A Queen for all Seasons

Part 2

Gabrielle stifled the urge, for the nth time, to pull her legs up crossed on the big chair she was sitting on next to Xena’s throne.   The seat was more than large enough for her to do it, but the dress she was wearing was form hugging enough that hiking it up to allow for the motion would definitely draw attention to her.

That wasn’t necessarily bad, and she was pretty sure Xena would find it funny, but there were a lot of people in the room and she didn’t want to distract the queen from accepting her presents.  So, with a sigh, she tucked her feet under her chair and leaned one elbow on the arm nearest Xena.

Xena herself was seated in her big throne, her sword slung visibly on the back of it.  She had her hands clasped together over her stomach as she surveyed the lines of nobles waiting to approach, while in the far corner, a quartet of musicians softly played.

Servants were circulating with trays of goodies and cups of wine and mead and the whole scene would have been very festive if it hadn’t been for the imposing dais with it’s sharp eyed occupant, watching everything with a slightly amused expression.

“M’lady?” 

Gabrielle turned her head to find one of the servers there, with a tray containing little late harvest fruit tarts.    She scanned them and then selected two of the apple and two of the peach.

A loud throat clearing caught her attention. “Two are yours.”  Gabrielle smiled at the servant, and then she turned to hand over the loot to her now alertly watching seatmate.

“Two?” Xena’s brows arched.

“Xena.”

The queen chuckled as she lifted one of the peach tarts from Gabrielle’s hand and popped it into her mouth.   “Next!” She motioned the next noble forward. “C’mon Bresius.   Get your ass up here.”

Gabrielle nibbled an apple tart, holding the other two remaining in her hand as she watched one of Xena’s border nobles approach. He was an older man, with a thick salt and pepper beard and moustache.

“Your majesty.” He bowed gracefully.  “We have seen a good harvest this year.   Many fine hides we have sent, and cords of hardwood for your artisans.”  He had a small chest in his hands, and now he advanced, dropping to his knees before Xena’s throne and extending it.  “And this, a personal gift from my household.”

Brendan deftly stepped forward from his place at Xena’s side and took the chest, after the queen didn’t stir a hair to take it.   He opened the chest and studied the contents, and then he turned and brought it over to Xena for her to see.

“Oh.” Gabrielle felt her eyes widen a little.  “Xena that’s so pretty!”  

Inside the chest was a set of matched daggers, the hilts carved out of deer horn, and the blades patterned with a delicately engraved scene of battle.  

“Since we were the closest to the fight, I had my metal craftsmen make a memento of it for you, your Majesty.  We will never forget it.”

Xena took one of the blades out and held it, nodding a little at the fine balance as she looked at the engraving.   A faint smile appeared as she recognized a reasonable facsimile of herself on a horse, sword raised, with Gabrielle on Patches right behind her.   “Look, muskrat.”  She indicated the figures.

Gabrielle’s eyes lit with surprise and delight. 

“Craftsman’s got a good hand.” Xena addressed the noble. “He did a fine job.”

Bresius smiled, clasping his now empty hands in front of him.  “My lands are tough and spare, but their bounties are yours, my liege.” He said. “Bregos thought me so poor he didn’t even bother to offer me protection.” He indicated the box. “But we have value more than wheat fields.”

Xena studied him quietly. “What did you think about Bregos being out there?” She asked, running a thumb against the blade.

Bresius looked a trifle embarrassed. “The truth, your majesty… we didn’t know.” He said. “Was a hard winter, as you know, and the passes were snowed most of the season.  Had a merchant run up asking for shelter beginning of spring who brought the news to us, but my man who went heading up the road here said he saw the army coming the other way and so.”  He shrugged faintly.  “We figured … “ He paused. “I figured you already knew.”

Reasonable.  Xena mused.  Reasonable or was he lying, and was really one of Bregos supporters.  She looked him in the eye and he didn’t flinch, his heartbeat, clearly visible to her at his throat remained steady.

Honest, or a damned, damned good actor.   Xena knew where his castle was though, and given the weather, it was possible it was true.  

She glanced at the knife and brought it a little closer.

“They did Tiger really well.” Gabrielle observed.  “And look at Patches! They even got how one of his ears always goes down like that.”

Xena studied her own likeness.   “Bresius.” She looked back at him.  “Emissary from the port city came in yesterday. They’ve ceded all the land between the pass and the start of the road to me.”

Bresius cocked his head a little.   “Yes, your majesty?” He seemed a touch puzzled. “That is a fine thing and clever of them.”

“Mm.”  Xena nodded. “Yeah, they figured out they don’t have anyone with the guts to defend them so they figured if they’re in my backyard I’ll do it.” She said. “But I’m not going to leave it all out there untilled so I’d like you to take possession of the lands on your side of the pass through the valley and hold them for me.”

She could hear the stifled gasps from behind him, and she looked quickly up to see his retinue’s eyes widening in shock.

“Your Majesty.” Bresius murmured. “You do me honor past my worth.”

“Yeah, I know.”  The queen agreed with him.  “Deal with it.  There’s plenty of planting land there and the stench of all those dead bodies is probably gone by now too.”

Caught in the act of picking up the other apple tart, Gabrielle paused, wrinkled her nose, and put it back down. 

“I will stake and mark the land before the cold sets in.”  The noble held his head up a little higher. “We will make that profitable for you, my liege, I swear it.”

A relative unknown in her circle of subjects. Xena waved him to stand up.  His family had held the mountain lands for … three? Or four generations.  Kept to himself. Didn’t join in all the intrigue most of the time. 

Maybe that was good, maybe it was bad.   Xena watched him bow, then retreat to his retinue, who clustered around him, giving her looks of wide-eyed excitement and pleasure.     She put the carved knife back in the box and handed it back to Brendan. 

“Nice piece, y’majesty.” Brendan admired it before he closed the top. “Got your likeness right down.”

“Mm.”  Xena grunted. “That’s why I gave him the lands.” She kept her voice very low. “He didn’t’ make me look like a gorgon like those last idiots did.”

Brendan chuckled softly, having removed the paintings in question quickly from Xena’s outraged eyes. “Ah, they meant well.”

“Ah, they all need their eyeballs poked out if they really think I look like that.”  Xena disagreed. “Next!” She lifted her voice again, and pointed at the next set of nobles, these from a house she knew were Brego’s supporters, and who were visibly very, very nervous. 

Xena smiled at them. “Speaking of poking out eyeballs.”

Gabrielle settled back in her seat, debating on whether she could get her other apple tart down before something bad happened.

“So.  What’s it going to take for me to forget you held Brego’s warchest, hmm?”  Xena asked, in a mock wondering tone.

Regretfully, Gabrielle set the tart down and put her hands back in her lap.

“Now where did I leave my chakram.”

