Chapter 26 – Commoners
Over the next couple of months Xena had an academy built beside the palace for the girls and boys who wanted to join. She told Gabrielle to be in charge of the academy and made that decision not even thinking of Gabrielle and her life choices. She just assumed that Gabrielle would stay here forever but as time went by she realized that she was selfish in her thinking. Constantly, she offered Gabrielle many times to leave Persia and return to her village, Potidaea, but each time Gabrielle declined. In fact, she was annoyed that Xena kept asking her to leave, but she assumed it was because Xena felt bad in a way.
Gabrielle knew that Xena was not a bad person and she never was from the beginning. She tried so hard to keep her identity concealed to everyone, but that was obviously out of the question. The citizens of Jerusalem were more wary of Xena now that she was exposed as a woman than when she was a male sultan. They suddenly did not trust her anymore and questioned everything she did.
Xena on the other hand, remained cloistered in her palace from the public eye. Gabrielle knew that this was not the right choice if Xena was to gain her people's trust. In Greece it was different, people were a bit more accepting of others, but in Persia, these people were more clandestine. There were so many people from different parts of the world that lived in the second half of Xena's giant empire. Some of these people weren't even natives of Persia. Some were from Mongolia, China, India, Anatolia and Greece. Some even from Africa and Arabia. One can imagine the difference of opinions when it came to the sultan or...sultana.
The academy was almost finished being built next to the palace, but the word had not gone out to everyone just yet. The more time Gabrielle spent with Xena the more she saw fear in her. Xena, the almighty ruler, emperor, empress, sultan, sultana, was afraid of her people. Maybe fear was not the right word she supposed. Maybe Xena was nervous to see her people for the first time without her mask.
Xena stood inside the unfinished academy, walking around, inspecting the place. She wrapped her hand on one of the pillars and lifted her eyes at the open ceiling still being worked on. This would be finished within the next month or so she hoped. She also wondered if she was doing the right thing by building this place.
She didn't think that she would build an academy to train young girls and boys. She mainly brought those young women and teenagers from broken homes in Persia and Greece because she was bored with her life. She had lived among the shadows yet was powerful throughout several monarchies in Europe and ruled over Anatolia by proxy. Now that she spent time getting to know all of her female trainees she realized that there was something different and missing from her life.
She had spent so much time trying to expand her empire and make herself known throughout the world that she forgot how to be herself at times. She even neglected her children in order to promote her vast empire across the Mediterranean. Feeling guilty, she sought after young women to train out of boredom but it turned into much more than that. She liked those girls and while some stayed, she gave everyone the opportunity to leave. She recognized that not everyone was not meant for war or training with weapons for the rest of their lives like her. Not everyone thought like she did and she was beginning to realize that.
Gabrielle waltzed into the building with a big smile on her face. She turned about herself and looked at the fine craftsmanship of this academy. She was impressed to say the least. Then she saw Xena standing by herself in the middle of the academy her head in the clouds.
"This place is really nice, Xena!" she said.
Xena jumped at the sound of her voice. For once, she was caught off guard. Turning slowly, she saw the blonde with a big grin. She too smiled faintly and nodded at her presence. "I'm glad you like it," her voice soft.
Gabrielle frowned, cocking her head. Walking over to the sultana she grabbed her arm firmly. "Something the matter? I thought you would be happy about this? After all, this was your idea."
The raven haired ruler sighed. "I am happy. I'm just thinking of all the times that I could have done better for my people. Now they don't even trust me."
"Xena," the blonde arched her eyebrow and Xena peered down at her. "They don't even know you." She said and saw the sultana's eyes lower, saddened to hear that. "You should talk to them. Get to know them so they can know who you really are."
Xena groaned and folded her arms. "How do I do that? I lied about who I was for years. How can I make them trust me now? They don't even know what I look like and I don't think they care."
Gabrielle nodded and then her eyes grew, sparkling at a revelation. "I have an idea," she clapped her hands together and Xena frowned. "We should go to the city and observe. Listen to what people have to say about you. Since they don't know what you look like..." thanks to you being a hermit, she thought. "You can ask questions about what they think of you. They won't have any idea."
The sultana rubbed her chin and eyed the fiery blonde beneath her. "You will come with me, right?" she asked, almost afraid that Gabrielle would reject.
"Of course!" Gabrielle grinned and playfully nudged Xena's arm. She then saw the sultana's eyes grow and her smile disappeared, now fearing that was not the best idea to hit her. Please, don't hit me.
