After dinner Lao Ma decides we will play the Questions Game. The servants prepare the receiving room and we sit again on the pillows around the low table, just inside the great balcony. There are a million stars out tonight. If we were alone, I might point this out to Gabrielle, but somehow I feel too silly in front of Borias and Lao Ma, and so uncomfortable about the Questions Game. Not that I ever actually like the Questions Game. No one does except Lao Ma.
Lao Ma explains the rules to Gabrielle. There are already questions in this box. Questions of all natures and descriptions, but most of them the kind that force you to do some introspection, to share something important about yourself. We each write three more and put them in. Then we take turns picking from the box and answering the questions.
How do you win? she asks.
You finish the game without running from the room in hysterical tears, I say, Its fun.
It takes a brave person to play the Questions Game, says Lao Ma, giving me a withering look, The winning is in the playing. Lao Ma passes out little pieces of paper on which we are to write the questions. We sit in silence as we write. The hash pipe is passed. Borias chuckles to himself as his quill scratches the paper; our new life really agrees with him. If hed had a kingdom to protect in the first place, I bet he would have always been a good man. What questions do I want to ask? The trick is that I might have to end up answering them myself. Sometimes a guest will put in an innocuous question for politeness sake. Thats always a welcome relief, but I wouldnt dare try it; Lao Ma would know if it was me.
Tonight Gabrielle and I are dressed in matching green silk pants and shirts embroidered with red and yellow dragons. She sits within arms reach of me, and I cant help but glance at her more than every so often, and grin when I catch her eye. She looks cute drunk. She inhales from the hash pipe, slowly, as I showed her, and exhales. She smiles.
I will go first, says Lao Ma, and puts her hand into the small, wooden box of questions. She pulls one out and drinks as she reads it.
Tell the group a positive memory from your childhood, she reads to us. Borias leans back on his pillows and stares at her intently. Alright. Being one of a few daughters, and thus completely worthless to my family, the best times of my childhood were spent alone. I was wandering in the woods one morning, it was a dark, cool day. I stumbled across a spider web so huge it hung from three different trees, sticking to all the grasses and flowers, and rocks along its way. It was early so that the web sparkled with dew, and in that moment I first saw the interconnectedness of the universe. I realized that everything was somehow attached to and thus effected by everything else. That people, animals, the earth, everything was one, part of the same energy.
Someone else would have told a story about a birthday party, drawls Borias, laughing and draining his glass.
I hope that was not your question, then, says Lao Ma.
Borias gives her a feral grin, and pulls a question out of the box. He reads it to himself and laughs. He sits up straight and reads it. How many people in the group have you had sex with?
I watch Gabrielle blush.
Only one, he answers, that smile still on his face, But many, many times. That was easy. May I say that I hope yours will be less so. He passes the box to me and I pull one out. I am feeling a little tipsy at this point.
What is your ideal lover like? I choke out. I stare out into the night as I answer, They would be gentle but passionate, and they would want to be with me because I was me, not just because of the way I look or how I make them feel.
They? asks Gabrielle.
I dont discriminate on the basis of gender, I explain. And I never have. It just doesnt make sense to me. I know Lao Ma and Borias are not like me; they only like women. Not that I can blame them for that predilection.
The hash pipe goes around again and Gabrielle whispers to me that she has never been this intoxicated in her life; in fact she can barely say the word.
It suits you, I say.
Gabrielle picks a question from the box. She blushes and asks, What if the question you pick is literally impossible for you to answer?
You give it to someone else. They have to answer it and you have to then pick and answer the next two questions, Borias explains, You see why we dont play this game too often?
Gabrielle hands me her tiny slip of paper. I look down at it, and then into her eyes. Shes still blushing. I smile. I drink. I answer the question.
I was thirteen and there was a traveling carnival in town. It had all sorts of attractions Id never seen before, having never left Amphipolis and it being an extremely boring place. The carnival was in town for two nights, and the second night I saw the acrobatic act. In it was a girl, about my age, she had dark skin and beautiful eyes, and she was a little more developed than your average thirteen year old. The way she was in her body, well, she inhabited it with such pleasure. Id never seen anything like it before. Anyway, I ran into her after the show, and we walked into the woods in silence. I dont know how I knew, but I bent to kiss her, and she kissed me back. It was a wonderful moment. The carnival left town the next day, and the girl with it, but I knew now for sure that my life would lead me far from home. All it took was that first kiss.
Borias and Lao Ma applaud lightly. I scowl, knowing it will only amuse them further. I hold the box out to Gabrielle and she picks out her first of two questions. I am glad that no one pauses to contemplate the fact that Gabrielle has not had a first kiss. I have thought about it, though, and it makes my heart ache for her.
What do you wish you were doing right now? she reads and looks up at Lao Ma, I really have to answer this truthfully?
If you want to win the game, she says with a smile.
Id like to be alone with Xena. She looks down into the box and picks out another question. My mind is still trying to wrap itself around her answer to the last question and I refuse to look at Borias.
Youre very good at this game, Borias says to Gabrielle. I silently apologize for ever having tried to kill him.
Where do you see yourself in five years? reads Gabrielle. She blushes again, Maybe here? Helping all of you?
Oh did you get on the right boat! laughs Borias, Youre more than welcome to stay with us, you know.
More than welcome, I echo quietly. I can feel her looking at me. I am so drunk I cant quite sit up without swaying a little.
Lao Ma takes her turn.
Who is the best lover you have ever had and why? Oh, I dont want to think about who put all these sexual questions in here, she says in her mock-threatening voice. Xena is the best lover I have ever had, and I believe she was so because she paid such detailed attention to my pleasure and my responses.
You know the funny thing? I say to Gabrielle, Everyone Ive ever been intimate with has said I was the best.
We just know what youd do to us if we didnt, says Borias, barely able to keep his eyes open. Its good were not playing darts.
Your turn, I tell him.
Damn the gods, he mutters, pulling a slip of paper out of the box and taking another swallow of wine. If you had to give up either sex or love, which would you choose? I would give up sex. Ive never seen him blush before, in all these years, and I realize, suddenly, that its because of Lao Ma. Gods on Mount Olympus. In my confusion, my leg hits the low table and I can do nothing but watch as one of Lao Mas favorite glasses becomes unstable and begins to fall towards the floor, suddenly stopping in mid air. I feel Gabrielles hand on my arm.
Its Lao Ma, I say, She caught it. Its hard to explain. Ill try later.
Gabrielle nods and looks at me with wonder. I get choked up. Lao Ma catches Borias eye and while they are distracted by each other, I bend towards Gabrielle and whisper,
I would like, someday, to be your first kiss.
