My Lord Conqueror: Taking Chances
By Kennedy Northcutt ©2011
See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
Royal Palace, Corinth
She was trembling. She didn't know if it was anticipation, nerves or fatigue, but Gabrielle was determined to ignore the butterflies, nervous jitters and fatigue, regardless. She could sense a hushed anticipation in the air-feel the energy in the crowd of nobles, emissaries, foreign dignitaries and commoners gathered in the main hall.
There were hundreds of them and thousands more outside the palace. The marketplace was six times its normal size. Brightly colored tents were set up outside the city walls for visitors. And there was a carnival atmosphere throughout Corinth that extended into the surrounding countryside.
Corinth was the seat of the new monarchy. Purple banners edged in silver had been hung along the city walls. Smaller purple pennants flapped in a stiff breeze from every turret and several rooftops. There was music, food and drink galore. There were also troupes of performers, entertainers and magicians scattered throughout the entire area. It was a festival to rival anything Corinth had seen in years. There were even smaller festivals throughout Greece in honor of the coronation of their first monarch.
Dressed in a brocade gown of emerald silk and gold thread woven into an intricate pattern that had taken several seamstresses weeks to create, she stood on the raised dais in front of two carved maplewood thrones. One of the thrones was taller than the other and had a wolf's head carved into the back. The other had a pastoral scene carved into it.
She wasn't up there alone and was grateful for the company.
Braes stood at alert attention to her left. He wore a brand new set of armor and freshly-oiled leathers that held a faint scent of sandalwood and were a gift from Xena. His sword hung in a beautifully tooled leather scabbard at his hip and the polished brass hilt gleamed in the torchlight.
He wore a hard expression, as he surveyed those gathered in the main hall. Gabrielle's quick glance in his direction, however, caught his attention and a small half-smile made his gray eyes sparkle. He winked and returned his attention to the crowd with renewed concentration.
Ephiny and Eponin stood in full Amazon regalia to Gabrielle's right. They each wore their respective masks. Feathers and tooling symbolized their roles in the Nation and identified them as the queen's own, as well as marked them as Thracian Amazons. Beads, bone, feathers, fur and colored stones decorated their formal leather outfits.
Eponin rested a ceremonial spear with a ruff of eagle feathers around the point on the stone floor next to her sandaled foot. She wore her freshly-polished sword in a tooled scabbard at her back and within easy reach, just in case. She kept her eyes on the crowd, but also kept Gabrielle and Ephiny in in her peripheral vision. There were just too many strangers in the crowd for her to feel comfortable. So she stood at alert attention and scanned the crowd for trouble.
Ephiny stood with her own ceremonial staff with a carved ivory eagle's-head tip. She wore her sword in a scabbard decorated in an array of feathers at her back and also had a long ceremonial dagger in an intricately beaded scabbard at her hip. With so many foreign dignitaries and strangers in the crowd, she wasn't about to take any chances. She glanced around at the numerous Amazons, also in full regalia, positioned at strategic points against the walls of the large room. They were all fully armed and ready for the slightest signal from the dais, should something go amiss.
And Xena's royal guardsmen were there, as well. The men stood less than a head taller than her Amazons and were no less intimidating in their new silver armor and freshly-oiled brown leathers.
Purple banners with gray wolf's heads and silver tooling were draped from the center of the high ceiling to the walls and covered the wooden beams overhead. There were twelve in all and they were anchored to the walls with silver-braided ropes that gleamed in the torchlight. They added a festive atmosphere to the grand hall, as did the purple-and-silver liveried servants who wove their way through the crowd carrying silver trays and silver goblets containing the finest finger foods and drink.
The pink and white marble walls had been scrubbed and polished until they gleamed and reflected the light from the numerous torches in silver sconces around the room. The gray stone floor beneath their feet had also been scrubbed clean. Plush Persian carpets of the finest craftsmanship lay on the floor in front of the dais, on the steps leading up to the twin thrones and beneath the thrones themselves. Their blue, gold, red and purple designs added a measure of elegance that hadn't been present when Xena first conquered Corinth.
Those added touches, including the wolf's-head banners and silver tooling, were the brain child of Agatha, Cyrene and Gabrielle. The three had conspired together to create a place of opulence worthy of the new ruler of Greece and the surrounding countryside.
It was a breathtaking sight to behold and one that had Ephiny smiling proudly behind her mask for what her queen had accomplished in such a short time. She shot a quick glance to the woman in question and watched a sparkle of recognition and a broad smile split Gabrielle's features.
And then the crowd slowly parted as an imposing figure in black leather trimmed in gold, with a black cape billowing behind her marched toward the dais with purposeful strides. Midnight black hair framed chiseled features that were smooth and unblemished. Eyes the color of a cloudless summer sky stared straight ahead and sparkled like bright sapphires. Shoulders square and back straight, Xena was an imposing figure as she strode confidently up the stone steps covered in plush carpet.
Gabrielle felt her world right itself the instant Xena met her steady gaze. Her heart swelled with love until she thought it would burst. A brilliant smile split Xena's flawless features as she caught the loving smile Gabrielle greeted her with. And then Xena was standing directly in front of her with her hands extended. Gabrielle took those hands in hers and smiled warmly, as they shared a private moment.
Xena then did something quite unexpected. She leaned forward and kissed Gabrielle right there in front of everyone. A loud cheer went up from the crowd and a muffled chuckle came from Gabrielle's right. She ignored it all and savored the sweet lips pressed against her own, as her hands found purchase to steady her on the golden armor pressed against her. Strong arms encircled her and steadied her as her world suddenly tilted precariously.
"A public display, my lord?" Gabrielle teased in a gentle whisper, as soon as they parted for air and she gazed breathlessly into dazzling eyes sparkling with mischief. "Whatever will your subjects think?"
"I want them all to know just how much I love you," Xena replied with an easy grin, as she placed a calloused palm against a flushed cheek and took Gabrielle's lips in another smoldering kiss that left them both weak-kneed and quivering for more. "You're mine, my queen."
"Always, My Lord Conqueror," Gabrielle replied, as she returned the kiss to a deafening roar that echoed loudly off the stone walls that surrounded them. "I am yours, forever," she managed to murmur against Xena's soft lips, "Always and forever in heart, mind, body and soul."
The kiss deepened and their tongues danced and vied for dominance. Gabrielle melted into Xena's body and lost herself in the pleasure they shared. Everything else disappeared in that moment, as her entire world centered around that sweet mouth against hers. She felt a hand against the back of her head draw her deeper into the kiss as she completely surrendered to the moment.
A rhythmic chanting of Xena's name started and grew steadily louder around the large hall. Intermingled with the chanting of Xena's name was the chanting of Gabrielle's name by the Amazons.
The spell was broken, as Xena pulled back slightly with a gentle sigh. Gabrielle let her forehead rest against Xena's, as she tried to catch her breath. They both took a moment to just savor the moment, before they had to continue on with the evening's festivities. Their lips were still mere inches apart, as they breathed the same air and reveled in the love that flowed between them.
Gabrielle finally reluctantly stepped aside and wrapped an arm around Xena's waist. She smiled warmly at the gathered crowd, as Xena raised a hand for silence. It took several moments, but a hush eventually fell and the crowd waited patiently for what would happen next.
"Friends," Gabrielle's voice carried over the crowd and echoed off the marble walls. "We have traveled a great distance to arrive at this auspicious day. We lost some dear friends along the way, but we also made new ones who have joined us here for this festive occasion. All of those who have brought us here live forever in our hearts and we are so very grateful for all of you. I am especially grateful to all those who worked tirelessly to restore this place to its former glory and beyond. You have done an amazing job and have far exceeded our expectations." She paused to take in the splendor around her. "This place is truly magnificent and worthy of the grandeur that your efforts have yielded."
"You got that right, yer maj!" Eponin piped in.
Xena shot the woman her best intimidating glare. "Really, Eponin?"
There were several hoots, hollers and whistles from those around the room. A few crude requests for the two women to lock lips again had Xena's hackles up, but the arm around her waist grounded her and Xena just relaxed into the embrace.
"Okay, people," Gabrielle continued in a sterner tone. "I know you all want this to be a big ceremony with all the pomp and circumstance you might find in the royal palace of Persia or Rome or…" The crowd cheered again and Xena held up her hand for silence, before Gabrielle continued.
"Gracious magnificence," a dark-haired man in a white turban and white robes stepped forward and bowed with a flourish. "Might I be allowed to beg your indulgence for a moment?" He glanced up at them beneath hooded lids lined with black used by those in the kingdoms of Northern Africa.
