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The characters Xena, Gabrielle, and Janice Covington are the property of Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended. All other characters are mine except the actual historical figures Hatshepsut, Neshi, Senenmut, Sennefer and Thutmose III. This story contains descriptions of violence and describes the two main characters as more than just "friends." While certain events in this story are based upon historical fact it should be remembered that this is, after all, a work of fiction.
Continues from here
Neshi drained the last of the water and, setting down the mug, dusted the bread crumbs from his hands.
"Your Excellency, I wish to apologize for our poor hospitality," said Aloysius.
"Nonsense," Neshi curtly interrupted. "An empty belly worries not about its benefactor's station in life. Tell the captain I am indebted to him."
Aloysius did as instructed and Parsinion gave the great Egyptian a polite nod in reply.
"All right," said Xena, her smooth voice belying her intensity. "Now that we're all so warm and fuzzy maybe our friend can shed some light on a few things for us."
"As I stated earli--" Neshi abruptly halted and eyed Xena curiously. "Just what is your name?" he asked.
Because Aloysius deemed there was no for it he did not bother to translate. "Her name is Xena, Excellency," he answered. Upon hearing her name Xena cast a sharp glance to the envoy who merely shrugged and explained, "He wanted to know your name."
"Xena?" Neshi's voice hinted at both respect and a little suspicion as well as he repeated the name. "You are Xena, the Warrior Princess, the Destroyer of Nations?"
"That's right," Xena stoically replied.
Looking up at Aloysius, Neshi asked "Is this true?"
"Yes, Excellency," came Aloysius' assuring reply. "This is indeed the famous...." Aloysius was tempted to say "notorious"....."Xena."
"Xeee-naaah." Neshi lingered on each syllable as he repeated the legendary name once more. "At court your name is synonymous with military brilliance." He then proceeded to tick off the names of some of her greatest battles. "At the Hermus River you crushed the fierce Agnor. At Aegae you smashed through defenses that were thought to be impregnable and turned the city to ashes. Only last year in Aetolia you split your already outnumbered army in two and routed the mighty legions of Melchus."
Hearing this litany of her past "accomplishments," Xena was a little surprised that he knew so much about her. However her stoic countenance bore no evidence of this as she matter-of-factly corrected him, "That last one doesn't count. That wasn't my army. I was just helping out."
You led them, did you not?" Neshi countered.
"I had some very good help," she replied, thinking of the incomparable Darinius and his ferocious countrymen.
"I must say I am somewhat surprised by your modesty," said Neshi. "What I see here is not the maliciously arrogant warrior queen that made even the mighty Thutmose the First lose sleep from worry. If I may say so such an unassuming persona does not become a woman of your magnitude."
To Xena it was readily apparent why this man had risen to such lofty heights in the present Egyptian government. He was a man who, unlike so many of his gender, was not uncomfortable in the presence of powerful women.
"People change," said Xena.
"Do they?" replied Neshi, raising an eyebrow. Even now he could remember the hushed tones with which the great Thutmose's generals had spoken as they worriedly discussed the terrible Warrior Princess. To be sure they had feared her, so much so in fact that during her swift and alarmingly efficient spring campaign in eastern Cappadocia they had even approached their hated enemies the Hittites with the idea of forming an alliance for their mutual protection. At the time it seemed as though nothing would stop the fierce Greek woman with the irresistible will. All through the first five years of Hatshepsut's reign it they had lived in fear of Xena's hordes sweeping down into Egypt. And then suddenly, four years ago, all news of her had abruptly stopped. It was as though she had disappeared off the face of the earth.
Needless to say the question of why the sudden change was buzzing around inside his head like nettlesome fly but he instinctively knew the woman was not in the habit of giving explanations.
Indeed it was but a couple of moments afterward that Xena herself confirmed this. "Enough about me," she declared. "Let's talk about you some more."
"There is not much left to tell," said Neshi. "In fact there is nothing at all for you see the next thing I knew I was swinging in a hammock with two beautiful women lying on the floor beside me."
Gabrielle smiled at his remark but the ever focused Xena ignored it and pressed on. "We think it likely that your 'pirates' were the Sea People," she said.
"The Pelset?"" Neshi asked, genuinely surprised. "Is this possible?" Pelset was what the
Egyptians called these formidable seafarers. "Would they truly have the
audacity to penetrate this far into the delta?
"We believe so, sir," said Parsinion.
While Neshi was ruminating about the fabled Warrior Princess Gabrielle's no less nimble mind had been pondering a couple of points about his story that troubled her. For one, what had happened to his barge? And his men, why had they seen none of his slain men's bodies?
If Xena had known what her little friend was thinking she would have been very well pleased and more than a little proud of her. For these two questions were the very ones that had immediately sprang to her mind as well. At first she was a little suspicious of his story but after scrutinizing his every mannerism as only she could she had concluded that he was indeed telling the truth. As for the barge her guess was that the Sea People had simply set it afire and pushed it out into the river where it wound have quickly sunk. The men, on the other hand, had probably been thrown into the Nile and carried away by the river's currents.
For a moment the bard considered bringing it up it herself but in the end had decided against it. Xena herself had undoubtedly weighed these same questions and for whatever reason decided not to pursue the answers--at least for now. While Gabrielle assumed Xena already pretty much knew what had happened the fact remained that she did not. Curious as she was, however, she decided not to bring it up here. After all, Xena might have a reason for keeping mum. Gabrielle knew well enough her beloved warrior's mind was leagues ahead of everyone else's and so she decided it would simply be more prudent to ask her about it later. Xena had this marvelous talent for reducing even the most complicated problems to their most basic elements.
"If this is true it is very grave news indeed," said Neshi. "I must return to Waset at once and inform the king."
Parsinion furrowed his brow. "Waset?" he asked. "I thought the Egyptian capital was Thebes."
"Waset is the Egyptian name for Thebes," explained Aloysius.
"You're welcome to come with us," Gabrielle blurted out. "I mean after all---"
"Yes," Aloysius cut in, not bothering to translate the bard's sentence. "We would be most honored to have His Excellency accompany us."
However Neshi's attention was not focused on the brusque envoy but rather on the fascinating warrior woman with the icy blue eyes. "At Giza I will be able to procure one of the king's royal barges," he said. "If the great Xena would be willing to ensure my safe passage there not only I but the king herself would be most grateful."
"As my friend tried to tell you just now," Xena said, casting a stern glance at Aloysius, "we too are going to Waset or, Thebes as we call it. You see the four of us are on a diplomatic mission to the court of your pharaoh. "Nodding to Aloysius, she said, "This man and his friend are envoys from the island of Cyprus."
This time Aloysius did not dare interrupt.
"I seeee." Neshi then shot Xena a smile of faint amusement and said, "Then you can rest assured your mission will be very well received. I personally will speak to the king on your behalf."
Xena's responded by giving him a small nod of the head.
However Neshi was not finished. "But I must insist that you and your party do me the honor of accompanying me in my barge back to Waset."
"On one condition," Xena came back at him.
"That you personally give Gabrielle here the grand tour of the pyramids of Giza."
Neshi shot her and brief, puzzled look. "Of course," he said, after a moment. "If that is what you desire." Such unusual devotion to a slave! he thought.
"It is," replied the warrioress.
"Very well," said Neshi. "Done."
"Good." Xena walked across the room and pushed open the shutter covering the cabin porthole. As she poked her head out and looked up at the stars in the clear night sky the only sound to be heard was the gentle lapping of the Nile's waters against the hull of the ship. No matter where she traveled Xena made it a point to pay particular attention to the positioning of the stars in order that she might be better able to ascertain how quickly dawn would be coming. On the surface many, even among her admirers, would have seen this as a bit overly meticulous but in fact this was just another example of how attuned the Warrior Princess was to the world around her. "We have a couple of turns of the glass before it gets light," she noted aloud. "We should all try to get some sleep."
"I should like to be moving at first light," said Neshi.
"That's up to the captain."
"That will be fine, Xena," said Parsinion, good naturedly. "On the other hand the men might grumble a little bit but there won't be a problem."
"Considering all that's happened I think it would be better now if you took us straight on to Giza," said Xena. "Would you be willing to do that?"
"Of course," replied Parsinion, grinning wryly. "But it'll cost you more." Yes he liked Xena and Gabrielle immensely but he was, after all, a businessman and he had his own welfare to think about.
