Disclaimers: See Chapter One for all disclaimers, warnings, etc.

I only know how others feel about my stories from feedback. Let me know what you think. I'm at: ljmaas@yahoo.com

The Conqueror Series

Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose

By LJ Maas

Chapter 16: Besieged And Taken, Fair Courageous Queen

There was a loud gasp, and I turned to see Gabrielle bolt upright in bed. She hadn't cried out, but I could hear her audible breaths, which she seemingly struggled to bring under control.

"Gabrielle?" I sat up beside her.

When she turned to look at me, her face held such a blank look. It was as if she didn't recognize me, or at the very least, as if she were straining to remember me. The expression only lasted a few heartbeats, and then she physically shook her head to concentrate on her present surroundings.

"Gabrielle?" I repeated.

"I--I think I must have been dreaming," Gabrielle replied hesitantly.

"A bad dream?"

"Partly, but then some was . . . well . . . confusing." She ran her fingers through her hair then looked up at me with a sleepy grin. "I guess I'm still half asleep, but I'm all right, really."

"Come here, love."

Gabrielle settled herself into my embrace, as we both lay back down against the pillows. I wasn't sure what to make of her sleepy explanation, but since her breathing had already turned into the deep, relaxed sounds of sleep, I thought little more about it. Why is it, that in hindsight, it's the smallest of things that come to be the most important?

* * * * * * * * * *

Every soldier in Corinth was on alert this night. Numerous fires illuminated the southern hills, outside the palace gates. For one full pass of the sun, Melosa had been in private mourning. I wanted to find out more about the other daughter of hers, but the Queen was in seclusion, and even I couldn't bring myself to intrude upon her grief.

Gabrielle had been sequestered with a number of Amazons, along with their Priestess for quite some time. I lived with Cyane and her Amazons for a short time, and I learned as much as I could about their history and customs. I knew that even though Gabrielle's part in tonight's ceremony would be small, the Priestess was most probably filling my consort in on some of that history.

I stood with Atrius, me looking less like a Conqueror than a fidgety spouse. I suppose I should have felt honored, considering few non Amazons were ever allowed to witness an Amazon princess being committed to the flames. It's only that I had a lot weighing on my mind just then. I was wondering how smoothly this Amazon ceremony was going to go, how Gabrielle would handle the whole situation, and whether I would be able to stop a certain Amazon Queen from waging a senseless battle with the Centaurs. I have to say that every one of those thoughts dissipated into thin air the moment I saw Gabrielle walk out of that tent.

Gabrielle was dressed in a short leather skirt and halter. A very short skirt and not really enough to even call a halter. Her neck, upper arms, and waist were encircled with feather and bead ornaments. Now, I suppose that I'd seen more revealing Amazon wear in my time. Actually, the women who flanked both Gabrielle and the Priestess were wearing less than my future bride. If the truth be known, I certainly wasn't averse to seeing Gabrielle's beautiful body. It's simply that I had planned on being the only one to ever see this much of it. I could feel that familiar heat creep up my neck, and I looked around, watching everyone else watch Gabrielle!

"What are you looking at?" I hissed to Atrius.

He had his mouth open a slight bit, mostly in surprise, I'm sure.

"Me?" He answered with uncharacteristic embarrassment.

"Yes, you! Quit looking at her that way!" I commanded.

"Me?" He stammered again.

"You keep saying that like I'm talking to someone else!"

"No, I mean . . . it's just that . . . looking? I--I would never . . . for Athena's sake, she's like a daughter!" He was finally able to say.

"Oh." It was the only thing I could think of to say. It made sense, though.

Gabrielle looked good. In fact, she looked damned good, and as I studied the women who were sneaking glances as she passed their way, I realized something. My first instinctual feelings of jealousy, and then anger were based on emotions that belonged to the Conqueror, not the woman I had since become. It would have been so easy to let the beast come out to roam over a situation like this, but this moment wasn't about me.

Of course, we stood there as a way of saying goodbye to a young woman who lost her life much too soon, but it was more than that. In some way, this moment belonged to Gabrielle. I had no idea how we would eventually handle her status as an Amazon, or even the fact that she was Amazon Royalty. I did know that she was taking this honor seriously, and that it meant something to her. Perhaps because it was the first time in her young life that people looked up to her for something that she alone had done, and not because she was my consort.

