Xena: Warrior Princess is owned by MCA and Universal and Renaissance Pictures, however they choose to divide it up. In writing this story, I have not intended to infringe on their rights, even though I know most courts of law would say that I have done so. I'll never make a dime off this story and it's absolutely certain that by writing fan fiction, I erase any iota of any chance I ever had of landing a job on the Xena staff, but since that probability is akin to finding microscopic mutant-fly DNA fossilized at the bottom of Lake Tahoe from a Sears telescope situated on one of the rings of Saturn, I'm not going to sweat the details.
This story depicts the main characters in a loving relationship though there is nothing in here illegal for the younger folks (that means--no sex).
There are oblique references to events in two early stories: Mantic and The Peloponnesian War. I don't think you need read them before this one; just understand that when there's a "remember the time when..." and it isn't about the episode When in Rome (and that's an oblique reference, too), then it's about something that occurred in an earlier baermer story.
Huge thank-yous go to my friends who read this in progress and prodded me to finish it. Its gestation period was close to twelve months, and without their support I'd still probably be in chapter ten (have I mentioned yet that this is a long one?).
And most importantly, I wish to publicly thank my trusted and eagle-eyed beta reader, Inga Horwood. She is a writer's reader in the truest sense.
Criticism and comments are welcomed with open arms.
In nature's infinite book of secrecy
A little I can read.
-Soothsayer from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Gabrielle fingered a tiny blue-tinged pearl under a nervous merchant's penetrating glare. "Thank you," she said pleasantly, pressing the gem back into his cupped palm and watching him relax. "It's very beautiful." She laughed lightly. "But it's not really me."
The merchant slid the pearl safely inside a red silk pouch he wore snugly about his waist. "Perhaps I could interest you in something less expensive..." He glanced toward the tall warrior who was busy scowling at him. "Ah, something more practical?"
Gabrielle watched Xena roll her eyes and figured she had pushed the warrior far enough. Xena wasn't one to endure shopping just for the sake of looking at things. When the warrior princess shopped, she knew what she wanted and went straight to it, no dilly-dallying to browse on the way.
The bard smiled at her friend then turned toward the merchant. "No, thank you. We have to be on our way." She eased her hand around Xena's arm and led her out into the crowded and noisy streets of the Athenian marketplace. "Thanks for indulging me."
Xena tugged the smaller woman out of the way of an oncoming cart, stacked high with late spring vegetables and smelling vaguely of warm, rich dirt. "My pleasure, Gabrielle. We don't get to Athens very often."
"Yes, but I manage to make you take me shopping more than you want no matter where we are." She gave the muscled arm she still had clasped an affectionate squeeze. "Ready to get out of the market?"
Xena shook her head. "We still need a few things. There are some herbs we can only get here."
They trudged through the bustling crowd, past vendors hawking garlic-rich roasted lamb and honey-sweetened lemon pastries to an area dotted with spice and herb sellers. Gabrielle paused by a large stall, uncorking a few of the jars and inhaling the exotic perfumes of cardamom, ginger, and turmeric while Xena sorted through some nearby herbs. A few deep breaths of the spices' enticing perfumes and Gabrielle could understand why they were treasured like gold and silver. She reached for one last jar to sample its bewitching fragrance. She popped the cork and felt her knees give way as if a powerful force had sucked the strength from her muscles.
"Gabrielle, are you okay?" Xena's worried voice pulled the bard back toward consciousness as the warrior's arms held her steady.
"Yeah, fine," Gabrielle mumbled. "Just let me catch my breath."
She felt Xena steer her toward a stool behind the counter, barely noticing the spice seller giving them a wide berth. Gratefully, the bard sat down and lowered her head into her hands. Images from a vision she'd had several days back came rushing by. All those strange-looking people she'd seen... That could have meant something would happen in Athens, she thought. There were all sorts of people from exotic lands buying and selling in the melting-pot marketplace. Gabrielle shook her head and looked up to see Xena hovering over her, brow knitted. "It has to do with what I saw."
"I kinda figured as much. Nothing else hits you like that." Xena smoothed the hair from Gabrielle's face. "Sit for a minute and then we'll go back to the inn."
"I'll be fine, Xena. You don't need to worry."
The warrior had recently spent three days tending to Gabrielle's every need after the bard had experienced the vision. On the first day, Gabrielle had been so sick she'd needed Xena's help even to sit up and take a sip of water. By the second day, she'd been feeling much better, and on the third she was more than ready to take care of herself. But Gabrielle didn't want to hurt Xena's feelings so she patiently waited for Xena to decide for herself that the bard was recovered.
Gabrielle patted Xena's thigh. "What was that stuff that nearly did me in?"
Xena extended her long arm across the table and retrieved the jar, holding it up to the
light to look at its contents. "Cinnamon."
"Cinnamon? What in the world would that have to do with anything?" Gabrielle reached for it, peering at the brown curled shavings. "Let me smell it again."
"No," Xena commanded, clutching the jar to her chest.
Rolling her eyes, Gabrielle explained curtly, "I know what it is now. Come on, let me smell it again." Xena stiffened at the brusque rebuke. The bard didn't want Xena to think her protective nature was unappreciated. It had bailed her out of more than one dire predicament before and would, no doubt, do so again. Gabrielle softened her tone "Maybe I'll remember more of the vision. Maybe even something useful. We both know that what I've been able to remember so far hasn't exactly given us a sound direction to take."
"Come on, Gabrielle, you know you never get exact predictions out of a vision. And what you've said about it already is enough to guide us."
"Yeah right, Xena." Gabrielle felt her lips tremble. She fought down the sudden urge to break into tears. "So all you have to do is avoid going into any small, cold rooms and you'll be okay?"
"Hey," Xena knelt beside the bard, "I can take care of myself. You said you couldn't figure out anything by that image. I could have just been asleep."
With a force that surprised her, Gabrielle shot back, "And you could have been dead."
Xena bit her upper lip then gave the bard a forced smile. "I don't think it's anything to worry about, okay?"
Gabrielle reluctantly nodded though her intuition screamed that she was right. Something terrible would happen to Xena.
Xena patted the bard's thigh playfully. "And we both already knew to avoid Caesar."
At least Caesar was going to kill only me and not Xena, thought Gabrielle. She tried not to consider the possibility that when Caesar signed her death warrant, Xena might already be dead. This isn't helping at all. "Xena, please let me smell the cinnamon again. It'll be okay. I'm sitting down." She smiled warmly. "You're right here. Nothing's going to happen."
Xena handed the jar to her. Gabrielle sniffed gingerly then took a deep breath of the exotic spice, waiting for something to happen. She took another whiff. Nothing happened. She glanced toward her friend and shrugged her shoulders.
"Memories can be pretty unpredictable." Xena took the jar, corked it, and put it back on the table. "Looking too hard can bury them, sometimes. If it's something triggered by a smell, it might be hard to force it to happen."
"I guess so." Gabrielle stared at the jar, wondering how something as unlikely as cinnamon might fit into their future. She knew by now that her visions always had significance; the people and places she saw would be a part of their journeys.
Gabrielle felt a shiver race down her spine. She shook it off and concentrated on what had just occurred. "I want some of the cinnamon. I want to try smelling it again later."
"All right." Xena stood and rested one hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. With the other, she selected a small vial of treasured spice and gestured toward the merchant. "How much for this?"
A short, unhappy man turned toward them. "Seventeen dinars," he replied without interest.
"Seventeen?" Gabrielle bolted up from her chair. "Are you insane? This isn't worth two dinars! I'll give you one for it, but no more."
"Look," he explained in a tone he'd clearly used time and time again, "this stuff is expensive. I can't do anything about how much it costs."
"Can't do anything about it? Ha!" Gabrielle stepped around Xena and went nose-to-nose with him, shaking a finger in his face as she bartered. "You mark up the prices like nobody's business. I'll bet you've more than tripled the price."
The merchant didn't raise his voice in return. Instead he shifted his weight back onto his heels and put his hands in his pockets, sighing. "I've set my prices as low as I can and still nobody buys. You try paying an outrageous amount for spices off the docks and see if you can make a living wage." He pulled one hand from his pocket and waved it in disgust. "At seventeen dinars I'm not making enough to pay the taxes on this stall, so just go somewhere else and buy what you want. If you can find it for less, take it and go into business for yourself." With that, the man stalked off, leaving his booth unguarded, allowing anyone to run off with his goods.
Gabrielle twisted around and looked at Xena. "Was that my fault?" she asked meekly.
"Nah." Xena threw her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder. "That must have been coming for a long time. Come on, let's go get off our feet."
Gabrielle turned to reach for the vial of cinnamon but thought better of it. She couldn't take what she hadn't paid for. Perhaps it was destiny telling her to leave it behind. She took one last look at the exotic spice before falling into step with Xena.
* * *
Xena stepped into the dark tavern and ran her eyes over everyone, pinpointing the weapons worn and those likely to be concealed under clothing or in belts or boots. She made a cursory judgment of their owners' fitness to wield them while Gabrielle shut the door behind them.
Two groups of unwashed men filled up a fire-lit corner. From the looks of it they'd been drinking and baiting each other for several rounds of local mead. Xena decided she could handle them if need be, but opted to avoid any interaction. "Want to go upstairs and rest a bit before dinner?"
Gabrielle nodded wearily. "Sounds great."
Their room was small, but it was clean and that was all they needed. Staying outside the walls of Athens meant saving dinars enough for their supplies and also for hot meals at the tavern downstairs.
But for now, Xena was only concerned with how tired Gabrielle seemed. The moment they walked into their room, the bard plopped down on the edge of the small bed to stare out the single square window.
Xena leaned down and captured one of Gabrielle's boots in her hands, bringing it up to her knee and unlacing it.
"You don't have to do that," murmured Gabrielle. She was too tired to try to move, though.
"I don't have to," Xena replied quietly, "but I want to. I can see that business with the cinnamon took a lot out of you." She set to work on the bard's other boot.
"Not much. Really." Gabrielle straightened her shoulders. "If you want to go down for dinner now, that'll be fine."
Xena sat down by her on the bed. She regarded this woman next to her, her companion, her best friend, her other half... Gabrielle needed a break, perhaps a permanent one. Xena knew her friend had been thinking about giving up life on the road, and there were times when Xena believed it would be the best thing for the bard to do. That's something she carries inside and doesn't talk about. And she complains that I'm stoic, Xena mused. Still, it wasn't the time to dig that deep. Not when Gabrielle was exhausted. "I appreciate that you aren't complaining about how tired you are, but don't you know that I can tell how you feel? Please don't feel bad when these visions wipe you out. Anyone else would be in stuck in bed for a month; you're back on your feet in a day or two."
The bard smiled faintly. "I know... but it bothers me when you have to slow down on my account."
"Uh huh... and what if I was hurt or sick? Would you be mad at me if we had to take off a couple of days?" Xena felt the bard poke her just under her breastplate. It tickled a little. She didn't flinch.
"You never need a day off."
Xena narrowed her eyes in the hopes of forcing the bard to admit defeat without it escalating into an argument.
"But, of course I wouldn't be mad at you," Gabrielle relented. "You know it, and that's why you said it."
Xena laughed, not minding her transparency to this woman. "Right. So why don't you lie down for a minute and quit not complaining."
"Quit not complaining? What's that supposed to mean?"
They were interrupted by a knock on the door. As Xena rose to see who it was, she shot back over her shoulder, "Yeah, you know, quit not whining, griping, fussing, grumbling..." She opened the door to find the aged innkeeper.
"Sorry to bother you, ma'am. This scroll came for you today. I didn't see you get in or I'd have caught you before you came up to your room and all." He smiled a toothless grin and handed her the scroll.
Xena glanced at the scroll before accepting it, then looked at the innkeeper. "Thanks for bringing this up." She absently closed the door while concentrating on the scroll's seal.
"Who's it from?" asked the curious bard.
"I don't know this marking." Xena examined the wax embossed with three stepped columns. She sensed a familiar and unsettling tickle in the back of her mind. "I don't have a very good feeling about this."
"Open it. Let's see what it says before getting worried about it."
Xena broke the seal, unrolled the scroll, and read it aloud. "To the worthy and honorable Xena of Amphipolis and her traveling companion: I would be pleased if you would accept an invitation in acknowledgment of your deed months past on my behalf. I am at present in Laodicea enjoying the hospitality of a dear and generous friend. We would be delighted to share our humble surroundings with you. I have made the necessary arrangements. I look forward to seeing you again and repaying the kindness you so graciously bestowed upon me when I was last in Greece." Xena arched a brow. "It's signed Cleopatra, VII."
"Cleopatra is inviting us for a vacation in Syria and you have a bad feeling about it?" The bard's eyes had lit with a new found spirit. "It sounds great to me."
Xena read Gabrielle's expression easily. She wanted a break... she needed one. The vision had foretold of events neither of them wanted to face . Perhaps they could postpone them. Still....
The bard sighed. "How likely is it for Caesar to be in Laodicea? Has he ever even been to Syria?"
"Gabrielle..." Xena twisted her lips into a tiny grin. "And here I thought you couldn't read my mind."
"So now you know I can." Gabrielle laughed and patted the quilted bedspread. Xena obediently sat down by her and draped an arm over the bard's shoulders.
"Tell me, what are the chances of Caesar being in Laodicea?" The bard cleared her throat and spoke softly. "Not that it matters, though. I think another meeting with him is inevitable. We might as well get it over with."
Xena considered her options for a brief instant and gave in. Gabrielle had spoken truthfully. "I suppose you're right."
Gabrielle leaned her full weight against Xena. "And besides, I only saw his signature on parchment. I don't know for sure that we'll actually run into him."
A soft sigh escaped the bard, warming Xena's neck where Gabrielle's face was buried. "Maybe we won't." Xena, however, knew she had just lied to her companion.
Give me some music; music, moody food
Of us that trade in love.
-Cleopatra from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Two harbors served Athens, one for the fishermen and commercial ships importing and exporting goods from the cultural center of Greece, and one for the pleasure craft of the idle rich. It was to the second harbor that Xena and Gabrielle headed after stabling Argo with an old and trusted friend.
Xena spotted the sloop tied to the end of the dock. An efficient crew mopped and scrubbed a spotless deck. The sleek craft had been built for both speed and beauty. It was a toy of the rich, yes, but also one which would satisfy any hardcore sailor's wildest fantasies.
One sturdy mast held an array of sails on parrels. Xena had heard about this innovative design which gave the sloop much greater flexibility. This ship didn't have to wait for the wind to change. It could sail into the wind if needs be by adjusting the angle of the spars held onto the mast by the parrels, which worked like sliding collars. She looked forward to seeing it in action.
Each sail's flaxen threads glinted in contrast to the horizontal weavings of dark leather. Though the leather's purpose was merely to strengthen the sails, the dark ribbons were woven into a pattern: sets of three narrowing lines. Xena noted the vague similarity to the design of Cleopatra's seal on their summons.
As they neared the sloop, all work halted on board. The crew stood ramrod tall in unison seemingly without having been ordered to do so. Xena caught a tiny grin forming on her lips and erased it lest their captain think she was too impressed.
"Hi," Gabrielle called out cheerfully, "we're..."
"Our guests. Welcome aboard." A short grizzled woman stepped forward, leaning casually on her mop. Stray bits of wild, curly hair peeked out from under a knitted cap. Her thick arms were somewhat disguised by a long-sleeved work shirt, but what years of life at sea had done to her body couldn't be completely hidden by clothing. Her dark skin had a leathery texture, and the wrinkles on her face were older than her eyes. "I'm Captain Abas. I was told there'd be a warrior and bard coming aboard." She smiled as Gabrielle stepped onto the deck. "So I guess you must be the warrior, aye?"
Gabrielle laughed. "No, that's the warrior." She rested her staff in the crook of her arm, and cocked her thumb over her shoulder as Xena joined her onboard.
The captain extended her arm. "Hello, Xena. It's good to finally meet you."
Xena put the saddlebags down on the deck before taking the captain's arm. "Nice boat."
They locked eyes for a moment and Xena knew she couldn't keep up a facade with this woman. The sloop was magnificent, her captain accepted as one of the crew, and Xena couldn't think of anything nicer than spending a few days at sea.
"So, Gabrielle," Abas said, throwing her stumpy arm around Gabrielle's back, "would you like the grand tour?"
"I'd love it!"
"We'll start in the galley. My husband is our cook."
Iphis the cook and Abas' husband wasn't at all what Xena expected. He was quite tall and had to stoop while he worked in the galley. Thin hardly began to describe him. She could see the bones in his wrists shadowed by pale, wan skin. He barely spoke two words to Abas while they were there except to inform her curtly that her special supplies were on board and to move out of the way. Xena wondered briefly if they'd been introduced to the wrong person. He seemed such an unlikely match for the warm and outgoing Abas.
The trio continued down a narrow, paneled passageway toward the bow, Xena and Gabrielle following Abas to their assigned quarters. "Small they are but I think they'll do." Abas opened the door at the very end of the hall. "Right in the bow."
"Wow, this is great." Gabrielle waltzed in and tested the bed. "Pretty good size," she said, admiring the thick tapestry that had been thrown over the mattress.
"That's the advantage to the bow. You can get some width in here because it isn't split by a passageway." Abas turned and beckoned Xena in with her head.
"Thank you. This will be fine." Xena noted the well-designed space. It felt much larger than it actually was. A small table had been cut to fit into an oddly angled corner and two intricately carved chairs were bolted to the deck underfoot. In rough seas, they wouldn't be flying about the cabin.
