Most of the characters herein belong to Renaissance Pictures, MCA/Universal, Studios USA, Flat Earth Productions, and any other individuals or entities who have an ownership interest in the television programs Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.
Violence: Were mixing Xena, Cleopatra, Marc Antony, and Octavian here. What do you think?
Subtext/Maintext: PG-13. Yep, X & G are in love. If that offends you, you might not want to read this story because you could find yourself enjoying it.
Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org
Setting: This story falls sequentially after "A Solstice Treaty." (Actually, "The Sixth Sense" falls between this story and "A Solstice Treaty," but Sixth Sense is a bit of graphic fluff. If you dont enjoy that sort of thing and prefer the PG-13 stuff, you can skip Sixth Sense, as it has absolutely nothing to do with plot. <G>) Ive taken extreme liberties with history and religion here, so you have been warned.
Gina Torres: Shes Hal on Cleopatra 2525 and she was Nebula on Hercules. For a visual, she was also Cleopatra on one of the more Xena-free episode of Xena ("King of Assassins").
CLEOPATRA 4 A.D.
(posted May 4, 2000)
Behold, I tell you a mystery ... we shall all be changed,
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye ...
- I Corinthians 15:51-52, the Bible, New American Standard Version, copyright by God.
A tingling sensation like red ants crawling up and down her wrist and hand woke the warrior, and her arm twitched as her eyes flew open. Ahhh. We musta slept all night like this. Blonde silky hair was mere inches from her nose, enveloping her senses with the earthy scent of sandalwood, and she still had both arms wrapped firmly around Gabrielles limp body. The bard was obliviously sleeping on top of the warriors upper arm, effectively cutting off her circulation. She was facing Xena with her cheek resting contentedly against the warriors chest, and the bards soft even breaths tickled Xenas skin with a sensual warmth that sent tiny pleasurable shivers racing through her body.
She warred within herself, one part of her wanting to kiss her partner awake and then ravish her, the other part accepting the unpleasant reality that she had a breakfast appointment to keep, and that ravishing the bard would be difficult at best with one arm completely numb. Carefully, so as not to wake her slumbering lover, the warrior regretfully slid her arm out from under Gabrielles body and quietly rolled out of bed. She yawned and stretched, and shook her arm vigorously until she felt the blood resume its pulsing path through her arteries, and then took one long wishful look at the sleeping girl on the bed. Gods I wonder if the day is ever gonna come when I dont look at her like that and just want to ... No no no no no.
She mentally slapped herself and walked across the room and splashed her face with lukewarm water from the wash basin, and then ran a comb through her hair, working out the tangles that had appeared overnight. She pulled on her leathers and armor and then picked up her boots and moved out to the terrace where dawn was breaking across the edge of the eastern desert, coloring the cloudless sky in rich gold tones quite different from the more pink and purple hues the warrior was used to seeing at home. Must be the dust from the desert. She sat down on the chaise bench and deftly began to tug on her boots. She had just finished lacing one and was reaching for the other when she felt something warm and fuzzy rub up against the back of her leg.
What the ...? Xena drew out her breast dagger and peered down under the bench, fully expecting to find a large rat. Or maybe that was Gabrielles banshee. Seeing nothing, she got down on her hands and knees so she could look further underneath her seat. She smiled as two large golden-green eyes peered out at her from under the dark shelter and blinked uncertainly. Well hello there.
"Meow?" A small medium-haired grey and brown tabby cat emerged from under the bench and padded over toward the wall. It glanced at Xena and then up at the sandstone brick barrier, before gathering its weight back on its haunches and springing gracefully up to the top of the foot-wide wall, stopping on a dinar when it landed. It sat down facing Xena, and slowly swung its white-tipped tail back and forth with an even rhythm, and blinked a few times in the feline body language that indicated it meant no harm and would be submissive. "Meow?"
"Hey. Who are you, huh?" The warrior finished pulling on her other boot and stood up and walked carefully over until she was an arms length away. "You been there all night?" Xena hesitantly reached out a hand and scratched the cat underneath its chin. It immediately began to purr loudly, and turned its head sideways, rubbing its ears and the sides of its face against the warriors arm bracers. "Boy. Thats some purr you got there." Xena chuckled. "Oh you like that do you? You have a lot in common with my friend in there. Sometimes when I rub her just the right way, I can make her purr too."
"Ahem. Purr, huh?" An amused voice sounded as the bards tousled blonde head appeared from inside the doorway. From where she stood, The warrior blocked Gabrielles view of the cat, and all she could see was her tall partner cooing and talking to what appeared to be the top of the wall. "Xena. Who are you talking to about our personal lives, the invisible Egyptian desert fairy?"
"Oh. Mornin." The tops of the warriors ears suddenly felt warm and she was grateful that her long hair hid what she was sure was a blush to go with it. She turned, stepping aside to reveal her new-found furry friend, and looked sheepishly at her smirking partner, who had one blonde eyebrow raised in question. "Just this ..."
"Yahhh!" Gabrielle took one look at the unfamiliar animal and jumped up on top of the chaise bench. Ever since her encounter with the killer bunny, shed been a bit wary of any strange creatures, even ones that on the surface appeared to be relatively harmless. "Xena. What in Hades is that thing?" Its too small to be a panther and besides, its the wrong color. The bards brain quickly ran through the catalogue of various wild cats she knew of in Greece, trying to identify the smallish animal her soulmate was obviously fearlessly petting and talking to. It seems tame enough.
"Its a cat." The warrior continued to scratch and rub the contented creature on top of its head and across the scruff of its neck, resulting in even louder purring on the part of the very ecstatic cat.
"I can see that. What kind of cat is it? Ive never seen anything like it before." Gabrielle gained some courage and stepped down from the bench. "And why is it growling at you?"
"I dunno. Its just a cat. And its not growling. Its purring. Means its happy. Lao Ma had some in Chin. Theyre good for chasing away mice and bugs and things. I didnt know they had made it this far west, although they are pretty prolific, if I recall. Seems like they had four and five babies with each litter, and it was darned near impossible to kill one of em by accident. No matter what happened to them, they seemed to come through the most hazardous situations virtually untouched. Lao Ma used to say they had nine lives, and that they brought good luck. I remember this one little tan-colored one in Chin. He had black tipped ears and paws and slanted yellow eyes, and the most mournful meow." Xenas eyes took on a faraway look.
"Xena. What is a meow?" The bard stepped closer, still warily eyeing the strange-looking feline.
"Its the noise they make. Well, besides purring, that is." She grinned down at the tabby, who was still contentedly accepting whatever attention the warrior was willing to offer, its eyes half-closed as the rumbling noise continued to emanate from its chest. "You know. Like wolves howl and horses neigh and cows moo? Cats meow." She poked the small creature in an attempt to get it to produce the noise, and only succeeded in getting it to bat one front paw back at her with a playful swat. "Hey!" The warrior jerked her hand away. "Watch those claws, buddy boy."
Gabrielle jumped and then decided to stay put. Claws?
"Anyway, that cat in Lao Mas palace, he used to sleep on my bed at night. I kept pretending that I was annoyed with him, but in truth, he was probably the only friend I had for a while. I wasnt yet willing to recognize Lao Ma as a friend, much less anything else, and this little furball just managed to worm his way inside my defenses. Id find myself rearranging myself on the bed to let him sleep wherever he wanted to and in whatever position he wanted to, even if it meant he wanted to sleep on top of me." Hmmmm. Something else Gabrielle has in common with cats. The warriors eyes twinkled a bit at her private thoughts.
"Did he have a name?" The bard took another few hesitant steps until she was next to the cat. She reached out and gently stroked a white patch of fur on its chest. Wow. A lot softer than it looks.
"Why didnt you name him? You named Argo." Gabrielle smiled as the cat closed its eyes and leaned against her, rubbing the bridge of its nose vigorously against the back of her hand.
"That was his name. No Name was his name. I kept talking to him every night and telling him to not get too close, because I wasnt going to be his friend or even like him. But I think he knew that with two bummed-up legs, I wasnt in much shape to really chase him away, and he kept coming back every night. It was kind of hard to talk to him without calling him something, so whenever I addressed him, I started calling him No Name." Xena chuckled at the memory.
"Um ... Xena." The bard peered up at her partner with amused green eyes. "If we do ever have a child, lets make sure we discuss names very carefully and come up with something we both agree on, okay?"
"You are such a brat." The warrior tickled her partners ribs through the light-weight sleep shirt Gabrielle had donned before she came out on the terrace.
"Stop it!" The bard artfully stepped back out of the reach of her partners long fingers before they could do any further mischief. "Did you say theyre good for getting rid of mice?"
"Yeah. Sometimes I think that must be what they were created for. And maybe for cuddling. They seem to like warm places and a lot of them will just curl up with you for as long as you will pet them. And they can get pretty demanding if theyre hungry." Xena eyed her partner. Hmmm. Maybe she was a cat in a former life.
"What?" Gabrielle scowled at the knowing grin on her soulmates face.