Then Xena broke out in a soft smile and Gabrielle inwardly sighed a sigh of relief, thanking God that Xena had at least somewhat a sense of humor and playfulness as oppose to her hard exterior. "We will ride out today, how does that sound? I will bring Dajan and –"
"Whoa, whoa!" the blonde held up her hand, interrupting the sultana. "We can't take any elite guards, Xena. The people will know it is you. We will have to go as..."
"Commoners?" Xena said.
Gabrielle frowned. "You probably shouldn't call them that. They are people, not commoners. We will have to get rid of this..." she pinched Xena's long black sleeves, "garb.." she sheepishly smiled. "And those boots."
Xena frowned, glancing down at her black shiny boots. "What's wrong with my boots?"
Sighing, Gabrielle looked into the blue eyes above her. Could she really be this clueless? "Xena, your boots and clothes scream royalty. Nobody has clothes like this in the city. They don't have their clothes washed and pressed every month like you do. We will have to wear something less...flashy." she suggested.
"Alright, I will follow your lead." Xena smiled and Gabrielle hid her smile, turning to look at the inside of the academy again.
Solan and Alexander walked into the academy. Both boys' eyes wandered around and Alexander ran up the stairs to the unfinished second floor. Xena spun around and snarled at her youngest son, crawling on his knees.
"Alexander!" she yelled and he smiled down at her, waving his hand.
"This is so cool!" Alexander beamed and stood slowly, walking across on a plank to the other side of the floor.
"If you fall don't come crying to me," Xena folded her arms, scowling at her son.
Alexander giggled. "Stop worrying mom! I'm not a baby."
Solan scoffed, copying his mother's stance. "He thinks he's a man now," he whispered to his mother.
She smirked. "I'm sure he does. Spending too much time with Belach." She turned to her son, "have you heard anything from him?"
Solan nodded, "yeah he says that he wished he lived here."
Her eyes widened at that response she was not expecting. "Does he?" she smiled softly. "I wonder why he would say something like that." She honestly wondered why Belach said that. He had grown to despise her only because he listened to his mother, but perhaps, he grew out of that and no longer listened to Natassa. Or maybe, she stopped spewing hatred from her mouth since she had more important matters to worry about.
Solan shrugged his shoulders. "He says that father is making him do a lot of work in Ankara. I guess being second in command isn't what he thought it would be." He frowned, still a bit sour that his position was given to his elder brother, but he was not in Ankara anymore and it wasn't likely that his mother would allow him to go there any time soon.
Xena looked down at the scowl on her son's face and couldn't help but find that amusing. "Maybe we can go to Ankara together to see Natassa's baby."
Alexander gasped and jumped down to the ground from the second floor. "Can we?! I miss Ankara and I really want to see the baby. I hope it is a boy." He grinned deviously.
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and Xena did the same. He turned up to his mother. "When can we go?"
"When she has her baby," she said.
"When is that?" he pried, raising an eyebrow curiously.
"Alexander," Solan huffed, "you asked this yesterday! No matter how many times you ask it's going to be the same answer!"
Alexander groaned and crossed his arms. "I'm impatient," he mumbled.
Xena laughed. "Understatement of the year," she teased and he shot her a glare. "You said it, not me."
"Doesn't mean you have to agree!" he spat and she pat his cheek then began ushering him out of the academy. "Hey, where are we going?!"
"Back to the palace where I can keep my eye on you," she answered.
"But I've been really good, mother!" he whined. "Come on, cut me some slack..."
Solan stifled a laugh and Gabrielle shook her head. "He's really milking it," he whispered to Gabrielle.
The blonde nodded. "I expect nothing less." The more time she spent with Xena's sons the more she came to realize that Solan was more like his father and Alexander probably a mirror image of Xena. He was filled with so much fire and always was getting into things. Solan was more grounded than his brother. Alexander was super disobedient but it was as if he didn't know what he was doing was wrong.
Dajan stared at Xena as she was wearing common folk clothing, old boots and no weapon at her side. She briefly told him what her plan was and he wasn't sure this was such a good idea. If anyone recognized her, which was unlikely, but still a possibility, she could be hounded and mobbed out of her own city.
Xena adjusted the beige veil around her head and fixed her thick dark bangs, turning around she placed her hands on her hips. "How do I look?" she asked.
He sighed heavily. "Sultana, allow me to come with you."
Frowning, she turned back to the mirror and adjusted the skirt she wore over her pants. "No, I am doing this on my own. Gabrielle is coming with me. She said it would be better to get the people's opinions if I am less of a threat to them."
"So, you take a girl's word over mine?"
She spun around, her eyes wide and he lowered his head shamefully. "I trust Gabrielle and if you say anything against her then you are also against me. Understand?"
"Yes, sultana," he said lowly.
