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DISCLAIMERS: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Mel, Janice, Argo, and various Amazons are copyright MCA/Universal. No copyright infringement is intended. This is written just for fun.
LOVE ALERT: Kinda sounds like a Barry White song, don’t it? This story features a romantic relationship between two women. There is no graphic sex or violence. There’s a lot of swearing though (blame that on Janice). If you can’t deal, please read another story, or take your meds before proceeding.
HOMAGES: The author’s pseudonym is courtesy Vladimir Nabokov; he’s probably not gonna be using it any time soon. Also, the last line of this part is sort of nicked from the film "Army of Darkness."
Any comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org will be passed on to the author.
BY Vivian Darkbloom
Part II QUEENS AND CONQUESTS
Gradations of gold stippled the old books of the study. Mel removed her glasses and let her eyes rest on the burnished orange-yellow sunset at the window, which reminded of Janice's hair. Suddenly she realized how late it was. And where on earth was Janice anyway? She was anxious to update the archaeologist on the turn that the scroll was taking. She stood up and stretched.
She wandered into the kitchen, where Alice, her part-time housekeeper, was folding laundry.
"Alice, I seem to have misplaced my house guest," she said, hoping the joke would cover the concern in her voice.
The slender, coffee-colored woman smiled, but raised an eyebrow. "I'm afraid I haven't seen her, Miss Melinda. I got in at my usual time, and no one was here."
"I'm sure she'll be fine, Miss Melinda. It's about dinner time, and she doesn't seem like the type who would miss a meal."
Mel chuckled. "How could you tell?"
"Why, all of those eggs are gone! You barely go through half a dozen a month. That was the last of the your ration coupons too."
"I guess Miss Janice will just have to eat powdered sugar and bread, then," Mel said.
Alice giggled. "Well, you will have fried chicken for dinner. Left over from last night. Shall I set it out for the two of you?"
"No Alice, I'll take care of it later. Thank you." She walked through the darkening house to the porch; it was actually brighter outside, as the gold, scarlet, and violet flooded the sky. Mel wrapped her arms about her. How many of these sunsets did Xena witness? she wondered. Were the skies of the ancient world just as beautiful? Or even more so?
A reply came from inside her, a voice she had known all her life, yet she never knew its origin until last year in Macedonia. Yes. It was breathtaking, More than this.
Then a sudden memory: I am watching the sunset. I hear her come up behind me, I know it is her...I would know the tread of her walk anywhere. She has walked beside me for years. And would continue to do so for the rest of her life. Without a word she wraps her arms around me, I feel her face, her hair, nuzzled in between my shoulders. For a brilliant moment Mel saw it and felt it all: heavy armor on her body, a breeze tingling her upper arms, the multi-hued sunset, the muscular arms around her waist, the soft skin and golden down on those arms, the finely tapered wrists and elegant hands. I turn away from the sunset, for she is more to me than all the colors of the world.
As the moment dissipated, Mel felt a stunned emptiness. Empty because that beautiful intensity was gone. She had never felt anything like it. My God. They loved each other.
Shakily, she sat down. I can't faint again, now, can I? She took deep breaths, and managed to control her racing heart, until she caught a glimpse of Janice sauntering up the street. She had a sweet, boyish gait, confident and quick. It seemed jauntier than usual. Her fedora was tilted back on her head, and she still wore that leather jacket, even though it was about 65 humid degrees outside. As she passed Mrs. Pellier, Mel's neighbor from down the street, she doffed her hat. The woman stopped dead in her tracks and looked at Janice as if she were from another planet. Which, in a way, she was. Mel laughed.
As Janice continued on her way, she looked toward the house and saw Mel. It was her turn to stop walking. For a moment she looked apprehensive, as if she didn't want to approach Mel. But the she grinned sheepishly, and the smile remained plastered on her face as she mounted the stairs of the house. "Hi, you waitin' for me?" the young woman asked breathlessly, swaying slightly.
Mel smiled. Something about Janice seemed...different. Looser. Not as gruff and tough. "Sort of," she responded wistfully. Like all my life.
"Sorry...didn't think I would be gone so long." She sat down on a porch step, leaning against a column.
"Where have you been?" Mel asked.
"Oh, just touring your fair city. "
"Really Janice, you hardly seem a tourist type."
"Well, I wasn't actually touring...just walking around. "
Mel stood up from the wicker chair she was seated in, and joined Janice on the step. She was close enough to the archaeologist to catch her rich scent: the leather, the cigar smoke, a faint tinge of sweat...and alcohol.
Mel arched an eyebrow. "Just walking around, hmmm?"
"Yeah." Janice shrugged with an overstudied nonchalance.
"Didn't happen to walk into a bar by any chance, did you?"
Janice knew she was a poor liar. Nonetheless it was her nature to give most things her best shot. "A bar, you say? You mean like a pub? A café? A bistro? A tavern?"
