by: de Bonheur

DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle belong to MCA/Universal, and are used without intent for commercial profits. Author's copyright does not extend to said characters. This is a work of fiction. Names, places, etc., either are product of the author's overactive imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, events, etc., is purely coincidental. NOTICE: The author retains all rights automatically attached to the creation of this work and to the independently created characters.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a quasi-uber sequel to AND FAIR TRUTH, set in the Xenaverse established in the LONG IS THE WAY series. It's not absolutely necessary for you to read the aforementioned stories, but some things will make more sense if you do. Also, this story contains major spoilers for AFT, in addition to episodic spoilers. This is alternative fanfiction, contains explicit adult content, and implied physical sexual assault and violence, and may be offensive to some readers. Please use discretion. End notes will be provided following the last chapter, citing the poems excerpted. Unless otherwise specified, any mistranslation will be my fault.
A ma mere... Je t'aime.

Before their eyes in sudden view appear
The secrets of the hoary Deep: a dark
Illimitable ocean, without bound,
Without dimension, where length, breadth and height,
And time and place, are lost... [1]

The roaring fire that warmed the ancient chamber had long ago been reduced to a dying ember. The damp chill seeping through heavy curtains reminds the young woman just how long she has been here, in her study. However, instead of moving to add more logs to feed the flame, she merely closes the thick silk brocade robe tighter about her trim frame and continues to stare at the portrait before her. It is as if she fears that the solution to the mystery would leap out of the flat plane and disappear while her attention is focused elsewhere. And for much of this night, the only motion she allows herself is confined to a small space around the art work, and only in order to observe the painted surface from different view points.

This day marks a full week of the fair blonde's self-enforced isolation. She has been spending most of her waking hours in this room, trying to figure out the answers to her many questions. Even under normal circumstances, the young woman sleeps very little, preferring to spend her time at home reading, or doing whatever it is that has captured her fancy. There are simply too many good books to read, too many things she wants to learn, and she is certain that ten lifetimes would still be too short to do them all. With this new preoccupation, she sleeps even less, and is most oblivious to everything else that has been going on. Her usually tolerant and respectful chef de cuisine has already thrice invaded her private domain to sternly remind her of meal times. And that was only after the master of the chateau failed to lure her out of hiding.

The object of her obsession is a medium-sized painting. It is extraordinary not only because of its creator's skill or sensibilities, but because it is what it is. The highly polished silver frame shows that the painting has been very well cared for. However, the corrosion along the surface of the solid metal is a testament to its antiquity. The oil-based pigments and the canvas looked aged as well. Nevertheless, despite her vast knowledge in art and antiques, the viewer finds herself unable to ascertain the era of its origin. What baffles her even more is the subject matter of the portraiture. To be precise, it is actually the backside of a woman.

The painting stands on an easel placed in the middle of the room directly under the skylight. Illuminated by the bright winter sun, the thin layers of paint seemed almost transparent. However, the same background, now under artificial lighting, has taken on a smoky fogginess. The figure appears at times to be suspended in space, and the young blonde wonders briefly if she could reach in and just tap the woman on her shoulder. Maybe she would turn around and even help solve the puzzle.

At this moment, a quiet rapping drifts into the chamber. The visitor, after waiting in vain for the acknowledging answer, enters the room noiselessly.

"Michelle?" A gentle voice questions, hesitant. "C'mon, ma petite amourette," he continues, unmindful of the woman's inattention, and wrapping an affectionate arm about the slim shoulders, "You should go to sleep."

She leans into the embrace, and rests her fair head against the comforting shoulder, "Yeah, I know." A long moment of silence later, she turns to gaze into the deep brown eyes of her confidant, and then looks away before she is able to ask, "Bernard, are you still leaving tomorrow?"

"Oui, ma petite," her companion answers, his voice full of sorrow and regret. "Je suis desole, I wish I could stay here forever, but you know I can't... Not after..."

"I know, Bernard, I know," the young woman responds, sparing both him and herself from having to speak of the still unhealed wound. *I just wish things could be the same like before, I wish you didn't have to go, but I know it hurts you to stay here, with me...* "And Bernard, don't worry, I'll be okay," Michelle reassures him, after gathering her courage. "'sides, France needs wonderful diplomats like you guarding her interests," she adds, with a smile.

"Oh, Michelle..." he sighs, gathering the young blonde in his arms and pressing her head against the crook of his neck, never wanting to let go, and not knowing when and if they would ever see each other again. But eventually he does, and gestures to the large leather case he left by the door, "Here, I brought you the violoncelle..."

"Are you sure you don't want to keep it?"

"Non, ma cherie, it belonged to your father," Bernard answers sincerely. "Besides, I can't play it anymore, it just reminds me too much..." He adds, wistfully.

"D'accord," again she jumps in, cutting him off. "I'll keep it for now, but whenever you want it back, just tell me, okay?" In her heart, however, she knows she will be keeping it for good.

Bernard knows that, too; and he simply smiles in return. "Anyway, as I was saying before, Michelle, you should go to sleep," the dark haired man orders in a stern voice, like he would at times when he was younger and she, very, very young.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm going, I'm going," she replies, punctuating her exasperation with exaggerated eyerolls.

"Bonne nuit, ma petite," he winks and grins genuinely for the first time in ages, and kisses her fondly on both cheeks.

"Bonne nuit, mon frere," she whispers softly, unable to hold back the familial address, just as the door is about to close behind the retreating form. She wants Bernard to know what he means to her. He stiffens, then turned about and flashes her a brilliant smile, before letting the wooden barrier fall between them.

The young blonde stares at the closed door for a few moments before her eyes rests on the dark leather case. *Oh, Bernard...* Michelle inhales deeply, as memories of happier, earlier days flood her mind. She remembers the day Bernard joined her family, recalling his ecstatic excitement when the Marquis d'Estin gave the young man his own cherished instrument. As always, images of her brother, Bernard and herself practising together intrude; and she slams closed her eyelids to shut out the visions.

When the aqua eyes open again, they are once again focused on the painted figure. And once more, Michelle is immediately held captive by the subject, whose long dark hair merging with her black dress creates a mysterious aura. This puzzle functions not only as a distraction from things Michelle would rather not dwell upon. To the fair woman, it also serves as a connection to someone she cannot stop thinking about: the painting's previous owner.

