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The Stabian Baths - Pompeii

Chapter 10

Xena lifted a piece of wood and looked at it for a moment before throwing it into the fire, sending an eruption of sparks dancing into the updraft. She watched the orange flecks sparkle and swirl until their light faded and they turned to ash, drifting back into the pit.

"I was there, Gabrielle," the warrior said as she wiped a bit of ash from her leg. "I was at the tavern. I heard you tell your stories, saw the crowd's reaction. I was watching from behind a pillar. Thought for a moment you might have seen me ... I guess you did at that."

Xena chuckled and thought of the poet. "Sappho left a trail for me to follow, and I followed it all right." She lifted her head and grinned up at the stars. "I should start at the beginning and tell you what I did that day. I never did answer you when you asked me, did I? Guess I was good at that ... keeping things from you, I mean."

She lifted her hand in the air, ready to start an excuse but decided the time for excuses was over and let her hand drop to her lap.

"I stayed down in the stable for a while after you left. I thought about coming up ... to your room." Xena twisted a leather strip from her skirt between her fingers. "I listed all the pros and cons of joining you that night. And even though there were more cons than pros, I left the stable and headed for your room."

Xena shrugged and straightened out her skirt. "I missed you."

"When I got there, I heard you talking with Sappho. Now, before you get mad, I didn't listen at the door ... although I wanted to. I knew that you needed to talk to someone about things you couldn't with me. I understood that and I had no problem with it. Sometimes, I wish I could do the same ... but it's not in my nature."

The warrior studied the stars for a few moments, trying to find the bear and failing. She could see the dipper though, and that brought her mind back to the events of the morning.

"So, I went to my room and got some sleep. You were right, Gabrielle. When I woke up in the morning, I checked in on you. You were out cold, sprawled on the bed still dressed, with your boots halfway unlaced. I didn't have the heart to wake you. It was early - just after dawn. Way too early for you. So I decided to take Argo for a ride and get out of the city. I wanted to check out Mount Vesuvius. I had never been that close to a volcano before. I had the notion of looking down into the center. I imagined it might be a doorway into Tartarus, maybe a way out should I ever get stuck there."

Xena laughed at her own joke, but Argo did not find it funny. She stomped on the sand with her hind leg to show her displeasure.

"I saddled up Argo and headed out the gate they called the Porta Vesuvio and let Argo have her rein. You enjoyed that, didn't you, girl?" Xena looked over her shoulder at the mare, who flicked her tail in agreement.

"We traveled at full speed down a well-packed path enjoying the wind whipping through our hair and the cool sun of the early morning. Right, girl? I'll give the Romans one thing - they sure know how to make roads."

"We passed lots of homes and farms. Plenty of settlements outside of the city gates. I guess the Romans didn't worry about attack. Pretty full of themselves, if you ask me. But everyone was spread out, more like home. It wasn't long before the road began to slope upward and the farms disappeared, giving way to trees and bushes. Vettii was right. The forest was lush and green. It was beautiful."

"Argo and I followed the path until it began to bend and wind. The closer we got to the top, the steeper the slope, the more the path narrowed and twisted. Until finally, the path disappeared altogether. I couldn't see the top of the volcano, the trees were so dense. I could have gotten off Argo and hiked up the rest of the way, but it was getting late and I wanted to get back before the noon meal. I thought we could have lunch together."

"I turned Argo around, promising myself that maybe I would come back tomorrow ... that we would come back tomorrow ... and try to go the rest of the way. I thought you might like a look inside a volcano."

The very thought of peering down into a pit of lava and flames made Xena's throat close up. Unbiddden, an image of Gabrielle falling over the edge, Hope wrapped up in her arms filled her mind. The look on Gabrielle’s face as she feel … Xena swallowed and closed her yes, waiting for the unwanted vision to fade before continuing.

"We were on our way back down the mountain. I rode Argo at a walk, letting her cool down and navigate the tricky parts of the path on her own while I watched the sun filter through the leaves of the trees. I've never really done that before, you know. Another thing you taught me, Gabrielle."