"What a surprise," retorted Xena. "However I'm sure our esteemed friend here will be all too happy to see that you receive the proper remuneration."
"Ooohh, I love it when you use big words," grinned Parsinion.
"Yeah? Well here's another one for you," said Xena. "Inconsequential." Turning back to Neshi, she said, "Now that you have a choice I assume you'd rather stay here with Aloysius and Certes,"
The astute Neshi understood well enough what Xena meant. In theory her words might be offering him a choice but the warrior woman's tone of voice made it all too clear which was the preferred option. "Uhh, yes," he replied. "If these gentlemen don't mind I'll sleep here with them."
"Of course not," Aloysius immediately chimed in.
"I would be most honored if you would accept the offer of my hammock, Excellency," added Certes.
Neshi smiled faintly upon hearing Aloysius' translation of his colleague's
offer and said, "Thank you. You are most kind."
No sooner had Xena closed the door to their room when Gabrielle asked her about Neshi's men and the missing barge. As expected she found Xena had already thought the matter through and come up with the most plausible solution to the problem. To the bard's secret delight Xena chose not to make use of her hammock and instead reclaimed her former place on the pallet. Gabrielle silently joined her on the floor and, nestling in close to her lover, once again thrilled to the warm touch of her body. Even now after all these years it was an incredible feeling.
"You know," the bard replied, gently trailing a finger across Xena's breast, "for arranging that tour of the pyramids for me."
"It's what you wanted, wasn't it?"
"Yeahhh. But I hardly expected to be shown around by the High Chancellor himself."
"Weeeel life is full of surprises, isn't it?" Xena turned on her side and Gabrielle automatically followed suit. As she had done so many times before Xena pulled the bard's butt snugly against her tummy and girded the lithe body with her strong right arm. "Besides," she playfully reminded her, just before falling asleep, "you said you'd be very grateful, remember?"
"Go to sleep, Gabrielle," the warrioress softly murmured.
"I love you too," the bard whispered, smiling.
For once Xena was the first to fall asleep and as Gabrielle lay there
safely wrapped in the loving arms of this exquisite lover, this magnificent
warrior, she again marveled at how a chance meeting in the woods had
changed her life so profoundly. Snuggling her buttocks in even closer to
the sleeping warrior, Gabrielle covered Xena's hand with her own and
with a soft, contented sigh, drifted off to sleep.
"How much farther is it, Parsinion?" the bard asked, yet again.
Gabrielle absently turned her attention away from the far horizon and toward the direction from which Xena's smooth, deep voice had emanated. "Hmm?" As she looked into the lovely warrior's face she, despite the air of innocence, knew all too well what that slow drawl on each syllable of her name meant. It was the subtle way Xena had of reining in Gabrielle's enthusiasm whenever she began to think her friend was on the verge of becoming too much of an "annoying little blonde."
Not that Xena minded Gabrielle's youthful exuberance. Far from it. The bard's wonderful zest for life was one of the things Xena loved most about her. However there were those occasions when others, even her friends, could find her to be a bit on the irksome side. But not Parsinion, not today.
"It's ahhh, about a league less than the last time you asked me that," he replied with an amused little smile.
"Oh. Uh, sorry," said Gabrielle, a little sheepishly. "You did say that, didn't you?"
Every moment of daylight for the last day and a half, propelled by the strong backs of her crew, the Sea Sprite had steadily ploughed the waters of the Nile. Stadium by stadium, league by league, the sturdy bireme bore its passengers and crew onward; passing by Athribis and Naucratis and proceeding directly on to the new destination of Giza.
Now that they were drawing so near Gabrielle's excitement and sense of anticipation were soaring to Olympian heights. All her life she had heard of the great pyramids. She could still remember sitting on that chopping block as a young girl, totally enthralled by a grizzled old trader's almost reverential description of the gigantic structures, and thinking how wonderful it would be to see them first hand. But never in her wildest dreams had she ever thought that she, a dirt poor girl from Poteidaia, would one day stand before one of the great wonders of the world.
And like practically every memorable experience she had been so fortunate to have in her young life she owed it all to Xena. This was just one more reason for her to thank the gods for bringing the warrior woman into her life. For Xena was not only the great love of her life, she was also for all practical purposes her ticket to the world as well. Already Gabrielle had seen and done more than any ten so called "adventurers" would in all their allotted years on the earth. And as far as she was concerned the most exciting, the most glorious aspect of it all was that this was only the beginning. She and Xena had the whole rest of their lives to share in the joys and, yes, the occasional sorrows that the world afforded.
"Xena, do you know if they're visible from the river?"
"I'm not sure," replied Xena. "But if they aren't they couldn't be all that far inland."
"I can't imagine the labor that went into moving those huge blocks," said Gabrielle, picking up on Xena's reasoning.
Or the logic for that matter, thought Xena. Her sharp eyes detecting movement, Xena looked down to see Neshi, Aloysius and Certes emerge from below deck. They made their way to the steps leading up to the quarter-deck where the two women and the captain were standing. At the base of the steps the Cypriot envoys respectfully paused to let their distinguished companion ascend first.
"Ahh, Xena," Neshi said, upon reaching the top step, "It is a splendid day, is it not?
If you enjoy sweat running down the crack of your ass, it is, Xena thought, ruefully. However aloud all she said was, "I suppose."
Neshi mounted the top step and, reaching the quarterdeck, strode over and stood beside Parsinion, his two Cypriot shadows in tow. Shading his eyes from the sun now high overhead, he silently studied the river for a few moments. "You have made good time, Captain," he noted aloud.
"I have a good crew," Parsinion modestly replied.
"Giza is not more than two leagues up river now," announced the chancellor. "At this rate we should be there by early evening."
This was fine with Gabrielle. She was looking forward to a good meal and a decent bed.
Toward evening, as Neshi had predicted, the Sea Sprite came upon a number of mud brick houses clumped together on the right bank.
"There it is," said Neshi, pointing to the place.
As Gabrielle stared out upon the town she once more was disappointed with what she saw. As at the two previous river ports of Athribis and Naucratis she had expected to find at least some of the Egyptian splendor she had heard so much about. Instead all she had seen so far were these drab dwellings which in all reality were no better those inhabited by the folk in her own homeland.
Xena, noting the faint look of dejection on her bard's face, sidled up next to her and in a low voice asked "What's wrong?"
Without removing her gaze from the town Gabrielle gave that one little shake of the head just as she often did when faced with something she did not quite understand. "I don't know," she replied. "I thought Egypt would be....well, different."
"You mean as in palaces on every corner and streets paved with gold different?"
Xena's tone of voice made Gabrielle feel a little embarrassed because in truth this was exactly what she had expected to find. All she had ever heard was how rich Egypt was but judging from what little she had seen of the country so far it seemed to her to be not all that different than Greece, or Gaul, or even Britannia for that matter. Well on second thought...maybe better than Britannia.
"Well, yeah," the bard sheepishly admitted. "Something like that, I guess." Turning to her warrior, Gabrielle fixed her green eyes on Xena's face and wrinkled her nose in puzzlement. "How did you know that?" she asked.
Xena's smile was tight-lipped at best but as she looked down on the bard her twinkling eyes were filled with a love and affection that was far beyond the comprehension of ordinary, less perceptive souls. "Hey, this is me, remember?" she asked, her voice quietly tender. "I know you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle's perplexed look faded as she warmly smiled back at Xena. "Yeah," she answered. "You do at that."
From his vantage point in the bow Marcellus sang out, "The landing is in sight, Captain!"
"Very good," Parsinion replied. "Stand by to take a sounding."
"I assure you the Nile's depth is sufficient to accommodate your ship," said Neshi. "After all, if barges bearing the immeasurably heavy pyramid stones were able to land here--"
"Undoubtedly you are correct, sir," Parsinion politely replied. "But still, this old tub draws more water than a flat bottomed barge. No sense taking any chances." Turning to his helmsman, he said, "Anon, hold her steady. Don't begin the turn until I give the command."
"Jarod, give me continuous soundings until I say otherwise. And be sure to sing them out good and loud."
As she watched him bark out his orders Xena noted with approval how his happy-go-lucky attitude was gone now, replaced by a no-nonsense, business-like professionalism. She liked a man who cared enough about his job to do it right. She always had--even back in the days when that job entailed slaughtering others.
