Continued from Part One
All disclaimers remain in effect.
For Xena the next fifteen days were among the longest of her entire life. It was over a hundred and fifty leagues from Giza to Thebes and day after day Neshi's barge slowly covered the distance one set of oar strokes at a time. Though long used to even more extended voyages out on the open sea she found this particular type of travel to be monotonous at best and on occasion simply mind numbing. In a way this surprised her because she prided herself on being able to quickly adapt to any situation. Perhaps it was that the flat-bottomed barge on the relatively calm waters as the Nile was such a stable craft. Except for Gabrielle of course perhaps it was the company. Xena could not say for certain. Whatever the cause she more than once found herself wishing she and Gabrielle, with the faithful Argo in tow, were all traversing some road together--any road. It had been more than a month now since she had left her beloved equine friend to the care of old Phileas back in Haliesis on the aptly named Gulf of Argolis. She missed the beautiful horse. For such a very long time the faithful Argo had been her one and only friend.
Gabrielle, ever cognizant of Xena's moods, tried her best to ease her friend's restlessness. This she did through stories, word games and assorted other contrivances but invariably Xena would tire of it only to once again become bored out of her mind.
As the leagues crept by and each new city was reached the bard could feel the sense of excitement and anticipation building inside her. Like the great pyramids before she had heard to much about the fabled city of Thebes. Had not no less a personage than Homer called it the "richest city in the world?" How did that line go?
"...he may promise me the wealth of Orchomenus or of Egyptian Thebes, which is the richest city in the whole world, for it has a hundred gates through each of which two hundred men may drive at once with their chariots and horses..."
The guy does have a way with words, she mused. She thought of
the shy, sincere young man she had met some years before and recalled with a
twinge of sorrow how sad she had felt upon learning of his blindness.
At last came the late afternoon when Neshi stood up in the front of the barge and pointed to several impressive looking buildings set some distance back off the left bank of the river.
"Karnak," he said, matter-of-factly. "Where lies the temple of the great Amen, King of the Gods, source of all life in heaven, and on the earth, and in the great deep, and in the Underworld, and which made itself manifest under the form of Ra."
Listening to him, the shrewd Xena took this exactly for what it was, not the spontaneous praise of an adoring worshipper for this most exalted of Egyptian gods but rather the mere recital of some time worn litany by a very pragmatic individual who was far more concerned with human kings than with supernatural ones.
"Waset is but a very short distance up river now," Neshi added, after a moment's pause.
It's about damn time, Xena thought. She was becoming sick of that barge.
Gabrielle's reaction to this news was simply a quiet, "Yesssss."
It was some time after dark when the barge at long last docked in Thebes. Even before the vessel was securely moored Neshi began issuing a flurry of orders and in short order the little group was hustled along a darkened street to an impressive stone building with long halls and cavernous rooms.
It was Neshi's own private residence. Upon arrival at his home the master of the house immediately let forth with a series of terse orders to his servants, bade a rather hurried good night to his guests and quickly made his ascent up a dark set of steps and disappeared.
The stone faced attendant charged with leading the way for Xena and Gabrielle was a little surprised by his master's explicit instructions to install the two strange females in the same room. Nevertheless, like the obedient servant he was, he obeyed without question. Neshi knew well enough it would have been futile to attempt to put the two of them in separate rooms. In any case Xena would have made her own sleeping arrangements and naturally enough those plans were sure to include a certain little fair-haired slave....friend.
As they entered the spacious room the servant stepped to the window and tied back the finely woven drapes. He then started for the bed with the intent of turning down the covers but before he could get there Xena barked out a sharp "Hey!" and with a sharp jerk of the thumb toward the door indicated to the man his services were no longer needed or wanted for that matter. For Xena it had been a long day and she was not in the mood to suffer any further annoyance.
However her ill mood was tempered somewhat by the fact that she had now fulfilled her promise to Neshi. She had indeed made certain of his safe passage back to Thebes and now that the job was finished she was looking forward to first patiently tagging along while Gabrielle toured the city for a couple of days and then starting back down river on the long journey to the Mediterranean.
"Some place, huh?" Gabrielle asked admiringly as she leisurely looked the huge room over.
"I've seen worse," was Xena's vapid answer. Knowing the potential for danger here was minimal, Xena nevertheless scanned the room carefully although not with the intense scrutiny with which she had back in Giza.
While Xena was doing this Gabrielle dropped her bag down on the floor and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. Puffing her cheeks as she exhaled, she said, "Gods it's hot! Doesn't it ever rain down here?"
"No," Xena said, as she unhooked her breast plate.
Gabrielle sat down on the side of the bed and began to unlace her boots when suddenly she stopped. With a look of curiosity on her face, she asked "Xena?"
"Have you ever noticed how the farther north from Greece one travels the cooler it gets but yet when traveling south it just keeps getting warmer and warmer?"
"I've noticed," Xena tersely replied. "What about it?"
"Why do you think that is?" the bard asked. "I mean, there has to be a reason, right?"
"I suppose there is," Xena answered. "But to tell you the truth I never gave it much thought."
With a couple of soft grunts Gabrielle tugged off her boots and flopped backward on the bed. "Well I have," she said, brightly.
Amused now, Xena lifted an eyebrow and flashed that familiar little half smile at her bard. "Oh?"
"Yeah. See, I have this theory........." Gabrielle was always doing this. Be it the weather, the movement of the tides, or the very origins of life itself the forces of nature seemed to be an endless source of fascination for her. And although Xena loved that about her she rarely showed it. As she saw it Gabrielle was enthusiastic enough about these things without any additional encouragement from her.
"All right," Xena said, with feigned apathy, "let's hear it."
"I think it has something to do with the way the rays from Phoebus' chariot strike the earth."
"Gabrielle, how many times do I have told you there is no such thing as Phoebus' chariot."
"Oh all right," the bard huffed in reply. "But whatever the sun is I think its light doesn't fall upon the earth with the same intensity everywhere. I mean, did you ever notice how the sun is lower in the sky in winter?" Gabrielle then wrinkled her nose and added, "Maybe it's the angle or something."
"Whatever you say," Xena yawned, losing interest now. Now she too laid down on the bed and without another word closed her eyes. Although it had been two weeks since she and her bard had made love back in Giza Xena was at this point hardly in an amorous mood. For one thing she was tired and for another she wanted to be at her best tomorrow when their little group was received at the court of Hatshepsut. After all, she had not wet nursed that stuffy Aloysius and his cohort Certes all this way over the last three weeks only to see them trip up now and perhaps kill the whole thing. It was a matter of personal honor for her to assure that all went well. Had she not given her word to King Docticles?
Gabrielle too sensed that this was not the time for fiery passion and so she simply snuggled up as close as she could to her beautiful warrior. For a time neither of them spoke although each of them was quite aware that the other was awake.
Finally as one might expect it was Gabrielle who broke the silence with her soft voice. "Xena?"
Without opening her eyes the Warrior Princess answered, "Hmm?"
Before continuing Gabrielle curled up into a little ball and gently laid her head upon Xena's stomach. "This has been pretty dull, hasn't it?"
"What? You mean the trip down here?"
"I mean all of it," said Gabrielle. "This whole Egypt thing. Aside from the pyramids I've had more excitement washing my clothes. I can only imagine what's been like for you."
Xena detected just a hint of ruefulness in her friend's voice but naturally she was not about to give her dejected friend the "I told you so" speech. Instead she merely sighed and said, "Well there's something to be said for dull, you know. As far as I know nobody ever died from boredom." Yet! she thought to herself.
She then placed her left hand on Gabrielle's head and began to gently stroke the young woman's scalp with the tips of her long fingers. "Besides," she went on, "I expect you'll get your fill of excitement tomorrow at Karnak."
Located just north of Thebes proper, Karnak was not only the sight of the massive temple of Amen, it was also where the royal palace was to be found and consequently where court was held when the king was in Thebes.
"I suppose," said Gabrielle, as she gently nuzzled her head against her lover's tummy. She closed her eyes and yawned before adding, "But I've seen kings before and if you've..." Again she yawned, only wider this time. "...seen one monarch you've pretty much...seen...them...all." The poor girl barely got to finish before drifting off into peaceful slumber.
Sensing Gabrielle's submission unto the spell of Hypnos, Xena ceased the gentle stroking and let her hand come to rest there on little friend's head. Here she too yawned again and then for some reason the bloody memories of the long ago Battle of the Demon's Spine popped into her head. Many a good man on both sides crossed the River Styx that day, she thought. She thought of her foe, her old Nemesis--turned--friend, the brilliant Darinius. Only once since last year's horrific war against Melchus and his Army of the Five Tribes had she and Gabrielle seen him. Now as she lay there listening to Gabrielle's soft breathing she wondered just for a moment what he was up to these days.
But just as quickly as these thoughts of battles past and friends present had come so too did they once more fade into the far recesses of her mind. Again she closed her eyes and tried to go to sleep but already she knew Hypnos would have to be extra diligent in his work on this night if she was to succumb to his power.
But as with all mortals Hypnos' charms were too powerful to resist indefinitely and after a couple of turns of the hourglass Xena finally, at long last, was able to drift off and join her beloved bard in the Land of Slumber.
"From Heaven's splendor and the bosom of the all powerful Amen hath she descended in glory to rule. The god knows of it, Amen, Lord of the Throne of the Two Lands. He gave her sovereignty over the Black Land and the Red Land as a reward. None rebel against her. All foreign lands are her subjects...."
Standing there before the empty throne in that magnificent palace, Gabrielle listened to Aloysius' whispered interpretation of the praise being so fervently sung out by a man with a particularly booming voice. When the herald reached this particular part she had leaned close to Xena and whispered, "They're laying it on a little thick, aren't they?"
Through clenched teeth Xena softly admonished, "Quiet, Gabrielle."
"...He made her boundaries at the limits of Heaven and all that the sun encompasses work for her. The very Nile itself trembles at the approach of the Divine Light, the Mistress of the Two Lands. May she live and endure forever like Ra; the Great Goddess--Female Horus of Fine Gold, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Maatkare Khnemet-Amen Hatshepsut!" Almost as an afterthought he added, "And of her brother, the Good God, master of the ritual Menkheperre."
Precisely on cue a set of large, very ornate doors swung open off on the right whereupon there entered several finely robed, solemn-faced men. These were men whom Xena correctly surmised to be priests of varying ranks not only because Neshi had apprised his guests as to what to expect but also because experience had taught her that this was more or less the universal method for monarchs to make their grand entrance. Priests at the fore was a highly effective way of reaffirming to the people the all important message that the rule of their sovereign was blessed by the gods themselves.
These robed men were followed by other men dressed in traditional kilts of varying lengths and Xena noted that they also all wearing that peculiar style of Egyptian head dress that was now so familiar to her. With the appearance of Neshi among these men it was apparent that these were the various ministers and court officials that made up the royal court of Hatshepsut.
After the last of these men had entered there was a pause while they quietly took up flanking positions down in front of the throne. Only now with the assurance that all eyes would be solely upon her did Hatshepsut herself finally see fit to make her entrance. She was escorted on three sides by hulking guards, each bearing a long spear. Once their mission was completed and their living goddess was safely escorted to the base of the steps the men respectfully stepped back and melted into the darkness of the room's outer fringes leaving the Most August One to ascend the steps alone.
"I wonder just where the good brother is?" Gabrielle whispered.
From out of the corner of her mouth Xena answered, "Good question,"
"Will you two please be quiet?" Aloysius softly pleaded.
As she entered the literally hundreds of people massed in the great room let out a collective gasp and in one sweeping, wave-like movement they all immediately dropped to their knees and bowed down before the all--powerful Daughter of Amen-Ra.
All except two.
"By the gods!" Gabrielle gasped, upon seeing Hatshepsut for the first time.
As the bard stood there looking on in bewilderment and wondering what she should do, Xena took advantage of the unrestricted line of sight to carefully scrutinize the suddenly infinitely more interesting pharaoh.
She was fairly tall, shorter than the Warrior Princess to be sure, but nevertheless fairly statuesque--especially for an Egyptian woman. Like most Egyptians she was also thin. Xena could see that although Hatshepsut was considerably taller than Gabrielle she would be hard pressed to equal the petite bard's weight and indeed was probably even a few minas lighter. It was Xena's guess the pharaoh was about her own age although it was also possible she might be some years younger.
Hatshepsut's face was oval and attractive with a high forehead. She had almond-shaped eyes and as far as Xena could tell a delicate chin. However it was her nose that was the most defining feature. For those familiar with the Thutmose line this was no real surprise because prominent noses ran in the family. While not certainly unsightly it was nonetheless rather protrusive and it was this one lone flaw that prevented her from being regarded as truly beautiful.
Like the members of her court she wore a kilt although hers was of course much more finely woven. However unlike her noble minions, who were all bare chested, she wore a brilliant white, short sleeved blouse with that hung loosely from her slim shoulders. Also, Xena noted that instead of bearing the symbols of her exalted office, the crook and flail, Hatshepsut was carrying in her left hand an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life. Likewise she was also without the legendary Double Crown instead wearing but a fine head cloth and broad collar around her neck.
Lastly, there was one other distinguishing feature about her face which was most definitely not natural and it was this that had so shocked Gabrielle when she first saw the pharaoh. Hatshepsut, female King of Egypt, was wearing a beard!
"Xena!" Gabrielle whispered in surprise. "Look at that!" Still stunned by what she saw, the little bard was about to raise her arm to point at the pharaoh but a sharp rap on the ankle from the toe of Xena's boot was enough to make her think better of it. "Owwww!" she hissed.
From his suppliant position on the floor Aloysius turned his face to the two women and softly cried out, "What are you trying to do? Get us all thrown into prison? For the love of the gods kneel!
"Sorry," Xena blandly answered, "I'm not into groveling."
It was then the two Greeks caught the eye of Hatshepsut herself. So it was that before ascending the steps to the throne she simply stood there for a moment, keenly eyeing what she saw as an extraordinarily tall female and a just as intriguing fair-haired shorter one standing close to her side. She said nothing but as she turned to mount the steps Neshi, who was no more than two good strides away from her, was almost certain he detected the twinkle of an eye in her otherwise impassive countenance.
While the people before the court continued offering their fearful homage, Hatshepsut silently climbed the steps and settled into her great throne. Contentedly surveying the adoring throng before her, Hatshepsut rather likened the defiant Xena and her slightly confused friend to two lone trees towering above the sands of the great Sahara.
Only now when the pharaoh was comfortably seated on her throne did the throng once more rise up. For the next turn of the glass and then some Xena, Gabrielle, Aloysius and Certes stood in place while Hatshepsut's court conducted its business. During that time envoys from Nubia, Hesperia, Palestine, Persia and several other lands were one by one allowed to stand before the throne of Hatshepsut. There they offered up elaborate praise to her along with wishes for her continued good health and invariably the produced along with this one or more exquisite gifts as a token of their respect. These the mighty king blithely accepted with only the barest nod of recognition because she knew full well that what each of these cowering little rabbits' offerings really was...a simple bribe, nothing more.
Xena watched all this with more than passing interest and as she saw treasure after treasure being laid at the feet of Hatshepsut she began to uneasily wonder what the pompous Aloysius had brought to offer up. More and more she was of a mind that he had brought nothing at all. If he had it certainly was minuscule because neither he nor Certes was carrying anything. Surely he had known this was expected of him. Then again, maybe he had not. Oh well, she thought, with some resignation, it's too late now.