"It smelled so good in the forest. Like wet, green leaves and fresh soil. I remembered what you told me - what Vettii had said - that there was great hunting. I began to look around the forest, watching for fresh tracks and signs of game. Not that I wanted to hunt - there was no reason. You know, I was never one to go on a hunt for pleasure. I just wanted to see what kind of game I could find in the woods of Mount Vesuvius."

"I was having no luck and getting a little annoyed with myself, when the sound of angry voices distracted me. I tensed up in my saddle and reached for the handle of my sword. It sounded like two people arguing, so I armed myself and followed the voices until I came to a homestead tucked away in a clearing amongst the trees. There was a man and a woman having a disagreement by the side of a well. I quickly realized that my sword wouldn't be needed and I didn't want to scare them, so I put it back before I approached. I just wanted to see whether they needed my help."

"I think I managed to scare them anyway. When Argo and I came into view, they suddenly stopped fighting and the woman ran behind her husband. He stood tall though, and put his shoulders back. A man protecting his home. I'm sure I must have looked like a warlord to him."

"I put on my best smile to put them at ease. You would have been proud of me, Gabrielle. I could see them relax almost immediately. When I asked them if they needed any help, the man looked so relieved, I thought he was going to sit down right in the dirt beside the well. He didn't though. He just wiped his head with a rag. Before he could say a word, his wife walked around him and put her hands on her hips."

'Our well is clogged,' she announced.

'It is not clogged. It's dry,' the man said, starting the argument all over again.

'And I'm telling you, it's just clogged!' The woman waved her hands at the well in exasperation. 'I told him if he would just go down there and clean it out, we could have water again.'

'And I'm telling you, I'm not going to climb all the way down into a dry well!'

'You're just afraid you won't be able to climb back up!'

'And what if I can't? You gonna pull me back up?'

"I climbed down from Argo and ended the argument."

'I'll go down and check it out,' I said, volunteering for the job.

'I'm not so sure I can pull you back up, warrior, to tell you the truth,' the man admitted. I appreciate an honest man.

'You don't have to,' I said. 'I can get myself back up. And the name's Xena.'

"I could hear the woman gasp as I jumped over the wall and caught the rope. I was down in the bottom before they could say a thing. I looked around, but there was nothing blocking the water. The well was dry. I climbed back up the rope - a lot easier without having a bard hanging on, I'll say that - and was back up to the top in no time."

'The well is dry,' I announced, swinging easily over the edge of the well and landing in the dirt. I wiped my hands and smiled.

'Told you,' the husband said.

"Strange how the man actually seemed happy that his well was dry. Guess he was glad to win the argument. The woman just shrugged her shoulders and headed back inside the house."

'Who would think a well would go dry just like that?' she said, as she walked away. 'You're gonna hafta dig another.'

"The man rolled his eyes at me and smiled."

'Thanks, warrior,' he said and extended his hand to shake mine, 'I'd offer you a drink of water, but it seems we're all out. Would you like something to eat?'

'No thanks,' I said, climbing back on Argo, 'I have a lunch date.'

'Bet he's handsome!' the man called out as I turned Argo around and walked her back to the path.

'She is!' I replied.

"Argo and I returned to the path and headed back to the city. The road leveled out, and before long we were passing by the same farms and homesteads as when I headed out. The sun was high in the sky and I remembered being very happy and content at that moment. I had a good ride. I managed to help somebody, even if it was just to check on a well. I was back at the city gate by noon planning that you and I would probably have lunch together. I remember thinking that it might turn out all right after all ... our stay in Pompeii."

Xena threw another log into the fire and watched as it started to burn.

"But I also remember thinking of all the reasons why a well would suddenly go dry and wondering if anyone else was having a similar problem."

All the talking and thinking about wells and water made Xena realize she was thirsty. She lifted herself up from the sand and took a moment to stretch before heading over to Argo. The mare watched her mistress approach and brought her head around as Xena untied the water bag from its loop near the saddlehorn. The horse nudged her softly hoping for a scratch, and Xena happily obliged. She rubbed Argo's muzzle and kissed her tenderly in the warm, soft spot between the eyes.

