This isn't really here. I will not be "officially" posting this until it is complete. So, please don't write and ask when it will be updated. I will add to it as there is more to add. Thanks!
The Seven Wonders Series Ė Episode III
Queen of the Nile
Copyright: Xena and Gabrielle are copyright and owned by a lot of people other than myself, I just invited them over to play for a little while. No harm meant. I will return them as soon as weíre done here. Maybe.
Violence Warning: Xena, warlords and ancient gods are rarely pacifists. If you are looking for a story where no injury of any kind is inflicted, this would not be it. However, this story contains no scenes of sexual violence.
Subtext: Xena and Gabrielle are mature (most of the time), consenting (pretty much all of the time) adults involved with one another in a romantic kind of way. Itís a nice arrangement for them, so itís cool. Iíd rate the action here PG-13 to R.
Series and Xenaverse timeline: The action in this story takes place in the Armageddon Timeline introduced in HTLJ and four moons have passed since the festival season of The Unconquered Sun, six moons have passed since the murders of The Hanging Gardens, and twelve moons from the first story in this series, Aftermath. If you really want to get the background for this story, I recommend reading them first. You can find them at: http://crosswinds.net/~theconqueror/fiction.htm
Comments, feedback, etc: If you want to drop me a line, hereís how: XWPFanatic@aol.com. Thanks to everyone who wrote me on The Unconquered Sun, The Hanging Gardens, Aftermath, Twenty-three and Exposure!
Now Ö on with the show Ö
Gabrielle stood in front of the polished metal, staring at her reflection. Her hand traveled up to her fair hair and rearranged a few strands. She frowned in disapproval until she finally had them settled. A full cycle. Iíve been with her for an entire cycle of seasons. I didnít think Iíd last a moon. I know she thought I wouldnít last a day. Glad I proved her wrong. Hearing the familiar footfalls of the Conqueror, she turned and smiled, waiting for the door to their suite to open.
Xena came in, shaking off excess moisture from her cape. Rivulets of water ran down her face and she reached out for a linen towel. Drying off her features, she felt smaller hands straining to remove her cape. She bent her knees slightly to give Gabrielle better access.
Once Gabrielle had the heavy material in hand, she nearly dropped it. "Gods, Xena, this is soaked. Is the storm that bad now?"
The Conqueror nodded, scattering more water. "Itís getting worse, too. Finally had to stop the drills before someone got hurt."
"Well, Iím glad to have you inside for awhile." Gabrielle carried the saturated cloak over to the garment press and laid it out to dry. She took a deep breath and inhaled its combined scent of rain, sweat, dirt, wool, horses and Xena.
Xena draped her long form in a comfortable chair. Though she wouldnít admit it out loud, it felt good to be inside. The rain had been starting to irritate her. The men had been sloppy in it. They were frustrated with her for keeping them out on the practice field when they clearly wanted to be indoors. Even Palaemon looked like he was ready to go inside after the third candlemark.
But, even more than escaping the rain and the company of her men, it was better, by far, to enjoy the company of her oracle. Gabrielleís gentle presence now brought a warmth in her that the fire in the nearby brazier could not match. "Really? Have plans for me?"
Gabrielle fought to keep the smile from her lips. "Actually, I do. Nestor brought in the latest crop reports from the territories. Plus, you still havenít signed off on the tax distribution plan. Oh, and I wanted to discuss an issue thatís come up in Ephesus with you."
The Conqueror sighed. "Is that really what you wanted me inside for?" As Gabrielle prepared to answer, Xena held up a hand. "Remember, oracle, your lips are always to speak truth to me."
"Thatís true," Gabrielle agreed, marveling that no false word had ever been spoken between them. "So, let me answer you in this wayÖ" She moved over and deposited herself in her lover's lap. Gently she traced the plane of Xena's cheeks and brow, unconsciously soothing away the annoyances of the Conqueror's day. Her lips followed her fingers' path until they covered the Conqueror's own.