Colorful as the proceedings were, they were nevertheless proved to be quite dull and as they dragged on and on Gabrielle became more and more fidgety. For her part Xena began to wonder it this was not some subtle form of punishment being meted out by Hatshepsut in retribution for her defiance. This, however, was in all truth not the case at all. It was merely a matter of protocol. To the Egyptian government Cyprus was a small, relatively unimportant place significant only for its copper and bronze. Therefore it was only natural that its place in line be well back of the much more influential places such as Phoenicia and the far away lands of India.
But none of that mattered to Gabrielle. Her mind was on matters much more relative to her own well being. "Xena," she urgently whispered, "I have to pee!"
Xena rolled her eyes and out of the corner of her mouth replied, "You'll just have to hold it."
"That's easy for you to say," whimpered Gabrielle as she pressed her thighs together hard. "You're not the one that has water rising up to your eyeballs."
The fact of the matter was that Xena was feeling the urge just as much as her little bard but she would be damned before she would admit it now. "Just be quiet and tough it out," she muttered, softly.
"What do you think I've been doing for the last hour?" the bard shot back.
"You should have gone before we left Neshi's house," Xena retorted. However she too was now starting to experience the discomfort that comes with a full bladder.
"Well how was I supposed to know we were going to have to stand here all day?"
"Shhhhhh!" Aloysius pleaded in quiet exasperation.
Xena ignored him but Gabrielle shot him a surprisingly nasty look and it was here that the old Cypriot's temples began to throb. These two are going to be the death of me yet! he lamented.
The envoy was so preoccupied with his own self--pity that he did not notice when the court official called out, "Cyprus!"
It fell to Certes to place a hand on his colleague's elbow and say, "Come, my friend, they are summoning us at last."
"About time too," Xena muttered.
As the four strangers stepped forward Hatshepsut's face remained as impassive as ever but in reality she was eyeing them all very keenly--especially the tall woman with the hair as black as night. When they reached the base of the steps their old traveling companion, Neshi, stepped forward and with a smile said, "Most August One, these are the friends about whom I spoke to you earlier."
Hatshepsut gave him a very subtle nod of the head and, returning her cool gaze to the four at the base of her steps, said, "The chancellor has related to us the many kindnesses you have so recently shown him. Therefore I would like to express my personal gratitude to you for ensuring his safe return. He is not only a diligent, highly efficient member of this court but a good friend as well and I value him greatly. I can assure you that you are most welcome here."
Somewhat emboldened by this, Aloysius smiled broadly and took a step forward in order to firmly establish that he was the leader of this mission. "Thank you, Great Queen," he politely replied. "On behalf of King...."
It was only when he saw Hatshepsut's countenance change from benign detachment to visible displeasure that he realized his mistake. Immediately he sought to correct his error. "Err, what I meant was...... That is to say......."
Hmph! Some ambassador you are, thought Gabrielle, rolling her eyes upward in annoyance as he spoke. I told you not to address her as "queen."
You idiot! Xena silently raged. We spend a whole moon traveling hundreds of leagues just to get here only to have you screw the goat with the very first sentence! Damn it!
By now Aloysius decided it would be best to simply start all over. "Thank you, Great Pharaoh. On behalf of King..."
The great hall fell eerily silent at Hatshepsut's sharp outcry and Xena fully expected that at any moment she would order the four of them to be promptly shown the nearest door. The warrioress was willing to concede that this was the pharaoh's prerogative. This was, after all, her domain and Xena was certainly not here to cause trouble. Still, she had promised King Docticles that she would do all she could to help assure the success of this mission so highly vital to Cyprus' interests. This meant she would just have to do something.
Meanwhile, Certes, good fellow that he was, immediately sought to step in and rectify his colleague's blunder. "We beg your pardon..." His mind raced to find just the right form of address. Highness? Great Goddess? What? Ahh yes, "...Most Noble Pharaoh. What my friend here meant was---"
"The two lands of Kemet extend the hand of friendship to Cyprus," said Hatshepsut, abruptly cutting him off. "Our good friend, Neshi, will meet with you later today to work out the details. I am sure an agreement can be reached that will be mutually beneficial to the both of us."
And just like that it was done.
Xena breathed a little sigh of relief and with some surprise Gabrielle thought, Well now, that wasn't so bad.
For her part Xena was more than a little curious as to the pharaoh's reaction to Aloysius' gaffe. Clearly she had been piqued yet she had still seen fit to allow what the politicians called a "meaningful dialog" to take place. Why? Cyprus was certainly not a force to be reckoned with be it economically, politically or militarily. To a trans-regional power such as Egypt the island was in reality nothing more than an insignificant little lump of dirt and rocks in the Mediterranean with only a few deposits of copper to set it apart.
Why then Hatshepsut's apparent willingness to reach such a quick concordance? Xena could only assume that her attitude was due in no small measure to Neshi's personal efforts on their behalf. However she had the vague feeling this was not the only reason. What that reason might be she did not really care for she now decided that her obligation to King Docticles was done. And for her it was none too soon. She had had just about enough of Aloysius.
As she mulled this over her thoughts were interrupted by Certes' respectful reply to the pharaoh. "We thank you for your kindness, Great Pharaoh. I can assure you that Cyprus too looks forward to a long and mutually prosperous relationship."
Hatshepsut's only reply was a curt nod and this the four of them correctly interpreted as the cue that their audience with the pharaoh was at an end.
Shrugging her shoulders, Xena mumbled, "So much for that."
"Don't let the door hit your butt on the way out," Gabrielle softly chuckled.
"Really," Xena added in agreement as the four of them turned to depart.
As they did the unseen voice boomed out the next emissary to be received, "Latium!"
Suddenly the unmistakable tones of Hatshepsut's voice pierced the great hall. "Wait!"
Xena and her companions turned to see the pharaoh had already vacated the throne and was now descending the steps.
"Now what?" Gabrielle muttered. C'mooooon! I gotta go!
Xena's eyes were locked on Hatshepsut as the pharaoh gracefully strode over to their little group.
"I will speak with you further," said Hatshepsut, upon reaching them. "You will come to my private chambers when the sun sinks behind the western hills."
"Great Hatshepsut," Aloysius gushed, finally regaining his voice. This was almost beyond belief for him. "You honor me beyond words. I--"
"Not you," Hatshepsut bluntly interjected. Turning to Xena, she moved in very close to the much taller woman and looked hard up into those blue eyes. "You," she said. She then very forcefully added, "Only you."
As Gabrielle wondered what this was all about Xena responded with a subtle, very polite nod of the head. Having commanded for most of her adult life she naturally understood well Hatshepsut's tone here. This was no request. This was an order. "All right," she said, evenly. "If you want."
It was all the crestfallen Aloysius could do to interpret the very disappointing exchange between these two women. Why her? he silently lamented. Damn it, why her? I'm the head of this mission!
"There will be someone to meet you when you return. You will then be escorted directly to my chambers."
Xena bored her eyes in on the smaller woman and quietly replied, "All right."
As the hushed throng looked on it was for a fleeting moment difficult to tell just who was the monarch and who was the commoner here. All of them could now see just what an imposing presence the tall Greek woman was.
Hatshepsut started to walk away but suddenly she stopped and once more turned back to face the four of them. "Oh yes," she said. "There is one other thing. It is customary for visiting emissaries at this court to show their respect by presenting my person with a gift."
Uhhh boy, thought Xena, here it comes!
The pharaoh raised an eyebrow and with a faint smirk asked, "Where is yours?"
As Hatshepsut strolled back to the little group poor Aloysius' face turned utterly ashen. A gift? he thought, desperately. Nobody said anything about a gift. Why didn't Neshi...? "But...."
The pharaoh's eyes began to leisurely sweep over the four. Except for the tall woman she figured them to be a low lot. They certainly weren't dressed to the standards of most the emissaries that appeared before her. Even the old man's robes were stained. Already she knew the two shabbily dressed men had nothing of real value to offer her but still, tradition was tradition and as the supreme Egyptian she understood the power that lay in that better than anyone. The court expected these people to offer her up a gift and so they would, one way or another.
Hatshepsut had already made the assumption that the fair haired young woman in the group was a slave. She was mulling over whether she should take her as a gift when suddenly Xena turned slightly and this was when the pharaoh's dark eyes came to rest on an exquisitely crafted object. Though she was of course more than accustomed to the sight of beautiful things, this particular one was so uniquely fine that it caught her fancy the moment she saw it. Accordingly, Hatshepsut, Mistress of the Two Lands, pointed to Xena's chakram and with the placid, confident voice of one long used to being immediately obeyed, announced, "I will have that. There is your gift to me."
There was no need for the suddenly nervous Aloysius to make the translation. Xena understood perfectly. With the eyes of Hatshepsut, Gabrielle, the two envoys and indeed the entire court all fixed on her the only change to Xena's expression was a very subtle narrowing of the eyelids. Only the highly perceptive Hatshepsut caught this. As the two great women stood there intently sizing each other up the silence inside the great hall seemed to resound off the great columns.
Gabrielle sensed the sudden mounting of tension in the great hall and so it was with some alarm that she asked "What's she talking about?"
Without breaking the intense eye contact with Hatshepsut, Xena quietly replied, "She wants my chakram."
Great Zeus in Heaven! though poor Aloysius. We're all going to die! That crazy Xena is going to refuse her, good gods!...maybe even kill her and we're all going to end up being buried alive in the sand. Curse you, Docticles, for sending me here!
Gabrielle was more than a little apprehensive as well. "Gods, Xena," she urgently whispered, "what are you going to do?"
Now it was Xena's turn to return the faint smirk as she eyed Hatshepsut. "Do?" she calmly replied, "Why, I'm going to give it to her, Gabrielle." With that she reached down and slowly unclipped the magnificent weapon.
"But, Xena," the little bard protested, "you can't do that."
"It's all right, Gabrielle," the warrioress gently assured her.
Nevertheless, for one terrifying moment Aloysius feared that Xena had meant she was going to maybe give it to Hatshepsut in an entirely different manner, like planting it right in the middle of her chest. This was why he let out an audible sigh of relief when he saw the warrior woman merely balance the chakram in the palms of her hands and hold it up before the pharaoh.
"Our humble gift to the Mistress of the Two Lands, Hatshepsut," said Xena.
With both hands Hatshepsut reached up and took the chakram. To her surprise it was heavier than she expected. After a very subtle nod of recognition to Xena she declared, "I am pleased."
It was here she turned to Amenhotep, her chief steward. "No more of this today. Tell the remaining emissaries to come back tomorrow. Tell them I will accept their tributes then."
"As you wish, Great King," the steward answered, respectfully bowing as he departed.
Hatshepsut again turned to leave but then stopped and once more peered at the tall woman that, although she would never admit it, fascinated her so. "When the sun sinks behind the western hills," she reminded Xena. "Do not disappoint me."
A faint, mirthless smile playing across her lips, Xena replied, "Wouldn't dream of it."
A few short minutes later found Xena and Gabrielle back in the bright sunlight, briskly descending the palace steps.
"Xena, I don't understand," said Gabrielle, her voice quivering due to the impacting of her feet on the steps. "How could you give her your chakram? That's your most prized possession."
Xena wanted to say to the puzzled bard, No it's not, you are! but she knew that would not sound quite right. She had not missed the way Hatshepsut had been looking Gabrielle over like she was some piece of livestock. That was when Xena had decided to guilefully offer the pharaoh something she correctly assumed would be far more appealing to her than some nondescript Greek woman. As far as Xena was concerned there was no choice to be made. None at all. It was the chakram, or Gabrielle, or...trouble.
And then too she had reasoned with no small amount of deleteriousness that while it was one thing for Hatshepsut to have it in her possession now, it would be quite another for her to actually keep it! With this in mind all she said was, "Don't worry about it. It's not important."
Knowing Xena as she did, Gabrielle made the assumption that there was something more here than met the eye but she nevertheless decided to let it go. She knew Xena would tell her in her own good time. Still, she was curious about another matter. "What do you think she wants to talk to you about?" she asked the warrioress.
"I'm not sure," said Xena.
For the ever perceptive Gabrielle this in itself was important. "'You're not sure,'" the bard echoed. "As opposed to 'don't know.' That means you do have some clue, right?"
"Maybe," Xena tersely replied.
Undaunted by her lover's reticence, Gabrielle pounced on this reply with the eagerness of a staving cat on a mouse. "What then?"
"She has something in mind," said Xena. "I think she wants something from me."
"Hmph," the bard snorted, "she already has your chakram. What else could she want? Your sword, your boots? I know, maybe she wants your underwear!"
"Very funny," Xena wryly replied. "But now that you mention it that crack about the sword may not be so far off."
"How do you know that?" the bard queried.
"I know," was all Xena said. In fact the warrioress had seen it in Hatshepsut's eyes. To her it was as plain as the muscles on Hercules' arm. The pharaoh eyes had that eager, hungry look that said "I want something and I'll do whatever it takes in order to get it!" Xena understood that ravenous look well enough. After all, for the better part of ten years of her life that same look had more or less defined who and what she had been--hungry, ravenous, insatiable, voraciously lustful for bigger armies, more power, more predomination, more...everything! Yes, she knew that look all too well.
"Well, what is it then?"
"I can't say."
Damn! Gabrielle thought. Another dead end. Changing tack again, she remarked, "I wonder who that guy was Aloysius and Certes stopped to talk with."
Who cares? thought Xena. At least they're out of our hair. However she had no desire to give the big-hearted Gabrielle the impression that she cared nothing for the two men with whom they had shared so many leagues. So she merely said, "Those two guys have been around. I imagine it's somebody they know from some other place."
Taking Xena's reply at face value, Gabrielle replied, "I suppose."
When they at last reached the bottom of the steps, Gabrielle emitted a high pitched, "Hooo!" She then added, "That's some trip."
Xena squinted and looked off across the great courtyard. In the distance she could see the tops of two great obelisks rising above the roof of the great temple of Amen. These an already dominant Hatshepsut had erected shortly before her coronation and now stood as grandiose reminders to the people of her supreme power. In the cloudless sky above she noted the broiling sun was not much past its zenith. A comparison of its present position to the rugged cliffs of Deir el-Bahri lying to the west indicated to Xena that they had about six hours before it would be time for them to return.
"Okay," she said, looking down at Gabrielle. "We've got some time to kill. What do you want to do?"
Gabrielle grinned and said, "Some sight--seeing, what else?"
"I was afraid of that," Xena moaned in mock resignation.
With a laugh Gabrielle locked her arm around Xena's muscular biceps. "C'mon," she teased. "Or has all that lounging around on boats made you soft and lazy?"
Xena raised an eyebrow and looked at her friend in amusement. "Yeah, right. So who was it that only just now practically passed out from descending a few measly steps?"
"Hey! I wasn't winded," the bard protested.
"You didn't hear me complain when we climbed these steps, did you?"
With an impish little grin Xena replied, "That's only because you were gasping for air so much you couldn't speak."
"Oh funny. You're a regular Aristophanes, that's who you are," Gabrielle indignanlty huffed. "Next thing you know you'll be writing comedies too."
Xena flexed her biceps, playfully squeezing her lover's arm. Gabrielle had done it again. No matter how sour her mood might be, Xena could never stay that way for very long. Invariably the smile on Gabrielle's sweet face would light up her own soul like bright rays of sunlight breaking through dark clouds after a storm.
This was not the result of some conscious effort on Gabrielle's part. Never had been. It was simply achieved just by who she was--by being herself. Even now, after all this time, Xena doubted whether Gabrielle really fully understood the full magnitude of her hold on Xena's heart.
Gabrielle, she thought, I do love you so!
Xena then smiled at the object of her affection and said, "Come on. Let's see if Homer knew what he was talking about."