"All right, Anon, take her in easy. Steady as she goes." Cupping his hands together around his mouth, he yelled, "How are we doing, Jarod?"
"Fine, Captain," the big sailor yelled back. "We have plenty of water under the keel."
Parsinion nodded his approval and said, "Well, Xena, it won't be long now."
Except for when the object of her praise was Gabrielle, Xena as a rule handed out compliments like they were wagon wheels. However at this particular moment she felt compelled to give the very able Parsinion his due. "You've done a good job," she told him. And that was it.
"Why thank you, Xena," replied Parsinion, more than a little surprised by her terse praise. "We try to earn the coin we're paid."
"A good ship, a good crew, and a good captain," said Gabrielle, echoing Xena's sentiments. "Almost made me enjoy sailing."
"You stick with me, lass," said Parsinion with a wink, "and the boys and I will make a first class mariner out o' ye yet."
"No thanks," Gabrielle said with a chuckle. Xena watched as Gabrielle touched his forearm and like so many before she saw the sailor melt like so much butter. "You take care of yourself," the bard said, softly.
Parsinion smiled at her and with a nod said, "You too, little friend." Suddenly feeling a little awkward by the exchange he nervously cleared his throat and stepped back. "Marcellus!" he yelled.
"Stand by with the mooring lines."
With that Parsinion bounded down the steps to the main deck and walked over to speak with Neshi and the two Cypriots who were patiently waiting under the mast for the ship to dock.
"Good man," was Gabrielle's comment, as she watched him go.
"Yeah," Xena quietly agreed. "He is."
The first mate carefully looked down first one row of sweating oarsmen, then the other. "Oars.........up!" he barked. It was an order that did not have to be given twice.
At once thirty oars were lifted out of the water and were gratefully secured. With a well practiced hand and experienced eye Anon eased the ship in alongside the dock. Marcellus and Jarod leaped out onto the dock to secure the lines and within minutes the Sea Sprite was securely moored. Even before the last line was tied down the first mate slid the gang plank down over the side and for the first time in nearly three weeks the sturdy bireme was again in port.
At the rail Neshi took Certes' offered supporting hand and stepped out onto the gangplank. "There will be a courier here with your fee at all possible speed," he said to Parsinion.
"Fair enough," the captain nodded.
"Oh, and tell that man who found me I have not forgotten him."
"He'll be glad to hear that," the captain grinned.
Flanking Parsinion on either side, Xena and Gabrielle watched Neshi and the two Cypriots descend the gangplank. "So what's next for you?" Xena asked.
"Back to Naucratis to sell our goods," Parsinion said with a shrug.
"And then?" Gabrielle asked.
"Ohhhhh, I don't know," Parsinion replied. "Maybe Etruria, maybe Phoenicia."
Xena smiled and extended her hand to him. "Well good luck to you. Try to stay out of Poseidon's way."
"Good advice, Xena," said Parsinion, taking the hand. "As always."
Xena turned and strode down the gangplank. Gabrielle paused only long enough to smile and pat Parsinion's arm before following along behind. Parsinion watched them go and at the bottom of the gangplank Xena paused to wait for the ebullient young woman who obviously meant the world to her. When Gabrielle reached the bottom she dropped her bag. Parsinion heard her say something intelligible to Xena who responded by flashing her a brilliant smile.
What a pair! he thought, admiringly. He stood there at the railing and watched while they caught up with those three men whose lives he knew would never be anywhere near as interesting, as worthwhile, as noble as those of these two Greek lovers now so leisurely trailing along behind them. At last his five passengers disappeared into the midst of the teeming throng and Parsinion turned his mind back to what for all practical purposes was the love of his own life--his ship.
The solemn-faced Nubian opened the door to the room. With a quick bow he then hurriedly retreated down the hall and disappeared around the corner.
"Thank you, Mister Sunshine," Gabrielle said softly, as she watched the servant scurry away.
Behind her Xena smiled faintly at her friend's barb but said nothing. As they entered the room both of them began taking the obligatory look around. However the details that piqued the interest of Gabrielle in this the home of the local administrator were far different than the ones Xena's keen eyes were now examining ever so minutely. Whereas the bard contented herself with leisurely studying the colorful murals on the wall, fingering the fine cloth in the bed covers and marveling at the beautifully crafted ewer beside the bed, Xena's observations were more along the lines of, among other things, discreetly examining the door to see if it could be locked from without and scanning the ceiling and walls for subtle irregularities where a peep hole or even a hidden door might be. She really did not expect any trouble but in such a strange place one could never be too careful.
Satisfied the room held no nasty surprises, Xena walked over to the stand holding the ewer and poured herself a cup of water.
Her inspection now over as well, Gabrielle pronounced, "Nice place." She unshouldered her bag and dropped it down beside the bed. She then plopped herself down on the left side of the bed and cheerily declared, "I get this side." As if to validate her claim she laid down and stretched out her lithe frame.
"Uhh huhhh," Xena grunted, before draining the last of the contents of the cup.
"Wasn't it nice of them to give us such a fine room? asked Gabrielle, playfully bouncing her buttocks on the bed.
Xena shot her friend a wry look and said, "Yeah right, nice."
"Ohhh I know it was because we came with Neshi," said Gabrielle, with a grin. "But still, you must admit this is a whole lot better than those hammocks on Parsinion's ship."
"No argument here," Xena tersely replied.
Oh great, thought Gabrielle, she's in one of those uncommunicative moods again.
As usual the bard read her warrior correctly. Xena was in no mood to talk at the moment. She was in the mood for something else. Silently she walked around to "her" side of the bed. There she took off her sword and her breastplate and placed them within easy reach on the floor. The almost magical chakram was the next item to be removed and this Xena carefully propped up against the breastplate in order to insure she would quickly be able to get her fingers around it should the need arise.
"I was thinking...."
"Since Aloysius and Certes are going to accompany Neshi to Thebes now and since Neshi has already pretty much assured them they will be favorably received....."
Here Gabrielle paused. Xena, knowing full well where the bard was headed with this, raised an eyebrow and said, "Go on."
"Well it seems to me that, you know, it's no longer...necessary for....for us to go all the way to Thebes now. I mean, we could go back now, right?"
As Gabrielle spoke Xena's heart filled with pride and admiration for her little bard. Right now Gabrielle wanted more than anything to see Thebes and yet here she was, saying in her own way that it was all right with her if they turned back. Gabrielle, you selfless soul, she thought, proudly, no wonder I love you so much.
It was true. Gabrielle knew Xena was not really interested in making the long trip to Thebes and now that their unexpected encounter with Neshi had presented a way out she was gallantly offering the warrioress a chance to take it.
Xena, however, was not about to have any of it. The motive for her attitude now was exactly the same as Gabrielle's. That is, the decision now reached by each of them was based solely on what they knew the other wanted. Gabrielle wanted to go in the worst way but she was willing to seemingly beg out because she did not want Xena to be unhappy. Xena on the other hand most certainly did NOT want to go to Thebes. But because she knew how badly Gabrielle did want to go she was now prepared to not only let her beloved little bard have her way--again--but also to provide the means by which she could see Thebes with a clear conscience.
Her face as stoic as before, Xena replied, "Gabrielle, what are you talking about? You heard Neshi. He wants us to escort him back to Thebes."
"And besides, I told King Docticles, I would go, remember?"
"Gabrielle, I promised," said Xena, cutting her off again. "And you know better than anyone that when I make a promise..."
Here she conveniently let her words trail off but this was Gabrielle after all and Xena now found herself unable to keep up the tough act. Not that it mattered anyway. Even before seeing Xena's smile Gabrielle had seen right through her and understood exactly what she was doing.
"You keep it," Gabrielle softly said, finishing the sentence for her.
Xena eased down onto the bed and leaned over her bard. Her voice husky, Xena said the name that even now, after all this time rolled so sweetly off her tongue. "Gabrieeelle."
Xena parted her full lips and just before she covered Gabrielle's eager lips with her own the bard breathlessly whispered, "Oh, Xena, I love you so much!"
Feeling Xena's strong hand slip between her thighs, Gabrielle moaned softly and immediately drew her knees up, spreading them wide apart. "Ohhh, Xena," she lovingly cooed, as Xena's nimble fingers found her crotch. Very skillfully she began to work her magic on the bard and although the night was already very warm, for them it was now about to become simply torrid.
