In the aftermath of LOCKED UP, TIED DOWN, Xena and Gabrielle sail away from Shark Island Prison on troubled waters the two must navigate as an inescapable element of their journey together.
Sailors scurried across the deck, straining to stay ahead of the strong gusts blowing everything about like toys. A few wondered at the lone woman among them who could’ve been a rag doll – long dark hair whipping her face, loose sack cloth garment alternately billowing and clinging to her body. Yet she moved as if one with the wind, at the same time remaining steady on her feet and somehow securing whatever she touched.
“Rain’s comin’!” A grizzled deckhand pointed at the dark clouds swelling ominously, ripe for bursting with mischief. When they did, the torrents sent nearly everyone racing for shelter below.
“Wait!” the captain shouted, fighting for some semblance of control. “The main sail! Lower the main sail!” His words blew back to him. He squinted through the sheets of water for someone among the disappearing bodies who could hear. Just as he bent to tie off the wheel, a familiar squeaking sound pierced the wind. He looked up to see the main sail slowly retreating from the onslaught. A figure at its base worked the ropes as if reining in a horse – just the right tension, just enough slack.
Some minutes later, the ship still lurched, but rode the waves more steadily. The rain had lessened somewhat and the sky lightened, revealing a wasteland, deserted except for the captain and an apparition floating towards him through the gray.
“Think that’ll do it for now.”
“Aye.” The captain secured the wheel. He stepped down from the pilot’s station. “Baggio,” he said, extending his hand. “`Preciate the help.”
“Mm.” Baggio scowled at the empty deck. “Never sure what you’ll get on a prison ship. Crew or … passengers.” He studied the disheveled form in front of him. “Wasn’t you on the trip to Shark Island a few weeks ago?”
“Not many come back. Least, not this fast. What was you in for?”
“Yeah? They got the wrong woman?”
“Right woman. Wrong murder.”
Baggio frowned. Before he could probe further, sailors began emerging to resume their duties. A young blond woman also came out and headed towards him.
“There you are!” The blonde grabbed the other woman’s arms. “What happened to ‘Better get to safety?’ I thought you were coming too.”
“Sorry. ‘Safety’ wasn’t lookin’ too good, unless I stayed up here.”
“Pffft. No lie there.” Baggio bowed slightly. “I’m Cap’n Baggio. If it wasn’t for your …. Um ….”
“She’s my advocate,” the dark-haired woman supplied dryly. “And guardian, so to speak. The reason I got out so fast. Gabrielle.”
“Pleased to meet you.” Baggio grinned. “And lucky you’re better at your job than my men. Her too. Could use someone with her experience. Um, you know, if she needs a job.” He winced. “Um … I mean sailor-type work. Kinda tough, bein’ a parolee, findin’ somethin’ … legit.”
Gabrielle bit her lip. “Thanks, but that won’t be necessary. Xena does indeed have many skills.” She rolled her tongue in her cheek. “I already have plans for them.”
“Xena? The Xena?”
“Uh huh. And one of my plans is for her to go below and get dry.”
Gabrielle’s tone did not encourage further conversation. “Uh, yeah. Right.” Baggio inspected his own soggy clothes. “Prob’ly a good idea for me too.” He nodded to the women and walked off.
“I’ll be down in a minute.”
Gabrielle studied her partner. “This hasn’t exactly been a vacation. You’re supposed to be recuperating from one situation, not adding to it.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Xena squeezed her “guardian’s” shoulder. “Fresh air’ll do me good.”
Sighing, Gabrielle gave Xena a hug. “See you soon.” She glanced over her shoulder to see the warrior leaning against a rail, hands and face lifted, catching the rain.
Gabrielle tidied their portion of the large area in the hold used to confine female convicts headed for Shark Island Prison. This return trip bore a couple of older women who’d made it to the end of their sentences. Gabrielle had been in the process of making a privacy curtain from discarded sailcloth when the weather turned bad a few hours after leaving. She’d gone up top to check on Xena, who’d yet to make an appearance below. The warrior warned of impending danger and suggested they take cover. Gabrielle had done so. Her churning stomach delayed her from finding out why her partner hadn’t followed.
In truth, Xena seemed to prefer the chaos on deck to attending matters Gabrielle deemed more important – bathing, dressing wounds, eating the tasteless but solid food on board. Sensitive chats. Their departure from Shark Island had been fairly abrupt following Commandant Thalassa’s pardon. The exhausted warrior had slept through most of the first day. The next morning a ship was spotted arriving earlier than scheduled. The four women free to go had few possessions and no inclination to prevent leaving their hellhole as quickly as possible.
Certainly Gabrielle understood her partner’s desire to enjoy the limitless expanse of ocean, the smell of nature, absence of hanging nooses or mean dogs of both the two- and four-legged kind. She could empathize with Xena’s carrying vestiges of her recent ordeal on her skin, in her mind. What worried her was what seemed to haunt Xena even before allowing herself to be tried and sentenced for a crime committed over 10 years ago. Since coming back from the Land of the Dead to find Gabrielle hadn’t perished after all in Dahak’s pit. Despite the wondrous joy of reuniting, the lighthearted moments during a couple of escapades with Autolycus and Joxer.
“I had a vision of you. In the future. That’s how I knew you were alive.” Maybe Xena still didn’t feel it was real? Didn’t believe she deserved it? Feared undoing it somehow? Gabrielle recalled how Xena would often gaze at her, eyes filling with such gratitude and relief. How other times she’d look away when a flash of something else clouded the blue eyes. Terror? Sadness? Anger? Resignation? Whatever, it was a strange mixture of helplessness and determination Gabrielle couldn’t remember seeing before.
“Knock knock. May I come in?”
Gabrielle paused in fixing the privacy curtain. “Humph. If you come in the right way.”
“Mm.” Xena bowed her head and put her hands together as if in prayer. “May I come in, O Mistress Healer Bard Commandant?”
Gabrielle snickered. “Not bad. Your supplication could use improvement. But I meant ….” She pointed to another as yet uncovered side. “When I’m done, the entrance will be over there.”
“Ah.” Xena strolled to the area indicated. “Want some help? With the other … wall?”
“What I want is for you to get out of that wet sack.”
“Ooo. And dance naked for ya?” Xena pulled open the top of her prison-issue garb and peered inside. “Hmm. Dirty dancing?”
“You wish.” Gabrielle indicated a washbowl and thin towel. “When you’ve cleaned up, you can put on those clothes I got from one of the sailors.”
Xena sauntered “inside.” She picked up a tunic and breeches lying atop a crate set between two cots. She sized them up as a decent fit. She waggled a sandaled foot. “No boots?”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “After we dock in Literia. I left your things at the tavern.”
“What about you?” Xena raised a brow at the ex-prison healer’s damp, soiled outfit. “I have eyes and a nose too, ya know.”
“I brought a change in my bag.” Gabrielle let out a deep breath. “Wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying.” She held Xena’s eyes. “Or if I’d leave.”
