Path of Thorns - Part III
Iona stared out of the window. Linos was relating some historic battle, but, even though it was quite an action packed story about war and battles and heroism, Iona couldn’t bring herself to listen to it. Her mind had wandered out of the room, out of the country, out of chronological order and straight into yesterday, reliving those moment by the well.
She hadn’t imagined it, she was quite sure of that. There had really been a voice, somewhere, warning her about… something. But who had it been? And what was she supposed to look out for?
Or shouldn’t she worry, was it just some kind of joke, something to scare her. Athena was testing her, after all. Iona was bright enough to realize that. Athena hadn’t bribed her into doing her homework as a favor to Xena or something silly like that. Or maybe Scathach had something to do with it. She had been quite upset when she discovered Iona’s parentage, after all. Maybe she wanted to find out what the daughter of Ares and Xena was made of. That made sense, right?
Iona wrinkled her nose, not quite buying her self-fabricated potential explanations. She needed more information. Maybe if she knew more about Scathach or the well or that island…
She wanted to talk to Xena. More than anything, she just wanted to go to Xena and tell her and then Xena could tell her what was going on. Xena would know. She always knew this sorta stuff.
But she couldn’t tell Xena. ‘Cause then Xena would know she’d left her room while she was grounded. That she hadn’t just left it, but had gone to an entirely different country with a goddess no less. Her mother would be furious. And things had just gotten better between them. Xena had said she was proud of her. The last thing Iona wanted to do now was disappoint her.
Iona sighed, supporting her head with both hands. This was a mess. A gigantically big mess. And she was once again right in the center of it.
“Okay, that’s it for this morning,” Linos finished. “I will see you back here in an hour.”
As Iona was gathering her stuff, Linos walked over to her. “I noticed you weren’t paying attention.”
The girl glanced up at him guiltily. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s alright,” Linos smiled at her surprised look. “You’ve been working quite hard these last few days. It gets hard to focus sometimes. I understand that.”
Iona sighed as she watched Niobe and Caspar walk out of the room together. “There’s a lot on my mind lately.”
“Anything I can help you with?”
Iona peeked up at her teacher, considering for a moment, then she turned her chair towards him and sat down again. “I uhm… I’ve been… studying some stuff about the gods.”
“Ah,” Linos nodded in understanding, perching on the edge of her desk. “That’s not a subject you want to be discussing with the Empress.”
“Exactly,” Iona nodded vehemently. “She’d totally freak out if she knew.”
“The Empress isn’t fond of gods, no,” Linos said. “She’s never stopped anyone from worshipping them. Which is smart, I think, because people can cling quite strongly to what they believe, even if it seems illogical.”
“Do you…” Iona leaned forward a bit, dropping her voice. “Do you think they’re all like Ares? Evil, I mean?”
Her teacher stroked his beard pensively. “I don’t believe Ares was evil, necessarily.”
Iona frowned. “You don’t?”
“I don’t much believe in that black and white view of life,” Linos went on. “Your mother is still viewed by many as evil, because of stories that are told about her, but you and I both know that’s not true.” He drummed his fingers on the desk. “From what I’ve heard and read, gods are more like mortals than they care to admit. Just like us, they sin. They’re jealous, wrathful, egocentric. The difference is that when a mortal is jealous, there might be a argument, a fight maybe, someone could get hurt, but that would be it. When a god gets jealous…”
“Things get out of hand,” his student finished for him.
“Very often, yes,” Linos nodded. “Gods can get what they want, when they want it. If you’ve never learned your limits, you’re bound to have less self-discipline, less control over your emotions…”
“Athena seems in control of her emotions,” Iona considered, before hastily adding. “ I mean, it seems like she is, from what I’ve read. In books.”
“Well, I don’t know her personally of course, but I can imagine, considering she has wisdom on her side, that she would be the more sensible one of the Greek pantheon,” Linos lowered his voice conspiritually. “I have made an offering to her on occasion. But you’d best not tell the Empress about that.”
Iona flashed him a grin. “My lips are sealed.” She rose from her chair then. “I’d better get going. Mom’s waiting for me with lunch.” She headed for the door at a trot. “Thanks, Linos.”
“You’re very welcome,” her teacher smiled as he watched her leave his classroom.
“You wanna come over and have lunch?”
Thalia shot her friend a look. “You mean, with Xena and the brats?”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “You like Caspar.”
“Yeah, that’s one out of four.”
“Please?” The warrior tried. “I’ve accepted you and Xena will never be the best of friends, but I really don’t want to be tiptoeing around all the time.”
“You know my birthday’s coming up, right?” Gabrielle continued. “I want you and some of our friends to be there and I want Xena to be there. I don’t want to worry about either one of you starting a fight.”
“All right, all right…” Thalia muttered. “I’ll come to lunch and practice behaving. Okay?”
Gabrielle flashed her a radiant smile. “You’re the best.”
“I let you get away with far too much,” Thalia grumbled, drawing a wicked chuckle out of her friend. “So you’re uhm…” she subtly tried to change the subject. “You’re planning a party, huh?”
“Just looking for a good excuse to eat cake,” Gabrielle corrected her with a grin. “And it’s not really a party or anything. I was thinking of inviting some people over, sit out in the garden a bit if the weather’s nice. It’s not a big deal, I don’t want to blow it all out of proportion.”
They entered the hallway and stopped as Niobe passed by. Her face was contorted in utter concentration as she tried not drop the large plate she was carrying, filled with a variety of breads.
Thalia frowned. “Where’s she going?”
Niobe looked up at the sound of the familiar voice. Which, it turned out, was not a wise thing to do. Her foot got caught under the edge of a carpet and she stumbled, sending both tray and contents flying up into the air.
Gabrielle reacted on impulse, diving forward and managing to catch the tray just before it hit the ground. She rolled onto her back, hopped onto her feet again and hastily extended the tray in front of her to catch most of the bread. One slice had gained a bit too much speed however, but she just managed to get the heel of her boot under it and balance it. The last slice headed straight for her face and she did the only thing she could think of on such short notice and caught it in her teeth.
Xena choose exactly this moment to enter the hallway on her way back to the kitchen in search of more supplies. She stopped, then studied the warrior for a moment. “You realize you’ll have to eat that piece now, don’t ya?”
Gabrielle shot her a foul look.
Xena turned her back on the warrior and continued on her way with a smirk. “Carry that into the garden, would you? We’re having a picnic.
“Hrmph!” Gabrielle muffled around the bread, rolling her eyes at the Empress.
“Good!” Niobe chortled meanwhile, clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Again!”
“Yeah, again!” Thalia agreed wholeheartedly.
Gabrielle shook her head with a sigh, then booted the slice she was balancing up, neatly adding it to the tray. She balanced the tray on one hand, using her free one to remove the slice of bread held in her mouth. “Don’t make fun of me.”
“That would make a pretty decent circus act” Thalia continued on obliviously, as she strolled over, Niobe skipping along behind her.
“Thalia,” her friend growled a warning.
“Think you can do that dangling from a trapeze?”
An even lower growl. “Thalia.”
“All right, shutting up,” the redhead flashed her a wicked smile, allowing Gabrielle to enter the garden first. “Hey, kid?” She directed a whisper to Niobe.
Big brown eyes blinked up at her inquisitively.
“Next time, carry the pottery, okay?”
“Potry,” Niobe nodded seriously, then giggled. “Good.”
The picnic turned out pretty okay, Thalia decided as she leaned back on her hands and enjoyed the warmth of the sun shining on her face. She didn’t have this great affection for kids, like Gabrielle did, but Caspar wasn’t too bad. For an eight year old anyway. He was calm, and you could have a sensible conversation with him. Niobe was a lot more rambunctious, but she and the toddler had sort of bonded during the whole bread catching incident moments before.
Iona, she kept her distance from. Whether that was because the child was part Xena or because she was part god, Thalia wasn’t sure. She just knew the kid made her feel weird somehow. Iona had a certain presence, like her mother did, which could make you feel itchy and uncomfortable. She could completely derail your line of thought with a single piercing look.
At least, she’d derailed Thalia’s line of thinking several times. Gabrielle didn’t seem affected in the slightest by either the Empress or her offspring. The warrior was lying on her back with her eyes closed, simply enjoying the nice afternoon, completely relaxed. But then again, Gabrielle had a presence of her own, didn’t she? A ‘I might seem nice and relaxed, but make one wrong move and I’ll take you head off’ kinda presence. Thalia had known Gabrielle too long to be bothered by that now, but still…
It probably had to do with power, Thalia decided as she popped an olive into her mouth. They all had it. Gabrielle could kick butt, Xena could order someone to kick butt, and the little brat could make a pair of boots fly and kick butt.
“What are you thinking about?” Caspar’s voice broke into her thoughts, the boy having noticed the redhead’s thoughtful look.
“Butts,” Thalia stated pensively. “And how I don’t kick enough of ‘m.”
Caspar considered this statement seriously for a moment. “It’s not nice kicking people.”
“No,” Thalia agreed. “But it gets you places.”
“True,” the boy had to admit. He thought a moment before continuing. “But I guess you have to ask yourself whether you want to get places. ‘Cause every time you’ll get to some new place, you’ll have to kick more people. ‘Cause they won’t know you can yet.”
Thalia mulled this over for a moment, then glanced down at the boy sitting next to her. “You’re a really bright kid, ya know that?”
Caspar smiled at this, something he didn’t do often these days. “Thank you.”
“Your friend seems to be getting along with Caspar well,” Xena murmured as she stretched out next to Gabrielle on the grass.
Gabrielle peeked open an eye and darted a look at the two, then closed the eye again and resumed her sunbathing. “Good. For both of them, I think.”
“I guess,” Xena agreed, reaching for a grape and offering it to the warrior, who accepted it with a smile.
The Empress studied Gabrielle for another moment, seeming a touch hesitant. “I uhm… It’s actually good you came to lunch, ‘cause there were two things I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Well,” Xena rolled a grape between her thumb and forefinger. “You know that theatre near the acropolis gets reopened tomorrow…”
“Course I know,” Gabrielle murmured. “It’s one of the first tangible reforms since the installment of the council. Most of the council members will be there. Thalia, Theron and his wife, Alyssa and her boyfriend. I heard even Odell managed to find a date.” A smirk. “I bet it cost him dearly. I have the feeling Odell’s dates don’t come cheap.”
Xena managed a slightly nervous chuckle. “Right.” A pause. “I uhm… I was actually thinking of going.”
A green eye popped open and looked up at her.
“You know I’m not really into plays and stuff,” the Empress hastily went on. “But I felt I should,… ya know, show I’m behind the changes that are being made. And it’s been a while since I made a public appearance. Think it’s about time.” Xena waved a hand at the empty air in a supposedly negligent gesture. “I just thought I should tell, ‘cause it might get odd with the council being there too. I don’t wanna cause a riot at an event that must be important to you.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you.”
“Yeah well,” Xena flashed her a grin. “You know me…”
A moment of silence fell, until Xena finally drew in a breath. “You uhm…” she cleared her throat. “You got a date?”
“I don’t know,” Gabrielle retorted, searching the blue eyes above her. “Do I?”
