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Invitations - Part 2
Disclaimer: Most of the characters depicted in this story belong to the people at MCA/Universal, (You know which one's they are) however the ones you don't recognize are mine. This story was written for enjoyment for myself and the readers and is not intended for profit.
Sex: This story contains scenes of two women in love in intimate situations but there is nothing graphic....steamy..yes...graphic...no. <grin> Kissing, hugging and such. You know No Big Whoop. Still, if this offends you, or if it is illegal at your age in the place you live, please don't read my story (I would consider moving as well...but that's just me). There are plenty of other stories to choose from.
Violence: It is fairly tame actually. Yes. People get beat up, smacked across the face, beheaded, etc. but no more than a typical beat em up type episode. Nothing especially graphic.
Language: Nothing more than what you would hear on ... oh let's say that Comedy channel.. around 9:00 or 10:00 on Wednesday night.
NOTE: This story picks up a few days after the events in my second story Complications. I strongly suggest reading my first story Negotiations and it's sequel Complications before you begin this one. There are several references that will make much more sense if you do.
ANOTHER NOTE: In my Xenaverse, Callisto succeeded in her mission to kill Hercules' mother. Thus paving the way for Xena to become The Conqueror as seen in the episode Armegeddon Now. However, in my 'verse, Iolaus ALSO succeeded in his mission to kill the Goddess Callisto when he followed her to Cirra. What happens to the characters after that is up to them and I'll do my best to write it all down for you.
SPECIAL REMINDER!!: The Iolaus described in this story is NOT Hercules' friend. This Iolaus has never even heard of Hercules and so has a VERY different personality than the Iolaus we are used to seeing fighting alongside the big guy..... okay?
As always, to the Goddess of Spelling I offer my humblest apologies if I have offended her in any way.
The Goddess of Grammar, however, can Bite Me!
Special thanks to Wanda and T for their inspiration and encouragement. To Wendy who I know will always give me her honest opinion. To Janet, Kym, and all my readers for Beta Reading so quickly. Their encouragement, suggestions and ramblings really helped. Hi Wolfie!
Feedback: Yes please. I am an email junkie. All comments are welcome. Nice ones will be responded to and nasty ones will be thoroughly laughed at before being trashed. <<I really have no tolerance for intolerant people! HA!>>
SEND IT TO: email@example.com
"Solan." Karis shook his shoulder. "Solan, wake up." She shook the shoulder harder and supressed a grin at his moan. "Come on now... you have to get up."
"How do you expect me to get up when you keep moving the room around like this?" His voice quavered and he shut his eyes tightly against the spinning, moaning when that only made the situation worse. "Ugh..."
Unable to resist laughing at what she knew was his first hangover, Karis handed him a cup. "Here drink this."
He looked suspiciously at her and tried not to wince at her laughter. He took the cup and cautiously sniffed the contents. "What is it?"
Bouncing evily on the edge of the bed she laughed again. "Water."
He groaned at the bouncing and started to hand the cup back. "I'm not thirsty."
Karis shook her head and refused the cup. "Yes you are. You just don't know it." She looked at his disbeliving face and widened her eyes. "Drink it!" It was gratifying that he did. She had been a bit upset last night when he had said she couldn't tell him what to do. It was partially an effect of the wine but she also knew a deeper issue played it's part. Being related to royalty was quite a power trip. She knew that all too well. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to realize your mother is ruler of the world. "I don't know if Gabrielle is back yet, but you might want to take a bath and change clothes." She tweaked his sleeve. "We are going to go over the wagons today and double check the inventory for the trip." She looked at him and smiled. "You wanna help?"
He casually agreed. "Sure...." Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed he slowly stood. "After my bath." He looked at her pleadingly. "Save the weapons wagon for me?"
Karis laughed. "Sure." She knew that was the one he would want to do. Even though Gabrielle only taught him the staff and he did occasionally use a bow for hunting he had always been facinated by the other weapons, especially swords. The one argument his mother had always used against his learning swordplay had been his age. Gabrielle simply wouldn't allow him to take lessons so young. Now she wondered how the Queen was going to stop him from using such a deadly weapon. "I'll be at the wagons." She rose to leave when his exclamation stopped her at the door.
"Wait!" He looked up at her confused. "Where is Mom coming back from?" He was slightly alarmed at Karis' casual shrug.
"She left last night with Artemis. I would assume she is back in her hut but I won't question the Queen or the Goddess..... and at least I know if she isn't back, she is safe." She shook her head at his alarm. "Artemis would never put her in harm's way."
"You're right." He knew Karis was talking sense but this was his Mom they were talking about. He ignored the awful spinning sensation as best he could and walked almost normally to the Queen's hut. As he passed through the square no one watching could have said if his walk was a result of a hangover or if he was just trying not to step on any of the exhausted dancers that littered the ground. Approaching the hut he saw that the guards had been reinstated, since the joining ceremony was over. Altering his path, he went around to the bathroom window to make his usual silent entrance.
Xena woke slowly from the most peaceful sleep she had experienced in weeks. Rolling over she reached out to find the spot next to her empty. A sharp stab of pain gripped her heart as she realized Gabrielle was gone or she thought. 'It may have all been a dream.' The white silk robe her hand touched broke through the fear. Bringing the soft material to her face she inhaled deeply the lilac/leather/Gabrielle combination that reassured her. "She was here." Faint laughter echoed in her head. 'She was indeed.' A wave of memories made her smile and shiver.
Holding the robe and grabbing up the tray of food she vaguely remembered Mirriam bringing last night, Xena made her way to the waiting warm bath. She checked the light streaming through the window and knew she had some time before Mirriam returned to lay out her clothes for the day. Relaxing back into the water Xena mused at her much improved mood and heard a satisfied sigh from the Warrior Princess. 'Of course our mood has improved.' If she had control she would have rolled her eyes but settled for the Conqueror's grin. 'We got to see Gabrielle.' The Conqueror picked some grapes off the tray, munching happily on her dinner turned breakfast she leaned back and closed her eyes, remembering the previous night with delightful accuracy. Mirriam's throat clearing brought her out of her reverie.
"I'm sorry to disturb you highness. I just wanted to let you know that I have laid out your clothes." She paused. "The black leather skirt and beaded top that you like." She bowed and was about to withdraw when Xena's response stopped her short.
"No. Not today." The Conqueror seemed to think about it for a
moment. "Get the Indian outfit, the
blue one with the baggy pants and the dark red sash."
Mirriam barely controlled the surge of anger at the wardrobe choice. Xena only wore the Indian outfit when she was in a very good mood. She had seen two forms in the bed last night when she delivered the meal and recalled Ephiny's message, Gabrielle and Xena were in love. The servant was not pleased that Xena would take someone else to her bed. The thought of her Queen being treated so badly was too much for her and she lost control of her tongue to anger.
"I guess you had a pleasant evening." The remark was nearly a sneer and both Xena's eyebrows raised at the tone. The Warrior Princess' quick reminder floated through her head. 'Amazon.' and the Conqueror understood and smiled.
"Well I guess you didn't quite keep your eyes averted when you brought the food." Xena laughed at the servant's blush. "Had you looked closer you would have recognized your Queen." Laughing again at the disbelief on Mirriam's face Xena gestured for a towel and rose from the cooling water. "Ask her yourself when she arrives......." Xena toweled the water off her face and arms before continuing. "She should be here in five or six days." Now completely dry Xena picked up the white robe and wrapped it around her, breathing deep the familiar scent and smiling as Mirriam recognized lilacs.
"She was here." The servant was now totally confused, but no longer angry.
"Indeed she was." Xena smiled at the laughter in her head and draped one arm around Mirriam's shoulders. Now that she was certain of the woman's loyalty there were some things she wanted to discuss with her. She led her long time servant to the main room and sat on the bed while the Amazon retrieved the requested outfit. Leaning back on her elbows, Xena began the conversation slowly. "Tell me Mirriam, how much do you know about...." She wrinkled her nose and gestured no when the dresser held up a jeweled head piece questioningly then grinned at Mirriam and drawled. "The Survivors of Cirra...................."
