The Conqueror: Sceptre of Fate by: Harpy & HkdonXetG

The Conqueror: Sceptre of Fate

Part I: When Destiny Meets Fate

By: Harpy & HkdonXetG ©2002

Story Disclaimers

Category: XWP; Conqueror X/G; ALT (f/f), intended for mature audience

Copyright Disclaimer: Characters from the T.V. Series Xena, Warrior Princess and Hercules, the Legendary Journeys, are copyrighted to MCA/Universal, Studio USA, and Renaissance Pictures. This is an original work of fan fiction, intended for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. Copies of this story may be made for personal use only, but must include disclaimers. Original characters and plot lines are copyrighted to the authors and may be used with permission.

Spoiler Disclaimer: This story is loosely based upon the HTLJ Series episode (H73/414) Armageddon Now II which depicts Xena and Gabrielle in an alternate timeline. It is not necessary to have seen this episode to read and enjoySceptre of Fate.

Content Disclaimer:

Violence: It’s hard to write a story about Xena as The Conqueror without some violence, though it is not overly graphic – no more so than the violence depicted in the series.

Sexual content: This is a story about Xena and Gabrielle who, in any timeline, are fated to be together as friends, lovers, and soulmates. That means this is an Alternative Fan Fiction story with scenes of sexual intimacy between two women. Besides F/F sex, there is also a bit of M/F sex, and a scene with some mild BDSM. If you are not 18 years or older, or sexual situations and some violence is not your cup of tea, then this would not be a story for you.

Story Summary: In The Conqueror: Sceptre of Fate, Part I: When Destiny Meets Fate, a young farm girl named Gabrielle leaves her village and enlists in the Army of Xena the Conqueror. Xena finds herself captivated by this rather bold and idealistic young woman and offers her a job as her personal assistant. Xena soon realises that Gabrielle possesses an unconventional wisdom and comes to rely upon Gabrielle for advice and friendship as she leads her army in a campaign of conquest. After conquering Athens, Xena becomes Empress of Greece and all of the Greek territories, previously controlled by ruthless warlords and petty kings, are united under her rule. Her ambitions do not stop there. It is Xena’s self-proclaimed destiny to rule over a vast empire, and so she looks toward Rome as her next conquest. In the service of the Conqueror, Gabrielle goes from being a naïve village girl to the Empress’ most trusted advisor and friend, much to the annoyance of Xena’s second-in-command. Through Gabrielle’s friendship Xena realises that her quest for personal glory does not have to come at the expense of her personal happiness. Along the way, they realise they were fated to be together.

Note from the Authors

Acknowledgements:

Harpy: First and foremost, I’d like to thank Jane, my partner in this. Her uncanny ability to understand what I’m trying to write and fill in the gaps, is the only reason this thing is seeing the light of day. Thanks to everyone at the Bard’s Village, especially Sam Ruskin, who gave their encouragement to get this story started. Thanks to everyone on the DQ&I list for their feedback. Last, but by no means least, Zuke, whose guidance probably deserves a co-writing credit.

HkdonXetG: First, I’d like to thank Richard; he is an extraordinary writing partner. This project is “seeing the light of day” because of his amenability, determination, and infinite patience. Thanks also to the folks at the DQ&I for their feedback and encouragement. And a huge “THANK YOU” to my good buddy, Zuke, whose exceptional BR skills have helped us take a good idea and make it a great story. This is for my warrior princess.

Cover Artwork for SOF, Part I: The authors would like to thank B-Bard for contributing the fabulous story cover artwork. To find more of her work, please visit her web page: www.bbindi.com

For those interested in who wrote what bits: even we can’t tell!

One last note: Sceptre of Fate is written using British English spelling.

Feedback Request: We’d like to know what you think, so please send feedback to harpy1553@yahoo.co.uk and HkdonXetG@yahoo.com.

~~~~~

Chapter 1

I groped towards the door of the tiny bedroom, careful not to wake my sister. Glancing back to make sure my bed looked occupied, I didn’t notice the chair jutting out from a table in the centre of the room.Thump. I froze and held my breath, hoping the noise from the chair didn’t wake Lila. No such luck.

“Gabrielle,” Lila called sleepily.

“Go back to sleep,” I whispered.

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I replied, allowing my annoyance to be heard. “Just go back to sleep, Lila.”

Lila sat up and rubbed her eyes. “Is that a bag you’re carrying? Are you running away?”

I debated whether to tell her, but I owed her that much. “I’m going to join the army of Xena the Conqueror. The camp is just a few hours North of Potidaea, and they’re recruiting.”

There was a pause, and then an eruption of laughter. “You? Hahaha, hahaha!”

The sting of her “don’t be stupid” laughter caused me to blush. I should’ve expected her reaction, but somehow I thought my sister would understand.

Lila fought to control her laughter once she realised, by my stony expression, that I wasn’t trying to be funny.

“You’re serious?” She sounded astonished.

“Absolutely,” I replied.

“You wouldn’t last a day, Gabrielle. For Zeus’ sake, I can beat you up!”

“Yeah well, you’re very strong for your age,” was my pithy response. She was right, I wasn’t a warrior, but I had other skills that would be useful to the Conqueror.

Folding her arms across her chest, my sister sat upright in bed and gave me a disapproving glare.

How could I explain to Lila the frustration I felt at being trapped in Potidaea when the world around me was in chaos? I thought. No one in this village really understood that I was meant to do so much more with my life. The Conqueror was trying to unite Greece and bring stability to the region, and I was meant to be part of that. I sat down next to her on the edge of her bed. “Lila, you know I’m different from everybody else in this village—”

“I know you’re crazy!”

“Well, call it whatever you like. The point is I don’t fit in here, and the idea of marrying Perdicus—”

“He loves you, you know.”

“But I don’t love him,” I said exasperatedly. Lila stared wide-eyed as though I just declared there were no gods. “Perdicus is a good man and he deserves a good wife,” I continued in a gentler tone. “I want to be more than just someone’s wife. I want to experience life, not just live it.”

The look in Lila’s eyes changed to bewilderment as I spoke. It would never occur to my sister that a woman had other choices in life. I felt sorry for her.

I continued to plead my case. “I want adventure. I want to travel. But more than anything, I want to make a difference in this world. Don’t you see? I’ve got to do this, Lila.”

My sister knew once I made up my mind, there was no point in arguing further, so she uncrossed her arms and held them out towards me.

“I’m going to miss you so much.” Her lower lip began to quiver.

I put down my bag and embraced my sister and best friend. With tears flowing freely, we held onto each other, aware that our childhood together was ending.

“Cheer up.” I tried to lighten the mood. “You’ll finally have a room of your own.”

~~~~~

The sun was just rising over the foothills of Mt. Holomodas as I entered the Conqueror’s army encampment. It occupied a large, gently sloping field on the north side of the main route from Thrace to Central Greece. There was not much in the way of protection from the elements. The few trees that dotted the area had been sculpted by the wind into stooped and stunted shapes. I stood on the outskirts of the camp for a moment to take it all in: rows of tents; battle flags snapping in the breeze; the smell of leather and horse manure filling my nostrils; the scraping of stone against metal as soldiers sharpened their weapons.

For a moment, I wondered what I was doing in this place — me, just an eighteen-year-old peasant girl with few skills that prepared me for life as a soldier. But I couldn’t go back to Potidaea. To return would mean giving up my dreams and settling for a meagre existence as a farmer’s wife.

I steeled my courage and walked toward a group of soldiers guarding the road into camp. They must not have considered me much of a threat, because they didn’t take up defensive positions. One of the soldiers, an officer judging by the plume on his helmet, stepped forward and addressed me. He seemed different from the others: his face not as hard, and his brown eyes warm and friendly.

“Can I help you, miss?” the officer asked.

“Yes, thank you. I’m looking for the recruiting officer.”

The soldiers with him laughed, but the officer’s face betrayed no amusement at my request.

“That would be Lieutenant Melikos. You’ll find him on the other side of the camp.” He pointed in the general direction I should go. “You can’t miss him, he’s next to the banner that says ‘Join Here’.”

“Thank you, uh—”

“Lieutenant Galates.”

“Well, thank you, Lieutenant Galates.”

“My pleasure, and good luck.”

We gave each other a flirtatious smile, and then I turned in the direction Galates had pointed. As I walked away, I heard the other men tease him good-naturedly for being so polite to me.

~~~~~

The camp had everything an army, or a village needed. I passed a cook tent, a smithy, even a barber. One thing that made it different from a normal village was the population: it was predominantly male. The few women I saw were mostly from the support units, but there were a few who were soldiers. This raised my hopes of joining.

Lieutenant Melikos was indeed easy to spot among the men standing near the recruitment banner. He cut an impressive figure. Tall and ruggedly handsome, he was clad in full battle dress: bluish-purple tunic and black leather armour adorned with brass studs, with matching gauntlets and greaves, and newly shined, black boots. He wore his sword and scabbard on his left side. His polished bronze helmet glinted in the morning sunlight.

“Are you Lieutenant Melikos?” I asked, as I stepped directly in front of him.

“Yes, little lady, I am. What can I do for you?”

I took a deep breath and looked up to meet his eyes, preparing to explain what I was doing in the encampment of the Conqueror’s army. “I am here to enlist.”

“Bwahahaha!” Lieutenant Mekilos’ laugh was deeper and more guttural than my sister’s, but contained the same incredulity. The soldiers and civilians within earshot also broke into laughter.

“But I wish to offer my services to the Conqueror,” I protested.

He laughed harder. “Go back to your village, little girl.”

“I’m not asking to be a soldier, but I can be useful in other ways.”

This elicited some lecherous comments from the crowd of men gathering around me, which I ignored. “I could be a spy,” I continued hopefully. “No one would suspect me of being a master of espionage.”

“No. Now push off,” he barked. “I’ve got some real soldiers to recruit.” Lieutenant Melikos turned his back and ignored me.

I wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer, and was about to launch into another plea to the recruiting officer when the group began closing in around me.

“I know what service you could provide,” leered one grubby soldier.

His comrades chortled, and from their expressions I knew I wouldn’t like the service he was insinuating.

“So, how about it darling?” the lecher continued.

“Well, uh…that’s not exactly what I had in mind,” I said light-heartedly while I tried backing away. The group closed in tighter around me, blocking my escape. I looked to Lieutenant Melikos to come rescue me, but he kept his back turned, pretending not to hear them.

“Oh come on, you said you wanted to help the Conqueror. Now’s your chance,” another would-be recruit retorted.

“How would that be helping the Conqueror?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant, as I looked for a way out of my predicament.

“By keeping up morale.” The leader of the pack emphasized the word ‘up’ as he grabbed his codpiece. The unruly crowd sniggered at his gesture.

“No. I’m no good at making people happy. I’m a miserable person, honest. You’d want to— Hey!” I slapped at a hand that was trying to take liberties with my backside. “Didn’t your mother teach not to touch things that don’t belong to you?”

The men laughed harder, and two more tried to grab my breasts.

“That does it!” I yelled in my most fearsome voice. “These are lethal weapons,” I said as I held my hands up and struck a combative stance. Judging by the chortles, I wasn’t that convincing, but I swallowed hard and pressed on. “These hands can slice swords in two. They’ve been known to break boulders into pebbles. The Persian Army warns its new recruits that if they come up against me in battle, they are to run away screaming. He-ya!” I flashed my hands around in front of my face in mock punches and jabs.

The crowd took a step back. They seemed more amused than intimidated, but I didn’t care as long as it got them to move. I was about to strike another menacing pose, when suddenly the crowd grew quiet and dispersed without another word.

“Yeah, that’s it! You better be scared, because once you make me mad, I don’t hold back. Yaah!” I feigned a strike at the retreating men.

“You’ve had a lucky escape!” I called after them. I took a deep breath, pleased that my wits had saved me from a very threatening situation.

I turned around and almost poked my eyes out on a pair of leather and bronze clad breasts. “Hey, watch where you point those things!”

I took a step back and was about to try my “dangerous hands” trick again, when I looked up into a pair of hard blue eyes. Standing an arm’s length from me was a commanding warrior woman dressed in a uniform of black leather and intricately patterned, polished bronze armour. She towered over me, which made her all the more intimidating. Finally, it dawned on me who it was I was addressing. My mouth went dry and my heart pounded, as I stood before the most fearsome warrior in all of Greece — Xena the Conqueror.

“I hope you’re not posing a serious threat to my army, because if you threaten my army, you threaten me. You don’t want to threaten me, now do you?” The hardness in her eyes softened a bit, an eyebrow quirked upward, and the corner of her mouth turned up ever so slightly.

I made a strange croaking noise that in no way resembled the reply my brain instructed me to speak. I tried again. “N-n-no, M-Ma’am.”

“That’s ‘General’ to you,” she said, correcting me.

Dread filled my lungs but I managed to squeak out, “yes, General.”

“Good.” The Conqueror turned and started walking away.

“Hey! Wait a minute!” I called after her.

General Xena stopped walking away and turned slowly. “What did you say?” She gave me this look that would’ve cowered a mountain lion.

“I-I-I-I mean, General, if you could let me… I-I- mean, um… spare a moment of your time… your precious time to let me explain that… I have… a… um… an affinity, yes, that’s the word, an affinity for your cause. You have an incredible vision: to bring peace and stability to the region and to rid this land of marauding warlords and slavers. You’re a true saviour of this country! So, I’ve come to join your…army….” My voice trailed away as I became captivated by her stare.

She stood there, completely motionless. Only her long, dark hair shifting in the breeze gave any indication that she was alive and not a statue. Oh good, Gabrielle, first you insult her and then you start blathering like an idiot. Great first impression! I thought.

My heart was hammering louder in its attempt to escape my chest. My feet felt like they had been nailed in place, and my spine had lost the ability to support my body. I crumbled to my knees and watched in helpless horror as the Conqueror finally moved towards me.

“Stand up!” Xena ordered.

My body rebelled against the command, but eventually I managed to get to my feet.

“You want to join my army?”

“Y-yes, General,” I said meekly.

“Are you a warrior?” the Conqueror demanded.

“Not exactly, General.”

“What does that mean?”

“I can learn,” I said hopefully.

I heard the sound of the Conqueror drawing her sword. A wave of fear washed over me. I closed my eyes and waited for the worst.

“Take it.”

For a moment, I thought I was hearing things. Had she just said ‘take it’, as in take the sword? I opened one eye cautiously to see what was going on.

“Go on, take it.” The Conqueror stood with the hilt of the sword turned toward me.

I looked at the weapon. I was surprised how steady my hand was as I reached out to grasp the handle. Just as I was getting a feel for the sword, the Conqueror let go and the weight of the weapon pulled me down.

She laughed as she retrieved her sword from me. “I think my army can survive without you.”

I didn’t come all this way to be denied, not even by the Conqueror herself. I tried another tack.

“I could be useful as a spy.”

“A spy!” She didn’t bother hiding the amusement in her voice.

“Yes, General. I can read and write. I know how to read maps too. Oh, and I’m a bard. Telling stories is a useful skill for a spy to have. I also managed to get to this camp on my own without getting attacked or murdered or anything,”

“Why would a slip of a girl like you want to join my army? Shouldn’t you be out marrying a farmer or something?”

“I was meant to do so much more than be a farmer’s wife. A travelling seer once told me I was fated to meet a mighty warrior who was destined to unite a land in turmoil. He said this warrior was going to change the world, and I am supposed to help this warrior. Greece is just such a land — it’s people starving, threatened, enslaved. I believe you are that warrior, General Xena, and I am here to help you.”

I studied the Conqueror as she absorbed my words and considered her response. There appeared to be some conflict going on within. Eventually she spoke.

“What’s your name?”

“Gabrielle,” I answered.

“Gabrielle.”

A shiver ran down my spine as the Conqueror said my name. Most people say my name quickly, making it sound hard and sharp, but Xena’s low-pitched voice prolonged the syllables, making it sound exotic and unusual. Her voice had a sensual quality that I found entrancing.

“Yes, General?”

“I have need of a personal serv—” She paused and reconsidered her choice of words. “A personal assistant.”

“Personal assistant?”

“Yes.”

“What would my duties be?”

“Oh, all sorts of things. Serving my meals, ensuring my quarters are clean, and making sure my laundry gets done—”

“Pardon me, General, but that sounds a lot like a servant.”

“There will be other duties.”

“Such as?”

“You can take notes during meetings I have with my commanders and such. You did say you could read and write?”

“Yes, General. But I could do so much more. I’m good at telling stories and talking my way out of trouble. I would make an excellent spy. I mean, just look at me. Who would suspect me of being a spy?”

“No spying. We can’t have my personal assistant getting captured as a spy, now can we?”

“No, General,” I replied with obvious disappointment. The offer was not exactly what I wanted. The alternative, however, was to go back to Potidaea and marry Perdicus, which my pride would never allow.

“Personal assistant, huh?” I muttered.

“Take it or leave it.”

A thought struck me. “Don’t you already have one?” I queried, still campaigning for a job as a spy.

“I had her crucified for talking too much,” she said with deadly seriousness.

I paused while my heart started beating again. “That was a joke, right?” I asked tentatively. Considering the Conqueror’s reputation, this might’ve been a distinct possibility.

“Of course it was,” she said impassively. “I had her thrown to the lions.”

~~~~~

The Conqueror’s battle-hardened commanders couldn’t contain their disdainful amusement when, later that morning, General Xena introduced me as her new personal assistant.

“She’s so puny! I’d throw this one back,” one officer said, as he turned me around.

“Personal assistant — is that what they’re calling themselves these days?” another officer said, insinuating I was some sort of camp follower.

“Heh, I could use some personal assistance with this!” the third officer said, grabbing his crotch.

The officers weren’t quite as threatening as the men by the recruiting table, but they made me uncomfortable all the same. I wondered if I would have to go through this trial all the time. As they looked me over, I became very self-conscious about the way I was dressed. How could I ever earn their respect dressed in a brown skirt and blue peasant blouse? If I was going to be the Conqueror’s personal assistant, I needed to look the part. I needed some sort of uniform.

My thoughts drifted toward the design of such a uniform, when another officer, Lucon, grabbed me and pulled me towards him. “How about giving us a little kiss, sweetheart?” he leered.

I tried to struggle, but he held me tight. Unable to think of any way to break free, I looked towards General Xena with a pleading look.

The Conqueror’s eyes flashed with a wild glint, and her jaw clenched ever so slightly. She gripped the loutish officer by the throat and addressed her comments directly at him, “Is that any way to address my new personal assistant?” Her tone was low and threatening. Then she gave all the other officers a withering look. “Anyone else have a comment?”

All taunting ceased in an instant.

Lucon’s face was turning purple in Xena’s grip and the veins on the side of his bald head stood out in stark relief. The officer was only slightly taller than me and Xena lifted him up to look him directly in the eyes, which left him balanced on the tips of his toes. With a barely audible grunt she released her hold on Lucon’s throat and pushed him away. He gasped for air and held onto the table to steady himself.

“All of you, out! Report back here in one hour.”

Without comment, the junior officers saluted and scrambled out of the command tent. Naturally, I assumed that meant me as well, so I followed on their heels.

“You, stay!” She glowered at me with that same icy stare she had given Lucon.

I froze like a deer caught in the sights of a hunter’s bow.

The Conqueror turned to her second-in-command and snarled, “Darnell, I want Lucon demoted.”

“Immediately, General.” He made a crisp about-face and started to leave.

“Oh, and Darnell…”

Darnell turned back around. “Yes, General?”

“Have him flogged in front of his entire unit. I want to send a message that Gabrielle is to be treated as a respected member of the Conqueror’s staff and not a common barmaid. Is that clear?”

“It will be done.” Darnell saluted and made another about-face. As he left the command tent, the second-in-command glanced my way and nodded.

“Come here,” Xena said firmly.

My legs turned to jelly from fright and I collapsed on the floor, ungracefully landing on my backside.

“Here, take my hand.” Her tone softened as she held her hand out to me.

When I hesitated, the Conqueror pulled me to my feet in front of her.

“Are you all right?” Her hand lingered on my forearm.

I tried to say something, but I couldn’t speak. It felt as though a hand was gripping my throat. I had never stood that close to the Conqueror before. I didn’t realise just how tall she was, or that she had the most piercing sky-blue eyes. She had a long mane of onyx hair and her complexion was flawless — tanned and olive toned.

“Uh, yes. Thank you.” I finally managed a timid response.

The imposing woman backed away. “That kind of behaviour will not happen again, I assure you. I made my position quite clear on how you are to be treated.”

The Conqueror walked over to a chair and sat down. She beckoned me over and told me to pour her some wine, which I did. As I handed the goblet to her, she started talking about her vision for Greece and her philosophies as an army commander. As I listened, I felt less fearful and more captivated by this stern, but charismatic leader. By the end of the hour, I was sure this was where I was meant to be.

~~~~~

The officers reported back to the command tent as ordered, and this time everyone was very polite to me. Before the briefing began, Commander Darnell introduced the soldier who accompanied him. I was pleased to see it was the lieutenant who had directed me to the recruiter.

“General, may I present Galates of the Fourth Perimeter Guards, second unit. He is my choice to replace Lucon.”

“Galates, eh? So, you think you’re ready to take command of the Fourth Perimeter Guards?” General Xena said with a sneer, as she stood toe-to-toe with Darnell’s choice. Galates was one of the few men who came near to Xena in height.

“By your will, General.” Galates snapped to attention and saluted his commanding general. He looked like he was about to faint.

“Yes, by my will.” With that, the Conqueror drew a dagger from her boot and thrust it toward Galates’ gut. Galates managed to jump back, blocking the attack with a defensive forearm move.

“Not bad. Very well, Lieutenant Galates. You now command the Fourth Perimeter Guards.”

The newly promoted Galates snapped to attention and saluted. A bead of perspiration dripped down his pale cheek.

General Xena waved the dagger in acknowledgement, and then pointed to the map spread out on a large table. “Thrace, Macedonia, and now Chalcidice are mine. Our next objective will be the kingdom of Thessalia. My plan is to march through Epirus to the west of Thessalia. Once Epirus is taken, then Thessalia will be effectively cut off from the North, West, and East. Once Thessalia falls, Achaea will be easy pickings. Commander Darnell, I want the men prepared to move out in two days.”

“Yes, General,” Darnell acknowledged. The others took their cue from Commander Darnell and came to attention. In unison, they raised their fists across their chests to salute the Conqueror and exited the tent.

General Xena went back to studying the map, seemingly oblivious to my presence.

“Ahem.” I cleared my throat.

“Uh? Oh, yes.” She turned to look at me. “We need to discuss your duties, but first,” Xena looked me up and down then continued, “we need to get you some kind of uniform. It wouldn’t do to have the Conqueror’s personal assistant dressing like a peasant girl, would it?”

Two days later, the Army of Xena the Conqueror left the Potidaea valley, with an additional six hundred new recruits and one personal assistant.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

When I was a teenager, a warlord named Cortese attacked my home village of Amphipolis. This violent act shaped my life and gave it a purpose. I vowed that I would rid Greece of the ruthless warlords and their roving bands of thugs.

It went wrong somewhere along the line. Events led me away from that goal, and I became the very thing I despised. Twelve years of roaming the world killing and plundering, and I thought I had everything I wanted. Then one day, I realised I was destined to rule an empire, not live in a dirty tent surrounded by a rag-tag bunch of mercenaries and no-hopers.

If my plans of conquering all of Greece were to be realised, I needed troops who were well trained and loyal, men who would fight and die for me and not just for my gold. It took nearly a year before I had a strong and loyal army capable of fighting for a country rather than their next meal. And once I did, I set out to conquer Greece.

It was in the spring of that year, in Chalcidice near the village of Potidaea, that I met Gabrielle. Our first encounter was, to say the least, memorable. I was in my command tent talking with Braextus, a commander in my army.

“How would you like to run Larissa for me?” I asked.

He gave me a suspicious look. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch,” I replied.

Braextus had been with me a long time. He was about twenty years older than me and had retired from the fighting business six years ago to settle down and raise a family. When he heard about my plans for Greece, he picked up his sword and joined me again.

“There’s always a catch with you,” he said with a chuckle.

That was one thing about Braextus I liked, he was not afraid to joke with me. He had always treated me with respect, but never out of fear or awe like some of my soldiers. And for that, he earned my appreciation. While his prowess on the battlefield was not what it once was – he liked his drink a little too much and his uniform was tight across his stomach – Braextus knew how to manage the logistics of a large army, and that made him the best choice to govern Thessalia for me. Besides, it meant he could settle down with his family and still serve me.

“The catch is I want you to oversee Larissa for me. It’s a strategically important city, and I need someone I can trust to–” I was interrupted by raised voices outside. “What is going on out there?” I stood up and stalked out of the tent to find out the cause of the disturbance.

And there she was, this scrawny yet spirited girl with long blonde hair, surrounded by a rowdy pack of my soldiers. She was holding them at bay with feigned hand-combat movements. The boldness of this young woman both amused and intrigued me. I could see she was in over her head and felt compelled to come to her rescue.

Just the sight of me coming towards them was enough to quickly disperse the group of soldiers. Gabrielle turned around and was surprised by my presence.

“Hey, watch where you point those things!” she cried.

I think she was referring to my breasts, which were about level with her face. The thought of my breasts being a dangerous weapon almost made me laugh out loud. I struggled to keep the smirk off my face and maintain a menacing stare. I made some quip about her threatening my army, and then I turned and walked away. I expected her to have the good sense to go home to whatever village she came from.

I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard this impudent young pup call after me and boldly inform me that she wanted to join my army.

“Why would a slip of a girl like you want to join my army? Shouldn’t you be out marrying a farmer or something?” I found myself asking. I wasn’t expecting the answer she gave me.

“I was meant to do so much more than be a farmer’s wife. A travelling seer once told me I was fated to meet a mighty warrior who was destined to unite a land in turmoil. This warrior is going to change the world, and I am supposed to help this warrior. Greece is just such a land – its people starving, threatened, enslaved. I believe you are that warrior, General Xena, and I am here to help you.”

By the gods, this girl was audacious – or crazy – walking into my encampment and boldly telling me that she was going to help me! What possible help could she be to me? I thought. Still, her arguments were persuasive, and against my better judgement, I found myself offering her a position as my personal assistant. I’d never had a personal assistant before – servants and slaves, yes – but never a personal assistant. I wasn’t even sure what a personal assistant would do.

Later that evening, Darnell and I met to discuss the day’s events over a glass of port.

Darnell was easily the best fighter under my command. Though a tall man, taller even than myself, he didn’t appear to be a big man. He was perfectly proportioned for his height and his trim body disguised his considerable strength. He also knew how to think on his feet and adopt a strategy during the heat of battle. Making him my second-in-command was an easy choice, and I trusted him to take care of the recruiting.

“How is the recruitment going?” I inquired.

“Not a bad lot,” Darnell replied. He stroked his close-cropped beard as he spoke. “We should soon be able to knock them into shape.”

“Did you see to Lucon’s punishment and instruct the men to treat my new personal assistant with respect?”

“Yes.” Darnell hesitated a moment. “May I speak freely?”

“Of course.”

“Are you going to keep that girl around?” he asked.

“Do you have a problem with her?” My tone was somewhat defensive.

“No, no problem,” Darnell replied instantly. “It’s just that you haven’t had a personal assistant before.”

“I decided it was about time I had one.”

“Why her?”

“There’s something about her – her spirit.”

“Oh, yeah. I noticed her ‘spirit’ too.” The commander raised his eyebrows and chuckled.

I caught his meaning and was quick to deny it. “That’s not the reason. Besides, she’s not my type.”

He tilted his head and gave me a disbelieving stare. Darnell knew that my sexual appetite was often sated by young women. I answered his look. “This is strictly professional. If I am going to build an empire, I’m going to need someone to handle the mundane administrative work. Unless you want the job, Commander.”

“Uh, on second thought, hiring a personal assistant was a great idea, General.”

I didn’t know then just what a great idea it was to hire Gabrielle, but I soon found out.

~~~~~

I left Chalcidice with an army of six thousand men and one personal assistant. My next objective was to conquer the kingdom of Thessalia and its capital city, Larissa. Taking Thessalia would not be an easy task. The Thessalian army was known for their fierceness and boldness in battle. They could pose a real threat to my army if they were allowed to make an alliance with neighbouring territories to the south.

My senior staff and I were gathered around the map table in the command tent. Gabrielle sat behind me, with quill and parchment, ready to take notes. The map showed Ambracia, a small kingdom just over the next range of hills. It was of little strategic value in my conquest of Thessalia, but it would be a sweet appetiser for the main course.

“Their defences are weak at this point,” said Darnell, placing his finger on the western flank.

“And where are they strongest?” I asked.

“Here,” he pointed to the eastern side.

“Then that’s where we attack.”

“General?” Darnell asked bewilderedly.

“Do you think the men are not up to it?”

“Of course they are, General.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“We’ve had tougher opposition than Ambracia in the past, and we have tougher opposition ahead of us,” he explained. “I see no need to waste more effort than needed on this worthless territory.”

“Normally I would agree with you. And certainly against a stronger enemy you would go for the weaker flank. But it can be good for morale to let the men attack the strongest part of a weaker enemy. It will give them confidence.”

“A wise plan, General,” Darnell conceded.

From outside the tent there came some shouting.

“See what that is, commander,” I said, irritated by the distraction.

Darphus, another of my trusted lieutenants, saluted and went to investigate. He returned shortly.

“What is it?” I asked gruffly.

“General, King Quallas of Ambracia has arrived in camp. Shall I show him in or have him arrested?”

I hated politics. Being a soldier was easy: kill or capture – that was all you needed to do. Being a politician took patience, something I was lacking; however, if I was to build an empire, I had to be a politician as well as a soldier.

“Let’s see what he has to say, shall we?” I looked around at my officers, who took my cue and backed away from the map table, taking up strategic positions in the event this was some kind of trap. Gabrielle stood behind me with scroll in hand. I sat down in my chair to receive my royal visitor.

“Escort the King of Ambracia with all due ceremony,” I said with a wave of my hand. I pulled my lion’s head dagger from my boot. The prop would be useful and would send a message.

Darnell motioned for a guard to fetch the king. The guard returned shortly with King Quallas and the king’s servant, who carried a small chest. Quallas was a thin man with greying hair. He may have been a warrior in his younger years, but now he had a tired, timid look about him.

“General Xena,” he began with a slight hauteur in his tone. “I have come to save you the time and trouble of conquering my small, insignificant kingdom.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble, King Quallas.” I said sarcastically, as I twirled the tip of the dagger on my left index finger.

He laughed uneasily, watching the dagger in my hand. He collected himself and continued his proposal. “I am prepared to pay you an annual tribute of fifty-thousand dinars if you allow me to remain the ruler of Ambracia – under your control, of course. As a token, I have brought you this.” Quallas signalled his servant forward.

“Hmm, I already have many servants, but I’ m sure I can find a use for him,” I said with a lascivious smile.

“Err, no, General Xena, the chest.”

Quallas took the chest from the servant, placed it in front of me, and opened it with a flourish. Inside was a large, green jewel.

“What is it?” I sneered, feigning disappointment in the unusual gemstone.

“A priceless jewel of mysterious origins. It is said to possess magical powers,” replied the king.

“What kind of magical powers?”

“Unfortunately, I have not discovered its secrets. A woman of your exceptional skills, however, will have little trouble.”

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather have the servant.”

Quallas looked panicked. Obviously, he was not prepared for me to turn down his offer.

“I could raise the tribute to sixty-thousand dinars a year,” he blurted out. “Plus the magical gem and the servant.”

“Very well, I accept your tribute,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Does that mean you will not invade Ambracia?” he asked hopefully.

Abruptly, I slammed the dagger into the arm of my chair, and jumped up and stood toe to toe with the king. It had the desired effect of rattling him. “No, that means I will take your wealth, your lands, and your life.” I walked away, then turned back and pointed to the chest.

“Did you think you could buy my favour with a few dinars and an ugly green stone?” My voice grew louder, and I could see his body begin to tremble underneath his tunic. Even diplomacy is a battle with moves and counter-moves. He thought he could play me, but I had him check-mated.

As Quallas grew paler, I continued. “You stood a better chance facing me on the field of battle. At least you would’ve won my respect and the respect of your people. Instead, you’ve proved to me that you are nothing but a spineless weasel who would do anything to save his precious crown.”

