See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
“Forget it, Xena!”
“No, I'm not gonna forget it, Gabrielle.” Xena took several angry steps away, turned and glared at the woman lying on the settee in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows in the royal suite.
Gabrielle was awash in bright sunlight streaming in from a cloudless cerulean sky. Her hair sparkled with golden highlights and her skin fairly glowed. It was all Xena could do not to take her in her arms and kiss her senseless.
But her irritation at Gabrielle's stubbornness won out. “It's only been two days since the accident. I'm not risking your health or your life just to appease a bunch of…”
“Yes, you will, Xena,” the flat tone belied the turmoil Gabrielle was feeling, as she returned the glare. “This is important for the whole realm—for all of Greece. You have to go through with the coronation ceremony and the celebration. Corinth is packed with people who've been waiting for this day. Not to mention, Agatha worked her tail off to put together a celebration that far surpasses anything the world has ever seen. You have to go through with this and see it through. It's your destiny, Xena.”
“I don't have to do anything I don't want to,” Xena ground out between clenched teeth in a petulant tone. “I earned that right when I conquered Greece and became its sole ruler.”
The argument had been going on for the better part of a quarter candlemark without a resolution in sight. Basically, Xena wanted to postpone the coronation and subsequent celebration, allowing Gabrielle a few more days to recover from the injuries she sustained in the collision with a tree branch on horseback.
Gabrielle was devastated to learn the mare she had only just recently named had to be put down. Aella had suffered two broken legs in her mad flight shortly after Gabrielle had fallen from her back. But the kicker was that one of Xena's soldiers had taken it upon himself to put the horse down without consulting anyone on his decision first. He hadn't felt the need to wait for anyone else to arrive on the scene. He just ran the mare through with his sword and that was that.
Xena tried to soften the blow by sidestepping the subject when Gabrielle kept pushing for answers to her questions. But the truth finally came out and Gabrielle was pissed.
She hadn't stopped being pissed, either.
Gabrielle pressed fingers to the ache in her temple and sighed tiredly. “I don't want to argue anymore, Xena.”
“Then don't,” Xena replied matter of factly, as she crossed her arms triumphantly over her chest. “Simple as that. Accept my decision and let's move on.”
Gabrielle's temper flared again. “I'm not giving in. You're going through with this and that's final.”
“No, it's not,” Xena uncrossed her arms and stomped her foot. “I already called off the dogs and gave Agatha a heads up for tonight. You're staying put and that's final!”
Gabrielle's face turned red. “NO!” She jumped to her feet and immediately regretted the move, but her anger made her stand firm.
Xena crossed the distance that separated them and went nose-to-forehead with the shorter woman. “No?” Her quiet tone belied her own anger. She was barely keeping it in check and was about ready to hit something. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option. “Do you really think you can sit up there in front of all those people without passing out, Gabrielle?” She watched Gabrielle sway, ever so slightly. “'Cause I don't. Your face turns green every damned time you stand up. And don't get me started on the pain I see in your eyes right now. ‘Cause it's right there.”
She pointed a finger right in Gabrielle's face.
Green eyes narrowed. “There are still six candlemarks until the evening meal is set to begin. I'll be fine, Xena.”
“You've been laid up for two days with a headache that would fell an elephant, Gabrielle,” Xena growled. “Do you really think I'll let you go into the hall and face a crowd of clapping and cheering people? Hm? You'd throw up and we both know it.”
“I just won't eat anything,” Gabrielle gave her lover a sly smirk. “I will stand up with you and accept my place as your…er? Exactly what will I be? Queen's consort? Princess? Lover?”
“Nice try. But you're not changing the subject,” blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. “And it doesn't matter, because you aren't going anywhere today or tomorrow. I'm postponing everything.”
It was Gabrielle's turn to cross her arms over her robe-clad chest. “Oh, really?”
“Yeah,” Xena nodded her assurance. “And don't argue anymore, Gabrielle. I'm not listening.”
“You need to do this. It's imperative you show the people of Greece that nothing will stand in the way of you becoming their supreme ruler. You're not just some two-bit conqueror, anymore. It's time for you to be crowned Queen of Greece and put the rumors to rest.”
“And I will. In a few days, after you've had more time to recover from your injuries. I won't stand up there alone, Gabrielle. You're my soulmate. We were joined for a reason and I'm not doing this without you.”
“Time is running out and you know it, Xena,” Gabrielle decided on a different tact. “Pompeii has your son. We need to head to Rome, as soon as possible. And your brother…”
“Isn't going anywhere, anytime soon,” Xena returned. “Pompeii needs Solon alive, Gabrielle. It's the only way he can lure me to Rome and he knows it. And my brother thinks he's already won. So, let him bask in his supposed victory for a few more days. No skin off my nose.”
“What if Pompeii can't keep your son safe?” Gabrielle added. “What if Caesar decides to just kill Solon, rather than risk having you show up in Rome to challenge his authority over Greece? Or what if Toris runs to Rome with the news that you're holding a coronation ceremony and proclaiming yourself Supreme Ruler of Greece?”
“Caesar won't kill my son,” Xena replied. “He wouldn't risk my wrath by doing something so stupid. It's more likely he'll bide his time and wait for me to show up on his doorstep, then send his assassins after me. That's more his style. A few days won't make a difference to him. But they will for you. You need to rest and recover, Gabrielle. Just let it go. My mind is made up and there's no changing it.”
Gabrielle considered her options for several moments. “Fine,” she finally said. “You win.”
A dark brow shot up into Xena's hairline. “Just like that?” Suspicion flashed in her blue eyes.
Gabrielle sat back down with a heavy sigh. “I'm too tired to argue with you anymore,” she said as she rubbed her temple again. “And my head hurts.”
Xena sat down next to her and reached out to tip Gabrielle's face up. She examined the thin gash that Agatha had expertly sewn closed with tiny, barely-noticeable stitches. The wound itself was barely visible just inside Gabrielle's hairline and the swelling had gone down considerably. A fringe of blond bangs did a good job of hiding it and the scar would be so small that one would have to get up close to Gabrielle to see it.
“Looks pretty good,” Xena commented. “How's the wrist?”
Gabrielle raised her arm and showed off her wrist. The splint was gone and in its place was a wrap to give the wrist some support. She gingerly flexed it for Xena, wincingly slightly when things pulled a little.
“Only hurts a little bit. Not bad,” Gabrielle said with a wan smile. “Agatha said it's just a sprain and should be fine in another day or so.”
Xena held Gabrielle's chin and turned her head to the side. “How's the rest of your head? The bruising is starting to fade. And the lip?”
“Lip is fine,” the tip of her tongue grazed the scabbed area on the right side of her lower lip. “And I just have a slight headache. It doesn't hurt nearly as much it did yesterday. I can actually move around without any dizziness. I'm fine, Xena.”
“You're not fine, Gabrielle,” Xena frowned. “You need more rest.”
“Would you please stop telling me that!?!” Gabrielle shot to her feet and glared down at her mate. “I've been resting for two days, Xena. I don't need to rest anymore! I'm fine! Why can't you just believe me and leave it at that? Why does everything have to be so, so… UGH!!! ”
Gabrielle strode purposefully across the room, stopped and just stood with her back to Xena. The Conqueror reined in her temper, but it took every ounce of effort to do so. She couldn't figure out why Gabrielle kept getting so angry, when Xena was merely acting in her best interest.
Xena stood up and ran a hand through her hair in agitation. “What do you want, Gabrielle? Hm?”
Gabrielle crossed her arms over her chest and refused to turn around, even when she sensed Xena standing behind her. She could feel the imposing presence like a physical pressure against her skin. Xena's presence was electric and sent a shiver down Gabrielle's spine. But Xena didn't make a move to touch her.
