The Charioteer:
In the City of Har

By: © Susan M. Smith 1999


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Disclaimer: The characters of Gabrielle, Xena, and Argo, are the property of Renaissance Pictures, and are being used here without the knowledge or permission of MCA/Universal. This is a work of fan fiction, devoted to increasing the Xenaverse and making scads more cash for them, and not a nickel for the author, so perhaps they'll let it go. All things come through love. All other characters, locations, and stuff is property of Susan M. Smith, 1998. Please do not use any of it, or alter this story without permission. Read it, pass it around, have a grand time, but include the disclaimer.

Subtext: This is an alt. fanfic story. Sex is an integral part of this story, and may be considered graphic, yet oddly restrained.

Violence: Scenes of battle, torture and wounding may be strong for some readers, scenes of grief and it's aftermath are prevalent.

Thanks and praise: This work would not exist without the generosity of the people who read it in print form, - Celia, Stacy, Jet and Storm, and my beloved Leslie. Particular praise to my beta reader Storm, who, without knowing me five minutes, loaned me all her Xena tapes, her love of the characters, her attention and involvement throughout the writing. You keep me going.

All feedback welcomed at, and will be responded to with grace and humor. It takes time and thought to write a response, and I respect that. You write to me, I'll write to you. And please call me Smitty.

Part One

Xena broke the seal on the scroll, unrolling it. It was unfamiliar; a phoenix rising to embrace the sun, surrounded by a Goddess. Her blue eyes scanned the formal script and the formal address, and she read aloud.

To Xena, Warrior Princess: Greetings from the High Priestess of the Temple of the Great Mother, in Her City. I write to beg your aid. The nation faces turmoil, our Great King Amasis is dying and has not revealed his heir. The satraps threaten to rise against the royal house, the army is fragmenting into warring factions. We have not met, Warrior Princess, but your fame precedes you into the kingdom of the Goddess.

Xena snorted. "If that were true, they'd never invite me in to fix a troubled kingdom."

Gabrielle pointed to the scroll. "What else does it say?"

Xena continued reading.

The Great Mother has given me a vision- I summon you in Her name, to oversee the selection of Amasis' heir. Blessings of Har on you-"

"Do they mean Hera?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena shook her head. "Har is another name for Cybele, worshipped as the Great Mother in the lands around Babylon. The city and the kingdom are both named for her. It's a bit of a trek. Have to cross Persian territory, skirt Egypt, then follow the caravan track down to Nubia and Ethiopia. Har sits on the edge of Egypt, bordered by Dahomey and Nubia, east of Babylon. Have to take a boat. Sorry, Gabrielle."

"You' re not leaving me behind-"

"No. Sorry we have to take a boat. I know how you feel about sea travel."

The journey across the Aegean took several weeks, even with perfect weather. They landed at Krylos, a Greek port in North Africa, near Ephesus. Xena negotiated for a traveling guard' s position with a caravan skirting the Persian territories, following the old routes down to the City of Har.

The City sat on a wide plain, dusted with tough gray grass, rising slightly toward the mud brick walls. A slow moving river skirted the western section of the plain, meandering toward alluvial flats, scrub brush, and in the distance, brown baking hills. From the outside, it was a dun city, brown and gray, high walls practical and imposing without ornamentation. Gabrielle and Xena, after dry weeks on the road with the caravan, looked on the eastern Manticore Gate without delight. The caravan had left them, journeying on toward Dahomey. The caravan master had seemed reluctant to leave without stopping in the City, but his business pressed him on.

"I wonder what's so exciting about this brown pile of bricks. From out here, it looks pretty tame. Not at all like Athens, or Corinth. Or even Poteidaia." Gabrielle said, twirling her staff in the dust of the road.

"I've heard a few things about the Goddess' City, over the years. It's supposed to be a garden of delights." Xena said, looking thoughtfully at the brown walls.

"Then let's go in, because it is not a garden out here."

They passed through the Manticore Gate, named for the bas relief carving of a man headed lion above the archway. The walls, Xena noted approvingly, were ten feet thick. Mud brick or not, this City could withstand a siege if need be. As they passed through the shadow of the gate, light from the plains was replaced by light from the City, mingled with the noises and smells of a dozen cultures. The tall woman and her companion emerged into a street shocking in its beauty. They stood and gaped for a moment, at the buildings all of enameled surfaces, pointed with basalt and limestone from Egypt, cypress from Lebanon, fragrant wood from the spice trees of the East. Every available foot of wall was covered with tiles or mosaics, in brilliant hues, pictures of hunts and feasts, of a Goddess riding on a lion, of strange man headed bulls marching into the enameled sun. Everything was color, sky blue, deep orange, pulsating red like the spilled blood of vanquished foes highlighting the doors, the windows, the tile of the roofs.

"It is beautiful, from the inside. I can see why they call it the Red City." Gabrielle said.

They followed the wide street through an open-air market, where Xena recognized a dozen languages being spoken at once. The Harrian people were bronze and gold, black of hair and eye, mingling with darker skinned Nubians and Ethiopians, handsome tall warriors from the Kandake's court in lion skins and hammered gold anklets, the basalt black Amazons of Dahomey in their pride and fierce beauty, traders from Phoenicia and Tyre, Babylonians conducting financial transactions in soft voices, Hebrews from the deserts around Judah, Greeks from across the sea. Olive skinned warriors in trousers and long sleeved coats walked with Median archers in fur-trimmed vests and pointed caps. Red haired barbarians from Thrace, tattooed in blue snakes and swirls, mingled with shaven headed scribes from Egypt. The old, mellow civilization of the Goddess embraced the young wantons from the violent west, pulling them into Her warm embrace.

Harrian women walked by, in light floating gowns of nearly nothing and sandals like spider web on their brown feet. Gabrielle gaped, "Red! Everything is red. Look at the clothing, the buildings-"

"It's the Goddess' color. It signifies life." Xena said, gazing after the women in their transparent gowns. "It's said that Harrians are a generous, pleasure loving people."

"Are we going to the palace?" Gabrielle asked, looking toward the sprawling complex of buildings off to the west of the market.

Xena shook her head. "The letter said Amasis was dying. I wouldn't want to walk into a nest of scheming satraps, awaiting the Great King's momentary exit." She shaded her eyes, looking across the market. " That looks like the temple district. We should find the High Priestess who summoned us." They set off through the market on foot.

Gabrielle was in a state of constant delight, focusing on stall after stall of scarves, dyed cloth, leatherwork, dates, hammered silver, and other goods. "I have to go shopping. This is incredible! Xena, do you see-" Gabrielle, focused on the stall to her left, bumped headlong into the person in front of her. She rebounded, and gazed up into beautiful face of a six-foot tall woman, black as basalt, with a smiling of blinding white. She wore a leather kilt and vest, with armbands of ostrich feathers and raw gold, anklets of ivory and jet above bare feet. In her hand was a long bladed spear, and an oblong shield rode her powerful left arm. Xena's hand instinctively snapped to her Chakram, and the woman noted the motion with a flick of her mahogany eyes. She put out her empty hand, resting it on the top of Gabrielle's head. She said a few words in a language neither Xena nor Gabrielle recognized, then smiled brilliantly at Xena. Her hand caressed Gabrielle's chin, then she walked off into the crowd. "What just happened?" Gabrielle demanded.

"I might be wrong, but I'd say she was complimenting me about you." Xena gazed after the tall woman. "She must be one of the Amazons of Dahomey. I've never met one."

"If she's an Amazon, she should recognize my right of caste, not go petting me like I was Argo."

"That gesture means you are very beautiful." Xena said, offhand, watching the bard's reaction.

Gabrielle, flattered, changed her stance. "Oh. You think so?"

"I've seen it before."

"No. You think I'm beautiful?"

"Of course. I'm not blind, anymore."

They pushed on through the crowd to the immense courtyard. The gate to the courtyard caught Xena's eye. It was shaped like two trees twining their branches. Carvings of fish and winecups decorated the walls flanking the gate, and a few other signs Xena could not mistake. When Gabrielle headed right for the gate, Xena caught her by the arm and steered her away.

"I think we should go in the main temple and ask for the High Priestess."

"But I wanted to see the garden."

"You'd see more than you care to in the garden."

"Why?" The bard asked her.

"I'll tell you later."

In the main temple, a series of smaller chambers set off the hallway with snatches of music and conversation drifting out, the plucking of stringed instruments, the sound of water. In the central hall a statue of a woman twenty feet high, in a flowing gown, extended her hands to all visitors. Around Her feet were grapes and sheaves of grain, carvings of animals and children. She was carved as a woman in her middle years, generous of feature, with a smile both welcoming and wise. Xena gazed on the statue of Har, and saw a familiar wicked set to the painted eyes. This is She who could open her hands and feed the multitudes, or close them and shake the earth. - the warrior thought. She nodded, unconsciously, in recognition. A touch on her shoulder brought her attention around. "You seek the High Priestess?" the woman asked. She was in her twenties, graceful as a dancer, barefoot, wearing bracelets and anklets of enamel and glass. Her hair was bound up in a single braid.

"Yes, we are. Travelers from Greece." Gabrielle said.

The woman bowed slightly, and led them to one of the small chambers off the main hall. The room was small, of plain tiles, with benches of stone and wood. The woman left a tray with a jug of chilled wine, three small red clay cups, and a platter of black and emerald grapes. The breeze from the windows was cool, like air moving over water. Gabrielle sat down on the stone bench with a sigh, reaching for the wine and grapes. "These folks know how to make you wait. The heat was killing me." She propped her staff against the bench. Xena remained standing. "Oh, relax. Have some of these grapes, they're divine."