Xena briefly considered here kitty kitty in response and shook her head to clear it. Bad warrior. Bad bad warrior. "Nothing."
Yeah, right. Gabrielle decided to let it go. "We could use a couple of cats back in the Amazon village. One in the barn and one in Darias kitchen. The mice are starting to take over the place. Darias had to come up with new and creative ways to store food to try to keep them out of our supplies. And just a half a moon ago you were complaining about finding mouse droppings near the feed bin in the barn. You know, Xena. I bet Cleopatra has a cat or two she might be willing to part with. Especially for you." The bard batted innocent pale eyelashes at her tall partner.
"Oh no. I am not hauling any cats back across the Mediterranean on a boat. Besides, after last night, I dont think Cleopatras going to be in much of a giving mood where Im concerned." Xena held one long finger out for the cat to paw at, waiting.
"What do you mean? She seemed fine when we left the banquet." The bards forehead wrinkled in confusion and she temporarily forgot all about the cat.
Zeus give me strength. Here we go. "Well. She sorta came into our room last night while you were sleeping, and we had a little chat." The warrior unconsciously tensed up, anticipating her partners reaction. She wasnt too far off her mark.
The forehead wrinkled in the opposite direction, as the blonde brows shot up into Gabrielles hairline. "What?! Why didnt you wake me up? Tell me she didnt see us ... um ..."
"Sleeping naked together? Yeah. She did. And I didnt wake you because you were sleeping so peacefully, I didnt want to bother you. Besides, it kind of worked to my advantage that you were asleep." Uh oh. Xena saw the next question coming.
"How so?" Gabrielles eyes flashed with more than a hint of irritation.
"I ... um ... kinda leaned over and kissed you on the cheek, and you ... um ... made one of those cute little noises you make, and then you rolled over and sorta snuggled up to me." The warrior ducked her head a bit and blinked, assuming a bit of friendly feline body language of her own.
"Xena. Gods. How embarrassing!" The bard placed both hands on her hips and glared at her partner.
"Gabrielle. At least she definitely got the picture." I made sure of that. "She has no doubt anymore as to the nature of our relationship. And it was really precious. Really." The warrior took a chance and stepped forward, closing the distance between them and pulling her soulmate into a loose hug.
"Ill just bet it was." The bard couldnt resist the totally charming expression on her partners face, and leaned forward, kissing Xena on the little scar just above her right breast. "Just for that, at breakfast this morning, I ought to tell her about that one look you get on your face right before you .... omphh ..." Gabrielle found her words swallowed up by an all-consuming kiss from her soulmate.
Ill show you that look later, bard, I promise. Somewhere in the pleasurable haze of the kiss, the word breakfast registered on the edge of the warriors brain, and she pulled back with a groan. "We need to talk. I made Cleopatra a promise last night and I dont think shes gonna let me out of it."
"What sort of promise?" The green eyes looked up at her tall partner with a pained expression that made Xenas heart ache.
Its not a matter of trust, its a matter of insecurity. The warrior reminded herself, as she read the all-too-familiar question in her soulmates eyes. It was the same look she had seen when they first met up with Tara. The same one that had appeared when she left Gabrielle on a boat dock to go to Chin. Shed even seen it when they were on the boat with Ulysses so long ago. Xena knew that her young lover simply needed to know that no matter what, she was the most important thing in the warriors life.
"Oh, sweetheart. Its nothing earth-shattering." She took Gabrielles hand and led her back over to the bench, gently pushing on the bards shoulders until Gabrielle was sitting against the cushioned back of the low seat with her legs stretched out. Xena knelt down on the hard paved terrace and placed one hand on the bards nearest leg, and the other lightly against her arm. Blue eyes peered up earnestly at her lovers face. "I meant what I said yesterday. You, my bard, are everything to me. Please believe me. I need to know that you do."
Gabrielle took the hand on her leg into her own hands. "Xena, come here." She spread her legs and patted the space in between them. The warriors eyes grew wide and then she smiled, crawling up into the familiar place and curling up against the bards chest, loosely circling Gabrielles waist with her long arms. Xena sighed with contentment as she laid her head against her soulmates shoulder, absorbing the warmth and the closeness.
Most of the time when they were close like this, it was usually the warrior holding Gabrielle, partly just due to the nature of their mutual sizes, and partly because in many ways, the warrior was more aggressive then her younger partner, and didnt hesitate to seek out physical contact whenever she craved it. But the bard knew that underneath her Im the baddest warrior around exterior, Xena loved to be held and even mothered a bit, something Gabrielle was more than willing to do. The warrior cherished the rare moments like this one, when she could just let go, and allow herself to feel cared for.
Xena opened her eyes and looked out absently over the wall toward the risen sun, as she explained in depth to her partner the content of the conversation between her and Cleopatra, both at the banquet and later in their room. While the warrior talked, Gabrielle simply held on to her soulmate, stroking the long dark tresses and planting an occasional kiss on the top of Xenas head, while doing her best to listen objectively to her obviously distressed partner.
" ... so you see, I did promise her some time alone after breakfast, although she knows now that we are just going to talk, and nothing more. For some reason, shes put off by you. Probably jealous." The warrior paused and turned her face, kissing the top swell of her partners breast through the linen sleep shirt and grinning with satisfaction as she felt a brief tremor course through the small body that held her. "I know I would be if I were in her shoes. Even after finding out about us, she made a point of reminding me of that very promise, and I dont think shes going to be co-operative until I appease her. And unfortunately, I get the feeling she might be more inclined to listen to me if youre not around."
"Youre probably right." The bard took a deep breath and traced the gold pattern on a nearby arm bracer. "She keeps giving me these really strange looks. That is, when she looks at me at all. Its like she cant figure out what to think of me."
"Im really sorry, love. Id much rather have you there with me, believe me. If I give her a couple of candle marks of my time, will you be okay with that?" Xena looked up and searched the beloved green eyes.
"Yeah. Ill just go into the city and do a little shopping while you two talk." Gabrielle grinned. "Its been a long time since Ive shopped in a really large market. Maybe Ill find some of the things we need for our joining ceremony." Or maybe some pretty things to wear at the cabin afterward.
"Hey. Thats a great idea." The warrior looked visibly relieved at her partners apparent lack of concern at her being alone with Cleopatra. "Right after breakfast Ill walk over there with you and we can scope out the area and figure out a place to meet up later. Then Ill come back here, tell Cleo whats what, and then go back to the market and meet you while we give her a chance to cool down and think about everything. In fact, you might want to see what you can find in the way of an inn. I have a feeling that Cleo may need a few days to think things through. Oh. And I need to check the carrier pigeon station to see if Octavian has sent me any more messages. I told him not to send anything directly to the palace."
"Sounds like a plan to me." The bard started to get up to change clothes, and found their positions suddenly switched, as the warrior picked her up and then flipped over onto her back, and Gabrielle felt herself efficiently restrained by two strong thighs that locked around her waist and held her in place.
"Hey. Whats the rush?" Two pale blue eyes peered at her from behind half-closed lids.
"Suns up. I just thought Id better get ready for breakfast." Gabrielle ran one finger up a well-muscled thigh and blinked innocently at her soulmate.
"You havent even kissed me good morning yet." A lower lip poked out, causing the bard to giggle.
"Have too." The finger traveled higher and poked Xena on the upper chest for emphasis.
"I kissed you." The pout grew more pronounced. "Doesnt count."
"Oh gods. Please. Not that look." The bard sat up on her knees and leaned forward and tenderly kissed the warriors neck, slowly working her way up and across Xenas jawline before reaching the waiting lips. Gabrielle sighed and pressed her body even closer, as she felt the warriors arms pulling her in, demanding more contact.
"Mmmm." Xena deepened the kiss, slowing down and taking her time as she thoroughly explored the warm recesses of her partners mouth. "Gods you taste good. You got seconds last night, but I never did."
"Xena. There was plenty of food. If you wanted more you could have asked for it. They didnt have any problems bringing me a second plate." Gabrielle pulled back and playfully nipped at the warriors nose. "We can go get breakfast if youre hungry."
The warrior licked her lips seductively. "Wasnt talking about the banquet."
"Well then wha ...?" Confusion gave way to enlightenment. "Oh." The bard blushed, remembering a lengthy session of passion mixed with chocolate. She leaned in and gently tasted the warriors lips again, and whimpered as strong hands encased her hips, and Xena laid back on the chaise bench, lifting Gabrielle and pulling the bard forward on top of her. "Xena. We dont have time ..." Coherent thought became impossible, as the hands wandered underneath her sleep shirt and caressed a bit of rather sensitive skin.
"I know." The warrior regretfully tempered her attentions. "I just wish this morning were already over and we were in that market shopping together. Or better yet, at that inn youre gonna find for us."
"Lets just get through the morning first." Gabrielle rolled to the side of her partner and rubbed Xenas stomach as she spoke. "While youre talking to Cleopatra, you just remember that Im waiting for you. And ..." She leaned down and kissed the warrior again. "I plan to personally make sure you dont go hungry again tonight."
