The Curse of Higuchi

Chapter 7

By L. Crystal Michallet-Romero
Copyright © September 14, 2002
All Rights Reserved

Note to Readers: I've taken great liberties with the time line and history of Indus, and the Asoka dynasty. So please, take my version of history with a grain of salt. I highly encourage anyone who is interested, to do some research on the great Indus civilization, and the Asoka reign. I'm sure you'll find it to be a fun read!

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 (F/F) (M/M)

Historical Information:
* Buddhism - The philosophy of Buddhism originated in 563 B.C., from the 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.
* 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 14
th century.

Part 36

The morning after the party brought a sleepy calmness to the two lovers. For Zara, sleeping late was not something she craved, but she did enjoy watching the bard slumber. When the blonde finally awoke, it was a pleasure to share a morning in tender love making before they had to rise and prepare for the day's competition.

“Aren't you ever worried about Nadrah?” the bard had asked as they lay in each other's arms. The smaller woman stretched slowly with a catlike suppleness before returning to snuggle into Zara's soft, warm embrace.

“Worried?” Zara was confused at the bard's train of thoughts. One moment they were panting with the pleasure of coming down from their exquisite orgasm, the next she was questioning about the child.

“Yes, aren't you at all concerned about her whereabouts or if she's safe?” Gabrielle asked.

“She is around … probably out playing, or getting into some mischief of some kind,” Zara chuckled softly. When she saw the unblinking green eyes staring at her, Zara's expression grew serious.

“I don't worry about Nadrah when I'm here with Arjun. There is no safer place for us to be right now,” she assured, “Arjun is always nearby, as are his wives, and I'm sure Isa is keeping an eye on her as well. Gabrielle, of all the places for a child to roam free, this is the place. I would prefer that she wander as much as possible before we return to the ship. Better that she build up her legs, no?”

“I guess,” Gabrielle sighed as she snuggled back against Zara's body. “I was just wondering….” Her voice trailed off as her expression got a far away look.

“What troubles you, Gabrielle?” Zara asked.

For a moment it seemed as if the blonde would not answer but then, she sighed as she sat up. Her gaze turned to look down at Zara. “Don't you ever worry that a ship may not be a place for a child?”

Zara smiled slightly, almost half surprised that her lover had never brought this up before. The topic was not a new one for Zara and it was something that she often contemplated. With a slight smile, she lightly ran her fingertips over Gabrielle's bare arm and watched as the goose bumps rose and a shiver crossed the smaller woman's slender but muscled body.

“Oh, no! Now don't you try changing the subject!” Gabrielle smiled as she shook away the intoxicating sensations.

“I have thought of that before,” Zara said with a sigh as she pulled Gabrielle down into her arms. “Arjun asked me on my last visit if he could have Nadrah.”

“He wants her to live with him?”

“He wants to adopt her as his own daughter. He promised me that she would always be cared for. She would be a royal princess of the Asoka clan,” Zara smiled at the idea.

“A Princess!” Gabrielle echoed her words as she easily climbed over Zara, her legs straddling the captain's body as she gazed down at her. “And you didn't want to leave her?”

Zara smiled slightly as a sadness crossed her senses. “You think me selfish?”

Gabrielle thought about it a moment, then gave a reluctant smile as her brows raised, her shoulders shrugged. “I don't think it's selfish. Even though you may not say it to her, you love Nadrah, and you want her with you.”

“Yes, that is true, but … I also feel responsible for her. I know that someday she will leave, she will have to … it is inevitable. Every cabin girl I've ever had has eventually left to be adopted into suitable families. I simply want to be certain that it is the right home for Nadrah.” Zara said. At her lover's confusion, she tried to think of a way to better explain herself.

“You see, Gabrielle, I know that being adopted by Arjun would mean that all of Nadrah's wants and needs would be taken care of … but … the Asoka claim on Indus is not firm. At every turn, Arjun's family must fight to hold control over the land. For now, Arjun has managed to remain untouched by it all, but someday … someday he may find it harder to keep control. I could never leave Nadrah knowingly risking her future safety simply because of a name she was adopted into … do you understand?” Zara asked.

Gabrielle seemed to think about it for a moment. Her body remained nestled against Zara, her left hand lying over the captain as her toes gently brushed against Zara's legs. With only a smile, the smaller woman hugged Zara close.

“It must be hard to have the burdens of your ship and business, of Nadrah, of your entire crew upon your shoulders,” Gabrielle sighed softly into her chest. “Even of me … I can't even imagine what I would have done had you not taken Xena and me with you from Japa.”

With only a smile, Zara clasped the smaller body against her, then softly laid a kiss on the blonde head. “You are no burden and even if you were, I would take you with joy,” she whispered. In a tender manner, she lightly stroked the woman's soft back. At the feel of the smaller body on top of her, she released a contended sigh even as her mind raced over the various possibilities for Nadrah's future.
As they lay there snuggling, the bard thought over Zara's words. The more she came to know Nadrah, the more she began to contemplate asking for permission to raise the girl. Although her life was not stable at this moment, Gabrielle hoped that once they returned to Greece, if she was successful in bringing Xena back, then they might settle down and raise Nadrah. If Xena wasn't able to return, then she could raise the girl on her own. At this thought, she wondered if there would be any way to convince Zara to join her in Greece.

'And if we can bring Xena back, would you want to join us?' the bard silently wondered as she felt her lover's breathing like a steady cadence. At this thought, she mentally chided herself. Although she knew that Zara cared deeply for the girl, she also knew that the ship was Zara's life. Nothing short of demanding would have coaxed the Moroccan away from her crew and ship, and Gabrielle knew that she would never demand this from her friend.

As her thoughts drifted to future possibilities, she allowed herself to enjoy the softness below her. In the short time since arriving in Indus, Gabrielle had felt a calmness fall over her friend. It was as if all of their past troubles, the pirate ship, the loss of her men, was washed away from her senses and for this, the healer in Gabrielle was grateful.

When she glanced down at Zara, her eyes crinkled in a smile. With eyes closed, Zara's light breathing and calming features showed the peacefulness within her sleeping face. Gabrielle lightly touched the tip of her finger over the Moroccan's gently curving brow.

'She is so different from Xena,' Gabrielle mused as she nestled into the comfort of Zara's arms, 'and yet, in so many ways, they are similar,' were the last thoughts she had before drifting off into a peaceful slumber.
Once Nadrah had bustled into the room, waking the two lovers up, Gabrielle had only enough time to kiss the girl's head, before Nadrah was running from the room. Dressed in the sturdier clothes from the ship, the child was in a hurry to join in the festivities outside. As if the girl's mood was contagious, Zara was quickly dressed and following in Nadrah's footsteps.

“Don't be long,” the tall captain called before closing the door behind her. With a smile, Gabrielle shook her head in amusement.

Like two children waiting for a summer solstice party, both Nadrah and Zara had managed to dress faster than Gabrielle. Now alone in the room, she turned her attention to the mirror. With damp hair neatly combed, she reached for some of the perfumed vials on the counter, and helped herself to the ointments and creams. As she gazed at her reflection, she noted the slight shadows under her eyes. The sleepless nights after Xena's death had taken their toll and now the healer was left with covering up the evidence of her grief.

'Xena, why did I ever listen to you?' she thought silently as she lightly applied ointment under her eyes. 'Because, Gabrielle, that's what you always do. Xena comes up with an idea, and takes off with it without even talking to you about it, and then look what happens,' she groused as she gazed at the reflection of her eyes.

For a moment, the bard was taken aback by what she saw. Although she looked much younger than her age, thanks to a long sleep in an ice cave, and a time in deep sleep within Bruinhilda's ring of flames, she could not help but notice the slight lines etched in her face that had not been there before Higuchi. Remembering the pain of losing her soul mate, Gabrielle shook her head as she set the vial of lotion down.

“Face it, Gabrielle, it's because you love her, that's why you followed her to the edge of the world,” she told her reflection in the mirror. “And it's why you would have followed her even if you had known her plan.”

Angered by her own words, Gabrielle shook her head negatively as she closed her eyes. With head lowered, she reflected on Zara's whispered confession of love. The simple declaration had sent the healer's mind to wandering. 'Would I follow you too?' her mind asked the question even as her thoughts threatened to spin out of control.

'The question, Gabrielle, is, would Zara have asked me to follow her or would she have seen me as an equal partner and confided her troubles to me?' she wondered as she felt her emotions rage out of control. 'And, dear Zara, just because there is an aspect of your personality that I wish Xena had, does that mean that I love you?'

With a shake of her head, she rose quickly from the chair and paced the length of the room with head bent in thought. It was true that she was beginning to feel love for Zara, yet she was unable to clearly understand if it was genuine love, or the love of a close friend. 'Is it even possible to be in love with two people at once?' she wondered as she moved to the patio.

The garden below the patio was quickly filling with people. Many were moving down past the tall hedges toward the open field, while others were milling around the garden, each group lost in their own conversations. Like a beacon, Gabrielle's green eyes spotted the back of the tall woman. Like Nadrah, the Moroccan sea captain seemed excited to join in the day's events. With a shake of her head, Gabrielle smiled as she watched her lover's form disappear from sight as a vivid memory came to mind of another strong woman who had intrigued her as much as Xena.

Gabrielle would never have called it love, so much as a puppy crush. Yet, she did have to admit to Xena that there was something about Najara that captivated her. At first, the bard would only admit to admiring what Najara was trying to accomplish. But as she thought over those days, she realized that if she had stayed with Najara long enough ... if she had never learned of the way that the blonde warrior convinced her followers and treated those who refused, a love might have blossomed.

'And then what would have happened? Would it have worked? Could I have continued to travel with both Xena and Najara and still be able to love them both or would I have been forced to chose?' she wondered as she turned away from the patio.

As she thought of all of her past loves, she remembered the numerous times that friction existed between her and Xena. It was not just with Najara, but there were other people, men and women alike, who seemed to bring tension into their relationship. 'But then again, Gabrielle, you weren't exactly charming to be around either whenever someone started to eye Xena,' she chided herself as she made one last adjustment to her clothing in the mirror, then turned to leave the room.

With quick, light steps, she moved through the estate. The now familiar corridors and stairways proved an easy jaunt for her as she made her way past the other guests. As her feet moved instinctively, she began to remember all the numerous times that she felt jealous whenever Xena's affections were toward someone else. The first time she had felt the bitter pain was when Xena left her for Chin. Throughout all of their time together, and all of their moments of shared love, she had never thought that her warrior would have abandoned her so easily to go on a suicide mission. She gave a slight grimace as she realized the similarities between that time, and Higuchi.

'Each time, Xena had left me for a woman from her past. True, neither one was living, but she left to fulfill some imagined debt that she owed, and each time I was left alone,' her rampant thoughts took another turn even as she was leaving the estate and entering into the garden.

'So where does that leave you, Gabrielle?' she silently wondered, then sardonically answered her own question, 'it leaves ya with a big mess on your hands, dammit.'

This, above everything else, was the paramount thought in her mind. She knew that she could no longer play it down or deny it. There was a love in her for Zara, and it was not a simple puppy crush, as it had been for Najara. No, it was a full blown, I need you, gotta have you, love. One that seemed to consume her entire existence and fill her mind with thoughts of lust and love. Whereas a part of her knew that this sometimes happened, that the surviving person of a relationship could find love so quickly, she had never thought that she would be one of them.

'But then again, Gabrielle, you haven't stopped loving Xena,' she mused as she walked across the thick grass. 'There isn't a night that goes by when I'm not talking to you, Xena. Nor is there a day when I don't feel incomplete without you. Yes, I can share love with Zara, and even enjoy it, but I miss you terribly,' the bard sighed as she absently reached up to wipe away an errant tear from her eyes.

The bard had found no answers to her wandering emotions. Rather than try to discover the solution to her problem, she chose to push it away, at least for the time being. Hopefully, as the days progressed, these troubling thoughts would sort themselves out. Until then, she remained cautious in an attempt to not cause the Moroccan any undue sadness. 'For the gods only know, Zara, you have past sadness enough on your plate without me making it worse.' Gabrielle thought glumly. She sighed deeply, then with this in mind, she smiled at the nearest guests as she made her way onto the archery field.
The contestants began to gather on the open field that had been set up for the day's archery competition. After signing her name to the entry list, Zara moved to the line of bows where Jamil and Nivedita stood close, their voices low as they each tested the various weapons.

In the short time that she had gotten to known Jamil, Zara recognized the Arabian man's body language. With slight words, he spoke softly to the Indian woman, who coyly smiled as she lowered her gaze, only glancing at Jamil occasionally. When the Moroccan approached, they both gave the tall woman a welcoming smile.

“So you are also entering the competition?” Jamil asked as he returned his attention to choosing a bow.

“Are you going to win the necklace for Gabrielle?” Nivedita asked as Zara glanced at a bow, then held it in her hand, before testing the bows string.

“Of course Zara will not win the necklace because I'm winning it for you!” Jamil smiled at the brown woman, the back of his hand lightly touching her cheek.

“Ha! That is what you say, but I say that I will win it for myself!” Nivedita offered back with a smug smile.

“Zara, is Gabrielle entering it as well?” Jamil's attention was suddenly caught by the sight of the blonde in question, standing at the entrance table.

The captain glanced over her shoulder and noticed the bard bending over at the waist as she signed her name with a flourish upon the parchment list of entrants. With a pleased smile, the Moroccan allowed her eyes to gaze with frank hunger at the bard even as her mind wandered to thoughts of their lovemaking.

Zara took a moment to appraise the bard's clothing. Unlike the nicer outfits that were purchased in the city, the bard chose to wear her own clothes. With a pleased smile, the tall woman watched as the bard turned and began to walk toward her, the red outfit only enhancing her beauty. Zara found it hard to not gaze with lust upon the smaller woman's figure, the bard's ample bosoms that begged for Zara's touch were concealed behind the reddish leather bra, and her hips moved so sweetly and seductively under the matching skirt with each step she took. At the site of her Greek lover, the tall Moroccan inhaled deeply.

“Calm down, my friend, you would think that you have never had her!” Jamil chuckled by her side as he slapped her arm in camaraderie.

Pulled from her gaze, Zara smiled as a heat crossed her cheeks, then shook her head before returning her attention to the approaching bard. The Moroccan's eyes never wavered from the bard as she moved to join them. Remembering Jamil's jest, Zara managed a shy grin as she turned away from her lover's smiling face.

“I believe I understand why your people put your women under so much cloth,” she teased back as she shook her head, “At times, I believe it would be easier on the heart,” the Moroccan smiled as she lightly tapped her heart for emphasis. At her words, Jamil merely smiled as he shook his head and turned away from the bard.

“Did I miss anything?” Gabrielle asked when she saw their expressions.

“Nothing worth repeating,” Nivedita snorted

“Zara, what creature managed to wound you so?” the tall Arab asked with a look of genuine concern as he pointed to the discoloration on her neck. Confused, Zara reached up and touched the spot, but when she saw Gabrielle's shy expression, the captain remembered exactly how the marks were made. As her cheeks turned a slight shade of red, the blonde covered her lips and shyly looked away. Before Zara could respond, Nivedita's voice softly laughed.

“And you've forgotten so soon how such marks are made!” the Indian woman asked as she reached up and lightly tapped his shoulder. At his look of innocence, Nivedita crossed her arms in front of her chest as she glared up the tall man.

“Think carefully before you answer,” her brow raised inquisitively.

“Why … I-I…” Jamil stammered as his hand covered the part of his shirt which was certainly concealing a similar mark.

“Oh, I thought you'd suddenly remember!” Nivedita chuckled, and then turned to the Greek woman, “So, Gabrielle, you are entering the tournament?” Nivedita asked as a way of changing the subject.

“Yeah, I thought I'd try my hand at it,” the bard's smile sent warmth through Zara's soul as a shiver ran down her spine.

“But why bother when Zara will be entered?” Jamil asked. “I already told Nivedita that she didn't have to be here, I plan on winning that emerald for her!”

“Ha! I will win it for myself … men, they always think they must do everything for us!” Nivedita chuckled as she leaned toward the bard, her words brought a hearty laugh from the smaller blonde woman.

“Not just men! Zara, tell me, my friend, what will you do if you win the jewel?” Jamil asked his friend.

For a moment, Zara thought of an appropriate response as her gaze moved to each of her friends. A part of her knew that she should withdraw from the conversation, but rather than listen to her instincts, she merely shrugged. Her gaze turned to her lover and a brow rose as if to offer a gift to the bard.

“I will give it to Gabrielle to wear, of course,” she answered.

“And if I win it, then you've got to wear it!” Gabrielle snorted with a slight laugh as her slender finger jabbed into Zara's shoulder.

“But…?” The tall Moroccan could only stammer as her friends began to laugh. With only a smile and slight chuckle, the bard moved toward the bows and began to inspect each one, testing for weight, strength, and length of the bow.

“Gabrielle?” Zara whispered as she moved to her side, “You are not serious, are you?”

“Of course. If you win, then I wear it, and if I win….” The bard's brow arched and she grinned up at the Moroccan from under her eyebrows.

“Y-You wouldn't!” With something akin to horror, Zara realized that her lover was sincere about making her wear such a … a … womanly piece of jewelry.

“Oh, wouldn't I?” was all Gabrielle said before returning her attention to choosing a bow.

“You'd better choose wisely, my friend, or else your woman may be winning this competition instead of you!” Jamil jested with a hearty laugh as they all returned their attention to the bows.

