Title: A Hopeful Bard
Status: In Progress
Characters: Xena/Gabrielle, Conqueror fic
Disclaimer: Do not own them. The only profit i seek is an ego boost from good feedback.
Summary: The Conqueror (though she'd really prefer you call her the Empress) meets the Playwright (a title she's totally fine with). There's some verbal sparring. Some physical sparring. Some gods. Some emperors. Maybe some ribald comedy.
There was this haze that came over a person sometimes. They'd be waking up and all they'd feel was the pleasure. They wouldn't feel the crusty sheets, the stickiness on their skin, or the sweaty bodies all pressed up against them. Just the loose limbed feeling in all their limbs. Then a bed partner would stir. Hands and lips and everything else would be pressed against them and they'd wake up.
Xena had woken up that way far too often in the last few months. She'd heard Vidalis mutter about her wanton ways a few times. She'd ignored it. He was the seneschal and she the empress.
Today there were two of them in her bed. Dancers who'd arrived the night before. After the entertainment she'd invited the two to her private chambers. Wine had flowed freely until the woman, lithe and pert, had draped herself over Xena. Then the man had joined in. Now the two of them were waking and trying to start up where they had left off.
She sighed and looked out her window. The sun was rising and she could hear the sound of soldiers drilling in the courtyard. A hand drifted low on her body and she resisted the moan that leapt to her lips. “Not now,” she whispered into the ear closest to her lips. Her companion giggled. Another hand squirmed beneath her to lightly stroke her back.
A hand found her breast. Skin quickly tightened beneath curious fingers. She arched up.
A loud pounding at the door attempted to end any more play. Her new friends ignored it. Hands caressed and stroked and pinched.
The door opened suddenly. The male dancer, a man who had no right to be as well formed as he was, jerked up from where he'd been attending to Xena's lips with his own. “Excuse me?”
Xena caught his chin, “Never mind them.”
More kissing and stroking.
Out the corner of her eye she watched as her seneschal oversaw the preparation of her bath. Clothes and food were laid out.
Heat pooled. Muscles tightened.
Vidalis, perhaps the worst seneschal she'd ever had the displeasure to employ, cleared his throat.
The handsome male dancer's hand pumped in and out. The pretty woman's tongue lapped at a nipple. Her breath quickened.
“Really Empress. You have an entire day ahead of you.”
He added a third finger. She turned her attention to the other nipple. Everything turned taut. Then the languid relaxation returned.
She quickly moved out from between the dancers and headed towards the bath that had just been drawn. As damp skin immersed itself in hot water she listened to Vidalis. He was so very good at seeing off her new friends. This time there was only a little shouting. The shock and anger was muted. She found it always was when she took more then one at a time. That sense that they were special wasn't quite as prevalent then.
Xena let herself sink further into the bath. Let the heat drain the ache away from muscles and joints. Her groan of relief was caught by the hot water and turned to bubbles that gently moved to the surface and disturbed the flower petals floating there.
Vidalis soon reappeared. His portly form distorted by the water. She pushed herself back up and took in a deep breath. She'd surfaced mid-sentence and Vidalis didn't bother to start his tirade again. “—And you know full well you've got too many things to do today to waste your entire morning in bed with a bunch of dancers.”
“They're my loyal subjects Vidalis. What kind of an empress would I be if I didn't hear their grievances?”
“No, they're the loyal subjects of that Persian you seem so keen to keep on the throne. He was very upset with their absence this morning at breakfast.”
She waved a hand dismissively and nodded to a servant. The girl curtsied quickly then dashed over to wash Xena's hair. “Slowly,” she murmured. Then to Vidalis, “Darius will survive. At this point he's still grateful I let him live.”
“And you're a fool if you think he'll stay indebted an eternity.”
She twisted in the bath to stare at him, her pale eyes narrowing menacingly, “And your a fool to think you can speak to me that way.”
Vidalis must have realized he'd taken liberty, his normally pallid skin grew a shade paler and he bowed nervously, “Apologies Empress.”
“See that Darius is brought to my office in an hour's time. Push back the meeting with the ministry.”
The seneschal quickly left the room, taking the majority of the servants with him. Only the young woman remained. Xena watched the girl as she ducked her head and continued her ministrations. She was a pretty thing with hair like spun sugar. She was dressed in the white and gold tunics all servants in the castle wore and her curves complimented the drape of the fabric well. She reached up to touch the girl's cheek then stopped herself. She did have a long day ahead of her and seducing the help would only make it longer.
“You're new,” she said.
The girl took up a gold bowl, filled it with water then used it to rinse out Xena's hair.
“I've worked in the kitchen most of my time here.”
She reached to fill the bowl again and Xena caught her hand then held it close to examine it. “These aren't the hands of a girl confined to the kitchens.”
“I told stories,” she confessed, “played songs.”
“An entertainer? And what has you here now scrubbing the Empress's back?”
The girl blushed.
Xena smiled. “Serena usually attends to me in the morning. A favor owed?”
The girl bit her lip then looked up at Xena with eyes like a meadow in the summer. “I wanted to see you, Serena agreed to switch with me for the day.”
Xena allowed herself to reach out and stroke the girl's cheek. She ducked her head and tried to fill the bowl again. Xena's hands stilled her. “Perhaps you'd do a better job if you joined me?”
The girl looked up and smiled.
Xena glanced at the sun light now streaming through the window. It would be close, but she had time.
Xena surprised herself when she managed to make it to her office on time. She'd taken a seat behind the large polished oak desk and was trying to look busy going over reports from a province in Chin when the doors swung open and Darius swept in. His perfume tickled her nose before he was even halfway across the long room.
She'd specifically had the office built that way—forcing her guests to cross the marble at a hurried pace to reach the chairs before her desk in a timely fashion. She delighted watching the skinny and fat alike run. Darius didn't move as quickly. He took his time. He eyed the tapestries, mosaics and the beautifully carved statues that lined the room. He seemed to take particular delight in the mosaic that made up the floor at the center of the room. Xena had to admit he had good taste. The tiles had been imported from Rome and arranged to show Xena receiving her chakram from Ares. The story had changed over the years and even she had started to believe that it was the action of a benevolent god choosing a new leader to unite Greece.
Darius toed the tile work a moment and Xena found herself almost standing to join him. Finally, pleased to have made the Empress wait he finished crossing the room and took a seat. Xena refused to allow herself to be goaded into irritation by the man. It was a daily trial when they were in each other's company.
“I hear you enjoyed the talents of my dancers last night?”
She looked for some pool of calm at her center.
“They were quite entertaining. Though they seemed too tire easily.”
He smiled. “The rest of us are mere mortals Xena. You must remember this.”
He wiped at his long nose and the multitude of gold bracelets on his arms jangled with the movement. She noticed that more gold appeared to have been weaved into the dark curls of his hair and beard. It reminded her of a few wigs she owned. They'd need to be rewoven, the braids made more intricate, for the next time she wore them. Wouldn't do to be out fashioned by a sycophant like Darius of Persia.
“Now we still must discuss these expectations you've saddled me with,” he asserted.
“I have few expectations Darius. Really all I ask is that you maintain the terms of our treaty.”
“And provide you with more then two thirds of my standing army.”
“You should be pleased to have any army Darius. In Indus it's hoplites that ride the elephants.” She said it all with a smile, her white teeth gnashing at the words.
He ignored what she said, “Every day you move my armies further from my borders. I don't have Egypt's navy Xena. And now I don't have much of an army.”
“You think Egypt will invade?”
She leaned on her desk, steepling her fingers together, “Unlike you I have a cordial relationship with Cleopatra.”
He raised an eyebrow. They were well groomed. She wondered if he plucked them. “As cordial as Rome's?”
He watched her, waiting for the sneer that always crossed her face at the mention of Rome. She resisted, lest she give the weasel more satisfaction. “I like to think so. Cleopatra is an old friend, and trade between our nations has always been forthright. She won't risk that for Persia.”
“You're asking me to trust you Xena. I think we're both adult enough to admit that that's a silly request.”
She broke the steeple created by her hands. Her knuckles popped loudly. “I've allowed you to keep your throne, and I've allowed you to keep some small part of your army, but be under no illusions Darius, Persia is mine. And Cleopatra knows that.”
Darius was a tan man, his skin had a rich olive tone that darkened easily in the sun. Xena watched him calmly now as he flushed bright red. She thought she saw a vein briefly bulge on his brow. “You bitch,” he finally spat out.
She clapped, the noise hollow in the expansive room, “I love your way with words Darius. The people of Persia must marvel at your cleverness.”
He looked liked he wanted to lunge across the desk. Xena found herself hoping he would. But the King of Persia caught himself. His eyes, hateful and venomous, never left her own. She noted the way he glared and the way his hands gripped the chair, his knuckles white.
“You hubris will be your downfall.” It was an attempt at a threat—or an insult—his way of attempting to unnerve her as she'd so viciously unnerved him.
She cocked her head, “As it was yours? Don't blame me for the crumbling of your empire. You had the army, the wealth. You were a fool and this—sitting here in my glorious presence? Think of it as your penance.” There was no humor in her tone. Darius needed a lesson in humility and Xena, his empress, was obliged to teach him.
Suitably chastised Darius settled. Part of it irritated Xena. Their relationship had developed a predictable rhythm. Darius took things too far, Xena put him in his place, Darius bristled at the control she exerted, Xena sighed. Wait a month and then repeat. It would have been much more interesting to have just put the man to death when she'd won Persia. Set a governor on his throne and enjoyed the war that would have undoubtedly resulted.
But a puppet king brought peace. A puppet king bolstered her army and her coffers. Darius dealt with the rabble-rousers who remained in Persia and allowed Xena to focus her attention elsewhere. Like the borders she shared with Rome. Or Egypt. With Cleopatra as queen the nation had prospered. It could never rival the might or size of Greece or Rome, but it commanded the seas of the Mediterranean and worked as an excellent buffer, both between Greece and Rome and between Europe and the kingdoms of Africa and Arabia.
Darius finally left her office much more bitter and downtrodden then he'd arrived and Xena went to a meeting of her ministers. She listened to her foreign affairs minister argue with the military minister about Persia. The commerce minister and arts minister then had a huge blow up over a series of plays to be preformed in the capital next month. Apparently the plays chosen had some nasty things to say about the government and about the men and women who supported it financially. Her commerce man was terrified of what it would do to trade. Her arts man demanded freedom of speech.
Years ago when she'd marched into Corinth and claimed her first Grecian city-state she'd never anticipated just how boring statecraft could be. Waging war, humbling warlords and kings, outwitting generals; those were the things that quickened the beat of her heart and caused her blood to sing. Lecturing Darius and listening to well-dressed little men argue over plays? The stuff of Xena's nightmares.
She half hoped Rome would make a bid for her land or Lao Mao would try to take back the provinces Xena had claimed. Anything to end the monotony of the meetings that now made up Xena's day.
The ministry meeting final puttered to an end. Xena plastered the polite look of indifference on her face and thanked the men and women who'd gathered. She wondered if her Imperial Guard was still drilling. It was nearly noon and they'd soon be gathering for the midday meal, but if she quickened her pace she'd still arrive in time to spar for a bit.
Her steps were loud on the marble floor. Another set of footsteps caught her ear and she stopped and turned to see who was following her to the practice fields.
Marcus, the only general to regularly make his home in Corinth stopped short and bowed abruptly. “Apologies Empress.” She frowned. Marcus was as old as friend as she had. The length and quality of their relationship was precisely why he was the only general stationed in the capital. It was irritating to hear him call her Empress and to watch him bow like one of the other sycophants in the palace.
“Marcus,” she said, “Something the matter. I was just heading to the practice yard.”
“I've just received some,” he paused, “interesting news. I think we should discuss it in private.”
She sighed. A sword fight with a dozen of her best trained soldiers would have to wait.
Back in her office Marcus had the courtesy to wait until Xena was settled behind her desk before he took a seat opposite her. Servants appeared and offered them food and wine but Marcus declined. Xena took a bite of cheese and waited for him to speak.
He did so, but only after he was certain the last servant had left. “I think we might have a problem.”
Nothing good, if Marcus's insistence of privacy was anything to go by. “Rome?”
He shook his head, “Apollonia.”
It was a province she'd taken from the Illyrians many years before. Rome constantly lusted after it and with good reason. Its wine and fig orchards were considered some of the finest in the known world and the harbor in Apollonia proper was one of the main ports of commerce between Greece and Rome.
“After Philemon died you never appointed a new governor.”
“That's because Talmadeus hasn't had any trouble.”
“And you know why,” Marcus asked. She shrugged. “He's a clever man. He's been having Philemon's widow manage the province.”
That…that was interesting. “Didn't know Philemon was married.”
“Apparently they were wed about six months before he passed. She's been living in his home and running the entire province from it. It's quite an open secret.”
“Then why has it taken this long to reach Corinth?”
Marcus shook his head, “I wish I knew. I suspect the two of them have reached some sort of arrangement. He takes the credit and keeps us out of her hair while she plays little lady queen in one of the richest provinces in Greece.”
Xena leaned back in her seat, the leather and wood that made it up creaked with the movement. “I'm going to have to go up there and sort this out aren't I?”
“I was actually going to suggest I go. You've got the meeting of Congress in little more then a month. Wouldn't do for you to be out of the city.”
No it wouldn't at all, but Xena desperately needed a change of pace and scenery. A trip to a province she's avoided for nearly five years was a good excuse, and dealing with Talmadeus and this widow would be an excellent diversion from the monotony she faced every day.
“No,” she said, “I'll go. I'll leave in the morning in fact.”
Marcus raised an eyebrow, “You sure that's wise?”
They were alone and so she let the veneer crack, let the old friend see the shadow she'd become. “Maybe not, but Marcus, if I don't get out of this city I'm afraid I'll kill someone at Congress next month.”
“So you abandoning Corinth is for the good of the nation then?”
“The good of the world.”
He allowed himself a small smile in his Empress's presence. Xena realized it had been years since she'd seen him smile. “I'll make the arrangements. You want company?”
“No. You stay here. I'll take a small contingent of Imperial Guard. Should be enough.”
“Just be careful Xena. Talmadeus has a huge garrison there in Apollonia. If he snaps—“
Xena would have her first armed rebellion since taking Persia three years previously. Hopefully avoidable, but in her current mood it was far from regrettable.
“What about this woman? Anything on her beyond her capability of running an entire province in secret.”
He took a deep breath that raised Xena's hackles. Marcus was preparing to give her news she wouldn't like. “That may be the bigger part of the problem. She's actually very popular, and not just in Apollonia. She had a play in Athens that nearly started a riot. Another one's supposed to go up here next month and it's been killing me to work out the security for it.”
“She's a playwright. Gabrielle of Apollonia.”
The trip from Corinth to Apollonia was uneventful, as were nearly all journeys now in Greece. While the guards she brought drilled up on deck and got in the way of the sailors Xena spent her time in her cabin, appropriated from the captain, and poured over the collective works of the playwright.
She seemed to be a good writer. She had a lot to say and apparently had a number of axes to grind. Some plays were clearly anti-monarchy, others anti-war. Xena preferred that ones that suggested that young Gabrielle had a hatred for Rome rivaled only by Xena's own.
But the politics were subtle. They weren't forced. Writers using their work as political soapboxes is what had led to her closing the Academy of Performing Bards in Athens. Xena didn't go to a play or bard performance to be lectured, but to be entertained. This Gabrielle seemed to do both with as deft a hand as Xena had ever seen.
She looked forward to meeting the clever little thing.
When they docked in Apollonia Xena was surprised to find no soldiers at the port waiting to greet them. The lighthouse on the rocks to the south of the harbor should have spotted her ship hours ago and Talmadeus, if not greeting her himself, should have sent an escort down to the docks to meet her. Things were definitely not right in Apollonia.
The dockmaster, a small greasy man dressed in a fine silk shirt and pants was the only remotely official person to meet her as she disembarked. He bowed quite a bit and sent his own men scattering to see that Xena's men and luggage were dealt with appropriately.
“Welcome to Apollonia,” he grumbled, with a series of bows that had her looking at the top of his bald little head more then at his face.
She waved him off and took stock of the harbor. It was busy and crowded, but it looked to be well run. Customs agents moved from ship to ship with troops of soldiers following them and captains bowed and appeared to be amicable to the invasion of their vessels.
“Things seem to be running smoothly,” she said.
“Oh of course Empress. From your lips to Captain Talmadeus's hand. The finest governor we've ever had.”
“He calls himself that?”
The dockmaster looked puzzled, “Should he not? I know he let's Philamon's widow live in the governor's palace, but he is our lord and has been for nearly five years now.”
She'd let things get out of hand here. She should have known better. Apollonia and the outlying country was prosperous and efficient and never seemed to want for men or money. She'd taken it for granted. Let Talmadeus get a big head on his shoulders. It was a mistake.
“Will you be traveling to the garrison this evening Empress?”
She looked out to the harbor. It faced west—towards the setting sun. The sky and water met in a blaze of orange and red light that reflected off the water and the sails of the ship in harbor. It almost looked like it was all aflame.
And it would be well past night fall before she'd arrive at the garrison. She needed something closer.
