THE BETWEEN THE LINES SERIES
(or what happened between the episodes)
For Disclaimers, see "Looking for Trouble"
1.15 -- The Wedding Party
(post "Warrior . . . Princess")
G: "It's so romantic, isn't it?"X: "Very."G: "I hope I find someone who'll make me smile like that."X: "I'm sure you will. Just don't be afraid to speak up when it happens. Of course, that's never been a problem with you, has it?"G: "She's so beautiful-- Look how her hair shines."X: "Well, they sure brush it enough."G: "Wait till you see Argo's tail. What was it like being her?"X: "Not as much fun as you would think."G: "Really?"X: "Mm-Hmm."G: "You had people waiting on you hand and foot, fulfilling your every whim."X: "Hey, that's what you're here for."-Warrior . . . Princess
I intended to leave the castle hours ago. Sure, it was nice here, but after two days of long dresses and death by hair brushing, I am ready to sleep under the stars in my own clothes, on my own bedroll. I missed the scent of fish cooking over the fire, and the whisper of the wind in the leaves, and the sound of her voice.
Look at her. She's having such a good time at the party, that I couldn't make her leave until she's ready. She's sitting near the fountain with a plate full of food, two more plates at each side, and at least three cups of the King's special reserve wine. More importantly, the food and drink was brought to her by a half dozen young admirers, all relatives or guests of the King.
They are standing around her now, making her laugh. A few have even gotten her up to dance, and she's pretty good at it. Guess there were a few weddings back in Potadeia, and there's always the harvest festivals in places like that. I imagine that's where she picked up the traditional dances the musicians have played here tonight.
One of the young men says something I can't quite make out, and Gabrielle laughs. Her cheeks are pink and her eyes are sparkling in the torchlight. She's radiant, even in her traveling clothes. Had I known we were going to stay for the evening, I would've seen if Diana had some frock for Gabrielle to borrow. She deserves something like that, and she would've been beautiful. Actually, she is beautiful. It's obvious those young men think so. I know I sure do. One of them coaxes her up for a dance again, and I look away. Looks like we're going to be here for a while.
Diana and Philemon are over on the other side of the garden, talking with the two kings. It seems the kingdoms are united in marriage after all, and slavery and corruption will be abolished. In a twist of the bylaws, once Diana's father, King Lias, passes to the other side, Diana will become queen of both kingdoms, which will make Philemon king by default. Philemon's a good, intelligent man, and Diana has a kind heart. She learned a lot during her adventures outside the castle walls. The people of these kingdoms are fortunate.
I thought Philemon's brother would be upset at that turn of events, but Philemon confided that his brother never wanted to be king and is happy with the knowledge he will be a well-kept brother-in-law of the queen someday. All the wealth and privilege without any of the responsibility. After meeting him, I'm not surprised he's happy with that arrangement.
Diana and Philemon look so happy. It is romantic, just as Gabrielle said. Two people who are lucky enough to get to spend their lives with someone they love. That's a rare thing among royalty in these parts. It's rare anywhere, for that matter.
It's something I never had to worry about, even before Cortese. My father had left us and we had nothing but the tavern and enough dinars to buy our next stock of supplies to feed the guests. We had that old farmhouse out in the countryside too, but mother had long since given up on making a living off the land. At first, we just couldn't. Toris, Lyceus, and I--we were too young to be of much help, and mother couldn't run a farm alone. The tavern was much easier.
By the time my brothers and I were old enough to have made a difference, the tavern was established, so that was where we stayed most of the time. The farm was for a rare getaway, although I still don't understand why mother didn't try to sell it. I think she thought one of us might marry and live there someday. It's still there, probably run into the ground by now. I haven't been back by there in years.
But with no father to promise me to anyone, and nothing to make a dowry, I was pretty safe from being forced to marry someone I didn't want to. A few boys had just started to buzz around when Cortese attacked our village. I guess you could say I never had any normal relationships. Nope. There were no aprons and housework in my future. I think I would have run away before I would have let anyone make me do something I didn't want to do.
Funny that Gabrielle did exactly that. She and I are so different from one another, yet the more we travel, the more those little similarities keep cropping up. Maybe it's those little things that keep her from running away from me. I wouldn't blame her after everything she's been exposed to during our travels. I think she likes making up the stories afterward, which works for me, as long as she's happy and nothing happens to her.
That's still my greatest fear, that she will come to harm because of her association with me. I no longer fear she can't stand on her own two feet out in the wild. She did just fine without me these past few days--did fine enough to take care of herself and Diana. True, there was that chakram incident. Argo was plenty nervous when I started to hang it on that hook on her saddle earlier this afternoon. I think she's confused that someone who looks just like me almost took her ears off.