Gabrielle walked into the room and saw Xena in a less threatening attire and smiled. She wrapped the scarf around her long golden locks and circled around Xena, examining her clothes. "Very nice. How did you come by these clothes so quickly?"
"My servants," Xena said.
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow. "Okay well...this will have to do. We should get going." She urged and Xena nodded, eager to get out of her home but also a bit nervous to hear her people's reactions about her as well.
Dajan placed his hand on her shoulder before she left. "If you are not back by nightfall...I will have a party search for you."
She cast him a reassuring smile. "I will come back in one piece." She said and he bowed his head. "Make sure Solan and Alexander do not leave the palace."
"Of course..." he groaned and knew that would be difficult. He hated watching Xena's sons, especially Alexander. Solan sometimes instigated his brother at times and worked with him to terrorize the girls. This is not what he wanted to do for the day. A glorified babysitter.
Together they walked the busy streets of Jerusalem and Xena was constantly shoved as people passed by her. Gabrielle was casually walking beside her and noticed the anger rising in her as she was not used to being a nobody. Everyone always parted ways when they saw the sultan, but today Xena was not a sultan or sultana. She was just like everyone else. A commoner.
Gabrielle chuckled and Xena cast her a glare. "Xena, you should learn how to relax."
Xena groaned and wiped off some fruit juice that was spilled on her. "Everyone keeps running into me!"
"You are not the sultana today, remember..." Gabrielle whispered. Xena sighed and nodded, almost forgetting the plan entirely. She was already annoyed and they had only been outside for less than an hour.
Gabrielle spotted a tavern and grabbed Xena's hand, pulling her along. "Come on, we should sit down in there. I'm sure there's gossip in there!" she grinned.
Xena cringed at the sight of the place. There were men everywhere and some of them kept eyeing her. She snarled at one of them and they fell backward into the sand. She smirked and walked into the tavern behind Gabrielle, as if she didn't have a choice in the matter.
Gabrielle found an empty table beside a group of men drinking and conversing together. Xena's nose crinkled and she wiped off the dust with her fingers and brushed the bench off several times. Gabrielle was calling over a waitress and spun around to see Xena cleaning the bench with her hand and crookedly smiled.
"What are you doing?" she asked and Xena's head shot up.
"It's filthy in here," she muttered and Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"Just sit down," she said and Xena reluctantly sat down on the bench, careful not to touch the table and took her sleeve, wiping the dust off the table.
The men beside her gawked over seeing her cleaning the table, or trying to. Some of them were amused and chuckled lightly. One man leaned back in his chair and she lifted her eyes. "Afraid you're not going to get that table any cleaner, miss," he winked and she arched her eyebrow.
She desperately wanted Gabrielle to come back to the table before she made some horrible remark to these men. "Maybe if you all didn't act like such pigs then this place wouldn't be so filthy!" she hissed.
All the men's eyes widened and silenced. Some other people behind her heard the conversation and leered over. Gabrielle came back with some mead and hesitantly sat down noticing a lot of eyes on Xena. She leaned over the table with a frown.
"What did you say?!" she whispered.
"I didn't say anything," Xena gave a tight lipped smile and glared over at the man who spoke to her earlier.
"Yeah right," Gabrielle rolled her eyes and pushed the cup towards Xena. "Drink this and try to act normal."
Xena picked up the cup and stared at the dark mead. She stuck her finger in it and rubbed her fingers together. Gabrielle's mouth parted as she was about to take a sip of the mead. What in God's name is she doing? Slowly, she set the cup back down on the table and Xena smelled the mead.
"It's not poison, lady," the man said and his friends chuckled. "This isn't the sultan's palace!" he cackled.
Xena growled and was about to stand up until Gabrielle firmly grabbed her hand. "Don't," she warned and Xena exhaled slowly and heavily. Gabrielle then turned to the men with a big smile on her face. "You're making fun of the sultan?" she asked.
The man shook his head, "I didn't say anything. I hear the sultan is a woman. Donno how she managed to pull that one off!" he grinned and she nodded.
"So, you are not upset that the sultan is a woman?"
He shrugged. "I couldn't care less if she were a mutant. She's never shown her face before when she was a man and she still hasn't." he eyed her cautiously. "You aren't a spy are you?"
Gabrielle laughed lightly. "Far from it," she joked and saw fear in his eyes. Xena kept glaring at him and she pat his hand. "Just a joke." She cleared her throat, "anyway, so you're saying you don't like the sultana? She's been very nice to you all."
