See disclaimers in part 1
Control. It is something as palpable as a blade to your opponent's neck or as subtle as a sceptre held casually across your lap. To me power and control were absolutes – no room for compromise. In the high stakes game of empire building, to be vulnerable was to be dragged off in chains and executed, as I had done to those whom I had conquered.
Negotiating a treaty with the Amazons was about as useful as charming the birds from the sky and just as difficult. I even made some comment along those lines to Gabrielle as we sat in the gardens enjoying a mid-morning snack of bread and cheese.
Gabrielle laughed and shook her head. "Watch," she commanded.
So I watched.
Gabrielle broke off a hunk of bread and tossed it onto the ground. Within a few seconds, a large Calandra Lark swooped down and started pecking at the bread. Soon a second lark and then an Olive-Tree Warbler joined the first bird, and before long there were eight birds fighting over the ever-decreasing morsel.
As I looked on with mild interest, Gabrielle threw another piece down and it was attacked with gusto by the larger birds. The smallest bird of the group, a Black-headed Bunting, was constantly being chased away by the others before it could grab a crumb.
To me this seemed the natural order of things: the strongest carved out the biggest chunk, leaving the smaller birds to pick at the dirt for crumbs. As I had come to expect, Gabrielle did not see it that way.
"Those birds won't let the little one have his fair share." Gabrielle complained.
"He is learning a harsh lesson: you must fight for what you want," I replied.
"But he deserves to eat just as much as the others."
"Why? The other birds are stronger and faster. To the victor go the spoils."
"But they are different species, each one is no more deserving than the next. Why should the smaller species suffer because it just happens to be smaller?"
"They are all fighting for the future of themselves and their family," I replied.
"Do you see everything as a battle to be won?" she asked.
"Not everything," I whispered suggestively.
Gabrielle leaned into me as my lips tenderly enveloped the lobe of her ear. A quiet moan escaped her lips. "Uhh. You don't fight fair."
"Who said life was fair?" I asked.
Gabrielle sat up. "I do. And I think the small and weak have just as much right to eat as the others." She tore off another piece of bread. "And as long as I'm the one doling out the bread, I'm going to make sure you're fed first, little fella."
"What are you laughing at?"
"At you," I replied. "Only you would change the laws of nature to help those less fortunate."
She held the generous morsel out towards the tiny bird. At first, it regarded Gabrielle's outstretched hand with both suspicion and curiosity.
"It's all right," she said in a soothing tone.
The small bunting responded and hopped closer – careful not to get too close.
Gabrielle tossed the scrap of bread just in front of the little bird. Warily, it approached the offering and then looked all around to see if any of the bigger birds had noticed. Gabrielle made sure no other birds ventured near by tossing more bits of bread further away. Finally, the little bird stretched its neck out, nipped off a beak full and hopped away.
Gabrielle held another piece of bread out and patiently waited for the little bird to finish consuming the morsel. Again she coaxed the bird into trusting her. This time it hopped back more confidently and didn't hop away while it ate. With slow deliberation Gabrielle let the diminishing piece of bread roll into her palm. The bunting jumped onto her fingers without hesitation and pecked at the bread in her hand.
A smile lit up her face. Seeing Gabrielle take such pleasure from the simple act of feeding a bird made my heart skip. It didn't matter that I was trying to secure an empire, or that the Amazons were dragging out the negotiations longer than it took to conquer Athens, Gabrielle was determined to get a little bird to eat. And in doing so, she taught me that with determination and persistence nothing was impossible.
The bird finished its treat, cocked its head to look at Gabrielle, and trilled a melody.
"You're welcome," said Gabrielle.
With a final chirp, the bunting flew away.
"Do you want to try it?" Gabrielle asked me.
I shook my head. "Charming birds is not my thing."
"You charmed me."
"And you me." I dipped my head towards Gabrielle's lips to kiss her, but a servant interrupted us.
"What is it?" I snapped, annoyed at the intrusion.
