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The Conqueror Series
Tale Three: Time's Fell Hand
Chapter 45: When I Have Seen By Time's Fell HandFrom the other room, I heard Gabrielle let loose with a string of curses. I sympathized with her wholeheartedly. The pleasure we experienced the night before had come back upon us with a vengeance. There wasn't one spot on my body that wasn't in pain. It was much more than simply the soreness one experienced after a long night of incredible sex. I could barely move, and walking put me in agony.
"Just for the record, relieving yourself when you're this raw is a huge mistake," Gabrielle groaned out as she gingerly sat in a chair she had positioned to overflowing with cushions.
"Told you so."
"I have no idea how I'm going to walk today, let alone sit a saddle."
"I'm of the exact same mind, love."
"How could we have done this to ourselves, Xena? I just don't understand."
"It was like we couldn't stop," I added.
"More like we under some sort of " she paused, turning her head to look at me.
We looked hard at one another. "Spell," we both said at once.
"I'm going to kill them. Didn't I tell you that"
"Now, Xena, don't jump to conclusions. This might not have anything to do with Athena and"
"I bet it was some sort of joke for them!" Gabrielle's reasoning voice fell upon deaf ears. I had already played magistrate and executioner against the Goddesses. They were guilty. Gabrielle simply hadn't enough experience with the Olympians yet to be as suspicious as I was. There was only one thing to do.
"Athena!" I screamed at the top of my lungs.
She appeared much faster than I actually expected.
"This had better be good because Iwhat's wrong with you two?"
"Oh, you noticed, did you?" I countered.
"I'm the Goddess of healing. It would be rather difficult to ignore the fact that you two are in considerable pain."
"Well, I hope you're happy."
"About what? Oh, no," she said, pausing to look between us. "Don't try to blame anything on me. I've been on Olympus since I left here."
"The first or second time you left here?" I asked.
"What does that mean?" Gabrielle asked. I hadn't bothered to tell her about catching Artemis and Athena in our kitchen, but I gave her a quick run down. My mind had been on other things. More like obsessed with other things, but now I at least knew why.
"Athena, you didn't" Gabrielle started, but Athena interrupted her.
"I most certainly did not. I would never do anything to hurt either of you. How did you two get hurt, anyway?"
"Iwe" Gabrielle found it difficult to explain and turned to me.
"We almost killed ourselves because we couldn't stopyou know sex," I finally said to her uncomprehending stare.
"You what? How in the world could" She stopped so abruptly that it caught our attention. That, along with the extremely guilty look on her face. Of course, her next words helped to convict her.
"Oh no," Athena said under her breath.
"Tell me you didn't," I said.
"LookI mean I think. Give me a heartbeat." She turned her back and seemed to be concentrating. All of a sudden Artemis and Aphrodite materialized.
"What's the life or death call about?"
Athena gave her sisters the abbreviated version of what had happened. My suspicions were confirmed when Aphrodite spoke.
"I don't believe this," Gabrielle said, nearly in tears. "You actually did this to us?"
"No!" Athena replied. "Well, yes, but we didn't mean to. Dite!" She turned to her sister. "You said you changed your mind that you weren't going to use it."
"Well I changed my mind again. I swear I didn't put enough in to hurt them, though."
"That's because when I thought you weren't going to, I came back and added some. It didn't seem like that much, though."
"Um " Artemis, who had been quiet until then, raised her hand.
"You didn't," Athena said.
"Well, neither of you were going to," she answered in a defensive tone. "How was I to know?"
"You put something in the stew?" I asked.
"The original idea was to just give you a little of my hot & bothered potion," Aphrodite explained. "To you know, get you into the mood quicker than usual. We knew you only had one night, so Iwewell, it seemed like a good idea at the time."
"You put something in the stew, too, to make sure we ate it all. Didn't you?" Gabrielle asked.
"It was the only way to guarantee you'd get enough of the hot & bothered potion," Aphrodite said.
"No wonder we couldn't get enough of it," Gabrielle added. "Along with each other."
"I think putting so much of the hot & bothered potion in the stew sort of affected the small bit of spell that I added in order to give you a rather unquenchable appetite for it. Turns out they blended together and you couldn't get enough of either one."
"I do hate to interrupt, but would you mind taking the lesson portion of your apology elsewhere so I can be miserable in peace?" I asked.
"I'm so sorry," Athena said before reaching out to touch my arm.
There was a surge of energy that flowed through me, followed by a calm, mellow feeling. "Much better," I sighed in relief.
"And you," she said, crossing the room to attend to Gabrielle. She knelt down beside Gabrielle's chair. "Forgive me, Gabrielle. We never meant you harm. The potion was just supposed to help the two of you relax enough to enjoy one another. It's been a stressful time for you lately, and I suppose we just wanted to help out."