And she allows her mind to return to exactly nine days ago, when she first met this other enigma...


Fragrant of each blossom evocative of the censer;
The violin quivered like an afflicted heart;
Waltz melancholic and languished whirling!
The heaven gloomy and divine like a transient shrine. [2]

Along the boulevards, yards of Tricolore fluttered in the evening breeze, keeping in time with the jubilant mood. It seemed only yesterday that the Armistice was signed in Compiegne; and around the City of Light a new map of Europe was being drawn. The battle scars were finally beginning to heal, and the people continued to celebrate the end of the war to end all war en masse.

American doughboys, intellectuals, bourgeoisie, and shop-girls all spent their nights visiting jazz halls, shimmering to the hottest rhythms created by Negro musicians. Whereas, the aristocrats and the wealthy divided their time between New York, the numerous ski resorts on the Continent, and other most trendy places in the world.

For the creme de la creme of the haut monde, however, the most fashionable place to be in this particular winter evening was right at home, in the Ville Lumiere, at the Theatre des Champs Elysees. The tickets were snatched up in less than a week after they went on sale, and months before the performers even returned to France. One of the tabloids from across the Channel mocked that certain members of the French high society were willing to "deal with the Devil to get into the Elysian Fields."

The concert was given for the benefit of the war victims, but it wasn't so much the idea of "noblesse oblige" that drove the gens du monde to the symphony hall. True, people of privilege have obligations to those less fortunate, but the world knew that it was their curiosities about the young performers that compelled them out into the cold streets.

It had been said that if one were a writer or an artist in France, one had privileges. And if one were rich, young, beautiful, and possessed major talents, one would be invincible; and the musicians here definitely enjoyed all of the above.

On the stage was a young woman dressed in an elegant long crushed velvet gown of the deepest green, her shoulder length blond hair tied back into a simple chignon. Accompanying her, a dark haired man dressed in flattering black tail coat, with a cravat that matched the material of his partner's dress.

Michelle d'Estin, or Destin, as she preferred to be known, had been capturing the people's heart with her music since she was a child. Some people had unkindly wondered aloud if the Marquise de Lorraine had traded in her own life for the soul of Paganini for Michelle when she was born. The young girl was so proficient with her instrument that the leading Swiss conductor of the day came to Paris just to see the thirteen year-old play. Now, almost a decade later, in her first concert since the war, her performance did not disappoint her public. An air of self-certainty and tranquillity exuded from the slight frame as agile digits flitted along the finger board, as the bow flew across the strings.

Meanwhile, this was the only time the audience met Bernard Liancourt at the piano. They had heard him as a cellist when he, Michelle and her brother would perform together, and they were as awed by his virtuosity now as they were then. Bernard was the illegitimate son of a minor aristocrat and a wealthy Chinese printer. The Marquis d'Estin opened his home and heart to the young Bernard after his mother, who was the Marquis' good friend, died. His children did as well, although in different ways; and the three were absolutely inseparable.

Looking at them and how they interacted with each other, the general observer might think that Michelle Destin and Bernard Liancourt were a couple. And a most handsome pair they would be, too. Society gossip festered when Bernard became a career diplomat shortly after the war broke out, and Michelle left to join him in Indochine a year later. However, the two made their relationship quite clear to their audience that evening, for the dedication on the programme read: "A la France, a mon frere, a mon amour."

The concert was held in memory of Etienne de Lorraine, Michelle's older brother who perished on the front lines. He was once hailed by the French critics as the next Franz Liszt, but when the young Michelle's prodigious talent became apparent, he gave up his own career to be her accompanist. Etienne was almost twelve years his sister's senior, and was her guardian after the Marquis d'Estin passed on. An extremely patriotic soul since youth, he had made their mother's family name his own to show his allegiance. When Michelle came of age, Etienne enlisted and requested to be sent to Dardanelles, where some of the fiercest battles were fought, back in 1915.

And the French, always tolerant of the idiosyncrasies of the upper class, did not raise an eyebrow over any of the young people's foibles. The entire haut monde mourned with Michelle and Bernard over Etienne's sacrifice.

Now, these same people held their collective breath as they waited to find out what the young violinist had decided to play as her final encore.

The blonde gave her accompanist an almost imperceptible nod. And together they sent a silent message skywards, *Etienne, c'est pour toi!* Then the music began.

The crowd stilled even more when they heard and recognised the popular Flots du Danube waltz. It was also Michelle and Etienne's signature piece. In an interview, the siblings had explained that it was the blonde's most favourite composition, as she had an inexplicable fondness for Slavic repertoires. Some claimed that the brother and sister team chose the music to show their mockery and disdain for their peers, who were always commenting on how the pair's "sang royal" was bluer than the river famous for its beauty.

Regardless, the pair's audience always looked forward to hearing their interpretation. The piece usually carried a simple, delightful melody when heard in the salons. But it would sound differently in every one of Michelle and Etienne's performance. For it was actually an impromptu transcription game they played between themselves. And those were often the only times when the public could catch a glimpse of their true passionate, playful nature, and of the deep bond between two people bound by blood.

Without a doubt, pretentious critics would compare and examine the subtle differences between the previous and the present partnership, and analyse and take apart the piece measure by measure. However, on this night, everyone in the audience was simply utterly enthralled by the sound. Mesmerised by the synchronicity of digits and movements as woeful melancholic phrases and almost violent trills pursued each other.

When the performers took their bows mere minutes later, not a single pair of dry eyes were found in the house. The people present knew that they had just taken part in something extremely rare and special.

One of the young stars did as well, as her vision swept the standing audience and was captivated by a shiny token hanging from a tall woman's neck. But she would not begin to realise the significance of her participation. At least not just yet.


In the anguish of hopeless sorrow,
in the cares of the noisy social whirl,
for a long time I heard your tender voice
and dreamed of your dear features...
My heart beats in rapture,
and for it the divinity,
inspiration, life, tears
and love have been restored. [3]

The sky was a colour field of hazy dark azure when a bright red Delahaye sped along the River Seine. Pigeons blinked sleepily and coo-cooed to express dismay at the mechanical din. The owner of the convertible had not even the time to spare them an apologetic glance, for she was going to be late.