**

Gabrielle was glad enough to shed her fancy dress and grateful to Brendan and the troops for giving her an excuse to do so before they headed out to the festival.   She would have to dress up again tonight for the big banquet, but until then she could revel in her boots and woolen leggings and the silk tunic Xena had given her just the other day along with it.

She could hear Xena talking in her outer chambers, the queen's voice taking on an edge and a low growl she could detect through the walls.  "Now what?" She went to the mirror and ran a comb through her hair, tucking it behind her ears and twisting it’s length into a tail she tied with a bit of ribbon as it was windy outside, and she didn't want to struggle with it.

After a moments thought, she grabbed a few more ribbons, tucked them into her belt, then headed towards the door and the arguing outside.  She crossed through their sleeping chamber, then the inner living space where the drapes had been pulled back, and a cozy fire started in the fireplace.

Past that was a set of double doors, and she pulled the left one open and ducked through as she heard Xena's hand hit something hard.  

The queen was standing in the middle of the chamber, with a half dozen of the older nobles facing her.  The object she'd just hit was the little table that usually held a pitcher and glasses, and Gabrielle was glad that had been cleared off while they'd been at the brunch. 

"Gods be damned."  Xena said. "You little twerps have a lotta gall standing here bitching about who I pick to give lands to."

"But your majesty.."  The nearest man held his hands out. "We are your loyal subjects! We have proven that!"

Ah.  Gabrielle exhaled. She'd wondered about that.  She'd heard mutterings in the hall as she'd walked through. 

"And?" Xena had her hands on her hips now. "Are you saying Bresius isn't?"

The men shuffled uncomfortably. "Well, your Majesty.. " The nearest one spoke up again. "We know so little about him."

"Yes, your majesty." A second man stepped forward. "He keeps to himself up in those mountains. Who knows where his loyalties really lie?  He could have been with Bregos. We have only his word to say he wasn't."

Xena's eyes narrowed. "You mean, that's different from the boatload of crap heads with points on their head like you lot who I know did support him?" She asked. "What guarantee do I have on you, Ales trio?"

The oldest of the group put his hand over his chest. "Your majesty." He said. "Is that fair? I have always been loyal to you. I defy anyone to say otherwise."

"Hm." Xena growled.

Gabrielle dragged a big chair over and set it down behind the queen. She tugged Xena's sleeve. 

"What?" Xena half turned, then spotted the chair. "How decrepit do I look today?" She demanded.

"Not at all." Gabrielle held the ribbons up. "I can hear the soldiers getting ready outside."

The queen gave her an indulgent look, taking a seat so Gabrielle could reach her hair to braid it.   "Where were we?" She addressed the nobles.  "Got proof he's a stinker?" She asked them. "No? Then get the Hades out. None of you have lands that side of the mountains anyway."

"No, that's true your majesty."  Alestrio said. "And I pray you do not think it is just envy that drives us here to speak with you."

Xena gave him a highly skeptical look.

"Your Majesty, these last moons we've had good harvests and things have been going well." Alestrio said. "We just wish to keep it that way. We .. " He glanced at his companions then back at her.  "We don't want to have things be the way they used to be."

Xena leaned back against the back of the chair, bracing her elbow on the arm of it and resting her chin on her fist.   "Huh."  She felt a gentle touch on her neck, and tilted her head a little, as Gabrielle's fingers sorted through her hair.

"Peace among us profits us all." Alestrio said. "It may be this man is all he seems. We just beg your majesty to be cautious of those she doesn't know."

Xena studied them. It was true none of them had ever actively moved against her.  It was also true she didn't know much about Bresius.  However, she also hadn't known much about Gabrielle when she'd decided to trust her. "I'll keep it in mind."

A soft knock at the door made all the nobles turn.

Xena sighed. "Yes?" She barked.

The door opened, and Stanislaus poked his head in. "Your majesty." He said. "Lord Bresius begs and audience with you."

"This should be interesting." The queen commented dryly. "The rest of you get out." She pointed. "The other door."

“But your majesty…”

“OUT!!!!”

Reluctantly, the six men retreated, disappearing out the door that led into the central hall and shutting it behind them. 

Xena crossed her ankles and lifted her hand in Stanislaus' direction. "Bring the bastard in."

"As you wish, your majesty." Stanislaus closed the door, then opened it a moment later and stood back, allowing the border lord to enter.   He waited for Bresius to enter and cross halfway, and then he retreated and shut the door.

Bresius stopped about two body lengths from the tall figure slumped in her chair and folded his hands in front of him. "Your Majesty, thank you for granting me your audience." He said, in a low tone. "I will be brief, as I know you have plans for today." He twisted his hands together with a touch of nervousness.  "In the short time since this morning's events I have encountered some unexpected challenges."

"Everyone's jealous of you." Gabrielle spoke up for the first time. "They wanted those lands near the city." She resumed braiding Xena's hair, enjoying the silky, yet strong feel of it.

"Yes, your grace." Bresius agreed. "That is true. But it is not what I was referring to." He glanced at Xena. "Two of my men were found dead, not a quarter candle mark ago, with no witness as to how."

Xena straightened in her chair and put her hands on both arms of it in a precise and deliberate manner. "What'd they die of?"

"Your Majesty, I don't know." Bresius said. "Their faces were drawn into such a grimace, I can only think it was terribly painful. But there is no mark on them."

Xena turned her head towards her consort. "Go get Brendan.  Don't let anyone know why."

Without a word, Gabrielle circled the chair and headed for the door at a trot. She got through it and past the crowd of people outside, evading Stanlslaus' attempt to intercept her.

She dodged past the crowd, aware in her peripheral vision that people were turning to look at her and watch her, but she kept her pace steady - not a run, but a rapid amble she'd learned as a child chasing sheep across the hills and it made short work of the steps up to the stronghold as she headed for the melee field.

Ahead of her, she could see Xena's troops milling around, in obvious high spirits. Two of the cavalry captains spotted her coming and in a moment, all the men were turning, focusing on her as she came within range and bodies were stiffening as hands went for weapons.

"Is Brendan here?" Gabrielle asked, as she arrived at the edge of the field.

"Near the stables. I'll get him."  A horse soldier bolted off, as the rest of the men looked around, closing around Gabrielle protectively.

The army. The troops.  The people Xena truly trusted.  "Is there something wrong, your grace?" One of the foot soldiers asked. "Does the queen need us to do something?"

As the soldiers circled her, Gabrielle felt a sense of relief, as well as acknowledged the attention she was getting from them.  She knew they viewed her - having nothing to do with her putative titles - as Xena's very trusted right hand and as such, they would take orders from her as readily as they did from the queen.

"Right now, Xena just needs to talk to Brendan." Gabrielle said. "After that she'll see what's going on."

A stir in the crowd, and then Brendan was at her side, hand on his sword hilt.  "Ah, lass."

"Xena needs you." Gabrielle said simply. She turned and they moved through the troops, who parted to let them through. 

