General Disclaimers can be found at the beginning of Part One.
Specific Disclaimers for Part 11:
I would like to thank Kathleen for her unwavering support and for the poem I used as the lyrics for Amber's song. LRH <grin>
Thanks also to Wanda and T for always being very patient for the next beta section and I would also like to thank Pati, Patti, Susan, Tracy (Tony), Mac and everyone on AIM that listened to my grumbling about how I was always 'stuck' on one part or another.
BIG Thanks to my Jenah... I think taking my mind off of my story for a day and helping out with hers was a great way to get me back on track, since I finished this Part the next day. (Yes finished!... I'll be watching the mail for my completion bonus <Grin>)
AND last but definitely not least I would like to thank Jen Ward. Her wonderful
CD and especially the song Missing Inside My Heart was the inspiration for Xena asking
Gabrielle to marry her in the first place, even though I didn't get to use any of the
lyrics as I had originally planned....I did get to mention the title. <grin>
Invitations pt 11
A sudden lack of warmth next to her woke Xena quickly. She propped herself up on one elbow. "Gabrielle?" She saw her lover's golden form pull on her white robe. "Where are you going?"
"Be right back love." Gabrielle smiled and headed to the washroom.
Nodding, Xena laid back and snoozed for a few minutes. It wasn't even dawn yet and this was going to be a very busy day. 'Busy but great.' The Warrior Princess was looking forward to the ceremony tonight and she knew the Conqueror was too. Gabrielle's warm body sliding next to her drew her from her thoughts and she berated herself for missing the chance to watch the Amazon walk across the room. "You're up early." She hugged the woman, who was practically laying on top of her.
"Yeah well I was asleep earlier than you." Gabrielle rested her chin on the warrior's chest. "Sorry about that."
"No worries love." The Warrior Princess tapped the Amazon's nose. "You had a long day, and you were tired."
Sighing, Gabrielle replaced her chin with her ear and listened to the strong heart beating under the smooth skin. "I know, but....."
"Ah..." Xena stroked the silky hair so conveniently under her hand. "No buts... you were tired, and quite frankly I wasn't up to much beyond sleeping either."
"Really?" The admission startled Gabrielle. Xena hardly ever admitted a weakness.
"Yeah." The Warrior Princess sighed regretfully, then continued on a cheerier note. "And today is going to be very busy. We have a lot of things to do."
"Yes." Gabrielle agreed. There was one thing she wanted to do first. A promise of sorts that she needed to keep. "Can we...."
"Yes." Xena's immediate response cut off the rest of the Amazon's request.
Gabrielle laughed and playfully slapped the warrior's exposed shoulder. "You don't even know what I was going to ask!"
"It doesn't matter." Intent blue eyes twinkled as she echoed the Amazon's laughter. "Whatever it is, the answer is yes."
Raising her eyebrows, the Amazon grinned and challenged. "Yeah? Well what if I've decided that I do want the stars?"
Cupping the Amazon's cheek in her large hand, the Warrior Princess whispered. "Then I would have to find a way to get them for you." She pulled the woman closer and captured the grinning lips with her own.
Melting into the kiss for a long moment, Gabrielle felt the same as she did when they were in Amphipolis. At this moment she knew, if she really did ask for the stars, Xena would get them for her. Unfortunately now was not the time and she reluctantly broke the kiss. "We need to go."
"Where?" Xena was moving to rise even as she asked the question.
Smiling, Gabrielle changed into her favorite leathers. "I need to keep a promise. Alright?"
A childlike smile crossed Xena's face. "Alright!"
Megan felt the sun warm her face and groaned. She had worked late into the night straightening up the house. She was fairly satisfied with the appearance of the place now, as long as she could keep it that way until after the Queen's visit. The sound of children laughing pulled another groan from her and she moved quickly to see what kind of damage they had done to her hard work.
"Why did you let me sleep so late?" She started speaking as she walked down the hall. The sudden silence at her voice worried her. "You know..... " The sight that met her drove the thought away.
"SURPRISE!" All the children laughed at their Mama's expression and they all moved forward into a giant group hug.
"What is going on here?" She couldn't help smiling as she was bombarded with laughs and hugs.
"Oh c'mon sis!" Michael stepped forward and playfully punched her shoulder. "You know today is our birthday."
In fact, she had completely forgotten. "Oh."
A knocking on the door froze them all. Michael held up his hands for them to all stay were they were as he moved cautiously to the door. "Who's there?" He frowned as the person on the other side of the door identified herself.
"My name is Ana. I bring a gift from the Amazon Queen." The guard waited patiently outside the door. Gabrielle had explained that her gift may not be immediately received.
Michael was dubious but Amber made up his mind for him as she ran to the door and flung it open. Ana smiled down at the child who had captured all their hearts at dinner last night. "Hello Amber."
"Hi!" The child peeked around the guard, disappointed that Gabrielle wasn't there yet. "When will the Queen be here? Is Karis coming too? Will the handsome Prince be here too?"
Ana laughed. "She will be here later, I don't know and I don't know." She reached down and pinched the girl's rosy cheek. "But until the Queen arrives, she sent this for the party." The tracker reached over and pulled a large basket into sight. Seeking out Megan, she asked. "May I come in?"
"Of course." Megan gestured to Michael. "Help her."
Ana bristled at accepting help from the boy, but relented only because there was a second basket to carry in as well. Setting the second basket on the table next to the one Michael placed there, Ana nodded to Megan. "Enjoy your birthday." She winked at Amber as she exited. It was hard to resist the urge to stay and watch the party but with the wedding ceremony tonight she knew there was too much to do at the Palace to justify staying here. The children's squeals of delight as they uncovered the contents of the baskets made it even harder not to look back through the window.
Megan was still stunned that the Queen had known it was their birthday then she remembered Amber whispering. 'If she knows then Xena knows too.' Her worries were overridden by small hands tugging her forward.
"Come and look at what the Queen sent!!" The children's eyes gleamed up at their protector. "Have you ever seen so many treats?"
She looked at the baskets, and breathed deeply. "No I haven't." The children's obvious glee chased away her fears for the moment.
"Let's see if they taste as good as they look huh?" Her brother offered her a sample of the gift.
Accepting a large muffin from Michael, she saw in his eyes that he was worried too. She often thought about how their roles in the group had been attained. When their mother died, she had stepped into the 'Mama' persona fairly easily, but Michael remained as a sort of 'big brother' to them all. She guessed it was because she had been able to benefit, for a while, from their mother's lessons, while Michael had never really had a father to teach him anything. Squaring her shoulders, she nodded to him and tried to smile. "Happy birthday brother."
Returning the almost smile, Michael squeezed her shoulder gently. "Happy birthday sis." He held her eyes for a long moment, until the boys pulled him toward the table.
"C'mon Michael." The younger boys urged their friend to dig in. "It's your birthday too!"
Giving in to the children's pressure, the twins tried their best to enjoy the moment and hoped it wasn't the last time they were all together.
Xena squinted against the sun rising in a now brilliant blue sky. Leaning back against the wall, she smiled as Gabrielle leaned back into her embrace. They looked out on the nursery pasture and watched the little lambs playing their little lamb games. She felt a smile cross her face unbidden as Gabrielle laughed at the animals antics.
"I'm going to have to spend more time in the northern villages. I had forgotten how much I love baby animals." Gabrielle's smile only lasted until she looked up to see the now serious look on Xena's face. "What's wrong?"
"You are going back." The Conqueror couldn't quite keep the hurt out of her voice. She had known they would be apart again but now that it was spoken, the thought seemed much more real.
"I am the Queen Xena. I have to be there." Gabrielle hugged the arms around her. "But we have plenty of time to think about that." Silence from the still form behind her forced her to turn around. "Xena?"
"Yes love?" The warrior kept her eyes focused on the frolicking animals.
"Xena look at me." Gabrielle gentle tone along with her touch on the warrior's cheek forced the blue eyes to meet hers. "You know I love you right?"
"Yes love." Xena swallowed hard and nodded slowly.
"Good." The Amazon smiled. "Because no matter where you are in this world and no matter where I am, that won't change. Ever."
"I know. I just hate being without you." The Conqueror's pout was echoed by the other's in her head.
Smiling at the pout on her lover's face, Gabrielle leaned in and kissed the dark woman's worries away. "We have lots of time to think about that." Turning back to the lambs, Gabrielle snuggled back into Xena's embrace and reluctantly admitted. "We really should be going though."
"You think we'll be there in time for the party?" Xena grinned. She had been dismayed to discover that Megan and Michael were only fifteen, but thanks to Gabrielle's helpful suggestion, her solution to the problem would still work.
