Aftermath: The Tree of Life
For disclaimers please see Part I.
Feedback, comments welcome. Please send them to XWPFanatic@aol.com.
The throne room in the temple of Artemis was magnificent, even Xena was forced to admit. The walls were filled with paintings and tapestries of Artemis among her Nation, each telling a different part of Amazon history. Xena smirked noting that her exploits among the Amazon Nation were not depicted anywhere. History belongs to those who weave the tapestries, eh? In the four corners of the room were alabaster statues of famous Amazons of the past rendered in exquisite detail. Some of them appeared to be breathing, they were so life-like. Indeed, the one of Cyane had given the Conqueror a moments pause upon entering the room.
Xena was surprised to discover the Amazon Queens throne was made out of simple wood until she remembered that Artemis was also goddess of the woodland. It was said that Artemis eschewed ornate thrones, preferring to sit on the limbs of her favorite cypress tree. Her Queen could do no less.
The throne was unoccupied, as Gabrielle had left it to join the others at the long table in the center of the room. Xena had been glad to see her; she had been severely disappointed when the Amazon Queen had returned to the village with her soldiers after the battle. Of course, I was so exhausted it wouldnt have really mattered, but I did miss her.
On one side sat the Amazons, on the other sat Xena and some of her soldiers. Gabrielle sat in the center of the Amazon party, with Eponin and Clymera to her left and right. Ephiny, Solari, Rana and Aria were also present, two on each side. Xena noticed when Gabrielle made sure Rana and Aria did not sit together and she wondered what had transpired between the two for Gabrielle to separate them.
Palaemon sat at the Conquerors right hand, opposite of Eponin. The two soldiers talked excitedly about the recent battle, each reliving their most glorious moments and the Romans they had killed. Charis should have been seated to her left hand side, but the healers would not allow her to leave her bed for several days. It made for a sullen lieutenant, but one with future prospects. The Conqueror had brought along her other top officers, enough to match the size of the Amazon contingent, but the only Amazon she cared about was seated opposite of her.
Gabrielle smiled, realizing that she and Xena had simply been staring at one another for quite some time, oblivious to the others around them. Her smile was met by its twin, which was quickly covered up by the Conqueror, who did remember they had company.
"I would like to thank Queen Gabrielle and the Amazon Nation for their assistance yesterday on the battlefield." Was it only yesterday? It seemed like forever ago, and yet I can still feel her in my arms in our first embrace.
"We were happy to fight alongside you, Conqueror."
"In tribute to your Nation, I would like to give you one-third of the arms captured from the Romans."
"One-third?" Rana sputtered. "You would be dead without us. It should all be ours."
"Ive learned never to count the Conqueror out of any battle, no matter what the odds are," Palaemon instantly replied, rising a bit out of his seat.
Xena said nothing and instead waited for Gabrielle to handle her subject.
She did not wait for long. "Rana, be still, or I will have you removed." Looking carefully at the Conqueror, Gabrielle continued, "We dont want any of the weapons."
The Conqueror was completely unprepared for this answer. She had thought herself rather generous being willing to arm her enemy to any extent. To have them refuse made no sense whatsoever, even if it were Gabrielle leading the Nation.
"Instead," Gabrielle countered, "we want our homelands restored to us."
"Excuse me?" the Conqueror rumbled, displeased with what she had just heard.
"We want our homelands in Greece restored to us as tribute."
There was a profound silence in the room as everyone awaited the Conquerors reply. "No."
Gabrielle rose from her chair, "Everyone but Clymera leave us."
Assorted grumblings were heard from the Amazons, but they did as they were told. The Conquerors men remained seated, unwilling to take orders from a foreign leader. Xena waited thirty heartbeats before she gave her order, "Palaemon, stay; the rest, leave." Soon the heavy doors to the throne room closed, the echo of their impact trapped inside with the four occupants.
"This is the only solution, Xena," Gabrielle said softly.
"I cannot give up land I captured from these women, Gabrielle. They are dangerous to me, to Greece." The Conqueror rose from her seat and began pacing on the thick bearskin rug. "Cant you tell that these women hate me? They would each gladly slit my throat and drink my blood. To give them a foothold in Greece would be suicide."
"You are not their favorite ruler in the world, that is true. But, this is in your best interests, or I would not have proposed it."
Gabrielle rose from her seat and began walking around the table to be beside Xena, wanting to close both the physical and emotional space between them. "No, I am your oracle of truth, remember? I promised to never speak a falsehood to you, and I intend to keep that promise. This is best for you."