“I fear you may be correct, my friend,” Zara answered as she focused all of her concentration on finding the proper bow.
The cool morning breeze was soon replaced with the heat of the afternoon sun. Once Arjun had set down the rules, with a scribe nearby in order to avoid any confusion later, each archer took their places with the guests from out of the country shooting first from a set distance. A few of the Sultan's group were eliminated early on, with Jamil and his troops all passing the first hurdle. Both Zara and Gabrielle easily hit their target's center mark and were able to step aside as the rest of the competitors lined up for their shot while the servants retrieved the marked arrows from the range.

If anyone had doubts about Nivedita's ability at the sport, it was all swept away with her first shot. The missile sang as it thunked into almost the exact center of her target, drawing a few shouts of surprise and applause. Lined with the visitors from Indus, she was the only woman of that country attempting the competition and the only one who seemed the better skilled of many of the aristocrats. With a pleased smile, the Indian woman turned and made her way back to the group that sat on chair's in a circle. With only three chairs available, the woman brazenly smiled at Jamil before taking a place on his lap.

“Did you think I could not shoot?” she asked him as she easily draped a muscled but slender arm around his shoulder.

“Oh, I had no doubts of your ability! Didn't your arrow reach my lucky heart?” Jamil quipped as he pulled her into a hug.

Zara looked away from the two in hopes of offering discretion then caught Gabrielle's sad glance. As if sorrowed by a thought that had crossed her mind, the bard watched their two friends, then lowered her gaze. A mist of tears threatened to spill from her control.

With a smile, Zara reached out and took the smaller woman's hand in hers in an attempt to offer comfort. At her touch, the bard gave a weak smile as she clasped Zara's hand. For a moment, the Moroccan thought her lover was on the verge of saying something, but then the bard only turned away as a sigh escaped her. The bard's gaze fell to a distant object which only she seemed able to see. Zara turned away, knowing that the bard's thoughts must be on her lost soul mate. With little else to do, the sea captain strove to maintain her concentration as she awaited the completion of the day's competition.
The day progressed slowly for those who had to wait their turn. As each group finished and some were eliminated, the targets were pulled further back and the lines began again. As the afternoon sun began to move toward the dinner hour, the group was slowly whittled away.

When the number of competitors were cut in half, Zara gazed down the line beyond her own group, her vision moving past Gabrielle, Jamil, and Nivedita. Near the middle of the group she was pleased to see that Isa had made it to this round. At the very end of the line was Daruka, his scowling features glanced her way every now and then. With a grimace of irritation, the Moroccan stilled her mind and turned her entire attention to focus on the target. She waited for the ready call, then in one steady move she notched her arrow, took careful aim before releasing the projectile. Mentally she followed its flight through the air and watched as it hit her target dead center. Pleased with herself, she smiled as she turned to her friends, then glanced at their targets and noticed that they had all hit their marks within the qualifying circle, if not dead center. Gabrielle caught Zara's eye and smiling, shook hands with herself.

Zara began to smile back, but before they could rejoice further in their skill, an angry shout erupted from the line. Glancing down, they watched as Daruka yelled at a servant, his words screaming out in a language they did not understand. Then, as if in a fit of rage, the Indian captain took his bow and broke it over his knee. Zara glanced up at Arjun. The young prince stood on the balcony gazing down at the scene. His face was impassive, as he appeared to contemplate the situation. When a decision had been reached, the prince calmly nodded at the servant who was waiting for his judgment. With the nod, the servant quickly scribbled a note on his parchment, then turned and waved at the servant standing by the target before turning and bowing low to Daruka. Daruka grunted in satisfaction as he nodded then stormed off from the field.

“What was that about, I wonder?” Jamil whispered close to their group.

“I could only guess,” Gabrielle shrugged.

“That Daruka, he is a bad one to cross,” Nivedita spoke softly, and then glanced up at Zara, “Not to mention that he is a very poor sport.”

“Zara, you know that man, what is his story?” Jamil asked softly as they watched Daruka leaving the competition area.

The tall Moroccan watched her former adversary as she thought of how to respond. Deciding on discretion, she shook her head slightly as she returned her attention to gathering up her equipment. As if sensing Zara's reluctance, Jamil only nodded.

Zara turned her attention away from her Arab friend, and to her lover. Gabrielle's brow was creased into a frown as she glanced at Daruka. When she turned, a slight blush crossed her cheeks when she realized that Zara had been watching her. At her smaller lover's ferocious nature, the Moroccan couldn't help but smile as she shook her head in amusement.

Before Zara could comment on her lover's reaction, a house servant moved by her side. With a smile and a nod, she took the offered note and opened it, worried that it might be yet another message from Shikha. As she glanced over the handwriting, she found it unfamiliar, certainly not that of Daruka's wayward wife. Reading further, she found it was a dinner invitation, and her brow creased as she came across the final words that instructed it would be a private meeting.

“Zara?” Gabrielle had moved beside her and was reading over her shoulder. But knowing that the bard could not read the language, Zara closed the invitation.

“It seems the sultan wishes for a meeting ... a … private meeting over dinner,” she said as she glanced at Jamil, hoping that he would be able to shed light on the invitation. The look of confusion was followed with one of disappointment was quickly masked by the big man.

“Well … I guess I will be needed tonight as well,” Jamil's voice was neutral, as he seemed deep in thought.

“Gabrielle?” Zara secretly hoped that the bard would ask her to postpone the meeting. But the bard only smiled as she leaned against her.

“I'm sure I can occupy myself for an hour or so,” the bard smiled.

“Certainly we can find something to do without you two!” the Indian woman agreed with a slight smile.

With only a sigh, the Moroccan nodded agreement. A part of her resented the request. After spending time with Gabrielle, she was beginning to cherish her evenings alone with the blonde and had looked forward to spending tonight in their room. Despite the inconvenience, she promised herself that she would not spend any more time than was needed, in order that she could return quickly to the sweet embrace of a certain bard.

Part 37

Although the Sultan's concubines were entertaining, Zara found her thoughts continually drifting back to a certain woman who promised to be waiting for her return. As each plate was laid before them, the tall Moroccan helped herself after the host had filled his plate. With the music droning in the background, and the voices of the Sultan's closest advisors situated in a semi-circle, Zara only half listened to the conversations around her. Nothing could have taken her from her idle thoughts of her lover.

As the Sultan began to describe his home, she smiled and nodded encouragingly as she ate the piece of lamb with a sliver of bread. Like a tourist guide, the Sultan verbally built up all of the best qualities that were found in his kingdom. Taking his words as merely conversation Zara would nod and smile.

“I should like to see your home someday,” she added as the meal was coming to a conclusion. For a moment, the Sultans smile beamed at her, before he turned and nodded to Abu al-Farabi. Like coconspirators, they nodded as they exchanged knowing grins.

“Which is why I have asked for you to join me tonight. There is much we have to speak of, something of grave importance,” the Sultan's voice grew lower as he leaned toward the Moroccan.

As if on cue, the women stopped dancing as they turned and left the large room. Beside them, the Sultan's advisors began to rise and walk out to the patio. Sensing an end to the dinner, Zara began to rise from her pillowed seat on the floor, but was stopped when she felt the older man's hand on her arm.

“Zara, we must speak,” the Sultan's voice was soft as he glanced at Abu al-Farabi, and then at Jamil. Each one bowed, then rose to move across the room. Unlike the other advisors, both men remained near the Sultan as if to offer assistance.

“Zara … my friend, there is much for us to speak candidly about,” the Sultan began as he poured them both a cup of tea. At the offered drink, she smiled as she took the cup and held it in her hands.

Patience was the greatest virtue Zara felt she had. She had always been patient when dealing in business. Of all of her brothers, she was the only one who could remain still during a negotiation until the dealings were offered in her family's favor. Now, with the Sultan's slow, controlled words, Zara was very grateful that she was able to still her mind as the older man spoke.

“With the assistance of our generous hosts, I was able to receive a dispatch regarding a family matter, something which I think will be of interest to you,” the Sultan began to explain. “Ah … Zara … how does one begin with such things?”

“Usually, Sultan, I found the beginning to be a good place to start,” she nodded politely before she sipped of the tea.

“Yes … the beginning…” The Sultan nodded as he lowered his eyes. “The beginning it shall be then,” he smiled as he set his cup down. “Once, long ago, I had a sister who was close to my heart. She was older than I, possessing much more bravery than I could ever have,” he stated, as his eyes became cloudy with past memories.

In silence, Zara listened to his words. She found herself mesmerized by the tale of the Sultan's sister. At first, the Moroccan found it difficult to imagine that anyone so unlike most Arab women would have been of royalty. But as she saw the whimsical look in the older man's eyes, she realized that her notions of royalty were greatly ill informed. The Sultan's sister was unlike most women in the realm. She was brave and spoke up. When battles were raised against their homeland, she took up the scimitar and fought alongside her brothers. There was never a time that the woman did not stand up against their father for what she believed was a righteous cause. When it came to family, she was always by their side, making certain that no one was ever left alone or unprotected.

Before Zara realized a change in the conversation, the Sultan began to talk of a brother, another Sultan in his own right. The sadness in the older man's voice told Zara that at some point, the man had joined Allah, but what had caused it, she did not know. As the tale weaved through the shifting tides of the royal lines and intrigue, Zara found herself learning much more of the Sultan's family lineage than she had thought possible.

“…my brother, may Allah embrace him always,” the gray haired man said as he lowered his eyes in sadness, “was devastated after his daughter disappeared. He searched high and low for her, but could never find her. He had the boarders closed, offered rewards and sent men everywhere throughout his domain, but no one reported seeing her again. It was as if she had vanished from his kingdom!” The Sultan leaned toward Zara, his eyes wide as if to convey the gravity of his words.

Zara nodded and gulped nervously as she leaned closer to him in an attempt to hear more of the story. Seeing her reaction, he smiled as he nodded solemnly. Her reaction brought relief to him.

“My brother, I loved him dearly, even though he could be stubborn at times. It was his stubbornness which brought about his death, oh yes, mark my words, that is what hastened his journey to Allah's beloved arms,” the older man stated hoarsely. “For you see, Zara, after his beloved child had left, he decreed that she was dead to him. That no one was to be allowed ever to speak her name again but I tell you this, as Allah is my witness,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “my poor brother was the first one to break his own law!”

At his words, Zara gasped as she leaned back, her thoughts wandering to the Sultan's brother, then to the niece.

“As he lay weak and near death, my beloved brother made me swear by Allah that I would try to find his child … his beloved daughter,” the older man's voice was laced with sadness as he shook his head and lowered his eyes. “I promised my brother that this grave mistake would be corrected, that I would do all that I could to reunite his child with our family.”

The room grew suddenly quiet as the ruler's voice trailed off and he continued to stare at the floor. Zara felt herself holding her breath as she waited for the rest of the story. When it seemed that he would not continue, she leaned toward the older man.

“Sultan, did you find your brother's daughter … your niece? Were you able to reunite her with her family again?” she asked softly.

The Sultan looked up again and gave her a toothy smile that broke through his bearded face. With a pleased expression, he closed his eyes for a moment, then leaned back slightly. As if a burden had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders, he nodded.

“My people have been trying for many years to locate her, but all have failed. Just when I began to give up hope, Allah, in his infinite wisdom, has seen fit to answer my prayers, you see, Zara, what I have not told you about the story is the most important to know,” he pointed a finger as his gaze remained on her.

“What is that, Sultan?” she felt the gravity of his words and felt as if her heart had stopped beating.

“What I have not told you is what lead up to her disappearance. You see, Zara my friend … my niece had fallen in love, and it was a love that took her far away from her home and family. But it wasn't just any love,” he stopped Zara's question before she could ask. “It was a love that could not be because you see, a Sultan's daughter could never be allowed to wed a commoner, a merchant, and above all else, a foreigner!”

“A-A foreigner, Sultan?” Zara felt it hard to swallow as an ominous sensation fell over her.

“Yes, a foreigner … from the land of Morocco,” the older man's words grew silent.

Zara did not know what to say. Rather than speak, she watched the older man's eyes intently. She tried to decipher his words as her heart began to race out of control.

“My sister, the brave woman I spoke of earlier, her name was Azzah,” the Sultan smiled knowingly, then added, “My niece, whom I swore to find, was her favorite niece,” the older man paused as he smiled at her, his eyes attempting to convey his unspoken message. With a slight nod, he leaned toward her as he softly whispered, “do you understand?”

Zara lowered her gaze as she absently stroked her chin. She felt her mind racing through his words. Although she thought she understood what he was saying, another part was confused.

“I gave up all hope of finding my long lost niece, but after some communication with home, I confirmed the name of the merchant who stole her heart was al-Zarqa,” he stated solemnly as he waited for her response.

The impending doom she felt seemed magnified. She felt her heart suddenly racing out of control as her mind grew still. Gulping down the dryness in her throat, she turned and looked directly into the Sultan's eyes.

“M-My … father?” she heard a whispered voice that sounded like her own, but she could not be certain.

“Yes, child, your father,” the Sultan smiled, then continued, “You see Zara, the minute I saw you, I knew there was a familiarity about you. Once I realized that you resemble your aunt in many ways, I knew that the information must be confirmed. You are my niece's child … you are part of my family, and now…” he spread his hands. “Now, it is time that you return to your family…”

His words droned on in her senses. Zara heard his voice and saw his mouth moving, yet the meaning did not register in the core of her thoughts. “Zara, you and your mother must come back into the family. It is time to return to us. I know my brother would wish it, and I ask you, to please…” But the Moroccan heard no more. Instead, she found the memories of her past returning to her. The memories, memories too hideous to contemplate returned in a vivid stream of images….

The cold darkness of the cell seeped into her bones as the sounds of screams echoed off of the walls. In the beginning, she had been held down and forced to undergo things that she had never thought possible. The violation of her body was only minor compared to the torture that they put her through. When they seemed to tire of their sport with her, they had locked her down here in the cold, dark place for what felt like an eternity. When she tried to move, she felt the cold iron around her ankles and wrists. The muscles in her body protested to be used, to move, to flex and run as far away from this nightmare as she could. Yet the cold irons kept her locked within the prison.

Zara did not know how long she had been held in the cold dungeon. After a time, she began to count the days by the number of her servants who had been executed before her eyes. One by one, she watched in horror as they were raped, tortured, then murdered in front of her. Their severed heads were placed in finely woven baskets that were sent one after another, to her father.

With a shake of her head, the young girl had pulled her thoughts from the maddening images of the recent days. Although she thought that time must surely have stopped, and she was stuck in a dark nightmare, a part of her knew that this was real, the executions, the odor of the dead was enough to keep her grounded in reality. In time, Zara had become accustomed even to the stench of her own filth.

From somewhere in the darkness, she heard the soft sobs rising in the air. Straining to hear the sound, she closed her eyes and focused on the person who was sitting so near to her, yet so far away. With a strangled cry, she tried to break free from the confines of her chains, but as always was unsuccessful.

“Alaya,” her hoarse voice whispered. For a moment, the soft cries stopped then began again. “Please … my love … please…” Zara called out.

“I-I … am next,” came the strangled sob.

“No … No!” the young Moroccan yanked on her chains, the bindings cutting into her already bruised and swollen flesh. “No, my love … no! My father will pay the ransom; he will, I know he will!”

But a ransom had never arrived and she was forced, once again, to witness the execution of not only a friend, but that of the one person she loved most upon the earth as well.

After this, her view seemed to shrink and slow to a standstill. She sank into herself, responding no more to anything taking place anywhere around her. Cold and hunger, pain or suffering meant nothing; words meant less than nothing. Not even when the loud voices broke into her darkness did she pay them any attention.

Even when she felt the strong arms carrying her out of the hateful place where she had been held for so long, she only closed her eyes as the images of captivity and torture played over and over in her mind. The succession of images gnawed and gashed at her soul but none were more hideous than the one that always ended the chain of horror.

The brilliant green eyes of Alaya.

They looked at her one last time, and in that single glance, she felt all of her soul mate's love, and then … it was over.

“She must stop this nonsense!” The shouts of her father reached her hearing.

“Please, she is sick! With all that she has gone through, can you not be compassionate?” Zara heard her mother plead as she stared up at the ceiling, her focus remained hazy as she lay unmoving upon a bed, which smelled of clean linen and sharp medicinal odors.

“You!” The sound in her father's voice was unmistakable. As a part of her tried, in vain, to free herself from the self-imposed prison of silence, another part recoiled at the sound that soon followed. She flinched when she heard his hard slap, followed by her mother's cry. As if he were swatting a fly, he continued slapping her over and over until he finally grew tired.

“This is YOUR family's fault!” The young Moroccan girl heard him scream as her mother's weeping rang in the air. “They are the barbarians! They took her and did this to her!” Her father spat in anger. “Her madness will stop, do you hear me, this nonsense of hers will stop!” he ordered before he stormed out of the room.

From somewhere in her vision, she saw a figure lean over her. A large gentle hand softly wiped a cool cloth over her forehead. When he moved slightly from the shadows, she noticed the familiar face of her brother's friend looking down at her with compassion.

“Abu,” her whisper caught him by surprise. With only a broad smile, he put his finger to his lips to silence her.

“Shush, little mouse,” the big man glanced over his shoulder, then looked back down at her. “Always remember this, little mouse, never forget…” But his words drifted in the air like the desert dust on the wind…

Zara turned and looked at the Sultan. His voice was soft as he continued to speak to her. As the sound of his words drifted to her senses, she inwardly recoiled. The stabbing memories were too vivid for her to wipe clean. Over and over again, she remembered her father's accusations that it was her mother's family who had kidnapped and tortured her and her friends and servants. It was at their hands, that one by one, they were executed. Only the people from the East were barbaric enough to subject a child to such torture, her father had argued.

In that instant, Zara felt a growl deep in her gut. Like a desert snake, she felt herself jumping from her seat, her hands reaching for the cause of her torment. Without thought or concern for herself, she lashed out at the Sultan of Hadhramaut.

