See disclaimers in part 1
As each day passed, it was becoming more and more difficult to keep my relationship with Xena private. I understood Xena's insistence that we keep it secret for political reasons, but it was for political reasons that I wished it were out in the open. For one thing, I wouldn't have to suffer his uncamouflaged scorn if General Darnell knew I was the Empress' intimate companion. On the other hand, knowing would only serve to fuel his contempt for me. No doubt he'd accuse me of sleeping my way to power. No, Xena was right. It was better kept secret, if for no other reason than I wanted to be respected for who I was, not who I slept with.
Clothes lay strewn over every piece of furniture in my room. I had been fretting over what to wear to the Amazons' feast like a girl who'd been asked to her first dance. Finally I decided upon an understated moss-green tunic with russet coloured trousers. I wanted to look festive without seeming to stand out from the more muted tones the Amazons wore.
I was headed across the main hall,still fussing with my clothes, when I ran into General Darnell coming in the same way I was going out.
"I need to talk to you," General Darnell said sharply.
"I'm sorry General. I'm on my way to meet the Empress—"
He cut me off. "When are those bloody villagers leaving?"
With Xena's approval, I had the villagers from Philus housed temporarily in the palace barracks. It meant the Palace Guards had to be billeted in the servant quarters and some of the still-to-be refurbished rooms in the palace. This hadn't sat well with the General.
I drew in a long breath, because I didn't want my frustration to show. "The Empress signed the work orders yesterday, so construction will begin tomorrow. Temporary quarters have been set up for the villagers and the workers. That means the Palace Guards will be back in their barracks by nightfall."
General Darnell's taut jaw muscles visibly relaxed when he heard that things would soon be back to normal.
"And just so you are aware," I said, "palace garrison reserves will be helping to rebuild Philus –" Before he could object, I quickly added, "and yes, the Empress approved that too."
"You amaze me," Darnell said. "I thought you were all talk and very little substance. I see now I was mistaken. You are very shrewd."
"I'm not sure I understand what you mean, General," I replied.
"I mean you manipulate people and situations like a seasoned politician."
His words pierced me like a hundred arrows. "I am not manipulative, I—"
"Come, come, Gabrielle. Don't be modest. You've got the Empress following you like a bitch in heat."
"What?" I couldn't believe what I had just heard Darnell say.
"You think I don't know what's going on between you and the Empress?"
A surge of panic flooded my limbs. "I, uh…"
"Don't deny it," he replied.
"I have no idea what you're talking about, General." I tried to sound unflappable as I searched for how he could've found out.
"Isn't it obvious?" he countered. "You're trying to drive a wedge between the Empress and me. You've already succeeded in replacing me as the Empress' chief advisor. What's next? Do you want command of the army as well? Or perhaps you are aiming higher?"
I tried to remain unruffled though I was very relieved it wasn't Xena and me he was talking about. "I have no intention of replacing you, General. I'm just trying to do my job, which is improving the lives of the people of Greece. You say I'm being manipulative. Well, if getting things done without bashing heads or pillaging villages is manipulative then I'm guilty as charged."
"You're idealism is admirable but misguided. Rebuilding a burned out village is not the same as building an empire."
"Look, we both want the same thing in the end, General. We both want to help the Empress fulfil her destiny and become the greatest ruler the world has ever known. We just have different ideas about how to achieve it, that's all."
"You're very persuasive. And I'm sure you mean all that stable dropping about the greater good, but one day the Empress will become bored with your do-gooding experiments in social justice and remember her destiny – to conquer the world. So remember, if you're going to swim with sharks, don't be surprised when you're swallowed whole."
"I wish I had time to debate it with you further, General, but the Empress is waiting for me and—"
With a knowing smirk, the General said, "You see, you have the most powerful woman in the known world waiting on you. I'm beginning to wonder who really rules Greece."