Xena returned the gentle assault, her broad hands sliding around the oracle's slim form, holding Gabrielle tight against her. Xena marveled at the ability of a simple kiss to make her forget her entire day to that point. There had never been anyone in her life who had such power over her. Borias had sought it. His own lusty persona mixed well with the reckless and rage-filled youth she had been. Together they had cut a swath over Chin that would be remembered for a long time to come. But, they had shared nothing besides their bodies. Even when there had been a child Ö
Xena forcibly shook such thoughts out of her mind and concentrated on the task at hand. She reached down to untie the robe Gabrielle had been wearing, pushing back the silk material, letting it fall off slim shoulders. She paused a moment to admire the view of her oracle's flesh. "You are so beautiful, Gabrielle," she whispered, surprised to have spoken her thoughts aloud.
"Only for you," came the gentle assurance. Gabrielle removed her arms from the sleeves and wound them around the Conqueror's neck, giving her lover easy access to the recently revealed flesh.
Xena needed no more encouragement. Her mouth closed over a full breast and her hand massaged the other. Do suckling babies find this same sort of comfort? This unique feeling of being home, of being in a place created for them alone? Though she drew no physical nourishment from Gabrielle's body, Xena knew she derived much from it. So she stayed there, attentive as a newborn babe, alternating between breasts, until she sensed the need in Gabrielle rising.
Gabrielle's hands combed through dark, damp hair, gently holding Xena close, encouraging her to stay where she was. It was moments like this that caused an overwhelming tenderness to arise in her for the ruler. She felt Xena's teeth graze her nipple and she sighed and tightened her hold.
Moving her hands to the oracle's hips, Xena helped to reposition Gabrielle so that the smaller woman was facing her. Along the way, the robe was fully discarded giving Xena unfettered access to her oracle's body. Leaning in for a slow kiss, she trailed her hands lightly up the slim thighs positioned over hers. She found her oracle's need to be at a fever pitch.
"Xena," Gabrielle breathed as she was claimed. Sinking down fully into the feeling, she gave herself up to the gentle attention. Xena knew her well, had previously mapped out the territory she was now revisiting. With an economy of touch, the Conqueror drew out Gabrielle's pleasure until the young woman reached her pinnacle. Gasping, Gabrielle managed, "I love you."
Reaching a large hand up to cup a flushed face, Xena pulled Gabrielle to her for a kiss. "Happy anniversary."
The Conqueror stared at the papyrus trying to decide what to do. It was the fourth such missive she had received in the last two moons. Each one becoming more pleading in tone, save this last one. This one had a hint of warning in it.
Most excellent and exalted Xena of Amphipolis, conqueror and ruler of all Greece, Chin and Ephesus, from Queen Cleopatra VII, sovereign of Egypt and chosen of Ra, greetings. Cousin, we once again implore you to visit us and provide us your good counsel. Our situation with Rome remains perilous and we look to you for guidance on how to navigate these treacherous waters. It is our fear that without your direction we will have no choice but to make allegiances that may ultimately prove harmful to our dear relative in Greece. The spring waters are favorable and we urge you to come to Alexandria as soon as possible.
Nestor stood nearby, parchment and quill in hand. He had watched the blood rise in the Conqueror's cheeks as she read the latest letter from Cleopatra. He wisely refrained from speaking, despite the silence.
"Palaemon," Xena called, leaning back on her throne and crossing one long leg over the other.
The Captain of the Royal Guard moved quickly to her side, inclining his head. "My liege?"
"You look ill."
Palaemon wiped his brow which was damp from fever. "I'm fine, my liege. Always fit to serve."
Xena shook her head. "I want you to go to your quarters. I will have a healer sent to you."
"My liege, your kindness is appreciated but not necessary. I am able to fulfill my duties." He had never known the Conqueror to do such a thing. A small trickle of sweat began between his shoulder blades.
"That was not a suggestion. It was an order." Seeing the fear in her Captain's eyes, she leaned forward to speak so only he could hear. "You are far too valuable to me to lose to illness. Go now. I will come see you later."
"My liege, as you command." Laying his closed fist over his heart, Palaemon bowed and exited the room.
"Novan, come here."
The second in command of her forces hurried over. "My liege?"
"Prepare five ships to set sail for Egypt in seven days' time. The Royal Guard will accompany me, of course, and alert Eponin so she can ready Queen Gabrielle's guard. I want recommendations from you in the morning for who should be assigned to my personal escort."