YOU! It's because of you!” she heard herself screaming as her fingers wrapped around the man's neck, her thumbs instantly digging in as she sat astride his prone body. There was a look of shocked surprise on his face as she tried to stop the flow of air into his lungs.

Before she could feel the old man's life begin to drain away, she felt a hard blow against her back. The moment of pain caused her to release her hold long enough for the man to gasp for air. With the quickness of lightening, someone had grabbed her and pulled her from the Sultan. Despite her struggles, she fought for her freedom so that she could return to the old man and end his life. Zara knew that there was nothing that could ever bring her spirit twin back. But in this moment in time, all the Moroccan longed for was the demise of every part of the family responsible for her beloved's death.

ZARA, I SAID BE STILL!” Jamil's shout reached some part of her brain. At the sound of his voice, she glanced at him, hardly noticing the look of concern in his eyes as he held her pinned against the wall. “My friend, do not make me take you down, because I will,” his whisper sounded close to her ear.

With a growl, she stared at the Sultan, and noticed the aged healer by his side as he coughed and panted for air. Angered at her failure, she struggled and pulled free from her friend's grip. Panting in anger, she glared down at the Sultan with hatred in her eyes and her lips drew back from her teeth. She started forward but before she could get to the old man again, Jamil was in front of her, his scimitar drawn as he held a hand up as if to ward her off.

“My friend, do not make me do this,” his voice was soft, yet firm.

“You…” she whispered as she stared past Jamil and down at the sultan. “IT'S YOU AND YOUR FAMILY THAT DID IT!” she screamed as she pointed an accusing finger at the old man.

“Z-Zara … what?” the Sultan tried to protest.

“Shut up! You know what you did! You know how I was taken, held prisoner … it was at your family's orders that they were killed … that my poor Alaya was … was…” The words got choked in her throat as the tears of anger and hatred threatened to spill. Again she made as if to start forward and was stopped by a sharp pain as the point of Jamil's scimitar came against her belly and broke the skin slightly. The head guard stared grimly into her eyes, his face a conflicted mask of distress and duty.

At the stabbing pain in her stomach, Zara was shocked back to reality, as she hesitated, the Sultan looked at his healer in confusion. Seeing his master's expression, the older man stood up and moved behind Jamil. In a manner which took Zara's gaze away from the Sultan, Abu-al-Farabi stood directly in front of the Moroccan captain's line of sight.

“Captain al-Zarqa. We do not know what you speak of,” the old man spoke softly, almost formally and his words were somehow calming. “Perhaps, if you were to consider who it was that told you it was the Sultan who had a part of this crime of which you speak, you will know who is the true culprit?”

Zara heard his words yet tried to push them away. As the healer's comments replayed in her mind, she felt her thoughts running rampant. The memories of that time replayed over and over as the voice of her father became mixed with the smile of Abu.

As if her world were spinning out of control, she felt the tears falling freely as the panic of uncertainty clouded her vision. With a shake of her head, she took a step back from the three Arabs. She tried to find an answer to her troubling thoughts, yet came up empty handed. At the memory of Abu's face hovering over hers, she clung to one single hope, one thought that spurred her to run away from the Sultan's quarters toward where the answers lay.

With shuddering steps, she ran wildly across the large home, running faster and faster till it seemed almost as if she were flying. She pushed past the various guards toward the part of the estate where she knew Abu was. Without preamble, she slammed open the door. As she did so, gasps and screams of surprise rose in the flower scented room. Ignoring Arjun's startled and half clothed wives, Zara stumbled directly to where her friend lay. The surprised expression on his face was almost ludicrous as he hastily pulled the covers over his naked body and at another time she would have laughed.

“C-Captain?” Shock laced his voice.

Panting and covered with sweat, Zara knelt on the edge of the large bed and her voice was deep with pain. “Tell me, Abu, you know the truth! Tell me!”

“C-Captain … I-I … don't understand,” Abu nodded at the women to leave the room and they fled hastily.

With a shake of her head, Zara tapped her forehead with her fingers as she fought to remember the words. “Abu … y-you told me … never forget … b-but … Abu, please … tell me what happened!”

As if he had just been punched in the guts, Abu gasped, then lowered his eyes as the memories from long ago returned. Finally, the large man sighed as he returned her gaze. Zara noticed the moisture in his eyes as he shook his head.

“Captain … it was a long time ago,” his voice was soft.

“Tell me, Abu. I need to know, please! Only you know the truth! I need to know if it was my mother's family … w-were they the ones … are they the ones who t-took her from me? Did they murder my Alaya?” The tears fell freely down her face.

Abu sighed softly. He visibly gulped as he closed his eyes. As if steeling himself for battle, the bigger man nodded to himself, then opened his eyes and sat up on the side of the bed, looking directly at her.

“I have no proof, Captain. I only know that your father did nothing to pay the ransom … a-and … Captain, it was your father who tried, in vain, to stop me and my men from attempting a rescue!” The man's words brought a sudden clarity to her thoughts as he continued. “Captain, there were rumors in the streets, in the pubs and brothels; that a wealthy merchant had hired thugs to take the … t-the…” Abu shook his head and swallowed. “Captain, it was insanity, all insanity.”

“Tell me Abu … who were they suppose to take?” But when the man could not finish his sentence, Zara sighed as she rose from the bed. “They were to take the bastard daughter, a girl who wasn't his,” she finished her friend's sentence.

At her words, Abu closed his eyes and lowered his head in shame. The silence in the room was only broken by the slight panting from Zara as she tried to catch her breath. As she thought over her new discovery, she slowly stepped away from her friend.

“M-My … father wanted me … dead…” she whispered and was answered by his silence.

With a shake of her head, she turned and ran from the room. Ignoring all around her, she made her way through the hallways. At one point, she thought she pushed past Jamil, but rather than look at him closer, she ran as fast as she could from the light of the estate. As the horrible thoughts of who had been responsible for her tormented past threatened to consume her soul, she ran through the courtyard. She ignored the guards who watched her running past them. When she reached the open field of the estate, Zara made her way over the grass as she ran blindly across the fields. By the light of the quarter moon, she ran as fast as she could as the madness of her discovery threatened to consume her.
On this second night, Prince Arjun easily slipped away from the dinner crowd. Once assured of his guests' comfort, he made his way to the darkness of the patio. For a moment he stood in the silence and closed his eyes as he inhaled the crisp, fresh air of the night. At a slight sound, he opened them again and glanced toward the darkness of the open clearing.

Zara's navigator sat alone in the darkness. With head downcast and shoulders slumped; Isa seemed submerged in a cloud of sorrow. At first, Arjun was ready to allow him his privacy. But seeing such open pain, the prince felt compelled to help.

As he moved silently over the marbled patio, a tall, muscular form stepped from the shadows. Much taller than Arjun, and well built, Hiresh, the captain of his guards, nodded respectfully toward him. The uniformed solider glanced down into the darkness, before turning to the prince, and raising a brow to ask a silent question. After their many years of being together, Arjun knew exactly what the captain was requesting. With a shake of his head, and a slight wave of his hand, Arjun dismissed his faithful guard and friend.

Despite the amount of jewelry that adorned him, Arjun had no trouble in approaching the lone figure without being heard. When he was close enough to touch the man, he smiled softly. 'Poor thing, so much grief,' he thought as he waited for the man to notice him. When Isa finally did, the tall navigator rose quickly to his feet as he stammered an apology.

“Prince Arjun, I-I … please forgive me, I did not mean to intrude upon your privacy!” Isa stuttered slightly as he bowed his head to Arjun. With a carefree wave of a hand and a warm smile, Arjun brushed away his guest's concern.

“Please be seated. It is I who am intruding upon your solitude,” Arjun explained as he smiled softly, his normally theatrical hands now quieted as he spoke “If I am intruding, do not be afraid to tell me so.”

“It is no intrusion, Your Highness,” the navigator said quickly.

In the span of seconds Arjun assessed the young man. He noticed his crisp, finely tailored clothes now slightly wrinkled. Although Isa had attended both dinner gatherings, the man's clothes hung slightly loose as if he had recently dropped some weight. When he looked at the young man's face, the prince noticed the pale complexion, the red eyes, and tear stained cheeks in the faint light of the lanterns that hung throughout the garden.

With an understanding nod, Arjun waved his hand, “Come, walk with me a bit,” he asked as they began to move through the garden setting.

“Are you comfortable in my home?” Arjun asked softly, all pretenses now gone. The young man walked a few paces behind the prince, his manner seeming to be carefully controlled.

“Oh, yes, your highness; your home is very comfortable. I thank you again for allowing me to stay,” Isa's voice was low as the nearby insect noises rose softly into the night.

Moving to a secluded bench, Arjun pointed to it, then sat, and waited as the navigator settled himself uncomfortably next to him. With a slight smile, Arjun leaned over and rested his hand momentarily on Isa's sleeve. When the young man turned to him, Arjun sighed as he attempted to send forth soothing thoughts of comfort.

“So, Isa, tell me all about your soul mate. What was he like?” the prince asked, knowing that this was the topic that would draw the navigator out.

Arjun felt the young man smile in the darkness, before he began to speak softly. The young prince listened with patience as Isa spoke of his lost mate. He smiled at all of the endearing comments and laughed at the jokes that the navigator had shared with his love. Despite the night chill, Arjun found it easy to concentrate on everything that the young man said. He listened with interest to the tale of their first meeting, and just as he had done in the past with his close friends, Arjun paid attention to what was not said, as well as what had been verbalized.

Before the young navigator could finish speaking a slight noise caught their attention. As they sat in the darkness, they watched as the lone figure walked slowly into the gardens. Arjun smiled when he saw Nadrah's tiny form in Gabrielle's arms, her little arms hung loosely over the Greek's shoulders, and her head nuzzled against the bard's neck as she slept. As if hardly aware of the child, the healer bard easily carried the child through the gardens, then up the steps to the estate.

Arjun smiled at the sight of the bard and child. When Gabrielle disappeared behind the closed door, Isa turned away as if he was embarrassed that he had been hiding in the dark. Arjun reached over and lightly patted the young man's hand reassuringly. At his touch, Isa smiled slightly as a deep sigh of sadness escaped his control.

“I-I … miss Rabeé so much,” Isa whispered softly.

With a nod of understanding, Arjun spoke with sympathy and conviction. “For now, I know that there is nothing I can say to remove the pain…” His voice dropped low. “Nor would I wish to.” At the navigator's stare, he went on gently. “Isa, our life pain shapes us in part, makes us who we are, just as surely as our love and pleasure. All of life gives us strength and loss, the rainy days as well as the sunny ones. I would not take from you the pain of Rabeé's loss any more than I would take away the time you spent knowing his love, for both are inexorably intermingled.”

Arjun looked seriously at the tall man and his voice had none of the gently mocking humor it usually held. “Isa, the first step you took on the road of life assured your eventual arrival at death. There is no life without death and no pleasure comes without pain. So we live with what comes to us and go on, knowing that the bad times will eventually pass … and the good times will as well, and so on to the end. To view it any other way is folly for you cannot have one without the other.” When he finished, Isa was silent for a long while and Arjun said nothing more, leaving him with his thoughts.

Finally, the navigator turned an intense gaze upon the prince and said, “Will I … ever stop missing him?”

For a moment, Arjun thought of the question and tried to find an answer. Then he sighed deeply as he took the young man's hand in his. “No, my friend, the missing will always be with you, but I know that the pain will decrease with time.” The prince stared intently at Isa. “Understand this. You must face the pain of Rabeé's loss and endure it, but there is no need to endure it alone. Share it with your friends, for when you speak of Rabeé's love to others, he will live again in your words. It is then that your pain will be replaced solely by the memory of the joy you both knew, for while shared pain is lessened, shared joy is multiplied one hundred fold! It is then that your heart will lighten of its burden and you can move on and love and live again.” Arjun's voice was soft but intent. “You will find new loves, Isa, but you will not lose Rabeé. He will always be yours to hold, for you will keep him in your heart to cherish forever!”

At his final words, Isa bent forward. With racking sobs, he shook as Arjun wrapped a comforting arm over his shoulders. Like a man lost to the darkness, Isa held tight to Arjun, his tears and pain flowing freely as he felt the prince's gentle touch, and his words of kindness.

From the darkness, Arjun heard a slight commotion. When the captain of his guards stepped forward, he waved away the man and continued to hold Isa in his arms. Only when the navigator had finished crying did Arjun pull away from the man.

The prince smiled with concern as he gently wiped the tears from the man's cheeks. With a sympathetic sigh, Arjun clasped Isa's shoulder, then gently nodded understanding. As if ashamed by his actions, the navigator tried to wipe away his tears as he shook his head.

“Forgive me, prince … I-I…” Isa began to say as he rose to his feet, but was silenced by Arjun's light touch.

“No forgiveness is necessary, my friend. All is well, and … I do understand,” he assured as he stood before the man. For a moment, Isa gazed down at him through the light of the nearby torches. Once assured of his sincerity, Isa smiled sheepishly before bowing to the prince.

“Good night, Prince Arjun,” Isa whispered, then turned to leave.

“Good night, my friend.” Arjun watched as the tall man walked briskly up the stairs, then disappeared into the estate doors. Finally with an irritated sigh, the prince turned to the captain who had remained concealed in the shadows.

As the man moved before him, Arjun frowned. “This had better be good,” he said.

“Your highness, I beg your forgiveness but it's the Sultan and … and your sister, Zara,” Hiresh said.

At the tone of his voice, the young prince narrowed his eyes at his captain. “What is it?” he asked, dreading news that something had occurred which was the result of Daruka.

“She … tried to kill the Sultan, your highness,” the captain spoke softly.

“What?” Arjun felt his mouth fall open as he stared at the burly guard.

“I checked the information before coming to you, your highness. It is true. Zara attempted to murder the Sultan, but his guard, Jamil, kept the Sultan from harm.” Captain Hiresh stated.

“B-But, holy Krishna … I don't understand,” Arjun felt his brow arching as he turned away from the guard. “Why? Why would she have attacked the man? Hiresh, this is not Zara, it cannot be!”

“I beg your pardon, my prince, but it is reported that a madness has consumed her. She left their quarters and spent only moments within your wives' quarters, then she was not seen again,” the burly man explained.

As a cold fear filled him, Prince Arjun turned and began to run toward his estate. He had no idea what could have happened to Zara, but he knew that she would not have done such a thing. As the urgency of the news settled within his mind, he made his way briskly past his guests, barely acknowledging them before disappearing up the staircase to his private quarters.
Once Nadrah had been tucked in bed, the bard removed a clean parchment from her bag in an attempt to begin a new tale. Since Higuchi, Gabrielle had made no attempt to write. Her grief at losing her love made it impossible to conjure up images of adventure and intrigue. But now that she felt calmer, she hoped that the words would begin to flow. What she ended up doing instead was a simple message, a letter to her soul mate who was no longer alive, yet still very much with her.

“Xena my love. How can I possibly express my feelings … my joy that you are still beside me as well as my sorrow that you are not? How I long to touch you; kiss you, to just feel your living caress against me. It has been so long since the matter at Higuchi and so much has happened to me, yet sometimes I feel as if it were only an hour or so since I held you that last night on the boat before we made our fateful landing in Japa. You were warm and soft. Your skin like hot silk as you loved me. Little did I guess between our sighs and kisses, that this would be the last time I could ever truly hold you…"

The parchment swam before her eyes as tears blurred her vision, and Gabrielle lay down the pen. As she wiped them away and blew her nose, the bard sighed. 'Xena, oh, Xena,' she thought sadly. 'Why didn't you come to me and tell me what you had in mind. At least asked me? But no matter how skilled I became, you always thought you knew best about everything. Gods, I love you, but if you were here right now I think I'd shake you till your teeth rattled! Why didja have to be so damn stubborn?' When no answer seemed forthcoming, she sighed and picked up the pen and parchment once more. Before she could start writing again, the door to their room slammed open, and the prince entered with a large guardsman following.

“Arjun?” the surprised bard jumped up from the bed, scroll and plume in hand.

“Where is she?” Arjun glanced around the room, then moved to the smaller bedroom door. After opening the door, the prince peered around that room, then closed it and turned to the puzzled bard. “Oh, Gabrielle, where is she?” Before she could speak he clenched his fists and hissed at the ceiling, “Zara! Where did you go?”

“Sh-She's having dinner with the Sultan. Is-Is everything alright?” The bard asked as she looked wide-eyed from the guard, then to Arjun.

“Then she never came back here?” the prince asked, but did not wait for her answer. Instead, he turned to his guard and spoke quickly in a language she didn't know.

The bard felt a panic come over her as she realized that something was very wrong. “Arjun, where is Zara? What's happened?”

“A Krishna-damned big mess if I am not able to clear it up quickly,” he muttered as he turned to leave the room. Dropping her scroll and plum on the bed, she quickly slipped on her sandals and hurried to catch up with the prince.

“I don't understand, Zara was having dinner with the Sultan tonight,” Gabrielle heard the panic in her own voice.

“Yes, she was having dinner with the Sultan, right before she tried to kill him,” the young prince stated matter of factly as he walked briskly down the corridors of his estate.

“Kill him! What are you saying? I don't understand!” the bard gasped as they rounded a corner, and came head first into the Sultan, his healer Abu-al-Faribi, the guard Jamil and Abu.

“Oh, Sultan, my dear man, am I ever grateful to see you are all right!” Prince Arjun's voice quickly changed to his tone used for guests and visitors, “Why, when I heard that my dear friend, Zara had gone insane and tried to hurt you, I was beside myself! Absolutely beside myself! And sick with worry, Oh yes! I trust you are well now. And please, let me assure you that I will have my own personal guards standing by to insure your safety!”