Xena gazed at her another moment, then dropped her eyes a touch shyly. “It uhm,” she glanced back up again. “It’d be the first time we’d be seen in public. Together.”
“After our make out session in the middle of the Agora, you mean?” Gabrielle’s fingers found the Empress’s. “Compared to that, going to a play together shouldn’t cause that big of a stir, right?”
“You got a point there,” Xena had to admit. “But still… This is Athens.”
Gabrielle considered this for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t care much what Athens thinks.” She gently entwined her fingers with Xena’s. “Pick me up at eight?”
A dazzling smile was her response. “You got it.”
“Good,” Gabrielle smiled back, then squeezed Xena’s hand gently before letting go. She rose back to her feet and dusted some bits of grass off her tunic. “I should be getting back to the council meeting. Recess is over.”
Behind her Thalia got up as well. “Time flies when you’re…” A pause. “Well, it just flies.”
Xena spared a look for the redhead, then turned back at Gabrielle. “Will you be there for dinner tonight?”
The warrior released a breath. “I hope so.”
“She’ll be there,” Thalia corrected as she strolled over. “Fay asked me to be home for dinner, so the meeting can’t last too long.” She darted a look at Gabrielle. “I have this awful feeling she’s got another basket weaver lined up for me to meet.”
Gabrielle grinned at her wickedly.
“You’re so supportive,” Thalia smacked a hand against the warrior’s forehead, as she headed back towards the palace.
Gabrielle chuckled, then wiggled her fingers at Xena and the kids. “See you tonight, guys.”
She started after Thalia, then suddenly remembered something and turned back around. “Hey, what was the other thing?”
Xena blinked at her. “Huh?”
“The other thing,” the warrior repeated. “You said there were two things you needed to talk to me about.”
“Ow, that, yeah… uhm…,” Xena stumbled uncharacteristically. “It is just uhm…”
“Empress?” Benitor took this moment to step into the garden, then bowed politely. “I’m sorry to intervene, Empress, but Lady Cleopatra’s carriage just rode into the courtyard.”
Gabrielle’s eyes widened as she looked from Xena to the servant and then back again. “What?!”
“What is it about that woman? Is her own country not big enough for her ego?” Thalia chuckled, but remained prudently quiet as Gabrielle continued on with her tirade. “The last time I came this close…” The warrior held her fingers a millimeter apart. “…to removing her brain through her nose with a pair of tweezers.” She continued in a mutter. “Wouldn’t have taken long, with the amount of brain cells she’s got.”
“Sooooo…” Thalia drawled. “I’m guessing you don’t like the Egyptian regent much.”
“And Xena didn’t even tell me about it! She just invited that stupid brainless puddle of mascara and kept it secret from me!” Gabrielle growled. “I don’t even get how that woman ever got to be a regent.” A pause, then she continued sarcastically. “No, scrap that, of course I know. Sleeping around gets you places.”
“You know, I think the Empress was nearly as surprised as you were,” Thalia tried. “I mean, she didn’t start swearing in three different languages, but… I heard her instruct Benitor to get a room ready and inform the kitchen and everything. I mean, if she’d invited the regent, don’t you think that would’ve been taken care of already?”
“You know, I bet those breasts aren’t even real,” Gabrielle stated, completely stuck in her own little bit of reality.
“And how would you know?” The redhead inquired innocently.
“I wouldn’t,” the warrior muttered, slamming open a door, nearly shattering the glass inset. “I bet Xena would though.”
Thalia shot a glance sideways, studying her friend, then a smirk edged onto her face. “You’re jealous.”
“I am not jealous,” Gabrielle shot back, grabbing onto the doorframe as it bounced back off the wall and slamming it shut behind her.
“Yes, you are,” the redhead’s eyes twinkled. “You are jealous.”
Gabrielle stopped abruptly and turned around, pointing a threatening finger at her friend. “I am not jealous,” she managed between gritted teeth, before swirling back around.
Thalia watched her storm off, then she laughed wickedly. “Oh, this is going to be fun.” She rubbed her hands together expectantly. “This is going to be so much fun.”
“Cleo,” the Empress smiled and inclined her head a bit as the Egyptian regent strode in, flanked by a dozen scantily clad men.
“Xena,” Cleopatra responded silkily, before waving a negligent hand at her entourage, who immediately proceeded to gather the regent’s belongings and carry them up the stairs towards the guest chambers. “Nice seeing you again.”
“Yes, charming, but… slightly unexpected.” Xena folded her hands behind her back. “I don’t remember sending you an invite?”
Cleopatra continued forward, her robes swooshing softly as they slid over the marble tiles. “I don’t remember receiving one, so I think it’s safe to assume there’s nothing wrong with your memory.” She stopped directly in front of Xena. “Though, considering other recent… developments, that could be debated.”
“Don’t start,” Xena instructed in a seemingly pleasant voice.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Cleopatra drawled, then she lifted a hand and produced another careless wave. This brought forth two pairs of servants, each pair carrying a large gold chest. “I brought you something.” The first chest was placed down and the servants opened it, revealing a healthy load of gold bars. “These are from a new goldmine near Philea, in the south.”
“Nice,” Xena murmured, seemingly not too impressed.
“Yes, I already expected you’d be overjoyed,” Cleo stated sarcastically. “I think you’ll find this even better though.”
The second chest was opened, and Xena’s eyes immediately lit up at the sight of an array of finely crafted weaponry. “Oh! Toys!”
Cleopatra rolled her eyes. “So predictable.”
Xena by now had already pounced on the chest and was investigating its content, pulling out a bow and drawing back the string experimentally. She whistled under her breath. “These are great.”
“New design, made of different layers of wood or something. My military advisor explained it all to me, but I wasn’t really paying attention. Hardly my field of interest.”
“I know,” Xena picked up a set of finely crafted daggers and started juggling. “Weaponry isn’t your type of gift.” She negligently tossed one of the daggers to her right, the weapon ending stuck in the wall between two whispering guards, who hastily snapped to attention. “And you don’t hand out gifts just for the fun of it. That…” She pointed to the chest filled with gold. “…is to show me you’ve got money, and you’re still an important ally.” A wave towards the weaponry, accompanied by a questioning eyebrow. “And this…?”
“…is to show you, you’ve got trouble.” Cleopatra finished for her.
Xena considered this for a moment. “With you?”
Cleo snorted. “Yes. But not that kind of trouble. If I were looking for a fight with you, I wouldn’t be foolish enough to hand you the weapons.” The regent took a step closer, coming within inches of the Empress. “Besides,” she dropped her voice to a whisper. “We’ve always managed to sort out our differences in a more… social way.”
Xena held her gaze for a moment, steadily, then she turned away and started towards her office. “Two questions,” she stated, expecting Cleopatra to follow her, which the regent did. “Why am I in trouble with you? And why am I in trouble with whomever else?”
“Same reason,” the Egyptian regent stated. “Your new advisor. And the changes she’s made.”
“We’ve made,” Xena corrected her.
“See, that is exactly what I mean,” Cleopatra gracefully lifted up a well-manicured hand. “You never used to be a ‘we’, Xena. You used to be independent, strong…”
“You want me to prove to you I’m still strong?” The Empress shot her a fake smile. “‘Cause I can, ya know?”
“I’m not talking about muscles. Physically…” Brown eyes took a moment to study the empress’s body, head to toe. “… there’s clearly nothing wrong with you.”
Xena shot her a bored look.
“I’m talking about your strengths as a ruler and a leader,” the Egyptian regent continued. “You used to be willing to sacrifice everything to keep your empire secure. You were hard, merciless, unreadable. Now… Now, you’re just human.”
“I’ve always been human.” Xena stated, as she pushed open the door to her study.
“So have I,” Cleo responded easily. “But my people believe I’m a god. If they for one moment believed I was a human, just like them, my reign would end.” The regent settled herself on a sofa, crossing her legs. “I’m worried that, now that the world knows you have a family, that you are mortal, your status as ruler of the world is under threat.”
Xena crossed her arms. “And therefore, so is your position, right?”
Cleopatra chuckled softly. “Humans are selfish, Xena. Even divine ones.”
She leaned forward a bit then, locking eyes with the Empress. “Alti prophesized Gabrielle would bring your Empire to its knees. Now you know I wasn’t a big fan of that…” Cleo made an ugly face and shivered. “But she wasn’t wrong about any of the other things. Why would she be wrong about this?”
“Is that why you’re here, then? To warn me about Gabrielle?” Xena circled her desk and dropped into her chair, propping her feet up on the desk’s surface. “‘Cause if you did, then you’ve really wasted your time. And, what’s worse, mine.”
Cleopatra glared at the Empress a moment, then slowly rose to her feet. “I’ve come here accompanied by a legion of my best charioteers.” A pause. “I intend to go back to Egypt without them.”
A dark eyebrow rose in question.
“I have this feeling you’re going to need them.” Cleo continued, then turned towards the door. “I see now though it was a bad idea for me to come. If this is the way we communicate now… I will gather my things.” The regent walked to the door and reached for the doorknob…
A tiny smirk appeared on the Egyptian’s visage, but it disappeared just as quickly.
“I…” Xena drew in a breath and squared her shoulders a little. Oh, how she hated apologies. “I appreciate your loyalty,” she conceded. “You’re right if you’re trying to say I’ve been… preoccupied. If I hadn’t been I would have contacted you weeks ago and asked you to come here, to talk about… things.”
The Egyptian regent turned around, waiting patiently for Xena to finish.
“I’d like you to stay. Like I said, we have lots to discuss. And I’d like you to meet the council… and my daughter.”
A smile tugged at the corner of Cleopatra’s lips. “Meeting your offspring is more of a reason for me to leave.”
“Hey!” Xena feigned insult. “Don’t tell me you’re scared of a little girl, divine one.”
“Of course I am,” Cleopatra admitted easily. “This little girl is a teenage version of you with godly powers.”
Xena chuckled. “You have a point there.” She circled her desk, then offered Cleo her arm. “Shall I escort you to your room?”
Cleopatra produced a sultry smile. “Oh, please do.”
Cleopatra closed the door her chambers behind her, slightly miffed at Xena’s hasty departure. “Love is such an obnoxious emotion.”
“My Queen?” One of her servants inquired hesitantly.
Cleopatra shushed him with a disdainful wave of her hand. “Is my bath ready?”
“Of course, my Queen.” The servant hastily stepped aside and allowed her passage to the bathroom. “Have I ever disappointed you?”
“As a favor to you, I will not answer that question,” Cleo stated, passing him by without sparing him a glance.
Two girls were in the bath chamber as she entered, one pouring the last urn of warmed milk into the tub, the other spreading rose petals on the gently moving surface. As Cleopatra entered, they hastily dropped their eyes in respect. “Leave,” the regent simply ordered, and the girls hastily exited the chamber, closing the door behind them.
Alone at last, Cleo drew in a heavy breath and then released it again.
“You seem tense,” a voice drifted up from an area of the room behind her, cast in shadow. “Anything I can do?”
A smile tugged at the regent’s lips. “So… You beat me here.”