Whatever the real reason, I realized it wouldn't be the first time I would be tested in such a manner. I had grown up on the battlefield, thinking that you had to show your power to be respected. That was fine for the battlefield, but it would only serve to make me a tyrant when used in every day life. It would also humiliate Gabrielle, and lower her status with these people, a thing I was loath to do.

I took a deep breath, and I had a rather comforting thought. So what if a hundred Amazon eyes were now coveting my consort. The key word was, my. In my heart, I knew whom Gabrielle loved, and when she walked up to me, my stomach flipped a very little bit, as I saw that exact sentiment in her eyes.

"Xena, we have to talk." Gabrielle whispered between clenched teeth, her lips shaped into a forced smile. "This is what they want me to wear. I might as well be out here naked!"

I grinned heartily at that. Knowing this wasn't Gabrielle's choice put me even more at ease. Let the Amazons look if they wanted to. She was mine, and suddenly I reveled in the thought that I possessed something completely unattainable to them.

"You look absolutely breathtaking, my love," I whispered back in reassurance.

"That's not all. Xena, I may have to kill a Centaur!" she hissed again.

"What?!" I made no pretense of lowering my voice this time. "Come on, we need to talk." I began to usher her back into the tent she'd just exited.

The two Amazons that had obviously been assigned to guard the new princess were close on our heels. Gabrielle entered the tent first, then me. When the two guards attempted to follow, I turned and growled at them.

"Don't even think about it!"

I don't know if it was the fire in my eyes, or the smoke coming from my ears, but they suddenly realized they could just as easily guard her from outside the tent.

Gabrielle was waiting for me when I got inside. "Xena, these women have some seriously one-sided ideas about the Centaurs," she said.

"I suppose that's to be expected. They've been at odds with them for most of their lives," I answered.

"Well, when you look at it that way . . . " Gabrielle trailed off. I saw her features soften. It was uncharacteristic of Gabrielle not to see the other side of the coin, but her own fury, and worry, had gotten the best of her.

"Now, how about what you said out there?" I motioned with one hand. "Who wants you to kill a Centaur, and why?"

"They're pretty convinced here that a Centaur did it, Xena. I didn't say a word about what you found the other night, but it wouldn't have mattered if I had. They're determined in thinking that a Centaur killed Timara, and they don't seem very concerned about whether they catch the guilty one or not. The only one who doesn't seem convinced is Satena; she's their Priestess. In fact, she doesn't say much at all, which is a little unnerving. She watches me in the oddest way."

"Sweetheart . . . the killing?" I prompted.

"Oh, yes! Do you know they said that once they catch whoever was responsible for Timara's murder, actually their words were, once we catch the Centaur responsible, I'm the one who has to execute the sentence, which will be death. Something about me, accepting Timara's right of caste, and because of that I have to exact her revenge. Xena, I don't think I can kill anyone, not in cold blood like that."

"I know that, love."

Gabrielle stepped into my arms and I held her that way for a few moments. "Don't worry, you're not going to be killing anyone, least of all any Centaurs."

"Promise?" she asked.

"I promise, little one. We'll figure something out. Okay?"

She nodded, and just as we kissed and pulled away from one another, the Amazon guards were clearing their throats. They cautiously entered the tent, requesting Gabrielle's presence. She nodded to them and started after them. I pulled her back at the last moment to whisper in her ear.

"Remember, little one, you belong to me, as well as the Amazons." I smiled and I felt her lean back into me. "Torava and Atrius are here as your guards also. I don't know, or trust, everyone here. If anything does happen, stay with those two and I'll know you're safe."

I kissed her ear, and I watched as she nodded her head in understanding. We left the tent and I walked beside Gabrielle, the two guards apparently flustered at my continued presence. They followed along, and then looked even more confused when Atrius and Torava slipped into step with us.

We were stopped by a group of warriors I accepted as Melosa's Royal Guard, some twenty feet from the funeral pyre. The Queen stood directly next to the pyre, accompanied by Artemis's Priestess, and another Amazon I didn't recognize. She was tall, muscular, and had auburn hair. I wondered if she was the other daughter. Her eyes appeared filled with tears as she stared up at the platform, upon which Timara's body was laid.

Ephiny came toward us and stopped before Gabrielle. I could tell there was still a certain animosity residing within the Amazon toward Gabrielle. She didn't go out of her way to be courteous, but then she didn't do, or say, anything that could be considered intentionally mean. It was more the disdainful expression her eyes held when they settled on Gabrielle.