“The governor's palace? Where is it?” She should have known, a better empress would have known every tile and stone that built up the palace. She didn't even know where it lay in the city.
The dockmaster pointed northeast. “Outside to the northeast. Past the vineyards. Do you need a guide?”
“My men and I can find it.”
The men were behind her, quickly pulling antsy horses off the ship and loading them with her luggage. It was a good and orderly group she brought with her. Draco, the leader of the Imperial Guard, had insisted on traveling with her despite her desire to keep the group small. He tightened the straps on her horse's saddle and led the tall palomino to Xena. “We're ready to leave Empress,” he muttered quietly. Draco was always exceedingly polite. It probably had something to do with the nasty scar that traveled from his left temple and ended at the jawline on the right side of his face. A gift at the end of his career as a warlord and slaver. He'd run into Xena's army on the border between Macedonia and Thrace. It had been a choice between taking the scar and becoming her soldier or ending his career as a sightless head on a pike.
She took the reigns from him and smoothly mounted the horse. Draco followed suit and watched her for the subtle signal to move out. She nodded her head and he raised his fist. Behind her leather creaked and metal clanged as the soldiers in her retinue mounted their horses and brought them into line behind her.
Draco brought his own horse, a dark brown stallion, up beside Xena. She clicked her tongue, and spurred her horse into a canter. If they traveled quickly enough they'd be out of the city and to the governor's palace before nightfall.
She could see it in the distance, its pale marble columns shimmering in the warm glow of the sunset. They were soon out of the busy confines of the city and into a countryside that looked almost unnaturally orderly. Row after row of fig trees lined the fields, their wide leaves casting dark shadows on the rocky ground beneath. Wind whispered through the trees and carried with it the scent of ripe figs. Harvest time was nearly upon them.
The few people on the road all stopped to gaze at her group. And they must have looked rather impressive, glossy horses ridden by soldiers in the finest armor Greece could manufacture. Plumes of horse hair, died a deep purple, sprung from the crest of their Corinthian style helmets. Though their trip was peaceful the men all wore their helmets down so that they covered their faces.
Xena wore armor as well. It was all leather and brass with impressive looking shoulder guards that held up a purple cloak the exact same shade as the purple her soldiers wore. It was the shade worn only by the Empress and her personal guard. Even here in Apollonia, days away from the capitol in Corinth, the people knew what that color meant.
The other travelers ducked their heads in respect and moved off the road to allow her to pass. She did with a smile. It was as genuine as she could muster and she hoped it made her look more like a benevolent ruler and less like the warlord who'd last passed through the area.
They came to the gates of the palace soon enough. Soldiers—Xena's soldiers—stood guard. There were two of them. Their Corinthian helmets were polished so brightly that they reflected her own image when she looked down. The color of their cloaks and plumes were a deep red. The shade worn by all Grecian soldiers permanently stationed in garrisons. They were Talmadeus's soldiers. Far away from the fort they should be manning.
They didn't even try to cross their heavy spears. Instead they leaned them against the wall and hurried to open the heavy wrought iron gate that blocked her path. “Empress,” they murmured with steep bows as she passed.
The path from gate to palace was long and curved and uphill. She had time to study the structure as she rode up. It was nearly too impressive for the area it overlooked, but someone had spent quite a few dinars on landscaping that muted the austerity built into the structure. Tall, well pruned trees and brightly painted statues obfuscated most of the building on approach.
More then two dozens steps of carved marble led from the path up to the door of the main palace. A thin man stood at the bottom step, his head bowed. “Empress,” he said as soon as she was within hearing distance, “we'd heard you had arrived in Apollonia. I apologize for having no one there to greet you.”
“And you're,” she asked.
He stood up straight. He was taller then he looked; attractive, if maybe a little haggard in appearance. “Diomedes, Empress. I'm the seneschal.”
“Thank you for meeting us, however I've come to meet your mistress, Gabrielle.”
He blanched, “Apologies Empress. I've sent word for her to come greet you. It can sometimes be difficult to get her attention. If you'll pardon me one moment—“ He didn't wait for Xena to excuse him, instead turning and running up the stairs two at a time.
She glanced at Draco who ducked his head in amusement.
They all sat still on their horses. No one appeared. Not the seneschal, not Gabrielle, not even a boy from the stables to take their horses.
“This Gabrielle certainly has an efficient staff,” Draco said, not bothering to cover the sarcastic tone in his voice.
Xena agreed, “I get the feeling she doesn't have visitors often.”
Just then there was a scream. The high pitched keen of a child in mortal fear. Xena and her soldiers all jerked in their saddles, hands falling to swords as they looked around for the threat.
A girl, no more then five, came running around the corner of the palace at break neck speed. She was covered in dirt and filth and her bright blue eyes were alight with fear. Behind her followed a small blond woman, only slightly less filthy.
The girl stopped abruptly at the sight of Xena. The woman, not yet noticing the horses, continued to chase. She stopped too when she realized the girl was staring ahead. Her eyes caught Xena's and widened in surprise—but not fear. Odd.
Draco, still spooked by the girl's earlier scream, yanked at the reigns of his horse and approached the woman and child. “Does your mistress usually condone this sort of screaming when guests arrive?”
The woman's green eyes narrowed, “What the mistress of this house does or does not condone is none of your concern soldier. Or is Greece now a martial state, obliged to follow the rules of the man with the biggest sword.”
Draco sneered, “You need a lesson in manners.”
Xena had no idea if he was about to reach for his sword or whip. Neither would be good. She kicked the side of her horse and rode up next to him, grabbing his arm. “Perhaps you do as well Draco. Or do you often threaten to beat our host?”
She looked back to the blond woman. She'd tucked the child behind herself protectively and watched them both with the sort of arrogance just not found in a servant.
“Gabrielle of Apollonia I presume?”
The woman raised an eyebrow, then curtsied, “You presume correctly Empress. What gave me away? The filthy clothes, or the cutting remark.”
“The unbridled arrogance. A common trait in most of your plays.”
The woman's lips quirked up into something resembling a smile. “I had no idea I could count the Empress of Greece amongst my fans.”
“I never said I was a fan.”
The blond laughed suddenly. When she smiled again it was warm and almost polite.
Just then Diomedes came running back down the stairs two at a time. He looked from Xena to the blond woman and child. Then he quietly whispered a prayer to some god Xena doubt could hear.
“Diomedes, I see you finally arrived,” Gabrielle said. The humor in her voice indicated that she knew full well the seneschal had been running through the palace looking for her. “If you could make sure the guest house is aired out? And that another place is set for dinner.”
Diomedes nodded and then wordlessly headed back up the stairs.
Gabrielle turned her attention back to Xena. “I'm afraid I'll have to insist that you stay in the main house this evening. The guest house isn't nearly large enough for you and your guards. And I hope you'll join me for dinner?”
Xena found herself nodding despite finding the arrangements less then satisfactory. “Of course.”
She quickly dismounted her own horse and handed the reigns to Draco. He leaned down in his saddle. “Should I send guards with you Empress?”
“That won't be necessary. Enjoy the guest house and get plenty of sleep. We'll be leaving before dawn in the morning.”
Draco's dark eyes looked to where the playwright stood waiting, then back to Xena. He nodded. “As you wish Empress.”
Draco righted himself in his saddle and raised his hand again. The guard quickly realigned itself behind him and followed him to the stables. Xena could just make the building out and saw an older man and young boy hurriedly moving toward Draco and her men.
“None of your soldiers are joining us?”
Xena tried not to jump. The little playwright was quiet. She hadn't even heard her footsteps on the gravel path. She turned and found the playwright and child watching her with nearly identical looks of curiosity. The girl must have been her daughter. They both had their heads cocked just so and their right hands both rested on their hips. But Gabrielle had green eyes, like the water at the shore's edge. The girl's were a brilliant blue with an openness not shared by her mother's.
“Draco thought I ought to have an escort, but we're in a palace usually reserved for governors I appoint. I told him I'd be safe.”
“And you will be.” Gabrielle clapped her hands together loudly, “Now, let's go inside and enjoy a feast. Your luggage will be brought to your room shortly.” She turned to escort Xena up the stairs, the small girl trailed distantly behind her. The smaller woman took Xena's arm in her own and Xena, again, found herself surprised at the liberty being taken and at her own apathy regarding it. “I must apologize for how we were introduced,” Gabrielle confided, “Eve has just reached that stage where baths are the stuff of nightmares.”
“And you chased her down yourself?”
Gabrielle looked confused.
“Rather then a nanny?” Xena elaborated.
“Oh. No Eve doesn't have a nanny, just a tutor.”
“Is that very common for women of you station,” Xena ventured.
Gabrielle shook her head, “I wouldn't know. I just know I was raised without the benefits of nannies or servants and I'd like to see my daughter raised in a similar fashion.”
Inside Gabrielle personally saw Xena to her rooms and departed with a deep bow. Xena noticed the way the younger woman's hair fell around her shoulders as she bowed. It was well kept hair, not a tangle in sight, and not a wig. It was rare to see a woman of Gabrielle's means with real hair. They all seemed to shave or bind it up and then went traipsing about with hair in unnaturally bright shades of red and yellow and black. Gabrielle's golden hair was like flax seed, warm and bright and natural. She stood back up to her full height, her head only coming up to Xena's shoulders. The woman's hair was long, and Xena thought it made her look much younger then the lines around her mouth and eyes suggested she was.
The woman's voice had gone up an octave or two since coming in the house. Xena wondered if it was the surroundings, or the absence of guards. “I look forward to sharing dinner with you Empress. Now if you'll excuse me,” and like her seneschal before her she didn't actually wait for Xena to excuse her, she just shut the heavy, carved oak door and left Xena to a very large, tastefully decorated and empty room.
Just beyond the walls she heard the girl, Eve, screech again. And a smile spread on her face despite how unbecoming the child's screams should have been. It reminded her of her own childhood. She and Lyceus hiding in the barn for fear of the baths or chores their mother would inflict on them. She wondered if Gabrielle's hands were as coarse as her mother's. Did she have siblings? Parents she supported with her obvious wealth?
And why did Xena even care? What drove her to wonder about the slight playwright with the terrible manners and the poorly run home?
She settled onto a settee and closed her eyes. Her fingers ran across the exquisitely carved feet of the seat and her mind wandered. She was sleepy, she realized. Someone had set a large fire in the room to chase away the cool oncoming evening and the room was quiet, absent of the servants that usually bustled in and out of Xena's quarters in other palaces.
She'd forgotten how peaceful it was to be so alone.
She slept. If just for a little while.
Okay. It wasn't the way she'd planned to spend her evening. It certainly wasn't the way she'd planned to meet the ruler of her nation. Not that she'd ever actually planned to meet Xena, Destroyer of Nations. Xena the Conqueror. Xena, the woman she'd treated like an average traveler. Some woman who didn't travel with a huge retinue of well-armed and well-trained soldiers.
By the gods, Gabrielle had treated the Empress of Greece like a casual acquaintance!
How was she alive? How was her head on her shoulders and not on a pike outside the house's wall?
And she'd been dirty . She and Eve had spent the afternoon in the gardens and then they'd gone fishing and then they'd spent far too much time in the mud. And she'd gone up and taken the Empress of Greece's arm smelling like fish and coated in mud. How mortifying. How terribly embarrassing. If Euripides or Homer heard they'd never let her forget it. Their next read through would be full of wisecracks about the filthy Bard of Potidea. Doesn't even bother to tidy up when greeting royalty!
Gabrielle sunk low into her bath. She'd had it drawn as soon as she was out of the Empress's sight. Sure she'd first greeted the woman smelling like fish, but she was bound and determined to make a better second impression. She had nice clothes. She could do her hair in a fashion other then free and scraggly. She'd even wear makeup. Okay, Homer and Euripides might tease her about the makeup, but as soon as they sorted out that she'd worn it to dine with the Empress of Greece they'd get over it. And maybe they wouldn't know who they were dining with. Maybe Homer would show up in his underpants like he'd done three days previously. Or Euripides would come in so thoroughly drunk he'd vomit in the Empress's lap.
Gabrielle jerked up in the back, the warm, soapy water sloshing up over the side. That wouldn't do. She couldn't have her other guest's vomiting in the Empress's lap. Because that's the kind of thing that was hilarious amongst friends but absolutely mortifying out in public. They'd hear about it in Athens or Corinth and then all her work would be for nothing.
She heaved herself out of her bath and grabbed her robe, cinching the silk cord tightly around her waist.
She'd have to send Diomedes out to warn Euripides and Homer. And to see that the Empress's luggage actually got to the Empress. And she'd have to make sure Eve was clean herself. Diomedes was awful at handling her.
Hopefully Eve would realize a bath was in her best interest for the evening, but the way that girl had been acting lately she wouldn't be surprised if she was dancing naked in her room and howling like a monkey imported from Indus.
Shit. The Empress of Greece, Indus and Chin was staying in Gabrielle's house. This was not something she could have planned.
Somehow, by the mercies of the gods of Olympus, Eve had managed to take her bath without supervision. She'd cleaned her ears and washed her hair and was sitting patiently on her bed waiting for her mother. Gabrielle sighed with relief at the sight of her daughter all clean and fresh looking.
Although she wasn't wearing any clothes. That was a bit of a problem. Most nights she wouldn't have minded if Eve chose to avoid clothes, after all it wasn't Gabrielle's ass that would get stuck full of splinters, but tonight a bare-bottomed daughter at dinner wouldn't do.
“Come on Eve, how about this dress?”
Eve had her hands folded over her chest. She shook her dark head of hair vigorously. “No!”
“A toga? We can call you little Lord Alexander.”
“Well what then? Because I'm not having you come to dinner in nothing but what the gods gave you.”
Eve shot up off her bed and past her mother, tugging on a pair of pants. Gabrielle sighed. She snatched them away from her daughter.
“No,” she mimicked perfectly.
“Why not? You wear pants.”
“I'm also an adult. And I don't wear them when dining with one of the most powerful people in the entire world!”
“You said the Empress is just a greedy bully.”
Gabrielle sighed again and pinched the bridge of her nose. Her daughter was deliberately being a brat. She knelt down so they were on the same level. “Okay, I know you've got plans for what you want to wear and what you want to eat and when you want to do it all, but tonight, for me, I need you to not be a little terror spawned from the depths of Tartarus. Can you do that?”
“Can I wear pants?”
Such an ass. “Fine. But one word about what I say about this country in the privacy of our home and I'll burn every pair of pants you own or will ever own. Got that?”
“Yes, mom .” When did her five year old daughter become a surly teenager?
She pulled down a nice shirt to go with the pants, so that at least her daughter wouldn't look a thug from the back alleys of Apollonia. “Wear this shirt. And your clean boots. Clear?”
The girl, now getting exactly what she wanted, happily pulled out her boots and sat down on the carpet to brush them off.
One fire sorted, just a billion more before dinner to sort out.
Diomedes was waiting for her outside Eve's room.
“The Empress is here.”
“The Empress of Greece. And Indus!”
“And Chin. Don't forget Chin Diomedes.”
He put his hand to his chest, “Oh how could I. Did you know she was coming?”
“Of course not. Did you?”
“A few hours ago. I've had half the people in this house looking for you. Where'd you go?”
“That spring in the hills. Was teaching Eve how to fish.”
“That explains the smell earlier. Do you think she noticed?”
Gabrielle shook her head, “I hope not.” She took the seneschal's arm and pulled him close, “Can you do me a favor and tell Homer and Euripides. I need them on their best behavior tonight.”
“Still remembering that incident with Euripides and the Roman Merchants Guild?”
Gabrielle made a sour face. “Who could forget? Best behavior Diomedes. And if they're already loused then just lock them in their rooms until morning.”
Diomedes threw her a lazy mock salute, “My pleasure my lady.” He bowed and walked away, carefully moving his bottom out of the way before she could kick it.
Things were starting to arrange themselves. Her child was clean and wearing clothes, her seneschal was off to make sure the dinner was prepared and the other guests in good order. And Gabrielle was still in her silk robe.
She jogged back to her own room, her bare feet slapping loudly against the polished tile.
Clothes. She needed something good looking. But not too ostentatious . The Empress had arrived with only about twenty soldiers and not a single servant. It wouldn't do for Gabrielle to dress nicer then her ruler.
And her hair. She reached her room and sat down in front of her mirror, tugging at the rapidly drying strands of blond hair. Should she put it up? Give it some curl? That was apparently popular in Athens. Or maybe wear it down so she didn't look like she was trying too hard? Or a compromise. A nice ponytail or bun. A ponytail. There was something youthful about the way it bobbed when she moved.
She peered at herself in the dim reflection of the mirror. The light from the lamps and fire place cast long shadows on her face. She looked old. Tired. Haggard. She poked and prodded at the skin, pulling it back and forth and watching the wrinkles appear and disappear. Not even thirty and already she looked old beyond her years. She reached for the powders and creams that were stacked near her mirror. They softened her skin, pulled years away from her face. The kohl around her eyes exaggerated the green of her irises. The red on her lips did the same.
By her own estimation she wasn't as pretty as the Empress. She never would be. They'd led wildly different lives, but she could at least look pretty fantastic when she wanted to. She selected a turquoise dress of some diaphanous material Talmadeus had given her once. Maybe not the most politically savvy idea, to wear a gift from the garrison commander, but she liked the way it hung on her sturdy figure.
