The Conqueror: Sceptre Of Fate Part III: In the Hands of Fate by Harpy & HkdonXetG

ScepterofFatepart1

The Conqueror: Sceptre of Fate
Part III:  In the Hands of Fate
By: Harpy & HkdonXetG  ©2014

 

 

Story Disclaimers
 Category:    XWP; Conqueror/Alternate Timeline; Classic X/G; ALT (f/f), 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 depicts Xena and Gabrielle in an alternate timeline and is loosely based upon the HTLJ Series episode (H73/414) Armageddon Now II. It is not necessary to have seen the episode to read and enjoy Sceptre of Fate. We encourage you to read SOF Parts I and II, though Part III can be read separately.

Content Disclaimer: This story is rated Mature – for readers who are 18 years or older.

Sexual Content: This is a story about Xena and Gabrielle who, in any timeline, are fated to be together as friends, lovers, and soul mates. That means this is an Alternative Fan Fiction story with scenes of sexual intimacy between two females, though not overly explicit.

Violence Content: This is a Xena Warrior Princess story set in the time of the Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Persians, who spent a fair amount of time trying to conquer each other, and Life in general was usually brutal and short. In Sceptre of Fate, there is a fair amount of violence, though it is in keeping with the XWP & HTLJ television series.

important notice: In SOF III, there is a scene of attempted sexual assault and a few violent deaths. While this may be distressful to some readers, it is important to the plot, and we made sure it was neither gratuitous nor overly graphic.

If you are not 18 years or older, or violence and F/F sexual situations are not your cup of tea, then this would not be a story for you.

Story Summary

In The Conqueror: Sceptre of Fate, Part III: In the Hands of Fate, Xena’s worse fears have come true and knowledge of her relationship with Gabrielle has made Gabrielle a target for those who oppose the Empress. Intrigue, betrayal, and conspiracy imperil alliances, friendships, and lives, and no one is above suspicion as Xena uncovers a plot that threatens the stability of her empire.

Will Xena rescue Gabrielle or will Xena be too late to save her? Will the Treaty with the Amazons be ratified or will the Amazon Queen be collateral damage in the growing conspiracy? Will Xena’s plans for conquest be thwarted? Will Xena and Gabrielle be united in love or will unforeseen forces jeopardise their happiness and risk the fate of all they hold dear?

A different timeline, a different Xena and Gabrielle – or are they? Read Sceptre of Fate, Part III and find out in this original and refreshing take on Xena and Gabrielle in the alternate timeline of the Conqueror.

Note from the Authors

Acknowledgements: When we (Harpy & HkdonXetG) first came together in 2001 and agreed to collaborate on a story about Xena and Gabrielle in an alternate timeline, we could not have imagined or predicted we would still be writing Sceptre of Fate a decade later. When we said in the Disclaimers for SOF II that “…RL (real life) threw everything it could at us…” we didn’t realise what an understatement that was! Still we persevered, because we had a story to tell, and we had the encouragement and support of so many people.

First and foremost, we want to express our gratitude to all the fan fiction readers who read our story. We especially want to thank those SOF Fans who took the time to write to us and let us know how much you enjoyed the story; your very positive feedback encouraged us to keep writing, no matter what. We hope you find SOF Part III worth the wait!

And once again we want to acknowledge and thank our brilliant Beta-Reader, Bindi (B-Bard4Sure) who has been there from the beginning of this project. Bindi also contributed the fabulous story cover artwork for SOF.

To find more of her artwork, please visit her web page: www.bbindi.com

Also, we thank Michele, for putting up with all the late nights and weekly chat/writing sessions over the past 10 years, and for all the love and support.

Lastly, we’d like to acknowledge each other for more than ten years of collaboration and friendship with a darn good story to show for it.

Authors’ Technical Notes: The Sceptre of Fate Series is written from the perspective of both Gabrielle and Xena by alternating POV (point of view) every other chapter. So, for example, Chapter 1 is written from Gabrielle’s perspective; Chapter 2 is written from Xena’s perspective; and so on. This format offers the reader an added bonus: Sceptre of Fate can be read from just one POV or the other (so, reading all Odd-Numbered Chapters for SOF from Gabrielle’s POV or Even-Numbered Chapters for SOF from Xena’s POV). Sceptre of Fate is written using British English spelling.

Feedback Request:  Your feedback is the manna that sustains us, so please feed the bards at harpy1553@yahoo.co.uk and HkdonXetG@yahoo.com.

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Chapter 1
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Xena was fond of saying that Fate had less to do with the lines on your palm than your own two hands – that your future is what you make it. I had always believed that just as the loom weaves wool into strong cloth, so too the golden threads of two people’s lives are woven together into a bond so strong nothing could break it. We soon discovered, however, that our relationship could unravel and our future together was not in our own hands, but in the hands of Fate.

~~~~~

Two days. Two miserable and lonely days had passed since Xena and I last spoke. No, not spoke – argued. And for two long days I waited in vain hoping that Xena would return for me, and we would make up and put the whole sorry affair behind us.

Xena didn’t even want to go to the feast at the Amazon camp. She didn’t trust Queen Terreis’ motives for inviting us, but I wore down Xena’s defences until she agreed.

At first everything seemed to go well, but that didn’t last. I was naïve to think it would. Alcohol never failed to bring out the worse in people. It certainly brought out the worst in Xena, and being honest, the worst in me as well.

The trouble began over a silly adolescent boast Xena made to Ephiny about bedding me that I was obviously not meant to overhear. Had I been more sober, I might’ve waited until we were alone to confront Xena, but I didn’t. I had it out with her right there, in the middle of the entire camp of Amazon warriors, and I didn’t care who heard us.

“Is that what this is, Xena? A ‘situation’?”

“Don’t be facetious.”

“Oh! That’s me put in my place then!”

“Gabrielle, this is no time for one of your little spats.”

The situation quickly went from bad to worse, and the evening ended with me defiantly refusing to leave with Xena, Xena storming out of camp, and Queen Terreis nursing a broken collarbone. If only broken relationships could be mended as easily as collarbones.

~~~~~

On the morning of the third day, it was clear that Xena was not going to come for me, so I would have to go to her. Either way, we needed to resolve this rift between us.

When I told Queen Terreis that I was going back to the palace, she insisted on going with me, under the pretext of wanting to tell the Empress that she would sign the treaty.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “You mean you would still sign the treaty after what happened?”

“What happened?” The Amazon Queen replied as though she had no memory of the argument, her fight with Xena, her injury.

“The challenge, remember? Xena very nearly killed you!”

“Yes, but she didn’t.” The red-haired woman struggled to swing her legs off the bed and sit up.

“All the more reason to stay as far away from her as possible,” I countered. “Xena is not a very gracious loser.”

“Which is all the more reason to go,” Terreis replied as she adjusted the sling that cradled her left arm.

I didn’t follow the logic of her reasoning and it must’ve shown on my face, so Terreis explained.

“You are right, Gabrielle. Warriors with the unparalleled skill of the Empress hate to lose. And that is why I must go.”

Terreis gathered up her boots from nearby and handed them to me. “Here, can you give me a hand to get these things on?”

I knelt down and helped guide a boot over each foot. “I still don’t understand.”

Terreis steadied herself on my arm and stood up. “The only reason I am still alive,” she continued, “is because Xena conceded the fight and left the field of combat.”

“Yes?” I still couldn’t see the connection.

My bemusement amused her. “My dear friend, are you so blind that you cannot see? Xena lost the fight because she didn’t want to lose you. She walked away because she loves you more than her own pride.”

Terreis’ keen observation hit me like freezing water being splashed in my face. In all my brooding, I had never examined the events that came after the fight. It was true, Xena had uncharacteristically conceded the fight, though she was clearly winning, and left the Amazon camp without another word spoken. Finally I understood what I should have known all along: Xena had left because she loved me.

Terreis continued, “You see, if I make this concession, of going to the Empress and signing the treaty, that will go some way to repairing relations between the two of us and restoring her pride.”

The Amazon Queen was making a very magnanimous gesture, but I was concerned that Xena would not be so magnanimous if Terreis accompanied me back to the palace. “That is very generous of you,” I replied. “Still, the treaty signing really can wait until your shoulder is healed.”

“I don’t need my left arm to make my mark on a treaty,” Terreis replied.

“That may be, but I’m not going to have you walk all the way to the palace while I ride Daisy, and I’m not an expert enough rider to manage with you on the back of Daisy with only one good arm.” I thought I had finally come up with a reason Terreis couldn’t challenge.

Terreis looked puzzled. “Daisy? Who’s Daisy?”

“My horse,” I explained.

“You named your male horse ‘Daisy’?”

“Yes, why not? There are male daisies aren’t there?”

Terreis put her good arm around my shoulder and chuckled. “That’s what I admire about you, Gabrielle. You are a non-conformist. You follow your own path.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“Okay, so we will leave Daisy here and walk back together. I will have someone bring him back to the palace after he’s been fed.”

“Well, I…I can’t predict what kind of mood Xena is going to be in—”

“Are you always this stubborn?” Terreis asked.

“Oh, yes,” I replied, “just ask Xena!”

“I intend to, because I am going with you, and that’s final.” Terreis raised her good arm and put her fist on her hip. “You’ll find I can be just as stubborn.”

Before I could say another word, we were distracted by a familiar voice outside the tent. It was Ephiny, Terreis’ second-in-command. She announced herself and entered. “My Queen. I heard voices, so I came to see if you were all right. How is your shoulder?”

“It’s fine. And your arm?”

Ephiny looked puzzled until Terreis pointed to the angry gash on her arm. Ephiny was quick to dismiss it. “Oh that? I completely forgot it was even there.”

The Amazon Queen teased her second-in-command. “I dare say Solari isn’t going to let you forget anytime soon.”

I stifled a chuckle as the proud Amazon warrior answered her queen’s dig with an irked ‘humph’. Ephiny’s scowl was quickly replaced with a smile when Terreis announced that I would be going back to the palace this morning.

“So soon?” Ephiny replied with obvious irony. “I’ll have her horse readied immediately.”

Ephiny reminded me of the Empress’ senior military advisor, General Darnell, and his not-too-subtle disdain for me. What is it about second-in-commands anyway? I thought.

“No rush. Gabrielle is leaving Daisy here, for now,” Terreis said.

“Daisy? Who’s Daisy?” asked the tall warrior with curly blonde mane.

Terreis replied, “Her horse.”

“Figures,” Ephiny scoffed under her breath. “Why are you leaving your horse?” Her tone was stern and suspicious.

“I, uh…”

“Gabrielle and I have decided to walk back to the palace,” Terreis explained.

Ephiny looked directly at me, and if looks were spears, I would’ve been impaled. “Whose idea was that?”

“Mine,” the Amazon Queen declared.

I was expecting Ephiny’s vehement rejection of the idea. To my surprise, her whole demeanour changed and she spoke to her queen in a tender tone. “You need to rest. I will accompany Gabrielle back to the palace.”

“I’ve just been through all that with Gabrielle. I’m fine. I won’t break,” Terreis replied with a smile.

“All right, let me round up the others.” Ephiny started towards the entry of the tent.

“No need. Gabrielle and I can manage without—”

“You are not going without an escort,” the Queen’s second-in-command said pointedly.

Rather than impose her royal will, Queen Terreis employed her practised diplomacy. “Under the circumstances, I don’t think it is a good idea for me to show up with an armed escort.”

“Then I will escort you – unarmed if you like.”

“No, I need you to look after things here,” Terreis replied.

“I can’t let you just walk into the palace unprotected!” Ephiny protested. “You don’t know what the Empress is liable to do.”

Terreis gave Ephiny’s arm a gentle squeeze. “You worry too much.”

“It’s my job.”

I watched the exchange between Terreis and Ephiny with more than passing interest. There was a tenderness between them I had never noticed before. It was pleasing to discover the otherwise reserved blonde warrior did indeed possess a tender side.

I tried to offer Ephiny some reassurance. “You don’t have to worry Ephiny. Nothing will happen, I promise.”

“And what do you think the two of you are going to do if you run into trouble along the way, eh? You can’t fight because of your shoulder, and you—” Ephiny paused and gestured towards me, “you can’t fight!”

I took offence. “I can so fight, and I have the blisters to prove it!” I held out my palms to show her.

It took a bit more persuasion, but Terreis finally convinced Ephiny to let us walk back to the palace without an escort, but only after we promised to stay off the main road.

~~~~~

The forest outside of Corinth was dense and lush, the likes of which I had never seen in the coastal plains around Potidaea. The path we followed showed signs of recent use, though one could tell it wasn’t a well-used thoroughfare. It was well off the main road and meandered around huge trees – ancient and tall. I stopped once or twice to examine deer tracks or take in a deep breath of clean, pine scented air. Had I the time, I would’ve enjoyed exploring more of the forest; however, I was anxious to get back to the palace – and Xena.

When we first started out from the Amazon camp, the path was wide enough to accommodate the both of us walking side by side. As we walked, I chattered away about anything and everything that came into my head. I suppose it was nervous anticipation of seeing Xena again and wondering what kind of welcome I would receive from her. And when I get nervous, I say whatever comes into my head, and what came into my head at that particular moment was the relationship between a certain Amazon Queen and her champion.

“Terreis, do you mind if I ask you a very personal question?”

“The question is can I stop you?”

“Ha, ha,” I replied. “No, really.”

“Of course. What’s the question?”

“Your poem – the one you showed me the other day.”

“Yes…”

“Who was it written for?”

Terreis didn’t answer; she fixed her gaze ahead, though it seemed her mind was miles away from the path we were following.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “it was impertinent of me to ask.”

“No, it’s all right,” replied Terreis, her focus having returned to the conversation and me. “It was a few years ago.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing. It’s a long story.”

“We’ve got plenty of time.” My enthusiasm for details was thinly veiled.

“It’s not that long of a walk,” Terreis countered.

I gave her a pleading look, like a puppy begging for a tasty treat.

“All right. I’ll give you the short version, but you must promise to keep it just between us.”

“Oh, I promise,” I said gleefully, and Terreis began telling me about the love of her life.

“When I was fourteen I had a huge crush on this one girl in my village. She was a year older than me, tall and lean, but strong – the best fighter among the younger warriors of my tribe. Everyone wanted to best her, be just like her, or be with her. But this warrior was a bit of a lone wolf – brooding, aloof.”

“Hmmm, sounds familiar,” I mumbled as I imagined what Xena would’ve been like at that age.

“Pardon?” Terreis asked.

“Nothing. You were saying?”

“Well, to make a long story shorter, I wore down her defences and we became very close friends – inseparable really. I found I could talk to her about anything and she listened intently. I even got her to open to me a little. Then one early autumn evening it happened. We had gone for a long walk. She wanted to show me her favourite spot – a sheltered outcrop that overlooked our village. It was a long walk and by the time we got there, it was getting dark – too late to get back home in time for the evening meal. So we decided to spend the night there. We stood together near the edge of the outcrop and watched the sun as it dipped below the horizon, sharing the beauty and solitude of this sacred place.”

“It sounds lovely,” I commented. “What happened next?”

“I don’t know if we realised it then or we were just swept up in the moment, but there, under a canopy of stars, we kissed…” Terreis’ voice lingered on the word ‘kissed’. “It was the first time I had ever been kissed like that.” With a dreamy look, her fingers lightly touched her lips. “I can still remember how full and soft her lips felt and how urgently I wanted to press my body into hers.”

“So, did you…?”

“Did I what?”

“You know.”

“You mean did we make love?”

“Yes!” I exclaimed.

“No. Well, sort of…not really.”

“What happened?”

Terreis stopped walking.

“Forgive me,” I said, “that’s personal.”

“No, it’s all right,” she assured me. Pain registered on her face, but it wasn’t from her shoulder.

“We were so caught up in the pleasures of exploration that we didn’t hear the war whoops coming from our village below until the air was thick with smoke from burning huts. We hurried back as fast as we could, but by the time we got there the raiders were gone – driven off by our Amazon sisters. There were a few casualties, among them my sister, Queen Melosa, who was mortally wounded in the initial attack. Before she succumbed to her injuries, Melosa gave me her Right of Caste, and upon her death I was declared the new Queen of the Amazons.”

“I am sorry about your sister.” My heart went out to Terreis – losing her sister like that and having to take on the burdens of queenship under such circumstances.

We continued to walk in silence until the path we were on began to narrow through a dense stand of elm and pine. I took the lead so I could bend the low-lying branches out of the way for Terreis, who followed behind me. At first I hadn’t noticed how quietly the Amazon Queen was making her way past the branches. The tales I had heard about the Amazons’ stealth in the forest weren’t just stories after all.

I was dying to know what happened between Terreis and her warrior, so I stopped and chanced asking her.

With a melancholy expression, Terreis said, “It was over before it started. Neither one of us spoke of that night again – partly out of duty and partly out of guilt – guilt that we weren’t there to help defend our village and our queen.”

“Oh, Terreis, that’s awful.”

She offered not further explanation, so again we pushed on through this narrow part of the path until the urge to say something was too much. Without even turning around to see if she was receptive, I just had to know. “This girl – was it Ephiny?”

I waited for Terreis to say something, but there was no answer. All I heard was the rustling of leaves behind me, and then suddenly everything went black.

~~~~~

When I came to, I didn’t know where I was, but I knew something was terribly wrong. It was dark and I couldn’t move. It took a few minutes for me get my bearings. The back of my head felt like a mule had kicked me. As my senses came into focus, I realised my eyes were held shut by some kind of cloth. I tried to stand up, but the effort was wasted: my wrists and ankles were bound by some kind of strong cord.

The last thing I remember was chatting to Terreis as we walked back to Corinth. Terreis…

“Terreis, are you there?”

I waited for her to answer me, but there wasn’t a sound: not a whisper or a groan, nothing but my own voice echoing back towards me.

Okay Gabrielle, I thought, don’t panic – focus. Since my eyes were of no use, I tried to calm my emotions and allow my other senses to help me.

I took a deep breath. The aroma smelled more like dank wood and dusty stone than dead leaves and moist earthy dirt, so I surmised I was no longer in the woods. If I’m not in the woods, then where am I and where was Terreis? I wondered.

I called again, “Terreis? Are you all right?” Still no answer.

I struggled to loosen the rope confining my hands, but it was no use. The more I struggled, the tighter it became. I stopped just as it started cutting into my wrists. Whoever had tied me up, I thought, must’ve been very knowledgeable at tying knots – a sailor perhaps.

“Terreis, are you there? Answer me. Where are you?”

A rush of panic filled my lungs.

“Is anyone there? Terreis? Anyone? Help!”

“You can yell all you want. No one will here you,” a deep voice answered.

“Who are you? Where am I?”

A man approached me. He was foul-smelling – like rotting fish and body odour.

“Where’s Terreis?” I asked anxiously.

“Who?”

I wasn’t about to reveal to my kidnapper that Terreis was in fact the Queen of the Amazons. “The person that was with me.”

“Oh her,” he replied. “I wouldn’t count on her coming to your rescue.”

Okay, from that I surmised that Terreis wasn’t here – wherever here was. “What happened to her? Is she all right? I want to see her. Please take me to her. She’s injured and—”

The kidnapper continued his smug explanation. “Don’t worry about her.”

His tone filled me with dread. “What do you mean? What have you done to her?”

“You ask too many questions. Just be quiet and you won’t get hurt.” He started to leave.

“Wait! Do you know who I am – who I work for?”

“Of course.”

“Then you know you’re in very big trouble. If you let me go, I’ll see to it you are handsomely rewarded.”

“I’ll be handsomely rewarded either way.”

“Can you at least loosen the ropes – it’s cutting into my wrists.”

“No.”

I could see I was going to get nowhere with this man, so I tried a different tack.

“How long are you planning to keep me prisoner?”

“You’ll be our ‘guest’ only for a short while.”

Ah, I thought, he said ‘our guest’ so that meant there was more than one kidnapper at least.

“It must be hours already, because I’m starving. Can you bring me something to eat and drink?”

“You’ll have to wait until my associate returns.”

“How long will that be?”

“I don’t know. In the meantime, just sit there and shut up.” With that he walked away.

“Wait! Come back…come back!” I called out in one last effort to appeal to my captor. But the echoes of my pleading faded and I was alone again in the gloom and darkness.

Fear and despair began to set in as my predicament became clear: I had been kidnapped. But why – why me? My mind raced with questions. Did Xena even know I had been kidnapped? How could she, I thought, Xena didn’t even know I was on my way back to the palace. And what about Terreis? What’s happened to her? Oh, why did I let Terreis talk me into walking back to the palace?

I needed to pull myself together; panicking wasn’t going to help me get out of this situation. I drew in a few slow, deliberate breaths and tried concentrating on a happy memory to take my mind off my captivity.

I thought back to the day Xena and I rode up the mountainside for a picnic, just the two of us. She was so affectionate and attentive that day. She even gave me a gift – a gold necklace with a small replica of her sceptre that she had crafted just for me. I never felt as loved as I did that day and I promised to wear the necklace close to my heart always.

As if to draw strength from it, I focussed on the necklace.

The necklace – I couldn’t feel it around my neck! It must’ve come off in the struggle with my kidnappers. My hope sank. Terreis wasn’t responding, I was being held captive, Xena had no idea I was even missing, and now the necklace Xena had given me was gone. Could things get any worse?

Suddenly, I heard voices talking outside. At first I couldn’t make out much of what was being said, though I assumed it had something to do with me. The muffled whispers soon became angry bickering.

“You do it!”

“No, you!”

“That’s not what Dar—”

“No names, you idiot! And keep your voice down.”

“Right.” The first kidnapper continued to speak, but lowered his voice.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear the rest of their conversation – only bits and pieces. “…Leaving… harbour…ransom… General.”

General? My ears pricked up and a knot lodged in my throat as my mind immediately put two-and-two together: “general” and “Dar”… No, it couldn’t be. General Darnell?

At first I refused to believe he had anything to do with me being kidnapped, but then I remembered he had threatened me more than once – even going so far as to call me “a plague” that was making Xena weak and that he “…just may have the cure.” Had he finally made good on his threats? I wondered.

~~~~~

I had no idea how long I’d been bound and blindfolded, but it had to be several hours, because I was thirsty, hungry, and had to pee.

I called out, “Hey – somebody, anybody. I need help.”

I didn’t have to wait long for someone to respond. “All right. What do you want?” he asked brusquely.

This was not the same man who had come in earlier. This man’s voice was deeper.

“Where is the other fellow?”

“He’s not…never mind where he is. What do you want?”

“I uh, it’s been hours since I had anything to eat or drink and I need to relieve myself.”

“I was told to watch you. Nothing was said about making you comfortable.”

“Please, I can’t hold on much longer.”

“Oh, all right.” I felt a hand grab a handful of fabric and lift me up onto my feet. “But I’m warning you. Don’t try anything.” He untied my hands and feet but left the blindfold on.

I thought one of the voices had sounded familiar. It was Lucon, I was sure of it, but I didn’t let on I knew who he was.

“Can you remove the blindfold as well?” I asked.

“Not if you want to live,” he retorted.

The kidnapper led me outside – I knew this because I could feel the sun warming the blindfold. We walked about twenty paces or so and then stopped.

“Okay, do your business – and make it quick.”

“Can’t I have just a little privacy?”

“No,” he growled.

“Well, can you at least turn your head?”

“Look either do it now with me watching or don’t do it and I’ll take you back to the shrine.”

Ah, he had given me another vital bit of information. I was being held captive in a shrine. I knew of an old Dorian shrine to Poseidon not too far from the Amazon camp. It had been damaged in the most recent earthquake.

“All right, but don’t blame me if some of it splashes on your boots.”

“Just shut up and get on with it, or I swear by Holy Hades, I’ll make you wish you had.”

Lucon was brutish, and I had no doubt he would think nothing of hurting a defenceless woman. I didn’t want to provoke him further. On the contrary, I wanted him to let down his guard. So, I relieved my bladder without further comment and then stood up.

Lucon grabbed my right elbow and led me back inside. I knew if ever there were a time to escape, it would be before he tied me up again. As he reached for the ropes, I felt his grip around my arm loosen. This was my opportunity. I knew I would never get another.

I stepped back on my right foot to locate his boot and then stomped down as hard as I could.

“Ow! You bitch!” Lucon cursed in pain and grabbed his foot, letting go just enough for me to break away.

I yanked the blindfold off my head so I could see where he was. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust from darkness to the filtered light of an afternoon sun. Just as I was about to make a run for it, Lucon grabbed my arm again.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he snarled.

“Let me go!” I yelled.

Lucon yanked me towards him and leered. “I’m not allowed to kill you, but nobody said I couldn’t have a bit of fun.”

I desperately struggled to free myself, but he was too strong. “Take your filthy hands off of me.”

“I like a wench with spirit.”

Lucon leaned his face towards me. I turned my head away to avoid his advances, so he captured my cheeks with his paw of a hand and planted a hard kiss on my mouth. His rapacious tongue tasted like garlic and stale ale, which sickened me. I could do nothing but endure it and pray he wouldn’t take more.

Lucon had other ideas. “Remember that first day you joined the Conqueror’s army? It was because of you I was demoted and flogged, and it is time I paid you back.” He fumbled with the front of his trousers and freed his swollen shaft. “Now, you are going to take my cock in that pretty little mouth of yours and if you so much as flinch, I will kill you.”

I knew his assault wouldn’t end there. If I were going to escape from Lucon, I would have to do something to make sure he couldn’t chase me.

As he tried forcing me down on my knees, I lashed back and drove my knee up into his groin so hard he nearly spat his balls out of his mouth.

I felt a momentary twinge of sympathy for doing that to him, but not enough to linger. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for and I took it.

I left Lucon writhing and moaning and cursing, and I ran out of the shrine as fast as I could.

The path leading away from the shrine had grown over from disuse, which made it tough going. It gave Lucon a chance to recover and catch up with me.

The angry man tackled me from behind, flipped me over, and pinned my shoulders to the ground.

“You fucking cunt! You are going to pay for that.”

He slapped me hard across my face. The warm coppery taste of my own blood made it clear that Lucon was going to make good on that threat. I tried with all my might to throw him off me, but his strength was fuelled by painful rage. I knew I was in big trouble when he tore at my trousers, trying to push them down. When I struggled to stop him, he hit me with a closed fist. There was such a look of hatred in his eyes; I was terrified I wasn’t going to be able to get away from him this time.

Then I remembered something Xena had told me: ‘a warrior cannot hesitate; if you do you die.’ So I didn’t hesitate. I picked up a rock and swung it. Unfortunately Lucon flinched, so the rock only grazed the side of his head, but it was enough to knock him off me.

I knew I had only stunned him for a few moments. He would soon be up again, and he would come after me and do worse to me. So while he was disoriented, I had to make sure Lucon couldn’t get back up.

This time I didn’t miss. I took aim and whacked him on the back of the head as hard as I could. Lucon let out a loud groan and fell forward. Blood sputtered from a large gash just above his ear.

Unbelievably, Lucon was conscious enough to reach out and try to grab for my ankle. I knew if he got me down to the ground again, he was going to kill me.

I said a prayer to Athena for strength and brought the rock down on his head one last time. A horrifying crunching sound filled my ears as stone met flesh and bone. I held onto the stone, poised and ready to smash his head again if he moved. This time Lucon didn’t move or even groan.

The rock tumbled from my trembling fingers onto the ground beside Lucon’s battered skull. My knees gave out from under me and I sank to the ground near the lifeless body of my attacker. Bile rose up like a putrid geyser and singed the cuts in my mouth as I heaved what little I had in my stomach.

I stared at the bloody rock with bits of scalp on it and started laughing and crying at the same time. But this was no time for hysterics. Lucon had an accomplice who could be back at any time. I had to get away. I had to find help.

Every sinew in my body was aching to run, but I couldn’t move. I had no control over my muscles. I willed my legs to lift me up and carry me away from that awful scene. I ran through the brush as fast as I could. It was hard to see where I was going because my left eye was so swollen and bloody.

I ran and ran until my leg muscles were screaming for me to stop. I didn’t know in which direction I was headed anymore. I just knew I had to make my way out of this hellish place and find help before the sun set.

I was so busy looking behind me, I literally ran right into a uniformed man with an unkempt mop of mousey brown hair and a large scar that cut under his right eye.

I was about to scream, but then I recognised a familiar face. It was Chief of the Civil Protection Force, Lieutenant Darphus.

~~~~~~~~
Chapter 2
~~~~~~~~

Before I met Gabrielle, life was ordered and predictable – like the manoeuvres of opposing armies on a battlefield. I was master of my own destiny – certain of what I believed and what I did not. Yet, when this enthralling young woman entered my life, she completely confounded my world until the very foundations of my beliefs crumbled. What was left was the certainty of only two things: my love for Gabrielle and her love for me. The rest lay in the hands of Fate.

~~~~~

The sound of hoof beats pounding on soil and stone could not keep cadence with my pounding heart. Gabrielle had been kidnapped and time was of the essence. It was past midday already, which meant I only had eight hours of sunlight to pick up the kidnappers’ trail and find Gabrielle. The most logical place to start my search was from the Amazon encampment.

Thoughts of the last time I was at the camp thundered through my mind as I rode. What a fool I was. How righteous in my beliefs – beliefs that mocked me with every urgent stride.

I believed that I could keep my relationship with Gabrielle secret.
That I could will the truth into silence was arrogant.

I believed that if the relationship became public, Gabrielle would be in danger.
Hiding the truth did nothing to keep her safe.

I believed that the guilty would suffer greatly for hurting Gabrielle.
Vengeance was the one immutable truth I could still rely upon.

I believed that I was going to get Gabrielle back.
The truth was even if I rescued her she might not take me back.

I tried to clear my mind and focus, but guilt kept gnawing away at me like a wolf on a stag’s carcass. If only we had not had that ridiculous argument. If only I had not walked away and left her at the Amazon camp. If only I swallowed my pride, instead of jugs of wine, and went back the next day to bring her home. If only… Maybe Darnell was right, I thought, and Gabrielle was my weakness. Or maybe Gabrielle was right, and it was my pride and need to control that was the chink in my armour.

“He-ya!” I pressed Argo to go faster and faster still. The clasp from my cloak clawed my throat as the heavy cloth whipped in the wind behind me. What did I care about a scratch when I would swim the fiery lakes of Tartarus to get her back?

Nearing the Amazons’ camp, I slowed Argo to an easy lope so I could assess my surroundings. My keen senses could pick up even the slightest whiff of nervous perspiration from ambushers lying in wait; however nothing but the scent of myrtle and cypress filled my nostrils. This didn’t relieve my guardedness. I knew first hand of the Amazons’ legendary stealth in the forest. It was in fact the great Amazon Queen of the Northern Steppes, the Great Cyane, who taught me to skim across the treetops unseen.

Cyane…I had very few regrets in my life; killing Cyane was one. That was many years ago and I was a different person then – unbridled, unscrupulous, and utterly lacking the control and the vision necessary to become ruler of the known world. And as well as Gabrielle thinks she knows me, she knows nothing about my past with the Amazons – there wasn’t a living soul who did. I saw to it.

Suddenly, from my left, I heard a bird call that I recognised as the Amazon signal for ‘rider approaching’, not ‘intruder’. Why no alarm? I wondered. Surely if they saw me coming they would have signalled ‘intruder’. I did not exactly leave on the friendliest terms the last time I was at their camp.

I nudged my horse forward again, but proceeded with caution, my senses remaining alert for even the slightest movement. I approached the outer perimeter of the camp without being challenged. Through the low-lying branches I could see Amazon warriors going about their normal activities as though they were oblivious to my presence.

I was just about to announce myself when out of the corner of my eye I saw Ephiny preparing to mount Gabrielle’s horse. What would Ephiny be doing on Gabrielle’s horse? Unless…unless the owner had no further need of it!

A red haze descended as reason gave way to rage. I let out my war cry, drew my sword, and kicked Argo into a charge. Warriors grabbed for their weapons and started rushing towards me.

The first Amazon to brave challenging me received a hard kick in the chest that sent her flying backwards a good twenty feet. When I reached the centre of camp, I pulled hard on the reins and somersaulted over my horse’s head as it came to an abrupt stop.

“Where is she? Where’s Gabrielle?” I snarled.

Four warriors armed with staffs surrounded me, but they were no threat. The Amazon directly in front of me was short and stocky. I easily vaulted over her and kicked her in the back as I passed overhead. She tumbled forward into the crowd and the circle became a tangled mass of arms and legs.

I squared my feet and looked around for other challengers. The well-muscled warrior named Solari drew her sword and charged forward. I admired her bravery, if not her foolhardiness. With two hands on her sword, Solari took a swing at me, which I easily sidestepped well out of reach of her blade. Before she could regroup, I moved in, grabbed her weapon wrist and bent it back, forcing the sword from her hand.

Knowing it was better to disable an enemy than to disarm them, I twisted her arm until it locked straight and brought the pommel of my sword down hard on her elbow. A sickening crunch pierced the air, and the brown-haired Amazon crumbled to her knees with an agonised cry.

Solari had been no match for me, but I was not feeling merciful. Revenge had washed away all reason, and I was out for blood. I gripped my sword and was about to plunge it into the injured Amazon’s chest when a fighting staff blocked its forward momentum.

Who dares to deny me the kill? I thought. I looked hard into the face of my next Amazon challenger and immediately recognised the tall, dark blonde, curly-haired Amazon that had pushed her way between Solari and me. It was Ephiny, Queen Terreis’ capable second-in-command, which was the only reason I had not killed her on the spot.

“Stop! Gabrielle isn’t here! She left for Corinth with Queen Terreis a couple of hours ago!” Ephiny shouted to get through to me. “The Queen went to sign your treaty!”

“You are lying!” I snarled. “You have got Gabrielle and I want her back.”

I slammed my sword down on the middle of her staff and broke it in two. Ephiny hastily improvised the two pieces as rough ‘chobos’, as the Amazon fighting sticks were called, holding them crossed in front of her chest.

“I told you she is not here!” Her hazel-brown eyes were almost pleading with me to believe her. “Gabrielle and Terreis should have arrived at the palace by now. You must’ve just missed them.”

I knew when someone was lying to me by the subtle clues that even a successful liar cannot control, like the slight dilation of their pupils when they lie. I was beginning to think Ephiny was telling me the truth.

“And I am telling you they never made it. I received this ransom demand no more than an hour ago.” I took it out of my shirt and waved it in front of her face.

“A what?” I could tell by the baffled look on Ephiny’s face that this was the first she had heard of it. “Are you telling me that Gabrielle has been kidnapped?”

“Yes!” I declared, relieved that Ephiny finally understood.

“And you came here thinking we did it?” Ephiny asked disbelievingly. Then it dawned on her. “Wait. If Gabrielle… then… Terreis! What about Terreis?”

“I do not know. The note did not mention—”

Ignoring me, Ephiny called for her lieutenant, “Eponin!”

The buxom Amazon with long brown hair came running over to where we stood, with a sword in each hand. Their healer, N’Gila, followed close behind. The older woman knelt down beside Solari to examine the Amazon’s injured arm.

Ephiny dropped the chobos on the ground, took her sword from Eponin, and strapped it around her waist. Still ignoring me, Ephiny continued barking out orders to the warriors gathering around us. “N’Gila, you’re in charge here. Take care of Solari and the other wounded. Eponin—you, Magdelus–” She glanced around and pointed to two other Amazons on the perimeter of the group. I recognised one of them as the one I had kicked in the back. “–Lithia, and Dorvis,” – you four are with me,” Ephiny continued. “Queen Terreis and Gabrielle were headed towards Corinth along the path south of the main road. We will start there.”

Finally Ephiny turned back to me. “And you,” speaking to me as if I was just another warrior under her command, “head straight back to the palace and see if there is any more news.”

Who does she think she is ordering me about? I thought. Am I not Empress of this land? I was not about to take orders from this impudent Amazon. “I am going to find Gabrielle. You may join me, but do not get in my way.”

“And I am going to find Queen Terreis, so don’t get in my way!”

“Look,” Eponin said, “Why don’t we work together and find them both, shall we?”

“Fine, but I am leading the party. I am the best tracker around here,” I replied.

Ephiny snorted. “You may be the best around here, but we’re not from around here.”

“Then you will need my local knowledge.”

“Hurry up! There’s no time to lose!” Eponin yelled.

I did not appreciate being told off by Eponin and neither did Ephiny. We both stood our ground and glared at the bold Amazon.

Eponin, who had already started up the path, turned and scolded us, “This is not a pissing contest!” Her eyes narrowed, reflecting the stupidity of our bickering. “Queen Terreis and Gabrielle are missing, or have you forgotten?”