Xena braced herself for a confrontation and had to fight the urge to reach for the sword hidden beneath her black velvet cape. She wrapped an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, instead. Then she waved her free hand for him to proceed.
"My sincerest gratitude, most gracious ones," he bowed again with a flourish, then straightened to his full height. "I beg your indulgence in a matter of great importance."
Xena's brow shot into her hairline, as she studied the man and tried to place him. "Right now? We're kinda in the middle of something, here, fella."
"Yes," he nodded and took a step toward the dais.
His way was suddenly bared by two guards who crossed their spears in front of him, effectively halting any further advance. A moment later, Braes, who hadn't seemed to move at all, had the tip of his blade pressed against the man's protruding adam's apple, while Ephiny and Eponin held a spear and carved eagle's head against his chest.
The man froze instantly after holding his hands up in surrender. His dark eyes silently pleaded with Xena, as sweat rolled down the side of his face. His adam's apple bobbed nervously beneath his well-trimmed dark beard. Xena could see damp tendrils of his shoulder-length hair pressed against the side of his tanned features.
"I am un-unarmed, m-magnificent one," he said with a noticeable tremor in his deep voice.
"Stand down," Xena ordered, as she took a menacing step toward him. She waited for Braes, Ephiny and Eponin to return to the dais before continuing. "Spit it out, man. You interrupted our little party, here. What's so important that you decided this was the time to interrupt our fun?" She crossed her arms over her armor and glared at him with one dark browed raised in question.
"You might want to identify yourself, while you're at it?" Gabrielle put in. "who are you and where did you come from?"
"I am Belad bin Hazamidad, your humble servant, magnificence." This time he bowed low at the waist with his eyes on the Persian carpet beneath his feet. His white turban contrasted with the elaborate red and gold robes he wore. His shoes were of the finest quality. None of this went unnoticed by Xena, who had traveled far and wide during her early years. He was obviously a man of distinction in whichever land he hailed from. "I am from a distant land…"
"Egypt? Asia Minor? Persia, perhaps?" Xena continued to study him closely with suspicion.
"I am emissary from his royal highness, Prince Abdulibad bin Kazim of a small, yet wealthy, principality across the Aegean," he replied. "I bring greetings…"
Xena moved her cape aside with a flourish to reveal the sword at her back. "Get to the point, Belad. I'm in the middle of a coronation, here. This isn't the time for flowery words of greeting. You're pissing me off."
"Yes, magnificence," he clasped his hands together, as if he were about to pray, and cast his gaze down in a false show of respect. "Apologies, Great One. I am but a humble messenger. I beg your indulgence."
"Just get to the point, Belad!" Xena snapped.
"Prince Abdulibad bin Kazim wishes to extend an invitation to your magnificences," he hurried on. "He requests that you join him on a campaign to purge our lands of the Roman scum who swarm like locusts from the Aegean to the inlands."
Another man stepped forward and stood next to Belad. He wore the clothing of the land of Indus and bowed low before Xena. His mustache was white as snow against his dark skin and his eyes were just as white.
"I beg the same, your graciousness," he said in a thick accent. "I have come from very far to the south. My people sent me as soon as they heard the stories of your magnificence in battle. We wish for you to do the same for us and rid our lands of those who oppress us."
"Rome has invaded India, too?" Xena eyed him skeptically. "Is there anyone else here who has it out for the Romans and came seeking my help?"
A dozen others stepped forward and bowed before her. There were two emissaries from Chin, one from Britannia and a few who wore clothing Xena didn't recognize and couldn't place. The emissaries from Chin had her hackles up. She'd had a run-in with one of their rulers and didn't want anything to do with them. Xena discovered, first hand, that Lao Ma was a sly and cunning matriarch who used her husband's name to promote her own political machinations. Xena didn't trust her, even though Lao Ma seemed to take a genuine personal interest in Xena when she stayed in the woman's palace for a time.
"The Romans have become too powerful for us to contain any longer," the man from Indus said. "My people hoped you would help us defeat them and drive them from our land, once and for all. They must be stopped before they overrun our lands and impose the will of their faithless ruler on us."
Heads nodded at his words.
"Your timing is a little premature," Xena glared at them. "Don't you think?" She spread her arms to indicate the crowd that was gathered. "I haven't even been crowned, yet."
"But you already rule with an iron hand," Belad countered. "You have fought great battles and defeated all the warlords of Greece, Oh Great One. Your reputation is spreading far and wide."
A muffled snort from behind her had Xena glancing briefly in Eponin's direction. The Amazon remained perfectly still. Ephiny didn't move a muscle, either. Their expressions were hidden behind their masks, so Xena didn't bother to chastise either one.
"If it pleases your Esteemed Magnificence," Belad continued, oblivious to the silent exchange going on in front of him. "Prince Abdulibad has sent a contingent of his best warriors to accompany me. They are at your disposal, Oh Great One." He then waved a hand and a servant stepped forward. The boy held out a plain wooden chest and opened it.
Those closest to Belad gasped. Hushed murmurs spread throughout the room. The chest contained jewels and gold that sparkled brilliantly in the torchlight.
"I, too, bring riches for Your Magnificence," the white-haired man from Indus waved a gnarled hand.
Another servant boy stepped forward and opened an equally plain chest to reveal riches equal to those in the chest that Belad had just produced. Another servant boy stepped forward next to the other and carried silk robes in all the colors of the rainbow that were intricately woven with gold and silver thread. Two young boy servants stepped forward holding another plush Persian rug woven in an intricate design in rich golds, reds, oranges and turquoise. They unrolled it at a signal from Belad, who waved a bejeweled hand in dismissal.
Xena's expression remained neutral, even as Gabrielle's eyes widened with each extravagant gift that was produced.
"Xena…" Gabrielle began in a hushed whisper.
Xena merely raised a hand for silence. She then put her hands on her hips and surveyed the entire room, before meeting the gazes of each representative standing before her. She seemed to gauge each man, in turn, before moving on to the next. All the while her expression remained stoically set in a mask of indifference.
Once she was done with her perusal, she turned away from them, sat down on one of the thrones and silently brooded. She then motioned for Gabrielle to sit in the throne beside hers. Only then did Xena return her attention to the men below.
"What makes your respective rulers think I can be bought, gentlemen?" She finally said. "And why do they think I should drop everything here in Corinth and Greece just to help them? Did your respective rulers really think a few baubles and trinkets would be enough to buy me? And why should I care about all of you when I have people who need me here? Hm?"
The men looked at each other and then at the chests and treasures they held. More murmurs went around the room and heads nodded in agreement.
Xena silently waited for an answer, while Gabrielle watched Xena from the corner of her eye and tried to figure out what she was thinking.
"You came here, interrupted my coronation," Xena glanced at Gabrielle, reached over and placed a hand on hers, then returned her attention to the men. "And you expect me to just go along with this scheme against Rome?" She paused and let the silence in the room hover over them for a few more heartbeats.
A low chuckle broke the still silence that hung like a pall over the gathering, until Xena laughed in earnest. Gabrielle continued to sit silently. She didn't see the humor in the situation. Others laughed chuckled nervously, unsure if Xena's laughter was in earnest.
And then sobered and a deadly menace entered her eyes. The laughter in the room died instantly and it seemed that those closest to the foreign emissaries took a nervous step away from them, leaving them standing before Xena in a group by themselves.
Xena leaned forward and her leather creaked in the heavy silence.
"I've killed men for less, gentlemen," she said in a voice devoid of emotion.
No one spoke. No one moved. The silence seemed to echoe off the stone walls, just as the cheers had done earlier. It was so silent in that large hall that the silence itself was defeaning. If anyone had dropped a small bone needle onto the stone floor at that point, everyone would have thought it the loudest noise in the world.
The two emissaries from Chin merely stood there in silence and waited. They knew their lives were forfeit the minute they were sent on their mission. What were their lives, anyway? They were slaves to their masters and had been born with only one purpose-to serve.
The emissary from the land of Indus nodded his white head resolutely. He was at the end of his life and had seen many things. To die at the hand of the woman who sat before him would only mean that he would return in another life. Such was the karmic cycle he believed in. His sacrifice would be for the greater good and would take him to the next caste. He believed he was closer to enlightenment than any of the others and was not afraid of his fate. After all, it was the path he had chosen.
Belad, on the other hand, was terrified that he would die in that foreign land and his soul would be lost forever. The prince had sent him on his mission with confidence that Xena could be persuaded with riches. But Belad could see that the prince had sorely misjudged the woman who now sat before him. Despite Prince Abdulibad's reassurances that anyone could be bought, as long as the price was high enough, Belad was no longer convinced. He could now see that Prince Abdulibad was sorely mistaken. And that realization made him tremble in his sandals.