"Settle in. We'll be off soon. Iphis loves to sail out of the harbor at sunset and I just can seem to say no to that man." Abas bowed slightly and backed out the hatch, shutting it quietly behind her.
"Can't say no to him?" muttered the bard.
Xena raised one brow.
"He was pretty short with her." Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. "Rude, even. And did you get a look at him? It's like he's never out on deck. Do you think he ever helps out?"
It was comforting to Xena that Gabrielle had noticed his odd manner as well. "It's nothing to worry about." She crawled up on the bed which extended all the way to the very tip of the sloop. "Which side do you want? Port or Starboard?"
"Hmm?" Gabrielle looked around. "Weird. No inside or outside." She narrowed her eyes and grinned at Xena. "My only escape route is off the foot of the bed?"
Xena waggled her eyebrows and extended her hand to the bard who took it and settled by her side. "You feeling okay?"
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Xena, we haven't even left the harbor. Could you at least wait to ask me that until we were at sea?"
She reached her long fingers over and gently poked the bard at the left wrist, applying an experienced touch to the pressure point there. "Just to be certain." She smiled. "But that's not what I meant."
"Oh." Gabrielle sighed. "That." She took a deep breath before answering. "Yes, I feel okay. I'd sort of forgotten about the market yesterday."
"Anytime you want to talk about... stuff... you know I'll listen." Xena hedged around the subject.
Gabrielle set her gaze until Xena felt it penetrating right into her.
"You know what I mean," the warrior explained softly, reaching out to smooth her thumb across Gabrielle's cheek. "Here we are off on another adventure and I was kind of thinking... well, that you might want to take a break or something." Xena watched the bard's eyes close for a long time. When they opened again, she could plainly see the truth in their depths.
"I don't know what the future will bring." Gabrielle covered Xena's fingers with her own, pressing the hand to her cheek. "But I really don't think I can walk away from a vision. It would feel... unfinished."
Xena felt her heart begin to race. "And after that?"
Gabrielle's answer was barely audible. "I don't know."
They stared at each other for a long moment.
"But I promise we'll talk about it, okay?"
Xena nodded. "Okay," she replied.
* * *
Dinner was served on deck just after they left the harbor. With the sun behind them, they set their course across the Aegean. They would then turn south, hugging the shore until they made the Mediterranean proper, and once there turn to the east toward Syria. Warrior and bard watched the red streaks across the sky grow deeper and richer before fading into the darkening horizon. With their backs against a large crate, they sat side-by-side enjoying the sunset.
Whatever her initial impression of Iphis had been, Gabrielle decided it was inconsequential for he was a true chef. No one, she was convinced, could ever create a more delectable meal. They had roasted lamb in rich and creamy garlic sauce, crusty bread with an olive tapenade liberally spread over it, and an array of pastries that would bring a king to his knees.
As the last of the dishes was cleared, Gabrielle leaned her head on Xena's shoulder. "I'm stuffed."
"Glad to hear it." Abas plopped down on the deck in front of them. "So what do you think of Iphis?"
Gabrielle glanced at Xena who made no move to answer. "He's a great cook," said the bard.
Abas laughed, hearty and deep. "Oh but he's such a bastard when he's in the galley. Go on, say it, he was a real prick, wasn't he?"
"We... well," stammered Gabrielle, "that wasn't really what came to mind, no."
Xena smiled and shook her head.
"You don't need to be polite on my account, Gabrielle." Abas leaned toward her and playfully slapped her calf. "The first time I met him, he was cooking. I asked him to send up something for Cleopatra right quick and he about took my head off. But then later, outside... he's a big furry bear when he's not working." She leaned back and glanced up at the early stars. "Now that he's back, everything seems fine again."
"Back?" asked Gabrielle.
"He's been sick," Xena stated simply.
"We almost lost him. I sure am glad we were in Alexandria or I'm certain I'd be sailing alone today. The healers there are the best I've ever seen." Abas sat up straight and smiled. "This is his first voyage with me in almost a year. He's got his sea legs back and now we're working on putting some muscle on him." She mimicked the pose of a gladiator, which showed off more strength in her arms than most of the professional fighters could dream of.
Gabrielle enjoyed hearing the captain talk. She had a hunch there were some great stories to be told. "Have you been sailing long?"
"Long?" Abas chuckled. "I was born at sea. My father was Pytheas. Ever heard of him?"
"I have." Xena stretched her legs out in front of her. "But I don't think Gabrielle has." Xena guessed Gabrielle's plan was to get Abas to tell stories. She looked forward to hearing tales of the sea herself.
"My father came from Massalia and was the greatest captain who ever lived." Abas let a huge grin light up her face. "Pytheas found the route around the Phoenician blockade that broke their monopoly on tin. And he went to Britannia and the islands above it. He even went to the land of the Norse into a great north sea. It was the longest voyage ever taken. Still is, I might add."
Xena nudged the captain with the toe of her boot. "And what about you, Abas. You haven't spent your whole life in your father's shadow."
"Quite right. In fact it was my father who threw me off his boat when I was just twelve. Made me prove myself with a crew who didn't know who my family was. I worked the spice run for many years. Had some damned close calls with typhoons before I finally got smart enough to get out. And I ended up in Alexandria and latched on with Cleopatra. Best move I ever made, going to Alexandria."
"Wait a minute..." Gabrielle stopped her, holding up her hands. "What's a typhoon?"
"It's a big mother of a storm," Abas answered seriously, "the likes of which you hope you'll never see. I've never been scared in my life, 'cept in one of those storms. The waves swell so high they can flop you over, head over heels, even in the biggest merchant ships. You run into them out east, by India or Ceylon."
"Or on your way to Chin," Xena added.
"Don't tell me." Gabrielle eyed Xena. "You've been in a typhoon, too?"
"I've seen enough of one to know not to mess with them. We got to a harbor as quick as we could and took off for high ground. Even then, the ship didn't make it through the storm. It ended up two streets inland." Xena smiled to Abas. "But I have a feeling you've been in one of the great ones out on the seas."
Abas was about to launch into a description when Iphis trotted up and sat down by her. "Wife, are you telling fish tales again?"
Gabrielle couldn't help but notice that Iphis seemed like a completely different man. He sat tall and smiled broadly when he looked at his wife. Gabrielle had known people to get cranky in the kitchen before, but the change in this man's demeanor was truly extraordinary.
"Hi, lassie." Iphis rolled up on his knees and kissed the bard on her cheek. "I think I owe you an apology."
Abas tugged him back to sit by her on the deck. "They know not to bother you when you're cooking, dearest."
Gabrielle resettled her head against Xena's shoulder. "And if meals are going to be like that dinner, it'll be a sure bet you won't find us in your way."
"I'll see what I can do to earn that trust." He turned to his wife. "So let me guess. You were about to tell about the time you sailed up the Nile in a bread basket."
"No, dearest." Abas laughed.
"Caught the shark as big as a whale?"
Iphis scrunched up his mouth. "Then it must be the typhoon."
"You've been away too long. It took you three tries."
Just as Abas was about to begin the story, though, Iphis interrupted her. "It's a good story. One of my favorites."
"Were you there, too?" Gabrielle asked.
"That was before we'd met. But if I had known her then, I wouldn't have ever let her go on the spice run. It's too dangerous."
Gabrielle continued the conversation, intent on Iphis. "Because of the typhoons?"
"Yes, but that's not all..."
"Excuse me," said Abas, clamping her hand over her husband's mouth.
"Oh, sorry," Gabrielle said, ducking her head. "Go on, please."
"Thank you." Abas chuckled. "He does this to me every time, Gabrielle. Don't feel bad."
Iphis pried his wife's hand from his mouth. "That's right. It's not your fault. Of course, she could just get to the anchor and be done with it."
"Iphis, dearest, is there some reason to tell this story quickly?"
He planted a kiss on her cheek. "Maybe."
"Patience, my good man. First, there is a story to tell." Abas cleared her throat. "So there I was coming back from Ceylon on a ship laden with spices. We thought our greatest risk would come from marauders and raiders out to steal our cargo. We were dead wrong."
Abas looked up toward the bow of the ship, her eyes focusing beyond the horizon. "It was a three-masted merchant ship, one of the biggest ever to sail the seas."
Gabrielle had seen some of the big merchant ships and thought about what a difference there was between them and the smaller sloop they were on. She could feel every swell on the sloop. On a merchant ship where it would take rougher seas to rock the boat.
"We met a storm so ferocious," Abas continued, "that it tossed us about as if we were a child's stick toy in the foaming surf. We rode the waves like a cart along a mountain path, first up a steep incline so high you could reach out and touch the angry clouds, and then down into the depths of the black, boiling sea. Though we feared traveling down the slope of a wave into the unknown darkness, the worst was when two crests held bow and stern aloft with nothing to support the hull underneath."
"So what did you do?" Gabrielle asked, breathlessly.
"I couldn't let the storm have its way with us. The seas were about to snap us into splinters." Abas leaned forward. "The problem was speed. We'd long since taken down all the sails. We'd have been chewed up in no time if they'd had been up in that gale. But we were still going too fast. The force of the waves slammed us into the next swell and the boat couldn't take much more of it."
Xena finally spoke. "And so you used the anchor to slow yourself down?"
"Yes, but it took all five of them to make a difference. The weight of the anchors trailing behind us caused enough drag in the water for us to ride out the storm in one piece."
"Good thinking," Xena admitted.
"That's my Abas," chimed in Iphis. "She thinks her way out of any situation you can imagine."
"Reminds me of someone I know," murmured Gabrielle.
Alack, sir, no; her passions are made of nothing but
the finest part of pure love: we cannot call her
winds and waters sighs and tears; they are greater
storms and tempests than almanacs can report: this
cannot be cunning in her; if it be, she makes a
shower of rain as well as Jove.
-Domitius Enobarbus from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
"Time to get up, sleepyhead."
Gabrielle jerked awake shocked not by Xena's words, but by the fact that the warrior princess had gotten close enough to whisper right in her ear, tickling her with her lips. "By the gods, Xena, don't scare me like that." She clasped her hand over her racing heart and took a few deep breaths.
"How do you feel?" Xena settled on the bed and rested her back against the wall. "You looked a bit green around the edges earlier."
"Sorry. I don't mean to cause any problems." Gabrielle hitched herself up on an elbow and mentally surveyed her stomach. It had settled only to be replaced by a pounding headache. "I do feel better, thanks." Xena had given her some tea to calm her nausea which had promptly put her to sleep in the middle of the day.
"Unfortunately, that might not last long. There's a storm brewing."
The bard plopped back down on the bed. "That's not what I wanted to hear."
"It doesn't look like a very big one, but I'll bet that's why you suddenly didn't feel well after three days at sea without any trouble."
Somehow, that made Gabrielle feel better. "Yeah... so I'm an early warning system." She sat up fully and rubbed her temples. "Now what? Do you need help up there?"
"Abas is looking for a place to put in. There aren't any harbors nearby but she's pretty sure she can find a cove where we can ride it out safely."
"What?" Gabrielle twitched her nose. "Our great captain doesn't want to show off her ability to weather a storm?"
Xena sighed. "Abas is a good captain. She knows when not to take risks."
Gabrielle sensed her blunder immediately. It was an old torment for Xena, that Gabrielle once thought the warrior princess took needless risks as a warlord. Particularly the issue of risking other people's lives. "Sorry, Xena. That's not what I meant at all. I've got a huge headache. It must be making me crankier than I thought." She hoped that would suffice as an apology. It didn't seem like the right time to work through it, not if they were needed topside to help.
"Here," Xena said softly as she pulled Gabrielle by her side. She placed the tip of her thumbs on Gabrielle's forehead and started a soft massage across her eyebrows, down the bridge of her nose, across her cheekbones and up to her temples.
"That feels great," Gabrielle mumbled. She let her head drop against Xena's shoulder as the massage moved to the back of her neck and along her shoulders.
Xena slowed her movements, making lazy circles on the bard's back. "You'll do better on deck in the wind. The waves will probably pick up before we find a cove."
Gabrielle raised her head and gazed into eyes that could alternately hold an army at bay and give Aphrodite a run for her money. Nowthey smiled back at the bard gently. "Thanks, Xena. Thanks for taking care of me."
"My pleasure." Xena gracefully slid off the foot of the bed and offered her hand to Gabrielle.
The bard took the steady hand and when righted on her feet, slipped both of her arms around the leather-clad warrior and hugged her hard. "Let's go spot a cove for her, okay?"
* * *
They found shelter before the wind picked up. The afternoon faded into evening, all spent below deck in the dry though close confines of the galley.
Iphis did his best not to bark at anyone getting in his way while he cooked. The crew did what they could by huddling on the far side of the galley. The only sound was the howling wind outside and the occasional rain shower.
The crew eventually settled around a thick wooden table which was bolted to the middle of the galley's deck. As in Xena and Gabrielle's cabin, the chairs were also fastened down. Another sign, Xena concluded, that Abas had experienced a lot and learned a great deal from her adventures.
Iphis triumphantly deposited a large pot of fish stew on the table by a tall stack of bowls.
Gabrielle hoped that putting food before the crew signaled an end to the tension as it meant Iphis had finished his cooking chores. "That smells divine," she said cheerfully. Intrigued, the bard watched Iphis return to the work area and retrieve a small platter filled with salt pork and a smattering of vegetables.
He caught Gabrielle's eye and winked. "Thanks, lassie. You dig in, now. There's plenty, so eat hearty." Iphis put the platter in front of Abas, sat down by her, then pulled a bowl of the fish stew over. He dipped in an over-sized spoon and slurped from the side of it. "Yes, it's a good batch."
The bard took a sample and agreed. "It's great. Aren't you having any, Abas?"
The entire crew roared in laughter.
Gabrielle looked to Xena who shrugged, then to Iphis and Abas who were laughing with everyone else. Gabrielle couldn't figure out what had happened. "What? Did I say something funny?"
Iphis dabbed his eyes with his shirt tail. "Sorry, lassie. It's just that Abas gets asked that by everyone who comes aboard. See..." he lowered his voice, "she hates fish."
"But..." Gabrielle was speechless. How could anyone hate fish? Especially someone who practically lived at sea.
Abas threw up her hands. "I know, I know... I was born on the water and yet I hate fish. I can't stand the taste of it. On long voyages, there's no choice but to eat some. But when the journey is short, I have a cache of real food brought on board."
Gabrielle remembered their conversation when they were introduced to Iphis. "Your special supplies?"
Iphis let his spoon rest in the bowl. "That'd be the ones." He shook a long finger at her. "And don't you be getting any ideas about stealing the captain's food. We've got a plank handy for those foolish enough to try."
"Who me?" Gabrielle gasped. "Why I'd never..."
Xena chuckled. "And just how many have you made walk the plank for that particular offense, Iphis?"
He smiled smugly. "Only two."
"You killed two people just for eating some food?" Gabrielle couldn't believe it. They'd seemed so reasonable and nice. How could these people be brutal murderers for a petty crime?
Abas slapped Iphis in the shoulder. "Don't scare her, you ape. Gods..." She shook her head and then looked at the bard. "Sometimes he has no idea what goes on right in front of his nose. He made them take a cold swim, he didn't kill them. He's good a humiliating someone he's mad at, nothing more."
"Oh," Gabrielle said on a long breath. "That's much better. Not that I'd want to be forced into swimming or anything. I think this fish stew is great. You don't need to worry about me." She felt everyone's eyes on her so she tried a tact she'd learned from Xena: change the subject and throw the focus onto someone else. "Abas, the other day you talked about encountering a typhoon when you were on the spice run. What actually happens on a spice run?" Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Xena's tiny smile.
Abas chewed her lower lip briefly before answering. "Basically, you sail for forty days through strange oceans until you reach Ceylon. Then you load up with cassia, cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, and fragrant resins, turn around and sail forty days home."
"I remember passing by Ceylon once. There were nice mountains." Gabrielle glanced at Xena who's eyes were focused on her lap. That was on the voyage back from Chin. It was not a pleasant memory.
Abas hitched one brow at Gabrielle but didn't ask her to elaborate. The sounds of the storm once again carried to everyone's ears.
Iphis chided his wife. "Come on now, Abas, honey. You've been asked to tell stories. My work is done for the day. We're all stuck in this boring cove with nothing to do but listen to that damned wind. Open up, remind us what it's like when life gets exciting."
Abas pushed her tray toward the center of the table and sat back. "That's the funny thing about the spice run. People think it's exotic and magical. Actually, you get one or two days in a port where it's muggy and hot and full of poisonous snakes in return for eighty days at sea. You're not sure if that horrid sensation of something trailing down your back is a river of sweat or a huge, hairy spider. The only part that's fun is the Red Sea."
"Really?" asked Gabrielle. "Why's that fun?"
"'Cause there are no coves for shelter, the water is hotter and saltier than you can imagine, you get sandstorms and heat shimmer..."
"Hold it! Sandstorms? On the sea?"
"Ever stopped to think how far the wind can blow sand?" The captain brought her hands into the conversation, using them to mimic a ship passing along the coast. "When you're hugging the shore to find an open passage through the coral reefs in the southern sea, a stiff wind can come up and throw up so much sand it completely wipes out the horizon. Sometimes it's so bad you have to drop anchor, hope that no one plows into you, and go below to get out of the storm. When it gets in your eyes..." She laughed. "Even without the sand, the reefs will keep you on your toes." Abas smiled. "You never know where you can get through without your hull getting ripped apart."
Gabrielle couldn't believe Abas' attitude. "That's fun?"
