There are no special disclaimers for this Part. All disclaimers found at the beginning of Part 1 still apply.
Invitations Part 10
Gabrielle settled into the Warrior Princess arms and totally ignored the rocky ground they were stretched out on. Closing her eyes, she melted into the warrior's kiss. The whirling feeling she experienced was not really unusual, not when she was kissing Xena anyway, but when she felt the intensity of the kiss change Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly. Vaugely aware of the alter under her, the Amazon looked up into smiling blue eyes and grinned. "Now that is how I like to wake up."
"I'll have to remember that." The Conqueror was ecstatic; Gabrielle was back! She hopped off the altar and helped the still dizzy Amazon to her feet.
Gabrielle patted the warrior's arm and released herself from the grip. She took a moment to balance herself before she turned to Artemis and bowed. "Thank you for our safe return." The wording of her thanks made her think twice and with a gasp, she reached quickly for Xena, studying the warrior's face intently. "We did come back, didn't we?" The Conqueror's confused face doubled the Amazon's heartbeat until a wry grin appeared.
"Yes love. We are all here." The Warrior Princess grinned at the panic on the Amazon's face. "We'll go see the lambs, whenever you are ready. Alright?"
"Ugh..." Gabrielle pushed the back of her hand into the warrior's stomach. "Don't you ever scare me like that again." For several rapid heartbeats the Amazon thought the Warrior Princess had remained in the Land of the Dead.
Grunting at the gentle backhand, the Warrior Princess smiled and promised. "Okay, I'll never scare you like that again." The Conqueror, tired of the teasing, wrapped her arms around the Amazon's shoulders. "I missed you."
Gabrielle returned the hug and, looking around the nearly demolished Temple, she raised her eyebrows. "I see that." She grinned as the Conqueror's face turned light crimson and, laughing, the Amazon realized a small knot of smiling people, including Solan and Karis were waiting near the door. A second look at her son wiped the grin off her face. Releasing the warrior, the Amazon Queen moved quickly to Solan's side and examined the large bruise on his cheek.
'You hit him!' The Warrior Princess was furious. 'How could you hit him? He is our son!' The Conqueror tried to defend her actions. 'He called me a coward.' It was a lame excuse and she knew it. It had all happened in two blinks. One moment Solan was standing before her calling her a coward and the next he was lying on the ground holding his cheek. She had regretted hitting Solan a heartbeat after she had done it. To avoid thinking about the shameful action, the Conqueror's darting eyes fell on the Amazon next to her son. The Warrior Princess clenched her hands into fists as the sight of Karis replayed Cyane's revelation about the young woman and her activities with their son. As the memory of the long dead Amazon's words echoed in their head, they barely heard Gabrielle speaking to the boy.
"What happened?" Gabrielle's fingertips on his chin gently turned her son's face so she could get a better look at the injury.
"I was mad and spoke before I thought." Solan shrugged and glanced briefly at Xena. "It wasn't her fault."
The head guard watched the examination and listened closely to the brief explanation. When she heard Solan describe the incident she sucked her breath through her teeth and thought. 'Xena hit him!' The dark look Karis shot at the warrior was met with an equally dark expression.
It took Gabrielle a moment to realize Solan was talking about Xena. 'So the Conqueror did more than trash the Temple.' She tried but couldn't quite keep the disappointment out of her eyes as she turned to her love.
'No!' The Warrior Princess struggled to keep the Conqueror from striking out at Karis. 'It will only make things worse.' She could feel the angry look on her face. 'Solan LOVES her and she loves Solan.' The Conqueror wasn't convinced. Solan was theirs and Karis was not going to take him away. 'No.' The Warrior Princess soothed her dark sister. 'He doesn't belong to us. We will still be able to love him.' The Conqueror was about to protest but the disappointment in her lover's eyes sent her retreating into the darkness, glad that she could, knowing that the Warrior Princess was there to take over.
Gabrielle watched the subtle shift of muscles in Xena's face and spoke quietly, unable to conceal her increasing disappointment. "She hit him!"
"It was a reflex. She didn't mean to." The tone in Gabrielle's voice tore at her heart and the Warrior Princess was very glad that she wasn't the one their love's displeasure was directed toward.
"Just like she didn't mean to trash the Temple?" The Amazon Queen spread her arms to encompass the mess. She had been amused, at first, that her love had missed her so much but she realized this was more than a simple tantrum. Striking their son was unfathomable to Gabrielle and the violence the Conqueror had apparently reveled in while she had been here alone was disturbing.
Calm blue eyes studied the Amazon's flashing green ones and the Warrior Princess gently cupped the small woman's head in her hands. "Please don't be angry at her Love." She could feel her dark sister making herself as small as possible in her favorite corner of their mind. "She truly regrets hitting Solan......" Two fingers on the Queen's lips stopped her protest and Xena continued. ".... and I would have destroyed the Temple too, if I had been here." She smiled as the Conqueror spoke up from her corner and echoed Gabrielle's surprised response.
"What?" The Amazon Queen was at a loss for words. The fact that her lover would willingly destroy the Amazon's patron Goddess' Temple was surprising to say the least.
"Oh yes." Xena nodded as she replayed the events as the Conqueror had shown them to her. "Artemis had left and the Conqueror didn't know how to get her back. Destroying the Temple is a perfectly acceptable and logical way to attract the Goddess' attention." She smiled as comprehension dawned across Gabrielle's face and as she felt her dark sister uncurl from the corner. "It has worked for us many times in the past."
"I'm sorry I hit Solan." The Conqueror hung her head for a long moment. She swallowed hard as Gabrielle's strong fingers under her chin forced her head up and then moved to brush the dark hair out of her eyes.
"I know you are sorry." The Amazon tangled her fingers in the raven tresses and pulled the warrior down to her. "Just don't let it happen again."
Slowly nodding compliance with the order, blue eyes peered from their dark frame for a long moment. Then with a wry, almost hopeful smile, Xena nodded her head once more. "Yes Mistress."
A mischievious twinkle slowly replaced the disappointment in Gabrielle's eyes and she fought to keep from laughing. Hidden from everyone's view except Xena's she raised her eyebrows and mouthed, 'Later.' Grinning at the shudder the soundless promise sent through her lover, the Amazon turned to speak to the guards.
'Later indeed!' Later could never come soon enough for the Conqueror. If it were up to her she would have swept Gabrielle off her feet and carried her all the way to their room. The playfulness that thought brought quickly turned to concern as the Amazon Queen nearly fainted. "Gabrielle!?" Xena's quick reflexes caught the falling Queen and held her close. "Are you okay?"
"Whoa." Gabrielle furrowed her brow and held up her hand to fend off her guard's concern. "Just a little lightheaded that's all." She smiled up at the woman holding her. "I guess traveling to the Land of the Dead can exhaust a person huh?"
Shaking her head, Xena grinned. "Nope." She glanced out the open Temple doors and smiled down at the woman in her arms. "But going without food all day is bound to take it's toll."
"Yeesh!" The mention of food immediately caused Gabrielle's stomach to growl. "I haven't eaten yet have I?" She grinned at Solan and the guards, smiling at the long standing joke, then affected a pout as Karis made a quick sign and a runner took off instantly. "Was that necessary?"
She knew her Queen was teasing and Karis returned the mood. "I'm afraid it was my
Queen." She bowed and smiled. "The kitchen had to be warned."
Gabrielle's stomach growling proved her point for her and the guard smiled as she realized
Gabrielle had accepted her relationship with Solan. Her lover's Mom would never have
been so playful if she hadn't accepted the situation.
Laughing at the joke, the Warrior Princess draped her arm around Karis' shoulder. "Solan why don't you escort your starving Mom to the dining hall." The grip on the guard shifted slightly and the Conqueror's smile became honey sweet. Anyone within the sound of the Empress' voice shuddered at the low tone. "Karis and I have some things to discuss."