I would like that too, she whispers back, and lifts her hand to caress my arm, making my skin tingle. She doesnt look up at me. Now.
I pull back, my body suddenly humming with energy, and she looks at me with the most charming expression on her face.
Youre drunk, I whisper. Its as if Lao Ma and Borias are no longer in the room, but I can hear their voices in the background, and I pull Gabrielle to her feet as I stand. We step out onto the balcony. The cool breeze feels wonderful on my face and we walk silently to the edge, out of view of the rest of the company. She hands me a small slip of paper. I guess the game is not yet over.
Why do you want to kiss me? I read in a whisper.
Because youre so sweet, and so strong, so angry and so full of life, because youre so giving. Ive never met anyone like you, and I want to be closer to you. You make me feel a little better about being me.
I declare you the winner of the Questions Game, Gabrielle, I say as I put my hand on her hip, sliding it along the silk of her top and encircling her waist, gently pulling her to me. I look into her eyes as our bodies press against each other and I can tell she likes the way it feels as much as I do. Her hand cups the back of my neck and pulls me down until my lips meet hers. Her kiss is as unstoppable as the tide, and it drags me under fast. Her lips are like a dream, her hands on the skin of my neck make me feel like Im made of something more than flesh. She opens the collar of my shirt and plants a burning kiss on my chest, then rests her cheek against my skin. I hold her tightly to me. It is a moment worthy of savoring.
A gong sounds loudly from inside. Gabrielle and I look at each other. Shes flushed and startled, like she just woke up. I imagine I look much the same. I take her hand and pull her back into the room. The most senior of the royal messengers stands before Lao Ma, which tells me that the news must be bad. He was chosen to deliver it because he is the least expendable: if someone had the urge to kill the messenger, they would be more likely to control it if it was him.
Say it, says Lao Ma coldly. Borias and I stand just behind her, one on each side, and Gabrielle stands behind me. Its going to be very bad news.
It appears that your daughters have been found by someone else and kidnapped. We have received a ransom demand.
Lao Ma is speechless. I ask
The messenger closes his eyes. Julius Caesar.
Now we are all speechless, staring at Lao Ma.
Everyone, back to your rooms. Pack your personal necessities and put them outside your doors. I will arrange for the rest. Sleep if youre able. We leave at dawn. Lao Ma turns and exits.
Wow, says Gabrielle.
Im still in shock, but I cant help but smile at her. Borias looks anxious.
Shes probably reading the I Ching, I say to reassure him. Go see. Let me know if you need me.
Yes, he says. He sweeps out of the room. I look at the messenger.
You. Make sure there are people ready at Lao Mas door to answer any call. Arrange for our horses, and one for Gabrielle, and at least 15 men, armed, dressed in plain clothing, a few servants, dressed similarly, supplies for a few weeks of camping. Have it packed and the men ready to ride at dawn. Anything Lao Ma says of course countermands these orders. Dismissed.
In my chambers we quickly pack some dark, nondescript clothing and some personal items of mine. It all fits into one bag and I leave it outside the door, in the hallway. I pour us wine and casually leave a mug on the table by the bed, in case Gabrielle has another nightmare.
We sit next to each other at the desk in the main chamber, looking out the window at the stars that spread themselves evenly across the deep blue sky. I think this shade of blue is auspicious but Im not quite sure why that is.
Tell me about Caesar, she says, pouring wine.
The first time I met him, I saved his life. One of my men was about to behead him like a mere foot soldier, until I stepped in with the bright idea of ransoming him. Over the next few weeks while I held him captive, I became his lover, and began falling in love with him, or what I thought of as love in those days. I should never have kept the ransom, but I did, and soon after I freed him, he returned and captured me, crucifying me to show his power and gain his revenge.
A friend saved me. I didnt deserve it, but she saved me, and ended up giving her life for me. It just broke me, Gabrielle. That someone as kind as she was died for the sake of someone as worthless and stupid as myself. I swore vengeance on the entire world. I blamed Caesar for a lot of things. It was meeting Borias that calmed me down a little, gave me a bit of focus. I smile.
I hated him too, Xena, she whispers, inching her chair a little closer to me. I never met him, though I often saw him; he attended all of my matches. He requested that I fight privately for him many times, against all sorts of unusual opponents. His attention made me uncomfortable. And he was responsible for it all, for everything that was bad in my life, for all the evil that went on in the Empire, for the daily torture of legal slavery. I cant tell you how many times Ive wished him dead. She says this last sentence savagely.
Not nearly as many as I have, Im sure.
And now he has stolen Lao Mas children.
It really is amazing. Just the other day Lao Ma was saying that we had no problems with Rome.
We need to sleep, I say, getting unsteadily to my feet. Gabrielle rises as I do and stands in my way. She moves a step closer and I can feel her breasts press against me.
And about the kiss, Xena she whispers, looking up at me.
A wonderful kiss, I say. My breathing hitches, my hands seem to be moving slowly over her body.
And the next one?
Even better, I say into her mouth. Her lips on mine, like fireworks, like the first bite of a ripe plum. Her hands on the small of my back, even through my clothing, draw low moans from a part of me Ive never heard from before.
Youre so beautiful, Xena, Gabrielle whispers in my ear, her hands on my neck. She kisses me behind my ear. I shiver.
Gabrielle, this feels perfect but we have to stop.
We step away from each other and I hold out my hand. She takes it and follows me into the bedroom. In bed, she snuggles up against me immediately and kisses me softly.
You dont mind, do you? she asks quietly, I dont know how any of this is done. Ive never wanted to hold someone while they were sleeping before.
Your instincts are perfect. I will not get choked up.
Thank you. I hope you wont regret this in the morning, she says.
I wont regret this. I just wish the timing were different.
At least well be together on the road.
I smile, I knew there was a really positive person in there just dying to get out!
She pokes me and presses up more closely against me, her head resting on my shoulder. Its only four hours, but we sleep.
Dawn finds us by the stables. Its cold and were all dressed in dark clothing, blacks and browns, and nothing obviously in the style of Chin. Lao Ma is pale and beautiful in her casual leather pants and black cotton shirt, her long hair back in a loose ponytail. She is having a final discussion with the men and women of the council whom shes leaving in charge of governing during our journey. They have detailed battle plans from all of us, with all kinds of contingencies. Theyre better off without their leaders around than most countries are with theirs in residence. Gabrielle stands beside me and I stare at Desires breath as it hangs in the air. Borias looks very serious. Suddenly I feel guilty for spending the night with Gabrielle when I could have been helping Lao Ma. Whats done is done. I will approach her today when I have the guts, though somehow I doubt she was unhappy with Borias attentions. And as far as Gabrielle is concerned, here she stands about to embark on a very dangerous quest with us, one that brings her back to the place from which she has so recently escaped, in more than one way; her bravery impresses me.
