The Seven Wonders Series Episode II
The Hanging Gardens
By XWP Fanatic
Copyright: Xena and Gabrielle are copyright and owned by a lot of people other than myself, I just invited them over to play for a little while. No harm meant. I will return them as soon as were done here. Maybe. Oh I do also owe a debt of gratitude to Agatha Christie for her novel "And Then There Were None." An excellent story and one I have used for inspiration here.
Violence Warning: Xena, warlords and ancient gods are rarely pacifists. If you are looking for a story where no injury of any kind is inflicted, this would not be it. However, this story contains no scenes of sexual violence.
Subtext: Xena and Gabrielle are mature (most of the time), consenting (pretty much all of the time) adults involved with one another in a romantic kind of way. Its a nice arrangement for them, so its cool. Id rate the action here PG-13 to R.
Series and Xenaverse timeline: While TPTB dont seem to be too concerned about consistency, I am. The action in this story takes place in the Armageddon Timeline introduced in HTLJ and three moons have passed since my prior story Aftermath. If you really want to get the background on this story, I recommend reading it first. You can find it at: http://xenite.simplenet.com/fanfic3/aftermath-thetree.html
Comments, feedback, etc: If you want to drop me a line, heres how: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks to everyone who wrote me on Aftermath and Twenty-three! You rock!
Special thanks to: The Fanatics who seem to like my writing almost as much as I do. You have brightened up my little corner of the Xenaverse and I am grateful.
Now on with the show
Gabrielle stood on the balcony, overlooking the practice field behind the castle. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on her face. Soon the midday sun would make it too hot for the activities taking place below her. Taking a deep breath which brought the scent of summer flowers, dirt and sweat to her nose, she smiled. Green eyes the color of the summer grass on the hillside fluttered open and watched the Conqueror and Palaemon spar in front of the Royal Guard.
She savored these moments. After knowing the horror of a true battle, Gabrielle found comfort in the rhythmic practice. It was like watching a dance, except instead of a possible sprained toe, the participants could lose the toe entirely if they werent careful. While careful wasnt the right adjective for the Conqueror, Gabrielle had no concern about Xenas ability to return to the throne room whole. Thus, the Amazon Queen could watch the match with an eye for the beauty inherent in the Conqueror as she practiced her art of war.
Xena spun around and blocked the strike Palaemon aimed for her lower legs. She enjoyed fighting him, he was the only one of her soldiers she could go full-out with and not be afraid of accidentally killing him. She had trained him for years now, fought alongside him, and they both knew each others combat style. If only she had an army of Palaemons, then she knew she would conquer Rome. The thought amused her. If only she had an army made entirely of her, then she would destroy Caesar without even breaking a sweat.
Knowing this was not a possibility, unless she invited the intervention of Ares, she focused on training her soldiers so they would become more like her. Each day at dawn, well before Gabrielle consented to rise, the Conqueror would awake and go down to the barracks. There she would have breakfast with Palaemon and her other key officers. It was her way of keeping informed on the morale of her men, and also to watch them for signs of trouble. Xena knew that while there was no current fear from external enemies, there was always fear of internal enemies and internal weakness. She would allow neither in her kingdom. Not when she had so much to lose.
The Captain of the Royal Guard believed his sparring partners mind was elsewhere from her thoughtful expression. He assumed it was on the lithe figure he knew to be standing above and behind him. Gabrielle had come into the Conquerors throne room five moons before and changed everything. He had never seen the Conqueror content before. She had always been restless, like a caged animal, but now she seemed
His thought was cut off as he ducked beneath the blow aimed for his head. Once before he had been caught daydreaming while sparring with the ruler. He had the scar down the middle of his cheek to prove it. Focus, Palaemon, focus, he chanted to himself and directed his attention and energies on the dark warrior before him.
Xena felt the shift in her Captain and her eyes narrowed dangerously. She disliked being ignored and she wouldnt allow Palaemon to wish he were someplace other than here. Deciding to teach him a lesson, the Conqueror dipped down into her reserves and began a merciless assault.
Gabrielle gasped as she witnessed the marked change in Xenas efforts against the Captain. It brought her back to the hillside in Ephesus where she had watched the Conqueror defend herself against five Roman soldiers at once. To defeat them, Xena had become wild, a dangerous and terrifying vision to the young woman. She witnessed the Conquerors devolution from precise warrior to cornered animal. The Roman soldiers did not understand that at the moment Xena seemed weakest, she was at her most fearsome. Perhaps they came to the realization as they paid their fare to Charon.
She wanted to call out, to stop the fight, but knew she could never do so. Xena would not tolerate disrespect in front of her soldiers. Gabrielle would have to bring this up later when they were alone, when the Conqueror could allow herself the luxury of counsel. So Gabrielle made a silent petition to Artemis to protect the Captain from harm.
Palaemon scrambled backward feeling like a clumsy child. He saw the dangerous glint in the Conquerors eyes which had become nearly colorless in her attack. He knew he was in trouble. Perhaps having a contented Conqueror was not a good thing, perhaps she needed new lands to conquer in order to keep the battlelust inside her sated. The Captain did the only thing he knew to stop the blows, he threw down his sword and fell to his knees.
Stopping her momentum at the sight, Xena saved Palaemon his head. The dark woman stood over her Captain, blade at the base of his neck, sweat from her brow dripping onto his exposed skin. She sheathed her sword and turned to face the onlookers, many of whom had assumed there would be need of a new Captain of the Royal Guard that day. "Never take your mind off the battle. When you do, you will die."
Gabrielle let out the breath she had been holding and loosed her unconscious hold on the railing.
Looking back at Palaemon who had not moved from his close call, "Break them into drill squads for the next two candlemarks. Then you and Minon report to the throne room."
The Captain nodded, "Yes, my liege, it will be done."
Gabrielle met Xena when she came into their living quarters. Holding out a linen towel, she gave it to the sweaty ruler along with a smile. "Good morning."
The Conqueror wrapped the towel around her neck then bent to receive a good morning kiss from the Amazon Queen. "Hello there. How are you doing this morning?"
"Im good. Slept like a rock now that youve given me my side of the bed back." She gently pushed against the taller womans hips, rocking them. Gabrielle had discovered she really like being near Xena after she had been training with her men. It always brought out an energy from deep within the ruler, along with a musky scent that Gabrielle found particularly appealing.
Xena growled and pulled the fair-haired woman close to her, "It has been my side of the bed all my life. No one has ever fought me for it before."
Running her hands up slick arms, resting finally in Xenas hair, Gabrielle leaned closer, "Well, it was time someone did. I am willing to share, however."
"Hmm," the Conqueror smiled, remembering Gabrielles version of sharing. "Perhaps we can work something out. Care to negotiate?" Xenas large hand splayed across the small of Gabrielles back, pinning her lover next to her. She had noticed recently that Gabrielle was very attentive whenever she returned from the workout fields.
A warmth suffused Gabrielles features as she recalled a rather public negotiation she and Xena once conducted. Glad for the lack of audience, she pushed up on her tiptoes and pressed her lips against Xenas.
"My mother always told me it was best to share," Gabrielle husked out eventually.
"Thats my girl." Xena kissed the tip of Gabrielles nose and pulled out of their embrace. She began stripping out of her leather sparring outfit, heading toward the bathing chamber. "I saw a new horse in the stables when I checked on Argo. Whos here?"
Gabrielle followed behind her picking up articles of clothing and armor, setting them where the servants would attend to them. It amused the oracle that Xena seemed incapable of taking off her clothes while standing still. She was either moving toward the bath or the bed when she disrobed. She never paused in her approach to either, not that Gabrielle minded. She appreciated the urgency it conveyed.
She watched the warrior slide in the waiting pool, hearing the sigh of gratitude for the coolness of the water. Xena floated over to the spout, rinsing the sweat and dirt out of her hair. "Its a messenger from King Nebuharin. I have Nestor providing him with food and drink. We can see him after you finish your bath."
Xena tilted her head, "We certainly wont be seeing him before then." She lifted a large hand and splashed the water, sending a scattering of droplets at her oracle. "Join me. Then we will find out what the Fox of Babylon wants."
The messenger, a slight man, skin permanently seared by a harsh sun, bent low before the ruler of Greece. His forehead was pressed against the cool stone floor of the great hall while he waited for the command to rise and speak.
The Conqueror leaned back on her throne, waiting an appropriate amount of time before releasing the messenger from his position. Her long fingers closed around a goblet of sweet wine and she brought the liquid to her lips. After swallowing, she spoke, "Arise."
He gracefully arose and approached an additional few paces toward the thrones. "Most humble greetings to the exalted and esteemed Xena, Conqueror of Greece, and to Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation, from your loyal friend, King Nebuharin of Babylon, the cradle of civilization. King Nebuharin rejoices in your continued good health and prosperity, grateful to the benevolent gods for blessing you. King Nebuharin is desirous of the pleasure of your company, remembering fondly his time prior spent in Greece, and now extends his invitation for you and Queen Gabrielle to join him in Babylon, to feast on its bounty, to wonder at its beauty, and to join with your friends in peace."
Gabrielle found herself mesmerized by the melodic cadence of the mans voice. He was obviously trained in the speaking arts and she wondered if his singing voice was as pleasant as well. The thought of spending time in a culture which prized speech was intriguing to the oracle. She knew better than to voice her opinion before the Conqueror voiced hers, though, so she remained silent and waited for Xenas reaction.
Xena drummed her fingers on the arm of the throne. The invitation suited her plans. She had wanted to spend some time alone with Gabrielle ever since Ephesus. While Xena had never been to Babylon, she had been told the gardens were magnificent, the gift of King Nebuharins great-grandfather to his bride, who missed her homeland. The romantic story alone would appeal to Gabrielles sensibilities, even if the gardens did not live up to their reputation. "Welcome, friend. Greece returns the warm embrace of King Nebuharin and we bid you stay, take your rest and await our answer this evening."