Karis swallowed against her suddenly dry throat as the companionable arm around her shoulders shifted to warm hard fingers gripping the back of her neck. The warrior's rumbling voice mixed with the increased pounding of her heart and she recalled how Iolaus had described that particular sound. The soft velvet sound of death had been his term and Karis agreed with the pig's description. When the last of the guards followed Gabrielle and Solan out the door, the grip on her neck released, however, the warrior's words gripped her heart.
"I know you are sleeping with my son." Xena stressed the last two words and watched Karis nod acknowledgement. "I just wanted you to know......." Deadly blue eye's bored into the guard's. "....If you ever hurt him, I will kill you."
"I..." Karis stressed the word. "...would never intentionally hurt him." The flicker of guilt she saw in the warrior's eyes did little to ease her feelings on the subject. The Temple's desecration was bad but she knew she would have done it too if it was the only way to bring Gabrielle back. She was very angry, however, that Xena had hit Solan. She found herself disappointed that Gabrielle hadn't insisted on an actual punishment instead of just accepting the reluctant apology. "I would rather cut off my arm than hurt him."
The Conqueror raised an eyebrow at the declaration. "Right or left?" She almost smiled as the Warrior Princess' laugh floated through her head.
Karis' lips twitched in amusement and she never broke eye contact as she answered seriously. "Both."
Nodding, Xena smiled. "As long as we understand each other."
The guard let the love she had for Solan filter into her voice and fill her eyes as she responded to the intimidating woman. "We do."
Karis had told him this morning that Gabrielle had been in their room so as glad as he was to have his Mom back, he was also glad to see her playfully teasing Karis. They had only taken a few steps out of the Temple when the tone of Xena's voice struck him. Solan gasped and glancing around at the surrounding guards, he whispered to his Mom. "She knows doesn't she?"
Gabrielle took a deep breath and looked into his concerned brown eyes. "Yes." She patted the arm linked in hers and smiled with as much confidence as she could. "The Warrior Princess won't let her get hurt."
"I love her Mom." He didn't know what it was like for her and Xena, but he did know that he could never imagine his future without Karis as a part of it. After last night he knew Karis felt the same and he tried to convey that to his Mom. "And I think she loves me."
Smiling at the wistful tone, Gabrielle nodded. "Yes she does." Green eyes twinkled at the smile her confirmation brought to the boy's face. "She has for a long time."
"So you are okay with......everything?" Solan really wanted Gabrielle's approval of the relationship. He knew he would ask Karis to Join with him eventually and he wanted to know it wouldn't cause problems with Gabrielle.
She barely altered her stride as the guards in front of them opened the large gate leading to the Palace courtyard. Gabrielle glanced around the immaculately landscaped statue garden and smiled at her son's concern. "I have considered Karis a part of my family for quite a while now."
Solan stumbled at that bit of information. "What? Since when?"
They walked into the dining hall, surprised to see many of the royal guests already enjoying their dinner. Gabrielle closed her eyes breathing in the savory aroma of the feast being laid out before she answered casually. "Since the night Brenin was arrested." Patting her son's arm, Gabrielle proceeded to their seats at the head of the table but in a moment of pure mischief sat in Xena's chair instead of her own.
Solan was dumbstruck for a moment. 'Since Brenin was arrested? That was a long time ago!' Snorting at Gabrielle's choice of seats, he reclaimed the seat he had occupied during the ill-fated Wedding Feast, which put him right next to her.
Grinning at her son's chuckle and the murmurs of the guests, Gabrielle settled into the throne. She noticed Solari quickly assigning guards around the room and decided security was well in hand before she eyed the feast before her. She was just reaching for her favorite dish when Xena and Karis walked into the hall. The Amazon nearly laughed as her lover and her head guard both surveyed the Amazon's placements around the room and nodded satisfactorily as much to Solari as to themselves. Marveling at the matching movements, the Queen thought. 'They are so much alike.' She heard Solan suck in his breath as Karis started to join the others at the guards table and Xena grabbed her by the elbow.
When Karis realized where they were headed she was totally surprised. After the threat in the temple and the silent walk back to the Palace she hadn't expected such a public show of acceptance. Her expression was mirrored by Solan when Xena gently but firmly sat her in the chair next to their son before the Empress continued on to her own seat. The sudden absence of sound in the room gave Karis the impression everyone was looking at her, then she realized all eyes were on Xena.
Raising an eyebrow at her throne being occupied, she leaned over to whisper to her love. "You are in my chair."
Green eyes twinkled and the Amazon's lips formed a small oh before she examined the chair she was sitting in. "Am I?"
"Yes." Xena held a cherry up to the teasing woman and smiled when the Amazon's white teeth pulled the tiny fruit from it's stem. "You are." She tossed away the stem and reached for another plump cherry.
Gabrielle swirled the small fruit in her mouth and grinned impishly. "Are you going to do something about it?"
"Yes. I am." The Conqueror licked her lips and settled into the empty chair on Gabrielle's right. She offered the cherry to the grinning Amazon and raised an eyebrow. "Later." A smile played across her face as the other guests let out a sigh and resumed their meal.
Plucking the offering from the long tapering fingers, Gabrielle laughed. "We'll see."
Solan's laughter distracted them both and Xena looked at the young couple. "I'm not exactly sure what Solan sees in her." It was a comment straight from the mother in her. The guard had proven her loyalty and intelligence time and again, but still it was their son they were talking about.
Gabrielle grinned and with one small hand on her love's cheek forced the blue eyes to connect with hers. "I do." Holding the large head in place, she leaned over the wide arm of the throne and kissed the grumbling mother. "She is just like you." Grunting and wincing slightly the Amazon pushed herself off the barrier between them and rubbed her ribs where the arm of the throne had dug into them.
"Let's hope not......" Any further comment from Xena was stalled when a child's voice rang through the hall.
"I KNEW IT!"
The Amazon Queen looked up to see a small girl with wavy brown hair running to the head table. She bit back a grin at Karis' shock when the child practically jumped into her lap and breathlessly continued her comments. "I just knew you were a princess, 'cause no one but princesses get to eat with Princes." The child's eyes glanced at Solan then twinkled at her new friend, her very own princess. "Just like the story." She looked at Karis' feet. "Where are your shoes?"
Karis' shock changed to puzzlement. "Shoes?" The confused guard glanced around the hall. Most of the guards present were trying their best not to smile and Megan was standing in the doorway, mortified.
When the guards had inisted that she and Amber come with them to the Palace she had been nervous, but Karis said the Amazon Queen wanted to talk to her so she agreed. Amber's behavior made her rethink the decision to come until Solan answered the child's question.
"Most of the time Amazon's don't wear shoes." He glanced at his love and grinned at the little girl. "But shoes or not, Karis will always be a princess to me."
Gabrielle listened to Xena's murmuring explanation of the events in the temple and smiled at the child's reference to the rags to riches fairy tale that had always been her favorite. She saw Karis look toward the woman at the door and recognized the pickpocket she had asked to speak with earlier. The child was obviously connected with her somehow. "Are you going to introduce me to your friend Karis?"
Karis smiled and rose from her seat, gently setting the girl on her feet before kneeling to Gabrielle. "This is Amber." She looked at the child. "Amber, this is the Queen of the Amazons."
The girl's brown eyes went wide when Karis knelt and they grew even wider when she heard Gabrielle's title. Her breathless echo of Karis' introduction made them all smile. "The Queen."
The object of the little girl's awe grinned and winked. "You can call me Gabrielle." She gestured for the child to approach her. Her grin turned to a full fledged smile of shock when the child leaned against her bare leg and declared.
"You are even more beautiful than any story princess." Amber was caught in the twinkling green eyes of the Queen and was thrilled when the woman gestured her up. She climbed into the offered lap quickly and looked back toward the door with a smile. "Look Mama, I'm sitting with the Queen." The child was too thrilled to notice that most of the royalty seated around the table were grinning at her.