Is everything in place? I ask Lao Ma. I imagine messages have been sent to her men in Rome, that plans have been put in motion, maps requested; things I dont want to take the chance of mentioning in front of the one soldier whose tastes are more expensive than a soldiers should be. Lao Ma nods at me and mounts her horse. The rest of us mount as one, more than twenty people, servants and soldiers and us, leather creaking, clouds of dust rising from the ground. The horses strain with their cargo as their riders turn them towards the gates. Lao Ma rides to the front of the procession and the three of us follow her. I beckon Gabrielle with my eyes and she follows me as I pass the Empress and take my place at the front of the small army. I am the best tracker, the best fighter, the best planner, and coincidentally enough the person with the best eyesight. I am the Warrior Princess: anyone who would not put me at the head of their army would be foolish indeed.
The giant gates of the grounds of the House of Lao are pulled open slowly, and I ride through, not looking back; I know they are following. Soon after the horses have cleared the gates, the archers and scouts fan out into the woods on either side of the road. We may not be traveling as royalty, but we are not stupid either. We are a well-oiled fighting machine with many great minds behind it. We move along the roads at a decent pace. Gabrielle rides behind me to my right, just out of reach. I can sense Lao Ma and Borias two horse lengths behind her, and the rest of the men behind them. Someone was wise enough to think of using foreign soldiers, so only a fraction of our party is from Chin. The sun has risen and its quickly becoming a beautiful day.
I turn to glance at Gabrielle and she looks wonderful. Healthy and comfortable, soaking in everything around her. She actually looks proud. And when I think of it, who wouldnt be? To represent the House of Lao, even incognito, is a fine thing. But of course its more than that; shes free, riding a horse, on a beautiful day. She catches my eye and rides up beside me.
You look happy, I say.
I am, she says decisively, I feel almost at peace today. As if I am exactly where I should be. Odd that its on a journey to Rome.
Yes. Quite odd. You look wonderful. Im glad youre here.
She grins at me, Gabrielle does. In such a short time you have all managed to make me feel like Im part of something. Youve been nicer to me than my own family ever was. Except Lila.
Thank you. When were done with this, we could try and find her.
She grins more, That would be wonderful. If there werent all those people behind us, Xena...
Its my turn to grin, So you do remember last night?
Every second. Of the best parts, anyway. I dont want to play that Questions Game again for a while, though. We laugh.
Lao Ma has ridden up on my other side. Gabrielle stops her horse and waits for Borias to catch up to her, and they continue along behind us.
How are you? I ask.
I know where my daughters are. That is more than I knew before.
Yes. And that they are alive. Presumably.
Yes. And I am doing exactly what Caesar has requested; coming to get them. If I do what he wants me to, I trade Chin for my children, with no actual proof that he has them.
You cant do that. I wont let you.
Good. He must truly be a madman, to come after Chin in such a dishonorable way.
He is. He will regret this move. Never forget that I am the best strategist the world has ever known.
She laughs. Come. We must speed up the pace. Make camp by sunset and head out early. I want to get to Rome as quickly as possible.
I give Desire a little kick and we are off. I hear the rest of them speed up behind us; Lao Ma and I are halfway down the hill.
Dusk finds us at our campsite. The four of us sit around a campfire drinking, while the servants prepare the dinner and the tents, and serve drinks to the soldiers at the other campfire nearby. Gabrielle sits next to me, so close I can feel her. Across the fire I see that Borias and Lao Ma are not that much further apart. Finally it hits me. Somehow, though still a cohesive group, we have become two couples overnight. Were they waiting for me to have someone, or did this just happen between them? And what is it exactly? I realize Im sort of staring at them, but I honestly dont understand.
Just accept it, Gabrielle whispers in my ear, Dont you need to pee? she asks innocently.
Yes. Yes of course. I mumble something about peeing to Lao Ma and Borias, and let Gabrielle drag me into the woods behind Borias tent.
She pushes me up against a tree. I listen for archers, for anyone, and hear nothing but the night. She kisses me. Soft lips, her heart beating so fast I can barely believe it. Its exciting on so many levels. I close my eyes and float in the feeling, my body held up between hers and the tree.
Tell me how you feel, she whispers in my ear, her hands snaking around my shoulders, moving slowly down my body to my hips and pulling them against her own. I groan. No analysis, just feelings.
Who would I be to define emotion if not required to? I smile to myself and I whisper shakily, Touching you is the best thing in the world. I want to be with you all the time.
Good, she whispers in my ear, That sounds good, and she kisses me again. This time, she says as she pulls away from me, I get to be the one who says weve got to stop.
We have dinner in Lao Mas tent, because it is the largest. Not a royal tent, but definitely the tent of a powerful warlord. Its full of pillows and trinkets, a few trunks with coins and gold, a princess ransom in jewelry. Treasures from so many lands it would be impossible to guess where the owner of the tent was from. The food is delicious and two servants play those string instruments that sound like gentle waterfalls. Candlelight and incense, a beautiful woman by my side. It would be a lovely evening if not for the occasion.
So whats the plan? asks Borias finally, We get to Rome and then?
I dont know yet, says Lao Ma simply, gazing at him.
We need to get into the castle, and find the girls without getting them killed, I say.
If they are there, says Borias, if they even have them. What if the whole thing is a set up and they dont have them at all? What if its just a trap?
Its a kidnapping. We have to assume its real, I say. I consider various plans and discard them. I listen to the small animals in the underbrush outside the tent; they wonder if we will leave them our leftovers. I assume we cant just attack Rome?
Correct, says Lao Ma.
Do some under cover work and then call the army in?
No, she says.
What about if I just sneak into the palace and murder him in his sleep?
Leave it, Xena, she warns.
I can feel Gabrielles body tensing up beside me.
What if we had something that was of value to him? she asks.
Suddenly all eyes are on Gabrielle; she hasnt spoken until this moment.
What do we have? Borias asks.
Me, she says.
Under no circumstances-- I begin.
Hear me out, she says, and Lao Ma gestures for me to be quiet. I would bet anything that he has a bounty on my head, a reward so huge anyone would go out of their way to secure it. Not only did he enjoy watching me fight, but my escape must have caused him great embarrassment upon arriving at Alexandria. He would not want to be embarrassed in front of Cleopatra.
Im sure you are correct about all these things, Lao Ma says.