Dressed and made up she shut the door to her room and headed back to her daughter's. She entered and found Eve standing near the fire place and hopping up and down as she tried to tug on a very clean looking boot. Gabrielle smiled and crossed the room, holding her daughter steady so she could pull on the boot easier.
“Don't you look very dapper this evening.”
Eve looked up at her mother and gave her a toothless grin. Gabrielle frowned. “What happened to your front teeth?”
“I lost them!”
“Both? At the same time. In the span of twenty minutes?”
Eve nodded eagerly. “They just popped right out!” She ran over to her bedside and returned with two bloody little bits of bone. Gabrielle tried to look proud, but her daughter walking around with her teeth in her hand made her recoil just a bit. Eve seemed to pick up on her mother's distaste and started to pull back.
Gabrielle smiled weakly and knelt down. “Come on,” she said, “let's have a look at them.”
Eve came forward again, her tiny hand outstretched. Gabrielle took it and peered down at the teeth.
“Both of your front teeth. You're going to be stuck on soup for months.”
“Euripides said he lost nearly all his teeth when he was my age. He just ate bread and wine.”
“That would explain a lot about Euripides now,” Gabrielle muttered. “You'll be skipping the wine, but your welcome to the bread.” She closed her daughter's hand over the teeth, “Now, what should we do with these? Sew them into a rocky field and hope for undead soldiers?”
Eve's face brightened, “Like dragon teeth!”
“Exactly. And we'll make Euripides do all the planting. How's that sound,” Gabrielle asked, her voice dropping to a more conspiratorial level.
“Yeah!” Eve said, copying her mother's expression.
“Good, now go put those teeth away so we can go down to dinner.”
Eve ran back over to her bedside and tucked the two teeth into a little pouch. “Is that really the Empress,” she asked over her shoulder.
“I expect so. No one else would be riding around with a compliment of soldiers in purple.”
“What's so special about purple?”
“It's the Empress's color. She only lets a few people in the whole world wear that shade.”
Eve considered this, “So if I wore that purple she'd string me up on a cross and let the crows eat my entrails?”
Both of Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up in surprise, “Where on earth did you get that idea?”
“Homer said that that's what the Empress does to people who disobey.”
“I think Homer and I are going to have a talk about what's appropriate to tell a five year old girl.”
Xena was surprised to find the dining hall completely empty. Sure there were lit fires and braziers, and a table set with expensive tableware. And she could definitely smell food cooking, but the dining hall itself was devoid of people.
No one responded. She slowly walked through the room and vaguely wished she'd brought a sword. An empty dining room at dinner time was an unnerving place to be. She approached the table and noticed the flagons of wine set out, and the number of places set. Five. She, her host, maybe the girl, but who were the other two?
The door she'd entered through burst open, swinging wide on it's hinges and slamming into the wall that held it. It shouldn't have startled her but it did. Fortunately Xena had spent years perfecting a gaze that could freeze the Mediterranean. She schooled her features into her best frigid gaze of disdain and turned.
The two who entered were not whom she'd expected to find. They were both men, and they both looked a little drunk. The little one had shaggy hair and an even shaggier beard and the good grace to look almost bashful when he saw Xena. His tall companion was classically attractive but seemed to possess an ego almost as large and as irritating as their host's. Maybe even larger. His face was flushed red, and judging by the way he sauntered towards Xena with a distinctive swagger in his narrow hips, it was definitely not from lust or embarrassment.
“What? Hark. Homer, do my eyes deceive me or have we been visited by a goddess?”
An ebony eyebrow raised.
The shaggy little man grinned and Xena realized he was just as drunk as his friend. “Maybe, or perhaps a nymph our host plucked from a spring on her journey.”
The taller drunk clutched his hands over his heart, “Of course! A nymph. Those eyes sparkle like water at the shore's edge. That hair, black as darkest night. Those features, too beautiful to be mortal, and that smile, too warm to be that of a goddess. Tell me, what spring did Gabrielle pluck you from? Or did she even pluck you? Perhaps she just spoke. I know our host and her way with words. Euripides pales in comparison to her tongue. They say it was forged by silver stolen from Hephaestus himself.”
“It's true,” the shaggy one said, “her words come from some place beyond our world, gifted to her by the gods. Her stories so intricately woven that even the masterful works of Homer himself cannot compare.”
The tall one pointed at himself, “Euripides marvels at her talent fair nymph.”
The shaggy one bowed, “And Homer marvels at her guests. Please, spare us both this agony that's struck us nearly dumb. Pray. Give us a name that we might ascribe to your beauty nymph.”
Xena heard a noise and looked up past the two idiots. Gabrielle stood at the doorway with Eve's hand clutched in her own. She looked…effervescent. Nothing like the hardy mother she'd met at the stairs, but more like the regal playwright whose plays Xena had spent her last few days reading.
Except for Gabrielle's face. The horror Xena saw there was unmistakable. Gabrielle started to intervene but Xena held up a hand and returned her attention to the drunks.
“Xena,” she said matter of factly.
Homer stood back up straight and shared a look with Euripides, whose hands had fallen from his chest. They then turned back to her. She smiled, sweetly.
Then, to everyone's surprise, Euripides lurched forward and took her hand in his own smaller and smoother ones. “Xena. What misfortune has given you such a name,” he asked with apparent concern, “to be saddled with such a name…how cruel could your parents be?”
Gabrielle had dropped her daughter's hand and tried to intervene again, “Euripides—“
Xena gripped one of the hands holding her own a bit more tightly and moved close, into the man's personal space. “Why is my name such a misfortune?”
He his overly dramatic concern shifted to humor, “Because all women who claim the name Xena pale beneath the bright light that is our Empress.”
Behind him Gabrielle stopped, inert, though it looked like she was still mildly irritated with her other guests.
Euripides brought Xena's hand up to his lips and gently kissed it, “But I think it is not fortune that has given you your name, but fate.”
Xena wanted to be thoroughly irritated with the drunk too, but she had to admit, “that's a wonderfully circuitous way of greeting your Empress.”
The shaggy Homer smiled, “Apologies Empress, not for our performance, but for our somewhat inebriated state. We wanted to get into character.”
“Mmm,” Euripides said, his lips still attached to Xena's hand, he looked up, placed another gentle kiss on her knuckles and stood up straight, “We were trying our hand at being buffoonish guests intent on mortifying our host and charming her most esteemed guest.”
Gabrielle slapped a hand down on the tall man's back. Xena hadn't even noticed the woman move the fifteen or so paces from the door to where she stood with Euripides.
“And you succeeded most admirably. Perhaps you should perform rather then write the plays,” Gabrielle said rather churlishly, then to Xena, “Apologies Empress. I suppose this means I must introduce you. Euripides,” the tall one bowed, “and Homer,” the shaggy one followed suit, “guests and friends.”
“And fellow artists,” Euripides offered.
“Maybe better,” Homer added, “though not nearly as wealthy.”
“Or as successful,” Gabrielle said with a smile.
Homer waved his hand dismissively, “semantics Gabrielle. Afforded the same opportunities as you Euripides and I would be giants of the creative forum.”
“Giants,” Euripides scoffed, “We would be titans . All other bards and playwrights and poets would cower before our literary might.”
Gabrielle slung her arms over each man's shoulders and pulled them tightly against her, “And yet, it's my plays that cause riots of pleasure in Athens.”
“I hear we'll be having a riot in Corinth soon enough,” Xena said, reinserting herself into the conversation.
“I've heard similar Empress,” Gabrielle responded.
“Can we please eat,” the forgotten Eve moaned from the door.
Euripides and Homer shared another look over Gabrielle's head then slipped from her grasp and turned their attention to the child. They started describing their passion for the coming meal in the most flowery language Xena had ever heard. She watched with wide eyed surprise that was maybe a little unusual for the most powerful woman in the world.
“I really am sorry,” Gabrielle said quietly, “but at least they're behaving.”
“This is behaving?”
“No vomit or insults and they're not dueling each other with the flatware. They're being positively virtuous.”
As soon as the last of the dinner party was seated a second door, receded into an alcove, opened and servants trekked in wordlessly carrying a variety of foods. They places the meal out over the table and left again, without even a glance to the guests or hosts.
“Please, eat,” Gabrielle said, and Xena was surprised to notice that her two writer friends had actually waited for permission before they tore into the platters before them. Though Eve sat at Gabrielle's right it was Homer who helped serve her.
It was all very familiar and efficient.
“Empress,” Gabrielle asked, pausing with her hand over some lamb that sat between them, “is everything all right?”
Xena looked down and realized she hadn't even begun to fill her own plate. “Yes,” she tried to cover, “I was just trying to figure out what I should eat.”
Euripides offered up his own preference, “the lamb can only be compared to ambrosia. I suspect it confers godhood on to all who sample it.”
“The lamb then,” Xena said with some finality, and she reached for the platter that Gabrielle was currently wrestling some meat off of.
Soon enough the conversation began to flow again, and dinner continued on amicably enough. Xena, used to being the center of attention, was almost relieved to find the opposite true at Gabrielle's table. It was the child, Eve, whom everyone seemed to focus on.
And the child responded with a wit and verve that was fairly uncommon for one so young. Xena found herself almost enchanted with the girl. And with her mother too. Gabrielle led the conversation easily enough, but whenever Xena turned to watch her she found those green eyes staring back. Attentive. Curious.
The final course eventually came, and when every last sweet pastry and bit of fruit had been devoured Homer leaned back in his seat and considered his table mates. “And what shall be our entertainment for the evening. A song. Some of Eve's poetry?” He nudged the girl who smiled back, “a play?”
Gabrielle leaned over her empty plate and reached for her wine, “Whatever it is I'm afraid I'll have to excuse myself.”
“Moooooom,” Eve moaned.
Gabrielle smiled affectionately and ran a hand over her daughter's dark hair, “I said I had to. You're welcome to join them. Nothing too ribald Homer.”
“Please, do I look like Sappho?”
“Sappho,” Xena asked.
Euripides used a bit of grape stem to pick at his teeth, “Our dear friend the Lyricist of Lesbos.”
“She's brilliant,” Gabrielle commented, “but a lot of her work isn't meant for little ears.”
“Doesn't stop her though. When she coming back anyways?”
“Week after next I think,” Gabrielle said immediately.
Her fellow playwrights shared a look that Xena didn't miss.
“You're close?” She shouldn't have asked.
“She's a dear friend.” A cagey answer. How Xena would have answered. Her bright eyes narrowed in consideration.
Euripides, perhaps not as oblivious as his posture suggested looked to Eve, “I've finished a new play and I need some help reading through it. I hope you can help?”
“Not the Bacchae one,” Homer moaned.
“No. This is a story about the strength of family. Eve, I need you to do something for me.”
The girl nodded. Xena cast a glance at her mother and found those eyes again staring at her rather then following the conversation.
“I'm going to give you a line. Say it back.” The girl nodded. Euripides gave her the line. Gabrielle sighed.
Eve submitted, for the pleasure of the table, the most malicious smile Xena had ever seen on someone who didn't have a weapon in their hand. “There is no benefit in the gifts of a bad man,” the girl said. Her voice sounding awfully gravely like Alti's.
“Charming,” Gabrielle said flatly. “Maybe don't have my daughter play Medea?”
Euripides stood up, “It is not my place to deny your daughter a role she so clearly desires.”
“But it's my place to send you out of this house ass over tea kettle.”
Homer gave out a short snort of laughter. Euripides looked positively derisive which only sent Homer into further peals of laughter. Eve contented herself with saying her line over again and again.
Xena had entered some sort of strange land apart from the one she ruled. Where children played murderous wives and people found it amusing and those of lesser station treated her like an equal rather then as their empress. And where a set of green eyes always seemed to find hers.
“All right,” Homer said, wiping a few errant tears from his eyes, “No Medea. Maybe Helen of Troy. I'll play Menelaus and you can be the Egyptian.”
Euripides took in a deep breath and considered it, “Very well, but only if I get to use the chariot.”
“Both of you out ,” Gabrielle demanded.
Homer scooped Eve up and slung her over his shoulder. The girl squealed in response but didn't try to extricate herself. He came around the table and squatted so mother could kiss daughter goodnight and then both playwrights and the child left, leaving Xena alone with her fair haired host.
“So,” Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, “perhaps we should discuss why you've come to my home with a retinue of your best soldiers.”
The playwright certainly wasted no time. The door had barely closed behind her daughter. Xena's eyes narrowed. “Contrary to what you may have been told, this palace isn't yours.”
A pale eyebrow lifted.
“I, and I alone decide who lives here,” she continued.
“This was my husband's home,” the playwright countered.
“He stayed in this palace because I appointed him governor. That is all.”
“You'd have me leave?” The blond's head cocked to one side as she considered the Empress's words. At once Xena was reminded of the woman's daughter and the similarities between the two.
“Yes.” The word came out in a much more confident tone then Xena had expected. She didn't feel nearly as controlled as she sounded.
It worked though. Gabrielle's face hardened.
“But first, let's continue discussing the liberties you've taken.”
Xena looked past Gabrielle. There was a window behind the woman, and she could see the dark silhouette of hills in the night. “You live in this home as though you are Apollonia's governor. And now I hear you try to govern this land as well. Tell me Gabrielle, what gave you the right?”
The younger woman almost sneered, “You left Talmadeus in charge. He needed help. I helped. I've made no claims for the position you've purposely left vacant since my husband's death. Don't blame me for you own failures as a ruler.”
It was Xena's turn to look surprised. She immediately covered it with a sneer of her own, “Talmadeus is a good solider. A trusted ally. Though perhaps too kind. He should have kicked you out as soon as your husband was in the ground.”
“And this land would have suffered. Do you really think it was Talmadeus who took on my husband's duties in the last months of his life? He could barely talk, let alone govern a province. I've helped Talmadeus. And he's helped me.”
“Given you a home that wasn't his to give. A province too.”
Gabrielle sucked in a breath and seemed to fight with a rage that bubbled beneath the surface. “You abandoned Apollonia. No aid. No soldiers.”
“I expect my provinces to be self sufficient.” This woman was getting to her just as she clearly got to the women. She desperately needed to stop. To take stock. To be still. But Gabrielle had other things in mind.
“And through sweat and tears Talmadeus and I have done that. Don't you dare suggest I did this for any reason beyond the altruistic. We've made this land a gem. Rome, Athens, Alexandria. We now rival all of them in terms of wealth and trade. And with no help from you Empress .”
Xena stood up suddenly, her chair clattered over, “Your tone is out of line playwright. I expect respect.”
“And you've no doubt earned it in Corinth. But here you're little more then a face on our coins.”
Xena found herself so close to the other woman she could see the flecks of blue and gold in her eyes. Gabrielle was breathing hard, but she didn't shy away. “Consider yourself fortunate. The senate only recently told me I couldn't crucify any longer.” The smaller woman's nostrils flared. Anger? Fear?
Gabrielle's hands were flat against the table. She still sat in her seat, bracing herself against it. Xena, for the first time since their shouting had begun, noticed that she was towering over the woman. She knew, even in a fine gown meant for dining, that she cut an imposing figure.
Gabrielle, ever arrogant and obstinate, didn't shy away. But she didn't challenge Xena either. She stayed perfectly still. The knuckles of her hands and the tips of her fingers were white from the pressure she exerted on them. Forcing herself to stay perfectly still as the Empress of Greece and Chin and Indus lurked above her.
Xena was used to being the imposing one. Used to being in control. Used to seeing the backs of her enemies as they ran or were drug away. The playwright clearly had no intention to run. She waited. So it was Xena who abruptly turned and left, her long red gown flowing behind her.
She didn't see Gabrielle sag in her seat as soon as her back was turned.
Xena walked through the palace at as quick a pace as possible, nearly running when she spotted the door that led to the outside. She pushed it open and staggered out into the cool night air, sucking in deep breaths and grateful to hear that she was alone and had not been followed by the playwright.
She'd lost her temper, that much was clear. That woman. Her damned confidence. It had riled Xena. She'd actually threatened her with crucifixion! Who was she? Caesar? She took a few steps towards the guest house where her soldiers were and stopped. Her legs were shaky with adrenalin. She was shaky.
Expect respect . Who on earth said that? And that stupid woman was right. Xena had ignored the province. And the woman was good. Things prospered. And there was no glaring example of wealth. It wasn't like the woman had crowned herself governor.
Xena took another wobbly step then sat heavily on the stairs. She couldn't go back in. Couldn't spend the night and then a terribly uncomfortable breakfast in that woman's home.
She looked up to find Draco standing there with his helmet in his hand and looking very lost and confused. He started to approach. “Empress is everything all right.”
The light was dim, but Draco's eyes and ears were keen. The fortifying breath she so desperately desired would have to wait.
The will that led her from shattered pirate on a cross to Empress allowed her to reign her emotions in then. To wrap them up tightly and bury them so that they might be considered at another more private time.
“Everything's fine Draco. I've just had a delicious meal and I got to thinking. Talmadeus probably knows we've arrived by now.”
“I would suspect so.”
“And he thinks we'll come riding up tomorrow morning to kick him off the little throne he's built himself and his girlfriend.”