"Have I told you yet this morning that I love you? Cause I do." Xena sat up and pulled the bard with her, hugging her tightly. "Love you so much."
"Love you too." Gabrielle squeezed back.
The bard turned around toward the wall where the cat had laid down belly up, lazily stretching its body out to catch the rays of the early morning sun. "What a cute sound. Xena, are you sure we cant ...?"
"No." The warrior stood up and began making her way back into the room.
"But hes so small. He wont take up much room on the boat." Gabrielle trailed behind her tall partner, determined to make her case. "Ill take care of him, even after we get back home. Youll hardly even know hes around."
"No." Xena forced herself not to snap at her partner. "We have enough animals to deal with already."
Gabrielle detected the edge in the warriors voice and it surprised her. Geez. Whats the big deal? Youd think I was asking her to take a couple of camels back to Greece with us. And besides, we really could use some rodent control back home. Heres the perfect solution to the problem and shes just being belligerent. She puzzled over that as she went over to her bags and pulled out something suitable to wear to breakfast. She looked over at her partner, who was sitting on the edge of the bed with her back turned, struggling with her leg armor. Xenas shoulders were hunched up slightly in a posture that the bard had learned long ago to recognize as a sign of inner turmoil. An idea suddenly occurred to the bard.
"Here. Let me help you." She quietly walked over and sat down on the floor at Xenas feet, gently pushing the warriors hands aside and buckling the armor in place from an easier angle. She looked up and studied the chiseled somewhat-masked face. "Xena, can I ask you something?"
"No. No cats." The deep voice was barely controlled.
"Honey. Thats not what I was going to ask." Okay. Time to get to the bottom of this.
"Oh. Sorry." Sad blue eyes blinked at her. "Whats your question?"
"Whatever happened to No Name?" Gabrielle placed one hand on the top of Xenas leg and softly caressed the firm muscles just below the skin.
The warrior felt the pain in her gut twist tightly for just one second, and then it released completely. "How did you learn to read me so well?" She sighed heavily and slid down to the floor. Gabrielle scooted around and leaned against the bed, and for the second time that morning, Xena curled into her and laid her head on the bards shoulder. She felt small fingers continue to stroke her thigh. "When Ming Tzu came to Lao Mas palace, when he brought Ming Tien there with him, when Ming Tien was still a little boy ... one day ..." She stopped and took a shaky breath.
Gods. Shes in so much pain. "Xena. Its okay. You dont have to if you dont want to ..."
"No. I want to tell you." The warriors voice trembled slightly and she swallowed several times before continuing. "One afternoon they were out in the yard behind the palace, doing target practice. Ming Tzu was pretty good with a bow and arrow. Very good, actually. I ... dont know if he was bored with the still targets ... or ... what ... but ..."
No. The bards own gut twisted and she pulled Xena more tightly to her.
"No Name. He had been out just doing cat stuff, I guess. Chasing mice or whatever. Anyway, he ran across the practice field ... I was sitting way over on the terrace playing the dutiful servant. Ming Tzu, he sees him, you know, and he looks down at Ming Tien, and he says, Watch this. And he raised his bow and just shot him. Just because he was there." She drew in another shaky breath.
"Honey, Im sorry." The bard kissed the dark head.
"I ... knew that No Name probably never even knew what hit him. As soon as they left I went over to where he was laying and I picked him up. He was still warm but it was too late. Ming Tzu had executed a perfect shot right through the heart." Xenas voice was bitter with the memory. "I dont know how long I sat there, and I cried. I felt so stupid, like it was just a cat for gods sake. But ... he was my friend, you know? And Lao Ma found me out there and told me I had to let it go. That I couldnt go take retribution on Ming Tzu. And the thing is, it hurt for just a little while, but then I just made myself block that out and be numb instead. Its what I had to do. It hurt too much to miss him. I had to learn ..." The warrior trailed off and raised up, placing one hand against Gabrielles face and stroking her cheek with her fingertips.
She learned to not care about anyone or anything, because they always betrayed her or died or left her. The bard mentally completed Xenas sentence and closed her eyes for a long moment. She opened them and looked earnestly at her partners face. "Xena. That was a terrible thing to happen to you. Especially after everything else you had been through. But you cant go through life shutting out the people and things you love just because you might eventually get hurt. Love hurts sometimes, Xena. If you didnt care, you wouldnt hurt. And you will miss out on a lot of really good stuff if you keep closing yourself off from every person or animal who tries to get close to you. I ..." Gabrielle lowered her eyes and blinked back a few tears. "... Im really glad you didnt do that with me."
"I tried to." Xena tilted her partners face back up. "But you didnt let me. Just like No Name didnt let me." She looked thoughtfully out at the terrace where the cat had fallen asleep in the sun on top of the wall. She looked back at her partner and managed to smile. "Youre right. We do need a cat or two back home. If everything turns out okay, Ill talk to Cleo about it. If not, well find us a couple of cats somewhere else before we go home."
"Thank you." Gabrielle lifted Xenas hand and softly kissed her knuckles. "Lets go get breakfast over with, shall we?"
The market place was crowded, with throngs of camels, donkeys, and masses of people teeming in the narrow sandy streets, some of whom apparently hadnt made acquaintance with a cake of soap anytime in the recent past. Gabrielle wrinkled her nose at the combined stench of body odor and animal dung, and pressed on to the next booth. The mid-morning heat was already becoming oppressive, only serving to increase the pungent odor all around her. One of the merchants had explained to the bard that it was a special trading day that was held once a season, the day after new shipments of goods were received up the Nile from Alexandria, as well as from neighboring Arabia across the Sinai peninsula.
The bard had already made several purchases, some practical and some more frivolous, and with her usual bargaining skills, had managed to haggle with the harried merchants, convincing them to lower already reduced prices down to almost nothing. She had found some fragrant candles she thought would be perfect for their bathing room back home, several vials of the sandalwood and myrrh oil that she had come to like almost as much as the lavender oil she had used for so long, a few packets of Egyptian spices for cooking, and some of the medicinal herbs that Xena had mentioned she was running low on in her healers kit. Shed also found a bargain on a roll of healers gut, and had sighed, thinking about the many times she had to stitch her partner up, knowing that eventually the entire spool would be used.
There was one purchase that she was especially proud of, a pair of ornate silver goblets that would serve for she and Xena to drink from at the joining ceremony. Part of the ceremony itself involved the couple sharing sips of wine from each others goblets as a symbol of a pledge to always take care of one anothers needs and a symbol to share all that they have with each other. She smiled and felt around in her pouch, tracing the etched phrases the merchant had carved into the metal of both mugs for her. "Always and Forever."
Gabrielle scanned the booths ahead of her and finally spotted what she was looking for, a small discreet tent that was set up behind an open stall full of clothing items. She pulled back the tent flap and poked her head inside, looking around. The tiny tent was full of womens sleep wear and under clothing. With a shy smile, the bard made her way inside and began fingering the delicate materials in many rich dark shades of color and other more pale hues, wondering which ones would please Xena the most. Besides my bare skin, that is. She chuckled inwardly. The only true pieces of lingerie she owned were the green negligee from India, and a pair of peach satin sleeping pants and matching sleeveless top that the warrior had surprised her with on Zakynthos.
"May I help you?" And older Egyptian woman interrupted Gabrielles thoughts. "Are you looking for anything special?"
"I ... um ... getting joi ... er married. Im getting married. Im just looking for a few things." The bard stammered and blushed.
"Ahhh." The older woman eyed Gabrielles ring. "I have just the thing for you." The woman ducked down and disappeared behind a table for a long moment before returning with a long white gown with long sleeves and a high neck that tied under the chin with a satin ribbon. The gown was covered with an abundance of lace and bows, and the material, while soft, was rather thick.
"Um ..." Ewww. Xena would hate that. Even more than I do. "Im not sure thats what Im looking for."
"It is traditional Egyptian wedding night attire." The woman smiled. "All young virgin brides wear a gown similar to this on their wedding night."
The bard choked a snorting laugh into a cough. Virgin?!! "Im not ... an Egyptian."
"Oh. But you marry Egyptian, man, no?" The older woman smiled pleasantly and continued to hold up the hideous night gown.
"No. Not exactly." The bard looked down at her ring.
"Not Egyptian?" The woman looked puzzled.
"Right. Greek." Gabrielle began to gradually step back. And not a man. "Um ... we apparently have very different customs in Greece."
The bard looked around for a moment and grinned. She walked over to a table that held a selection of tiny rather revealing little things, and held up another white gown. It was completely sheer and calf-length, and was slit all the way up both sides, with thin bands of plain white satin ribbon holding the front and back of the gown together, which would leave bare skin to peek through all the way up both sides. It was sleeveless and plunged to the navel in front, and to the lower back from behind. "This would be perfect for my wedding night."
"Oh my." It was the Egyptian womans turn to blush. "Are you sure, child? Has anyone explained to you what will happen on your wedding night?"
