1001 ARMEGEDDON NIGHTS PART 7
Disclaimer: Some of the characters in the following story are the property of Studios USA and others. No profit is being made or copywrite infringement intended by the author of this series.
Warning: just so there are no misunderstandings, this series is being rated NC-17, and may include explicit descriptions OF, or allusions to: mf/ff sex, bd/sm and violence. I think that covers everything. If you are easily offended, please read something more general.
Sorry it took so long to get this part out; its just been one thing after another in RL, plus, I was stuck on some scenes that I felt were just not working, scenes where I felt that Gabrielle was moving too far away from who she was. I dont want to trouble you with my problems, but I suffer from depression and I needed to take a break from the computer and the Internet. Id like to thank my readers for their support, encouragement and kindness. I may have a couple of more parts in me at least
Gabrielle reached up behind her and moved one of the silver oil lamps on the shelf above their bed to better illuminate the page she was reading. She and the Empress never did sleep without many candles lit about the room. Even so it could still be pretty dark.
Gabrielle examined the Egyptian hieroglyphics that she had written for mistakes. She had applied herself diligently to the study of the Egyptian written language learning to both read and write it. She had heard the temple walls were covered with it in that far away country so if they ever traveled there she would be able to read the peoples history. A slave born in that very county was instructing her; Xena didnt seem to mind that she was educating herself. Gabrielle had begun to take advantage of the many opportunities available to her as Queen.
"There is a country you should see sometime, I, we have a palace there too, its magnificent." Xenas voice came from the direction of the balcony doors. She parted the drapes so that more fresh evening air could come in.
You left something still standing?
"Id love to go, if I could stand the boat trip."
The Empress padded around the room in nothing but an open robe, her wild hair almost obscuring her face in the dim light of their large bedchamber.
"At this very moment, Gabrielle, I have all of Corinths best shipbuilders working on the most splendid ship for us to travel in. The largest, most luxurious ever built; you wont even be able to tell youre on the open sea. Our bedchambers in it have lots of open windows and the salt air it just does something to you, makes you feel all lusty not that we need any assistance. Well, Ill have to show you drawings of it tomorrow and you can add anything you might want. We need to get out into the world and have some fun."
She returned from the balcony and pored a goblet of fresh water. "I am planning to hold two weeks of games at the new coliseum war games. It will be glorious; gladiators, beasts from far away lands, chariots I will take part in them myself. You can cheer me on and Ill win lots of fights for you." She rolled into the bed next to Gabrielle and lay there on her back. "We can take a side trip and visit your parents if you want."
Xena sat up facing away from her.
"Do your wifely duty and rub my shoulders." Gabrielle laid the scroll in her lap as she kneaded the knots in Xenas strong shoulders. "Ohhh, thats good. You have the magic touch, my darling" she could not resist smoothing her hands over the satiny contours of those shoulders and the cool black hair that hung between them. She laid her own head against Xenas as she thought to herself; All this is mine.
"When Xandria is older perhaps, the ship will take some time to complete. I want you to see what Ive accomplished there. I cleaned out a lot of garbage. They keep their dead around forever in huge mountains made of stone blocks. All that fuss just for one body! Not giving the dead respectable pyres like we do. They dared to hide tons of riches from me deep inside with those rotting bodies."
"Xena they believe in eternal life and the things buried along with them are the things they will need in the next worldthats what they believe." She wondered if Xena had any plans for her own tomb, she had never heard of the Empress having one in all the time she had lived in the palace. Xena had never talked about a final resting place for either of them, yet she had to be planning for that future since she planned and carried out having an heir. The thought of growing older, of someday losing Xena, depressed her terribly. Gabrielle did not like to think about a future without Xena at all the very woman she had once wished dead so vehemently. She suddenly wrapped her arms around Xenas shoulders.
"And I'm supposed to care about that? Many cities and countries tried to hide what was rightly mine as their leaderand they paid for it tooyou know that."
Gabrielle just listened as the Empress ranted, her eyes dark and her skin deeply bronzed in the candlelight. She felt a tinge of desire that made her feel slightly ashamed of herself considering that the Empress was casually describing to her the destruction of a nation.
Running her hands over Xenas arms and legs from behind was relaxing for them both and it made Gabrielle remember the night Xandria was born in this very bed. How afraid she was at the final moments when she called out to Xena, called out for help to the one who had killed her years before and Xena had been her strength; holding her hand tightly the way her mother would have, using her fingertips in the right places to ease the pain. She had thought she was going to die; it felt like all of the blood in her body was rushing out, but she was proud of herself for having lived through that and she was no longer afraid to give birth again.
The night Xandria was born was the only time she had seen a genuine smile of happiness from Xena.
"I dont know why you find the history of a culture I had to eliminate so interesting, my love, but if it amuses you to study what is left, Ill indulge you. I dont suppose it will do any harm. But, by the time we arrive there all of the statues and images they constructed of the Pharaoh and his queen will be replaced by new ones of you and I, no matter how long it takes."
There was no use telling her it was not necessary, Xena would do what she wanted.
"In a few days, we are leaving for the hunting camp for a short stay. I need to ride out from there and check on a new fort thats being built."
"Cant we just stay here while you are gone? Its much more comfortable for the baby." She was actually looking forward to a few days alone, just this once, while the Empress went to the hunting camp. She knew it was probably too much to hope for that Xena would let her out of her sight for more than a day. Gabrielle much preferred the cool marbled halls and soaring columns of the palace to the collection of tents at the camp, however spacious and well appointed they were. She just felt more at home and secure at the palace. It was like living in a city and there was still much to explore, she had not seen even half of the rooms yet. She had been committing everything to memory; the location of rooms, how many doors and their location in each room, corridors, hallways and staircases. It was a habit, she realized, left over from the time when she had just arrived and planned to escape. When she was a child and spent hours in the woods and had to make mental note of rock formations, trails and other landmarks to find her way back home. She knew the woods around her home well enough to play in them for hours safely by herself.
Gabrielle had established a routine at the palace of visiting the harem after the daily training the Empress insisted on, then to the library or garden with Xandria to study and write with the baby playing nearby. Xandria loved to scribble on pieces of parchment, imitating her mothers movements as she wrote, so Gabrielle had begun to try to teach her to write some letters. The little girl seemed to be as focused on making letters for mommy as she was in drawing pictures of animals or her two mothers.
Gabrielle also made frequent trips to the storerooms to try to make a dent in organizing and cataloging what was there and where it was from. It was on one of these occasions that she happened upon piles of discarded maps and ledgers of Xenas confiscated lands throughout Greece.
The Empresss forces had grabbed everything of any value wherever they landed, from how it looked, and had deposited the spoils haphazardly in these huge rooms. The shelves overflowing, nearly every bit of floor space covered. Irreplaceable treasures were coated with dust and anything cloth was dry rotting. Organizing the mess seemed an impossibly huge job, but one that would keep her occupied for years. More than that, Gabrielle was moved by an irresistible curiosity to explore, not knowing what she might find, seeing things she never imagined even existed in her village life, objects that signified the art and history of other nations, other cultures. In the back of her mind she thought; Just in case we have a chance to give it back, to make things right.
"Thats out of the question where I go you will always come with me. I want to take Xandria camping, she wont go without her mother so you are both coming with me."