Before Quallas could say anything in his defence, I turned to my second-in-command and sealed the fate of the king and the fate of his kingdom.

“Commander Darnell, have the army assembled before first light. I want this worthless plot of land under my banner by this time tomorrow.”

“It shall be done.”

“Guards, take him away. I want his public execution to crown our victory celebration.”

The scratching of quill on parchment came to a sudden stop when I ordered the execution of this pathetic excuse for a man. A tiny gasp came from over my right shoulder, as Gabrielle reacted to my order. I shot her a disapproving glare. She promptly lowered her eyes and continued writing.

“No, please. I’ll give you anything,” Quallas whimpered.

“Everything you have is already mine.”

Quallas fell to his knees and uttered a strangled cry. It was pathetic that a sovereign should act in such a snivelling manner. Thankfully, I didn’t have to suffer the sight for very long, my men dragged the king away to his fate.

“Now leave me, all of you. Darnell, I do not want to be disturbed. Is that understood?”

“Yes, General.” Darnell saluted, but hesitated instead of leaving. “Shall I come back later and give you a readiness report?”

“Yes, Commander, but I will send for you.”

“Very well, General.”

Darnell saluted once more and left. I noticed my assistant start to follow him.

“No, Gabrielle, you stay.”

She froze, and then turned to face me. I could see she was deeply distressed. She was still not used to the cruel reality of conquering an empire. I should have dismissed her, sent her home to her village, but I didn’t. Instead, I gave her a stern dressing down.

“Gabrielle, never express your feelings in the presence of others. Do you understand?”

“Yes, General. I’m very sorry.” Gabrielle apologised like a penitent child.

My demeanour softened. “Pour me a glass of wine . . .please,” I added. I never said ‘please’ to anyone.

A look of surprise followed by relief flickered across my assistant’s face. She quickly retrieved the wineskin and goblet resting on a serving table across the tent.

“Yes, General.” Gabrielle poured the wine and brought it to me.

“Thank you,” I said as I took the glass from her. I never said ‘thank you’ to anyone, either.

There was something about Gabrielle – an inexplicable connection I felt towards her. It wasn’t the usual lust I felt for a pretty face. This young woman had a certain nobility that almost had me believing my quest for power was not for purely selfish reasons.

“You disapprove of my orders to take Ambracia. Why?”

“It is not my place to say, General.”

“You may speak freely.”

Gabrielle saw I was being sincere, so she spoke candidly. “You had an opportunity to take Ambracia without bloodshed. Instead you’ve ordered the king executed and your army into battle. Why sacrifice your men when you can achieve your objective without fighting?”

“I’m a soldier and the men out there are an army. It’s what we do.”

“But the outcome will be the same. Only your way will cost lives.”

“What do you know about the cost?” I snapped.

Gabrielle nervously lowered her eyes at my rebuke.

I was immediately remorseful for snapping at her like that, but I wasn’t about to apologise to a subordinate. Gabrielle had made a good point, but I wasn’t about to admit that either. And I certainly was not going to admit that her disapproval bothered me.

I abruptly changed the subject to King Quallas’ gift.

“What do you make of this green gemstone?” I asked, holding it up and turning it around to get a good look at it.

Gabrielle relaxed a bit once she realised I wasn’t going to punish her. “How do you mean, General?”

“Well, you’re something of a bard. I was wondering if you had heard any stories about a green gemstone with mystical powers.”

“No. I’ve heard of the Jewel of Demeter, but nothing about a green gemstone.”

“It’s probably just something Quallas made up to make it appear more valuable than it actually is. I think I’ll have it fitted to the end of a sceptre. What do you think?”

“It’s only a green stone, what does it matter what you do with it?”

My assistant surprised me with her response. It didn’t occur to her that this precious gemstone was worth a king’s ransom. The trappings of wealth and position didn’t seem to impress her.

As we spent more time together, I learned she had a very unique way of looking at the world. Her persistent questions and chatter about anything and everything annoyed me at first. But over time, I came to enjoy our evening chats, just the two of us. I discovered that Gabrielle was very inquisitive and eager to learn, especially about battle strategies, geography, and politics. Subjects I was keen to discuss.

~~~~~

It had been four days since we had taken Ambracia. Following a day of drilling my army for the campaign ahead, I was relaxing in a hot bath. As usual Gabrielle was present. Her job was to prepare my bath and have my robe ready when I was finished. While I bathed, Gabrielle talked.

“It’s not that I didn’t love my family, or that they didn’t love me.”

Often Gabrielle would make observations about things I normally took no notice of. She’d talk and talk about the simple things in life: the sunrise, the sunset, the stars in the night sky, the birds singing in the trees. This time, her chatter caught my attention. It was the first time she had mentioned her family.

“I just felt as though I didn’t belong. Does that make sense?” She paused only briefly, because she was used to me not answering, and then she continued. “Village life is tedious: you wake up; you work hard; you go to bed. And you do that every day of your life. There’s no change, no adventure.”

“Don’t you miss them?” I asked.

She didn’t respond immediately. My question seemed to have rendered her speechless, so I prompted her. “Your family?”

“Oh, yes, General. Of course I do, especially my sister, Lila. But, I wasn’t happy there. No, that’s not entirely true. I was happy most of the time. It’s just that I wasn’t like the other girls. What I mean is I didn’t want the same things.”

“Hand me the soap.”

“Huh?”

“The soap.” I pointed to a cake of soap on a side table just out of reach.

“Yes, General.” Gabrielle handed me the soap.

“You were saying.”

Gabrielle picked up where she left off. “If I had stayed in Potidaea, I would’ve been forced into marriage. Perdicus, the man they wanted me to marry, is a nice lad. He’s kind and gentle, but he’s not…” she uttered a frustrated groan. “He’s been bred for the simple village life, and I couldn’t see me spending the rest of my life with him. I didn’t love him.”

Then she said something that made me drop the soap.

“I want to find a place where I can be appreciated for who and what I am and not just do what’s expected of me. And if I can’t find that place, then I’ll try and create it.”

Her words struck a chord in me. I knew what village life was like, and I knew the need to go out and find what was missing. I was shaping the world to fit me instead of looking for a place for me to fit. I looked over at my assistant. She was talking about some other subject already, but the expression on her face as she spoke still held the look of someone in search of a place to belong.

I could be that place she belonged, I found myself ruminating, though I didn’t understand why at the time. The thought had me shaking my head at such sentimental nonsense. Romance had no place in my life. I had an empire to conquer. Besides, she wasn’t my type.

~~~~~

My army met with little resistance as we swept through much of Central Greece. This meant I controlled the territories of Thrace, Chalcidice, Macedonia, and Thessalia, with the exception of the area surrounding their capital city of Larissa. Now that I had effectively cut off Larissa from any aid, the Thessalians were vulnerable. Yet, my spies reported that the city was well provisioned and well armed, which meant Larissa could hold out for several more months.

Looking up from the map of Larissa laid out in front of me, I turned to Darnell. “We need a bold plan to break this siege quickly. Your thoughts, Commander?”

“General, I recommend an all out assault on their left flank. That’s where the Thessalians are not as heavily fortified.” He pointed to the area on the map.

Darphus shook his head.

“You disagree, Lieutenant? Tell me, what would you recommend?”

Darnell glared antagonistically at Darphus.

“I’d use Greek fire to burn the city to the ground, General.”

Darphus returned Darnell’s glare with a smug smirk. The antagonism between these two could be tiresome at times, but for the most part it was useful. With each one trying to out do the other it could produce several good battle strategies, allowing me more chances to achieve victory.

“What if we were to use elements from both plans, General,” Darnell offered, winning this round of one-upmanship.

“What do you suggest?”

“We could attack their left flank using catapults and bombs filled with Greek fire to soften up their defences, then hit them with an all out assault.”

“That sounds like a reasonable plan, Commander. Before I make any decisions, however, I’d like to mull it over a bit, perhaps talk it over with Gabrielle.” In our evening talks, I had discovered Gabrielle’s uncanny ability to see things from a different perspective. Perhaps it was because she was not schooled in the art of warfare, or perhaps it was her unconventional views.

“Gabrielle? Why would you want to talk military strategy with your maid?”

His comment ignited my fury, and my reaction was swift and painful. I applied an acupressure technique that stops the flow of blood to the brain and causes death in thirty seconds if it’s not released.

Darnell fell down and grabbed his throat as he struggled for air. I leaned down and picked him up by his shirtfront to administer a warning. “Never forget that I command this army. Question me again, and I won’t show as much mercy. Is that clear, Commander?”

“Yes, General.” He gasped as blood drained from his nose.

“Good.” I released the pinch with five seconds to spare. “Now, someone find my personal assistant.”

Several minutes later, a messenger came back and reported that Gabrielle was not in her tent or in the immediate vicinity. Impatient to talk with her, I decided to go in search of her myself.

We were camped in the wooded foothills of the Pindus Mountains. The lack of any large open grassland meant my army was spread out over a wide area of forest terrain. Finding my wayward assistant proved to be a major undertaking. I walked downhill to where the support units were camped, but she wasn’t there. I asked the head cook, but he hadn’t seen her since before the evening meal. I felt a pang of apprehension. What if Gabrielle was in some kind of danger? I dismissed the thought as ridiculous. No one would dare lay a hand on her, if they valued their life.

As I wondered why Gabrielle engendered such a protective instinct in me, I had worked my way back uphill to where the Fourth Perimeter Guards were camped. By now, I had become angry and frustrated that I couldn’t locate her. As I approached the area, my instincts told me something was wrong. From the smell of broth wafting through the trees, I knew the soldiers were eating, but there was an eerie silence – not the rumble of chatter that usually accompanied mealtime.

Then I heard a solitary voice echo off the trees. It was obviously female, though I couldn’t make out what she was saying. I followed the voice until I reached the clearing. There on the bough of a fallen tree stood a petite figure, dressed in a bluish-purple tunic and black leather cuirass, regaling the enthralled men with a story. It was my assistant.

Gabrielle’s enthusiasm for storytelling was conveyed in her passionate delivery. Her expression and intonation gave the words life, and I found myself captivated by the story as well. When it was over, she took her bow to rapturous applause. The beaming smile on her face, as she accepted their appreciation, was as enchanting as the story. I had seen Gabrielle smile before, but not like this. Her smile radiated unabashed joy at having made the men’s mealtime something special. At that moment, I was very proud of her.

The moment was soon gone, however, when I witnessed Lieutenant Galates help Gabrielle down from the tree. He held her waist and her gaze, a little too long for my liking, and she didn’t seem to mind.

Her smile faltered as she caught sight of me. She quickly pulled away from Galates, as though she had been caught doing something inappropriate, or at least that’s the way it looked to me. She was soon lost in a mass of soldiers. I took that moment of distraction to slip away, and returned to my command tent.

Several minutes later, Gabrielle arrived. She stood obediently outside the open flap.

“Come in,” I ordered brusquely.

“You had need of me, General?” Gabrielle inquired timorously.

“Yes, I did. I had important matters to discuss with you, and you were nowhere to be found. I had to come looking for you.” My irritation was evident in my tone.

“I’m very sorry I wasn’t available when you needed me.” Gabrielle seemed genuinely sorry.

My ire softened. I couldn’t stay mad at her for long. I lifted her chin and gently chided her. “You need to let me know when and where you go, and with whom.” I placed emphasis on the words “with whom”.

“Yes, General. It won’t happen again.” Her eyes glanced downward.

“Well, you were helping to keep up morale, and that’s an important part of maintaining a disciplined army. You tell stories very well.”

She smiled at the compliment, but it was heavily guarded and not the wide, spontaneous smile she had displayed in the clearing.

“I trust your entertainment of the troops will be limited to just telling them stories.”

“Yes, General,” she replied innocently, completely missing my implication.

Changing the subject, I directed her attention to the spot I was pointing to on the map. “Thessalia is my next major objective. I’d like your thoughts on how to take it.”

Gabrielle looked confused. “What about your military advisors, General?”

“What about them?”

“Shouldn’t you be asking them?”

“If I asked them, they would come up with the same idea as me. Sometimes it’s good to have a fresh perspective, especially from someone who has not been trained in military tactics. So please,” I said gesturing at the map, “tell me how you would do it.”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” she said as she looked over the map.

“Alright then, if you were to write a story about it, how would you do it?”

“A series of epic battles, I guess.”

“Say that I’ve fought enough epic battles and needed another way.”

“Then you fight a series of not so epic battles,” she explained simply.

“Okay,” I said, trying to maintain my patience. “Let’s try a different approach. Say you were confronted by a pack of wolves that were between you and where you wanted to go, how would you get through them? Remember that the wolves are quicker, more manoeuvrable, and have greater stamina than you.”

“I’d feed them so they would be too full to bother trying to eat me.”

“What if you didn’t have enough food for them all?”

“Then, at least I’d have a smaller pack to worry about.”

“A smaller pack”, of course! It was so simple and so obvious: divide and conquer. I would reduce their strength the same way I took Corinth – poisoned grain. With most of their army incapacitated, the rest will fall easily to my superior forces. “Thank you, Gabrielle, that was most helpful.”

“It was?” she asked with genuine surprise.

“Yes it was,” I replied.

My approval relaxed Gabrielle, and she smiled shyly. “Thank you, General.”

I was about to dismiss her, but something inside me wanted to keep her near. “I didn’t catch all of the story you were telling earlier on. Would you tell it to me now?”

“If you want me to.”

“I want you to.”

I settled down into a chair and listened. Not to the story, but just to her voice.

 

Chapter 3

 

I barely had time to learn my way around before the Conqueror’s army broke camp and left Chalcidice. We headed west through Macedonia and then south through Epirus, territory already held by General Xena. For several weeks, the army was constantly on the move. During the day, the Conqueror rode at the head of the army and I stayed in the rear with the support units. I didn’t get to spend much time with her until we reached the southern border of Epirus and Thessalia. There, the army set up an encampment. It felt good to stay in one place for a while. That’s when I got to know the charismatic warrior, whose self-proclaimed destiny was to conqueror all of Greece.

Xena and her senior officers began to plan their battle strategy for the Thessalian campaign. It was my job to take notes during these meetings. Their first objective was Ambracia, a small kingdom west of Thessalia and the Pindus Mountain Range.

From what was said at these meetings, Ambracia was not considered strategically important. Having no experience in such matters, I was keen to learn all I could. I studied the maps. I listened intently to Xena and Commander Darnell debate battle tactics. And I had my first lesson in the high stakes game of politics when the King of Ambracia came to negotiate a treaty.

With quill and parchment ready, I had taken my position behind the Conqueror, who remained seated as King Quallas entered the command tent.

“General Xena, I have come to save you the time and trouble of conquering my small, insignificant kingdom”

“Oh, it’s no trouble, King Quallas,” Xena said as though the king had asked her for a favour.

The king offered to pay a yearly tribute of fifty thousand dinars, and he offered her a large green gemstone. I didn’t get a good look at it from where I was sitting, but the king said it was a priceless jewel with some kind of magical powers. When she refused, he offered to raise his tribute to sixty thousand dinars a year, plus the stone, plus the servant.

“Very well, I accept your tribute,” said Xena simply.

As I wrote her words, I felt hopeful that this would be settled without bloodshed.

“Does that mean you will not invade Ambracia?” King Quallas asked.

I nearly jumped off my stool when the Conqueror suddenly slammed her dagger into the arm of her chair. It had the desired affect of rattling the king and everyone else in the tent as well.

“No, that means I will take your wealth, your lands, and your life.”

With that, my hope for a peaceful solution crumbled. I knew Xena was in the business of war and that fighting was inevitable, even necessary at times, but I believed if war could be avoided then that was always the better option.

General Xena turned to her second-in-command. “Commander Darnell, have the army assembled before first light. I want this worthless plot of land under my banner by this time tomorrow.”

“It shall be done.”

“Guards, take him away. I want his public execution to crown our victory celebration.”

“Uhh.” I reacted before I could stop myself. Everyone in the room heard that tiny gasp, and the Conqueror shot me a stern look. I quickly lowered my eyes and went back to writing as the king was led away.

“Now leave me, all of you.”

I started to leave with the others when Xena called me back. “No, Gabrielle, you stay.”

My stomach clenched and my feet turned to lead. I didn’t know which was worse, facing the Conqueror’s wrath or returning to Potidaea in disgrace. I turned and faced General Xena. Her usually soft blue eyes were hard and I could see her right hand clenching and unclenching.

Suddenly I was twelve again, when I felt the sting of my father’s switch for talking back to him in front of guests. I felt nauseous at the prospect of what kind of punishment the Conqueror would mete out.

“Gabrielle, never express your feelings in the presence of others again. Do you understand?” The tall and intimidating woman scolded me with barely controlled anger.

“Yes, General. I’m very sorry.” I stood with my eyes cast downward, waiting for the worst, dreading what “the worst” might be.

Xena’s whole demeanour abruptly softened. “Pour me a glass of wine…please.”

I was nonplussed. Not only did her unexpected change in mood surprise me, but to my knowledge, Xena never said “please” to anyone.

Her request finally registered and I managed to move my trembling legs in the direction of the side table. “Uh… yes, General.” I poured her a goblet of wine and brought it to her.

“Thank you,” she said as she took a sip.

I was still trying to sort out Xena’s disarming change in mood, when she surprised me again.

“You disapprove of my orders to take Ambracia. Why?”

“It is not my place to say, General,” I demurred.

“I asked for your opinion. You may speak freely.”

I clasped my hands in front of me and cast my gaze to the floor. “You had an opportunity to take Ambracia without bloodshed. Instead you’ve ordered the king executed and your army into battle. Why sacrifice your men when you can achieve your objective without fighting?” The words came out in a rush and I tensed, expecting a stern reply.

“I’m a soldier and the men out there are an army. It’s what we do.” She offered her explanation with a calm finality as if there was no other option.

I looked up at her, there was no emotion showing on her face, so I extended my argument. “But the outcome will be the same. Only your way will cost lives.”

“What do you know about the cost?” she snapped.

Like a pendulum, Xena’s mood had swung from angry to amiable to tetchy, which took me aback. She had asked me for my opinion, so I answered her honestly, and for that I was rebuked.

I wasn’t sure what to do or say next. I was still learning how to anticipate her moods. I think she felt badly for losing her temper, but she didn’t say anything about it. She just changed the subject again, and her mood changed with it. She asked me if I knew anything of the gem that King Quallas had brought.

“You’re something of a bard. I was wondering if you had heard any stories about a green gemstone with mystical powers.”

“No. I’ve heard of the Jewel of Demeter, but nothing about a green stone.”

“It’s probably just a silly story designed to make it appear more valuable than it actually is. I think I’ll have it fitted to the end of a sceptre. What do you think?”

“It’s only a green stone, what does it matter what you do with it?”

I realized it must have been worth a king’s ransom, but to me it was just a bilious-coloured green stone. I was just being honest. This time, my honesty was met with more surprise than anger, and we went on to another topic.

Xena was a study in contradictions: in public she was demanding and quick-tempered, yet in private she was more considerate and patient. In essence, there were two Xena the Conquerors: one commanding, the other captivating. Neither was as I expected, and I wanted to get to know both sides of this complex and enigmatic woman.

~~~~~

Xena entered the tent and sat in a chair, dropping her sword and scabbard to the ground. Her army had just routed the Ambracians. She was tired, and sweaty, and splattered in blood – none of it her own. I moved quickly to help with her armour. As usual, she tensed slightly when I first touched her, but she soon relaxed. She was coming down from the adrenaline rush of fighting and was still aggressive and ready to strike.

I’d learned it was better to be patient and wait for the rush to wear off before engaging the Conqueror in conversation. I made the mistake once, and that was enough; she had shouted at me to stop my “senseless prattling”.

“Drink,” she whispered hoarsely.

I immediately ceased what I was doing and poured a goblet of water.

The water was downed in a couple of gulps. “More,” she commanded, handing me the goblet.

I handed her a refill. For a moment, I was lost in the crystal-blue eyes that looked up at me as the goblet exchanged hands. I never before noticed how intense they were, and stood frozen in place, as if hypnotised by a predator’s gaze.

“Hey, Gabrielle!”

“What?”

“Quit daydreaming and help me get out of these.”

“Sorry, General. Please forgive me.”

I rushed to loosen the bindings on her armour, while silently admonishing myself for being distracted.

“Is my bath ready?”

“Nearly, General.”

“And food?”

“It’s – Ow!” I pulled away quickly. A thin red line appeared on the back of my hand where it caught the edge of her chakram.

Long, supple fingers gently but firmly gripped my wounded hand.

“It’s only a scratch, General,” I protested, as Xena held my hand up to examine the wound more closely.

“Hmmm. I’d better clean it for you.” She pulled me over to a chest and pulled out a phial. “This will sting a bit,” she warned.

Determined to be stoic, I tensed and prepared for some slight discomfort. She poured a few drops of the liquid onto my cut. “Isth!” I sucked in air through clenched teeth. I couldn’t keep quiet any longer. It hurt too much. “That stung a lot, not a bit.”

“I know.” She chuckled. “If I told you it would sting a lot, you wouldn’t have let me put it on.”

In no time at all, only a slight twinge remained as she rubbed the liquid into the wound. It seemed ironic to me that these hands could kill with little effort, and yet these same hands could so soothingly minister to my cut.

As her thumbs tenderly stroked the back of my hand, I felt no pain… but an indescribable ache. I closed my eyes to shut out all but the electrifying sensation her feather-like touch set off underneath my skin.

My reason returned once I realised she had stopped stroking my hand. When I opened my eyes again, her soft blue eyes met them and held my gaze. And, for a moment I forgot where I was – and with whom.

“Ahem.” A servant stood on other side of the tent flap and cleared his throat.

“Uh, thank you, General,” I said, as we quickly pulled our hands away like children caught sneaking a piece of just baked nutbread.

“Enter!” General Xena barked, annoyed at the interruption.

“Your bath water is ready, General,” the servant said as soon as he stepped inside the tent.

“Very good. Bring it in,” she commanded, and the servant scampered away to fetch the buckets.

My hands trembled as I carefully removed the rest of General Xena’s armour. I was hoping she didn’t notice the lingering flush in my cheeks. When I had finished, she turned to face me. A gentle smile completed the transition from imposing warrior to striking woman.

“Gabrielle, I want you to go rest that hand. I’ll see you in the morning.” Her voice was kind and friendly and made me feel warm and protected.

I left reluctantly, disappointed that she had dismissed me early. I felt drawn to her, and wanted to stay and get to know this side of Xena better.

~~~~~

The other side of her personality was demonstrated a couple of nights before the fall of Larissa. I knew the Conqueror dealt harshly with her enemies, but I never realised just how merciless she could be until the day Lieutenant Galates’ unit captured a young Thessalian.

It was past sunset, and Xena was meeting with her commanders. Now that the poisoned grain had weakened the Thessalian defences, it was time to plan their strategy for capturing their capital, Larissa. As usual, I was there to take notes and pour the wine. I had done more of the latter.

A messenger interrupted the meeting to report that a unit of Lieutenant Galates’ Fourth Perimeter Guards had captured a spy. Galates left in order to investigate. Everyone followed, including Commander Darnell and the Conqueror, hoping this spy would have valuable information that could help us defeat the Thessalians.

Being jostled along by the soldiers was a young man with his hands tied behind him. He was unceremoniously dumped on the ground when the formation came to a halt. Lieutenant Galates scowled at his men for their rough treatment of the prisoner and helped the boy to his feet.

The officer-in-charge saluted. “Sir, my men found this Thessalian spy trying to infiltrate the forward perimeter. I brought him directly to you. I knew you would want to interrogate him yourself. He was alone and unarmed, but had these on him when he was captured.” The officer thrust forward two parchments: one rolled up and the other folded.

Galates took the documents and ordered his men to return to their post. Galates read the parchments, and then handed them to Commander Darnell, who read them. He, in turn, handed them to General Xena, and she read them too. The documents turned out to be a letter of introduction to the Commander of the Thessalian Palace Guard and a map of the city of Larissa.

The Conqueror fixed her look on the prisoner, who grew paler as she stalked around him. “What were you doing near my army’s perimeter?” she demanded.

The young Thessalian either didn’t understand the question or was too frightened to answer.

“I asked a question!” She punctuated it by backhanding him.

Before he could recover from the vicious slap, she kicked the prisoner in the back of his knees. He fell to the ground kicking up a small cloud of dust.

“Please!” the young captive cried. “Don’t hurt me!

“Hurt you? By the time I’m finished with you, you will be begging for me to kill you.” The Conqueror placed her foot on the boy’s neck and ground in her heel. Looking around at the gathering crowd, General Xena then said, “It looks like Thessalia is now sending their children to spy on us!”

Tears started pouring down his cheeks as General Xena hauled him to his feet.

“I’m not a spy, I swear it!”

“Then what is this, your mother’s laundry list?” The corners of her mouth curled into a sneer as she waved the parchments under his nose.

The officers and soldiers, who had gathered around, laughed and taunted the prisoner.

“N-no, General, a letter of introduction from my father and a map of the city so I could find my way to the palace.”

“Yes, a letter of introduction to the Commander of the Thessalian Royal Guards. So, you want to join the Thessalian Royal Guards, do you?”

“I…” The pitiable young man seemed at a loss how to answer.

“You’re a soldier in the Thessalian army – that makes you my enemy. And you were captured in civilian clothing carrying a map – that makes you a spy.” The Conqueror leaned in and asked the prisoner in a malevolent whisper. “Do you know what we do with spies, eh?”

“But, I’m no–”

“Chain him up!” Xena ordered as she threw the prisoner at the soldiers. “Have him interrogated, Commander Darnell, slowly and painfully. We’ll crucify him outside the city walls tomorrow. I want to send a message to the Thessalians…”

As the pleading boy was led away, Xena finished her comment, “…never send a boy to do a man’s job.” With that, she returned to the command tent.

These were the times I questioned why I remained with Xena. I understood that war was a dangerous, vile, destructive business: it reduced man to his baser instincts of kill or be killed. But the captive was just a boy, no more than fifteen summers old. He was no spy. Lieutenant Galates and I knew it, Commander Darnell knew it, and the Conqueror knew it.

The crowd dispersed until only Galates and I remained. We didn’t speak. What could we say? That it sickened us to see Xena take such delight in tormenting a boy? That we were cowards for not speaking out? That the boy was just another casualty of war? As Galates and I stood there, our eyes silently acknowledged we had an ally in one another.

“Gabrielle!”

Galates and I both jumped when Xena called out my name.

“I better go,” I said

“Yes,” he concurred. “I–”

“Gabrielle!” she called once more, this time sounding impatient.

I offered the lieutenant a weak smile and rushed to the Conqueror’s tent.

“What kept you?” The Conqueror snapped at me as I entered the tent. I scanned the room and found Xena seated at her desk trying to drain an empty wineskin into a goblet. This was the same wineskin I had left half-full on the serving table just before the Thessalian boy was brought before her.

“Forgive me, General, I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.”

“More wine.” She held up the empty wineskin.

I retrieved another wineskin and filled the goblet in her outstretched hand.

She looked at me over the rim of the goblet. “What’s wrong?” she asked as she held it out for another refill.

“I thought you were a bit harsh on that boy,” I said tentatively.

“He was a spy,” she countered.

“He was just a b–”

“Spy!” she interrupted and glowered at me in a challenge to contradict her.

“Yes, General,” I backed down. In her drunken state I couldn’t be sure that Xena wouldn’t hurt me.

“What took you so long to get back here?” she grumbled.

“I was talking with Lieutenant Galates.”

“What’s with you and Lieutenant Galates?” She gulped down another goblet of wine.

“Nothing, General.” Her question caught me by surprise. I didn’t know what she meant. Did she suspect Lieutenant Galates and me of plotting against her or something?

“I saw the way he looked at you – the way all the men look at you.”

The dinar finally dropped. She was asking if there was a sexual attraction between the lieutenant and me. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“I assure you, General, I’ve never…would never…”

“Don’t tell me my personal assistant is a virgin?”

If someone could die of embarrassment, I would’ve expired on the spot. My cheeks blushed hot enough to melt ice.

Humiliation turned to dread when the Conqueror stood and approached. “Perhaps you’d like a little ‘education‘,” she whispered in my ear as she neared me.

I had little experience in such matters, but there was no mistaking the lustful look in her penetrating blue eyes. Before I could react, two strong hands grabbed my arms and pushed me back against the table. Goblets, plates, and fruit clattered to the floor behind me, but I was so focused on what was happening, I barely registered the din.

“Gen–” My protests were cut off as Xena kissed me hard – her lips crushing mine, her tongue forcing its way past my lips and filling my mouth – exploring, capturing, conquering.

She smelled of wine, and sweat, and leather – an intoxicating combination that left me weak. I tried to push her away, but it was useless. She was too strong and too determined. Any strength I had quickly drained away. I wanted to scream, to plead with her, but I couldn’t do either. My heart was pounding. I couldn’t breathe. I was terrified that she wasn’t going to stop. Silently, I prayed to the gods not to let it happen this way, but then I was shocked at my desire to have it happen at all.

Suddenly, she broke off the kiss and released her hold on me. I didn’t know what I should do. Run? Stay? I was stunned.

“You may go,” she said quietly and moved away.

“Yes, General,” I managed to say and hastily retreated. As I left the tent, I glanced behind and saw the Conqueror pick up a goblet from the ground and pour more wine.

Once outside in the cool night air, I paused to catch my breath, steady my nerves, and sort out what had just happened. I was reeling from all the questions that flooded my mind. Why did she kiss me like that? Did I do something to cause it? Why did my body react to her touch? What made her stop? Could she really be the warrior I was meant to follow? What should I do?

Common sense was telling me to pack my belongings and get as far away from this volatile woman as I could. Yet, like a moth to a flame, I felt attracted to her. And despite how inexcusable her actions had just been, my inner voice was telling me to stay – that this was where I belonged.

 

Chapter 4

 

I woke to the sounds of a cross being constructed and one Tartarus of a headache. I crawled off the bed where I must’ve collapsed, judging by my rumpled uniform. I was just about to yell out for the guards, when Gabrielle walked into the tent.

“Gabrielle, tell them to stop that racket, or they’ll end up on that cross themselves!” I bellowed, immediately regretting the action, as my head reeled from the after-effects of too much wine.

“Yes, General Xena,” Gabrielle responded, seemingly unruffled by my surly greeting.

I called after her as she turned in the direction of the noise, “And bring some cold water back with you.”

Mercifully, the hammering stopped and Gabrielle returned with a pitcher of cold water. I grabbed the pitcher from her and poured the contents into a bowl. I splashed my face with the water, hoping it would help revive me. It didn’t. I still felt like I had been dragged behind a chariot.

It seemed I wasn’t the only one who had a rough night. I noticed Gabrielle’s face was pallid and drawn. As my assistant went about her morning duties, she was uncharacteristically subdued, not her usual chatty self. With my headache, this should’ve been a blessing, but the silence was louder than a cavalry charge. Finally I couldn’t take it any more.

“Gabrielle, what’s wrong?”

No response. She avoided looking at me. Now, I knew something was wrong.

“I asked you a question.”

“I’d rather not say, General.”

That was the wrong answer in my present condition. I don’t have a lot of patience when I’m sober. I have none when I’m hung over.

“Tell me now, or by the gods, you’ll regret it!” I grabbed my pounding head, immediately regretting my pique.

“I…it’s about last night, General.”

“What about last night?”

“You don’t remember?” Her eyes flickered between confusion and relief.

“It’s all a bit of a blur.”

My assistant’s face turned from pale to flush as she struggled with whatever it was she didn’t want to talk about.

“Just spit it out girl!”

“You…you were forward with me, General.” I could tell Gabrielle was fearful and trying to phrase her words carefully.

By now, my head felt like it had been split open by an axe. I rubbed my temples in the vain hope of relieving the excruciating pain.

“I vaguely recall kissing you. Was there more?”

“General?”

“Did I do more than just kiss you?” I knew exactly what I had done last night, what I didn’t do, and what I wanted to do.

“No, General.” Gabrielle still wouldn’t make eye contact, either that or there was something of immense interest on the floor.

“Well, it must’ve been the wine.” I shrugged. It wasn’t just the wine, but I wasn’t about to admit that.

