AN: this is incredibly long but necessary! Action saved for the following chapter. Interesting things in this chapter, good luck and thank you for reading ;)
Chapter 5 –The Holy Land
Two Months Later
Xena's men brought Osman to Jerusalem as she requested and the two argued for days about the Crusaders. She warned him if he even came close to joining them, she would cut off all aid to Anatolia and invade Ankara. Osman believed that Xena would never bluff about something as dangerous and vicious as that, but he felt conflicted.
He wanted to ally with the Crusaders only because that meant they would receive more coin and military aid to attack the Mongols if they came that far. There had been rumors that Genghis Khan and his army moved across the Caucasus Mountains, which was incredibly close to Anatolia. Osman didn't know if Xena was even remotely worried about the Mongolians. He always believed that she was very arrogant and thought she was the best warrior in the western world. Although, she had a massive empire that spanned from Thrace to far east of Persia.
In the end, the two never reached a decision and Osman was forced to return to Ankara since he got word that Borias came back from his long four month mission. Xena began trying to pry information out of him about Borias and this so-called mission, but he wouldn't dare tell her anything.
He knew that if Xena was to know about this mission it would ruin everything. Osman was playing with fire between the Mongols and Roman Crusaders. He wanted to ally with the church because they were a much stronger influence than Xena could ever be. The Romans even warned him that since Xenophon was the church's enemy and took control of the holy city, they would revolt and destroy Ankara.
He was forced to make a tough decision –keep alliance with Xena and her empire or side with Rome. Neither alliance was convincing enough so he turned elsewhere for help. He made no promise to Rome that he would aid in their Crusade to attack Jerusalem, but he also did not make any promises that he would keep his word and remain friends with Xena either.
Upon Osman's return he told Borias that he desperately needed to talk to him alone. The two sat together in the large yurt in the campgrounds.
The chieftain rubbed the back his neck anxiously. "I spoke with Xena about the Crusaders. She threatened to attack Ankara if we ally with Rome."
Borias let out a heavy sigh and shook his head. "She does not know when to stop," he growled. "You will not befriend the Romans will you?" he asked with a bit of hesitance.
Osman shook his head, "no, I have decided not to ally with them. I told them that I wouldn't two months ago when they paid a visit to Ankara. But, they insist that it is a much better offer to become alliances with them instead of remaining allies with Xena's empire."
"She will attack us, Osman," Borias knew Xena very well, even though he hadn't seen her in several years, nothing has changed about her since the time has passed.
The chieftain sighed and rubbed his knees, trying to distract himself. "What about your mission?"
Borias grinned widely. "I spoke to the khan and he agrees to ally with us. We will join with the golden horde in the Caucasus."
Osman nodded, glad to hear at least some good news. "And what did he say about the Greco-Persian empire?" he feared that if Xena found out about their alliance with the Mongols, she'd definitely destroy Ankara.
"He said that if Xenophon," he began and really hated calling Xena by that name. It left a sour taste in his mouth. He continued, "does not surrender under him, he will attack the empire. He sent one of his officers to Jerusalem months ago, but I know that she declined. I can't say I am surprised," he rolled his eyes.
"Perhaps, you could persuade her to surrender?" Osman offered politely, knowing the two haven't seen each other in years even when Alexander was born, the two did not meet.
Borias let out a roaring laugh and the chieftain frowned at the ghastly response. "Osman, I love you as a friend, a brother, of course but..." he chuckled and rubbed his chin. "She will never agree."
"It amazes me that you two were able to have two children together," Osman widened his eyes and tightened his lips just thinking about those two. They were totally two opposite people.
The chieftain's dark haired friend nodded, agreeing with him. "People change," he said and Osman's lip curled into a smile and Borias chuckled softly.
Osman lifted his cup of wine and smiled smugly. "Probably should have stopped after the first child," he teased and Borias frowned, sipping the wine slowly. "You should have never went to Thebes," he chortled, remembering that trip he took.
Borias coughed, almost choking on the wine. "Hey, hey," he held up his hand. "I thought we weren't going to talk about that anymore?"
"What was it again? An irresistible urge?" Osman laughed and his friend hung his head embarrassed that even happened.
"It was one time," Borias grumbled and finished off the wine in one swig.
"I can still see the look on Natassa's face when –"
"Are you done?" Borias glared at his friend and Osman cleared his throat, nodding his head.
Solan thought that his mother would have written back to him by now. It had been two months since he sent that message about the Crusaders. Usually, he got a response from her within the week, but he had got nothing yet. It was really out of character for her not to reply back in a timely manner and he was beginning to worry that something might have happened.
The worst thought came to his mind. Maybe the Roman Crusaders already invaded Jerusalem and she was dead, but if that were true, he would have found out already, so that couldn't be it. Or maybe she was busy building her army and that's why she hadn't replied.
He walked around the grassy plains coming up with different scenarios in his head. His mother always had something going on and always found time to write back to him even if she was super busy.