"Shes too young to hunt." Gabrielle continued to study the parchment.
"She is not too young to start learning how to survive in the woods. You can still do your little hobby there the same as you do here. We can take the Egyptian with us. Its your duty to come with me besides " she grabbed the parchment from Gabrielles hands and flung it across the room, "it is where we got married after all and a lot of improvements have been made that I want to show you."
"Will the man named Darphus be there?"
"He will be in the party, why?"
"I dont like him Xena. The way he stares at me makes me feel so dirty. I dont want him anywhere near my child." She did not want to be the cause of anyone being punished or executed but this man scared her, and she worried that Xena did not realize he might be dangerous.
"Dont worry about it, he wont be, Ill have his hide for staring at you. Hes really harmless, and hell be far away to another post soon. He wouldnt dare try anything he knows Id kill him. There really is something very important that I need to show you. Trust me on this."
"I guess I have no choice in the matter my Empress." Already the warriors arms were slipping around her waist and her mouth delivering noisy kisses to her throat and chest.
"You can call me Xena, now. We know each other well enough." She teased. "You work too hard on all of your little hobbies, my dear, my little queen, my little bird."
"I want to educate myself and " the Empresss mouth covered hers cutting off her conversation for quite some time. Gabrielles small hand found the back of Xenas head, her fingers tangling in the silky hair.
"I have made your life so easy that you dont even have to make a decision."
"I would like to see some plans and directions to all the rest of the storerooms I havent seen yet if youll indulge me. If its my duty to help run the house, then I need to make sure that everything Xandria will inherit is kept clean and well organized."
There would be a chance for her to find out the locations and contents of the royal grain storehouses. Her mind reeled with plans; If she could find them and use the slaves that she trusted to somehow get a little of that stored food to needy villages before the winter, and somehow do it so that what was moved out was not missed by the Empresss Governors. It would be at last a chance to do some good with her position. She had to find the courage to forge the Empresss signature she had been practicing Xenas hand and burning the parchment before Xena could find what she was doing. Perhaps a bushel of grain out of a hundred, a an acre of land that would never be missed, by moving a line on a map, land that would help feed a family and not Xenas troops. She had been sneaking glances at Xenas maps when she was not around, noting the names and locations of villages around where Poteidaea used to be it was a start. Perhaps Xenas Regents could be bribed; there was certainly plenty of gold around to do that. She was sure that Ki and Warhorse would help her, they had been with the Empresss operation longer and they seemed to have compassion. There was another consideration; that the Empress would find she and anyone who helped her guilty of betrayal. She knew it was a dangerous game she was playing. Did she have a right to endanger those that helped carry out those plans?
"Meet me in my offices tomorrow after I come back from my ride, Ill let you know then and Ill give you the layout of the store rooms."
"Thank you, Xena."
Pried and Cigna exchanged glances suspiciously when Darphus made the suggestion in a brief meeting at the brothel. He had found the two in the hallway as they clutched half-dressed companion women assigned to them in one arm, and huge tankards of strong drink with their free hand. The thick, dark smoke filling the brothel halls made eyes burn and heads pound. They had been drinking and whoring till near sunrise, when he finally worked up the courage to approach two of Xenas closest, and highly paid, guards. It was far too noisy and confused in the Royal brothel for anyone to overhear or guess at their intrigue. He was not about to be confined to that hellhole on the island-her idea of a good post.
"Think of the palace stores full of riches you have seen it as well as I have. It can all be ours! The whole country too! And why shouldnt it be?"
He saw the two men exchange glances.
"What? Are you afraid?! She is just a woman! A good fighter, but still... The three of us can handle her."
"The Chosen One she cannot be killed."
"Have you not seen her wounded in battle?" the other two men looked at one another. "If she bleeds, she can be killed!"
"What then, Darphus? The Barbarous will hear of it and be on us. She has kept Greece free!"
"All she cares about now is her little bitch and that brat; its time for new management."
"Are you crazy? It is too dangerous. Even talking of this could get us killed,"
"Not for a real man. Youve had it too easy for too long."
She checked on her daughter once more as she lay sound asleep in her own ornate little bed. Xandrias soft black hair and profile--even behind childishly plump cheeks--were so Xena. The soft music the slaves were playing in a near anti-chamber enchanted and lulled the princess to sleep, her favorite stuffed horse clutched in her tiny hands. Already she was taking after Xena; she was becoming a horse-lover.
"Sweet dreams Mouse."
She went to the bathing room for a moment and uncovered the items she had hidden there. Xena had been teasing her all day, coming up behind her and using those large hands on her breasts, the inside of her legs and the small of her back. With her mouth, Xena had kissed her neck and lips with that animal-like way she had of making you feel like you were being devoured. Kissed her till she felt like she would faint or go crazy from being left unsatisfied, had squeezed the sensitive flesh of her rump but had stopped short of going to that place that brought her to pleasure. And Xena knew full well what she was doing the evil thing.
Gabrielle had mapped out her revenge and with the music playing and Xandria fast asleep, she would carry it out. She dropped her robe, let her hair fall and dressed. Xena frequently made gifts of ridiculously showy pieces of gold jewelry and gems to her, she did wear them at least once just to make Xena happy but they did not interest her that much except as playthings for Xandria. Now they would come in handy. She put on the large dangling earrings made of delicate gold and the many bracelets and gold cuffs that she had found till they almost reached her elbows, on her ankles she put the ones with little bells that the dancers wore. She put rings of gold and jewels on every finger but changed her mind about the necklace she had brought. She had found two gold rings small enough to fit her nipples with just enough room to string a fine gold chain and it draped beautifully. She had seen a slave adorned this way once and blushed at her own daring for doing the same thing.
Lets see how much you like to be teased, Xena. Ive never pleasured myself in my life and I'm not about to start now thats your job. She slipped a belt of gold coins around her hips. It was just wide enough to hide her triangle of fair hair, but not too wide that it covered everything in the back just the effect she was looking for. Dressed in nothing but gold jewelry and her long hair from head to toe, she slipped the robe back on. Walking carefully so that the jewelry she wore would not jingle and give it away; Gabrielle crossed the cool marble floor to the grand bed she shared with Xena. The Empress was lying on her back watching her approach; the look in her large candlelight darkened eyes was that of undisguised lust.
"What took you so long? What have you got on under that?" she could easily spot the multitude of gold encircling the queens ankles and arms. By the look in her eyes, Gabrielle could see Xena instantly picking up on the game. Her mouth suddenly dry, Xena took a huge swallow of wine from the gaudy jewel encrusted goblet she always carried.
Damn, that was a good idea of hers! Gabrielle had arranged to have the harem musicians play both in the evening and morning. She had even chosen the pieces for them, and this was among the certain ones she had them play when she was in the mood for romance.
"Xena put your hands behind your back and turn around."
"What are you up to?"
"You said I could do anything I wanted to you. Just trust me."
There was suspicion in her eyes and a broad smile on her face as she cautiously turned her back on her queen. Gabrielle pulled the small length of leather from the robe pocket and proceeded to bind the Empresss hands behind her back.
"If it were anyone else trying to do this, Id have their head."
"What do you have in mind?"