The Warrior Princess almost grinned too as she watched the child hesitantly approach Gabrielle. She raised her eyebrow at the child's comment and the Conqueror agreed. 'The kid knows what she's talkin' about.' There was a brief surge of jealousy when the child crawled into Gabrielle's lap. 'I wish I could do that.' The jealousy was quickly overcome by confusion when Amber called the young girl at the door 'Mama'. The pickpocket was obviously too young to have a child Amber's age.
Gabrielle's thoughts echoed Xena's as she mentally established the age of the pickpocket, who was nervously shuffling her feet. She picked a small apple from the bowl in front of her and absently picked up a small but sharp table knife. Slicing a bite from the fruit she popped it in her mouth and chewing quietly pointed to the door with the utensil. "Your 'Mama' is kind of young huh?"
Nodding absently at the comment, Amber focused on the fruit. The apple looked much juicier than the one's Michael usually brought home and it smelled wonderful. She licked her lips and admitted. "She's not my real Mama." The child stretched up and whispered a secret into the Queen's ear.
"Really?" Of course, Gabrielle wasn't surprised at the out loud confession but she was a bit taken back by the whisper. She glanced at Xena, Solan and Karis. The warrior was eating a slice of melon slowly but the Amazon knew Xena was listening intently to their exchange. Solan had an unreadable look on his face and Karis smiled with a touch of sadness before signing, 'orphan?'. Nodding at the signal, Gabrielle sliced another portion from the apple and as she was bringing it to her mouth looked into the child's brown eyes. Diverting the bite from her lips, the Queen offered it to the child, careful to keep the sharp edge of the knife toward herself.
"Thank you." Amber bobbed her head once as she delicately took the offering from between Gabrielle's thumb and the knifeblade.
Smiling at the child's courtesy, the Amazon sliced another bite for herself and casually asked. "Where is your real mother?"
"I don't know." Amber's clear brown eyes looked up at the curious woman. "I just woke up one day and she was gone." She chewed the last of her piece and licked her fingers. "I was so glad."
The Royal family all stopped their motion cold and the Amazon guard's radiated silent tension at the child's final comment. Gabrielle cleared her throat and calmly sliced another piece from the apple. "Why glad?" Her tone was curious but not threatening. She raised the bite to her lips stopping short at the child's quiet word.
"No." Amber protested. "That piece is mine." Liquid brown eyes almost apologized as she reminded the Queen softly. "You had the last piece, remember?"
All the Amazon's murmured at the child's audacity. Coming between their Queen and food was never a good idea. Karis met Solan's eyes as they grinned at Gabrielle's momentary loss of words.
Xena chuckled. "She's right love. You did have the last piece."
Raising an eyebrow at her lover's shaking shoulders, Gabrielle chewed her lip and nodded. "So I did." Tilting the bite to the girl, she apologized. "Sorry."
Amber took the piece, again carefully avoiding the sharp knife blade. "That's okay."
Gabrielle watched as the child bit into the slice and asked again. "Why glad?" She felt the girl's heartbeat increase and she followed the child's gaze to the door, where Megan stood nodding.
With a reluctant sigh, Amber nodded and told what she thought was the truth. "I was bad. She got tired of punishing me so she left."
"You weren't bad." The Warrior Princess' growl turned all eyes toward her. "You are just a little girl." Her heart went out to the child. She was appalled at the unknown woman's treatment of her own daughter. The Conqueror snorted. 'Like our mother was any better.' The Warrior Princess' growl rumbled through their head. 'I don't want to get into this now.' Her angry thought effectively silenced her dark sister but only after a snide parting remark. 'You never do.'
The child chewed her bite and regarded the growling woman. "That's what Mama says."
Gabrielle also studied her growling love for a long moment before she glanced at the door and saw the young woman wiping a tear from her eye. "Your Mama is very smart." She smiled and nodded to the girl by the door. Slicing another bite from the fruit in her hand, she offered it to the child and raised her eyebrow in question.
Amber giggled. "Oh, that one's yours. I had the last piece, remember?"
Twitching her lips at the contagious giggle, Gabrielle nodded. "So you did." She popped the slice in her mouth and laid the half eaten fruit back on the table. "I would like to talk to your Mama after dinner."
"Her name is Megan, my Queen." Karis spoke for the benefit of everyone in the room and signed for the benefit of the Amazon's present. 'Other children at home. Worried about them.'
Gabrielle berated herself for not realizing that the girls nervous shuffling had less to do with speaking to royalty as it did with other concerns. "On second thought," Gabrielle lifted her chin. "I think tomorrow will be soon enough for our discussion." She smiled at Megan's relief and tilted her head to indicate Karis. "Karis will show me the way."
The thought of having the Queen visit their home was rather daunting. She would almost rather stay and worry about the others just so the woman wouldn't see the house, but she thought since the Queen wasn't arriving until tomorrow they could all get to bed early and then at least straighten up and dust a bit in the morning before she got there. Nodding agreement, Megan held out her hand. "Com'on Amber. It's time to go." She saw the child's hesitation and gesturing, coaxed the little girl from her coveted seat. "Michael may have brought back some nice fat rabbits by now, and maybe Piper will feel like playing for us tonight." A few candlemarks of dancing and she figured she would be able to get them all to sleep early then she could possibly get some cleaning done tonight.
Amber grumbled at the enticement. "The one he brought back yesterday wasn't fat at all." She reluctantly gave in to Gabrielle's gentle hands helping her down and sighed as she walked away from the head table.
Gabrielle doubted she was meant to hear the child's murmuring comment but thought about it even after Megan had led her out the door. "Karis?"
"Yes, my Queen?" The guard was still a bit uncertain of her relationship with the Queen and so she tried to be very formal, especially in front of all the other royalty that was present.
Gabrielle began carving the roast rabbit now being set in front of her. "How many children does Megan take care of?"
"I counted fourteen my Queen." Karis nodded at the widening green eyes. "but I can't be sure that was all of them."
'Sweet Artemis.' She thought. 'Fifteen mouths to feed!" Gabrielle's respect for Megan edged up a notch. Placing a large portion of succulent meat on Solan's plate, she stopped short of cutting it into bite sized chunks for him. Xena's questioning voice stopped any comment her son was about to make.
"Are you sure there were that many?" The Warrior Princess was dismayed and thrilled at the number. Dismayed that there were so many children in the same situation and thrilled because with that number there was a way to solve the situation easily, if things worked out the way she thought they would.
"Yes." Karis cautiously sipped the wine from her goblet. "At least that many."
Gabrielle's curious look garnered her a twinkling blue wink before the rest of the royalty began arriving in the dining hall. Lao Ma's entrance with her son caused another wave of silence to crash across the room as the eastern leaders made their way to the same seats they were assigned last night.
The Conqueror studied the woman as she walked toward them. 'She is very beautiful.' The Warrior Princess agreed. 'She always will be.' Gabrielle's low voice interrupted her evaluation.
"Trade with me Xena." The Amazon Queen stood and rubbed her mid-section again. "I want to be able to talk to Lao Ma without breaking a rib in the process."
Standing quickly, the Warrior Princess' large hand examined the injured area and whispered. "I can kiss it and make it better."
Laughing at the offer, Gabrielle patted the hand on her stomach and let her eyes meet her love's. "Later."
Grinning at the familiar promise, the Conqueror lifted the smaller woman in a hug and finding her ear whispered. "I do love later." Twirling to exchange places, Xena set the Queen back on her feet and kissed her quickly before settling into her familiar seat with an exaggerated sigh.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes at her lover's mock relief and settled into her own chair just as Lao Ma adjusted to her own sitting position. The eastern leader's soft voice floated through the muted silence in the room.
"Interesting that you exchange places so easily." Dark brown eyes regarded the woman next to her but the answer to her response came from farther down the table.
"Gabrielle has every right to sit here. Her word is law." The Conqueror swept her gaze around the table. "Just as much as mine." They took note of which leaders nodded acceptance and which ones hesitated to respond.