There was an awkward silence between us that was louder than the pounding in my brain, so I finally acquiesced.

“Can I ask you something?” I asked with a pained and apologetic expression.

She nodded warily.

“Would you please find the healer and get me something for this hangover. If my enemies don’t kill me, this headache will!”

“Yes, General Xena,” Gabrielle replied with an amused and forgiving smile. I think she knew that was as close to an apology as she was going to get from me.

~~~~~

Before each battle, there is a moment when every soldier wonders if this one will be his last. Of course, going into battle with any thought other than victory, was asking for defeat. The one who stays focused and believes in their supremacy will be the victor. That focus and belief was the edge I had over my enemies – that and the favour of Ares, God of War.

My spies estimated the Thessalian army at two thousand men. My army numbered three times that, but I knew it would not be an easy victory. The Thessalians were defending their capital city and their king, and they would fight to the death. There would likely be heavy casualties on both sides by the end of the battle.

A blanket of gold from the early morning sun covered the valley. It almost seemed a pity that such beauty was about to be destroyed – tattered and littered with the dead and dying. Now, though, was not the time for romantic sentiments. Now was the time for battle.

I took a calming breath and looked ahead at the enemy’s position. The Thessalian army lined up in a classic Phalanx formation just outside the city walls of Larissa. I searched the enemy ranks for their Tagos – the Thessalian commander-in-chief.

Finally, I spotted my counterpart on the battlefield. He was mounted on a pure white horse, his polished armour gleaming. Unlike me, however, he rode at the rear of his army. Coward, I thought bitterly, a leader worthy of his soldiers’ blood does not lead from the rear. I swore that before the day was out, his own blood would tarnish his gleaming armour.

I nudged my horse forward and turned around. Unsheathing my sword, I raised it high over my head. I looked left, and then right. My army watched me intently. This was the most important part of the battle: rallying the men.

“Today, we fight for the glory of Ares!”

This produced a cheer.

“Tonight, the widows of the enemy will mourn their losses!”

This got a bigger cheer.

“Remember, war is not about dying for what you believe in. It’s about making the other bastard die for what you believe in!”

The men raised their swords and yelled.

“Together, we will be victorious!”

Darphus started to chant my name and the men picked it up.

“Xena! Xena! Xena! Xena!”

With the whole army chanting my name, I turned to face the enemy.

“Kill them all!” I cried and spurred my ebony-coloured horse forward.

The Thessalian army met our charge as we crossed the plain. My sword hit flesh immediately. The first scent of blood made me smile, and I became Death Incarnate as I sent soldier after soldier to Hades.

I kept moving, knowing that if I didn’t, I’d never move again. I accompanied each thrust, each parry with an expulsion of vocal energy. I put as much force behind each stroke as I could manage, and each time an enemy crumpled at my feet, it made me stronger. My senses were heightened, allowing me to anticipate when I was being attacked. My mind became tuned to the way the battle was progressing. Like being given a script to a play I had written, my army acted out the battle. I felt invincible.

It’s a glorious sensation – until it goes wrong.

My army was pushing the Thessalians back to the gates of their city when I faltered. I came upon a Thessalian soldier. He was only a young lad. Blond hair fell from beneath his helmet and his wide terror-filled eyes caught mine. As my sword sliced into the young Thessalian’s neck, all I saw was Gabrielle’s face.

With my mind focused on thoughts of Gabrielle, I failed to sense an approaching attacker until it was too late. I tumbled from my horse as he hit my shoulder armour with a glancing blow. Quickly, I got to my feet and easily blocked the follow up attack.

I cursed myself for being distracted.

I let out a war cry and impaled my attacker on my sword so hard that the hilt connected with his ribs. I raised my foot and pushed the body off my weapon, and paused to catch my breath. My attention was refocused on the battle by a head rolling past my feet. I looked in the direction it came from, and found Darnell peering down at me from his horse. Fresh blood ran down his blade.

“General, are you injured?”

“No, I’m fine. Take Galates’ unit and swing around the Thessalians’ left flank.” I gathered up the reins of my horse and remounted. “Onwards!” I screamed and re-entered the fray.

This time I remained focused on fighting. Eventually I reached the commanding general of the Thessalian army. He looked as though he was out for an afternoon ride: his armour was spotless and so was his sword. He trotted his horse around in nervous circles looking for an escape. His weakness enraged me.

“Ai-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-she-yah!” I launched myself out of the saddle at him.

My body connected with his and he fell from his horse. I landed on my feet next to him and brought my sword down. He blocked my strike, pushed me back, and gained his feet quickly.

He snarled some obscenity and launched an attack of his own. I parried and blocked everything he threw at me, and when I saw my chance, I struck. My sword slipped between gaps in his armour. He stopped and looked down in disbelief at the sword jammed in his side. With a final yell, I twisted my sword and thrust further. Blood gushed from his mouth and he fell slowly to the ground.

“Victory!” I yelled and held his helmet aloft on the tip of my bloody sword.

My men heard my cry, and it spurred them on. The Thessalians, realising their general was dead, soon lost heart and threw down their weapons and surrendered.

It was a glorious victory. My army had crushed the Thessalian Army and took their capital city. Now Larissa and the kingdom of Thessalia were mine.

~~~~~

I returned to camp with Darnell and Darphus, leaving Braextus to round up prisoners and establish a garrison in the city. As I approached my tent, I could see Gabrielle outside. She smiled when she saw me. I wanted to smile back. Instead, I cursed myself for being distracted by thoughts of her during the battle.

“General Xena,” she said enthusiastically, “congratulations on a great victory.”

I grunted an acknowledgment as I walked past. She followed me into my tent.

Fighting made me thirsty, and the first thing I did was reach for a pitcher of water.

“Allow me, General.” Gabrielle grabbed the pitcher and poured a goblet of water for me.

When she handed me the goblet, she looked at me and smiled. Her eyes were a beautiful sea-green colour and reflected such innocence and trust. As she turned to replace the pitcher on the table, I eyed her petite and slender body. I had never really noticed until that moment how beautiful she was.

Battle lust had replaced the wine from last night. It would’ve been so easy to give into my carnal needs and take what I wanted from her. But I didn’t want her that way. I needed her to leave now – for both our sakes.

“You may go.” I grabbed the pitcher and poured another cup of water.

“You mean after I help you with your armour and– ”

“No!” I said forcefully. Seeing the hurt look on her face, I softened my tone and explained, “I-I need to be alone tonight.”

“As you wish, General.”

As I wish? I wished for so many things, and almost anything I wished for was mine for the taking. I almost changed my mind about dismissing her. Almost.

“If there is nothing else, General, then I guess I’ll say good night.” Gabrielle couldn’t hide her disappointment.

“Yes, good night.” I didn’t look up as she left. I couldn’t face her disappointment.

After a much-needed bath, I invited my field commanders to join me in the command tent for a little victory celebration. We supped on provisions confiscated from the palace in Larissa and drank the best Thessalian wine. I listened as the men boasted about their prowess on the battlefield. Between the wine and the adrenaline, battle lust was coursing through my veins like a poison, and I knew just where to find the antidote.

“Well, gentlemen, I am turning in for the night. We will march into Larissa tomorrow.”

Commander Darnell took the hint and immediately rose to leave. Considering the amount of wine imbibed, he stood as straight as he could and saluted me. The rest of the group took their cue from Commander Darnell, and staggered out of the tent.

“Lieutenant Darphus, you stay. I want a quick word with you,” I said, as he stood up to leave with the others.

“Yes, General.”

I waited until Darphus and I were alone. “I have a special mission for you, Darphus.”

“I am yours to command, General.”

“I am in need of some entertainment.” I didn’t need to remind him to be discreet. Darphus knew what was required.

“Yes, General. For tonight?”

“Yes, tonight – right now. I will be in my tent.”

“As you desire, General.” He saluted and left.

Darphus returned shortly, escorting a petite figure dressed in a cloak. The hood concealed her features. He made a discreet exit and left us alone.

The woman slowly, somewhat seductively, loosened the ties of her cloak and pushed back the hood to reveal her face.

She was a young woman, no more than nineteen summers old, slender and petite, possessing full, firm breasts and long reddish-blonde hair. She bore a striking resemblance to my personal assistant, which was unexpected yet strangely arousing.

She stood before me with the self-assured air that most camp followers have. She was pretty, and she knew it. I wanted her, and she knew it. In her normal arrangements with my men, this would put her in charge. However, she also knew that I was not a common soldier, and she had to show some deference to me. She was not showing it very well, but she would when I had finished with her.

“Do you know why you’re here?” I asked in a neutral voice.

“Yes, My Lord,” the girl replied.

“Don’t call me ‘Lord’! I’m not some petty warlord, girl.”

“Yes, My Conqueror.” The seductive way she said ‘My Conqueror’ amused me. She had no idea how true that was.

“What is your name?”

“Anteia,” she replied with a flirtatious smile.

“Anteia,” I whispered seductively and reached out to take her by the throat. I didn’t need to apply any pressure – my words did that. “You are here for my pleasure, and my pleasure alone. You will not forget your place. Understand?”

“Whatever My Conqueror desires,” she answered, still smiling.

“This is not a game, girl,” I growled. Something in my voice and in my eyes caused a glimmer of fear to cross her face. Good. She was learning. “Take off your clothes.”

I stepped back to watch, feeling the heat of battle lust flow through my veins in waves of desire. She finished removing her cloak, and then began to sway in a seductive dance. She moved to the rhythm of the drums that were pounding outside in celebration of our victory. My pulse began to beat to the same rhythm. As the drums increased their tempo, my heart beat faster too, until I felt as if it would burst through my chest.

I rose quickly and pounced, grabbing the edge of Anteia’s dress. She gasped as the material ripped.

“I told you, this isn’t a game.” I reached through the torn material and grabbed a breast, pinching the nipple roughly. She gasped louder, and I stifled the sound with my mouth. My kiss smothered her lips and her breath came out in small bursts through her nose. I could feel the soft puffs of breath on my face.

I thrust my tongue between her lips as my hands began to tear the rest of her dress from her body. I pushed forward, and the force of my assault propelled her backwards several steps until the centre tent post stopped her.

Her fingers reached for my tunic. I grabbed her hands, pulled them over her head and pinned them against the post. Without taking my tongue from her mouth, I tore off a strip of her dress and tied her hands to the post, stretching them high above her head.

I looked into her hazel eyes and now saw more than a glimmer of fear. My hunger fed on that fear. Perhaps this was a game after all. But I was the one making all the rules.

I leaned over and whispered forcefully in her left ear. “You will do exactly what I tell you to do, when I tell you to do it. Is that clear?”

“Yes, My Conqueror.” Anteia’s voice was husky with desire.

I began to kiss her again, my tongue hungrily exploring her mouth. Suddenly, my mind was flooded with images of Gabrielle and that drunken kiss. The memory angered me.

I bit down on Anteia’s lower lip, tasting the coppery tang of blood. She whimpered in pain, but the whimper turned to a moan of pleasure when I moved my mouth to her breast.

The taste of blood had caused my pulse to race again and banished all thoughts of my personal assistant. My focus turned to Anteia’s breasts. I began to suckle and nip at them, using my mouth and fingers on each in alternating patterns until her breath came in uneven pants.

“Please,” she finally murmured, as she thrust her hips forward.

“Did I tell you to speak, girl,” I snarled.

“No, My Conqueror. I’m sorry, My Conqueror,” she said, her voice trembling with equal parts fear and desire.

I grabbed her red-blonde hair and pulled her head back. Her eyes watered with the pain.

“What is it you want, girl?” I asked.

I felt her hips jerk against me.

“Please,” she whispered, unable to give voice to her needs.

“Do you want my lips on your dripping cunt? Do you want my fingers thrusting deep inside of you?”

“Mmmm,” she moaned softly.

“Answer me!” I demanded and thrust my thigh between her legs, shoving it forward, and pressing hard against her sex.

“Oh, yes…My Conqueror,” she purred.

I felt her warm liquid coat my thigh. This fuelled my lust. I released her hair, and with both hands, grabbed her firm buttocks and pulled her body toward me, crushing her harder against my leg. She moaned again, louder this time.

I forced her against my leg again and again, until she was writhing and her moans matched the rhythm of my thrusts. Then, I stopped abruptly and pulled back. She whimpered, and again her hips tried to make contact.

She was beyond begging now. Her body screamed for release even though her voice couldn’t. She trembled and her muscles twitched. Her skin glistened with sweat. Her desire dripped down her thighs. I reached down and ran my fingers through her sex, coating them with her moisture. She watched with half-closed eyes as I slowly licked my fingers.

The taste of her juices caused the heat to surge inside of me once again. I leaned down and clamped my mouth against her neck, sucking and biting, and at the same time, I thrust two fingers hard and deep inside her.

Her breath was expelled in a rush of air and a low guttural groan. I continued to thrust into her, and soon added a third finger, filling her, stretching her.

I could feel the silky walls close around my fingers as her groans changed pitch, turning into whimpers that were equal parts pleasure and pain.

“Come for me now,” I ordered, and then bit down harder into the soft skin over her collarbone.

“Gods, oh, gods,” she cried. Her body stilled as the orgasm held her tight in its grip and then just as suddenly released her, to crash in pulsating waves. My fingers were clutched from deep inside and her entire body jerked with the motion. I rocked with her and rode it out, waiting until she stilled before I removed my fingers and my lips from her body.

I stepped back and looked at her. Her tied hands were the only things keeping her on her feet. She was covered in sweat, and her breath came in ragged gasps. Her eyes were closed, as if even the effort of opening them was too much.

I had beaten her, just as surely as I had beaten those men on the battlefield. This knowledge quelled my blood lust, and I felt it fading, ebbing from me like the outgoing tide. I took a deep breath and then expelled it slowly.

I reached up and untied her hands. They fell limply to her sides and she leaned her weight against the tent pole. She opened her eyes, finally, and looked at me.

For an instant, I saw Gabrielle’s golden-green gaze staring back at me and felt a twinge of guilt.

“Leave me,” I commanded.

“My Conqueror?”

“I said leave me!” I screamed and raised my fist as I moved toward her.

She scrambled out of my way and grabbed her cloak from the ground where it had fallen. She managed to wrap it around her naked frame as she dived through the tent flaps.

I went in search of wine, desperately seeking the oblivion it would bring.

The next night, I dismissed Gabrielle early and had Darphus escort Anteia to my tent. And again the next night.

Taking Anteia helped satisfy my carnal urges, but did nothing to keep my mind from thinking about Gabrielle. Anteia may have resembled Gabrielle somewhat in looks, but she was nothing like Gabrielle for conversation or intellect. Then again, it wasn’t Anteia’s mind I was interested in.

I could tell at first Gabrielle was bewildered by the sudden change in our routine. After a few days, however, she seemed resigned to our new arrangement and no longer asked to stay for an evening chat. This did nothing to assuage the guilt I felt each time I dismissed Gabrielle early and sent for Anteia.

I had been careful not to allow Anteia and Gabrielle to meet. A trusted lieutenant since my warlord days, Darphus was efficient and discreet. He made sure Anteia was off limits to anyone else and arranged to have her brought to my tent every evening and escorted back well before dawn. This went on for a week.

Regrettably, it happened. I don’t know if I had too much wine or forgot who was in my bed, but I didn’t dismiss Anteia when I was finished with her. Instead, she spent the night. The next morning, we didn’t wake up at first light, and the guards knew better than to disturb me while I was entertaining a guest.

I heard a gasp, and despite the affects of wine and sex, my warrior instincts were razor sharp. I jumped out of bed and grabbed my sword, crouching in a defensive posture. The intruder was framed by sunlight beaming through the open tent flap, so I couldn’t immediately identify who it was. Once my pupils adjusted to the light, I could make out the features of a petite figure. It was Gabrielle.

During the commotion, Anteia woke up and laughed at the scene: me standing completely naked, and my personal assistant standing dumbstruck at the other end of my sword.

Gabrielle looked over at Anteia then back at me. “Uh, sorry…I…excuse me…I-I didn’t mean to wake you, General. I’ll just go and…and…er, I’ll just go.” She made a hasty retreat out of my tent.

Still snickering, Anteia stepped up behind me and put her arms around my waist. “What an idiot! She acts like she’s never seen a couple of lovers before!”

I turned on Anteia and glowered at her. She stepped backwards, realising she had made a huge mistake, and sat heavily on the edge of the bed. I yanked her off the bed and threw her dress at her.

“Get out! Get out!”

She quickly pulled her dress over her head and grabbed her sandals and underclothes as I roughly escorted her to the exit.

Anteia ran off crying, as I stood naked in the entryway of my tent, yelling after her. “Don’t bother coming back. I never want to see you in my camp again. You hear me!”

My personal guards went about their business without so much as a titter or a glance in my direction.

I retreated into my tent and threw my sword into the corner.

“Ares’ Balls!” I cursed. I felt a sudden smack of guilt, like I had somehow cheated on Gabrielle.

While I grabbed my clothes and hurriedly put them on, questions crowded my mind. Should I go after her and apologise? What would I be apologising for? She wasn’t my lover; she was my assistant, so why did it matter so much?

I had to still these chaotic thoughts, and there was no better way to do that than by pushing my body to its limits. I yelled out to the guards, “send someone to find Lieutenant Galates and have him meet me on the practice field. I need to do some sparring.”

Once outside in the warm morning air, I took a deep breath. My mind was still a jumble of conflicting thoughts and feelings about Gabrielle. Common sense was telling me not to let my heart rule my head; yet, I couldn’t deny my attraction to this spirited young woman. My destiny was to rule an empire and I didn’t need any distractions, but I’d grown accustomed to her enthusiasm, her honesty, and yes, even her persistent chatter. I didn’t need love, but I did need someone I could trust. I needed her.

 

Chapter 5

 

The Conqueror could be fearsome and aloof, yet she could also be kind and affable in her unguarded moments. At least, she was that way with me. I felt we were developing an understanding – a friendship of sorts. In the evenings, we would talk, or I should say, I talked; she mostly listened. She had even started asking for my opinions on military matters. At first I was a little confused as to why she should ask me when she had experienced soldiers, like Commander Darnell, to advise her. However, I felt honoured and excited to be of service.

I looked forward to discussing her victory in the battle for Larissa, but when General Xena returned that night, her attitude towards me changed. As I watched her approach the tent, her easy stride stiffened and she hunched her shoulders. When I tried to talk to her, she was brusque, and distant, and had a stormy look in her eyes.

“General Xena,” I greeted her, “congratulations on a great victory.”

She barely acknowledged my presence as she entered her tent and immediately reached for a pitcher of water.

“Allow me, General.” I intercepted the pitcher and poured her a goblet of water.

Still without a word, Xena took the goblet and glugged down the water.

“You may go,” she said tersely, while grabbing the pitcher from me and pouring herself another cup.

“You mean after I help you with your armour, and– ”

“No!” Xena said vehemently. She took a breath before adding, “I-I need to be alone tonight.”

“As you wish, General.” I tried not to let my disappointment show, hoping she would change her mind and let me stay.

She didn’t.

I said goodnight and left, assuming Xena was simply tired. After all, she had just defeated the Thessalian army and taken their capital city. But when she dismissed me early again the next night, I couldn’t help feeling a little wounded. And the night after that it was the same thing again. I lay awake all night wondering what I had done wrong.

This went on for almost a week. In the mornings, Xena seemed more herself, but at night her whole demeanour changed; she was edgy, like a prowling tiger. She would dismiss me before her evening bath, and I’d go back to my tent and spend the rest of the night asking myself the same questions over and over. Did I do something to make her angry? Did it have something to do with her kissing me? Did she blame me for what happened that night? Did I do something to provoke her? If it wasn’t that, then why was she treating me this way?

After the seventh sleepless night, I decided to get up before first light, so I could talk to Xena and find out what was wrong.

As the first rays of morning sun warmed my back, I walked up to the entrance of the Conqueror’s tent and said good morning to the guards standing watch. A glance passed between them, and for a moment I thought they were going to stop me from entering, but they focused their attention forward again and let me pass.

Pushing back the tent flap, I stood just inside, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the shadows. The sunlight that fell in from the open flap illuminated two figures in the bed.

“Uuhh.” I let out a barely audible gasp before I could stop myself. The general was normally awake when I arrived in the mornings, so I wasn’t expecting to find her in bed, let alone with someone else.

Before I could even move a muscle, the agile warrior had bolted up out of bed and in one swift movement, grabbed her sword and held it to my throat. I froze, praying Xena would recognise me before she sliced my head off.

Fortunately, she did recognise me and lowered her sword. She stared at me with a strange, almost embarrassed look. I stared back at the naked woman standing before me, her well-defined muscles twitching from the adrenalin.

Over Xena’s shoulder came a muffled sound from under the blankets. I looked over towards the bed and saw an equally naked young woman pushing back the covers. She was giggling.

It shouldn’t have shocked me to see that Xena had taken a lover. She was, after all, a passionate woman; she was bound to have needs. Perhaps the bigger shock was seeing that the girl in the Conqueror’s bed looked a lot like me.

“Uh, sorry…I…excuse me…I-I didn’t mean to wake you, General. I’ll just go and…er…I’ll just go.”

I ran out of the tent as fast as I could. I didn’t care where I ran, just as long as it was away from the Conqueror’s tent. “Oof!” I turned a corner and ran directly into polished bronze chest armour.

“Whoa there.” Lieutenant Galates steadied me as I collided with him.

“I’m so sorry, Lieutenant, I didn’t see you.”

“Where are you off to in such a big hurry?”

“Nowhere, I-I just needed to get some fresh air.”

“Well, I’m heading to the practise field, so why don’t I walk with you a ways?”

“I wouldn’t want to trouble you.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all.”

“Well, uh…okay.” I didn’t think I could refuse since he was being so nice.

We walked silently along the path. I really didn’t feel much like making conversation, but I was grateful for his company. Eventually, we came to the turn-off for the practise field. Lieutenant Galates stopped walking, but I was so lost in thought that I kept going a few paces further. I turned around when I realised he had stopped.

“Are you alright, Gabrielle? You seem a little preoccupied.”

“I’m fine,” I replied with a forced smile. “I just…I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

I nodded.

“Okay. Well, I better be going – don’t want to keep the Conqueror waiting.”

“Oh, you’re meeting General Xena? I’d better warn you, she might not be in a good mood.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

We stood there for a long moment shyly eyeing each other, neither quite knowing what to say next. Finally, he broke the silence. “Well, like I said, I better get going.”

“Yes. Thank you, Lieutenant.”

“Call me Galates, and you’re welcome.”

I watched him walk away and then headed toward my tent. I say “my tent”; however, like most members of the support units, I had to share. The tent was big enough for two cots with a narrow gap between them. It was only meant for sleeping in, and as my bunkmate, Perdita, and I worked long hours, that was about all we did in it. We got along as well as we could, though being a cook’s assistant meant she was up before me and in bed asleep by the time I returned. Fortunately, Perdita was already at work and I had the tent to myself.

Slumping down on the stool between the cots, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I felt embarrassed for walking in on Xena and finding another woman in her bed. I felt confused as to why it mattered to me. I felt humiliated. I felt angry. But more than anything, I felt rejected.

I was so frustrated I didn’t know what to do, so I beat the stuffing out of my pillow. It was only when I was covered in goose down that I realised I was acting like a pouting child hiding out in my tent.

Eyeing the satchel under my cot, I briefly contemplated running away, but then I remembered my mother’s words: you can’t run away from your problems, you have to face them.

I tried lying down, but I couldn’t quiet all the thoughts colliding in my brain. I tried writing, but the words came out a jumbled, mixed-up mess. Finally, I decided to go for another walk to try and clear my head.

My walk took me to the edge of the camp, near the practise field. Along the way, I passed by the camp stores, where I picked up a wineskin. I told them I was taking it to the Conqueror, but it was really for me. If I couldn’t make sense of these feelings, then at least I could dull my brain for a little while.

In the shade of a cart, I found myself a spot where I couldn’t be seen and sat down. I watched the two combatants on the field – General Xena and Lieutenant Galates. The handsome young lieutenant was barely holding his own against his formidable commander-in-chief. He matched her in height, but she had the strength of ten men and the skill to best Ares, the God of War, himself. She held nothing back, and poor Galates scrambled to keep from being seriously injured.

With each blade strike, I got more indignant. Clang. Why didn’t she tell me she had taken a lover? Clang. Had she been dismissing me early all week just to be with that other woman? Clang. What does she see in her anyway? Clang.

I opened the wineskin and brought it up to my lips. After a few mouthfuls, I felt giddy. After a few more, I felt sad. Half a wineskin later, I started losing the feeling in my arms and legs.

While Xena and Galates continued sparring, I continued drinking – and thinking. How could she be so unaffected by what had happened this morning? Clang. Didn’t she care at all about my feelings?Clang. Why did she conceal it from me? Clang. Was I seeing things, or did that girl look just like me? Clang. What’s she got that I haven’t got? Clang.

When I couldn’t figure out how to get the wineskin in my mouth, I decided I’d had enough. I climbed unsteadily to my feet and set off back to my tent. I spent more time on my backside than my feet, as I stumbled and giggled my way along the uneven path. I wasn’t “falling down drunk” – just falling down!

After falling for the umpteenth time, I decided to stay down and wait for the ground to stop moving. That’s when I heard a voice behind me. I looked up at the sweaty, dirt-streaked face of Lieutenant Galates.

“Gabrielle?”

“Hi,” I replied with a beaming grin. “Would you like to hold the ground steady so I can walk on it?”

Galates lifted me off the ground and brushed off the dirt on the back of my tunic. “Have you been drinking?” he asked.

“Noooo …” I replied. Trying to keep my feet underneath me, I grabbed his arm to steady myself. “Of…cour…snot….” Then I fell over.

“Uh, huh,” Galates replied. The haggard lieutenant picked me up and carried me in his arms all the way to his tent. He gently lay me down on his cot and loosened the belt around my waist. That’s all I remember, because once my head touched the pillow, I fell into a wine-induced sleep.

~~~~~

I awoke to darkness and an empty tent. Nothing looked familiar. I tried to get up to see where I was. Big mistake. The room started spinning and my head felt like it was going to split wide open. The tent flap suddenly opened, allowing the pale light of dusk to shine into the tent. It was enough to blind me. As I sat cradling my head, Galates walked in carrying a bowl of foul-smelling broth.

“Ack, what is that smell?” I held my nose and tried not to throw up.

“Ah, you’re awake, good.” He placed the bowl on a table and lit some candles. “How are you feeling?” he asked, ignoring my reaction to the broth.

“Oh, peachy.” I said facetiously. “Ooh!” I grabbed my head – talking out loud made my hair hurt. Whispering this time, I rattled off a bunch of questions. “Where am I? Is this your tent? How did I get here? How long have I been sleeping? What happened?”

“Whoa, slow down. Yes, you’re in my tent. I found you practically passed out behind a wagon near the practise field. You’ve been asleep for about four hours. And you’re going to have one Hades of a hangover come the morning.” Galates handed me the bowl of broth. “Here, drink this while it’s hot.”

My face soured at the stench and my stomach rumbled again. I pushed it back towards him. “No thanks.”

“It’ll make your head and stomach feel a lot better. Besides, I bet you haven’t eaten all day.” He pushed it back towards me and gave me a determined, but caring look.

I brought the bowl up to my mouth and took a sip. “Delicious,” I said with a pained look on my face.

He sat on a stool next to the cot. “Now, would you like to tell me what in Tartarus you thought you were doing?”

I desperately wanted to tell him, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know myself, or I did but didn’t want to admit it. Instead of trying to explain what happened that morning, I asked him the first thing that came into my head.

“Do you like me?” I blurted it out like a lovesick adolescent.

It was something I had wondered about ever since that night Xena kissed me. She said she had seen the way Galates looked at me. He was looking at me the same way he looked at me that night.

“Of course! What a silly question. What’s not to like about you?” He gave a shy grin, and I detected a slight blush.

“I like you, too,” I said bashfully. “You’re not like other soldiers.”

“It’s not my first career choice. I used to be a farmer.”

“Really. Why did you give it up?”

“I had a small farm outside Argilus in Macedonia. I was barely eking out a living when the local ruler demanded yet another crushing tax. Then the Conqueror came. The king’s forces retreated back to the city and burned everything behind them – my farm included.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Oh, don’t be. I wasn’t making it as a farmer, so I thought I’d give soldiering a try.” He chuckled dryly. “When the Conqueror’s army liberated Argilus, I joined up, thinking I’d wait until they took some fertile land, then quit and set up a new farm. However, this life has grown on me.”

We fell silent as I took another sip of the broth.

“What do you think of the Conqueror?” I asked.

He seemed surprised by the question, as though no one had ever asked him before. “She’s a brilliant commander. Sometimes her methods are a little harsh. But I don’t know her that well personally. You probably know her better than most of us soldiers. Do you like her?”

“What do you mean?” His question triggered a knee-jerk over-reaction from me.

“I mean, do you like working for her?”

“Oh. Yes, I like her. It’s just that…”

“It’s just that, what?” he prompted me.

“It’s just that at times she can be a bit… intimidating.” I chose my words carefully.

“Hahahaha!” Galates broke into unrestrained laughter.

“What?” I felt a little offended.

“That, my dear Gabrielle, is an understatement.”

I felt my cheeks flush when he pointed out the irony of my comment. “What I meant to say is General Xena is the most fascinating person I’ve ever met and the most difficult to understand. She has this “Conqueror” side, you know – formidable, unapproachable, and commanding. Yet, when we’re alone, she’s more relaxed and informal. She’s got a wry sense of humour. And, she’d probably have me flogged for saying this – sometimes she’s even been kind.”

We both smiled at the image of a “kind” Conqueror. Then Galates turned pensive. He reached out and touched my shoulder. “Is that what happened today? Is that why you were so upset?”

I gave him a quizzical look.

“Did she hurt you?” he asked tentatively, shifting from the stool to the cot.

“What do you mean?” His question threw me, and all the questions flooded my mind again.

“Did she strike you?” His tone was serious and protective.

“Oh,” I said, finally registering his words and understanding his meaning. “No, she didn’t hit me, that’s not it. No, it was…” I hesitated. How could I explain to him why I was so upset, when I wasn’t sure myself? “It’s just that ever since Larissa, General Xena has changed towards me. Now, she dismisses me early in the evening with no explanation. We don’t talk anymore. She doesn’t even allow me to stay to fix her bath. I know it sounds silly, but I can’t help feeling rejected.” The pain I felt then wasn’t only in my head. I started crying.

Galates gathered me up in his arms and held me as tears streamed down my cheeks. He held me and gently rubbed my back until my sobbing turned to sniffles. When I finally stopped crying, he let me go. Lifting my head up with his finger, he wiped away my tears with his thumb.

“Feel better?” he asked.

I gave him an unconvincing smile.

Galates didn’t take his hands away from my face. Instead, he cupped my cheeks in his hands and held my gaze. He hesitantly moved his head closer to mine and then paused. There was a tentative look in his deep brown eyes, so I made the next move. I tipped my head slightly and leaned forward, closing the distance between us. He took my cue and moved in closer until his lips met mine.

His kiss was unhurried and tender, not urgent or forced – nothing like the way Xena had kissed me. Xena. Why was I thinking about Xena when I was in the arms of such a kind-hearted man as Galates? It must’ve been the affect of the wine, I reasoned.

Galates broke the kiss and pulled back to see how I reacted to his advance. I reached up and stroked the hair around his ear. He took that as a good sign and leaned in to kiss me again. This time, he kissed me with a soldier’s resolve – strong and impassioned. I offered little resistance to his advances; in fact, I welcomed his attentions.

Galates’ desire shone in the umber hue of his irises and there was an urgency in his expression. I needed comfort and Galates seemed willing to provide it. I shifted position on the cot and tugged him on to it.

“Gabrielle, are you sure–”

My lips silenced him. My hand found its way inside his shirt. While my fingers ran through the hairs on his chest, his tongue traced a path from my lips to my neck. I was so blinded by the need to feel wanted that I ignored my body’s lack of response to his touch.

We clumsily removed each other’s clothes and lay down. Galates positioned himself over me and extended his legs between my knees. It was the first time I had seen a man naked or felt a man’s erection against my skin. I was scared. All the lectures from my mother about waiting until I had met the right person and got married echoed in my still aching head. He slowly lowered himself down until his glistening torso pressed against me. I started to feel a little apprehension. What was I doing?

Galates must have sensed I was nervous by my tensing muscles. “Don’t worry, it won’t hurt much, I promise,” he said, trying to reassure me. The corner of my mouth turned up in a little smile and I did my best to relax. He kissed me again, starting from my lips and gradually working his way down my neck. I flinched when Galates shifted his position and the head of his penis settled at the apex between my thighs. Suddenly, I felt panicked. This was wrong!

“Galates…” I brought my hands up to his chest and frantically pushed him away. “Galates, stop.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Stop, please. I-I- can’t.”

He looked crushed, but immediately rolled off me and sat up. “You’ve been drinking. I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you. I–” He climbed out of bed and fumbled around for his trousers. “I’m sorry, Gabrielle.”

“No, it’s not your fault. It’s me. I’m…just not ready for this.” I pulled the covers up to cover my breasts. “I’m sorry, Galates, it’s just…” words failed me.

He turned to face me. I expected to see anger on his face, but he smiled gently. “No, Gabrielle. This wasn’t meant to happen today,” he paused, handing me my shift, “I don’t think it’s meant to happen at all.” Ever the gentleman, he turned his back to allow me some modesty.

“It’s not you,” I explained as I quickly put the shift back on. “You can turn around now, thanks.” Galates turned back around and joined me on the cot. I continued my explanation, “I just don’t feel…I want it to be special. I want it to feel right. I want to be in love–”

“You don’t have to explain, Gabrielle. I understand.” He took my hand. “I would like to be more than just your friend, but if that’s all you can offer, then that’s good enough for me.”

I felt humbled by his understanding and compassion. Any woman would be lucky to be loved by this handsome, kind-hearted soldier-farmer. But, it wasn’t what I wanted.

“I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”

Galates reached out and put his hand over mine. “Gabrielle, I believe you are incapable of hurting anyone.” He patted my hand and then stood up. A sad look now coloured his brown eyes. “I’ll leave you to finish getting dressed.” He paused at the tent flap, looked back, and said, “there’s an old saying: don’t search for what you already have. You already have what you want, Gabrielle. Stop looking for it.”

I puzzled over his words as I watched the tent flap close behind him. I know now what he meant, but at the time I was still confused. The feelings were still new to me.