"Keep settin up." Brendan called over his shoulder.  "What is it, Gabrielle?" He asked his companion. "Bad stuff? Any of those useless gits get her mad?"

"It's kinda hard to say.. "Gabrielle paused, as they neared the road up to the stronghold and saw an ornate party, complete with soldiers and out riders making their way to the gates. "Wow. Who's that?"

Brendan shaded his eyes, keeping a quick pace towards the stairs. Then he stopped abruptly. "Cow's balls."

Gabrielle nearly crashed into him.  She hauled up short and put a hand on his back. "What's wrong?"

"That un is." He pointed at the column of horses.  "Name's Philtop.  Calls himself Prince of the Westlands."

At this distance, most of the group was just a cluster of bodies and horses.  One horse was a fine bay stallion, though, and his rider was tall and dressed in a fur lined silk cape. "Ah."

"Land's t'other side of the mountains." Brendan took a last look, then started towards the castle. "Better give her some warning.  He brought his army cross the hills and laid into us after we took this place."

"I guess he lost."  Gabrielle trotted to keep up with him.

Brendan snorted a little.  "He surely did, aye. Then he tried his wiles on her Maj and gave us a scare, I'll tell ya."

Gabrielle frowned. "She liked him?"

"We thought she did." Brendan crossed the outer courtyard and headed for the steps. "Turns out we didn't know her well as we thought.. she turned him inside out and sent him back to the Westlands short a few pieces."

Gabrielle decided she probably didn't want to know what pieces. She followed Brendan as they cleared the doors to the stronghold and headed for Xena's chambers. "Why is he here?" She finally asked, just as t hey were about to reach the doors.

"Good question, little one."  Brendan motioned for the doors to be opened as they neared. "Maybe he's looking for a parley. Heard they didn't do so well out there this season."

Hm. Gabrielle followed him inside, where Xena and Bresius were waiting, and the border lord now seated on a padded stool near the queen's big chair.   There was, she reckoned, such a thing as too much success.

"Thanks muskrat."  Xena greeted her with a brief grin. "C'mere and finish with my tail."

Gabrielle blushed, a little, but then, so did Bresius.  Brendan merely saluted the queen.

"Mistress." Brendan said. "Philtop's here."

Xena tipped her head back and rolled her eyes. "And today was starting out to be so good." She sighed. "Muskrat roll the sun back. Let's go back to bed."  She covered her eyes with the fingers of one hand. "What did I do to deserve that, I wonder?"

"Heard about the Persians, maybe." Brendan grunted.

Bresius shifted a little. "Many heard." He said. "Every merchant train coming through from the harbor talked about it."

Xena sighed. "Brendan, go with him. He found two of his men dead. See what the deal is." She said. "And tell Stanislaus to find some place to put the Westlands jackass as far away from me as possible."

Gabrielle bit back a cheer.  She sorted out the rest of Xena's hair, waiting for the door to close behind Brendan and Bresius before she leaned over and gave the queen a kiss on the back of her now bared neck. 

Xena leaned her head against her consorts. "Know something, Gabrielle?"

"Not a whole lot, no." Gabrielle admitted. "I'm trying to learn stuff though."

The queen smiled, an unexpectedly warm expression on her face as she turned and looked at her bedmate. "One bright spot in Philtop showing up. I'm glad he'll get to meet you."

"Me?"

"Mm."

"Why?"

Xena smiled again. "I just am." She said. "What story were you going to tell at the banquet tonight?" She changed the subject. "The Persians?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Is that okay?"

The queen nodded. "Very okay." She said. "Why?" She turned and looked at Gabrielle, hooking a finger in her belt so she was forced to remain close. "Spill it, muskrat."

Gabrielle took a breath. "I just thought you were kinda not okay with that lately." She said, in a soft voice. "You yelled at me when I told that one about Duke Lastay's wife last   moon."

Xena remained silent for a moment, her brows creasing and a furrow appearing above her eyes. "I was just in a bad mood." She said. "Gwan and tell em."

"Are you sure?" Gabrielle circled around and perched on the chair arm, putting her arms around the queen and gazing earnestly at her. "I don't want you to be mad."

Xena's expression shifted to one of slight embarrassment.  "It's okay." She said. "I was just mad at myself that day.  Didn’t' want to hear about some smart ass thing I did that I wasn't sure I.."  She stopped speaking. "Anyway, it's all right now." She said. "So make sure you tell all the gory parts right."

Gabrielle studied her companion quietly. She wasn't really sure what all that was about, and as she watched, Xena's eyes briefly dropped and then lifted again, suddenly open and surprisingly vulnerable. 

Now, what was that about? Gabrielle felt a flutter of worry in her gut, but she leaned forward and gave the queen a kiss on the lips. "I will." She promised. "Don't worry."

"Good." Xena recovered her attitude and stood up. "Let me go throw my armor on and we'll go watch the boys play.  With any luck, old Phil will get in the way and get pin cushioned and give me a laugh."

Gabrielle followed her towards the inner chamber, halfway hoping it might happen just that way.

**

Gabrielle paused, standing just to one side of the big double doors to the castle as the group from the Westlands rode into the forecourt.   There were a round two dozen of them, on beautiful horses, dressed in rich fabrics and metal accompanied by another dozen servants leading pack animals. 

Half of them were soldiers. They wore serviceable armor under their silver and blue tabards - well-kept and fitted, and carried weapons appropriate to an honor guard.  

The rest of the party were nobles, two women in traveling robes over gowns riding sidesaddle accompanied by nine men, a mixture of young and old, and at their head the prince.

Gabrielle studied the prince.  He was very tall, with broad shoulders and a fighter's lean, rangy body.  His hair was a deep auburn, thickly curled and as he turned in her direction she saw an even, beautiful profile with high cheekbones and firm, squared jaw.

He was dressed in a pair of heavy riding leggings, and a form fitting blue over tunic that showed off his tapered body to good advantage and as he swung off his horse he was already attracting interested looks from the passing noble ladies who were heading towards the tented stands to watch the events.

Okay so he really was good looking. Even to her. Gabrielle wasn't naive enough to think the queen hadn't had a lot of experience before they'd met, and it seemed to her that the prince was probably someone Xena would have liked and probably been attracted to. 

The army had thought so, apparently.  It was easy to imagine their alarm, after their long struggle to conquer the stronghold only to find their leader falling under the charms of what must have seemed to them like just another one of the same type they'd just fought against.

But she'd known Xena long enough now to read her most subtle body language and her reaction to the news of Philtop’s' visit had been straightforwardly unwelcome.  She hadn't sensed any embarrassment there, or any sign of anticipation. Just a typical eye rolling exasperation that might have been focused on Stanislaus for all the emotional charge of it.

So.

"Ah, your grace." 

Gabrielle had finally gotten used to being addressed by that title, and she turned to find the royal vintner behind her. "Oh, hello."

"I'm so glad to find you here." The man said. "I have something new, something I just created and I'm hoping the queen will approve of it."