"Let's just say a place where they serve alcohol."
"I mean, I may have been in a place, indeed, I may have been inside, in a sheltered environment, but whether or not it served alcohol, well, it's academic..."
"Janice Covington, you are the world's most inept liar. Why can't you just admit you had a couple drinks?"
Janice flushed. "What makes you think it was a couple?"
With a chuckle Mel stood up and extended her hand downward. "Come on, let's have dinner." When the young archaeologist grasped her hand she felt it again, that warm rush of emotion that she felt minutes ago, reliving the memories of a woman long dead. The last time they had touched each other was last year, after arriving in the U.S. from Macedonia; Mel did not count the fainting spell she'd had at Janice's arrival yesterday, since she was not conscious when the young woman virtually carried her inside. But she remembered the awkward hug at the airport—meant as a friendly parting embrace—where she had thrown her long arms around Janice and half expected the scruffy young woman to squirm and growl like an untamed animal. Instead she had experienced Janice's arms around her in a fierce squeeze. And it had taken every bit of her resources to resist kissing Janice in front of hundreds of strangers.
Once Janice stood up Mel did not relinquish her hand. Janice did not seem to mind; her glittering green-blue eyes remained focused on her boots as she said, "Okay. I'm starving." A smile yanked at her lips.
Blushing furiously, and still holding Janice's hand, Mel lead the way inside.
Gabrielle awoke in pitch dark. She could tell from the dampness and dirt it was a cave. For several minutes she lay still; she knew immediately that her hands and feet wore bound, they were expertly tied—Xena would be proud of such work, she thought ruefully. Her wrists and ankles were numb, but the ropes were not cutting into flesh. Her head felt fuzzy and her mouth dry, but other than that she felt uninjured.
Am I alone here? she thought nervously. Her silent question was answered by the startling sound of a sharp noise. A spark, then a light. A torch was lit. In the gathering light she saw several young, female faces peering anxiously at her. "Gabrielle?" one said hesitantly.
It kicked in. She recognized the four girls as Amazons: Hessa, Dorit, Shyla, and Brea. The one who spoke to her was Dorit. She also saw that the girls were untied, unlike her. So whoever has done this recognizes that I'm more of a threat to them than the girls are, although I'm hardly bigger than the girls.
"Hi girls," she said warily. "What's going on here?"
"We were captured by these slavers two days ago," Dorit said. "They've been keeping us here. They're waiting for a cart to be delivered, so they can carry us all."
"How do you know this?" asked Gabrielle.
"We heard one of the guards complaining," Brea said. "It was supposed to be here yesterday, he was saying."
"How many of them are there? How many have you counted?"
"Only four," Dorit replied.
"No, three!" Brea corrected.
"I thought there were six!" threw in Hessa. All the girls glared at her. They knew she couldn't count.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay. When was I brought here?"
"Yesterday. They said they found you near a lake."
"Yeah. I was with Xena. Did they say anything about her? Did they hurt her?" the bard asked with urgency.
"No, she wasn't hurt. After they took you away they had a ransom note sent to Xena..." Dorit began.
"But it was a fake!" Brea interjected excitedly. "It said that you were kidnapped by slavers heading to Athens, where they were going to put you on a ship..."
"...but these guys aren't going to Athens," Dorit picked up the thread. "They said that to throw her off your trail. "
Dammit. She closed her eyes, struggling to control tears. It's bad enough I have to get out of this mess myself, she thought, but then I have to find her again...and how long would that take? She stamped down the quelling emotion. Get a grip. You've got to get these girls free. And yourself too. She looked up to see the expectant faces watching her. She exhaled. "I assume they know who I am," she said. "I imagine you told them." She knew it would have been to their advantage if the slavers didn't know the connection.
"Yeah," Brea growled. We were trying to pretend like we didn't know you, but then Hessa said, 'Omigod!! It's the Queen!!' " Again, the girls all glared at Hessa, who mumbled an apology.
"It's all right, Hessa," Gabrielle assuaged the girl. "I too have the unfortunate habit of blurting out things at the wrong time. And I'm Queen, right?" The girls looked less than comforted by this fact. "Okay, it's not a great leadership trait. Just give me some time to think."
"There is no time," a male voice said from the cave entrance. His natural height was enhanced by the perspective they had of him: from the ground. He was huge, practically bigger than Hercules, and wearing black leather and a black tunic. A dark cap and hood covered most of his face, except for the gray eyes peering out at them.
"Who are you?" demanded Gabrielle..
"I don't think this is a situation where we get on a name to name basis, do you?" his deep voice penetrated the mask. "You know I'm your captor. And I know you're the Amazon Queen. "
"Untie me," she growled at him.