It was at that precise moment when the setting sun first gently kissed the Theban cliffs on the opposite side of the Nile that the toe of Xena's boot pressed down on the last of the long series of steps that led up to Hatshepsut's palace. For the last several hours she had more or less followed in Gabrielle's wake while the young woman wandered the streets of the Egyptian capital to her heart's content. Unfortunately it had not taken them long to discover that Thebes was in fact not the fabulously rich, "hundred gated city" of Homer's "Iliad." Indeed, except for the government buildings and the occasional home of an elite member of Egyptian society the city was by and large like all the other Egyptian cities they had previously seen. That is, a smattering of limestone in a veritable sea of drably colored mud brick.
However it had not taken Gabrielle long to get over her initial disappointment. She was, after all, a people person above all else and soon enough she was joyfully immersed in the swarming throngs jamming the streets of the great city. At one of the many markets she was sampling some of the local fare one minute and the next gleefully haggling over the price of a rather shoddily made pair of Egyptian sandals.
A half hour later she was standing on the banks of the Nile coaxing a reluctant Xena into a rock skipping contest. For the next quarter hour they had taken turns skipping stones on the Nile and it mattered not one iota to the bard that Xena had of course beaten her decisively every single time. All that really mattered to her was that they were here, together, enjoying the blessed miracle of life the Titans Prometheus and Epimetheus had so long ago bestowed on that lowly lump of clay from which it is said they had fashioned man.
This then, was how they had spent the afternoon, completely absorbed in each other. As far as they were concerned they could just as well have been totally alone despite the teeming multitudes all around them. And as they had whiled away the peaceful hours together, the normally very pragmatic Xena found herself becoming caught up in the magic of what was turning out to be a very special day. It had been so long since she and Gabrielle had spent time like this together and only now had the warrioress realized how much she missed that. It was almost enough to make her feel...content. Almost.
Ambling through the streets with this ebullient beauty, listening to her "ooh" and "ahh" at each new discovery, basking in the radiant glow of her bard's love, Xena had decided this was about as good as it got. She was here, Gabrielle was here, they had each other, and at the moment nothing else really counted for much.
However all too soon the shadows began to lengthen and as they did Xena's thoughts had begun to inexorably shift away from her precious bard and back to the enigmatic Egyptian woman/king. Finally, with the sun no more than a fist's width above the Theban cliffs, Xena had turned to Gabrielle and quietly declared, "It's time."
Gabrielle, stout-hearted little warrior that she was, understood
immediately their carefree afternoon was at an end and it was once again time
to as Xena liked to say, "Get focused." With a grin she had simply replied,
"Let's do it."
So here they now were, standing before the magnificent palace of the great Hatshepsut as twilight settled over the city.
"You know," said Gabrielle, thoughtfully laying a finger on her cheek, "I could get used to a place like this."
Xena, ever practical, wryly replied, "Not me. The cost in chamber pots alone for this place would be enough to kill ya."
Gabrielle chuckled and it was here that someone robed in brilliant white materialized from the dark area behind the great columns. The man that was this ghost-like apparition was very young, very thin, and Xena could not help but notice the dignified manner with which he carried himself.
When the young man reached them he addressed them in flawless Greek, asking "You are the Greek women, are you not?"
"We are," Xena answered, matter-of-factly.
"Which of you is the one the Great Goddess is expecting?"
"I am," said Xena.
"Follow me please."
"Uhh, if it's all the same to you, Xena," said Gabrielle, "I'll just wait for you out here."
"Are you sure?" Xena asked. "Wouldn't you rather come inside and wait?"
"Nahh," the bard replied. "It's a beautiful evening. I'll just wait here."
"All right," said Xena, shrugging. "If that's what you want." She turned to go and then suddenly stopped. Turning back, she cautioned, "Don't wander off now."
"I won't," Gabrielle assured her.
Xena and the young man departed and Gabrielle watched them until they disappeared behind the towering palace columns. She then strolled over to the low retaining wall which bordered the great courtyard. Placing her hand on the wall for leverage, she nimbly hopped up and backwards, perfectly seating herself on one of the great stones that made up the wall. In the west the sun was sinking behind the cliffs and as it slowly disappeared Gabrielle found herself feeling just a twinge of regret that this marvelous day ever had to end.
She was sitting there quietly watching the sun go down when four servants dressed only in kilts and sandals came forth from the palace and began to light the several large lamps strategically placed around the courtyard. Gabrielle idly watched them tend to their business for a few moments and she then began to think about Hatshepsut again. What, she wondered, could possibly be her reason for wanting to speak with Xena privately?
What was it Xena had said? "She wants something from me." That could mean practically anything and was in fact not really all that much of a revelation to the bard anyway. It was fairly certain Hatshepsut was not summoning Xena here so that the warrioress could regale her with some of her old sea stories.
But what could she want with Xena? Could it be something militaristic in nature? Possibly, she thought. Xena's cryptic remark about the sword worried her a little. Undoubtedly Neshi had fully informed his king as to who Xena was. Was she in some way interested in making use of Xena's extraordinary "skills" as Xena herself seemed to have hinted upon? Gabrielle hoped not. If this was indeed the case she would prefer to believe Xena would turn her down. However always in the back of her mind the nagging fear persisted that Xena might just be bored enough to say yes. With her one just never knew.
This was the old fear that always resurfaced whenever Xena was this close in proximity to such sweeping power. The last time had been in the spring of the previous year when the Aetolians had gladly given her supreme command of their huge army. On that occasion Xena had exercise her her vast power with magnificent honor.
Clearly Hatshepsut was shrewd--very shrewd. After all,
she had not made the astounding leap from co--regent with the young Thutmose
III to undisputed ruler of all Egypt by being naive or timid. No, here was a
woman who not only knew what she wanted, but how to get it.
Their task done, the four servants quietly retreated back into the darkness, leaving Gabrielle all alone once again. The sun was completely gone now, its sovereignty over the sky now replaced for the time being by Hesperus, the brilliant embodiment of the evening star now hanging low in the western sky.
With a soft sigh, she said, "Oh well." Only with her mind did she complete the thought. I guess I'll know soon enough.
As she so often did when trying to put something out of her mind, Gabrielle fell back on her bulwark--her stories. Concentrating on a story had always been a very effective way for her to calm her fears, lift up her spirits, and ease her pain. Often no one but Xena ever heard the fruits of her labors but to her that mattered little. As far as Gabrielle was concerned this simple real joy was enough. She would rather share them with no one but her beloved across a simple fire than stand before thousands in the biggest theater in all Athens but without her precious warrioress. As Xena would sometimes say, that was a no-brainer.
So she sat there on the great stone and began by unrolling her mental scroll. Her latest effort was a love story surrounding a blacksmith named Davidicus and a young maiden named Leisa. Now let's see, she thought. Where did I leave off? Oh yeah....
Gabrielle closed her eyes and began to very softly whisper. Normally she liked to be far more demonstrative when working, going so far as to many times act out each part with complete with different voices. Her old friend Darinius in particular always enjoyed seeing her do that. Right now, though, sitting here enshrouded in the aura of this breathtaking symbol of absolute power, she did not feel so very ebullient. But of course, with her that was subject to change.
"At first Davidicus refused to believe the terrible things
the old hag was saying about his beloved Leisa. In fact he became so irate at
her that he even went so far as to threaten her with bodily harm if she did
not stop her lies. However, to his complete and utter devastation, Pensa, the
cunning enchantress, had provided irrefutable proof..."
Inside the palace Xena was led down what seemed to her like an endless series of corners and long, well lit corridors. Finally, she and her guide turned one last corner and there before them were the great double doors that were the entrance to Hatshepsut's private chambers.
Posted outside the beautifully crafted doors were two men, burly by Egyptian standards, each rigidly standing at attention and bearing a long spear in the "parade rest" position.
"We are here," said the guide, rather unnecessarily as far as Xena was concerned. The two of them walked up to the doors and there she took a moment to size up the nearest of the two guards. The man's forward gaze did not change as the warrioress stood only a cubit away, coolly eyeing him up and down.
Planting the tip of her tongue in her cheek she silently concluded, No threat whatsoever.
Casting a snide glance at Xena's sword, the young man said, "You must have made quite an impression on the Daughter of Amen today. Otherwise these guards would have broken you in two for daring to come her armed."
Xena lifted an amused eyebrow and with mild sarcasm replied, "Ohh, I'm sooo grateful for their ahh, restraint."
"The pharaoh herself personally ordered them to let you pass," he said. "It is forbidden for armed individuals to enter here but the king in her divine mercy expressly made an exception in your case."
"Lucky me," Xena purred.
The door handle was made of pure gold and laying his hand on it, the guide softly said, "Do not speak until the king addresses you."
Yeah, right! thought Xena, slightly irritated by his admonition. Who does this guy think he's talking to?
As if reading her thoughts, the young man added, "If you do it will be a most grievous insult."
"Keep your robe on," said Xena. "I'm not here to insult anyone." Still, she could not help but mumble under her breath, "Yet."
"If you speak first I will not translate unless she bids me to do so," the young man persisted.
By now Xena's patience with this nettlesome fellow was wearing thin. In that low, throaty, menacing tone of voice she used so well she replied, "Just open the damn door."
Momentarily taken aback by her quiet intensity, the wide-eye young man stared at her for just a moment before finally pulling on the latch.
With just a hint of a smirk Xena asked "Aren't you going to knock?"
Ignoring her, he pushed the great door open and stepped inside.
Xena paused a beat before following him inside. What she saw there was enough opulence to surprise even her. To begin with the room was huge, almost as large as the great hall where she and the others had stood for so long that morning. A quick scan of the room revealed several doors leading off from this central area. The floor, she noted, was made of beautifully polished black marble. Judging from its texture she guessed it had come not from the quarries of Greece but from the mountains of Phrygia far across the Aegean.
At strategic points in the great room fires were lit in large metal, bowl-like receptacles mounted atop ornate bronze bases. All about the room were exquisitely crafted works of art. Among them were a cat fashioned from ivory, a stele with images of lotus flowers carved into it, a small sphinx made of red granite, two gorgeous statues of a man holding what looked to be a young girl, and numerous ornaments made of gold, silver, and polished bronze. There were many other items as well but the thing that really caught her eye was the full size statue of a lion she saw across the way. This, she observed, seemed to be made of pure gold. For some reason a disturbing word popped into her head...plunder.
When the young man saw what she was looking at he explained, "A humble token of esteem from the king's loyal subjects in Nubia,"
Humble, my ass, Xena thought, wryly. For obvious reasons the object made her think of an old friend. If Autolycus saw this he would think he had died and gone to....well, wherever it is that good-hearted thieves go. This in turn made her warmly think of Gabrielle. If only she could see this place. What a story she could weave out of this!
She was still entertaining fond thoughts of her bard when a lithe form appeared in her peripheral vision. Xena noted that this time it was a woman dressed in the plainly woven habiliments of an Egyptian servant. As always Xena's eye for detail missed very little as she watched this solemn-faced woman approach.
Joining them, the woman first cast a somewhat apprehensive glance at Xena's big sword before speaking to the young man. Their entire exchange consisted of a couple of terse sentences each and since they naturally spoke in Egyptian Xena had no real clue as to what they were saying. However she did not need the help of words at all in order to ascertain the guide's sudden surprise and dismay. His expression told it all and whatever she had said certainly was a shock to him.
Xena's guide finished the brief conversation with a nod and a one word reply whereupon the woman abruptly turned on the heels of her bare feet and departed.
"What was that all about?" Xena asked.
"She...she said the Daughter of Amen is waiting for you--us..." Here he swallowed hard before continuing. "...in the royal bedroom."
So that's it, thought Xena. Aloud she asked "And that makes you nervous, right?"
"No," the young man replied. "Merely being in her presence makes me nervous. The idea that I, a lowly scribe, am about to actually set foot in the pharaoh's bedroom...terrifies me!"
"Well buck up," said Xena, clapping a strong hand on his shoulder. "I hate to tell you this but she puts her sandals on one foot at a time just like you do."
"Ahhh, actually--she doesn't I am told."
"Don't tell me somebody does it for her," said Xena, incredulously. To her this was a bit much even for a king.
"Of course," the young matter--of--factly replied. "It is beneath the daughter of a god to perform such menial tasks."
Uhh huh, thought Xena. There was a time not that long ago when at the command of an army numbering in the tens of thousands she had controlled an area the size of many nations. And yet never, NEVER, had she been so decadently self-indulgent as to require that some poor vassal put her boots on for her.
Of course, it did not count that Gabrielle had done it for her a few times after she had been banged up from an especially tough fight. That was...different.
I wonder if Hatshepsut has somebody wipe her ass for her as well, thought Xena.
"Come," the guide said. "We must not tarry. She is waiting."
She probably does at that, Xena mused, completing her train
Moments later the two of them found themselves standing in front of the heavy wooden door leading to Hatshepsut's inner chambers.
Staring wide--eyed at the door, the young man raised his hand to knock but first her paused for a moment and repeated his earlier comment. "You must have made quite an impression on the Daughter of Amen." This time, however, his tone was not sarcastic or disparaging but rather filled with respect and not a little wonder. Who is this woman? he thought.
Xena was not placated by his tone. To her mind he was simply stalling. "Go on," she said, visually prodding him with a slight nod of the head.
The young man took a deep breath and softly rapped his knuckles on the door. Immediately it swung open and there they were met by yet another of Hatshepsut's many servants.
This one was decidedly different even though from the guide's demeanor Xena knew her to be only an attendant. She was older, more mature. By the look of her Xena guessed she was probably in her mid-forties at least. The difference did not end there. In sharp contrast to the plainly dressed young woman that had received them earlier, this woman was clad in beautiful flowing robes of finely woven blue cloth. Additionally, she wore a plain thin band of gold wrist--hardly something one would expect from someone of this station in life. Nevertheless her face was painted in the familiar style the warrioress had seen on other, much more affluent Egyptian women. There was also a faint scent of fine perfume emanating from her as well. Clearly this woman was a favorite of the king and more than simply a trusted thrall.
Except for the space at the door the chambers were surprisingly dark, lit only at sporadic intervals by fat, stubby candles. In an effort to acclimate her eyes to the dim light as quickly as possible Xena picked out a particularly dark area and stared intently into it.
The woman murmured something to the guide and from his reaction one would have thought he had been suddenly been bitten on the behind by Scylla herself. At once he pulled off his sandals and carefully placed them by the door. However he made no indication that Xena was expected to do the same. Instead the woman in a low tone simply said, "Follow me."
As Xena soon discovered this was but an anteroom to the royal
bedroom. In this tenebrous place she could make out among other things still
more statues along with a divan, a footstool, a low table and a large cabinet.
On the other side they encountered still another door, this one of considerably
lighter construction. Xena's intuition told her this was it. She guessed the
immense size of those other doors mattered little to Hatshepsut as it was highly
unlikely that she ever had to open one of them anyway. This, though, this was
her door. This was confirmed for her soon enough when the woman raised
her hand and knocked on the door as gently as if it were made of the rice paper
Xena remembered from her days in Chin.
"Enter," a firm voice commanded. The final confirmation. It was Hatshepsut herself.
The woman pushed open the door and the three of them entered the royal bedroom of Hatshepsut, Pharaoh of Egypt, Daughter of Amen, Mistress of the Two Lands. The room itself was lit considerably better than the anteroom and to Xena's great surprise, was smaller than what she had expected. Although it was spacious and certainly could not be described as cramped, to her observant eyes it seemed strangely inconsistent given the Egyptian royals' penchant for the gigantic. Here there were no statues or exquisite works of art and with a few exceptions the place was for the most part devoid of that mind numbing opulence Xena had come to expect from the Egyptian elite.