Gabrielle cocked her head to one side. "I know her Majesty loves your wines." She said. "So unless you made one out of carrots, it'll probably be okay." From the corner of her eye, she watched Stanislaus and two other of the castle managers approach the Prince, greeting him with a brief bow.

"Oh no your grace. I would never use vegetables. Far too little sugar to make wines pleasing to her Majesty." The vintner looked scandalized. "She has very particular tastes, as your grace surely knows."

Her grace surely did. Possibly far better than the vintner.  Gabrielle was aware of grooms from the royal stables coming to take the visitor's horses, and one of Brendan's lieutenants eased among the prince's guard and pointed towards the nearby barracks. "Okay, so then it should be fine, whatever it is."

"Could you possibly do me the great honor of tasting it?" The man asked. "It's really very different.. I don't want to upset her Majesty." He held a small tasting cup up hopefully.

"Sure." Gabrielle watched past his shoulder as Stanlslaus led the Westland's servants inside, all heavily laden with trunks and parcels.   The prince and his group were looking around, and for a moment, she saw the prince's eyes fall on her.

She ignored the attention, taking the tasting cup from the vintner and sipping from it, the bowl filled with a pale liquid that smelled of fruit. 

"Oh!" She looked up at him in delighted surprise. "That's great!"

The vintner's face split into a huge smile. "Do you really think so?"

"Oh yeah!"  Gabrielle nodded.  "Xena's gonna love this."  She held her hand out. "Give me that skin. I'll bring it over to her. I'm heading there now."

The vintner bowed, and handed over the wineskin he'd had slung over one shoulder. "I'm so glad you like it.  I was hoping to serve it at the banquet tonight."

Gabrielle cradled the skin in one elbow. "After Xena tastes this, I bet she makes you keep it all for her." She assured him. "Good job!"

The vintner bowed again, then stepped away and headed back into the castle.  Gabrielle turned, half expecting to find Philtop and his gang still staring, but the forecourt was empty, and she spotted the group crossing through the gates heading for the viewing stands.

Relieved, she angled her steps towards the merchant’s booths, deciding she'd better pick up something to snack on if she was going to bring up the whole wineskin to Xena.  Wouldn't end up good for anyone if the queen drank it all on an empty stomach then joined in the sparring.

The vendor stalls were already doing a brisk business.  The best evidence of the good harvest was in the coin being spent, and there were many there spending, landholders and the townspeople mingling as they took in the wares - some from quite far away.

Gabrielle strolled along, her eyes flicking over the different booths. She pause to pick up a net full of late harvest fruits, and added a small wheel of cheese to that, along with a sack of nuts before she realized she'd picked up an escort.

The two soldiers, dressed in Xena's colors and with her hawks head on their over tunics didn't bother or obstruct her, they merely trailed along after her, one of them stepping up briefly and asking her if he could carry her packages.

"No thanks, Gerard."  Gabrielle smiled at him. "I'm almost done."

Had Xena sent them?  She eyed the soldiers speculatively.  Or had they just decided to shadow her, since the stronghold was full of strangers?  The soldiers she'd spent two campaigns with now might do that, of their own volition. 

"Pretty day." Gerard said. "Grand day for the festival, eh?"

"Sure is." Gabrielle felt the cool wind ruffle her hair. "Are you going to be in the show fights?"

"Not us, your grace." Gerard smiled at her, and put a hand on his chest.  "We've been assigned the great honor of escorting you."

Ah. "Do I need an escort?"

"There are many in the stronghold unknown to us." Gerard's companion spoke up. "Merchants and visitors from afar. It pays to be safe, rather than sorry."

Gabrielle smiled at them. "Thanks."  She continued her stroll, followed by her two shadows.  Gerard and his partner Brent, dressed now as soldiers, were two of Xena's most trusted men. They were both around the queen's age, solid and muscular, long time veterans of her army.

They were also, Xena had casually informed her, two of the best assassins the queen knew.  She had sent them behind enemy lines to cut the throats of important commanders - they were utterly hers, and Gabrielle knew both had been in the group trapped in the tunnel with them and again, in the small party that had stuck with Xena when they walked into the hands of the Persian army.

"Lot of stock coming in." Brent commented, as two big wagons were pulled past by well fed oxen.  "Going to be good cold season.  Have time to gear up."

Gabrielle nodded in agreement. She was glad of the winter months coming up. She had a lot of writing to catch up on and she was hoping Xena would take the time to start showing her how to use a sword.

Or - at least - something other than a half cut off spear or a big stick.

**

The sun was drenching the big open spaces inside the walls as Xena settled herself into her ruggedly built throne, under a green silk canopy on a platform built up against the inner wall.  

She had a gold chased gown wrapped around her, but anyone with sharp eyes could spot the tough leather boots and leg armor on her long legs sticking out from the bottom of it, and she’d slung her sword in it’s sheath on one of the high, turned finials of the chair.

Despite her chivvying of Gabrielle, it felt damn good to be in her fighting gear and she took a deep breath, the constriction of the leather closing around her briefly before she released it.  It felt good to have the weight of armor on her shoulders and the faint pressure of daggers at the tops of her boots.

Lately, she’d gotten more used to being in leather than silk, and the touch of the well cured hide against her own was oddly comforting, all the more so because the past candlemark or so had proved uncomforting to say the least.

Brendan was busy investigating.  Gabrielle had ducked off to find some parchment to bring with her, and, Xena suspected, to sneak over to the vendor stalls to do a little shopping.    That left her alone up on her platform, watching the first set of entertainers get ready to start their show.

Horse trick riders.  Xena adored them.   These lot were from the eastern lands far past her borders, and it made her happy to see them, after an absence of several years.  She studied the near dozen animals, sturdy and well cared for, that were trotting around in a circle while their riders tumbled and jumped around and over them, fearless of the big hooves.

For a moment, she imagined what it might be like to be one of them, traveling from city to city in a nomadic and sparse existence.

Would she like that?  Xena watched as the group gathered in the center of the horses, most of them listening to the tall, auburn haired man who was apparently their leader. 

What was their day like?  She mused.  Playing for the crowd, then what?  Go back to their caravan; a tarp set over it to shelter them and seat themselves on worn cushions, to share whatever was in their common pot to eat.

They had themselves, and their horses. It reminded Xena, just a little, of traveling with her army in the field when a long day of traveling or fighting might end with a campsite at twilight, some fresh caught fish, and if they were lucky some music around the fire.

She remembered one such night.  They had been under a crystal clear sky full of stars, and she’d had her back against a tall tree, her knees propped up over her fur covered saddle, a mug of rum in her fist and the satisfaction of victory warm in her gut.

Lyceus playing his sitar near the fire.   Everyone in a good mood, even those nursing wounds from the day’s fighting.

Raising their mugs to her.

“Xena?”