Several moments passed, as Gabrielle just stood there in stoic silence. Her head was throbbing painfully with every beat of her heart. She wasn't about to admit it. She didn't want to give Xena anymore cause to argue than she already had. But Gabrielle also knew she was being stubborn and unruly and didn't care. Her pride was at stake.
“Stop treating me like a child,” Gabrielle replied in a low tone.
“Since when do I treat you like a child, Gabrielle?” Xena's temper flared. “Name one instance.”
“Seriously?” Gabrielle spun to face the tall woman. “You're always the one who knows what's best! It's been that way from the very beginning. My sister? How can you forget that you killed her because you thought it was for the best? Seriously, Xena, is that where your men get it from?”
“My men?” Xena put her hands on her hips. “Gabrielle, what the hades are you talking about? My men have nothing to do with this.”
“Yeah, what about him?”
“He killed my horse, Xena. Or did you already conveniently forget that little detail? It's not like she was all that important, I suppose. She was just a horse, after all.”
“He put the mare out of her misery,” Xena corrected stoicly. “She was suffering, Gabrielle. He did what was best. It's what he's trained to do. It's what I instill in my men.”
“She didn't have to die! You said so yourself, Xena!”
“I said no such thing,” Xena held a finger out between them. “Don't put words in my mouth, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle slapped her hands against her eyes in frustration. “Gods! You're so exasperating, sometimes!”
“And you're not?” Xena's voice rose an octave. “What is it with you, Gabrielle? Are you just itching for a fight? Do you really want to keep arguing?”
“There you go, again,” Gabrielle spun away in exasperation. “You think you know everything, Xena. Why can't you just admit that you're as human as the rest of us? Just admit that you're wrong!”
“I know I'm human. I have the scars to prove it. But right now you're acting like a harpy with a really bad attitude. Why are you behaving like this? Tell me what I said or did to set you off, Gabrielle.”
“A harpy?” Gabrielle's tone turned icy. “Really?”
Without another word, Gabrielle stormed into the bedchamber and slammed the door shut behind her. Xena just stood there in stunned silence, staring at the closed door as her mind whirled with what had just happened. She didn't know whether to knock the door down or just walk away and head to the practice field for an intense session of sparring with her men. Her anger had turned to frustration and exasperation, so she decided to take it out on her men, rather than on Gabrielle. She left the sitting room without a backward glance.
“Have you seen Gabrielle?” Ephiny stepped up beside Eponin, who was standing just beyond the practice field as several paired Amazons sparred in front of her.
“No, but Xena's been poundin' half the new recruits to a bloody pulp since she came barreling out here a couple candle marks ago,” Eponin motion with her chin towards the far side of the field.
Ephiny looked in the direction Eponin indicated and saw the tall dark-haired woman do a flip over the heads of several men and land behind them. Xena then used the staff in her hands to sweep their legs out from under them. They all toppled like dominoes and didn't get back up.
Ephiny scanned the gathered crowd to see if her target was among the onlookers. She didn't see a short blond head among them, though.
“I really need to speak with her about something,” Ephiny said.
“Did you try the royal chambers?” Eponin watched Xena from the corner of her eye, as she tried to keep her attention on the women sparring in front of her. “That's where she was, last I heard.”
“I was just there,” Ephiny replied. “She isn't anywhere in the palace. And no one's seen her in a while.”
“You don't think…” Eponin's head snapped around.
“What?” Ephiny couldn't keep the alarm from her tone. “What don't I think, Eponin?”
“No, never mind,” Eponin waved off the unfinished thought. “That's just too far fetched.”
“Oh, no you don't. Tell me what you were thinking, Eponin. Or, so help me, I'll wring your neck right here in front of everyone.”
“I was…” Eponin tried to downplay the situation with a nonchalant shrug. “Maybe her maj just went for a walk or something. She was restless to get outside, last I heard. Maybe she decided to leave the palace for a while.”
Ephiny rolled her eyes with an exasperated sigh. “Here I thought you were going to say you thought Gabrielle was kidnapped or something.”
“Yeah, that's what I thought.”
They both turned back to the field where Briesse was instructing Zea in the use of the staff. The horse wrangler was more than a little clumsy with the stick-like weapon and kept hitting herself in the head with it. But Briesse was patient and continued to school the young woman on the basics. And Zea was persistent and kept right on trying.
“She's clumsier than Gabrielle was when she first started sparring with her staff,” Ephiny commented.
“Better than some of the youngsters, though,” Eponin shrugged. “At least she hasn't done any permanent damage or knocked herself out.”
“You think she has it in her to face an actual opponent?”
Eponin shrugged. “Depends.”
“How much she loves Briesse.”
Ephiny shot Eponin a raised-browed look. “Oh?”
“They're an item, now, if you hadn't heard.”
Ephiny returned her attention to the tall blond and the shorter brunette in front of her. She watched them for several moments in silence. Briesse was more than patient with the awkward horse wrangler and even smiled a few times. Ephiny was a little amazed to see the scout's rather abrupt change. Briesse was usually so serious and rather gruff. It was nice to see her interacting with the shy young woman who had finally found a place among them.
Zea seemed to blossom, as well. She actually seemed to enjoy the attention and was giving as well as she got.
Ephiny winced as Zea swung her staff and overcompensated. She missed her target and went down hard. But the young woman sprang right back up again with a grin from ear-to-ear, eliciting one from her instructor, as well.
“They find anything useful out there yesterday, Eph?” Eponin was the first to break the silence that stretched between them.
“Not a thing,” Ephiny replied with a scowl. “The rain washed away any trace that someone was in the woods when Gabrielle was attacked.”
“Is that what it was, then?”
“An attack?” Ephiny shot Eponin a raised-browed look. “What else would you call it when someone shoots the queen's horse and nearly kills her in the process?”
“You don't think it was an accident?”
“Accidents don't use poison crossbow bolts,” Ephiny frowned. “That was no accident, Ep. That was a planned attack. I'm just glad the person didn't succeed.”
“We don't really know that the bolt was poisoned,” Eponin shrugged. “The kid could have been mistaken about that.”
Ephiny glanced at the young woman in question. It was true that Zea was young, but Ephiny knew she was not a kid. She had also known that Zea and Briesse were lovers, even before Eponin's revelation. And Briesse was a very good judge of character. Ephiny trusted the scout with her life and had counted on her to ferret out information many times in the past. That counted for something, in her book. If Briesse trusted Zea's judgement, Ephiny trusted it, too.
“If Zea says there was poison in the wound, then I'm with her,” Ephiny said with conviction. “It was definitely an attack. I'm just not sure what the point of the attack was.”
Eponin nodded. “Yeah, why not just shoot her maj, instead? Why kill the horse?”
Eponin thought about that for a moment. “Someone unfamiliar with a crossbow, maybe? Could be they weren't familiar with the kick that a crossbow carries?”
“Maybe,” Ephiny shrugged. “Or maybe they meant to hit the horse, but didn't count on the mare bolting like that. They might have wanted it to look like an accident.”
Eponin considered that, as she continued to watch Zea and Briesse. Zea accidentally hit herself smack dab in the middle of her forehead and fell backwards onto the grass. Briesse was right there at her side and it was all Eponin could do not to bust a gut laughing.
“Not funny,” Ephiny slapped the weapons master's stomach.
“Ow! Whatdja do that for?” Eponin rubbed her stomach and scowled at her partner. “Not fair, Eph.”
“You deserved it and you know it,” Ephiny shot back. “She's a horse wrangler, Ep. Give her a break. Weapons aren't really her strong suit.”
“She's distracted and lacks focus,” Eponin continued rubber her stomach. “She'll never be a warrior, in my book. She just don't got what it takes.”
“I don't think that's the point of this,” Ephiny shot Eponin a knowing look, then glanced at the two women in the field.