"Well I was kind of giving them time. I really don't want to intrude on their celebration. Amber said they were going to have the party this morning." Gabrielle was glad the child had whispered the secret to her. It was nice to have this time alone with Xena, she knew the rest of the day would be hectic. "But we do have quite a few things to do today." In addition to dealing with the orphans, they still needed to speak with Solan regarding his role in the ceremony and then prepare for the ceremony itself.
"Yes we do." The Conqueror tightened her hold on the Amazon. It was ridiculous. She couldn't believe how excited she was. It was just a stupid ceremony, right? 'Right!' The Warrior Princess was also excited.
"Well then let's get going." Patting the arms around her, Gabrielle looked around for Argo.
Laughing, Xena put her fingers up to her mouth and let out a ear piercing whistle.
Gabrielle laughed as all the lambs in the field stopped playing for a moment, then laughed again as Argo trotted into view. "You really are going to have to teach me that!"
Blue eyes twinkled as Xena helped Gabrielle from the wall to the horses back.
Karis surveyed the ordered chaos in the reception hall. She took note of the decorations and decided where she wanted the guards and sentries posted. A meeting later today would settle any complaints from the attending royalty's guards. She wasn't looking forward to that meeting. Some of the other head guards were quite stubborn when it came to listening to women, sometimes she hated being so young. From the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of dark blonde hair moving toward her through the chaos and she thought. 'Sometimes it's pretty great though.'
"How's it going?" Solan ran his fingers through his hair and looked around with grudging approval. They had created a reasonable facsimile of Artemis' Temple. He could see the exhaustion in most of the workers and knew that if they had tried to have the ceremony at the real Temple the crew would still just be cleaning the rubble.
"Pretty good." Karis smiled at the still sleepy Prince. "I think they have done a good job."
"Yeah." He laced his fingers together, bending them backwards as he stretched his arms out in front of him and yawned. "Seems so." He looked around once more. "You ready?"
Nodding, Karis resisted the urge to yawn. "Let's find Palemon and then we can go."
Yawning again, Solan nodded and followed her through the unfinished decorations and diligent workers.
Argo covered the distance from the nursery pasture to the children's house quickly. In the early morning light the house looked more run down than Xena remembered it, and she looked at the overgrown lawn and thought. 'Good cover.' Without the sounds of the party inside, no one would believe anyone lived here. Through the tall grass she saw something that gave her pause. Reining Argo to a halt, she dismounted and helped Gabrielle down. "I'll be right back." She knew Gabrielle wanted to see the children so she moved quickly to the markers, aware that the Amazon followed closely behind.
"What is it Xena?" Gabrielle tried to see around the warrior.
"Grave markers." She moved aside and wrapped one arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. She pointed to the larger one with her free hand and whispered the name engraved there. "Amphytrion."
Surrounding the leather clad waist with her arms, Gabrielle looked up at the warrior. "Did you know him?"
"Only by reputation. He was before my time." The man was almost a legend. "He was a great leader."
"A soldier?" Gabrielle thought he had to be.
"Yes. One of the best." Xena looked at the slightly smaller grave next to him and was filled with an inexplicable sadness. "That must be his wife."
"Did they have any children?" Gabrielle didn't know what answer she was hoping for, but obviously someone had buried the woman.
"One, a son." The Conqueror thought for a minute. "I think."
"So he was orphaned too." Gabrielle's thoughtful voice pulled Xena from her thoughts.
"Yeah.... " Squeezing the Amazon's shoulders, she smiled sadly. "Appropriate huh?"
Gabrielle rested her head on the warrior's smooth shoulder for a long moment before speaking. "It's really sad when a child loses a parent." She wondered how Lila would explain Perdicus' death to Gabe and Brie. She doubted either of them were old enough to remember much about the man. 'I'll bet she makes him out to be a misunderstood guy.' She hoped Brenin had sense enough to tell the children the truth.
Xena thought about that. 'It's sad to lose a parent.' and wondered where her father was. She hadn't seen him since she was seven or so. It wasn't a pleasant thought that he had ran out on them, nor was it fun to think that he had been killed in battle. 'Maybe he will come back someday.' The Warrior Princess' wistful thought was stopped as a young petulant voice filled her head. 'He will NEVER come back!' The anger in the seldom heard voice shook her to her very core.
"Xena?" Gabrielle felt the trembling muscles under her arms. "Are you okay?"
Burying her face in the Amazon's soft hair, the Warrior Princess took a few moments to compose herself. "We're fine now. Thanks"
"Okay." Gabrielle sounded dubious but took the Warrior Princess' word for it. "Let's go then."
They made their way back through the overgrowth to the front door. They both smiled as their knock was met with a dead silence followed by shuffling feet and lots of shushing commands. There was obviously a small hole in the door as Amber's excited voice rang from the other side.
"It's her!" The child flung the door open. "You're just in time!" She wiggled between the two women at the door and took each of their hands in one of hers, dragging them into the room.
Megan's startlement that Xena was with the Amazon Queen was totally overridden by her confusion at Amber's statement. "Just in time for what?"
Amber looked at Megan with rolling eyed exasperation. "Your presents of course."
Amber guided the royal couple to a low couch and waited for them to sit before she turned and giggled at Megan. With tiny determined steps, she crossed the room to their Mama. Small hands on the teen's stomach pushed her back to the rocking chair where she had been sitting.
Gabrielle watched the scene with fascination, although she felt very much like an outsider just then. With all the children sitting cross-legged on the floor around the girl in the chair, it was readily apparent that, within these walls at least, Megan was the Queen.
When they were all settled, one of the older girls urged the youngest girl, who couldn't have been more than five, to give Megan her present. Gabrielle felt the warrior beside her go very still as the child approached her 'Mama'.
"This is for you Mama." The child smiled as she handed Megan a piece of paper. "The babies helped."
"Thank you Clara." Megan looked at the picture they had drawn and hugged the girl. "It's the best picture of the tree's ever."
Gabrielle tightened her grip on Xena's hand when the child's face lit up at the praise and watched as a boy, no older than Clara stood and moved toward Megan.
"This is from .....Xenos and Aaron and me." Two of the younger boys squirmed when their names were mentioned and he handed Megan a rolled length of leather. "You said you needed a new belt, cause your clothes were too big now......." Suddenly he was worried the present wasn't good enough and grudgingly admitted. "Michael helped with the buckle."
Gathering the boy up in a hug, she was suddenly laughing as the other two boys were quick to get their thank you hug too. "Thank you all... this is a wonderful belt."
A slightly older boy stood as the three took their seats. He walked up and handed her a small jar. "This is from me." His gruff voice carried through the room. He didn't wait for a hug before he sat back down.
She looked at the jar and smiled. "Honeycomb!... Thank you Jess. That is my favorite."
Gabrielle thought she saw a smile tug at the boy's lips but he kept his gruff expression firm as he nodded acceptance of the thanks. The Amazon saw Solan and Karis standing at the door and motioned them to stay quiet as the rest of the gifts were given.
Now it was Amber's turn. She stood and helped Piper stand. She handed Megan a red piece of paper shaped like a heart and spoke to the older girl as Piper settled into his stool. "You give us those when we are scared or sad. Now this one is yours." She moved to stand closer to the young musician. "Piper has written a song for your birthday, and I'm gonna sing it for you." Turning to face the seated children, Amber saw the Prince and her new friend Karis by the door and smiled. "I'm going to sing it for all of you." She nodded and Piper started playing.
Who was the first to send it
no one will ever know
if in a time of grief or happiness
this little heart was shown
but it has gone from one to many
silent in its quest
to change the lives of everyone
to whom it has been sent
a tiny red reminder
that someone out there cares
a simple symbol from the soul
of the love that's hidden there
Gods speed to little paper hearts
as they travel through this world
encircling this dismal earth
with love and faith renewed
Amber's voice died away as the music did and she turned to Megan. "Did you like it?"
The seated girl let out a burst of incredulous laughter and wiped a tear away from her eye. "Did I LIKE it!!!" She tried to be serious. "No." Opening her arms to the musicians, she hugged them both tightly. "I LOVED it. Thank you!"
Amber helped Piper back to his seat, and a slightly older boy stepped up. He handed Megan a small wrapped object and stood quietly while she opened it.
"Oh Ren, it's wonderful." She held up the small carving for them all to see. It was a perfect carving of a horse. "Thank you."
Like Jess, Ren didn't allow himself to be hugged. Although he didn't speak, he did smile as he reclaimed his spot on the floor.
Another older boy came forward. He explained as he handed her the small package. "We all collected the stones." He waited for her to unwrap the gift and hold it up for them to see. "But I did the metalwork."
She hugged him tightly. "Thank you Matthew. It's the most beautiful necklace I've ever had." She wasn't just saying that either, the boy was amazing when it came to jewelry making.
Two of the older girls, stood and one waited for the other to go get their present. "We have been working for the tailor, doing odd jobs.....sweeping and stuff." The other girl returned with a larger package and handed it to Megan. "We bought this material and we used our spare time to work on it."