"I understand," Gabrielle smiled, obviously feeling a great deal better. "Xena and I have never had any problem in that arena, though."
I smiled and winked at Gabrielle for standing up to her patron.
"I think we understand that now. Well, we'd better go," Athena said, rising from her kneeling position. Each of the Goddesses apologized before they left. Aphrodite even pulled a smile from me.
"I know it was a rough morning, but what a way to go, huh, girls?" She giggled and disappeared.
Gabrielle came and crawled into bed beside me. "She did have a point."
Aphrodite did indeed have a point. For all the pain, I couldn't help but smile at the extremely pleasant memories from the previous evening. Funny, but I wondered if their potion really had anything to do with our marathon session. Somehow, it just seemed like something we would have done without any help at all.
We promptly fell asleep, free of any pain or potions.
Addendum to the Lord Conqueror's Manuscript: Separate Parchment
Added in Xena, the Lord Conqueror's presence by Queen Gabrielle of Potidaea
"Was your little getaway everything you hoped for?" Ephiny asked.
I wasn't certain whether she spoke to me or Xena. We rode three abreast along the wide path heading back to the village. Xena rode in the middle, beside me, and Ephiny carried the outside opposite Xena. Prax, my newly fashioned shadow, rode perhaps a horse-length behind me. Wishing to be right beside me, Xena explained to Prax that in order to do her job well, it was essential that she watch everything around me and not just me.
Thankfully, Xena gave our friend an answer that satisfied me, as well. "You have no idea," she answered.
I nodded to Xena and, just as we had discussed doing earlier that morning, she slowed down and let us pull away from her. She rode beside Prax and I could faintly hear them discussing Prax's techniques. Perhaps Xena would turn out to be a better mentor for the young woman than I would.
"Can I have a moment more of your time, Eph?" I asked.
"Have I done something wrong?"
"No! Why would you think that?"
"I don't know. I guess maybe it's the look on your face. You look like you're about to reprimand me."
"Gods," I said before chuckling. "I'd better take my own advice and lighten up some."
She smiled, as well, but she looked preoccupied was the only way to describe it. As if I didn't have her complete attention.
"I've been wanting to talk to you, too," she said.
I was glad for her addition to the conversation as it gave me some more time to think. Perhaps stall would have been a more accurate, or at least honest, word. I had finally made a decision regarding my dilemma in assigning a Regent to rule Amazonia once I returned to Corinth. I feared that my decision would not be well-liked by my captain.
I tried to think of a way to say it to her. I had thought about little else since our return trip had begun. I took a deep breath and steeled myself against the reaction I would get. What I didn't suspect, until the moment I looked over at Ephiny was that she looked just as torn as I did. I didn't know it for certain until we both spoke at the same time.
"Ephiny I don't want you to be Regent."
"Gabrielle I don't want to be Regent."
"What?" We each said in unison once more.
"You don't want me to be Regent? Why? What's wrong with me?"
"Wait a heartbeat. Didn't you just say that you didn't want to be Regent?"
"Well, yes," she drawled out. "But not wanting it and not getting it are two different things."
"Point taken. Why don't we start over and you begin this time."
"Fair enough." Ephiny smiled at me and I knew things were all right between us. I believe she even looked a bit relieved. "It's not that I don't want the position, Gabrielle, but I truly believe there are others better qualified. I understand that you originally decided on me back when I was the only Amazon you knew. Things are different now, and since you've met all of us, well, you know that there is someone better suited, I suppose."
We rode in silence for some time after she had finished, listening to the sounds of the horses hooves and the others around us.
"Eph, I want you to know one thing right from the start. I still think you would make a wonderful ruler in my place. What made me decide that another might be the best choice iswell actually there are two reasons. Number one, I don't think presiding over a never-ending string of meetings is something you have the inclination or patience to do. Second, and this is more of a request. I'd like you to come back to Corinth to oversee the Amazons who are to be stationed there."
"Well I guess I didn't see that coming."
"You don't have to answer right away, but"
"I'd be honored. I'll do it."
"You sure don't waste time in deciding, do you?"
Ephiny laughed, the most relaxed I'd heard her in some time. "There's no sense deliberating over something that feels right in the first place. Can I ask"
"Who I've decided to be Regent?"
I think you already suspect, but I was going to ask your sister, Adara. I hope that's not going to be a problem, Eph."
"I hope not." She quickly looked up at me. "I don't mean with me. It's just that Addie and I have a sort of history in that regard."