“Your highness, I am well, but I must beg of you to find Zara. It is imperative that she be found safely,” the Sultan spoke quickly as he gazed down at Arjun.

“She ran past me very upset,” Jamil added as he stepped forward.

“Once her friend, Abu, explained what the poor woman has gone through, we quickly understood her outburst,” the aged healer added.

“So you see, it is imperative that we find her … for I fear that she may…” the Sultan shook his head as he glanced down.

Abu spoke quickly and the tension in his voice was plain. “Prince Arjun, I fear that Zara … that is, I mean, the captain, sh-she may try to harm herself. We need to find her … and quickly!”

At his words, the bard felt as if her heart had stopped. Remembering what she knew of Zara's past, how she had witnessed the loss of her soul mate when she was still so young caused the blonde to worry about her lover's safety. As if sensing the same urgency, Arjun quickly turned and began to bark orders at his guard as he turned from the group and ran through the corridors. Gabrielle was hard upon his heels as she followed him through the halls. She tried to piece together what the men had said, but all thoughts seemed to vanish as her mind filled with dread. When coherent thoughts refused to form, she simply focused on trying to find her lover.

“Damn you, Zara,” she thought fearfully as she sped after the others, “don't you do this to me!”
Xena had been relaxing at her fishing hole when she felt herself suddenly yanked from the shores of the peacefully calm lake with an almost physical pain. Before she could realize what had happened, she found herself surrounded by the darkness of night. When she glanced up, she saw the familiar star constellation, then turned and saw the royal estate off in the distance. Ever diligent, the smiling Durga and the impassive tiger stood guard at the boarder of the estate.

“Gabrielle...” Xena whispered as fear for her bard entered her thoughts. However, before she could even find a way to go to her soul mate, a lone figure came running towards her. For a minute, the Greek warrior was ready to call out to her lover. But when she saw the wind blowing past the long, dark hair, she recognized the captain.

“Zara?” she whispered as the Moroccan ran past her, totally oblivious to her presence. “Hey, Zara!” the warrior called out louder, then stopped when she saw the tall captain running to the edge of the cliff.

“No,” Xena heard her own shout echo around the cliffs as she ran to catch up with the woman. “Zara, stop!”

As if on cue, the tall woman stopped near the edge, the tips of her toes barely touching the end of the cliff. Like a statue, the Moroccan stood absolutely still as the cold ocean winds brushed past her. With an almost hypnotized look, Zara gazed out at the darkness of the distant horizon.

“Zara, come back here, you could fall,” Xena coaxed, but the woman only tilted her head, then continued to stare off in the distance. “Zara, you know, I'm gonna begin to worry about you! Now please, come on back from there,” she tried to order as she moved closer to the woman.

“This is not your concern, ghost,” Zara's hiss took Xena by surprise.

The warrior stepped closer, as she looked about for someone who might help. She saw only the ever-smiling Durga and her tiger, neither of which made any movement towards them. Maintaining a neutral voice Xena said, “You're gettin' me worried now, Zara! What's going on? Why are you doin' this?”

“It is … I feel…” Zara began, then shook her head, the simple act causing the wind to fan her hair out. Her voice broke. “You would not understand.”
The moment Zara said it, she heard the ghost warrior begin to move slowly closer. As the cold wind whipped by her, the Moroccan heard the sounds of the crashing waves below like a cacophony of whispering voices urging her on. She blinked rapidly as she stared upward into the cold night sky peppered with tiny dots of light. If anyone had told her this morning that she would be standing here before the end of the night, she would have laughed at them. Despite all that had happened to her in life, nothing had ever pushed her closer to the act that she now contemplated. Witnessing the murders of her servants and friends, watching the beheading of her soul mate, had brought her close to madness, but had not tempted her to end it all. Now, with the truth known, Zara felt she had little choice.

Knowing that the deaths of so many innocents were on her hands and also knowing that there was nothing she could have done to stop it tore at the fabric of her heart. 'If he wanted me dead, why not just kill me?' she wondered silently. 'Why take the innocent lives of my friends and servants … of my … inoffensive love?'

When she heard the sound of the ghost moving behind her, she cocked her head and listened to the soft sounds of the dead warrior's footsteps. Remembering the Greek's question, she sighed as she gazed out into darkness. With a shake of her head, she closed her eyes to the cold tears that fell unheeded.

“They all died … all because of me … and it didn't have to be,” Zara answered in a choked voice.

“Who died?” the warrior princess asked softly.

“All of them … they died,” her voice sounded hallow as acceptance of her fate settled into her heart. “They didn't have to, no one had to die. He … He could have just taken me … could have just killed me instead of the others,” she groaned.

“Zara, who did this … do you know who killed your soul mate?” Xena moved closer. When she felt the ghost coming nearer, Zara took a hesitant step forward as she stared into the darkness. The waves below seemed to call to her. Just one step more and it would all be over. No more pain. No more nothing…

“NO, Zara, STOP! Don't do this!” Xena cried out. “Okay, calm down, I'm backin' up now … besides … remember, I can't do much this way. I'm just tryin' to understand what's going on.” The ghost frantically thought, trying to find some way to stop the tall captain. She thought of projecting herself inside the Moroccan and taking control of her body as she had done before. However, she feared that the shock of her sudden possession might accidentally cause the already wavering woman to pitch over the cliff. Carefully she made her voice calm and soothing. “Just tell me, Zara. Who did it?”

At the ghost's words, the captain nodded as she closed her eyes to the madness that consumed her. “M-My father … he was the one. H-He wanted me d-d…” She found the words harder to say out loud than she had expected and instead lowered her head in shame.

“Oh Zara … I'm so sorry,” she heard the warrior say.

All her life she had known that she was different from her siblings, but she never knew why. Of all of her brothers and sisters, she was the only one whom her father treated differently; with distance instead of closeness, with coldness instead of warmth. As a child, she remembered watching as he played with her brothers and sisters. With giggles and laughter, he would playfully wrestle with them, and at other times, he would have them by his side as he gently talked to them. In yet when she would go to him in search of his attention, he paid her no heed. Throughout her years, she had never been able to understand his ambivalence towards her. Yet now, with the truth known, she had to admit to herself that for one reason or another, he had not believed that she was truly his daughter.

'Yet if I am not his daughter, whose daughter am I?' she silently wondered as a noise caught her attention. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the outline of riders as the horses' hooves thundered in the air. When they grew closer, she recognized the clothing of their riders and turned her attention back to the distant horizon.

'What did it matter whose daughter I was,' she thought as she closed her eyes and began to steel herself for the final step. 'What does anything matter? All of that suffering, all those deaths and I am alive only by a fluke of luck. Perhaps it is time I joined them.'

“Alaya…” she whispered to the cold wind.

“Zara, NOOOO!” The bard's scream reached her as she felt her mind growing still. When she heard the woman running to her side, Zara lifted her head and glanced up at the multitude of cold stars. As the wind brushed past her, she lifted her arms and felt the cloth of her sleeves billowing in the wind.

“Zara?” Gabrielle's voice was filled with fear as her steps moved cautiously toward the Moroccan.

At the dread in the bard's voice, Zara turned and glanced at the shadow of the woman, then closed her eyes as she faced the oncoming wind. “Don't be afraid, Gabrielle. All will be well.”

“Don't be afraid?” Disbelief filled the bard's voice as she moved slowly towards her lover. “What in Tartarus do you mean, don't be afraid? Zara, you've not only brought fear into me, but you've got me downright scared. Please, honey, step back. Step away from the edge,” the blonde tried to coax.

Arjun called out gently, “Zara, don't do this, it can all be worked out. The Sultan is not angry, he personally requested that you be returned safely!” The petite man stepped up to the cliff's edge beside the bard. “Listen, sweetheart, nothing is this bad, nothing is ever this bad…”

The captain thought over his words. As the humor of his comments filtered in, she felt a deep laugh escape her control. With fits of giggles, Zara glanced back at the two and shook her head in disbelief.

“Oh … Arjun … how bad is it to learn that your own father tried to have you murdered?” she giggled as she shook her head, the laughter turned to tears as the image of Ayala floated past her thoughts. “How bad is it to know that it should have been you who died, and not your beloved…” the words became strangled in her throat.

Aghast at the revelation, Arjun and Gabrielle stared at one another past the Moroccan's back; both seemed struck dumb with horror as Xena stepped up.

“Zara, don't do this! Trust me, you'll regret it,” The Moroccan heard Xena speak for the first time since the bard and prince had arrived. The ghost's voice was grim as she went on. “Dying this way will take away none of your pain, it only adds regret on top of it all. Regret for the wasting of your precious lifetime! Believe me, Zara, I KNOW!” The warrior glanced at Gabrielle as she spoke, and the bard swallowed.

“Regrets … yes … I have many, but at least I will not be the cause of more pain,” she mumbled as she closed her eyes as the single thought kept coursing through mind. 'My father wanted me dead…' Part of her mind mocked, as another part continued the single litany, 'Just one step, that's all, just one single step and it will all be over.'

With eyes closed, she braced herself for whatever sensations would come over her. But before she could take the final plunge, she felt the bard moving closer to her. The woman's soft words reached a part of her heart that she had thought only Ayala could touch.

“Don't, Zara … p-please, not you too!” Gabrielle's whispered plea rang out like a shout of pain
and Xena winced when she heard it, but said nothing.

At the agony and sorrow in the bard's voice, the captain remembered what had happened to the Greek storyteller. She remembered Gabrielle's nights of tears and anguish at the loss of the warrior princess. Realizing that she would only be adding to the healer's misery, Zara turned to stare down at her. At the sudden movement, she felt the rocks below her feet slowly move, which caused her to lose her balance. With arms flayed out, she tried to stop herself from falling, but instead, only managed to lose her footing. Before she knew it, the ground went out from under her and she found herself falling feet first over the cliff.
Gabrielle had only a second to react. The moment she saw her lover taking the final step, she jumped forward, her hands flinging out desperately for anything to stop the bigger woman from going completely over the cliff. One hand seized Zara's wrist in a death-grip while the other grabbed a handful of her long dark hair. The bard flung herself flat at the edge, wresting a surprised scream from the Moroccan as she yanked her falling lover to a stop. With a sense of numbness from the cold, Gabrielle held fast to her lover's arm and hair as she felt Zara's struggles to be free, yet held on even tighter as she was being slowly pulled to the edge herself by the weight of her larger lover.

“OH, NO YOU DON'T! I am never going to let anyone else kill themselves, do you hear me??” she shouted to the howling Zara even as the bigger woman struggled with the pain from her hair. “Not even if I go with them!”.

Behind her, she felt Arjun and his guard rushing to her side. “H-Help, me!” she cried. “I-can't-hold-her…”

While the big guard Hiresh grabbed on and held fast to Gabrielle's slender legs to keep her from being dragged over by the Moroccan's agonizing weight, Arjun himself laid along the edge and reached over to grab hold of Zara's other flailing arm. With their combined strength, she and the prince and the guard managed to pull the Moroccan up from the edge and then yanked her back onto the land. Only when they were all safely away from the edge did they look at each other, triumph in their eyes as the guard, the prince and the bard exchanged smiles. Zara lay flat on her stomach as she panted for air and whimpered at the ache in her mistreated scalp.

As the crises ended, Xena stood observing it all with bleak eyes. When she had seen Gabrielle seize Zara and fall down as the bigger woman went over the cliff, Xena had started forward but then stood frozen. She was affected with indecision for one of the few times that she could remember. What could she do? She could hardly touch anything of earth. Possession of one of the struggling people was out of the question for the same reason as before. The cliff side was too close for any misstep that might be caused when she took over. Not for the first time she cursed herself for giving up her life to what she had seen as her duty in Japa. In an agony of self-incrimination, she stood, helpless and angry at her inability to do anything of use in the crises. Now, as she watched desolately, she saw her lover turn to the now groaning Moroccan.

“Zara, why?” Gabrielle gasped as she sat up and turned her lover over. Then the fear ran like ice-water through her as she began to realize what had almost happened, and she screamed in frustration, “I said, 'Why?' damn you!”

Zara only moaned, holding her head and the suddenly furious bard was about to continue when she felt a touch on her shoulder. She looked up to see Arjun gazing gravely at her and bit her lip to keep from continuing her tirade. When Hiresh returned with a blanket, she quickly wrapped it over the bigger woman's shoulders, then glanced up at the still silent prince. “We need to warm her up before she goes into shock,” she said, even as a shiver ran through the Moroccan, then she glanced over her shoulder to Xena.

She had seen the warrior standing nearby and although the bard was elated at finally seeing her ghost lover, she was not able to spare Xena time. Instead, she could only nod to her soul mate before reacting to Zara's situation. Now that the Moroccan was bundled in a blanket, she turned to her ghostly love.

“Xena,” She whispered, but stopped when the guard glanced her way.

“Shush, honey, they can't hear me, remember?” The warrior smiled, hiding her own unhappiness from her soul mate as she looked down at the bundled body on the ground. “Gabrielle, she may be going into shock. You need to take care of her.”

“But…” the bard started to protest that it had been so long since they talked, but stopped when the warrior raised a hand to silence her.

“It's all right. I'm always going to be here waiting for you. I think it's more important that you help Zara right now. She needs to understand that death is not the answer. Help her, Gabrielle, I know you can!” Xena smiled as she stepped away. “I'll see you soon, never fear.”

At her ghost lover's words, the healer nodded as she returned her attention to Zara. With the assistance of the prince and the guard, she helped her lover to her feet, then braced herself as the captain leaned into her as they walked back to the waiting horse.

“G-Gabrielle,” Zara's teeth shivered from the coldness of the wind.

“Shush, honey, it's okay. Let's get you back to the room and warm you up,” the bard kept her voice calm, even though she wanted to throttle her lover. Fighting down her impulses, she kept a firm grip on the bigger woman.

“N-No, you don't understand … I … didn't mean … I slipped … only slipped…” Zara's mumbled voice trailed off even as the captain of the guard lifted the Moroccan into the saddle of the horse that Gabrielle had ridden. Once on top of the animal, the bard took hold of the saddle and jumped behind the taller woman. With her arms around the bundled body, she loosely held the reins, then nodded to the prince, before she followed Arjun back to the estate.

As the group rode quickly towards the distant estate, the ghost stood watching forlornly. As tears blurred her vision, Xena saw the ten-armed Durga ride up on her enormous tiger and turn her smiling face to the warrior spirit. They stared at one another for a long moment, the peaceful deity, and the Warrior Princess

“What are YOU grinning at, damn you!!” Xena shrieked suddenly.

The Durga said nothing, continuing to smile beatifically. Suddenly goaded beyond endurance by the impassive face of the one she had come to think of as her jailer, Xena screamed in rage. She drew her sword and in one continuing motion leaped forward intent upon rending her tormentor.

There was a sudden blackness of her vision shot with red pain-stars as the tiger batted her head over heels away with one swing of a massive paw. The warrior princess landed with a smash on the ground some twenty feet further back. As the battered ghost slowly raised her head, she saw the smiling deity still sitting calmly where she had been on the striped beast and groaned.

Getting sluggishly to her feet, Xena picked up her sword, and then leaned on her bent knees looking blearily at the two. “I wish … I knew … how you can … hurt me when I'm … already dead,” she gasped between pained breaths. Then she straightened up slowly, as the Durga began approaching again.

“Okay, okay … don't tell me … I know … the way out…” she whispered. “But you ain't heard … the last of this…” As she focused her thoughts on returning to her fishing pool, the ghost slowly faded into nothingness leaving the cliff side clearing to the two guardians.
“I cannot believe that you actually jumped!” The bard was shouting even as she had helped the tall woman from her cold, damp clothes and put her under the warm blankets. “What were you thinking? No, wait, don't even try to tell me because I know! You weren't thinking, were you?”

Zara only shivered as she closed her eyes against the cold. When the bard brought her a cup of steaming herbal tea, she gratefully accepted it in her shaking hands. As she drank the liquid down, the blonde paced back and forth in front of the bed.

“After everything that I've been through, I cannot even believe that you would have tried that! I mean, my god Zara, what did you think I'd do, let you kill yourself?” Gabrielle's voice was filled with anger and relief. “Oh no! If you thought that I'd just stand by and let you kill yourself, you thought wrong because, and you listen good, I've already lost one fool woman this way!” The volume of the small woman's lungs seemed to shake Zara to the core.

“Hey, are you listening to me?” she shouted at Zara. “Good, because, pay attention, I've gone through this before, I've already been with a fool woman who thought that she could go off and save the souls of the dead without even a care for the living, mainly, ME!” The petite bard stood above her, the expression on her face full of rage, before she continued her ranting, “And I would just sit back, good ole' take-it-no-matter-what-happens Gabrielle! But those days are over, do you hear me?” the bard roared as she pointed a finger at Zara.

“Never again, Zara! Never again will I allow the woman I love to run off and do something so totally stupid … so totally idiotic … so … so…” the bard's face was turning a bright shade of red as she glared down, her accusing finger waggling in Zara's direction.

For Zara, she gave up on trying to tell the bard that she had changed her mind about jumping, and that she had only slipped. And although she heard the bard's ranting, only a single phrase stuck in her mind. With a smile, she stopped drinking the tea and looked up at Gabrielle. When she glanced at Arjun, she felt a heat that was not a fever cross her cheeks. As if he had heard the same thing, the feminine man winked at her, then smiled as he continued to fluff up the pillows behind her.

“Did you hear that?” The captain whispered to her friend.

“Of course, and I couldn't be happier!” He cooed as he pulled the blankets up to her shoulders and took the empty mug from her hands.