"Um ..." Whats to explain? Although Im sure Xena would be happy to show me in great detail, if I have any questions. She stifled a giggle. "No."
"Child, perhaps you should go discuss this with your mother or older sister before you make any purchases." The Egyptian woman patted Gabrielle on the head.
Gabrielle felt a tiny twinge in her heart. My mother. She may never get over this. If she even cares about me at all. She realized that she hadnt seen her mother since Hope brought the Deliverer to Potadeia. Two summers. Suddenly, the bard felt much older than her twenty-one summers, and couldnt take the condescending tone and treatment she was receiving any more. "With all due respect, maam ..." The bard put on her most innocent face. "... I will probably do things on my wedding night that would curl my mothers toes. And I am the older sister. So, if you will excuse me, Id like to finish making my selections so I can go meet my betrothed. Shes expecting me in a few more candle marks."
The older womans mouth flew open, and then just as quickly clamped shut. "My apologies. Please. You seem to know what you want, so Ill just be over sorting through some things until youre ready to be checked out." The woman politely walked toward a bench and then spun around. "Did you say ...?" She? "... never mind." She sat weakly down. They must have really different customs in Greece.
The bard merely raised one blonde eyebrow, and then sorted through a few tables, picking out several items in various colors and styles, and smiling inwardly. Xena does like variety. She cocked her head to one side in thought. And shes gonna bug me to see all this stuff if I dont pick out a few things to wear between now and the joining ceremony. Gabrielle finally settled on two more pieces. One was a simple black silk top with thin straps and a tiny little pair of matching underwear, if the few strings and patches of material that made up the garment could count as underwear. The other was a red lacy little one-piece number that had some satin ties in convenient places. Oh. Shell like that one.
Gabrielle paid for the items and accepted the packages from the still-befuddled Egyptian woman, and made her way back out into the open market place. On her way out, she spied one more outfit, something to wear during the day, and without a moments hesitation, she purchased it. Now that, she will definitely like.
She switched her bag from one shoulder to the other, and with polite but determined movements, pushed her way through the happy throngs that filled the central trading area to overflowing. After a while, she spotted a stand that was selling fresh-squeezed orange juice, and she purchased a mug full and sat down on a rough wooden bench near the stand.
She tentatively sipped the tangy-sweet nectar and smacked her lips in appreciation. Wish we could grow oranges at home. Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment and listened to her own breathing, realizing that her neck and shoulder muscles were tense with anxiety. She wondered how Xena was doing in her talk with Cleopatra, and silently sent good luck wishes in her partners direction. Above all, be careful, love.
To say that breakfast had been strained was putting it mildly. Downright cold would be a more accurate description. They had sat mostly in silence, save a few brief biting quips exchanged between Xena and the extremely peeved Egyptian. As for Gabrielle, she had remained quiet, eating her breakfast without comment and desperately wishing she had just skipped the morning meal altogether and gone straight to the market instead.
Her thoughts were abruptly cut off and her eyes flew open, as her mug of juice flew out of her grasp, and she was violently shoved off the bench, landing roughly on her hands and knees in the sand. She reached down and grabbed her sais from her boot straps, and rolled over in a defensive stance with both weapons drawn in front of her, sharp ends out. And found herself staring into a shaggy white face that had large brown spots, two long ears, and dark liquid eyes.
Gabrielle blinked and shook her head, but the image before her didnt change. Slowly, she dropped one sai and stretched out a shaky hand to stroke the velvety muzzle. "Tobias?"
She received a strong nudge to her bare midriff in response, and she laughed in wonder. "What in Hades are you doing here? I thought I gave you to that couple in Greece. The ones that were traveling with the little baby." The bard attempted to stand, but Tobias legs were on either side of Gabrielles, caging her in place. She grinned and then placed a finger in each of the corners of her mouth, and whistled. The donkey obediently backed up, giving her room to get up. As she was brushing off her skirt, a thin bearded man of medium height and olive skin approached them.
"There you are, you stubborn little ..." The man stopped and studied Gabrielle for a long moment. So familiar. Is she ... the hair is shorter, but she sure looks like ... "Hey. Arent you the girl who gave me this beast?"
The bard returned the appraisal, and felt a sudden internal swirling of mixed emotions, remembering a time in her life when everything was so simple and her world had consisted of strong black and white convictions that she had been oh so sure of. A time when all that mattered was doing the right thing, and she had been certain that she could change the world with her own brand of gentle idealistic persuasion. She had looked forward to every day with anticipation and wonder, and had wanted so much to be just like Xena. Together they were going to right every wrong that crossed their path. Gods I was so young. And so wrong. Come on Gabrielle, snap out of it. Would you really want to still be like you were then? And the honest answer came to her unexpectedly from somewhere deep inside. No.
A part of her knew that there was a reason for everything, and that she and Xena had to go through all that they had suffered in order to get to where they were now. Each step along the path they had traveled together had been one step closer to the strong love they shared today. Even that day on the road when she had given Tobias away, the warrior had told Gabrielle that she was a gift to her. If only we had known ... She managed a smile. "Yes. I am." The bard bent over and retrieved her sai from the ground, tucking both weapons back into their leather notches on the outsides of her boots.
"I ... always wondered who you were. Where you came from." Like an angel from Heaven. The man held out a hand in greeting. "I wanted to thank you, but in our haste, I never even caught your name."
The bard reached out and grasped the offered forearm. "Gabrielle. From Potadeia."
The man smiled broadly at her firm handshake. "Yosef, from Nazareth by way of Bethlehem."
"Forgive me. I dont believe I know where those places are." Gabrielle frowned.
"Bethlehem is in Judea, and Nazareth is in Galilee." Yosef could tell from the bards blank expression that the names meant nothing to her. He sighed. "On the far eastern side of the Mediterranean. Im a descendant of the Israelites."
"Really? If you dont mind my asking, when we met, what were you doing so far from home? In fact, what are you doing here?" Gabrielle absently stroked Tobias head, which the small donkey had poked underneath her arm while she was talking.
Yosef merely smiled. "When we met, my family and I were on the way here. And my answer is that the rest of it is a long story. I could ask you the same question."
"And my answer would be the same as yours." The bard read the worry lines on the mans face. Hes too young to have so many wrinkles. "How are your wife and baby? Are they here with you?"
Yosef hesitated. For so long weve managed to remain anonymous, just blending in here. Until that godforsaken prophet came along a few moons ago. And now this young girl pops back up. Still ... There was something about the sincere green eyes that compelled him to trust her. "Yes. We live here now. And my baby isnt a baby anymore. Hes almost four summers old. And he has a younger brother now. In fact, why dont you come join us for lunch? I can introduce you to them. I know Mary ... thats my wife ... would want to thank you personally for the donkey. He was of great help."
"Oh. I wish I could, but Im meeting someone here in a little while. You remember the woman I was traveling with? The tall one with the long dark hair? Her name is Xena, and we still travel together. Im expecting her in a candle mark or so." Gabrielle reached up and pushed her hair back off her sweaty forehead, her ring catching the light and reflecting it into Yosefs eyes.
The man studied the ring, recognizing it as a wedding band, and started to say something and then thought better of it. "Well then. Why dont you and your companion join us for dinner tonight instead?"
"Thats very kind of you." The bard looked down at Tobias and smiled. "Ill talk to her, but Im sure shell be fine with it." I hope.
Yosef gave Gabrielle directions to his home, and then took the rope tied to Tobias halter, leading the strong-willed animal away. As they walked toward the eastern edge of the market, the small donkey looked back over his shoulder at the bard and let out a long bray of displeasure at the separation.
The warrior stood inside the doorway to the garden terrace, and took a deep breath. She squinted into the late morning sun and studied her quarry. Cleopatra sat in a throne-like ornate marble chair that had plush cushions on the seat and against the back. Overhead was a thick linen canopy, and two servants stood on either side of the queen, fanning her with large peacock feathers. She paused in the middle of writing on some parchment, and set her quill down on a side table. "Come on out here, Xena. You might as well get it over with."
Xena started, surprised that the Egyptian had detected her presence. Then she noticed the body guard, who stepped out from behind the low wall that surrounded the patio, crossing his arms over his bare chest and giving her a no-nonsense glare. Ahhh. He must have signaled her when I first got back. The warrior squared her shoulders and made purposeful strides toward the queen, taking a seat across from the Egyptian as Cleopatra gestured toward it with the flick of a delicate wrist.
"So, did you get your little girlfriend taken care of?" The queen rolled her eyes and idly twisted her black oiled braids around her fingers.
Xenas blue eyes snapped. "Lets get one thing clear up front. Gabrielle is the most important thing in the world to me. I really dont like it when people show her disrespect, or dont take her seriously. Or act like shes second place. Or that she doesnt count as much as I do."
Testy. "Xena. Im sorry. Although I must say, Im rather disappointed. I had no idea how it was with the you two, and I guess I made it pretty obvious that I hoped there might be a chance for you and I to get to know each other on a more intimate level. You know I wanted that the last time we saw each other, and you ran away from me then, too. Is she the reason why? Were you together back then?" Dark eyes appraised the tall figure which sat imposingly across from her.