"No, my feisty one. I'll not have you getting away. You will fetch a splendid ransom. And, once I have that ransom, you'll get an equally impressive price from a fine nobleman. Now these, "—he pointed his sword at the girls—"I don't give a damn about. I might just as soon deflower them and kill them as look at them any longer. That's why I kept them untied, waiting for them to try and run off. It'd give me an excuse then. But they're smart, I'll give them that." As he spoke he neared the girls, and reached out to grab Shyla by the hair, giving it a vicious tug. Before the young Amazon cried out in pain, Gabrielle was in motion. She launched herself into a roll, stopping to within 3 feet of him, and with all the strength of her powerful legs, landed a solid kick in his solar plexus. He doubled over in pain. It was not enough to disable him, but he dropped the sword he was carrying. To distract him ever further, Shyla landed a kick in his groin. Quick-thinking Dorit grabbed the sword. "Quick!" Gabrielle hissed. "Cut the ropes!" Dorit started to cut away the binds of Gabrielle's legs. The remaining three girls took turns pummeling their captor, mainly with kicks, and as the ropes came off Gabrielle's legs she jumped up unsteadily, and the man roared, "Amon! Come quickly!!"
In a matter of seconds two other men appeared in the cave. One went to the aid of his comrade, and together they subdued the girls. The other held Gabrielle at sword point. They were all dressed identically, in black, faces concealed.
"Nice try," grunted the big man who first spoke to them.
"You have me, just let them go!" the bard shouted.
"No! They know our location. The first thing they'd do would go back to your village and tell. Next thing we know, we'll have the entire Amazon nation on our tail."
"So you're afraid of a bunch of little girls," Gabrielle sneered. This little trick she learned from Xena: Nothing upsets a man like being taunted about his bravery.
"Shut up!" snarled the man in front of her. He pressed the tip of his sword into her throat. Okay, Xena, this is not having the desired effect.
"Wait a minute," the big man said, walking toward her. Or maybe it is. "I'll tell you what. How about a little one-on-one. You fight our leader. If you win, we'll let you all go. Hades, we’ll even let the brats go if you lose. But if you do lose, you're the entertainment for the evening. And quite possibly for longer," he added menacingly.
She sighed. She felt that she didn't have a chance in Hades of winning this fight. "All right," she said softly.
A sword dropped in front of her.
"I said want my staff," she said through gritted teeth.
They stood outside the cave; it was dawn. Two men guarded the girls, and the big man stood in front of Gabrielle. The man shook his head slowly. "The fight's to the death, sister. By sword. You've got to kill the boss to save yourself and your little deviants-in-training."
Gabrielle was surprised enough to ignore the "deviant" crack; so he's not the leader. She cleared her throat. "So where is this leader?"
The man backed away. From the clearing came another figure, clad, of course, in black, face covered. To Gabrielle's surprise he was smaller than the quasi-Herc before her, and looked thinner and leaner than the other muscle-bound oxen to her side. Maybe I'll have half a chance then, she thought, gathering courage.
The thin man nodded at her, and without a word drew his sword. He circled her like a predator. She stared at the sword at her foot, then cast a glance at the young Amazons, most of whom could barely mask their fear. That was how her decision was made. She picked up the sword, muttered a quick prayer to Artemis, and tried to remember the few bits of knowledge Xena had imparted concerning swords. He made contact with a clang.
It jarred her a little, but she quickly parried and, trying to think of the weapon as a staff, she went on the offensive, driving him back. He seemed a little surprised. Nonetheless he surged forward with a flurry of blows, driving her to her knees. He swung the sword back mightily, hoping to deliver a final crushing blow that would make her drop the sword, leaving her defenseless. But, using the broadside of her sword, she lunged forward and swung it into his legs, taking him down. His weapon skittered away from him, across the ground. She landed on him, her knees boring into his chest, her blade pressed to his throat. She glared into a set of dark eyes.
"Stop!" a woman's voice pleaded. The voice came from behind the mask, from under those eyes, which suddenly seemed very familiar.
In confusion, she pulled back a little. As she did so, the men around her dropped their weapons and removed their masks.
"It's all over," the large man said. He had a broad, handsome, smiling face. "You won, Gabrielle."
The girls erupted in relief, smiling as well, laughing and calling out to their Queen: "You did it!" "You were great!"
"C'mon, get off me," grunted the woman underneath Gabrielle, patting the bard's leg. Utterly, hopelessly lost, Gabrielle stood up, limply holding her sword. "What the Hades is going on around here?" she yelled. She had not expected everyone to be so blissfully happy about the turn of events. In fact, she had imagined the slavers breaking their word, and all of them.
The black-clad woman stood up and peeled off her hood and mask. It was Solari.
"Congratulations, Gabrielle," she said, a broad smile belying her solemn tone of voice, "You have completed your Test of Courage."
Of course. This was the ritual! Relief bubbled up in her and took the form of laughter. "Oh boy," she giggled. "You guys had me going..."