Sighing he scratched his head and then turned to see his stepmother dying some fabric outside her yurt. She had her arms fully submerged in the dyed water and kept pulling fabrics in and out of the large bins. He ran over to her and she lifted her blue eyes, frowning slightly.
"Natassa Khatun," he smiled, greeting her as sweetly as possible.
"What do you need Solan? I am busy," she groaned and took out the fabric and hung it over the drying wrack beside her.
He saw her struggling to pull out the heavy fabric out of the water and he took the fabric off her hands and walked it over to the drying wrack. Natassa raised her eyebrow and now she knew he definitely wanted something. It was difficult to hate a child, but he was the child of Borias' whore, as she called Xena many times. Over the years the two spent together, he was always polite to her. She suspected that his mother told him to be nice to her.
"What's all the fabric for?" he asked curiously.
She took the white linen and dipped it in the burgundy dye. "Dresses for the women," she answered curtly.
Solan nodded and twiddled his thumbs behind his back. She lifted her eyes and sighed, staring at him. "What is it?" she was growing tired of him lingering around, since she had so much work to do and very little time to do it.
He smiled nervously. "Well...have you got any...letters from my mother?" he asked.
Natassa shook her head. "No I haven't." she saw the disappointment in the boy's eyes. "Are you expecting one?"
Solan shrugged his shoulder. "No, no. I was just wondering. You will let me know if you get anything...?" he asked and she nodded then continued dying the fabric. He quickly ran off leaving that awkward situation.
He saw Belach's yurt and frowned. He marched over there to talk to his brother. He hadn't really spoken to him these last couple of months at all. He barged into his yurt and saw Belach in bed, but he wasn't alone. His eyes widened as he looked at the young girl with long curly dark hair.
She gasped and covered herself with the sheets and Belach frowned. He got out of the bed and grabbed Solan's arm, pushing him out of his yurt.
"Who do you think you are, coming into my room?!" Belach growled.
Solan was still star struck and looked into his brother's irate dark eyes. "That...was...was that Dilara?" he was speechless and couldn't believe that Osman's niece was in his brother's yurt, or in his bed for that matter.
Belach rolled his eyes and folded his arms. "So what if it was?" he smirked.
"She is promised to someone else, Belach!" Solan yelled and his elder brother snarled, grabbing hold of his arm.
"Solan!" Borias called out. Both boys turned to their father and they saw a huge frown on his face. He was coming their way.
Belach tightened his grip on his younger brother's arm. "You know nothing about this," he hissed and then smiled at his father. "I didn't know you were back, father..." he wrapped his arm around Solan.
Borias' eyebrow rose and stared at Solan and saw a scowl on his face. "Why aren't you with your mother?" he asked.
"What a great question," Solan smugly smiled and looked to his brother. Borias glanced back and forth between his sons, very confused as to what was going on.
Belach chuckled and pat Solan's shoulder. "Xena said it was alright if he stayed here for awhile longer. Hope you don't mind..." he pinched Solan's arm, keeping him quiet.
"That doesn't sound like her," Borias said and Solan smirked. Belach faltered and his smile disappeared. "Did she tell you that, Solan?" he turned to his blonde son.
Solan began to talk and Belach pinched him. "Stop it!" he growled and pushed his brother away gruffly. "No, she didn't tell me that!" he spat and Borias frowned. Now he was even more confused. "I wanted to stay here," he lied.
"Did you tell her that?" his father pressed and Solan shook his head. "She will blame me for this, you know that, right?" he sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead. He didn't want to deal with Xena at all. It had been nice these last few years without seeing one another, but since Solan decided to stay here, she was probably upset and he didn't have the energy nor time to deal with her wrath.
"She knows that I am staying here," Solan added and his father eyed him curiously. "Alexander told her."
Borias smiled frustratingly. "Of course...Alexander..." he sighed and walked off without saying another word to either of his sons.
Belach pushed Solan and snarled. "You almost got both of us in trouble!"
Solan frowned and brushed off his brother's slimy sweat off his tunic. "It's your fault that I am here in the first place. Why don't you go back to your lover girl?" he teased then sauntered off.
Early in the morning after Xena finished yet another meeting with the council, she walked through the hall with Dajan before she met with her girls. The training had been going well for the last two months, although, a couple of girls broke down and could no longer handle the strenuous training she put them under.
She turned to Dajan and stopped in the middle of the hallway. "Have you received anything from Ankara?" she hoped and he shook his head.
"Sorry, your majesty," he said with a sad smile. "I will let you know immediately if something comes in." he said and she sighed heavily.
"Thank you," she said softly and he walked off to go finish the rest of his duties for the day. She folded her arms and was very bemused. She had sent several letters to Solan for the last two months and had not received anything back yet. She was beginning to think that either something happened to him or someone was hoarding her letters. She also wrote Borias not once, but twice and she knew he was not much for writing, but he did respond to her rather quickly. She too, didn't receive anything from him either.