Looking about, she saw another divan which, not surprisingly, was much more plush than the one she had seen in the anteroom. Several fine chests and cabinets lined one entire wall at the corner of which there stood a large, beautifully crafted table. On this table were assorted brushes, combs and three objects that from this distance looked be mirrors of varying sizes.
Covering the floor was a fabulously woven Persian carpet and this was matched by the thick, gilded curtains which were now dividing off a full one third of the room. These were drawn shut and Xena did not need the intellect of Plato to know that behind those curtains stood the royal bed.
Almost in terror the poor scribe dropped to his knees and bent down until his forehead touched the floor. "The warrior woman and the scribe, Daughter of Amen," he heard the servant woman quietly announce.
From behind the curtains a voice bade, "Leave us."
With deep respect the servant woman bowed her head despite being totally out of her pharaoh's sight. Taking small steps, she backed out of the room, it being unthinkable for her to turn her back on this, the holy Daughter of Amen.
Once she pulled the door together and was gone there fell a tense silence upon the room. The scribe was still down in his subservient pose and standing next to him, Xena could do nothing but roll her eyes in exasperation; shake her head; and wait.
Finally after an eon-like couple of minutes Hatshepsut's clear voice broke the silence. "Rise, scribe." For the holder of the fabled Double Crown of Egypt there was no need to see the civil servant groveling on the floor. She knew he was there.
The scribe rose to his bare feet and cast an apprehensive look at Xena. By now his face was as pale as his robes.
Don't lock up on me now, boy, she thought.
Again Hatshepsut spoke and this time Xena made out her own name among the otherwise indecipherable syllables. She looked expectantly at the scribe and listened to the nervous young man's verbatim translation. "Tell the great Xena, Destroyer of Nations, I will see her now."
Destroyer of Nations! the warrioress thought, mildly surprised. It's been a while since I was called that.
If it was an attempt at flattery on Hatshepsut's part it did not work because Xena was far too perspicacious for that. She was well aware that the pharaoh had spoken those words with the full knowledge that her cringing vassal would not dare paraphrase her royal words. It only served to heighten Xena's curiosity. I wonder what she wants.
Xena stepped to the drawn curtains and, finding the slit, slowly parted them. Looking back, she expected to find the scribe right behind her but this was not the case. The scribe was still anchored solidly to the same spot. She shot him a quizzical look but his only reply was several desperate little shakes of the head. As far as he was concerned the great god Amen himself could not drag him in there without an express order from Hatshepsut. After all, she too was a god. Suit yourself, thought Xena, with a faint shrug. And she stepped inside. There she saw no terrible god, but a woman.
Hatshepsut, Daughter of Amen, Owner of the Two Lands, Pharaoh of all Egypt, was standing beside an ornate chair located next to her bed. The expression on her face was impassive except for her dark eyes which burned with deep intensity as they bored in on the Greek woman.
Returning her steely gaze, Xena noticed the beard was now gone. Also, Hatshepsut had discarded the ceremonial kilt and was now clad only in a rather tight, simple looking ankle length gown held up by straps that tapered in width as they ascended the shoulders. As before she wore no jewelry at all.
When Xena had closed the curtains behind her Hatshepsut strode over next to her and in a normal voice spoke, "Scribe, can you hear me?"
"Distinctly, Great Pharaoh," the young man nervously replied. Already he understood well this was going to be a day he would remember for the rest of his life.
"Very well," said Hatshepsut. "Scribe?"
"Yes, Good Goddess?"
"You will interpret our words clearly and precisely. No ambiguities, understood?"
"Yes, Good Goddess."
"Scribe? One more thing. What is spoken here will forever remain in your heart and pass not over your lips. Not even in heaven will you repeat it."
"I understand perfectly, Great Daughter of Amen. I swear to you on the tomb of my father it will be so."
"Should you misinterpret or break your vow of silence, Scribe, you will be made to eat your own tongue." Hatshepsut uttered these last words with the same, even voice as if she were relating to him what she had eaten for breakfast. It was not a threat--even the scribe understood this. She was merely stating a fact.
Her business with the lowly vassal now done, the pharaoh turned her attention back to the statuesque woman standing across from her. "Would you care for some wine?" she asked.
The scribe heard her clearly but just to be on the safe side he oh so carefully advanced three full steps toward the wall of curtains.
"No thanks," said Xena. She had tried the local wine already and not found it much to her liking. On the other hand the Egyptian beer was bad at all. At any rate this was not the time for socializing.
She is all business, thought Hatshepsut. As I am. It was just as the pharaoh expected.
Hatshepsut turned away and leisurely strode over to a small table. There she picked up a small dagger and began to slowly trace her index finger back and forth over its blade. With her back still to Xena, she said, "I should like to hire you."
So that's it, thought Xena. Arching an eyebrow, she replied with but a quiet, "Ohhh?"
"Yes. Some say you are the greatest warrior in all the world. I think that it is so. Even as a girl I remember how my father, a great warrior himself, used to tighten his jaw and furrow his brow with worry at the very mention of your name. Xena, Destroyer of Nations!"
"That was a different time," said Xena, evenly.
"Even so, you are still that great warrior, are you not?"
"Yes," Xena answered. She knew Hatshepsut was not interested in modesty here. She wanted the truth.
Out of deference to her great friend Hercules she said, "If you're speaking solely of mortals, yes."
"Good." Turning around, Hatshepsut went on, "I have need of your services."
"I hardly think the greatest nation in the world needs me," said Xena, incredulously. "Besides," she added, "I'm not exactly a mercenary."
"You misunderstand," said Hatshepsut. "It is not my intent that you should fight for me in the literal sense. I have other need of your...talents."
"I'm listening," said Xena. As Gabrielle had suspected Xena, in spite of herself, found she was becoming interested in what the pharaoh had to say.
Slowly, deliberately, Hatshepsut began. "I assume that Neshi told you of my half-brother, Thutmose."
"Yes," Xena said. "Neshi spoke of him. He's supposed to be co-regent along with you." Xena paused for effect before adding, "At least in theory."
"Don't be so dense!" Hatshepsut lashed back in sharp rebuke. "He is co-regent! In theory and in fact."
Surprised by this unexpected outburst, Xena's own temper momentarily got the better of her and she shot back with a barb of her own. Her voice dripping with sarcasm, she smirked, "Oh yeah, he played such a prominent role at court today."
Hatshepsut glared icily at the warrioress but her voice remained even and well under control as she replied, "If you feel otherwise you are a fool. And I know the famed Warrior Princess is no fool. I will not deny that I have assumed most of the duties of office but that is only natural considering his tender age."
It was the closest thing to an apology Xena was going to get and she knew it. Her response was to close her eyes and give the pharaoh a subtle nod indicating that she understood.
"I am all too aware there are many foreigners who believe I have usurped the sacred Double Crown and shunted its rightful heir off into obscurity." Despite Hatshepsut's best efforts to project a composed image Xena still was able to detect a trace of bitterness in her voice. The pharaoh paused and took a deep breath and for the first time Xena saw in her something other than the iron-willed, all powerful overlord of the richest nation on the face of the earth. "Well they are wrong," said Hatshepsut, continuing. "Not only have I accorded the boy every honor and privilege due him, I have also never shirked my responsibility to ensure he is aggrandized in the manner which his title demands. He is a king, a god to his people, and has always been treated as such. No one can say otherwise and not lie. One day he will assume sovereignty of all Egypt and it is my sacred duty to make certain he is prepared."
Xena could readily see this was a definite sore spot for Hatshepsut. She wondered if it was not in part because there had been and maybe still was a measure of opposition by the elite in her own country to her assumption of the reins of power. As far as she was concerned she figured that she understood the elements of power better than anyone alive. No one knew better than her that no matter how strong and how forceful a ruler might be it was still vital that they have the support of others in powerful positions, if for no other reason than their own personal gain. Given Egypt's history and aversion to change, Xena would have been more shocked to learn there had not been dissension. "All right," she purred, "so you're not a wicked stepmother. What's all this got to do with me?"
Hatshepsut eyed her intently for a moment and then a faint smile of amusement played across her lips. "You are one who seeks to get to the heart of a matter quickly," she observed. "I admire that. Still, we Egyptians learn at a very early age the value of patience."
"Why waste your time and mine?" Xena retorted. "After all, you didn't have me come here just so that you could explain things now did you?"
"Very well then, I will tell you. But before I do I would like you to answer something for me."
"All right, if I can."
Hatshepsut's dark eyes searched deeply into Xena's as she asked "How old were you when you got your first taste of real power?"
For Xena the memory so long burned into her soul now came rushing back. For a fleeting moment she was once again that girl of barely eighteen. Once again she was resolutely mounting that rickety cart in that muddy street in Amphipolis in order to roar fiercely at the terrified friends and neighbors gathered around her that they would never be able to run far enough from that bastard Cortese. She still remembered the emotions boiling in her as she told them they must all band together and fight or they would all surely suffer torment, humiliation and death at his merciless hand. Even now she remembered how they had pressed in close to her and beseeched her to tell them what they should do. Even now.....
"I was eighteen," Xena softly replied.
"As was I," said Hatshepsut. She paused for a moment and, like Xena, allowed her mind to race back to the past; back to the night she had knelt at the bed of Thutmose II, her brother and her husband, and held his hand as, Anubis, god of death took him smiling into the Field of Reeds to spend eternity with Osiris. Up until that moment her whole life had been the very epitome of royal propriety. First, as dutiful daughter and later as "God's Great Wife" she had always faithfully done what had been expected of her.
Until that night.
"The young king was barely three years old when his father died," said Hatshepsut. "Obviously one so tender in years cannot rule so to prevent chaos in the land I it upon myself to shoulder the burden of government. As daughter, wife and sister to a king and also the ranking member of the royal house I had every right to do so. And so I did. Having done so it was only natural that I should assume a certain measure of primacy over a co-regent who was but a mere child."
"That still doesn't tell me where I fit into all this," Xena reminded her.
"The Great Nile has flooded nine times since my brother died," Hatshepsut told her. "The boy has now reached that stage in life where it is fitting and proper that he should stop his clinging to the hem of his tutors' robes and go forth unto his destiny. It is my duty to assure he is ready when his time comes. And so, in accordance with that I have decided that for his training he should learn from no less than the greatest of them all."
Xena did not need it sketched out for her. "You want me to train him to be a warrior, don't you?"
"That is only part of it," said Hatshepsut. Your primary task will be to teach him how to lead. You will make him unto yourself--a conqueror."
"With all due respect, that's dubious at best and borders on being down right ridiculous," said Xena. "A boy of twelve can barely hold his water much less the reins of an army."
"Cute," sniffed Hatshepsut. "However his age is unimportant. It is time he learns there is more to being a king than having servants his fawn over him."
"Well you can count me out," Xena flatly stated. "You want him taught how to invade other lands and slaughter other people then you'll have to get your own flunkies to do it."
"Agree and I will reward you beyond your wildest dreams," said Hatshepsut, ignoring Xena's refusal.
"Not interested," said Xena, shaking her head.
"Five hundred talents of gold."
"NO!" Xena sharply rejoined.
There now fell a deafening silence in the room and from his station outside the curtains the poor scribe experienced the curious sensation of having his mouth becoming very dry while simultaneously feeling his knees turn to water.
Xena too was left to wonder what would be the king's reaction to her adamant refusal. After all, this was woman used to having her own way. Quickly her nimble mind began to run down Hatshepsut's possible courses of action were and what her own response to any one of them was going to be. As might be expected the thing that concerned her most was not what might be aimed at her but rather what the implications would be for Gabrielle. Even though she was in the middle of a foreign land surrounded by potential enemies Xena did not give her own personal safety a second thought. She knew she could face and overcome any challenge to ensure her own survival. Gabrielle, however, was a very different matter. If indeed circumstances forced them to make an escape Xena did not relish the idea that she might have to lead her precious bard across the relentless, unforgiving desert whether the escape route be west to Wisa or east to the Red Sea. Unfortunately, as she saw it she really had no other recourse. To attempt to return the way they had come, via the Nile, would be much too dangerous. In the end, though, Xena knew it really did not matter. She would see Gabrielle safely out of Egypt one way or another even if it meant she had to carry her on foot every step of the way.
For a few tense moments the silence lengthened and the warrioress was still weighing her options when suddenly she became cognizant of something that evaporated any grim thoughts she was having. For there in Hatshepsut's eye she saw...something...not readily apparent, something barely perceptible, but detected by Xena's razor sharp senses nonetheless. There was a subtle glint in the pharaoh's eye that told Xena this woman had other, bigger fish to fry.
And so it was with a faint smile of triumph that Xena declared, "This is not about me training the boy at all, is it?"
Hatshepsut looked at her and tried to conceal her growing sense of admiration for this amazing woman but it was to no avail. No wonder she is unbeatable, the pharaoh thought. Not only is she a peerless fighter but...she can read minds as well!
Hatshepsut tossed the dagger back down onto the little table and in a dignified manner drew herself up to her full height. "You are very perceptive, warrioress," she said, stating the obvious. Here she paused for a moment. There was no doubt about it, this Greek woman was a magnificent specimen of the human race. To Hatshepsut's mind Xena seemed born to rule--as she had been. As a result she was beginning to feel an unmistakable affinity for with her. However she was a goddess, daughter of Amen, and as such did not wish to make such sentimentalities manifest. With as much impassivity as she could muster, Hatshepsut asked, "May I call you Xena?"
Xena, already sensing this subtle shift of attitude, replied, "Of course."
Hatshepsut responded with a polite nod of the head. "You are right," she admitted. "Although it is indeed time for Thutmose to begin his passage into manhood, that was not my true motive for summoning you here. In truth the offer of gold was a test."
"Yes. You see, upon his return to us Chancellor Neshi spoke in glowing terms of your character and your personal integrity. While I am usually in the habit of taking my trusted minister's words at face value this was one time I had to see for myself. Too much is at stake for me personally and I had to know for certain whether you are the woman they say you are."
A fleeting hint of amusement played across Hatshepsut's lips and she said, "Two thousand talents of gold is enough to buy one an entire kingdom. I must say I am very impressed. Had I been placed in a similar position I am not so certain that even I would have refused the offer. "
Arching an eyebrow, Xena wryly replied, "Well you know how it is." She then smoothed the palms of both hands downward across her leathers, "No pockets."
For the first time Hatshepsut's lips formed into a real smile albeit a somewhat stiff effort. "Quite so," she replied.
Outside the curtains the anxious scribe took a deep breath and, puffing his cheeks, quietly exhaled with great relief. To him it was beginning to look as though the Daughter of Amen's wrath would not be brought down on the arrogant Greek woman after all. To be sure he was as indifferent as ever regarding her ultimate fate but his real fear was that once provoked, the mighty pharaoh's anger might perhaps extend beyond this one called Xena and reach out to smite any and all who had been unfortunate enough to have been associated with her on this occasion. These thoughts were not so improbable as they might initially seem because he knew all too well that this very scenario had in fact happened before. She was, after all, pharaoh and had no qualms whatsoever about being utterly ruthless if it suited her needs. But not on this night. Strange, he thought. How very strange indeed!
"So what is it you really want from me?" Xena asked.
"Before I tell you you must swear by your most sacred of your oaths that until I set events in motion you will not repeat one word of what is spoken here," replied Hatshepsut.
"All right," said Xena. "I swear on the life of Gabrielle that what is said here will never pass my lips."
Hatshepsut eyed her quizzically. "Gabrielle? Is this one of your gods?"
