A Queen for All Seasons
The dancing hall was relatively quiet, and as they entered the doors and crossed the threshold they surprised one of the tumblers curled up asleep on a pile of straw.
He uncoiled and bounded to his feet, then exhaled and relaxed as he recognized the two of them. “Your majesties.” He swept his arm down in a bow. “A good day to you.”
“Not so much.” Xena said. “Maybe tomorrow. Where's your guy in charge?”
“Sleeping, ma'am. We practiced late last night and had a hard run through this morn.” The tumbler said. “Want me to bring him to you?”
Xena opened her mouth to respond, then paused. “Sure.” She settled herself on a box and folded her hands. “That would be great. Thanks.”
The tumbler beamed, then trotted away, ducking between some of the gear set up near the performance area.
Gabrielle went over and joined the queen, leaning slightly against her and sighing.
“Sit.” Xena patted the box next to her. “Help me practice being nice.”
Her consort settled next to her. “You're always nice to me. You don't have to practice that.” She protested, stifling a yawn.
“Heh.” Xena chuckled deep in her throat. “That's because I'm head over heels in love with you. Everyone else gets my bad side.”
“I don't think you have a bad side.” The blond woman observed, masking another yawn as she rubbed her eyes.
“Hang in there.” The queen said. “We'll be in bed soon enough.” She drummed her heels a few times against the box. “I'm trying out being nice to everyone else for a change.”
“Why?” Gabrielle let her head rest against Xena's shoulder.
“Why not? I”ve been a bitch all my life, time to try something new for a while.”
“You're not a bitch.”
“Oh, Gaaabbrrielle.” Xena let out a long, mock aggrieved sigh. “Of course I am!”
“You can't be. You don't have a tail.” Gabrielle craned her neck around to observe her companion's behind. “And you don't have floppy ears, or a cold nose.” She inspected Xena's ear intently. “So you can't be a bitch.” She concluded.
Xena considered this for a brief moment, then she opened her mouth and let her tongue extend, making a panting noise and ending with a short, sharp bark. “You sure?”
Gabrielle chuckled softly “I love you.”
The queen smiled faintly. “I love you too.” She responded. “Ah, here comes the boss.” She stood up as the circus manager came hurrying out, very obviously just woken out of a deep sleep. “Sorry about that.”
“Majesty?” The man pulled up short, a confused look on his face. “Did I displease you?”
“Not yet.” Xena remarked. “You've still got time though.” She leaned back against the box. “So here's the deal. The King of Persia's heading this way with a pack of crazed death warriors.”
“Ah. Is that so?” The man clasped his hands together. “What is it you wish of me.. of us, Majesty?” His face was anxious.
“Nothing you don't do naturally. I'm going to greet his high Poobah of pomposity like a long lost friend, and I want to show off my spiffy circus to him.” The queen burred. “So I want you to be ready to perform your little hearts out tomorrow. Can ya do it?”
The circus manager had been puffing himself up visibly as Xena spoke, as though he was a brightly colored bird fluffing feathers out to catch winter sunlight. “Oh yes, your Majesty we certainly can!” He burst out when she finished. “We will give you the best show ever.”
Oh. Gabrielle watched him with interest. She hadn't known what Xena had meant when she'd said she was going for circus soldiers, but this made more sense than giving the big sticks and rocks. She gave the man a smile and he beamed back at her.
“Good.” Xena said. “”Whatever ya got you haven't showed us yet, get on it.” She said. “Put the cat in a dress. Set the tumbler's ass on fire. Whatever ya got.”
The man bowed low. “Your majesty, in honor of you and the generosity you have shown us, we will entertain your guest as none other could.”
“Good man.” Xena patted his shoulder. “The Persians'll be here tomorrow morning. Make sure everything's ready for a show after lunch. Got it?”
“Yes.” The man smiled. “Thank you, your majesty.”
Xena pushed off from the box. “Don't thank me yet.” She said. “Wait until we're all knocking back a few ales after it's over. Then thank me.”
She peered past him to where the tumblers were now warming up, all of them keeping at least one eye on her. Then she winked at the manager and strolled off towards the door, with Gabrielle limping after her. “That's good.” She muttered as they walked back outside.
“It is?” Gabrielle asked, gamely.
“Yes.” The queen slid an arm around her. “Let's go, my love. It's time to put you to bed.”
“Don't we have stuff to do?”
“Yes.” Xena felt an unusual sense of peace in her. “We have to rest, and heal, that's the stuff we have to do, Gabrielle. You and me.” She slowed her steps and studied the castle around her, noting the clean look of the slate, and the splash of sunlight on the flagstones they were crossing.
“Okay.” Gabrielle was more than glad to agree with her. “Yeah, I'd really like to rest.” She said, after a pause. “I feel crummy.”
“Me too.” Her lover agreed mournfully. “I feel so crappy I'm going to let my soldiers and captains be soldiers and captains and let them protect me tonight.”
So there were soldiers everywhere. Gabrielle hadn't see so many of them around their quarters in the entire time she'd been at the stronghold, there was even a couple in the back stairwell down to the kitchen, and that door was open with torchlight pouring through it.
It was dark outside, and they had shared a light dinner before the fire, both of them quiet as they sipped on cups of honey laced mint tea aware of the preparations for war below them.
The soldiers were making ready. Xena was seated with her legs extended towards the fireplace, a warm, thick robe around her and her freshly washed hair drying in the quiet warmth. She was writing something on fresh parchment, the scent of it, and of the ink drifting into Gabrielle's awareness as she sat nearby.
Soon they would get into bed. Gabrielle was looking forward to that moment, but the couch she was curled up on was comfortable and she felt secure with all the soldiers around and Xena's close presence.
“Okay.” Xena finished her writing and got up, going to the small table in their tower bedroom and setting the ink and quill down. She fanned the parchment to dry it, then walked over to the door between the bedroom and the outer chamber and opened it.
The soldiers inside braced to attention, and Brent stood up from his stool near the outer door and approached her. “Mistress?”
Xena folded the parchment, then handed it to him. “I want this done before the Persians get here tomorrow.” She told him. “Make sure it happens, Brent, then get some rest.” She reached out and clasped his arm. “Tomorrow's gonna be a day.”
“Mistress.” He touched his chest with his fist. “Will you be getting some rest yourself?”
“I will.” Xena didn't even feel a twinge of irritation at the question. “I sure didn't get much last night.”
“Nor we.” Brent acknowledged. “But all's quiet tonight.”
“For now.” Xena released his arm and turned, making her way back to the bedroom and closing the door behind her. She found Gabrielle already climbing into bed, and she followed her with a sense of relief so intense it surprised her. “Hey, wait for me.”
“Sure.” Gabrielle had pulled the covers back, and now they climbed under them together after Xena shed her robe and dropped it to the ground at the side of the bed.
There were candles, long burning, hard wax ones, lighting the chamber and Xena made no move to blow them out, settling with Gabrielle in the center of the bed and pulling the covers back over them.
“This feels so good.” Gabrielle snugged up next to her, but didn't throw her arm over the queen's stomach in deference to her whip marks.
And also, her own.
Xena half turned and let her head rest against her consorts. “It sure does.” She murmured. “Except my back hurts.” She eased over onto her side and exhaled. “That's a little better.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle was already closing her eyes. “Mine too but f...” Her voice trailed off as she tumbled into sleep, her body relaxing against the queens.
Xena let a gentle, affectionate smile appear, as she put the stinging and pain out of her mind. Then she let the thoughts of what was going to happen in the morning follow them and released herself to join her consort, chasing her quickly into slumber.
It seemed like she was in a dream. Gabrielle looked around at the sweet smelling grass she was sprawled in, reaching out on all sides to a gentle hilly horizon.
The sun was warm and she could hear birds singing, but she had no inclination to move or go anywhere as she lay back on the soft surface and watched light, puffy clouds drift by.
It was peaceful and she felt at peace, even when she heard the unhurried sounds of someone approaching. A moment – or – maybe a long time later – a robe enclosed body settled at her side crosslegged.
Gabrielle slowly turned her head, to find a hooded head regarding her, the face obscured by the shadows from the sun behind the figure. “Hello.”
“Hello.” A voice echoed back. “Don't worry. It really is a dream.”
Somehow, Gabrielle knew that. This wasn't the fog of uncertainty she'd known before when she'd heard that same voice. “I”m really glad. The last time was scary.”
“Sure.” The voice answered. “I tried to make it a lot less scary this time.” The was a very faint note of gentle amusement. “Since you were so brave, and offered up so much in your last past while.”
“That was scary too.” Gabrielle admitted. “But we got through it.”
“You did it.” The voice said, gently. “It was your love that protected you both and I just wanted to let you know that, because I asked you to be true, and you were.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle somehow wasn't very surprised to hear that. Maybe she'd known, after all. “Well, Xena was too, just like you said.” She moved her fingers in the grass, feeling the warmth on the living stalks. “She was brave, too.”
“More than you know, my friend.” The voice said. “To trust yourself to love, and not to the sword, is one of the most courageous things someone like her can ever do.”
Gabrielle studied the shadowed figure. “Do you know her?”
“That's a complicated question.” The figure said, with a obvious smile in her tone. “Let's just say, I've known someone like her for a very, very very long time.”
