The summer that Miss Gabrielle Potidaea was twelve, her governess followed the lead of many of her cohort in forbidding her charge to read novels. It was for her own good, of course, to keep Gabrielle’s brain from growing fevered. The governess had insisted that novels were sensational and silly, no pattern for a real life. Gabrielle could have borne that - even though she didn’t believe her brain in any danger of fever – had her governess not also removed all of the poetry, plays, myths, and the more interesting histories. Gabrielle had been left with only books of sermons and those histories that were deemed “wholesome and uplifting”. Gabrielle had never passed a duller summer in her life, and she had felt the loss of poetry in her very soul.
The house party she was currently attending was quite nearly as bad as the Summer of Morally Uplifting Literature. Gabrielle was certain that if she had to play one more hand of whist or discuss the fashion of bonnets a single time more, she would burst from all her contained frustration. Why couldn’t her mother be satisfied with bringing Lila to these gatherings? Lila actually enjoyed them! Gabrielle would much rather be home, practicing at her harp or writing in her journals.
So far, Gabrielle’s only joy this weekend had been in watching the whims and machinations of others. While her own conversations throughout the visit had been a trial, Gabrielle had enjoyed several that she’d overheard. It seemed that young Agranon had finally convinced Jana’s father to favor his suit, and the young couple were practically glowing with joy as they accepted felicitations. Mr. Silvas had raised rents on his cottagers once again, and the vicar was looking very black upon him. And there were rumors that Lady Xena herself might appear!
The ladies had been in the withdrawing room for long enough that Gabrielle’s mother and her friends had finally expended the conversational possibilities of Lila’s marital prospects and moved to attend the tea tray. Gabrielle took advantage of their momentary absence to slip over to the window. Hidden by the draperies, she leaned her head against the glass and let the smooth cold of the pane ease the headache growing in her brow. Silently, she began spinning herself a tale of magic and bravery, with not a single dance or ball in it. She was so caught up in her inner world that she barely noticed the hush that fell over the room behind her. When it finally registered, she turned to see a tall, well formed woman standing in the doorway on Mr. Borias’s arm, coolly surveying the gathering.
Gabrielle pressed her hand to her mouth to contain her grinning gasp of delight. Lady Xena in person – it had to be! Gossip held that she was the most beautiful woman in the county, and Gabrielle well believed it! Her hair was so dark that it appeared almost black against her fair skin. Gabrielle was at too great a distance to discern the color of her eyes, but the expression in them was mild, even amused. Gabrielle wanted to know everything about her!
Mr. Borias led Lady Xena to the tea tray. “Allow me to offer you some refreshment,” he said, “and I shall call for a basin of soup to remedy your lack of supper.”
Gabrielle’s mother took a hasty step back from the teapot to avoid serving her, and Lady Xena raised an eyebrow as Gabrielle winced. “You are very kind,” she said. Her voice was a warm alto, and it carried well in the quiet of the room. Gabrielle wondered if she sang. “But I shan't impose. I simply wished to pay my respects before retiring for the evening.”
“We won't keep you, then,” Mr. Borias said. “Otere will show you to your room. We will look forward to your company in the morning.” He gestured for the housekeeper.
With a nod to the company, Lady Xena turned and left. Gabrielle sagged back against the window. She had been hoping to hear stories of Lady Xena’s adventures, to demand if they were true – if she had really been aboard a ship that had been taken by pirates, if she had truly denied the Prince Regent when he offered for her hand, if she had actually danced at Almack’s without a voucher. Instead, she had to content herself with the knowledge that Lady Xena stood fully as tall as Mr. Borias, and that she nodded politely to the housekeeper instead of snapping at her demandingly. Gabrielle sighed and closed her eyes as the chatter in the room started back up.
The library was Gabrielle’s favorite place in any given country house, and Mr. Borias kept a good library here at Hunning Park. There was something about the scent of paper and leather that brought her great comfort no matter the disorder of her mind. And tonight her mind was truly disordered. After the excitement of Lady Xena appearing, Gabrielle had expected the evening to descend back into quiet banality. Instead, she had barely reached her room before her mother joined her, all atwitter with the news that her father had accepted an offer from Perdicas Ellia for Gabrielle's hand. She was to be wed as soon as wedding clothes had been made and the banns had been read. Gabrielle’s head was spinning and her stomach churning. She stared into the fire, and all she could think was, “No.”
No, she didn’t want to marry Perdicas. No, she didn’t want to be the mother of his children. No, she didn’t want to give up on all of the possibilities of life that she hadn’t even considered yet, yoked into an inevitable, plodding future.
Gabrielle took a deep breath and ran her fingertips over the cover of the book in her lap. It was her favorite sort of books, full of ancient tales and legends, but Gabrielle couldn’t bring herself to read a word of it. She curled deeper into her armchair and blinked hard, telling herself that the tears in her eyes were merely from the glare of the fire. Distracted by her own disquiet, she didn’t even notice the door opening behind her until she heard the voices.
“Here. The servants will be in shortly to douse the fire, but we have a few moments. We can't risk being seen in one another’s bedchambers.” It sounded like Mr. Borias, and Gabrielle pressed more firmly back into the chair’s embrace, grateful for the deep wings that cast her into the shadows. She most emphatically did not wish to be gracious to her host right now.