Xena continued to watch them all and gauge their reactions. She had traveled enough and learned enough in her travels to know what to expect. Death for some of them was more frightening than for others. But it would sure give them pause.
"Can't we just put this off and continue with the coronation, my liege?" Braes said under his breath from beside Xena's throne.
"And miss out on the fun?" Xena shot back without moving her lips.
Gabrielle snickered behind her hand, as soon as she realized what was really going on. Ephiny also snickered behind her mask, although she didn't move.
Eponin leaned close to Ephiny and whispered, "What'd I miss?"
Ephiny slowly turned her masked face toward Eponin who caught the silent meaning behind the look. Eponin stiffened and immediately returned to silently watching the crowd below.
Xena shot an irritated glare over her shoulder at the two Amazons, but they were both already standing at alert attention next to Gabrielle. Neither one moved, as Xena returned her attention to the men below.
"Okay," Xena sighed and leaned forward again. "Here's what's going to happen, gentlemen." She had everyone's attention again. "You boys are going to cool your heels in my ready room for the time being…" When she saw that they were about to protest, she made a motion for them to remain silent and glared at each, in turn. "You're in my world, gentlemen." She then shot a pointed look at the soldiers who had moved closer to the men without their notice. "And in my world, I get my way. Understand?" She waited for them to nod silently before continuing. "Good. Because I'm sure these other fine guests of mine would rather see the coronation of their ruler, than witness a bloodbath on these very steps."
The soldiers quickly surrounded the men and with stern glares and weapons drawn prodded them toward a side door. The emissaries moved in silence and disappeared through the door with very little fuss. Xena shot Braes a look and he went with the others with a silent nod.
"Now," Xena stood up to address the rest of the crowd. She then let the hint of a smile touch her features. "Where were we?" The question elicited a few nervous chuckles from the crowd.
Gabrielle rose from her throne and took Xena's hand in hers. "I believe we were just about to crown you queen, My Liege." She then lifted Xena's hand to hers and kissed her knuckles.
Xena smiled warmly into Gabrielle's eyes.
A few whistles and catcalls erupted from the back of the room. When Xena merely reacted with a tolerant grin everyone seemed to relax at once. Several people who had retreated to the back of the room during the confrontation with the emissaries now moved closer to the dais. And the noise level returned to normal, as hushed and whispered conversations resumed.
Xena made a covert signal to a passing servant, before taking a seat on her throne. The servant disappeared through a side door and soon there was an army of servants wandering through the crowd. Each servant carried either a tray full of aromatic finger foods, goblets filled with the finest wines acquired from every corner of the realm and mugs of the best Corinthian ales, port and hard cider available within the city. With food and drink flowing freely, it didn't take long for those gathered to become even more relaxed in the presence of their liege.
"The food and drink came at the perfect time," Gabrielle observed, as she took a bunch of grapes from a passing servant, then grabbed a silver chalise of tart wine for Xena and a goblet of sweet wine for herself. "Don't you agree?"
"Hm," Xena absently took the chalise from Gabrielle's outstretched hand, as she continued to survey the crowd.
Gabrielle watched Xena as the dark-haired woman sipped her wine and alertly watched the crowd. She studied the chiseled contours of features she knew better than her own and never tired of, as she sipped from her own goblet. The rich sweet wine had the slightest hint of honey added that left a wonderful aftertaste on her tongue. She took another sip and let the liquid roll around in a mouth for a moment before she swallowed. Then she caught Xena looking expectantly at her.
"Like it?" There was an expectant look on Xena's features.
"It's amazing," Gabrielle took another sip and savored the flavors of the sweet grapes and honey on her tongue. She smiled in contentment as she nodded. "I love it. It's so different than any wine I've ever tasted before. Is that honey?"
"It is," Xena nodded over the rim of her chalise. "Found a vintner near Thásos who claims he grows some of the sweetest grapes in Greece. He also raises his own honey bees in a clover field. He adds the honey when the wine is at its peak in the aging process. At least, that's his story, anyway. I thought you might enjoy it, so I purchased his entire stock for this season and signed an extended contract with him."
"You did that…for me?"
Xena closed the distance between them and let her lips hover a hairsbreath from Gabrielle's. "Absolutely."
The kiss that followed only lasted a moment, but didn't go unnoticed by a few onlookers.
"Here! Here!" Someone shouted.
Mugs and goblets were lifted high, as others joined in. Xena and Gabrielle parted with twin blushes, as they broke into smiles of embarassment.
A throat clearing nearby had them both sitting upright on their respective thrones. Xena glared at those at the front of the crowd, while Gabrielle did her best to regain her composure.
"My Lord Conqueror."
A gray-haired man in plain brown robes stepped forward and bowed low. He continued the bow for longer than was customary, much to the chagrin of those closest to him.
"Really, old man?" Someone muttered just loud enough for Xena to hear.
"Ah," Xena motioned for the old man to approach the dais. "It's about time you got here. I was beginning to think I was gonna have to send out a search party to find you and drag you here."
"My apologies, my lord," the man lowered his gaze reverently, as he slowly climbed the steps of the dais and took his place next to Xena's throne. "I had pressing business to attend to before coming here."
"And what was so important that it couldn't wait until after the coronation?" Xena shot him a raised-browed glare.
"I made an offering to the gods in your honor, Lord Conqueror," he finally met her gaze without flinching. "I asked for their blessing on your reign as our queen. I also asked them to grant peace and prosperity throughout all of Greece," he shot Gabrielle a brief knowing glance. "Then I asked them to bless you with an heir to carry on your legacy."
Instant silence fell upon the entire gathering. It was as if everyone was holding a collective breath in anticipation of Xena's response. Then a low chuckle sent others into nervous chuckles that echoed off the stone walls.
Xena's chuckles soon turned into genuine laughter, as she reached over and Gabrielle took her hand. Laughter and murmurs flowed through the crowd, as Xena returned her attention to the man beside her.
"Apologies, my lord, but did I say something amusing?"
"No," Xena sobered. The crowd took its cue from her and did the same. "I just think it's funny that you seem to have missed what everyone else in this room realizes."
"My lord?" The man was genuinely confused. "I'm afraid I don't see the humor in my words, as you seem to."
Gabrielle caught Xena's gaze and a silent message passed between them.
"What Xena means is…"
"I'm not exactly equipped to produce an heir," Xena interrupted with a wry smirk. "But thanks for giving me more credit than I deserve, Jarus. I'm sure the gods themselves found it particularly amusing that you even threw that last little request in for good measure."
More chuckles followed her words.
A blush suffused the old man's features as he finally recalled what he had said. "Ah, I see, my lord." He smiled, as he glanced from Xena to Gabrielle. "Well, perhaps the gods will see fit to produce a miracle on your behalf."
"Yeah, right," Xena snorted. "If it's all the same to you, I won't hold my breath. Experience has taught me that the gods really don't do anything for us lowly mortals that won't directly serve their own purposes."
"What about Aphrodite, my lord?" Gabrielle piped in.
"What about her?"
"Well, she is all about the love, my lord," Gabrielle shrugged with a sparkle of mischief in her eyes. "And a child conceived in love is a cherished gift."
Xena pointedly looked down at herself and then met Gabrielle's gaze. "Have you seen the requisite body parts appear anywhere on this body lately? Because, last I checked-and that was just this morning, mind you-there are no new growths that give me the ability to father children, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle hid a chuckle behind her hand, while the rest of the gathering merely looked on in astonishment at the odd shift in conversation.
"It is my experience, my lord," Jarus folded his hands in front of him, "that the gods are capable of accomplishing anything they set their minds to."
"Again, as long as it suits their wishes," Xena returned with a wry grin. "Can we just get on with the coronation and forget about the question of an heir to a crown that isn't even on my head yet?" She waved a hand to indicate the crowd. "These people didn't come here to listen to a pointless argument about whether I'm capable of producing a child or not. Far as I'm concerned, this discussion is over. Let's move on so we can get down to some serious celebrating."
"Here! Here!" Eponin cheered, much to everyone's amusement. "Oh, sorry," she said when she heard a groan from the woman next to her.
"Shall we proceed?" Jarus moved to stand in front of Xena. "My lord, I stand before you as high priest to the gods and ask you, most sincerely, do you accept…"
Gabrielle tuned out the man's words as her eyes roamed over the crowd. She saw many familiar faces in the crowd and a number of faces she didn't recognize. Some were watching the proceedings with interest, others with complete boredom. The words from the high priest continued and Xena answered each of his questions with the proper responses.
Gabrielle wasn't really listening.