Gabrielle did not answer but stood with her back to the empress in front of the fireplace, the light from it showing the outline of her legs through her filmy gown. She swayed slowly to the sensuous music. Gabrielle slowed her movements, tucking her palms under the hair at the back of her neck and bunching on top of her head. The robe parted slightly as she did affording Xena a brief glimpse of the treasure-laden body beneath.
"Enjoying the view, My Empress?" she let her hair down into a gradual tumble to her waist. She swiveled one hip toward in Xenas direction, then the other letting the robe slip from her shoulders. The little rings and chain on her nipples tickled her in quite a pleasant way.
"By the gods, Gabrielle!"
"Shall I dance for your pleasure, My Empress?"
"Please do." Lost in her own world, Gabrielle continued to sway to the music, her eyes closed, the gold hair that had grown so long following the movements of her body, brushing her backside along with the belt of coins. The whole thing only served to make her even more aroused than ever and she was anxious for the time when Xena would finish her off. She hated to admit that she was in a mood for a good, hard rutting from Xena.
She straddled one of Xenas powerful thighs, and already she felt the heat of Xenas skin moving up inside her but she wanted Xena to feel her warm opening against her own flesh.
"You like it when I dance for you, Empress?"
"I love it! No one can move like you do, My Queen."
She took Xena head in her hands and kissed her mouth, teasing with her tongue, reaching down between Xenas legs to run her fingers through the lush black thatch that hid the Empresss birthmark from all but the most intimate of acquaintances. She was one of the few that had located it and lived to tell. As she stood up again, Xena took the tiny chain hanging between her breasts in her teeth and gave it a gentle tug. She gently pushed Xena back on the bed and she lay there enjoying watching her mate, drinking her in with her eyes.
"My wife could render an army helpless with her charms. You have an incredible body." Xena whispered.
Gabrielle enjoyed dancing so much, that she found herself completely oblivious to anything but the hypnotic music and her own bodys response to it. So entranced was she by it all that she even forgot that anyone else was in the room.
There was not a sound but the crackle and snap of the flames and the music that was loud enough to cover the Empresss escape from her bonds and trip across the stone floor of the room, yet she was suddenly there, those strong arms of hers encircling Gabrielles body in a warm embrace.
She took the large warm hands of the Empress and placed them on her body as her larger mate swayed with her. Those hands roamed slowly over the Queen studying how her curves had been enhanced by motherhood and training into a work of art. Hypnotized by the sensuous rhythm of the music and the dance of the flames, Gabrielle reached up and crossed her wrists behind the Empresss neck. Suddenly she pulled herself free and began to strip the golden bangles off of her arms.
"I cant believe I'm doing this!"
"Doing what? Gabrielle, whats wrong?"
"I cant believe I'm all trussed up and behaving like a whore. Its just not me!"
The belt of coins dropped to the fir rug and she stepped out of it. Xena just stood back and watched as Gabrielle picked the rest of the gold jewelry off as if it were burning her skin.
Gabrielles hands covered her face as she realized she was crying.
"I didnt mean to say that the dancers in the harem are whores, theyre not! I mean I dont know who I am anymore; I just wanted to do something fun for you but it just doesnt feel right. I just feel so dirty and ashamed. I'm your wife, I shouldnt have to act like a slave with no respect for myself to keep your attention!"
To her surprise, Xena had moved to embrace her tightly, and stroked her hair.
"Shhhh, you dont have to do a thing."
"You hardly ever call me by my name, its always My Queen. Why cant you just love me?"
Xena whispered close in her ear: "Sayapo, se latrevo, Gabrielle."
She felt herself easily lifted off of her feet as Xena carried her off to their bed and lowered her onto her back. Xena showered her face and lips with warm kisses. She suddenly sat up with her knees on either side of Gabrielles hips, looking down at her in the dark nothing but the fireplace lighting her from behind. Gabrielles hands found her wifes generous thighs, stroking them fondly.
"Maybe Ill just do a dance for you, huh?" Gabrielle giggled at the thought, Xena had moves as a warrior, but her dancing skills left much to be desired. She feared that she had angered the Empress with the little laugh that escaped her lips, but she did not seem to mind. Xena bent forward till all of her hair was over her head and moved her head side-to-side brushing her hair over Gabrielles chest and shoulders, then in one swift motion flung her body and head back making her hair arc through the air. Xena looked so beautiful with all of that black hair cascading down her face and body!
ﾒYou like your wild woman, dont you!" she teased as she gyrated slowly.
ﾒI want you, Xena! By the gods, I want you so much!"
"Then you shall have me." She curled her lips back and snarled like a wild animal. She fell on Gabrielle and started to gently bite her all over her neck till Gabrielle laughed.
"The leopard is going to devour you." She said in a husky voice as she continued to nip Gabrielles skin with her teeth, in as many sensitive spots as she could find, pretending to devour her without biting hard enough to break skin.
"Xena, stop!" Gabrielle laughed. But Xena continued to growl and bite.
"Lets make some noise."
She continued to nibble her way down Gabrielles body till her head was between her wifes little legs, and then with a bruising grip on Gabrielles thighs, devoured her with such an animal ferocity that Gabrielle found herself loosing her breath. Her body rose and fell back on the bed several times as she almost fought Xena and the frightening intensity of what was happening. Just when she thought she could stand no more, Xena made use of her long fingers and Gabrielle had to put her hands over her mouth to stifle her cries.
"Sorry." Xena took a long drink of wine and kissed her.
"Its alright, Xena. It was wonderful, I just..."
Exhausted and content, she laid facing Xena, her arms around the Empresss neck and one leg thrown over her waist. She moved closer as Xena reached over to stroke her back.
"Xena, I want another baby."
The Empress looked at her in amazement.
"Dont you? I love her so much; she is the best thing that ever happened to me. It makes me so sad when I think that I will never have another child."
Xena squeezed her small hands and kissed the palms of each.
"Id love to see you with child again; you were so beautiful! But Xandria was born for a purpose; she was born to be my possible heir. Having another child, it would serve no purpose."
"Xena, every child born has a purpose in life. Anyway, does it have to be for a purpose? Cant we have another daughter just because we want one? You can make it happen, ask the gods to help us have another child, you did it before."
"Gabrielle you dont understand, many times Ive seen brothers and sisters killing each other over a throne. I dont want Xandria to have competition for her rightful place."
"Ours wont. Dont ask me how I know, I just know. Xandria will be your heir, without question. But wouldnt it be wonderful for her to have a sister? Shell have someone to play with with all of those toys you have for her, shell learn to share. Theyll help each other."
If something happens to me, shell have someone to care about her Gabrielle thought.
"You told me that you would give me anything I asked for."
"So I did, we shall see."
When she approached Xenas offices latter that next morning about the idea of organizing the storerooms, that man, Darphus was there again.
Xena looked up from the plans they were studying.
"Yes, My Queen?"
"Have you decided, about my idea of cataloging the storerooms?"
"Why do that Gabrielle?"
"Theyre just such a mess-everything will get ruined. Your scribe keeps such detailed records of everything else in your empire; I just thought the treasures youve collected through the years would be just as important. I need some servants assigned to help me."
"Very well." The Empress waived her hand. "Do what you want. You may spend a few minutes a day on your project. Just dont disappear on me for hours at a time. I wont allow it to interfere with your weapons training."