Gabrielle walked through the hall after getting up super early this morning. She was ahead of schedule than all the other girls. As she tread through the hall she abruptly stopped once she saw the sultan standing by herself. She inhaled heavily once she saw her.
She tried to avoid eye contact with the sultan ever since she found out her secret two months ago. Although, she also didn't make her life easier during training sessions. The sultan always gave her extra tasks to do for some reason. Gabrielle took Helena's advice to stop making herself super noticeable to the sultan, but it didn't seem to work.
No matter how much she tried, she was always in the spotlight and that was probably because the sultan knew her and remembered all of her faults. Gabrielle didn't understand why the sultan picked on her so much. Just last week she had to crawl through the hot sand for half a mile, which was much longer than the other girls, but she did it reluctantly anyway.
Gabrielle knew that she couldn't just avoid the sultan forever and decided to approach her. She exhaled deeply and then put on a big smile.
"Good morning, your highness," she greeted warmly and slowly the sultan turned around.
Xena grinned and stared into Gabrielle's big green eyes. "Good morning, Gabrielle," she said politely. "What can I do for you?"
Gabrielle's smile faded and she pursed her lips. "Well...uh.." she tried to avoid the sultan's eyes as much as possible but it was nearly impossible. "I just wanted to say hello." She saw the blue eyes still staring and the sultan said nothing, which made the situation even more awkward.
"And that...I am really anxious to see what you have in mind for today's session," she said with a big cheeky grin and then felt really stupid for saying that out loud. She cringed at her own words.
Xena smiled softly and finally lowered her eyes. "You try too hard, Gabrielle. Remember, we are not friends," she turned and walked off down the hall.
Gabrielle blinked and she then ran after the sultan. "I know that, but I mean...can't I be excited about training?"
Xena frowned, narrowing her eyes, she kept walking with the annoying blonde by her side. "After last week I didn't think you would be 'excited' about training."
Laughing nervously, Gabrielle spoke, "well I have to admit, you really pushed me to my limits."
Xena halted and then turned to face her trainee. Gabrielle then realized that she probably shouldn't have said what she did. She studied the woman's eyes and didn't even have to see her face to know what kind of emotion she was portraying.
"I have never met anyone like you before," Xena said.
Neither have I, Gabrielle thought, but she remained quiet.
"You know what gets you in trouble, Gabrielle?" Xena stepped closer to the petite blonde. "Your mouth." She leaned in towards her face. "You must have been quite a talker back home," she implied and Gabrielle hinted at a small smile. "Ah, so you are. That explains everything," she smiled and folded her arms.
"I have a very special surprise for you girls today," she said and all the color drained from Gabrielle's face. "And since I know you love volunteering for everyone..." she chuckled and left the blonde alone in the hallway.
I have really got to stop thinking out loud, Gabrielle chastised herself.
A bit later Helena caught up with Gabrielle outside in the gardens along with the other girls. She nudged her friend's arm playfully. "Hope you didn't get yourself in trouble again," she teased.
The blonde frowned deeply. "Thanks, Helena," she grumbled.
Xena came outside and she brought a slew of her soldiers with her. All the girls turned around and saw men carrying large chests behind the sultan. Xena stood before her trainees and the men set down the three chests down in a row beside her.
She smiled and folded her arms. "Today you will no longer wear the rags to train," she said and gestured to the soldiers to open the chests. They pulled out a couple of black tunics, pants and breastplates. "I had these armor sets made in Persepolis a month ago." She said and all the girls' eyes grew in awe.
"From now on you will wear this armor while training," she said and motioned for the girls to receive their new armor. They all lined up and Gabrielle lifted herself on her tip toes to see over the taller girls' heads.
"I knew there was another reason why the sultan wanted us here," Helena whispered and Gabrielle frowned.
"Yeah..." Gabrielle muttered. She folded her arms and poked her head around Penelope's shoulder, gawking at the sultan. She couldn't believe that the sultan was in fact a woman. She wondered if anyone else knew about this secret. But there had to been someone else that knew and that boy, Alexander, was definitely her son, she guessed. She could only assume that's what the boy's relationship was to the sultana.
She was given her set of armor after Helena and the rest of the girls. She held the heavy armor in her arms and stared at the sultana with a curious expression. Xena looked directly in her eyes, tapping her gloved fingers on the armrest of her chair.
Xena stood and kept eyeing Gabrielle. "You will all go take your armor to your room and report back tomorrow morning. There will be no training session today," she concluded and all the girls were thrilled to hear that. They had been working very hard for the last two months, crawling through hot sand, sparring with one another and learning hand to hand combat.
Gabrielle gasped and saw the sultana walking back into the palace. While the other girls were gossiping about their armor and how happy they were, she decided to follow the sultana.