Gauging the crowd's mood and letting her mind wander over recent events, Gabrielle considered everything that had happened. Somewhere out there-maybe even one of the guests there in the crowd-the person who attacked her waited for another opportunity. Who could it be? Why? What was the point of shooting her horse and sending the poor animal careening into the woods like that? And why her?
She continued to scan the crowd, watching for the slightest wrong move from anyone who looked even remotely suspicious. Gabrielle knew her protectors were doing the same. Eponin and Ephiny were not standing up there next to her as simply participants in the ceremony. They were there to protect her and make sure nothing happened. So it was with the rest of the Amazons and Xena's guards who were gathered around the perimeter of the room. Sure they were there to swear fealty to Xena as Queen of Greece once she was crowned. But they were also making sure nothing went wrong.
Was someone trying to send a message to Xena through her? Or was there something else going on? None of it maked sense. Although Gabrielle was sure Xena had made plenty of enemies along the way. She just couldn't understand why someone would try to get to Xena through her. Gabrielle just didn't give herself that kind of credit. After all, it wasn't like she was being crowned queen. She was just…
A blond brow rose on Gabrielle's features, as she glanced over at Xena. What was she, anyway? She was still a queen of the Amazons and would swear fealty to Xena, along with her sisters. But as Xena's consort…
"You okay?" Xena whispered, as Jarus droned on.
Gabrielle merely nodded. She tried to focus on the ceremony, but her mind just kept going back to that last question.
Her name on Jarus' lips suddenly snapped her out of her silent reverie.
"Do you accept your role as consort to Xena, Queen of Greece?" He asked. "Will you stand beside her through the coming years and support her as she takes the throne? Are you prepared to lay down your life in service to the crown?"
A heavy silence hung over the room, as everyone waited for her response.
Gabrielle knew what she was expected to do in that moment. She went to a knee, bowed her head before Xena and felt the hush in the room like a palpable thing.
"I swear on my life to serve the crown from this day forward," she replied in a voice that carried throughout the room. She then raised her eyes and met Xena's gaze. "I accept my role as consort and will stand beside you until the last breath leaves my body." Xena then held out her right hand with a gold ring inset with a large ruby on one finger. Gabrielle took the hand and kissed the ring. "I am yours, mind, body and soul, from now on into eternity."
In an unexpected move, Xena knelt in front of Gabrielle and took both of her hands in hers. A gasp went through the crowd and Jarus cleared his throat loudly.
Xena ignored everyone, as she gazed deeply into Gabrielle's eyes. "I love you with every ounce of my being. I could never have gotten this far without you by my side." She reached up and brushed the backs of her fingers against Gabrielle's cheek, as tears sprang to both their eyes. "You are the other half of my soul and I wouldn't dream of ruling Greece without you." Xena then looked up at Jarus, as she she got to her feet and pulled Gabrielle up as well. "My first declaration as queen is to name Gabrielle as my equal. We were joined in an Amazon ceremony and our union is as binding before the gods as a marriage between a man and a woman." She turned to those gathered, then glanced at Ephiny and Eponin. "Our union is recorded in the annals of the Amazon Nation, is it not?" Ephiny nodded silently. "Then we are bound in marriage in the eyes of Artemis, who blessed our union." She returned her attention to Jarus and her eyes challenged him to argue. "Seal our union here and now, priest. Gabrielle will rule beside me as my equal. I will have it no other way."
"But, your majesty," he faltered, "this is highly irregular. There has never been such a precident in the entire history of…"
"Greece has never had one ruler, either," Xena cut him off. "We've had warlord after warlord grinding us into the ground and taking what they wanted by force without a thought to what they leave behind. Warlords will be a thing of the past as long as I'm on the throne. But what's to stop me from becoming a tyrant? What balance is there with only my decisions and directives for Greece? Why shouldn't we take this one step further? You'll get two for the price of one. Two rulers. A balance of darkness and light." She waved a hand over the crowd. "Do you want a tyrant in power who can make life and death decisions on a whim without someone to counter those decisions?" She addressed the crowd.
"No!" Came the collective reply.
"There you have it," Xena said to Jarus. "The masses have spoken."
Jarus looked uncomfortably at Gabrielle. "What say you, Gabrielle?"
"I don't know," Gabrielle tried to calm the sudden overwhelming nerves that Xena's proposal elicited. "I…" She swallowed over a sudden lump in her throat, as she met Xena's expectant gaze. "I don't know if I'm ready for this."
"You were born for this, sweetheart," Xena reassured her with a grin.
Gabrielle studied the intricate crown that sat upon a velvet pillow. It matched the one Xena now wore proudly upon her dark head, except that it was slightly smaller. One of the pages had brought it forward earlier and had waited until that moment to present it. Gabrielle hadn't seen the young man step forward until that moment. She hadn't known what Xena was planning. Apparently, neither had Jarus or anyone else.
"I want you to be my partner in every way, Gabrielle," Xena said. "We can do this together." She squeezed Gabrielle's hands in her own. "I know in my heart that this is right."
Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out slowly in an attempt to calm herself. Her head was pounding again, but she ignored the pain as she met Xena's expectant gaze. What she saw in those clear blue eyes made up her mind for her.
"All right," she finally answered. "I just hope you know what you're doing, my queen."
"Absolutely," Xena turned them to face Jarus, who was watching them with a bewildered expression. "Continue, priest."
"Yes, your majesty," he said with a resigned sigh. "Gabrielle of Potidaea, do you accept your role as…" Here he faltered, as he looked at Xena.
"Queen of Greece," Xena supplied easily.
"Yes, your majesty," he continued. "Do you accept your role as Queen of Greece alongside Her Royal Majesty, Xena, Queen of Greece? Will you create laws and decrees to benefit your subjects and further the interests of all of Greece? And will you defend your subjects from tyranny and oppression, even at the cost of your own life?"
"I…" Gabrielle cleared her throat. "I will," she said in a voice that carried over the crowd.
Xena produced a ring from a pouch at her belt and handed it to Jarus. "I had this made for her."
Jarus took the ring that was identical to Xena's sovereign ring and held it up over his head. "I entreat the gods to bless this symbol of the monarchy of Greece. I ask the gods to also bless this mere mortal who has humbly accepted her role as Queen of Greece and all the lands under its protection." He then addressed Gabrielle directly. "Kneel, Gabrielle of Potidaea." She did so and he placed a weathered palm on top of her bowed head. "May the gods bless you from this day forward with wisdom, courage and a discerning heart as you take your place as queen. May your days upon this earth be long and fruitful." He smiled ironically, as he caught Xena's raised-browed look. "And may you bring balance to the monarchy, as you rule equally with Her Royal Majesty, Xena, Queen of Greece. Now, give me your right hand." She did so and he placed the ring on her index finger, just as he had done with Xena. He then took the crown from its velvet pillow and gently placed it on her head. "Now, arise Gabrielle, Queen of Greece." Gabrielle did so, as Jarus turned toward the crowd and lifted his hands in the air. "Subjects of Greece, I present to you their Royal Majesties, Xena, Queen of Greece and Gabrielle, Queen of Greece. Long live our queens!!!"
A loud cheer went up from the entire assemblage. Xena glanced at Gabrielle with a smile and Gabrielle gave her a shy smile in return. They continued to hold hands as the crowd continued to cheer and chant both their names. Then Jarus held his hands up for silence, once again, and the crowd stilled.
"Kneel, all, and swear fealty to the royal monarchy and the crowns of Greece," the entire assembly went to a knee at once. "Repeat after me. I, and state your name, swear fealty to the royal monarchy and to the crowns of Greece in the sight of the gods for as long as I shall live."
Everyone responded in unison, including Ephiny and Eponin and the other Amazons. Gabrielle felt their words rumble through her entire being as the oath was spoken in unison. She couldn't quite bring herself to accept what was happening, until the hand in hers gave a gentle squeeze. She looked up and saw Xena gazing at her with love and something else that made her heart skip a beat.
"I love you," Xena leaned down and whispered in her ear.
And then Xena's lips were on hers and all thoughts vanished from Gabrielle's mind. The world vanished and the noise of the crowd vanished, as well. Nothing mattered in that moment. None of it. All Gabrielle cared about was those warm, soft lips on hers and the gentle tongue that probed for entry. And then Xena's body surrounded her and she was completely lost. Gabrielle gave herself up to the sensations that coursed through her as the kiss deepened and there was only the two of them.
"Gods, I love you," Xena finally pulled back enough to look into Gabrielle's eyes.
"I love you, too," Gabrielle replied.
"You think we can figure out a way to produce an heir to the thrones of Greece?" Xena teased with a soft chuckle.