Gabrielle thought the Empress had added the last, almost order, to her to impress this man with the control she had over her wife. She rarely spoke this way to her in private.
"Of course, my Empress." As she turned to go she glared defiantly at Xenas man. Surely he did not expect go on openly staring at her and go unpunished.
"Wait here for a moment, Gabrielle. I need to get the layouts of all the storerooms for you, Ill be back."
Xena stepped out into the throne room and Gabrielle now found herself in the uncomfortable position of being in the same room almost alone with Xenas lieutenant. There were plenty of guards and servants present in the room also, but without Xena there too, Gabrielle felt momentarily ill with panic. Seeing his face brought back the terrible memory of that day she had almost died on the cross, when Darphus stood by Xenas shoulder laughing as she had her legs broken. The way he looked at her made her uncomfortable, being so used to people not looking at her directly. She would have to speak to Xena in private about it.
He openly leered at her.
"You must be the reason I had to wait so long to be seen this morning. Shes giving you a rest now, I see."
"How dare you speak to me that way! Talking like that can get you killed."
"As you well know, My Queen. What have you got so good that she didnt leave you on the cross?"
"Youre an ambitious little gamiola, that has turned our leader into a soft-hearted "
"Thats enough!" Seeing the Queen becoming agitated, Warhorse already stepped between her and Darphus and crossed his massive arms over his chest.
"And which one of the guards did you get the little brat from, eh?" Darphus continued.
"The guards can escort you to the dungeon, right now." she said before she had time to think about it, and they moved to obey her, grabbing Darphus by the arms. "I dont care how valuable you are in Xenas advisory, I'm not going to put up with anyone saying things like that to me and about my child. Take him away."
As the guards disarmed him and dragged him out the door, he continued to rave at her.
"Dont be so sure of your self, little Queen! You can be replaced! Youll be in the cell next to me when she grows tired of you!" they could hear him struggling with the guards all the way down the hall. Suddenly she realized she did not care what happened to him.
"A wise decision, My Queen." Warhorse said to her quietly.
"Whats going on? Wheres Darphus?" Xena strolled in to the room, her arms full of maps. Surely she had heard the commotion.
"I'm sorry, Xena. You should have heard the ugly things he said to me. Maybe I dont have the authority to do so but I had him sent to the dungeon."
"Did you?" she was fully prepared for Xenas angry response but the Empress laughed.
"You always had the authority and you finally used it I'm so proud of you!"
Xena took her face in hand and kissed her deeply.
"Xena, I dont think I should have "
"Dont waste sympathy on someone who has no sympathy for you. You did the right thing. Solved a problem for me actually. He and a few others were planning to ambush me at the hunting camp. I would have enjoyed the fight but there will be others, and he wasnt much of a challenge anyway. The only problem now, is what to do with the little poutsos I gave to him."
"You mean Akemi? Youre not putting her in the dungeon too, are you?"
"As long as she is out of my sight, I leave it up to your discretion, My Queen."
She couldnt bear the though of that young girl banished to the brothel or handed over to another of Xenas cruel men.
"Ill give her to Ki and Warhorse for their house-slave: thats my decision."
"Cant say I would have done the same, love, but Ill abide by it. As long as I dont have to look at her."
Xena kissed her again. "I aim to please." Her whisper was almost sinister. "Its so intoxicating, isnt it? Having the power over someones life. You are growing into your role as queen, beautifully. I always knew you had it in you."
"Are you going to kill him?"
"Doesnt he deserve it? Dont feel sorry for someone who would hurt you."
"I dont, I just wondered."
"Let me take care of it."
Trying to study maps that she looked at but couldnt see, Gabrielle knew where Xena had gone; to the dungeon and her new prisoner.
Hes going to be executed because I sent him there. I put him in the same place I was in long ago. She couldnt bring herself to follow Xena down into those dark evil corridors to the dungeon. The fear of being locked up in one of that cold lonely cell was still with her. I still dont trust her not to throw me in too, if I go down there. She wouldnt do that, I'm sure but what if she did?
Dressed head-to-toe in black leathers and clutching her gaudy solid gold, jewel-encrusted goblet in her hand, Xena paid a visit to the part of the dungeon where Darphus was being kept. Shortly after arriving and ordering him brought from his cell, she had cut his tongue out for speaking against the Queen. She had simply grabbed it with a pair of iron tongs and sliced it off with a red-hot knife from the fire-pit. The new dungeon master was stunned at how calmly she went through the motions, as if she had done it a hundred times before. Darphus was doubled over in pain and the guards struggled to hold him upright.
"You got a problem?" she asked the dungeon master.
"Of course not, Highness. I could have done that for you."
"I believe in being hands-on."
And after she had watched, sitting cross-legged in a chair, as the guards had soundly beaten him, savoring the wine from that golden cup. There was no need in having his punishment carried out in public she knew word of his fate would spread word-of-mouth; it always did. She got up and approached as he lay panting on the cold stone floor.
"Your not fit to even make a good sacrifice to the gods. It would be an insult to Ares if I brought a dirty dog like you to his alter. But dont worry; I wont let you bleed to death either. Get the poker and cauterize his wounds. Then, take him to the hunting camp before us and release him."
Crow crouched in the brush on a hilltop overlooking the crude camp where Maven had spent the night. It was little more than a body-shaped space of matted down grass where she had lain and covered herself with leaves for warmth. She was probably off somewhere gathering what wild food she could find, Crow thought, as her eyes swept the surrounding brush below for any movement.
Where are you, Maven?
She did not even remember blinking, but the next moment she was tied standing to a tree so quick and pain-free was the blow from Mavens hand. As the wind blew across her skin, she also realized all of her clothes were gone. Maven was riffling through her saddlebags. They were unmarked by the brand of the Empresss royal guard, so was the horse Crow rode. Maven would take it all. Stealing from a representative of the Empress carried a death-sentence, but she no longer cared. The contents of Crows bags were of fine quality; dried meat and bread, pain-killing herbs and best of all gold coins with the Empresss symbol. Plenty of dinars to bribe one of the Empress pirate ships to take her to a place far enough away so that she was never heard from again. There were provinces that the Empress considered too insignificant to bother with and that would offer Maven a place to live in peace and quiet.
The bag also contained several copies of an announcement detailing plans for a grand festival and a week of gladiator games early the next year in Athens. Even the Empress would compete in them. For now the only thing on Mavens mind was getting to the ports and setting sail for the far North or East and the thought of long months at sea was more appealing by the moment. She could easily sign on as a crewmember the captains of such vessels tended not to be too choosey about who they hired.
"Her Evil Highness cant think me much of a threat that she sent the likes of an amateur such as you after me. Surely, you must be meant as an insult."
"Dont dare to speak of her so! I would die for The Empress and My Queen!"
"Youre a fool."
"I will make you die for them!"
"I almost did. Youre in no position to make idle threats to anyone. Now I wonder what shell do to you when she finds out you failed? It wont be pretty I know that. Id show you my own scars, but I dont think that you would be that impressed no doubt youve seen plenty of the Empresss artwork already. Too bad youre not my size." In an elaborate gesture, Maven tossed Crows leathers into fire she had started.