After the concert the night before, she and Bernard decided to take up their friends' invitation to go dancing in Montparnasse. Their ship had docked at Marseille a mere month ago, and they went directly home. Michelle and Bernard had stayed there, spending most of their days meeting with various people who were taking care of Marquis d'Estin's business and making sure the household was in order. This was the pair's first time back in Paris after their exile, and their bohemian friends were not going to let them weasel out of the get together easily. Truthfully, they both could use the distraction, but Michelle was beginning to think she was getting too old for this partying business.

Finally reaching her destination with only a few minutes to spare, the young woman haphazardly parked her auto across the street. As she flew into the building, Michelle again thanked le Seigneur for inspiring the trend of dressing women in trousers. "Quelle chierie," if she had to hobble around like the women in her mother's time did. She tossed down several francs onto the desk, grabbed a catalogue and was heading towards the double door when a uniformed man blocked her path.

"Pardon, mademoiselle! The patrons have all been seated, and the bidding is about to start," the receptionist haughtily announced to the honey-blond mess of wind-blown hair. "You cannot go in."

"Mais, s'il vous plait," she hurried, "I must." Michelle had promised one of her friends who couldn't get away that morning that she would check out one of the items for her. The auction house was owned by one of her father's former business associates; and he told the young woman that a very peculiar painting of a mysterious, unknown origin would be put on the block. Only a few people had seen the piece, and it had sparked the interests of collectors and journalists alike. A portraitist herself, Michelle's friend was curious to know more about the infamous art work.

"I'm sorry, it's house policy, and you're too late," the man insisted. "Maybe you'll come back another time." The young aristocrat was about to argue with him, prepared to put on the despised femme du monde facade...

"Bonjour, Madame la Marquise," the manager of the auction house chose that time to pass through the double door. "Vous etre bienvenue, how good of you to join us," he clasped her hand enthusiastically, and ushered her towards her destined goal. As polite pleasantries were being exchanged, Michelle silently expelled a breath of relief. The young blonde was happy to be spared from having to act like one of those savagely determined society woman. And before she entered the bidding hall, she flashed the receptionist a dazzling smile, secretly amused by the man's countenance. She didn't know a person could turn so many shades of colours.

Michelle was not an art collector, even though she had much knowledge in the area. What she cared most about was not the value of the items themselves, but the history behind them. She found the different styles and cultures fascinating, and the various lessons from the past invaluable. There was only one painting she had ever been interested in owning; she fell in love with it the first time Etienne showed it to her. That was one of her brother's favourite works as well, and the young Michelle would badger him to tell her the stories behind the painting. Stories about the struggles of the conquered for independence. And for her tenth birthday, Etienne had a copy commissioned and it had been hanging in her study ever since. To this day, she would still spend hours staring at the colours and the image, transporting herself back to those days of the past.

Despite her lack of interest in the buying and selling, the blonde's own curiosity towards the painting had been piqued after learning what little she did about it. And impatient as always, the young woman was anxious to sit down and start going through the catalogue.

However, the painting was soon forgotten...

Michelle shuddered as a delicate perfume invaded her nostrils, triggering a memoire involontaire. In her mind's eye, she saw fields of jade green meadow, heard chimes of joyous laughter, and felt a sense of innocent happiness that she was not sure if she had truly experienced. She could not quite place the memory, but if Arcadia had existed, that would have been it. And she made a mental note to think more about it when she had the time. For, at the moment, something else demanded her attention...

She was still captivated by the sweet fragrance, which became increasingly distinct as she approached her seat.

*The damask rose!* Her brain had finally processed and recognised the scent of blossoms supposedly picked at dawn. She inhaled deeply, and conjured up the image of the Greek goddess Aphrodite smoothing rose oil over Hector's body. As Michelle recalled the Homeric passage, she could not help wondering about the wearer of the perfume. *Who would have access to the Bulgarian essence so shortly after the war?*

She was led to the answer soon enough. Sitting down in the only empty chair, she turned to greet her tablemate. And the young blonde almost forgot how to smile.

Meeting her was a pair of sparkling aqua orbs. Michelle had been told many a times she had very unusual coloured eyes, and she truthfully had not seen another pair like hers. At least not until then. Except perhaps they were a tad bluer, as hers, more green.

The penetrating intensity of the green-blue gaze further caught her off guard. "Bonjour... Madame," she somehow managed. The woman merely nodded in response.

Something about the woman seemed very familiar. She was at most a few years the young blonde's senior, and had soft black hair which was bobbed according to the latest trend. Her skin was so fair that it almost looked translucent against her dark eye shadow and painted lips. Rather than the neat, geometric look that most women of fashion donned, that Michelle hated, her black silk jersey dress draped like a second skin, accentuating the curves and swells on an otherwise slim frame.

The young aristocrat's head swam as she tried in vain to figure out where she had seen the mysterious, elegant woman before. And she had completely lost track of the auction. Only the patrons' collective gasp was able to bring her back to the present. She lifted her eyes from the catalogue to the front of the room. And she blinked.

The auctioneer had just unveiled a new painting. According to the register, that was the controversial work that her friend, Romaine, was interested in.

Michelle had always thought herself knowledgeable in the arts, especially in visual works. And she had seen many different styles and specimens during her travels throughout Europe and Southeast Asia. Yet, she had never seen anything quite like this.

The painting was very well executed. From where the blonde was sitting, she could see the fine strokes, and the subtle shading which created a three-dimensional illusion.

*But why would anyone spend so much effort painting the backside of a woman?* Michelle wondered, *And keep the work in such an elaborate bejewelled frame?* She had the feeling that somehow it was not just a painting, *Then if not, what is it?*

"Mesdames et Messieurs," the distinguished gentleman began. "I am pleased to present to you the final work, one which you have long awaited." He continued, "Much had been speculated regarding the origin and the value of this painting; however, I can neither confirm nor deny any of the speculations." And explained, "I am afraid I do not know any more about this work than you do. Nevertheless, the seller, whose identity is to be kept in strictest confidence, has promised to disclose all available information to the new owner."

A low murmur developed in response to the auctioneer's introduction. This level of secrecy was not unprecedented, but many attendees were disappointed, for they had hoped to have their curiosity satisfied.

Nonchalant as before, he began speaking again, "As you all know, the art works handled through our house have always been meticulously examined and authenticated." And many patrons nodded in silent agreement. "However, I must explain that we have not had the opportunity to inspect this particular work, though I can assure you the distinguished reputation of the current owner," in response, whispers swelled once again in the room.

