman's striking features, the slight wrinkle lines around her mouth, which was a legacy from frequent smiling.  At the way that her eyebrows arched delicately into a curve, and at her graceful nose, its rounded shape a perfect addition to an already beautiful face.  With one corner of her mouth turned up, the captain gazed longingly at Gabrielle's firm mouth, the way the upper lip was slightly curving, and the fullness of her lower lip.  Caught off-guard, those lips parted with a sigh, then bent into a smile as she looked up.  Pulled from her silent reverie, Zara smiled as she gazed into sparkling green eyes.

“I'm … very glad that you didn't walk away from your ship, otherwise, we might never have met,” Gabrielle's voice was like a soft melody.  At her words, Zara leaned forward slightly until her mouth barely touched the bard's soft lips.  When she pulled away, the Moroccan smiled at the blonde and noticed the mischievous smile forming.
Nadrah and Pritam were making full use of the estate.  When the game of Hide-and-go-seek proved too easy outside, they moved into the estate.  At one point, Pritam found Nadrah and was ready to tag her when she ended up darting from his grasp, her little legs running as fast as she could through the prince's home.

“Nadrah!  Not fair,” Pritam giggled wildly as he chased her up the stairs and followed her down a corridor that was seldom used.

“Can't catch me!”  She screamed over her shoulder as childish giggles escaped her control.

“Can so!”  He shouted back.

When she glanced over her shoulders, she saw him stopping dead in his tracks, his eyes growing wide.  Thinking that he was giving up, she stuck her tongue out at him and kept running until she hit an immovable force.  At the sudden blockage, she grunted before falling backward onto her bottom.  When she glanced up, she saw the scowling face of the woman that Zara used to spend her time with.  With a nervous gulp, Nadrah blinked as she saw the dark Indian man move beside the woman. 

“Clumsy child!  Watch where you go!”  The woman hissed as she straightened out her clothes, then, glancing down at Nadrah, her brow arched upward.  “You are Zara's servant?”

In a hasty manner, the girl quickly got to her feet. Afraid of the sudden question, Nadrah only gulped and looked over her shoulder.  Pritam was nowhere to be seen.

The woman pulled Nadrah's head back around to face her.  “Look at me, you insolent brat!  I asked you a question!  Are you her servant?”

Nadrah managed to say something, but in her haste to answer, her words came out in such a garbled stutter that they were incomprehensible and the woman shook her.

“Speak up!  Are you deaf and dumb, or what?”  The woman shouted as the man stared coldly down at her. 

Before Nadrah's fear could get the better of her, a calm voice came from behind them in the hall and the woman hastily let go of her.  “Here, now.  What is all this noise?”

Turning, the cabin girl saw Pritam standing with Lady Asha, Arjun's first wife.  Seeing her presence, the woman smiled obsequiously, her head bowed in a fawning respect to royalty.

“Oh, Lady Asha, what an honor it is to see you.” Her voice was suddenly a soft purr and the man behind her nodded respectfully to prince Arjun's first wife.

“And what is the meaning of this, Lady Shikha?”  Lady Asha Ashoka's calm but commanding voice was laced with a clearly definable accent that labeled her as hailing from the north eastern Kalinga region and further marked her as a daughter of the rich and powerful Pallavas Kingdom.  Arjun's marriage with a princess from Pallavas united the two largest kingdoms of the North and East.  Once the marriage had been completed, it had taken little time for their combined forces to take over the southern kingdom of Chalukyas.  “For what reason do you make such a disturbance in my house?”

“Disturbance?  I was, ah, merely inquiring into the child's welfare,” Shikha offered as she smiled sweetly at Nadrah, patting her on the head.

“Nonsense.”  The first wife of Arjun stated mildly.  “I could hear you shouting from clear up the stairs.  I believe that prince Arjun will not be pleased to hear that you have raised your voice to his favorite niece!”  At the look of surprise from Shikha, Lady Asha smiled and nodded.  “Oh, yes, Lady Shikha.  Have you forgotten that Arjun considers Zara to be his sister?  That would make Zara's charge his niece.  You would do well to remember this, Captain Daruka, Lady Shikha.”  She stated with a firm voice filled with all of the quiet power and authority of her royal heritage.

With her cheeks flaming and a nod of assent, Shikha bowed to her princess and her husband mirrored his wife's action.  Seeing their obeisance, Asha nodded, then turned from them and lightly placed her palm on Nadrah's shoulder, guiding her from the corridor.  When they were around the corner and out of hearing range, she knelt in front of the two children.