Xena chose not to ask the question they both knew the answer to. Especially since it might mean revisiting why either would’ve been on Shark Island in the first place. “Well, then,” she responded, bending down to gather her hem, “I’ll get to it.” When she stood in all her smudged, battered glory, she added, “Seeing as how you went to all that trouble to break me out.”
One Leg Petros made a last inspection of the corridor. The storm had been a stroke of luck. Veteran sailors who usually worked the day shifts had gotten an unexpected reprieve, given their hours spent battening down the ship. Baggio wanted them fresh for possible bad weather tomorrow. The perfect cover for plotting that evening.
About seven men – almost half the crew – waited in the bunkroom to hear Petros’ update. They’d long ago tired of duty on a prison ship. Many former convicts themselves, they accepted their lot as the dregs of society with little chance for much better than “promotion” to guards on Shark Island. To authorities and the public they were practically invisible. Too shiftless to trust with hardened male criminals, but perfect for transporting women. Certainly not a breed anyone would suspect of greater ambition or the brains to make lemonade of lard.
Unlike his brethren, Petros considered himself mired in an existence beneath his potential. The son of a prosperous merchant, he’d once captained the vessel his father sent across oceans to transport exotic goods prized by the wealthy. He’d lost his leg and all his belongings after a terrible accident far from home. Once sufficiently recovered, he’d drifted into work where he could at least be out to sea away from reminders of the world that had crashed down around him. Not a day passed when he didn’t dream of somehow re-establishing some semblance of status. And finally the time had come.
“I figure things won’t be back to normal for a couple days. About the same time as our first target’ll be passing by. Most of those not with us aren’t itching for a fight. I expect they’ll leave us to do as we want. Those with other ideas ….” Petros shrugged. “Accidents happen.”
“The cap’n and his first mates?”
“Soon’s we sight the target. Squid, your guys still up for handling that?”
“Good. Carry on as usual. I’ll give the signal when we need to meet again.”
“Huh.” Gabrielle examined wounds her partner acquired during her stint on Shark Island. “These tiny marks on your neck and shoulders. Such a strange pattern. Like … teeth?”
“Um …. Love bites?”
“In a manner of speaking.” Xena snorted. “They seemed to enjoy it enough.”
“Xena, what are you talking about?”
The warrior sighed. “In that pit. I was hogtied. Little visitors came a callin’.”
“Little ….” Gabrielle gasped. “Rats?!”
“Eh, I let `em know they weren’t welcome. Got a few of `em better’n they got me.”
“And you let these go this long? Xena, they could be infected. Why didn’t you say something –.”
“S’okay. Had one of the inmates put something on them. While you were off chatting with Thalassa?”
“You were supposed to be resting.”
“I did. First things first was all.”
“I see.” Gabrielle
finished applying salve. She handed
Xena the borrowed shirt and sat on the opposite cot. “Something else you meant to hide from me.”
“Aw, come on. What difference does it make who –.”
“You know what I’m talking about.” Gabrielle pursed her lips at Xena’s silence. “This guilt thing. Letting yourself be locked up. Why now? What happened to focusing on atoning with all the good you can do?”
“I was wrong, okay?” Xena slipped the shirt on. “Mucking about in mud, having critters snack on me didn’t bring the peace I’d hoped.” She stood to pull on her breeches. “Lesson learned. Can we move on?”
“That’s not all.” Gabrielle lifted her chin. “For somebody so happy to get me back, you didn’t fight very hard against losing me again.”
Xena winced. She sat back down on the cot, pants bunched around her ankles. What could she say? Reveal the part of the vision where Romans nailed them to crosses? That being in prison was better and deserved anyway? And, most importantly, might keep Gabrielle from being punished along with her?
“It’s not just about you anymore, Xena.” Gabrielle began putting away her healing supplies. “The irons they put on you bit into my wrists too. I felt even more helpless, because – unlike you – it was against my will. Condemned to a life apart from the person who decided it was somehow less punishment for me than struggling with her through her guilt.” Gabrielle paused to ensure she had her partner’s full attention. “Or, worse yet, didn’t even consider it wasn’t just about her.”
Xena closed her eyes against the expression on Gabrielle’s face. It hurt as much as seeing Gabrielle on that cross. Except one was real and the other an evil witch’s dream. One, something she could change. The other ….
Gabrielle came over to sit beside the deflated warrior. “I’m real, Xena. Not just some voice in your head. Some ideal you picture and want to protect in its own little place. I wish I could get you to accept that. To accept me as a full partner in whatever you do.”
“Gabrielle, I do ….” Xena grasped Gabrielle’s hand, kissed it and held it in her lap. She wanted so badly to declare being together balanced the weight of her past, that she wouldn’t sacrifice herself and risk Gabrielle’s happiness if it could mean saving Gabrielle’s life. Instead she promised what she believed possible to fulfill. “I’ll always love you. Do my best to respect your wishes and treat you right.” She squeezed Gabrielle’s hand. “Be patient, okay? Losing you again? Haven’t quite gotten over that I guess.”
“You may never.” Gabrielle chuckled. “Not sure I want you to entirely.” She gazed at their cloth walls. “We were lucky during our earlier travels. We can’t take each other’s lives for granted anymore, Xena. Your quest is foremost to me. I accept what goes along with that. I treasure our moments together. I don’t want them clouded by your fear of losing me.”
Once again Xena knew what she should say. Once again, she danced around it. “I’ll try too. Treasure what we have. And right now, that means being able to ….” She kissed Gabrielle’s forehead. “How’s that?”
“Good start.” Gabrielle smirked. “Might carry more weight without your feet swimming in your britches.”
The sun tried to ease its way through clouds that refused to disperse from the day before. Gabrielle faced its faint glow from the railing near the quarterdeck. Xena sat on a crate near the stern, apparently not to enjoy the lull in bad weather, so much as prepare for more.
“Feelin’ better, eh?”
Gabrielle turned toward the voice. “Me?”
“Aye. Looked a little green yesterday.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle smiled at the captain. “Sea trips and I don’t always get along.”
Baggio signaled for one of his mates to take the helm and stepped down to join Gabrielle. “Your … charge … over there looks like she’s born to it.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle wryly studied her soulmate, surrounded by the pile of rope she’d so far untangled. “You could say she was born to many things.”
“She really Xena? The Warrior Princess?”
Gabrielle cocked her head. “Why?”
“Um ….” The captain scratched his beard. He’d thought his question simple enough, the young woman friendly enough. Something in her eyes …. “Didn’t mean offense.”
“Well, uh, you know, her reputation and all. Commandin’ armies. A pirate. Ships bigger’n this. Hear tell, had gold drippin’ from `er hair. Finest things money couldn’t buy.” Baggio snickered. “Not that she needed money. Took what she wanted. Now …. ” He glanced at the quiet woman in hand-me-downs. “Quite a fall. Might not want folks knowin’.”
