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This is an original work of alternative fan fiction. No profit will be gained from its production. It was written for entertainment purposes only. This piece of fiction is copyright of the author.
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Romantic love between consenting adult women
Continued from The Way of Honor. Just a note that may not be so minor to some folks: There is a scene in this story that depicts a hunt somewhat graphically. I do not feel that the depiction is gratuitous, but it may offend the sensitive of heart.
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The Way of the Regent
Copyright December 2, 2003
Ephiny stood at the center of the village and watched as Amazons started their daily routines after the morning meal; the last of them were finally leaving the dining hall. She sighed in disbelief when she spied the distinctive blue leathers of the Royal Guard keeping their post outside of the hut that served as the scrolls archive.
Gabrielle had made a brief appearance at breakfast before excusing herself, citing that she had work to do. Ever since Wolf's leaving over a month before, the Queen had fully immersed herself in the scrolls. Gabrielle was not pleased with her potential duty should Wolf return and the Justice Rite was to be invoked. The Queen was currently looking for a way around the centuries-old law.
The Regent herself was missing Wolf. Even though the demi-god could be annoying with her childish pranks and subtle goading, there was no doubt that she had been good at and dedicated to her role as Captain of the Royal Guard. That job now fell to Ephiny and Xena until Gabrielle chose a replacement.
The fact that it had already been a month made Ephiny realize that the Queen had no intention of filling that vacancy if there was a possibility that she could make it safe for Wolf to come back to the Nation. Gabrielle's determination seemed to have no bounds in the matter. With Xena satisfied with the status quo and reluctant to replace her closest friend, the Regent could do no more than voice her opinion to stubborn ears.
Chewing her bottom lip, Ephiny mentally ran through the Queen's agenda for the day. There was rarely time for leisure with a war creeping closer to their lands. She jumped in surprise and flushed for having been caught unaware by the Amazon that had snuck up behind her to gently bite her shoulder.
"What's a hot woman like you doing in a village like this?" a sultry voice questioned.
Recognizing the voice, the Regent's brows quirked in amusement as she looked over her shoulder at a dark-haired Amazon. "That's the worst line I have ever heard, Soli."
Sliding closer to press her body intimately against Ephiny, Solari twirled one of her lover's blonde curls around a finger. "But would you still go to bed with me?"
Ephiny snorted in response, enjoying the brief respite of play. "Not even if I was drunk."
"But what if I told you…."
The Regent's face grew warm as Solari whispered wicked suggestions into her ear. "You are so bad, Solari," she whispered breathlessly.
"But you love me," Solari replied cheekily after stealing another nibble from Ephiny's shoulder.
Ephiny favored the other woman with a long look of devotion. "So you keep telling me."
"Can you get away for a little bit?" Solari asked, now serious. "I just went past the baths and there's no one there," she added with a wiggle of her brows.
Sighing with regret, Ephiny frowned. "I wish I could, honey, but I have to go over the sentry postings with Gabrielle and Xena."
Solari propped her hands on her hips; her fingers and right foot began to tap in irritation, as she stood with arms akimbo. "Don't you think Xena's being a little bit extreme in changing up the sentry detail every day?"
Shaking her head in disagreement, the Regent took Solari's hands in her own to stop the tapping. "You heard the latest, Soli."
Despite Solari knowing as much as Ephiny did since she was an Advisor who attended all the war councils, she turned her head away.
Ephiny continued to press her point. "The battles are closer now than they've ever been. This isn't like the war with the Centaurs with skirmishes here and there. These are two very big armies that do not care who or what stands between them."
"I know, I know," Solari replied, biting down on each word. "What about after the meeting?"
Catching sight of the Queen heading their way, Ephiny kissed Solari briefly. "I can't. Gabrielle wants me to help her organize the archive." Placing a finger against her lover's lips to forestall the additional comments that were waiting expression, Ephiny promised, "We can have dinner alone tonight in our hut."
Before Solari could respond, Gabrielle greeted the couple with a reserved smile.
"Hello, Solari, how are you doing today?"
"Could be better," Solari replied honestly. She refused to silence her frustration even as Ephiny sent her a warning look.
"Is there something I can do?" Gabrielle asked; her forehead creased with concern.
Realizing at whom she was practically glowering, Solari shook her head, knowing that Ephiny was right. "No, Gabrielle. It's nothing. Really."
Not happy with that answer, but willing to let it go for now since she and Ephiny had business to attend to, Gabrielle nodded. Addressing Ephiny, she said, "Well, if you're ready, we've got work to do."
"Right behind you," Ephiny replied before turning to Solari and pulling her into a quick embrace. "I promise it'll be just you and me tonight," she whispered into her lover's ear before kissing her softly.
Solari gradually relented, yet frowned as she watched Ephiny turn and walk swiftly away to catch up to Gabrielle. After the two of them disappeared into the meeting hut, she turned on her heel and went in search of the hunting party to see if they could use another bow.
When Ephiny and Gabrielle seated themselves in front of a low map table, the Queen turned her attention to the Regent. "Is something wrong, Eph?"
Ephiny shrugged nonchalantly. "Nothing that can't be helped with some quality alone time."
Gabrielle thought about the response before replying, "I know that there isn't a need for a Regent when the Queen is ruling. If you would rather step down…."
"No!" The Regent exclaimed, her husky voice rising in pitch. She hurried to explain, "You know that even if I were to forfeit the title of Regent, Gabrielle, that I would still serve in the capacity that I am now." The Regent stood before the Queen and laid her hands upon her shoulders. "Even though you've grown into your role as leader of the Nation and you are proving yourself as a capable Queen, you still need support from people you can trust. And you know that I would do nothing to betray that trust."
"No, you wouldn't," Gabrielle agreed with absolute certainty. "With half of the warriors wanting to meet the battle out there," the Queen said, indicating the war map on the wall, "and the other half wanting to protect what we have here, it does help knowing that someone is right there beside me. I never know which way a Council meeting is going to go the closer this war gets to us. It already feels like it's a stone's throw away."
"Not yet, it isn't," Ephiny muttered. The Regent crossed the meeting hut to the war map that was now a permanent fixture on the far wall. It had been Xena's idea to affix the pins to it that indicated the various troop movements of the Spartans and Greeks. Tracing her finger along the main front, she invariably ended up in the Amazon Capital. "It's just a matter of time before neutrality is a moot point, Gabrielle. They are heading this way." The Regent turned to her Queen; her eyes were troubled. "We may have to call in the warriors from the other villages sooner than we thought."