Xena shook her head, not in negation, but in amusement. Here they were, in a strange city, a strange culture, awaiting a visit from the head of the local religion, and Gabrielle was enjoying the food. They were among civilizations that had been old when Greece was still a playground for goats. The warrior wasn't about to relax until she knew what was going on. She walked to the window and looked out, surveying the courtyard with its small pond. A quick circuit of the room told her there were no doors other than the one they'd come in. Good. Xena positioned herself with her back to the wall, where she had a good view of the window, Gabrielle, and the door. When the curtain moved, parted by a woman's hand, she kept her vigilant stance.

The woman was in her forties, stately, with the rich bronze skin and black hair of the native Harrians. She wore no jewelry, no ornament other than the polished onyx of her eyes, deep and reflective. There wasn't anything about her simple gown to indicate rank. She was barefoot, as the other women had been. Xena knew her instantly. She had the same expression as the statue of the Great Mother, generous, with the faint background hint of menace. The woman smiled at them, transforming her face into the most loving and welcoming expression Xena had ever seen. In spite of her reserve, the warrior felt won over.

"My joy is boundless at seeing you here, Warrior Princess. I trust that your journey was pleasant?" She took Xena's hands and kissed the tall woman on the cheek.

"It was good." Was the warrior's flat reply.

Gabrielle dropped the grapes she had been holding. The woman turned to her, took her hands and kissed her as well. "And all the world knows Gabrielle, the bard who is Xena's loyal companion. Thrice welcome, with my thanks for your courage at undertaking such a perilous journey with so little information." Gabrielle beamed at the welcome. "I am Mara, High Priestess of the Great Mother, the one who sent for you."

Xena looked around the room. "Is there somewhere more private we can talk?" she asked, bluntly.

Mara nodded. "It would be unseemly to greet travelers anywhere but the Temple, many eyes follow my footsteps. However, if you happen to pass by the Street of Three Fishes this afternoon, I am often found in my garden, by the pool."

"We'll be there." Xena said, with her hand resting on her Chakram, thumbing its razor edge. The hint of listening ears, the threat of enemies had her senses aroused.

Mara noted the gesture, and inclined her head, gracefully acknowledging it. "In the meantime, enjoy a respite from your journey, visit the Goddess, and be welcome in the City of Har." She parted the beaded curtain, and was gone.

They spent the afternoon in the market, much to Gabrielle's pleasure and Xena's annoyance. She could bear the crowds, and the heat, and the haggling just so long, before her temper grew hot. Gabrielle had picked up a few of the gauzy scarves worn as veils, or skirts, depending on the trade of the owner. She was pleased with her bargaining skills, talking the shopkeeper down two full dinars for them. She ran them through her fingers, admiring the color with the light of the afternoon sun behind them. She was muttering something to herself, just loud enough to be heard, but not comprehended. Xena, stepping on a rotting pomegranate in the street, slid a few steps, and nearly fell. She saved herself by knocking into a passing Median archer, who grabbed for his bow, saw the offender, and hastily retreated. Xena's temper, stretched like a wet bowstring, snapped.

"What in Hades are you mumbling?" The tall warrior loomed over the blond bard, blocking out the sun on the veils.

"All the world knows Gabrielle, the bard- I like it! I get to be recognized for once, not just the mighty Warrior Princess. I'm trying to work out the phrasing for the start of this adventure."

"Can't the adventure happen first?" Xena growled, annoyed further by the delight Gabrielle was taking in everything. Couldn't her relentlessly cheerful nature cloud up once in a while? Moody might be a nice change, Xena thought.

"We're always running from adventure to adventure, Cyclops to warlord. If I didn't chronicle them as they were happening, I'd never catch up."

"That would be bad why?"

"Xena, you are a hero. A hero needs a bard to record her adventures for people to remember. In ages to come, how will they know all the marvelous things you've done?"

Xena couldn't find anything to disagree with in the bard's statement, and that didn't help her temper. She looked around the Red City, deciding that it was time enough to seek out the house of the High Priestess. She reached out one powerful hand and caught a passing boy by the collar of his vest.

"You! Where's the Street of Fishes?"

He gaped up at the height of the warrior holding him captive and lost his power of coherent speech. "Fishes?"

"Fishes. Where?" She shook him, and lifted him off the ground a few inches, wondering if she'd snagged a slow one.

Gabrielle said "I think it was the Street of Three Fishes."

Xena shook the boy again, his toes swinging in the dust of the street. "Well?"

"Left off the Street of Coins."


"That way!"

Xena dropped him, and he raced off like demons were on his heels.

"Do you have to intimidate everyone we meet?"

Xena smiled slightly. "If it works."

The Street of Three Fishes was indeed where the boy had pointed, left off the Street of Coins. It was a wide avenue flanked by plain red brick houses, large but unremarkable. Toward the end of the street Xena lifted up her head, like a wolf scenting a spoor. "Water. Flowers, citrus trees- come on, Gabrielle!"

She vaulted over a low red wall with an ease that made Gabrielle, struggling, curse the length of Xena's legs. Sure, they look remarkable in leather greaves, but does she have to show off so much with them?- the bard thought, as she dropped over the wall. She picked up her staff, caught sight of Xena dashing between high red walls, and sprinted off after her. She rounded the corner sharply and stumbled into Xena, and paradise.

The hidden garden gently sloped away under her feet, terraced in many levels covered in lemon and damson trees, with bright stretches of hyacinths and tiny white flowers the bard had never seen before. At the bottom of the slope was a pool, choked with lilies, a glimmer of gold visible as fish shot through the green darkness. On the lip of the pool sat Mara trailing her fingers through the water, teasing the carp. She looked up the length of the terrace and spotted Xena and Gabrielle. They walked down the path to the pool, and the High Priestess greeted them warmly.

"I regret that I can offer you but little hospitality. I sent my servants away for the afternoon, that we might speak privately."

Xena sat, her elbows on her knees, leaning forward. "You sent for me. Why."

Mara responded to the businesslike tone of the warrior, and shifted into the same mode effortlessly. "Amasis is dying. He lies in a sleep between life and death, unable to speak or move. It is not known if he can hear. He hasn't named his heir."

"Why is this a problem?" Gabrielle asked. " Doesn't he have kids?"

"The Great King has one hundred seventy eight recognized sons, all of legal age to ascend the throne." Mara said, dryly.

"Why don't they battle it out, the strongest rule?" Xena asked, to see Mara's reaction.

The High Priestess didn't flinch. "That is what I am trying to prevent. Once before, long ago, a Great King died without naming an heir. The streets ran red with the blood of the heirs, with that of their factions. The Harrians love one thing more than their Great King, the Goddess Herself. When she sent a prophecy to the High Priestess of that time, the true heir was revealed, the warring stopped, and the Great King ascended the throne. But not before a third of the City lost their lives."

Xena grunted. "Huh. So you want to avoid a bloodbath. How does the Goddess signal her approval for an heir?"

"She sends a vision to the High Priestess."

"So tell the people who the Goddess favors, tap the idiot, and we'll avoid heirs scrambling to legitimize themselves." Xena said, leaning back.

"She hasn't indicated her choice yet." Mara said simply.

"You really do wait to hear from her. A mad way to choose the leader of a nation."

"Perhaps, but no madder than most ways of choosing kings. We are her City, I am her servant."

Xena gave her the look that made warlords across the known world shiver. "Where do I come in?" She heard Gabrielle clear her throat and amended, "We come in."

Mara's black eyes stayed level with Xena's cold blue. "The Goddess sent me a vision. The Warrior Princess in a chariot, reins in her hands, six horses pulling in different directions. She was able to wrestle them into one track, holding them until another stepped into the chariot."


"The next Great King, face obscured. Har will not reveal him yet."

"And there are only one hundred seventy eight candidates? Hera's tits."

"Xena." Gabrielle put her hand on the warrior's arm, conscious that they were speaking with a High Priestess.

Mara broke into a wide grin. "Har appreciates forthrightness. As do I. I expected no less, from the Warrior Princess."

Xena stretched out her shoulders, sitting up straighter as if she were taking on a new burden. "Tell me about the six horses."

"The first four are satraps- subject rulers of provinces of the kingdom, usually foreign, with loyalty pledged to the Great King. Oreus is a Macedonian by birth, and has been satrap of Almyros for twenty years. He is a quiet man by all account, almost of an age with Amasis. Jalal is Nubian, and controls the borders with that kingdom. His province is narrow as the blade of a knife, but an important buffer zone, and rich farmland besides. He is a vigorous man, but was raised as a companion of Amasis, and loves him still. Sukhum is Harrian and Babylonian, a wise manager of his grasslands province, parlaying it into a wealthy stronghold. He would favor a Great King who left him alone. The last is Megabyzus, a Persian exile, satrap of the desert province of Baluchis. Baluchis lies in a corner between Dahomey and Egypt, a sea of sand and salt flats inhabited mostly by eagles and leopards. He is an unknown quantity."

Xena stroked her chin. "It wouldn't be easy for a foreign prince to pick the right heir to back, if native Harrians can't."

"Just so. It keeps them in check, watching each other, like a string of lions before a staked goat. They are all currently lodged at the palace, awaiting the death of Amasis, listening for signs of favor, being courted by, and courting, the heirs."

"What about the last two horses?" Gabrielle asked.

"Bessarius, the General of the Goddess' army. He'd like to have the ear of the throne for himself, he wasn't able to sway Amasis much. The old man is stubborn. Bessarius is well like by his soldiers, so his faction is strong. The last horse would be the true heir, I expect, whoever that might be. All six horses, pulling in different directions. It is up to you to keep the chariot on course, until we find the heir."

