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The Xena: Warrior Princess oeuvre including the characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, and a host of others, is owned by MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. The author gratefully acknowledges Universal's willingness to allow FanFiction on the Internet. Thank you, thank you, thank you. The rest of the characters are either ficitionalizations of historical figures or manifestations from my own imagination.
SEX ALERT: This story is sub-text friendly and does contain graphic sex scenes. If they idea of two women being in love offends you, please do not read any further, you won't be a happy camper.
VIOLENCE ALERT: It's a war. There are violent acts depicted in gruesome detail. If you're a bit squeamish, I suggest you skip this story. Really. Really, really this time: see Extra Special Disclaimer below.
This story continues from The Eleusinian Mysteries . It is not necessary to have read it before reading the Peloponnesian War, but it would be helpful.
A note about the (real) Peloponnesian War and the representation of it in this story: I have borrowed many situations from historical and modern descriptions of the Peloponnesian War. There isn't much about this story, however, which accurately reflects the historical accounts of the war. The real war took place over the span of thirty years and didn't have Xena and Gabrielle as major participants. I have liberally borrowed from The Acharnians by Aristophanes and from Thucydides' The History of the Peloponnesian War.
I would particularly like to say a big thank you the invaluable sources at the Perseus Project at Tufts (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/); the Internet Classics Archive at MIT (http://classics.mit.edu/home.html); The provocative Women in Ancient Greece by Sue Blundell; the marvelous reference tome The Ancient Greeks: a critical history by John V. A. Fine; and, of course, the primary source The History of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 431) by Thucydides which chronicles the Peloponnesian War in eight books (and in great detail from the Athenian point of view).
EXTRA SPECIAL DISCLAIMER:
This is a long, four-book monster and as such stands to be an intense roller coaster. It's a serious and sometimes disturbing story. Our heroes will undergo difficult tests, the action and psychology of which may prove difficult to read to some. There will be violence aimed at one or both of our heroes and sexual abuse. If you normally choose to avoid such subject matter, please do not read this story. I don't want to upset people, just walk that fine line to make the long read worthwhile.
Argo sauntered behind two women along the familiar street, her reins held loosely by the tall woman in leather. The warrior walked side-by-side with a young bard, their hands clasped tightly in support of both fond and frightening memories. Their last excursion to Eleusis, just one year earlier, marked a turning point in both of their lives.
Xena and Gabrielle strolled away from the bustling streets of Eleusis and toward the palace. Their last leg of the journey almost complete, they were torn between reliving their most intense experiences together -- both good and bad -- and trepidation about their recent summons.
Without speaking to each other, they turned off the main road and into the gardens surrounding the palace. The prince was wise in the ways of the land and as Demeter's appointed one, he had taught many people how to grow and tend their crops. The gardens were much as the women remembered them, vibrant and alive yet peaceful and utterly tranquil. As each had imagined and neither admitted, they walked straight to the reflecting pool. Their reflecting pool, built for them the previous year by Prince Triptolemus and his aide Kerykes. It was a gift to remind the pair that they represented the mortal manifestation of Demeter and Persephone's ineffable relationship, made apparent by their experiences with the Mysteries.
Xena and Gabrielle had a year to experience the ineffability that they were. They still reveled in the wonder of it, it could still bring a smile to their lips unbidden by any uttered remark, and it still made them feel a bit uncomfortable from time to time. It was a burden to be weighted down by such a fate and each woman suffered moments of doubt. But together they could face their destiny and it would be together that they would endure their next test.
Xena relented and let herself be hugged. She had little choice as Triptolemus wouldn't let her past the threshold without a proper greeting. Gabrielle took the opportunity to squeeze back when it was her turn. She was rewarded with a wink from the prince before Kerykes picked her up and twirled her around. "So I see you two still travel together." Kerykes laughed at himself, understanding the absurdity of such a remark.
Xena humored him, "I can't seem to get rid of her. Every time I turn around, she's there." Gabrielle feigned innocence but couldn't resist batting her eyes at Xena. In return, Xena just shook her head.
The prince took Xena's left hand and Gabrielle's right, leading them up the wide spiraling staircase. "You're staying with me this time, ladies. I'll give you time to settle in then we'll talk over dinner. Starting tomorrow things will get busy, so take a moment to relax while you can." He showed them into a large room adorned with tapestries and brightly-colored fabrics draped over the frames of each window. It overlooked the Bay of Eleusis, sparkling blue in the afternoon sun, and under the windows lay the pomegranate tree bed, planted in honor of the festival goddesses.
Their saddlebags were already in the room laid next to a table with bowls of sweet-smelling fruits and decanters of port and wine. Xena poured herself a small glass of port and offered some wine to Gabrielle. There was no need for a toast, each woman sipped their drinks while never letting their eyes roam from the other's. Each time Gabrielle stared into Xena's eyes, she had to catch her breath. Hard as she tried, she could never really remember just how intense, how alluring, those eyes were. It always startled her.
Xena took their glasses and put them down quickly, then put a hand out to steady Gabrielle. "Hey there, you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." Her eyes darted away. "Just a little overwhelmed."
Xena led her to a cushioned chair and gently helped her down. Kneeling next to her, she put her hands on Gabrielle's knees. "Everything will be fine, Gabrielle. I promise."
"I've just got this, I don't know, weird feeling about..." she let her voice trail off.
"Yeah, me too." Gabrielle looked up at her quickly urging her to continue. "Hard to describe, isn't it? When we got the message from Triptolemus asking us to come here it triggered something. I think I'd been aware of it for awhile but I was pretty good at ignoring it."
"Yes, that's it exactly," interrupted Gabrielle. "Kind of a wrenching in your gut?"
Xena raised an eyebrow. "I guess you could put it like that. Not all is as it seems, something more is at stake here than the success of the Mysteries." Xena squeezed the bard's knees and stood up. "And we wait until dinner starts to find out."
They had to wait longer than that. Dinner was an extravagant feast of several courses but the topics of conversation were limited to preparations for the Mysteries and idle gossip. Kerykes was explaining how different the Mysteries would be from last year's, "No festival to accompany them. It really changes the tenor of everything without all that frivolity. I do miss the celebrations, but the Mysteries go much more smoothly when you don't have to divide your attention." Kerykes noted Gabrielle's glum expression, "But there's still plenty to do. The town does put out it's finest during the Mysteries, festival or not. The crowds are smaller, the choices of activities fewer in number, but there is still a lot to do."
"Good, because last year I didn't get to do most of what I wanted to." Xena rolled her eyes as Gabrielle reminded them, "I want to hear some bards, spend some time at the bazaar, maybe see a play... okay, maybe just window shop. A little." Xena successfully hid her grin.
Kerykes cleared his throat. "Um, yes, Gabrielle, and I hope you can indulge yourself while you're here. And I think I should just say this: you don't have to go to the Mysteries if you don't want to."
Xena answered while Gabrielle played with the dessert on her plate. "We're here to do whatever you need us to do, Kerykes. Even if it means going back to the Mysteries."
"Thank you, really. But I don't think it will be necessary," Kerykes told her.
Gabrielle breathed a heavy sigh of relief, thought about covering for it, then realized she didn't really need to. Everyone there knew that while being initiated last year, Gabrielle had succumbed to the same poison that killed most of the initiates. It was only Persephone and Demeter's deal with Hades that allowed her to return. She also knew it was the most difficult ordeal Xena had ever gone through and she had no desire to put her friend through anything that would be too vivid a reminder of those days.
Triptolemus broke the uneasy silence. "Perhaps it is time to discuss your invitation. I'm afraid it's of a political bent this time."
Gabrielle saw Xena's face fall. She knew how much the warrior despised politics and it looked like they'd just landed in the middle of something sticky. Gabrielle engaged Triptolemus, leaving Xena to say her silent thanks to the bard. "Political, how so? We've been away from the middle of things for awhile and haven't had any news to speak of."
"Did you hear about Samos?" asked Triptolemus. Seeing the blank looks, he elaborated. "Samos revolted recently. Seems they were tired of paying tribute to the Delian League when the Athens Assembly appeared to be making all of the decisions. It took a lot of men to wear them down and it wasn't until Phormion commanded a flotilla of reinforcements that we were able to squelch the revolt."