I listened to her tell me the story of how she had stepped down as Elder of the Panther clan and the difficulty that action had created with Adara. I never told Ephiny that I had already been aware of her past, which is why my decision had been so hard. Xena had related Ephiny and Adara's troubled past to me, making me aware that she was telling me in the strictest of confidence. I allowed Ephiny to reveal her story as though I never knew, not wishing to destroy the friendship that she and Xena shared. I believe that Xena had only told me out of concern for Ephiny.
"All I can do is to be as honest with Addie as possible," I said. Hopefully she'll see what I see in the both of you."
"That each of you are quite talented in your own right, that you excel in different areas, and that I'll need each of those areas of expertise in order to make this long distance ruling work."
"If anyone can do it, Gabrielle, that would be you."
We talked for a while longer, mostly about the preparations that would be necessary to house two platoons of Amazons in Corinth.
"I need to speak to Prax for a few moments, Eph. Do you mind?" I asked after we'd ridden for some time.
"Not at all. I'll send her up." Ephiny tugged on her horse's reins and pulled away from me. I waited patiently until Prax came riding up to take her place.
"You sent for me, my Queen?"
"No, Prax, I asked to see you for a moment." I smiled at her and she grinned back.
"Right," she replied. "That's what I meant." She smiled without looking over at me.
"That's what I thought," I answered with good natured cheer. "I wanted to have a moment with you because I fear once we arrive in the village all my time will be taken up with preparations for our return to Corinth."
"Have you thought anymore about my request?"
"Patience. Prax. It's one of the first things my mentor taught me."
"Does that mean" She stopped abruptly when she saw me look across at her with a raised right eyebrow, an expression I appropriated from Xena.
I almost didn't have the heart for it, to tease her such a way, but it wasn't so much a tease as a lesson. One that had taken me quite some time to learn. I suppose this was to be Yu Pan's revenge upon me, cursing me with a student more impatient than myself. If this was to be a part of my destiny, I would approach it with all the reverence and fortitude that Yu Pan had shown with a novice like me.
"I have decided that I will accept the honor you've conferred on me, that of becoming your mentor."
"Thank you so much, your Highness. Words can't describe what this means to me."
"Then you'd better get some. My first question is to ask you what you hope to gain from my teachings."
"Ium Iwell, I guess I want to be like you."
"And how am I? What are these qualities that you desire?"
"You're I think you're the warrior I want to be, but you've also got the I don't know what to call it exactly. The temperament, I suppose. I want to be as compassionate and wise as you, but not give up my strength. Something like that."
"At least it shows me that you've thought this through some. The mentor-student relationship isn't that of a student and an instructor who teaches them their letters or mathematics. I'm not here to tell you what to do, or that anything you do is right or wrong. A mentor teaches with word and deeds. You can always come to me in order to attain enlightenment or encouragement, but I won't live your life for you. I'll always present you with different paths, but it's ultimately up to you to choose which path you'll walk down. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"That I have to make my own decisions?"
"Pretty apt. What I'll expect from you, Prax, will be your best effort. The way isn't for everyone to live. It requires the power of your mind, as well as the strength of your body. If you ever want to quit, all you have to do is say so. There'll not be any shame in stopping."
"So, when will I be through? I mean, how will we know that we're finished with my teachings?"
I smiled, fondly remembering back to the time when I had asked Yu Pan the very same question. Perhaps Prax and I were more alike than I knew. " Táifeng, when you can see through my eyes, then you'll be finished. When that time comes, you won't be my student any longer."
"And when will I learn what my name means?"
"When you've learned the language, of course. We'll start with the basic letters."
I went on to recite all the letters of the dialect which Yu Pan spoke. There were many diaslects in the Chin language. I had learned a great number of them, but not all. Yu Pan's province spoke the most common, so I began there. I would later give Prax a scroll with this information, but I wished to see what she would remember from our first session. I watched rather proudly as she did double duty. All the while that she listened to me, she conducted her first task, that of my personal guard. Her eyes constantly scanned the ground and the trees, her body relaxed, but poised for action. For one so young, she showed amazing promise. I smiled once more, remembering that was what Yu Pan had once said about me.
"You want me to be your Regent?" Adara asked. She looked from me to Ephiny. "Let me guess. You turned it down." She stood there staring at her sister.
I honestly thought that the two sisters had grown beyond such pettiness, but I learned from personal experience that old hurts don't disappear so easily. Not without a great deal of work, anyway. I had invited Adara and Ephiny to our home and the room I had been using as a sort of study. We had returned from the Queen's retreat only the day before, but in four days time, we would be leaving for Amphipolis, so I had been hard at work tying up loose ends.