Leaning back against the Council table, Gabrielle studied the map. "I've already considered that. I'll be sending a runner out after the Council meeting tomorrow. I'm also going to invite Tyldus to meet with us to discuss an alliance pact," she said as she began to pace in front of the Regent.
"We're already allies," Ephiny stated as she stood back to let the Queen have some room to think.
"True, but if there's one thing I've learned after traveling with Xena, it's that war tends to change things. When the fighting comes this way, I want to know that the Centaurs will stand with us."
"Are we changing our neutral stance?"
Gabrielle stopped pacing to give Ephiny a clear look of resolve. "Our position will remain neutral in this war. It was one thing to let Kidian's troops move through after his diplomatic request, but the Spartans and Greeks won't be so polite when they're trying to kill each other on our land."
Pulling a chair out to sit at the long table, Gabrielle leaned forward and tapped her index finger repeatedly upon its surface. "We will not be sitting around weaving baskets if they cross into our territory. This is our home and we will defend it, no matter the colors of the invaders. "
Ephiny's comment died upon her lips as the door to the meeting hut opened. When she saw that it was Xena interrupting the discussion, she made a note to herself to continue the conversation later.
"Gabrielle, Ephiny," Xena greeted casually as she moved around the table to approach the Queen and Regent. "Sorry I'm late. There was a problem with the twins."
"Are they all right?" Gabrielle asked as she stood and reached out to pull her Consort closer to look into her eyes.
"They're fine, Gabrielle. I just couldn't get them to settle down with any of the Caregivers until Aresha arrived. She's the only one they seem to like." Xena held up a hand to stop the next question. "And no, nothing is wrong with Aresha. She was just running behind this morning because she stayed up too late with Rhena last night."
Her worries about the children allayed, Gabrielle reclaimed her seat. "All right, then, let's get this over with."
Taking seats to either side of the Queen, Ephiny and Xena huddled over the scroll Xena had brought with her. For half an hour, the three of them went over the sentry roster, which Xena had written in her meticulous hand. Varying the shifts, positions, and patrols of the border guards, Xena hoped to keep their security unpredictable, and therefore, more effective.
When the brief meeting was over, Gabrielle bade her Consort farewell with a warm gaze and a promise to meet her on the practice field before lunch. Xena returned the Queen's love with a crooked smile and a wink.
After Xena had left them alone again, Gabrielle turned to Ephiny. "I've changed my mind," she said as she leaned an elbow on the table and propped her chin in her hand.
"The Archives. They can wait a little longer. Artemis knows they've been a mess all this time and the world hasn't ended. Why don't you just take the day and relax. Tomorrow is going to be stressful enough with the Council meeting. We're going to need everything we've got."
Ephiny studied the Queen for a moment before pulling her into an embrace. "I'm really sorry about how Solari was earlier."
Gabrielle chuckled as she patted the Regent's back before letting her go. "You just go find her. I can't have one of my Advisors cranky with me tomorrow." Watching Ephiny leave to find her lover, Gabrielle took a moment to sit back and think. She considered her options with the free time she just allotted herself. Standing, she stretched to work a few lingering kinks out of her back. She turned to look at the war map for a few minutes; deep concern erased away any trace of the smile she had worn for Ephiny. Deciding to draft her invitation to Tyldus, she left the meeting hut and returned to the Archives.
When Ephiny left the meeting hut in search of Solari, she was disappointed to discover that her lover had joined the hunting party that would bring in the evening meal. She debated whether to go in search of the hunting party or to simply wait until it came back. The Regent finally decided when thoughts of a private interlude at their favorite spot deep in the forest prompted her to action. If Gabrielle was going to give her some time away from her responsibilities, she was going to take advantage of it.
Racing back to the hut that she shared with Solari, it took only a second for her to grab her crossbow and a quiver of bolts. She left the village, sprinting quietly into the forest and listening intently for the birdcalls that would signal the movements of the hunting party.
Twenty minutes later, Ephiny slowed to a walk and then finally stopped. Cocking her head, she was able to distinguish Amazon calls from the actual birds that made the forest their home. Following the calls, she came upon two warriors of the hunting party. Nodding in greeting to them, she ducked down behind some brush and scooted closer to see what quarry they had surrounded.
Peering over the bush that concealed her, the Regent's eyes widened in appreciation. In the small clearing around which the Amazons were gathered, a large buck snorted and pawed at the ground. His horns measured ten points and were aimed threateningly at a bush on the far side of the clearing.
After silently cocking her crossbow, Ephiny reached to the quiver at her hip and pulled out a bolt. Fitting it to the bow and making sure it was snug against the gutstring, she raised the weapon to her shoulder. Ready to attack on the party leader's call, she exhilarated in the adrenaline that began coursing through her system. With her heartbeat echoing in her ears, she willed her breathing not to accelerate. She had to consciously blink, as her eyes remained riveted upon the prey.
When the buck suddenly stopped his defensive posturing and raised his head to stand completely still with his ears twitching, the party leader whistled shrilly. Before he had time to react, he crumpled slowly as a dozen arrows instantly pierced through his shoulders to bury in to his heart.
Shouting their praise to Artemis, the hunting party stepped out from its concealment. Immediately, Ephiny spotted Solari and she bounded over to her to pull her into a fierce embrace. Kissing her soundly, Ephiny chuckled at her look of surprise and swung her in a full circle. "He's a beauty," she exclaimed as she released her lover and knelt to lift the dead buck's head.
"Solari tracked him," one of the hunters said as she stepped aside for Solari. "She gets the honor."
As Ephiny beamed with pride at her, Solari took a ceremonial dagger from the party leader. Kneeling beside the buck, she had the honor of performing the ritual of gratitude to Artemis for providing them with an exhilarating hunt and plentiful meat. Once the rite was complete, the hunting party bound the buck to a sturdy pole and made their way back to the village.
With four other women carrying the buck, Ephiny was free to grasp Solari's hand. The couple followed leisurely.
"So, what's a hot woman like you doing in a forest like this?" Ephiny asked, squeezing her lover's hand.
Solari's earlier frustration was forgotten when Ephiny suddenly pulled her off the path to back her up into a tree. "I thought you had work to do?"