Draco smiled. He was handsome, but with that scar and his general disposition his smile didn't come across as very nice. “Yes ma'am.”
“We'll leave tonight then. Don't want him getting too comfortable.”
He shook his head. “No ma'am. We wouldn't want that.”
She nodded and stood again. “Prep the horses. I expect to be ready to leave as soon as I've changed.”
Draco clicked his heels together and turned back towards the guest house jogging and shouting to roust his men. Xena stretched and stood.
She re-entered the palace and wasn't the least bit to surprised to find Gabrielle waiting for her. Only Gabrielle looked nervous. Worried even.
“Empress,” she started.
Xena moved to pass the smaller woman, “I think you've had your say.”
The blond caught her arm and Xena turned. Her temper flared. She wanted to hit the woman. Smash her fist against the playwright's temple and relish the ache it set through her hand and arm. And those eyes, fiery in the light, caught hers and then she wanted to kiss her. Fully conquer the self-righteous woman. Completely possess her.
If Gabrielle saw the lust she didn't acknowledge it. “I've said the wrong thing.” Was she apologizing? “Everything I said just now. How I said it. It was all wrong. And I worry that you're going to go and hurt Talmadeus because of my actions.”
That was…unusual. “You want me to pardon Talmadeus.”
“He was doing what he thought was best for Apollonia,” she bowed her head in penitence, “for you. Please don't let my actions color your judgement of him.”
“And what or your daughter?”
The playwright paled, “Eve?”
“What will she do without a mother?”
“I have family, in Potidea. Whatever you must do I only ask you not carry your judgements onto my child and family.”
She placed her hand over the one that tightly grasped her arm. It was almost a comforting motion. “You have my word Gabrielle.”
The woman bowed her head again. Was she about to cry?
Xena didn't need to see tears. She didn't need to think about the two drunk writers currently entertaining the charming little girl. The girl who was blameless in this all. She didn't need to think of the woman who would dare insult her and then ask for her to forgive others just as guilty.
Her steps were hurried as she made her way to the room Gabrielle had given her. The sooner she was changed and out of this palace the more right she would feel.
The garrison seemed to be in good repair, and was busy despite the late hour. She saw the torch light long before she crested the last hill. The soldiers manning the garrison were well trained. They saw the armor, saw the color of the men behind her wore and quickly called for the gate to open. There was no call for identity.
Talmadeus had most certainly been expecting her.
The man himself, big with bushy red hair streaked with gray, was waiting for her as her group rode into the center of the garrison. Sleepy eyed boys hurried to take the reign of her horse as she dismounted.
Talmadeus had the good grace not to grovel at the sight of his Empress riding into his garrison in the middle of the night. He certainly knew her visit wasn't social. That there was trouble a foot. He bowed and spoke in a gravely voice with a hint of an accent. “Empress.”
If she remembered correctly Talmadeus tended to be wordy. He wasn't this time. He looked up and his watery eyes caught her own. As with Gabrielle after dinner Xena found herself faced with a person who knew exactly what they'd done, and who didn't appear to have the slightest bit of regret. It was almost refreshing after all the political toadies she was forced to deal with in Corinth.
“Inside,” she growled. She didn't pause to acknowledge his lieutenant who was standing there oblivious, meaty hand extended in greeting. As if she'd greet a mere lieutenant with a handshake.
Talmadeus followed her. Behind them both she heard her own guard dismounting and following.
She'd only been to the garrison twice, but it was like many of the garrisons that she had sprinkled across her lands and she found the commander's office easily enough. She held the door open for Talmadeus then slammed it shut in Draco's face.
She turned around to watch Talmadeus. He was like a rat, caught out by a cat. “Empress,” he croaked out.
Xena stood perfectly still, her temper had wained a bit after leaving the governor's palace, but standing here, staring at a man she trusted and watching his chastised expression she felt the anger coming back full forth.
She spoke with the smooth dulcet tones that had confused many a warlord, “Hello Talmadeus. You've been,” she paused, for effect, “busy.”
“Yes Empress. Expressing your will to the people.”
“Is that a fact?”
He almost looked offended, “what are you suggesting.”
“I went to the governor's palace. As no governor has been appointed I expected to find it empty. It wasn't Talmadeus.”
“Yes Talmadeus.” She could tell her repeated use of his name was getting to him. She felt her grin widen.
“I didn't…I didn't have the heart to cast her out. With a child…”
“And her husband's pension she would have been fine. You kept her around for your own purposes. Didn't you Talmadeus?”
He seemed to realize ignorance and politeness wouldn't help him. He gave her a knowing grin. “She's very beautiful Empress.”
The idea of his sweaty, wrinkly old hide writhing of the playwright made Xena nauseous for all the wrong reasons. She curled her hands into fists to restrain herself. Talmadeus didn't notice.
Her smile was set on her face as though it'd been cast from stone. Her jaw was so clenched she could feel the muscles ache. Through gritted teeth, “That's not the only reason is it?”
“She's clever enough, and she was popular. Politically it was sound.”
She crept closer, and the fool didn't even notice her movements, “Maybe. Certain it wasn't because it was easier to pawn off your duties onto some unknown civilian?”
There. A flare of anger in his eyes. “Empress,” he growled. She wanted him angry. Wanted it to be smooth and easy. Wanted him to attack so she could jam her fingers into the bulging veins of his neck and watch him collapse and gasp like a fish removed from water. Her veins hummed with anticipation.
“What's the matter, upset I found out?”
She could see it in him, the anger. No doubt mad that a younger, craftier warlord now commanded him. Jealousy. Bitterness. She could smell it on him. But those watery eyes stilled. The bastard found some inner strength or something. “I follow only the edict you so often preached in the later campaigns. For the greater good Empress.” It came out too smug. She didn't want to jam her fingers into his neck any longer. She wanted to take off his head. Her arms were at her side and she could feel the cool touch of her chakram against her right forearm. He was close, maybe too close. But it'd be fun to try.
“How exactly is she for the greater good?”
“As I said, she's clever. Wise almost. The people like her well enough and she handles the politics with aplomb.”
He was right. She was good. Which left the question, “So why do I still need you?”
The smugness slipped, “Empress?”
Watching the realization dawn was as good as any orgasm she'd had in the last month. The disappointment, the shock, she almost wanted to close her eyes so that she could watch the moment again and again in her mind's eye. Instead, “you're released from duties Talmadeus. Effective immediately. I want you back in Corinth by the week's end.”
She turned to leave. How amusing it had all turned. She felt a strong hand grip her arm. The second time someone had taken liberties with her person that night. Only Talmadeus wasn't nearly as pretty. She spun around, begging him to make an attempt, to let his own anger get the better of him. “Isn't this what you want Talmadeus,” she urged, “All for the greater good. Leave the wise Gabrielle to manage Apollonia.”
“She needs me. Apollonia needs me.”
“You're just a name, as you've already told me, she's the real brain of this operation.”
She surged forward, “What? What can't I do?”
She wanted to revel in that fury in his eyes. Delight in the pain she'd caused him with nothing but words. “She's not a soldier, she can't manage the garrison.”
“Your lieutenant, Palaemon, I guess he's getting a promotion.” She reached up and patted her hand against his cheek, “Get some rest Talmadeus. It's a long ride to Corinth.”
Gabrielle didn't sleep. She made a few attempts. Laid out on her bed and closed her eyes and tried to clear her head, but nothing came of it. So she got out of bed, put on a dress that would hold up nicely in a dungeon and paced her office. Sometimes she'd stop pacing and look out the window towards the garrison. She hoped Talmadeus had better luck with Xena then she'd had.
Xena. Stupid, awful, terrible empress. She'd picked at Gabrielle's ego. It had only been a little pick, not even a scratch, and Gabrielle had gone off. She cupped her head in her hands. Idiot. She was an idiot. She'd gone and told the most powerful woman in the world that she was a terrible ruler.
She wasn't an oracle despite some claims she'd made a few times in her youth, but she could clearly see her future now. Guards would come for her and take her to a dungeon. Maybe the one at the garrison, or the jail in Apollonia. They'd beat her and laugh at her then string her up on some cross or post and let the birds and elements sort her out. Though…hadn't Xena said crucifixion was no longer allowed? So she'd be hanged. Or decapitated. Whatever would leave a more unpleasant looking corpse.
Such an idiot.
Even dumber because now she had the chance to run. The Empress had left. Taken her Imperial Guard with her. The few soldiers who usually manned the gate at Gabrielle's home were still down at their posts. She could take Eve, climb over the wall and make a break for a future with a less torturous execution.
But she didn't. She just kept pacing.
Then her eye caught some paperwork she'd laid aside.
So the Empress wanted to kill her? Wanted to punish her for allegedly usurping a position that wasn't rightfully hers? Whatever happened to her roads still had to be built, orphanages funded, docks maintained. Apollonia had to continue to function.
She sat down at her desk and buried herself in her work. If someone had asked why: why she didn't run or why she didn't spend those hours watching Eve sleep she would have claimed it was because she wanted to be remembered as an altruistic and noble woman, working for the people until the bitter end. Really she just had a feeling. The guards hadn't tried to arrest her when Xena left and though her creative mind was quick to imagine dozens of painful punishments the rational part of her suspected that she'd just be removed from the premises. She didn't watch her daughter sleep and consider her fate because she suspected the Empress didn't actually want to kill her. The threat had been made, but a decisive a woman as Xena would have followed through immediately if she'd meant it.
And Gabrielle liked to think of herself as a clever leader. Were she in Xena's position she'd have a hell of a time sorting it out without losing face. Killing off Gabrielle, a very public and well liked figure, would be political suicide—even for the Empress of half the known world.
Xena didn't sleep that night. She'd thought about it a few times, but dismissed the idea quickly. The garrison was hers and the men, ostensibly, loyal to her. Didn't mean she trusted them. She'd just kicked their leader out and she hadn't spent enough time in the garrison yet to ascertain just how liked Talmadeus was.
Yet another mistake she'd made since arriving in Apollonia.
Mistakes. That's all she'd been making. She should have sent Marcus but curiosity drove her to come herself. She should have killed the woman as soon as she saw her, but again curiosity stilled her hand. And she should have taken time when dismissing Talmadeus. Images of that woman, of the prosperous Apollonious—they'd filled her head and encouraged her to sack the man as soon as he'd opened his mouth.
It was a woman. Xena was never moved by love or lust. She'd learned with Borias that emotions could destroy her. Now this woman had gone and reminded her. Brought up all these feelings that couldn't simply be explained away with the excuse of “curiosity.”
She liked the woman. Liked how she raised her daughter all on her own and played with the child and got dirty with her. How she was smart enough to manipulate Talmadeus. Clever enough to run all of Apollonious. She liked how soft her skin looked and how blond her hair was. And how the kohl was so expertly applied around those sparkling eyes.
Xena had a crush.
Xena didn't have crushes. She saw and she conquered. That was all.
But no, this one time, in all her years, she had to have a crush and had to cock up a very simple expedition and had to be stuck all by her lonesome and try and sort it out.
Damn it all to Tartarus.
They left the garrison just as the sun was rising up over the hills to the east. It shown on their backs all the way back to the palace. Made her guards sweaty beneath armor they'd been forced to wear nearly twenty four hours straight. Xena had changed clothes, but even she felt a little fatigue nipping at her senses.
Once again, red-cloaked guards opened the gates and bowed. Once more the wiry seneschal stood at the base of the stairs waiting for them.
“Where is she,” she growled.
He guided her through the palace, and was wise enough not to speak.
They stopped at a door far from where the bed chambers were. He knocked once, heavily, on the wood of the door, and then opened it. She stepped through into a brightly lit office. A fire, built sometime in the night, was now only embers. It idly popped and sizzled.
Gabrielle, still dressed in her gown from dinner, sat at a desk covered in papers and scrolls. The kohl had smudged all around her eyes and her bangs stuck straight up and out giving her the appearance of a rather startled raccoon.
She looked up wearily and her sea green eyes widened at the sight of her Empress so early in the morning. She stood suddenly.
“Save it.” She pushed herself across the room and towards the smaller woman. A breeze swept through the room. Her purple robes shivered.
Gabrielle sat back down in her chair. She sighed heavily, as if she were Atlas just given a respite. But she still watched Xena with those captivating eyes. It was just like the gaze of all-seeing Helios. Hot and without end.
Xena chose not to sit. She'd been sitting or riding for what felt like days. She needed to stand, and standing made her tower over the other woman. Gave her a sense of power she suspected she could never have with regards to the playwright.
“I've just come from the garrison,” she said. Gabrielle looked away. Nodded. Was she preparing for news? Waiting to hear of the promotion she surely knew she now had? “Talmadeus has been relieved of command. He'll return to Corinth in a few days time.”
Those eyes looked up at her in surprise. Had she not expected it? She continued, “You've done such a good job, I expect you to do even better now that it's your own name's on the line.” She continued to stare. “I need people like you.” Who questioned authority and caused Xena trouble. Sure. “I need people who will still my hand. Question me.” Liar. “Who will help me protect this nation, even if it means calling me out.” Big fat liar who's only giving the goddess a job for— “I need you, Gabrielle of Apollonia.”
“I called you an idiot.”
“Something I hope you'll refrain from in the future.”
“You're not going to kill me?” Had she misjudged the woman? Given her too much credit?
Irritation took hold. Gripping the smaller woman's feature and turning her look sour. “You were planning this when you left last night?”
“You threatened me with crucifixion.”
“We outlawed it months ago.”
“Threatened to make my daughter an orphan.”
Oh right. “I needed to see that temper flare. Your response was a good example of your character.” Nice save Empress of the known world.
Gabrielle stood. Ran tanned hands through her hair. Those bangs of hers stuck up even further. “I spent the entire night waiting. Waiting for you to come and kill me.”
She had misjudged her. “You struck me as clever. I thought you knew it was a joke.” Something like a smile was on Xena's face, but it was sinister. Almost angry. Disappointed.
Gabrielle regarded her again. Opened her mouth to speak. Closed it. She turned away to look out the window. Xena followed her gaze. It was the same view as from the dining room. Hills and stones and at the edges of sight the sea. Gabrielle didn't turn back when she spoke. Maybe it was safer for her to stare at rocks. “I'm no one.”
“Not what they say in Athens. Or Corinth.”
She laughed. It was bitter sounding. Made the younger woman sound too old. “A playwright. The people I host here have more talent. I've just had fortune.” She took a breath. Turned. Held Xena's gaze. So few people looked her in the eyes. And never were they as honest as Gabrielle. “Why should I have thought it was a joke? When I am only here by luck?”
Xena wanted to come around the desk and take the smaller woman in her arms. And it wasn't desire that tried to move her feet. But compassion. Something she usually kept chained up deep inside.
She settled on soft words instead of a softer touch. Her tone would have been out of place in public. Even Marcus would have raised a brow at it. “I'm sorry.” Xena never apologized. More words escaped her.
“And Talmadeus? He was the smart one. He was the one using available resources to help the people. He was the one who gave me kindness when I deserved none.”
And then Xena found herself around the desk and standing before Gabrielle. Her feet had carried her without her conscious self knowing. She wanted to touch the woman still. Take her by the chin and force her to look at Xena. She didn't. Gabrielle struck her as someone who didn't like to be touched.
“Gabrielle,” words would have to do what hands could not. The woman finally raised her head. “You've mistaken kindness for altruism. It's easy with someone as clever as Talmadeus.” Her voice took on the flinty quality of command, “but don't do it again.”
“And are you not doing the same? Misjudging my purpose?”
She looked down at the surface of the desk. It was covered in scrolls and papers. A knife to sharpen quills rested by the ink pot. Gabrielle had one hand on on a scroll and she could see the nails of it stained black with ink. She looked back at the woman. “You thought I'd come here to kill you and yet I find you calmly at your desk governing a province. It's a rare person that would do such a thing.”
“Only the best. Or the nastiest. How can you be so sure I'm the former?”
She didn't give a damn. That look on Gabrielle's face. How she cocked her head when she leveled her question. She was beautiful. Xena ignored all reason and logic and leaned in. A kiss? Simple closeness? She wasn't even sure what she wanted. Wasn't sure of consequences. Just certain she needed it.
Gabrielle reflexively leaned back and away.
Most people would have suffered through the beat. Realized how awkward things would and could be. Let Gabrielle see that she'd gone in for a kiss. But Xena was quick, she covered it with words as she moved closer still. Not to lips that beckoned her, but to the beautiful ear that flushed with Xena's proximity. “You begged.”
She pulled back and found Gabrielle's face awash with confusion.
“Your daughter. Your family. Talmadeus. You begged for their lives when you thought yours was to be taken. The nasty would beg only for themselves.”
“If you trust me Xena, you're a fool.” It was almost a whisper from the writer's lips.
Xena smiled, “Words like that only make me more trusting.” She reached out. She'd been denied a kiss, and any touch really, she would not be denied this. Her hand was fast. She'd noticed with Gabrielle all her movements had to be quicker. The little playwright was deceptively fast herself. Xena enjoyed the feeling of the writer's cheek against her palm. The look of confusion in the writer's eyes though? That only served to illuminate Xena's own. She pushed it back. It could wait until she was alone on her boat.
“I need honesty Gabrielle. You're the first I've found in many years to give me that.”