Abas sighed. "The spice run the most boring thing I ever did. The only excitement comes from navigating the Red Sea and from typhoons, which you don't usually get to see."
"Well, that's good," offered Gabrielle. "I mean the part about not getting stuck in many big storms. This storm is plenty for me, thanks." She stood up and brushed off some errant crumbs that had fallen in her lap. "I think I'm going to turn in. Good food makes me sleepy sometimes."
* * *
Xena followed the bard to their quarters a few minutes later, worried that something had upset her, though she couldn't figure out what. She pushed against the hatch and opened it to find the bard curled up around a stack of pillows on the bed. "You okay?"
Gabrielle lifted her head. "I guess the movement of the boat is getting to me."
Xena slid up the mattress to lie by Gabrielle. "I'm sorry you're so sensitive to it."
"Maybe it was all that talk about typhoons and ships pitching in the waves."
Lifting the bard's arm, Xena reached in to tap the pressure points on her wrist. "You get less and less seasick every time we go out." Gently, she pressed the spot, then curled Gabrielle's arm around the pile of pillows. "Sure it's not something else?"
Gabrielle tucked her fingers into Xena's hand. "I guess it could be. Nobody's talked much about why we're here. I mean, Abas hardly mentions Cleopatra and yet she works for her. Didn't Cleopatra send her to get us?"
"I'd noticed the subject hasn't came up. Maybe Cleopatra doesn't like getting talked about and everyone who works for her is told to keep quiet."
"And then there are these coincidences..."
Xena squeezed the bard's hand. "Like Abas and the spice run and your run-in with the cinnamon in Athens?"
"Like that exactly. It's weird, Xena. Are we running away from my vision or right into it? How does everything fit together?"
Xena wished she could take the worry from Gabrielle's heart. She could do the worrying for both of them. It suited her, had been a part of who she was as long as she could remember. But it seemed that Gabrielle learned worrying since they started traveling together, getting into scrapes, and tangling with warlords, Amazon politics, and a certain Julius Caesar. "I don't think we can begin to guess how everything will work out. But I don't think we're running away from anything. You'd know that in your gut and so would I. This trip doesn't feel wrong."
"You're right, it doesn't. But things feel... unsettled."
"My guess is they'll feel like that for awhile yet." Xena threw her arm over the bard and hugged her, silently willing away any dark dreams that might come to them that night.
She is cunning past man's thought.
-Mark Antony from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Xena and Gabrielle stood in the bow as the sloop rounded Cyprus and headed toward the Syrian coast. Before the cliffs came into view, they spotted a flotilla of giant warships. Xena stiffened then clasped her hand over the bard's shoulder. "I think we need some questions answered."
Xena found the captain at the helm, blithely sailing toward the coast.
"Mind telling me who they are?" Xena didn't bother to explain more thoroughly.
"It's nothing to worry about, Xena. They're from Alexandria." Abas kept her eyes on the horizon, never turning her gaze on the women she spoke with.
"Seven armed-to-the-teeth warships are nothing to worry about? Those are some of the biggest ships I've ever seen. Are they protecting Cleopatra?" Xena lowered her voice. "Does she need that kind of protection for some reason?"
"You can't expect her to go anywhere without an escort."
Xena took a step toward Abas, her temper beginning to boil.
"Abas," Gabrielle intervened, "that looks like more than an escort." She spoke in a normal tone of voice. "If something is going on here, we'd like you to tell us about it."
Abas finally cast her eyes toward them, settling on Gabrielle. She smiled. "We're talking about Cleopatra here. She never does anything small."
"Politicians." Xena huffed and headed back to the bow as the sloop began to sail through the flotilla. She pointed toward the warships. "You tell me, Gabrielle. Do they look happy?"
The crews of the ships, all well-armored soldiers, stood at the ready, weapons in hand.
"I don't think they're happy to see us."
"Ships that size don't maneuver well. Their main purpose is to move men. Someone wanted a huge army here for some reason."
"Maybe Cleopatra feels she is in danger."
A gnawing began to assert itself in Xena's stomach. "I guess we'll find out what's going on soon enough."
* * *
Laodicea sat near a rocky coast with high, unfriendly cliffs. Protected by the cliffs to the north and a two-story lighthouse on its western tip, a natural harbor had become a bustling port for the city.
Xena and Gabrielle said their good byes to Abas, Iphis, and the crew. It became an uncomfortable moment for them all, uncertainty and doubt lingering in the air. They followed an overly formal escort who insisted on carrying their bags into town. All they knew was that they were being taken to an estate owned by Codrus which, they assumed, was where Cleopatra was staying.
Gabrielle marveled at Laodicea. There didn't appear to be a central market, so vendors staked out whatever space they could on busy streets where buyers strolled by. Lovely bolts of linen in colors of desert sand and deep, rich wine caught her eye. Some of the fabric had been embroidered in threads exactly matching the shade of the cloth. It was a beautiful effect, like playing with shadows.
Gabrielle mouthed a wide-eyed 'wow' to Xena when they turned onto the main street. Huge colonnades lined the way. The vine-covered lattice work overhead protected the path from the direct sun. On excruciatingly hot days, which were no doubt abundant in the late summer months, it would make the walk much more pleasant.
At the top of the colonnade-lined path, they came before an iron gate protecting Codrus' house. At their approach, two men sprinted out to pull the massive gates open. A stone path guided them through a fragrant garden to the most massive and ostentatious house Gabrielle had ever seen.
Again, before they reached the top step, the doors were opened for them by a pair of men. Gabrielle entered an enormous anteroom lined in rose and beige tapestries hung from ceiling to baseboard. On the floor swirled thousands of tiny stones, dominated by rose and beige hues, inlaid in a series of spirals. The soft colors bathed the room in pale light.
"How beautiful." Gabrielle turned to Xena and caught the faintest glimmer in her eyes. She thinks the place is pretty amazing, too. Gabrielle saw the muscles in Xena's jaw tighten. Instinctively, the bard stopped to listen and could just make out the sound of someone approaching.
An oversized, carved wooden door flung open. In the threshold stood Cleopatra: tall and exotic, every inch the predator meeting her prey. Her long bony nose dominated an alluring face which had been painted in vibrant reds on the lips and cheeks. A swath of rich blue splashed across her eyelids. "You're here at last. How good to see you! Codrus will be so pleased to know you've arrived." The Egyptian Queen slid across the tiles. Layers of red silk covered her from shoulders to toes, hiding the steps she took and giving her the presence of a goddess floating over the floor. She immediately went to Xena and placed a kiss on the warrior's cheek, lingering before tilting her head back and gazing into the warrior's eyes. "Thank you for coming." Over her shoulder she added, "You, too," to the bard.
Xena stepped back, allowing a disapproving smile to cross her face. She held her arm out to Gabrielle who took the cue and moved into her embrace. "We've been wondering why you invited us," Xena said, emphasizing the first word ever so slightly. "Can you tell me why we were greeted by such an impressive show of force?"
"Whatever are you talking about? Was anyone rude to you? You must be tired after your voyage. We have an extravaganza planned tonight to celebrate your arrival. Perhaps you'd like to rest before that. They do tend to extend quite late into the evening." One clap from Cleopatra brought a servant to her side. "Show them to their room."
It bothered Gabrielle that Cleopatra refused to answer Xena's question or talk about the warships. It bothered her that Cleopatra could so easily dismiss them. But the emphasis Cleopatra gave to the singular of 'room' was not lost on the bard; that was Cleopatra conceding defeat. Gabrielle was more than glad to have that taken care of. Not that she didn't trust Xena to ignore the Egyptian Queen's beguiling show, certainly not under these circumstances. She just didn't want to have to endure the uncomfortable displays of misplaced seduction.
* * *
Their room was outrageous. It had an enormous bed, sitting area, fireplace, bathing area, and a spacious, fully furnished balcony overlooking the Mediterranean from their perch up on the cliffs.
Gabrielle stood at the railing and stared at the sea, breathing in the clean, salty fragrance carried up by the trade winds. The water looked so different from a distance. On a ship, it surrounded you with the power to swallow you whole. From land, it was a comforting friend whose beauty was unparalleled even by the grandeur of Codrus' home. Not even the menacing presence of the flotilla could mar the tranquility.
She heard Xena come out on the balcony and turned to her. "The ocean is so peaceful from up here."
Xena stepped up to the railing and looked out at the sea. "Nice view."
"Nice view?" Gabrielle laughed lightly. "I could look at it every day of my life and never get tired of it."
Xena didn't respond. Gabrielle looked at her, wondering what she was thinking. "The sun is going to set over the water. Care to watch it with me?"
The warrior shrugged and sprawled on one of the long couches on the balcony. Gabrielle kneed her gently until she moved over and made room for the bard to lie by her.
Gabrielle shifted onto her side and hitched herself up on an elbow. "Something bugging you?"
So, she's going to be difficult. "Is something other than our mystery trip here to Syria or those mean-looking ships out there or the oily Cleopatra or this dumb party we have to go to tonight bugging you?"
The blue eyes closed. "No, that's not it."
Xena sighed then looked at her with intense blue eyes. "Did you really mean that you want to find a place by the water and watch the sun set every night for the rest of your life?"
Gabrielle stopped herself from giving Xena a snippy answer. She's really worried about our future, the bard realized. "I have no intention of doing anything that doesn't include you, Xena. I could be offered all the gold in Greece but if you weren't a part of the deal, I'd say no faster than you could pinch me. You clear on that?"
"All the gold? Every little bit?"
Gabrielle knew she could slip into a lighter mode and kid Xena. This was too important, though, to play with. "All the gold. Every little bit." She explained her tangled thoughts again. "I'm working on making sense out of some stuff in my life. You know I don't like being around so much death." She paused. There was truth in that which neither of them could deny. "But no decision I make will ever, ever mean leaving you. I'm sorry I didn't make that more clear to you."
"It's all right, Gabrielle."
"No, it's not," she replied forcefully. "I was too worried about myself to think about you... to think about us. That was wrong."
Xena scooped her into her arms and hugged her. "Well, it's all right now. I understand. And... I'm really glad. Because the same is true with me."
"Yeah, I knew that." Gabrielle playfully kissed Xena's ear and then groaned at a loud knock at their door. "Maybe I'm not so against murder..." she mumbled. "You'd better see who's interrupting us."
Xena chuckled and rose to answer the door. It was their summons to the extravaganza.
* * *
Xena plastered a glare on her face, led the bard into the not surprisingly gargantuan room, sneered at all of the people already there, and sat down at the table closest to the door. She landed on a soft mound of furs, a sickening display of wealth, and groaned at the thick scent of incense.
At the center of the table were a bowl of figs, a decanter of wine, and several small glasses. Xena poured two glasses of wine and handed one to Gabrielle. The first sip was fruity, the second revealed a powerful understructure that released a force of flavor into her mouth. The wine hadn't been diluted, a Greek custom Xena learned to break when acting barbaric was something she strove for, and it was extraordinary.
She spotted Cleopatra across the room, lounging under a wide canopy. The Egyptian queen lay on a low-backed couch framed by potted plants with long, finger-like leaves. A trio of servants stood at the ready. Just behind her, the room was open to the night air. Cleopatra had chosen the right seat to avoid inhaling too much incense all night.
Four young men sat in front of her and tried to look as relaxed as their queen appeared. Even from a distance Xena could tell their pulses raced wildly.They were caught between desperately wanting to bed the queen and cowering away from someone who could exert so much power over them.
In an opposite corner, a small ensemble of musicians played a sprightly tune. Several of the guests were dancing. Their laughter and the noise of dozens of chatty party-goers almost drowned out the instrumentalists.
Xena elbowed her companion, indicating a row of tables piled high with scrumptious food. Bowls of grapes were interspersed with loaves of bread, plates of cheese, olives, and dried meats, and mounds of baked fish. Behind the table, a row of barrels of wine spread along the wall. Xena assumed them to be full of the surprisingly good wine. "Want to check out the spread?"
Gabrielle leaned close to Xena so she wouldn't have to speak loudly to be heard over the din. "Only if you come with me."
"But who will save our seats?"
"Pardon me." A tall thin man with long black hair bent over their table. "My queen requests your presence."
Xena cocked her head toward the man. "I'd rather stay here."
"Please follow me."
Xena felt the bard's hand come to rest on her forearm. She took a breath. "Fine." She curled her fingers around her wine glass, stood, and waited for Gabrielle to precede her. This wasn't what she wanted to be doing.
Cleopatra rose as they approached. Gem-studded pins held multicolored strands of silk in place around her torso, the soft fabric's loose ends gently swaying about her legs as the queen moved. Keeping her eyes fixed on Xena, she spoke to the young men at her side. "Leave us."
They scampered away.
"I thought you'd at least introduce us." Xena turned to see Cleopatra's devotees disappear into the crowd.
"They're no one of import." Cleopatra waved her hand. The servants pulled two more couches over, offering them to Xena and Gabrielle. "Have you met Codrus yet?"
"Not yet, but I'm looking forward to it," answered Gabrielle, awkwardly settling onto the couch. She thought both Xena and Cleopatra looked much better posed on them than she did. "I want to thank him for putting us up here. It's quite a house."
"It's a mansion, darling. I do hope you enjoy yourselves. I owe you such a debt of gratitude."
Xena bristled. She was absolutely sure that Cleopatra's invitation to them was based on ulterior motives. "That was nothing. We just helped out a friend and his brother." The warrior paused, leaning back onto the couch and thinking about how insignificant Joxer's family affairs had been. Cleopatra's guards could have handled it if the queen had been more careful. Perhaps she's learned a thing or two since then. But why had they been invited now? "And it was such a long time ago."
"I've been remiss. But when I arrived here and Codrus offered me whatever I desired, I thought immediately of you."
Xena sent a smile to the bard before responding to Cleopatra. "And you desired to invite us?"
"As I said, I owe you a debt of gratitude." Cleopatra waved a servant over. "Have some oysters. They're wonderful raw like this." Cleopatra picked up a half shell and tossed the oyster it into her mouth. "Please, Xena, try one."
"No thank you. I've had plenty of oysters in my life. I don't need any more." Xena chuckled as Gabrielle looked at the slimy things swimming in a milky goo and vigorously shook her head no at the server.
In a low, lilting voice, Cleopatra said, "Your loss."
* * *
Gabrielle fought against falling asleep right there in the middle of the party. The potent wine, constant nibbling, and uninteresting conversation took its toll. She labored to keep her eyes open and yet she knew she couldn't leave. Xena hated these events even more than she did and if the warrior princess hadn't found an excuse to make her exit, there simply wasn't one. She felt Cleopatra's eyes on her. "Nice party."
"We require entertainment." Cleopatra scanned the room, caught someone's eye, and held up her hand in a beckoning motion.
A tall, thin man came toward them. He seemed a little unsteady on his feet. As he neared them, Gabrielle noticed his long, almost white hair thinning on the top of his head. The light hair framed an unusually pale face and then tangled around his bony shoulders.
"Good morning, Callimachus. Nice to see you out of bed so early."
The queen smiled warmly at the man, surprising the bard to see such a genuine gesture late in an evening of trivialities. Then Gabrielle's breath caught in her throat. Callimachus? She wondered if he was indeed...
"Xena, Gabrielle, may I introduce Callimachus, chief librarian and poet extraordinaire."
"Oh my." Gabrielle bolted up from the couch. "It is indeed an honor. I love your poems, especially the epics and elegies, they're great!"
The man bowed slightly before her. "I had hoped the Bard of Poteidaia would be traveling with Xena."
Gabrielle heard Xena snickering softly behind her.
Callimachus continued. "I have had the pleasure of recording some of your scrolls for our great library. Would you grant me the favor of an interview so that I might complete your biographical entry for my index?"
Gabrielle didn't move. She couldn't have moved even if a herd of horses had been bearing down on her. When she forced her lungs to suck in air, she tried to conjure a thoughtful response. "Me?" she squeaked.
"Oh, stop spoiling the girl," Cleopatra interrupted. "Sit for a bit, my friend, and then recite for us."
Callimachus lowered himself down onto what had been Gabrielle's couch. Gratefully, the bard turned to Xena and batted the warrior's legs to the side.
Xena smiled and moved to make room. "So you're just getting up, Callimachus?"
"I prefer to work at night when the world is kind enough to be quiet."
"Music and conversation disturb his concentration." Cleopatra laughed. "And I can't imagine life without them." The queen tipped her head toward Xena and Gabrielle. "He studies to discover truth. I humor him by allowing him to believe it is contained in scrolls. For me, it comes from the words which pass between high-minded people."
Callimachus smiled, his slightly yellowed teeth appearing in the candlelight. "Spoken like a true politician, my queen."
Gabrielle realized their banter was both intimate and adversarial. It was interesting. She'd never seen anyone treat Cleopatra that way... except, perhaps, for Xena.
"So, Callimachus, what have you found for us now?"
The thin man sat up and leaned forward. "I have come upon an exquisite treasure. It will impress even the most stolid of our scholars."
Cleopatra smiled conspiratorially, her lips thinning into an uneven crescent. "Tell me."
"The complete works of Aristotle."
The candlelight glinted in the queen's eyes. "How much?"
"We can only borrow them."
They held each other's eyes for a moment, an unspoken understanding passing between them.
Gabrielle glanced at Xena and saw her blue eyes pinned on Cleopatra, soaking in a deeper understanding of the constantly conniving queen. Gabrielle was anxious to ask Xena about it later. Things weren't adding up but she had a feeling that Xena was well on her way toward sorting them out.