"Gabrielle changed her mind about the Archives," Ephiny said as she gazed deeply into Solari's eyes. "I'm sorry that we haven't had much time together, Solari… at least outside of the meeting hut."
Hanging her head in embarrassment, Solari shrugged. "I don't know why I behaved like that. I know we have to be ready for this. I guess I'm just wishing that it would just end so we could go back living our lives normally. How long can we go on, strung so tight until we just break from the strain?"
"I don't know, but we have to hold it together for as long as we can. We're Amazons, we can do it." Leaning into Solari, Ephiny buried her face into her lover's neck. "Gabrielle asked me today if I wanted to step down from being Regent," she murmured as she pressed her lips to the pulse in Solari's neck.
Raising a hand to stroke Ephiny's riotous curls, Solari caught her breath before asking, "Why would she ask that? I thought you enjoyed being Regent."
"I do, but you know Gabrielle. She's always trying to make sure that everyone is happy. Frankly, she can't afford to have those closest to her deserting her."
The silent implication of Wolf's departure hung in the air.
"Anyhow, she told me to take some time off to catch up on quality time with you."
"I suppose we'd better make the best of her generosity then."
"Mmmhmm. Never know when we'll get another chance at this."
Solari closed her eyes and raised her chin to give access to Ephiny, who was nibbling a trail up her neck to her chin. "So, did you have anything in mind?" she inquired.
With a husky chuckle, Ephiny nipped at Solari's earlobe. "I seem to recall you telling me in some detail what you wanted to do today."
"Do you want to go back to get a blanket?" Solari asked.
"No. I don't want to go back until that beautiful buck you found is made into a delicious stew."
"That gives us at least five hours."
"And we're going to use every single one of them," Ephiny promised as she pulled away from Solari. Taking her lover's hand again, the Regent smiled alluringly and led her deeper into the forest.
Ephiny pulled her gaze from Solari, who had gone back to get her a second helping of stew. "Much. Thank you, Gabrielle. I know it wasn't the best time to be running away for a while, but we both feel better now." Ephiny's thoughts turned inward before she said, "Solari did raise a point we need to consider."
"We'll discuss it tomorrow before the Council meeting," Gabrielle replied as she patted the Regent's hand. "You are still relieved of your duties. Besides, I'm going to need you right after breakfast tomorrow. I finished my scroll to Tyldus today and I want you to look at it before I send it off."
Nodding in understanding, "I'll be there," she promised before turning back to Solari to thank her for the stew.
Letting the Regent return to the conversation she had been holding with Solari, Gabrielle focused her attention on her own family. As was their usual custom, the bard held Larin on her lap and Xena cradled Eponin in her carrying sling. Eponin had drifted off to sleep despite the noise of the dining hall; Larin, who was done eating, was content to play with a wooden spoon. Underneath the table, a warm hand closed over her knee and she looked up at Xena.
"Feel better now?" the Consort asked.
"About Ephiny, yes," Gabrielle replied, reaching under the table to grasp Xena's hand. Laughter at the tables below drew their attention away from each other.
As the meal was concluding, Aresha had let Peran and Zasha free to explore. They toddled in opposite directions to the dismay of the young Caregiver. As Zasha headed for the hut entrance, Peran cautiously tested the path to the Queen's table. When she attempted to crawl up the steps to the dais, Ephiny slipped off the bench to scoop the child into her arms.
"Oh no, you don't," she chided as the child began to squirm at first.
Breathlessly, Aresha rushed over with Zasha securely in her arms. "I'm sorry, Ephiny."
The Regent's smiled indulgently and she sat Peran upon her hip. "It's alright, Aresha, I have this little Amazon." Ephiny returned to her seat and cradled Peran on her lap.
"Looks like Eph wouldn't mind having another little one running around her hut."
Turning to face Xena, who had spoken to Gabrielle, but loud enough for the entire table to hear, she replied, "At the moment, I'm quite overwhelmed with the one I have and the brood we had last Festival, thank you."
"Speaking of which," Gabrielle said as she shifted Larin on her hip to face Ephiny, "I'm going to ask Tyldus to bring Xenan with him. I know you haven't had time to visit him for a while."
"Solari and I were talking earlier about trying to slip away to see him."
Gabrielle shook her head in refusal. "I wish I could say yes, Eph, but I need you closer than that for the time being."
Disappointment flickered briefly in the Regent's eyes before she accepted the Queen's words. "I kind of figured that," she said.
"I'm sorry, Ephiny. If there was anything I could do to change circumstances, I would." Gabrielle tried to lessen the denial with apologetic eyes. "I need you with me, Ephiny. I need my best people at my side when things go bad. You are too valuable to me and the Nation," she stated bluntly.
"I am always at your service, my Queen."
"I know, Ephiny." Gabrielle released the Regent from her emerald gaze when she turned to observe the Amazons that were starting to file out of the dining hut in small groups. "Why don't we try to relax tonight? We're going to need our wits tomorrow. Gods only know what Phelisya is planning for tomorrow."
"Are you expecting any problems?"
Gabrielle shrugged as she chewed her bottom lip in thought before answering. "Not sure. Things have been changing so fast lately, I never know what to expect from one minute to the next."
"Well, I never told you that being Queen was boring."
"A part of me finds it ironic that not long after Xena and I decided to settle down and leave the danger of the road, the danger is about to find us in a really big way."
"It could be worse, you know," Ephiny said as she pinned Gabrielle with an intense look. "We could be discussing this from the Other Side already."
With a mock frown, the Queen narrowed her gaze. "Thank you so much for putting this in perspective."
"Don't thank me. That's what I'm here for, Gabrielle."
When Larin suddenly yawned and then began to fidget, Gabrielle offered the Regent a look of regret. "Well, I think it's time for me to get my little soldiers back to our hut so we can get them settled in for the evening."
"I don't know how you do it, Gabrielle," Ephiny said in amazement. "Two of your own and then taking on the twins."
Gabrielle chuckled as she motioned for Aresha on the other side of the dining hall. "Simple, Eph, my little army has the finest commander in the Known World." After all of the children were ready to go, Gabrielle turned to her Regent with one last order. "Enjoy the quiet while you can get it, Eph. I get the feeling that we won't have much in the way of tranquility for a while to come."
When Gabrielle had finally departed with Aresha accompanying them, as she helped get the twins to the Queen's hut, Ephiny turned to Solari. "So, just you and me again."