The queen jumped, and nearly lifted herself out of her chair, her hand going for her sword hilt before her brain kicked in and she thumped back into place with a grunt.  “Don’t do that.”

“Sorry, mistress.”  Jellaus bowed, and stifled a smile. “You seemed a thousand leagues away.”

Xena shifted and leaned an elbow on her chair arm, resting her chin on her fist.  “Just remembering the old days.” She admitted.  “Hearing anything interesting?”

Jellaus plucked the strings on his instrument.  “Grudging or no, all agree your majesty is in very fine form.”  He bowed again.  “Even our old friends from the Westlands. I saw them arrive.”

“Jackass.” Xena muttered.

“Ah, mistress.” Jellaus strummed a low, wordless tune.  “A prince of such beauty, he felt surely you couldn’t resist him.”   He said.  “And he was, indeed, beautiful.”

“He was.”  Xena allowed. “But a bastard on the inside.  Probably still is.” She glanced at Jellaus. “Go see if you can find out what his game is, Jellaus.”

“Mistress.” The musician bowed, then he turned and strolled off, strumming his sitar softly as he moved through the gathering crowd.

Philtop.   Xena felt her face twisting into a grimace.   “I shoudla made the damn party invite only.”

Dismissing the thought, she turned in her chair as she spotted the horse dancers moving into position to start their show.  From the corner of her eye, she spotted Philtop and his retinue taking seats on a pavilion across from hers, amidst a throng of her own nobles.

She knew she was being watched.   She could see Philtop standing there, and knew he was waiting for her to look over at him.  

Xena crossed her ankles and kept her eyes on the horses, only shifting when she caught sight of Gabrielle approaching through the crowd and heading towards her.  She settled back, watching the horses start up but also watching her consort.

Gabrielle had a wine sack slung over one shoulder, and a small bag next to it that looked like it had fruit in it.   In her snug leggings and shirt, she looked cute and sexy, the sunlight glinting off her blond hair as she moved quickly through a crowd that parted before her with equal haste.

She had her head held high, and as her gaze crossed Xena’s, her face moved into a grin that lit her face right up.

Xena felt herself grinning back.  

Damn they were a couple of nitwits sometimes.  The queen gestured to the chair next to her as her consort arrived, focusing on her and leaving the horse troop to dance unseen for a few minutes.   “Whatcha got?”

“Taste this Xena.” Gabrielle handed over the winesack. “It’s amazing.”

Obligingly, Xena uncapped it and took a swig, trusting that Gabrielle’s version of amazing wasn’t too far from her own to make her want to spit out whatever it was.    “Mm.” Her brows went up in surprise.  “Fizzy.”

“Bubbles.”  Gabrielle set down her other sack on the small wooden table between their chairs. “And I got some really nice looking fruit from the garden.”   She sat down. “The vintner just finished that bubbling stuff. It’s white wine but he did something to it. I really like it.”

“Me too.” Xena took another swig of the wine, the bubbles tickling her tongue. It was moderately sweet, and very refreshing.   “Tell Fergus he better save some of this for me.”

Gabrielle smiled.  “I did.” She confessed.  “And I got you this!” She leaned over and offered Xena something in her hand.  “It was so pretty. I thought you’d like it.”

Xena looked down to find a beautifully wrought metal horse head, hammered delicately into smoke black metal with the eyes of amber inset – an uncanny image of her favorite stallion.  She felt her jaw drop a little and blinked.

Gabrielle watched the reaction, and went back to sorting out her acquisitions with a satisfied look on her face.  “It’s got a clasp on the back. You can put it on your cloak to hold it shut, or a belt.”

“Ah.”

The cool wind, rich with the churned earth and grass from the performers areas brushed over Gabrielle and she took a deep breath of it, knowing a moment of content at the still slightly stunned expression on the queen’s face.

Gotcha.

**

"Oh, wow." Gabrielle was enthralled by the horse tricks.  She watched one set of horses run towards each other, their riders standing on their backs, alert but relaxed and then as they came even with each other they changed places, leaping through the air to land on their feet on the horses backs in perfect synch.  "That was amazing!"

Even Xena's eyes were a little wide. "Not bad." She admitted.

"Can you do that?" Gabrielle asked, as one of the men somersaulted in place - the horse still cantering in front of them. "I bet you can."

"Uh. Sure."

"But wow... look at that!"

Xena eyed her companion, hoping she wasn't going to ask for a demonstration there in front of her entire realm.  She thought maybe, with a lot of practice, she might be able to try it without killing herself.

Maybe.

The horse rider stood up on his hands on the horses back, his body flexing easily as the animal ran. Then he pushed off and landed on his feet, holding his arms out with a flourish. The crowd yelled in appreciation. 

Two more of the performers came out, seated in a conventional pose on their horses backs but carrying bundles of sticks, tied, and lit on both ends. They started to twirl the sticks, winding them in a figure eight around their horses necks and head.

"Tiger would have lost his mind."  Xena commented. "Lost his mind, dumped my ass off him, crapped a load the size of an ox head and taken off."

"I think I would have set Patches mane on fire if I tried that." Gabrielle agreed mournfully. "It sure is pretty though isn't it?"

"Better at night." Xena mused. "Maybe we can have them do this again in the courtyard after dinner."

The riders finished their pass, tossing the brands up into the air and then catching them. They rode off, to be replaced by four more horses, riding backwards and forwards between each other in a complicated pattern.

It was like a dance.  Gabrielle watched, enthralled, as the graceful animals and the ribbon bedecked riders increased their pace. She sat forward in her chair, almost holding her breath as the horses passed within whiskers of each other, so close to colliding she flinched a little.

After a moment, she glanced quickly to the side, to find her companion equally rapt, a grin twitching at her lips. "This is amazing, isn’t' it Xena?"  She offered the queen a pear from her collection as the performers took a break, and a set of musicians took their places.

Blue eyes flicked to hers. "Yeah."  Xena readily agreed, before looking back at the performers, turning the pear around her in fingers before she took a bite out of it. "Sure beats those damn puppets."

Gabrielle muffed a grin.

"Stupidest things I ever saw."

The puppet show had been a surprise for both of them, as the puppeteers had chosen to create figures that were evidently supposed to be her and Xena, and the show was a retelling of Xena's defense of the pass, complete with her own little puppet throwing soft wooden carved rocks.

"I thought that was pretty cool!" Gabrielle protested mildly. "I loved the way they made you jump around over those fake mountains. It was like you were flying!"

Xena rolled her eyes and then covered them with one hand, shaking her head.  "I can't believe I didn't have them flogged."

"I thought those puppets were really cute."  Gabrielle said. "I wonder if they could teach me how to do that?" She caught sight of Xena's eyes going wide. "Don't you think it would be great to be able to do some of my stories with puppets? I can practice this winter."

Xena put her pear down, and got up. She turned around and put both hands on the arms of Gabrielle's chair, staring intently at her.