"So, my friend," said the queen quietly, "perhaps you could recite for us. I do so love your "Lock of Berenice."
Callimachus stood, his lanky body towering over them. His voice surprised Gabrielle, for when he began to recite, it seemed much lower, stronger, and powerful. He could make anything magical.
"...When I was newly shorn
my sister-locks were in mourning for me.
At once the gentle breeze,
the steed of Locrian Arsinoe of the violet girdle,
Moving his swift wings in circles
Dashed and seized me with his breath,
And carrying me through the humid air
He placed me in the lap of Cyprus."
Gabrielle closed her eyes as she listened. She could feel the weight of heavy air.
"...Washed in the waters of the ocean
and rising close to the immortals
Cyprus set me to be a new star
among the ancient ones."
The night sky appeared before her, aged and familiar pinpoints of light greeted those newly gifted with a seat among the stars.
"The joys of these honors
cannot outweigh the distress which I feel
That I no longer shall touch that head,
From which when Berenice was still a maiden
I drank so many frugal scents,
But did not enjoy the myrrh
of the married woman's hair."
A sadness invaded the image, a sense of longing and regret. "That's a powerful poem, Callimachus. Thank you for sharing it."
"A treasured compliment coming from you, Gabrielle."
She felt Xena's toes lightly poke her in the back.
"A lovely way to end the evening." Cleopatra stretched her long frame before getting up. "I think I need a short stroll before retiring."
"Sounds perfect," remarked Xena, rising slowly. She stood shoulder to shoulder with Cleopatra.
Gabrielle regarded them, these two tall, powerful women. They each had a personal elegance and a reserved mystery. They could exude authority, turning it on and off in an instant. They were in so many ways quite similar.
And in so many ways extraordinarily different.
I shall do well:
The people love me, and the sea is mine;
My powers are crescent, and my auguring hope
Says it will come to the full.
-Pompey from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Xena walked just behind Cleopatra's shoulder on the stone walkway which led along the cliff. On either side of them were well-tended flower beds, the scented foliage having the edge at night over sun-opened flowers. Behind her, Xena heard Gabrielle chatting amiably with Callimachus about the great library and the recently acquired Aristotle scrolls. Moonlight rippled off the ocean's surface. The fresh air felt good deep in her lungs after inhaling incense for so long at the party, and the relative silence was a welcome relief from a room of gabbing party-goers.
The warrior was impatient. She knew that left to her own devices, Cleopatra might never reveal the real reason for their summons. And any direct questions would likely be sidestepped by the Egyptian Queen.
She figured it better to try a tack that Cleopatra herself might use. "It's a very nice place, but Gabrielle and I can't stay long."
"Oh, but you simply must." The queen's long strides matched perfectly with Xena's. They slowly extended the distance between them and the two chattering bards.
"I'd love to, but we have an important matter to attend to. We'll have to leave tomorrow." She paused for effect. "Well, maybe we can stretch it to the day after since it's already almost dawn, but no later than tomorrow."
"Nonsense," Cleopatra spoke a little more forcefully. "You've come so far just to stay two days? That won't do at all. Tell whoever needs you that you'll be delayed."
"I'm sorry. I can't do that." Xena slowed her pace, smiling when Cleopatra immediately adjusted. "I've already inquired about freighters leaving for Athens. There are several choices if Abas isn't able to take us back."
"That won't be possible, Xena."
The warrior stopped in her tracks. "You mind telling me why?"
Gabrielle and Callimachus caught up with them. Xena felt the bard's palm come to rest on her back. She leaned into it to let her know it was appreciated.
Cleopatra narrowed her eyes. Even in the moonlight, Xena could see the liquid fire edging its way out. Eyes cannot hide the truth. "Oh, but you must visit Alexandria with me. It's quite worth the detour."
"We'd like that. I'm sure Gabrielle wants to see the library Callimachus has been telling her about."
"Then you'll come with me. Splendid." Cleopatra nodded toward Callimachus. "We can leave immediately."
So the ulterior reason for their summons had something to do with Alexandria. "Sorry, that won't work for us. We need to go back to Greece first. Perhaps in a few months we can come to Alexandria, but not now."
Gabrielle chimed in. "I made these arrangements and we can't back down from them. A whole village is counting on us."
Xena smiled inwardly. Gabrielle could always pick up on these ruses. Calling on her sweet-talking charms, the bard could coax the truth from a rock if need be.
Cleopatra's voice betrayed the very edges of her temper. "Oh, but you must escort me to Alexandria."
Ah ha, that's it. Xena took a step toward Cleopatra, an intentionally aggressive move. "Having a little trouble getting home? Maybe those warships out there have something to do with it."
"It's nothing, really."
"Good, then you don't need us and we'll be on our way." Xena circled her hand around Gabrielle's shoulder. "Come on, let's get some sleep. Maybe we can hitch passage out of here later this afternoon."
"I cannot accept that." The queen smiled, in effect daring Xena to refuse her.
Xena left her hand on the bard's shoulder. "I require the truth from you." Her fingers felt Gabrielle's muscles tighten.
The sound of the surf cut through the edgy stillness between them. Gabrielle's warm skin under her hand became a tangible reminder that the two of them were the center of her world. No queen, however rich or powerful she was, could shift her off that center.
"As you wish, Xena. I can see that you prefer that route." Cleopatra took a breath and relaxed her posture. "My brother breeds trouble. He is young and impressionable and under the influence of a despicable man, Pothinus."
Cleopatra's eyebrows raised in tandem. "Yes." She couldn't hide her surprise that Xena already knew so much.
"But I thought you ruled," Gabrielle said.
"Ptolemy is just fourteen. He requires a regent until he is of age, though we hold the throne jointly as brother and sister-wife. It is the way of our family."
"But he'd rather rule by himself," Xena commented.
"Pothinus dislikes me. It is he who has manufactured this... exile. Ptolemy believes what Pothinus tells him." She waved her hand in disgust. "But it is only a small matter. When I return to Alexandria all will be set right."
Gabrielle questioned her. "Everything will be okay just because you make it home? But Ptolemy and Pothinus are there, right? How can your presence magically fix everything?"
"The people will not deny me my rule. I can control Ptolemy and Pothinus when they are within sight." The tall queen softened her face. "Truly, all I require is safe passage home."
Xena studied the queen's genuine eyes. Perhaps she spoke the truth. "Let me guess... you want us to get you there?" Xena cocked her head in a sardonic gesture.
"If I take my fleet, Ptolemy's ships will intercept me. But Abas sails quickly, too quickly even for them. Though they have tiers of rowers, they cannot maintain the speed to catch me. I need only get a small lead on them. I would like you... to make that happen."
"Hard to do when the harbor is surrounded." Xena lightly squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder then dropped her hand. "So, you want us to break you out of here and see that you get to Alexandria?"
In answer, Cleopatra nodded once very slowly.
"And then we can go home, no questions asked?"
"You have my word."
* * *
"Stop fidgeting." Gabrielle pulled the tattered veil down over Cleopatra's face and silently cursed Xena for sticking her with this job. "You can take it off when we get to the sloop but Xena said it has to stay on until then."
Gabrielle readjusted her unusually heavy bag. She decided she needed to learn how to say no to Cleopatra. Here they were, dressed as beggars, the bard hauling a bag of precious jewels worth more than her hometown of Poteidaia's harvest added up over 1,000 years because some dumb queen for a country she'd never visited couldn't get along with her stupid little brother. Xena owes me big time for this, she mused.
Cleopatra snaked a finger out of her frayed robe and slipped it under the veil, scratching her neck and chin. "I wear silk for the sake of my sensitive skin. This... this is unacceptable." She started to flip the veil off again. "I can't..."
Gabrielle slammed her palm across Cleopatra's forehead. "Yes, you can and yes, you will!" She glanced over to Callimachus who snickered lightly in his own beggar attire. Slowly, Gabrielle dared to turn back toward Cleopatra. She couldn't see the liquid eyes under there but knew from body language alone that Cleopatra had had enough. She quickly pulled her hand away. "Please keep the veil on. We're almost there."
Gabrielle spent the rest of the short walk making a list of things she would ask Xena to do for her in exchange for getting stuck with Cleopatra. Xena had opted to take the royal yacht; it wouldn't talk back.
They sighted the skiff right where Codrus had told them it would be, in the northern, working area of the harbor. Gabrielle found it a little hard to believe that such a wealthy man as Codrus didn't share his good fortune with his family, and that his cousin was relegated to the hard life of a fisherman. She hoped that after their upcoming adventure, Codrus' cousin would be well rewarded.
A nervous man Gabrielle assumed to be Dascylus paced by the small boat. He tipped his cap and silently helped Cleopatra board the ship which rocked with each awkward footstep.
The queen didn't help matters. She tried to balance herself by stepping from side to side, making the rocking more pronounced. Gabrielle, whose nerves were frayed enough to treat a queen as the common idiot she seemed to want to be, bounded in behind Cleopatra and pushed her down onto a wooden seat. "Stop fidgeting and everything will be fine."
Callimachus smiled at Gabrielle as he gingerly lowered one foot into the boat. Dascylus steadied him with one hand, holding onto the old man until he'd found his seat behind Cleopatra. With the ragged trio settled into the skiff, the fisherman cast off and began to row them out of the harbor.
Cleopatra sighed. "I do hope this detour won't delay us too much."
Gabrielle was tired of Cleopatra's complaining; she let her exasperation get the better of her. "It is not a detour. It's Xena's plan. Abas takes the sloop out. The warships stop the sloop. You're not on board. Xena takes your yacht out heading south and tries makes it look like she's trying to run the blockade. All the warships take off after the yacht, leaving the sloop free to head north to the rendezvous. We row north to meet Abas and the sloop. The warships catch the yacht. Xena tells them it's a shake-down run because you'll be leaving in two days. They search the ship, find nothing, and let her sail on. The warships go back to guard the harbor. Xena meets us in Rhodes."
Callimachus laughed and pointed toward the bard. "She's a live one, all right. I think we'd better listen to her."
"Well... perhaps I can visit friends while we wait in Rhodes. I trust Xena will be swift."
Gabrielle lowered her eyes to the sea. Cleopatra was a very annoying woman.
* * *
Her long black hair trailing wildly in the wind, Xena looked toward the rising sun and tilted her chin up, letting the sun warm her face. It wouldn't be long, she knew, before Ptolemy's men paid the royal yacht a visit. Though it was early, the crews of the warships would have their eyes peeled for just this occurrence. Cleopatra's yacht had taken to the seas, her golden bow cutting through the waves effortlessly. The game had begun.
Under other circumstances Xena would have enjoyed this ship. True, it was laden with ostentatious decorations which she could have done without, but it was a magnificent vessel designed and built by those who loved their craft. It handled well, sailed smoothly, and cut through the water with the ease of a sharp knife through skin.
She wondered how Gabrielle fared with Cleopatra. Seeing her off that morning had been hard but she trusted the bard to make good decisions should anything unplanned for arise before their scheduled rendezvous. And Xena had seen her becoming irritated with Cleopatra enough to know that if matters demanded it, Gabrielle would put the queen in her place and take over. If it did happen, Xena hoped she'd get to witness it. That would be a moment to savor.
Her attention returned to her immediate surroundings. Up on the poop deck, the helm stood high affording a clear view of Ptolemy's fleet. She watched as oars extended from the sides of the warships. The crews were taking their places.
It wouldn't be long now. She ordered the brailing lines up to shorten the sails and slow their progress. She wanted to give those ships just enough of a run to test their crews' abilities but not one at full speed. She didn't need them angry, she only needed their attention.
As far as anyone onboard knew, she was taking the yacht out to assess its condition. It was the same story she'd tell Ptolemy's crew. Later, after getting through the blockade, she'd inform her crew they were headed for home with a slight detour in Rhodes to pick up their queen.
With the wind astern, they made better speed than she'd anticipated. Three warships fell in behind them, their three tiers of oarsmen bringing the big ships up to pursuit speed within a few minutes. Off the bow, Xena spied two more ships on an intercept course. If she had wanted to run for it, she'd never have made it.
She held the course. It didn't take long for the first of the warships to catch them. She smiled and waved to them. They ordered her to stand down.
The sails were lowered within seconds, Cleopatra's well-trained crew eager to work perfectly under the competitive gaze of the warship's crew. A dinghy made its way down from the deck of the warship. Five officers climbed into it, rowed over, and boarded the yacht.
"Something I can do for you?" Xena asked them.
"Orders." A young man, his nervousness betraying his inexperience, stood rigidly at attention.
Oh the military mind, thought Xena. Only follow. Never lead. "And what orders would those be?"
"We search all ships leaving port." His eyes swept the deck.
"Do you now? Even Cleopatra's own royal yacht? Don't you think that's a bit much?" Bickering between members of the same royal family never amounted to anything good for either side. It rent deep rifts, forcing both military and common people to take sides.
Several more loads of soldiers arrived from the warship. Armed men began to flood the deck. "Stand aside," the young officer demanded.
"We're just running a shakedown, getting the ship ready. Your queen will be going home in a few days and this yacht needs to be prepared." Gods she hated playing dumb.
The young officer, buoyed by an ever increasing number of troops to support him, drew his blade. "Step aside or I'll skewer you."
She wondered if he had any idea to whom he was talking. Skewer the Warrior Princess? Right. But she played her part, bowed, and graciously swept her arm out in a welcoming gesture. "Please, carry out your orders."
The young officer deployed his men quickly. Some scoured the deck, looking under anything that could be moved. Most of the men went immediately below deck for their hunt. Xena could be patient. She knew they wouldn't find what--or who--they were looking for, but just the idea of waiting through a search raised the hackles on her neck.
"You!" The young officer bellowed at her.
She took a breath and turned toward him after manufacturing a tiny smile. "Yes?"
"Come with me."
She followed him into the royal quarters, just under the poop deck and now bare of anything but built-in amenities. He motioned for her to sit down. She considered teasing him by sitting on the bed, but thought better of it and settled into a somewhat uncomfortable wooden chair. It would be just the place Cleopatra would seat those guests who tried her patience.
The officer chose to stand. He'd gained confidence as the boarding progressed.
"Something I can do for you?" Xena asked in a cold voice meant to dissuade any inappropriate flirtation from the Egyptian officer.
"I'm sure we can work something out."
Xena cringed. Killing the idiot would only make it more difficult to shed their unwelcome escort and head on toward Rhodes.
O my lord, my lord,
Forgive my fearful sails! I little thought
You would have follow'd.
-Cleopatra from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Abas greeted them with a skeptical look, letting her eyes roam from Cleopatra's shabby guise to Callimachus and Gabrielle's amused grins. "Come, my queen." She offered her hand to Cleopatra as the queen made a surprisingly graceful lunge to board the sloop. "We'll get you settled and be on our way."
Callimachus headed for the galley, Gabrielle on his heels. The bard gave Iphis a hug when she saw him, noticing she could feel his thin ribs. "Are you feeling okay?"
"I'll be fine. Just a little tired today." Iphis smiled at Callimachus. "Successful trip?"
The librarian patted a long bag chock full of scrolls hanging from his shoulder. "Very." He took two mugs of cider from the cook and sat down at the big wooden table, sliding one mug toward Gabrielle.
"Thanks," the bard said. Her bag made a deep thud when she dropped it onto the table. "At least she didn't insist on bringing all of her clothes." She sat down and took a long draw of cider.
"She'll get them eventually." Callimachus sipped his drink.
Iphis wandered over and joined them, putting one hand on a knee and taking a few deep breaths. "What are you carrying?"
Gabrielle reached into her bag and pulled out a smaller, lumpy pouch. "Cleopatra's jewels. They weigh a lot." Gabrielle lightly patted the pouch.
"Ah, yes." Iphis stretched his legs out. "She has a thing about rocks, especially those pearls."
"I'll be taking them now." Cleopatra waltzed in dressed once again in her trail of silks, mostly blues and greens to match the sea.
Callimachus handed the pouch to her. "All safe and sound. We'll be off soon?"
"Abas has the crew making the final preparations." The queen turned, her silks gently oscillating as she moved, and left them.
* * *
Xena's lips curled at the sound of a loud knock on the wooden door. "Come," she called out, watching with amusement as frustration angled the officer's brow.
"Sir!" A junior officer stepped into the cabin and glanced quickly at his commander and the lovely women. His shoulders sagged. "Excuse me, sir."
"What do you want?"
"Reporting that the first sweep is completed."
"What did you find?"
"Initiate the secondary search. Be certain the men examine every plank." He turned toward Xena. "Excuse me while I ensure the search is underway."
"Take your time," she replied, forcing a smile on her face. She knew he'd be back but at least she'd have some time to herself while they ogled every splinter onboard.
* * *
Gabrielle remained on deck most of their voyage to Rhodes. Abas' crew chatted with her some but mostly they left her alone.
Their course took them along the northern coast of Cyprus. Then they turned north to the mainland. That action required the crew to tack into the teeth of the wind and the bard let her mind absently follow the precise and elegant maneuver's of Abas' crew as they zigzagged toward the coast.
She didn't sleep well that night, even in the comforting presence of Xena's sword and chakram. Xena had told the bard that she didn't want to appear threatening to Ptolemy's troops. If she needed a weapon, there would be plenty nearby. So Gabrielle was entrusted with the tools of Xena's trade. They did little to assuage the emptiness of Xena's absence.
Even into the next day Gabrielle found herself staring off at the horizon, not focused on anything in particular. Though the ship made her way past quaint sea-side villages and daunting, impressive cliffs, too many things were left hanging for Gabrielle to enjoy the spectacular view. Playful dolphins riding the bow waves couldn't wrest her from her fog.
