Chapter 48 - 50 (Conclusion)
By M. Parnell
As the waning battle moved through the streets of the town, Amazons followed Ephiny's order to leave the fight to the soldiers. The women had performed with distinction, and Ephiny would be happy to keep the casualties in the non-lethal category. Agrana had little to do, and quickly abandoned the minor injuries to join Cletus' royal healer, Celsior, at Xena's side.
The warrior had been settled on the long dining table in her own chambers, stripped of her armor and battledress. The two healers probed her body now, casting consultative glances at each other as they worked. An occasional word passed between them; more often the language was one of grunts and pregnant sighs. Xena had not stirred.
Gabrielle watched this from the foot of the table, eyes riveted on the warrior, willing her to move, to flutter an eyelash, anything to give her some hope. "Will she be all right?" she asked the two healers. She might not have spoken. Agrana had an ear pressed against the discolored chest, and tapped gently to hear a reaction. Celsior peered for a third time into the good eye. Then Agrana lifted her head, and asked for basins of water, to wash her.
"I'll do it," Gabrielle told her almost fiercely; her tone allowed no opposition, so they worked together, gently sponging away dirt and blood. A third woman joined them; Gabrielle looked puzzled, not knowing who this was, but her face was streaked with tears, and Gabrielle let her be, absorbed in her own terrors. She had once prepared Xena's body for burial, and this was much the same: the pallor, the cold flesh, the stillness. That time she did not need to worry about causing the fallen warrior new pain, yet she'd washed her tenderly, almost reverently. Tears had mingled with the water then, as they did now, and Gabrielle knew that this time she wouldn't survive Xena's death; wouldn't want to survive.
At last the task was done, and Agrana firmly told them to leave. Gabrielle's protests were answered by Ephiny's strong arms; she was pulled her to a seat just outside the door. Ephiny handed her a cup. "It's only water," she said in reply to her doubtful look. "You look like you need something stronger, but that can wait."
"Why won't they tell me what's happening?"
"Maybe they don't know yet," came the reasoned reply. The small room was filling with Amazons, and officials. A hasty cordon had been thrown up around the room where Xena lay. Noise outside the windows told of a gathering crowd.
Ephiny nodded at Salmoneus who had Laepita in tow. He introduced her as a friend of Xena's. "A true lady-in-waiting," he commented, and explained her help in preparing Xena for battle.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said; she was sincere, but jealous that this girl had been there to share Xena's last moments before the fight. "How did Xena manage?" she asked Salmoneus, with a disbelieving shake of her head.
He shook his graying head. "I don't know. She looked half dead when they dropped her at our feet, then she decided she had work to do, people to kill," he said in a hushed tone. "That seemed to be all it took. Radec had told her you were dead," he ended.
"Oh." She sighed in exasperation at the pace of the healers, then dropped her head to her hands as a new thought came to mind. "Radec wouldn't have had her at all if not for me. She had to save me, once again..." she lamented bitterly.
"It wasn't your fault this time, Gabrielle," Salmoneus assured her, anxious to ease some small part of the girl's anxiety. "She didn't even know you were missing. She went to find Teremon."
"Drusander apparently thought he could secure the crown for Teremon by working with one of the Citizen's Advisor's," Ephiny explained. "He defected, taking Teremon with him. Drusander's dead. Teremon's still missing."
"You have very good sources, Ephiny," Salmoneus complimented her.
"We have our ways," she acknowledged.
"May I ask how you knew you were needed here?" he inquired, eyebrow raised.
"That was thanks to you, Salmoneus," Gabrielle answered. "I used the scrolls and vanishing ink you gave me. Xena never knew I had sent word of what was happening here. I didn't actually expect you to lead the group back here, Ephiny." she said by way of apology.
"Lead?" She snorted. "Once they knew, I couldn't hold them back with a team of Minotaurs. This is a display of personal affection for you, Gabrielle. And Xena." Their eyes drifted back to the door behind which Xena lay.
A soldier appeared at the door; General Tarimides. He surveyed the room, then crossed to Salmoneus, shamefaced. Not caring about his audience, he nodded curtly to Salmoneus.
"I'm pleased to report that the enemy has been routed, Minister," he began
rather formally. "Either killed, or, some few captured, and locked in their former
headquarters. The remnants will be accounted for by nightfall. There will be no escape for
them," he pledged. "Now. I offer my resignation. I have here a list of suitable
replacements - "
"Resignation?" Salmoneus asked with a sense of panic. "You can't resign! Why would you?"
"Gross ineptitude," he condemned himself. "I accepted a gift of drugged
wine, putting Her Royal Majesty's troops out of action in a time of crisis. Putting Queen
Xena in grave danger."
"You didn't drug the wine," he was told.
"I should have known better than to trust the Council of Advisors," he continued. "Syton, after all, was a suspected traitor. Oh. His body was found in his cellar. He's hanged himself."
Salmoneus, nodded. One less decision down the road. "I've read Xena's instructions, by the way, and I think it's time we put them into action." He rose and put an arm on Tarimides' shoulder. "Your resignation is not accepted, by the way." The two men strolled off together.
"The kingdom survives," Gabrielle observed, ironically. "Xena always believed it would come to this, her life in exchange for the kingdom." She explained the tale woven in tapestry to Ephiny, then spoke of the prophecy Xena had found there. Her courage failed, as now she saw only too clearly what Xena had seen there.
"Xena is not dead yet, Gabrielle," Ephiny said sternly, gripping Gabrielle's shoulders. "She has too much to live for to let that happen. Again."
"You don't understand, Ephiny. The last time I saw her she wanted nothing but to spend a few quiet moments with me, a respite from the endless battles. What was my response? I berated her for doing something she felt was essential; then I left her." The disheveled blonde head dropped into her hands again.
Ephiny moved her arms around Gabrielle's shoulders now, feeling new sympathy for her. "Xena knows you love her Gabrielle. You heard Salmoneus. Her thoughts were with you despite everything."
"Our Queen speaks wisely, Gabrielle. " The voice was Jalani's. "Come." She held out an elegantly long hand to her, and led her to the door. "Agrana never refuses me," she explained.
Bloody cloths were strewn over the floor; white bandages stood out stark against the multi-hued skin of the warrior. Gabrielle's eyes filled as they approached, and Jalani gave her a warning look. Agrana glanced up, finished tying off a stitch in the wound to Xena's forearm, then, without a word, stepped aside to let Jalani stand over Xena. She looked at the woman silently, and passed her right, then her left hand in a slow swirling motion over the still form. For long moments she stood with unseeing eyes, then piercing eyes focused on Gabrielle and her face relaxed in a smile. "The life force in this one is strong. Her heart is good, Gabrielle, and full of love." She inclined a head toward Agrana. "She can exhaust you with a listing of what is broken, what is bruised, and what is bleeding. I tell you that Xena will return to where she is loved." The dammed-tears gushed forth at that, and Gabrielle moved toward Xena. "Touch her gently, speak softly. She has suffered a great deal, and wants only to rest now."