As one, Ephiny and I said, “Come on, let’s go find them.”

~~~~~

Our search party started from the Amazon encampment and followed Gabrielle and Terreis’ tracks due west until we came upon a fork in the road. I led the group to the right along a little used walking path that cut back towards the main road. I knew these woods well from my warlord days. This was an old track that meandered farther north on its way towards the harbour. It was wide enough for a horse drawn cart laden with weapons in its day, but now it was narrow and overgrown in places – barely wide enough for two people side by side.

I stopped to examine some low-hanging branches that were bent but not broken. Ephiny came up beside me and pointed out some scuffmarks in the dirt. Terreis and Gabrielle’s tracks continued on the main path, but it was plain to see that they were not alone.

While we were searching for more tracks in the undergrowth, Ephiny broke the silence. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”

I could have simply said ‘yes’ or told her to ‘mind her own business’; however, in view of my error in thinking the Amazons had anything to do with Gabrielle’s kidnapping, I was inclined to indulge her. “No,” I said simply.

“What do you see in Gabrielle, anyway?” Ephiny asked.

I bristled a bit at her impertinence but held my tongue since I had invited the enquiry.

The Amazon warrior had the good sense to rephrase her query a little more diplomatically. “Uh, I mean, what drew you to her in the first place?”

I bent down to investigate another boot mark in the dirt. As I pointed it out to Ephiny, I pondered her question. Besides her outward beauty and charm, Gabrielle possesses an inner strength unlike anyone I had ever known; she is brave, bold, and imaginative, and she challenges me to be a better person, a better ruler. The answer came easily to me, but I was not going to be that candid with the Amazon warrior.

“She is…’different’,” I answered.

“You mean she’s annoying,” the blonde Amazon bantered.

Given the situation, I was in no mood for jokes about the woman I loved. I grabbed Ephiny by the collar of her leather chest protector and got right up into her face. “Do not talk about Gabrielle like that – ever.”

“Stop it you two!”

Instinctively, Ephiny and I turned our heads like two squabbling siblings heeding their mother’s stern warning.

“There’s more pressing business at hand,” Eponin chided.

The brown-haired Amazon was right and there was no time to waste. We shrugged it off and continued our search.

We stopped again where the trail crossed a dry creek bed. Eponin crossed over to pick up Gabrielle and Terreis’ tracks. Ephiny took the opportunity to clarify what she meant to say before about Gabrielle.

“About before, what I meant to say was ‘she is annoying’, that is why you like her. She does everything her way and not yours. She follows a different set of rules, a different code of honour, but gets the results you want – or at least the results she tells you that you want, and you find yourself agreeing with her.”

I cast a sideways glance at Ephiny. There was something about the tone of her voice and the faraway look on her face. “You are not just talking about Gabrielle are you?”

“Terreis is the same,” she said quietly.

Ah, now I was beginning to understand what was behind her line of questioning. Ephiny was obviously worried about Terreis and needed to talk about it. I stopped tracking for a moment and gave her my full attention.

“When Queen Melosa died, Terreis became our leader,” the Amazon warrior explained. “Her ideas about how to strengthen our tribe were radically different. She believed that we could protect our borders more effectively if we made treaties with our enemies. At first she was met with opposition and disapproval from those who stubbornly held to our traditions, but in time we came to see that her ideas worked. We had peace and prosperity without constantly having to fight to preserve it.”

Ephiny looked away as if she were afraid of making eye contact. “Terreis was the only one who believed this treaty you proposed was genuine and could work. That is why we came. We believe in her. She hasn’t let us down yet.”

“And she is not going to,” I reassured her. “We will find her.”

“We will find both of them,” Ephiny reassured me.

This sort of intimate conversation was uncomfortable for both us. There was so much common ground between us, yet up until now it had seemed as if we were seeking the differences. It was easier for warriors like us to be confrontational than companionable.

Eponin was ready to tell us to hurry up again, but we did not give her the chance. We got back to tracking.

“This way,” I said and the party continued along the trail. We weren’t more than fifty paces along when I abruptly stopped.

“Blood!” I announced.

“Where?” Ephiny looked around. “I don’t see any.”

I sniffed the air. “I can smell it.”

“You really are good,” Ephiny offered.

I didn’t stop to gloat; instead I hurried onwards.

About another thirty paces or so and we found evidence that a struggle had taken place. Blood was spattered about in quantities that worried me. By then the rest of the Amazons in our search party had caught up with us.

We all looked for the source of the blood. “There!” I pointed. Behind Ephiny, a piece of dark leather in the brush had caught my attention.

Ephiny turned to see where I was pointing, fell to her knees, and frantically cleared the undergrowth to reveal a boot and the leg that wore it. For a heartbeat, I hoped it would be Gabrielle; then I hoped it was not.

“Terreis!” Ephiny cradled the unconscious woman’s head in her lap. “Terreis! Terreis! Wake up!”

The Amazon Queen was unconscious, and judging by the state of her injuries, she was the source of the blood trail – no other blood trail was evident. For that I was thankful, if only because it meant Gabrielle had not been injured when the kidnappers took her. Why would the kidnappers leave Terreis to die? I pondered. The idiots probably had no idea that she was Queen of the Amazons. If they had known, they could have ransomed her as well. Or they did know, but Terreis put up such a fight the kidnappers left her to die.

Either way, none of it mattered at that moment. What mattered was getting Terreis some medical attention and continuing the search for Gabrielle.

As though she had heard my thoughts, Eponin started running in the direction we had just come from and yelled over her shoulder, “N’Gila, I’m going to get N’Gila!”

“No, come back!” I called after her.

Eponin came to a skidding halt and returned to the group.

“We are closer to the palace. Take Terreis there. My physician will treat her.”

Eponin organised the others to make a litter to transport their queen to the palace.

Just as they were getting Terreis settled on the litter, the Amazon Queen opened her eyes.

“Terreis!” cried Ephiny as she kneeled beside her queen. “Can you hear me?”

“Ephiny,” Terreis croaked.

“I’m here. You’re safe.”

“I… I want…” Terreis grimaced with pain.

“Shush, don’t try and talk.”

The Amazon Queen regarded her Second with urgency. “I want you to take my Right of Caste.”

I knew what it meant for an Amazon to bestow their Right of Caste; it meant that Terreis was bequeathing all her possessions and her position to Ephiny. It also meant she was dying.

“No,” said Ephiny shaking her head. “You’re not dying. You hear me?” She looked up at Eponin who was standing beside her. “Help me carry her to the palace.”

Terreis grabbed Ephiny’s arm. “Say…will…take.” She struggled to talk.

“Okay, I will take it. But you have to promise me you will not give up.”

“I prom…” Terreis sank back and slowly closed her eyes. The warriors surrounding her held their collective breath, fearing that their queen was passing over to the Amazon Land of the Dead. They were greatly relieved when Terreis opened her eyes again.

The Amazon Queen looked around until she spotted me standing off to the side. She waved me over and with a frail voice said, “Gab…ri…elle–”

I held my hand up to save her the effort. “Yes, we know. Gabrielle has been kidnapped.”

Terreis’ swollen eyes blinked slowly as she took it in. The red-haired woman fixed her gaze on Ephiny and said, “Help Xena find Gabrielle.”

“My place is with you,” Ephiny insisted.

“There is nothing more you can do for me.” Terreis coughed up blood. “Promise…me…find Gabrielle.”

The Amazon Queen waited for Ephiny’s promise, but the blonde haired warrior remained stubbornly silent.

Terreis grasped Ephiny’s forearm. “Promise me!”

Agonised worry showed on Ephiny’s brow. “I promise,” she replied.

Terreis smiled weakly, and then slowly her arm fell to her side as she drifted into unconsciousness. At that instant, Ephiny became Regent and spoke for the Amazon Nation.

I checked Terreis’ pulse. She was still alive, but who knew for how much longer. “Get her to the palace – quickly,” I said to Eponin. “If any of my guards try to stop you, show them this.” I removed my imperial ring and handed it to her. “When you get there, ask for Lieutenant Commander Galates. Give him the ring. He will see to your needs.”

Eponin acknowledged me with a nod and took the ring. The two thick set Amazons, Lithia and Dorvis, picked up the litter. Ephiny immediately wrested one end of the litter away.

Ephiny’s able lieutenant spoke up. “You are Regent, so it is your prerogative. But, you promised our Queen.”

“I know what I promised, but I’m not leaving Terreis,” Ephiny asserted.

A silent battle of wills ensued, but in the end Ephiny knew Eponin was right and dipped her head in agreement. Eponin signalled for Dorvis to take the litter, but Terreis’ Regent was still reluctant to relinquish the litter’s handles.

The dark-haired Amazon touched Ephiny’s arm and said, “Go – help the Empress. You are the best tracker in our tribe. The Queen will be in good hands.”

Ephiny started to object, but Eponin cut her off. “Amazon pride is at stake. Find the men who did this to our Queen and help the Empress find Gabrielle.”

That seemed to jolt Ephiny into relinquishing the litter, and she stepped aside to let them take Terreis.

Eponin and the two carrying the litter moved off in the direction of the palace, leaving me with Ephiny and Magdelus, a tall, wiry warrior whose face that gave nothing away, unlike Ephiny who did little to mask her fury and frustration. Still we wasted no time in studying the evidence left by the ones who had attacked Terreis and Gabrielle.

“It looks like two men,” I said pointing at two sets of footprints leading away from the scene of the attack.

“Obviously,” Ephiny condescended. The blonde Amazon then crouched down and inspected the boot prints more closely. “Carrying something about the same weight as Gabrielle.”

“Obviously,” I patronised.

Unlike Eponin, who was not shy about keeping our egos in check, Magdelus said nothing. She merely glowered at the two of us. It was enough to get us back to the task at hand without further comment or boasting.

We stopped again when I spotted a piece of torn cloth tangled in some nettles. I recognised it was the same olive colour as the tunic Gabrielle wore the night of the Amazon feast.

Spurred on by the discovery, we continued tracking for several more paces until Ephiny found more olive-coloured threads on a low-lying branch of a pine tree.

“The kidnappers must have been wearing leather,” said Ephiny. “The only threads caught in the needles belong to Gabrielle.”

“Uh, huh.” I acknowledged Ephiny, however, I was more interested in the trunk than the branch. I examined a mark where some of its bark was scraped off.

“The one on the right is left handed,” I concluded.

Ephiny paused and looked at me dubiously. “What? And I suppose you can tell the colour of his eyes, and that he’s got a scar on his cheek.”

I ignored her sarcasm and pointed at the place about waist high where the mark was. “Look. That is where the hilt of his sword caught it. It is on his right so he is left handed.”

“Romans wear their sword on the right,” Ephiny noted confidently.

“True,” I said, “but a Roman sword will leave a different mark, and there is damage to the undergrowth lower down. A Roman sword is too short to cause that.”

“Impressive,” the blonde warrior allowed.

After that, we worked more in concert than in competition, easily following the trail as it took us due north and west. The clues led us to a crossroads where the main road into Corinth met the bypass road leading directly to the harbour. It was there that the trail ran cold. Too many people, horses, and carts travel the road to Corinth.

“They wouldn’t go west, towards the city,” Magdelus observed.

“And they wouldn’t head east. That would take them past our camp,” Ephiny added.

Having ruled out east, west, and south, there was only one direction that the kidnappers could have gone. “The ransom note wanted the money paid at the harbour, they probably crossed the road here and continued there.” I pointed to the wooded hillside across the road. “There is an old Dorian shrine on top of that hill and a path that leads down to the harbour.” As I said those words it hit me. “Of course! No one uses that shrine anymore. That must be where they are holding Gabrielle. Follow me!”

After crossing the main road, we started up the hill and picked up the kidnappers’ tracks again. We had not gone far when I heard the distinct cadence of soldiers coming from behind us. By my reckoning there were at least ten to twelve armed men heading our way. Ever cautious, the Amazons immediately took up defensive positions, but I already knew there was no need.

I immediately recognised the uniforms and the officer in charge. It was Lieutenant Glaphyra, a female soldier of average height and superior build, leading a squad of Palace Guards.

After catching her breath, the Lieutenant said, “My Liege, some Amazons turned up at the palace with the injured Amazon Queen and your Imperial ring. Lieutenant Commander Galates took them in and ordered us to find you.”

“Yes, yes.” I silenced her with a raised hand. I would have expected nothing less from the able Commander of my Imperial Guards.

“How was the Queen when you left?” Ephiny asked anxiously.

“I’m afraid I don’t know,” Glaphyra replied. “I heard she was in pretty bad shape when they arriv—”

“That can wait,” I said tersely. I knew Terreis’ second-in-command was tortured not knowing the condition of her queen, but there was no time to waste on the dying when Gabrielle was still out there.

“What are your orders?” the Lieutenant asked.

“We are on the kidnapper’s trail,” I told her. “I believe they are holding Gabrielle at the old Dorian shrine to Poseidon on the next hill. Do you know the path from the harbour to the old Dorian shrine?”

The Lieutenant did not answer immediately. As I recalled, Glaphyra had joined my army in Thrace, so she might not have been as familiar with the locations of old ruins around Corinth. Fortunately Sergeant Briarus, a native of Corinth, knew the path well.

“Good. Sergeant Briarus, you take half the squad, start at the harbour and follow that path to the shrine. Lieutenant Glaphyra, you and the other half of the squad are with me. We will take the direct route up there. We may flush the kidnappers out and they might try to flee to the harbour. If you see anyone on that path, Sergeant, arrest them. We can worry about their guilt or innocence later.”

“Yes, My Liege,” Briarus saluted and took charge of his unit.

Ephiny matched my earlier impatience. “Can we get on with it? We are wasting time and light.”

“Fine,” I replied. “Let’s go.”

~~~~~

Near the top of the hill I raised my hand up to signal a stop and then silence. My keen hearing had captured a faint sound that was not of the forest. I held my breath and listened even more intently.

Ephiny came forward. “What is it?” she whispered.

“Listen,” I replied in a low voice.

The Amazon Regent frowned as she strained to hear.

With my index finger I beckoned her to listen more carefully. Her brow relaxed when she too heard the distant sound of clashing metal echoing off the tall trees.

“I make out two combatants,” Ephiny observed.

“I think we may have found our kidnappers,” I replied hopefully.

Ephiny waved the others forward, and I laid out a plan. “About two hundred paces ahead there is a clearing where the two footpaths come together.” I explained. “I believe that is where we will find the kidnappers – and hopefully Gabrielle. Regardless, we do not want whoever is up there to see us coming, so this is what we are going to do.”

I wiped away some leaves to reveal a patch of earth, picked up a twig, and started drawing a map.

“Did you notice the deer trail a few paces back that intersected this footpath?” I asked, pointing with the stick.

Ephiny, Magdelus, and Glaphyra confirmed with a nod.

“Good. We will split up and follow the smaller trail to the clearing so we will not be detected. Ephiny, you and Magdelus will go right, come around their flank, and ambush them from behind. In the mean time, Glaphyra and I will follow the trail to the left.” I demonstrated with X’s and lines on the impromptu map.

“I will create a diversion. Ephiny, as soon as you and Magdelus are in position, take them down. Lieutenant, you and your men will act as reinforcements and secure the perimeter.” I looked up at Ephiny. “Any questions?”

“No,” Ephiny affirmed. With that, Ephiny and Magdelus doubled back, disappearing into the dense greenery as they followed the deer trail heading due northeast.

“Glaphyra, you are with me.”

We followed the deer trail to the northwest in stealthy pursuit of our quarry until we came to the place where the Harbour-Shrine footpath joined the footpath we were on. As we crossed the road, I noticed two different sets of footprints than the ones I had been tracking earlier. I crouched down to get a closer look at the footprints, and what I saw surprised me.

“Something wrong, Highness?” Glaphyra whispered.

I showed the young Lieutenant the two separate footprints on the path and explained the story they were telling me. “See here, and here. Clearly these two footprints do not belong to the kidnappers, because neither one looks like he is carrying a load – a load the size of Gabrielle, that is. These are two different men – one continued on towards the shrine while the other veered off on the same trail we are following. Come on!”

When we neared the edge of the clearing, the situation became more discernable. There were three people – two males and one female – about fifteen paces ahead. The two men were definitely fighting each other.

We crept up as close as we dared without giving away our position. “Lieutenant, you and your men stay here, out of sight. Don’t reveal yourselves until you see Ephiny and Magdelus attack. Understood?”

“Yes, Empress.”

Suddenly a familiar female voice cried out. It was Gabrielle’s voice! I pushed hard through the underbrush to get to her as swiftly as possible. Alas, I was too late by just a few strides.

I burst into the clearing just as Gabrielle took a staff-sized stick and hit Darnell in the head, knocking the General out cold.

I shouted, but it was too late. Darnell crumpled to the ground. I called to Gabrielle, but she stood there frozen in place, unable to recognise the danger she was still in.

“Gabrielle, look out!”

Darphus took advantage of the confusion. Before anyone could react, he had got up, grabbed Gabrielle, and used her as a shield. The traitorous swine drew a dagger from his boot and held it to her throat.

When Gabrielle could not break free of his hold, she cried out, “Xena, help me!”

My veins instantly filled with fire and my muscles felt as taut as a bow. I suppressed the urge to rush to save her, lest she get hurt in the attempt. Instead, I coolly took a step towards them.

“One more step and she dies, Xena,” Darphus warned, mocking Gabrielle’s use of my name. “Oh, you don’t mind if I call you ‘Xena’, do you? After all, you can consider this my resignation.”

My hand went to my right side and found my chakram.

“Don’t even think about using it,” he warned. “You may be fast, but she’ll be dead before you throw it.” To emphasise the point, he twitched the blade against her throat, drawing blood.

I had confidence in my skills and knew the chakram would split his head in two before he could make good on that threat, but not without the possibility of injuring Gabrielle. I was not willing to risk it. Slowly, I raised my hand away.

“Good! Now throw your weapons over there,” he demanded.

Reluctantly, I tossed my weapons to where Darphus had pointed – well out of reach. “What now?” I asked.

“Now you give me fifty thousand dinars and a fast ship.”

I had no intention of giving in to his demands, but I knew I had to keep him talking to give Ephiny and Magdelus time to get into place. “Okay, but only if you release Gabrielle immediately and unharmed.”

“Nice try, but no. She is my insurance that I won’t be followed. Once I get to my destination, I will send you instructions on how much more you need to pay to get her back.”

“More? The ransom note said ‘fifty thousand dinars’,” I said.

“For a start,” Darphus added.

Naturally, I thought. “Come on Darphus, you know you cannot win,” I replied. “You know you will not leave this clearing alive unless you release Gabrielle right now.”

“I am the one calling the shots, Xena,” the traitorous snake replied. “I’ve got your precious little pornos. You will do what I want.”

You will pay for that insult, you son of a Bacchae, I silently fumed. No one calls Gabrielle a ‘whore’ and gets away with it.

He punctuated his contempt by groping Gabrielle’s breast.

As much as I sorely wanted to snap his neck like a twig, I knew I had to remain calm and keep him talking until he let down his guard. “You were one of my most trusted lieutenants.”

“Oh, Xena, I know how little you think of me. You have overlooked me for promotion countless times. Then you had me work for your pet peasant girl.”

I did not heed Darphus’ continued posturing and threats. I was focussed instead on the dagger he held at Gabrielle’s throat and searching for signs of Ephiny and Magdelus on the other side of the clearing.

He coiled Gabrielle more tightly in his grasp and pushed the blade edge in a little deeper. “Well you won’t do it any longer, Xena!”

I cursed the fear in Gabrielle’s eyes as she looked to me to save her. I tried to offer Gabrielle reassuring glances even as I continued to pacify Darphus. “We can talk about it. Just put down the dagger.”

Amazons are experts at ambush, blending with their environs like a chameleon. Having lived with Cyane’s tribe for a time, I had learned how to spot movement in the trees that to the unaware would seem no more than the rustle of wind through leaves. I kept my eye out for such subtle signs.

There! I saw it – an almost imperceptible dip of a branch told me that Ephiny and Magdelus were silently manoeuvring into position in a tree nearest to Darphus and Gabrielle.

Unaware of the snare closing in around him, Darphus kept issuing ultimatums. “Well, Xena what will it be, the fifty thousand dinars and a fast ship or a dead girlfriend?”

With the Amazons at the ready, it was time to end this. “I thought you were smarter than this, Darphus,” I said. “You may be desperate, but you are not stupid. Your life is forfeit, as well you know. What you do next determines how you will die. Release Gabrielle unharmed and I will make it quick and painless. Hurt her, and I promise when I am through with you, you will beg for Death to come, but Celesta will not heed your call. I know a hundred ways to guarantee you suffer exquisite pain indefinitely.”

“You always were arrogant, Xena. Just remember I’m the one holding the—”

With the stealth of a panther, Ephiny and Magdelus pounced from the tree branch and landed directly behind Darphus. Ephiny immediately yanked the arm holding the dagger away from Gabrielle’s throat. That gave me the opening I needed. With split second timing, I reached across and grabbed Gabrielle’s arm, pulling her out of harm’s way. Glaphyra and her men immediately formed a defensive circle around Gabrielle and me for protection against further attack.

Darphus flailed about trying to slash and muscle his way out of capture, but it did him no good. Magdelus punched him hard in the kidneys. That took the fight out of him and allowed Ephiny to disarm Darphus. She twisted his wrist behind his back until he dropped the dagger, and then forced him to his knees. Magdelus cut a piece of strong vine coiled around a nearby tree and used it to bind the traitor’s hands behind his back.

Once she realised her ordeal was well and truly over, Gabrielle could no longer hold back the tempest of emotions. She clung to me for dear life and wept. I wanted to hold her close and kiss her tears away; instead I wrapped my arms around her gently, afraid that if I held as tight as I wanted she would break.

Rather than consoling her, it seemed to have the opposite effect: Gabrielle buried her head in my chest and sobbed. “Please hold me, just hold me.”

I held Gabrielle until the tears stopped, and then I let her go and took a step back to assess her injuries. It was the first time I really noticed her overall condition: her tunic and trousers were torn and dirty, her arms were covered in bramble scratches, fresh blood was trickling down her neck from where the dagger had cut into the skin. But it was her face that disturbed me the most. Her lip was split, her eyes swollen and bruised.

Relief turned to white-hot rage and I wanted to interrogate Darphus in a very slow and agonising way. I ordered Glaphyra to stay with Gabrielle and I turned to go and have a word or two with our prisoner. That is when I saw Ephiny standing over Darphus, who was gagged and kneeling in front of her, his head lowered. She started to raise her sword above her head, execution style.

I was not going to be denied the satisfaction of killing him, so I had to act fast. In the blink of an eye, I did a front flip to cover the ground and grabbed for the blonde Amazon’s arm just as she had started her downward thrust.

“Killing him is my job,” I warned through gritted teeth.

“Amazon Justice demands his death for his crimes against our Queen!” protested the Amazon Regent.

“Not to worry,” I affirmed. “Amazon Justice will have been served tenfold when I am through with his stinking carcass.”

“Our Queen is near death because of this man, and I now speak for the Amazons,” Ephiny argued. “We have the greater claim, and I will decide how Amazon Justice will be served.”

“His crimes were aimed at Gabrielle and at me,” I countered, “Queen Terreis, unfortunately, was collateral damage.”

“Collateral damage?” Ephiny exclaimed incredulously. “If it weren’t for you and Gabrielle and that stupid treaty, we wouldn’t be in this gods-forsaken place, and Terreis would not be clinging to life by a very thin thread!”

“Well, what idiot allowed Terreis and Gabrielle to leave the Amazon camp unescorted and walk back to the palace to begin with?” I shot back.

“Stop!” Gabrielle shouted. With Lieutenant Glaphyra following close behind, she made her way across the clearing and confronted both of us. “Neither one of you is killing Darphus. He must stand trial.”

“A trial?” Ephiny and I chorused in bemusement.

“Yes,” Gabrielle insisted. “Summary execution without a trial is not justice, and if justice is to mean anything in this empire, then even the guilty deserve their day in court.”

As much as I would have granted Gabrielle anything, my pride in front of the Amazons was at stake. Then I recalled what happened the last time my pride took precedence.

I turned to Ephiny and gave her a determined look. “You heard her. He is going to stand trial.”

I half-expected the Amazon warrior to challenge me further. Instead, Ephiny sheathed her sword and said, “Fine, put him on trial; but whatever the verdict, he will still face Amazon justice.”

To emphasise her point, Ephiny grabbed the vine rope and jerked Darphus up off the ground, wrapping the tether around her hand as if to claim possession for the Amazons. I was not about to let that happen.

“Lieutenant, take charge of the prisoner,” I ordered.

“As you command, Empress,” Glaphyra said.

Ephiny grudgingly relinquished control of the prisoner over to my soldiers. That done – the Amazon Regent found another way to assert her newfound authority. “All right, we found Gabrielle. Now take me to Terreis.”

Gabrielle’s face brightened to hear Terreis’ name, and she started rattling off questions about the Queen’s whereabouts and condition.

“Terreis is alive,” I assured her, “but seriously injured.”

“How serious?” she asked anxiously.

“We don’t know, because we came looking for you!” Ephiny snapped.

I offered Gabrielle a bit of hope. “My physician will make sure she is given the best treatment possible.”

“No offence to your physician,” Ephiny said, “but I want our own healer treating our Queen.” She turned to Magdelus, who was keeping an eye on Darphus. “Magdelus, go back to camp, bring the others and the Empress’ horses to the palace right away, and tell N’Gila to bring her medicine bag. Hurry.”

Magdelus acknowledged her Regent’s command, and then took off running back down the main path that led us to this clearing. The Amazon sprinted past General Darnell, who was just getting to his feet.

As he approached, the General was trying to shake off the effects of being knocked out.

“You swing a staff with some force, little girl,” he grumbled, holding the side of his head.

Gabrielle went to him. “Oh, General,” She said apologetically. “I thought you… I am so sorry.”

When he took his hand away, there was considerable blood.

“Oh, you’re bleeding!” Gabrielle said, trying to examine his injury more closely.

“Don’t fuss,” Darnell said with a slight smile. “It is just a scratch. I have been hurt worse kissing a farmer’s wife.”

While it was good to see Gabrielle and Darnell enjoy an amiable moment, I knew Ephiny was anxious to go. Still, my instincts were telling me to stay – that the danger had not passed. After all, we had tracked two different sets of footprints.

Gabrielle’s smile disappeared when she saw the pensive look on my face. “What is it?” she asked.

“Darphus was not working alone,” I explained. “Do you know who the other kidnapper is?”

“There were two men.”

That surprised me. I assumed Darphus was one of the two men we were tracking. “Did you recognise them?”

“Only one.” There was a long, telling pause before Gabrielle answered me. “Lucon.”

“Lucon, I should have known – that snivelling weasel,” I muttered. “Do you know where he is now?”

Gabrielle did not answer me right away. She had such a tortured look on her face. I hated to press her, but every second counted if we were going to capture him.

“Gabrielle,” I gently prompted.

“He, he—”

“What? He what?” I asked impatiently.

“He’s at the ruins of the old Dorian Shrine.”

Without waiting to hear the rest, I turned to Lieutenant Glaphyra and barked out orders. “Take this path to the Dorian Shrine and find Lucon. I want Lucon! Go, and bring him to the palace.”

“At once, Empress.” Lieutenant Glaphyra gestured to three soldiers to follow her and handed the prisoner over to the two remaining soldiers and Ephiny.

“Preferably alive,” I cautioned her.

Glaphyra gave a confident nod. “Don’t worry, we will bring the bastard to justice.”

In all the ado, I had not realised that Gabrielle was trying to tell me something until she screamed ‘No!’ at the top of her lungs.

Everyone stopped dead in their tracks and gave her their full attention, including me.

“Gabrielle, what is it?” I asked.

“Lucon,” she replied in an anguished whisper.

“Yes, what about him?”

It took her a moment to steel her courage to explain that Lucon was dead.

I must admit it was disappointing to learn I would be denied the satisfaction of making him suffer. “Dead? How?”

Gabrielle could barely look at me. “I–I killed him.”

I felt like I had just been sucker punched. I was not prepared for Gabrielle’s confession. “You what?”

“I had to. He was going to…” She could not bring herself to finish.

She did not have to. I knew the rest. I hated making her relive the trauma; still I pressed her to tell me what had happened.

“He tried, but I fought him off. I tried to get away, but he came at me again and the look in his eyes…I was certain he was going to kill me.” Her gaze was drawn to a jagged stone that rested on the ground near her feet. “I picked up a rock and hit him and hit him and hit him until he didn’t get up.”

As she described her ordeal, I focussed on Gabrielle’s reaction, and what I saw worried me. She wore the same vacant expression that, as a warlord, I had seen on the faces of war-ravaged villagers after my army had finished pillaging. It never occurred to me to see the brutality from the victim’s standpoint. Seeing it now in the shattered eyes of the woman I loved, I suffered an unquenchable pain I had not felt since my brother Lyceus was killed – a searing rage no exacted revenge could ever satisfy.

Thoughts of avenging Gabrielle’s suffering were pushed aside. My arms ached to hold her until her trembling ceased; however, Amazons and soldiers surrounded us – all eyes upon us. I hesitated, cursed my pride again, and drew her to me – but not too close.

As inadequate as it was, I offered her reassurance. “You are safe now and nothing like that will ever happen to you ever again. I swear it.”

~~~~~~~~
Chapter 3
~~~~~~~~

One does not rise to a position of great power without making enemies along the way. I didn’t think about the consequences of being in love with the Empress of Greece, or the very real dangers I might face because of my association with the most powerful woman in the known world. Xena tried to warn me, tried to protect me – insisting we keep our relationship a secret so her enemies would not hurt me to wound her. How foolish was I not to see the wisdom in her caution and very real concern for my safety? I vowed that if I got out of this alive, I would approach our relationship with newfound respect

~~~~~

In an unfamiliar forest, with prickly nettles and thick undergrowth grabbing at my ankles like unearthly demons, it was hard to know what new danger lay in my path and from what unexpected direction it would come.

Never had I been as glad to see anyone as I was to see Lieutenant Darphus. It meant I could finally rest and catch my breath knowing that at last I had found safe haven.

“Thank the Gods, it’s you!” I exclaimed.

“How did you escape?” Darphus frantically asked.

“Well, I—” My throat choked off my words. Over Darphus’ shoulder, I saw a menacing shadow step out from behind a tall tree. It was General Darnell, his weapon drawn, heading towards us.

“Darphus, behind you!” I cried.

Darphus unsheathed his sword and wheeled around just as Darnell lunged. He managed to deflect the tip of his attacker’s blade, but just barely.

I looked on fearfully as the two men crossed swords. It was evident from the beginning that Lieutenant Darphus, a man of average build and skills, was no match for General Darnell, who stood at least two hands taller and was an expert with a sword.

Like a woodsman felling a tree, Darnell persistently chopped away at Darphus’ efforts to defend. Darphus kept falling back until there was nowhere for him to go. He lost his footing over a huge tree root and landed on his back – his weapon well out of reach.

General Darnell pressed his advantage, his sword pointed at Darphus’ throat. Knowing he was defeated, Darphus made no effort to retrieve his weapon and fight on. From the place where I stood, I clearly saw the fearful resignation on Darphus’ face as the General’s sword loomed above him.

I knew I had to act quickly if I was going to save my rescuer. I picked up a staff-sized stick that rested on the forest floor nearby and ran over to help Darphus. I swung the staff just like Ephiny had taught me and hit Darnell squarely on the side of his head. To my surprise, the force of the blow knocked the General to the ground. He was out cold.

I dropped the staff in horror at what I had done. I didn’t mean to hit him that hard. My first instinct was to see if the General was injured, but a little voice inside my head was warning me: this was no time to let your guard down, Gabrielle.

When I heard sounds coming from the same direction Darnell had come, a pang of newfound peril gripped me so tightly I could barely breathe. A dark figure was bursting through the underbrush and calling my name.

It was Xena; she had come to rescue me!

Yet, something was wrong. Xena wasn’t smiling. She was shouting, her voice strident and tense, warning me of something my mind just couldn’t comprehend.

Before I could move a muscle, Darphus had jumped to his feet, grabbed me, and held a dagger to my throat.

“What are you doing?” I exclaimed, confounded by his rough treatment.

It was only then I recognised that Darphus was not my rescuer. I had been convinced the “Dar” the kidnappers had mentioned was Darnell not Darphus. I didn’t realise the terrible mistake I had made until it was too late.

I struggled to break free, but his grip just got tighter and his dagger closer to my throat.

Not thinking, I called out to Xena to help me. Guardedly she inched forward until Darphus threatened to kill me if she took one more step.

Xena stopped approaching and my heart sank. Then I noticed her hand reaching down for the chakram she carried on her right hip. The glint of its round, razor sharp blade held my attention, as if I were willing it to slice through the air and knock the dagger out of his hand. Unfortunately, Darphus saw it too.

“Don’t even think about using it.” Darphus tightened his hold across my chest. “You may be fast, but she’ll be dead before you throw it.” He pushed the tip against my throat just enough to break the skin underneath my chin.

It’s strange what the mind will fixate on when fatigue and fear overwhelm the senses: all I could think of was breaking free of his grip so I could wipe away the droplet of blood that had trickled down my neck.

Darphus ordered Xena to drop her weapons. My hope withered when Xena slowly unhooked her chakram and withdrew her sword from its scabbard. She threw them both out of reach, all the while her eyes staying fixed on the dagger at my throat.

“What now?” Xena asked.

“Now you give me fifty thousand dinars and a fast ship,” Darphus replied.

So that is what my life is worth, I thought, – a princely sum for a girl from Potidaea. Knowing Xena wasn’t the negotiating type, would she agree to his terms? I wondered. To my surprise, she did.

“Okay,” Xena said, “but only if you release Gabrielle immediately and unharmed.”

When I heard that, my heart leapt for joy that I would soon be freed, but just as quickly my joy turned to despair when Darphus made it clear he was keeping me as a hostage.

“Nice try, but no,” the menacing man sneered. “She is my insurance that I won’t be followed. Once I get to my destination,” he continued, “I will send you instructions on how much more you need to pay to get her back.”

I knew Xena was not going to stand by and let Darphus carry me off. I kept waiting for her to do some incredible jump, flip manoeuvre or some other superhuman feat to rescue me before Darphus got desperate or clumsy and slit my throat. Instead, Xena remained composed and unhurried – seemingly content to bargain with Darphus for my release, or to keep him talking until the opportune moment presented itself.

“Come on, Darphus,” Xena said. “You know you cannot win. You know you will not leave this clearing alive unless you release Gabrielle right now.”

“I am the one calling the shots, Xena,” he said derisively. “I’ve got your precious little pornos. You will do what I want.”

As if to emphasis his point, Darphus pawed my breast with his free hand, and there was nothing I could do to stop him with a dagger at my throat.

Something made me glance up at him. I noticed his gaze never left Xena. That’s when I realised this whole thing wasn’t about me. He was out to humiliate Xena. Xena, however, didn’t take the bait.

“You were one of my most trusted lieutenants,” she said coolly.

Darphus laughed scornfully and said, “Oh, Xena, I know how little you think of me. You have overlooked me for promotion countless times. Then you had me work for your pet peasant girl.” Darphus was getting more and more agitated. “Well, you won’t do it any longer, Xena!”

The angrier he got, the more his blade cut into my flesh, and the more frightened for my life I became. I kept looking to Xena to save me, but all she did was try and reason with him.

“We can talk about it,” she calmly continued. “Just put down the dagger.”

I couldn’t understand her strategy; all ‘talking’ seemed to do was make Darphus bolder and more dangerous.

“Well Xena, what will it be – fifty thousand dinars and a fast ship or a dead girlfriend?”

I didn’t know how much longer I would be able to hold out against the fear and pain, but a confident glance from Xena reassured me I was going to get out of this alive – somehow.

“I thought you were smarter than this, Darphus,” Xena continued. “You may be desperate, but you are not stupid. Your life is forfeit, as well you know. What you do next determines how you will die. Release Gabrielle unharmed and I will make it quick and painless. Hurt her, and I promise when I am through with you, you will beg for Death to come, but Celesta will not heed your call, because I know a hundred ways to guarantee you suffer exquisite pain indefinitely.”

“You always were arrogant, Xena” Darphus scoffed. “Just remember I’m the one holding the—.”

Sweet Athena, I silently beseeched. Please—please, do something!

Suddenly, as if the goddess heard my plea, there was a commotion behind me. Ephiny had somehow caught Darphus off guard and disarmed him. As soon as the blade moved away from my throat, Xena leaped forward and pulled me to safety, while at the same time, a female officer and several soldiers surrounded us.

Relieved that this nightmare was finally over, I clung to Xena as I would a lifeline dangling over a cliff. All the terror visited upon me by Lucon and Darphus threatened to come pouring out of me in uncontrollable sobs. Instead, I trembled and nearly fainted. Xena seemed at a loss at what to do to console me, when all I wanted was to feel the strength and the solace of her embrace.

Xena held me up at my waist. It wasn’t the kind of embrace that we might have shared in a more private setting, but it was enough to reassure me that the misery of our separation was over.

Xena let me go and took a closer look at me. I had no idea what I looked like, but judging by the grim look on her face, I must have looked frightful. Feeling self-conscious, I tried to smooth out my hair and pull off dried leaves tangled among the strands on the back of my head.

“Glaphyra, stay with Gabrielle,” Xena said tight-jawed. “I want to have a word or two with our prisoner.”

Her blue eyes turned an icy steel hue, which was never a good sign. It was a look that made my blood run cold. Would the horror of this day ever come to an end? I wondered.

I had my answer when Xena pushed her way past the wall of soldiers and leaped across the clearing in a blink. My swollen eyes were barely able to focus that far, but I could make out an Amazon holding something over her head and a figure sitting or kneeling in front of her. It could mean only one thing: Ephiny was about to kill Darphus.

Xena grabbed Ephiny’s arm just as the blade was coming down, putting a stop to the summary execution. It was too much to think Xena did it to spare Darphus’ life, and it may seem odd, but despite his atrocious treatment of me, I did not wish him dead.

Lieutenant Glaphyra and I stayed well back as Xena and Ephiny stood toe-to-toe, arguing the toss about ‘collateral damage’ and who had the greater claim to execute Darphus. It was ludicrous.

I finally put an end to it before it came to blows. “Stop!” I shouted as I crossed over to where they were arguing, being careful not to get too close to Darphus. “Neither one of you is killing Darphus. He must stand trial.”

Both Xena and Ephiny offered a bemused protest, “A trial?”

“Yes. Summary execution without a trial is not justice,” I explained, “and if justice is to mean anything in this empire, then even the guilty deserve their day in court.”

I had every expectation of having to defend my position, but Xena surprised me when she turned to Ephiny and said, “You heard her. He is going to stand trial.”

Ephiny reluctantly agreed and remanded her prisoner to Lieutenant Glaphyra.

“All right, we found Gabrielle,” Ephiny groused. “Now take me to Terreis.”

“You found Terreis?” I asked hopefully. “Where is she? Was she hurt?”

I got a mournful feeling in the pit of my stomach when I looked around at all the cheerless faces. I could barely bring myself to ask the question, and I dreaded what the answer might be. “Is she…?”

Mercifully, Xena gave me the news that Terreis was alive, though seriously injured.

“How serious?” I asked.

“We don’t know, because we came looking for you,” Ephiny said sharply.

Xena gave Ephiny a reproachful look, and then she offered me a sliver of hope for Terreis. “I had her taken to the palace. My physician will make sure she is given the best treatment possible.”

Ephiny returned Xena’s look with a critical look of her own. “No offence to your physician, but I want our own healer treating our Queen.” She turned to Magdelus, the other Amazon warrior who had rescued me, and ordered her to go back to the Amazon camp and bring their healer and the others to the palace.

Magdelus nodded her head in a deferential way towards Ephiny – a sign of respect I had only seen offered to the Amazon Queen – never between warriors. An image filled my mind’s eye of wailful mourners dancing to solemn drums as Terreis’ body burned atop a funeral pyre. Was this a premonition of Terreis’ death or was it just my fears getting the better of me?

Magdelus hurried off, running past General Darnell, who was climbing to his feet. In all the commotion, I had quite forgot about him.

He walked towards us, rubbing the side of his head. “You swing a staff with some force, little girl.”

I was mortified that I had got it so completely wrong and was quick to apologise. “Oh, General. I thought you… I am so sorry.”

I noticed blood on his hand when he took it away from his head.

“Oh, you’re bleeding.” I ripped a square of cloth from my already torn blouse and used it to try and stop the bleeding.

“Don’t fuss.” Darnell pulled his head away. “It’s just a scratch. I’ve been hurt worse kissing a farmer’s wife.”

We both smiled. One person who was not smiling, though, was Xena. She wore a pensive, troubled expression – a warning to me that the danger might not yet be over.

I drew close to her again. “What is it?”

“Darphus was not working alone.” Xena said.

She then proceeded to question me about the ‘other kidnapper’. I told her there were two men who had held me captive at the shrine.

“Did you recognise them?” she asked.

“Only one – Lucon,” was all I managed to say.

Xena muttered when she heard his name – called him a ‘weasel’ or something and asked if I knew his whereabouts. To my great misfortune I did, and I was sure the memory of it would haunt me the rest of my life.

“He, he—” I couldn’t bear to look Xena in the face.

“What? He what?” Xena pressed me for an answer.

“He’s at the ruins of the old Dorian Shrine.”

Xena turned to the Lieutenant and said, “Take this path to the Dorian Shrine and find Lucon—”

My stomach clenched, my voice barely a whisper. “Wait.”

At first Xena didn’t regard me or didn’t hear me. “I want Lucon! Go and bring him to the palace.”

Lieutenant Glaphyra acknowledged her Empress’ orders and gestured to three soldiers to follow her.

I cleared my throat and tried to be heard over the commotion. “Wait—”

Just before Glaphyra left the clearing, Xena added, “—preferably alive.”

But I knew Lieutenant Glaphyra and her men wouldn’t find Lucon alive when they got to the shrine. I had to stop them. I had to explain.

I took in a lung full of air and shouted with an anguished cry, “No-o-o!”

It got everyone’s attention, including Lieutenant Glaphyra, who came back to the clearing after hearing me scream.

“Gabrielle, what is it?” Xena asked.

As if all the air had left my lungs, I could barely breathe, but I forced myself to utter the name of my attacker. “Lucon…”

“Yes, what about him?” Xena asked. The authority she had expressed when ordering the soldiers dissolved to concern when she looked at me.

I felt like I was going to throw up as the gory scene replayed in my mind. Finally, I found the stomach to tell her. “He-he’s dead.”

“Dead? How?”

“I–I killed him.” I almost choked on my confession.

“You what?” Xena asked disbelievingly.

“I had to. He, he was going to…” My voice deserted me.

Lieutenant Glaphyra sent two soldiers to retrieve Lucon’s body and discreetly moved away, giving Xena and me a moment alone.

Xena had understood my meaning. “Did he – hurt you?”

“He tried, but I fought him off. I tried to get away, but he came at me again and the look in his eyes….” For a moment I was lost in the terrible memory of his vicious, vengeful look. “I was certain he was going to kill me.” I trembled.

I heard myself impassively describing how I had taken a rock and hit him repeatedly until he no longer came at me, even as my mind was reliving every horrifying moment. “There was so much blood,” I said, staring at my hands.

Xena promised me that nothing like that would ever happen again, but I didn’t truly feel safe until she put her hand on my shoulder and started leading me away from the clearing. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

As she led me away from the clearing, I said a silent prayer of thanks to the gods that I was finally returning to the palace with Xena. It remained to be seen whether or not I had truly come home.

~~~~~

With Ephiny wanting to return to the palace with all possible haste, Xena had Lieutenant Glaphyra commandeer a horse from a nearby farm so I could ride. Along the way, Xena and Ephiny explained in more detail what had happened to Terreis – how they tracked us, and in what condition they found her. Xena and Ephiny also explained what “Right of Caste” meant – that it meant Ephiny was now Terreis’ heir apparent and Regent as long as Terreis was unable to perform her duties as Amazon Queen. I could not help but wonder what that might bode for the treaty negotiations. Ephiny had made it quite clear that she was not for it.

By the time we passed through the main gate, the sun had just dipped below the palace ramparts and dusk threw its shadowy blanket over the courtyard.

Considering how dirty, sore, and bone-tired I felt, I had hoped to slip in without fanfare and retreat to my private rooms to get out of my tattered clothes and take a bath, but no such luck. There waiting to greet us was a ten-man squad of Imperial Palace Guards and their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Commander Galates. As we approached, Galates gave the order to present arms, and in crisp unison each soldier unsheathed his sword and saluted their Empress.

“Welcome back, Empress, General. I see you have bagged your quarry.” Lieutenant Commander Galates nodded towards Darphus, who was bound and closely guarded by Ephiny and Lieutenant Glaphyra.

Lieutenant Commander Galates ordered his guardsmen to take charge of the prisoner, and Darphus was led away. Xena offered her hand to help me dismount the horse, which I did with a groan as I landed on sore ankles – a result of having my hands and feet tightly bound for hours.

“Gabrielle, I am very glad to see you,” the Lieutenant Commander said with a formality that I wasn’t used to hearing from my dear friend.

I went up to Galates and gave him a great big hug. I knew the dashing officer was trying to maintain proper military decorum, but I didn’t give a toss about that. I was just so very glad to see him.

“At ease, Commander,” Xena said.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Galates relaxed his posture and gave me a warm hug.

“Ooh-oww!” I winced when the brown haired man with the broad shoulders squeezed my sore ribs.

Galates quickly released his hold. “I am sorry, did I hurt you?”

I mustered something between a grimace and a grin. “No. I’m just a little worse for wear.”

“More than a little I would say,” he noted with concern.

Xena gently put her hand on the small of my back and guided me up the steps. “Yes, and speaking of which, we should get you seen by the physician right away.” She looked down the steps at Darnell. “And you too, General.”

“I am fine,” Darnell protested.

“That was not a request,” Xena countered.

When our party entered the palace’s main hall, Xena turned to Galates and said, “Commander, the Amazons will be our guests until their queen has recovered. See to it.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“They can use the garrison billets vacated by the villagers from Philos,” I offered, “– that is if General Darnell has no objections.”

Darnell gave a resigned sigh and said, “Be my guest.”

Ephiny spoke up. “Never mind that now. I want to see Queen Terreis. Where is she?” Her tone expressed her impatience and apprehension.

Galates’ face turned sober. “I put the Queen in the guest suite down the hall from Gabrielle’s quarters. The court physician is with her. He said the most serious injury was a blow to the head that may have caused a severe concussion or even a fracture. He will know more once the swelling goes down. When last I checked, she was still unconscious.”

“Take me to her,” Ephiny demanded.

“Yes, I want to see her as well. We’ll all go,” I replied and started towards the stairs.

“Gabrielle, wait.” Xena held me back. “Galates will take Ephiny. You can see Terreis after you have had a rest.”

Xena nodded to Galates, who obeyed her command and showed Ephiny the way, but not before the Amazon Regent gave Galates further instructions. “As soon as our healer arrives with the others, have them directed to Queen Terreis’ rooms.”

“I will see to it,” Galates replied.

As Galates escorted Ephiny up the main stairs, the General and Lieutenant Glaphyra took their leave.

Once the main hall was empty, save Xena and me, I lodged a half-hearted protest about my condition. “Xena I am fine, honest.”

“That may be, but you have been through quite an ordeal. I want the physician to take a look at you.”

“No. Terreis needs him more than I do.”

“The Queen is being well looked after.”

“But—”

“No ‘buts’.”

I wasn’t going to debate it further, because I knew Xena was right. I conceded with a slight nod of my head.

“That’s better,” Xena replied. “Now, I want you to come upstairs with me. Get out of those dirty clothes. Take a nice warm bath. Have something to eat.”