"Nice?!" he scoffed. "She is far from nice. Sure she erased our foreign taxes and allowed us to have more jobs, but everyone is afraid of her. Nobody's even seen her face before. How can we trust someone like that? She hides in that grand palace of hers." He shook his head and drank his dark ale.
Xena lowered her eyes and her stance softened. Her thoughts about her people were true. They didn't trust her because they didn't know her, just like Gabrielle said. That's not what she wanted at all. She wanted everyone to trust her. That was the most important thing in her life was trust and she didn't give her trust to just anyone. But if she could give her trust to her people then she can earn it from them. But how?
She leaned forward on the table. "Are you saying that you would like the sultana to come speak to everyone?" she inquired, very curious. Gabrielle cast her a warm smile and turned back to the man.
Sighing he leaned backward, staring into her bright blues. "Listen, lady, I don't have a problem with the sultana but it would be nice to see her face once in awhile. I am beginning to think she's a ghost that haunts this place." He chuckled. "Even the Pope makes appearances daily! The friggin' Pope! But the sultana?" he scoffed, "she's like an enigma."
Xena nodded. "Is there anything else that you would want the...sultana...to do?" she felt awkward talking about herself in third person.
The man turned to his friends and one of the friends smiled over at her. "Yeah, there is one thing, but not like it matters if I tell you."
She smirked, "and if I told you I know the sultana, would you tell me then?"
All of their eyes widened. "You know her?"
"Something like that. So, you were saying," she waved her hand for him to continue.
"Well," he nursed the cup of ale in his hands. "It would be nice if she lifted the trade ban with China. We get a lot of business from them."
Xena frowned and rose to her feet. "I don't think that she will agree to that."
Gabrielle glared at Xena, pointing to the bench and slowly, the sultana sat back down, glaring at the men. "And why wouldn't she agree?" she played along and Xena squinted her eyes at her for going along with this idiocy.
"Because," Xena bat her eyelashes with a forced smile, "China is allies with the Khan and the sultana is not allies with him. So therefore...there is a trade ban!" she growled.
The men eyed her curiously and a few of them scooted in their chairs to get away from her hostility. "Well..." Gabrielle's smile never left her lips and she saw Xena's temper rising. "Maybe you could talk to the sultana and convince her to lift it?"
"I will not!" Xena's voice raised and she stood from the table. She looked over at the confused men gawking at her as she was growing more impatient and irritated. She relaxed her shoulders and eyed Gabrielle. "I'd like to leave now."
Gabrielle drank her mead, "oh but we just getting started!"
"Gabrielle!" Xena hissed and the blonde rolled her eyes and left her cup then followed Xena out of the tavern.
"Hey!" Gabrielle yelled and Xena halted. "What was that back there?" she thumbed the tavern and Xena turned around slowly.
"They ask too much from me. I cannot and will not lift the trade ban with China!" she hissed, eyeing everyone around her cautiously, afraid someone might recognize her.
The blonde folded her arms. "We're supposed to be discreet and find out what people think of you. You are being ridiculous and acting...stupid." she said and Xena gasped.
"I am not."
"Yes you are!" she grabbed her arm and ushered her into a narrow alleyway away from prying eyes. "You aren't sticking to the plan, Xena, like we agreed."
Xena folded her arms and quirked her mouth, turning to look at the people passing by. "Gabrielle, they can't just demand these things from me. I put that trade ban in effect because the Khan is trying to control Persia. This is political."
Gabrielle half smiled. "Then why don't you let the people vote on it?"
"Oh right. Like I'm going to allow common..." she lowered her eyes, "my people...to vote on these political decisions. I don't need them."
"Without them you would be nothing, Xena." She said and heard Xena sigh heavily. Yes, that's right. You know I'm right Xena. Too stubborn to admit it, as always. "They are part of your empire and without them you would have an empire of empty space. Their voice matters."
She placed a hand on the sultana's shoulder, looking into her eyes. "Be the merciful ruler that you claim to be." She smiled. "Besides, they could possibly make the empire a better place, you never know!"
Xena hid her shy smile. "You are very convincing."
"I know," Gabrielle smiled proudly. Hooking her arm with hers they walked out of the alleyway. "So, shall we scout the rest of the city?"
"I don't know Gabrielle. That was enough for me..."
"Come on, Xena! We're just getting started!" she grinned deviously.
"I really need to get back home..." Xena protested.
Gabrielle turned to her with a knowing look of disbelief. "No, you don't. You're just stalling."
"And it's not working, I am guessing?" Xena teased with a small chagrin. Gabrielle shook her head and jerked her forward and she gasped.