Mara looked at Gabrielle pointedly. "You'll need steel and wisdom, diplomacy and strength. People will try to curry favor with you, for their faction."

The glint of cold steel was back in Xena's eyes. "You neglected to mention the Temple's faction."

Mara watched her, coolly. "Warrior Princess, all the kingdom of Har belongs to the Goddess whom I serve. When she chooses the next heir, I will serve the heir. I gain nothing, except for favor with the Great Mother. But what earthly reward can approach that?"

Mara prepared them an evening meal with her own hands, serving them on low couches in her audience chamber. Xena took a swig from her winecup, finding the sweet wines of Har thick on the tongue, but potent as the port she normally drank. She speared a slice of lamb with her dagger, while Gabrielle made a face at her. She shrugged, dropped the dagger, and tore at the meat with her teeth, grinning at the bard who turned away.

"You'll have to introduce me to the palace, but as what?" Xena said, around a mouthful of lamb.

Mara delicately ignored Xena's carnivorous habits. "As you are, the Goddess' watcher. The overseer of the state, until the heir is revealed."

"Not as regent?" Xena asked, reaching for her winecup.

"There can be no regent, as long as the Great King lives."

"Gabrielle." Xena said, and Mara saw her fierce warrior's mask soften.

The High Priestess noted it for future use- the bard had an immediate calming effect on the Warrior Princess. The two of them, seeming opposites, presented a perfect whole seen together. Mara looked out of the side of her eye at them, seeing a blur around them like a mosaic of golden fire and darkness, steel and wood, flowering vines and dripping blood. She caught a glimpse of a black eagle rising to embrace the sun, being consumed by the embrace, the darkness of the plumage burning away even as the eagle fell back to earth. She was struck by the balance, the perfection of the Goddess' choice for stewardship of the nation.

"You should stay here while I'm at the palace." Xena was saying, jolting Mara from her trance.

"No!" She cried out, before thinking. These two should not be separated, they' d become unbalanced. "Gabrielle wouldn't be safe here. I have many enemies. She would be safest in your protection." She knew that she was playing on Xena's pride, but the warrior didn't seem to notice. The bard, ready to fight Xena to keep from being left behind, was surprised at this help from an unexpected ally. She flashed a quick smile at Mara when Xena wasn't looking.

"I like their choice in formal gowns. What do you think? " Gabrielle asked Xena, tying the shoulder laces.

The warrior narrowed her blue eyes, deciding that the bard looked good enough to eat. The thought made her blink, and shake her head. Where had that come from? - she thought. "Not so revealing as Minoan, not so binding as Athenian- good lines, the bright green suits you. " Xena knew that wasn't the right thing to say from the way Gabrielle's smile faltered just slightly. "You look as beautiful tonight as I've ever seen you." The glowing look on Gabrielle's face made Xena duck her head. Where were those quarreling factions when she needed them?

Earlier, Xena had been led into the Great King's bedchamber, where the scent of incense and smoke from the lamps nearly choked her. She walked up to the bed, alone, and looked down at Amasis. The Great King was in his seventies, black hair threaded with gray. His face was fine boned, with thick winged brows over deep set eyes, closed as if in sleep. Age had taken flesh from him, leaving beautiful bones under skin as thin as bronze leaf. Near the bed stood a scribe with a stylus ready, in case the Great king woke and named an heir. The priestess who attended him said that he never waked, anymore. His breathing seemed steady, if quiet. Xena quietly wished him peace, not knowing what else to do, and walked away.

Mara was making some sort of speech in the main audience chamber. Amasis' throne was symbolically empty, at the end of the room, a chair of stone with the phoenix of the royal house carved on the back. Xena tried to listen to what Mara was saying. "The Great Mother has gifted me with a vision."

The gathered audience of palace regulars, the satraps, the General, some of the eldest of the royal heirs all stirred. Megabyzus, the Persian, called out- "Is this the heir?"

Mara, playing her part to perfection, shook her head gravely. "No. The Goddess, while the Great King lies sleeping, has sent us a champion to guide her kingdom until the true heir is revealed. A great warrior and leader out of Greece, Xena:Warrior Princess."

Xena knew her cue. She'd led armies long enough to know the value of making an impression, so she made one. Her stride was long and feral, her head thrown back. Her steel blue eyes swept the room. Bessarius the General looked into her eyes and took an involuntary step backward. The air of command, of power, was palpable, like heat from a pyre. Harrians, used to worshipping a Goddess, recognized these qualities, and felt their hearts tremble at her mystery.

"People of Har. I'm certain that the Great King and the Goddess will soon reveal the heir, and everything will get back to normal. I'm here to see that everything runs smoothly until then."

A man in parade armor, silver chased breastplate and scarlet cloak, spoke up. Bessarius, the General, Xena thought. "Have you an army?"

Xena showed her teeth in a merciless grin. Bessarius lifted his hand in a gesture to avert evil."I don't need one. I'm not here as regent, or conqueror. Think of me as a charioteer, appointed by the Goddess." Xena turned and left the dais, striding from the room.

Mara explained that Xena would be housed in the west wing of the palace, and that her authority was divinely granted. There were more questions, but Mara called on her prerogative as High Priestess, and left them unanswered.

Xena and Gabrielle met her in the hallway outside the audience chamber, where the satraps and heirs were arguing. "That didn't go too badly." Xena commented, wryly.

"How could it? The Goddess appointed you, who can argue with that?"

"Are all you people so pious?"

"No. But the Goddess has power, and that is respected." Mara said, taking Xena and Gabrielle's arm, walking them toward the west wing. "I will send one of my priestesses to you, to be your eyes and ears. I must stay out of the way as High Priestess, but call on me for anything as Mara." She hugged them both, and left them at the doors to their chambers.

Gabrielle pushed in the double doors, mahogany inlaid with fruitwood panels. They opened on an audience chamber furnished in Harrian fashion, with a long table, low chairs with carved arms and clawed feet, glazed tiles hiding the dun walls. The floor was a mosaic of the Goddess in a field, reclining amidst white flowers while a goatherd played a lyre. Doors led off the audience chamber to a bedchamber. Gabrielle passed through and headed into an archway, toward what looked to be a sunken tub done in blue tiles.

Xena followed her, stopping to gape in the bedchamber. It was dominated by a single bed of massive proportions formed from Nubian ebony, inlaid with malachite and mother of pearl, lapis lazuli and enamel. The four corners bore towers of ebony carved to appear like tree trunks entwined with serpents, capped with flowering circlets. A low window ran the length of the facing wall, cedar presses stood at the end.

"Xena, come look at this! " Gabrielle called from the bath. "It's magnificent!"

When Xena did not answer her, the bard came back out and found the warrior staring at the bed. "Gods, that's huge. Do they expect a war-horse to sleep here with us?"

A discrete knock at the door interrupted them. Xena opened it on a woman of stunning beauty, clad in the gown of a Priestess. Her hair was a Thracian red, hot as embers, bound back in a gold fillet. Her eyes were the green of leaves on the edge of spring, bold and full of life against the copper of her Harrian face. She was younger than Gabrielle, Xena guessed, perhaps in her early twenties, with the glow of Aphrodite on her. The warrior felt immediately drawn to the Priestess, her presence affecting her like strong wine. Must have been too long since I sought 'companionship' for one look at a girl to get to me like that, Xena thought.

"Warrior Princess?" The girl's voice was rich, caressing, obviously trained. It set Gabrielle's teeth on edge, as did the way Xena's eyes wandered over the splendid body so ably displayed in her Priestess' gown. The girl embraced Xena, and kissed both of her cheeks.

Xena raised an eyebrow. Sure is a friendly temple, she thought.

Gabrielle took an instant dislike to the Priestess.

"I am Malache. Mara sent me, to be of service to you."

The bard, not liking the way the girl said 'service', not liking the way Xena eyed her, cleared her throat loudly.

"Forgive me. Of service to you both." The Priestess said, smiling graciously at the bard.

Damn. Do they teach all temple girls to be so self-possessed? -Gabrielle thought. "Are you a Priestess like Mara?"

"The Goddess has favored me." Malache looked around the room, then back at the two of them. "I have just enough time, if I hurry." She said.

"To do what?" Xena asked, still trailing her eyes over Malache.

"To get both of you ready for your first state dinner." The Priestess took Xena's arm, then Gabrielle's, and walked them to the bathchamber. "Strigils, pumice, oils, soaps are all laid out. I've sent a servant for water. You have a candlemark-"

A parade of servants entered with long necked jars, which they proceeded to pour out into the tiled tub. The Priestess' efficiency surprised Xena, whose mind had been wandering to her other gifts. Malache bowed and shut the doors, leaving Xena and Gabrielle alone."I wonder if she's going to come in and bathe us." Gabrielle said acidly, looking at the door. She missed the speculative look on Xena's face, carefully masked when the bard turned around.

"Probably not. There's two of us, we can manage."

Gabrielle removed Xena's armor, a ritual as old as the bond they shared. She removed the bracers and armbands first, let Xena set her sword and Chakram within easy reach if needed, and unbuckled the breastplate. Xena sat, and Gabrielle removed her greaves and boots. The warrior removed her own leathers as Gabrielle set aside her clothing and staff.

The bard lowered herself into the tub first with a small sigh. The perfumed water seemed to mollify the bard's mood. Good, the luxuries of the pleasure loving Harrians would be wasted on me, Xena thought. I'm glad they please her. There is so little I can offer her during our time on the road, blankets on cold earth, no roof over our heads, never knowing when we will be attacked- she should make the most of the Red City. "You know, the City of Har is famed for it's cooking." She said, idly stirring the water with her long fingers, watching Gabrielle from the corner of her eye. Sure enough, the bard's face lit when food was mentioned.