Solari laughed. "Did we? I think we did a great job." She turned to the three men. "I couldn't have been half as successful as I was without you guys! Gabrielle, I'd like you to meet Anton, Aris, and Amon. They're brothers, they're from Herrara, the village near the centaurs." They all grinned sheepishly at Gabrielle. Anton, the large menacing man she first encountered, was quick to apologize. "I hope we didn't hurt you at all. Or the girls either. We just meant to be scary."
Gabrielle's laughter gradually turned uneasy, as she remembered how afraid she was.
"And Dorit, Brea, and Shyla volunteered to help. They knew about the whole thing."
"I didn't though," Hessa piped up.
"We just brought her along because she's truly stupid and would be very convincing," Dorit said.
"Hey!" shouted Hessa. She shoved her friend and a squabble ensued.
Well, I was truly stupid and very convinced, thought the bard, her relief slowly turning to rage.
"Solari, I think we should be heading back to the village," Anton said, as his brothers observed the antics of the Amazons-in-training: Hessa was sitting on Dorit, while Shyla and Brea tried to shove her off. "I'll head over in two days to pick up the grain you promised us."
"Okay, Anton, and I'll include some of our port too." Solari replied. Anton grinned, and they clasped arms in a warrior handshake. Aris and Amon wandered over at last and said their goodbyes to Solari and Gabrielle; both brothers also proffered apologies. With a terse, tired smile the bard accepted them.
As the men left, the girls settled down. Solari ordered them to the river for a bath. "And don't be too long about it!" she shouted after them. "We're in safe parts, but I don't want to be worrying!" She turned and headed back toward the camp, and ran right into Gabrielle. The Queen's seething anger rolled right off her. "So that's it? We're all done?" she snapped.
Solari sighed. "Gabrielle, I truly am sorry about all of this, but it had to be done. This ritual has been a part of accepting the throne since anyone can remember. The Queen is placed unknowingly in a situation where the lives of Amazons are at risk. If she does everything in her power to save them, she wins. If she surrenders, or thinks only of herself, she loses."
"Of all the cretinous, inane practices I've seen the Amazons do, this has to be the...why..." She was so angry the words choked her.
"Just say 'stupidest.' " Solari mumbled. Tired from the effort and trouble of planning and carrying off this thing, she couldn't help but agree.
"STUPIDEST!! YES!!" Gabrielle roared. "EXACTLY the word I was looking for! Somebody could’ve been seriously hurt or KILLED." She paced furiously. Then stopped. "Gods! Xena! What about Xena?"
"Xena knew, Gabrielle. Ephiny sent a messenger to her a moon ago. She wasn't happy about it, but she agreed to help. She even procured some herbs that would knock you out without any problem, and sent them to Lydia, the healer."
"Damn that sneaky warrior!" Gabrielle cursed.
"You'll have plenty of time to yell at her tonight, Gabrielle. She's waiting for you at the village. I figured as soon as we have breakfast, we'll start home." Solari started to build a fire. "You don't know this..."
"Oh great. Another thing I don't know. Do tell."
"...but Percia was here with me too. She was to go on ahead of us--to bring the news of either your triumph or defeat to the village. Needless to say, the news will be good."
"Solari, what would've happened if I had not been successful? Say, if I had surrendered to you and let the girls get proverbially sold down the river?"
"Well, under the laws, Ephiny would be duty-bound to challenge you to the throne. Whoever won the outcome of that fight would be Queen."
Gabrielle groaned, and wearily ran a hand over her face. "Gods, if these idiot rituals don't kill us, then we end up having to kill each other."
"Well, not exactly," Solari said defensively. "These ceremonies have more than a symbolic meaning. In a way, they also act as safeguards for us, to ensure that power truly rests in the hands of the worthy..."
"Yeah, yeah, save the speeches for tonight...I trust we're gonna have a big-ass party because of this?"
Solari grinned wickedly. "You don't know the half of it."
After breakfast, the day did not go well. Solari's new horse, a wild, skittish beast called—appropriately enough, Beast—broke free as she tried to saddle him. The black steed tore off into the forest, with Solari running after him in vain.
This left only one horse, the one drawing the cart which carried all their gear and supplies. And the girls as well. It would be a tight fit for all of them. "Well," Gabrielle announced to the young Amazons, "I don't mind walking most of the way, and maybe someone else can keep me company on occasion."
"We could all take turns walking. That only seems fair," Dorit said.
They finished loading the wagon. Then Solari stormed into the campsite, still carrying the bridle of her erstwhile horse. "Dammit!" she screamed, throwing the bridle on the ground. The girls moved as far away from her as possible. Gabrielle, bemused, waited with hands on hips to see where the tantrum would go.
"FIRST," the dark-haired Amazon yelled, holding a finger in front of her Queen's face, "I get chosen to do this stupid mission. Ephiny was like, 'Well, I have to coordinate the details with Xena, I can't go,' and Eponin said, 'Well I did it when Melosa ascended the throne,' " Solari mimicked both of her sisters with the whiniest of voices. "SECOND," --another finger thrust out in Gabrielle's face, in fact almost up her nose--"Xena bitch slaps me with cooked trout--"
"Cooked trout? That's a new one for her. She usually prefers her weapons uncooked," Gabrielle supplied.
