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The Conqueror Series
Tale Two: The Petal of the Rose
By LJ Maas
Chapter 20: And What A Feast There Was When They Were Married
She stopped my wandering hands, feigned jumping up from my lap, and then halfheartedly slapped my hands away, telling me I promised to write this evening. With an exasperated sigh, I gave up trying to bed her. I was hoping she had forgotten the promise I made only last night.
It is the eve before my wedding. Gods above, I have existed in this mortal realm for forty-five summers and am to be married for the first time in my life, tomorrow at sunset. Talk about a spinster! I have promised her that I will accept the tradition surrounding a royal marriage, meaning that we will spend tonight apart and will not see one another until the ceremony in the Great Hall tomorrow evening. Given the fact that my more carnal nature makes an appearance whenever she is near, I couldn't help but make an attempt at seducing her when she kissed me goodnight.
Alas, my future Queen is a strong woman with an equally strong will. Frankly, she makes my stubborn, pigheaded nature look tame in comparison. It's just that my lovely lady is more subtle about it. And so I sit here, quill in hand, to continue on with the promise I gave her several moons back, that I would reveal something of myself for posterity.
I admit, I thought the idea rather inane at first. I am neither bard nor poet. I am far from a masterful historian, having a tendency to remember things in a rather biased manner, mostly how they revolved around me. I do love to read, preferring histories and war stratagems to the flowery writings of Pindar and Ibycus. Philosophers are my favorite. Socrates and Pythagoras could entertain me for days, but it was Plato's Dialogues, which captured my mind. His knowledge of reality fascinated me. Perhaps that is why I spared his life.
Ironic, how things that happened when I was quite young, appear fresh in my mind so many seasons later. It was right after I conquered Athens, and destroyed a majority of the city mostly because of what Pericles did to my homelands during the Peloponnesian War. I was so foolish in those days. I killed to make a point that might have impressed just as strongly without the bloodshed.
Critias and Charmides were the only two I was after that day. They were extremists who I couldn't afford to let live after I took Athens. It was unfortunate that Socrates was so closely involved with them. I had to execute all three. I remember when they brought Plato, Socrates disciple, before me. I was rather impressed with the young man, and believe me, you had to be quite extraordinary to do that in those days. He was from a good family, even served in the Cavalry for his military service. I found his views on life in general to be refreshing and inventive. Perhaps it was the mere fact that he shared his bed with men and not women that caused us to get along so well. There was no sexual tension between the two of us and I think that, and the man's uncommonly quick wit, were what saved his neck that day. He started an academy after Athens was rebuilt. I have often received invitations to visit him, but I have never gone. It hurts too much to go back to that place where I destroyed so much. Perhaps she would wish to go. Gods, I know she would be in Elysium to enter that academy and speak with one of the greatest philosophers Greece has ever known. I'll keep that in mind, since there are so many places I wish to show her.
Well, I've let my memories of the past carry me away, but that is what she had in mind when she thrust the quill in my hand for very first time. I sit here and smile when I think of the engaging way she had of coercing me into doing something I would have done for her anyway.
"Xena?" Gabrielle's voice came at me louder this time.
I knew she was waiting for me to raise my eyes from the scroll I was reading. She detested talking to the top of my head, bent over a scroll as I was during our morning meal. Usually this time of the day I gave to my Consort, but I had a full day of hearings to preside over and I was trying to stay caught up.
"I can read and listen at the same time, little one," I responded. I finally lifted my face to gaze into the intelligent green eyes across from me.
"I know," she smiled, "but I like looking into your beautiful face."
I felt the beginnings of a blush creep up my neck and offered her a crooked smile in return. Her forward comment flustered me. She knows what it does to me when she says things like that. Of course, I think that's why she says them half the time. I sat my scrolls aside and took her hand in mine from across the table.
"All right, my love, now that you have my beautiful attention, what may I do for you?"
"When you say it like that I think you might do anything for me," she replied coyly. I didn't yet realize the danger I was in.
"I would," I answered without hesitation.
"I'd like for you to write down your thoughts, a sort of a history of your life," she said softly, in halting tones.
"No." I still smiled.
"But you just said--"
"I lied, pick something else. Some new gowns…"
"Some new scrolls, perhaps a case to carry them in…"
"Xena…" she said even more softly, with more of a whispering tone.
"Maybe a horse of your very own…you wanted to learn to ride…" I trailed off, looking into eyes that appeared as if they might cry at any moment. Gods, she's good!
She sat there, her delicate hand within my own, a small, childlike expression on her face. She didn't have to say another word, we both knew who was going to win this argument.
"Oh, okay," I relented.
So, as a fearsome battle, it was slightly on the tame side, but it is an example of what I see for my future as a married woman. She has the ability to cause me to feel so much, a sensation that is new for me. Whether in our bed or a seated beside me at a formal dinner, she instills feelings of love and desire, family and home. I find that I had been looking for her all my life and never even knew it, and now that I have her beside me, I won't ever take a chance on losing her.
I have said it before, but the words were never truer than at this moment. The story of the Conqueror does not begin until she steps into the tale. For, the tale of the Conqueror cannot accurately be told without the telling of Gabrielle.
* * * * * * * * * *
I finally put my quill aside. I re-read this opening passage once more and smile. The candles in my study have long since burned down, having left me with only the oil lamp to see by. Gabrielle is surely sound asleep by now. How could she know that I've gone to lie in our empty bed a dozen times already? Where am I getting this unexpected energy? Usually I am exhausted by this time, and the only thing that keeps we awake is worry. Now, I feel as if I could engage in any physical activity until the sun comes up. It must be my nerves, and the anticipation of what tomorrow brings.
I've been unable to find my way into Morpheus's realm without Gabrielle lying beside me, so I arise one last time to finish the scroll on which I've been working. I am also adding some final additions to a special gift to be used in the ceremony.