Xena was out there somewhere, heading toward an encounter with the Egyptian navy on the other side of Cyprus. Gabrielle knew in her head that Xena could handle the situation, but in her heart she felt a gnawing worry bloom into the edginess of fear. Not knowing what was happening was more difficult than anything else. The unusually chilly late spring wind arose from the Mediterranean unnoticed.
Below deck were a wacky and pompous Egyptian queen, a sea captain who'd been both friend and foe, and one of her very most favorite poets in all the lands who, for some totally incalculable reason, thought she was worthy of a biographical entry in the catalogues of the Great Library at Alexandria.
How did it all fit together? Cinnamon and Caesar? She shook her head slightly. And here I am waiting for Xena to extricate herself from Ptolemy's men, sailing to Rhodes with Cleopatra. She lifted her hands to rub some of the confusion from her temples.
Startled, Gabrielle twirled toward the voice. Callimachus leaned against the railing, his purple robes fluttering in the wind. "Oh, sorry.... No, just trying to sort out some stuff."
"Though scholars most often work in solitude, when unresolved puzzles remain beyond reach, we often seek the advice of others." He stepped closer, stopping just beyond arm's length. "But when it's personal, we tend to leave those issues unspoken."
Gabrielle studied his gentle, aged face. Under the collecting cloud cover he seemed a little less pale, a little less different from everyone else. There was a certain softness to him that she could see under the heady and well-rehearsed surface. She saw the possibility of building an intimate trust with this man. "I guess it's personal. Too many unanswered questions right now."
He laughed lightly. "An all too common state of affairs in life and in the Library as well."
Gabrielle noticed a very slight shiver travel through the poet. "Are you cold? Wait here." She scampered below deck and retrieved two blankets, realizing she'd been cold herself only when she felt the thick cloth's welcome warmth.
Callimachus had seated himself in the bow where Gabrielle happily joined him, each of them cuddling beneath warm wool. "Tell me about the Library."
His eyes twinkled. "I can't do it justice, Gabrielle. You need to see it for yourself. But I can tell you its history." He took a deep breath and let out a pleasant sigh. "Long ago when Alexander himself put the Ptolemy family in power, Alexandria was not very different from the ports we've passed today."
"Except for where it was," Gabrielle offered.
"Except for its location, yes, the closest port to the Nile, one of only a handful of stable ports in a region of sandbars and mutating shorelines." Callimachus put a crooked finger to his lips in a thoughtful pose before continuing. "A scholar named Demetrius worked for the Ptolemys and urged them to collect scrolls. It's said that he convinced Ptolemy Soter to invest a fair portion of his fortune in the Library by luring him with the seductive charm of scrolls about kings and power."
Gabrielle chuckled. "I've seen that sort of thing with my own eyes. Power has a way of filling every void, or righting every wrong." She shrugged. "At least it looks that way to the people blinded by it."
Callimachus nodded. "Yes, but sometimes power really is right and I've seen a few more decades than you have, young Gabrielle."
She laughed good-naturedly. He was older than her own father, after all.
"The Ptolemys are a good family who have accepted stewardship of artifacts too numerous to count. They set their minds to gathering every scroll they could, building an enormous repository of knowledge in Alexandria." He turned and looked right into her eyes. "It's more than poetry, Gabrielle. We preserve the very fundamentals of geometry and encourage wild theories of the stars. We know of medicine and philosophy, healing and thinking. The Library is a storehouse of the knowledge held in the sum of all humanity. What you want to learn is there. What you want to read, we acquire. We ensure that each generation will have the wisdom of all who have come before, so they can build stronger bridges, conquer every disease, and dream new songs."
Something inside the bard clicked, some primal urge to know and understand. A basic need bloomed again into a clear tangible presence. "I want to go there."
"And indeed you will." Callimachus settled back and shifted his gaze to the ever distant horizon. "I'll be certain you get the royal tour, my friend."
* * *
Xena waited the better part of the day in the cabin. She was relieved not to have to deal with the pissant soldiers, but also getting more and more edgy from being cooped up in a barren and uninteresting room. She felt each passing minute as a delay directly impacting on Gabrielle for she knew the bard would be thinking of her just as she thought of her companion.
When late afternoon shadows crossed the polished wood floor at deep angles, the annoying officer returned. This time, he stepped into the room as a predator, not as a young military man nervously going about his prescribed duty. "I'm glad to see you waited for me."
"It's not as if there was any place to go. Your men crawled over every cranny on this ship." She cast an angry glare his way. "Find anything interesting?"
"My officers are going over the log entries. It should take the rest of the night." He moved toward her stopping a breath away. "I told them not to disturb us."
"Did you?" She toyed with him, letting him believe he was in complete control.
"You can make this easy or hard; it's your choice." A callused palm settled onto her shoulder.
"Believe me, I'd rather not make it hard."
He smiled, completely missing her point. "All of this armor you wear... it must be very heavy." Slowly, his fingers began to trace the curves of the brass protecting her shoulder.
"It's light as a feather to me." She knew she was being mean, letting him believe that he could command her body for the night.
"It must be difficult to remove." His hand slipped behind her neck. "Perhaps I could help you," he whispered as he closed his eyes and leaned forward, his lips seeking out their prize.
He never knew what hit him. He was out as he slumped to the floor. Xena didn't bother to straighten his limbs before stepping over him and pressing her ear to the cabin door. Soon, under cover of darkness, she could steal away unnoticed and not be missed until the dawn.
Her choices were few. She'd never get this ship away from Ptolemy's troops. They wouldn't be sailing on to Rhodes. But Xena had to get there.
They'd headed out that morning toward Cyprus, but the island had been only a beckoning lump on the horizon when the ship was boarded. They'd drifted most of the day. The currents would not have been her friend, taking her farther from her goal, for on Cyprus, she could arrange passage to Rhodes. If she had to return to Laodicea, too many things could go wrong, there would be too many delays.
She made her decision, waited for nightfall and the lazy late evening hours shipboard. Quietly exiting the cabin, she slithered over the railing and dropped into the black sea below. She trusted her innate sense of direction to take her toward Cyprus.
* * *
"Have you ever been to Rhodes, Gabrielle?"
Callimachus stood at her side as Abas maneuvered the ship toward the harbor. "No, not yet."
"Then you haven't seen the colossal statue?"
"I thought it had been destroyed."
"Look." Callimachus pointed toward a mountainous pile of rubble which marked the mouth of the harbor. "That was once a statue of Helios before an earthquake toppled it."
Gabrielle began to understand the enormity of former statue when the pile of rubble grew larger and larger as they neared it. "By the gods... there's more stone there than I've ever seen."
"And bronze and iron in twisted veins running through it. The statue took twelve years to build and a few moments to fall." The poet fell silent as the ship sailed by.
Even from their dock well inside the harbor, the stones cut a jagged gray edge across their view. Gabrielle found her thoughts drifting to the statue... some man's life, his art, cut down by the forces of nature in an instant. Even something so magnificent and strong as a stone statue is transitory. Nothing is permanent. Nothing is certain. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing at all.
"Gabrielle?" Callimachus called her name softly.
The bard pulled her eyes from the distant rubble.
"Come below. Dinner is ready."
"I'm not really hungry," Gabrielle answered.
"I'll tell you what." Callimachus extended a tentative hand to rest on Gabrielle's arm. "You join us for dinner and then we'll have a look at those scrolls together, okay?"
"The very ones."
Gabrielle dropped her eyes to the deck. "You're a nice person, Callimachus."
He laughed soundly and led her to the galley. "Hardly, my dear child. The real truth of it is that I so rarely meet anyone who appreciates such treasures outside the hallowed confines of the Library. It's purely selfish, I assure you."
"What's selfish?" asked a curious Abas. She had just taken a large pot of stew from the galley stove, clearly insisting she carry it instead of her pale husband.
Gabrielle helped her to put it on the table and glanced back at Iphis. This trip had been hard on him. She returned her attention to the captain. "My new friend Callimachus seems to think he has selfish motives for sharing."
"Ah, yes." Abas nodded. "I think I understand.
Gabrielle saw the wink the captain sent the poet's way.
"As I knew you would." Callimachus bowed to Abas.
"Where's Cleopatra?" Gabrielle asked, secretly quite grateful the queen hadn't joined them.
"She's already gone to visit friends in Rhodes. I doubt we'll see her before we're ready to set sail again." Iphis cracked a smile. "She got wind of a good party and took off faster than I'd ever seen her go. She's not used to such cramped quarters as this sloop."
Soon about half the crew, Abas and Iphis, Callimachus and Gabrielle found their bowls empty and their bellies full. "Thank you, Iphis, for another extraordinary meal." Gabrielle truly meant it for he was one of the finest cooks she'd encountered. She appreciated that he let the flavors of fresh foods soar above rich or greasy sauces. His food didn't need to hide behind heavy spicing.
Iphis smiled. "All is forgiven, I trust."
That stopped the conversation dead. The awkwardness felt between them the day before had merely been swept under the rug, hidden away from confrontation.
But Iphis had done the deed, retrieving the subject from its invisible haven. Gabrielle decided to meet them on those terms. Open and honest. "Xena and I were surprised that you didn't tell us what was going on. We were about to find out anyway. Why didn't you say anything?"
Abas answered the bard. She was the responsible authority onboard. Everything would have trickled down from her decisions. "I didn't know much, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"I did know that Cleopatra had sent for Xena because she thought that would be the easiest way to get home. I didn't know more than that."
"But why not at least say as much?" Gabrielle grasped at a logical argument. "If Xena had known why we were brought to Syria, she could have made plans on the way, assessed the situation as we sailed in. Why all the secrecy?"
"Gabrielle, please understand." Abas spoke plainly and truthfully. "My life depends on my relationship with Cleopatra." She dropped her voice. "It's not just my job that's at stake." The captain's eyes linked with Gabrielle's then focused on Iphis before coming back to meet the bard's knowing gaze.
Gabrielle got the message. Iphis was treated by the medical professionals in Cleopatra's employment. His well-being depended on Abas remaining in the queen's good graces.
"And besides," continued Abas, "You don't cross her and expect to be alive the next day."
The weight of that settled around them like a stifling blanket. In for a dinar, in for the full ride. Gabrielle realized that just getting Cleopatra to Alexandria wasn't going to be the end of this adventure. And she knew that Xena would have long since figured that out.
"Well," Callimachus broke the silence, "how 'bout those scrolls, Gabrielle?"
She welcomed the diversion. "Thanks, I'd love to read them."
The wind had settled into a cold fog. The mercurial nature of late spring weather had once again asserted itself. The pair retired to Gabrielle's cabin in the bow and sat at the small table.
"What'll it be first?" Callimachus pulled out a half dozen scrolls. "Rhetorics? Politics? Dreams?"
"Dreams," Gabrielle answered without thinking. She unfurled the parchment to find a steady hand in small, fine strokes.
"Tell me what it says."
Gabrielle cleared her throat and began to read: "It is plain therefore that this affection, which we name 'dreaming', is no mere exercise of opinion or intelligence, but yet is not an affection of the faculty of perception in the simple sense."
"It's interesting how something so simple cannot be explained by any but those with great minds." Callimachus had leaned back in his chair, his clasped hands now rested in his lap.
"I guess that's true." Gabrielle scanned ahead thinking more about what Callimachus had just said than the words her eyes took in. When she next concentrated, she read: "In sleep we sometimes have thoughts other than the mere phantasms immediately before our minds." She lowered the scroll. "That's true, we do."
"I've had some wild dreams," admitted Callimachus. "I've had dreams which made no sense... until at some later date an occurrence would remind me of the scene and suddenly I understood it with blinding clarity."
Gabrielle felt uncomfortable telling Callimachus of her visions. She had no idea what part he had to play. No, that wasn't it, she realized. It was because only Xena knew of them. Only Xena understood them. That was a side of the bard reserved only for Xena.
She rolled up the scroll. "What else do you have there?"
The poet briefly sorted through the scrolls, choosing one to hand to her.
She began to read: "We may define a good thing as that which ought to be chosen for its own sake; or as that which is sought after by all things; or as what produces, maintains, or entails characteristics of this kind, while preventing and destroying their opposites."
Callimachus chuckled. "He likes long sentences."
"I'll say..." Gabrielle reread it silently. "But I'm not so sure I agree with him. Look here," she tilted the scroll so her friend could read it. "A good thing is something sought by all things?"
"I believe he's talking about pleasure."
"But I've seen so much pleasure taken by people who are not good."
The poet raised his brow in a silent question.
Gabrielle tried to explain. "I've known warlords who take pleasure in killing. That isn't good."
"Perhaps the act isn't. But what of the sensation?"
"There's a greater good. That's what Xena taught me. There's a greater good that is good for everyone."
"Even for that murderous warlord?"
"In the long run, yes. It's giving him a chance to learn about happiness."
"But what if he already knows happiness?"
"But it isn't true happiness."
Callimachus sat up and grinned. "And what is that, Gabrielle?" His voice took on a tone of challenge, of daring a deep thinker to risk coming to a single conclusion. "Do you know what true happiness is?"
She understood this to be more than a simple question. It was what people spent a lifetime answering. "Perhaps Aristotle can tell us."
He chuckled and resumed his more relaxed pose. "Go on, read more."
She scanned the page until she saw two special words jump out at her. "A thing which is desirable in itself is a greater good than a thing which is not desirable in itself, as for example bodily strength than what is wholesome." There it was before her, Aristotle discussing greater good. But it was twisted and skewed. Gabrielle found a flaw in his argument. "For some, bodily strength isn't as important as a healthy mind."
"Like me, for example." He feebly tried to make a muscle in his biceps. "But I am protected by those who are strong. It's a matter of specialization, of society and community sharing tasks, ensuring that those endowed with a special talent take responsibility for the greater good of the whole."
"You mean if someone's special talent is killing, they take on that task for the whole society and that's automatically good?" The conversation had taken on a surreal spin.
"There are executioners who carry out the sentences of the courts. Are they murderers?"
Softly, she answered him, wondering where the logic had gone sour. "Not if justice has been served." She felt she wasn't grasping something important here.
"Uh huh. Read more, please."
She wasn't sure she wanted to but the uniqueness of the situation won out. She continued to read from Aristotle's own hand: "The hard thing is better than the easy, because it is rarer: and reversely, the easy thing is better than the hard, for it is as we wish it to be. That is the greater good whose contrary is the greater evil, and whose loss affects us more." She put the scroll down utterly confused. "Did he just contradict himself?"
Gabrielle looked at the scholar. His eyes flamed with unbridled passion. The words had inspired him and yet muddied her own thinking. "You understand this."
"Are you going to explain it to me?"
"If the words of Aristotle cannot shed clarification on a philosophical subject, who am I even to try?"
Frustrated, the bard grabbed the scroll and reread those passages several times, committing them to memory. She'd be damned if she couldn't figure them out.
The next day, she ran them over in her mind several times. The hard thing is better than the easy, because it is rarer: and reversely, the easy thing is better than the hard, for it is as we wish it to be.
She wished it were an easier puzzle. The time passed quickly as she struggled to sort it out.
Until evening came again and a cold rain began. Xena was past due.
This is not yet an Alexandrian feast.
-Pompey from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
At dawn of the third day in Rhodes, Gabrielle stared into her darkened cabin, watching the light grow. She first saw the looming ceiling, then the outlines of individual boards, and at last the knots and nail heads. A deep sense of dread had remained with her all night. Xena would only be late if something had gone wrong. And with an entire flotilla of ships surrounding the warrior, too many terribly wrong possibilities emerged.
The late spring storm had stayed with them all night in a steady drizzle. Gray skies greeted her as she climbed topside which did nothing to lighten her mood. The loneliest stretches of time were those spent waiting... waiting for Xena. How many times had she done just that?
Too many to count.
Still, the alternative was unthinkable. Of course she would wait. She would trust Xena to move mountains if that's what it took for her to return for she had the force of a mountain within her. But sometimes even mountains fell victim to rockslides or earthquakes. Xena was not immortal, not invulnerable. She had an entire navy to get through without her weapons and with a crew she didn't know. Gabrielle's stomach cramped briefly, fading into a dull ache that wouldn't abate until she saw Xena again.
The bard kept her eyes to the harbor entrance, expecting the royal yacht to come sailing through at any moment... hoping to see the yacht. Even the impressive remains of the great statue couldn't woo her attention. The magnificent rubble had been reduced merely to part of the form whose purpose was to define the way of Xena's return.
A few of Abas' crew invited Gabrielle to join them onshore. They were off to do some shopping and just walk about, not planning to be gone long in case they needed to set sail that day. The bard declined. She had to know the instant Xena arrived, not to be off sorting through bolts of cloth.
Callimachus wouldn't emerge from his cabin for hours. He still kept to his owl-like schedule of sleep during the day and work by night. His company had been all that she'd enjoyed since leaving Syria... though her mind wasn't up to slogging through more of Aristotle's scrolls. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Her elbows rested on the rail.
Though clouds and occasional drizzle hid the arcing sun Gabrielle knew the time. She knew when the morning slid into midday and there was no sign of Xena. She felt the afternoon pass away into the evening utterly alone.
Callimachus found her still on deck as dusk gave way to the cloud-obscured stars. He selected a spot on the railing near her and leaned into the cool breeze. "Feels like the storm has passed. It will be warmer tomorrow."