~~~~~

The next morning, I reported for duty as usual, though there was nothing “usual” about the way I felt. My palms were sweaty and I felt nauseous. I wasn’t sure if it was from being hung over or having to face the Conqueror. I took a deep breath and entered her tent.

Xena was fully dressed and seated at the table reading a report.

“Good morning, General.”

“Morning.” She looked up briefly from the scroll.

I moved slowly towards her and placed her breakfast tray on the table.

She reached out and ripped off a hunk of bread and went back to reading.

I crossed the room to make her bed and tidy up. It looked like she had spent the night alone. There was only one crumpled pillow and the blankets were still relatively undisturbed on one side of the bed.

Then it dawned on me that for the previous week Xena had tidied up her bed herself, before I reported for duty. How could I have been so blind, so naïve? And why did she go to so much trouble to conceal it?

Neither one of us spoke. Every minute that passed was pure torture wondering what she would say or do. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to force the issue. I moved to the table and stood in front of her.

“General, about yesterday…”

She put the scroll down and looked up at me. Her steel-blue eyes betrayed no emotion. “Yes?”

“I just wanted to apologise for my behaviour yesterday. I put you in an embarrassing situation, and then running off like that. I’m sorry if…forgive me, General. I’ll understand if you dismiss me–”

“Gabrielle,” she interrupted my nervous babbling, “you have nothing to apologise for. And I have no intention of dismissing you. You caught me in, as you say, an ’embarrassing situation.’ I think the matter is best forgotten.”

“Yes, General. Perhaps–”

Xena looked quizzically at me. “Perhaps, what?”

“Perhaps, you could give me some sort of…um…warning if you have company and I should–”

“I said the matter is best forgotten. It won’t happen again, so let’s put it behind us,” she said with an almost apologetic tone.

“Yes, General.” I acknowledged her with a mixture of bemusement and relief.

And with that, Xena and I returned to our usual routine. She didn’t dismiss me early anymore and we resumed our evening chats. We never talked about what happened in Thessalia until much later. It was definitely a turning point in our relationship, but we didn’t know it at the time.

~~~~~

One month after the capture of Larissa, the Conqueror’s army was again on the move. Xena left Commander Braextus in charge of Thessalia and focused on her next objective: Athens.

We marched onto Athens to face King Hippias and his army. Athens was the centre of Greek culture and home to the Royal Academy of Performing Bards. It also was the last major obstacle Xena faced in her conquest of Greece. The battle was bloody, but brief.

The citizens of Athens cheered wildly as the victorious army of Xena the Conqueror marched into their city. Xena rode at the head of her army and up to the gates of the palace where Hippias formally surrendered. The king was put in chains and thrown in the dungeon, along with his family, courtiers, and senior military leaders.

Throughout the night, Athenians celebrated in the streets while the Conqueror and her senior officers had a banquet in the palace. I started the evening helping serve Xena, but she soon asked me to join her. Darphus made room for me to sit between him and Commander Braextus, who sat to the immediate left of General Xena. Braextus had arrived from Larissa shortly before the banquet had started and looked like he’d been celebrating all the way to Athens.

“Here,” Commander Braextus pushed his plate towards me, “help yourself.”

“Thank you, Commander.” I picked up a chicken leg and took a lady-like bite.

“Heh, heh. Go on, it’s not going to bite you!” Darphus elbowed me in the ribs.

I didn’t want to display poor table manners, but I noticed that Xena was eating as heartily as the men at the table. As they say, when in Athens, so I grabbed the chicken leg off my plate and gnawed on it until the bone was picked clean.

“There, that’s more like it. Come on, eat up!” Darphus grabbed a whole chicken and ripped off the meat like a ravenous wolf.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Xena quietly chuckling at my attempt to be “one of the boys.”

“Gabrielle, your insight helped a great deal in this campaign,” Xena said.

“Yeah,” agreed Darphus placing a mug of ale in front of me, “if we left it to Darnell, we’d still be fighting at Larissa.” He chuckled and patted my shoulder.

I caught a glimpse of Commander Darnell, sitting to Xena’s right. He paused as he lifted a glass of wine to his lips. There was a faint tightening of his jaw muscles as he fought down an angry response.

“Lighten up,” Darphus called out and lobbed a bread roll at the second-in-command.

Xena’s lightning reflexes caught the roll before it hit Darnell. “Thank you,” she said to Darphus and took a bite of the bread.

Darnell stood and I thought he was going to start a fight, but instead he raised his glass and began a toast to Xena. I don’t recall exactly what he said; I was intent on watching Xena’s reaction to it. She appeared almost uncomfortable to begin with, and then settled back to enjoy it.

“…no army, no nation, no empire can stop Xena the Conqueror. Her name will be a rallying call for us and strike terror into the hearts of the enemy,” Darnell continued.

As Darnell spoke those words, I noticed a flicker of confusion in Xena’s eyes, as though she were just a normal woman who had been mistaken for a great warrior.

“To Xena, First Empress of a united Greece!” Darnell finished with a flourish and raised his goblet.

“To Empress Xena!” Braextus exclaimed as he stood and raised his goblet.

The rest of the assembly quickly followed suit and Xena basked in their praise, looking around the room until her eyes fell on me. There was that flicker of doubt again.

“Thank you.” Xena stood and raised her glass. “This is as much your celebration as mine, because your loyalty, bravery, and service have made this possible. To the Greek Empire.”

Everyone raised their goblets again and toasted.

Xena waited until everyone sat down. “Well, I must prepare for a coronation in the morning, so I’ll leave you to it. Goodnight.”

She left to a rousing cheer. I took a moment and then followed her.

“What do you want?” she asked me distractedly.

“I wanted to see if you needed me.” I meant that more as a friend than an assistant.

Xena stared at me with a far-away look in her light-blue eyes. “No. You return to the party.”

“I’m not really in a party mood,” I replied, sensing that Xena would rather talk than be alone.

“Nor am I. It’s strange, huh? I should be happy, but I somehow feel…”

“A sense of anticlimax?” I offered.

“Possibly.” Xena studied me for a moment. “Come with me.”

I followed her to the quarters she had commandeered.

“Now that I have conquered Greece, Gabrielle, it will mean a big change in our lives.” Xena crossed the room, sat down on a divan, and beckoned me to take a seat beside her. “To begin with, we won’t be travelling as much. I will need to rule the empire from a capital city rather than horseback. I have chosen Corinth to be my empire’s capital city. We’ll move as soon as we secure Athens.”

“You mean you’re not going to make Athens your capital city?” I was surprised and a little disappointed to find out we weren’t staying in Athens. Athens was the centre of Greek culture. I had hoped to attend the theatre, and perhaps study at the Royal Academy of the Performing Bards. However, I was glad to hear her talking about a future that included me. I had often wondered what would happen after she conquered Greece – whether there would be a place for me.

“No. I’ve chosen Corinth because it was the first major city I captured when I set out to conquer Greece, and because it has a major trading port and is easily defended by both land and sea. This makes Corinth the ideal choice as the seat of government for my new empire.”

She stood up and walked over to the window and surveyed the city she had just conquered. “I’m going to declare myself Empress tomorrow. And Greece is just the beginning. My empire will one day extend across the entire known world. Right now though, we must concentrate on establishing a government and expanding the army.” She turned from the window and came back to sit next to me.

“Yes, General.”

“Liege,” Xena corrected me, “I’ll be royalty tomorrow. I’ll be addressed as ‘My Liege’ or ‘Your Highness.’ You may want to practice,” she added with a relaxed laugh.

“Yes, My Liege,” I replied with a playful laugh of my own.

Xena smiled at me, and then stood and walked over to a chest near the bed. “I want to show you something.”

She removed a large wrapped object from the chest. She unwrapped its velvet covering and brought the object back to show me. It was a sceptre made of gold, braided in an intricate weave. Crowning the sceptre was the large green, conical-shaped jewel King Quallas had given her.

“It’ll be a perfect symbol for my power.”

“It’s lovely, My Liege,” I politely commented. To me it was just a bilious green stone, but Xena was pleased about it.

“The coronation will take place immediately following the executions of Hippias and his supporters…” her voice trailed off as she sensed my mood change. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, General,” I said mournfully.

“Tell me, Gabrielle. If you have something to say, then say it.”

I took a deep breath and met her gaze. “Why must you execute the king’s entire staff?”

“They’re loyal to him, therefore, I can’t trust them.”

“They could be persuaded to follow you,” I pressed. “After all, the war is over – you’ve won.”

“What if I had been defeated and Hippias had captured you. Would you switch your loyalty?”

“Never,” I answered immediately. The force of my words surprised me.

Xena reached out and laid her hand on my shoulder. “So you see, I have no choice.”

“Couldn’t you spare the lives of some of the King’s lower ranking staff and servants?”

“No. This is a critical time for me and for my empire. I must be seen as strong and decisive. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, but showing mercy wouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness. It will be seen as a magnanimous gesture from the new Empress of a united Greece.”

She was pensive for a moment. “Well, I suppose I could order only the King, his senior advisors, and his military commanders to be executed. The lower ranking staff can be sold into slavery.”

“That is very reasonable of you, General, however–”

Xena raised one eyebrow and scowled. “However, what? Is it not enough that I’ve agreed to spare the lives of all but the most senior?”

“But wouldn’t you be better served if the lower ranking Athenian army commanders were integrated into your imperial army rather than sold as slaves? After all, they have the loyalty of the common soldiers, and you said you needed to expand the imperial army.”

“Hmm, I suppose. Yes, that might work to my advantage. You’re something special, Gabrielle. I wish all my advisors were as wise and as loyal as you.” Xena’s face lit up with an affectionate smile.

I felt my breath catch. By the gods, she was beautiful when she smiled.

 

Chapter 6

 

The campaign to conquer Attica was short, my plan simple: overwhelm Athens with superior forces and the rest of the region would be defenceless. The Athenians were citizen-soldiers, poets and philosophers at heart – no match for my battle-hardened army. Their king was a snivelling fool and no fit adversary to challenge my skills on the battlefield. Without the Athenian army to protect them, the rest of Attica capitulated without so much as a skirmish.

My senior officers and I celebrated our victory over Athens in the palace of King Hippias, who had formally surrendered to me earlier in the day. I must admit I wasn’t really in the mood to celebrate, but the men had earned it.

Gabrielle joined us at the banquet. She sat between Darphus and Braextus, who had come from Thessalia to take part in the victory celebrations. It pleased me to see Gabrielle enjoying herself, and for a while at least, I enjoyed myself too.

After the obligatory toasts, I excused myself and left the banquet. Gabrielle followed me out of the banquet hall, but I kept walking toward my temporary living quarters in the palace.

My tenacious assistant wouldn’t give up the chase, so I finally stopped and turned to face her. “What do you want?” I didn’t mean to sound peevish, but I wanted to be alone, or so I told myself.

“I wanted to see if you needed me.”

I could tell she asked as a friend, not an assistant. “No. You return to the party,” I replied softly.

“I’m not really in a party mood,” Gabrielle said. It was as though she had read my mind.

“Nor am I. It’s strange, huh? I should be happy, but I somehow feel–”

“A sense of anticlimax?” Gabrielle finished my sentence.

“Possibly,” was my response, but Gabrielle was right. With the capture of Athens, all of Greece was finally mine. I had been fighting for this moment for so long that I never really considered how I’d feel when my goal was finally realised.

Now that Gabrielle had put a name to it, I understood why, when the banquet table of triumph was spread out before me, I had no appetite. I had come to the end of my days as “Xena the Conqueror.” I had fought the battles and had won the prize: Greece. There was bound to be a letdown.

I studied Gabrielle’s face as she looked up at me with empathetic, caring eyes. It was then I realised that Gabrielle was not merely an efficient assistant or someone with whom I could get a fresh perspective on battle strategies. She had reached into my jumbled up emotions and homed in on exactly what I was feeling. Looking back, this was when Gabrielle ceased to be my young and chatty assistant and became my friend, my confidante.

I invited her back to my quarters for one of our evening chats. We sat next to each other on a divan as if we were old friends. Gabrielle seemed perfectly at ease but for some reason I felt uncomfortable. Perhaps it was because of this unease, that for once, I did most of the talking, and the more I talked, the more energized I felt. I stood at the threshold of my destiny. I didn’t want to dwell on what had just ended. I needed to focus instead on my future as ruler of an empire. I talked about how our lives would change. I talked about my plans for establishing a government and expanding the army. I talked about moving to Corinth once Athens was secured. Gabrielle seemed a bit disappointed that we weren’t going to stay in Athens, but I explained why Corinth was strategically a better choice for a capital city.

Jokingly, I told her that since I would be royalty in the morning, she should practice using my new title.

“Yes, My Liege,” she replied with a playful emphasis that made her green eyes twinkle.

These were the moments I had come to cherish. With Gabrielle, I could let my guard down and just be “Xena” and not “the Conqueror.”

I almost became lost in her eyes and forced myself to think of something else. I got up, opened a chest near the bed, and retrieved the sceptre I had made with the large green gem from King Quallas. “I want to show you something. It’ll be a perfect symbol for my power.”

“It’s lovely, My Liege.” Her tone was polite but not effusive. I forgot she wasn’t all that impressed by the trappings of wealth. That’s one of the things I liked about her – her unpretentious nature. It also meant that she couldn’t be swayed to betray me with promises of riches.

I wrapped it back up in its covering and returned it to the chest. “The coronation will take place immediately following the executions of Hippias and his supporters and–” I turned and saw this troubled look on Gabrielle’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, General.” She avoided looking at me.

“Tell me, Gabrielle. If you have something to say, then say it.” I suspected it had something to do with the executions, and it did.

“Couldn’t you spare the lives of some of the King’s lower ranking staff and servants?”

All the reasons I had for executing Hippias and his followers crumbled at Gabrielle’s simple plea. I recalled the time I had the Thessalian boy executed. Gabrielle had tried to change my mind, but I had stopped her protests without listening to her side. Since then, however, I had come to respect her opinion, and this time I let myself be swayed by her arguments.

I signalled my capitulation with a warm smile. “Hmm, I suppose. Yes, it might work to my advantage.”

Once again, Gabrielle proved her wisdom and her loyalty to me, and that was more precious to me than any jewelled sceptre.

~~~~~

By the next morning, whatever ambivalence I felt was gone. I was to be crowned Empress of the Greek Empire. That was my destiny, and I was ready to seize it and bend it to my will.

After a quick breakfast, I tracked down my second-in-command. “Darnell, I need to speak to you. This way.” I gestured for him to follow me.

“What is it?” he asked as he fell into step just behind and to my right.

We walked out into a small quadrangle. The sun was not high and it was pleasantly cool in the shade.

“First things first. I want to give you this.” I handed him a scroll. “Your promotion.”

“General, thank you.” He unrolled the parchment and read it.

“You’ve earned it, General.” I clapped him on the back.

He allowed himself a slight smile. “Does this bring new responsibilities?”

“Naturally. You will have overall command of the army, as well as being my chief military advisor. And you will continue to be my right-hand man, of course.”

Darnell stood taller with my compliment and smiled. When Darnell smiled his whole face changed, even the crooked scar above his left eye – from one of our sparring sessions, not battle – smoothed out and almost disappeared. Though the rest of him looked all man, with his bulging biceps and his sleeveless, black leather uniform, he had an almost boyish quality when he smiled.

I looked over Darnell’s shoulder as Gabrielle arrived. “Ah, here’s my assistant.” I signalled her to approach.

“My Liege. General,” she said.

I smiled at her gaff, because technically I would not be royalty for another few hours. “I’m still ‘General’ at the moment,” I corrected her lightly.

“Sorry, General,” she abashedly replied.

She placed some scrolls in my outstretched hand, which I took and handed to Darnell. “These are the execution orders for Hippias and his family,” I said. “Also, there are orders to execute all prisoners above the rank of commander.”

Darnell took the scrolls with a frown. “What about the other prisoners? The lower ranking officers, the soldiers, and the palace staff?”

“Those are covered in the orders, too. All officers of commander and below are to be given a choice: die with their king or swear an oath of allegiance to me. All common soldiers will be conscripted into the imperial army. The household staff will be released once I’ve left the city.”

The corners of the Darnell’s mouth twitched. “You’re joking.”

I glared at his impertinence. “Do I look like I’m joking?”

“No, but it is not how–”

“Are you questioning my orders?” I leaned toward him, invading his space and pinning him with an unyielding glare.

“No, General.” Darnell backed down.

“Then see to my orders. I’ll witness the executions in one hour.”

Darnell saluted and marched out of the quadrangle. I knew my rather unorthodox orders would not sit well with him. To be honest, they didn’t sit well with me either, but Gabrielle could be very persuasive. Despite my misgivings, I couldn’t be seen as wavering. I maintained my “Conqueror” posture until Darnell was well out of sight.

“I suppose we should get ready for the executions,” Gabrielle said sadly.

“You…um…” Instinctively, I reached out and straightened a lock of hair tucked inside her collar. My hand lingered on the side of her face, and she looked up at me with such tenderness.

Before I did something I’d regret, I said the first thing that came into my head. “There’s a library in the south wing of the palace. I’d like you to check through the scrolls and decide which ones you think we need to take to Corinth.” It was a pointless errand, but it would keep her away from the executions, which I knew she’d find upsetting.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle said with an appreciative smile.

“Be ready for my coronation, though,” I said with feigned firmness.

“Yes, My Liege.”

~~~~~

I had ordered the rebuilding of the old Dorian palace when I first gained Corinth. My decision to renovate rather than build a grander palace was both symbolic and practical. The palace was located on the southern end of Corinth, a few hundred feet up the northern slope of the Acrocorinth. This not only provided a spectacular view of the city centre below and the Sea of Corinth to the north, but strategically it was easily defended from attack by my fleet in the harbour and the fortress atop the summit.

One thing I hadn’t planned on was returning to Corinth with a personal assistant, so no provisions had been made for suitable living quarters near mine for Gabrielle. I didn’t want to house her with the servants, so I gave her a small suite of rooms in the guest wing.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

Gabrielle walked around the main room, wide-eyed, taking in every detail. She poked her head into an adjoining room then turned to look at me with a questioning expression as if to ask whether the other room was hers, too. I nodded to show that it was.

“It’s wonderful, Your Highness. Thank you!” She gave me a spontaneous hug, and then continued with her explorations without realising the lapse in protocol. I didn’t reprimand her, because to be honest, I enjoyed it.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this space,” Gabrielle said as she examined the interior of a wardrobe. “My whole family never had enough clothes to fill this. And it’s all for me?” She looked back at me for further confirmation.

“It’s all yours.”

The smile on her face widened even more. It was infectious; I had to control the grin that wanted to spread across my face.

“You’ll need new clothes to fill the wardrobe. I’ll instruct the seamstress to make some for you right away. You can send a servant down to the market to get whatever else you need. After all, you are the assistant to the Empress now.” That was it; I couldn’t contain my smile any longer.

“Oh, I can go to the market myself. I love to shop.”

The thought of her wandering around Corinth alone made the grin on my face disappear. Being the Empress’ Personal Assistant made her a potential target, and I wasn’t about to risk her safety.

“No. If you leave the palace, you must take a guard with you,” I said firmly.

She gave me a strange look. “Why?”

“It is too dangerous for you to go alone.”

“I would think the Empress’ capital city would be the safest place to be in the middle of the day.”

Oh, no I thought, she was not going to out-manoeuvre me this time. “Then take a guard for the company and to carry what you buy.”

She was quiet for a moment. I could see her mind churning, but she couldn’t come up with a counter-argument. I was very pleased with my rare victory. Winning an argument with Gabrielle was never easy.

“Here, you’ll need this.” I tossed a money pouch at her.

Gabrielle caught it and looked inside. “I can’t take this, it’s too much,” she protested and tried to hand it back.

I put my hand up to stop her. “No, now that you’re the personal assistant to the Empress, you’ll need to dress the part.”

“But I’m a good haggler. I won’t need this much money.”

“Well, what you save you can keep or spend, as you desire.”

“You mean that? Whatever I don’t spend I can keep? Can I send it to my family in Potidaea?”

“Whatever you wish.”

“Thank you, Highness!” Gabrielle started forward as if she was going to hug me again, then caught herself and bowed instead.

I expected all my subjects to show me the proper respect, yet when Gabrielle did, it somehow seemed wrong, especially in these private moments. Perhaps it was because I had started to think of her as a friend – more than a friend. I would’ve much preferred the hug.

~~~~~

A few hours later, I heard a commotion in the courtyard below my study’s window. I walked out onto the balcony to find Gabrielle returning from the market. She and Lieutenant Galates were struggling under the weight of her purchases. They shared a joke as they crossed the courtyard and the faint sound of their laughter drifted up to the balcony on which I stood. I’d have wagered a thousand dinars that she would choose Galates to accompany her.

They had become good friends during my conquest of Greece. It pleased me to know that Galates cared about Gabrielle. What pleased me even more was that I knew they were not lovers.

Gabrielle looked up and beamed a cheerful smile at me. I was grateful that her arms were full; otherwise she probably would’ve waved at me.

I dipped my head to acknowledge her. Galates noticed that Gabrielle was looking elsewhere and followed her gaze.

“At ease, Lieutenant,” I called down before he dropped Gabrielle’s belongings all over the flagstones trying to salute. I watched them continue on their way until they were out of sight.

“If you ever enter my presence without warning again, General Darnell, I’ll assume you’re trying to sneak up on me and I’ll kill you.” I turned around and walked into the room. Darnell snapped rigidly to attention, his cheeks reddening at my reprimand.

“You have heard of knocking, I presume?”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“Then do so in future.” I nodded to let him know the matter of his intrusion was over.

Darnell had been one of my most trusted and loyal commanders, but he was overconfident at times and took liberties – like entering without knocking. I overlooked it sometimes, because he was an excellent second-in-command and had been the closest thing I had to a friend for a long time. That is, until Gabrielle.

He relaxed and almost stood at ease before remembering that I hadn’t permitted him to do so. I took my time to walk over to a table that dominated the centre of the room, and studied the maps that were spread out on it.

“At ease, General.”

He audibly released his breath and walked over to the table.

“How many battalions do we have on the border with Amazon territory?” I asked.

“Four. Enough to take it,” he replied. “At your command,” he quickly added.

“No. The Amazons are not our top priority right now. The main threat is Rome. Move three legions north and deploy them along the west coast of Epirus. I want that area heavily defended. We’ll need to strengthen the territorial garrisons throughout the empire. It may take a year or so to build up the forces that I need to take Rome, but I want to be ready in case they attack before then.”

“I’ll issue the orders immediately.”

“We’ll need to build more ships, too. Any Roman invasion will be by sea as well as land.”

The rest of the day and evening was spent studying maps and plans and talking with advisors. All pretty much the same as I had been doing during my conquests, only now the maps were bigger.

~~~~~

It was a brilliant spring morning. The weather was pleasant enough to put me into a relaxed mood, so I decided to cancel my morning meetings and go for a ride. Even an Empress needed time off now and again.

I had given orders for my horse to be made ready and was just leaving the palace for the stables when I thought of Gabrielle. I turned around and headed for her chambers. As anywhere else in my palace, I just walked into Gabrielle’s room without knocking. She was still in bed asleep, lying on her back, one arm over her head. The sheet had slipped off just enough to expose a perfect white breast, its pale pink nipple standing erect in the chill of the morning air. Seeing her in such alluring repose threatened to overpower my reason. With much restraint, I slowly backed out of the room.

Once outside, I brought my libido under control, and then knocked on the door. I allowed myself a slight chuckle. Only yesterday, I had berated Darnell for not knocking, and here I was guilty of the same thing.

“Who is it?” Gabrielle sleepily called out.

“Empress Xena,” I replied. I heard a startled gasp and the patter of feet, and then the door was pulled open.

“Good morning, Empress.” Gabrielle curtsied holding a robe closed with one hand and running the other hand through her hair to make herself presentable. “I’m sorry. Did I oversleep? It won’t happen again.”

“You haven’t overslept. I was wondering if you’d like to go for a ride with me.”

“If you want me to, Your Highness.”

“I would like you to, yes.”

“I’ll be ready as soon as I can,” she said and hurried away.

“Gabrielle!”

“Yes, My Liege,” she hurried back.

“I said I’d like you to come, but only if you want to. This isn’t business. I just need a break and thought I’d take a short ride into the country. I would like your company, but if you have other plans–”

“No, no plans,” she said enthusiastically, “I’d love to come!”

“Good. We’ll leave as soon as you’re ready. No rush.” Those last words were wasted, as she was ready in double quick time.

We rode out together on my horse and headed west from the city, into the foothills outside Corinth. It was a warm and sunny day; only a few wisps of cirrus clouds streaked the cerulean blue sky. It felt good to put aside my duties for a few hours and just relax and enjoy myself. I was glad Gabrielle agreed to come along.

We stopped near a small pool fed by a waterfall and sat in the shade of a copse of cypress trees. Goats and sheep were grazing in the meadow nearby. I closed my eyes and drifted into a contented doze.

When I awoke, Gabrielle was just climbing from the pool after a swim. Wearing only a shift, she arched her back as she pushed the water from her long golden hair. This caused her hardened nipples to strain against the sodden material as her breasts thrust skyward. With her eyes closed, she spread her arms and turned around to soak up the sun.

With my eyes, I caressed her sculpted form. Every detail seemed perfect: her flat stomach, her supple legs, her well-defined arms, and her full, round breasts. The water droplets that clung to her made her sparkle in the sunshine like a goddess, and I felt an overwhelming desire to worship her, to offer myself as a sacrifice, body and soul. It was then and there I resolved to make her mine, but I recognised the need to take matters slowly or risk destroying the delicately balanced relationship we were developing.

Whether I made some noise or not, I don’t know, but I suddenly noticed Gabrielle looking at me. She was aware of the attention I was paying her and quickly picked up her dress to cover herself.

To save her further embarrassment, I averted my eyes until she had dressed. “Enjoy your swim?” I asked as she sat down next to me.

“Yes, My Liege.”

I was at a loss as to what to say next and started humming under my breath.

“Do you sing?” I asked her.

“You wish me to sing for you?” Gabrielle sounded a little apprehensive.

“No,” I laughed. “Do you sing?”

“Not very well, My Liege.”

“That’s okay,” I replied, “I like to sing.” I sat up and started tapping a beat on my legs, then sang a song my mother had taught me when I was a little girl. The look of astonishment on Gabrielle’s face made me stop singing.

“What is it?”

Gabrielle dipped her head to hide her amusement.

“I asked you a question,” I said in a slightly impatient tone.

“My Liege, forgive me. I just never expected…what I mean is, I thought that you would…you know, sing something, er…”

“Something what?” I was getting annoyed.

“Um…more sort of…a battle song, perhaps, or something mournful. Not a happy folk tune!”

“Is that how you see me – a dark, sombre, violent person incapable of enjoyment?” Now I had become over-sensitive.

“No, that’s not how I see you at all. You’re beau…uh, you have a beautiful voice. Please sing another song. I promise not to interrupt again.”

I saw the plaintive look in her pale green eyes. How could I stay mad?

“I can dance, if you wish?” she offered.

“Yes,” I said as I felt the anger subside, “I’d like that.”

While I sang and Gabrielle danced, I became aware that we were being watched. When I heard a twig snap, I leapt to my feet, startling Gabrielle. I reached out and put my hand over her mouth to silence her.

“Well, what do we have here?” a rough voice growled from behind me.

“Keep silent, and when I say so, get down as quickly as you can,” I whispered to Gabrielle.

She nodded her understanding before I turned around. As I did so, I noticed two men where I had heard the noise. They were both armed with crossbows and had swords at their waists. As I turned further, I saw the man who had spoken. He stood apart from his cohorts, making it difficult to keep an eye on them all. I took him to be the leader of the trio.

“Is that your horse?” the head ruffian nodded at my mount. He was taller and broader than me. His muscles bulged from his short-sleeved tunic, and the crossbow he held looked like a child’s toy in his large hand.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Not anymore,” he sneered.

Thieves were common across Greece – something I intended to rectify. This small band probably moved onto the peninsula to take advantage of my absence and hadn’t heard that I had returned. Or, if they had, they didn’t recognise me. I was only wearing a simple shirt and leather trousers and wore no emblem. At least I had my weapons with me – my sword and chakram lay on the grass a short distance away.

I knew I could take them, but Gabrielle’s presence made it more difficult than if I had been alone. I needed to put them off guard for a moment.

“I need my horse,” I said. I reached behind me and grabbed Gabrielle’s arm. “But I don’t need my slave. So, you take her and leave me the horse, and we’ll call it even.”

I risked a quick glance at Gabrielle. She knew what I was doing and gave me an imperceptible nod.

The two subordinates looked ready to accept the offer, but their leader wasn’t.

“It’s not negotiable,” he said flatly. “We take your horse. We take your slave. And we take you.”

“And if I refuse?” I replied impassively.

“My finger pulls the trigger.”

I locked my gaze on him, and he locked his gaze on me. He was clever, strong, and cool in a situation. He would’ve made a great commander in my army. It was a shame I had to kill him.

“Then I refuse.” I pushed Gabrielle back behind me and out of the way.

The first crossbow bolt whistled over the top of my head as I dived for my weapons. The second bolt ricocheted off my sword as I lifted it in front of my face. The third bolt, fired by the leader, grazed the right side of my body as I stood up. If I hadn’t moved, the bolt would’ve struck my neck. All this happened in the blink of an eye.

As I gained my feet, I heard a splash. Gabrielle hit the water from the force of my push. I could do nothing to help her other than hope she was alright – and smart enough to stay put.

A feral grin spread across my face as I twirled my sword and faced the leader. My left hand shot out, hurling my chakram at his subordinates. There was a brief clatter and a couple of cries that were cut short, and then the chakram was back in my hand.

The head bandit glanced over at his dead followers and then drew his sword. “Come on then,” he growled.

I let loose with my war cry and sprang into the air. He met me halfway and our swords clashed. We landed and turned to face one another. I started circling slowly and he did likewise.

“You’re good,” I told him. “So good, that I’d hate to kill you without knowing your name.”

“I was just thinking the same,” he said, and launched an attack. His attack was designed to work my injured side, which told me he knew what to do in a fight. I guessed that he was an ex-mercenary who had found crime paid more than war. I eventually forced him to back off.

“I’ve decided I don’t need to know your name to kill you. Besides, I wouldn’t have heard of you anyway,” I goaded.

“Ha! Brave words, but no one has bested the Great Palaemon and lived to brag.”

He attacked once more. I deflected the blow with my chakram and followed through with my sword. Palaemon brought his sword down quickly to block and almost wrenched mine from my grasp. He followed the block with a kick to my wound. I gritted my teeth and stepped back. This was going to be tougher than I thought.

As the fight continued, the advantage was slightly in his favour. It was time to turn things around. At this point, Gabrielle was just climbing from the water. I allowed myself a quick glance to see if she was okay. My opponent noticed my distraction, pulled out a knife, and threw it at Gabrielle.

“Down!” I cried out. Gabrielle reacted immediately to my command and dived back into the water just as my chakram intercepted the knife above her head.

Now that my assailant was distracted, I launched my attack. Sparks flew from our swords as he blocked my first swipe. Palaemon was not prepared for my foot to connect with his groin. I jumped and twisted, and landed another kick to the side of his head as he doubled over. Palaemon hit the ground hard. With the wind knocked out of him, his sword flew out of his hand.

I pressed the tip of my sword to his throat. “I want you to know my name before you die. My name is Xena the Conqueror, Empress of the Greek Empire.”

Palaemon’s eyes went wide with horror and his pallor turned a ghostly grey.

“Tell your cohorts you were sent to Tartarus for being stupid!” With that, I drew back my sword and brought it straight across his neck, nearly severing his head.

Gabrielle climbed from the water a second time. “Hey,” I called softly to distract her.

“Sorry about dumping you in the water.” I offered her my hand and helped her out. She stared in mild shock at the body of the former “Great Palaemon.”

“Don’t look at him,” I whispered as I gently directed her head toward me. “Go to the horse.”

Gabrielle ignored my order and continued to look up at me. “You saved my life.”

“You’re a good assistant, I wouldn’t want to lose you,” I joked.

“Thank you,” she said quietly, still holding my gaze.

Caught up in the moment, I started to lean down, intending to kiss her.

“You’re hurt!” she cried as she noticed the blood staining my shirt. “Here, let me help you.”

The moment passed.

“It’s just a scratch. I’ll be fine. Go to the horse and wait for me.”

Gabrielle reluctantly obeyed. I bent down to retrieve my weapons and wipe the blood and bits of flesh off. I felt a bit faint. It was then I realised my wound was more than just a scratch. I told myself that I’d had worse and made my way back to the horse.

“Please, My Liege, let me dress that wound,” she begged. I nodded my assent.

“I have some dressings in the saddle bag.” I opened a flap and pulled out a cloak. “Put this on, Gabrielle. You shouldn’t stand around in wet clothes. Not even on a warm day like this.”

She took the cloak. “I should treat your injury first.”

“I’m not going to bleed to death in the time it takes you to put it on.”

“And I’m not going to catch a chill in the time it takes me to treat you.”

“It seems we’re both going to die before you let good sense override your stubbornness,” I said.

“I was thinking exactly the same thing, My Liege.”

I gritted my teeth as the pain flared. I grumbled under my breath and begrudgingly handed Gabrielle the medicine bag. She worked quickly and gently to clean and dress the wound.

“There. That should slow the bleeding. But you better let your healer look at that when you get back.”

“I will. Now will you get out of those wet clothes, please?”

“Yes, My Liege.”

We both chuckled knowing Gabrielle had won that battle.