Selene hade become a great help to me. She assisted in organizing my meetings and actually scribed notes for me. She said that she was thankful to have a job to do and enjoyed the practice at writing. Cyrene helped me keep track of Amira, but mostly helped me plan the trip home, from a household perspective. Atrius and Ephiny were in charge of the actual trip and their soldiers, but there were a good number of hired servants and family who were to be under my direction. This was a little new to me, but I was anxious to be looked upon as keeping up the Queen's end of traveling duties.
Cyrene was as helpful to me as Delia when it came to organization, and I was already sad about leaving her in Amphipolis. She had become the mother I had never really known. We had talked only once about her coming to Corinth, at least for a visit, but she was loathe to leave her inn in the hands of the hired help. I couldn't blame her there, and so I hadn't broached the subject again. I saw that she and Amira had become fast friends. Anya had told me once that nothing steals the heart quite as thoroughly as a grandchild. perhaps that would play a part in Cyrene's decision.
But, just now I had a very delicate matter to deal with I had to manage myself. It seemed as though the only person in the room who didn't realize that she was the most qualified for position of Regent was Adara.
"Look, Gabrielle, I" Adara started.
I interrupted her by standing up rather abruptly. "Addie, take a walk with me. Won't you?"
She paused to take a calming breath. "Of course."
We walked away from the village, back toward the center of the forest. I had enjoyed taking the pleasant walk each morning to make a blessing at Artemis's temple. I paused to offer a greeting to a group of young girls being led by Lalia, the Elder of the Sparrow clan. She appeared more than her usual flustered self when in public. She actually looked excited.
"I'm taking these young women on a tour of the archives." She rushed the children past us, but stopped long enough to whisper in my ear. "Ever since Nakia joined, can you believe we actually have girls who want to join the Sparrow clan."
I chuckled and wished her luck with her new recruits. So, Nakia had made her choice. I hoped it turned out well for her.
"Sorry for the interruption," I said to Adara. We walked for a few more moments while I composed my thoughts.
"You were about to say something back there?" I said. I tried to make it sound as if I merely asked an innocent question, but I knew she'd been angry.
"In all honesty, Gabrielle, I appreciate the offer, but I don't think I can handle being second best to my sister, not again, anyway."
"Ephiny's told me about the trouble you two experienced. I don't think she wanted to break a confidence, but she thought it important that I know."
"And, you still don't see why I can't accept this position?"
"In fact, no, I don't. Addie, I'm going to say something that's not really my style, at least the way that I'm going to go about this isn't my usual way, but I find that time has become the enemy, and I don't have enough of it before I leave to be patient with you and Ephiny over this."
"All right," she drawled. "Go ahead."
"You and your sister are acting like children, and I mean very young children."
She raised an eyebrow and I saw that her lips had tensed into a fine, hard line.
"Before you sock me in the nose, let me explain. Addie, I was just thinking to myself that the only person in that room back there who didn't know you were the right one for this job was you. I won't pretend that I know what it's like to have an older sister, but I can tell you that I understand what it's like to exist in someone else's shadow."
"But, you just said you don't have a sister."
"I do, or at least I did, but we were separated when we were sold into slavery as children. I don't know what's become of her, but I understand your dilemma all the same, even though it's not with my sister."
"So, who's your nemesis?"
"Truth be told, it's Xena. I love her and she's my whole world, but the woman that most people know as the Conqueror is a rather large figure to stand beside."
She smiled, nodding her head in apparent sympathy. "The bigger they are, the more they block the light from hitting you."
"Exactly, but if I hadn't found a way to accept that fact, and recognize my own abilities and strengths, then I would have become as bitter as you sound now."
"Addie," I stopped, placing a hand on her arm. "I know I'm using some harsh words, but that's what I meant about going against my way. It's just that I don't have the time to be delicate and walk on eggshells over this. I need to make this decision now, and that means I need for you and Ephiny to come to terms over this feud. I know for a fact that Ephiny's made a sort of peace with it, but she fears that you'll always look at every choice between the two of you as coming in second. And, it seems as if she's right."
We walked some more and I allowed her this silent time. After some time, I finally spoke again. "I'll tell you what I told Ephiny the other day, and if you still don't see it my way, then I'll accept your decision."
"All right," she answered slowly, and this led me to believe that she was already reflecting on the whole situation.
"I told Ephiny that each of you are quite talented in your own right, that you excel in different areas, and that I need each of those areas of expertise in order to make long distance ruling work."
"And, you truly believe this? I mean that I'd be better than Ephiny?"
Perhaps she had never heard it before, but I wanted to take the weight that she'd been carrying around and help her to toss it off.
