I know it's been a while and I'm sorry I let you wait so long. The next chapter will come sooner, I promise – and then the story'll really get going. This one's mostly for background, but I hope you'll enjoy it nonetheless.
Comments, criticism (constructive, if possible, but I'm not picky), questions, ideas or suggestions please to: Sammet82@t-online.de
Gabrielle awoke with a jerk.
Someone was moving close by, trying hard not to make too much noise. Gabrielle instantly was on alert, her pulse speeding up. She was hesitant to open her eyes. Perhaps it would be safer to wait for whomever to leave the room, and then try and find a way out of here, perhaps…
The choice wasn't hers. She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“Wake up, Gabrielle. I've got your breakfast.”
Now that didn't sound all bad. Forcing her eyes open, she saw someone bending over her. Slowly the lithe form came into focus. Long dark red hair, a friendly and pretty young face. After a moment of confusion she recognized Lita, the servant she had seen yesterday. Gabrielle rubbed her eyes, not sure what was expected of her. “Uhm... morning?”
“More like noon,” Lita smiled. “The Empress said to let you sleep, but I figured you wouldn't mind something to eat.”
Gabrielle wholeheartedly agreed.
With Lita's help she sat up, her body immediately screaming in protest. The pain in her ribs was sickening and the bandages around them were so tight she had trouble breathing. Perhaps she could loosen them a bit when no one was looking.
She risked a glance around and to her relief didn't see the Empress in the room.
“She's holding court.” Lita remarked casually and rearranged the pillows behind Gabrielle.
“Court. The Empress. I saw you looking for her.”
“I – I didn't –“
“Sure. However, she left me some instructions for you,” Lita let her lean back and reached for a cup on the bedside table. “You are to ‘drink this aphrodisiac' twice a day,” she shrugged. “Guess she's joking.”
Gabrielle certainly hoped so.
The concoction tasted just as terrible as it had yesterday, but the food Lita gave her afterwards absolutely made up for that. She hadn't known porridge could actually be edible, but obviously honey did the trick. Or perhaps it was the fruits that came with it.
While she was eating, Lita shortly left the room to come back with a bunch of clothes in her arms. “The Empress said right now it would be too straining to have the seamstress take your measurements, so you have to wear some of her tunics for the time being. Guess they'll fit rather loosely, but for the moment that's probably better anyway. And you really need to take a bath - you're not to move around too much, but I'll ask one of the guards to carry you.” Seeing the horrified look on Gabrielle's face she snickered. “Don't worry, he won't hang around to watch. And then we'll…”
It took about half a candlemark for the pain-killer to kick in. It made Gabrielle feel a bit fuzzy, but she sure wasn't about to complain. It even seemed to slow down Lita's constant chatter to a speed where Gabrielle actually could follow her.
Lita saw the slightly dazed look on her face and grinned. “Guess it's working by now – you look pretty happy.”
Gabrielle tried to shrug and winced. Okay, so this still hurt.
Lita shook her head and left the room through the door to Gabrielle's right. When she came back seconds later, she had a young man in tow, clad in the shiny black and blood-red armor of the royal guard. He had short blond hair and a broad scar running diagonally over his face, but coupled with his open smile, that made him look roguish rather than dangerous. He gave a droll little bow to her. “Palaemon, at your service. It's an honor to help such a lovely –”
Lita slapped his arm. “None of that, Pal! Just carry her to the bathroom, I'll be there in a minute.”
“Spoil sport,” he grumbled, but bent down and picked Gabrielle up with a gentleness that surprised her in a soldier.
The bathroom was awesome. Almost as huge as the Empress' study and made of white marble, it reminded Gabrielle of the Zeus temple she had once been to. The windows were made of varicolored glass, bathing the whole room in a multitude of colors and the sunken pool was at least twice as big as the outsized bed Gabrielle now slept in. Palaemon carefully set her down on a low marble bench next to the pool. He smiled. “It'd be my pleasure to carry you back once you're done here.”
Gabrielle looked at him in confusion. “Why would you want that?”
“Because that'd be the most fun I get here all day,” he grimaced. “To be honest, getting my face sliced open was more fun than standing at that damn door all day and staring at the wall.”
“But you're a royal guard!” This guy didn't make the least sense. “Isn't that – I don't know – an honor?”
He snorted. “Most of her soldiers'd see it as that, but to me it's the most boring job in the known world – as long as she's in Athens at least. No action except for the sparring sessions with her and she barely has time for those anymore.”
“Didn't you want the job?” her curiosity now even let her forget her caution. “Sure the Empress would let just anyone guard her palace!”