“You are very fortunate that Pritam came to get me.  Are you all right?”  The beautiful princess asked Nadrah, her radiant smile captivating the child.  The girl merely nodded as she returned the smile.  “Good, then go and play, and I suggest that you both do your best to avoid that one,” the princess advised as she inclined her head to the hallway where Shikha and her husband were lodged.

“I think it would be safer to go look at the raptors,” Nadrah stated firmly as she looked in that direction and missed seeing the royal cheeks dimple as princess Asha struggled to keep from laughing.

Pritam grunted.  “I think so too!  My sister will need help with cleaning their mews soon, and that's really fun!  Let's go, Nadrah, maybe she'll let us help!”  He suggested, then nodded a thank you to the princess before darting off down the nearest steps.  Glancing up at Princess Asha, Nadrah's wide smile was filled with adoration for her newest savior.  With a slight nod, and a ruffle of the girl's dark hair, the royal princess nodded toward the disappearing boy as she encouraged the girl to follow.

Like a thundering water buffalo the girl turned and began to chase after the boy.  “Pritam, wait up!”  She shouted as a chorus of giggles escaped her.

Princess Asha watched the children disappear from the house, her heart warming at the sound of their voices.  With a longing sigh, she closed her eyes as her hand absently rested on her abdomen.  Ever since she had been married, she had longed for a child in her life, yet it did not seem to be for her.  The two times that she had lain with her husband were a failure.  The first time they had made love on their wedding night, Arjun was inebriated with wine and could barely perform and no child was conceived from that encounter.  The second time they had tried, Arjun was unable to perform at all.  But now, with the help of her husband's friend, she felt a child was in her future.

Princess Asha had no idea that she would enjoy sharing herself to such an extent with a man.  She knew from experience that she enjoyed making love to, and being made love to by her sisters-the wives of her husband.  Even the times that she had been with Zara were wonderful, but until her encounter with Abu, she had never known that it could be so … enjoyable with a man.

As the first wife, she was the first to be with the tall, muscular Moroccan.  His touches, although tentative, were gentle and kind.  From the soft caress of his lips, to the tenderness of his hands, Abu had brought her to heights of pleasure that she had never known was possible with anyone but her sister-wives and Zara.  Due to his patience and soft caresses, by the time the gentle man had entered her, Asha's body was more than ready for him.  With each thrust she felt as if she were riding an ocean wave of rocking pleasure until she came crashing down to rest in an exquisite sense of blissful peace.

With a smile, Princess Asha felt her belly as she silently gave a wishful prayer for Krishna's blessing.  She hoped that the few times she had been with Abu were enough to already plant a seed within her.  Although there was no way of knowing for certain, she felt that a child was already beginning to form within her.  If all went according to plan, she thought with a smile, by the festival of Sarasvati, she would be able to present her in-laws with the heir to their kingdom and she would have a baby to pamper and love.

“Sister, is all well?”  Ela called to her from their shared quarters.

“Yes, my sister,” the first wife called down the hall.

“Good, then return to our room, for it is your turn again!” Her taller sister-wife smiled, knowing the pleasure that was in store for Asha.

With a nod Asha smiled as she turned and began to walk quickly back to their shared bedroom.
Zara found her lover's mischievousness pleasing.  Each time she thought she understood the bard's humor, the blonde would come up with a new twist that took the captain by surprise.  At the bard's smile, Zara arched an inquisitive brow.

“What?” the captain asked.

“Are you up for a game?” a slight twinkle in Gabrielle's eyes caused Zara to smile.

“Game?  What type of a game?”  Zara tried to keep her voice neutral in hopes of teasing the bard.

“Ummm … a … a kissing game,” she smiled as her hips moved slightly to reposition herself between Zara's legs.

“A kissing game?”  Zara found herself intrigued.

“Oh, yes, a kissing game.  We'll see how much time can pass with only kissing, nothing else.  No touching with anything but our lips … and tongues, against lips, and tongue,” Gabrielle explained as her slender fingertip touched Zara's lip for emphasis.

“No other kinds of touching?”  Zara asked as her mind began to wander over the intriguing possibilities at full speed.

“No, no other kinds of touch, but a kiss against the other person's lips,” the bard reiterated the rules of this game she proposed.

“And, um, how will we know who wins, and who loses?”  Zara asked.

“The one who gives in first and touches with hands or any other, ah, parts, loses, which leaves the other the winner,” Gabrielle purred as both of her arms wrapped easily around Zara's shoulders.  “What do you say?  Care to try your hand … or shall I say, your lips in this game?”

“All right,” Zara agreed after a moment of thought.