"Wait!" she called out and Xena slowly turned on her heel. "Was this the surprise?"
Xena lowered her eyes and answered, "yes, it was."
Gabrielle felt confused about this. She was expecting something far worse and what about all that talk of volunteering. "I thought we were going to have a session today?"
Xena smiled softly, "tomorrow, Gabrielle. I have a lot of things to do. Hope I did not disappoint you," she winked and pat the trainee's shoulder gently then walked away to the west wing.
Xena sat in her bedroom with Alexander sitting on her bed beside her. He cuddled up next to her as she held a book in her hands, tracing her finger along the sentence slowly. Alexander furrowed his eyebrows, muttering to himself, trying to read the words.
He folded his arms and studied the sentence carefully, trying to figure out how to say the word. "Let your plans be dark and..." he stuttered, "im...impen..."
She smiled softly, "impenetrable," she said slowly and he sighed.
"Impenetrable as night," he continued, "and when you move, fall like a...a..."
"Thunderbolt," she said and he huffed.
"Reading is so hard," he said and she smiled, closing the book to set it aside. "What does that even mean?" he looked up at his mother.
Xena pursed her lips and wrapped her arm around his small shoulder. "I think it means that you should always trust your instincts and strike when necessary," she smiled and poked his stomach.
He chuckled and sighed heavily. "I think I understand. Can we read something else now?" he asked and she nodded. "I'll go to the library!" he crawled out of bed and ran out of the bedroom.
Gabrielle dressed herself in a black abaya and a veil to match. She easily walked through the east wing passed the guards and even saw a few maids walking by. She hid her face behind the veil and hoped that nobody else saw who she really was, especially the sultan, or sultana.
She walked through the large dark marble hallway and then saw Alexander running right towards her. She panicked and her eyes grew in fear. He ran right past her down a separate hallway. She exhaled heavily and probably realized that he must think that she's another random maid in this huge palace.
Okay, Gabrielle, she told herself, I will go to the west wing, but how? How will I get there without her noticing me?
Kara saw Gabrielle and ran towards her with a basket and smiled. "Excuse me!" she called out and Gabrielle froze. She didn't want to be caught this soon in her plan, not now, she cursed herself.
Kara breathed heavily and grabbed Gabrielle's arm, not recognizing her. "I have to go to the seamstress' room. Will you take to this to the west wing for me?" he handed over the basket and Gabrielle hooked it on her arm. "You must be new here," she implied, gleaming into her eyes and Gabrielle shied away.
She smiled, "you know where to go right?" she asked and Gabrielle nodded. "Good, and don't stare too much," she warned then skipped off. "Thank you!" she then started running down the hallway and Gabrielle let out a sigh of relief.
Don't stare too much? Gabrielle walked to the stairs in the west wing and held her breath. This was such a bad idea, she thought, a very bad idea. What if she sees who I am? Am I going to die if she finds out? Or what if she continues to play this lying game and torture me in training sessions?
She walked up the stairs slowly and looked at the double doors on the right. She wrapped the veil around her face and felt her heart racing. She had never felt so nervous, scared and excited all at once. Although, she began to wonder why the sultan would ever want to portray herself as a man. There was probably a lot of things she didn't understand.
Now, standing in front of the doors, she couldn't help herself to knock. She wanted to turn back and go to her quarters, but she had already come this far. Readying herself she rapped on the door softly and heard a soft greeting.
Slowly, she opened the door and saw the sultan sitting on her bed. Don't stare too much, she remembered.
Xena frowned, "are you going to just stand there?" she asked and Gabrielle quickly stepped inside and closed the door behind her. "Put the basket over there," she pointed to the table next to her vanity set.
Gabrielle said nothing and walked to the table. She set the basket down and looked inside to see a bunch of paper tied together, fresh ink, some pens and also a few bottles of wine she guessed. She began taking the stuff out of the basket and setting them on the table as slowly as possible.
Peering behind her she saw the sultana, who was completely oblivious to her gawking. She could finally see her face clearly for the first time and now she understood why the woman hid her face. She was gorgeous and Gabrielle couldn't help herself from staring. She thought that her eyes were the most beautiful part of her face because that's all she could see, but it was much more than that. The sultana's face was strong, yet feminine and her hair was very long and shiny too.
Her hair dark framed her high cheekbones perfectly and Gabrielle's eyes widened as she saw the brunette woman adjust the sash around her waist.
Xena lifted her eyes and Gabrielle panicked and turned back around. She continued taking the items out of the basket. Xena's eyebrow rose and she eyed the veiled maid.
"Put the paper on the desk," she asked of the maid.
Gabrielle didn't say a word and she picked up the heavy stack of paper in her arms and looked to her left and saw the sultana's huge desk. Carefully, she walked over to the desk and glanced at her documents laid across the tabletop. She frowned as soon as she saw a few documents with the titles of "Khan" and the other, "trainees".