“Image isn’t Xena’s biggest worry.” Gabrielle snorted. “Not in that way. It is for other people. I’m always curious who they think she is.”
“Well, I can only go on what I’ve heard.”
Gabrielle sat on a step to the quarterdeck. “And what’s that?”
Baggio checked the inquisitive green eyes. They encouraged him to get comfortable against a post. “Not that different from me. Got in trouble as a youngun. Didn’t like takin’ guff off nobody. Followin’ others’ rules. Made mistakes along the way. In the end, had somethin’ of `er own. Did the best with it she could.”
“Sounds like you admire that.”
“Not easy bein’ in command. Makin’ a way for others.” Baggio surveyed the vessel he rented out for services beneath most owners. “Might not be much, but this’s mine. I do what I have to keepin’ her afloat. Within limits, of course.”
“Mm. Unlike Xena?”
“Said she was in for murder. That true?”
“She’s had more than her share of kills, yes. In this case, her victim didn’t actually die. Xena discovered Thalassa running Shark Island.” Gabrielle glanced at her soulmate. “Had you heard she’d reformed? Dedicated herself to making up for her … ‘mistakes?’”
“Yup. Could tell right off she’s leadership material. The way she took charge during the storm?” Baggio nodded to himself. “Always lookin’ for ways to improve. Problem is, not much profit in do-gooding.” He snorted. “`Specially if it lands you in jail anyway. Nothin’ but a burlap sack to show for it.”
“She’s not in it for the profit. She wouldn’t have been locked up, if she hadn’t allowed it. Part of trying to atone for one of many times she didn’t do good.”
“Well, like I said before, I could use somebody like her. Not too soft for the likes of this crew or its cargo. But not the sort I’d have to watch my back with either.” Baggio studied the dark-haired woman a moment. “You’ve got pull with `er, right?”
“Um, I guess you could say that.”
“Put in a word for me? Let `er know she’s got choices. Beyond jail or bein’ a deck hand.” Baggio smirked. “Unless your ‘other plans’ for her top that?”
“My plans?” Gabrielle chewed her lip. “It’s hers I’m more concerned about. Not so sure right now how they fit with mine.”
Petros noticed how the others kept their distance from the dark-haired woman. Oh, she’d acknowledged them. Lent a hand without being asked. Didn’t act high and mighty or anything, just because she was neither crew nor prisoner. But – ex-con or not – she was definitely in a class all her own. Like him.
The woman glanced up, fingers continuing to work on knots. “Morning.”
“Name’s Petros. Or One Leg. Either’s fine with me.” He cleared his throat. “I hear you’re Xena.”
“Or Warrior Princess. Either’s fine with me.”
Petros found the woman’s dry response encouraging. He sat on a nearby crate. “Not many volunteers for that. Don’t have the patience.”
“Needs doing.” She shrugged. “Might as well be me.”
Petros gathered in some of the rope she’d untangled and began coiling it around a large spool. “I know a little about patience. Comes with having goals.”
“Mm. Or staving off boredom.”
“Heh. Yeah, there’s that too. Don’t imagine boredom’s a problem for you?”
“Not usually.” She tossed him more rope. “A little something for your … goals.”
Petros laughed. He hadn’t expected humor from the taciturn woman. “We’re not so different, you know.”
“I’ve been around the world. Captained one of my family’s merchant ships. Almost crossed paths once with yours.”
“Lucky for you we didn’t.”
Petros felt a chill. “Uh, yeah. You were quite the scourge of the high seas.”
Xena looked up from her work. “You got a point to this? Or just passing time?” The corner of her mouth quirked. “Like me.”
“Um ….” Petros tried to read the blue eyes. “Maybe a little of both?”
“I’m nearly done. If you have another goal in mind, better spit it out.”
“I … um ….” Petros took a deep breath. “Woman of your stature …. I know what it’s like having something. Losing it. Making do until the right opportunity. I figure you probably got more in mind than … this.”
“And what might that be?”
“I … can’t be too specific. Not yet.” Petros glanced around. “Let’s just say it could suit your interests. Your … background. A lot more payoff than untangling snarls.”
Xena carefully smoothed out the section of rope she’d unknotted, as if it were a gold chain. “Like I said, I’m a ‘do what’s needed’ kinda gal. At the moment, it’s this. Not because I ‘lost’ what I had. I gave it up.” She stood and handed Petros the rope. “Appreciate your help. Couple other tasks suit my background. Seem needing volunteers. If you wanna follow my lead, be my guest.”
Petros watched the woman walk toward the young blonde relaxing near the helm. When he’d first learned Xena might be on board, he’d thought it an unexpected bonus. Someone with the experience and desire his plan needed. Ruthless. Fearless. Ambitious. He hadn’t believed the rumors she’d changed. Her sentence to Shark Island proved it. But nothing since.
Is that why she’d been freed so fast? They’d truly broken her? Convinced her to settle for the lowly existence she once crushed beneath her boot? If so, did that make her more friend or foe? Either way, one thing hadn’t changed. She was still in a class by herself. With any luck she’d be no worse than the rope he’d wrapped conveniently in its place and out of the way. Otherwise, an unexpected snarl that could trip him up.
Gabrielle inspected their dining arrangements. She’d suggested they have their afternoon meal on deck, given the decent weather. Two crates served as seats, a third as their table. It featured a colorful cloth, atop which rested plates of dried meat and steamed greens.
“What do you think?”
“Food and good company? A fresh breeze? I’m in.”
“Excellent.” Gabrielle assumed her seat. “I invited Selia and Grinelle. They spend so much time below. Supposedly occupied mending and washing the sailors’ clothes. Too bad. Nothing so restorative as the sun and fresh air.” Gabrielle took in a deep breath. “Especially for those of us more used to land.” She snuck a peek at her friend. “So, how’s your day going?”
Xena sampled the food. “This is the highlight so far.”
“I notice you had company.”
“You know me – always a magnet for chitchat.” Xena raised a brow. “Like you.”
“Riiiight.” Gabrielle ate a few bites. “The captain wanted to assure me you needn’t worry about your career path. You know, as an ex-con?”
“A benefit of many skills. No shortage of offers.”
“Your guy too?”
“Mmhm. An ‘opportunity’ I might be interested in.”
“I suppose it didn’t involve selling souvenirs from Shark Island.”
“Souvenirs maybe. Possibly from other ships.”
Gabrielle’s head jerked up. “Pirating?!”
“He wasn’t specific. I didn’t ask.” Xena glanced wryly around the deck. “Too occupied contemplating other fun activities.”
“Hmmm. I wonder if Baggio suspects. Could explain his interest in getting you on his side. You know, for your … ‘leadership’ qualities.”
“Peachy.” Xena rested her chin on her hand. Considering what she’d just survived – including duking it out with inmates and prison guards alike – she’d expected the week or so voyage from Shark Island to be a picnic in comparison. Once again it appeared she’d be caught between troublemakers and those who prized order.