Briesse was helping Zea to her feet and the younger woman clung to the scout for support. They stood in each other's arms and stared into each other's eyes for a heartbeat longer than necessary.
“It ain't just that they're in love. There's something more?”
“There is,” Ephiny nodded. “Rayna gave me the lowdown this morning. I think she was a bit concerned by the age difference between the two. But she was also concerned about Zea's…er…past.”
“Zea's past? Somethin' I should know?”
“She had a rough go of it when she was a child,” Ephiny said. “The poor kid isn't quite as innocent as you might think. She had a run-in with some thugs when she was very young. They raped her. Rayna was concerned that Briesse wouldn't understand. I was just worried about the age difference. She set me straight.”
“And Briesse?” Eponin asked. “Does she know how old the kid really is? Does she know about the…er…rape?”
“Briesse is actually younger than she looks,” Ephiny said. “She will pass her twenty-fourth winter after the solstice. There really isn't a reason to worry about that, apparently. And Rayna told Briesse about the rape. But Zea had already filled Briesse in on most of her past.”
“Twenty-four?” Eponin turned her gaze on the two women again. “Artie's left tit! Didn't know she was that young. She looks a hades of a lot older and has more experience than I could imagine in someone her age.”
“Yeah, well, responsibility does that to you,” Ephiny shot her companion a scowl. “Look at me.”
Eponin took Ephiny in her arms and planted a searing kiss on her lips. “You're as young and beautiful as the first day I met ya.”
Ephiny wrapped her arms around the weapons master's neck. “And you're…” She cocked her head and studied the dark-haired woman critically for a moment. “Mine.” A playful smile tugged at the corner of her lips as she returned the embrace.
“Yep,” Eponin grinned from ear-to-ear. “All yours, my beautiful and sexy queen.”
They stood there in each others' arms for a while longer, just basking in the glow of a love that went far deeper than either could have imagined possible. The moments ticked by with the synchronized beating of two hearts that shared a common bond.
And then the moment passed. Ephiny stepped back first and turned to watch the women sparring in front of them. Eponin just stood there and studied her partner's profile for a moment longer, before she reluctantly did the same.
“You okay?” Ephiny glanced at her lover and partner.
“I'm good,” Eponin replied, her eyes never leaving the scene in front of her.
“You want to go back…”
“Absolutely,” Eponin nodded once and started across the field without looking back to see if Ephiny was following her.
Ephiny caught up to Eponin in a few quick strides, as they hurried toward the little-known door that would take them right to the palace. That bed of theirs was looking better and better with each passing moment and Ephiny couldn't wait to see what Eponin was planning for them. She had some idea, but one never knew with the weapons master. She had so many…er…skills?
“What do you think of this one?” Cyrene held a pale-blue length of cloth out in front of her. She then tossed it aside and grabbed another. “Or this one? Oh, I really like this one.” She held the second one up against Gabrielle, just under her chin. It was pale green and shimmered slightly in the bright sunlight. “It really brings out the color of your eyes, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle held back a tired sigh. “It's nice.”
“Nice?” Cyrene studied her for a moment, then tossed the cloth back onto the table and moved on to the next crowded stall. The crowd instantly parted for them, as their escort expertly managed crowd control with little effort. “I thought you were enjoying yourself. You wanted to come down here to the market and find some cloth for a new gown to wear at the ceremony tomorrow evening.” She ran her fingers lightly over several bolts of fine fabric, then turned around to face her blond shopping companion. “What's the matter? Why aren't you enjoying yourself?”
Gabrielle just managed to stop her eyes from widening at the sudden confrontational glare Xena's mother was giving her. There was a knowing look in those pale eyes that raised the nape hairs on the back of Gabrielle's neck. Cyrene just stood there studying her as a bunch of noisy children scampered past.
All Gabrielle wanted to do was find a nice bolt of soft cloth for a new gown that she hadn't yet worn. She had a wardrobe filled with beautiful gowns made for her over the last few days by the numerous seamstresses in the palace, but Gabrielle wanted something of her own choosing for the festivities.
Actually, what she really wanted was to escape the royal chambers for a while. She needed the fresh air and sunshine, after being cooped up for the past two days. She had begun to feel the walls closing in on her. Not a pleasant feeling for someone who spent a great deal of time outdoors. But the crowds and noise were more than she'd bargained for.
She glanced around at the crush of people there in the marketplace. Gabrielle couldn't even imagine how many had come for the coronation and celebration. There had to be hundreds all packed in and around Corinth. Many were shopping, just like she was. Others were camped outside the city walls. The guards at the gates of the city had been ordered to only let so many in per day. The city was still bursting at the seams, however. And the marketplace was filled beyond capacity with merchants and shoppers, alike.
A few brave souls eyed her with interest and a touch of curiosity. After all, she hadn't exactly dressed the part as Xena's consort. She wore a simple loose top over a pair of leather breeches that she'd hoped would let her blend in. She didn't blend in, of course. Not with her escort keeping the crowds back or dressed the way she was. She could have worn her Amazon attire and still gotten the same reactions from those around her. It was a good thing her escort kept the crowd from pressing too close.
Rayna, Margalene, Petra and several other Amazons had jumped at the chance to accompany her, despite her protests to the contrary. Then there were the burly royal guardsmen who had insisted on monitoring her every move, as well. They were stationed at strategic points along her route and were alertly watching for trouble.
Ever since the ambush in the woods, Gabrielle was being watched over by both her own Amazon escort and Xena's elite guards. No one wanted a repeat of what had happened only a few days ago. And since the perpetrator had yet to be identified, everyone was cautious and alert.
Gabrielle was just tired and annoyed that no one seemed inclined to listen to her wishes. She didn't want an escort and had protested vehemently when six Amazons and fifteen of Xena's royal guards stepped forward to provide just that. A compromise was finally reached. All of the Amazons and only three royal guardsmen. They were supposed to stay out of sight, but that just wasn't possible amidst the crush of people on the city streets.
Gabrielle knew they were all there. For her. She just wasn't sure she liked it or even cared.
Having her every move monitored made her uncomfortable, but she reasoned it was better than being mauled or attacked again. Neither of those choices was appealing to her. But that didn't keep her from longing for those careless days of anonymity that seemed a lifetime away. She almost wished she could go back to being a simple peasant nobody who could blend easily into any crowd.
Head throbbing in time with the beating of her heart, Gabrielle was a little more than distracted as Cyrene dragged her from one stall to the next. She felt sick to her stomach and the sights and smells of the marketplace weren't helping any. She was miserable. But she knew she'd been the one to insist on the trip in the first place. She didn't want to stay cooped up in the royal bedchamber, any longer.
Been there, done that.
Gabrielle didn't know if being sick to her stomach had as much to do with the marketplace as with her earlier confrontation with Xena. She still felt terrible about storming out of the sitting room and slamming the door on the woman she loved. They'd both been acting like petulant children. That much Gabrielle could admit. But she couldn't seem to help it. And when she'd emerged a candlemark later, Xena was gone. A few inquiries confirmed that the Conqueror had stormed off to the practice field in a black mood.
A hand on her shoulder made Gabrielle jump. “Huh?” She looked up to find Cyrene watching her intently.
“Are you okay?” Cyrene's expression reflected her concern. “You look a little pale, dear. Maybe we should return to the palace and let you lie down for a while, before the evening meal. I believe Aggie is preparing roast mutton with a sweet mulberry sauce—one of Xena's favorites.”
Gabrielle felt her stomach churn at the mere mention of food. She also felt her jaw muscles tense and had to swallow down bile as it rose suddenly in her throat. A wave of nausea hit her and she closed her eyes in an effort to steady herself. She didn't want to be sick right there in the crowded marketplace in front of all those people. She wasn't about to embarrass herself like that.
“I'm fine,” Gabrielle answered through gritted teeth and a faint smile, after clearing her throat. “Just a little tired.”