Still unruffled, the auctioneer announced, "Le Grand Monsieur had intended to keep this painting himself, but the seller had declined. Still he wanted you to know that he stands behind the quality of this work." Now the people were really curious. They knew the owner of the auction house, and they were aware of his reputation.

Michelle was baffled as well; she understood that when it came to fine art, her father's friend always got what he wanted, regardless of the cost. Even she was stunned by the man's next pronouncement.

"The bidding shall begin at thirty thousand francs," he said. The amount itself was a considerable fortune, and an especially outrageous amount for an unknown painting. Within a few minutes, the bid had increased ten folds. And the room became so quiet that one could hear the slightest shift of someone in their chair. Not that anyone dared to move, however, for a tiny flick of motion could be interpreted as an offer.

Looking discretely about, Michelle noticed the bidding war had only two participants: a man sitting at the next table, and the mysterious woman beside her.

The young blonde had recognised the man as one of the society playboys. For a time, he was relentless in courting her, expecting her to fall head over heels with his good looks. Michelle was sure he was trying to impress either her or yet another unsuspecting woman. Something inside the noblewoman snapped. She was about to make a bid when the auctioneer called for a recess.

During the brief intermission, Michelle drew the vain young man aside. He leered, expecting words of everlasting devotion from the blonde. Instead, she confronted him; and with a few well chosen words, and several thinly veiled threats, she had him convinced that he didn't want the painting. A mischievous grin crept unbidden upon her lips when she recalled his blanched look in reaction to what she said.

Most of the time, Michelle refrained from using her wealth and her social station to influence things. True, France was a republic. However, titles were still treated as carte blanche in the French society. And the fact that both of her parents' families acquired their ranks before the Second Empire made her extra special. Inheriting both titles, and being the sole heir to her international financier father's fortune, Michelle could have quite a formidable place in the haut monde if she so wanted. But she did not and would not.

Still, she often wondered how her family had survived the Revolution, keeping all their heads and most of the property. Bernard, who made much of his father's culture his own, believed they had help and blessings from their ancestors' benevolent spirits. Michelle, on the other hand, wasn't quite sure what to think.

In any case, she decided that her present deviation was more than worthwhile. Especially when she considered her foe.

Then the woman thanked her, "Merci, Mademoiselle Destin." Her deep voice sounded like a low purr.

The blonde was startled by the sensuousness of the voice. Moreover, she had not expected the woman to know her, and was definitely surprised by the lack of decorum in the address.

*Voila!* The young noblewoman suddenly realised why the dark haired beauty seemed so familiar. She was the tall woman who sat in the front row during her concert the night before. Whose necklace had captured her attention during the ovation.

"Merci, Madame," Michelle hesitated. "Pour hier soir," the young woman blurted, instantly embarrassed by what she had said. *Zut! 'For last night!' Quel conne!*

The older woman simply smiled, then turned her gaze towards the front once again, as the bidding was about to continue. Soon, the gavel signalled the last three seconds, and the woman got the painting she wanted.

Michelle almost raced out of the double door. She could not get away fast enough. Something about the woman's crooked grin had set her heart racing. And never one who believed in "le coup de foudre", she thought her own reaction utterly ridiculous. *Fine, love, or infatuation, or whatever, at first sight for other people, tres bien!* But no, *Not ever,* for herself. *Des clous! You don't even know her name!* She chided, although it would be easy for the young blonde to find out who the raven-haired woman was if she wanted.

"Excusez-moi, Madame la Marquise," her escape was almost complete when she heard a familiar baritone calling from behind, urgency in the voice apparent.

"Oui, Monsieur?" Michelle halted, and turned to respond to the manager of the auction house.
"Madame la Marquise, would you please come with me to my office," and without waiting for her response, he began walking away. Blond brows knitted in puzzlement at his peculiar behaviour; curious, she followed.

"Assayez-vous, Madame," he motioned for her to sit, after they entered his office. Michelle shrugged and remained standing. The man merely politely smiled. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small ornate box, then presented it to her. Before the young woman could ask, he instructed, "Please, Madame, I was told that you are not to open this until you are completely alone."

*But why? Who is it from?* She wanted to ask, but the manager moved again to direct her attention to something else.

"Madame," he cleared his throat and began uncertainly. "I am sure you know who purchased this piece of art work," he paused, indicating the portrait resting on an easel. Michelle nodded, curious to know where he was going.

"As you are aware, the seller had promised the purchaser all the available information about the painting," he continued. "La Madame had asked that you attend the meeting on her behalf."

"Waitaminute," Michelle objected. "What's all this about? I didn't buy the work, and I have no interest in knowing what is behind it." That was not entirely true; however, the young blonde was rather apprehensive about the turn of events. "Also, who is she? I've not seen her here before."

The manager spread his palms in a helpless gesture, "Actually, that is another reason why I needed to talk to you. Are you sure you do not wish to sit?" She shook her head, but indicated that she wouldn't mind if he did; the man gratefully took up her offer. Looking at her, he resumed, "To answer your last question, this was the only auction Madame Anastasova ever attended in person, she usually prefers to transact privately with Le Grand Monsieur." Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, the man continued, "Madame had transferred the title of the art work to you; she said that when you see the item in the little box, you would want to solve the mystery behind the portrait."

Involuntarily, she uncrossed her arms, and lifted slim fingers to tap her lips lightly. *Why would someone spend over three hundred thousand francs on a painting then give it away?* She pondered, her raised eyebrows lowered and creased, as her other hand stroked the delicately moulded surface of the metal box. *Eh bien, at least now you know her surname...*

Michelle's musing was interrupted when the manager spoke again, "We need to know where you would like the painting delivered, and we shall make certain it gets there as soon as possible."

After arranging to have the painting sent to her chateau, the young blonde tore up the river again. Returning to their pied a terre, the small apartment along the Right Bank which they had kept for convenience away from home, Michelle was not surprised to find Bernard already up and about. He was no doubt making last minute arrangements concerning his impending trip abroad. Not bothering even to remove her coat, she flopped down onto the divan and fished the small box out of her purse.

The blonde was surprised by the heaviness of the container in her hand, a feeling which she noticed for the very first time. And the connoisseur in her would love to examine more thoroughly the curio, which was obviously from days long past; but at the moment, she was more interested in what caused the muffled rattle within.