"Thanks for the provisions, little one. Ill be long gone by the time you work your way out of those ropes."
Gabrielle was dressed in her practice leathers and had Xandria in her own little version of battle dress. She laced and tied Xandrias little boots on, making sure they were snug.
"Were going for a ride, you like that dont you?" She gave her daughter a kiss.
She had planned to ride her own horse but when she emerged from their tent, she did not see it anywhere.
Xena motioned to her from beside her own very tall and stout black horse. Instead of the red-tasseled bridle reins that usually adorned the Empresss horse, today the tack it wore was plain leather. The giant horse pawed the ground and snorted loudly, tossing its long black mane. Xandria clapped her hands, the weight of her leaning in the direction of the grand horse nearly causing her to fall from her mothers arms. Xena was already there, catching her.
"Well take mine."
Gabrielle had to climb on a wooden stool to step into the stirrup and reach her leg over the back of Xenas black warhorse, but her new leathers made it easier to climb into the roomy saddle. Xena handed Xandria up to her and then climbed on behind Gabrielle. She saw Xenas reason for sitting behind them both that she had positioned herself to protect them both with her own body, and it made her feel warm toward the Empress.
"Ill show you how to handle a real horse." The Empress said to her. "Take the reins in one hand and rest them on the horn, turn him with your legs. Thats it."
"With my legs?" She took the thick leather strands in her gloved hand and nervously held onto Xandria with the other. Xandria squealed in delight and kicked her legs.
"Leaves your hands free for weapons." Gabrielle rode in front of Xena and held Xandria on her lap, both of them encircled by Xenas strong arms. She let Gabrielle take the reins and control the stallion for the practice.
They rode to a beautiful clearing where a powerful stream of water fell from a high cliff to a lake below. It would be an ideal place to set up a small house, she thought, if things were different, if they could have a normal life like everyone else. She wished for a small house with a garden and livestock, just she, Xandria and Xena. If Xena was not the Empress anymore and could just leave the worry of ruling the world to someone else.
Occasionally she would push in on Gabrielles leg from the left or right, till she got the hang of how much pressure the horse needed to turn to the left or right as they skirted the lake. It was surprising just how sensitive the horse was to the least little pressure or shift of body weight, it was as if he knew which way they wanted to go. For such a huge powerful horse he was so easy to ride and obedient, no wonder Xena loved to ride for miles each morning!
Xena suddenly stopped the horse and they both froze while Xena listened. Gabrielle had grown used to Xenas wariness of every environment she was in and followed her lead, knowing she was making sure they were alone. Even the baby was still, tilting her head back and trying to look up at Xena from where she shared the saddle.
"Here." Xena took the reins from her and lead the horse up a trail toward the waterfall. The trail looked a little difficult to follow so Gabrielle was grateful that Xena had taken back control of the huge horse. It easily carried the three of them over the rise and fall of the narrow trail as it coursed its way under overhanging shelves of rock. Behind the powerful falling sheets of water there was an openinga cavern. Into this they rode and stopped, Xena helping them down after she had lit a torch from the flint she carried.
"This cave cannot be seen from anywhere around the lake, you have to know where it is. Its designed to be a safe place for escape or if the need ever arises to go underground. "
Gabrielle wondered what it was all about as she lifted Xandria from the horse.
"What if an army follows it to you or us?"
"Cant happen; the ceiling is set to cave in a way back if there is too much vibration. It should hold up just long enough for about a thousand troops on horseback before it comes down on all of them". She smacked her palms together, her wide grin almost glowing in the dark of the cave. "Thats the way I designed it."
"Is it safe for us to be here?" she held Xandria closer.
"I wouldnt bring you here if it wasnt, my little one! One or two, maybe three mounts can pass through safely, but thats all.
"What for? Why are you showing me this now?"
Why did the empress trust her not to use the information to escape? Was she that confident of her love and loyalty? That she would never betray her love and wife ever by running away?
Xena and I both know I never would.
"Because you are my wife. For emergencies, I have passageways built in a number of directions." She took out her sword and drew in the soft dirt with its tip. "Here, you have to remember them, there are no maps. It also branches off toward the ports of Corinth and joins the tunnel to Athens. There are storerooms and stations along the way. There are also traps; quite a few places where there are bottomless pits, so make note of those. There are stones arranged on the floor like this," she took a few small rocks and piled them in what looked like a haphazard formation. "They indicate a trap or a safe-room. You will learn to recognize the formations; the large rock means a pit, a twig; weapons and a small plant; food. It took over ten years and thousands of workers to complete. I just added the tunnels to natural cavern openings. They are our secret, only you and I will know where they are and where they lead."
"Except for the people who helped you build them - they know the location, right?"
"They did till they were finished with the work. Then they took the secret with them "
"By the gods, Xena! You had them all put to death?"
"Does that surprise you, my sweet?" she was sheathing her sword and brushing off her hands, looking quite proud of herself.
"No. No it doesnt. Nothing you do surprises me anymore."
"Dont feel badly for them, before they had to go they were treated to a grand feast, beautiful women and the finest drink. For their last night, they lived better than kings! I always show my gratitude."
They had spent the rest of the day swimming in the lake with Xandria as the horse grazed nearby, drying themselves by laying in the soft grass on the shore. Xandria dozed on the cloak Xena had spread out on ground for her, protected by the shade of a large tree. Gabrielle lay on her back watching the cloud formations drift by, with Xenas head on her stomach, thinking how perfect it all was at that moment, the three of them together. Why couldnt it stay like this forever?
The fates of the men who built the caves for Xena were very much on Gabrielles mind and she wondered how it was that she could love someone who was such a killer. It was hard to imagine all the thousands she must have killed when you saw her with their daughter, how loving and gentle she was and how careful she was with Xandria in the water.
All those deaths, and all of the things Xena done in past to achieve her place as Empress, happened before they met. Most of it. Perhaps, the worst that the Empress could do was over now. She had not seen any servants turn up with any signs of injuries for quite awhile so maybe there was reason to hope.
Gabrielle let them both sleep until the dusk threatened a dark ride home and they had to get dressed and head back.
As Xena was putting away her horse, Gabrielle took the baby back to their tent. Guards followed them closely. Xandria was heavy in her arms, drowsy from the ride. Em offered to take her as soon as they appeared in the entrance to their tent but Gabrielle shook her head.
"Ill put her down for a nap myself, Em. I need to feed her first, thank you."
The sprawling table was set for the royal family with huge bowls of fresh fruit- carefully chosen to be bruise and blemish free- warm, freshly baked breads, honey, olive oil, three kinds of wine, milk, tea, several different cheeses, hot rice and grains, roasted chicken, fish, shrimp, beef cuts, pork and the raw oysters that were Xenas favorite. They had no choice but to prepare so much food, there was no way of knowing what the Empress was in the mood for. No longer deemed to be fresh enough for the empresss next meal, the considerable amount that was left over was dispersed among the servants. Gabrielle had seen to it. She had increased the bounty on their table knowing that it was far too much for them both and the servants would eat well. Xena seemed not to care she enjoyed the excesses.
In the far corner a servant girl softly played the pan flute. Cyclops and Warhorse stood at the entrance with muscled arms folded over their massive chests. Ki was in charge of the lower household slaves and Em saw to it that their everyday needs were taken care of. It was Em that made sure the frayed twigs and mint were set out twice a day for brushing teeth, that the baths were emptied and cleaned and clothes were folded and hung in the changing room.