"I don't know, my queen," Gabrielle said. "But I'm sure looking forward to trying." A gentle blush colored her cheeks.
"Me, too," Xena smiled.
"Your majesties…" Jarus cleared his throat next to them.
"Get a room, your majesties," Eponin piped in with a chuckle behind her mask.
Xena rolled her eyes and sighed in exasperation, as she turned to glare at Eponin and then Jarus. "You two know I could order your execution right here and now, right?"
They sobered instantly.
"But then I would have to countermand that order, love," Gabrielle added in all seriousness. "After all, we can't have you executing anyone to kick off the coronation celebration, now, can we?" She hooked her arm around Xena's and looked at her in all innocence. "Hm?"
Xena rolled her eyes again. "I've created a monster," she sighed in exasperation again. "Is this really how it's going to be, my queen? Every time I want to have a little fun and rid the kingdom of a few worthless souls, you'll be there to countermand my orders?"
"Fun?" Eponin swallowed noticeably.
"And who are you calling worthless?" Ephiny linked arms with Eponin, as she flipped her mask up until it rested on top of her head. "This one is most definitely not worthless."
"I'm not?" Eponin did the same with her mask to reveal a broad grin on her face.
"I think I'll keep you around for a while longer," Ephiny teased. "After all, I kinda like having another warm body in bed with me. Makes the nights so much more enjoyable."
Eponin frowned. Jarus cleared his throat loudly again.
"Yes?" Xena replied.
"I think everyone is waiting for you to give the word."
"Which word would that be, Jarus?" Gabrielle added.
"I think he wants us to kick off the celebration," Xena turned to find two jewel-encrusted gold goblets on a tray held by a purple-liveried servant. She took the goblets and handed one to Gabrielle. "Would you like to do the honors, my queen?"
"I don't really know what to say," Gabrielle replied.
Xena took that as her cue and held her goblet high. A hush fell over the crowd. "Friends and honored guests, we thank you for joining us for this much-anticipated day of ceremony and celebration. With that said, let the celebration begin!"
A cheer went up and then everyone moved at once as tables and benches were quickly brought in. That was followed by a steady stream of servants carrying food and drink on trays as they circulated around the large hall. Several roasted pigs were placed on tables, much to the delight of the guests. There were also roasted turkeys, sides of venison and trays of sliced mutton. While those were distributed, the head table was brought in and set up just below the steps to the twin thrones.
Briesse continued to survey the crowd as the evening wore on. At first she had been very anxious in the large hall with so many strangers packed into the space. But eventually she grew used to it and settled down. There was enough food and drink circulating around the hall to keep everyone satisfied. Briesse felt her stomach growl for the nth time.
Turning her head slightly to catch a glimpse of the woman to her right, Briesse couldn't see Zea's face behind the mask she wore. But she knew that quiet voice.
Briesse chuckled behind her own mask. "Already having second thoughts about volunteering for guard duty?"
"No," Zea replied. "Just trying to figure out a way to sneak a bite without anyone noticing. It all smells so wonderful. My mouth is watering like crazy."
Briesse stifled a laugh. "I'm with you there. My mouth is so dry I feel like I've been swallowing sheep's wool all day. I could really use a tankard of ale. Or two."
"Someone said the cider is delicious," Zea said. "Sweet and tangy, I think the words were."
"I know someone else who's a bit on the sweet and tangy side," Briesse teased.
She could just imagine the blush that infused her companion's cheeks at that moment. A long silence stretched between them. She noticed that Zea shifted a few times and then settled down again.
"You think Queen Eph will let us off the hook soon?" Zea's voice trembled slightly with the question.
Briesse sighed, "I sure hope so. I really want to duck out of this shindig and spend some time with my girl."
Glancing to her right, she caught the brief shift in Zea's stance before the horse wrangler stiffened. A soft chuckle escaped her lips as she imagined the two of them in her bunk together. She would gladly forego the two tankards of ale, any of the sumptuous fare and the celebration itself for a night alone with the shorter woman next to her.
Love was funny like that, thought Briesse.
She never imagined she would find someone who could make her feel the way Zea did. Shy and somewhat socially awkward, Zea had a connection with horses that she didn't have with people. But when the two of them were together she was just so incredibly giving and caring that Briesse often wondered how she had gotten along without Zea for so long.
And the sex was amazing.
There wasn't a moment that went by during the day that Briesse wasn't thinking about their lovemaking the night before. She was so distracted, in fact, that the other warriors were taking notice and were talking about it, even teasing her about it.
There was no progress in finding the person responsible for Queen Gabrielle's accident. Actually, they had hit an imovable wall in the investigation. Briesse blamed herself, even though she knew it wasn't her fault. Still, she couldn't shake the feeling that the person was still out there waiting for another chance to strike. And here she was completely distracted by the woman standing at stiff attention not three paces away from her.
But that didn't stop Briesse from imagining all the ways she wanted to please her lover once they were free to find a cozy and quiet place all to themselves. Maybe they could forego their sleeping quarters and find another place within the palace walls? Or, better yet, they could go to the royal stables and hide away in the hay loft above the horses Zea loved so much.
"What are you thinking about?"
The quiet question took Briesse totally off guard and it was all she could do not to turn her head and look directly at the woman next to her.
"What?" She whispered behind her mask.
"You look about ready to jump out of your skin, Briesse," Zea said. "Is something wrong?"
"No," Briesse took several deep breaths and let them out slowly in an effort to get herself back under control. "I was just imagining what we can do later when we're alone."
"We're never alone in this place," Zea actually sounded disappointed. "Ever since the guests started arriving for the coronation, there have been people everywhere. I don't like it one bit."
"Yeah, I know," Briesse stifled a shudder. "I really miss the village, right about now."
"But I also know a place where we can go, just the two of us," Briesse added.
"Queen Ephiny won't like it one bit if we leave the city," Zea said.
"Oh, we're not leaving. Matter of fact, I think you'll love the place I have in mind. It's right up your alley."
"Can we take some of the food and drink with us? 'Cause I'm still starving. The only thing I've eaten all day is a half loaf of that brown bread and some cheese. And that was before we went scouting the perimeter of the city this morning."
Briesse chuckled. "Yes, I think our companions will be okay if we take some food with us. As long as we don't try to make any fires and we bring them a treat, too."
"Companions?" There was a note of disappointment in Zea's tone.
"Of the four-legged variety," Briesse chuckled.
"Oh," Zea replied, still slightly confused. "Ooooohhhh," she uttered with sudden dawning. "Won't we get in trouble for that? I know Braes was very insistent that no one but the grooms be in the stables after dark."
Briesse turned her head slightly the other way and looked at the head table. "Well, what Braes doesn't know won't hurt us, will it?" She then returned her attention straight ahead, as she pretended to watch the crowd. "Besides, no one will miss us once this party really gets going. There's enough drink flowing for most of these poor bastards to end up passed out on the floor before morning."
Zea snickered at the mental picture that conjured in her mind.
"So, when do you think they'll let us go?"
"Not soon enough," Briesse replied. "Not soon enough, my love."
Zea felt a shiver of anticipation race through her entire body and settle over her like a warm fur. And that endearment Briesse added at the end. Did she really mean it? In all her life, Zea had never anticipated feeling the way she did with Briesse. All the awkwardness she ever felt around people suddenly vanished when she was with Briesse. Briesse made Zea feel like she belonged-like she was a person of worth.
And Briesse-the tall scout with hair the color of summer straw and a body the gods themselves would envy. Briesse was the epitome of an Amazon goddess and so much more. She was kind, gentle, patient and treated Zea like…well, like a queen, actually. No one-not even her own mother before she died-had ever treated her the way Briesse did. No one had ever made her feel special, like she actually belonged. Zea only felt appreciated when she worked with the horses, because they seemed to accept her and didn't judge her in any way.
"Do you mean that?" Zea asked.
"What? That you're my love?"
Zea felt her heart skip a beat, as a bevvy of butterflies did backflips in her stomach.
"Yes," she couldn't help the catch in her throat.
Briesse broke protocol and lifted her mask onto the top of her head, as she turned to face Zea. They were in the back of the room, so she really wasn't worried that Ephiny or Eponin would see them. But it didn't matter. In that moment all she cared about was the timid, unsure woman standing next to her.
"I do, Zea," Briesse confirmed with a gentle smile. "I've never felt this way about anyone before. And I'm not just saying it because we're in the middle of a celebration here. I really do love you with all my heart."