Tomorrow evening at sunset, that is to be the moment of the most joyous event in my life. Actually, when I look outside my window and see that the moon is falling lower into the horizon, I realize that today is the day. I will seal this scroll for now, and re-open it in a fortnight's time. I know I will only get away with that short respite before Gabrielle bids me write of our wedding experience. I already feel light headed and slightly ill at the prospect of making an ass out of myself in front of most of the land. Athena, give me strength!
* * * * * * * * * *
"Are you done with that yet?" I asked in that peevish tone that indicated I was rapidly losing my patience.
"Almost," Solan replied. He finally hooked the last button of the cape around my shoulders to the collar of my jacket. "You look a little pale, mother. Kind of like you're going to lose your morning meal."
"Did that already. Twice," I added.
I saw Atrius grin over in the corner, but he at least had the good manners to hide it when I glared in his direction.
"You do want this, don't you?" Solan asked. I could see confusion in his expression.
"Of course," I snapped. I took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Solan, I don't mean to be so ill-tempered. Yes, I do want this, very much. I just . . .well, I just get uncomfortable when I know everyone's eye are on me."
"You?" he asked in an astonished voice. "I guess I thought that nothing ever affected you in that way."
"Well, now you know that I have weaknesses just like everyone else."
"Well, Conqueror," Atrius placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. "If it makes you feel any better, I think that if you're standing beside Gabrielle on this day, not all the eyes will be on you." He grinned and suddenly I was struck by how much he reminded me of my older brother, Toris.
"Thank you, Atrius. It's nice to know that you're here to keep my ego on an even keel."
Solan laughed aloud and Atrius continued grinning. "Aye, Conqueror."
We stood about in one of the private rooms off the Great Hall. Philateus, one of my lead advisors came in and instructed us on the evening's event. Stand here. Kneel there. I decided, for this one night, to simply follow orders. I presumed I'd look less the fool that way. The bonding ceremony would be followed by Gabrielle's crowning. Philateus said that the timing of the whole evening was critical. I knew this had something to do with sunset, but since I'd never had this kind of a ceremony within these palace walls, I had no real idea of what he meant.
I wondered if Gabrielle was feeling this nervous, or if marriage was again one of those things that women like her understood, and took in their stride. Then again, Gabrielle was accustomed to hiding her emotions. If I was a different woman in Gabrielle's presence, then my consort was certainly the same in front of me. Gabrielle never feared displaying her fears and inadequacies before me, but old habits are the hardest to break. When we were in the company of others, Gabrielle's emotions were usually as masked off as mine. It amazes me most days that two people such as we ever found the courage to express our love for one another.
Philateus was back again, this time indicating that we should make our way to the dais. When I walked from the room, Atrius stood to my left and Solan to my right. The room I was exiting was nearly at the back of the Great Hall, which meant we had to walk the entire length of the hall to reach our appointed destination. I said a quick prayer to Athena, requesting that I not trip, or embarrass myself too badly today. Although we're all human, a foolish misstep today would be remembered for seasons to come.
The hall had been filled with seats, with the exception of a purple-carpeted area that became the center aisle. As we walked toward the front of the hall, or the side that faced the outside patio, everyone in the congregation either bowed or curtsied. I nodded to a few whom I knew well enough. The room was filled to the rafters, and I couldn't even hazard a guess at how many people were there. Most likely, they wanted to see if my consort had enough sense to leave me standing there at the dais.
The entire partition and tapestries had been removed from the western wall. The sun had not yet slipped past the protection of the lofty trees to sink behind the mountains, so the daylight lit up the entire hall. There were a number of musicians set up on the patio outside, along with the enormous banquet being prepared for the evening. Since our marriage vows did not become absolute until sunset, it would be a late evening. It would not be considered a successful celebration unless most of the partygoers saw the sun rise on their way home.
When I reached the dais, I took the four steps to the top and breathed a sigh of relief. Then we stood waiting. I wondered if I looked as stiff and uncomfortable as I felt in the tight, short-waisted jacket. I glanced around the room and thought that Gabrielle would truly love the way the staff had decorated. Roses, from someone else's garden, adorned every space in the hall. On top of the dais, just in front of me when I faced outside, was a small altar. Two golden and jewel-decorated crowns lay there on a velvet cloth. Behind the crowns, in a vase, were two of my special roses that Gabrielle loved so well. I wondered who had been responsible for that.
Two women stood behind the altar. Lydia was the high priestess in our Athenian temple. She was some seasons older than I was. I remembered when we first constructed the temple, and she'd traveled from Athens to select young women to serve in the temple. I don't recall how it happened, but she never went back to Athens. I only know that she has been here since the beginning of the Empire, and that it was fitting that she preside over my bonding ceremony.
To Lydia's right stood Satena, the Amazon priestess. Gabrielle's new heritage brought other concerns regarding our ceremony. After some careful consideration, the Amazons were asked to incorporate some of their traditions into the event.
When Satena and Ephiny came to me yesterday and told me that I would be expected to provide the binding tie, I was at a loss. I knew what it was from my time with the Amazons earlier in my life. I just never thought I would have to make one. I'm sure everyone thought I would have Anya come up with something, but I was determined. The bonding tie was to be wrapped around our joined hands near the end of the ceremony. The woman asking for the hand in marriage was usually the one to make the tie, and I had seem some stunningly crafted ones in my day. I found myself still working on mine, even as Gabrielle slept in a separate room last night. I admit; I did have Anya assist me with most of it. She was a good sport about it, and she even gave me the embroidery materials I asked for. I spent the rest of the night writing, and sewing a pattern of a lion's head onto both ends of the silk cloth.
The cloth had a special meaning behind it that only Gabrielle might recognize. It was cut from the silk of one of my traveling robes. Gabrielle had first been presented to me while wearing that robe. As long as I live, I will never forget the sight of her kneeling before me in the dressing gown that was too large for her. It had slipped off one shoulder, and she had looked the very picture of innocent sensuality.