"You thirsty, girl?" Xena asked before pouring a bit of fresh water into her hand for the mare to drink. Argo lapped up the liquid from her mistress's palm, giving her mane a satisfied shake when she was finished. Xena petted her horse's neck , then draped the strap of the water bag over a shoulder.

She stopped to stare at the bedrolls attached to the back of the saddle. She had not even considered what it would be like to have to sleep in the blankets without Gabrielle. But Xena's hair was wet and her leathers were soaked through to the skin by the damp of the ocean spray. The warrior had to admit, she was starting to feel the cold. After a moment's indecision, she unpacked the blankets and carried them and the water bag back to the warmth of the campfire.

Once there, she unfurled the rolls and laid out the coverings as though nothing were different. As if the bard would come striding over from the ocean to take her place on the blanket right next to the warrior.

Xena sat down with her back against the log, leaving more than enough room for her partner. Then she pulled up the thick, furry skin to cover her legs. After smoothing out the blankets, she brought over the scrolls and arranged them neatly where Gabrielle would have normally lain.

The warrior shifted deeper into the warmth under the heavy skin and leaned her head against the stump of driftwood, staring at the sky. She brought the water bag to her lips and drank a few sips until her thirst was satisfied, then put the stopper back into the top and flipped the bag away.

It was very quiet now.

The fire crackled and the sea hummed, but without her own voice filling the void, Xena found her heart aching once again for the company of her dearest friend and lover.

I don't have to talk for you to hear me, the warrior thought. This I know without a doubt. She had first hand knowledge that the dead could indeed hear your thoughts.

She stared at the canopy of stars and let her thoughts drift back to the events of that day in Pompeii, letting her memory make the pictures that she knew would tell Gabrielle the story.

She remembered entering the gate and trotting along Via Stabia back in the direction of Vettii's house, looking forward to meeting up with her friend and spending the day together in the city.

But when she got there, Gabrielle was gone. A servant told Xena that she had overheard Sappho talking about ‘introducing Gabrielle to the Stabian Baths.' The warrior had raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle in a public bath? Now, that was something she had to see.

Xena left Argo to be tended by Vettii's groom and headed off quickly following the directions the slave had given her.

The Stabian baths were on the corner of Via Stabia and Via Dell'Abbondanza. She found them easily, by both the smell of hot sulfur water and size of the building. It was a huge structure and Xena found herself more than a little impressed as she entered through the marble archway and walked down a long corridor into the heart of the facility.

The warrior stood under yet another elaborate entrance way and stared in amazement. There was an indoor sports field and it was surrounded by a meticulously groomed running field. She watched as small groups of men practiced their discus swings, wrestled, sparred and participated in other athletic activities.

There wasn't a single woman to be seen.

Then the sound of laughter caught her attention and she turned to see a group of young women talking as they walked past the playing field in the direction of the smell of water. Xena decided to follow them.

She walked nonchalantly as the group of women strolled down a long corridor that ran along the right of the indoor sports field. Xena could still see the men playing their games in between the columns spaced at even intervals along the colonnade.

The chattering women walked by one entryway, ignored it, and kept going until they reached another down at the other end of the hall. Then they disappeared within.

This must be the woman's side of the facility, Xena thought before stepping inside.

She entered a large dressing room. Small marble cubby holes were carved in neat rows along all of the walls. Several women were sitting at benches, undressing and storing their belongings inside. Slaves were running to and fro, assisting the women with their garments and providing towels, which the patrons wrapped around their bodies before exiting through a far door.

The warrior watched the activity for a while, getting a handle on the protocol, until a slave approached her and bowed.

"Can I help you with your ... um ... robe ... um..." the servant stammered, "with your ... um ... leather ... um ... tunic?" Xena’s manner of dress obviously preplexed her. The woman's gaze drifted to the sword and then to the chakram, where her eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed in scrutiny. She clearly had no idea what it was.