"Oh? How famed?"

"Easily as famous as Lydia, with access to the spice routes of Ind and Chin, pepper from Arabia, saffron and curry. And, of course, the local delicacies."

"What are the local delicacies?"

"Sweets. Desserts, cakes, sesame and honey, rose water, ice from the mountains shaved with citron or fruit syrup. You have to try that, especially in this heat. They send wagons up to the snow line, cut great blocks of ice and pack it in straw, then hurry it to the river and send it to the City. It's a wonder to see."

"They do seem like civilized people, these Harrians." Gabrielle smiled, and Xena sensed that she was being forgiven.

"Want me to wash your hair?" Xena asked, knowing that would seal it. The bard loved to be pampered, to have Xena linger over her. It was a luxury full as rare as the mountain snows in the City, to have the time and safety for the warrior to relax and let her guard down that much. Like their habit of sharing a bedroll at night, it was a part of their private ritual that they reveled in, and did not speak much about. For the warrior, it gave her permission to feel the softer things she rarely admitted to, let her display a physical affection for Gabrielle that had few other outlets.

The knock at the door came when Xena was lifting the bronze pitcher to rinse Gabrielle's hair. "Come in." She said, continuing her task.

Malache entered with a silver tray of black plums and yellow wine, knelt gracefully and set it on the floor. She smiled at Gabrielle, as one might smile at a purring cat being stroked by a favorite hand. "I thought a moment of refreshment might be appreciated. I have your clothes laid out."

Xena, concentrating on the blond strands sliding between her fingers, said, "We'll be along in a minute."

Malache inclined her head gracefully in acknowledgment, grinned again at Gabrielle, and left. Damn, I might be getting to like her, the bard thought. She certainly seemed to know what this feels like.

"You're awfully good at this."

Xena's hand stopped mid-motion. "At what?"

"This visiting dignitary stuff. 'We'll be along in a minute.' You're used to issuing orders."

"A holdover from my warlord days. I find assuming command familiar." Xena set the pitcher aside.

"Your whole voice changes, even when you talk to Malache. You become a different person."

"Will that be difficult for you?" Xena asked, remembering the times she had become a different person in front of Gabrielle, and how hard the bard fought to remind her of who she was.

"Not so long as I get to see the Xena I know, even if it's only in these chambers. It'll be a performance then. Promise?"

"Promise." Xena stroked Gabrielle's hair. "I'm glad Mara insisted that you accompany me. I don't think I'd make it through without you."

Gabrielle laughed. "You made it back from the dead on your own."

"Only because you called me back. You balance me."

The look of pleasure at the compliment in Gabrielle's green eyes nearly stopped her cold. She must know that already, Xena thought. We've been traveling together for two years, day and night, through war, plague and angry gods. Didn't I tell her that even in death I would never leave her, when we fought the Persians? "I need you to do something for me." Xena said, wanting to move the silence back into acceptable boundaries.

"What?" Gabrielle asked.

"You have a good eye for people, even if you insist on seeing the best in them. Keep an eye on the people at the banquet tonight. Watch how they look at me when I'm not looking, how they interact with one another."

"Most of their attention will be focused on you. I'll be all but invisible to them."

"You will never be invisible, Gabrielle."

Xena stood up, water falling from her magnificent body. She stretched up to her full six feet, leaving a seated Gabrielle marveling at the length of her legs, the play of shadow on the muscles under her smooth skin. She never got tired of looking at Xena.

The warrior pulled on a robe, and padded out of the bathchamber. Malache had laid out the clothes on the bed, and was conveniently behind a wooden latticework screen, not watching. Xena's costume, as she thought of it, consisted of linen trousers, a scarlet vest that hugged her shoulders and closed with buttons of bone, a sash, and sandals. It was all done in varying shades of red, from rust to blood to flame, with hints of orange and gold in the thread. I look, thought the warrior, like a walking wound.

"Satraps dress in Harrian fashion while at court. The High Priestess thought the clothing of a noble of Har might help your authority." Malache explained.

Gabrielle was examining the dress set out for her- similar to a Priestess' gown, with shoulder gatherings and a flowing skirt of fabric thin enough to be spider spun. "I'm going as a Priestess?"

Malache held up the gown. "In a manner of speaking. Your dress suggests a Priestess' gown of my rank, but the shades of green set it apart, so you are not declared for the Goddess."

"Huh. Why? People expect me to be Xena's spiritual advisor?"

Malache looked quickly at Xena, questioning.

Xena shook her head, and the bard knew something was up. "What exactly is a Priestess of your rank, Malache?" Gabrielle asked, knowing that it wasn't going to be good.

"I am a Sacred Harlot." Malache said, meeting the green eyes of the startled bard with equanimity.

Gabrielle blinked, twice, and decided that her ears were not functioning. "Come again?"

"A Priestess of the Goddess in her aspect as Divine Whore. A pleasure bringer."

Gabrielle looked from Malache to Xena. "You mean they'll think I' m your-"

"Consort." Xena said, firmly, wishing herself anywhere but here. Damn these Harrians and their assumptions! But after seeing the garden before the Temple, I should have guessed this was going to happen.- she thought. Xena tried to regain control of the situation, and stop Gabrielle from looking like she was about to strike Malache. "It's the way they worship Aphrodite here. Like in Corinth, citizens can go to the Temple and worship with a Priestess."

"I specialize in royal initiations." Malache said with a smile. "It's a way that people will understand your companionship. I know that it is different in Greece, but here it is a sign of favor to keep company with a Harlot."

"Mighty Aphrodite." Gabrielle said, collapsing onto the bed. A thought occurred to her, she sat up violently. "What if another 'worshipper' approaches me?"

"Smile graciously and take Xena's arm. They'll understand. "

"Great. I'll be hanging all over you, Xena."

Xena managed to suppress a smile at the thought. "If it helps the mission."

Xena and Gabrielle were seated on a single couch near the apex of the circle. To their left was seated Megabyzus the Persian, satrap of Baluchis, along with his Harrian consort Aspasia. To their right was the General Bessarius. He had a consort seated on his couch, but at the foot stood a handsome boy holding the General's two handed wine cup, with it's engraving of Zeus and Ganymede.

As Xena had promised her, Gabrielle found the food extraordinary, exotic with spices and stinging on the palate. It was a custom to bring out the wine with dessert, and indulge after a biting meal in thick heady wines and sweet cakes. The transition was too much for Xena, who took the wine half mixed with water, and left the sweets alone. She found them cloying, after the milder Greek fare, but Gabrielle was in her element.

The Harrians ate in silence, savoring the meal. Xena, whose natural tendency was toward silence found she enjoyed this. When the servants went around with the wine for the first time, that was the signal for conversation to begin. Megabyzus' consort, Aspasia, to Gabrielle's surprise started the conversation by leaning forward and asking her about theater. "There are some travelers who bring us fragments, but any news of the new tragedies from the Dionysia are most welcome."

Gabrielle told her what she knew, about the playwrights now in fashion, the tendency toward comedy in the festivals. Aspasia shook her head. "The choice of a people too secure to worry about their souls. Athens used to be such a vigorous city. But, the Greeks are half-mad, if you will indulge my opinion, about theater. They say they write and perform to serve the gods, yet they wear masks, and do not allow women to perform. Even Greeks have Goddesses, their very city is named for Athene. Can they not imagine her offended?"

"How is it in Harrian Theater? Women perform?" Gabrielle asked, drawing Aspasia out. Megabyzus leaned back on the couch, watching Aspasia and Gabrielle converse. Xena did likewise, managing to make reclining seem like a menacing position.

"Consider. Are there not more than one realm of living?" Aspasia questioned, a small smile like the bite of an asp on her lips.

"I'm not sure I follow you." Gabrielle said.

"Is the life of a fisherwoman the same as the life of a soldier? Are their concerns, their fears, their desires the same?"

The room had fallen quiet, all other conversations ceased. On the supper couches, heirs and satraps, soldiers and consorts listened to Aspasia, famed for her biting wit, challenge the newcomer. Their faces showed their thoughts - would the Warrior Princess' consort be able to hold her own against the toast of the Harrian court? Gabrielle considered the question. She knew that she was being tested, that as Xena's consort, Xena was also being tested. It wasn't an idle conversation.

"Yes, and no. No, the daily life of a fisherwoman is not the same as that of a soldier. She had to worry about her craft, about feeding her family perhaps, about the number of fish in the bay, if she will make her catch, if people will buy her catch at market. A soldier must face routine, the boredom of discipline, interrupted by moments of violence, the thought - will I die today? If seen in this way, they are not the same." Gabrielle paused, and drank from her winecup.

Xena waited, fascinated. Where was the bard going with this?

"Let's look at the soldier and the fisherwoman from another way. They are both mortal, born of woman, they eat, sleep, love and fight, pray to the gods to keep their families alive, and put off their own death. In the end, they both go back to the ground, to a plot of the same size, no matter the space they occupied in life. They are the same."

Silence greeted the bard's pronouncement.

Aspasia set her own winecup aside, took a measured look at Gabrielle, then smiled at her, brilliantly. The watchers on the supper couches let out their breath, in exclamations of approval.

"Wisdom blooms in Greece, as the saying goes. Exactly. So, in recognition that the fisherwoman and the soldier are the same, and they are not, we have three theaters in Har. One for all citizens of the City, where men and women act. One other, The House of Women, where only women act, and only women go. Last, the House of Men, where they tell such stories to one another as I can only guess." Aspasia favored Gabrielle with an intimate gesture, including her in the consorts' declaration. "The Great Mother created us differently. Yet, we are all born of woman, as you say."