Gabrielle, a woman Xena knew to be loquacious, was silent. Her eyes were calm and focused and her lips pressed together tightly. A cipher was Xena's new governor.
“I should go. I've made Palaemon the new leader of the garrison. You know him?”
“Good. Work with him. Continue to make this province great. Next month my governors will attend me in Corinth. I look forward to your presence.”
A flash of something. Irritation. Gabrielle did not like commands, even those guised as invitations. But she bowed anyways. “It will be my honor Empress.”
She already missed the way the other woman said her name. She walked away and refused to look back. Draco was silent too. It would be a short ride to the docks. Energy, both violent and sexual, coiled in the pit of Xena. A short ride to the docks and a long trip via boat would have her in a foul mood by the next day.
“Draco.” He road up next to her.
“Send a man down to the docks. Have them meet us in Orikos.”
He looked puzzled, “Empress?”
If she heard her title one more time she'd slaughter her entire guard with a fling of her chakram. “The horses need a good ride, as do I. Now send the man!”
He nodded and a purple cloaked guard rode away at break neck speed. She and the other men turned south towards Orikos. She looked back briefly and was surprised to see her newest governor watching her from her office.
The ride would do her good, because her actions since arriving in Apollonia were awfully idiotic. That silly writer with those gorgeous eyes and that funny way of talking in a throaty whisper was trying to kill her with nothing more then her own nature.
She spurred her horse and let the wind and well maintained roads take her south.
That had been…unexpected. Gabrielle paced because what she really wanted to do was cheer and shout and run off every ounce of energy bottled up in her compact frame. Pacing would have to do.
She was a governor . She'd expected death or imprisonment or at least a dismissal from her home, but instead she was the governor of Apollonia.
Oh yeah, there was a little concern. She was in the Empress's sights now. And poor Talmadeus had gotten the boot. But their heads were still attached and they weren't under lock and key so something had to be good and right.
She couldn't help it. She whooped. It was loud and echoed off the marble, but it felt good .
“Mom.” The whooping had also brought Eve out of whatever hiding place she'd been in all morning. It was still early and Homer and Euripides would be sleeping off all the alcohol they'd imbibed the night before, but Eve, trying to prove she wasn't her mother's daughter, was always an early riser.
“Eve!” Gabrielle leapt across the room and took her daughter up in her arms, swinging the dark haired girl around and around. She ignored her daughter's startled expression and just held the child close. The glee, the excitement, it bubbled up in her veins.
Eve lightly patted her mother's back with a tiny hand. Gabrielle ducked her head down and rested her nose in her Eve's hair. “You okay,” the child asked.
“Perfect.” She leaned back so she could look at her daughter's face. Eve watched her carefully. “I've got some work to do, but what say we go up to that spring again today? Maybe have dinner there?”
Eve was too young to wonder why her mother was pacing her office or swinging her about or offering night time picnics. Her mind went straight to, “Can Homer and Euripides come? Euripides said he'd have more of the play done tonight!”
“They can come. We'll all do a reading together.” She set the child down and stretched. Her back popped pleasantly.
“And the Empress? Will she be back?”
She stroked Eve's hair. Delighting in how the fine dark brown strands of it sifted through her fingers. “No,” she said softly, “not if I do things right.”
It was only an hour later when Diomedes darted into her office to announce the arrival of the new leader of the garrison. Palaemon stood behind him in his shiny armor and red cloak with his helmet cradled in his arm.
Gabrielle waved him over to a desk shoved against the wall where a variety of maps were stacked. “Palaemon you're just in time. I've got to deal with some of the Empress's fields in the north. They've been fallow since my husband died, and I think now is the perfect time to put them to use.”
Palaemon didn't respond immediately, which was unusual for the man. He tended to be talkative. Not quite like Gabrielle herself, or Euripides, but for a soldier the man ran his mouth quite a bit.
She looked up from her maps. “Palaemon?”
He was looking nervous—no, not nervous. He was looking worried. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead and his eyes were screwed up in a look of concern.
Gabrielle straightened up and watched him curiously, waiting for a response.
“Talmadeus left.” He finally said.
“The Empress said as much this morning. What's wrong?”
“He was angry Gabrielle.”
Oh. Talmadeus had a bit of a temper. Gabrielle had once seen him beat a soldier for mishandling a sword. It was one of his least savory aspects, and something Gabrielle had worked hard to ignore when she dealt with him.
“When did he leave?”
“Not long ago.”
She glanced out the window. She could see the sails of Xena's ship in the distance. “The Empress's ship is far enough away. Send some men to collect him in town. I'll speak with him.”
“I would, but the Empress didn't travel by sea.”
Palaemon sighed, “She sent the ship ahead to Orikos. She and her men are traveling by road.”
“And Talmadeus is traveling alone and with purpose.”
He'd gone and put Gabrielle in a spot. If she didn't act, didn't send someone to stop him then Xena might hold her responsible for whatever foolish plan Talmadeus tried to enact. But if she did send someone to warn the Empress, or to stop Talmadeus, then she'd certainly be accused of arrogance again .
Damn it all and damn Xena—“Get after the Empress Palaemon. See if you can stop Talmadeus before he gets to her. If need be warn her. And do it quickly.”
Palaemon clicked his heels together and bowed, “Yes Governor.”
When he looked up he was smiling, pleased with the title he'd been allowed to speak. Gabrielle grinned back, “That'll take some time to get used to.”
“Don't let it ma'am. You've earned that title a thousand times over.”
“And you, Palaemon, need to know that flattery will get you everywhere in life. Now hurry. I'd rather not have to hear about Talmadeus being accused of assasination.”
The soldier's eyes narrowed in contempt at the idea. He nodded again, curtly, and bound out of the room, his dark red cloak billowing dramatically after him.
“Diomedes?” Her voice wasn't loud and she resisted the tremor that came naturally. Diomedes heard her through the door. Heard the tremor that wasn't there.
“Is everything all right?”
Nothing was all right. Talmadeus was on the move and only trouble could come of it. “I was going to take Eve to the spring. Can you do it?”
He frowned, “Eve isn't particularly fond of my company.”
“So take Homer and Euripides as well.”
He watched her. Looked for the tremor to express itself in an unsteady hand or a tremulous sigh. Nothing came. Gabrielle was taut. Focused. Her sea green eyes watching the hills beyond the palace.
“Gabrielle. What's happened?”
“Hopefully nothing. Hopefully I'm just a bit nervous about being made governor.”
“And if not.”
She turned her eyes to him. She lacked the unnerving glint of the empress, but there was a bit of steel in her eyes. “Take them to the spring. Enjoy a good meal. Return after nightfall.”
He nodded and disappeared out the door again—leaving Gabrielle alone once more.
She returned her attention to the hills. Talmadeus would be out there somewhere. But where was he headed? To assassinate an empress? Or something worse?
Xena would never have outright said she'd made a mistake. She was Empress of the most of the known world and could decapitate a man a town away with a flick of her wrist. She'd conquered Darius and his Immortals and stayed the hand of Rome and Egypt. She was as close to a god on earth as one could get without godly powers.
But she was hotter than the depths of Tartarus.
The sun was beating down on her and Draco's men with a ferocity that made her wonder what she'd done to irk Apollo so. Sweat made the seat of her saddle slick and the breeze that blew through the fig trees lining the roads was too warm to provide comfort.
Draco was hot too. His face was red and he'd tipped his helmet up so it rested on the cap of his head. The bits of his undershirt she could see were dark with sweat and he took a few more sips from his canteen then necessary.
She considered saying something smart but these weren't normal troops. She didn't need to ingratiate herself with these men. Didn't need to commiserate about the heat. She needed to be tall and strong and sweat free. So she held her tongue.
She heard the beats of the horse on the hard backed road well before her soldiers. Draco gave her the queerest look he could muster without rebuke as she pulled tight on the reigns and spun her horse around.
“Ma'am,” Draco managed to ask.
“Rider, coming fast.”
She knew he couldn't hear the rider yet and he was more likely to see the person before he heard him. But all he needed was her word to have the soldiers spinning around and readying spears and javelins.
She raised her hand to halt any violent action and rode down the column towards the fast approaching rider. Draco silently followed.
She could see him now, his bright armor shimmering in the sun and his cloak billowing behind him and as read as his face probably was. A man from a garrison—from the Apollonia garrison.
“Talmadeus,” Draco asked.
“I don't think so, but be prepared.”
Draco nodded and used his spear to tilt his helmet back down onto his head.
The rider was pushing his horse too hard in the heat. She could see the white foam around the horse's mouth from a distance and see the frantic breaths that had the horse's sides moving in and out.
She heeled her own horse into a canter to meet the rider faster. Draco and his men followed silently.
When he was close enough the rider pulled to a stop kicking up dust and pulling a strangled whinny from the beast he rode on. Close enough now she could see it was her new garrison leader, Palaemon.
“And here I thought I left you to command a garrison.”
The man nodded and tried to rub sweat from his face, but his helmet was in the way so he settled for drying his neck instead. “You did ma'am, but the new governor set me with a task.”
“To wear a horse to death on the road?”
“To find you.”
“Why,” Draco growled from behind her.
Palaemon kept his focus on Xena. Smart man. “She was concerned ma'am, with how quickly Talmadeus fled the garrison.”
Xena narrowed her eyes, “She thinks he's coming after me?”
He shook his head, “She couldn't be sure. So she sent me to find you.”
“And why would she send her garrison commander when a scout would have been so much cheaper and faster?”
He flashed her a cheeky and youthful grin, “No one faster on horseback in the garrison ma'am.”
But there was a problem. The head of the garrison was sweating on a horse in front of her. The rest of the garrison, including those left to guard the governor's mansion, were no doubt excellent soldiers. But they wouldn't be wary of Talmadeus. Wouldn't anticipate foul play from the bastard. Not like Xena and Draco had.
Not like that new governor apparently had.
“Did she give any other order before sending you after me Palaemon?”
“And did you, give any orders Palaemon?”
She saw something dawn in those pretty eyes of his. Some realization that he'd made a mistake. “No ma'am,” he ventured. “Should I have?”
“A murderous general is on the loose eager to harm those he felt betrayed him Palaemon. That means me. You for taking his post. And her. And you've left her surrounded by men who'd have no reason to stop him.”
His hot red blush dissipated all too quickly and his skin turned pale. He opened his mouth. Maybe to apologize or express horror, but Xena didn't care, she was already spurring her horse into a gallop and leaning forward in the saddle.
That damn governor and her nobility was going to get one of them killed.
When twilight had cast it's dark hue across the hills the day before Gabrielle had been nervously preparing to entertain her empress. Now she stood at her window as an official governor.
And somewhere deep in the hills at a well hidden spring her daughter was enjoying a meal with some of Gabrielle's closest friends.
And somewhere far to the east Palaemon had hopefully found the empress and was safe in her care.
Which just left Gabrielle alone in her office with a very angry general.
He stood just inside the doorway. He was completely still. He'd changed from his shiny garrison armor to some worn looking leather armor. Made him darker in the night and quieter too.
His sword was gone. Just a wicked long knife clutched in his hand. She'd heard him open the door and step inside, but she didn't turn to face him, and he seemed reluctant to move forward.
So she and Talmadeus stood there quietly.
She tried to listen to the sounds beyond the house. Or even those within. To the cook in the kitchen. Or the old man in the stable. Or maybe to Homer and Euripides who would soon be guiding Diomedes and Eve back through the darkness with silly songs.
But it was dead silent. Only the breath in her chest and the gentle creaking of Talmadeus's armor.
“What was it about me,” she finally said, her voice throaty from disuse, “that made you come here?”
“Palaemon wasn't at the garrison. And Xena's long gone.”
“So I picked the short straw?”
He approached and made no effort to mask the sound. She turned to face him and found that outside the change in armor he looked very much the same. She's expected desperation or a crazed look in his eyes. Maybe some sweat gleaming on his brow. But he was focused, the only concession to his murderous mania the way he fiddled with his knife.
“I gave you Apollonia Gabrielle. Gave you this palace. I let you live when many would have slit your throat. And as soon as she waltzes in you've betrayed me. For what?”
“It wasn't my intention. Ever.”
“But you didn't turn her down did you?”
He threw his head back and laughed. In the firelight, with his red hair and beard, it was like watching a lion. And sure enough when the humor had moved through him he returned to his approach. Like the beast stalking it's prey.
“That's what I've always loved about you Gabrielle. The honesty . I love how it masks that ruthless little soul of yours.”
He was coming slowly around her desk now. She spied the knife she used for trimming quills. He followed her look.
“Thinking of picking it up?”
“It had crossed my mind.”
“Gabrielle,” he couldn't have looked more patronizing if he tried, “I was winning wars before you were born. All I've known is the battlefield. You're a clever little girl who married well. What have you known of battle? Of anything?”
A farm in Potidaea. The love of a sister. Cold nights in the north and long days in humid forests. Sleeping at the alter of a goddess and pain so brilliant it would stay with her an eternity. And Eve. The reason her eyes flicked back to the knife.
“We can both walk away. You can disappear with quite a few dinars and a good horse. Leave me here.”
He took another step. “You've heard of how I came to be in this army?”
No one liked to talk about the bitter defeat he'd suffered at the Empress's hand. She made him weep and beg in front of a thousand soldiers. Made him fight at her side. Given him a sword and laughed as she easily rebuffed his every attack. She'd cut him and whipped him and broken him. Then she'd put him out here with nothing but fear of her to motivate him.
“She needs to know I'm no longer scared.”
“You weren't the only one she hurt Talmadeus.”
He smiled, “No. And when they see she could not cow me how will they react?”
Her face betrayed her thoughts. Revolution. War. If she was fast she'd have the knife in her hand before he could thrust. If she wasn't fast she'd find herself skewered with his sour breath filling her nose.
Either way she had to lunge. Had to reach for the knife on the desk. This man would incite a rebellion and as much as she hated the Empress's despotic tendencies they were infinitely preferable to a land ruled by warlords and slavers.
Gabrielle pushed forward, steel flashed, and the door slammed open.
They were wrapped up in each other. Pressed close like daughter and father. The warm glow of braziers seemed to set their auburn hair afire.
Her hand was on his face, as if to calm the rage that had brought him there and he stared at her in shock, his eyes wild. The governor of Apollonia smiled as serene as any statue of Demeter.
Talmadeus stepped back. No. He stumbled. His hand was at his throat and Xena had the passing thought that he held it there because of some heady emotion. Tears of angers or fear. But he pulled his hand away a great gush of blood painted the front of him. It pumped from his neck in torrential flow and try as he might to staunch it his fingers weren't up to the task. He turned his wild eyes to her as he choked.
A dark smile slashed across Xena's face. She walked closer, delighting in his gasps. “I hope, Talmadeus,” she uttered, her voice barely above a whisper, “that the sight of me smiling is what you take with you to Tartarus.”
He grunted and tried to walk towards her, but there was no life left in his legs and he stumbled and fell. He stared up at her with a kind of fury she was all too familiar with. A fury that once lit her own eyes on a beach in the Mediterranean. She knew his suffering then. What it felt like to have an enemy so close and so far beyond one's grasp. She hated that feeling more then any other, but it made her warm inside to watch it glow in Talmadeus's eyes.
They kept rolling up in his head as he took his time dying. For a moment all there was was the white meat of them staring back at her. Then they rolled in his head towards the governor and with his last few choked breaths he laughed.
“Well, that wasn't on purpose,” Gabrielle finally muttered. And in the shifting light of the fire Xena now saw the hilt of a wicked blade grasped in Gabrielle's bloody hands. She was standing, but paler then the bright moon that shone outside and red ichor dampened the front of her dress.
“You,” it was all Xena could say.
“Probably need a healer,” the other woman muttered. Then she promptly fainted, the wicked dagger deep in her stomach.
The governor was light in Xena's arms as she moved through the palace. She held her close and was careful not to move the knife still jutting from her belly. Gabrielle hadn't even tried to take it out which spoke either to wisdom or to shock. Xena couldn't be sure which. She came into the main entrance hall to find Draco and the rest of her guards leaning agains the walls. Palaemon was the first to see them.
“A healer, now,” she demanded curtly. Palaemon was down the hall and out of sight before the others even realized what was happening.
He glanced at the pale woman in her arms then back to her, “Ma'am?”
“Find her daughter and see that she's safe. And bring that damned seneschal to me immediately.”
She had only a vague idea where the governor's quarters were, but the banquet room was bigger, and she remembered it being well lit.
She moved towards it then, kicking the door open with a thrust of her leg. Her men moved as if a part of her, instinctively knowing what to do. Two cleared the table while another removed his cloak to serve as a pillow. Others started lighting lamps and braziers and two more headed towards the kitchen in search of water.
She set Gabrielle down carefully and motioned to the closet man with a lamp. She took it from him and began to inspect the wound around the knife.
She'd been cut deep. The length of the dagger's tang suggested a long knife and it was in nearly to the hilt. But it looked to have come in at an angle.
“By the gods,” some old man shouted. There was a jangle of glass and metal and she smelled incense as the old man came closer. She motioned to the wound, never turning to look at him. “It's deep, but I think it may have missed anything really important.”