"Your presence is requested at the family's side, Princess," Ephiny said flatly. She motioned with her hand and the two Amazon guards moved to the front to lead Gabrielle away.

I felt Gabrielle squeeze my hand and I returned the slight pressure. She followed the Amazons, and Atrius and Torava moved along with her.

"Just the Princess," Ephiny said.

Gabrielle looked back at me, and I realized she was unsure what to do.

"She may be your Princess, but she is also about to become Queen to the Greek Empire. Either they go with her, or we all stay here," I stated.

Ephiny didn't seem to think it was worth causing a situation over. She shrugged her shoulders and waved again to the two guards in the lead. I was a little surprised when Ephiny stayed behind, electing to stand beside me during the ceremony.

The ceremony began, and as I watched the women at the pyre interact with one another, one thing became clear. Melosa was in obvious grief. It showed in her face and in her body language. Gabrielle appeared sad, somber, and nervous.

"Who's the woman beside Melosa?" I asked Ephiny under my breath.

"Velasca, Melosa's adopted daughter."

"Adopted. So, she's not a princess then?" I asked the question I already knew the answer to, but wanted to hear how the Amazon would answer.

"No. Only blood family may be considered in line for the throne. Unless they become family through right of caste, however. Velasca would have become Princess upon Timara's death, because she would then be Melosa's only heir. Your consort seems to have put a crimp in those plans, Lord Conqueror."

Ephiny shot me a sidelong glance and I heard what I wanted to in her voice. It seemed she didn't care for Velasca's royal position any more than she did for Gabrielle's new Amazon title. Things began to look like Ephiny could be one of those fanatical Amazons, unwilling to allow outsiders in so easily. Of course, that was no crime, but the whole scenario began to take on a dangerous air for Gabrielle.

Suddenly, I saw an adopted daughter whose only obstacle to the throne was her younger sister. If she somehow went over the top, killing her sister, would she stop there? She probably had no idea that Timara would have given her right of caste away, to a stranger no less. Would she try to eliminate Gabrielle as well?

I shook myself mentally. I was adding things incorrectly, jumping to quick and easy conclusions. Velasca had the motive along with the opportunity. But what of all the Centaur evidence? The weapons may have been circumstantial, but there's only one thing heavy enough to make Centaur tracks in stone-dry earth, and that's a Centaur. Plus, something we hadn't discussed out in those trees. Amazons are excellent archers, incredible even, but the distance from the grove of trees to the patio we dined on was tremendous. That was most of the reason we never worried about more than occasionally patrolling the area. I couldn't see the best Amazon archer hitting Timara with as much accuracy as those arrows did. No, either a Centaur, or a being with astonishing strength would have had to shoot those arrows. That's where it all fell apart. Even I know that there isn't an Amazon on earth who would collaborate with a Centaur. I'd never known anything to be worth the two putting their differences, and long-standing hatred, away for.

"What did Melosa say when you told her about what we found?" I leaned over and asked.

"I haven't told her yet." Ephiny answered, never taking her eyes from the pyre that was now being lit. "She's been in mourning," she added.

"What do you think she'll do?" I asked.

"I'd like to not think about that one." Ephiny commented in her flat alto.

"Me too," I quickly added.

Ephiny surprised and worried me at the same time. Any other Amazon here would have jumped at the chance to bring the bad word against the Centaurs, but she hadn't even attempted it. Yes, Melosa was in mourning, but something like this? I would have chucked protocol and killed myself attempting to reach her. Ephiny's amiable behavior toward the Centaurs could have been a voice of reason among her people, someone I might want to ally myself with. On the other hand, she might be just the kind of person to become partners with a Centaur for a like-minded cause.

There was only thing to be done. Trust no one, see that Gabrielle was never without protection, and sit down with Kaleipus. There'd been a great deal of bad blood between the Centaur Nation and myself. It was now time to see if there were any Centaurs around who still remembered the good old days.

* * * * * * * * * *

"It's an insult to even think any of the Centaurs here could be responsible!"