Unwrapping the gift, Megan stood and held the new dress up against her. It was a little large in the middle but the woman smiled. "It's perfect. I can wear my new belt with it and my necklace." She grinned at all of them. "Why, I'll be so dressed up I won't know what to do!"
"If you had a good pair of shoes, you'd have a whole outfit!" Michael's eyes twinkled at his sister. "Why don't you try these?" He held out a brand new pair of sandals. The questioning look in her eye forced an explanation from him. "I promised the cobbler one rabbit pelt a month for the next year."
"What about you?" Megan took the sandals. "It's your birthday too."
"Matthew and Ren made me this knife." He showed her the new weapon. "Ren carved the handle and Matt forged the blade." He reached unhooked a small pouch from his waist and spilled the contents into his hand. "The boys got me some nice rocks, perfect for the sling... and some arrow heads." Looking at Kayla, Leah, Amber and Clara he grinned. "And the girls got me a new shirt that, if I'm not mistaken, matches your dress."
Satisfied with her brother's gifts, Megan looked at the door and smiled. "Thank you for waiting. You can come in now."
Karis and Solan moved into the room and sat at the table, Palemon stayed standing just inside the door.
"That is a lovely outfit." Solan commented on the girl's gifts. She was quite pretty, but didn't hold a candle to Karis.
"Thank you...... your majesty." Megan used the young man's title uncertainly. "I'm really not sure where I'll wear it though."
"To the Palace, of course." Xena's tight voice matched her expression as all eyes turned to her. "When you come to give me your monthly report."
"Report?" Megan didn't understand.
"Of course." The Warrior Princess shed her unexpected stillness at the scene and smiled at the confused girl. "All the directors of the orphanages come to the Palace once a month to give me a progress report."
"Director........" Megan still wasn't getting it.
Nodding, Xena continued. "If there had been fewer of you, I would have sent you to the other homes already in operation. But since there are fifteen of you, there is no reason to split you up." She looked around. "You have done quite well for yourselves here."
"You aren't going to split us up?" The joy in her heart made it hard to breath. "We can stay?"
Gabrielle spoke up now. "She is very young for such a responsibility Xena." The entire room fell silent at her words and the Amazon continued. "She is only fifteen. I would feel much better if there were some adults here."
"Hmmmm......" Xena agreed. "Fifteen is pretty young."
"Jana is still recovering from her injuries. The trip home will be dangerous for her. I suggest that she stay here, along with...say one other Amazon. Just for a year or so until her legs completely heal. By then Megan will be old enough for it not to worry me so badly." Gabrielle looked at Megan and waited for her comment on the idea. She was glad to see the girl dubious, it meant she thought ahead.
"An injured Amazon?" The babies were bad enough to deal with. Megan wasn't sure she could keep a constant watch on an injured woman. They were all surprised by the voice from the door.
"Perhaps Trisha could come here too." Palemon looked around the room and let his gaze settle on the royal couple. "She really has nowhere to go now, her husband left town after he saw the healer last night. They had been staying with his family." He pleaded the woman's case. "She could continue to work in the kitchen and be here for the kids the rest of the time."
The Warrior Princess could see Megan bristling at the idea of adults being here and spoke to ease her fears. "Okay, the Amazons and Trisha, but it is to be made perfectly clear that Megan is in charge."
Gabrielle nodded. "No problem here." She grinned wryly at Karis. "My guards are used to taking orders from young women."
"I'm sure Trisha won't have a problem with that either." He was glad to find the woman a nice place closeby. He didn't want to see her moving away from Corinth.
"Well I guess that is settled then." Xena stood and offered her hand to Gabrielle who held it lightly as she rose. "Megan, come to the Palace tomorrow afternoon and ask for Salmoneous. He will give you your monthly allowance and tell you all the rules state orphanages have to follow." She looked at a small hole in the back wall. "Salmoneous will also set up a time for the carpenter's to come and fix that."
Smiling so wide it hurt, Megan nodded. "I will.. Thank you..." She wanted to hug the rulers but didn't dare. "Thank you so much."
Gabrielle returned the smile and hugged the grateful girl. "Happy Birthday." Releasing the newly appointed Director, the Amazon stepped back and allowed all the children access to their Mama. The group hug/pile up that followed was enough to make even Palemon laugh.
The royal couple exited, followed closely by their son and Karis. Xena whistled for Argo but didn't mount up when the horse appeared. She simply took the reins in one hand, Gabrielle's hand in the other, and began walking toward town.
"Hey!" Gabrielle gently shook the hand holding hers. "You were awfully quiet during all that. You okay?" Awfully quiet was an understatement, Xena hadn't moved a muscle from Clara's first tentative steps until Michael had handed his sister the sandals. When her question was met with silence, the Amazon took another more subtle approach. "The children's gifts were all very nice." The muscle working in her lover's jaw and Xena's lips pressing tighter together made it very apparent that Xena was holding something back. She smiled and started recalling the presents. "I think I gave my mother almost that exact same picture when I was five. I guess all children do huh?"
"No. Not all of them." The Warrior Princess' quiet response barely made it to Gabrielle's ears. The resigned sadness in her eyes was focused straight ahead.
Gabrielle's breathing paused for just a moment. 'Oh.' The sudden realization of what was bothering her love made her heart hurt. Her hand on the warrior's arm stopped their forward movement. Moving to stand in front of her sad love and put Argo between them and their followers, Gabrielle ducked to make eye contact. She smiled compassionately. "Solan never gave me one like that either."
Circling the Amazon's strong shoulders with her arms, Xena rested her chin on top of the red-gold head. "I missed so much....." Her voice filled with self-loathing. "How could I have given that up?"
Listening to the rapidly beating heart, just beyond her ear, Gabrielle murmured. "It wasn't your choice. Borias....."
"No!" Pulling away far enough to make eye contact, the Warrior Princess took the blame. "It WAS my fault. I made her stop looking!"
"Of course you did!" Pressing the warrior's large hands between hers, Gabrielle held the anger tinged gaze. "It was the logical thing to do."
"Gabrielle, since when does logic have anything to do with love?" Hot liquid welled up in her eyes.
"Since the moment you realized that loving him could get him killed." The Amazon reached up and wiped away the single tear that escaped it's prison. "Since the heartbeat you decided to let him live in anonymity, to keep him alive, no matter how much it hurt you."
The Warrior Princess, froze at Gabrielle's gentle touch. All she could do was drown deeper into the pure green eyes of love. Swallowing hard, she could feel her heart pounding in her ears as the Amazon continued.
"When you found out I had adopted him, you thanked me for saving him." Gently cupping the warrior's cheek in her hand, Gabrielle made sure Xena couldn't turn away. "But you saved him first." She smiled at the incredulous warrior. "So thank YOU for saving my son."
Xena thought an eternity must have passed as she lost herself in Gabrielle's eyes. "I thanked you for LOVING him." She corrected. "And he is OUR son." She recalled that first meeting and smiled. "I had no choice. I had to let him go." She found the Amazon's ear and whispered. "He was the part of me I set free into the world, to find you." She trailed kisses down her jaw until the small woman couldn't stand anymore torture.
"Gods ......Xena." Her thought was cut off by a determined warrior capturing her lips. She would have stayed locked in Xena's embrace all day, but Argo had other ideas. The horse snorted and pawed the ground, head-butting the couple apart. Gabrielle laughed and patted the golden mare's neck. "Oh so now you are jealous of me huh?" She caught a glimpse of Karis, Solan and Palemon trying their best not to watch the royal couple and laughed. She had asked Karis to join them at the orphanage to set the children more at ease. As it turned out the guard's presence wasn't required, but it was good she was here. There were several things she wanted to discuss with the guard, regarding the ceremony tonight. The Amazon Queen, linked arms with her lover for a long moment as they walked a few steps. "I need to talk to Karis."
Wiping the last of dried tears from her face, Xena nodded. "Good idea. I should talk to Solan too."
Gabrielle kissed Xena quickly and the Amazon fell back to walk in step with her son. "Xena wants to talk to you." She urged Solan to catch up to Xena and held Karis' arm. "And I need to talk to you."
Karis let a single glance stray up to Xena and Solan before most of her attention was focused on the Queen. She knew most of what Gabrielle was going to say and used a small portion of her unoccupied mind to think of who she wanted to appoint as second in command while Solari stayed here with Jana. She also used a bit of her spare consciousness to wonder what Xena was saying to Solan.
"What's up?" Solan grinned at his mother. "Mom said you wanted to talk to me?"
"Yeah." The Warrior Princess pressed her lips together. It was harder than she thought to talk to him. Especially after the little scene she had with Gabrielle a few moments ago.
Solan furrowed his brow at Xena's silence and tried to break the tension. "The kids were cute huh?"