Zea left her mask in place as tears rolled down her cheeks and slipped off her chin to disappear in the beaded necklace she wore. Emotions welled up inside of her and threatened to send her to her knees, but she managed to remain standing at stiff attention by sheer force of will. And in that moment she knew a love so strong that it threatened to send all the walls she had built up over the years crashing down around her. It was frightening-terrifying, actually. It was beyond anything she had imagined and all she could do was stand there silently, as the sounds of the celebration were drowned out by the hammering of her heart in her ears.
Briesse brought her mask back down and returned to attention as she scanned the crowd. She had no idea what the silent woman next to her was thinking. But she didn't really care. Briesse couldn't help the way she felt and making her feelings known to Zea was all that mattered. Actually, she wanted to shout it from the rooftops and yell it at the top of her lungs right there in the main hall for all of Corinth and all of Greece to hear.
Instead, she remained just as silent and still as the woman standing beside her. There was time enough later for the two of them to talk about their feelings for each other. At that moment, in that place, they had a job to do.
Besides, they were Amazons. And Amazons knew how to put duty above all else, even love.
Gabrielle sat at the head table with a satisfied grin as she slowly nursed her third goblet of wine and felt a pleasant buzz settle over her. She had already eaten her fill and was just watching people. She had caught a brief glimpse of one of her Amazons in the back of the room. As soon as the woman tipped her mask back on her head, Gabrielle knew it was Briesse. The scout briefly addressed the shorter Amazon next to her before replacing her mask and returning to alert attention.
That brought Gabrielle back to something that happened earlier in the evening, before the coronation ceremony started and she was crowned queen. The thought stopped her in her mental tracks. Queen. She was now Xena's equal in every way. Well, almost every way. She still wasn't the accomplished warrior that Xena was. Gabrielle was honest enough with herself to realize she probably never would be, either.
But something was niggling at her and she just wanted answers before the celebration got out of hand. So she turned to Xena, who was in deep conversation with one of the city officials. They were discussing Xena's plan to expand the outer walls of the city and her idea of building a road to Athens. The city official appeared to be in favor of a new wall around Corinth, but was concerned about the cost of a road between Corinth and Athens.
Gabrielle could tell that the discussion was going nowhere fast. She could also see Xena's temper flaring, as the balding man in expensive robes continued to argue against her.
"Xena," Gabrielle gave the man her sweetest smile. "Please excuse the interruption."
"Your majesty," the man dipped his chin and lowered his eyes. "It is I who must apologize for monopolizing the queen's attentions."
"We will continue this discussion another time," Xena waved the man off and turned to Gabrielle with a grateful smile. "Thank you, my love. Atrinius was really getting on my last nerve. Thought I was going to have to take his head off just to shut him up."
"Yes, I could see that," Gabrielle chuckled. "He does have a point, though. As much as I hate to admit it. A road from Corinth to Athens would cost a lot of money."
"Yeah," Xena frowned slightly. "I'm just not really in the mood to talk politics and money right now. I'd much rather enjoy this night for as long as it lasts." She picked up her goblet and downed the wine in one gulp. "I think I'm ready for some port now. This wine is a little too sweet for my tastes."
Gabrielle motioned to one of the servants. "Bring the queen a pitcher of our finest port, please."
Xena watched Gabrielle in silent fascination, as the young servant boy raced off with a huge grin on his face. Gabrielle had that way about her and could get anyone to do what she wanted without much effort. It was one of the things that Xena loved most about her. Gabrielle just made it seem so effortless. She never barked or raised her voice or threatened to end someone's life. She just asked and turned that adorable scrunch-nosed smile on them that made them all want to bend over backward to please her.
"You're amazing, you know that?"
"I am?" Gabrielle replied in some surprise. "And here I thought you were the amazing one. I never dreamed you would crown someone besides yourself, except when you're fighting, that is." She chuckled at her play on words.
Xena took Gabrielle's hand in hers. "Not just any someone. The only person I would ever allow to stand beside me as my equal is you, Gabrielle. The rest of these louts just aren't worth it."
"What about the foreign dignitaries you sent away, Xena?" Gabrielle interjected. "What will you do with them?"
"Ah, yeah," Xena glanced at the door where the men had been taken. "About that…"
"I shall take this opportunity to excuse myself and return to my duties at the temple," Jarus got up from the table and bowed formally. "Your majesties. It has been my sincere honor and privilege to officiate at your coronation. I shall pray night and day to the gods that your reign is both peaceful and prosperous."
Xena stood up and slapped the man on the shoulder. "Thanks, Jarus. No hard feelings, I hope?"
"None whatsoever, your majesty," he winked at her.
Xena put an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders as they watched the priest leave the crowded hall.
"What was that all about?" Gabrielle removed the crown from her head. "You didn't tell me you intended to do that, by the way."
"I didn't tell him, either," Xena shrugged. "Truthfully, I didn't really know if I was gonna go through with it until after he placed this on my head." She removed her own crown and dangled it from a finger between them.
Gabrielle held hers next to Xena's. They were identical except for a few extra blue sapphires that graced Xena's and the emeralds that decorated Gabrielle's.
"You had a crown made for me, though. It even fits my head perfectly," Gabrielle placed her crown on her head, then she frowned. "It's a little heavy, though. I don't think I'll be wearing it very often."
Xena motioned with a hand and a page stepped forward with another purple velvet pillow. On the pillow were two gold circlets, one larger than the other.
"For everyday wear," Xena commented at the look of confusion on Gabrielle's features. "Not nearly as heavy as these things," she tossed her elaborate crown to another page standing to one side and picked up the larger circlet. "Fits a lot better, too." She placed the circlet on her head and turned to Gabrielle. "Wha'dya think?"
"I think you're gorgeous, no matter what you wear," Gabrielle smiled warmly.
"And I think you two'd better sit down and stop makin' doe eyes at each other," Agatha spoke up. "Tis embarrassing to watch the two of ya carin' on like a couple of lovesick kids, instead of the rulers of Greece."
Gabrielle blushed to her roots, while Xena merely rolled her eyes as she slumped into one of the chairs at the head table.
"I'm not a kid, you know," Xena grumbled, as Agatha set a pitcher down on the table.
"Then tis time you started actin' yer age," Agatha chided. She then shot a covert wink to Gabrielle. "And tis yer job to keep her in line, yer majesty."
Gabrielle had just lifted her goblet to her lips when Agatha's words hit her. She nearly spewed her wine across the table and just managed to swallow it before she embarrassed herself in front of everyone.
"You okay?" Xena raised a dark brow at her.
"Yeah," Gabrielle managed to choke out between coughs. "Just went down the wrong way is all."
"Apologies, yer majesty," Agatha could barely contain her amusement. "Is there anything else you require?"
"Where's my mother?" Xena looked around.
"In the kitchens, overseeing the cleanup," Agatha replied.
"Would you please ask her to join us, Agatha?" Gabrielle took Xena's hand in hers. "You, too. We'd like to share this celebration with our family." She glanced at Ephiny and Eponin seated to her right. "This is a celebration that should include all those we love."
Agatha nodded silently, too overcome with emotions for words. Xena watched Agatha's retreating figure, then she turned in bewilderment to Gabrielle.
"That's a first," Xena absently lifted her goblet to her lips and took a sip.
"What's a first, yer maj?" Eponin asked.
"I've never seen Agatha get all choked up like that in all the years I've known her," Xena replied.
"Well," Gabrielle shrugged. "Maybe she's never been invited to be part of the family before."
Xena thought about that for a moment, trying to come up with an argument against Gabrielle's words. But then she sat back in her chair in resignation.
"You've never asked your aunt to join you for an evening meal?" Ephiny leaned over enough that she could see Xena. "Seriously?"
"It just never seemed…" Xena finished with a shrug, then turned to find her companions watching her with a mixture of surprise and incredulity. "What?"
"Not even at Surra?" Gabrielle cocked her head in dismay. "Xena…"
"Look," Xena hid her discomfort behind a frown, "I was the Conqueror. I had to keep everyone at a distance. It was expected. What would people think if I were to suddenly start inviting the help to eat with me?"
"That you were human?" Eponin said.
"Contrary to popular belief, I don't think anyone thought I was a hydra or gorgon, Ep," Xena returned. "And Agatha wasn't exactly open to the idea of sharing a table with someone who had blood on her hands. The thought just never crossed my mind to invite her to share the evening meal with me, okay?"
"Okay," Gabrielle nodded, as she decided to change the subject. "What are you going to do about those foreign emissaries Braes escorted out of here?"
"Already taken care of," Xena downed the port and poured herself another.
The look Xena gave her immediately silenced Gabrielle. At that moment, Braes walked in and sat in the vacant chair next to Xena. She gave him a look of silent inquiry and he answered with a curt nod, as he signaled to a passing servant.
"Tis done, majesty," he said, as the servant poured a tankard of ale for him.