Lao Ma nodded immediately at the statement. She had known that the women's souls were intertwined since the Amazon Queen had chastized her son. 'Each are a part of the other.' She thought. 'I'm not sure the young one is ready for such responsibility though and I think she knows it.' Turning a peaceful smile on the young Queen, Lao Ma tilted her head in question. "You would make decisions that effect the world?" She wasn't surprised by the answer.
"No." Gabrielle bit back a grin at the gasps around the table before she reached for Xena's hand. "I won't make any decision that doesn't directly involve Amazons, without discussing it with Xena first."
"But you could." The Conqueror smiled and raised the small hand to their lips, kissing the knuckles lightly. "My love for you makes it so."
Smiling at the gentle lips on her hand, Gabrielle nodded and let herself drown in a sea of blue. "And my love for you assures that the Amazons will follow you anywhere."
The gathered leaders murmured at the unexpected statements. For Xena to give the Amazon such power was absolutely amazing and although Xena's army was known for their fighting skills, the thought of Amazons fighting on Xena's side was daunting. Brutus watched those who had been slow to accept Gabrielle's elevated status and nearly laughed as they realized the implication of the small woman's declaration. No one would be stupid enough to lead a rebellion against Amazon fighters!
Gabrielle ignored the murmurs of the diners around her, floating in a moment of peaceful blue. She grinned as her stomach made it's intentions known and mumbling an apology to Lao Ma for not continuing their conversation, the Amazon dropped Xena's hand and again amazed the gathered royalty, this time by consuming more food than any of them had thought humanly possible, at least not for such a small person. She was glad to see that Xena was keeping up with her for a short time. 'She will need all her strength, later.' The Queen smiled and shivered at the pleasant thought.
Gabrielle smiled as she took the last bite of her sweet apple dumpling dessert and even as she was still chewing, exchanged her plate for one with a large hunk of nutbread on it. Swallowing the apple treat, she realized the diners pleasant background banter had stopped and looked around the table. All eyes were on her. "What?"
Grinning at the puzzled look, the Warrior Princess gestured to the room in general, the pile of empty dishes in front of them and the remaining plate of nutbread. "They are waiting for you to take one more bite and explode."
Brutus addressed Gabrielle. "If I may be so bold your Majesty, where do you put it all?" He was aware of the Amazon guard's bristling and the young Prince's eyes narrowing in his direction. He was extremely glad for the non-threatening noise from the warrior.
Smirking at Xena's chuckle, Gabrielle answered as she raised a bite of bread to her lips. "It takes a lot of energy to be me." Seeing all the female guests around the table blush furiously and glance at Xena, Gabrielle swallowed her bite, sipped her juice and clarified. "Life as an Amazon is not an easy one, not even for me."
One of the red faced women lost her demureness in a moment of confusion. "But you are a Queen!"
"No Ma'am." Karis had held her tongue at the Roman's obvious admiration of her Queen but this woman's term needed corrected. "She is THE Queen and any of us would do anything to ease her burdens, if she would let us."
The woman Karis addressed widened her eyes as the Empress raised one perfect eyebrow and chuckled. "I do believe Karis just called you stubborn, my love." Xena's eyes twinkled at the mock indignation Gabrielle affected and playfully asked. "Shall I have her killed?" Her playful expression was wiped away by the sudden stillness in the room.
Gabrielle ignored her tense dinner companions and sized up Karis thoughtfully. "Hmmmm... unnecessary I think." She smiled as the diners let out their breaths. "It is, after all, the truth." Silence from the warrior widened the Amazon's green eyes slightly and a chuckle from her right drew her attention.
"It is a wise woman who knows when not to speak." Lao Ma smiled at the Imperial couple.
Laughing at that Gabrielle popped another bite of nutbread into her mouth. Pushing herself up from the table, she cupped Xena's strong jaw in her hand and traced the warrior's cheekbone with her thumb. "I'm going for a walk in the statue garden. "Join me?"
"Actually, I have some things to do. I'll met you back in the room later okay?" The Warrior Princess gritted her teeth against her dark sister's inevitable remark, surprised when there was no protest. 'You are right.' The Conqueror's reluctant voice floated through their head. 'We do have things to do.' She was glad that Gabrielle would be distracted for a little while. The Amazon's low voice nearly made her change her mind though.
"Later then." Green eye's twinkled down for a long moment before turning on Lao Ma. "Will you join me for a walk?"
"I would be honored." Lao Ma rose gracefully, nodding to Xena then following the co-leader of the world out the door.
Xena watched the women leave and pushed the slight worry out of her mind. 'What will they talk about?' The Conqueror wasn't sure she liked the idea of their former lover talking to Gabrielle. 'She never knew us the way Gabrielle does.' The Warrior Princess knew Lao Ma had never known when she was present. Gabrielle's ability to always know who she was talking to had always amazed her. 'Yeah well, back then we didn't talk much either.' The Conqueror could feel the anger in her build just from the memory of those days.
Slight movement from the corner of her eye drew her attention to her former lover's brooding son. Ignoring the slightly sneering young man, she stood and regarded the young couple to her left. The large bruise on Solan's face forced a pang of regret through her and she moved her attention to the Amazon next to him. 'If you ask her to come, he will come too.' The Warrior Princess didn't want him along for this. The Conqueror, naturally, disagreed with the evaluation. 'He has to learn.' She also wasn't above putting another small scare into both of them and lowered her voice to a growl. "Karis, come with me."
Karis rose quickly and Solan scrambled to his feet. "I'm coming too!" He breathed deeply to calm the sudden pang of fear his mother's tone caused in him. The memory of Gabrielle's reassurance that Xena wouldn't hurt Karis was enough to get him over the worst of his anxiety quickly but even so, his mother was a very intimidating woman. He knew that any punishment Xena saw fit to give them should be his to bear as well as Karis'. The decision to take their relationship to a physical level was definitely mutual.
'He's scared of us.' The Warrior Princess was furious that her dark sister insisted on terrorizing the young couple. 'They didn't listen to us and deserve any terror they get.' The Conqueror was not happy that her lighter side was going to let such blatent disobedience to the 'sleep only' rule slide. 'They are in love. How would you feel if someone told you to stay away from Gabrielle?' The gentle reminder and question didn't change the Conqueror's mind. 'That's different.' Her stubborn tone signaled the end of the argument and she stalked out of the dining hall, ignoring the furtive glances of her guests, confident that Solan and Karis were following as closely as they dared.
Gabrielle and Lao Ma walked through the statue garden in relative silence until they reached a pair of seats on either side of a covered wishing well. As the leaders settled into their respective seats their guards took positions around them to secure the area. Lao Ma's two protectors stood a respectful distance back but were close enough to help if there was trouble. Gabrielle's four guards were not as lienient. The Amazons basically circled their Queen permitting a break only to allow Gabrielle a line of sight to her eastern peer.
"Your guards are very...... attentive." The night's gentle breeze carried Lao Ma's amusement with her comment.
"Yes." Gabrielle eyed the hovering guards. "Too much so at times." At her annoyed gesture, her guards moved back to a reasonable distance. All of them were a bit upset at the chastizement.
Smiling at the instantaneous compliance with the small woman's hand motion, Lao Ma tilted her head slightly. "They are very disciplined too."
Gabrielle regretted berating her guards even jokingly and returned the eastern ruler's smile. "Amazon Royal Guards are the best at what they do." She grinned at the now blushing guards. "They have to be to put up with me." Arching her eyebrow, she challenged them to argue with her. None of them did.
Lao Ma sympathized with the Amazons, knowing that if anyone else had insulted their Queen like that the person would have been in serious trouble, but when the person was Gabrielle herself they were helpless to protest the slight. She was about to make a comment when one of Xena's lackey's hesitantly approached them.
Salmoneous bowed courteously to Lao Ma and then turned to Gabrielle. Wringing his hands, the man didn't know exactly how to begin and was silent for a long moment.