"Is that why she won't wake up?" she asked.
Agrana spoke now: "I could 'exhaust' you with specifics, but I think Jalani's words will suffice. Her mind, her body, and her soul need rest, a surcease of pain. When she wakes, it will all be more bearable."
The bard examined the bruised face, and lightly gripped the fingers of her left hand, which seemed to have escaped the savagery. "Rest, my love," she whispered. "I'll be here when you come back."
"You are not welcome here." Her voice was quiet, but it held a whiplash of authority. Cletus stood framed in the doorway, looking much older than the robust king Gabrielle had last seen.
"Xena is still my daughter," he asserted, seeking to play the king once more; but he had met his match. Gabrielle's heart was full, and she was fighting to protect her loved one.
Ephiny moved to clear the room, sensing that what was about to ensue should be private.
"No, Cletus, you gave up that right when you determined that she should die for Prestia."
She advanced toward him, contempt written on the weary features. "Well, it didn't work. Xena will survive; she has played your dirty little game, and won."
His weathered face creased in a sad smile. "Gabrielle, I watched the battle from the turret. My son, prepared to kill in so dishonorable a way it made my heart groan. My daughter, so brave, facing impossible odds with dignity; it pained me to look at her. I knew who would win, I had no doubt." He looked away from Gabrielle. "I wanted her to win, in so doing, I wanted my son to die. That is a hard thing for a parent."
"Parent?" she scoffed. "You flatter yourself."
"No, Gabrielle, I am a parent, a bad one; and that makes it harder. I gave my
children nothing but my seed. When I see now, how they savage each other..." His mind
juggled the story he'd heard from Teremon, of Callisto's treachery. He expelled a sigh.
"Perhaps there is hope for Teremon."
"Perhaps," she said wasting no sympathy on the king. "Go spend time with him; leave Xena alone." He nodded, hopeful still that Xena would agree to see him when she woke. A sudden notion came to mind, and he moved more quickly as he left her.
Xena had been moved to her bed, and a pallet was provided for Gabrielle. Limits were set for her: she could be present to help change Xena's bandages, could assist in easing liquids down her throat, and could pass the nights in her room. Otherwise, she was to seek permission before visiting. "Xena's mind can't rest if she's constantly reaching out to you. Be absent; live only in her heart for part of the day," Jalani had instructed her, and she had agreed to obey. So at mid-afternoon she found herself at table with her sister Amazons, staring at a mountain of food. She hadn't eaten in days, yet had no appetite. The talk at table was all of the day's events, specifically, of the fight, Xena's impossible victory. Someday she hoped she could see if for the heroic deed it was, even commit it to a scroll. Today it was too painful, so she excused herself and wandered through the courtyard. The siege was lifted, the battle over, yet what should have been a celebration was tempered by doubts over the Queen's health. The people of Prestia had seen the fight, seen her wounds; few believed she could survive that punishment. The official statement would not be believed until Xena was able to face them again. Gabrielle reassured those who asked about Xena, but her own shaky conviction belied her words. She caught at herself as she began to give way to her fear, and was startled to hear a familiar voice behind her.
"Am I interrupting anything?" The strident tone grated as usual, but this time Gabrielle faced Callisto with a strange feeling: gratitude.
"Callisto. I was hoping to see you. Xena's going to be all right."
"Oh, goody," she said, face twisted in a mocking grin. "I could have told you that; even Tartarus won't have her."
Gabrielle stared at her, admitting that she was an eternal puzzle. "Anyway, I wanted to thank you for saving her life," she continued, recalling with a shudder the awful moment when Glaucon stood poised to strike.
"Please, Gabrielle, don't thank me. You would have killed Glaucon if I hadn't beaten you to it; you were ready to lose your precious blood innocence for her. But Glaucon was mine. As Xena is mine; and I'm not through with her. Did you think I'd let anyone else kill her?" she ended harshly, leaving Gabrielle almost sorry she'd spoken. "Xena was in a lot of pain; I expect that will continue for awhile," she added with satisfaction.
Gabrielle turned to leave, then said over her shoulder, "Thank you anyway."
"Tell me that after you've talked to Teremon," Callisto threw at her.
The sun was hot; it baked the plain to furnace-heat. She would suffocate if she didn't find shelter, but she couldn't move, couldn't turn her head from the relentless glare. Through the shimmering heat dark forms approached, silent but for the soft whoosh of beating wings. They moved on her, talons gripping her limbs, sharp beaks tearing at her flesh. Each place they touched burned, until the wounds seared-over in grotesque scars. Her breathing became labored under the assault.
"Gabrielle, a high fever is not unexpected at this point. Your experience in healing must tell you this." Agrana spoke gently, as she sponged Xena's body with cool water.
"I know," Gabrielle nodded. "Xena said it was a sign the body was trying to heal itself.
I just want so much for her to wake-up. There's so much I need to tell her."
She woke long enough to see the light. A voice she knew said: "Majesty." She wondered at that, but took a sip from the cup that was held to her lips. It hurt to swallow. She barely stirred, and that hurt. Gods. What had happened? she wondered, and was content to sleep again.
"She was awake, and I wasn't there!" Agrana waited patiently for the mini-tirade to end.
"Gabrielle, she was awake for moments; long enough to have a sip of water. Then she chose to sleep again, because sleep is her refuge from pain. Had you been there, she would have fought to stay awake for you. She's had enough fighting. Let her rest. She has started to come back; in a day or so, she'll venture forth again. Soon now, she'll be strong enough to bear it all."
The bard stormed off, afraid that Agrana was right, unwilling to have it be so.
That night, she lay on the pallet for long hours, unable to close her eyes, content to watch the dark-haired woman breathe, alert for any sign of distress. At last she drifted off, and woke with a start to a sound, barely audible; it sounded like her name. Xena's gaunt features were barely visible in the moonlight. She had no time to wonder how she could pick Gabrielle out of the deep shadows where she lay; she flew to her lover's side and watched as the still-puffy lips worked into a smile. It was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen, and she returned a smile. She didn't know if Xena had seen it, because the eye had closed again, but as she knelt beside the bed, head beside her, she felt weak fingers caress her head, for a moment. That was all, but it was enough.
"Someone's had good news, for a change." Solari cocked her head to indicate Gabrielle.
Eponin looked up from her breakfast to see the young woman approach with sunshine beaming from her face once more. They had guessed her news, but let her have the joy of announcing it to the entire room. "Xena's awake. Not at the moment," she amended, "but she spoke to me, and I think everything will be okay." The Amazons responded with quiet cheers, and blessings. They had only juice or infusions in their cups, but toasted with both, as Gabrielle sat down to eat. Her appetite had been absent for some time, and everything looked good now.
"She's still very weak," she said more quietly to the small table she shared, "but you'd be astonished at how fast she recuperates."
"Nothing Xena does will ever astonish me again, Gabrielle." Eponin addressed the group soberly. "She had to be all but scraped off the ground to face Krykon, and look how that turned out. I'll never forget it."