"Keeping an enemy in my backyard?" Xena snorted derisively. "Next you will tell me to move my capital to Rome."
Seeing that the conversation was heading in the wrong direction, Gabrielle reached out and took hold of Xenas hand, "Please, let me explain my reasoning." She waited until the Conquerors eyes met hers. "The Amazons are not your enemy because I am Queen of the Amazons and I could never be your enemy."
"Then why bring the Amazons back to Greece?"
"Your dreams go farther than just Greeces borders. You have an alliance with Chin. You wish to conquer Rome. And there are other new lands yet to be discovered. Thats a lot of territory to govern, especially when there is only one of you. You will need allies. In order to gain allies, you must prove you can have them."
"The Amazons as my allies?"
"Yes. Restore their traditional lands and they will provide protection to your citizens near them. One out of every ten Amazon warriors will serve in your Royal Guard. And there will always be a standing delegation in your court."
"Standing delegation? Why?"
Gabrielle blushed and glanced down, "Well, I had thought I would be there."
Xena reached out and cupped Gabrielles cheek, "I would not have you anywhere else, Gabrielle." The Conqueror could resist no longer. It did not matter that Clymera and Palaemon were still in the room, or that they were in Artemis temple in the Queens throne room. All that mattered was that Gabrielles lips were too close to be ignored any longer. Pulling her oracle tight against her, Xena pressed her lips to Gabrielles, taking in the softness and taste of them.
The sudden movement was unexpected, but welcome. Gabrielle settled herself even more securely in Xenas arms, her own arms sliding up and around the Conquerors neck. Afraid Xena might let go or back away, she gave the Conqueror incentive to stay, by opening her mouth and bidding the ruler welcome.
Xena accepted the invitation, her sigh captured in Gabrielles mouth. She kept her eyes open to observe Gabrielles reaction, watching her slowly close her mist green eyes and lose herself in sensation, before closing her own eyes. She brought her hand back up to Gabrielles cheek and traced the soft skin, eventually tangling her hand in the red-gold hair. Xena took her time exploring her oracles mouth, carefully mapping out its contours so she would be able to navigate her future return.
Unwilling to allow the Conqueror all the joy of discovery, Gabrielle pushed her way into the Conquerors mouth until she could no longer survive without breathing. Gabrielle broke off but moved away only enough to allow air to pass between their lips. Not content to be without her new intoxicant, the Amazon Queen placed tiny kisses around the edges of Xenas lips.
Those same lips curled upward and the Conquerors eyes twinkled mischievously. "I think we have found the way for you to win every argument," she murmured around Gabrielles efforts.
"As you know from experience," the oracle countered, "I can talk for a long time without getting tired."
"Well, I typically prefer this type of discussion to be more of a private nature."
The younger woman went immediately still and blood suffused her features. "Oh gods," she whispered, pressing herself into the Conquerors length, trying to hide from the on-looking eyes.
The Conqueror stared intently at Clymera and Palaemon daring them to say anything that might make Gabrielle more self-conscious than she already was. "Its all right, Gabrielle. We just negotiated a peace treaty and had to seal the agreement in some fashion."
"Oh gods," came again, muffled.
Xena chuckled and ducked her lips down beside Gabrielles ear. "If it makes you feel any better, both Palaemon and Clymera appear to approve. Theyre smiling at least." Unable to resist, she kissed the ear, then whispered so that only Gabrielle could hear her. "You responded with your whole heart, as you always do, it is nothing to be embarrassed about. In fact, it is a trait of yours I have come to appreciate and rely on."
"You do?" Gabrielle leaned away from the Conqueror so as to study the ruler, to see if sincerity were written on her features.
A warm fingertip pressed itself against Gabrielles lips. "I count on these to always speak truth to me. I hope they do so in every way."
Those lips kissed the fingertip on them. "They do."
"Good. Then lets break the news to our people and go someplace where we can speak in private. I think you will make a conversationalist out of me yet."
The Amazon council and the Conquerors officers returned to find smiling rulers. Each member of their respective parties was surprised to see that what they had thought to be an irreconcilable difference had been set aside so quickly. Palaemon and Clymera were talking in a corner, obviously hashing out the details of some agreement, while the Queen and the Conqueror sat at the table together. Eponin noted how close they sat to one another and smiled.
"Ephiny, could you come here, please?" Clymera called out to the widowed Amazon.
The curly-haired woman gave a surprised look to the priestess, but immediately walked over and joined them.