His weathered hands reached out to probe the wound and the governor groaned. “But a wound to the torso is never good.”
Xena immediately decided she disliked this sweet smelling old man with his basket of herbs and potions. She scowled and reached for his basket. “You'll need to make a poultice,” she ordered him. She found the thread and needle he wedged down at the bottom of the basket. The needle was filthy, but the filthy quickly burned when she stuck it into the center of the lamp's flame.
“Palaemon,” she called to the new garrison commander, “Talmadeus's body is in her office. Have it moved and see that the gore is cleaned up.”
He disappeared out the door again. The hidden doors to the kitchen opened once more and two soldiers came in with a great pot of steaming water between them.
Xena threaded the needle and held it with her teeth as she straddled Gabrielle's smaller form. She leaned down to whisper, “if you're in there try to keep the shouting to a minimum. This is going to hurt.”
Gabrielle didn't respond. She was covered in a thin film of sweat and her breath came quickly. Xena place one hand near the wound and the other on the hilt. She took her own fortifying breath and then she pulled.
For such a small woman the governor's pained cry was awfully loud.
Homer and Euripides kept doing the same scene of a new play over and over again. It wasn't one of Euripides but one of Gabrielle's. The one about the angel who leapt into hell for the woman he loved. Over and over again they said the words. Sometimes their voices were deep and sometimes they were high and sometimes they got bored and did the entire scene in Latin.
Eve read some poems. The words were beautiful and the rhythm hypnotic and if Eve had been even a few years older it would have been obscene. They were Sappho's poems. The ones she'd left with a gentle kiss and a promise.
Sappho sang the poems. She was wrapped up around Gabrielle. Longer then she'd ever been and her curly hair hung surprisingly straight. She wouldn't kiss her but she'd run a cool hand over Gabrielle's fevered flesh and recite the words with a smile in her voice. Her voice was nicer. Not as guttural as it once had been.
The Empress of the Known World shouted from Gabrielle's bedside. She was nursing Gabrielle's wound and muttering about murder and her hands were gentle. But she wasn't the Empress she was Aphrodite, come down from her temple. The warrior queen's scowl became a wistful look of concern and the cool and calloused hands turned soft.
The compresses smelled sweet but then the sweet smell turned cloying and the fire in the braziers turned hot. Too hot for Gabrielle. The fire lashed out of its clay confines like the long, hot tongue of an ancient god. Fingers pinched and pulled at her ankles then calves then thighs. The firey tongue came closer and whispers of destruction wormed their ways into Gabrielle's ears. Louder. And louder. And…
Then her Aphrodite was singing to her, but she wasn't the goddess of song. It was Sappho and she was honing the edge of a stout Greek sword but when she looked at her it was Xena's bright and knowing eyes.
“You have what I want,” she intoned and her face was carved from wood and then it splintered and he was there with his pompous smile. “Hello sweet thing.”
“It's all right.”
Xena was a killer. She'd slaughtered with impunity and found joy in heads set on spears. The crucifixions she demanded when she'd finally taken Corinth would no doubt be her lasting claim to fame long after she turned to dust and her empire shattered.
But a good killer needed to know the ins and outs of the body. Often times the best killer could be the best healer as well. Except that healing required emotional tenderness that Xena frowned on.
But every healer Palaemon and Draco and Diomedes had brought before her had failed next to her own ministrations. So she slept on a bed near Gabrielle's and rose for every whimper and moan.
She'd been right about the dagger. The damage had been minor. But it had been coated in a poison or covered in some filth because the wound had festered and the governor had turned paler.
She was only now starting to heal and as she got better her dreams grew more violent. So Xena sighed and sat next to the smaller woman and hummed a melody she'd heard when touring Athens.
A cool touch and a soft song calmed the woman.
But this time it did more. Xena had grown accustomed to watching Gabrielle's face. Watching every flinch and groan and moan and murmur. She'd watched those eyes flicker behind closed lids and she'd forgotten that they shared their color with the sea beyond the hills.
She found herself smiling when Gabrielle stared, “Hey,” she said the word more tender then any uttered in a decade.
And Gabrielle smiled weakly back, “hey.”
Diomedes had given her a funny look when she asked to see Sappho. “No,” he'd said, “she hadn't stopped by and there was no word that she would stop by.”
She chalked it up to fevered dreams. Sappho's presence was there next to Aphrodite's cool touch and the Empress's warm smile. Things that for whatever reason Gabrielle wanted.
But the Empress? That one really bugged her.
She respected the woman. Appreciated her skills as a warrior and as a healer. But she couldn't very well claim to like the woman who'd crucified a city.
Twice she'd worked herself back up to annoyance and fear at the Empress's presence. And twice the Empress had done something absolutely endearing, like comfort Eve.
Seeing the tall woman grin at Eve was like watching something out of one of her plays. Miracles happened in plays. People radically changed in plays. These things did not happen in real life.
“What are you thinking about?”
The Empress was in a chair next to Gabrielle's bed, her feet propped up on the mattress and a breastplate in her lap. She had some needle and thread and appeared to be mending the armor.
That was after she'd told Diomedes to bring Gabrielle a quill, ink and parchment. “She needs to work,” she'd growled, like she understood Gabrielle's nature implicitly.
Gabrielle didn't especially want to tell the Empress of the known world that she was thinking about her . Because then the woman would raise an eyebrow and maybe smile, or worse, she'd return to mending her armor with a cryptic look on her face.
She had to say something that didn't somehow involve Xena. “Do you fish?”
Good job Gabrielle, Playwright and Governor of Apollonia.
Xena looked down, and there was the cryptic look. Nope. Wait. Not a look. A smile . She glanced up at Gabrielle from beneath the shade of her bangs. Damn it.
Gabrielle tried to ignore the heat of the blush blanketing her face. “I need to get out of this bed and out of this room. And fishing. Fishing is low key, but it gets me out, so I wanted to go fishing. And you…I thought you could use the fresh air too.”
Well done Gabrielle. You've manage to make yourself look and sound like an ass in front of the most powerful woman on the planet.
Xena's smile grew brighter. “I fish Gabrielle. And I'd love to get out of this room and go fishing with you.”
“Good,” she said.
Just keep your mouth shut Gabrielle.
“We could take Eve. She's growing fond of you.”
May all your words die in a fire upon your own lips playwright.
Xena considered the offer. “That sounds nice.” She groaned a little and stood up. The bones in her back and arms shifted and popped as she stretched. “For now get some sleep.”
She bundled her armor and thread and needle up under her arm and left the room.
It was a bit chillier without her.
Gabrielle asks her to go fishing and she says yes? Xena desperately needed to get out of Apollonia. She needed to go home to Corinth and punish some rebels and irritate Rome and Egypt and Persia and maybe start a war on Chin's northern border. There was room for expansion up there.
But instead she'd spent the last two weeks in Apollonia playing nursemaid to the governor she'd only just appointed. The lithe, blond governor with the engaging smile and sharp wit and adorable daughter.
She didn't just need to get out of Apollonia. She needed to flee the state on the backs of a hundred nubile servants that she'd then take to her bed in an orgy so grand it'd be immortalized in frescos throughout her empire.
She needed sex and blood and violence. She didn't need to be peaking into young Eve's room to make sure the girl was all right.
She was lying in front of the fire with a stack of feathers that Xena had given her to trim. The girl had her chin in her hand and was dipping the feathered end of the quills into the fire, watching the feathers curl and burn.
“Interesting habit of trimming you have there.”
Eve started at Xena's voice and twisted to look over her shoulder. “Aren't you supposed to be watching my mother sleep.”
Xena ignored that comment chalking it up to the girl's age. “Aren't you supposed to be trimming quills,” she deflected.
The girl returned to burning the feathers. “Trimming them is boring. Burning though.” She pulled the feather out and held the smoldering mess up for Xena's inspection. “Much neater.”
“Until bits of that burning feather land on one of these mats and the entire room bursts into flame.” She turned around again and stared. “Giant flames,” Xena continued, “like the ones I used when I destroyed Persia's fleet.”
“Mom said the flames were so high they touched the clouds and made it rain.”
Xena frowned, “Your mother was there?”
Gabrielle nodded, “Mom's seen just about every major battle in the last ten years. She saw Rome defeat Boudica, and Greece burn Persia's fleet and the sacking of Troy.”
“Sounds like your mother's well travelled.”
Xena sat next to the girl and scooped up some of the quills, doing the work she'd asked of Eve. Eve took Xena's new position as an offer and climbed into her lap, curling up like a large squirmy cat. “Homer says good writers have to be at all the great historical moments.”
“So he was at Troy?”
She nodded against Xena's chest, “And he journeyed all the way to Ithaca with Odysseus. He's writing a poem about it now.”
It had taken Odysseus ten years to return home. Bards called it one of the greatest odysseys in the history of Greece. Xena, having met the man, thought the pompous fool should have just asked for directions. But that wasn't nearly as interesting a story for five year olds.
“But I think it's funny that he and Euripides and Mom write about Troy but none of them remember the other ones being there. There weren't that many people were there?”
No, just bodies and the smell of burning flesh and the giant wooden horse watching the rape and pillaging like a monolithic sentry sent by the gods. “They're all writing about Troy?”
She nodded again. “I think it gets boring though. Hearing about some guy who was too dumb to put armor on his one weak spot.” She shifted so she could look up at Xena, “I mean how dumb do you have to be?”
“Achilles wasn't stupid,” in all her years she never thought she'd be defending the brute, “he was passionate and he was hurt.”
“Because of the arrow?”
“Because of Patroclus.”
“He was Achille's dearest friend. Closer then brothers or lovers even. The other half of his soul.”
Gabrielle was creeping into the room and leaning heavily against a long stick she'd found somewhere. From the looks of the wrappings and feathers decorating the staff it had once been an Amazon's weapon. How the dead warrior must weep to see it now in the hands of a frail politician. Gabrielle moved slowly, but she didn't look as bad as Xena would have expected. Her color was returning and she wasn't even sweating from the effort of walking.
Gabrielle took a seat at the foot of Eve's bed. “And one day Achille's felt he couldn't fight.”
Xena snorted and quickly tried to cover it up with a cough, but not before the governor gave her a warning look.
“So Patroclus took Achille's armor and fought in his place. And he was fierce and some say that maybe he even fought as well as his friend. But his prowess made him a target and Hector challenged him and won.”
She saw it now. As Gabrielle got wrapped up in the emotions her words evoked. A story that Xena had always found amusing gave her pause when told by the playwright.
“Patroclus died and never did the world see grief as potent as that which Achilles shed on the Trojan beaches. He wept and tore his hair and went out naked and slaughtered a hundred Trojans. He didn't care who he killed or what became of the corpses or even what became of himself.”
“That fury brought him into battle with Hector, who he slew, and it led him to raid Troy. Again and again he threw himself of the city's walls until one day an errant arrow from Paris's bow found its mark.”
“And killed him,” Eve finished.
Gabrielle laughed, “Yes. And killed him.”
“So the moral is…don't get mad if your friend dies?”
“It's not as easy as it sounds,” Gabrielle and Xena both said at the same time. They shared a look and then quickly looked away. Bashfully.
Eve was oblivious to anything that passed between the women. She pushed herself out of Xena's lap and dusted the soot from burnt feathers off her front. “I still don't get why he didn't just wear more armor though. Then he could have been vengeful for forever”
“It was his fate,” Gabrielle said, “he's supposed to be an example for us. Even the mightiest of warriors cannot escape their fate.”
Another day Xena would have interpreted Gabrielle'e words as a threat. But now, there was something soft in her sea green eyes. Maybe it was a warning. Or maybe it was just a story to entertain a child.
Only Eve had grown bored and left them to go off in search of Homer and Euripides, who were apparently more fun. That left Xena alone with Gabrielle, and for the first time since the other woman had been injured Xena found herself…uncomfortable.
“That was a nice story,” she said in the hopes that any words might quell the silence.
Gabrielle shrugged, “A friend who would do anything to avenge the one they loved? Always popular.”
“But you tell the tale with passion.”
Gabrielle ducked down a blush coloring her cheeks, “Thank you Empress.”
Xena groaned and leaned back on her hands. She was still sitting on the floor. “Please, I had to suffer through your convalescence. I think you can call me Xena.”
“Do you let all your governors call you Xena?”
“Only the ones I like.”
Smooth Xena. Gabrielle cocked her head and something like a smile played on her lips, “You like me?”
“I like Apollonia.” Good, go with that. “The income it brings. The well trained soldiers.”
“Barring the ones who sneak into your palaces to murder your governors.”
“There are always exceptions.”
And then she really did smile and it was perfect. More perfect then any woman's smile had a right to be. “I'm glad I'm one,” her voice dropped in timbre, “Xena.”
Was it the fire Eve had roasted feathers in heating the room? A bead of sweat traveled down Xena's neck and into the space between her shoulder blades. But she held Gabrielle's gaze. And she tried to figure out how quickly she could move from a sitting position to having the playwright in her arms.
“I guess I should shuffle my way back to bed before my nurse notices I'm gone.” And Gabrielle had shattered the moment. She started to stand, leaning heavily on the staff. It wouldn't be appropriate to wrap her up in her arms now so Xena settled for quickly standing and making sure the other woman didn't fall.
“Careful,” she warned.
Gabrielle slapped Xena's hands away. “It's just standing. I'll have you know I used to be really good at it—“
All the color went out of her face and she stumbled. Xena was there to catch her though. She put an arm around Gabrielle's waist and made her stand, but she left a little gap between them, for propriety's sake.
“This standing thing's harder then it looks,” Gabrielle admitted weakly.
“Only for people who've had giant knives stuck in their bellies two weeks ago.”
They started the trek back to Gabrielle's room. “You know in plays the hero is always getting stabbed in the stomach and he never so much as cries. Maybe a gasp or something. But they act like it's a flesh wound.”
“From my experience people who get stabbed in the stomach don't normally live to write about it.”
“So it is just artistic license?”
“Hmph, I think I'm going to make it my goal to educate people. My next play will be all about a wily politician in convalescence after an attack.”
“Oh it will be. Lots of intrigue, and a good looking healer to flirt with.”
Xena was proud of herself. She didn't stumble at Gabrielle's flirting tone.
They were at the entrance to Gabrielle's room now and the smaller woman looked exhausted from her walk, but she still found enough energy to smile softly up at Xena. “I think I'm going to get some rest,” she said quietly. Xena gulped and nodded. “You should go find the boys. Make them entertain you with one of their plays.”
“I much prefer yours.”
“That's because I'm the famous one.” She looked serious all of a sudden, like the governor Xena had appointed, “Euripides is good and his plays are exciting. You'll like them. Besides, I need rest.”
She pulled away from Xena and shuffled towards her bed, the staff clacking loudly on the tile floor. Xena desperately wanted to follow her and talk and relish her company, but they could do that while fishing…for hours…without seneschals or writers friends.
“Goodnight Gabrielle,” she called from the door then she turned down the hall towards the writers' messy little enclave where she could already hear their chatter mingled with Eve's laughter.
When she was little Gabrielle liked to follow the streams near her house and traipse barefoot through them. She'd pull a branch off a tree and drive it into the water and declare herself Poseidon. Then she'd swing the branch around and try to flick water on Lila--who always sat on the shore drawing in the pebbles and dirt.
When she was older and on the shore of rivers far away from Potidaea she'd watch men with nets and sticks pull fish out of the water as if by magic. A kind boy with a smooth chest, a winning smile and a scar on his chin told her that way was silly. He dragged her out into the river and showed her how to catch the fish with her hands.
“Be still,” he said. “Calm. You're setting a trap Gabrielle. Let them swim right in.” His breath was hot on her neck and his smooth chest warm against her back.
And then his big hands would clamp like a vice around a fish and pull it up out of the river. She never seemed to get the knack of it though and had settled on string, a hook and a good long stick. “This is how we caught them back home,” she said proudly, and the kind boy had smiled and gone back hip deep into the river leaving her cool and dry on the shore.
But one day he did not meet her at the rivers edge. They said he'd grown too still and it was the fish that ate him. They found his body bloated and wrinkly half a day's ride away. His eyes had been eaten by the fish and there was a great crack in his head. She and some of the others like her had buried him beneath stones and asked that Hermes or Death see him safely to the great beyond.
The empress liked to catch fish like that kind boy had. She was taller than him though, and the water only came to her knees. She had to bend a little to lay her trap, but her hands were quick and each time they came above the water it was with a fish firmly in their grasp.
Eve had wanted to learn to fish that way as well so Xena had her sit further down stream and closer to the shore. The water came only to Eve's ankles. So she squatted in it and cupped the river with her tiny hands. She came close to catching minnows a few times, but so far all she'd caught was a fat old frog that slipped from her fingers as soon as she pulled it from the water.
Gabrielle's stomach still ached and the Empress was concerned about the bindings getting wet so she'd been relegated to watching the fire they kept on the shore and enjoying the comfort of the shade. They hadn't taken any guards with them on their little ride. Just Xena's sword and chakram and three strong horses. That had been Gabrielle's insistence. She'd never travelled with guards in Apollonia before and she wouldn't start now just because of Talmadeus.
In her head she'd held a contest to see who was angrier with that decision. Her seneschal, Diomedes, or the empress's guard, Draco. The skinny man and the scarred warrior had both scowled and grumbled.