Gabrielle smiles and continues, obviously excited that Lao Ma likes her plan so far. I like her plan too. In fact, I already thought of it and discarded it because it was too dangerous. We go under cover early, get into character. Borias is a warlord who has found an escaped slave; hes bringing her back to Rome for the reward. Its the perfect way to get to Caesar, make him think hes getting what he wants. Borias retinue includes a number of attractive slave girls who of course wear veils, disguising the fact that among them hide the Empress and the Warrior Princess of Chin. Were in the palace and doing Caesar a favor, his guard is down; he has no idea hes let the enemy into his home. We find out our information, does he have the the girls? If he does, were in a good position to get them without having to trade. If he doesnt have them, well, were in a good position anyway. What do you think?
Wow, I say, very impressive.
Lao Ma thinks as she speaks, Wed have to find out how far the bounty posters got. Perhaps take a trip out of our way and come upon Rome from the opposite side...
Then wed just have to all sit in a room without killing him, says Borias.
For the time being anyway, I partially agree. This is enough for Caesar. How long can we just leave him out there to do as he desires? Are you sure you want to go back there? I ask Gabrielle.
Me? she asks, I am honored that you include me in your party, Warrior Princess.
We all sit for a moment in silence.
Its the best plan we have so far, I say.
We should send a false royal party towards Rome the slowest way we can, says Borias, Throw them off the scent.
They are already on their way, Lao Ma says, They left two hours after we got the ransom notice, and took a southern route. They are very ostentatious and are carrying a great deal of money. I imagine Roman spies have taken notice of them already and are on their extremely slow trail.
Gabrielle gazes at Lao Ma, clearly impressed. We cant possibly get there fast enough. Even Lao Ma cant fly.
An hour later Gabrielle and I are in our tent. Its smaller than Lao Mas, but full of color and texture. Its all a throwback to my days with Borias; we had no home, so we did the best we could on the road. What were we going to do with all that money if not live well? Everything is a little orange by candle light, from the high, soft, sloped walls of the tent to the pile of multi-colored silk pillows were to call bed. I watch her back, the way the candlelight plays over her muscles as she lifts her shirt off over her head, stopping suddenly and letting out a surprised grunt of pain.
What is it? I ask. Her back is so beautiful. Her arms. Her hair.
Nothing, I must have just pulled something. No big deal.
Let me see, I say, staring at her skin. There is a crucifix tattooed just under her right shoulder blade, scars from more than one kind of whip. As I move towards where she now sits on the pillows of our bed, it occurs to me this may be a trap; she might not be in any pain at all. Her body, hot and strong and beautiful; the injury just a lure to get me near her. I make myself comfortable behind her and pour scented oil onto my hands. When my fingers touch her naked back, we both jump.
Did that hurt? I ask.
Uh, yeah, she lies. It didnt hurt at all. I know it. I run my hands along her shoulders and back, massaging the oil deeply into her skin. She moans and tries not to move into my hands wherever I touch her. The sounds she makes excite me.
Is that any better? I whisper into her ear after some time has passed.
Oh, yes, she sighs, I mean, no, please, keep touching me.
Whatever, she whispers, so I let my hands slide along her ribs, until they reach her breasts. She arches her back, pressing her breasts into my hands; they fit perfectly. She groans and whispers my name. How long till sunrise?
Hours, I whisper, as she turns around and looks me in the eye. Her breasts are so beautiful, the scar just above her heart. Kiss me before I say something stupid.
Gabrielle grins, pushing me back onto the pillows, sitting on my stomach. I watch the muscles of her abdomen shift and suddenly shes using both hands to rip my shirt open. I gasp.
I want you, Gabrielle.
She stares at my breasts, at the remains of my black shirt where it hangs from my arms. She bends and touches her lips to my breast. I moan. My moans make her smile. Which makes me smile. Suddenly we both cant stop smiling.
I thought a girls first time was supposed to be a serious thing, she says.
Oh this is serious all right. Just pleasurable on many levels.
Gabrielle holds me down by the shoulders and kisses me. This kiss is tired of joking, so I take it very seriously. She crouches over me and presses her naked breasts against my own. I moan. Her mouth on mine, she changes positions so shes lying on top of me. I press up into her kisses, my hands slipping under her black leather pants, massaging her bottom. Gabrielle groans, exploring my mouth with her tongue. Her body is so much more muscular than mine is, I can feel it in her arms and even in her stomach. A woman this strong is an exciting thing.
Pants, she whispers. It takes me a moment to understand. Yes. Gabrielle moves back from me to take off her pants, glancing up at me with a look so full of emotion it literally makes my heart hurt. I remember that shes never done this before.
Youre so beautiful, Gabrielle.
You keep saying that.
I take off my pants, and the remnants of my shirt. She stares at my body; my stomach, my legs, my breasts. I can see shes trembling as she raises her head and looks me in the eye.
If Im beautiful, I dont think theres a word for what you are, Xena she whispers.
We gaze at each other in the candle light. This night could go on forever as far as Im concerned. I know it cant. I know tomorrow we could be dead. The world is like that.
Where were we? I ask, knowing full well where we were. I was lying on my back under this beautiful blonde gladiator. And suddenly here I am again, staring up into her dark green eyes. She narrows them as she gazes at me and bends down for another kiss. Her mouth on mine, with her naked body so close, thrusts me into a deeper level of arousal. Suddenly I can smell her scent and it overpowers me. I reach up and pull her to me, pressing my thigh up between hers. Gabrielle presses down against me, her eyes opening as she moans my name, then closing again. Gods, the way her body feels, her skin under my hands, her response to me, my response to her, her powerful thigh pressing down rhythmically between my legs. Anything could be ahead, but this moment is perfect.
We caress each other everywhere. The way it feels is wondrous, explosive, sweet, like when youre eating something thats so delectable you cant help murmuring Ummmmm, over and over again. Thats what making love with Gabrielle is like. The most delicious thing.
Gabrielle, I pull my mouth away from hers and whisper into her ear, there are words, words that would be stupid to say.
Yes, she says, her mouth sucks my neck hard. I groan and thrust up against her.
I want to say them, I whisper hotly, panting, trying not to come right here. Her body feels too good. I could never tire of touching her. She is glorious.
Yes, she moans, pulling back to look at me, thrusting against my thigh more quickly, say them!
I love you, Gabrielle--ungh! and suddenly we are both coming, hard and uncontrolled. Gabrielle pulls away from me and moves a small distance to where our wine glasses are. She drinks, her back to me.
Gabrielle? I ask, my heart in my throat. How could something be wrong? Wasnt that the best thing in the world that just happened? Gabrielle? She wont answer. I will make this okay. Could you pass me a glass of wine?