“You couldn’t have simply passed me a message earlier?” his companion asked. And now Gabrielle was even more glad that she was hidden. She shuddered to think of speaking to Lady Xena for the first time with a tear-stained face and a rumpled dress.
“Servants see far too much,” Mr. Borias replied. Gabrielle could hear him moving about the room, possible pacing. “And you know how I hate risking messages in writing.”
Were they engaged? Gabrielle hadn’t heard any rumors of such a thing, but it was the only common explanation for a single man and a single woman to correspond.
“Yes, I’m aware,” Lady Xena said dryly. “Now please explain yourself. I would like to see my bed sometime tonight.”
“I would like to see your bed, as well,” Mr. Borias said flippantly, and Gabrielle bit her lip. Maybe they truly were engaged. “But I doubt either of us will have much use for it tonight. I’ve received intelligence from the Peninsula that strongly suggests that we have a leak in our organization. We’ve lost men in the past few weeks – good men – and I don’t think that it has been accidental. I believe someone in our employ is serving another master.”
“A short, French master,” Lady Xena said, disgust evident in her tone. “You believe me to be in danger? Surely you know that I won’t go into hiding.”
Mr. Borias chuckled. "I would never suggest it to you, my lady,” he said. “No, I need you to follow your strongest instincts and dive headlong into action. Leave tonight. Embark on a series of visits, calling on as many of our friends as you know. Take a carriage; even our people would look askance at a woman of your standing taking such a journey on horseback. If you are able to clear a man of being in the enemy’s service, give him good warning. If you discover who it is … grant him mercy.”
There was a pause, and Gabrielle tried to imagine what could be going through Lady Xena’s mind. Was she fearful? Surely not! Angry at betrayal by someone she must know and trust? Subsumed by a spirit of vengeance? Broken-hearted at the thought of her fallen comrades? And who were her fallen comrades? Gabrielle had to assume that the enemy they spoke of was Napoleon, but the government did not allow women into its employ.
Questions spiraled through Gabrielle’s mind, but before any of them could be answered by further discussion, she heard the door open and laughter enter the room, cutting off abruptly. “My lady,” a coldly critical voice said, heavy with judgement. “I thought you had retired. I am … surprised to find you in private interview with our host. Yes, I must call it surprised.”
That was definitely Perdicas’s mother, Mrs. Ellia, speaking, and as much as Gabrielle did not wish to face her future mother-in-law, she could not allow Lady Xena to be compromised by being found alone with a man, her character and prospects ruined. Not by such a conversation as she had overheard.
She stood from her chair and stepped into the light. Beside Mrs. Ellia, her husband also stood in the doorway. The two of them were eyeing Lady Xena with barely restrained contempt, and Gabrielle could not help but hold them in lower esteem for it.
“Lady Xena and Mr. Borias would never be so lost to propriety as to meet alone in the night,” Gabrielle said lightly. She smiled and shook her head lightly, as though explaining something to a foolish child. “They asked me to remain in the room as a chaperon. I was merely keeping out of the way to allow them the joy of their chat.”
Gabrielle had always been a good and easy liar (one of many traits that led her parents and governesses to fret and restrict her reading material). Now that skill stood her in good stead, as she smiled gently at her future family, ignoring the stiff way in which Lady Xena and Mr. Borias were regarding her.
“Gabrielle,” Mrs. Ellia said, her coldness thawing. “You are a good girl to offer your services in this way. But should you not be in bed? Especially with such excitement in the air?”
Gabrielle swallowed. “That is precisely why I am not abed,” she said. “My mother spoke to me of Perdicas’s offer - your family's offer - on my way to retire, and set my head into such a whirl that I could not sleep without a long period of quiet reflection. Indeed, spending this time here with Lady Xena and our kind host has done me a world of good.”
Mr. and Mrs. Ellia gave her the sort of happy, smug look that always made Gabrielle feel ugly and rebellious in her heart. She nudged that feeling aside and focused on looking harmless and helpful. “Did you come in search of a book?” she asked, gesturing to the shelves.
“We did,” Mr. Ellia said. “We thought a volume of meditative sermons on the subject of duty would be an excellent way to end the evening.”
“I’m sure no one would ever question your willingness to do your duty,” Mr. Borias said, speaking for the first time since they had been interrupted. “Please, my library is yours.” He turned to face Gabrielle and gave her a gracious half-bow. “Thank you very kindly, Miss Potidaea. Lady Xena will walk you back to your room.”
Gabrielle curtsyed to him and placed her book on a nearby table. She was surprised to see that she’d been gripping it so hard that she had left slight, finger-shaped indentations in the leather of the cover. She turned to Lady Xena. “After you, my lady,” she murmured.
Lady Xena strode silently by Gabrielle’s side for the length of the corridor. When she finally spoke, her voice was quiet. “You heard everything,” she said.
“Yes,” Gabrielle replied, “But I would never speak a word of it. I shall keep your confidences, I promise you.”
“This is not a secret flirtation,” Lady Xena said sharply, “There are lives at stake.”
“Do you think I don’t understand that?” Gabrielle demanded. “I’m not stupid. I would never put you or your … people at risk. In fact, I could help you!”