"Why are you dawdling?!" Xena yelled and Gabrielle dropped the stack of papers on the desk and felt her hands clam up and she wiped them on the black abaya. "Bring the wine to me," she said.
Gabrielle's eyes grew in fright and she slowly made her way back to the other table with all the other items. She picked up the wine and closed her eyes, saying a small prayer to herself. She hoped that the woman would not look into her eyes and she hoped she could keep herself from staring. This was definitely a terrible idea, she thought.
Xena held out her arm and wagged her fingers at the maid. "To-day, girl," she griped and Gabrielle stepped closer to her bed and handed over the bottle of wine. Xena uncorked the wine and poured a glass for herself then set it on the bedside table.
Gabrielle lifted her eyes for a brief moment to catch a glimpse at the sultana's face again. Those blue eyes were definitely not her best feature, she gathered. Her eyes lingered to Xena's bare thigh, slipping from the slit of her robe.
Xena sipped her wine and lifted her eyes, gawking at the maid. "I have never seen you before," she mused with a smug smirk. Gabrielle adjusted the veil around her face and averted her eyes elsewhere. "Where is Kara?"
Kara? Who is Kara? "I...I'm not sure," Gabrielle answered softly, muffling her voice so the sultana couldn't recognize her voice.
Xena kept looking at the nervous maid and swished her wine. "Where do you work in the palace?" she asked and crossed one leg over the other.
Oh crap, Gabrielle's entire face paled and she turned around with her back facing the sultana. Xena frowned and grabbed her arm firmly. "I am talking to you!" she said and Gabrielle was pulled closer and she immediately lowered her gaze.
"I...I work with Kara," Gabrielle didn't know what to say and Xena frowned, trying to look into the girl's eyes that lingered on the rug below her feet. "In...the seamstress room," she continued, nodding her head. Yes, the seamstress room, of course.
Xena let go of the maid's arm and tapped her nails against the wine glass. "Kara doesn't work in the seamstress room..."
"I got some great books!" Alexander ran into the room and threw three books onto the bed and hopped aboard, crawling towards Xena. "I got The Knight with The Lion," he held up the book, "oh and, The Holy Grail and Theo...theo...well, we can skip that one," he smiled and saw his mother glaring up at a maid.
He tugged on his mother's sleeve. "Mom, can we read the book about the knight?" he asked and Xena turned to her son.
She smiled gently, "of course we can."
Gabrielle took this opportunity to slip away from the sultana and quickly exit the room.
Alexander opened the book and set it in his mother's lap, anxiously waiting for her to begin the reading. Xena frowned, eyeing the door close once the young maid left her room.
"Mother!" he whined and Xena shook her head then peered down at her son. She smiled and wrapped her arm around him, bringing him close to her. He began reading the first sentence out loud and Xena eyed the door once more.
"How do you say this word?" he asked politely and Xena forgot about the strange maid and looked down at the book.
She sighed and traced her finger along the last sentence of the first paragraph. "Apprehensively," she read the word aloud and he nodded.
"What does 'appre-hen-sively' mean?"
"Fearful...nervous..." she explained as she thought of that mysterious maid, the lying maid. She would need to talk to Kara about that later, she made a mental note for herself.
Alexander thought that was a reasonable explanation and then turned the page, reading more of the story. He frowned and tugged his mother's sleeve again, grabbing her attention. "Does this book really have a lion in it?" he asked and she smiled down at him.
She had read this book with Solan a long time ago when they still lived in Thebes. He asked very similar questions that Alexander asked. The only reason she remembered that night when they read the book because she was stuck in the palace for more than a year.
Seven Years Ago
Solan walked into his mother's room holding a large book in his arms. He tried not to disturb her lately because she wanted to be left alone, but recently, he was stuck inside the palace with her and with nothing to do. And it kept raining too, for several weeks.
He slowly approached her side of the bed and saw her reading something. "Mother..." he whispered.
"Hm?" she answered curtly.
He kept fidgeting with the book in his arms, shrugging his shoulders. "Um...are you busy?" he asked in a shy voice and she replied with a simple nod. "Are you too busy to read with me tonight?" he murmured as he batted his long eyelashes.
Xena set down her documents and peered down at her six year old son and smiled. "No," she pat the empty spot next to her and he beamed then climbed on the bed. She grabbed the book from his arms and looked at the title. "The Knight with The Lion," she said and he cuddled up close to her.
"Is it a good book?" he asked.
"A very good one, but it will hard for you to read," she noted and he smiled then opened to the first page, determined to read the book anyway. "Alright..." she sighed and brushed her long hair behind her shoulder.
Solan smiled and looked at the first sentence and thought it was pretty daunting at first, but he tried to read it anyway. He sighed then waited for her to read along with him, but she didn't. "I want to read this book to my brother or sister one day," he said.
Xena grinned softly, "I think we should finish the story first," she suggested and he nodded.
She began reading and then he interrupted. "When is the baby coming anyway?"