A soft smile creased the oracles lips, knowing with that reply what Xenas answer would be. She wondered what Babylon looked like and realized she would soon know.
"My Queen, I must protest to this course of action." Eponin turned her back to the Conqueror, trying to block Gabrielles view of the ruler at the end of the table, hoping to minimize the rulers strong influence over the young Queen. "We cant adequately protect you with only four warriors."
"Eight," Xena countered, her voice low.
Gabrielle recognized it for the warning that it was. "Eponin, I am sure I will be fine. If Xena believes that arriving in Babylon with too large an escort would send the wrong diplomatic signals, then I have to agree with her."
"But only four? My Queen "
The Conquerors palm crashed against the hard wood of the table with a resounding smack. All eyes turned to her as she half rose from her seat and leaned forward, putting her weight on her curled up fists. "Do not contradict me again, Amazon. Gabrielle will have eight guards four Amazons, four Greeks. I am quite capable of defending myself. And teaching you respect."
The dark haired Amazon met the Conquerors gaze defiantly. She knew better than to speak but she did not flinch in face of the rulers disapproval. I am an Amazon, a warrior and protector of my Queen. I will not cower before you, despite who you are, Destroyer. Drawing strength from the spirit of her mother, which Eponin believed resided in her, she waited.
"Eponin, leave us for a moment," the Queen commanded softly, her green eyes never leaving the angry ruler.
"Yes, my Queen," Eponin responded stiffly, moving with rigid precision and exiting the room.
Xena flicked her eyes in Palaemons direction and her message was clear. He too rose and bowed, "My liege, your majesty."
Gabrielle moved from her chair to the Conquerors side. Trailing light fingers down the rigid muscles of Xenas arm, Gabrielle leaned into her, placing her lips by the rulers ear. "I will do as you wish, Xena. You know that. Why are you so angry?" She loosely wrapped her hand around a tight fist.
"I will not be disrespected in my own palace, certainly not to my face, and never by an Amazon." Her speech was clipped, the words bitten off before given full form. She had not moved from her coiled position at the head of the table, the muscles in her arm standing in contrast to smooth skin.
"I will speak to her. It will not happen again, I assure you." With her free hand, Gabrielle reached out and pulled at the Conquerors chair until it touched the back of her knees. "Please, sit down." A light squeeze to the rulers hand and Xena gracefully sank into the seat. "I understand what you are saying. I believe you that arriving with more than eight warriors, considering the fact King Nebuharins men will be escorting us into Babylon, would be seen as an act of distrust. I know you will keep us safe, Xena."
"Your Amazons are convinced I would have you harmed."
Gabrielle shook her head, her fair hair framing her face softly. "I just think Eponin takes her job very seriously. I seem to remember someone threatening her to the very gates of Tartarus and beyond if she let something happen to me." The oracle noted Xenas lips curling a bit in remembrance. "Shes fearful of losing another queen. She and Terreis were best friends, Ive been told."
"You will be safe with me."
The young leader knelt down beside her lover and gently grasped her hand. "I never doubted that for a moment." Placing a kiss on Xenas palm, she met Xenas eyes confidently. "Now, which Amazons should I choose for my escort? Who should the four be?"
The Conqueror mentally made her list but did not voice it. "Who do you think?"
"Eponin unless you do not want her to accompany us -"
"Never," Xena interrupted, "make a decision about your safety based on a guards popularity, Gabrielle. Do you trust Eponin to protect your life with her own?"
"Do you believe her capable of defending you?"
"Is there anyone who would serve you better than she would?"
"Of the Amazons, no."
"Then you have no choice but to have Eponin come," Xena concluded. "To do otherwise, would be foolish."
"I didnt want to upset you."
A large hand nudged her chin upward to meet eyes the color of the afternoon sky in late summer. "Im a big girl. I can take care of myself."
Gabrielle nodded, feeling silly for wanting to protect the Conqueror. "All right, so I will take Eponin. I think Tamara would also do well." She felt a flush of confidence as the Conqueror nodded gravely. "And Lari." Another nod. "The last? Perhaps Kelryn."
The Conqueror pictured the young Amazon, full of cockiness, swagger and bravado. Three traits Xena didnt admire, unless they were earned. Having watched Kelryn on the practice fields, she had a feeling that one day they might be. She was still a little green for the ego she possessed, but perhaps she would grow into it. It wouldnt be bad for her to come along. Especially when the seven other guards would be senior to her, give her something to watch and learn. "I think shes a fine choice."
"Thank you for accepting King Nebuharins invitation."
The Conquerors features transformed with an affectionate look, one that only the Amazon Queen was privy to. "I just thought we could use a little peace and quiet together."
Green eyes surveyed the arid land for anything resembling their own color. Gabrielle had at first been entranced by the endless sienna landscape, but, after a half moon of unvarying scenery, she was ready to arrive at the Euphrates River. The ancient river was the source of life for the region, bringing much needed water to a desolate area and greenery to brighten up the view, or so she had been told; she could only hope it was true.
Their journey had been hard on soldier and beast alike. Since starting into the desert, water had been conserved for drinking and cooking only. Gabrielle longed for a bath to rinse away grains of sand which had no business being lodged where they were. What mostly disturbed her were the times she could feel the sand on her teeth, hearing the scraping noise deep within her ears, causing her flesh to erupt in Goosebumps.
It also annoyed her how nonchalant Xena was about the conditions. The Conqueror acted as if no more luxurious accommodations could be had which, in point of fact, was true. The ruler and the Amazon Queen traveled within a covered carriage, the benches padded and thin linen drapes covering the windows. They had been spared the worst of the journey, which also made the young Queen feel more than a little guilty.
Whenever possible, they shared the carriage with their guards. Palaemon was a frequent visitor, as was Minon. The Greek Royal Guard were more likely to accept the invitation. Three of the Amazons, especially Eponin, shied away from their traditional enemy, despite the presence of their Queen. The only Amazon who seemed excited about spending time with the two rulers was Kelryn, who bounded like a young puppy up into the transport whenever asked.
Xena spent most of their days reviewing matters of state, studying reports she had received from the regents of the provinces before their journey. Of concern to her was a growing population of nomads which was coming perilously close to the northern border. There had been no sign of aggression yet, but the Conqueror was taking no chances on preserving her territory. She continually revised battle plans and fortifications. Xena also inquired as to the Amazon Regents report to Gabrielle about the progress of the resettlement, taking special note of the Amazons ability to lend support of arms should a border fight break out.
For her own education, Gabrielle studied Amazon history and law, knowing she had much to learn about the Nation she had been entrusted with. She found it especially amusing that for a nation of women who seemed to like to carry on only minimal conversation, they were especially verbose in their writings. The treatise on the placement of the latrines in relation to the main village establishment had run two scrolls alone. Gabrielle giggled; Amazons have delicate noses.
Xena glanced across the carriage at the sound. Her young oracle was curled up on the bench, legs tucked under her, and a scroll spread across her lap. Gabrielle looked younger than her twenty-three winters while studying. Indeed, it surprised the Conqueror how much maturity was held within the young heart.
Over the last three moons, they had fallen into an easy pattern. At first the ruler had been worried Gabrielle would want to formalize their relationship, press for more than she was willing to give. Instead, the oracle had responded to her in kind, not placing emphasis on defining what they were together. They shared a remarkable physical chemistry, more so than Xena recalled with any of her previous lovers, including Borias. Further, she and Gabrielle were not burdened by excessive and effusive promises of the future to come. It wasnt that Xena didnt want to have a future with Gabrielle, she simply couldnt envision it. She couldnt envision any future beyond that of her and Greece. Borias had never understood that. He had kept insisting on their togetherness, on forming a family. She snorted in disgust. She had no business being a part of a family. Surely leading Lyceus to his death had proven that. And yet an incarnation of Lyceus sat across from her. The same fair hair framed gentle features, the same laugh softened hard days.
"What are you thinking?" Gabrielle asked, reluctant to break the mood, but unable to stop herself as she noticed the faraway look in the Conquerors eyes.
"How much you remind me of my younger brother." Xena surprised herself by the honest reply. "Your hair is the same color."
"Red or blonde?" the oracle teased, knowing the propensity her hair had for appearing different colors to different people.
The ruler chuckled, a low, rich sound, "The color of late afternoon sunlight."
Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat at her lovers description, more poetic than anything she had ever heard from her before. "Thats beautiful, Xena."
"Come here." The ruler patted a soft spot on the cushion beside her, setting the scrolls she had been perusing on the floor of the carriage. She lifted her arm, giving further invitation to her companion, who was resettling her own scrolls and moving toward the ruler. Gabrielle snuggled up against her side, fitting herself tightly against the Conqueror despite the heat. Xenas fingertips found a pathway up and down the exposed skin of Gabrielles arm, unconsciously sweeping grit away. She smiled when Gabrielles eyes fluttered closed within moments.
Kelryn bounced alongside the carriage, trying to catch a glimpse of the Queen and Conqueror through the moving drapery. She noted when Gabrielle had switched sides to join the ruler. Her overactive imagination created many scenarios of activities now going on within the confines.
"Youre making me tired," Eponin growled, putting a hand on the younger womans shoulder, holding her closer to the ground momentarily. "Stop it."
"I just want to see."
"Yeah, well, stop it anyway."
Frowning at her commander, Kelryn groused, "Dont you want to know what theyre doing in there?"
"Not particularly, no." In fact, Eponin preferred not to know.
"Really?" The sandy-haired soldier was intrigued. "I had heard you had something of a reputation once yourself, Commander." Her gray eyes examined Eponin discreetly, noting the tensing of her shoulders with a satisfied smirk.
"How old are you, Kelryn?"
"Nineteen winters, Commander."
"Then youre old enough to know better than to ask me something like that."
"I wasnt aware that was a question."