Seeing his distress, Gabrielle smiled to try and alleve his worry. "Is there a problem Salmoneous?"
"Well, um, yes," He held up his hands and added quickly. " ....sort of." He looked into her concerned green eyes and hated what he had to tell her. The idea of disappointing this gentle woman was suddenly heartbreaking. He grimaced at the words as he spoke them. "I don't know who or why but it seems that vandals have trashed the Temple of Artemis." He nearly dropped to his knees in apology. "I don't know how we will ever get it ready in time for the wedding ceremony tomorrow night."
Gabrielle wiggled her fingers in apparent contemplation of the news but she actually just wanted to feel the reassuring weight of the ring on her finger. 'As far as I'm concerned we are already married.' She thought. 'I don't really care where the ceremony is held here.' She could see the man's breathing increase the longer she remained silent so she patted his nervous hands. "It's okay. Just move the ceremony to the outer reception hall." She bit back a laugh at the almost comic relief on his face. "We will have a celebration in the village Temple later to appease the Amazons." She grinned as from the corner of her eye, Gabrielle saw Norin about to burst. Gossip this juicy was going to be spread quickly. The party for the Queen's wedding would be a spectacular event and all the guards present knew it.
Salmoneous nodded gratefully. "Yes of course I'll begin the preparations right away." He quickly thought of all the work the new location would need to be ready for tomorrow night and sighed, wondering if he would be able to find enough staff to do the job correctly.
Hesitating for a heartbeat, Gabrielle gestured to her guards. Two immediately came forward and dropped to one knee.
"Yes, My Queen?" The voices were in perfect sync. Gabrielle breifly wondered how long they had practiced that before shaking the thought from her head.
"Kayden. Norin. Go with Salmoneous and help him with the preparations." She smiled at the man as the two rose and stood ready to accompany him. "Recruit as many other Amazons as you need."
"Yes your majesty, of course, thank you your majesty." He switched his thinking from what needed to be done, to how many people it would take to do it. Lao Ma's gentle question pulled him out of his thoughts.
"Shouldn't you ask Xena?" The ruler had remained silent during the interview and even now her question was directed at the man not the Amazon Queen.
"Ahhh..." The bearded man rolled his eyes, searching for the right way to phrase his response finding no alternative but the truth. "No. I have strict orders from Xena. A simple rule that is to be followed without question."
Gabrielle grinned slightly as Lao Ma prompted. "And that rule is?"
He shrugged. "What Gabrielle want's, Gabrielle gets." He rubbed his hands together and regarded his new assistants with dawning hope. "C'mon ladies. We have work to do."
There was silence between the leaders until the party planners had disappeared. Lao Ma's peaceful tone drifted through the night. "That's some rule."
"It makes Xena feel better to tell people that." The Amazon regarded her companion thoughtfully. "We all want to give the people we love the world, and the moon, and the stars."
Lao Ma nodded. "Of course, but very few of us actually have the hope of getting it." She smiled. "You are in the enviable position to actually recieve the world. The power you were given tonight is quite considerable." With an amused twinkle in her eye Lao Ma waited for the Amazon to continue the conversation.
"I won't use it." Gabrielle could feel herself teetering on the slippery edge of that power. Once she started down that path, wielding the power Xena had given her, there would be no turning back. The nervous energy that thought brought took a bit to get under control.
"You are very wise." Lao Ma watched her young companion wrestle with her thoughts and offered some advice. "The entire world is driven by a will, blind and ruthless. In order to transcend the limitations of that world you need to stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating. Heaven endures and the world lasts a long time because they do not live for themselves."
Gabrielle recognized the phrase from the copied book of wisdom her scouts had brought back from Chin. However, Amazons had their own philosophy regarding life and the journey it takes you on. "We all visit the precipice. Each one of us has to find our own way down."
Lao Ma nodded. "Yes but the wisdom to know the best way down is hard to come by."
Nodding, Gabrielle rose slowly from her seat. "Yes, but each day infuses us with the knowledge we carry into tomorrow." Gesturing to a path that led deeper into the statue garden, Gabrielle linked elbows with the philosophical eastern leader and they began a lengthy discussion of their different beliefs as they toured the torchlit pathways.
Karis watched Xena pacing through the shadows ahead of them. The Amazon kept her eyes on the woman's catlike movement's and breifly wondered where they were going. It was a good bet that Xena wasn't taking them out for a night of fun at the Festival. She gasped when she understood where they were headed. She hadn't realized their destination in time to prepare herself but wasn't sure she could have prepared for the sight anyway. Stopping next to Xena's still form, Karis looked up and swallowed hard as she felt Solan's hand slip into hers. She wanted to turn to him. She wanted to reassure him and tell him that he would never have to do this to anyone, even though the possibility existed. The problem was she couldn't turn away from the sight of Callisto on the cross.
The resistance leader's wavy blonde hair covered her face as her head hung forward, the ropes cutting into her wrists unleashed bright rivulets of blood to run over old paths already dried in the afternoon sun. Karis could tell that the woman's breathing was labored but she didn't know if it was from being tied to the cross or from the obvious extreme pain her legs were causing her. The limbs hung limply from her body, bruised, swollen and at the moment, possibly for the rest of the life, useless. The Amazon tightened her hand on Solan's when she heard Xena speak.
"Karis do you agree the sentence for kidnapping Gabrielle and Solan has been carried out?" The Conqueror turned to the shocked Amazon and placed her hand on the girl's shoulder. "Karis?"
Not trusting herself to speak, Karis pulled herself up a bit straighter and nodded once. The iron in Xena's voice sent chills through her.
"Cut her down." Her voice sounded cold even to her. The sight left the Warrior Princess speechless because it reminded her of the pain they had gone through at the hands of Caesar. 'I killed Caesar for that.' The Conqueror was not happy about leaving the woman alive. She had tried to kill Gabrielle. 'Gabrielle is the one who asked for lenience.' The Warrior Princess was ashamed to admit it but she had been glad when her dark sister took care of Caesar and she didn't really want Callisto left alive either. The Conqueror laughed, much to the dismay of the young couple next to her and the guards carrying the prisoner inside the prison. 'Sometimes I do like the way you think. Can we go now?' Her task was finished for the evening and she wanted to get back to Gabrielle. 'No, there are a couple more things I have to take care of.' The Warrior Princess was surprised when her dark sister gave up control quickly and she turned to Karis. "Take me to see the orphan children." She wanted to check out the children's house for herself, just to be sure Gabrielle would be safe tomorrow. Not that she didn't trust Karis' assessment but when it came to Gabrielle it was better to be safe than sorry.
Shaking the memory of Callisto's torment out of her head, Karis focused on the task at hand and nodded. "Of course, I was going to go back and check it out tonight anyway." Gabrielle's safety was too important to risk, even though there really was no longer a threat from the resistance. Her lover's small voice nearly broke her heart.
"What will happen to her?" Solan couldn't tear his eyes away from the prison door.
Xena regarded her son for a long moment before she answered honestly. "The healer will dress her legs and, when they are healed enough to bend, she will be put back in the chair for the rest of her natural life." She tried to smile at the young man. "C'mon."
"I can't go there with you." The beat in Solan's chest punctuated every word. "And I don't mean to the orphan's house."
Loving blue eyes studied his face quietly before she smiled. "I know what you mean." She reached out and gently traced his uninjured cheek with her thumb. "You are so much like your father. He was more into treaties and alliances than killing and torture." She almost laughed at the incredulous looks on both young people's faces and ammended. "But he didn't hesitate in battle." Dropping her hands to her side she continued holding her son's eyes with her own. "He was a great man and would have been a great leader, almost as good as the one you will be someday."
"I have a lot to learn." He liked it when Xena talked about his father as more than the monster most people did. There were places where the name Borias still carried a tinge of fear with it and he knew that his father wasn't always a nice man, but somehow when Xena talked about him the admiration in her voice made him think that if Borias had lived, his father would have loved him.