“Well…” Odilon emerged into the light, stepping up behind her. “You’d move a lot faster without the golden boat, the dozen servants and the small army you decided to bring.” He reached over and gently unbuttoned the back of Cleopatra’s dress.
“I like to travel in style,” Cleopatra countered, shifting slightly and letting the dress slip off her shoulders and fall onto the ground. She stepped free of the garment and gracefully headed for the bath.
“My dear, even if you were traveling across a muddy path, barefoot and dressed in rags, you’d have style.” Odilon watched her walk away with a smirk. “And you know it.”
Cleopatra laughed softly, as she let herself sink into her milk bath. She looked up and finally actually faced her companion. “It’s been too long.”
“It’s hard to stay in touch when you’re in Chin,” Odilon stated, settling down on the edge of the tub. “I did send presents.”
“If you hadn’t, I might not have come this quickly.”
“You’re saying you wouldn’t have come over just ‘cause I asked nicely?” the spy feigned insult. “You’re such a material girl.”
Cleo produced a wicked smile, then it ebbed away a bit as she spotted a large bruising on his face. “Ah, I see you’ve met her.”
“Oh yeah,” Odilon gently touched the spot, wincing. “Up close and very, very personal.”
“She’s a pain,” Cleo said in hate-filled voice.
“No,” the spy denied calmly. “She causes it. Which is exactly our problem.”
The Egyptian shook her head. “I do not get what Xena sees in her.”
“Xena sees many things in her. Herself, her younger brother, Lao Ma…” Odilon scooped up some of the milk and then let it trickle back down his fingers. “Perhaps… some sort of redemption.”
Cleopatra huffed out a breath “Redemption? For what? She came, she killed, she conquered. It’s what conquerors do.”
Odilon managed a faint smile. “Xena is a complex woman.”
“Only because she wants to be,” the Egyptian countered. “You and I both know that every time that woman falls in love, things go dreadfully wrong. Yet time and time again she just gives her heart away to the first democratic dimwit with murderous tendencies that crosses her path.”
“Well, at least she is consistent.”
“Ha ha,” Cleo drawled, not amused. “Please tell me you have a plan to get rid of this new pest. I’m assuming assassination isn’t an option with her?”
“Wouldn’t be an option anyway. Xena’d kill me and I prefer me alive.” Odilon stated. “Besides, solving problems by beheading has always been Xena’s kinda thing. Very efficient, not to mention effective, but… I handle things more subtly. You’d be amazed what a little tactful prodding can do.”
“And what’s my role in this then?” Cleo leaned back, watching him with a mixture of arrogance and curiosity. “I’m guessing you didn’t ask me here for my tactful disposition.”
“Oh no, definitely not.” Odilon chuckled. “I’ll handle the tactful bits. You can do the prodding.”
Cleopatra considered this a moment. “Well, I do like to prod.” A sultry smile. “And if I remember correctly, we make a great team.”
“Exactly,” Odilon leaned a bit closer to her, dropping his voice. “Trust me, if we play this right, in a week or two, Gabrielle will no longer be an issue.”
Thalia’s voice drew Gabrielle from her daydreaming. It’d been more of a day nightmare actually, so she wasn’t too bothered by that. “Sorry. What?”
“Man, you’re really out of it,” her friend chuckled, amused. “You’ve been staring ahead of yourself with that murderous look in your eyes the entire afternoon. You totally freaked out Odell. You should get jealous more often.”
“I’m not jealous,” was the expected answer through gritted teeth.
“Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot. You just have a deep scorching hatred for Cleo cause she used to smooch with Xena. That’s a totally different emotion.”
The warrior shot the redhead a vile look. “I hope Fay has a nice basket weaver waiting for you.”
“Oh, you’re so mean,” Thalia grinned, not even the thought of another disastrous blind date able to ruin her good mood. She wiggled her fingers at her friend as she headed for the door. “Bye.”
Gabrielle growled something inaudible after her, but then swirled around and strode off in the opposite direction. She’d headed in the direction of her room. She’d already send word to the cook that she’d have dinner in her room instead of joining the others in the dining room.
It felt a little like defeat. Letting herself be scared off by Xena’s buddies. But.. She just felt incapable of being polite to Cleopatra. And facing Odilon after the events of this morning…
He was screwing everything up. Things had been so nice. With her and Xena. With the kids. For a little while there, she’d almost felt… normal. She’d had a good job, a relationship. Okay, so she was dating the Empress, and her job was helping her to rule the world… but still, fairly normal…
And then that Odilon fellow had showed up. And now The Queen of the Null too. Gabrielle gritted her teeth. She felt all this… rage. Rage she couldn’t quite justify. And it was making her hands twitch. Having dinner with them there would just turn out ugly. There would probably be casualties. Fun, but in the longer run probably a bad idea. A nice long practice session in the gym after dinner seemed a wiser thought.
Deep in thought she turned a corner, then only just managed to stop in time to avoid from crashing into a figure standing in the corridor.
“Megan?” The warrior frowned at the older council member. “What are you doing here? I though you went home?”
“You need to be careful,” Megan said in her calm, calculated voice.
“Well, I… I’m sorry about bumping into you,” Gabrielle apologized. “I was just thinking and…”
“I mean of him,” the older woman corrected.
Gabrielle blinked. “Him? Odilon?”
A nod. “He doesn’t like you much. He’ll try to get rid of you. I’d rather that didn’t happen.” Megan circled around her and continued on her way. “Be careful.”
Gabrielle’s eyes followed the older woman as she turned the corner, then she faced forward again with a shake of her head. “Okaaay…,” she muttered. “That was weird.”
Odilon sighed dramatically, darting a foul look at the girl skipping along side him. Why had he promised after dinner to accompany this girl back to her room again? Must have been his euphoria over the absence of a certain blonde… “It’s bad enough you took to Xena’s nickname for me, but to suddenly include me in this mixed up family of yours is crossing the line, young lady.”
“You are so obviously related,” the spy grumbled under his breath.
“People keep saying that,” Iona said. “But if it’s so obvious, how come no one noticed?”
Odilon considered this question seriously for a moment. “Well,” he finally started. “First off, Xena is a genius.”
“So am I. All the more reason to notice the connection.”
Odilon rolled his eyes. “That and the complete lack of modesty.”
“Modesty is for people who believe they might fail,” Iona stated factually. “So that later on when they screwed everything up, they can point back and say it’s not their fault.”
Odilon chuckled. “A lesson from Xena, clearly. Not the ever modest Pyrron.”
Blue eyes darted up at him, then hastily dropped to the ground.
“I guess no one ever noticed,” Odilon continued on, obliviously, “because there was no reason to. Hardly anyone knew Xena had a child before, and the thought of someone like her being a mother… Well, I don’t think any Athenian would come up with such an idea. Her officers, the people here in the palace… Not even they would have imagined that, and they saw her practically every day. I mean, if you don’t know Xena, you wouldn’t consider her the motherly type.”
“You know her,” Iona murmured, her thoughts still not fully focused on the subject at hand. “But you didn’t know about me either.”
“True,” the spy folded his hands behind his back. “Such a brilliant puzzle, and I didn’t even see the pieces scattered around.” He cocked his head a fraction, pensively. “I should have, considering my line of work, but… Xena and I never kept secrets from each other. I guess I just assumed if there was something to know, she’d tell me. So I never looked.”
Iona looked up at him, her curiosity drawing her back to the present. “Are you mad at her? For not telling?”
Odilon considered this, but only for a moment. “No,” he replied then. “It was smart of her not to. I might have done something rash, trying to protect her.”
Dark brows furrowed. “From me?”
“Oh yeah,” the spy smirked. “Xena has a bad history when it comes to kids. Especially her own. All sense goes flying out the window and all that’s left is pure, raw emotions. And there’s nothing more dangerous than emotions.”
They walked on for a moment, side by side, crossing the hallway and entering the south wing of the castle. “What happened to him?” Iona finally spoke up, as they stopped outside the door to Xena’s rooms.
“To her son. To… to my brother? He died, right?”
Odilon glanced down at her for a moment, then faced forward again, drawing in a deep breath. “Yes. He did.”
The spy shook his head. “I’m not sure I should be the one to tell you.”
“You want me to ask mom?”
“No,” Odilon immediately responded. “Don’t do that. She… she doesn’t like to talk about it.”
“Who’s going to tell me then?” Iona crossed her arms and shot the man a look. “I have a right to know, don’t I? He’s my family too.”
“He’s nobody’s family anymore,” Odilon countered, his voice lowered and nearing anger. “He’s dead. The dead are of no consequence. They’re best left forgotten.”
Iona stared a him for another moment, then she turned and opened the door, slamming it shut behind her.
“No!” The redhead swirled around, pointing an angry finger at Fay, who’s just followed her out the door. “No bricklayer, no basket weaver, no Pompeian glass engraver… Okay?!”
“But dear,” Fay called after her. “He’s really a very sweet guy…”
“He could be made of pure honey, and I still wouldn’t be interested,” Thalia snapped back. “I’m not looking for anybody. Why can’t you get your head wrapped around that idea?!” The redhead drew in a breath and then released it again, searching for some semblance of calm. “Look, you just go back inside and have fun listening to him explain the intricate process of creating Pompeian glass and how that’s so totally different from Roman glass and I’ll see you some time tonight, okay?”
Without waiting for an answer she turned around again and strode out of the garden and onto the street. She kept up the pace until she was sure Fay wasn’t coming after her, then she released a deep sigh, lifting a hand and rubbing her eyes tiredly. “I really have to get out of that house,” she murmured to herself, as she turned another corner and walked onto the agora.
The agora was bustling with activity, even this late at night. There were a few market stalls still open, selling a variety of snacks. A small crowd had gathered around a young fire breather, whose large clouds of fire lit up the sky. Nearby an older man stood behind a canvas, painting the scene.
Thalia slipped through the crowds, until she came to a small tavern in the corner of the square. She stepped inside, changing the sounds outside for low chatter and the clanging of mugs.
“T!” A voice called out to her and she looked at the young woman behind the bar, who waved back at her. She managed a smile, then wormed her way through the thick crowd. The woman meanwhile had shooed a member of her clientele off his stool and offered it to Thalia with a generous wave of her hand.
The redhead inclined her head a little as a sign of gratitude. “Thanks, Cassandra.”
“As an ex-employee, you get the best seat in the house, sugah,” the woman winked at her. “How ya doin?”
In response Thalia just uttered a guttural sound of dismay and hid her face in her hands.
“That bad eh?” Cassandra patted her friend on the head. “I’ll go get you my favorite medicine. Be right back.”
Moments later a large glass filled with a brightly pink liquid was placed in front of her. “And remember now, all in one go.”
“Ha!” Thalia snorted, shooting the woman a glance. “You remember what happened the last time I did that?”
“Eh, ya got problems? Puke ‘m out, is what I say.” Cassandra flashed her a wicked grin, then took off to help some of the other costumers.
Thalia stared at her drink for a moment, then just gave in and pulled it closer, taking a healthy sip. She winced as the alcohol burned sharply in the back of her throat. “Ugh.”
“I was thinking of ordering one of those,” a voice next to her commented. “But I think I just changed my mind.”