“No.” They had reached the staircase, and begun ascending. Lady Xena was a step ahead, making her tower even higher above Gabrielle. “I don’t need your help. All that I require of you is your silence.”
“You have that,” Gabrielle said. They stopped before a door and she frowned. “This isn’t my room.”
Lady Xena gave her a sardonic look. “It’s mine," she said. “I bid you goodnight. We will not see one another again.” She stepped inside and shut the door firmly but quietly in Gabrielle’s face.
Gabrielle blinked at the closed door. “Well,” she said with a little huff. “We’ll see about that.”
Lila didn't understand Gabrielle’s excited haste when she rushed into their shared room to pack a valise, but Gabrielle knew her sister would be an ally. She wasn’t as accomplished a liar as Gabrielle, but she was well able to spin the yarn Gabrielle had suggested: Their aunt Dorcas had sent an urgent message requiring an immediate visit from Gabrielle, as she was in poor health and spirits. The aunt in question was chosen both because she did not get on with Gabrielle & Lila’s mother (so Hecuba was unlikely to call on her), and because she had been known to demand visits from Gabrielle in the past. It might be weeks before her absence was discovered.
Gabrielle also left a note, addressed to the Ellia family, to be carried to them by the servants in the morning, begging their indulgence to delay wedding plans while she fulfilled her duty to her aunt. Gabrielle was rather proud of herself for appealing to their sense of duty in service to her own freedom.
Bag packed and note safely on the chest in her room, it was the work of a moment to slip silently through the darkened house. She had to duck the servants only three times and counted herself lucky. When sneaking out at home, she had sometimes been nearly caught out by maids and footmen upwards of a half-dozen times. She was feeling quite filled with the spirit of intrigue as she entered the stable and found a dim corner out of sight of the sleeping stable boys. Then she waited.
Gabrielle had been standing in place long enough for the toes on her left foot to fall asleep when she finally heard the door to the stables open. Lady Xena strode inside, her entrance the complete opposite of Gabrielle’s only stealthy arrival. She nudged one of the stable boys with the toe of her boot. “A carriage and team, right away,” she said as they jolted awake. “Mr. Borias has ordered it.”
Gabrielle kept to her shadow as a coach was prepared with two horses in the traces and one riding horse tethered to the rear, and Lady Xena’s bags were loaded. Gabrielle had spent so much time tonight in hiding just out of sight; she really growing quite comfortable at it! She suffered some pangs of anxiety when the carriage was ready and she was still well outside of it. Lady Xena mounted the box to drive it herself without awaiting a coachman and tossed a few coins to the stable boys. The coins landed on the ground, and as the boys scrambled for them on one side of the carriage, Gabrielle took the opportunity to clamber into it through the door on the opposite side.
It was quite the least elegant entrance Gabrielle had ever made into any conveyance, landing on her stomach with her valise cast up above her head. But she was in, and the coach sprang into motion only moments afterward. Gabrielle gathered herself up onto the seat and took stock. It was a small coach, but nicely appointed, and as she had it to herself, she thought she would be quite comfortable. Someone from the Hunning Park household had stocked it with a supply of rugs against the cold, so she bundled one under her head and another across her lap. And then, despite the adventures playing out behind her eyelids, Gabrielle fell asleep to the jolting and swaying of the carriage.
Gabrielle awoke to the carriage lurching to a halt, and sat up abruptly. She was still attempting to repair the journey’s damage to her hair and costume when she heard voices approaching.
“Xena!” a man’s voice shouted. “I’d not had word of your coming!” And then, “See to her things,” in a more dismissive tone.
“I’m sorry to arrive unannounced, Marcus,” Lady Xena said, “But I won’t be imposing upon you for long. This is just a flying visit as I make the next stage in my journey.”
The compartment door began to open and Lady Xena said, “Oh, don’t worry about that, I only needed the coach for appearances and a few too many bags. The only thing in there is –“
Gabrielle took the opportunity for what it was and stepped briskly from the carriage. “Only my lady’s maid,” she interrupted. She glanced at the two servants seeing to the horses, one of whom still held the carriage door. “If you could show me to the kitchen, I’ll see about getting my lady some tea to ward off the chill. It’s been a long drive,” she added solicitously.
Among the very many tales and rumors Gabrielle had heard about Lady Xena, one that she’d never believed had been the lady’s ability to kill with a glance. Now Gabrielle was pleased to find that that particular story was entirely false, else she would have dropped dead in her tracks.
After a glare that left Gabrielle feeling distinctly ruffled, Lady Xena pursed her lips and said, “It has been a long drive, and it will be longer still. Marcus, may we change horses here? We’ve come all the way from Hunning Park since midnight.”
The well-favored, dark man she spoke to nodded. “Of course,” he replied. “You,” he pointed to one man, “change her horses for a pair of the greys. And you, take Lady Xena’s girl to the kitchen.”
Gabrielle let herself be led to the kitchens, keeping her head a bit lower and her eyes les bold than usual. Really, it was as good as being on the stage! When she reached the kitchen, it was a warm comfort after the early morning chill of the walk from the coach.