Neshi stretched his arm over Gabrielle's shoulder and pointed to the gleaming white mountains of stone looming in the distance. "Behold, Gabrielle," he said, proudly. "The Great Pyramid of Khufu!"
Without an interpreter Gabrielle had no idea what he was saying. Nevertheless, as she stood there in the speeding chariot--her hands gripping the side for dear life-- she understood very well the reason for the boastfulness in his voice. Gazing at the awesome structures that now seemed to be reaching to the very heavens, Gabrielle realized that he had every reason to be.
For her part Xena had thought it more than a little suspicious when Neshi insisted that Gabrielle ride in the chariot with him but had said nothing. However this did not prevent her from keeping the chancellor under close scrutiny all during the trip.
The plain was dominated by two gigantic pyramids of almost equal size together with another, markedly smaller one. Standing on the barren plain like a miniature mountain range, they were vivid reminders of the absolute power with which the Egyptian pharaohs ruled over this remarkable land. As their chariots were approaching from the east the pyramid Neshi had referred to, the "Pyramid of Khufu," lay to the extreme right, or north. Near its base Gabrielle saw three pyramids of much smaller dimensions all neatly aligned on a north-south axis. To the imaginative bard the sight almost looked like a mother and her three young.
While they were still some distance away Neshi loudly cried out a command and at once the drivers of all three of the thundering chariots reined in their horses. As the vehicles rolled to a stop Xena nimbly hopped off the chariot she had been riding in and strode over to the one containing Neshi and her bard. Joining them from the third chariot was the Cypriot envoy Aloysius who obviously was more than a little shaken from the pounding the heavy chariot had given him.
"By the gods, Xena!" Gabrielle gasped, as she stepped down out of the chariot. "It's the most magnificent thing I've ever seen!"
Although she would have been loathe to admit it. especially to Neshi, Xena now found herself inclined to agree that they were truly an impressive sight.
But unlike the wide-eyed Gabrielle Xena did not express any admiration for what she saw. Instead she merely turned to Neshi and said, "Building these things must have put quite a strain on the country's resources, especially your manpower."
"It is said it took one hundred thousand men twenty years to build these two largest ones," Neshi replied.
"A hundred thousand, huh? That's a lot of slaves," was Xena's wry comment.
Neshi did not have to wait for Aloysius' translation in order to understand her tone of voice. With a faint, slightly condescending smile he said, "That is a gross misconception. While some of the laborers were of course convicts and prisoners of war and the like, most of the work force was in fact made up of ordinary peasant farmers. You see most of the work on the pyramids was done during the flood season when these people had very little to do anyway. Consequently they were only too glad for the opportunity to take part in the construction in return for a daily ration of food and beer."
"Why were they built?" asked Gabrielle.
"Why, as tombs, of course," said Neshi. "From there the great kings started their journey into the afterlife." He pointed to the northernmost one and said, "This one was built by Khufu. The one in the middle was built by his son, Khafre."
Hearing Neshi's answer Xena could not escape the feeling that this was not the whole truth but she decided not to press him on it. After all, it was of no real concern to her. She had no desire to be there in the first place.
Gabrielle tilted her head and, peering at the middle one, asked "That middle one, it's the tallest, right?"
Neshi shook his head and replied, "It only seems so because it was constructed on a higher plain. Actually it is about six cubits shorter than King Khufu's."
With her meticulous eye for detail Xena studied the great structures. After a few moments she turned to Neshi and said, "The base of those pyramids, they're perfectly aligned with the cardinal points, aren't they?"
As he listened to Aloysius' translation the chancellor looked at the warrioress first with surprise, then wonder. "Why yes," he replied. "Yes they are. How did you know that?"
For Gabrielle's part she too was eager to hear how Xena had reached this astonishing conclusion. Only now by looking at the pyramids a second time did she notice the corresponding base of each pyramid was aligned in the same direction. This in itself was no great feat of observation but she wondered how Xena knew they were perfectly aligned with the cardinal points.
But if she was looking for any great revelation she was disappointed for Xena's only reply was a slight shrug of the shoulders as she said, "I just know."
Neshi studied her with something akin to guarded amusement for a moment before continuing. "The three great pyramids were built over a thousand years ago by three successive pharaohs. As I stated earlier this first one, the greatest one, was built by Khufu, or Cheops as you Greeks call him. It contains over two million limestone blocks. Each side of its base measures four hundred and forty royal cubits and it stands four hundred and eighty-one cubits high."
"Those three little pyramids standing in front there, what are they for?" asked Gabrielle.
"For the most favored of his wives, of course," answered Neshi.
"Ohhh," said the bard with a solemn nod of the head.
"The middle one was built by Khufu's son, Khafre or, Chephren as he is known to you. His pyramid is only slightly smaller in size than his father's. It measures four hundred and eleven royal cubits at the base and stands almost two hundred and seventy-five cubits high."
Gabrielle nodded thoughtfully and then turned her attention to the least of the imposing pyramids. "Why is that one so much smaller than the others?"
Sensing a perfect opening here to nettle their humorless host, Xena wryly retorted, "Declining influence on the part of the pharaohs perhaps?"
"Nonsense," sniffed Neshi, only slightly bristling. "For a king Menkaure was a surprisingly simple man. Accordingly his needs for the afterlife were less grandiose than his predecessors."
"Uhh huhhh," replied Xena, suppressing a smirk. She knew enough of Egyptian history to know there had been numerous occasions--almost always attributable to sustained periods of unusually low flooding by the Nile--when the pharaoh's power and prestige had waned to the point that centralized government had splintered and the two Egypts, Upper and Lower, had once again broken apart. The king's relationship to the Nile was in effect a double-edged sword. As first the "Son of Ra" and later the god Amen, it was believed he controlled the annual floods that renewed the land. In times of high flooding and the subsequent plentiful crops the king was accordingly given all the plaudits that his grateful people felt he so richly deserved. On the other hand sustained low flooding meant poor crops and eventually famine. If these periods lasted long enough eventually the pharaohs would become discredited because their power rested in a large part on this belief that they controlled the Nile's floods.
Neshi chose to ignore Xena's last remark and, turning southward, pointed toward the enigmatic statue that had intrigued men for centuries. "The Great Sphinx," he said, "is part of Khafre's complex but there are those who say its existence predates even the great pyramids. Even our scribes do not know its true age for certain." Stretching an arm out over the entire plain in a great arc, he added, "It is said that the morning sun's reflection off the pyramids can be seen as far away as the hills of Palestine."
Gabrielle swept her eyes over the plain and again marveled at the magnificence and grandeur of the place. The splendor of the pyramids, great and small, the Sphinx, the mortuary temples, all of it made the scene almost too much to comprehend. "It's breathtaking," she said, softly.
Xena, though far more accustomed to witnessing such grandeur than was her bard, nevertheless was properly impressed. The pyramids were a marvelous feat of organization and engineering. Even so, the practical side of her nature could not help but cause her to reflect on what she perceived to have been a gigantic waste. Khufu, Khafre, Menkaure and dozens more just like them had diverted so much of this country's talent and treasure from other projects which would surely have been more useful to the people than these imposing piles of stone and for what? To perpetuate their own names.
Of course having held absolute power herself she knew how intoxicating it could be. Even now she could remember how she much she had enjoyed bending others to her will; the way those properly awed underlings had fawned over her while terrified victims groveled at her feet, pleading for mercy. And she knew well enough she too would have caused great monuments to be erected in her honor had she carried through on her dreams of conquest. And yet as she looked at the great pyramids she could not bring herself to admire them. In fact in some strange way she was even a little revolted by the great works.
For a time the four individuals, Xena, Gabrielle, Neshi and Aloysius, stood there in silence, washed by the warm rays of the mid-morning sun. Truly was one of the wonders of the world. Unfortunately poor Certes was not here to enjoy the stunning panorama. He had not made the trip because he had suddenly come down with a rather nasty case of diarrhea.
After a few moments Neshi cleared his throat and asked "Do you wish to go up for a closer look, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle did not reply at first but simply continued staring at the pyramids, particularly the two belonging to Khufu and Khafre. Although she did not know these were in fact the two tallest man made structures in the world she was nonetheless simply amazed by the image majestic of power they projected. Finally, with her eyes still fixed on the dazzling white mountains of stone she softly replied, "No. No, that's all right."