Thalia turned to look at the man sitting on the stool beside her. He seemed about her age, maybe a little younger. His hair was dark and reached down to his shoulders. He wore a pale blue shirt, which seemed to be made of some fancy material, like silk. On top of it he wore a well-cut leather vest. An odd guest, Thalia decided, since her old tavern didn’t attract many handsome, wealthy young men. “Well, it doesn’t taste nice,” Thalia responded to his comment. “But if you want to forget stuff, nothing matches this.” She wiggled the glass at him, then took another sip.
“Well, in that case…” He pushed his mug of ale aside a bit. “ Can I try?”
“Sure,” Thalia shrugged, then handed him her glass and watched him take a sip. A laugh escaped her as his eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets and he grasped for his throat with one hand, reaching for his mug of ale with the other. He quickly gulped down his remaining ale. “Great Athena!” he gasped for air. “What do you wanna do, kill me?!”
The redhead continued laughing. “Hey, it made you forget stuff there for a moment, didn’t it?”
“Well, for a moment there, when I thought I was dying.”
Thalia managed a half grin. “Well, sometimes forgetting is worth a near death experience.”
Her companion released a breath. “True.” He murmured, twirling his mug between his fingers for a moment, before placing it back on the bar. “So very true.”
Thalia studied his profile for a moment. An intriguing guy, this was. There was something… familiar about him, but Thalia couldn’t come up with what that something was. She was sure she hadn’t met him before. She’d have remembered meeting him.
The young man looked up and their eyes met. Thalia could see a range of emotions there, from wry amusement to confusion to… a veiled fear. He had a story to tell. And though Thalia had never shared Gabrielle’s fondness for stories, this was one she was interested in finding out more about. “Can I buy you a drink?” she offered. “To make up for nearly killing you and all?”
A twinkle entered the blue eyes across from her, chasing away the variety of emotions for a while. “I’d like that.”
Gabrielle finished her set of push-ups, then gracefully hopped back to her feet. Breathing heavily, she walked over to a wooden practice dummy attached to the wall. It was a Chinese contraption by origin, wooden poles were sticking out of it at various heights to allow her to practice her blocking and hitting.
She’d hoped the exercise would calm her, that it’d help her get all the rage out of her system. Normally it did. But not this time. Gabrielle smacked her upper arm against a wooden pole at eyelevel, then slammed her elbow into a similar one on her left.
One thing between her and Xena hadn’t changed in these last months. That woman could still confuse the Hades out of her. Gabrielle performed a perfect roundhouse kick, making the wall shiver. She didn’t know much about Odilon yet, but it was clear enough the guy was a manipulative self-righteous meddler. And Cleopatra… The warrior launched into a series of punches. Of course, the Egyptian regent was a powerful ally. So it was only logical Xena had to spend time with her. A kick. Have dinner with her. Another. And escort her to her room.
With a growl Gabrielle ran forward, straight up the wood. She delivered a vicious kick, causing one of the wooden poles to break loose and fly into the air. Gabrielle flipped back, landed, snapped the loosened bit of wood from the air and in one fluid motion launched it towards the door.
The wooden spike only just passed by Cleopatra’s ear before pinning itself into to door with a resounding thud. The Egyptian glanced at the wooden spike, then turned towards Gabrielle. “I thought we could have a sensible conversation. But perhaps I should have brought my bodyguards with me after all.”
Gabrielle crossed her arms. “If I wanted you dead, you’d be dead. Guards or no guards.”
“A reassuring thought,” the Egyptian regent drawled, as she gracefully strode further into the room.
“What do you want?”
A small laugh escaped the regent. “Since we haven’t seen each other since my arrival, I have come to say hello.” She circled the warrior, studying her calmly. “Perhaps tossing sticks at a newcomer’s head is standard procedure in the peasant village you come from, but in the higher circles a polite welcome is more appreciated.”
Gabrielle shot her a bored look. “In this specific case, I prefer sticks.”
Another laugh, this one even more unpleasant. “You know, it’s strange we have such a dislike of each other. Since we are such similar creatures. But then again, perhaps that is the cause of the dislike.”
The warrior couldn’t suppress a disbelieving snort. “Similar? You and me?” She took a few steps closer, facing off against the regent. Muscles, power and sweat versus the Egyptian’s delicate features, graceful movements and rose scented perfume. “In what way are we alike?”
“You have discovered, as I did before, that there is one power greater than any physical or mental power on this earth.” Cleopatra leaned even closer, dropping her voice a fraction. “Seduction. And you’ve used it to great advantage, I have to admit. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone go from outcast to advisor in so short a time.” A smirk. “Well done.”
Gabrielle narrowed her eyes dangerously.
“Though, admittedly, Xena is an easy target,” Cleopatra continued, seemingly oblivious. “You just have to know which buttons to push and then you have her. Body and soul.” The dark eyes twinkled. “The body is particularly interesting.”
The air was pushed out of the regent’s lungs as the flat palm of Gabrielle’s hand impacted harshly with her forehead. Cleopatra staggered back, but was unable to keep upright, crashing to the ground. “Don’t talk about her like that.” Cleopatra turned to meet flashing green eyes. “Xena is NOT a target.” Gabrielle knelt down next to the regent. “But if she were a target, she’d be MY target. So you stay the Hades away from her.”
Dark eyes followed the blonde in amusement as she stood and headed for the door. “Jealous, are we?”
In response Gabrielle pulled the wooden spike out of the door and flung it in Cleopatra’s direction a second time. This time the wood embedded itself just in front of the regent’s feet. “I am NOT jealous!” The warrior snapped, before storming out of the room and slamming the door shut behind her.
Caspar carefully covered the roots of the plant he placed on his mother’s grave, then took a step back and observed his work. “What do you think?”
“Pwetty,” Niobe responded as she toddled up next to him, leaning against her older brother’s leg. “I make daddy a piture.” She held the drawing up for her brother to see. It was a bright picture, entirely drawn with a yellow crayon, Niobe’s favorite color. “Good?”
“Very good.” Caspar managed a smile for her.
Niobe beamed back at him, then went over to her father’s gravestone and leaned the picture she’d made against it.
Hidden from sight by the shadows of the trees, a figure observed them silently.
Caspar watched his sister as she mumbled something to the stones, then he held out his hand. “Come on. It’s time to go to bed.”
“Awwwww,” Niobe turned around, poking her lower lip out in a quite adorable pout. “Not tiyed.”
Caspar just shot her a look, an uncanny mimicry of his father.
“Pah,” Niobe looked unhappy, but waggled back over and took her brothers hand and allowed him to lead her back towards the palace.
Silence fell. When the two children had disappeared from sight, it was broken once again by soft footfalls. Iona emerged from the shadows, her eyes flicking in the direction that Caspar and Niobe had gone to. She tiptoed into the clearing, careful not to make a sound. When she decided they really couldn’t hear her anymore she blew out a breath.
A moment, then her eyes tracked to the two stones standing side by side, dimly illuminated by the full moon. “I uhm…” Her voice sounded loud, even though she was whispering. “I didn’t bring you flowers or anything. Caspar probably wouldn’t want me digging up his nicely lined up daisies and stuff. Not that I care what he wants, of course…” she hastily added, for good measure. “I just…” A breath. “I just wanted to say hi, I guess. I know I haven’t talked to you, since… you know…”
She swallowed, trying to force the lump from her throat. “I miss you.” She finally managed in a thick voice. “When you were here, everything was simple. Now… Sometimes, I don’t know where I belong anymore. I want to know, but no one will tell me. And… And then I run into talking wells and everything gets even more mixed up. And I can’t tell Xena about it, ‘cause she’ll get mad and…” Iona sniffled, rubbing at her eyes in frustration. “I wish…” She carefully took a step closer, reaching out to the stone. “I wish you were still my dad.”
“What are you doing?”
The voice behind her startled her, and she spun around to see Caspar standing there. “I was just…” She stuttered.
“Get away!” Caspar circled around her, coming to stand between Iona and the gravestones. His eyes narrowed dangerously at her. “You’re not supposed to be here. You’ll mess everything up.”
“I wasn’t,” Iona countered weakly, stepping back into the shadows so the boy wouldn’t see her tears. “I was just talking…”
Caspar produced a sarcastic laugh, a sound which didn’t fit his gentle nature. “Why?” He turned away from her and back to the gravestones, kneeling down and making sure his plants were as they’d left them. “They’re not your parents, are they? You don’t belong here.”
Iona stared ahead of herself numbly for a moment, then she turned away from Caspar. “No. I guess, I don’t.” She murmured, before making her way back towards the palace.
Iona looked up with red-rimmed eyes from her scrunched up position in the corner of her bed. “Oh, it’s you.” She wiped a hand at her eyes and straightened up.
“Yes, it is,” Athena walked over and sat down on the bed next to her. “Is something wrong?”
Iona glanced up at her aunt for a moment, wondering what she should and shouldn’t tell her. “Everything is just…” A breath. “…just complicated. That’s all.”
Athena observed her quietly, patiently waiting for her to continue.
“I just feel…” Iona searched for words. “I mean, I can’t tell mom about you. ‘Cause she doesn’t like you. And she doesn’t like me using my powers. Little as they are,” she added in a mutter.
“It’s hard when people don’t understand,” Athena said, understandingly “Being divine… Not a lot of people understand the burden that is. You might look the same, but you are different. It can get lonely, sometimes.”
“Lonely,” Iona repeated with a nod. “Yeah…”
“If you want to talk to your mother,” Athena advised. “You need to bring your problem down to the essentials. You need to tell her how you feel, without saying why you’re feeling it. Xena might not understand your divinity, but she understands loneliness.”
Iona considered this a moment, then looked up at the goddess. “Thanks. I’ll do that.” A pause. “You’re pretty smart, ya know?”
Athena chuckled. “It comes with the job.”
Iona smiled back, then the smile faded a bit, as she considered whether to ask another question. She finally decided she should. “Can I ask you something else?”
“Sure.” Athena folded her hands.
“When… When we went to that island. You were talking to Scathach and I went for a walk.”
“I remember,” the goddess said.
“Well, there was this well there, you see. It… It spoke to me.”
Athena’s eyes widened a trifle, but only for a moment. “Really?” She replied, in a calm and casually interested voice. “What did it say?”
“It said I was the one,” Iona muttered, a trifle embarrassed at how silly it all sounded. “And that he would come for me and I would lose. It didn’t say which one I was or who he was or what I’d lose.” A sigh. “It was kinda confusing.”
Athena gazed at her niece for a moment, then managed a smile. “I wouldn’t worry if I were you. Eire has a lot of these weird things. Leprechauns, talking wells… Created just to scare or annoy you.” She patted Iona’s cheek affectionately. “Don’t worry. It meant nothing.”
The Goddess rose to her feet again. “I’m afraid I can’t stay any longer. There’s… something I need to do.”
“Can you come tomorrow night?” Iona asked, anxiously. “Xena’s off to some theatre thing. Won’t be back all night. We could… practice my powers?” A hopeful smile.
Athena chuckled. “I think my agenda is free for tomorrow.” The goddess winked at the girl. “See you.” And in a cloud of white dust she disappeared.