The truth was there, Gabrielle felt, hearing the note of warm, gentle devotion in the words that she could hear the echo of in her own mind. “Well, I'm glad it ended up okay, at least this time.”
“Ah.” The figure shifted a little, resting her elbows on her knees and plucking a stalk of grass to play with. Her hands were visible, and Gabrielle could see that they looked strong, and there were a few scars on them, one curved one on the area between her left forefinger and thumb. “So here we come to really why I decided to come visit you.”
The figure laughed suddenly, a light, happy sound. “Someone would say at this point, that even in the afterlife I still manage to cause trouble, I guess.” She admitted. “But no, this time I just want to let you know that the Persian king coming tomorrow is going to ask a very strange thing of you.”
Gabrielle considered that. “Okay.” She said, after a pause.
“If you can, do it.” Her visitor stated. “The Persian is in a lot of trouble with his gods. I know what that's like.”
It seemed simple enough. “I”ll try.” Gabrielle agreed. “We met a god the other day and he was pretty scary.”
A soft chuckle sounded on the wind, drifting past them.
“Oh, he's not so bad.” Her visitor put the grass down. “There's definitely worse around.” She reached over. “We won't meet again on opposite sides.”
Gabrielle took the hand offered, and felt strong fingers clasp hers, as for the barest moment, she saw past the shadows into a pair of twinkling eyes that somehow seemed familiar.
Then the clasp was gone, and the figure was fading back, and she was left in peaceful quiet and sunlight. She felt no desire to think about what she'd been asked, instead, she just lay there in comfort, enjoying the warmth and the sweet smell of the grass and the earth around her.
It was comfortable and she stretched her body out and re-settled herself, then she let her eyes close, and slowly, easily, the sounds of the meadow faded out as she let the dream drift away from her and went back into the murky realms of sleep.
Xena became slowly aware of the space around her, moving from a wash of sleep into the present of her bedroom in a gentle, easy way. She could hear the faint, soft flutter of candle flame, and in the distance, the morning sounds of the castle fading in.
She kept her eyes closed for the moment, and cautiously explored how she felt, flexing her hands and tentatively stretching out her body. The soreness was still there, but the sense of exhaustion had gone, and the rasp of her shift against her back didn't result in harsh agony.
Better than expected.
The queen opened one eye and regarded the thickly muffled window, seeing bright light around the edges that washed out the candles and explained the sounds she was hearing around her.
Well after dawn. She opened her other eye and regarded the still sleeping body tucked against hers, noting the faint smile present on Gabrielle's lips and the pressure of the hand her consort had wrapped around her shoulder in a light grasp.
A bit of light was splashing on her face, and Xena lay there for a minute, just pondering how the light seemed to bring out the beauty rather than the always present cuteness of her.
She was growing up, the queen realized. There was a woman emerging from the kid she remembered saving and she found herself wondering what difference that was going to eventually make in their relationship.
Then she remembered, again, that it had almost been a moot point such a very short time ago. That she had almost lost the opportunity to find out what maturity was going to do for Gabrielle because she'd almost lost her in this very same spot.
But she hadn't. Xena regarded the body nestled against hers, glad to see her consort resting comfortably, apparently untroubled by the beatings she'd so recently taken. She reached over and gently moved aside the hair from where she'd gotten hit in the stable, and found the injury almost faded, swelling gone completely down.
She felt Gabrielle shift, and then take a deeper breath, then she opened her eyes and looked back at Xena. A smile appeared at once on her face and she rubbed her face against the queen's arm. “Good morning.”
“Mm.. not bad so far.” Xena agreed. “How're ya feeling?”
Gabrielle rolled onto her back and stretched. “Pretty good.” She wiggled her toes, then put her hands behind her head. “I had a lot of kinda strange dreams though.”
“Me too.” Xena rolled cautiously over onto her own back, relieved when she only felt a bit of pain from the pressure. “I was in a barn, petting a cat, and a haystack started talking to me.”
After a brief silence, Gabrielle hiked herself up on her elbow and peered at her bedmate. “What did it say?”
“Dunno. Didn't understand it.” Xena stifled a yawn. “Glad we got some rest, anyway.”
“Me too.” Her consort scooted out of bed and got up, going to the window and pulling the heavy drapery aside and peered out. “Oh. Its earlier than I thought it was.” She remarked. “I forgot the sun comes in here sooner than our window downstairs.”
Xena hauled herself out of bed and joined her. “Yeah.” She agreed. “Hungry?”
“Starving.” Gabrielle concluded. “Should I go get you some breakfast?”
“No.” The queen walked over to the door and opened it, causing a rattling stir in the outer room. “Morning, boys.” She leaned on the doorsill. “Get grub up here for everyone. Any word from Brenden?”
Brent went to the window in the outer room and opened it, flooding the room with light. There were four men standing watch, and the rest were bunked on the floor, now rolling over and blinking. “Good morning, m'liege.” He said. “Escort's just coming through the inner pass, be three candlemarks or so to the gates.”
“And from the upper pass?” Xena asked, folding her arms.
“Nothing since early watch, Majesty.” Brent reported. “They stopped where you told em – didn't see nothing coming over from t'other side yet.”
“Good. Let me scrub this ugly old carcass and throw some clothes on.” Xena retreated back into her bedroom and closed the door. “So far so good, muskrat.”
Gabrielle was already over near the fireplace, heating some water for tea. She looked over at Xena, with a bemused expression. “Hey, Xena?”
“Yeees?” The queen wandered over.
“Why do you always say you're ugly?” Gabrielle asked, carefully adding herbs to the cups on the hearth. “You really aren't.”
“I know.” Xena came over and watched her bring over the honeyjar. “It's how I feel sometimes I guess.”
Gabrielle paused and turned her head, peering at the tall darkhaired form behind her.
Xena folded her arms over her chest and regarded the stone floor. “Sometimes.. “ She commented softly. “I look in the mirror, and see what I look like coming off the battlefield, Gabrielle. All covered in blood and dirt, with chips of bone stuck to me.” She looked up and met her consort's eyes. “Never seems too attractive.” She added, with a self deprecating smile.
No, that was probably true. Gabrielle retrieved the water pot off the hearth and poured the steaming liquid over the tea leaves. “I think the guys like that part of you.” She said, after a long pause. “And I just love all of you no matter what you're doing so it doesn't matter to me.”
Xena came up behind her and put her arms around her consort, giving her a gentle squeeze. “Yeah Somehow lately I've been seeing less gore, and more half assed heroism. Your fault.”
“Do me a favor today?” The queen whispered in her ear. “Dress up with me for this meet up.” She watched Gabrielle mix the honey into the tea. “Let's show off our pretty side for a change.”
Gabrielle turned and handed her a cup. “Um... Okay.” She agreed. “Anything for you.”
Xena grinned and kissed her head. “Gonna be an interesting day.”
It was high noon by the time the watch on the walls sounded the horns that meant someone was approaching. Xena ducked out onto the parapet outside their quarters and stalked over to the wall, resting her arms on the stone and peering over it.
The winter sun was laying nicely on the stronghold, peeking out from behind lazily drifting clouds that promised in the near future further snow. The wind was cold, but only blowing gently and Xena was glad to stand for a moment just breathing it in.
She could see the gates, and beyond them just clearing the bend past the river where once she'd grounded a makeshift raft was the road that was bringing her about as much trouble as she figured she was destined to handle.
The Persian was approaching. She could see his cortage, and ranged on the outside of the soldiers surrounding him were two long thin lines of her men.
Even from where she was, she could see the casual confidence in their stances, the pride with which the first of them carried her banner, and the black and yellow tabards that bore her mark on them.
It made her feel, suddenly, a little humble. She realized abruptly that it could have gone all wrong, and the Persian could have decided to attack and maybe kill her men instead of letting then escort him and his horde of bloodhounds to her. But it hadn't occurred to them to refuse to do her bidding, their trust in her was absolute.
Xena regarded the oncoming group with a pensive expression. “Do I really deserve that?” She asked herself out loud, feeling the rough stone under her fingertips.
She turned, to find Gabrielle at her back. Her consort was freshly bathed, and had on a thick robe and indoor boots as she emerged into the sun and held her hands out to it. “Hey there yourself.” She turned and leaned on the wall. “Here they come.”
Gabrielle peered out. “Oh.” She said. “You can hear them.”
“You can.” The queen agreed. “How many you figure, a hundred?”
The blond woman shaded her eyes. “I can't tell. They're all behind each other.” She said. “But .. there's a lot less of them than there are of us, right?”
Xena watched as a line of her troops emerged from the barracks, fastening shields and armor as they headed for the gates. “In that bunch, sure.” She told Gabrielle. “But you and I know hes' got more where that came from.”
“That's what you said, sure.” Her consort agreed. “But then, how come he didn't bring them all and just start fighting with us?” She asked. “Him coming here with those guys is sort of like you going into Sholeh's army with your guys, isn't it? Why would he do that?”
Why would he do that? Was it a deliberate parallel, to prove he was her equal in boldness? Or stupidity? Xena regarded the gates. “Now that.” She rested her hand on Gabrielle's back. “Is a damn good question, my love.”
Gabrielle smiled. “I really like when you say that.” She told her companion “It makes me feel special.”
“You are.” Xena turned. “C'mon. Let's go get gussied up.” She left her hand on her consorts back as they walked back to the tower door, pausing as the guard opened it, letting them back inside. “Thanks.”