Cyrene narrowed her eyes and studied Gabrielle for a moment longer, before nodding once and turning away. She went back to fingering the fabric on a table in front of her.
“You will let me know if you need to go back and rest, won't you, dear?” Cyrene glanced at Gabrielle over her shoulder.
“Promise,” Gabrielle mustered enough energy to soldier on, as she breathed slowly and deeply in an effort to clear her head. “I just need to be out here for a little while longer. I want to find something to wear tonight. ”
“I understand, dear,” Cyrene shot Gabrielle a warm smile. “It's a beautiful day, after all.”
“Yes, it is,” Gabrielle shaded her eyes against the glare of the sun, as she looked up at the clear blue sky.
Her thoughts turned, once again, to Xena. She wondered if the woman was enjoying the beautiful weather or if she was so intent on beating the pulp out of her men that she didn't really notice. Another wave of guilt washed over her and, with it, another intense wave of nausea.
She hadn't completely recovered from the head wound she'd suffered and she knew it. Xena said she'd probably suffered a concussion. Gabrielle wasn't really sure what that meant, but knew it was serious enough for Xena to worry and fret like a mother hen. The attention just made Gabrielle feel guilty, like she'd done something wrong. She knew the accident wasn't her fault, but that didn't change what she was feeling. And having Xena fawn over her just made it worse.
It was stubborn pride that drove her and she knew it.
Now that pride had her walking around the marketplace, feeling far worse than she had in their chambers. Not to mention she was the one who adamantly insisted on going to the overcrowded marketplace, which prompted Cyrene to insist on accompanying her. Xena's mother was none too happy about Gabrielle's decision. The only difference between Cyrene's argument and Xena's was that Cyrene finally relented, with the condition that Gabrielle allow for an escort.
So, there they all were. And Gabrielle was absolutely convinced her decision had been the worse possible one ever. She was just too stubborn and pigheaded to admit defeat. There was no way she was returning to the royal chambers with her tail tucked between her legs.
“Would you care for a snack, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle stopped in front of Cyrene and glanced at the stall they were standing in front of. A man with sweat running down his bare arms and off his bald head was holding out two skewers of some kind of unidentifiable meat dripping with a spicy sauce that instantly made Gabrielle's stomach twist into painful knots. The combination of spices would have been enticing under different circumstances. Add to that the appearance of the man holding the skewers, and Gabrielle felt an overwhelming wave of nausea hit her.
Slapping a hand over her mouth and the other against her rebelling stomach, Gabrielle frantically searched the area. She quickly spotted what she was looking for and darted away, leaving Cyrene standing there in stunned silence that quickly turned to an apologetic half-smile.
Gabrielle didn't care. She was focused on one thing and one thing only. She made it to the mostly-empty rain barrel just in time to spew the contents of her stomach with enough force that she actually saw stars. Her stomach rebelled violently several more times, until she thought she would die. Dry heaves then followed, until she thought she should see blood in the mucousy line of spit hanging from her lower lip.
She barely registered the firm pressure of a hand on her back and really couldn't hear the words of comfort that were spoken, as the dry heaves continued. A note of alarm in the tone crept into the tone, as a deeper voice joined the first. Frantic words were exchanged, before strong arms lifted Gabrielle up and she was being carried.
Sweat beaded Gabrielle's brow and upper lip, as the world spun wildly out of control. She wanted to protest, but kept her lips firmly shut for fear her stomach would rebel, yet again. She just held on to her would-be rescuer as he plowed through the crowd with the rest of her escort clearing a path in front of them.
With her eyes tightly shut and breathing deeply in an effort to quell the nausea, Gabrielle was oblivious to her surroundings as she was hurriedly carried through the doors of the palace. She squinted up at her rescuer and noted he was one of the soldiers in her escort. He was sweating from his efforts as he continued on.
Gabrielle shut her eyes again and tried not to think. Her head was still throbbing incessantly—the pain now radiating down her neck and across her shoulder blades. Each jarring step the soldier took exacerbated her condition, until it was all Gabrielle could do not to utter a groan of protest. As it was, she kept her lips and teeth tightly clenched until her jaw ached.
“Set her on the bed and I'll get a bucket,” Cyrene's voice barely penetrated the dark haze of misery Gabrielle was lost in. “Bring my sister, immediately.”
Then Gabrielle felt the soft surface of the bed beneath her and the world suddenly stilled around her. Unfortunately, her stomach wasn't finished rebelling. It clenched as tightly as her teeth and lips, as another wave of nausea hit her harder than the first.
“Oh, gods!” Gabrielle barely exclaimed before her eyes shot open and a bucket caught what little was left in her stomach.
She gripped the rough wood tightly with both hands as the world narrowed to a pinprick. Dry heaves racked her, as the nausea continued washing over her in waves. Acid bile burned her throat and left a bitter taste in her mouth. Tears slipd unheeded down her already-damp cheeks. And her head felt like it was about to explode.
She felt the icy fingers of Death brush her cheeks and shivered involuntarily from the sensation.
“It's not your time, yet,” Gabrielle barely heard the faint whisper against her ear.
Then everything stilled abruptly, and Gabrielle collapsed limply against the pillows behind her. She was panting breathlessly from her exertions, as the world righted itself and Cyrene's face came into clear focus there right in front of her. A worried frown furrowed the older woman's brow, as a cool, damp cloth was pressed against Gabrielle's forehead.
“Better?” Cyrene's voice was quiet and gentle as she used another cloth to wipe Gabrielle's chin.
“A little,” Gabrielle croaked softly through parched lips, as a weak smile played at the corners of her mouth. “That…really sucked.”
“I'll bet it did,” Cyrene continued her motherly ministrations. “You poor dear.”
“Please don't tell Xena,” Gabrielle let Cyrene place a cup of water against her lips. She took in the cool liquid and rinsed her mouth out several times. Then she gingerly sipped a little to cool the burning in her throat. “I'm begging you, Cyrene. Please don't tell Xena what just happened.”
Cyrene frowned and placed the bucket on the floor next to the bed. “And what makes you think she won't find out, anyway, child? If there's one thing I know, it's that Xena is very smart. If someone doesn't tell her what happened, she'll see the signs for herself and figure it out on her own.”
Gabrielle sighed, as Cyrene continued to fuss over her. The older woman grabbed a blanket off the back of a chair and tucked it around Gabrielle's shoulders. She then sat back and glared at the pale woman lying in the bed.
“You should have told me you weren't feeling well, Gabrielle,” Cyrene gently chided.
Gabrielle sighed again. “I didn't want to worry you.”
“Well, that didn't work, now, did it? Instead of worrying, I was terrified for you back there. I thought you would actually throw up your entire insides, Gabrielle. Is that what you wanted, instead.”
“No, of course not,” Gabrielle let her eyes drift closed as the nausea subsided and utter exhaustion took its place.
Her head was still throbbing in time with the beating of her heart, but at least that had slowed considerably. The dizziness had also subsided. That was a big plus.
“I should send for Xena,” Cyrene suggested. “She'll know what to do.”
“No,” Gabrielle shook her head and immediately regretted it. “Ungh. Please. Don't.”
“It's your head, isn't it.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” Gabrielle replied while remaining perfectly still with her eyes closed. “Hurts. A lot.”
Both women were so engaged in the conversation that they didn't hear the quiet footsteps just outside the door.
“I'll just bet it does,” Agatha stood in the doorway, shaking her head. “I don't know which of you is more stubborn, you or that overgrown child of Cyrene's.”
“Oh, hush, Aggie,” Cyrene chided.
Gabrielle heard Agatha's shuffling gait approach the bed, before another cool cloth replaced the first on her brow. It felt good, but did nothing to stop the incessant pounding behind her eyes.
“Open your eyes, child,” Agatha ordered in a gentle, yet firm, tone.