The servant jumped and babbled an apology. "The Amazon Queen has sent an emissary to speak with you, My Liege."
"Not again," I grumbled. Like a staff being snapped over my knee, this idyllic moment was broken and so was my good mood, "This is intolerable!" I stood up abruptly and fumed. "I have had it up to here with this whole business."
The servant stood visibly quaking in his sandals at my outburst.
"Your Highness," Gabrielle said calmly. "Perhaps we should hear what the emissary has to say first."
Gabrielle's earnest look made me stop before I completely lost my temper.
"All right, go and fetch her," I ordered.
The servant hurried away and a few moments later Galates appeared escorting Ephiny.
"What is your message then?" I cut straight to the point.
"My Queen would like to invite you and your…" The Amazon paused and glanced at Gabrielle before continuing. "…Advisor to a feast this afternoon."
"Oh," I replied flatly.
Gabrielle jumped in. "Uh, the Empress means to what do we owe this honour?"
"To honour you and thank you for your gesture of peace." Ephiny repeated the message as if every word had left an acrid taste in her mouth.
I suspected this was nothing more than another delaying tactic by Terreis. I was about to decline the invitation, but I glanced in Gabrielle's direction and saw the expectant look on her face. I knew she would be eager to go. And then I thought of Gabrielle feeding that little bird.
"Very well, I accept the invitation," I heard myself say, even though my gut told me Terreis was up to something.
"Fine," said Ephiny. "We'll expect you mid-afternoon." She turned to Galates and gestured that she was ready to leave.
The Commander of the Palace Guards looked to me before following the Amazon warrior’s command.
"Commander, escort Ephiny to the gates," I said.
"Shall I arrange for another female escort, Your Highness?" Galates asked.
"No, that won't be necessary," I replied.
Galates saluted and directed Ephiny to precede him.
As soon as Ephiny had departed and we were once again alone, Gabrielle jumped to her feet and hugged me.
"Thanks for agreeing to go," she gushed. "A real live Amazon feast! It'll be fun, you'll see." She looked down at herself. "Do you think I should change? What does one wear to an Amazon feast?"
I heard what Gabrielle was saying but I was not paying attention. I was trying to figure out Terreis' strategy. Gabrielle's attire was the last thing on my mind.
"Xena, did you hear what I said?" Gabrielle asked.
Terreis had not invited us to a banquet just to thank me. She must know that these obvious delays will irritate me. What did she hope to accomplish? I thought.
"Yes, I heard."
"Then what's the matter? Aren't you pleased to be going?"
No I am not, I thought. When it came to negotiating with the Amazons, I was decidedly not in control. If I were in control, the treaty negotiations would have been concluded an hour after the Amazons had arrived, and Terreis would have either signed the treaty or forfeited her life. But that was no longer an option. Terreis had outmanoeuvred me. She was clearly running things.
Why is it bothering me so much when Amazon territory is inconsequential to my strategic plans? I wondered. My gut told me it had less to do with Terreis' diplomatic posturing and more to do with all the time she was spending with Gabrielle.
Playing the jealous lover and forbidding Gabrielle to have any further dealings with Terreis would only have made matters worse, but I could not help my frustration showing.
"How much longer does she think I am going to put up with this?" I muttered.
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle frowned.
"Her dragging her feet on this treaty – you having to spend so much time with her. I don't trust her."
Gabrielle was quick to defend the Amazon Queen. "Terreis has been nothing but honest throughout. She wants the treaty to be a success."
" She is stalling so she can spend time with you!" I finally blurted out my concern.
"I don't understand. What are you on about?"
"Terreis. You must have noticed Terreis flirting with you."
"What?" She furrowed her brow in obvious confusion.
"Come on, Gabrielle! You must have noticed, surely?" I asked incredulously. "She makes all the right noises when talking to you. The emphasis on certain words, the way she smiles at you, the gleam in her eye. The way she keeps finding reasons to get you alone with her."
"Don't be silly. You're imagining things."