And now they were back at the palace and she was enjoying a warm breeze and watching her daughter play in the river with Xena. The Xena. Who had told her just the night before to call her that.
And the woman was standing knee deep in the river dressed only in a shift and smiling. She had a wonderful smile Gabrielle noticed. And for an alleged murderer and tyrant she had a way with children. Eve was growing more frustrated by the second with her fishing and Xena had noticed. She moved to squat behind the girl, took her small hands in her larger ones and guided them in the water.
She whispered something in the little girl's ear and Eve nodded fiercely. They both went perfectly still. Their eyes watched the water and looked for the small fish beneath the surface. Then there was a sudden splash and Eve thrust her hands up into the air with a shout.
“Mom! Mom! Mom!” She turned around and ran for Gabrielle, her hands still tightly clasped together.
Gabrielle looked briefly past her daughter. Xena was still standing in the water with her hands on her hips and that smile on her lips. She winked when Gabrielle caught her eye.
Thankfully Eve reached her before the blush could spread from her cheeks down to her neck.
“Look,” she shouted and thrust her hands out to Gabrielle. Cupped in her hands was a tiny minnow, still swimming in the bit of water Eve had caught with it.
“That fish is enormous,” she said.
And her daughter glared, “It's tiny but I caught it with my hands. Have you ever caught one with your hands,” she challenged.
“Once or twice,” she said mysteriously, “Now, what do you plan to do with it?”
Eve looked back down at the fish in her hands. “Eat it?”
She offered, “Or you could put it back.”
Eve's lower lip stuck out in a pout but Gabrielle held firm. Finally the girl moved sullenly back to the water and more fishing.
Xena then came to sit next to her, but not before flicking a bit of river water on Gabrielle with a smile. “Why'd you make her put it back?”
“A tiny fish like that isn't worth much. Especially when we've got that feast you've been catching all morning.”
“So you prefer to only catch big fish?”
Gabrielle bumped her shoulder into Xena's like they were old friends. “Giants.”
They sat in companionable silence for a time before Xena spoke again. “Your daughter is fast with those little hands of hers.”
“Is that a fact?”
“I used to fish this way with my brother, but we never caught anything besides worms or frogs until we were older than Eve.”
“But Cortese came.”
Xena studied her a moment, “How do you know that?”
“Before I was a governor or a playwright I was a bard. The story of the Empress and Cortese was popular.”
“Now you're making me feel old.”
“I did a very romantic version of it. A sister seeking vengeance on the man who killed her brother and in the process ridding Greece of slavery.”
Xena frowned, “The ill of this country can be traced directly back to men like Cortese,” she said quite seriously.
“And like your man Draco too.”
Xena gave her a sharp look and Gabrielle nearly bit her tongue. Stupid, stupid Gabrielle. Draco's past as a slaver probably wasn't common knowledge.
“Either you know that from experience or you're better connected than I thought playwright.”
“We're back to that name,” she cracked with a smile.
Xena didn't blink. Her eyes now were like chips of glacier ice, cold and hard even in the summer sun. “How do you know about Draco?” Like a dog who'd found its bone.
“I know him only by reputation.”
But Xena's face was impassive and still. Down on the shore Eve had given up the game of fishing and was now stomping through the stream. Gussets of water splashed up in the wake of her tiny feet and she sang a song Sappho had taught her once. She stomped to the rhythm and the splash of the river was like rain on the skins of drums.
And Xena still stared. Until, “he came to your village,” she said softly.
Gabrielle didn't respond. She watched her daughter sing and play. Xena spoke of Potidaea. Of Draco's love of the area and his fondness for the “stock” he found there. All Gabrielle could hear was the splashing of her daughter's feet, but soon the river was red with blood and Potidaea was crying out in pain and Gabrielle was doing all a brave girl girl could do.
“I'm sorry.” An apology. Uttered from the lips of the most powerful woman in the world. It was so rare, she thought. Empresses did not have need of apologies, not when they ruled their realm with a sword. But there Xena was, her eyes now calm and warm like a sun soaked sea.
“Why are you sorry,” and she was surprised. Her voice was rough and she realized her eyes were wet with unshed tears. Xena had shifted to no longer lean beside her. She was facing Gabrielle now and sitting cross legged.
Xena frowned. It was brief, perhaps imperceptible, but after weeks of recovery with Xena as her healer Gabrielle had grown accustomed to the other woman's face. It was easier to read now. “Who did he take,” she said softly. Steel lined the kind tone and Gabrielle knew she had to answer.
“He took everything.”
“Why haven't you said anything—“
“I was seventeen Xena. A lot has happened since.” She shifted a little so she could lean against the trunk of the tree behind her. It was rough but solid and eased the strain from her nearly healed wound. “I'm not like you. Or him. Anger and killing don't come so naturally to me. I'm one of those little people warlords like to step on. And when you're the little person there's no room for revenge. It's too costly. So you forgive, because that's all you have.”
“Now you're the Governor of Apollonia and one of the most respected and well known playwrights in Greece. You can afford revenge.”
Gabrielle smiled and she wondered if the ache in her chest was present in her smile, “But that's the thing, I don't want it.”
And it was true. Gabrielle had seen and felt the horrors of the world first hand. She was more intimate with them then any woman her age should be. But revenge? She'd hungered for it so long she'd lost the taste. Now she only wanted this. A cool spring and a happy child and warm company.
And that last desire scared her more than any revenge she'd ever dreamt of.
“I'm not like you.”
In the course of Xena's tenure as a warlord and empress she'd had the opportunity to experience much derision. She never minded. They could insult her all they wanted but she was the one with a giant army and a realm that spread from Greece to Chin. They were just little people trying to make themselves big.
“I'm not like you.” No, Gabrielle wasn't like Xena. Xena never would have let Talmadeus get close enough to skewer her. She never would have been caught living in a palace and governing a land that was not her own and then meekly accepting any punishment meted out.
She also would never write a play that could make men weep and she'd never have a child that loved her as dearly as Eve loved Gabrielle.
They were very different women. So vastly different in build, strengths and desire that any comparison should be a farce. But her words had stung.
For a long time Xena lived only for revenge. Even as the Empress of the Known World she still had some desire for it. Every time she met Caesar under a banner of peace she heard her own legs cracking under the fall of a hammer and his smug laughter ringing in her ears.
To live absent of that particular desire was completely foreign to her.
Yet that was Gabrielle. This little center of serenity.
Only there, briefly for a moment, Xena had seen something else. She'd seen a haunted woman infused with rage. It had been brief, only an instant, but Xena recognized that look and some small part of her recoiled from it.
Not because the kind Governor of Apollonia could harbor such a rage, but because she hid it so well.
Men like Draco and Talmadeus and even Darius were easy. Their guile was transparent. But Gabrielle was opaque. She guarded herself and her emotions well. Like Caesar.
Was their flirting then a game? Was Gabrielle a few steps ahead of Xena? Would she too string Xena up on a beach and laugh as hammers turned her legs to mush?
When they returned to the palace Xena left Gabrielle and Eve in the stables and went in search of Draco. She found him beneath a tree in the courtyard of the guest villa where her soldiers were bedding. He had his sword out and was sharpening the edge with long sure strokes. He didn't stand when he saw her, just nodded and continued with his work.
She stopped directly in front of him. “You didn't tell me you knew my new governor,” she said.
He glanced up, “I don't think I do.”
“But she knows you.”
“Is that a fact?”
From tang to tip the stone moved, shaving off bits of metal and making the sword nearly as sharp as Hephaestion steel.
“I've had enough of games today Draco. Tell me everything.”
His face darkened but that long scar turned only a little pinker. “Empress, I did not know the new governor before a few weeks ago.”
“You knew her in Potidaea.”
“I knew many women in Potidaea.”
“Have you raped and killed so many that this one woman could be forgotten?”
Draco suddenly stabbed his sword into the rocky soil underfoot and used the blade as leverage to stand. He lurched forward into Xena's space. “I am not the only one here who murdered their way across Greece.”
“I did it to better the world.”
He barked out a laugh. His teeth were brilliantly white and perfect. Not the teeth one would expect to see in the mouth of a monster. “Tell yourself that, ‘empress,' but don't ask me to believe it. You and I are very much alike.”
“Only I'm the Empress and you're the worm beneath my feet.”
She darted into Draco's personal space, snaked her leg between his and pushed. As he fell she twisted him around and pulled his sword from the ground and drove it up against his neck. A bright spot of red welled up against the point where sword's edge met skin. Her knees and a hand firmly wrapped into the heavy locks of his hair kept him in place. She leaned down so she wouldn't have to raise her voice. “I know you are forgetful sometimes Draco. That it was my army that smashed yours to bits and my sword that gave you that lovely scar. I'll assume it's why you've forgotten that woman and what you did to her in Potidaea. But she did not forget.”
His face was pressed into the dirt so his words were muffled, but she heard them well enough, “You think she plans to hurt me?”
Xena didn't know what Gabrielle planned to do, but she knew she couldn't trust the woman. Not with how carefully she guarded herself. A woman that clever could just be biding her time, waiting for some perfect moment to kill Draco, and Xena needed Draco. He was a bastard, but one of the best soldiers and leaders she had in her army.
“I think you will avoid her Draco. We will leave soon and until then you will give her a wide berth and you will try,” she dug the sword a little deeper into the flesh of his neck, “you will try to remember the exact wrongs you committed against her. Understood?”
She let his sword fall and stood up lightly, leaving Draco drinking in the dusty earth and desperately trying to remember an act of violence he'd committed nearly ten years before.
Gabrielle was waiting for her when she returned to her room. The other woman was still in her clothes from their time at the river. A skirt that went down to her ankles and a blue peasant blouse. Xena thought about telling her how young she looked in the clothes. Like that seventeen year old farm girl instead of the governor and mother.
“Need help getting cleaned up for dinner,” Xena asked.
Gabrielle didn't respond. She was watching Xena. Her eyes bright in the glow of the braziers.
The more Xena mused on their time by the river the angrier she became. Gabrielle had been hiding things from her. Behaving more like a Roman than any Grecian governor of Xena's choosing. She found herself reverting. Falling into the easy darkness she'd inhabited before Apollonia. She flirted now, but with an edge of maliciousness in her tone. “No? Well you don't mind if I get clean do you? I smell like fish and the river.” Xena quickly peeled off the leather battle dress and breastplate she'd been wearing. Before her shift could follow Gabrielle spoke.
“What did you do?”
The woman had been stabbed and bleeding like a stuck pig and she'd sounded braver then she did now. This woman, who watched her with wide eyes, sounded like a wounded child. Angry and accusatory, and above all, hurt.
“I don't know what—“
“You spoke to Draco. Told him about me.”
“You had no right to speak to him.” Most retreated when they shouted at Xena. Gabrielle grew closer.
“I had every right.”
Xena did the same.
“Why? Because you're the empress?”
She was so close Xena could see the flecks of gold in her eyes.
“Because I am your friend.”
And now she could feel her breath. It was hot and not the least bit sour. Xena darted forward. She had a gift for anticipating outcomes. She knew how silly it was to kiss the little governor. Knew how terrible any relationship would end. She didn't care. Because one potential outcome, the one she wanted, would end with a kiss and then sex and then who knew what else.
Only Gabrielle wasn't there. Xena's lips met air. The other woman had taken a step back, too silent and quick for Xena to catch her. That was not an outcome she could have anticipated.
“Gabrielle,” she found herself saying the other woman's name like some lovestruck fool. She was desperate. All the anger and resentment didn't mean a thing when the governor was so close.
“I…” Gabrielle fidgeted and looked away. She found whatever strength she needed and turned back to Xena, “My—Sappho arrived while we were out.”
She'd heard of Sappho, the lyricist from Lesbos. The woman was said to write songs that made the lame walk and deserts grow wet with the tears of gods. Eve sang her songs sometimes and they sounded good enough coming from the lips of a child.
And Gabrielle had cried for her in her fevered dreams.
Gabrielle did not elaborate on their relationship. She communicated only with a look.
“Homer sent word when I was hurt.” She sounded almost pleased, “Apparently she had to break an engagement in Rome to get here.”
“She cares for you.”
And that was that. There was nothing more to be said. Whatever feelings Xena had were hers and hers alone.
To her credit Xena's voice did not crack. “I look forward to meeting her.”
She hoped it was a sad note she caught in Gabrielle's little smile. Like the arrival of the songwriter had her aching as it did Xena.
“Thank you,” the playwright said. Her voice was a whisper, but they both knew it reached Xena's ears easily enough. She started to walk past Xena. Paused. Xena closed her eyes reflexively as fingers grazed her hand.
Somewhere Eve cried out. No doubt struggling to get out of a bath she desperately needed.
The warmth of Gabrielle's fingers disappeared and Xena was left alone in her room. A fool in love. An empress defeated by a playwright with a smile.
Gabrielle was the first one to arrive for dinner. It wasn't the healing wound but nerves that had her gut twisted and she kept sipping her wine in the hopes that the alcohol would burn the knot of tension away. Instead it made it tighter and made her hotter. When Homer finally staggered in red-eyed and shaggy she was close to vomiting. He noticed her pallor straight away and yanked open the shutters to bring a breeze into the room.
“Here I find Gabrielle as Odysseus must have looked each night he sat upon the shore.”
She didn't respond. Instead she took another sip. Eventually the alcohol would have to do something besides make her queasy. She just had to drink enough of it.
He flopped down onto the bench next to her and the sickly sweet scent of mead oozed out of his pores. She held her cup up to her nose to hide the sent. Wine was bad enough. Mead would have her coloring the table with the fish she'd had for lunch. Back before Sappho had come. When Xena was more than the empress but less than a lover. She wanted to go back to that.
“Watching. Waiting. Hoping for some ship to take him from the nubile graces of his fair Calypso and return him to the clever Penelope. A man caught in love. Trapped.”
“And then he built himself a raft and sailed away.”
“But only with Calypso's blessing. And from her peaceful isle he sailed into a storm.”
“And found refuge, Homer. Fair young Nausicaa took him in and clothed and fed him and sent him on his way. He found his home.”
“Filled with murderous suitors and a distant wife.”
“A cautious wife who welcomed him when she knew his true nature.”
“But she never knew of his seven years in a sea nymph's bed.”
“And who, Homer, is the nymph?”
“And who is the queen? You're the renowned storyteller Gabrielle. Who has marooned you and held you hostage?”
“Xena's been staying here to help me convalesce.”
He nodded, and he was either too drunk or too wise to give up his own thoughts in the motion. He took a sip of his mead and mused, “I never wrote of it, but as Odysseus sat on that island and desperately prayed to be returned to his queen and his home the gods noticed. And as they're gods and fickle creatures they gambled with his heart. A wager was made on whom he would choose. The easy path of respite and loneliness—or the difficult one.”
“Was that your overly loquacious way of saying you and Euripides have a bet going?”
Another sip, “I am but a man bound to simple codes Gabrielle. What's said in secret cannot be revealed easily.”
“I could kick you both out and turn your quarters into extra stables. The horses always need more room.”
“That's unkind. I've seen where you keep your livestock. The Augeas stables are cleaner.”
“Funny, I was thinking the same thing the last time I ventured down to your quarters.”
“In all your drunken conspiring did you two figure who which was which?”
“Who plays the part of Penelope and who plays the part of Calypso?”
“I need to know who to leave on Ogygia.”
Another sip. If Homer were to suddenly die his body would be preserved for the ages. He was weaving a bit even though he was sitting. “We've each given it a fair amount of consideration.”
The doors clanged open and the sound of laughter and chatter rushed in. Whatever Homer might have said was lost to the interruption and his own inebriation. Euripides entered with Eve hanging on his garrulous voice. But the laughter belonged to Sappho. She'd changed into a gown colored like the setting sun. It was a bright, deep red that complimented her olive skin and thick curly hair. She left Eve to Euripides and crossed the hall quickly. A gentle touch on Homer's shoulder acknowledged his presence, but her dark brown eyes were stuck on Gabrielle.
“I changed.” Sappho had a way with words. Each sentence was a tease as much as a statement. No sentence had any less than two meanings and all were said with a frustratingly inscrutable smile, but the two women had known each other for years now—longer than she'd had Eve even—and what was once entirely inscrutable was now decipherable. Sappho was flirting.
“It's a nice shade.” Two could flirt with nothing more than simple words and sensuous gazes.
“I wanted to look good. Not every day I casually dine with the Empress.”
Homer snorted into his mead and after a savage look from Gabrielle he scooted down to join Euripides and Eve in a word game.
Given a brief moment of perceived tranquility Sappho reached out and grabbed Gabrielle's hand. It was cool and damp.
“Are you nervous?”
Sappho smiled, “A little. The Empress, Gabrielle.”
She brought the damp hand to her lips and kissed it. “I know, but she's just a woman Sappho. A little ordinary to be honest.”
“Not what they say in Persia.”
She rolled her eyes, “That's because they're an unwilling Vassal state and Darius is a toad.”
“She's crucified cities.”
“And we regularly crucify the Greek language.”
Sappho had naturally dark and mischievous eyes. She was a singer and song writer by nature and found a rhyme and rhythm in every action under the sun. But it was sex and love and joy where she found her best inspiration and it made her, by nature, a vivacious person.