“The captain seems a decent sort.” Gabrielle sighed. “It’s just …. Any chance you won’t get sucked in? I mean, if you warn him or something?”
Xena cocked her head. “Why him? The others see a kindred spirit in me too.”
Gabrielle frowned. “What are you saying?”
“Might be better for him if I went along. Keep things from getting bloodier than they have to be.”
“Gods.” Gabrielle shook her head. “I guess ‘neutral’ doesn’t apply to you, does it?”
“We go up in the crow’s nest? Watch any action from there?” Xena snorted. “Maybe I could. What about you?”
Gabrielle thought back to her arrival on Shark Island. “Should’ve seen me posing as a good little healer. I did pretty well at first.” Until learning where they’d confined Xena. At which point she’d taken a broom to the guards and nearly gotten hung. “Okay. Might not be so easy for me either.”
“Actually, I did better than I thought.” Xena recalled her initial success at fitting into prison life. Watching them hang a prisoner. Resisting inmates’ attempts to recruit her into their rebellions. Letting guards bully her. “Too bad they lifted a whip to a young woman who tried to befriend me.” Things after that hadn’t gone so well, and she’d ended up in that pit. “Must be something about fresh-faced little blondes. Seem to be my Achilles heel.”
“We play it by ear? See what develops?”
“You won’t get bored?” Xena snorted. “I’ve got deck chores lined up. What’ll you be doing?”
Gabrielle rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Sunning? Writing? Watching you work?” She scowled at her soulmate. “Been awhile, but I haven’t forgotten how to do that either.” She narrowed her eyes. “If I know the plan. We’re way past my learning what you’re up to after the fact. Right?”
“Absolutely.” Xena smirked. “You’ll know as soon as I do.”
“I go with the flow. Not my fault I don’t know where until I’m there.”
“Fine.” Gabrielle smirked. “Then don’t be surprised if ….” She pivoted and started away.
“Gabrielllle. If what.”
“I sweep in to mop you up.”
Though merely a dark speck against the horizon, it attracted several eyes. Produced an undercurrent beneath the casual observations.
“Think it’s that merchant ship? Seems about time for it.”
“Suppose.” Baggio shifted his gaze from the dark spec to Petros. “Plannin’ on rowin’ over for a new boot?”
“Eh, just curious.” Petros examined his foot. “Could use a new boot though. Seeing as how this one does the work of two.” He glanced over to the women relaxing near the stern. “Bet that little one wouldn’t mind shopping.” He snorted. “Especially for Xena.”
“Xena? What for? Clothes?” Baggio appraised the larger woman. “Doesn’t seem that bothered by what she’s wearin’.”
“That’s a fact. No mistaking her for any old body. Even in that fool Milum’s britches.”
“Yeah, well, she’s pretty much Gabrielle’s ‘old body.’ For now anyway.” Baggio raised a shaggy brow. “Folks with other ideas gotta get through her first.”
“Other ideas?” Petros bent to adjust his wooden leg. “Not getting your drift.”
Baggio smirked. He’d hit a nerve all right. He shrugged. “Maybe gettin’ `er to talk more. About her warlord days’n such.” He snorted. “Like she’d wanna drink to old times with this lot.”
Petros straightened. “I wouldn’t be so sure about ….” He caught himself, tamping down the surge of resentment he always felt at being included among that “lot.” Reminding himself Baggio would get his comeuppance soon enough. “I mean, she’s had her run with rougher types. Who’s to say she doesn’t miss it?”
The captain studied Xena again. Picturing her old habits. Wondering how hard they’d be to break. Petros’ mouth quirked at the other man’s expression, thinking to himself, “Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”
“Eh, who knows.” Baggio spat on his sleeve and used it to wipe something off the wheel. “Gossip either way. Better you worry more about those cranks over there. Could use oil.” He watched the other man limp away before setting his sight once more on the mystery in front of him – not the ship headed their way, but the dark woman who might miss the kind of trouble it could mean.
“Xena?” Gabrielle observed the deckhands leaning against the rail, squinting out to sea. She got up for a closer view. “Looks like a ship headed this way.”
“You’d think they’d never seen one before. They seem mighty excited.”
Xena continued her precise stitching of the rent in a sail. “You’ve plucked many a daisy in your time.” She smirked. “Hasn’t stopped you from going ga-ga over the next patch.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “I check for bees first. Before I … ga-ga … my way over. What if it’s pirates?”
“Too far to tell.”
“Yeah? Well, Baggio’s staring out like a storm’s coming. Speaking of which ….” Gabrielle edged back to where Xena sat, as she watched Petros approach.
“Morning, ladies. Ship in the distance.” Petros smiled at Gabrielle. “Ever shopped at sea?”
“A merchant vessel? You can tell from here?”
“One’s due to pass about now. A regular run of sorts. If so, they’ll come alongside at our signal.”
“Ah.” Gabrielle finally smiled back. “We could use a few things. I usually like browsing and haggling. Doing it on water isn’t high on my list, but I’m game.”
“And you, Xena?” The corner of Petros’ mouth twitched. “I imagine you’ve experienced that before?”
Xena used her teeth to cut the thread. “Yup.” She knotted the end of her stitches. “The browsing part. Not so much the haggling. Lucked up on a lot of freebies.”
Petros leaned in. “Miss it? Not having to worry about enough coins?”
“No. She doesn’t.” Gabrielle cocked her head at the warrior for confirmation.
Xena held up her handiwork for inspection. “That oughtta hold well enough. Mind dragging it over there, where it’s clear?” she asked Gabrielle. “Get one of the guys to help you roll it up.”
“Xena ….” Gabrielle hesitated, pretty sure she was being dismissed. And that she didn’t like it.
“I’ve got a couple more to do. It’ll make the job go quicker.” Xena offered her best “trust me” look. “Please?”
Gabrielle muttered under her breath. She scowled at Petros before dragging the sail off. “Watch out for loose ends,” she threw over her shoulder, now scowling at her soulmate. “Wouldn’t want you messing up all your hard work.”
“I don’t think your … guardian … approves of me.”
“Mm. Probably more about why you’re here. Doubt it’s to help with mending.”
Petros shrugged. “Shopping, like I said. Get your views on it.” He checked to ensure no eavesdroppers. “You know – your kind?”
Xena reached for another sail. “My kind. Like when I simply took what I wanted?” She smirked at Petros’ surprise. “Thought we’d established I’m a ‘get to the point’ kinda gal.”
“Um, yes. Indeed.” He lowered himself to the crate Gabrielle had been sitting on. “That ship. Could be the opportunity I mentioned. Quite a few others ready and willing. Not your caliber of course. Or mine. You could name your price. If you’re interested.”
“Well … we’d discuss it, of course. I’m sure you’d – .”
“Nah, another type of haggling. I should know.” Xena cut her eyes over to Gabrielle. “She’s the best. Losing to her I can live with. Anybody else? My way or the highway.” Her mouth quirked. “That’s what you wanted, right? My … way?”