Gabrielle refrained from touching the Conqueror, despite her near overwhelming desire to do so. It took all her self control to not laugh out loud and clap her hands. She felt younger than her years, certainly younger than her experiences, and far too young to be leading a nation of warriors. She wondered if Artemis saw the irony of her Queen loving the Nations worst enemy; or if, perhaps, it had been Artemis plan all along. That thought scared her. She hated even the idea that she and Xena were part of some plot among the gods, a way for Artemis to strike back at Ares. For Xena certainly did belong to the god of war. Gabrielle had witnessed that much on the battlefield. She had been terrified while standing atop the hillside watching the battle, trying to locate the Conqueror amidst the fighting, and feeling her heart stop each time she did. Gabrielle hadnt been prepared for the brutality of the conflict. Petty warlords and slave traders in Greece were one thing; three opposing armies on the field of war were quite another.
She had been surprised, as well, by the ferocity of the Amazons. Cefan and Charis were trained soldiers, but they were in the minority of the Conquerors Royal Guard. Gabrielle had looked at them not quite as an aberration but certainly as a departure from the norm much like the Conqueror herself. To be leading a nation filled with women warriors was a shock to her. She hoped she would be able to do justice by these women who had embraced her, however reluctantly.
What did the Conqueror see in her? How could someone so driven by the need to rule love someone who had never sought out that type of responsibility? Had she said so in order to gain sway over the Amazon Nation? Gabrielle shook that thought roughly from out of her head. It didnt make any sense. The Conqueror hated the Amazons and would prefer to not have them in Greece. Be confident, Gabrielle, now is not the time to be insecure. Not while sitting in your throne room and about to announce an alliance. Not while sitting next to the most confident woman in the world. Even Cleopatra must pale in comparison. I wonder if Xena knows her.
"What are you thinking about?" the Conqueror whispered, startling the fair haired Queen.
It reminded her of the moment on the boat when the Conqueror had asked her the same question. Just as she didnt want to admit to wondering if fish drowned, she didnt want to admit to wondering about other women rulers the Conqueror might or might not know. Instead, she chose a somewhat less embarrassing response, one she thought the Conqueror might favor. "You."
"Really?" Xena replied, crossing a long leg and leaning forward. "What a coincidence."
Both of these movements caused Gabrielles mouth to go suddenly dry. Recovering quickly, she smiled slowly, "Oh, you were thinking about yourself as well?"
Pleased beyond measure at her oracles response, the Conqueror laughed gently. "Come now, do you take me for the egoist everyone else in Greece does?"
The words were asked teasingly, but Gabrielle had the impression it was not asked so lightly. The Conqueror lived in a world where she was feared and reviled, but rarely admired, and Gabrielle suspected, ever loved. Even three months ago, Gabrielle knew that she herself had said more than a few harsh words against the ruler. Of course, it seemed justifiable at that moment, especially with the cruelties that were enacted upon the populace. Cruelties that she knew might never be undone, or altogether stopped, though she would use her newfound influence to the best of her ability. For the Conqueror was part wild, she was sure of it. Indeed, Gabrielle wondered if Xena had a mother or if she had merely sprouted somewhere, perhaps an off-shoot of an oak tree, or born in a jaguars litter. Gabrielle knew one can never quite tame nature, only perhaps bend its will slightly.
"Well?" Xena asked after what she felt was too long a silence.
Snapped out of her musings, Gabrielle reached out and took hold of Xenas hand, no longer able to restrain herself. "I take you as you are."
"And what is that?"
"Mine, I hope."
The Conqueror smiled again and squeezed the smaller hand wrapped inside hers. "Now whos the egoist?"
Gabrielle felt a sense of triumph for Xena had not refuted her claim.
Palaemon approached and bowed to the Conqueror, and Gabrielle realized with a start, to her as well. "My liege, all is ready."
"Showtime," Xena murmured, "youre on, Gabrielle."
The Amazon Queen rose and walked up to the dais where she could be easily seen vested in her power. Briefly she met Clymeras eyes, making sure the priestess felt as certain about the arrangements as Palaemon had. Seeing the old womans subtle nod, she cleared her throat. "I am pleased to announce that the Amazon Nation has been able to come to terms with Xena, the Conqueror of Greece. In exchange for the return of all traditional Amazon lands, hunting rights and political autonomy, the Nation will send a permanent delegation to the Conquerors court, provide service in the Conquerors Royal Guard, and protect the neighboring villages of the traditional lands. The Nation will not be subject to any taxes or other tribute requirements as long as it continues to live by terms of the agreement."
Eponin blew out a long breath, surprised at the concessions Queen Gabrielle had been able to obtain. "Not bad," she whispered to Solari, who was standing beside her.