Solari tried to conjure up another suggestive leer, but after making love earlier, for what seemed like hours, all she wanted to do was hold Ephiny until sleep claimed them both. Instead, she propped her elbow on the table and cradled her head in her hand. Her eyes became tender as she studied the gentle lines of her lover's face. "Let's go to bed," she suggested with a drowsy smile. "I want to pretend that the war doesn't exist out there and we don't have a care in the world."
"Not another word about it," Ephiny promised as she stood and offered her hand to Solari.
Entwining their fingers, the couple walked shoulder to shoulder, gently bumping into each other as they slowly made their way back to their hut. Once inside, Ephiny moved about the room to light a few candles. Once there was enough to see by, she began to undress. She folded her leathers neatly as she removed them; she was down to her breaches when she noticed that Solari still stood just inside the hut. "What?" she asked as her lover watched her closely.
Approaching the Regent with an expression of devotion upon her face, Solari stopped to cup Ephiny's face in her hands. "You are without a doubt, the most beautiful woman I have ever known. I think I have loved you forever." She brushed her lips across Ephiny's. "Tonight, there is no war, no Nation, and certainly no Regent. There is only you and I."
Ephiny wrapped her arms around Solari and held her close. "Read to me tonight. I want to get lost in the sound of your voice."
"What would you like to hear?"
"Read to me about Terrin and Kareta?"
Solari smiled as Ephiny began to undress her. "You always ask for that one."
"It's my favorite."
"Okay," Solari replied as she slipped her top off of her shoulders. "You get into bed and I'll get the scroll."
After retrieving the private scroll from a small shelf that held several favorite stories, Solari joined her lover.
Snuggling against Solari's side once she made herself comfortable, Ephiny closed her eyes and sighed in contentment. She willed her thought to drift no further than their quiet hut.
Solari cleared her throat and began reading in an intimately hushed voice.
"She no longer felt the brambles as they tore at her legs, nor the stones that cut her bare feet. But she knew that she was quickly loosing her footing on the steep slope. The loose soil gave way beneath her and she fell with a jarring thud. Desperately, she grasped for anything to keep her from falling down the hill that she was climbing."
As Solari continued to read the scroll, Ephiny found herself drifting into a trance, as if she were a part of the tale. Know the story by heart, she focused on the sound of her lover's voice; the soft tones seemed to caress every word. She was soothed with each breath and could not fight against the lull into which she fell.
Before Solari had gotten to the first meeting of Terrin and Kareta, she felt the subtle change in Ephiny's breathing. Knowing that her lover had fallen under Morpheus' spell, Solari rolled up the scroll and laid it on the bedside table. Taking a deep breath, she sank into a moment that belonged only to Ephiny and her.
Pulling Ephiny into her arms, she waited until the other woman settled into her embrace before completely relaxing. Closing her eyes, she focused on the feeling of her lover's heart beating against her breast. It was not long before she joined Ephiny in the land of dreams.
The next morning, Ephiny awoke to find Solari up and arranging a small dining table they shared in their room. With a smile, she pushed herself up on her elbows and greeted her lover with a husky, "Good morning."
Solari turned around and blushed for having been caught. "I've brought us breakfast to share before you have to go meet Gabrielle. I wanted to surprise you, before you woke, though."
"Oh, I'm surprised," Ephiny assured her as she rolled out of bed. Strolling across the room, unaware of the effect her nudity had on Solari, she pulled her lover into an embrace and kissed her softly. "It's been a while since you've brought me a private breakfast."
"Well," Solari replied as she pulled a chair out for Ephiny to sit, "I guess this war isn't going away and neither are our responsibilities, so we'll just have to take our time when we can."
"Beg, steal, and borrow is more like it," Ephiny said drowsily as she yawned widely. Blinking her eyes, she waited for Solari to sit next to her. "Sweet Artemis, I hope I'm up to this today."
"Well, I brought you the power breakfast of all Amazon rulers. Guaranteed to spruce up your energy for those times when you'd rather crack skulls than be diplomatic."
"It's oatmeal, Soli," the Regent said with a warm chuckle.
"Maybe, but it's oatmeal that I had to battle the cooks for. You know they hate anyone in their kitchen."
Solari smiled before turning serious. "I will fight any battle by your side, Ephiny. You can count on that."
Reaching across the table, Ephiny took Solari's hand in hers and squeezed it gently. "I know, honey. And I'm always at your side."
Needing another moment of levity before real life intruded, Solari cocked a brow and looked up through her lashes at the Regent. "I think that almost sounded like a bonding proposal, Ephiny."
Ephiny smiled as she gazed at Solari. Ever since Phantes had been killed, she had not thought of taking another partner. The circumstances they were in now, though, seemed to bring them closer even as they endured more time apart. Contemplating it, she could easily see herself spending the rest of her life with the warrior who had always been there for her. "And if it was?" she asked, wanting to make sure that she and Solari were on the same scroll.
"I'd do it in a heartbeat."
They sat in silence, memorizing the lines of each other's faces in that time of leisure until breakfast was finished. As Solari was cleaning up the dishes, a knock sounded at their door.
"Come," Ephiny called as she began to dress in her what she referred to as her meeting leathers. They were dark with gold stitching and beaded; they denoted her rank among the tribe. Just donning them changed Ephiny's mood, as she became serious and began to prepare herself for the day.
"Good morning," Gabrielle called as she entered the Regent's hut.
For a moment, Ephiny was caught speechless. As often as she saw Gabrielle in her own official Queen's leathers, the sight of the bard's trim and toned body sensually accented by the russet garments took her breath away. If it had not been for the Consort and the Queen's unquestionable love for her, there would have been plenty of warriors fighting for Gabrielle's attention. The Regent was jarred out of her stupor as Solari walked past and nudged her with an elbow. Ephiny shook her head as her lover winked at her in passing.
"My Queen," Solari said formally as she stopped in front of Gabrielle. "I'm going to drop these off and then I'll get the meeting hut ready for today."
"Thank you, Solari," Gabrielle said as she reached out squeezed her Advisor's firm bicep. "We'll see you at the council meeting later." Gabrielle nodded when Solari bowed a farewell to her.
"Thank you for yesterday, Gabrielle," Ephiny said as she finished pulling on her top and laced it.