My impromptu meeting with General Darnell had made me late and Xena hated to be kept waiting. As I hurried across the courtyard, Darphus strode purposefully towards me.
Great, I thought, just what I didn't want – another confrontation with Darphus. Were the Furies trying to make me late just for sport?
Darphus came to a halt in front of me and stood a little straighter than normal as though he was trying to stand to attention. His arm started to move as if he was going to salute me but then thought better of it.
"I'm afraid I'm late for an appointment, Lieutenant."
"I won't keep you. I just wanted to…what I mean is…shit, I just wanted to say I'm sorry if I was a bit short with you last night."
"That's okay, Lieutenant. It must have been a difficult day for you. It's not easy to lose someone under your command."
"That's right. Especially when they're not well trained." He held a hand up to stop the expected protest from me. "I'm not blaming anyone, I know we need men on the streets now."
"I have been giving it some thought, and while I don't want armed officers patrolling the streets, I can see there is a need for an armed force in some extreme circumstances. So what would you say to a compromise?"
"What sort of compromise?" he asked with a look of sceptical curiosity.
"We could arm the officers with a staff or short club – something without a blade. I'm sure that would appear less threatening to the public and allow the officers to defend themselves and keep the peace. And in case of emergencies, we would also have an elite unit trained to use swords that could go wherever needed."
Darphus nodded. "What would be better is if all officers were trained to use a sword and club. They could carry the club on their patrols, but could use a sword if the need arises. I'd rather all of them knew how to use a sword instead of just a few, you never know when they might be needed."
"That sounds like a good idea. Come up with a plan that I can take to the Empress."
"I'll get onto it straight away." He hesitated a moment. "Speaking of the Empress. You didn't mention our disagreement yesterday did you?"
"No. I didn't think it warranted her attention."
"Thank you. I know she assigned me to this detail because she has doubts about my ability to command. I don't want either of you to think I wasn't up to the job."
"I think you're doing a fine job, Darphus. And I'm sure the Empress will be impressed as well."
It was early afternoon when Xena and I finally set out for the Amazons' camp. She was already irked to be going to the feast, and it didn't help her mood that I was late meeting her at the stables. I blamed it on trying to find an outfit to wear, which didn't make her happy but she forgave me. It was better than telling her that Darphus had stopped me to apologise, or that Darnell and I had another frank exchange of words, or that the General might've somehow found out about us. That would've really put her in a bad-tempered mood.
As we neared the turn-off on the road leading to the Amazon encampment, an eerie silence overtook the cawing of birds in the trees all around us. It made the hairs on the back of my neck bristle.
Xena pulled on up on the reins and her horse came to an abrupt halt. I pulled Daisy along side her.
"Why have we stopped?" I asked.
Xena made no reply as she dismounted. She silently signalled for me to be quiet and dismount, and I obeyed.
"But we're not at the Amazon camp yet," I whispered.
Suddenly, razor sharp steel whistled past my ear. "What the—what's the matter?" I looked around to see what had made Xena draw her sword.
Still saying nothing, Xena drove the blade tip into the ground in front of her and raised her arms over her head, clasping her hands together. Before I could ask her what was going on, three masked Amazons appeared from behind a large thicket of blackberries.
"Ah, I see you know the Amazon sign for peace," said the masked figure standing closest to us. Her voice sounded familiar, but the fearsome mask muffled it. "Our Queen bids you welcome."
"Thank you, Ephiny," Xena replied.
The Amazon pushed the mask up to reveal her face. It was indeed Ephiny. The two Amazons flanking Ephiny followed her lead and removed their masks as well. It was Solari and Eponin.
They escorted us to the Amazon camp. The underbrush and trees eventually gave way to a clearing where the Amazons had gathered.
Ephiny led us to Terreis who was standing on a small raised platform, dressed in her finest leathers and richly plumed mask. Two guards flanked her, holding ornately carved spears. Ephiny saluted and then stood aside to present us to her queen.
