After spending some time to wash and freshen up, Nyxen and Aria left to find some food. Aria was unusually quiet and he wanted to grasp her hand and talk to her, but he didn't want to risk exposing their relationship. Had he been too rough with her earlier? He'd been unable to help it, to hold himself back– she'd been so adorable, a pouting face of jealousy. Aria, his wife, was jealous about the idea of him with another woman. The thought bubbled inside him with warmth.
He hadn't expected to see anyone familiar here, or anyone who recognised him. It'd been nearly ten years since his encounter with Zarea, so long that he'd nearly wiped her from his memories. Yes, she was a beauty by traditional standards and to his younger self, Zarea had indeed been a mythical creature of sorts. He'd perhaps been too passive in his stance towards Zarea, allowed himself to dally with her too much. After all, what young man wasn't welcome to the offerings of a beautiful lady?
That was all in the past now. Nyxen had been young back then, not ready to put behind adventure and settle. As time wore on, the rush of euphoria had come from his battles and triumphs more than women. He'd also grown harder, harsher, his dalliances with women became few to none. Then there was Aria, Aria who brought him pleasure and delight like nothing else he'd ever known. It wasn't just the euphoria of sex – though it was comparable to nothing else, she filled him with wholesome warmth, made him complete in a way that contented him like he'd never been. She was the sunshine in his life that he'd always continue to follow. How could he get Aria to see that? Understand that? Nothing else in his life before had been a need. Aria was a necessity.
They found a restaurant to eat at, choosing a quiet table in the corner. They ordered the house favourites before Nyxen turned his full attention toward Aria.
"You're quiet," he said. "What's bothering you?"
Aria picked up a cup and toyed with it, as if avoiding his prompts for conversation.
"Did I hurt you?" he asked, frowning, as if the thought itself wounded him.
Aria looked up, paused with a startled expression. A blush crept across her cheeks. "N-no, not at all."
A weight lifted off his chest. "Then what is it? Is it Zarea?"
Aria's entire face scrunched tight and he knew he'd hit the mark.
"It's silly," she said, "I know it was all in the past – long before you and I met, but I still cannot help but wonder." She sighed and looked up from the cup to him. "There's a lot I don't know about you, Nyxen. I have spent my life travelling, moving from place to place, without commitments. I've never... been with anyone, until now. But you, you're different."
He took her hand, not caring that they were in the open. He wanted to comfort his wife. "Aria, whatever you want to know about me, I'll tell you. There are no secrets between you and I."
"Really? There is nothing you would not want me to know?"
A playful smile crept up his face and he cocked his head to the side. "Maybe just a few things."
Aria's eyes widened and her mouth fell slack.
"I was thinking of all the times Zygon's embarrassed me, but I'm sure Zygon would not hesitate to tell you if you'd ask him."
Her brows creased as she took her hand out from beneath his hold.
Nyxen chuckled and reached for her again. All gravity returned to his features. "Aria, you already know that I would risk my life for you. Regardless of anything in my past, you are my future. You are the one for me, do you understand that?"
She stared at him, let his gaze simmer her with sincerity, until she could read the truth in his eyes.
"I know." The corner of her lips finally lifted.
After eating, they strolled through the city towards the king's celebration. Apparently, no one knew what was being celebrated, but no one questioned it any more, for the king's celebrations were a regular occurrence. They passed shops and market stalls, some of which sold speciality items only seen in Tannuk.
They were mid-stroll when Aria grabbed his arm. "That's the type of scented-ring Xena used." Nyxen looked up ahead, saw a stall of scented-rings that were vaguely familiar in his memories. They walked toward it and Nyxen picked one up, sniffing.
"It's not the same smell," he said. Aria did the same, face scrunching.
"Great for calming, that one you picked up there. Light it up by the bath for a bit of relaxation. We also got ones that help relieve headaches, all sorts," a man said.
"Oh? These are all different then?" Nyxen asked, picking up another ring to sniff. Indeed, its scent was different from the last one he'd just smelt.
The man nodded. "Rare items these are, I'm the only one that sells them here."
Aria glanced from him to the man. "Do you sell any that can make one drowsy? Perhaps paralyse the body?"
The man gave a low whistle. "That sounds like a medicated one. You can only get those in the place they're made. They don't sell 'em elsewhere."
Nyxen placed the scented ring back on the stall."Mind me asking where you bought these from?"
"Now, I can't tell you that. What business would there be left for me to make?"
"Please," Aria said, "we're desperately in need of one. For medicinal purposes, you see..."
The man's brows furrowed and Nyxen watched in a mixture of disbelief and awe as Aria pleaded him with fluttering eyes.
The man rubbed a hand to the back of his head. "Well, it's not entirely that I won't tell you. You see, they're in quite a dangerous place to get to."
"Is that so? But you managed to brave the journey and back," Aria said.
"Yes, well, not without dodging several Sinxths..."
"Sinnah," Nyxen said. "You bought these from Sinnah."
A look of surprise passed the man's features before he began nodding. "That's right. They only sell medicated scented-rings there, if you're looking."
They thanked the man before continuing on.
"You know Sinnah?" Aria asked.
"I've heard of it. Not a pleasant place to travel to."
"Do you think Xena might have been there?"
"Who knows, but it's a start."
A large open gathering came into view, supported by several towering pillars. Layers of thin fabric billowed between, creating a calm yet festive atmosphere. Music sounded for yards and all along the street, people buzzed.
They turned toward the voice and saw Zarea approaching.
She stepped toward him like a goddess and smiled at him. "And Aria," she greeted before taking his arm.