"By your command," Novan acknowledged and left to obey her orders.
"Nestor, take this down."
The Royal Secretary spread the parchment out before him and readied his quill. "Yes, my liege?"
Xena steepled her fingers and studied them for a long moment. "Queen Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt and daughter of Ra, greetings from Xena, Conqueror of Greece, Chin and Ephesus. Dear cousin, your pleas for counsel and guidance have fallen upon tender ears. Be not troubled any further for we come swiftly to your aid. By next moon, you shall know our mind and our will."
Nestor prepared the parchment for her seal, rolling it tightly and tying it with a silken cord. He drizzled wax over the parchment and holding the missive out, waited while she pressed her signet ring into the melted wax.
"Have a messenger dispatched at once. And go inform Queen Gabrielle that she will soon have need of her sea-sickness remedy once more." Left alone by Nestor's departure, Xena once again studied the papyrus.
"Why does she call you 'cousin?'" Gabrielle asked after reading the entreaty. The Conqueror had returned to their suite in time for the evening meal. Now, having eaten their fill, the Conqueror and the oracle relaxed at the table together.
"Because of Alexander's conquest of Egypt long ago. One of his generals, Ptolemy, was granted reign over it at his death. Cleopatra is one of his descendants." Xena refilled her goblet with wine and held it up to ask if Gabrielle wanted more as well.
Smiling her answer, Gabrielle asked, "So, she's Greek?"
Xena sighed. "Not in any way that counts, I'm afraid. Whatever Greek blood was in Ptolemy has long since been diluted, despite their proclivity to marry within their own family."
"You mean cousins?" Gabrielle feared the correct response.
A soft chuckle met her words. "No, I mean brother and sister. It's the best way to preserve the lineage and to keep usurpers to a minimum."
The oracle's face puckered up as if she had bitten into something unpleasant. "Gods, I would hope to be an only child. Or, at worst, to only have a sister." She mock shivered.
"I'm pretty sure Cleopatra felt the same way. But, she has a younger brother, Ptolemy XIII."
"How much younger?" Another question Gabrielle really didn't want the answer to.
"Eight years. He was twelve when they were married." Xena watched with great amusement as Gabrielle reacted to the latest bit of information.
"Tell me they don't have children."
"Nope, not yet and not likely. Ptolemy has been quite set aside by Cleopatra. She has sent him to upper Egypt to stay out of her way as she rules alone. I have learned that he enters Alexandria only on pain of death."
Xena shrugged and took a long sip of wine. "Actually, she's treated him better than her sisters treated their father. Her two older sisters conspired to overthrow him. He barely escaped to Rome and it was Pompey who helped restore him to power. In his will, he named Cleopatra and Ptolemy his heirs and co-rulers."
"How old is Ptolemy now?"
"Ah," Gabrielle sighed. "Just old enough to want a kingdom for himself."
"My thoughts exactly."
Xena stepped outside Palaemon's quarters and removed the cloth from over her mouth and nose. Her personal healer joined her, looking equally distressed. He studied his dark brown hands, not wanting to meet her eyes. He did not like his current assignment.
"Make him comfortable," Xena whispered. "He is to have everything he needs. Treat him as you would me."
"Yes, my liege."
"No one is to go in there but you."
They were standing lost in thought when the hair on the back of Xena's neck bristled. Through half closed eyes she watched Pei-cha approach. The snow leopard had grown in the last few moons, finally reaching his full, adult size. Now, with his tail extended and nose pointed forward, he was longer than Xena was tall. Enjoying being able to gloat over this perceived victory, the cat reared up and placed his paws on the wall beside Xena's head.
Xena leaned over and whispered into the tufted ear. "Would you like to go in there and keep Palaemon company?"
Pei-cha yawned and stuck his long, pink tongue out.
"You'll never get rid of me, mouse breath. She's mine, you know."
A low rumble sounded from deep within the feline's chest.
Gabrielle turned the corner at that moment. Seeing the two most dangerous creatures in all of Greece alongside one another, she paused. She was always surprised at not finding Pei-cha stretched out as a carpet in their room, given the rivalry between the two. "Hi," she said, breaking the tension.
Pei-cha dropped to the ground and ambled over to his mistress. He nudged her hip with his broad forehead and proffered his chin for scratching.