I looked around the room as my mind rambled on. My eyes caught the olivewood statue that hung down in front of the open wall to the patio. It was usually up so high you couldn't see it. I thought it's positioning rather odd for this ceremony. The statue was of Athena on a spirited mount, giving chase during a hunt. She had her long spear in hand. I always thought of it as a most stunning work. At the end of the spear, set in the blade portion was a large jewel as big as my fist. Rumor had it that it was a diamond, but I never believed it was more than a crystal such as the ones found in abundance throughout the caves in this area. The statue was hung quite low, which registered as strange.
I took another deep breath. That action was becoming a habit of late. In a matter of moments, I would be a married woman. I was the Conqueror of the Known World, after all. What manner of magic could Gabrielle possibly possess that could scare me? Nothing. Right? So why in Hades why I so terrified? I fidgeted and shifted my weight from foot to foot, cursing under my breath at having to wear such uncomfortable boots and clothing. I wondered once more, what I would do to mess up the day, and that's when I saw her.
Gabrielle paused at the end of the carpeted aisle. In that moment, my cares about anything at all merely vanished into the air. That sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the headache that had been gnawing at the fringes of my consciousness, even my uncomfortable attire. Suddenly there was only an incredible feeling of joy and unworthiness. To say she looked beautiful seems so mundane, but words failed me at that moment, just as they fail me now in the telling of the tale. I only remember the feelings, and I find them so difficult to translate into words. If any one ever asks me in the future, I would say that up until this moment, in my entire life, this was my best day.
Gabrielle wore a traditional Greek gown, all flowing pieces of sheer material. The train that was situated around her waist gathered behind her, and fell to the ground. It appeared to drag along the ground a full fifteen hand lengths behind her.
Gabrielle was flanked on either side by her two witnesses, as I had been. Anya and Sylla looked as lovely as I had ever seen them. Sylla definitely appeared the more nervous of the two. Gabrielle had asked the young woman because they had formed a true friendship, and not just as employer and servant. It took some convincing on my consort's part to finally persuade Sylla that it would not be out of place for a woman who worked in our home to stand alongside us on this day. I enjoyed Gabrielle's attitude. It was as if a clean breeze had begun to sweep through the Empire. Who better to instill such feelings of equality than a slave who was about to become a queen?
The musicians played softly in the background. It was the customary music for a Greek wedding, but I never heard one note. I only had eyes for the woman coming down the aisle to marry me. Three Amazon guards, dressed in full masks and looking as though they took their job very seriously walked ahead of Gabrielle and her witnesses. In keeping with sharing the young Amazon Queen, three Empire soldiers, who made up Gabrielle's personal guard, followed close behind the whole procession.
My brain propelled me into action just as Gabrielle reached the steps to the dais. I positioned myself on the second stair, and offered my hand to my consort. I wanted to say something to her just then. I wanted to tell her how magnificent she looked, and how happy I was that she chose me. I wanted to express to her how much I loved her, and what I wouldn't give to always have her in my life. Instead, I was struck dumb. My tongue turned into a wooden block, and so I settled for my best smile to convey what was in my heart.
I knew it fell far short of what was in me, but Gabrielle, in her infinite capacity to know me, simply looked up and whispered, "me too."
She took her place beside me and suddenly everything I was supposed to do, every instruction I had been given fully disappeared from my mind. Gabrielle must have noticed the sheer panic in my eyes. I think for a heartbeat or two, I was slightly perturbed that she didn't look as unnerved as I felt. Her calm demeanor belied her true emotion, however. When she took my hand, seemingly to calm me, I felt how warm her skin, and how damp her palms were.
Gabrielle was always cold. The very first moment she wakes in the morning, she burrows herself against me, bundling the blankets all around her. She shivers and I know she must feel the cold much more so than I must. I often wondered if it wasn't something psychological. Perhaps one of the many abuses she suffered during her time as a slave. Whatever it was, I knew that if Gabrielle was warm, and her palm sweaty, she must indeed have been as nervous as I was. I must be a sick woman, for at the time, that knowledge pleased me just a small bit. I think it was simply a matter of misery finding companionship in numbers.
Gabrielle and I went through a series of small formalities. We both did exactly as we were told and no calamities arose. It was, basically, as I suspected. Stand here. Say this. Turn that way. We were headed for the home stretch as both Lydia and Satena came to stand directly before the two of us. This was the part of a marriage ceremony were I'd seen grown men either bolt from the room, or break down and cry like an infant. It all came down to our final vows.
Lydia began by first nodding to me, and then began the questions I had been anticipating.
"Xena, Lord Conqueror of the Greek Empire. Do you stand before the patron Goddess of the Empire, Athena, along with these assembled witnesses, and declare your intention to wed Gabrielle of Potidaea, Queen to the Amazons?"
"Yes, I do."
"Is it your intention to acknowledge Gabrielle's right to become Queen to the Empire, and to crown her as such before all in attendance?"
"Yes, it is."
Lydia then indicated that I was to kneel before Athena's altar. I dropped to one knee and the priestess reached around and took hold of the golden crown on the right. She gently settled it on my head, and I just knew I would have a headache before the evening was over. It was one reason why I had only worn the blasted thing a total of three times since I became ruler. It was incredibly heavy. I kept pushing it around on my head until Lydia glared at me.
"Can't help it. It's uncomfortable," I complained under my breath.
Gabrielle smiled as Lydia continued to eye me.
I stood up, thankful that I hadn't done anything to make a fool out of myself. Lydia then turned toward Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle, Queen to the Northern Amazon Nation. Do you stand before the patron Goddess of the Empire, Athena, along with these assembled witnesses, and declare your intention to wed Xena of Amphipolis, the Lord Conqueror of the Greek Empire?"
"Yes, I do." Gabrielle answered.