Xena allowed a small smile to tug at her lips. She wanted to embrace Gabrielle, praise her wisdom and daring in taking on Aspasia's challenge, but it wouldn't do to look too delighted with her consort's intelligence. Her status was tied up with Gabrielle's, and Gabrielle had just impressed Aspasia, and thereby the court. Best to appear as if she expected just that outcome.

Satiare, the consort who sat with Bessarius, looked a little lost, as did the General. Xena noted the cupbearer by Bessarius' couch. The boy often drew Bessarius' eye, when he thought Xena wasn't looking. A noble must have an educated, intelligent woman associated with him if he wanted to be taken seriously in Har, or he was soon out of power. Comes from worshipping a Goddess, Xena thought. They fight like cockerels for temporal power, but they turn to the Mother to justify it.

As the evening went on, Xena noted that Aspasia would occasionally fill Megabyzus' winecup herself, rather than wait for the servant to do it. She did it in a casual way, not interrupting whatever conversation she was having, but the gesture of favor was obvious. When, in the middle of a discussion on philosophy Gabrielle reached for Xena's winecup and filled it, Aspasia's eyebrows rose slightly, and she smiled knowingly at Satiare. Good, thought Xena. Let them think of me as a satrap.

"Bessarius. I'd like to view the army tomorrow." She said, testing her authority. They were the first words she had spoken all evening.

The General rose up on his couch, mouth open to retort, but Satiare's hand on his wrist closed it. He sank back down, a look of hatred in his eyes he didn't have the craft to mask. "Of course. At your leisure." He managed to choke out.

After the wine and dessert, Xena expected dancers in the Greek fashion, but the Harrians seemed content with conversation. The other satraps present, on couches at the other end of the room were discussing an upcoming religious festival Xena didn't recognize. Something about the death and rebirth of a grain god, the Lord of Sheaves. Maybe a version of Adonis, Xena thought.

Gabrielle tried to draw Satiare into conversation, but her success with Aspasia had intimidated Satiare, who didn't seem to want to match wits with the bard.

At the end of the banquet, Aspasia said to Gabrielle, "You must come see a play with me, while you are in Har." It was the crowning glory of a successful foray into court life, Gabrielle knew. She was now a success, and the new favorite of Aspasia.

Back in their chambers, Gabrielle collapsed on the bed. "Now I know how you feel after a battle. That was brutal."

"You were brilliant. What did you observe?"

"While you were looking away, Megabyzus and Bessarius would look right at you. Bessarius looked like he'd eaten bad olives all night, Satiare kept calming him down." Gabrielle said, watching Xena pace.

"He's a soldier, all temper. Satiare is just a social grace for him, I doubt there's anything between them but business. And Megabyzus?"

"Cold. Like you get when you put on your warlord face. Aspasia didn't have to calm him down. I actually saw no signals between them at all."

"He never interrupted her when she spoke. He is more dangerous than Bessarius, harder to read. Either he is genuinely enamored of Aspasia, or he's been in Har enough years to understand that she gives him power. I wonder what heir he favors. Aspasia invited you to the theater?"

"Yes. I should accept."

"She'll use it to drag information from you, not right away, but eventually. But she seemed impressed with you as well. She should be. You were inspired, that touch with the winecup-"

"I saw Aspasia do it. It must mean some special favor. She grinned right at me when she saw it."

Xena stopped pacing, and sat on the bed next to Gabrielle. "It helps that people think you are my consort."

"I know. It gives you standing."

"Do you mind?" Xena asked, curious. Gabrielle seemed to enjoy the evening, even with the challenges. She looked beautiful, sitting on the supper couch discussing philosophy and theater with Aspasia, occasionally acknowledging Xena with a look or an intimate gesture as if they were consorts.

"Xena, I travel with you, fight beside you, cook for you, bathe with you and sleep next to you at night. Most of Greece, not to mention the Amazon nation thinks I'm your consort already. One more city won't hurt my reputation."

"It might make mine. You talked Aspasia to a standstill, and you were easily the most beautiful woman in the room. I'll become famed for my good taste and good fortune."

Gabrielle laughed. "Better than what you are already famed for."

"My fighting skills?" Xena raised an eyebrow at the bard.

"Your lousy temper." She managed to roll off the bed and run when Xena hurled a pillow at her. "See? I only tell you the truth."

Xena vaulted over the bed, catching Gabrielle as she fled. With a turn of her hip she lifted the bard and deposited her back on the bed. She leaned down, pinning Gabrielle by the wrists. Her voice was very soft and low, like the warning growl of a panther. "You are lucky that my temper has improved in the last two years. When I was a warlord, you wouldn't have dared say that to me." She let the bard feel how easily she kept her pinned, then relented, releasing her.

"When you were a warlord, you needed someone to say that to you. At least now you have me."

In the morning Aspasia sent a note to their chambers, inviting Gabrielle to the theater that afternoon. Xena had made plans to view the army, so Gabrielle accepted. Aspasia sent a litter for her, and met her at the House of Women. The building was like many in Har, unprepossessing from the front, but ornate within. Gabrielle noticed that the guards at the door were women in Harrian army uniforms.

"No men may pass through these gates." Aspasia said, seeing her questioning look.

Aspasia took Gabrielle's arm, and led her into the main chamber. It was a circular room with stone benches in concentric circles, sloping down to a round stage of pressed earth. Aspasia steered her to the front rows, where servants had laid out cushions and rugs on the stone bench, along with clay jars of wine and trays of sweets.

Gabrielle saw all this with delight and appreciation. If I stay long in Har, I'll never be able to walk out. But what a way to go! -the bard thought. They eat at every turn, any excuse for sweets- my kind of people.

Aspasia smugly observed Gabrielle's reaction. Like most people new to Har, the bard was easily overwhelmed with the luxury and frequency with which the Harrians indulged themselves. It made her approachable.

The audience was filling in, all women, but not all nobility. Gabrielle saw the gowns of Harlots, women in the tabard of merchants, brides with infants in their arms, girls just beyond puberty. Aspasia bade her sit, and handed her a sesame cake. She leaned intimately in and whispered "This play is a favorite with the young women. They request it endlessly, but most often at this time of year, before the festival. And Haria, the actress portraying Narbada, is brilliant, gifted from the Goddess."

The stands did seem to be filling up with young women, from girls to women in their early twenties. The talking and laughter were high with anticipation. Gabrielle felt the energy, like the feeling she got from a crowd before she told one of her stories. It was the crackle of lightning, the jumping of life energy from hand to hand, racing around the room, closing the circle.

Suddenly the room was plunged into darkness. The audience fell silent with a single indrawn breath. In the perfect blackness, Gabrielle could feel the cool air move through the room, a wind from an unknown source.

Sparks showered in the blackness, from torches relit, held by women at the top of the stands. They ran down the aisles to the center of the room, where they met, crossed and parted, forming a square at the edges of the stage. The brazen call of a war-trumpet blared, the thunder of kettledrums followed, like the earth shaking charge of heavy cavalry. A figure strode imperiously to the center of the stage in a swirl of scarlet cloak. She threw back the cloak with a sweep of her arms, to reveal armor of gold, blazing in the torchlight. A helmet of white iron, threaded with golden serpents crowned her night black hair. In her hands were a round shield emblazoned with the Great Mother riding a lion, and a long hafted Harrian spear with a point like the blade of a leaf.

A sigh went through the rows of young women when they saw her. Gabrielle felt a shock of recognition for this warrior woman's stance, the proud, haughty cast of her head, the look of eagles from her cold fierce eyes. It was like seeing Xena, before a battle. The bard leaned forward as this apparition spoke in a voice of brass. "Sound the trumpets! Signal the cavalry charge! We fight or we fall, and let the thirsty plains drink deep of the blood of our enemies before we go to the House of Bones and Dust. We fight for our City and our Goddess." She thrust her spear into the air. "Glory or Death!" The torches plunged the room into darkness again.

Gabrielle was hooked. She sat forward on the bench as the story of Narbada, General of the Goddess' army from the time of Great King Artembares, unfolded in front of them. Dancers portrayed the clashes with the invading army of Nzinga, Queen of the Amazons of Dahomey. Nzinga was intent on capturing and subjugating Har, as she said in her speech to her warriors before the final battle.

"Amazons. We will ride over the bodies of our foes, and slake our thirst from the wines of their vineyards. Though they have fought bravely, we shall not let the City stand. This land shall belong to Nzinga." The Amazon Queen wore a leopard hide across her shoulders, a broad girdle of leather around her lean waist upholding a skirt of metal scales. She was striking, as tall as Narbada, skin of dark brown, eyes of mahogany set far apart in a face possessed with passion.

The final battle, kettle drums thundered, the clash of cymbals signaled the clash of arms. All the dancers portraying Harrian soldiers lay in heaps about the circle where Narbada stood alone. Her helmet and shield were gone, the spear haft broken in her hands. Her golden armor was hacked to ribbons and splashed with blood. On unsteady legs she stood, defiant, before Nzinga. The Amazon Queen cast away her own shield and spear to face Narbada.

"Surrender. Your army lies dead around you. My sisters hold the field. Lay down your arms and I will spare your life, for you fought as bravely as a lion."

Narbada drew herself up to her full height, despite her horrific wounds. "Never. You will sack my City across my rent corpse. Fight me, Nzinga!"