A large, authoritative woman with a kerchief tied neatly about her head stopped kneading dough as Gabrielle was shown inside. There were three other servants nearby, including a scullery maid hard at work on a pile of pots, a thin young man of about thirteen who was chopping unidentifiable green things, and an elderly woman in an old fashioned cap who was loading a tray. All three glanced curiously at Gabrielle, but kept to their work, making it clear that the large woman was the one in charge.
“Who’s this, then?” she asked sharply.
Gabrielle dropped a country-girl curtsy and bowed her head enough to allow her to look up innocently through her fringe. “If you please, I’m in service to the Lady Xena, who has just arrived.” The cook began to draw herself up with a frown, and Gabrielle hastened to add, “The lady isn’t stopping! We’ll barely be here long enough to add any work for you, aside from one more for breakfast!
The cook let out a breath. “Well, thank the good Lord for that!” she said. “We’ve only just got rid of the last batch of the master’s friends, here shooting all the last fortnight. You wouldn’t countenance the inroads that lot made into the wine cellar, and they wanted beef at every blessed meal. My accounts won’t recover for weeks!”
Gabrielle gave the cook her most sympathetic smile, the one that she gave to Perdicas when he didn’t understand the philosophy readings set by his tutor. “Well Lady Xena won’t be anything like that,” she promised. “And I’ll take her tea and breakfast tray myself, so as to not interrupt your work more than necessary”
The cook set Gabrielle to cooking a few eggs and rashers, and Gabrielle complied willingly. With one eye on the pan and one on the servants, she said casually, “Sir Marcus had guests recently, then? We’ve just come from a house party at Mr. Borias’s country estate, and the goings on there! Were your lot the same, with the secret meetings they think we’re blind to?”
Gabrielle carried the breakfast tray to the morning room where she had been told she would find Lady Xena. She had a newfound respect for the arm strength of the maids in her parents’ household! Even holding merely breakfast for one and a small teapot, the tray felt like it had gained ten pounds since she had left the kitchen.
Lady Xena was seated at a small table, reading what appeared to be a letter. Gabrielle placed the tray before her and was rewarded with a hard stare. “I told you I didn’t want to see you again,” Lady Xena said, taking her cutlery in hand.
“No,” Gabrielle replied, “you said that you wouldn’t see me again. You were mistaken, but everyone is, now and again.”
The corners of Lady Xena’s mouth quirked up in the barest hint of a smile, and Gabrielle cheered inwardly. “You are a brazen one,” she said. “Tell me why I should not leave you on the side of the road.”
In answer, Gabrielle drew her shoulders back and allowed her eyes to focus over Lady Xena’s shoulder. Her sister Lila and years of governesses and tutors would have recognized Gabrielle’s ‘recitation of lessons’ posture. “In the last fortnight, Sir Marcus has been visited by …” And she shared every scrap of information she’d learned from the servants – the comings and goings, the rivalries and friendships, the men who had gaming debts they hadn’t admitted to their families, and the ones with secret trysts. By the time she finished, Lady Xena had finished her meal and was sipping her tea meditatively.
“You learnt all this while cooking my breakfast?” she asked.
“It’s like Mr. Borias said,” Gabrielle replied. “The servants see far too much. Or in this case, hopefully they saw enough.”
“Well, in this case they’ve seen enough to corroborate what Marcus told me. He’s not the agent we’re looking for.”
“I’m glad,” Gabrielle said. When Lady Xena raised an eyebrow at her, she went on, “He seems to be a good master. His people like him.” She paused, and then gave a little shrug. “And so do you. I’m glad your friend isn’t a traitor.”
“I’m glad, too,” Lady Xena admitted quietly, taking another sip of tea.
“Glad enough to take me with you?” Gabrielle asked with a winning smile.
Lady Xena gave a short, resigned sigh. “You have proven useful so far,” she admitted. “But Miss Potidaea. I wasn’t exaggerating when I told you that lives were at stake. This is a dangerous endeavor.”
“My life has been sadly lacking in danger up to this point,” Gabrielle told her sincerely. She had dreamt of adventure her entire life, and to find it at the side of someone like Lady Xena … It was well worth the risk.
Lady Xena set her cup down with a little roll of her eyes, as if exasperated. “Very well,” she said. “You can accompany me on the next stage of my journey. But only if you promise to be careful.
Gabrielle couldn’t help smiling victoriously. “I am always careful,” she promised.
After Gabrielle had ducked back into the kitchen to secure a basket of victuals for their journey, the two of them approached the coach, freshly equipped with two handsome grey horses. Gabrielle stepped toward the door to the compartment, but was halted by Lady Xena’s hand on her arm.
“If you’re coming with me, I would rather you kept where I can see you,” Xena said drily.
Gabrielle gave her a sunny smile. She tucked the basket inside the compartment and fetched out one of the rugs. Closing the compartment, she slung the rug up onto the box and climbed up after it. While she settled herself, she watched as Lady Xena bid Sir Marcus farewell. There was a fondness and comfort between the two of them that made Gabrielle struggle against envy. She’d never had that familiarity with anyone but her sister, and she wasn’t so foolish as to believe that that was quite the same thing.
Lady Xena climbed up beside her and took the reins in her hand, “I would ask if you were ready, but I already know that you’re not,” Lady Xena said. “So rather than having you lie to us both, let us be on our way.”