Solari, on a roll, ignored this. "THIRD, Amon gets all weird on me and thinks he is in love with me! Can you believe it?" Her eyes widened in disbelief. "FOURTH, I have to fight you, and you kick my ass within minutes. How am I going to live that down?" Solari concluded with a melodramatic flourish, arms spread wide.
The Queen folded her arms. "You can blame your silly foremothers for that," Gabrielle said sternly. "Artemis forgive me." Her green eyes darted skyward. "Now, I believe we should get going." She grinned at Solari, and then clapped her friend on the shoulder. "Perhaps your luck will change once we get back to the village."
The pacing began anew.
Ephiny watched once again as Xena took up prowling about her hut. Since dawn the warrior had eaten breakfast, gone for a ride on Argo, fixed the roof of Eponin's hut, helped Lydia label and organize all her herbal medicines, sparred with three warriors in the training area, and it was barely lunchtime. Now she was back in the hut, same as last night, brooding, sharpening her sword, sharpening Ephiny's sword, and generally driving the regent to distraction. Ephiny glared at the warrior from the top of the treaty she was attempting to study.
Over in a far corner of the room Xena had fished out a pile of old items from a trunk. It was mostly stuff that had belonged to Phantes, her deceased mate, things she could not bear to be rid of, clothes, knick knacks and the like. Xena held up a saddle in triumph. It was Ephiny's old saddle. It had a huge tear in its seat; Phantes had made it for her. "I could fix this, you know," she said to Ephiny.
"Xena, I have no doubt you could build a city in a day, because you have—"
"—many skills—" the warrior interjected.
"Yes," Ephiny continued, with clenched teeth, "but you are driving me absolutely mad. Go do something!!"
"There's nothing to do," Xena said flatly.
"What in Hades does Gabrielle do with you when you're like this?" Ephiny wished she could bite back the question that hung suggestively in the air. Long ago Gabrielle had confessed to Ephiny her feelings for Xena, but she was certain that the bard had not acted on them. She was also certain Xena felt the same way, and she knew that the warrior had the same ridiculous sense of propriety that the bard did. It seemed to be one thing the two women had in common. She watched Xena purse her lips seductively. Ephiny's eyes widened in anticipation; oh gods, do I really wanna know this?
"She tells me a story." Xena's voice was low, sultry. It begged the question: What kind of story?
Instead, the regent nervously cleared her throat. "Fine, let me read this treaty to you...."
There was a knock at the door. "Come," Ephiny called. Ilona, one of the scouts, came in, breathless. "Ephiny, we found Percia. She brings good news. The Queen came through the ceremony with flying colors. She, Solari, and the others are on their way to the village."
Relief washed over them all. Ephiny could see Xena's shoulders loosening from across the room. "Wonderful, Ilona."
"I'm afraid Percia was injured, however. This is why it took her longer than anticipated to reach us. She fell into a bear trap and broke her ankle. We've taken her to Lydia. Based on the time she left and the delay she had, I'd say the queen should arrive in about two or three candlemarks."
"Good, Ilona. Tell Lydia I'll be over shortly. Thanks." The scout left.
Ephiny rolled up the scroll, stood up, and stretched. "Feel better, Xena?"
The warrior merely raised an eyebrow. Ephiny laughed and shook her head. You just won't admit how much that woman means to you, will you? she thought. "I'm off to Lydia's. Try to stay out of trouble for the next two or so candlemarks until your bard arrives, okay?"
As the door closed behind Ephiny, Xena allowed herself to sink into a chair. My bard indeed, she thought with a smile. For the first time in two days, she allowed herself to fall into a deep sleep. It seemed as if she had just stepped into Morpheus's realm when the sound of excited voices awakened her.
As Xena stepped out of the hut, she saw a horse-drawn cart coming through the entrance of the village, flanked by two Amazon girls. She immediately identified Gabrielle's red-gold head in the cart, along with Solari and two other girls. The bard seemed head and shoulders above the others (how fitting, the warrior thought, with a stupid grin on her face), as if she were sitting on something in the cramped wagon. With long strides she approached the cart, which was quickly surrounded by other Amazons, including Ephiny. Drawing closer, with the bard's back to her, it became clear that Gabrielle was sitting in Solari's lap: her slender, muscular arms were casually thrown around the Amazon's shoulders. Xena blinked. This can't be happening. She doesn't have feelings for Solari...does she? What in Hades happened out there? Warily she circled around the throng of bodies to get a better look at the two women.
Gabrielle was indeed perched triumphantly in Solari's lap. She was grinning and animatedly answering Ephiny's questions; the regent had managed to plow through her sisters until she was pressed up against the cart, right next to the Queen. Solari wriggled nervously under Gabrielle's weight. A teasing voice, probably Eponin, shouted out, "Hey, Sol! Where's your horse?"