It surprised me when I heard Lydia recite the name of my birthplace. It had been many seasons since I had been known as Xena of Amphipolis. At first, the people of Amphipolis forced me to leave my home. The people blamed me for the family and friends who died during the fighting when Cortese invaded the village. They wanted someone to blame, and I suppose I was handy. Even my own mother cursed me. When I took on the moniker of Destroyer of nations, and proceeded to lay siege over the known world, that's when the people of Amphipolis refused to acknowledge their home as my birthplace. After all these seasons, to hear the word Amphipolis in association with me sounded strange to my ears.
I listened as Lydia continued with Gabrielle much the same as the Priestess had with me.
"Is it your intention to acknowledge your right to become Queen to the Empire, to accept the crown and all its responsibilities before all in attendance?"
"Yes, it is." Gabrielle answered once again.
Lydia nodded to me, and I assisted Gabrielle to kneel before the altar. The Priestess handed me the smaller of the two crowns and I gently placed it atop Gabrielle's head. The young woman grimaced immediately. I helped her rise and Anya assisted in returning her gown to its original state.
Gabrielle gave me a sideways glance. "Why is it so heavy?" she asked. Her eyes rolled upward indicating the crown on her head.
I nearly laughed aloud. "See, it's not just me." I muttered to Lydia.
Lydia shook her head at the both of us as if we were misbehaving children. I looked over at Gabrielle. She looked so regal, and every bit the Queen that she now was. It was amazing really. With just a few words and a piece of jewelry, albeit a large piece of jewelry, Gabrielle was now the Queen of the Greek Empire. Although, there was one small bit of business left. She actually had to marry me.
Lydia and Satena exchanged places before us. The Amazon Priestess would lead us through the actual bonding ceremony. This was to be more reminiscent of an Amazon Ceremony than a traditional royal wedding.
Satena looked between the two of us. "Who provides the bonding tie?" she asked.
I would have loved to capture Gabrielle's expression when I spoke up. "I do."
I turned to Solan who had the cloth tucked inside his tunic. He pulled it out and handed the item to me, and I in turn handed it to Satena.
Will you face one another and join hands?" Satena requested.
We did as instructed, and were able to look at one another fully for the first time. I watched as tears filled Gabrielle's eyes, as Satena loosely wrapped the green silk tie around our clasped hands. She instantly recognized it for what it was, and it appeared to touch her heart. I can be very thick at times, and I am positive there will be future days when I might disappoint my wife greatly, but some days I do things right. I occasionally have flares of brilliance, and taking the time to create this Amazon binding tie was one of those times.
"Just as this physical tie binds you together," Satena began. "Let your love for one another do the same. Xena, do you agree to this match?"
"I do." I was never more terrified, yet more certain about any course of action in my entire life.
"Do you promise Gabrielle your love, trust, and fidelity, for as long as you shall live?"
"Gabrielle," the Priestess turned to the young woman before me. " Do you agree to this match?"
"And do you promise Xena your love, trust, and fidelity, for as long as you shall live?"
Gabrielle's gaze never left mine. With all eyes now upon us, we could have been alone for all the thought we paid them. There were only the two of us at this moment. No matter how old I become, and how feeble my mind might grow, I would always remember this moment. I would remember the song that was played, the way Gabrielle's green eyes sparkled, and the light scent of the perfumed oil she had bathed in. Not one detail would ever fade with time. This day was to be forever in my heart.
"Then, with the blessings of Athena and Artemis, I declare your bond complete." Satena said in a loud voice.
The Amazon Priestess slipped the bonding tie loose from around our joined hands. Then she reached in and fastened the cloth around Gabrielle's slim waist. Lydia looked out towards the outside patio before turning back to face us.
"The timing is perfect," she said. I thought it odd because that's exactly what Philateus kept telling me, that for the evening to be perfect, timing was critical.
Lydia motioned us both to step forward to the altar, and to remove the crowns from our heads. Athena's Priestess took both of the heavy circlets of gold, and placed them upon the altar. Each crown was encrusted with a seemingly random pattern of jewels, and they caught slivers of the light as the sunset crept down into the horizon.
Lydia set the larger crown down into a circular groove embedded into the wood of the altar. She then placed the smaller crown onto it's own carved space beside the other one, except that the smaller crown came down and interlocked with the first. They looked as thought they were two circles, forever sealed together. I was to quickly discover that this wasn't the only magic of illusion that the crowns provided.
"Perfect, simply perfect," Lydia commented to herself.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spied Philateus grinning like an idiot. Gabrielle and I exchanged curious glances. Frankly, I feared that the excitement had gotten to him. Just as Gabrielle tried to cover her growing smile over the spectacle before us, the sun dipped low in the sky.
The moment the sun neared the apex of the mountain range in the distance, a sharp beam of light struck the exact center of the crystal in the center of Athena's spear. At first, the crystal burst into a thousand tiny rays of sunlight. Within the space of a dozen heartbeats, the illumination converged into one single shaft of light that struck the golden crowns upon the altar.
It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. A collective gasp came from the many people assembled within the hall, my own added to the mix. Suddenly the hall was filled with stars. Not just any stars, but the entire Great Hall held the summer sky. Above us on the high ceiling, and around us on the walls was an exact replica of the nighttime sky, and the stars that twinkled like diamonds against a black silk cloth.
I turned round and round, my mouth surely hanging agape. I felt Gabrielle's arm slip about my waist. I looked down into her face and beheld the same awe that mine must be reflecting at that moment. Her eyes expressed the question that her voice didn't ask.
"I never knew," was all I could think to say.
I held my new wife, as I stared around us at the wonder that would surely come just this once in our lifetimes. It would never come again, of that I was absolutely sure. For Gabrielle would be the only Queen, I would ever take. If anything ever happened to separate us, Gods' forbid enmity or death, I would never join with anyone this way again. As I felt Gabrielle's hold on me tighten, I knew that she felt the very same way. It seemed as if we receiving a blessing from the very cosmos, from Gaia herself. The air within the hall pulsed with energy.