Gabrielle sat straight up in bed as a loud crash sounded from the next room. She looked at the door to see both guards headed toward the bathroom. "Wait." She sighed. "It's just Solan." She could see that they almost believed her and she took a breath to project her voice. "Solan, are you okay in there?" She grinned at the sheepish response.
"yeah, i'm fine." Solan's voice carried faintly through the door.
Satisfied, the guards resumed their posts outside. Gabrielle heard the water begin to fill the tub and reached for her robe, when she found it missing she realized that it must still be at Xena's. 'That's one lucky robe.' She thought and sighed. She smiled at the memory of the previous night and retrieved a second robe from her clothes chest. It was exactly the same white silk, but not as special, Xena had not given her this one.
Knocking on the door to the washroom, Gabrielle spoke softly. "Solan... umm... I kinda need in there."
"Okay." The door opened slowly and Solan kept his eyes averted. He had seen the redness in the mirror and didn't want her to know he had gotten so drunk last night. Unfortunately for him she was too much a mother for that to work and he reluctantly submitted to the pressure of her fingers under his chin.
Her eyes narrowed at his bloodshot eyes and she suddenly realized how old he was. Disappointment and a touch of sadness flickered in her eyes before she released him and continued on into the washroom, without a word.
The look in Gabrielle's eyes was enough to make Solan felt like he had been hit in the gut. He knew he had been drinking too much but after the first few he couldn't help himself. Kneeling to stir the fire, he was grateful that the heat from the now large flame dried his tears quickly and he stood as Gabrielle reentered the main room.
"Okay..." She gestured to the washroom and tried to smile. "It's all yours."
He ducked into the privacy of the washroom quickly, as the forced smile and gentleness in her voice welled more tears in his eyes. He knew if he still lived in a Centaur village that his Uncle would have yelled at him at least and possibly punished him for being so reckless. 'Warriors should never get drunk.' It was a lesson his Uncle had impressed upon him early on. He sat in the warm water and scrubbed the dirt from his face with his hands, trying to erase the memory of disappointment in his mother's green eyes. 'But Mother got drunk when we were in Potidea.' He thought, remembering the warrior's unsteady gait when she brought his grandmother back to Lila's. It made him feel better to remember that, and to remember that Xena was his mother too. 'I'll bet Xena would let me party as much as I want and not even be upset or disappointed or anything.' He thought about that a bit more and decided. 'Yeah... Xena would be cool about it.' Living in the Amazon village was nice but now he began to wonder if Xena would let him stay in Corinth with her.
Gabrielle pushed distressing thoughts of Solan growing older, and away from her, to the back of her mind and dressed quickly. Choosing her favorite short skirt and wrap around shirt she grabbed her staff and headed toward the temple. Ephiny and Eponin would be there by now to give thanks to Artemis for her blessing on their union.
She wasn't surprised to find the two young ribbon hanging archers standing at the back of the temple along with several of the acolytes. They were all waiting for Ephiny and Eponin, who were kneeling at the alter, to finish their thanks. Gabrielle waited too and when the couple stood she walked to the alter purposefully. Kneeling quickly she began to speak, loudly enough that the couple walking away could hear her, actually loud enough for everyone to hear her.
"OH Great Goddess." She raised her arms. "Please give me a sign that my Regent will forgive me for not telling her you were going to bless her joining." She felt a tapping on her shoulder and grinned up at the alter. "That'll do." Turning her head to see the Regent with her arms crossed, and lips pursed together, she nearly laughed.
"You really should have told us you know." Ephiny glanced at Epinon. They had confessed to each other how Artemis' arrival had affected them and neither of them could stay upset with Gabrielle for giving them such a wonderful gift, even when the Queen was so totally unrepentant.
Gabrielle laughed at them. "What's the fun in that?" Green eyes twinkled at her friends as she rose and gestured the waiting group to go about their business. "Come on." She grabbed her staff in her right hand and Ephiny's hand with her left, waiting for the Regent to lock her fingers with Poni's. "Lets go get some breakfast." She paused and grinned. "I'm starving." As if on cue her stomach rumbled and they all laughed as they headed for the dining hall. They were only peripherally aware of the diligent decorators, carefully restoring the Temple to it's original state.
Solan worked quietly counting the weapons in the wagon and ticking them off the list. The bath and the concentration it took to do this job correctly cleared the last bit of hangover he had. He was just finishing when he heard shouts coming from the Temple. A final check to make sure all the swords were in place only took a second. He tucked the corner of the list under the top sword and headed to the Temple to find out what all the ruckus was about. He met his mother coming from the dining hall and they entered the chaos together.
Gabrielle saw her two young archers arguing in front of the head preistess and looked up at the ceiling. They had managed to remove all the arrows except one. To make matters worse this was one that had been shot out of line so it was farther from the narrow rafter than any of the others would have been. Leaving Solan quietly studying the ceiling, the Queen walked toward the harried head preistess.
The arguing pair quieted at Gabrielle's approach only long enough to shift the direction of their accusations from the preistess to her, and then quieted again at the look in their Queen's eyes. Holding them in her gaze she spoke quietly. "Tell me what happened." Immediately holding up her hand to stop their simultaneous explanations and pointed to the girl on the left. "Serina, tell me."
She listened patiently as Serina explained how they stood on each others shoulders to reach the end of the ribbons and by pulling them gently they worked the arrows free. Until the last arrow, the girl held out the ribbon and Gabrielle examined it. It was frayed at the end and she wondered that it even stayed attached for as long as it did. She handed the ribbon back to the girl. "You worked together to get the rest of them down." She shrugged. "So figure a way to get that one down too."
Solan's voice carried through the temple. "No need." All eyes turned to the young Prince. With a running start and two bounding steps he jumped to the top of one of the pillar walkway markers and then continued his upward journey to the rafter. Grabbing the thin support with both hands he swung up and stood, walking rather easily to the arrow's position. He only had to stretch a little to reach the cause of all the problems and dropped it to the ground before swinging down off the roof beam, landing near Gabrielle with a satisfied smile.
Gabrielle felt her heart jump into her throat as he jumped up to the ceiling. She tried to erase the memory of both sides of his feet showing on either side of the thin board he balanced on. Once he was on the ground her heart dropped back into it's usual position but continued to race and anger controlled her tongue for a moment. She tilted her staff at him "DON'T YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN!" Complete silence filled the Temple and she saw his smile disappear quickly. Realizing her mistake at chastizing him she tried to temper her reaction. Putting her hand over her heart, she exaggerated relief she didn't feel yet. "At least not when I can see you."
He was angry for a moment, embarrassed that she yelled at him in front of so many people, then he realized. 'She was really scared.' The guilt that thought caused was almost enough to tell her... but not quite and now he knew she would make him stop if she found out. "Okay. No more climbing the rafters in your presence." He agreed and hugged her, whispering. "I'm sorry I scared you."
Gabrielle tightened the embrace and whispered back. "I'm sorry I yelled."
Karis entered the temple just as Solan and Gabrielle broke apart. "My Queen." She knelt on one knee and waited for the standard report command.
Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle sighed. "Report."
The guard grinned up at her. "The wagons have been inventoried and everyone chosen to accompany you to Corinth is waiting. I need to take care of one thing and then, if you wish we can leave today, instead of waiting until morning." Karis knew very well that Gabrielle would want to leave today.
Gabrielle's smile rivaled the sun. "Well what are you waiting for?" Resting her staff on her shoulder, she offered both hands for Karis to rise.
Accepting the hands, Karis sheepishly admitted. "Well... um... you actually....." She saw Gabrielle's confusion and looking around conspiratorially leaned forward to whisper to the Queen.
Solan saw his mother's eyes widen. For a moment he thought Karis had found him out, until both women smiled and started for the door. 'You are way to paranoid.' He told himself and he hurried after them.