Gabrielle clutched at the edge of her seat as the coach lurched into motion. “So,” she said, as casually as she was able, “Tell me more about this endeavor.”
“You know enough already. More than is prudent, Miss Potidaea.”
“You may call me Gabrielle, my lady. I think undertaking a clandestine mission together should allow you to use my Christian name,” Gabrielle said.
“Then I suppose you may as well call me Xena.”
“Xena,” Gabrielle said, testing it out. “All I really know is that you in some way take part in an organization that opposes France's depredations on the Peninsula. And now that organization is under attack from within.”
“Then you have the gist,” Xena said, her hands steady on the reins. “The war over there …” she shook her head. “The Portuguese people are fighting like none other I've seen nor studied. They know that they can't take on Napoleon army to army, so they aren't trying. Instead they strike unexpectedly, in raiding parties and acts of sabotage. It's brilliant, and it's effective.”
“You sound like you've seen it,” Gabrielle observed.
“That's because I have. I work with a cohort of others to provide support to these guerrilla fighters, and in return they provide intelligence that His Majesty's army is able to put to use.”
“But women don't serve in the army,” Gabrielle protested.
“No,” Xena agreed. “But I've made several trips in a less … official capacity in support of the kingdom.”
“How?” Gabrielle knew that Xena's stature was physically much more imposing than her own slender frame, and that her status accorded her a bit of power and respect that many other women were denied. But the idea of men – soldiers – accepting her as a colleague and equal was baffling.
“I have a very colorful past,” Xena said.
“I'll say! Is the story about the pirate ship true?” Gabrielle asked eagerly.
“I don't know if I've heard that one,” Xena said. “Why don't you tell it to me, and I'll let you know?”
“Well,” Gabrielle began, “it begins when you meet a dashing captain of the Navy.”
She knew she was being redirected, but she didn't mind terribly. She had a weakness for a good story.
Their days began to take on a pattern from that first visit. They would arrive at the home of one of the men in Xena's mysterious organization and investigate as best they could in the span of a short visit. Xena would usually remain in closeted discussion with the master of the house for most of their brief stay, while Gabrielle gathered the gossip from below stairs.
On the road between stops, Gabrielle would tell stories and Xena would teach her useful things – how to drive the coach, how to tie and untie effective knots, how to taste for poison in one’s food. Gabrielle treasured each time she made Xena laugh, each smile of approval she garnered, each story that Xena haltingly shared from her own life.
It was the most fun Gabrielle had ever had.
Not only did she love her time traveling with Xena and revel in the spying and playacting of gathering information, but Gabrielle found that she truly enjoyed her time amongst the servants. She knew that members of her own class had real friendships between them, but Gabrielle had ever experienced it for herself. Her own friendships with other young ladies had stalled at approved, surface conversational topics, like music and balls. She’d somehow failed to delve any deeper, to forge true connections. But now she not only had Xena and their wide-ranging conversations, but it also seemed that at every stop, she was counseling a housemaid through heartbreak or encouraging a footman to find his ambitions. She felt seen and valued in a way that she never had before.
She was not so foolish as to believe that real servants enjoyed the freedom and ease that she was experiencing. After all, her duties were light while she was in a noble house, and non-existent while on the road with Xena. But more than that, Xena saw her as a person, intelligent and whole, in a way that Gabrielle knew that many employers simply did not view their servants. And so Gabrielle had the best of both worlds, finding respect and rappot amongst the servants and with the woman with whom she traveled.
One night, about two weeks into their mission, Gabrielle settled into a maid’s trundle bed in the room Xena had been provided at the home of Lord Hercules. Xena had seemed lighter here. It was as though she were merely investigating Lord Hercules as a matter of form, with no underlying anxiety that he could possible be the culprit. It had made the evening spent here more pleasant than any other stop they had made yet. Now Gabrielle listened in the dark as Xena settled into the bed above her, and she felt content.
“Gabrielle?” Xena said, “Why did you force your way onto this mission? Were you craving danger so very much?”
Gabrielle turned onto her side so that she was facing Xena, even though she could barely see her. “It didn’t take very much forcing,” she pointed out. “I think you were glad of the company.” She paused. “I did … I did want to get away. I have no desire to marry Perdicas, and at home I see no alternative. If he were a bad man, I could convince Mother and Father to refuse him, but as he is simply dull and ignorant, I have no chance. “
Gabrielle took a deep breath and gathered her thoughts. “But it’s more than that,” she said. “I want to do good in the world. And that’s what you’re doing. You’re saving lives, seeking to defeat evil. It feels so much more real than the good I can do at home, bringing soup and calvesfoot jelly to sick villagers, planning a life as wife to a simple man.”
“I think there is a great deal of good to be had in bringing comfort to the sick and destitute,” Xena said. “But you have a good heart. I hope you never change.”
Gabrielle blinked hard. “You have a good heart too,” she said. “I admire you very much.”
“I didn’t always,” Xena said. Her voice, always low, was rough as well. “I spent years working alongside criminals, smugglers, men who sell weapons to both sides in a conflict, heedless of the suffering of those caught between armies. I was responsible for the death and suffering of so many people, and I cared only for my own profit and power.”