Gabrielle pours me a glass of wine and pulls a silk sheet around her body. What is she thinking? Another moment I can make the wrong decision, and obviously I am way, way too involved now. What did Lao Ma say about the Questions Game? That the winning was in the playing, in telling the truth.
Did you know, the last time I had physical relations with someone was five years ago? Wanna guess who? I ask, pretending Im not half afraid shes going to break my heart. Yeah, Lao Ma. When I met her, Borias was my lover, but after her, there was no going back. Not to him, not to anybody. Its hard to explain, why she and I stopped sharing ourselves that way. I guess, when youre doing it with the right person, theres this urgency that it be them; only their body, their heart, their mind will satisfy your desire. She was the first person I ever felt that way about, and after a few years, it mellowed, and it turned into something else. But Gabrielle, with you, I feel that way, but its more powerful. Its like all the love Ive ever felt combined and magnified a thousand times, and yet still it is different. I pause. You didnt hear that, did you, when I accidentally used the word love? I wouldnt want you to feel... my voice trails off as she turns to look at me, smiling her beautiful smile, tears running down her face. Well, I wouldnt really know what to do with a woman of less intense emotions now, would I?
Im sorry, Xena. She looks at me and starts to laugh. I dont know what to say.
Nobodys perfect. Im sure Ill do something terrible soon enough. They claim I can be scandalously manipulative.
You? she asks, smiling.
Were going to have to spend all day riding tomorrow. We need our four hours.
I wrap her up in my arms and try to fall asleep. I just made love to someone for the first time in years, someone I might easily be in love with, who might actually love me. Plus, were going to Rome to confront Caesar? Its all too much to take in. Scenarios rush through my mind; what could happen in Rome, to Caesar, to me, to Gabrielle. I reassure myself that there is no greater fighting force than the four of us; Lao Mas abilities in battle are beyond compare, really. But what if something goes wrong? What if Gabrielle doesnt really love me? I remind myself that I deserve to have a nice life. I deserve good things. Still, I dont sleep. I plot and plan, I imagine battles, I smell Gabrielles hair and go over in my mind everything we did earlier. Every kiss, every touch, reliving it all in my mind many times over. And remembering what happened after, that she is still so delicate, there is so much more work for her to do.
Eventually Gabrielle wakes up and turns and looks at me. A million different greens. She kisses me. We tighten our hold on each other; her naked body in my arms is luscious. Borias calls my name through the wall of the tent. I guess were running late again.
We dress quickly, wrapping ourselves in layers of black and gray cotton. We splash ourselves with cold water from a jug. Another day on the road. I run my wet hands through my long dark hair and shake it out.
Please, says Gabrielle, pushing me down until Im sitting on the edge of a trunk. She slowly starts braiding my hair. She stands so close to me I cant help but reach out and stroke her leg absently as she twists strands of my hair together. Just the feeling of any part of her body under my hand, whatever the circumstances, is beyond desirable. Whats the most important thing youve learned from Lao Ma? she asks me, out of nowhere.
Early on, when we first met and I was extremely resistant to her teachings, Lao Ma said a lot of things to me that I didnt understand until much later. To conquer others is to have power, to conquer yourself is to know the way. I remembered it because at the time I was attracted to the words power and conquer. There was a moment Lao Ma created for me, a moment of choice that should have been my turning point. I failed her. I should have been able to value the idea of saving my soul over satisfying my vengeance, and I wasnt. Instead of making her proud, I messed up her plans badly, and she ended up throwing us out on the street. As Borias told you, Ming Tsu was dead and his son declared war on Lao Ma. Borias and I were in a tavern when we heard the news, licking our wounds, and plotting revenge. I dont think I had ever felt worse in my entire life than I did then, and I hated myself for being so weak. I respected her so much, and I let her down. But she was a fool. Wasnt she? I dont know why I said the next words out loud. I cant imagine what would have happened to my life if I hadnt said them, how many more years I would have traveled the world causing pain. I said, We should help her. Borias nodded his head at me and said, It would be the honorable thing to do. And I said, Lets do it anyway, And we did.
So you conquered yourself, says Gabrielle, finishing the first braid and laying it gently on my shoulder. She walks around me and begins a braid on the other side of my head. I like the way this feels.
Yeah, and as time went by I did it more and more. She helped me realize that my anger at Caesar was my doing, not his; that instead of focusing on him to somehow make it hurt less, I had to focus on myself. Its the hardest lesson but it helps every day.
Do you always remember?
No. Lots of times I forget to try to control myself. Lots of times I forget not to blame others. I try to accept my failures when they happen.
Gabrielle is now behind me, sitting on the bed, holding the two braids up behind my head. I dont have anything to tie them together with.
Across the room there are some thin leather strips. I find them with my mind and lift them gently. Ready? I ask, gesturing at the leather as it floats across the room towards us.
Thats amazing, Xena. Can you do it all the time? she asks, catching the leather and tying a small piece into my hair. She helps me to my feet.
Nope. Its hard. But Ill teach you if you wan to learn.
I want to learn, she says, standing on her tiptoes and kissing me on the lips. I return the kiss passionately and theres Borias voice from outside the tent, yelling about breakfast.
At breakfast in Lao Mas tent, things are less tense than they could be. Lao Ma may not be perfect, but she has gone a long way towards being able to completely control her emotions. Sometimes I wonder if this is a good thing, but who am I to question the master? Borias gives me a few looks that make it clear he suspects what happened between Gabrielle and myself last night. I just grin at him. Im not surprised that he can see it, because I feel like Im bubbling over with it. This is our last meal as us; before we break camp we transform ourselves into Borias war party. Now he will ride at the front, and all the women in the party will ride at the back, unarmed and guarded, dressed alike in long white robes, with hoods, capes, and veils. The soldiers don matching brown uniforms, and we set out.
We move quickly, just north of the usual route. We dont stop to eat or speak all day, we just ride. Finally, right before dark, we stop to make camp. Tonight, Borias sleeps in the warlord tent, and Lao Ma sleeps with us, along with the three female servants who play slave as we do. Borias joins us for dinner and makes the expected unamusing remarks about how he always wanted to have a harem. He is so foolish that Lao Ma laughs for the first time since before she heard that her daughters were in danger. A wonderful sound.
A scout enters the tent and reports to Lao Ma that he has found something in a town nearby. He hands her a large piece of paper. She smiles at it and turns it to show the rest of us. Quite a good likeness, she jokes, and it is. Gabrielle blushes at the sight of her own wanted poster, and takes it when Lao Ma passes it to her. She reads aloud: Wanted, escaped Roman arena slave, female... extremely dangerous killer... small intellectual ability... This is just appalling.
Its a really nice likeness, though, I say, because it is, but still, I make her laugh, and thats the point.