With effort Gabrielle produced a smile. She was in a foul mood and a frustrated bard needed to examine carefully every move she made, and each word she let slip out. Callimachus didn't deserve any backlash from her.
The older man took a long look at the small woman by his side. "When you think beyond the next day, what do you see yourself doing?" He'd spoken softly, letting the question float freely without any demands pushing it along.
Gabrielle paused and considered her answer. It was a question she didn't ask herself often enough and yet she lived with a series of urgent answers bombarding her day in and day out. She let her heart speak. "That depends on the road Xena takes."
Callimachus nodded slowly. "And yet you're so different from her. She's a wanderer, uncomfortable in her own boots. You..." he gently turned to face her, "you seem in search of a place to settle. It's as if Xena is running away from herself while you're questing for your home."
She hadn't thought about it in quite those terms before. "At least some of that's true, I suppose." Her eyes scanned the horizon again, searching for Cleopatra's standard flying atop the royal yacht's mast. A thought struck her. "How do you know Xena so well?"
"I've read your scrolls."
Gabrielle laughed softly, a little embarrassed she'd been caught revealing more than she'd intended.
"Why do you stay with her?"
Gabrielle laughed again, this time more openly. The answer was so obvious. "I can't imagine it any other way."
Again, the poet nodded slowly as if understanding much more than Gabrielle had said. "But you... do... imagine it sometimes, don't you?"
Her shoulders sagged. An awful truth had escaped the privacy of her mind. Hearing it come from a man who was a stranger only a few days before made her all the more uncomfortable.
"Don't think you're so different from everyone else, Gabrielle. If you don't question your decisions, how can you know you're making the right one?"
"I guess so..."
Callimachus shifted closer and softly placed one hand on her shoulder. "Everyone wonders what the other path would be like... if they'd made a different choice at a crossroad."
Gabrielle took a breath and spoke a deep truth. "I'd make the same choice again."
"That's how you know you made the right one." His hand squeezed her shoulder before dropping back to his side. "You have to live with the curse of a fertile imagination. It helps you to be a great bard but has its drawbacks. You conjure up lives that appeal to you. The more vivid and interesting they are, the more they call to you."
At that, the bard laughed heartily. Talking about this, even in roundabout terms, made her feel better "You're right about that. I drive Xena crazy spouting off about make-believe castles and worlds without pain and suffering."
"With a benevolent queen?"
Gabrielle looked up to see twinkling eyes staring back at her. "No." She watched his eyebrows raise in surprise. "It would have two benevolent queens."
That encouraged a resounding laugh from Callimachus.
* * *
Gabrielle woke at dawn after a fitful sleep to the sounds of the crew hard at work on deck. She groaned inwardly at the ability of people to put their backs into a task so early and tried to put the noise out of her drowsy mind so she could fall back to sleep.
Her eyes popped open. She came to full consciousness in an instant. Those were the sounds of a crew preparing to leave which could only mean....
She pulled on her clothes and flew out of the cabin in bare feet, bounding up the narrow ladder to the deck. He eyes flipped from bow to stern. The crew worked to secure everything on deck. Gabrielle called to one. "Where's Xena?"
He shrugged and bent to his task.
It would be unlike Xena to go off without saying hello first. Wondering where to look next, she turned quickly, took one step, and plowed right into the captain. "Abas! Sorry. I should watch where I'm going. Where's Xena?"
"Did she get back?"
"What do you mean? Why are getting ready to sail?"
"Cleopatra's orders. She came in late last night madder than a hissing goose." Abas' face was stern. "I guess one of the party guests insulted her. She wants us out of Rhodes, now."
Gabrielle grabbed the captain's arm. "What? But Xena's not back yet?"
"She'll catch up with us." The captain tried to step past the bard but she was held firm.
"No! You can't just leave without her."
"Queen's orders." Abas pried Gabrielle's grip loose.
"Where is she?"
"Where's who?" and irritated Abas asked.
Exasperated, the bard answered, "Cleopatra! Who else?"
"Asleep." Abas captured her eyes intently. "And if you value your life, you won't disturb her." The captain sighed. "Look, Gabrielle, you can't make Cleopatra change her mind. But I'll... I'll have everyone work as slowly as I can, okay?"
Gabrielle couldn't believe this. That selfish, mercurial, infantile queen would dare to leave Xena behind because an insult got hurled her way at a party? Well, she wouldn't get anywhere with Abas. The captain had already proven herself absolutely loyal to Cleopatra. "Fine," she answered at last.
She went back to the cabin and packed. If the boat was going without Xena, it was going without Gabrielle, too. But that would only be a last resort. There had to be other options, ways to delay them, keep them from sailing.
Gabrielle considered tossing Abas' 'special supplies' overboard, forcing them to go to market again for the captain's private stash of food. She thought about ripping holes in the sails. For a fleeting moment, she imagined forcing Cleopatra to walk the plank.
Who am I kidding? Gabrielle flopped on the palette and buried her face in the pillow. I can't do anything to hold up this ship.
She stowed the chakram in her pack then hefted the bag over one shoulder. She reached for Xena's sword, tucked securely in its scabbard, and exited the cabin.
She met Iphis in the passageway. "What's this?" He asked.
"Cleopatra ordered the sloop to leave but Xena isn't back yet." As she spoke the words she fought back tears.
"She has, has she?" Iphis coughed lightly. "Let's see what we can do about that."
"No, no..." Gabrielle patted his arm, noticing now how frail he seemed. "I'll just wait for Xena here in Rhodes. We can get back to Greece somehow. Don't you worry about it."
"Nonsense." He turned her around. "You go stow that gear. I'll check my stores. I'm sure that we're short of spices or flour."
"But one trip to the market..."
"Will become two and if we have to, we'll think of another plan." He playfully slapped her. "Now get going and stow your stuff before I really get mad."
* * *
In the end, the departure had hardly been delayed at all. Cleopatra anxiously oversaw the final preparations and wasn't fooled by any of the foils to block their progress. Any attempt to counter Cleopatra's orders was swiftly dealt with. The queen threatened to put every slacker off the ship. That immediately snuffed out their plans.
Gabrielle fumed at the dock, one hand on her hip, the other holding tight to Xena's sword and scabbard. Great, she thought, just great. Now what? Figure out the first place Xena would look and go there to wait.
But the harbormaster wouldn't do more than let her post a note, and that on a board so jam-packed with bits of parchment that hers would be lost in a cream-colored sea of messages.
Slowly, Gabrielle made her way off the docks and into the town, wondering if she should try to find a room first or find a spot to watch for Xena. She came to a bustling intersection of six streets and a two alleys. Her way was barred by a mass of people darting between carts and drivers tossing around angry shouts, each person apparently with a destination of the utmost import. All the bard could do was stop in her tracks.
All those people seemed so clearly driven, knowing which way to go and what they had to do. The frenzy of movement and noise, of people barely getting out of each other's way, one cart barreling past another so quickly it was a wonder they didn't run into each other. All of that speed and determination in front of her seemed to suck her purposefulness from her. She couldn't summon the ability to sort out which way to go.
A low voice spoke right into her ear. "Looking for me?"
Gabrielle whirled around, dropped everything and threw her arms around Xena.
"I'll take that as a yes." Xena chuckled and returned the hug.
With that, the bard's defenses crumbled. "I tried to..." The tears couldn't be stopped.
"Come on," Xena said, picking up their belongings and putting her arm around the bard. She steered them into a nearby tavern and guided Gabrielle to a seat in a dimly-lit corner.
Gabrielle wiped the back of her hand along her cheeks. "Sorry," she croaked. "I didn't mean to do that. At least not in public."
"It's okay." Xena squeezed her hand then got up, went to the bar, and retrieved two short ales.
Gabrielle sipped hers. "Thanks." The liquor felt good going down. "Hey! You're here."
"Sorry I was late." Xena lowered her hand under the table.
Quickly, Gabrielle reached for that lifeline, lacing her fingers between the larger ones. "You okay?" Gabrielle asked.
Xena smiled. "I'm fine."
"Why were you so late?" She tried hard not to imbue the question with all the frustration she'd been feeling.
Xena squeezed her hand. Gabrielle understood that to mean the subject was on hold for awhile. Another thought occurred to her. "Oh gods, Xena. Now what do we do? Cleopatra already left."
"No she didn't."
The candlelight showed only a glimmer of the wicked mirth Xena had in her eyes. But Gabrielle could read it well, dim light or not. "I'm looking forward to that story." The bard let go with the first real grin in a long while.
"Let's not push our luck, though." Xena downed her ale and waited for Gabrielle to do the same. "Feel like heading back?"
Gabrielle watched as Xena strapped her scabbard across her back, considering what might have happened. Xena had managed to convince Cleopatra to turn back to Rhodes without even brandishing her weapons. The bard chuckled at the thought while reaching into her bag to get the chakram. She leaned toward Xena and placed it on its hook at the warrior's waist. "There. All set?"
Xena extended her hand and helped the bard up. "Now I am."
Gabrielle's senses were consumed by Xena, the feel of the leather under her hand as she walked with her arm around the warrior's waist. She concentrated on the muscles in the strong arms, lying in wait just under the smooth surface of her skin. The commanding jut of her chin. But her face seemed a bit wan, her features drawn. The bard detected the traces of circles under her eyes.
She was about to ask once again if Xena felt okay when they stopped. Gabrielle glanced around, confused. "But..." They stood by the sloop. "Where's the yacht?"
"Part of the long story. Come on." She urged the bard aboard.
Gabrielle noticed a few smirks on the crew's faces. They quickly turned back to their duties and kept their amusement to themselves.
"I see you found her." Abas strode down from the poop deck. Gabrielle tried to read the captain's face. She looked almost repentant.
As an answer, Xena glared at her.
"We'll be on our way, then," Abas announced. The crew took their stations, some to handle the oars needed to maneuver them out of the harbor, others ready to raise the sails when they were free of tight quarters.
"What...?" Gabrielle eyed Xena, hoping she would explain what had happened very soon. Xena shook off the bard's questions with an indifferent raise of her shoulders.
She tugged on Xena, aware that she'd have no answers until they were alone, and pulled her below toward their cabin.
* * *
Xena kept quiet as she deposited their bags back on the table. After all she'd been through for that wench, Cleopatra had had the audacity to leave Gabrielle at the docks, unprotected, without passage back to Greece, without knowing if Xena would indeed return.
She'd made certain both Cleopatra and Abas understood that Xena had left Gabrielle in their care. That Gabrielle's well-being was never again to be put second to anyone or anything or any conceivable need. And that if Xena were ever again to find out that they'd put Gabrielle in danger, it would be their last act. She hadn't needed to pretend her anger was real, everyone could plainly see that it was. And no one, not even Cleopatra, cared to take the warrior to task.
"Want to tell me about it?"
Xena put on a smile. "Just thinking." She opened her arms and welcomed Gabrielle into a soft hug. It was all she'd dreamed of doing for days. It was all that had kept her going. It felt so right.
"You want to tell me why everyone reacted to you as if you were Zeus himself aiming a thunderbolt at them?"
Xena knew she'd be asked about the crew's reaction and wondered how best to answer it. "Can we just say that I... uh... took exception to the fact that they left you behind?"
She felt Gabrielle laugh. "Oh. I hope you weren't too hard on them."
"They're alive, aren't they?"
Gabrielle tightened her arms then released Xena and stood back. "You look like you've been to Tartarus."
"That bad, huh?" I should know that I can't hide anything from you.
"Will you please tell me what happened, why you were late, and where the royal yacht is?"
"Well," Xena started, unsure of how to tell the story without raising the bard's hackles, "I had a little swim."
Our fortune on the sea is out of breath,
And sinks most lamentably.
-Canidius - from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra
Xena recounted how the Egyptian troops boarded the yacht. She played up her encounter with the ignorant young officer who'd taken a fancy to her.
Gabrielle let out a sympathetic hiss when Xena described putting an end to his ridiculous, misplaced advances. "Sometimes I wish I could handle lewd men like that," Gabrielle said.
"It comes in handy," Xena replied, then continued without pause. "I couldn't see any way to get the troops off the ship while we were still at sea. And with those men swarming the decks, I needed a means of escape, myself."
"So how'd you get away from the yacht?"
"I waited until nightfall and jumped over."
"Good thing you were right by land, huh?" Gabrielle watched Xena's unresponsive stone face. "You were near the shore, weren't you?" She still saw no reaction. "Xena, how far were you from dry land?"
Quietly, Xena answered, "I could see Cyprus on the horizon."
That scared the bard. It sent shards of fright skittering down every limb. Her voice barely made sound as she asked, "You swam... in your armor? For how long?"
Gabrielle sat down hard on the bed, her legs refusing to support her with their normal elegant grace. Emotions mutated to anger, anger that Xena wouldn't take better care of herself for Gabrielle's sake. "Were you thinking about how dangerous that was?" She blinked rapidly, trying to hold back irritating tears.
"Gabrielle." Xena spoke her name in a gently lilting voice, full of honesty and openness. It instantly erased all of Gabrielle's wrath. "I had most of the day to consider options. I couldn't come up with one that was any less dangerous. This was the only way to avoid a fight." She settled down next to the bard on the bed. "I knew what I was doing. I wouldn't have done it if I'd been able to think of something else." Her long fingers wiped away the evidence of Gabrielle's tears. "And I wouldn't have done it if I thought I couldn't make it... back to you."
Gabrielle traced the familiar outline of Xena's breastplate. Haltingly, she whispered, "You shouldn't have stayed in the salty water that long. It could have ruined your armor."
Xena chuckled and hugged the bard, holding her in strong, warm arms. "Almost did. I had quite a time getting it clean."
Gabrielle rested in Xena's embrace and willed her racing heart and shallow breath to return to normal. "So you got to shore... and then what?"
"I asked two men to lend me their boat."
Gabrielle sensed that hadn't gone as smoothly as Xena would have liked. "And when they refused?"
"I convinced them that they'd receive a handsome reward for their efforts."
"How long did it take them to believe you when you told them the reward would come from Cleopatra." Gabrielle felt Xena laughing.
"I did try, Gabrielle. I told them the truth. They didn't want to believe me." Xena rested her cheek on the bard's head which was tucked against her shoulder. "In fact, they didn't believe me until we got to Rhodes."
"So let me guess, these guys had a cargo of, what, wine or something, and you made them sail with it to Rhodes?"
Gabrielle angled her head up and glared at Xena. "Out with it. Now. All of it."
"They were fishermen. Small boat." Xena shrugged. "I rowed."
Gabrielle ripped her arms from around Xena and slapped her open palms against the warrior's shoulders. "First you swim half way across the Mediterranean..."
The younger woman's voice raised indignantly. "And then you row from Cyprus to Rhodes?"
"It wasn't that bad."
"How long did the rowboat adventure take?" She held up one hand, pointing a shaking finger at the warrior's nose. "No, let me guess. You took your swim and finished past dawn," she counted back in her head, "three days ago. Then you found the fishermen... that morning?" Sometimes she could strangle Xena for her absurd decisions.
Xena shook her head. "That afternoon. Had to clean my armor first."
Gabrielle didn't laugh. "So it took two days plus a part of another to row here."
"We took turns," Xena lamely offered. "Okay," she admitted, "so I did most of it."
Gabrielle pulled open Xena's fists and inspected her hands for damage from the oars. The palms were only slightly red, hardly a blister to be found anywhere. It was utter magic.
"I hold swords a lot." She spoke in a soft, deep tone. "Same thing."
Overwhelmed by awe for this woman, all Gabrielle could do was cover those remarkable hands with her own. "No wonder you look tired." She saw Xena's eyes drop away from her own.
She asked more curtly than she'd wanted to sound. "There's more?"
"They... didn't like me very much... didn't trust me. So I had to keep an eye on 'em all the time."
Gabrielle was past getting angry and past accusing Xena of stupid choices. Now her thoughts were on how the warrior must be feeling. "You haven't slept in four days?"
Xena answered with a chagrined nod.
Gabrielle started working on the clasps of Xena's armor, noting they seemed to stick more than usual. She'd could tend to them later. "Have you eaten?"
Xena allowed Gabrielle to take off her armor. "A little," she answered, standing to strip off her leathers. She winked a tired eye at Gabrielle. "These have been driving me nuts. Salt makes me itch like crazy."
Taking the leathers from Xena, the bard said, "I'll get you something to eat. There's a basin in the corner if you want a quick sponge bath."
Suddenly she was caught from behind and wrapped in an enormous hug. She tossed Xena's leathers over the back of a chair, wormed her way around inside the hug to face the warrior, and slid her arms around the linen-clad back. "Thank you for moving Mount Olympus to get back."
"Always for you, Gabrielle. Only for you."
By the time the bard returned with some fruit and bread, Xena was fast asleep on the pallet, lightly snoring.
* * *
Gabrielle left Xena sleeping, hopeful that she could keep the warrior down for a good long rest. It would take more than a hearty nap to make up for so many sleepless nights. Gabrielle tried to imagine how she'd feel after so much abuse to her body. She gave up. One night of lost sleep was enough to put her into a useless stupor for the entire next day.
So she went in search of Abas, to get the captain's side of the story. Xena hadn't said much about her arrival in Rhodes or how she got Cleopatra to agree to turn around. Gabrielle wanted to know about that, guessing it would be, perhaps, the only amusing part of Xena's recent exploits.
They'd left Rhodes' harbor some time back and now Abas stood in soft, early evening light at the helm over the poop deck, directly above Cleopatra's quarters. Gabrielle climbed the sturdy ladder and strode toward the captain. She stopped to one side, crossed her arms and did her best to appear impatient.