~~~~~

My healer looked at the wound and declared that I would live, though he suggested I avoid weapons practise for a few days. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was given a dose of medicine and sent straight to a warm bed with instructions not to leave it until the following morning.

“I’m fine,” she protested as I escorted her to her chambers.

“Healer’s orders come second only to mine,” I said, “and I’m backing his orders on this one.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she sulked.

I helped her to the bed and made her comfortable. She was already sniffling and sneezing. I had a servant bring a bowl of hot broth and stayed while she drank it down. When she had finished, I took the bowl from her. My hand brushed against hers. It sent a shiver through my body and made me forget the ache in my side for a moment.

“Gabrielle, you put my well-being before your own today. I won’t forget that. Thank you.” My praise raised a smile and a blush from her.

“It’s my duty, My Liege,” she finally said.

“There’s duty, and then there’s duty.”

“My Liege?”

“The soldiers in my army perform their duty for pay, as do my servants. They do their best because they fear my wrath. I’m sure that if given the chance, they would let me bleed to death and save themselves. But not you, Gabrielle. You tended me first, because you believe in your duty.”

“Your need was greater than my own,” she explained. “Besides, it wasn’t that serious.”

“It’s only a matter of scale,” I said. “You would put others first in any situation.”

“It’s all about the greater good,” she spoke with a distant tone to her voice. “You can do so much more than me. If I can help you in any way, I will, even if it means sacrificing myself.”

I was in awe at how truly selfless Gabrielle was, but I suddenly felt an inexplicable sense of foreboding. I knew she would make any sacrifice for the greater good, and I silently vowed never to let that happen, because she was too important to me. Greater good be damned.

~~~~~

With Gabrielle ensconced in her bed, I returned to my own quarters. Just as I sat down, there was a knock at the door.

“Come.”

Lieutenant Galates entered and saluted.

“What is it, Lieutenant?”

“I have some reports, Your Highness.” He held out a small bag bulging with scrolls.

“Bring them over,” I beckoned him. He did as ordered and I relieved him of his burden. He saluted once more and turned to leave.

“Wait a minute!”

“My Liege?” He halted and turned around.

“Gabrielle has been sent to bed under the healer’s instruction.”

“Is it serious?” The concern in his voice was evident.

“No, merely a precaution. She could do with some company, I suspect. Why don’t you stop by and see her?”

“I don’t get off duty until midnight, My Liege.”

“Consider it a direct order from me.” I smiled at him. He hesitated, unsure if I was being serious. “I could order someone else,” I continued, “but I trust her to be safe in your company.”

“Yes, Your Highness.” His face became pensive at my insinuation, and I sensed he wanted to say something.

“If you wish to say something, Lieutenant, you have my permission to speak freely.”

He swallowed hard. He knew what a rare privilege he had been granted. He also knew it was not a complete guarantee of safety if he should say something to upset me.

“I…Gabrielle and I are just friends, My Liege.”

“I know that.”

“We…I look on her as a sister.”

“You mean she wants you to look on her as a sister?”

“Yes, My Liege.” He sounded a little disappointed.

“And you respect her choice in the matter?”

“Of course.” Galates sounded offended that I should doubt his honour.

“Then you truly are a good friend to her, Lieutenant, and she deserves good friends. You’ve also proved to me that you’re a man of honour, courage, and honesty. I know I can trust you to never let me down.”

“My sword and my life are yours to command, My Liege.”

“Then I command you to go and cheer up Gabrielle.” I gave him a sly smile.

“Yes, Your Highness.” Galates’ saluted with a new sense of pride and his feet barely touched the floor as he marched out.

~~~~~

The next day, I sat in my war room with Darnell discussing Palaemon’s attack. We argued over what measure to take to capture and arrest any other marauders within a day’s ride of Corinth. Having been given permission by the healer to return to her duties, Gabrielle was seated at a desk in the corner of the room taking notes and trying not to sniffle too loudly.

“You’ll always have lawbreakers and raiders,” Darnell said. “It’s impossible to ferret out every would-be criminal. Swift and harsh punishment will act as a deterrent for all but the very lawless.”

“I agree,” I replied, “but I cannot allow thugs like Palaemon and his friends to prey on the citizens of my empire. Random, unprovoked raids will give the villagers an incentive to turn in these criminals before they commit crimes.”

“It’s a waste of manpower,” Darnell protested.

“It’s my manpower to waste,” I reminded him.

“But it will alienate the villagers.”

“If the job is done correctly, they’ll be all too happy to cooperate.” I raised my voice.

Darnell didn’t reply, but the vein bulging from his neck told me he was having trouble keeping his own anger in check.

“Being tough with those you catch is one thing, but if you don’t have anyone to catch, how will you let the raiders know you mean business?” I asked.

“But how does turning neighbour against neighbour accomplish that? Next thing you know, you’ll be ordering random executions,” he said sarcastically.

“Hmm, that’s not a bad idea,” I retorted.

I heard a very quiet gasp from Gabrielle.

“It was a joke,” I explained to her.

She almost said something, but thought better of it.

Darnell sneered at my assistant for her misunderstanding. I wanted to smack that sneer off his face.

“Very well, Darnell. Have Darphus send out spies to gather intelligence. We’ll conduct pinpoint raids at any locations where these marauders are located. Once we have the problem of raiders under control in Corinth, I will want expand it to the entire empire.”

Darnell nodded once.

“Gabrielle…”

“Yes, My Liege.”

“Draft a notice, to be posted throughout the empire, instructing citizens to be on the look out for marauders and to report them to their local garrison commander.”

“Yes, My Liege,” she replied.

“Oh, and include that a reward is being offered for information resulting in their capture,” I added. “Fifty… no, make it a hundred… no, leave it at fifty dinars.”

“As you wish, My Liege.”

“Good idea, Your Highness,” said Darnell.

I smiled to let him know his sycophantic compliment was noted, if not appreciated.

“Have Darphus report his progress to me tomorrow.”

“My Liege.” Darnell stood up, saluted, and left.

I looked over at Gabrielle, who was busy writing in a scroll. She was sitting in a shaft of sunlight coming through the window. It caught the dust floating in the air about her, making her seem as if she was separate from the rest of the room. It made a wonderful sight and I couldn’t help but stare. Gabrielle must have sensed me watching and looked up with a questioning expression.

I felt compelled to offer some sort of explanation as to why I was staring, but what could I say? Instead, I said the first thing that popped into my head. “You wanted to say something about my joke?”

She looked back down at the scroll and scowled. “It wasn’t very funny.”

“I’ll try harder next time,” I replied with a smirk. “Can I leave you to finish the notice?”

Gabrielle nodded and returned to her writing. I stood up and walked towards the door.

I was almost out of the door when she spoke. “Thank you for sending Lieutenant Galates to keep me company last night.”

I stopped and turned to face her. “He wanted to do it.”

“Yes, but it was your idea. Thank you, Highness,” she said warmly.

“It was my pleasure,” I replied softly, and then walked out of the room, leaving her to her work.

 

Chapter 7

 

From the moment we arrived in Corinth, Xena threw herself into the task of governing her new empire, and since I was the Empress’ assistant, that meant I was very busy. Yet, despite being busy, my job had become routine. I had started to feel restless. I knew I was meant to do more, to be more than just Xena’s assistant.

I kept thinking back to what the travelling seer had told me about my fate: that I’d meet a mighty warrior, and I would help this warrior change the world. Well, I met a mighty warrior, Xena, but my world had changed very little. I took notes in advisory council meetings, organised her correspondence, arranged her schedule, and ran errands. I no longer had to tidy up her quarters or bring her meals; she had a palace full of servants to do that for her. It wasn’t until my relationship with Xena changed from professional to personal that my world changed.

Gone were the days when I waited in camp while the Conqueror was off leading her army into battle; after Xena became Empress, she and I spent much of our day together, officially as well as socially. Once a week she would invite me to spend the day with her. Sometimes we’d go for a ride into the countryside just to sit in a field, eat some lunch, and escape the problems in the city. If it was raining, we’d go to the library and hunt through the scrolls, or I would read one of my stories for her.

One day, near mid-summer, we travelled along the coast with the intention of staying out overnight. The air was still and oppressively hot, like standing in front of a blacksmith’s forge. There wasn’t even a cool breeze off the sea to alleviate the heat.

Xena seemed unaffected by the temperature, and we’d been on the move without a break for quite a while. As she strolled along the road leading her horse, my efforts to keep up with her long strides were making me tired and thirsty. I felt as though I was going to pass out if I took another step. I stopped and leaned against a tree just to rest for a moment and catch my breath.

“Here, have a drink.”

I turned to see the Empress offering me her waterskin.

“Thank you, but I have my own. You need yours for yourself.”

“One mouthful won’t hurt. Besides, we should reach the river before I run out.”

I gratefully accepted the waterskin. The water was warm and did nothing to cool me, but it was wet and very welcomed. I handed the waterskin back to the Empress with my thanks.

With a fluid movement, Xena leapt up into the saddle, reached down, and grabbed my arm. Before I had time to react, I was hoisted into the air and deposited into the saddle behind her. She kicked the horse into a trot and we resumed our progress along the road.

Riding did nothing to alleviate my discomfort from the glaring sun. I squirmed as beads of sweat trickled down my back. Eventually, with the sun’s brightness and the horse’s steady gait, I surrendered to fatigue, closed my eyes, and drifted off to sleep.

~~~~~

I woke with a jerk. Overhead, the sky was darkening and a few stars were just visible. The smell of sweet blossoms was carried on a cool breeze. How did I get here? Where was here?

“Hungry?”

I jumped at the voice, and turned to see the Empress crouched down by my side offering me a plate of bread and cold meat.

“Oh, Your Highness,” I cried as I tried jumping to my feet, “please forgive me. I must’ve fallen–”

“Easy,” Xena restrained me with a strong hand on my shoulder, “it’s okay.”

“I–”

“Shush!” she commanded.

I obeyed.

She handed me the plate and laid out her sleeping roll nearby. I looked down and saw that I was already lying on mine.

“You fell asleep behind me,” she explained. “You didn’t wake when we stopped, so I laid you down on your bedroll.”

I felt a sudden pang of arousal at the image of her carrying me in her strong arms and gently laying me down. “Uh…thank you, My Liege,” I finally replied, hoping she didn’t see the blush that erupted on my cheeks.

The Empress shrugged. “No trouble, but if you fall asleep while riding tomorrow, try not to drool on my back,” she warned me with a chuckle.

“Yes, My Liege. I mean, no, My Liege. I–”

“I know what you meant.” She smiled. “Next time, don’t wait so long to tell me if you’re tired.”

She started a small fire and settled down to sharpen her sword.

I listened to the rhythmic strokes of the whetstone and the gentle crackle of dry wood burning. As I did, I imagined the two of us as good friends, camping beneath the stars, travelling the world together and fighting for the greater good.

“Xena, I–”

It wasn’t until the sound of stone on metal abruptly stopped that I realised what I had just said. I had often thought of her as Xena, but this was the first time I had spoken her name aloud.

I could see a dark look settling over her face as she sat frozen in her actions.

“Don’t ever forget who I am,” she growled. “I’ve put up with a lot of lapses in protocol from you, but gods be damned, I won’t tolerate such familiarity from a subordinate. Do you understand?”

“I’m very sorry, My Liege. It won’t happen again.” I felt awful. She had shown me kindness and I had allowed myself to forget my position. Sometimes it was hard to remember that she was the Empress of Greece when we were alone.

After a moment she returned to sharpening her weapon. I stared down at the plate of food she had prepared for me. Suddenly I didn’t feel too hungry and put the plate aside.

I lay down and closed my eyes hoping to sleep, but I wasn’t tired. I was haunted by the scrape of stone on steel and the crackling of the fire: the very noises that led to my blunder.

Mercifully, the scraping stopped, after what seemed an eternity though could have been mere moments.

“Gabrielle,” she said in a quiet voice, “I… I’m sorry I snapped at you.”

I opened my eyes and looked at her. It was the first time I had heard her openly apologise. Xena had her back toward me, so I couldn’t see her face, but I saw her shoulders raise and lower with a heavy sigh.

“You see, for so long I’ve kept people at arm’s length. Since it’s hard to know whom to trust, it was easier not to let anyone get too close. You’re different, Gabrielle. I can’t explain why really, but I feel we’re somehow…don’t know…connected.” She turned around to face me. “You’re much more to me than just an assistant, Gabrielle. I–” She lowered her eyes and twirled her sword in the dirt. “I consider you a friend.”

“Thank you, My Liege. I feel the same way about you…uh, a friend I mean.”

She looked up at me again. “You may call me ‘Xena’ when we’re in private.”

“Yes, My Liege,” I replied diplomatically, still unsure after her reprimand.

A coy smile formed on her lips. “I guess this could be considered private, don’t you?”

“Yes, my Li–”

She raised a finger to silence me.

“Yes, Xena,” I said with a smile.

Xena. It felt so right to say it. Just as it felt so right when she said my name.

~~~~~

Being Xena’s friend wasn’t easy. Friendship required mutual respect and an understanding between equals, but the ruler of an empire had no equal. In private, she allowed me a semblance of equality, but in public I was still just her assistant and a subject, and certainly not her equal.

This was never made clearer than the day she discovered not everyone in her empire saw her as a noble and munificent ruler.

The Empress was not in the best of moods that morning. When I first saw her, she was skulking along the corridor near her study, brooding about something.

“Gabrielle! Come with me!” she snapped.

I hurried to catch up and follow her. “What’s wrong, My Liege?” I did my best to keep up as she thundered down the stairs that led from the royal apartments on the second floor to the first floor of the palace.

“Dissidents!” she hissed, thrusting a parchment at me.

As we crossed the centre courtyard, I unrolled the parchment. On it was a crudely drawn caricature of the Empress, wearing only a neck collar, copulating doggy style with Ares, the God of War. The caption read “Ares’ Bitch”. It was unflattering, but hardly the work of dissidents, I thought.

“I’ve been hearing rumours about a group that’s been spreading this sort of centaur dung,” she continued. “They think they can do a better job of ruling the empire than me. Ha! They’re lucky this isn’t Rome!” She was furious and getting angrier by the minute.

We left the palace through the hall and went out into the southern courtyard. A company of palace guards, under the command of Lieutenant Darphus, was assembled in front of the stables.

“I’m going to put a stop to them. I’m going to wipe out any dissenting voice in my empire,” Xena growled as we crossed to Darphus and the soldiers.

“Attention!” Darphus barked as the Empress approached him.

The soldiers neatly obeyed the command.

“I want the perpetrators of this treason found and crucified by tomorrow morning.” She snatched the scroll from me and threw it at Darphus.

The lieutenant caught the scroll.

“It shall be done, My Liege,” he replied, without looking at the contents of the parchment.

“Also, anyone found in possession of any material speaking out against me, I want crucified.”

“Yes, My Liege.”

“And Darphus, if you can’t find the perpetrators, start random executions until the culprits come forward.”

“You can’t do that,” I protested, “not over a harmless pict–”

My words were cut short when Xena backhanded me across the face.

“Don’t ever contradict me again!” she roared. Her eyes were seething with rage.

I dipped my head and struggled to maintain my composure as tears welled up. I knew that the Empress despised weakness, and strangely enough, it still mattered what she thought of me.

“Forgive me, Highness.”

“Leave my sight. Now!”

“By your leave, Empress.” I bowed and with as much dignity as I could muster, turned and walked back into the palace.

Once inside, I ran through the centre courtyard gardens to my favourite spot, the carp pond. I often went to that tranquil spot to sit and think, or write. I reached into the pond and scooped up some water to soothe the spot where Xena had struck me.

The coolness of the water felt good against my burning cheek, but it didn’t stop me feeling sick to my stomach. She had slapped me with enough force to nearly knock me to the ground, but the pain in my cheek was nothing compared to the ache I felt inside – convinced that it was the end of our friendship. I couldn’t hold back the tears or the nausea any longer.

I heard footsteps approaching as I wiped away the last of the tears and vomit. By the familiar sound of boots on stone, I knew it was the Empress. She knelt down and took my hand in hers. From the regretful look on her face, I could tell she had come to apologise. But she had humiliated me in public, and I childishly snatched my hand away.

“I’m so sorry, Gabrielle.”

My initial shame had long since turned to indignation. I should have known better than to speak out in public, but she should have shown some restraint in reprimanding me. Xena may rule an empire, but that gave her no excuse for striking me so viciously, and in public.

“And I’m sorry that I contradicted you in public,” I said softly. I continued in a firmer tone, “But that will be the last time you ever hit me, Xena.”

“I didn’t mean to hit you. I just reacted to the words, not the person speaking. I wasn’t thinking.” Her voice sounded ragged, as though she was on the edge of losing control.

“No, you weren’t,” I snapped. “You’ve isolated yourself for so long that you’re incapable of behaving like anything other than the Conqueror. I can’t be your friend in private if you insist on treating me no better than a dog when we’re in public. Where’s your compassion?”

“It’s not about compassion,” Xena answered brusquely, “it’s about control. Show weakness in front of others, for even one moment, and someone will try to take advantage.”

“Showing compassion is not a sign of weakness,” I replied.

“It is to me. I have to maintain control,” she said, softening her former brusque tone but without losing her authoritative edge.

“I don’t care about your control, or your power,” I asserted, “I care about you, Xena. I spoke out for that reason. I don’t want people to hate you. I want them to see you as I do. If you persist in this act of being ruthless and unfeeling, then you’re going to have to hit me again, because I will speak out again.”

“It’s who I am,” she declared.

“No! It’s who you choose to be. There’s a difference.” I paused to tone down my frustration, and then looking directly into her steely-blue eyes, I continued, “I know you can be warm and kind, because you’re that way with me when we’re alone. You don’t need to be cold and hateful in public to be an effective ruler.”

I watched her expression change as she absorbed my words: at first bewildered; then conflicted. I knew our friendship meant a lot to her, but the public façade of the Conqueror was important to her, too.

“There’s nothing stopping you keeping control, only your insecurity,” I said. “I admit I was wrong to speak out today and I could’ve made my point more diplomatically, but I didn’t deserve to be treated like a slave. I won’t let you treat me like that again. Not if you want my friendship.” I took a deep breath, “I’d rather leave.”

“No, Gabrielle, please.” She grabbed my arm. “You can’t, I need you. I-you’re a good friend, Gabrielle – a very special person in my life, and I don’t want to lose you.” The expression on her face was heartbreaking.

“You can disagree with me. You can ignore my advice. You can even shout and scream at me, but if you ever hit me again, I’ll–”

“I won’t, I promise!”

“Don’t!” I snapped. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” The anger in me finally receded and I softened my tone, “all I ask is that you consider what I’ve said.”

“I will. What can I do to make up for this? Name it. Anything.”

“You can rescind your order about crucifying the dissidents,” I suggested.

The Empress hung her head. “Anything else, but not that.” She lifted her eyes to look at me. “You understand I can’t back down on that order, don’t you?”

I had expected that response. A part of me was pleased about that. I never wanted Xena to be an ineffectual ruler, and I recognised her need to deliver justice in her own way.

“I’ll reconsider the order of the random executions,” Xena continued, “I’ll just use that as a threat to get the dissidents. I promise I won’t have any innocent people killed.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” My frustration flared again. “Those sorts of threats are the very reason why the dissidents exist.”

“Okay, okay. I won’t even threaten to have innocent people hurt. But I won’t tolerate threats to my power. I’m going to make an example of any dissident I find.”

“You know, you’ll get an ass to pull your goods to market faster with a carrot than with a whip,” I replied.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“It means, executing the dissidents isn’t going to solve the problem, it’s only going make the problem worse. On the other hand, if you listen to their grievances and show them mercy, they’ll carry the message back to their comrades that you are a wise and just ruler – a champion of the people.”

“Perhaps in an ideal world that might work. But in this reality, it takes a strong and powerful ruler to build a better world.”

I nodded wearily. “There is something else you can do to make it up to me.”

“What’s that?” She reached out and gently touched my bruised cheek.

I winced and pulled away slightly – my cheek and my pride still hurt a little. “You said you couldn’t show compassion, then allow me to show it for you. Let me be the voice of your conscience. That way you can maintain your ‘Conqueror’ image, if it means so much to you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I want a job where advising you isn’t out of line, a job with more responsibilities. I want to be able to advise you in front of people without seeming to undermine your authority. You’ve asked for my advice in private and I’ve offered it, and I’ve disagreed with you in private and you’ve accepted it. To me, that sounds more like an advisor than a personal assistant. Don’t you think?”

Xena didn’t respond right away, which I took as a good sign. “Alright,” she nodded thoughtfully, “I’ll make you my Advisor for Civilian Affairs. But, I still expect you to ‘assist me’ with your company and your friendship.”

I realised how significant a promotion this was. It put me on equal footing with the Empress’ other chief advisors, like General Darnell. However, more important than the job to me was Xena telling me I was a special person in her life. That meant our friendship was genuine, and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders.

~~~~~

My reception on my first day as Advisor for Civilian Affairs was only marginally better than the reception I got as the Conqueror’s new personal assistant. There were no lewd comments this time, but it was not greeted with enthusiasm – especially not by Darnell.

“What exactly is her authority?” he asked the Empress forcefully.

“Seeing that the people are pacified, and whatever else I decide.” She fixed a challenging stare at him and he backed down. “It leaves you and me free to concentrate on more important things.”

Though her final words may have sounded as if they were belittling my new position, I knew she was only saying it to placate Darnell. The general was very possessive of his position in Xena’s court. He seemed to take the idea of the Empress seeking advice elsewhere as a personal affront.

“My job is only to advise Empress Xena on what I think is best for her people. As you know, she is free to disregard my advice at her will.” I said. I wanted to put his mind at rest – to point out that my advice might not always be heeded, and that he shouldn’t feel threatened. I then realised I had been witness to his advice being dismissed. I hoped he hadn’t taken my comment as an insult.

Darnell kept silent, but I could see by his clenched jaw that he had taken my words the wrong way.

“Let’s get down to business,” said Xena, destroying the uneasy silence that was building. “Have the dissidents been caught yet?”

Darnell swallowed hard. Even I could tell what his answer would be.

“Any leads at all?” growled the Empress, before Darnell spoke.

“None,” the General answered. “Shall I have Darphus start rounding–”

“No,” Xena cut him off, giving me an embarrassed look, “keep looking.”

“As you wish, Your Highness.” He relaxed once he knew Xena was not angry with him for lack of results. But at the same time, he looked disappointed.

After the Empress had dismissed her council of advisors, Darnell cornered me in a corridor.

“This is the real world, little girl, not a game. Be careful,” he whispered menacingly. Then he strode off.

If his intention was to threaten me, it failed. I had no wish to make an enemy of General Darnell, but he and I both knew that the Empress would hurt him if he ever threatened me. I took his little show as nothing more than an expression of his insecurity. However, the one thing that did bother me was calling me a “little girl”. On the wall opposite me was a brightly polished shield, and I studied my reflection in it. I could see his point. I didn’t look that old. If I wanted to be taken seriously, then an image change was necessary.

~~~~~

Xena opened the door to her study and blinked at me in surprise. “What? You–”

I allowed myself a smile of satisfaction as I walked past her. She closed the door and stood there staring at me. It wasn’t often the Empress was left open-mouthed and speechless.

“Gabrielle! Why?”

“Do you like it?” I touched the back of my head where my long hair had been cut short.

She walked around me, examining me from every angle, before passing judgement. “Yes,” she said quietly and nodded. “Yes. It suits you. But why?”

I wondered about telling her the truth. If she knew it was a reaction to Darnell’s comments, it would’ve led to unnecessary trouble. “I think it looks more professional,” I said.

Xena laughed softly and reached out to ruffle my newly shorn locks. “Well, it’s too late to change it,” she observed. “C’mon, let’s eat.”

We sat down, but hadn’t even begun to eat when we were disturbed by a knock. A soldier saluted when Xena opened the door.

“General Darnell sent me to inform you the dissidents have been captured.”

“Where are they?”

“In the main square. They’re waiting for you to witness the executions.”

Xena glanced in my direction, and then turned back to the soldier. “I’ll be there right away. Dismissed.”

The soldier saluted and hurried away.

“Come with me, Gabrielle.”

My heart started pounding hard. “No. I can’t… if you’re going to execute them, I don’t want to watch.”

She looked at me with a neutral expression. “You’re my Advisor for Civilian Affairs. And this is a civilian affair.”

“Yes, but–”

“You wanted responsibility, Gabrielle. Take it. In this job, you can’t just deal with the things you like.”

I nodded half-heartedly and trailed behind her.

A chariot was waiting in the courtyard for us. Xena jumped in and looked back at me. She had a gentle, thoughtful look on her face, hardly the look of someone going to witness an execution. She took the reins and offered me a hand up. I quickly climbed in next to her. As the chariot moved off, a heavy feeling settled in my stomach. I couldn’t have felt worse if I was on my way to my own execution. By contrast, Xena seemed almost unnaturally calm.

We rode out of the gates of the palace, down the hill, and into the city agora. Xena placed her hand on my forearm – she knew I didn’t want to be there. I glanced up at her, and she gave my arm a gentle squeeze and winked.

We rode in silence through the streets and before too long we arrived at the main square. The soldiers gathered there snapped to attention at a barked command from Lieutenant Darphus. Xena brought the chariot to stop before slowly climbing out. A hush descended among the crowd. I waited for Xena to move away before I got out and reluctantly followed her.

The late evening sun had dipped below the buildings, casting the square in cool shadows. Three prisoners were being held near three newly erected crosses in front of an anxious crowd. Darphus beamed proudly as he watched the Empress walk towards the dissidents. I walked a couple of yards behind Xena, hoping that this would be over quickly. Darnell was also present. He stood in front of the prisoners until the Empress neared, at which point he stepped aside.

“It seems you have a problem with the way I run my empire,” she addressed all three.

“Rot in Tartarus, bitch,” spat one of the prisoners. He was a stocky man with unkempt, shoulder length red hair. His partners in crime were identical twins, tall and wiry with curly black hair.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” Xena said with amusement. “You three have the honour of being the first to face the judgement of my new Advisor for Civilian Affairs.”

I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I couldn’t believe Xena would do such a thing without telling me beforehand. By the expression on General Darnell’s face, he was as stunned as I was.

She turned and walked towards me, a gentle smile curling her lips. “Do what you think is best,” she whispered to me as she stopped by my side.

I thought I detected a subtle emphasis on the word “you”. Would she really accept my judgement if I let them go? I wondered.
“Go on,” she encouraged me gently, “you can do it.”

I stepped forward to the prisoner who had cursed Xena. He gave me a disgusted look.

“Did she give you that bruise?” he asked.

My hand went to my face where Xena had hit me. “It was a misunderstanding on my part,” I replied.

“She beats you and you defend her. What chance do we have? You may as well crucify us now.”

“What’s your name?” I asked him.

He studied me for a few moments. I half expected Xena to interrupt and tell him to answer me, but she kept out of it, allowing me to do this my own way.

“Larrius,” he said eventually.

I looked to Darphus. “Is there any evidence linking Larrius to the…‘material’?”

“Yes,” Darphus said with a smirk. He handed me a scroll that contained another picture: the Empress seated on her throne eating a sumptuous meal while starving people ate discarded scraps at her feet.

“Did you draw this?” I asked Larrius.

He turned to look at his two companions before answering. “Yes.”

“Why?”

He blinked in surprise, not expecting such a question. “Because the people deserve to know the truth.”

“And what is the truth?”

He nodded his head at the picture. “That is.”

“So, you’re saying that the people are starving?”

“Yes.”

“And how long have they been starving?” I countered immediately.

“What?” His green eyes narrowed in suspicion at my question. He looked as though he didn’t like the direction the discussion was going,

“People have been starving for generations,” I explained, “it’s a fact of life – not Empress Xena’s fault.”

“But she’s not doing anything to stop it,” Larrius persisted.

“And how does drawing these pictures help? Have you given the starving any money or food? Have you tried to help them find work so they can buy food for themselves?” I felt angry, but kept my voice calm.

Shamefacedly, the dissident leader avoided my questions.

“No, I didn’t think you had. Do you really want to help the poor, or are you merely stirring up trouble out of boredom?”

I must’ve hit a nerve, because Larrius became emboldened once again. “She promised us peace and prosperity,” the prisoner pointed a finger at the Empress, his shackles clanking as he did, “but where is this prosperity? Instead of helping to rebuild villages and farms laid waste by warlords in advance of the Conqueror’s army, she’s building armies, palaces, and temples to Ares. She’s no better than the tyrants she overthrew.”