"These things happen," remarked Xena, nonchalantly.
"In some places, yes, but Samos was strategically important," Kerykes countered. "It's a wealthy island and it had been a powerful member of the Delian League. Revolts set a bad example."
"Had they aligned with Sparta?" asked Xena.
Again, Gabrielle was reminded that Xena always knew more about everything than she did. "Can we back up, please?"
Triptolemus looked to Kerykes who nodded and began, "Thirty years ago, after the war with Persia, our city-states divided into two alliances, admittedly not a comfortable position for anyone, but things have been peaceful since then. The Delian League consists primarily of the island and coastal states on the northern and eastern shores of Aegean. The Peloponnese and Corinth make up the Dorian League, headed by Sparta. But to answer your question Xena, no, Samos had not asked for Sparta's protection."
Gabrielle scratched her head, "If they hadn't switched sides then why did the Delian League get involved in a battle? It must have cost a lot more to fight than they would have ever made in tributes from Samos."
"Quite true, Gabrielle. It was symbolic, mostly," Triptolemus offered. "We can't have cities going into revolt. Rumor has it that Mytilene has asked for Spartan support, though no one has seen any move on Sparta's part to offer it. Thankfully."
"So things are okay, then?" Gabrielle asked cautiously. "Samos gave in, Sparta hasn't gotten involved?"
Triptolemus flopped his head from side to side, "Yes and no. There are some... internal problems." Kerykes shifted noticeably next to the prince. "Do you know Aspasia?"
"Who?" asked Gabrielle.
"I do," said Xena quietly. Gabrielle knew that tone of voice. It was the 'that was something in my past and I don't want to talk about it so don't even ask me' voice. She'd ask later.
Triptolemus continued, ignoring Xena's admission, "She's the companion of Pericles, the most powerful member of the Athenian Assembly."
"Sure, I know Pericles. He rebuilt all the temples after the war with Persia, and I hear he's started a magnificent building on the Acropolis and another long wall, too. Wasn't he married, though?" Gabrielle pieced together.
Kerykes answered her, "They were divorced many years ago, almost twenty years ago. He's done a lot for the Mysteries, by the way. After last year's... events... they almost faded. But Pericles is a remarkable speaker, quite skilled in that way, and he persuaded everyone to remember the importance of the Mysteries and their long history. Without him, I don't think the Mysteries would be happening this year."
Gabrielle thought for a moment, "And what about Aspasia?"
Triptolemus took that one, "She's originally from Miletus, an old nemesis of Samos. People think she persuaded Pericles to run roughshod over them just to get even."
"And I guess the Athenians don't like a woman telling Pericles what to do." Xena supplied.
"Not particularly. Though she doesn't have that kind of power over him. They talk, he makes up his own mind." Kerykes said plainly.
Xena said, "I can't imagine she'd stay in the background much." Gabrielle glanced at the warrior to see if she would let any hints about what she knew show on her indifferent face. No such luck.
"You know her well, Xena," said Kerykes. "She is visible. It's a handicap sometimes, but I don't know of anyone who can convince her to do otherwise."
Xena smirked, "Not even you, Kerykes?"
"Not even me, Xena." Gabrielle was completely lost by now, fortunately Kerykes noticed. "Aspasia is my sister, Gabrielle."
"Oh," things began to come a little more clearly into focus for the bard. At least there was a better reason for their summons to Eleusis. Kerykes' sister was in trouble. Somehow.
The prince stood, signifying the end of dinner. "And you can meet them all tomorrow. Pericles and Aspasia will be arriving with their entourage for the Mysteries. They will be staying here as well. And since there is much yet to be done, I bid you an early good-night."
Kerykes turned to follow the prince only to have his way blocked by Xena. "I don't think we're done yet," said Xena.
"What do you want to know?" Kerykes asked, defeated.
"Well for starters, why are we here?"
"You are important to the Mysteries, Xena. You and Gabrielle."
"And..." Xena prodded.
Kerykes motioned for them to join him outside. Xena stood right in front of Kerykes, parking herself very close to him in one of her intimidating poses while Gabrielle hung back near her shoulder.
"Xena, Gabrielle, you have to believe me. I wouldn't have asked you here unless I felt it was urgent." Gabrielle smiled so he went on. "Aspasia is a smart woman and she knows where the line is under normal circumstances. But these aren't normal circumstances. Somebody is feeding information to Pericles' enemies. It's the kind of information that is not totally false and looks bad, if you know what I mean."
"Anything can be taken out of context, Kerykes," Xena agreed.
"I don't know where the leak is, but it's somewhere close. And I'm worried about Aspasia, of course."
"You called us out here for a family squabble?" Xena began to get irate. Gabrielle reached over and put a soft hand on her arm. It helped a little.
"No, not just for that. But you've got to admit it's a pretty important family." Kerykes glanced about and spoke in a hushed voice, "There is more. Few people know but tension is mounting between the leagues. I believe Sparta and Athens will go to war with each other sometime soon. And I fear Aspasia will be the pawn to get it started."
Gabrielle had heard enough, "That's insane. Who would want to start a war, and a big war at that?"
Xena answered, "Anyone who's an enemy of Pericles."
Kerykes finished, "And an enemy of Pericles is an enemy of Aspasia, too."
Xena stomped about the room for awhile forcing Gabrielle to dump her into a chair. "Look, I know you're not happy about this."
"Really," replied Xena sweetly, "whatever gave you that idea."
"Funny, Xena." Gabrielle took Xena's hand in hers. "I know how you feel about political battles, Xena. I'm sorry we're in this, too. But we're here. We've got to help. Now, are you going to tell me about Aspasia?"
"I wondered when you'd ask, and yes, thank you for waiting." The warrior's smile melted Gabrielle. The bard pulled another chair close and sat by Xena without relinquishing her hand.
"I knew her a long time ago, as you no doubt have already guessed. My army stopped in Miletus several times -- for recuperation not for business -- and she ran the local brothel there." Xena listened for the stifled gasp then continued. "We got to be friends as she always said I brought her good fortune and good luck."
"Xena, I'm really confused now. This woman who once ran a... ah... brothel as you put it, is now the companion of the most powerful man in Athens."
"And Kerykes' sister? How did they ever come from the same family?"
"You haven't met her yet, Gabrielle. You'll see why."
Gabrielle pulled her hand back, "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means," said Xena reaching to reclaim the bard's warm hand, "that I think you'll like her. She's smart, well educated, stunningly beautiful, and she's a very nice person. And no, even before you ask, we never did."
"I wouldn't have asked, Xena."
"You were already wondering..." said Xena in that dark tone.
"Yes, maybe wondering... a little. But I hadn't yet exerted my power over you when you knew her, so I can't try to make you feel guilty," stated Gabrielle triumphantly.
"All too true, Gabrielle. All too true," Xena admitted, more truthfully than Gabrielle imagined.
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, and closed her eyes. "It's very strange being back here, isn't it."
"Well, I can't say I would have chosen to come back." Xena gave her hand a squeeze and then let it go. "Gabrielle, this could all get very strange. Not just the Mysteries, but everything. Athenian politics are a tangled web run by men who thrive on deceit. Pericles is a strong leader and generally whatever he says, the Assembly votes with him. But there are a lot of people who covet his power. I don't want to think of how long that list is."
"And Aspasia is a target?"
"And Aspasia is a target. For all the intelligence she has, sometimes she lets things cloud her judgment." Xena snickered. "Not that I don't have that problem, too."
"But you don't make it a point to be at the side of the most powerful man in Athens," said Gabrielle.
Xena pulled Gabrielle into her lap, "As far as who gets to be at my
side, that spot's taken."
It was an impressive entourage. Pericles and Aspasia arrived astride two magnificent twin mounts. The steeds were as black as midnight and each bore beads and colored ribbons braided into their long manes. Pericles dismounted and greeted Prince Triptolemus formally before lapsing into a friendly banter. Pericles looked rather average to Gabrielle. He was sort of tall, sort of good looking, sort of trim. She remembered, though, that he was most well known for his orations.