Xena quickly detached her sword and handed it over to the servant, who jumped when it touched her arms. The slave placed it quickly in the nearest cubby hole. The servant reached to take the chakram when Xena removed it from its hook, but the warrior pulled it out of reach. Xena placed the chakram carefully into the locker on top of her sword.

Then the servant helped with the rest of the garb, until Xena was nude. The warrior stared into the marble locker wondering if her equipment would be safe.

"You'll watch my stuff, won't you?" she asked the servant girl.

"Of course, mistress," the servant answered and handed over a towel.

"Thanks," Xena said, nodding once before heading for the sauna.

Xena entered the main bathing area and stood at the entrance to get her bearings. There were two very large pools and one smaller bath off in the far corner. The first pool had to be filled with warm water. It was the most crowded and all its occupants appeared comfortable. The second pool was most definitely hot. Xena could see the steam rising from nearly still water. Only one or two women were inside and their skin had turned red from the heat.

The third and smallest pool, sat tucked away in a corner. There was no one inside. Xena watched as one of the women from the hot pool hopped out and took a running jump into the smaller pool. She was not in there long before she pulled herself out. From the look of her nipples, Xena surmised that that pool was freezing cold.

The warrior turned her attention to the first pool. The patrons were collected in small groups and cliques, chattering and laughing, bobbing up and down like so many disembodied heads floating in the water. Their voices echoed in the large pool room, filling the air with bits and pieces of conversations that made no sense and did not seem to relate to anything of consequence.

A bunch of heads chatting incessantly about nothing at all, the warrior thought to herself with a smirk.

Xena scanned the groups, concerned only with finding one familiar bobbing head in particular.

Eventually, the warrior had to move out of the doorway to let another customer through. She watched as the woman handed her towel over to a servant and walked down a set of stairs into the warm pool.

Xena walked away from the door and to the same pool stairs then handed her towel to her own servant who she knew was still following. She descended the stairs into the bath virtually unnoticed. The warm water felt wonderful. It was body temperature and clear. Xena detected the faint odor of sulfur, but other than that, the water appeared to have been very clean despite the multitude of bodies. She imagined that the pipeline for the baths was fed by an underground spring and must have been filtered by a very elaborate system.

Well, she thought to herself, while she was looking for Gabrielle, she might as well enjoy a nice, warm bath.

Dunking her head under the water, Xena allowed herself to enjoy the cleansing warmth as the water dribbled through her hair. Then she moved about the pool freely, eavesdropping on conversations as she searched for her partner.

After circling the pool and unable to find either Gabrielle or the poet, Xena leaned back against an edge, not a little disappointed. She watched a group of women as she rested against the pool wall and let the delightfully warm water lap up against her. Eventually the clique's conversation reached her ears.

"Do you think she's really there ... or is Vettii making it up?" one woman asked as she splashed water on her shoulder.

Another fixed her hair and shrugged. "Well, I know he's desperate to win the Ceres this year, but how could he attempt such a bold-face lie? I mean, everyone would know soon enough if he didn't really have the Warrior Princess as a guest."

"I heard she has big horns!" a young girl commented, snickering.

Xena snorted. The sound went unheard as the other women in the group laughed.

"Well, I've heard them called many things," the first woman said as she cupped her large breasts in both hands and pushed them up out of the water, "but never horns!"

The entire group tittered and chortled at the clever remark. Xena found herself chuckling right along with them.

"Well, I heard she can take on ten men at a time!"

The warrior grinned proudly.

"You mean sleep with ten men at a time!" More laughter.

Xena lost her smile.

"And you haven't, Sienna?" one of the women commented, poking her friend in the side.

Sienna fixed her hair proudly. "Well, I must admit I have."

"Ah! There aren't ten men in all of Pompeii who would sleep with you!" More laughter.

"There’ll be more than ten men clamoring to be at Vettii's for a chance to be with the Warrior Princess!" Sienna asked, nodding knowingly at her companions.

Xena furrowed her brow.

A more mature woman chuckled, moved forward shaking her head and begging to differ. "Well, they'll be wasting their time. I'm sure Vettii has already laid his claim to that particular honor."