The captain spared a glance her way. "You get her calmed down?"
"She's asleep," the bard answered shortly.
Now Abas relaxed her posture, assumed a more sympathetic stance. "Is she okay? She looked half dead when she first came in."
"Yes," Gabrielle answered both protectively and confidently, "she's just tuckered out. I left her asleep in our cabin before she could finish telling me her complete adventures. I was hoping you could fill me in on the last bit."
Abas tried to suppress a smile. She failed and her face brightened with the memory. "Well," she said in a conspiratorial whisper, "the first thing that happened was that Cleopatra lit into her like nothing I'd ever seen for losing the royal yacht."
Gabrielle giggled. She knew what happened when someone took the warrior princess to task on something for which she owned no blame.
"There was Xena, standing proud in the bow of a shabby dinghy, looking much more like royalty than our rankled Cleopatra did." Abas cocked her head back and roared. "Oh, I'd give a year's wages to see that again."
Gabrielle wished she'd been able to witness it in person, too. Fortunately Abas had well earned her reputation as a good storyteller.
"So Xena flips on board... and I mean flips. There's no ladder needed for that woman. She lands practically on Cleopatra's nose, and reports to our queen that her yacht is safely back in Laodicea, the perfect decoy." Abas caught the bard's eye. "And then of course, she asked after you right away. She was rather shaken that you weren't there to greet her. And when Cleopatra told her that you'd chosen to remain behind in Rhodes... well..." Abas cleared her throat. "I guess I'd have enjoyed that part a bit more if Xena hadn't decided I was partly to blame for that."
Gabrielle put a reassuring hand on the captain's shoulder. "That wasn't your fault. You and Iphis did everything you could to put off sailing as long as possible."
"No. Xena was right, Gabrielle. I'm captain of this ship and everyone on board is my responsibility. I shouldn't have let you leave."
After years of Xena acting as her defender and custodian, Gabrielle had begrudgingly gotten used to it. But she'd never be comfortable with Xena demanding everyone around them also acquiesce to that role. "Thank you for thinking of me that way, Abas, but I made that decision on my own. The only way you could have stopped me from jumping ship was to..."
"I know, to tie you to the mast." Abas made a fist and pretended to pound the helm. "I told Xena that it had been your own bullheaded idea, that I hadn't tossed you off or anything. And I told her I couldn't have stopped you. And then she told me," she pointed a weathered finger at her own chest, "I should have tied you to the mast."
"Sorry." Gabrielle teetered between being irritated with Xena's gruff overprotection and being touched by the sweetness of the gesture.
Abas giggled. The uncharacteristic sound delighted the bard.
"She threatened to tie the queen to the mast until she agreed to go back for you." Though Abas was ever loyal to Cleopatra, she made it clear she loved to see her bested in games of will.
"Didn't anyone intervene on her behalf?"
"What? Against Xena?"
They shared a broad smile.
"So tell me, Abas, did Xena have any trouble getting Cleopatra to dole out a reward to the fishermen?"
"Nah, that was the easy part." Abas cupped her hands. "A few jewels are like chicken feed to her."
Gabrielle's eyes widened. "She gave them a handful of jewels?"
"No. Just one nice ruby each. Chump change to Cleopatra."
"Well, I'm glad they got something nice. Xena wasn't very pleasant to them. At least not when she convinced them to lend her the boat."
Abas focused her eyes on the horizon ahead of them. "I don't fancy being on her bad side."
"Don't worry, she'll be over it before she wakes up." At least she'd better be, mused Gabrielle. Or I'm going to have to give her a stern talking to.
* * *
Xena woke briefly that evening, long enough for Gabrielle to see that she ate a good meal. The one last detail to surface that Xena had neglected to mention earlier was that she'd had very little water on her voyage from Cyprus to Rhodes, preferring the fishermen to take their fair share of the cache which hardly left enough for the warrior. Gabrielle calmly fetched a full pitcher of water and watched as Xena drank down three big cups.
The things she does... thought Gabrielle. It's a miracle she hasn't killed herself a thousand times over.
Not quite ready to sleep herself, the bard left a snoozing Xena undisturbed and climbed topside. She found Callimachus at the rail, having just arisen from his day of slumber. He thoughtfully regarded her which made Gabrielle believe he knew all that had happened on that busy day.
"So we're off to Alexandria at last, my friend. What do you think of that?"
Gabrielle laughed. "I'd almost forgotten."
"Alexandria is a city not forgotten by any who grace her streets. Wonders flank every turn. Marvels of engineering and art are commonplace. Medicine and poetry are studied by apprentices and historians. Erudite philosophers debate learned scholars. And you," he smiled broadly, "you, young Gabrielle of Poteidaia, will be among the most beautiful and rare treasures ever to shine upon our good graces."
Gabrielle laughed. "You are a fine poet, Callimachus, but you overvalue people too easily. Besides," she pointed out, "you're arriving with Aristotle's scrolls. I doubt even Xena would cause more interest among your scholars."
The poet clucked his tongue. "You have a great deal to learn as a bard. And the first lesson is to value your work more highly. Xena is an interesting person who leads a reckless and daredevil life. That type of person is more common than you realize. But the bard who can commit such acts to parchment in a manner that captures the human essence..." He tweaked her nose gently. "Now that's the rare bird."
She'd lost any lingering sense of timidity around this man since their sail from Laodicea, and felt comfortable correcting him as she saw fit. "You're wrong about that. Xena is the rare bird. If I can capture in my stories even a quarter of how amazing she is, then I've done more than I ever dreamed possible. I tell many a tale in taverns, you know, to everyday people whose hope comes from both their own hearts and the deeds of mighty heroes. When I tell of other courageous and brave souls, they are entertained. But when I speak of Xena, they are transformed."
The elderly man sighed contentedly. "Maybe that's why you're as good as you are. Maybe we have a thing or two to learn from you."
"Quite so. You're not the first to have reached that conclusion. I have an assistant at the Library who helps me with The Tablets. She's always telling me I'm impossible, too."
"The Tablets? What's that?"
"They, my dear friend, are what I told you of earlier. The Tablets is what I call my critical and biographical catalog of all the authors and works at the Library."
"Every single scroll in the Library?"
"For every scroll," he recited proudly, "an annotation, and for every author, bard, and poet, a biography."
Gabrielle scrunched her brow. "That sounds like an awful lot of dull work."
Callimachus' hands became animated as he talked about his work. "Hardly! I'll be the Head Librarian remembered for my catalog. And you wait and see, catalogs will become more and more critical for researchers as we acquire even more scrolls. No one can possibly know what insights or formulae every scroll contains."
That sounded reasonable to the bard. "How many scrolls do you have?"
Gabrielle repeated the words in a bare whisper. "About 425,000?"
"Well, with the six new Aristotle scrolls we have, it will be 426,124."
Callimachus pursed his lips and nodded. "You're going to like it there, Gabrielle."
* * *
It would be a fine dawn, Xena noted, as the eastern skies lightened, blanched by the arriving sun. Three days crossing the Mediterranean plied with fine food and wine, the good fortune of Cleopatra being all but invisible to them as she remained in her luxurious quarters to keep her skin from being weathered by the wind and sun, and Gabrielle by her side every waking moment had rejuvenated the warrior. But now they neared Alexandria and the holiday charm had vanished.
A distinctive rustling caught her attention. "What are you doing up already?"
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes. "I missed you. The bed got cold."
She accepted Gabrielle's arm around her waist. "See that over there?" Xena pointed to the edge of the sky where the brightening light showed the barest outline of land. A beacon blinked on a distant shore, a marker, a guide for travelers seeking the comfort and safety of a harbor.
"That's the lighthouse at Alexandria."
"So we're almost there."
Xena nodded. "You want to go below for this?" She knew better than to make it a demand. She didn't want to spend the last few unfettered minutes arguing, only to lose. Still, she had to try to keep Gabrielle out of harm's way.
"No, Xena." The bard exploded anyway. "I'm not going to stay in our cabin when you're up here..."
"Okay," she interrupted. "You can stay."
She chuckled at Gabrielle's dramatic harrumph but her heart was not filled with levity. There had been plenty of time for word to reach Alexandria about the peculiar shakedown of the royal yacht, preparation for a cruise with Cleopatra that never materialized. Perhaps they'd gone so far as to search Laodicea and find Cleopatra missing.
In any event their arrival in Alexandria would likely not be as simple as a pleasure cruise returning home from a spin around the southern Mediterranean. "You'd better get your staff," Xena softly urged Gabrielle. Then she turned to the crew, all armed on this morn, and began to review strategy with them. Reach safe harbor with the fewest lives lost. That was their goal.
Just then, Cleopatra chose to make a rare and extraordinarily untimely appearance on deck.
Xena spoke to her harshly. "You need to go back to your quarters."
"But we're about to sail into the harbor. I do so love to watch the lighthouse grow larger on the horizon, to wave to my people."
"Well, this trip into the harbor isn't going to be quite so easy." Xena pointed at a trio of ships closing in on them. "Those belong to your brother."
Cleopatra paled slightly. "You don't think there'll be any real fighting, do you?"
Xena had the urge to cock her arm and belt her. Wisely, she refrained. "Yes, I think there will be fighting." She saw the queen begin to quiver. "And blood," she added enjoying the effect.
"I'll be in my quarters." The regal monarch, reduced to a slender milksop, slouched back to her cabin.
They were met at the outer reef by three of Ptolemy's ships. These were large vessels with many crew members, powered by strong humans at long tiers of oars, two on each side of the ship. It would have been beautiful to watch the graceful synchronization of the oarsmen, for they could as a single unit accelerate to top speed within a few minutes and sustain a ferocious chase for up to ten minutes, usually long enough to catch any ship unaware of their fleetness. But the splendor of their movements was overpowered by the knowledge that they could easily ram the sloop and sink her, without any assistance for the tiny ship in sight.
Xena had implored the crew not to let anyone board them. Orders were barked from the lead ship requesting them to stand down for boarding and inspection. Xena positioned the men to prepare for attack from any side then played her trump card. She signaled Abas who abruptly changed directions and headed straight into the mass of oars on the starboard side of the lead ship.
As soon as their rhythm was interrupted, a domino effect of oars crashing into oars zipped down the line. Before the port side rowers could be stopped, they made an unscheduled turn and found themselves dead in the water. They were out of the hunt.
But the maneuver brought the sloop within reach. Amidst the roars of frustration and anger around them were the deep splashes of well-armed men stroking toward their prey, charged with a fervent desire to stop the sloop and slaughter everyone on board.
Our course will seem too bloody.
-Brutus from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Xena instructed the crew to raise every possible sail. A burst of raw speed might give them a chance to outrun the long, narrow warships, surprisingly agile for their size. Plowing ahead at maximum speed would test the sloop's hull structure, any weaknesses becoming a danger to them. Pounding wavessplinter poorly joined boards.
The strongest enemy swimmers from the first ship, its remaining crew needing to replace what oars they could from supplies and limp back to shore, began to climb aboard, hanging on to ropes even as the sloop picked up speed and sliced through the choppy water. Abas' crew made quick work of them at first, but they kept coming.
Xena regrouped the men, dividing the number to their best advantage between those fighting and those sailing. She had to shout over the roaring wind as the sloop sped toward the harbor. The small chop on the water was easy to ignore at cruising speed. With their velocity at maximum, the waves hammered the boat hard and threw salt spray over the bow in rhythmic splatters which stung everyone's eyes.
"Keep clear amidships," Xena barked. She pulled Gabrielle behind her out of the growing fray then unsheathed her sword just in time to catch a pair of Ptolemy's men in the head with the hilt. In turn, she lifted each and tossed them overboard, small red pools of blood on the deck the only evidence of their unwelcome intrusion.
Abas abruptly changed course. The thick boom charged across the deck amidships, propelled by an efficient crew working under a massive jolt of adrenaline. Xena's well-tuned legs adjusted to the change in pitch but Gabrielle's did not. Xena flung her hand back to latch onto the fabric of the bard's top. "Hang on."
"Sorry," Gabrielle called, finally catching her balance.
The deck tilted sharply making it tricky to stand or walk. "Keep your knees loose. It'll help."
The bard nodded once and re-curled her fists around her staff ready to help. "Xena?" she asked, her eyes affixed on something of the stern to starboard. "What's that?"
Xena followed Gabrielle's gaze to a giant copper battering ram shaped like a boar's nose, the crashing waves around it taking on the appearance of a foaming mouth. Someone had painted enormous malevolent eyes where the ram protruded from the bow of the warship. It was the weapon of a cunning predator out not just to defeat its prey but to impale their very hearts and feast upon the gore. "They use that to ram ships."
"When they try to sink us we'll need to change course quickly. Watch for that boom shifting. Don't be in its way." The boom would fly across the deck and anyone in its way would be killed from the wallop of contact or, at the very least, whizzed overboard in its wake.
Xena checked the position of the attacking ships, the one to port flying a red sail and another to starboard flying blue. Both sails were painted with the crest on an eagle, the crest of the House of Ptolemy.
The pair of ships was trying to cut off the sloop, moving in on them in a vee, hundreds of men straining at the oars. It would be close, she knew. If Ptolemy's men could sustain their pace, they just might be able to cut off the sloop.
She ran to the poop deck, Gabrielle on her heels, and vaulted up the ladder, seeking the captain's opinion.
Abas knew exactly what information Xena needed. "Two choices. We maintain this course and probably lose the race."
"Or?" Xena asked quickly.
"We adjust to wind on the quarters and make better time."
"Why not do that?" Gabrielle asked in an edgy voice, as if it were the obvious choice.
Xena answered, "Because that will take us even closer to the ship with the red sails, off starboard." She'd come to the same two conclusions already. Which way had the better chance at outrunning their pursuers? Keep going at a slower speed on the course that took them farthest from the two ships, or turn into the enemy's path and hope the extra speed would hurl them past the opposition's bow out of reach of their battering ram? "Choose now, Abas." No one knew the abilities of the sloop better than her captain.
Xena got Gabrielle down the ladder to the main deck as quickly as possible and had the young bard hold tightly to the railing as the deck swiftlyshifted under their feet. She tasted salt in the air when their course changed. "Now we'll see if it works," Xena said plainly.
Gabrielle raised her eyes to Xena, blinking into the spray. "Anything we can do to help?"
Xena read the tinges of panic surfacing in her friend's face. She shook her head truthfully.
They made their way toward the bow, past a crew constantly adjusting each sail to gain maximum wind from it. The boat slammed through the waves, groaning in protest and drenching the crew with salty spray.
Xena kept a firm hold on Gabrielle's hand. She drew her confidence from the bard; she knew that fact well by now. After so many years sharing every moment together, she believed with deep, rich assuredness that every breath she took, every reason she found, every trust she built emanated from their relationship.
The bard tempered her anger, assuaged her grief, and softened her bitterness. But she never fully dissolved those ancient thorns. She taught Xena that they could be turned into an advantage for her. Xena understood her enemies both internal and external, and knew best how to defeat them because she had experienced exactly how they felt and knew just how they'd react.
And now she had a weapon so strong, nothing could ever defeat her. That bred the confidence which took her soaring into the lead, trusting her instincts, and out-reasoning her opponent. Gabrielle gave her the strength to overpower her enemy and once defeated, the wisdom to teach them another way. Winning no longer always meant killing. It meant giving an enemy a second chance whenever she could.
"Are we going to make it?" Gabrielle asked in a shout.
Xena turned to the bard and squeezed her hand. "Not sure yet." There was no need to cut corners with Gabrielle. The bard respected the truth even if the news was unwelcome.
They both watched the scene play out in silence. The sloop barreling forward, the warship's oars sculling deeply in the water, both fervently hoping to out-race the other. Xena saw Ptolemy's troops on the starboard ship begin to climb the masts and make ready long ropes dangling between the red sails. She elbowed Gabrielle. "Stay alert. Even if we beat them, we'll be close enough for them to swing over."
"They're nuts, Xena."
"They're following orders."
The sleek vessels neared each other, sails straining in the wind, oarsmen staving off complete exhaustion. They could make it if...
Xena dove for an anchor, one of a stack stored on the deck. She picked a small one, lashed a thick rope to it and swung it around hard, twice, just overboard, heaving it toward the battering ram. The anchor curled around the cooper ram with three passes of rope before clanking to a securely wedged stop.
She braced her feet and felt Gabrielle's arms circle her waist, lending her weight to the task. Together, they held fast. "Port!" Xena ordered, and the crew moved as one, flipping the mast and rudder to yank away from their tagged prey. The intense pull on her arms burned her muscles. Gabrielle's weight didn't add much. But soon she felt more force from behind as others grabbed the rope. The battering ram began to bend, creaking in agony. It was built for punishing attacks on another ship delivered straight on, but nothing in its design helped prevent damage from the side.
At last the wood at the base of the ram gave way, cleaving a splintered, gaping hole in the bow of the warship. The wood split in a reverberant crack. The tension on the rope slackened instantly. That sent the crew of tuggers backwards to the deck in a heap. Xena made certain she had a firm hold on Gabrielle, then shouted, "Stay down!" and hoped that Abas would know what to do.
The captain did. She ordered the ship back on its original course, turning it again toward the red-sailed vessel. The crew flung the mighty boom across the deck. It sounded like a dull roar passing just over the heads of those who'd strained at the rope. The sloop swiftly cut across the bow of the snub-nose warship.