Gabrielle brushed and braided Xandrias hair while the little girl ate grape leaves stuffed with rice and lamb bits, apple slices and drank warm milk from her own small cup. When she finished Gabrielle washed her face with a warm damp cloth, her little head kept turning searching all the faces in the tent room.
"Theres my pretty princess. Sleepy now?" She decided to let the little girl sleep in the main reception room where their dinner was set up. She placed Xandria on a sitting pallet that was softly upholstered in rich fabric. There were always plenty of pillows and fur coverlets in all of their rooms and she picked some herself to make her daughter comfortable as possible, tucking her in and kissing her cheek.
From the seat at the sprawling table she chose she could easily keep an eye on Xandria as she slept. It only took her another moment to go behind the drapes and change into a more comfortable robe before sitting cross-legged on the large pillows.
Ki and Em walked over to her with steaming bowls and platters, but after a brief glance at the food she declined it. She was thinking about what Xena had told her about the caves, and it had made her lose her appetite.
"My Queen," Ki said, "You must eat something you must keep up your strength for the sake of the child."
"I wish you could all sit at the table and eat with us." Gabrielle said sadly. "I think of you all as my friends, more like my family."
Ki did not have to answer her; but they both knew that the Empress would never allow it.
Gabrielle relented and accepted a few slices of lamb and greens with tomatoes and olive oil. Growing up in a poor village, she had eaten all the rabbit and goats cheese she could stand and she now preferred the more exotic samples the Empress had imported from all over the world. Sometimes she preferred citrus fruits and Asian-spiced rice and noodles. She had the servants pour her a mug full of the frothy brew Xena had brought in from Egypt; it seemed to go well with anything.
"This looks good. I wonder whats taking Xena so long."
Xena helped her wife and child down from the tall horse outside their tent, noting that Gabrielle had a hard time meeting her eye. Already the silent admonishment from her wife about something she had done in the past and it darkened her mood. She watched them go inside and remounted. Jerking the reins sharply, she rode hard around the back into the royal livery, scattering surprised slaves and straw everywhere.
"GODS, HAVENT YOU DONE CLEANING HIS STALL YET? IVE BEEN GONE ALL DAY!ﾓ already she had slipped out of the saddle and had the whip at her side in hand. She caught the nearest unfortunate man across the face with a doubled length of the leather, leaving a long gash and one less eye. Seeing it run down his cheek like a raw egg, made her laugh, unexpectedly.
"Thats what you get!" she looked around for more to beat. Some frightened slaves had been edging for the entrance or had outright run.
"STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE! How dare you try to leave my presence without permission? I should have you all impaled!"
One man had frozen in place, a pitchfork in his hand, his eyes burning with hatred. The empress looked him up and down, casually.
ﾒWhat are you waiting for? Charge me, your life is over with already."
Xena sauntered into the tent, stripped to the waist except for the small triangles of leather and cord that covered her breasts, handed her weapons to the servants and headed to the washbasin. The fresh water cooled her hot face and cleaned her hands. Gabrielle had insisted on her washing before meals and now it was a habit.
Fortunately, it did not look like the Queen had noticed the noise of the scuffle in the barn over the general noise of the entire camp. Even now Gabrielle sat patiently at their table, all clean and sweet, bathed and ready for her. She was suddenly gripped by a maddening lust, marched over to Gabrielle and, taking her by her hands, pulled her to her feet.
Gabrielles protest died on her lips when she looked into Xenas eyes. The combination of untamed lust and even love in the Conquerors ice blue ones made her heart pound. It was understood they both felt it.
"Gami seme tora, Xena!ﾓ
They disappeared into the sleeping chamber without another word.
Xenas fingers were long and capable of achieving deep and sometimes-painful penetration and she thrusted with untamed vigor taking care to watch for any sign in Gabrielles voice or expression that she was being too rough. Several times Gabrielles body convulsed as she surrendered completely to the Destroyer of Nations and her own lust. Her body bowed up ward as the final wave took her and the warm, sweet water of her climax eased down her thighs to the bed linen. Xenas strong back would bear the marks of her wifes raking fingernails the next morning.
When she had finally caught her breath, Gabrielle got up and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders.
"Where are you going?"
"Suddenly, I'm very hungry."
Xena grabbed her around the waist and tried to pull her back to the bed. "Stay here with me for a little while longer".
"Xena, please, I'm starving. Arent you hungry? I had them bring fresh oysters for you."
"You know what I like."
The servants were removing covers protecting the food as they returned and Xandria was still sleeping soundly.
Xena went to where Xandria slept and kneeled down besides her, taking the sleeping childs hand, it wrapped around Xenas finger and she brought the back her daughters hand to her lips.
"She looks for you when youre not here." Gabrielle said.
"She is precious to me. You both are. You know, every time I try to take her into the temple of Ares, she fights me like a little harpy."
"Dont force her if she doesnt want to go in."
"What if she never does? I dont understand it."
"Shes still a baby, shes just scared."
"Nothing should frighten my daughter, least of all the gods she is to worship! She was more angry than frightened. A real fighter."
"She doesnt understand everything yet, just give her time. Children have no patience for ceremonies and rituals; she is a little young for all that yet. She has plenty of years ahead of her to learn to appreciate the gifts the gods give us, and how to properly thank them."
Gabrielle hoped her words would have the desired effect; she did not look forward to a fight with Xena while she was trying to force the child to go into the temple but if it came to that.
After a while the Empress answered softly; "I suppose youre right."
"Xena, come over and have something to eat."
After a few more minutes of savoring the moment of holding her daughters hand, Xena joined her wife at the table.
"You are still angry with me about the cave?"
"What would be the point? You will never change and all of that happened before I got here."
"I do what I have to do. Always have, always will."
Xena took one of the oysters and topped it with a dab of the hot, green paste called wasabi.
"I dont know how you can eat that."
"Well, Id rather be eating something else, but have to take a break and eat food sometime."
The Empress chose one of he raw oysters and, finding the pearl with two fingers, placed onto the table in front of Gabrielle.
"The gods have created the lowly oysters in the image of my Queen. I will make it forbidden for anyone but me to eat them."
"Xena, why do that?"
"Because I can."
"Just because you have the power to do something, doesnt mean you should. You can choose not to make a law still knowing you have that power but didnt use it."
"Wheres the fun in that?"
The bright Mediterranean sun made it necessary for Gabrielle to squint as she worked her daily lesson learning to defend herself against an attacker with a sword. She and the arms master were using wooden swords for safety as they moved in slow circles around each other looking for an opening. In sparring with her, the master made sure that there was never any chance she could be injured. He taught the moves to her slowly and precisely, and then guided her to repeat them again and again, countless times, till they were second nature to her. The lessons with the Queen bore little resemblance to the ones with the Empress, when he sometimes felt he was fighting for his life. The Empress was a killer who took joy in the killing; the Queen was quiet, hard-working and sensible she would not take unnecessary risks. Gabrielle had learned to trust the master of arms; he was a kind and patient man old enough to be her father.