Gabrielle leaned against the wash table when Ephiny began washing her face and cleaning her teeth. "Trust me, Eph, I know what you were dealing with. Sometimes Xena and I only see each other when we wake up and before we go to bed. It's enough to make me want to grab the kids and walk away from it all… find a place to live where there isn't any war."
"You'd never do that, Gabrielle. The day that you committed yourself to being Queen, you pledged your life to the Nation. You aren't the kind of person to just walk away."
Her thoughts drifting back over the years, Gabrielle shook her head. "I've learned the hard way that walking away from where your heart lies just hurts like Tartarus."
"Well, then," Ephiny said as she linked her arm through Gabrielle's. "We'll just end up a couple of old featherheads, I guess."
"I'll settle for getting through this day," Gabrielle remarked as they exited the Regent's hut. "Since you've already had breakfast, you won't mind if I have mine brought to my meeting room, will you?"
"Always the late riser."
"Yeah, but once I get going, I get going."
Walking out across the square, the Queen and Regent presented a united front. When they arrived at the meeting hut, Gabrielle turned to M'Eru and Darlea. "M'Eru, if you wouldn't mind bringing some breakfast to me, I would appreciate it. Ephiny and I will be in my meeting room."
The guard nodded briefly and then jogged away to the dining hut; Darlea took up her post outside of the meeting hut. She nodded to Solari, who entered minutes later to begin preparing for the War Council meeting.
Shutting the door behind them, Gabrielle pulled a scroll down from the shelf above her desk and handed it to Ephiny. "Here's the invitation to Tyldus for the private meeting," she explained as she took her seat. She watched the Regent's face for reaction when Ephiny unrolled the scroll and began to read. The only reaction she got was an occasional nod.
"That looks good to me, Gabrielle. You shouldn't doubt your ability to do this sort of thing, Gabrielle. You're a skilled diplomat. You have the ability to put yourself in the other person's shoes and you see their side of things. Something as simple as asking Tyldus to the village to discuss an alliance is child's play compared to the support treaties you worked out with the surrounding outvillages."
"Gods," Gabrielle sighed as she recalled the month-long process of bartering protection and goods back and forth with the village leaders, "I thought that I'd have to move my bed into the meeting hut, it took so long."
"It didn't make it any easier at the time when you were still nursing Larin. Hard to make a stern impression when your face goes all soft."
Gabrielle snorted as she took the scroll from Ephiny. Lighting her ceremonial candle, she asked a blessing of Hermes that the scroll would reach its destination. Dripping the wax to seal the scroll and then pressing her seal to mark it, Gabrielle set it back upon the shelf.
The Queen replied as she leaned back in her chair, "It did make it easier with the women of the delegation, to see that we were just other women trying to raise families and not blood-thirsty savages that prefer the trees over the gyneceum."
"Those were the days," Ephiny said as she mirrored Gabrielle's pose. "What I wouldn't do to go back to the days when worries were fewer and far between."
A knock at the Queen's door interrupted the silence that fell over the room. Ephiny took the initiative and stood to admit the caller. M'Eru entered, balancing a heavy tray of food, which she set carefully upon Gabrielle's desk.
"Thank you, M'Eru. That will be all," Gabrielle said as she smiled in gratitude.
The guard nodded and then bowed respectfully. "I'll be outside if you need anything else, my Queen."
When Ephiny closed the door behind the retreating guard, she heard Gabrielle mumbling to herself around a small loaf of sweet bread. "What was that?"
Swallowing the mouthful she was chewing and washing it down with goat's milk, Gabrielle admitted sheepishly, "I said that I wouldn't mind if she waited somewhere else for a change."
"You know they're there for a reason, Gabrielle," Ephiny said as she sat once more.
"Yeah, I know." Breakfast was becoming an unappealing thought as Gabrielle admitted what was bothering her about her guard detail. "I miss Wolf, Eph. It was different having her around all the time. She was just as much a companion as she was my guard. I think the others are too respectful to even contemplate telling me that I have food stuck in my teeth or tease me about my sex life. She made my day less of a chore."
"I wish I could change what's happened, Gabrielle, but none of us can." Ephiny saw that Gabrielle had stopped eating. "You'd better eat while you can. We don't know how long this meeting is going to last, and it's not going to be an easy one to break for lunch."
Acknowledging the practical advice, Gabrielle began to pick at her food while Ephiny kept up a steady flow of chatter about nothing important. Eventually, the Queen found herself truly consuming her meal as she easily kept up with the one-sided conversation. Between mouthfuls, she would add a comment or two, but otherwise, she took the time to simply listen.
"Solari mentioned something to me yesterday that I thought I should mention to you for thought," the Regent said as she stole a crumb of sweetbread off the Queen's tray. When Gabrielle's eyes became curious, the Regent continued. "I think we've all noticed how things are starting to get wound tight around here. We've been going on for so long now in a constant state of wariness, that it would not take much for somebody to simply snap."
Gabrielle become thoughtful before she commented, "Xena has been a little bit more tense than usual. So have I, but then, I've never had to deal with anything quite like this before. What do you think we should do?"
Ephiny leaned back in her chair and stared at the ceiling for a moment, letting her thoughts drift over the problem. "Any other time, I'd say throw a party to loosen everyone up, but now isn't the time for that. Right now, the only thing we can do is let them have a day off, one or two at a time. The time you gave me yesterday did wonders for Solari and me."
"Sounds fair enough, at least for now. Work up the rotation, and we'll see if we can ease things up a little at a time."
"Phelisya, I refuse to go out onto the field and meet the Greeks." Gabrielle hardened her eyes as she made her stance clear on the matter. "At this point, they have done nothing to endanger the Amazon Nation." Both of her arms were braced upon the table; her hands were flat upon its surface as she barely quelled the urge to stand and shout at the older Amazon. A subtle nudge to her foot brought her back from the irrational thought. Taking a deep breath to slow the rush adrenaline, she nudged Ephiny in return.
"I simply want to know why you are going to wait until our sacred forests are covered in blood before you act. Why let them even get here? Why not charge into battle with the Spartans and defeat the Greeks once and for all?"
"We do not have the resources to meet an army of this size on the open field," Gabrielle argued. "If we are going to fight, we're going to do it on our own ground with our own ways."
Phelisya refused to back down. The others at the table had long given the floor to the Queen and the older warrior. All eyes, however, were riveted to each woman as she spoke, despite the fact that the meeting was carrying over well past lunch.