But Gabrielle stared openly at Aspasia, for as Xena had told her she was stunning. She wore her brown hair long and let it hang freely. Adorned in layers of beautiful fabrics that surrounded her soft eyes, Aspasia was striking. But all of it paled to the way she carried herself. She was regal yet soft, aloof yet warm, commanding yet friendly. Though the combinations of traits seemed anomalous she somehow bore such seemingly mutually exclusive characteristics with ease and grace.
With Pericles and Aspasia were their son and their ward. Young Pericles was perhaps ten or eleven summers old. He had some of his mother's good traits and some of his father's average ones. But their ward, Alcibiades was quite impressive. He was handsome and threw a charming grin at everyone he talked to. Gabrielle guessed he was a few years younger than she was.
Xena put her hand in the small of Gabrielle's back and led her over to meet Pericles and Aspasia. The prince stepped back and formally introduced Xena to Pericles.
The Athenian statesman offered his hand to her, "Well met, Xena of Amphipolis. I am honored to finally stand before the Warrior Princess."
Xena took his hand firmly. "Pericles," was all she said. She didn't need to say more for Pericles' was staring into her eyes and wouldn't have heard more anyway.
The prince intervened, "Pericles, this is Gabrielle."
Pericles cleared his head and smiled widely, "The bard, Gabrielle? Oh good fortune is with us now. I do hope you will grace us with several of your epic tales while we are together, Gabrielle. Your talents are legendary. I look forward to being put under your spell."
That did it, she was convinced. Pericles was extraordinary. "Pleased to meet you, too."
Then Aspasia stepped forward and placed her hand on Gabrielle's elbow, Pericles introduced her, the tone of formality and authority gone from his voice, "This is Aspasia, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle tried to find her voice, "Hello," was all that came out.
Aspasia bowed slightly, and brightened her eyes enchanting Gabrielle. Then she turned to Xena, "My friend, it has been too many years." Aspasia did not offer her hand, as if such a gesture would be too small for Xena, nor did she step forward to hug her, knowing such a touch in public would make the warrior uncomfortable. "Fortunately your deeds are regaled by many," she nodded toward Gabrielle and smiled, "so I know much about you. You have done well for yourself. I am proud of you, Xena. All of Athens thanks you for your many good deeds."
Before Xena could reply, Pericles began introducing his son to everyone. The young Pericles held his own well, reciting well-practiced greetings without the usual awkwardness of a young lad. Next Alcibiades stepped forward. Up close he was even more charming. As he took Gabrielle's hand he smiled easily, his look penetrating through Gabrielle's discomfort at meeting such famous people. Alcibiades' grasp lingered a few seconds too long so that when he finally released her, she was torn between desiring more of the touch and feeling even more out of sorts.
Alcibiades instinctively knew not to do the same to Xena. He spoke his greeting from arm's length. She merely nodded in return.
At last everyone was whisked inside, a bustle of bodies finding their way and belongings being delivered. Gabrielle was glad for Xena's penchant of standing by walls as she leaned up next to her. They could watch without being swept up into the chaos. Gabrielle looked up at Xena and noticed she was clearly unhappy.
"Come on, let's sneak away for awhile." Gabrielle pried her away from the wall.
Xena sighed and let herself be lead away. She wondered why it was that she found political matters so tedious then remembered that they meant sitting, listening and talking, arguing and posturing. Her least favorite activities.
Gabrielle caught Kerykes' eye just as they were about to slip out the back door. She winked at him, he nodded back. Her ally. He would call for them if their presence was required. A stroll in the garden was just what Xena needed. That and the serenity of being out of ear shot of a palace full of important people.
"Thanks," Xena said as she snaked her arm around Gabrielle.
"Anytime. I love stealing you away for myself, you know." She pulled Xena down for a quick kiss. "We'll have to be back for dinner."
"Don't remind me now, okay? I'm really not in the mood for a state dinner. They're long, boring, and you have to be very careful about what you say."
"That shouldn't be hard for you, Xena. You usually don't say much anyway."
Xena's hand shot down and pinched Gabrielle. "Look who's talking about watching their words."
"Sorry. You know what I mean... how actions are always louder than... uh oh." The bard took off at a dead run but only got five steps away before Xena had caught up with her. Gabrielle didn't seem to mind, though.
Dinner was a formal occasion: miserable for Xena, imposing but quite fun for Gabrielle. Triptolemus sat at the head of the table directly across from Pericles. They could speak to each other only in full voice which meant all had to listen to their conversation. To Pericles' right was his son, to his left Alcibiades. Much to her consternation, Gabrielle had been seated between Alcibiades and Aspasia. She would have rather been able to whisper back and forth with Xena. Xena took her place on the other side of Aspasia where the two old friends could speak privately. Across from them were various dignitaries, most of whom Gabrielle didn't know, and Kerykes. At least one friendly face was in the wash.
The first courses were occupied with light topics mostly spoken of between Pericles and Triptolemus. But over the barley smothered in seared lamb and garlic, matters turned serious.
"Triptolemus, I must ask, do you get much commerce from Megara? Onions or rabbit? Perhaps some olive oil or garlic?"
Triptolemus sensed the change in tone. "Some, yes, Pericles. Why do you want to know?" He was going to be asked to do something, no he was going to be told to do something. It had to do with Megara, a town he knew well and visited often.
"I was forced to ask the Assembly to decree that all trade with Megara was to be excluded from Athens, and I consider Eleusis to be a part of Athens," Pericles explained. There was dead silence at the table. "They violated religious land, we cannot allow such impious acts to go unpunished."
Gabrielle knew she didn't understand all of the implications of such an action, but she could tell it was a bad idea. No one but Pericles seemed to like it. Kerykes wore a livid expression. She desperately wished she could see Xena's face but leaning around Aspasia to spy a glimpse of it would be out of the question.
Triptolemus spoke carefully, "Pericles, my friend, of what land do you speak?"
"My good prince, the land between here and Megara, of course. You of all people should know its value as sacred land," Pericles smiled thinly.
Kerykes tried to point out the facts, "Most of that land is undefined, Pericles, it belongs to no one. And what is used is only cultivated for crops."
"Yes, but not all of it is undefined." Pericles stared at Kerykes, "And no religious land should be defaced. It is much too important to overlook, even in a minute amount. We owe our allegiance to the gods, to Athena for her wisdom and protection of our fair city, and especially to Demeter and Persephone as the Mysteries remind us, and to Zeus and all of Olympus. If we yield on this issue, something even more heinous will present itself. If we let one small act go unpunished then others will test our limits, and raise the ante with each test. Surely you understand their significance to the Mysteries, Kerykes."
Kerykes flinched. Pericles had come dangerously close to violating the most sacred trust of the Mysteries. No one was ever to utter the true identity of the Heirophant, the High Priest of the Mysteries nor the Dadouchos, the second priest. Though many at the table carried the knowledge that Kerykes was the Dadouchos, if that trust was to be broken, the truth uttered, the penalty would be the same no matter who violated it: death. Pericles was walking a thin line, one he was well aware of and he tread it with glee.
"The lives of the people must be considered when interpreting the will of the gods," Kerykes said under his breath.
"Really," Pericles continued is game of power, "That's not what I've heard about the Mysteries, at least not last year's events."
Xena squirmed in her chair hating to remain silent through Pericles' posturing. There would come a time when she could remind him of his vulnerabilities, however such cards could be played only a finite number of times. She'd save hers for when they were most needed. A warrior learned to pick battles carefully as it was prudent to make sure you could win all those you dove into.
Aspasia came to Kerykes rescue, "Pericles, please. We agreed to put those Mysteries out of our memories. All that should be remembered is the part Xena and Gabrielle played in the Mysteries. They are Demeter and Persephone's chosen ones. We are privileged to be in their company tonight. Come, let us toast them: To Xena and Gabrielle." Aspasia raised her glass high, waiting until everyone at the table extended their arms in a toast. Xena and Gabrielle turned pink around the edges but were forced to drink to themselves. Oh how Gabrielle longed to be able to nuzzle her toes into Xena's under the table.