Gabrielle did so and winced slightly when a candle flickered brightly directly in front of her nose. Agatha's face was inches from her own, as the woman stared intently into her eyes for several moments.
“Mm-hm,” Agatha straightened as much as her old bones would allow. “See her pupils?” She turned to Cyrene and motioned with a gnarled hand.
Cyrene leaned close and held the candle up in front of Gabrielle's face.
“What am I…Oh, yes, I see,” she nodded her understanding. “That can't be good.”
“What?” Gabrielle glanced from one concerned expression to the other.
“One pupil is still slightly more dilated than the other,” Cyrene replied matter-of-factly.
“Which means?” Gabrielle sipped more water.
“You're staying put, young lady,” Agatha crossed her arms over her chest and dared Gabrielle to argue. “No more trips to the marketplace. I'll have one of the girls bring you an herbal tea to settle your stomach and take care of that headache.”
“I don't want anything,” Gabrielle pouted, as her eyes drifted closed again. “It'll just come right back up again.”
“These herbs won't, child,” Agatha's tone softened. “And then you can sleep until your head is clear again and the pain is gone.”
“I'm not tired,” the sleepiness in her voice belied her words.
“Right,” Cyrene patted Gabrielle's good hand.
As if in answer to Cyrene's cynical comment, Gabrielle yawned. She then slumped deeper into the pillow behind her and her head lolled to one side. She was breathing deeply a moment later.
“Poor child,” Cyrene lightly brushed the bangs away from Gabrielle's forehead. “She really did put up a good fight.”
Agatha huffed. “I'll just bet,” she then crossed the room and paused in the doorway, looking back at Cyrene who remained seated on the edge of the bed. “You of all people should have seen this coming, Cy.”
Cyrene glared. “And what in the name of the goddess is that supposed to mean? I had my suspicions, but that doesn't mean there was anything I could do about it.”
“You knew she was hurting when she was in the kitchen, earlier,” Agatha explained. “Even I could see it in her eyes. Why didn't you do something to stop this nonsence before it got out of hand?”
Irritation flashed in Cyrene's pale eyes, as she got up and walked over to the door. She paused in the doorway and glared at her sister.
“If you hadn't noticed, Agatha,” Cyrene lowered her voice and almost hissed the words. “Gabrielle isn't exactly a child. She's a grown woman who makes her own decisions and is nearly as stubborn as my own children are.”
“Well, you got that right, at least,” Agatha moved aside so Cyrene could pass into the sitting room. “But you still should have done something to keep her in the palace. Instead, you went with her. That was…”
“I went with her to keep my eye on her,” Cyrene shot over her shoulder, as she left the royal chambers with Agatha close on her heels. “And it was a good thing I did, too. It was also a good thing I had a few soldiers from the royal guard nearby, just in case. Atrius was a big help. He carried her back here faster than even I could keep up.”
“He was shaking like a leaf when I watched him bring her in,” Agatha chuckled mirthlessly.
“He was just worried,” Cyrene replied, as she descended the servants' stairs to the kitchen below. “As are we all. This isn't normal, Aggie.”
“Head wounds are tricky, Cy,” Agatha descended the stairs much more slowly than her younger sibling. “You of all people… should know that. As many times…as that kid of yours hit her head…when she was growing up.” Her last words came on a breathless whisper, as she finally reached the landing.
“Are you okay?” Cyrene stood there waiting for her sister, her brow furrowed in concern. “Have you had anymore chest pains, since…”
Agatha waved her off dismissively. “I'm…fine. Just a little out of breath is all. No need to worry about me. I'm not going anywhere, anytime soon.”
“I do worry, Aggie,” Cyrene put an arm around the other woman's shoulders. “You're not a spring chicken anymore, you know.”
There was humor and concern in Cyrene's expression, as she hugged her sister to her.
“That makes two of us, then,” Agatha replied with a gleam of mischief in her gray-blue eyes. “We should both be grandmothers, by now.”
“Oh, you,” Cyrene pulled away enough to give the woman a playful slap on the shoulder. “Why do I put up with you?”
“Because we're family and always will be,” Agatha responded immediately. “And family sticks together, no matter what.”
“Is that what keeps you here?” Cyrene turned a sober expression on the elderly woman.
“What do ya mean?”
Cyrene waved a hand around to take in the entire kitchen that was bustling with activity. “You came here to Corinth, instead of going back to the village with Grenella. I guess I'm just curious about that. Why did you stay?”
Agatha shrugged. “Grenella doesn't need me as much as I'm needed here.”
“Is that your heart speaking? Or your head?” Cyrene replied.
She watched Agatha set a kettle of water over one of the fires to heat. Agatha then went to a cabinet where the medicinal herbs were kept and took out a plain earthenware jar. She grabbed a cup and added a few pinches of the contents from the jar to it.
“My head and heart have nothing to do with my responsibilities here,” Agatha finally answered. “I'm needed. That's all that matters.”
Cyrene cocked her head and studied her sister for a moment. “She told you not to return with her, didn't she?”
Silence reigned for several long moments.
Then the kettle whistled loudly and broke the silence. Agatha took the kettle off its hook, poured the steaming water into an earthenware pot and set it on a tray. She set the cup on the tray, as well.
“My relationship with Gren is none of your concern,” Agatha said when she finally turned to meet Cyrene's patient yet expectant gaze. “I make my own choices, my own decisions. And I choose to remain here in Corinth.”
“Would you like me to carry that up to Gabrielle?” Cyrene knew enough not to counter her sister's words.
“I was going to have one of the young'uns do it.”
“They're busy with preparations for the evening meal, as well as for the celebration,” Cyrene grabbed the tray and headed for the stairs. “Enjoy the evening meal, Aggie. I think I'll sit with Gabrielle until Xena returns.”
Agatha just waved, as one of the kitchen staff approached with a crisis or some such that demanded her immediate attention. Cyrene ascended the stairs with a few shakes of her head and an amused expression. Some things never changed, she thought.
Xena was covered in sweat, dirt and grime by the time she returned to the palace. The sun was just setting as she stepped into the cool stone interior. She had spent the entire afternoon sparring with the men and working off her frustrations. She was tired—exhausted, really—and her muscles ached from her strenuous workout.
The sound of her boots on the tile echoed in the deserted hallway as she made her way toward the royal chambers. Not wanting to be bothered by annoying vassals or her new seneschal, she didn't use the main entrance to the palace. Instead, she entered through a small side door near the stables and was just passing the kitchens on her way up the back stairs.
Agatha's voice stopped her in midstride.
Xena turned to face her aunt with a tolerant half-smile that did not reach her eyes.
“Might I have a word with you?”
The reverent tone and the out-of-character word choice instantly had Xena's attention. Agatha rarely spoke with such polish. Xena glanced down at her disheveled appearance and then met the woman's steady gaze.
“I'm a little pressed for time, actually,” Xena replied, as she crossed her arms over her leather-clad chest. “Can it wait until after I wash up and change into something a little less…” She fingered her grungy attire.
“It's about Gabrielle,” Agatha said.
“What about her?” Xena crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the door jam next to her. “What did she do, now?”
Agatha was taken slightly aback by the question that hit fairly close to the mark, but managed to keep her features composed in an unreadable expression.
“I thought you should know,” Agatha began. “She took ill in the marketplace earlier today.”
“And what was she doing in the marketplace?” Xena couldn't keep the irritation from her tone.
“Shopping with your mother,” Agatha noted a brief flash of temper in the pale-blue eyes staring back at her. “I just thought you should know that she's been resting in the royal bedchamber. Didn't want you barging in and disturbing her. She might still be resting.”
“Okay,” Xena looked away. “Is that all?”
Agatha walked over, reached out and put a gnarled hand on the Conqueror's arm. Xena looked down at it and then up into eyes shining with concern and compassion.