The members of the caravan had gathered in the square, in front of the musicians stage. The Royal Guard stood in a group of their own, slightly off to the side. When Karis and Gabrielle climbed the steps to the stage the guards automatically arranged themselves along the front of the stage, more from habit of training than the threat of attack.
The silent formation made Karis smile in satisfaction. Her people were the best. Which led her to her final loose end. Raising her hands she quieted the crowd. "Your attention please." She waited for all eyes to be on her before lowering her arms. "Today we leave for Corinth and as tradition demands The Regent Ephiny will be acting Queen until Gabrielle's return." She waited for the wave of murmurs to sweep through the audience. "Tradition also dictates that my second in command stay to become head of the acting Queen's Royal Guard." This statement pulled laughter from the crowd. Everyone knew that Ephiny would have appointed Eponin to that post even if she hadn't already been second. Karis smiled and continued. "Therefore I need a new second during the journey." She saw the guards around the platform stand a bit straighter. "So, in recognition of outstanding performance, and her quick defense of the heir to the mask...." She paused slightly at the murmurs and smiled at her choice's widening eyes. "....I name Solari as my new second in command."
Gabrielle stepped forward. "I agree. Solari has always been loyal and faithful to the Amazons and their traditions." She watched a pink tinge creep up the guard's neck and touch the tips of her ears. Gabrielle smiled at the blushing guard and held out a small insignia cluster for Solari to take.
It was the only physical evidence of her new rank, the respectful looks she received were less tangible but much more rewarding. Solari fastened the small cluster to her shoulder. She smiled as she walked to her assigned wagon and thought about how much easier it would be to watch Karis now. Lost in thought she barely heard the command to move out and was only peripherally aware of the jealous looks from the ones who stayed behind.
It had been several days since the Empress' sudden, unexplained good mood and the Palace staff was not thrilled to see she was again wearing her fighting leathers. Xena took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling the comforting firmness of her leather outfit hug her ribs. The weight of her sword on her back and the smooth, cool metal of her chakram at her waist reassured her immensely. She rested her hands on the exposed part of her thigh and played with the top of her boot until the gong warned her of the dignitaries impending arrival. Glancing once around the huge but crowded reception hall, she settled herself into the throne and waited.
It didn't take long after the gong sounded before the thick outside doors at the end of the room were opened. She watched as a group of guards entered followed by a large litter, carried by six muscular men. The procession slowly made it's way to the bottom of the steps leading to the throne and halted. Xena narrowed her eyes as a young man exited the litter and pushed the curtains out of the way for his mother. The woman took his hand and gracefully rose from the enclosed couch. Mother and son turned toward the throne and with their hands lightly joined bowed to the Conqueror.
Xena kept her face impassive as she studied the woman. From the corner of her eye she saw the crowd part so that the litter could be moved to the outer wall and upon it's closing, the armored guards took strategic positions between the crowd of watchers and their leaders. But that was secondary to the woman that stood before her. Xena noticed some streaks of grey showing in the long dark hair. 'It has only been ten years.' She thought and heard a chuckle in her head. The Warrior Princess' quiet voice chided. 'No it has been nearly seventeen years.... you really should stop thinking in blocks of ten.' Dismissing that thought the Conqueror spoke formally. "Welcome Lao Ma."
The leader of Chin bowed again and spoke softly. "Thank you, Empress. I am happy to be here."
Ice blue eyes slowly raked across the pair and settled on the boy. "And you Ming T'ien... Are you happy to be here as well?" A smile threatened to cross her face as his expression darkened. 'He has always hated me.' She thought. 'Of course he has.' The Warrior Princess felt more guilt for the kidnapping than the Conqueror did. 'Why shouldn't he?'
"I look forward to the Festival." He bowed slightly and though his words were noncommittal the message was clearly, no.
The Conqueror laughed at that. "A true diplomat!" Gesturing for a guard she motioned toward the entrance to the Palace. "Show the Ambassadors of Chin to their quarters." The pair followed the guard and were just to the edge of the crowd when the gong sounding again stopped them. They turned to watch the new arrival curious about what other leaders were attending.
Xena too looked up at the wide doors. All the other guests had arrived and the Amazons weren't due for another day at least. Therefore, she was thrilled to see the doors flung open wide as the Amazon dancers entered the hall in a frenzy of drumbeats. She was nearly spellbound as the women whose bodies had been nearly covered in paint made their way to the base of the throne dias. It was a clever way to check out the crowd and she marveled as each of the dancers ended their performance nearly evenly spaced and in a good position to protect the approaching Queen. She hardly breathed when the next wave of Amazons appeared. They were not frenzied at all. Perfectly controlled, all wearing matching leathers two rows of Royal Guard walked forward in their standard V formation, point toward her. Xena knew what was coming but her heart raced as the double V inverted and all the guards subtly turned kneeling to their Queen. Not to Xena but to the woman standing in their midst.
The direction of the Amazons gesture of respect was not lost on the crowd and although many gasped at the fact that the obvious Queen of the Amazons was standing next to a young man, others gasped at the thought of the Conqueror being insulted. To their surprise Xena didn't seem angry at the insult at all. As a matter of fact the ones among them who had known her the longest could have sworn Xena was pleased! They were right.
She drank in the sight of her love. Gabrielle had aquired a new outfit for the occasion and Xena decided she liked it, alot. The filmy material didn't hide much, didn't hide anything really but the criss-crossed leather under it covered the essentials of modesty. She heard someone in the crowd whisper 'Spider Queen' and realized that was exactly what the outfit looked like, a spider's web. 'Perfect.' She thought. Gabrielle had yet to raise her mask and Xena wondered what she was waiting for. The warrior got her answer quickly as Iolaus, despite the formal clothing, recognized the boy from camp in India and chuckling, bent to whisper.
"Sold him to the Amazons did you?" His mirth was short-lived as the Amazon Queen raised her mask and signaled the others to do the same. Instantly recognizing Gabrielle and quickly finding Karis at the head of the guards, he grabbed the hilt of his sword in reflex. "Imposters." A warm but painful grip on his hand stopped him from drawing.
"They were faking it at the CAMP." She said and narrowed her eyes at Solan's reaction to Iolaus' short lived threat. Rising from the throne and glancing once at Lao Ma she decended to meet the waiting pair.
It was only a short walk but during that time she had to decide which plan to put into motion. Plan Alpha, Gabrielle and Solan both opposed, for obvious reasons..... Plan Beta, would increase the risk for Karis, being thrown into the Conqueror's prison was never without danger.... or.. she smiled.....Plan Gamma the one she had been thinking about since Gabrielle appeared in her bed 5 days ago. 'Don't kid yourself. You have been thinking about it longer than that!' The Warrior Princess laughed and agreed. 'YES! Gamma.... Make everyone happy, including yourself for once.'
No greetings had been exchanged yet, Gabrielle stood relaxed and calm as the Conqueror approached her. Murmers of respect at the Amazons composure turned into a hushed silence as Xena closed the distance between them and stood silently within inches of the little Queen. It was only a matter of time now. The entire crowd held it's breath, not knowing if Xena was going to kill the woman or not. None of them, including Gabrielle was prepared for what happened next.
Xena drilled her twinkling blue eyes deep into questioning green for a few very long moments, before she dropped to one knee and reached for Gabrielle's hand. No one in the hall would have dared make a sound, so the thick stone walls echoed Xena's hushed words to every corner of the room. "Marry me." She was glad she didn't have to say more because the tear she saw escape Gabrielle's eye closed her throat. 'Oh Gods.' The Conqueror nearly panicked. 'What if she doesn't want a public joining?' The slight chuckle from Gabrielle and the twinkling green eyes gave her hope.
Gabrielle couldn't believe what she was hearing. It took her until the gasps at Xena's proposal died to figure it out. 'Of course.' She thought. 'This will make things much simpler.' She smiled down at her kneeling love and chuckled, offering her a helping hand up. The look in Xena's eye and the continued hush of the crowd forced her to realize she had yet to answer. Grinning up at the warrior she decided to break the tension in the room. She rolled her eyes and played with her ring. "Again?" Playfully backhanding the warrior's stomach, and grinning at the crowd's gasp she continued. "How many times does it take with you?"