“My liege.” The guard answered softly, putting his hand to his chest.
The queen patted his arm, and moved on, re-entering her chambers and going over to her dressing case to study the contents. “If you were a Persian king, what would piss you off the most to see a woman wearing, Gabrielle?”
Gabrielle pondered the question. “Your pretty armor and stuff.” She admitted. “I think if you wear a fancy gown he might think you're a sissy.”
Xena chuckled, deep in her throat. “That's probably true.” She acknowledged. “But this guy never thought a women could really fight, did he? Do I play into that, or do I just cut to the chase and prove otherwise? What's he looking for?” She leaned against the wardrobe case. “No, I think my first gut instinct was the right one. I'm gonna be a queen tonight, like I consider him my equal.”
“No one's your equal.” Her consort stated mildly. “But I like that dress on you.” She pointed to a embroidered silk gown in a rich purple blue. “Especially if you put your hair up.”
“Hmm... “ Xena ran her fingers over it. “That with my pointy hat?” She asked. “And that spiffy new cloak, you think?” She indicated the fur lined item. “I can hold it closed with that horse pin.”
“Can I tell you a secret?”
“Uh oh.” Xena turned and faced her, with a wry grin. “What?”
“It doesn't really matter.” Gabrielle whispered. “You look beautiful in anything.” She looked around. “Or nothing.”
The queen burst into laughter. “Whhy Gaaabbbbriellle.” She burred. “You racy little sweet talker.” She folded her arms around her consort. “Thank you.” She added. “Can I tell you a secret? You make me feel beautiful.” She kissed Gabrielle and then hugged her.
It felt strange to be saying that, and thinking what she was thinking. Xena had a sense that she was on a path she had no understanding of and no vision of where it might end and she could care less. “Love you.” She concluded, releasing Gabrielle.
Gabrielle grinned, a touch bashfully. “And um..” She held a hand out. “You could wear this with it.” She added diffidently. “It's another present from me.”
Xena slowly let her hands drop to her sides, her eyes widening as she stared at the necklace resting in the palm of her consorts hand, the ends draping down between her fingers. “Gabrielle.” She got out, on an indrawn breath.
It was simple, and beautiful, lacy filigree of silver with a tracing of sapphires and pearls alternated along the neckline, and a carved black onyx hawk's head set against a gold background in the center. Slowly, she reached up and took the gift, feeling the weight of it against her fingers as she turned into the light from the window and the gems picked up the light's brilliance. “Oh wow.”
Gabrielle smiled hearing that soft whisper “I know you don't really need more jewelry and stuff but you're always giving me presents so I thought I..” She let the words trail off as she saw the tears on the queen's face. “There's really nothing I can give you that.. “ She paused again. “Anyway, I hope you like it.”
Xena closed her eyes and the tears squeezed out from them, scattering into the sunlight as she drew a breath in and released it. “I do.” She finally said, blinking a few times. “I love it.” She sat down on the garment press and admired the gems, turning her hand to show them off to the light. “Damn, that's pretty.”
Gabrielle sat down next to her, a big smile on her face. “Really appropriate for you then.” She felt Xena's arm wrap around her shoulders and pull her close, and then the pressure of the queen's lips against her head. “Feels so good to give something.”
“Something?” Xena's voice sounded a touch ragged around the edges. “What you've given me can't be bought at any price, do you know that?”
She did know that. Gabrielle returned the hug and savored this quietly sunlit moment of joy, glad she'd decided to have the necklace made after all. She'd wondered if Xena wouldn't maybe think it was a little silly – after all, she had jewels upon jewels upon jewels, but no, she thought her lover really liked it.
People gave Xena gifts all the time, and usually, the queen just rolled her eyes about it. But after she'd really liked the horsehead cloak clasp.. yeah. Gabrielle looked up at the taller woman, seeing the grin on her face, as she glanced down at the necklace. It was nice to give. “I love you.”
“Oh yeah. I sure as Hades love you too.” Xena chuckled. “Let's get dressed and go jump on that raft on the River Styx, muskrat. Dare that Persian poopbag to do his worst.”
The audience chamber had been cleaned meticulously. Xena noticed that as soon as she entered, pausing to look around as she smelled the crisp, fresh scent of new rushes on the floor, and the distinctive aroma of wax and soap that erased any vague sense of old oil or pitch in the place.
Brendan spotted her and ambled over, already dressed in his black and yellow tabard over freshly polished armor. “Mistress.” He touched his chest in respect. “Just comin in the gates, they are. Told Brent to bring a few of em in here with the old man.”
“I'm sure he'll appreciate that.” The queen remarked dryly.
Brendan smiled. “Nothing can beat us, Xena.” He said. “Been through what we been through, was the anvil of the gods. Don't care nothing for no Persian king.”
And that, Xena thought to herself, was probably the truest thing she'd heard in a while. She had been through so much and beaten the odds so often that she was hard pressed to even be nervous about facing down the old man. “Let's get settled.” She guided Gabrielle towards the raised platform her throne was on, letting her eyes scan the room as she walked.
The room had been cleared and the tapestries that hung against the wall were draped again in her colors, the steps leading up to her throne draped in cloth of gold, and the throne itself had a beautiful pristine sheepskin softening it's contours.
She caught sight of her reflection in one of the mirrored panels and paused, regarding it. “You're right.” She commented to Gabrielle. “This thing does look nice.” The color looked good on her, she decided, and the cut of the gown accented her body and didn't make her look freakishly tall or angular like some of them did.
Even the cape was the right length, for a change, and didn't stop at her kneecaps. Xena watched her own lips move into a self deprecating grin.
There was her new necklace too. Xena mused as the light glistened off the stones that draped across the front of her throat, a counterpoint to her crown and the bracelets around her wrists. She actually looked like a queen today, and more unusually, she was starting to feel like one.
“You look beautiful.” Her consort responded. “Really really beautiful, Xena.”
“Thank you, my love.” The queen held her hand out. “Let's go sit on our comfy chairs, eh?”
They walked up onto the dais together. Xena circled her throne and touched the hilt of her sword that was slung across the back of it, and waited while Gabrielle took a seat in the chair next to it, letting her hands rest on the comfortable padding. “Like it?”
“Yes.” Gabrielle squiggled back in her seat. She was dressed in a silk gown in shades of red, and all the signs of her recent trials had faded. “It's really nice.”
“Mm.” Xena came around in front of her and paused, studying her. “Missing something.”
Gabrielle blinked. “I am?”
“Just some sparklies.” The queen reached out and tilted her head, fastening something to Gabrielle's ears. “I was gonna make you pierce em, but I figured you'd rather not have me poking holes in you tonight.”
“What are they?” Gabrielle reached up to touch the unaccustomed constriction of the cuffs her lover had put on her sensitive ears.
Xena reached over and drew her sword, turning it flat on and providing Gabrielle with a reasonable if deadly mirror.
“Oh.” She smiled in delight, seeing hammered metal curled around the outside of her ear, and a piece of jade dangling from the bottom of it. “It's so pretty!” She looked up at Xena. “Thank you!”
Xena returned her sword to her sheath and took a seat, extending her legs and crossing them at the ankles as she leaned on one arm of the throne and watched the last preparations being made. “If this doesn't all go to Hades in the first half candlemark, maybe you'll tell us all a story later.”
Gabrielle wiggled her feet in contentment. “I'd love to.”
Soldiers were pouring in. All of them in armor, and tabards, all of them scrubbed to a painful degree. They were fully armed and they went to line the walls, swords slung across backs, spears resting in casual display in the crooks of their arms.
Lastay came in. He had a ermine lined cloak on, over his family colors and he strode up the cloth of gold mounting the steps and coming to her side. “Mistress.” He put a hand over his heart, and for once, there was not a single twitch of pretention in the motion. “My lady wife asks if she can attend you.”
Xena regarded him. “Of course.” She answered quietly. “Your family's earned the right to camp up here all over the top step if they want.”
Lastay smiled, and bowed. “I will go fetch her.”
Gabrielle was just quietly watching, reaching up to touch her new decorations from time to time. She could see how ferociously proud the soldiers were, and she had the sensation of her heart swelling larger inside her as the last of the armored figures entered with all the Persians among them.
All of them in Xena's colors. All of them armed and with their heads held high as they took up stations among the other troops.
Lakmas broke with them and approached her, dropping gracefully to his knees on the bottom step of her dais and crossing his arms over his chest. “O my mistress, may I have the honor of standing guard for you, where all may see me?”
“Where our guests can see you?” Xena asked. “That's gonna piss them off.”
“Yes.” Lakmas lifted his head and met her eyes. “I want none to misunderstand where my heart lies.”
The queen's eyes twinkled a little. “Yes, you may.” She said, deciding on taking the chance that the big Persian wasn't part of the plan, and destined to plunge a sword into the back of her throne.
Anything was possible. But something in her.. Xena glanced furtively around. Something in her heart told her what she saw in Lakmas' eyes held a truth that bypassed the schemes of kings.
At least, she sure hoped it did. It would certainly suck to have all the Persians turn on her in some big plot that ended up with blood all over the newly cleaned, nicely polished floor.
Lakmas got up and continued up the steps, moving past the throne and taking up a spot in the rear, across from the station Brendan would end up in, and behind the already stolidly waiting Brent.