"Are you sure?" Xena asked, a little surprised by the bard's answer.
Only now did Gabrielle avert her eyes from the awesome spectacle. "Umm, yeah," she said. She then turned to look at another thing of wondrous beauty--her warrior's face. "I'm sure. I--I just wanted to see them for once in my life, that's all." What she did not say was that although this was a fulfillment of a lifelong dream for her she was not beginning to feel a little bit uncomfortable here. Perhaps it was the magnificence of the place, perhaps it was what that magnificence represented, perhaps it was the human cost of constructing it--she could not say for sure. What she did know was that she had seen the place an though it was a magnificent sight she was ready to move on. For all its splendor this was, after all, a place of death, an opulent graveyard.
With a polite nod to Neshi she said, "Thank you, you've been very kind."
"Okaaay," Xena drawled, "if that's what you want."
Watching the two women interact Neshi was again taken by how this seemingly simple peasant girl, this slave, seemed to hold so much sway over the supremely gifted warrior woman. Of course he was no fool. A man did not become chancellor of the two lands of Kemet by being a fool. This Gabrielle was not a slave. He realized that now. He also understood that the relationship she and the warrior woman shared went far beyond simple friendship. Certainly mistress and slave did not lose themselves in each other's eyes the way these two so obviously did. With a twinge of regret he now knew there would be no offer forthcoming on his part to buy the beautiful fair-haired woman. Xena would more likely part with her own life than give up Gabrielle.
A pity, he thought. She would have been an exquisite adornment to my bed. With that he climbed back into his chariot---alone this time except for his stoic driver. Already Gabrielle was standing in Xena's chariot with the proud warrior woman right behind her, standing so close as to lightly brush against the fair-haired one's shapely buttocks. The wily Neshi knew it was no accident.
For Xena the next fifteen days were among the longest of her entire life. It was over a hundred and fifty leagues from Giza to Thebes and day after day Neshi's barge slowly covered the distance one set of oar strokes at a time. Though long used to even more extended voyages out on the open sea she found this particular type of travel to be monotonous at best and on occasion simply mind numbing. In a way this surprised her because she prided herself on being able to quickly adapt to any situation. Perhaps it was that the flat-bottomed barge on the relatively calm waters as the Nile was such a stable craft. Except for Gabrielle of course perhaps it was the company. Xena could not say for certain. Whatever the cause she more than once found herself wishing she and Gabrielle, with the faithful Argo in tow, were all traversing some road together--any road. It had been more than a month now since she had left her beloved equine friend to the care of old Phileas back in Haliesis on the aptly named Gulf of Argolis. She missed the beautiful horse. For such a very long time the faithful Argo had been her one and only friend.
Gabrielle, ever cognizant of Xena's moods, tried her best to ease her friend's restlessness. This she did through stories, word games and assorted other contrivances but invariably Xena would tire of it only to once again become bored out of her mind.
As the leagues crept by and each new city was reached the bard could feel the sense of excitement and anticipation building inside her. Like the great pyramids before she had heard to much about the fabled city of Thebes. Had not no less a personage than Homer called it the "richest city in the world?" How did that line go?
"...he may promise me the wealth of Orchomenus or of Egyptian Thebes, which is the richest city in the whole world, for it has a hundred gates through each of which two hundred men may drive at once with their chariots and horses..."
The guy does have a way with words, she mused. She thought of the
shy, sincere young man she had met some years before and recalled with a
twinge of sorrow how sad she had felt upon learning of his blindness.
At last came the late afternoon when Neshi stood up in the front of the barge and pointed to several impressive looking buildings set some distance back off the left bank of the river.
"Karnak," he said, matter-of-factly. "Where lies the temple of the great Amen, King of the Gods, source of all life in heaven, and on the earth, and in the great deep, and in the Underworld, and which made itself manifest under the form of Ra."
Listening to him, the shrewd Xena took this exactly for what it was, not the spontaneous praise of an adoring worshipper for this most exalted of Egyptian gods but rather the mere recital of some time worn litany by a very pragmatic individual who was far more concerned with human kings than with supernatural ones.
"Waset is but a very short distance up river now," Neshi added, after a moment's pause.
It's about damn time, Xena thought. She was becoming sick of that barge.
Gabrielle's reaction to this news was simply a quiet, "Yesssss."
It was some time after dark when the barge at long last docked in Thebes. Even before the vessel was securely moored Neshi began issuing a flurry of orders and in short order the little group was hustled along a darkened street to an impressive stone building with long halls and cavernous rooms.
It was Neshi's own private residence. Upon arrival at his home the master of the house immediately let forth with a series of terse orders to his servants, bade a rather hurried good night to his guests and quickly made his ascent up a dark set of steps and disappeared.
The stone faced attendant charged with leading the way for Xena and Gabrielle was a little surprised by his master's explicit instructions to install the two strange females in the same room. Nevertheless, like the obedient servant he was, he obeyed without question. Neshi knew well enough it would have been futile to attempt to put the two of them in separate rooms. In any case Xena would have made her own sleeping arrangements and naturally enough those plans were sure to include a certain little fair-haired slave....friend.
As they entered the spacious room the servant stepped to the window and tied back the finely woven drapes. He then started for the bed with the intent of turning down the covers but before he could get there Xena barked out a sharp "Hey!" and with a sharp jerk of the thumb toward the door indicated to the man his services were no longer needed or wanted for that matter. For Xena it had been a long day and she was not in the mood to suffer any further annoyance.
However her ill mood was tempered somewhat by the fact that she had now fulfilled her promise to Neshi. She had indeed made certain of his safe passage back to Thebes and now that the job was finished she was looking forward to first patiently tagging along while Gabrielle toured the city for a couple of days and then starting back down river on the long journey to the Mediterranean.
"Some place, huh?" Gabrielle asked admiringly as she leisurely looked the huge room over.
"I've seen worse," was Xena's vapid answer. Knowing the potential for danger here was minimal, Xena nevertheless scanned the room carefully although not with the intense scrutiny with which she had back in Giza.
While Xena was doing this Gabrielle dropped her bag down on the floor and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. Puffing her cheeks as she exhaled, she said, "Gods it's hot! Doesn't it ever rain down here?"
"No," Xena said, as she unhooked her breast plate.
Gabrielle sat down on the side of the bed and began to unlace her boots when suddenly she stopped. With a look of curiosity on her face, she asked "Xena?"
"Have you ever noticed how the farther north from Greece one travels the cooler it gets but yet when traveling south it just keeps getting warmer and warmer?"
"I've noticed," Xena tersely replied. "What about it?"
"Why do you think that is?" the bard asked. "I mean, there has to be a reason, right?"
"I suppose there is," Xena answered. "But to tell you the truth I never gave it much thought."
With a couple of soft grunts Gabrielle tugged off her boots and flopped backward on the bed. "Well I have," she said, brightly.
Amused now, Xena lifted an eyebrow and flashed that familiar little half smile at her bard. "Oh?"
"Yeah. See, I have this theory........." Gabrielle was always doing this. Be it the weather, the movement of the tides, or the very origins of life itself the forces of nature seemed to be an endless source of fascination for her. And although Xena loved that about her she rarely showed it. As she saw it Gabrielle was enthusiastic enough about these things without any additional encouragement from her.
"All right," Xena said, with feigned apathy, "let's hear it."
"I think it has something to do with the way the rays from Phoebus' chariot strike the earth."
"Gabrielle, how many times do I have told you there is no such thing as Phoebus' chariot."
"Oh all right," the bard huffed in reply. "But whatever the sun is I think its light doesn't fall upon the earth with the same intensity everywhere. I mean, did you ever notice how the sun is lower in the sky in winter?" Gabrielle then wrinkled her nose and added, "Maybe it's the angle or something."
"Whatever you say," Xena yawned, losing interest now. Now she too laid down on the bed and without another word closed her eyes. Although it had been two weeks since she and her bard had made love back in Giza Xena was at this point hardly in an amorous mood. For one thing she was tired and for another she wanted to be at her best tomorrow when their little group was received at the court of Hatshepsut. After all, she had not wet nursed that stuffy Aloysius and his cohort Certes all this way over the last three weeks only to see them trip up now and perhaps kill the whole thing. It was a matter of personal honor for her to assure that all went well. Had she not given her word to King Docticles?