A rare laugh of pure joy erupted from the Empress. None of the Amazons moved as Xena grabbed their Queen and spun her around happily. Xena's ringing answer to Gabrielle's playful question caused a few murmers. "Four!"
Gabrielle thought about that and knew that the moment Xena had put the Solstice gift ring on her finger was one. The ring had not left her finger once since the moment she had received it. A public ceremony here would be two. Naturally they would have to have an Amazon joining, three... but what was the fourth? She nearly had to ask, then she saw Solan reach out and shake Xena's hand in congratulations. 'Oh.' She thought. 'Of course, friends and family.' The sight of a dark haired woman standing on the edge of the crowd pulled her from her thoughts. Velasca's reports filtered through her mind. 'Lao Ma.' She couldn't quite keep a smug look from crossing her face and thought. 'That's right Miss Leader of Chin, Xena wants ME!' A thought reinforced by Xena leaning in to kiss her lightly.
Lao Ma had seen enough. She turned to the guard and requested they continue to their assigned quarters. Ming T'ien shot a look of pure hatred at Xena before turning to follow his mother and the guide.
Xena looked around at the staring crowd. "The Amazons were the last to arrive." She raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle. "Opening ceremonies for Festival don't start until tomorrow so go home." A gesture to the guards urged the crowd to move faster and then the guards themselves disappeared out the huge doors. Only Iolaus stayed behind, for a moment.
He began walking toward the couple. "Your Highness, I would like to talk to you about security for your...." His words were cut off by a dozen swords pointed at him and a knife at his throat.
Xena laughed. "If you have security questions talk to Karis." Seeing his puzzled look she explained. "Karis is head of the Royal Guard. I myself will be discussing security with her extensively so I'm sure you two will be able to figure it out from there."
He looked from Xena to Karis to Xena to Gabrielle and simply stuttered his agreement. "O..Ok....I...I'll get together with her later." His hasty retreat was followed by the laughter of a room full of Amazons.
Now that it was only Amazons, Xena turned to Solan and hugged him tightly. "I missed you." She released her hold but gripped his upper arms, feeling the muscles there through the material of his black puffy sleeved shirt and looked in his eyes. "How are you?"
He rolled his eyes. "Mother. C'mon." He leaned in to whisper loudly. "You're embarrassing me."
Releasing her grip, she grinned and held up her hands in capitulation. "Sorry."
Gabrielle laughed. "Xena I need to go to Artemis' temple. I need to talk to the preistess there and I need to inform Artemis of our plans."
"I don't like the idea of you going alone." Xena was reluctant to let Gabrielle out of her sight.
"Alone?" Gabrielle looked around at the kneeling guards and rolled her eyes. "I don't think so."
Sighing at the inevitable, Xena relented and pointed to the huge doors. "Go out those doors, turn right, go down two streets and turn left. You can't miss it." She looked at Solan. "Are you going with them?"
The young Prince glanced from one mother to the other and hoped he didn't have to go. "I'd rather not."
Gabrielle laughed. "Then stay and get settled in our rooms." She looked up at Xena and smiled. "I'll be back soon." A glance at Karis was all it took for the Captain to give the signal to rise. The guards immediately stood and Xena watched as they filed out of the hall, then she walked slowly back to her throne.
Solan watched his mother's group leave and sighed. "Boy I'm glad I don't have to go."
Xena settled herself on the chair and chuckled to herself. 'You won't be soon.' The Warrior Princess cautioned. 'Go slow, don't scare him too much.' The Conqueror smiled. 'Oh I won't scare him too much. I'll only scare him just enough.' Clearing her throat, she drew his attention from the closing doors. "Solan. Come here."
As he turned to face her the slight smile on his face vanished. Swallowing hard he approached the throne slowly. The look in his mother's icy blue eyes robbed him of speech so he simply waited. Every passing moment caused his heart to beat faster and he nearly jumped at her voice.
"Where is it?" She couldn't quite keep the anger out of her voice. The Gods knew that she had lied to a lot of people in her life. 'But never to Gabrielle.' The Warrior Princess was also angry.
Feeling his mouth suddenly go dry he was only able to croak out. "What?" The look on Xena's face told him it was the wrong thing to say.
"Don't play games with me." Xena shook her head and leaned forward, enunciating every sound clearly. "Your sword. Where is it?"
He shook his head slowly and began. "I..." Her raised hand stopped his response.
"Think VERY carefully before you lie to me." She stressed the me and saw him swallow hard.
Suddenly he remembered the feeling all those months ago when Xena was holding a staff, attacking Ephiny. He had felt then, just for a moment, that Xena would hurt him. It was the same now. He knew, if he lied, punishment would be severe. This wasn't like when Gabrielle had yelled at him in the temple for simply scaring her, this was him actually doing something wrong and being punished for it, he knew where a boundry was now. It was such a welcome feeling that he closed his eyes. Gabrielle was a good mother, he knew that, but the Centaurs had always been much stricter than she had ever been. Centaurs were involved in a war after all. For Xena to mirror that sort of control was almost like coming home for him. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes. "It's in the weapons wagon."
Unclenching her jaw long enough to growl. "Get it." Xena waited while he nearly ran out the doors and within a few moments was back, holding a familiar scabbard with an even more familiar sword hilt protruding from it. When she saw the hilt she launched herself from the throne and took the weapon from him. Unsheathing the blade she sank to her knees as sunlight reflected off the polished metal and whispered. "Where did you get this?"
He had never actually believed his Uncle, but from her reaction it had to be true. "From the Centaurs. They said it was...."
"Your father's sword." She finished for him. Gripping the handle tightly she swung the weapon easily, marveling at the balance. It had been one of Borias' most prized possesions. She touched a nick in the tip of the blade. When they first met she and Borias had fought all the time, it nearly divided their army but on one occasion it nearly cost one of them their life. It had been a long day of fighting, she recalled the silence of the exhausted men around their fires. And she was tired too, the thought of a few days rest settled over her and she began to relax when Borias announced they would push on in the morning. It was incredible how the fatigue vanished instantly at her anger. To her surprise, her protest to his decision was met with a violent response. He had never hit her in anger before and even now she could feel the sting of his knuckles on her cheek. As unprepared for his reaction as she was, he was equally surprised to see her sword instantly in her hand. 'That was the first time we conciously called her.' The Warrior Princess whispered. 'I know.' The Conqueror knew it was dangerous to continue with this memory when she felt the dark sleeper within her stir but she couldn't help it. For what seemed like hours they had fought all over the camp. Her men had told her later that they had always been impressed with her strategic ability and her fighting skills but that fight went beyond anything they had seen. They said they knew during the day's fighting she had fought harder than any of them and had taken out several hundred of the enemy on her own. They told her when she was fighting Borias it looked as though she had been relaxing all day. A bit of pride had twinkled in her eyes when they told her it was amazing to see. When she won the battle, she and Borias had watched the men looking into each other's eyes. It was at that moment the true leader of the army was silently agreed on. It was at that moment Xena knew, the army was hers. 'And we owe it all to her.' The Conqueror growled. The Warrior Princess knew it was true. There was no way they could have won that fight without her, the darkest one among them, inexhaustible, unrelenting, and ruthless. Her gift from Ares, her curse.
Solan watched her examining the sword and remained quiet for several minutes. Finally the tension was too much for him and he had to break the silence. He spoke softly trying not to startle her. "Mother?"
Pulling herself from the memories she reassured him. "Sorry." She touched the nick again. "I was just remembering when I put this nick here."
"You fought with father's sword?" He knew warrior's didn't usually just lend out their weapons.
"I fought with your FATHER." She corrected and looked up into his sad eyes. "He never had it ground out. He said it reminded him never to hit me again." Solan's shocked stillness forced a smile of reassurance from her. "I guess it worked because he never did."