With a flicker of light, Athena reappeared on Mount Olympus, in a large marble hall. A throne stood at the end of it, large and imposing. It had been her father’s, once. And then Ares’. And now… Athena glanced around her. Now it was empty.
“Athena!” Her name echoed through the hall and she turned to see Artemis walk closer. The Goddess of the Hunt stopped before her, seemingly a trifle out of breath. “I’ve been looking all over for you. I lost track of Hermes.”
Athena shot her half-sister an exasperated look.
“Hey, I did my best, okay? But the guy has boots with wings. How can I compete with that?”
The Goddess of Wisdom had to agree she had a point. “Do you think he’s gone to see Poseidon?”
“Maybe,” Artemis shrugged. “One of the nymphs is keeping an eye out for me. If she spots him, we’ll know.”
“Good,” Athena nodded, pensively. “Very good.”
“So, where were you off to?” Artemis asked. “You weren’t on Olympus, I know that much.”
“I went to see Iona,” Athena answered truthfully.
“Again?” Artemis shook her head a little. “That girl is practically powerless. She’s of no use to us.”
“On the contrary,” the goddess of wisdom responded. “She might be essential.”
Artemis raised an eyebrow in question.
“You know I took her to Eire. To the Well of Segais.” Athena dropped her voice. “It spoke to her.”
“It did?” Artemis looked surprised. “What did it say?”
“It said HE was coming.”
There was a moment of utter silence. “He?” Artemis finally repeated, in a slightly frightened tone. “You mean…?”
“I don’t know yet,” Athena responded. “But if it is… We’re in trouble.”
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes tiredly as she trudged into the bathroom. She stopped in front of the mirror, taking a look at her disheveled figure. Her eyes could barely open and her hair was sticking out in all directions. “Great,” Gabrielle muttered, pulling the stop from the tap and letting some water run onto her hands. She then ran her hands through her hair, ordering it somewhat.
It’d been well past midnight before she’d gone to sleep last night. After her unpleasant encounter with Cleopatra she’d taken off and found herself a spot outside, somewhere in the woods where she was sure neither Cleopatra nor Odilon could have followed her.
And there she’d spent several candlemarks at numerous drills until she was soaked in sweat and so exhausted she could barely make it back to the palace. It had worked though. For a moment she’d forgotten about the Egyptian’s smug smile and Odilon’s accusations, she’d forgotten about Chin… But it hadn’t lasted long. Gabrielle splashed some cold water in her face, shivering. And now she felt even more tired then she had before she’d gone to sleep.
Light filtered into her room. She walked over to the windowsill and glanced outside, watching as the sun hesitantly peeked over the horizon, shedding the waking city in beautiful shades of gold and amber.
She felt like going back to bed. Gabrielle sighed, eyeing the warm blankets she’d just left. She wanted to just sleep today away. That way, things at least couldn’t get any worse than they were.
Gabrielle grudgingly headed over to her closet and selected her outfit for the day. She settled on dark leather pants and a sleeveless light brown suede top. The leather made her feel more secure. And it emanated a ‘stay the Hades away from me’ kinda attitude, which could come in very useful today.
She left her room, turning a corner and heading down the stairs. In the hall she paused a moment, deciding what to do next. She was supposed to meet Xena for their morning sparring session. But Odilon was bound to be present there, or otherwise she was sure Cleopatra would show up. The Egyptian regent didn’t have a taste for battle really. But the warrior remembered she’d been present for a sparring match between Xena and her the last time she’d been here. She’d been checking out the Empress the entire time.
Gabrielle decided she should just go and tell Xena to skip their session this morning. She could say hi to the kids that way too, before they took off for school. When she’d been stuck in bed because of her injuries they’d all come over in the mornings and joined her for breakfast in bed. She’d pretty much given that up now that the council was keeping her so busy, and she actually found herself missing the little morning ritual a lot.
She was just about to turn into the corridor that led to Xena’s chambers when a voice suddenly drifted up.
“I appreciate you could reschedule this meeting on such short notice,” she heard Cleopatra’s silken voice say.
“Anything for you.”
Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed to slits.
“You say that to all the pretty girls, Xena,” the Egyptian chastised her.
The Empress chuckled. “If that were true then I just told you you’re pretty. It’s a compliment either way.”
The footsteps came closer and Gabrielle suddenly realized the twosome was going to bump into her any moment. In a bout of escapism Gabrielle headed for the nearest door and slipped inside.
It was the door down to the cells. Gabrielle walked down a few steps, intent on heading back up the moment Xena and Cleopatra had passed.
The warrior winced as she heard the voice of the guard. She’d been spotted. It’d look really stupid if she were to turn back now.
So she walked further down the stairs, nodding politely at the guard. He was one of the younger soldiers, who’d joined the army only a few years back and knew little of her role in the resistance. “Hello, Ellos.”
Ellos beamed a smile back at her. “Wow, you remembered my name!” The guard who stood watch with him poked him in the side, after which he hastily performed an official salute. “Ma’am.”
The warrior tried to repress a smirk. “Call me Gabrielle,” she told him, as he hastily swung open the doors for her.
“Yes, ma’am,” the young guard shot her another smile, then closed the door behind her again. Through the closed doors Gabrielle could hear him add in a hushed tone he thought she couldn’t hear. “Man, she’s hot!”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. From a cell a little down the isle a lazy chuckle drifted up. “Well, dear, if you don’t want to boys to look, you shouldn’t dress all in leather. You know what that does to men. Dominatrix dreams and all that.”
Gabrielle leaned back against the cell bars across from Callisto’s cell, crossing her arms. “Good morning, Callisto.”
“Oh, is it morning?” the blonde drawled. “Night, day… makes very little difference when you’re stuck down here, you know?”
“You always whine about something when I come down here,” Gabrielle scolded her. “If you keep this up I might stop visiting.”
“Oh, the horror,” Callisto muttered sarcastically.
Gabrielle flashed her a grin. It wasn’t quite as radiant as normally though. Callisto cocked her head, studying the other woman with interest. There was something off about her. “You never stop by in the morning, normally. What’s the occasion?”
“Nothing special,” the warrior commented off-handedly.
“Oh, really?” Callisto continued watching her, folding her fingers around the bars. “No, no, no… You have that twitch.”
“That twitch you get when you’re mad,” Callisto retorted. “And you get this little crinkle in your nose.”
Gabrielle instantly lifted a hand to her nose, rubbing at it in an attempt to make the crinkle disappear.
“Ah, all not well in Xena wonderland, is it?” The blonde chuckled. “Told you she’d backstab you. You turn around for a second and she scorches your home village. Did you check if Potedeia is still standing, dear?”
The warrior shot her a look. “This has nothing to do with Xena.”
“Oh really,” Callisto purred delicately. “I heard her old flame’s back in town. Cleopatra, right?”
The warrior gritted her teeth at the mere mention of the Egyptian’s name. “And how did you hear that?”
“How could I not hear?” Callisto shot a look at her ceiling in dismay. “All the moaning and the groaning. The walls were shaking you know? Can’t imagine how you could have missed that…”
Gabrielle was looking mightily annoyed now. “Shut up.”
“That’s what I was saying,” Callisto continued on merrily. “But they kept going on and on and on and on…” She looked delightedly at Gabrielle’s furious expression. “Oh, cheer up, Gabby. I’m sure it’s just… business. Or one last time, maybe… You know, for old time’s sake… Though, from the sound of it, they had a lot of fun last night. Xena might decide to keep her. Apparently you’re not enough woman for her.”
Gabrielle stared at her a moment, eyes blazing, then she closed her eyelids a moment, clearly trying to compose herself.
Callisto giggled, delighted at this very pleasant distraction. “Jealousy doesn’t become you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle opened her eyes again and was just about to snap something back at her, when she spotted a bit of parchment pinned to the wall.
She took a step closer. It was a drawing of a rat. Quite a nice one at that, with remarkable detail. Callisto realized what she was looking at, then hastily pulled the parchment from the wall and hid it from sight. Gabrielle in the meantime had found something of more interest. While Callisto was busy hiding her picture of the rat, Gabrielle reached through the bars and retrieved the blonde’s sketchbook.
“Hey!” Callisto stormed back over to the bars, but was too late to snatch the parchments back. “Give those back!”
Gabrielle stuck out her tongue at the blonde as she sorted through the papers. “Wow.” Her gaze shifted from humored to genuinely impressed. “These are really good.” She studied the drawing of a soldier spiked to a wall. “Slightly morbid, but good nevertheless.” She turned over the page, where the imprisoned woman had drawn a selection of weaponry.
“Glad, you approve,” Callisto snapped, reaching through the bars as fast as she could. “Now give ‘em back!”
Gabrielle turned over another page, then she stopped, staring down at the image on the next page. It was an incredibly lifelike drawing of herself. Of herself a few years back, that was, with long curly hair still. Gabrielle glanced up at Callisto, who was staring back at her with an expression like that of a child who’d just been caught stealing from the cookie jar. Then she focused back on the image in front of her. She turned the page and found another drawing of herself. And behind that, another, this one of herself as she looked now, with short hair..
“Don’t get any ideas,” Callisto’s voice drifted up, trying to sound casual. “It’s not like I got a lot of stuff to draw in here. Gotta draw stuff from memory. And you’ve been in my way so much, I know your face by heart.”
“By heart?” Gabrielle repeated, amused by the choice of words. “Well, I’m flattered.”
“Yeah well, it’s you and rats.” Callisto muttered, clearly miffed.
Gabrielle chuckled. She took a few steps closer to the bars. Callisto instantly used the opportunity to reach through and snatch her parchments back.
“Can I have one?”
Grey eyes eyed her warily. “Why?”
“‘Cause they’re beautiful,” Gabrielle simply responded. “I’d like to hang one in my room.”
Callisto looked at her hesitantly, then pulled a drawing from the pile and held it out to her. Gabrielle took it. It was the one of the soldier pinned to the wall. “Oh, you want to keep those of me here for yourself, do you?”
Callisto hissed at her, instantly tossing the other drawings in her direction.
“The Asian area is relatively peaceful,” Odilon stated, leaning back in his seat. “Jappa is a bit tricky, though.”
“Ah, Jappa,” Xena nodded a bit in remembrance. “Nice scenery. Complicated culture. Crappy, highly inflammable houses. Can’t really recommend it.”
“I talked to Michiyo, my contact in Jappa. Apparently there are a number of warlords causing trouble. But it doesn’t seem they’re after you really, but after more power in their own country. We never really got around to appointing one regent for the place.”
Xena shook her head. “Appointing a regent wouldn’t work for Jappa. It’s not in line with their culture.”
Xena wagged a finger at him. “No, no, Odie. Divide and Conquer, remember?”
“Please, leave Caesar out of this,” Cleopatra commented with a wince. “Annoying little man.”
Odilon chuckled in amusement. “You slept with him though.”
“We all make mistakes,” the Egyptian pharaoh responded curtly.
“Wasn’t a mistake,” Xena corrected her. “It was business.” She shot the regent a smirk. “What we girls won’t do for the greater good, huh?”
Cleopatra grinned back at her.
Odilon rolled his eyes. “How did we get from Jappa to sex with Caesar again?”