“I sure as hell didn't volunteer for this, believe me!” He sat down next to her, stretching his legs, and groaned happily. “Oh, that's better. Now where was I? Oh, yes - I was a lieutenant in her Majesty's First Army, back in the good old times when she was still fighting to unite Greece. Then I made one little joke about her Royal Irritability and the next moment I find myself promoted to the royal guard.”
“Doesn't sound like a punishment to me.” Gabrielle slowly got the impression that not only the Empress and Lita were a bit strange.
“It was the worst she could come up with, the clever bitch,” he actually sounded a bit awed. “I'm a good fighter, I could be in the south now, defending the border against Caesar – or in the north, fighting Callisto, but I'm stuck here as a royal door stopper. The boys up at the northern border really have fun, that blonde lunatic is making trouble every other day and they get to –“
“That's enough of that, Pal,” Lita had appeared in the doorway. “You two can chat another time. Out, now!”
It was a warm day for late fall and the sun bathed the throne room in golden light. Xena was leaning back in her pompous throne and, for the ninth time in the last candlemark, pretended scratching her nose to hide her yawn.
In front of her, duke Korvik droned on and on about the fifty most important reasons why he should be exempted from all import taxes. His monotone voice, devoid of any emphasis, was always a sure way to put her to sleep.
He was doing this on purpose, she was sure about that. No man in the world could be that boring without trying very hard. The moment he opened his mouth, her eyes grew heavy and it was all she could do not to nod off right away. He was the only reason she allowed Andres, head of her advisors, to stand next to her – so he could inconspicuously poke her awake now and again.
When Korvik arrived at reason no.21 – his wagoners being by far the most groomed - she suddenly had enough. This windy scumbag turned up every other week with ridiculous requests and suggestions and cost her precious time she otherwise could have spent on – well, other impertinent petitioners. Or perhaps she could actually get some real work done before midnight.
She stood up so fast he involuntarily stumbled backwards and gave him a dazzling smile. “You know what, Korvik? You got me convinced. You obviously pay too much, we can't have that anymore. I'll send Andres here with you for a thorough audit. He'll go over all of your account books and then we'll exactly know what is amiss.”
Korvik's face drained of all color. “My Liege, that was not what I –“
“I know,” she nodded understandingly. “It was not your idea to give me so much trouble. But you really deserve it. After all, you give so much thought on how to improve my reign, it's time I gave you something back,” by now she strode around the room, gesticulating wildly. “Come to think of it, I've probably overtaxed all of the nobles here in Athens. I'll have my men go over all of their accounts this very day,” she clapped Korvik's shoulder jovially. “I'll make it widely known it was you who gave me this truly brilliant idea! I'm sure they'll all be very – grateful.” She paused for a moment to enjoy the complete horror on his face, then strode up to her throne again, settling down in a regal posture. “Andres, you will accompany Korvik right away – we don't want any important documents to get lost before we can sort this out, now do we? You're dismissed, Korvik.”
“B-but – my Liege – you – I –“
Andres, his crinkly face showing the first grin she had ever seen there, led the blubbering duke from the room. The moment the heavy door closed behind them, Xena lost her regal posture and collapsed on her throne, laughing madly. “By the gods, that was fun! I should have done that long ago!”
Atrius stepped out of the shadows behind her throne. “That you should, my Liege.” He, too, was chuckling, as were most of the guards alongside the walls. “But I imagine it might be difficult to get a general audit done in one day.”
“Pah. There aren't so many nobles in Athens – we'll take care of the merchants another time. I've really had it with those hoggish time-wasters.” She looked over at her scribe. “New Royal decree – no more auditions longer than a quarter candlemark and – let's see – no more speeches containing more than five reasons for whatever!”
Gabrielle was leaning back in the hot water, her bandaged arm perched on the margin of the huge sunken pool, a cup of tea in her free hand. She had to take care to breathe flatly, now that Lita had taken the bandages off - obviously them being so tight had had a reason after all -and the hot water was burning a little in scratches and tiny cuts all over her body. Despite of this, she felt heavenly, better than she had in years and not even Lita's soft swearing could put a dent in her peaceful mood. The small redhead was sitting on the floor behind Gabrielle and had, for the last candlemark and with increasing frustration, tried to comb the knots out of Gabrielle's hair.
Gabrielle cast a doubtful look at Lita. “Are you sure it's okay you're spending so much time with me? I don't want you getting in trouble – if she comes back and sees you here – I mean, I could do that on my own, I –“
“Don't worry, Gabrielle, she told me to help you. I'm the only servant allowed in her private chambers, so I spend a lot of time here anyway,” she snorted. “Most of the day actually, the way she's messing things up.”