"Yup." Her nod was a short as her one word answer.
"Am I in trouble?" Solan couldn't understand why Xena asked to talk to him and then didn't talk. "Mother? Are you still mad about Karis?"
"No, not mad." She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. "I will, at times, be angry at your actions, or the choices you make, but I will never be mad at you." She glanced at him then focused straight ahead. "I never could."
Solan took a long moment to absorb that before responding quietly. "I love you too mother."
The Warrior Princess nearly missed a step at their son's words. She looked at him, blue eyes focusing on the large bruise on his cheek. "I'm sorry I hit you."
He shook his head. "You didn't hit me." His brown eyes held hers. "The Conqueror did...." He smiled as the blue eyes widened. "... and I know she is sorry."
The Conqueror took the opportunity she didn't have before. "I AM sorry."
Nodding, Solan repeated. "I know." He thought that the Conqueror might be uncomfortable with a mushy talk, he knew he was, so he tried to lighten the mood. "So...." He grinned and put a bit of teasing into his voice. "Did Mom spank you for it?"
"SOLAN!!" The suggestion from their son was shocking for a heartbeat then she burst out laughing. Draping her arm over the boy's shoulders, she finally felt comfortable enough to talk to him about the ceremony tonight and, if he chose to, the part he would play in it.
Karis stalked down the hall toward the practice room. Her meeting had lasted longer than she thought and now she was late meeting Solan for training. Still seething from the other head guard's condescending remarks, she felt a flare of jealousy as she got closer to the practice room and heard the sounds of weapons clashing. She couldn't quite keep the feeling out of her voice as she entered the practice room. "Hello Jamie."
Solan frowned at the tone of his lover's voice and stepped back out of Jamie's range. He propped the staff he had been using against the wall and quickly moved to Karis' side. "What's wrong?"
Smiling at his concern, the guard reassured him. "I'm fine."
He raised one eyebrow. "The meeting with the other guards didn't go so well huh?"
Running her fingers through her hair, Karis sighed. "As well as could be expected." She grinned. "You know you look like Xena when you do that?"
"Do I?" The thought of resembling his mother was kind of nice.
"Mmmm... yes you do." Karis smiled. "It's time to get ready for the ceremony though. We need to be ready and out of your room so your Mom can prepare separately from Xena."
Laughing, Solan nodded. "Right! I need to talk to you for a minute anyway." The Prince turned to wave bye to Jamie. "Thanks for the sparring, Jamie. See you later?"
Jamie shot a startled look at Karis before she responded cheerfully. "Sure. Anytime."
Karis berated herself silently. 'Geez, get over it! He loves YOU.' Waving bye to Jamie, she happily linked arms with Solan as they walked back to their room.
Gabrielle drew her robe around her and leaned back into the large overstuffed chair. Her hair was still slightly damp from her bath and she soaked up the warmth from the small fire. The quiet of the room was broken only by the occasional snap of wood in the fireplace and a breeze rustling the curtains of the balcony door. Xena would be back soon and the Amazon used this time to herself to reflect on the day. Since they had returned from the newly proclaimed orphanage, she and Xena had spent little time together. Even lunch had been rushed as affairs of state called the Empress away in the middle of the meal. She was waiting to dress for the ceremony though, she wanted to talk to the warrior for at least a few minutes before they began and she didn't want Xena to see her recently delivered outfit. Resting her arms on the padded arms of the chair, Gabrielle leaned back and closed her eyes.
Xena opened the door to their room slowly. She hoped Gabrielle would be in the washroom or on the balcony so that she could hide her surprise, but this was even better. Completely forgetting about the small box in her hand, Xena quietly walked to the chair opposite the Amazon and sat. It was a rare opportunity to study the relaxed face of her love. Reddish blonde hair spilled over her shoulders haphazardly, contrasting with the white silk of her robe. The Amazon's beautiful green eyes were closed and her face was relaxed and peaceful. The small fire nearby highlighted Gabrielle's golden skin and it was all the Conqueror could do to resist touching the glowing beauty. Her breath caught as Gabrielle took a deep breath and smiling, opened her eyes.
"Xena?" Glancing at the sun angling through the balcony door, she frowned. "What time is it?"
"Almost time." The Warrior Princess smiled. "I was just about to wake you."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle doubted the sincerity of that claim. Knowing Xena she would have sat there all night, keeping everyone waiting, just to watch her sleep. 'If the tables were turned I know I would.' She thought and berated herself for not being awake to see Xena walk across the room.
"I was really!" The mock pout on the warrior's face gave way to a smile. "I wanted to give you something before the ceremony."
"Oh?" The Amazon's eyebrows raised as she smiled seductively. "What would that be?"
Chuckling, Xena smiled and sighed. "If only we had time love." Sliding off the chair, the warrior knelt on one knee in front of Gabrielle and held out a small flat box. "I know you didn't ask for them, so I hope you don't mind that I got them for you anyway."
Puzzled, Gabrielle took the box and opened it slowly, gasping when she saw the contents. "Xena!" The blood pounding in her ears nearly drowned her whisper. "What have you done?"
Retrieving the sparkling necklace from it's resting place, the Warrior Princess put the box on the floor. Pointing to a small stone in the middle of the twinkling lace she explained. "Artemis has promised me that this is a part of the moon." Sweeping her fingertips over the rest of the jewelry she smiled. "And the Priest at the Temple of the Heavens has assured me that each twinkle you see is a part of a star from the night sky."
"Xena it's beautiful." Gabrielle was moved by the gift.
"No." The Conqueror corrected. "It's just a necklace. YOU are beautiful." She reached around the Amazon's soft neck and fastened the clasp on the gift. Kissing the speechless Amazon, the Warrior Princess moved back to reclaim their chair. "I guess it's time to get dressed for the ceremony huh?"
Gabrielle brushed the delicate sparkling pattern with her fingertips and shook her head. "No. I need to give you your present first." Her brilliant smile dimmed the star slivers around her neck and she moved to retrieve her gift.
'By the Gods, she is beautiful.' The Conqueror was sure whatever outfit Gabrielle had chosen for the ceremony would not be more beautiful than the simple robe and smile she wore now. 'Yes she is.' The Warrior Princess agreed with the statement but not the future prediction. 'She grows more beautiful every day.' They watched as their love crossed the room toward them, devouring her with hungry blue eyes, not even noticing the package in the Amazon's hand until she spoke.
"Actually it isn't finished yet." Gabrielle held out the wrapped gift. "But I've been very busy lately." She grinned and shook the package slightly. "Go on... take it."
Opening the package, the Warrior Princess felt her heartbeat increase when she saw the design, her personal insignia, tooled into the cover of the leather bound book. With a startled look at the Amazon, they opened the book. The large scripted letters confirmed their suspicions. 'This can't be.' The Conqueror was astonished that Gabrielle had time to do this. 'She told us she had already started working on our story.' The Warrior Princess fell back on logic. 'And she did say she wasn't finished.' Running her fingers over the border illustrations, she looked questioningly at the Amazon.
"I had Jaye, Leah, Mari and Tari working night and day making the parchment for this." She smiled. "They drew the borders and small illustrations where I told them and I put the lettering in when the page was finished."
Nodding absently, Xena realized no one else had seen this story yet. The warrior also caught the phrasing of the explanation. "Small illustrations?" Her question was answered as she turned the page. The emotion of the picture took her off guard. "Gods Gabrielle." The scene depicted wasn't the usual battle landscape, this one seemed to be taken directly from her memory. "This is...... How did you...."
"I told you I have been working on this a long time." Kneeling in front of the warrior, she rested her chin on Xena's knees. "I have heard stories about you all my life. And I have always drawn pictures and painted you. This is from the first story I heard about you, I was probably about six." Smiling at the startled look, Gabrielle explained. "No I didn't draw this then, but I remembered how I felt when I first heard the story. I was very sorry about your brother."
The Warrior Princess looked back at the picture and felt a tear making it's way down
her cheek. 'I couldn't save him.' She traced the face on the page, a younger
version of her kneeling on the ground, cradling her dying brother in her arms. 'I
couldn't either.' The Conqueror felt all the rage of that day return. 'but I made
them all pay.' Her knuckles turned white as she gripped the edge of the book.
Small hands on hers eased the tension considerably.
"I didn't mean to upset you." Gabrielle berated herself. "I should have know this wasn't the time......"
"No." The Warrior Princess shook her head. "This is the perfect time." She indicated the book. "This is our past." She smiled down at the Amazon. "You are our future." She reached down and pulled her love to her, the book on her lap prevented them from embracing fully.
Pulling back from the embrace, Gabrielle tugged the book from between them. Silently setting it aside, she resumed the embrace unhindered by the barrier.