The Commander stopped, arms folding across her chest, and took a warriors stance. "Soldier, do you have something you want to prove? Do you think because you have a little swagger in your step that youre the one women are fainting over in the streets?"
The younger Amazon took a decidedly relaxed stance, hooking her thumbs in the belt of her uniform. "You noticed my swagger?"
"Everyone notices your swagger, kiddo," she waited until Kelryn looked pleased with her pronouncement before continuing, "you work it hard enough."
Full lips pursed and eyes narrowed in response, but Kelryn kept her voice confident. "Ive had six lovers since arriving in Corinth, four of them Greek girls who needed a little education, which I was happy to supply. And you?"
"You want to compare belt notches, kiddo? Cause Ive whittled away more belts than you ever will. My knife has become dull "
"- you can say that again "
"- from all my notching." Eponin wanted to throttle her soldier, but held off knowing she might need another guard for their new Queen. Ill just wait until we get back to Corinth. I bet the Destroyer put her on this detail simply to drive me slowly insane.
"Past tense there, Commander. No offense, but I prefer to live in the present."
"Gods! Arent you the cockiest thing that ever was born into the Nation? I have half a mind to take you down a peg or four."
Kelryn suppressed a smile badly. That was easier than expected; Eps not as perceptive as they say she is. "Id like to see you try, but, Commander, I dont want to embarrass you in front of the others."
"I wouldnt worry about that, little one. Ive never been embarrassed about sex." Her eyes wandered toward the carriage which was continuing to move slowly along the desert road; they needed to hurry and rejoin it soon. "Heres the deal: starting now until our return were in a competition. Whoever wins gets bragging rights."
"I can live with that. How do we prove success?"
Caramel colored eyes twinkled, "Oh, youve never received a token of appreciation, have you?" Eponin enjoyed the resulting flush on Kelryns cheeks and throat.
Sucking in a deep breath, Kelryn held out her hand, waiting to seal the contest. She smiled evenly when Eponin grasped her forearm. "This will be a pleasure, Commander."
"The pleasure will be all mine, kiddo. All mine."
Gabrielle awoke to the overwhelming smell of sweet water. She had never noticed the scent of a river before, and had even doubted others when they claimed they could. It was, she decided, the nicest thing she had ever encountered.
Stretching slightly, she discovered she was lying on her side, her head cradled in Xenas lap, the Conquerors hand nestled in her hair. She could tell by the slow and even breathing pattern that the ruler was asleep. Content to remain where she was, Gabrielle remained still, knowing that Palaemon would retrieve them from the transport when it was time to board the ship for the next part of their journey. She drifted back to sleep.
Outside, Palaemon, Eponin, and the head of their Babylonian escort were overseeing the placement of the Conquerors and Amazon Queens goods aboard the ship. Palaemon had assured the ships captain that only one cabin would be needed for the two dignitaries but that the guards would take the adjoining cabin. This resulted in a raised eyebrow from Eponin but she said nothing. Both Greek and Amazon soldiers would want to be close at hand should there be any trouble. It certainly wasnt as if her three were unaware of the differences between the two genders.
Once all was prepared, including a large bath to be utilized before boarding, Palaemon went to the carriage to inform the Conqueror. He was surprised that she had not been out with him. It was rare for her to seclude herself when they were in a new territory. When he opened the carriage door after a short knock, he understood why. He stood there for a moment, taken by the view of his ruler in repose, hand secure on her oracle.
Eponin noticed Palaemons hesitation and became suspicious of the carriages contents. She jogged over a few steps and peered in around the broad shouldered Captain. The scene reminded her of a lion cub held in the mouth of the lioness. She could only pray to Artemis that the lioness jaws would not clamp fully shut.
"Is there a reason we have become a tourist attraction?" the Conqueror asked, her voice startling the watchers who had assumed her to still be asleep. Her pale blue eyes fixed on the soldiers and she noted the mixed emotions playing on the Amazons features. "Is everything ready for our boarding?"
"Yes, my liege," Palaemon answered, knowing the question was intended for him. "I have also had a bath drawn for you and Queen Gabrielle so you can be more comfortable on the voyage. It has been set up in the tent on the bank."
At last, Xena sighed inwardly. "Excellent, Palaemon. Be sure your men also clean up. I dont want them tracking sand through the ship and reacquainting me with its feel."
"Yes, my liege."
Eponin remained in the doorway, even as the Captain left to carry out his orders. The Conqueror seemingly ignored her, focusing her attention instead on rousing the Amazon Queen. She watched as battle roughened hands gently threaded through fair hair, rearranging strands carefully.
"Wake up, Gabrielle. We have a bath waiting for us." She whispered the words she knew her oracle would want to hear. The last three nights they had spent in discussion of how great a bath would be. Xena was especially anxious to meet the water, for Gabrielle had called a halt to their intimacies after a week in the desert, claiming there were some locations best not permanently embedded with sand. While the ruler had agreed in principle, she had made sure to tease the Amazon Queen a bit, testing her resolve and leaving them both more than a little frustrated. Xena hoped that Gabrielle would suffer from seasickness even on a river passage. Her remedy would certainly make the next quarter moon go more pleasantly.
Gabrielle awoke once more and rolled over so that she was looking up at her lover. "Thanks for being a good pillow," she whispered.
The Commander was still standing in the doorway, and upon her Queens awakening now felt as if she were witnessing something very personal. There was a confidence in Gabrielles presence with the Destroyer that surprised her a little. In public, her Queen was deferential to the dark ruler. In private, she appeared to be unconcerned about her status, gleefully possessive of the Destroyers lap, not fearful of being devoured whole. It was a lot to ponder, so she left quietly, feeling Xenas eyes on her back as she did.
"How do you know King Nebuharin?" Gabrielle asked, dipping her head back into the cool water, unable to stifle a moan; the feeling was exquisite.
Completely distracted by the body and the sound in front of her, Xena fought to form coherent words in response. "I first met the Fox when I was in Egypt a few winters ago." She moved closer to the oracle, rubbing her hands briskly over the bar of soap, filling her palms with lather.
"Whats he like? Why do you call him the Fox?" Another sigh escaped her lips as she felt Xenas hands slide across her shoulders and down her back.
Xena leaned forward, pressing herself against Gabrielles back, determining how truly interested Gabrielle was with this line of conversation. As her hands moved to help assure the cleanliness of Gabrielles arms and collarbone, she teased, "Because he has short, bristly red hair and a pointed nose and ears."
The Amazon Queen lightly caught Xenas hand as it passed across the hollow of her throat and slid it lower. "Funny. How is he so crafty that you of all people would call him the Fox?"
Must we have this conversation at this very moment? O Gabrielle, what you do to me sometimes. "Babylon is the gateway between the East and the West. All trade with Persia and the distant lands beyond must go through her portals. Moreover, nothing can reach Egypt or Syria from the East without crossing Babylonian borders. Yet, despite its prominence as a target, the Fox has ruled for over forty summers and has managed to avoid invasion, collapse and upheaval."
"Through deception and trickery?" She managed to ask the question despite the Conquerors tracing of delicate paths along her throat.
"No, mostly through knowing the minds of men. He understands what his opponents want and he very skillfully avoids their traps." Tired of the conversation, Xena bent to have her lips follow the lines her fingers had made. "You, however, have not avoided my trap," she informed the oracle and she slid strong arms around Gabrielles waist, pulling her against her own body.
"Who said I was trying to?" Gabrielle laid her head back on the broad shoulder behind it, tilting slightly to see Xenas profile better. "Maybe I was seeing how focused you can be under adverse conditions. You know, in case you were ever captured by an enemy." She laughed gently at the rulers outraged expression. "Well it could happen."
"I think not, Gabrielle." Gently, she bit down on the nearby earlobe. "Besides, if I were captured, they certainly wouldnt put me into a bath with a beautiful, alluring, young woman. I have a feeling I would be naked, but far less comfortable."
This thought deeply disturbed the Amazon Queen, reminding her of the fear she had experienced on the Ephesian hillside watching the battle below her. Her only thought at the end of the day had been that none of the blood on the bronzed skin of the Conqueror was the warriors own. "Lets not talk about it." Gabrielle hugged the arms holding her.
"You started it," Xena chastised gently. When she received no response, she realized that had been the wrong reply. Thinking quickly, she tried to regroup, to not lose the moment she had been impatiently awaiting for a quarter moon. "Let me finish it," she said softly as she turned the smaller woman around in her arms. Disconcerted by the lost look she found on Gabrielles face, she pressed her palm against her cheek. "Dont worry about me. Nothings going to happen to me." She leaned forward and gave the oracle a lingering kiss, waiting until she felt the smaller body beginning to respond to her. "No one is ever going to keep me from my destiny."
Gabrielle leaned her head back, giving free access to her throat, and slid her hands up into the Conquerors dark hair. "No more talking, okay? I dont want to think right now," she panted out next to the rulers ear.
The Conqueror nodded her consent, moving her hands down the gentle slope of Gabrielles spine and further still, and proceeded to make thinking impossible for both of them.
Babylon is magnificent. This was the one thought that echoed through Gabrielles mind as she viewed the city from the upper deck of the ship. The city was alive with color; the rivers banks overflowed with it, lapping onto the sides of the nearby buildings, spilling upward like a fount and covering everything in its wake.
It made her feel near colorless in the garments the King had provided for them on their journey. Upon arriving onboard, she and the Conqueror had discovered traditional Babylonian clothing in their stateroom. Gabrielle had immediately found it much more suitable to the climate loose trousers of white linen, a billowy white linen shirt overhanging it, and a long scarlet scarf which wrapped several times around her waist, drawing the shirt closed and keeping sand away from her skin. Eschewing the sandals laid out for her, Gabrielle kept on her boots and finally felt free of the tiny irritants that had plagued her for nearly a moon.