"What's done?" Gabrielle couldn't help her curiosity at their cryptic exchange.
Xena held up a staying hand for Braes, as she gave Gabrielle a raised-browed look and said in a tone that brooked no argument, "Let it go, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle looked from Xena to Braes and noticed he was avoiding her gaze as he downed two tankards of ale in quick succession. She then turned to Xena, who was sipping her port.
"Tell me," Gabrielle said quietly. "What did Braes do, Xena? I saw him escort those men out of here. What did he do?" She then sat forward so she could see him. "Tell me, Braes."
"Your majesty?" Braes glanced from Gabrielle to Xena.
Xena sighed heavily as she saw the determination in Gabrielle's eyes. "I knew this was going to eventually bite me in the butt. Just didn't think it would happen so soon."
"Your majesty?" Braes repeated in confusion.
"They're dead," Xena said flatly for Gabrielle's ears only.
"What?" Gabrielle nearly bolted to her feet.
"Your majesty," Ephiny had a staying hand on Gabrielle's shoulder the instant she saw her reaction. She glanced at Xena. "Maybe we should take this somewhere else?"
"No," Gabrielle angrily shrugged the hand off her shoulder, then turned a glare on Xena. "Why are they dead, Xena? What did they do to deserve that?"
"They came here and interrupted the coronation," Xena answered without emotion.
"So," Xena downed her port and poured another. She was feeling the effects and hoped no one else would notice. "Their intentions were not exactly benign, Gabrielle."
"The emissaries from Chin had assassins with them," Xena replied dryly. "My men caught two of them sneaking around the castle just this morning. And the guy who was acting as their spokesman was just so cockey that he rubbed me the wrong way. He was shifty and I don't trust shifty, especially when he was lying through his pretty white teeth."
"I didn't conquer Greece because I played nice with the other warlords, Gabrielle," Xena cut in with a wry smirk. "I've made it this far because I trust my instincts, my gut and my skills as a warrior. I also trust my intuition. My gut said those guys had ulterior motives for interrupting the ceremony. So I had Braes and the men deal with them the way we always deal with our enemies."
"You don't think there was another way? Why did they have to die?"
"Like what, Gabrielle? Invite them to the celebration and wait for one of them to stick a knife in my back? I don't think so."
"But, Xena, why not just lock them in the dungeons and-ask them what they were really up to? Find out who sent them and why?" Gabrielle continued boldly. "Now they're dead and we'll never know."
"Do you really think those men were just going to come right out and answer questions?"
"I honestly don't know," Gabrielle shook her head. "All I know is dead men tell us nothing. Not to mention how much of a waste it is to kill people on a hunch."
Everyone at the table stilled, as they all waited for Xena's reaction to Gabrielle's words. The reaction they finally got was quite unexpected.
Xena chuckled and then laughed outright. It was so unexpected, in fact, that everyone in the room stopped and stared at her in disbelief. After several tense moments, the entire assemblage breathed a collective sigh of relief when Xena's amusement appeared genuine and no one immediately lost their head.
The festivities resumed with renewed gusto, as a troupe of performers in brightly colored clothing bounded into the hall. Jugglers, fire eaters, tumblers, acrobats and exotic dancers spread themselves out around the room and entertained the crowd with amazing feats and sultry moves that brought many to their feet with enthusiastic applause and cheers.
Xena watched Gabrielle, who was mesmerized by the acrobats and tumblers, as well as a fire eater who swallowed a flaming sword right in front of them. After several moments, Gabrielle glanced her way and Xena gave her a tentative smile. Gabrielle smiled, too, before returning her attention to the entertainers.
"Your majesties," Ephiny said, as she and Eponin both got up from the table to leave. "If you'll excuse us for a moment? We need to take care of something."
"Sure," replied Gabrielle with a distracted wave, as two men juggling flaming batons and passing them back and forth passed in front of the head table.
"You think they'll have it out later?" Eponin commented, once they were far enough away from the table that they were out of earshot.
"Maybe. Maybe not," Ephiny replied. "I've never known Gabrielle to just drop a subject and let it go. But the entertainers are a nice distraction, for now."
"Yeah," Eponin nodded distractedly as she watched a trained monkey dance to a jaunty tune played by a man with a lute.
"Exactly," Ephiny rolled her eyes and grabbed Eponin's arm, dragging her along and rounding up her Amazons as she passed them. "Come on, Eponin. We need to let the kids off the hook or we'll have a mutiny on our hands."
"We'll come back and watch your dancing monkey after we get the kids taken care of," Ephiny added.
"They're not kids, Eph."
"They are tonight."
Gabrielle really thought she had seen it all. Jugglers. Fire eaters. A dancing monkey. Tumblers. A woman who dangled by a rope slung over one of the beams in the ceiling and did amazing things while hanging upside down. It was all so incredible that she couldn't help being mesmerized by it all. Neither could anyone else, for that matter.
The costumes were so bright and colorful. And the noise was deafening as the crowd applauded and cheered. The food and drink flowed freely and there were already several people passed out on tables, benches and on the floor.
And then a hush fell over the crowd as a tall man with flaming red hair and an outfit to match stepped into the middle of the room. He carried a stringed instrument that Gabrielle was not at all familiar with. When his fingers passed over the strings, beautiful music filled the air and echoed magically off the stone walls. He plucked and strummed a jaunty tune that had everyone captivated and a few toes tapping.
Then he smiled a knowing smile and started singing. His voice was like nothing Gabrielle had ever heard before-like nothing anyone had ever heard before. Gabrielle was sure the gods themselves would stop whatever they were doing just to listen to the man sing. When the last note ended, the entire room was still and silent for a moment before the place erupted in cheers and deafening applause.
The man then turned to the head table and bowed deeply.
"What's your name?" Xena spoke loudly to be heard above the din.
The crowd fell silent as the man straightened and smiled.
"I am called Feurouge, your majesty," he replied with a heavy accent. "It means red fire in the land where I am from." He bowed low again.
"Is that where you learned to sing so well, Feurouge?" Xena pronounced his name perfectly and earned a raised red brow from the man.
"Oh, your majesty," he chuckled, "I am not just a man who can sing." He strummed his instrument in a chord that echoed in the silence. "I am a musician, as well."
"Yes, I see that," Xena gave him a wry grin. "And are all your songs about pastures and sheep?"
"It was a beautiful song, Xena," Gabrielle said. "I couldn't understand the words, but it was beautiful."
"You speak the language of my homeland, your majesty?" Feurouge said with some surprise.
"I have many skills," Xena deadpanned.
"I do, as well, your majesty," he started plucking out a new tune as he strolled back and forth on top of the table he was standing on.
Then he lifted his voice, loud and clear, into the hushed silence in time with his strumming. This time he sang about The Conqueror and her mighty feats in conquering Greece. He spoke the language of Greece and there was not a dry eye in the place. His voice rose and fell on each musical strain with such heart and feeling. The story of Xena's heroism in conquering Greece's errant warlords was beyond mesmerizing.
Gabrielle was spellbound by his musical talent, but moreso by his skill in weaving a tale. He sang the story with such skill that she couldn't help being a bit envious. Having been a storyteller back in Potidaea when she was growing up, she could very much appreciate another bard's talent. But Feurouge spun a tale with such amazing skill that Gabrielle knew her talents as a bard paled in comparison.
When the last note echoed off the stone walls and a hush lingered into silence, it seemed that the entire world stopped. No one moved. All eyes watched Xena for her reaction as the crowd held its collective breath.
Xena smiled and raised her hands in applause. "Well done, Feurouge. Well done."
The crowd let out a collective sigh of relief and applauded. Feurouge bowed low with a flourish. Several coins were tossed his way and landed on the table at his feet. He deftly collected them, stuffing them into a pouch at his waist.
When he straightened, Xena motioned him forward. He jumped down from the table and wove his way through the tables until he was standing on the bottom step of the dais. He then went to a knee and bowed his red head.
"Your majesty," he said.
Xena glanced at Gabrielle and made note of the brilliant smile that made her eyes sparkle. Returning her attention to the minstral, Xena kept her expression neutral.
"To your feet, Feurouge," Xena ordered and then waited for him to rise. "I'd say you've impressed more than just our guests. Eh, Gabrielle?"
"You're amazing," Gabrielle gushed. "I've never heard a bard sing with such passion before. You are truly gifted."
"You are most gracious, your majesty," he blushed to his roots.
"And that's why I'm inclined to make you an offer that I hope you will carefully consider," Xena added. "Because I don't make these kinds of offers very often."
"You have my undivided attention, majesty."
