Gabrielle looked up at the sound of angry steam as Erika poured a cauldron of water onto the ovens' coals. Wafting a hand through the steam, Erika acknowledged Gabrielle. She combed her unruly red curls from her face and nodded at the pile of pots and plates Gabrielle had been battling for the best part of an hour.
"You can leave them for tomorrow, child. You'll be here all night otherwise."
Gabrielle smiled. She thought about leaving it but shook her head. There was no point of leaving something for her to make work harder tomorrow. She dunked a plate with dried food into the sink. "It's alright. It shouldn't take me too long. Besides, I've got nothing else better to do."
Gabriele tried not to sound too bitter but she couldn't help it. After her last conversation with Xena, Gabrielle was more motivated to look for ways to see her, but sneaking to her room was out of the question when guards constantly patrolled the hallways, soldiers walked the ramparts, and Xena's every move was watched. Gabrielle wasn't a stupid woman, but even she couldn't think of a way to get close to Xena without drawing unwanted attention or making the prince look suspicious in the process.
Sensing her mood, Erika sat the cauldron down. She came to stand next to Gabrielle and rolled up her sleeves, saying nothing as she grabbed one of the wet pans and began drying it.
"What are you-,"
Erika lifted a hand, cutting off whatever Gabrielle was going to say. "You have worked yourself ragged these past couple of weeks and I have never heard you complain once. And don't think I haven't noticed you picking up slack around here too." She put the pan down and grabbed a plate. "I know I shout a lot and work you hard, but I have to. If I don't make you work, it's my head on the block. A castle is a constantly hungry animal."
"It's alright, Erika. I understand."
Both women worked in companionable silence for while. When the end of the mountain of pots looked in sight, Erika cleared her throat.
"Thank you, Gabrielle."
Erika put the plate down. "For your help, of course. You haven't been here long but you have helped in more ways than you think. You learn quickly and you're a stout woman; you don't complain about your job. You get on with it. I can respect a woman like that."
The admission took Gabriele by surprise. Knowing Erika to be the proud and tough woman she was, the bard made sure not to make such a big deal about it. She carried on washing up, keeping her eyes on the task but she couldn't ignore the warmth the woman's words made her feel.
"You've also helped Layla."
Gabrielle noticed the way Erika's voice lowered, became gentle. She chanced a look at the woman and saw Erika was smiling. The subtle smile changed her face dramatically. The hard lines of her face softened, giving Erika the appearance of a much younger woman, and her dark brown eyes glistened. Gabrielle smiled too.
"Layla is a lovely girl," she said.
"Lovely, yes," Erika agreed, "but young, and with youth comes the foolhardy choices and naivety of someone who doesn't understand the world. You saw the way she fawned over the prince and made herself believe that he loved her."
Gabrielle nodded. But remembering what Xena had told her about Prince Tobias, Gabrielle felt pity and sympathy rush her. She knew exactly what it felt like to fall completely for someone who was exceptionally out of her reach; someone who seemed otherworldly and perfect and powerfully desirable. At one point or another, Gabrielle had been exactly in Layla's shoes, lusting after someone she knew she could never have. The only difference between then was Xena happened to love Gabrielle back. Sadly, the same couldn't be said for Tobias.
"She is quick to love," Gabrielle said carefully. "She has a big heart."
"She does, and it's her heart that is going to get her into trouble one day! She is like a daughter to me. I don't want her getting herself into trouble because she can't control her emotions around a boy who can't keep his..." Erika trailed off, huffing. It was clear that the cook had some strong opinions about the prince but decided not to share them with Gabrielle. Instead, Erika sighed and carried on drying the plates.
Once the rest of the washing was done, Erika dried her hands on her apron and turned to Gabrielle. "Do yourself a favour, Gabrielle. Don't go chasing after a fairytales, okay? They're vapid, shallow and extremely disappointing. You'll either find yourself alone or dead."
"I promise I won't." Gabrielle shook her hands dry. "Besides, I already have someone I love."
"Well, as long as it isn't the prince, I'm happy for you," Erika chuckled.
Gabrielle didn't know what to say to that so she kept her mouth shut.
Erika shook her head. "That girl has been giving me stress from the day they brought her to the kitchens. She was as much trouble as a child as she is today." Though her words were stern, her tone was wistful; as though she missed the days that had passed.
"What was Layla like as a child?"
Erika leaned her back against the counter and smiled, crossing her arms. "The first time I saw her Layla was this scrawny little thing. She barely came up to my hips and her head looked too big for her body. Poor thing looked like she would break if you held her too tightly. To be honest, I thought she would die not long after they brought her here. But, she surprised me. She pulled through, and after a couple of weeks of working in the kitchens she was like a little sprite bouncing around the room. If there is one thing I will always remember it is how she arrived looking starved and moments from death, but her smile has never left. Well, not until recently, especially since she started giving the prince too much attention." Erika's reminiscing smile wavered and was replaced by disapproval. With a serious expression Erika turned to Gabrielle. "In some ways, you remind me a lot of Layla. Please, look after yourself, alright? Look after each other."