Terreis gave us a formal welcome. "Empress Xena, Gabrielle. Welcome. We are honoured to have you as our guests."
"It is we who are honoured, Queen Terreis." Xena said. I just nodded and smiled.
"I hope you brought your appetite, because our cook has prepared a feast of Amazon specialties in your honour."
That's when I spoke up. "Yes, I'm famished!" My enthusiasm made everyone laugh, except for Xena. Her face didn't even twitch with amusement.
"Well then, this way to the food," Terreis said with a chuckle.
The Amazons treated us to a feast truly fit for an empress. There was plenty of fresh meat, berries and nuts, and more wine and ale than we could possibly drink. Throughout the meal we were entertained with music and dancing. The music was primal and hypnotic – the dancing earthy and erotic.
"Come. Let's dance."
I looked up to see Terreis holding a hand out, and before I could say anything, she reached down and took my hand, but I resisted being pulled to my feet.
"No, no. I'm not that good of a dancer."
"Come on, Gabrielle," Terreis gave me another tug.
"Honest, I have two left feet," I protested.
"Don't worry, I'll teach you," Terreis assured me.
I glanced towards Xena for help, but she didn't come to my rescue. She just nodded for me to go and went back to talking with Ephiny.
"All right, but don't say I didn't warn you."
Terreis pulled me to my feet and led me towards the circle of dancers.
"I don't think I can dance like that," I said, pointing at the others.
"Sure you can. Just let go and let your body move to the rhythm of the drums."
I stood on the fringe of the circle and tried shuffling my feet, but I felt hopelessly inept and a little self-conscious.
"Here, I'll show you. Watch," Terreis said. She stood beside me and demonstrated the basic movement, a loping gait interspersed with stretching jumps, but the footwork and arm movements looked hard to imitate.
Terreis took a drink from the wineskin she was holding, and then offered it to me.
I took a mouthful of the wine for fortitude before I tried to copy the dance steps. That might have been a mistake. It was much more potent than the wine I was used to drinking, and I tended to become uncoordinated when drunk.
I tried following the dance movements, but I had all the grace of a pachyderm in mud.
"No, no," Terreis shook her head, laughing. She stepped behind me and took hold of my arm. "Bring your arm up like this." Terreis moved my arm up and gently twisted the wrist. "Then move your leg." She pushed the back of my knee causing it to bend. I lost my balance and fell back against her chest.
She was breathing heavily from dancing. Her warm exhalations on the back of my neck sent a pleasurable shiver down my spine.
I pulled away from Terreis, reached for the wineskin and had a long swallow of the strong drink in the hope it would cool me down.
Mercifully the music stopped before I made too much of an exhibition of myself. As the musicians took a break to have some food, Terreis and I moved back to our seats.
Xena's face was unreadable as she watched me sit down out of breath and slightly drunk. She gave me a cup of water, which I greedily drank down. I reached for the pitcher and poured myself another cup and drank it and then another cup. Dancing with Terreis may not have made me more graceful but it sure made me thirstier.
Terreis turned to Xena and said, "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," Xena replied flatly.
"No indeed. Her talents obviously lie in diplomacy." Terreis smiled in my direction.
I was feeling quite uncomfortable being talked about in the third person and their comments were loaded with double meaning and veiled one-upmanship. Luckily Terreis changed the subject before I did.
"Empress, would you like to see a practical demonstration of our fighting skills?" the Queen asked.
"Yes. I would like to see first hand what you can do," Xena replied.
"Excellent!" Terreis turned to her second. "Ephiny, please escort the Empress to the practice area."
Ephiny and Terreis stood up and waited for Xena and me to do the same.
"This way," said Ephiny and signalled Xena to precede her.
Xena started to follow Ephiny and I started to follow them also, but Terreis laid her hand on my arm to hold me back.
"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."
"Certainly. I will just let the Empress know." I called out to Xena, "Empress is that all right with you?"