"Do you think its a trap?" the dark haired warrior replied reasonably. "It seems a sudden change of heart for the woman who once vowed to kill every Amazon personally, including Artemis."
Broad shoulders lifted and dropped, "Stranger things have happened, Soli."
Solari snorted a little laugh, "You still cant believe Marte turned you down last night, can you? Your standard line of giving comfort and a reason to fight to a key warrior didnt work. You must be slipping." It felt good to Solari to tease the most successful womanizer in all the Amazon Nation. It was the first time she had ever seen Eponins advances turned down.
"How would you know?" Eponin hissed back.
A sly smile and a wink were all of Solaris response.
"We will definitely be talking later," Eponin whispered before being surprised hearing her name come from Gabrielles lips.
" will be head of my delegation in the Conquerors court. Overseeing the relocation and administration of the Nation on a day-to-day basis will be Ephiny, whom I am hereby appointing as Regent to the Nation."
"Hades, what did she just say?" the commander muttered. "Im going to the Conquerors court?"
"Well, think of it as a land of new opportunities. Besides, you werent doing too well here."
"Ill make you eat your feathered mask, Soli. Just wait and see."
Several candlemarks later, the Conqueror and Gabrielle descended into the holding cells beneath the temple. Several paces behind them were Palaemon and Eponin, the latter quickly becoming accustomed to her role as the Queens protector. It would be an interesting opportunity, she reasoned, to watch the inner-workings of the Conquerors court.
Outside the cell containing Brutus, Gabrielle motioned for Eponin to unlock the small chamber and allow her entry. Xena slipped in behind her before she could utter protest, her size and demeanor clearly signaling Brutus to not attempt any act of aggression toward the young woman.
"Commander Brutus, I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons."
The wiry soldier folded his arms across his chest and leaned back against the cell wall, clearly unimpressed. "Is this an official state visit? If so, forgive me for being so underdressed."
"You will be free to return to Rome by the next quarter moon, as well as your men."
"Those who are still alive, you mean," Brutus complained bitterly.
Gabrielle nodded, "An unfortunate situation. Our healers are overseeing the recovery of your wounded men. The rest are being held at a nearby location. Your boats are still sea worthy, although I would suggest you steer clear of armed conflict on the voyage home, as you will be unarmed."
"The Amazon Queen is most generous after joining in an ambush against Rome."
"The Nation is most generous to an honorable soldier in service to a corrupt government."
This, Brutus found particularly amusing. "Oh, and your aiding the Destroyer of Nations is less corrupt than Caesars lawful rule of Rome?"
"I believe it is. As you can see, the Conqueror did not destroy the Amazon Nation. In fact, we announce today our alliance and return to our homeland in Greece." She noted the genuine shock on Brutus face. "How many former enemies would Caesar allow to appear in his court, Brutus? Indeed, how many former friends would he allow? Those who are still alive, that is." Gabrielle let the silence to be its own answer. "Beware unchecked ambition, Brutus. What seems good for Romes survival now may ultimately lead to her downfall. Even the Conqueror has some who speak absolute truth to her."
The Roman said nothing in reply, although Gabrielle did not expect one. She merely hoped to water the seeds of doubt that she knew the Conqueror had planted in Brutus the day before. She hoped he would make a future journey to Rome unnecessary.
"Oh mighty warrioress," Salmoneus called out, wandering around his estate in search of the Conqueror, "its me, Salmoneus."
Gabrielles head popped out of the room she had been given while staying there, "Hi! Welcome back! Come on in," she offered, pleased to see their host. She realized she liked anyone who treated the Conqueror as a human being and not a monster.
"Gabrielle! Good to see you!" He moved as quickly as he could down the hallway and into the room, only to stare in shock at the four Amazons standing around the room. His eyes lingered on various exposed and not-quite-concealed body parts, his smile growing wide. "And who are your new friends?"
Eponin stood and crossed her arms over her chest, making her biceps bulge and displaying her muscled stomach. "My Queen, shall I help him kneel?"
"Queen?" Salmoneus squawked, looking around in confusion, trying to figure out who this intimidating warrior was talking to.
"Its all right, hes a friend."
His eyes tracked to the fair haired woman who answered, his mouth agape. "Youre the Amazon Queen?" A nod was his answer. He turned on his heel and slammed the bedroom door shut. "Does Xena know?"
"Do I know what?" a low voice rumbled behind him exactly where he thought a closed door ought to be.
"Oh great Zeus!" He turned around plaintively, "How do you do that?"
A smirk met his question, "Practice. Now, what do I need to know?"