"You'll learn." It was a sad promise on their part because both the Warrior Princess and the Conqueror knew it was very likely that one day their son would know the heartache of ordering a death he didn't actually want. 'Like Marcus.' The Conqueror still regretted that and was glad the Warrior Princess had suggested they at least make his death honorable, even though she had left most of the actual fighting and the killing blow to her. 'You always do the killing.' The Warrior Princess reminded her matter-of-factly and wasn't surprised at the odd mix of sadness and glee in her dark sister's reply. 'I know.'
Solan glanced at the dark doorway to the prison. "There are some things I'm not sure I want to learn."
Nodding, Xena smiled sadly. "There are some things I wish you didn't have to learn either." Draping her arm around his shoulder, she shook him slightly. "But ruling isn't all bad." She gestured to Karis to proceed and as they followed the guard Xena explained some of the good things a person with power can do.
Gabrielle and Lao Ma walked through the rapidly cooling night in companionable silence. Their long discussion of just about every topic, including Xena had ended several moments ago and neither woman cared to break the freindly silence until the cool night breeze made Gabrielle smile.
"Yum!" She inhaled the delicious fragrance again. Her face lit up when she identified the scent. "Muffins!"
Chuckling at her companions glee, Lao Ma followed closely behind the younger woman. Lost in thought, wondering how Gabrielle could possibly be hungry after the huge dinner she ate, she nearly slammed into the still form of the younger woman. The abrupt stop was explained by the silent tableu surrounding the kitchen's large outdoor hearth.
A woman was lying on the ground holding her side. Standing over her was a man not much bigger than her but his large fist was still clenched around a short rather thick branch. It was very obvious that he had hit her with it. Gabrielle felt her heartrate increase as she flashed back to the morning in Potedia when Perdicus hit her sister. Quickly checking to make sure Lao Ma's guards were going to keep her away from the rabble, she let the anger she felt at the scene flash in her eyes. "What is going on here?"
He looked up at the new arrivals, tossed the weapon aside and unclenched his jaw. "Stay out of this. It's none of your business."
"Wrong!" Gabrielle made a gesture and her two remaining guards emerged from the shadows, moving quickly to help the woman. "This is most definately my business." She waited for the guards to help the groaning woman to her before she broke her eye contact with the man. Turning her attention to the woman she gently examined her injuries. The bruise spreading on her abdomen was nasty but Gabrielle couldn't feel any obvious broken ribs. What most concerned her was the small but growing bump on her head from where she fell. She gently questioned the silent woman. "Do you have a headache?" Gabrielle pursed her lips when the woman nodded and winced at the motion. The Queen looked at her guards. "Take her to the healers." Holding up her hand she answered their unspoken protest at leaving her unattended. "I will be fine." She patted their backs and urged them on toward the Palace infirmary. "She needs to be attended to."
"Lady I don't know who you are, but you have no right to interfere in this." The pointed in the direction the guards had taken. "I don't know about where you come from, but here in Corinth we have rules. That was my wife."
Holding eye contact, Gabrielle drawled. "Too bad for her."
He was angry now, more so than when he had lashed out. "She slaves away here in this kitchen, cooking for you royals and all she brings home are a few lousy dinars a month."
Gabrielle longed for the feel of a staff in her hands and asked a question she thought she probably already knew the answer to. "And what do you do?"
Hatred burned in his eyes as his fists clenched at his side. "Nothing right now. Bastard wagon builder hates me, but a friend of mine is going to get me on as a guard." It was a longshot gamble but he thought it might be worth the risk and he invoked the Empress in his argument. "Xena likes me."
Gabrielle closed the distance between them, glad her guards weren't there to stop her. She looked up into the slightly taller man's eyes and never breaking eye contact, smiled sweetly. "Bet she likes me better."
Furious that his ploy hadn't worked, the man raised his fist to hit the unflinching woman in front of him. A low voice from the darkness stopped his raised hand at the top of it's swing.
"Finish that strike and die where you stand." Solari could feel all eyes on her as she emerged from the darkness, her bow held ready to back up her threat.
He looked over his victim's shoulder at the two arrows nocked in the bow and for a second thought that they were intended for his eyes. 'No one could make a shot like that!' He thought, very much aware his fist was still ready to strike. "You have no right to interfere!"
"Well, sir..." The archer sneered the title and wished Gabrielle would
move away from the man. "I would have beaten you senseless for what you did to the
woman in the infirmary. But you are about to hit my Queen and for that, I'll kill
you." She smiled as all the blood drained from his face.
"Don't kill him Solari." Gabrielle backed away as heavy booted footsteps approached. When she was far enough away, she turned her back on the man and smiled at the approaching guard.
"Palemon! Good to see you." She didn't fake the relief she felt at the man's arrival. There was no doubt that she or Solari could have handled the situation but she was very reluctant to use the power Xena had so recently bestowed on her.
Xena's head guard slowed to a halt and nodded to the small woman. "Your Majesty." He looked around. "One of the healer's said there might be some trouble here." His eyes narrowed at the scene.
"Yes." Gabrielle indicated the man. "Take him to the prison until Xena has a chance to deal with him."
"Xena herself can't do anything to me." The man was adament now. "That was my wife." He recovered the stick he had used as a weapon. "And this is what I hit her with." He handed it to Palemon and held up his right thumb.
The head guard sent a shocked glance at the watching crowd then questioned the man incredulously. "You are invoking the rule of thumb?" Palemon hated that rule and he hated men like this. He knew that there was no reason to ever hit a defenseless woman. Pushing aside the thought of Trisha's blue eyes filled with pain, he took the stick and compared it to the man's hand. Cursing lightly, he announced the results. "The weapon is smaller than his thumb." The guard gritted his teeth and reluctantly admitted. "There is nothing I can do."
"No?" Gabrielle waited for the more serious charge to be summarily dismissed before she spoke. "He threatened to hit me." She looked at Palemon. "Take him to the prison and hold him until Xena has a chance to sentence him."
Grabbing the man immediately, the guard pulled a length of rope from his belt and quickly tied the abuser's hands behind his back. He was extremely thankful that the added offense gave him an excuse to take the man away. He had been wishing for the opportunity to toss the man in jail for some time. Holding the jerk by the back of his collar he bowed to Gabrielle. "I'm sorry your evening was interrupted, your majesty. Please don't trouble yourself with this matter anymore."
Gabrielle watched the guard roughly shoving his prisoner toward the jail and bit her lips together when Palemon's guiding hand slammed the man into the wall next to the gate, twice, before pushing him through the opening. She imagined the prison door would feel the impact of the man's face a few times too, before he was finally taken to his cell. Sniffing, Gabrielle rubbed her nose and cleared her throat, mostly to cover the small laugh that escaped her, before she turned to Solari. "Good timing."
"I was getting some herbs for Jana when they brought the woman in." Solari shrugged. "Right place at the right time I guess."
"Mmmmm... I guess so." Gabrielle picked up a basket and grinned. "Lucky me."
Now that the confrontation was over Lao Ma's guards allowed her to move forward. "Why didn't you just sentence him? You have the authority, he threatened your life."
The Amazon Queen placed a large muffin in the basket she was holding and smiled. "I rule over the Amazons." Glancing once at Solari, she put another muffin in the basket and continued. "I don't want to abuse the power Xena has seen fit to bestow on me." She sighed. "Even though I was, in this case, sorely tempted."
"You are very wise." Lao Ma bowed and smiled when Gabrielle returned the gesture. "And I am very tired. Please forgive me but I really must retire for the evening."
"Of course. It was very nice talking to you." Bowing again, Gabrielle watched the eastern leader enter the Palace before she finished filling the basket she held with the rapidly cooling baked goods. Handing the treats to the nearest servant she smiled. "Take these to my son's room." Picking up one of the larger examples of the cooks handiwork she absently tore off a bite, delighting when it melted in her mouth. "Mmmm.... Have Mirriam bring some of these to Xena's room too." She laughed as a runner was immediately dispatched to find Mirriam. Satisfied that everything was in order here, she walked back toward Solari and motioned her to walk with her into the Palace. "How is Jana?"