"I'd have to do some work on your puppet though."  Gabrielle savored the sunlight splashing over Xena's face, bringing her angular profile into sharp relief. "It shouldn't be cute."

Xena took a breath.

"It should be as beautiful as you are." Gabrielle finished, reaching up to stroke the queen's cheek. 

Xena's shoulders moved as she released the breath, a look of wry exasperation taking over her face.  Then she straightened up and turned back to the performers, putting her hands on her hips as she listened to the pipes and horns they were playing.

Gabrielle nibbled an apple, watching her.  Then a motion caught her eye and she looked to her left, seeing Philtop standing up, his eyes also focused on Xena's tall form.

She couldn’t' really see the expression on his face, but after a moment, he started to move, several of his companions hastily rising to join him as they started across the pavilion to where the queen was standing.

"Xena." Gabrielle spoke up softly.

"I see em."  The queen kept her attention on the stage. "Might as well get it over with before those damn horses come back." She said. "Anyway I'm gonna enjoy introducing you."

"Me?" Gabrielle's brows contracted. "Why?"

Xena merely smiled.

***

She waited until Philtop's little group were near the steps that led up to her platform. There, she knew, soldiers would stop him unless she signaled them to let them pass and she wasn’t in the mood yet to let them pass.

She was aware of Gabrielle behind her, knew her consort was watching the men openly, while she kept her back turned to them, ostensibly watching the entertainment and ignoring the approach.

There was no danger in that. Philtop wasn't stupid, for one thing, there were soldiers all over the place, for a second, and Gabrielle would promptly holler her name in that excessively cute way she had if any of the Westlanders took so much as a squirrel’s step towards her.

Besides, her own peripheral vision was more than wide enough to keep the group of them in sight if not in focus, and she kept them waiting there at the bottom of the slope until she could see them start to fidget restlessly. 

It always paid to remind people who was in charge.  She wasn’t really sure what Philtop’s game was, or why he’d decided to visit after all these years and all that bad blood, but the last thing she wanted to do was make him think she was worried about it.

Or him.

So she slowly turned her head and studied them for a very long moment before she let out a lazy whistle, turning back then to watch a juggler as he worked with a handful of clubs.

She had her thumbs hooked through the belt of her robe, her body as relaxed as she could make it as her ears twitched, listening to them approach. She heard the slight sound as Gabrielle shifted in her chair, and then the rasp of leather and fabric as her consort stood up and moved.

She resisted the urge to turn around and see what the Hades Gabrielle was doing, hearing the wooden planks of the platform creak slightly under her weight as she came to a halt.

"Hello." Gabrielle's voice tickled her ears.  "Please wait there until her Majesty's ready to speak to you."

Xena grinned, unseen to them. She knew from the sound now that Gabrielle had gotten between her and the visitors, and the thought of her adorable bedmate holding off the interlopers tickled her.

Gabrielle could actually be a little fierce.  She'd proven her guts more than once in the last few moons and given a big stick and sufficient motive she could probably put a hurt on someone at least until they picked her up and spanked her.

Which of course Xena would not allow unless she was doing the spanking.  So she turned and regarded the intruders finally, not wanting any of them to get any silly ideas.

Sure enough, standing squarely between her and Philtop, shoulders braced and legs spread a little was Gabrielle, providing an adorably bristling guard complete with a rolled up scroll in one hand you could maybe consider a weapon.

Cute as Hades.

Xena stepped forward and leaned an elbow on one of those shoulders. "What do you want?" She asked Philtop. "I don't recall an invitation going out in your direction." She met his eyes coolly.

He looked more or less the same. His hair was getting a touch grizzled, but he still had that Olympian god like face and a well kept body to go with it.

He also still had that arrogant stance, though he hadn't been stupid enough to wear a sword at his belt where he customarily kept his hand, cocked in the manner of a natural swordsman.

Which he was, as much as she was.

"I thought it was just an oversight." He responded mildly. "As the rest of the surrounding lands were, and I see old Charstian over there, and all his get." He indicated a far section of the seating full of visitors. "So I came to pay my respects." He touched his chest briefly. "And to ask if we could let the past go. It's another day."

Gracious speech.  Xena didn't much buy it, but she appreciated the dance.  She studied his face, which he was trying hard to keep a humble expression on.  "I hear you had a tough year."

He lifted a hand, and let it fall. "Sometimes the Fates are more capricious than other times. He admitted. "I felt it might be time for our lands to have friendlier relations."

Xena regarded him drolly. "You did, huh?"

He smiled slightly. "Perhaps your majesty will do me the great honor and favor of discussing it later, after the festivities." He bowed.

Must be killing him.  Xena could see the discomfort in the motion, and the anxious looks from his attendants. "Maybe."  She relented. "See my seneschal inside. I might have a few minutes before the banquet."

She saw the faint look of triumph, quickly masked, and wondered what exactly he was up to.

"Many thanks." He said. "Until later, your Majesty."  He glanced at Gabrielle, who had been merely standing quietly and watching while they spoke.

Xena smiled. "My consort, Gabrielle." She supplied, watching his face react before he could stop it and getting a twitch of satisfaction from the twist in his shapely lips.

“So you finally picked someone.”  Philtop said, after a pause.  Gabrielle’s head lifted a little, and her back straightened as she glanced at Xena.

“She picked me.”  Xena, surprisingly, responded.  “Damnable lack of judgment.”

He nodded briefly, and then he turned and led his group away down the steps, past the guard who took up a position again blocking the way up.

"Hm." Gabrielle made a noise deep in her throat.

Xena laughed shortly, and pulled her around to face the field again. "Jackass.' She draped her arm over Gabrielle's shoulders, glad when she felt her consort snuggle close, and put her own arm around Xena's waist. "Hasn't changed."

"Wonder what he wants?"

"Besides me?" The queen answered wryly.  "He showed up here right after I won the crown.  Thought he was a gift of the gods, and that I'd be grateful to have him in my bed and add these lands to his. Offered to let me keep my title if I gave him an heir."

Gabrielle made another noise, something like a cross between a cat hiss and a cough.

"Still waiting for an heir. I kicked him so hard in his man parts I think I broke them." Xena mused. "They had to carry him home on an oxcart.  Couldn’t sit his horse." She pointed at the juggler. "Now that I can do. Wanna see?"

Gabrielle could well imagine Xena kicking someone there.  She'd seen her do it on more than one occasion, but usually the queen picked that spot because it was a weak point not for more personal reasons.

Philtop had been personal.  The thought of him assuming Xena would come meekly to his bed was something she found sort of funny, but funny in a gut grinding, uncomfortable way.

She looked up at Xena's face, at this person who she loved in such a crazy and overwhelming completeness and wondered after such a previous rejection what Philtop was going to ask of her now.

She gave the queen a hug, happy when the long arm around her tightened in response, and she felt Xena's lips press briefly against her hair. It felt warm, and good, and she closed her eyes, savoring the moment.