“Divide and Conquer,” Xena muttered, picking up her glass of fruit juice and draining it.
“Ah, yes,” Odilon nodded, remembering now. “So what do you want to do about Jappa then?”
Xena considered this a moment, twirling her empty glass between her fingers. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” Odilon shared a confused look with Cleopatra.
“They’ll think you’re weak,” Cleopatra stated.
“Nah,” Xena put her glass back down and then picked up the jug standing on the table and refilled it. “They’ll be too busy squabbling amongst themselves to worry about me. Besides, if I go storming in there with troops I’ll either have to side with one warlord, which won’t turn out well in the long run. Or I won’t side with any of ‘m, which will probably make them form a united front against me.” Xena leaned back in her seat, studying the gently rippling surface of her orange juice. “It’s best to wait a while, see how things go. I do want a weekly update from now on. Tell Michiyo to report to me directly.”
Odilon nodded, scribbling down a note.
“I had a meeting with the African regents a fortnight ago,” Cleopatra picked up the thread. “The northern lands indicated they’ll all follow Egypt.”
“Egypt? Not me?” Xena grinned though, indicating she’d expected no less from the Pharaoh.
“And the southern lands?”
“Savages,” Cleopatra stated with clear disdain. “They hardly know you exist. I wouldn’t worry about them.”
Xena nodded politely, then darted a quick look at Odilon and raised an eyebrow at him, after which he hastily started scribbling again.
“So that leaves Britannia, the Middle East and the Norselands,” Xena concluded. “I’m guessing those are our problem areas?”
“I’ve been in touch with the Persian regent,” Cleopatra said. “ He says all is well, but… I am not so sure.”
Xena crossed her arms, intrigued. “Why’s that?”
“I can smell lies,” the Egyptian stated, then crinkled her nose. “He smelled.”
The Empress chuckled. “Omid is an odd man, I’ll give you that. He’s been loyal though.”
“I’ve had words from our spies too,” Odilon added. “They’ve reported an increased number of murders and disappearances in the western area, near the border.”
“Very well,” Xena nodded. “I’ve got several legions stationed in Corinth. I’ll move them towards the border, just in case. They can take up position in Tripolis. If things get out of hand, I can move them into Persia and settle things there myself.” She waved a hand at Odilon. “Make a note for me to inform the council about the troop movement.”
Cleopatra shot a bored look at the ceiling, clearly appalled by the idea of a council. Odilon folded his hands together. “And what if this council doesn’t agree.”
“The council has nothing to say about my army,” Xena retorted easily. “But I have to inform them about stuff like this. It’s what we agreed upon.”
The Egyptian regent huffed out a haughty breath. “Your peasant hasn’t realized yet how stupid an idea this council is, then?”
“My advisor is a highly intelligent woman who is trying very hard to turn the council into a properly working part of my government,” The Empress countered, her blue eyes pinning Cleopatra down with an icy stare.
“Oh, come now,” Cleopatra continued on, undisturbed. “You are indulging this whim of hers because you are sleeping with her.”
“Did I indulge your whims when I was sleeping with you?” Xena instantly countered.
Cleopatra had no response to that, merely shooting her a foul look. Odilon remained prudently silent. Xena tossed up a hand in frustration. “Look, I’m sick and tired of having this same discussion over and over again. This is not about Gabrielle and me. I’ll easily admit the council is a bit of a bother right now. But if Gabrielle can get it up and running, then they can take some stuff off my hands. And then maybe I can take off for a while. I promised I’d show my kid Britannia someday.”
Odilon exchanged a troubled look with Cleopatra. “So… Are you saying you want to leave this council in charge for a longer period of time?”
“Eventually, yes.” Xena shrugged. “I mean, I know I’m always going to be the Empress. Retirement is probably not going to be an option for me. But I’m getting older and someday I’m not going to be able to do this anymore. I don’t have a successor…”
“Yes, you do.” Cleopatra cut her off.
Xena managed a small smile. “My daughter is not going to be Empress.”
“Why?” The Egyptian leaned forward. “Because of her father? Because you think she’ll ruin things?”
“Because it will ruin her,” Xena stated, matter-of-factly.
Cleopatra stared at her a moment, then shook her head in disbelief. “This is what I’ve never understood about you, Xena. You’ve spend years and years of your life conquering all there is to conquer. And then when you’ve achieved this, you want to throw it all away.”
The Empress chuckled at this. “What can I say? I bore easily.”
“I know, and this is exactly what I’m worried about,” Cleopatra countered seriously. “You’ll just hand over all this power to this council, because you are bored. Without any thought for the repercussions. What will happen to the Empire? What will happen to the economy?”
“What will happen to you?” The Empress added for her.
“Well… Yes!” Cleopatra waved a hand at the empty air delicately. “My alliance with you didn’t really make me very popular.”
“You have enough gold to make yourself popular with any group of people, Cleo.” Xena gave her a pointed look, then shook her head a little. “Don’t you ever get tired of it? All these people watching your every move. Don’t you ever feel… trapped?”
The Egyptian shrugged. “You call it trapped, I call it worshipped.” Brown eyes studied her. “Don’t tell me you really want to go back to being a peasant, Xena? Do you really think life is easier when you’re sleeping in a hut between sheep?”
“It isn’t easier, no.” Xena instantly agreed. “But at least your life is yours then. You decide what will happen in the next chapter. Not some foreign regent, not some army, not some god. You.” A humorless laugh. “Imagine that. I’ve spent all these years gathering power. And now at the end of it all, I’m left with none. That’s karma for ya.”
Cleopatra stared at her a moment, then shook her head a little. “I do not think I understand you anymore.”
Both women turned to look at Odilon, who’d spoken up for the first time in a while. The spy leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, looking directly at the Empress. “You’re looking for the snake in the grass. The trapdoor. The imperfection. You do remember that parable about the Japanese stonecutter, don’t you? The one who wished to be a lord, a king, the rain, the sun, but ended up as a stonecutter in the end.” Odilon waved a hand at the empty air. “You can run away all you want, Xena. Try to change. But in the end, you’ll end up back here.”
Xena leaned back in her seat, a small smile tugging at her lips. “If I am the stonecutter, then won’t I eventually end up back in Amfipolis? An innkeeper?” A chuckle. “I’ll become a mug of ale first then, instead of a rock.”
“This is who you are,” Odilon said decisively. “You were never going to be an innkeeper, Xena. You know that.”
“I’m sure I would have been a fab innkeeper. You should have seen me juggling wine bottles.”
“Oh, shut it Xena.” Odilon’s eyes flared, clearly annoyed. Cleopatra looked from one to the other in fascination, very rarely having been part of a conversation between the two that was this personal. “You were born to be great. I knew that the moment I saw you. Pretending to be small will only make you look stupid.”
Xena stared back at him. For a moment she seemed doubtful whether Odilon’s words required an angry response. Then she decided they didn’t. Instead she laughed softly. “Don’t worry, Odie. I’m not trying to look small. I’m just… trying to be great in a different way. You just assume that’s bad, but it doesn’t have to be.”
The spy leaned back in his seat. “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”
“It is broken,” Xena responded softly. “It broke the moment Pyrron died.”
It turned out to be a very tiring day. Xena placed a hand on her neck and popped some bones back into place. A long session with Odie and Cleopatra, who clearly weren’t happy about the involvement of the council. Afterward she had to send out decrees and orders and talk to several ambassadors about the situation in their provinces. As they’d discussed, she’d told her troops in Corinth to take up position near Tripolis and she’d also ordered her troops in Germania to move closer to the border with the Norselands, just in case.
This all had kept her busy the entire day and the sun was now slowly sinking below the horizon. It had started to drizzle and a thin fog was lingering outside in the garden, shifting between the trees.
Xena cast a look outside, shivering a little at the cold dimness. She hoped the theatre would be nice and warm, at least. She pushed open the door to her study, circling her desk and sagging down in her chair. She popped her feet on her desk and leaned back. On a coat hanger in the centre of the room hung a beautiful silver dress. “Good choice,” she mumbled approvingly, recognizing Esmee’s touch. A very talented girl, Esmee was. A nice addition to her household.
“You like the dress?”
Xena looked up to find her daughter standing in the doorway. “Hey.” She smiled, motioning the girl closer. “I missed seeing you today. Sorry I wasn’t around for lunch. I just had to...”
“Rule the world. Yes, I know…” Iona drawled, hopping onto the edge of the desk. “So, you like the dress?”
“I do.” Xena affirmed. “Esmee worked on it, right?”
Iona nodded. “It’s not for tonight, but for the party tomorrow. I helped pick out the buttons.”
“Don’t tell me you’re interested in the wonderful world of tailoring?”
The girl snorted. “No.” She leaned back on the desk, looking at her mother over her shoulder. “I’m managing party business.”
“Oh really?” Xena seemed amused. “Since when?”
“Since Benitor asked for my help. It’s a little last minute, this party, ya know?”
“Shh,” the Empress raised a finger to her lips. “It’s a surprise party, remember?”
“Gabrielle isn’t here,” Iona replied easily. “I saw her slipping outside about half a candlemark ago.”
“Outside?” Xena frowned, darting another look at the nasty weather.
“Yep,” Iona shrugged. “I told her you were nearly finished with the world dominating stuff and she just smiled, sorta, and took off.”
The Empress huffed out a breath, confused. “Weird.”
“Figured it was one of those weird grownup things.” Iona just stated, hopping off the desk. “Mom?”
“Yeah?” Xena responded, distantly, her mind still sorting through Gabrielle’s strange behavior.
“I uhm….” Iona seemed insecure suddenly. “I… I went to dad’s grave last night.”
Xena’s focus instantly shifted back to her daughter. “I’m glad,” she said, after a moment of silence. “I was waiting for you to do that.”
“I wasn’t ready before.”
“I know that,” her mother responded softly. “That’s why I waited. But I’m happy you went to see him. Him and… your mom. I’m sure they were happy too.”
“Caspar wasn’t happy,” Iona murmured. “He said…” She drew in a breath, slightly shaking. “He said they weren’t my parents. So I shouldn’t care.”
Xena shook her head a little, then she slid off her chair, dropping down to a knee and taking hold of Iona’s shoulders. “They are. And you should. Your brother’s just…”
“He’s not my brother.”
“… he’s just confused, too.” Xena finished blithely. She paused a moment. “I… I know this sucks for you. I can’t offer you as good a family as Pyrron could. My life’s too screwed up for that.”
“Your life’s not screwed up.”
“Yes it is,” Xena countered with a half grin. “You’ve seen a big chunk of it. You know it’s screwed up.”
Iona managed a grin as well. “Well… There were some weird moments, yes.”
“Exactly. And trust me, the bits before you were born weren’t run of the mill either.”
“I guess not,” Iona mumbled, peeking up at Xena. “But… I’d like to hear about that… sometime. I’d like to know where you lived, when you were my age. How you grew up.”
Xena studied her a moment, silently. “Are you sure about that?”