"She is doing fine, my Queen." The archer was very proud of her love's progress. She knew the guard was still in a lot of pain but she never complained. She kept her pride to herself though as well as some of the healer's report, although she should have known Gabrielle would have already known it.
"Fine?" The small blonde tore another bite from her snack and chewed thoughtfully. "But the healers say the trip home will be hard on her?" Casting her eyes sideways, Gabrielle saw a slight blush creep into Solari's cheeks.
"Yes, my Queen." Jana had begged her not to tell anyone about the healer's prediction, but Gabrielle already knew. "They say moving now could damage her legs further and she may never be able to use them properly again."
Nodding at the admission, Gabrielle swallowed her bite and smiled. "We'll see what we can do about that." They walked in silence as she finished her snack. Arriving at her room just as the last bite was swallowed, Gabrielle pushed open the door and for a moment was glad that Xena wasn't back yet. She glanced at the pile of her packs the guards had stacked in the corner, then did a double take. Moving quickly, she searched the pile and sighed. "One of my packs is missing."
Solari was immediately by her side. "Are you sure? We were very thorough."
"Yes. It's light brown with red laces." All the packs here were dark brown with black laces. Gabrielle ran her fingers through her hair and looked at Solari's shocked face. "What?"
Solari could feel the blush heating up her cheeks. "During the trip here, some of the packs fell off the wagons. They got mixed up so we looked inside to see who's was who's."
Gabrielle felt a smile tugging at her lips but swallowed it and prompted. "And?"
"Well, that one....." Solari didn't know how to say this so she just got it all out in a rush. "I sent that one to the camp with the prison supplies."
Supressing a laugh but not a smile, Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. "Prison supplies? I'm going to have to pay closer attention to our system then." She put a bit of mischief in her eyes and asked. "How many prisoners do you know that rate silk ropes and soft leather restraints?"
The blush burned the tips of her ears now. "Um.... "
Letting her laughter spill out, she waved off Solari's response. "Nevermind." Sitting on one of the big comfy chairs by the fireplace, she leaned back and closed her eyes. "Just bring me the pack." Solari was nearly out of the room when she remembered Amber's whisper, "Solari?"
"Yes, my Queen?" The gaurd halted mid-step.
"Who else besides Karis knows where the children live?" She didn't want to compromise the location too much, until she knew more about the situation.
Solari thought for a moment. "I belive Ana was the one who tracked Karis to the place."
"Send Ana to me then." Gabrielle had a very special assignment for her.
Bowing, Solari was grateful to exit the room and for the chance to go back to camp. She wanted to make sure Jana was doing okay before she started her shift on guard duty. "As you wish, my Queen."
Gabrielle relaxed back into the cushion and rested her eyes for a long moment after she heard Solari exit, listening to the music from the Festival, waiting for Xena to arrive.
Xena crept slowly up to the window. Karis and Solan were both on lookout, so she felt fairly safe turning most of her attention into the house. They had all heard the pipe music as they approached but Xena was amazed at who was playing. Recalling Megan's comment to Amber at dinner about getting Piper to play for them, the Warrior Princess decided that 'Piper' must be his nickname. She was fascinated by the boy's fingers flying over the pan flute and almost echoed the children's disappointment when the song was over. Megan's laughter drew the Warrior Princess' attention.
"Now now.. Piper is tired." She smiled tolerantly at the young musician. "You know we don't want to make him sick again."
That comment warranted a more critical appraisal of the boy. The Warrior Princess looked at him with narrowed blue eyes. He was fairly thin, but his eyes were bright so he was obviously recovering from whatever illness he had experienced. An appraisal of the rest of the children garnered similar results because they were all fairly thin, but they all seemed rather happy. Her estimation of Megan and Michael went up a notch. 'This may work out okay after all.' The thought was met with a sulking Conqueror's silence but she didn't care and continued to watch the scene inside.
"It's time for all good little children to be in bed now." Megan smiled as they all groaned and the older children began helping the younger one's move toward a door in the back. Her smile disappeared as Amber remained where she was. "Amber, I said it was time for bed."
"No. You said bedtime for good children." The little girl swung her legs off the chair. "I'm not good so I get to stay up." She had been inadvertantly reminded, while talking to the Queen, that she was bad and that her mother didn't want her.
Megan's heart broke for the child and she wished she knew something to say, that the little girl would believe. Kneeling in front of the chair, Megan rested her arms on the girl's lap and looked her in the eye. "You are not bad. You are one of the best little girls I know." She reached up to hold the little girl's bowing head up. "And I know a lot of them. Okay?"
Amber nodded slowly. "Okay Mama."
Smiling, Megan whispered. "Okay." She opened her arms and gestured the girl forward. "Com'ere."
Amber hugged the older girl's neck and rested her head on the broad shoulder. "I love you Mama."
Megan wiped a tear from her own eye before she answered. "I love you too honey." With a deep breath, she pushed aside the emotional moment and poked the little girl in the side lightly. "Hang on now."
Giggling at the poke, Amber doubled her grip. Megan stood with an exaggerated grunt. "Wow.. you are getting to be a big girl." She leaned back to look at the child's face. "You better stop going to big fancy dinners and sitting on Queen's laps." She tickled the girl's belly and echoed the contagious giggle.
"That was fun though." Amber caught her breath. "Is she really coming here tomorrow?"
"Yes." Megan looked around the room, seeing only the mess tonight's dancing had made. "That is why we all need to get some sleep." As she carried Amber back to the sleeping rooms, she tried not to think about what might happen to them when Xena realized that she and Michael were only fifteen.
The Warrior Princess watched the older girl carry Amber through the door in the back. 'She is a good mother.' The Conqueror sneered. 'Not like ours.' The Warrior Princess clenched her teeth at her dark sister's comment. 'Don't start!' The Conqueror's laugh came with her as she stalked to where Karis was waiting and growled at the guard. "We've seen enough." Knowing that Solan would be protected, she didn't wait for the guard. She simply started walking toward the one person who could calm the turmoil her dark sister caused in her heart.
Solan saw Xena speak to Karis and he joined the guard quickly. "What's wrong?"
"I don't know." Karis was worried. "She seemed upset."
"Should we go with her?" Solan knew if Karis was worried then something was definately wrong.
Laughing, Karis looped her arm around his waist. "If we did, it would be to protect innocent bystanders. I wouldn't want to cross Xena in the mood she is in now."
Solan was immediately worried. "She is going to see Mom......."
"She would never hurt her!" Karis smiled at her love's concern and cupped his uninjured cheek in her hand. "She loves Gabrielle. Just like I know you would never hurt me, because you love me." She kissed the slow smile spreading on Solan's face. "See?"
Reassured by the words and the kiss, Solan understood but his eyes twinkled with mischief. "Ummm... I'm not sure..." He grinned at his love. "You wanna explain it again?"
Sighing, Karis shook her head sadly. "If I have to." She grinned at the Prince's laughter and kissed him again. "I'll explain it all, in depth, when we get back to the room." She was determined to make him understand, even if it took all night.
Xena stalked through the streets of Corinth, taking the most direct route back to the Palace meant traveling through the most populated part of the Festival. Her expression alone parted the crowd. As she passed the stage, the music died down and she was only aware of the silence in her wake until she heard someone actually addressing her.
"Empress. A moment please......" The voice from behind her trailed off as she whirled toward him.
"What!?" They were in no mood for delays; Gabrielle was waiting for them.
Palemon was taken back for a moment, then continued calmly. "We have a new prisoner I thought you should know about......."
The Conqueror listened impatiently as the guard explained the situation, when he got to the part about the threat to Gabrielle she cursed vehemently and headed toward the prison.