"Shes " he pointed weakly at the Amazons scattered about the room, helpless to form coherent words.
"Queen of the Amazon Nation?"
A huge smile of relief crowded Salmoneus face. "Whew! You knew!" He almost reached out and touched her arm, but caught himself at the last moment and directed his attention to his own robe, picking at imaginary lint. "She knew," he directed to Gabrielle unnecessarily. "So, youre leaving already?"
"Time to return to Greece. Im sure Ive been missed in Corinth," sarcasm filled Xenas tone.
"It has been a distinct honor and pleasure to have you here, o mighty Conqueroress. And your Queenship."
Gabrielle laughed softly, "It has been wonderful meeting you, Salmoneus. I hope you come visit us soon." She walked over and placed a small kiss on his cheek.
"Us?" The small man was bewildered once more. He glanced over at the Conqueror for clarification, "You are both going back to Corinth? Together?"
Xena did not respond verbally, she merely settled a cold stare over the salesman.
"Why, Warrioress, I didnt know you made such alliances." His gaze shifted between the Conqueror and the Queen, noting the light dusting of a blush on the younger womans cheeks.
"Goodbye, Salmoneus," the Conqueror said with some finality. She was grateful beyond measure he was not wanting to return to Greece with them. A weeks journey with the man would be too much for her admittedly limited patience.
"Ah, yes, all good things must come to an end, I suppose." He turned and leaned close to Gabrielle. "Ill make sure a few of those plates are tucked into your luggage before you leave."
The oracle fought to keep the grin from her face, lest the Conqueror know what they were whispering about. "I thought Cefan broke them all."
"A good salesman never keeps all his stock in one place, Gabrielle." Backing away from the Queen, he gave the guard nearest her a frank look of admiration. "Say, do you work out?"
Eponin scowled, "What?"
"You have really powerful looking arms, and that stomach, well, I could scrub clothes on it. Whats your secret? Do you have a specific routine?" Already Salmoneus was counting up the profits on his "Amazon Diet and Workout Plan" parchment.
"I kill people."
The sound of accumulating dinars stopped. "Hmm okay, well, time for me to go! Bye, your majesties." And he was gone.
Gabrielle watched the men carry the spoils aboard the ship. She imagined each of the weapons bathed in blood. A part of her idly wondered if that was why the Conqueror was constantly sharpening her sword, to scrape away the reminders of lives taken. Would any of the metal remain if she were able to do so?
Thoughts of the Conqueror caused the young Amazon Queen to seek her out amidst the crowd on the docks below. It wasnt a difficult task. The rulers height and bearing easily identified her. Xena could wear peasants clothes and still be known for who she was. But exactly who is she? And who are you to dare to love her?
Coming up the gangplank, Palaemon saw Gabrielle watching the Conqueror and he marveled again at the tapestry woven by the fates. Steadying his heart, he approached the young woman and bowed slightly before her. "Queen Gabrielle."
"Please, dont start with me as well. Its bad enough that I have four Amazon warriors who insist on following me around at all times."
"Speaking of them, where are they?"
She gestured with her right hand indicating an area a little further down the ship. "I made them go over there and lend a hand. Somehow I think Im rather safe here. I dont think anyone would try to engage a very well armed Conqueror."
The Captain laughed softly and ran a hand through his short hair, changing the direction of the unruly strands but not bringing any order to them. "I would concur with your assessment, Your Majesty."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes but said nothing. She reached out and laid a small hand on his muscular forearm, grasping it gently. "I want to thank you, Palaemon. For finding me and helping me. And for helping her. You are a good man. I am glad to know you."
Palaemon could feel a subtle heat travel over his cheeks, which he ignored. "I pledged my life to serve the Conqueror. I couldnt let her harm herself by harming you."
"Thank you," she whispered and leaned upward to place a kiss on his cheek.
The Captain closed his eyes and savored the sweetness of the moment.
"Are we about ready to set sail?" she asked after a few moments.
"Yes, as soon as the last of the weapons are stowed. It shouldnt take much longer. The troops are ready to set sail as soon as we do."
"How many men did the Conqueror lose, Captain?"
His eyes clouded with sorrow as he mentally recounted the names of some of his friends who had died yesterday. "We came with one hundred of the Royal Guard, fifty-seven return. Of the Macedonian regiment, only thirty-two of the hundred are still alive."
"Over half the men?" Gabrielle whispered, feeling the loss of the men and women she had never met. "We only lost nine Amazon warriors. Even that was too many."
"More would have died without you, Queen Gabrielle. If you hadnt brought the Amazons to aid the Conqueror, I fear even she might have been lost."