'That was mean.' The Warrior Princess didn't like damaging Solan's illusions about his father. 'He has probably thought of his father as a good man. I'm sure the Centaurs would have thought so.' She had quite a few illusions about her own absent father that had been shattered rather forcefully and she didn't want Solan to experience the same disappointment. The Conqueror was unrepentant and the thought of their father only strengthened her resolve. 'He should be told the truth.' She shook off her thoughts, stood and handed the weapon back to him. "Show me."
He swallowed hard and took the sword. It was rather embarrassing to him. His mother was so well known for her skill with the sword and he had never even had one lesson. He had however watched the Centaurs when they trained and when he could watched Eponin training the Amazon scouts. That observation plus some modifications on the staff movements Gabrielle had taught him allowed him to pretend he was a great sword fighter when he was alone and practicing. Wiping the sweat from his palms on his thighs he took a few steps away and waited til she was seated before he began to run through the routine he had been practicing for the last few weeks.
Xena watched her son carefully and studied his technique. 'Centaur.' She thought. '...and Amazon.' That didn't surprise her. It only made sense that he would pick up on the fighting techniques of the people he lived with. She also recognized the staff moves and knew in a real fight he would be sliced to ribbons in moments. The thought of him being killed made her angry. "STOP!"
He stopped midswing and stared at her. He swallowed hard and tried to joke. "I'm not that bad am I?"
She walked down the steps toward him and asked. "Have you had any training at all?" She knew how Gabrielle felt about bladed weapons but she wasn't sure if the Centaurs had trained him any.
He studied the floor and admitted. "No. I have only been watching the warriors train." He looked up as she approached and unconciously pointed his sword at her. His jaw dropped as one minute she was walking toward him, asking a simple question and the next he was staring down the length of her sword to her scowling face.
'NO!' The Warrior Princess lowered the sword. "Sorry." The Conqueror apologized to both of them and continued speaking to Solan. "Never point a weapon at me unexpectedly."
He nodded and asked. "Will you teach me how to fight with a sword?" Ever since he found out that Xena was his mother he had hoped she would train him, she was the best.
His look of adoration and respect didn't go unnoticed but she knew she had to be careful here. "I can give you a few pointers but I won't even consider training you unless Gabrielle says it's okay." The Conqueror watched his eyes widen. "You have to tell her, tonight....." Holding up her hand to stop his protest she continued. ".... or I will tell her tomorrow."
His shoulders sagged in defeat. "Okay."
Smiling at his reluctant compliance she twirled her sword. "Good." His shoulder's squaring widened her smile. "Now..." She tapped the blade of her sword against his. "The first thing you will have to learn ....."Tap. "..... is that a sword..." Tap. "... is not a staff." Tap. "You will have to learn to parry and look for openings." She slid the blades together and easily disarmed him. "Pick it up." For the next few moments they went through the very basics of sword handling and it almost scared Xena at how fast he picked up on it. When he completed a move she knew she hadn't shown him she called a halt to the session. "Enough." Looking at him sternly, she reminded him of their deal. "Gabrielle will be back soon. Remember, If you don't tell her.... I will." Sliding her sword into it's place on her back she draped her arm around his shoulder. "C'mon. I'll show you your room."
Karis stood at the entrance to the Temple of Artemis along with the rest of the Royal Guard. It was difficult to ignore the looks they were getting from the crowd that had followed them from the palace and passersby, some were just curious, some were leering, but others were almost hostile. The hostile ones were mainly from men, which Karis found extremely funny because most of the leering ones were from men too. She immediately dismissed the people in peasant clothing as a non-threat so when one of them stood out in her mind the shock almost made her cry out. Blinking she looked again and by the Gods if Gabrielle wasn't standing in the middle of the street dressed in peasant's clothes, leaning on a broom. She looked almost at home in the long brown skirt and blue top, Karis imagined it was something like she used to wear in her village. The guard's shock quickly gave way to anger. 'What is she doing!' The urge to surround her Queen with guards was only barely surpressed and she turned her back to the crowd signaling Solari urgently. The new second quickly moved up from her place in formation.
"Yes?" She was not thrilled about being ordered about by Karis, but would put up with it for now.During the trip here it had not been as easy to keep an eye on the girl as Solari had first imagined. She had not counted on the fact that Karis could send her to do any kind of odd useless job she felt like.
Karis flared her nostrils and kept her voice low. "It seems our Queen has taken it upon herself to go for a little unscheduled, unsupervised walk." Flicking her eyes to indicate behind her, she saw Solari look over her shoulder and gasp quietly. "Right. Take three guards and go into the temple. Tell the priestess to give you clothes and make her show you how Gabrielle got out. Beat it out of her if you have to, but get back out here and protect the Queen."
Solari nodded once and turned to go into the temple when Karis caught hold of her arm. "Remember if anything happens to her, you won't only have me to answer to....." It didn't take a philosopher to know that Karis was talking about Xena. That was a mixed bag for Solari. When Xena had proposed to Gabrielle she had felt as though the warrior meant it from the bottom of her heart. 'But I saw her kiss Karis.' She thought. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, Solari signaled Ria, Jana, and Bekka to follow her. There was something much more important to think about right now. Gabrielle's safety was all that mattered. It was the first rule of their training, Protect the Queen.
Karis turned to face the crowd and couldn't quite keep from scowling as Gabrielle grinned and waved at her. 'At least she thought enough to arm herself.' It was obvious to Karis that the broom in Gabrielle's hand could quickly turn into a staff. It took what seemed like forever before Solari appeared in the crowd and made her way to Gabrielle's side. Karis could see the exasperation in her Queen's eyes when Solari began berating her, in a big sister type way. It was almost funny because in any other circumstance the guard would not dare question her Queen, and Karis had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the smaller woman's shock when Solari grabbed her by the ear and dragged her out of the crowd. 'Serves her right for scaring us like that!' She thought and then felt a tap on her shoulder. The other three had not joined Solari so Karis knew what was next and didn't wait for Jana's report before she spoke. "Is the Queen ready to go?"
Wide-eyed admiration showed on the girls face. It had taken both Solari and the preistess to explain the deception to her. "Yes, the Queen is ready."
Karis looked toward the door and saw Bekka and Ria emerge. Dressed in Gabrielle's outfit, with the mask on, no one could tell that Ria was slightly taller than the true Queen. Only the Royal Guard or someone with intimate knowledge of Gabrielle's body would be able to spot the difference in build. That thought brought up another concern. 'How in the world am I going to explain this to Xena!' Signaling for a tight formation, the Amazons quickly surrounded the decoy Queen and retraced their steps back to the Palace.
Solan was amazed as he was led through the Palace. It was huge. Much bigger than he had imagined when he saw it and he had imagined pretty big. Long wide corridors gave way to even wider ones as they twisted and turned through the passageways. The thick carpeting lining each hallway nearly reached to the walls on each side and short tables with vases and flowers lined the walls. He had to content himself with glances at the richly woven tapestries that hung at regular intervals, Xena was too anxious to show him his room to stop. Finally she stopped at a large wooden door and opened it for him. "This is it."
At her gesture he stepped through the door and nearly gasped. The room was huge, bigger than his mother's whole hut! "Wow!" He grinned at the warrior next to him. "You don't do things half way do you?"
She gave him a wry grin. "Not usually." Ushering him on in she closed the door behind them. "I have this room assigned to Gabrielle....." Her voice trailed off meaningfully and the twinkle in his eyes let her know that he understood. This was his room, Gabrielle would be staying in Xena's room. "I have set up the next room for the guards, I knew they wouldn't want to be too far away." She watched him explore the room with childlike curiosity. Poking his head inside first the clothes storage area, and then the large bathroom. "Wow!" He exclaimed again and entered the bathroom to get a better look. There was a large tile lined depression that he could probably stretch from fingertips to toe and not touch either side.