"No, we werent together back then, not as lovers. But she is the reason I ran away, because I was already in love with her then. It wouldnt have been right." Xena groaned in irritation as two more servants appeared on the terrace with extra peacock feathers, and stood on either side of her, fanning her with the same persistence as the servants who were looking after Cleopatra.
"Well. Isnt that noble of you?" The Egyptians voice was sarcastic. "Just how serious are things between the two of you?" The queen snapped her fingers, and servers appeared with trays of pewter goblets, setting two down next to Cleopatra, and two more down on a table next to the warrior.
"Serious enough to make a commitment for life." And then some. Xena added silently, as she raised her left hand and fluttered her fingers, displaying her ring. "But I didnt come to Egypt to discuss my love life."
The warrior smirked inwardly with satisfaction as she saw the shock register briefly on the Egyptians face as she noticed the ring for the first time. The queen just as quickly re-gained her composure and managed to look almost bored. "Very well then. That leads back to my question from last night. Why are you here, Xena?" Cleopatra raised one black eyebrow and lifted a goblet of orange juice mixed with white wine to her lips.
"I do have an answer for you. But first, Id like to ask you a question." The warrior sniffed the contents of each of the two mugs next to her, bypassing the alcohol in favor of the one filled with plain cold water.
"You can ask, and then Ill decide if Ill answer." The Egyptian sat back in her chair and rested both arms stiffly on the side-arms of the chair.
"Why are you teaming up with Marc Antony?" Xena forced herself to speak calmly. Merely invoking the Romans name caused bile to rise up in her throat when she thought of the near-rape of her partner at his hands.
"Thats a complicated question. And I think its only fair that I tell you that I know you were recently involved in some negotiations with Octavian." Cleopatra waited for surprise on the warriors part, and was disappointed when it never appeared.
"I came here assuming you might. I knew you had sources in Rome, and I had to count on the possibility that some of them knew of the Greek peace treaty summit. I can understand how you would want to establish a good relationship with Rome. Thats why the Amazons and the other villages involved agreed to the summit. But Cleopatra, why Antony?" The distaste was readily apparent on Xenas face.
The Egyptian stood up and paced back and forth while looking thoughtfully out across the desert. The two servants scrambled to follow a few paces behind with the fans, almost tripping over themselves in the process. "Leave us." Cleopatra spun around and addressed the four servants and the body guard, all of whom quickly got up and disappeared inside the palace.
"Thank you." The warrior inclined her head gracefully. "I was pretty uncomfortable having this discussion in front of other people."
"I didnt do it for you, but youre welcome anyway." The Egyptian sighed and sat back down. "Not everyone in Egypt is happy with my alliance with Antony. I dont always know who I can trust. Even my own household staff."
"About Antony. Is it for revenge against Caesar?" Xenas voice held a burring tone as the dead Romans name rolled off her tongue, almost as if she were spitting it out like a bite of spoiled food.
"Thats part of it. But not all." Cleopatra curled her legs up under herself in an uncommon casual stance. "Xena, when Ptolemy the First took the throne after the death of Alexander the Great, Egypt was once again under rule by Egyptians for the first time in several centuries. That was over three hundred years ago. I am a descendent of the first Ptolemy, and my brother, weakling that he is, is the eighth Ptolemy. I am his legal wife, although we do not participate in the physical act of marriage. The marriage is merely a contractual means of making sure that our lineage continues to rule. We are required by law to bear children from other partners. And it is common knowledge that I am the true ruler of my country. I, like my fathers before me, have managed to keep control of our lands, despite the movement of the Romans to the north and the Khans of Chin from the east. It hasnt been easy."
"And now youre afraid that you are going to lose everything you have fought for." A statement, not a question, as Xena understood all too well where the Egyptian was coming from.
"Yes. My father almost lost to Rome. When he died, I was very young. Only fourteen summers old. My brother is only a few summers older. Caesar was moving quickly, taking all the lands across the Mediterranean. I watched his progress and when he took the Israeli territories north of Arabia, I knew I had to do something. Egypt was only one country away from Roman dictatorship. My brother had no true power. And no spine. So I used the only real asset I had to offer in negotiation, my body." Cleopatra looked down at her lap for a moment, and then back up, with true shame written all over her face. "I did what I had to do."
"Believe me. I understand." The warriors voice was thick with sympathy. "Ive done the same thing. More than once. Were women, Cleopatra, and we live in a world where most men consider us to be nothing but property. You and I, were stronger than most, but we had to fight to become that way. Im not proud of some of the things Ive done either, but at the time I did them, Im not sure if I had other choices. Not without giving up more of my dignity than I already was."
The dark eyes teared up briefly, and the Egyptian discreetly turned her head to the side and brushed her hand across her face. Her chest rose and fell with a shaky breath, and she continued. "It appears you and I are not so very different from each other."
You dont know the half of it. Xena remained silent, remembering her own volatile relationship with Caesar.
"Anyway ..." Cleopatra took a long sip from the orange juice and wine mixture. "... there I was, fourteen summers old, knowing that it was on my shoulders to save my country from the strong arm of Rome. So I booked passage to Rome, and when I arrived in the city, I had my servants bathe me and oil my body. I braided my hair, painted my nails and face, and put on my finest jewelry, and nothing more, and had them roll me up in a Persian rug. Then I had the rug and myself delivered to Caesar as a personal gift. You should have seen his face when they unfurled the rug in the middle of his great hall, and I came rolling out of it buck naked."*
The warrior was in mid-sip of her water, and involuntarily inhaled it instead, coughing violently. Cleopatra walked to her side, slapping her on the back. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah." Her voice was raspy, and she took a moment to calm her spasming diaphragm. "Sorry. Just the visual image. I gotta give you points for style, though. And guts."
"Thank you." The Egyptian rewarded the warrior with her first genuine smile of the morning. "Needless to say, Caesar gave me some points of his own, and we began a love affair that lasted until about five summers ago. He was my first. And for a long time, my only. He was ten summers older than me, and in my eyes he had the power over life and death itself. It never occurred to me that he was taking advantage of my age and inexperience. I was saving Egypt, and thats all that mattered to me."
Xenas mental wheels began to spin. So about the same time that I met Gabrielle, Cleo was splitting up with Caesar. Gods. Im ten summers older than Gabrielle. "Cleopatra, may I ask you how old you are?"
The Egyptian was a bit taken aback, but she answered anyway. "Thirty-one summers. Why do you ask?"
"Just curious. Were the same age, you know."
"Yes, really." The warriors face grew reflective. She had been fourteen summers old when Cortese attacked her village, and she had been sixteen summers old when she first captured Julius Caesar. It suddenly occurred to her that at the time she had her brief tryst with the Roman, that Cleopatra had already been with him for two summers. It was no secret that Caesar slept with whomever he wanted, and that he had been married during most of his rule of Rome, and not to Cleopatra. Xena herself had been one of his casualties. But apparently Cleopatra had actually meant something to him, although Xena was pretty sure it wasnt merely due to the pleasure of the Egyptians company. "When was your son born?"
"When I was seventeen summers old. Hes fourteen summers old now." Why all the questions about age, my friend? The Egyptian silently studied her guest.
Same age Solan would be, if he were ... The blue eyes grew sad. "Did you love Caesar?"
"What is love, Xena?" The dark face took on a hard edge. "Does anyone really know what love is? Does it really exist? Dont we all use each other, and if we get a bit of pleasure in the process, its just a bonus?"
The warrior felt sorry for the Egyptian. Our stories are so much the same. Up to this point. "Yes. Love does exist. I know it. I have tasted it. And I experience it every day of my life."
"You deceive yourself. Or else you are being deceived. Watch your back, Xena. Even with your little blonde companion. Shell eventually want something from you. They always do." Cleopatra steeled herself, realizing she had touched a nerve.
Xena felt the rage rise, and forced herself to push it back down. She couldnt possibly understand, because shes never been loved. "No. You are the one who is deceived." The warrior stood and began to slowly circle the enclosed area of the terrace. "Tell me, Cleopatra. If you didnt love Caesar, why did you stay with him for so long? Surely you knew he was sleeping with half of the known world during the entire time you were together? Including me.
"Yes, I knew that. But I wasnt his wife. I wasnt in much of a position to argue with him about his dalliances with other women, at least not in the beginning. I was one of the other women. At first, I stayed with him to make sure that Egypt remained independent of Rome. And it worked. Our relationship was the reason Caesar never went after Egypt. And conversely, the reason my navy never challenged Roman ships on the Mediterranean. Romes strength was in its army. Mine was on the water. Later, after Caesarion was born, I suddenly did have something to hold over his head. I had produced an heir for him. Something his barren wife had been unable to do. So then I stayed with him because he promised me that one day my son would rule Rome. Even after our affair ended, we remained civil and he continued to assure me that Caesarions position as his only son was sealed." Bitterness practically dripped from the Egyptians mouth.