Conversations turned more private after that. Aspasia chatted amicably with Xena, or rather she spoke a lot while Xena listened. Gabrielle tried her best to eavesdrop, but Alcibiades had other plans for her.
"Gabrielle, tell me, aren't you pleased to be able to return to the Mysteries this year?"
"Ah, well..." she stammered, "yes, of course. It's an honor." Her face paled a bit for she had no desire to venture further down that path.
"I've heard a smattering about your remarkable visions. They say you saw both Demeter and Persephone." Alcibiades egged her own, reading her reluctant expression all too easily. She would be an easy conquest for him.
"Yes." Gabrielle wished for a way to change the subject.
Kerykes, the ever perceptive friend, saw her plight. "Alcibiades, good fellow, I believe there are certain matters best not spoken of."
Alcibiades narrowed his eyes and smiled thinly, "Just making conversation, Kerykes." He turned back to Gabrielle and spoke more softly, "The gardens here are quite lovely, perhaps I could show you some of my favorite spots a little later."
"That would be nice, yes. There is nothing quite so relaxing as a stroll through the gardens." Gabrielle said without thinking.
"Good, then perhaps after dinner?" Alcibiades leaned toward her.
Gabrielle realized her mistake and leaned back slightly, "Not tonight, thank you. I already have other plans."
Alcibiades could tell she was lying but knew better than to press it. He decided that a noble retreat would be much more impressive to her, all the better to endear himself to the young woman. "As you wish, not tonight. The invitation will remain open." He chuckled to himself when he heard her sigh quietly in relief. One small defeat did not the battle end, though. "You travel with Xena, the Warrior Princess?"
Now that was a subject Gabrielle liked much better, she perked up noticeably. "Yes, we've been together for three years. We're rather inseparable now. She does her good deed thing and I record it. I'm a bard, you know."
"So I've heard, more than once." He laughed to show it was not meant as a criticism. "My informants at the Academy tell me you put on a good show there."
A shocked Gabrielle asked, "Informants?"
"Just a figure of speech. When you live with Pericles and Aspasia, you pick up such things. I meant my friends, of course."
"Oh. Of course." Then a thought occurred to Gabrielle, "You know some of the bards from the Academy?"
"Pericles is fond of a good story. When he entertains, he often asks someone from the Academy to dinner as well. For honored guests, a faculty member will grace us with a story or two, for others we invite some of the promising students. We make up for it with a fine feast and most bards seem happy to trade their tales for such a price."
Gabrielle conjured up images of pheasant or duck, copious amounts of fine wine and sweets piled high. Then she laughed, she was in the middle of such a meal and she didn't need to barter for it with her bardic skills. She thought back to those she knew at the Academy. "Have you met Homer?"
"Homer? Homer... Hmmm, no I don't remember anyone by that name. Someone from the Academy?" Alcibiades asked.
"I think he's the most promising bard of them all. You really should hear him spin a tale, he's quite amazing," said Gabrielle.
"I'd rather hear you." Alcibiades leaned forward again, but this time not so far, he was pleased that Gabrielle didn't move away. "I propose a trade. You tell me a story and I'll walk you through the gardens. Deal?"
She smiled and laughed, "Deal."
Dessert dishes were cleared and guests began to get up and mill about. Gabrielle felt a familiar weight on her arm. "Tired of sitting?" Xena asked. Gabrielle bade Alcibiades a good evening and followed Xena outside.
"I wish they'd have let me sit where I wanted to," moaned Gabrielle.
"And where would that have been?" teased Xena.
"Well, I can think of three choices," replied Gabrielle seriously.
Xena stopped and turned to the bard, "Three?" she asked, incredulously.
"Yeah, I would have enjoyed sitting by Kerykes and I would have definitely preferred to sit by you." Gabrielle let a wicked look flash over her face.
Xena allowed her the moment, "And..."
"My first choice would have been in your lap," the bard growled.
"Ah, I can see the advantage of that," laughed Xena.
They walked along silently letting their fingers brush together. Gabrielle finally plied her for some information. "So how's Aspasia?" she asked nonchalantly.
"She talks a lot."
"Let me re-phrase that. What did Aspasia have to say?"
Xena shook her head. "That woman is going to get herself in trouble."
"So she's like me?" asked Gabrielle, her eyes twinkling in the moonlight.
"I don't think she's quite that bad." Xena stopped. "Seriously, Kerykes was right when he said she's taking risks."
"How so? Doesn't Pericles watch out for her?"
"He's often too busy to pay attention to anything but what's under his nose. Besides, Aspasia is headstrong, always has been. She knows there is public outcry against what she does, she also knows there is a lot of private disgust."
"So, just what is it that she does, Xena?"
"Oh, so she really is a lot like me."
"Yes and no, Gabrielle. Aspasia maneuvers her way around some pretty heady company. Pericles is so completely in love with her that she can get away with anything."
"You mean she did talk Pericles into attacking Samos?" asked Gabrielle.
"I don't know. Maybe. I don't think anyone will ever know for sure. Let's put it this way, Aspasia can carry a grudge and I'm sure she relished Samos' defeat, but Pericles has a heart for aggression and power. He very well could have made that decision on his own."
Gabrielle studied her boots for a moment. "This is why you don't like politics, isn't Xena. You can never tell who's telling the truth."
"And if you ever do figure it out, you can't count on it happening the same way twice. Look, Gabrielle, people who would make good leaders have nothing in common with people who want to lead."
"Like you, you mean." She eyed Xena earnestly. "You'd make a good leader, but you don't want to do it."
Xena answered solemnly, "No, Gabrielle. I've done it and I wasn't a good one. Fortunately, I learned that lesson and stopped."
Gabrielle let it pass, she disagreed but knew better than to argue her point. This Xena would be a good leader. The old Xena who had commanded her own army had little in common with the woman she stood next to now. Then it dawned on Gabrielle that Xena saw too much of her former self in people like Pericles. No wonder it made her uncomfortable. She fit an arm around Xena's waist and pulled her along the path back toward the palace and up to bed.
The next morning, Gabrielle suggested Xena take Argo for a nice long run hoping it would lift Xena's spirits. Xena feigned not wanting to go, thinking Gabrielle would prefer her to be close by (which she did), but eventually she gave in an happily spent the day with Argo.
Gabrielle lingered at breakfast, not eating much but savoring every bite. Triptolemus must have engaged a new cook, for the food was extraordinary and she hadn't remembered it being quite that good the previous year.
As she was going back up to their room, Gabrielle ran into Aspasia and Kerykes "Gabrielle, please join us. I was just taking my sister to see a new area of the gardens."
"Thank you, Kerykes, I think I will." Gabrielle began to plot ways to get Aspasia to reveal secrets from Xena's past. She tried the almost direct tact, first, "Aspasia, tell me about how you met Xena."
"So you're curious about her past, Gabrielle." Aspasia said causing Gabrielle to turn crimson. "I would be too if I were you, but I am much more interested in the Xena of today, and I think she'd be happier if we spoke only about that Xena. She had many kind things to say about you last night."
Gabrielle floundered. She'd been caught red-handed trying to dig up gossip about Xena and been tossed an intoxicating compliment all in one breath.
"As I said, Gabrielle, it's all right. I would have asked the same." Aspasia reassured her.
"I guess I need to listen more carefully to what Xena says," muttered Gabrielle.
"How so?" asked Aspasia.
"She said you were pretty smart."
Kerykes joined his sister in a laugh. "Aye, Gabrielle that she is. Aspasia is the most perceptive person I've ever known. I learned when I was young never to try to pull a punch on her."
"Honesty becomes you Gabrielle. I don't often get to see it in such clarity. It is a welcome relief." Aspasia's voice was gentle and enticing. A siren's song. "Xena is drawn to that, isn't she?"
"You're asking me to tell you what Xena sees in me?" Gabrielle cringed at the thought of trying to sort that out.
"Of course. Thoughtful speech is our best teacher. It is the most genuine way to learn about ourselves." Aspasia spoke without a condescending tone.
"I guess I never really thought about that," remarked Gabrielle.