What she now found most intriguing to her was the huge building which towered over the middle of the city. It consisted of eight stepped platforms, rising high above the desert floor, each covered in bright blue tile. It was as if the tower pulled all the brilliance of the Euphrates and pushed it skyward, reminding the citys inhabitants of their dependence on the water flowing through its center.
"That is Etemenanki, the temple of Marduk, the chief of our gods," the ships captain said from beside her, seeing where her gaze fell.
"Its amazing, so beautiful."
"It has stood there since before my family name took form. There is no holier site in Babylon than it." He pointed a long brown finger further down the rivers path. "And you can see the beginning of the palace now."
"Really? Where?" All Gabrielle could see was a rising mountain of greenery. She let out a gasp when she realized that was the palace. "How did its "
"It does not look like a building, does it?"
"No, not at all." As the ship neared, the young oracle was barely able to make out the white colonnades, rooftops and arches underneath the leafy oasis. "Why was it designed that way?"
"It is a beautiful love story, Queen Gabrielle. Our great King Nebuchadnezzar II married the young Princess Amyitis of Medes. Her homeland was one filled with mountains and greenery. So when she came here to Babylon, she became melancholy, longing for the forests she had known as a child. The love King Nebuchadnezzar had for her was overwhelming, and it broke his heart to see her so despondent. In order to make her feel more at home, he ordered this palace built, to resemble the mountain near where the Princess grew up. This once again restored his brides joy and they lived a long life together, ruling over Babylon in peace and prosperity."
Gabrielle exhaled softly, imagining being the recipient of such a love. "Thank you for telling me the story, captain."
"It was my pleasure, I assure you. Please excuse me, I must see to our landing." With a stiff bow, he stepped backward and returned to the helm.
Gabrielle continued to watch the growing tower and palace as they drew nearer to their destination. She could see people dressed in white robes climbing up the side of the tower, along the staircase which wound around its girth. It appeared on the different levels that there were benches and shade trees for the people to take their rest under, and that people took advantage of them. The thought of attempting the climb made her legs throb in remembered pain. While her legs were healed enough for everyday stress, it had been a long recovery and they werent quite ready for such a task.
Strong hands caught her shoulders as she swayed slightly. "My Queen, are you all right?"
Flushing slightly, Gabrielle nodded, "Yes, Eponin, thank you."
The dark-haired guard gazed up at the afternoon sun, mentally reproaching it for being too harsh on her Queen. "Shall I escort you below?" Eponin missed the cooler climate of Greece, missed the trees and fields which spread out as far as she could see, not just as far as the irrigation canals could take the water. She wondered how the people could live here with such a narrow swathe of land on which to provide for themselves and their families. And she worried about war, knowing that whoever controlled the waterways controlled the populace.
"Really, Im fine." Pointing to the brightly tiled buildings they floated past, Gabrielle asked, "Isnt it exquisite? Ive never seen such a vibrant city."
The Commander took in the bright yellow, red, green and blue buildings and dismissed them as gaudy. "It is colorful, my Queen."
Gabrielle laughed, "Please say what you really think, Eponin."
This time the Commander blushed slightly, glad for the excuse of the sun. Before she could reply, the Destroyers presence behind her registered in her mind.
"Take Gabrielle below, immediately!" Xena growled, reaching for her oracles arm to help her on her way. She began taking long strides toward the cabin door with Gabrielle in tow and Eponin in their wake until Gabrielle dug the heels of her boots into the deck.
"Xena! Wait! Whats going on?"
Xenas face reflected her internal debate between simply throwing Gabrielle over her shoulder and hauling her below versus informing her of what was happening. A glance at Eponin indicated if she wanted the Amazon guards cooperation, she would have to opt for the giving of information. "The ship already docked is flying the imperial flag of Rome."
"Caesar?" Gabrielle whispered, a wave of fear hit her in the gut, roiling through her, threatening to knock her off her feet. Her nightmare was coming true. She clung onto the Conqueror, fearful of letting her go.
The Conqueror closed an arm around Gabrielles shoulders briefly, "Let me take care of this, all right? Go below, have Eponin stay with you." Gently, she began peeling the smaller woman away from her and passed Gabrielle on to the Commander. To Eponin she said, "Post one of the Amazons at the door, send the other two up to me."
"Yes, Conqueror," the warrior replied, taking hold of the young Queen and leading her as quickly as possible to the cabin below.
"My liege!" Palaemon skidded to a stop before his ruler and inclined his head. "I have Minon below, and Eward and Novan fore and aft."
"Send the other two Amazons to join them. Then you meet me at the helm. Of all the damnable times to be caught with my skirt flapping in the wind!" Without waiting for his reply, she went to take over control of the ship.
In the cabin, Gabrielle sat on the bed in stunned silence, trying to calm her mind, slow her heart and regain full use of her senses. Eponin was muttering curses in an Amazon dialect she did not fully understand, but she knew enough to not ask for interpretation. Eponin was upset not only at the topside situation, but also at finding Minon within the stateroom.
Brought to Babylon and betrayed by the Fox. What price had he been given? A deep anger began to wash away the fear in Gabrielles veins. Coming to a decision, she stood quickly, startling both soldiers in the room. "Minon, stand outside."
The guard frowned uncertainly, "Queen Gabrielle, the Conqueror has ordered me to remain beside you."
Eponin made a move toward the Greek soldier, but Gabrielle waved her off. She saw no need to fight among themselves at this moment. "Fine. Then turn your back," she commanded as she began unwinding the scarf from around her waist.
Suddenly realizing what was about to take place, the young soldier turned on heel and began studying the grains of wood in the siding.
"My Queen?" Eponin choked. She didnt know if nudity was the best option under the circumstances.
"Get my ceremonial dress for me, Eponin. If I am to meet Caesar, I will meet him as Queen of the Amazon Nation."
"Yes, my Queen!" Eponin sprung into action, hoping her fingers could as quickly put clothing onto an Amazon as they had always helped remove it.
"Bring the ship in slowly, but dont drop anchor," the Conqueror commanded from directly behind the captain, her dagger digging into the flesh of his neck. A thin trickle of blood already coated the collar of his uniform, but he showed no sign of distress.
"Of course," he replied, before giving out his orders to the crew.
"I want you to send one of your runners to the palace. I want the old Fox to come here himself for the betrayal."
"Betrayal?" he couldnt help but ask.
Using the point of the dagger to turn the Captains gaze toward the ship already in port, Xena growled, "Caesar is here."
"Not Caesar, Pompey." He eased his neck slightly away from the blade. "King Nebuharin has invited all of his significant neighbors here. Pompey came for Rome, but he is only one of nine."
"You, Queen Gabrielle, Pompey of Rome, Queen Farza of Syria, Lord Allemane of Gaul I dont know all the others."
"All here? So much for peace and quiet."
"Captain!" a sailors voice drifted up from the main deck. "King Nebuharin approaches!" The captain awaited the Conquerors orders, acknowledging her power.
"Drop the gangplank. I will go meet him. And I swear to you that if this is a trap, I will survive long enough to make your last moments in life extremely painful. Am I understood?"
The captain swallowed, not daring to nod and impale his throat on her blade. "Yes, Conqueror." He fully believed her promise; indeed, he suspected that even if she were to die, she would find a way to reach across the river Styx and destroy him slowly.
"Watch him, Palaemon," Xena growled dangerously and hurried to where the gangplank was being lowered.
She found Kelryn and Minon standing beside the gangplank, holding onto the railing to keep it from swaying excessively. Further enraged by this disobedience to her orders, she grabbed the Greek soldier by his leather uniform, lifting him up so he was balancing on his toes. "Why have you left Gabrielle?"
"Im right here, Xena," responded the voice she didnt expect.
Xena looked over and saw Gabrielle displayed in her Amazon garb, the sight momentarily distracting her from her anger. Recovering quickly, she approached the smaller woman, towering over her. "What are you doing up here? I thought I told you to go below." The Conqueror spared a glance at Eponin, speaking volumes about what she thought of the Commanders protective abilities.
A determined chin rose and steady green eyes met Xenas, "I wasnt afraid to meet Caesars men in Ephesus; I am not afraid to meet Caesar in Babylon. The Nation will not cower below deck if there is danger above."
The Conqueror clamped down on the proud look that threatened to steal across her features. "Stay right behind me. Nebuharin is approaching and we need to discuss his little surprise." Without waiting for a response, Xena swung over the low railing and began descending the gangplank. Her innate sense of balance kept her upright despite the rolling of the untethered ship.
The dock moved with the current, adding a springy energy to the dark rulers steps. Even in the traditional Babylonian clothing she had donned while traveling, the light seemed to diminish around her, reflecting her mood. Her sword hilt and chakram gleamed in the afternoon sun, reminding all she might be cornered but not defenseless. Ten paces away from King Nebuharin, the Conqueror paused and put her hands on her hips, blocking the pathway to and from the ship. She could feel Gabrielle and her guards set foot on the dock and wait a small distance behind her.
"Greetings, Conqueror Xena!" Nebuharin called out, seemingly oblivious to her mood. "Welcome to Babylon!"
"I seem not to be the only one invited." A jerk of her chin indicated the imperial flag of Rome which fluttered in the lazy wind.
The Kings gaze followed and he shook his head sadly, "Ah, my friend, I can understand your distress." He turned to one of his attaches, "Have the captain lower that flag, or I will send men to cut it down. Remind Pompey that he visits my country, not I his." He shrugged and spread out his hands in supplication, "Romans. They seem to think all the world is their own. No manners, I am afraid."
"I am less concerned with well mannered adversaries than I am with having my throat cut in my sleep, Nebuharin. Surely it is a violation of your gods hospitality to invite a friend under a banner of peace and then cause your friend harm."
"A most grievous sin. And I assure you that you and yours are protected in my kingdom. If not, may Marduk himself strike me down." He listed to the left and peered around her, smiling as he obtained a better view of Gabrielle. "You must be Queen Gabrielle of the Amazons."