“Okay, you’ve convinced me you care about the people. You risked execution for them. But you are wrong about the Empress. She cares enough about her people to create the post of a civilian affairs advisor. So if you have a grievance, bring it to me and I’ll see what I can do to help.”

Larrius’ face went from defiant to pensive.

“Do you have anything else to say in your defence?” I waited for a response, but he merely lowered his eyes and said nothing. His two associates stood mutely a few paces behind him.

I took a deep breath and remembered Xena’s words: do what I thought was best. “This is what’s going to happen. The three of you are going to spend twenty-eight days in the dungeon as punishment for spreading seditious lies and pictures of Empress Xena. I suggest you use that time thinking of more constructive ways to help the poor. When you complete your prison sentence, you are to have three proposals for improving the condition of our poorest citizens. Then your next twenty-eight days will be spent implementing your plans.”

“Take them away!” the Empress ordered.

Darphus order his men to lead Larrius and his companions away. General Darnell gestured to the officer in charge of the execution detail, who in turn ordered the crowd dispersed.

After giving me an incredulous sneer, Darnell turned to face the Empress. “May I speak to you, in private, Your Highness?”

“You may speak freely in front of Advisor Gabrielle, Darnell.”

I noticed the use of a title with my name, and not with his, rankled Darnell. It surprised me that Xena belittled him so readily, and I wondered whether it was a good idea to antagonise him. But Xena had known him for years and he was loyal to her.

“Very well. I fail to understand your decision to allow this, this…” Darnell groped for a word while he raised his hand in my direction. It appeared he thought better of it, when the Empress squared her shoulders and gave him a threatening look. He continued with barely disguised contempt, “…these traitors to escape execution, and give them what amounts to a slap on the wrist. Mark my words, Highness, this course of action will only encourage the dissidents, not deter them. And Rome will take this as a sign of weakness.”

Xena’s face remained impassive; however, her eyes grew cold at the word “weakness.”

“I appreciate your advice, General, and your efforts to find and arrest these malcontents. I assure you I have not gone soft. I have learned that sometimes you’ll get an ass to pull your goods to market faster with a carrot than with a whip.”

Darnell looked confused at Xena’s words. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, then finally gave up trying to think of a reply.

“Now, if you will excuse us, General, I need to speak to my Advisor for Civilian Affairs.”

Darnell snapped to attention and bowed, “Your Highness.” He did an about face and left.

I waited until the general was well out of earshot and Xena and I were alone, before I spoke. “Xena, I’m sorry if I put you in an awkward position. I wasn’t prepared and I–”

“No, it’s fine, Gabrielle. You handled that very well.”

“Even though I didn’t have them crucified?”

“It was your decision to make. Whether I agree with it or not, you still did a very good job.”

“General Darnell didn’t seem to think so. Maybe he’s right. Maybe this will just encourage the dissidents to become bolder. What if I made a huge mistake?”

“Never underestimate yourself, Gabrielle. You have good instincts – never doubt them. A word of advice though, you are now in a position of authority. Be confident in the decisions you make and the actions you take. Never let yourself be seen as indecisive. You can’t afford to show any weakness.”

From that pearl of wisdom, I better understood why Xena appeared so inflexible at times. And from my first official act as the Empress’ civilian affairs advisor, I learned that I better heed her advice. I couldn’t afford to appear weak or indecisive when dealing with dissidents – or Darnell.

“May I ask you something?”

“Sure, what is it?”

“Did you use that analogy about ‘the ass and the carrot’ just to cover for me with General Darnell, or do you really feel that way?”

“Well, let’s just say that I’m willing to concede there may be times when it is better to use a carrot than a cross.” Xena flashed a wry smile.

“In any case, if my idea doesn’t work, I can still have them crucified,” I said in all seriousness.

“That’s a joke…right?”

“What do you think?” It was my turn to flash her a wry smile.

Her face lit up in a smile, then returned to a more serious expression. “Gabrielle, there might be times when decisions either of us make bring us into conflict.” She raised a hand and gently squeezed my shoulder. “I want you to know now that whatever professional disagreements we may have, it won’t affect our personal rela…” Xena paused and cleared her throat, “I mean we’ll still be friends.”

I looked up into soft blue eyes and said, “of course we’ll be friends – that will never change.”

I truly believed that. No matter what the Fates threw at us, we would always be friends.

 

Chapter 8

 

Within a few months of conquering Greece, I had a government in place and capable men like Braextus to oversee the provinces. General Darnell supervised the establishment of garrison cities to defend the borders and keep the peace. And I was presented with a rather unorthodox solution to the dissident problem: Gabrielle became my Advisor for Civilian Affairs. I was not proud of the circumstances under which I promoted Gabrielle; however, I was glad I did. Despite the misgivings of Darnell and others, my former assistant proved that she was up to the challenge. So, with the day-to-day affairs of government running smoothly, the borders well defended, and the citizenry pacified, I began to focus on plans for expanding my empire beyond the borders of Greece.

The Romans had carved out a large empire that stretched from Gaul in the west to the borders of my empire in the east. I knew it was just a matter of time before the Romans viewed me as a threat and waged war on Greece. My aim, therefore, was to conquer them first, but until my army was ready to face-off against Roman Legions on the battlefield, I would have to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with their Triumvirate and its leader, Julius Caesar.

Caesar was an ambitious man, and like me, he believed it was his destiny to rule the greatest empire the world had ever known. Since the world wasn’t big enough for the two of us, I was going to make damn sure it was my destiny that would be fulfilled – though destiny, it seemed, was subject to Fate’s own cosmic timetable.

It had barely been a week since Gabrielle’s promotion, when I awoke to a pounding on my bedchamber door. The guards knew better than to wake me in the middle of the night without a good reason, so I knew it had to be important.

“What is it?” I called as I slipped out of bed and picked up a robe.

“My Liege, a messenger has just arrived,” came the voice of the night watch commander. “The scroll is sealed with your imperial mark.”

“Have him brought to me immediately,” I answered back.

I put on the robe and splashed some water on my face to freshen up. A few minutes later there was another knock on my door.

“Come.”

The night watch commander entered my chambers and saluted. “Your Highness, the messenger awaits you in your study.”

“Very good, Lieutenant. I will be there presently.”

The messenger stood awestruck as I entered the room. The two guards who had escorted him snapped to attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the guards poke the courier in the ribs and gesture for him to bow. Ignoring everyone, I picked up the scroll from where it lay on the table to examine the seal.

“Who gave you this?” I barked at the messenger.

“A-another courier, Your Worship,” he stammered. “He was instructed not to tell me who sent it. Only that I was to deliver it directly to you.”

Sending a scroll of such importance by commercial couriers was a last resort, and I couldn’t allow it to be traced back to its source. I turned to one of the guards. “Have that messenger tracked down immediately and killed.”

“Yes, My Liege.” The soldier nodded and hurried out.

The messenger, who stood before me, started whimpering. He knew what was coming next. I turned to the other soldier. “Kill this one,” I pushed the messenger toward him, “make it quick.”

I broke the seal as the messenger’s body hit the floor. A quick glance at the first word confirmed my fears. I turned, stepped over the corpse, and returned to my bedchambers.

The scroll was from my spy in Rome. He had orders to contact me only when circumstances demanded immediate action. The message conveyed news of Caesar’s latest conquests. He had moved legions into Gaul and Britannia, making them part of the empire. With the ability to recruit warriors from these conquered territories, Caesar could put together a formidable army.

Yet it wasn’t all bad news. Until the territories of Gaul and Britannia were completely subdued, the Romans would be preoccupied into diverting reinforcements there and away from the heart of Rome itself. The best news was my spy had heard from a reliable source that Caesar was planning to proclaim himself emperor. This would not sit well with the other members of the Triumvirate – especially not after I sowed some seeds of dissent. I would take a page from Caesar’s own scroll: divide and conquer.

I immediately dispatched a message informing the Triumvirate that I would be coming to Rome for a state visit.

~~~~~

Since this was a diplomatic visit, I had no need of my civilian affairs advisor in Rome; nevertheless, I asked Gabrielle to accompany me. I made up some plausible reason – something about Roman civic improvements – but to be honest, I couldn’t imagine going without her.

Gabrielle looked a little unsettled as we sailed out of port. We stood near the gunwales forward of the main rigging and watched, as Corinth harbour became a dot on the horizon.

Once we were under full sails, I turned my attention to Gabrielle. Her usually bright demeanour was subdued and her complexion was ashen green.

“Are you alright?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, mustering a wan smile. “It’s just a bit of nerves.”

I looked at her quizzically.

She answered my look. “I’ve never been on a ship before.”

“Don’t worry, there’s nothing to it. You’ll be fine once you get your sea legs.”

“I’m not so sure about that, I–” Suddenly, Gabrielle stopped talking, leaned over the rail and disgorged the contents of her stomach.

“I’m sorry,” Gabrielle groaned and lifted her head from over the railing. “It’s the movement,” she explained. “All that up and dow–” She leaned over the side again to retch.

Nearby, soldiers and sailors quietly snickered. One look from me and they went about their business, but even I had to stifle a chuckle.

“Come here. I know a little trick that’ll help you.”

“You do?” Gabrielle said with a pained but hopeful look.

“Give me your arm.”

She obeyed, and I applied some acupressure techniques.

“If the nausea comes back, just press here.” I showed her where to press on her wrist.

“Thank you.” She sighed. “I feel better already.”

~~~~

We were two days into our crossing. The sea was calm and we were making good time. After showing her the acupressure point to cure seasickness, Gabrielle couldn’t get enough of life on the sea and spent much of the day on deck chatting with the crew. I, on the other hand, spent most of the day in my cabin with Darnell going over the agenda for our visit to Rome. Still, it was good to be onboard a ship again. The sounds and smells reminded me of my pirate days – long before I became “Xena the Conqueror”.

That was when I first encountered Julius Caesar. He was my first great passion and the only man that had ever bettered me. After Caesar, I had vowed never to open my heart completely to anyone again.

“Why?”

The voice and the question startled me. I turned to find Gabrielle standing in the cabin doorway. “Why what?” I asked warily, wondering if she had read my mind.

“Why conquer Rome?” She walked over to where I stood. “You already rule Greece and Macedonia.”

“I’m just paying a state visit to a neighbour,” I replied with feigned innocence. “Who said anything about conquering it?”

Gabrielle smiled and shook her head. “You!” She waved a piece of salt beef at me. “You said yourself, you’re known as ‘the Conqueror’ because it’s what you do.”

“You got me there,” I said with a slight chuckle.

Her smile faded and was replaced by a more serious expression. “Xena, Caesar is not some petty warlord. If you go up against him, you might very well lose everything.”

“I won’t lose,” I responded defiantly.

“But to go up against the strongest empire in the world is foolhardy. Can’t you be content with what you’ve got?” Her tone was a mixture of reproach and pleading.

“I’m doing it precisely because Rome is strong,” I rumbled. “They’re a threat to my empire, and I will not be threatened by anyone!”

“Yes, My Liege,” she replied in that particularly apologetic tone I hated.

“Stop it!” I growled. “Don’t ‘yes, My Liege’ me like that ever again!” I closed the distance between us.

Gabrielle stood as though her boots were nailed to the planks. She didn’t flinch. Instead, she turned her head slightly and revealed the light yellow-purple shadow of the bruise on her cheek. The memory of it hit me with a similar ferocity.

“My Liege, you can’t do that–”

That’s all I heard Gabrielle say. Without thinking, my hand lashed out and struck her face, hard. “Don’t ever contradict me again!” I spat, my mind clouded by indignant rage.

Gabrielle, to her credit, did not cry out. She stood with her head bowed, but she couldn’t hide the bright red mark that stood out in sharp contrast against her pale cheek.

What had I done? My soul screamed in agony when I realised I had just viciously slapped the one person who was most dear to me. All I wanted to do was draw her in my arms and beg her forgiveness, but my men were watching us. I couldn’t show any sign of backing down in public.

Later I found her sitting by the carp pond in the inner courtyard gardens. I could tell she had been crying from the tear streaks running down her reddened cheek.

Facing twenty gladiators in the arena seemed preferable to facing Gabrielle, but I had never backed down from anything in my life. I knelt down and took her trembling hand. “I’m so sorry, Gabrielle.”

She pulled her hand away. “That will be the last time you ever hit me, Xena.”

I raised my hand…and cupped her still-bruised cheek in my palm. “Please don’t use that meek, disapproving tone against me. I need your friendship, Gabrielle, not your obedience.”

Gabrielle instinctively leaned into the warmth of my hand as I gently stroked her cheek. “I’m sorry, Xena. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to deal with your dark moods.”

I knew I was falling in love with Gabrielle, but I couldn’t let her know. I couldn’t let anyone know. To love was to have a weakness an enemy could exploit, and Caesar most assuredly would exploit Gabrielle to checkmate me.

“I’m sorry for getting angry,” I said as I lowered my hand. “But Caesar does that to me. This is not just a political move. It’s personal.” I turned away from her and sat down on my bunk.

She sat down on her bunk opposite me. We sat silently for what seemed like an age, and then Gabrielle spoke, “Tell me. It might help.”

I looked across at her. She had such an open and compassionate expression on her face. I had resolved not to talk about my past with Caesar, but it was her next simple request that made me open up to her.

“Please, Xena.”

Memories of Caesar were still raw and piercing, and there were some memories I had to bury deep or risk discarding my destiny and giving in to blind hatred. With Gabrielle, however, I felt safe enough to expose some of it.

“Caesar was charming, handsome, charismatic, arrogant, self-centred, ruthless, cunning, and the most dangerous man I had ever met,” I began. “I fell in love with him and he used me. I thought I was in control and knew what I was doing. I thought I could trust him – that together we’d rule an empire. He betrayed me and had me crucified.”

“Crucified!” Gabrielle gasped.

I nodded. “He had my legs broken for good measure.”

“How did you survive?” She leaned forward, eager to hear what I had to say, but there was a look in her eyes that suggested she wasn’t enjoying the story. It was as though she was suffering the hurt I had felt all those years ago, and she needed to feel it in order to understand me.

I lowered my eyes as I thought of M’Lila, the runaway slave who had rescued me from the cross, who had died protecting me from Caesar’s soldiers. That was one memory I chose not to share. “I had help,” I replied simply.

Gabrielle moved over to my bunk and laid a sympathetic hand on my left leg. Her fingers grazed the inside of my thigh, and I felt a sudden rush of desire at her touch. Having her this close and not acting on my feelings was driving me to distraction.

I got up from the bunk and started pacing the floor of the small cabin so I could refocus my mind on the task at hand. Gabrielle said nothing, but her sea-green eyes urged me to continue and after a bit more pacing, I did.

“I’ve spent many years waiting for an opportunity to get my revenge. And now that I have power equal to his, he’ll do everything he can to neutralise me.”

“If that’s the case, won’t he have you killed when you get to Rome?” Gabrielle sounded worried.

“No. Caesar is a showman. He won’t try and kill me until he first parades me around like a sacrificial bull, and then he will make a spectacle of my death. Having power is not enough for him. He has to be seen as being the most powerful.”

“He sounds a like a monster.”

“On the contrary, he’s a charming and delightful host. When you meet him, you’ll find yourself drawn to him. He can make you say things you’d never dream of saying to anyone else. And then he’ll casually order your death as he would a goblet of wine.”

Gabrielle looked troubled.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she evaded and forced a smile.

“Say it.” I knew what she wanted to say.

“It’s just that–”

“It’s just that the words I use to describe Caesar could just as easily describe me.”

Gabrielle averted her gaze, so I knew I had correctly guessed her thoughts.

“Caesar has the same desires I do. We are both driven by our belief in our own destiny to rule a vast empire. When we met all those years ago, he recognised I could be a formidable rival. That was why he wanted me dead, and that is why there can be only one of us.”

~~~~~

That first sight of him, in his ceremonial battle dress of red with gold trim and ornate gold plated armour, brought more memories flooding back. For a moment I found myself feeling the same attraction I had felt all those years ago.

“Xena! How nice to see you again.”

To the casual observer, he sounded like he was greeting an old friend, but I detected the slight tone of condescension in his voice.

“I believe you meant to greet me as ‘Your Highness,’ did you not, Julius? I am, after all, an Empress.”

In this verbal dual, I got in the first strike, and I could tell from his tightened jaw it had stung a bit. I smiled inwardly knowing how much it must have irked him to have to accord me proper respect.

We continued to stare each other down in a battle of wills. Caesar needed to find out the reason for my visit, and to do that, he would have to be the first to blink.

Although it would’ve given me pleasure to watch him swallow that bitter pill, it served my purpose to let him think he had won this round.

“Titles are not important,” I said. “We are all friends here, are we not?”

“Yes, of course,” Caesar said with a fake smile. Then he clapped his hands and two slaves – one with a tray of drinks, the other with a tray of fruit – stepped forward and offered me refreshment.

I took a reasonable gamble that Caesar wouldn’t poison the wine at the first meeting and grabbed a goblet. Instinctively, I scanned the hall to scout my surroundings and identify the other members of the Triumvirate.

I recognised Pompey straight away. He was posing against the wall behind Caesar, a goblet of wine in one hand, the other on his hip. Tall and ruggedly handsome, he appeared disdainful of everything and everyone around him.

“So, what brings such a well-respected neighbour to our shores?” asked Caesar.

“Oh, you know how it is.” I took a sip of wine, and then savoured the taste, allowing the Consul to become agitated waiting for my reply. “Very nice wine. And no poison, I must be an honoured guest.”

Caesar flashed a hard smile at my refusal to answer his question directly. “Have some fruit, Your Highness,” he offered cordially.

I reached out and grasped a grape between my thumb and forefinger. “Are these poisoned?” I asked Caesar with a wicked smile.

This comment provoked a chuckle from one of the men to my right. I glanced in that direction but didn’t notice which one had made the sound.

Pompey had obviously had enough at this point. He pushed himself away from the wall with a melodramatic sigh. “So, the Great Xena deigns to pay us a visit. Are we all supposed to just stand around like background actors in a play while you and Caesar decide which of you can piss the farthest? Or are you going to tell us why you’re really here?”

It seemed my information about him was correct: he was an arrogant little shit. I was going to enjoy controlling him, but wondered how long I could keep myself from having him killed. “You must be Pompey, the Magnus,” I said, sounding like I was trying to control my awe. “It’s an honour to meet you.” I dipped my head slightly.

“You have heard of my prowess in battle,” proclaimed Pompey as he swaggered towards me. The word ‘battle’ was emphasised with a discreet thrust of his pelvis.

“Oh, most definitely,” I purred, and made sure he noticed my lingering look at his groin. “I’m sure no one is a match for you.”

The pandering to his ego caused him to puff his chest out, and he gave Caesar a cocky smirk. Caesar, in turn, gave me a withering look. I simply smiled at Caesar as Pompey took my hand and brought it to his lips. Inside I felt revolted, but outwardly I appeared flattered. If it took getting between the sheets with this insect to get him to oust Caesar, I would.

Caesar cleared his throat. “Allow me to introduce you to the third member of the Triumvirate, Brutus.”

“Brutus? What happened to Crassus?” I feigned surprise.

“Oh, your spies didn’t tell you? Crassus, I’m afraid, is no longer with us. It seems he died in bed…” Caesar paused for effect, “…in bed with Senator Flavius’s wife.” Everyone in the room chuckled. Caesar continued, “The Senate has seen fit to appoint Brutus to take Crassus’s place in the Triumvirate.” Caesar raised his arm and gestured toward a short, rather plain-looking man making his way out from the assembly. “Empress Xena, may I present my good friend, Brutus.”

“Empress,” Brutus said as he bowed slightly. “I am honoured to make your acquaintance.”

“As I am yours,” I replied.

I did not bring a large entourage to this meeting – just General Darnell, two senior aides, and a four-man honour guard. At my insistence, Gabrielle remained onboard ship with Lieutenant Galates. It was for her protection. I had no way of knowing for sure what kind of reception I would receive from Caesar, and I wanted to keep her out of harm’s way.

I gestured for Darnell to step forward. “May I present General Darnell, my Chief of Staff.”

Darnell snapped to attention and gave our Roman hosts a courtly nod.

“We are honoured, General.” Ever the gracious host, Caesar greeted Darnell cordially.

“The honour is mine. I have long anticipated meeting Rome’s greatest generals – though I had expected it to be on the field of battle,” Darnell replied with a sly smile.

Pompey was about to respond when we heard a commotion outside the door to the chamber.

“You cannot enter!” a guard’s voice boomed.

“Do you know who I am?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know I’m not allowed to enter?”

I felt a sudden jolt of adrenalin as I recognised the voice. It was Gabrielle.

Caesar strode over to the door and pulled it open. “Because only I say who is allowed to enter,” he said sternly.

“And who are you?” my civilian affairs advisor queried.

“I am Caesar, Julius Caesar.”

“Forgive me, Consul Caesar, but I have an urgent message for Empress Xena.”

I stepped up behind Caesar to see Gabrielle offering a curtsey to him. Lieutenant Galates was with her, but that gave me little comfort.

Caesar turned to face me and sneered. “Your slave has a message for you.”

“She is not a slave,” I countered.

“Then I’ll only have her flogged for disturbing this meeting. Guards–”

Lieutenant Galates protectively stepped in front of Gabrielle and drew a dagger. Caesar’s guards drew their weapons and stood ready. My guards did likewise.

“I think this is getting a little out of hand,” Brutus said calmly. “Put your weapons away,” he ordered.

The Roman guards hesitantly looked from Brutus to Caesar.

“Do as he says.” Pompey bustled forward, not wanting to miss out on the action.

Pompey’s command was enough for them, and the Roman guards sheathed their swords.

“Empress?” Pompey gestured at my guards.

I nodded once and my men stood down. “Lieutenant.” I held my hand out to Galates. He lowered his knife and handed it to me.

While casually handling the dagger, I stepped right up to Caesar and whispered in his ear. “If you threaten a senior member of my advisory council ever again, it will be the last thing you do. Understand?”

A blink of his eyes and the tiniest head movement signalled his understanding.

I gave the dagger back to Galates and manoeuvred myself closer to Gabrielle.

“Now, I believe my advisor has an important message for me. I think it’s best we withdraw for now to get settled before this evening’s banquet.”

“That would be acceptable,” said Pompey.

Brutus nodded his agreement.

Caesar turned his back to me and waved a hand to dismiss everyone.

My entourage and I left the chamber. Once we had rounded a corner, I stopped and grabbed Gabrielle’s arm, pulling her to one side of the corridor. A quick signal and the others moved away to give us some privacy and make sure we weren’t disturbed. Galates lingered slightly, but then moved away as well once he saw the aggravated look on my face.

“What are you doing here?” I whispered sternly. “I told you it could be dangerous, and I ordered you to stay onboard the ship. You could’ve been killed!”

“I know, but a situation has developed,” Gabrielle said gravely. “I thought it best I inform you.”

“What situation?”

“The ship’s lookout spotted the mast of a Roman warship just around the headland in the next bay, and two more far out to sea. Plus, two units of soldiers have been positioned between here and the port. The ship’s captain says there is no way he can outrun the warships. It looks like Caesar is intent on stopping you from leaving.”

“Gabrielle, I appreciate you bringing me this news, but you took an awful risk. Why didn’t you send a messenger instead of coming yourself?

“Because I-I was worried about you, Xena. I couldn’t stay on that ship and do nothing – not when you could be in trouble and I could help. Please don’t be angry.”

How could I be angry with her? Gabrielle had just risked her life to bring me this news. I released the grip I had on her arm and looked deeply into her anxious green eyes. Her concern for me was evident, but there was something else. I wondered if it was love I saw in her eyes, or was I only seeing the reflection of my own feelings? But it was not the time to explore that possibility. I needed to focus, or Caesar would surely get the better of me – again.

~~~~~

We made our way back toward the ship. The two units that Gabrielle had mentioned were still ahead of us.

“They’re stationed in the trees on that hill,” she said as she pointed toward one of the seven hills that surrounded Rome.

I knew Caesar wanted me neutralised, but I couldn’t believe he’d be so clumsy as to let any trap of his be noticed. That meant the soldiers must be loyal to Pompey or Brutus.

I looked up at the position of the sun. We had plenty of time to get to the ship and return for the banquet, but would the soldiers on the hill know we were not trying to leave Rome? I had to make a decision and make it quick. I had Darnell return to the ship, send the ten best soldiers back to meet me here, and order the captain to leave port.

I had a job for Lieutenant Galates. “I want you to go back to the city and deliver a message to Pompey.”

“Yes, My Liege. What is it?”

“Tell him to meet me at the west portico of the Coliseum at dawn tomorrow.”

Galates saluted and headed back toward Rome. Gabrielle watched him go and then turned to face me.

“So how do we get out of this?”

“Out of what?” I feigned ignorance.

“You’ve sent the ship away and stranded us in Rome.”

“Oh, that. Don’t worry, Gabrielle, you’ll be perfectly safe,” I replied nonchalantly.

“It’s not me I’m worried about. I’m worried about you. I couldn’t bear it if something were to happen to you, Xena.”

I gave her a reassuring smile. “Nothing is going to happen to me, I promise.”

~~~~~

After returning to the city with an additional squad of soldiers for security, I sent a message to Brutus to arrange a private meeting. And, as I suspected, he readily agreed. The place he chose for the meeting was the house of a merchant friend of his.

When I arrived, Brutus was there, waiting for me. I casually paced the room and examined some of the artwork and trinkets that adorned it before I acknowledged him. His diplomatic skills were in evidence when he didn’t press me as to why I had asked for a meeting. That impressed me.

I picked up a jade figurine that had come from Chin. “Do you want to rule Rome?” I asked in a conversational tone as I examined the figurine in detail.

“I already do,” he replied.

“In part,” I corrected him and put the jade piece back down.

“Part is good enough for me.”

I faced him for the first time and gave him a disbelieving look.

“Caesar is a dangerous man – dangerous because he is ambitious,” I said. “He believes it is his destiny to rule the world as Emperor of Rome. But you know that. That’s why you agreed to meet me.”

“You’re wrong about Caesar. He wants to restore the Republic. Your perception of Caesar is tainted by your hatred for him.”

“And your faith in Caesar is misplaced. I have it on good authority that Caesar plans to proclaim himself emperor on the Ides of March. And then you will have to choose between Caesar and Ro–”

“No, Caesar would never do that,” he protested. “I’m his friend. He would never betray me like that.”

“Yes, he calls you his ‘friend.’ Well, Crassus was a good friend…and I was once a very good friend.” I sat down on a fine upholstered Persian chair. “And once he’s rid of Pompey, how long do you think it will take for him to be rid of his ‘good friend’ Brutus, eh?”

Brutus took a moment to digest what I had said. “Go on.” He nodded at me to continue.

“You, Brutus, are an honourable man. If Caesar were removed from power before he consolidated his support in the Senate and the army, you would see Rome returned to its former greatness as a democracy.”

Brutus nodded slowly. “So, you want to support me in a coup against Caesar and help me take control,” he said with certainty.

“No,” I replied.

“No?” Brutus sounded surprised.

“No,” I reiterated. “Whoever takes singular control of Rome after Caesar will be faced with the monumental task of reorganising the government. The people will face hardship initially and will not look favourably upon their new ruler.

“On the other hand, the second ruler…” I let the sentence trail.

Understanding dawned on his face. “You think I should let Pompey rule?”

“Who better to make a complete mess of it? He’s a more than competent military leader, I’ll grant you, but ruler of Rome? No.”

“And what’s in it for you?”

“We’d both have a powerful ally and friend.”

“And you’d be rid of Caesar.”

I shrugged. “Call it benefit of the circumstances.”

Brutus pondered the proposal I’d made for a minute or two. “Sounds like an intriguing proposition.”

“Think about it,” I said and stood up to leave. I paused by the door. “Of course, it would benefit you if you distanced yourself from Pompey’s rule. A diplomatic posting to Corinth would be far enough away to avoid sharing the blame for Pompey’s mistakes, but close enough to come back quickly and take control.”

“What if Pompey has other ideas?”

“I’m a powerful neighbour that he’d want to keep happy. I think I can persuade him that you would make an excellent ambassador to Corinth.”

I bid him farewell and was almost out of the door when he spoke.

“And if Pompey should be reluctant to leave power…”

“Without the support of the Roman people, he would have no choice,” I replied simply.

The meeting had gone better than expected. Brutus had seemed genuinely sold on the idea of leaving Pompey in charge and coming back to Corinth with me. However, I didn’t allow myself to get cocky. I remembered that Brutus was not to be underestimated.

~~~~~

Gabrielle accompanied me to the banquet Caesar held in my honour. I felt more at ease knowing she was with me. She seemed quite relaxed, despite the events of earlier in the day, and attacked the array of food with gusto.

I stood back from the table and enjoyed the sight of my advisor getting her fill of delicacies. A few guests engaged her in conversation, and judging from their reactions, she charmed them immensely. When Caesar approached her, I felt a tightening in my stomach and moved closer.

“I apologise for suggesting you be flogged earlier on,” he said to her in his most charming voice.

“I apologise for disturbing the meeting,” replied Gabrielle.

“So, what is it you do for Xena?”

“I am her civilian affairs advisor.”

“Oh really. It’s hard to believe you hold such a high position within Xena’s court.”

“Why do you say that?”

Caesar smiled. “I would have thought a young woman like yourself would have been crushed by Xena’s–”

Caesar’s smile froze as he noticed me step up behind Gabrielle.

“Crushed by my what?” I challenged.

“By your beauty, of course,” he replied with feigned charm. “Though it might be you who is crushed by her…” The consul allowed himself a lecherous look up and down Gabrielle’s body, “…fragile beauty.”

He moved past Gabrielle and paused to whisper in my ear. “Remember how much it hurts to be betrayed by the one you love?”

If I thought I could have got away with it, I’d have strangled him with my bare hands right then and there. Instead, I watched in angry silence as he walked away to circulate with the other guests.

“What did he say to you?”

I turned to face her. She had a spot of sauce on the corner of her mouth that was just begging to be kissed away. I resisted and used my thumb instead.

“It doesn’t look good when my advisor speaks to a member of the Triumvirate with food all over her face,” I joked.

“Sorry,” she ducked her head as her cheeks reddened.

“It’s alright.” I lifted her chin and smiled. “Just be careful around Caesar.”

“I will. You were right, there is something about him. Some sort of…I don’t know…it just pulls you in.”

“Yes,” I replied. Just like you, I thought.

Her eyes widened as a slave girl walked by with a tray. Gabrielle breathed in deeply. “Was that nut bread?” she asked excitedly, and hurried off after the tray.

Gabrielle had just cornered the slave when Pompey came up to me. Even before he spoke, I knew he was going to request a new time and place for our meeting. He needed to show his control of the situation.

“I have chambers in the North wing,” he whispered. “I’ll see you there after this banquet. Come alone or, better yet, bring your advisor. I’m sure she would be very… entertaining.”