It lasted for long moments, and then as quickly as it came, the magic faded. The servants had obviously been well coached by Philateus and others who were aware of the phenomenon, and what would happen. The lamps and candles were lit immediately, and the guests in the Great Hall looked around as if dazed. We all returned our attentions to the task at hand. I looked up to see Lydia smiling from ear to ear.
"Now you know, Conqueror, why I never returned to my place in Athens. I have waited for half my life to see the blessing of Athena," Lydia said.
It was something that the guests of the royal wedding would talk about for the rest of their lives. They would tell their children, and some would nod their heads in disbelief. All who attended the day, however, would remember that for one moment in time all the heavens came together. For me personally, it would forever be a reminder that I was finally doing it right. For the first time in so long I could say that I was proud of my actions. Loving Gabrielle and accepting her love of me seemed to cause the world to tip slightly. It was as if nothing would ever be the same again. My world, as I had made it, was about to change. I had no idea at the time just how much.
* * * * * * * * * *
The feast had been going on for candlemarks. Many of the guests were either drunk, or well on their way to that state. Guards and soldiers in and around the palace had been schooled in diplomacy for this occasion. They were to be respectful, but to keep the peace, and encourage some of the more inebriated guests to sleep it off in the palace.
Gabrielle was truly the most beautiful woman in attendance. I may have been slightly biased, but not by much. She had removed the train on her gown so she could move around more easily. We ate, drank, and danced. We enjoyed one another's company until a number of women requested Gabrielle's presence. I always had one eye trained across the room on Gabrielle, but I soon joined in the challenges from some of the officers and Amazons. Usually the challenges were competitions in sport or drinking. I tactfully bowed out of the latter. I had no intention of going to bed drunk on this night.
Frankly, getting Gabrielle into our own bed had been all I could think about the entire time we were dancing. I admitted as much to her, discreetly whispering in her ear until her face blushed a stunning pink color. I had no idea what had come over me, but I felt a need I hadn't experienced in at least a dozen seasons. At one time, when I was a younger woman, sex was like that for me. It was more than something I used as a pleasurable diversion; it was a driving need that usually caused a pounding ache between my legs. The difference between now and twenty or so seasons ago was that now I knew that only one woman's touch could satisfy my need. Back then; a thousand women could not quench my thirst.
I found myself the last contestant in an arm wrestling challenge. When I sat down to the table, Ephiny sat across from me. We both grinned. The Amazon couldn't hide her admiration for my wife, but I knew two things for sure. One, Ephiny would never do anything that would disrespect either Gabrielle or me. Two, a physical challenge would be the only way I could ever hope to come close to pounding the Amazon for those thoughts.
"At last you have her, Conqueror," Ephiny muttered as we set our elbows to the table.
"I do indeed," I answered with a smile.
Not another word was spoken. We each produced our own feral grin, and a look of fire as struggled toward victory. She had me first, but that was always my way. I liked to test my opponents. I let her pull my arm over until she felt victory was hers. It was with sheer strength that I came back, as I pulled my arm upright again.
I held her arm straight up until I felt a surge of adrenalin, as I'd not felt in seasons, course through my body. I graced her with a smile that could have been a snarl. It was as if I bared my teeth as a warning. One more heartbeat elapsed and in one swift movement, I slammed the Amazon's arm to the table. A loud cheer went up from the soldiers, and even a few exclamations of surprise from some of the Amazons.
Ephiny stood as I did, and she rubbed her hand while staring at me. "Your message is well received, Conqueror." She smiled.
I returned the smile along with a friendly slap on the back. "Tonight belongs to the warriors, my friend. There are more than a few lovely ladies who have never been in the company of an Amazon, perhaps you should drink up."
The Amazon returned my good humor. "You're right, Conqueror. Perhaps there are a few highborn noblewomen who have never had a taste of Amazon love before. So, how does one go about the introductions?"
I groaned at her play of words. "Come with me."
We sauntered over to where Gabrielle was surrounded by a circle of lovely women. In all humility I will admit that when the two of us came into their midst, more than a few jaws dropped open. I stood behind Gabrielle, desperately trying to keep my hands from wandering. I placed them on her shoulders, and then introduced the Amazon Regent to the group. It didn't take long before at least three of the women had taken an earnest interest in our friend. I also learned that Ephiny could be a charmer when she wanted to be. When I turned my attention away, to focus on Gabrielle, I knew that Ephiny would be a busy woman for the rest of the night.
I bent to kiss Gabrielle's neck and she lifted her hand, and placed it around my neck. I pressed into her and I wondered if she could feel the trembling of my body. I splayed my hand across her abdomen, probably lower down her belly than I should have in public. I felt her breath hitch as I pulled her back against me. I whispered in her ear.
"Follow me." It wasn't a command, or a simple request. It was a desperate plea, and I think she recognized that fact by the tone of my voice.
I held her hand and walked off to the back of the hall. I quietly opened the door of the room that I'd been in earlier that day. I hurriedly lit one lamp and turned back to Gabrielle. She stood in front of the large desk with a slightly confused expression on her face. I slipped one arm around her waist and drew her to me so that not an inch of space existed between us.
I kissed her gently at first, but her mouth eagerly sought mine, which simply fueled my desire all the more. We took turns pulling and pressing against one another. It quickly brought us both to a state of some acute need. I pushed her back slightly, until she was sitting on the end of the desk. I could feel my kisses becoming more intense, more insistent, even demanding. I pressed my weight back against her, and as I lowered her back to the top of the desk, I swept papers and small objects out of the way with my right hand.
"Gods, how I want you," I groaned.