“Please don't make the same stubborn mistakes that I've made,” Agatha said in an uncustomarily gentle tone. “You two need to work out your differences and make amends.”
“Who said anything about differences?” Xena bristled. “Did Gabrielle…”
“She didn't say a word,” Agatha snapped. “But I'm not a young, naïve pup who overlooks the obvious. I see how stubborn the two of you are being with each other.”
Xena chuckled mirthlessly. “Stubborn?”
“Yes,” Agatha nodded emphatically. “You both need to stop and take a closer look at both sides of this pointless argument, before you say or do something that you can never take back. I should know.”
Xena studied her aunt warily. “Grenella?”
Agatha nodded, as her shoulders slumped and she sat down in a nearby chair. She stared at the stone wall on the opposite side of the room for several moments, as if trying to make a decision. Then she looked right at Xena.
“We were joined, you know,” Agatha said.
“Yes, I know,” Xena sat down in a chair on the opposite side of the table from her aunt.
“It was a long time ago,” Agatha went on after a moment. “We were young and in love. I'd never met anyone like her in my entire young life.” A wistful gleam entered her gray-blue eyes. “She was everything I wanted in a mate and so much more. Strong. Self-assured. Brave. Daring. But she was also an Amazon princess and was burdened with responsibilities.” Agatha paused and stared unseeing at the wall again. “Your mother didn't understand. Our parents didn't know anything about my relationship with Gren or…” Her words trailed off as she shook her head. “Father betrothed me to one of the local merchants when I was just a child. Isthicus was twice my age and already going bald by the time I was old enough to wed. He had a paunch and his breath smelled like old socks.” She wrinkled her nose and chuckled. “When my father told me about the betrothal, I swore I would never marry him and then I told them why. They were shocked to learn that their oldest child was attracted to women, instead of men. My father called me an abomination and threw me out of his house. I left and never looked back.”
“It sure explains a lot,” Xena commented with a wry grin.
“Yes, it does,” Agatha smiled warmly. “The apple didn't fall far from the tree, child.”
“No, I guess it didn't,” Xena agreed. “So, what happened after that?”
“I went to the Amazons,” came the matter of fact reply. “I became one of them. Lived with them. Learned everything I could from them. I fancied myself so deeply in love with Grenella that I did everything in my power to get her to notice me.”
A dark brow shot up. “She didn't know?”
Agatha shook her head. “Not at first, no.” Her smile turned wistful. “I had only caught glimpses of her a few times in the crowded village marketplace when I was still living with my parents. The tribe would send several sisters to our market for needed supplies and to trade some of their handcrafted pieces. Our village elders didn't mind and the Amazons were a fairly peaceful tribe who were more than happy to blend in, when the situation warranted it.”
“They didn't wear their customary leathers and feathers, you mean,” Xena clarified.
“No,” Agatha chuckled again. “They had peasant garb they wore to help them blend in. It was all very civilized, until…” Her expression turned thoughtful and she fell silent for several long moments.
“My parents—my father, especially—was less than pleased to learn that I had run away to live with a tribe of barbarian women,” Agatha said. “He told the elders of the village that the Amazons had kidnapped me against my will. My mother spread rumors that other girls had also been kidnapped and forced into the Amazon tribe against their will, too. Stories and rumor spread quickly and soon they were mixed with disturbing tales about what the Amazons did to young, impressionable girls after they were kidnapped. Ceremonies in which girls were raped or mutilated through acts of barbarism. Virginal sacrifices to the Goddess Artemis. Blood-letting and other such nonsense. None of the stories were true, but that didn't stop them from spreading,” She shrugged. “Well, I don't have to tell you how things like that can get blown out of proportion.”
“No,” Xena nodded. “I understand perfectly.”
“Anyway,” Agatha continued with a gentle sigh. “My parents convinced our village elders that I was one of those girls who needed to be rescued from the clutches of the evil Amazons. The elders agreed and organized a rescue party to attack the Amazon village and take me by force.” She paused a moment to take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Our tribe was peaceful before that. We just wanted to live our lives and didn't bother anyone. Our warriors were trained hunters who used their skills to keep food in our bellies, not to defend against an attack.”
“They weren't anticipating an attack,” Xena added.
“Isthicus had paid my father a hefty sum for my hand,” Agatha went on. “He wanted blood. My father couldn't afford to pay him back, so he, too, wanted blood. More than twenty men came to the village during a harvest festival celebration that night. The attack happened so suddenly that the patrols were slaughtered before they could sound the alarm. The men came on horseback with swords and scythes, pitchforks and anything else they could muster.” The horror of the memories washed over her for a moment, while Xena patiently waited for her to continue. Agatha finally shook off the morbid memories and smiled wanly. “Sorry.”
Xena put a hand over the gnarled hand closest to her. “No need to apologize, Agatha. I know what that's like.”
Agatha nodded once. “It was terrible. The queen—Berut was her name—was killed in the first wave of the attack. She was run through with a sword and then beheaded with a scythe. I was sitting with Gren, and we were right there when it happened. There was blood everywhere and I remember the screams…” Her voice trailed off again, as she shook herself. “It took us a very long time to recover from the nightmares. Our warriors tried to fight back, but they were outnumbered. It took a handful of archers to finally drive the men off. Father was among the casualties. I remember seeing his lifeless corpse among the dead in the pyre afterward.” Her gaze went glassy for a moment. “Grenella was named queen and her hatred for my people festered and grew. She organized and sent a war party to attack our village. Cy escaped into the woods before the attack and that's where I found her. Mother wasn't so lucky. She hid in the house and wouldn't come out when one of the sisters set it ablaze. I could hear her screams as the flames engulfed my childhood home. I tried to shield Cy from the horror of it all. I had to hold her tightly to keep her from running back into the house and trying to rescue Mother from the inferno. That's when I saw Gren sitting atop a roan stallion with a torch in her hand. She later denied that she was the one who set the fire. But I knew the truth and it eventually came between us, especially after Cy came to live with us. Cy and Grenella didn't get along at all and were constantly going at it, even after I told them both to stop. When Gren and I were joined, Cy was just approaching her seventeenth summer. She decided to return to Amphipolis, instead of joining the tribe. She said she wanted a normal life amongst normal people. She also wanted a husband and family. Amazon life just wasn't for her.”
Xena felt her heart ache for the tragic history her mother and aunt shared. But she also knew, all too well, what being at war entailed. It was bloody. It was savage. And neither side really benefitted from the loss of life. But it was also sometimes a necessary evil that cleansed the land of those who would otherwise exploit it.
“So, you just let her go?”
“Yes,” Agatha nodded sadly. “It was one of the hardest things I'd ever done, especially once the tribe decided it was time to relocate and start fresh. I was torn between staying near my sister and travelling north with the tribe.”
Agatha looked Xena in the eye. “I chose love over family and went with my sisters.”
“You left Mother to fend for herself,” Xena said.
“She had already met your father, by then,” Agatha continued. “He was handsome, charming and everything Cy wanted in a husband. He was also determined to rebuild the inn and make it a home for them. They married and she had your brother nine moons later. You came along the following Solstice Eve and Lyceus was born two summers after that.”
“I know,” Xena nodded. “But how…”
“I kept in touch with Cy through a mutual acquaintance—one who lived in Amphipolis and traveled back and forth on a regular basis between our village and Amphipolis,” Agatha waved her off. “Mezentius was a merchant and a shrewd businessman. He didn't lose anything in the attack and held no grudges against either side. He also didn't want to lose our business. So he made two trips during a moon cycle to trade and barter with our tribe. Amphipolis never knew about it. Everything he acquired from us was bartered to a different village for things Amphipolis would, in turn, then accept.”
“Mezentius, eh?” Xena was wary. “I had a few run-ins with him back in my early warlord days. He was a low-life scum with no scruples. He was only interested in stealing people blind to fill his own coffers. Too bad he was smarter than he appeared and didn't try to double-cross me. I would have taken care of him, once and for all.”