I could see Xena weighing her words. "Don't be too long," she said eventually.
I assured her I'd be there presently, but Xena didn't wait for my answer. She had already turned away to follow Ephiny. This was just as well, because Terreis and I were much longer than a few minutes.
Terreis directed me to her tent, where we sat down on the pillows in the middle of the room and started talking.
"I'm sorry about the dancing. I was hopeless."
"No, you did very well." Terreis was being very diplomatic. "Did you take dancing lessons when you were a girl?"
"Wasn't it obvious?" I asked with a hint of sarcasm.
Terreis chuckled. "I thought every young Greek girl was taught to dance."
"I wasn't like other girls," I replied.
"In what way?" Terreis asked in a way that conveyed genuine interest.
"I wanted to read philosophy and learn about history and science. So they didn’t consider me a normal girl."
"Philosophy and history are among the first things taught to Amazon girls."
"Really?" I was surprised. Greek girls were taught how to maintain a household, as well as weaving, music, and yes, dancing.
"Really," Terreis replied. "It is a man’s world, Gabrielle—not because it should be, but, because we let them have it."
"Yeah?" I was interested in hearing more.
Terreis continued. "The Amazon world is based on truth and a woman’s individual strength."
"Well, I’m all for that," I replied. "I’ve always considered myself a single-minded person. Of course, if I got married I’d have to ask my spouse if that was okay."
Terreis gave me an uncertain look.
"That was a joke," I admitted.
"Phew, for a moment there I thought you were serious," Terreis said with relief.
We both enjoyed the easy banter between us.
"I have something I wanted to show you." Terreis handed me a scroll. "Open it," she said.
I opened the scroll and saw a poem.
"I know I should've been working on the treaty, but you inspired me," Terreis confessed. "Read it."
"Sure," I replied, and I read the poem out loud.
From deep within a well of aquamarine
I draw up and drink my fill
Yet it leaves my thirst unquenched
For want of slaking
"It's beautiful," I replied.
"I'm glad you like it."
"You know, you continue to surprise and amaze me. Here you are, Queen of the Amazons – a warrior – and yet you write poetry."
"Is that good?"
"Yes, very good. Take this poem, for example. It is simple yet deeply moving. Clearly it's a poem about unrequited love."
"Perhaps," she said thoughtfully. "Or perhaps it's just a poem about being really, really thirsty," Terreis said with a wink.
"Do you mind if I ask you something personal?" I asked.
"No, I don't mind at all. What is it?"
"Have you ever been in love?"
"Why do you ask?" Terreis looked at me with eyes that suddenly sparkled.
"You don't ask a loaded question like that and then say 'just curious'. What's on your mind?"
"Well, what if, hypothetically speaking, say you were in love with this person…how would you feel? I mean what would you do? I mean would you tell anybody?"
"Well, then 'hypothetically', if it were me, I'd feel like I was walking on clouds, and I'd shower this person with flowers and gifts and poems, and I'd want to race to the top of a mountain and shout for all the world to hear that someone very special loved me and I was the luckiest person alive!"
That's how I felt, but Xena wasn't a shout it from the mountaintop kind of person. I mean, Xena's much more guarded with her feelings, but she shows me how she feels when she makes love to me and in the way she treats me when we're alone. I love Xena no matter what, but would it kill her to say it more often? I thought.
"Did I answer your question?"
Terreis' question brought me back from my brooding. "Yes, and thank you." I leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
"What was that for?" Terreis asked.
"For everything – for being such a good friend."
"No thanks necessary," Terreis replied. She reached out and took my hand in hers.
I looked down at our enfolded hands; her thumb gently outlined the veins that were visible on the top of my hand. I sat mesmerised by the tenderness of her touch.
I felt overcome with a warmth and a closeness I never thought I'd feel for anyone else but Xena. "I don't know if I've ever told you this, but I-I cherish our friendship."