Solan checked his reflection once more and smiled as two additional arms slid around his middle. Hugging the arms close and leaned back into Karis' embrace. "I guess I'm ready to go." He turned and circled the guard's bare abs, examining the Amazon's formal leathers critically. "I guess you are too huh?"
Smiling apologetically Karis pulled away from the embrace. "Um... not quite." She disappeared into the washroom for a moment. When she returned, she saw the curiosity in his eyes die.
"Oh." Solan swallowed hard as he realized the addition Karis had made.
Nervously adjusting the sword on her back Karis tried to catch his eye. "I've been trying to tell you all evening."
"I understand." Solan reassured her. "The Honor Guard have to have swords."
Holding his gaze, Karis spoke quietly. "You can too, if you want. I'm raising your rating to Advanced." A smile pulled at her lips as his eyes widened. "Your Mom wanted me to tell you before the ceremony. She wanted it to be your choice whether you carried a sword or not."
"You are going to allow weapons at the ceremony?" That didn't sound like something Karis would agree to and he knew she was in charge of security.
Shuddering at the thought of Gabrielle standing in front of a room full of armed
guests, the guard shook her head. "No." Closing the distance between them,
she stroked his jaw lightly. "You are special though."
Capturing her hand in his, Solan kissed his love's palm. "My sword is in the training room."
"We can go get it if you want." Karis hoped he would choose not to wear it and realized he still might make that decision. "You look very handsome without it though."
"Yes he does."
The unexpected voice caused Karis to whirl and place herself between Solan and the intruder. From the corner of her eye, she noted that the Prince was also in a defensive position. She took her hand off the hilt of her sword when she realized who was standing in the room with them.
"Mom!" Solan rolled his eyes. "You scared the life out of us!" He grinned and crossed the room to hug her. "You look great!" He twitched the sleeve of her robe and teased. "Is that a new outfit?"
She looked at Karis. "My son the comedian." Adjusting the robe on her shoulders caused it to fall open slightly and expose her neck. Smiling at Karis' gasp, she looked up at her son's raised eyebrows and appreciative voice.
"That's new." He reached out but didn't dare touch the sparkling necklace.
"Yes it's Xena's wedding gift to me." The Queen smiled and brushed her fingertips over Xena's latest offering.
Karis moved in for a closer look. "I've never seen diamonds sparkle like that." She narrowed her eyes as she recognized a pattern in the lace design. "That looks like a constellation."
Nodding Gabrielle agreed. "Yes, I believe the priests kept them in their proper places."
"Priests?" Solan had never heard of priests that made jewelry.
"Yes, the priests at the Temple of the Heavens." She resisted the urge to reach up an ruffle her son's hair. "They tend to be very protective....."
"Ye Gods!" Karis blurted her realization. "She gave you the stars?!"
Smiling, Gabrielle nodded. "Yes." She touched the larger stone in the middle of the pattern and added quietly. "And the Moon." Nearly laughing at the rapt expressions on the young couples face, the Queen shook herself out of her reverie. "G'wan now, I need to change."
Karis warred with herself, she had a really lot to do but, although at the moment the Queen was the picture of calm, she didn't want to leave Gabrielle alone. "Do you need help dressing?"
"Thank you." Gabrielle's green eyes twinkled at the guard. "But Mirriam will be here shortly, and I know you have things to do." She ushered the younger couple out the door. Only after they were gone did she let her hands shake in anticipation. This was going to be a great night, she could feel it.
Solan was amazed at the activity in the Palace. So far during his stay he hadn't seen the halls very busy, most of the visiting royalty were out at the Festival or in their rooms. Now, since they were all gathering to attend the ceremony, he realized that the Palace was actually full of guests. He had followed Karis to the kitchen, partially to watch his lover work and partially to sneak a taste of his Mom's favorite dish.
"The Queen's gonna be upset if you end up eating all her favorites." The Amazon cook's eyes twinkled at the unrepentant young man.
Laughing at the woman's comment, Solan took another bite. "You think Mom would deny me a few bites?"
With one hand on her hip and the other hand shaking a finger at him the woman smiled. "She wouldn't deny you anything, you scamp, and you know it!"
Grinning at the truth of the cook's statement, Solan popped another bite into his mouth. He saw Karis heading his way and winked at the laughing cook. "Gotta go."
Karis jogged up next to him. "Ready?" She rolled her eyes as he licked the last of the treat from his fingers.
"Always." He looked at the last of the sticky icing on his index finger and grinned as Karis backed up slightly.
"Solan now don't you even think about it. I don't want that stuff all over me, I have to be dignified for the ceremony!" She took another step back as he moved closer. "Solan I mean it!"
Laughing, he sucked the icing off his finger and watched her relax. Twinkling brown eye followed her path out the door before he turned to the cook. "You wouldn't happen to have any extra icing would you?"
"I do happen to have a bit extra." The cook looked at him suspiciously. "Why?"
"Just wondered." His innocent curiosity wasn't really an answer but when Karis poked her head back in the door and gestured for him to follow her, the cook had her suspicions basically confirmed.
"I usually put the extra in a bowl, on the table by the fire." She pointed to a small table next to the hearth.
Solan smiled at the cook and gestured thanks as he moved to join Karis outside. The gardens were secure and for a moment, walking side by side with her, he forgot that they had responsibilities. Then loud voices from the gate drew him back to reality. They made their way toward the commotion quickly.
"This is an outrage!" The man at the gate was obviously upset at the guard who wouldn't let them pass. The man behind him tried to calm him.
"Now Vitalis, it's not his fault." The calm tones did nothing to calm the spokesman.
"No your majesty! You should not be treated like this!" The subordinate's exasperation carried clearly in the evening air.
Karis started to speak when Solan's hand on her arm stopped her.
"What's the problem here?" The young Prince's voice dropped as he took on the royal persona.
The guard knew who Solan was, he had seen him arrive with the Amazons and he knew the boy was special because his quarters were so close to Xena's. He didn't think Solan was royalty however and avoided using any title. "The Palace is full, sir."
"Outrageous!" Vitalis insisted. "King Gregor was invited!"
Solan opened the gate himself and gestured the outraged man and the royal couple he spoke for inside. "The Palace is filled, but I'm sure we can arrange something." He turned to the woman. Smiling at her and the child in her arms, he bowed low. "Queen Pandora, it is an honor to meet you." When she tilted her head in acknowledgment, he continued. "I think the story of you finding your son in the river will soon surpass the one of your grandmother and her curiosity." Actually the story of finding the boy in the river was one of his favorites, he identified with the child and was glad to have the chance to meet the people behind the story.
Laughing at that the Queen spoke, her lilting voice carried a hint of irony. "I rather doubt it." She adjusted the sleeping child. "My grandmother is rather infamous for her willful disobedience of the Gods." The reference to the box caused her to look at Karis, the tall blonde Queen gestured to the child. "Would you mind holding him for a moment?" Before the Amazon could respond, she found the child deposited in her arms.
Karis was barely aware of the Queen pulling a box, with a large hand print on the lid, from a pack at her side. The guard focused on the child in her arms. He was sleeping so peacefully before he was transferred to a stranger, now he was looking up at his new caretaker with curious eyes. The child's light brown hair and deep brown eyes reminded her so much of Solan that Karis' breath caught in her throat. The thought of holding Solan's son in her arms softened her eyes and brought a tiny smile to her lips.
Solan watched his lover's face soften. 'One day maybe....' The thought shocked him, but the more he thought about it the more he liked the idea of Karis' daughter. The thought of a tiny Karis running around the village nearly made him laugh. A slight clicking sound drew his attention back to the Queen and he saw her take her hand off the palm print. He watched her return the box to the pack at her side and reach for the child.
"Thanks." The Queen smiled as she took her son from the guard. "He isn't usually so well behaved with strangers."
"He felt a little warm to me." Karis let herself brush his bangs out of his eyes as his mother reclaimed him.
King Gregor nodded at that. "He has had a fever." He looked pointedly at the guard. "Xena offered the services of the Imperial healers, so when we heard of the wedding we thought we could attend and have our son ministered to at the same time." He berated himself for not checking on the openness of the invite and didn't relish the idea of going back to his entourage's camp.
"Of course you can." Solan whistled and nearly immediately two Amazons appeared from the growing shadows. He didn't know either of them personally so he just issued his order. "Escort them the infirmary." One of the guards took a step forward and waited patiently for the royalty to indicate they were ready to follow her. Solan addressed Gregor formally. "Your majesty, I am extremely sorry for the inconvenience, I assure you that a room will be available for you after the ceremony." He smiled as the king nodded and placed a guiding hand on his wife's back. The Amazon Prince twitched his lips as Queen Pandora's whispered comment to her husband carried back to them.
Karis heard the whisper as well and moved closer to her lover. "She's right you know. You are very charming." She grinned as he moved closer to her.