Looking over the box carefully, Michelle decided that the gold encased fuchsia jewel was the key. She pressed down upon it gently and the container sprang open, releasing a medallion onto her lap. A small square of parchment followed.

In neat handwriting was an address in Chinon, merely a short drive from her home. *Ah, that must be where I'd find the former owner of the painting,* she thought, since the manager of the auction house said all the information she needed would be in the box. *Or maybe it's where the mysterious woman lives...* The young woman contemplated, *Although that'd mean she knows the seller... This is all too very weird.*

Setting the piece of papyrus aside, she picked up the token. It was made of an unfamiliar hard alloy, and appeared to be emitting a silvery bluish glow. There was a small opening on top, allowing a chain to thread through, and Michelle wondered briefly if that were the same pendant the woman was wearing in the concert. The strange gleam certainly seemed the same. At the centre of the token in fine relief were several ancient characters. She couldn't decipher the language, but they resembled the markings on a small aryballus that her mother used to hold her favourite perfume. Her father had once told her the clay pot was made in Corinth hundreds of years ago, and that he thought the writing suggested a wedding vow of sort. The young woman reminded herself to compare the characters on both items when she got home.

Satisfied, she turned the medallion over. And her breath caught as the token slipped from her stunned fingers and bounced off onto the carpeted floor. Gingeringly, Michelle picked up the ornament, and inhaled deeply before she took another look. The same image stared back at her in remarkable clarity, and suddenly, she felt chilled to the bones.

Gathering her wits, Michelle put the token back into its case and slipped the metal container into her coat pocket. Without even bothering to collect her things, she only left a message for Bernard telling him where she was going. And within half an hour, the red Delahaye was racing southwards.


I wandered then, my gaze fixed at the worn path
When with the sunlight in your hair, on the road
And in the evening, you appeared before me smiling
And I thought I saw the seraph with the golden halo
Who had before appeared in my divine childhood fantasies
Passed, always letting fall from her tortured hands
White snowy bouquets of scented stars. [4]

Situated in Central France, la Vallee de la Loire had always been the favourite of royalties and intellectuals alike. Magnificent chateaux presided over the Loire, the "most sensual river" in the country, luxuriating in their past splendour. Besides Flaubert, who had glorified the serene waters, de Ronsard, Descartes, da Vinci, and countless other talents drew their inspiration from this fertile soil. The region's moderate climate and Nature's other graces yielded sweet, mellow wines; and also attracted immigrants like Bernard's father, imbuing their deep, docile culture to the already gentle land.

This ancient valley, where the travel weary Pucelle d'Orleans had attained momentary peace before her transformation into a warrior-saint, had been Michelle's home for most of her life. At the end of each of her journeys, no matter how brief it was, she always looked forward to returning to Anjou. She longed for the countryside's tranquillity and soothing beauty, and preferred those to the hustle and bustle of city life.

Michelle also loved her family home. Unlike the many local chateaux built along the Loire, Chateau de Mondestin projected from the cliff. With its back rooms cut directly into the rock face, much of the structure was hidden from view. Her great-grandmother was an extremely private woman, as Michelle was told; and she had trees planted all around the comparatively unimposing castle. Through time, the vegetation grew; and for many years since, only the locals and a few others were aware of the building's existence. When Michelle was young, she imagined herself a princess trapped in the witch's tower, and wished for a brave knight to rescue her. Now, she only wanted to stay in the same enchanted forest forever.

Checking her watch, the blonde decided to stay on her current path. It was a good thing there were no such things as speed limits then, especially in the wide-open terrain. The custom built Delahaye had stormed nonstop across and beyond the suburbs of Paris at its maximum capacity. At times like this, the young woman was glad she chose the automaker who built some of the best road racing cars on the Continent.

The night had begun to fall when the River Vienne came into her view. Michelle had contemplated whether or not to just show up at the address on the parchment unannounced, and in the evening. It didn't seem very proper, but the note did say "call on any day, at anytime". And she was anxious to find out more about the token and the painting.

Soon, she was in front of an apartment building on the Rue Jeanne D'Arc. Looking up at the classical structure with heavily ornamented wrought iron balconies, then checking again the numbers on the door, Michelle was pleasantly surprised. She had half expected her host to live in some pretentious abode, with a huge Hispano-Suiza blocking the entire street. This seemed anything but that. Walking up the spiral staircase, she heard soft, romantic sounds of a nocturne being played at the piano, and the rhythmic tapping of a typewriter from another apartment. When a young happy couple on their way out greeted her and smiled genuinely, the blonde was completely sold. She found herself looking forward to meet the owner of the painting and actually hope to get to know him or her.

Outside the top floor apartment, she hesitated, suddenly remembering the moulded image on the medallion. *Maybe I should have gone home and check the inscriptions,* Michelle thought for the first time. *Oh, well, il est trop tard! I'm here already,* she picked up the metal ring and knocked at the wooden surface lightly. Within moments, an older woman opened the door.

"Bon soir," she spoke with a mild accent, "La Marquise d'Estin?" Michelle nodded and smiled.

"Entrez-vous," the silver-haired woman motioned for the fair blonde to enter. "Madame has been expecting you," she added in a respectful voice, but with a sense of quiet dignity. "I will let her know you are here."

While she waited, Michelle wondered about the "Madame" she was soon going to meet. *Peut-etre...* Honey-blond head shook to clear the vision of intense green-blue gaze. And concentrated on the space about her.

The apartment was sparsely decorated. Dark wrought iron furniture embellished with copper swirls stood along large windows. Only deep blue tassels and frog buttons separated the crisp cream coloured linen draperies and slipcovers they held together from the walls. Looking around, the young aristocrat was rather impressed by the sense of simple, refined grace of her surroundings.

Then a framed reproduction of a painting in another room captured her attention, *Massacre at Chios!* That was the same art work Etienne had commissioned for her. *This is extraordinary...* The blonde was rather amazed, for even though French intellectuals in the Nineteenth Century had been very sympathetic towards the slaughter on the Greek island, this was only one of many works which immortalised the plight. *Maybe she just likes Delacroix...*

"Excusez-moi," the housekeeper spoke again, interrupting her thoughts, "Madame is ready to see you now." And she led the way to a room at the end of the corridor.

"Assayez-vous, Madame," the older woman motioned at the chair nearest to the door; and she gently pulled the door close as Michelle sat.