"I am not." I was more bemused at Gabrielle's innocence than angry at Terreis' nerve.
"I think you're overreacting," said Gabrielle patiently. "You're just jealous that someone is treating me in a friendly manner when you're looking for a reason to mistrust them."
"Maybe." I conceded the point.
She leaned forward and kissed me. "Thanks."
"For not making too big a deal out of it."
I gave her a smile and hoped she could not read my mind, because I was thinking that if I saw Terreis try anything more than harmless flirting, I would make a very big deal of it.
The feast got under way shortly after we arrived. The food was simple but nutritious. The Amazons were not just accomplished warriors and hunters, but also good cooks. Under any other circumstances, the company would have been very pleasant. We were all warriors with the same code, the same outlook. There was, however, an underlying tension. Most of it was my mistrust of Terreis.
The Amazon Queen had been nothing but courteous and accommodating since our arrival, and that was the problem. She was being courteous and accommodating towards Gabrielle and I didn't like that. Terreis had even seated herself between Gabrielle and me. I had a hard time masking my displeasure, but I let that go. And even when Terreis invited Gabrielle to dance, I choked back my objections. To stop her doing so would have betrayed our relationship to the Amazons and I could not do that.
Watching Terreis teach Gabrielle the dance moves was almost too much for me to endure. Her hands were on Gabrielle's hips, guiding them to move to the rhythm of the drums.
"…Empress, did you hear me?"
"What's your plan for Persia?" Ephiny reiterated her question.
I finally stopped staring and turned to Ephiny who sat at my right. "Who says I have one?"
"You must have one. Someone like you would have a plan for every situation. You've probably even got one for us if this treaty doesn't get signed." Ephiny studied me for a moment, and then let out a hollow laugh. "You've probably got a plan for us even if it is signed."
"Do you doubt my honour?"
"No. But if I were in your shoes, I'd have a plan either way."
"Maybe I haven't got one," I replied.
"You must have a plan. You wouldn't have got to be Empress if you didn't have a plan."
"If you make plans all the time then you will have no time to do anything else. Maybe that is why I am Empress and you're still… where you are."
"How I serve my nation is more important to me than personal glory."
"If this treaty gets signed, you would effectively be part of my nation. Then you could serve me as well as you have served the Amazons." I paused and looked her in the eye. "Then you could have your pride in serving your nation and have personal glory."
I could see my statement intrigued Ephiny. She was a warrior of my ilk. Someone who wanted the glory of a battle fought hard and won well. The only thing holding her back from triumph was her misplaced, though admirable, loyalty to her sisters. The Amazons were far too weak in numbers to achieve real glory.
My conversation with Ephiny was not enough to distract me from Gabrielle and Terreis. The easy nature with which they laughed together grated on my nerves. I chewed the inside of my cheek to keep myself from showing my displeasure. I had to find a way of disrupting their dancing without it seeming like I was jealous. I realised my right hand had made its way to my chakram and was caressing it in readiness. Fortunately I managed to stop myself from throwing it.
I cast a glance at Ephiny to see if she had noticed where my attention had drifted, but she was busy wrestling a leg off a chicken. At that moment the music stopped and Gabrielle and Terreis made their way back to their seats.
Gabrielle looked a little flushed and a little drunk. I poured a goblet of water and passed it to her as she sat down.
Terreis turned to me and smiled. "I'm sure she'll forgive me for saying, but Gabrielle is not the most natural of dancers."
"I do not employ her to dance," I replied. I kept my face free of any reaction that would give Terreis a read on me.
"No indeed. Her talents obviously lie in diplomacy." Terreis turned and smiled knowingly at Gabrielle.
It took all the self-control I could muster not to call an end to this Greek farce and have it out with Terreis right then and there. Fortunately for everyone involved, Terreis changed the subject.
"Empress, would you like to see a practical demonstration of our fighting skills?"
I nodded at the unexpected opportunity. "Yes. I would like to see first hand what you can do."
"Excellent," Terreis replied. "Ephiny, please escort our honoured guest to the practice area."