Like two children engaged in a new pastime, they smiled in anticipation.  To make them more comfortable, Zara reached below the bard's round, firm bottom and easily lifted the smaller woman from the grass onto her longer legs.  Their bodies now pressed close together, their faces only inches apart as the bard's legs wrapped easily around Zara's waist.  As Gabrielle kept a loose grip around Zara's shoulders, the captain wrapped her arms around the bard's slender waist and awaited the next move.

“My turn first,” Gabrielle said softly.  With only a slight smile, the bard leaned forward until her lips lightly touched Zara's.  After a moment, she broke the contact and gazed into the Moroccan's eyes.  “Your turn, now…” she grinned.

Seeing the smoldering intensity in the bard's eyes, Zara swallowed, then leaned toward the bard to kiss her gently back.  After a moment she pulled back and cleared her throat as she looked deep into the bard's eyes.  “I believe it's your ... turn…”

“Mmmm.”  Gabrielle whispered and brought her mouth forward again.

One after the other, their lips moved to touch the other until finally their tongues entered the picture.  For what felt like an eternity of only their lips touching, their mouths each began opening fully to accept the other's probing tongue.  With each new contact, Zara felt the tingling sensations on the top of her scalp increase until it began to make its way down through her body and it was obvious that the bard was feeling the same things.

After a while, neither one knew who's turn it was to initiate the kiss, instead, each attacked the other, each trying to out do the other until their breaths were coming in panting, ragged gasps.  Zara heard a deep guttural growl escaping the bard before her lips were suddenly captured in a tight clasp by the blonde's. 

With quick sucking motions, Gabrielle held the captain's lower lip captive.  She alternated between sucking and nipping.  Her tongue occasionally reaching in to lick over teeth and pliant tongue until a whimpering groan escaped the taller woman's control.  At this new sound, the bard smiled as she increased her attack on Zara's oh, so willing lips.  Her mouth never stopping its action, she sought out the entire experience of kissing this tall and very beautiful Moroccan captain.  When she finally pulled away, the bard's breath was labored.  The palms of her hands held tightly to Zara's shoulders as she gazed deeply into the clouded blue pools of her lover's eyes.

“Z-Zara…?” The bard found words hard to speak. 

“Mmmmm?”  With only a dreamy expression, the taller woman looked at her with confusion, her eyes barely focused. 

“By the gods!  I don't care about winning this game any more!”  Gabrielle's voice was a low, seductive statement as she grabbed a hold of the captain's shirt.  Her soft lips claiming Zara's again as her upper body began to push the captain back onto the grass.

Zara had never experienced such aggressively fierce emotions in a lover before.  Every nerve in her body seemed alive with a raw sexual energy as she fell onto her back.  The bard's smaller body climbing over her as their kiss deepened, each woman's hands roamed senselessly over the other as the need filled their minds.  When she felt Gabrielle push against her leg, Zara groaned softly.  As the bard's hips began to rub, the gyrating brought a heightened sense of arousal to the Moroccan.  In an attempt to aid her smaller lover, Zara bent her knee between Gabrielle's thighs.  The bard's body never stopped moving as the change in pressure spurred the blonde on.

“Sssss!  N-No, no…th-this won't do!”  Gabrielle hissed as she rose up to her knees, causing Zara to lower her leg to the grass.  As her legs straddled Zara's thigh, the bard's fingers began to fumble with the ties of the Moroccan's pants.  “Flesh, I need to feel your flesh!”  Gabrielle's words were choked as she easily untied the fastening and began to pull Zara's pants down. 

With only a slight smile, the taller woman lifted her hips to accommodate her petite lover.  When she felt the tickling sensation of the grass under her bottom, Zara reached up and began to try and unfasten the ties of Gabrielle's new pants.  Unable to figure out how this new garment fastening worked, Zara groaned in frustration until the bard's deft hands easily undid the new fastenings.  To Zara's amazement, she noticed that the pants were a single fabric that wrapped around the bard's body.  When the ties in the front were unfastened, the cloth fabric was easily pulled away from the front, leaving the back still secured to the small woman's body.

“It t-took … me a … while to … f-figure them out, t-too…”  Gabrielle gasped as she moved to straddle Zara's bare leg.  With her pants pulled down to her ankles, Zara could barely move except to lift her knee for the bard's need.  When she felt the blonde straddling her leg again, she gulped as she took a deep breath of air.  The instant wetness from the bard covered Zara's upper leg as the bard began to find her rhythm again.

“Oh, yeah … t-that's it … this is more like it!”  The soft words were a whimpered moan past Gabrielle's lips as her hips ground her pelvis against Zara's leg.