But overall, Gabrielle came through with flying colors. Diana couldn't stop raving about her earlier, how Gabrielle knew how to use her staff to take out the thugs, and how she helped the princess to see the peasants of the kingdom as real people with real feelings, just like her. When all is said and done, this kingdom should thank Gabrielle, not me. I saved their princess for them all right, but Gabrielle helped transform her from a sweet but clueless girl to an empathetic and thoughtful young woman. No wonder, since I could describe Gabrielle in much the same way. Except Gabrielle had no help.
"Excuse me, miss." I feel a tug at my shoulder armor and remind myself I'm at a party and maybe I should see who's doing the tugging before I grab a torch and burn their whiskers off.
"Yes?" I turn slowly and raise an eyebrow. A nervous young man is looking hopefully up at me. He holds out a fistful of pink flowers.
"I would be honored if you would dance with me." He bows so low, his hat falls off.
I flip it up with one toe and it lands back on his head when he straightens up. He blushes and I realize he's dumbstruck. I sigh. What is it about leather and a few pieces of brass that bring these clean-cut pubescent boys out of the woodwork? Maybe it's the sword.
"Look, kid." I lay the flowers on the stone wall next to me. "No offense, but I don't dance."
"I don't dance. There are a bunch of pretty young things over by the food table. Go ask one of them."
"But I --"
"Scram!" I pull out my breast dagger and poke him in the chest with the hilt. He faints.
"Told you your breasts were deadly." I suppress a smile, as Gabrielle tugs at my other shoulder. "Xena, that wasn't very nice."
"I tried 'nice.' It didn't work." A servant passes by and I grab a mug of water off his tray. "Com'ere." I hook a finger in Gabrielle's belt and pull her around to the other side of the wall. I look over it at the boy, and Gabrielle stands on her toes, and does the same.
"Boy, you really scared him. Can you help him?" She looks up at me. "He's still out."
"Not for long." I toss the water in his face. He sputters and I duck down behind the wall, pulling Gabrielle with me.
"Hey!" He calls out. "Where did the warrior princess go?" Gabrielle and I look at each other and we both cover our mouths to keep from laughing.
"Why are we hiding?" She whispers and eyes me curiously, but she's smiling.
"Figured if the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes is me standing over him, he might pass out again." I sniff the air and smell something sweet, before I realize Gabrielle has some of those same pink flowers woven in her hair. I jealously wonder which boy helped her put them there.
"Good point." She laughs. "I guess you could always get more water."
Now I laugh. "True." I stand, and give her a hand up. Her eyes are still sparkling, and I realize she's been at the wine. Not enough to be drunk. Not even enough to make her movement be off. Just enough to put a permanent flush on her cheeks. "Are you having a good time?"
"Oh, yes. I can't remember the last time I had this much fun." Even as she speaks, one foot is tapping slightly to the music still playing over by the dancers. "Why won't you dance with any of them, Xena? I know you can. It's a party. What could it hurt?"
"I don't dance unless I have to." I remember King Gregor's harem, and shudder. I am so not the harem girl type. I'm just glad I wasn't there for Gabrielle's ceremonial induction into the Amazon nation. I haven't danced with Amazons since before I met Alti.
"Well, come on then." She grabs my hand and before I know it, she's leading me over to the crowd. "You have to dance." She pokes me in the chest. "With me."
"Gabrielle, there are a dozen boys over there by that fountain, all eager to dance with you. Look at them." I can see them over her shoulder, all of them staring mournfully in our direction.
"They keep stepping on my toes." She takes my hands and places one at her waist, and one on her shoulder. "I know you won't."
"Gabrielllleeee." I just stop myself from growling at her.
"Come on, Xena. Please? A lot of the girls have been dancing with each other, and they look like they were having a lot more fun than I was with those boys."
One look in those pleading green eyes, and I can't say no. Without a word, I smile at her, letting her know I'm in agreement. I take a firmer grasp of her waist, just as the musicians start up a lively folk tune, one I remember from long-forgotten evenings at my mother's tavern. I guide her through the steps, and after a few rounds, we are doing pretty well. It seems we both already knew this one. As the song ends, I have to admit to myself that I'm having fun.
"Oh, that was great!" She laughs and hugs me briefly. "Thank you. That was the best dance of the evening. Stay out here with me for one more, please?"
"Alright." The musicians have stopped to re-tune their instruments, and I accept a mug of wine as it's handed to me, and take a few healthy gulps. I pass it across, and Gabrielle drains it. I chuckle and take it away from her, setting it on another tray as it passes by. "Careful, my bard. The king's wine-makers let that batch get strong."
"I was thirsty." She shrugs. "Looks like they're getting ready to start up again. You ready?"
"As I'll ever be." As the first notes of the lyre reach my ears, I realize it's a slower, more romantic tune, and I swallow, taking her in my arms. "Do you know this one?" I rest my cheek against her hair, and speak into her ear.
"No." I think Gabrielle just shivered. "Teach me." Her breath warms my neck, and it's my turn to shiver.