Xena crossed her arms and frowned. Now, what did she mean by that? She watched as all the women nodded their heads in agreement.

The younger, more naive girl sighed. "I hear she is VERY beautiful. Mesmerizing, in fact. Do you think she really has Caesar under her spell?"

"I'd rather she had Caesar under her sword!"

The warrior couldn't help but smile at that comment.

"She beat the pants off him in Britannia. Tore his standard right in half!"

"And don't forget what happened in Rome!"

"And she conquered half of Greece!"

"And made her mark in the land of Chin!"

"She's an inspiration to all Roman women everywhere!" announced the young Pompeian, lifting her arms in the air in excitement. "I wish I were more like her."

"What?" said the mature one. "You want to be at the head of an army, conquering the world? Gausipia, you don't even like to leave your house to shop for food!"

"I can dream, can't I? Dream of being a warrior princess! Faster than a speeding arrow, able to leap over castle battlements in a single bound! The greatest warrior woman who will one day rule the ..."

Xena had had enough.

"She doesn't exist, you know," the warrior said, strolling up to the group.

They all turned to face her, surprised at the interruption.

Xena continued. "She doesn't exist ... this warrior princess you're talking about."

The women looked at her blankly.

Finally one of them spoke up. "What do you mean?"

"I happen to know that the person you are referring to does not exist." Xena crossed her arms and smiled sweetly at the group.

One of the women moved forward to challenge the remark. "Are you trying to say that Xena the Warrior Princess ... the warlord of legend ... does not exist?"

Xena raised her eyebrows and grinned. "Not the one you're talking about."

"Don't be ridiculous!" the woman scoffed. "Of course, she exists! She's staying at the House of Vettii."

Xena shook her head. "Nope. She most certainly is not."

The women stared at her in disbelief.

"Are you saying that Vettii is lying?" the younger one asked.

"What I'm saying is," Xena looked at them all, meeting each of their gazes with a direct stare, "that the woman you are talking about does not exist."

"She's calling Vettii a liar!" exclaimed another.

"Who do you think you are?"

"She has some nerve!"

The angry comments were thrown at Xena fast and furious. She allowed the women to half surround her and back her up against the pool's wall.

The oldest one of the group put her hands on her hips and stood before the dark stranger.

"Who are you anyway? I've never seen you here before? This bath is for noblemen and their wives only! Whose house do you belong to?" she demanded, looking at her friends for support.

Xena glared at her directly in the eye, giving her a good taste of what it was like to be stared down by the Warrior Princess.

"I belong to no house and no one," Xena stated, her voice reaching a low and dangerous purr.

The woman quickly backed up a few steps until she bumped into two of her friends. They had to hold her shoulders to keep her from slipping under the water.

The group backed away as one. The women may not have recognized Xena, but they certainly knew danger when they saw it.

One of them caught the attention of a slave and waved her over.

"You! Girl! Get the Head Mistress! This woman does not belong here! She's a commoner! Get her out of the bath! THERE'S A COMMON WOMAN IN THE WATER!"

The clique started waving their hands, gaining the attention of everyone in the pool. A good warrior knows when to withdraw, besides, gods forbid Xena should contaminate their precious water with her common body. So she waded over to the steps of the pool ignoring the excitement building around her.

The warrior walked proudly out of the water, taking her sweet time in climbing the stairs. Her steps lifted her body out of the pool, slowly revealing her full stature. The water cascaded over her shoulders, down her back, falling over beautiful buttocks before caressing incredibly long legs. Xena could feel as well as hear the entire bathing area descending into silence.

The Pompeian women watched with open mouths as Xena took the towel handed to her by her faithful slave and tossed it over a shoulder, not bothering to wrap the cloth around her naked form.

She walked calmly toward the exit, keeping close to the edge of the pool, ignoring the stares turning in her direction. Xena paused briefly and glanced over her shoulder at the gossips who were still watching her. Running her tongue along the inside of her mouth, Xena gave them all a view of her middle finger before she exited the room.