"Yes, my friend, I do believe it. I went to Ephiny to tell her just that, and she was rather relieved. We both saw that while Ephiny is a master warrior, administration is simply not what she shines at. I'm not saying that you're not a great warrior, but you also possess the skills necessary to manage the trivial aspects of leadership. I believe in you, Addie. I wouldn't be taking the time to convince you if didn't have such faith in you."
After a little time had passed in silence, Adara finally spoke. "No one's been honest enough to talk to me this way in a long time, Gabrielle. I want you to know that I appreciate it. Actually, this isn't as sudden as it might seem. I guess I've been waiting for some time now to find a way to come to terms with my feelings of inadequacy where Ephiny's concerned. You sort of put it in perspective."
"You don't know how glad I am to hear you say that."
"I think I need to find Ephiny and have a talk with her. Do you mind?"
"Not at all. Go on."
"I accept the position, provided you still want me for it."
"I've never changed my mind about that. In fact, I want to announce it tomorrow evening, during our farewell party."
"Fine. Thanks, Gabrielle," she turned back to me to say. "I feel like I should say something more, but I don't know what it would be."
"For me being nosy and having no tact whatsoever? I think thanks should do it."
We laughed together and then she left to find her sister. I breathed a grateful sigh of relief. I had successfully overcome the last big obstacle to our leaving Amazonia. It wouldn't make leaving these people, many who had become good friends, any easier, but it did mean that I would entrust them to good hands. I had truly begun to believe Artemis's prophecy, that under my family's reign the Amazons would become a great and powerful nation.
" I feel like Im never going to get this finished," I said to Xena, my voice sounding strange in the confines of our tent.
She stretched out on our large makeshift bed, covered with cushions and furs, beside an already sleeping Amira. "What was that?" she asked before yawing.
"Im going to start writing every evening on our way home. That way, by the time we get there, Ill be nearly finished with my addition to the archives."
"Why not wait till you get home?"
"Im afraid I wont remember everything. You will fill in your parts, wont you?"
"Um, sure. Ill start as soon as I get back to Corinth. I think Ill be way too busy on the way home."
"Oh yes, I can see that."
She grinned at me and closed her eyes once more.
"Dont forget that Ephiny wants to speak with us this evening."
"Oh, I forgot about that. Why couldnt she just talk to us on the road today?"
"Im not sure. Her exact words were that it was sort of official. She wouldnt tell me anymore, but that she wanted the whole family here. I told Selene and Cyrene to meet us here for a cup of tea after dinner."
She grumbled and rubbed a hand across her face, rising to sit on the edge of the bed. "I better not get comfortable, then." She looked at Amira. "Oh to be a kid again. Shes having the time of her life on this trip."
"I think she and Anyas girls have a crush on Cor," I answered, followed by a laugh. "Cant say as I blame her. I think hes grown about 2 hands since we saw him last."
"Poor kid. They followed him around all day. I sure am glad he and mom decided to come along, though. That palace is going to be one different place."
"Im just glad that Cyrene and Delia have become such good friends. I thought Delia might feel like Cyrene was invading her territory. You know, Delias been sort of the mother figure around the palace for quite a while now."
"Kind of nice to have something work out without a battle for a change, huh? So, what do you think Eph wants?" she asked, quickly steering the subject in a different direction. Xena crossed the tent, pouring some water into a basin. She rinsed her face, drying it with a small towel and then turned back to face me.
"Im sure I dont know, love."
I wore a secretive smile, feeling rather smug, I suppose. I remember thinking that my beautiful spouse had such a quick wit, even quicker mind on the battlefield, but when it came to emotions, especially affairs of the heart, she always seemed to lag a step behind. She erased my superior feeling with a rather knowing expression of her own, which took me quite by surprise. Before I could comment, one of the guards announced Cyrene.
"Anyone home?" Cyrene said softly, quickly noting Amiras sleeping figure. "Are you sure we should take our tea in here? Its pleasant enough to go outside by one of the fires."
"Because of Amira?" Xena asked, kissing her mother on the cheek. "If Hannibal ran through our camp with a rabid herd of elephants, Amira would sleep through the entire thing."
We all laughed aloud at Xenas analogy, the sound of our laughter proving, of course, that she spoke the truth. It usually took some work on our part to get Amira to go to bed in the first place, but once there, she slept the sleep of the truly innocent.
A few moments later, Ephiny and Selene arrived together. We sat around and talked for a short while, enjoying tea and wine. Delia, in charge of the camp cooks once again, sent us around some bowls of fresh fruits, sweet cream, and cheese.
"So, what's on your mind?" Xena asked Ephiny once the conversation presented an opening.