"I'll keep an eye on her for you."
"Thank you." Erika glanced up at the slot-shaped window above the sink to look outside; the torches burned brightly against the dark sky. From where they were standing, Gabrielle couldn't see much. Nothing but the boots of the guards as they passed their window.
"It's late," Erika said. She covered her mouth to stifle a yawn and shooed Gabrielle with the other. "Go. Go and get some sleep. Gods know you spend more time in these kitchens than I do sometimes. Go, before I get sick of seeing you."
Gabrielle knew the woman was only jesting from the amused glint in her eye. She gave a nod and left the kitchen. As she followed the dark walkways and climbed the spiralling stone steps Gabrielle let her thoughts wander. Erika was right; they were similar, which only made Gabrielle more cautious. While Gabrielle understood Erika's concern for Layla, the girl couldn't help her feelings. It had been just the same with her. From the moment Gabrielle had laid her eyes on the warrior princess, her heart had sparked a small fire in her heart which grew to an inferno over time. There was no way around it. Luckily, Xena had felt the same way. What if Tobias could learn to love Layla if he gave her the chance?
Gabrielle admonished herself. She knew it was unlikely. Xena had already said Tobias knew about Layla's feelings and after pulling her along, it was clear how he felt. Still, Gabrielle couldn't help but feel her heart break a little for Layla.
The cool night air caressed Gabrielle once she exited the mouth to the cellar kitchens. It was amazing how accustomed to the kitchen's humidity she had become already. Perhaps Erika was right. She did spend too much time in the kitchens, but what else could she do? Unlike Xena, Gabrielle didn't have the luxury of roaming the castle and its grounds with the freedom of the prince. She could go places that Gabrielle couldn't.
Lost in her own thoughts, Gabrielle didn't see the patrol until the guards bumped into her.
"Oops, sorry!" Gabrielle rushed to apologise.
The guards paid no attention to her other than a grumble before they carried on walking, continuing their conversation. Gabrielle watched after them, expecting them to turn back at some point and tell her off for being idle, but when they didn't, she smiled.
Maybe she was wrong? Perhaps as a servant she could move around the castle and not be seen.
Xena sighed as she felt the tailor work around her. Her feet were aching and she hadn't eaten in what felt like hours. Every time she went to move, the tailor made a noise that sounded half way between a moan and a frustrated harrumph.
Finally the woman walked backwards away from Xena and placed her hands on her hips looking rather pleased with herself.
"What do you think?" she asked.
Xena turned slowly on the podium and stared at herself in the tall mirror. Her eyes directly zeroed in on the puffy ball shaped sleeves that forced her arms up at her sides, and the boots the tailor had suggested climbed too far up her legs. Joined with the belt cinched in tightly at her waist, Xena looked complexly disproportioned and annoyed looking cloud.
"It...It's not what I was expecting," she answered as gently as she could.
The woman's eyes began to shimmer and the smile she wore dimmed. "Oh. I...I heard it is all the rage in Arkadia?" She began looking around for the scroll she had brought in with her. Unfurling it, she squinted at the words. "Oh no, I read it wrong. The sleeves are to be cinched along the sleeves to make it...slightly puffy." Her eyes fell to the floor. "Please forgive me, Your Highness. I made a mistake."
Xena lowered her arms the best she could. She placed them softly on the tailor. The touch made her jump slightly. "There is nothing to forgive. You only read it wrong."
The woman looked up.
Xena tilted her head. "Tell me...do you usually have problems seeing?"
The tailor hesitated for a moment before answering. "My sight doesn't affect my designs, I assure you. I can design your tunic for the ball much better."
Xena glanced down at herself. She resisted the urge to laugh, knowing it would only hurt the tailor. Instead she offered her a smile. "I believe you can. I only ask because I know of someone who may be able to help you."
The tailor's eyes widened. "You do?"
Remembering how Dorian had used the cylinder of glass to read the scrolls, she didn't doubt he had some spare that would help the poor woman read better. "Of course."
Xena wrote out a message for Dorian telling him of the woman's limited sight and her importance towards Tobias's wedding gown. That would definitely encourage him to lend a hand. She scrolled it up and sealed it with a wax seal of the Lyncestis family crest.
"Take this to the healer, Dorian. He will know what to do."
The tailor took the scroll. She looked at it, then Xena. "You are very kind, Your Highness. Forgive me if this may sound so bold, but I believed...I believed you would dismiss me."
Xena knew the woman's fear was most likely because of Tobias's unpredictable nature. The tailor wasn't the only one whom had been afraid for their fate. Only two nights before, a server had spilled wine over her trousers after missing her goblet. The server had immediately paled and everyone at the table seemed to wait. As if Tobias was known to react with fire and wrath. When Xena merely wiped herself down and shrugged it off as nothing more than a mistake, she knew she had done something he hadn't.