"Remain here at the palace and be our court minstral from now on," Xena said. "You will have free room and board for as long as you like. Just as long as you continue entertaining us with your talent and skills."
His eyes widened and he was at a loss for words for several moments.
"Your majesty…I…I…" he stammered and ran a hand through his wavy red hair. "Words cannot express what I am feeling at this moment."
"Feurouge," Gabrielle watched as he met her gaze. "I'm a bard of sorts, myself. Well, actually I used to tell stories to the other children in the village where I grew up. But I would be honored if you would take me on as your student. Telling stories was one of the highlights of my childhood. I'd really like to do it again. I'm just not sure I have your talent."
"I would be most honored, your majesty," he bowed humbly. "I am at your service."
"Then you'll stay?" Xena suppressed the urge to grin, as she caught the joy on Gabrielle's face.
"I am most honored, majesty," he dipped his head. "It will be a pleasure to have a roof over my head and food in my belly during the long winter months.
"Good," Xena nodded. She then turned to Gabrielle and placed a hand on hers. "Now that that's settled, I have something I want you to see."
Gabrielle allowed herself to be guided out of the main hall and up a flight of stairs that led to one of the towers. "Xena, where are we going? What about our guests?"
"You'll see," Xena replied without pause.
They continued to ascend the spiral staircase. The stone echoed with each footfall and Gabrielle felt a chilly breeze blowing down the stairwell.
"I don't remember ever coming to this part of the castle," she commented.
"It was the old king's private tower," Xena said. "Agatha said it was as neglected as the rest of the castle."
"Then why would you make me climb all these stairs to see it?"
Gabrielle wanted to continue the conversation, but she was running out of breath. They seemed to have climbed to the top of Mt. Olympus itself by the time they reached the upper landing. She was a bit aggravated to see that Xena wasn't even winded, while she was busy trying to catch her breath.
"Just a bit winded," Gabrielle replied.
"How's the head?"
"Not too bad. It's a lot better than it was yesterday."
"Well, maybe I can distract you from it for a little while longer."
They were standing in a circular stone room with a door and several shuttered windows. Xena led her over to the door and threw it open to reveal a balcony with an iron railing. She then stepped out onto the balcony and motioned Gabrielle to join her, which she did.
"By the gods," Gabrielle quietly exclaimed as she looked down at the courtyard below. "Look at all the lights. How they sparkle like diamonds."
"Yeah, well, that's not the reason I brought you up here," Xena pointed to the starry sky. "Just wait and see."
Gabrielle gazed at all the stars twinkling around her. It was an amazing sight and nearly took her breath away. Then something amazing happened. She heard it before she actually saw anything. A strange hissing whistle pierced the chilly night air. It was followed by a loud bang and an explosion of color that lit up the sky.
"Oh!" Gabrielle watched as another explosion followed the first. This one brought a shower of green that quickly dissipated into golden sparkles. "Wow!" She looked to Xena. "What is going on?"
"They're called fireworks," Xena couldn't keep her eyes off Gabrielle, who quickly turned back to the light show. "They're made in Chin. I had them brought here for this occasion. I wanted it to be special."
Gabrielle moved into the circle of Xena's arms and stood with her back to the taller woman. A huge grin lit her features, as the fireworks continued.
"I've never seen anything like this," Gabrielle felt tears welling in her eyes. "It's so magical. Oh, Xena, this is the best night of my whole life."
Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "I'm glad you like it."
Gabrielle turned around in Xena's arms and wrapped her own arms around Xena's neck. She then pulled Xena down until their lips met. The kiss held all the promise of things to come and so much more. The sky exploded in all the colors of the rainbow and shimmered with a thousand tiny sparkles as the kiss deepened. They saw none of it. They didn't even hear the cheers that went up from the crowd far below them. All that mattered were the two of them on that tiny balcony amidst a magical moment that continued until the fireworks exploded in the finale.
Only then did the kiss end and Gabrielle turn back around to watch the spectacle. The finale included fireworks in every color imaginable. And they all exploded as if at once.
"This is the best coronation gift a girl could ever receive," Gabrielle commented, when the last sparkle drifted from the sky and all went quiet again.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it, my queen," Xena said as she wrapped her arms around the shorter woman from behind and held on tight. "I know did."
"It was amazing, Xena," Gabrielle glanced up and over her shoulder. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, my love."
They stood there for several moments and just gazed at the starry sky and the sparkling lights that dotted the city below. Soft strains of music played below them and they swayed as one in time with it.
"This is nice," Gabrielle said after the silence stretched on. "It's like a fantasy come true."
"Our own little slice of Elysia," Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head.
"It's even nicer to be up here alone, just the two of us," Gabrielle continued. "Not that the celebration wasn't nice. It just got really warm in the hall with all those people in there."
Xena stared at the crowded streets below. "Not sure I'd want to be down there, though. Looks even more crowded than the hall."
"Yeah, I think everyone came to the city for the celebration."
"And to catch a glimpse of the rulers of Greece."
"Do you think they know there are two of us?"
Xena chuckled. "Anyone who can read knows by now. And if they can't read, I'm sure others will fill them in." She glanced down to find Gabrielle looking up at her in confusion. "I had Braes send messengers out to put up notices throughout the city and the surrounding countryside and beyond. If they don't know by now, they're either blind or deaf or both."
Gabrielle swallowed over a sudden lump in her throat. "All of Greece knows?"
"More'n likely," Xena shrugged. "I wanted it to be official when it happened. Didn't want to wait until after the ceremony, so had the notices posted as soon as you were crowned queen."
Gabrielle swallowed again, as she gazed out over the city. "My life will never be the same again, will it?"
Xena turned Gabrielle to face her. "It hasn't been the same since we met, love." She ran her fingers over a soft cheek. "Did you think it would stay the same after I was crowned? Why is it any different now that we're both the queens of Greece?"
Gabrielle ducked her chin so Xena couldn't see her eyes. "I just…I don't know." She shook her head. "It's a little overwhelming to think that I will rule Greece, too. I'm just a shepherd's kid from a tiny village on the outskirts of nowhere."
"And I'm the daughter of an innkeeper," Xena returned. "So we're both wholly unqualified to rule an entire country. So what? It's not like the warlords who ran things before did a bang-up job of it. Why do you think I was able to gather together an army to wipe them off the face of the earth? People don't like bullies anymore than they did as kids. As long as we don't turn into a couple of tyrannical despots who sit here in this place and suck the life out of our subjects, then things can only improve for the better." She smiled. "Besides, I chose to make you my equal so that wouldn't happen. I know you're not the tyrannical despot type, Gabrielle."
"Which brings us back to my earlier question, Xena," Gabrielle's expression sobered. "Why did those foreign dignitaries have to die?"
Xena rolled her eyes and sighed. "Are we back to this again?"
"Apparently so," Gabrielle nodded boldly. "I know you made the decision before I was crowned queen, but that still doesn't justify what you did."
"I already explained why I did it, Gabrielle," Xena took a step back. "Do we really need to go over this again? It's over and done with. Rehashing this won't bring those men back from the dead."
Gabrielle ground her teeth in frustration and crossed her arms over her chest. "Is this how it's going to be from now on? You get to make the decisions and I'll just be the nice one who waves to the crowd and makes them feel all warm and fuzzy?"
Xena raised a brow at the anger in Gabrielle's tone. "Are you challenging my authority?"
"Is that allowed? Or will you just use your sword and chop my head off? You might want to go get it now and save us both the aggravation."
Xena stood there in stunned silence for several moments, as Gabrielle glared defiantly at her. Her anger flared for a moment, but then it dissolved in the very next instant as she gave the words some thought.
"Is that really what you think of me?" Xena asked quietly in astonishment. "That I'm some kind of monster who that kills on a whim? Is that really how you see me, Gabrielle? I know it's how everyone else sees me, but I really thought you were different. I thought we had a connection, you and me. I thought you saw beyond the darkness. You even said so yourself."
"I don't think those men thought of you as a monster until they faced their deaths at the hands of your men," Gabrielle shot back and quickly regretted the words the instant they left her lips. She saw the hurt in Xena's eyes and knew she had overstepped her bounds. "Xena, I…"
"No!" Xena turned her back on Gabrielle and strode purposefully back into the tower, then descended the stairs without a backward glance.
"Xena!" Gabrielle ran after her, but Xena took the stairs two at a time and was gone before Gabrielle reached the top of the stairs. "Xena! Please!"
But it was no use. Gabrielle couldn't make her legs move. They just shook as she backed up against the cold stone wall behind her and sank to the floor in a crumpled heap. The tears came unbidden and rolled down her cheeks, as she wrapped her arms around her knees and sobbed.