The young servant girl helped Xena settle her sword on her back and smiled. She was proud to have served the warrior on this day - the rest of the staff would be talking about this for moons. Xena flashed her a beautiful smile and flipped her a coin.

"Thanks!" The servant girl beamed. No one had ever tipped her before.

"There's one more thing you can help me with," the warrior said.

The servant watched her as she placed the shiny round thing to the hook at her belt. "Anything," the girl stated sincerely.

"Tell me, have you seen a young woman here today? She's about this high and has golden red hair. She would have been dressed in strange clothes - like an Amazon. Have you seen her?"

"An Amazon?" the slave asked, pronouncing it slowly as though she had never heard the term before.

Xena sighed. "Boots, skirt, short top." Xena brought her hand to just under her breasts. "Great abs."

The servant girl thought a moment before replying. "No, I haven't seen anyone like that at all. I think I would have remembered the great abs. We don't get much of that here."

Xena laughed, patting her shoulder. "Thanks, anyway."

The warrior was about to leave the facility when the group of gossips entered the dressing room. They were still chatting on about the strange woman they had encountered in the bath and who she might have been. Xena narrowed her eyes in their direction.

All speculation came to a halt when they spotted Xena, fully dressed and armored, standing calmly by her locker, staring at them from across the room.

The leather, the heavily tooled boots, the gauntlets, battle armor and sword all made her appear ten feet tall. They gasped collectively, knowing without a doubt that the real Warrior Princess was taking a deliberate step forward, her intense gaze leveled directly at them. They huddled in a tight group, grasping at the tops of the towels wrapped around their bodies.

The gossips had indeed attracted Xena's attention, but it was not toward them that she was headed. One woman closed her eyes, expecting death to descend upon her as the warrior reached for her shoulder, only to be pushed out of the way.

Xena reached passed them all to grab at a flyer attached to a bulletin board on the wall just beyond.

She pulled at the parchment, detaching it, and walked away with it, leaving the speechless women to stare at her retreating back. (These women never tired of telling the tale of their close encounter with the infamous Warrior Princess. The only thing that kept changing with every telling was the size of her incredible sword.)

Xena did not stop to look at the announcement until she was out of the Stabian Baths and walking along the Via Dell'Abbondanza. She paused under the shade of an awning and looked down at the parchment.

It read:

"Today Only. The Bard Gabrielle of Poteidaia. Noon Meal at the Taverna of the Four Gods."

Xena looked up at the sky. The sun was high so she should still be there. She headed off down the street having read the address on the bottom of the flyer, very impressed with Sappho's ability to lead her around in such a covert way.

"A nice ride, a bath and now this ... right, Sappho?" Xena thought to herself with a grin, "That little manipulator managed to manipulate me right into a good mood." She had to admit, it was a nice plan. Xena, feeling rather good for the first time in days headed down the street toward the tavern looking forward to a little lunch and her favorite bard.

Xena's eyes popped open. She had almost fallen asleep and she did not want to do that. Not here. Not tonight. Not alone in this bedroll on this particular stretch of beach. She wanted to spend the night thinking about and remembering the bard ... and reading her story.

She lifted herself out from under the heavy fur and leaned against the log, letting the cold ocean wind slap her awake. After a few moments, the buffeting wind and the sound of the surf sharpened her senses. Xena reached for the water bag and took another sip, then glanced around, looking for Argo. She spotted her mare grazing near another patch of brush farther down the beach, twitching her ears alertly.

Xena adjusted her seat and moved her head around to crack her neck. Vowing never to fall asleep against a log again, she reached for the scrolls and shuffled them to find her place. But her mind was still processing what she remembered seeing at the tavern and comparing it to what she had read Gabrielle’s version of the same event.

She let the scroll drop down to her lap and looked up at the stars.

"When I got to the tavern, you hadn't even started your stories. To tell you the truth, I was a little surprised. I had expected the place to be half empty, thinking no one really knew who you were, so how could you draw a crowd? What I found was a tavern full of people and, to me, it looked like they were all waiting for the Bard of Poteidaia."