The Amazon and the General met, hand to hand, in the center of the stage, grasping one another as foes or lovers do. Their strength was evenly matched, neither could gain an inch. Nzinga, her face close to Narbada's , gazed on the Harrian in the heat of battle, and knew passions of another kind. She sprang back, releasing her grip. "Enough! I cannot slay you. You have the heart of an Amazon. Your beauty stops my fury. Tell me your name, that I may honor it."

"I am Narbada, General of the Goddess' army." came the proud declaration.

"Your Goddess must be great, to be served by one such as you. Say that you will consent to be mine Narbada, and for love of you I will spare your City."

Gabrielle heard the audience gasp, and felt her own heart stop for a moment. The Amazon Queen had fallen madly in love with the fierce warrior in their battle. She had a fleeting image of Xena, triumphant on a bloody field, the warrior's blazing blue eyes locking with hers-

The General looked at the proud Queen of the Amazons, and smiled. "Gladly will I be yours, Nzinga, for I have never seen your like before- a warrior without equal, a Queen without fear." Bronze Harrian and Black Amazon met again in an embrace, kissing passionately amidst the blood and smoke, the fallen soldiers and armed Amazons. The young women moaned, envious, enthralled. Their City was saved, by the passion of a Queen for her General.

The room plunged again into darkness. Gabrielle sat, stunned, until the cheering started. She was on her feet with the crowd when the lights were lit. The young women screamed themselves hoarse. Aspasia sat back down. Gabrielle collapsed, spent.

"What did you think?"

"It was wonderful! Will they come back out?"

"No. But I know Haria, who played Narbada. I can take you back to meet her. Would you like that?"

Aspasia took Gabrielle through the archway, back to the actor' s rooms. She pushed the beaded curtain aside and went in. Gabrielle followed, feeling shy. Narbada was seated by a table, the top nearly covered in stone and clay pots of paint. The golden armor hung on a stand nearby. One of the younger actresses, still dressed as a Harrian soldier, wiped blood from Narbada' s bare torso. Offstage, seated, without the dazzle of torches and drums, Narbada looked smaller. Her heroic proportions became human, enhanced with paint and costume. She looked up at their entrance and smiled warmly at Aspasia, unveiling a charm that still was larger than life. Gabrielle tried not to stare as the assistant continued to rub a cloth over Narbada's arms and shoulders.

"Brilliant as ever, Haria. The Goddess was with you." Aspasia kissed her cheek.

"Falsehood suits you, Aspasia. You've seen it often enough to know I dropped lines on the last speech."

"But you brought Narbada to life again- you heard the young woman screaming for you."

Haria lifted her hand in a gesture of acceptance. "And who is this?" She asked, eyes traveling over Gabrielle.

"This is Gabrielle, consort to Xena, of whom even you will have heard."

Haria pushed the assistant off, stood, and took Gabrielle's hand. "Then I envy the Warrior Princess for more than her soldier's heart." She said, in her trained, rich voice.

Gabrielle felt herself blushing, furiously, and looked away from the half naked actress. "You were wonderful as Narbada. I've never seen anything quite like it."

Haria sat back down, motioning to her assistant to get her a vest. She slipped the garment on but left it distractingly unhooked, ruining Gabrielle's concentration. "It's one of my favorite roles, the Savior of the City."

"Have you always been an actress?" Gabrielle asked.

"No. I was a Harlot, along with Aspasia. After my term of service to the Goddess I was accepted into the House of Women, and now live the life of glory and drama you see." Her gesture was self-mocking, taking in the small room.

"You were always performing, Haria."

"Unlike yourself, Aspasia? You could have done anything, after you service was up. You chose a Persian satrap."

Aspasia laughed. "Old argument. Megabyzus doesn't bore me, unlike the hundreds of suitors who sought my hand."

"A Harlot is always in demand after her term. You could have had your pick."

"You could as well." Aspasia said.

"I have my choice." Haria said, grandly. The actress who had played Nzinga entered. She'd traded her Amazon armor for a soft robe, and her makeup was off. Up close, she looked Nubian, with the fine boned features of Har as well. She leaned down and kissed Haria, then draped an arm about her neck and sat down in her lap. She gazed at Gabrielle and Aspasia with heavy lidded eyes.

"Aspasia, you know Eshara." Haria said, stroking the woman's back.

"Of course. Splendid Nzinga, Eshara. I was ready to take up shield and spear and follow you." Eshara smiled with lazy grace at the compliment.

"This is Gabrielle, the consort of Xena." Haria said, nodding to the bard.

Eshara's eyes opened with interest, suddenly alert. "I have heard that the Warrior Princess travels with a bard. Are you she?"

Gabrielle, flattered, acknowledged it.

"You must perform for us, then. It's not often that the House of Women has a visitor of your stature, and never one who travels with a hero such as Xena. It's like seeing Narbada brought back to life!" Eshara said, and Gabrielle was struck by the difference in her voice, her manner, from the proud Amazon Queen. This was a soft, sweet voiced woman, comfortably curled up on the lap of her fellow actress, exhibiting no signs that she knew which end of a spear to hold. Where was the strength, the power she had radiated as Nzinga? Gabrielle wondered if they were qualities Eshara put on, like garments. How would she appear, next to someone who lived them, like Xena?

To the Warrior Princess, command was as natural as breathing. There were moments when she smiled, or laughed, when she was at ease, but these moments were in the context of carefully laying the power aside. It waited there, faithful and jealous. It might be argued that the ease and banter were masks Xena had picked up and learned to use, but the red frenzy of war was the expression of her soul. The darkness in her was genuine, the expression of her gifts, and the life lived otherwise was in constant struggle not to succumb to it.

Haria laughed, lightly. "You will overwhelm her, Eshara. I'm certain that the Consort of the Warrior Princess is thoroughly occupied in running the kingdom. We must sacrifice the desires of a few lowly artists for the sake of the nation."

"That's not what Narbada would do. Desire saved the kingdom, under her." Eshara argued, knowing she had Haria's soft spot.

Haria frowned. "I've played Narbada for five years, I think I understand her character. Come, you'll frighten Gabrielle with your idle chatter. "

Haria pushed Eshara off her lap. "It would honor the House of Women if you ever do have a few moments to spare for us." She said, kissing Gabrielle's hand. The bard knew that she was being dismissed. Aspasia escorted her back out to the house. She thanked Megabyzus' consort for the afternoon, and went back to the palace, thinking.

Xena was sitting at the long table in their audience chamber, reading from a pile of scrolls. She looked up gladly when the bard came in, a smile of recognition that warmed Gabrielle instantly, head to toe. How does she do that? It must be genuine, I feel it like being dipped in fire, as Achilles' was.- thought the bard.

"What are you working on? " She asked, kissing Xena on the cheek. She had a momentary flash of Eshara kissing Haria, then climbing into her lap. Where did that come from? This was Xena. Even when the warrior was in a good mood, as she seemed to be, and they were especially close, as they seemed to be, one didn't just go kissing the Warrior Princess and climbing into her lap. Though, it would be wonderful to sit, encircled by those strong arms, pressed up against that breastplate-

"Where in the world did you go?" Xena asked, snapping Gabrielle's wandering mind back to their room.

"Uh, just thinking about the play. Sorry. You were saying?"

"Lists of the recognized potential heirs. 178, all male, all sons of Amasis by lawful wives or consorts, all between the ages of 17 and 45. Not a narrow field to choose the next ruler from."

"Any favorites?"

Xena exhaled and threw down the scroll. "Depends. You want Bessarius and the army's favorite, or the palace staff, the tradesmen's guilds, the Temple? Megabyzus is the only satrap who hasn't declared for an heir. The problem is everyone expected Amasis to name an heir. This hasn't happened in ten generations, that a Great King hasn't named his replacement."

"What happened last time?" Gabrielle asked, thinking that Xena looked weary. She needs to rest, and will drop dead from exhaustion before she ever admits that.

"The heirs started fighting, until the streets ran red, as Mara said. Factions everywhere. Finally the Goddess (according to the Temple writings) gave a prophecy, and everyone stopped slaughtering each other."

"So there is a precedent to follow." Gabrielle said, thoughtfully. "A precedent set by the Temple." Xena swept the scrolls out of reach. "You sound like you don't like them. It's in your voice, every time you mention it." Gabrielle looked at Xena, who raised an eyebrow at her.

"I like some of the Harlots. I like Mara, in my way, though I'm convinced she's not telling us everything. I like Malache."

"I know that." Gabrielle's tone took a dangerous turn.

Xena found it safer to ignore it. "I don't like religions, no matter the kind. Har might well be a fine Goddess. She hasn't dropped in to harangue us yet, and that's an improvement over the Greek gods. I just don't buy this 'wait until the Goddess names her chosen heir'. I think it's a stalling tactic on Mara's part. I don't know what for."

"Maybe to find the heir she wants."

"Doesn't make sense. She'd know all of them, she's the High Priestess, for Hera's sake." Xena pushed through the pile of scrolls.

"Maybe she's waiting to hear from her Goddess." Gabrielle suggested.

"Do you really think so? " Xena asked, leaning forward on the table, distracting Gabrielle with the view over her breastplate.

How does she do that?- the bard wondered. Visions of Eshara in Haria's lap plagued her again. "Uh, yes. I do. From what I've seen. nobody knows what's going on."

Xena leaned back in her chair, making it easier for Gabrielle to think. She steepled her fingers and narrowed her blue eyes. "Tell me about the theater."

"...then Narbada proclaimed- 'Gladly will I be yours, for I have never seen your like, a warrior without equal, a Queen without fear.' Nzinga grabbed her and kissed her, and peace was declared between Har and Dahomey." Gabrielle said, joy flushing her face as she retold the story. She glanced at Xena, to see if it had had the same effect on the warrior. There was an unreadable look on Xena's face, one she had never seen before. Was it...fascination? Fear?