"It is quite true, Gabrielle. So, please tell us, why do you think Xena has chosen you when she could have had almost any other?"
Gabrielle walked along with them quietly for a time. "We balance each other well. I'm not so sure either of us would make good decisions in sticky situations without the other to make sure we saw the whole picture." Gabrielle scrunched her nose, "You know, this is what Demeter and Persephone spoke about. It is ineffable. If you try to define it you lessen it's value."
"But if you don't try to talk about it, how can anyone else benefit from it?" Aspasia asked softly.
"I guess I never really thought about that either... so we're stuck somewhere between a rock and a hard place..."
Kerykes interjected, "Like you and Xena?"
Gabrielle laughed. "We've been called lots of things but never a 'rock and a hard place'."
Aspasia offered, "I don't think it's an entirely disingenuous analogy. You are both strong, resolute women. You do not easy share your innermost secrets with anyone but the other. To some you are like rocks: almost untouched by the erosion of evil, able to withstand intense external pressures, clearly individuals, constant... and stubborn." Aspasia glanced toward her, "But I make you uncomfortable, forgive me."
Gabrielle felt like a scroll left unfurled for all the known world to read.
Once again friend Kerykes came to her rescue, "Aspasia, why don't you return the favor and tell Gabrielle what Pericles sees in you?"
"Ah, dear brother, only you could get away with that, you know." She slapped him playfully. "Still, it is a fair request." She pulled Kerykes to the side and walked next to Gabrielle. "When Pericles looks at me, he sees an equal, an adversary, a mirror, and a challenge. He sees the mother of his son, he sees a foreigner. He sees someone who enjoys risk-taking as he does and someone who can take risks he cannot."
Gabrielle scratched her nose. She decided to ask about the most perplexing remark first, "What do you mean by foreigner?"
"I am not Athens born, that makes me a foreigner. It means I can never hold citizenship, nor can our son."
"Really?" Gabrielle was surprised. "But he's Pericles' son... and yours."
"It is of his own doing," said Kerykes, sadly.
Aspasia elaborated, explaining to Gabrielle, "He means it was Pericles himself who suggested such a law. It was really designed to strengthen the citizenship of Athens." Gabrielle heard a tinge of regret in her words. "The law only excludes that those not born of two citizens from holding public office."
"But that includes his own son," countered Gabrielle.
"The law was conceived of and made to pass many years past when Pericles had two sons of citizenship. They were lost to him a year ago when a plague swept through our city."
"I'm sorry. That must have been difficult for both of you," Gabrielle said.
"It was a difficult time for many who lost loved ones."
Kerykes steered them around a bend in the path, "Here we are," he proclaimed. "Our newest beds filled with sweet-smelling herbs: sage, oregano, thyme, and the treasured chervil."
"Thank you, Kerykes," Aspasia pulled his hand into hers. "And now I will do as you asked of me in return for our little walk." Aspasia produced a small aulos from the pouch she wore at her side. Gabrielle was fascinated by the instrument, its pair of wooden tubes protruding from an ivory bulb. Into the bulb was placed a delicate reed, two thinly shaved pieces of wood which could vibrate against each other. Aspasia drew the reed to her mouth and began to play.
The melody was a lilting tune of the countryside. Gabrielle was reminded of Aspasia's roots in Miletus and not in the noble wards of Athens were she now made her home. Even her choice of instruments was indicative of her humble upbringing, most aristocrats preferred the strings of the phorminx to the wind of the aulos.
Aspasia finished her tune and dropped the aulos into her lap. Without warning, she began the same melody again, this time singing it in a sweet, pure voice. It was a song of unrequited love, of a young farmer and a weaver's daughter. And though it was sad, the buoyant rhythms seemed to hint that it was sung of a wound long since healed.
She finished and they let the sound hang in the air undisturbed, each allowing the echo to die slowly.
A soft pattering down the path drew their attention. It was Pericles. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt, but I heard you singing, Aspasia." He came to her and kissed her softly. "You know I cannot resist you when you sing." Pericles pulled his eyes and thoughts from Aspasia, "Kerykes, Gabrielle, it is nice to see you both in such pleasant surroundings."
Kerykes stood before Pericles, "Thank you, Pericles. Now, if you will excuse me, I have duties to attend to." He turned to his sister, "I leave you in good hands."
Pericles began talking, perhaps to no one, perhaps to Aspasia, certainly Gabrielle didn't feel like she was in his thoughts. "He is a good steward for the Mysteries. They need his guidance, his unwavering allegiance. You must enjoy spending time with your brother, my love." Aspasia smiled widely. "We have to do all we can to support the Mysteries. They are a vital and indelible part of Athens, as are you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle was surprised to be spoken to, and even more astounded by what was said. "Ah, thank you, but I think you say too much."
"No, I tell only truths. The goddesses are not to be trifled with and their wishes are unmistakable. You and Xena exemplify all that we admire in them. You are to be hailed by all of Athens, Gabrielle, for two of her eminent goddesses have chosen you."
Gabrielle blushed. "I thought Athenians adored Athena above all others."
"They do, they do indeed. Athens is her special city and no others can challenge her sovereign position, but it does not lessen the impact Demeter and Persephone have." Pericles reached for her hand and brought it to his lips, "Now, if you will excuse me, anointed one, I must steal away my Aspasia for awhile."
"Uh, sure." Gabrielle mumbled knocked over by that short exchange.
Aspasia asked Gabrielle, "Would you care to return to the palace with us or do you prefer to remain in the gardens?"
"I'll stay here, thank you." Gabrielle could no more intrude on their private time than she could pluck a flying chicken in the dark.
"Then we will see you later," Aspasia placed a hand on Pericles' arm and they strolled down the path back toward the palace.
Gabrielle grabbed her head and wondered how anyone could say such ridiculous things about her. As if she was actually an important person in Athens. She was a bard, just a bard. She jerked her head up at the sound of someone clearing their throat.
"Sorry, Gabrielle, I didn't mean to disturb you."
"Hi Alcibiades. You're not disturbing me, not at all. Really."
He considered how perfectly this had been set up and sat near Gabrielle, but not too close. "Does your head pain you?" he asked with concern.
"No, I'm fine. Just a bit dazed, I guess. I'm not used to being around such... distinguished people," Gabrielle told him. Her head was spinning and she really preferred be alone to collect her thoughts, but it didn't seem to be in the stars for her.
"Pericles and Aspasia can be daunting to the uninitiated. What you need is a buffer, someone to dilute their potent words."
Dilution actually sounded like a good idea, for the intensity of the situation just kept escalating. She wondered why she had insisted Xena spend the day away. Alcibiades was certainly not the person she wanted to be with at that moment. "Would you mind walking me back?" Gabrielle asked trying to shorten their time together as much as possible.
"Oh but we had an agreement, Gabrielle. You promised to tell me a story if I accompanied you in the gardens. Since I am here with you I intend to collect on my half of the bargain." He inched closer to her.
"A story?" She wondered which of her repertoire was shortest.
"Yes, and I want a good, long one with lots of surprises!" Another inch closer.
Gabrielle groaned to herself and noticed the bench she was sitting on seemed much shorter. "Okay, what do you want to hear, Alcibiades?"
"You decide. You know which ones are best."
Gabrielle chewed the inside of her lower lip. "Have you heard the one about Cecrops and how Xena solved Poseidon's curse?"
"No! Cecrops, you say. It sounds wonderful, please tell me." Alcibiades leaned farther forward and had the look of a puppy dog hunting for treats and pets. Gabrielle took a deep breath and began her tale. As it progressed, however, she became more engrossed in the telling, gesticulating with her hands, enunciating with her eyes.
Alcibiades lost himself in the story, forgetting his plan to conquer the young bard. He was a wonderful audience, exclaiming astonishment or disbelief at all the right moments. Gabrielle thoroughly enjoyed herself, encouraged by Alcibiades unbridled attention. When Poseidon was defeated at Charybdis and Cecrops was at last returned to dry land, Alcibiades scooped Gabrielle up into a hug. "Wow, that was fantastic!" He shyly let her go when he realized what he'd done. Then as he noticed the bashfulness in Gabrielle's face, he was quite happy with himself. Everything was going as planned.