The fourth corner would be taken up by Gerard when he arrived with their guests, and the two seats to the other side of Xena would hold Lastay and his wife.
The room was starting to fill with nobles, and it was evident from the start everyone was dressed to impress, with jewels and circlets winking everywhere as her court entered and moved into place.
Brent came over. “Westlands watch reported no sightings of anyone save three goatherds and an escaped sheep, my liege.”
Xena nodded. “Good.” She said.
“Majesty, should we send them over the ridge?” Brent lowered his voice. “It's hard, turning backs on danger.”
“I know.” The queen leaned on her throne arm and lowered her own voice. “But see, if we see them, or they see us, we both gotta do something about it and I want this to come down on my terms and my time, not be forced into acting or having them forced into attacking us before we're ready for it.”
Brent remained quiet for a moment, then he regarded Xena with a wry, respectful look. “Majesty.” He bowed and touched his chest, then moved over to take his place in the guard.
“Hm.” Xena leaned back. “Maybe I should try explaining my half assed ideas more often.”
“Did you say something?” Gabrielle turned to her, from where she'd been talking to Jellaus.
“Nah.” The queen shook her head. “Just having another moment of personal revelation.” She observed the filling room, charmed to see so many of her nobles there all gussied up. Even the ones she knew were Bregos supporters, and the ones she really knew hated her with undying passion were there.
Interesting. She hadn't put out a call for toadies. In fact, she hadn't really put out a call for anyone other than her soldiers and a few of the nobles she grudgingly liked and was reasonably sure weren't going to join the Persians in an all out attack on her pedestal when they came in.
And yet, here they all were.
Had they had a change of heart? Xena studied the nearest of them, one of the landholders who had sent tribute to her former general and financed his campaign to unseat her. “Gabrielle, do me a favor willya?”
“Anything.” Her consort responded.
“Go ask that tall guy in blue and gray to come over here for a minute.” Xena indicated the noble. “Ask him nicely.”
Halfway in the midst of getting up, Gabrielle paused, and eyed her.
Xena slapped the side of her head. “What am I saying? You never ask anyone anything but nicely.” She smiled at her companion.
“Except when I'm biting them in the face.” Gabrielle's pale eyes took on a hint of mischief. She got up and walked down the steps, easing her way between milling bodies that immediately recognized and cleared a path for her.
Xena watched, smiling a little at the obvious pride in her consorts bearing, the lift of her head and the gentle sweep of her hand as she gestured back towards where the queen was sitting. In her well fitted dress, she had lost, in Xena's eyes, most of those peasant rough edges and there was a quiet elegance about Gabrielle newly appreciated by her.
The noble looked wary, but no more as he followed Gabrielle back up to the throne, bowing with reasonable grace before the queen. “Your majesty?”
“Karas.” Xena responded, keeping her hands folded on her thigh and her body relaxed. “Just wanted to ask you a question.”
“Yes Majesty?” He relaxed too, putting his hands behind his back and clasping them, leaning forward a trifle in attention to her as Gabrielle resumed her seat. “What information may I offer you?”
“What do you want out of this meeting, with our friends the Persians?”
Karas cocked his head to one side a bit. He had grizzled red hair, and an even more grizzled beard and moustache, and dark blue eyes. “What do I want?” He seemed surprised at the question.
“Yup.” The queen said. “I know your loyalties laid with Bregos. You have no love for me. So what is it you're hoping will happen here?” She paused, watching his face. “You can tell me the truth. I just want to know. I'm not going to do anything to you.”
Karas studied her intently. “My loyalties laid with Bregos because he was easily molded, and you are not.” He said, with surprising honesty. “I wanted him to enter into treaties with our northern neighbors, where my lands lie so that I might expand my holdings. I have sons to settle.”
Xena considered that. “Ever think of just asking me to do that?”
“Then? No.” Karas said. “Now? I might.” His lips twitched. “You were not approachable then, your Majesty. All my requests for an audience were rejected.”
And so they might have been. “Might have been useful if I was less of a jackass and you'd had more balls.” Xena responded mildly. “But you haven't answered my question.”
He glanced aside briefly, then back at her. “I want the Persians chased from here in shame and defeat, as their army was.” He said. “Bregos could have never done that. His desire for you blinded him, and he thought nothing of the conseequences when he lured them here.”
“That's true.” Xena said. “They would have taken us like virgin milkmaids.”
“And you could have let them.” Karas said, boldly. “I heard what you said, in the hall, Majesty. That you could give up this place and take nothing with you but your lady love.” He ducked his head in respect at Gabrielle. “I believe that. But you did not.”
Xena smiled. “No.” She agreed. “Because under all the besotted by love insanity, I am, still, a homicidal maniac who doesn't appreciate someone pissing on my turf.”
“Just so.” Karas nodded. “We, those of us who backed the General, cannot hope to defend the realm from a Persian army. Or any other kind of army. We are not soldiers. We are not homicidal maniacs.” He bowed a little. “Your majesty now represents safety, and security.”
“Instead of crazed drunkeness and random murder?” Now Xena's eyes were definitely twinkling. “See what you did for me muskrat? You made me respectable.” She glanced past him to the doors, which had acquired a layer of soldiers, and among them she saw Gerard.
“I did?” Gabrielle had been listening with interest. “Just by falling in love with you? Cause I don't think I did much of anything else.”
Lastay arrived with his lady, and they quietly took the seats waiting for them. The Duke gave Karas an amiable nod, and twitched his cape straight.
“You did, your Majesty.” Karas addressed Gabrielle directly. “Not so much by displaying your heart, but by allowing those of us who had never seen such, to know another's.” He bowed to Xena, then took a step back. “Perhaps we can continue the discussion later, Mistress? After our guests retreat.”
Aw. Xena felt amused, embarrassed, humbled, and chagrined all at once. It made her want to sneeze. “Sure.” She waved him back. “We'll talk later.”
He cleared the steps and then it was time. Xena motioned Gerard forward, and gave a hand signal to the guard. She waited for her favorite assassin to arrive and noted the signs of travel on him. “Go smoothly?”
Gerard nodded. “They have a translator.” He stated, briefly. “Arrogant old bastard, mistress. Thinks he has one on us.” He considered. “But he's a crafty one. Keeps his own council. Them men with him crazed for him like we are for you.”
Xena nodded. “All righty then.” She laced her fingers together. “Let's get this going. Open the outer door and get those bastards in here.” She settled back in her throne and put her hands on the ornately carved arms and faced squarely front. “C'mon. Bring it.”
The Persian entourage entered with as much pompous strutting as was possible, and a dozen of the Persian king's guards made a big show of clearing space for him to walk in.
Xena remained in her throne, one elbow resting on the chair arm and her head leaning against it. She watched the guards closely, seeing their reactions on seeing some of their countrymen in the room, dressed in enemy colors. Behind her, she could hear Lakmas chuckling softly and she crossed her ankles, waiting for the show to end.
Then it did. The guards stood at attention and the inner line of them moved forward, revealing four big men supporting a beautifully carved, ornate cuplola which they placed dead center in the room facing Xena's throne. Then three of them knelt, and the fourth went and opened the hatch of it, dropping to his knees and bowing his head.
A short man with dark skin, and a pointed beard emerged on the other side. “All bow for his greatness, the King of Persia.”
The Persians who came with him all bowed. The ones that Xena had succored stayed where they were, backs braced. Naturally, none of the nobles or Xena's troops budged an inch.
A beautifully dressed, elderly man emerged from the cupola and came to stand before it, hands folded calmly over his stomach. He was tall, and very thin, with silver gray hair and a serene, yet cold face.
Xena remained where she was, waiting for him to start the conversation. She was very aware of everyone watching her and she acknowledged the pit of anxiety in her own stomach.
The old man said something in his own language. The translator immediately repeated it. “You are the one they call Xena?”
Xena regarded him, as Jellaus crossed the floor and faced the little man.
“I am minstrel Jellaus, of the house of Thoros.” Jellaus said. “You will speak of my mistress with respect, or suffer the consequences.”
The little man repeated that, apparently, in his language.
“This is kinda silly, isn't it?” Gabrielle whispered to her.
“Mm.” Xena shifted and folded her hands over her stomach. “Probably why I never got into this whole damn royal thing. Don't have the patience for it.”
The Persian king said something, with an angry sound to it. The translator faced Jellaus. “His greatness only speaks as an equal to one who is an equal. This creature is none of that.”
“He's right.” Xena spoke up, having exhausted the little patience she did have. “He's not my equal. So he can take his pointed ass and march it on out of here if he doesn't have anything sensible to say to me.” She waited for the translator to unfreeze and unlock his jaw to repeat it, twiddling her thumbs idly.
“I dont think he's going to like that.” Gabrielle muttered softly.
“No, me either.” Her companion confided. “But we need to get this moving or we'll miss the circus. I want to see that cat in a dress.”
The old man held his hand up as the translator got himself ready to repeat Xena's words. “Be still.”
“Ah, now we're getting somewhere.” Xena whispered. “I figured he wasn't as ignorant as he looked.”
The Persian king faced her. “I have come to take vengence for the destruction of my blood.”
Xena remained relaxed. “Which blood?” She asked. “If it's your daughter, you have nothing on me for that. Your own kind killed her. “
The man watched her, his face impassive.