Xena laughed at his expression. "I had my engineers modify the Amazon design to fit the structure of the Palace." She pulled a lever and the tub began filling. "There is always hot water." She pushed the lever back up and the water stopped. 'No sense wasting it.' She thought. The door opening in the other room drew them both from the bathroom and they both smiled as the guards appeared. Xena's smile disappeared instantly when the formation opened to reveal the woman in the middle.
Karis walked forward quickly, both hands raised in a wait-a-minute gesture. "Now.... Xena.... let me explain......"
Growling through clenched teeth, Xena's words rumbled through the room. "Talk fast."
A slow smile spread across Gabrielle's face. Solari followed her
gaze and gasped. "You can't be
serious." She looked at the seedy tavern again. "You can't go in there!"
The Queen's green eyes twinkled with mischief. "Oh, yeah... this is the place." Without waiting for Solari, she walked toward the run down building. Dressed like a peasant or not she knew Solari would follow her anywhere. When she first joined the Amazons, Solari had been assigned as her bodyguard, at that time the guard had told her she would follow her to Tartarus if that was what it took to keep her safe. Gabrielle pushed open the rickety door to the building and thought. 'Well, Solari I guess this is pretty close.' She looked around the filthy room, light filtering in from the cracks in the wall mingled with the light from the small fire. There weren't many patrons and the few that were there were much more interested in their mugs than any new arrivals. The large woman behind the bar spoke loudly.
"You'll not be needing one of those in here, sweetie" She laughed and indicated the broom in Gabrielle's hand.
The little blonde smiled winningly at the woman but held on to the broom as she walked toward the bar. "I'm looking for someone."
A hearty laugh escaped the woman. "Aren't we all!"
Gabrielle tightened her grip on the broom handle, smiling when she saw the lump her ring made just under the edge of the fingerless gloves she wore. "The person I'm looking for comes in here frequently.... do you mind if we wait?"
"Honey, buy an ale and you can sit here all day." The woman sat a mug up on the bar and started to pour a dark liquid from a handy pitcher.
"Um... I really don't have any dinars right now...." She saw a scowl start to appear and quickly added. "I can sweep up and I'm pretty good in the kitchen.... My sister here...." She indicated Solari. "... is pretty good with fixin stuff." Gabrielle's eyes went to the corner containing a broken table with some broken chairs stacked on it. We can help out until our friend gets here."
The woman was suspicious. "Can't pay ya...."
"No need...." Gabrielle began sweeping and motioned Solari toward the corner.
Sighing, the reluctant guard examined the pile of rubble. "Do you have a hammer and nails?"
For the next couple of candlemarks Gabrielle swept and Solari mended chairs, neither said anything to anyone, including each other. The tavern was quiet and the customers that had been there the whole time were nearly asleep when the door was practically torn off it's hinges. A group of Xena's guards strutted in, yelled for drinks and took up the large table near the fire. They were loud and obnoxious and Gabrielle disliked them immediately...... but this was one reason she was here. Luckily she didn't have to get very close to hear what they were saying.
"I say she's gettin soft." This guard was obviously new. His uniform was neatly pressed and every button was polished. His young face held no experience dealing with Xena or her tactics.
"Are you kidding.... this is the Conqueror we are talking about... there is no way she is soft."
"But she asked the little Amazon bitch to marry her." A quick motion from Gabrielle stopped Solari from killing the man that spoke, but the royal guard memorized his face..... for later.
"It's just a trick... " the oldest among them spoke knowingly. "I've been in Xena's army a long time... She is just going to use the little Spider Queen to gain control of the Amazons."
"I still say she's going soft.. I mean why don't we just go in and take the Amazons like we did everyone else..." It was almost a whine.
"Quiet boy." The oldest was angry now. "You've never seen a day of battle in your life and if you ever let the Conqueror hear you talking like that you're not likely to. " He nodded when the boy was sufficiently silent. "Amazons are different, Xena knows we can't take'em like the others... she's dealt with them before....."
Gabrielle nearly stopped sweeping when she heard that. 'When has Xena dealt with Amazons before?' There were no records in the Council reports about any meetings with the Conqueror. She couldn't recall any stories involving Xena and the Amazons either. The door opened to admit a new patron and Gabrielle walked over to Solari. "I guess she's not going to show up tonight. We can leave now." She called over her shoulder to the barkeep. "Thanks." With her attention behind her she ran into the customer just arriving. "Oh... sorry."
The woman shrugged. "No problem."
Gabrielle and Solari walked out into the dimming light and the Queen headed back for the Palace. She used the time to formulate a plan to get past the guards, they surely wouldn't just let her in the Palace dressed like this.
Xena sat in a large overstuffed chair next to the fireplace. Listening to the crackle of the fire for as long as she could, she ran her tongue over her teeth and tapped her fingers on the chair's arm. "How long have they been gone?"
Solan looked at Karis. "It's your turn to answer."
Sighing the guard said the same words she and Solan had been saying for the last candlemark. "One mark on the sundial longer than the last time you asked."
Xena glared at the young woman. "She has been gone too long." Suddenly rising from the chair Xena began to pace around the room. "Where could she be?" It was her stomach that answered her. Sighing the Conqueror pulled a cord near the head of the bed and a guard entered. "Have a tray of food sent up and a couple of pitchers." She dismissed him with a wave and continued her pacing. 'You're going to wear a groove in the floor you know.' The Warrior Princess advised. 'Sit down, Gabrielle will be back soon. She's a big girl.' Xena forgot about the other two occupants of the room and spoke aloud. "I know that!"
Neither Solan or Karis knew the warrior very well but they didn't take it as a good sign that she was talking to herself. Solan tried to calm her. "Ummm... Mother?" He waited for her blue eyes to focus on him. "She can take care of herself, really."
'He's right you know.' The Warrior Princess was beginning to get worried herself but tried not to let the Conqueror know. 'Have a seat. She'll be back soon.' The Conqueror sighed and reclaimed her seat by the fire. She resumed tapping the arm of the chair until the door opened and Mirriam entered followed by two servants carrying the requested food. As the servants arranged the trays on the table, Mirriam spoke.
"I was coming to let you know, I laid out your clothes for dinner tonight, but if you are going to eat here....." The personal servant let her voice trail off as Xena's gaze slid past her.
"I hope you had fun." The Conqueror's voice was sarcastic with just enough playfulness to take the bite out of the comment.
Gabrielle turned and pulled the scarf off her head. "Not really." She lowered her head. "Are you mad at me?" A slight quaver in her voice was enough to make Xena's heart skip. Solan and Karis jumped up and they both recognized Solari as the other servant.
The Conqueror looked at the runaway and marveled how, even in peasant clothing, she seemed to radiate light. The setting sun streaming through the window highlighted the red in her hair and Xena caught her breath when brilliant green eyes looked at her for the answer. Sighing, Xena crossed the room and gathered the little Queen in her arms. "No, not mad. We were just concerned."
Gabrielle let herself drift in the warm embrace for a long moment. This was where she wanted to be, always. "I'm sorry I worried you." She looked up into deep blue love. "But I had to make contact with the scouts." She grinned at Solari's snort.
"I wish you would have found a cleaner place to do it." The guard turned carpenter examined her hands and tried to wipe the dirt off...again. "Seems like a long time to spend with no contact."
Gabrielle laughed. "But there was...." She released the embrace and pulled a folded piece of parchment from her pocket. "...the last person, the one I bumped into, that was who I wanted to see." She let Xena take the parchment and smiled at the puzzled look it created.
"This is nothing but gibberish.... A child's scribbling." Xena handed the message back to Gabrielle.
"Not really." Gabrielle folded the paper three ways lengthwise and another message appeared. "None of the scouts have been able to gain access to the top level of the resistance." She studied the message a bit longer. "Apparently the Survivors of Cirra are very selective on who they let know about the real leaders of the group." She nodded as she got to the end. "But this confirms that Iolaus is one of them."
Mirriam gasped at the man's duplicity. "He's been here a long time."
