DISCLAIMER: Please refer back to "Step 1" for specific disclaimers
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WHAT ARE LITTLE GIRLS MADE OF?
Mallika showed Xena to their room while Gabrielle informed the guards that Xena would indeed be joining King Democritus for dinner. The two guards breathed a sigh of relief in unison, thanking the gods they would not have to deliver bad news to their king after all.
They made an agreement to return to the tavern to escort Xena to the palace at sunset. Gabrielle bid them farewell warmly and headed double time up to meet Xena in their room. They hadnt spent a night at an inn in weeks.
Gabrielle smiled at Mallika as she entered the room.
"This is lovely!"
And indeed it was. The room was very large and furnished comfortably. The best feature was that it adjoined a very private bath room.
"So!" Mallika smiled warmly at her two new, and quickly becoming favorite, visitors. "You guys have a couple of hours to kill. There are a few interesting points in our city I could recommend, or did you have anything else particular in mind?"
Xena raised her eyebrows in consideration and looked over at the bard. Gabrielle glanced back at Xena, instantly recognizing the mischievous expression on her face.
Mallika waited patiently for a response, unable to resist grinning at the two glorious smiles beaming at her in reply.
"Bath!" Xena and Gabrielle said, practically in unison.
Gabrielle chuckled. Great minds think alike.
"Wed like a bath, please." The bard rephrased the request politely.
"You got it!"
Xena moaned in pleasure as she relaxed her back against the side of the oblong tub and sunk deeper into the steaming water. Her long arms reached out and pulled at Gabrielles shoulders, bringing the bard to lay cozily against her breasts. The bard sighed happily and settled into the warm embrace, closing her eyes.
"Dont fall asleep on me, now." Xena whispered in her ear.
"I wont." The bard mumbled, obviously starting to drift off.
Xena smiled. Gabrielle was able to stretch her legs out in the tub, but the warrior could not. She adjusted her legs on either side of the bard and settled them both in the hot, steamy water comfortably.
"So what stories are you going to tell tonight?" Xena asked, trying to spark a conversation to keep the bard awake.
"I dont know," Gabrielle answered, eyes still closed, lifting her hand from the water to scratch her nose. "The usual probably. Warlord attacks village. Bard gets captured. Warrior Princess saves bard and village. Youve heard it a million times."
Xena chuckled causing Gabrielles head to bob up and down against her chest.
"Well, if youre bored with the same old thing happening, Ill just have to get myself in trouble. Then *you* can save me for a change."
That statement made the bards eyes pop open.
"Dont you dare. I like things just the way they are."
"Oh you do?" Xena said looking down at the top of Gabrielles golden head, "Well, I would prefer it if you could change the bard gets captured part of the story, if you dont mind."
Xena brought some warm water up with her hand and let it drip over Gabrielles exposed skin. The bard grinned ecstatically and let her eyes close once more.
"Well, I dont write em that way on purpose, believe me."
Xenas hands disappeared into the water, tickling the bards skin as they traveled down the front of her body, long fingers performing a delicate search. Gabrielle moaned airily as Xenas hands drifted across her stomach.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered softly, her warm breath tickling the bards ear, "are you sitting on the soap again?"
The bard smiled and shifted in the water.
"I dont know, Xena. Youll have to check."
Xenas fingers continued to search as they both laid in silence, enjoying sensation of hot water and gentle caresses. After a while, Xena found what she was searching for.
"Xena." Gabrielle gently breathed.
"Hmmmm?" the warrior answered lazily.
"Thats not the soap."
A strong, loud knock on the door caused Xena to practically jump out of the bed, nearly dumping Gabrielle on the floor.
"Damn!" Xena cursed. They had fallen asleep after all, and now she was late getting ready. She disentangled herself from the disoriented bard and, wrapping a blanket around her naked body, shuffled to the door.
"Who is it?" The warrior barked.
"Its me, Lakme."
It was the barmaid. Xena opened the door a crack to peek out. The barmaid was surprised to find the warrior looking as though she had just woken up and gotten out of bed. Where was Gabrielle, she wondered?
"The guards are here. Arent you going to dinner with the king?" Lakme asked, trying to peek around the warrior curious to see exactly where the bard was at the moment.
"Yeah." Xena looked down at herself, then back at the waitress and blocked the view from her prying eyes, "Ill be ready in a minute."
Xena closed the door on the curious barmaid and threw the blanket to the ground. Gabrielle was rubbing her eyes and trying to wake up.
"What time is it?" she asked sleepily, pushing the hair out of her eyes.
"Its time for me to go to dinner with the king, and its time for you to earn some dinars."
Xena pulled up her leathers over her body and sat on the bed to allow Gabrielle to lace them up. The bard did it without having to think about it. While she was lacing, Xena was pulling on her greaves and boots.
"Stay still." Gabrielle complained.
"Cant. Im late. The guards are already here."
The warrior slipped her armor over her head and Gabrielle did the clasping. Xena pulled on her gauntlets then turned around, allowing the bard to lace those up as well. When they were done, Xena stood and grabbed her sword, handing it to Gabrielle to attach it to her back.
Last but never least, and with a definite dramatic flourish, Xena flipped her chakram to the hook on her hip. She turned around once for Gabrielle.
"How do I look."
"You have bed head."
"Comb your hair."
A few quick swipes with the comb and Xena presented herself once more for inspection.
"Now?" Xena asked, turning around once more, fast enough for her leather skirt to lift up in the air.
"Put on your underpants."
"Oh. Yeah. Right."
When everything was properly in place, Gabrielle nodded her approval and Xena headed for the door.