“Why, Xena – that was downright nurturing.” I winked and purposefully whispered, “Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me.”

“No more secrets,” Xena said as she took my arm and helped me upstairs.

~~~~~

Xena insisted I come stay in her quarters so she could look after me personally; therefore, having retreated to Xena’s private rooms, we were greeted by Helena. An attractive and statuesque blonde originally from Athens, Helena had been sold into slavery by her parents when she was a young girl. She served the royal house of Athens until Xena conquered that kingdom. Helena came with us to Corinth and was employed as one of the Empress’ personal servants. She quickly won the Empress’ favour and was promoted to head of the Empress’ personal staff. And as far as I knew, Helena and Galates were the only two people at the palace who knew the truth about Xena and me.

“Welcome home, ma’am,” Helena said amiably.

“Thank you, Helena. I am glad to be home,” I replied with weary enthusiasm. Helena and I got along very well, though I couldn’t seem to break her of the habit of calling me “ma’am”.

Helena was dressed in a crisp white chiton, which made me realise what I sight I must’ve been – my clothes torn and bloody, my skin dirty and bruised. I might’ve felt embarrassed by my appearance if I weren’t so numb with fatigue.

Xena gave Helena some instructions, and Helena made a discreet exit towards the bathing chamber.

Finally we were alone, and Xena’s imperial aloofness gave way to a lover’s concern. She wasted no time discarding her cuirass and weapons, and then she crossed the room towards me. Xena gathered me in her arms and held me as delicately as she would a baby sparrow.

Wordlessly we stood in the middle of the sitting room holding each other as though we had been parted for months. At least it felt like months to me; so much had happened in those few days – regret enough for a lifetime.

I was the first to pull back, though reluctantly, and sought the same comfort in Xena’s warm blue eyes that I felt in her embrace. “I wasn’t sure you would come.”

“Oh? Why would you think that?”

“Well, the last time we saw each other, we weren’t exactly on speaking terms.”

“No, I guess not. About that, I…” She hesitated.

I knew the words wouldn’t come easily to Xena, so I spoke for both of us. “I know, I am sorry too—for everything.”

“It is not your fault,” Xena replied. “I said some things that were hurtful and stupid, and I—I regret it. It was my damnable pride.”

“And mine,” I replied. “Can you forgive me?”

“For what? There is nothing to forgive,” Xena replied.

“Yes there is. If I had just gone home with you that night, none of this would’ve happened. I wouldn’t have been kidnapped, Terreis wouldn’t be lying in a coma downstairs, and Lucon wouldn’t be dead!” Like a boiling pot of suet, all of the fatigue and the fear bubbled to the surface and erupted in inconsolable weeping.

Anguish was evident on Xena’s face for want of what to do to console me.

I buried my face on her chest and sobbed. “Oh-h, Xe-e-na.”

She put her arms around me and did her best to comfort me. “There, there, don’t cry. The bad is all behind us now.”

“I’m not so sure it is,” I said through the sniffing.

Xena handed me a cloth so I could blow my nose. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean, I don’t even know if you want me back.”

“Of course I do!”

“And do you love me?”

“You know I do.”

“I guess I just need to hear it.”

“I love you and I want you back,” Xena said. Her hand lingered as it softly cradled my swollen cheek.

I leaned into her palm and closed my eyes. The coolness of her skin against the heat of my bruised face felt soothing – like a cool cloth on a fevered brow.

“Come on, we had better get you into that bath before the water gets cold.”

~~~~~

Once we entered the bathing chamber, Xena helped me undress. Any other time and I would’ve found it playful and erotic to have her remove my clothing – a caress here and a kiss there. Any other time and I would’ve eagerly responded in kind. But this time was different. It felt almost cold and clinical – like a child being undressed by her mother – not at all sensual.

I felt embarrassed and didn’t want Xena seeing me like this: the bruises on my thighs and breasts, the slice across my neck, the black eye and split lip, the cuts, the dirt, the dried blood that filled the creases in my hands and under my fingernails. I allowed my eyes to wander around the room, to focus on the bathing chamber walls rather than Xena undressing me.

The bathing chamber walls were richly decorated with mosaics giving the illusion of being under water surrounded by coral reefs and brightly coloured fish. As I gazed upward to the ceiling the ocean blue tiles transitioned to a sky blue with winged birds and wispy clouds. It was beautiful, serene, and for a moment or two I imagined myself swimming with dolphins in the crystal clear waters of the Aegean Sea.

Xena’s voice brought my attention back. “Ready?”

I took one last glance at the aquatic scenery, grateful that it had made me feel a bit better. “Yes,” I replied with renewed spirit.

Xena helped me as I stepped into the bath and eased myself down, and then she took a seat on a marble bench near the water’s edge.

The steaming hot water was mixed with lemon balm and eucalyptus to soothe my bruised and achy muscles. I settled into the water with a grateful sigh. “Aah, this feels good. Why don’t you join me?” I asked.

“Believe me, I would love to, but if I did, you would be feeling everything but relaxed,” Xena replied in a suggestive tone, which brought me back to the last time Xena and I shared a bath together.

It was the night before the Amazon feast. The bathing chamber was awash in rose petals and candlelight. Xena’s long black tresses floated in the water like silken flotsam, her olive toned skin glistened with droplets of water reflecting the candlelight, giving her an almost golden aura – like that of a goddess. I remembered how smooth her skin felt as the soap glided over her curves and folds while I washed her clean. And I remembered feeling a burning quite apart from the bathwater, as her tongue slipped below the water line to playful coax my nipples to the surface…

Suddenly, there was a noise just outside the bathing chambers, which startled me. Xena stood up and faced the doorway, instinctively placing her body between some unseen danger and me, while I sought refuge in the bath’s far corner.

It was no danger. It was Helena who had returned with a food tray and a cup of hot camomile tea. Xena’s trusted servant brought the tea over to her Empress and once again discreetly withdrew.

Xena knelt down and handed me the cup of tea. “Here, I want you to drink this.”

“I don’t think I could keep it down.”

“There is something in it to help your stomach too. Drink it.”

Without further protestation, I accepted the cup and sipped the tepid brew.

“All of it,” she commanded.

Xena watched me as I drank it all down, and then she took the cup and placed it on a nearby table.

When I was ready to get out, Xena helped me out of the tub, wrapped a towel around me, scooped me up in her arms and carried me to her bed.

“There,” she said as she pulled the covers over me and tucked them around me. The feather-soft bedding felt refreshingly cool against my skin.

I tried to resist the effects of the bath and the tea, because there was still so much Xena and I needed to sort out, but soon my body gave in to exhaustion and the sedative in the camomile tea.

She leaned over me and kissed me on the forehead with tender concern. “Get some rest. I will be back to check on you later.”

A cold sweat washed over me. I grabbed Xena’s arm and held onto her for dear life. “No! Don’t go. Please don’t leave me. I don’t want to be alone. Please!”

“Yes, of course I will stay with you.” Xena sat beside me on the bed and welcomed me into her open arms. “Come, I will hold you while you fall asleep.”

I nestled into her side and closed my eyes. Soon my breathing matched the rhythm of her fingers stroking my damp hair, and I fell asleep.

The next thing I knew I was sitting on a blanket in a vast meadow of wildflowers, holding a wild daisy to my nose – the sun shining warmly on my face. A man dressed in a grey hooded cloak came towards me. I couldn’t tell who he was, but I seemed to recognise the person and stood up, as if to greet him as he approached. Suddenly angry clouds rushed in to block the sun, joy was replaced by foreboding, and the daisy I had once held between my fingers was now a large jagged rock. The hood was drawn back slowly and the identity of the person revealed: it was Lucon. His eyes were sunken, dark, and wide with contempt. He lunged at me. I reacted instinctively, and with all my might I brought the rock down and split open his skull. A torrent of blood gushed from his skull and washed me away down a steep and rocky ravine. Then a giant golden eagle swooped down, his huge wings obscuring the sky. He clawed at my head and neck with his sharp talons; his spurs dug into my back. I tried to scream but no sound came out. I tried to fight back, but I was rooted to the spot, unable to move a muscle. I tried to get away, but the eagle’s large wings closed around me and I was in total suffocating darkness.

I let out one last desperate scream ‘Xena help me!’ which jolted me back into consciousness. When I awoke, my arms and legs were thrashing at the bedclothes, fighting with every ounce of strength I had. Xena had her left arm around my shoulder and was pulling me closer to her body to stop my flailing.

“Gabrielle, it is okay. You are safe. It was just a bad dream.”

Her soothing, rocking motion made me feel very queasy and I pulled away, quickly grabbing for a nearby basin. Over and over my abdomen spasmed, but it was mostly dry heaves. There was nothing to bring up except the bilious dregs of camomile tea left in my stomach.

After the vomiting subsided, Xena took the basin from me and I settled back in bed, exhausted and still shaken by the disturbing images.

“It seemed so real,” I explained. “I remember the dream started out pleasantly, but…I can’t remember the details…something about a daisy and a rock – and blood, so much blood.”

“Your body and your dreams are just reacting to your first kill,” Xena replied. “You will get over it.”

“No, I don’t think I ever will. How can I? I killed a man. I watched as the life ebbed out of his eyes, and I have to live with that the rest of my life.”

“The bastard deserved to die,” Xena said defiantly. “You did what you had to do. I would not waste another night’s sleep on that worthless piece of crap.”

I knew it was no good debating the point with her. Xena lived by a warrior’s code. She would never understand the guilt and remorse I felt for having taken a man’s life, even if it were to save my own.

~~~~~

I don’t know how long I had slept, but I could tell by what light penetrated my eyelids that it was daytime. I tried to open my eyes, but my left eye was swollen shut.

It took a moment for me to remember I was in Xena’s bed and I called out for her. “Xena!”

“I am here.” I felt her weight settle on the bed.

I opened my good eye to see her looking down at me with a gentle smile. I tried to open my left eye again and managed to get the eyelids to part slightly before the pain became too much. “Ouch!” Reflex brought my hand up to cover my eye.

Xena gently pulled my hand away. “Here, let me see.”

“How does it look?” I asked.

“Like you got kicked by the business end of an angry mule,” Xena offered.

“That good, eh?” I chuckled.

It felt good to share a lighter moment with Xena. It seemed like such a long time since we had anything to laugh about.

I yawned to try to shrug off the effects of sleep. “What time is it?”

“It is afternoon,” Xena replied.

“Afternoon?” I was surprised to hear that it was afternoon already. “Why did you let me sleep that long? I complained. “I wanted to go see Terreis first thing this morning.”

“You needed the rest more,” Xena replied adamantly.

There was no point in arguing since I had slept right through the morning. Hoping for some good news, I asked Xena about Terreis’ condition. “How is Terreis? Has she regained consciousness?”

Xena’s face rarely gave away her emotions, but from her sombre expression it was easy to tell the news was not encouraging. “At last report, the Amazon Queen is alive, but her condition is grave. She lost a lot of blood.”

I felt sick with dread to hear that my friend could be dying. “I must go and see Terreis right away.” I started to get up, but I felt too weak and light-headed and fell back against the pillows.

“No, what you need is to eat something before you do anything else.” Xena insisted, pointing to a food-laden tray on the bed table. “You are no good to yourself or anyone if you are too weak.”

“I’m not very hungry,” I protested. That wasn’t true. I was ravenous, but my stomach was still a bit tender from all the vomiting the night before. Still, I humoured her and ate a small bite of nutbread.

Xena gave me that same stern look my mother used to give me when I didn’t eat my vegetables. I sighed and managed to eat a bigger piece of the nutbread and a couple of grapes.

“How was that? Any nausea?” Xena asked.

I waited to see if I would be able to hold down the nutbread and grapes before I confirmed that my stomach was better.

Xena smiled and handed me a piece of bread with honey. It was her favourite snack from the time she was a little girl, like nutbread was mine. I ate it slowly but steadily until the entire slice was consumed. I even licked the honey off my fingers.

“How do you feel now?” Xena asked.

“Good. Stuffed, but good,” I replied.

“No nausea?”

“Not if I don’t eat another bite!”

Satisfied that I was getting some nourishment, Xena got up off the bed. “If you think you will be all right for a while, I have an urgent matter that I cannot put off any longer.”

I felt my heart start racing, and my palms began to sweat. Xena obviously noticed it and became concerned. She looked me over and asked me if I wanted her to call the physician, but I assured her that I was fine. That wasn’t exactly true, but I didn’t want to stop Xena from attending to her important business.

Xena regarded me watchfully. “If you are sure.” She stood, adding, “I will be back as quickly as I can.”

I didn’t wait for Xena to leave her bedchambers before I threw the covers off me and started to get out of bed again. When she saw me, Xena came rushing back to my bedside.

“Whoa, where do you think you are going?” she asked.

“Since you’ll be gone for a while, I thought I’d look in on Terreis.”

“Absolutely not!” Xena exclaimed, blocking me. “You have been through a terrible ordeal, Gabrielle. You need time to recuperate.”

I rejected her prescription. “I appreciate your concern Xena, but I really am fine. The physician even said so – no broken bones, just cuts and bruises.”

Xena started telling me about how the horrors of battle could scar young soldiers and how she wasn’t going to let that happen to me; and then she practically ordered me to stay in bed and rest.

Xena’s caring side felt so close to her controlling side at times. I didn’t want to just lie about reflecting upon all the bad things that had happened in the past few days. “I know you mean well, but the best medicine for me right now is to get up and go see Terreis.”

I threw back the covers and started out of bed a third time. This time, Xena physically pinned me down.

I tried to push her out of my way, but I was too weak. “Xena please let me up.”

I tried again to get up, but again she resisted. My heart started racing and I was feeling trapped. “Let me up, now,” I demanded.

The harder I struggled, the stronger Xena’s grip became. When I saw a flash of anger in her face, it sent a desperate wave of fear coursing through my body. It was Lucon all over again.

“Get off!” I screamed and pushed her with all of my might.

She released me, and I scrambled off the bed and found refuge behind a chair at the other end of the room. My hands were clenched in fists, and my eyes darted around the room looking for places to escape. I felt like an animal caught in a trap: scared to death and desperate to survive.

Xena made no movement towards me. Instead she tried to coax me out. “You see? Clearly you are not fine, Gabrielle.”

Yes, it was evident that I wasn’t ‘fine’ by the way I reacted.

“I promise I will not hurt you,” she said softly, her hand outstretched. “Please, come back to bed.”

I took a deep breath to calm myself and allowed Xena to escort me back into bed. She gave me a glass of water, which I welcomed because my throat was very dry.

After handing her back the glass, I conceded to her prescription for more rest, but only for a few more hours.

“How about a compromise?” Xena suggested.

“Compromise? Now that’s a word I never thought I’d hear you use,” I teased. “And what do you propose?”

“Before you resume your regular duties, I propose that you take things easy for another couple of days. Look in on Terreis, sit by the carp pond and do some writing – anything to give yourself some time to fully recover from your ordeal.”

“And?” I asked.

Xena looked confused.

“You said ‘compromise’. That usually means one person agreeing to do something on the understanding that the other person agrees to do something as well. ‘Quid pro quo’ I think the Romans call it.”

“Are you sure? I thought it meant me telling you to do something and you obeying.” Xena replied with a smirk.

I tried to imitate her stern look, but I couldn’t muster an ounce of intimidation.

Xena allowed her grin to fade. “If you do that, I will agree to do this.” She leaned in and placed a kiss on my lips that held such tender promise, discomfort was replaced by a pleasant yearning.

“Wow, I feel better already,” I said.

“Well, then. I will be back as quickly as I can to administer another treatment,” Xena replied with a knowing smile. “Promise me, you will stay in bed and rest.”

“I promise.”

~~~~~

Despite my promise to Xena to stay in bed and rest, I couldn’t get back to sleep and I couldn’t just lie there all afternoon. Besides, I was very keen to see Terreis, to find out what happened to her and the status of her condition.

I threw off the covers and went over to a chair where Helena had laid out some clothes for me. I got dressed and helped myself to another piece of nutbread on my way out.

Just as I reached the doors, Helena walked in carrying a fresh bouquet of cut flowers.

I jumped back, startled by her sudden appearance.

“Forgive me, ma’am. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s okay. I was just surprised, that’s all.”

“Is there something you require?” Helena asked.

“No. I was just going downstairs to see how Queen Terreis is doing.” I replied.

“No!” Helena blocked my way. “I mean, I will find out for you.”

“That won’t be necessary. I need to stretch my legs anyway.”

The blonde haired woman blanched. “You can’t! The Empress gave me strict orders to make sure you stayed in bed and rested.”

“Oh, it’s all right, Helena. I’m certain the Empress didn’t mean that literally.”

“The Empress was very emphatic. She said I was not to let you out of my sight.”

“Don’t worry, Helena. I won’t be gone long.”

“But—”

“Helena,” I said firmly, “Look. I am going to see Queen Terreis, and then I’m coming straight back.” I pointed at the doors behind her. “Now, unless I am a prisoner—”

“No, ma’am!”

“Good. And if the Empress should return before I get back, you can tell her from me…” I paused, thinking better of the tone I was going to take. “Tell the Empress you did everything short of tying me to the bedpost, but I insisted.”

Helena looked very uneasy but finally acquiesced and allowed me to pass.

No sooner had I stepped foot in the hallway then I had to go through the same argument with the soldiers standing guard outside the doors. They had been given orders by the Empress not to allow anyone in or out until she returned. They said something about ‘pain of death’.

“Aargh!” I internally vented my frustration. It was like running a gauntlet just trying to get to the staircase! “Look, I am going downstairs to see Queen Terreis, so you can either arrest me or let me pass.”

The two soldiers looked at each other, seriously weighing the options.

I made the choice easier for them. “Which option do you think will make the Empress more angry: allowing me to be on my way so I can go visit the Amazon Queen one floor down or forcibly dragging me back into that room kicking and screaming? Hmm?”

They let me pass.

~~~~~

The Amazon Queen had been taken to the apartment down the hall from my quarters. Normally there were only two sentries standing guard at either end of the hallway; however, with heightened security throughout the palace, Galates had doubled the guards. Insisting that wasn’t good enough, Ephiny had ordered two Amazon warriors to stand watch inside the Queen’s room at all times.

As quietly as possible, I entered Terreis’ room. Ephiny was seated on a wooden stool near the head of the bed, bent forward as if to silently encourage that part of Terreis still stubbornly clinging to life. At a nearby table, N’Gila was working on a poultice for Terreis’ head injury.

I drew near and whispered, “How is she doing?”

Ephiny looked over her shoulder at me. “The same,” she replied with her usual terseness, but the worried tone gave away her deep concern for her queen.

“Has the physician been in to see her?”

N’Gila replied, “Your court physician came this morning to check her head injury. He’s concerned about some swelling of the brain, but this poultice will help with that.”

The tall, thin woman leaned in over Ephiny’s shoulder.

Ephiny moved out of the way to allow the healer better access. It was the first time I got a good look at the extent of Terreis’ injuries. Her clothing had been removed, and her fractured left shoulder had been newly re-splinted. She must’ve had some cracked ribs as well, because the bandages holding her arm to her chest extended the length of her torso. I was shocked to see how deathly pale her skin had become next to the clean white linens.

N’Gila carefully removed the bandage from Terreis’ head and sponged off some of the dried blood that matted her brilliant red hair.

It made me heartsick to see Terreis like this, knowing that the Amazon Queen had once again put her life on the line for me, and that she might die before I had a chance to tell her how much she’s meant to me.

As N’Gila rewrapped the unconscious queen’s head, Terreis’ muscles never twitched, her eyes never blinked. Yet, I felt her presence all around us.

Once the Amazon healer was finished, Ephiny went back to hunching over Terreis. I put my hand on Ephiny’s shoulder to get her attention. The Amazon warrior looked up at me.

Her eyes were dark-ringed and blood-shot from lack of sleep, and I noticed a plate of untouched food on the table next to her.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“What day is it?”

“You mean you’ve been here the entire time?”

“Yeah,” Ephiny replied wearily.

“Why don’t you take a break? I’ll stay with her for a while.”

“No—I want to be here when she awakens.”

“Going without sleep or food for two days is not going to help her,” I said, trying to appeal to her logic.

“No, but me being here might,” she countered.

The irony was not lost on me that my prescription for Ephiny sounded almost exactly like Xena’s prescription for me.

“You really care a lot about her, don’t you?” I asked.

“Of course! She is my queen,” the Amazon Regent confirmed with a slightly defensive tone.

“Terreis is much more than that, isn’t she?”

“What do you mean?” Ephiny glared at me suspiciously.

“I mean there’s more to it than that,” I replied quietly. “There is some history between the two of you.”

Ephiny’s posture became stiff and her eyes more glaring than dull. “Who told you that?”

“Terreis.”

Ephiny leaned in closer – her voice just above a whisper. “Terreis told you there was something between us?”

I recalled the story Terreis had shared with me just before we were attacked. “Well, not in so many words. I asked her if she had ever been in love, and she told me about a young warrior she loved very much, but duty came before personal happiness.”

“I, uh—what makes you think she was talking about me?”

I chuckled. “My dear Ephiny, it doesn’t take an oracle to see that you love her.”

The Amazon warrior was taken aback, no doubt feeling defenceless and vulnerable – her secret exposed.

Ephiny looked down at Terreis and then at the floor. Finally she spoke. “It is more complicated than that.”

“No. It’s not.” I wanted to take Ephiny by the shoulders and shake some sense into her; instead I scolded the stubborn warrior. “What is it with you warrior types, anyway? Why are you so afraid of showing your feelings?”

Ephiny didn’t look up, so I pointed to Terreis’ unconscious body. “Look at her, Ephiny. Look at Terreis lying there.”

Ephiny remained immovable, neither looking at Terreis nor looking at me. It was infuriating, but I kept my temper and tried a different tactic. “Do you mean to tell me if she wakes up tomorrow, you are going to go back to the way things were between you?”

That seemed to snap the blonde haired woman out of her denial. She glanced at Terreis and then up at me. “No. I don’t know. It is not up to me.”

“Yes, it is up to you. Tell her, Ephiny. Tell her how much you love her. Tell her now and keep telling her, because if you don’t and she dies, it will be too late and you will never forgive yourself.”

Ephiny considered my words, and then leaned in and tenderly whispered in her love’s ear. “Terreis please don’t die. We—I need you. Don’t leave me, please don’t leave me.” She looked for any sign that Terreis had heard her, but there was no movement from the injured queen – only slow, shallow breaths.

“This is useless!” Ephiny emphasised her frustration by knocking the stool backwards as she stood.

Without a word, I retrieved the stool, set it upright in its place close to Terreis’ bedside, and then encouraged Ephiny to sit back down next to her queen and the woman she loved.

The careworn Amazon returned to the stool feeling discouraged and beaten – her shoulders drooping, her eyes fixed on the floor.

“It is not too late,” I gently explained. “Terreis exists in the ethereal void between this world and the next. She may not be able to answer, but she can hear you.” I kept my hand on her shoulder and said, “Tell her. Give her a reason to fight to come back.”

Ephiny looked up at me with renewed hopefulness. “I will.”

“I’m glad,” I said with an encouraging smile.

Suddenly, the door opened behind us and we both turned around. It was Xena, and she did not look happy.

I left Ephiny’s side and met Xena in the middle of the room. “Before you say anything, it was not Helena’s fault or the guards. They did their best to keep me from leaving,” I said in a hushed voice.

“We will talk about it upstairs,” Xena whispered. “First things first – how is Terreis?”

“Still unconscious. The physician is concerned about swelling, but N’Gila is giving her treatments for that,” I replied.

“Well, she made it through the night, which is a good sign,” Xena observed.

I didn’t know if Xena was speaking from medical knowledge or wishful thinking, but either way, it made me feel a little more hopeful. Unfortunately, it offered little solace to Ephiny.

“What do you know about it?” Ephiny snapped. “For all we know, Terreis is already in the Land of the Dead and we are wasting our time!”

I could feel Xena’s ire rising, but she said nothing. Instead, she left me to deal with Ephiny. “The Empress is right, Ephiny. Every hour that goes by, Terreis’ injuries are healing and she is growing stronger. Just give it another couple of days.”

Ephiny cradled her head and vigorously rubbed her eyes.

“Ephiny, you really must try and close your eyes, if only for a little while,” I said. “It would not do for both the Queen and the Regent to be incapacitated.”

N’Gila came over with a vial of clary sage and instructed Ephiny to dab a drop behind each ear. “Clary sage has a relaxing and uplifting effect,” the Amazon healer explained.

Xena drew closer, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “I need you to come with me now. We need to talk.”

~~~~~~~~
Chapter 4
~~~~~~~~

Rage and Revenge—volatile emotions that if left unbridled can eat away reason like a gangrenous sore. I had long ago learned to harness their potency without succumbing to their venomous toxins; however, there are no words to describe the depths of my rage on discovering that I had brought a jackal into the den by making Darphus Chief of the Civil Protection Force. I only had myself to blame for missing the signs that Darphus was disgruntled enough for conspiracy and treason. I was too preoccupied in keeping my relationship with Gabrielle a secret – a tactic that proved disastrous. It got Gabrielle kidnapped, Terreis almost killed, and had left my empire more vulnerable, not less.

Fortunately, Gabrielle was finally safe, back within the palace walls, with me where she belonged – and the mistakes I had made would soon be rectified.

~~~~~

It had been a rough night for Gabrielle, and it was well past midday when she finally awoke. The herbal bath and camomile tea the night before had helped her to relax, but by themselves were not enough to make her sleep so long. It was exhaustion fuelled by nightmares – thieves that robbed her of much needed rest and peace of mind.

I had stayed with Gabrielle all night and the next morning, hardly sleeping myself, not that it mattered. I was used to little sleep on the eve of battle, and make no mistake I was going to war with all those responsible for this despicable crime.

As Gabrielle stirred from her slumber, I moved from the chair I had occupied most of the night and settled next to her on the bed. I wanted to be the first thing Gabrielle saw when she opened her eyes, but her injured left eye had swollen shut. She winced in pain.

“Let me see.” I guided her hand away.

With light from the sun’s rays streaming through the window, I could examine her injuries more closely: an umbra of black-blue bruising encircled her left eye, her arms were a patchwork of bloody scrapes, and the knife-wound on her neck was deep enough to require stitches.

“How does it look?” she asked.

“Like you got kicked by the business end of an angry mule,” I replied.

It made Gabrielle chuckle, and hearing her laughter was a good sign. It gave me hope that Gabrielle would not be forever scarred by her ordeal.

True to her nature, Gabrielle’s primary concern was for Queen Terreis, and she was anxious to know how the Amazon Queen was doing.

I debated whether I should tell her. The last thing Gabrielle needed right now was discouraging news, I thought. However, not telling her would worry her more and that would not be good for her recovery. It left me with little choice but to be honest and tell her that the Queen’s condition was grave.

“She lost a lot of blood,” I said, trying to prepare Gabrielle should the worse happen and Terreis not survive.

Gabrielle immediately threw off the covers. “I must go and see Terreis right away.”

She tried to get out of bed but fell back against the pillows – too weak to stand just yet. It had been almost two days since Gabrielle had eaten, so no doubt the lack of food had made her a bit lightheaded as well.

“No, what you need is to eat something before you do anything else.” I insisted, pointing to a nearby food tray. “You are no good to yourself or anyone if you are too weak.”

Gabrielle glanced at the food but showed little interest.

With a stern look from me, Gabrielle relented and took a bite of nutbread – then another bite, and then a few grapes.

That was encouraging. Eyeing the bread and honey on the tray, I took a slice and poured the golden nectar on the piece of bread just like my mother did when I was a little girl and had a tummy ache. My mouth watered for a bite, but I refrained. “Here, try this,” I said, and handed it to Gabrielle.

At first she was tentative, but after a nibble or two, Gabrielle was able to eat the entire slice. It pleased me to see her appetite coming back after all the vomiting last night – another good sign.

While Gabrielle braved sampling a few more morsels from the food tray, I glanced out the window and realised the sun was casting a longer shadow across the palace walls. It was getting later and I needed to deal with the Darphus situation.

I kept encouraging Gabrielle to eat until she put up her hand and insisted she could not eat another bite.

Once I was convinced it would be all right to leave Gabrielle for a while, I told her I had an urgent matter that could not be put off any longer. I offered her no further details. It was better that way.

Suddenly Gabrielle’s expression changed and her face went pale.

“Are you all right? Do you want me to call for the physician?” I asked.

“No, there is no need. I’m fine.”

I had the feeling Gabrielle was not telling me the whole truth, so I did a quick examination myself. I checked her hands to see if they felt cold or clammy – only slightly. In contrast, the centres of her eyes were large and black. Sure signs that she was having a mild panic attack.

I almost changed my mind and stayed, but I took her at her word that she was all right, because it was vital that I discovered who was the mastermind behind her kidnapping. The plot was certainly not the brainchild of Darphus and Lucon, and the longer it took, the colder the trail.

I promised her that I would be back as quickly as I could. That cheered Gabrielle, which made me feel better about leaving her. However, as soon as my back was turned, Gabrielle started getting out of bed.

“Whoa, where do you think you are going?”

She told me, matter-of-factly, that she was going to see Terreis.

“Absolutely not!” I sat on the edge of the bed and blocked her. “You have been through a terrible ordeal, Gabrielle. You need time to recuperate.”

“I appreciate your concern, Xena, but I’m fine. The physician even said so – no broken bones, just some minor cuts and bruises.”

“It is the wounds one cannot see that I am worried about,” I explained. “I have seen it many times in the faces of traumatised young soldiers after their first battle. There was no time for rest and reflection upon the horrors they had endured. They had to pick up their weapon and march into battle the next day and the next, until they were dead or dead to their own suffering. I am not going to let that happen to you. You will get all the time you need to heal before you resume your duties.”

“That’s sweet, but really—”

“No ‘buts’.” I fluffed a pillow and put it behind her back. “Until I return, I want you to stay in this bed and get some more rest—”

“I know you mean well, but the best medicine for me right now is to get up and go see Terreis.”

When Gabrielle started to get out of bed a third time, I got more physical with her – more than I intended. I reached across and pinned her shoulders. The more she struggled to get up, the more firmly I held her down. Then something snapped. Her expression changed from mild annoyance to one of desperate fear.

She thrashed her arms and legs wildly and screamed, “Get off!”

Realising my mistake, I quickly let her go and rolled to my side, away from her.

Gabrielle scrambled off the bed – putting some distance, and some furniture, between us. She had the same wild-eyed and terrified look that a cornered animal had.

“You see? Clearly you are not fine, Gabrielle!” I was frustrated with myself for pushing her too close to the emotional edge. I needed to change tactics, and quickly.

With my hand out-stretched towards her, and in a gentle voice, I was able to coax her back to bed. Eyeing a pitcher of fresh water on the bedside table, I poured a cup and gave it to her.

Gabrielle drank it down as though putting out a brush fire. She handed the empty cup back to me and gasped, “I am so sorry. I-I don’t know what came over me.”

“It was my fault I should have known better than to hold you down like that.” I sat on the bed next to her again and patted her hand.

“No, you were right. It’s obvious that I could use another few hours of rest. But that’s it. Come tomorrow, I will be ready to resume my regular duties.”

I was about to make staying in bed an imperial order, but then I remembered something Lieutenant Commander Galates had observed about Gabrielle. ‘You can have control of your empire, Highness, and you can have Gabrielle. You just can’t have control of Gabrielle.’

Instead, we worked out a compromise: she promised to stay in bed and rest and I promised to get back as quickly as possible so we could spend some time together – no meetings or visitors, just Gabrielle and me.

Before I left, I administered a “treatment” of my own to last us both until I returned. Slowly, I leaned towards her. Her eyes languidly closed as she offered me her mouth to kiss. I drew closer until barely a breath separated us. My unhurried pace belied my longing for her. I closed my eyes and ever so lightly brushed her lips with mine. I felt an immediate rush of carnal heat. Every sinew of my body was aching to take her in my arms and reclaim her as my lover, but now was not the time to press for more.

When I left my quarters, I gave the guards strict instructions that no one was allowed in or out of my rooms until I returned – no one except Helena. And I meant no one in or out. There was no need to add ‘under pain of death’; that was a given.

Besides there was someone else I had in mind for that.

~~~~~

As I briskly strode through the south portico, I was met with a gust of stifling summer heat. After having been inside all morning with Gabrielle, I needed to adjust to the temperature, and I paused at the top of the steps.

Once my eyes adjusted to the brilliance of the afternoon sun, I saw a striking figure of a man in full ceremonial dress uniform coming towards me from the stables. It was General Darnell.

“Ah, there you are Empress. I was just coming to see you.” He waited for me at the bottom of the steps.

“Yes, General, what is it?” I asked as I descended.

“I have a few things I need to discuss with you. But first, how is Gabrielle?”

“Doing all right.”

“And Queen Terreis?”

“No change. Still unconscious.”

“Oh.”

“And how are you, General? The physician reported that you had suffered a concussion.”

“He exaggerates. It was just a small bump.”

“So he exaggerated the headaches as well, I suppose?”

Darnell bristled, “Well, uh…no. But he did clear me to return to duty this morning.”

I was sceptical, but I left it at that. “What did you want to see me about?”

“The latest intelligence from Anatolia and the deployment of the First Corinthian Infantry.”

“I am rather pressed for time, General. Was there something urgent from Anatolia?”

“Nothing that could not wait.”

“Good, then come to my office first thing tomorrow. We can discuss Anatolia then.”

“Yes, Empress.”

“Now what about the First Corinthian Infantry?”

“The departure of the transport ships was delayed due to the emergency closing of the harbour yesterday. This morning, I went ahead and gave them approval to depart.”

In all of the turmoil surrounding Gabrielle’s kidnapping and rescue, I had completely forgot about the First Corinthian.

“The transport ships set sail for Anatolia on the afternoon tide,” Darnell continued. “I just came back from seeing them off.”

“Glad you took care of that bit of ceremony.”

As an aside, the General added, “I knew you had other priorities.”

“Yes,” I said pensively. “Walk with me, General.”

“Certainly.” Darnell fell into step. “Where are you headed?” he asked.

“I am on my way to have a meaningful dialog with our prisoner.”

We walked across the courtyard in silence, stopping when we reached the unmarked door that led to the subterranean levels of the palace complex.

“So, do you suspect others were involved in the kidnapping?” the General asked.

“That is what I am going to find out,” I said tersely.

“What are you going to do?”

“Make him curse his father for siring him.”

~~~~~

Descending the dank stone spiral staircase into the bowels of the palace was like descending to those levels of Tartarus reserved for only the most repugnant offenders. The increasingly foul air hung like fetid curtains within the windowless confines of the dungeon walls. The haunting glow from the few torches that lighted my way cast eerie shadows from the nightmarish creatures inhabiting these nether regions. Their constant gnashing, scratching, and clicking echoed throughout the soulless cavern.

I opened the door to the lone occupied cell and was nearly knocked off my feet by the vile, vomitous stench of festering flesh, excrement, and blood. Before I could enter, I had to pause to recover from the assault to my senses.

The room was small, with thick stone walls that served to deaden the screams of its occupant. The only furniture was a small table with an array of devices meant to break body and spirit. A cistern of rainwater outside fed a deep basin that jutted out from the cell wall. An empty bucket sat on the dirt floor next to it. The only source of light in the room came from candles on iron stands in opposite corners on the other side of the room and the glow of hot coals in a stone hearth across from the cell door.

There were two men occupying the room: a tall, muscular bear of a man and a husk of a man I had once thought trustworthy. One was dressed in black and wore a mask to conceal his face and the other was stripped naked and dangled from a chain fastened to the ceiling.

“Has he told you anything?” I asked.

“Not yet, My Liege,” the Dungeon Master replied. “He is a stubborn one, but I will break him. It is just a matter of time.”

“I do not have time,” I growled. “Lower him.”

The masked man turned a handle on the wall and Darphus was jerkily lowered until his feet touched the ground. When his legs were able to support his weight, I signalled the Dungeon Master and he locked the chain gear. The burly man then went over to the table and picked up a leather cudgel with three shark-like metal teeth protruding from one end. He took up a position in plain view of the prisoner and waited.

I walked around Darphus, deliberately pausing to size up his manhood with disdain as he hung from his wrists in the middle of the room. “Just as I thought—no balls.”

Darphus struggled against the chains that held his arms up over his head, as though he wanted to take a swing at me.

The Dungeon Master raised his arm, but I stopped him before he struck Darphus with the cudgel.

“I want names, Darphus—the names of those who put you up to this.”

Darphus had a soldier’s pride still firmly etched on his bloody and bruised face. “What makes you think there are others?” he said.

“Because you are not smart enough to come up with this scheme on your own.”

“You have always underestimated me, Xena—”

The Dungeon Master forcefully struck Darphus in the kidneys with the razor-tipped club.

“Aargh.” Darphus let out a painful groan, as blood seeped from the shallow lacerations on his back.

“You are nothing more than hired muscle. Give me a name,” I said.

“Go to Tartarus!” he cursed.

Another punishing blow cut across his back. “Gaaargh!” he cried out.

“Why suffer for someone else? Just tell me who else is involved, and I will order the guards to clean you up, feed you, and give you more comfortable accommodations.”

I waited for an answer I knew would not come – not yet – and secretly it pleased me. This snivelling spawn of a harpy had not suffered nearly enough for the grievous harm he had caused Gabrielle and Terreis. And as for his treasonous betrayal of my trust, there was no torture diabolical enough to satisfy my appetite for vengeance.

I was reminded of an incident many years ago, when I was still a warlord and my army was raiding villages on the great plains of Magyar. The lieutenant in charge of guarding the plunder thought he would withhold a gold chain for himself. When I discovered what he had done, I made sure the thief became an example to others who might have harboured thoughts of stealing from me.

It took him a month to die.

Darphus was with me at that time, and I reminded him of the incident. “You remember Magyar?”

He glared at me with his one good eye in stubborn silence. “I will take that as a ‘yes’.” I stepped right up to him. “How much more precious than a gold chain do you think Gabrielle is to me, eh?”

Despite his split and swollen lips, the still-defiant plotter managed to spit in my face. The Dungeon Master drew his arm back, ready to inflict another punishing blow for the insult, but I raised my right hand to stop him and wiped Darphus’ foul sputum off my face.

“Do you doubt I can keep you alive for two months? Three? How about a whole year?”

Darphus contemptuously sneered and passed wind.

I had enough. With lightning speed, I jabbed the pressure points at the top of his thighs. His leg muscles were instantly paralysed and no longer able to support his weight. Chains securing him to a large iron ring above his head clanked loudly as he dropped like an anchor. Only the shackles at his wrists stopped him from crumbling to the ground. It was not long before he blacked out.

The Dungeon Master drew a bucket of cold water and doused him. When Darphus came to, he let out a pitiful cry as the unbearable pain hit him anew and his bowels emptied down the back of his legs. I barely registered the smell of his waste; it was no worse than any other pong in this gods-forsaken hole.

Finally, I released the pressure points on his legs. Darphus took a couple of deep breaths before fixing an angry glare on me. It seemed he had some fight still left in him.

He smiled smugly. “You’re not going to kill me. That girl pulling your leash told you not to.”

I wanted to rip his heart out with my bare hands; still I remained outwardly composed. “Nice try, Darphus. You are trying to goad me into killing you. Well it will not work. You will go on trial. You will be found guilty, and you will be executed.”

I walked over and picked up a whip that lay on the implement table. I purposefully checked out the feel of the handle, ran the palm of my hand along the pliant leather thong, gave it a deft snap and extinguished one of the standing candles on the opposite side of the room.

Demonstration over. I rewound the whip in my hand as I continued. “However, nothing says your trial has to be tomorrow, or next month, or next year. I have all that time to think of ways to make your wait excruciatingly long and painful. And you have all that time to wonder what I will come up with next to prolong your torment.”

He ignored my threats and continued to taunt me. “How does it feel, Xena? Spending all those years fighting for an empire and when you get it, you hand power to a girl just because she’s prepared to keep your bed warm.”

A growl started at the back of my throat. I backhanded him across the mouth, sending fresh blood splattering across the cell wall.

Darphus showed his teeth in a bloody grin. He had got to me and he knew it.

“Or is it the other way around and you keep her bed warm? Tell me, Xena, does her cunt taste like honey when she orders you to lick it?”

An explosion of pyroclastic rage raced through every sinew of my body, and before Darphus knew what hit him, my fist flew out and caught him under the ribs. Darphus’ dark, sunken eyes registered the awful pain it must have caused him.

I cared nothing for the man or the pain I was inflicting. I pushed my fist harder into his chest cavity until I heard ribs crack. If I could have I would have I reached up further and ripped his heart out. The only thing that stopped me was the information he had that I wanted; otherwise I would have delighted in seeing this worm impaled on my fist.

“Tell me who put you up to this, so you can die knowing they are going to suffer a worse fate than you.”

The fact that my fist was constricting his lungs prevented him from making any sound at all. Reluctantly, I removed my fist to let him breathe. My former lieutenant sagged against his chains, writhing from the pain and gasping for air.

“It does not have to be this way, Darphus. Give me a name, and I give you my word, your death will be quick and painless.”

I waited, but still he said nothing.

I was done playing. I gave the Dungeon Master a determined nod. The burly masked man picked up a large flaying knife, grabbed Darphus’ scrotum, and readied the knife.

Darphus gave me a name.

Without a backwards glance, I started towards the door and I said, “Break his legs.”

Darphus screamed, “Wait!”

I stopped and looked over my shoulder. The Dungeon Master was advancing on Darphus with a heavy mallet in his hand.

“You promised you would make it quick and painless!” Darphus pleaded.

“‘Quick and painless’ is a relative term,” I replied. I opened the thick oaken door and welcomed a lungful of less stomach-churning air from the outer chamber. “Besides, you still have got to go on trial.”