"I wish I'd seen it," Solari commented with a touch of envy.
"No you don't," Eponin rejoined. "Even now, knowing how it came out, I can't think of it without recalling those moments when she first appeared..."
"Anyway," Gabrielle said, shaking the images from her head, "once she's up we're leaving this place. Maybe she'll agree to a nice long stay in my realm."
Ephiny said nothing, but wondered how quickly a reigning monarch could walk away from a mess like Prestia. Radec's power was broken, and Xena had done it. Ephiny couldn't imagine who would exercise power in Prestia in Xena's absence.
Over several days daily life in Prestia became more normal. People returned to their homes, looted goods were recovered from the brown-shirts' old headquarters and restored to their owners. Shops reopened, and new signs, bearing the image of the warrior-queen, appeared over the doorways of inns. The Queen had not yet been seen, but the kingdom began to relax, and soldiers in the street were gifted with flowers by the newly liberated people.
Xena woke more frequently. She spoke little, content to watch the people who hovered near her, anticipating her needs, deciding when she should eat, drink, be bathed, or shifted in bed. It seemed to odd to her, yet she had exhausted her will, and for the time being cared little what she did. She had few visitors. Gabrielle was often there when she woke, quietly holding her hand, touching a cool cloth to her face, or using gentle coaxing to make her drink. Xena detected a fragrance in the water she used to bathe her. A small embroidered pillow Xena remembered from another lifetime had appeared in the room, often clutched by the bard as she dozed on her pallet. She had never known Gabrielle to speak so little.
Xena's mind worked on the last events she could remember, but no one spoke of those things. She remembered the dungeon, and Radec's lie that Gabrielle was dead. She recalled the fight with Krykon, but wasn't clear on how it had come about. She shifted her splinted arm, knowing it had been broken before the fight, somehow, and wondered how she had managed to hold the sword. It frightened her to know that she had called on Ares as she waited for battle. Gabrielle saw the pain in her face that caused and misunderstood. She held a small draught to her lips; Xena knew it would make her sleep again, when she wanted to think, but lacked the strength to resist.
Gabrielle was relieved when Xena at last refused a request. "No." It was a simple word, spoken in a weak voice, to avoid a bitter herb potion; Xena knew it was silly to refuse, the herb had a powerful effect on bruising, but it also made her nauseous. Gabrielle smiled indulgently.
"No argument?" Xena asked, surprised.
"None; you've been agreeable for so long I was starting to get worried."
"Does that mean I'm usually disagreeable?"
"It means you're usually a difficult patient; half the time you don't admit there's anything wrong."
"No point pretending this time; everyone saw how I screwed up," she muttered to herself.
"I need to see Salmoneus, Gabrielle; and I'd like to see Ephiny."
"No chance, Xena. Not for a few more days. You have no idea how sick you've been."
"I do know, Gabrielle. Agrana gave me a medical tour of my body, early today. I figure I'm mending, and a little sedentary work will do me no harm."
"Xena," Gabrielle began, but Xena cut her off with an observation: "Gabrielle. I want to leave this place, and I have a lot of work to do before that can happen." There was a desperate note in her voice that Gabrielle had seldom heard. She sat next to Xena, and brushed a lock of dark hair from her eyes. "You need your bangs trimmed."
Xena half-smiled, despite herself. "Don't change the subject."
"I'm not; I just wanted to appreciate you for a little while."
"Gabrielle," she tried to shake her head, but the movement made her grimace.
"I came so close to losing you, again, Xena, and now you're preparing to roll up your sleeves and get back to work. I want just to keep this moment for a while."
"This particular moment?" Xena asked. "I feel like Hades, and I can hardly move."
"I know," she apologized in a small voice. "But you're safe, and I can feel justified in telling the world to jump in the River Pres." She looked at Xena tentatively. "Don't you ever wish it was just the two of us? I'd live in a cave at the end of the world with you, and wouldn't care if there was anyone else on earth."
"Who would listen to your stories? Where would you shop?" Xena said, then saw
the hurt in Gabrielle's eyes and admitted: "I don't think I'm fated for that,
Gabrielle, but I sure would like a world apart with you for a while, if we could manage
"When we leave here?" The bard asked through barely contained tears.
"We'll aim for that," Xena promised. "Now get me Salmoneus, so I can start resolving this mess."
Salmoneus left with his batch of scrolls, as Ephiny arrived. "I hope you didn't wear her out, Salmoneus," she said half in earnest.
"It was the other way around, Ephiny. You'd think there was some urgency in getting this all settled."
"There is, Salmoneus; there are better ways to live," Xena's voice carried faintly from across the room.
He shrugged, "Xena, relax; you could get used to it," he said as passed through the door.
Ephiny hadn't seen her since the day she'd killed Krykon, and examined her now with undisguised interest. She was propped up to a sitting position on the bed; a stranger might not have recognized her weakness. Gabrielle had procured a pale blue robe for her to wear over the simple white shift, against which she looked so pale.
"It's good to see you, Xena; I hated to leave for home without paying a visit."
"I'm glad you stayed," Xena told her, trying to make her voice robust. "I wanted to thank you, and the others. It was the Amazons who saved Prestia," she said solemnly.
"We were happy to help," Ephiny said in acknowledgement.
"Help?" Xena echoed. "If you hadn't arrived with Gabrielle when you did, I don't think I would have taken Krykon." Her face twisted in shame. "I was beaten, Ephiny," she admitted. "Radec had the game won; if Gabrielle hadn't managed to send that message, right under my nose, and if you hadn't returned, Gabrielle would be dead, and Krykon would be wearing the crown."
Ephiny stared. "What? Xena, are you kidding? After everything you've done, all you see is failure? Agrana didn't tell me your brains were scrambled."
Xena sighed, and tried to explain, "Ephiny, I know what I did. I know what worked, and I know where I failed. In the end, I would have fallen short. That's all I meant."
"Have you ever failed at anything, Xena."
"You know I have, Ephiny."
"Well. Maybe you should fail more often, just so you know how the rest of us feel."
"Maybe; but if it did, I'd have died before we ever met," she tried to lift an eyebrow, and gave it up as too painful. She was suddenly weary.
"Xena. You said you know where you failed. Where was that?"
"I should have kept Drusander away from Teremon."
"And you didn't out of compassion. I can't fault you for that. Teremon has taken Drusander's death hard. That little boy has been through a lot."
Xena looked at her warily. "You've spoken to Teremon."
"Frequently," she grinned. "He seems to find Amazons fascinating." She grew sober. "He told me of his rescue; how Callisto turned on you. That was your other failure? Trusting her?"
Xena nodded marginally. "Yeah. Stupid."
"Not stupid." Ephiny gave her blonde curls an emphatic shake. "Your capacity to trust has grown; that's not a bad thing, Xena."
"Maybe," she said softly. "Still I should know better than to trust Callisto, even briefly. I thought, maybe she'd keep the truce long enough to bring Teremon to safety. She obviously didn't need me for that."