"King Nebuharin," came the polite reply. Gabrielle stepped closer and intently examined the Fox. She was amused to find that his hair did seem bristly, although it certainly was not red. His hair and beard were speckled liberally with gray, but his overall appearance was one of vitality. He had a compact and spare body, one that moved gracefully under his robes. The outfit he wore was much like the one she had been wearing earlier, but was adorned with colorful scarves and beads, indicating his wealth and rank.
"Please, let me make a formal apology for the worry this must have brought to you. I understand that you and Rome have recently had a disagreement in Ephesus. I did not mean to cause you alarm."
"A fuller explanation would cause me to feel less alarmed."
The King nodded solemnly, "I have invited you, Queen Gabrielle, and seven other rulers to join me here in Babylon for a time of celebration. It is the anniversary of my reign and I wished to be surrounded by my friends and my allies."
A thin smile edged Xenas lips, "Had you told me, I would have brought you a present."
"You are too kind to your friend," he resumed his approach, assuming that all was understood and forgiven. He opened wide his arms and embraced the Conqueror heartily, kissing first one cheek and then the other.
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and silently reproved Kelryn who had snorted at the sight. She was thus caught unaware when the King pulled her into an embrace and repeated his welcoming with her.
"Queen Gabrielle, it is a pleasure to meet you. I can see the reports I received about you from Ephesus did not do you justice. I had been told that the strength of your warriors was only slightly overshadowed by your beauty. But if such were the case, surely the whole world would bow before the Amazon Queen; for you are truly radiant and I cannot imagine you not overwhelming all those around you."
"You are most generous in your welcome, King Nebuharin. And I suspect you of not a little flattery."
The King clapped his hands together, "Ah, a wise and beautiful Queen. The Amazons have much to be proud of once again." He spun around and began making gestures to his entourage, speaking in a language Gabrielle had never heard before. Turning once more, he held out his hand, "Please, will you accompany me to the palace? I have prepared food and drink for you. My servants will see to your belongings. Let us begin our celebrations."
"We would be happy to, Nebuharin," Xena replied, collecting the invitation for herself as well. She turned to the ship and sent several hand signals to Palaemon, relaying orders for him and the other guards on board. While still unhappy with the turn of events, she saw no need to exacerbate the problem. Best to follow the Fox to his lair. Xena hoped that for once her host had not outsmarted himself.
"This is the Sacred Walk," Nebuharin said over his shoulder, gesturing at the narrow street they traversed on their way to the palace. "It is the processional way in Babylon, giving Marduk entrance to the city during the time of festival. He comes from visiting the river, down this pathway, looking in the windows of the righteous "
"- that could be embarrassing " Kelryn muttered to Eponin.
"- and then making his way to his temple."
The King did not hear the Amazon behind him, but Gabrielle did and she once again gave her youngest guard a disapproving look. "Who lives in this quarter of town, King Nebuharin?" the Amazon Queen asked politely. The houses were all two or three stories in height, which indicated wealth, but were haphazardly placed along the roadside. Many of the buildings would have an open view to the river had each of their neighbor built but a few paces to one side.
"These are the noblemen and officials in my court, Queen Gabrielle."
Xena smirked, having noticed the strategic placement of the houses, each trying to bolster its own reputation at the expense of its neighbors.
"You can recognize the Sacred Walk by these stones." He stopped over a dark red stone and bent down, his fingers following the engraving on its face lovingly. "My great ancestor, King Nebuchadnezzar II had these stones laid personally. Each says the way of the lord and as long as you follow this path, you follow Marduk."
"Marduk is the chief of your gods?"
"He is, much as Zeus is of yours. Except, our Marduk is real." He chuckled at his own joke. "I say this, of course, to tease the Conqueror. She seems to be on a rather familiar basis with your Olympian gods."
"That alone should make you grateful for your absent deities," Xena muttered. It had been too long since Ares last visit, since Ephesus, and she doubted her good fortune would last.
"Oh, Marduk is not absent. He just sets appointments with us instead of dropping in. In fact, we recently celebrated his festival. It was a time of much rejoicing and feasting. And the King receives direction from Marduk himself."
Gabrielle was intrigued, "What happens?"
"On the first night of the festival, I climb to the temple of Marduk, which is located at the top of the Etemenanki," he gestured to the blue tiled tower looming over the city, "and there I await his visit. As King, I am placed on trial for the sins of the people. If the people or I have displeased Marduk too greatly, I will be killed so that another may reign. If we have pleased Marduk, I receive guidance from him."
"Have any kings been killed by Marduk?"
"Sadly, yes. Even Babylon has suffered under wicked kings, but not for long. Marduk protects his people."
Or an assassin does. Xena doubted that the king went to the temple unaccompanied. An unpopular king could easily be dispatched in the ceremony and no one the wiser. It would be the perfect time to take over the kingdom. "Who else is present at this counseling session?"
"No one save the high priestess of Ishtar."
"Who is Ishtar?" Gabrielle asked.
"Ah, Ishtar is our goddess of love and of war."
"Love and war? Isnt that contradictory?" The oracle tried to imagine Ares and Aphrodite agreeing on anything; it was impossible.
The King stopped and regarded the younger Queen seriously. "Not in Babylon. I know many rulers go to war for conquest and gain, to expand their empires and make themselves become great. Ishtar teaches us that we fight only for that which we love: our homeland, our peoples, our gods. Babylon has enjoyed peace with its neighbors for generations now because we follow the path of love and war, and not one or the other exclusively."
There was a long uncomfortable silence among all the rulers until Xena took in a deep breath. "Arent we heading to a party, Nebuharin?" Her voice was measured, careful to not allow her annoyance to show too clearly. She did not appreciate the other ruler attempting to publicly castigate her, however obliquely and cloaked in religion.
For now Xena knew it was important to keep relations polite. She was a guest in a foreign land and was surrounded by her enemies. A quick exit from the country was all but impossible unless they were to travel south on the Euphrates, taking them still further away from Greece. This wasnt exactly the relaxing visit she had hoped to enjoy with Gabrielle.
The Fox flashed a brilliant smile and nodded vigorously, "Absolutely, yes. Come, let us hurry! You will want time to relax before our gathering tonight." He began briskly walking down the processional way toward the leafy palace.
Not eager to resume any discussion, the Conqueror let the King move a short distance ahead before she started out. When she realized Gabrielle was standing still, she returned to the Amazon Queens side. "Everything all right?"
In response, Gabrielle stretched out her hand to the Conqueror. "Im sorry." The oracles eyes were sad as they met Xenas. "I didnt mean for him to say anything like that. I would never "
Xena took the smaller hand in hers and shrugged, "It was nothing, Gabrielle. Nebuharin wasnt even particularly insulting." She tugged on Gabrielle and began leading them down the road, their three soldiers forming a protective arc at their back. "Its only going to get worse when we go to the party. Pompey certainly has no love for me, nor do any of the others Nebuharin mentioned. If the worst thing said is that Im not like Ishtar, itll be a good evening."
"Do you regret coming here?"
The ruler gave the hand she held a reassuring squeeze, "No. I only regret being caught unaware. But you and I will find a way to enjoy ourselves despite the company we keep."
"Oh, do you have any ideas?"
The Conqueror smiled suggestively and leaned into the oracle as they walked so that her lips brushed a small, pink ear, "I have many ideas, Gabrielle. My favorite one involves you, me, rose petals and a soft bed."
The warmth of the Conquerors hand and the imagery her words evoked, chased away any lingering unease in Gabrielle. She was once again able to appreciate the scenery around her.
They walked through the remainder of the nobles quarter to a long, walled roadway that led directly to the palace. The walls were made of a glazed brick and lions were depicted along their length. The lions were in various poses reclining, playing, feeding, attacking. Each was drawn with exquisite detail and had they not been in brilliant colors, Gabrielle would have thought them real.
At the end of this roadway was a huge gate which barred entrance to the outer courtyard of the palace. The gate, made of bronze, was decorated with dragons and bulls, also rendered in great detail. Passing through them, Gabrielle tugged on the Conquerors hand. "Do you think theyre real?" she whispered.
Xena frowned momentarily, until she realized Gabrielle wasnt only referring to the gates. "Dragons? Well, Ive never seen one." Her tone clearly implied if she had not yet encountered one she was doubtful of their worthiness as a beast.
"But do you think theyre real?" the oracle persisted.
"I think theyre myths made up to keep children from running out to play in the night."
Hearing the disappointment in the young womans tone, Xena chuckled. "We can ask Nebuharin if hes ever seen one."
"I dont particularly want to ask him any more questions, thank you." She didnt like the Fox using her to aim a criticism at the Conqueror. I will not be duped again. Nor will the Amazon Nation be considered so meek as to tolerate such behavior.
The Conqueror nodded gravely and then turned her attention to the palace before them. It resembled a small mountain, with long vines overhanging the walls, obscuring their true nature. Like the temple in the middle of the city, the palace was built in stepped layers, four in number. Each layer was home to a multitude of trees and shrubbery. Only by careful observation could one make out the columns, arches, doorways, and walls beneath the foliage. It gave the impression that the building itself was alive, that they were walking into the belly of a leafy beast.
Entering the palace they walked briskly through several large rooms. The first was a highly ornamented reception hall, designed to intimidate those who entered. Given her current mood, it only served to make Gabrielle further annoyed with the Fox. The next was a large room used for social functions such as dinners and dances, as she could tell from the many tables and the dance floor. It had little in the way of other furniture, but had many beautiful tapestries hanging on the walls which depicted exotic animals. The last room they passed through was a trophy room, filled with the hides and heads of many animals. Gabrielle noted sourly that there was no dragon among them.