Gabrielle wasn't sure, but despite the grumpy words, there seemed to be real affection for the Empress in Lita's voice. How strange.
“I'm really sorry, Gabrielle,” Lita finally said, throwing the brush aside. “I just can't get the tangles out, I'm afraid I'll have to cut them off.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle said softly. She had always liked her hair most about herself. “Oh. Are you sure? Can't you – I don't know – must you?”
“Afraid so – they're just too felted. Don't worry,” She patted Gabrielle's shoulder, “I'll think of something nice.”
Suddenly the Empress voice rang out. “Move your lazy ass!”
Gabrielle flinched so hard she spilled half of her cup.
Laughing Lita pointed to one of the windows. “She's in the court yard – pretty good acoustics, huh?”
Gabrielle set her cup aside since her hand was still trembling. For a moment she had actually thought the Empress had sneaked into the bath and was yelling at her. “Very good.” She agreed, trying to sound casual. “Whom is she screaming at?”
“Sounds like a sparring session with her royal guard. Seems she's in a good mood.”
Gabrielle shuddered. If that was a good mood, she didn't want to see a bad one.
Xena actually was in a brilliant mood. The ‘Korvik-audit' – to her delight her scribe had actually named it that – had been a full success. While there, surprisingly, had been no major embezzlements, it had done what it was supposed to do – get rid of Korvik. Obviously he had feared the wrath of his little cronies, he had left the town in quite a hurry and there was no telling when – or if – he would come back. Now she had a whole afternoon to herself – or rather for her men. Between court and paperwork she barely found more than an hour a day to train with her guards, but now they could play to their hearts content.
Entering her study, Xena stopped dead in her tracks. Her new slave had undergone quite a change. Dressed in a green robe, neatly cleaned and with a new haircut, Xena wouldn't even have recognized her, if it wasn't for the angry green eyes and the black and blue coloring around her jaw. She took the bag with her medical supplies, sat down next to her slave and started to unwrap the bandage around her arm. “Time to check your stitches,” she announced. “So, what happened to your hair?”
What do you think? “Scissor.”
“Not much of a talker, are you? Anyway, looks good.”
Gabrielle snorted. She wasn't sure if she liked her new, much shorter haircut. Okay, so perhaps it was nice to be able to comb through her hair with her fingers without getting stuck, but still… she probably looked like a boy now. Well, in the Empress company that could only work in her favor. Even as a slave you heard a lot of gossip and she had never heard anything good about the Empress. Rumor had it that she loved killing and bathed in the blood of her slain foes. And that she had quite a knack for virgins – and didn't care if the objects of her interest were willing or not.
All of that didn't really match up with the gentle, joke cracking woman sitting next to her, but the Empress probably just was a good actress. You didn't conquer the whole of Greece by being nice.
The room was dark except for the light of a single candle on the desk and a weak ray of moonlight coming through the window above it. Xena tiredly rubbed her eyes. She'd never have gone for the Korvik-audit, if she had known just how much additional paper work that meant. Adding to her irritation was the kid's stare she could feel in her back. She knew exactly what was keeping the girl awake, but this was her study and she would be damned if she gave it up only because the small slave had some stupid ideas in her head. Damn, now where had her sealing wax gone?
It had to be long past midnight by now, but Gabrielle desperately was fighting to stay awake, waiting for the Empress to finally go to sleep. The tall woman sat at her desk, with her back to Gabrielle, and for the past three candlemarks had been almost constantly growling, cussing or snapping at whatever she was working at. Gabrielle didn't mind the cussing so much, but she dreaded the moment the Empress would direct her anger at her. Or decide that her new slave was a nice diversion. So Gabrielle was lying still as a board, her eyes fixed on the shiny black hair of her owner and praying to every god she knew the Empress would finish her work and go to sleep before she got any funny ideas.
Her legs started getting numb from lying so stiff and she wiggled around a bit to get the feeling back. She had to suppress a groan when her ribs protested against the movement and her hands automatically flew to the hurting spot. Strangely, that seemed to help and she carefully increased the pressure a bit.
“Stop that,” the Empress suddenly said without looking up.
Gabrielle's hands stilled. “What?”
“Stop prodding your ribs. They'll never heal if you don't leave them alone.”
“How did –“
“Many skills, kid. I suggest you go to sleep now. Should I develop any intentions of raping you, I promise to wait till you're awake again.”
Gabrielle swallowed hard. She really wished now she could tell when the Empress was joking.
To Be Continued in Chapter 4
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