While the bard's lower body moved to sate her own needs, she held firmly to the captain's body, her arms snaked under the bigger woman's shoulders.  Her green eyes gazed down into Zara's as her left thigh pressed against the wetness between her taller lover's legs.  At the look of pleading desire from the Moroccan, Gabrielle smiled as she lowered her lips to kiss the dark captain's, her hips never once losing their sweet rhythm.  When she was unable to maintain both the kiss and her movements, Gabrielle pulled away reluctantly.  Her breathing ragged, she closed her eyes as she tilted her head back, her concentration turned to one single goal as she moved rhythmically over the captain's leg.

Zara felt the slight weight of her lover's body as the exquisite sensations tore through all of her nerve endings.  The bard's sticky wetness covered her left leg as her own wetness rubbed against Gabrielle's left thigh.  With her arms wrapped firmly around the blonde's waist, she felt every movement of her lover's exertions.  When she moved her hands to cup Gabrielle's fleshy bottom through the fabric of her pants, Zara felt finely toned muscles tensing and un-tensing.  Pressing the round mounds of flesh tighter against her leg, Zara encouraged her lover's climactic release as she felt herself reaching her own.  When a low groan escaped the bard's control, the taller woman felt her lover's waters baptizing her leg as she shuddered all over.  Looking up into the expression on Gabrielle's lovely face as she came brought the captain to the very edge of her own sweet release and then pushed her over the brink.  With a hiss and a slight intake of breath, she stiffened, her eyes closed as a myriad of lights seemed to flash behind closed eyelids as her own wetness spilled from her, moistening the grass below her prone form.

Gabrielle's slack body all but collapsed over Zara's.  Their breathing was ragged as they clung to each other moaning slightly.  After a moment, Zara opened her eyes and gazed up at the multitude of clouds that floated in the blue sky, then she raised her head to glance down at the bard lying on her chest.  With a slight smile, she brushed her palm over the blonde's sweaty forehead, wiping the moisture from her face.  At her touch, Gabrielle smiled up at her, dreamy green catlike eyes sparkling as a smile crossed her face.

“I … lose,” the bard chuckled as she buried her face against Zara's shoulder, her arms hung loosely along the captain's sides.

“I-If I had known what was to be the end result … I would have chosen to lose before you,” the captain chuckled as she gave the smaller body a slight hug, then rubbed her palms over Gabrielle's blue-shirted back.

“Oh, Zara.  I'm sorry, I didn't even think of your needs,” the blonde healer apologized as she rose slightly.  She raised an impish eyebrow.  “Shall, I…” With only a smile, Zara took her lover's smaller hand and guided it between their bodies.  At the feel of Zara's wetness, Gabrielle's green eyes widened, then she grinned and chuckled low.

“I believe you will agree that it was very good for me too!”  Zara sighed contentedly, holding the bard's cupped hand gently against her very wet labia.  Even a week ago, the tall captain would never have done such a thing with anyone.  Her thoughts were bemused.  'How much I am learning to feel and trust this small wonder of a woman.'

“Ummm … and would you care for a little more attention?” Gabrielle's fingers tickled gently and her seductive voice almost pulled Zara into their spell.  Then, remembering where they were, the Moroccan reluctantly sighed.

“I do not think it wise … I don't remember Arjun's meditation schedule and I don't think you want him to catch us in this … compromising situation.”

“Oh, I think he'd understand,” Gabrielle grinned.  “But you're right … we don't need to be too exhibitionist about this,” she slightly smiled as she rose and stood up.  She reached down to pull at the loose fabric of her pants and tied it back around her body.  Zara rose from her prone position, pulling her own pants up as well.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle smiled up at her tall lover as they were each retying the fastenings of their pants.

“For what?”  Zara's brow arched in a question.

“For letting me attack you.  I know that was sort of new to you, having a partner who is aggressive,” the blonde said as she straightened out the wrinkled fabric of her pants.

“As the days pass, I am learning so much more about you and … and from you, and I am grateful for your lessons,” Zara said as she reached up and pulled some grass from her long dark hair.

Gabrielle colored faintly.  “Well, just so you know, I think my moon time is near.  I mean … don't get me wrong, I do like having sex regardless of the calendar, but I don't tend to be that needy until it's close to my cycle.  Then when it is … by the gods, I just sometimes can't help myself!  I need to pounce and have my release!”  The bard chuckled as she moved to Zara, her arms wrapping easily around the taller frame.

At her lover's open admission, the tall Moroccan smiled as she pulled Gabrielle into a tight hug, then lowered herself to kiss the soft, inviting lips.  When they pulled apart, she saw the smile on the blonde's face and nodded slightly.  “Then, as we are friends, I do wish to be there for you in your times of … need…  Perhaps we should adjourn to our room in order that I may, um, alleviate any of your … physical discomforts that still require attention?”