There was laughter on my lips when I slammed the cell door behind me.

~~~~~

I had no idea how long I had been down in that wretched hole interrogating Darphus until I stepped out into the fresh air. I knew from the cooler temperature and the position of the sun low in the western sky that it had to be early evening.

It was time I got back to Gabrielle, but first I walked to a nearby cistern. I could not wait to wash the blood and stench off me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the Commander of the Palace Guards walking towards me double quick. A mass of red curls bobbed along behind his right shoulder. I recognised the red curls as belonging to Gabrielle’s persistent aide, Larrius. After dealing with Darphus, I was in no mood to deal with him.

Galates held Larrius a respectful distance from me before stepping forward and saluting. “Forgive the intrusion, Highness.”

I acknowledged Galates’ salute with a terse nod. “What does he want?”

“Larrius says he has new information about the situation in Larissa.”

“Larissa? What about it?” I asked impatiently.

“The slave trading!” Larrius interjected. He was clearly annoyed about being left out of the conversation. Fortunately for him, he quickly changed his tone. He stepped forward and said, “With all due respect, Your Highness, I reported to you several days ago about the illegal slave trading in Larissa.”

In all the confusion surrounding Gabrielle’s kidnapping, Larrius’ report of slave trading in Larissa had quite escaped me, but I was not about to tell him that.

“Yes, yes, I remember. I said I would investigate your allegations.”

“True, Your Highness, but new information has come to light. I have just received a message from Malcus in Larissa.” He took a scroll from his belt and said, “Malcus confirms what I suspected – that the slave trading activity I witnessed is not an isolated incident. He writes that slaves are being used in the Governor’s household. That can only mean slave trading has the tacit approval of the Governor of Thessalia.”

I snatched the scroll from his hand. “Let me see that.”

As I read the message, the words ‘slaves’ and ‘Governor’ had me incensed. It was not that I held strong convictions about slavery; however, Gabrielle was very passionate about social justice and had urged me to abolish slavery throughout my empire. No, what had me seething was the blatant disregard of my edict by my own governor. That kind of insubordination and corruption was not to be tolerated.

I crumpled the scroll in my fist and cursed under my breath. Now I was compelled to do something about the situation in Larissa. I cannot have my authority challenged by my own governor. It would make me look weak and a fool.

“You did well to bring this to my attention today. I will give it urgent attention.” I stood at least a head taller than Larrius, so I stepped right into his personal space and gave him an intimidating glare to impress upon him that I was serious. “Need I remind you to say nothing of this to anyone, and I mean not another living soul, or you will find yourself hanging from a cross until your bones are picked clean by carrion crows. Do I make myself clear?”

“What about Gabrielle?”

“Are you deaf?” I roared.

The red-haired man blanched and swallowed hard. “No, uh, I mean yes, Highness. I will say nothing of this to anyone, I swear.”

“Excellent.” I eased my posture. “Now, carry on with whatever you are supposed to be doing.”

Not having the sense to leave while he was ahead, Larrius brought up another issue.

“That’s just it, Your Highness, I am not sure what I should be doing now – that is something on which I needed to confer with Gabrielle.”

“Gabrielle is not seeing anyone until she is fully recovered.” I kept my voice level. Just.

“But—”

“Did you not hear what I said?” I barked at him.

Larrius blinked nervously but held his ground. “Yes, Empress. Forgive me. It’s just that before Larissa, I had been helping to organise the Civil Protection Force. With Lieutenant Darphus incarcerated, there is no one in charge. Who is going to run the force now?”

Larrius was annoying, but he had a point. Something needed to be done about the Civil Protection Force. It was Gabrielle’s baby, but I did not want her worrying and fretting over it while she was recuperating.

“You, Larrius,” I replied. “I am appointing you the new Chief of the Civil Protection Force.”

“Thank you, Your Highness, but again with the utmost respect, shouldn’t Gabrielle be consulted first?”

Does this fool have a death wish? I thought as I marvelled at the impudence of this minor functionary. “I appointed Darphus, and now I am appointing you. Do not make me regret it. Now, you may go.”

Lieutenant Commander Galates saluted and turned on his heel to escort Larrius away, but the new Chief of the Civil Protection Force kept talking. “Thank you, Your Highness. So, you will relay the news of Larissa and my appointment to Gabrielle. Oh, and please let Gabrielle know I wish her a speedy recovery.”

I gritted my teeth and resisted the urge to put The Pinch on him. “Yes, I will tell her. Now go!”

Galates took the cue and tried to usher Larrius away while the man was still breathing.

“Stay a moment, Commander.”

“Yes, Empress.” He called another guard over and instructed him to escort Larrius to the palace gates.

As soon as Larrius and the guard were out of earshot, Galates asked, “How is Gabrielle doing?”

“As well as can be expected,” I replied.

“When may I visit her?”

“I know you are anxious to see Gabrielle, but she had a rough night, so I want her to have complete rest today.”

“Yes, certainly.” His disappointment was obvious.

I felt like I had just kicked a puppy. “I will make sure you see her before we leave.”

“Leave, Highness?”

“Yes, Commander. You and I are going to Larissa. Investigating Larrius’ report is a matter of utmost urgency and delicacy. I need a man I can rely on to help me get to the bottom of it. I can think of no one better.”

“Thank you, Empress.”

“Select twenty Palace Guards to come with us. We will be travelling light and fast, so make sure they pack their kit accordingly.”

“Should I tell the guards where we are going?”

I was impressed that Galates was thinking about the secrecy of the mission. “No. Just tell them to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.”

“As you command.”

“Also, I need you to see to the logistics for the trip: fresh mounts so we can travel longer, campsites where we can stop to rest, and provisions.”

“I will see it done.”

“And I have a special assignment for Lieutenant Glaphyra.”

“May I know the nature of the assignment?”

“Yes. Besides taking command of the Palace Guards in your absence, Lieutenant Glaphyra will be personally responsible for Gabrielle’s safety. Helena will attend Gabrielle, but I want the lieutenant to stay close to Gabrielle as well – be a bodyguard of sorts and relieve Helena as necessary.”

“Yes Highness. I will have her report to you immediately.”

“No, you can inform her yourself and have her come see me tomorrow for her specific orders.”

“Very well, Empress, and I will give you a status of preparations in the morning.”

“Morning – good.”

The Lieutenant Commander and I parted ways – he to the barracks and me to break the news to Gabrielle.

~~~~~

The walk towards my private quarters seemed especially long. Gabrielle would be there waiting for me. How in Hades was I going to tell her that I was leaving for Larissa in two days?

The guards outside my quarters had seen me coming and opened the doors. As I walked past, they offered me a crisp salute, which I ignored. I did not, however, miss noticing the nervous glance that passed between them.

When I entered the sitting room, Helena was there as expected. She stopped tidying up and bobbed a perfect curtsey. I ignored her as well and walked through the rooms looking for Gabrielle. Much to my exasperation, Gabrielle was nowhere to be found.

I had ordered Helena to look after Gabrielle and make sure she rested, and I had ordered the soldiers guarding my doors not to allow anyone to enter or leave. By the gods, someone was going to feel my wrath.

I went charging back into the sitting room; my irritation was evident. “Where is Gabrielle?”

The blonde-haired woman stood atremble. “She went to see the Amazon Queen, My Liege.” Helena’s eyes were focused downward at the floor, not daring to look up. “I tried to get her to stay and rest as you had ordered, but Gabrielle… insisted…” Her voice trailed off and her body braced for whatever punishment I would mete out.

Wordlessly I regarded the blonde servant whom I had chosen to head up my personal staff. She was attractive and had an aristocratic air about her. Physically she would not look out of place among the Amazons; her loose clothing hid a deceptively strong body. But what impressed me most was that Helena had the courage to stay and face me.

“Helena, look at me,” I commanded.

She allowed her eyes to meet mine. “Yes, My Liege.”

Hearing Helena say ‘Yes, My Liege’ reminded me of Gabrielle, who used ‘Yes, My Liege’ when she felt I was losing control and wanted to appease me. All it did was make me angrier, because I did not want feigned obedience from Gabrielle, and I was not looking for blind obedience from Helena – I was looking for Gabrielle.

I could have easily unleashed all my pent up frustration on the servant standing before me, but I had to concede that short of tying Gabrielle to the bed, nothing and no one was going to keep her from going to see Terreis, not even armed guards.

I took a deep breath to release my anger before I spoke. “Do not worry, I am not going to punish you. I am disappointed that Gabrielle is not in bed resting, but I do not blame anyone, so you have nothing to fear from me. Is that understood?”

“Yes, My Liege.”

Letting my emotional guard down was as comfortable as breaking in a brand new pair of boots, but I pressed on. “Helena, you have proven your competence, your loyalty, and your discretion. That is why I have put you in charge of my personal staff, and that is why…” I paused to consider the ramifications of being unguarded with this woman. Trust did not wear well, but I had already stepped over that threshold. “And that is why I have trusted you to keep my relationship with Gabrielle a secret.”

“You can rely on me to keep your secrets,” Helena said with sincerity.

“I know I can. In the meantime, I am going downstairs to get Gabrielle and bring her back here. While I am gone, I want you to see to the usual arrangements – though Gabrielle and I…” I stopped myself. I may have just become more human in Helena’s eyes, but there was no need to explain to her or anyone the reasons why I wanted to be alone with Gabrielle.

“Yes, My Liege. I will see that food and wine are brought to your quarters and your personal attendants are given the night off,” Helena replied smartly. She bobbed another one of her perfect curtseys and departed, but not before presenting me with a basin of water, a bar of soap, and some clean clothes to change into.

It had not occurred to me how badly I must have smelled after my encounter with Darphus; I was glad it had occurred to Helena to remedy it before I went downstairs to Terreis’ room to find Gabrielle.

~~~~~

Terreis’ room reminded me of the dungeon I had just left. The drapes were still drawn, so very little sunlight was filtering in, and the air was thick with the smell of medicinal tinctures, blood, untouched food, and sweat.

When I walked in, Gabrielle was standing near Terreis’ bedside offering some words of comfort to Ephiny who was seated on a small stool next to Terreis’ bed.

Gabrielle sheepishly approached me in the middle of the room and in a hushed voice offered an apology of sorts. “Before you say anything, it was not Helena’s fault or the guards. They did their best to keep me from leaving.”

With arms crossed and eyebrow raised, my posture spoke for me. “We will talk about it upstairs. First things first – How is Terreis?”

“Still unconscious. The physician is concerned about swelling, but N’Gila is giving her treatments for that.”

“Well, she made it through the night, which is a good sign,” I observed.

Ephiny heard me and turned around. “What do you know about it?” she snapped. “For all we know, Terreis is already in the Land of the Dead and we’re wasting our time!”

It was obvious to me that the blonde-haired warrior was very near exhaustion, so I overlooked her outburst.

“The Empress is right, Ephiny. Every hour that goes by, Terreis’ injuries are healing and she is growing stronger. Just give it another couple of days,” Gabrielle said.

While I appreciated Gabrielle wanting to offer Ephiny comfort, I did not have the luxury of time, so I got Gabrielle’s attention and said, “I need you to come with me now. We need to talk.”

With that, Gabrielle and I left the Amazons to keep a vigil over their queen, and we went back to my private quarters to have our talk.

The first thing I did when we got back upstairs was to admonish the guards to allow no one in, and I made certain this time to emphasise the ‘severely punished’ part.

As the doors were closed behind us, I headed straight to the side table where a full carafe of port was decanted. I knew I needed some liquid fortitude before speaking with Gabrielle. What I had to tell her was difficult, and I was not doing a good job of concealing it.

Gabrielle wanted to talk about her going to see Terreis against my wishes, but I had long ago forgot about that. It was of no importance now. I mumbled ‘I understand’ or something, but I was focussed on going over in my head what I was going to say.

I offered Gabrielle a glass, but she declined, so I poured myself a large cupful and threw it back in two gulps. I was about pour another cup when Gabrielle came over to me and stopped my arm.

“Xena, this isn’t about me breaking my promise to rest, is it?”

“No,” I assured her.

“Then tell me, what is it?” A worried look creased her brow.

Though I really wanted that second glass of port, I set the cup down and led her to a nearby bench. I wanted Gabrielle sitting down when I told her of my plans.

I took her hands in mine, ready to soothe her shock. “There is no easy way to say this, so I am just going to come out with it. I am leaving–.”

When I saw the colour visibly drain from Gabrielle’s face, I knew it was a poor choice of words.

“What I meant to say was I have urgent business in Larissa.” I hastened to add.

Gabrielle pulled her hands away and moved towards the window. She stared out at the darkness as though the stars somehow held the answers.

I followed her and rested my hand on her shoulder. Gabrielle turned from the window and looked at me – her green eyes filled with confusion.

“Believe me, if it were not imperative, I would not be going,” I offered as though it would be any kind of consolation for her.

“How long will you be gone?”

“Two weeks, maybe a few days longer, maybe a few days less,” I replied.

“When do you leave?”

“The day after tomorrow,” I replied.

Her eyes glistened with tears of disbelief. “I don’t understand. Why Larissa? Why now?”

Quickly, I weighed the pros and cons of telling her. I had wanted to spare her the details of Larrius’ report, because Gabrielle was in a fragile state. However, if I did not tell her, she would worry herself sick the whole time I was gone. Either way she was not going to get the rest she needed.

I led her over to the settee, a more comfortable place for Gabrielle to sit. There I told her about my conversation with Larrius, hoping she would find some peace of mind from my explanation.

“Larrius came to the palace earlier and reported to me his suspicions about slave trading activity in Larissa. I told him I would investigate the matter myself, since you needed to recover and he needed to step in and take over command of the Civil Protection Force.”

Gabrielle approved of my appointment of Larrius but not of me going to Larissa. She suggested if not Larrius then it was a matter for the governor of Thessalia to investigate, not the Empress of all Greece.

“Normally, I would agree, however if what Larrius says is true, then it may have reached the highest levels of government in Thessalia.” I paused while the significance of it registered with Gabrielle.

“Surely you don’t mean Braextus is involved?”

I nodded. “That is why I must investigate it myself – now,” I replied.

Gabrielle was clearly upset but trying to appear stoic when she pointed out the poor timing of it all.

“I know, but would you not agree that the welfare of the citizens comes before any personal problems?” I knew it was a bit manipulative, but it was the first thing that came to mind.

“Yes, of course. You must go.” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around my middle and rested her head on my chest. I could tell from her fluttered breathing against my tunic that she was struggling to hold back tears. Holding her close and stroking her golden hair was the only comfort I could offer.

Finally I eased my hold and lifted her chin so her eyes met mine. “I will find a way to make it up to you, I promise.”

~~~~~

As usual, I was up early to welcome the dawn, however, this day would be anything but ‘business as usual’. There was much to do before I could leave for Larissa the next morning. I hated leaving Gabrielle at a time like this, but I had no choice. There was no one else who could deal with the situation in Larissa but me. I took some comfort, however, in knowing I would not leave Gabrielle unattended and unprotected.

While I washed, Helena attended me in her usual efficient and unspoken manner. As she handed me a towel, I broke the news to her that I would be leaving for Larissa the next morning, and then I explained to Helena what I expected of her while I was away.

“Helena, I have a task for you that is of vital importance.”

“Yes, My Liege, how can I be of service?”

“I am relying on you to look after Gabrielle while I am gone. I want you to be her constant companion. No matter how much she might protest the need, you are not to leave her side – not even for a minute – not unless Lieutenant Glaphyra is there to relieve you. Is that understood?”

Mild panic filled Helena’s eyes – the same sort of panic that a ‘thank you’ from Gabrielle would cause her.

“There is no need to worry; I will not be angry if you fail in this task. Even I cannot make Gabrielle do something she does not want to do, as I am sure you have noticed.”

Helena smiled and looked relieved. “I will do my best, My Liege.”

“I know you will.”

We stepped over to my dressing area, and while I got dressed, Helena brought up a very good point – one I had not considered.

“My Liege, may I have leave to ask a rather delicate question?”

“Yes, Helena. What is it?”

“Since I am to look after Advisor Gabrielle during your absence, should I be moving my things down to Advisor Gabrielle’s rooms – or might it be more practical if Advisor Gabrielle were to stay here, in your private quarters, until you return?”

I thought I had considered all the logistics for my journey to Larissa, but that is one thing I had not considered. Gabrielle’s rooms were not large enough to accommodate both Gabrielle and Helena, and I meant it literally when I told Helena she was not to leave Gabrielle’s side.

“I am glad you thought of it,” I replied. “Gabrielle should stay in my quarters during my absence. Make whatever arrangements are necessary to have her belongings moved up here tomorrow morning, as soon as I have departed.”

“Very good, My Liege.”

From the bedchamber, I could hear the sounds of Gabrielle stirring. Helena cleaned up while I went to check on Gabrielle.

“Oh, you are already dressed,” she remarked with a note of disappointment. “I was hoping to entice you to come back to bed. It’s chilly.”

“I would like nothing better, but I have a lot to do before I leave tomorrow, and I need to get an early start.”

Gabrielle did not welcome this news. “I was hoping we would spend at least part of the morning together.”

“You will have me all evening, will that do?” I replied.

“No, not really.”

Gabrielle sat up but kept the covers pulled up to her shoulders in an effort to stay warm. Once settled, she told me she had something important she needed to discuss with me that could not wait until later.

“What did you want to discuss?”

“The nature of our relationship, for one thing.”

I pretended not to know what she meant, but I knew what she meant. I had given it a good deal of thought over the course of the past few days, but this was not a good time to have a lengthy discussion about our future.

Gabrielle’s folded arms told me that she was not going to let me off the hook. “Xena, before you leave for Larissa, I need to know where we stand.”

I tried to make light of it, but that was a failed tactic, so I tried sincerity. “I know we hit a rough patch, but that is all behind us now.”

Determined as I was to avoid having this conversation now, Gabrielle was just as determined to get some answers, and she launched into rapid-fire questioning.

“Yesterday, you said you love me and you wanted me back.”

“Yes, and I meant it.”

“But what does that mean? Does that mean we are going to make our relationship public, or is our relationship going to continue to be the worst kept secret in the empire? Are we going to take the next step? And what is the next step for us? Is it marriage—?”

Marriage? I silently mused. For me, marriage had never been more than the brief fancy of a young girl. My sights were set on conquering Greece and building an empire. Commitment to love was never my strong suit: commitment to vengeance – now that was another story. Certainly marriage was never part of my master plan, but then neither was falling in love with Gabrielle.

“This is a conversation better left until later when I can give you my undivided attention.” I stood up, but held her hand and her gaze and said apologetically, “Right now, I really must go.”

Gabrielle wanted me to commit to meeting with her before the morning Council meeting, but I was postponing the meeting until the afternoon so I could meet with General Darnell.

“Well, maybe you can spare a few minutes for me after the Council meeting this afternoon.” By her tone, I could tell she was becoming impatient with me.

Gabrielle was trying to make the best out of a frustrating situation, I know, and I tried to soothe her by saying exactly the wrong thing. “I want you to re—”

“If you say ‘rest’, I’ll scream!” She said angrily.

I opted for a flanking manoeuvre. “Actually, I was going to say that I want you to resume your duties, starting with this afternoon’s Council meeting.”

That piqued her interest.

“I am going to need you to look after things around the palace while I am away. I am going to make an announcement to that effect at the meeting, so make sure you are there.”

~~~~~

By the time I got downstairs to my office, I had put thoughts of Gabrielle and our relationship out of my head and focussed my attentions on the busy day ahead of me.

I was seated behind the large desk that dominated the room when Darnell arrived.

“Good morning, Your Highness.”

“Ah, General, prompt as usual.” I stood and came around the desk. “You are here to talk about the latest intelligence from Anatolia, right?”

“Yes, Empress. But before we get started, Ambassador Brutus asked me to give you this message.” Darnell handed me a rolled parchment with the official seal of Rome’s Ambassador.

I had him pour us some ale, while I opened the seal and read the scroll to myself.

“What does it say?” Darnell asked.

“Ambassador Brutus has received word that Pompey’s fleet has returned from the Province of Gaul, and his flagship is now in Messana being resupplied for the journey to Corinth.”

I glanced down the scroll and read the last part out loud. “We should expect the Emperor to arrive for his official state visit within the month.” I casually tossed the parchment on my desk behind me.

With a knowing smile I said, “We will be sure to give Pompey a warm welcome, won’t we General?”

Darnell handed me a cup of ale and raised his cup. “I will drink to that. To the Emperor’s warm welcome.”

I joined him in his toast and then pointed to two chairs sitting side by side in front of my desk. “Come, take a seat.”

Once we were comfortably seated, Darnell brought me up to speed on the situation in Anatolia.

“A report from our spy says that the city of Pergamum is ripe for the taking. The citizens are on the edge of revolt.”

“Excellent, but we do not want a revolt there until the First Corinthian Infantry is in a position to capitalise on it. Who is our agent in Pergamum? Monlik is it not?”

“Yes, his brother is on the city’s Council of Elders.”

“Excellent. Send Monlik this message: ‘The bread rises better with more kneading.’ He will know what it means.”

“I will see it done,” Darnell replied. “We also have word from Egypt. Cleopatra has sent her navy to blockade the ports of Mersin and Attalia.”

“That is welcome news.”

“And finally General Mikaleus reports that the Athenian Expeditionary Army is ready to leave for Anatolia. Shall I give the order?”

“Yes.”

Darnell must have sensed a subtle tone in my voice. “Something wrong, Highness?”

“Why do you ask?”

“You seem a bit distracted.”

And for good reason, I thought. “Something has suddenly come up, and I must go to Larissa to consult with Braextus.”

Darnell smiled his boyish smile. “Braextus, the old dog. We haven’t seen him since Brutus’ reception. Life in the Provinces seems to agree with him, although I am not surprised. There was always a bit of larceny in him,” Darnell said good-naturedly.

Before I could say more, Darnell lifted his cup. “Let us drink the health of our old comrade Braextus,” he said as he took a drink.

When he noticed I had not joined him in a toast to Braextus, his expression turned sober, “He is not in trouble again, is he?”

I knew where his thoughts were taking him – in the past Braextus had a serious gambling problem. “It is possible, but I hope not.” I shrugged my shoulders. “Now you know why I must go myself.”

A disquieting look passed between us. We both tipped our heads back and emptied our glasses.

Darnell filled the silence by pouring us more ale. “So, when are you planning to leave?”

“I am leaving for Larissa tomorrow morning.”

“That soon?” He handed me back a full glass. I took a sip and waited for the General to settle himself in his chair.

“The sooner I go, the sooner I get back,” I replied. “While I am gone, I have a special assignment for you General.”

“You want me to oversee the Council while you are away.” He said it with more confidence than question.

“Yes and no. The ministers can deal with the day to day running of their departments, but they need to know they can come to you if it is urgent. But that is not the special assignment of which I speak.”

“Oh?” Now he looked less assured.

I sat forward and looked the General directly in the eyes. “I need you to look after things around here while I am away.”

“What about Lieutenant Commander Galates? Surely, he is more than capable of overseeing things at the palace.”

“Lieutenant Commander Galates will be accompanying me.”

Darnell responded like a first born being stuck having to watch his younger siblings. “What you mean is you want me to baby-sit Gabrielle and the Amazons while you are away.”

His impudence irked me, but I refrained from taking him to task, because he reminded me of how annoyed my older brother Toris got when he was told to keep an eye on our younger brother Lyceus and me. And the fact was, I did need Darnell to watch over Gabrielle and the Amazons while I was away, although I would not have used the word baby-sit.

“You are not just ‘baby-sitting’ General. I am entrusting you with the protection and safety of Gabrielle and Queen Terreis. You are to protect them with your life.”

Upon hearing that, my Military Advisor sat up a little straighter – his chest puffed out a little more. “You can count on me. I will not let you down.”

I regarded my old comrade sitting opposite me. I thought about the days when we were still soldiers, fighting side-by-side during a battle and bragging over a jug of ale about who had made the most kills that day. How those days seemed like another lifetime from the realities of the present. There were inevitable casualties in pursuit of my destiny. One such casualty was the close bond of friendship between comrades-in-arms; another was trust.

I brought my hand down upon his shoulder and squeezed. “You never have.”

‘Not yet,’ I thought. Still, he did try to save Gabrielle from Darphus, so for that I owed him a debt of gratitude. As for my unquestioning trust, his actions seemed honourable and his loyalty genuine, so I trusted Darnell – up to a point.

Darnell stroked his beard. “And Darphus? What do you want me to do with him while you’re away?”

I ruminated aloud. “In my younger, less disciplined days, not only would I have killed Darphus in some hideously slow and agonising way, I would have slaughtered Darphus’ entire family and razed his home village – obliterated anyone and anything associated with Darphus to satisfy my lust for revenge.”

Darnell gave me an approving smile. “That sounds like the old you.”

“I am the same person I have always been, Darnell,” I responded coolly. “What about you? I paused to study his reaction. “Are you the old you?”

Darnell furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”

“I mean you have made it abundantly clear that you dislike Gabrielle, and yet you tried to rescue her. Why?”

“Why?” Darnell echoed my question. “Because she is a senior advisor to the Empress, and it is my duty—”

“Duty? I dare say it was more than just duty that sent you out looking for Gabrielle,” I asserted.

The General’s usually unflappable demeanour changed. Beads of sweat formed above his upper lip and his pupils grew wider. “I–uh.”

“Admit it, she has grown on you,” I said, breaking the tension.

Darnell seemed visibly relieved. “Perhaps…maybe a little,” he grudgingly admitted.

I smirked as he choked on the words, but my General was not going to concede defeat that easily. “I still don’t get what you see in Gabrielle,” Darnell countered. “She makes you—”

I anticipated his counter-offence and cut him off. “If you say ‘weak’ I will have you chained next to Darphus.”

“I was going to say ‘happy’,” Darnell replied.

“Happy?” He had completely disarmed me with that unexpected remark. “If you mean she is a capable advisor and administrator, then yes Gabrielle makes me happy.”

“If I may be so bold, Highness. How long have we known each other – more than twelve years now? In all that time, I have never known you to lose your heart to another… that is until that irritating young village girl wandered into our camp.”

Suddenly I felt vulnerable, as the naked truth about my relationship with Gabrielle had been uncovered. I weighed my options: continue to deny or surrender the lie. “When did you know…about me and Gabrielle?”

“As early as the Athens campaign, I would say.”

“Really? I thought I had been discreet and done well to keep it a secret.”

Darnell offered a wry smile, “Not to those closest to you. I could tell right away that you were attracted, and there were rumours going around camp that you bedded Gabrielle after that camp follower. I surmised it was more than just physical. I assumed that was why you promoted her to Civil Affairs Advisor.”

My lip twitched as I tried to keep my temper in check. “Gabrielle became my Civil Affairs Advisor because she deserved the promotion. It had nothing to do with our private relationship,” I protested.

“Mmm, I see,” replied Darnell. “Then why go to such trouble to try and keep your relationship a secret?”

I was beginning to question that myself, given all that had transpired, but I answered him honestly. “Because I wanted to protect her.”

The General looked bewildered. “I do not understand.”

“You will understand one day, when you care deeply for someone.”

Darnell’s discomfort was evident as his eyes avoided my gaze, and a thought suddenly occurred to me. Of the three of us – Darnell, Braextus, and me – Darnell was the only one who managed to avoid being struck by Cupid’s arrow. I could not help but wonder how far I should trust a man who loved no one, had no roots, and nothing to lose.

I brought the conversation back to Darphus. “As I said, in my younger days, I would have killed Darphus in some suitably agonizing way, but that was then.”

“And now?” Darnell asked.

“Now, I have made a promise to Gabrielle that Darphus will stand trial for his crimes and I cannot go against my word.”

“No, of course not,” Darnell agreed. “I will look after Darphus while you are away.”

I gave Darnell a single emphatic nod.

As I regarded my Military Advisor sitting across from me, a question that had gone unanswered was brought to mind, and I needed an explanation. “Just how did you find Darphus before me?”

Darnell drank another mouthful of ale and then proceeded to explain. “Ah well, Lieutenant Commander Galates told me about the ransom note and that you had rushed off to confront the Amazons. I took a guess that if the hand-over was supposed to be at the harbour, then I could find something out there.”

“What did you find out?”

“A Phoenician merchant told me Darphus had hired one of his ships not more than an hour before I arrived. He pointed in the general direction Darphus had gone. From there, it was easy to pick up Darphus’ trail. The fool made little effort to cover his tracks,” Darnell replied.

I stood and offered my arm to Darnell. “Well done, General.”

Darnell gripped my arm and proudly accepted my appreciation.

“This merchant,” I continued. “Find him. Seize all his property and have him deported back to Phoenicia. Make sure he has got two good legs, I do not want him around longer than necessary.”

“Two good legs. As you wish, Empress.” Darnell paused. “He doesn’t need arms to walk, does he?”

“Not that I am aware of.”

“Good.” The corners of his mouth turned up, and he looked like a boy that enjoyed pulling the wings of flies. “And as for his ships? Shall I order them torched as an example to others?”

“No, my navy could use more ships. See if they can be refitted.”

“It will be done, Empress.” He drank down the contents of his goblet. “Well, it is time for the Council meeting.”

“I have put off the Council meeting until this afternoon. I need the morning to see to preparations for my journey.”

“Right.” My Military Advisor adjusted his weapons belt as he stood, then raised his hand to his chest in salute and turned to go.

“Oh, and Darnell—” I called out as he neared the door.

The General stopped and turned back around. “Yes, Empress.”

“Be discreet,” I charged him. “We do not yet know how far this kidnapping conspiracy goes.”

With a perceptive dip of his head, Darnell said, “Phoenicians are known for their generosity, Highness. Apparently there is a trader who had to return home suddenly, and instead of waiting for a buyer, he decided to donate his business assets to the Empress.”

“Very generous people those Phoenicians.”

~~~~~

When I dreamed of ruling an empire, my dreams never included Council meetings. These mundane, perfunctory meetings about budgets and agricultural policy usually held about as much interest for me as learning how to spin wool. This Council meeting, however, promised to be a little more memorable.

The first order of business was to inform my ministers that I was going to Larissa and that I would be gone for a few weeks.

“We will have to postpone the debate on crop rotation and irrigation, because I am travelling to Larissa first thing in the morning and I have a lot to do to prepare.”

My advisors and ministers bombarded me with questions and concerns. I raised my hand for silence and continued. “General Darnell,” I gestured to my left where the General was seated, “will be my eyes and ears while I am away, and Civil Affairs Advisor Gabrielle,” I gestured to my right where she was seated, “will be looking after things at the palace. Do not bother either of them with trivial matters.”

Then someone asked, “Your Highness may we know the length of your trip?”

All the other ministers and advisors sat back in their chairs leaving the Treasury Minister exposed as the one who had asked the question.

I shot back, “I do not intend to stay more than a day or two. You do the maths.”

The minister receded as far back into his chair as he could in an effort to avoid my steely stare.

“Now, are there any pressing issues that must be addressed before I leave?” I looked around the table and made eye contact with each one of my advisors, daring them to speak. “No? Good. Then if there is no other business.” I pushed my chair back and stood to make an impromptu and unprecedented announcement.

“I have decided to wed.”

There was dead silence. It was as though my ministers and advisors were suddenly struck dumb, uncertain of how to react to my pronouncement, and secretly that pleased me.

“It is true. I have decided to wed. The ceremony will be held here at the palace upon my return from Larissa in two weeks.”

The Council chambers came alive in a chorus of ‘Congratulations!’ and ‘Who’s the lucky man?’

I fixed my gaze upon a visibly stunned Civil Affairs Advisor and said, “Gabrielle, if she will have me.”

~~~~~~~~
Chapter 5
~~~~~~~~

There are moments in a person’s life that mark a turning point – a point when the course of your life forever changes and can never go back to the way it was before. For me, that moment was the night of the Amazon Feast. Before the feast, Xena and I were Empress and Advisor by day and lovers by night. Though it wasn’t idyllic, I loved Xena enough to accept our relationship on her terms. But after the Amazon Feast, the argument, the kidnapping, I returned to the palace with Xena knowing that our relationship could not go back to the way things had been. For us to go forward it would need to change; however I never imagined just how dramatically it was about to change.

~~~~~

I had no idea how long I had been in Terreis’ room talking with Ephiny – too long it turned out. Xena came to find me, and she did not look pleased. The walk back to her quarters felt like a silent march to the gallows.

As soon we were alone, I was expecting Xena to scold me for breaking my promise to stay upstairs and rest until she returned. Instead, she headed straight for a side table near the balcony window, where a carafe of port wine and two glasses had been set out.

Her unspoken disapproval was smothering and I had to break the tension. “I know I promised to stay in bed, but I just couldn’t lie there another moment knowing that Terreis – my friend – was one floor below me, badly injured and not likely to survive.”

Xena said she understood with no further comment and offered me some wine. I already had a sick feeling in my stomach, so I declined. In hindsight, I should have drunk the wine.

Xena poured herself a full cup and gulped it down.

She reached for the carafe of port again. I stopped her and urged her to tell me what was wrong. Without a word, Xena put the wine down, took my hand, and led me to a nearby bench.

I took note of the frown lines on her face – a warning sign that what Xena was about to tell me was not going to be good news.

“There is no easy way to say this,” Xena began, “so I am just going to come out with it…”

Xena paused, and I braced myself for whatever it might be.

“I am leaving–”

I didn’t wait for the rest of it. Just hearing her say “I am leaving” made me feel physical ill.

Xena quickly clarified. “What I meant to say was I have urgent business in Larissa.”

When I heard that, I was relieved but still very upset. I wanted to yell and cry and demand to know how she could even think of going away at a time like this. I didn’t follow that impulse. Instead, I got to my feet and crossed over to the window. I needed some air, and I needed to put some distance between us until the shock wore off.

As my gaze was drawn to the specks of light that were the torches lighting the darkened streets of Corinth, I felt Xena’s hand gently touch my shoulder. “Gabrielle, believe me, if it were not imperative, I would not be going.”

The seriousness in her voice was unmistakeable, so I turned to face her.

“How long will you be gone?” I asked stoically.

“Two weeks, maybe a few days longer, maybe a few days less,” Xena replied.

Hearing that brought me very close to tears. “I don’t understand. Why Larissa, why now?” I lamented.

Xena took my hand and guided me to the settee. “Come, sit here where it is more comfortable, and I will explain.”

For once Xena was forthright in her explanation. She shared with me the details of her meeting with Larrius and his investigation into the illegal trafficking of slaves in Larissa.

She also told me she appointed him the new Chief of the Civil Protection Force.

“You appointed Larrius as the new Chief? He is a very good choice, but I didn’t think you much cared for Larrius.”

“I did not, but I have learned my lesson with Darphus and appointed someone whom you trust.”

“Thank you. He will do a good job. And about that… why wouldn’t you send Larrius to Larissa? He is certainly capable.”

“I told Larrius I would investigate the matter myself,” Xena continued, “since you needed to recover and he needed to step in and take over command of the Civil Protection Force.”

“Forgive me, then wouldn’t it make more sense to have the governor of Thessalia investigate and not the Empress of all Greece?”

“Normally I would agree,” Xena replied. “However, if what Larrius says is true, then it must have reached the highest levels of government in Thessalia.”

I got that sick feeling in my stomach again when the implications finally dawned on me. “Surely you don’t mean Braextus is involved?”

Xena glanced downward at the mention of her old comrade. “That is why I must investigate it myself, now.”

“I understand,” I said. “Still, the timing couldn’t be worse.”

“I know, but would you not agree that the welfare of the citizens comes before any personal problems?”

I felt embarrassed when Xena put it that way. How could I have been so selfish as to whimper about her leaving when innocent lives were at stake? Of course she had to go, I told her – and I meant it. Xena was right. Whatever troubles we have had in the recent past paled by comparison to being sold into slavery, and I was so proud of Xena for putting the ‘Greater Good’ above all else.

~~~~~

Sensing an empty place beside me in the bed, I peeked out from under the bed covers and fixed my eyes towards the balcony where I was certain Xena would be standing. She wasn’t, which surprised me a little, but not enough to make me want to get out of a warm bed to investigate. Happily I didn’t have to, because Xena came to me. Sadly, she was already dressed for the morning and couldn’t be persuaded to come back to bed. She told me she had a lot to do to get ready for her trip and needed an early start.

I wasn’t awake enough to veil my disappointment. I was hoping Xena and I would get to spend at least part of the morning alone together. I needed resolved before she left for Larissa the next morning.

“Xena, we need to talk. There are a few things that have been weighing on my mind, important things, and I don’t think I can wait until later to discuss them with you.”

“What did you want to discuss?”

I sat up and made myself comfortable against the headboard. “The nature of our relationship, for one thing.”

Xena echoed ‘the nature of our relationship?’ as though she didn’t know what I meant. Xena may be a tactical genius, but she was clueless when it came to matters of the heart. Somehow I had to get her to commit… even if it was only to having the conversation.

“Xena, this is serious. Before you leave for Larissa, I need to know where we stand.”

“Together, preferably.”

I folded my arms and regarded her unsmilingly.

Xena sat on the edge of the bed next to me. “I know we hit a rough patch, but that is all behind us now.”

I sighed and unfolded my arms. “Yes, and I’m glad, but that doesn’t address the nature of our relationship going forward.”

I waited for Xena to say something, but she remained mute on the subject, so I continued to press her for an answer.

“Yesterday, you said you love me and you wanted me back.”

“Yes, and I meant it.”

“But what does that mean? Does that mean we are going to make our relationship public, or is our relationship going to continue to be the worst kept secret in the empire? Are we going to take the next step? And what is the next step for us? Is it marriage—?”

Oh good Gabrielle, chastising myself, you’re barely back on speaking terms and you bring up marriage! That’ll have the Empress sounding the retreat.

Sure enough, Xena abruptly stood up and said, “This is a conversation better left until later. Right now, I really must go.”

It seemed that the only way we were going to finish our ‘relationship talk’ was if I made an appointment. “Fine. What about after the morning Council meeting?”

“Uh, actually I have to reschedule the Council meeting for later this afternoon.”

“Well, maybe you can spare a few minutes for me after the Council meeting later this afternoon – that is if I am allowed to attend,” I replied with obvious sarcasm.

“I want you to re—”

“If you say ‘rest’, I’ll scream!” I snapped. I paused to collect myself. “I don’t need any more rest, Xena. I need to do something – anything, or I will go mad!”

Xena replied, “Actually, I was going to say that I want you to resume your duties, starting with this afternoon’s Council meeting.”

“Really?” I wasn’t prepared for her to agree with me.