In a way, thought Xena. However aloud all she said was, "No. Gabrielle is the young woman who was with me at court today."
"Oh. I see. Yes, I remember her. Fair skin, fair hair--an oddity here to be sure. I assumed she was your slave." Almost as an afterthought she added, "I was going to ask you if she was for sale."
"Gabrielle is my...." My love, my life, my rock, thought Xena. But again all she said aloud was, "...best friend." She paused here and then added, "I can offer you no more solemn oath than that."
"Very well," said Hatshepsut. And so it was that she finally got to the heart of the matter. "I was in earnest when I said I had need of your services."
"In what way?" Xena asked, suspiciously.
"I need advice," replied Hatshepsut. She looked hard and Xena and slowly added, "Your advice."
"A matter of great importance to me," said Hatshepsut.
"Why should I help you?" Xena bluntly asked her.
"It is not enough that the Pharaoh of Egypt asks you?" retorted Hatshepsut. "I could offer to pay you but you have already demonstrated you are not interested in money." The Egyptian looked hard at her and added "Or are you? Are you still the unscrupulous, opportunistic woman you once were? Was Neshi wrong? Was I wrong?" Not bothering to mask her bitterness, she went on, "I had rather hoped that you, of all people, would be willing to help show the world what a female ruler can do; that she can wield power just as effectively and be just as bold, as decisive as a man. Would you rather I be remembered as an amusing aberration, as a mere caretaker? Is that how you want posterity to view a woman of power? A woman who has worked tirelessly for the advancement of her people? If it is mere money you want, name your price. I will gladly pay it if it will ensure the success of my plan."
Still not entirely convinced, Xena's azure eyes bored in hard on the Egyptian. "You can speak in glowing terms about proving the ability of women to rule all you want, but it still sounds to me like you're just out to glorify yourself."
Hatshepsut was not accustomed to such candidness. As calmly as she could she replied, "If that is what you choose to believe you haven't really learned anything, have you?" Hatshepsut smiled ruefully and said, "No, I don't believe that. You are much too bright for that. Xena, I have a daughter, her name is Neferure. I do not want her to grow up and simply be the dutiful King's Wife of some clod with a fraction of her abilities. I want her to rule! But more than that I want those women of succeeding follow generation to have the chance to rule as well. But for that to happen I must succeed here--now. My plan will help ensure that.
Eyeing her counterpart just as intently, Hatshepsut saw her stern countenance soften if only just a little. "All right," Xena said, after a moment. "How can I help?"
Hatshepsut flashed her a pleased little smile and said, " Good. Good. First let me provide you with some background. This is the ninth year of my reign," she said. Despite the pharaoh's earlier protests to the contrary, the significance of the singular "my" versus the plural "our" was not lost on Xena. "In that span I have accomplished much for my people. As I have worked to lift their standard of living so too have I sought to raise their enlightenment as well. I have commissioned thousands of artists and architects alike to create great works in order that the people might behold them and know that the all powerful Amen has remembered them in his heart.
I have shown them that Egypt is strong, vibrant and alive. During this time, except for a minor rebellion in Nubia, the country has known the sweet joy of peace. I have maintained the army in full readiness and our national security is unquestioned. No one dare attack us. Our trade levels are at an all time high and we are now more prosperous than at any time in our illustrious history. Also, I have ruthlessly eliminated government corruption wherever it was found and I done much to strengthen even more the timeless bonds between the Red and Black Lands."
As Hatshepsut ticked off these truly lofty achievements one by one, Xena could not help but notice there was still a trace of bitterness in her voice. This was what necessitated her to comment, "And yet in public you still have to wear male clothing and a false beard in order to conform to your ahh, what's the word? Maat?"
Hatshepsut shot her a surprised glance and said, "So you understand the word. Yes, what you say is true. Even though the people are made to bow and work for me, even though the nobles cower before me, even though the priests are unceasing in their praise for me--still must I maintain this nettlesome charade. I am Hatshepsut, Mistress of the Two Lands and yet even I am made to bend my knee before the unyielding lord that is tradition."
Although Xena did not much care for the pharaoh's callous remark regarding the status of her ordinary subjects, she knew that, apart from attempting to influence her as best she could to be more compassionate, there really was not much she could do to change things. In Egypt the pharaoh owned everything, including the people, and to a large extent they were looked upon by the monarch as simply another natural resource to be exploited. Hatshepsut's flowery words about uplifting her people's spirits were of course not applicable to the common citizen and Xena recognized that it was beyond even her enormous talents to change that. Of course she was aware that Gabrielle would be appalled if she knew what her warrior was thinking but experience had taught Xena long ago that sometimes, no matter how distasteful, there were those times when one simply had to face facts. This was one of those occasions. She could now refuse and go home or she could stay and help this strong woman. Xena chose to stay.
"Why?" asked Xena. "You're the king. I would think you could set your own tradition."
"If only it were so easy," Hatshepsut wistfully replied. "As much as I would like to even I cannot simply ignore what has been established over fifteen centuries. Above all else we Egyptians believe in continuity. Consequently we abhor chaos. Order, the appropriate and necessary arrangement of the universe and our place in it--this is at the core of maat."
From there it was no great chore for Xena to gallop home to the finish line. "And where there is no order there is no maat."
"Precisely," said Hatshepsut, approvingly. "And such a state of affairs is to be avoided like the pit of what the Hebrews refer to as Hell."
"Well from what I've seen I would say that hardly seems to apply here," Xena wryly observed. "Everything looks pretty calm and orderly to me."
"True enough," said Hatshepsut. "I have striven mightily to build upon the work of my most noble father. However the simple fear my people have for disorder and chaos may under the right conditions be a dangerous weapon that certain devious persons might seek to use against me."
And so there it was. Xena's earlier suspicions were indeed now confirmed. Evidently Hatshepsut did indeed not have the complete support of the Egyptians nobles. Uhh huhh, she thought. Now we're getting somewhere! "So you do have opposition then?" she asked. "From whom?"
"From traitors!" Hatshepsut hissed. Clenching her fists she heatedly added, "I have not been able to determine as of yet who they are but when I do..." Here her words trailed off and for a moment while she gleefully focused her thoughts on the many and varied ways she would administer her sweet retribution on those foolish individuals who would dare to oppose her. If only she knew who they were.....
Snapping out of her momentary reverie, she said, "It should come as no surprise to you of all people that not everyone is predisposed to accept orders from a woman." She then spat angrily on the floor. "I despise them! Cowards! They are as pathetic little mice who scurry to their holes in the presence of the lioness. They are as little nothings yet they vex me with their vile whisperings."
"I've never known a king yet that didn't have opposition," said Xena.
With a scornful sneer Hatshepsut barked, "I will not have my authority questioned!" Calming down somewhat, she added, "With their despicable mouse-like voices they, they...squeak words of treason and heresy. Like the vermin they are they scuttle about at night, averse to standing in the open light of day and preferring to drag their tails along the floors of the temples and perhaps even my own palace. They gnaw ever so feebly at the stout timbers of my rightful sovereignty with their perfidious insinuations that our sacred maat has been violated by the ascension of a female to the throne."
"Surely you're not the first woman to rule Egypt," said Xena.
"As a matter of fact, no," replied the pharaoh. "The chronicles speak of a woman named Sobeknofru." With a faint smile of amusement she added, "You might be interested to know that she was even referred to by some as the 'Warrior Queen.'"
"Then where's the problem if there has been precedence for a woman ruling Egypt?" asked Xena.
"The 'problem,'" said Hatshepsut, "is that during her reign Sobeknofru never sought to be recognized formally as anything other than what you would call a queen-regnant. Also, her rule came at the end of a fading dynasty and is by all accounts considered not very successful. Therefore the conservatives are more inclined to be lenient, going so far as to magnanimously dub it a..." Here she paused and emitted a contemptuous snort before going on to finish the sentence, "...brave failure.' To them it merely reinforces their espoused falsehood that a female is unfit to rule. I am pharaoh, not a transitional custodian to some dying royal house."
As Hatshepsut spoke Xena ever so briefly allowed her mind to wander upon warm speculation as to what her little bard was doing as this moment. Had she been able to see Gabrielle she would have been very much amused for at this very moment she was standing up on the retaining wall, arms to the heavens, joyfully caught up in the sweet ecstasy of Davidicus and Leisa's tearful reconciliation as two of the palace servants curiously looked on from a respectful distance.
However this lasted but a moment and Xena, having now already correctly deduced Hatshepsut's intentions, said, "And so now you want to do something to prove your abilities once and for all, right?"
Once again Hatshepsut was astounded by Xena's seemingly limitless capacity for incisive ratiocination. "Surely you have the ear of Mut," she softly replied. Before continuing she walked over to her bed and sat down upon the edge of it. Sweeping her arm toward the exquisite chair situated next to the bed, she said, "Please, sit down."
"All right," said Xena, deciding to humor her, and so she strolled over to the chair and sat down.
"As I said before, Warrioress," Hatshepsut began, now once again fully in control of her emotions, "it is indeed my intention to once and for all put to rest this, this...inane drivel that a woman is incapable of accomplishing great things, historic things. You yourself are crowning proof of that we are capable of greatness."
It was obvious Hatshepsut had studied Xena's history and therefore hardly needed reminding that in order to achieve most of her "historic" deeds it had been necessary to order the slaughter of countless thousands. Naturally any such enterprise that Hatshepsut might now have in mind which even remotely reeked of the stench of war would simply be out of the question for Xena. Not that she was any less averse to it or any less aggressive than she had ever been--far from it. What had changed, however, was the conditions under which she was willing to utilize those legendary martial skills which had made her "The Destroyer of Nations."
Under no circumstances would she assent to having a hand in any form of unprovoked aggression. The perfect example of her present day philosophy was last year's bloody war in south-central Greece in which the Aetolians and the Army of the Five Tribes had grappled with each other in a ferocious embrace of Death. It was true enough that Xena had assumed command of the huge Aetolian army and consequently had ruthlessly waged a brilliant campaign which culminated in the utter defeat of the enemy. And yes, it was also true enough that when the war was over tens of thousands lay dead on three separate battlefields. There was no denying that. The one, vital difference was that in conducting operations this time her military genius had been devoted to defending a kingdom and not to brutally crushing it under the heel of her boot.
Xena knew Egypt's power and since Hatshepsut herself had made it clear her country's national security was not an issue, this effectively ruled out possibility of participation in any sort of military action whatsoever on her part. She was also naturally quite prepared to tell Hatshepsut so in no uncertain terms--regardless of how the pharaoh might feel about it.
Fortunately for all concerned what Hatshepsut had in mind for her "historic thing" did not entail the use of naked aggression or the pursuit of military glory. "I would like to do something to raise the consciousness of my people," said Hatshepsut. "I want to demonstrate the skill and the firmness of my hand in guiding the ship of state." Eyeing Xena with a faint smile, she quickly added, "Of course, it is not in my heart that I should go to war with my neighbors in order to accomplish this. Rather, I would prefer a less drastic measure be taken to capture the imagination of the people. Something epic, something...heroic."
Here she paused and poured herself a cup of the wine which Xena had previously turned down. As she did she again offered it to Xena and again the warrioress politely declined. "To that end," she continued, after a sip, "I have come to the conclusion that it is through a great trading mission that I can best achieve positive results." She leaned forward and intently gazed into Xena's eyes. "I would be most grateful for your help in seeing this to fruition." Having presented her case so well, Hatshepsut now sat back and waited for a definitive answer. It was not long in coming.
"All right," Xena said. "You have my help." And there it was, plain and simple.
"What I have in mind," said Hatshepsut, "is something that can be accomplished relatively quickly and also with a minimum of risk."
"That ought to be simple enough," observed Xena.
"Not so easy as one might think," Hatshepsut corrected her. "We already dominate the entire region politically, economically, and yes, militarily as well. Accordingly, anything that pertains to this immediate region is not likely to make much of an impression since it already falls within our sphere of influence. Because of this a mission overland would not seem to fit within the desired time parameters. I must tell you I do not relish us attempting a sea voyage. We are not Phoenicians."
"So where do you want to go?" asked Xena.
"That," said Hatshepsut, taking another sip of the wine, "is where you come in."
"Yes. It is my understanding that you have traveled most of the known world." Hatshepsut then paused and with an enigmatic little smile added, "Perhaps even to a few places where the world is not so well known. Places where no other mortal has returned from alive."
"You could say that," Xena coolly replied.
"Good," said Hatshepsut, clearly pleased by Xena's casual confirmation. "So tell me, if...if you were...contemplating such an undertaking where would you go--again taking into account certain time constraints." Here marked the first clear sign of indecision on the part of the pharaoh that Xena had seen. So the "lioness" is human after all, she thought.
Immediately Xena's brilliant mind set to work weighing the various possibilities. As might be expected the first place that came to her was the distant land of Chin. It might not be as exotic or mysterious as India but it was close. It was also far more advanced as a unified society not to mention infinitely richer. It was also very, very far away meaning a mission perhaps lasting as long as a year. Hatshepsut had left Xena with the definite impression that she was looking for results a little more...immediate. That ruled out India as well. Persia? >From what she understood Egypt and Persia were already trading partners on at least a semi-regular basis. Where then? Britannia? Too poor. Certainly not Greece. Traders from Xena's homeland had been crossing the Mediterranean southward to the land of the Nile for centuries. Likewise the Phoenicians, Etruscans and Iberians all had long navigated well established sea lanes to Egypt. Where then?
Then, like a flash of lightning, it came to her. "Punt," she abruptly answered.
"Punt?" Hatshepsut echoed with some incredulity.
"Why not?" Xena wondered aloud. "It's relatively close and it's certainly exotic enough."
Hatshepsut shook her head in disagreement. "We have been there before. In fact expeditions went there during the reigns of at least three different kings. I desire to establish a more...original contact."
"Come ooon," countered Xena. "You haven't been there for centuries."
"You amaze me with your knowledge of our history," Hatshepsut quietly remarked.
Xena could have said it had once been her business to know the history of lands she intended to conquer but instead she prudently answered, "I've managed to pick up a few things in the last twelve years."
"What you propose has several obstacles," said Hatshepsut. "Chief among them is again the fact that we are not a sea faring people. It is one thing to ply the Nile in barges, it is quite another to venture out into the treacherous open waters of a great sea."
"You've done it before," Xena reminded her.
"The risk is too great," retorted Hatshepsut.
"There's no open sea navigation involved here," Xena reminded her. "All you'd have to do is follow the coast line south. Then when the wind shifts you could sail back. There's nothing to it and I'm sure you have any number of competent men who could do it."
"But the ships," countered Hatshepsut. "The only suitable port on this side of the Red Sea is at Quseir and the harbor facilities there are woefully inadequate. Timber for ships would have to be transported over great distances. Even if we could make the trip it would take many months to outfit a fleet there for sailing."
"So how many ships are we talking about here?"
"I should think six would be a sufficient number," the pharaoh replied.
Xena flashed her a little grin and said, "Suppose I were to tell you that I can build your fleet and have it ready to sail from Quseir inside of two moons."
Hatshepsut gaped for a moment at the Greek beauty as if she had suddenly sprouted an extra head. "I would say you are either mad, a genius--or both."
"Well maybe we're both a little mad," said Xena, wryly.
Hatshepsut's lips form a faint smile and she said, "Maybe we are."
Outside the scribe stood translating this exchange with profound amazement. No one spoke to the Daughter of Amen that way and lived!
The smile faded and in tones as hopeful as her bearing would allow Hatshepsut asked, "You can do this?"
"I can," said Xena. "Assuming of course money is no object and I have enough manpower."