Solan's tone was one of righteous indignation, and I wasn't sure I disagreed with him. I was probably seeking for answers where there were none, but I was running out of time, and clues. Last evening we watched as Timara's funeral pyre lit the southern sky. I was prepared to be confronted by Melosa with her demand for Centaur blood over the murder of her daughter. I was quite surprised when, after candlemarks of keeping vigil at her daughter's funeral pyre, she simply looked up at me, and then turned and walked away.

She was a smart woman. Her grief was controlling her right then, and even she knew enough not to want to meet with me in that condition. I would suffer this woman much for her grief, and the price she'd paid, but even my tolerance had its limits.

"Keep a civil tongue about you, Solan." Kaleipus warned his adopted son. "The Conqueror has good reason to ask."

"Thank you my friend. I don't know whether this will help us, or curse us. Solan, I've lived long enough to know that no one species holds the commodity on truth and integrity. I'll not have anyone convicted falsely, but neither can I allow a war to begin between the Centaurs and the Amazons. I'm doing the absolute best I can in this situation."

I answered Solan as honestly as I could. I'm sure he heard the tone of defeat in my voice, even though I took pains to hide it.

"Solan, most of my life has been spent in Conquering and taking. No matter that it already belonged to another. It became my own manifest destiny to become the Destroyer of Nations. A witch prophesied it, and I gave her the blood, and the means to bring it about. Along the line somewhere, a woman like me makes enemies, loose ends that make you vulnerable some day. I don't pretend that I wasn't this woman, so do me a favor. Please don't insult me by saying you know of no one who would like to see my head on a spike for some past deed."

I finished my little speech, and when I looked up into Solan's face, he had an odd sort of expression on his face. I think it might have been fear, or maybe even concern. I suppose I could have been reaching there, but the look stayed with me.

I took a chance on this young man, who had changed so much. I decided to tell he and Kaleipus all that I suspected. Something told me I could trust Solan now, especially when I played my trump card, by revealing Gabrielle's involvement.

"Why would someone with a grudge against you want to kill Gabrielle?" Solan asked quickly.

I told him then what I thought about an Amazon and a Centaur working together. That odd look returned to his face. Once again, I could see that worry plagued him. Solan and Gabrielle had grown close in the last fortnight. If I were a younger Conqueror, jealousy and rage would have consumed me by now.

Gabrielle met with Solan, more for him than herself I feared. She had every right not to forgive his acts so quickly. Somewhere in their time together, however, Gabrielle and Solan became friends. I do not attempt to understand how the changing took place, nor will I question it. Both of these beloved people, the child of my body, and the woman of my heart, meant more to me than words could adequately express. The fact that I didn't have to choose between them meant just as much.

The next two candlemarks were spent going over the names and history of the twenty-two Centaurs in Kaleipus's delegation. We talked about their habits, the kinds of politics they played, and exactly where they were on the evening of Timara's murder.

I stood and stretched muscles that had grown tight while sitting. We had our meeting in the Great Hall, always perfect for a Centaur meeting. The large columns opened out onto the portico on the east side of the room. High, easy access was necessary when entertaining Centaurs indoors. I suppose it was this access to the outdoors, which made it so easy to hear the commotion around the corner on the palace steps. Gabrielle materializing in the hall, flanked by two guards was my next clue that we had trouble brewing. The words she spoke didn't help the situation any.

"Xena, I think Ephiny finally told Melosa."

* * * * * * * * * *

"Atrius, take Gabrielle back inside," I quietly said, as soon as we exited the palace. We found ourselves facing a hundred armed Amazons on one side of the area outside of the palace, Centaurs on the other, and five formations of my own men in between.

"No! Xena, please, I need to be here," Gabrielle pleaded.

She was right, in a way. It may have been a quirk of fate that brought it about, but Gabrielle was now an Amazon. I didn't have time to agree or not before Melosa was at the steps, followed by Ephiny and Velasca. I stepped in front of Gabrielle slightly, my protective mode taking hold I suppose.

"The time for talk is over, Conqueror!" Melosa raged. "It's obvious you're protecting those bastards. Will you give me and my people satisfaction, or not?"

"Nothing is apparent from where I stand, Melosa," I answered.

"Those sons of Cerberus murdered my daughter!"

"Amazon slut!" This came from Kaleipus, who finally lost his temper.

"Freaks!" Someone from the Amazon side yelled out.

"All right!" My voice boomed out. I was trying my level best not to lose my temper, but these people where pushing me to my breaking point. I slowly walked down the steps, anger evident in my very gait. I was heartbeats away from screaming at the top of my voice that they could all go to Hades.