Gabrielle sighed, "I fail to see the glory in battle, although Ive heard some poets speak of it. While watching over the field, all I could think of was how senseless it was. Its not as if we were fighting for our homes, or our families. We were fighting to get more instruments of war. We killed so we could kill more in the future." She shook her head, her fair hair scattering sunlight in its wake.
Palaemon found he had no reply and so he remained silent. Down on the docks, the Conqueror looked up and hailed him, gesturing for him to come to her side. "Excuse me, Your Majesty," he said politely, bowing slightly and leaving.
After summoning Palaemon, Xena let her eyes linger on the one her Captain had been talking to. She had felt Gabrielles eyes upon her throughout the morning as she had moved among the equipment and the men making certain everything was taken care of properly. Now she indulged herself in returning the scrutiny, taking in the slight figure bathed in sunlight smiling at her. Im not sure how she can look at me that way, but Ill gladly take it.
Once Palaemon reached her, she returned her attention to her task at hand. "Captain, do you know Minon, formerly of the Macedonian regiment?"
Palaemon shook his head, "No, my liege. I knew only the officers of the regiment, not the soldiers."
Xena nodded, "Come then and meet him. I want you to train him to take Cefans place; it will take awhile, hes still a bit raw. But he seems quite capable. And you are to teach Charis how to lead the regiment. Her men would have had a better chance if they had been trained properly."
"Yes, my liege."
"Further, when we get to Athos, I want Paxius executed in front of the troops. It will show them I am serious about them being led well. I will not tolerate incompetence among my soldiers, and certainly not among my officers. If Paxius hadnt been a fool, I would be bringing home more of my troops."
"Yes, my liege. It will be done."
"In Corinth, you will need to bring me more candidates for my Royal Guard and I want four men selected to be a special Honor Guard for Gabrielle."
"My liege? Doesnt she have an Amazon escort?"
Xena made a face, demonstrating what she still thought about the Amazon fighting prowess. "They recently lost one of their Queens who I suppose was being guarded as well. I wont allow this one to be similarly lost."
The Captain fought to keep his features neutral. "Yes, my liege."
"We set sail in half a candlemark. Gabrielle and I will be taking our evening meal separately. See that we are not interrupted, Palaemon, especially by those Amazons. They hover about Gabrielle like flies on manure."
Palaemon couldnt restrain himself from responding, "My liege, may I suggest you not use that analogy around Queen Gabrielle. She might not find it as flattering as you might hope."
The Conqueror took a moment, reviewed her last comment and shook her head in self-deprecation. "Gods, Palaemon, I am not one for lovers flattery, am I? I think Ive been in too many battles to think such gentle thoughts."
"Oh, I believe the Amazon Queen might inspire some."
Xenas eyes drifted upward once more, "More than I ever dared hope."
The candles had burned down considerably by the time they finished with their meal. The solid table, bolted to the floor so it would not move in rough waters, was littered with the remains of dinner skeletons of fish, drained goblets of wine, bread crumbs sprinkled over their plates.
The state room was cozy, yet was the largest room Gabrielle had seen on board the ship. It had the dining table and chairs, a desk and map chest, and a bed large enough for two in the corner. Gabrielles eyes had wandered over in its direction many times throughout the meal, making note of its soft linens and the bear skin which covered it.
She kept considering that she should feel more nervous than she did. Instead, she just felt slightly off-balance, not quite knowing what to expect, or how exactly she should behave. Everything led her to the conclusion that she and Xena would be intimate tonight. She wanted it; she wanted to feel the Conqueror next to her and perhaps find a gentleness that lurked under the rulers exterior, one that she had seen glimpses of previously. She wished though, in a small way, that she had more time to accustom herself to the reality of loving Xena. The Conqueror would not be like the few other lovers she had before nervous, deferential, eager to please. Although Gabrielle did find herself rather excited by that fact.
The Conqueror settled back in her chair and observed Gabrielle. The young woman's skin was burnished in the golden candlelight, illuminating interesting patterns on skin. She wanted to reach out and trace them, follow their paths wherever they may lead. It was a rare moment in her life filled with desire for a person and not for a conquest. She wasn't quite sure how to behave. All of her prior techniques seemed to no longer apply.
I cant very well pick her up, throw her on the bed and ravish her although that would be nice. Nor can I play the seductress its a little too late for that. If I accidentally spill something on her, Id be a bit too obvious. Orders, threats and the like are completely inappropriate. Begging is out of the question. At least, right now it is. Ill see how the rest of the evening goes.
"Food okay?" Xena asked, for lack of anything better that sprang to mind.