They were led into the gathering hall, down a strip of gold and brown carpet that led to a high platform. Nyxen could only assume it was King Rioza who sat atop the throne, half-naked maids on either side to service him. The man was about the same age as Nyxen, maybe a few years older, but not as solidly built. While he indulged in fine wine and foods, he was sure all the sex kept him slim. On either side of the carpet, crowds of people milled about, congregated around several tall tables. More fabric and flowers hung from the ceiling, bathing the space in a sweet, floral scent.
Zarea led them down the thick, plush carpet and King Rioza looked up from a maid offering him a grape. His eyes narrowed on them in a curious, assessing manner and they were gestured forward with two beckoning fingers.
Zarea curtsied. "Your Majesty."
"Who have we here?" King Rioza asked.
"This is my friend Nyxen. I invited him along to the celebration to watch my dance."
He showed his respects and the king nodded before turning his attention to Aria. Nyxen clenched his teeth, disliking the way the king's eyes slid down Aria's body. They were thin, beady, like the eyes of a serpent.
"And your lady companion? She's not from here."
"Aria, Your Majesty," Nyxen said.
"What's her relation to you?"
He beckoned Aria with a lazy drawl of his fingers. "Come, let me get a good look at you."
Nyxen's fists clenched and he shared a look with Aria. Her eyes were large but shone with humble bravery. His brave little Aria – he'd forgotten how brave she could be, that she could hold her own. But still, she was his woman and a young lady at that, he wouldn't throw her into danger if he could help it. After making love to her, he'd considered buying her a skirt of the local Tannuk ladies so she might blend in, but he hadn't liked the idea of Aria strutting around with her bare breasts on display. They were his and for him alone. Now he was wondering if he should have thought about that twice, for it was obvious she was not from Tannuk.
Aria stepped forward, onto the raised platform and Nyxen watched with clenched fists. She paused some steps from King Rioza who beckoned her closer, til she was seated beside him on the throne. Nyxen swallowed, forgot to breath. Found himself unable to take his eyes away. If King Rioza so much as hurt a hair on her head, he'd be ready to pounce.
The man lifted Aria's chin toward him, inspecting her face like she were a vase or something to appreciate. "I like it. You'll sit beside me tonight."
Nyxen's heart hammered and he fought the burning inferno inside him. A tug on his arm saw Zarea pulling him toward the side.
"Let's find a table and get a drink," she said. While he allowed himself to be tugged away, his eyes never left Aria. From where he stood at a table, he continued watching. King Rioza leaned down to whisper something in Aria's ear and he saw the furrow in her brows. What was he saying? She whispered something back and tried to put distance between them. King Rioza leaned in again and Nyxen didn't miss the sly move of his hand to the back of her neck. The toying of her bandetta. A few flicks and Aria would practically be naked before him. Rage boiled inside him. Erupting. Just as he was about to storm over, Aria stood. Nyxen paused, wondering what was being said. Then King Rioza was gesturing to the space before him.
Aria stepped off the raised platform and walked down the strip of carpet to stand some distance from King Rioza. She curtsied, before throwing a pose and then her intention became clear. Seeing her dance before everyone now, Nyxen realised how long it'd been since that very first time he'd lain eyes on her. Deja vu washed over him and it was like he was being enticed all over again. Aria'd intrigued him with mystery and beauty and even if he hadn't realised at the time, perhaps his heart had already been hers. Aria danced with grace, like a goddess, and her movements stole his breath. Heavens, why didn't she dance more often? He made a mental note that after they returned, he'd watch her dance for him every single sunrising.
The dance came to an end and King Rioza and the crowds applauded. Aria bowed and walked off the carpet.
"She's a good little dancer," Zarea breathed into his ear.
He felt the touch of her hand on his arm, the brush of her body as she rubbed himself against her, but Nyxen was too focussed on Aria to give it any heed.
Zarea cupped his cheek and forced him to look at her."Why won't you look at me?A drink?" She stepped forward, cup in hand and rubbed her chest against his.
Nyxen flinched at her close proximity. He stepped back and just when he was about to grab Zarea's wrist, pull her away, someone beat him to it. Zarea's wrist flung back, the contents of the cup sloshing over her bare chest. She gasped, loud enough for crowds to stop. Everyone turned to stare.
Aria's eyes simmered as she gripped Zarea's wrist away. "Don't touch my husband like that."
Even in their current circumstance, the word husband made Nyxen's heart stutter. Aria'd called him his for the first time and her fierce possessiveness caused warmth to sweep through him.
"H-husband?!" Zarea exclaimed, yanking her arm away. The word reverberated through the air, snapping Nyxen out of his daze, though it wasn't quite as nice as when Aria said it. Nyxen was quick to step between them, but not before King Rioza noticed something was out of the ordinary. Spears in hand, several guards surrounded them.
"What's going on?" King Rioza boomed, his voice blanketing the room in silence. "Husband, you say? You lied to me." His eyes pierced Nyxen then the corner of his lips lifted. "You know, men offer the services of their wife to me. Won't you offer me her services?"
How dare he? King or not, Aria was the one person he'd never share.
"I can't do that."
For a moment, King Rioza's eyes narrowed. "Shame, but you lied to me – that's punishable by crime. Take him away."
Aria gave a loud gasp and grasped his hand at the same time he looked at her. Her eyes were wide with fear. And as the guards narrowed in on them, Nyxen pulled Aria into his arms, shielding her. "Bring her to me," King Rioza shouted and they rounded on him, prying him from Aria.
"Nyxen!" she exclaimed. He fought with all his might, clawing until his arms were caught. No, he'd vowed, promised to protect Aria. He couldn't leave her alone with a leech like King Rioza, but as they dragged him further away, him fighting with every step, he realised his attempts would be futile.