The pharaoh emitted a soft, mirthless chuckle and said, "I assure you that you will lack for neither. Tomorrow I will personally instruct Chief Treasurer Djehuty, to co-operate with you in every way. You can write your own bill. As for the workers..."
"As for the workers," Xena interjected, "I want it plainly understood right now. No slaves, no prisoners of war, no convicts, no forced labor of any kind. And I also want the best tradesmen and labors you've got."
"Is that all?" Hatshepsut asked, clearly amused.
"No it's not," said Xena. "The men that build my ships will be treated with decency and respect. Otherwise it's no soap."
"Until they're finished and I hand them over to you they are my ships," said Xena, firmly.
Outside the puzzled scribe wondered, Why does the Goddess permit such insolence?
However Hatshepsut's sole response was to absently take another sip of her wine. "Punt, you say. I must admit the idea intrigues me. It indeed has been a very long time since an Egyptian king went there. Punt," she again uttered, under her breath. It was as if she were using the simple pronunciation of the fabled name as a way of making up her mind. After a moment's reflection she quietly said, "I think you are right. It will be Punt."
Her sense of excitement was beginning to build now and the thought that her dream might just possibly become reality was such that for a fleeting moment she dropped the aura of royalty. She leaned over and placed her hand on Xena's wrist. To the warrioress it felt warm and very delicate. In a voice so soft the straining scribe outside could barely hear, she said, "Xena, you do this for me and I will give you anything you want...anything!"
Xena coolly glanced down at the hand on her wrist. Hatshepsut, remembering herself, quickly released her soft grip and with some embarrassment withdrew her hand. Much to her surprise and apprehension, the pharaoh found she was becoming attracted to this exquisite figure of a woman. As king and god she had no shortage of handsome young courtiers and she had never been reluctant in making use of their "services." But never a woman. For Hatshepsut, who was as pragmatic as anyone in Egypt, there was no denying it. The more she looked upon this tall, muscular, beautiful woman, the more she felt something stirring within her. Maybe, she thought, the "anything" really did mean anything!
Looking at her face, Xena read it all. Her voice very deliberate she said, " There is nothing in Egypt I want," and hoped Hatshepsut caught the double meaning of it.
The Daughter of Amen had not maneuvered herself into possession of the fabled Double Crown of Egypt by being a fool. She caught Xena's undertone well enough. However she knew even the great, silent pyramids changed over time.
It was then that a thought came to Xena. "Well," she said, mercifully breaking the uncomfortable silence, "there is one thing."
"Let me build the ships first," said Xena. "Then we'll talk about it."
Hatshepsut knew she ought to have been annoyed by Xena's coyness but she just...couldn't. "Very well," she replied extending her hand, "when the ships are built. You have my word."
"Okay," said Xena, taking the hand, we have a deal then."
The two women were in the process of shaking hands over their agreement when from outside the curtains they heard first a new voice--sharp, commanding--then the higher pitched, pleading cries of the scribe. This was followed hard by a sharp crack and an unmistakable cry of pain from the scribe. Hatshepsut shot to her feet, beaten in this only by the wink of an eye by Xena who now instinctively placed herself between Hatshepsut and the disturbance.
Quickly the warrioress strode to the entrance. As she thrust the curtains apart she heard another sharp crack. Outside she saw a man, tall and thin with a face marked by wrinkles, standing over the whimpering scribe who was on the floor desperately trying to cover himself with hands. In the man's hand was one of those flails Xena had seen pictured so often in Egyptian artwork. He raised his hand again and as he poised to once more strike the poor scribe he felt something seize his wrist. The force seemed to be like that of the jaws of a crocodile. Crying out it pain, he turned and saw the same strange woman that had been at court earlier that day.
"I wouldn't," Xena snarled. Her anger was still smoldering at the moment but fast approaching the point where she would no longer care about something so trivial as a language barrier. After all, pain was a universal language and no one was more fluent in it than the Warrior Princess. Although she had once been its most artful practitioner, nothing provoked Xena faster now than witnessing the strong victimize the weak.
"Senenmut!" Hatshepsut barked out. "Have you taken leave of your senses?" She sought out and made visual contact with Xena, turning her hand over in a palms up gesture that indicated she should release the man. Xena complied but not before giving him a sharp little shove in the back for good measure.
Rubbing his throbbing wrist, Senenmut glared at Xena for a moment and then, pointing at Ankarad, rasped out, "This perverted wretch has dared to defile your chambers with his filthy presence! I caught him right here--right by your very person."
"Don't be a fool," said Hatshepsut in sharp rebuke. "He was there because I commanded it."
"Are you all right?" Xena asked, kneeling down to the scribe.
The unfortunate fellow nodded stiffly that he was but Xena could see he was still very shaken by the attack. "Come on," she softly coaxed. She then slipped her forearm under his armpit and effortlessly hoisted him to his feet.
Her anger rising, Hatshepsut caustically cut Senenmut off. "The scribe was here because I bade him to come and that is all you need to know."
Properly chastised, Senenmut meekly acknowledged, "I am in error. Please forgive me, Great Goddess."
Ignoring him, Hatshepsut abruptly turned to Xena and said, "We will discuss this further tomorrow. You will--" She paused and what she said next astounded both the exalted Senenmut and the lowly scribe. "That is to say--can you come again tomorrow. Same time?"
Senenmut was aghast. It was simply inconceivable for a pharaoh, God/King of all Egypt, to ask for anything!
"I'll be here," Xena assured her.
"Good. I am pleased then. Now it has been a long day and I am tired. Leave me, all of you."
It was Senenmut again and again he was forcefully cut off. "All of you!" Hatshepsut sharply repeated as she glared at him.
"As you wish, Great Pharaoh," and he respectfully bowed his head.
To Xena there was an obvious look of disappointment on his face. It was a plain as Gabrielle's pyramids back in Giza. Hatshepsut's rebuke had been acerbic enough but still it left the warrioress with the suspicion that this man might be more than just another minister. She rather doubted that it was the king's habit to conduct affairs of state in her own bedroom. Other affairs...maybe.
Just as the three of them turned to leave Xena heard Hatshepsut call her name once more. "Yes?" she answered.
Senenmut stopped as well, turning back hopefully to face his pharaoh but one withering glance from her was all it took to convince him that any further delay in his departure would not be in his best interests. "I will send for you when I want you," she curtly told him.
The scribe, familiar with the machinations of the court, decided to let this pass without interpretation. Senenmut nodded stiffly and took his leave.
Watching him depart, Hatshepsut idly remarked, "A very useful vassal. Sometimes, though, he forgets his place." Having already dismissed him from her presence, she now expunged him from her thoughts as well and focused in once more on the fascinating "Destroyer of Nations."
"I have changed my mind," she said. "Instead of waiting until dusk can you come tomorrow morning? Before court?"
"If you like," said Xena.
"You may call me Hatshepsut if you like," said the pharaoh. "I am eager to hear how your plan to perform this miracle of shipbuilding."
"It's no miracle," said Xena. "Just something I learned back in my sailing days."
"I must admit I am becoming excited by this," said Hatshepsut, in a voice low and husky. "Still, even exciting things must wait their turn. You are an extraordinary woman, Xena. I look forward to getting to know you better." She turned her nose slightly up in the air and said, "Tomorrow morning."
Naturally Xena took this as her cue and so again she turned to go.
"And next time bring your little friend," said Hatshepsut. "I wish to meet the one whom the mighty Warrior Princess loves so." Startled by this, Xena stopped and turned back. She then saw the pharaoh break into a triumphant little smile. "You see, Xena," she purred, "I too am perceptive."
Xena said nothing and without another word Hatshepsut slipped through the slit in her curtains and disappeared.
"Well," Xena muttered, under her breath, "that was interesting."
In awe of the occasion the scribe said, "I shall remember this night for all the days of my life." He smiled sheepishly at Xena and said, "Thank you for coming to my defense."
"Don't mention it," said Xena, tersely. She looked him over for a moment and then asked "Just what is your name anyway?"
"Ankarad, Great Warrioress."
"Cut that foolishness out," said Xena, chiding him. "My name is Xena."
"But I heard with my own ears....you are now a favored one of the king. Therefore I must show you the proper respect."
Xena folded her arms and looked sternly at the scribe. "You heard what I said." Letting her voice trail off for effect she added, "Otherwise, if you think Senenmut was bad...."
With great reluctance Ankarad said, "Very well...Xena."
"There now, that wasn't so bad, was it?"
How very strange she is! he thought. How utterly unpretentious for one so renowned. Like the servant woman before him, Ankarad respectfully backed his way out of the room. He and Xena exited to the dimly lit anteroom where they encountered this same dour woman. Apparently she had been waiting there the entire time. As soon as she saw the two of them she arose from the divan and without a work re-entered the bedroom of her mistress.
"So, what do you normally do around here?" Xena asked, as she and the scribe stepped once more into the great, treasure-filled hall.
Ankarad put his hands together and with a rueful voice replied, "Nothing very important, I assure you. Primarily I copy routine documents but I am also granted the privilege of performing all sorts of other, just as menial tasks."
"Sounds boring," said Xena, making a face.
"To be sure," Ankarad said with a chuckle. "You know, sometimes I dream of journeying down the great Nile to the sea. There I might find work on a trading ship. Imagine, being able to travel to strange lands, meet other peoples! You said you used to sail, Xena, so tell me...is it exciting? Is it a good life? Do you think I could do it?"
Xena took one look at his delicate hands, his thin shoulders and slight build and knew he would not last a day as a sailor. Having no wish to hurt his feelings or give him any false hopes she answered him as tactfully as she could. "Working on a ship is tough business," she began. "It's not glamorous, it's hard. The work is very rigorous, the water bad, and a lot of the time the food is barely fit to eat. A ship is filled with potential dangers. One misstep on a slick deck in a storm or one slip while up in the rigging and you're a dead man." With a kindly smile she squeezed his shoulder with her strong hand and said, "I haven't even gotten to those twenty cubit oars yet."
"Oh. I see. I had no idea it was such a hard life. I guess I should have known."
"It's not for everybody," Xena gently concurred. In spite of her discouragement she understood his yearning for adventure. It was something that had been part of her all her life. When she was nine she coerced her baby brother into joining her in a raid--her very first--on their neighbor's apple tree. When she was twelve she kissed her first boy--a very great adventure! At fourteen to win a bet two friends watched while she stole her way into a temple in nearby Mycinion and created an uproar by leaving behind the bust of Hermes turned upside down on its head. At sixteen she became the first person to survive the dive into the River Strymon from off the sixty cubit promontory appropriately known as "Death Rock."
Two short years later she won her first battle.
"Still, I like boats," said Ankarad. "I always have. I like being around them."
"You do, huh?" Maybe we can put that to good use, thought Xena. "You say you copy things. Does that mean drawings as well?"
"Yeah, technical stuff like layouts, floor plans, that sort of thing."
"Certainly," he replied. With a measure of pride he went on, "When the Chief Architect built the last addition to the Temple of Amen it was I who was entrusted by the overseers with producing additional copies."
"Yes, he is in charge of all major construction."
"Not all of it," Xena corrected him. "But as long as he stays out of my way we'll get along just fine. Still, I guess I should have a talk with him."
"You already have," said Ankarad.
Instantly Xena caught his meaning. "Don't tell me..."
"I am afraid so," he said. "The Chief Architect is none other than Senenmut himself."
Just what I need, thought Xena.
For a time the scribe and the warrioress in silence negotiated the maze of corridors that led back out to the courtyard. Finally Xena asked "Where did you learn Greek?"
"It was my father's doing," he said. "He didn't want me to end up in the quarry like him so he somehow scraped together money to hire a tutor for me. The money soon ran out but the tutor thought me gifted enough that he kept me on all the same. It was under him I learned to write. He also taught me mathematics, a little astronomy, and yes, how to speak Greek."
"Your father was a wise man," said Xena.
At last reaching the door leading to the outside, Ankarad it pushed open. As he did Xena felt the cool breeze brush across her cheek. "Thank you again, Xena, for your intervention," he said. "I am most grateful. Good-bye."
"I wouldn't say that just yet," said Xena, smiling faintly. "Remember, I'm still going to need an interpreter."
With a polite bow he replied, "I will be honored to assist you in any way I can. And now I must bid you good night." And with that the barefoot Ankarad slipped away into the darkness.
Xena found her just where she had left her; sitting alone now on the stone wall, her lithe figure silhouetted by the faint glow of light from distant Thebes. Gabrielle had worked her story out some time ago and the curious servants, having lost interest in her, had long since returned to their duties. Since then the bard had been content to quietly sit there on her perch and watch as one by one the little yellow points of light winked and flickered to life all across the city.
Idly lost in thought with her back to the palace, she did not hear Xena as she approached cat-like in the darkness. For a moment Xena stood there, silently watching her from a mere five paces away. There, in the darkness, Gabrielle seemed so small!
Gabrielle sneezed and from behind Xena smiled warmly as she saw her vigorously rub her nose with the back of her hand. Gabrielle always did that after sneezing and it was just one more little reminder of what was really important in this world. For all the gods, kings, pharaohs, ships filled with gold--all the armies of the earth were not worth one lock of hair off the head of this loving soul, this precious...life. Gods, Gabrielle! I do love you so!
Not wishing to startle her bard, Xena loudly scraped the sole of her boot across the paving stones.
"Xena!" Gabrielle whipped her lissome frame around and hopped down off the low wall.
"Gabrielle, you'd make a terrible sentry," Xena dryly observed.
Ignoring this, Gabrielle eagerly prodded, "What did you talk about? Is it something big like you thought?"
"It's big all right," said Xena.
"So what is it?"
"You'd never guess in a million years," said Xena, playfully stalling.
"I don't want to guess," said Gabrielle, emphatically. "Tell me!"
"You're not going to believe it," Xena teasingly replied.
Gabrielle, however, was not about to brook any further delay. She whacked Xena's muscular biceps hard with the back of her hand and growled, "Tell me!" However the bard forgot this was no ordinary female arm. Immediately her hand buzzed with a burning, tingling sensation; then numbness. "Owww!" she yelped, as she covered up her stinging hand with her good one. Had Gabrielle been able to distinctly see Xena's face she would have seen those same arched eyebrows and that same look of amusement she had so often seen before.
"Haven't you learned better by now?" Xena drawled.
"I guess not," the bard whimpered. She then held the offending hand out and shook it vigorously. Fortunately for her the numbness began to fade soon enough.
Although she would never admit it Xena always liked it when her bard displayed this kind of fire. She admired Gabrielle's grit and courage so much and her feeling was that it was good for her to be able to vent like this now and again.
Very casually Xena said, "We've got a job."
"A job? What kind of job?"
"You and I are going into the shipbuilding business," said Xena.
"We are? Really?"
"Yep. The pharaoh wants six ships ready for sailing from the port of Quseir within two moons."
"And she wants you to build them? Can you do it?" Already in the bard's psyche she had unflinchingly adopted Xena's new course of action as her own.
"Can we do it?" Xena pointedly corrected her.
In the darkness Gabrielle grinned and said, "All right, can we do it?"
"If they stay out of our way we can," replied Xena. "Hatshepsut says we can write our own bill."
"What does she want them for?" asked Gabrielle.
"A trading mission to Punt," said Xena.
"Punt? You mean there actually is such a place?" Gabrielle asked. "I always thought it was just a mythical place."
"It's real all right," said Xena, turning toward the steps. Gabrielle in kind turned with her and together the two of them crossed over the huge paving stones and down the long flight of steps.
As they neared the bottom Gabrielle asked "What made you change your mind?"
"Let's just say it's a solidarity thing."