Hours after going through the city and talking to various people Xena felt incredibly drained. She never heard so many people speak about her right to her face and they were oblivious to it all. Some of the things that those people said were true and they had a right to not trust her. She was basically someone else right under their noses and here she was, disguised as someone else, standing before them listening to them debase her. She didn't know how to feel anymore and felt conflicted. Most people really liked her but at the same time there was a trust issue. She wanted people to trust her just like she trusted her allies. She began to think of these people more than commoners. Gabrielle was right, they were the reason she was in her position today. She'd be nothing without them. How could she have been so blind?
Gabrielle suggested that they go to the beach and rest after today. The sun set already and Xena didn't want to stay too long, fearing that Dajan would send someone looking for her. She didn't want any attention drawn to her today, not today.
As they sat together Xena looked out at the dark ocean in front of her and forgot how nice it was to sit and do nothing for once. For now, she had the Templar Knights off her back and she could rebuild her palace and create her academy. With the feedback she got today she realized she needed to talk to her people and connect them on a different level. None of this would have happened if Gabrielle hadn't suggested it. Nothing that happened in the last year would have happened if she didn't bring those girls in and Gabrielle wouldn't be here beside her.
Gabrielle was so different, yet she fascinated Xena despite their age difference and background. Xena turned and gazed at the blonde beside her. Gabrielle completely unaware of her gaping eyes as she sat admiring her. A smile crossed the sultana's lips. She wondered how such a petite blonde Greek girl could change her life for the better and move into a direction. Bringing those girls from across her empire was probably the best decision she's ever made. If she didn't do that she wouldn't have Gabrielle by her side. She also wondered how Gabrielle felt being here. It wasn't as if Gabrielle didn't want to be here, but Xena wondered why she chose to stay instead of leaving. She gave her the choice of leaving several times and Gabrielle declined them all. Why? She still didn't know.
Catching Xena's gaze on her she turned and smiled. "What?" she asked.
Xena's smile widened. "Nothing," she said softly. "I was just thinking my life wouldn't be the same without you."
Gabrielle blushed. "Is that a good thing?" I sure hope so, she thought.
Nodding, Xena looked out at the ocean, the dark waves rolling over one another and the gentle breeze coming to the shore was so peaceful. "I would say so." Her hand slithered across the sand and intertwined her fingers with Gabrielle's, gripping firmly.
The blonde looked down shockingly and Xena's eyes turned to face hers. "I think I finally figured you out."
This peeked Xena's interest and she smiled slyly. "Oh?" she cocked her head, slightly amused.
Gabrielle nodded. "But that is my secret." She winked at her and Xena kept the smile on her lips.
The longer Gabrielle stared at Xena the more she realized that her life would be forever changed now. She couldn't go back home, not like this. She didn't want to go back home either. At first, she did, but that was before she didn't understand Xena. Considering that she thought Xena was a man, her relationship with her was pretty odd and stagnant. The first time she saw Xena's face unveiled was the moment she knew that she had to stay and figure out who she really was.
Now that they spent months together, she thought she had the key. I have finally cracked the code, Xena. I know who you really are now and I'll keep that to myself. We all have our secrets and I think friends are allowed to have secrets. You trust me and that's how I figured you out. You want trust but you also want love. Something that's been missing from your life for a long time. You were so focused on ruling an empire you forgot how to love and trust others. You've always wanted trust from people close to you and from your allies but you forgot one huge thing. Trust goes both ways.
"We should probably head back before Dajan comes searching for me." Xena sighed and stood, brushing the sand off her clothes. She hated to leave this serene place. It was a good place to come and think.
Gabrielle stood up and they began walking back to the forest ahead. It would be awhile before they reached the palace since they walked everywhere today without horses.
Xena grinned. "I think I will take the boys to the beach sometime. Alexander begged me to take him when he got here and I told him no."
"I think they would like that." Gabrielle nodded. "They deserve some fun in their lives."
Xena agreed and she had been so focused on Sidon, Saladin, Baldwin and the Templars that she completely forgot to be a mother to her own children. It was no wonder that they loved to spend their time in Ankara. There was nothing going on there, nothing like here. She felt guilty for ignoring them but she had to do what was necessary.
"Speaking of fun..." Gabrielle grinned deviously and saw Xena roll her eyes. "What about that party, huh?"
"I said we can have a party, Gabrielle. You don't have to remind me about it. I didn't forget." She grumbled.
"When can we have the party then? Can I be in charge of that too?" she hoped and Xena shot her a glare. "Or not...?"
Xena sighed. "I don't plan parties. Only wars."
"Let me help you! I can arrange everything!"
Gabrielle let out a satisfied exhale, hooking arms with Xena as they walked down the sandy path towards the palace. "This is going to be so much fun."