"Thank you, Gabrielle," he said stepping away from her. "I will always treasure that story... and this." He held a hand out to her, "I would be glad to escort you back now."
Still giddy from her miniature performance, she reached for him. When she came to her senses and realized she was holding Alcibiades' hand, she frantically tried to devise a simple way out. It took her far too long to spot a rose bush, one which had an overripe rose. She asked him to pinch a few of the petals for her knowing he would have to surrender her hand to step into the flower bed. When he handed her three lovely red petals, she clasped them in both her hands before continuing onward. It was tactful, she was proud of herself, and Alcibiades knew exactly what she was doing.
Xena returned to their room late in the afternoon looking refreshed and unfettered.
"Good ride?" the bard asked.
"Great." Xena placed a soft kiss on Gabrielle's lips. "Thank you for suggesting it, I hadn't realized how much I needed it."
"You're welcome, I'm sure." Gabrielle reclaimed those warm lips once more.
"What did you do today, my bard?" Xena relaxed into a chair and put her booted feet up on a small table.
"Oh, I spent most of it in the gardens. I talked with Aspasia and Kerykes for awhile. Aspasia played the aulos and then she sang for us."
"She's pretty good at that." Xena drifted back for a moment to a rare pleasant memory from her past.
"You're right about her, Xena. She is an amazing person. She sees right through you and then finds a way to let you know about it without making you feel too terrible." Gabrielle smirked remembering how she tried to pry out information on Xena. "Well, I'd say she has a golden tongue even if you don't always want to hear what she says."
Xena understood the overtones, "She usually makes me edgy but in a weird sort of way where you can't get mad at her."
"Like you're always bowled over by her, impressed by how good she is at making you uneasy... Pericles does that, too," mentioned Gabrielle.
"Talk to him for awhile, did you? He's slick... no, more like greasy, I'd say."
"He was full of compliments," said the bard.
"I can't blame him for that," smiled Xena. She dropped her feet to the floor and sat up straight. "So, I have an idea."
"An idea? Like what, Xena?"
"Let's you and me go out for a night on the town."
Gabrielle let her jaw drop. This was a whole new side of Xena, and come to think of it, just a little too unusual. "A night on the town, you say?" she asked in disbelief.
"Yeah, let's go to a play. You said you wanted to. We can get something from the kitchen and take it with us to the theater. Come on, we'll be late." Xena dragged her toward the door.
"Wait a minute, you want to see a play? Are you just being nice to me?"
"I'm always nice to you," she cracked a crooked smile that threatened to dissolve Gabrielle right then and there. "At least I mean to be nice. Are you coming or not?" Xena was halfway out the door.
Gabrielle pushed off with her toes, "Sure, I'm right behind you."
The ambient noise level increased significantly as they neared the town and they were both glad for the peacefulness afforded by the palace. Xena wended her way around the streets walking purposefully, Gabrielle on her tail.
"Xena, where are we going?" Gabrielle called to her, trying to keep up.
The warrior looked over her shoulder, a hint of exasperation on her face. "To a play, I told you that already."
Gabrielle jogged up closer, "Which one?"
"Let's see, it's called The Acharnians, I think."
"Never heard of it," mused Gabrielle. "Who wrote it?"
"It's brand new, just opening tonight and not many know of it so we should be able to get a good seat... if we hurry." Xena increased the pace. "It's by some guy called Aristophanes."
"Aristophanes, THE Aristophanes? The one who wrote The Wasps?" Xena noticed an extra bounce in the bard's steps.
"Yeah, that one. Now calm down, Gabrielle, we're here and there isn't much of a line."
Gabrielle was confused through much of the play as it was liberally spiked with in-jokes for Athenian natives. Some things, though, were clear even to the bard.
"Peace, profane men," spoke the lead character, Dicaeopolis, as he stood with his wife and daughter, and two slaves holding a large phallus. "Let the basket-bearer come forward, and thou Xanthias, hold the phallus well upright. Daughter, set down the basket and let us begin the sacrifice."
His daughter answered, "Mother, hand me the ladle, that I may spread the sauce on the cake." Dicaeopolis then sang The Phallic Hymn.
He had a good voice and it carried easily to the audience. Gabrielle nudged Xena and winked. Xena kept a stern look on her face and nodded back toward the stage as if to tell Gabrielle to pay attention.
Soon, Gabrielle began to hear some disturbing undercurrents. The chorus threatened to stone Dicaeopolis and when he probed for their reasons, they replied, "You ask that, you impudent rascal, traitor to your country; you alone amongst us all have concluded a truce."
Dicaeopolis begged them to listen to his reasons for securing a treaty with the Laconians, "We attribute too much to the Laconians; as for myself; I know that they are not the cause of all our troubles. I who address you claim to be able to prove that they have much to complain of in us."
The chorus answered, "Comrades, let us hurl our stones and dye this fellow purple."
Dicaeopolis: What black fire-brand has inflamed your heart! You will not hear me?
Chorus: No, a thousand times no.
Dicaeopolis: This is a hateful injustice.
Chorus: May I die if I listen.
It began to dawn on Gabrielle that this play was a thinly-veiled attack on Pericles. It was made more clear later when the hero, Dicaeopolis, gave an impassioned speech, "Why accuse the Laconians of all our woes? Some men (I do not say the city, note particularly that I do not say the city), some wretches, lost in vices, bereft of honor have accused the Megarians of introducing their produce fraudulently, and not a cucumber, a suckling pig, a clove of garlic was seen without its being said 'Hallo, these come from Megara,' and their being instantly confiscated."
Xena and Gabrielle listened intently as Dicaeopolis continued, "Thus far the evil was not serious and we were only the sufferers. But now some young drunkards go to Megara and carry off the harlot Simaetha; the Megarians, hurt to the quick, run off in turn with two harlots of the house of Aspasia; and so for three whores Greece is set ablaze."
Gabrielle's heart was in her throat. Aristophanes had incriminated Aspasia outright, no hiding behind symbolic gestures. But then it got worse. A Megarian mother came to the Athens market with her daughters. She wanted to sell them, obviously as whores, so she disguised them as 'little porkers.' "Forget not to grunt and to say wee-wee like the little pigs that are sacrificed at the Mysteries."
Dicaeopolis felt around in the sack where the daughters were hiding and didn't believe his hand touched pigs. The Megarian said to him, "What an incredulous man! He says it's not a sow; but we will stake a measure of salt ground up with thyme that in good Greek this is called a sow and nothing else."
Dicaeopolis: But a sow of the human kind.
Megarian: Without question, of my own breed. Well! What do you think? Would you like to hear them squeal?
Dicaeopolis: Yes I would.
Megarian: Cry quickly, wee sowlet; squeak up hussy, or by Hermes! I take you back to the house.
Daughters: Wee-wee, wee-wee!
Dicaeopolis: Ah! what curious creatures! For what sum will you sell them?
Megarian: I will give you one for a bunch of garlic, and the other, if you like, for a quart measure of salt.
Dicaeopolis: I'll buy them.
Aristophanes dared to associate prostitution with the Mysteries! Gabrielle heard little else the rest of the play, she was so dumbstruck by the unmitigated sacrilege. Xena sensed her restlessness and squeezed close to her. The warrior wanted to stay to the bitter end to see if anymore aspersions would be cast about even though her companion clearly wanted to leave. Fortunately, it was a short play and they were able to make a quick exit.
Gabrielle pulled Xena aside as soon as they were out of the thick of the crowd. "What was that supposed to mean? I couldn't believe what they got away with that!"
"Gabrielle, let's have a drink. We'll talk." Xena found an out-of-the-way tavern with a table that offered some privacy. The wine was fair and the barmaid left them alone.
At last, Xena asked, "So what did you think of the play?"
"I, well, I don't know. It was shocking. Did you know it would be like that? Oh, you must have or you wouldn't have gone to see it, huh?"
"I'd gotten wind of it. I thought we should see for ourselves how the public views things."
Gabrielle took a long drink, "They're not too happy about Megara are they? They think trade is banned so the authorities can confiscate all the goods for themselves."