“Yes, I am going to need you to look after things around the palace while I am gone.” As Xena turned to go, she said, “I will be making an announcement to that effect at the meeting, so make sure you are there.”

~~~~~

The Council meeting was supposed to be a routine discussion of agricultural policy and budget allocations for the coming month. The meeting proved to be anything but routine.

The Empress began by informing her Council of Advisors that the meeting had to be cut short because of her impromptu plans to travel to Larissa, and that General Darnell and I would be looking after things while she was away.

“Now, are there any pressing issues that must be addressed before I leave?” By her cautionary glare, the Empress was not soliciting a response. “No? Good, then if there is no other business,” Xena said as she stood, “I have an important announcement to make.”

Each person in the room sat up attentively to hear what the Empress had to say.

“I have decided to wed.”

I tried convincing myself that I must have misheard, but when I looked across the table at General Darnell and saw the bewildered look on his face, I knew I had not imagined it.

Over the din of congratulations, a voice was heard asking who was the Empress’ intended.

Xena looked down at me and with a beaming smile said, “Gabrielle – if she will have me.”

Suddenly the Council chambers fell as silent as a tomb and all eyes were fixed upon me, as if looking to me to make sense of it for them. But how could I make sense of it? It was as though I had stepped out of this reality and into another reality by some trick of the Gods. I wanted to crawl under the table and hide, but that would just bring more attention to myself.

An undertow of disbelieving murmurs had replaced the usual chatter; however, Xena ignored the growing confusion and continued without pause. “The ceremony will be held here at the palace upon my return from Larissa in two weeks. That is all. Meeting adjourned.”

There wasn’t the usual milling around after a Council meeting. Advisors offered their congratulations as they and their scribes hastened to leave the Council chambers. Only General Darnell lingered and Lieutenant Glaphyra, who had come in as everyone else was filing out.

The General approached us and half-heartedly offered his congratulations. There was a long pause before he added, ‘…to you both’, which I know must have pained him.

I feigned a smile and thanked him then turned my back and whispered to Xena, “Your Highness, may I speak with you – in private?”

“Certainly. I just need a brief word with Lieutenant Glaphyra first.”

“I’ll wait.”

“No, wait for me in my quarters. I will be there presently.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” I replied in that fake way of saying okay but really meaning it’s not okay, but what choice do I have. I took my leave with a bow and reminder, “Don’t be long. We have a lot to discuss.”

Upstairs in Xena’s sitting room, I paced while I pondered the enormity of what had just happened. How could Xena have made such a monumental announcement without discussing it with me first? I silently fumed. The more I paced, the more irritated I became. How could Xena embarrass me like that?

By the time Xena had arrived, my indignation was at full boil. I stormed across the room and laced into her before the doors even closed.

“How could you?”

“How could I what?”

“Your announcement at the Council meeting. Was that your idea of a practical joke? Because if it was, it was downright cruel.”

“Of course it was not a joke. I was serious.”

“Then how dare you make a decision like that without talking to me first. I left Potidaea because I didn’t want to be someone’s wife – someone’s property!”

Xena seemed genuinely astonished at my reaction. “I thought you would be pleased.”

I squared my shoulders and glared at Xena. “Pleased? To have a betrothal to you announced at a Council meeting under ‘any other business’!”

“I did not think—”

“That’s right Xena, you never think to ask me. You just decide and expect me to obey you like some trained horse.”

“I do not treat you like a horse.”

“No, you treat me worse.”

“I thought it was what you wanted.”

“What is?”

“To marry me?”

“What made you think that?”

“You said as much this morning,” Xena replied.

“I said what?” I asked incredulously.

Xena braved a few steps towards me. “You asked me what ‘the next step’ would be for us. You asked me if that next step was marriage. Well, I thought about it and said ‘why not’.”

Embarrassed to hear that I was the one who brought up the subject of marriage first, my reaction was a bit over the top. “Why not? Because it’s crazy, that’s why not!”

“It is not crazy. Besides the obvious – how we feel about each other – there are practical reasons for us to marry as well. As my consort, you would be royalty, a princess, which would make you second in line to the throne of Greece and Regent in my absence.”

To hear her give ‘practical reasons’ for us to marry served only to provoke me. “Do you think so little of me?”

Xena was taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“That I would agree to become your consort just so I would be in line for your throne?”

“You know perfectly well that is not what I meant.”

“How would I know? We never talked about it!”

“Well, we are talking now.” Xena tried to keep frustration out of her tone.

“Yes, but until this morning,” I said, “you were adamant that our personal relationship be a closely guarded secret, and now you have made it public in the most dramatic way. Why? What changed?”

“You asked me where I saw our relationship going. Well, I thought about it, and I want you to be my consort. It is that simple.”

I put my hand on my hip and said, “There are no half measures with you, are there?”

Xena gave her shoulders a slight shrug.

A few moments passed when nothing between us was said. Xena, it seemed, was waiting for my answer; I was still trying to digest it all.

Finally Xena broke the silence. “So how about it?”

“How about what?” I asked.

“Becoming my consort,” Xena replied.

“You really are serious, aren’t you?”

“Never more so.”

Her smile radiated the sincerity of her pledge, and any lingering irritation or doubt I might have had evaporated. There was only a wellspring of love for the remarkable woman standing before me.

“Gabrielle, I know it may be unusual, even unprecedented, but there is nothing I want more than to bind my life to yours – in public, before the altar of the Fates. Will you at least think about it?”

Think about it? My head was swimming. Was this some mischievous prank by Aphrodite’s son Cupid, I wondered, or was the Empress of Greece asking me to be her consort? It was unprecedented. It was almost too much to comprehend. It was what I wanted.

“Yes.”

“Yes, you will think about it?”

“Yes, I will be your consort.”

“Splendid!” She pulled me into a joyful hug.

“On one condition,” I hastened to add.

“Oh, and what would that be?” Xena asked warily.

“That you will treat me as your partner, not your wife.”

Xena stiffened and let her arms drop. “Gabrielle, there can only be one Empress of Greece.”

“I know that. I’m not asking you to make me ‘Co-Empress’ or anything. I am asking that you treat me as an equal in this union. Can you do that? Can you make that promise to me and keep it? Because if you can’t then don’t ask me to become your consort.”

“Gabrielle, I cannot promise you I will never make mistakes, but I can promise you I will do my very best.”

Xena had searched her soul for an honest answer and she deserved an honest answer in return. “I can’t ask for more than that, so yes Xena. I will join with you and be your consort.

Xena smiled broadly. “This deserves a toast.” She poured sweet white wine into two goblets.

I took the goblet she offered me. “What shall we drink to?” I asked.

“To us and to our future.” Xena raised her goblet and drank it all down.

I raised my cup and said, “And to your speedy return.” I gamely drank all the wine, but it took me several sips.

When I had finished mine, Xena took the goblets and purposefully set them aside. She faced me again with a look of restrained desire, and I felt a heady rush that wasn’t merely the wine. Xena’s crystal blue eyes, the sheen of her long black hair, and her stunning beauty were as intoxicating as any strong drink.

She approached me and my body tingled with excitement. Though we had slept together in her bed the past few nights, we had not been intimate since before the Amazon Feast. Xena had wanted me to be fully recovered before we made love again. But she was leaving in the morning, and I needed to feel her touch on my bare skin and in that place deep within where emotional intimacy and physical ecstasy dwell.

“Please tell me we are going to be alone tonight – all night,” I said.

“Yes, tonight is for us and us alone.”

The air was thick with expectation as Xena cupped my cheeks and leaned in to kiss me. Her lips were soft and inviting – her tongue sweetened by the wine.

Oh, how I had yearned to feel that spark of passion between us, and I craved more, but we were interrupted by the sounds of doors being opened. Instinctively we separated and tried to look casual.

Helena entered the Empress’ quarters and pardoned herself. She had come to see if we needed anything and to light the candles for the evening. She went straight about her work, bowed, and left us, promising no further interruptions.

I hadn’t realised the sun was beginning to set on what would be our last night together for at least a fortnight.

“I wish you didn’t have to leave tomorrow. I will miss you,” I said wistfully.

“And I will miss you,” she replied. “However, I am not leaving until morning.” Her tone was an invitation.

“I thought you wanted me to ‘rest’,” I teased.

“I do, and you can rest…later.”

Xena took my hand and led me to her bedchambers. Though we had been lovers for months, I felt like a young maiden on her wedding night – a little nervous and more than a little aroused.

Xena closed the gap between us until we were standing as close as lovers could be. Her hands drew me in even closer. My heart beat faster. Her arms closed around me. My skin flushed with heat. Her piercing blue eyes commanded my attention. My eyes slowly closed in anticipation. Her lips claimed mine in a slow and sultry kiss. My whole being ached with a deep longing to surrender to the moment, but Xena pulled away.

“We do not have to do anything you are not comfortable doing,” Xena said earnestly.

I knew what she meant, and I loved her even more for her tender concern, but I didn’t want to hold back anything. I made my intentions clear by pushing the fabric off my left shoulder and letting it slip down, exposing my breasts. Her eyes grew even wider when I loosened the strap around my waist and allowed the rest of the garment to fall to the floor. I glided past her and got into bed.

Xena threw off her boots and tunic and joined me in bed. I waited for Xena to initiate our lovemaking, but for several moments she neither said nor did anything but look at me, or more precisely look at the cuts and bruises on my body.

I leaned in to distract her with a kiss, but when I tasted something salty, I leaned out and saw a tear rolling down her cheek. When I tried to wipe it away, she pulled her head out of reach.

“Xena, what is it?”

Her mood had changed. She moved off me and wouldn’t answer me.

“What’s wrong?”

Still Xena said nothing; she just continued to stare at the fading bruises.

“Talk to me.”

Finally she looked at me and said, “When I think about what happened to you, how close I came to losing you— I am afraid of what I would become if you were taken from me.”

“No, you promise me that if something ever were to happen to me, you will not let grief or revenge turn you into a monster.”

Xena said nothing.

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

That night, though we were driven by love’s imperative to share our bodies and bind our hearts, we didn’t make love. Instead we slept naked in each other’s arms – still deeply intimate and almost as satisfying.

~~~~~

Xena awoke well before sunrise and noted that the skies towards the northeast looked threatening. She was determined to travel ahead of any rainstorm, so she wanted to depart even sooner than planned.

“You could stay and leave tomorrow morning instead,” I offered hopefully.

Xena looked up at the rain clouds and then at me. “Tempting, but no. The sooner I leave the sooner I get back to celebrate our wedding day.”

“We have never been parted for this long before,” I observed sadly.

“I promise I will not be gone a minute longer than necessary. And I have made sure you are never left alone.” Xena called for trusted servant. “Helena, come in here.”

“Helena will be with you every minute.” With a nod, Xena urged Helena to step forward.

Helena nervously glanced at the Empress while addressing me. “The Empress has instructed me not to leave your side while she is away and to make sure you are not overdoing things.”

“And,” Xena prompted her.

Helena took a deep breath, “And I am not going to listen if you tell me you don’t need me.”

Helena was so obviously reciting what Xena had told her, and I couldn’t help but find it amusing; however I did appreciate the intention.

“Thank you, Helena. I will welcome your company,” I replied genuinely.

“Good, that is settled then,” said Xena. “Helena will see to your personal needs. Lieutenant Glaphyra will be responsible for your personal safety, and General Darnell will be keeping an eye on you too. If you need anything just speak to them. You will be safe and protected; I would not leave you otherwise.”

“Yes, I know,” I assured Xena and regarded Helena with a smile. “You are leaving me in capable hands.”

~~~~~

I sought refuge in my own rooms while Xena was seeing to last minute details for her trip. I needed to lie down and catch my breath. My head was swimming. Was this some mischievous prank by Aphrodite’s son Cupid, I wondered, or had I truly become betrothed to the Empress of Greece? It was almost too much to comprehend.

I had just closed my eyes when I heard a familiar rapping on my door. I got up off the bed and waited to greet a very welcome visitor. “Come in Galates.”

The door opened and in walked the handsome Lieutenant Commander. He was dressed in black leather trousers and tooled leather cuirass that hugged his torso. This was similar to the uniform favoured by the Empress – well suited to hard riding.

“You always know it is me before I even announce myself. I hate to be so predictable,” he said as he closed the door behind him.

“No, don’t be. It’s one of your best qualities. Steady, reliable—”

“Yeah, like a pet dog.”

“No, like the good and faithful friend you are.” I reached up and planted a grateful kiss on his cheek.

Galates blushed. “What was that for?”

“A thank you.”

“For what?”

“For taking care of the Empress while we were apart and for being her conscience. She told me what you said to her.”

“What did I say?” he asked.

“That it was time for her to ask me to come back, or words to that affect.”

“Oh that. It was nothing,” he said modestly.

“No, my friend. It was everything. If you hadn’t talked to her, I’m not sure I would be alive or she and I would be back together.”

Galates blushed and didn’t know what to say, so I invited him to sit down next to me on a chaise, and I changed the subject. “It seems like ages since we’ve had an opportunity to visit. How have you been?”

“More to the point, how are you? I wanted to come see you, but the Empress preferred I gave you some time to recuperate from your ordeal.”

“Yes, I know. I’m sorry. I’m fine, but Xena—the Empress has been insisting I stay in bed and rest.” Playfully, I scanned the room and in a hushed voice added, “Just between you and me, I don’t think I could take any more of her nursing.” I chuckled.

Galates made a feeble effort to laugh with me then looked away.

Of all the people I knew and loved, Galates was the one person I could read most easily. “What is wrong?” I asked.

“Wrong? Nothing is wrong.” Galates said unconvincingly.

“You can’t fool me. I know you too well. Please, tell me.”

I waited in silence while Galates wrestled with whatever was troubling him. He finally looked at me, and I saw the anguish in his deep brown eyes as he shared how he felt about my abduction.

“When we received the ransom note saying you had been kidnapped, I was so worried,” Galates explained. “And then, when Queen Terreis was brought to the palace so severely injured, I feared the worst.” He paused to gather himself. “And when the Empress did not allow me to see you, I feared your condition was much more severe than she was letting on.”

I must admit it hadn’t occurred to me what Xena and Galates must have been going through when they found out I had been kidnapped. If it had been either one of them, I would have been sick with worry. And then not to be able to see them after being rescued – that would have made me crazy with concern. Poor Galates.

“I am sorry to have worried you so.” I patted his hand and offered him reassurance. “I won’t go into the details now, because it is a long story. But at least for me it has a happy ending: I was rescued, and apart from a few bumps and bruises, I am fine.”

“Yes, and I thank the gods you are fine… and happy,” Galates replied with a melancholy tone.

We both knew there was more, and we both knew why. “And, me becoming the Empress’ consort? You can’t say it didn’t come as a shock.”

“Oh, that? I must admit…” Galates stared at the floor and mumbled, “…a little part held out hope that you and I might one day, you know….”

I squeezed his hand so he would look at me. “You dear, sweet man. I love you very much, but not in the way you would want me to, or that you deserve. Someday, you are going to meet the girl of your dreams, and you’ll marry her and forget all about me.”

“I could never forget you,” Galates insisted. “And I am happy for you and the Empress – truly.”

“Thank you – for everything,” I replied, “I mean it. I cherish our friendship.”

“As do I,” Galates replied.

His lips lingered as he kissed my cheek. It felt sad, like a goodbye kiss – goodbye to what would never be.

Galates stood and said, “Well, I had better be going. The Empress told me not to tax you too much.”

We shared a warm embrace.

“Are you coming to see us off?” he asked.

Coming to see ‘us’ off – my mind echoed his question, and that’s when it hit me: the two people whom I trusted and loved most were going to be away for a fortnight.

I suddenly felt alone and vulnerable. Anxiety flooded my lungs like a rogue wave. I couldn’t get enough air. The more I tried to breathe, the harder it became. It felt like I was going to suffocate and pass out all at the same time. I managed to sit back down on the chest without losing my footing.

Galates reacted to my sudden and obvious distress. “Gabrielle, are you all right?”

I couldn’t force an answer out, but my frantic headshaking told him that I was not all right.

“I will get help!” He ran to the door, threw it open, and took off down the hallway.

While Galates was gone, I did my level best to try to steady my breath, but all I could manage were short, involuntary gasps. Still, I knew as long as I was able to cough, I was getting some air.

In what seemed like hours, but was really only a minute or two, Galates returned with N’Gila, who was just down the hall in Terreis’ room.

The Amazon healer calmly examined me while Galates explained what happened. “One minute we were talking, and the next minute she couldn’t breathe!”

N’Gila took some kind of plant root out of her hip pouch and instructed me to chew it.

Despite the bitter taste, I did what she told me and chewed. It seemed to work, and within a few minutes I was able to take two or three deep breaths without difficulty. N’Gila and Galates got me over to the chaise and helped me sit down.

N’Gila instructed me to lean back and close my eyes. “That’s it,” she said. “Now I want you to focus on your breathing – slow and steady.”

I listened to the Amazon Healer repeat, ‘breathe in…breathe out’ – her meditative tone helped to relax me a little.

“I should go and inform the Empress,” Galates said.

“No, don’t bother the Empress!” I exclaimed. “I just need a minute.”

Galates looked to N’Gila for what to do.

“It was just a mild attack of anxiety,” N’Gila calmly replied. “I have given her some valerian root to calm her. Gabrielle should be fine in a few minutes.”

Now that I was feeling better, the Amazon Healer was anxious to get back to Queen Terreis.

“Is the Queen doing better?” I asked.

“The swelling has gone down a bit. That is a hopeful sign,” grey-haired woman replied.

“Yes,” I agreed. “Please let Ephiny know I will be by later – after the Empress has departed.”

Once N’Gila had gone, Galates sat next to me on the chaise. He was clearly worried. “Are you certain you are all right?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Honestly, it was nothing. Please, don’t worry.”

My assurances didn’t make the worry lines on his brow go away. “The Empress warned me not to upset you. She is going to have my hide when she finds out.”

“No, don’t tell her!” I blurted. “I mean… there is no need to trouble the Empress with this. I am fine.”

“I have to tell the Empress,” Galates replied. “It would be worse for me if I failed to tell her and she found out some other way.”

“Yes, I see what you mean,” I said. “Go ahead and tell her, but wait until you are on the road. She doesn’t need the distraction now, when she’s trying to get ahead of the storm.”

Just then, Helena came into my rooms through the opened door. She saw me on the chaise and inquired if I was all right.

I sat up straighter. “Yes, Helena. I am fine. What is it? The Empress?”

“Yes, she is ready to leave.”

Galates chimed in, “I have to go and form up the men. So I will take my leave now.”

I got up and gave him a warm hug. “Have a safe trip.”

“Will do,” he replied and started to leave.

“And Galates…” I called out.

He turned. “Yes?”

“Take care of the Empress and bring her back to me safely and soon.”

~~~~~

Out in the stable courtyard, Lieutenant Commander Galates stood at the head of a unit of twenty soldiers arranged in two columns. The soldiers were all dressed in standard issue leather uniforms, their swords and armour secured to their saddles. This was not a ceremonial procession. These soldiers were prepared to travel light and fast.

The sound of leather boots slapping together in unison filled the courtyard as the men were called to attention. It was a familiar sound, reminding me of my days in the army as General Xena’s assistant. Those days seemed so far removed from where I found myself now – an advisor to the Empress of Greece… and her betrothed.

I stood beside Xena with Lieutenant Glaphyra and Helena flanking us.

Xena glanced up at the grey, overcast sky and held her palm out. More than a few water droplets fell from the low menacing clouds that hung over Corinth. It had started to drizzle.

“Why did it have to start to rain?” Xena grumbled. “It is going to slow us up, and I wanted to make Thebes by nightfall.”

She looked as though she wanted to give me a goodbye kiss, and I sorely wanted her to, but it was much too public a place for such intimacy. Instead we shared a lovers’ gaze, a touch of a hand, and a smile.

With the drizzle turning into rain, Xena called out to Galates, “Are your men ready, Commander?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” came his immediate response, and he gave the order to mount.

Argo was brought forward to where we were standing, and Xena took the reins from the groom. Just as she put one foot in the stirrup and was about to hoist herself into the saddle, a voice called out from the other side of the courtyard.

“Empress, wait!”

It was General Darnell, and he was rushing towards us from the opposite end of the courtyard.

Xena put her foot back on the ground and waited for Darnell to reach her. “What is it, General?”

“It is Darphus, Your Highness. I knew you would want to know right away.”

“What about him?”

“He is dead.”

“Oh, that’s terrible,” I gasped.

Xena was more business-like. “Report.”

“It seems Darphus choked on his own vomit.”

“How could this have happened?” I asked. “He was supposed to stand trial.” I turned and looked to Xena. “It was important that Darphus got a fair trial – for me personally, as well as to demonstrate that Greece is governed by the rule of law and not by retribution. And now he’s dead!” I surprised myself by how badly I was reacting to the news.

The General paid no heed to me and continued with his report in a routine manner. “It happened during a shift change. He wasn’t found until a short while ago when his food was brought.”

“Someone is going to pay dearly for this,” Xena growled. “See to it his guards are flogged and sent to the mines.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” General Darnell replied. “I will see to it personally.”

Xena had warned me never to contradict her in public, but I couldn’t stay quiet. “Your Highness, please don’t mete out such severe punishment. Darphus’ death was an accident. I couldn’t bear it if these men suffer for it.” My lower lip began to quiver.

“No tears now,” Xena said gently. “How can I leave with you in such a state, eh?”

I wiped a tear off my cheek and tried to make light of it. “You mean all I had to do was cry to keep you here?”

“No, I would still go, but I would not feel good about it.”

I made another earnest plea on behalf of Darphus’ guards and Xena conceded. “Very well.” She turned to the General and amended her previous orders. “Have them reassigned and their pay docked for one month.”

“As you command, Your Highness,” General Darnell replied with a sour expression that told me he did not appreciate me interfering.

Xena once again put her foot in the stirrup and lifted herself into the saddle. Lieutenant Commander Galates gave the order, and with military precision, he and the cadre of soldiers moved forward.

General Darnell, who was standing beside me, took my elbow and moved me out of the way as the formation rode past. Xena glanced back in my direction and called out, “I will see you in a fortnight. General, take care of my betrothed.”

The General gave me an odd look and shouted back, “Don’t worry, Your Highness. I will take care of Gabrielle while you are gone.”

~~~~~

General Darnell had taken his leave as soon as the formation turned towards the main gates, however, I remained standing in the rain-soaked courtyard long after Xena and Galates had ridden from view. It was hard to explain, but I felt connected to Xena as long as I stood there – as though an invisible cord linked us and if I moved the cord would break.

“Gabrielle, we should go in now,” Glaphyra said.

“Just a moment or two longer.”

Helena had come outside with a wrap to cover my head and shield me from the rain. “You will catch your death,” she said. “You need to come inside now. Besides, there’s been word that Queen Terreis has regained consciousness and is asking for you.”

“That’s wonderful news!” I ran up the portico steps into the palace, allowing the wet wrap around my shoulders to fall, with Helena and Glaphyra following closely behind, trying to keep up.

When I finally arrived at Terreis’ rooms, I didn’t knock, I just threw open the door. The Amazon warriors, standing guard inside the room, reacted instinctively and barred my way with their spears. Lieutenant Glaphyra jumped in front of me and drew her sword to protect me.

Having recognised who we were, the Amazon guards pulled their spears in and stepped back, allowing me to approach their Queen.

I gently tapped Glaphyra on the shoulder and said, “It’s okay Lieutenant. My fault.”

In a slow and deliberate manner, my bodyguard sheathed her sword. Glaphyra told me she would wait in the hallway and closed the door behind her, while Helena stayed with me, remaining unobtrusive like the superior attendant she was. The Empress had told them to stay by my side and they were following her orders to the letter.

I was overjoyed to find that not only was Terreis conscious, she was awake and alert and propped up in bed with a mountain of pillows. Terreis smiled weakly and beckoned me towards her.

“Gabrielle, thank goodness you are here. Will you please tell them I am fine? I swear if they stuff one more pillow behind me, I’m going to fall out of this bed!”

I crossed the room to greet the Amazon Queen. “Sometimes the cure is worse than the cause,” I commented as I approached.

N’Gila moved aside and Ephiny relinquished the stool so I could sit down next to Terreis.

Her colouring was still pallid and her eyes still sunken and bruised, but there was a spark of the old Terreis.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Like I was dragged through a rock quarry, but other than that…!”

“I’m just grateful you’re alive.”

“Yes, Ephiny has been telling me about what happened. I have no memory, past leaving camp with you.”

“My memory is a little sketchy after that point as well. That is until I woke up bound and blindfolded. I remember far too much of what happened after that.”

“Ephiny told me a little about that as well. I only wish I had done a better job of defending us.”

“If you hadn’t been injured by the Empress trying to defend Gabrielle, you would have,” Ephiny said pointedly.

“None of that matters now,” the Queen admonished her Regent. “Gabrielle is safe and I am on the mend, that is what matters.”

Terreis turned to me. “That and getting the treaty signed.”

“It is too early for you to be worrying about that,” said Ephiny. “The treaty is not as important as your recovery.”

“Ephiny is right,” I concurred. “Anyway, it will have to wait until the Empress returns.”

“Returns?” the two Amazons asked simultaneously.

“Uh, yes, something came up and she had to go to Larissa.”

“Huh! She goes away at a time like this?” Ephiny was incredulous. “What could be more important than having the Amazon Queen lying injured in her palace? She invited us here to discuss a treaty, then leaves while it is hanging in the balance!”

“Ephiny, I am sure the Empress would not have left if it were not urgent,” Terreis offered.

I could tell Ephiny was irked but she did not contradict her queen.

Since I wasn’t sure I could explain to Ephiny’s satisfaction, I thought it best to quickly change the subject. “I have other news to share with you.” I sensed Terreis’ energy was waning. “But you must be tired. I should come back later.”

“No. Stay. Does this news have something to do with your wedding to the Empress?” Terreis asked.

“How did you know?”

“Oh, one hears things.” Terreis glanced over at N’Gila, who suddenly became very interested in organising her medicine bag.

“Yes, Xena has asked me to become her consort.”

“Congratulations! I am happy for you both,” Terreis replied.

“Yeah, congratulations,” Ephiny added half-heartedly.

“Thank you.”

“So, when is the big day?” Terreis asked.

“In two weeks, give or take. Xena wants the ceremony to take place as soon as she returns from Larissa,” I replied.

Terreis struggled to remove a pillow or two from behind her back. She was still very weak and her left shoulder was still mending. I had her lean forward slightly so I could fluff her pillows and remove a few.

The Amazon Queen smiled her thanks and settled back comfortably. She closed her eyes for a few moments.

I thought she was getting tired. “Perhaps you should rest. I can come back later,” I said.

Terreis opened her eyes. “Nonsense. I feel fine. Now, where were we?”

“My wedding.”

“Oh, that’s right – you said in two weeks. If you don’t mind me asking, why the rush?” asked Terreis.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “That’s just Xena’s way. She has to have everything planned out like some military strategy.”

My enthusiasm started to falter as I voiced my concerns to my friend. “It’s going to be a big responsibility. I only hope I’m up to the job.”

“Gabrielle, you will make a wonderful consort for Xena,” Terreis said reassuringly. “You understand the needs of the people and are prepared to put their welfare ahead of your own. But above all that you don’t crave power, so you’re the perfect person to wield it.

“Thank you for saying so, but…” I hesitated.

“But what?”

“But I just wish I had a little more time to get used to the whole thing. I mean, four days ago Xena and I weren’t even on speaking terms and now we’re betrothed! It’s all happening so fast.”

“Are you having second thoughts?”

The question caught me by surprise. Ever my conscience, I realised Terreis was asking the question so I could examine how I truly felt. I took a few moments to do some soul-searching, but in the end I knew my answer. “This is what I want. I might be feeling a little overwhelmed at the moment, but I have no doubt whatsoever that I was meant to spend the rest of my life with Xena. As for me becoming the Empress’ Consort, well there was no precedent for becoming her assistant or her advisor. So I will just have to do what I’ve always done: learn quickly, trust my instincts, and follow my heart.”

“Then I’m happy for you.” Terreis nodded and smiled. “Now stop worrying about me and go plan that wedding.”

~~~~~

As the new Chief of the Civil Protection Force, Larrius wasted no time in proposing changes that were more in keeping with his, and my vision for the Civil Protection Force: organising it into units of neighbourhood peacekeepers, not the paramilitary group Darphus had turned it into.

Darphus. The scene kept playing over and over in my dreams: his hand coming across my chest and holding me like a shield against him; the razor sharp edge of his dagger held close enough to my throat to draw blood. There was little doubt he would’ve killed me without a moment’s hesitation. I thought we had a good working relationship, Darphus and I. It was still hard to believe he was behind the kidnapping. What a shock. What a crushing disappointment. How could I have been such a poor judge of character? I thought. How could my instincts have been so wrong? I understood a little better why Xena trusted no one.

At least my nightmares had stopped within a day or two after learning that Darphus had died – not that I wished him dead. I guess knowing that my kidnapper was gone somehow brought closure to that horrible chapter, and now I could concentrate on the next chapter of my life: becoming the Consort of the Empress of Greece.

“Helena, have you seen the updated seating chart for the ceremony? I have a meeting with the Minister of Protocol in five minutes and I can’t find it!”

“Yes ma’am,” she replied.

“Where?”

She looked down at my left hand, which was clutching the very parchment I was looking for. I blushed a little and thanked her. “If anyone needs me, I will be in the throne room.”

~~~~~

The Minister of Protocol, Vidalis, was a jolly man with a round belly, slightly balding, and short cropped facial hair that circled his mouth. When I arrived, however, he was decidedly less than his usually jolly self.

“No, no! Move the throne off the platform so the altar can be centred.”

Having redirected the workmen, Vidalis approached me looking decidedly frazzled. It wasn’t even midday and his usually crisp white tunic was limp from humidity and perspiration.

“I’m sorry I’m late. Where are we?”

“You tell me! I have never organised a marriage ceremony like this one before.” He turned and threw up his hands. “No father of the bride, no bridegroom, no virgin!” He abruptly stopped. “Uh, forgive me. I meant no disrespect.”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s just that there is no protocol for this type of ceremony,” he complained.

“It’s new to me too,” I replied.

“Well, I for one do not want to incur the Empress’ wrath if this is not to her liking. But Aphrodite herself couldn’t organise an imperial wedding in just two weeks!”

Vidalis had been working tirelessly for over a week, so I didn’t begrudge him a mild tantrum.

“I am certain the Empress will be pleased, because I am,” I said smiling, in an effort to soothe the high-strung Minister of Protocol.

Vidalis took an exasperatedly deep breath and was back to being his less flappable self.

“Here, I brought the updated seating chart you wanted me to look over.” I handed him the scroll. Before we could go over the revisions, Ambassador Brutus and General Darnell entered the throne room and made their way past all the workers and construction materials towards me.

“Ah, Gabrielle, there you are. You are a hard woman to pin down these last few days,” Brutus said.

“We need to talk,” said Darnell with his typical terseness.

Vidalis took that as his cue to leave. “If you will excuse me, I have to supervise the rigging of the banners.” As he walked away, a workman caught his eye. “No, no. I told you to move that over there.”

“Good morning Ambassador, General.”

“You needed to speak with me?” I asked.

Brutus spoke first. “Yes. I have just received a letter from Rome. Emperor Pompey has returned from the Gaul Campaign and is in Rome resupplying his ship. He is expected to set sail in three days’ time. I trust everything can be readied.”

“Readied, readied for what?”

“His arrival of course.”

“His arrival?” I asked. “The Empress said nothing to me about it before she left.”

“No wonder, with so many distractions,” Darnell chided. “No doubt the Empress will return from Larissa before Pompey arrives.

“Even so,” Brutus said, “the Emperor will arrive in Corinth within the week.” Brutus handed me a rolled parchment. “I have taken the liberty of making a copy of the Emperor’s requirements.”

A mild panic was rising up to my throat as I read the scroll. Now it was my turn to be frazzled. “A parade? A banquet? We can’t organise an official state welcome for Emperor Pompey and a wedding at the same time!”

Calmly the Roman Ambassador asked, “Should I send word to the Emperor and tell him not to come?”

“No! No, don’t do that. I’m sure Empress Xena is looking forward to Emperor Pompey’s visit. I will talk to Vidalis. He’ll know what to do, I’m sure.”

“That fishcake?” Darnell mumbled under this breath.

“What do you mean, General?”

“I mean, it’s not natural for a man to be poncing around talking about floral arrangements and monogrammed serviettes.”

I regarded him disapprovingly. “Did you need to speak to me as well, General?”

“Yes,” he replied curtly.

“In regards to…” I prompted him.

Darnell waved a parchment in front of my face. “This! It was bad enough when Darphus was in charge of this silly force of yours, but now it is even worse with Larrius in charge.”

“What ar—” I started to protest, but the General was on a tear.

“You have an ill-equipped and ill-trained bunch of men that I would not trust to catch a cold, let alone a criminal, being led by a rank amateur with no military experience whatsoever.”

Darnell read from the parchment. “It says here, ‘the Civil Protection Force is being reorganised into neighbourhood peacekeeping units, and each peacekeeper will carry a staff but will be issued no other weapons.'” He looked up from the paper. “Who approved this?”

“I did. The Civil Protection Force falls under Civil Affairs.”

“Oh? So you approved this idiotic change in the criminal code: ‘the punishment for stealing shall be three days in prison.'”

I opened my mouth to speak, but again Darnell ploughed on.

“You think a few days in prison is going to stop someone stealing? It is nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Someone who steals a loaf of bread should expect a swift and severe punishment that would make him think twice about doing it again and would make others think twice about doing it to begin with.”

Darnell crumpled the parchment with his fist to emphasise his point.

“The only thing the criminal element has to fear is an ineffective bunch of no hopers who can’t make a living doing anything else. Those who are not useless are probably corrupt. And since the news that Darphus, the Chief of this so-called Civil Protection Force, was responsible for your kidnapping, the public has even less respect for them. And now, Larrius wants to disarm these so called ‘peacekeepers’. You might as well send them out in loin cloths!”

The Roman Ambassador stood nearby in silent discomfort while the Commanding General of the Greek Armed Forces dressed me down like some green recruit.

The General got right up my nose. “You may be the Empress’ betrothed, but while she is away, I am in charge around here. And I say this is no time to throw out the current criminal code – not when the Roman Emperor will be here in a week. Something needs to be done and done now or mark my words there will be anarchy in the streets, and I will have no choice but to disband your little group and declare martial law to try and restore some semblance of order to this city.”

“Finished?” I asked, hoping he was, but ready to do my own talking regardless.

“You are right,” I said. “Admittedly, the Civil Protection Force has not got off to a good start, and its credibility with the citizens may have been tarnished, but you General, more than anyone, knows that a war is not won in a single battle. If you lose the first battle, you don’t give up. You regroup, you train harder, and you go out and try again. And you only stop trying when you are truly beaten.”

Darnell blinked as if he were surprised by my reaction. Maybe he was expecting me to burst into tears. I don’t think he was expecting me to stand up to him.

“Well, I am not beaten, General. One thing I’ve learned from the Empress is that you have to look at the whole campaign, not just one battle.”

It was Darnell’s turn to open his mouth and not get the chance to reply.

“You have criticised me in the past,” I continued, “for being idealistic and having a naïve view of the world. But that is not the case. I see how things could be – should be – and how they could be made better. My methods may seem unorthodox to some,” I looked directly at him when I said that, “but it is the idealists and the unorthodox that progress civilisations forward.”

The General stood tight-lipped but listening.

“Now…” I took a small breath to calm myself. “I appreciate you bringing your concerns to my attention, General, but rest assured Larrius and I have it well in hand.”

I waited for what I was certain would be another cutting remark from the General. Instead, a slight smile formed on Darnell’s face, and he said, “I think I finally understand what the Empress sees in you.”

I found myself smiling with him. Darnell had always intimidated me. I wasn’t sure if he just hated me, or was somehow jealous of my friendship with Xena. There had been a very few occasions when I felt he tolerated me, but this was the first time I felt he genuinely respected me. Could this be the start of us actually becoming friends?

“Perhaps you would like to join me for dinner tonight? I could tell you what ideas I have on ways to improve the Civil Protection Force, and you could give me the benefit of your experience and wisdom.”

Darnell’s smile was short lived. “I have other plans for tonight.” His eyes flicked towards the waiting Roman ambassador. “The Ambassador and I have to discuss security arrangements for Pompey’s visit. No disrespect, but the Empress would not trust even a well-run Civil Protection Force to handle that.”

“Of course not,” I said diplomatically. “Enjoy yourself.”

“Enjoy?”

“Your meeting with Brutus. You two seem to get along, so discussions shouldn’t be too arduous.”

“What do you mean?” Darnell scowled. “As Rome’s Ambassador, Brutus has to be looked after. We wouldn’t want an international incident to occur. Anyway, it is none of your business. You are responsible for civilian matters, remember?” With that Darnell turned on his heel and marched away.

I suddenly felt as though any understanding between us had taken two steps forward and one step backward.

~~~~~~~~
Chapter 6
~~~~~~~~

In the high-stakes game of empire building, timing was everything. My yet unnamed opponents had made a bold move against me by kidnapping Gabrielle, and it set events in motion that I had not anticipated. However, these events would work to my advantage, and the conspirators, who may have thought they had the upper hand, would soon learn just how wrong they were.

But first, I had to visit an old friend.

~~~~~

Once again, I awoke well before sunrise, but not without purpose. It was the day I was leaving for the capital city of Thessalia. As the sun rose, it accentuated the ominous clouds gathering over the Gulf of Corinth – a sure sign that it would rain. It meant I would have to move up my departure time. I wanted to be in Thebes by nightfall, which was ambitious even on a sunny day.

I looked over towards my bed where Gabrielle was contentedly sleeping and my thoughts turned to the previous evening and how it had not gone according to plan. I wanted nothing more than to take Gabrielle in my arms and reclaim her as my lover, to share a romantic night full of gentle passion that would last us both until my return. But last night all I could do was look upon every cut and bruise that marred her beautiful skin and curse my impotence to protect her.

I hated that I would have to wake her and tell her we would not have the morning together as we had hoped – that I would have to leave within the hour. I sat on the bed and leaned over to kiss Gabrielle awake.

As she stirred, the covers were moved aside. My eyes lingered on the sight of her uncovered breasts and the pert tips that immediately puckered when kissed by the cool morning air. A pleasant longing was roused inside me. I took her nipple between my lips and coaxed it to harden by my tongue’s practiced affections.

“Mmm. What a nice way to be wake up.” She rolled to her side and offered me her mouth to kiss.

My fingers raked her hair as I cradled her head in my hand. I leaned down and pressed my lips to hers. I felt my nether regions heat my blood.

With an inviting smile, Gabrielle entreated me to come back to bed.

Perhaps I could delay my departure for just a little while…

Just then, light footfalls could be heard coming from the sitting room. I knew it would be Helena.

Damn…

“Is he here?” I asked over my shoulder.

“Yes, My Liege,” she replied. “He is waiting in your private study.”

“Tell the General I will be there presently.”

I looked back at the woman who was looking up at me – her cheeks flushed with desire, and in her eyes shone a little disappointment.

“You are leaving now?”

“Alas, yes. There is a storm coming and I need to leave before it starts raining.”

“Oh…I understand.”

“You are welcome to stay and get a little more sleep. You do not have to see me off.”

“No, I want to see you off!” Gabrielle replied.

“Good,” I replied. “I will send word when I am ready to leave.”

I turned back to Gabrielle and kissed her warmly, deeply – one last time.

I left Gabrielle to start her day while I went to talk to General Darnell.

~~~~~

From the rumpled appearance of his tunic and his unkempt hair, my military advisor looked like he had slept in his clothes.

“Rough night?” I enquired.

At first, Darnell had a quizzical look on his face. Finally he caught on, but found no humour in my subtle sarcasm.

“I came as soon as I got your message, Your Highness. There was no time for preening.”

I considered myself chided and got on with the matter at hand. “The weather is threatening over the Isthmus of Corinth, so I have pushed forward my departure time and will be leaving within the hour. That is why I sent for you at this time of the morning.” I did not sit down nor offer him a chair; this was going to be a short meeting.

“A prudent decision, Highness. I suggest you take the eastern route through Magera. It might be longer by a day, but at least it will keep you away from the coast, and you will stay dry.”

“My thoughts exactly,” I replied. “Now, General—”

Darnell anticipated what I was going to say next. “You have some final instructions for me?”

“Yes. Anatolia. The Persians may attempt to break through the Egyptian naval blockade, so I have ordered fifty warships to Rhodes in support. Monitor the situation and deploy the ships if necessary.”

“Will do.”

“Next, Pompey. He is not likely to arrive before I return, but it might be cutting it close. Should he arrive before I get back, you and Brutus will have to keep Pompey entertained until I do. Say nothing of my whereabouts – only that I was unavoidably detained.”

“Right. Anything else?”

“Yes. Above all else, you are to make sure nothing outside these palace walls disrupts the peace and security within. In other words, I want things to run smoothly around here while I am gone, so my betrothed can concentrate on planning our wedding.”

Darnell’s lip twitched when I said ‘my betrothed’, meaning Gabrielle.

“Something on your mind, General?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact there is. I had hoped to speak to you about this yesterday – after the Council meeting.”

“Yes, well… there were a few things I needed to discuss with Gabrielle first.”

“As well you might, I dare say. May I speak candidly?”

I knew this was not a conversation I could avoid, so I nodded my approval.

“You were not actually serious about taking Gabrielle as your ‘Imperial Consort’?” Darnell asked with obvious disapproval.

Darnell may have been questioning my motives, but it was a fair question.

“Yes,” I replied simply.

He shook his head. “I do not understand your strategy.”

“How do you mean, General?”

“I have known you long enough to know that you do nothing without it being of strategic advantage.”

True, I thought. “Who said it was a strategic move on my part?”

Darnell seemed confused. “Then what possible reason is there to wed Gabrielle? Your union is not likely to produce an heir—”

“Hmm,” I said, “Gabrielle and I have not discussed having children.”

I was only half-joking, but Darnell was not the least bit amused. “And what possessed you to set the wedding date so soon after you return from Larissa? You do realise Pompey is going to be here in two weeks?”

I offered no explanation. I waited for Darnell to draw his own conclusion.

“Oh, I see,” said the General. “You planned this whole ‘wedding’ ruse so you could upstage Pompey.” He smiled. “Brilliant!”

“The wedding to Gabrielle is genuine,” I replied. “The fact that it will get right up Pompey’s nose is a bonus.”

“I suppose the wedding was Gabrielle’s idea,” Darnell muttered.

“No, the idea was mine. Actually, it was you who helped me to decide, Darnell.”

“Me?” he exclaimed. “How in Tartarus did I do that?”

“When you asked me why I went to such trouble to keep my personal relationship with Gabrielle a secret. That is when I decided to go on the offence and declare to all that Gabrielle is my betrothed consort, and she is to be afforded the respect she is due.”

In the unspoken code of warfare, declaring Gabrielle to be my betrothed consort made Gabrielle’s status clear to all allies and enemies alike: messing with Gabrielle was the same as messing with me. And if you mess with me or mine, ‘Xena the Conqueror’ will seem like a pacifist by comparison.

“Well, now that you mention it, Gabrielle did seem genuinely surprised– no ‘shocked’ would be a better word to describe her reaction.”

“Yes. In hindsight, I should have handled it differently – talked to Gabrielle first.”

“So, what was her answer?”

“Answer to what?”

“To your proposal,” the General replied. “I assume she accepted.”

“Yes, though I must admit, Gabrielle was a bit resistant to the idea at first; however, I can be very persuasive,” I said knowingly.

Darnell grinned. “Well, I will leave you to finish getting ready. I will make myself presentable and come see you off. I will even check on our prisoner.”

“I will see you shortly then. Do give my regards to Darphus.”

~~~~~

The best cartographers in my empire estimated the distance between Larissa and Corinth as about one hundred and twenty miles. Unfortunately that was as the crow flies. Traversing mountainous roads and crossing rivers almost doubled that distance. A horse and rider travelling at a reasonable pace could expect to make the trip to Larissa in about five days. I wanted to be in Larissa in half that time, so I pushed the pace as hard I could by stopping at outposts along the way to eat, refresh, and exchange our horses for fresh mounts.

The twenty palace guards who left Corinth with me had been supplemented with two hundred soldiers from the garrisons at Thebes and Melitaea en route, because I could not guarantee the loyalty of the garrison at Larissa.

My arrival in the capital of Thessalia had not been a planned event, so there were no heralds or parades to welcome us into the city. Yet, news of my arrival had somehow reached the palace before we did, because Governor Braextus was already standing at the top of the grand staircase of the main entrance ready to greet me.

In the brilliance of the afternoon sun, Braextus paused to take in the sight of his Empress accompanied by a small army of mounted soldiers. The sun glinted off the gold rings on his fingers as Braextus smoothed down his grey hair and straightened out non-existent creases in his immaculate white tunic. Beads of sweat dotted his forehead from the exertion of hurrying to meet me – or it could have been nerves. Either way he looked harried.

Braextus’ wife, Servilia, soon appeared beside him at the top of the stairs. Servilia was five years younger than Braextus. Her long auburn hair was piled on top of her head, allowing ringlets to frame her face. It was a daring style for an older woman to wear, but she was still attractive enough to pull it off.

Her immaculate dress and jewellery suggested she had been expecting an important guest, but I knew my arrival was a surprise. I could only guess as to what fineries she would have worn had she known I was coming.

If Braextus was unnerved by our presence, he did not show it. Instead, he smiled and bounded down the steps as quickly as a man of his advancing years and girth would allow. I slowly dismounted from my horse to give Braextus time to catch his breath.

“Your Highness, what an unexpected pleasure,” the Governor said with a bow.

Servilia followed behind her husband and joined us. She curtsied deeply and said, “We were not informed to expect you, Your Highness, but you honour us with your visit.”

To be host to the “Empress of Greece” appealed to Servilia’s social position, but on a personal level she would rather welcome a leper into her home than me.

I ignored their polite enquiry as to my reason for coming to Larissa unannounced with a large contingent of soldiers. Instead, I continued the pleasantries as though nothing were amiss.

“You are looking well, old friend.” I greeted him warmly – his wife less so. “You too, Servilia.”

“You are looking well yourself, Empress,” the Governor replied. “In fact, you’re looking very contented.”