I reached the Amazons, and even Melosa cautiously backed up. I could feel my hand shake as it ached to pull my blade from its scabbard. I clenched my jaw, and tried to take in a calming breath.

"Now," I began. "We are all going to take a deep breath. We are not going to start a war that our children will pay for by calling one another names. This is not worth going to battle over."

"It is to me, Conqueror," Melosa responded. "You saw the evidence. Everything points to a Centaur."

"Melosa, it may look obvious to you in your grief, but the evidence truly is circumstantial." Gabrielle was suddenly beside me, her hand on my forearm.

"I'm not surprised that you feel this way, Gabrielle. Your loyalties are certainly divided here, but did you learn nothing of the Centaurs from your teaching with Satena?" Melosa commented.

"I did learn, Melosa. I learned that your people are being taught a very one-sided vision of the history between the Amazons and the Centaurs. I've also learned from the Centaurs themselves. They are proud, and stubborn, but no more so than you."

"You've not seen what I have, Gabrielle." Melosa growled. "Can you tell me a Centaur did not kill my child, Conqueror?" The Queen directed her question toward me.

"No," I answered sadly. "I cannot. Just as I cannot say that it wasn't an Amazon, or anyone else."

"Then we go to war," Melosa hissed. "I want to see Centaur blood on my blade.

"I can't let you do that, My Queen." Ephiny stepped up from behind the woman, and Melosa did a small half turn to look at her. "As much as it pains me to agree with anything she might say, I must agree with the Princess."

"You?" Melosa seemed genuinely taken aback. She stepped back and folded her arms against her chest.

Melosa now appeared more amused than angry. I didn't know what Ephiny was trying to do, but it seemed her words had calmed the older woman in some fashion. Although, I believe Ephiny's words touched something in Gabrielle. The small blonde had also crossed her arms, an irate flush beginning to show in her cheeks.

"You surprise me Ephiny. What do you expect to do . . . challenge me?" Melosa asked.

"We both know that's something that I cannot do, My Queen." Then, Ephiny looked directly at Gabrielle, who was still fuming at the Amazon's last comment. "We all know that only another Royal can challenge the Queen."

I caught the inference immediately, and suddenly knew what Ephiny was playing at. It was happening so fast, I wasn't sure how I felt about using Gabrielle as bait. I remembered the old law that went along with any Royal challenge and suddenly knew Gabrielle would be safe.

"That's right," I gave the slightest bit of an elbow to Gabrielle, and repeated Ephiny's words. "Only Royalty," I stared into Gabrielle's uncomprehending eyes, "can contest the Queen in a Challenge."

Gabrielle wasn't stupid, but sometimes the most obvious things are the ones we miss. I swear if the girl said oh aloud, I would cuff her on the back of the head.

The oddest thing happened just then. I noticed that off to Melosa's left, at the bottom of the palace steps, Velasca opened her mouth to speak. It appeared very much as if she were going to administer a challenge. Before her voice could be heard, however, Gabrielle snapped into action. She must have suddenly grasped all the innuendo because she nearly jumped up when she said the words.

"I challenge you!"

Hundreds of eyes trained themselves upon the small blonde, who swallowed and looked as if she wanted to make herself invisible.

"I think." Gabrielle added.

"Do you or don't you, Gabrielle?" Melosa asked.

Somehow, the current situation had gone from possible bloodshed to entertainment. I knew that Melosa was fond of Gabrielle, besides the Queen wasn't a fool. I'm quite sure it was obvious to her what Ephiny and I were trying to do. Rather than let anger rule her, I believe Melosa couldn't help but be mildly amused at the small girl, challenging the Queen for her throne.

"Yes, yes I do." Gabrielle answered confidently.

"Gabrielle," Melosa drawled. "You do understand what a Royal Challenge is, don't you?"

"Uhm . . ." Gabrielle looked between Ephiny and I, as we both nodded our heads up and down slightly. "Yes. Yes, of course I do," she answered.

"And you do realize that you will have to fight me."

"Fight?" Gabrielle's voice rose a notch, and she looked between Ephiny and myself once more.

"To the death." Melosa finished.