"The feeling is very mutual." Terreis said in a low and sultry voice.
We looked deeply into each other's eyes and suddenly I felt as if the air in the tent had become superheated. It was hard to breathe. Terreis moved closer as if she meant to kiss me. I pulled back and put some space between us so I could breathe some fresh air and rein in my mixed up emotions.
"I think we should go watch the weapons demonstration," I said, as I stood up.
Terreis climbed to her feet. "Leave the weapons, to the others," she said. "Why don't we go for a walk and discuss the treaty?"
I glanced at Terreis. She seemed unconcerned by my sudden desire to leave and there was only an innocent, open look on her face.
"There's a waterfall nearby that I've been meaning to go and look at," Terreis continued. "It'll make a change to discuss business in such a beautiful place."
I didn't want to miss the opportunity to discuss the treaty, but what if Terreis really had tried to kiss me? I didn't want to hurt our friendship, but I couldn't tell her that Xena and I were in love. What a mess, I thought.
"Gabrielle?" Terreis prompted me.
"Okay, but I should let the Empress know what I'm doing."
"Why do you need to tell her? You aren't a slave."
"The Empress is merely concerned about my safety. Also I'm sure she'd like to know that we're going to be discussing the treaty, she may have a point that she wants me to bring up."
I breathed a mental sigh when Terreis nodded her understanding. I hoped that Xena would find some reason for me to stay near her.
When I neared the practice area, I noticed the crowd gathered around Xena and Ephiny. They had just finished a sparring match, and from the look of things, it appeared Xena had won. I don't know why, but I felt a touch of pride that my love had been victorious.
She and Ephiny wiped the sweat from their faces and drank some ale to quench their thirst. I decided to stay back, nearby but out of the way, until Xena had a chance to cool off and catch her breath. At first, their conversation was about warrior stuff and I didn't pay much attention. However, when the conversation turned to Terreis and me, I pricked up my ears and listened.
"Your queen seems to have taken a liking to my advisor," Xena said casually.
"It's a bit more than a liking," Ephiny replied.
"You think there are more than just treaty negotiations going on?"
Ephiny answered conspiratorially. "No treaty negotiations should take this long, and that's all I'm going to say."
"Why should that matter to you?" Xena asked.
Ephiny didn't give an answer. Instead the curly-haired warrior asked Xena why The Conqueror would be negotiating a peace treaty with the Amazons.
With no satisfactory explanation from Xena, Ephiny put two and two together somehow. "Ahh. I see," she said knowingly. "Gabrielle is more than just your advisor."
I couldn't believe Xena stood there in awkward silence, offering no explanation or denial.
"That's it," Ephiny said triumphantly. "It has to be. Your reputation for bedding young women is legendary."
"I never said I had not bedded her," Xena boasted. "What do I care if your queen picks up my leftovers?"
I felt as though I had just been kicked in the gut. All this time, Xena insisted we had to keep our relationship secret, and here she was telling a virtual stranger that she had bedded me.
I stepped from the shadows and they both turned to look at me. At least Xena had the decency to look embarrassed. Ephiny looked as though the whole thing was very amusing.
"It seems I came a bit too late – or too early." I said with obvious displeasure.
"Gabrielle, can I speak to you?" Xena pointed towards the other side of the clearing. "In private."
With my arms across my chest, I stood my ground and made no effort to jump to her bidding. Xena took hold of my shoulder and ushered me away from listening ears.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered sheepishly, "it is not what it sounded like. Trust me. I will explain it all when we get back to the palace."
Betraying no emotion, I whispered back, "I came here to tell you that I was going for a walk with Terreis."
"A walk? Where?"
"There's a waterfall—"
Xena interrupted me. "Outside the camp? No." Though she whispered, her tone was dismissive, which annoyed me.
"I'm not asking for your permission," I countered in a louder whisper. "I've come to tell you what I'm going to do."