“I was shown that it didn’t have to be that way,” Xena said simply. “There’s a sort of blindness that one accepts when one becomes cynical and cruel. A willful ignorance to even the possibility of people being kind and selfless. If one is very lucky, one meets a person like you, or like Hercules, who shows them was the human heart is capable of, before it’s too late.”
“And you met Lord Hercules?”
“Yes. And now I have met you. So my life is doubly blessed and my eyes doubly opened,” Xena said, her voice sincere. Her hand dropped down over the edge of the bed, and Gabrielle caught it in her own.
“I’m glad I know you, Xena,” Gabrielle said solemnly.
Xena squeezed her hand. “And I’m glad I know you, Gabrielle.”
Gabrielle could sense Xena’s tension for a full league before they arrived at the home of Lord Draco. It made her own shoulders tight in sympathy. “You don’t like him,” Gabrielle said as the coach approached the house through an avenue of tall trees.
“No,” Xena admitted. “But I’m not certain if any of that is intuition that he’s up to no good or just that …”
“You don’t like him.” Gabrielle nodded. “Well, as you know, I am never less than cautious.” Xena snorted in disagreement, an unladylike sound that made Gabrielle grin. “But I shall exercise even more care while we’re here.”
“See that you do,” Xena said.
The house before them was large and modern, and the grounds around it were maintained with a rigidity that tore at Gabrielle’s love of nature. A butler stepped out to greet Xena and direct the servants without a glance at Gabrielle. The servants who saw to the horses were smart and business-like in appearance and action, but not particularly friendly, merely pointing Gabrielle toward the kitchen entrance around the side of the house.
“Well, then,” Gabrielle said to herself. This was that sort of house, where the divisions were clear even amongst the servants. That made her work more difficult, but not impossible. She smoothed her dress and patted her hair into better order as she walked.
When she entered the kitchen, Gabrielle drew herself up to her full height and titled her nose just a touch into the air. “I will need to see to my Lady Xena’s comfort. A nuncheon for her, and a ewer of water to wash with,” she ordered. “With luck,” she glanced dismissively around the kitchen, “we shan’t be here long enough for a meal.”
The cook at this house was tall and thin, with an austere air. She looked almost approving at Gabrielle’s highhandedness. Of course, lady’s maids had a reputation for such. “And where have you come from then?” the woman asked, as she gestured for her helpers to see to Gabrielle’s demands.
Gabrielle pursed her lips primly. “My lady does not countenance telling tales,” she said. “Keeps her diary under lock and key, and me about my business. I’m sure your master is just as guarded about his dealings.”
“Oh, aye,” said the maid who was heating water. ”Always closeted with the steward, one set of books in the strongbox, one set of books beneath the floorboards. He keeps his own counsel, Lord Draco does.”
“Then you know precisely what my lady is like,” Gabrielle said with a nod. “They sound alike as two peas.”
The maid poured the hot water into a ewer and loaded it onto a tray with a basin and a flannel. “Well, here,” she said. “Take that off to your pea, and we’ll bring her nuncheon shortly. Edos will show you the way.”
Gabrielle took the heavy tray and dipped a careful curtsy. Her arms were stronger and steadier than when she’d first carried a tray to Xena, but the weight still grew unbearable quickly, so Gabrielle didn’t tarry, but followed the footman promptly. He led her to a small drawing room where Xena sat stiffly upon a settee. There was a little sideboard, and Gabrielle rested her tray upon it.
“Let me help you refresh yourself, my lady,” she said, all obsequious assistance and bustle. She poured water into the basin and dipped the flannel into it. She was dabbing at Xena’s neck with the cloth when the footman left them, shutting the door behind him.
“Such excellence of service,” Xena muttered. “Thank heavens you are here to save me from the indignities of washing myself.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and pitched her voice low. “Lord Draco is a close man, and it seems likely that he’s a hard one, too. He keeps two sets of books, so don’t rely on the one he shows you from his strongbox. The second set are below the floorboards somewhere.”
“Well, you have been busy,” Xena said admiringly.
Gabrielle shrugged and pretended that her cheeks weren’t growing hot. “Lucky. Sometimes the right bit of gossip just falls into your ears.” She tucked a lock of hair more securely into Xena’s coiffure. “Any luck of your own?”
“Lord Draco has yet to grace me with his presence,” Xena said in a disgusted tone.
“It’s possible that’s an answer in itself,” Gabrielle said cautiously, kneeling before Xena to chafe at her wrists with the wet cloth.
“Perhaps,” Xena agreed. “But rudeness to one’s guests isn’t yet proof of treason.” She sighed. "We were friends once," she said, "It would be nice if there were no treason here at all."
Gabrielle was about to answer when the door opened behind her. She made to rise, but a voice stopped her. “No, no, stay as you are, girl,” a man said, “I do love to see servants fulfilling their duties on their knees.”
Gabrielle flushed hot, and she could see Xena’s pale blue eyes turn icy. “Don’t we all,” she said drily. “But I’m done with your service now. Go and hurry along my repast, girl. It has been a long drive.”
Gabrielle rose with lowered eyes and bobbed a curtsy to both Xena and the man who had entered. He was tall and handsome, as all men of Xena’s acquaintance seemed to be, with a complexion as dark as Sir Marcus’s. There was an arrogance about him that Gabriel did not like. She repeated to herself, “Not yet proof of treason,” as she traced her steps back to the kitchen.