Xena watched them for a while standing with her arms folded across her chest, as Gabrielle parried a combination of swipes from her teacher she was getting good. The arms master complemented her and she giggled. Suddenly Xena was standing behind her, taking the wooden sword away and replacing it with her own sword in Gabrielles hand, her large hand over her wifes little one.
"Xena " the sword was heavier than she had expected. She wondered with a little panic what Xena was trying to do. Griping the hand Gabrielle had clinched unwillingly over the sword hilt, Xena moved the sword in parrying and thrusting with the sword master, who was careful not to bring any moves too close. Gabrielle tried to remove her hand and let go of the sword but Xenas grip was too strong. She was becoming frightened; she could see the obvious fear in the masters eyes.
"Xena, dont. I can "
"Youve got to be aggressive!"
"Xena, I thought you didnt want me to fight using a sword."
Xena easily moved the sword to swipe the slowed down thrust of the master.
"Go for the opening now, put your weight behind it and have the blade turned sideways so it slips between the ribs so "
Before she knew what happened, Xena head pushed her and the sword forward and Gabrielle felt the sickening pop of leather, skin and muscle giving under the point.
"NO!" She finally managed to free herself of Xenas grip as the master of arms slid off of the end of Xenas sword and onto his knees, his face ashen, clutching his tunic, rivulets of red seeping between his fingers. Gabrielle knelt by him and whispered; "I'm so sorry, I didnt mean to Xena why did you make me do this!"
The look on Xenas face, as she towered over them was cold and hard.
"Because you might need to know this to save your life one day. You cant be squeamish about it." She wiped the blade on the side of her boots and motioned for the healers, who ran over with a pallet. "You have to get used to it."
"No I dont!" she pushed past the empress and ran to the comfort of their hut, feeling sick. Xena was close behind.
"You made me hurt someone! How could you do that to me!" she was tearing at the laces of her leather to get them off as if they were burning her skin to leave them on.
ﾒGet over it. Hell probably live; it wasnt that deep of a wound. I know what I'm doing."
"I liked him Xena, and you made me hurt him! Did you make me hurt him because I liked him?"
Xena walked up to her and took her shoulders, bringing her face close. Her eyes were like pale ice and her voice a chilling whisper.
"And if someone you trust, someone you like and are fond of is the one who betrays and tries to kill you? What then? You must not hesitate; you have to go for the kill! Hesitate even for a second and you will be the one who is killed! Listen to me! I'm trying to teach you for your own good, for the good of our child!" she enfolded Gabrielle in her arms, finding her wife less than warm.
"Are you trying to turn me into a killer like you, Xena?"
"If it keeps you and our child safe yes. I dont care how angry it makes you. Youll see that I'm right."
"Youre wrong! I just wont practice with the sword anymore! I just wont do it! " She threw her leather boots across the room.
"You are beautiful when youre angry."
"You make me sick! You think this is funny?"
"No, my little Queen."
"What if he dies!"
"Men die every day. Many have died in honor in my service. His family will be well compensated if that happens. Tell the servants to fetch our sup, and it better be good and hot or therell be hell to pay."
"Yes, my Empress", she said a little sarcastically.
When Xena had disappeared through the hangings to their private rooms, Gabrielle grabbed her wrap.
"Em, see that our dinner is set out so Her Majesty doesnt have one more thing to complain about. Cyclops, walk me to the healers tent. Ki, watch the baby till I get back-I wont be long."
"Of course, my lady."
Gabrielle kissed Xandrias cheek. "Mommy will be back in a little bit."
Cyclops and five other guards followed her down the main path toward the healers tents.
The hunting camp resembled a large village; already it was bigger than Podidea. Everywhere, servants were tanning hides, cleaning game, and cooking over large fires and huge spits, not only for the Empresss family but also for the Royal Guard and their staff. When she passed by all stopped their work and either bowed or in the case of any guard she passed, they raised their swords to their forehead in salute.
Inside of the healers tent the floor was littered with blood-soaked rags. The healer was bent over the bed of the fallen weapon master, his assistants scurrying about. Gabrielle could see that the weapons master was not the only patient; further back in the tent there was a man sitting on the edge of a pallet with his hand over a bloody bandage that covered half of his face. Another pallet held a form covered head-to-foot.
The healer stood at attention when he noticed her.
"My Queen! We did not expect you."
"By the gods! What happened to them?"
The healer looked uncomfortable.
"Just hunting and riding accidents, My Lady. They are receiving the best care."
"Of course, see that they do. Where is the weapons master?"
The mans wife was kneeling at his beside, clearly distraught. She looked at Gabrielle with disgust.
"How is he?"
"He has lost much blood," the healer answered. "We are doing everything we can."
"See that he has everything he needs."
"Yes, My Queen."
"If there is anything that I can do, anything at all, just let me know."
"We thought you were different from her!" the master of arms wife shouted at her.
"I am. I promise you that. By the gods, if he dies I will never forgive myself."
The wife suddenly stood and spat at Gabrielle, and one of the guards moved to strike the woman with the butt of a spear.
"NO!" Gabrielle shouted. "Dont you dare touch her!"
The guard relaxed his stance and Gabrielle returned her attention to the weapon masters wife.
"I swear, I never meant to harm your husband. I'm sorry."
Unimpressed by Gabrielles apology, the wife said nothing but turned back to her husband.
Outside of the healers tent, she whispered to Cyclops; "Let me know immediately if there is any change in his condition no matter what Xena tells you to tell me."
When she returned to their tent, Xena was holding the baby on her lap and they were eating grapes. Xandria fed one to Xena and after eating it; Xena spit the seeds noisily across the room making Xandria laugh.
"Youre teaching her bad habits!"
"How about I teach you some?"
"Youve taught me too many already, Xena. Like killing innocent people."
"Lets not argue in front of the baby."
The little one-sided grin Xena gave her as she left the room only angered her more. She knew that The Empress would be coming to their bed with seduction on her mind she always did when Gabrielle was angry with her. She couldnt stand for her wife to be mad at her. It was like a challenge.
Gabrielle slept late into the morning discovering that Xandria had somehow crawled into their bed during the night and had fallen fast asleep. Her dreams were filled with very real swordplay between herself and faceless warriors, and heated arguments with Xena. Xena had spent most of the night in noisy revelry with her troops outside, drinking and fighting by the sound of it. She and Xandria had become accustomed to sleeping soundly through the routine sounds of the palace and camp life. Gabrielle decided not to interfere with whatever they were celebrating, figuring it would do Xena some good to exhaust herself.
She was still half asleep when Xena rolled into bed next to her near dawn, smelling of palm wine and strange smoke. When she woke, Xena had gone early as usual but she could faintly remember the Empress kissing her goodbye before leaving. The bed was so comfortable and warm where Xena had been lying, that she soon drifted off again, her daughter snuggling close.
ﾒLets try over that ridge, Highness."
"How much head start did you give him?"
"Two days, Highness as you instructed."
"The dogs are on him already." She licked her lips, "I hope my fun doesnt end too quickly."
He had already had the first part of his punishment in before leaving the dungeon. When she rode up to the spot where Darphus was unsuccessfully defending himself from the torment of the dogs, Xena gave a shrill whistle that called them off.
"I'm bored with this game already. Put him to work by the docks where everyone can see. "
"Of course, Highness."