"Never mind, Gabrielle," said Xena, gently.
"All right then, be cryptic if you want," said Gabrielle, feigning nonchalance. "But then, maybe you tell me this much, Miss Shipwright."
"Yeah? What's that?"
Just where are we sleeping tonight?"
A good question, she thought. With a shrug of resignation
she turned to the bard and said, "Damned if I know."
Coyly Hatshepsut smiled and brushed away the hand fondling her breast. "Really, Senenmut," she purred, "you should not take these things so personally." Pulling herself away from his arms, she coolly strolled across her bedroom to the plush divan.
"I do not understand why you felt it necessary to obtain the services of that, that..." He almost said "woman" but caught his tongue at the last instant. Instead he finished his sentence with a disdainful "Greek."
Easing herself down on the divan, Hatshepsut's perceptive ear caught the near gaffe but fortunately for her libidinous servant she was not in a reproachful mood. Indeed her mind at the moment was one of a far different inclination as she leisurely lowered her lean, naked body down into a reclining a position. "Senenmut," she sighed, Your eyes see, your ears hear, yet your ka recognizes nothing. Are you that incognizant?"
"My soul has nothing to do with it," replied Senenmut, as firmly as he dared. "All I know is for some mysterious reason my king has chosen to believe the boastful lies of a foreigner."
Quickly then he strode over and resolutely sat himself down on the floor beside the divan. "Remember this woman's history," he entreated. "She is a barbarian, a...demon!"
"She is gifted beyond words," said Hatshepsut.
"She is a murderer of untold thousands."
"I have studied her too, Senenmut. She is a genius."
With a trace of sarcasm he asked "Has this genius explained to you just how she will accomplish this miracle? It would take two moons just to cut and transport the necessary timbers overland to Quseir."
"She has assured me it can be done."
"She will seek to destroy you; perhaps even our entire civilization."
Placing emphasis on each and every word, Hatshepsut said, "She will build my ships." Hatshepsut turned on her side and propped her head up on her elbow. Her voice softening, she asked "Senenmut, are you blind? Do you not see the hand of Amen here?"
Leaning forward, Senenmut lightly kissed the fingers of the pharaoh's left hand. "I only see the hand of my king," he softly answered.
Hatshepsut, however, would not allow herself to be so easily placated. "Then you are a fool. Think on it. Insignificant Cyprus sends us envoys, one of whom just happens to be the legendary Warrior Princess. What was she doing there? Cyprus is a land that she ordinarily would not dirty her fingernails over. What prompted their king to ask her here in the first place? Why did she agree? Then, on the way here she chooses to stop in a simple farming village whereby she is afforded the opportunity to save Neshi's life. Do you not find these things strange?"
"They are merely coincidences," said Senenmut, unconvinced.
Slightly incensed by his stubbornness, Hatshepsut firmly countered, "It is divine intervention. Amen has always favored me. Now he has graciously provided me with the instrument by which my defining moment, my crowning achievement will be attained. I will sweep those worms who would dare oppose me upon the dung pile of oblivion." Boring her intense dark eyes into his, she repeated, "Xena will build my ships."
Knowing her as he did, Senenmut understood it would now be extremely unwise to carry the discussion any further. Yes it was true she favored him above all others but when his king was provoked even he was not immune to her anger.
Deflated, he meekly replied, "Yes, Great Lord."
Pleased by his deference, Hatshepsut's method of rewarding his obedience was to patronize him. Pushing out her lower lip in a pout, she said, "Do not worry, Senenmut. I will see to it you receive recognition for this project in some manner."
It was small comfort the man known as the "Greatest of the Great."
"But enough of Greeks, and gods and ships," she suddenly said. Sitting up, she slid her hips to the edge of the divan.
It took no great scholar to understand what she wanted now so Senenmut obediently knelt before her and bent forward. His pharaoh nimbly set her heels upon his shoulders and spread her knees wide apart. Staring down at her glistening vulva, he thought, By all the gods in heaven! There is none so beautiful as she!
Her voice low and husky, Hatshepsut said, "Nothing I desire
will be denied me, slave." Placing the two middle fingers of her right hand
to the back of his head, she then regally pulled the head of the obsequious
man down between her thighs. As his tongue found its royal mark she repeated
with a lascivious purr, "Nothing."
At precisely the same moment, barely three stadiums distance away, Gabrielle lay lurching and quaking in ecstasy. The mission completed, her warrior raised her head up from between those taut thighs she loved to tease with her tongue.
"Gods, Xena! the bard gasped. "How do you do that?" Four and a half years now and still Gabrielle was continually amazed and awed by how talented and versatile Xena's lips and tongue were.
Xena slowly, salaciously licked her lips and said, "Gabrielle, I have many skills."
"Mmmmm, don't I know it," the bard dreamily replied.
Rising to her knees, Xena sat back on her heels and with a wanton smile forcefully plunged her long middle finger deep within her bard's drenched crotch. Gabrielle responded by whimpering a soft "Ohhhh" as she bucked up her hips in pleasure.
After a small amount of deliberation, the two of them had chosen to spend the night here in this rather comfortable inn situated on one of the city's main thoroughfares. Xena knew Neshi undoubtedly would have been more than happy to again provide lodging for them and in fact he had expected them back. However Xena's choice was based more on convenience than anything else. Neshi's grand home lay all the way across on the south side of Thebes and to her it made little sense to trudge all the way over there only to have to return right back here in the morning. For some reason this made her think of her beloved Argo.
Fortunately this place had been handy; they had money and that was that.
Slowly Xena began to extract her finger from her lover's vagina. Gabrielle, reluctant to give up the sweet digit, lifted her pelvis up off the bed in order to follow it. Unfortunately her hips could only go so far and all too soon Xena's finger was free. Lying below her, Gabrielle saw Xena delicately insert the finger into her mouth, her lips reaching all the way to the hand. Slowly then the warrioress pulled the finger back out, her cheeks sunken as she sucked hard on it.
Enraptured by this, Gabrielle softly cried, "By the gods, Xena, you are sooooo beautiful!"
Xena's only answer was a brilliant smile as she bent her broad, powerful shoulders low over her precious bard.
Her chest heaving with renewed excitement over this magnificent creature, Gabrielle again spoke. This time her voice was but a breathless whisper. "Ohh, Xena, I love you so!"
Those full lips Gabrielle adored parted and just before they pressed down upon her own she heard a soft, "Shhhh." For the first time in almost a moon the two lovers were completely free to once again explore every last inch of each other's body. For the two of them the night was only the beginning.
The stoic palace guardsman pushed open the door and with a curt nod indicated that the warrioress and the bard had at last reached their destination. He, not Ankarad, had served as their guide this morning through the palace maze leaving Xena to wonder if Senenmut had not seen to it that further punishment had in some way been meted out to the young man. In any case, she resolved to find out.
During the previous evening's visit to the palace Xena had mentally mapped out every last twist and turn along her convoluted route. On this already very warm morning, however, she recognized right away that she and Gabrielle were being led through an entirely different part of the massive edifice. At last they turned a corner and were espied by a man who stood up from his seat on a plain wooden bench and strode purposefully toward them. "I am Khafra," he said. "I will be the king's interpreter."
Narrowing her eyelids to mere slits, Xena suspiciously asked "What happened to Ankarad?"
"It is I who have been blessed by our omnipotent king with the appointment to serve as the Greek interpreter," Khafra pompously declared. "As I only returned to Thebes this morning I was naturally unavailable for your interview with her last night. The scribe is but a mere civil servant, with the emphasis on the servant."
Who is this guy? thought Gabrielle.
With a contemptuous sniff he then said, "It makes me shudder to think that our beloved Maatkare was forced to utilize the services of one so uneducated, so...base; a mere clerk."
By now Xena had learned that arrogance was something the Egyptians were not short of. In this they reminded her of the Spartans. Irked now by this most recent display she decided to take this pompous bastard down a peg. She brushed past the huge guard standing at the door and imitating Callisto's menacing, girlish giggle, said, "Then you'd better get a blanket, junior, because I have a feeling Ankarad is going to be seeing a whole lot more of Maatkare than you are."
"Maatkare?" Gabrielle asked, wrinkling her nose. "Who's that?"
"It's Hatshepsut's throne name, remember?"
"Oh yeah, I forgot," said the bard. "Gee, she has so many names and titles it's hard to keep up with them all."
With a sly grin Xena said, "Just don't be like Aloysius and
call her queen." She looked hard at Khafra and with the same mocking giggle,
said, "Come along, Gabrielle, the king awaits."
With Gabrielle in tow, Xena entered the room. Hatshepsut was seated behind a long, beautifully crafted wooden table in a high--backed chair gilded with gold. Flanking her on either side were the standing figures of a man whom Xena had not seen before...and Senenmut. While she was not surprised to see the sullen man here--he was the Chief Architect after all--his presence nevertheless bothered her a little. As one highly experienced in dealing with those in positions of power she had seen his type all too often. Indeed there had been enough of them under her command--men who, while ardently professing devoted allegiance to their chieftain, were in reality loyal to no one but themselves and their own hungry dreams of power. Like Senenmut they were already well placed in the upper hierarchy of the command structure but that was not enough for them. Like ravenous hyenas tearing at a carcass they wanted it all. Senenmut had that same look about him. This man was trouble and she knew it.
In contrast Hatshepsut's relatively muted dress at court yesterday, Xena observed that today the pharaoh's attire was much more elegant, much more feminine. On this day the false beard was nowhere to be seen. She was wearing a long, snugly fitting dress that accentuated the graceful curves of her slender body. It was very similar to the one of last night except this one was much more finely woven. Its color was a beautiful sky blue with intricate white embroidering around the hem and the short sleeves. Her makeup was considerably more elaborate as well. Particular attention had been given to emphasizing her high cheekbones and to highlighting her piercing eyes. The eyebrows were heavily outlined in black coupled with eyelids shaded to match the color of her gown. Around her neck she wore the traditional wide collar Xena had seen on other, less prominent Egyptian officials. This one, however, was made of solid gold. She wore no headdress and her dark hair, long and straight, fell unfettered upon her slim shoulders. To Gabrielle it seemed as if not one single hair was out of place.
In awe the bard gazed upon this the pharaoh, divinity personified to her people; sitting erect, her proud chin lifted slightly. There was no doubt about it. Hatshepsut, the all-powerful Lady of the Two Lands, was an extremely handsome woman!
Whereas the romantic bard saw in her beauty and grace, the shrewd warrioress saw something else again. She saw power, and courage, and a ruthless sense of purpose. These things were hardly foreign to her. This was state business. This was Hatshepsut's undertaking and that made it Egypt's undertaking. What she wanted from Xena was something very close to her heart and the spectacularly regal appearance was simply one more way of reinforcing that message to the Greek warrioress. It reaffirmed the power of the Egyptian throne and it's ability to influence events--and people.
As to be expected it was the king who spoke first. Her dark eyes falling upon Xena, she said, "Neshi tells me you did not return to his home last night. Was something wrong?"
"No," Xena replied. "We decided it would be best if we found a place nearer the palace--for the sake of convenience."
"If I had known that is what you desired I would have insisted you stay here," said Hatshepsut. "However I trust you slept well."
Why does she truckle to this barbarian?! Senenmut wondered. In the back of his mind a possible explanation nagged at him. However it was one which he fervently hoped was wrong. Could it possibly be that she...likes this beast? The mere idea of it appalled him.
Eyes shining in sweet remembrance of the night just past, Xena looked at her bard and said, "Couldn't have been better."
The pleasantries over now, Hatshepsut got straight to business. "I would like to hear your plan for the construction of my ships."
Courtesy or no, Senenmut could not contain himself. "So would I," he said with a smirk.
Her hand nothing but a blur, Xena reached up behind her head and withdrew her sword from its scabbard. Both Senenmut and the other man recoiled in shock and alarm at the sight of the big, razor sharp blade but Hatshepsut never so much as blinked. Instead she allowed her impassive face to form an outline of a smile as she intently stared at the Warrior Princess.
Nonchalantly Xena tossed the sword from her right hand into her left and returned the pharaoh's smile with one of her own. She then extended the now empty right hand out palm up to the bard and said, "Gabrielle."
"Right," the bard answered, with a nod. In a wink Gabrielle thrust her hand into her shoulder bag and produced a scroll which she immediately plopped into Xena's waiting hand.
Xena strolled over to the table and, using her sword to keep the curled edges in place, stretched the scroll out on the table in front of Hatshepsut. With great interest the pharaoh leaned forward to study the scroll. What she saw was a map of Upper Egypt and Nubia. It was extremely accurate and finely detailed--right down to the placement of the cataracts in the Nile River.
Hatshepsut glanced up from the map. "I have never seen better," she marveled. "Where did you get this?"
"I drew it last night at the inn," said Xena. "It's based on a map I saw at Neshi's home."
"You drew this from memory?"
"Is there nothing you cannot do?" Hatshepsut asked, with wonder.
Caught up in the middle of Hatshepsut's praise for her warrior, Gabrielle blurted out, "She has many skills."
The dark eyes shifted their focus from Xena to her diminutive companion and for the first time Gabrielle experienced what it was like to fall under the power of her royal gaze. "Uhh...sorry," she sheepishly stammered.
This little one adores the warrioress, thought Hatshepsut. As intelligent as the king was she hardly needed the wisdom of Nut to see that. It was all too obvious just from the way the girl looked at Xena.
Mercifully for Gabrielle, Xena spoke again and the dark eyes turned away from her, releasing her from their spell.
"The problem," Xena began, "is of course the timber."
"I must say you are a master at stating the obvious," sniffed Senenmut.
Much as one would speak to restless child, Hatshepsut warned, "Senenmut, if cannot contribute anything constructive then we have no need of you here."
Senenmut was aghast. His king had never spoken to him that way in public before. What is it about this Greek bitch that causes her to have such a hold on Hatshepsut?
"Go on," Hatshepsut urged with a nod.
"Now," said Xena, continuing, "it's my assumption that most of the high grade timber needed for ship construction would be brought up from Nubia, right?"
"That is correct," said the other man. This was Sennefer, a man of considerable ability whom Hatshepsut would one day appoint as the mayor of Thebes.
"My engineers tell me it will take at least three moons just to amass enough timber at Quseir to build the ships and the necessary docks to support them," said Hatshepsut.
"I'm sure that would be true," Xena blandly replied. "If the timber was going that far."
Hatshepsut closed on eye and looked askance at her. "What do you mean?"
"Those timbers won't be going to Quseir," explained Xena.
"Where then?" Senenmut asked, incredulously. "The desert?"
With an enigmatic smile Xena replied, "In a way." She pointed a long finger to a dot on the map. "Here," she said. "Coptos."
For Hatshepsut the mounting sense of anticipation was just too great. She could take the suspense no longer. Rising out of her seat, she stamped her foot in frustration. "Tell me!" she cried, almost pleading.
"Have the framing timbers and the planking taken to Coptos," said Xena. "That's where we're going to build the ships."
"You're mad!" exclaimed Senenmut. "What good are sea going vessels this far up the Nile? And for that matter, why Coptos?"
With more restraint and infinitely more insight, Sennefer suddenly looked at Xena and asked "The road?"
Giving him a nod of approval, Xena said, "That's right. We'll take advantage of that big road that runs from Coptos to Quseir."
"But how, Xena?" Hatshepsut eagerly asked.
"We'll build the ships in Coptos," Xena repeated. She then paused before dropping the fire bomb. "In sections. While we're doing that somebody else can shore up the docks at Quseir. Then, when we're finished the individual sections can be transported overland to Quseir and assembled there. That way you kill two birds with one stone."