“He had his moments,” Agatha shrugged. “I hear he settled in a thriving village on the coast and owns a thriving shipping business.”
“I'm surprised he isn't dead,” Xena grumbled.
“He's too shrewd for that,” Agatha chuckled. “But he kept his word and helped me keep in touch with Cy. That's all that matters to me.”
“He told you about my father?”
“He gave me the basics,” Agatha said. “Your father was a decent man and took care of you until the day he left.”
“And died,” Xena added with a scowl.
“Yes,” Agatha nodded slowly. “I sent word to Cy and asked if she needed help. She said she was fine raising the three of you and running the inn on her own.”
“It was really tough on her.”
“She did the best she could with what she had.”
“Yeah,” Xena grinned wryly. “But we weren't the most well-behaved kids in the village.”
“And without a father there to rein you in, you and your brothers ran wild and got into trouble,” Agatha added. “I know. Cy continued sending me updates, even after she politely refused my offer.”
“Toris didn't,” Xena's grin turned into a frown. “He was always touting himself as the well-behaved older brother and kissing up to the village elders.”
“Sounds like he's still doing that.”
Xena's expression turned dark. “I can't let him continue undermining my authority.” She looked up and met Agatha's steady gaze. “I need to go to Athens and take care of him, once and for all.”
“Kill him, ya mean,” Agatha confirmed.
“I should have taken care of him when I first returned to Greece,” Xena's expression turned wistful. “I had the opportunity and just couldn't do it. He's my brother…”
“'Tis a hard thing when family betrays family,” Agatha placed a gnarled hand on Xena's arm and squeezed. “I learned that lesson the hard way, when I chose Grenella over Cy. I should have been there to help raise you and your brothers. I know that now. Maybe none of this would have happened.”
“None of it matters anymore,” a spark of anger flared in Xena's eyes. “What's done is done. And I know now that I need to stop Toris before he does anymore damage.”
“And Gabrielle? What about her?”
Xena's expression turned thoughtful and the anger instantly left her. Her shoulders sagged slightly, as she slowly shook her head.
“I'm not really sure what to do about that,” Xena answered honestly. “She's part of my family now, too. But I sure mucked things up pretty good today.”
“Apologizing might be a good place to start,” Agatha said with a hint of a smile.
Xena nodded. “Yeah. I suppose.”
“You suppose?” Agatha scoffed and then waved a dismissive hand. “Did my story teach ya nothin', ya stubborn git? Don't let this argument come between you. You need to apologize and it's as simple as that. Get on with it, then. Stop wasting my time, here.” She turned away and Xena didn't see the satisfied grin that spread across the old woman's features. “Go on, with ya. I have a celebration to put together for the morrow.”
“No buts,” Agatha cut her off. “Go take care of Gabrielle and leave the rest to me. Besides, there's no time to waste, if you're goin' ta bring that boy of yours back from Rome.”
She shot Xena a knowing look.
Agatha chuckled. “You sent him to live with the centaurs, Xena. Who do you think kept an eye on him for all these years? He's your spittin' image and has your temperament, too. Besides, Kaliepas is an old friend. Who do you think it was who helped us find the site for our village?” She watched Xena's eyes widen. “Yes, Xena. Contrary to popular belief, the Amazons and Centaurs are not mortal enemies. The rumors are untrue. We squabble over hunting rights and such, but our people have always gotten along, for the most part.”
“You've known about Solon for all these years, then?” Xena still couldn't wrap her mind around this latest revelation.
“I knew he was your son,” Agatha nodded. “Kaliepas confirmed it, although not in so many words.” She caught the alarm in Xena's eyes. “Don't worry. I didn't tell a soul, not even Cy knows. Kaliepas was very clear on your wishes and the reason behind them. And I've kept my lips tightly sealed, all these years.”
“But if you could see the resemblance and guess at his parentage…” Xena left the words to hang.
“It's entirely possible,” Agatha nodded. “But not probable. There's really nothing to connect him to you. Is there? The only reason I made the connection is that I knew you both.”
Xena got up and paced, as she rubbed the back of her neck in agitation. She stopped and turned. “Does it matter? Pompeii made the connection, although I don't know how he managed it. And now my son is in the hands of my enemies. That was exactly what I was hoping to avoid. I didn't want anyone using him as leverage against me.”
Agatha walked over and placed a hand on Xena's arm. “You did what you thought best for the boy, Xena. Don't blame yourself for this. No one but a seer could predict this.”
“No,” Xena agreed. “But I should have stopped Pompeii from leaving Greece. I also should have told Solon the truth. He probably hates me, or worse, by now. I wouldn't put it past Pompeii to tell him exactly who his mother is and then twist the story of his parentage with lies to turn Solon against me.”
“You will find him and bring him home,” Agatha said with confidence. “I'll have the servants prepare for your departure the morning after the coronation and celebration.”
“I'm not sure that's wise,” Xena glanced up at the ceiling. “Gabrielle…”
“Will be fine after a good night's rest,” Agatha added.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Trust me, I know. This isn't the first head injury I've treated in all my years on this earth, child.”
Xena glanced wistfully at the stairs. “Maybe I should go check on her.”
“That you should.”
Xena didn't hesitate. She took off at a dead run and climbed the stairs two at a time. Agatha just stood there shaking her head and chuckling.
“Youth is definitely wasted on the young,” she muttered to herself.
Gabrielle just lay there listening to the faint stirrings inside the palace, the soft rustle of a breeze rattling the outter windows, the gentle crackle of a fire in the fireplace across the room and other sounds that she couldn't identify. Her eyes were closed as she lay there in the dark room. The heavy drapes had been pulled over the windows hours earlier when she'd first been brought in. She couldn't tell what time of day it was and didn't really care.
She was supposed to be resting. Sleeping, actually. But she couldn't sleep. The aching in her head that had made her sick to her stomach in the marketplace was finally gone. She attributed her recovery to the herbs Agatha had given her. They were bitter and left a sour taste in her mouth that was far worse than the taste of bile, but the headache was gone.
It felt wonderful to finally be free of that incessant ache. But she wasn't quite ready to leave the peace and quiet that surrounded her. Agatha had ordered her to rest, and Cyrene reiterated the order when she brought Gabrielle a bowl of savory beef broth a candlemark past.
So, Gabrielle was merely content for the first time in days and was not ready to move. She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she nearly jumped when someone sat down down on the bed beside her.
“Hey,” Xena's voice purred and sent a shiver down Gabrielle's spine.
Eyes fluttering open, Gabrielle noticed it wasn't completely dark in the room. A single candle burned on the nightstand next to the bed. Then she noticed the tentative smile on Xena's shadowy features.
“Hey,” Gabrielle reached out and was grateful when a warm hand took hers. “I'm sorry,” she blurted.
“Me, too,” Xena scooted over next to Gabrielle and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. “I didn't mean to treat you like a child.”
“No,” Gabrielle struggled to sit up and felt strong arms wrap around her to hug her tightly. “You were right, Xena. I wasn't ready…”
“Shhh,” Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. “It's okay.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and looked Xena in the eye. “Can you let me finish, please? I'm trying to apologize for being stubborn and pigheaded, here. And you're doing it again.”
“Fine,” Xena rolled her eyes. “Go ahead, then. I'm all ears.”
Gabrielle glared at Xena for a moment, before she blew out a deflated breath.
“I'm sorry for not listening to you,” Gabrielle continued. “It was stupid and childish and…” She sighed again, as she laid her head against Xena's shoulder. “I don't want to fight, Xena.”
“Me, either,” Xena replied, as she laid a cheek against Gabrielle's hair. “I'm sorry, too. I'm going to work really hard to stop treating you like a child, Gabrielle. I just…” She swallowed and blinked back tears. “I'm not very good at this.”