I allowed a slight grin to crease the corners of my mouth.

“Aaaah.” Braextus grinned. “It must be that little blonde assistant of yours.”

“Her name is Gabrielle,” I reminded him.

“If you remember her name, then it must be love.” Braextus chuckled and his rotund belly wobbled.

“Love? What are you talking about?” Denial was still a reflex reaction.

“From the first day Gabrielle walked into your camp, I could see you were captivated by her,” he noted.

It pricked my guilt anew to have Braextus confirm how dismally I had failed at concealing my feelings for Gabrielle right from the beginning. I, of all people, should have realised the futility of keeping that kind of secret – especially from those who knew me best.

I decided to come clean with my old comrade. “It is more than that. I have asked Gabrielle to become my consort.”

I was expecting him to react in the same way my other advisors had – with stunned silence. Instead a broad smile stretched his ample cheeks. “Well, it is about time!” Braextus reached out, clasped my forearm, and gave it a hearty shake. “Congratulations, old friend! When is the happy day?”

“As soon as I get back to Corinth.”

“You are full of surprises today, Your Highness,” Servilia said as she stepped forward. “May I too offer my congratulations? I have not had the pleasure of meeting this Gabrielle, but Braextus has told me all about her. By his words she seems an agreeable young farm girl, but she doesn’t strike me as your typ—”

“Ahem,” Braextus pushed in front of his wife before she could say another word, and the smile disappeared from his lips.

The Governor must have deduced that I had not come all this way just to invite him to my wedding, but he was too savvy a gambler to tip his hand. His smile reappeared, though more forced, and Braextus clapped his hands together. “We must have a celebration. Tonight! It’s short notice but my staff is more than capable of preparing a feast that is fit for an Empress.”

~~~~~

The palace in Larissa was larger and more opulent than my own palace. When the Dorians conquered Corinth, they built the palace above the city on the slopes of the Acrocorinth with defence in mind. When Thessalian kings built their palace in Larissa, it was as a symbol of wealth and power in the heart of the city.

Braextus had me shown to the finest guest suite in the palace. It was so lavishly furnished, it made my own suite in Corinth look like a barn stall. The walls were decorated with intricate mosaics depicting the exploits of Thessalian kings, and sculpted marble columns in the Ionic style supported a gallery above the main room. However, it did not matter to me if it were a sheep shed, as long as I could have a bath and a short rest before the feast.

The journey must have been more tiring than I thought and the warmth of the bathwater too soothing. As soon as I lay down on the soft bed I drifted off to sleep and did not awaken until a few hours later when Lieutenant Commander Galates arrived to escort me to the banquet. Larrius’ colleague, Malcus, accompanied the Lieutenant Commander. It was Malcus’ fact-finding tour of Thessalia that uncovered the illegal slave-trading activity.

I hurriedly donned my dress uniform and joined the two men in the sitting room.

Galates made the introductions. “Empress, may I present Malcus, special assistant to the Advisor for Civil Affairs.”

In contrast to Larrius, Malcus was long-limbed, with curly black hair and closely cropped beard. “Good evening, Your Highness,” Malcus said, bowing deeply.

There was no time for the usual pleasantries. “Tell me in your own words what you witnessed – and be brief.”

“Uh, yes, Your Highness. I was sent on a fact-finding mission to the Provinces to find out what civic improvements were needed and to report back to Advisor Gabrielle,” he began. “In my travels through the villages surrounding Larissa, there was talk of recent slave-trading activity. I thought it warranted investigating, so I reported what I heard to Gabrielle, and she sent Larrius. He and I—”

“No, briefer than that,” I instructed him. “Just tell me about the Governor’s involvement.”

“Right. When Larrius went back to Corinth, I followed the trail of evidence to Larissa. When I called in on Governor Braextus, I discovered that the Governor himself is keeping slaves. That’s when I sent word back to Larrius.”

“Have you spoken to the Governor about any of this?”

“No, Highness. I told Governor Braextus I was in Larissa on behalf of Advisor Gabrielle’s civic improvements programmes.”

“Well done.”

I turned to Lieutenant Commander Galates. “Is everything in order?” I asked.

“Yes, Your Highness,” he acknowledged.

“Good, then let us not keep our host and hostess waiting.”

~~~~~

The banquet hall had been decorated with cut flowers and banners, and the large horseshoe shaped table that dominated the centre of the room was laden with delicacies to whet the appetite. If there was one thing Braextus liked more than gambling, it was eating, so it did not surprise me that his larder was stocked with such fine foods for everyday use.

It was quite a lavish spread for such an intimate gathering. Braextus had invited three local nobles that had sided with me in my conquest of the city; their wives accompanied them. There was Braextus and his wife, of course, and then there was Larissa’s Garrison Commander, Rivus – the one Larrius had suspected. The only other guests were Malcus, Lieutenant Commander Galates, and myself.

Braextus had me seated at the head of the table between himself and Servilia. As a wife to a governor of an important city Servilia was in her element, being the social climber that she was.

I was never too fond of Servilia. I believed she loved the power more than she loved Braextus. Before becoming a mother, Servilia travelled with my army, following her husband wherever our campaigns took us. I tolerated her presence in my camp for Braextus’ sake, but I saw through her charade of the dutiful bride. She was ambitious even then, and took every opportunity to further her husband’s military career. Once she even tried to offer herself to me in exchange for a promotion for her husband. Of course, I threw her out of my tent and told her to never approach me again unless in her husband’s presence. Neither one of us spoke of the incident again, nor did I ever address the matter with Braextus. I did not have the heart to humiliate him. Thankfully, he got her pregnant and packed Servilia off to her mother’s house.

Braextus stood and made a short speech welcoming me and his other guests. Once he took his seat, all eyes were trained on me. I grabbed a piece of bread and a hunk of meat. That was a signal for the others to start eating.

An hour into the meal there seemed to be more food than when we started, but then not a lot of eating had taken place. Reminiscing with Braextus about the old days dominated the mealtime conversation. He delighted in recalling one particular bar brawl with a group of Scythians.

“There were four of them,” insisted Braextus.

“Five,” I corrected him.

“Four.”

“Five.”

“Name them!”

I gave Braextus a baffled look. “We were drunk! I could barely remember my name at the time.”

“But you remember there were five.”

“You name them then.”

“Excuse me, Empress.” Servilia interrupted us. “While yours and my husband’s drunken exploits are fascinating,” she said with a fake smile, “there is something you simply must try.”

She beckoned a serving girl over. The girl was no more than fifteen or sixteen years old, with long dark hair and blue eyes. I sensed an underlying tension as she held out her tray towards me. She cast a sideways glance at Servilia. This earned a warning glare in return from Servilia.

“I had our chef make these,” Servilia bragged. “They contain a wonderful mix of spices, which I had imported from Persia.”

I picked up a cube from the tray. It was slightly sticky to the touch and appeared to be made of oats and honey. I popped it into my mouth and chewed it slowly. Servilia was right about the spices. I tasted green cardamom and cinnamon.

“Delicious. These spices are very rare. Must have cost a pretty dinar.” I looked at Braextus and quipped, “How can you afford it on a governor’s salary?”

Braextus squirmed at the mention of the cost, but Servilia took the bait. “More like a king’s ransom, but only the best is good enough for the governor of your most prosperous province.”

“Indeed. I think I will have another.”

I beckoned the serving girl, who approached me submissively, trying to avoid making eye contact with the mistress of the household. The tension in the air was thicker than an ox’s hide. Even Braextus seemed nervous.

I helped myself to another bite, and as I did, my hand bumped the silver tray out of the servant’s hands. It made a noisy racket as it hit the marble floor, buckling the serving dish and sending the sticky confection scattering all around.

Servilia jumped to her feet. “You imbecile! Look what you’ve done.”

The serving girl stood there horrified.

I rose from my chair as Servilia raised the back of her hand to the girl.

One of the male servants nearby called out. “Lila!”

The name caught my attention and confirmed my suspicions. I caught Servilia’s arm before she struck the girl. “Do you always beat your ‘servants’ for your guest’s clumsiness?”

Servilia glared at me with hot indignation that I should challenge her authority in her own household.

It was time to put an end to this farce.

I ignored the mistress and turned to the servant. “Tell me, girl, are you a servant in this household, or are you a slave?”

The girl named Lila stood frozen at the silent warning Servilia expressed with her furrowed brow and pursed lips.

“Empress, please!” Braextus tried to intercede.

The male servant spoke up. “We are here against our will.”

I fixed an icy stare on the Governor. “You did get my edict outlawing slavery, did you not?”

Braextus looked away. His silence spoke volumes.

Servilia started to protest. “You can’t run this household without sla—”

“Servilia!” Braextus scolded and his wife fell silent.

“Guards!” I called to the two household guards standing watch at each end of the room.

Pandemonium broke out in the banquet hall. Malcus pulled the slave girl out of the way for her own protection. Servilia was shouting at Braextus to do something. The Larissan nobles were demanding to know what was going on. Slaves were screaming and running in all directions, while Commander Rivus was trying to make a discreet exit without being noticed.

“Commander, stop him!” I called out to Galates, who had been sitting at the far end of the table next to the Garrison Commander.

Galates blocked Rivus’ escape and immediately called for reinforcements. He had already arranged to have my personal guards at the ready in case we ran into trouble. They burst into the banquet hall and took control of the room.

In the meantime, the two guards approached me with a look of bewilderment on their faces.

“Take the Governor and his wife to their quarters and hold them there until I am ready to speak to them.”

The guards hesitated to obey my order. They were part of the Larissa Garrison and saw Braextus as their superior. I was about to issue the order again when Braextus intervened, supporting my authority even though it cost him his freedom.

“The Empress gave you an order. If you do not obey her, you’ll have me to answer to.”

The guards obeyed Braextus, and my orders were carried out. As he was being led away in disgrace, I felt a pang of pity but immediately banished the thought. There is no pity or reprieve for traitors, I reminded myself.

Galates came to my side. “Should I go with them?” he asked.

I shook my head. “No. I need you to take charge of things here.”

Malcus approached with the girl who had served me. I ignored her for the moment and spoke to him. “Malcus, I want you to interview the servants and find out how many work here by choice and how many were forced here as slaves.”

“What about them?” He pointed to the three nobles and their wives who were huddled together in a corner of the room.

“Ah, yes. Before you do anything else, have them shown to one of the guest quarters and explain that they are being detained for questioning. Lieutenant Commander Galates will put guards on the door and hold them there until we sort this out.”

Malcus left with two of my guards and the six noble dinner guests to find suitable accommodations. That is when I turned my attention to the confused and frightened serving girl named Lila.

“Lila, is it?” I asked.

“Lila?” Galates had recognised the name too.

The male servant, who had called out her name, came forward and stood beside the girl. He was a short man, but muscular, with a wild blond mane. She did not shrink from his touch, so I knew he was more than just a fellow servant.

“Empress Xena, I—” he began.

“Silence!” I commanded. I was not interested in what the impertinent male servant had to say at that moment. I needed to find out if this young woman, with the long brown hair and Gabrielle’s nose, was in any way related to my betrothed. “I want to hear from the girl.”

The blond man retreated a respectable distance. I relaxed my demeanour and softened my tone. “Lila, are you from Potidaea?”

“Yes, Empress,” Lila replied, her eyes fixed upon her sandaled feet.

“Your sister is Gabrielle?”

She lifted her head at the mention of her sister’s name. “Why, yes, Your Highness. Gabrielle is my sister. Do you know her?”

“Yes, I know her quite well.”

“By the gods, Gabrielle was telling the truth!” Lila exclaimed with wide-eyed exuberance. “She wrote and said she worked at the palace and knew you. Mother and father were so proud, but I thought she was just trying to sound important. She said she was ‘an advisor to the Empress’, but I thought she was just a scribe or something, but you actually know her! That’s amazing!”

Lila may not look like Gabrielle, but she certainly talked like Gabrielle, I thought. There was no time for pleasantries, however; I needed Lila to focus.

“How did you come to be here in Larissa?”

“About a month ago, Iolaus,” she gestured to the blond man, “was travelling through Potidaea on his way to Corinth. I begged him to take me with him, because I wanted to see my sister. It’s been over a year since she left home. We were travelling south along the coastal road, near the town of Piryetos, when a band of slavers attacked us. Iolaus tried to fight them off, but as valiantly as he fought, he couldn’t take all seven men. We were taken captive and brought to Larissa.”

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“About two weeks,” Lila replied. “We spent the first night in some warehouse outside of the city with other captives. The next day we were brought here, to the palace.”

“And how have you been treated by the Governor and his wife?”

She lowered her head and became subdued.

“You can tell me the truth, Lila. You are not the one in trouble here.”

Iolaus stepped closer to her again and put his arm around her shoulder. His contact stirred her courage. She looked up at me. “The Governor has been kind, I guess. I mean he hasn’t h-hurt me – not really. He pinched my backside a few times, but only when he was drunk.”

“And his wife?”

“The mistress is very strict and demanding.”

“Are you saying she physically punished you?”

“She’s… um… beaten me a few times.”

Hearing that made me furious, but I remained calm so as not to frighten the girl. “Well, you are free now. I will take you back to Corinth with me. Gabrielle will be pleased to see you.”

“Oh, thank you!” Lila exclaimed. She came forward like she wanted to hug me, and then stopped. It finally seemed to dawn on her to whom she was speaking. Lila bobbed an unpractised curtsy and quickly added, “Thank you, Empress. And Iolaus too?”

“Of course. Are you and he—?”

“Oh no, Empress. He’s far too old.” Lila’s eyes wandered to Galates and looked him up and down. “And too short.”

“Hey,” Iolaus protested, “I’m as good as any man half my age and twice my height!”

Lila did not hear Iolaus’ protestations; she was still regarding Galates, and he her.

I made the introductions. “This is Lieutenant Commander Galates, Commander of my Imperial Palace Guards and a close friend of your sister.”

He took her hand and gallantly kissed it. “At your service, Miss Lila.”

“Why thank you, Commander.”

“You are most welcome, Miss.”

“Please, call me Lila, Commander.”

“If you will call me Galates.”

While they cooed and gushed over each other, I turned my attention to Iolaus who stood off to the side. His gaze was not fixed upon the Lieutenant Commander and Lila like a jealous lover, which confirmed for me that he had no romantic feelings for the girl. Instead, this rather scruffy, gregarious man regarded me in a way that was unsettling.

“Have we met before? There is something vaguely familiar about you,” I asked.

The blond man smiled. “I’ve got that kind of face, but no Your Highness, we’ve never been formally introduced. Of course, I know you by reputation.”

Iolaus was not the type of man I would forget, so I let it go and sent Lila and Iolaus off to pack whatever belongings they had, get some rest, and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. As they left the banquet hall, I focused on what to do next.

“Lieutenant Commander Galates.”

It took a moment for the Lieutenant Commander to shift his attentions from Gabrielle’s buxom younger sister.

He came to attention. “Yes, Empress.”

“Have our supplemental force secure the palace. No one is to get in or out without my permission. Confine the Garrison soldiers to barracks. I want the Garrison Commander placed under arrest and all his junior officers questioned. I need to know just how wide-spread the slavery trade is here in Larissa and how far down the chain of command the corruption goes.”

“As you command, Empress,” he said.

Galates left to carry out my orders and I returned to my guest chambers. It was going to be a long night and not a pleasant one, and while I had not drunk too much at the banquet, I needed a clear head to do what needed to be done.

~~~~~

It was a couple of hours before dawn. Sleep had eluded me and patience was not my strong point. When I could wait no longer, I grabbed my sword and marched out of the room. The soldiers standing guard outside my door were caught by surprise and hurried to keep up with me.

“I will be in the council room. Bring the Governor to me. Now!” I barked at them.

While I waited for Braextus to arrive, there was nothing for me to do other than to pace to relieve some pent up energy. I paced back and forth until I heard the knock, and then I calmly positioned myself in the centre of the room.

“Come.”

The thick wooden doors creaked open and in the hall stood four of my Imperial Guards escorting the prisoner. Two guards flanked the disgraced governor as he entered the room. The other two guards remained outside in the hallway.

“Leave us alone,” I ordered. The guards saluted and closed the doors.

Braextus jumped slightly at the thump of the doors behind him. His eyes darted around the room looking for a way to escape.

Alas, my friend, there is no escaping this room – or your fate, I thought.

I squared my shoulders and stood tall, my left hand resting on the hilt of my sword. In contrast, Braextus stood before me with his shoulders slumped as though he carried the burden of Atlas upon them.

I would rather I were facing a gauntlet than facing the man who had so completely betrayed me. I was so filled with hate for what he had done, I had to fight hard not to cut him down where he stood, but I held my temper.

Braextus, with his unshaven face and pallid complexion, spoke first. “Sorry is not enough. I know that. I have to say it though. I am sorry.”

I did not respond immediately. Was ‘sorry’ enough to forgive such treachery when balanced against his years of steadfast service? I thought. Would I be asking myself this same question if it were anyone else standing before me?

“Why, why did you do it?” I asked, trying to keep my voice neutral.

Braextus shrugged. “It just sort of happened.”

“It just sort of happened?” I repeated his words incredulously. “Forgetting to comb your hair can just sort of happen. Knocking over a goblet of wine can just sort of happen. Betraying me does not ‘just sort of happen’!”

“I needed the money. I had…debts,” he explained. “This lifestyle doesn’t come cheap and I was gambling to help pay for it. I had a big loss, and to make the money back, I took bribes to look the other way on the slave trading—”

“Slave trading? I am not talking about slave trading. But now that you mention it, that dark-haired slave girl your wife was about to cuff at dinner is Gabrielle’s sister.”

Braextus blanched as the fact registered with him.

“That alone is enough to have you removed as Governor and imprisoned, but I am talking about something far worse.” Then I got right up into his face. “I am talking about you hiring Darphus to kidnap Gabrielle!”

The portly man staggered back as if I had punched him in the jaw, such was the force of my accusation. Yet, he had a kind of relief come over him – the kind of relief a guilty man feels when he no longer has to lie.

“You have to know it wasn’t personal.”

“Not personal?” I sneered. “It cannot get any more personal!”

Looking utterly shattered, he said, “I-I had no choice. I had dug myself a hole too deep to climb out. My creditors were threatening to harm my family if I didn’t pay my debts. I was desperate.”

“Why not come to me for help?”

“Because I couldn’t face you.”

“So instead, you chose to harm my family?”

“No! I mean, I didn’t realise you were in love with Gabrielle. I knew you were attracted to her, but if I had known, I would have—”

“You would have what? Had them kidnap my mother instead?”

“No one was supposed to get hurt.”

“Get hurt?” I scoffed. “Do you know what they did to Gabrielle? How badly she was beaten, very nearly raped, and almost killed by your man Darphus and his accomplice Lucon? Not to mention how they left the Amazon Queen for dead.”

His eyes grew wide with horror. “The Queen of the Amazons? Believe me, I had nothing to do with that. They promised me no one would get hurt!”

Images of Terreis’ badly beaten body and Gabrielle being held at knifepoint, struck me like a slap across the face. I felt the sting of my own impotence. It was as much my own failure as it was his greed.

“Tell that to Queen Terreis who lies in a coma or Gabrielle who cannot sleep for the nightmares!”

Before Braextus could react, I had unsheathed my sword and held it to his chest, my muscles straining to hold the leash of untamed rage.

“Give me one good reason why I should not kill you where you stand, you miserable coward!”

The Governor glanced down at the sword point pressed into the folds of his garment and then looked up again. Unflinchingly he replied, “I have none.”

I remained unmoved and unmoving while my old comrade pleaded his case.

“My life is forfeit. I accept that,” Braextus continued. “But please, I beg you, please say my wife and children will be spared.”

“Why should I?”

“For the sake of our friendship.”

That sparked my rage anew. “Our ‘friendship’? Did you think of that when you had the woman I plan to marry kidnapped and almost killed? How can you talk of friendship? You gambled away any leverage you might have had when you betrayed me.”

“Treason can only end one way – the executioner,” Braextus reasoned. “It’s no more than I deserve, but my wife and children don’t deserve to suffer for my crimes.”

Braextus knew my reputation as The Conqueror, someone who would have ten people killed for the insult from one. The irony was that if not for Gabrielle, Braextus, his entire family, servants, and even his animals would have been put to the sword already. Her spirit had changed me, perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. It was for her sake that I lowered my sword.

“I give you my word, your family will not pay the same price as you.”

I could see Braextus taking my words apart and reading between the lines. He nodded his gratitude. “Will you grant me one final favour?”

“And what is that?”

“Can you make sure my wife and children are safe? I fear retribution.”

I had just given him my word they would be spared. Why fear retribution, unless… Then it finally clicked. “You were working for someone else.”

Once again, I raised my sword against this traitorous wretch. “You better tell me everything, or I will bring your wife and children in here, and you can watch them die a slow and agonising death.”

Braextus hung his head and nodded. I relaxed my sword hand but kept the weapon unsheathed.

“It started with accepting a few token gifts for favourable trade deals,” Braextus began. “We never called them what they were – bribes. As the money increased so did Servilia’s appetite for the finer things, and so did my gambling.”

“Where does your involvement with slavers come into it?”

“Servilia always did like the best. The finest clothes, jewels – nothing was too good for her, and before I knew it, I had amassed a considerable gambling debt.”

“Servilia has always been the bane of your existence.”

“Empress, please. Don’t blame her. Servilia’s family had wealth and social position, but then her father was murdered and her family lost it all. When I became Governor, I was finally able to give her the finer things in life.”

I made no effort to hide my contempt. “She is a conniving shrew who would sell her own mother if it advanced her socially.”

“Please Highness. I know you don’t like Servilia, for what reason I cannot say. But she is my wife and I love her, and in her own way, she does love me.”

“This is not the first time you have used your wife as an excuse for your gambling. The ‘whys’ are unimportant to me. I want to know what happened.”

“Yes, of course. My creditors agreed to forgive my debt if I would look the other way when their ‘business associates’ – slave traders – used the port of Casthanaea to transfer their cargo. They promised me it would be just the one time. How could I refuse?”

He searched my face for a glimmer of empathy, but there was none this time. This time my old friend had gone too far. His weakness for gambling, for his wife, and for an extravagant lifestyle could be excused, but treason could neither be condoned nor forgiven.

Braextus fidgeted with the neckline of his voluminous chiton. He still had not told me what I came to find out and my patience was wearing thin.

“Go on,” I said tersely.

“After that it was another request to allow the slavers access to the port and then another. I convinced myself that it wasn’t blood money, that I just doing it this one last time. But each time, the bribes got bigger and the demands more frequent, and soon it escalated to warehousing slaves. At first I was paid in gold and then in slaves. Before I knew it, I was in too deep. We replaced most of our paid servants with slaves, because the slaves cost me nothing, or very little,” he explained. “We weren’t told of your visit ahead of time, so we had to use slaves at the meal. Servilia threatened them to keep quiet.”

“I will deal with her later. I want to know how it escalated from slave trading to kidnapping.”

The governor went pale. “About a month ago I was at the gaming hall with some of my ‘business associates’. Within one hour, I was down two thousand dinars. These business associates took me into a back room. I thought it was to demand I pay up. Instead they introduced me to some other men. I had never met these men before, but I could tell they were Roman by the cut of their tunics. We started drinking and talking.” Braextus looked into the empty bottom of his goblet and poured yet another cup of wine for himself.

That was Braextus – he had only three vices: drinking, gambling, and his wife. I prompted him to continue. “And where does kidnapping Gabrielle come into it?”

“After a while the Roman gentlemen started asking me questions about you and Gabrielle. I… I was drunk and I mentioned that Gabrielle was more than just an advisor to you and you would pay any ransom to get her back.” Braextus looked down at his feet. “The men then asked me if I knew someone who might be interested in such an undertaking. I guess I gave them Darphus’ name, because when I came to the next morning, there was a bag filled with silver coins and a note thanking me for my cooperation. The note went on to say there would be more where that came from if I cooperated with them, and it threatened to kill my wife and children if I did not.”

“Were you to get a share of the fifty thousand?”

Braextus shook his head. “I was to get much more.”

I had an uneasy feeling I knew what he was offered. And there was only one person I knew who would make that offer.

“The person wanted much more than fifty thousand – that was just a teaser,” he explained. “If you paid the fifty thousand you would have got another demand for more. And then another.”

“And you knew I would pay it.”

“You have treated me well,” said Braextus sincerely, “and I gave you my best in return. This governorship was more than I hoped for, more than I deserved. I have dishonoured myself, but worse than that I have dishonoured you. My betrayal of you is unforgivable – both as my Empress and my friend. But for the sake of the memory of our friendship, I beg that you spare me the humiliation of execution and allow me to regain some honour. Let me take my own life.”

I stood stone-faced and regarded this broken, pathetic man. This was not the Braextus I had known for so long.

As a commander in my army, Braextus was invaluable. His experience in logistics saved my army from defeat as much as my skill in leading them.

As a governor in my empire, Braextus was exceptional. He had taken control of a vital region and had made it prosper as much, if not more than it had under its former rulers.

As a friend, Braextus was one of a kind. He knew when to joke, when to keep quiet and most importantly when I needed company. Because he was so much older than me, I looked upon him as a father figure and allowed him to treat me more as an equal than I would allow anyone else to.

And because of all that, his betrayal was a particularly cutting blow. Braextus had changed, or maybe I was the one who had changed. Anyone else would face the full measure of my wrath for such treason, and I would take pleasure in exacting my revenge. I took no such pleasure in his death.

“Give me a name and I will grant your request.”

Braextus gave me a name and I gave him a dagger.

He held the dagger in his trembling hands, the blade tip just below his ribcage angled upwards. He focussed his attention on the handle, trying to summon the strength to drive the dagger into his chest. After several attempts, he looked up at me with tearful eyes. “Will you…?” he whispered.

There was no need for him to finish. His request was understood. I could have refused and extracted some slight sense of justice in denying a traitor this final act of friendship, but to what end? Damn you, Braextus! I silently cursed. You have left me no choice.

With a nod, I assented and closed the gap between us. He removed his trembling left hand from the dagger and clasped my shoulder as I got within reach. I reached out and grasped his shoulders. I could feel the pommel against my breastplate.

“Old friend,” he sobbed.

“Old friend,” I replied, barely keeping the emotion out of my voice.

We embraced, forcing the dagger into his chest.

He clung to me as his legs gave way, and I gently guided him to the floor.

Braextus’ dying words reverberated in my ears like the mournful knell of a temple gong:

Forgive me.
Forgive me.
Forgive me.

~~~~~

I do not how long I sat on the floor next to Braextus’ lifeless corpse. It could have been a minute or an hour. I had no way of knowing. I had watched men die before and felt no more remorse than I would have hooking a trout. But this was different. This man, a man I respected and trusted, lay dead by his own hand and by my failure to forestall the conspiracy.

“You stupid old fool!” I angrily lamented. “How could you let it come to this?”

Just then Galates entered the room. He saw the blood on my clothes and rushed over to me.

“Empress! Are you injured?”

I quickly wiped away the tears. “I am fine, Commander.” I proved it by getting to my feet.

Galates looked down at Braextus’ lifeless body, with my dagger still wedged between his ribs. “You killed him?”

“No, he chose to end his life as a soldier,” I replied numbly.

“What happened?”

“Braextus confessed to his involvement in slave trafficking and…” I paused to consider how much I should share with Galates. In the end, I decided he should know the truth. “…the part he played in Gabrielle’s kidnapping.”

“Not Governor Braextus, surely. He has been with you for years. He was your friend. There must be some mistake!”

“There is no mistake,” I said wearily. “He confessed his guilt and resigned himself to his fate.”

“I am sorry, Empress. You must be gutted.”

“No, Commander – disappointed, perhaps. I learned that lesson on the Asian Steppes a long time ago: trust no one, because in the end they will betray you.”

“Forgive my boldness, Highness, but you are wrong. There are those whom you can trust, namely myself and Gabrielle, certainly.”

“You believe that. Braextus believed that,” I explained to the idealistic young commander. “Everyone has their price, their cause, their breaking point. Find it and anyone can betray you and will.”

“Empress, I assure you—”

“Galates!” I interrupted him. “If you had to betray me to save Gabrielle’s life, we both know what you would do.”

Galates drew in a breath as if to offer a protest, but knew he could not.

I gave him a reassuring pat on his shoulder. “I would kill you if you did not betray me to save her,” I said softly.

I walked away leaving Galates to ponder my words. I pondered them too. ‘Everyone has their price.’

Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I recalled the name Braextus had given me.

“Galates!”

“Yes, Your Highness?”

“We leave for Corinth.”

“Immediately?”

“Yes, within the hour. The units from Thebes and Melitaea will remain here to maintain order. Have the most senior officer take charge of the Garrison. I will have to appoint Malcus as interim governor, but I want everyone else ready to leave within the hour, including Lila and her friend.” I walked briskly towards the door and said, “I have to go see the grieving widow.”

~~~~~

After changing my bloodstained clothes, I stalked through the palace until I came to the Governor’s quarters. The soldiers standing guard were my own men, so I only had to nod and they opened the doors to let me inside.

A shaft of early morning sunlight streamed into the room illuminating Servilia, who was perched on the end of the bed. As she stood and stepped out of the light, she transformed from a regal governor’s wife to a small, defeated woman. Her hazel eyes were dark ringed through lack of sleep, and her hair, usually so well groomed, fell limp about her face. Still, there was enough boldness left in her to challenge me.

“Where’s Braextus? What have you done with him?”

“Braextus is dead,” I replied sombrely.

“You murdering bitch! You killed him?”

She went to strike me, but I caught her hands and held them tightly in my grip while she railed at me.

“You killed the only real friend you ever had and you’ve made his children orphans!” she screamed. “What kind of monster are you?” Her knees gave way and she sank onto the edge of the bed, wailing.

I let go of her arms and stood nearby, waiting for her to stop crying. When her tears slowed, I offered her an explanation.

“Braextus chose to take his own life rather than face the humiliation of public execution.”

“Execution? You would see him executed for taking a few bribes or keeping a few slaves?”

“No, but for Treason, yes.”

“Treason? What are you talking about?” she asked.

Could she really be that ignorant of her husband’s actions or his reasons for doing it? I wondered. “Your husband conspired to have Gabrielle kidnapped for ransom.”

Servilia seemed genuinely shocked and spoke in defence of Braextus. “No, you are mistaken. Braextus would never be involved in anything like that. He spoke of Gabrielle fondly. And you know he would never betray you.”

I proceeded to relate most of what Braextus had confessed to me, and what happened in his final moments, leaving out the more upsetting details.

Maybe Braextus was right and Servilia did love him, because those were genuine tears she shed at the news.

“He was a good man,” she said through her sobs, “a good husband and father. He never once raised a hand to me or his children.”

“Did you ever love him?” It was more an accusation than question.

Servilia wiped away her tears. “I guess it’s too late for lies now. I will tell you the truth. No. I didn’t love him. I liked him. I liked him a lot. But it wasn’t love.”

“He loved you.”

“You don’t think I knew that?” she retorted. “I’m not some callous thug like you who would show no mercy to a man who loved you like a daughter.”

I felt as though I had been sucker punched. Servilia’s words had found their target and I struck back. “No, you are a social climbing whore who would stop at nothing to satisfy her lust for wealth and power.”

“Look who’s talking?” she countered. “How many people have you bedded or killed on your way to becoming Empress? And besides, who’s a bigger ‘social climbing whore’ than Gabrielle?”

My right hand came up and whipped across her face. I was not sure who was more surprised by the slap, Servilia or me.

Her hand went to her mouth and came away bloody.

“Go on, get it over with,” she spat.

“Get what over with?”

“You’re going to kill me, so stop wasting time.”

“I cannot do that. Your husband begged for your life and I gave him my word.”

Fresh tears trickled down her cheeks. “I told you he was good man. He’s worth a thousand of you.”

Despite his betrayal I could not find fault with her words. “That is something we agree on.”

Servilia seemed surprised that I would agree with her, and her combative demeanour softened. “Then what is to be my fate, Empress?”

It was the first time she had used my title in this exchange.

“That slave girl you went to strike – that was Gabrielle’s sister, Lila.”

Servilia stared at me vacantly and said nothing. If she had any remorse, she did not show it.

“What do you think would be a fitting punishment for someone who enslaved the sister of the Empress’ Consort?”

“It is not for me to say, Your Highness.”

“Do you think you deserve leniency?”

“No,” she said eventually.

“Neither do I. I think selling you into slavery would be a fitting punishment. Do you agree?”

“If that’s your decision.” The auburn haired woman bowed her head, resigned to her fate.

“Fortunately for you,” I continued, “Gabrielle is a forgiving person, and she would not wish to see your children lose both parents.”

Servilia raised her head and looked confused. “My children. Wh—”

“I am not the monster you say I am. Your husband feared for your safety from the men with whom he conspired. Therefore, after my wedding, you and your children will be brought to Corinth, where you will remain in ‘protective custody’ at the palace until your children come of age. I will make sure your children are given a good education They will have everything they need – everything that Braextus could have provided for them.”

“Thank you, Empress.” Servilia knew that she had been given more than she deserved and her thanks were genuine, if a little forced.

“Do not thank me. Thank your husband – and Gabrielle.”

~~~~~

A cavalry horse was trained for speed and endurance, and my soldiers were trained to ride all day; however Lila and Iolaus were not soldiers and needed to stop and rest at regular intervals.

We camped somewhere between Tragana and Martinon the second night, which would still leave us with a full eight or nine hour ride the next day to reach Corinth.

However, Lila was complaining about being saddle sore, so we made camp for the night. It was amusing to note that her backside did not seem nearly as sore when a certain Lieutenant Commander was nearby.

After we ate our rations, Galates and Lila excused themselves to go for a stroll, leaving Iolaus and me alone by the campfire. I took the opportunity to learn more about Lila’s travelling companion.

I found out that Iolaus was born in Corinth, and growing up he was a bit of a scamp and petty thief. His trouble with the law began at the age of two when he was caught stealing cookies at the market. As he chattered on, I only half-listened until he told me about his father.

“When I was young, my father went off to war and was killed. It made me grow up fast – too fast,” he said.

“I know about growing up fast,” I muttered out loud.

“Yes I know; your father and brothers were killed in battle,” he replied as though we were friends instead of near strangers. “When Cortese raided Amphipolis, you were only seventeen, and yet, it was you who raised an army and defeated the warlord.”

He seemed to know quite a lot about me; yet some of what he thought he knew was inaccurate. I was seventeen when I took up arms against Cortese. However, my father did not die in battle. My mother killed him when he tried to kill me. Only my brother Lyceus died in battle – in defence of Amphipolis. My elder brother Toris fled when Cortese attacked our village.

I asked him where he got his information about me.

“I’m a travelling bard,” he answered. “I have heard many stories of your exploits. Told quite a few myself.”

“A bard, huh?” That explained the inaccuracies about my history.

“Yes, Empress.”

“Are you any good?”

He tried to look bashful. “I like to think so.”

“Then tell me a story,” I said.

By this time Lieutenant Commander Galates and Lila had come back to the fire and sat down on a log nearest to me.

“Yes, Iolaus. You must tell the Empress one of your Hercules stories,” Lila said enthusiastically.

“All right,” Iolaus replied. He stood on the opposite side of the campfire, and began.

“I sing a song of Hercules – a man like no other. Born of a mortal woman, but fathered by Zeus, King of the Gods, Hercules possessed a strength the world had never seen, a strength surpassed only by the power of his heart…”

The blond haired bard continued to weave an entertaining tale about a half-god named Hercules, and the self-proclaimed ‘King of Thieves’, Autolycus, who steals a beautiful and rare gem. As he makes his getaway, Autolycus runs into his friend Hercules, who tells Autolycus that what he has stolen is the ‘Kronos Stone’, which has the power of time travel.”

When Iolaus was finished, he was rewarded with enthusiastic applause. And while I found his story to be almost too fantastic, it was very entertaining.

The guards that had gathered to hear the story quickly dispersed and returned to their bedrolls, leaving Lila, Iolaus, Galates and me sitting around the campfire.

“You and my Civil Affairs Advisor have a lot in common,” I remarked.

“Oh, what’s that?”

“You both have a way with words.”

He smiled. “Yes, Gabrielle is a talented bard in her own right.”

The way he spoke about Gabrielle set off an alarm inside my head. “How would you know that?”

“Oh, I’ve been telling him all about her,” Lila chipped in.

That seemed a reasonable explanation, I thought. So why did I still feel uneasy about this otherwise amiable bard? My instincts were rarely if ever wrong, but lately my instincts had proven to be fallible. After all, I was wrong about Braextus.

“Yes, well, speaking of Gabrielle…Lila, there is something you need to know before we get to Corinth and you are reunited with your sister.”

Lila, who had been snuggling up to Galates during the story, sat up and gave me her undivided attention. “What about Gabrielle?” she asked.

Iolaus started to stand up. “Perhaps I should go—”

“No,” I said, “you might as well hear it too, so you can act accordingly when you meet her tomorrow.”

As he took his seat again, I addressed Lila directly. “A few weeks ago your sister Gabrielle was kidnapped.”

Lila let out a gasp, so I rushed to add, “She is okay. We rescued her within a day, and she is safe.”

Lila seemed visibly relieved.

“However,” I continued, “when I left her two weeks ago, Gabrielle was still recovering from the trauma.”

“Was she injured?” Lila interjected.

“No, I mean cuts and bruises, yes, but nothing serious. It is the emotional trauma I am more concerned about. When I left, she was suffering from nightmares and fits of panic.”

Lila leaned into Galates for support, and he put his arm around her.

“I tell you this now only because I have no idea what to expect when we arrive at the palace. I need to see Gabrielle first and assess her condition before I can allow you to see her. You understand.”

Lila wore a look of disappointment and concern, but she readily agreed.

“This is what will happen when we get to Corinth. Lieutenant Commander Galates will accompany you to the palace. I will ride ahead and see how Gabrielle is doing. If she is feeling strong enough, I will bring her to the main hall where you two can see each other for a few minutes. After that, we will see how it goes.”

Then I looked around the circle at each and every one of them before fixing my eyes again on Lila. “No one is to breathe a word to Gabrielle about what happened to you or what happened to Governor Braextus – not until I have had the chance to break the news to her first.” I gave each and every one of them a serious look and said, “Is that understood?”

Everyone agreed.

“Now, we should all turn in and get some sleep. We have a long ride ahead of us tomorrow. I want to be in Corinth before sundown.”

~~~~~~~~
Chapter 7
~~~~~~~~

If Xena’s absence were measured by how much I missed her, then two weeks felt like two years. Lieutenant Glaphyra and Helena were my constant companions and good company, but they were no substitute for Xena’s reassuring presence when I was feeling lonely or overwhelmed. Still, I managed to put the kidnapping behind me by focussing on helping Queen Terreis convalesce and by staying busy – maybe a little too busy. It was a daunting task to plan a marriage ceremony without Xena’s involvement. On top of all that, Rome’s Emperor, Pompey, was coming to Corinth, and there was still the matter of the Amazon treaty.

~~~~~

While Xena was away, Terreis’ condition had steadily improved, so much so that I felt it was time to revisit the treaty’s ratification. It was midday when I called on the Amazon Queen. She was glum about having been stuck indoors all morning while Ephiny took the others on a cross-country run. So, I arranged for Terreis to be carried out to the palace gardens where she could get some fresh air and soak up the afternoon sun.

Ever mindful of the Empress’ orders to never leave my side, Helena followed us into the garden. Once Terreis and I were settled near the carp pond, Helena approached and dipped her head to the both of us.

“May I get you some refreshments, ma’am?”

“Yes, Helena. Some citrus juice and nutbread would be nice.”

“Right away, ma’am.”

When the refreshments were brought out, Helena served us two tall glasses of freshly squeezed juice.

“Thank you,” I replied as Helena retreated to a respectful distance, making sure she kept me within sight.

Terreis smiled in amusement.

“What are you smiling about?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she replied. “It just tickles me how polite you are.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being polite.”

“No, but you are about to become royalty. You are not expected to thank servants.”

“Becoming Xena’s consort isn’t going to change who I am.”

“Oh?” Terreis said with a disbelieving lilt.

“Why should it? I’ll still be ‘Gabrielle’.”

“But that’s just it, you won’t still be ‘Gabrielle’—the girl from Potidaea. You are going to be ‘Gabrielle’—Consort to the Empress of Greece, second in line, a princess.”

“Did you have to point that out? You’re starting to scare me.”

Terreis chuckled. “Ooh, oww.” She grabbed her right side where broken ribs were still mending.

“Are you all right?” I asked with concern.

“It only hurts when I laugh,” Terreis replied.

It was no laughing matter to me. To me, it was a reminder again that Terreis had risked her life to protect me. And if the tables were turned, without question I would gladly give my life to save hers, such was the strong bond of friendship that we shared.

As if she had heard me, Terreis raised her cup and made a toast. “Here’s to good friends.”

“Good friends,” I echoed before drinking the cool citrus juice. It tasted so good. “And speaking of good friends,” I said, “there is the matter of the treaty. You are satisfied with the terms and it is still your intention to sign the treaty, yes?”

“Yes, even more so now,” Terreis said earnestly.

I gave her a mildly puzzled look.

“What better guarantee do I have that Xena will honour the terms of the treaty than you as her consort?” she explained.

“Indeed,” I replied. “Good, then if it meets with your approval, I would like to schedule the treaty signing ceremony immediately before the Bride’s banquet, since everyone will be assembled.”

“That certainly meets with my approval,” she replied. “Do we know what day that will be?”

“No, not yet. We know that Xena is on her way back to Corinth, but we don’t know exactly when she is due home. I’m hoping in a day or two, and then we can set the date.”

“I’ll bet you can’t wait for the wedding night, eh?” Terreis teased.

“I can’t wait that long!” I blurted.

We both laughed at how desperate I sounded.

With another sip of her drink, Terreis’ mood changed. Pensively, she stared into the half-emptied glass. Finally she spoke. “Are you sure this is what you want?”

“Juice? Yes, I’m sure,” I joked, taking a long drink from my glass.

Terreis looked up. “You know what I mean. It’s one thing to love Xena; becoming joined to her for life is quite another thing.”

Having finished the juice, I reached for a slice of nutbread and ate a healthy bite. It gave me a moment to reflect on what Terreis was asking.

“No, I’m not sure about marriage, but I am sure there’s no one else for me but Xena.”

“But are you sure there is no one else for Xena?”

I knew what my friend was trying to ask, but rather than just say ‘yes’, I explained it to her with a story my grandmother had told me when I was a young girl.

“It is said that the god Hephaestus fashioned a lock and key from the purest gold and gave it to Aphrodite on their wedding day. He told Aphrodite her love was the only key that could unlock his heart. Aphrodite was so moved by Hephaestus’ gift, she declared that for Humanity there is only one who holds the key to unlock the heart of another.”

“So you see, the one with the lock searches for the one who has the key to unlock their heart. That is what I am for Xena and what she is for me. Does that make sense?”

“Yes, it does.” replied Terreis. She drank the remaining juice and returned her glass to the tray. “I wonder if I will ever find the one with the key to my heart.”

“You already have,” I said.

The Amazon Queen stared at me bewilderedly, so I explained. “Do you remember that conversation we had when you made me admit I was in love with Xena?”

“Yes,” Terreis replied.

“Well, I’m returning the favour.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean you are in love with Ephiny.”

“Who me? No. I mean yes—I care about her. She is one of my Amazon sisters, a good friend.”

“Uh, huh. Do you remember telling me about being in love with a young warrior?”

“Vaguely.” Terreis didn’t lie well.

“And you told me that the two of you had sneaked off one night to be alone?”

Terreis didn’t reply, but I could tell by the way she shifted uneasily in her seat that Terreis remembered the conversation.

“You and this young warrior were together when your village was attacked and your sister, Queen Melosa, was killed.”

She winced again, but this time from painful memory.

“That young warrior was Ephiny, wasn’t she?”

Terreis glanced away, saying nothing for a few moments, pondering whether to admit it to me, and I dare say to herself. Her decision made, she looked at me. “Yes, it was Ephiny.”

“You’re still in love with her, and she is still in love with you.”

“No, she’s not,” Terreis protested. “How can she be after the way I treated her? While Ephiny and I were giving in to our mutual attraction, raiders attacked our village and killed our sisters,” Terreis paused, “…my sister.”

Her head sunk to her chest. “For a long time, I couldn’t even look at Ephiny without feeling such guilt, such anguish. I blamed her. I blamed myself. I pushed her away.”

“You are so much like Xena—”

“What? I’m nothing like her!” Terreis shot back, but immediately regretted it. “I meant no offense.”

“None taken. What I meant was you are like Xena in that you too felt you had to be alone to somehow atone for the death of someone you loved. For Xena it was her brother Lyceus, for you – your sister Melosa. You feel responsible. You feel it’s all you deserve. Am I right?”

“I suppose so. Yes.”

“Well, you are wrong, just like Xena was wrong. The Fates weave into the strands of each person’s life who they are destined to love and when they are destined to die, and nothing we mortals do or don’t do can change that. I know it might be hard to accept, but whether you were making love with Ephiny or fighting beside Melosa, it was Melosa’s time to die.”

Terreis listened, but I could tell she wasn’t quite convinced.

“Let me ask you this,” I said. “What honours your sister’s memory more: you denying yourself happiness the rest of your life, or you living your life with the person you love?”

Terreis looked within to find the answer. “Melosa would want me to be happy.”

“Then embrace the happiness and love you truly deserve, my friend.”