There was a long silence. Ephiny thought Xena had dozed off; then Xena asked : "Does Gabrielle know?"
"About Callisto's betrayal? No. She's still puzzling over why Callisto 'really' killed Glaucon. She wants to believe Callisto's softening."
"I know; don't tell her, Ephiny. I'd like to handle it, please."
"Funny; I trusted Callisto, and yet, for so long, I couldn't trust Gabrielle." She frowned in self-reproach.
"Things are all right now?"
"Yeah, I think so. She doesn't like the things I do sometimes...We have a lot to talk about, and I think we'll be better still when we're out of here. Prestia just isn't good for me. For us."
"That's not the first time you've told me that, Xena. And this isn't the first time I'm offering you a home among us."
Xena's face lightened. "Ephiny, for a people with your reputation, you have a lot of rules; I think I prefer things, more, I don't know...lawless." She pursed her lips, one eye narrowed, as if seeing into the future. "Besides, I'm not ready to settle down anyplace yet. But I don't s'pose I should close any doors." The last words ended with a slow yawn, and Ephiny waited silently until she knew Xena was asleep.
In the next room Salmoneus sat with Gabrielle, scrolls spread on a table before them. Gabrielle looked at Ephiny and her eyes burned with pride. "Salmoneus was showing me Xena's blueprints for a new Prestia. There was I time I thought she just wanted a new army to play with, just the power of being queen. I was so wrong." She held up a scroll. "She's abdicating, in favor of Teremon," she explained. "Cletus will be his regent."
Ephiny stared. "Xena just took the throne from Cletus because he didn't seem capable of ruling."
"It won't matter as much now. Xena's written them a constitution. It places strict limits on the monarch, and vests real power in a legislative body; and even that body has rules to follow. Xena's rules. This thing is a masterpiece," she told them. "A little short on poetry, but as a scheme for running a nation..." She shook her head in wonder. "She's covered everything: limits on taxes, provision for universal education, pensions for the elderly. Ephiny, everyone helps choose the lawmakers. Women have a full voice. The monarch retains some power, but it's subject to scrutiny and approval."
Salmoneus spoke for the first time. "Xena said no descendants of Pres Prima should have too much power, regardless of which side of the river they were born on."
"And these proclamations!" Gabrielle continued. "Here's one ordering the demolition of Radec's old headquarters. The stones and property are to be used to construct a new school, for the study of the healing arts."
"She's been busy, Salmoneus said. "Much of this was done before she ever made her move."
"And she never said anything." The bard rolled the last of the scrolls.
"Xena knew what she wanted to happen here," Salmoneus pointed out. "She's a doer, not a talker."
"This shouldn't be a surprise," Ephiny observed. "Xena's been a leader since she was little more than a girl. She has wide experience. She's seen injustice; she knows what unchecked power can do. Too bad she can't trust herself to stay on as ruler; she's made a good start."
"I know, Ephiny. I guess I'm surprised that she wrote all this. She never writes a word she doesn't have to. But that's the point isn't it? This is something she had to do."
The next morning Gabrielle woke to find Xena standing in the center of the room. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Needed the chamber pot," she explained curtly. A hand was pressed to her stomach. "Not one of my better ideas," she admitted, as she lowered herself on to the long divan.
"I'll get it," Gabrielle said, as she rose from her pallet, a little disturbed that she'd slept through the activity.
"No; all done. I was on my way back." Thought I'd spend some time out of bed today," she said with satisfaction.
"By the gods, Xena. What are you trying to prove?"
"Come on, Gabrielle, you were expecting this; it's long overdue. I've been in that bed for more than a week and there's nothing really wrong with me. I'm just sore."
"That seems like a good reason to me," Gabrielle said. She tried to sound annoyed, but Xena was in such high spirits, she couldn't keep a smile from her face. "But if it makes you feel better..."
"I'll show you what will make me feel better." She patted the divan, in silent invitation, and waited for Gabrielle to settle down beside her. Her face was still discolored, one blue eye half-shut; Gabrielle hesitated at the first touch of her lips. "Xena, I don't want to hurt you," she said cautiously.
"You won't Gabrielle; nothing fancy, I just need to feel you close to me,"
she whispered, then found the bard's lips again, ignoring the pain in her own. "It's
been a long time," she said, when she stopped to breathe, chin resting on the bard's
head, one arm around her waist. "There were times I thought this was over, for
"When Radec told you I was dead."
"No; I didn't have much time to think about it then," she confessed. "I was talking about earlier, when I was too thick-headed to be happy." Gabrielle couldn't see Xena's face, but heard a change in the husky voice, felt a new rhythm to her heartbeat. "There was a long time, Gabrielle, when I was afraid to trust you." Gabrielle had pieced this together from what Ephiny had told her. "Was it because I suspected you of murdering Atrius?" she asked.
"Yes, and no. Gods, I was so confused. I was angry that you didn't tell me he was dead, and because of that I was in the dungeon. As if that was such a big deal," she snorted, wondering at the real source of her anger.
"But it wasn't that alone, Gabrielle," she continued. "There was a dream. You know how my dreams are. My nightmares." Her breathing seemed labored; she inhaled deeply. "You were in this one. I'm being crucified," she explained, "and some men that I trusted, over the years, men who betrayed me, are there." Gabrielle guessed who they might be. "That night in the dungeon, after I saw spoke with you," she swallowed hard. "you were there, with them. It seemed impossible, but there you were, every night, until I thought I'd lose my sanity."
"Xena, you don't know that you can trust me? I love you," she said fiercely.
"I know," she said defensively, "but I also know how I can be. There are so many things I do that you can't condone, I convinced myself that someday, I would go too far, and you'd - "
"Take the other side? Betray you?"
"It could happen, Gabrielle," she told her. "Borius said he loved me, but he wouldn't stand by and watch me destroy the centaurs."
"Will you believe that I love you far more than Borius did?" She felt Xena's head nod in response. "Of course, I don't think you're the same woman Borius knew; the centaurs have nothing to fear from you." She knew Xena smiled at that. "And if the time comes that I can't support something you're doing, I won't betray you. I promise."
"Gabrielle, you don't have to - "
"I didn't say I wouldn't try to stop you; maybe even a smack with a pitchfork to bring you to your senses." They both smiled, recalling how effective that had been in dire circumstances. "Would that be a betrayal?"
"Gabrielle if you ever stuck a knife in my heart I'd know you did it out of love."
"That's a conversation ender," the bard said after a while.
"Not quite; I never told you that in the end, your role in my worst nightmare, was to save me. You freed me from the cross."
Xena was silent for a moment, then echoed: "Like M'lila."
"M'lila sounds very special."
"She was; so are you." And I'll never understand why I deserve either of you, she thought, she squeezed Gabrielle briefly, weakly.
Gabrielle knew she was flagging. "Are you getting tired?"
"More hungry than tired."
"It's not even dawn, Xena."