Palemon was thrilled that Xena was going to take care of the man now. He could tell she was in terrible mood and hoped that translated into bad things for the jerk. He noticed the music start again as soon as Xena stepped off of the main festival street.
The large door opening forced sleepy green eyes open. When she saw Mirriam set the tray of muffins and juices on the table she closed them again. A short time later the door opening again raised her heavy eyelids and she saw Ana waiting near the door and Solari approaching her. Lacing her fingers together she stretched her arms out in front of her and yawned. Rolling her neck, she stood and accepted the pack. "Thank you."
"You are welcome, my Queen." Solari bowed. "I'm sorry for the mix up."
Gabrielle chuckled and thought. 'I'll bet you are.' Waving away the apology she tossed the pack into the corner with the others. "No apologies necessary." She heard the music die down and absently thought it was a funny place to stop the song. "You will be on duty tonight?"
"Yes, my Queen." Solari nodded confirmation.
"Who else will be guarding my door?" Gabrielle wasn't sure how well sound traveled through the thick doors, but she wanted to guards to be prepared for whatever they might hear. Although, it was getting very late and if Xena didn't arrive soon she would be alseep before they even got started.
"Bekka." Solari had never really had a chance to get to know the young guard so she hoped to possibly get a conversation going tonight. As second in command, she was trying to get to know all the members of the Royal Guard a bit better.
Nodding at the choice, Gabrielle smiled. "Okay, just checking." Bekka had been on duty many times during Xena's stay in the village. She returned to her chair and smiled. "That will be all."
Bowing, Solari grinned. "Have a nice night, my Queen."
Laughing, Gabrielle ran her hand through her hair and looked seriously at the guard. "I'll try."
Solari smiled and left quickly to take up her post.
At a gesture from her Queen, Ana moved forward quickly and knelt. "You wished to see me?"
"You know where the children are?" Gabrielle smiled and reached out to help the guard rise.
Accepting the hands, Ana nodded. "Yes."
"Good." The Queen patted the tracker's hands and then surrounded her shoulders with one arm, leading her back to the door. "Then here is what I want you to do............"
Ana listened carefully to her orders, a slow smile spread across her face as she thought of her Queen's soft heart. When her instructions were finished she nodded once. "It will be done." Bowing, Ana left quickly to organize her morning task.
Gabrielle chuckled and after changing into her favorite white silk robe, she sat back in the chair. Closing her eyes, she listened to the music that had resumed and wondered what Xena was doing.
The Warrior Princess was furious that someone had threatened Gabrielle and they weren't there to protect her. She wasn't furious enough to keep the Conqueror from taking control though. It was after all part of their agreement. This was the Conqueror's domain, she ruled here. 'You just don't have the stomach for what I do.' The Conqueror's taunt was well placed and correct, the Warrior Princess doubted she could ever do the things the Conqueror did so easily. 'Ha!' The self-satisfied laugh rang through their head. 'You just admitted you need me!' When the jibe was met with silence the Conqueror turned her attention to the task at hand and stepped into the small cell Palemon indicated.
Six men were shackled to the walls of this room, two on each wall. She regarded them carefully, taking in their thin frames and shabby clothes before turning to the obvious new arrival. "I'm told you hit your wife and threatened to strike the Amazon Queen."
"That little bitch had no right to interfere. I didn't break the law." He was very angry now.
A slow evil smile spread across the Conqueror's face. Her eyes became ice as the other prisoner's urged him to keep quiet. The Warrior Princess knew it was much too late for that as her dark sister chuckled. "Maybe you don't know the law as well as you think."
"Of course I do." He sneered. "As long as the stick isn't any bigger 'round than my right thumb, I can hit her whenever I have reason."
The Conqueror licked her lips and moved closer to the chained man. Leaning in she whispered in his ear. "Guess who gets to say if your reason is valid." She laughed as the blood drained from his face. She turned to see Palemon's grinning face and ordered. "Bring him."
The guard reached for his keys and quickly unlocked the shackles from the wall, pulling the man after the Conqueror's disappearing form.
"What is she going to do to me." The man was terrified now.
Palemon dragged him down the corridor. "I don't know but if she doesn't kill you it will be less than you deserve." The guard grinned when he saw Xena disappear into the sentence room and urged his reluctant prisoner faster with savage jerks on the chains.
When they arrived, the Conqueror was examining the wide array of axes hanging on the wall. She waved to Palemon absently. "Right hand. You know what to do."
The guard nodded and moved to chain the man to the large executioner's block that stood in the middle of the room. After attaching his left hand to a metal ring protruding from the side of the block, Palemon tied the man's right hand flat on the top of the large wooden stump.
The Conqueror chose a medium sized cleaver and tested the edge with her thumb as she spoke. "Since there is no reason that could possibly justify you hitting your wife and I am in no mood to try and convince you of that, I am simply going to prevent you from ever using that law again." Glancing down at his hand, fingers splayed out on top of the block, she looked into his eyes and brought the cleaver down. Holding his eyes for a moment longer, she smiled and spoke to Palemon. "Take him to the healer."
Mesmerized by the blue eyes holding his, the prisoner's forehead furrowed. 'Healer?' The order didn't make sense to him until he felt a slow warmth making it's way up his arm. Looking down he saw the cleaver neatly separating his thumb from his hand. The warmth turned to heat, then to pain and he started to scream.
Walking toward the exit of the prison, the Conqueror stopped at a large water basin and washed the spatter of blood off her arms and hands. Looking at the pink tinged water, she wondered for a moment how Gabrielle would react to the sentence she had carried out on the man. 'You should have thought of that before.' The Warrior Princess was sure that Gabrielle loved them but this was not a years old offense that could be forgiven as a past mistake. 'I rule here. She as much as said so at dinner.' The Conqueror tried to keep confidence in her voice. The Warrior Princess knew that the Conqueror was just as anxious to see their love as she was. 'Let's go.' The prison wasn't that far from the Palace but the short walk would give them a chance to collect their thoughts.
As she walked toward the Palace the large amount of activity there drew her attention. 'What the.....' Salmoneous' voice gave her a target for her questions and she stalked over to the harried man. "What is going on here?"
"Xena!" The planner's voice rose an octave at his surprise to see her. "I didn't think you would be out this late."
"What is going on here?" She saw that the reception hall was being prepared for a wedding, but the only wedding scheduled was her own and that was going to be held in the Temple. The blood drained from her face as she realized what had happened. 'I trashed the temple.' The Conqueror felt horrible at the turn her temper tantrum had caused and she lashed out. 'You weren't there to stop me!' She cringed as the wry laugh rang through their head. 'Ha! You just admitted you need me!' The Conqueror retreated as her own words were thrown back at her. The Warrior Princess surveyed the workers and noted the large number of Amazons helping. "You asked Gabrielle and she said to move the ceremony here." It was a statement but Salmoneous answered.
"Yes, your Majesty." For a moment he thought he had done something wrong.
She nodded. "Well it seems as though you have everything under control." She patted his shoulder and moved on, hoping there would be no more delays before she reached her room.
Gabrielle floated on the edge of Morpheus' realm, she heard the music drifting in on the breeze but was unsure if it was played by real or imaginary performers. A myriad of dream images flew past, warm arms surrounding her, her robe being removed, the momentary coolness of the silk sheets, the solid form of Xena sliding into bed next to her. It was the last one that forced her eyes open. "Xena?"
The warrior whispered. "Yes love?"
Wriggling to turn and drape her arm across the woman's stomach, Gabrielle rested her head on the broad tan shoulder with a peaceful sigh.
Xena looked down at the sleeping woman with a half smile and stroked the honey red hair. "Yes, that's right. Sleep now. We will talk about everything in the morning." She was thankful for the delay in getting the Amazon's reaction about having to move the ceremony. Realizing how tired she was too, she closed her eyes, content in the knowledge that they were safe in Gabrielle's arms once again.
Concluded in Part 11
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