They walked through an archway and came to a separation between the palace and an inner palace. This gap was a little over a chain in width and filled with sunlight and a fine sand that had been raked into intricate patterns. Throughout the sand were a few boulders off-setting the design, sending it spiraling in another direction. It was simple and elegant. It disturbed Gabrielle that they were about to walk over it and mar its beauty.
The Conqueror could feel the curiosity pouring out of the Amazon Queen as they reached this rift between the two palaces, but knew Gabrielle well enough to know she would give no voice to it right now. Her compassion was matched only by her stubbornness.
King Nebuharin stopped at this juncture and turned to face his guests, smiling pleasantly. "As you can see, we are about to enter the royal living quarters. My rooms and garden are set apart from the rest of palace by this channel and no servant or soldier, other than my own, is allowed past this point. We have suitable accommodations prepared for your honor guard on this side. My servants will lead them there while I take you to your room."
Xena folded her arms across her chest and shook her head slowly, "King Nebuharin, surely you understand that I cannot allow my officers to be unaware of where I and Queen Gabrielle will be staying. Should there arise a problem, especially due to the presence of some of your other guests, my men must know how to find me. Our guards will walk with us to our room and then withdraw."
"I am afraid that is impossible, Conqueror. I have not allowed any servant of the other dignitaries to enter into the royal dwelling. I should not make an exception for you."
"I understand," the Conqueror replied, surprising all of the people with her. She waited a moment for King Nebuharin to look pleased with her concession before she turned to Minon. "Run back to the ship and have Palaemon see that our belongings are stowed away. We will set sail in two candlemarks." Smiling pleasantly, she met King Nebuharins gaze. "I am afraid, in that case, I must bid you farewell. I cannot compromise my safety or that of Queen Gabrielle because of your unwillingness to allow this small favor. I hope you have a most pleasant dinner party this evening, but we will be unable to join you."
Eponin stepped forward, anticipating an adverse reaction by the King. Even though the Destroyer had spoken on her Queens behalf, she could certainly not argue with this decision. She had not liked the Fox or even Babylon since they had entered the walled city. Greece was still a moon away, but at least they would be headed in the right direction.
Minon inclined his head, "Yes, my liege," and left.
"Conqueror," Nebuharin sighed.
"Call back your officer. They may walk with you to your room, but then they must leave immediately."
Minon heard the other ruler clearly but kept marching briskly until he heard the Conquerors voice bidding him to return.
"Please, follow me," Nebuharin bade, his voice more subdued than earlier, and he led them across.
Gabrielle walked lightly on the sand, but still left footprints along the length of it. She wondered why there was no crossing path provided so as to avoid marring the sand sculpture. Then she realized that was exactly the point. There was no way anyone could enter into the royal quarters undetected. A scan of the area indicated there were no tools nearby to repair the damage to the design. It was the perfect entry detection system far too wide for even Xena to leap, no vines for someone to swing across, no windows which opened over the gap, the boulders placed too far apart to hop from one to another. The only way into and out of the royal quarters was over this sand.
They entered into a room even more opulent than the ones seen before. "My private gardens are beyond," Nebuharin noted, gesturing to the open double doors on the opposite wall, "and your room is in this wing, on the second floor." He led them to a wide staircase and climbed it, leading them down a hallway to the far end. There he opened the door to the guest room he had prepared for them.
Xena was pleased as she surveyed its contents. In the far right corner she immediately noted the large feather bed housed in a wood frame with a canopy, gauzy white drapes encircling it. The rest of the room contained several large and comfortable looking chairs with low tables between them, two dressers for their belongings, a bathing station to freshen up at, and a balcony overlooking the gardens below.
Nebuharin ambled over to the balcony. "We will be having dinner tonight there," he jabbed a finger in the direction of the large white garden house in the southwest corner of the gardens. "We will have honeyed liqueur at dusk. May I suggest you come early?"
"Why is that?" the Conqueror inquired mildly.
"You have to go through a maze in the garden to get there. Its easier in the daylight."
The Conqueror then saw the high hedges which led in an intricate pattern to the garden house. The hedges extended out from all sides of the raised platform; there was no other way to get to it except through the maze. "All right. We will see you at dusk then, Nebuharin."
"I leave you to relax. And to see that your soldiers leave immediately."
Neither of the visiting rulers replied as he saw himself out.
"Whew!" Gabrielle expelled, dropping into one of the chairs and immediately liking its softness. "Eponin, Kelryn, come sit for a moment."
Kelryn hurried over and chose the chair next to the Queen. She couldnt remember a more exciting day since entering the Queens service: Romans, political bickering and posturing, the wordplay going on between the King, the Conqueror and the Queen, the annoyance of the Queen. It all made for good drama. She couldnt wait to tell the tales back in Greece, especially the one of her besting Eponin in their bet.
"If there are any problems where you are staying, send one of Nebuharins servants to me with a message and Ill come out to you," Gabrielle advised reasonably. "I am hoping that this visit will improve greatly, if not, we may be leaving soon."
"Of course, my Queen." Eponin would gladly carry every single trunk back to the ship herself if it meant they would leave any time sooner. All of her instincts told her to get her Queen out of the palace and fast, but she knew there was nothing she could do about it.
"And you," Gabrielle shifted her attention to the young guard, "need to be careful of what you say around others. Never insult our hosts gods, especially in his own country." She watched the slow burn of a blush creep over Kelryns face and neck.
"Yes, my Queen." Kelryn found herself unable to meet Gabrielles eyes. Her shoulders slumped and she had to remind herself to draw back in her lower lip from the pout position it had assumed. "I am sorry."
"Good." She waited a moment longer for the chastisement to take hold, then continued, "Youre a good soldier, Kelryn. If you can learn to be more like Eponin, you will be an excellent one." As Gabrielle was focused on Kelryn, she missed the smirk directed at the soldier from Eponin. She did not miss, however, the continued distressed countenance of the youth. "I personally chose you to come with me. Please do not disappoint me."
At that, Kelryns head snapped up. Her gray eyes reminded Gabrielle of storm clouds on the horizon. "Never, my Queen."
"Good. I want to be right about you, Kelryn."
"You are. I swear by Artemis temple, you are."
Gabrielle bestowed a gentle smile on the guard and nodded seriously. "Good. Ill see you both later."
Both soldiers rose to their feet, bowed and walked to the door. They waited at the doorframe for Minon who was speaking in low tones with the Conqueror. After a moment, he bowed and took his leave.
The Conqueror closed the door behind the guards, lowering the bar, locking it securely. She then went to the balcony and stood in the afternoon sunlight, letting it soak into her skin and warm her thoroughly. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, drawing in all the exotic scents from the gardens below. It was a moment of peace, one she didnt realize she had needed until she felt arms slide around her waist and Gabrielles head rest between her shoulder blades.
"Do we have to go to dinner tonight?" the plaintive voice behind the ruler asked.
Xena chuckled; she knew how the Amazon Queen behaved when she was hungry. "I think we better. The gods only know what Nebuharin has planned for this evening. Wed hate to miss it."
"I dont like him."
"I picked up on that." Xena gently patted Gabrielles hand on her waist. "Hes all right, just a bit eccentric and a lot condescending."
"How come youre not annoyed with him like I am?"
"I cant really allow myself to indulge in that right now. This has become a bit more complicated than I anticipated. I didnt expect him to invite all the gods-be-damned leaders of the region here. And we dont even know the whole guest list. I need to stay sharp. I cant let petty things get to me."
"You think were in danger?"
"Hmm well, lets just say we wouldnt have come if we had known about this. Nebuharin is infuriating, annoying and patronizing, but he is a man of honor. We were invited here as friends and as guests of his household. We should be safe."
"From Nebuharin. But not necessarily everyone else."
Xena scowled; her oracle had seen through her extremely positive spin of their situation. "Nah, were safe from them too. I wont let anything happen to you, Gabrielle."
The Queen rubbed her cheek against the soft material at Xenas back, "I know that. I just want to know who our enemies are here."
"It might be quicker to count our friends."
Xena nodded, "That would be it. At least, from what I know so far."
Gabrielle sighed, "With friends like that, who needs enemies?"
Dusk came much sooner than Gabrielle would have liked. She was still a little bit put off by everything, but knew she needed to set her foul mood aside. Nervously, she resettled her dress fabric, watching the way it draped her body critically. The Conqueror had insisted she wear a green satin dress she thought was entirely too form-fitting and revealing. It was tight through the chest and waist and flared out gently at her hips, stopping at mid calf. The dress was sleeveless and was cut low on top and had a high slit up the right side.
"You look beautiful, as an Amazon Queen should." Xena assured her as she led her confidently through the maze.
Gabrielle thought the same compliment could be directed toward the Conqueror. Although beautiful didnt seem to be quite the right descriptive. Dressed in a gown a few shades darker than her eyes, the Conqueror seemed majestic in every sense of the word. Power poured from her, the same way the sun throws off heat, and like the sun everything paled in comparison to her radiance. "How do you know your way through here so well?"
"Memorized the pattern while we were standing on the balcony. Didnt want to have to stumble around." Xena stopped and faced her oracle. "Things might get a little rough tonight, Gabrielle."
"You think someone might try to hurt us?"
"No," Xena replied, though she didnt feel quite as confident as she sounded. "Its just when you put a bunch of rulers into one confined space, everyone begins posturing and testing one another a bit. Youll likely get it since youre new at leading the Amazon Nation. People will see if you should be leading a nation of warriors."
"Great, just great."
"Youll be fine. Just pretend youre talking to me." At Gabrielles questioning look, Xena explained, "Tell the truth. You do it well."
A few more turns and the two emerged into the clearing at the center. The garden was divided into quadrants, with the southwest corner devoted to the maze surrounding the garden house. The building was a raised open-air structure, large enough to comfortably house a table which sat twenty, but was set for ten. The table was covered with a heavy white cloth and surrounded by overstuffed chairs. At the other end of the building was an open area where seven people were milling about, stopping at the bar and refilling their goblets.