"What's the point of being queen if I can't have breakfast when I'm hungry?" she asked ever practical. "In a palace this size the kitchens are never closed."
"Okay, I'll send someone down there," Gabrielle agreed, glad her appetite had returned. "Xena, are you sure you want to give all this up? People waiting to give you your heart's desire?"
"I already have that, Gabrielle, if I'm not stupid enough to throw it away."
Later that day, Xena appeared in the courtyard, walking a little stiffly, but clad once again in her battledress, sans armor, wearing sandals because her new boots were not yet ready.
(Even if they had been, Gabrielle had sworn she wouldn't give them to her until the nails had begun to grow back on her right foot.) "They need to see me as they remember me," Gabrielle she'd argued, reaching for her breastplate.
"They need to know that things are back to normal, Xena. The sight of you, not dressed for battle will be very convincing," she'd countered, and the breastplate had stayed off. Gabrielle guessed correctly that Xena had let her win; the armor would be an unnecessary aggravation for her still painful chest.
The people cheered her renewed presence among them, but grew silent when she approached, as if in the company of a goddess. "They've grown distant, Gabrielle," she fretted. "I should have worn the breastplate" she decided. "Maybe it's the pallor?" She reached to touch her face."
"Do you think they don't recognize you? Xena, they find you overwhelming; you can have that effect on people," she said, slowing her pace so that Xena would be forced to slow down. "I, of course, got over it eventually. I saw your human side; I hardly ever find you overwhelming now," she grinned. "These people just know the warrior-queen."
"Gabrielle, I've eaten with them, drank in their inns, I've kissed their babies, fought beside them, how much more human can I be?" She smiled as she walked, keeping the exasperation from her face. Gabrielle squinted at that moment as the sun caught her eyes, and Xena fought a sudden impulse to kiss the wrinkled nose. Then she smiled at a stray notion. "Gabrielle, would you mind being used in a good cause?" she asked quietly.
Gabrielle looked at her uncertainly, then Xena's infectious grin was mirrored on her own face. Xena wrapped her bandaged left arm around her, pulling her close, in a kiss that was obvious enough to draw the attention of the passersby, and heated enough to let the two forget anyone else was present.
"Was that human enough," she asked at last, beaming at the bard, and anyone else who failed to turn away quick enough.
"Short of kissing each one of them, I guess that will have to do," Gabrielle beamed back.
Chapter 50 (Conclusion)
"You're sure, Salmoneus? This could be a steady income for years," she pointed out. "The people like you, they trust you, and you've done a magnificent job." Xena lifted her cup to drink while she waited for his answer. Gods. It seemed impossible that only weeks before she'd plucked him out of the dungeon and made him her chief minister, trusting him to handle many day-to-day things that were things were necessary to get through the crisis. She regarded him with affection now, curious at the luck she had in finding friends when she needed them.
"Steady income, yes, but not the big killing I'm after, Xena. Those ethical codes you put in place for your officials will make it hard for them to earn so much as an extra ten dinars on the side. I think I'll just take the sturgeon roe concession and turn in my seal of office. Unless, of course, you change your mind and stay on as queen. Now, that could be interesting," he told her.
Xena signed and sealed the last of a small stack of scrolls, granting pardons to the few brown-shirts who'd been taken prisoner. She'd agreed to it after being assured Filxon would not benefit. He had been counted among the dead.
Salmoneus chose an olive, while stealing a glance at the serene woman across the table. Her eyes were like the sky in more than color he mused; they changed in much the same way, as clouds drifted past, or night fell. He looked for a hint of the regal orator who'd buoyed the crowd on a forbidding evening, or the resolute warrior who had carried the weight of a kingdom on her battered body. Now, her eyes were clear; he could look into them for miles. The lovely face betrayed no sign of those other Xenas.
"No, Salmoneus," she replied to his question. "I leave when the ceremony is over."
He nodded his reluctant understanding. They were halfway through the first of the three-days of festivities Xena had decreed to celebrate the end of the crisis. It was commonly known that they would end with Xena's abdication, and the coronation of King Teremon. Already the people spoke with wistful pride of the Forty Day Reign, and boasted of their individual roles in service to Xena the Great. Salmoneus thought that would look great on a commemorative medallion, but Xena had rejected the idea once, vociferously.
"You're well enough to travel?" he asked. "I know how you attract trouble."
She lifted an eyebrow at that. "Salmoneus, you've seen me going through my paces in the courtyard. What do you think?" she asked pleasantly. He had watched her perform feats that seemed out of bounds for most mortals, but he also noticed that she used her left hand more than her right. She followed his eyes to her still-tender arm, then offered: "Besides, we'll be travelling with a dozen Amazons. You've seen what they can do. Stop worrying, and eat. I told Gabrielle we'd listen to some of the bards in the competition she organized."
"No rush, Xena," Gabrielle said from the doorway. "I've given them a break. I wanted you to have a chance to greet your guest properly." Xena's eyes narrowed in suspicion, then widened in shock.
"Mother?" A woman no taller than Gabrielle stepped forward, open-armed, as Xena crossed the tiled floor. The queen stepped into the embrace, bending to feel her mother's cheek against her own. Her eyes sought Gabrielle's in a wordless question. The bard shrugged, then moved to exit, gesturing Salmoneus to follow.
"Mother, what are you doing here?" Xena asked, as her mother stepped back to examine her.
"I came to see my daughter. I came to see the queen who saved Prestia." She sighed at the number of still-visible bruises, and pulled Xena close again. "I was told you nearly died," she breathed into her neck.
"I'm fine Mother, really. Come; sit; you've had a long journey." She led her to the table, mind racing. It was Cletus, of course, who had brought her mother here, still manipulating people, no doubt hoping for a new entrée to Xena.
"After those men tried to burn the inn, and Gabrielle left in such a hurry, I was worried for you. There were soldiers from Prestia watching the village, but still... I waited for word, but none came."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean for you to worry," she apologized. "Gabrielle
and I were going to see you when we left here."
"Don't apologize, daughter," Cyrene said. "I know you've been busy."
"Yeah," Xena agreed, leaving the details aside.
"Are you sorry I've come? Those two soldiers who came to the inn - "
"Arcus and Barrus?" Xena guessed.
"Yes. Nice men, for soldiers. I'm sorry," she said at once, remembering her daughter's profession.
"It's all right, Xena assured her. "They are nicer than many soldiers I've known."
"They made it seem urgent that I come here. I can leave if you don't..." she broke off with a questioning shrug. Xena grinned and covered the worn hands with one of her own. "Don't you dare leave. I'm throwing a party; it doesn't happen often, and I want you there." You've shared so much of my shame, she thought, how could I deny you this?
Much of the kingdom, it seemed had come to the castle-town to join the festivities, and see firsthand the wondrous queen who'd saved Prestia. Border troops had caught up with the crisis at last, and sent delegations swearing fealty to Xena. Their standards flew atop the castle, a fluttering display of color that added to the holiday atmosphere.