~~~~~

After spending a pleasant hour or so with Terreis in the fresh air, the rest of the afternoon was spent in the confines of my office with meeting after meeting. First I met with Vidalis to go over the details for the treaty signing, and then with Chief Larrius, who had another run-in with General Darnell about security for the public celebrations. The last meeting was supposed to be with Ambassador Brutus to finalise the plans for Emperor Pompey’s welcoming ceremony, but he cancelled. ‘Something came up’ was the message.

Suddenly I had time to fill, time to feel the pang of yearning for Xena to return. She was expected any day, but knowing that was little consolation. Good Athena, please bring Xena home to me, I silently implored.

I had no sooner finished my prayer than there was a knock on the door. It was Lieutenant Glaphyra.

“Sorry to disturb, but it is the Empress,” she announced with a soldier’s understated restraint.

My mind immediately whirled with dire possibilities. “What is it? Is she delayed? Is she hurt? Tell me!”

Lieutenant Glaphyra looked confused and then her face brightened. “No, the Empress has been spotted on the road from Corinth. She will be here any minute.”

I reacted like a gleeful child. “She’s home. She’s finally home. Thank you sweet Athena!”

Helena excused herself to go and prepare the Empress’ private quarters for her homecoming. I dashed out of the office, with Lieutenant Glaphyra right behind me, and raced towards the south portico, the entry closest to the stables. I got there just in time to see the Empress arrive.

Xena favoured black leather when she rode. It allowed her quick manoeuvrability in the saddle. It was tight fitting, like a second skin, accentuating her curves and giving definition to her well-muscled thighs as she gracefully dismounted.

My heart leapt for joy as Xena bounded up the stairs towards me. It took all I had not to launch myself into her arms and smother her with kisses. However, the cadence of Palace Guards saluting their Empress was a reminder that we were not alone.

I waited until Xena reached the top step, and with all the restraint I could summon, bowed courteously and said, “Welcome home, Your Highness.”

Xena said nothing; instead she gathered me in her arms and held me as though she had just returned home from the Trojan War and not Larissa.

“I take it you missed me,” I said with surprise.

“More than you know,” Xena replied softly.

The resonance of her breathy whisper made my insides vibrate like the strings of a lyre, and the scent of leather and hard riding filled my nostrils; it was earthy and erotic and made me weak in the knees.

I didn’t want this moment to end, but it did. Xena lowered her arms, drew back a little, as if she were studying my face, and wanted to know if I still suffered with nightmares and bouts of panic.

I assured her I was fine, especially now that she was home. “I have missed you so much, and there is so much to tell you. Queen Terreis is recovering nicely, for a start! And then there’s the wedding plans, and did you know that Emperor Pompey is arriving here tomorrow?”

“We can talk about all that later, I promise,” Xena replied. “Right now, I want you to come with me.”

Xena took my hand and ushered me towards the main hall.

“Xena, where are we going?”

“I have a surprise for you,” she replied.

“A surprise!” I stopped and looked up at her. “What is it? Is it a wedding present?” I joked.

“Of sorts,” Xena replied in her usual secretive way.

She had piqued my curiosity, and now I was even more intrigued.

As we rounded the corner into the main hall, I saw a trio coming through the west portico towards us. Immediately I recognised the tallest of the three: it was Galates. I didn’t recognise the second person – a short, ruggedly handsome man with a shock of blond hair. Walking between them was a young woman with long brown tresses and a familiar smile.

“Gabrielle!” the woman exclaimed.

“Lila! Sister! I can’t believe it!” I raced towards her.

My sister and I stood there in the middle of the main hall, and hugged and cried and laughed and cried and hugged. After shedding every happy tear, Lila and I finally let go of each other and acknowledged the small group gathered around us.

“Where are my manners? Your Highness, may I present my sister Lila.”

“We have met.”

“You did?”

Xena smiled and the others laughed, and then I understood.

“Is this the surprise you mentioned – my sister Lila?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know what to say. I’m speechless.”

“That’s a first!” Lila quipped.

Everyone chuckled except me. Leave it to my little sister to embarrass me in public, I thought. Some things never changed.

I turned to Galates and greeted him warmly. “Welcome home Commander, and thank you for escorting my sister to Corinth.”

“It was a privilege and a pleasure,” he replied but not to me. Instead, Galates fixed his gaze on my sister and she on him.

As I was preoccupied with thoughts of matchmaking, there came an audible ‘ahem’ from the blond haired stranger who hung back on the edge of our circle.

I paused a moment to regard the man who had arrived with Galates and Lila. He was smaller in stature than the average male, but muscular and ruggedly handsome, and wore fitted leather trousers and an opened vest that showed off his chiselled abs. He leaned casually on the sword at his left side, so that told me he was comfortable using it.

“I’m sorry,” I said as I extended my hand. “My name is—”

“Gabrielle, Lila’s sister,” the stranger replied. “Yes, I know all about you.”

Lila chimed in, “This is Iolaus.” Lila gave the blond man’s arm an appreciative squeeze. “A very good friend–”

Galates broke in, “–and a great storyteller!”

“Oh, are you a bard?” I asked.

“Of sorts,” Iolaus answered with an unassuming smile.

“Don’t be modest,” said Lila. “You tell some wonderful adventure stories.”

Galates added, “You’ll have to get him to tell you some of his stories about this hero named Hercules and how he is the son of Zeus and fights eight-headed serpents.”

“Yes, you must!” I exclaimed. “I’ve never heard any stories about Hercules. Is he real or is he a character of your own invention?” I asked.

“I think Hercules is Iolaus’ taller alter ego,” Galates teased.

We all laughed except for Xena. She seemed distracted and a little sullen. “There will be plenty of time for stories tomorrow,” she announced to the group, signalling an end to the conversation.

Xena turned to Lila. “I know you and Gabrielle have a lot to catch up on, but I have need of my Civil Affairs Advisor. In the mean time, you should rest from the journey. No doubt you could use a warm bath and a hot meal.”

“Thank you, Your Highness,” Lila replied.

“Yes, you go on Lila. I will see you later,” I added.

The Empress called for the head steward to come and show Lila and Iolaus to their quarters in the guest wing: Lila to my rooms and Iolaus to a room at the other end of the hall. Galates excused himself and went to see to his men, leaving Xena and I to enjoy a more private reunion.

“Shall we?” Xena gestured towards the main staircase.

“Indeed,” I replied.

About halfway up the stairs, I stopped and turned to Xena. “There is something I don’t understand. How did you get all the way to Potidaea and back so quickly?”

“I did not go to Potidaea. I met Lila in Larissa.”

“How did you know Lila would be there?”

“It is complicated,” Xena replied. “I will tell you all about it when we get upstairs.”

~~~~~

When we got to Xena’s apartments, Helena was waiting to greet us. She had made sure everything was just so for the Empress’ return: bedding was changed, fresh flowers and fruit on the table, wine carafes filled. Xena was less likely to notice those things, so I made sure to thank Helena; however, Xena did commend Helena for looking after me during her absence and gave Helena the rest of the night off.

After two long weeks, Xena and I were finally alone together. I had imagined this moment in the romantic fantasies that had played out nightly in my dreams. I imagined the door closing, and the two of us rushing into each other’s arms and sharing a slow, sizzling kiss that leaves us quivering with urgent need. However, the reality of her homecoming was far different than I had imagined. Instead of taking me in her arms, Xena was fumbling with the buckle of her weapons belt.

I crossed the room to her and took over. “Here, let me. This used to be my job when I was your assistant, remember?”

“I do remember. I remember the sweet torture of it,” she replied.

Once the weapons belt was unbuckled, Xena casually flung it aside and sat on a nearby chaise. Next I knelt in front of her and helped her off with her boots and then deftly unfastened the golden buckles of her leather tunic until the last clasp was opened. My pulse quickened at the sight of her ample bosom being freed from its confinement, begging to be caressed.

“I’m sure Helena has prepared your bath. Shall I help you get out of the rest of these clothes?” I said suggestively.

“Not yet.” Xena sounded care-worn and not just tired from the journey. “First, I need to tell you what happened in Larissa.” Her sombre tone hit me like a bucket of cold water.

Xena gestured for me to join her on the chaise, which I did, and then she took my hands in hers and said, “Gabrielle, about your sister Lila—”

“Yes, what about Lila? And just how did you meet her in Larissa? Come to think of it, there wouldn’t have been enough time for a messenger to get to Potidaea and for Lila to travel to Larissa to meet you there – not all in the space of two weeks. The only way she could’ve met you in Larissa in time was if you…did you have this whole marriage thing planned out before you even asked me?”

Xena tried to rein in my frantic questions and explained that she had not sent for Lila to meet her in Larissa and that she met my sister at the Governor’s palace.

“At the palace?” I pulled my hands away in disbelief. “What would my sister be doing at the palace?”

Xena fixed a tortured gaze and told me that Lila had been a slave in Braextus’ household, and that is how she and Lila met.

“Lila… Slave… Braextus…” It took an age for me to comprehend the magnitude of what Xena was trying to tell me. I searched her eyes to see if what she was telling me was some kind of cruel joke – but the sad sincerity written across Xena’s face told me the awful truth.

“By the gods Xena – Lila in the hands of slavers? You know what they do to young girls,” I tearfully lamented.

Xena put her arms around me and held me close as I wept for my sister. “Shhh, it is all right. Lila was not harmed in that way, and she is safe now. That is all that matters.”

Xena’s reassurance helped. I wiped away the last few tears and sat up.

“There is more,” Xena said with a melancholy tone of voice. “Braextus—”

“—is dead, isn’t he?” I finished her sentence.

She didn’t make eye contact. “Yes.”

Dread filled my lungs, and I could hardly breathe. “Xena, please tell me you didn’t…” The thought was too unspeakable to finish.

“No,” she replied sharply. “He took his own life.”

“I don’t understand. Surely you could have stopped him.”

“You have not heard the whole story,” Xena replied.

I sat quietly and listened as Xena went on to explain how Braextus’ gambling problem drove him to accept bribes, which led to trading in slaves. She also told me why Braextus killed himself, though she spared me the details.

After listening to the whole sad story, I could feel only pity for the man. “Poor Braextus.”

“Poor Braextus?” Xena seemed surprised by my reaction.

“Yes. Poor man,” I explained. “It must have been terrible for him, having to resort to slave trading to pay his gambling debts.”

Xena regarded me with almost wide-eyed wonder. “You never cease to amaze me.”

“Oh?”

“Your limitless capacity to see the good in men’s hearts, to feel compassion for those who harm you and yours.”

“He was a good man—a good man who made a horrible error in judgment, for which he paid with his life. How can one not feel compassion for him?”

Xena offered no reply. Instead, she got up, poured herself a glass of port, and tossed it back in one gulp.

As I watched her it dawned on me that in the midst of it all, Xena had lost someone she considered a friend. Xena was not one to wear her emotions on her sleeve, but she was a woman who felt passionately and deeply. I knew she was hurting, and I tried to console her.

“Oh Xena, I can only imagine how you must feel,” I said, putting my arms around her.

As I hugged her, my hands felt her back muscles straining against the mixed emotions she undoubtedly felt about Braextus. Finally I felt her give in, if only a little, and hug me back—but only for a moment and when the moment passed, she pulled away and changed the subject.

“Look, you and your sister have a lot of catching up to do, so I think you should stay with her tonight.”

Granted, I did feel slightly torn between wanting to stay with Xena and wanting to go to my sister, but I lobbied to stay and be with Xena. We had so much time to make up for, so much to talk about.

“There will be plenty of time for that tomorrow,” Xena replied.

“Yes, but what about ‘us’? It’s been weeks—” I didn’t mean to sound so desperate, but I wanted so badly to have a few uninterrupted hours together – no meetings, no sudden trips, no unexpected visitors – just Xena and me delighting in the wondrous joy that comes from expressing our love in very intimate ways.

Xena stroked my cheek and smiled knowingly. “There will be plenty of time for that as well. Go—be with your sister tonight.”

I recognised the generosity in Xena’s gesture, so I stopped pressing to stay. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am sure.”

I gave Xena a grateful kiss goodnight and made my way downstairs.

As I got to the door of my rooms and a reunion with my sister, it hit me—the Wedding! How was I going to explain to Lila that I was going to become the consort of the Empress of Greece?

~~~~~

Not being with Xena the first night of her return was torture, but I hadn’t seen my sister in over a year, so I was eager to catch up on news of mother and father, how she came to meet Iolaus, and her experiences in Larissa.

Not even thinking, I opened the door and walked right into my chambers, and there I found my sister standing naked in front of my wardrobe. Having shared a room growing up, there was no need for her to feel self-conscious.

“Oh, Gabrielle. I was looking for something clean to put on. Are all these beautiful clothes yours?”

“Yes.” I pulled out a lavender nightgown. “Here, this should fit you.” My sister was a little taller than me, but the colour suited her.

Lila slipped the garment over her head and admired herself in the mirror. “I’ve never seen a nightgown so lovely.”

She settled on a small settee next to me. “So tell me all about your exciting life with the Empress and don’t leave out any details!”

I wasn’t quite prepared to explain every detail to my sister —not just yet. “I will, but first I want to hear how Mother and Father are, and how you came to be in Larissa.”

“Father and Mother were fine when I left Potidaea. They were upset for a while after you left home, especially Father. He was absolutely livid that you walked out on your marriage to Perdicus. He threatened to go after you and drag you back by your hair and beat you until you came to your senses. Mother finally got him to calm down.”

“I tried to explain in my letters.”

“Yes, I read them your letters. I don’t think they’ll ever understand why you left to join the army, but it made them proud that their eldest daughter had risen to become a senior advisor to the Empress of Greece. It certainly redeemed them in the eyes of the other villagers.”

“But that doesn’t explain why you left Potidaea.”

“Well, your letters were so full of adventures, and Potidaea seemed so ordinary by comparison, and Father was talking about offering me as a bride for Perdicus instead of you, and I missed my big sister. So I decided I would set out for Corinth to find you.”

“Lila, you should have written and told me what you were planning to do. I would have tried to talk you out of it.”

“That’s why I didn’t write to you first. I knew you would have played the big sister and told me to stay home. Besides I wanted to surprise you.”

“Oh, you surprised me, all right.” We both chuckled a little, and then I redirected the conversation back to when and how she came to meet Iolaus.

“I met Iolaus about a month ago,” Lila explained. “He was telling his wonderful stories to the patrons at the inn for travelling money. When he told me he was passing through Potidaea on his way to Corinth, I told him about you living in Corinth and being a senior advisor to Empress Xena, and how much I wanted to visit you. I begged him to take me with him, and with little persuasion, he agreed.”

“That was a foolhardy thing to do, Lila. You don’t know what kind of a man Iolaus is. He could have been the worst kind of villain.”

“Iolaus? He’s not like that at all,” my sister explained. “In fact, Iolaus was quite the gentleman. He was very pleasant company and he treated me like a little sister.”

Well I was relieved to hear that. “So, how did you two end up in Larissa?”

Lila’s bubbly tone instantly went flat. “Well, uh…have you spoken with the Empress?”

“Yes, she told me what happened, but I want to hear it from you,” I replied.

“Everything was fine until we reached the outskirts of Piryetos, a town two days south of Larissa. It was getting late so we decided to make camp. Before we could even start a campfire, we were set upon by a band of slave traders. Iolaus fought bravely. He’s very strong and fearless for a bard, you know, but he was no match for seven men. They bound us and took us to Larissa.”

I couldn’t bear the thought of my little sister in the hands of slavers. Anger, retribution—these were unfamiliar feelings that welled up inside me. I hated to push her, but I had to know what happened to her.

“Lila, tell me the truth. Did any of them ‘hurt’ you?” I tried to put it as delicately as possible.

“You mean… no. The leader of the slave traders ordered his men to leave the girls alone, because we would fetch a higher price if we remained ‘unspoiled’.”

Thank the gods for small miracles, I thought.

“Once we got to Larissa,” Lila continued, “the others were led off to the slave market, but Iolaus and I were taken directly to the palace.”

“I cannot believe that Governor Braextus, of all people, was your master. He is a friend—was a friend,” I sadly corrected myself.

“He was all right. I mean he never mistreated me, or anything. But his wife…”

“Servilia,” I offered.

“Yes. She was a tyrant. Any slight misstep and she had a slave whipped. Once I broke a serving plate and I was sure I’d get it, but Iolaus helped me clean it up and hide the pieces before anybody found out.”

“Iolaus. It sounds like he was your hero—always coming to your rescue.”

“Yes,” Lila acknowledged before changing the subject. “And speaking of heroes. Tell me, how well do you know Lieutenant Commander Galates?”

“Very well,” I replied coyly.

“Oh.” Lila sounded disappointed. “So you and he are…”

“No!” I exclaimed. “I mean, not that he isn’t wonderful, because he is, but no. He and I are really just very good friends.”

Lila smiled hopefully. “Does that mean he’s unmarried?”

“Yes.”

Lila was practically beaming.

I smiled inwardly at the thought of Galates and Lila together. I’d have to see about helping Cupid’s arrow hit its mark.

“Okay, so tell me all about you and the Empress.”

My instinctive reaction was to be evasive. “The Empress and me? How do you mean?”

“You can’t fool me, Gabrielle. I’m your sister remember? You are more than just an advisor to the Empress, aren’t you?”

“Well, I, uh,” I stammered. I thought back to all the grief I had given Xena about not being open and honest about our relationship, and now that I was faced with telling my sister about my relationship with Xena, I was tongue-tied.

“Don’t be modest. I can see that the Empress counts you a good friend.”

“We are more than friends, Lila.”

“More than friends?”

“Yes, much more.”

“How much more?”

I took a deep breath for courage. “The Empress and I know each other intimately.”

Before I could explain further, my sister leapt to her feet – and to the wrong conclusion. “Wait until Mother and Father hear that you are close personal friends with the Empress. That will really raise their standing in Potidaea.”

Lila excitedly paced back and forth in front of me. “Father can stand proudly, because his eldest daughter is an intimate of the Empress of Greece.”

“Lila, I—”

“Oh won’t Father enjoy having the village elders come to him to use his influence for imperial favours. And mother will no doubt be given the best stall at the market—”

I grabbed her by both arms to get her attention. “Lila! Let me finish.”

“I’m sorry Gabrielle,” she said. “You know how excited I can get and then every thought comes pouring out like water from a pump.”

“Yes, I do. It runs in the family.” We both chuckled.

When the laughter faded, I took my sister’s hand and brought her back to the settee. “Lila, this may not be easy to understand, but try to hold your questions until I have finished speaking, all right? Please.”

“Yes, of course. I won’t so much as utter a sound until you are finished. I promise.”

“Good, thank you.” I took a slow cleansing breath to clear my thoughts. “Lila, when I said the Empress and I ‘know each other intimately’, I meant that in every sense of the word.”

Lila sat expressionless.

“Well, aren’t you going to say something?”

“You said not to talk until you were finished,” Lila replied with childlike teasing.

“Fine, you have my permission to speak.”

Ever the annoying little sister, Lila smiled victoriously.

“Lila, do you understand what I am trying to say – about the Empress and me?”

“Yes – at least I think I do. You’re talking about ‘philial’ love – love based on mutual admiration and companionship.”

“Not exactly. It is much more than that.” I paused before plunging in. “The Empress and I have fallen in love.”

“You are joking, right?”

“No. I’m not,” I replied. “In fact we are to be wed in a few days. I am going to become the Empress’ Consort.”

“You what? I don’t believe it. Weren’t you the one who said you’d never marry? Do you remember what you said about marrying Perdicus? ‘There is only one reason a woman becomes chattel, and that is to bear children.'”

“Children? Hmmm, we never discussed children.”

“Be serious.”

“I am being serious.”

“How can you marry the Empress? You’re—You’re—”

“A woman?” I offered.

She gave me a disapproving look. “I was going to say ‘a peasant’s daughter’, but now that you mention it.”

“If you had ever been in love, Lila, you would understand.”

My sister bristled. “You don’t have the market cornered on being in love, Gabrielle.”

“Forgive me. What I meant to say was, sometimes two people are destined to be together no matter what the circumstances or challenges. The Empress and I are two such people.”

“Growing up, you were just as sure you were not getting married. How can you be so sure now?”

“From the first day I met her, I knew we were soul mates.”

“Why can’t you just be good friends? Why marriage?”

“To put it simply, we love each other and we want to make a life together. Can you understand that?”

“Of course! I’m fifteen, not five.”

I put my arm around her shoulder and gave her a sisterly squeeze. “Forgive me,” I said. “I still see you as the little girl with pig tails always tagging along with my friends and me. I forget you are a woman.”

~~~~~

Lila and I talked and reminisced well into the night before exhaustion overcame us both, and in the morning, we awoke early and picked up where we left off.

It felt as though no time or distance had separated us, and yet, we were not the same young girls we were when I left home. At least I wasn’t. I had responsibilities and a life far removed from the one we shared as sisters back in Potidaea. And as wonderful as it was spending time with my sister, I knew I was going to have a very busy day, so I needed someone who could keep Lila company — someone who could show her around. And I had just the person in mind.

As fate would have it, there was that distinctive knock on the door.

“Come in, Galates,” I said.

Lila jumped up and bounded to the door. “Galates!” Lila’s face fairly beamed with delight at the sight of the dashing Commander of the Palace Guards.

“Good morning, Ladies,” he said brightly. “Gabrielle, I know you’ve got a busy schedule, so I thought I might take your sister out for the day.”

“Yes! That would be wonderful!” Lila exclaimed. Almost as an afterthought, she turned to me and asked, “You don’t mind, do you?”

Lila didn’t wait for my answer. She took the handsome Lieutenant Commander’s arm and headed towards the door without so much as a glance behind her. But I didn’t mind. It tickled me to see my sister so smitten.

“You can give me a proper tour of the palace. There’s so much…” Her voice trailed off as the door closed behind them.

Now that Lila was otherwise engaged for the day, I could turn my attention to Xena. We had two weeks of separation to make up for, and besides that I was anxious to get her thoughts on the wedding plans.

When I got upstairs, however, Helena was the only one there.

“The Empress left word that she would be busy first thing this morning,” Helena reported, “but that she’ll come find you as soon as she’s done.”

“Oh.” I did my best to hide my disappointment. “Will you please send word to the Empress that I will be in the throne room with the Protocol Minister and could she join us there?”

After giving Helena that message, I left Xena’s apartments and made my way downstairs to keep my appointment with Vidalis.

As I entered the throne room, I heard a noise and a whispered curse. It didn’t sound like Vidalis’ high-pitched voice.

“Hello?” I called out. “Who’s there?”

A blond haired man climbed up off the floor from behind the throne. In his right hand, he held a half-eaten apple.

“Oh, hello Iolaus. I thought you were Vidalis.”

“He was here a few minutes ago. Mentioned something about wrong notes and said he would be right back.”

Iolaus offered me a taste of his apple, which I politely declined. He took another big, juicy bite and some of the juice dribbled down his chin. I couldn’t help but smile at his child-like enthusiasm as he wiped it away with his sleeve.

“So what are you doing here?” I asked.

“Mm-mm,” he mumbled. He chewed quickly and swallowed. “Uh, umm… the architecture! Yes.”

Iolaus looked up and admired the ceiling. “Wonderful isn’t it? Dorian architecture is beautiful in its simplicity. Look at that.” He casually placed his hand on my shoulder and pointed to the different architectural features of the room. “Functional, purely functional. No unnecessary ostentation.”

“Very nice,” I observed with mild interest.

“Just look at those lines,” Iolaus continued. “Perfect right angles where the wall meets the ceiling. Notice the way the blocks of that lintel above the doorway blends into the whole thing. Sheer artistry.”

“I can’t say I ever noticed it before.”

“That’s just it,” he replied enthusiastically. “It doesn’t need carved lion heads, naked water nymphs or copious curlicues to do its job. Lesser architects would draw attention to a mundane item such as a door lintel. Why? It doesn’t make sense.” The blond haired man pointed to a nearby door. “Out of curiosity, where does that doorway lead?”

“It’s mainly a changing chamber for the Empress. She keeps her ceremonial robes in there, as well as her crown and sceptre.”

Iolaus regarded the door thoughtfully as he took another bite of the apple. “I don’t suppose… nah, never mind.”

“Suppose what?” I asked.

“I was just wondering if I could see them – the Empress’ crown and sceptre. I hear they are a marvel of design and craftsmanship.”

“I’m afraid the door is locked. Only the Empress has the key.”

Iolaus muttered something under his breath that I didn’t quite catch. It sounded like, “If only ‘a talk us’ were here.”

“Who?”

“Autolycus,” he repeated and changed the subject. “Forgive me my manners. May I offer my congratulations on your upcoming nuptials?”

Iolaus must have noted the puzzled look on my face. “Vidalis mentioned it,” he offered and pointed to the preparations already underway.

“Uh, thank you,” I replied awkwardly. It was going to take some getting used to the reality that I would soon be a married woman – to the Empress of Greece no less.

“You are invited to the wedding, of course,” I offered.

“Thank you,” he replied.

“Perhaps I can persuade you to entertain our guests with a story or two about ‘Hercules’. That was the name you gave the hero in your stories, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, and I would be honoured to entertain your guests with a few stories,” Iolaus replied.

“Speaking of heroes, I wanted to thank you again for risking your life to protect my sister. If there is anything I can ever do, you have but to ask.”

“I will keep that in mind,” Iolaus replied thoughtfully.

Vidalis announced his arrival with a polite clearing of his throat. “Are we ready?” he asked, pronouncing each word clearly in his light, singsong tone.

Iolaus looked at me with a friendly smile. “Well, I won’t keep you. Perhaps we can talk more later.” He started humming a tune and walked towards the door. “Wonderful lintels,” he commented before finally leaving the throne room.

I turned to Vidalis and said, “I am hoping the Empress will be joining us shortly to go over the plans.”

Just then, a voice from the back of the room said, “The Empress is here.”

Both Vidalis and I approached the Empress and bowed as Xena looked around the throne room, which was already being transformed for the wedding. Bench seats were arranged in rows, a large oak table had been brought in to serve as the altar, and hanging from a lance on each column was a banner with Xena’s imperial crest: a hawk with its wings outstretched and in its talons it carried a sword to represent Ares, the God of War and a scroll to represent Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. Below that were our initials X and G.

Xena pointed to the banners and said, “The initials – nice touch.”

I was relieved she liked it. “Vidalis suggested it, so I made a command decision. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” Xena replied. “So, where are we with the wedding plans?”

“I think I’ll let Vidalis tell you, since he has done so much of the planning.”

“Oh, good, then I will know who to blame if I am not pleased.”

I was relatively sure Xena was joking, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I leaned towards Vidalis, who looked like he was about to faint, and whispered, “Don’t be nervous. Just be brief.”

Vidalis cleared his throat and started to speak. “The wedding celebration is to be a three-day affair, in keeping with the tradition of Greek weddings. The Bride’s banquet will be held on the evening of the first day. The actual ceremony will take place at midday on the second day, followed by a small reception…” Vidalis’ glanced at the Empress, who’s very hard to read, and suddenly his mind seemed to go blank; he fumbled with his notes. “Where was I?”

“You were ready to tell the Empress about the third day,” I prompted.

“Ah, yes.” Vidalis found his place and continued. “And the third day will be a public feast day, during which the Empress and her consort will make a tour of Corinth and distribute gifts to the needy.”

“Is that necessary?” Xena questioned Vidalis. “Declaring it a public holiday is gift enough.”

I explained that it was my idea, and before Xena could counter with the security problems such a plan would create, I added, “I have already spoken with General Darnell and Chief Larrius and they are working together on security measures.”

I could tell by the slight twitch of her lip that Xena knew she had just been outflanked.

“Fine,” she agreed. “We will make a short tour of Corinth and hand out a few gifts as a gesture of good will, but then it is right back to the palace for us, leaving the good citizens of Corinth to their revelry.”

“Fair enough,” I replied. “Now, I have taken the liberty of scheduling the Amazon treaty signing ceremony just before the Bride’s banquet.” I handed Xena a parchment that outlined the treaty signing ceremony.

Xena quickly scanned it and gave the parchment back to me. “Seems straightforward enough,” she said.

“Naturally, the Bride’s banquet will be held in the banquet hall, so we will utilise the stage at the other end of the room for the treaty signing. Then after the meal has been served, Iolaus has agreed to entertain us with a story.”

“Sounds good,” Xena replied, Next Vidalis quickly stepped us through the marriage ceremony.

“You will come out from here, Your Highness.” Vidalis directed Xena’s gaze over to the changing chamber door.

“And Gabrielle will come in from there.” He pointed to the main doors to the throne room.

“Once you hear the trumpets sound, you will both walk in and meet in front of the altar.”

Vidalis had us take our places in front of the dais while he stood in for the High Priest. “The High Priest of The Fates will perform the rites – blah, blah, blah. You will say your vows. He will declare you wed, and you will both exit the throne room together and wait in the changing chamber until the reception is about to begin. Any questions?”

Xena did bring up one thing that was missing from the ceremony, and that was my coronation as ‘Princess Gabrielle, Imperial Consort’.

That one rather important bit of ceremony had never occurred to me, and by the mortified look on Vidalis’ face, it hadn’t occurred to him either.

“No need to worry,” Xena said, “I will take care of that part of the ceremony myself.”

Vidalis scribbled in his notes again. “Yes, thank you, Your Highness. Now that we have your approval of the plans, all we need is the date. We can be ready within the week.”

“I am afraid that will not do,” Xena said.

“Oh? Do you have a particular date in mind?” I asked.

“Yes,” Xena replied. “Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? We can’t be ready by tomorrow!” Vidalis exclaimed in horror.

I too was shocked. I knew Xena wanted the wedding to take place as soon as she returned, but I had no idea she meant as soon as she returned.

“Vidalis, would you please give the Empress and me a few moments alone,” I said calmly.

“But we have Emperor Pompey’s welcoming ceremony and banquet tomorrow,” he quietly protested.

I gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll get it sorted. Head over to my office; I will come find you shortly.”

Vidalis left the room waving his notes and mumbling to himself in his high-pitched tone.

I studied Xena’s face to see if there were the slightest hint of jest, but I saw none. “Did you really mean tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

“Can’t the wedding take place after Emperor Pompey’s visit? There are so many details—”

Xena put a hand up to stop me. “Gabrielle, I know you and Vidalis have put a lot of effort into this thing, but it has to be tomorrow.”

“Why? I don’t understand.”

Xena lowered her hand, her expression restrained. “I cannot go into all that right now. I am asking you to trust me. I have a good reason.”

I had tried to maintain my composure, but that touched a nerve. “How can you say you want to marry me tomorrow, and in the very next breath say you can’t trust me enough to tell me the reason?”

“It is not a matter of not trusting you,” Xena said defensively.

I was about to remind Xena of her promise to treat me like an equal partner in our marriage, but I didn’t have to.

“You are right,” she offered. “I would prefer to keep you out of politics, but you need to know what I know. Needless to say, it can go no further than this room.” She glanced around to make sure we were alone. “It is the Persians.”

“What do the Persians have to do with the date for our wedding?” I wondered aloud.

Xena proceeded to explain that the Persians had amassed a fleet of warships off the southwest coast of Anatolia, no doubt to try and cut Greece’s supply lines – maybe even invade Greece itself, and she didn’t want war with the Persians getting in the way of us being wed. “So can you understand why I want the wedding to take place tomorrow?” Xena asked.

“Not completely,” I replied, “but I can appreciate you wanting to have the ceremony sooner rather than postponing it,” I replied. “I will speak with Vidalis right away. I think we could manage to have the wedding start tomorrow if we forego Emperor Pompey’s banquet and just have a reception tomorrow evening to sign the treaty, welcome Emperor Pompey, and celebrate our wedding. It means cancelling his welcoming parade.”

“What a shame,” Xena said mockingly.

“I don’t think Emperor Pompey will be very pleased with the change of plans,” I chided.

“Do not worry about Emperor Pompey,” Xena replied. “I will find a way to make it up to him.”

~~~~~

It was the morning of Pompey’s arrival and like a beehive in spring, the palace was already buzzing with activity in preparation for the reception that evening. As my wedding attendant, my sister Lila was meeting Vidalis and me in the throne room when Xena sent word that Emperor Pompey’s ship had been spotted off the coast near Lechaeum and would be here within the hour. I left Vidalis and Lila to the task at hand and went to my rooms to change.

The welcoming party gathered in the courtyard. Originally it was going to be the Empress and me, Ambassador Brutus and General Darnell, accompanied by Lieutenant Commander Galates and a squad of Palace Guards, however to my surprise and delight, Xena invited Queen Terreis, Ephiny, Lila, and Iolaus to join us in the carriage and attend the welcoming ceremony.

When we got to the harbour, Pompey’s ship was just outside the breakwater, lowering its sails in preparation for entering the harbour. While we waited for the ship to dock, Xena pulled me aside and revealed a ‘minor’ change to the ceremony – one I was not very happy about. She was rather insistent that I should be the one to officially welcome Emperor Pompey.

“Emperor Pompey is going to be very put out to be greeted by me and not you personally,” I pointed out.

“I am counting on it,” Xena replied.

“Xena, I don’t want to be caught in the middle of a game of political one-upmanship.”

“Gabrielle, you will not be caught in the middle of anything,” Xena assured me. “It is important to me that you be the one to greet Pompey. Besides, being greeted by the soon-to-be ‘Imperial Consort of the Empress of Greece’ is a great honour.”

“I’m not sure Pompey will see it that way,” I complained.

“Well, he better get used to it.”

There was no use arguing the point further, and there was no time. As Pompey’s ship slipped into its berth, everyone took their places for the welcoming ceremony. The herald trumpeters took their positions near the bow of the ship while Galates ordered the Palace Honour Guard to flank the welcoming committee. I stood in the centre, with Lila and Iolaus directly behind me. A short step to my right stood Ambassador Brutus, and next to him was General Darnell. Queen Terreis remained in the carriage with Ephiny.

And the Empress? I thought Xena would stand by my side or at least close by; however, as the mooring lines were being tied, Xena had moved to the rear of the group and leaned against the carriage. It was too late to do anything about it, because the gangplank was lowered and there stood the Emperor of Rome flanked by ten of his personal guard.

Emperor Pompey wore a tunic of the purest white, a cloak of the deepest red, intricately decorated gold and silver armour, with a crown of solid gold laurel leaves that framed his closely cropped blond hair. He was larger than life – almost as majestic as Xena, but without her elegance and charisma.

Emperor Pompey waited for the herald trumpets to sound and then he strode down the walkway, smiling and waving to the meagre crowd.

Ambassador Brutus stepped forward to greet his Emperor, and then it was my turn to welcome Emperor Pompey.

I took a deep breath and made my speech. “On behalf of Empress Xena and the people of Greece, welcome to Corinth, Emperor Pompey,” I said.

Pompey dismissed us both with a wave of his hand. “It is not much of a welcome.” He said as he brushed past me and stopped in front of my sister. “Unless you are my welcoming gift,” he leered.

No, don’t! I silently mouthed from behind the Emperor’s shoulder when I saw Lila’s indignity rise up, ready to take on the Emperor of Rome. Fortunately for all of us, Galates held Lila back. Pompey ignored Lila in the same rude way he had brushed Brutus and me off, and scanned the small group looking for Xena, who was leaning against the carriage.

Xena stood as he approached her and said, “I have long awaited this day Pompey.”

“So have I,” the Emperor replied, “but I am insulted that you did not greet me yourself, as befitting such an important state affair.”

“That honour went to Gabrielle, as my betrothed consort.”

“Your what?”

“Consort,” Xena repeated.

By this time, the two stood almost toe-to-toe and one could feel the tension in the very air around them.

“In fact,” Xena continued, “you have arrived just in time to attend the wedding.”

“Hmm.” Pompey rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “There is something I do not understand.”

“Oh, what is that?” Xena asked.

“Why purchase the cow when you are already getting the milk for free?”

Being insulted by powerful men was nothing new to me, but no one had dared to insult me to Xena’s face. To my great relief, Xena let the insult go without so much as a twitch.

Pompey soon tired of getting no reaction from Xena, so he next turned his attention to Terreis, who was still seated in the open carriage. “I see the Queen of the Amazons is with you. A gift more fitting for an emperor.” He leaned towards Terreis. “Is it true you Amazons are as fierce in bed as you are in battle?”

Before Pompey could even blink, Ephiny had jumped out of the carriage, landing in front of the Roman Emperor, her dagger drawn.

She held the tip of the dagger underneath Pompey’s chin and confronted him. “I don’t care if you are the Roman Emperor, no one insults the Queen of the Amazons and lives. Apologise, or die where you stand.”

I hurried over to try and stop Ephiny before it got out of hand. “Ephiny put the dagger down!”

Ephiny ignored me. I looked to Xena to do something, but she seemed disinterested in coming to Pompey’s defence.

After a few tense moments, Pompey put his hands up and backed away. “My sincere apologies.”

Ephiny grudgingly withdrew the blade from Pompey’s throat and rejoined Terreis in the carriage.

“Where were we?” Pompey adjusted the neckline of his uniform as if nothing more than a crease in the cloth was of any concern to him. “Ah yes. I believe I am to have a parade through the city so that the good citizens of Corinth can welcome me.”

Ambassador Brutus struggled to find the right words, so I stepped in, and as diplomatically as possible, tried to explain. “I’m afraid there has been a change of plans, Your Highness.”

“What do you mean?”

“Because the wedding is being held tonight, we had to cancel your welcoming parade,” I explained.

“Humph. I suppose I can wait to be officially welcomed at the banquet in my honour this evening.”

“Er, I am sorry, Your Highness, but the wedding reception is being held tonight instead of a banquet.”

Pompey was seething but kept his temper. “Fine, then I can be officially welcomed before the reception this evening.”

I took a deep breath before I delivered the last bit of bad news.

“Again, I do apologise, Highness, but there is a treaty signing ceremony with the Queen of the Amazons just before the reception.”

“What?” Pompey bellowed. “This is an affront to the Citizens of Rome to have their Emperor treated in such a manner!”

I glanced at Xena, silently begging her to step in and smooth his ruffled feathers; instead she seemed to be enjoying the show. Why did I let her talk me into this? I asked myself.

I continued to try and placate the Roman Emperor. “You misunderstand, Your Highness. We meant no disrespect. Matters of State required us to move the date of the wedding up. I am sure you understand.”

Pompey glared at Xena but checked his temper, for which I was grateful.

“Very well,” he replied, “I will go straight to the Embassy now, but I will expect Greece to accord Rome the proper courtesy when I arrive at the palace this evening.”

Emperor Pompey boarded the chariot, and together with Ambassador Brutus, rode into the city towards the Roman Embassy. The chariot was flanked by Pompey’s Praetorian Guards and followed by General Darnell and the Corinthian Garrison honour guards.

When they were out of earshot, I mumbled, “I wouldn’t want to be Brutus right now.” Xena was standing near me and I whispered with great relief, “For a minute there I thought you were going to make me go with Pompey.”