"Y'know."  Xena started speaking. "All those bastards, the ones around here were sure I'd screw up. That an ignorant warlord would never figure out how to be in charge of someplace like this."

"You're not ignorant."

"Oh, I was." Xena chuckled wryly. "I wasn't born knowing everything. y'know. I learned a lot the hard way.  Most warlords just keep going.  They don't stop once they conquer someplace, Gabrielle.  Too boring."

Gabrielle looked up at her. "Or too challenging?"

A smile stretched Xena's lips. "Oo.. you are smart, you little muskrat." She said. "Yeah. It's easy to wreck everything. Not so easy to keep it going." She turned her head and slowly surveyed the festival. "Much more fun to kill and move on."

Gabrielle thought about the previous spring, when Xena had first started to talk about going out to conquer more lands. Though it was generally thought that she'd had some inner knowledge of the Persians, Gabrielle wasn't sure that was what had spurred her. "Do you think those guys were in on the whole Persian thing?"

Xena was silent for a time, as they watched two of the jugglers trade flaming torches, a whirl of fire and smoke and tanned hands. "Maybe." She finally said. "They might have been willing to toss dinars into the pot if they didn't have to risk anything personally.  None of them had the guts to come at me directly."

"Oh."

"Sometimes." Xena looked down at her. "You gotta refresh the blood,  know what I mean, muskrat"

Gabrielle blinked at her. "Um." She thought a moment. "You mean, they were afraid of you, and you  had to remind them why?"

Xena patted her cheek affectionately. "Ats my girl."  Then she pointed at the juggling. "C'mon. Let's go show them how to do that."

"Uh.. Xena I can't juggle."

"Have you tried?"

"No."

"Then how do you know?" Xena started guiding her down the slope towards the stage. "You gotta take chances in life, muskrat.  We'll start with little fireballs."

**

Gabrielle sunk into the warm water up to her nose, letting out a sigh of relief as the heat leeched the soreness out of her bones.   Juggling had turned to horse riding, which had turned to sparring which had ended with an impromptu musical bedlam - all a bit wild, and a little out of control.

She was tired. Running around after Xena, ducking juggling clubs, grabbing a spear and defending the queen's behind in the sparring... and then there had been the mud battle.

She rubbed the back of her ear, the image of Xena shucking her robe and diving in gleefully flashing into her mind's eye.

The army had been utterly delighted.  Gabrielle herself had had fun, but now she was glad she was soaking here in their huge marble tub. She extended her arms out and flexed her hands, a little stiff from several candlemarks of mock battle.

The sun was slanting to the western horizon outside, and already inside, she could hear the quiet sounds as candles were being lit and the soft snap of the newly laid fire.  She could smell the wood, and the creamy scent of the wax, and at the edges of her hearing, Xena's voice in the outer room.

They had a few candle marks now to relax, before the big banquet tonight.  Xena's official opening of the harvest season, and a time for the stronghold to reflect the richness of the year by stuffing everyone silly and giving them more to drink that was possibly a good idea.

Downstairs, the kitchens were all at full tilt, roasting and grilling a selection of the best beef, mutton, and fish from the offerings, with every type of vegetable and root being worked over in pots and skillets on every cook place.

A literal madhouse.

There would be fruits, and honey cakes for dessert and it was both strange and really like a festival for her since she hadn't had to have a hand in any of it.   Gabrielle wiggled her toes in the water and felt a faint rumbling in her guts thinking of it all.

Usually she had some part to play in all of their joint meals.  Either selecting things and bringing them, or cooking, or arranging, she felt this was part of her role as Xena's consort.  

Not that she really knew what a consort was supposed to do – since neither Xena nor anyone else had told her, but Xena didn’t tell her not to do it so she kept on with it as she had from the days when she’d been the queen’s body slave.

Also, it was one of her few skills, and certainly one that Xena enjoyed as she'd found the queen appreciated her meals and was always looking for something to nibble on even between them.

So they had that in common too.  Xena had once admitted she’d spent so much time at war with the army she’d never gotten over the irregular supply of food, drink or rest and she tended to indulge in all of them every chance she got – old habits apparently died very hard.

For very different reasons, Gabrielle understood that.

She often on most days, threw some of this and that into a pot for a soup or a stew and let it burble from the morning on, usually coming back to their quarters in the evening to find most of it gone, though enough would be left for her to get a bowl before dark fell.

Of course, now thinking that she'd wished she'd done the same this morning.  Oh well.  Gabrielle exhaled. Maybe there was some fruit left in her bag. 

The door opened, and Xena entered, tossing her mud spattered robe over a wooden stand and starting to unbuckle her leathers. "Damn it."

"What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked.

The queen stripped out of her armor and laid it carefully across the stand, on top of the robe. The hide was stained a dark brown, almost black from the mud, and Xena's skin was similarly stained, along with long scrapes across her left bicep.  "That was Brendan reporting. He can't figure out a damn thing with those guys who croaked."

She untucked her under wraps and removed them, regarding the mud stained fabric with a bemused look. Then she shrugged and tossed them in the corner, before she entered the tub, sending water sloshing over the sides a little as she dropped to a seat.

"Xena." Gabrielle got up and swam over, bringing a bit of sponge and some soap with her. She rubbed up lather and started working on Xena's mud stained skin, as the queen slid down into the water with a contented sigh.  "Oh my gosh you look like one of the piglets.

Xena grinned, then sobered. "Two of the bastards, stone dead, not a mark on em just like he said." She arched her neck as Gabrielle scrubbed it.  "Not a scratch. Nothing. Like they just sat down and croaked."

"That's strange huh?" Gabrielle ran the sponge down Xena's neck to her shoulders, scrubbing hard to get the dirt off the areas her armor didn't cover. "I remember sometimes that would happen. In the winter."

"To grown men a little older than you?"

Gabrielle frowned. "Well, no." She cleaned Xena's collarbone, her fingertips feeling the faint dent just above her left breast. "Mostly the olders."

"Exactly." Xena slid down under the water and shook her head vigorously, before surfacing with a faint splutter.  "So what killed em?" 

'Could they have gotten bitten by something? A snake? Or a scorpion?" Gabrielle was soaping her way down one long arm, careful to be careful of the scrapes. "I’d hate to think we had something like that near the stables, Xena."

"Me too." Xena studied her pensively. "That's a good thought. I'll have them check the hayloft. Who in the Hades knows what came in with that last wagonload."

Gabrielle smiled a little, proud that she'd come up with something to help. "That was amazing, what you did with those barrels today." She commented. "Juggling them with your feet like that.  All the jugglers were really wowed."

Xena chuckled. "Yeah, but I'm going to feel it tomorrow." She flexed one leg. "Maybe you can try some more of that massage on me."  She waggled an eyebrow at her consort.

"Sure."

Xena settled back in the water, her shoulder blades pressed against the marble as she waited for Gabrielle to finish her work.  She could have done it herself, of course, and for all the long years between when she'd taken the realm and Gabrielle's arrival in it she had.