I am the warlord Niklio. Ive seen the wanted poster and had the beautiful blonde gladiators image in my mind all day, says Borias, Shes all I can think about so of course the moment I see her, foraging for food behind a tavern, I know its her.
Foraging for food? Gabrielle asks, Couldnt it be something a little more heroic?
No, he says, grinning, So I captured her and had nothing else planned, so I headed over towards Rome to get the reward.
Works for me, I say, forcing myself not to stroke Gabrielle. Every part of her body makes me want to touch it, for one reason or another.
After dinner we all prepare for bed immediately. I lie next to Gabrielle and as soon as the lights are out I pull her into my arms. Just holding her silently in the dark in a room full of people... such a feeling of peace. When I wake up in the morning in the same position, I realize that in my arms she does not have the nightmares.
Good morning, Xena, whispers Lao Ma.
I open my eyes to see her lounging on a pillow, staring at me.
This is very sweet, she says, smiling at the girl sleeping in my arms.
Only you could get away with saying that, Lao Ma, I reply, Have we overslept again?
Its early still.
I could go hunting. We could use some fresh meat.
As I recall, you dont eat meat. Yet lately, I could swear--
I dont. It is possible to love someone without there being a sexual aspect involved, you know.
Really? I ask, humorous disbelief in my voice.
Yes, really. I cannot explain what it is that I feel for him, Xena, how it has deepened over time. It would be easy to say he was my souls mate, only I am not sure I believe in that concept.
I guess I just cant imagine anyone not wanting to have sex with Borias, I joke. She laughs with me.
Odd, isnt it? she asks, as if she really thinks so.
We dont need to have each others permission, I say.
Gabrielle starts waking up, conveniently bringing an end to this uncomfortable conversation. Another day on the road begins.
So I take Gabrielle on her first hunting trip. Its a cold morning, so we wrap ourselves in layers, bows and arrows on our backs. We move north silently, prepared for anything but looking for deer. She is good at moving stealthily, not a twig breaks as she passes over it. After an hour of northern movement, I sense something up ahead. I point forward and put my finger to my lips. Gabrielle nods. As we continue onward even more carefully, Gabrielle takes her bow from her back, and I pick up the scent of our quarry on the breeze. Its human. I shake my head at the bow and she replaces it, giving me a questioning look. I motion for her to move closer to me and she does. I whisper in her ear, Human. It takes a lot for me not to kiss her, but we need to be focused. Who in Hades would be out here in the middle of nowhere? Gabrielle following directly behind me, we finally come to a spot where we can see them from afar. Though I know my eyesight is fine, I find it hard to believe what I am seeing. Roman soldiers. Roman soldiers a day outside of Chin! Gabrielles eyes widen and I clamp my hand over her mouth. She nods. We watch. There are three of them, obviously scouts, and it looks as if theyre scouting up to just before where were hiding. We have to follow them, see what on earth is going on. We stay far enough behind that they cant sense theyre being followed. We approach a campground; I can smell many people. The soldiers continue forward, and luckily there is a small hill to the left. We climb it, and my intuition is correct: we can see the entire campsite from here, and Gabrielle puts her own hand over her mouth. There must be a five hundred men.
This isnt good, I whisper to her.
Its a trap, she whispers back.
Yes. I need to go down there and eavesdrop and you need to stay here.
I begin to move away and she grabs me, scowling.
Sorry, I say, and pull her forward into a passionate kiss. I put a lot of heat into it, to purposefully leave her flustered and distracted so I can get away fast.
The bushes outside the Roman camp smell like urine. Clearly I have entered upon the area they are using as an outhouse. Just my luck. I crouch in the bushes for a few moments, watching Roman soldiers pee. It is not a pretty sight. Just as I am about to move further along the edge of the camp, I hear the sound of urine hitting stone just to my right. I turn and look; gold armor, the penis, the face: its Julius Caesar in the very flesh! And he looks terrible, older than he should, and bloated somehow, yet unmistakably himself. My hand moves to the hilt of my sword and stops before unsheathing it. Not the plan, Xena, this is not the plan. I could just cut off his penis. I wouldnt have to kill him. But I want to. No one would know. Not ever. I could take my sword and slowly push it through his heart. I could say the names of all the people Ive known who have suffered because of him as I gently pulled the sword out and watched as he fell to the ground. Images float through my mind; looking up at his face when we made love, looking down at his face from the cross when he ordered my legs broken. He perpetuates slavery, he threatens Chin. He deserves to die.
But Lao Ma would be so disappointed in me. Even if she didnt actually know, I would know, and I wouldnt be able to look at myself in the mirror. He finishes his business and I retreat, returning quickly to Gabrielle, and racing back towards camp.
What did you see? she asks, out of breath, when we stop for a drink of water.
Caesar? she gasps, And five hundred men. So the kidnapping was a trap, a ploy to get us away from Chin.
Yeah. I imagine he doesnt have Kao Hsin and Pao Ssu, but we still cant be sure. Come on.
Back at camp, we enter Borias tent, where he and Lao Ma are engaged in an intense discussion.
Lao Ma, I say, as she looks up at me, startled, I have surprising news to report. A few hours north of here, we spotted Caesar and five hundred Roman soldiers.
What? asks Borias, shocked, starting to rise. Lao Ma puts her hand on his arm, and he sits.
I assume you are sure it was Caesar, Xena, asks Lao Ma.
I squatted in the bushes watching him urinate.
Wonderful, says Borias, Thank you for that image.
The council is prepared for this contingency, Lao Ma says as she pours us wine. She speaks to a servant, asks her to explain the situation to the perimeter guards and get messages to the scouts. We sit on red velvet pillows, Borias glancing at Lao Ma every few moments. I want to tell him that shes alright, that she is dangerously resilient, but we need to focus.
Okay, so we have lots of options here, I begin, First, we could just attack him. Take him from the west as he prepares for a fight in the east.
He has five hundred men and we have twenty, says Gabrielle. She certainly is taking to this whole strategy thing.
But Lao Ma is one of our men, I explain. I leave Gabrielle to imagine what that might mean; if she can catch a glass without touching it...
If he gets to Chin, theyll be ready and defeat him easily, Lao Ma mentions.
We could come in from behind while they do, I say, trap them between two armies. We could have reinforcements here in two days, meet them further along the road--Caesar wouldnt know what hit him.
Or we could just go straight home and run the war from there, says Lao Ma.
I could have killed Caesar at his camp, but I didnt, I say.
Really? asks Borias.
Really. But I think we should kill him now. Im angry. I want him dead. The things hes done to the people I love.
We have to find out if he has my daughters.