Xena's self-ordained role seemed rather single-minded, Gabrielle realized with amazement: she was just having fun. She went everywhere, tasted food at every stall, quaffed strong brew with the locals at the kegs which seemed to be available in every street. Small children clamored to ride Argo, and she hoisted them aboard for a quick canter around the flower-festooned squares.
Seeing her like this, Gabrielle wondered why it couldn't be like this forever, Xena the benevolent monarch of an adoring kingdom. Xena seemed to read her thoughts. As she deposited a small boy at his mother's feet she warned the bard: "Gabrielle, this isn't forever."
Gabrielle cocked her head in surprise. "You know what I'm thinking now, huh?"
"Sometimes. When you get that wistful look in your eye, I know you want to set
this moment in plaster."
"Xena, why not," she asked as she resumed her usual place on Argo. The people had grown accustomed to the incongruous pairing, and greeted Gabrielle as a member of the royal family. "They love, you, you enjoy this, and you're very good at this ruling-thing. If you're still determined to atone for the past, consider how much atonement you can do right here, by being a worthy monarch."
"It's not about atonement, Gabrielle. It's about me. I'm a warrior; Prestia won't have a place for me."
"I know, Xena," she replied softly, stubbornly, "and I know that Ares can't touch you here, so maybe you could find another way to live." They rode in silence for a few moments, Xena giving perfunctory smiles to the crowd while framing a response.
At last she said: "Gabrielle, do you remember how the Greeks gained access to Troy, by hiding in the wooden horse that the Trojans thought was a gift to them?"
"How could I forget Xena? My eyewitness account is one of my better stories."
"Yeah," Xena smiled. "Well, I think I'm kind of like that for Ares. He can't come here; but I can, and I am too much Ares' creature to be trusted here for long."
"Xena - "
"I know, Gabrielle, I fought on the right side this time," she said, anticipating her words. "But what about the next time? Or the time after that? You said the Amazons carry Artemis with them. I carry Ares." She took a breath, and squeezed the hand Gabrielle rested on her waist, then admitted: "Before I fought Krykon, I called on Ares for help."
For Gabrielle, the people on the street blended into a swirl of indistinguishable faces and colors. "Why?" she asked.
"Because I was afraid I'd die before I killed everyone I wanted to kill," she said plainly.
"I didn't care what happened after that."
In the crowded street the silence was unnerving, then: "Xena. Did he help you?"
"I don't know. I won; the strength came from somewhere. It seemed, though, that I found my strength when I saw you. That's when that cursed pain in my thigh left and I was able to move. So maybe," she shrugged, "it wasn't Ares. But if he heard me..."
"Yeah," the bard nodded in understanding, her brow knitted in worry. "So we leave here to face that?"
"Or I stay here to face myself, and let these people learn to hate me, over time." She smiled ruefully. "Sorry, Gabrielle. I know I'm not easy to love."
"You are to me, Xena." She reached around to kiss her, and rested her head on her shoulder as they covered the distance to the castle gate.
Cyrene had never been in Prestia, or any city so large, and thrilled at the sights, although she was quick to point out that Amphipolitan ale was superior to the brew served in Prestia. The shopping stalls in Prestia were far greater in kind and number than in Amphipolis, however, and she was happy to spend the afternoon in the marketplace, haggling over bargains along with Gabrielle.
Her real pleasure came from stealing glances at her daughter. For so long she had despaired of Xena, known her name to be used as a curse, heard people in her own village use Xena as a threat to frighten their children to good behavior. She knew Xena had changed, yet it was a revelation to see her acclaimed as a hero, clearly loved by Prestians. At one corner a woman held her lamed child up to touch Xena as she walked by, as if that alone would heal him. Xena was disturbed at that, and told the woman she couldn't work miracles; she only healed with common sense and knowledge, when it was possible. The woman was sent to the castle with a note for the royal healer. Xena had seen this affliction before; it sometimes was cured with good nutrition. She turned away, face clouded momentarily. Cyrene wiped a tear from her eye as she turned to the nearest stall.
Dinner was to be a quiet affair, just 'some friends' Xena said, and Cyrene watched with delight as the dozen Amazons who had remained in Prestia entered the queen's private rooms. She felt she knew many of them already, from Gabrielle's tales. She had met few of Xena's friends, at one time had been surprised to learn she had any, and listened with rapt attention to their conversation, seeking new insights into the daughter she was just beginning to know.
"Our tribal stories speak of Amphipolis, Cyrene," a dark-haired woman named Solari told her. "Who knows, maybe Xena's part Amazon after all." She laughed at that, but wondered.
"Amphipolitan lamb is much better, than this sorry meat, wouldn't you agree Xena," she said much later, as they strolled through a torch-lit courtyard. "Oh, yeah," Xena agreed indulgently, "but I wouldn't say it too loud around here," she suggested, "not as long as I'm queen anyway."
"Xena," Cyrene said suddenly, "why would you want to leave here? You're safe, and everyone loves you so."
"I have my reasons, Mother. Listen, Gabrielle's beginning a story. I think you'll like it." She moved her to the circle near the bard and settled back on the grass in the dark shadows.
"Everyone loves you so," Callisto mimicked, softly. Xena had heard movement in the darkness outside the glow of the torches, and had been waiting for her sister to make her presence known. "The old woman's forgetting about me."
"Hello, Callisto," she said without moving. Callisto sat near her on the grass, behind and a little to one side, so that Xena could not see her face. "Did you get my invitation?" Xena asked.
"Oh, yeah, I found it tacked up in the stable, thank you very much."
"I didn't know where else to reach you."
Callisto ignored her and cast a dagger-eyed look at the older woman across the courtyard. "Change your mind about your mother being a 'whore'?"
Xena shrugged. "We all have our faults. Are you coming to the ceremony? It will mean a lot to Teremon. He likes you, anyway."
"Are you forgetting what I did?"
"I know what you did; you arranged for me to get the beating of my life, and then you saved my life."
"Don't flatter yourself, dear. You would have been saved anyway. Gabrielle was about to stick a sword in Glaucon's back. I couldn't let that happen. I wanted him for myself." She was puzzled as Xena stiffened almost imperceptibly. She had thought knew Xena the whole story, knew how close the innocent little bard had come to killing. Xena's eyes moved to Gabrielle. The gentle woman, ready to kill...She turned to look at Callisto, barely visible in the shadows. She wondered if Callisto knew the real good she had done.
"Xena. I haven't met your sister." Jalani was there, suddenly, and stopped the words which sprang to Callisto's lips with words of her own: "I see the resemblance," she nodded. Looking from one to the other. "My name is Jalani."
"Oh. You Amazons all look alike without your masks." Callisto smiled, but looked at the old woman warily. She felt as if the Amazon could see through to her bones. "I've gotta run." With a step she had disappeared into the night. Jalani crossed her long legs on the ground beside Xena, then said: "She makes you weary. Do you hate her?"
Xena looked at her, remembering the importance the question of hate had to M'lila.