"I always underestimated you, didn't I?" Xena smiled apologetically at the brightest star. Realizing she could see the night sky a little too clearly, the warrior's attention dropped to the fire, which was quickly going out.

Xena reached over to her dwindling pile of wood and threw several of the biggest logs into the pit. She fanned the hot ashes with her blanket, breathing life back into the fading fire, and smiled with satisfaction when the bottom log burst into flames.

She sat back, smoothed out her blanket, then returned the scroll to her lap.

"I was going to join you at your table," Xena continued, scratching her nose, "but then I heard your conversation. You were talking about Sappho's school. I heard your answer and to tell you the truth, Gabrielle, I wasn't surprised. I knew you where questioning your life with me. What sane woman wouldn't? I couldn't believe you had stayed with me this long, after everything ..." Xena's voice faded as she relived her feelings at the time.

"Hades, Gabrielle! I couldn't imagine life without you and yet at the same time, I couldn't imagine why you would even want a life with me. So, I suspected what you were going through, but that didn't make hearing it any easier ... or reading this," Xena stated, lifting the scroll slightly from her lap and showing it to the star.

"When I heard you say 'maybe', it really hit me in the stomach. I backed away from the table and hid behind a pillar. I couldn't believe you would actually consider it. No ... that's not true."

Xena thought for a moment, trying to put her confused feelings into words.

"Thinking that leaving me would be the best thing for you and actually hearing that you might have decided to do just that really took me by surprise. The reality of it slapped me in the face. I know I tend to brood over things, Gabrielle, but that doesn't mean I want the things I brood over to come true!"

"Am I making sense here?"

Xena squinted up at the bright star, not enjoying the impression that the twinkle was an indication that it was laughing at her.

"It's not funny," the warrior stated, grumbling.

"I stayed behind the pillar, watching your entire performance. I couldn't believe it! You were so good, Gabrielle. You really had that crowd in the palm of your hand. They loved every word, every expression. They got so wrapped up in the story that they forgot where they were. By the muses, I got so wrapped up in them I completely forgot you were talking about me!"

Xena laughed at herself, remembering the moment she realized that she was so involved with the stories, she had forgotten that she was in them.

"I thought that I had lost you for sure. That you were going to look around, loving the crowd, loving their reaction, loving what you were doing, and you’d realize that this was the life you wanted. The life of an artist. Not the life of a sidekick to a warrior ... and a brooding one at that!"

Xena looked up at the sky, fixing her eyes on the one shining star that had stopped twinkling, but was still the brightest of them all.

"And then ... and then I saw you looking around, searching the room. I dropped back behind the pillar a little. I felt like I was spying on you for some reason and I didn't want you to catch me at it. You kept looking around the room and then I realized that you were looking for me."

Xena smiled up at the star.

"I don't know why, but that all by itself gave me the greatest hope. I think I realized you wanted to share the moment with me. You hadn't given up on me. And I wasn't willing to let you go so easily either. If you were willing to become a little more of a warrior to stay with me, then I could become a bit of a bard. There had to be a way we could have the best of both worlds."

"I left the tavern and spotted Alessandro." She chuckled once again, thinking of the young lad. "I paid him two silver dinars to follow you and let me know where you went. I just wanted to be sure I would meet up with you for dinner."

"So, I left the boy to watch you and headed off with the beginnings of a plan hatching in my brain."

“I felt a lot better, but that dinner last night still left a bad taste in my mouth. Besides, there was something that one of those chatterboxes in the pool said that really, really bugged me. And you know me, Gabrielle ... once a get an idea in my head, it’s hard to get it out.”

Xena stretched her arms before clasping her hands behind her back and closing her eyes with a grin.

"I had my own ideas about the festival and the Golden Ceres. And then, I had plans for you for after dinner, Gabrielle. BIG plans."

The grin turned into a very satisfied smirk.

Xena's lips widened into a full-fledged smile and the star twinkled. She picked up the scroll, giving it a gentle shake before settling in to read on further in the story.

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