She turned to look at the bard before exiting. Gabrielle was still sitting in the bed, naked body tangled in a sheet, golden red hair a tousled and tangled mess, with a sleepy smile gracing her glowing features.
Xena closed the door and covered the distance back to the bed in three quick paces. She gathered Gabrielle up in her arms and kissed her long and slow.
"Ill be right back. Itll be a quick dinner."
Gabrielle smiled brightly, blushing a little from the kiss.
"You know where Ill be." She answered, fixing Xenas bangs a little.
Xena kissed her once more and then reluctantly released her hold.
"See ya later."
The warrior headed out of the door.
"Have a good time!" Gabrielle called after her.
Xena waved her hand slightly as she disappeared out of the room.
Gabrielle let herself collapse back onto the bed and smiled, deliriously happy.
"What a great afternoon." She said to herself, "Im beginning to really like this town."
Realizing she better start getting ready herself, Gabrielle threw back the sheets and started to dress.
Gabrielle walked down the stairs and entered the main dining room of the tavern. As Mallika had predicted, the dining room was full in anticipation of the bards performance later that night. Gabrielle had a hard time believing that the tavern was packed on the merit of her pending performance alone. Surely this must be normal for the busy little inn?
She spotted Mallika preparing a tray of food and moved to join her at the bar. The woman smiled at the bard amicably as she sat across from her on an empty stool.
"See, just as I told you. Its a full house." Mallika waved her arm across the room.
"They all cant be here just to hear me. How did they find out about it so quickly?" The bard had a hard time believing the crowd had come just for her.
"The same way anyone finds out anything thats going on in a village like this. My father told the right people and within the hour, the whole town knew about it."
Gabrielle chuckled, fully understanding the inner workings of the rumor mill in a small hamlet. Poteidaia could have written the book on the subject.
The bard smiled at Mallika warmly, noticing for the first time her friendly brown eyes and the soft blond banana curls that bounced down all over her head like springs. She reminds me of Ephiny, Gabrielle thought, only softer.
Mallika smiled back and continued to load a tray with food and beverage. Gabrielle could not help but notice the twinkle in her eye and the small smile that danced across her face as the blond womans gaze drifted out across the room to observe Lakme. The bard followed her gaze and watched in amazement as a customer actually got out of his chair to assist the waitress with a tray full of food before she got anywhere close to their table.
"Are your customers always so helpful?" Gabrielle inquired innocently.
Mallika chuckled, "Most of our customers are the locals tonight. They know its in their own best interest to serve themselves and not allow Lakme to get anywhere near them with a tray full of food."
Gabrielle laughed and watched as another customer assisted the barmaid with their order.
"Why do you have her as a waitress then?"
"Because," Mallika answered defensively, "shes the waitress and thats just the way we like it."
"Im sorry, I didnt mean to insult her or you...." Gabrielle started, but Mallika interrupted.
"Its okay, Gabrielle. We know that Lakme is a little, well, clumsy sometimes. She seems to drop things a lot, although I dont understand why....she seems to move so gracefully."
Mallikas voice faded away to an affectionate grin as she watched Lakme trip over the leg of a chair.
"How long has she worked here?" Gabrielle asked, watching Mallikas expression carefully and wondering at the soft twinkle in her eyes.
"She and her mother came into town about two years ago. They were looking for a new place to live and decided to settle here. We hired her mother as a waitress. We became friends. Shes my best friend."
"Everyone needs a best friend." Gabrielle commented.
"Well, Lakme really needs one. Her mother disappeared last Solstice."
"Disappeared?" Gabrielle asked, sitting upright in her chair. So there is a problem happening here, the bard thought to herself.
"Yes, she left the tavern after we closed Solstice night and never made it to her cottage. The entire village searched, but we never found anything. There was no sign of her mother, dead or alive."
"Lakme lives with me and my father now, but she wouldnt take charity. She insisted on helping us, so we let her waitress."
Mallika grinned as Lakme came to the bar to pick up two tankards of mead. The waitress beamed at her friend and whirled around to quickly return to her customers, sending a spray of mead raining down over both Gabrielle and Mallika. Lakme never noticed a thing.
Gabrielle wiped her face and flicked a handful of mead to the floor.
"What did the authorities have to say about the disappearance?"
"Authorities?" Mallika laughed cynically, "You mean the King? He sent the guards to help search, but they didnt search for very long. I suppose they just listed her as missing along with all of the others."
"Others? You mean theres been others?" Gabrielles concern just rose several notches.
"Oh, Lakmes mother wasnt the first and hasnt been the last. The last one to disappear was a small boy, couldnt have been more than three summers old."
This is ridiculous! the bard thought to herself angrily.
"Why isnt the King doing anything about this?" Gabrielle asked, more than a little anger coloring her tone.
"Oh, the King says he is doing everything he can. Although, what he is actually doing, no one seems to know."
"Well, I know something that we can do right away!" The bard said confidently.
"You do? What?"
"Were going to tell Xena about this as soon as she comes back from dinner. I just wish we knew about this before she went there. She could have questioned the King about it directly."
"Why would Xena get involved in our towns problems?" Mallika asked.
"Because its what she does. Its what we do." Gabrielle answered sincerely, "When she finds out about this, shes not going to leave here until this mystery is solved!"
"Do you think she would really help?" Mallika asked meekly, not wanting to raise her hopes up too soon.
"Help? Shell do more than help. Shell find out what happened to Lakmes mother and the boy and anyone else who has disappeared. You can bet your last dinar on that!"
Gabrielle rubbed her hands together at the challenge of solving the mystery tomorrow and barding to a full tavern tonight.
"So! When do you want me to start?"
"How about something to eat first?"
Mallika and Gabrielle laughed as the bards stomach growled an answer.
Continued in Step 4
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