"We are cowards if we do not act now," the warrior said as she stood to slam her hands upon the table.
Gabrielle made a motion with her hand to still Xena, who was standing at her side and fairly radiating menace after hearing Phelisya arguing with Gabrielle for so long. The Consort had already excused herself from the meeting to feed Eponin twice and now, she could feel her breasts aching as another feeding was upon her.
"Phelisya, we have gone over this for more than five hours now. You are not going to persuade me to your point of view. I understand the Nation's history with the Greeks. But I will not let prejudice and hatred rule this Council." Then, Gabrielle said the words she never thought she'd use against another Amazon. "If you feel so damned determined to kill a few Greeks, then by my leave, feel free to leave and do so, but do not expect me to plunge into the middle of a war that does not concern us either way."
Phelisya's eyes blazed with anger. She looked around the table at each face of the War Council and gritted her teeth; the muscle in her jaw worked frantically as she fought to control a murderous rage. "You'll see, my Queen," she bit off with sarcasm, "they will fall down upon us like a pack of wild dogs. Then what will you have left to rule?"
Gabrielle frowned as the warrior walked stiffly out of the Council Hut. Relaxing her own rigid stance, the Queen relaxed enough to smile dimly at the War Council. "This meeting is concluded," she declared, indicating the door that had been left open with Phelisya's exit.
When all of the women had filed out, Xena looked to Ephiny for support. "I need to go feed Eponin, but I'll be back. We need to discuss this."
Gabrielle reached up to cover the Consort's hand, which had fallen upon her shoulder.
"I won't be gone long, Gabrielle."
Ephiny sat quietly and watched the emotions as they flowed across Gabrielle's face. "Come on," she said, pulling the Queen to her feet. "I need a drink after that tea party." Leading Gabrielle to her private meeting room, the Regent closed the door and poured them a drink each.
Gabrielle still remained troubled and silent. She barely acknowledged the mug in her hand. Finally, she spoke and Ephiny had to lean closer to hear.
"I'm not so sure that was the right thing to say to her," she admitted as she raised her mug for a sip. "Phelisya has easily a dozen warriors that would follow her if she decides to leave. We can't afford to lose any of them right now."
"I'll talk to Kepra and see if she can talk any sense into Phelisya. They've fought beside each other for a long time and you know Kepra is in agreement with you."
"But I lost it in there, Eph. I shouldn't have let her get to me. I should have ended the meeting when I saw that we were not going to agree."
"Gabrielle, you always try to reason with people, and I'm not saying that it's a fault in itself, but sometimes you have to be forceful to make yourself heard." Taking a long drink to ease the dryness that had roughened her voice hours ago, the Regent continued in a soft tone. "Phelisya did not want to hear reason. She wanted to hear a call for arms. By standing up to her and giving the only option of leaving, you proved yourself as a consistent ruler. If the Nation knows what to expect from you, they will follow you because you are Queen. Become unpredictable and easy to sway, they'll believe that you are not worthy to wear the Mask."
"She's going to challenge me," Gabrielle said, her thoughts going back to the time that Xena fought on behalf of her against Melosa in a challenge. "And this time, I can't let Xena fight the battle for me."
"No, you can't," Ephiny agreed. "But you've come so far since then. You are a warrior in your own right."
Gabrielle was about to refute Ephiny's words when the door swung open.
"She's left," Solari exclaimed, explaining the reason behind her breach of protocol of not knocking before entering the Queen's room.
A brief flash of relief lightened the Queen's features before she asked, "How many went with her?"
"Only one, Gabrielle. Her bondmate left as well."
Gabrielle sipped idly at her drink as she ran all the implications through her mind. "Why didn't the others go with her?"
"Because they know a suicide mission when they hear one," Xena answered as she came up behind Solari.
"I know she wasn't happy about it," Solari added. "She was yelling something about regrets as she went into the forest."
"I'll send a party after her," Ephiny said as she began to stand.
"No," Gabrielle ordered, stilling the Regent with a firm hand. "Let her go. I'd say something about letting the bad apples fall from the tree, but apples and war have nothing in common," she said as she rose herself. Seeing that Xena still had Eponin in her arms, the Queen approached her Consort and ran a gentle finger across the nursing child's cheek.
"This is what we are protecting," she said as she turned to face her Regent and Advisor. "Our children are the future of this Nation. Our unity is our strongest weapon against a threat like this war. If we fight, we fight as one. If we die, it will be on our sacred ground."
Lifting her mug to her lips, Gabrielle finished her ale. "But I have no plans of dying any time soon, so lets get the warriors into the forest to run some drills. Xena, when you're finished nursing Eponin, I would like to go over defenses with you. There's no rule that says we can't edge the scales a bit in our favor."
Dismissing them with authority, Gabrielle left them alone in her private room; the bard needed guidance from a higher power. Being sure to stay within arms' length of her guard, the Queen made her way to the temple.
Xena was waiting for Gabrielle when the Queen exited the temple. The warrior frowned when she saw the deep lines of worry etched into Gabrielle's face.
"Looks like this one is all ours," Gabrielle said as she stopped in front of Xena and peered up into her wife's face.
The Consort nodded gravely; she had not been expecting anything else. "Let's go check out those defenses, then."
"I need to send some scrolls out first," Gabrielle said as she reached out to touch Xena, finding the warrior a constant source of strength.
"I'll get Argo ready to go."
Gabrielle closed her eyes momentarily when Xena placed a reassuring kiss on her brow. "I'll meet you at the stables," the Queen whispered before leaning away from Xena's soft lips.
On her way back through the village, Gabrielle caught Ephiny's eye and signaled to her. Waiting until the Regent caught up to her, Gabrielle was aware of her guard more than ever.
Ephiny's brows rose in question when she met the Queen.
"I'm sending runners out with the scrolls to Tyldus and the northern villages."
"I'll gather up a couple of runners," Ephiny said, turning to complete the task when Gabrielle silently dismissed her with a nod.
Five minutes later, Ephiny found Gabrielle in the meeting hut, staring at the seat that Phelisya always occupied at the meetings. "Gabrielle," she called softly. The naked pain that was evident on the Queen's face surprised her. The look disappeared an instant later when Gabrielle resumed her command mask.
Studying the runners with approval, for Ephiny has chosen the fastest, Gabrielle handed them each a scroll and gave them their instructions. "Be careful," she warned solemnly as she took their forearms in a warrior's farewell.