"Shaddap!!!" Solari shouted in response. An exasperated look crossed her face, until her eyes met Xena's. The swarthy Amazon paled under the scrutiny of the ice blue eyes.
"Yeah, then I knocked out the big guy and managed to untie myself..." Gabrielle was telling Ephiny.
Furiously, Solari swatted the bard's thighs. "Ouch!" Gabrielle cried, scowling at Solari. "What wrong with you?"
"The game's over, Gabrielle," Solari hissed in her ear. "Xena sees us! Haven't you been paying attention? And she looks like she's going to make a trophy out of me any minute now."
Gabrielle swerved her gaze onto the Warrior Princess. Their eyes locked. For a nanosecond Gabrielle thought she saw a flicker of hope, of desire, in those azure eyes. Then a sheen of jealousy and anger draped over the warrior's gaze. Unperturbed, the grinned lasciviously at Xena, an eyebrow cocked. I've got you now, she thought. Why else would you be so jealous, Xena?
"Okay," she said to Solari and stood up.
The Amazon stood up, her numb, achy legs crying out in relief. "By the gods you weigh a ton," she muttered.
Gabrielle playfully backhanded her in the gut.
"Sol, meet me in my hut in about a candlemark or two. We need to discuss tonight," Ephiny said.
"Right," Solari responded. She continued to stretch her legs and noticed she was still being watched by Xena. Suddenly her legs found new strength as she vaulted over the cart's side, sending a group of women scattering, and took off running toward her hut. She knew Xena could catch up with her easily, but she figured she'd make the warrior work for it. But the warrior merely grinned evilly and let it go.
With a neat leap Gabrielle too exited the cart. Xena cut a swath through the hovering Amazons, right up to the bard and Ephiny.
"Xena," Gabrielle said coolly.
"Gabrielle," the warrior responded in greeting, her low voice caressing the name in spite of her churning emotions.
"How wonderful, you both recognize each other after this long and grueling separation," Ephiny cracked. "Xena, you'll forgive us, but I need to discuss this evening's ceremony with Gabrielle. and since you are not Amazon royalty you cannot be privy to this information. So do go sharpen your sword for the millionth time, or twist Solari into a knot if you like."
The warrior's jaw shifted. Damn. If Ephiny saw that look she gave Solari, how many of the others did? As she mentally kicked herself, Gabrielle and Ephiny walked away. She was too busy glaring into space to notice the glance that Gabrielle threw over her shoulder as she walked away, a look filled with more love than the Warrior Princess could have imagined..
I must be in love.
Mel reached this conclusion after dinner.
So I let this woman eat all the chicken, and God knows the next time I'll get chicken, there is a war going on, and I let her into daddy's liquor cabinet, where she promptly opened the last bottle of whiskey, the one that daddy had been saving for a special occasion, and now she's talking about something I have the least amount of interest in, and she refuses to talk about what is foremost on my mind, which is the scroll. If I may quote Miss Covington herself, "Son of a bitch."
"That bastard had an arm. Nailed him right at the plate. I was so upset I cried," Janice was saying, when Mel return her focus to the conversation.
"You cried over baseball?" Mel was incredulous.
Janice merely grinned. She knocked back another glass of whiskey. Mel eyed the Bushmills bottle sitting next to her guest. It was already half-empty.
"If I may ask, how much did you have to drink at this bar?" Mel said, with a note of concern.
Janice shrugged. "Dunno. Just a couple beers."
"Where did you go?" Mel asked, only mildly curious. She noticed the young woman's gaze suddenly clouded over and took up a rather intense, preoccupied study of her footwear. Janice tried to keep the defensiveness out of her tone when she said, "Why? Are you an expert on bars, Mel? Have you ever seen the inside of one?"
"Why, yes I have. Not here, though. A beau from Vanderbilt once took me to one in Nashville. A 'dive,' I believe he called it." Mel concluded defiantly. See if you can shock me, Janice Covington!
The archaeologist's emerald eyes glittered. "A beau, eh?"
Mel flicked her wrist dismissively. "Actually, he was hardly that. He liked me, but the feeling wasn't mutual. He tried to have his way with me after we left this bar. Right in the car!" she said indignantly.
Janice smirked. Yes, she could believe that. How many times had she tried to do the same with many a young lady?
"You haven't answered my question, though," the dark-haired woman continued. Her curiosity became aroused as soon as she saw how evasive Janice was about it.
"I just don't see why it matters. They're all the same." It was escalating into a battle of will.
"I suppose this is true enough. And if that is the case, then all the more reason for you to have no problem telling me where you went." Mel bit her lip. She sounded like a jealous lover, but she couldn't help herself.