“If its Heydar the Bullshit of Persia you mean, then we can talk. He killed your kid, I killed him.” Xena concluded. “But you know, you sent them both here with the intent to kill me and conquer my lands so from my perspective it's all fair game.”
“We were invited.” The Persian stated. “By those who think the throne of this land should be given to one other than a base bastard peasant.”
Xena got up and dusted her hands off. “Stick here.” She told Gabrielle. “You too.” She eyed Lastay, before she sauntered down the steps and approached her unwelcome visitor.
He was as tall as she was and their eyes were on a level once she'd reached him. “You act like that's an insult.” Xena said, in a conversational tone. “To me, it isn't. My mother was an innkeeper. No clue who my father was. All I've got I earned with these.” She held her hands up. “So you want it? Come and try to take it because no one ever gave me any of this.”
From the corner of her eye she saw his guards stiffen.
“Your accomplishments are nothing on the scales of Persia.” The man said. “You are nothing. You are less than a bug on the ground to me.”
“Mm.” Xena chuckled under her breath. “Yeah that's what your daughter kept saying. Even after I beat her, then beat her again, then took her army from her, and beat them too.” She took a step forward, lifting a hand and pointing at him. “After they used gods fire, and poisoned darts, and satchets to sicken us, without a single ounce of honor anywhere to be found. Bug?” Her voice lifted. “C'mere, dunghead.. Try me.”
“Do not anger me.” The Persian stated flatly. “I have forces in my grasp you cannot comprehend.”
“Yeah, I heard about your virgin sacrifice.” Xena's lips twitched. “I walked away from that fight the winner too.”
The silence went on a while longer, his eyes fencing with hers.
“Want to go talk like grown ups now?” Xena suggested. “This is my rule. I'll treat you like a guest if you stop acting like an idiot.”
He was at a decision point. Xena knew she should be sifting out her various gambles but somehow this didn't feel like one, and she stood and waited, aware of the energy of her soldiers, and the steadfast presence of Gabrielle behind her.
The Persian slowly looked around the room, then let his cold gaze settle back on her. “I would speak with you aside.”
Xena regarded him in silence for a moment. Then she smiled. “Sure.” She indicated the door to the antechamber at one side of the room.
He made a hand signal to his guard, ignoring their sudden stiffening as he turned and glided forward. Xena kept pace with him, turning her head slightly to catch the eye of her nearly bouncing in her seat freaked out consort. She winked at Gabrielle, then, without thinking about it, motioned her forward.
The Persian stopped. “I said, with you aside.”
“I know.” Xena waited for Gabrielle to catch them up. “But if you want to hear the truth of what happened to your blood, she's the one to tell it.”
Without a word, the Persian continued forward, and they walked alongside through a crowd that parted before them, bowing and raising fists to chest in respect as Xena moved past. She raised a fist of her own to acknowledge it, lowering her hand and bumping her fist with the last of her men, who had opened the doors and stood back to let them pass.
They went inside, and Gabrielle closed the doors behind them.
On a side table inside stood a tray with a crystal pitcher and cups, filled with a golden liquid. Xena crossed over to it and poured three cupfulls, taking one, and handing one over to Gabrielle. “Want some?” She asked the Persian. “If it's poison, we'll all get poisoned together.” She added, as he hestitated.
He held out a hand and took the cup she offered. “You are not as I was told.” He remarked. “It remains to be seen which the lie is.”
Xena smiled and took a sip of the honey mead. “So.” She leaned against the wall and rested her elbow on Gabrielle's shoulder. “What is it you want, really?”
The Persian walked over to one of the chairs against the wall and sat down in it. “Death stalks me.” He said, bluntly. “You have stolen my future and I have come to settle that account.”
“I stole nothing.” Xena said. “I did not come in search of you. I did not ask your army to invade my lands, didn't ask your daughter to hunt me. If your future is gone, look in the mirror for your blame.”
He nodded. “This is truth.” He said. “But if you had properly governed your land, your people would have not come to me to succor them.”
There was also truth to that Xena knew, but it was a skewed truth.
“That's not true.” Gabrielle spoke up for the first time. “Xena is a great queen. They came to you because she valued all her subjects, not just them. She cared about her army and about her servants more than she did about her nobles.”
The man stared at her. “You are the storyteller.”
“This is Gabrielle.” Xena interjected. “She's my consort, and when everyone's really lucky, she indulges me and tells stories about me cause I'm too bashful to tell em myself.”
“My daughter offered you a position with her troops.” The Persian said. “Her last note to me told me of her successes, and your capitulation.”
“Xena and ten of us with her went into Sholeh's army camp.” Gabrielle said. “Xena told the rest of the soldiers with us to scatter. She knew we probably wouldn't make it. But after your daughter tried to seduce her, and then someone in the camp tried to kill us, Xena decided to make a break for it and we escaped.”
“You did not find my daughter to your liking?” There was a twist, and an irony to the man's tone.
Xena took a sip of her mead. “I'm taken.” She stated simply. “All your brat wanted was to get me in bed, and for that, she risked all your men, your honor, and her own life. She was an idiot.”
He took a sip himself. “She was my only true blood.”
“You should have kept her at home.” Xena replied bluntly. “Little girls shouldn't be given an army and thrown out in the world to prove they have what it takes to be what I am unless you can risk them dying doing it.”
He was sitting straight in the chair and now he looked over at her, his eyes narrowing. The tension in the room ratcheted up and Gabrielle could feel the exhausting, inevitable wash of anger and fighting approaching and it got her frustrated and made her want to do something.. anything...to stop it.
She looked at the Persian king, and for a split second he looked at her and she saw into his eyes.
He didn't ask anything and yet, in that moment, Gabrielle knew this was a time, a moment to make a difference. She walked over and sat down next to him, waiting for his eyes to track around and settle on her. “I know what it feels like to lose everything.” She said, quietly. “To lose your family, and be all alone even when you're surrounded by other people.”
Xena remained where she was, going still, and pressing against the wall and trying with all her might not to twitch at having her beloved so close to that ancient piece of danger who had, in fact spawned the shifty poisoner and backstabber that his children had turned out to be.
She bit her lip on the yell to be careful, trying to slow down her racing heartbeat.
The Persian stared blankly at Gabrielle for a very long moment.
“All she wanted to do was make you proud of her.” Gabrielle went on, after that moment past. “She wanted to prove she was your daughter and even though she did bad things to us, it's still sad that it couldn't have ended differently.” She reached out and touched his hand, seeing past who he was and achieving a connection to him on a human level. “Can we work it out so no one else has to feel like this?”
He slowly turned his head and looked at Xena, who was standing there with slightly widened eyes and held breath.
“She taught me everything I know about how much harder it is to love than to hate.” Xena muttered, after an awkward pause. “But you know, she's right. Let's not spill more blood between us. I've got nothing else to prove, and you've run out of things to lose.”
He nodded slightly. “The army I have brought could destroy you.” He lifted his hand in token protest.
“If I didn't steal them all from you.” Xena said, but smiled to take a little of the edge off. “They seem to like women who can use a sword.” She half shrugged. “And I can.”
He nodded again. “That I have heard. Are you in truth the warrior I have been told of?”
“Yes.” Xena said, simply.
“She sure is.” Gabrielle said, at the same time. “You can ask anyone. Even the people who don't really like her will tell you that.”
Xena had to muffle a smile.
“Your general who treated with us did not seem to think so.” The Persian said, in a placid tone.
“He found out the hard way he was wrong.” Xena said, then paused. “But I can forgive him forgetting that since I let him.”
He nodded and looked at Gabrielle. “You have powerful words, storyteller. I see in your eyes you also tell the truth. You have known what I have known, though your years are so slight. It is also true that I am a very tired old man, and though I know my warriors are of the finest, I have a fear in my heart that they, too, will fall under her spell and I will end my days in shame as my daughter and half son did.”
Xena now came over and sat down in the chair on the other side side of him. “Between the two... I mean, three of us I'm sure we can come up with a scheme that gets out out of this with our egos intact. “ She said. “Cause buddy, I'm tired too. I'm tired of fighting off spooks, and guys with darts, and creeps, and having to go head to head with gods I got no purchase with. Y'know?”
Now, and for the first time, the Persian smiled. “When your men met us in the pass, and offered us escort, I was hoping I would come eventually to this moment.” He admitted. “It has been a long journey, one I did not entirely believe I would return from, nor did I want to without my people's honor intact.” He looked directly at Xena. “You understand this?”
“I do.” Xena said. “I kicked your entire kingdom in the crotch. Sorry about that.”
The Persian's face twitched.
Gabrielle sighed and scratched her nose.
“Anyway.” The queen said. “Why don't we go have some lunch, and you can come watch our circus. Be the guest my guys said you were.” She held out a hand to him. “Let's not be enemies for a while.”
The Persian studied her for a very long time in silence, then he shifted and extended his own dry and withered hand and clasped hers. “For a while.” He assented. “We can try that.”
Hard to say, really, who'd been more shocked when they emerged from the antechamber intact and apparently in conversation with each other.
Xena made a hand signal as she cleared the door, and all over the room soldiers relaxed and seeing that the nobles extracted their coronets from their posteriors and relaxed as well.