Her steely blue eyes pierced me like a spear and pinned me to the spot. "Not with Terreis. I do not want you alone with her outside the camp."
"I'm not something you own," I retorted sharply. "I decide who I go with and when I go with them."
Xena's eyes flashed angrily and her voice grew louder. "No you do not!" she exclaimed. "I do." She wasn't shouting, but she spoke in that soulless Empress voice of hers, which made my blood run cold. "You serve me. Your actions should be mine; your thoughts should be mine when you act as my representative."
My mouth went dry and my throat seemed to constrict as she spoke. I swallowed hard to hold back hurt, angry tears. "Is that all I am to you?"
Xena stood there, arms crossed, saying nothing. Her silence struck me as hard as a slap and was just as painful.
Finally, I lost my temper. "You dare to stand there and talk to me about my thoughts and actions! You just made me sound like a cheap whore you used for your own amusement, just like...like that camp follower you bedded in Larissa."
"Anteia?" Xena offered, obviously in shock at my outburst.
"I'm surprised you even remembered her name!"
"Why are you bringing her into this?"
"You promised me you wouldn't treat me the same way as you treated her. Well, you treated me worse!" My voice cracked and tears flowed down my cheeks. "You may not have meant those words, but they still hurt me."
If Xena had said 'sorry' or just had shown me some tenderness, I would've forgiven her everything. Instead, Xena stood there playing the part of outraged sovereign.
"You know what I expect of you in public. You know that how I am in public is different to how I am when we are alone. I thought you understood the situation."
I let out a hollow laugh. "Is that what this is, Xena? A 'situation'?"
"Don't be facetious." Xena scolded me as if I were a naughty child.
"Oh! That's me put in my place then!" I said sarcastically.
"Gabrielle, this is no time for one of your little spats," Xena replied.
"And that's another thing. I'm sick of your patronising and I'm sick of you treating me like a possession. You care more about your sceptre than you do about me."
By this time, everyone in camp, even Terreis, had gathered around to see what was going on. Xena and I were standing toe-to-toe shouting at each other like we were on opposite sides of a deep crevasse. I felt so humiliated and angry that I was way beyond caring who was around to hear us argue.
"Terreis doesn't treat me like that. She treats me as an equal, as a friend. And she doesn't care who sees her when she does."
"That's because she is using you to get to me," Xena argued.
"I forgot, I'm sorry – this is all about you! It's your empire, your world. I'm just your 'leftovers'!"
"That's not what I meant and you know it!" Her finger punctuated the air in frustration.
Suddenly, everything became very quiet. The Amazons held their collective breaths waiting to see what was going to happen next.
I took my emotions off boil and asked her quietly and sincerely, "What did you mean, Xena?"
Xena gestured to the circle of women standing around us. "This is neither the time nor the place, Gabrielle." There was no venom in her voice.
"You picked the time and place, Xena."
Xena didn't come back with an angry rebuff or a sarcastic comment. She looked spent, weary of the battle.
I reached out and touched her forearm to get her to look at me. "For once, don't worry about what others might think or say or do."
I could tell Xena was very uncomfortable and conflicted. It showed in the furrows of her brow and the sadness in her eyes.
"For once, be honest," I said, urging her to speak from the heart.
Still Xena stood there, fidgeting with the trim on her sleeves.
"For me." I pleaded with her one last time to drop the lie and embrace the truth of what we shared.
But still she said nothing.
With as much dignity as I could muster, I held my head held high and turned to leave.
"Do not walk away from me." Xena's voice was almost a growl.
I didn't even flinch as I ignored her and kept walking away.
"Gabrielle, I am warning you!"
I knew we had both crossed a line that would be difficult to repair. I had committed at least two cardinal sins in Xena's book. Not only had I defied her in public again, but the true nature of our relationship was no longer in doubt.
Terreis came over to me. "Are you all right, Gabrielle?" she asked.
"Come on. Let's go for that walk."
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