As much as I would have enjoyed teaching Pompey some manners, I let his lewd insinuation about Gabrielle go. He was trying to bait me, and I couldn’t allow myself to rise to it.

~~~~~

When I was shown into the room, I found Pompey lounging on a couch near the fire with a large goblet of wine in his hand. He seemed a bit disappointed that I had turned up alone.

“You didn’t bring your advisor with you. Pity.” He gestured for me to join him on the couch. “Never mind,” he said, as I moved towards him, “I’d prepared for that eventuality.”

He snapped his fingers, and a slave stepped out from behind a curtain. The slave was six feet tall, well muscled, and exquisitely handsome.

“He’s a fine specimen,” I said to Pompey, “but I want you all to myself tonight.”

A hopeful look spread across his face, and he gestured for the slave to leave. I settled on the arm of the couch and ran my fingers through his hair. Pompey pulled his head away.

“I think we both know why you’re here,” he confidently declared. “You want Caesar dead.” He put his goblet on a nearby table.

“And for you to govern Rome for me,” I added.

Pompey sat upright and looked at me. “What? What makes you think I can’t govern Rome for myself?” he asked incredulously.

“You wouldn’t have positioned your men to protect me if you didn’t need my help.” I picked up the goblet Pompey had placed on the table and made a show of drinking from it.

He smiled coyly. “Okay, so I need your help. But I still want Rome.”

I stood up and walked towards the fireplace. “You’re a soldier, Pompey, not a politician. I’ll allow you a certain amount of autonomy, and I’ll even let the people of Rome think you’re their ruler. But you’ll rule for me.”

“And if I don’t accept your terms?”

“There are other members of the Triumvirate who could rule.”

There was a burst of sarcastic laughter from Pompey.

“Did I say something funny?” I fixed him with an icy stare.

“Brutus is a jumped-up scribe and nothing more.”

“He’s a damn-sight better politician than you’ll ever be.”

Pompey pouted at my reproach.

“If you try to rule Rome without my help, you’ll fail, and then Brutus will be your most likely successor.”

“Not if I kill him first.”

I grabbed a candlestick from the mantelpiece and hurled it at Pompey. It ruffled his hair as it sailed passed his ear. I had aimed to miss. He stared back at me in stunned silence.

“Do I have your attention now?” I asked him bluntly.

He nodded slowly.

“Good! I’ve had plenty of opportunity to kill all three of you today, and the only reason I haven’t is you are more useful to me alive than dead.”

I moved towards a table laden with fruits and wine. I plucked a grape and slowly took it into my mouth with my tongue. “If you kill Caesar, great! You’ve eliminated your main rival for power, but he has the loyal support of ten legions that fought for him in Gaul. If you kill Brutus too, you’re going to have his supporters in the Senate to deal with, as well as his supporters within the army. If you do the mathematics, you’ll find your reign will be short-lived.”

“So what do you propose I do?” He scowled slightly as he was starting to accept he needed my help.

“You enlist Brutus’s help in getting rid of Caesar. Faced with united opposition, Caesar’s supporters will switch allegiance or flee.”

“What if they switch allegiance to Brutus?”

“You have greater respect among the army than Brutus. You’re recognised as arguably the greatest military commander Rome has ever had. You have charisma and presence, all the qualities that Brutus is lacking. Whom do you think the army is going to favour?”

As before, when his ego was stroked, Pompey became nauseatingly prissy. His chest puffed out, a smug smile curled his lips, and his eyes wandered to the nearest reflective surface to catch a glimpse of himself. It was stomach turning to witness, but in that state he would believe anything he was told.

“Brutus may provide a useful ally,” I continued. “I’m sure you can convince him you’re the better man to pacify the army and take over the leadership of Rome.”

“Yes, I can do that.” He hesitated a moment. “But won’t Brutus realise you’re in control?”

At last he had accepted that I would be in control.

“Offer him a post. You’ll need an ambassador in Corinth. If I keep him close to me, he can be kept in the dark about my true involvement. If he becomes suspicious or troublesome, then an accident could be arranged.”

Pompey climbed to his feet. “What help do I get from you, exactly?”

“Once Caesar is out of the way, you will have my full support. I will have Brutus in Corinth and an invasion army on the border to persuade the Senate to name you Rome’s new ruler. I will appoint my own people as your political advisors to handle imperial matters, but you will be the figurehead.

“You expect me to just stand on balconies and wave at the people?”

“Think of it as a similar situation to that in Egypt. Cleopatra sits on her throne being worshipped by her people as if she was a god incarnate, but we both know who holds the real power. In this case, that would be me. And to show my faith in your abilities, you can follow through with Caesar’s plan to subjugate Gaul and Britannia. I may as well have them while I’m about it.”

“You just want me to fight your wars,” he said with more than a hint of petulance.

“It’s what you’re good at,” I snapped back. “You won’t hold ultimate power in Rome, but I’m allowing you to have the next best thing: the glory.”

He was sold; I could see it in his eyes. Great conquests awaited him, even if they were ultimately in my name. If he succeeded in removing Caesar, and I had no doubt that he would, then I’d let him have his moments of glory, but not too many – and not for long.

 

Chapter 9

 

We left Greece on our state visit to Rome only days after I was appointed Advisor for Civilian Affairs. Xena barely had enough time to make the appointment, much less fill me in on what my duties would be, other than her vague reference to “keeping the civilians pacified”. So, as soon as we returned from Rome, I threw myself into the task of figuring out just what an Advisor for Civilian Affairs was supposed to do.

One evening I was in the library, lost behind a mountain of scrolls.

“Gabrielle…”

Xena’s voice startled me, and I nearly knocked a pile of scrolls onto the floor. “Oh, Your Highness.” I rose and accorded her proper respect, “I didn’t hear you come in.”

With a somewhat stern look, she said, “it’s not wise for a newly promoted advisor to keep her empress waiting.”

I glanced out a nearby window to find the sun already set and the palace illuminated by torches. “Oh, sorry, Highness. I didn’t realise it was so late. I got busy. I lost track of time. I–”

“Calm down, Gabrielle. I’m not going to have you thrown into the dungeon. And, if I’m not mistaken, we’re alone.”

“Uh?” I got flustered, unsure what she meant by “we’re alone…”

Xena….” She cocked her head and gave me a knowing look.

“Oh. Right. Xena.”

“That’s better.” She winked. “Now, what was so important that it kept you from dining with me this evening?”

“I was going through the latest batch of petitions. I can’t believe how many I get in a day. I’m going to need a staff to help me sort through them all.”

“And an office, by the look of things. What are all these piles?” The Empress thumbed through the stacks of parchments sitting neatly on the table.

I pointed to each stack as I explained. “These are requesting exemptions from various taxes, and these are land disputes. This pile contains more…er, interesting requests.”

“Oh, like what?” Xena warily asked.

“Like, several petitions to have Ares replaced with Cupid as patron god of Corinth, a few offers to father my children, and one or two to father yours.”

Xena cocked her left eyebrow in response, which made me chuckle.

“Then, there is this one.” I became serious again and reached for a scroll. “It’s cryptic and a bit disturbing.”

“Is it some kind of veiled threat?” Xena asked soberly.

“No, it’s more like a prediction or a warning.”

“What does it say?”

I unrolled the scroll and read it aloud. “On the Ides plus one, one will have won and one will have none.”

When I finished reading the scroll I looked up at Xena. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking from her impassive expression, but her mood definitely changed.

“Xena, what does it mean?” There was no response, just a far away look. “Xena?”

She took the scroll from my hand and read it herself. “Nothing,” Xena finally responded. She held it over a candle and watched it burn. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

I discovered later the scroll did mean something: Xena had just become more powerful than ever.

~~~~~

Overseeing civic improvements in Corinth was another project I took on. Some areas were quite shabby and still bore the scars of the battle in which the city fell to Xena the Conqueror. The houses of one particular street were badly maintained with an assortment of poor patch jobs, and I assigned a work crew to do a proper job on them. I had the families who lived there temporarily relocated to a nearby temple until the renovations were completed. Checking on the progress gave me an excuse to go to the temple daily and visit with the children. The families were poor and couldn’t afford to send their children to school, so I told them stories and taught them how to read and write the alphabet. It made me realise that if the empire was to prosper we needed schools.

I picked a night when Xena was in a good mood to broach the subject of creating schools. We were relaxing in her private quarters after the evening meal. I waited until Xena had her after-dinner port. That was when she was most relaxed and not distracted by other matters. Xena chose to sit in a large, straight-backed chair near the fire. The chair was covered in black leather and looked severe and foreboding with top of the back rising above her head. However, I knew the chair was very comfortable to sit in. I sat on a two-seat couch opposite the chair with my legs tucked up under me.

“Xena, may I ask you something?”

“Of course. What is it?” She looked up from her empty glass.

“Would it be alright with you if I, we – the government that is – build a permanent school in Corinth and open it to both boys and girls? If it’s successful, we could build schools throughout the empire so every child could get an education.”

“Why do we need schools? I need soldiers, not philosophers.”

“Yes, but not everyone can be a soldier. An army may conquer an empire, but it is the philosophers, mathematicians, artisans, and playwrights who build a civilisation. Besides, you need soldiers now. I’m talking of children, of the future. A future when hopefully there won’t be the need to have so many soldiers.”

From her facial expression, I could tell that Xena agreed with the logic of my argument, but she had more important matters to concern her. Finally she yielded.

“How much will it cost?”

“I don’t know. I hadn’t thought that far.” This lack of preparation embarrassed me. Xena knew all the angles of any military operation before she undertook it. I suppose the same would apply to any civic operation. I felt as though I had let her down with my lack of forethought.

“You must have some idea.”

“A building, a teacher or two,” I mumbled.

“Work out a proposal and submit it to my Chancellor, and he’ll determine if there are funds available.”

I had expected Xena to just say yes. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might not. But I realised that even as her friend, I couldn’t expect to just ask for something and get it. This was the real world where politics and budgets constrained everyone, even Xena. Still, I felt a little wounded.

“Education is important to you, isn’t it?” Xena must have seen the disappointed look on my face.

“It’s important for everyone. To waste a child’s potential by not giving them the opportunity to learn is a crime. And just think of the benefit to the empire if it’s producing educated people. One of those children could invent something that revolutionises the way we live.” As I talked I sat up straighter.

“Or a better weapon,” Xena countered.

“Or a better weapon,” I concurred reluctantly.

“There are plenty of buildings around. I’m sure you must have seen a few when supervising your city improvements. What have you been using as your temporary classroom?” Xena stood and walked over to the drinks table against the wall to refill her glass.

“I’ve been using the temple to Artemis.”

“Artemis? Does she have followers in Corinth?” She turned her head to look over her shoulder at me.

“A few.”

“Take over the temple then,” she said, turning back to her task of pouring the drink. “If people want to worship Artemis they can find somewhere else.”

“I’m not going to throw people out of their place of worship.”

“You want a school, don’t you?” Xena returned to her seat and faced me.

“Yes, of course, but–”

“Well, then you have to decide what is more important, a temple or a school. Leadership is about making the hard choices and then acting boldly. So, which is it going to be?”

Xena gave me a challenging look. She was testing me, seeing how I handled making tough decisions.

“A school.” I slumped back in the couch. I felt defeated, not because I made the decision Xena wanted, but because it was the only decision.

“There, then that’s settled. Just submit your proposal to my Chancellor, as I said. There shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Thank you.” I was about to add ‘my liege’ then remembered what she had said on our trip to Rome about not patronising her when we were alone. “You know, you could show a bit more enthusiasm for the school.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Xena said with a feigned smile. “And I’m more than happy to leave it in your capable hands. The Chancellor will give you the money, and if he doesn’t… I’ll get a new Chancellor.”

I shook my head. “You haven’t quite grasped this enthusiasm thing, have you?”

“What I needed to know, I learned at the hilt end of a sword.” Realising she came on too strong, Xena sighed and said, “I never had much use for schools, but it makes me happy that you’re happy about it. I get ‘enthusiastic’ about other things.”

“Such as?”

She turned to face the fire, a blank expression masking her features. Few people, if any, knew Xena as well as I did. Sometimes her expression could be worth a thousand words, but even in these unguarded moments Xena’s façade could suddenly turn unreadable.

I was about to try and get her to open up to me when there was a knock at the door. It brought Xena out of her pensive mood.

“That’s Darnell,” Xena whispered to me.

“How can you tell?”

“He’s the only person I know who can knock with an attitude. Listen when he knocks again.”

We waited and the knock came again. I don’t know if I heard the attitude, or imagined it at Xena’s suggestion, but there was something different about the knock. I chuckled quietly and brought a hand up to cover my mouth so he couldn’t hear me. Xena had no reservations and chuckled loudly. She was still chuckling when she opened the door.

“General Darnell, come in,” she said in a voice tinged with amusement.

“Your Highness, I was informed you wanted to see me as soon as I returned.” Darnell entered and saluted. “Oh.” He barely concealed a scowl when he noticed me. “I hope I’m not disturbing something.” Darnell placed a knowing emphasis on “something”.

Xena ignored his innuendo. “No, you’re not disturbing anything. Come. Have some port.”

“Thank you, no My Liege. I am in need of a warm bath and a good night’s sleep, but I came directly here when I arrived in Corinth. There is news from Rome.” He cast a sideways look in my direction. “Perhaps I should come back at a more appropriate time.”

“I’ll leave you two to talk,” I said as I stood up. “By your leave, Highness.”

“No, Gabrielle. Stay. This won’t take long.” Xena turned to Darnell and motioned for him to follow her to the other side of the room.

They spoke in a loud whisper, so I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation as Darnell made his report.

“Pompey’s orders have reached the Roman garrisons in Illyria. The local governor was most receptive to them. I’ve ordered a detachment back east to strengthen the borders with the Amazon and Centaur territory. Hopefully, they haven’t noticed we’ve been under strength there this past couple of seasons.”

“Oh, they probably have,” said Xena. “But they have their own problems to worry about. Continue.”

“The latest reports from our spies in Egypt say that news of Caesar’s assassination and Pompey’s takeover has not yet reached there.”

Darnell’s statement puzzled me. When was Caesar assassinated and how could our spies in Egypt know of Caesar’s death and Pompey’s takeover if news had not reached there? I thought. Our communications were no faster than Roman communications.

“It must have reached there by now,” said Xena. “I’ll send a message to Cleopatra passing on the news and offering support should she want to seize the opportunity to break free of Roman rule. Any news from Gaul? I expected something from Vercinix.”

“Nothing yet, Your Highness.”

“Well, keep me informed. Anything else?”

“Yes. Brutus is on his way to Corinth now. He should be here in a few days.”

“Excellent. Thank you, General.” The Empress spoke in a normal tone of voice once again as she ushered the general toward the door. “Go take that warm bath. We’ll talk in the morning.”

Darnell saluted and made his departure, but not without giving me one last disapproving glance.

Xena returned to her chair by the fire. Her mood was decidedly upbeat.

“Xena, I couldn’t help overhearing. Is it true? Has Julius Caesar been assassinated?”

“Yes… Pity.”

“What do you mean? I thought you hated him.”

“I mean it is a pity I didn’t have the pleasure of killing him myself.”

We both fell silent. During our voyage to Rome, Xena told me about her turbulent history with Julius Caesar. She hadn’t gone into a lot of detail, but she did tell me that they had a love affair and that Caesar had her crucified and her legs broken. At the time I couldn’t understand why she would risk going to Rome if she and Caesar were enemies. She had insisted that it was nothing more than just a social visit, but I knew, with Xena, nothing was as it appeared.

“What are you thinking?” she asked me.

“That you have more to do with the situation in Rome than you’re letting on.”

“What makes you think I had something to do with the situation in Rome?” She took a sip of port.

“General Darnell said that your spies in Egypt knew about Caesar and Pompey. I don’t see how they could’ve known unless they had prior knowledge.”

“That’s what I like about you, Gabrielle, your mind is as devious as mine.”

“Hmm, I don’t know whether to take that as a compliment.”

“It was meant as one.” Xena flashed a sly grin.

“Well, did you?” I wasn’t going to let her change the subject.

“Did I what?”

“Did you have something to do with Caesar’s assassination and Pompey’s takeover? Is that why we were in Rome?”

Xena became pensive again and stared into her empty cup.

Knowing when Xena wanted to talk and when it was prudent to keep quiet was one of the first lessons I had learned as her personal assistant. In this case, however, I pushed the point.

“Xena?”

She stood up and in a stern tone said, “This is not a civil matter. I suggest you stick to building schools and leave affairs of state to me.”

“I didn’t mean to overstep my bounds. It’s just that–”

Her tone softened. “Gabrielle, I know you are curious by nature, but when it comes to the Romans, I would rather you not ask questions. Can you trust me on this?”

“Yes, of course. I didn’t mean to make you angry. I was more concerned for you. You took an awful chance going to Rome. Caesar could’ve easily had you killed. Instead he ends up being murdered and Pompey is now Emperor of Rome. What’s to stop him from sending assassins to kill you?”

“Pompey? He doesn’t have the balls. Besides, Pompey won’t make a move while Brutus is here in Corinth. Brutus has the loyalty of at least half the Roman Army. So as long as Brutus is ambassador to our court, Pompey can’t make a move on either one of us.”

Sometimes it was hard to reconcile that the Xena I knew and cared about was also a cunning, calculating, and formidable ruler of a large and still growing empire. And even though we had become close, she still had secrets she didn’t share with me.

~~~~~

Brutus arrived four days later, and his first order of business was to pay his respects to the Empress. Flanked by two Roman soldiers, Brutus strode into the throne room with an urgency that befitted his efficient manner. A quick dip of his head was the only mark of respect he showed to Xena.

“Empress,” Brutus began, “I have been sent by Pompey the Magnus, Emperor of Rome, as his ambassador to the Greek Empire, in the hope of developing closer ties between our two great powers.”

Xena was seated on an intricately carved, marble throne that dominated the room. She was dressed in her ceremonial robes made of the finest silk from Chin. On her head sat a crown of pure gold in the shape of a hawk’s outstretched wings, and she held the sceptre fashioned from the stone given to her by King Quallas before the battle of Ambracia. Personally, I thought her outfit was a bit over the top and told her as much when she commissioned its design. If you want people to respect you and fear you, you must appear larger than life, was her explanation.

“Welcome, Ambassador. News of your appointment has preceded you. I have arranged for a suite of rooms here in the palace for you. If you wish to establish an embassy elsewhere in the city, my advisor,” Xena gestured to me, “will be more than happy to help you find a suitable location.”

Brutus looked at me with an unreadable expression.

“That would be acceptable,” he said.

“In the meantime, you must be tired after your journey. I’ll have you shown to your quarters. Your bodyguards are welcome to use the palace barracks.”

As she spoke, Xena made a discreet hand gesture and a servant stepped forward to show the new ambassador to his suite.

“I hope you’ll join me for dinner in my room this evening, where we can discuss business in an informal surrounding,” she concluded.

“It would be my pleasure, Your Highness,” Brutus said cordially.

With the welcoming ceremony over, Xena stood and walked out of the throne room as briskly as Brutus had entered it.

I went directly to the changing room off the main hall after the ceremony was over. When I entered, Xena was handing her attendants the sceptre and crown. I paused. I couldn’t help but admire how regal she looked.

“You don’t mind?”

“Uh, mind?” So taken by her splendour, I hadn’t heard half of what Xena had said to me.

“Making other dinner plans this evening,” Xena repeated as her attendants removed her ceremonial robe. “Brutus and I have business to discuss.” She emphasised “business”.

“No, that’s fine,” I replied with only a little enthusiasm.

Having shed the accoutrements of royalty, Xena was dressed in her usual simple black leather tunic and leggings.

“I’ll get rid of him as soon as I can,” she assured me, “then we can have our evening chat. There are some things that we need to talk about.”

“Okay. I’ll wait up for you.”

“Good girl. I won’t be too late.”

~~~~~

Since Xena was busy, I was free that evening, so I used the time to catch up on my writing. It had been a while since I’d written for pleasure, but I couldn’t concentrate. All I could think about was Xena alone in her quarters – with Brutus. I know it shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did.

I put down my quill and walked to the window. Low clouds moved briskly on the wind, and rain could be seen in the distant gloom. I shivered and closed the shutters.

Suddenly, there was a knock on my door. I rushed to open it. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Well, that’s a fine hello.” Galates affected a hurtful look, but couldn’t maintain it for long. “I hope you don’t greet all your guests like that.”

“I’m sorry. I thought you were someone else.” I stepped back to allow him entry. “Can I get you a drink?”

“No thanks. I can’t stay long.”

“At least sit down.” I gestured to the couch.

Galates eased himself onto the couch and I sat down next to him.

“So, what have you been doing this evening?”

“I’ve been trying to write.”

“Anything good?”

I gave him a non-committal shrug. I always thought what I wrote was good – until I read it back. Besides, I didn’t want to admit I hadn’t written more than a few words.

“Anyway,” Galates continued, “I just came by to talk to you. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but my unit is being sent to Thrace. We move out in a couple of days. I’ll be gone at least half a year.”

“Oh!” The last few weeks had been hectic for me and I hadn’t seen much of Galates, but the thought that he might not be around suddenly left me feeling alone. “Who will I have to talk to?”

Galates chuckled. “I’m not your only friend.”

“No, but you’re my best friend. The first friend I made after leaving home.”

Galates looked embarrassed by my words. “I may be the first friend you made after leaving home, Gabrielle, but I’m not your best friend.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Empress,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” I asked with bemusement.

“It’s obvious to me that you care deeply for the Empress.”

“Of course.” I stood up and stepped away from the couch keeping my back to Galates. I didn’t want him to see how flustered the direction of the conversation was making me. “She is my sovereign and she’s a friend.”

I heard Galates stand and felt his right hand come to rest on my shoulder. “My dear Gabrielle, I too am your friend, but you do not look at me the same way you look at her.”

“Huh?”

“You care about her much more than just as a subject or a friend. You have feelings for her,” Galates said gently.

“Whatever do you mean?” I moved away from his reach and tried to sound nonchalant, but inside I felt exposed.

“You love her.”

“What?” I sounded genuinely shocked.

“Gabrielle, I’ve seen the way you look at her, the way you light up when she enters a room.”

I felt my cheeks flush a burning crimson. “Is it that obvious?”

“Only to a good friend. And I am your friend, Gabrielle. You can trust me.”

I turned around and gave his forearm a tender squeeze. “I’m lucky to have you for a friend.” I walked away and stared out the window again. “What should I do?”

“Have you talked to the Empress – told her how you feel?”

“No, I couldn’t…I wouldn’t…I mean, I don’t know what to say.”

“Speak from your heart and tell her that you love her.”

“I’m afraid I’d lose everything if I did.”

“And you will gain nothing if you don’t.”

“But I’m just a village girl – she’s the Empress! She could have anyone she desires. How can I compete with that?”

Galates tenderly lifted my chin. “Anyone would consider themselves very fortunate to have your love. Tell her. I think you’ll be surprised at what she says.” Galates flashed a hopeful smile. “Well, I have to go. I’m on duty soon.”

I walked him to the door. Before he left, Galates turned to me and said, “Remember, if you ever need someone to talk to, I’m your man. No matter where I am.”

We both beamed a big smile and then I gave him a hug and kiss on the cheek. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Goodnight.”

As soon as Galates left, I went directly to my desk and settled down to write. The scroll I had stared at blankly earlier on was now filling up with words and I lost track of time. The faint rumble of thunder punctuated the rain pattering against the shutters, but I barely paid attention to it as I wrote.

The knock at my door did draw my attention. I knew straight away it was Xena, and I felt a strange sense of anticipation as I rushed to open the door. Xena stepped inside as soon as I opened the door. As she did so, she shivered.

“It’s cold in here.” She looked at the glowing embers in the fireplace. “Let’s get this thing going.” She stirred the fire into life.

As the fire grew in the hearth and pushed heat into my room, I realised how cold it had become. It made me shiver.

Xena picked up a shawl, draped it around me and led me closer to the hearth. Her doting warmed me more than the fire or the shawl. I saw a flicker of love reflected in the warm blue eyes that held my gaze.

“You should be more careful,” she cautioned me gently. “You could become ill sitting in the cold.” Her fingers lingered on my shoulders and her touch ignited a fire inside me.

Only then did it hit me with a clarity that I never knew before. Galates was right. I was in love with Xena. And it seemed like the perfect moment to tell her how I felt. Just as I took a deep breath to prepare myself, she spoke.

“Gabrielle, I have something I need to talk to you about.” She led me over to the couch. “Sit down.” She patted the seat next to her.

“Good. There’s something I need to talk to you about, too.”

She waited until I was seated before continuing. “Before I forget, I told Brutus you would show him around the city tomorrow.”

“Huh?” I wasn’t expecting her to talk about Brutus.

“I told Brutus you would show him around the city tomorrow.”

“Oh, okay.” Brutus was the last thing I wanted to talk about.

“He said he’d feel more comfortable if he had an embassy separate from the palace. You can take him on a tour of possible sites.”

“Certainly.”

“Excellent.”

“Was that what you wanted to talk to me about – Brutus?”

“No…well, yes. But that can wait. You wanted to talk to me, so what is it?”

I sighed. Clearly, it was not the time to talk to Xena about my feelings. “Nothing that can’t wait. Was there something else you wanted to say about Brutus?”

“Yes. Brutus believes he is here to wait for Pompey to mess up in Rome, at which time, with my help, he’ll go back and take control. However, he doesn’t fully trust me and I don’t fully trust him.”

“Then why haven’t you…?” I left the question hanging. I knew Xena had extreme methods of dealing with people, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it.

“He may prove useful,” she replied, knowing what I had left unsaid.

“But aren’t you helping Pompey?” I queried, as our conversation of a few days previously came back to me.

“Pompey and I came to an agreement: he rules Rome for me and I let him have the glory of everyone thinking he’s ruling for himself. And that includes Brutus.”

“Why go to that bother?”

“Rome is a large empire and it would be hard to just take it over. I would rather have Pompey appear to be the ruler. That way, I get revenue from taxation without the expense of conquest.”

“I can’t believe Pompey would allow that. He seemed to me to be someone who’d want power all for himself.”

“Quite right, and I’m counting on it,” Xena said with a wicked glint in her eye. “He only agreed to be my puppet because I got Brutus out of the way and gave him the opportunity to take control. I know that once he feels his power base is secure, he will challenge me.

“How?”

“I’m going to organise resistance in certain areas of Roman control that will force him to expend resources to put them down. Once Rome is weakened, Pompey will be out, and I will be able to step in and conquer Rome more easily.”

“Xena, why are you telling me all this? I thought you didn’t want me involved.”

“I need your help with Britannia,” Xena replied. “I need to convince their tribal leader, Boadicea, that now would be a good time to move against the Roman Army – with my help of course.”

“And then after they help you defeat Rome, you’ll turn on the Britons and conquer them,” I concluded for her.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because, it’s –”

“What I do.” Xena finished my sentence. “You know me so well,” she said with a cunning smile.

“I still don’t understand what it is you want me to do exactly.”

“I need you to draft a communiqué of conciliation and cooperation from me to Boadicea.”

“Xena, I’m not qualified to help you in matters of foreign policy. You have advisors who are much more skilled at that sort of thing.”

“I need your wisdom and your way with words.”

“But why?”

“I paid a visit there many years ago and made some enemies, including Boadicea. I need to improve relations with her so they’ll accept my help. You speak from the heart and I need it to sound sincere if I’m going to get Boadicea’s help.”

“I don’t know Xena. I’m not sure I can help you in this situation.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I don’t know…”

“I could order you to do it.”

“I suppose.”

“So, are you saying you’ll do it?”

I sat silently, unsure quite how to respond. As much as I didn’t want to disappoint Xena, I didn’t feel comfortable.

“Well?” Xena pressed me for an answer.

“I don’t think I can, Xena. You’re asking me to help you deceive Boadicea into thinking you are her ally, when in truth you plan to overthrow Pompey with her help and then repay her by conquering Britannia. I’m just not sure I can be a part of that.”

I prepared for what I was certain would be a rebuke from Xena for defying her will – again.

“It was wrong of me to involve you,” Xena said softly.

That was not the reaction I was expecting from Xena. I was stunned.

“I know my ways are not your ways,” continued Xena. “I’ve led you on a path you weren’t meant to take.”

I took her hand in mine. “As you say, our ways may be different, but I believe we were meant to walk this path together, wherever it leads us.”

“Hearing it from you, I almost believe it. If I do any good at all, it’s because of you, Gabrielle.”

“Xena, I–”

Xena put her finger to my lips to hush me, and then she slowly leaned in. This was it – the moment I had longed for. My stomach felt like I had swallowed bats. I closed my eyes and held my breath as I waited for Xena’s lips to touch mine.

Instead, she kissed my forehead, and then bade me goodnight.

~~~~~

I pushed the hood of my cloak back as I entered the building that had been the residence of the prime minister of the former king of Corinth.

Rain dripped onto the marbled floor from a crack in the ceiling. “That can be repaired,” I said.

Brutus stepped around the leak and entered the large hall beyond the antechamber.

I followed him as he inspected the main hall. It was large enough to hold a good-sized banquet, the far side opened out into the gardens, beyond which the Sea of Corinth could be seen. There were several rooms off the hall that could be used as offices. The main staircase to the left of the hall led to the living quarters.

“Yes, this could do, ” Brutus said as he looked around. ” I’ll have to check it thoroughly, though.”

“Of course. Any repairs can be carried out easily, I believe. It just needs a good clean.”

He nodded and ascended the staircase while I walked to the far end of the hall and stepped out into the courtyard to view the gardens.

“I’m curious,” he called down. “The Empress told me about your plans for a school, and that you also write stories and plays. Perhaps you could read me one of your stories one evening. And we must arrange to have one of your plays performed at our first embassy banquet.”

I was moved that Xena would speak of me. “I’d be honoured, Ambassador.”

He disappeared into one of the upstairs rooms and I returned my attention back to the garden. The rain clouds appeared to be lifting and there was a chance that the sun would break through in the afternoon.

I was so engrossed in my thoughts that I didn’t hear Brutus come downstairs and approach me until he stood beside me.

“The view will be lovely when the sun is out,” he said.

From the corner of my eye, I noticed him turn to look at me.

“Just like you,” he added in a seductive tone as he lightly brushed my forearm with the back of his hand.

I moved away from him and continued to admire the garden.

“If you’ll forgive my impertinence, you don’t seem like the Empress’s type…” he paused for effect, “…of advisor.”

I understood his inference, but I chose to ignore it. “The Empress must like what I do.”

“Oh, I’m sure of it,” he said suggestively.

“…As her advisor.” I tried not to let his insinuations get to me.

“Beauty and brains. Xena is lucky to have you.”

His meaning was clear and it struck a nerve. I looked him in the eyes and coolly said, “Ambassador, think of me how you wish, but be careful what you say to me, or about me. The Empress once had one of her senior officers flogged for making an improper suggestion to me. I would hate for you to suffer a similar fate.”

“If you were my woman, I would’ve done the same.”

“What do you mean by that?” I asked him tersely.

“Nothing. I was only passing a compliment on y–”

“I would rather you didn’t,” I interrupted him.

“My apologies.” He turned away from my icy glare. “It was not my intention to make you uncomfortable. I will say no more on the subject.”

“That would be best.”

“I’ll continue my inspection alone,” Brutus said as if nothing had happened. “I’ll send word if I have any questions.”

I gave an abrupt nod, turned on my heel, and strode out. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Once outside, I paused to try and compose myself, but Brutus’ words kept repeating over and over in my mind: if you were my woman…if you were my woman…if you were my woman. I didn’t want anyone to find me attractive, to think they could seduce me, or to be their woman – anyone, that is, except Xena.

The walk back to the palace was short, but I was so preoccupied with what Brutus had said to me that I didn’t notice it had begun to rain again. I forgot to put my hood up, so by the time I reached the entrance, my hair was clinging limply to my head. But I couldn’t have cared less about the state of my hair. All I cared about was finding Xena and telling her that I loved her.

~~~~~

Finding Xena wasn’t easy. I checked her study. It was empty. Next, I checked the throne room. She wasn’t there. I went back outside to the drill area. There were troops there but no Xena. She was not in the stables, though her horse was, which meant she must’ve been in the palace somewhere. I tried her quarters, but the cleaning servant said that the Empress hadn’t been there all afternoon.

As I rushed down corridors my chest began to hurt. My need to talk to Xena had started to feel like a heavy weight, making it difficult to breathe. The more I searched and failed to find Xena, the heavier the weight became. I felt like I was in a nightmare: desperately searching the seemingly endless hallways and rooms, unable to breathe – unable to find Xena.

I was running around the corner, on my way to check the throne room again, when I quite literally bumped into her. “Oof!”

She took hold of me by the arms to steady both of us. “What’s the hurry?”

All my pent up emotions came to the surface. My confrontation with Brutus had left me unsettled. My search for Xena had been frustrating. I was so glad to have finally found her that I started to cry.

“Hey! What’s the matter?” cooed Xena, pulling me into an embrace.

The sight of her and the feel of her hands supporting me never felt so good, but you couldn’t have guessed from my reaction. I buried my face in her chest. I was so out of breath that my tears were accompanied by heaving sobs.

“It’s okay, Gabrielle.” She stroked my damp hair, gently entwining her fingers in my short locks. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

“Oh, Xena!” I managed to say between my sobs.

“Are you hurt?” She held me away from her and tilted my face up to hers. “Brutus! Did Brutus hurt you?”

I heard the rising anger in her voice and felt her body trembling.

“If he did, he’s a dead man!”

“No! Brutus didn’t hurt me, I just…” I couldn’t say any more. I buried my head against her body and clung to her as if my life depended on it.