Xena growled. "Yes he has." She had always trusted him as much as she trusted anyone in her employ. Like a strong drink burning in her belly and disbursing throughout her body she could feel her anger building. Then suddenly nothing mattered as Gabrielle slid her arms around her waist. She let her cheek rest against a pillow of honey-fire silk and sighed as her arms rose up to circle the Amazon's shoulders, almost on their own.
Solan cleared his throat. "Ummm... I'm gonna go get the rest of my stuff from the guard's room." He headed toward the door, followed closely by Karis.
"I'll help." She would have time to discuss unscheduled trips with Gabrielle later. Right now she knew her Queen needed some time alone with Xena and she ushered Solari out the door ahead of them.
Mirriam stayed a moment longer, shuffling her feet nervously before clearing her throat. "Ummm... excuse me... my Queen." At the time, the circumstantial evidence of lilac perfume had eased her suspicions, but the more she thought about it the more unlikely it seemed that Gabrielle had been in Corinth for a night.
Gabrielle was too comfortable and only mumbled acknowledgement. Xena chuckled and broke the embrace. "I think Mirriam has something to tell you." Grinning at the servant, Xena crossed to the table and sat in one of the two chairs there. She casually picked a small piece of fruit from the tray and settled back to watch the exchange.
Gabrielle was puzzled by Mirriam's nervousness and gently asked. "What is it Mirriam?"
It was a long moment before the Amazon servant found the words to begin. "A few nights ago I brought a tray of food to Xena's room......" Her voice trailed off. She didn't want the Queen to find out this way, but even if Xena killed her Gabrielle had to know. "...and I... I saw..." She couldn't do it. She just couldn't look into those trusting green eyes and accuse Xena of cheating.
Xena broke in quietly. "I think what Mirriam is trying to say is.... She saw two forms in my bed.... is that what you are trying to say Mirriam?" The Conqueror was curious how Gabrielle would react to that. 'Will she be jealous or will she know it was her immediately?' The Warrior Princess almost grinned. 'A bit of both I think.'
Mirriam sighed. "Yes that's what I'm trying to say." She looked at Gabrielle and spoke quickly. "It was just such a surprise, you know... because she hadn't...... I mean.....since she came back from the Nation she hasn't......."
Gabrielle's eyes shot to Xena's intense blue gaze. 'Since she returned from the Nation?' Mirriam's voice pulled her from her thoughts.
".... I mean I know she's been gone alot, but since then when she's here she's always alone." The Amazon was sure her Queen would be angry at the accusation but Mirriam had to find out for sure.
"Wait." Gabrielle held up her hand. "You mean when she returned a few weeks ago?" She had resigned herself to the necessity of Xena keeping up appearances during their separation.
Mirriam shook her head puzzled. "No. I mean since she returned from the Nation.....when the treaty was signed."
Gabrielle swallowed hard and looked at Xena who just smiled quietly and took another bite of fruit. "The other person you saw that night was me. Artemis brought me." She never took her eyes off the relaxed warrior, gesturing absently to the relieved servant. "I think Xena and I need to be alone now."
"Of course." She rose to leave and bowed to Gabrielle. "Have a good evening my Queen. " Before the door was shut Gabrielle was standing before Xena.
"Is it true?" In her heart Gabrielle knew it was. "You haven't been with anyone else since then?"
Xena swallowed the bite of melon and put down her fork. "Why would I want to be with anyone else?" Pulling Gabrielle down to sit on her lap she brushed her fingertips against the blushing cheek and whispered. "I only want you."
"Oh Xena." Gabrielle closed the distance between their lips and moaned at the contact. The world melted away as Xena stood, bringing her up in her arms. She kept the soft contact between their lips but wimpered slightly when Xena bypassed the bed.
Chuckling at the woman in her arms, the Conqueror went to the clothing storage area and indicated a rock with her chin. "Push that."
Gabrielle raised her eyebrows and grinned as the rock gave way and the entire wall swung open to reveal a passageway. As they walked through Xena leaned against the lever that would close the door. Grinning as darkness overcame them and the grip around her neck increased, she continued down the corridor. A short time later they emerged from the closet in Xena's chambers.
Moving quickly to the bed Xena lowered her love into the softness. Tossing the outfit Mirriam had laid out for her, haphazardly to the ground she moved to stretch out beside the prone woman.
"We are going to be late for dinner." Gabrielle indicated the outfit on the floor.
Xena chuckled and leaned in for a quick kiss before growling. "Oh... we are going to be VERY late for dinner. As our son recently pointed out to me, I don't do things half-way."
Desire flared brighter in Gabrielle's eyes, she shivered in anticipation and grinned. "Oh Goody"
It was very quiet in the dining hall. The occasional clink of silver utensils on fine porcelin plates, and the soft popping of the fires in the huge fireplaces punctuated the soft harp music being played by one of the several harpists lining the walls of the large room. Salmoneous was growing more anxious by the moment. He looked at the empty chairs at the head of the huge U shaped table and sighed. It had taken a bit of doing but when he heard Xena's proposal the seating plan had been rearranged to accomodate the Amazon Queen sitting next to The Conqueror. >From his vantage point, next to the door, he surveyed the room critically. All the centerpieces, were perfect, although he wasn't sure why Xena insisted on lilacs. The candles lining the table were all burning, giving the diners a bit more light than the torches and fireplaces could. The only problem he had from his point of view was Lao Ma and her son. They had been the last to send confirmation of their attendance and had originally been at the far right end of the table. Now with the new arrangements Lao Ma was sitting directly to the right of Xena's chair with her son in the next seat. It wasn't too bad a compromise considering any other configuration would put leaders that hated each other side by side but it was still not his idea of correct. It would have been much easier if he could have put people on both sides of the table but this was supposed to be a precursor to the Festival and during dessert there would be performers to entertain the guests and give the harpists a break. If anyone were seated on the inside of the U they would be forced to turn to see the performers, that was unacceptable. He looked at the attendents standing patiently behind each diner. He had no hope of ever attaining enough status or wealth to have his own attendent but each person dining here tonight had one, probably more waiting in their quarters. 'It would be such a luxury to have someone wait on you hand and foot.' He thought. He had seen some of the servants actually cutting the food for their employer. He snorted to himself quietly. 'Master and slave is more like it." He thought. It was kind of odd to see because Xena never wanted that type of attention. She did for herself and liked it. 'More prudent in her position, and besides I wouldn't want to be that close to her with a knife." He thought about the lightning quick reactions of the Empress and knew anyone foolish enough to perform that particular task incorrectly would be dead. More than anything, dead was something Salmoneous did not want to be.
He glanced to his right and then left to check the guards tables. They were fairly well behaved as they were all members of the Royal guard of one kingdom or another. 'At least most of them are.' He thought as his eyes fell on the boy, happily eating with the Amazon guards. The young man's status was a mystery to him but considering the fact that he was standing next to the Spider Queen when she arrived he thought it only prudent he be allowed to sit with the guards. 'Probably some kind of bodyguard or something.' But the thought didn't ring true to him. The boy was too young really for that type of job, not to mention he was...well a he. Everyone knew men were not allowed on the Amazon's land. Sighing he glanced again at the conspicuously empty chairs and resigned himself to the Conqueror's non-attendance. Making a note to have some trays sent to her rooms he settled himself quietly on his tall seat by the door and waited for the performers to arrive.
When the line of waiters carrying the dessert entered from the kitchen, everyone let out a sigh of relief. The dinner was almost over. It was a thought Salmoneous shared with the dining royalty.
As soon as the delicacies had been placed in front of all the diners and the waiters were gone, a low male voice drifted through the room. "I guess the Empress has decided not to grace us with her presence tonight." Ming T'ien had had enough of quiet and he was angry at Xena for the imagined insult of not wanting to eat with them. Growing bolder at the frowns on most of the leader's faces he smiled and continued. "She must be busy with that Amazon whore of hers." His smile disappeared when a loud crash came from the guard's tables.