I guide her around the circle, holding her so close, I can feel her heartbeat. This was not a good idea. Not at all. I step back, as the dance steps require, and she does too. We circle each other slowly and our eyes meet for a moment, before I pull her back in, also a part of the dance. As the music continues, we begin to relax, and our eyes grow bolder each time we separate. Finally, it ends and I'm not sure what to do.
She engulfs me in a hug. "Thank you. That was really nice. I always wanted to learn that one."
"You're welcome." I remember to breathe, and hope my face doesn't give away my thoughts. It was very nice, and I find myself hoping for more slow dances.
"I'll go get us some more wine." She takes off, and I sit weakly down on the fountain wall.
"Xena." Diana approaches me. "You aren't going to go sleep in the woods after the party, are you?"
"That was the plan." I smile, still thinking about the dance.
"But it's so late." She frowns in worry. "You can stay in my chambers if you like, you and Gabrielle. Philemon and I will be retiring to a cottage on the outskirts of the property for the night." She blushes furiously.
"That's a very nice offer." I see Gabrielle coming toward us and realize it's a smart idea as well. My bard is having a good time, but I think I need to cut her off the drink. "We would appreciate that, princess."
"Very well, then." Diana curtseys. "Thank you again, Xena, for everything. Philemon and I are about to leave the party, but please stay and enjoy it for as long as you like. These things go on until dawn, and Papa has plenty of food and drink for everyone."
"I can see that." I stand, and the princess hugs me. She doesn't hug as good as Gabrielle does. "We'll be back this way for a visit sometime."
"Oh, you must." She backs away, and Philemon nods in my direction. "Goodbye, Xena." She turns and Philemon smiles, reaching out and taking her hand, leading her away down a path beside the castle. I wonder if it's strange for him to look at me, being I look exactly like the woman he is about to go make love to for the first time. I wrinkle my nose. That's a place I didn't need to go.
"What was that all about?" Gabrielle reaches me and hands me a mug, which I promptly finish off.
"Diana offered us her room for the night." I stand and stretch.
"But where will she--? Oh." Gabrielle blushes even pinker than Diana did, if that is possible.
"Yeah." I forget I was going to cut her off, and realize she's already had another half mug of wine. "You were wondering what it was like to stay here. Looks like you'll get to find out. Breakfast has been really good so far."
"Great!" She's smiling, and I can't decide if it's the wine or the party, or both. "Dance with me some more?"
I hesitate, knowing I'm only going to be torturing myself if I do. Then again, my bard has a good buzz going. That much is obvious, and while I do my best to trust her judgment, I've not seen her in this state before. Probably best she dance with me rather than some of the eager boys who are still hanging around, openly glaring at me each time I look their way.
"Sure." I gently remove the mug from her hand and lead her back toward the dancers.
Much later, I carry her to the princess' chambers. Gabrielle isn't drunk, at least not enough to be hurting too much in the morning. All the dancing finally wore her out, and I realized it was bedtime for bards. She was so tired, that she was having trouble forming complete sentences. I don't think I've ever seen her too tired to talk. We started out walking, but it's a damned big castle, and she started to lean on me. I finally picked her up. It was just easier.
We reach the room and I nudge the door open. I guess the chambermaids forgot the princess wasn't staying here tonight. The room is softly lighted with several candles, and I can smell fragrant oil burning from a lantern beside the bed. They even left a pitcher of water, and I gratefully sit Gabrielle on the edge of the bed, before I pour up two full mugs.
"Gabrielle, here, drink this. You'll thank me in the morning." I press the cup into her hands and she obeys. I suspect she's too tired to ask me why, and I chuckle, then drink my own cup empty. I kneel down and unlace her boots, and pull them off. "Go on." I take her cup from her. She's about to drop it. "Lay down and get some sleep."
"What about you?" She yawns and stretches out, her head hitting the pillow with lightening speed.
"Give me a minute." I get out of my armor, boots, and leathers, and lay them on a table. I often sleep in my leathers outdoors, but I'm grateful to be able to strip down to my shift for one night. I go around the room and douse all the candles, then join Gabrielle, who is already snoring quietly.
I've come to find it endearing. I am weary, although my mind is still processing the evening. I shake my head and lay all the way back, secretly glad for the comfort of the down mattress and the soft woven blankets. I turn down the lantern and close my eyes, glad I kept a check on my own alcohol intake. At least one of us was coherent enough to get us back to this room.
Gabrielle sighs in her sleep and rolls over, curling up against me, her head resting on my shoulder and her arm curled across my stomach. Okay, so maybe I could get used to sleeping in this castle. I kiss her head and close my eyes, wrapping one arm loosely around her. There will be no bad dreams on this night. I may be confused about everything else right now, but of that one thing, I'm certain.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~NEXT in the BTL Series - post "Mortal Beloved"
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