Petros rested his wooden leg on a coil of rope, grimacing as if in discomfort. He was, but more from the sense he’d already lost control of his grand scheme. Afraid what price he’d pay if this woman joined him. Or if she didn’t.
“Ship’s still a ways off. No need to rush. I like to see what we’ve got first. The cargo. Crew. Passengers. Arms. If the risk is worth the price.”
“What’re you ….” Petros scratched the knee of his bum leg. His brain careened like a dinghy on ocean swells. “You saying you’re … in?”
“I’m saying I’ll be the one to decide.”
Petros gritted his teeth. For a “get to the point kinda gal,” this one sure …. “You’re speaking in riddles. Not following your drift.”
“S’okay. All you gotta follow is my orders.” Xena patted the man’s itchy kneecap. “Get your men ready as planned. If I’m in, I lead. Nobody moves a muscle unless I say so. If I choose to stick with my darning….”
“Yes? What then?”
“Same thing.” Xena squeezed the kneecap, sneering at Petros’ wince. “Means risking otherwise won’t be worth the price.”
Petros sat slack jawed. He would’ve searched for clues on the tall woman’s face, except she’d lowered her head, once again focused on needle and thread. The only thing he’d learned in the last few minutes was she was less like him than he’d assumed. And far more dangerous.
“You ask a lot.”
“You’re wrong. Not … asking … anything.”
“You expect us to sit on our hands. Wait until the last moment. No idea if you’re in?”
“Oh, you’ll know.” Xena raised hooded eyes. “Trust me.”
To the casual observer, One Leg and the tall woman might’ve been shooting the breeze. Maybe exchanging differing opinions on sail mending. Baggio’s experience studying weather -- and people – suggested otherwise. For one thing, he took in the whole picture, signs others deemed irrelevant. Like the young blonde not included in the other parties’ conversation, but keeping a watchful eye on them while she worked. From her expression, Baggio suspected she did not approve of that particular association.
When Petros finally hobbled off, the captain moved in for his own forecast. “Mighty pop’lar today.”
“Think it’s my prowess with a needle?”
Baggio snorted. “Doubt their vision’s that good.” He cut his eyes at sailors hovering near the rail, pretending they were looking at the approaching ship rather than at Xena. “More likely wonderin’ about your chat with One Leg.”
“And you?” Xena glanced up with a wry smile. “Here for something different?”
“Depends. Anything of interest to me?” Baggio watched Gabrielle approach. “Or her?”
“What’s that?” Gabrielle narrowed her eyes, glancing between the captain and the warrior. “Did I miss something … else?”
“Not on my end. Baggio may have some thoughts. On my previous conversation.” Xena raised a brow. “On your possible thoughts about it.” She snickered. “You being my … guardian … and all.”
Gabrielle smiled at Baggio before folding her arms and scowling at the ex-con. “Good somebody here remembered that.”
“Look,” Xena said, putting aside her work with a resigned sigh, “there’s not much to tell. Petros mentioned that ship. Was curious about my … shopping … preferences.”
“Oh? How so?”
“Whether I’d be a suitable … guide … so to speak.”
“Xeena. What kind of guide?”
“Not your kind, I’d wager. Right, Xena?”
“True, she does favor browsing. Haggling.”
“Enough with the cryptic talk! What’s Petros up to? More important, what’re you up to?”
“Besides sitting here? Minding my own business?” Xena surveyed the deck, not surprised at being the center of furtive attention. “Everybody else minding it too? According to them, ‘up to’ any and everything. Or maybe nothing at all.”
Baggio growled his frustration. “Come on, Xena. Which is it? I need to know.”
“I didn’t agree to his proposal. Didn’t reject it either.”
Gabrielle dropped down on the crate next to Xena. “Surely you’re not considering - .”
“I’ll tell you same as I told him. I need to see what we’ve got.” Xena studied the distant ship a moment. “Can’t say for sure yet.”
“Then I don’t hail it. Change course if it heads this way. No sense makin’ a problem - .”
“Already got one. That’ll make it bigger. ”
Baggio stiffened. “Thought you didn’t agree to One Leg’s - .”
“Didn’t.” Xena loosened her shoulders. “Everybody’s waiting. Figuring they’ve still got choices – to buy, to take or neither. Try avoiding that ship, could have a fight on your hands. How many would back you?”
Baggio mentally reviewed his crew. He could count on three. He suspected six open to promises of “easy” money. The others were as likely to decide based on which way the wind seemed to blow. Whatever, he was captain. He’d be damned if he’d relinquish control to Petros’ sorry lot. He jutted out his chin.
“Numbers ain’t the issue. You are. From what I hear, a force all by yourself. Could go either way.”
“Not any more. She’s a force for good now.”
“Yeah? So what’m I s’posed to do? Twiddle my thumbs? Wait like everybody else?”
“Brief the guys you trust.” Xena resumed her task. “Tell them if I’m in, I’ll take command. Nobody makes a move unless I say so.” She looked pointedly at Gabrielle and Baggio. “No exceptions.”
“But ….” Baggio gritted teeth. “You said if you’re in. How’m I s’posed to know -- .”
“Easy.” Xena rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Otherwise you’ll find me on this crate. Darning.”
The hours passed uneventfully, though the atmosphere resembled the calm before a storm. Petros had observed with suspicion Xena’s chat with the captain. Seeing a flag hoisted to summon the mystery ship reassured him somewhat. Heartening him even more, a message from their potential leader directed his men to hide weapons on their persons and within easy reach.
Baggio continued to question the wisdom of ordering the flag raised. But as the other ship came close enough to confirm it indeed the expected merchant vessel, Xena suddenly appeared at his side. She whispered those loyal to him should secretly arm and station themselves near the boarding plank.
Except for a brief trip to the hold, Xena remained up top, apparently still focused on routine maintenance -- mending, checking the rigging, oiling dry spots. By the time the other ship pulled along side, a formidable figure positioned prominently near its gangplank had attracted everyone’s attention.
“Ahoy, there. Saw your flag. Interested in doing business?” The big man bemusedly regarded the frozen clusters of sailors across from him. “Or just lonely?”
Petros scanned the deck in vain for Xena. He noted Baggio waiting silently near the helm. “Business!” He checked again for opposition. Emboldened further by detecting none, he hobbled forward. “We’re interested in … shopping. See what you’ve got on board.”
“Same here.” The man smirked at Petros’ frown. “You’re the prison ship, right? For Shark Island?”
“Uh, yes. What – .”
“Could be you’re carrying ladies of interest. You know – interested in earning a few dinars? Help `em get on their feet before they land?” The man snickered. “So to speak?”
“Ah.” Petros grinned at this stroke of luck. “A mutual exchange? Your crew …browse … who we have?” He turned to wink at his co-conspirators. “We can arrange that.”
“Good. Agrennon, at your service. Wanna see some of our merchandise first? Display a sampling of your … ladies? Make sure it’s worth everybody’s while?”