Gabrielle chuckled, "To say the least. I didnt lick the plate only because my mother tried to instill some table manners in me."
"Do you want more?" The Conqueror started to rise and command the guards to bring more from the kitchen but a soft voice bade her to sit again.
"Really, Im fine. Thank you," Gabrielle realized the significance of the Conqueror being willing to see to her needs, whatever they were.
"Youre very beautiful, Gabrielle. I dont know why I didnt notice that before."
The fair-haired Amazon Queen smiled gently, amused by the statement. In another time that second sentence would have driven me to make a sarcastic comment. "Thank you."
In the intervening silence, Xena reanalyzed what she had said and grimaced. "Gods above, that didnt come out quite right, did it? I told Palaemon I was no good with lovers words." A large hand combed through her dark hair, then reached down and pulled her chair closer to Gabrielles. "Ive spent the better part of my life on a battlefield, Gabrielle. I know swordplay, not wordplay. I know conquering and not winning. Im not gentle and the last time I asked someone to join me in bed, I cant remember."
Seeing the discomfort in the ruler, Gabrielle placed her hand on Xenas knee, squeezing it lightly. "This is all new to me as well."
"Youre ? Youve never ?"
Blushing, she shook her head, "No, Im not. I have."
Xena didnt know whether or not she was soothed by this admission.
"Its just, Ive never been here before."
Now the Conqueror knew she didnt understand the conversation. "Youve never been on a boat before? Or youve never made love on a boat?" It hurt her to think of anyone else touching her oracle that way. Xena closed her eyes briefly to blot out that particular vision.
"Oh gods, now Im making a mess of this." Gabrielle drew in a deep breath and tried to clear her mind, remembering whom she spoke to. "I meant, Ive never had more to gain, nor more to lose."
Xena nodded, understanding. "Im sorry about the cross, Gabrielle. If I could do it over again " she trailed off unable to finish her statement.
"Youd do it again," Gabrielle completed for her. "Not if you knew it was me - not now - but if it were just someone else. I dont think youd think twice about it, would you?"
Xena shook her head slowly, fearful that her answer, despite its truthfulness, would drive the peaceful woman from her. "No, I wouldnt."
"That frightens me. Not that youd harm me, but that your first thought is always to violence. That is a very frightening thing to be around."
"But you said you could love me. You said you did love me." Xena felt like a pouting child, but she didnt care. She was quite ready to throw a temper tantrum, if it would aid her cause, but she knew it wouldnt.
"I do. But that doesnt mean I have suddenly gone deaf and blind."
"Im that repulsive to you? That you wish you were maimed that way?"
Gabrielle heard the hurt in the Conquerors voice and regretted being the cause of it. She closed the distance between them, clasping the larger hand within both of hers. "No, not at all. I just mean we both have to be realistic about us."
"I dont want to be realistic, Gabrielle," Xena whispered, leaning closer. "I cant imagine that doing us any good, because anyone in their right mind wouldnt love me. And I dont want to lose you."
Gabrielle could feel Xenas warm breath on her face, caressing her soft skin. "Youre not going to lose me, Xena. Im very stubborn. And I dont frighten very easily." She reached up and brushed a loose strand of the Conquerors dark hair behind her ear, letting her palm linger on Xenas cheek.
The ruler leaned into the touch. "I noticed that from the first day, when you called me a coward."
"I didnt call you a coward. I simply said even you could be afraid." Gabrielles thumb stroked Xenas cheek.
"Only fools are never afraid," Xena murmured, blue eyes fluttering closed.
The Amazon Queen laughed softly, "Thats not what you said then." She noted how gentle the Conquerors features appeared in repose, the severity of ruling melting away. The hand she held in her own was warm and pliable. Unconsciously, she began playing with Xenas fingers, interweaving them with her own, measuring the differences between them.
The edges of Xenas lips curled upward, "Well I couldnt give away all of my secrets. We had only just met."
"Do I get to know all your secrets now?" Gabrielle found herself being inexplicably pulled toward the Conqueror, her eyes fastened on the lips slightly parted before her.
"Only if you tell me yours."
"That can be arranged," Gabrielle husked and then gave in to her desires and brushed her lips against Xenas.
Xena sighed and brought her hands to rest on Gabrielles hips, pulling the young woman into her lap. With one arm she cradled her oracle, and her other hand began a slow exploration of the body she held. It was so much nicer without the audience of hundreds on the battlefield, or without the eyes of an Amazon priestess and her second on them. She followed trails of softness, frustrated only by the fabric keeping her from a fuller discovery.