"What! Oh, I--"

"Of course," Ephiny began. "Amazon law does state that a member of the Royal family may choose a Champion--"

"Someone, a trusted warrior, to fight in her stead." I finished Ephiny's thought, directing my words more toward Gabrielle than Melosa.

"I know what the law states, Ephiny. I would like to know whose side you're on here, however?" Melosa asked.

"The side of my people, My Queen." The Amazon responded.

"So, Gabrielle, will you battle yourself, or will you select a Champion?" Melosa asked; curiosity in her direct gaze.

"I'll be her Champion!" Ephiny and I both said in unison, taking a step forward.

Everyone froze at that moment. Ephiny and I turned to look at one another, and suddenly, I felt as if I were playing a part in a play by Euripides. I not only felt a little foolish, but I'm positive I looked the part as well.

"She's my wife!" I hissed at the Amazon.

"I'm sorry, did I miss that wedding, Lord Conqueror?"

"Just what--" I stated, only to be interrupted.

"Will you two please sort this out another time?" Gabrielle turned to us both and growled under her breath.

"It seems you have more than enough willing Champions, Princess. So, which what will it be? Will you select a Champion, Gabrielle?"

Once more Gabrielle's head turned to look at the blonde Amazon and myself, standing side by side. We both nodded our heads to the young woman.

"No, I'll fight for myself," Gabrielle answered.

"What?" Two voices in unison again, mine and the Amazon's.

"Do you mind?" I growled at Ephiny.

"Gabrielle, take a moment and think about what you're saying." I implored her. I suppose I could have ordered the whole thing stopped, but how would that make Gabrielle look, in front of the Amazons, as well as the people of Greece. I wanted them to know she was not simply a pretty toy of mine, but I didn't want them to see her die before her wedding day.

Gabrielle temporarily ignored me. "I won't fight you to the death, though."

"And just what kind of parameters would you set for this combat?" Melosa questioned.

"That if I win, you will not proceed with your war. You will listen to reason with your head, and not your heart."

"And if you lose?"

"I--I haven't anything to offer," Gabrielle answered softly.

"Haven't you, Gabrielle?"

I knew exactly what Melosa was thinking by the way she looked at Gabrielle just then, and I would have none of that. The Amazon Queen surprised me, though, when she continued.

"If I were a younger woman, I'd make you put your charms up as part of the wager. I like you, Gabrielle, and if you think you have enough skill to best me, then that's all we'll wager. I'll give you a candlemark to compose yourself, and then I'll meet you on the Conqueror's training field."

Melosa walked away, but stopped and turned back to the small blonde. "What weapons would you like to use, Princess?"

I watched as a different expression stole across Gabrielle's face. She looked down at the palm of her hands, slowly turning each of them over as if to examine them.

"My hands," she said at last.

Melosa smiled as if she were indulging a small child in a nonsensical request. "Very well. Hand to hand combat it is." She walked off, followed by the Amazons.

Ephiny was the last to leave. "I hope you taught her well." She tossed at me in that flat, dry sort of tone she had.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Gabrielle, are you insane? I mean, have you recently hit your head, or suffered some sort of massive brain injury that I know nothing about?" I shouted.

We were alone in our rooms. Gabrielle sat on the bed, her hands clasped together in her lap, patiently looking up at me. I paced, and I raged. I suppose it was all fear that was causing me to yell like this. The good thing is that I think Gabrielle knew that because she just sat there as if waiting for my fury to calm, knowing it eventually would. Like the summer storms that passed through quickly, all thunder and lightning, my ire did finally calm.

I sat down beside Gabrielle, and ran my fingers through my hair. I sighed deeply.

"Little one, do you understand what's happening?"

"I'm not a fool, Xena! I know what I've done," Gabrielle answered. It was the first time she'd ever spoke to me sharply, and I could see she was afraid, as well.

"You can still change your mind, choose me as your Champion, Ares balls, choose the Amazon, but don't try to fight Melosa. She's almost as good as I am, Gabrielle. She could hurt you, even if it's not a fight to the death."

"Xena, I . . ."Gabrielle took a deep breath and turned toward me, taking both my hands in her own. "I need to do this. I have no idea how to explain it to you, Hades teeth, I don't know how to explain it to myself!"

It was the first time I'd ever heard her swear, and I couldn't help but smile. It was that smile that allowed me to open my head, and my heart, enough to hear what she had to say.