She frowned, "Solan, you asked me this yesterday. I told you, soon. Now –"
"How soon is soon?" he interrupted her again.
She sighed heavily and rubbed her temple. "Any day. So, are we going to read now or what?" she asked and he gave her a big smile and nodded. She found where she left off and continued reading from there.
"Is there really a lion in this story?" he asked curiously, interrupting her yet again.
"Solan..." she warned.
Gabrielle ran to her bed after ditching the abaya and veil along the way of her escape. She climbed into bed and pulled the blankets over her body and stared at the ceiling, her chest rising and falling heavily. Helena groaned and rolled over, opening her eyes from her slumber.
"Gabrielle, where have you been?" she whispered.
She snapped her head over and licked her dry lips. "Nowhere," she answered curtly.
"Nowhere huh?" Helena yawned and cuddled against her pillow. "Do you know what time it is? You've been gone for over an hour. Were you in the library again?" she smirked.
Gabrielle shook her head, "no, I wasn't."
"Then where were you?" the brunette asked, now a bit curious. "And why are you sweating like a stuffed pig?"
The blonde frowned, "just go back to sleep," she rolled over and tucked the blankets underneath her chin. She stared at the wall in front of her and heard Helena getting comfortable in her bed and thankfully, said nothing more. She couldn't believe she did something that bold as to go into the sultan's room. She didn't think she was going to get that far. She just thought she'd be able to wander around the west wing, but no, she was asked to go to her room, all alone.
As she lay in the bed she couldn't help but think of the sultana's face. She definitely wasn't deformed, although some people might say so if they really knew who she was. She was a woman posing as a man, which could get her killed if anyone found out. Gabrielle now understood why the sultana refused to let her face be visible to the public –she wasn't ugly at all. Perhaps if she had more masculine features she could show her face, but she didn't, at all. Anyone could see that she was definitely a woman. By a glimpse of her long legs and shapely thighs, it was no wonder that she hid her body beneath long robes and wide pants. The appearance of a man was important in this land as it was everywhere else. Perhaps, Gabrielle thought, the sultana had a method to her madness, but only time will tell, she supposed.
She began to wonder what the sultana's name really was. She knew it wasn't Xenophon because that was a man's name. If only she could get within an inch of her without having to wear some ridiculous disguise, then she'd be able to find out for sure. Until then, she would make sure to get on the sultana's good side and build a relationship with her. Gabrielle was tired of the sultan calling her a troublemaker. The sultan didn't even say her name was much anymore and only referred to her as the 'troublemaker'.
Xena walked through the hallway, heading towards her office where all the council meetings were held. She slipped on her gloves and passed by Gabrielle heading her way.
Gabrielle's eyes widened and she immediately lowered her head and quickened her pace, hoping the sultan wasn't going to say anything to her or even worse, suspect that she was definitely in her room last night. Please, no, she begged.
Xena dropped her glove on the floor in front of Gabrielle's foot and she lifted her eyes, looking at the terrified blonde girl.
The trainee bent down and picked up the glove and Xena frowned, snatching it right out of her hand. Gabrielle caught a glimpse of the sultana's hand and long fingernails at the end of her slender fingers. Xena hid her hand and slipped on the glove quickly. She nervously smiled, staring into the woman's blue eyes.
"Why are you up so early?" Xena questioned, tightening the glove around her fingers.
Gabrielle stammered and played with her hands behind her back. "Well...I –I just wanted to get a head start on training for today. I couldn't sleep well last night," she grinned falsely.
Xena was about to respond until Dajan came running to her side. "Your majesty!" he yelled and she turned her head. "The Templar Knights are here to see you. Shall I turn them away?"
She opened her mouth and then turned to see Gabrielle still standing there, frozen. "Do you mind?" she snidely remarked and Gabrielle nodded with a cheeky grin then quickly left the two to talk to each other.
Gabrielle hid behind a large pillar, intentionally listening to the sultan and her adviser talk to one another. Templar Knights in Persia? That never happens and if it does, that can't be good, she thought.
Xena sighed heavily and began, "do not send them away. I have nothing to hide," she grinned. "Send them to my office. I will be waiting." She sauntered off down the hall and Dajan shook his head, fearing this could not end well.
Gregory, the leader of the Templars, stepped inside the large office sequestered in a hidden part of the large palace. He hadn't been in a place this big since he went to the Vatican to talk with the Pope. He stepped in and saw Xenophon sitting in his chair, patiently waiting. He eyed the sultan cautiously and the rumors of the hidden sultan were true. He was covered head to toe in black garb and hid behind a veil, covering all but his piercing light eyes.
Xena turned her head and smiled at the knight. "Don't be shy..." she motioned for him to step in further and he did so and the door closed behind him.
Gregory smiled and bowed his head to the sultan, eyeing his almond blue eyes. He cleared his throat and spoke, "Sultan Xenophon, I have traveled a long way to come see you. I hope that you will hear me out."