“Hmm.” Petros rubbed his jaw. “No, no need for us. As for the ladies …. That requires more … delicacy. They’re free … um, of their sentences. Accustomed to their quarters. A little privacy. Probably best making any … arrangements … there. I believe it quicker, less hassle simply boarding each other’s ships.”
Agrennon smiled at the men beside him. “May add to our enjoyment as well.” He signaled for lowering his gangplank.
Petros hesitated, realizing Baggio’s loyalists had stationed themselves by their plank pulleys.
“Problem, Captain?” Agrennon cocked his head at Petros.
“Got that right.”
All heads turned toward the commanding voice. It belonged to a tall figure emerging from below, resplendent in black pants, vest and blouse – sleeves billowing like her long dark hair.
“He’s not who you should be talking to. I am.”
Agrennon chuckled. “Even better. You in charge of the … ladies?”
“You could say that.”
Agrennon watched the woman saunter over to a crate and leap on top. “I’m to deal with you on that matter? Rather than the captain?”
“On all matters.”
“The ladies. The men. The ship.”
Agrennon’s amusement faded a bit at realization no one in front of him looked amused. That they stared at her as if she indeed controlled every muscle in their bodies. “You’re a powerful specimen, for sure.” He leered appreciatively at a young blonde who’d come up beside the brunette. “Gotta admit, had my doubts about the quality of the … passengers. If they look like you two, not surprising if ya got these blokes wrapped around your -- .”
“Xena?! The Warrior Princess?” Agrennon squinted in her direction. “B-but …. I’d heard you retired.”
“You know what they say about the sea.” She shrugged. “Call of it gets me every time.”
Agrennon shook his head. “Who would’ve thought …. Our paths almost crossed a few times. I remember this one ….” He caught himself, remembering reminiscing wasn’t particularly wise at the moment. “Um, this one market you captured. I think it was in --.”
“I know who you are, Agrennon. I recognized your colors. From those times our paths nearly crossed.”
Agrennon stiffened, losing any pretence of benign chitchat. “Fated finally to collide. Me finally catching up on some of what I missed.” He snapped his fingers. Armed men appeared, the ones nearest the railing with arrows pointed at the prison ship.
Petros’ eyes bulged. “Y-you’re not merchants?”
Agrennon guffawed. “Bright lot ya got there, Xena. Quite a come down from your heyday. You teach `em the difference between gutting a man and fish?”
Xena examined her fingernails. “Didn’t have to.” She pushed back her vest to reveal the silver disk at her waist. “They know the difference that counts.”
“Strange in itself.” Agrennon relaxed against the rail. “Creaky old prison ship. Crew not much better. That really best you could pick?”
“It picked me.”
“Pfft. This lot? Ambitions for pirating? Figured you’d take `em up a notch?”
Xena let out an exasperated sigh, as if tired by the prolonged conversation. She hopped down from the crate and strolled toward the other ship. “Picked me up from Shark Island.”
“Heh. Recruitin` more lowlifes?”
“Serving a life sentence.” Xena casually brushed hair from her face and adjusted her vest before adding matter-of-factly, “For murdering somebody a lot better than you.” She took a few steps closer and crossed her arms. “Guards harder than you. Gangs tougher. Dogs with more bite. The rats in a pit I survived. Hogtied.” She nodded to Baggio and Petros. Their men produced weapons, suddenly appearing perfectly capable of gutting more than fish. “You think to hold me any easier, get on it with. Otherwise, your curiosity about my career path? Get over it. Like Petros said, talk business.”
No one spoke, but could almost hear the myriad questions, motivations and fears swirling silently in the air around one word.
Agrennon finally voiced what was on everyone’s mind. “What ‘business,’ do you have in mind? If I choose to go along. What’ve you got to offer?” Agrennon snickered. “Besides her,” he said, indicating Gabrielle. “What could you want? A few knickknacks?”
“Same thing as you. This ship.”
Agrennon’s expression was of genuine surprise. “This … piece of crap? When I’ve got --.”
“That fine merchant vessel?” Xena snickered. “What? Yours sink? You take it as a loaner? Or just take it.”
“What do you care? It’s mine now. Everything, everyone.” Agrennon smoothed his handsome jacket. “It’s good enough for now.”
Xena sauntered over to lean against the side facing the other ship. “Built more for looks and cargo. A good decoy maybe. Not so good for pursuit. Or escape. This … ‘piece of crap,’” she said, stroking the rail, “could outrun you any day. More … versatile. Can hold and secure whatever – whoever – you take. Just what you were shopping for, hmmm?” She glanced at Petros. “And here these men thought they had the only list.”
“Seriously? You’d fight over that ship?”
“Doesn’t matter. I would.”
Agrennon curiously regarded the grizzled sailor who’d pushed to the front. “And you would be?”
“The captain? I thought --.”
“He was?” Xena nodded in Petros’ direction. “He does seek that position.” She snorted. “On your boat.”
“Mine?! What the -- .”
“It’s why we hailed you. I’m in command. But this is Baggio’s ship.”
Agrennon gaped at his prospective opponents as if they’d all lost their minds. “Don’t know what game you’re playin’, but -- .”
“Oh, it’s no game.” Xena lifted her chin. “Like I said, it’s why they have me.”
Agrennon threw up his hands. “Are you in the business again or what? A pirate for hire now?”
“I’m weighing my options. We all are. Petros there used to be a maritime merchant. Could reclaim his heritage with your boat. Or, his guys could use it for pirating. Maybe join up with you. Assuming you’d have them.”
“Pfft. As deckhands?” Agrennon rubbed his chin. “Suppose I could use – .”
“No! We’re not trading one bottom for another,” Petros shouted. He pointed at the pirate leader. “Not for somebody no better than Shark Islanders.”
“Yeah? I take it you favor somebody worse?”
Sharp intakes of breaths on the prison ship followed Agrennon’s sneered question. His men readied their swords, like everyone else staring at the dangerous “somebody worse.”
“Appreciate the compliment.” Xena directed cold eyes at the pirate captain. “But I’m just one woman. You saying there’s not one man to test how bad?”
Agrennon gritted his teeth. He couldn’t believe his luck when the prison ship hailed him. A fortuitous solution to the problem Xena correctly surmised. All they had to do was get the prison crew on board as unsuspecting customers, ambush them and claim a second vessel more suitable for his real business. He knew Lady Luck could be two-faced, but never dreamed she’d turn on him like this. Or appear in the guise of someone supposedly more legend now than the dark-haired barrier popping up between him and his plans. Good thing he knew enough not to play the fool at this surprising turnaround.
“Yeah, there’s one man.” Agrennon beckoned a guard to hand him a sword. He slashed it through the air a few times. “Might not have your reputation. But, then, I’m not a ‘has been’.” He sneered. “Like you.”
“I have heard that a lot lately. Folks thinking I’ve gotten ‘soft.’ Maybe a test for us both?” Xena moved to the center of the ship. “Whoever wins gets both ships. Anybody here got a problem with that?” she asked the men around her.