Xena exhaled slowly. "I'm sorry I ever made you feel that way. I would never fire you for something so trivial. You can't help your eyes. But hopefully, the healer can. Really, don't worry."
When she had finished, the tailor smiled so brightly Xena thought her face would begin to ache. "Thank you, Your Highness. I'll go right away."
As she was half way toward the door Xena called.
"Wait! What shall I do about this?" she asked, gesturing to her tight, ridiculous tunic.
"Just undress and leave it. I will collect it later."
The tailor left quickly.
Xena turned back to the mirror; she quirked an eyebrow at her reflection. "You look like a swollen jester."
As she started reaching to remove the pins securing the material in place, there was a brisk knock at the door.
"Wait a second!" Xena shouted. There was no way she was going to allow anyone else to see her like this.
When the knock came again, more urgent than before, Xena rushed over. Perhaps it was a messenger from the king again, or maybe Claudius. She swung the door open, expecting either of them, but met neither. Instead a small woman with shimmering blonde hair and green eyes smiled up at her.
Gabrielle quickly let herself in and closed the door. "I've realised, as a servant, I can go anywhere almost unseen. I figured I could use that to our advantage. I..."
As she turned, Gabrielle's words failed once she set her when her eyes upon Xena's outfit. She pressed a hand to her mouth, her eyes shimmering with laughter.
Xena held up her finger. "Don't say anything."
"How can I not? You look like you need puncturing."
"Have you tried jumping out the window yet? You might float all the way down."
Xena couldn't help but smile. "I'll keep that in mind if I ever need to make a quick escape from the wedding."
Gabrielle's smile faltered. Her eyes looked at the outfit again. "This is for the ball, isn't it?"
Xena looked down at herself. "Hopefully not." When she looked back up again, Xena saw Gabrielle was no longer smiling. "Gabrielle...I'm not really marrying the princess."
The bard nodded. She frowned, smiling as if the very idea of that happening was ridiculous. "Of course, I know that. The prince is marrying her."
Both were silent for a moment.
"I miss you," Gabrielle finally said.
Sensing Gabrielle's unspoken worries, Xena stepped forward and wound her arms around her. All at once Xena felt her own worries and stress melt away once she felt her bard in her arms again. She closed her eyes and held her tighter, revelling in the softness and smell of her.
"I know you're worried, Gabrielle. I can see it in your eyes. You can lie to yourself but you can't lie to me. We are going to figure this out. Once Dorian creates the antidote to counteract Tobias's potion, everything will go back to the way it was."
"I know but, Xena...what if it doesn't work? What if the potion doesn't work and you stay like this forever?"
"You don't think I could pull off this look?" Xena asked, gesturing to the puffed out sleeves.
Gabrielle smiled softly, shaking her head. "I fell in love with my warrior princess. I don't know how I feel about the prince."
She snuggled in to Xena's shoulder. When she pulled back, Xena caught her face between her hands. She cupped Gabrielle's face and stared into those beautiful green eyes.
"I know I look like the prince, but that is where the similarities end. I'm still in here." Xena sighed. "And...Even if Dorian can't help, the warrior in this body will never stop loving you, in this life of the next."
Forgetting where they were, Xena pulled her close and pressed her lips against Gabrielle's.
At first Gabrielle was hesitant, her movements almost shy. Then, as Xena traced her hands across the bard's back, skimming the hem of her top, she felt the bard shiver against her. With effort, she moved her lips and peppered Gabrielle's neck with soft agonizingly slow kisses, until Gabrielle thread her fingers into her short hair and pulled her closer in frustration.
"Xena..." Gabrielle breathed into her ear.
Xena couldn't hold back a moan as she felt Gabrielle push her body closer into her own.
Dazed, Xena circled her arms around the bard and lifted her onto the table opposite Tobias's bed. They came together in a heated kiss. Xena used her hip to separate the bard's legs. Gabrielle hitched her legs around Xena's hips and pulled her closer.
Xena knew they were entering dangerous ground, but she couldn't help it. Tasting Gabrielle, feeling her body against hers again; it was intoxicating. Gabrielle was the woman of her dreams. She let her hands roam Gabrielle's body; the dip of her waist and curve of her hips.
"I want you," Gabrielle moaned, pushing herself as close as she could.
The table rocked beneath her.
The sound of a jug smashing across the floor brought the world crashing through Xena's ears.
The pulled back slightly. Pressing her forehead against Gabrielle's, Xena concentrated on steadying her racing heart. The sound of their heaving breathing echoed around them.
When they had finally calmed, Xena grinned. Seeing Gabrielle so flushed from her own passion sent a new wave of affection through Xena.
Reaching up, Xena brushed her fringe aside and pressed a chaste kiss against her sweaty forehead. "I love you."
Gabrielle grasped her hand. She was trembling, but she was smiling. "I love you too."
"Gods," Xena stepped back so Gabrielle could lower herself from the table. "It's getting harder to fight desire in the prince's body. I hope Dorian creates that potion soon. In the mean time...I think you two should meet."