The Persians watched their king anxiously but slowly calmed as he continued to talk to Xena, and didn't seem to be going ot ask them to throw themselves into battle immediately. They reached the stepped dais and Xena paused, motioning Brendan and Jellaus over.
The Persian called over his captain too, and they stood in the center of the room a moment, a collection of odd personalities.
“Brendan, show our guests troops to a bed and some grub.” Xena said. “We won't be cutting throats or getting this nicely cleaned floor bloody today.”
Her captain muffled a smile and touched his chest with a fist. “Aye, Mistress.”
“Would you like a banquet arranged, your majesty?” Jellaus guessed. “And perhaps I can discover what might please our guest's palate and inform the kitchens?”
Xena closed her mouth and lifted her hands with an expression of wry appreciation.
Jellaus bowed and left the room.
“Listen up.” Xena's voice lifted. “Our royal guest and I have had a talk. We agreed to have another talk. Until I say otherwise, he is my guest and he and his retinue should be treated like that.”
Lastay was at her shoulder. “Very well, Mistress.”
The Persian king gathered his translator and two others to him, speaking rapidly to them in his language, pausing when he spotted Lakmas appear behind Xena. “Ah so.”
Lakmas merely folded his big hands before him and took up a guard position to Xena's right. “Father of my people, I greet you in peace.” He stated in a mild tone.
The Persian king looked at him, regarding the black and yellow tabard before he lifted his eyes up to meet Lakmas. “So you have chosen your path.”
“Faith to you was given me at birth.” Lakmas said, in a somber voice. “But the choice of my manhood is to give my service to one whose honor is sealed and who I trust in absolute.”
The king considered that in silence for a bit. “I take the fault of that to myself.” He said, eventually. “But we will speak of it later.”
“Let me give you the two dinar tour.” Xena interupted the standoff. “Lastay, cmon with us.”
“Mistress.” Lastay looked pleased. “Perhaps Earl Karas would like to join us as well?”
Xena took a breath to answer, then paused. “Sure.” She motioned to Karas, who had been standing nearby trying very hard to look as though he were merely an uninterested bystander. “C'mere.”
If she was going to be a queen today, might as well take it to the limit. “Let's all discuss opportunites.” She clapped Lastay on the back and guided the group through the crowd. Two of the Persian guard joined them, trailing uncertainly after their king, while two of her own Persians, Brent and Gerard strolled more confidently after their queen and her consort.
Gabrielle sat back in her comfortable chair, listening to all the speech around her as she digested what had turned out to be a little eclectic but nice lunch. It was hard to comprehend, really, how okay things were going versus what she thought was going to happen when the Persian king arrived.
They were in the royal box in the dancing hall, waiting for the circus to start. The Persian king had never seen this kind of performance apparently, though he had said there were similar kinds of entertainment in his land.
“Do you have tigers in Persia?” She turned and asked Lakmas, who was seated in a position of honor guard to her and looking very satisfied about it. “Like the one here?”
“No, beautiful majesty. We have another such type, called a cheetah, which is smaller, and has spots.” Lakmas answered promptly. “In the palace, they were raised from cubs and used for hunting. There also they have little cats, like the one you have in your chambers, but with a different color and a different face.”
“Is it pretty, in Persia?”
Lakmas smiled. “It has its own beauty, yes. It is dry and very open, and has deserts that I think are very beautiful.”
Gabrielle wondered what it would be like, and suddenly, she wanted to go there.
Gabrielle turned to find Xena leaning towards her. Without really thinking about it, she half stood and kissed the queen on the lips, pausing as Xena's eyes widened a little. “Sorry.” She wasn't really. “Did you want something?”
“I do now.” Xena's eyes twinkled.
A little abashed, Gabrielle sat back down. “Oh. Well besides that.” She uttered under her breath.
The queen chuckled. “I was going to ask you if you wanted some grog.” She indicated a servant standing near the wall of the royal booth, holding a skin. “It's a little chilly in here.”
“No, I'm fine.” Gabrielle responded. “I don't want to start hiccuping. I had two cups of that honey stuff before.”
Xena folded her hand around her consorts and sat back, as the circus performers started to come out and take their places. “You like horses?” She asked the Persian king, seated in a plush and comfortable chair the equal to hers next to her.
“Very much so.” Cambyses said. “The horses of Persia are the most beautful in the world.” He stated, then eyed Xena to see what her reaction to that would be.
Xena smiled. “Ah. We found something we agree on.” She responded. “There's hope for us after all. I saw a string of those desert beauties in my younger years and nearly got run over by them because I was too busy gawking to move.”
The Persian smiled a bit more naturally. “As a boy, I bred them.” He said. “And my royal audience chambers are hung with art in their honor and glory.”
“We breed fighters and racers here.” The queen said. “Lastay has some of the fastest.” She smiled at her heir, who had been listening in. “Pretty ones too.”
Cambyses' eyebrows hiked up. “Do you say?” His eyes drifted, and fastened on her cloak pin. “I thought that a mere decoration.”
“No.” Xena regarded her adornment with a fond smile. “It's a decent rendition of my warhorse.” She said. “A gift from my consort.” She looked up at the circus performers “Watch em.” She nodded towards the stage. “They've got some nice stock, and pretty good tricks.”
The old man shifted in his chair and peered out, as the circus horses thundered from the wings, each with tumbler balanced neatly on it's back. “So.” He issued a faint, chilly smile. “And so.”
Xena rested her elbows on her chair arms, and relaxed, her peripheral vision catching sight of Brent and Girard easing to either side of the front row, and settling against the wall.
There was a Persian guard behind Cambyses and one sitting on the other side of him. Lakmas was seated on other side of Xena. Another of her Persians was behind her.
She was aware that Cambyses was aware of that, and she was equally aware that she'd left her sword behind her in the throne room and that the risk here would seem to be hers.
And yet, she also knew that the most dangerous person in the royal box was the tall chick in the purple and no one was going to grab her fast enough to keep her from breaking Cambyses neck if he tried anything.
It was going to be really interesting to see which way it would all go.
The circus troop out did themselves. Xena was leaning forward with her elbows on the railing, almost distracted past watching the area around her as she watched the horses rise up on their hind legs and dance with each other, with only a handler in the center of the space directing them with the tip of a long stick.
It was amazing. They were so graceful and obedient. “Y'know.” The queen pondered. “I”m gonna get those guys to train my warhorses.”
“Would it seem an advantage?” Cambyses murmured. “They would become a bigger target, I would think.”
“Uh uh, look.” Xena pointed at the two horses now springing off their hocks and crossing in mid air. “You could jump right over a spear brigade like that, and cut down on them. Right above the shield wall.”
Cambyses gazed thoughtfully at her. “It would take an excellence of horsemanship for that.”
Xena shrugged. “Not really. Just balance. I could do it.”
The Persian's eyebrows lifted. His silent skepticism was so loud, Xena could hear it flapping against the side of her face. “Can't I, Gabrielle?”
“Sure.” Gabrielle was also leaning against the ledge, watching avidly. “I think you actually did that a few times in those big fights last time. Tiger jumps like that.”
“He does, the big bastard.” The queen agreed. “I trained him to try and keep my ass out of trouble.”
The horses finished their dance, and ran in a circle, then disappeared, and the tumblers came out, starting to do somersaults and flips, bouncing across the straw surface towards the hanging bars.
Gabrielle settled back in her chair and folded her hands, watching the Persian king out of the corner of her eye. He seemed to be watching in some content, but then she noticed his hands were on the arms of the big chair he was sitting in, and they were slowly flexing and unflexing against the wood surface.
His guards were watching him intently.
She suddenly felt her heart beat start to pick up. With as much casualness as she could muster, she leaned on the chair arm between her and Xena and reached over, tucking her hand inside Xena's upper arm.
Slowly, the queen's head turned and the torchlight glinted off her pale eyes as she looked at Gabrielle, the faintest hint of a twinkle there as one eye faintly twitched into a wink. Then Xena returned her attention to the circus, and tapped the sides of her thumbs against the wood in an easy pattern.
So what did that mean? Gabrielle left her hand where it was and hoped it meant that Xena knew everything was going to be all right.
Or that Xena knew it was going to be all wrong, and was ready to deal with it.
The Persian shifted, and she felt Xena's bicep tense, even though the queen didn't move. Gabrielle saw Brent's hand fall casually to his dagger and he leaned to one side, clearing his arm away from Brendans as they watched apparently intent on the circus.
“Persian.” Xena said, in a very soft tone. “Don't.”
Cambyses turned his head towards her slowly. “Pardon?”
“I smell the dart. Don't try it.” Xena said, in that same, quiet voice. “For one thing, it doesn't work on me, and for another, hasn't your honor taken enough of a beating without you breaking your own culture's rules on hospitality?”
“You know not of what you speak.” The Persian answered, in an equally soft tone.
“Don't I?” Now Xena turned her head and looked at him. “Try it, and I will have the story of your dishonor spread across every bit of land between this castle and yours. You're under my roof, sandworm.”
He looked very calm. “I am a dead man already.” He said. “And you cannot resurrect my honor, so there is no reason why I should not take my revenge. Say you it will not work? Let's find out of my lifetime of knowledge of this thing refutes that.”
“For what?” Xena uttered back. “What does it get you?”
“It redeems me.” He stated. “Father of my people am I? Yes. But also, father of assassins. Those who were sent here failed in my teachings. I will not.”