“Yes.” Iona said, quite determinedly. “I mean… I used to know who I was. I was part dad, part … part mom.” She used the term for Ismene almost apologetically in Xena’s company. “I was even part Caspar and Niobe. But… now it turns out I’m not any of that. I want to know what I am part of.” A pause. “I know you don’t have time now. And that you’re probably busy tomorrow too but…”
“I’ll make time,” her mother told her. “This is important to you. So I’ll make time.”
Iona smiled. “Thanks, mom.”
“Anything for you, kiddo.” Xena reached over and placed a kiss on her forehead. “We’ll go out for a ride this week sometime, okay? So no one can bother me with stupid questions about… oh… national security and trivial matters like that.”
Iona chuckled. “Cool. I’d like that.”
“It’s a date then.” Xena winked at her, then rose back to her feet. “And talking about dates… I’m supposed to be at the theatre in an hour.”
“Gabrielle headed for the forest,” Iona easily supplied. “Not exactly sure where she went. You can’t really follow, Gabrielle.”
Blue eyes twinkled. “Watch me.”
It was in fact hard to follow Gabrielle, but not impossible. Xena followed the faint footprints and other small clues like snapped branches for a while, but soon enough realized where Gabrielle was heading. It was a clearing, which made a good practice area. Bad thing was, the warrior only went there when she was pissed off about something. So Xena was quite sure she was heading for a heap of trouble.
She wasn’t sure what she’d done though. She’d hardly spoken to Gabrielle since Cleopatra had arrived. So there’s not a lot she could have said wrong. Then again, maybe that was the problem. Maybe she hadn’t paid enough attention to Gabrielle… But then, Gabrielle hadn’t bothered to come see her either. But maybe she hadn’t come over to make a point….
Xena rolled her eyes in frustration. Relationships were very complex things.
A rapid tapping of wood on wood could now be heard. Moments later Xena stopped at the edge of the clearing, leaning against a tree. Gabrielle performed a perfect back flip, then slammed the edge of her staff against the bark of a tree, turned and jabbed the other end into the tree behind her. The warrior was barely visible in the dark, since she was dressed completely in black. The fabric was thoroughly soaked, and was clinging to her skin.
Xena straightened up, the mud softly squishing under her boots. It was the smallest of sounds, but Gabrielle acted instantly. She hopped up, hooking her staff between two branches and using it to pull herself into the tree. Within seconds she was hidden from sight.
Xena shook her head a little in bemusement, then moved forward and into the clearing. “So,” She said as she stopped under the tree and peered up into the foliage. “What’s a pretty girl like you doing in a mud hole like this?”
There was a moment of silence, then the leaves ruffled as Gabrielle hopped back down again, landing neatly on the muddy ground. She straightened slowly, her head slightly bent. Shadows were cast over her eyes.
Xena considered her options for a moment. This situation probably required a tactful approach. Unfortunately, after a day of tiptoeing around, she was fresh out of tact. So she went with straightforwardness instead. “What’s up with you?”
“Nothing,” was the grumbled response.
“Riiight,” Xena drawled, crossing her arms. “You’re standing here in the pouring rain, in the cold and you’re beating yourself up because everything is just peachy then?”
“There’s nothing wrong. I just felt like being alone,” was the pointed reply.
Xena laughed softly. “I see.” She circled the other woman. “Well, I’d love to leave you here in your solitude, but… unfortunately we have a theatre full of people to go to.” She glanced at Gabrielle’s soaked attire. “I mean, I think you look gorgeous in this, but for tonight you’ll probably need to wear something more presentable.”
“I don’t feel like going,” Gabrielle stated, then she kicked back at the tree behind her, causing her staff to free from its branches. She caught it then turned her back to Xena, going back to her exercises. “You should take Cleopatra. I bet she’d just love to go with you.”
The Empress frowned. “Why on earth would I want to take Cleo?”
“She’s presentable, for one,” was the grumbled response.
Xena blinked at her a few times, then tossed up her hands. “Okay, that’s it. I don’t know what your problem is, but I had a crappy day, loaded with heavy conversations and sensitive chats and I’m done with those for today. Now, we had a date. Which means I am going to this theatre with you and no one else.” Xena spun around and started back for the palace. “I leave in half a candlemark. Either you’re there and we go together. Or you’re not, and then I’ll go alone.”
Gabrielle closed her eyes, listened to the footsteps receding. Then she angrily slammed her staff against the nearest tree. With a croaking of wood her weapon broke in the middle, sending splinters flying in all directions.
Xena paced along the bottom of the stairs, then glanced up for the fifteenth time. No Gabrielle. The Empress grimaced and continued her pacing.
“You look like a wild cat in captivity,” Odilon drawled lazily as he strolled closer. “A well dressed cat,” he added with a appreciative look for her black dress, “but a cat nevertheless.”
“You could have compared me with a hippo in tutu, so I’ll take that as a compliment.” Xena muttered, glancing up the stairs again.
Odilon chuckled. “Oh, nifty imagery there.” He tried to suppress a laugh, but failed. “Sorry, trying to picture you in a tutu now. Bad idea. I apologize in advance if I start laughing hysterically halfway through the show.”
“I’d rather you didn’t. It’s quite an important thing, this.”
“Important enough for your peasant to bail on you, hmm?” Cleopatra’s voice drifted up from across the hall. The Egyptian Regent entered, dressed in lavish, glittering, golden robes, a muscled, half naked soldier on either side of her.
Xena shot her an annoyed look, not stopping her pacing.
Cleopatra shot her a charming smile in return. “I am sorry, Xena. You indicated you did not wish for this discussion anymore. Old habits die hard, I’m afraid. Far harder than young loves.”
Odilon suppressed an amused grin, then bowed politely to the Egyptian. “You look radiant.”
“I try,” Cleopatra drawled. “And succeed, generally.”
“I cannot remember a time when you were not the epiphany of beauty.”
“She got dragged across the garden by a pig once,” Xena commented absently. “You should have seen her then.”
Dark eyes narrowed to slits, and she was just about to snipe back, when Odilon smoothly intervened. “So... I believe our carriage is waiting?” He turned to the Empress, folding his hands behind his back. “Xena?”
Xena glanced at him, then darted another look up the stairs. She turned back to him and was just about to suggest they leave, when she realised this time the stairs had not been empty. Hastily she turned back.
Gabrielle slowly descended down the stairs, somewhat uncomfortably trying to keep from tripping over her own dress. The dress was a deep sea green, almost a perfect match to the warrior’s eyes. Her hair was loose and still slightly wet from a hasty shower.
Xena watched her a few moments, then allowed a smile to spread across her face. She quickly took a few steps closer to the bottom of the stairs, holding out a hand to help the warrior down the last few steps.
Gabrielle stopped, exhaled and then glanced up, somewhat insecurely. “Hi.”
“Hey,” Xena smiled at her.
The warrior smiled back at her, then leaned a little closer. “Dresses are a pain. Getting dressed takes a lot longer and they get in the way all the time. Took me forever.”
“True,” The Empress agreed easily, “But it’s worth the effort. You look gorgeous.”
The warrior unexpectedly blushed. “Thanks. So do you.” She reached over and tentatively fingered the fine material.
A hand covered hers then and long fingers gently wrapped around her palm. It was a touch she’d been deprived of for nearly two days and she realised how much she’d missed that simple contact. She instantly entangled her fingers with Xena’s, moving a little closer. “Shall we?” She heard Xena’s voice asking her in a burr. “Let’s,” was her simple response.
They started towards the great doors, passing Odilon and Cleopatra along the way. Gabrielle looked up at them as they passed and darted them both a polite smile, taking in the Egyptian’s furious dark gaze with a profound sense of victory.
A whip cracked and the carriage started rolling with the soft sound of pebbles crunching. Xena smoothed the silk fabric over her knee, then looked up at the woman sitting beside her. Gabrielle was staring down at her fingers, which were folding and unfolding. She looked up when she realised she was being watched, then looked down again. “I uhm…” She cleared her throat. “I’m not very good at this…”
“You get used to the public displays. Dresses and everything,” Xena responded. “Didn’t like it much myself at first, but… If you try, you’ll always find something worth enjoying.”
“I didn’t…,” Gabrielle interrupted her, pausing a moment before continuing. “I’m not good at that either, but…. That’s not what I meant. I meant…” She looked up, meeting blue eyes. “I’m sorry. For being such a pain.”
Xena chuckled softly. “Ah, but how sweet a pain,” she spoke in a dramatic, theatrical voice, making Gabrielle smile. She reached over and took the warrior’s hand, pulling it closer. “Don’t worry ‘bout it. I’m used to a little suffering.” She paused a moment, then spoke up again. “Was this… just about Cleo?”
Gabrielle cocked her head a little, considering the question seriously. “No,” she finally responded. “But… she… definitely fueled the fire.”
“Did…” The Empress looked somewhat insecure. “Did I do anything to….?”
“No,” Gabrielle instantly cut her off. “No, it was…” A wry smile. “Jealousy shapes faults that are not. It was…. Just me being stupid.” She folded her fingers around Xena’s. “I guess I’ve gotten used to having you all to myself. And now there’s Cleo screaming for your attention. And there’s Odilon, who seems convinced I’m plotting against you.”
She stopped as she felt a gentle touch against her cheek and looked up, to find Xena gazing back at her. “You have me,” the Empress told her bluntly. “Screw them. If you want me, you just say so, and you’ve got me. Okay?”
“Okay,” Gabrielle responded softly.
“Good.” Xena absently twirled a lock of blond hair around her finger. “So uhm…. We did the sensitive chat now, yeah?”
Gabrielle repressed a smile. “Yeah. I think so.”
Blue eyes twinkled at her. “So… Do I get to kiss you now?”
Gabrielle laughed softly. “You’re not very subtle, are you?” she scolded before leaning closer and capturing the Empress’s lips.
It was meant as a casual thing, really, but Xena’s hand slid around her waist and pulled her closer. She closed her eyes and felt her heartbeat pick up, as the kiss deepened.
At that moment though the carriage began to slow down. Faintly she could hear the droning of a multitude of voices waiting outside the theatre. Regretfully, they parted. “Damn.” Gabrielle peeked up at the Empress. “Would it look really silly if we asked the driver to just ride past and circle around the town a few times first?”
Xena chuckled. “I think it probably would, yeah.”
“Damn,” Gabrielle repeated again, but then moved away a little further with a sigh.
Xena lifted up her hand and pressed a kiss against her palm. “Later.”
“Oh yeah,” the Empress drawled. She gently squeezed the hand she was holding. “Come on, let’s face the music.”
“I guess we have to,” Gabrielle agreed as the door swayed open.
The loud sounds of trumpets and people yelling bombarded her sensitive hearing. Gabrielle instinctively drew back, but Xena’s hand was still wrapped around hers, so she was pulled forward again. There was a light trickle of rain still, but it was soon blocked as two servants flanked them, both holding large umbrellas above their heads.
People had swarmed to the theatre. The way up to the steps of the theatre was being kept clear by fences and soldiers. Gabrielle let her eyes slide over the masses. There was a mixed response to their arrival. Some people were cheering, waving at them. Others were eyeing them warily or were whispering among themselves. Gabrielle could feel the eyes on her, as she had felt them at the market. She felt uneasy.