All five Amazon guards and Solan were on their feet, the stools they were sitting on scattered on the floor. Pure hatred flowed from six pairs of eyes and Karis knew at a glance that Solan was too upset to speak. Laying a calming hand on his arm she looked toward the head of the table and spoke in a warning but respectful tone. "With respect, highness, the last person to call my Queen a whore died very soon afterword. I would suggest that you are very lucky that Xena was not present to hear your comment."
Of course being spoken to by a guard, especially a female, in such a warning tone angered Ming T'ien immediately. "Who are you to speak to me like this?"
Karis knew very well who she was but she opted for her official title. "I am Karis, head of the Amazon Royal Guard."
Ming T'ien was not impressed. "In Chin we do not tolerate guards addressing royalty so rudely."
A gentle squeeze on Solan's arm warned him to remain silent. She knew that Ming T'ien was older than her. She also knew that she looked very mature for her age. Her eyes took on a wooden hardness. "In the Amazon Nation we do not tolerate insolent boys insulting our Queen." She signaled the others to move to the door before sweeping her gaze around the table. "Your majesties, please accept my apologies for the disturbance." She looked directly at Ming T'ien. "But an insult to our Queen will NEVER go unanswered." Bowing again she turned her back on the Eastern leader and took her place in the formation at the door, keeping Solan in the middle as was their habit. She could hear the conversation begin before the doors were closed, running her fingers through her hair, she laughed. "Well that could have gone better." The hall was empty so the Amazons broke formation and reached out to congratulate Karis.
"You were great."
"Did you see his face?"
"That was so excellent."
None of them could wait to get back to the room to tell the others that Karis had stood up to the Prince of Chin. And she wasn't scared or anything. She even laughed afterwords. That started several of them thinking. Why wasn't she scared. He could have ordered her jailed for insolence. She wasn't afraid at all. She must have been confident Xena wouldn't allow her to be punished for standing up for Gabrielle. They began to look at her in a new light. Each of them began thinking about Xena and another rumor they heard about their leader and a hayloft. If Karis was so sure that Xena wouldn't let Ming T'ien punish her then, Gods, it must be true!
Karis felt the pats on her back and saw the look in the guards eyes change. 'Maybe it couldn't have gone better.' It had been good news when Gabrielle's contact reported Iolaus as one of the main leaders of the Resistance. She had a special lie planned for him. It was the one thing that would clench the deal and get her in to the real leaders. Now all she had to do was wait until he approached her and invited her to join the movement. When they reached the doors to the rooms she signaled the others to go on. "I want to make sure the Prince is secure. Tell Bekka and Jana they have first watch." She slowly pushed the door open. It was highly unlikely that Gabrielle would be in this room. Karis was practically sure her Queen and Xena were in Xena's rooms but it was better to be safe than sorry. She quickly checked the main room and then moved to the closet, bathroom, balcony all empty. She smiled and slid into Solan's welcoming arms. "I'm sorry he upset you."
"Thank you for handling it." Solan was a bit upset that his anger got the best of him. "I just couldn't think of anything but killing him."
"Yeah. The thought crossed my mind a few hundred times too." She ran her fingers through his hair and smiled. "You did the right thing. Remaining quiet is very difficult."
"Yes it is." A low voice drifted through the room and the young couple whirled at the sound. Karis immediately placing herself between the unknown threat and Solan relaxing when she saw Xena and Gabrielle standing near the fireplace. Xena continued. "Mirriam told us what happened. Good job Karis."
Gabrielle smiled at the guard. "There was a reason I made you head of my guard. I knew you were the best."
Karis blushed slightly and shook her head. "I should have handled it better." She looked up with sad brown eyes. "I shouldn't have insulted him."
Xena chuckled and kissed the top of Gabrielle's head before crossing the room to Karis. With both hands on the guard's shoulders the Warrior Princess bent to look into the guard's deep brown eyes. "You handled it just right." Pulling the startled woman close for an uncharacteristic, almost motherly, hug Xena whispered. "I would have killed him." Breaking the embrace the Conqueror smiled at Solan. "You're a pretty lucky guy."
Solan smiled and looked around the room at his family. "I think we are all pretty lucky."
Xena laughed and sat in one of the chairs by the fire, pulling Gabrielle down into her lap. "Karis would you excuse us." She looked at Solan. "I think my son has something he needs to tell his mother."
Karis was puzzled at the request and almost didn't leave when she saw the expression on Solan's face. A slight squeeze on her hand, a forced smile and a little head shake from Solan as he walked her to the door was not enough to make her stop worrying. 'What does he have to tell Gabrielle?' She barely acknowledged Bekka and Jana as she pulled at her lips thoughtfully, realizing that Xena's perfume clung to her from the hug. Grinning at the usefulness of that she pushed open the door to the guard's quarters.
Solan watched the door close behind Karis and swallowed hard. The look in his mother's ice blue eyes forced a thought through his head. 'I think my luck just ran out.'
“You should have seen her. She was magnificent.” Iolaus’ eyes sparkled as he paced the small, dingy office and talked about the event. “She had no fear whatsoever.”
“Why do you think that is?” The woman leaned back in her chair and toyed with the knife in her hand. “Why was she so brave?”
Iolaus smiled knowingly. “Ahhhh you see that’s my point .. I think she was brave because she knew Xena wouldn’t allow her to be punished. Xena was drawn to her at the camp in India.” He explained. “but Karis hated her I could tell from her body language that she really hated Xena. I don’t see that now not as much. Something changed since India. Something happened during the time they were gone.”
“Something.” The sneer on her thin face only hardened her deep brown eyes. “You mean Xena took her to bed ..” She thought about that and agreed. “Possible. But that doesn’t guarantee her safety.”
“But how would she know that?” Iolaus was convinced that Xena was taking her pleasure with both Amazons and he was pretty sure the little Queen didn’t know it. “Amazon’s don’t know how Xena runs things.” When his leader remained silent he continued. “I think that the Queen doesn’t know about Xena and the guard. I think that she is holding it over Xena’s head.”
“Go on.” She wanted to see if he saw all the angles or just the pretty guard’s curves.
“As you say it is possible that she is sleeping with Xena. If she is and we can get her on our side the Empress would be easy to kill in her sleep. But even if I’m wrong and, she isn’t being bedded by Xena she is still head of the Amazon Royal Guard. She will be with Xena extensively to discuss security for the wedding ceremony. That alone is worth inviting her to join us.” He watched his leader clean her fingernails with the knife and continued, knowing she was listening whether it looked like it or not. “She could be privy to very valuable information. Valuable enough to risk inviting her.”
The leader of the resistance nodded and put the knife down on the desk in front of her. Sniffing her nose, she wiped it on the back of her hand and put her feet up on the desk crossed at the ankles. “Tell me Iolaus. How do you plan to get her to join us? Hmmm..?” Her eyes raked up and down his body slowly. “Amazons aren’t likely to fall for your . dubious charm.” Her leering smile finished the thought. ‘Especially if they are sleeping with Xena.’
He hated it when she teased him and he tried not to rise to the bait. Keeping his voice even he responded calmly. “First I will check her out. Amazon or not they are still guards, and guards talk. Do I have your permission to ask about her?”
Irritated that he took her teasing in stride she gestured with her hand wildly. “Yes. Yes. You can ask.” Suddenly she was on her feet, leaning across the desk at him. “But that is all. Do not make a move until you report back to me what you find.”
He nodded, almost a bow. “No of course not. I’ll report back my findings first but if she is or was close with the Empress we will have to reawaken the hatred I saw in India.” He had seen the devotion to the little Queen and knew exactly how he would win the loyalty of Karis. Turning to leave when his leader’s silky voice stopped him at the door.
“Oh Iolaus.” She smiled when he turned around.
Iolaus shuddered at the manic smile his leader was so easily able to call up. It sent a cold chill down his spine each time he saw it. “Yes.”
She chuckled deeply, a sound at odds with her slight frame. “Nighty night.”
To be continued in Part 3
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