Everything started to shift, and then paused as Gabirelle stood up. “Stop.” She said, in a loud voice, putting her arms around Xena. “Don't you touch her.”
Xena's eyes popped wide open and she angled her head so she could look up at her unlikely protector. “Hey!”
The soldiers froze in place, the Persians all with their hands on their weapons, and Xena's guards as well.
“I can ressurect your honor.” Gabrielle heard herself speaking the words, but had no real idea where they came from. “I can tell people how courageous and honorable the Persians are, or I can tell them the truth. But if you so much as breathe on her I'll spend the rest of my life telling everyone what a bunch of sorry losers you turned out to be. Your choice.”
Cambyses stared at her.
Xena cleared her throat gently. “Scuse me.”
“Remove yourself, child.” The Persian said. “You have done us no harm.”
“Haven't I?” Gabrielle shot back. “Whose stories do you think turned your army to Xena?” She held on tight, putting as much of her body between the Persian king and her lover as she could. “Just stop it. Enough people have suffered because of you.”
Xena went quite still in her consort's grip, the words pentrating into her mind in an unexpected, painful way. How much had Gabrielle suffered, because of her?
What agony had Lyceus felt, as he lay there bleeding to death on the cold, cold floor?
How much pain had Stanislaus been in, dying, all alone there in his rooms?
She remembered the bodies on the floor, up in her chambers. Phantom then, but representing how many of her troops who died in her service?
A memory surfaced. A birthday. Some cookies. Her mother throwing herself in front of those raiders in a stupid vain attempt at protecting them....
I”m not worth this. She knew a moment of perfect self knowledge, and equally perfect shame.
Gabrielle could feel her heartbeat racing so fast it was making her lightheaded. She stared at the Persian. “What does dying do for anyone?”
“Little girl.” Cambesys said. “Dying with revenge gained will gain me back a place in heaven. “ He took a breath “I wish you a long life without THIS ONE!.”
The soldiers moved.
Gabrielle threw herself over Xena and tumbled across the chair.
Lastay yelled and leaped across her.
Everyone grabbed for Cambesys.
Only Xena remained still, her elbows leaning on her knees, her hands clasped.
And then everything froze in place, and it got very quiet. Xena looked up to see Ares sitting on the sill, regarding her.
“What are you doing?” The god asked. “Looking for an early life retirement?”
Xena exhaled. “Maybe enough people have suffered because of me.” She asked. “Ya think?”
“I think you're an idiot.” The god remarked. “Whatcha want to die for? You think it's all peaches and cream on this side?” He pointed at the Persian. “He's the one with the problem. He doesn't off you, he ends up in his version of Purgatory. So what are you letting him for? You lose your mind?”
“Maybe I did. Maybe it's best for everyone if I let him.” Xena said, feeling suddenly very tired. “All I've ever brought anyone I've cared about is pain and death. What's the damn point?”
“Oh boo hoo. What about her?” Ares pointed at Gabrielle. “What happened to all that love you forever stuff? She sure believed it.”
Xena's eyes filled with tears, but she just shook her head. “Especially her. How many times does she have to face death on my behalf before she doesn't care anymore either?”
For a long moment, Ares was silent, then he got off the ledge and kneeled next to her. “Okay.” He looked around and then back at her. “Listen kid.” He cleared his throat. “I'm not in the business of giving advice, okay? But just this once, just this time, listen to me. Don't do it.”
Xena studied his face gravely. “Why do you care?”
The god snorted softly. “Eternity ain't long enough for that story.” He muttered.
“What does that mean?”
“Forget about it. Just do what I'm telling you to do just for once.” Ares snapped. “Don't let this creep win. You don't want to do it for your squeeze there? Then do it for me.” He smiled briefly. “Then we'll be square. Right?”
Xena's eyes lifted again, and met his and there was a moment of silent truth between them. “Right.” She finally said, feeling something release inside her. “Yeah, okay.”
“Make the most of your mortality while ya got it.” He said, standing up. “Okay? One shot.”
Then he snapped his fingers and time rushed on with an inblow of yells and scrapes and in the middle of it all Xena exploded into motion and lfited Gabrielle up and over her shoulder as she ducked under the Persian guards arm and stopped Cambesys as his hand was lifting, grabbing his wrist and snapping it in her fingers.
He dropped the tiny pipe and grabbed after it with his other hand, only to find Gabrielle catching it as she lunged forward, plucking the pipe out of mid air and turning it as it fired it's tiny, deadly payload. “No!” He clutched his chest and dropped to the floor of the booth, his body thumping on the ground.
The sound of swords being drawn was almost deafening, but in a moment Xena stood up and held her hands out. “Hold!” She yelled out loud enough for it to be heard by the circus performers and they stopped, startled, and stared at her, just like the rest of the nobles in the room.
Cambyses' breath was rattling in his throat. His eyes found Gabrielle's as she knelt near him, the pipe clutched in her hands. “Tell them.” He gasped. “Tell them all how I died with the weapon in my hand!” He reached out ot her with his unbroken hand, fingers trembling. “Tell them!”
Gabrielle drew in a quick breath, and reached out to take his hand. “I'll tell them.” She said, meeting his frantic eyes. “I'll tell them the truth of why you died.”
With a moan of relief, he dropped back, his head thumping on the floor and his grip growing slack as it pulled out of Gabrielle's fingers.
With a gasp she rocked back herself, reeling back and slamming into Xena's still form. “Oh!”
“Easy, muskrat.” Xena caught her. “The rest of you. Put those weapons down or I'll have you killed where you stand.” She stared down the two Persian guards. “You've got no quarrel with me. I didn't break your laws.”
Lakmas broke out of his frozen state and barked at them in his own language.
Gabrielle shivered. Then she turned and looked up at Xena. “I thought he was going to try being friends.” She said. “Why can't that ever work, Xena?”
“I dunno.” Xena stood there quietly, wrapping her arms around her consort as Brent and two other men took hold of the Persian guards and yanked them away. “Sorry about that, Gabrielle. Life just kinda stinks most of the time I guess.” She let her chin rest on Gabrielle's head. “Thanks for getting all fierce and crazy on my behalf.”
Her consort sighed. “I don't even know what I was saying.” She admitted mournfully .”I felt like a puppet – someone else was doing all that stuff.”
Brendan came over. “You all right, little one.” He stepped over the Persian king's body as though it didn't exist. “Buggers.”
“Her?” Xena snorted. “She's going to be my champion from now on. Let her fight. I'll talk.”
The queen chuckled, then put two fingers in her mouth and let out a whistle. “Get this going again!” She yelled at the circus. “We're all fine here.” She added to the shocked and milling nobles, who were up on their feet staring at the royal box. “Siddown!”
“Please?” Xena tossed the word into the quiet, a faint, rueful smile crossing her face. She motioned for the troops to remove the king's body and resumed her seat, with a sigh. “C'mere, my love.” She patted her lap and enfolded her consort in her arms when she accepted the offer. “Now it's over.”
“He was the guy behind the bad guys?”
“He was..” The queen exhaled. “But probably not on purpose. He just made a lot of bad choices, then didn't want to live with them.” She thought she heard a faint laugh. “Poor bastard.”
Gabrielle remained quiet for a bit. She remembered having the pipe in her hands, and instinctively turning it's mouth away from her and the puff of the dart emerging. “Did I kill him, Xena?”
“Oh please.” Xena rapped her knuckles on her lover's adorable blond head. “When you deliberately kill someone, I'll let you know. Mkay?” She sighed a little. “I know what that feels like better than anyone else here. Even him.” She glanced past Gabrielle, to the regrouping circus performers.
Gabrielle considered that for a bit. “I think I would have.” She finally said. “I wanted to. I didn't want him to hurt you.” She tilted her head so she could see Xena's face. “I felt like I was kind of going crazy.”
“That's okay. I was going kind of crazy too.” Her lover admitted. “For a minute there, I almost..” She fell silent. “Anyway. Glad you jumped in on my side. Maybe now we can get on with our harvest festival.”
Lastay returned, seating himself at Xena's right hand side. “Well, Mistress.” He exhaled. “Have we an end to this then?”
Xena's lips twitched. “Until his army gets bored and decides to come over that ridge, I guess.”
Brent came over and knelt down next to her. “Xena.” He looked up at her. “Just got a runner in from the westlands.”
The queen sighed. “I don't even get to see the end of this damn circus, do I?” She asked, plaintively.
“Tis good news.” Her assassin said. “There is no army there. Only a straggle of Philtop's landowners, bringing tribute to ye.”
“They kept their harvest from him.” Brent was almost laughing. “Wanted you to take them over.”
Xena's expression was a mixture of confusion and disbelief. “What?” She repeated. “I thought they loved that bastard.”
“So there aren't any Persian soldiers waiting to attack us?” Gabrielle asked.
“No, your grace.”
“He came on his own.” Lakmas rejoined them, having heard the exchange. “Oh great one, he came only to salvage his face. No warriors came with him, save his bodyguard.” The Persian smiled. “He dared not bring them. They are the weath of Persia and her could not risk losing them to you as well.”
“So he came here just to try and kill me?” Xena's eyebrows lifted. “What a waste of coin.”
“Honor is priceless, oh my mistress.” Lakmas gently rebutted her. “Else, how would you have won ours?”