"You think so?" He reached out to cup her face in his hand, pulling her closer. Her warm arms slid around his waist and he couldn't resist closing the distance, capturing her lips in a quick kiss. "I'm glad you think so, because I'm sleeping with you tonight."
"What?!" Karis shot a startled glance at the gate guard, and the remaining Amazon.
Solan released his hold on his love and turned to the second Amazon. "When Mom is finished changing go to my room and collect my things. Take them to the guards room. " He shot a wry look at Karis. "I'll be bunking with you all tonight." The guard bowed and melted back into the shadows. He turned and regarded the gate guard. "You were right to stop them, but you should have sent for someone to come and resolve the issue. It's never a good idea to get on the bad side of royalty."
The guard nodded and bowed. "Yes, your majesty." Returning to his post quickly, he watched the boy and the Amazon walk on. He let out a soft breath, grateful that he hadn't been reprimanded any further, knowing the young Prince had the power to do so if he wished.
The workers had done a wonderful job decorating the reception hall. Tall pillars marked a wide aisle down the center of the room, leading straight to the bottom of the steps to the dias. A cloth barrier hid the throne, because at the moment this wasn't a reception hall, right now this was Artemis' temple. The lamps lining the walls were lit and the glow cast a spell over the small but growing audience. The air was charged with excitement and even Solan could tell that this wasn't any ordinary wedding.
Solan stood next to Karis and watched the assembling crowd. It was funny to see how everyone stopped when the announcer at the door declared who was arriving. He found out a lot about what everyone thought of everyone else just by the time that was spent watching each guest arrive. If the guest was important, then the time between the announcement to the resumption of general chit chat was lengthy. If the guest wasn't so important, some people didn't even pay attention when they were announced. The social climbers arrived early, leaders of the smaller countries that wanted to get in good with their larger neighbors. The people arriving now were representatives of the larger more prominent countries. He didn't want to interrupt Karis, but if he was ever going to get his sword, he needed to go now. Tapping the head guard on the shoulder, he spoke quietly. "I'm going to the training room."
Karis looked up from her conversation with Palemon and sighed to herself. "Okay, I have to stay here though."
"I know." He smiled. "I'll be fine." He squeezed her shoulder lightly and sauntered through the door that led to the inner Palace.
With a gesture and a slight tilt of her head, Karis smiled as Jamie discretely followed the young Prince through the door then resumed her discussion of the seating arrangements with Palemon. After several minutes of pointless bickering she finally became too exasperated with the man. "I know it's annoying but Xena and Gabrielle both requested that the first rows on each side be left open." She wasn't sure why herself, but she had her suspicions.
"Fine." Palemon ran his fingers through his hair. "But when the complaints start coming, you handle them."
"I will." Karis had no problem with that. In fact she preferred it. She turned toward the door just as the announcer's voice rang out.
"Brutus of Rome"
The Amazon looked at Palemon and indicated Brutus with her thumb. "He sits on Xena's side, close to the front."
Nodding, Palemon went to escort the new arrival to his seat.
Karis began making her rounds, she wanted to make sure each guard knew her duties. It was ridiculous to think otherwise but she was willing to do anything at this point to keep her mind from wondering what was taking Solan so long.
Solan was lost in thought as he walked to the training room. His jaw tingled at the memory of Karis' touch. 'You're special.' Her word's echoed in his mind. He thought about the implications of him carrying a weapon to the ceremony. 'I am special.' He thought. 'I'm Xena's son.' That thought brought a smile to his face and he remembered the warrior's quiet words by the cross. 'So much like your father.' He wondered what Borias would want him to do. Lost in thoughts of the father he never knew, the young Prince nearly collided with King Gregor. "Sorry about that, I wasn't paying attention."
The King held up a hand to stop the apology. "Not your fault young man." He gestured around the corridor and looped his arm around his wife's waist. "We were trying to find the reception hall. This place is bigger than it looks."
Smiling, Solan nodded. "Yes, it can be confusing when you first arrive. I'm having my room prepared for you. I'll have someone escort you there after the ceremony." He grinned and spoke over his shoulder. "Jamie?" The Prince's brown eyes twinkled as his silent shadow moved forward.
"Yes, my Prince." The guard wasn't thrilled that her presence had been detected. She knew Solan was going to send her away and that Karis wouldn't like it.
"Escort King Gregor and Queen Pandora to the reception hall." He looked at her and promised. "I'll deal with Karis. You won't get in trouble."
Sighing, Jamie nodded and gestured to the couple. "This way."
Solan watched them leave and moved on toward the training room. He actually placed his hand on the door handle before he made his decision.
Karis finished her second circuit of the room when she saw Jamie enter through the main doors. She waited a moment while the announcer's voice declared the new arrivals. "His Royal Majesty King Gregor of Lerna and Her Royal Highness Queen Pandora." Bowing quickly to the newly arrived guests, Karis moved to intercept Jamie.
"Why are you here? Where is Solan?" The head guard did not like the fact that Solan was alone somewhere. It made her very nervous.
"He ordered me to escort them here." Jamie indicated the royal couple. "I couldn't very well refuse him." This room was very large, but with all the people arriving Jamie was starting to feel very closed in. She shuffled her feet nervously.
Running her fingers through her hair, Karis sighed. "No. No, of course not." Smiling at the nervous guard, Karis patted her shoulder. "I need someone on sentry duty outside." She gave the woman a little shove toward the door. "Go on. You only have to stay until after the ceremony. When the guests have gone. You can go back to camp."
Bowing to her leader, Jamie smiled and, as she took her position outside, thought. 'Back to camp! Great!' She really didn't like sleeping in the guard's assigned room. Truth be told she was much more comfortable on a nice solid tree branch than a soft warm bed. Standing at her post, Jamie looked around at the other sentries, some walking the walls, some at the gates and she wondered just who else was being sent back to camp. It was an evil thought, but a few questioning whistles got her answer. Everyone was going back to camp, Jamie grinned. Karis was emptying the guard's room tonight. Solan's words to King Gregor came back to her. 'I'm having my room prepared for you.' The thought made her laugh and she gave Karis full marks for ingenuity. 'She gets to be alone with him tonight after all.' Jamie sighed and murmured. "It must be nice to be in charge."
Halfway through another circuit of the room the murmur of the assembling royalty died down. Karis looked to the door and stopped dead in her tracks, waiting for the announcers voice.
"Empress Lao Ma of Chin and her son Prince Ming T'ien"
The eastern leaders made their way down the center aisle. The serenity that surrounded the woman was only broken by her son's scowl. It amazed Karis that such a peaceful woman could have such a violent son, then she thought about the opposite, Xena was so violent and yet Solan was for the most part peaceful. 'I guess it all evens out in the end.' Of course if Solan started carrying a sword things might not stay even for too long. There was no silence to bring her out of her thoughts or to warn her that the announcer was going to speak so his ringing voice shocked her.
"His Royal Highness, Prince Solan"
Turning to look at the door, Karis gasped and felt tears well up in her eyes. 'Thank the Gods.' She watched him walk toward her hesitantly and moved to join him. They met on the side aisle near the corner of the dias steps, in front of the room. "You look so handsome." She longed to reach out and circle his waist and was grateful that he had no problem with embracing her.
"Hey?" He shook her shoulders slightly and frowned. "You have tears in your eyes." Tilting his head he raised a curious eyebrow. "What's up with that?"
"You didn't wear it." Karis' whisper was for his ears only.
"No." The Prince smiled at his love. "I decided that weddings are no place for weapons." He hugged her quickly and stepped back. The room was now filled to capacity it was rather daunting to see so much royalty in the same room. He glanced at all the guests faces quickly and sighed. "Besides, if I'm going to do this, that isn't the message I want to send."
Karis caught her breath. "You're going to do it?" She watched him nod affirmative and immediately regretted sending all the other guards to camp for the night, then calmed herself. 'Everything will be fine.' Since the resistance was no longer a threat the Palace was secure. It was a big risk though. Solan's reassurance went a long way in easing her fears.
"No worries love." He stroked her jaw lightly. "It would have happened eventually, it's better when all the royals are here to see."
Nodding at that, Karis smiled as the inner door to the Palace opened and the head priestess from the Temple of Artemis made her way up the steps. The acolytes followed her out the door but moved down the middle aisle lighting the large bowls of lamp oil that sat atop the marking pillars. "You better go." She gestured for him to take his place. "It's almost time."
He moved from the place where he had met Karis, toward the back of the room. As he passed Ming T'ien he heard the Chinese Prince smirked. "Prince of Nothing." Solan never altered his stride, he knew his rival's reference was made because the announcer hadn't attached a land to his title. He was surprised because he didn't think anyone even noticed when he had arrived, announced or not. It didn't bother him though because he had requested the omission.