Silence. Janice gripped the whiskey bottle by the neck and poured herself another. Dammit, she thought grimly. One more for the road, cause she'll surely kick my sorry ass outta here. I could lie, but she deserves more than that. She drained her glass, the familiar burning sensation giving her courage. Let's get it over with. She sighed, and stared into the empty glass. "I'm sure you've heard of a little place called the Gilded Lily," she said in a low voice. Part of her hoped Mel hadn’t. The other part hoped she did.
Mel's blue eyes widened. She was horrified and thrilled all at once. A speakeasy in the 1920s, the Gilded Lily took on a more secretive and exclusive persona once the decade ended. It became known in polite circles as a meeting place for homosexuals and the most elite of call girls. And call boys. Nobody in their right mind would be caught dead there, although many from the highest strata of Charlotte and surrounding areas knew of it, and frequented it. It was rumored that a certain senator was a steady customer. And all effeminate boys were teased with such comments as, "Bet you're at the Gilded Lily every night!"
"Oh my," Mel murmured. "Janice, how did you know about the Gilded Lily?"
"How do you think, Mel?" Janice retorted. "Word gets around when you move in the circles I do. You find out where all the queers meet. There's one in every town. Trust me, I know."
The tall woman was silent as dozens of thoughts raced through her.
Janice slammed the glass down. "Well, I should go."
"Go where? To sleep?" Mel asked innocently.
"No, I'll leave now. It's still early enough, I might be able to catch the night train up north."
"Don’t be ridiculous," Mel said. She didn’t know what else to say, as her mind processed this interesting new fact. She’s like me. Could she feel the same way? The way she looks at me sometimes...am I crazy to think she might?
"Who’s being ridiculous? I just assume you don’t want a pervert in your house," Janice's tone was defiant, but her voice was also tight and strangled. "I'm sorry, Mel. Now you see why I didn't want to tell you." She stood up and started to walk quickly into the house. Mel stood up too, and snagged Janice’s arm with a surprisingly strong grip.
"Wait a minute!" Mel said angrily. "I want you to tell me—" Janice tried to pull away with a sudden jerk of her arm. Mel yanked back even harder, and the slingshot effect caused the archaeologist to be flung against her body. Instinctively her arms wrapped around Janice, who had placed a hand upon her shoulder.
Janice looked at her. She saw fear, of course; she was afraid herself. And desire, she was certain. "Tell you what?" Janice whispered.
"Tell me everything," Mel replied softly. She leaned in and kissed Janice very gently, upon the lips. She wasn't sure what she meant by that, but she knew the knowledge she sought was imparted when Janice returned the kiss in full force.
"You're a very naughty girl."
Gabrielle's ears burned. Many times she had imagined Xena saying something similar in various erotic scenarios (discipline me, Warrior Princess!), but the voice was not Xena's. She turned around and saw Ephiny standing in the doorway of her hut.
"Ephiny! What do you want? I'm almost ready." After a brief meeting in the regent's hut, Gabrielle returned to the hut that served as hers when she was at the village. She bathed, and dressed in full Amazon regalia. As she fumbled with a bracer on her arm, she added, "And what d'you mean by that?"
"Solari told me. About your little idea to make Xena jealous."
Gabrielle laughed. "It seemed like the perfect plan. The cart was already small, so as we pulled up to the village I sat in her lap--"
"Gabrielle, the poor woman is terrified to leave her hut. She thinks Xena is going trounce her from here to the coast." Ephiny looked around the room in a cursory manner. "And speaking of tall, dark, and handsome, where is she?"
"With the horse, of course," the bard queen responded with a rhyming flourish. "She knows she has to be here soon." Pause. "She BETTER be here soon...'cause I don't have a backup plan." She fiddled nervously with her skirt.
Ephiny smirked. "Well, if it comes to that, you'll certainly not lack for other choices."
The bard held up a hand. "It's not even a possibility," she said firmly.
"I know," Ephiny replied. The women exchanged a smile.
"You know what?" A voice said from behind the regent With a shriek Ephiny jumped forward, out of the doorway, revealing Xena standing behind her.
"Hera's tits, Xena, you could say HELLO! You know, announce yourself!" sputtered Ephiny.
Xena blinked with mock innocence. "I thought I did," she said sweetly. Gabrielle giggled.
Ephiny pointed a warning finger at her. "Don't you encourage her, bard. I'll see you two in a few minutes." With that, she departed.
Xena sprawled out in a chair. She watched Gabrielle brush out her golden hair. "So what does Ephiny know?" she asked casually.
"Ephiny said, 'I know,' What does she know?"
With a toss of her head Gabrielle let her face be protected by a mass of hair while she contemplated a white lie. "Ephiny knows..." How much I love you? How I long to spend the night in your arms? How every movement of your body thrills me to the core? Suddenly a large hand thrust into the curtain of hair and parted it cleanly from her face, revealing Xena's face, resplendent with arched eyebrow. The warrior's other hand took Gabrielle's brush. With smooth strokes she combed the bard’s hair back from her face. "She knows..." Xena began again. Her lips were scant inches from the bard’s. The warrior thought she heard a gulping noise from behind those lips.