Xena thought about that. Then she sighed “Well, glad those half assed heroics got me something, anyway.” She relaxed, at last. “Then let's get this party restarted. If I had to win this and not even get to cut off one head, that's worth celebrating.”
Gabrielle gave her a hug, and grinned at everyone. Lakmas settled into his guard position with an equally big smile, and the rest of the men eased their stances, and settled themselves to watch the show, where the tiger had just come out, and let out a roar.
Xena shook her head and smiled herself, resting her chin on her fist as she propped her elbow on her chair arm. “Never look a gift horse in the ass, I guess, huh muskrat?”
“Why would you want to look any kind of horse in the ass, Xena?”
The queen started laughing,
“I sure never wanted to look at a sheeps ass, that's for sure. Even the nice ones.”
It was morning. Winter sunlight streamed into the windows in Gabrielle's room, giving her plenty of light to write by. She looked up at the leaded glass, then smiled and went back to her scribbling
It was very early yet. Xena was still asleep in the next room, sprawled across the big bed as the newly perked fire in the fireplace warmed the room.
Soon, Gabrielle knew, she'd get up and go into the outer room where servants were patiently waiting and order up their breakfast, while Xena called in Brendan to hear her morning report.
It would be nice. It would be normal. It would be what their life had been before the festival and what it seemed to be returning to now that the strangeness and the danger of the Persians had gone.
Gabrielle was very much looking forward to that.
There was still some weird stuff to think about. Xena was still investigating some of the things that had happened. But her realm had settled itself back down to the business of living and Gabrielle was very contented. They had gotten their windows fixed, and their rooms here sorted, and she was glad they were back in them after all the funny things that had happened back up in the tower.
Xena had even decided to move her sparring room, but hadn't figured out quite where yet. Gabrielle hadn't decided whether or not to tell her the troops kept begging her to convince the queen to shift her workouts to their barracks to let them watch.
There was a noise and Gabrielle looked up at the doorway, to find Xena leaning against the edge of it, arms folded, watching her. “Oh, hi.”
“Hi.” The queen sauntered into the room, tugging her warm robe around her. “What's so much more interesting there than our bed?” She dropped into a chair on the opposite side of her consorts writing desk and reached over to pick up her cup of tea. “Hmm?”
“Nothing.” Gabrielle smiled. “I was just putting some notes down. I didn't want to forget them.” She watched the sunlight gild Xena's features, a stray beam catching her eyes and igniting sparkles in them. “I didn't want to wake you up.”
“Why not?” Xena's left brow lifted.
“Because you were sleeping.” Gabrielle answered straightforwardly. “And you looked like you were dreaming.”
“I was.” Her lover smiled. “I was dreaming about you, matter of fact. We were chasing lambs in a field somewhere, naked.”
“Why were we chasing lambs?”
Xena's eyes widened in mock wonder, as she spread her hands out then put them back on her thighs. “You were probably hungry.”
“Probably.” Gabrielle heard her stomach growl, and grinned in acknowledgement. “Should I have them send breakfast up?” She got up and put her quill down. “I'm working on the story abou the Persian. I want to tell it at the big party tomorrow.” She trotted out of the room before Xena could answer.
Xena picked up the teacup and took another sip, content to let her body ease from it's deep sleep at it's own pace. She could hear Gabrielle talking to the servants in the outer chamber and a faint smile appeared on her face as she registered the tone of confidence in her consort's voice.
It seemed that she would get to see Gabrielle grow all the way up after all. She now had guards around their quarters, and a council she met with, and maybe this whole queen thing really wasn't so bad after all.
“Xena?” Gabrielle poked her head back in. “Brent's here to see you.”
“Ah.” The queen got up and set the cup down, casually tying the belt of her robe around her as she walked back through the bedroom. She ran her fingers through her hair and paused to slip on a pair of indoor boots before she ducked through the outer door into the large exterior chamber.
Brent was waiting, his traveling cloak still around his shoulders and the evidence of a hard ride on him. “Mistress.” He put his fist to his chest. “I have news.”
“Mm.” Xena pointed to a chair next to the big fireplace. “Sit down.” She settled herself in the other seat. “What's up?”
“We did a full search of the westland hills.” Brent said briskly. “They will do well over the winter. They have enough stock, save Philtop's manor itself. That is beggard.”
Xena's eyebrow lifted.
“He was keeping a number of boys there, Majesty.” Brent's face didn't twitch, but it looked like he wanted it to. “Taken from the surrounding nobles.”
“Perhaps originally.” Her assassin said. “But it seems he took his pleasure from them.”
Xena's other eyebrow lifted.
“They were cruelly used.” Brent finished quietly. “Twas kept very secret, it seems. The nobles didn't know their children were being treated so.”
The queen's nostrils flared. “A knife in my chambers was far too rich a death for him.” She said, after a brief pause. “Did those bastards with him know?”
Brent considered that. “Mistress truly I don't think they did, or - “ He lifted a hand. “Perhaps they knew his highness's tastes, but didn't realize how he persued them. They did honor him. That is no farce.”
Xena sat there quietly reflecting, and Brent remained silent, waiting for her. Finally she lifted her eyes and met his. “So we need a new Prince of the Westlands.”
He nodded his head and looked aside, watchign the flames.. “Some of the nobles who withheld from him, they're good men.” He said. “Raleag, he's got a good following.” He paused, and when she didn't answer, he looked back at her to find this bright, clear blue eyes watching him with what might have been her own brand of mischief. “Mistress?”
“I think.” Xena steepled her fingers and tapped the tips of them against her lips. “I think I've got a better idea, Brent.”
He cocked his head in a listening attitude.
“I think it's time you took your name back.” Xena said, in a mild tone. “I think you need to go rule the Westlands.”
Brent's jaw dropped a little. “Mistress, I can't do that.” He said. “My life has made me a soldier, not a pri... “ He stopped, seeing the very droll look on Xena's face. “Xena.” He exhaled with a touch of exasperation.
Now, her eyes were definitely twinkling. “Suck it up.” She suggested. “And take all the people here who want to go back to the old days with you. Go ahead and build yourself a realm, Brent.” Her voice went a little more serious. “With my blessing.”
He looked at her for a very long moment, then he blinked, and the sunlight caught the tears as they skittered down his cheek. “You will have no stronger right arm. I swear it.” He muttered. “I will do the best I can for you.”
“I know.” Xena said. “But do the best for you, too.” She added. “And take Girard with you.”
His head jerked up and he looked at her.
She lifted one eyebrow in as sardonic an expression as she could muster this early in the morning, then gestured at herself. “Takes one to know one, buddy.”
Gabrielle came back in, carrying a plate that she brought over to where they were seated. “Hi Brent.” She offered him a cup. “Are you okay?” She added, seeing his face.
He exhaled. “Yes, I'm fine. Thank you.” He took the cup and sipped from it.
“I just made him a prince.” Xena informed her consort. “He reacted about as well as you did to being made a princess.”
Gabrielle set the tray down and moved over, giving Brent and awkward hug. “Oh! Congratulations! That's great!” She said. “He's going to take over Stinky Sheephead's place?” She turned and sat down next to Xena. “Wow! Then tomorrow will really be a party!”
Xena nodded. “Yeah.” She felt an internal sense of satisfacton rare to her. “Definitely time to celebrate.”
It was, in fact, a party. Xena leaned back in her seat, almost too stuffed to breathe as she watched the jugglers in the cleared space toss balls to each other in intricate patterns.
Next to her, Gabrielle was nibbling a fruit tart, leaning against the chair arm with her shoulder brushing the queen's, a happy little grin on her face.
Xena let her head rest against her consorts and exhaled in utter content.
She idly picked up a bit of mutton and tossed it to the side, where the big cat was laying, chained to a piller but looking pleased to be included. He sniffed at the mutton then lapped it up with one lick of his tongue, turning his huge head to regard his benefactor with a wiggle of his big black nose.
Xena grinned at him, and wiggled her fingers.
“He likes you.” Gabrielle commented. “Are we going to keep him?”
The queen eyed her. “He'd eat your pony for lunch.”
“We're not keeping him then, I guess.”
“Nah, that'd be a bummer.”
The huge hall was full of her subjects, finally and for once in a collective good mood as they shared platters of food and skins of wine, the Westlanders clustered over in one corner surrounding their new prince who had been a surprisingly popular choice
Or maybe not so surprising. Xena swirled the rich wine in her cup and took a swallow. It was like she suddenly realized there was something past her anger, and her resentment of the people she ruled, and there was this glimmer of light ahead, where she could imagine making allies instead of enemies, at least some of the time.
She would never be a diplomat, just like Gabrielle would never be a courtesan. But if she played her cards right she might end up living longer, loving longer, and what was it he'd said? Make the most out of her mortality.
The jugglers finished and cleared the space, and then Jellaus appeared, to announce the next entertainment. He glanced up at Xena, and she gave him a nod, and he turned, lifting a hand.
“Lords and Ladies, may I present her Majesty, and our great Queen's consort, Gabrielle.” He bowed, as Gabrielle ramble down the steps to join him, the hawkshead tabard in it's rich black and yellow snugged tight around her body. “She will favor us with her storiesl”
Xena lifted her cup to her consort, and received a dazzling smile in return. “Go baby go!”
Go baby go.