The oracle acquiesced and raked her fingernails through his thick fur. "Yes, I saw you comparing the length of your Ö tail Ö with Xena."
"I do not have a tail," the Conqueror muttered, outraged.
"Yes, you do. How is he?" Gabrielle changed the subject, not feeling right about joking outside Palaemon's door. The news of his illness had hit her hard. The Captain of the Guard had a special spot in her heart, having been the only one who had stood by her in Ephesus. She loved him almost as much as she loved the Conqueror. To be kept from seeing him for the last four days was torture.
The Conqueror took gentle hold of Gabrielle's elbow and began leading her away from Palaemon's quarters. "He won't be able to travel with us to Egypt."
"Is he going to die?" she had to ask.
"Let's not think about that, right now. Perhaps the gods will intervene on his behalf. I will be making a sacrifice to Ares tonight for Palaemon."
Gabrielle shivered. The god of war and his special role in Xena's life never made the oracle happy. She had never seen the Olympian, but knew he made infrequent visits to her lover. Xena would never speak of her encounters with him, but would withdraw for a few days, working out whatever they discussed.
"Can't I please see him?"
"Ares? You want to see Ares?"
"No! Palaemon. I hope never to meet Ares."
I hope the same for you, as well. "I can't let you, Gabrielle, I'm sorry." Seeing the crestfallen expression on her oracle's face, Xena reached out and tipped up her chin. "But, we'll see him when we return from Egypt. He's a strong man."
"I hope so."
"Me too. I have many plans which involve him."
The temple of Ares in Corinth was an imposing edifice. Upon her conquest of Greece, the Conqueror funded the building of the temple, importing black marble from Damasta and locating it just outside her palace. Eighteen columns supported the roof, each column etched with incantations for Ares' guidance and protection. Entering through the gold plated doors, Xena paused, studying the statues lining the walk to the altar. Each statue depicted one of the warriors Ares had used throughout history for his glory. The one that drew Xena's attention was of Alexander the Great.
"We only had thirteen winters to accomplish everything, but we made the most of them," Ares voice was low. "You are so like him. Fire in the eyes, ambition in your belly, and so contemptuous of those who help you." His large hands clasped her shoulders, drawing her back against him. "You're growing close to his accomplishments - Greece, Chin, Ephesus. Babylon will be yours, too, the first time that fool decides to not send tribute. Syria and Persia won't be much of a challenge then. And now you're off to Egypt. What do you have planned, Xena? Because I know you're not here about Palaemon."
Bending her knees, she deftly stepped out from his loose embrace. "Ares. I didn't expect you to grace me with your presence tonight."
Folding his muscular arms across his chest, he raised a dark eyebrow. "What? Miss seeing my favorite protégéé? Especially when your visits are so few and far between lately."
"Well, I've been busy, running the country and all." The Conqueror mimicked his attitude and posture.
"A country I gave you."
Xena snorted. "Hardly gave, Ares. I have too many scars on my body and have lost too many men for you to claim this was all a present. And, of course, Lyceus is still dead." The last words came out bitter, the years doing nothing to dampen her anger over his loss.
Ares sighed and walked toward his throne. He eased himself down onto the dark wood chair, draping a leg over one arm casually. "You weren't mine then," he said slowly, as if to a child. "I've explained this all before. You can't hold the past against me."
"Sure I can. That's the best thing about being a follower of yours - I'm not expected to be reasonable."
"Ah, now that hurt, Xena." One hand traveled to cover his heart.
Taking a last look at the statue of Alexander, the Conqueror approached the altar. She looked at the food laid out in offering to the god, noting that some of the fruit was spoiled. "What do you want?"
"All I've ever wanted: you."
"Sorry. I'm spoken for."
Ares rolled his eyes. "By that annoying blonde?"
"By myself." Unconsciously, her hand went to the hilt of her sword. The mere fact that Ares had mentioned Gabrielle increased the danger to her a hundred fold. "And, her name is Gabrielle."
"I know her name," he sneered. "I am a god, after all."
Drawing a deep breath, the Conqueror approached Ares, leaning over him to whisper in his ear. "If you think I hold a grudge about Lyceus, it's nothing compared to how I would feel if some accident were to befall her."