Gabrielle finally got to ride her own horse on the way back to the palace. She rode in silence at Xenas side, Xandria being safely carried in the enclosed pallet. The arms master was so badly wounded that he had to be left behind but at least the servants were keeping her informed about his condition, as they had promised. Gabrielle still puzzled over why Xena had forced her hand against the man. She could not forget the look on his face as she stabbed him, she could see it every time she closed her eyes.
When they returned to the palace, Gabrielle stood on the balcony and studied the changes that Xena had made to the sprawling gardens. She had had plots of the grass and flowers torn up and filled them with sand and scale models of the pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx. Stone carvers had created a perfect replica of the Egyptian landscape for Xandria to play in. At least Xena had left the parts of the garden that Gabrielle loved to roam in intact. The statues, ponds and other places where she had found peaceful were still there, to her relief. Xena seemed to have some sense of respecting what made her happy. She treats the things she knows I love with respect not the people.
The craftsmen and women of the palace have been busy creating detailed toy camels for the sand, boats for the garden pond and horse-drawn chariots for the Roman landscape. The Roman play yard had detailed replicas of the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, the Circus Maximus and all the surrounding baths theaters, markets and roads. She was amazed at how many of the landmarks she had learned of and recognized from her studies were represented in the miniature cityscapes.
Xena had come up behind her and put her hands on her shoulders, and kissed her on the head.
ﾒXandria will get to play here everyday and learn the layout of the countries at the same time. Theres more "
Inside of their chambers there was a miniature of the palace, with a few of the rooms captured in child-size detail and there were three dolls dressed as the Empress Xena, Queen Gabrielle and the Princess Xandria. Their faces were expertly carved into remarkable likenesses and they even had luxurious heads of hair in the matching colors. These were sized to fit the play-palaces furniture. There were also the wooden horses for the dolls, fitted with real leather tack.
Xandria squealed with delight when she saw these. She began playing with the dolls that resembled her two mothers, making them walk around and sitting them on one horse together. Gabrielle watched her daughter play with the dolls that resembled them all and found it a bit unsettling. Like most children Xandrias play mirrored what happened in her real life, as she placed the little doll of herself on the toy horse with her two mothers. It was everything she knew a happy family life to be.
"By the gods Xena, you give her too much! She has no other children to play with."
Xena leaned close and whispered in her ear. "Well that can be arranged."
"If Ki and Warhorse had children she could play with theirs. I wonder why theyve never had any children, theyve been together for years."
"They dont have my permission yet. If they had done their job on our wedding night and not allowed you to risk your life by running off in the middle of the night, they would have had my blessing long ago."
"Thats not right, Xena."
"Ill decide whats right, Gabrielle. I did give in to your wishes by not executing them be satisfied with that. I can change my mind about that any time."
"And you know how much that would hurt me to see my friends executed or to know that theyve been executed because of me!"
"Because of you? My darling, the rules were in place long before you got here dont worry about it." She waved her hand at Gabrielle.
Xandria asserted herself everyday by running the great halls of the palace with one or another of her mothers chasing her. Xena chased her as she hid behind pillars and under tables, knocking over priceless vases or jars into pieces that the servants scrambled to clean up. The guards stood ready to keep Xandria from the more dangerous places like the staircases. She was getting big and fast on her feet.
"I'm going to get you little girl!" Xena growled. Xandria would jump from her hiding place doing her version of Xenas shrill war-cry and try to tackle the warrior she was almost hip-high to. Xena let herself be knocked down so Xandria and she could fight. She had a way of rough necking with the child; swinging her around, wrestling with her, throwing her in the air and catching her, and holding her high above her head by just her feet as Xandria stood perfectly still that made Gabrielle somewhat nervous.
After lunch, Gabrielle took Xandrias hand and led her out to the garden. Xandria broke away and ran ahead to play with the little boats that Gabrielle had made for her out of folded parchment. Close behind Xandria, Gabrielle rounded the replicas of the great pyramids and stared in disbelief at what she saw at their base. She grabbed Xandria back so she wouldnt see and called for Ki.
"By the gods, who put that there!?"
Ki bent to examine the doll made in Gabrielles image it was tied to a cross of twigs planted in the sand. She looked back at the queen who was shaking, her eyes glistening as she held the princesss face to her skirts.
ﾒMy Queen Gabrielle, go inside and I will summon the Empress!"
Damn her! Shes the one who did it! It was the first thought that came to her, After things have been so good between us how could she. Tears of anger and pain brimmed in her eyes, then she remembered Xena had not been out of her sight long enough that day to come all the way down to the garden and place it there. Even if Xena did do such a thing, would she leave it where Xandria could find it?
"Someone trying to remind me of what happened again? Or warn me? Why?"
Luckily, Xandria had broken away and run to the pond to see the big golden fish. "Ki you didnt have anything to do with this, did you?"
"No, My Queen, I swear!"
"Please tell me for sure that youre not trying to turn me against Xena, like you did the night we had that big fight?"
"I swear it I would not. I am your friend."
Gabrielle watched her closely. "Yes, I hope that we are and I can count on you. Whatever shes done in the past and whatever has happened between us; she is still my wife, Ki. Dont forget that, ever. Dont ever try to come between us."
"Of course, my Queen." Ki answered with appropriately bowed head.
"I wonder if Darphus talked Akime into putting this out where I could find it?" she undid the twine that held her wooden likeness to the twig cross and handed the sticks to Ki.
"Dispose of these. Whoever it was, I wont give them the satisfaction of sabotaging my marriage. I cant change the past; I'm through losing sleep over it. I'm going to go on with my life and enjoy every moment I can with my daughter"
"Let me find out who did."
It took many days of off-road travel before Maven reached the busy port of Corinth. When she arrived at the docks in hope to find a ship that she could buy passage on, there were still signs that the Empress had not been changed at all from exposure to the gentle nature of The Queen.
She met with the captain of a trading vessel bound for the orient and offered to signed on for duty to help guard against boarding by pirates. Whether he guessed she was a woman or not, or really cared for that matter, she didnt know. But she was big, strong, armed and obviously able to defend the ship if need be. He quickly sized up the many notches on her sword and the fact that she was scarred but still alive and well.
With time to spare before the sailing, Maven settled down at a seedy tavern for an ale that turned into three, feeling a great weight lift from her shoulders knowing she would soon be far from the Empress.
The captain called into the tavern for the crew to report and Maven sauntered out to join the motley group of un-bathed, matted-haired men that she would have to share cramped quarters with for the next few months.
"Another head on a post," one of them was saying to another in front of him. "Thought wed seen the last of it. Right where every soul departn a ship can see it too, stinking up the place. Hes up for talking disrespect to the Queen no tongue eithers what the parchment says."
"What are you talking about?" Maven asked them.
They motioned to the side of the road that lead from the port to the town proper, where centurions directed slaves in erecting a post. When it finally stood, she could see that it was topped by the gory remains of a mans head, --one of Xenas lieutenants, she recognized, -- the eyes wide open and the mouth sewn shut with thick black sinew. The whole sight made her heart pound and the ale rise back up her throat.
"You comming?" the crewmember asked her.
"Shove-off with out me, I just remembered theres something I have to take care of".
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