She'd been patient for about as long as she possibly could. Xena had never been a particularly patient woman with such matters, but I believed her additional edginess might also have been due to the troubling notion that shed been right all along. Xena looked as though she had finally come around to the fact that the evenings conversation might indeed be about Selene. At the time, I couldnt be sure, but something told me that Xena might have known more than she let on.
I hadn't yet been able to pin Xena down on her feelings regarding a possible relationship between Ephiny and Selene, at least what her true feelings were. I know that in the beginning, Xena didn't want anyone looking sideways at her little sister, but eventually she admitted, albeit grudgingly, that Selene was a young adult. Would Ephiny and Xena's developing friendship impact Xena's feelings one way or another? And if it did, would it be positively or negatively? There was one certainty. The evening wouldnt be dull by anyone's standards.
Ephiny looked around the room. I smiled at her fondly, Making an attempt to appear welcoming and not as if I was a member of a reprimand committee. Selene smiled at Ephiny and nodded her head in what I assumed was a show of encouragement. Ephiny slowly stood and, even more slowly, began to speak.
"I suppose...I guess the easiest way to begin would be to just come right out with it."
"That would be my preference," Xena said, stifling a yawn.
"Right. Well, I know we've all had a long day, so I'll keep it short if I can. I think we've all come to know each other pretty well and to like each otherat least I hope we doI mean I dolike all of you that is."
She wiped the palms of her hands along each side of her leather leggings. I had never seen Ephiny so flustered before, but, in her defense, I don't suppose she'd ever done such a thing before.
"Before I turn old and gray, huh, Eph," Xena requested.
"Right. Well, I...guess I need to direct this appeal to Cyrene, Xena, and you Gabrielle. I think it affects all of youus."
"It won't be affecting anyone if we don't hear it," Xena said once more.
"Right right. I thinkwhat I actually mean to say isI mean I'd likeOh, Gods be damned."
She looked terrified upon cursing in front of Cyrene and tried to immediately undo the damage. The way she went about it, however, went badly for her.
"Shit! Oh, I mean---Gods..." Every time she opened her mouth, she compounded the problem. Ephiny hung her head back and looked up at the ceiling, her shoulders slumped downward in a gesture of defeat. "This went so much better when I practiced it by myself," she said to no one in particular.
Someone decided to take pity on Ephiny, but what surprised me the most was that it was the last person I thought it would be.
"Let me make it easier for you, and you just tell me if I've got it right or not," Xena said. "You want to ask our permission to court Selene, perhaps marry her?"
Most of us just sat there with our mouths open, staring at Xena. Ephiny, obviously speechless, simply nodded her head.
"And to ask our permission," Xena added.
"I've already given my permission." Selene jumped up and went to stand beside Ephiny, grasping her hand boldly. "What we ask for is your blessing. Mother, I know you've bid Xena to decide certain matters regarding my future, but you are my mother, after all. Gabrielle, not only are you family to me, but Ephiny has certain well, reservations I guess about keeping her professional and personal lives separate."
We continued to stare silently. I admit, Selene's eloquence took me by surprise.
"Wow, why couldn't I say it like that?" Ephiny asked.
Selene chuckled and nudged her shoulder against Ephiny's. It was perhaps the closest physical contact I had yet seen between them. They were discreet, had always been so in my opinion, and I think that had something to do with what Selene said about Ephiny's reservations. If they were to be married, I would not only be Ephiny's Queen, but also family. I suppose that did hold some potential for problems, but nothing I couldn't see us working out.
"Well, dear, I can't say as this comes as a complete surprise to me, but I hadn't realized that you two had talked of marriage already," Cyrene said.
"Let me assure you, Cyrene, that I've treated Selene with honor and nothing else. The way I feel about her, well, I know that she's quite a bit younger than I am, and I guess there could be problems with that fact, but it didn't make much sense to either of us to merely see one another casually. For one, I wouldn't dishonor her name that way, and another, given the way I feel about her, I can't see this ending in anything but marriage."
Selene and Ephiny smiled lovingly at one another, and I saw an Ephiny whom I hadn't really had the opportunity to see before. What was it about warriors and their ability to appear so much more attractive when vulnerable? I found it amusing to think that traits such as indecision, paranoia, and a healthy dose of love sickness could ever be so appealing in a lover, but they certainly were, especially when displayed by a woman who was usually the epitome of discipline and self assurance.
Ephiny had finally found her tongue and she did well in reassuring Cyrene. The older woman smiled and nodded her head approvingly. Their eyes turned to me, and I wished they had simply gone on to Xena. I certainly didn't want to openly disagree with any decision Xena would make in this regard, hers would be the final word, but suddenly I felt forced to reveal my thoughts before consulting with Xena.