Gabrielle too sensed that this was not the time for fiery passion and so she simply snuggled up as close as she could to her beautiful warrior. For a time neither of them spoke although each of them was quite aware that the other was awake.
Finally as one might expect it was Gabrielle who broke the silence with her soft voice. "Xena?"
Without opening her eyes the Warrior Princess answered, "Hmm?"
Before continuing Gabrielle curled up into a little ball and gently laid her head upon Xena's stomach. "This has been pretty dull, hasn't it?"
"What? You mean the trip down here?"
"I mean all of it," said Gabrielle. "This whole Egypt thing. Aside from the pyramids I've had more excitement washing my clothes. I can only imagine what's been like for you."
Xena detected just a hint of ruefulness in her friend's voice but naturally she was not about to give her dejected friend the "I told you so" speech. Instead she merely sighed and said, "Well there's something to be said for dull, you know. As far as I know nobody ever died from boredom." Yet! she thought to herself.
She then placed her left hand on Gabrielle's head and began to gently stroke the young woman's scalp with the tips of her long fingers. "Besides," she went on, "I expect you'll get your fill of excitement tomorrow at Karnak."
Located just north of Thebes proper, Karnak was not only the sight of the massive temple of Amen, it was also where the royal palace was to be found and consequently where court was held when the king was in Thebes.
"I suppose," said Gabrielle, as she gently nuzzled her head against her lover's tummy. She closed her eyes and yawned before adding, "But I've seen kings before and if you've..." Again she yawned, only wider this time. "...seen one monarch you've pretty much...seen...them...all." The poor girl barely got to finish before drifting off into peaceful slumber.
Sensing Gabrielle's submission unto the spell of Hypnos, Xena ceased the gentle stroking and let her hand come to rest there on little friend's head. Here she too yawned again and then for some reason the bloody memories of the long ago Battle of the Demon's Spine popped into her head. Many a good man on both sides crossed the River Styx that day, she thought. She thought of her foe, her old Nemesis--turned--friend, the brilliant Darinius. Only once since last year's horrific war against Melchus and his Army of the Five Tribes had she and Gabrielle seen him. Now as she lay there listening to Gabrielle's soft breathing she wondered just for a moment what he was up to these days.
But just as quickly as these thoughts of battles past and friends present had come so too did they once more fade into the far recesses of her mind. Again she closed her eyes and tried to go to sleep but already she knew Hypnos would have to be extra diligent in his work on this night if she was to succumb to his power.
But as with all mortals Hypnos' charms were too powerful to resist indefinitely and after a couple of turns of the hourglass Xena finally, at long last, was able to drift off and join her beloved bard in the Land of Slumber.
"From Heaven's splendor and the bosom of the all powerful Amen hath she descended in glory to rule. The god knows of it, Amen, Lord of the Throne of the Two Lands. He gave her sovereignty over the Black Land and the Red Land as a reward. None rebel against her. All foreign lands are her subjects...."
Standing there before the empty throne in that magnificent palace, Gabrielle listened to Aloysius' whispered interpretation of the praise being so fervently sung out by a man with a particularly booming voice. When the herald reached this particular part she had leaned close to Xena and whispered, "They're laying it on a little thick, aren't they?"
Through clenched teeth Xena softly admonished, "Quiet, Gabrielle."
"...He made her boundaries at the limits of Heaven and all that the sun encompasses work for her. The very Nile itself trembles at the approach of the Divine Light, the Mistress of the Two Lands. May she live and endure forever like Ra; the Great Goddess--Female Horus of Fine Gold, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Maatkare Khnemet-Amen Hatshepsut!" Almost as an afterthought he added, "And of her brother, the Good God, master of the ritual Menkheperre."
Precisely on cue a set of large, very ornate doors swung open off on the right whereupon there entered several finely robed, solemn-faced men. These were men whom Xena correctly surmised to be priests of varying ranks not only because Neshi had apprised his guests as to what to expect but also because experience had taught her that this was more or less the universal method for monarchs to make their grand entrance. Priests at the fore was a highly effective way of reaffirming to the people the all important message that the rule of their sovereign was blessed by the gods themselves.
These robed men were followed by other men dressed in traditional kilts of varying lengths and Xena noted that they also all wearing that peculiar style of Egyptian head dress that was now so familiar to her. With the appearance of Neshi among these men it was apparent that these were the various ministers and court officials that made up the royal court of Hatshepsut.
After the last of these men had entered there was a pause while they quietly took up flanking positions down in front of the throne. Only now with the assurance that all eyes would be solely upon her did Hatshepsut herself finally see fit to make her entrance. She was escorted on three sides by hulking guards, each bearing a long spear. Once their mission was completed and their living goddess was safely escorted to the base of the steps the men respectfully stepped back and melted into the darkness of the room's outer fringes leaving the Most August One to ascend the steps alone.
"I wonder just where the good brother is?" Gabrielle whispered.
From out of the corner of her mouth Xena answered, "Good question,"
"Will you two please be quiet?" Aloysius softly pleaded.
As she entered the literally hundreds of people massed in the great room let out a collective gasp and in one sweeping, wave-like movement they all immediately dropped to their knees and bowed down before the all--powerful Daughter of Amen-Ra.
All except two.
"By the gods!" Gabrielle gasped, upon seeing Hatshepsut for the first time.
As the bard stood there looking on in bewilderment and wondering what she should do, Xena took advantage of the unrestricted line of sight to carefully scrutinize the suddenly infinitely more interesting pharaoh.
She was fairly tall, shorter than the Warrior Princess to be sure, but nevertheless fairly statuesque--especially for an Egyptian woman. Like most Egyptians she was also thin. Xena could see that although Hatshepsut was considerably taller than Gabrielle she would be hard pressed to equal the petite bard's weight and indeed was probably even a few minas lighter. It was Xena's guess the pharaoh was about her own age although it was also possible she might be some years younger.
Hatshepsut's face was oval and attractive with a high forehead. She had almond-shaped eyes and as far as Xena could tell a delicate chin. However it was her nose that was the most defining feature. For those familiar with the Thutmose line this was no real surprise because prominent noses ran in the family. While not certainly unsightly it was nonetheless rather protrusive and it was this one lone flaw that prevented her from being regarded as truly beautiful.
Like the members of her court she wore a kilt although hers was of course much more finely woven. However unlike her noble minions, who were all bare chested, she wore a brilliant white, short sleeved blouse with that hung loosely from her slim shoulders. Also, Xena noted that instead of bearing the symbols of her exalted office, the crook and flail, Hatshepsut was carrying in her left hand an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life. Likewise she was also without the legendary Double Crown instead wearing but a fine head cloth and broad collar around her neck.
Lastly, there was one other distinguishing feature about her face which was most definitely not natural and it was this that had so shocked Gabrielle when she first saw the pharaoh. Hatshepsut, female King of Egypt, was wearing a beard!
"Xena!" Gabrielle whispered in surprise. "Look at that!" Still stunned by what she saw, the little bard was about to raise her arm to point at the pharaoh but a sharp rap on the ankle from the toe of Xena's boot was enough to make her think better of it. "Owwww!" she hissed.
From his suppliant position on the floor Aloysius turned his face to the two women and softly cried out, "What are you trying to do? Get us all thrown into prison? For the love of the gods kneel!
"Sorry," Xena blandly answered, "I'm not into groveling."
It was then the two Greeks caught the eye of Hatshepsut herself. So it was that before ascending the steps to the throne she simply stood there for a moment, keenly eyeing what she saw as an extraordinarily tall female and a just as intriguing fair-haired shorter one standing close to her side. She said nothing but as she turned to mount the steps Neshi, who was no more than two good strides away from her, was almost certain he detected the twinkle of an eye in her otherwise impassive countenance.
While the people before the court continued offering their fearful homage, Hatshepsut silently climbed the steps and settled into her great throne. Contentedly surveying the adoring throng before her, Hatshepsut rather likened the defiant Xena and her slightly confused friend to two lone trees towering above the sands of the great Sahara.