"I didn't kill you, now did I?" she teased and the knight blinked rapidly. "Just a small joke," she smiled.
He finally smiled weakly and nodded. "Of course," he continued, "I have been ordered by Pope Innocent to ask you to surrender your city to the church." He saw Xenophon's eyes narrow, glaring intensely at him.
"With all due respect, Sultan, this land does not belong to you."
Xena sighed and tapped her fingers against one another, staring at the knight. "With all due respect, Templar, I don't see your name on it," she mocked him.
Gregory frowned, growing tired of this sultan's games. "Your majesty, this land belongs to the church, not you. Go back to Greece where you belong, respectfully..." he bowed his head.
Xena snarled and stood from the chair. Dajan eyed her carefully and she stepped down off the dais, approaching the knight. Gregory lifted his head and saw the sultan coming closer and closer.
"This land is mine. I dethroned the last sultan and I claimed Jerusalem. This land does not belong to the church or to anyone, but me!"
The knight raised his eyebrow, looking into those menacing eyes of the sultan. "If you do not surrender the holy land now, we will be forced to take you out of it. Me and my knights have already paid a visit to your neighbors in Ankara." He saw the sultan's eyes widen. "You must be overjoyed to hear that they are very loyal to you," he smirked, "they declined to help the church, but the big problem here is you. We are giving you an opportunity to surrender now without bloodshed."
"Oh, how kind of you," she mused and turned back to sit in the chair slowly. "I will never surrender to your church. Just what I told the Mongol spy that was sent here awhile back. This land is mine."
Gregory sighed, knowing this meeting was probably going to go nowhere in the beginning. He didn't even know why he bothered to talk to the sultan in the first place, but orders were orders.
"Then you leave me no choice but to tell the pope to proclaim a Crusade on your empire, your highness." He said and Xenophon remained silent.
Xena smiled, "what a fool you are. You tell me when you're going to attack me before you do it. And who says Templar Knights were the brightest?" she winked, finding this very amusing.
Gregory nodded and was tempted to roll his eyes, but kept his composure. "I would not be so arrogant, Sultan," he warned, "the Mongols will coming knocking on your door. They are closer to your neck of the woods than you think."
With that, he left the room eagerly without another word. He felt like he had nothing left to say since he was unable to convince the sultan to surrender, there was no point in staying here any longer.
Xena's heart raced as her blood pressure rose. She could have had that man killed but she didn't, for now. Surrender, she scoffed.
"Dajan," she stood, "I want to leave for Ankara in the morning. Make the preparations," she then hastily exited the room.
All of the female trainees waited patiently outside for their mentor to arrive. Helena yawned and adjusted the armor on her body, still getting used to the weight of it. She stood beside Gabrielle and nudged her arm.
"Where did you really go last night, Gabrielle?" she asked.
Gabrielle pursed her lips and twirled the staff in her hand. "I was just...roaming around. Nothing out of the ordinary," she smiled.
Helena didn't believe that for one second. "When you came back you looked like you just finished running a marathon," she folded her arms. "Come on, tell me the truth!"
Xena walked outside, storming to the front of the line. "Good morning everyone," she greeted and all the girls stood up straight, awaiting their next training session. She turned and saw everyone was being very attentive and she eyed every single girl, looking in their eyes.
"I have to go to Ankara tomorrow morning. While I am away I will have someone here to train you all," she began and the girls did not flinch at all. "I will choose three of you to come with me."
This news perked Gabrielle's interest immediately and she tried to hide her excitement.
Xena walked the first row of girls and pointed at Penelope, "you." She said and saw the girl smile brightly. She continued down the first line and then walked to the second row. "You," she tapped Francesca's shoulder.
She walked to the end of line and looked between Gabrielle and Helena carefully. Both girls didn't look into her eyes and remained focused, staring straight ahead of her. "And you," she pointed to Helena then walked off.
Gabrielle's jaw dropped and she saw Helena's face pale immediately. She couldn't believe that the sultan chose Helena over her. Helena wasn't even that good of a fighter. Sure she didn't get in trouble and was a very quiet girl, but still.
Xena clapped her palms together and motioned her head to the ropes on the sidelines. "Today you all will climb the ropes. I know that we have done this exercise before but it is a lot different with armor on." She smiled and saw all the apprehensive expressions on the girls' faces.
"And to make things more exciting, you will also have weights strapped to your ankles," she said and all the girls sighed heavily, embracing their doom. She told them to walk towards the ropes and followed behind them.
Gabrielle turned her head over her shoulder and watched the sultana follow behind them as they head to the ropes. She grimaced and decided it was going to be now or never.
"Your majesty," she began and Xena lowered her head.
"Why didn't you pick me to go with you? I am really good at all the exercises and never complain. I also think I am a much better fighter than Helena," she said in the most respectful way possible.