I doubt he does, but yes, I say. The look on Lao Mas face tells me she doesnt think he has them either.
Gabrielle clears her throat, All these plans include terrible bloodshed and the death of soldiers on both sides. If we go ahead with my original plan, no one has to die. Except maybe Caesar.
Borias is thinking and says, Heres the story I tell Caesar. What do you think? I saw the wanted poster and happened to run into the slave. I captured and subdued her. My scouts happened to come upon Caesars camp. How convenient, I think, that I dont have to travel all the way to Rome to collect the reward for returning the gladiator slave. I explain to Caesar that my taste in slave girls leads me to the Orient every time. I question him mercilessly and we find out whether or not he has Kao Hsin and Pao Ssu. If he has them, we get them. If he doesnt, we make him leave, however we end up having to do that.
Thats the plan, says Lao Ma decisively. She will almost always choose the plan with the least potential for casualties. One of the many things I admire about her.
Two hours later we are on the road. Borias looks incredible, handsome and regal as always, but with the extra sparkle of a fine performance. I keep my head bowed, as do Lao Ma and the three other servants. I am the only one who is not from Chin but with make up I can pass, and I do. Ten soldiers ride with us, one pulling Gabrielle along by a rope attached to the heavy handcuffs on her wrists. Shes dressed in rags and is barefoot. She is supposed to be a dangerous prisoner but still I wish she was riding with me on Desire, her back pressed up against my stomach. I dont like her being this close to Caesar.
I am thinking what an insane plan this is, as we finally come upon the Roman camp. Its a gray afternoon, so all the colors stand out against the drab sky; tents and banners and flags and soldiers as far as the eye can see. We ride boldly into the camp, knowing they have seen us and will not attack until they are sure of our intentions. A group of soldiers ride up to us and ask our business. They seem particularly nonplused at the idea of visitors.
I am Niklio. I seek an audience with the great Caesar, says Borias, I have something I believe he is looking for.
Our soldiers pull Gabrielle towards the front of our party, and Borias presents her with a flourish. There is no mistaking this woman for any other person than the one on the wanted poster. She stares sullenly at the ground. The Roman soldiers tell Borias to follow, and to leave his soldiers. We follow. Our soldiers retreat into the woods, and head towards the spot we will meet later.
At Caesars tent, we wait outside as Borias is announced. He enters, pulling Gabrielle along. We five slave girls follow demurely and retreat to the corner of the tent, away from Caesars throne. The tent is large and unadorned. A few trunks with coins and clothing spilling out of them, weapons racks, some tables and chairs, a pallet. I am the only one who can feel it as Lao Ma builds a protective dome of energy around the tent. No one can go in or out while the energy remains as a buffer. There are two guards who stand at attention behind Caesars throne, and two more just outside the doorway. The tension of inaction is killing me already. Now that I am safely in the shadows, I can look at Caesar.
Encased in golden armor and the finest Corinthian leather, seated on a rather plain throne, is my ex-lover, The Emperor of Rome. Now that I have my leisure to examine him, I realize that his face has become distorted by anger and disappointment. His life has not gone the way he wanted it to; he is desperately unsatisfied. I am glad. And I am glad that his ugliness shows on the outside now.
So, Niklio, says Caesar in that deceptively kind, manipulative voice he uses when bargaining, I see you have found my little flower. He cant hide the excitement in his eyes at the sight of Gabrielle. His look is covetous, obsessed. His smile revolts me. I can feel her body shrink under his gaze. I want to jump across the room and stick my dagger into his chest. I want to make him pay for everything.
Yes, Emperor, says Borias slowly, I found her in Chin, pathetically foraging for food in the garbage behind a seedy tavern. Id seen the wanted poster, and knew it was her immediately.
Of course, says Caesar, Who could forget someone like her? His eyes rake over Gabrielles body and I feel revulsion prickling my skin. Caesar does not seem to sense the tension in the room; I dont understand how he has lived this long.
Yes, she is impressive, certainly, and amazingly strong, for a woman. Very difficult to control. I prefer my women...docile, explains Borias. Oh he is good! I am fairly squirming imagining what this Niklio would do to his slaves. Caesar looks back at us, huddled in a corner. We are nothing to him. He doesnt even bother to focus his eyes on us.
I can see that, says Caesar, cold and smug, but this one was trained for fighting, not for fucking. Though sometimes I wonder if that was a terrible mistake.
Caesar reaches out to touch her, and Gabrielle takes a step back. Caesar scowls. Lao Ma digs her nails into my arm as it slides towards the dagger I have hidden in my boot. I control both my hiss of pain and my urge to taste Roman blood. For the moment. Now Gabrielle stands behind Borias and stares angrily at the ground, looking a great deal like she did the first time I saw her. Except shes more beautiful now. If I can control myself and play this scene right, I have the chance to be with Gabrielle.
Well, says Borias, taking a sip from the goblet of wine offered him, to each his own, I have always said. And as I return to you what is yours, in exchange for your generous reward, he pauses and Caesar nods curtly, I wonder if you perhaps have anything around that might, say, be a little more to my taste? To sweeten the deal, perhaps?
You are in no position to bargain, Niklio, says Caesar, the ugly sound of a threat in his voice. He has become so repulsive I cannot bear to look at him.
I assure you, I do not mean to ask for more than my due. Of course, you realize that few people could have captured your little flower. If not myself, I cant quite imagine who, trained as I suspect she was by the finest warriors of Rome. Borias is incredible. Ive never seen him lose a negotiation. Charming and powerful.
Caesar concedes this.
But still, I do not ask for more, I ask perhaps for something different, Borias says, in a manner subtle yet so suggestive it cannot be misinterpreted. Suddenly all eyes are on Caesar, gauging his reaction.
Ah, says Caesar, drinking, I understand. I am afraid I cannot help you. I am on my way to Chin, not on my way back.
Are you sure? Borias asks, Sure you have no girls at all from Chin? I would give you your flower free of charge if you had even one delicate beauty for my collection.
I fear Borias may have gone too far. Caesar is an egotistical bastard, but hes not stupid. My hand swiftly reaches the hilt of my dagger and I shift my weight in preparation for attack.
If only I did, Caesar says, laughing at his own joke, But alas, I am bereft of girls.
There is a moment of complete silence. I believe him. Lao Ma steps forward, pulling off her slave outfit to expose her royal robes of red, gold, and purple. She looks fierce and formidable, in her understated way. Every bit the Empress of Chin.
So you do not have my daughters after all, Caesar? she asks quietly.
Lao Ma... how dare you... sputters Caesar as he struggles to sit upright on his throne, How could you...