"Are you threatening me, Xena?" The question was directed to her breasts, which were in his immediate view.
She pulled back so his eyes could meet her own. "I am. We've always been very clear with one another."
"You can have your plaything, Xena. I don't want her."
"Good. As long as we understand each other."
He reached out and caressed her cheek. "We've always understood one another, from the very start." His hand continued down her body, stopping at all the interesting spots along the way. "Now, what are you going to do down in Egypt?"
Xena smiled. "Follow in Alexander's footsteps."
The Corinthian docks were a flurry of activity as the Conqueror prepared to set sail for Alexandria. Since the episode in Babylon, the ruler had vowed to never travel anywhere without her entire Royal Guard accompanying her. In addition to her hundred soldiers, a complement of thirty Amazons would be going with them to protect their Queen.
The five ships sailing for Egypt were the Sofia, the Aura, the Irynia, the Eos, and the Nike, the Conqueror's personal flagship. She had decided to have the Amazons on only two of those ships, in order to avoid any potential conflict between the guards. Despite the closeness of their rulers, the soldiers still nursed a rivalry which often led to altercations.
Novan approached to report on the loading of the vessels. "My liege, we are almost ready to depart."
"Good. Assemble our personal escort."
Through the crowd, Xena spotted Eponin giving orders to the Amazon guard. Standing beside Eponin, as usual, was Kelryn. The young soldier had pulled herself together in the six moons since their Babylonian adventure. Gabrielle's decision to turn Kelryn's training over to Eponin personally had been a wise one. The soldier still had her swagger, but now had done more to earn it.
Finished with her instructions, Eponin approached them. "My Queen," she said respectfully, bowing. While she was less formal in private, Eponin always showed deference to Gabrielle knowing there were still some among the Amazons who resented the young oracle's leadership. The commander understood it was her duty to never give credence to their complaints.
"Is everyone settled?"
"Yes, my Queen. There will be ten of us on board the Nike with you and the Conqueror. The remainder will be aboard the Aura. And I have given them plenty of assignments during the trip to keep them from getting into trouble."
Gabrielle smiled. "A wise move."
"In addition, I have Odessa and Denae staying on board the Aura with them. That should keep the nonsense to a minimum." Odessa was known among the Amazons for her negotiating abilities. More than a few times, she had resolved crises between members of the Nation which were thought to be beyond hope. As a soldier, she had skills with weapons, but was best known for her speaking ability. Denae was the opposite. Indeed, some wondered if the woman was mute given the scarcity of her comments. Together, the two were a formidable duo and a surprising lifebonded couple.
While Gabrielle and Eponin spoke, Xena walked over to a middle aged man sitting on one of the packing crates. He had a neatly trimmed beard, almost entirely gray, and a face long wrinkled by the sun. His form, though, was solid and compact. He was cleaning his fingernails with his dagger when the Conqueror approached.
"Your majesty," he intoned, bowing low before his ruler.
"I am honored that you recall my name, Conqueror."
A small laugh, devoid of humor, escaped her. "I always remember the people who try to kill me."
"A misunderstanding, your majesty. I had hoped you had decided to look past that unfortunate incident." He spread out his hands, tucking the dagger back into his belt. "Especially when I can be of use to you."
"We shall see. You are to go to Palaemon. He has instructions for you." Seeing the skeptical look on the man's face, she continued, "And payment."
"It's not the money I'm concerned about, Conqueror. I hear your Captain has the coughing sickness. I would rather not catch it myself, if it's all the same to you." Pushing himself up off the crates, he started to walk away.
Xena's hand struck out and tightened around his throat. Being careful not to crush his windpipe, the Conqueror hauled him over, lifting him to his toes so she could look in his eyes. "It isn't all the same to me. You aren't worth the sweat on the back of his neck, do you understand me? I would give a thousand of you for one like him. So, let me remind you, your life is forfeit unless you do as I say. Your choice is clear: possibly die in my service, or definitely die out of it. Tell me now, which will it be?"
Stavros tried to maintain a sense of dignity, but it was impossible in his current position. "I live to serve," he finally said, as the last of his breath was escaping his lungs.