Xena didn't even look at me. In fact, she sat with her head bowed slightly, arms crossed against her chest. She raised one hand and tugged on her bottom lip, an unconscious habit brought about with deep thought. I knew she was listening, however. This was the Xena who was deceptively keen, the Conqueror who possessed the ability to outwit any opponent on the battlefield.
"Gabrielle?" Ephiny's voiced brought me back to the moment.
"Yes, well " I hesitated, but came to the quick conclusion that I could do no more than speak my heart. "Not much of a surprise here either. I'm quite happy for you both."
"So, we have your blessing?" Selene asked.
"Iuh" I stammered, looking at Xena for some sort of hint or sign. I was clearly capable of my own thoughts, don't misunderstand, but I simply didn't want to end up at odds with Xena over it.
"Gabrielle," Ephiny began, taking a step forward. "I know that our relationship has become more like two friends rather than that of ruler and subject, but for my own peace of mind, I must know how you feel how you feel as my Queen."
"I see. And, if I told you that I thought it a bad idea, what would you do then?"
"I" She hesitated, perhaps trying to judge whether I was serious or not.
"I pray that's not your answer because I have no idea what I'd do. I don't relish the thought of the choice I'd have to make."
"It would be a life-changing moment, I agree, but don't worry, my friend. I have no intention of making you choose between your love and your people. I don't know if I can really say anything more. Knowing you the way I do, Ephiny, I imagine that you've already had many a late night considering all the angles, perhaps trials you might have with this relationship. I'd like to think that you wouldn't have asked for our blessing if you still had reservations."
"And you'd be right, my Queen. I've thought on every conceivable good and ill, and the good won out in my mind. I care for Selene enough to work through any unforeseen problem that might arise."
"Then all I can say is that you have my blessing, as your Queen that is. Xena and Cyrene are Selene's guardians, though, and I believe they should be consulted above anyone." There. I'd done my part without stepping on any toes.
Cyrene stood and confronted the pair. "Selene, I know that you've a good head on your shoulders and aren't prone to extraordinary actions. Ephiny, I can find no fault in you as my daughter's suitor. You appear to be an honorable woman, but Gabrielle is right, my daughter. You and I have both led a rather sheltered life, which is why I put your future into Xena's care. She has a wisdom about such things and I haven't changed my mind about deferring to her in such matters. I hope you understand."
"I do, mom. It's okay." Selene hugged Cyrene, and I saw the beginnings of quite a mature young woman in Selene.
It was Xena's turn, but still she sat with her head lowered, listening to all we had said. We waited patiently until at last she spoke.
"I'd like to speak to Ephiny alone," she said softly, finally raising her head.
I knew such a request wouldn't go over easily with Selene. In a heartbeat, she proved me right.
"I don't understand" she began.
"Nor do you need to," Xena interrupted.
"I'm not leaving until you promise mewell, promise me you're not going to do anything to hurt Ephiny."
"You'll never be able to control this one, you do realize that don't you?" Xena told Ephiny before looking back at Selene. "My dear sister, you came to us, not the other way around. If you want me to consider your request, you'll do as I bid."
Ephiny came close to smiling. I'm sure she realized what she was getting in Selene. Perhaps not completely, but at least in part. "Selene, wait outside for me, all right?" Ephiny requested, taking Selene's hand in her own. "I'm sure we won't be long."
"Come, Selene," Cyrene extended a hand in her daughter's direction.
I rose to go, as well, but Xena stopped me.
"Stay, please, Gabrielle."
I sat again and we watched the two others leave. Once more, it took Xena a few moments before she spoke.
"I, unlike my wife, wonder if you've actually thought fully of the implications of this relationship, Eph. It could all end rather badly should you two have a falling out. As Gabrielle's captain, you'd be forced to live in the same everyday confines as Selene. Would the two of you be able to manage that if the worst scenario happened?"
"You bring up a good point, and it's one I've thought on. As an Amazon officer, my first duty must always be to my Queen. It would be a difficult situation, but not impossible."
"You know what they'll say about you, don't you? You'll have to hear it from the Empire troops as well as your own people."
"I'm sure they'll say that I attained my position and wealth because I married the Conqueror's sister." She grinned after she spoke. "The good thing is that I already have wealth and I've gone as far as any woman can in rank and station without being Queen of the Amazons. So, their words will fall on unhearing ears."
I heard it in Xena's voice. She had already made her decision. Her questioning was neither intense nor brutal. She didn't attempt to trick Ephiny into revealing some character flaw. I simply saw her actions and words as fulfilling her duty toward her sister.