It doesnt matter, she says, You truly are a dishonorable man, to use my love for my children in this way. How could you imagine you could take the House of Lao so easily?
Watching him from the shadows I can see he doesnt realize hes already lost. I almost pity him. I know I will enjoy what is to come more than I should.
I am Rome, he explains, as if it is obvious, The greatest power in all the world. Chin is a simple, peaceful place, run by a woman! It only took me this long to conquer it because its such a distance to travel. But now I am here. I will be kind enough to offer you the opportunity to give up and save us all casualties that might be better used as soldiers on another front, for Rome.
Lao Ma looks at him and laughs lightly. You are a fool, Caesar, she says, on so many levels I cannot even begin to explain it to you.
Id like to focus on his lack of respect for women, I say, stepping up next to her, my disguise left in the shadows. I look at Caesar and try to put at least a tenth of my hatred for him into my eyes. While he stares at me terrified, Borias unlocks Gabrielles handcuffs.
Xena! breathes Caesar, You bitch!
If you insist on threatening Chin, I look at Lao Ma for permission and she nods, Then the war is on.
Caesar unsheathes his sword and comes at me, as his guards take on Borias and Gabrielle. Lao Ma steps back to protect her loyal servants.
Guards! Caesar calls, as our blades clash and I kick his throne across the tent. While he is distracted, I trade my dagger for a sword, and give my battle cry as I again advance upon him. At the edges of my vision I can sense my companions fare well, as my focus pinpoints itself on Caesars sword. He is pathetic, desperate already, arming himself with a second sword, as if it will help. Guards! he cries again, retreating a tables-length away from me. In the background of my hearing are chairs breaking and muttered curses. And the sounds of the guards outside the tent, trying to get in, not understanding why suddenly the soft material is impenetrable.
There arent gonna be any guards, I say, You chicken-shit bastard. You really should have learned to fight!
And thats enough to get him to fight me all out. He comes at me, slashing with both swords, a look in his eye of such rage.
I despise you, Xena! he screams, plunging a sword towards my abdomen. I sidestep it and kick his hand hard, knocking the sword to the ground. He throws his remaining sword from his left hand to his right, blocking my blows as best he can while moving backwards quickly across broken pieces of furniture. I take a moment to watch Gabrielle; she is holding her own easily, barehanded against the armed guard. I watch her as she manipulates his right arm, forcing him to slit his own throat, jumping out of the way as his body falls. Shes not even out of breath as she turns to look and make sure I am okay. I nod at her and continue fighting Caesar. Hes cornered and I hear a scuffle and then the sound of Borias killing the other guard somewhere behind me.
Julius Caesar stands in front of me, hideous creature that he is. I am amazed that I ever loved him, that anybody did.
Your death will be like a gift to the world, I tell him, my voice barely more than a growling whisper.
Youll never amount to anything, he spits out as he lunges at me. I disarm him easily and pause, staring at him, my sword pulled back for the killing blow. The bastard broke my heart and killed Mlila, he made my Gabrielle do terrible things. I can taste his blood already.
No! says Borias.
What the Hades do you mean no? I scream, on the verge of losing control of myself, brushing the sweat off my forehead and up into my bangs. He doesnt have the girls. What do you wanna do? Let him go? I ask scornfully, almost hysterically. This is Caesar, have you all forgotten that? I half turn my head to Lao Ma when I say this, and Caesar takes the moment of my distraction to lunge at my sword arm. I react without looking, and just as Im about to feel my sword pierce his chest, someone knocks me to the side. As I hit the ground, its Gabrielle who falls on top of me, and I look up to see Borias plunge his sword into Caesars stomach.
If anyone asks, he says, pushing the blade in deeper, You were killed by Borias.
I hold Gabrielle to me as Caesars pathetic body sags to the ground. We all watch as the most powerful man in the known world takes his last breath.
This isnt how it was... supposed to end, Caesar whispers, and he is dead.
Gabrielle gasps. Shes shaking. Thank you, she whispers.
My pleasure, Borias says, Now we go home?
Yes, says Lao Ma, We go home.
Gabrielle and I get to our feet. We all stand there a moment staring down at the body.
You were going to kill him all along, werent you? I ask Borias.
Yes, he says, For me it was less personal. Better for my karma. He smiles and puts out his arm for Lao Ma and she rests her hand delicately upon it.
And? I ask.
And I enjoyed it, he says, a sly smile on his face.
As we exit the tent, the shield moves with us, invisible and very powerful. There are hundreds of soldiers outside, and they lunge towards us, weapons draws, only to be stopped by what appears to them to be absolutely nothing. We run to our horses and the energy shield runs with us, arrows and spears bouncing off easily. The soldiers scream and pound at it; some of them have entered the tent by now and know Caesar is dead. Its a confusing few moments. We mount our horses and as we ride away in clouds of dust, the protective shield melts. After a few hours we stop to meet the rest of our party and regroup. I sense we havent been followed, so we head back towards Chin, leaving a few scouts to make sure the Romans dont retaliate. Leader-less, it is doubtful that they will even return to Rome, never mind come after Caesars enemies.
We camp tonight just inside the great wall. The four of us dressed as ourselves again, eating dinner and drinking wine in Lao Mas tent, telling old war stories and listening to the raucous celebration from the soldiers camp. Even the servants are drunk tonight.
To a job well done, all around, says Lao Ma, and the four of us lift our glasses and toast. We drink and laugh, joking about how impressed we are with ourselves.
Will you be staying on with us, Gabrielle? asks Borias, as the laughter dies down.
I would, I would love to but Im not sure what I really have to offer, says Gabrielle.
She doubts her skills! Borias laughs, gulping down his wine and holding his goblet out for more. I fill it and he continues, Let me begin by stating the obvious. You are a brave, cunning warrior, and a creative, experienced fighter.
Gabrielle blushes and looks down at her hands; she knows what he says is true.
You are a fine strategist, says Lao Ma seriously, You have a good understanding of human nature, and you are the only person besides myself ever to have won the Questions Game.
Gabrielle looks at Lao Ma with admiration, knowing what high praise she has just received. Then she looks at me. I blush.
What theyre not saying is they like it that you keep me out of trouble, I joke. Holding her stare I take her hand in mine and say, Im too biased to answer for Chin, so Ill answer for me. You make me so happy, Gabrielle, and I think youre wonderful in too many ways to name. If you left Id ride to the ends of the earth to be with you again.
Gabrielles expression as she listens to me is worth every single moment I have lived through to get here. She says, If only to spare Desire such a tiring journey, I will stay.
Borias smiles at her and we all raise our glasses. Lao Ma laughs, bending forward to kiss Gabrielles cheek, and says,
Welcome to the House of Lao.
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