"Caesar was very good at making promises." The warrior quietly commented.
"Yes. He was." Cleopatra stood and moved to Xenas side. "But think of it, Xena. If he had kept that promise, my son would one day have sat on the thrones of both Rome and Egypt. It would have been the sweetest convergence of kingdoms the world has ever known. And Egypt would have been assured of its independence, possibly forever."
"But he didnt keep his promise." The warrior placed a tentative hand on the queens arm. "Cleopatra, has it ever occurred to you that you were used by Caesar for over ten summers merely as a means of controlling your navy? He knew that as long as you believed Caesarion was going to have both Rome and Egypt, you would never make any move to cause animosity between the two countries."
"Believe me. The thought has crossed my mind." The dark eyes squinted as she pondered the betrayal. "When I found out he had adopted Octavian posthumously as his heir, I was furious. My son is the rightful heir. I will do whatever I have to do to make sure that Caesarion gets what is rightfully his."
"By teaming up with Antony?" The warrior leaned in and her voice was very succinct. "Youre jumping from the frying pan into the fire, my friend. Dont let your anger and your desire for revenge against a dead man consume you."
"And what would you know of revenge, Xena?" Cleopatra laughed sarcastically.
"More than you can imagine." The warrior sighed and walked over to the wall, resting her weight on her forearms on top of it. "Cleopatra, I was one of Caesars many ... um passing fancies."
"Really?" The dark brows shot up. "This I have got to hear about."
"It was in my early warlord days. I was misguided at the time, but I had not yet become truly evil. I was pretty much small potatoes, but I thought I was hot stuff. Invincible. Caesar and I had one major trait in common. We both had the habit of taking whatever we wanted. In a raid on some Roman ships, some of my men managed to kidnap him, although I didnt even know who he was at the time. Even as a prisoner, he never lost that air of dignity, of true leadership, and I was caught up in his web. I was intrigued by his ideas about his destiny, and his power was seductive. He could tell he had me, and he used that to his advantage. If I had looked more carefully, I would have seen it in his eyes. Although in what little fairness I do owe to Caesar, I seduced him, so to speak. He was my prisoner and I had him brought to my cabin. Of course, I didnt force him to perform. I was just naive enough to believe that it meant something. Shoulda realized he was just doing what I had done myself many times before him. Doing whatever he had to do to get along and get away." The warrior looked up at the sky and let out an exasperated breath. "Gods I was so young and stupid."
"We had some good times, I thought, between his capture and the time I received his ransom from Rome. I thought I had made him fall in love with me, and I actually let him just walk away. If I had known then what I know now, I would have slit his gods-be-damned throat. I honestly believed that he was going to go take care of some affairs in Rome and then come back to team up with me. Thought Julius Caesar wanted to make me his partner. It was so easy for him to catch me. He didnt even have to chase me. I actually pulled up alongside his boat and invited him to come aboard mine. My incredible ego taking precedent over common sense. Story of my life many times over."
Xena looked over at her friend with profound sadness. She continued to tell Cleopatra about her capture by Caesar, the failed crucifixion, MLilas death, and her subsequent fourteen-year-long quest for revenge. She left out the more recent crucifixion, as she was unsure of how to explain her and Gabrielles return to life from the Elysian Fields. "... so I allowed my hatred of him to mold me into a murdering angry warlord, and I hurt hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent people because I let my heart become so hard. I was out to take over the world before he did. And I was willing to walk over, steal from, or kill anyone that got in my way. Even after I met Hercules and began to reform, so many bad things happened to me and Gabrielle because of the grudge I held against him. Every chance I got, I went after him, no matter what the cost. I just wouldnt let it go."
"I was such a slave to my own rage, that I almost lost Gabrielle more than once because of it And I hurt her so many times. Its a miracle shes still with me. And Antony. He ..." The warrior stopped to collect her thoughts. Gotta be careful here.
"Antony what?" The Egyptians hackles rose.
"Cleopatra. Lets sit down." Xena made her way back to her chair and decided maybe the wine drink was in order. She took a couple of long draughts from it, wishing it were a mug of port instead. She swallowed and looked up. "Antony is not a good man. Hes weak. And hes unstable. He coasted through life on Caesars coat-tails and now hes trying to cash in on that. He wasnt even strong enough to keep Octavian out of Rome. He will never be anything unless he has someone else stronger than him by his side."
"And whats wrong with me being that person?" Cleopatras tone took on a defensive note.
"Because youre better than him. Hes an evil man, Cleopatra." The warrior pleaded. "Hes an alcoholic, a womanizer, and a rapist."
"Now hold on just a minute." The Egyptian rose from her seat and stood over Xena. "I know he drinks more than he should. And if hes a womanizer, so what? I dealt with that from Caesar. Its nothing new. Besides, I seek my pleasure from more than once source too, so it would be like the pot calling the kettle black. But Ill not have you accuse my lover of being a rapist."
"I dont have to accuse him." The warrior stood up, suddenly towering over her adversary due to her considerable height advantage. "Just ask my lover. Shell tell you all about it."
"I dont believe you." Cleopatra spun around and sat back down in a huff, grabbing up her wine goblet and draining it before slamming it angrily back down on the table.
Xena sighed heavily and resumed her seat. She dove into the story of the battle with Bodaceia, and Antonys attempted rape of Gabrielle. "... I know he remembers me, even though I didnt know him at the time. He mentioned me to Gabrielle when he had her taken to his tent. He accused her of being my whore. Go ahead and ask him. Ill bet he remembers Gabrielle too. And dont let him try to tell you that Gabrielle wanted it. I think from what little you know of her, you know that isnt true. She has a pure heart. By the gods, shes only been with one other person besides me, and that was her husband. Shes not into one-night stands."
"Im still not inclined to believe you." The dark eyes told a different story from the Egyptians full lips. "And even if it is true, what am I to do? Just let Rome take my country after all the years we have worked to remain free?"
"Cleopatra. Whats to keep Antony from turning on you just like Caesar did? He turned on Caesar. According to Brutus, he was one of Caesars assassins, drew one of the first knives against him, and he claimed at one time to be Caesars best friend. Hes a taker and a user, just like Caesar was. Hes using you too." The warrior held both hands up in front of her in a begging gesture. "Dont be a fool. He will get what he wants from you and then he will crush you."
"And what of my son?" Cleopatra sounded defeated.
"Yes. What of your son?" The warrior emptied her mug. "Hes fourteen summers old. Do you really think hes capable of leading the Roman Empire? You put him on the throne right now, and someone will take him down. And it might not be someone as open or merciful as Octavian. Come on. Ive talked to Octavian. Hes a good man. Hes very young, but hes wise beyond his years. He has only the good of the people in mind. And hes reasonable. Your son is no match for that. But Ill bet if you throw your support behind Octavian, he might be willing to give you some concessions. He is, after all, a distant blood relative of your son."
"Not like his uncle, huh?" The Egyptians features softened.
"No. I would never have entered into a peace treaty with him if I thought he was even remotely similar to Caesar." Xena stood and looked up at the sun, calculating the time. "Ive got to go meet Gabrielle. And I know you need some time to think about all of this."
"Yes. I do." Cleopatra also got up to walk her friend out of the palace. "Xena, I was willing to hear you out because you saved my life once, and so I trusted you. I thought you were my friend."
"I am your friend." The warrior peered earnestly at the dark features. "And Im trying to keep you from making a terrible mistake. Cleopatra, the Roman machine is rolling forward. Theres no stopping it. Probably not in our lifetime, anyway. The most we can hope for is to be in Romes good graces and receive for favorable treatment as a result."
"Can I still trust you?" Dark eyes searched blue ones.
"Ive got to be honest with you." Xena broke eye contact and looked down, smoothing imaginary wrinkles from the leather battle skirt. "If you continue to support Antony in opposition to Octavian, I will be forced to take sides against you. I cannot allow the likes of Antony to have control of Greece. It wont be the first time Ive been in a situation like that. Its not pleasant, and I dont like fighting against a friend, but if I truly believe someone is doing a terrible wrong, Im going to have to stand on the side that has the greater good at heart." The blue eyes clouded with a brief memory of her friend Goliath the giant.
"I see." They reached the palace entrance. "Xena, are you and Gabrielle coming back here tonight?"
"No. We talked it over, and decided wed get completely out of your way until youve made a decision one way or the other. In fact, Ive already packed up our things and stored them in your stable. Im going to go retrieve them now and be on my way." The warrior clapped her hand on one of the Egyptians shoulders. "I dont know yet where well be staying. You can send word to me through the local carrier pigeon station. Gabrielle will be checking in there periodically for messages from her Amazons." She chose not to add that she was expecting word from Octavian.
"Very well." Cleopatra held out her hand. "Until we meet again."
Xena reached out a hesitant hand and grasped the gold-encased forearm. "Yes. Hopefully under pleasant circumstances." She turned on her heels and started toward the center of the city.