Ming T'ien took the fact that Solan was moving to the back of the room as a confirmation of his assessment. The adopted son of the Amazon Queen wasn't so highly ranked after all. All the important people were seated closer to the front. It was bittersweet for him. The young man had beaten him in a fight, if he were of a higher rank then it wouldn't be so bad, but being beaten by a subordinate was embarrassing. He liked the idea that the boy was merely a tag along though, because he knew that someday *he* would rule ALL of Chin. There was no hope for Solan to ever rule the Amazons. He watched as his rival stood by the door and laughed to himself. 'He doesn't even get a seat!' His self-satisfied comment died in his head as the large double doors opened. All the royalty stood at the impending entry.
The firelight flickered as the indrawn breath of all the guests sucked the air from the room. They had all faced Xena in Conqueror-mode. Her presence on the battlefield was intimidating to say the least, but none of them had ever seen her like this.
Even Solan, who had seen his mother in more normal circumstances than most, was nearly speechless. The woman's dark hair had been sprinkled with diamond dust and cascaded over her shoulders. The dark sparkling waves contrasted sharply with the flowing white robe she was wearing. The only jewelry she displayed was her signet ring, that Solan knew matched Gabrielle's, and a half-chakram gold pendant. He took two steps to the door and as he offered her his arm, whispered. "Wow." Her demure smile competed the effect. The woman walking gracefully down the aisle next to him wasn't a warrior and anyone who was seeing her for the first time would have had a hard time picturing her in a battle frenzy. No one breathed as the Empress practically floated up the aisle on the arm of the young Prince.
Xena wondered if the guests could hear her heart beating, sure that at any moment it was going to beat out of her chest. The Conqueror nearly bolted as the collective gasp heralded their arrival. The Warrior Princess held their ground and smiled at their son's comment. Concentrating on controlling her heart, Xena wasn't even sure if her feet touched the ground as Solan guided her to the base of the dias and the waiting priestess. Blood pounded in her ears as Solan patted her arm and moved away, back down the side aisle toward the door. She felt more exposed now than she had ever felt in her life. 'I can't do this.' The Conqueror's eyes darted to the door that led into the Palace, and safety. 'Yes you can.' The Warrior Princess forced her eyes back to the doors just as Solan winked at her. She wasn't having any luck controlling her heartrate and the doors opening did nothing to help slow the pace.
The Honor Guard entered the room single file. The only deviation from the serious expressions on their faces was Karis' quick glance to Solan. When the line of guards stretched from the door to the beginning of the marked center aisle, they separated. Karis stepped to the right, drew her sword and turned to face Solari who also drew her sword and stepped to the left. The entire line of women alternated right, left, right, left, right, each drawing their swords as they turned and crossing it with their partner across the aisle.
The Warrior Princess felt their muscles tense as the Conqueror watched the swords being drawn. 'Calm down.' The Warrior Princess reassured her dark sister. 'It's just ceremony......' Her thought trailed off as the last of the guards stepped aside. When Gabrielle came into view Xena's racing heart stopped cold. The chorus in her head filled the silence in her ears. 'By the Gods, she is beautiful.'
Solan was again speechless at the sight of the woman he thought he knew. In the past when casual dress was required Gabrielle always chose light colors, usually white. This was the total opposite of anything he had seen her wear before. The strips of black silk crisscrossing the Amazon's body covered the very basics, for the guest's modesty's sake he was sure. The strips were covered by a thin robe of flowing midnight blue, almost black, silk. The robe covered the Queen's chest and collar. Her honey-fire hair cascaded down her back leaving the dark material on her chest to provide the perfect background for the necklace of star slivers around her neck. The necklace twinkled valiantly but couldn't compete with the glint in it's wearer's eye or her smile as her son moved forward and offering his arm, whispered. "Double wow!"
Gabrielle accepted the young Prince's arm and accompanied him forward toward the first crossed-sword barrier. When they were one step away from the first set of guards, the women raised their swords so they were now crossed above the Queen's head. Solan ducked slightly and he guided her on. The next set of crossed swords were also raised, each in succession as the royal couple walked forward, until they got to the last set.
Karis and Solari locked eyes with each other for a long moment then slowly opened the crossed weapons and allowed their Queen to join her love. They watched as Solan walked with Gabrielle all the way to where Xena was standing and place his Mom's small hand into his Mother's larger one. He backed away from the couple but remained standing just at the end of the marked aisle, next to the left side, Gabrielle's side.
The rest of the guests reclaimed their seats as the Priestess raised her hands. The acolytes lined up behind the chanting woman took up the counterpoint to her nearly unintelligible murmurs.
It was an awesome sight, the entire room was filled with royalty from all over the world, all decked out in their best clothing and jewelry. The firelight sent shadows silently dancing across the room. The Priestess conducting the ceremony and all the acolytes were dressed in ornately embroidered robes worn only when an Amazon Queen married. Everything was perfect and Xena couldn't possibly have cared less. Gabrielle, her Gabrielle, was standing next to her and that was all that mattered. She lost herself in the loving green eyes and knew that if she was any happier she would explode from the pressure of it.
Gabrielle thought the Priestess was saying something but she wasn't sure what. She was drowning in a sea of blue and floating on air at the same time. At this moment, surrounded by Xena's love nothing could touch her. The scent of burning oil and lilacs were lost on her overloaded senses. The Priestess' murmurs were pushed to the back of her mind as she focused on the one point of contact she had with Xena. The woman's warm hands gripped hers with a strength and gentleness that brought tears of joy to the Amazon's eyes. This was her dream, Xena, her Xena, was standing next to her and that was all that mattered. She doubted that anyone could be any happier than she was at this moment and live. She realized that the Priestess was actually speaking now.
"Queen Gabrielle of the Amazons has declared her intention to marry Empress Xena." The Priestess dropped her arms to her side and asked. "Who gives their blessing for this union?"
A blinding flash of light forced them all to blink. When they opened their eyes again Artemis stood in the front row of the room, on Gabrielle's side, the left side. "I will, as her Patron Goddess." The Goddess barely finished her blessing as Solan spoke up.
"I will, as her son." The boy's voice rang clearly through the room, followed by a wave of murmurs. The fact he wasn't her natural son was well known.
Artemis smiled at the young Prince and sat down gracefully.
Nodding at the blessing, the Priestess again spoke. "The Empress Xena has also declared her intention to marry Queen Gabrielle." The Priestess again asked the traditional question but this time didn't expect an answer. "Who gives their blessing for this union?"
Another blinding flash of light revealed Ares to the astonished crowd. He also stood on the front row but he was on Xena's side. The War God was clearly not happy and started to protest the ceremony when Solan's voice again rang out.
"I do." He looked at his mother and smiled. "......As her son." There was no wave of murmurs at the announcement. In fact no one even breathed for several very long heartbeats as the boy Prince and the God of War locked eyes.
Xena tensed just before Ares appeared and the sight of him locking eyes with their son caused the dark sleeper within her to stir. A gentle voice from the crowd broke the tension.
"He is a good boy Xena." Lao Ma stood and smiled at the Empress and her bride. "Borias would have been proud to call him son." As she sat back down, from the corner of her eye, she saw the ever-present smirk on her son's face disappear.
The Warrior Princess nodded once at the compliment and turned her attention to her son. "Borias WAS proud of him." Moving her ice blue gaze to the War God she wished there were a way to coat a look with hind's blood and be rid of Ares forever. She watched as the dark God realize his protest would only result in Xena publicly renouncing her allegiance to him. He chuckled and seated himself in the front row on her side, the right side, then moved over and gestured for Solan to come and sit next to him. The increased pressure of Gabrielle's grip on her hand lessened when Solan slowly moved to his left. Purposely turning his back on the War God, the young Prince sat next to the Amazon's Patron Goddess.
Gabrielle tensed as Solan and Ares battle of wills stirred the darkest part of Xena. Lao Ma's gentle voice breaking tension was most welcome and she made a mental note to thank the eastern leader. She was slightly concerned at her son's hesitation in turning away from the War God, but was supremely relieved when he did. She didn't have time to think about her son's relationship with Ares though because the Priestess began to speak.
The Priestess took the boy's decision to be seated as the signal to continue the ceremony and spoke clearly. "Xena and Gabrielle have requested they be allowed to recite their own vows, instead of the traditional ones.........." Trailing off the explanation, the Priestess gestured for Xena to proceed.