Dropping him to the ground, Xena wiped her hand off on her cloak. "Yes, you do. Now, get out of my sight." She watched impassively while he hurried away, anxious to escape harm.
Novan approached and bowed. "My liege, your personal escort." She gestured with her left hand at the three soldiers accompanying her.
Xena eyed them carefully. Minon had served her well for awhile, going from a near beardless boy in Ephesus, to near death in Babylon, to her eyes and ears in Athens, to now accompanying her to Egypt. One day he might even succeed Palaemon. The next was Galinthias, an older soldier, recently brought down from the troops stationed in Thrace. His service in the region had earned him an appointment in the Royal Guard. Finally, there was Alecta, the daughter of an Amazon taken captive in battle. Her mother hadn't survived, as most captive Amazons do not, but the girl had been taken in by a Corinthian couple. Xena was pleased with the soldiers whom Novan had selected for her personal escort. Ties between her guard and Gabrielle's was very important to the Conqueror.
"Very well. Once we have set sail, I want you to meet with Queen Gabrielle's escort and work out a security detail. I will have none of the problems we had in Babylon. Failure, by any of you, to properly guard the Queen will result in swift and merciless punishment. But, I would not have approved you for this assignment if I didn't think you were the most qualified of the Royal Guard." She glanced over the docks and saw Gabrielle smiling at her. "Let's get on board." The Conqueror went over to her oracle and took her hand.
"I think I feel seasick already," Gabrielle whispered.
Xena laughed softly. "Do you? We'll have to find a way to relieve that then."
Eponin loitered behind a moment, looking around the docks for the one person she had hoped would come and say goodbye. It didn't seem to matter how much she did, she couldn't seem to convince Wynn of her sincerity. Frowning, she kicked at one of the crates. "Doesn't matter that I turned my damn social life upside down, cut myself off from every girl I've ever liked Ö"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," a soft voice replied from behind her.
"Zeus on a stick," Eponin muttered, closing her eyes. "Wynn?"
The red-haired Amazon stepped forward and touched the Commander's arm. "Hi, Ep. Sorry I've made things so rough on you." The painter's arms were splattered with her latest creation, her fingertips, as always, stained.
"Hard?" Eponin echoed, accompanied by a disbelieving expression.
Wynn blushed and studied her boots. "Impossible?"
"Closer." Seeing the sincerely chagrined look on the smaller woman's face, she relented. "Thanks for coming down, but I need to be going, I'm afraid."
The artist's hand gripped tighter on the muscular forearm. "I have something for you," she whispered. With her free hand she pulled a leather necklace out of her pocket. Dangling from the hide was a painted medallion. She pressed it into Eponin's hand.
Eponin studied the small painting carefully. It was a landscape scene rendered in exquisite detail, despite the small size of the medallion. "It's beautiful," the commander breathed.
"It's the outskirts of Amazon territory. I wanted you to know you had something to come home to."
Eponin dared not hope she was being offered what she had pursued for the last six moons. She asked, "You mean the Nation?"
"No, I mean a member of the Nation who's been on the outskirts for far too long." Without warning, Wynn leaned up and kissed Eponin gently. "Come back safely, Commander."
Eponin watched as Wynn started walking back toward the barracks. Finally discovering her voice, she called out, "I think I can guarantee that now." Her hand went to her lips, able to feel the warmth of Wynn still there.
"Come on, lover girl, time to board!" Kelryn's voice cut through the noise around her.
The commander blew out an annoyed breath. "Count on her to spoil a really good moment."
One quarter moon of sailing was wearing on the oracle. She wondered how the Conqueror could thrive, as she did, on the water. Every day, Xena would sit on the deck, breathing in the salty essence of the air, allowing her skin to grow darker under the sun's warm rays. There she should would read over the reports she had brought on the various regions, or discuss the training of the guard with Novan. She seemed freer on the sea, happier.
For her part, Gabrielle was beginning to become accustomed to travel on the water. She liked the different types of fish they had for meals, different from the ones found in the rivers near Corinth. She also enjoyed the peace found on the sea. There was a constant rhythm to ship life that was reassuring. Better still, there were no outside messengers to bring bad news, no interruptions, none of the usual responsibilities of court.