"You found that stirring?" She asked in a neutral voice, betraying nothing.

"Gods, yes. The powerful warrior, standing alone against an army, fighting for the greater good, ready to die for her City- facing the Amazon Queen in single combat. The way they grappled, breast to breast, the way Nzinga broke the embrace to declare her love for Narbada - my heart was beating so hard, I could barely hear."

Xena, mouth open slightly, leaned forward in the chair again. "Gabrielle-"

A knock at the door startled both of them. Xena vaulted from her chair, knocking it over with a crash. Gabrielle cursed the idiot who had chosen that exact moment to disturb them. For a heartbeat it had felt like Xena was about to kiss her.

Xena threw open the door, her body eloquent of anger at being disturbed. "What!"

It was Malache, looking very small against a Warrior Princess in a towering rage. The fear on her face, though momentary, made Gabrielle feel mollified. If it had to be Malache disturbing them, at least she should get a good scare. Xena relented on seeing who it was, and dropped her shoulders, relaxed her stance. "Malache." She said, milder now.

The harlot recovered from her shock smoothly, falling into a formal role. "Forgive me for this unwelcome disturbance. I have the scrolls you requested from the Temple library. Mara asked that I give them to you personally."

Xena leaned against the door, her head back. "Right. Come in."

Malache edged past Xena hesitantly, and presented her with the scrolls. The warrior took them, and picked her chair up off the floor. Malache stood, several feet back from the table. "Many of them are in Old Harrian. I can translate for you, at your leisure." She bowed slightly, and headed for the door.

"Wait. Sit down, Malache. I sent for these, I should look at them. I'll need your help." Xena knew that she was being very short tempered, but she couldn't help it. She choked down her heated imagination, bade her blood to stop roaring in her ears, and invited Malache to sit. She avoided Gabrielle, who tried to catch her eye. She didn't want the bard seeing her face right now, unsure of what would be given away.

The change in Xena's mood was a slap in the face to Gabrielle, a bucket of cold water thrown on a new lit fire. What had happened in Xena's mind, between leaning over to her, and throwing open the door? The warrior had seemed very angry, but deflated into her chair, now looking merely grim. The wonderful, unfamiliar look on her face was replaced with the most familiar scowl. Gabrielle sighed. Damn Malache anyway.

"So these are the prophecies from the last time the Goddess picked the heir?" Xena said, unrolling a scroll.

Malache started translating. "In the year of the reign of Great King Sennacheres..."

Gabrielle left the table without a word, and closed the door behind her. Xena had to grip the arms of her chair until her knuckles turned white not to run after her. "Sorry, Malache. You were saying."

Later that night, Gabrielle lay in the enormous bed, watching a silent Xena sharpen her sword. The familiar scraping of the stone was soothing to the bard, who lay propped up on a pile of embroidered pillows, dwarfed by the heroic proportions of the bed. Xena sat on the edge, a world away, thumbing the edge of her blade. It was an oddly familiar moment, as if they were sitting around a campfire on the road. The bard watched the slow, rhythmic motions of the warrior's hands, the way she cradled the steel, regarding it with focused attention. Almost every night for two years she had watched Xena hone her weapons, repair tears in her leathers, hammer dents out of her armor. She would work on her scrolls, or cook, or talk to the listening warrior. The assumption of their normal routine, in the palace bedchamber in the City of Har made a lump rise in Gabrielle's throat. The fact that she was the one who shared the warrior's life, had shared it for two years, was still a source of joy and pleasure. The way her powerful hands turned the blade to catch the light, the way her dark head bent over her task caught at Gabrielle's heart. could watch her like this every night for the rest of my life, the bard thought.

"You're quiet tonight." Xena said, her back to Gabrielle.

"I was just thinking."

"What about?" Xena slid the stone along the edge of the blade, admiring the diamond hardness of the steel. She recalled the old soldier's prayer- give me a sharp sword and slow enemies- and smiled, a tight smirk that the bard couldn't see.

"Watching you sharpen your weapons at night."

"Getting tired of it finally?" The warrior's hands stilled their rhythmic motion.

"Uhn huh. I could watch you do this forever."

"Forever is a long time." The stone started moving again, the warrior's heart resumed it's measured beating.

"Not if you are in the right place." Gabrielle said, softly.

Xena had been uncommonly tender with her all night, trying to make up for the fight of the afternoon. Gabrielle had returned after a lengthy walk around the palace, to find Malache gone. Xena had rolled the scrolls up, and left them stacked on the table. They greeted one another civilly, even gently, ignoring what had happened in the afternoon. Gabrielle didn't mention Malache, and Xena didn't mention the play. They'd eaten in the palace kitchens, then walked in the gardens, avoiding the royal kin and lingering satraps. When it seemed almost normal again between them, they'd braved their chambers.

Xena, wiping oil from her blade with a cloth, glanced over her shoulder at Gabrielle. She wanted to ask the bard for a story; something both of them would enjoy, but was afraid that the story of Narbada and Nzinga might come up again. It's this kingdom, this City. When we get back to Greece, everything will be normal again.- Xena thought, unconvincing even to herself.

In the morning, Xena woke without her usual sharpness. There was a sleepy haze to her thoughts, out of character for her steel spring senses. Gabrielle had bridged the distance between them during the night, and was sleeping curled up next to her like a cat. The city cooled off tremendously at night and the bard got cold easily. She was probably just seeking warmth. When Xena tried to move away, Gabrielle frowned in her sleep and cuddled closer, throwing an arm around the warrior's waist.

Xena felt a sense of peace suffuse her, lulled by the disarming trust the blond woman exhibited by crawling into her arms. Not many people would approach the sleeping Destroyer of Nations without murder in their hearts. No one else would reach for her, in their sleep. Xena held still, enjoying the uncommon feeling, stealing this moment from the day.

You're doing yourself damage, -she thought. The soldier's discipline asserted itself. She managed to slide away from Gabrielle, despite her protests, without waking her. She donned her armor, grabbed her weapons and left. Inaction was dulling her senses, letting her linger in bed when she normally woke well before dawn. She needed honing, like her weapons, her mind and body needed to be taxed beyond the limits of thought. Xena felt the red frenzy claw at her mind, the seductive promises of Ares, the familiar bitter rush of power. Visions of striding over the smoking ruins of enemy camps, towering over bloody fields, thundering at the head of an army, her army- Xena headed straight for the barracks. Some of the spearmen were drilling. She presented herself to the Captain. "Let me drill the men."

The door to the audience chamber was part way open. Gabrielle had spent the afternoon dodging questions and bribe attempts from an impatient heir, and was eager to tell Xena about it. She'd worked it into a humorous anecdote, and anticipated making the warrior smile or even laugh. Xena seemed weary with the inaction of court life, restless and short tempered even for her. Her life with the warrior was a series of moments of violent action, interrupted by rare idylls such as palace life. Gabrielle wanted to make the most of it, discover who Xena was in these settings. The warrior had been gentle with her last night, but kept her at firm arm's length, vanishing out of their bed before she woke. They had been on the verge of something very different, a moment between them when Gabrielle had felt Xena, truly felt her, without any of the shields Xena normally kept in place. Then Malache had knocked, and Xena had retreated. If I can get her to laugh, she'll open up a little. Come back from that self imposed exile. I can see that she's hurting, but she'll be roasting in Hades before she admits it's warm. - Gabrielle thought. Xena had reacted strongly to the story of Narbada and Nzinga. Gabrielle wished she could have seen it with her. The thought of getting Xena to sit through a play made her laugh.

The laugh died when she entered the audience chamber. There sat Xena, her leathers off her upper body, sprawled in one of the claw-footed chairs, with Malache rubbing her shoulders. The Harlot's head was bent low to the warrior's ear, whispering something that made Xena smile. The smirk was one Gabrielle recognized. Xena often wore it after accomplishing something nearly physically impossible. A soldier in a Harrian army officer's uniform stood in front of her chair, helmet under his arm.

"Never seen anything like it. My men will be a month recovering, some of them. The lucky few will have only bruises, and will be able to boast to their deathbeds that they faced the Chabouk and lived."

Xena smiled, a lazy, self-satisfied stretching of her facial muscles. "It was only a training exercise. Next time, I won't hold back."

"Shall we expect you tonight at Dummuzi's Table?"

Xena's slight nod was all the officer needed. He grinned and saluted her. "Lord Chabouk." He said, turning smartly on his heel, passing Gabrielle in the doorway.

"Hello, Gabrielle." Malache said, brightly, continuing to massage Xena's muscled shoulders. She looked, to the bard, like she was enjoying her task a little too much, her brown hands lingering on Xena's smooth skin. "You should have seen Xena train the army this afternoon. It was unbelievable."

"Oh, I've seen her do lots of unbelievable things." Gabrielle said, looking from the Harlot to the warrior. Xena's satisfied smile tore at her nerves. "Funny, I've never known you to injure yourself during a training exercise."

Xena raised an eyebrow. "What makes you think I'm hurt?"

"The way Malache is rubbing your shoulders. I thought you must have pulled something."

Xena shrugged. "Malache offered. Harrian custom. When in Har-"

"Right. Act the satrap, accept the perks. Why not?" Gabrielle said, more angrily than she'd planned. What was it to her if Malache rubbed Xena's shoulders?

"How was your afternoon?" Xena said, not understanding Gabrielle's mood. She sat up and Malache took her hands away.

"Lovely. I spent it ducking heir # 43. He tried to bribe me to get to you. I see that he was wasting his time."