For her part, Gabrielle relaxed in the Conquerors embrace. Strangely enough, this is the safest place in all the world. Its like being the offspring of a cobra or a lioness born from and yet protected by innate violence. I wonder if any of Xenas former lovers ever felt this way? Or if they only feared her? That thought infused her with the desire to demonstrate to Xena how secure she did feel.
The ruler recognized the moment when Gabrielle gave herself over to her, when the sensuous abandon took hold of the oracle and directed her actions. The smaller womans hands clasped the Conquerors loose tunic about the neck and pulled her closer, bringing contact along their upper bodies. A miniature growl issued from the oracle, and Xena felt her lower lip nipped lightly.
As best as she could, Xena focused on her environs and determined that a hard wooden chair was not where she wished to continue this conversation. Struggling to her feet, a sudden loss of strength overtaking her as one of Gabrielles hands threaded through an opening in her tunic and met skin, she carefully carried her precious bundle over to the bed. A roll of the ship brought the two crashing down on the feather bed with a conspicuous lack of grace.
Nestled under the weight of the Conqueror, Gabrielle giggled. "Did I tell you I suffer from seasickness?
The ardent look quickly faded from Xenas face. "Youre kidding me, right? I dont remember that from the trip over."
"I didnt want to you to be mad at me," came the reply. "It was better when I went up on deck and looked at the stars. They distracted me."
Smoothing back fair strands of hair from Gabrielles face, almost becoming lost in the verdant gaze meeting her own, Xena shook her head, "There is no way in all the levels of Tartarus that we are going up on deck. For quite a while." Unable to resist, she kissed the tip of Gabrielles nose. "Im simply going to have to find other means of distracting you."
"Oh really? And just what did you have in mind?" The words had scarcely left her lips when Gabrielle felt Xenas response to her question. "Oh! That might work."
A low chuckle met her comment, "Really? What about this?"
The Amazon Queen shifted under Xena to allow the Conqueror more room to maneuver. "Hmm that is certainly distracting."
"Huh?" Gabrielle gasped.
Warm lips moved beside a pink ear, "Is that a good distraction?"
"How can you talk right now?" Gabrielle was astounded at her own current cognitive abilities. She had been certain they had all left her.
"Good point," Xena conceded, enjoying the view of the flushed cheeks and inviting mouth below her. "There are better things to do with our lips, arent there?"
The early morning sky greeted the new lovers who had come above deck for a breath of fresh air. The eastern horizon warmed, chasing the darkness of the night from the overhead canopy. Wrapped together in a silk sheet, Gabrielle leaned back against Xena, her head resting on the taller womans collarbone, smiling when she felt lips pressed against her hair.
"Its a beautiful morning," Gabrielle whispered, almost sad to break the silence which enveloped them.
"That it is." Glancing up, Xena observed the remaining stars. "Did I do a good job of distracting you tonight?"
Oh, you could say that. "You are a very adequate cure for seasickness." Gabrielle was glad she was facing away from Xena so she couldnt see the smirk which creased her lips.
"Adequate?" the Conqueror sputtered, playing along. "Adequate? Well, maybe you should find a couple of favorite stars and plan on spending tomorrow night with them."
Favorite star. I wonder where mine is. Tilting her head back, Gabrielle searched for the star which had played such a prominent part of her childhood. Not seeing it immediately, she twisted around in Xenas arms, sliding her own arms around the muscular back she had explored not so long ago, and continued her search. Finally, she found it hovering directly above them.
"What are you looking for?" Xena asked softly, tightening her arms and the sheet around the bare body she held against her, savoring the whisper of silk against skin.
Pointing up, almost poking Xenas chin, Gabrielle replied, "Thats my star. I always knew it would lead me where I belong."
Looking up, the ruler saw the bright star above them, imagined them bathed in its glow. Bending down, she placed a kiss on Gabrielles cheek. "That it did, my oracle. Even your star speaks truth."
Gabrielle smiled, "Thats because it speaks to you." She shivered and nestled closer. "Xena, can we go back down below now?"
"Are you cold?"
"No," came the soft reply.
Xena felt Gabrielles lips curl up into a smile against her skin. "What then?"
The Seven Wonders Series to be continued in The Hanging Gardens coming soon to a web site near you.
I would like to thank the many readers who have been so patient with me on this journey. I would especially like to thank those readers who have taken the time to write me. Your comments and encouragement have been invaluable to me and I am grateful to each of you. Finally, I would like to dedicate this story to my Fanatics, who know who they are. Thanks for making my little part of the Xenaverse brighter.
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