"Clear," yelled Xena. She helped Gabrielle to her feet on the wet deck. Looking up she saw bodies flying their way, Ptolemy's men swinging from long ropes about to land on the deck. Ripping the battering ram out of the bow meant the sloop would get passed the starboard ship, but they still came close enough for daring men to swing over.
Many more landed in the churning sea than on the sloop. Still, Xena found herself facing four big thugs, maddened from their high-wire act and ready to kill. Instinctively, she looked for Gabrielle but didn't see her.
Two swung at her with swords held high. She needed all of her focus to defend herself. She met their thrusts and parried them. Taking a moment to get in a better position, she went on the offensive, fatally slicing through one of them on the first blow.
The other lunged at her. She dove to the side, turned back, and whacked the hilt of her sword down on his wrist. He lost his grip. The sword slid harmlessly across the deck.
He got up now furious, angry enough, Xena knew, to make mistakes. She waited for him to come at her and took the hit of his big body loosely. Even so, it almost knocked the wind from her. She called on every resource she had left to bend her knees and plant her feet. As they went down, she rolled with him and kicked hard, tossing him high in the air and out into the sea.
She lay flat on her back and needed to catch her breath, her eyes stinging from the incessant salt. That jolt had been more than she'd expected. But another sword appeared in her peripheral vision. She turned her head saw its intended target: Gabrielle.
Fire in her veins got her to her feet just in time to see the bard deflect the sword's stroke with one end of her staff, then speed the other end around to slog him in the head. The man collapsed over the railing and fell to the sea below.
An eerie silence descended over them. There were no more wheeps of blades or thuds of bodies on the deck. The crew paused; their eyes scanned the sloop, saw the trio of warships floating some distance away, their crews of oarsmen exhausted and unable to continue the pursuit. All that was left of them was to get the first ship back to harbor minus several oars and pick up the men who'd been tossed into the sea.
In unison, a great roar broke out. They'd defeated three of Ptolemy's finest ships! They'd beaten the enemy to bring their queen home!
Xena joined in the chorus until she saw Gabrielle's ashen face. She knew what that meant. She'd witnessed the bard defending herself against certain death by possibly causing the death of another. In the bard's heart, even self-defense couldn't excuse that outcome.
She wended her way past celebrating crewmen toward Gabrielle. Those green eyes were vacant. "Hey," Xena said softly.
Gabrielle turned her head slowly and tried to smile. Xena recognized that as well; Gabrielle was trying to put on a brave face.
"Oh dear gods!" she heard screeched behind her, "you must get all this blood off my ship before it stains!"
Cleopatra had emerged.
"Get it scrubbed up this instant." Cleopatra began ordering the crew about. "We'll be in the harbor soon and if this deck isn't spotless I'll have you thrown to the crocodiles. And you," she pointed to Xena, "get your face clean. You must be presentable when we sail in."
Xena tried to hush the queen with a pointed scowl. Cleopatra had already moved on to scold others. The warrior returned her attention to Gabrielle, instantly softening her expression.
The bard licked her thumb, reached out, and gently wiped away some blood from Xena's chin. "There."
Cleopatra's arm snaked between them. She latched onto Gabrielle's wrist. "Come. You simply must see the lighthouse as we sail in."
Xena allowed Cleopatra to lead Gabrielle to the bow. It got her away from the horrifying scene and for once, Cleopatra's antics would be a welcome distraction.
Callimachus already stood in the prow, having weathered the battle below deck as any sane librarian would. "Ah, you've come to see the lighthouse, haven't you?"
"Dear Callimachus," Cleopatra chatted to Gabrielle, "he knows me so well."
"It was designed by Sostratus of Cnidus," offered Callimachus, apparently to no one.
"We built it during Ptolemy Soter's reign. He was the first of my great forefathers to rule Egypt." The conversation became a dialogue of sorts between Cleopatra and her Head Librarian.
"It's 400 feet tall, made of limestone, marble, and granite."
"As a child, I'd sit at my window at night, watching the beacon illuminate the waves, beckoning ships at sea to dock and take refuge in Alexandria."
"The light emanates from a fire at the base of the structure. The brilliant flames are reflected out to sea by convex mirrors mounted just below the cupola."
"I told myself that one day, I wanted to bring trade to Alexandria, to welcome everyone with open arms into our fair city by the Nile."
"That spit of land is Pharos Island, protected by the reefs. Alexandrian engineers built a causeway out to it. Ingenious planning. The causeway is a bit wet at high tide. You need to be careful to time your visits if you wish to keep your boots dry."
"And now I return by the light of our beacon to retake my rightful position beside my brother."
Xena kept her eyes on Gabrielle who seemed to be only half listening to the parallel monologues. The bard never asked a question, never contributed a thought. She was much too quiet, thought Xena.
And after all the mayhem at sea, the harbor with 1,200 ships moored within its protection and the shore with labyrinths of docks and storage containers seemed much too quiet for comfort.
Politics is a game played by fools. If by chance clever players enter the game, the stakes go up to perilous levels. In this Alexandrian domain, treachery appeared to be the opening bid.
'Tis better that the enemy seek us:
So shall he waste his means, weary his soldiers,
Doing himself offence; whilst we, lying still,
Are full of rest, defense, and nimbleness.
-Cassius from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
Gabrielle had never seen so many boats in one place. Tiny rowboats for the children of seamen mingled between merchant vessels large enough to carry a town's grain supply for a full year. Rough working boats for a fleet of fishermen and sailboats as elaborately equipped as Cleopatra's sloop jockeyed for dock space. An enormous assortment of strange-looking craft, too obscure or hodge-podge, or ornately decorated to identify ribboned through the harbor, anchored in the still waters or tied up at the vast array of docks. The scene was staggering in its scope and, thought Gabrielle absently, in its absurdity.
Something didn't feel right about their arrival in the harbor. After all of the hubbub at sea, things were too quiet now. No one tried to stop them. She wondered if Xena's abilities were beginning to rub off on her in little curls of hunches. Her somewhat unfocused mind refused to take the thought any further. She shifted slightly and leaned against the tall warrior right there by her side. That felt safer.
Those watchful blue eyes of the warrior searched as if they, too, were questioning the air, trying to root out an incomprehensible enemy.
"Something's up," the bard stated quietly.
Xena nodded slowly. Her eyes remained focused on their surroundings, ever watchful.
Gabrielle didn't disturb her further. The bard's hunch had been validated. She left the rest in Xena's able hands.
The sloop continued past most of the moored ships and then headed to the eastern edge of the harbor, strangely devoid of the mass of boats in the rest of the harbor. These were the royal docks, Gabrielle surmised. Uniformed soldiers stood at attention until the sloop glided into position and they reached for the tie ropes.
More soldiers ran out carrying a staircase carpeted in tapestries which they placed by the sloop. Following them came a boy, tall for his age and lanky. Gabrielle guessed he was twelve or thirteen. He was dressed in luxurious silks similar to those Cleopatra always wore.
A man just behind the boy and to his right walked with a brash gait. He wore a dark purple robe with great cords of gold thread plunging down long, full sleeves and a gold pin with the crest of an eagle pinned over one breast. His gray eyes were dimmed from the brunt of age while his skin remained strangely soft and unwrinkled. He was a puzzle.
"Ptolemy, my dear little brother, how good of you to come and greet me." Cleopatra descended the lushly carpeted stairway in small graceful steps. "I've had such a lovely time in Syria. So sorry you couldn't join me."
"Hello, Sister-wife. Alexandria welcomes you home." Ptolemy recited the words as if he'd been prompted in precisely what to say.
"These are my dear friends Xena and Gabrielle." Cleopatra beckoned them down from the sloop, and then promptly ignored them. "By the gods it does turn hot when you get out of the wind." The queen arranged her silks before striding purposefully away.
Gabrielle reacquainted her legs with solid land. It certainly did feel hot, and down by the water much too humid for comfort. The swelter of long summer days had already begun in Alexandria.
She wondered why the greeting between brother and sister had been so mysteriously cordial and who that man at Ptolemy's side was and why he hadn't bothered to say hello. The whole play was so odd in the wake of, not an hour earlier, the wicked battle between Ptolemy and Cleopatra's troops. None of this made sense. She glued herself to Xena's hip as they exited the dock and entered the city.
No one had prepared Gabrielle for the dazzling visual panorama that was Alexandria. Every last building had been fashioned in brilliant white stucco. The sun became blinding in the milky maze of buildings; the effect was more glorious than a village blanketed in snow.
They passed scrumptiously manicured gardens and softly burbling ponds. Imposing stone statues decorated the grounds. Each seemed to have been placed in the optimum position to view from the path. The walkways were crowned by trellises of flowering roses which shadowed the path from the harsh sun and filtered down a clean, sweet scent.
Groups of people draped in robes, each a distinct solid color, bowed deeply to their queen. They were like giant flower beds, their garments vibrant petals open to their source of warmth and power. The backdrop of pure white walls over lush green grass made the deep hues of the robes even more acutely lucent.
Callimachus leaned over her shoulder. "That's the Library." He indicated a long building, four stories high, and flanked by an even larger building.
"Where's the Palace?" asked Gabrielle.
Callimachus laughed. "This is the Palace. All of it. It's one quarter of the city."
Gabrielle was both amazed and sickened at the thought. She knew that the Ptolemys were wealthy, but this... She nearly ran into the back of Cleopatra who'd stopped.
"These rooms will do for Xena and Gabrielle."
"Thank you," she heard Xena say. But Gabrielle was too busy staring. The "rooms" were an entire building, a palace unto itself. She wandered into the foyer and stared, mouth agape, at the walls. They'd been decorated to look like a seascape made of tiny bits of colored stone not unlike the floor of Codrus' house in Laodicea, but these were entire walls of mosaic and they went up and up to a frightfully high ceiling. She wondered how it was possible to get up that high and work, much less put the little bits of stone in the right places to make the fish and the plants and the currents of water.
A small voice broke her out of her trance. "Cleopatra wishes you to follow me."
Gabrielle looked around and saw a closed front door, an amused warrior princess, and a tiny, hunched woman in a old, thin, brown robe. "Oh, sorry. Are you waiting for me?"
"Take your time, Gabrielle," Xena intoned. But she captured the bard's hand and led her down a long hallway, following the hunched woman.
* * *
Xena eyed the rooms suspiciously as she'd been studying everything they encountered since their unnervingly quiet reception at the harbor. The brown-robed, hunched woman showed in a brown-robed man who deposited their belongings, collected and delivered from the sloop without either Xena or Gabrielle's permission. Xena glared at him and the woman until they left.
Their lodgings were a suite, really, each separate area decorated in pale yellows. Light tapestries hung on the walls and every level surface held a vase of flowers, predominantly pale yellow and ochre. Xena followed the wandering bard into a sitting room which had an enormous window overlooking one of the gardens. Shelves studded the walls and in them were hundreds of scrolls. In a corner by the window, an indoor fountain trickled.
"You know, Xena, it's pretty weird how my vision was about Caesar and yet here we are in Egypt about as far away from Rome as we've been in a while." Gabrielle didn't look up when she spoke.
Xena knew Gabrielle still reeled from the battle. All these other matters were mere distractions at this point.
"And look at this place," Gabrielle continued. "In my vision, I saw you in a small room but these," she waved her arms, "are the biggest rooms we've ever stayed in." She idly picked up a trinket, a smooth rabbit made of solid gold. "Some of this stuff is really tacky, don't you think? I mean, if I had all this money, I don't think I'd spend it on tiny gold animals. I'd rather use it to help everyone have a better life. Wouldn't you?"
At last, Gabrielle looked up. Xena moved toward her and enveloped her in a hug, holding her in a soft embrace that became stronger and more encompassing. Slowly, the bard molded her body into Xena's, relaxing, burying her head in Xena's breast, letting go, crying for a time.
"Come here and sit down," Xena said when the bard had been resting peacefully in her embrace for awhile. She led them to a pale yellow lounging couch, took off her breastplate, and got them comfortable, both squeezed together on one couch. Gabrielle rested her head on Xena's chest, her body sprawled over most of the rest of the warrior. Xena smoothed the hair from Gabrielle's face and wiped a few last tears away.
Neither spoke. Xena wanted to give Gabrielle the time she needed and for that task, she had all patience in the world. Occasionally the bard sighed and shifted, turning to rest her other cheek against Xena's skin.
Rays of sun slid across the floor shifting through shades of yellow as they marked the afternoon's progress. The palace quarter was quiet, their house particularly so.
Xena felt Gabrielle hold a breath, let it go, then hold another.
"Do you think I killed him?"
She expected the question. That didn't make it any easier to answer. "Hard to say. The hit you gave him probably wouldn't have killed him. But he did go overboard. If he was unconscious, he might have drowned."
Gabrielle didn't say anything more so Xena continued. "He would have killed you, Gabrielle. I don't know that I'd have gotten there in time."
"You would have killed him."
"I would have done anything to make sure you were okay. If that meant killing him... yes, I would have."
Again the bard went silent.
"Gabrielle, you didn't have a choice. You had to defend yourself."
"I know that. And if I were put back at that instant again, I probably would make the same choice."
"I'm happy to hear that." Xena tilted Gabrielle's face up and kissed her on the forehead.
"I understand that, Xena." Gabrielle's eyes held Xena's now. "I have a responsibility to more than just myself. I know what it would do to you if I decided I wouldn't defend myself anymore and let someone kill me."
The warrior swallowed hard. It was an angle she wasn't prepared to talk about.
Gabrielle pulled herself farther up Xena's body so they were face to face. She gave the warrior a crooked, knowing smile. "Look at it this way. Do you make decisions sometimes because of how I'll feel about it?"
She knew she couldn't deny that. On a small scale, it happened every day. On the scale Gabrielle was talking about, it happened often, too.
"Do you spare a life knowing that whoever it is could get up and attack you again, maybe hurt you, just because I ask you to let him go?"
"So sometimes you do something to put yourself in danger because you're trying to act in line with my principles."
"I... think so." The conversation had gotten a bit more diffuse than Xena had wanted.
"You see? Sometimes you modify what you do to be more in line with what I want, and I sometimes modify what I do to be more in line with what you want."
Xena scratched her head. "What's that got to do with whether or not you'd defend yourself against someone about to take your head off?"
"It has to do with being in love."
A warmth spread through the warrior. "Oh."
Gabrielle hitched herself up on her elbows, one planted on either side of Xena's chest, and looked Xena right in the eye. "It's not that I question the decision to defend myself. I know there are times when I need to accommodate my beliefs to the situation at hand."
Gabrielle sighed and softly shook her head. "There are times when you can't win no matter what you decide. I know I did the right thing today. I just don't know how to reconcile it with how I feel inside."
"You chose the better way."
"Only because there was no best way. There was no way to stopping the killing. It had to be me or him." Gabrielle lowered herself back down onto Xena, snuggling her nose into Xena's neck. "It still hurts, Xena. Even if it was right, it still hurts."
If there was any way to take that pain from Gabrielle, Xena would do it in an instant. The price wouldn't matter to her.
Except, she knew all too well, that being near a killing machine, as she truly was, would keep seeing and causing death an inevitability around every corner for the bard. And Gabrielle would be at her side forever, even when that meant plowing ahead into scenes of certain death and destruction.
Would she want that to change? Could she leave Gabrielle behind just to protect her from feeling that pain?
Never had there been a question with a more emphatic answer. No, she couldn't leave her. Never.
Xena rolled those diverse threads around in her mind, understanding viscerally what Gabrielle meant when she said there was no best answer. Everything demanded compromise.
Still, there was an option she hadn't given much credence to before. Perhaps this meant it was time to make a big a change in her own life.
Gabrielle would never consciously allow it to happen. She would never agree to let Xena leave life on the road, to stop helping others. She would choose to continue to sacrifice her principles for Xena's.
There had to be a way to make it work. Xena resolved to find it.
* * *
The hunched woman entered without knocking, a habit the bard knew Xena would demand she amend. "You are to be at banquet in one hour." The woman disappeared out of the room without waiting for a response.
Gabrielle could almost feel Xena growling under her. She laughed groggily, having fallen asleep draped over her favorite pillow: the Warrior Princess. "Be nice to her when you tell her she has to knock, okay?"
Two arms reached around her and squeezed hard. "Arrgh! Oh," she said more softly as hands began to work the kinks out of her back. "Mmmm, feels good. You're going to put me back to sleep."
"I can't let you sleep anymore," Xena said even as she worked her thumbs into a knot in the bard's neck. "We have to be at banquet in an hour."
"Do we?" The last thing she wanted to do right now was to reimmerse herself in the gaudy world of Cleopatra.
"Do you want to be the one to decline our... invitation?"
Gabrielle got up and stretched, then cheekily lent her hand to the warrior to help her up. When Xena was in a mood to play, she'd sometimes go limp, her body daring Gabrielle to lift it. Gabrielle never could. This time, Xena merely held her hand as she sat up. Gabrielle kept it tucked in hers. "No thanks, Xena. I'd rather not cross her."
"So we have dinner with Cleopatra in Alexandria. I'll bet the food will be good."
Gabrielle laughed. "You're just trying to make me feel better."
"Maybe," she smiled brilliantly, "but it makes me feel better about it, too."
Gabrielle found the bathing room, scrubbed her face, and glanced into the gold-framed mirror. She looked as if she'd spent a good portion of the day crying and sleeping, which she had. Maybe an hour would be long enough for the puffiness to dissipate. Maybe she didn't care at this point.
Mentally she decided to get rip-roaring drunk on whatever was put in front of her. She could worry about the consequences the next day.
continue on to chapter eleven