"That's only a little sideline," Xena said.
"Then they really think it was Aspasia's doing, don't they. And what was all that about prostitutes anyway, how dare they say such things about her!" Gabrielle was trying hard to hold back her fury.
Xena considered her options and acquiesced to the truth, "What they said was not without reason."
Gabrielle slowly brought her glass down onto the table then simply demanded, "Explain."
"Do you know what a hetaira is?"
"No, but I could venture a guess, couldn't I," Gabrielle said under her breath.
"They're not just prostitutes, Gabrielle. Hetaira are well educated companions to the upper-crust. They don't just... service their masters, they accompany them in places where their wives are not allowed."
"They have wives, too?" Gabrielle paled.
"Some do, Gabrielle."
"And where are their wives not allowed, anyway?"
"Athens has customs, old ones that should have been thrown out ages ago. Wives are kept rather isolated and aren't supposed to go to public places. As a hetaira, Aspasia can go to the Assembly, a wife cannot. But remember, Pericles is not married, he had been divorced a long time before meeting Aspasia. He loves her very much and she is not a common prostitute, certainly not in his eyes."
"So why doesn't he marry her?" asked Gabrielle.
"For one thing, she'd have to stop going to the Assembly and the Symposia."
"Whew, this all looks bad." Gabrielle spun the wine around in her glass and watched it drip in down the side in lines, she thought about how they looked like little legs. "So many non-sequiturs."
"Politics, Gabrielle, politics." Xena downed the last of her wine, "Whaddya say we go home now?" She tossed an eyebrow at her bard.
"Have something in mind?" Gabrielle asked seductively, letting her eyes roam over her favorite places.
"In mind and in body, as always."
Processional Day. The grand processional of the Mysteries would follow a crisscross course through the streets of Eleusis drawing musicians and noisemakers, crowds and initiates, all to see and celebrate the priests of the Mysteries on their way to the sanctuary.
Xena and Gabrielle were on guard duty. They had the task of watching over Aspasia while Pericles, Prince Triptolemus, and of course Kerykes marched in the parade. Aspasia wanted to see as much of the spectacle as possible, so they left early and staked out a spot on a corner where the processional would pass by three times.
Aspasia and young Pericles dawdled off to search for a sweet treat with Xena in tow leaving Gabrielle to guard their spot. Alcibiades stayed behind to keep her company, so he said.
"Gabrielle, I so enjoyed your story yesterday. I couldn't get those vivid images of the whirlpool and the pirate ship out of my head. It kept me from sleeping last night."
"Oh I'm sorry," Gabrielle said earnestly. "I didn't mean to spoil your night."
"You did nothing of the sort," he snickered to himself as he recalled just what he was thinking about the night before. "I meant it as a compliment for your delivery was so vivid, it left clear visions in my mind." He took a step closer, "I do hope you will agree to tell me another one sometime. It means a great deal to me to have a friend like you. Pericles and Aspasia have little time for me and the brat is too young to be of any value."
Gabrielle let herself feel sorry for him. "I guess it would be hard, I'm sorry I didn't see it for myself. When you're on the outside looking in, families like yours seem idyllic. We forget you have needs like the rest of us."
He smiled softly, "I glad you understand, Gabrielle. That means a lot to me." Alcibiades bent down certain he could at least capture a peck on her check.
"Xena!" Gabrielle said pulling away from Alcibiades. "Back so soon?" She gave the warrior a frantic look and immediately went to her side.
Xena looked at Alcibiades and then at Gabrielle, then back at Pericles' ward. She rolled her eyes. Gabrielle stood on her tiptoes and whispered to her, "You could help, at least." Xena ignored her.
Aspasia and young Pericles were oblivious to the exchange for the lad had spilled some juice on his pants and they were frantically trying to dab it out. Alcibiades retreated gracefully saying he would get some water to lessen the stain. He was gone for a long time.
They could hear the processional getting closer and young Pericles clambered up on whatever he could find to get a better look. His excitement was infectious as Aspasia gazed off into the distance to catch a glimpse of the parade. "Mother, can you see them?" Pericles called.
"Not yet, son. But there are a lot of people in the way. The streets will clear when they get near." Aspasia put her hand on Pericles' shoulder and gave it a squeeze. "Having fun?"
The lad beamed at her but quickly turned back to the parade route now jumping up to try to see over people's heads. Xena put her hands on his waist and lifted him high over head which made him squeal in delight. "Wow! I can see them. I can see them!"
Soon the processional came into view for everyone and Xena put Pericles down. He turned to her grinning, his teeth shining brightly in the sun and said, "Thanks! That was great!"
Gabrielle put her hand on Xena's arm and drew her close. "Last time I saw this processional I wished you were by me telling me who everyone was."
"And as I recall, I was worried sick about you," Xena whispered back.
"Sorry, Xena. I know I shouldn't have left you..." Gabrielle's shoulders sagged though she kept her hand on Xena as a ground.
"But remember, Gabrielle, if you hadn't slipped away, Kimonian might have died." Xena put her own hand over Gabrielle's. Kimonian, the kindly innkeeper had been stabbed in an alley, it was only by chance that Gabrielle happened on him in time to save his life.
They were distracted by the parade passing in front of them. Gabrielle recognized the first man, the one who carried a wooden statue of Bacchus. The statue was on a long stick and he lifted it up and down in time with his steps. It was almost as if he was beating time for the musicians behind him.
Next came the Heirophant and the sight of him sent chills down their spines. He turned toward them and caught their eyes then bowed ever so slightly to the pair. Aspasia glanced back at Xena and Gabrielle, she was the only other one to have caught the subtle but clear sign of respect from the Heirophant.
Following the Heirophant were assistants and priestesses all in magnificent robes. They kept solemn faces but their light steps betrayed their hearts. Next came Kerykes, or rather the Dadouchous -- the Torch-Bearer now. He, too, smiled at them as he passed. Finally Pericles, bedecked in splendid robes, taking long strides and holding his arms out widely, came before them.
His son ran into the midst of the parade and Gabrielle started after him until Xena held her back. Young Pericles ran to his father and jumped, the statesman caught him easily and hugged him tightly, burying him in layers of thick cloth. The lad jumped down quickly and made a mad dash back to his mother's side before he slowed down the proceedings.
People around them applauded, they had recognized Pericles and his son. Most aristocrats refused public displays of affection and that Pericles would take a moment to honor his son during such a formal ritual only endeared the man to his people even more. Xena took note of it and wondered if it had all been staged ahead of time.
Finally the initiates strode by, ribbons floating about from their arms and legs, urged forward by the hordes of musicians bringing up the rear. The procession turned up the street and into another quadrant of the city.
Xena still had her hand on Gabrielle's, they stood together silently and watched the parade seep into the crowd beyond. There was no denying it now, they were at the Mysteries. Being away from the city at the palace, they managed to keep the reality of it out of their conscious minds. Not now, all of the memories were back in force, but they would have to wait to be waded through. Today, they had a job.
Xena thought quickly, "Aspasia, it would be best I think if we all waited here rather than splitting up again." Though her words were meant to impart simple logic to Aspasia, they were really meant for Gabrielle. She felt the bard relax at her side, she could 'help' with Alcibiades when she wanted to.
"All right, Xena. You can be such a mother hen, you know. Gabrielle, does she do this to you?" Aspasia inquired.
Gabrielle laughed and got poked in the ribs. It didn't stop her, "She does it all the time, Aspasia. 'Gabrielle, you stay here,' 'Gabrielle, don't go in there,' 'Gabrielle, can't you do what I tell you just once'." The bard lowered her voice and said sincerely, "But you know, Aspasia, I've learned to trust her on that." Gabrielle winked at Xena who smiled back.
"I guess you have," said Aspasia.
"Xena?" a little voice asked. It was Pericles.
"How'd you get so strong?" he asked her. "You picked me up and held me there for a long time."
Aspasia told them, "He's perceptive and he's young enough to ask anything. Beware."
"Well, Pericles," answered Xena, "I work hard at it and I practice everyday."