"This way," said Ephiny after all of us had climbed to our feet.
I had started following Ephiny when from behind me I heard Terreis speak to Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, wait. There is something I'd like to show you. It won’t take long, and then we can go and watch the weapons demonstration."
I stopped abruptly and gritted my teeth. It sounded like another ploy to get Gabrielle alone. I fixed a neutral expression to my face and turned around.
"Empress, is that all right with you?" asked Gabrielle.
It seemed like minutes before I forced the words out of my mouth. "Don't be too long."
I missed Gabrielle's reply. I was too busy silencing the voice in my head that was telling me I was being stupid for leaving them alone.
The area that the Amazons had set aside for their weapons practice was already well worn in the short space of time that they had been camped there. That was because the Amazons did not get their reputation as expert warriors from feasting and dancing. My interest was taken by the chobos, small wooden clubs. When used as a pair, these simple weapons could inflict serious damage if they connected with a vulnerable body part. The technique of using them was to keep them in constant motion and to treat them as extensions to your own arms. It was a difficult weapon to master.
"Who is best with these?" I asked Ephiny, pointing to the weapons.
"Solari, give the Empress a demonstration."
Solari stepped forward and called Eponin to join her. In a blur of movement and clattering blows the pair started sparring. I could see this was not some prearranged set of moves they were following; the warriors were genuinely trying to get past each other's defences. This was typical of Amazon training – nothing teaches a warrior faster than the real threat of injury.
Solari and Eponin showed no restraint in laughing at the way their sister had been upended. Ephiny herself was embarrassed at being beaten, but she gave me a slight nod to show her appreciation of my skill.
"With a bit more practice, you will almost be ready to join my army," I teased with a straight face and then held a hand out to help her up.
After we had wiped off the sweat and dirt, Ephiny and I shared a flagon of ale and swapped a few stories of our most memorable battles. Feeling that I had built up some sort of rapport with Terreis' second-in-command, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to press her for information about her queen's intentions.
"Your queen seems to have taken a liking to my advisor," I said casually.
Ephiny's mood immediately turned dour. "It's a bit more than a liking."
I tried to sound casual. "You think there are more than just treaty negotiations going on?"
"It's not my place to say."
"Don't worry. This is just between the two of us. Strictly unofficial."
Ephiny's miserable look gave her feelings away before she ever uttered a word. "No treaty negotiations should take this long, and that's all I'm going to say."
"Why should that matter to you?" I asked.
Ephiny tried to laugh it off, but I could tell I had hit a nerve. She came back with a sharp question of her own. It seemed we had started sparring again; only this time our weapons were words.
"Let me ask you – unofficially of course," Ephiny countered.
I nodded agreement.
Ephiny continued. "You are obviously a strong and decisive warrior – someone who takes instead of talks. So why are you negotiating a peace treaty with the Amazons? We pose no real threat to your army. Why haven't you just conquered us like you have all the other territory under your dominion?"
Her candour had caught me off balance. How am I going to respond to that, I wondered. I couldn’t very well say 'because it was my lover's idea and I am so whipped I could not say no.'
My hesitation gave Ephiny the opening she was looking for and she pressed her advantage.
"Ahh. I see," she said knowingly. "Gabrielle is more than just your advisor."
I felt like I had the wind knocked out of my lungs, but I was desperate not to show Ephiny that her blow landed right on target.
"That's it. It has to be. Your reputation for bedding young women is legendary."
I wanted to strike her for the lewd comment, but I had to maintain my composure. If it got out that I had feelings for Gabrielle, then that was a weakness that could be exploited.
"I never said I had not bedded her," I heard myself boast. "What do I care if your queen picks up my leftovers?"
Ephiny flinched at my words, and inwardly so did I, but there was no way to un-say it. I wanted to kick myself for allowing Ephiny to outmanoeuvre me like that. All I could do then was to try and maintain my composure long enough to find Gabrielle and get back to the palace before I completely lost control of the entire situation.
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