"Ah! Conqueror Xena! Queen Gabrielle!" King Nebuharin called out, loudly announcing their arrival. He walked over to the short staircase ascending to the garden house and extended his hand to Gabrielle. The oracle hesitated only a moment before placing her right hand in his and allowing him to help her up the stairs.
Xena came up behind her, settling her expression into one of infinite boredom. She lifted seemingly disinterested eyes to survey those assembled. She recognized the majority of them and could guess who the remainder were. The only woman among the other rulers had to be Queen Farza of Syria. She was a woman of average height, with brown skin and cocoa colored hair gathered at the nape of her neck. Xena recognized it as a strategic ploy since it emphasized one of her better qualities and brought the eyes upward from more than ample hips. She watched as Farza sized up her competition in comeliness at this gathering, and saw the flicker of knowledge that she had lost handily.
Next to her was Lord Allemane of Gaul. Xena had met him before and instantly identified him by his copious amounts of dark, curly hair. It was even longer than Gabrielles and was loose around his shoulders. Her first thought was in battle she would grab him by his hair and kill him, or force his horse to ride through low-lying branches and entangle him there. It was her ardent belief that soldiers should have short hair, or keep it tied and away from their opponents grasp. She smirked, unless they were as good as she was. Then they could do anything they pleased with it.
By the bar was King Kulam of Persia. Though his people were related by royal marriage to the Babylonian empire, there was no love lost between them. Kulam was a hard man, made harder still by excessive political strife in his homeland. He had now survived four assassination attempts. His dark eyes were as cold as the night which was beginning to embrace the rulers.
Standing behind Kulam, giving her and Gabrielle a look of pure hatred, coupled with a healthy dose of fear, was Proconsul Gregor of Ephesus. His hands looked gnarled and she knew they had not healed properly after Palaemons questioning. Idly, she wondered if his toes had suffered the same fate.
Of the two remaining men, Xena identified the tall, blond haired general as Pompey of Rome. His crimson cape hung off one shoulder in what she supposed he considered a dashing manner. He openly surveyed her arrogantly, taking measure of her and deciding she came short of expectation. She too found him wanting. He resembled her Captain of the Royal Guard, but had grown soft from the life of privilege.
She could only guess the last man was from the north of Greece, though she was unsure of his country. He wore a cloak of bear skin and he himself resembled a bear far too large and hairy to be considered at all attractive. He smiled in Gabrielles direction baring teeth that resembled fangs. Xena stepped closer to the Amazon Queen and laid a proprietary hand on the small of her back, claiming territory. She knew she would be challenged, but she would establish her interest early on.
"And this is Chief Dokov of the Huns," Nebuharin concluded, as he had been introducing each of his guests while Xena surveyed them. "Of course, Xena the Conqueror of Greece needs no introduction. And this is Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazon Nation."
"Hi," Gabrielle smiled, desperately wanting to ease the tension which had cloaked the gathering.
No one responded.
"Where is the last one?" Xena inquired of Nebuharin. "I was told you invited nine rulers for the celebration."
"Hello, Xena," a melodic voice behind her said.
Xena spun around to face Lao Ma who was mounting the stairs gracefully, a large snow leopard at her side. The Conqueror was unsure what surprised her more: seeing the de facto ruler of Chin, her former mentor, or looking down into the intelligent eyes of the predatory cat. "Lao Ma," she breathed.
"Son of a Jubai! What is that beast doing here!" Queen Farza shrieked, recoiling, though the animal had made no move in her direction. Indeed, it had paid her no attention until she created the commotion.
Lao Mas dark eyes flicked to the heavyset woman and her hand settled in the thick fur covering her cat's head. "This is Pei-cha. He is my friend."
"Friend?" Pompey echoed, amused. "Hes a leopard." He thought it was time someone brought this to her attention.
The Empress nodded gravely, "And I am thus doubly honored by his friendship."
Gabrielle was watching the scene unfold with fascination. It was clear the Conqueror and the mysterious friend-of-a-snow-leopard were acquainted, and she felt a shiver of jealousy run down the length of her spine. She wished for the rulers hand to return to her, but they were now separated by the newcomers, the cat and empress having interposed themselves when they ascended the stairs.
Nebuharin waited while the sovereigns inspected one another carefully. He watched the professional soldiers among them move to better strategic positions, while the others spread out as well, unconsciously desiring distance. They were the ten rulers responsible for the majority of the settled world, with the notable exception of Egypt. He had invited Cleopatra, but she had deferred stating other obligations. Obligations which, Nebuharin knew, included the reason why Caesar had sent Pompey in his stead.
The evening was going exactly as he had planned.
"Come, let us all enjoy the bounty of the land! I assure you, this honey liqueur is the finest ever." He ambled over to the bar and slipped behind it, taking the role of bartender to the rulers. He had sent away the majority of his servants for the evening, desiring to create an atmosphere where they could all speak freely. Noting who didnt already have a drink, he lined up the correct number of goblets and began filling them.
"How have you been, Xena?" Lao Ma inquired, her slender fingers moving through Pei-chas fur. The large cat sidled up to the Empress side, rubbing his cheek against the silk of Lao Mas gold toned dress.
The Conqueror shrugged, "Greece prospers."
"So I have heard." The beautiful woman turned her gaze to Gabrielle. "Queen Gabrielle, I am honored to meet you."
Gabrielle was surprised by the warmth of Lao Mas tone. The Empress eyes conveyed only a sincere regard for her, nothing like her own jealous response. She melted a bit and smiled broadly, "I am pleased to meet you, as well." Gabrielle indicated the cat which had a rather content expression on his face, if she was reading it correctly. "Is he this friendly to others?"
"Pei-cha is rather discerning with his friendship. However, I think he would extend it to you. Place your hand in front of his nose. If he pushes his head into your hand, he has accepted you. Otherwise, it is best to not put your hand in front of his mouth again."
The oracle nodded solemnly, "All right. Im willing to try." Slowly she extended her small hand, palm forward, in front of Pei-chas nose. There was something about the inherent danger of approaching such a beast she found exhilarating. She could feel his warm, moist breath landing upon the skin of her palm, and then she felt his nose pressed into it. A delighted laugh escaped out of her and her fingers stroked the underside of Pei-chas chin. "I have a new friend."
Lao Ma smiled enigmatically. "Yes, you do."
"Come, come, let us feast together!" King Nebuharin began shooing the rulers toward the long table. "You will find your seat by the figurines above the plates."
Each of the guests wandered over to the table and began trying to locate their seat. It was a fairly simple task as all of the rulers had been rendered in a painted porcelain figurine. Each of them was incredibly accurate, mimicking even the usual facial expressions of their subject. Xena noted that hers had been given her hard battle stare while Gabrielles had a smile gracing her features.
Xena also saw she and Gabrielle were to be separated at the table by Pompey. Smiling at King Nebuharin, she switched hers and Pompeys figurines, moving him to her left. She saw no need for her to be deprived of Gabrielles company during this evening, which she was sure was designed to torture her. Pulling out Gabrielles chair, the Conqueror waited while her oracle seated herself gracefully and then took her own seat.
The night air was filled with the sounds of chairs scraping along the wooden surface of the garden house floor and people settling themselves at the table. Seated in the center of the table was King Nebuharin, looking for all the world like the sphinx in Egypt, his expression inscrutable. He was flanked to his left and right by Lao Ma and Farza, with Allemane to the right of Farza and Gregor to the left of Lao Ma. Opposite Nebuharin were Xena, with Pompey and Gabrielle on either side of her, and Kulam on Pompeys left and Dokov on Gabrielles right. Xena chastised herself mentally for not having moved Dokov from beside Gabrielle as well. The Hun Chief made her furious with the lascivious looks he directed at her oracle.
All eyes turned expectantly to Nebuharin. He rose and lifted his glass. "A toast to you, my friends and allies. May peace bless our lands as we lead our peoples along the right path." People murmured assent and drank the liqueur. The King picked up a small brass bell beside his place setting and rang it, the notes carrying clearly through the gardens.
Immediately four serving girls emerged from behind a screen and began carrying over the first course of the banquet. They each had a tray overflowing with fruit and cheese which they brought among those seated. As each of the rulers helped themselves, Nebuharin spoke.
"I have invited each of you here to join with me in celebrating the anniversary of my reign over Babylon. I was a lad of just sixteen winters when my father died leaving me the Kingdom. Fortunately, I was blessed with true advisers and the kindness of Marduk and so I have now served Babylon forty winters. In due time, I will be gathered to my ancestors. It is my duty to ensure continued peace for my people. That is why I have invited each of you here. It is my desire that we ensure the peace and prosperity of all our countries."
"How will we do that?" Kulam muttered. "The only way there can be true peace is if there is only one of us left."
Allemanes head snapped up. "Are you threatening us, Kulam?"
The dark eyes which had seen the faces of four would-be assassins stared at the Gaul. "No. I am stating the obvious." He drained the rest of his liqueur. "Who here trusts another at this table?"
All eyes turned to Gabrielle.
"I trust Xena with my life."
The Proconsul laughed bitterly, setting down his goblet with infinite care due to his misshapen fingers. "That harpy! Shell cut your heart out the moment your back is turned, you little fool! Shes only using you, like she used me to get the information she wanted."
Before anyone else could respond, Pompeys voice cut low and threatening through the air. "What information would that be, Gregor?" His blue eyes fixed on the Proconsul he had helped install in Ephesus. He and Caesar had suspected this betrayal, but to hear of it blurted out at dinner was more than he could handle.
Xena leaned back, smirking. "When he sold Rome out, Pompey. He wet himself too. Yet he couldnt wait to tell me everything I wanted to know."
The obese man held up his hands, displaying mangled fingers for all to see. "Does this look like I wanted to tell?" In truth, he had been eager, he was so afraid, and had counted himself grateful to only be left with broken bones.