Gabrielle sat up and looked at Xena again. She studied the lines and contours of Xena's features. Then she looked into blue eyes swimming with unshed tears. She reached up and placed her palm against Xena's cheek.
“Talk to me, Xena.”
Xena sighed heavily. “And say what?”
“Say you were scared. Tell me you're angry. Say something. Tell me what's going on in that beautiful mind of yours,” she tapped a finger against her temple.
“Scared of…” Xena then caught the expectant look in Gabrielle's eyes. “Yes, I was scared. I thought I was going to lose you.”
A crooked smile lifted a corner of her mouth, as she cocked her head slightly. “Is that why you've been acting like a mother hen and hovering over me like I'm going to break or something?”
Xena scoffed, but Gabrielle's smile just grew until she was beaming.
“Fine,” Xena huffed and rolled her eyes in exasperation. “You win.”
That got a surprised look from her blond lover.
“I win?” Gabrielle couldn't believe her ears.
“Yes,” Xena nodded firmly. “You win. I was scared. You scared me half to death when you didn't wake up. I can't…” She inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly. “I don't know what I'd ever do without you, Gabrielle.”
“You would go on living,” Gabrielle said matter-of-factly. “Like you always have.”
“No,” Xena shook her head and broke eye contact. “No, I wouldn't. I…”
A tear slipped from a watery blue eye and rolled down Xena's cheek. Gabrielle leaned forward and lightly kissed the tear away. Then she rested her cheek against Xena's and let her own tears fall freely.
“I will never leave you,” she whispered.
Xena hugged her closely and cherished the moment. There was no need for words, no need for anything more than the love they shared. Their love, expressed in silence and tears, said more than words ever could. And it was stronger than anything on earth. Xena was sure of it.
“Gods, I love you, Gabrielle.”
“Me, too, Xena.”
“Say you forgive me for being a stubborn ass?”
“Only if you forgive me for being a complete idiot,” Gabrielle pulled back enough to look at Xena through teary eyes. “I really was an idiot for not listening to you, you know. I freely admit it.”
Xena placed her palm on Gabrielle's damp cheek and brushed the tears away with her thumb. Then she smiled through her own tears.
“I think you learned your lesson the hard way, love,” she pressed her forehead against Gabrielle's. “I don't envy you the experience, either.”
“Yeah,” Gabrielle chuckled. “I think I scared your mother more than a little bit.”
“She'll live,” Xena kissed Gabrielle's nose. “And so will I.”
“My hero,” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck and pressed her lips against the soft, warm and welcoming ones just inches away.
They shared a searing kiss, until Xena pulled back enough to look Gabrielle in the eye.
“How's the head?” Xena asked in concern.
“Perfect,” Gabrielle took Xena's lips in another kiss that left them both panting with need. “Answer your question?”
“Absolutely,” Xena shifted their positions so that Gabrielle was lying beneath her.
They continued kissing and exploring each other, as if for the first time. Fingers danced across heated flesh, as lips and tongues blazed fiery trails. They came together in love and soared to new heights of bliss, until exhaustion finally pulled them into Morpheus' realm and they slept soundly in each other's arms.
Standing on a balcony that overlooked the heart of the city of Rome, Caesar basked in the late-afternoon sun and breathed in deeply of the fresh air. He closed his eyes and lifted his face to the sunlight that warmed him. It was a cloudless day and one that promised to end on a high note.
He then heard the slap of sandals on tile, but didn't bother moving. Let the messenger come to him, he thought. After all, he was Caesar, master of Rome and soon to be the crowned emperor. Everything was going as planned.
“Caesar,” the toga-clad young man bowed deeply as he stopped behind the ruler.
“Out with it,” Caesar snapped without turning. “What news, Etreious?”
“It is done, Caesar,” the young man continued bowing, keeping his eyes on the tile beneath his feet. “The boy was removed from the villa this morning and sent to the country.”
“Good,” Caesar finally turned away from the balcony. “Oh, for the love of…Move aside, Etreious. I don't have time for your incessant bowing and scraping, man.”
The young man straightened and moved aside in time for Caesar to brush past him. The brooding ruler then went to the sideboard and poured wine into a gold goblet. He downed the entire contents and poured another.
“Apologies, great Caesar,” Etreious continued to avoid looking in Caesar's direction. “I am not worthy to stand in your presence.”
“No, you're not,” Caesar replied matter-of-factly. “But that's neither here nor there. What about that other…er…matter? Has it been taken care of?”
“It is being handled as we speak, Caesar,” was the shaky reply. “There was a small…um…miscalculation—a glitch, if you will. But it is being taken care of.”
Caesar glared at the young man who was visibly shaking across the room from him.
“A glitch? What kind of glitch are we talking about here, Etreious?”
“It's n-nothing, Caesar. Just a minor setback.”
Caesar noticed the young man wouldn't meet his steady gaze. His thoughts whirled with the possibilities of what actually went wrong. Did the men he hired fail in their task? Were they discovered and killed? Did he need to hire more men to finish what the others had started? He didn't think there was time for that. Things were already set in motion and the candlemarks were burning away.
But Caesar was nothing if not patient. He knew the stakes were high and his destiny was on the line. He also knew what needed to be done in order to let the pieces fall into place.
“How minor, Etreious? Tell me, now.”
“As I said before, great Caesar,” the young man hesitantly replied. “A minor miscalculation. The men you hired know what is at stake and are doing what must be done to complete their mission.”
Caesar paced a few steps, then stopped and turned toward a large map of Rome that hung from the ceiling to floor against one wall. He studied the map for a few moments, as he sipped his wine. Then he continued in a level tone.
“Bring word as soon as you have it, Etreious. I want to know if the mission is a success or failure. There is much riding on this. Understood?” He didn't wait for an answer and merely waved a dismissive hand.
Etreious bowed and scurried from the room, leaving Caesar alone to ponder. The brooding ruler stared at the map for a while, as he imagined all the possibilities for conquest. Brutus was supposed to be on his way to Gaul with two legions of Rome's finest. A dark smirk played at the corners of Caesar's mouth, as he imagined the outcome of that campaign.
“May the gods have mercy on your soul, old friend,” he muttered quietly.
Caesar considered Brutus was one of his closest and allies, but he also knew Brutus was one of his most vocal critics, especially where Caesar's rise to power was concerned. Brutus had expressed his reservations in public only once. But he had done so in private on several occasions. And Caesar's spies had informed him that Brutus was secretly being courted by the Senate to intervene on their behalf, should Caesar gain the upper hand.
Needless to say, Caesar was not happy with Brutus. But he wasn't willing to have Brutus killed, either. Caesar was more than satisfied to let Brutus cool his heels in Gaul for a while, at least until after Caesar's announcement. By the time Brutus returned—if he returned at all from that barbaric region—it would be too late and Caesar would already be crowned Emperor of Rome.
Caesar turned his back on the map and surveyed the ornate marble room around him. The room was rather stark and lacked furnishings. A table and two chairs graced one wall and a low settee sat in the center of the room between two white marble columns.
He clapped his hands loudly and three scantily-clad, nubile young women appeared. They were all dressed in sheer gauzy togas that barely left anyting to the imagination. Two had dark hair and eyes, while the third had flame-red hair and deep-blue eyes.
Caesar did a slow circle around them and carfully studied each, in turn, as they kept their heads bowed and their eyes on the floor at their feet in mute silence.
“I suppose this is as good a place as any to sample some of my new…treasures,” he sauntered over to the settee and made himself comfortable on the deep blue cushions. “Now, girls, I trust I shall not be disappointed.”
They quickly moved to do his bidding, while keeping their gazes averted from him. Not one of them noticed the lust in his dark eyes or the lecherous grin on his features.
Continued in Part 7
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