Brilliant! thought Sennefer. Why hadn't anyone ever thought of that before?
"It will never work," scoffed Senenmut.
"It will work," Xena forcefully countered him.
"And just how would you know?"
Her voice low and throaty, Xena rasped, "Because I've done it before." On one occasion back in her pirate days she had returned from a successful moon of raiding on the Propontis Sea only to discover the enraged Phrygians had blockaded the narrow Hellespont, the only western exit from the Propontis. Effectively bottled up, Xena had stubbornly refused to admit defeat. To her abandoning her ship to attempt an overland escape was not an option so she had ordered the whole thing taken apart; ship, treasure and all was carried over the narrow Chersonese Peninsula to the blue green waters of the Thracian Sea and safety. Granted her ship had been considerably smaller than what Hatshepsut was expecting her to build now but given the money and the manpower that had been placed at her disposal she saw no reason to think she would be any less successful.
Eyes twinkling with excitement, Hatshepsut said, "This plan becomes you, Xena. It will be as you say."
"Great Pharaoh," Senenmut doggedly persisted, "I am the Chief Architect and I say this is doomed to failure."
"And I say you don't know your ass from a hole in the ground!" snapped Xena.
However the flabbergasted Khafra did not immediately translate this. Senenmut, catching Xena's tone if not her meaning, looked to the suddenly very uncomfortable Khafra. "I--I can't tell him that," pleaded Khafra.
Not taking her blazing eyes off Senenmut Xena grimly said, "You tell him. Tell him word for word." In Xena's mind there was room for only one leader of this project and it certainly was not going to be this pompous bastard.
Dutifully Khafra complied but not before stumbling a little over the reference to the Chief Architect's "back door."
At Xena's side Gabrielle intently watched the three Egyptians behind the table, wondering what their reaction would be. Sennefer's face did not betray his sense of gratification as he thought, It is about time someone put that arrogant ass in his place.
The bard then saw Hatshepsut lower her chin slightly and put a curled index finger to her lips. Gabrielle rather suspected the delicate cough that followed was meant to suppress a laugh.
Senenmut was not laughing. Face red, his voice nearly choking with rage, he said, "Great Pharaoh, I should not be insulted in this manner by this, this...savage! I implore Your Majesty to do something!"
"You are right," his pharaoh calmly replied. "Something should be done."
Senenmut's expression of smug expectancy turned suddenly to one of shock and total dismay when Hatshepsut mildly added, "You are dismissed."
Gabrielle thought his eyes were going to pop right out of his head.
Gaping at Hatshepsut in utter disbelief, Senenmut tried to protest but his tongue simply would not obey him. "But..."
"Go!" Hatshepsut sharply ordered. "Now!"
For the stunned Senenmut there was nothing left but to obey. Fixing his eyes on the door, too ashamed to look at Sennefer or his king--too enraged to look at Xena--he briskly and with as much dignity as he could muster walked straight out of the room.
"There now," said Hatshepsut, after he had gone. "Peace at last." Now that she had removed the quarrelsome thorn in their side, Hatshepsut once again turned to Xena's proposal. Turning to Sennefer, she asked "How long before we have ship's timber and planking arriving in Coptos?"
Sennefer's analytical mind made the necessary mental calculations and the answer was, "Ten days, Lord."
"That is acceptable," she pronounced. To Xena she then announced, "I am giving you Sennefer here. He is a man of excellent ability and has a special talent for getting things done under duress."
Humbled by his king's praise, Sennefer said, "I am overwhelmed by my sovereign's confidence in me."
Dark Egyptian eyes searched out their icy blue Greek counterparts and Hatshepsut added the qualifier. "Assuming of course that you have no objection to this one as well."
"He'll do," Xena declared.
Hatshepsut leaned forward and placed both palms down on the table. "Now for a more delicate matter," she said, after a pause. "In order not to foster resentment and to assuage any fears it will be necessary to name a high ranking Egyptian official as head of this project. Make no mistake, Xena, it will be purely a nominal position. You will retain sole authority over the construction of my ships." Casting a stern eye at Sennefer, she asked, "Is that understood?"
"Perfectly," the man gulped.
"Now, I have given this matter some thought," said Hatshepsut, continuing. "Senenmut, as the chief architect, would seem to be the logical choice..." She paused here and a faint smile of amusement playing across her lips. "...but in this case I think not. Therefore I have decided to appoint Neshi to that role."
Her decision was based on more than a mere desire to placate Xena. Senenmut might have held among many other titles that of "Chief Architect" but in truth this was hardly for his technical prowess. The man was more bureaucrat than builder. Hatshepsut was well aware that some in the government might scratch their heads over her choice but that was simply too bad. She could not risk the acrimony between Xena and Senenmut interfering with her plans. Therefore Senenmut had to go. That he was her favorite lover was of no consequence here. This was a matter of national importance. Egypt's prestige--her prestige would be at stake and that made it far too important to risk having it all come apart because of some petty jealousy. And that, she knew, was what it really was. Senenmut was jealous of Xena. Perhaps he sensed her attraction to Xena, perhaps not. What was plain, however, was her unprecedented decision to treat Xena as an equal.
"Neshi's a good man," allowed Xena. "He'll make a good liaison."
"You'll need a skilled interpreter too," said Hatshepsut. "I will give you Khafra."
Resolutely Xena set her jaw. "No."
Both Sennefer and Khafra were stunned by this, the interpreter being doubly so. While both were astounded that this woman had actually dared to rebuff their divine ruler, for Khafra the shock was compounded by the fact that this woman was refusing to avail herself of his services. Obviously this was going to be a highly important project and he wanted to share, however minutely, in the glory of it. Was he now going to be denied his share by this rude woman?
"I want Ankarad," said Xena, firmly.
"The scribe from last night," Xena reminded her.
"Oh yes." With an apathetic wave of the hand she decreed, "Very well." Glancing at the shocked interpreter, she said, "You will inform the scribe of his new duties."
However averse he was to this decision, Khafra, unlike the haughty Senenmut, did not dare protest. His station in life was much too lowly for that.
It was at this moment that Amenhotep, her Chief Steward, joined them in the room. After a deep bow he quietly said, "It is almost time, Lord."
Hatshepsut nodded her acknowledgment and Amenhotep stepped from the room just as silently as he had entered.
"Sennefer," said the pharaoh, "I place you under Xena's authority. You will obey her every command to the exclusion of all others."
"Yes, Great King."
Hatshepsut flashed Xena a sly smile and added, "Except, of course, for my own."
"Of course," echoed Xena, arching an eyebrow. She was beginning to like this woman.
As Hatshepsut moved out from behind the table Xena picked up her sword and casually returned it to its scabbard.
"It is a beautiful weapon," remarked Hatshepsut.
"It's never failed me," said Xena.
"How could it," purred Hatshepsut, "with such a strong arm to wield it?"
For a moment she allowed her eyes to rove over the Greek's powerful arms and shoulders, her rock hard waist, her long, graceful legs. Never had the pharaoh seen anyone like her! From every pore of her body Xena exuded strength, power, and above all a kind of intense genius. Yet the warrioress remained first and foremost a woman and this fascinated Hatshepsut to no end. True she--a woman--wielded more power than anyone alive but the cold hard fact was she was not a warrior. Never had been. And despite Xena's obviously gifted mind it was the aura of danger she emitted the really captivated the pharaoh. Xena had a seething feral quality that seemed to lie just beneath the surface, barely suppressed, just waiting to rise up and assume dominance once more over this magnificent woman!
Just looking at the Greek woman excited her. Now Hatshepsut found herself aching to stroke that powerful arm. But she could not. At least--not yet. Which brought her to the fair-haired on by Xena's side. Stepping toe to toe with her, Hatshepsut asked "Gabrielle, right?"
"Gabrielle," Hatshepsut repeated, careful not to sound condescending. "A nice name. A pretty name." A soft name, she thought. Like its owner. It was a name not hard and formidable like Hat-shep-sut...or Xee-nah. It never occurred to her that this "soft" young woman was fully capable of tearing her limb from limb had she so desired. "It rolls off the tongue well," she said. "Even for an Egyptian." Leaning close, she said, "You are very beautiful."
This embarrassed the bard some but fortunately the pharaoh's attention was once again turned elsewhere for by now Sennefer was anxious to get his marching orders and go. Though long used to being in close proximity to such power, he nevertheless felt a bit ill at ease around Hatshepsut. He knew why but dared not even think about the fact that his king was a woman lest his eyes or his hesitant tongue somehow betray him. Privately he felt it was unfaithful to Egypt's sacred maat to have a female wear the Double Crown of the Two Lands. Of course he wisely kept such thoughts to himself. In this he was not alone but no one, least of all him, was in any position to say otherwise.
Edging over to the three women, he asked "What are my instructions?"
Xena never hesitated as she replied, "I want you to start assembling the work crews. Remember," she warned, "no slave labor."
"How long will it take you?" Hatshepsut asked.
"I am not sure," said Sennefer. "The procurement of labor may be difficult if we follow Xena's method."
"Take whatever steps necessary," said Hatshepsut.
"But where can I find so many men so quickly?" he asked.
To Xena the answer was obvious. "The army," she said.
"Do you not consider the use of army troops to be forced labor?" asked Hatshepsut.
"Most of them are volunteers, aren't they?"
"Yes." In times past Egyptian royalty had not deemed it necessary to maintain a standing army. For the defense of the nation they had relied on a kind of crude reserve system. The invasion of the Hyksos and the subsequent century of subservience under them had changed all that. Since their overthrow the succeeding pharaohs had made it a point to keep the army intact and ready to fight. Now it was considered one of the few places in Egyptian society where a young man of low birth actually stood a chance of improving his lot in life. Consequently the army rarely had trouble filling its ranks.
"Then they're not slaves," said Xena. "An army is as much about work as it is about fighting. In fact most soldiers' daily lives are not dangerous at all. Instead they involve not training or fighting, but plain old ordinary work."
Xena could see Hatshepsut had no idea this was so. To her it was simply unbelievable that she, as commander-in-chief, did not understand this. "Work is part of being a soldier," said Xena, summarizing.
"Very well then," said Hatshepsut. "It is so ordered. Take half the garrison here at Thebes and the entire one at Naqada. I will have the necessary arrangements made."
"Yes, Great One," said Sennefer. "Barring difficulty I think we can expect to have them in Coptos within four days."
"You've got two," Xena tersely informed him.
"Why so quickly?" asked Hatshepsut, puzzled. "Sennefer just said it will likely be ten days before the first materials reach Coptos."
"There are plenty of other things they can be doing," Xena patiently explained. "Then, when the material does start arriving we can hit the ground running on this thing."
"You are right, of course," Hatshepsut conceded. Drawing herself up to her full height, she said, "Very well, I leave it in your capable hands. Build my..." Remembering last night she paused and amusedly said, "...your ships, Xena, and you will have my eternal gratitude."
"With the king's permission," said Sennefer, "I shall begin making preparations." Hatshepsut nodded her approval and Sennefer, bowing, took his leave.
"We should be going as well," said Xena. "I want to get down to Coptos and take a look around."
It was a small thing but one Hatshepsut greatly appreciated. To most north was usually referred to as "up" because of its relative position on maps. To the Egyptians, however, where the eternal Nile permeated every part of their lives, "up" had only one connotation--upriver. Since the Nile flows from south to north, "up" to the Egyptians meant south. Hence, this was why Upper Egypt was south of Lower Egypt. Coptos lay north of Thebes. Xena and the rest had passed it on their way up the Nile. That she had taken care to correctly refer to Coptos' relative position to Thebes as "down" only made Hatshepsut admire her more.
"Of course," said Hatshepsut. She clapped her hands and the huge guard standing vigil outside the door immediately stepped inside. "Prepare a barge for my shipwrights." The guard nodded and disappeared.
"Well," Hatshepsut said with a deep sigh, "it is time to once more play the little game. I must change now for court."
"Lose the beard," Xena quietly urged her.
"I will...think about it," was the pharaoh's hesitant reply.
"Neither your maat nor your ka will be destroyed," Xena assured her. She raised her hand very near--almost but not quite touching--and pointed at Hatshepsut's chest. "Besides, the only true maat Egypt needs is right here, in your heart."
These were noble words to be sure and Hatshepsut was not quite certain whether these were what stirred her or if it was Xena's hand hovering so near to her breast. Maybe it was both. Whatever the case Hatshepsut was not about to let it blind her to what was really important and it was this relentless pursuit of her goal that prompted her next act.
Coolly she walked over to marble stand upon which sat a small chest, handsomely crafted and trimmed with silver. Very carefully she lifted the lid up to a resting position. "Last night," she said, "you said you would name your reward when the ships were done. Since it is not money you want there can undoubtedly be only one other thing."
Xena did not need to see the contents of the chest to know what was there. She and Gabrielle joined Hatshepsut beside the chest and, gazing down into it, the bard cried out, "Your chakram!"
Inside the exquisite weapon lay on a violet pillow as if patiently waiting for the hand of its incomparable mistress to claim it once more.
"I should have known this would be much more important to you than mere gold," said Hatshepsut.
Xena reached into the chest and before she picked it up, gently trailed a middle finger over its hard surface. Hello, old friend, she thought.
"You must give me a demonstration sometime," said the pharaoh, as Xena returned the chakram her side. "I would like to see what you can do with it."
"You name it," said Gabrielle, "and Xena can do it." She good naturedly tousled her hair and added, "Even cut hair."
Xena flashed the bard a brief, warm smile. Gabrielle's quip made her think back to the formidable Najara and her own comment that both of them had the same "weakness." How so very true! she thought.
Hatshepsut thought she was beginning to understand the stoic Xena so naturally it was with some surprise that she heard Xena say, "Actually this wasn't what I had in mind."
"Oh?" Silently Hatshepsut wondered just what could be so important that Xena would forego an opportunity to regain a possession so obviously dear to her. But then, like the dawning of the sun, it slowly came to her that maybe Xena had never intended to give up the chakram at all. Perhaps, even as she was handing it over, the Greek had been scheming as to how to get it back. You devil! she thought, not with anger but with an even more profound sense of respect. "It does not matter. I return this to you as a sign of good faith and my offer still stands. What then would you like?"
"Well that's up to Gabrielle here," said Xena, matter-of-factly.
Perplexed and a little unnerved by this, the bard asked "Huh? Meee?"
"Yep. It's your call, Gabrielle."
"But...why me?" Gabrielle protested. "Xena, you're the one building the ships."
"And you're going to be my assistant," said Xena. "And since I'm not interested, naturally it should be my assistant who gets the reward. It's only fair."
Why am I not surprised? thought Hatshepsut. Sooner or later she always gets back to this little fair-haired one. "So be it then," she said. "Gabrielle, what shall you have as payment for Xena's--your services?"
"I--" Caught unaware, the poor bard had not a clue. Try as she might her mind was blank.
Xena, seeing her difficulty, gently touched her arm and said, "You don't have to decide now."
"Of course not," said Hatshepsut.
By now, though, Gabrielle had made up her mind. Her voice soft but resolute, she said, "No. I won't accept anything either. It's Xena's prize or nobody's."
Now it was Hatshepsut's turn to be puzzled. "I thought you Greeks were hopelessly materialistic."
"Not this Greek," said Xena, nodding with pride to her little friend.
"All right then," said Hatshepsut. "Have it your way. But the offer still stands. Egypt does not forget those that do her service. Again, though, I must say it seems inconceivable to me that you would put forth such an effort and not want to be properly compensated."
Patting her bard's shoulder, Xena said, "Well we kinda like to travel light."
Continued in Part Three
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