“Aye.” Baggio’s first mate put a cautionary hand on his captain’s arm. “Why take that chance? Everything riding on two criminals. What’s to stop her from siding with him, once we let him on board? Worse they could do now is shoot a few of us. We can deal with One Leg’s traitors if we have to. I vote we leave it at that.”
“Vote?!” Petros glared at the mate. “My men outnumber yours. We have bigger goals than being stuck here with you. Agrennon’s ship being a step up. Let the two fight. What matters which wins? There’ll be a fight anyway. Except more of us getting killed.”
“Quiet!” Xena raised her chakram. “This’ll take care of any archers,” she warned, pointing the disk at the merchant ship. “Or anybody with thoughts of mutiny on this side. I ask again – anybody got a problem with that?”
Baggio glanced at Gabrielle. He sensed apprehension, but noted her eyes fixed not on Xena, but on Agrennon. “No … Commander.” He raised his chin and swept his gaze resolutely over his crew. “Not where I stand.”
Brow raised, Xena waited for any objections. Other than a few mutters, she heard none. “Well, then. Agrennon? You in?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” Smirking at his men, Agrennon made a show of loosening his shoulders. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Xena addressed Baggio’s crew. “Remember, this is my show. Whatever happens, stay put unless I say so. You too, Gabrielle.”
“But, Xena, I don’t trust – .”
“I know. G’won with the others.” The warrior winked at her obviously displeased advocate. “All that sitting around, I could use the workout.” She directed everyone to move back almost to the helm and casually surveyed the cleared area before ordering, “Lower the gangplank.”
Agrennon moved to descend his already lowered plank. When the opposite one was in position, he suddenly stood aside. Those on the prison ship watched in horror as Agrennon’s guards filed quickly toward them, then stop a few feet from the target they meant to take out first. She held her position without the least change of expression.
At Agrennon’s command, the guards started forward, pausing when Xena whipped out and threw her chakram, their heads swiveling to follow its path. They watched it slice the tips off arrows pointed at the prison ship, then veer in their direction. They ducked, too late realizing its destination instead the ties to a furled sail that dropped to envelope those in the back who couldn’t move fast enough. A whoosh later, small sacks of flour flew in to explode in others’ faces. Those in front rushed forward, just as the chakram hit a large spool, somehow triggering the release of rope from an opposite spool that tripped and sent them sliding across the freshly oiled deck right into a firmly wielded piece of wood.
In the astonished blinks of prison crew’s eyes, an imminent threat had transformed into an almost comedic scene of harmless rag dolls littering the floor and a huge white cocoon shifting every which way with hapless critters trapped inside.
“Raise the plank! Now!”
Xena honed in on Agrennon’s intent to flee. “Clean this up,” she ordered the prison crew. “Got another mess I need to fix.” While the others eagerly waded into their task, she leapt from one prone enemy to another toward the writhing mass of encased bodies, using it to launch herself onto the other ship.
“There’s still a half dozen men over there. Some of you come with --.”
“No.” Gabrielle blocked Baggio from following Xena. “If she needs help, it’ll be from me.” She smirked. “She’s used to me pulling rank.” She went to dislodge the chakram from a crate, at the same time observing her partner take out the men nearest the merchant vessel’s plank before fending off an attack from their comrades. Now a lone figure faced the one woman legendary for making the difference between victory and defeat. Gabrielle raised her fist, as certain Agrennon would surrender as she was that his conqueror had yet to face a much tougher foe – a certain sidekick who would not be denied a long overdue sensitive chat.
“I could get used to this.” Gabrielle had already made a quick tour of the hold filled with merchandise – some displayed, most still packed away – as well as discovered a few salesmen confined to a storage room. She squirmed deeper into one of the cushioned high-backed chairs in the captain’s quarters.
“Mmhm,” Xena agreed, long legs crossed at the ankles in front of her own comfy seat. “Too bad Agrennon and his crew did. Bet their butts don’t feel as good now.”
Baggio, Petros and their trusted cohorts chuckled, picturing the pirates in the bowels of the prison ship.
“So. What now?” Baggio threw a look at Petros. “Still got mutineers to deal with.”
“You mean Gabrielle?” Xena smirked. “Yeah, she does seem okay jumping ship.” She shrugged. “Where she goes, I go. No doubt we’ll discuss possible insubordination later.” She gave her partner a knowing look. “Mine, anyway.”
“I meant Petros. How’m I s’posed to trust him? `Specially if you’re gone.”
“Way I see it, they’re near mutineers. They’ve got choices, same as you.”
“Pfft. Same ones as before?” Petros massaged the knee of his missing leg. “Baggio gets to keep his ship. We fight for it or do his bidding. You take this one. Nobody’s stupid enough to fight you for it. Some choice.”
“I think I speak for Gabrielle when I say all we want is a peaceful ride home.” Xena turned to Baggio. “I’d guess there’s a nice bounty for Agrennon’s gang. Maybe you can bring `em in. Use the money to fix up your ship. Decide on another line of business. Perhaps a choice for Petros as well.”
“Your legacy commanding floating markets? Talk about goals higher than transporting criminals?” Xena pointed her chin at the freed merchants huddled in a corner, their expressions veering between cautious optimism and fear they’d traded one precarious situation for another. “You could start with them. Ready made vendors. For a fair offer, of course.”
Petros frowned in confusion before his eyes widened in hopeful disbelief. “You’re saying …. Y-you’d let me have this ship?”
“Oh, we’ll make inquiries about who really owns it, once we dock. Who knows? Could be they’d take on a partner. Until then, you can pilot to your heart’s content. Long as my friend there gets to browse to hers.” Xena’s eyes darkened. “And I don’t have to haggle about … shopping … for other ships. Afterwards …. You feel more suited to pirating, don’t complain you had no choice.”
For once Petros did not resent following in Baggio’s wake. Nor did the nimbler prison ship remind him of his own physical limitations. He rubbed the steering wheel as he habitually did the wood of his substitute leg. Except with pride and anticipation he’d also feared lost. The craftsmanship of the large vessel in his hands matched that of his father’s finest. Even his wannabe pirate crew performed their work satisfactorily, motivated by this step above where they’d been.
“Petros seems a changed man.” Gabrielle glanced at the warrior propped against the starboard rail. “You think?”
Xena studied the young blonde luxuriating in a hammock swaying on deck. “Certainly as revitalized as you.” She snorted. “And as smug.”
“Mmmm. Not my fault I attract kindness. The men insisted. So I could enjoy the sun more comfortably.”
“Uh huh.” Xena noted the many eyes enjoying Gabrielle’s enjoyment. “Downright selfless.”
“Selia and Grinelle don’t know what they’re missing. Pity they stayed with Baggio.”
“Eh, confined so long, they stuck with what they’re more used to. Plus, there’s that chance of a bounty to look forward to. Not everyone sees much in gazing at clouds.”