"I just wish she'd limit her vengeance to me. I'm the one who's earned it."
For a time they sat in companionable silence. Then Jalani spoke: "That one is like a fast running river, dashing itself against a mountain."
"That would make me the mountain?" Xena asked. "Seems to me that rivers can wear away whole ranges of mountains."
"Sometimes. Other times, with nothing to feed them, rivers dry up, leaving empty beds, which reveal their secrets. Then again, some mountains stand fast; eventually, the river wears away a hollow, where it pools placidly around the foot of the mountain."
Xena gave her a wry smile. "So we just wait and see what happens?"
"We find out what you are each made of," the old Amazon rejoined. "There are still many things you need to learn about yourself, Xena. Your dreams, are better, I think."
"I haven't dreamt at all."
Xena nodded, happy not to know what the dreams might be.
Then: "You spoke about my wound once," she began, speaking as if the painful thigh wound was the only one she'd ever had.
"Twice," Jalani corrected her.
Xena's puzzlement was evident. "I only remember that you said I 'chose' the pain. It's gone. For now, anyway. Which means I chose to have it leave me." She sought Jalani's eyes for confirmation. "How did I do that? It seemed to come and go like an uninvited guest, yet you tell me I have power over it. How does that work?"
Jalani's eyes crinkled when she smiled; in another mood, Xena would have been annoyed at her levity at such a moment. Tonight, she responded with her own smile. "Have I missed it so badly?" she asked sheepishly.
"I also said that something you'd asked of the gods had been given to you."
Xena remembered the cryptic message given at the banquet. "That referred to the pain?" she asked, astonished. "When did I ask for a chronically painful wound? Why would I?"
"You tell me Xena."
The warrior's mind drifted back to the day she was cut, the chaotic battle, Callisto's
ministrations...The wound had hurt then, as expected. It was a fresh wound. As she'd
bathed in the stream late that afternoon, she had been more troubled by her lingering pain
over Gabrielle. She looked at Jalani's face, into her eyes; her breathing slowed to match
her slow breath and she was back in the stream hearing her own thoughts...Her hand reached
out to grip Jalani's arm, hard, as she remembered : 'I'll take this pain any day, take it
forever, over that pain which floods the soul'.
"I chose physical pain. That's why I was able to stay away, even though I missed her: it didn't hurt any more," she said, stunned. "Even when I thought she was dead, I wanted to kill, but I couldn't even cry for her." She touched her thigh. "All the pain was here."
She released Jalani's arm, and sat back, dazed. "That's why it never left me," she went on, recalling the weeks past, the moments when it grew inexplicably worse, or better. Gabrielle had somehow, figured in each change. Jalani watched, content to let the warrior work it through. "When I let Gabrielle back into my life, the pain stopped." Her mind raced on. "Except in the fight with Krykon, it was crippling, because I thought Gabrielle was dead."
Xena was silent a long time, so Jalani prompted: "And when you knew she wasn't dead?"
"The pain released me; I could move. I won." Her eyes found the bard, half-illumined in the torchlight. "We won." She was silent a long time, then gave Jalani a look of mild reproach. "You couldn't have just told me that?"
The gray head moved slowly from side to side. "No."
"I would have found my way back to Gabrielle sooner if I was driven there by pain?"
"It seems likely."
Xena considered. "Can I just tell the gods I've changed my mind? Deal's off?"
"Try them; they expect you to spit in the general direction of Mt. Olympus on occasion. I think it's more important that you've told yourself."
The night air was growing chill; Gabrielle finished a tale, and stretched, which Xena knew meant she would not be starting another. "Thank you," Xena whispered to Jalani. "I don't know how you do that, but it works." She paused, bit her lip, and spoke uncertainly. "Agrana has agreed to teach Amazon healing methods for a bit, when the school here is ready. Any chance...?"
Jalani smiled. "Have them send students to me in Amazonia. The women can carry the
knowledge back here to others. If they are as astute as you."
"Astute? I was as thick as two planks," she said in self-derision.
"No," Jalani said, gravely. "You are young, Xena. The journey to self-knowledge is the
longest, most difficult we ever take. You have already traveled further than most. If you manage to stay alive long enough, you can have my job." She took Xena's head in her hands and kissed her forehead. "Those who see only the warrior will be twice defeated."
"Cyrene has really enjoyed herself," Gabrielle said, as she unfastened Xena's breastplate.
They were at last alone in their bedchamber.
"I think it makes her feel better seeing the Amazons, knowing her warrior-daughter isn't all that - unique." Sounds better than 'freak', Xena decided. "Even though nothing's up to the standards of Amphipolis," she ended with a chuckle.
"So you aren't angry at Cletus for bringing her here?"
"No. Not so long as he leaves us alone." Gabrielle thought it best to let that topic drop.
"You and Jalani had a lot to say to each other."
"She's a very wise woman," Xena replied. "She's helped me understand many things."
"Such as?" Gabrielle asked.
"I'll show you," Xena said with sudden decision. Soon they were standing in the tapestry room, appearing, in the dark, as Xena had first seen them. Xena found herself, a tiny figure, clearly aided by a crutch. "The lamed warrior," she said to Gabrielle. "The one who was slain out side the city and left for the vultures." Gabrielle nodded; a shiver went through her. She pressed against Xena's warm body. "Only the weaver missed something; I wasn't lamed at the end, Gabrielle. You came, and the 'lamed warrior' was no more." She recited the tale that Jalani had helped her uncover as they stood before the faded tapestry, and listened with satisfaction as Gabrielle voiced her understanding of the apparent ease with which Xena had left her. "And then when Ephiny rode in with me, it enabled you to defeat Krykon?" she finished.
"Hmmm," Xena nodded.
"I'm sorry I caused you so much pain, Xena," she said contritely, picturing Xena limping through Prestia for so long.
"You haven't been listening, Gabrielle. I caused myself that pain, in addition to the pain I caused you." She grimaced with regret, then quirked an eyebrow at Gabrielle. "Do you still fancy a bonfire?" she asked, gesturing to the tapestry-laden walls.
"No; let them stay here, with one addition: Xena triumphant!"
Xena pulled her closer. "With the Amazon-bard who made it all possible."
The highlight of the second day was to be Xena's farewell to her troops. Tarimides had insisted, unnecessarily as it happened. Xena was happy to watch these brave soldiers of Prestia pass in review. First she had the pleasant task of announcing promotions and affixing medals to the men who had been cited for extraordinary deeds. They stood in ranks beside her as the rest of the garrison paraded by. The Queen's Own called themselves 'Xena's Own' now, so that no future queen would forget who it was that these men honored. As long as men wore the uniform of Prestia, these elite troops would wear a blue and lavender "X" embroidered on their tunics. They marched by first, bearing her standard, and the other units followed, dipping their standards in salute. At last they massed before her and the cry of "Xena" echoed through the castle confines until she stopped them with a raised hand. She told them then that they were all extraordinary, and she was proud to have served with them. She left Prestia in the keeping of good, and noble sons and daughters.