The inn looked clean enough, and the aroma from its kitchen was enticing, a pleasant blend of spices, fresh-baked bread, and grilled lamb. Gabrielle poked her head inside and observed the occupants, a mixture of what appeared to be locals eating lunch, as well as visitors and merchants who were in the city to trade at the market. It was the fourth inn she had checked, and she was losing hope of finding a place for them. It seemed that all the rooms in the city were taken due to an unusually large number of traders and shoppers in town for the largest market day of summer.
The bard wearily made her way to the bar and waited somewhat impatiently until the innkeeper finished serving an order of drinks and turned to her. "May I help you?"
"I hope so." Gabrielle forced a smile she really didnt have the emotion to back up. "Do you have any rooms left?"
"Actually, youre in luck." The innkeeper, a middle-aged Egyptian man, looked at a piece of parchment on the bar, scratching through some writing there. "I just had one of the market merchants check out early. Seems he had to attend to some sort of emergency back home. How many occupants and how many nights?"
"Im not sure how long were staying." Gabrielle fingered her belt pouch. "How much per day for the room, two meals, and a bath for two?"
"Two?" The dark-skinned man gazed over her shoulder toward the entrance, as if he expected a second person to magically appear through the doorway. "Will your husband be joining you?" The man peered down at the bards hand in silent admiration of her ring.
"No." Gabrielle realized that if she had been wearing her Amazon feathers, they would have been starting to ruffle. "My partner is meeting me later. She had an appointment to go to."
"She? Look, lady. With all due respect, Im not comfortable having two unescorted women staying in my inn. I dont want to be responsible for your safety." The man stood up and moved toward her as if to shoe her away.
The bards eyes flicked angrily from the man and then toward the floor, as she reached down to her boots and pulled out her sais. She sighed as she slowly stood back up. Okay, Xena. I have your wonderful example to blame for this. She looked evilly at the man, twirled the sais, and then sent both of them flying across the room, hitting a melon on a far table and splitting it exactly down the center, sending its fleshy fruit splattering against the nearby wall in large sticky chunks.
The room grew silent and fearful eyes tracked her movement as she stalked across the room, retrieved her weapons, tucked them back into her boots, and then made her way back to the bar, glaring menacingly at the innkeeper as she approached him. "Ive got safety covered, and my partner is even more skilled with her weapons than I am." She dug into her coin purse and retrieved a half-drachma, tossing it on the bar. "For the melon. Any more problems we need to discuss, or can I have the room?"
The wide-eyed innkeeper backed away from her, holding up both hands. "Hey. No problems. None at all. Take the room. Ten drachmas per night. Two meals and a bath at no extra charge."
"Ten?" A blonde eyebrow quirked in agitation.
"Okay, okay. Eight. But I cant go any lower and still make a profit." The slight man was anxious to have the miniature imitation of a volcano out of his way at any price.
"Good enough." Gabrielle riffled through her pouch again, digging out the customary one-nights deposit, and laying it down on the warped water-stained surface of the bar.
"If you will ..." The innkeeper licked his lips nervously. "... describe your partner for me, then when she arrives Ill direct her to your room."
"That wont be necessary." The bard suddenly remembered that after careful appraisal of the crowded city square, she and Xena had finally agreed that since the warrior needed to stop at the carrier pigeon station anyway, Gabrielle would leave word for her there as to where their room was. "I need a runner to take a message to the carrier pigeon station for me." Gabrielle pulled a piece of parchment from her bag and borrowed the innkeepers quill from the bar, scratching a short note and folding it over. She picked up a candle from the center of the bar and dripped some wax to seal it, and then pressed her signet ring into the soft warm substance. There. That should make it look official enough for the locals to leave it alone.
The still-intimidated Egyptian man hesitantly took the note and handed it off to a young boy, who promptly took off out the door at a swift run. The man ducked below the bar and re-appeared with a set of fluffy towels. "Here. Last room up the stairs on the right. Bath is at the opposite end of the hall. Youll have to draw your own water, but there should be plenty already heated for you."
"Thank you." The bard smirked and took the towels and then turned toward the stairs. Several patrons of the inn scooted out of her way as she passed. Hmmm. So this what it feels like to be Xena. As she mounted the rough wooden staircase, she reflected on her foul mood and mentally counted days. Yep. I must be getting ready to cycle in a few more days.
A half candle mark later, she emerged from a much-needed bath feeling a lot more like herself. She quickly dried off and donned a tunic to wear for the walk down the long hallway back to the room. Once she entered the room, she pulled out her new outfit and grinned. It was a brown woven-leather halter top with a pair of orangey rust-colored shorts made of some stretchy fabric, and a wide brown leather belt that had some wide flaps of leather that hung down the center both in front and in back of the shorts, so that it gave the appearance of being a skirt. It would be totally comfortable and functional for the little kicks and turns she had started to incorporate into her fighting, and as an added bonus, she knew Xena would love it.**
She finished dressing, and carefully adjusted the belt and re-tied the ties on the criss-cross straps of the top a few times until she was sure nothing would spill out, and then she re-tucked her sais into her boots. She quickly tied new thin leather thongs around her biceps, and fastened metallic wrist bracers above her hands, completing the ensemble. She stood back and smiled, enjoying the reflection in the mirror. Yeah. Xenas gonna have a hard time keeping her eyes off this. Heh.
Gabrielle frowned as the mirror fogged up. As she leaned forward to wipe it off, she suddenly realized that the room temperature had plummeted, and goose bumps were racing across her skin. Gods. Please. Not again. She swallowed hard. Maybe if I just act normal. She used the edge of one of the towels to remove the film from the glass, and gasped. In the mirror, over her shoulder in a corner of the room, she could barely make out a figure. The figure almost seemed to be a vapor or a mist, and the walls behind it were visible through its milky-translucent form.
Slowly, Gabrielle turned around and the figure remained, hovering a few feet off the ground. Its face had no real features, but it vaguely appeared to have long hair and be wearing some sort of long tunic, from which thin arm-like wispy appendages emerged in an open gesture. The bard fought the urge to bolt from the room. Okay, Gabrielle. Youve met the god of war face-to-face, been to the Elysian Fields twice, survived a fall into the lava pits of Tartarus, and been crucified on a Roman cross. Whats one smallish banshee? She rested her hands beside her on the top of the dressing table, and leaned back against the edge in what she hoped was a casual pose. "What ... who are you? What do you want?"
The smoky figure started to shimmy slowly and the room grew even colder. The apparition began to float toward her and one of its arms reached out as if to draw her in.
"Stop." The bard held up one hand in front of her, and to her surprise, the figure obeyed. Thats a start. "Um ... no offense, but if youre the same one from the past couple of days, I really didnt appreciate being touched. We havent even been properly introduced." Not to mention I had the ever-lovin Hades scared out of me. "Now. Lets start from the beginning. Who are you and what do you want?"
"Im Saqqara." The very faint voice bore a high-pitched childs timbre, and made Gabrielles skin prickle. "Help me, Gabrielle."
The bard ignored the cold sweat that was beading on her brow, and desperately wished for a water skin to soothe her completely dry throat. "H ... how can I help you?" She finally managed to croak out.
"You know one who can ease my suffering." The figure grew a little less distinct.
"I dont understand." Gabrielle, despite her lingering fear, suddenly found herself filled with compassion for the being before her.
"I chose you because you are capable of the purest form of love, that which gives all and expects nothing in return. You seemed to be trustworthy." The fading apparition moved a bit closer.
Alarm bells went off in the bards head, and she stepped back. "Listen. If you have anything to do with Dahak, Im not having any part of you or your problems. The last time I was singled out for my purity, I ... well ... I have no intention of ever going through anything like that again."
"No. I am not of Dahak." The figure had grown almost invisible. "I must go now. All will be revealed in time."
"Hey!" Gabrielle lunged forward, grasping at thin air as the vision vanished from view. "Wait ..." She sat down on the edge of the bed and realized that she was shaking. She rested her elbows on her thighs and cradled her head in her hands, wishing with all her might that Xena were there. "Dammit. Nothing is ever simple, is it?"
She stood and ran a trembling hand through her hair, and decided she really didnt want to be in the room alone anymore. She made her way through the hall and down the stairs, and sat down stiffly on a bar stool, occasionally looking over her shoulder as if she expected the banshee or ghost, or whatever it was to be following her.
The innkeeper turned around and his eyes almost popped out of his head at the leather-clad figure before him. She was scary enough in that little red top and skirt. "May I help you, miss?"
"Yes. Did my message get delivered okay?" Gabrielles eyes darted toward the end of the bar where the message boy was sitting, carving at a stick with a small knife.
"Yes m ... maam." The boy looked up shyly before resuming his activities, the tiny curled wood shavings dropping to the floor around the feet of his stool.
"Good." The bard turned her attention back to the innkeeper. "Ill have a double shot of ouzo, straight up."
"Excuse me?" The innkeeper, who also served as barkeeper, eyed the small body, sure that the hard liquor would be the young girls undoing. "Are you sure I couldnt get you a nice mug of light ale? Its not quite mid-day yet."