“She loves me, Arjun … sh-she said it, didn't she?” the elation filled her voice.

“Yes, she did say that, honey, I heard it myself,” Arjun nodded as he stepped back and cast a glance from Zara to Gabrielle. As if filled with great happiness, the smaller man blinked away imaginary tears as he reached up with a finely manicured nail and wiped at his eyes. “Oh, I am so happy for you both!” he exclaimed, then shook his head. “But enough of this, I must go and leave you two love birds alone … I'm sure we can sort it all out tomorrow,” the prince added before he leaned down and kissed Zara's cheek, then turned to leave the room.

“Come along, Hiresh, I'm sure these two love birds need time alone … besides, I had such a fright! I was positive that I was going to break a nail! I was absolutely paralyzed with horror at the thought. I think that I am going to require the assurance of your strong, manly hands tonight,” Arjun waved for the captain of the guard to follow him and flounced out. With only a slight smile, the burly man nodded to Zara, then trailed his prince from the room.

Confused, the bard grew silent as she watched them leave, her brows creased in confusion. When they were alone, she turned her attention back to Zara. No longer shouting, the bard stepped toward her with hands on hips.

“What did I say?” the blonde asked in a softer tone.

Zara only smiled at her as she nestled deeper into the warm blankets. “You said, and I quote, 'Never again will I allow the woman I love to run off and do something so totally stupid…' are the words you stated,” the Moroccan smiled at her as a shiver of happiness ran over her spine. At the slight tremble, the healer was instantly by her side and pulling the blankets so tightly around her that Zara felt she knew how the dead of Egypt must feel once they are bound tightly in their burial clothes.

“I-I…” the bard stammered as her gaze turned away from the Moroccan's and she stared at the ceiling. “By the gods … I do love you, Zara. How could I deny it? Seeing you there on the edge, so close to jumping, I knew it instantly.” She looked back to the captain and her voice was soft. “By the gods, I do love you.”

Zara winced with shame. She knew she had to make it plain to the bard that she had decided not to kill herself before she had fallen. If not revealed, such a thing could have evil affects much later because the bard might come to feel that the Moroccan had used her suicide attempt as a lever to get her love. She took a deep breath and looked into the shining eyes above her. “Gabrielle, I love you too. When you came and cried out to me to stop, it brought me back to sanity. I knew I could not do such a thing … and it was your love that saved me.”

“But you were going over,” the bard said in a tone of puzzlement. Then her voice strengthened with a hint of anger. “You did go over!”

“No, Gabrielle. Your words brought me back to my senses.” Zara felt a tear trickle down her cheek. “I had decided to live. You remember how I turned to you?” She went on as the bard nodded. “I was going to step back, to come to you, b-but as I did the damn ground began to collapse under my foolish feet and I … w-went over.” She ground her teeth in frustration. “By Allah who is merciful! I almost got myself killed after I had decided I did not want to die! I feel like such a fool! Please, please forgive me?”

The bard waved it away. “Zara, there is nothing to forgive. You went crazy for a little while that's all. Temporary insanity takes many different forms, and it can happen to any of us, I know.” 'Gods, how well I know,' Gabrielle thought and swallowed a lump of pain as she remembered another cliff-side by the sea and the insane rage that she had felt as she ran at the sneering and equally insane Xena. Both of them were determined to kill the other or die trying if that was what it took to feed their grief and hatred.

Now she stared at nothing as more awful images of long buried pain raced through her mind. Hugging her once lost daughter Hope with love and happiness only to discover Solan dead by Hope's hand and hearing Xena's shriek of utter loss. Hearing Callisto's scream of vengeance and seeing the sword-impaled body of the trusting old centaur Kaliapus. Then in her mind appeared the bottle of deadly poison that she had secretly slipped into her daughter's water and then silently watched her drink. And behind it all, at the fiery core of pain, the demon Dahak stood laughing in a voice of flames coming from an altar. Each image blazed in her mind like a raging fire.

With a shudder Gabrielle blinked and shook off the hideous memories and wiped at her eyes. She cleared her throat as she became aware that Zara was watching her. “Honey, we all have things we have done or remember people doing to us that are varying degrees of horrible. When the pain gets too much for us, the trick is to turn to someone we love to get us through times like that.”

Zara gazed intently at her, still wondering at the shadows of pain that she had just seen pass over her lover's face. “Gabrielle … I-I'm sorry…”

“Shush, sweetheart.” The bard smoothed the captain's hair with a gentle hand. “I do love you, Zara, I truly do and not just because of what happened tonight. I have felt it for some time now, b-but I love Xena too a-and … oh, Hades. I just didn't know how to handle it all…”

The Moroccan smiled as she sighed and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she saw two soft pools of liquid green staring down at her. Although Zara could see her lover's smile, she also felt the smaller woman's sadness. Understanding the bard's unspoken words, she managed to reach out from the piles of blankets and take the bard's smaller hand in hers.

“Gabrielle, it is alright that you love Xena. I understand,” her voice was gentle as she held the softer hand in hers.

With a shy glance, the blonde looked at her, then turned away. “By the gods, Zara, I don't understand it all. I always thought … well, that is to say…” the bard shook her head in confusion.

“You thought that people were only supposed to love one person and no other,” the captain finished the bard's sentence.

“Well … yes. That's how it is supposed to be, isn't it?” she asked. “I mean, I grew up believing in the tale of first mankind, when they were created with two heads and four legs, until Zeus cut them in half. Throughout all of eternity, these split parts feel the loss and spend their entire lives constantly looking for their missing half … their soul mate.” The bard's head was tilted in thought, then she closed her eyes and sighed heavily. “If I can be in love with two people, where does that leave the story?”

Zara thought about her words for a moment, then smiled as she reached up and tenderly brushed the back of her fingers against the bard's soft cheek. “We can have our soul mates … our … spirit twins. But if they have gone on without us, does that mean that our hearts must stop beating as well?” the captain asked her lover.

The Greek woman regarded her saying nothing and Zara continued. “Gabrielle, even if our soul mates were still with us, do you not feel that it is possible to love and also have love for another? Is there not room in your heart to have passion for more than one person?” At the smaller woman's confused expression, Zara smiled and then sighed as well. “If it is not possible to love more than one, then how is it that Arjun loves all of his wives equally, while also holding love for his … favorite men?” the Moroccan asked.

At the bard's intent gaze, the captain continued. “I know I can honestly say that there have been many times when my heart has pulled me in several directions. It doesn't mean that I loved, or cared less for either of the women … it only meant that I love them equally, yet in different ways.”

The petite blond watched her for a moment, before finally stepping to the bedside. “And … that never posed a problem?” Gabrielle asked as she kicked off her sandals and joined Zara on the bed, her head automatically lying on the captain's shoulder as she nuzzled against her.

The Moroccan pulled her lover close and held her with her chin on the blonde's head, reveling in the giddy feeling even through the pain throbbing in her scalp. 'She loves me! By the grace and compassion of Allah, Gabrielle loves me!' Her thoughts were so full of joy that she wasn't sure she even recognized them as her own as she answered the bard's question. “No. Never. They each knew where they stood in my heart, and as long as I paid each of them equal attention, it faired well for all concerned,” she sighed as she lay back and closed her eyes. The feel of the bard's body so close offered a wondrous comfort that she had not felt in years. Before she could drift into sleep, a slight knock at the door woke her.

“Come,” Gabrielle called as she remained in Zara's arms. When she saw the Sultan entering the room, she tried to rise, but when the older man smiled and waved away her actions, she continued to lie in her captain's embrace.

“Sultan, I-I…” Zara tried to rise, but the man merely smiled as he moved and sat on the edge of the bed. His closeness and his smile of compassion caused the Moroccan to relax.

“I am so very grateful to Allah that you are well,” his voice was soft as he lightly touched her hand. “Child, I had not known about your ordeal. In the name of Allah who is kind, no one in my family knew, I assure you of this!”

“I-I know … I guess I've always known this,” Zara lowered her eyes in shame and spoke through a throat choked with remorse. “I am so very sorry, sir, for what I tried to…” but her words were cut off by the wave of his hand.

“All turned out well, that is all that matters. Now then, I wish to offer you the choice again. You are a part of our family, this much I know and from what I see, you have yet to bear the markings of a clan,” the man glanced at the back of Zara's hands where the clan markings should have been. Immediately self-conscious, she tried to pull her hand away, but was stopped by the older man's touch.

“Regardless of the circumstances, Zara, you deserve to be part of a clan. I recognize even in the short time I have known you that your mother's upbringing runs deep with-in you. And every time I look at your face, I see the beautiful smile of my sister. Ah, Zara, if you could have only known her you would agree that she was such a worthy person and yes, you look very much like her.”

“I do?” the Moroccan heard her own voice like a whisper.

“Yes, from the color of your eyes, to the way you tilt your head when deep in thought, you resemble her a great deal. Why, you are even tall like her, although I have no clue where my sister got that from!” the Sultan chuckled as he shook his head, “Father stated it was from his great, great uncle, Mullah, and this I can believe,” he waved a finger sagely. “My grandmother once showed me a favorite cloak that uncle Mullah had owned. When we held it up, the shoulders came above my head!”

For the first time in many years, Zara sighed in contentment as she nestled deeper into the covers. Throughout her whole life, her looks, her appearance was always cause for whispers and speculations. Unlike her siblings, she was tall. Not even her oldest brother who was great in height came nose to nose with her. The blue eyes, which were her curse, had suddenly become a thing of blessing. As she basked in the sensations of acceptance, she smiled.

“Well … you think about what I have said, yes?” The Sultan's words seemed like a faraway chant. “It is your decision to make, but I would be honored if you would accept my offer and rejoin the family as my child … you and your mother are both welcome back to our family…” His words began to echo in her senses as her eyes slowly closed. As a sense of peace filtered into her being, she smiled, knowing that for the first time, the things which had made her so different from her Moroccan family, now made her a beloved part of another family group. Why, she might even make it to Paradise when she died after all! At this thought, she smiled as dreams of a warm welcome from her new family clan filled her vision.
“It's the tea, your Highness. She'll sleep peacefully through the night,” Gabrielle explained as she rose from her lover's side and climbed from the bed. The Sultan merely nodded as he stood and stepped away, his attentive glance watched the bards every move as she examined the sleeping woman. With a light touch against the Moroccan's forehead, the healer bard gauged her lover's fever, then pulled the covers closer around the woman.

“She should be okay, she just needs plenty of rest right now,” Gabrielle explained after she turned to face the older man. As an after thought, she tilted her head as she gazed intently into the man's blue eyes. “Sultan … is it true? Is she part of your family?”

The older man only smiled as he looked down at Zara's peacefully slumbering features. With a nod, he turned his gaze back to the bard and his eyes were moist. “When I see her, I see my dear sister. Yes, healer Gabrielle, your captain is indeed the child of my niece,” he assured as he lightly patted the bard's shoulder.

“Allah willing, Zara will see this as well and will accept my offer. You know, it has been too long since last I saw my niece. Maybe now, we can be rejoined as a family,” he sighed, then turned to the bard. “But look at me talking so! I'm certain you are tired as well. Please, accept my gratitude for all that you have done, and the salvation of my niece,” the older ruler stated with a slight bow, before he turned to leave.

Gabrielle saw him to the door and closed it softly behind him, then leaned back against it for a moment, suddenly afraid that she might fall down without something to hold her up. She felt her legs trembling and knew that it was the aftershock of her night's actions setting in. How close she had come to losing Zara. 'Even losing myself,' she thought sadly. 'By the gods, I was this close to going over with her! If Arjun and Hiresh hadn't grabbed me…' She shuddered at the memory, then resolutely shoved it aside. Quelling her fears, she stood up and began to walk through the room, sluggishly removing her clothing for sleep.

She found herself thinking about her revelation of love for Zara, and wondered why it was that now, of all times, she had chosen to reveal what she had feared. Yes, when she thought she was going to lose Zara on the cliff, her paramount thoughts were to stop the Moroccan, to tell her that she loved her and didn't care about any guilt she might be harboring. All the bard wanted was to do what she should have done with Xena.

'And I do love her,' she silently thought as she began to blow out the candles in the room. “And I love Xena too,” the bard's voice was filled with amazement as she whispered the statement. As if hearing her words, Zara mumbled softly in her sleep. Glancing at the bed, Gabrielle smiled as she moved to the corner lantern, and blew it out.

'Face it bard, you love them both, and if given the choice, you would take them both,' she thought as she moved to the bed. Before climbing nude under the covers, she blew out the final lantern, then joined Zara. By the light of the moon, she glanced at the sleeping Moroccan and smiled.

“Well, it makes sense that an Amazon Queen would be with a Warrior Princess … I just wonder what a Sultan's daughter is called?” She whispered and was rewarded with more mumbling from the sleeping captain, who, as if sensing the bard's nearness, rolled over and nuzzled her face against her bosom. At the feel of the warm slow breaths between her breasts, Gabrielle wrapped her arm over her lover's naked back as a contented sigh escaped her.

“Oh, Zara, I do love you,” she whispered with a blissful contentment filling her. “But, please, oh, please don't let me ever catch you trying to kill yourself again,” she said softly while tears filled her eyes. Then she kissed the crown of the Moroccan's head and settled in against her newly found love. 'My love, you are my love…' As the words chased themselves in a joyous litany through her mind, Gabrielle smiled and closed her eyes as she entered into Morpheus' realm.
Nadrah awakened later than usual. For a moment, she thought it was still early morning, but at the clawing and meowing from Prasha, she realized that it was later in the day than she expected. Still in her underwear, she trotted from the room and opened the outer balcony door for the anxious cat. Without a backward look the cat whisked outside the instant it was open, but Nadrah could sense his irritation over stupid humans who kept him waiting. When she turned, she yawned as she rubbed her eyes and gazed at the two still asleep in bed, then tottered into the other room to use the chamber pots herself.

When she returned feeling more alive, the two still had not moved. Confused, the girl climbed onto the bed and gazed down at Gabrielle. As if sensing someone watching her, the sleepy bard opened her eyes, then smiled before she pulled Nadrah into her arms and lightly tickled the child. With giggles of protest, Nadrah squirmed until the bard stopped her assault.

“Gabrielle, why are you both still asleep?” Nadrah asked when she had calmed down enough to speak.

“Zara caught a bit of a chill last night, honey. So I'm making sure that she stays in and rests today,” the bard whispered as she closed her eyes, arms still wrapped around the little girl.

“The captain is sick? Want me to tell the cook so that she can make some special food for her?” Nadrah was suddenly up and glancing over at the sleeping captain. Her concern was evident as she waited for instructions. Gabrielle seemed to think about it for a moment, then smiled as she lightly touched the child's cheek.

“That would be perfect, sweetheart. Can you tell the cook that Zara caught a chill and needs warm soup for later?” The bard smiled as she watched Nadrah smile big and nod, right before she jumped from the bed and ran across the room to begin her day.

For the first time since arriving, Nadrah felt as if she was actually able to help her captain. And tending to the captain is what I am trained to do, the girl thought to herself as a smile crossed her face. Although life on the ship was sometimes hard, she always felt good whenever she knew that she made a difference in the captain's life. Tending to the captain, making certain that she ate and rested, gave Nadrah a purpose.
Zara came awake as she heard the girl leaving the room. With a slight grumble, she kicked off the blankets, then rolled over. Before she could even get comfortable, she felt the bard pulling the covers back over her. Throughout the entire night it had been this way. She would kick away the covers in hopes of cooling down, only to be bundled up again by the bard.

With a sigh, the Moroccan opened her eyes and smiled at the bard. When she saw her smaller lover smile back, she felt her heart skip a beat. She remembered the bard's declaration from the night before and couldn't help but feel elated. As she thought of Gabrielle's words, she felt her body responding in another way. The fever of her chills did little to dampen her physical needs.

Reaching for the bard, Zara held the smaller woman close as she nuzzled her nose in the blonde woman's hair, and against her ear. For the first time, the Moroccan captain softly whispered in the bard's ear, her words of love flowing freely from her lips even as her body moved against the smaller woman. As if mirroring her needs, Gabrielle moved below her. With gentle touches, she encouraged Zara's movements as she held her close. When the bigger woman felt her lover's thigh part her legs, she sighed as she felt the bard's firm flesh rubbing against her pelvis.

“Gabrielle … Oh, Gabrielle. I love you,” she whispered softly as she held herself over the smaller woman. Her eyes took in the depths of the healer's peaceful green gaze and for a moment, Zara was able to forget everything around them. All she concentrated on was looking deep into the other woman's soul and the exquisite sensations that coursed through her body as she rocked gently against her lover's leg.

The bard mirrored her movements, her body pressed firmly against Zara's leg as her arms were wrapped around the bigger woman's torso. A smile broke free when she heard Zara's words, then she nodded as she pulled the Moroccan down into a kiss. When they broke free, the captain held fast to the Greek's body as she felt herself soaring higher toward the brink of pleasure.

“Oh … Zara … I-I love you…” she heard the blonde whisper close to her ear as she felt herself falling into a deep and intense orgasm. With a shudder, she softly cried out as she felt her waters baptizing the bard's flesh, and felt the bard following close behind. Then she heard Gabrielle release a gasp before a low moan of pleasure seemed to rock the bard joyously up against her.

When they were finished, they held each other close as they panted for air. Sweaty, and still fevered, Zara closed her eyes as a sense of peace came over her. As she felt the slow, steady cadence of Gabrielle's heartbeat against her flesh, she felt herself drifting into sleep as she heard the bard whisper once again, “I love you…”.
The weight of her lover lying over her body was not a burden for Gabrielle. As she felt her heart rate slowing to a normal rhythm, she held the bigger woman close. When she felt the weight shift, she knew that Zara had fallen into a deep sleep. With a smile, she lightly brushed the palm of her hands over the Moroccan's sweaty back.