"I don't know what it is, and I could be insane, but I can do this . . . I must do this. I can't explain how or why any better than to say this feels like my destiny, Xena. It's as though my whole life has been leading up to this one moment. I'm sorry, I'm not explaining this well at all."

She hung her head in defeat. I didn't know how to tell her just then that I knew exactly what she meant. I felt the same thing on the evening I walked into Gabrielle's room, got down on my knees, and asked her to forgive me. I freed her from slavery, and asked her to marry me. At that moment in time, in that semi-darkened room, I felt that my whole life had been leading up to that space in time. That my destiny was clicking into place. I wanted to tell Gabrielle all of this, but as was my habit around her, my tongue froze. When I needed my eloquence the most, it deserted me.

I pulled the smaller woman against me, and wrapped my arms around her. At last her body relaxed, and I felt mine do the same. When she looked up into my eyes, I knew that I didn't have to voice ant of my thoughts. Gabrielle seemed to always know what I was thinking, anyway.

"Athena will protect me, Xena, I have every confidence." Gabrielle whispered.

"I hope so because if Melosa hurts you, I'm going to kick her ass from one end of Corinth to the other," I growled.


Gabrielle's admonishment was interrupted by a knock on the outer chamber door. I was rather surprised that it was Yu Pan standing in the corridor. He was holding a small package in his hands.

"Nĭ  hăo? Lord Conqueror," he acknowledged me.

"I am not so well at this very moment, thank you for asking," I answered.

"I have something for Gabrielle."

"Master Yu Pan, I'm not sure that now is a--"

"It's all right, Xena." Gabrielle stood in the doorway between the bedroom and the outer rooms, and smiled weakly. I could see her mind was on Melosa. What I still couldn't understand was why she said yes. How did she think she was going to accomplish this?

"I have something that belongs to you, my nǚér," Yu Pan said. He crossed the room and placed a parcel wrapped in cloth into Gabrielle's accepting hands. ”Please open." The old man indicated the package.

Gabrielle looked at me, and then moved to a nearby chair. She placed the package in her lap, untied the string holding it closed, and finally peeled back the cloth. The look on Gabrielle's face, I can only describe as equal part revelation, and astonishment. She fingered an article of clothing from inside the package. It appeared to be silk, deep blue, with very tiny yellow blossoms embroidered on it.

She slowly raised her head, and stared at Yu Pan. "It's true, then?" was all she asked the old man.

"It is true," Yu Pan answered.

"I thought . . . I don't think I understand how this can be."

"Gabrielle?" I nervously asked. She and the old man seemed to be having a conversation that revolved around something they alone were privy to.

"It's all right, Xena." Gabrielle repeated the same reassuring words to me, only this time her smile was genuine. Actually, it seemed as if her expression was one of relief.

" Tong zhi zhe," Yu Pan addressed me by my Chin title. "Perhaps if I might have a few moments alone with Gabrielle, so that I might help her prepare?"

"You're going to do something, right? Some spell or some tricks?" I asked desperately.

"No tricks, my friend. You are about to get that wish that you once hoped for, Conqueror," Yu Pan commented in a cryptic fashion.

"Gabrielle," I turned toward her to attempt once again to talk her out of this foolishness. "I can't just--"

"Xena, you have to trust me," she said quickly. "Please, love, we only have a short time, and there are things I need to ask Yu Pan."

"But . . . " I finally realized that it was so much easier to trust when you were the one doing the asking. How many times since I fell in love with her had I asked Gabrielle that very thing? Trust me.

Gabrielle came to stand before me as my mind warred with itself. She reached up and placed a gentle kiss on my cheek.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked.

"Tell you what, love?"

"How hard trusting really is?" I responded.

"Perhaps you just haven't had enough practice at it yet."

She smiled that seductive smile of hers and I was reminded again why I fell in love with her in the first place. Because she made it so blasted easy to do, that's why.

"I won't let anything serious happen to you, little one." I whispered fiercely.

"I know you won't. Now go, and I'll see you outside," she responded.

I nodded dumbly, kissed her, and left her alone with Yu Pan. I prayed to Athena that Gabrielle was right, and that my patron Goddess truly thought enough of Gabrielle to protect the young woman.

"Children and fools," I muttered to myself as I retreated from the castle. Surely there was a special place in the Afterlife for the both of them.

To be continued in... Chapter 17: For As Events Are Shaped, They Have To Be

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