“True. Speaking of which ….” Gabrielle carefully rolled to her side. “Such a splendid outfit. Whose imagination inspired that?”
Xena rubbed her jaw. She could sense an ambush even in the most serene surroundings. Especially in the innocent blink of a certain party waiting patiently for just the right moment to launch a sensitive chat.
“Selia’s mostly. Grinelle added the finishing touches.”
Gabrielle sucked in her cheeks. “Just got it in their heads to spiff you up? No creativity on your part?”
Xena resisted the urge to dump Gabrielle from the hammock and curl up in it herself. Instead, she sauntered to a large crate behind her companion’s feet. Spotted a pile of sacks and decided to make them into a cushion. Positioned a few to hang over the crate as something soft for her back. Ladled drinking water into mugs, handing one to Gabrielle before resignedly dropping down on the sacks, pulling up her knees and resting her head on them.
“Couple more years maybe. I’ll make do for now.”
Gabrielle sat up and balanced herself cross-legged. “Xena?”
“This doesn’t have to be torture.”
“From whose perspective?”
“Think of it as a … briefing? Just the highlights. A little how, when. Some why?”
Xena raised her head and leaned back. “I needed better clothes. Your fine efforts notwithstanding. I asked Selia for something suiting a warrior. Impressive, as I expected trouble.”
“Befitting a leader?”
“They heard of my reputation. Saw me in action on Shark Island.” Xena shrugged. “Who else on this ship would it be?”
“You have a point there. And the when?”
“Wasn’t sure. Thought it might be the Petros vs. Baggio thing. Until Agrennon got close enough to recognize his colors.”
“But the booby traps. There wasn’t time – .”
“Started planning `em before. Figured they’d come in handy – internal strife or otherwise.” Xena chuckled. “Had to keep all that maintenance work interesting somehow. Be so good at it nobody came behind me. I made the final adjustments the night before Agrennon pulled up.”
“Why the secrecy? Afraid I’d argue against taking over a pirate ship? When any normal person would’ve let it go its merry way?”
“Normal?” Xena smirked. “You really wanna go there?”
“Like I said, I wasn’t sure. That’s when I’m at my most creative. As you know,” Xena stated, imitating Gabrielle’s innocent eye bat.
Gabrielle puckered her lips. “I patented that look. Not sure you’ve earned the rights to it yet.”
“Hey, you’re the one convinced I’ve – .”
“Fine. We’ll revisit that. In a couple more years maybe?” Gabrielle trotted out her smug eye bat. “At the moment I’ll settle for the evil Warrior Princess. Hearing about her … creative … side.”
“Fine by me.” Xena feigned a yawn, accompanied by her version of a smug eye bat. “Leaves me free from worry. Well, about anything besides agitating my … advocate.” She smiled ruefully. “More.”
“There’s wiggle room left.” Gabrielle resumed lying on her side. “Continue.”
Xena sighed. “Not much more to tell. My seamstresses must be fortunetellers. They came up with the perfect outfit.” She snorted. “For a pirate queen. I figured, why waste it, sending Agrennon on his way? Besides, he presented a fortuitous solution. One stone for two birds – Petros and Baggio.” She snickered. “Plus a certain shopping fanatic.”
“One would think you had enough fighting on Shark Island. Apparently not.”
“Mm. This was different. Cleaner. Agrennon deserves what he got.” Xena’s focus drifted to the ship now some distance in front. “I earned being among those inmates. Racked up a lot more points than the entire place. It felt wrong fighting them. Even those guards. Their job part of our punishment. Or Thalassa. Commandant over all of it. Her authority the consequence of my own decree.” She faced Gabrielle. “Where was the right in that, to fight any of them.”
“But you did. To help that woman who came to your aid.”
“Yeah, a ‘real hero.’ The guard captain made me call myself that. In mockery.”
“Xena, you can’t – .”
“I wasn’t gonna make it as a model prisoner, Gabrielle. No matter how hard I tried. I gave my word, but if Thalassa hadn’t thrown me in that pit ….”
“Surely you’re not excusing that. Even you can’t think you deserved –.”
“Truth is, she did me a favor.” Xena put up a hand before Gabrielle could object. “All my talk about justice, I couldn’t take it. Watching the abuse. Accepting it. Life with no other purpose than moving the same crap around every day, sun up to sun down. The claustrophobia. Never-ending suppression of every instinct to end it all in a blaze of glory.”
“Ah. Thalassa removed you from all that. Took the pain away by leaving you helpless to do anything about?”
Xena nodded. “Relief I didn’t dream I’d ever want.” She shuddered, eyes closing against the vision of them both tied to crosses, nothing either of them could do. “And pray I never will again.”
“Xena?” Gabrielle waited for the warrior’s attention. “I was there too.”
Xena’s heart skipped. “W-what? There?”
“Shark Island.” Gabrielle slid out of the hammock to sit next to Xena. “I didn’t come to free you. I wasn’t sure what I’d do. That ‘creativity’ bug of yours must be infectious,” she said, bumping her head against the warrior’s shoulder. “I helped you free yourself. You miraculously escaped that pit to save me. You needn’t fear ‘relief,’ long as I’m in the picture.”
Xena swallowed. “Can’t forget that, huh?” She pushed the vision aside, replacing it with the memory of an encounter years ago outside Poteidaia. “Since the day we met. I recall seeking relief then too. Figured I’d achieve it burying who I was. A feisty village girl popped in to convince me otherwise. Evidently for good.”
“Got that right.” Gabrielle shifted to get more comfortable. “Can I assume you’ve gotten past this last bout of … relief? You know – shackles, prisons, pits?”
“Yessss. Seems I’m already linked to a constant reminder tougher than Haephestes’ metal.”
“Excellent. So you’d be amenable to satisfying pleasanter desires?”
Xena raised a curious brow. “Such as?”
“Oh, this ship is full of amenities. I mean, beyond the spacious, well-appointed accommodations. Have you checked out some of the stuff the merchants unpacked? You’d be surprised – .”
“You’re dying to get back in that hammock?”
Gabrielle reared back, eyes batting, “Who, me?”
“G’won.” Xena got to her feet, pulling Gabrielle up with her. “As it happens, there is a ‘pleasanter desire’ I’d like to satisfy.”
“Oh?” Gabrielle said as Xena boosted her into the hammock. “Such as?”
Xena simply threw a smile over her shoulder on her way to the stern. Once there, she took a deep breath. Appreciating more than ever the fresh air. Blue as far as she could see. The sounds of movement with purpose. The feel of going somewhere. Of anticipating the unknown, accepting the known, grateful for the reality she still had Gabrielle as a bridge between them.
Whatever the future held, she now knew she would no longer seek relief in a justice with walls, helpless to do more than rot in the stench of her past. She would fight for the chance to help others. To save Gabrielle, who – once again – had saved her. Liberated her from yet another Tartarus. Free to die if required, bound by honor and love to live as long as necessary.