While Xena and Lord Draco were served a small meal in the drawing room, Gabrielle ingratiated herself with the servants with stories and reports of fashions from London. She delivered all of this with an expression of much greater condescension than usual, to maintain her façade as a lady’s maid with an exacting mistress. Gabrielle reminded herself of every elegant lady’s maid who had ever sneered at her on a house visit, and flattered herself that she had the character well in hand.
When the bell rang, calling for the removal of the nuncheon tray, Gabrielle insisted on going herself. “My lady is quite particular,” she said proudly, as though that were an admirable trait.
When she entered the room, she found Xena standing at a window, staring out at the grounds. Gabrielle stepped up beside her and placed a hand on her arm. “What have you discovered?” she asked in quiet tones.
Xena nodded her head a bit, as if agreeing with something inside her mind. “It’s him,” she said. “I’m certain of it. I’ve developed a very accurate account of all of our dealings through my interviews along this trip, far more of an overview than anyone usually possesses. And what Draco says just doesn’t fit. So either everyone else has lied to me …”
“Or he has,” Gabrielle finished. “What will you do?”
“Borias said to give him mercy,” Xena said. “There was a time when that sort of thing came easily to me.” The expression on her face was sheer disgust. “I don’t know if I can kill him in cold blood now, though he deserves it many times over.”
Gabrielle tightened her hand, squeezing Xena’s arm comfortingly. She wished she could embrace her without fear of being seen. “You will do what’s right,” she said.
They left Lord Draco’s manor just as they had left every other house along their journey, trotting smartly off with Xena on the box and Gabrielle at her side. About a mile past the avenue, they reached a small copse of trees, and Xena pulled the coach off the road and maneuvered it behind their cover. They had just got into place when they heard a thunder of hoofbeats out on the road.
“Four men,” Xena said, listening. “I wonder if they were sent to kill us or to capture us. The result is the same, either way, I suppose.”
“Does it make your decision easier? “Gabrielle asked. “Knowing that he would send his men to harm you?”
“No. But it makes my decision easier knowing that he would send them to harm you.” Xena laid a gentle hand on Gabrielle’s cheek. “Stay here,” she said. “Stay safe and out of sight. If I fail to return by nightfall, take the coach and go to Lord Hercules. He will protect you.”
“But I don’t want to leave you behind!” Gabrielle protested.
“If it comes to that, you won’t be,” Xena said grimly. She untethered her riding horse from the back of the coach and mounted smoothly, even without a groom or a mounting block. She looked like a heroine of old on horseback, like she could conquer worlds. Gabrielle only hoped she could conquer Lord Draco.
Gabrielle pressed her lips tightly together until she could be sure they would not tremble when she spoke. “Be careful,” she said firmly. “And come back to me.”
Xena smiled at her, happy and fierce and ,for just a moment, unburdened by the task laid upon her. “I’ll see you before nightfall,” she said.
Gabrielle was not good at waiting.
She paced around the coach a half-dozen times before it occurred to her to unbridle the horses so that they could graze. Once that was done, she felt that there should be another task to hand, another job for her to do. Instead, there was only the sky, the grass, the trees, and the munching sounds of the horses.
She climbed into the cabin of the carriage and opened her valise. There was nothing in it that offered comfort, and she slumped back on the seat disgruntledly. She hadn’t ridden inside often since the first leg of the journey, when she’d stowed away. She thought back on that trip and wished that she could fall asleep as easily now as she had then. With a sigh, Gabrielle climbed back out of the carriage … and straight into the arms of the man who was waiting there.
She didn’t even get a chance to scream before she was hit on the head and the world went dark.
Gabrielle came to in a cold, bare chamber with the unfished look of an outbuilding. She was seated in a wooden chair with her hands bound behind her. Aside from the throb of her head, she seemed uninjured. The room was lit by a single lantern, and Gabrielle strained her eyes to make out any useful detail. But all she could see were stone walls and wooden beams, and a single table bearing the lantern but nothing else.
After the first rush of adrenaline, it turned out that being kidnapped was just as boring as waiting with the coach, and significantly less comfortable. Gabrielle set to work diligently at her bonds, testing the shape of the knot and the texture of the rope. It was slow, painstaking work.
When the door swung open, Gabrielle’s relief that something was happening nearly overwhelmed her fear. Then Lord Draco shove Xena through the door, and Gabrielle’s relief drained away. She swallowed hard. “My lady,” Gabrielle said, as collectedly as she could manage. “I had not expected to see you again so soon.”
Xena’s eyes were like chips of ice as she wheeled around to confront Lord Draco. “You pathetic man,” she spit out. “That you would attack unarmed women.”
“Oh, but you weren’t unarmed, were you, Xena?” Lord Draco said with a chuckle. “Of course, you’d never be truly unarmed, even if you were naked. And you are especially not unarmed when you creep into my home, intent on betraying me.”
Xena lifted her chin. “We both know where the betrayal lies here, Draco,” she said. “And it isn’t with me.”
“Of course,” Lord Draco said, “because your honor is so very dear to you. Of course, it’s been dear to you for several years now, so you’re due to switch back to being a coldblooded traitor any day now. Why not make it today?”