Malache glanced at Gabrielle. "You both must excuse me, the hour is later than I thought. Mara will be expecting me." She sketched a bow to Xena, a playful smile highlighting her beautiful face. "Lord Chabouk." She inclined her head to a fuming Gabrielle, and left.

Xena sat up and pulled up the straps of her leathers. Oh, she doesn't bother to cover up for Malache, but when we are alone- Gabrielle thought.

"What was that all about?" Xena demanded. The bard wasn't acting like herself.


"Act the part of the satrap, accept the perks. Are you on henbane? You chased Malache out of here."

"Sorry. Weren't you done? You can have your Harlot come back and finish later. What in Hades is all this Lord Chabouk business?" Gabrielle felt herself getting angrier and didn't know how to stop. It was as unfamiliar as getting drunk, this heady loss of control.

"The soldiers started calling me that. Army slang for a charioteer. They couldn't decide on a rank for me, some joker remembered me saying to think of me as a charioteer appointed by the Goddess." Xena struggled to remain calm, to not let Gabrielle's mood trigger her own. If she didn't know better, she would have sworn that the bard was jealous of the Harlot. But what in Zeus' name for?

"I see. So Lord Chabouk is expected to go bond with the soldiers tonight, after beating them up all day?"

"I'm meeting some of the officers for a drink at a tavern. I want to reorganize the army, Bessarius has too many of his faction in power. It will be good to make a name for myself." Xena said, as neutrally as possible. Gabrielle's green eyes had torches behind them, telling the warrior what name she'd recommend for her. What was going on here? "Gab-ri-elle." Xena said her name as a series of loving syllables, hoping that it would penetrate the angered bard's mood. "Are you all right?"

"You know, I'm a bit tense. Why don't you summon Malache, have her give me a backrub?"

"That is enough. I don't know what has you full of vitriol, but if you are angry, be angry with me, not Malache. She's our eyes and ears in this City."

"And hands. Don't forget hands."

Xena had had enough. She picked the bard up, held her off the floor, then sat her down on the tabletop. She leaned in, arms on both sides of Gabrielle, pinning her, staring into her eyes from a hand's breadth away. "What has gotten into you?" The steady gaze of those steel blue eyes, narrowed with frustration, was too much.

Gabrielle looked away, feeling her anger falter. "I come in here and see Malache hanging all over you. In front of a soldier! I'm supposed to be your consort. How does that make me look?"

"Malache's a Harlot. I'm sure the soldier thought nothing of it."

"So now I look like the kind of woman who'd let my consort be pawed by Harlots?"

Xena stood back up, looking away. "It's an act, remember? As long as it looks good to the public, people won't question what we do. We're companions, we sleep in the same bed. It looks convincing enough."

"Maybe I'm not just concerned with how it looks."

"Gabrielle, you're not my consort. Malache knows that."

A knock at the door interrupted them. Xena opened it, considering tossing whoever it was head first down the hall. A servant, bearing a sealed letter, bowed to her. "For the Lady Gabrielle."

"The Lady Gabrielle?" Xena asked.

"Here." The bard took the letter from the servant.

He bowed again. "I am instructed to await your reply."

She broke the seal, an image of a shield with Har riding on a lion, and read the letter silently. Xena, impatient, measured the distance she could hurl the servant. Gabrielle's eyes opened wide, then narrowed. "You may tell her yes." The servant bowed, took the letter back, and left.

"Now what?" Xena asked, closing the door. Damn this City, they can't leave anything alone.

"An invitation to the theater. Since you have plans, I accepted."

"From who?" Xena frowned.

"Why does it matter? I'm not your consort."

Xena fought to maintain a slipping leash on her temper, not understanding the terrain of the battle. She managed, by griping the back of a chair until it cracked, to speak in a normal tone. "What is that supposed to mean? You are tearing at me like Cerberus, but you won't say why."

The escalation of Xena's anger matched the bleeding away of her own. The weariness that replaced it nearly bore her to the floor. Would fighting be all she and Xena did in Har? "It's an invitation from an actress Aspasia introduced me to. Some special event I can't afford to miss. She and Aspasia are very close, it might help to get to know her." Hearing Gabrielle drop the fight abruptly and speak so rationally about their mission threw Xena off. Gabrielle came in armed for the battle of Marathon, got her heated up, then just quit. She looked perfectly calm now, preternaturally so.

"Have a good time tonight with your soldiers."

"You're leaving."

Gabrielle paused in the doorway. "It's better if I do. I won't wait up for you."

Haria's note hadn't indicated what event she was taking Gabrielle to, only that it wasn't to be missed. It had come at the perfect time, interrupting an anger she didn't understand. She's been fine approaching the room, but when she saw Malache's hands on Xena, stroking the warrior- her vision swam. It didn't matter that it was a pretense, for the benefit of the Harrians. It didn't matter that Malache knew the truth. At that moment, an instinctual anger blossomed in Gabrielle's blood, uniting her with generations of poets and bards, lovers and madwomen all. Right then, there was only that blood truth- she was Xena's consort, and the red haired Harlot better move her hands.

True to her word, Gabrielle did not wait up for Xena, not exactly. It was simply too blindingly hot to sleep, she told herself, tossing on a bed the size of a parade ground. I'm used to sleeping next to her, that's all it is. That, and the heat. And the thought that maybe Malache had joined them at the tavern, and was even now laughing, tossing back her splendid head, laying an intimate hand on Xena's wrist as worshipful soldiers looked on... Jealousy, foreign and strange as a Harlot, kept Gabrielle company in the silence of the palace night.

Xena staggered in, crashing into a phalanx of chairs that leapt for her feet, dropping her armor with a crash beside the bed. Gabrielle heard her breathing, leaning over the bed. The bard pretended to be asleep. Xena loomed there above her, silent, until Gabrielle could barely resist the temptation to open her eyes. She felt Xena's breath against her neck, the barest brush of lips, the ghost of a kiss. Then- nothing. She felt the bed shift, as Xena dropped into her accustomed place, a spear's length away. Morpheus was slow in coming for them both.

Xena was up before dawn and out in the City, restless as overindulgence rarely made her, vicious with energy. It wouldn't do to attack the army so soon after bruising them, then getting them all drunk. Probably lying about with hangovers anyway, she thought. People were out in the streets, garlanding windows with flowers, setting out trays of food for the poor, sweeping the dust from the streets. The City was readying itself for the festival she kept hearing about. A Harrian woman drew water from a courtyard well, pouring cups for the Phoenician sailors and Ethiopian caravaneers.

Something about this City, this kingdom was missing for her. The native Harrians were comfortable with a polyglot existence. They lived, worked, loved and intermarried Tyrians, Greeks, Thracians, Lydians, Egyptians- with all the nations of the known world. They had a cosmopolitan outlook, the average Harrian speaking several languages well. Yet they didn't seem imperial. Perhaps it was to offset the urge to dominate other nations that they gave control of provinces to foreign satraps, under the overlordship of the Great King. Thus Megabyzus, the Persian, ruled Baluchis, Bessarius the General was born of a Harrian mother and a Thracian father. For such a balanced people, why the moments of madness? The religious fervor, the love of their Great King?

Thracians made Xena's mind wander to Malache, with her Thracian blood showing in her bright red hair, above a face only a woman of Har might have. Xena steeled herself against the arousal she felt automatically. It was a professional gift of the Harlot's, being blessed by Aphrodite as she was, to bring pleasure. It was simply a recognition of her profound attractiveness that snapped Xena's nerve endings to life.

It's being around Malache, and being in this pleasure-loving city that was wearing her down Xena thought. Something in the hot, heavy air, resplendent with flowers and the calls of women's voices, made her skin tingle, made her long for fingers brushing over- Xena shook her head, as a horse might shake off the bit. This wasn't the madness of battle lust, the all-body hunger of need. It was a Harrian seduction, leading her mind back to the thought of green eyes gazing at her with desire, of the relaxing of an inhuman vigilance, easing into the embrace of her beloved bard- No. Enough of this, Xena thought. It's being around Harlots and pleasure seekers constantly, with their soft Harrian indulgence that are making me think of Gabrielle this way. This can't go on.

Xena started walking faster, trying to work off the constant slow burn of her desire. Though she walked from the Manticore Gate to the Street of Coins, from the parade ground to the eastern markets, she could not exhaust herself. Long into the afternoon she walked, through the brutal heat of midday, like a colossus hewn from stone and magically granted life. The streets of the Red City were not the place to be, in the state she was in. Desperate, she headed back to the palace.

"I was beginning to think you wouldn't make it in time! Come on, get dressed." Gabrielle greeted her.

"Time for what?" Xena asked, seeing Gabrielle in her formal gown.

"The audience at Cheksum's palace. He's one of the eldest. Have you forgotten?"

The look on Xena's face told Gabrielle that she had forgotten, completely. Xena stared at Gabrielle, knowing that the last thing she needed was to be at a prince's dinner party, with her beloved bard playing consort. Dressed up in the revealing Harrian gown, feeding her by hand, leaning against her on the supper made her start to sweat.

Xena felt the tension boil into familiar anger, and joyously gave over to it. "Hades take them. I'm not going."

"You have to go. You're the Lord Chabouk. You can't be seen to slight any of the potential heirs." Xena swore a particularly inventive oath from her warlord days about what the heir could do with his banquet. Gabrielle raised an eyebrow at her. "Colorful, if impossible. Now stop fussing, and get dressed."

"Who are you, my consort?" Xena regretted the words the minute she spoke them.

The color went out of Gabrielle's face as if she'd been struck. Her eyes clouded over, as she unclasped her lapis lazuli earrings. "Malache can accompany you tonight. " She took the plate necklace off, laying it on the table.


Continued in Part 2.

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