Only now when the pharaoh was comfortably seated on her throne did the throng once more rise up. For the next turn of the glass and then some Xena, Gabrielle, Aloysius and Certes stood in place while Hatshepsut's court conducted its business. During that time envoys from Nubia, Hesperia, Palestine, Persia and several other lands were one by one allowed to stand before the throne of Hatshepsut. There they offered up elaborate praise to her along with wishes for her continued good health and invariably the produced along with this one or more exquisite gifts as a token of their respect. These the mighty king blithely accepted with only the barest nod of recognition because she knew full well that what each of these cowering little rabbits' offerings really was...a simple bribe, nothing more.
Xena watched all this with more than passing interest and as she saw treasure after treasure being laid at the feet of Hatshepsut she began to uneasily wonder what the pompous Aloysius had brought to offer up. More and more she was of a mind that he had brought nothing at all. If he had it certainly was minuscule because neither he nor Certes was carrying anything. Surely he had known this was expected of him. Then again, maybe he had not. Oh well, she thought, with some resignation, it's too late now.
Colorful as the proceedings were, they were nevertheless proved to be quite dull and as they dragged on and on Gabrielle became more and more fidgety. For her part Xena began to wonder it this was not some subtle form of punishment being meted out by Hatshepsut in retribution for her defiance. This, however, was in all truth not the case at all. It was merely a matter of protocol. To the Egyptian government Cyprus was a small, relatively unimportant place significant only for its copper and bronze. Therefore it was only natural that its place in line be well back of the much more influential places such as Phoenicia and the far away lands of India.
But none of that mattered to Gabrielle. Her mind was on matters much more relative to her own well being. "Xena," she urgently whispered, "I have to pee!"
Xena rolled her eyes and out of the corner of her mouth replied, "You'll just have to hold it."
"That's easy for you to say," whimpered Gabrielle as she pressed her thighs together hard. "You're not the one that has water rising up to your eyeballs."
The fact of the matter was that Xena was feeling the urge just as much as her little bard but she would be damned before she would admit it now. "Just be quiet and tough it out," she muttered, softly.
"What do you think I've been doing for the last hour?" the bard shot back.
"You should have gone before we left Neshi's house," Xena retorted. However she too was now starting to experience the discomfort that comes with a full bladder.
"Well how was I supposed to know we were going to have to stand here all day?"
"Shhhhhh!" Aloysius pleaded in quiet exasperation.
Xena ignored him but Gabrielle shot him a surprisingly nasty look and it was here that the old Cypriot's temples began to throb. These two are going to be the death of me yet! he lamented.
The envoy was so preoccupied with his own self--pity that he did not notice when the court official called out, "Cyprus!"
It fell to Certes to place a hand on his colleague's elbow and say, "Come, my friend, they are summoning us at last."
"About time too," Xena muttered.
As the four strangers stepped forward Hatshepsut's face remained as impassive as ever but in reality she was eyeing them all very keenly--especially the tall woman with the hair as black as night. When they reached the base of the steps their old traveling companion, Neshi, stepped forward and with a smile said, "Most August One, these are the friends about whom I spoke to you earlier."
Hatshepsut gave him a very subtle nod of the head and, returning her cool gaze to the four at the base of her steps, said, "The chancellor has related to us the many kindnesses you have so recently shown him. Therefore I would like to express my personal gratitude to you for ensuring his safe return. He is not only a diligent, highly efficient member of this court but a good friend as well and I value him greatly. I can assure you that you are most welcome here."
Somewhat emboldened by this, Aloysius smiled broadly and took a step forward in order to firmly establish that he was the leader of this mission. "Thank you, Great Queen," he politely replied. "On behalf of King...."
It was only when he saw Hatshepsut's countenance change from benign detachment to visible displeasure that he realized his mistake. Immediately he sought to correct his error. "Err, what I meant was...... That is to say......."
Hmph! Some ambassador you are, thought Gabrielle, rolling her eyes upward in annoyance as he spoke. I told you not to address her as "queen."
You idiot! Xena silently raged. We spend a whole moon traveling hundreds of leagues just to get here only to have you screw the goat with the very first sentence! Damn it!
By now Aloysius decided it would be best to simply start all over. "Thank you, Great Pharaoh. On behalf of King..."
The great hall fell eerily silent at Hatshepsut's sharp outcry and Xena fully expected that at any moment she would order the four of them to be promptly shown the nearest door. The warrioress was willing to concede that this was the pharaoh's prerogative. This was, after all, her domain and Xena was certainly not here to cause trouble. Still, she had promised King Docticles that she would do all she could to help assure the success of this mission so highly vital to Cyprus' interests. This meant she would just have to do something.
Meanwhile, Certes, good fellow that he was, immediately sought to step in and rectify his colleague's blunder. "We beg your pardon..." His mind raced to find just the right form of address. Highness? Great Goddess? What? Ahh yes, "...Most Noble Pharaoh. What my friend here meant was---"
"The two lands of Kemet extend the hand of friendship to Cyprus," said Hatshepsut, abruptly cutting him off. "Our good friend, Neshi, will meet with you later today to work out the details. I am sure an agreement can be reached that will be mutually beneficial to the both of us."
And just like that it was done.
Xena breathed a little sigh of relief and with some surprise Gabrielle thought, Well now, that wasn't so bad.
For her part Xena was more than a little curious as to the pharaoh's reaction to Aloysius' gaffe. Clearly she had been piqued yet she had still seen fit to allow what the politicians called a "meaningful dialog" to take place. Why? Cyprus was certainly not a force to be reckoned with be it economically, politically or militarily. To a trans-regional power such as Egypt the island was in reality nothing more than an insignificant little lump of dirt and rocks in the Mediterranean with only a few deposits of copper to set it apart.
Why then Hatshepsut's apparent willingness to reach such a quick concordance? Xena could only assume that her attitude was due in no small measure to Neshi's personal efforts on their behalf. However she had the vague feeling this was not the only reason. What that reason might be she did not really care for she now decided that her obligation to King Docticles was done. And for her it was none too soon. She had had just about enough of Aloysius.
As she mulled this over her thoughts were interrupted by Certes' respectful reply to the pharaoh. "We thank you for your kindness, Great Pharaoh. I can assure you that Cyprus too looks forward to a long and mutually prosperous relationship."
Hatshepsut's only reply was a curt nod and this the four of them correctly interpreted as the cue that their audience with the pharaoh was at an end.
Shrugging her shoulders, Xena mumbled, "So much for that."
"Don't let the door hit your butt on the way out," Gabrielle softly chuckled.
"Really," Xena added in agreement as the four of them turned to depart.
As they did the unseen voice boomed out the next emissary to be received, "Latium!"
Suddenly the unmistakable tones of Hatshepsut's voice pierced the great hall. "Wait!"
Xena and her companions turned to see the pharaoh had already vacated the throne and was now descending the steps.
"Now what?" Gabrielle muttered. C'mooooon! I gotta go!
Xena's eyes were locked on Hatshepsut as the pharaoh gracefully strode over to their little group.
"I will speak with you further," said Hatshepsut, upon reaching them. "You will come to my private chambers when the sun sinks behind the western hills."
"Great Hatshepsut," Aloysius gushed, finally regaining his voice. This was almost beyond belief for him. "You honor me beyond words. I--"
"Not you," Hatshepsut bluntly interjected. Turning to Xena, she moved in very close to the much taller woman and looked hard up into those blue eyes. "You," she said. She then very forcefully added, "Only you."
As Gabrielle wondered what this was all about Xena responded with a subtle, very polite nod of the head. Having commanded for most of her adult life she naturally understood well Hatshepsut's tone here. This was no request. This was an order. "All right," she said, evenly. "If you want."
It was all the crestfallen Aloysius could do to interpret the very disappointing exchange between these two women. Why her? he silently lamented. Damn it, why her? I'm the head of this mission!
"There will be someone to meet you when you return. You will then be escorted directly to my chambers."
Xena bored her eyes in on the smaller woman and quietly replied, "All right."
As the hushed throng looked on it was for a fleeting moment difficult to tell just who was the monarch and who was the commoner here. All of them could now see just what an imposing presence the tall Greek woman was.
Hatshepsut started to walk away but suddenly she stopped and once more turned back to face the four of them. "Oh yes," she said. "There is one other thing. It is customary for visiting emissaries at this court to show their respect by presenting my person with a gift."
Uhhh boy, thought Xena, here it comes!
The pharaoh raised an eyebrow and with a faint smirk asked, "Where is yours?"
As Hatshepsut strolled back to the little group poor Aloysius' face turned utterly ashen. A gift? he thought, desperately. Nobody said anything about a gift. Why didn't Neshi...? "But...."