A low guttural moan, such as did not usually emanate from Gabrielle, came rolling from her chest. I felt her legs wrap around mine. That sound, the feel of her enveloped around me, it was all the encouragement that I needed to continue in that fashion.
I straightened myself to remove the jacket I still wore. Gabrielle sat up, pushing the garment from my shoulders as soon as I had it unfastened. She tugged at the buttons to my shirt, and I temporarily let her have her way. I pushed the soft material of her gown up and along her legs, stopping when I reached her thighs. I slid my hands in further until I had a firm hold of her backside and pulled her body against my own body once more. I slid the fabric of her dress down her shoulder, and exposed a perfectly beautiful breast. Her skin was flushed pink, and her nipple pebbled and tight with excitement. It was simply too inviting to resist.
My lips, my teeth, my tongue, they found every inch of Gabrielle's body absolutely delectable. I could barely understand my own body. Perhaps it was that we were now married, or that I'd finally found all that I desired. Whatever the cause, I was experiencing sensations that I hadn't had since I was a much younger woman. Coupled with my love and passion for this woman before me, I was insatiable. I could not touch her, kiss her, love her enough.
She lifted her hips as I slipped the silk breeches off her. I tossed them away and kissed my way down her body. I paused, and pushed the silken material further up her belly. I kissed the damp curls between her legs, and allowed my tongue to flick lightly over her wet folds in a teasing manner. I felt her fingers entwine themselves within my hair. She attempted to pull me closer, lifting her hips at the same time. Her moans grew louder, and her legs trembled against me. I draped her legs so that they lay along my back and shoulders, and allowed myself one long languid stroke against he sex. I pulled away before she could press herself more fully against my face.
"Xena," Gabrielle at last breathlessly pleaded.
I looked up, waiting until I heard the words. She knew exactly what I wanted, and in other circumstances, she might have attempted to hold out longer. By this point, her need to be taken seemed as great as my wish to have her.
"Please," she begged.
I didn't hesitate one moment, quick to reward my wife's willing submission. I buried my tongue deep within her, pulling back only to lovingly stroke the small area of swollen flesh that desired my most intimate attention. I gently sucked on the bit of flesh until I could feel Gabrielle's orgasm begin. She convulsed against me, stifling her cry in mid voice. I think she might have suddenly realized where we were. She came hard and fast for me, and I continued to kiss the silky wet flesh until her quivering ceased.
Still breathing deeply, I helped her to sit up straight, her legs wrapping even more tightly around me. She brushed my shirt aside to suck at the skin at the base of my neck.
"Mmm," I murmured. "Not yet, my love. I'm not through with you yet," I whispered seductively into her ear.
She moved her hands to cover my breasts, pinching, and then releasing the taut nipples. Her roaming hands pressed up between my legs, and I involuntarily spread them further apart. I felt her pulling loose the laces of my trousers.
"What are you up to, little one?" I teased as I grabbed both her hands.
"Please, Xena, I want to feel you against me. Please."
I laughed. "And when someone opens the door? What will they think when I have my trousers around my ankles?"
"Oh?" She pulled back slightly, and looked down at her own disarrayed attire. "And you don't mind them seeing me this way?"
"Yes, but I'll be the only one with my bare ass facing hundreds of gawking guests." I kissed her and she chuckled evilly.
"I'm willing to take my chances on that scenario, Conqueror," she replied.
Before I could take a firmer hold of her hands, she wriggled free and pressed the heel of her left hand directly against me. The small rotating move she added left my knees weak. Then with a lightning quickness, she pressed her fingers to that spot on the inside of my thigh.
I gasped as the effect of the pressure point registered within my brain. "Oh Gods! Off . . . get them off," I now begged.
It took only heartbeats until my trousers were down around my ankles, and I had one knee braced upon the desk beside Gabrielle. I groaned in relief at the feel of Gabrielle's fingers upon my drenched sex. Under previous circumstances, Gabrielle's pressure points led to some rather mind numbing orgasms. In the mood I was in tonight, I could only speculate how the building pressure would release itself. I suddenly envisioned my body literally exploding.
I felt Gabrielle's free hand reaching for mine, guiding me to her own center. I easily slipped two fingers inside of her just as her mouth covered my own. The sound of pleasure she made, the way her moan vibrated against my lips caused an additional flood of wetness from my own body. We moved together without words, only numerous sounds of pleasure.
The physical need to be pleasured was great, but greater still was the need to have Gabrielle. True, our lovemaking had always been inventive and passionate, but I always took care to do everything in my power not to make Gabrielle feel used. Her days as a slave, having been taken in any manner, and as rough or as coarsely as pleased her master were not times that were that far behind her. It had not even been a full season since we were together, let alone in love with one another.
Although I wanted her in that way now, simply because she fueled my passion beyond anything I'd ever known, I was reticent to have her in such a manner. I was unsure about her feelings. Thus fearful to treat her body as something I possessed. It's what I wanted at that moment, however. I wanted to claim her, to exert my right of ownership, but the truth was, the feelings were quite reciprocal. I wanted Gabrielle to feel the same way about me. I wanted her to want me, to claim me as no other ever had or ever would. As in all things between the two of us, I needn't have worried so much. Her next breathless words affected my libido more than any other ever had.
"Oh, Gods, Xena . . . harder. God's, harder!"
I did as she asked. I forgot that I'd always promised myself to treat Gabrielle like the most delicate flower in my garden. I made love to her with as much passion and physical force as her body dictated. When she requested more, I gave it to her. Anything at all that she requested, I immediately provided.
I felt Gabrielle's thumb press into the hollow space high up on my inner thigh, and I realized she loosed the pressure point that had kept me suspended, moments away from my release. Our bodies and our excitement melded together perfectly. I was so caught up in Gabrielle's pleasure that I'd nearly forgotten my own, until I felt her tighten around my fingers, the area pulsating wildly.