When the runners were gone, Gabrielle turned to Ephiny. "You have the village until I get back. Xena and I are going to scout the perimeter forest for any advantages."
Since Gabrielle and Xena already knew the forest as well as anyone, Ephiny surmised that the Queen also needed that time alone with her Consort to recoup after the confrontation earlier.
"Understood," the Regent confirmed. She walked with Gabrielle out of the meeting hut and then watched her walk off to the stables. Minutes later, she saw Gabrielle behind Xena on Argo, fading quietly into the forest. Looking about the village, the Regent decided to visit Nagla to see if there was anything the old healer needed for her herb collection. Ever since Triva's death, the Healer had been even quieter than usual, and Ephiny had taken it upon herself to make sure that the old woman was all right.
When she entered the Healer's hut, she heard mumbled curses coming from a back room. Winding her way between pallets, the Regent found Nagla with her apprentice Rhena, trying to teach the younger girl how to mix healing salves. Ephiny stood against the doorjamb unnoticed as she chuckled quietly. Although only one or two Amazons were chosen to be healers of the village, every Amazon underwent basic training in the art so that they could dress field wounds. Ephiny remembered the day she had gotten her ears cuffed for not paying attention as closely as Nagla wanted.
At that moment, Rhena's face was flushed as Nagla chastised her for not measuring her herbs correctly, explaining to her that mixing the wrong amount could be more harmful than helpful. Ephiny listened briefly before clearing her throat loudly. Nagla turned to her with a glare for the interruption.
"Didn't you just bother me yesterday, Ephiny? What do you want today?"
Smothering a grin, Ephiny adored the old Amazon for her lack of niceties. "I just came by to see if you needed any herbs gathered for your supplies, Nagla."
"I didn't before this one got a hold of them," the Healer replied. "She's determined to use up all my comfrey when the recipe only calls for three pinches." Turning to the young apprentice, the Healer fixed her with a narrowed gaze. "Are you sure you can read? Maybe that's the problem."
Rhena seemed to be on the verge of tears when she replied, "I can read. The Queen has made sure that we know how to read before passing us on to our studies."
Nagla grunted under her breath and then turned slowly back to Ephiny. With an obvious shove, she pushed Ephiny into the other room. Under her breath, she addressed the Regent. "She's really not all that bad. But she has to learn how to work under pressure."
"She's still young, Nagla, she'll learn."
"She does have seem to have an instinct when it comes to head wounds. Not that we've had many these past months."
Ephiny considered her words carefully when she looked seriously to the healer. "If this war ends up on our door and Amazons are hurt, is she going to be more of a hindrance than a help?"
Nagla raised a gnarled finger to scratch at her temple. "She'll be good enough for prep work, but I'll need another hand in here if it comes down to that."
"Aresha is good with people…."
The Healer halted Ephiny's words with a snort. "The way Rhena and her behave together, I'd sooner have a harpy in my hut. All they do is giggle at each other. If I weren't certain, I'd think they'd been smoking henbane. Darlea is good in an emergency. If the Queen can spare her from her guard, she can help me here."
Ephiny considered the option. "I'll bring it to the Queen's attention." Studying the Healer for a moment, Ephiny asked, "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Nagla gifted the Regent with a rare smile. "I'm just fine, Ephiny," she said, patting the Regent's arm. "Rhena should have gotten over her tears by now, so I'd better get back to her."
Nodding in agreement, Ephiny followed Nagla as far as the door to the back room. She watched as Nagla approached her apprentice in a more agreeable manner, for the young Amazon was reading the salve recipe and taking care to measure the herbs exactly. Sure that things would be fine, the Regent left the Healer's hut.
Exiting into the bright sunlight, she saw a group of older girls chatting with laughter as they made their way to the practice field. Following the line to the last of them, she saw Solari herding them on. Jogging to catch up to them, Ephiny winked at her lover. "You have the class today?"
"Yes, and we're going to learn how to repel from the trees today, aren't we, girls?" she asked loudly. When a few groans reached their ears, Solari and Ephiny shared a grin.
"I guess I better warn Nagla that some friction burns will be coming her way."
"Already told her this morning," Solari informed her with a smile. "Meet me later for dinner?"
"I'll keep your seat warm," Ephiny promised before stealing a quick kiss. Patting her lover sharply on the behind, the Regent decided to head for the Dining Hut, just to make sure that things were running smoothly there.
When she entered the hut, empty of dining Amazons, Ephiny made her way to the back where the cooking fires were tended. She was mystified when she saw that the fires were lit and there were items laid out on the counters to be prepared, but no cooks were in sight. Then the Regent heard a soft moan.
Her brows lifted in sudden surprise and she stood on her toes to peer over the serving counter. All she saw on the floor were legs entwined and she blushed when another moan came louder than the previous. The last she had heard, the cooks were at each other's throats. In fact, it was not unusual for the two of them to be constantly bickering if they were within sight of each other. Obviously, they had come to an understanding of sorts.
Quietly, Ephiny backed away from the cooking area and turned to leave the cooks their privacy. As she stepped back out into the square, she fanned her cheeks that still carried a bit of crimson. She cleared her throat and shook her head to clear it. Needing to put the trysting cooks from her mind, she set off towards the children's hut.
If she had not known where the children were kept as they were watched over by the Caregivers, she would have been able to find it by the raucous sound of children's laughter. Propping her arms on the bottom of the half-door that was closed, the Regent watched as one of the Caregivers put on a puppet show for some of the older children. Others, like Larin, Perin, and Zasha were keeping Aresha entertained in a play corral.
The Regent's eyes misted with tears as she thought of Xenan as a young child; he had been such a wonder to watch grow. Now, too old to live in the Amazon village, he stayed with his father's people. Ephiny was sure that Tyldus would accept Gabrielle's invitation. The Centaurs numbered slightly fewer than the Amazons, which was not much when compared to either the Spartans or the Greeks. Allying themselves would benefit both tribes. And when Tyldus came to the village, so would Xenan. Just thinking of his visit, Ephiny's heart began to ache with a motherly love.
Sure that things were under control with the children, Ephiny made her way through the village, stopping every so often to talk with women that she met. She listened as they shared their concerns or advice for the encroaching war. She assured others that Queen Gabrielle was indeed well aware that she had made an enemy of Phelisya. As she continued without conscious direction, she eventually found herself at the blacksmith's.