*Eh bien, a devoreureuse de livres, just like me,* the fair blonde thought to herself, noticing the walls lined with completely filled tall bookshelves.

"Bon soir, Madame," a high female voice spoke.

"Bon soir, Madame," the young woman responded, feeling a tinge of regret upon hearing the unfamiliar voice.

"May I offer you something, Madame?" Her hostess asked from her desk.

"Non, merci," she replied, settling into the large comfortable linen-covered seat.

"Madame," the woman's voice drifted again from the high-back chair across the room. "As promised, I will tell you the origin of the painting you own. Please bear with me, and do not ask questions until I have finished telling you the story."

"D'accord," Michelle responded. It had become apparent that the former owner of the painting had no intention to turn away from the window. The desk and chairs were placed in such a way that it would be like an obstacle course for the young woman to get to her. And from where she was sitting, she could not even see the top of the woman's head, or any other parts of her body. The young aristocrat was beginning to think the whole situation more peculiar than ever.

Then the mysterious woman began her tale.

"The painting has been in my family for a long time now; precisely how long, I am not sure," she paused. "The portrait of the woman has not always been like that."

*What exactly does that mean?* Michelle was a bit confused by her choice of words. Never one to ask many questions, and always a patient listener, she remained silent.

"What I meant was, the work is magical. Legend has it when it was painted, the subject faced the viewer, just like any other portraiture. As timed passed, she started slowly turning around; the front became a profile, and now her back is completely towards the audience," the voice continued slowly.

*Oh, great, une folle furieux!* The young woman rolled her eyes. *But a raving lunatic who had convinced the most discerning auction house owner in all of Europe...* She remembered, and shifted in the small pile of cushions.

"I know what you are thinking, and, no, I am not crazy," the woman remarked. "If you look on the table to your right, there are photos in the album which will prove to you what I said."

She reached over and picked up the small photo album as instructed. Indeed, there was a series of old photographs of the painting catalogued in chronological order. At least the frame of the work in each photo appeared the same. The images, however, were different. All of them showed the back view of a long-haired woman in dark attire, just like the work she saw that afternoon. But as the dates on the photos approached the present, the subject appeared further and further into the background. It looked as if she would simply walk into the foggy haze and disappear. Michelle was perplexed, although still not convinced.

"Yes, she is walking towards the fog," the strange woman offered. "And as the story goes, she will one day disappear into it. That is when an irreparable tragedy would befall my family," she explained, a hint of sorrow in her pure French.

"And the painting has not been altered," she added, again anticipating the fair blonde's next speculation. "This, I am certain of. As I said before, it has been passed from generation to generation in my family. My parents had it; and it has been in my possession for the last decade."

"So you sold the painting to get rid of the bad luck?" Michelle ventured, feeling compassion towards her hostess. No matter how incredible the story was to the blonde's ears, the woman obviously seemed to believe in it. And she wished the storyteller would be more elaborate in her descriptions and explanations. The young woman had always adored stories, and this particular one could be very good. It was such a bizarre, mysterious tale, yet so very romantic. And Michelle found herself hoping to be convinced of its truthfulness.

"Yes, that, and I hope to have the mystery solved," she revealed. "And maybe the tragedy can be averted."

"What kind of tragedy?" Michelle asked sincerely. "And what can I do to help?"

"I honestly do not know," a sad voice answered, "I was only told that the consequences would be dire," its tone slightly quavering. "And I am hoping the puzzle would be solved before it is too late."

"Madame," a thought occurred to Michelle. "Do you know a Madame Anastasova?" The woman did not respond immediately, giving the young blonde time to reflect on the fantastic tale she just heard. She still was not ready to believe. *Bernard probably would be,* she thought, slightly amused. Wheels turned furiously in her brain, trying to find a solution to her predicament. *What I can tell her? What can I do for this poor woman?* She inhaled deeply in reflex.

Then it hit her.

The sweet, luscious scent of the damask rose.

"Madame," she made an impulsive decision. And inquired, "Why did you buy your own painting then give it to me? Why the charade? And the token? Where did it come from?"

The woman sighed audibly. "Have you known all along, Mademoiselle?" The same low, sensuous voice which plagued the young blonde all afternoon finally spoke.

"No, not all along." Consciously ignoring social formalities, Michelle approached the desk, and walked around to face the woman in the chair. Her breath caught at the vision before her.

Madame Anastasova was wearing the same dress she had on earlier that day; except, gone were all traces of makeup. The soft raven hair which framed her pale, elegant features made her looked almost unearthly. And the blonde fleetingly wondered if the woman, too, would disappear into her surroundings if given a chance.

"Pourquoi?" Michelle asked, her voice a strangled whisper. She cleared her throat self-consciously, still unable to tear her eyes from the penetrating gaze.

"Why?" La Madame repeated the blonde's question, barely able to control her emotions. "Because it just seemed like the right thing to do... Because I was fearful of how you might react." Michelle recalled her own thoughts towards the peculiar events, and understood the woman's concern. She was about to apologize, when the crooked smile appeared.

"And because I need your help," a truce, an explanation, and a plea.

"Pourquoi moi?" She asked softly.

"Michelle Destin," the deep voice drawled. "Do you believe in destiny?"

That was a rhetorical question, the blonde was sure. As she was suddenly certain the woman knew why she preferred the name "Destin."

Destiny. And for a moment, Michelle heeded its call...

As painted lips lowered to meet pale ones...


Sleep, my little one, sleep soundly!
And may all your dreams be sweet.
I've brought the breeze,
the sun and the eagle to keep you safe! [5]

"Oh, great, just great!" Fair head shakes in exasperation. "Do they both have to have your talent in the communication department?" She adds frustratedly.

"Sarcasm does not become you, my bard," the warrior growls softly against the golden tresses. She pokes at the tight midriff, then slowly runs her open palm along the firm muscles. Feeling a familiar flutter underneath the smooth skin, she dips a finger into the small hollow, and tickles the sensitive flesh.

The bard captures the offending digit, and shifts to face her partner. Lifting a blond eyebrow in defiance, she sticks her tongue out at her mate. The dark woman smiles at the adorable display. Unable to resist, she mischievously makes a sucking noise with her mouth; and that earns her a gentle squeeze on the nose and a mock glower. Blue eyes narrow in response, and the crooked grin turns feral. Knowing exactly what her partner has in mind, Gabrielle twists to get away. Her attempt fails miserably, as her smaller body becomes trapped between the warrior and the flat rock they were sunning on. And the bard finds herself utterly vulnerable to Xena's merciless assault.