"Practice what?" he prodded.
"I practice with my sword and my chakram..."
"You mean that?" he pointed to her side. "That's very beautiful. Can I touch it?"
Gabrielle and Aspasia both waited to see what Xena's reaction would be. She slipped it off her agrafe and handed it to him saying, "It's sharp and don't throw it."
Pericles tested it's weight in his hand. "Heavier than I thought," he murmured to himself. "Helps you control it better?"
"Yes, if it was too light the wind could affect it," Xena said.
"You must have practiced for a very long time to be able to use this." He handed it back to her being careful to lay it flat in her palm. "Thank you for letting me touch it, Xena."
Aspasia was smiling, but it was a an expression of knowing not of surprise. She spoke to her son, "Pericles, why don't you run across the street and fetch me one of those skins of wine." She tossed him a few dinars and he took off on his mission. "He's quite a young man, isn't he?"
"I'll say," said Gabrielle. "Xena, I didn't think you'd let him play with your chakram."
"I wouldn't have, but I knew he wouldn't play with it, unlike some people I know..."
"Hey, I've never said it was a toy." Gabrielle held her hands up in submission.
"A toy?" Alcibiades startled Gabrielle. "I must have missed something."
"Just the processional," said Aspasia.
Gabrielle caught her breath, "Alcibiades, where have you been?"
"Oh, around." He looked right at Xena, "I've never much liked sitting around in one place. Kinda makes me uncomfortable." He faced Gabrielle again, "But I did find this," he pulled out a fine dagger, the hilt inlaid with precious gem stones set among an intricate carving. The blade curved slightly and came to a wicked point at the end. It was a serious weapon forged for the wealthy.
Aspasia eyed it closely, "You found one to replace your old one? It looks suitable."
"I like it." Alcibiades gently ran his finger down the flat of the blade. "I lost mine about a moon ago." He casually flipped it up and caught it deftly by the hilt, then thrust it into a sheath on his belt in one smooth move. "So, Gabrielle, would you like to go for a walk."
Xena answered him, "I'd rather we didn't split up. Why don't you take Pericles into that shop over there. We can keep an eye out from here." She pointed across the street to a storefront so jammed-packed with items it was hard to figure out just what kind of shop it was.
Just then, Pericles ran back with the wine skin which he handed to his mother. Alcibiades nodded to Xena and then to Gabrielle before addressing Pericles. "I believe the ladies would like some time alone, Pericles. Let's go over there, okay?" Pericles bobbed his head up and down a few times and happily took off after Alcibiades.
Xena crossed her arms in front of her, "So, Aspasia, what is it with him?"
"You mean Alcibiades? He's just a boy."
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged an incredulous glance. "Just a boy, huh?" said Xena. Then under her breath so only Gabrielle could hear, "Just a boy who loses his dagger..."
A scuffle behind him drew her attention. Two ruffians were wrestling over something, their uninhibited punches occasionally landing on parade watchers just trying to get out of the way. Xena sighed and parted the crowd easily grabbing each boy by his collar and pulling them apart. They kept trying to hit each other, even though they were boxing with thin air.
"Okay, boys. I think you're about done," instructed Xena. "Why don't you run along now."
Neither boy paid attention to her, they were so intent on doing damage to the other. Xena lifted them both off the ground and held them, forcing them to realize what they were dealing with.
Wide-eyed one screamed, "Put me down! Hey lady, put me down."
"Not until you mind your manners," Xena said. She waited patiently for them to stop struggling. "Good, now I'll put one of you down and I want you to run off. Then I'll put the other down and if you don't take off in the other direction, I'll come after you. Is that clear?"
Both boys readily agreed and the first one down scampered away quickly. Xena put the other one down but didn't let go. "You'll mind me, won't you?" The boy's white eyes gave her the answer. "Good, now scat!" He ran the other way, true to his word.
She heard Gabrielle at her ear, "Did you have to scare them so much?"
"Yes, or they'd just go at it again." Xena sighed, "They'll be after each other again, but I hope it keeps them out of trouble for a little while. Where's Aspasia?"
In the flurry to dispose of the ruffians, they'd forgotten about Aspasia who was now nowhere to be seen. Xena pointed up the street, "You go that way."
"The boys?" Gabrielle reminded Xena that Pericles and Alcibiades were in the store across the street.
The warrior shook her head. "Aspasia first." Xena ran down the street checking each alley, each side street quickly. There was no sign of Aspasia. She berated herself for letting those two little twerps take her attention away from Aspasia and wondered if they had been paid to cause a diversion.
She heard a barrel rolling toward her and easily jumped over it, changing direction to speed toward its origin. An alley led to a small backyard littered with junk, old wood scraps, and three-wheeled carts. The last wisp of a door closing was all the clue she needed. Xena flew across the junkyard and yanked the door free of its hinges. Sitting there, out of breath and out of sorts was Aspasia. No one else was with her.
"What happened? Are you all right?"
Aspasia nodded, her chest still heaving. "They went that way," she beckoned to a door on the far side of the room. "There were two of them, they didn't ask for anything, they just hauled me away and left me here."
Xena peeked out the back door and frowned. A few steps away was another street thronged with people watching the processional. The warrior moved back to Aspasia and helped her up. "Can you walk?"
"Sure, I'm fine, really," though Xena could feel her shaking slightly. They took their time getting back to the corner. "I really don't think we should stay here any longer, Aspasia."
"But when the processional comes by again, Pericles will be expecting me. Xena, I know you don't like it but we must remain here. This is a public appearance, we can't just leave because the situation is... uncomfortable for you."
"Fine," Xena answered curtly. She looked around for Gabrielle and couldn't find her then heard the sounds of the processional coming close for their second pass. Frustration didn't begin to explain how Xena felt. She was stuck in the open with a woman who was a wide-open target and too stubborn to be cautious, she didn't know where Gabrielle was, Pericles and Alcibiades weren't in sight, and the priests of the Mysteries were about to remind her of where she was once again.
The procession passed by more slowly this time, the streets were more crowded, most of the onlookers had been drinking wine or port, and the heat of the afternoon helped delay everything. When the last of the musicians took the turn down the street, Xena hauled Aspasia to her feet. "You're coming with me and we're going to look for Gabrielle."
"But we must reserve this place. Pericles will be..."
"I know, I know." Xena walked over to a man near her. "We'd like you to keep this space clear for us. We'll be back."
He laughed, "Forget it, lady."
Xena gave him a look, "Perhaps you'd prefer to be plastered across it flat on your back for awhile?" She let her teeth show and narrowed her eyes."
"Stop threatening me, will ya?" he snapped back.
Aspasia took her by the elbow, "Come on Xena, this isn't working."
The man gulped. "Xena? Oh, well in that case, sure. I'd be delighted. Take your time. Don't worry about a thing. Everything will be taken care of."
Xena pulled Aspasia up the street as the man finish sputtering. They didn't get far before Xena's ears picked up the muffled sound of things crashing about. It was coming from the store where she'd sent Pericles and Alcibiades. "Come on, this way."
The store was a mess, but Xena realized it had probably looked pretty similar to its present state before the ruckus began. There were aisles of goods rising high above the floor, so high she couldn't see over them or through the piles of furs, leathers, oars, dried meats, flower pots, grains, baskets, cloth, plates, urns, knives, saddles, bowls, bracelets, whips and such. She planted Aspasia at the door, "Don't move!" then she snaked her way into the room.
At another loud boom Xena saw a heap of fishing net, bath oils, and perfumes collapse to the floor. The mingling scents were overpowering but she scampered over there to see the cause. Whoever was involved was on the other side of the mass of tangled line and broken bottles. Out of frustration, she leaped on top of the rickety pile to try to get a glimpse of what was going on.
What she saw, she didn't like. Pericles lay in a lump by a wall, Gabrielle
huddled over him. Alcibiades and his new dagger stalked a large man while
a second man doubled back near Gabrielle and Pericles. "Gabrielle, look
out," cried Xena as she somersaulted toward the second man. He saw her
coming and in his haste to escape, he backed into a shelf of parchments
sending it careening toward the bard and her young friend.
continued in part 2