All at once, my body felt as if it had exploded into a thousand shards of light. The pieces burst from me with such a force that I loudly cried out Gabrielle's name. She fell back against the desk, and my body followed, lying over her. The pieces of my conscious self were softly floating back down to earth and reattaching themselves to my physical body. That's what it felt like anyway.
Gabrielle and I both stopped breathing and looked anxiously toward the door. We heard the sound of music and loud conversation, and released our breaths once we realized that we hadn't been noticed. Looking back at one another, we laughed, and I kissed her soundly. She wrapped her arms around my neck, and kissed my ear.
"I don't even understand where that came from. I mean . . . I've never wanted . . . that was . . . "
Her words trailed off as she tried to form some conclusion about the different sort of passion we'd just shared. I could not see into her heart completely, but I could share what I knew of her.
"I think it's called coming into your own, love." Gabrielle looked at me with a confused expression, and I leaned up on one elbow to look at her better. "Any sort of loving such as this would have reminded the old Gabrielle of a time when she had no choice in the matter, therefore it would have caused you emotional pain. It wouldn't even have occurred to you to find it pleasurable. Perhaps it's different now that you know your body and your heart will always be safe with me, and they always shall, my wife." I punctuated the statement with a gentle kiss.
"I'm so happy that I'm married to you Xena!" Gabrielle said in a rush of emotion.
"You've made me quite a happy woman as well, little one. Will I make a good wife, do you think?
She kissed my nose and released her hold on my neck. " I think you will make a splendid wife, my Conqueror."
We both jumped at the timid knock at the door.
"Maybe they'll go away. It's locked, isn't it?" Gabrielle asked.
"I find it a most interesting time to ask that question, my dear."
We paused. The knock came again.
"Ahem," a male voice was clearing his throat. "Conqueror?" It was Atrius's hesitant voice.
"Go away, Atrius," I teased, as I pulled away and started to redress.
I helped Gabrielle up, and scrambled around the room in an attempt to find the panties I'd taken off her. She straightened her clothes while we heard Atrius continue to shuffle around outside.
"Conqueror, the Governor of Argos wishes to bid you farewell." Atrius commented softly from the other side of the door.
"All right, all right, we're coming!" I shouted out.
Gabrielle replaced a comb in her hair; we looked at one another, and burst into a fit of laughter over my words. We laughed like two schoolgirls.
"Well, at least not until we get upstairs again," she said, wiping her eyes, and our laughter began again.
Finally calm and presentable, I opened the door to face my Captain. Atrius stood there, his manner as staid as ever.
"Lord Conqueror . . . My Queen," he said as he nodded to us both.
Atrius quickly explained that, Thalpius, the Governor of Argos, wished to speak to Gabrielle and I before he left to return home.
"Did uhm . . . did anyone realize we were gone?" I asked my captain.
Atrius grinned at that question and I knew this was going to be good.
"Not a single solitary soul realized the two of you were missing." He clapped me on the back, and just before he moved away, he said, "right up until the moment they heard you scream out Gabrielle's name!"
Atrius laughed as he walked ahead of us, a sound that rarely came from him so heartily. I cringed, and I'm sure my face was turning scarlet, yet I tried to retain what little shred of dignity I had left.
"Look at it this way," Gabrielle whispered to me, as she tried to hide her own embarrassment. "You have just become very human in their eyes, My Conqueror."
* * * * * * * * * *
Two nights had passed since our wedding. On this night, I sat alone in my chair before the window. The heavy tapestry was fastened back to expose the night sky to my pensive gaze. I left Gabrielle sound asleep in our bed chamber.
The first pass of the sun after our wedding was spent in bed. Gabrielle and I took turns wearing one another out. We made love, enjoyed relaxing in a hot bath, and sometimes talked by the fire. All our meals were delivered to our rooms, and we enjoyed every moment of our personal time together.
My body ached somewhat now. It seemed as if I was trying to make up for the lack of sexual activity for the last few seasons, all in the space of a few days. I had my suspicions at my renewed vigor. I wasn't sure if I was insane, or if the physical manifestation of energy was real. I debated telling Gabrielle of my sudden youthful feeling. How would she feel to know the Gods sometimes took an active hand in my life?
Today, Gabrielle spent time with the Amazons, and took care of a number of palace situations that demanded the Queen's touch. That simply meant they were too diplomatic a nature to have me attend to them. Solan and I spent a great deal of time mapping out his position within my new family. It gladdened my heart to see Solan and Gabrielle so at ease with one another. It made things easier all around. Kaleipus and I spoke briefly regarding Solan's future, and while I could see that it broke the Centaurs heart to give up his claim on the young man, I reminded him of his place in Solan's life. I assured Kaleipus that we would talk more before he returned north.
Solan wished to travel, to see the lands he had only heard about in stories. I was always looking for intelligent men to serve as emissaries to my court. Now that my conquering days were past me, it took more than the might of a large army to deal with provinces outside my immediate realm. I told Solan I had an idea, but it would require diplomacy, and hard study on his part. He agreed and I spoke to Yu Pan in the afternoon. The old man had expressed a wish to return to the province of Chin, to meet with people he knew, and to visit places that held his memories. He surprised me by agreeing rather quickly to my plan. I suppose he's grown rather fond of Solan, and the boy's constant attention, as the young man was eager to learn about the old healer's homeland.
We agreed that Yu Pan would travel back under the protection of the Empire, and that he would travel along with Solan as an emissary. I was thankful that it would be Yu Pan's tutelage Solan was under. The old man could teach Solan much. As happy as I had been over my new marriage, I still felt like I was losing Solan again. I had missed so much of his life. Now that we were mother and son, I felt a selfish desire to have him beside me for a while, but he was a grown man, and I had to allow him his freedom. I would worry less while he traveled with Yu Pan. Odd, how things turn out the way they are supposed to. I could ask for no better teacher and companion for my son, than the man who brought me so much life.