"Aaack! Stop it!!" She wheezes in between violent fits of squealing laughter, "You, beast!" And scolds in protest, while moving to retaliate.

The stronger woman easily captures the roving hands and lifts them over her bard's fair head. She curbs her attack and strokes her partner's still tingling ribs, gently soothing. Moments later, she asks, "Feeling better?"

"Yeah, thanks," the blonde sighs, smiling once more. "I needed that," she concedes, reaching up to brush back her lover's wild dark hair, tucking the strayed strands behind her ears.

"It's my pleasure," the warrior murmurs, as she bends towards the soft pink lips, "My bard," suddenly wanting to taste the brilliant simper. Ravenous, yielding mouth opens to meet hers,
and returns the kiss in equal, inflamed fervour.

*Oh gods, you taste so good,* Xena reflects as the kiss deepens. She had hoped, but had never dared to expect it: every time their lips meet, she feels swept away by their connection, their billowing desire. As her mate's hot, velvety tongue twines with her own, she remembers the first time her own lips touched the bard's. Even though millennia had passed, and she has long ago lost count of the number of kisses they shared, the same intensity remains.

Actually, that isn't true; their passion has only increased as time goes by. And in her mind, the warrior conjures up the different ways she'd like to touch and pleasure her mate, remembering the small woman's ardent response to each. She wants her fair beloved to experience the same myriad of emotions that course through her when they love, craves to share with her the intense joyous fever their togetherness invokes. Soon, Gabrielle begins to arch and writhe beneath her, trying to press the larger body tight against her own, letting Xena feel her hunger, her heat.

*Touch me, Xe. I need you,* the bard communicates, as she pushes her tongue against her partner's lips, seeking entry into the moist warmth. The warrior shudders as a fiery vision of her
mate's blond locks spilling over her thighs and mingling with her dark curls enters her mind.

*Please, Xena!* She implores, flooding her partner's senses with her need. Without breaking their kiss, the warrior eagerly obliges, eliciting a muffled gasp of pleasure.

She clings to the broad back, holding on to the warrior's weight. And with bardic clarity and ardour, she imagines touching her lover's body, stroking, teasing, matching each of her partner's
furious motions. Echoing and feeling the love and desire that weave between them, as her beloved's strong body moves of it's own volition in a joyful surge towards its mate. Bonding.

*Oh, gods!* Gabrielle screams, *Yes... Xe,* silently, fighting very hard to maintain a cohesive thread of frenzied images of fingers and tongues, *Inside...* Of slick flesh moving against each other, *All over you...* Of her partner's molten desire smeared across her skin, *And me...*

She thrashes, clutching at her partner for anchor, totally out of control, *Oh, gods! Xena... Please!* Wild thoughts race, *Just...* She throbs helplessly against her warrior's touch, *Feel... me,* while experiencing her partner's overwhelming vibrations, *Feel us...* She stops thinking altogether as her senses catches onto the unrestrained, irresistible spiral of her lover's passion.

The warrior herself struggles relentlessly to focus her thoughts, *Yes, my Love,* centring her pleasures and channelling them into her bard, *Feel us...* They move, in perfect symphony only
by each other's feelings, by the deep, intense love they share. *Gabrielle...* Passion passes between them, amplified in multifolds. *That's it,* she encourages, *... Love you,* feeding the tsunamic waves of their ecstasy to her mate, and riding them until she feels her partner slipping into unconsciousness, happily satiated. *Love you...* Then Xena, too, fades out.

The raven-haired woman doesn't know how long she had been out, not that it mattered. Where they are, time and space are no longer relevant. She remains still, aware that her mate has yet to rejoin her.

It had been rather strange, when the pair first passed over, and realised they could hear each other's thoughts and read each other's mind. That didn't take too much getting used to, as each
was already completely in tuned with the other in Life. But it had not prepared them for the first time they joined together in Elysium, when they discovered their ability to sense and experience each other's feelings and emotions. The natural barriers that separated living beings had become inconsequential between the two as years passed. Still, not even in their wildest dreams had they imagined the possibility of this profound happiness, of being able to actually feel her partner's love and desire, and returning the deep sentiments through their bond. And the intensity of this union is utterly beyond sentient belief.

Eventually, Xena and Gabrielle discovered they have been blessed with other gifts. And generation after generation, they use these special knowledge and abilities to guard their children. They look after each and every one of them, guide them, help them, keep them safe, and make things easier for them. And they laugh and celebrate life with all their young ones, love them, mourn with them over their loss, and welcome them to the Fields with open arms when their time came.

*Always...* They always think of them as their very own.

*Genetics is truly an amazing thing,* the warrior muses. Even before the living found a name for the science, the bard was bent on figuring it out. She, on the other hand, was simply delighted that it works the way it works. For, occasionally, one of their descendants would look exactly like her Gabrielle. And Xena would find her sight involuntarily turned towards the girl, unwilling to miss a single moment of the little blond angel growing up. As much as she hates to admit it, she would have an extra soft spot for the child, and guard over her like any doting mother would. Her mate used to tease her about that, much to the warrior's chagrin; but the raillery ceased the first moment a little Xena was brought into the world. And the bard has been similarly afflicted ever since.

*Then, sometimes...* Sometimes one would look like a certain child, and without exception, both of them would be totally, hopelessly smitten.

Quiet contentment fills the warrior as she allows her consciousness to travel back in time...

It was an unusually warm, sunny morning for Spring, and as always, Xena was up at first light. Gabrielle was still sleeping then, recuperating and tired from early hour feedings. Within the first quarter moon, they had established a routine where the warrior would bathe the newborn, then have breakfast ready for the bard. The former warlord was deliriously happy those days. She never thought she would have another chance at parenthood, and regretted many decisions and actions of the past. Then, against all improbabilities, came this precious little bundle, born of a love that had moved even the gods; the warrior was grateful beyond words.

Subconsciously, Xena began humming a lullaby as she dressed their baby, preparing to take the infant with her to the kitchen, lest she started crying and wake Gabrielle. At least that was one of the reasons; the warrior just couldn't bear to be away from the child, to not have her in her arms. She particularly treasured nursing time, when her mate would sit between her thighs and rest against her, when she would watch the small pink mouth drew nourishment from the luscious full breasts like she herself had. And every time she saw the mother and the child together, she'd swear again to make protecting them her life's work.