Gabrielle glowered at the man. He had clearly been close to Xena once. What an idiot he was to not see how she had changed!
“I don’t do that any more,” Xena told him.
“But you do kill men without a challenge?” Draco countered.
“Challenges are for equals,” Xena said coolly. “You are below me in every way.”
“And yet,” Lord Draco laughed and gestured around the little room, at Xena before him and Gabrielle in her chair.
Gabrielle thought that she had heard quite enough from Lord Draco. She pulled the last bit of rope free from its knot, barely allowing the movements to show in her arms. She took one moment to center herself, and then, with a shout of, “Xena!” she stood, caught up the chair, and threw it to her friend.
Without hesitation, Xena snatched the chair from the air and cracked it hard against the stone floor, breaking loose a sturdy leg and slashing at Lord Draco’s face with it. He dodged, but Xena was viper-swift, striking again and again. There was nowhere in the tiny room for him to go.
With one hand, Lord Draco drew a pistol from his belt, while the other scrambled for anything to shield him from Xena’s furious attack. In his haste, he knocked the lantern from the table, and the room was plunged into darkness. Gabrielle held her breath, trying to determine how the fight progressed by sound alone, but scuffles and grunts of pain told her very little.
When a shot rang out, deafening in the stone room, Gabrielle gasped. “Xena!” she cried again.
For a moment there was no sound, and Gabrielle wondered if the shot had truly deafened her. Then she heard, “I’m here, Gabrielle. Don’t fear.”
“Don’t fear, she says,” Gabrielle grumbled, her heart singing with joy. Xena was alive. “Gunshots in the darkness, but don’t fear!” She pressed a hand to the wall and used it to guide her to the door. When she opened it, the light of the golden sunset streamed inside, lighting Lord Draco’s body on the floor.
“Is he …”
“Dead,” Xena confirmed. Gabrielle expected her to look triumphant, but instead she just looked sad and resigned. “I didn’t know how I could look into his eyes and kill him. In the end, I couldn’t see his eyes at all. But I don’t think it made it easier.”
With no prying eyes around them, Gabrielle stepped close to Xena and gently tugged the pistol from her grip before embracing her. Xena was much larger than Gabrielle, but it felt as though Gabrielle were wrapping herself around her friend, surrounding her in affection.
“I’m so glad you’re safe,” she said against Xena's shoulder.
“I’m grateful you are, as well,” Xena said, her hands warm on Gabrielle’s back. “although I did tell you to stay with the coach.”
“It was all part of my plan,” Gabrielle said airily, releasing Xena after one more tight squeeze. “Get captured so that I could provide assistance at a critical moment. It worked brilliantly, if I do say so!”
Xena smiled at her fondly. “It did.” Then a shadow crossed her face. “We’ll need to find my saddlebag. I have a note in it, written as though from Draco, explaining why he took the coward’s way out. We’ll leave it her with his body, pistol in hand.”
Gabrielle nodded solemnly. Then she said, “We’ll need a new chair, too.” Suddenly, replacing a chair in the wake of battle was the funniest notion she’d ever had in her life, and laughter bubbled out of her in an unstoppable wave. Xena just waited out the laughter.
Once Gabrielle had gasped to a stop and lapsed back into silence, Xena tucked a strand of hair behind Gabrielle’s ear and patted her shoulder. “Come,” She said,” Let’s find the saddlebag and a chair.”
“And leave this place behind us,” Gabrielle added.
“And leave this place far behind,” Xena agreed.
That night they stopped at an inn for the first time on their journey. Xena hired a private dining room and a bedchamber for the night. The innkeeper usually put as many guests as possible into the bedchamber, so the bed was large enough for Xena and Gabrielle to share in comfort. Curled into warm blankets and the hush of the night, Gabrielle turned on her side to face Xena.
“What now?” Gabrielle asked.
Xena sighed. “You can’t continue to tell your parents that you’re staying with your aunt,” she said. “If nothing else, your aunt will send for you soon enough and reveal the deception.”
“I know,” Gabrielle said. “But I don’t want to give this up.” She reached across the bed and took Xena’s hand in hers. “I don’t want to give you up.”
“No more do I,” Xena admitted. She turned their hands so that her fingers were threaded through Gabrielle’s. “You know,” she said slowly, “Some young women of good breeding serve as companions to other ladies. I wouldn’t offend you with talk of money,” she said wryly, “but I would see all your needs met.”
Gabrielle’s face broke into a glowing grin. “All my needs are already met,” she said, rubbing her thumb over the back of Xena’s hand.
Xena’s answering smile was pleased. “It will be dangerous,” she warned.
“My life has been sadly lacking in danger up to this point,” Gabrielle said. It was no longer as true as it had been the first time she’d said it, but Gabrielle was a talented liar.
“Then it’s decided. We’ll write to your parents tomorrow.”
“It’s decided,” Gabrielle agreed. She snuggled deeper into the bed, filled with contentment.
The summer that Gabrielle was twelve, her governess had forbidden her to read novels, calling them sensational and silly, no pattern for a real life. At twenty, Gabrielle prayed every day in gratitude that her life often was patterned on an adventure novel. She glanced at Xena, sitting beside her on the box of the coach with reins in hand, and waited for the next chapter to open.