Zara still had a slight fever, but at least it wasn't as high as when she came in from the cold. As she felt herself coming down from her own plateau of fulfillment, she remembered how scared she had been at the thought of losing her lover. Although she didn't know the reasons for Zara's actions at the time, when Abu explained to whole story to her later, she could understand the Moroccan's pain and desperation. How any father could have done such a thing, and then try to blame it on another part of Zara's family was beyond the bard's understanding. And then for Zara to have to face such awful truths alone, had sent the normally brave woman toward the brink of insanity.

Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from sobbing aloud at the horror her lover had felt as unbidden tears flowed down her cheeks. 'Thank the gods we were able to reach her in time before she did something foolish.'

As she lay under Zara's sleeping body, she heard the sounds of the guests from outside. With the curtain's drawn, the room remained bathed in shadows. In soft, gentle strokes, she lightly touched Zara's back, her fingers leaving a trail over the Moroccan's scars and down her bottom. When she felt the small, round burn scars, she frowned as she closed her eyes against the anger that was building up inside of her. Of all the things that a parent could do, she found it difficult to understand how any father could want his child to be tortured in this way.

'But then again, according to Abu, Zara's father didn't believe that she was his,' the bard thought as she laid a soft kiss on the sleeping Moroccan's temple. 'Still,' she thought with revulsion, 'How could anyone do such a thing to any child? Zara had no control over who she was. Why punish her?' One look into the Sultan's eyes, and Gabrielle was able to see the resemblance. She might not have noticed it before, but now that she knew, it was a hard thing to overlook.

While Gabrielle gently touched her lover, she felt Zara's heartbeat against her own. With a smile, she sighed as she closed her eyes as a part of her relished this close contact. Each breath that the sleeping Moroccan took brought a soft stroke from the bard.

“I love you, Zara,” she whispered it close to the captain's ear, then smiled at the sound of her own voice. Yes, it was true, how could she deny it? Why would she try to deny it? Although she felt a part of her mind rebelling against the notion that it was possible to love two women equally, her heart overruled the mind. Despite all that she had grown up believing, she had to accept the fact that she was now in love with two very strong, very kind women. At this thought, she smiled as she took the bigger woman's hand in hers.

'Xena is so very different, although similar,' the bard silently mused. And like their personalities, the love she had for each of them was different. With Xena, their love had begun with passion, and simmered into a slow heat as their years grew. Xena was the part of her soul that had always been missing, she was the core of Gabrielle's heart and nothing, or no one would ever convince her that there would be another soul mate to take her spirit twins place.

Yet with Zara, their love was filled with compassion, caring and nurturing. The fire and passion, although present, was not there to the extent that she had felt it with Xena. And perhaps this was because they both knew that they were not one anothers soul mates. Zara was well aware of her standing and knew that Xena was the bard's spirit twin. Even though Gabrielle was now the Moroccan's lover, she knew that Zara would never try to take the place of Xena – she would never presume to be the core of the bard's heart, to be her soul mate. And even this small courtesy was enough to warm the bard's heart.

As the bigger woman slept peacefully on top of her, the blonde woman smiled as she pulled the blankets over the still fevered body. She made certain that her movements were slow and precise so as not to awaken her sleeping lover. Once the slight chill of the room was gone, she began to slowly caress her lover as she carried the Moroccan's weight. With a contented sigh, she relaxed beneath Zara as her mind pondered the many discoveries that her life path was now taking. She was not certain how Xena would react to these new developments, but she hoped that Zara was right, and that they would be able to coexist peacefully together.

Part 38

Throughout her day in a fever, she alternated between sleeping, and drinking either warm broth, or soup. When the mood struck, she would pull the smaller body close and make such sweet love that she felt she had never known passion for another since Alaya, then she would fall back into sleep. For Zara, the entire day passed by like one long, blurry dream of love and caring. By the next morning, she woke up refreshed and ready for the next competition.

“I cannot believe you're still going through with this,” she heard the bard grumbling behind her as she walked briskly to join the other contestants. “Zara, you were sick as a dying dog with fever yesterday; you need to rest!”

Zara only smiled at the bard as she continued through the day's events. When she was jogging at a brisk pace through the obstacle course, she thought that she had finally convinced the bard that she was healed. But as the course became progressively difficult, and she found herself gasping for air, she began to wonder if perhaps the bard had been correct. And although she knew that the only reason she had made it through the day at all was because of the help from Isa, Jamil, Gabrielle, and Nivedita, Zara was reluctant to admit this to the bard. When the foot race was finally over, she was able to collapse on the grass next to her friends. Her clothes were drenched in sweat, her sides ached, yet she refused to look the bard in the eyes, because she knew that Gabrielle would give her the 'I told you so,' look that she was so expert at. Instead, she closed her eyes as she heard her heart beat returning to normal.

Thankfully for Zara, she had a day in between competitions to rest and regroup. The day after the grueling obstacle course, she found herself in the company of the Sultan. As if her outburst had not even occurred, he treated her warmly, and welcomed her to sit by his side. Although she was embarrassed by her own conduct, she was grateful that he could forgive her so quickly. With a new sense of rapport, she found that she truly enjoyed his company, especially now that she knew the truth of her family lineage. Fascinated, she listened to his childhood stories with a new perspective, because she finally knew that his family tales were also hers, even if she had not be on hand to experience them with her kin.
The afternoon sun shone high above Arjun. As a cool breeze brushed past him, he gazed down upon his estate with pride. He watched his guests beginning to mill around in the shade of the gardens. With a pleased smile, he turned and observed his household troops on top of the flat roof. Unseen by everyone on the ground, they moved about their duties with efficiency and quiet ease.

As the prince walked past them, he felt his servant following close behind, the large umbrella providing ample shade wherever the prince stood. When Arjun made his way to the edge of the rooftop, he glanced down and noticed the bard making her way up the numerous steps. With a smile, he stepped away from the edge and returned to the opposite side of the roof. Glancing over the cement rail, he noticed Zara sitting with the Sultan in a different section of the garden.

'Good for you, my friend,' the prince thought as he watched Zara's animated and smiling face. After so many years of sadness, the confusion over her father's rejection, it was finally time for his dear friend to be accepted into a family worthy of all that she could give, he mused. Before he could further contemplate the new shift in ranking for his friend, he heard Gabrielle's voice behind him.

“I have a meeting with the prince,” she informed the guards who blocked her way. Glancing over their shoulder, they looked to Arjun for confirmation. With a nod and a wave, he called the bard to his side.
Gabrielle had been waiting for word from Arjun and was a bit surprised that his servant had knocked on their door so early in the morning in order to give her an official summons. True, they could have talked about Xena after the scare of Zara's fatal fall, but at the time, neither one was focused on anything except making certain that the Moroccan did not catch too bad a chill. It wasn't until the fourth day of the stay that the prince had officially summoned her to discuss the matter of her soul mate.

After a quick bath and change of clothes, she left Zara with only a slight peck on the lips. Although the Greek considered herself physically fit, she found herself slightly winded from the jog up the cement stairs. After the brief exchange of words with the two burly guards, she was pleased to see the prince waving her to his side. With a smile of thanks to the guards, the blonde moved to join Arjun.

“Your highness, you summoned me?” Gabrielle chose to use a formal tone, as she bowed slightly for him. Once she had read the summons, she knew that Arjun had chosen to don his princely title for this meeting. When she saw the glitter of the gold band around his forehead, she knew that she had guessed right.

As if pleased by her actions, Arjun smiled as he held his hand for her. Accustomed to royalty, she smiled as she took his hand and kissed the back, before standing before him. She caught a twinkle of laughter in his eyes as he waved away her formality.

“Well, you've certainly proven your worth to them,” he softly laughed as he waved to his guards. Although she did not see them watching, Gabrielle had no doubt that they had kept a close eye on the exchange. Mirroring the prince's smile, she moved to stand next to him.

“Gabrielle, I want to thank you for what you did the other day. I don't know what I would have done had anything happened to my sweet sister … why, your conduct was not only brave, but it was gallant, and for that, I must thank you,” he began their meeting in this way.

With a slight blush, she looked away as a frown creased her brows. “Arjun, I would have done it, regardless. There is no way that I could stand by and let her do that. I don't care how grief stricken she was, I can't … lose another,” the words almost choked in the bards throat.

Arjun smile as he wrapped his arm over her shoulder and gently led her over the roof. “I understand, honey, truly I do. But you must know, I am eternally grateful that you were there to save her … Krishna knows that I wouldn't have the strength to pull up her hulking form with my poor delicate arms,” the prince batted his eye lashes alluringly as he held out an arm. Before Gabrielle could glance at the arm, he withdrew it as he continued to lead her past his guards. “But, seriously, sweetheart,
I'm sure you know why it is I've called you?” he asked as he stood near the waist high wall and turned his gaze toward the distant treetops.

“I think I know,” Gabrielle replied as her mind began to run a mile minute. She wondered if he had called her up to reject her request to allow Xena to join them. 'But if he had, would he have called me? Wouldn't he have just sent word that she couldn't join us? And after his comment about saving Zara, how could he reject me?' she wondered silently.

“Tell me, Gabrielle, what do you see?” he asked as he waved his hand before him.

For a moment, the bard was taken back by his question. But as she ran her eyes around the estate, she noticed the tall tree tops nearby. She heard the birdsong rising in the wind. As her gaze moved further away, she saw the distant rolling hills on the horizon. Far beyond that was the blue of the mighty ocean that had carried them to these shores.

“I see … great beauty,” Gabrielle smiled as the myriad of floral scents wafted to her. “It is a beautiful place, Arjun.”

“Yes,” Arjun nodded as he took a few steps to a large optical cylinder that was sitting on top of a metal frame. “There is great beauty around us, but look again and tell me what you see,” he asked as he pointed to the cylinder.

With a curious arch of a brow, the blond stepped to the optical piece and gazed into it. As the images of the estate grew closer, Gabrielle squinted an eye as she focused in on the surroundings. For a moment, she had to adjust her vision to the sight of everything magnified unnaturally, but once she became accustomed to it, she began to move the stationary eyepiece as she gazed at the prince's estate.

The first things she noticed were the numerous guests milling in the open garden. When she moved the eyepiece a bit further, she smiled at the sight of Zara sitting under a canopy next to the Sultan. With a slight smile, Zara listened intently to the Sultan. For a moment, Gabrielle allowed herself the pleasure of gazing at the tall woman, she noticed the finely chiseled lines of the Moroccan's features, the way her brow's arched delicately upward, and the sleek nose above sensuous lips. At the sight of her lips, the bard could not help but smile as the memories of what Zara's lips brought out captured her imagination.

When she heard the slight noise by her side, the bard quickly pulled her attention to the task at hand. Reining in her own desires, she turned the view of the eyepiece away from her lover and began to scan the compound again. As she glanced across the compound, then noticed a slight reflection in the sun. Blinking at the sight, she gazed again and searched out the cause of the reflection. As if he was a part of the shrubbery, a tall man dressed in a slight green uniform stood back in the shadows of the bushes. When he moved slightly, the sun's rays glinted off the steel sword that hung at his waist.

For a moment, the blonde began to mentally calculate the man's presence as she continued to scan the garden. 'One, two, three…' she mentally counted the number of guards in the garden, then stopped counting when she realized that they were everywhere. At the sight of their numbers, Gabrielle arched a brow in question as she glanced from the eyepiece, to the prince. At his continued silence, she returned her attention to the view.

With only a slight adjustment, she moved the optical lens to the farthest distance and scanned the tops of the trees. The slight metal glint in the treetops indicated more fighters positioned on platforms within them. Off in the distance, the top pillars of lookout towers dotted the open landscape of hills and valleys. As she deciphered this information, she turned the eyepiece back to the estate and continued to scan the people in Arjun's estate.

Gabrielle remained fixed on the sight of Nivedita who stood in the farthest meadow. She watched silently as the Indian woman went through a choreographed series of dance-like movements, and each swirling maneuver was a lesson in combat for her younger brother, Pritam. As the two were practicing their hand-to-hand fighting lessons, the surrounding trees were heavily populated with the same uniformed warriors that surrounded Arjun's estate.

With an arch of a brow, she turned her gaze away from the optical piece. She cocked her head to the side as the questions raced through her mind, then, she squinted at Arjun's mischievous smile. “Are the guard's for your protection, or for theirs?” she finally asked.
Arjun knew that this Greek woman was intelligent. He had hoped that showing her more than he had ever allowed anyone to see would cause a mutual trust. A trust that she would feel compelled to share. With a wry smile, he nodded toward the open meadow where the siblings were going through their daily routine.

“As you can see, not everything is as it seems and to answer your question, yes, I have always kept my vigilance high. But you are also correct, there is a reason to have such protection surrounding both Nivedita and Pritam,” Arjun explained as he began to lead the bard across the rooftop.

At a marbled spiral staircase on the opposite side of where Gabrielle had come up he led the way down the first level of stairs. When they reached a balcony, he moved to the wall and pushed a concealed mechanism that opened the wall into a dark stairwell. As he led the way into the darkness, he continued to explain the mystery of Nivedita and Pritam as their eyes became slowly adjusted to the torches that hung from the wall.

“You see, Gabrielle, I met Nivedita many years ago. Pritam was only a babe, he was barely walking on his own at the time,” Arjun's voice echoed in the stairwell. Each light step he took echoed softly in the darkness. He heard Gabrielle following close behind.

“How much do you know about my family, the Asokas?” he asked as he rounded the corner, and opened a door through which light streamed. He then stood back and held the door open for the blonde to step through.

“I only know that your father maintains a fragile hold over Indus,” Gabrielle said as she stepped into the brightly-lit room. Blinking, she shielded her eyes until she became accustomed to the light. With a look of surprise, recognition settled in as she glanced around the room. The various deities of the religion of Indus seemed to smile down at her from the murals on the wall.

“I see that Zara has brought you to my meditation room before,” Arjun spoke softly as he closed and secured the wall door behind him. Moving further into the prayer room, he came to the center, then settled himself down on the floor in full lotus position as he watched the bard glancing curiously at the concealed door that was painted with a mural of various gods and goddess.

“I wasn't aware of that door when she brought me through here,” the bard explained as she moved to join him.

With a nod, Arjun waited as the woman sat down in front of him. Approvingly, he watched as she fell into the lotus as easily as he had. When she seemed settled, he smiled softly, “Zara is correct, my family … that is, my father, has a tenuous hold over Indus. You see, ever since I was born, the three ruling clans, my own, the Asokas, the eastern clan of the Pallavas, and the southern Chalukyas coexisted in relative harmony. Eleven years ago, my father decided that he was no longer content to rule only a fraction of Indus, so he devised a plan to rid the land of all of his … opposition.” He frowned for a moment, then went on, his voice distasteful. “In a single day, the land ran red with the blood of the Pallavas and Chalukyas. All of royal blood were murdered, or so it was believed, and with the opposition destroyed, my father moved his people into all the regions of Indus.”

When he saw her nod, he continued in his narration. “You see, Gabrielle, I did not agree with what my father did, which is why I moved to Calicut. It is far enough away from my father's rule, yet close enough to still maintain his favor. It was many years after my home was built that I met Nivedita and her brother Pritam for the first time. You see, Gabrielle, Nivedita and her brother are the last of the Chalukyas line,” at his words, Gabrielle's eyes grew wide with surprise.

“Yes,” he answered her unspoken question. “Nivedita begged my guards to see me. When they first arrived late at night, they were a complete mess. Nivedita was haggard, thin as a fence rail, and her little brother was sick with fever. A life of being on the run from my father had taken its toll on them, poor dears,” he shook his head and tsked as he remembered that day.

“Nivedita asked for only one thing, she was willing to accept whatever torturous death my father would decree for her, but she asked for me to show mercy to her little brother Pritam … to end his suffering by killing him quickly.” Arjun once more saw the look of surprise from Gabrielle. Nodding, he sighed as the sadness of that day replayed in his mind.

“You may possibly imagine what I went through. Here I was, not agreeing with my father's choices, yet unable to stop him. And now standing in my own home were the final two souls, whom my father would wish to murder. No…” he shook his head, “I could not turn them over to my father, yet I could not turn them out to be continually hunted by my father's men either. All I could do was take them in, shelter, and conceal their existence from any who might betray their presence to my father. With the help of my best healer, Pritam survived his fever and has grown into a fine child. A bit … mischievous, I will admit, but a fine child nonetheless.” He chuckled in spite of the gravity of his tale and the bard grinned with him before he sobered. “Up until a year ago, both Nivedita and Pritam were safely secluded at an undisclosed location. They have only joined me here in my home for the last year.”

Arjun waited a moment, allowing the news to settle in. He watched as Gabrielle sat with head bent, her silent thoughts running over all that he had said. When she looked up once more with understanding, he nodded as a sad smiled crossed his face.

“Zara is correct, the Asoka claim over Indus is tenuous at best, especially as long as Nivedita and Pritam live … but, I would not have it any other way,” he stated with finality.

Gabrielle sat silently for a time and Arjun waited patiently for her to speak, humming a comforting mantra in his mind. At last she asked, “Arjun, I'm flattered you choose to trust me, but why do you tell me this, especially knowing that such a secret is dangerous in the wrong hands?”

“Ah, but this secret is not in the wrong hands, is it?” He smiled as he leaned slightly forward. “You are my best friend's lover, and you saved her life. You have proved over and over that you are a person of conscience and possess a great heart full of compassion. I may have had doubts about her past loves, but I have no doubts about you, Gabrielle,” he stated firmly and smiled as she blushed.