"Look. If I wanted ale, I would have ordered ale." Geez. Ive had enough of people second-guessing me today. "Now. Do you have ouzo or not? Cause if you dont, Ill have a look at what you do have and figure out what I want instead."
"No. We have ouzo. Just a moment." The innkeeper produced a tiny pewter shot glass and the appropriate flask, and poured the clear aromatic liquor up with a flourish.
Gabrielle watched until he was finished, and then grabbed up the glass, downed the liquid, set the glass back on the bar, and then without another word, got up and strode out of the inn and back into the market place, aware that most of the eyes in the room were watching her back as she retreated. She spied a gazebo several meters away, and decided that would be a good place to sit and watch for Xena to arrive. She found an unoccupied seat and slowly sank down onto it, sighing as she felt the strong liquor burning a path to her gut and smoothing out the rough edges of her frazzled nerves.
The tall dark figure stepped through the doorway and looked around with a distasteful eye at the large mass of patrons in the main room of the inn. The warrior had never been fond of crowds, and the multitude of people she had just struggled to swim through outside had left her defenses in a hair-trigger state. To make matters worse, she had indeed received a message from Octavian, and he had been delayed. Cleopatras navy was so thick upon the waters of the Mediterranean, that in order to enter Egypt undetected, he had been forced to detour north around Cyprus, and land his boats on the far northeastern edge of the Sinai peninsula, and would have to march his ground troops through the desert for several days.
Xena slid her bags off her shoulders, dropping them to the ground with a thump against the dusty wooden floor boards, before she moved toward the bar, scanning the room to see who was in charge. "Excuse me." She leaned over the bar and tapped a thin middle-aged apron-clad man on the shoulder. "Im looking for a friend of mine."
The man turned to face her and then adjusted his gaze upward toward the pale blue eyes. "Im sorry. You were saying?"
"Im looking for my friend. Im supposed to meet her he ..." Xena trailed off as the mans eyes grew wide with fear, and he slowly backed up toward the wall. "What?" The warrior let out an exasperated breath. Great Hera. I dont even have any weapons drawn. I cant be that scary. She was about to try again when she realized that his frightened gaze wasnt directed at her, but at some point behind her toward the open door. With one swift motion, she drew her sword from the scabbard on her back and spun around, both hands wrapped firmly around the hilt, holding the sharp instrument in front of her at waist level.
"Gabrielle?" The warrior spied her partner, who was halfway across the floor, moving toward her at a leisurely pace. Xena peered around the bard in confusion, trying to find whatever monster had caused the innkeepers strange reaction.
"Please. I dont want any more trouble." The innkeepers voice cracked.
"Now look." The warrior turned back around to face the dark-skinned man. "I havent done anything to you, or your inn. I really dont think its fair to assume that just because Im wearing armor and carrying a weapon that I plan to do you any harm."
"I wasnt talking to you. I was talking to her." The man pointed a shaking finger at Gabrielle.
Xena burst out laughing. "Her? Youve got to be kidding me. Gabrielle wouldnt harm a fly. Unless it attacked her first." The warrior stopped as she realized the entire room had grown deathly silent. She slowly panned the uneasy group and saw all eyes resting uneasily on the bards compact muscular frame. Now thats different. Xena moved toward her partner until they were inches apart, and leaned in, whispering out of the side of her mouth. "What in the name of Ares is wrong with all these people? What did you do to them?"
The bard looked down and idly kicked a toe against a loose board in the floor. "I .... kinda got mad and tossed my sais across the room and split open a melon."
"Gods. Why?" The warriors brow wrinkled in utter confusion.
"I dont know. He acted like I was helpless, and he wasnt going to let us have a room because we were just two women." Gabrielle looked up at her partner, desperate for some hint of approval in the shocked blue eyes.
Xena grinned. "So you had to prove you could defend yourself?"
"Yeah. Something like that." Gabrielle blushed and smiled quite charmingly.
"Well. I cant say that I blame you. I probably would have done the same thing." Xena quickly allowed her eyes to drift from the bards head down to her feet, taking in the new mostly-leather ensemble. "Nice outfit." She purred so low that only Gabrielle heard her.
"You like, huh?" The bard smiled and winked at her obviously-smitten partner.
"Oh. I more than like. I cant wait to get a better look at it. Up close and personal." The warrior waggled an eyebrow and straightened up, turning to address the innkeeper. "Dont worry. Therell be no more problems here. Not unless someone starts something to force us to defend ourselves." She pinned the curious onlookers with an evil glare, causing most of them to suddenly become quite interested in whatever food or beverages sat on the table in front of them.
"Come on, Gabrielle. I need lunch and a bath. And not necessarily in that order." Xena retrieved the bags from the floor and guided her partner up the stairs. "You okay?" Long fingers lovingly caressed the skin of the bards mostly-exposed back. I am definitely gonna enjoy these new clothes.
"I think so." The bard felt herself begin to relax a bit in her partners comforting presence. "I think Im about to start cycling."
The warrior thought for a minute. "Yeah. Both of us. In about three days."
Gabrielle briefly debated what to discuss with Xena first. Tobias? Dinner with Yosef and his family? My purchases at the market? She sighed. Go on. Youve got to tell her about Saqqara. Whoever Saqqara is.
"Hey." Xena stopped and tilted her partners chin up to get a better look at the green eyes. Which wouldnt quite meet her gaze. "Theres more going on with you than just a little pre-cycling tension, isnt there?"
Gabrielle slowly raised her eyelids, and looked at her soulmate with some apprehension. "Why dont you go take that bath and Ill get us some lunch and meet you in the room? Weve got a lot of stuff to talk about."
"O ... kay." The warrior watched curiously as her partner made an about-face and disappeared back down the stairwell.
Xena sat on a low padded bench under the window in their room, staring down at the crowd in the street below, not really seeing what was out there. They had shared a long lunch, during which Gabrielle had told her about everything that had happened that day, starting with her encounter with Tobias and ending with the strange spirit that had appeared to her in the room. The warrior in turn had told her about her discussion with Cleopatra and the message from Octavian, and then had steered the conversation back toward the bards cryptic conversation with Saqqara. The name was tickling at something in the recesses of the warriors memory, but she couldnt quite put her finger on why it sounded so familiar to her.
She looked down at her lap, where Gabrielles head rested, and lightly trailed her fingers across the soft skin on the bards cheek. Xena had readily agreed to dinner with Yosefs family, partly out of curiosity about Tobias and why they were so far from their home country, and partly just to get the bard out of the room for a while. She had even tentatively packed up enough of their things to camp in the desert rather than coming back to the room that night, deciding to play it by ear after dinner, depending on Gabrielles feelings about spending a dark night in the room where Saqqara had made contact with her.
Gabrielle stirred and mumbled almost incoherently. "Sit time to get up yet?"
"No." The warrior moved her fingers lower, stroking her partners bare arm. "Rest, love. You had a pretty stressful morning."
"Okay." The bard rolled over on her side, stretching out along the length of the bench, her face toward Xenas stomach. She curled one arm around the leather-encased waist and mewed in contentment. "Dont you want to take a nap, too?" The small hand gently rubbed against the soft curves that began at just below the base of the warriors spine. "We could go crawl into that nice big bed over there and you could get some sleep with me."
"Gabrielle." Xena drew the word out into more than three syllables. "If you keep rubbing me there, Im going to be more than ready to get in bed with you, but not to take a nap."
The hand stopped for a moment, pressing into the firm flesh, as if trying to identify it. Oops. Didnt realize where my hand was. One green eye popped open. "Sorry." Gabrielle closed her eye again and removed the offending hand, curling it around a convenient leg instead, and inadvertently making contact with the sensitive skin of an inner thigh.
"Gabrie-elllle." The frustration was rising in the low voice.
"What?" The green orb appeared again. "Oh." Heh. The small hand withdrew to a more neutral hipbone before the bard gradually drifted back to sleep.
The warrior began a light scratching of her partners back as she returned her gaze to the window, puzzling over the various events of the morning.
In the corner of the room, an invisible presence watched in confused fascination.
Continued in Part 5
*On a historical note, for those who watched the episode "Antony and Cleopatra," Cleopatra really did have herself delivered to Julius Caesar, not Marc Antony, wrapped up in a rug.
**I am so used to picturing Gab in my head wearing the outfit that she has been wearing on the show during the fifth season, that I decided to just go ahead and borrow it. <G>
Note to Followers of the Series (as of May 4, 2000): Im off to New York (Manhattan) for a few days to visit my best friend and her little 6-month-old baby, who is my unofficial "nephew." Ive got competition for the position of favorite "aunt," so Im looking forward to the one-on-one maximum spoilage time with him. But I digress ... (hes soooo cute) ... due to the down time, it may be a few weeks before the next posting. Have laptop, will travel, so I will be writing some while Im there, but probably not as much as I would at home. Stay tuned ... If you send me an e-mail and get no response for several days, have patience. Ill catch up with everyone as soon as I get home. Thanks!
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