I don’t know how long we stood in the corridor, but eventually Xena lifted me in her strong arms and carried me away. My sobbing eased and I fell asleep before we reached our destination.

~~~~~

I awoke to Xena’s worried face peering down at me.

Xena gently mopped my face with a damp cloth. “How are you feeling?”

I closed my eyes as I recalled the tumultuous emotions that had boiled out of control in me. I felt confused, embarrassed, drained, and unsure of where I was or how I got there. Xena told me she had carried me up to her chambers where I had been sleeping for the better part of two hours.

I immediately tried to get up from the bed. “Two hours? Xena I–”

“Stay put and rest,” she ordered.

I did what I was told and leaned back against the pillows. I studied her face. Her brow was creased with worry and concern, but she looked as beautiful as ever. And those amazing blue eyes, that could strike terror into even the most hardened soldier, were soft and comforting. She made me feel loved and protected.

“Here, drink this.” Xena handed me a steaming cup of liquid.

The warmth of the cup felt good in my hand. I’d felt bone-chilled since leaving Brutus. “What is it?”

“Herbal tea. It’ll help you relax.”

I took a few sips. Her smile widened as I reached out and placed my palm against her cheek.

“Thank you,” I whispered hoarsely.

“For what? A cup of tea?”

“For that, and for caring.”

Her smile faded and she averted her eyes. She looked lost and afraid for a moment, as though she had discovered a situation she couldn’t control. I wanted to tell her I was there to help her, as she was there to help me. But what help could I provide? Here was a woman with power second only to the gods, someone who held in her hands the lives, and deaths, of millions. She only needed to ask for something and it was hers. She didn’t need help.

She needed love.

“Why were you crying?” Xena asked softly.

I took one last sip and handed back the empty cup. “Things just got on top of me today.” I lied. I was afraid of what she might do to Brutus if I told her what had happened.

We sat in silence for a few minutes. I thought about her question about what made me cry. I had a sudden thought: I’d seen Xena smile and laugh, I’d seen her relax and sleep. I had seen her angry and murderous. One thing I had never seen her do was cry. I could remember moments when she stifled her emotions to stop tears from welling up, and times when her eyes were reddened as if she’d shed more than a few tears, but never once had I seen her cry.

“What makes you cry?” I asked without thinking.

She dropped her head, breaking contact with my hand, and moved back out of my reach. I thought for a moment she wasn’t going to answer, but when she did it was in a barely audible whisper. To me, though, it was the loudest word she had ever spoken.

“Loneliness.”

It was the final piece of the puzzle. This complex woman had been in my life for more than a year, and in that time I had been building a picture of who she was. As my feelings for her grew, I had been trying to gain as much insight into her as possible, trying to understand the whole person. And the piece that completed the puzzle was the one that had been right in front of me all the time – she was lonely.

I sat up and reached out to her. She brought her hands up and her long fingers linked with mine.

“You’re not alone,” I whispered.

 

Chapter 10

 

It is said that the bitterness of betrayal is made sweeter by revenge. Julius Caesar was dead, and while his bloody corpse lay rotting in the earth, I ruled Greece and Rome. Revenge was sweet indeed. My only regret was that Caesar had died too quick a death for my liking, but at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that he was betrayed by those he trusted: that fool Pompey and the honourable Brutus.Honourable? A scheming swine was more like it.

I had arranged for Gabrielle to show Brutus around Corinth and help him find a suitable location for his embassy. I wasn’t expecting her back for several hours, so I was surprised when she literally ran into me outside the throne room. She was a sight: her clothes and hair sopping wet from rain, her complexion pallid, her eyes dull, and her face streaked with tears. Obviously shaken, she fell into my arms and sobbed.

I felt my anger rise up like bile with every tear she shed. Gabrielle denied it, but I knew that bastard Brutus had something to do with it. As much as I wanted to find him and cut his heart out for causing her such distress, Gabrielle was my first priority.

The royal apartments were on the north side of the palace, on the top floor, directly above the throne room. Gabrielle’s rooms, however, were at the other end of the east wing. Since my rooms were closer, I picked her up and carried her there. Somewhere halfway up the stairs, Gabrielle fell asleep in my arms. Guards stopped leaning on their lances and snapped to attention when they saw me coming down the hallway. The watch commander rushed over to help, but I waved him off. I didn’t want Gabrielle wakened. As the doors to my private living quarters were opened, I brushed past the guards and headed directly toward my bedchamber.

“See to it that no one disturbs us for the rest of the night. Is that clear?” I said in a low whisper.

“Yes, My Liege,” the watch commander responded. He and the guards saluted smartly and left, closing the massive wooden doors as quietly as they could manage.

Being careful not to wake her, I got Gabrielle out of her wet clothes and slipped her into my bed. I leaned down and touched her cheek; it felt warm.

One of my bedchamber attendants stepped forward. “Shall I fetch the healer?”

“No. Fetch me a cloth and a basin of cool water, and some herbal tea and a cup of hot water.”

“Yes, Empress.” She and another attendant scurried out of the room and came back a few minutes later with the items.

“Good, now leave us. I will call you if I need anything else.”

The servants exited the room bowing and left me to minister to Gabrielle.

~~~~~

Gabrielle slept for more than two hours. I sat with her the whole time keeping a cool, dampened cloth on her fevered forehead. Finally, she awoke. I smiled at her, but I could feel the worry tug at the corners of my mouth. Had she felt better, I’m sure Gabrielle would’ve noticed how unconvincing it was.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

Gabrielle was still a little disoriented. “What happened? How did I get here?”

“You were upset and soaked to the skin, so I brought you here to my chambers.”

“How long have I been asleep?”

“About two hours.”

“Two hours? Xena I–” She tried to get up, but I stopped her with a gentle hand against her shoulder.

“Stay put and rest,” I said firmly.

“I wasn’t planning on going anywhere,” Gabrielle whispered solemnly and settled back against the pillows.

I removed the damp cloth from her forehead. “Here, drink this.” I handed her the cup of warm tea I had made for her.

“What is it?” she asked, warming her hands on the side of the cup.

“Herbal tea. It’ll help you relax.”

Gabrielle took a few sips. “Mmm, good. Thank you.”

“For what? A cup of tea?”

“Well, for that – and for caring.”

If she only knew how much I cared, I thought. If only I had the courage to tell her. Instead I made light of it. “Well, I can’t let my most trusted advisor get sick now, can I?”

Gabrielle managed a weak smile, and then took one last sip before handing me back the empty cup.

I put the teacup down on the end table before turning my attention back to her. “Now, tell me what happened. Why were you crying?”

“I…” she hesitated. “Things just got on top of me today.” Her brooding look told me there was more to it than that, but I didn’t want to press her to tell me until she was ready.

We sat for several interminable minutes, the silence punctuated only by the muted sounds of servants and soldiers going about the business of securing the palace for the night. Doing nothing was the worst kind of torture for me. I sorely wanted to find out what had happened. I wanted to make the responsible party pay for putting her in such a state.

Just as I was about to demand she talk to me, Gabrielle spoke.

“What makes you cry?” She blurted out.

Her question caught me completely off-guard. No one had ever asked me that question. I was nonplussed. My spine stiffened as my instincts took over. I found myself moving away and putting some distance between us. We sat in awkward silence while I wrestled with my instincts to mistrust people’s motives. I reminded myself that this was Gabrielle. She had no hidden agenda. If she asked, it was out of genuine friendship and concern. Still, the walls I’d built to guard my emotions were thick and hard to breach.

Then it struck me. Only a moment before, I had been impatiently waiting for Gabrielle to open up to me, getting more irritated every second she didn’t. Gabrielle, however, patiently waited for me to open up to her, neither pursuing me nor pressing me to answer. The irony of it made me pause and reflect: Gabrielle wasn’t just asking me what made me cry, she was asking me to drop my defences and let her in.

All the while, I’d been wringing the life out of the damp cloth still gripped in my hands. I put down the cloth and thought about her question – really thought about it. After taking a deep breath, I made up my mind to open the fortress gate and admit what made me sad.

“Loneliness.” My voice sounded timid and unsure. I suppose I was afraid to admit it even to myself.

Gabrielle sat up in the bed and reached out and took my hand in hers. “You’re not alone.”

The love reflected in her green eyes and in the warmth of her touch conveyed the deeper meaning of her words. That’s when I knew I could trust Gabrielle with my heart. I wanted to gather her into my arms and thank the Fates for my good fortune. Instead, I sat there, holding her hand like a love-struck youth, searching for the courage to tell her how I felt.

In contrast, Gabrielle was bold and courageous. “Xena, there’s something I’ve wanted to tell to you.”

“Yes, Gabrielle, what is it?”

“I love you, Xena. I’m in love with you.”

Her words hit me like a roundhouse kick. I was staggered. “You don’t know what you’re saying!” Again, I didn’t react the way I wanted to. I wanted to shout I love you too, Gabrielle, instead I pulled my hand away and raved like a madwoman.

Gabrielle remained composed and undaunted. “Yes I do, Xena. I may not know much about the ways of love, but I do know what love is. And I know I love you.”

“No, you don’t! How could you? You’re just a–”

“A what? A girl?”

“No, I…” My mouth was as dry as the deserts of Egypt. I needed a drink. I got up from the bed and retreated across the room to a table near the balcony. I poured a goblet of wine and gulped it down, and then poured another and gulped it down.

I felt a hand touch the small of my back. My muscles tensed, and I cursed myself inwardly for not sensing her approach. In battle, that would’ve been a costly mistake.

“Xena,” Gabrielle said. “Did I somehow misinterpret your feelings for me?” Gabrielle had me cornered against the serving table, and there was no place left for me to run.

With one last gulp of wine for fortitude, I turned and faced her. “No, you didn’t misinterpret my feelings for you. It’s just…”

“It’s just that you opened your heart once, to Caesar, and he betrayed you, so you’re afraid to let someone get that close again. Is that it?”

“That’s part of it,” I admitted.

“And you’re afraid you’ll hurt me.”

“You don’t know what I’m capable of,” I warned her. Suddenly, my mind conjured up images of that girl who resembled Gabrielle, Anteia, and how roughly I had treated her.

“Yes, I do. I know you are passionate, and your passion can sometimes erupt into anger, but you also have the capability to love just as passionately.”

I didn’t answer. My mind was still a tempest of conflicting emotions: love, disbelief, elation, uncertainty. She was right when she said about me being afraid of letting myself trust enough to love. I gave my heart to Caesar and he crucified my trust.

“Xena, do you trust me?”

“Huh?” Gabrielle had this unnerving ability to read my thoughts. “Yes, of course.”

“Then trust that I love you, and I would never, ever betray you.” Gabrielle had knocked down the last of my defences like a catapult.

“Gabrielle, I…” The words didn’t come. I was finally ready to admit my feelings for her, but the words got stuck in my throat.

“I know, Xena.”

Gabrielle tilted her head and leaned upward, gently touching her lips to mine. Again, I hesitated as my instincts sounded the alarm. But this time I ignored my head and gave into my heart. I took Gabrielle in my arms and kissed her back. The kiss was lingering and sweet. Drawing her closer still, we shared another tender kiss. And another that hinted at the passion I felt for her. I took my time, ever so lightly coaxing her lips to open and her tongue to move with mine. As our desire became more heated, our kisses became more passionate.

Needing to catch her breath, Gabrielle pulled back from my lips. “Wow,” she dreamily exclaimed.

Wow is right, I thought. I had kissed many lovers passionately but felt no passion. Kissing Gabrielle left me quivering and tingling like I’d been hit me by a thunderbolt. With her standing so close to me, wearing only my red silk robe draped loosely over her petite body, it took all my willpower not to pull her down and make love to her right there on the floor.

Desperately clinging to my last grain of control, I released her and took a step back. Before we took this any further, I felt I needed to make a confession.

“Gabrielle–” “Xena–” We both spoke at the same time.

“You go first,” I deferred.

“No, you go first.” Gabrielle insisted.

So I did. “Remember that night in Thessalia, when I nearly forced – uh, when I kissed you?”

“Yes,” she said. The sadness in her voice made me wince at the memory.

“Well, I wasn’t that drunk. I was jealous. The thought of you with…” I paused.

“Galates,” she offered.

“Yes,” I admitted.

“Xena, I swear to you, Galates and I are just good friends.”

“I know. My behaviour was inappropriate and I…regret it.” I wasn’t much good at apologies either.

“It’s alright,” she said, her fingertips brushing it against my cheek, “but thank you.”

Guiding her hand to my lips, I placed soft kisses in her palm. Her body faintly shivered as the tip of my tongue lightly traced her lifelines. The effect this was having on Gabrielle had an effect on me. I felt a warmth that I knew didn’t come from the wine.

I released her hand and brought the conversation back to her. “Now what were you going to say?”

“Well, I have a confession to make, too,” she said.

“Yes?”

“I’m not…I haven’t….” Her cheeks flared scarlet as she stumbled through her confession.

I had assumed Gabrielle was a virgin and, admittedly, that thought had fuelled my fantasies. I’d had taken many lovers to my bed and thought little of it past my own sexual gratification. Suddenly I felt a twinge of guilt for having taken from others this precious gift Gabrielle was so freely giving to me.

“Nothing has to happen tonight, Gabrielle. We can take things as slow as you need to.”

“No!” she exclaimed. “More than anything I want to be with you, to give myself to you. It’s just that I don’t have a lot of experience, and no amount of talking is going to help me bluff my way through this.”

“Gabrielle, talking is the last thing I want you to do tonight,” I joked. That got her to smile a little and relax.

Gabrielle took my hand and led me over to the bed. After she helped me undress, we lay in bed facing each other. Gabrielle looked at me with such love and longing. I can’t ever remember seeing that look in a lover’s face before. I wanted to etch this night into my memory: the warmth of her soft skin against mine, the lingering scent of olive oil and lavender in her hair, the faint taste of herbal tea on her tongue.

With the yielding shimmer of love in her soft green eyes, Gabrielle was the image of both innocence and seduction. I’ve never wanted someone as much as I wanted her at that moment. That’s when the reality of what was happening finally sunk in. This was not just another night of carnal pleasure. Gabrielle and I were making love, and it was her first time and our first night together. Adrenalin coursed through my body in equal parts desire and fear.

I leaned over her, pressing my lips ever so softly against hers, waiting for my tongue to be given entry and then letting her set the pace. Our tongues moved in a slow, sensual dance, like two mermaids playing in the sea.

Gabrielle’s hips began to move and her breathing quickened as I reverently kissed my way down to her breasts. Hearing Gabrielle moan sent a wave of empathic quivers down to my own groin. I had to be careful not to pinch or suck on her sensitive nipples too vigorously.

While my mouth roamed the landscape around her firm peaks, my hand made a slow descent, exploring the topography of Gabrielle’s soft curves. When my fingers reached the very edge of her pubes, I paused one more time to gauge whether she really wanted this. I saw Gabrielle’s answer in her eyes: her eyelids were half-closed, her irises had turned a deeper shade of green, and her pupils were wide with desire. My throbbing mons demanded attention, but her pleasure was all that mattered to me.

Gabrielle’s pelvis rocked against my hand, wordlessly communicating her need to be touched. My fingers moved in small circles, applying just a little pressure as my hand inched closer to her clitoris. Her stifled moans sounded more like adorable little squeaks, but I knew she would soon be crying out my name. That was a potent aphrodisiac.

“So beautiful,” I murmured softly in her ear. Her mumbled response resonated deep inside my aching vagina, releasing a stream of wetness that coated my sex. It was sweet torture for me to deny my own demanding nature and focus instead on my desire to please Gabrielle.

Gabrielle’s hips lurched when my finger first grazed her clit. Gliding along her swollen folds, my finger gently explored just inside her vagina, coaxing it to release more of its musk rose nectar, while my thumb pressed against the hooded pearl of her clit. I was careful not to push too hard. I knew she was becoming very aroused, as was I, but I didn’t want her to come just yet. I wanted this moment to last for the both of us.

On her next upward thrust, my finger broke through the delicate barrier. Gabrielle took a sharp breath as my finger settled inside her.

Soon her hips were undulating in rhythm with my gentle thrusts. Her chest rose and fell with heavy breaths. Her guttural moans urged me to quicken my pace.

When I sensed she was ready, I added a second finger and delicately stroked the silken walls of her vagina. I murmured my encouragement. “Come for me, Gabrielle.”

“Ohhhh…” she cried as her back arched upward and her muscles tightened, “…Xena!”

I too felt a surge crest inside me as I held her juddering body close to my own, and we were joined as one in that exquisite moment of release.

When our bodies finally stilled, Gabrielle rested her head on my chest and curled into me, and I enfolded her. We held each other in contented bliss for several minutes.

Her speechless enthusiasm made me beam. I knew just how she felt, because I felt the same. I couldn’t remember sex being anything other than a release for my frustrations, or a method of exercising my control over someone. With Gabrielle, it was a gift of love, one heart to another – a mating of body and soul. I didn’t know I could be so moved. It was wondrous – indescribable really.

When Gabrielle was finally able to speak, she could only manage a word or two. “Xena that was… I felt….”

“That’s what you’re supposed to feel,” I said, “and that’s only the beginning.”

“You mean there’s more?”

My tongue lightly traced the outside of her ear, which brought forth another low moan from Gabrielle.

“Much more,” I whispered seductively.

“I don’t know if I can take any more!” She exclaimed.

I met her gaze with a knowing smile. “Trust me, you can, and you will love it.”

We exhausted ourselves through the sheer intensity of the love we felt for each other. I had never experienced such power as when I made love with Gabrielle. Greece, Rome, the whole world, could not give me that power. One only gets that kind of power from surrendering to the unconquerable force of love.

I thought she had fallen asleep until I felt a tear fall onto my skin. “Why are you crying now?” I asked.

“Because I finally know where I belong – with you. I love you, Xena.”

That night, I wanted to give her everything, show her everything. Instead, she showed me lovemaking at its most intimate and sensual. And finally I knew where I belonged – with Gabrielle.

“I love you, Gabrielle.” I had finally found the words.

~~~~~

The next morning, I awoke with Gabrielle’s soft skin pressed up against me. My whole world had changed because of the woman sleeping in my arms. Recalling how exquisite the previous night was, I felt like I had been reborn.

There was nothing I wanted more than to stay in bed all day and make love with Gabrielle, but affairs of state beckoned. I had an audience with Brutus before mid-day, and I didn’t want to keep the new Ambassador from Rome waiting.

It was hard to get up. The warm, comfortable presence in my bed was something I wanted to savour for as long as possible. I looked at Gabrielle’s peaceful face and the contented smile that graced it. I struggled to remember the last time I had seen anyone so relaxed, so comfortable, so at ease in my presence. I leaned over and kissed the tip of her nose. She groaned and one hand came up to rub where my lips had been.

The melody of bird song signalled the oncoming dawn and I climbed out of bed. I wrapped a robe around myself and stepped out onto the balcony. The courtyard below was slick with overnight rain, but the coming day promised to be dry. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the palace and the city waking up. After a few minutes, I heard the soft rustle of sheets being moved aside, then the gentle patter of feet, and finally I felt arms wrap around my waist and a cheek press against my back.

“Come back to bed,” Gabrielle murmured, “it’s cold.”

I turned around in her embrace and looked down at her. “I’d love to, but I have some business to attend to before the audience with Brutus.”

She looked back with a resigned smile.

“Don’t worry,” I continued, “I’m planning on keeping this afternoon free.”

Her smile widened and an inviting twinkle appeared in her eyes. Suddenly, my morning plans didn’t seem quite so urgent.

~~~~~

I studied Darphus as he walked across the floor of my study to where I was seated. He had a carefree, relaxed attitude to his stride. His scarred face carried an easy smile as he halted and saluted.

“You sent for me, My Liege?”

“Yes, Lieutenant. At ease.”

He relaxed his posture at my command.

“I need a strong man, Darphus, but above all I need a loyal man.”

A few yellowed teeth showed as his grin widened. “Me?”

I nodded.

“I’m always ready to serve you, My Empress.”

I stood and walked with an authoritative gait over to the window. “Law and order are the cornerstones of a strong empire. I have neglected it slightly. With Gabrielle’s appointment I thought it would be enough, but I need a force to ensure her orders are carried out. I want you to head that force.”

The idea for this force had come from Larrius, the dissident that Gabrielle had sentenced. I didn’t tell Darphus this, though I knew he would find out in time. Getting him to take the job would be easier if he assumed it was my idea.

“I’m not sure I understand.” Darphus furrowed his brow.

“Law needs to be enforced. If someone breaks the law, there needs to be someone to bring him to justice. Likewise order. If something threatens the order of society, the people need to be protected.”

“Isn’t that already the job of the army?”

“I need my army to concentrate on external matters. I want you to co-ordinate with Gabrielle in setting up a civilian force. They won’t be as highly trained as the regular army.” I could see doubt on his face. “I’m not talking about a weak force, Darphus. I want them as loyal and strong as my army, but I want them to be trained to deal with crime, not war.”

Darphus pondered my words for a few moments. “As head of this force, would I take my orders from you or Gabrielle?”

“Both of us, though Gabrielle will be your point of contact, in general. She’ll convey all but the most important of my orders. She’ll also be giving you her own orders. They’ll be more directives than orders. I’m sure once things settle down you’ll be able to run things with minimal guidance.”

That easy demeanour Darphus had when he entered my study was gone. He looked pensive and said nothing for several minutes. I had anticipated having to convince him or even order him to take the job, so I added an incentive. “Of course, if you do a good job, it might mean a promotion.”

“You mean, to Commander in the Imperial Army?”

“Perhaps. Let’s see how well you do with the Civil Protection Force first.”

That seemed to help him make the decision, before I had to make it for him. “I guess it’ll be a challenge.”

I ignored his lack of enthusiasm for his new position. “That’s the spirit. I know I can count on you.”

Darphus mumbled an acknowledgement and I dismissed him.

~~~~~

After attending to the important issue of the morning, I then had to deal with a more delicate matter.

Galates was in the barracks polishing his armour when I found him. He jumped to his feet, just catching the armour before it fell to the ground, and stood to attention.

I took my time to study the barracks before turning my attention on the handsome, young lieutenant. He was as eager as ever to please, but had lost that edge of nervousness he first had when he was promoted to my senior staff.

“Your unit is about to begin a tour of duty in Thrace, is it not?”

“Yes, My Liege.” His reply was perfectly clipped, just like his stance.

“When do they leave?”

“Dawn tomorrow, My Liege.”

“You won’t be going with them.” I saw him want to ask why, but he knew better than to question my words. “You’re being transferred to the Palace Guards – with a promotion to Lieutenant Commander, of course.”

Unlike Darphus, Galates seemed genuinely pleased with his new assignment. “Yes, My Liege. As you command, My Liege.” He nearly fell over coming to attention and saluting me.

“At ease, Lieutenant Commander.”

He stood at ease with the same precision he stood to attention with.

I had to consider my next words carefully. I knew what I wanted to say to him, I just didn’t know how, or why.

“Gabrielle and I…” I reconsidered my words. “We… what I mean…” I closed my mouth hard. I was making myself look a fool in front of a subordinate. I shouldn’t have to explain my sleeping arrangements with a soldier, but Gabrielle valued her friendship with Galates and I somehow felt I ought to tell him.

“Permission to speak, My Liege?”

“Granted,” I said with some relief. It would allow me time to get the words right.

“Gabrielle has already spoken to me,” he said, his cheeks reddening. “She told me… told me that… um.” He cleared his throat.

“I think we both know what she said.”

“Yes, My Liege.”

“I know Gabrielle would miss you if you went away. But don’t think that my decision to put you in charge of the palace guards is solely based on that, or that being her friend gives you any special privileges.”

“No, My Liege.”

“You earned this on merit, and if you fail me you’ll suffer the same as anyone else who fails me. Is that understood?”

“Yes, My Liege.”

I took the time to study Galates and discovered why Gabrielle considered him a good friend. He exuded an air of trust. I got the feeling that he was incapable of duplicity, that he was willing to give without expecting to receive, and that he would protect me by laying down his own life without a second thought. Just like Gabrielle.

So why had Gabrielle chosen me and not Galates? I wondered.

~~~~~

Some would say diplomacy is like a play, with actors dressing up in costumes and saying the right words on cue. Others might call it a game, where pawns are moved about the board according to a set of rules. To me, diplomacy is a battle: words are used to outflank the opponent instead of soldiers.

Diplomacy demanded that Brutus receive an official reception. His brief appearance in my throne room a few days previously had been nothing more than a simple hello. A proper audience was required where he would declare his ambassadorial credentials and I would offer him the usual range of diplomatic privileges. Several of my regional governors had arrived to witness the occasion. Braextus was one of them. I hadn’t seen the governor of Thessalia since I had conquered Athens.

“Empress.” He bowed respectfully. His face broke into a friendly smile when he saw me.

“Governor.” I extended my hand and he clasped it in his own. “It’s good to see you again. I’ve been meaning to pay you a visit.”

“There’s nothing wrong is there?” A moment of doubt flickered in his eyes. “I mean, you’re always welcome, but I hope I’m doing a good job for you.”

“You’re doing fine.” I eased his worries. The fact that he was worried piqued my curiosity. I made a mental note to find out why. I stepped back and looked him up and down. “Though you’ve put on a bit of weight by the looks.” I laughed and patted his stomach.

He returned my laugh. “You know how it is, too much paperwork and not enough action.”

“You need to get an assistant,” I advised him.

“Speaking of which, what did you do with yours? Is she still around?”

At the mention of Gabrielle, my thoughts turned to the previous night. I must have spent too long thinking because Braextus prompted me.

“Empress?”

“Hmm? Yes, she’s still around. In fact, I promoted her.”

“Promoted? To what?”

“Gabrielle is now my Advisor for Civilian Affairs.”

Braextus chuckled. “You getting soft in your old age?”

“The people are important, Braextus. Without them I wouldn’t have an empire to rule. It makes sense to keep them placated.”

“I thought you were all for ruling through fear.”

“Oh I am. The people fear my justice, but by seeming to care for them they are less likely to cause trouble. And the less effort I devote to dealing with internal unrest, the more I can devote to conquering other territories.”

“Like Rome?”

“Exactly.”

“What is this Brutus like?” he asked.

“Clever. Possibly dangerous,” I said.

I glanced around the room, noticing a few more arrivals. Among them was Gabrielle. She was chatting to Darphus, but she turned to look at me as my eyes fell on her. She gave me a tiny nod and returned her attention back to the commander.

I excused myself to Braextus and circulated around the other guests. I had instructed everyone to arrive before Brutus, and at my signal they lined up either side of the aisle.

“Come with me, Gabrielle.” I took hold of her arm and led her to my throne. Darnell was already standing there. “Move over,” I ordered him.

There was a pause of several heartbeats before the general took a couple of paces to his right. I took my seat and left Gabrielle standing to my immediate right. I could hear the muttering from the crowd as they took notice of the position I put Gabrielle in. I picked up my sceptre and tapped the arm of the throne. Silence descended.

Satisfied that everything was in order, I counted to twenty, and then nodded at the guards near the doors. The two soldiers took hold of the massive brass door handles and pulled the doors open, revealing Brutus and his honour guard.

I watched the Roman ambassador march slowly up the aisle. His eyes flicked to Gabrielle at my side. I wondered what he was thinking. Despite Gabrielle’s insistence to the contrary, I knew Brutus was responsible for the state I found her in the evening before. As he approached, I pondered what the correct protocol was for killing an ambassador at his official reception.

Brutus paused at the foot of the steps that led up to my throne and bowed.

“Your Highness,” he intoned cautiously.

I waited in silence for him to look up. He flinched momentarily when he saw the glare I had fixed on him. At that moment, it would have been so easy to strike him down. But a presence on my right held me back.

Brutus recovered and cleared his throat. “May I present my credentials along with a letter from Pompey the Magnus, Emperor of the Imperial Roman Empire.” He gestured for one of the guards to step forward. The soldier held out a couple of scrolls to Brutus. He thought about taking them before sending the soldier up the steps to hand me the parchments.

I smiled inwardly at his reaction. He was smart enough not to get too close at that moment. I took the offered scrolls and handed the soldier one of my own.

“This scroll,” I announced, “confirms your ambassadorial status and grants you all privileges that the position accords.” I frowned. I wasn’t sure I remembered that bit correctly. I waved my hand. “Or whatever,” I added.

“Thank you, Empress Xena.” He took my scroll from his guard. “May this exchange be a positive step in the relationship between our two great nations.”

“Indeed. I look forward to forging closer ties with Rome.”

With a nod I signalled the end of the formal acceptance of Brutus as ambassador. A ripple of applause spread through the gathered guests.

“Time for the banquet,” I declared.

A rumble of conversation started as the guests broke line and headed out of the throne room toward the banquet hall. I stood up and gestured for Gabrielle to precede me down the steps. Brutus was waiting for us. He bowed his head in Gabrielle’s direction.

“You seemed upset about something, Your Highness,” Brutus said to me. “I hope I haven’t inadvertently done anything to cause that.”

I shot a quick glance at Gabrielle before answering him. “I had a very good night last night, and was hoping to continue my good fortune today. Unfortunately I had to come and play politics with you.” I allowed a smile to form on my lips.

“Then I apologise for spoiling your day.”

We followed the crowd into the banquet hall where a buffet had been laid on. The guests were waiting for me to select my food first. I directed Brutus to go first and followed him. During the meal, Brutus and I circulated in different directions as we talked to the various guests. By the time I had exhausted my limited repertoire of small talk, a few guests, including Brutus, had already left. I decided to take my leave and escort Gabrielle back to my chamber and carry on from where we left off that morning.

“Are you ready to go?” I asked her.

“If it is your wish, My Liege.”

I smiled as she played the dutiful courtier in front of the guests.

“It is my wish,” I replied.

We left the banquet hall and headed for my chambers. As we passed the throne room, I remembered that I had left my sceptre on the throne.

“You carry on,” I told Gabrielle. “I’ll be there shortly.”

Gabrielle headed for my chambers and I returned to the throne room. As I entered the anteroom, I could hear voices holding a whispered conversation. I recognised the voices as belonging to Brutus and Darnell. Why the ambassador and my general were holding a private talk in my throne room intrigued me. I silently crept closer and ducked into an alcove. From there I could see them and just about make out what they were saying.

“It’s good to know who I can trust. Good allies are hard to find.”

“To strong allies,” said Brutus and held out his right arm.

Darnell grasped the offered forearm. “To strong allies,” he repeated.

Brutus nodded and they went their separate ways, Brutus returning to the banquet hall via the connecting door and Darnell heading to the Council room. I didn’t for one moment think they were celebrating Brutus’ appointment. The only other explanation was that I would have to watch my back very carefully. I could’ve made my move then and there and had the pair executed, but I decided to wait and see what games they were going to play. As long as I was aware of their treachery, I had the upper hand.

I retrieved my sceptre and returned to my room to be greeted by the sight of Gabrielle lying by the fire drinking a goblet of wine. She looked at me and smiled.

“Does that feature in any of the plans you have for this afternoon?” asked Gabrielle.

I was baffled by her question. “What?”

She nodded at the sceptre in my hand. “That thing.”

“No.”

Gabrielle climbed to her feet and approached me. “Then why did you go and get it?” She took the sceptre from my hand and studied it. “It’s still an ugly rock,” she whispered and tossed it lightly on a nearby chair.

My eyes followed the sceptre: it was the symbol I had chosen to represent my power and she had tossed it aside like it was a piece of worthless junk. Deep inside I heard a distant voice cry out that she should be punished for such disrespect, but I’d long since learnt to ignore that voice where Gabrielle was concerned. I knew that she loved me, not the accoutrements of my power.

I felt her hand on my face and turned from the sceptre to look at her.

“You don’t need it.” She moved her hand and placed it over my heart. “This is where your power lies. And it’s a beautiful thing.”

My mind wandered back to the first day Gabrielle entered my camp and my life. Her spirit and enthusiasm captivated me even then. Over time, I came to rely on her simple wisdom, her honesty, and her love. As I had conquered Greece, she had conquered my heart. That first day she claimed we were fated to be together. I, however, believed that just like ruling the world, she was my destiny.

~~~~~

END OF PART I Continued in Part 2 Harbringer of Fate

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