A glance at Xena showed the Empress’s face a mask. Blue eyes scanned the crowds, as hers had moments before. Scanning for threats. When she was sure there was nothing serious to worry about, she darted a look at the young man holding the umbrella beside her. “Nasty weather, eh?”
The boy smiled back at her shyly. “Tis, Empress.”
They neared the first row of soldiers, who snapped to attention as she passed. Behind them the next carriage pulled to a halt. From the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw Cleopatra exiting. She frowned as the Egyptian was flanked by one of her slaves. Odilon was nowhere to be seen.
The doors to the theatre swayed open and they stepped inside. They entered a large hall, the floor a deep black marble. The hall was filled with people. The noise was less than it was outside, but still, it was far from quiet.
“Empress!” A white haired, chubby man in a white toga headed for them, grabbing Xena’s hand and shaking it enthusiastically.
“Varinius,” Xena responded politely, though Gabrielle could see her smile was fake. “Haven’t seen you in a while. How’s business treating you?”
“As well as you are, my Queen,” the nobleman said, smiling broadly, before turning his hungry eyes to Gabrielle. “Ah, and this must be the woman whom the entire kingdom is whispering about then.” He bowed, took her hand and pressed it to his lips with a sloppy kiss. “You are as beautiful as the rumours say.”
“Uhm,” Gabrielle shot him a smile not quite devoid of disgust as she tried to, subtly, wiped her hand clean again. “Thanks.”
Xena suppressed a grin. “Now, you keep those lips to yourself, Varinius. I don’t want you wooing her over, now.”
“I’m sure I could not, Empress,” Varinius drawled. “But, talking of wooing… I have some lovely items in from Chin. And some tapestries from Persia too, would look wonderful in your hallway.”
The Empress wagged a finger at him. “Now, Varinius… You know my rule, don’t you? No business on a night of pleasure.”
“Apologies, my Liege. It is just that these items are so finely made, I would not want to waste them on anyone less refined than you.”
Xena rolled her eyes. “Come see me tomorrow,” she allowed, waving off the repeated thanks and bowing from the robed man.
Gabrielle watched him as he disappeared in the crowds again. “What a horrible man.” She whispered under her breath
Xena chuckled. “He’s Roman. Good trader though. He gets around, I can pry his brain for information at times. Cheap spy, of sorts.”
“Talking of spies…. Where did Odilon go? I didn’t…”
“Shh,” Xena shushed her. “Don’t mention his name.” Blue eyes scanned the room. “He’s looking around. There are things to be heard at gatherings like this.”
Gabrielle shook her head a little, amused. She leaned a little closer to Xena. “I thought your rule was no business?”
“Rules are made to be broken,” Xena drawled, hastily adding. “Just by me, that is.”
“Of course,” Gabrielle drawled, then her eyes drifted back to the crowd, searching as Xena shook some more hands with people she apparently knew.
She spotted Odell, standing on the far side off the room, talking with several older men. Theron was introducing his wife to Mentius. She couldn’t spot Megan anywhere.
“Who are you looking for?”
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena. “Thalia. She was very excited about coming.”
“Yeah. Apparently she found a date. Some guy she met in a pub last night.”
“Guys in pubs…” Xena frowned. “She does realise those are usually not the nicest of dates, right?”
The warrior chuckled. “You never know… Diamonds in the rough and all…” her eyes caught a glimpse of curly red hair then. “Ah, there she is.” She headed for Thalia, dragging a willing Xena along behind her. “Hey!”
“Hey!” Thalia greeted her enthusiastically. “Wow, you look nice.”
“Thanks, so do you,” Gabrielle smiled at her. “So… Where is he?”
“He’s getting us some drinks.”
“What did I say? Men from pubs…” Xena hummed under her breath. Receiving a poke from Gabrielle in response.
“Just…” Thalia leaned a little closer. “Don’t freak him out, okay? With the warrior stuff and the ruling of the world and all.”
Gabrielle seemed amused. “You really like this guy, huh?”
Thalia shrugged carelessly, but blushed a little. “He’s nice. And he’s not a basket weaver. He’s a trader.”
“He’s not called Varinius, is he?” Xena inquired innocently, for which she was rewarded with another poke.
“No, he’s…” Thalia then apparently spotted her date coming closer. “Oh, there he is. Now remember, be nice.”
Gabrielle looked up, trying to spot a potential date for her friend. Finally her eyes settled on a young man, about her age, carrying two glasses of wine. His hair was dark and reached down to his shoulders. He was quite handsome.
“Hi,” Thalia smiled at him, as he handed her her drink. “Here, let me introduce…”
Gabrielle frowned, as Thalia’s date spoke Xena’s name, with a mixture of fear and… something else…She turned to the Empress. “Xena, do you…?”
She stopped then as she saw Xena’s face, the blue eyes blazing with anger. “I thought I told you to never show your face here again!” The Empress hissed at him.
The young man lifted both his hands in defense, taking a step back. “I didn’t know… I mean, I was just…”
“Get out!” Xena narrowed her eyes at him. “Get out, now!”
The man stared at her for a moment, then spun around and stalked off.
“But…” Thalia stared after him for a moment, then turned back to Xena. “What the Hades was that!”
Xena’s eyes followed the young man as he left the theatre, then she looked down at Thalia. “That was my brother.”
Xena took the last steps up to the balcony, finding two seats waiting there for them. She sagged down in the first seat. Gabrielle followed behind, carefully circling the other seat and sitting down beside her. Xena had been quiet since her fall out with Thalia’s date and was now staring ahead of her with a pensive look on her face.
Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her knee, questioning what was the best course of action, then settled on one. “What did he do?”
Blue eyes turned to look at her. Xena seemed hesitant for a moment, then reached over and took her hand. “Do you really want to ruin what is left of tonight talking about my brother?”
“It’s obviously important.”
“It’s past,” Xena murmured, facing forward again as the curtains were pulled open.
The sound of music drifted up as a young man appeared on the stage, playing a flute. A young woman appeared from the other end of the stage and they ended up in the centre together, circling each other.
Gabrielle studied the woman sitting beside her. She seemed calm, outwardly, but Gabrielle could see the small twitches, the dark clouds behind those blue irises. They’d stumbled on something deep here. Unchartered waters.
She hesitated a moment, then carefully leaned closer, dropping her voice. “I know why Odilon doesn’t like me.”
The Empress frowned, then turned to her.
“He knows things. Things I did. In Chin.” A breath. “The present is rooted in the past, Xena. They’re connected. We want to pretend they’re not, so we don’t have to justify ourselves. Us. So we can just start over. But there’s always going to be something to remind us...”
Xena turned to her fully, ignoring the play unfolding below them. She laid her hand against the blonde’s cheek, the tips of her fingers entangling themselves in her hair. “Nothing you did before can change our now. Nothing.”
“Right back atcha,” Gabrielle murmured.
Xena smiled. She paused a moment, then spoke up again, a touch insecurely. “I’ll tell you about my brother.” She darted a glance at the stage. “After. Okay?”
Gabrielle nodded. “After,” she agreed softly, shuffling a little closer and laying her cheek against the Empress’s shoulder.
Xena released a breath, then wrapped her arm around the blonde’s shoulders. They both turned their attention back to the play, watching as Orpheus wept for the dying Eurydice.
“Are you ready?”
Iona jumped up as Athena appeared in her room. “They’ve been gone for candlemarks. What kept you?”
Athena crossed her arms and looked at her sternly. “I’m a busy goddess, you know? I have things to do.”
Iona looked skeptical. “Like what?”
“Like look after the rest of the world.”
A shake of the girl’s head. “Mom does that.”
“Does your mother make the sun shine? Or make it rain?”
“We’ve got lamps. And mom developed this irrigation system, where even in area’s that it doesn’t rain…”
“Yes, yes, yes…” Athena waved her off. “Fine, I’m just late then.”
“Then just say so,” Iona scolded her, then let the subject go just as easily. “So where are we going? Gall? The Norseland?
Blue eyes stared at her disbelievingly. “What?”
“We’re just gonna work on your powers. You don’t need pretty scenery for that.” Athena told her, then laid a hand on her shoulder and snapped her fingers.
The next moment they were standing in the woods, next to the lake. Iona took the few steps over the water’s edge, looking down to see her face reflected in the dark pool. “Can I do that? Teleport to any place I like, I mean?”
Athena halted next to her, looking down at her reflection as well, pensively. “I’m not sure what the extent of your powers is exactly,” the goddess replied thoughtfully. “It’s not something that can be measured, just like that. The powers you have are often linked to the one who wields them.”
Iona cocked her head. “How so?”
“Well,” Athena strolled off again, folding her hands behind her back as she walked over to a tree stump. “For one, you have to know you have them. Look at yourself. For years, you had no idea of what you could do. So, you never used your powers. They don’t just present themselves. You have to make them happen.”
“Make them happen? Will them, you mean?”
“Exactly,” Athena nodded as she picked a stick up from the ground. She placed it on top of the tree stump, balancing it carefully.
Iona considered this. “Gabrielle says she has to clear her head. Make it empty from any wanting. And then she can do things. Move things.”
Athena smiled. “Gabrielle is a very smart young woman.” She said, as she walked over to Iona, kneeling at her side. “But she is a mortal. And you are, partly, divine. The power you have is very different from the one she has. And therefore it has to be controlled in a different way.” She pointed at the stick. “Try to tip it over.”
“Okay,” Iona nodded determinedly. She closed her eyes, drew in a breath and then released it again slowly. Then she looked up and opened her eyes again, staring intently at the stick.
After nearly a minute of intense staring Iona tossed up her hands in defeat. She kicked at the leaves around her in anger. “This is stupid.”
Athena smothered a grin. “You’re starting to sound like your father.”
Iona shot her a foul look.
Athena wasn’t impressed though. “Come here for a moment. Calm down and think. It’ll get you much further than yelling at thin air.”
The girl reluctantly walked closer. “I don’t see what I’m doing wrong. I really wanted it to move, I really did.”
“I could see that.” The Goddess folded her hands together. “Think back. There was only one time that you managed to move things, wasn’t there?”
“Yes,” Iona looked at her feet. “That time with mom and Gabrielle. In the agora.” She hugged herself, clearly unhappy with the subject. “I don’t like talking about that.”
“Why not?” The goddess pressed on, gently.
“Because…” Iona searched for the right words. “Because I was scared. That she’d die. And I was hurt. And angry, that she lied to me.”
Athena leaned closer, tapping the young girl on the nose. “Exactly.”
Iona peeked up at her, thoughtfully. Then an idea occurred to her. “You mean… You mean I was emotional.”
“But I’m not now. I mean, I’m frustrated, but not… Not really angry or sad or anything really strong like that.”
“I knew you were a bright kid,” Athena winked at her encouragingly. “Try it again. But think of something now that makes you feel very angry. Or very sad.”
Iona turned back to the stick, still balancing in the distance. She closed her eyes again. But this time, she didn’t visualize the stick, or it falling over. She thought about that time in the agora. She thought about when Pyrron came to her room to tell her Ismene had died. And she thought about Pyrron, about the look on his face when he’d died.
With a clattering of wood, the stick fell onto the stump, then rolled on and thumped onto the ground.
To be continued
to the Academy