Gabrielle spent her days with Eponin, training in self-defense. The Conqueror had insisted that she learn how to protect herself. Her side and legs were fully recovered, and she felt no continuing discomfort from the old wounds. In fact, the constant workout seemed to improve her condition every day. The Commander had started her with a defensive weapon, the staff. She reasoned, and Xena agreed, that it would be easier for Gabrielle to procure a satisfactory piece of wood, than a sword, should the need ever arise. Thus, days were spent working and nights were spent indulging in remedies to keep the seasickness at bay.
There was ample cause for seasickness. The spring was a difficult season to travel over the Mediterranean, with frequent storms and choppy waves. Gabrielle was grateful for the times when the wind died down. Though, the sailors were not pleased at their then obligation to row the vessel. Their path to Alexandria was not a direct route across the sea, but rather following the shore line as much as possible. If the weather stayed clear, the Conqueror assured her they would reach Alexandria the following day.
It was early in the morning, though, far earlier when they usually awoke, that Gabrielle was gently shaken by the Conqueror. Bleary green eyes stared up at the ruler. "What? Are we all right?" Gabrielle asked, her voice thick with sleep.
"Yes, we're fine, but I want you to come see something."
Gabrielle started and quickly looked around their cabin. "You didn't do anything to Pei-cha, did you?"
Hearing his name, the cat jumped up on the bed beside his mistress. His weight caused a depression in the mattress which Gabrielle slid into. The snow leopard bent his broad head and licked her face. Gabrielle giggled.
The Conqueror frowned. "Come on, it's getting late."
A glance out the cabin's window confirmed the sun had not yet risen. "I don't see how that's possible," she murmured.
"It is. Move, fish food," she ordered, mashing her palm into the leopard's nose and pushing him away from her oracle. She then pulled the covers back gently, exposing the bare skin of her lover to the coolness of the early morning air. Xena watched with interest as Goosebumps appeared on the revealed flesh.
"You sure we have to get up?" Gabrielle inquired innocently.
The ruler chuckled. "Yes, I'm sure. However, your offer is tempting." She moved back to allow Gabrielle room to rise off the bed.
"What offer?" She tossed a smirk over her shoulder at the Conqueror as she pulled on her tunic. As she wound the linen belt around her waist, she was suddenly snared in the arms of the ruler.
"It was a clear offer, oracle, and one I will accept - happily - once I've shown you something."
"What haven't you shown me before?"
Shaking her head, Xena took her hand and led the smaller women out of the cabin, down the narrow corridor, up the short flight of stairs, to the deck above. The watch came to attention at her presence, but she ignored them all, continuing to guide Gabrielle to the bow of the ship.
Helios had still not risen into the sky, but the stars shone brightly overhead, bathing the ship in a faint light. Gabrielle thought the Conqueror's skin glowed in that light, and her eyes rivaled the stars above. Suddenly, she realized that something was very wrong. She pointed at a bright light hovering over the horizon, but not in the east. "What's that?"
"The reason we came up here."
"Helios? Has he lost his way?"
Xena shook her head. "No, that's Alexandria. That's the lighthouse there."
Gabrielle frowned. "The lighthouse? I thought we were still a half day out of port. How can we see it if we're still so far away?"
"We are," the ruler acknowledged. "It's rather large."
"To say the least."
"There are over seven hundred and fifty steps up to the top of the lighthouse. Up in the top level is a large, circular mirror, taller than two men, and a fire burns in front of it throughout the night. That's what we see now. During the day, Helios himself illuminates the lighthouse. In fact, some say, that he lends his power to it, allowing the Egyptians to set approaching ships on fire. But, I have yet to see that happen."
"Well, let's hope this won't be the first time."
Xena chuckled. "True, but we are invited guests of Cleopatra."
"What is she like?"
The Conqueror sighed. "She is Egypt."
"What does that mean?"
"Egypt is an assault on the senses. It is full of colors and music and incense and life. It's overwhelming, overpowering. But, it's not the most beautiful country. It can harsh and unforgiving, yet it is seductive. Alexander fell in love with it. And Cleopatra is his descendant."
Gabrielle pondered the description and formed a mental image of the Egyptian ruler. "And we arrive this afternoon."
"If the wind holds, by midday."
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