“Thank you,” she whispered shyly, her face crimson.

Marveling that one who had seen and done the things that she had could still be so humble, Arjun nodded and spread his hands. “Gabrielle, you will be leaving here, and when you leave here, you may be the only one who will know the true story about our land and its people. As a bard, you will be able to write this history for all to see and learn. I only ask one thing, that you not record this information until the entire situation plays itself out. I hope you understand?”

“You have my word,” she said simply, looking deep into his eyes. “I need no more innocent blood upon my hands. I promise that I will reveal nothing of the situation to anyone in anything I say or write unless there is no longer any danger to those concerned.”

“Thank you,” the prince nodded, then continued seriously. “You see, Gabrielle, because of my father's actions, I do not believe that he will rule for much longer. His … deeds have been so evil as to effect his ability to retain control. I, on the other hand, am trying very hard to maintain the fragile balance of karma in order to keep these lands free of more bloodshed. I believe that my people are capable of so much more, and if given the opportunity, we can rise to higher standards.” He went on briskly. “Oh, please do not misunderstand me, ruling the kingdom is not my priority, but helping my people to achieve the levels of peace and prosperity which are possible is my goal. This is why I will do everything within my power to keep Nivedita and Pritam safely hidden for as long as possible.”

The bard only nodded. She understood the importance of what he said. As the weight of his news settled in, a sigh escaped her control.

“You see, Gabrielle, not all is what it appears to be on the surface, and not everyone's karma is firmly set. Do you understand?” he asked.

“I-I … think I do.” She replied.

“Good. Now, let us put these things aside, for I know you came here wishing to speak of your spirit soul mate.”

At his words, Gabrielle swallowed and hesitated, but Arjun's smile was reassuring and slowly she smiled back. Then she sighed and looked uncertain. “Gods, where should I begin,” she whispered.

“Start where you wish,” He said as he settled his thoughts and prepared to listen.

Seeing him like this, Gabrielle seemed to draw from his calmness and smiled slightly as she began to speak of the warrior princess named, Xena. Just as he had done for Isa, he listened attentively, smiling at her words of fondness and love. When she spoke of the thousands of souls lost in a fire caused by the warrior so many years ago, his brow arched in a silent question, yet he did not interrupt the bard. Instead, he listened until it seemed she had nothing left to say.

At last, they sat in silence. Gabrielle's gaze was lowered to the floor as tears slowly ran down her cheeks. Arjun waited patiently then smiled when she finally looked up at him with reddened eyes. With a sad smile, she reached up and wiped at her still brimming tears causing more to run down her face.

“You must think I'm crazy for carrying on like this and for wanting her back so badly,” she weakly smiled. “Please, Arjun, don't misunderstand me. I don't want to hurt Zara, and I never intended to fall in love with her … b-but…” The blonde shook her head in anguish.

“…But, you both have found a love with one another,” he answered her unspoken question. When she looked at him, he noticed her gulping as if to swallow a distasteful thought. “…And you are still in love with Xena.”

“I'm that obvious, am I?” She whispered softly.

“Yes. You are torn because you love two women, one who is very much alive, and one who is a spirit. You are filled with conflicting emotions, just as you were torn at the Fountain of Strength at the foot of Mt. Fujisaka,” his voice reminded.

“Yes,” the bard nodded solemnly, “I didn't want to let her leave me …I-I didn't care about the lives that were lost in Higuchi when she tried to bury Akemi's ashes … I didn't even care about what Xena wanted, I just wanted her back!” She looked defiant for a moment before continuing almost in a shout. “Just once, dammit, I wanted to be totally selfish…” A slight exasperated chuckle escaped her as an air of sadness seemed to blanket her emotions. “…and I'm ashamed for it!” As if to regain control, Gabrielle took a deep breath and then shook her head, wiping at the tears in her eyes.

“I wanted her back, oh, gods how I wanted her back … b-but Akemi said….” Gabrielle's word's faded as she looked down at her hands, the sadness seeming to pour out of her.

Arjun waited calmly until she seemed calm once more before he spoke. “Gabrielle, my belief is that every soul has to undergo suffering in order to pay for wrongful deeds.” At her intense look, he smiled as he searched for ways to explain the philosophy which he embraced.

“You see, Gabrielle, there area some who believe that there is a form of … oh, call it, 'record keeping' for everyone. This record is called Karma. Everything that is done, good or bad, affects the person's Karma both in this life, and in our future lives.” His expression was resolute as he went on. “We believe that every soul has to go through some suffering for the wrong deeds of their karma committed by them either in this or in past lives. In this way, the soul gets reborn again and again to finally purify itself by its good Karma until it ultimately reaches what we call Moksha which is Darshan Enlightenment and a union with The Great Divine -- with Brahman.”

The bard watched him intently without speaking as he spread his hands. “What this means is that we believe that our lives are governed by our past actions, actions from either our current lives, or our past lives. Yes, just like my father will have to pay for his crimes, so too will Xena, but Gabrielle, the punishment that she would have received for the dukkah, the suffering which she caused, would not necessarily be brought about by her death. Likewise, who is to say that the fire and the lost lives of the villagers of Higuchi was not the Kharma of those in the village?” he asked. At her confusion, he sighed softly as he tried to formulate his thoughts in a way that was sensitive to the lost lives, yet true to his beliefs.

“Look at it this way. As neither of us knows the history of this village … Higuchi, let us agree that it is a mystery. But contemplate this, if every action causes an equal reaction … if every evil committed is repaid through each individual's personal Kharma, how can we be certain that the village had not committed a grievous sin in their past long before Xena crossed their path?” Arjun's voice was calm. “Perhaps this sin was then repaid by the burning of the village and the loss of lives! Are you certain that perhaps in the past, either in their current lives, or in their previous lives, that an innocent had not gone to the people of the village seeking help, but was turned away by everyone?” He looked pained. “Would not this, in and of itself, be enough to bring down upon the people the wheel of justice? To bring the bad dukkah … the suffering, back to the village?”

As he finished, Arjun could see that she was listening and hearing his words. Like a light vanquishing the night, an expression of understanding crossed over the bard's features. Her brows furrowed as her head tilted to the side in thought. With a slight chuckle and a shake of her head, she closed her eyes as the thoughts raced through her mind.

“Damn, how… how stupid I was! I should have thought of that at the time,” she whispered.

“How could you? You were filled with grief at the loss of your love, you could not have been expected to see clearly,” Arjun's voice was softly soothing.

“She didn't want me to bring her back, but if she had known this, she might have let me pour her ashes into that damn pool! Gods, I should have thought of this, especially since we knew what our next life would be,” the bard shook her head in frustration.

“You are fortunate to have seen your future, not many are given such gifts,” Arjun said thoughtfully.

“Yes, I was to be a prince … a man, if you can believe it,” Gabrielle chuckled at the memory of her future life. “Xena is to be the mother of peace! Ironic, isn't it, that a warrior would come back as the mother of peace?”

At her words, Arjun thought over the revelation. At the disclosure of Xena's future life, he smiled slightly, “Then, Xena was indeed elevated closer to Moksha.”

For a moment, Gabrielle thought over his comment, then smiled as she slowly nodded. “Yes, Xena did … I mean, does, move closer to enlightenment,” she agreed.

Arjun allowed Gabrielle to remain in silence. He noticed that her body language was filled with both defeat and hope. As if he were not even near her, she sat mirroring his lotus position, her legs easily crossed as she sat with a straight back and hands on her knees with palms upward. Off in the distance, he heard the sounds of the birds within his garden and the distant voices of his guests. Oblivious to everything around her, the bard glanced up at him, fresh tears filling her green eyes.

“So you understand that Xena will move on to become the mother of peace … the Dukkha she created in this life has been set right and her Kharma will lead her closer toward Moksha, why then are you wishing to bring her back?” Arjun asked. At the look of surprise from the Greek woman, Arjun smiled slightly. “Yes, although she did not tell me, I know what you and Zara have planned. And again, I ask, why do you wish to bring your soul mate back from the dead?

The sands of time seemed to move at a turtles pace as Gabrielle tried to find words for her desires. Arjun watched her closely in hopes of understanding the logic behind this woman's wants and hopes. With only a smile, the blonde sighed as she turned beseeching eyes to the prince.

“Because through all of our journey's together … nothing has ever kept us apart … not even death … a-and … because … I love her,” Gabrielle whispered softly. “I know it doesn't make any sense, but, I can't imagine my life if she is not here with me,” the bard added solemnly.

Arjun smiled sadly. He nodded in understanding even as his thoughts turned to his dear friend. 'Zara, my dear sister in spirit … what will become of you and your great and fragile heart?' the prince thought silently as his gaze turned to the beauty of his private garden.
Zara noticed a moodiness in Gabrielle, yet chose to ignore it. Throughout the day, she allowed the bard to maintain her own thoughts. Although she did not know what the conversation with Arjun had been about, she guessed that it had something to do with the bard's spirit twin. So rather than question Gabrielle, the Moroccan captain remained silent and allowed her lover the time to think through her thoughts. 'She will tell me when she has worked it all out,' she thought sympathetically.

Their dinner was shared in silence in the privacy of their room, only occasional words were spoken. Although the setting could have been romantic, and even though Nadrah was spending the evening with Pritam's family, a romantic interlude had not even crossed the Moroccan's thoughts. Rather than attempt to coax such notions from the bard, she kept her silence and maintained her own thoughts.

As the meal progressed, Zara felt a slight fear that perhaps Gabrielle had second thoughts. Maybe, after having time to meditate on the matter, the bard had realized that her words of love were false. 'Oh, stop it, you fool,' the dark woman thought in irritation as she drank the last remnants of wine from the goblet. 'She loves you! Do not let old fears pull you back into despair!' But as the silent repast wore on, it grew harder for her to maintain an even balance in the face of the bard's silence.

When the servants arrived to remove the remnants of the evening's dinner, she watched the Greek rise in silence, her eyes averted as she walked to her bag and removed a scroll. When she took a plume and parchment in hand and moved to sit at the desk, Zara watched for only a moment feeling almost helpless. As the melancholy loomed over her, the tall woman rose from her seat and moved to the dresser.

Since arriving at Arjun's home, the need to taste of the crystal dragon had not entered her mind … until now. As she looked over her shoulder and watched the bard scribing on a scroll, she sighed as she removed the pipe and accouterments. In the back of her mind, she heard the slight scratching of the plume's tip as she automatically went through the motions of preparation and readying a light. When the white crystal first began to fizzle, then pop from the flame of the candle, she tipped the utensil until the liquid poured into the spout of the pipe. Ignoring everything around her, she lay down upon the bed and began to inhale the vapors that floated out from the stem.

Zara felt the familiar sensations of numbness as her body seemed to float away. She felt herself surrounded by a comforting mist as her mind wandered over a multitude of thoughts. The Sultan had asked her to join his family. If the bard's mood had been different, she would have sought her advice. But as Gabrielle seemed disinterested in everything tonight, all Zara could do was contemplate it on her own.

As thoughts slowly whirled through the mists in her mind the captain foggily tried to sort them out and make sense of them. Finally after much ruminating, she determined that since she had not been asked by her father to join his clan, why would she then be worthy enough to join a Sultan's clan? But as this nasty thought crept into her consciousness, she felt the silent rebel within her scream out that she truly was deserving of such a gift. After all that the bastard had put her through, why should she allow her father to continue to rule her life?

At some point in these rambling thoughts, she saw a dragon's tail whipping in the air in front of her. With a broad smile, she watched as the scales seemed to flex, to coax her near. When she felt the dragon's light, gentle touch, she smiled and closed her eyes because she knew that there was really only one choice for her. She would gratefully accept the offer despite the great responsibility that came along with the new title.

If she had been of her right mind, she might have told Gabrielle her decision and maybe this might have snapped the bard out of her sadness. Although Zara knew that a Sultan's daughter could not equal a Warrior Princess, she hoped that it might be enough alleviate the bard's sorrow, if only for a little while. But in her present condition, Zara could only marvel at the beauty of the dragon as it's slow moving body hypnotically mesmerized her to stillness.
By the time that Gabrielle had finished writing down her rambling thoughts for Xena, she suddenly realized that she had hardly spoken a word to Zara since returning. Her talk with Arjun had brought up many things to contemplate and although she was cordial with her lover, she had not realized until now that the evening had passed in near silence.

'Damn it, Gabrielle,' she thought with disgust. 'Next thing she'll be thinkin' your mad at her. When you disappear into your own head like that, no one can ever tell what's going on with you. Not even Xena could. Gods, where's Zara. You gotta make it up to her.' When she turned and saw the Moroccan lying on the bed, her back to the bard, and smelled the slightly sweet odor in the room, Gabrielle realized that Zara was dead to the world.

Rising from the chair, she moved and stood above the woman. Because the bigger woman's eyes were partly open, the bard could see that her pupils were dilated as she loosely held a pipe in her grasp. With a shake of her head, the bard took the pipe from her hands, and then carried it out to the patio where the odor would eventual die off. When she came back into the room, she chose to leave the patio doors open in hopes that the opium smell would leave before Nadrah returned.

“Zara,” the bard sighed as she stood over her lover and shook her head. “Well, I guess there's nothing left to do but get you ready to sleep.” She bent over and pulled at the bigger woman's dead weight, then began to strip her of her clothes. Throughout the whole ordeal, the Moroccan only smiled, before closing her eyes to whatever visions that swirled around in her head.

“Thank the gods Xena was never into this habit,” the bard muttered under her breath before she stripped off her own clothes, then joined Zara under the covers.

“That's because Xena is so perfect!” Zara stated with a venomous tone before a slight chuckle escape her control.

“I'm gonna ignore that, sweetheart, now go to sleep,” Gabrielle instructed as she pulled Zara into her arms and the bigger woman sighed before relaxing against her. As they lay there, a frown crossed the small woman's features as she once again wondered if it was truly possible for all parties to coexist in harmony, when one of them loves the other two. When no answers arose, the bard merely sighed as she closed her eyes to sleep.

Part 39

“You've started?” Zara asked incredulously as she followed the bard into the chamber pot room.

“Why is that so hard to believe?” the smaller woman asked as she rummaged through the cabinets, looking for the neatly folded cloths used during these times.

“Well … um, because … uh, are you sure you've started?” The Moroccan found it hard to believe. Never in her life had she ever been with anyone who started their moon time before her. With an incredulous expression, the bard looked up at her and shook her head, then turned and walked toward the bathing room.

“Zara, I think I know by now when I start, and I'm telling you, I started my moon time!” the bard stated, then stopped in her tracks, and whirled around. “Wait a minute, does this have anything to do with the fact that by starting my moon time before you, this proves that I'm the Alpha Female and you're not?” the bard pointed the tip of the cloth at her accusingly.

“What?” Zara tried to understand her smaller lover, as the disbelief still raced in her mind.

“You know, Alpha Female…” the bard stated again, then sighed and shook her head. “It's when a woman is the dominant female in a pack. The strength of the dominant female determines when all the others will start their moon time, and that makes her the Alpha Female, the strongest female … does this sound familiar?”

Zara thought about if for a moment, then negatively shook her head, “Well, I've never heard of that um, title before, but … well, yes. Gabrielle, the women I am with only bleed after I have bled. It is my strength that determines their cycles. That's how it's always been. I've never known it any other way,” the taller woman stated with a disappointed expression.

Gabrielle stared at her for a moment, then rolled her eyes as she shook her head. “Figures! You warrior types are all alike,” she muttered as she turned and continued to the bathing area. “You know, Xena wasn't comfortable when she found out that I was the Alpha Female either, but guess what? She got used to it, and so can you!” The bard chuckled as she turned and winked at Zara before disappearing into the room.

This was how they began their morning on the day when they would be participating in hand-to-hand combat. Despite the full day of activity, Zara's thoughts continually returned to the notion that it was Gabrielle who now determined her cycle, and this disturbed the tall woman. Yet, if Xena had come to terms with it, then she would have no choice, she reasoned, then would quickly chide herself. 'After all, what can one do when it's their bodies way?' But a part of her mind still felt frustrated as she went through the motions and fought to the best of her abilities.
The bard was not unaccustomed to a pouting woman. When she had first begun traveling with Xena, and the warrior learned that she, a little girl from Potidaea, was the Alpha Female, the warrior had pouted for nearly a week. Finally, when it didn't change their relationship, Xena had magnanimously conceded that sometimes, the position of Alpha is never guaranteed. And sometimes, a little girl from a small village can really be more dominant than a Warrior Princess.

To Zara's credit, she managed to get over her pouting faster than Xena had. But then, the bard wasn't at all certain that it just wasn't out of sheer necessity that the Moroccan managed to quickly curb her disappointment. As soon as they had a light meal, the participants of the contest gathered on the field for the day's hand weapons combat event.

To Gabrielle's surprise, the issued swords had blunt edges. At her look, Zara leaned over and explained that all of Arjun's hand-to-hand weapon contests used these swords. In hopes of avoiding unnecessary injury, the Prince's contest swords were especially designed with blunted points and no sharpened edge. The rules of the game, as explained by the prince's scribe, also helped to alleviate any injuries. The minute a fighter lost their sword, for whatever reasons, they were automatically out of the game.

Pleased by the rules, the bard realized that she would be able to utilize all of her years as a fighter, while also relaxing in the knowledge that no one could be seriously harmed
If the bard was experiencing any discomfort from her moon time, she did not show it. In fact, whenever Zara glanced at her petite lover, she often times forgot that the bard was even bleeding. Throughout the day, and after their lunch, they continued in the orderly fighting until the numbers had dwindled to only a handful of contestants.