Ducking under the leather that was tied up over the door, the Regent entered the smith's hut. Even though the door was uncovered and all the windows were propped open, it was still hot as Tartarus and Ephiny immediately broke out in a sweat. Wiping her hand across her upper lip, she stepped further into the smithy to find Mulantha sewing leather onto a crescent shield. The smith looked up from her work to smile widely at the Regent.
"Wondered when I was going to see you, Eph," the blacksmith said as she pulled a knot tight then trimmed it off with her dagger.
"How's business?" the Regent asked as she sat upon a stool that Mulantha pulled out for her.
"Business is busy." Mulantha propped the shield against the far wall with a dozen others and then wiped her broad hands on her leather apron. "I've finished the prototype of that sword Xena drew up for me. She's a beauty."
"Let me see," Ephiny requested as she stood to follow Mulantha to a cluttered worktable. The Regent took the sword hilt-first as the blacksmith handed it to her. The blade was light and well balanced; it was longer than a short sword, but shorter than Xena's sword. She swung a few times before looking down its keen edge. "How strong is it?"
"Stronger than the Spartan swords." The blacksmith shook her head in wonderment. "Xena made sure to stand over my shoulder as I worked on it. I don't know how the Queen has lived with her all this time and not had a nervous breakdown."
Ephiny chuckled as she thought of the intimidating Consort. "What do you think has made Gabrielle so strong?"
Mulantha set the sword down carefully and crossed her thick arms over her chest. She addressed Ephiny with a solemn gaze. "Is Gabrielle really going to lead us into battle against the Spartans and Greeks? She's been against getting involved since this whole thing started."
Ephiny, having known Mulantha all her life, was honest, for she knew the smith was one woman that disdained gossip. "Mula, I know she will. Before, the war was far off and it was easy to say that we wouldn't be involved. But now that it's creeping upon our borders, she not only has the village to think of, but her own family."
"Well, then," the blacksmith said as she found a heavy hammer with a well-worn handle. "I'll get to work on more arrows, then."
"Do you need help here? I know you've been without an apprentice since Karis took scout duty."
Mulantha's brows wrinkled in thought. "No, at this point, bringing someone new in here and teaching them would take up more of my time. I can get things done faster on my own."
"All right," Ephiny replied in understanding. "Let me know if things change."
On her way out of the smithy, Ephiny stopped by a side bench to examine the arrowheads that Mulantha had fashioned earlier. The tips were lethally sharp and honed to precision. "When you get the time, Mula, please give me an accounting of our arms for the Queen."
"By tomorrow, Eph," the blacksmith replied before stoking the fires to work on more arrowheads.
As Ephiny was leaving the smithy, a chatter of excitement drew her attention to the village square. Curious about the reason for the noise, she jogged over to a cluster of women gathered in a circle. Elbowing her way into the circle, Ephiny saw that one of their war scouts had returned. Looking around at the women in the circle, she began to snap off orders. "Bring me some water. Someone send out the call for Gabrielle and Xena to return. The rest of you get back to work. A general meeting will be called later if we need one."
Dismissing the women with a stern look, the Regent led the weary scout to the Meeting Hut. As soon as she had pulled out a chair for the scout, who could do more than slouch in the chair, Solari entered the hut with a pitcher of water and several mugs.
Surprised at seeing her lover, Ephiny commented, "That was a fast class."
Shrugging as she poured the scout a drink, Solari replied, "You know how fast news travels around here. As soon as I heard that Sypheris was back, I came running."
"I'm glad you're here," Ephiny said as she took Solari's hand and squeezed it briefly. "As soon as Gabrielle gets here…." The Regent looked out the door when she heard the thunder of hooves. She stood aside as a disheveled Queen dismounted from behind Xena and did her best to walk a straight line towards them.
"Courtesy of the pony express," she said dryly as she gingerly took a seat facing the scout. Searching Sypheris for any sign of injury, she paused breathlessly before asking, "What's the news?"
The scout took another sip of water before setting her mug down on the table. "The war rages all over, my Queen. The Spartans are hitting the Greeks from all sides, but the Athenian navy is heading south to destroy the Spartan colonies."
"Who else is getting involved?" Ephiny asked as she pulled out a chair to sit next to Gabrielle.
"Corinth is already fighting on the side of the Spartans. The Greeks are conscripting anyone they come across that can carry a sword."
"What of the battles closest to us?" Gabrielle asked, looking up as Xena entered the hut.
"They are bloody, my Queen. No mercy is being shown by either side… and the Athenians have the Greek Fire."
"Damn," Xena swore as she crossed to the map. "Did you pass through any of their lines on your way back?" she asked the scout.
Under the commanding tone of the Consort, Sypheris stood and approached the map as well. Pointing to a position that was still a hundred leagues from the eastern-most boundary, she replied, "Here and here, there were minor skirmishes. But here," she said as she tapped the map, "is where a force of about 100 Spartans and Greeks are fighting. They're the ones with the Greek Fire. I know that because I had to be careful crossing the plain. It lit up the sky," she concluded with awe.
Placing a gentle hand upon the scout's shoulder, Xena led the young Amazon back to her seat. Standing at the head of the table, she leaned over to brace her hands on it. "Archers hidden in the trees aren't going to do us a damn bit of good against the Fire if they turn it against us," she said without preamble.
"Time to come up with a new plan," Gabrielle said as she looked to Ephiny. "Arrange for us to have dinner here tonight. Put the word out that there will be a general meeting tomorrow before lunch."
Ephiny nodded as she left to carry out the Queen's commands. As she entered the Dining Hut, she was relieved to see that the cooks were once more cooking and not dallying on the floor. Relaying the Queen's orders for a meal to be delivered to the Meeting Hut, the Regent left. She ran into Kepra on her way out and passed along the word that there would be a meeting tomorrow. The Elder nodded wisely and promised that all would be notified.
The Regent took as deep breath as she raised her face to absorb the afternoon sun. Closing her eyes, she could hear the children's laughter ringing out across the square. With a purpose in her stride, she made her way back to where she belonged, to the Queen's side.
Late into the night, Queen Gabrielle, her
Consort, and her Regent, pored over maps and strategies. Forgotten was the need
for time alone. Talk revolved around arms, offensives, and perimeter defenses.
Gabrielle was planning for the possibility that the war would indeed sweep them
To be continued in The Way of Intrigue
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