"I'll not have anyone speak unkindly about Selene. Ill have no man question her character. If her honor ever comes into question"
"That will never come to pass, Xena. I have no intention of"
"Let me finish, Eph. I didn't want my mother to hear me speak of this, but you're an experienced woman and Selene's full grown. I don't want to know what goes on behind your bedroom door, but I don't want you to think that the only way to keep your head off the end of my blade is by practicing celibacy until marriage. I simply want you to use good judgment and to teach Selene the meaning of discretion."
"Ill words will never reach your ears. I guarantee it."
"And does she know that she needs to be an Amazon in order for you two to marry?" Xena asked.
I hadn't known that such a rule existed, since Xena and I had married with no such stipulation. I could only assume that Queens were afforded certain freedoms than those lower in rank were not allowed.
"She does, and she's fine with it."
"All right then." Xena rose and she and Ephiny clasped arms. "Welcome to the family, such as we are."
Xena and Ephiny took one another's arm as a warrior's way of bonding. I, on the other hand, had no qualms about embracing my future sister in law. Ephiny looked uncomfortable, as always when faced with such an outward display of affection. I knew she would change, though. After all, Xena had been much the same way when we had first met, yet she had changed greatly over the past season or so.
Cyrene and Selene re-entered the room and we all sat down once more.
"Selene, I've decided to officially give my consent and blessing to your relationship," Xena said. She stressed both words in order to make it clear to Selene that, even though she was an adult, she was the Conqueror's sister, and being royalty meant that her life was no longer hers alone. There were always conventions with which to adhere.
"I have only one condition," Xena continued.
"Condition?" Selene arched an eyebrow back at her sister and I swore that she could have been Xena as a young woman. Having different fathers made the resemblance uncanny.
"Yes. My condition is that should you choose to marry, whether it's tomorrow or six moons from now, you will wait 'till one season from today before seeing it done."
"A whole season?" Selene repeated, looking at Ephiny, then her mother. "But that's it's unfair."
"I think it's smart." Xena crossed the room to where Selene and Ephiny sat, side by side.
Xena dropped to one knee before her sister and touched her hand. Perhaps Selene would not recognize that action for its true significance, but I saw it. For any of us, such a thing would mean nothing more than a loving gesture. For the Conqueror, however, to lower herself to any other's level, was compassionate indeed.
"Selene, believe me when I say that I'm not doing this just to prove that I'm the Conqueror or simply because I can. I'm honestly thinking of you. I know that you're a grown woman, even if I don't show it, but this is the first serious relationship that you've ever been in. I hope that everything you and Ephiny dream of comes true for you, but there's still the side of me that is a realist, even a pessimist. Asking you to wait isn't a way for me to be difficult, it's my way of ensuring that your youth and emotions don't get the best of you. Can you understand what I'm talking about?"
Selene was silent, as she appeared to be processing all that Xena had explained. Finally, she squeezed Xena's hand. "I do understand, Xe, but that doesn't mean I have to like it." She laughed unexpectedly.
"I'd expect nothing less," Xena replied.
We all began talking and laughing at once. I glanced over at Amira, just to be certain the noise hadn't upset her. True to form, she lay unmoving, her chest gently rising and falling in sleep. I caught Cyrene's eye as I turned back to the others, and she smiled. We shared something special now, beyond Xena and family. We were both mothers, both of us having experienced the wonder that is giving life to another. I breathed a sigh of relief to think that Cyrene would be in the palace, there for me to ask for advice and assistance. I tried not to show it, but raising a child was not something I was familiar with. I worried that I would do something wrong where Amira was concerned.
I looked around the spacious tent at the people I had grown to love in so short a time. It was like being a part of a real family, having these people who cared for me here, and even though the parents who gave me life were far away. Even though they had disowned me for circumstances and decisions I had made to live and survive, a mother and father were not unknown to me. Yu Pan was the only father I had ever known, the only man who ever treated me with respect and love, never wanting anything of me in return. Cyrene had quickly become the mother I had never had the privilege of knowing. Showing unconditional love and tenderness, she had easily earned a place in my heart. When I admitted as much to her, she cried, and said that Athena could have given her no better gift than another daughter. That's when I cried.
We had come so far over the summer and into the late harvest season. Xena and I had both found our families, although we each went about it differently, along with their love and acceptance. More importantly, I believe that somewhere between Corinth and where we stood today, we found some small piece of ourselves that had been missing for so long. Many people, and subsequently our lives, had been changed during our travels across Greece. Time, which can be cruel or forgiving had decided to show the latter to us. As always, I thanked Athena for the gifts she had given me, especially the gift of family.
End Gabrielle's Addendum
To be continued in : Epilogue: When I Have Seen By Time's Fell Hand
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