The fearless warrior felt her hands trembling and swallowed against the sudden dryness in her throat. There was so much they wanted to say but couldn't seem to say it louder than a whisper. The Warrior Princess looked into Gabrielle's eyes and began. "I love you Gabrielle." A childlike expression crossed her face. "Wis all my heart." Her muscles tensed and she continued in a small voice. "I know you will never leave me." Another shift and a deep breath let her continue. "Or hurt me." The Conqueror took up the speech. "Before I met you, there was an emptiness inside me I didn't know was there. Now that I am aware of it I want to fill it..." The Warrior Princess took over, raising her right hand she cupped Gabrielle's jaw in her palm. "You, are what was missing inside my heart and I swear to you, I will be here for you, always. Anything you want, I will get for you." She wiped a tear from Gabrielle's cheek with shaking hands as the sleeper within her woke. Ares' Chosen focused on the green eyes in front of her. The silent look was enough and when Gabrielle smiled she went back to her rest. Their darkest sister's appearance shocked the Warrior Princess and the Conqueror brushed her thumb across the Amazon's cheek. "For as long as the sun rises and sets, for as long as there is day and night, even in death Gabrielle, I will never leave you."
When Gabrielle heard the Priestess tell Xena to proceed she was shocked that the large hands surrounding hers trembled. Intense blue eyes focused on her and the rest of the world fell away. She was amazed to see the changes happening in Xena. She knew no one else was aware when the 'almost three' child spoke then gave way to the now not so angry child she had seen briefly at the graveside earlier and then the never before seen young girl that knew she wouldn't get hurt for loving Gabrielle. The Conqueror's admission of emptiness was heartbreaking but the Warrior Princess declaration to get anything she wanted let loose a tear that had been threatening to spill since the first declaration of love. The appearance of Ares Chosen was rather daunting but Gabrielle was glad she was there and smiled at the rarely seen warrior. The Conqueror's thumb on her cheek and her final promise gave the Amazon the courage to speak.
"I love you Xena." Gabrielle reached up and held the large hand that cupped her jaw and smiled. "With all my heart." She kissed the warrior's palm. "I will never leave you, or hurt you." She swallowed hard and continued. "I will do my best to fill the emptiness within you." Green eyes held widening blue eyes. "Every corner of your heart is home to me." The Amazon touched her ring. "You have given me the world." She brushed her necklace with her fingertips. "And the Moon and the stars, but I would give them all back if having them meant being without you for even a heartbeat." She brushed a tear from Xena's cheek. "You, are the greatest gift to me. You are the other half of my soul and I would be lost without you." Letting the tears spill down her cheeks unchecked, Gabrielle repeated Xena's words. "For as long as the sun rises and sets, for as long as there is day and night, even in death Xena, I will never leave you."
Xena's world narrowed at the sound of Gabrielle's voice. Sinking so deeply into the turbulent sea green eyes, they almost missed the Amazon's first words. Only after the kiss on their palm did they realize that Gabrielle was speaking to each of them, answering them each in order. 'Our heart is home to her.' The thought overwhelmed most of them, but then when Gabrielle said she would give back the gifts just to be with them, they couldn't stop the tear from falling. 'She is wrong, we would be lost without her.' The chorus in her head went silent as they watched tears stream down their love's cheeks. Then they all agreed. 'We don't want her to cry!' The Warrior Princess calmed them and willed the stirring sleeper silent. 'They are tears of joy, just like ours.' She missed the Priestess' words but instinctively knew it was time. Turning with Gabrielle on her arm, the royal couple walked up the steps and turned to face each other.
Tangling her fingers in the silky blonde hair and feeling the Amazon's small hands in her own raven tresses, Xena gave in to the pressure even as she pulled the smaller woman willingly to her. It always amazed them when they felt Gabrielle's lips on theirs. 'How did we get so lucky?' They knew the familiar thought would probably never be answered. Waves of tingles ran down their spine as the kiss continued and they tried to get closer to their love.
Gabrielle melted into the warrior's touch and deepened the soft kiss. It always amazed her that a woman with such a hard reputation could be so soft. 'How did I get so lucky?' She thought. Waves of tingles ran down her spine as Xena pulled her closer.
'Rain?' The thought ran through both women's minds as the soft pattering sound grew louder. Xena and Gabrielle were pulled back to reality by the growing sound that now included thunder, and whistling wind. It took them a moment to realize it wasn't rain at all, but the heartfelt applause from their guests. The thunder was the boot stomping approval of the guards in the back of the room and even the Amazons, supposedly standing on duty, were whistling their congratulations to the couple.
Turning to face the crowd the couple stood hand in hand and bowed. Xena squeezed the Amazon's hand as she spoke to the guests. "Gabrielle and I would like to thank you for being here....."
Gabrielle squeezed the warrior's hand, smiled at the audience and continued the speech. ".......Yes, we are glad you were here to share our joy with us........"
The Conqueror continued. "........ but I know you are all very busy........"
Gabrielle nodded. "...... so feel free to leave when you feel it necessary......."
The Warrior Princess smiled. ".....but you are all welcome to stay and enjoy the entertainment." She gestured to the guards.
A group of Palemon's men and the Amazon Honor Guard began to clear space in the room, removing the guard's chairs from the back of the room first. The musicians began to play and the young singer Gabrielle had requested perform at dinner the other night began to sing. Soon all the chairs were moved to the outside edge of the room and all the guests were milling about, tapping their toes to the music and snagging bits of food from passing waiters.
The crowd was conspicuously thin at the base of the dias and Gabrielle tried not to grin as everyone watched, from the corners of their eyes, Artemis ascend the steps to the couple.
"That was a beautiful ceremony." The Goddess opened her arms and hugged Gabrielle tightly.
The Conqueror's surge of jealousy at the hug was squelched quickly as the Goddess gave the warrior a quick hug as well. A familiar skin crawling feeling swept over her and she looked past the happy Goddess to a decidedly unhappy God. Staring at the God, she could feel the dark one within her stirring. She saw Ares' eyes narrow and knew, somehow, he could feel it too. She settled somewhat when the War God disappeared. Turning her attention back to Artemis, she heard her final words to Gabrielle before she too returned to Olympus.
"Bless you child. I hope you are very happy." Artemis smiled at her Chosen and disappeared as quickly as her brother had.
The disappearance of the Goddess allowed the couple to see their most favorite person walking toward them.
"Mom." Solan hugged Gabrielle tightly before he turned to Xena. "Mother." He hesitated a moment then hugged her too. "I just know you are going to be very happy."
"Thanks." Gabrielle patted her son's cheek lightly and glanced into the crowd briefly at Karis' busy form. "You will too, someday."
"Yeah." The Warrior Princess grinned at the young man. "But remember not all of us are lucky enough to get Amazon Queens." She licked her lips and smiled. "Some of us might have to settle for.....head guards?"
Solan grinned and nodded. "Yes, but to some of us....." His eyes unerringly found Karis in the crowd. "..........head guards are Queens." He was grateful to his mothers as they laughed and urged him to go and enjoy the party with her. He knew he could now that the air was clear about his status. Xena had explained to him on the way back from the orphanage that Ming T'ien was angry because Solan was of lower rank and had beaten him, but now that everyone knew that Solan was actually higher ranked than he was, Ming T'ien wouldn't push the matter. 'He may still hate you.' Xena had warned. 'But he won't do anything about it. There is no shame in being beaten by a superior enemy.'
They stood a moment longer watching the people mill about, before Gabrielle shifted the weight on her feet. The Warrior Princess shook her love's hand slightly. "You okay?"
Nodding, Gabrielle smiled up at the warrior. "Yeah, just a little tired." She laughed. "I would almost throw dignity to the wind and sit on your lap on the throne right now." She leaned against her wife's tall frame. "I wish we could sit side by side."
Chuckling at the phrasing, Xena's finger's under her chin gently lifted the Amazon's gaze to meet hers. "Your wish is my command." Pulling the small woman to the curtain that stood between them and the throne Xena smiled and ripped the barrier down.
Gabrielle gasped as the cloth fell to the floor. Xena's throne was gone. In it's place was another, much larger, much wider throne. The high back of the wooden chair was not only engraved with Xena's personal insignia, but also Gabrielle's. Moving closer to the unexpected gift, Gabrielle touched the padded arms of the seat and smiled at the remembered ache leaning over the arms of the other throne had caused her ribs. 'But that was in the dining hall.' She thought. 'But at least we won't have to stand through anymore ceremonies.'
Chuckling at her love's hesitation, the Warrior Princess guided the Amazon to sit before settling next to her. She pressed her shoulder close and closed her hand around Gabrielle's. "Jonathan has been working day and night on this." Blue eyes twinkled. "It is now his life's work to replace all the old thrones with these."
It took Gabrielle a moment to realize that Xena wasn't talking about just the one's here in the Palace. Her amazement showed in her eyes as the Warrior Princess chuckled.
"I told you I would get you anything you wanted." Her bottom lip stuck out in a mock pout. "Didn't you believe me?"
"I believe you Xena." Gabrielle looked out into the crowd, everyone seemed to be having a good time. She thought about all the things that had happened to her since she had met Xena. The turns her life had taken amazed her and now here was another one. The thought of what lay ahead in their lives was scary and thrilling but she knew, no matter what, they would go through it together.
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