"...a really great nutbread recipe." Gabrielle concluded. The raised eyebrow twitched. Xena circled her slowly, until she stood behind the bard, and resumed brushing the hair.
It was a long evening. Xena had managed to pass most of the night nursing a mug of port and talking weapons. To her dismay she noticed that many of the Amazons were still around; few had departed early. From across the room she saw Gabrielle holding court, talking and grinning with a group that included Solari. Earlier Xena had waylaid the dark Amazon to assure her that she was not going to kill, maim, or mutilate her. Solari was so relieved she forgot herself and hugged the startled warrior.
Ephiny tried to walk behind Xena unnoticed, but before she got too far she noticed her wrist caught in a powerful grip. "When in Hades does this thing end?" Xena hissed to the regent.
"Xena, as someone trying to change her wicked ways, you might be interested to know that patience is a virtue," Ephiny replied tartly.
"Patience is not something I'm interested in picking up," growled the warrior.
Oh, I think I know what you’d like to pick up, Ephiny thought. But instead she said, "Okay, how about this. Sometimes you can get soooo preoccupied--you know, say you're at a party and you're having a really good time--that before you know it, it's over."
Xena was about to make a comment about Ephiny’s increasing propensity for sarcasm when she noticed something. Suddenly the room was very quiet and still. Gabrielle was alone on the podium, wearing her ceremonial mask. Women were lining up in two rows, solemnly, at opposite sides of the room. Solari, in a cluster of guards near the podium, made a hurry up face at Ephiny. The regent whispered to Xena, "See? There you are. Now get in a line, please."
Ephiny took her place beside the Queen on the dais. Silence draped the room. Slowly the Queen rose and stepped off the platform.
Xena watched, fascinated, as she witnessed Gabrielle do something she did numerous times as a warlord: she surveyed her "troops." She walked slowly down the line opposite the warrior, stopping in front of every woman. The mask would tilt downward and up again. Without a word she would move on to the next one. Every Amazon stood rigid, shoulders thrown back, face impassive, knees together.
She started on the second line, the one Xena was in. Was she to stand at attention as well? I practically stand that way all the time anyway, she thought, as the Queen began her slow procession down the line. It seemed as if she picked up her pace as she approached the warrior, because before Xena knew it, Gabrielle stood in front of her. Xena could barely see the eyes glinting within the mask. She felt a shiver at this silent appraisal by her best friend, part of it was fear-based, the other part was an excitement she could not quite admit to herself. Then the Queen moved on. There were six other women after Xena, then the inspection ended.
The Queen moved to the center of the room. Ephiny left the dais and walked to her, placing a small metal object in her hand. Then Gabrielle turned and walked to Xena. She stood in front of the warrior once again, and held out the object in her hand. It was a key. To what, the warrior had no idea.
Ephiny had sidled up next to Gabrielle. "Do you accept?" she said to the warrior.
Dumbfounded, Xena nodded. Is this what I think it is? A seduction, in front of the Amazon nation?
"Then take it," Ephiny prompted with a silky tone.
Gently she picked up the silver key from Gabrielle’s hand. Gabrielle withdrew a step. The regent moved closer to Xena, holding a dark strip of cloth in her hand. "I must blindfold you," she said, almost apologetically. The warrior, with a quick glance at the Queen, nodded her consent. The world went dark and a sliver of panic wheedled its way through her. To calm herself she pictured the vivid colors of Gabrielle’s hair. She felt a reassuring touch on the arm. "We must carry you now," Ephiny’s voice whispered to her. She was swept up into the air, and she counted four pairs of hands cradling her body. She felt as if she were on a ship again, a breeze moved over her, and then she could tell they were outside by the smells and crickets, and branches on the ground snapping underneath her. It was cool outside.
I can’t believe I’m letting a bunch of Amazons blindfold me and carry me around like a sack of turnips, she thought. There goes the reputation. She hadn’t been aloft for long when the air warmed, and the sounds changed. She was inside again, and being lowered to a floor, covered with a rug. Sudden heat greeted her on one side, then a crackle. A fire. A door closed. Silence. She sensed she was not alone. Someone lingered near her. She smiled. She knew this person’s scent well. A body straddled her legs, and she jumped a little at the contact. The blindfold loosened and fell off. She blinked, and there was Gabrielle, smiling down at her. The fire deepened the russet and gold of her hair, and the apple colored flush of her cheeks; her eyes flashed green, gray, and blue. She reminded Xena of one of those rare rainbows seen after a storm.
Gabrielle let her fingers idly trace the strong lines of Xena’s face.
"I think," the warrior said in a soft voice, "that this is one ceremony I could get to like."
She was rewarded with a grin from her soon-to-be-lover. "Well, then...Hail to the Queen, baby," Gabrielle replied, with a kiss.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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