*Except, that wasn't work,* Xena reminisces fondly, as she remembers their time together. She had cherished every one of those moments, and would not trade a single, even for all the riches in the known world. Nothing could be more priceless than having the two greatest loves of her life in her embrace. Involuntarily, the warrior hugs the bard tighter and presses her dark head closer to the delicious warmth, as she remains in the past...

As she recalls the time when her weakness was first exposed...

Dawn came early that day, as it did for the past moon. Xena had been up for a while, watching her mate and their newborn sleep. Candlemarks flew by, then unexpectedly, before her very eyes, the babe's little nose wrinkled into a yawn. Her heart leapt when aqua eyes blinked open and she was treated to an infant version of her beloved's smile. The warrior yearned to wake her bard up to share with her the joy; instead, she brushed back wisps of honey-blond hair and placed a gentle kiss on her fair cheek, then scooped up the small bundle nestled against her chest.

Initially, Xena told herself she just wanted to get closer to see the baby's first smile, then the warrior decided she needed to be near just in case she smiled again. Later still, she concluded that she couldn't possibly put the infant back in her partner's arms without upsetting the child, who had gotten used to the rhythmic rocking. Finally, the dark warrior decided it was time for the newborn's morning bath. And she was singing softly to the baby and wrapping her in the last layer of blankets, when suddenly, her keen sense told her that her audience had doubled. For a split instant, she paused, and swallowed her last note. Making a quick decision, she continued her movements as if nothing had happened. In truth, her normally dark mien was flushing hotly, and she was not willing to face the teasing grin that was doubtless plastered on her partner's face.

"Good morning, Love," the warrior finally spoke, acknowledging that Gabrielle was awake. She picked up the infant gently, cradling her in her long arms, and walked over to their bed.

"Good morning," the fair woman responded as she sat up, her voice hushed with emotion. Misty green eyes followed intently as her partner approached, her gaze soft with fond amusement.

"Ummm..." Xena tried to explain, "Uhhh... You were sleeping, and she needed a bath, so I thought I'd..."

"It's okay, Love," Gabrielle assured her partner gently, patting the space beside her. "I actually like this side of you very much," she hesitated a bit, "... Just a little embarrassed to tell you before."

*You embarrassed?* The warrior thought self-consciously, *Oh, sure, I'm the one caught singing and doting all over the kid.*

"I mean," the bard explained, as she reached for her beloved, and brushed her fingers tenderly against the still tinted cheek, "I like it when you're being motherly and protective and all that." Her other hand covered her warrior's, still holding their child, "I just didn't want you to know." Their gazes locked and lingered, as understanding passed between them. "It's also very sweet," she added in a whisper, as she bent forward to meet her lover's lips.

*Sweet?* Dark brow rose in response, as she fell into the deep, gentle sea of their love, and let its waves assuage her. Her heart surged when she felt her bard's smile against her mouth...

*Yes, very, very sweet,* her partner asserts. And Xena feels a loving warmth enters and envelopes her, bringing her back to the present.

*Gabrielle...* She lets the name roll in her mind, as she feels the supple body shifts beneath her. The warrior presses up on her arms and moves to continue their kiss, uninterrupted by Time. *You're the one who's sweet,* she maintains, as she melts once more against her bard's touch. It was much later when the larger form moves again, pulling her partner's smaller one atop her. They lay, holding each other, cocooned by the warmth of the sun, and the glow of their love.

"Gabrielle?" She asks low, her voice deep with concern, as she shares her partner's musing. Large hands move to massage the tensing slim back, and rub reassuringly.

"Maybe we shouldn't have done that," the blonde comments wistfully moments later.

"Maybe," Xena concurs, "But we only had the best intentions..." *Isn't that what you taught me, my bard?*

"But..." Gabrielle sighs, after closing her eyes and extending her sight. "At least we didn't make them do anything against their will, I guess..." She reasons, burrowing deeper into her beloved's embrace.

"Yes, that's true; and we need them," the warrior reminds her mate. "We've waited for so long; and they're running out of time."

"And these two need each other," the fair woman reiterates the same conclusion she and her partner reached in all their discussions through the years. "They both have lost so much..." Her heart constricts as she recalls what their children went through in their short lives.

"I can't believe she just ran out like that," Xena comments, feeling the same tightness in her own chest.

"And I can't believe she just let her go," the bard grouses. "These two are driving me crazy."

"I guess they didn't just take after my talkativeness, eh?" The warrior quips, more anxious at the moment to see her beloved smile.

"Don't!" Gabrielle squeezes the larger body, and holds her partner's arms tight against her sides, "Don't you start that again!"

"Start what?" The dark warrior asks innocently, with a teasing, crooked grin.

"Beast!" She scolds, without much conviction.

Continued...Part 2


Return to The Bard's Corner

le?" She asks low, her voice deep with concern, as she shares her partner's musing. Large hands move to massage the tensing slim back, and rub reassuringly.

"Maybe we shouldn't have done that," the blonde comments wistfully moments later.

"Maybe," Xena concurs, "But we only had the best intentions..." *Isn't that what you taught me, my bard?*

"But..." Gabrielle sighs, after closing her eyes and extending her sight. "At least we didn't make them do anything against their will, I guess..." She reasons, burrowing deeper into her beloved's embrace.

"Yes, that's true; and we need them," the warrior reminds her mate. "We've waited for so long; and they're running out of time."

"And these two need each other," the fair woman reiterates the same conclusion she and her partner reached in all their discussions through the years. "They both have lost so much..." Her heart constricts as she recalls what their children went through in their short lives.

"I can't believe she just ran out like that," Xena comments, feeling the same tightness in her own chest.

"And I can't believe she just let her go," the bard grouses. "These two are driving me crazy."

"I guess they didn't just take after my talkativeness, eh?" The warrior quips, more anxious at the moment to see her beloved smile.

"Don't!" Gabrielle squeezes the larger body, and holds her partner's arms tight against her sides, "Don't you start that again!"

"Start what?" The dark warrior asks innocently, with a teasing, crooked grin.

"Beast!" She scolds, without much conviction.

Continued...Part 2


Return to The Bard's Corner