The pharaoh's eyes began to leisurely sweep over the four. Except for the tall woman she figured them to be a low lot. They certainly weren't dressed to the standards of most the emissaries that appeared before her. Even the old man's robes were stained. Already she knew the two shabbily dressed men had nothing of real value to offer her but still, tradition was tradition and as the supreme Egyptian she understood the power that lay in that better than anyone. The court expected these people to offer her up a gift and so they would, one way or another.
Hatshepsut had already made the assumption that the fair haired young woman in the group was a slave. She was mulling over whether she should take her as a gift when suddenly Xena turned slightly and this was when the pharaoh's dark eyes came to rest on an exquisitely crafted object. Though she was of course more than accustomed to the sight of beautiful things, this particular one was so uniquely fine that it caught her fancy the moment she saw it. Accordingly, Hatshepsut, Mistress of the Two Lands, pointed to Xena's chakram and with the placid, confident voice of one long used to being immediately obeyed, announced, "I will have that. There is your gift to me."
There was no need for the suddenly nervous Aloysius to make the translation. Xena understood perfectly. With the eyes of Hatshepsut, Gabrielle, the two envoys and indeed the entire court all fixed on her the only change to Xena's expression was a very subtle narrowing of the eyelids. Only the highly perceptive Hatshepsut caught this. As the two great women stood there intently sizing each other up the silence inside the great hall seemed to resound off the great columns.
Gabrielle sensed the sudden mounting of tension in the great hall and so it was with some alarm that she asked "What's she talking about?"
Without breaking the intense eye contact with Hatshepsut, Xena quietly replied, "She wants my chakram."
Great Zeus in Heaven! though poor Aloysius. We're all going to die! That crazy Xena is going to refuse her, good gods!...maybe even kill her and we're all going to end up being buried alive in the sand. Curse you, Docticles, for sending me here!
Gabrielle was more than a little apprehensive as well. "Gods, Xena," she urgently whispered, "what are you going to do?"
Now it was Xena's turn to return the faint smirk as she eyed Hatshepsut. "Do?" she calmly replied, "Why, I'm going to give it to her, Gabrielle." With that she reached down and slowly unclipped the magnificent weapon.
"But, Xena," the little bard protested, "you can't do that."
"It's all right, Gabrielle," the warrioress gently assured her.
Nevertheless, for one terrifying moment Aloysius feared that Xena had meant she was going to maybe give it to Hatshepsut in an entirely different manner, like planting it right in the middle of her chest. This was why he let out an audible sigh of relief when he saw the warrior woman merely balance the chakram in the palms of her hands and hold it up before the pharaoh.
"Our humble gift to the Mistress of the Two Lands, Hatshepsut," said Xena.
With both hands Hatshepsut reached up and took the chakram. To her surprise it was heavier than she expected. After a very subtle nod of recognition to Xena she declared, "I am pleased."
It was here she turned to Amenhotep, her chief steward. "No more of this today. Tell the remaining emissaries to come back tomorrow. Tell them I will accept their tributes then."
"As you wish, Great King," the steward answered, respectfully bowing as he departed.
Hatshepsut again turned to leave but then stopped and once more peered at the tall woman that, although she would never admit it, fascinated her so. "When the sun sinks behind the western hills," she reminded Xena. "Do not disappoint me."
A faint, mirthless smile playing across her lips, Xena replied, "Wouldn't dream of it."
A few short minutes later found Xena and Gabrielle back in the bright sunlight, briskly descending the palace steps.
"Xena, I don't understand," said Gabrielle, her voice quivering due to the impacting of her feet on the steps. "How could you give her your chakram? That's your most prized possession."
Xena wanted to say to the puzzled bard, No it's not, you are! but she knew that would not sound quite right. She had not missed the way Hatshepsut had been looking Gabrielle over like she was some piece of livestock. That was when Xena had decided to guilefully offer the pharaoh something she correctly assumed would be far more appealing to her than some nondescript Greek woman. As far as Xena was concerned there was no choice to be made. None at all. It was the chakram, or Gabrielle, or...trouble.
And then too she had reasoned with no small amount of deleteriousness that while it was one thing for Hatshepsut to have it in her possession now, it would be quite another for her to actually keep it! With this in mind all she said was, "Don't worry about it. It's not important."
Knowing Xena as she did, Gabrielle made the assumption that there was something more here than met the eye but she nevertheless decided to let it go. She knew Xena would tell her in her own good time. Still, she was curious about another matter. "What do you think she wants to talk to you about?" she asked the warrioress.
"I'm not sure," said Xena.
For the ever perceptive Gabrielle this in itself was important. "'You're not sure,'" the bard echoed. "As opposed to 'don't know.' That means you do have some clue, right?"
"Maybe," Xena tersely replied.
Undaunted by her lover's reticence, Gabrielle pounced on this reply with the eagerness of a staving cat on a mouse. "What then?"
"She has something in mind," said Xena. "I think she wants something from me."
"Hmph," the bard snorted, "she already has your chakram. What else could she want? Your sword, your boots? I know, maybe she wants your underwear!"
"Very funny," Xena wryly replied. "But now that you mention it that crack about the sword may not be so far off."
"How do you know that?" the bard queried.
"I know," was all Xena said. In fact the warrioress had seen it in Hatshepsut's eyes. To her it was as plain as the muscles on Hercules' arm. The pharaoh eyes had that eager, hungry look that said "I want something and I'll do whatever it takes in order to get it!" Xena understood that ravenous look well enough. After all, for the better part of ten years of her life that same look had more or less defined who and what she had been--hungry, ravenous, insatiable, voraciously lustful for bigger armies, more power, more predomination, more...everything! Yes, she knew that look all too well.
"Well, what is it then?"
"I can't say."
Damn! Gabrielle thought. Another dead end. Changing tack again, she remarked, "I wonder who that guy was Aloysius and Certes stopped to talk with."
Who cares? thought Xena. At least they're out of our hair. However she had no desire to give the big-hearted Gabrielle the impression that she cared nothing for the two men with whom they had shared so many leagues. So she merely said, "Those two guys have been around. I imagine it's somebody they know from some other place."
Taking Xena's reply at face value, Gabrielle replied, "I suppose."
When they at last reached the bottom of the steps, Gabrielle emitted a high pitched, "Hooo!" She then added, "That's some trip."
Xena squinted and looked off across the great courtyard. In the distance she could see the tops of two great obelisks rising above the roof of the great temple of Amen. These an already dominant Hatshepsut had erected shortly before her coronation and now stood as grandiose reminders to the people of her supreme power. In the cloudless sky above she noted the broiling sun was not much past its zenith. A comparison of its present position to the rugged cliffs of Deir el-Bahri lying to the west indicated to Xena that they had about six hours before it would be time for them to return.
"Okay," she said, looking down at Gabrielle. "We've got some time to kill. What do you want to do?"
Gabrielle grinned and said, "Some sight--seeing, what else?"
"I was afraid of that," Xena moaned in mock resignation.
With a laugh Gabrielle locked her arm around Xena's muscular biceps. "C'mon," she teased. "Or has all that lounging around on boats made you soft and lazy?"
Xena raised an eyebrow and looked at her friend in amusement. "Yeah, right. So who was it that only just now practically passed out from descending a few measly steps?"
"Hey! I wasn't winded," the bard protested.
"You didn't hear me complain when we climbed these steps, did you?"
With an impish little grin Xena replied, "That's only because you were gasping for air so much you couldn't speak."
"Oh funny. You're a regular Aristophanes, that's who you are," Gabrielle indignanlty huffed. "Next thing you know you'll be writing comedies too."
Xena flexed her biceps, playfully squeezing her lover's arm. Gabrielle had done it again. No matter how sour her mood might be, Xena could never stay that way for very long. Invariably the smile on Gabrielle's sweet face would light up her own soul like bright rays of sunlight breaking through dark clouds after a storm.
This was not the result of some conscious effort on Gabrielle's part. Never had been. It was simply achieved just by who she was--by being herself. Even now, after all this time, Xena doubted whether Gabrielle really fully understood the full magnitude of her hold on Xena's heart.
Gabrielle, she thought, I do love you so!
Xena then smiled at the object of her affection and said, "Come on. Let's see if Homer knew what he was talking about."
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