Xena smirked, "you are a troublemaker, Gabrielle. While you may certainly be all of those things, and I think you are, you are unpredictable."
I'm unpredictable? She can't be serious, Gabrielle thought. She wanted to lash out immediately but bit her tongue. I'm not the one who is cross-dressing as a man, she groaned inwardly.
"I don't suppose I could change your mind?" she asked with an eager smile.
Xena placed her hand on the blonde's shoulder. "Maybe next time, Gabrielle." She winked and walked off to instruct the girls on what to do next for the exercise.
Maybe next time? What the hell! Gabrielle folded her arms and kept walking in the back of the line.
Gabrielle sat with Helena in the baths, scrubbing their sore arms. Gabrielle frowned at her friend and never felt so jealous before until now. She waded in the hot water and smiled at her friend.
"Helena..." her voice carried and the brunette raised her eyebrow. "You should let me take your place so I can accompany the sultan to Ankara tomorrow!"
Helena gasped, "Gabrielle! Are you insane?!" she shook her head and dipped her long hair in the water.
"Come on, Helena. I really want to go! I bet the sultan would have picked me but..."
"But you always get yourself in trouble," Helena butted in. "Sorry Gabrielle, but I don't think that is a good idea. You could really get both of us in a lot of trouble."
Gabrielle huffed and folded her arms. "I'm a better fighter than you anyway," she muttered under her breath.
"What?" Helena asked and her blonde friend smiled widely. She sighed and grabbed the towel, stepping out of the warm bath water. "Listen, Gabrielle, I don't really want to go, in fact, the sultan really scares me, but he asked me to go and I have to. I think you should respect the sultan's decision." She wrung out her hair then walked off to go get dressed.
Gabrielle sunk deeper into the water, brooding quietly to herself. She eyed all of the other girls smiling, laughing and gossiping in the baths. Once she found out that the sultan was really a woman, the more intrigued she became about the mysterious woman. She wanted to know more about her, but it was nearly impossible to get close to the sultana due to her seclusion in the west wing.
It was also impossible to talk to her alone and ask her questions because she had no idea that Gabrielle knew of her secret. Gabrielle lifted her fingers from the water and ran her fingers through her wet locks. Frowning, she furrowed her eyebrows and wondered why the sultan would ever pretend to be a male ruler in the first place.
She questioned, has the sultan always posed as a man? Has her role as sultan was always a man or perhaps she started as a woman and hid herself away? Gabrielle didn't know the truth but she was definitely curious and she wanted to know more, but she couldn't do that if the sultan kept pushing her away purposely.
Penelope waded in the water close to Gabrielle with a subtle smirk. "Too bad you can't come with us tomorrow," she said and Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "I thought for sure that the sultan would have picked you!"
Yeah, me too, Gabrielle thought. "Maybe next time," he mocked the sultana's words and then climbed out of the baths, wrapping a towel around herself.
She walked over to the dressing area and grabbed her clothes and thought about what Penelope said and it angered her. She threw down her clothes and groaned. She decided she is going to go tomorrow no matter what happens.
Kara was busy packing Xena's clothes and other belongings in a large chest for tomorrow's trip to Ankara. Alexander lay on the bed hanging upside down over the edge of the bed.
"Can I go to Ankara with you?" he asked his mother as he watched her pace around the room, gathering stuff for her journey.
"Sorry, Alexander but you are staying here. I would love to take you with me –"
"But..." he interrupted.
She smiled and handed Kara some of her veils and turbans. "But, it's a business trip and I think it would be better if you stayed here with Kara."
"Aweh," he rolled over and felt the blood rushing from his head and collapsed onto the bed, staring at the ceiling. "But I want to see father."
Xena frowned and folded a few of her pants and handed them to Kara. "You were with your father all year, Alexander. Don't you want to spend time with me?" she smiled softly and he rose off the bed.
"Yeah, but I still want to go," he folded his arms. He hopped off the bed, "can I go get some juice?" he asked and she sighed then nodded. He smiled then ran out of the room to go downstairs.
As soon as her son was gone, Xena stared at Kara. "Kara," she began and the maid looked to her.
"Yes, mistress?" she grinned.
"The maid you sent to my room last night, does she work with you?"
Kara frowned and tried to remember last night and the veiled maid came to her mind. "Oh yes, that girl." She shook her head, "no she doesn't, mistress. I was in a hurry and asked her to take the basket to your room. I hope you don't mind." She stuffed the clothing into the chest.
Xena frowned and folded her arms thinking that was rather strange. That maid appeared out of nowhere and came to her room. If Kara didn't know who she was, that certainly raised her suspicion.
Alexander came back into the room and she eyed him carrying more than a glass of juice. "I thought you were getting juice?" she asked.
He grinned and had a semolina cookie sticking out of his mouth. He set the juice down on the table and chomped on the soft cookie. "I saw cookies," he grinned and Xena rolled her eyes.