No one got that close to her. No one had been allowed to even be in her presence while she bathed  - not out of any modesty because she didn't possess any, but because there were so many people so ready to knife her she just hadn't wanted to take the risk.

And now?

Now she was perfectly happy to sprawl at her leisure in this decadently warm water while a sponge removed all the marks of a good day's fighting from her skin.  It was almost like being an actual queen, sometimes.

Which reminded her of something unfortunate. "Crap."  She sighed. "I told Stanislaus to bring that jackass up here at dusk."

"Philtop?" Gabrielle kept her scrubbing up, since there was quite a bit of Xena to wash. Her legs, for instance, which seemed to take forever they were so long.

"Yeah."

Gabrielle kept her head down. "I'll go get us something from the kitchen. I think they had some new cheeses come in today, and some dark bread."

Xena studied the damp head in front of her, and the fine tension in the bare shoulders above the surface of the water.   "We can send your little cat for that." She said. "I'd rather you be here. You make me remember why I shouldn't just randomly kill people when they annoy me."

Gabrielle looked up at that. "I do?"

"Mm." Xena reached over and tweaked her nose. "I want you here when he gets here."

"Okay." Gabrielle appeared puzzled, but pleased.  "I thought maybe he wanted to talk to you alone."

"He does."  The queen smiled. "But I didn't get where I am by giving people what they wanted. I got there by making people take me on my terms, Remember?"

Gabrielle took her hand and kissed it. "I remember."

Xena's face twisted into an expression of wry amusement, knowing inside just how much of a farce the exchange they'd just had was. "Good."  She said. "Let's get outta here before we get wrinkled like winter plums."  

They got out and quickly dried off, since the breeze now coming in the windows had more than a touch of fall in it.  Xena toweled her hair dry and went to her wardrobe, studying its contents as she listened to Gabrielle in the next room.

She threw on a deep scarlet casual robe, belting it around her waist before she went to the mirror and ran a comb through her wet hair, watching her own face twitch a little as she made sense of the thick, dark mass that was already staring to dry.

She put on a pair of indoor boots and went into her outer chamber, where a servant was just setting down a tray with cups of mulled wine on it.

"Your Majesty." The servant bowed deeply.  "Lord Stanislaus asked me to bring this here."

Xena flicked her fingers at the man. "Beat it." She said, waiting for the man to hastily leave before she went over and poured herself a cup of the wine, it's rich and spicy scent filling the room.

She took the cup and settled down on her elevated chair, taking a sip of the wine and feeling the burn as it traveled down to her stomach.

She suspected she knew what Philtop was going to ask, and she wasn’t' really sure why it was making her feel ...

"I'm not nervous." She spoke aloud.  "He can kiss my ass."

The inner door opened, and Gabrielle appeared, dressed appealingly in a simple woolen over tunic, belted at the waist.  She was carrying a tray and she set it down next to the mulled wine. "Did you say something?"

"Nothing intelligent."  Xena muttered.

Gabrielle came over and handed her a piece of dark, nutty bread spread with cheese, and what looked like a slight drizzle of honey on it.  "It really smells good downstairs." She commented, as the queen took it and nibbled an edge. "Everyone’s in a really good mood too.  Even the cooks were singing."

"Singing? I don't hire them to sing. I hire them to cook."

"Xena."

A soft knock at the door caused Xena to straighten a little in her chair, and Gabrielle to move towards the sound, She opened the door and exposed Stanislaus' form.  "Hello."

"Your grace." Stanlslaus bowed.  "Her majesty requested I bring Prince Philtop for an audience at this time."

"Come in." Gabrielle pulled the door all the way open and stood to one side as they entered.  Philtop was alone, though she caught a glimpse of what was probably his guard standing near the top of the steps.  She closed the door after them and went to the tray, picking up a mug of wine as Stanislaus said his little speech.

"Your Majesty. As you requested, I have the honor of present his highness, the Prince of the Westlands."

'Thanks."  Xena remarked. "Get him a seat then take off."

Stanislaus went quickly to the side wall and shuffled over with a low backed chair, then he bowed and backed out, forgetting Gabrielle had closed the door and slamming into it.

Xena swirled her wine and took a sip, watching with drolly sardonic eyes as he felt behind him and got the door open then escaped past it.  Then she turned her attention to Philtop. "Sit." She indicated the seat. " You wanted a meeting. Here you are. Talk."

Philtop walked over and sat down, glancing at Gabrielle before he looked back at Xena. He was dressed in a woolen over tunic, but had left his weapons behind, and even the circlet he'd been wearing that afternoon.  "I did ask." He said. "I didn't think you wanted your whole court to hear what I had to say."

Xena took a bite of her bread and chewed it. "And?"

"We had a bad year." Philtop said, looking away. "I'm sure you heard.  Most of the crops failed, and summer storms flooded the river and took half the livestock."

"I heard." Xena replied.

"I have two choices." Philtop said. "Appeal to you, or offer my lands to the highest bidder. " He paused. "Could be that bidder is someone you don't want as a neighbor."

Gabrielle stood quietly by the sideboard, watching them both. She could see and almost sense in visceral way, the tension in Xena's body, and looking at Philtop's aristocratic and   exquisite profile she realized he wasn't afraid of her.

"So." Xena said, after a brief pause. "Either I save your sorry ass or you sell out to the Persians, that right?"

"Right." Philtop answered straightforwardly. "Sorry Xena. I never wanted to cross your borders again after the last time, but I have no choice. I can’t let all those people die, and you're the only game this side of Persia. They've already sent an envoy."

"Have they."

Philtop shrugged his broad shoulders. "Why waste blood over something you can pay a little coin for? That is where I'm at. A cheap lay." He paused. "They'll buy anyone they can around here and surround you. Your reputation bought you that much at least. They don't want to come at you head on."

Gabrielle realized, suddenly, that this noble visitor wasn't quite so noble as he looked. He had the same bluntness Xena did, and she wondered.

Who was he, really?

Xena finished her bread and chased it down with a swallow of wine as the silence lengthened. "That all you had to say?"

"That's it."

The queen regarded him.

"Go on, Xena, tell me to get lost and you'll think about it." Philtop said, with a wry twist to his lips. "That's what I'd do." He added.

"I don't have to think about it."  Xena answered. "I just have to decide what it's going to cost you. So yeah, go on and have some lamb on me and we'll talk tomorrow."

Philtop nodded, his shoulders relaxing slightly. He got up and ducked his head. Then he turned and hesitantly did the same to Gabrielle before he went to the door, drawing himself erect before he opened it and slipped out, closing it firmly behind him.

It was briefly silent. Then Xena sighed and took a swig of her wine. She looked over at Gabrielle, who was looking intently back at her. "Long story."

"Wow."

'Really, really long story."

**

Continued in Part 3