I looked up to find a sleepy looking wife with a fur robe pulled close around her.
"Aren't you tired?" she asked.
"A little, but you know how I get at times. Come here, love."
Gabrielle wasted no time curling herself into my lap, her body pressed closely to my own.
"I was just thinking mostly," I said.
"Thinking or worrying?"
I smiled at her intuitive response. "Perhaps a little worry, but a very small bit." I described just how small by holding up my thumb and forefinger a hair's width apart.
That caused her to smile, and instantly my worries were gone. It was as if the sun had risen within our room.
"Gabrielle, would you like to go on a trip? A sort of wedding trip?"
"I'd love to travel with you, Xena, but can we just leave like that?" Gabrielle inquired.
"Good point, but there ought to be some gain in being Conqueror." I grinned and kissed the tip of her nose. "Actually, it won't be very difficult. The circle of advisors do most of the day-to-day work anyway. Besides, there are so many places I've wanted to go back to again. I think it would mean so much more to be able to share them with you."
"Xena, if we travel, do you think . . . "
Gabrielle trailed off and refused to meet my eyes. "What, love? Is there somewhere you'd like to go?"
"Home," Gabrielle whispered softly.
"Potidaea?" I asked.
Gabrielle nodded her head in silence.
"Of course, little one, forgive me for not thinking of that ages ago."
She brightened considerably at that. My own happiness was so tied in with hers that I felt lighter just seeing her come to life again.
"I know that my mother and father . . . well, that there's every chance they may be dead by now, but if I could only know."
"I have an idea. Since Solan will be leaving with Yu Pan, and the Amazons and Centaurs, will all be heading north, why don't we join them? A caravan of sorts. Solan wants to go back to his home and take care of some loose ends there. This will give you time to get to know the Amazons a little better, and we can have the ships meet us in the harbors of Potidaea or Scione. Solan and Yu Pan can begin their journey from there. It will even give us time for the Queen of the Amazons to visit Amazonia."
"Oh, Xena, that sounds wonderful!"
Gabrielle kissed me and then began talking in an animated fashion. She started making lists of all that would need to be done, things to bring, clothes for travel. I listened attentively to every word, sincerely and utterly fascinated by the way my wife's mind worked.
Once again, I wondered at my good fortune. How could my life have been so miserable and dead just moons ago? How is it that I was chosen at birth by the Gods to receive such joy by Gabrielle's mere presence in my life? What one thing did I do, what one act atoned for my many crimes enough to know such happiness now? So many questions and too few answers. I knew that our lives would not always be as though sailing on a sea of glass, but even when the difficult times come, I know I will never again have to face them alone.
That is what will matter the most.
Gabrielle and I will travel the road back home, and then we will travel the road called life together, hand in hand, never breaking stride. We can't know what the journey will contain, but like the petals of a rose, they will unfold one by one. When they have finally opened fully to us, we will look back at the blossom, in all its beauty, and say that it was love. Love made all the difference.
We will leave on our extended travels in two days time, and still my wife has me writing in these infernal scrolls. What I find most odd, and almost entertaining, is the fact that now I look forward to the writing. She has not made a bard of me, that much is certain, but Gabrielle has certainly given me a release of sorts.
I scribe my thoughts and feelings at the end of the day, along with the events that occurred. It helps me to see it in writing. I am learning, and at my age that is not always an easy thing to do. I look at the page before me, and some days I am able to look at it quite objectively, others I am not so good-natured. I try to look at the occasions when I lost my temper or spoke sharply to an underling. I remember the incident, and I try harder the next time to keep my feelings more in check.
A knock on my study door stops me in mid thought. "Enter."
Acasia, a trusted soldier, salutes me. He is among the number of men and women I entrust with private matters. They are loyal to death, and have, in the past, been spies or assassins. These past lines of work make them perfect for discreet operations.
He hands me a scroll and I peruse it before speaking. I motion with one hand for him to sit, but he does not, I usually expect him to act no differently.
"The mother and father?" I ask.
"Still alive, a small farm just as you said in Potidaea, no word on the girl, though. If she was taken as a slave at the same time, she could be dead many seasons past. I still have a few connections. I have the word out, Lord Conqueror. If she's still alive, I'll track her down."
"Excellent work! I'll reward you amply for this, Acasia."
"And the other, My Lord? Do you wish to know of the woman?"
"She must be quite elderly by now." I answered, unsure of what else to say. I feared the soldier's answer, no matter what it should be.
"Aye, Conqueror, that she is."
"She's alive then?" I asked, feeling my belly clench tightly.
"Aye, old, but spry. She still owns the inn there in Amphipolis. She married about fifteen seasons ago . . . has a family helping her. Her old man died a few seasons back, but she's got a son and a daughter, some little ones that must belong to them."
"Did she . . . how did she look? Well?"
"Aye, well enough, Conqueror," Acasia answered.
"Thanks you, Acasia. You've done well. Have some of your men see that no harm befalls any of these people. We leave in two days time."
I opened a drawer at my desk and handed the man a bag of talants, then dismissed him. I leaned back in my chair and wondered what she looked like. The little child in me still ached for acceptance, but I knew the time for that had passed. Cyrene had a new family, and hopefully they helped her to forget the heartache the first had left her with. Hopefully her second daughter gave her what I could not.
I pushed my melancholy aside and rose. I put out the lamp and returned to the rooms Gabrielle and I shared. The news for my wife was good, though. I would tell Gabrielle somewhere along the way that her parents still lived. I would do everything in my power to find her sister.
It was odd, but I wasn't as sad as I expected to be, hearing of Cyrene and her new family. Perhaps now, being a wife and mother, I understood the woman a little bit more. With age come many things, understanding foremost among them. All I could hope was the long road home, which Gabrielle and I were about to embark down, would be one of happiness.
TBC (after a summer break) in the third tale of the Conqueror series: "Coming Home"