"You are still alive, Gregor. The Destroyer would not have left you that way if you did not serve a purpose for her."
"Conqueror," Xena growled, but left it at that.
Soft green eyes turned to meet Xenas, concern evident in them. She reached out and covered Xenas hand with her own. I am not afraid of her, no matter what she may have done.
"Youre a bastard, Pompey," Gregor countered. "Youre just Caesars lapdog who waits for his permission to take a piss. We all know that youre here because Caesar is too busy bedding Cleopatra to come to this gathering."
Pompeys face reddened but he said nothing in reply. His hand gripped tightly around the knife at his place setting and he briefly considered flinging it into the Proconsuls throat.
Farza laughed; it sounded like a dogs bark. "This is just like dinner in my kingdom. How delightful of you to invite us, Nebuharin." She opened her mouth and tossed a fig in, chewing happily.
"Farza, how long ago was it you poisoned your husband, in order to take his throne?" Allemane inquired blithely.
Farza brushed hair off her neck and glanced at the man seated to her right. Surprisingly, she laughed once again. "As I said, just like home. You play the part of my eldest son well, Allemane."
Kulam smiled, "You mean you havent killed him yet? Quite the oversight." He and the Syrian Queen exchanged knowing looks.
"Friends, friends, please," Nebuharin finally intervened. "Please, let us talk reasonably with one another. Let us build the foundation of an assured peace." He looked slightly distressed at this turn of events. This was not how the dinner was supposed to go. But they had time, he would see to that.
"Peace cannot be had if it is first not found in ones own heart, Nebuharin. How do you propose to introduce peace here at this table?" Lao Ma inquired, her hand stroking Pei-chas large head. She pointedly looked at the other rulers who were clearly without peace of heart or mind. The only one who seemed remotely centered was Gabrielle. The young ruler was listening and watching carefully not letting the barbs thrown impact her.
Nebuharin sighed and took another long swallow of his drink. "I was afraid this would happen. Although, I must admit to being surprised it has come to this so quickly. I had hoped to be able to enjoy dinner together at least."
The Conquerors head snapped up at the comment, "Come to what exactly?"
Pompey too became alert. "Nebuharin, what is going on?"
"We will work this out, we will come to terms," Nebuharin stated, spreading his hands out. "I have instructed my palace guards that no one is allowed in or out of my living quarters for the next quarter moon. If anyone attempts to do so, they will be killed."
"This is outrageous!" Allemane raged, rising from his seat.
"Sit down," Kulam ordered. "Of course it is, that is not the point."
"What is the point then?"
"The point is, we are his prisoners."
Lao Ma laid a hand on Nebuharins forearm, "Peace can only be negotiated when all parties are free, Nebuharin. A captive is unable to give true consent to terms. Surely you know this."
The older ruler shook his head, "You are not prisoners."
"Then we can walk out," Gregor stated.
"No. We will secure peace for the future. That will be our legacy, our gift to our grandchildren. It is the mark of a great leader to ensure this for his or her people. And I, for one, intend to be great, like my ancestor King Nebuchadnezzar." He eyes glistened momentarily before he cleared his throat and continued. "I am sorry to have to force this issue, but it is for the best. You and your people will, one day, thank me."
"Whats to stop me from walking out and raking a swirly pattern behind me?" Pompey looked frustrated, annoyed at having been sent into a trap meant for Caesar.
Nebuharin shrugged, "It is made with a special tool, none of which are on this side of the palace. It is also an intricate pattern, one taught by the priests of Marduk. I doubt if you can recreate it accurately."
Xena leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs idly. "So, what are your plans for us? How are we to go about making peace?"
Nebuharin smiled at her, grateful for her support. "Ah, we will talk. We will work out our differences. We will make treaties and bind our countries to them."
"And if we cannot come to terms?" Gabrielle asked, calculating that the odds were against this group even agreeing that water was wet.
"Let us not anticipate such an occurrence, Gabrielle."
"Oh, lets," Xena countered.
"Then I will have to assure peace for my descendants."
Queen Farza nodded, "Like I did."
King Nebuharin clasped the womans hand and nodded. "Exactly."
Suddenly Gabrielle felt a large hand traveling up the length of her right thigh and hot breath on her neck, "If were not to last more than a quarter moon, why dont you and I start getting to know one another better now?"
Gabrielle shrieked and pushed away from the table and the hairy hand.
Xena reacted immediately, pushing Gabrielle behind her and advancing quickly on the still seated Dokov. Grasping the Huns upper arms, she pulled him from his chair and tossed him toward the open area, much as Pei-cha would his dinner before consuming it. "Never touch her!" she spat out, heat and anger flashing through her body, taking control. "Never!" She advanced on the fallen man and kicked him solidly in the gut, forcing air out of his lungs.
Dokov rolled with the kick, coming to a crouch a few feet away from her. "I thought she was anyones slut, if she would lay down for you."
The Conqueror came at him again and was met by the Hun. Her fist connected with his jaw, sending him staggering backward another pace. They advanced on each other again and began trading blows.
The other rulers left the table and formed a loose ring around the combatants. Lao Ma placed a restraining hand on Gabrielles arm for the young woman looked as if she might enter the fray.
Pompey stood next to Nebuharin and nudged him with his elbow. "I see your plans for peace are working admirably already."
"My friends, stop this!" the Babylonian leader cried out, advancing on the fighting duo.
The Hun pulled out a concealed knife and brandished it before Xena, stopping Nebuharins approach. "Come just a bit closer, whore. Let me save my men the trouble of invading your homeland."
Xena watched the blade carefully, then struck suddenly. She feinted with a left jab, but connected with a solid kick to the groin. She heard a satisfying crunch and gasp as the Hun fell to his knees, clutching at himself, the knife falling to the floor forgotten.
"Bastard!" Xena spat and briefly considered killing him but decided against it for now. Her primary concern was Gabrielle. She didnt think Dokov had actually harmed her oracle, but she needed to assure herself of that fact. Blowing out an angry breath, she relaxed her features so as not to alarm Gabrielle any more than the fight already had, and turned to face her lover.
"Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked softly, carefully moderating her voice so as not to convey a lack of confidence in the Conqueror.
Xena rolled her eyes, "That hardly qualified as a fight, but thank you for asking." She stepped forward and carefully examined Gabrielle, running her hands down the exposed arms and clasping her hands gently. "The much more important question is did he hurt you?"
A gentle shake of the Amazons Queen answered her. "He just startled me."
Gabrielle smiled gently, "I think I would know."
"Good. Id hate to kill him before the main course, it might delay our getting served." Xena smirked at her own humor and then leaned down and kissed Gabrielle.
The Amazon Queens eyes fluttered closed and she sighed in contentment. She allowed herself the luxury of forgetting she was in a foreign country, surrounded by people who hated her for no apparent reason, and was being held captive for the next quarter moon. Although, she could think of few things better than confinement with the Conqueror. She felt Xenas hands cupping her cheeks and she leaned forward, resting against the taller woman.
The crowd dispersed, some of the rulers refilling their cups from the bar, others going back to their seats, wondering if the next course would be served. Nebuharin carefully picked up the knife and tucked it into his belt. He looked down at the grunting Hun. "Shall I have my servants bring a cold cloth for you?"
"There will be no peace, Nebuharin. Never. Not in my lifetime." His hate-filled eyes bored into the back which was confidently displayed to him. He hated her arrogance, and her easy defeat of him. He hated that it was her bed the beautiful Amazon Queen would be in later that night.
"Lets get us a refill," Xena suggested, when she pulled away reluctantly. She led Gabrielle by the hand to the table to get their goblets.
Nebuharin followed them. "Let me," he offered, taking them and walking back to the bar. After he refilled them, he returned to Xena and Gabrielle. "I apologize for Dokovs most inappropriate behavior, Queen Gabrielle."
"Ready to reconsider this foolish idea?" Xena challenged, her arm forming a protective arc around Gabrielles shoulders.
"I still believe we can accomplish much here, Xena. We need only try." Deciding to have more of the liqueur himself, he picked up his goblet which was near Xena and walked back to the bar.
No one had left the garden house, but none seemed inclined to stay much longer, despite the fact the entrée had not yet been served. Nebuharin knew that for his plan to succeed he had to keep the rulers together, force them to interact. He needed to secure peace in his lifetime. It would be his legacy. "My friends, we have more of the bounty of Babylon to enjoy. Please, sit and eat."
"I would prefer to have my dinner brought to my room," Queen Farza commented frostily. She was more than tired of the evenings entertainment. She wanted only the peace of solitude.
Nebuharin took a long draught from his goblet, wanting to soothe his own frazzled nerves. "I think it would be best if we remained together. It will give us time to talk."
"I dont want to talk!" Dokov spat out. He was standing, but slightly bent over. "I want her dead!"
Xena seemingly ignored him and placed a kiss on Gabrielles right temple, knowing it would infuriate him all the more.
Kulam chuckled, "I think it might be the other way around, Dokov. You may already be unable to sire a successor."
"I will not be insulted in this way!" Dokov began advancing on the Persian King.
"What way would you like?" his intended target asked, nonplussed by his approach.
Pompey cleared his throat loudly, "Nebuharin, you need to control your guest."
Nebuharin tried to respond, but no sound issued forth, his lips moving silently. He clutched at his throat. Everyone stopped and focused on their host as his skin began to turn a light shade of blue, his eyes becoming wild with fear. His fingers scratched the skin from his throat, drawing rivulets of blood along its length. Soon, he collapsed to the ground, striking his head against the table on his way down.
Lao Ma and Allemane reached him first. The Empress placed her hand in front of his nose and mouth and waited. She felt nothing for long moments. Allemane placed his hand on the Kings chest which had stopped moving altogether. They exchanged a silent look of shared knowledge.
To be continued
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