Also a very free person. So she wasn't jealous, by nature. Or suspicious. Or unkind. She was an eternal optimist. A privileged woman who'd grown up in luxury and never been out of it.
She never got angry. She'd once caught Gabrielle flirting with an Egyptian dignitary and offered to join any after dinner activities they partook in. The light that lit up her dark eyes never burnt out, but now her eyes were cold and dark like wet stone.
Gabrielle realized immediately she'd taken her defense of Xena too far, but before she could find a way to awkwardly fix the situation, the subject of Sappho's displeasure entered.
Xena was taller than Sappho and her hair was black and straight while Sappho's was brown and curly. Their faces were both angular and startlingly beautiful and she looked just as good in sunset red.
Sappho's dress was simply, if lasciviously, cut. It wasn't the style of the dress, but the daringly deep plunge of the neckline and the beautiful bracelets she wore on her wrists that made her stand out.
Xena's dress was simple too. It covered a bit more, but had a slit up the leg that hinted at all sorts of dangerously provocative things. She didn't wear any jewelry Gabrielle could see, but she jangled as she moved and her hips seemed to swish more than Gabrielle could remember.
She wasn't sure if it was her imagination, but it seemed as if all the sound from the room disappeared as Xena moved towards her like a panther after prey. Her eyes were bright in the firelight and her smile was one Gabrielle couldn't place. And after two weeks of Xena's constant company that was unusual.
She stopped just short of Gabrielle and Sappho. If she noticed that they still held hands it was invisible on her face.
“Gabrielle,” she said. Just her name. Gabrielle had heard it uttered from the Empress's lips dozens of times that day alone. But Xena hadn't been wearing a red dress earlier and she didn't normally slink across the room like a nymph in Euripides's play.
“Xena, this—this is Sappho.”
Xena's eyes flickered to the woman who still clasped Gabrielle's hand, “The lyricist of Lesbos. Your songs are popular in Corinth.”
“You've heard my music?”
“The washing women like to sing it.”
Xena said that with a smile and a tone completely devoid of guile. It would be easy to interpret it not as an insult, but as a compliment from the mouth of the sheltered.
“I'm glad,” Sappho said. Good. Sappho could be prickly about her music. Dinner would have been miserable if she'd taken it as an insult. “Better than the songs they sang ten years ago. The rhythm of a drum is so much more pleasant than that of a hammer.”
And never mind. Dinner was going to be horrible and if they all survived uncrucified it would be a miracle.
Sappho was pretty and clever but her voice was deep and raspy and sounded like a rutting pig and if her dress plunged any lower Xena would be able to tell if she was really a brunette.
The songwriter chortled at something Eve said and Xena smiled like she'd heard it. She wish she had. Eve was precocious and clever and liked to try to awaken that dormant bit of motherliness Xena had tried to snuff out, but Sappho was sitting there drumming out bits of song on the table with her fingers and sharing glances with Gabrielle.
And Gabrielle, the feckless little playwright, was drunk. Every time her cup hit the table empty she blindly reached for another bottle of wine to refill it. Xena wasn't counting but she'd put away at least three bottles and was trying for a fourth. Fortunately her body was rebelling and more wine splashed on the table then into her cup.
Sappho didn't notice. She was too busy braying like a donkey and dropping snide little comments that had Xena's hands itching for her chakram.
Homer had been matching Gabrielle drink for drink and was sitting in his seat nodding dumbly at everything said like he understood it. Euripides was a little more sober but clearly not used to this sort of meal. He kept filling peoples' cups and trying to talk about his plays in an effort to distract Sappho from her braying and Xena from her murder lust.
“Empress,” he said, making another attempt at intervention, “Gabrielle's play will be appearing in Corinth next month. Have you given thought to attending?”
“I must confess I've only read her plays Euripides. It would be a gift to see one performed.”
“It's that one? Right? Gabrielle? The one with the love story?” Xena was glad she wasn't next to Homer. Even across the table she could smell the mead.
Gabrielle looked up from her cup with unfocused eyes. “What?” Her eyes grew more clouded for a moment and Xena tensed in preparation to catch her before she fell. Then they cleared. “Yes. I mean, they're all about love. Aristophanes says all my plays do is set fires in loins and make hearts flutter.”
Homer giggled, “He called them drivel. Remember that one parody where he had Artemis fall in love with Apollo and then took him on Aphrodite's altar.”
“Took him where,” Eve asked.
Gabrielle ignored her daughter's question, “Aristophanes is an ass. When was—when has he ever written an original play? He just dumbs down Aeschylus and calls it parody.”
Eurpides seemed to agree with that sentiment because he did a private toast for one and finished his cup.
“But yes,” Gabrielle continued, “since you asked. My play is going up. And i—it's new. I mean—they've read it—except Eve. Eve you're too young.”
“What's it about?”
“The depths we go to for the ones we love,” Sappho said.
“But does it have any sword fights,” Xena asked. She shouldn't have. Gabrielle found the question amusing enough but the braying beast of Lesbos was a different story and took Xena entirely at her word.
“There are some things in life that do not require the appearance of a sword,” and as an afterthought, “Empress.”
“But there are sword fights,” Gabrielle said. The talk of her play was quickly sobering her and she almost looked clear headed. “One love must travel to the depths of hell to save the other. And a war that spans the entire afterlife is waged.”
“Hell? That's not a concept I'd expect to hear in a Grecian play,” Xena said. She'd met Hel once. A beautiful and demure northern woman who'd made infrequent visits to Odin's hall with her father. She was surprised to find that when she returned south the woman's name had become synonymous with some new religion's version of the afterlife. A religion that she'd seen wiped out in Africa.
A nervous feeling like the moment just before a fight passed through Xena.
“She based it on a friend of ours.”
“Sappho,” Gabrielle said. That tone she always used when a secret was about to be let lose. The feeling started to solidify deep inside of Xena.
Sappho ignored Gabrielle's admonishment, “A pacifist from Indus.” The songwriter's fury and snideness had simmered all not, but with one word it boiled over, “Eli.”
It was like she was drowning in a lake under ice and burning on a stake and hanging from a cross all at once. She didn't have time to school her face into a look of passive disinterest because the name and the memories it carried struck her so hard and so immediately.
She'd known the man named Eli. She'd seen his throngs of followers all crying for peace and an end to war. She'd gone ahead. Left her troops to cross the bridge alone and watch the fools try to melt swords in a bonfire.
Eli had been engaging and kind and when Xena appeared he'd smiled and…she'd never seen so peaceful a look on a mortal's face. When her sword slid between his ribs it was a moment of pure exquisite peace. Even as she killed him he had redeemed her.
And Sappho had spoken his name casually. What right did she have? How could she—
But Gabrielle had known him too? The playwright was no longer looking in her drink. Her eyes were on Xena and she wasn't angry. It was pity.
Xena couldn't find words. Couldn't fathom them. Eve and Euripides and Homer were looking at her and trying to grasp what had just happened and Sappho was watching her with unbridled contempt and Gabrielle was staring at her like she empathized. Like Xena's brother was dead and Gabrielle could comprehend the pain.
Before another moment could pass—before another thought could pass through her mind Xena stood. Her legs carried her out of the room but she couldn't feel them. It was like meat hanging off her. Her arms didn't work and her mouth was dry and she had no idea where she was going or how or why but the pure driving need to go took hold of her and carried her out of the room.
Gabrielle sobered up out of necessity. She knew a little herb craft and was aware of one particularly foul tasting drought that would give her a clear head for a few hours. The headache and drunkenness that would follow would make her wish for death but it was preferable to whatever fate Xena might plan if left to her own devices.
Sappho reclined on Gabrielle's bed and watched her change with the unaffected ease of the rich and powerful. It had been an hour since Xena had disappeared and Sappho had yet to find the time to be bothered.
Gabrielle muttered as much under her breath as she pulled on a brown skirt and green top she usually used for riding.
“She murdered your friend. Crucified cities. Was generally a step below Caesar for years. Why should I be bothered?”
“Because she's different. Because there hasn't been a slave raid in Greece or Chin or Indus in years. Because kids don't starve. Because you and I can make a living without worrying about being raped or murdered for what we say.”
“Oh yes. The Empress gives us free speech and abolishes slavery and fights poverty. And she's the Empress Gabrielle. We have no say in the government. We're puppets. Play things. Our freedom is an illusion she's cultivated.” Sappho was sitting now and a little breathless.
Gabrielle yanked one tall brown boot on and then the other. “I have a say. I'm a governor now.”
“And tonight, before Eli she looked at you like meat. A bit of chattel to taste before she goes back to her palace.”
And there it was. Some mixture of jealously and protectiveness that had fueled Sappho all night. She was aware of it too and was fiddling with one of her bracelets and trying not to look at Gabrielle.
“I know that you two…share something. That what drives you in some way drives her. I only have to look at her a moment to see you looking back. But she's dangerous.”
Gabrielle crossed the room and cupped her lover's face in her hands. Her thumbs gently grazed Sappho's lips before she leaned down and kissed her. “Thank you.”
She could have said a lot. There was a lot that needed to be said, but Gabrielle and Sappho spent their lives finding words for every emotion and baring their souls with ink on scrolls. They talked so much that when they were alone they often forwent words. They found understanding in sighs and touches instead.
Sappho pulled her close for another kiss. She could have said ‘be careful' or sought to process the night's events and their own feelings but the lyricist let the kiss have the conversation for her and Gabrielle gladly allowed it.
They parted briefly and Gabrielle reached up to wrap her finger around a lock of Sappho's hair. “I should get going.”
“Her guards haven't shown up with spears yet. That's good right?”
“Fortunately she's a bit cross with the head of her guard at the moment. Which might be the only thing keeping you and I off crosses.”
“If she does decide to crucify us can you ask that we at least get a nice view. That hill outside your window.”
“With the crooked tree?”
“Against the setting sun? The poets will sing of our deaths for ages. Artists will paint murals. Maybe that asshole in Athens will finally do the sculpture of me he's been promising to do for three years.”
“You should have slept with him after the sculpture was finished. No one wants the shank if you're giving the lamb away for free.”
Sappho pulled her down for another kiss.
“You two are utterly adorable.”
Gabrielle and Sappho split apart at Diomedes's intrusion with Sappho shouting “Eli's God in a pot don't sneak up on us like that.”
The seneschal limped into the room with, “I knocked. You two were busy being caught up in each other.”
“If you'd knocked I'd have heard it,” Gabrielle countered.
“And we would have charged you for the show,” Sappho continued.
“Sadly, my employer probably doesn't pay me enough to afford it.” He turned serious, “No sign of the Empress. The guards say the guest house is undisturbed and the horses are all in their stables.”
Gabrielle would have to track her herself. During the day it wouldn't be difficult but at night and on a new moon it would take a while. “I should get going. If we're not back before her guards coming looking—“
“I wasn't always your seneschal Gabrielle. I'll keep them busy.”
“And if he doesn't do the trick you've got three professional entertainers and a cherubic child,” Sappho said with a grin.
It was easier than Gabrielle had though. Xena's footsteps had been heavy and she'd left a trail of broken branches and crumpled grass in her wake.
She found her sitting beneath the crooked tree on Sappho's hill. The sky was dark but the town was well lit even at night and cast just enough of a glow for Gabrielle to see the outline of the Empress. She'd pulled her gown up past her knees and was sitting cross legged.
The Empress didn't wait for Gabrielle's apology or for the two of them to do as they often did, and sit in quiet communion. She spoke as soon as Gabrielle was in earshot. “When we first met Eli told me it was fate that brought us together.” Something choked—like a laugh—erupted from her lips. “I know the Fates. I've met them a few times. Seen them puttering around their loom and taking lives with a clip of their shears.” She paused. Swallowed. “I've spent my whole life avoiding them. Trying to prove that fate—destiny—is made by man. That they're just a crone and a mother and a child.”
Gabrielle knelt next to Xena. Then sat carefully and looked out over the harbor far below. Lanterns on boats made it look like a hundred fireflies moving lazily across the water. Laughter, from the palace or the town below, filtered up on the night air.
“But when my sword slid through his body I understood it. The Fates give us some semblance of free will but in the end we're all just slaves. Working towards a plan only their loom can build.”
They sat in silence. The laughter carried by the wind was no comfort. But each could hear the other's beating heart and slow measured breath. There was the solace each women sought.
“Was he really your friend?”
It wasn't an easy story to tell, but Xena had guessed much of it already and Gabrielle grew weary guarding her secrets from the other woman. “I was a slave Xena. And then one day I wasn't. And the freedom—it was foreign. I wandered just because there was no longer someone telling me where to go. And I wandered east. I think you were still here in Greece dismantling a hundred kingdoms when I first met him. He…I was angry and he saw that. Healed it.”
Xena closed her eyes.
“Sappho came later. She was fleeing a marriage in Lesbos and when we met her she was like fire. So fickle, but around him she grew still.” She pulled one of her fingers away from her hand until it popped. “That's how we all came to him. Frenetic.” Xena was watching her in the darkness. She couldn't see the eyes she knew to be bright blue, but she felt them on her. “That's how you came to him.” She'd avoided thinking about that time since Xena had first arrived. The scar Eli's absence left had long since healed, but it wasn't the same for Xena. So she told her what little she knew. “He knew you were coming. Knew that Ares had sent you. He knew you were going to kill him.”
“Why didn't he run?”
“Like you said. Destiny.”
“And you believe that?”
Almost six years later and that idea, that destiny had led Eli to his death was still a sore point. One better left accepted than analyzed. “Eli had to die at the point of War's sword. I've struggled to understand the why of it ever since, but I know it had to happen. That might make me sound religious or something—but he had to die that day and you had to kill him.”
“Right. It wasn't Fate Gabrielle. Those three have power but I was there because Ares asked a favor of me. And because I like killing.”
“We make our own destinies. We have to. And sometimes that means we have to take responsibilities for things. Sometimes that means we kill men and we regret it. Because if it's all just destiny—if we're all just threads on the loom then nothing we do matters. The lives we save. The people we sacrifice. They mean nothing.”
“So,” Gabrielle mused, “I believe in fate to absolve myself of sins. And you disbelieve to do the same?”
“And because…until you the only people I ever knew who put much stock in fate,” she paused, “They were…I don't know. They believed they had destinies. To rule a valley. To rule a kingdom. The world. Megalomaniacs ordained by Olympus. And if that's true. If people that awful could have destinies that lofty than this isn't a world worth living in is it?”
“I should have told you about Eli earlier.”
The empress shrugged, “While I admit that having to hear it from Sappho wasn't pleasant, hearing it from you would have been worse.”
She sounded…tired, “Because you lie, Gabrielle. Every day. And it comes so easily to you that I don't think you realize you do it. It's habit. And if you'd told me the truth. Than you'd be a nicer person.”
The venom in Xena's voice bit into Gabrielle. Pierced her as easily as Talmadeus's knife.
“Your friend Sappho is a pompous elitist bitch. But, Gabrielle, that woman is honest. She knows what I'm capable of and didn't hesitate to speak. You—you weigh each word like a little politician. It makes you a good governor, and no doubt a spectacular playwright, but it doesn't make you a good person.”
Gabrielle knew she had to eat crow, had to make an apology. It was why she'd sought Xena out. Yet Xena's words were—infuriating. “What else? Perhaps you want to point out how my legs are too short? Or my dialogue can be a bit purple? Maybe you want to tell me my parents are failures?”
Xena actually seemed to consider the offer, but instead said, “I trusted you, and you lied.”
“It was an absence of truth.”
“And you are debating semantics. This,” she motioned to the hill, “is over. It's the last we'll speak of Eli. It's the last time we'll talk as equals. You are a governor and I am your empress and when we see each other again I'll expect piety, devotion, and no lies.”
“What I did…”
“Was out of necessity I'm sure. Someone like you can rationalize even the most monstrous of actions. But you did it to me Gabrielle. You pulled me into your little web and—“
“Don't act like this was all a great plot. You came here. You sought me out.”
“To kill you.”
“And then you promoted me. Forgave me. These last two weeks I've been honest. At the river I was honest. Always honest--”
“When it came to Apollonia. But when it came to us…”
“How often did you think of Eli when we ate together? We talked? When you wrote and I studied? You were his follower right? His disciple? I know well enough what those Elijians think of me.”
“You think I hate you?”
“If you don't it's just another lie isn't it? And I think I care too much to stay. You should be dead but I made you a governor.”
It was, perhaps, the closest the Empress of Greece, Indus and most of Chin would ever get to a confession of affection—love. And it took every word, every thought out of Gabrielle's head.
“I'm leaving tomorrow,” she continued.
Words filtered back, but the ability to process the conversation, or even the evening, was still lost to Gabrielle. All she could do was note things. Like the anguish on Xena's face. The stillness. Or how very pretty she was.
“The Greek Congress convenes in two and a half weeks. I'll expect you there.”
Xena moved with a godlike grace, even in that red dress with the slit up the side. She rose as quiet as an Amazon in the trees and was careful not to look at Gabrielle.
Xena had said her piece and all Gabrielle could think was that she knew which woman was Calypso and which was Penelope. Truth be told it had never been a contest.
To be continued
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