“Oh, yeahhhh.  You're on!”  Gabrielle smiled as she moved from Zara's embrace and began to lead her from the garden.  Her hand never leaving the captain's, she gently, yet urgently tugged as she thought of all of the possible ways that they could release their tensions before the big dinner celebration began.

At the thought of spending the day making love to the bard, Zara had a wide smile on her face.  The fresh wetness between her legs was only a promise of what lay in store for her, she thought as she held the bard's hand.  Each one seemed lost in their own thoughts of the promised love that was waiting for them as they silently made their way from the gardens and back into the house.
In a second floor window, a single form stood looking down at the garden.  Ordinarily this section of the estate was never used.  But because of the number of guests who were showing up for the grand dinner, every spare room had to be utilized.  Were it not for the lack of space, the two lovers might have been able to spend their afternoon in relative solitude, rather than having a guest watch their every move with voyeuristic perversion.

The quiet anger was slowly boiling at the sight of the two lovers.  When Shikha first saw Zara and the stranger enter the garden, her first temptation was to go there and speak with her former lover in hopes that she might be able to spend time with the Moroccan captain.  Without Arjun around to interrupt her, there would be nothing to stop her from speaking with Zara; from playing the tall captain back into her control.  But when the two women moved to the back of the garden, the Indian woman found it impossible to leave the window.  Instead, she stood and watched from the higher vantage point as the two lovers began to kiss.  When she saw the stranger push her former lover to the ground, Shikha was filled with horrified surprise at the white woman's aggression.  When the two bared their lower bodies to make love, the Indian noblewoman felt herself seething with anger, jealousy and something further that she had not expected … arousal.

'That should have been me!' the noblewoman thought angrily as each movement, each touch that the women shared brought the dampness between her legs.  'If things had gone differently, it would be me with Zara and not that tiny, white skinned foreigner,' she reasoned with a scowl as she shifted uncomfortably in place.  'It would be me who was receiving all of Zara's attention, and I would be the one brought to pleasure, not that pasty little woman,' Shikha thought bitterly as the anger boiled within. 

From behind her, she heard her husband leave the bathing room.  As the two women disappeared into the estate, Shikha turned and glanced at the man whom she had learned to spend the past year with.  His brown muscular body glistened from the heat of the steaming bath.  The hair on his chest was matted after being dried by the towel, and true to form, his male member was hard and erect, and the sight of it threatened to sicken her when she compared him to the soft, lingering pleasures she had just witnessed in the garden below.

“Shikha, come.  I have need of you!”  He commanded as he moved to lie on the bed.

Not for the first time, she knew that she had made a terrible mistake with Zara.  If only she had not been so concerned with status or monetary needs, this last year would have been one of sweetness and wonderful bliss, instead of one long nightmare interrupted by moments of relief when her husband was away on matters of military duty.  Unlike Daruka, Zara would have taken the time to bring her to pleasure.  There never would have been a moment when it was painful due to her lack of arousal and there would have been respect, Shikha thought glumly as she turned and moved to the bed.  'Not only that,' she thought as she lay on her back next to her husband, 'I would have been the one in control of Zara, instead of Daruka controlling me!'

True to his usual form, Daruka gave her only a moment to get settled before he moved on top of her.  Without any concern for her needs, he pulled apart her robe, spread her legs, and pushed himself into her.  Grimacing at the suddenness of his actions, she closed her eyes as she willed herself to endure what should have been pleasure. Were it not for her already moist nether parts, his movements would have caused pain.  As it was, she felt nothing but the continual friction from his member.  As Daruka, the man she was supposed to spend the rest of her life with, pumped into her, her mind began to formulate a plan to rid herself of him.

She would win Zara back.  No matter what it took, she would find a way to captivate the Moroccan and convince her to take her away on her ship … to take her anywhere but here.  They could then live with each other forever!  Shikha smiled at the thought.  As for the little blonde….Shikha would see to it that Zara turned her out.  Once she got the Moroccan to admit that she still loved her, it would take little effort to control her and Shikha would have the little whore banished from Zara's life and ship, the Indian woman reasoned as her mind conjured up various scenarios that would benefit her plan.

At these sweet thoughts, Shikha groaned in pleasure.  Daruka, thinking it was his actions that brought it on, smiled down at her.  Hiding her inward frown behind a demure smile, she reached up and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, pulling him down onto her in order that she did not have to look at his face.  'Yes, her plan would not … could not fail,' Shikha silently promised herself as she ignored the rutting grunts of her husband and his insistent pounding into her flesh.

The End Of Chapter Five

Chapter 6

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