Exactly when the tide of the fighting changed, Zara didn't know. One moment, she was fighting in the afternoon free-for-all, and the next, she came face-to-face with Daruka and several of his friends. With a gleeful smile, the Indian captain advanced on Zara hacking madly at her to the point where she had to pull away. Each time she managed to fend off the captain's advances and had a chance to score a blow herself, one of his men would turn on her so she was forced to split her concentration between the two men.

With each blow of their swords, she felt the bones in her arm rattling from the impact. As the last day's sun shone down on her, she felt the sweat gathering on her back, her feet moving automatically as her sword fended off each blow. When yet a third man turned his attention to her, she began to wonder if she was going to lose. The Moroccan's thoughts were filled with genuine concern that Gabrielle would win, and force her to wear the womanly necklace.

Her instincts told her to duck, yet when she saw another man enter the fray against her, she turned for only a moment. It was then that a sharp sting was felt on her arm. Surprised by the familiar pain, she glanced down to see the thin line of blood across her forearm.

“Zara!” The taller woman heard Gabrielle call, but ignored her as she stared up at her attacker.

Daruka stood with a gleeful smile of satisfaction. With a sneer, he held his sword up before he took a step toward her. By the rays of the last sunlight, she saw the sharp edge of the sword reflected in the sun. At her look of consternation, the Indian man smirked as he began to circle her like a hunter who has cornered his prey.

They traded a few lighting blows, all of which she blocked with her blunted sword. Daruka snarled as he realized that he couldn't get through her guard, but then several of his friends began moving in too. Anger began to boil within her as she realized that if they kept her busy, he would be free to strike a telling blow with his edged sword. Even if he didn't, blood loss from the cut would quickly weaken her arm. Then, before she realized a change, she saw the bard pushing her way past a few fighters until the smaller woman was by her side. From somewhere behind her, she felt Isa pushing his way through the contestants until he was able to place himself against her back. As if suddenly surrounded by a wall, Jamil and Nivedita appeared to help them form a perfect circle.

Zara smiled grimly at this evening of the odds and Daruka's look of surprise might have been comical had it not been for the group of his men who suddenly had them surrounded. With a growl, he took a step toward Zara, but froze when the clank and clatter of many armed men approached the group. At the sight of Arjun's armed guards, the Indian captain took a few steps away and stared across the barrier of Prince Asoka's trained warriors.

“I demand justice!” Daruka shouted as he turned to the spectators who were standing on the sidelines. “You see how they cheat! How they deprive me of my justice!” His voice rose loud as he turned his attention to the crowd.
Prince Arjun always enjoyed this part of the competition. To see so many contestants, mostly men, all muscular, virile, young combatants, parading or fighting in the middle of the arena. The sight of their muscles bulging from exertion as a sheen of sweat covered their rippling skin was enough to make even Arjun hot. On the few occasions that he happened to glance at the few women participants, he had to give a satisfied nod that his dear friends could hold their own against such manly men.

All through the day, the contest had progressed without a problem, but in the afternoon, he noticed a shifting change in the way that the fighters were situated. As he continued to entertain the Sultan who sat by his side, the young prince kept a close eye on the game. When he glanced up at Hiresh, he noted the captain's unspoken concerns, and then returned his full attention to the competition.

Too slowly for most to notice, Captain Daruka and his men moved toward a single target. One by one, a few contestants were forced to drop out of the contest, leaving a gap large enough for the captain to enter. As Arjun absently listened to the Sultan's comments, he noted that Daruka hardly used his sword. It was not until the man was upon Zara that Arjun understood why he had avoided using his weapon.

The moment he saw his best friend's shirt torn, her blood drawn, Prince Arjun was on his feet. With a clenched jaw, he stared down as his eyes narrowed in anger. 'How dare he usurp my games for his petty vengeance!' The prince angrily thought.

Before Zara's group could come to her aid, Prince Arjun gave a silent nod to his captain of the guard. In only a matter of seconds, the guards had moved in, stopping the entire contest. Inwardly cursing, the prince left his place on the dais and moved swiftly toward the center of the two groups.

“I demand justice!” he heard Daruka shout as he walked through the opening that the guards provided. “You see how they cheat! How they deprive me of my justice!” The Indian captain's voice grated on Arjun's nerves and he felt his temper rising.

Only when he stood directly in front of the captain did the man stop his posturing and grow silent. Arjun maintain his silence as he stared coldly up at the bigger man. At the continual silence, the captain seemed bolstered and began to move near, but was instantly stopped when Hiresh blocked his path.

Daruka swallowed, then his face grew dark. “My Prince Arjun, I beg of you, I seek justice from this … this … person,” the captain spat at Zara, then turned back to face the prince. “See how she and her cohorts cheat! They close ranks in order to deny me a fair battle.”

Arjun kept his gaze on the man. When he glanced down at the sword in the captain's hands, Hiresh stepped forward and grabbed the captain's hand. Without a smile, Arjun's personal guard clamped onto the Indian man's wrist and lifted the sword for the prince's inspection.

The moment the sword was held up, Arjun saw the clever replacement of the edged blade for the blunted one. In silence, he reached out and ran the tip of his finger over the metal. As he pulled his finger away, he glanced momentarily at the droplet of blood that formed on his fingertip, then looked directly at Daruka. With a nervous gulp, the captain stepped back, but before Arjun could say anything, the man grew defiant as he stared down at the prince. “I am a noble,” he grated. “She is nothing; only a foreign trading captain! She is not even a commoner in our land.”

Arjun wanted this nonsense finished once and for all. Since the entire mess with Shikha, the captain had been a constant thorn in his side. With a wave of his hand, the guards stepped away, pulling everyone except Zara, Daruka, and Hiresh aside.

“Zara, I have had enough of this, but as the transgression is against you, what is your wish?” Arjun's voice was low and controlled as he kept his eyes on Captain Daruka.
Zara heard her friend's question and stared at the captain. A part of her wanted to beat the man within an inch of his life. Yet another part did not want to even deal with him. As if sensing her ambivalence, the prince turned his gaze to her.

“I can have him and his … wife, evicted, and take out future discipline later, but I have a feeling it will not end there,” Arjun calmly stated, then added in a softer tone, “Of course, I could simply execute him for disobeying my orders.” He was gratified to hear a gulp from Daruka, but did not spare him a glance.

As she thought over her options, Zara stared at the red-faced army captain. She could feel his sheer hatred toward her. Even though she knew that Daruka could be evicted, even banished from this place, that would only harden the man's resolve to seek revenge for an imaginary offense. Yet if she allowed Arjun to execute the man, his relatives could cause trouble for Arjun and his family. With few options available, and because, like Arjun, she too was growing tired of Daruka, Zara nodded acceptance.

“I too am tired of this. Let it be done with here and now,” she stated.

Before she had time to contemplate further, Captain Hiresh handed Zara his sword. In length, weight and size, it was similar to the competition swords. The only difference was that like Daruka's sword, the new one she held had also been sharpened until it had a razor edge.

Without preamble, Zara stood with sword tip down. Her body was relaxed as she stared at the man who hated her. For a moment, she began to gauge his strengths and weaknesses and knew the moment he moved that her assessment of him had not changed.

Since the first time that Shikha had left her for Daruka, she knew that the captain was not the strongest military man in the Asoka ranks. He was a bureaucrat, a scroll pusher who was more adept at deciphering through the government scrolls rather than leading an army into battle. When it came to swordsmanship, the man was barely capable of picking out a suitable weapon, let alone handling it. With this in mind, Zara stood still, her head tilted to the side as she waited for his next move.

For a moment, the Indian captain seemed confused by her relaxed manner. He visibly gulped as he licked his dry lips. When his gaze moved from Zara's features, to the blood soaked sleeve of her shirt, a new confidence seemed to fill him. With a growl, the man stepped toward her with raised sword.

Zara felt herself moving instinctively. She heard the sounds of their swords clashing against each other as the metal reverberated through her arm. In less time than she would have expected, she had disarmed the captain. With an expression of stone, she held the tip of her sword against the Indian man's throat.

“It is over,” she hissed as she maintained eye contact.

He stood frozen in place, his arms held out to his sides as he kept his chin high enough that her blade could not touch him. His eyes shifted from her, to his sword that lay on the grass. When it seemed that he would not fight further, she slowly withdrew the tip, then stepped away from the man.

With a shake of her head, she backed away from him, then turned to leave. Before she could take a few steps, Gabrielle's voice screamed at her. “Zara!” Startled, she spun in time to see the captain advancing on her, his sword raised and ready to hack her from behind.

“I've had enough!” she screamed as she parried the blow. She swung a savage series of strokes which he barely parried, and then her blade flickered in and plucked the sword from his nerveless grasp. Once she had him disarmed, she dropped her own weapon and began to pummel him with her fists. At his surprised expression, she put her foot behind his and struck until he tripped and fell backward. Zara took advantage of this to leap on him like a tiger, all the while slamming her fists into his body, chest, and face. For what felt like a single second in time, she continued to beat the man until she felt someone behind her, the two arms were pulling her from his torso as she kicked and tried to slam her fists into him.
Gabrielle knew the moment that she saw Daruka darting for his sword that this would not be over. When Zara had him disarmed again, she watched in horror as the tall Moroccan attacked him with her bare hands. Although the Indian man managed to get in a few blows, Zara's were filled with greater force to the point where the Indian man was down on the ground. It was not until the dark captain was straddled over the man and pummeling him, that Arjun's guards let her pass their ranks.

“Zara, stop!” she screamed as she wrapped her arms around her lover's body. With a hard yank, she pulled the taller woman and managed to throw her to the ground. Still filled with a rush of battle rage, the Moroccan now began to flail at her, the bigger woman's fists aiming at her face.

“STOP!” she screamed as she ducked her lover's blows, then frantically grabbed the bigger woman's wrists as she sat on her waist and pinned her to the grass.

As if suddenly returning to her senses, the Moroccan gasped and then began to pant as she stared up at the sky. Gabrielle noticed her lover's swollen eye and split lip. With sweat dripping down her face, her arm bleeding, and her fists bloodied, Zara remained still as the bard straddled her torso. Only when the Moroccan captain looked at her in something like puzzlement, did the bard release a sigh of relief.

“You're all right now, sweetheart, its okay. Just calm down,” she cooed as she ran her palm over her lover's face. Blinking at the loving contact, Zara gasped suddenly, then closed her eyes as her breathing returned to normal.

“G-Gabrielle … I…” she tried to speak.

“Shush, honey, it's okay. Don't say anything. It's over,” the bard said as she moved from her lover's prone form. As an afterthought, she knelt by Daruka and examined his bloody face. When she felt a hand on her shoulder, she looked up and saw the aged healer by her side, his grim expression fixed on the fallen captain.

“Healer Gabrielle, I can tend to this … one,” he stated distastefully as he glanced at Zara, who still lay on her back panting for air. “Please, see to your mate.”

She looked once at the fallen captain, then nodded acceptance of the healer's words, and turned to help her lover to her feet. As she wrapped Zara's arm over her shoulder, she supported the taller woman's weight as she guided her from the scene. Behind her, she heard the Arab healer issuing orders to his assistant as he began to tend to the barely conscious Indian Captain.

“It's over now, sweetheart, you've won. It's done with. Put it behind you,” she cooed as she helped her love into the estate and to their room.

Although her voice held conviction, her mind worried that this was not over. Gabrielle had never wished for anyone's death, but for a split second in time, she was wondering if this is what it would take to stop Daruka's madness. With a shake of her head, the healer bard pushed the thoughts from her mind.
Zara felt her whole body shaking out of control. She felt the inner rage searing through her soul. In silence she sat on the edge of the bed with her head bent. Gabrielle was on her knees, a warm bowl of water by her side as she finished cleaning and binding the sword cut on her lover's arm. Next she turned to gently wiping the blood from Zara's hands.

“How do your hands feel?” the healer asked as she examined them critically.

“Fine.” Was all the Moroccan could say as she felt her heart thumping in her chest.

“Doesn't look like anything is broken,” the small blonde said out loud as she gently bent the captain's fingers, and examined her palms and wrists. “Ya coulda jammed a knuckle pounding on that hunk of meat that way, but I think your okay. Next time go for the soft spots,” she said, forcing a chuckle.

“The ... soft spots. Right…” Zara muttered still feeling anger washing through her.

“How about your face, let me have a look,” Gabrielle's voice was soft as she stood up and tilted Zara's chin upward. With a grimace, the blonde shook her head as she took a cloth and gently wiped at Zara's swollen eye. At the instant pain, the Moroccan flinched, then grew still.

“I know, honey, I know it hurts, but I gotta clean it up,” she heard the bard say.

“G-Gabrielle … I … uhhh … it…” Zara shook her head as she looked at her hands and saw them shaking.

The bard stopped for a moment and gazed at the captain, her expression filled with compassion. With a shake of her head, which caused it to throb suddenly, Zara sighed as she closed her one good eye.

“I wanted to … to kill him,” she whispered to her Greek lover.

“I know.” Was all the bard said as she looked at Zara with sympathy.

“Gabrielle, I-I've never….” she shook her head as the fear of her own rage settled in. “I never wanted to kill anyone as much as I wanted to kill him,” the Moroccan whispered as she lowered her head in shame.

Throughout her entire life, she had gone through the various emotions of anger, betrayal, and longing for revenge. But Zara had never experienced such pure, animal hatred before. These feelings she felt, the longing to not only kill Daruka, but to make him suffer as no other had, were alien to her. Not even when she had tried to kill the Sultan in her rage, had she felt such pure darkness in her life. And this scared her.

As if sensing her fears, Gabrielle smiled softly as she returned her attention to cleaning Zara's swollen eye. “I know honey. I know,” was all she said when she moved the cool cloth to the captain's split lower lip.
Prince Arjun Asoka found himself pacing the length of his official meeting hall. He heard the echo of his own footfalls with each step he took. With hands clasped firmly behind his back, and head bent, he contemplated all of the events that had transpired.

To anyone within the court, they would have felt that he should not have given his support to Zara, a woman who not only was a commoner, but a foreigner as well. Yet after all of his years of knowing her, there was little else in his mind that he could do. Even though Captain Daruka was a distant member of royalty, there was always something rotten about the man that Arjun did not like.

“Your highness,” the sound of Hiresh's voice broke through his concentration.

With an arch of a brow, the young prince gazed up at his personal guard and sighed. “What now, Hiresh?”

“It is as you suspected, your highness. As soon as Captain Daruka and his wife were informed that they were to be ousted from the estate, a communiqué was sent to his brother, Major General Pavan,” Hiresh's voice remained controlled despite the circumstances.

The prince chewed his lip as he tasted the unpleasant situation. Unlike Captain Daruka, his brother, Major General Pavan was not only a capable officer, but a fierce warrior. Commanding his own cavalry unit, Major General Pavan proved to be a powerful ally for Arjun's father and not one to be scoffed at. Although the man was loyal to his father, the ruler of Indus, the prince knew that at times like these, family honor could take precedent over loyalty to a king.

“How long will it take for Field Marshal Kala to return?” Arjun asked as he moved to the open balcony. He absently watched as his guests milled about in the open courtyard. All ignorant of the full situation, their laughter and voices were a contradiction to the quickly swelling emergency which Arjun now faced.

“She has half of her troops in eastern and lower lands, however, she herself is with a legion on the western coast. It will take her no more than five days to return,” the taller man said as he moved to stand behind his prince.

As he watched his guests enjoying their stay, the young prince thought over his options. Should a problem arise, a communiqué had already been sent to his father explaining the captain's open defiance and unforgivable conduct. If anything, his father would be pleased to know that Arjun was finally standing on his own against another royal member. But when it came to his guests, Arjun had to take into consideration that they could be caught in the middle of a quickly brewing battle situation and suffer for it.

'Holy Krishna,' he thought distractedly. 'Why do these things have to happen? Why can't we just have peace?' Shrugging off his inner dialogue, he turned to the captain. “Hiresh, how long would it take…” Arjun did not have to finish his sentence, for as soon as he spoke, the officer nodded understanding.

“It would take the major general more than seven days to bring his unit to our doors, by that time, Field Marshall Kala would have her troops situated securely.”

“Hmm. Then there is nothing else for us to do but await developments,” he said.

“No, my prince. All we can do is to make certain that all is in readiness. Should I begin the preparations needed to evacuate the guests?” The captain asked as he looked down at the patio below them.

“No, Hiresh. We have more than ample guards around the estate. Best not to alert the guests … any news like that might send the message to my father and to…” As if saying it would make it true, Arjun did not finish his words. Instead, he sighed as he looked up at his most trusted guard and friend.

The actions of his father had brought about small bands of rebellion. So far, Arjun's fair treatment of the rebels had given him their respect. But if word should go out that the son of the ruler was under attack, they might just decide to join in with the hopes of liberating their land or for gaining loot if nothing more. Although Arjun did not relish a blood bath, he knew that if the rebels joined with Daruka's clan, the prince would have little choice in matter.

Sensing his prince's turmoil, Hiresh nodded understanding as he moved closer to Arjun. With a sigh, the bigger man wrapped his arms around the petite prince and held him close to his chest. In an absent manner, the warrior lightly brushed his lips against Arjun's ear, the light stubble of his chin brushed against the soft cheek as he held the prince close.

“All will be well, my prince. You shall see, regardless of what may come, all will be well.” Captain Hiresh assured.

Arjun closed his eyes as he leaned back into the burly man's arms. With a sigh, he tilted his head as he reached up to lay his palm over his lover's bare arm. Gulping down his own inner fears, the young prince only nodded. 'Regardless of what may happen, it is meant to be and the karma will all play out,' he told himself as he basked in his captain's strong, protective arms.

The End of Chapter 7

Chapter 8

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