She turned to ride away a little too quickly, Gabrielle thought, concerned, until she caught a glance at the hidden face, and knew that Xena fought a losing battle with tears.
"It was easier to take the blasted crown than to give it away," Xena snarled, preparing for one more dinner, this time with the councilors she'd appointed. They would work as partners with the king in ruling, and supervise the first free election of the legislature. Some of them, including Tarimides and Laepita had permanent tenure. One had argued against it: Laepita, who felt unworthy to serve in such an office.
"Who could be more worthy?" Xena asked her. "I want a council that is strong, unselfish, brave. You've shown me all those qualities. If I had lost to Krykon, you would have paid a heavy price," she pointed out.
Gabrielle sat at Xena's right hand, as usual, this time Laepita was at her left. Lady Laepita, one of a new aristocracy, an aristocracy of merit. Salmoneus sat beside her; Xena was glad he'd agreed to stay on for a month beyond her abdication, to ease the transition.
She sighed at the line of functionaries waiting to speak. Mother of Zeus! This part she wouldn't miss: the toasts from long-winded statesmen and bureaucrats. As the time to leave grew nearer, Gabrielle had felt Xena's tension increase, although she wouldn't speak of it. She reached beneath the table and squeezed a well-muscled thigh. There were ways of dealing with tension, and she could begin by easing the present boredom. Xena smiled at once, and the councilor grinned back, with deference, wondering what he had said that was so amusing.
Xena lay awake for a long time, reluctant to disentangle herself from the smaller woman. Her long legs wrapped comfortably around Gabrielle's, and the bard's head was comfortably settled on a breast. This would be the last day they woke in the castle; Gabrielle might as well enjoy the morning. There was no hurry today, nothing to do until the ceremony, then they would leave, with the Amazons, and Cyrene, to be past the border by nightfall. At midnight the abdication would take effect, and Teremon would wake as the new monarch. For days she'd reviewed the steps she'd taken thus far, reread documents, issued instructions and exhortations to those she was leaving behind until they could recite them with her. She'd had special words for Tarimides: "I feel confident that things will be okay, but if you ever need a sword in your service..." He had smiled, "I never doubted it, Majesty."
So there was nothing else to do: hand over the crown, and ride away.
"Come with us to Amazonia, Cyrene. The inn will survive a while longer." Gabrielle spoke earnestly, and Xena watched amused as Cyrene listed all the reasons it was impossible. "Besides, I want to tell the village of all I've seen here." Xena looked away, knowing the main thing she'd talk about. "Anyway, she went on, some of the girls are coming to visit me in Amphipolis sometime soon."
Xena remembered that Cyrene had eaten with the Amazons again the night before while she suffered through the official dinner. "It must have been quite an evening," she observed.
"It was, Xena. A full evening. Cletus came by to thank the Amazons for their part
in putting down the rebellion." Xena put her cup down with astonishing control,
Gabrielle knew, considering the salt-fury she saw in her eyes.
"The thanks were appropriate, Mother," she said tight-lipped, "but he really came by to see you, while he knew I was occupied. Sneaky bastard."
"Xena, we just talked," Cyrene explained. "He'd like to see you."
"I'm sure he would. He will: at the ceremony, with the rest of Prestia." She left the table, left the rooms.
"She hates him so much?" Cyrene asked Gabrielle.
"I'm no fan of Cletus either, Cyrene. He used Xena, and she deserved better. If he
had just asked her for help...but he didn't. I think he deliberately let things go in
Prestia so Xena would be forced to intervene, to settle things. Then the prophecies in his
precious tapestries could be validated. If you saw what it did to her, you'd hate him,
"I don't understand many things here, Gabrielle, but Xena seems happier now than I've seen her since she was a child. Cletus, through Prestia, has given her that at least."
"Maybe," she shrugged, "but when she was small, he let another man call her 'daughter'," she said bitterly. "I think that may be the real problem, and it's too late to change that."
"I would have wanted this once, Gabrielle, I would have fought for it; but I would have been Radec, and my brown-shirts would have made his seem like the Hestian Virgins."
She waited in the royal suite for the ceremony to begin. She wore the crown, for the last time, and wished Cletus would hurry. Damn slow old man, she cursed. Arcus came from the boy's room, and crossed to Xena.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, Majesty. He's a bit nervous."
"That's to be understood," Gabrielle said, "he's just a little boy."
"I think he means the old king," Xena said with a sneer, then softened. "Is Woody well," she inquired.
Arcus nodded, "Joining me and Barrus in the King's Own," he said with pride. Then he cleared his throat, as if hesitant to speak. "Could I just say, Majesty, that I wish you and your lady," he smiled at Gabrielle, "long life and much happiness."
Xena inclined her head in thanks. "The same to you and Barrus ," she said with a wink.
Gabrielle stared; Arcus felt his ears redden. "Thanks," he muttered, as he walked away, astonished that she knew.
"Xena, how - "
Xena raised an eyebrow. "I have eyes, Gabrielle," she said simply.
Teremon came through the door with his father. He wore a blue velvet tunic, the sleeves trimmed with fur. Gabrielle smiled. He looked every bit the boy-king. The crown wouldn't fit on his head, so it would rest on a velvet cap which matched his tunic. He smiled, anxious for the day to move on. Then he caught Xena's scent and moved to her, grasping her hand. Gabrielle watched with interest. She knew that Xena had avoided the boy, unwilling to let him form one more attachment that would soon be broken. Xena took him in her arms and carried him to a window. She set him on the ledge and told him: "Listen to the crowd out there, Teremon. They are your people. Someday, you will rule them, within limits, but first, you are to care for them. If they are hungry, don't be satisfied if your own belly is full; if they are unhappy, ask them why. They work hard to keep their families, and this kingdom; so must you." She kissed him. "Little brother, I'll be leaving soon, take good care of our people."
Cletus was standing nearby, and came up to them now. "Good advice, Xena. We will try to do as you say." He smiled expectantly; Xena regarded him coldly.
"I've left enough safeguards in place to keep you from letting this place go to Hades again," she told him. "Why don't you concentrate on figuring out what it means to be a father." She reached out a hand for Gabrielle.
"Is everything ready," she asked Salmoneus, who had orchestrated the event. Behind him, she saw Callisto sidle into the room, and take Teremon's hand. She answered her own question. "We're all ready. Let's do it."
She had taken the crown, and freely gave it away, she told the crowd which clustered below. As she placed the crown on Teremon's head, she fixed the scene in her mind: Teremon and Cletus, united in ruling; Salmoneus, who, in her estimation, had risen to greatness; Cyrene, who could at last feel some pride in her wayward daughter, and Callisto, who would forever be part of her life. She couldn't see Gabrielle, who stood beside her, but she felt her just a breath away, and gladly gave up the crown.
She stepped back from the boy, and let the crowd have their new monarch. She found Gabrielle's hand, and pulled her inside for a kiss. "Come on, my love," she said softly in her ear, "Let's get on with on our lives."
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