“For a minute there, I almost did,” said Xena with a serious expression.

“That’s a joke, right?” I called after her as she climbed into the carriage.

Even after all this time, I still can’t tell when she’s joking.

~~~~~

With Pompey’s welcoming ceremony concluded, we headed back to the palace. Once there, Ephiny took Terreis back to her room to rest. My sister and Iolaus decided to stay behind in town so Iolaus could show Lila where he used to live. Xena, as always, had matters that needed attending. And, as for me, there was no respite, not even a moment to catch my breath. I spent the rest of the afternoon with Vidalis seeing to all the last-minute details for the evening’s festivities. I didn’t see Xena again until it was nearly time for the wedding reception.

When I entered her changing chamber, Xena was standing in front of the massive wardrobe that dominated the windowless room. She was adding the finishing touches of a magnificent new uniform: a knee-length black tunic, which contrasted the pure white leather ceremonial cuirass, trimmed in gold, that covered her torso. Her sandals too were made from the same white leather, as were her wrist guards and greaves. By contrast, I wore a simple white floor-length chiton.

“You look amazing!” I exclaimed. “I feel underdressed.”

“No, you look amazing yourself. I have never seen you look more beautiful.”

“I wasn’t fishing for a compliment,” I replied with a coy smile.

Xena put her arms around me and said, “Gabrielle, even if you were wearing a horse-hair sack, I would still think you were beautiful.”

Xena gave me a sweet, but all-too-brief kiss, and then reached around me and started taking her weapons belt off a peg in the wardrobe.

I stopped her hand and said, “Xena, can I ask you not to bring your weapons to tonight?”

Her hand came out with the weapons belt anyway. “Why not?”

I knew this was no small thing I had asked of her. Her weapons were such an integral part of who she was; it was like asking her to leave behind her right arm. “I just don’t think bringing weapons to a wedding sends the right message.”

Xena was reluctant to go completely unarmed. “Weapons are the great leveller,” Xena explained. “If everyone is equally armed, then no one has the advantage.”

“Please?”

Xena relented. “Then how can I refuse you, eh?”

I was about to give Xena a kiss, but we were interrupted by a knock on the door.
Vidalis entered the room carrying a parchment and a piece of charcoal to make notes. “Good evening, Your Highness, Advisor Gabrielle – or should I call you ‘Your Highness’?

“Let’s get through the ceremony first,” I replied.

“Yes, about that,” he said. “It will take some time to set up the altar for the marriage ceremony, so the ceremony cannot take place right after the treaty signing.”

“Oh.” I thought about it for a moment. “I know, we’ll have Iolaus tell his story immediately following the treaty signing ceremony, then refreshments and small talk, and after that the marriage ceremony. Would you need more than an hour to set up?”

“No, I think we can manage that,” the Protocol Minister replied.

“Will that be acceptable, Your Highness?” I asked Xena.

“That is fine…” Xena said, “…with one minor change. We will conduct the ceremony at the end of the reception. That way we can avoid all the obligatory congratulating and go straight to the wedding night.”

Xena smiled knowingly and I blushed.

“Yes, well…” the Protocol Minister said. “Most of the guests have assembled, so we can begin as soon as Emperor Pompey arrives.”

“What about the order of the Announcements?” Xena asked.

Vidalis glanced at his notes. “We have you, Your Highness, being announced first, followed by Queen Terreis, and finally Emperor Pompey as the ‘Honoured Guest’.”

“I want to change the order,” Xena replied. “I will be announced first, followed by Pompey, and then Queen Terreis, as ‘Honoured Guest’.”

“As you wish, Your Highness.” Vidalis moistened the tip of his charcoal writing instrument and made a note of it. “Uh, shall I notify the Roman Embassy of the change?”

“No, just inform the Emperor when he arrives so he will know his cue.”

The Protocol Minister blanched a bit, but he noted the change and then briefed the Empress on the order for the treaty signing ceremony. When he had finished, I realised we had not accounted for what to do with the signed treaties.

Vidalis double-checked his notes. “My apologies for that oversight. If Iolaus is performing right after the treaty signing ceremony, then we will need to remove everything from the table before he comes up to speak – inkwells, quills and such are no problem – but it’s what to do with the signed treaties.”

Xena provided the solution. She held up the key to her changing chamber. “You can secure everything in here, including my sceptre and the Queen Terreis’ ceremonial mask. We will sort it out after the reception.”

Xena handed the key to me, and I in turn entrusted the key to Vidalis with instructions to return it to me as soon as he was finished.

“Is that it?” Xena impatiently asked.

“Yes, Your Highness,” Vidalis replied.

“Then do not let us keep you,” Xena replied.

I walked Vidalis to the door and saw him out.

When the door closed behind him, Xena said, “Finally! I thought he would never leave.”

“I know, but the man is a jewel. Without Vidalis, none of this could have been accomplished in so short an amount of time.”

“Yes, he is good at his job, I give you that,” Xena said. “After the wedding, we will come up with something to reward him for his efforts… a summer villa on the Adriatic perhaps.”

I smiled. “And a yearly stipend to maintain it.”

“And speaking of reward,” Xena said. “I want you to close your eyes and hold out your hands.”

“Is this some form of prank?” I asked.

“No. Trust me,” she replied.

I did as instructed and waited anxiously. Finally, I felt a leather pouch being placed into my palms.

“Open your eyes.”

It was my necklace, the one with the miniature sceptre that Xena had given me, the one I promised I would never take off.

“I thought I had lost it. Where did you find it?”

Xena didn’t say anything at first, but her facial expression told the story of how she came to be in possession of the necklace. The kidnappers must’ve sent it to her as proof.

“The important thing is, it was returned,” Xena offered.

Xena helped me put it on. Her fingers lingered on my neck, and I felt the warmth of her body as she moved closer – so close I could feel the textured leather of her cuirass pressing against the fabric of my dress. I longed for the silk and leather barriers between us to be breached.

We both looked at my reflection in the small mirror on the wardrobe door, I held the sceptre pendant between my fingers and admired how it looked on me.

“I had the goldsmith shorten the chain,” Xena said. “I want the world to see it and know that you are my consort.”

I turned around to face her again. Even though mere words seemed so inadequate, I thanked her for the gift. Still holding the pendant, I said, “I will cherish it and wear it proudly as your consort.”

“I will cherish it and wear it proudly as your consort.”

Xena smiled.

“Oh, but I don’t have a gift for you,” I lamented.

“We can take care of that right now,” Xena replied and she offered me her cheek to kiss.

“I can do better than that,” I said. I thanked her with a grateful kiss, a kiss that steadily deepened with each breath. It was easy to get lost in the pleasurable sensations – lips so inviting, tongues so unhurried – our desire so palpable, I swore I would burst into flames.

“Uh…I wish…we didn’t…have…to go…just…yet.”

“Who says we do?”

Xena knew many ways to satisfy me, but there was no time for the subtleties of foreplay. She abandoned all restraint and backed me up against the wardrobe door. Her hand slithered up beneath my dress. When she reached the apex of my thighs, that pleasant tingling in my groin suddenly radiated out to every part of my body like a brush fire in dry tinder. My body shuddered just to feel her feather-like touch. But she wasn’t finished with me yet.

“I want you now,” Xena whispered sensually. Her thigh pushed my legs open wider.

“Uhh,” I moaned with pleasure as she entered me.

The steady friction and pressure was bringing me ever closer to heady climax. Grinding my pelvis against her thigh intensified my arousal even more. Another few moments of this and I would have sailed over the cliff into a freefall of blissful release, but we were interrupted by another poorly timed knock on the door.

Xena stopped all movement and groaned in frustration enough for both of us.

She removed her hand from under my dress, and I fixed the draping so nothing looked out of place.

“Come,” Xena said.

“I was about to,” I teased softly.

Xena waggled her eyebrows at me and smiled, but she was all business when General Darnell and Ambassador Brutus entered the room.

“Pardon our intrusion,” General Darnell said as he glanced at me, “but we have come on that urgent matter we had discussed this morning.”

“Ah, yes,” Xena replied.

It was obvious that I was not meant to be privy to this conversation, so I took that as my cue to leave. “Did the Emperor come with you?” I asked Ambassador Brutus.

“No, I came on ahead of the Emperor, though he should be arriving shortly.”

If you will excuse me, Your Highness, General, Ambassador.”

Xena walked me to the door. My hand briefly touched hers; it was enough to reawaken the deep aching I felt in my core. We exchanged a lovers’ glance, and a promise to continue this after the reception.

I turned back and politely reminded them not to be late. “I will see you all in a few minutes, yes? We don’t want to further insult Emperor Pompey by not being there to greet him when he arrives for the reception.”

Xena replied, “Have no fear, the Emperor will get the reception he so richly deserves.”

~~~~~~~~
Chapter 8
~~~~~~~~

I had followed the evidence of a growing conspiracy right to the very doorstep of the Governor of Larissa. There I was met with corruption and betrayal by a man I considered a friend. Before he took his own life, Braextus had given me a name, another link in the chain of a master plan to usurp my crown – a plan, which at its heart was my heart, Gabrielle. So I returned to Corinth with all possible speed before the conspiracy, which cast its shadow like a rapidly approaching storm, reached the palace.

~~~~~

As we descended towards the valley of Mount Yerania Ori, the sun was beginning to sink below the foothills surrounding us. We paused to relieve ourselves and let our horses drink from a small mountain stream.

Having stopped at the garrison at Thebes for fresh horses, I sat astride Argo once again and gazed out over the valley. Corinth was visible to the southwest – about an hour away.

“Not far now, girl.” I patted Argo’s neck.

Argo whinnied as if she were agreeing with me.

“Commander Galates,” I called out.

Galates nodded and signalled the company to mount up.

I gave Argo a kick and she dutifully trotted on.

Once we reached the flat, I pushed the pace even harder, and we reached the outskirts of Corinth in less than an hour. When we reached the outer city walls, my escort rode ahead and cleared the way so we could proceed unimpeded through the crowded streets.

I rode at the head of the party, Galates riding alongside Lila just behind me, and Iolaus behind them. When we were finally on the other side of the marketplace, I decided to break from the group and ride ahead. I was anxious to know which Gabrielle I would return home to find: the strong, confident woman I knew before the kidnapping, or the scarred, fragile woman I had been compelled to leave two weeks before.

“Commander, I am going on ahead to prepare Gabrielle for her surprise. Have the men reform behind you, and bring Lila and Iolaus in through the west portico. Gabrielle and I will meet you in the main hall – hopefully.”

Galates acknowledged me with a nod.

“And remember, all of you, not one word of what happened in Larissa when you see Gabrielle – not until after I have had a chance to talk to her.”

With that, I spurred Argo into a gallop, scattering the crowds in the streets, and raced towards the palace.

~~~~~

Nothing seemed amiss as I rode through the palace’s main gates, but I was not going to relax until I saw Gabrielle with my own two eyes and knew she was all right.

As soon as I reached the stables, I jumped off Argo and left her to the groomsman. I turned towards the south portico, and there stood Gabrielle, a vision in pale yellow to match her golden hair and a welcoming smile that was like a desert oasis to a thirsty traveller. Whatever fatigue or soreness I might have felt from days of hard riding were gone and I raced up the steps.

When I reached the top step, Gabrielle greeted me as Empress and not as her betrothed. Formality be damned! I thought, and I pulled her into a crushing embrace, nestled my cheek against her soft hair, and drank in the seductive aroma of jasmine and honeysuckle. It was intoxicating, and I ached to kiss her, but there was no time. Lila would be arriving soon.

Reluctantly I released Gabrielle from my arms and took a step back. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine, especially now that you are home,” Gabrielle replied joyfully.

“I mean the nightmares, the bouts of panic?” I asked with concern.

“The nightmares and anxiety stopped within a day or two after you left.”

I was relieved to hear it. I put it down to Darphus’ well-timed demise, which no doubt gave Gabrielle much needed peace of mind.

Satisfied that she was indeed fine, I led her towards the main hall and her surprise.

Gabrielle caught sight of Lila, Galates, and Iolaus coming from the opposite direction, but she did not immediately react. Only when Lila called out to her did Gabrielle come to life and rush towards her younger sibling.

While the two sisters reunited, I had a word with Lieutenant Glaphyra, who was standing off to the side.

“Lieutenant, report.”

Glaphyra took a soldierly stance. “Either Helena or myself has been with Gabrielle every hour of every day since you left. There have been no reports of unusual or suspicious activities by the guards, and the gate sentries reported no one entering or leaving the palace grounds who was not authorised to do so.”

“Well done, Lieutenant. You have my leave to return to barracks and take the night off – after you have given your report to Lieutenant Commander Galates, that is.”

Glaphyra thanked me, executed a crisp about turn, and marched off.

By this time, Gabrielle was making the acquaintance of Lila’s travelling companion, Iolaus. She nearly burst with delight when she learned that he was a travelling bard.

As the conversation continued, I found myself growing restless and impatient to get Gabrielle upstairs where we could have some privacy. I broke up the gathering by having Lila and Iolaus escorted to the guest wing so they could rest from the long journey. Galates excused himself and headed for the barracks.

Finally alone, I gestured towards the stairs. “Shall we?”

“Indeed,” Gabrielle replied. Her eyes sparkled with anticipation.

We were both anxious to be alone together, though I was sure it was not for the same reasons. One thing was certain, it was not going to be the intimate homecoming either one of us would have wanted.

~~~~~

When Gabrielle and I entered my private quarters, Helena, the woman to whom I had entrusted Gabrielle’s care while I was away, was waiting to attend us.

With a well-practised curtsey, the blonde-haired servant said, “Welcome home, my Liege. Everything has been readied for you.” She glanced around the sitting room as if to make sure of it.

While I appreciated Helena’s efficiency, I cared nothing for the state of my rooms. I just wanted to be alone with Gabrielle.

Gabrielle thanked Helena for her efforts, and then she eyed me to say something to Helena as well.

“Gabrielle tells me that you were very good company, Helena,” I offered, “that you followed my orders to the letter. I commend you.”

Helena stole a glance at Gabrielle and the two shared a friendly smile. “I was happy to do it, Your Highness.”

“We will find a more tangible way to show our gratitude, but for now, take the rest of the night off.”

“Yes, my Liege. Thank you.” Helena curtseyed again and withdrew, leaving Gabrielle and me to our reunion.

Alone at last with Gabrielle, I thought, now what? What I wanted to do was put my arms around her and share one luscious, lingering kiss to let her know how much I had missed her. But I knew if I did, it would not end with just one kiss, so I remained where I was and started removing my weapons belt.

Gabrielle came over to lend a hand. “Here, let me. This used to be my job when I was your assistant, remember?”

My thoughts flashed back to those early days when Gabrielle was my assistant, and how she stirred my passion even then. “I do remember,” I replied. “I remember the sweet torture of it.”

Once my weapons belt was cast aside, I sat on a nearby chaise. Gabrielle knelt on the floor in front of me and helped me off with my boots. She then sat up on her knees between my legs and reached up to undo the front clasps of my jacket. Her touch was slow and deliberately sensual, and my nipples strained against the well-worn leather. With supple hands, she caressed my breasts, her tongue playfully teasing the tips. I should have stopped her, but it felt too good.

Gabrielle regarded me with a seductive smile and said, “I’m sure Helena has prepared your bath. Shall I help you out of the rest of these clothes?”

It took all the discipline of a warrior not to surrender to desire and make love to Gabrielle until weariness gave way to contented exhaustion. But I knew the news about how I came to meet her sister Lila, and the part Braextus played in it, could not, should not wait. Very reluctantly, I moved her hands away and said, “No, not yet.”

Gabrielle stared up at me with a wounded look.

“First, I need to tell you what happened in Larissa,” I explained. The sober tenor of my voice made it clear I was serious. I had her to join me on the chaise and took her hands in mine.

“Gabrielle, about your sister Lila—”

The mere mention of her sister excited Gabrielle’s imagination, and she rattled off a series of questions about how I came to meet Lila, and how I could have planned for Lila to come to our wedding in so short a time.

“Whoa, slow down. You have the wrong end of the staff. I did not send for Lila to come meet me in Larissa.”

“Then why was Lila in Larissa if not to come to the wedding, and how did you two meet?”

“I met your sister at the Governor’s palace,” I replied.

Gabrielle questioned how her sister had come to be a guest of the Governor of Thessalia.

There was no way to say it other than to just come out with it. “She was a slave in Braextus’ household.”

Gabrielle struggled to comprehend what I had just told her. Finally it started to sink in. “By the gods, Xena – Lila, in the hands of slavers? You know what they do to young girls.” She buried her face in my chest and wept.

Every tear she shed added another drop of loathing for my inability to shield her from the brutality of this world. The only consolation I could offer Gabrielle was that Lila had not been harmed in that way.

Gabrielle remained nestled in my arms until her weeping slowed to merely a few sniffles. Now it was time to deliver the rest of the bad news. I let her go and said, “There is more. Braextus—”

“—is dead, isn’t he?”

I looked away. “Yes.”

“Xena, please tell me you didn’t…”

“No,” I replied sharply. Not that I did not want to kill him, I thought – flay him open with my chakram and leave his entrails for the crows to feast upon for his treason. Instead I chose to be merciful for Gabrielle’s sake.

I took a breath to release my pent up anger and explained that Braextus had taken his own life.

Gabrielle listened in disbelief. “Surely you could have stopped him.”

“You have not heard the whole story,” I replied. I did not want to go into a lengthy explanation about Braextus’ betrayal or his involvement in her kidnapping. It served no purpose and would only cause her more pain. However, Gabrielle did deserve some explanation.

“Braextus has—had a gambling problem for as long as I have known him. He continued gambling as a means to pay for a lavish lifestyle for himself and his wife Servilia. The old fool never had any luck and this time was no exception. He found himself indebted to his creditors for more money than he could ever repay, so he was compelled to do them favours. That is how he became involved with slave trading.” I paused, because I did not want to say too much.

Gabrielle sat quietly and listened while I continued. “When I arrived at the palace, your sister and Iolaus were already there – slaves in Braextus’ household.” I hastened to add, “but if it is any consolation, I am convinced he did not know Lila was your sister. Once I confirmed that he was keeping slaves, I confronted Braextus, and he confessed to slave trading and worse, and for that he knew his life was forfeit—one way or another. He requested he be allowed to take his own life rather than put his family through the humiliation of . A request I granted – end of story.”

“Poor Braextus,” Gabrielle said kindly.

“Poor Braextus?” I was taken aback by her sympathy for the man who had enslaved her sister.

“Yes. Poor man. It must have been terrible for him, having to resort to slave trading to pay his gambling debts.”

Anyone else would have danced on his grave, but not Gabrielle. I was amazed at her limitless capacity to see the good in men’s hearts, even for those who would do her harm.

“He was a good man,” Gabrielle continued, “…who made a horrible error in judgement, for which he paid with his life. How can one not feel compassion for him?”

How can one not feel compassion for him? Her words felt like a cold blade slicing into my flesh. I got up off the chaise and poured myself a cup of port. It was better to drink than pour out my bitterness at Braextus’ betrayal of me.

“Oh Xena, I can only imagine how you must feel.” Gabrielle embraced me sympathetically.

I stiffened in her arms. I did not want to be consoled. Braextus was dead and he deserved death for what he had done to me and mine. Still, I relaxed into Gabrielle’s embrace if for no other reason than I did not want her to probe further into how I felt about Braextus’ death. Not right now at least. Perhaps one day I might share my feelings, but I had matters of vital importance to deal with first. And having Lila here was going to provide me with the perfect excuse to keep Gabrielle occupied while I did.

“Look, you and your sister have a lot of catching up to do, so I think you should stay with her tonight,” I said.

“But there is so much to go over with you – the wedding plans, the treaty signing, Pompey’s arrival.”

“There will be plenty of time for that tomorrow,” I assured her.

Gabrielle protested that we had not been alone together in weeks. And believe me, I would have needed little coaxing to have her stay, if only for a little while, but there was more at stake than satisfying my carnal needs.

“There will be plenty of time for that as well,” I replied. “Go—be with your sister tonight.”

Finally Gabrielle agreed, kissed me goodnight, and hurried off downstairs.

~~~~~

Since Gabrielle was not be sharing my bed tonight, I had to content myself with a long, hot bath and some self-pleasuring to take the edge off.

I was already half-naked, so I stripped off the rest of my clothing, leaving them in a pile for the servants to collect in the morning, and made my way to the bathing chamber.

No sooner had I settled myself in the steaming water, than I heard someone calling out to me. It was General Darnell.

He entered the bathing chambers and gave me a casual salute. “Excuse the intrusion, Your Highness. I came as soon as I heard you had returned.”

“Come in General – have a seat,” I said.

He sat down on a nearby bench while I reached for the soap and washed the grime and sweat from my body, starting with my legs. It amused me to watch his eyes follow the path of the soap.

“How were things while I was away?” I enquired.

“You mean with Gabrielle? Fine. No problems,” Darnell replied. “The Persians, on the other hand, are becoming a problem. According to the latest intelligence, the Persian fleet has been testing the Egyptian naval blockade at Mercin. So far the Egyptian ships have been fending off any attempts at punching through the line.”

The Persians are making the game interesting, I thought. “The Persians are likely going to use the ships to try and cut our supply lines to Anatolia.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because that is what I would do.”

“I doubt they have the balls,” Darnell sneered, “but our fleet is positioned off Rhodes and ready to sail in support of the Egyptian fleet on your orders.”

“Good. Signal them to proceed,” I replied. “And the ‘Roman situation’?”

“‘Roman situation’? How do you mean?” Darnell bristled at the mention of it.

“Pompey’s arrival?” I clarified.

“Yes, of course. Pompey’s ship is being tracked along the coast,” he explained. “It is due to arrive in Corinth tomorrow. Gabrielle and Brutus have hammered out the plans for the Welcoming ceremony. Since the Corinthian Garrison is assigned to security duties during the Emperor’s visit, I have ordered the Hoplite Militia into the field as reinforcements, should the need arise.”

“Excellent, General.” I abandoned the idea of luxurious bathing and made quick work of washing my hair. Once I finished rinsing, I stood up and climbed out.

Darnell handed me a towel. “So tell me, how was your trip?”

I did not immediately answer him. I took a moment to dry myself off while I mulled over how much I would or should tell Darnell about Larissa. I slipped on my robe and walked back into my sitting room. The General followed.

I poured two cups of port and handed one of the cups to Darnell. “The trip was rough,” I replied.

He took a drink and said, “So Braextus has got himself into trouble again.”

I threw back the wine and drank it all before answering him. “More than that. Braextus is dead.”

“Braextus is dead? How?” he asked.

“By his own hand.”

Darnell seemed genuinely upset at hearing the news. “Why would he take his own life?”

I gave Darnell some of the facts – but not all. I told him about Braextus’ gambling and his involvement in slave trading. I told him about discovering that Gabrielle’s sister Lila was a slave in Braextus’ household. I told him about Braextus’ involvement in the conspiracy with Darphus and Lucon. I did not, however, reveal the name of Braextus’ co-conspirator. He would know soon enough.

~~~~~

Night had descended on Corinth and off duty soldiers were leaving the palace to hit the taverns and brothels of the city… and probably each other when they were drunk enough.

Dressed in a dark cloak with a large hood to conceal my identity, I safely hid in the shadows just inside the main gate and waited.

Tonight, I thought. Tonight.

From my hiding place, I watched as General Darnell casually ambled through the main palace gates with the other off-duty soldiers going out for the night.

Before Larissa, I had no reason to question Darnell’s loyalty, but I would have said the same of Braextus. However, Darnell’s behaviour of late had been so out of character for him, I would be a fool to ignore my gut. So with Lila and Gabrielle otherwise engaged for the rest of the night, it was the perfect opportunity to expose my General’s secrets.

I slipped past the gate guards with ease, for which they will be reprimanded, having not recognised me or noticed a cloaked figure leaving the palace grounds. Once outside the palace walls, I counted to fifty and followed the General into town.

One of the many city improvements Gabrielle had initiated was street lighting. It was a simple idea: torches on high poles were placed on street corners and at intervals along the road, allowing pedestrians to see where they were going at night. Previously a pedestrian would have to carry a torch themselves, something that was not always convenient, or pay a professional torchbearer to light their way through the darkened streets. At first, the torchbearers complained about being put out of work, but their attitudes quickly changed when Gabrielle hired them to light the street torches at dusk and keep them burning throughout the night.

The main advantage of the street lighting was that thieves had less darkness in which to hide. The down side was that if Darnell turned around he would have seen me as easily as I saw him. So, I stayed far enough behind him to avoid being noticed.

The General turned off the main road that led to the Agora and headed east onto a side street where the wealthy of Corinth had built their city homes. Finally he paused in front of the largest house on the street, the one I suspected was his destination. I watched as Darnell turned up the path to the front door of the Roman Embassy.

“Paying a visit to your good friend Brutus, eh Darnell?” I whispered.

A servant opened the door and Darnell entered. A few minutes later the same servant and two others came out, each one holding a fist full of coins. I waited until the men all turned in the direction of the nearest tavern and disappeared into the night.

“No one to eavesdrop while they conspire against me,” I said under my breath.

I gave Darnell and Brutus a few minutes to get their plotting started and then made my move. I cut through the grounds of the house next door and climbed on top of the stone wall surrounding the embassy grounds. Two Roman sentries came around the corner of the building on their nightly patrol. I remained crouching and still, until they were well out of earshot, before I jumped down inside the embassy walls.

The door from the garden was open, so I slipped quietly into the embassy’s main hall. Hoping not to run into any more servants or soldiers in the house, I listened intently for any sounds. At first there was nothing, not a peep, and then muffled sounds could be heard coming from the floor above. I made my way to the staircase and crept silently upstairs to investigate.

The sounds were coming from the second door on the left. I raised my foot to kick the door open but lowered it when I realised what the sounds were. I reached out and quietly opened the door by hand.

The bedchambers had only a few candles on a side table illuminating the dark, but by this time my eyes could make out two figures in bed together: the one on top thrusting his hips to a steady cadence of guttural moans from the one on the bottom.

I let my cloak slip to the floor. “Good evening, gentlemen.”

General Darnell leapt to his feet and stood at attention. He was standing at attention in more ways than one.

When he saw where my eyes were focussed, he reached down to grab the sheet from the bed to cover his erection. Rome’s Ambassador had already turned over and started gathering the sheet to cover himself. After a moment’s tug of war, Brutus pushed a pillow in Darnell’s direction. Darnell grabbed the pillow and held it over his groin.

“So, Darnell, you were in bed with Rome all along.”

He was clearly flustered. “It is not what it looks like.”

“Oh? Pray tell me what it is, if it is ‘not what it looks like.'” I mildly mocked him.

“I… we,” Darnell stammered.

Brutus climbed off the bed, stood next to Darnell, and spoke up. “It is more than what it seems, Your Highness. We are in love.”

“In love? Darnell, is this true?”

This otherwise proud and fearless soldier stood before me baring more than his genitals; he bared his heart. “Yes, Empress, it is true.”

“You mean all the meetings you two have been having – all the skulking about – you have been fucking each other and not plotting against me? I find that a bit hard to swallow.”

Darnell’s cheek twitched at my insinuation. “I know this looks bad,” he said, “but I swear I would never plot against you.”

“You will forgive me if I question where your loyalties lie.” I focussed my gaze over at the bed.

“Your Highness, I have always been loyal to you. I am loyal to you. You know I am.” He sounded desperate for me to believe him.

“And you have not let slip any secrets in the throes of passion?”

Darnell was quick to deny it.

“Not even my plans for your lover?”

To that, Darnell had no answer. His head hung a little lower.

Again, Brutus spoke up. “I am not a fool, Empress,” he said. “I did not need Darnell to tell me what I already knew—that you had no intention of making me Emperor of Rome once Pompey was dispatched. If I had any hope of surviving, I had to either kill you first or make myself useful to you.”

“And what role was my General to play in your plan to kill me?”

“Empress, please—” Darnell pleaded.

“Silence!” I cut him off. “I will deal with you in a minute. I want to hear what the Ambassador has to say for himself.”

“As I said, Empress, I am not a fool. Killing you would make me just as dead.” Brutus glanced at Darnell, as if to confirm my General’s loyalty to me. “At first,” he continued, “I approached Darnell as friend and ally, hoping to gain his trust in order to find out how I could fit into your ultimate plans for Rome. I did not count on us falling in love. It just happened.”

“So this is how you pumped him for information, then?” I scoffed.

The Ambassador vehemently denied it. “No! Any information he might have shared was out of concern for me.”

I could tell he was earnest, but I ignored him and sternly addressed my advisor. “General Darnell!”

“Yes, Empress?”

“Prove your loyalty, once and for all. Kill the Roman Ambassador, now. That is an order.”

With a pleading look, Darnell searched my face to see if I was serious. My stony expression gave him his answer. He let the pillow fall from his hand and crossed over to where his kit had been hurriedly discarded on the floor. Darnell picked up his scabbard and slowly unsheathed his sword.

The blood drained from Brutus’ face. He looked wildly from Darnell to me, seeing if Darnell was going to obey me or whether I was bluffing.

“I am waiting, General.”

Darnell stood between Brutus and me. He took the hilt of his sword in both hands and pointed the blade – first in Brutus’ direction and then towards me.

“I am sorry Highness, but if you want Brutus dead, you will have to do it yourself. And you will have to kill me first.”

I could have slit both of their throats with one swipe of my chakram. Instead, I took a deliberate step closer.

Darnell kept his sword pointed at me. I took another slow step forward, until the tip was a cat’s whisker from my chest, and still he stood his ground.

I relaxed my posture and pushed the sword tip away. “Then it truly is love if you are willing to die for him.”

I glanced over Darnell’s shoulder at Brutus. He looked relieved but far from relaxed, so I eased his mind.

“You are lucky, Brutus. Darnell is a good man.”

Brutus moved to Darnell’s side and smiled proudly. “Yes he is, Your Highness.” Brutus gazed at Darnell and smiled. “Yes he is.”

I knew that was my cue to leave. “Well, I will leave you to it.” I picked up my cloak and added, “General Darnell, come to my office first thing tomorrow morning.”

“As you command, My Empress.” By this point, Brutus had wrapped the bed sheet around them both.

I turned on my heel and looked over my shoulder. “Oh, and Darnell, at least it was Greece screwing Rome when I came in. I would have been very disappointed if it were the other way around.” I gave him wink.

“As you were, gentlemen.”

~~~~~

True to my morning ritual, I awoke before dawn and stood on my balcony, where I had an unencumbered view of the city below the flanks of the Acrocorinth. From my vantage point, I could also see smoke billowing up from the hearths of farmhouses many miles away.

You can see halfway to Thessalia, but you could not see what was right under your nose, I chided myself. Last night, I had finally confronted Darnell and Brutus, certain I would expose their part in the conspiracy against me. Instead, the only thing I exposed was my misjudgement of them – and the fact that the two were lovers.

While I was contemplating the surprising turn of events of the previous night, I heard someone enter my sitting room. I knew it would not be Gabrielle at this early hour, so it had to be Helena.

She greeted me with her usual sunny disposition. “Good morning, My Liege.”

“I thought I gave you the night off.”

“Yes, ma’am you did, and I thank you,” she replied.

“Then, what are you doing here?”

“It is a new day, and I am here to serve you, My Liege.” Helena had come in with another servant carrying breakfast for one. Helena removed a cloth from atop the tray to reveal its contents. “The baker just pulled this loaf of bread out of the oven, so it is fresh and hot.”

The smell of fresh bread brought me back to my mother’s tavern when I was a little girl. She could hardly get the bread out of the oven before my brothers and I grabbed it and devoured it like a pack of wolf cubs. I loved it best with honey drizzled on it, but honey was dear and reserved for paying guests. I cannot count the number of times my mother caught me with my hand in the honey jar, but it was worth the punishment to taste that sweet nectar.

I examined the tray, and sure enough, there was a pot of honey next to the bread. It was not something I recall ever mentioning to Helena. She really is a jewel, I thought. Once things settle down I will have consider promoting Helena to a position that befits her abilities and her worth.

I pulled off a hunk of bread, drizzled some honey on the warm, soft middle and savoured each sweet, delicious bite. “Mmm, this is good.”

Helena smiled. “Is there anything else I can get you, My Liege?”

“No, Helena, but…” I licked the last drop of honey from my fingers. “You can give Gabrielle a message from me. Tell her that I have a meeting first thing this morning, but I will come find her as soon as I am done.”

“Yes, my Liege,” Helena replied. “Is there anything else you require?”

“No, that will be all.”

With that, the blonde haired servant curtseyed and left the room. I had another piece of bread with honey and then got dressed, went downstairs to my office, and waited for the knock on my door that was sure to come.

And it did.

“Come in, General.” I came around my desk and stood in front of it.

Presenting himself in full dress uniform, Darnell marched in and stood at attention. He withdrew his sword and held it out towards me.

“Here is my sword, Highness.”

“What for?”

“Last night. I disobeyed a direct order.”

“Sheathe your sword General. I was just testing you. If you had obeyed me and killed Brutus, I would have killed you on the spot.”

“What? Why?”

“Because if you could easily kill your lover, you could just as easily kill your Empress.”

“Never!”

My hand grasped his shoulder. “Darnell, I know you to be a fine soldier, a sage advisor, and a loyal friend. And under normal circumstances I would trust you with my life.”

“But?”

“But,” I echoed. “Braextus too was a fine soldier, a sage advisor, and a loyal friend. And look how easily he betrayed me.”

“Braextus was weak and his wife is a harpy.”

I could offer no rebuttal, because Darnell was right. I recalled the explanation Braextus gave for his betrayal of me. He told me he got caught up in conspiracy and treason because he loved his wife and wanted to ‘…give her the finer things in life.’ It was a reminder to me that everyone has their price – either through coercion or avarice or love.

I replied, “Love makes you do things that under normal circumstances you could not imagine yourself capable of doing.”

My reaction gave Darnell pause. “Perhaps, but I cannot imagine any circumstances where I would betray my oath,” he replied. “Still, I see why you thought I might have been conspiring with Brutus – the way we were sneaking around, trying to keep it a secret.”

“Yes, I wish you had told me what was going on. But I am the last one to criticise you for keeping your relationship secret.”

“We’re a right pair,” Darnell quipped.

“Let that be a lesson to us both,” I replied. “Now, let us get to the business at hand.”

We both took a seat. “As you well know, the Roman Emperor is due to arrive in Corinth tomorrow. He thinks he is going to be feted and fussed over with a parade and banquet, but Pompey will find out as soon as he arrives that my wedding will begin tomorrow instead.”

“Tomorrow? Does Gabrielle know about this?” Darnell asked.

“Not yet, but she will shortly.”

“Why tomorrow?”

“Let’s just say it is because I do not want to postpone my happiness a moment longer,” I replied. “That, and I want Pompey brought down a peg or two just for sport.”

“Pompey will hate not being the centre of attention.”

“Oh, he will get our attention.”

My military advisor acknowledged the fullness of my meaning with a slight grin.

“Now, let me ask you – and I want to you think before you answer – do you trust Brutus?”

“I trust him like you trust Gabrielle.”

“Do you trust him to side with us against Pompey?”

“I certainly do. There is no love lost between Brutus and Pompey.”

“That is all I wanted to know, because I do trust you, and if you trust Brutus, that is good enough for me.” I stood up and came around the desk again. “And now, I must go and meet with Gabrielle to finalise the wedding plans.”

The General jumped to his feet and thanked me for reaffirming my trust in him.

I clapped him on the back and ushered him out of my office, but not before I gave him some further instructions. “I want you and the Ambassador to meet me at the stables tomorrow morning.”

“Why the stables?” Darnell asked.

“I want to be outside and away from guards and servants for the conversation I need to have with Brutus.”

“Ah, I see,” he replied. “What time do you want us there?”

“Come an hour before Pompey is due to arrive. That should give you enough time.”

“Enough time for what?” he asked.

An arched eyebrow and sly smile conveyed my meaning.

“Oh.” Darnell flashed a roguish smile. “Can we make that half an hour?”

“Make it three quarters of an hour,” I quipped back.

The General saluted and turned on his heel.

“And Darnell—” I called after him.

“Yes, Empress?”

“Next time I see you and Rome’s Ambassador, I expect you both to be fully clothed.”

No sooner had Darnell departed than I got word from Helena that Gabrielle was awaiting me in the throne room, which was a short walk from my office.

Gabrielle and Vidalis gave me a run through of their plans and then asked me when did I want the wedding to take place.

“Tomorrow,” I said.

They both were horrified when I told them I wanted the wedding to take place the very next day.

Vidalis was in a state of near panic. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was the picture of composure and level-headedness. She got Vidalis relatively calmed down and sent him off to wait for her in her office.

“Can’t the wedding begin the next day or the day after that?” Gabrielle asked. “There are so many details—”

“Gabrielle, I know you and Vidalis have put a lot of effort into the planning of this thing, but it has to be tomorrow.”

Naturally, Gabrielle wanted to know the reasons why. I really did not want to have to explain my reasons – or my motives for wanting it that way.

“I cannot go into all that right now. I am asking you to trust me. I have a good reason.”

That was obviously the wrong tactic, because it made her angry. “How can you say you want to marry me tomorrow, and in the very next breath say you can’t trust me enough to tell me the reason?”

I tried explaining that it was not a matter of not trusting her, but she was having none of it. And she was right; I did make a promise to treat her like an equal in our relationship. I was going to have to tell her the truth – or at least enough of the truth to satisfy her.

“It is the Persians.”

“What do the Persians have to do with the date for our wedding?”

I explained that the Persians had amassed a fleet of warships near Cilicia, off the southwest coast of Anatolia, no doubt to try and cut my supply lines – maybe even invade Greece itself.
The gravity of the news was not lost on Gabrielle. “When?”

I told her it could be only a matter of a few days and that was why I wanted us to be wed tomorrow. That reason was satisfactory enough for Gabrielle. “I will speak with Vidalis right away,” she said.

She pointed out that moving the wedding up to tomorrow meant that Pompey’s parade and banquet would have to be cancelled. Pity.

“What a shame,” I said without a bit of sincerity.

“I don’t think Emperor Pompey will be very pleased with the change of plans.”

“Do not worry about Emperor Pompey. I will find a way to make it up to him,” I assured her.

Of course, I was not about to tell Gabrielle just how I planned to ‘make it up’ to Pompey. I did not want a morality lecture. What I wanted was to get Pompey on Greek soil, then offend him at every turn, and when his feathers are good and ruffled, spring the trap and cut off the head of the serpent – metaphorically speaking.

~~~~~

The next morning, I was informed that Pompey’s flagship had been spotted off the coast near Lechaeum and should reach Corinth within the hour. I sent word to Gabrielle and immediately summoned Brutus and Darnell to the palace. I then got dressed and went outside to the stables to wait for my military advisor and the Roman Ambassador.

The two men arrived in a gilded chariot with two white horses – no expense spared to impress Pompey. As promised, both men were fully clothed, and both in full ceremonial dress as befitting a commanding general in their respective armies. The only real difference between them was the colour of their tunics. Brutus wore the Roman white tunic with red piping, red plume on his ceremonial helmet, and red cloak fastened to his left shoulder and draped over his left arm. Darnell, who held the reins, wore the Greek blue tunic, a blue cloak fastened to both shoulders that snapped in the breeze as they drove up.

After the usual pleasantries, we got to the purpose of this clandestine meeting.

“Brutus, you said you wanted to find a way to make yourself useful to me. Well, there is a way.”

“And what is that?” Brutus asked warily.

“Before I say more, I must be certain where your loyalties lie.”

He pushed his chest out and said, “My loyalties first and always lie with the good of Rome.”

The truest measure of a man is not his words but his deeds. Brutus was not only an honourable man, he was an honest one. He had already aligned himself with me once before for the good of Rome – against Caesar – and now I was about to ask him to do it again.

“Before Braextus took his life, he gave me the name of his co-conspirator.”

Deliberately, I paused for effect. The silence made the General and Ambassador exchange a nervous look.

Darnell finally asked, “Who is it? Who did he name?”

“Pompey.”

Darnell and Brutus responded with genuine surprise that Pompey was behind the kidnapping. They were even more surprised when I told them I suspected there was someone behind Pompey.

“What makes you say that?” asked Darnell.

“Pompey may be a good battlefield commander,” I explained, “but he is not known for his ‘strategic planning’.”

With obvious sarcasm, Brutus added, “He couldn’t plan an orgy in a brothel.”

Darnell sniggered. I too was amused by Brutus’ assessment of Pompey’s skills – or lack thereof.

“As Brutus so eloquently stated,” I explained, “Pompey lacks the vision to have put this plan together. It was too subtle, too ambitious. I suspect someone put Pompey up to this plot to kidnap Gabrielle for ransom.”

Again the two men looked at each other and then at me with a wary confusion.

“Why would Pompey plot to kidnap Gabrielle?” Brutus asked. “It makes no sense.”

“It makes sense if Pompey is putting a mercenary army together to invade Greece. He would need money and plenty of it,” I said.

“So, who do you suspect as the mastermind behind this plot?” Darnell enquired. “Not Braextus, surely.”

This time I did not make them sweat it out for the answer. “No. I suspect the Persians are behind Pompey’s involvement, specifically General Suren. He is a brilliant strategist, and he has the intellect and the ambition to conceive this kind of audacious plan.”

“But, I thought the Romans and Persians are sworn enemies,” Darnell asked. “They have been warring for years over coastal territories in Asia Minor. Why would they suddenly become allies?”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” I replied. “I am their common enemy, since I have set out to conquer Anatolia. It is in Suren’s best interest to ally himself with Pompey and force me to fight on two fronts.”

“But why kidnap Gabrielle?” Darnell asked.

“What better way to raise a lot of money fast than to force the Empress to pay ransom?” Brutus offered.

“Yes, plus it was a way to distract me while Suren and Pompey put their ultimate plan into action.”

I did not admit it to Brutus and Darnell; however, despite being furious for having been out-played, I was actually impressed by the brilliance of the plan.

“Suspicions, however, are like eunuchs in a brothel,” I said, “useless without hard evidence.”

The two men smirked.

“This is your chance to prove your worth to me, Ambassador. I want you to go through any documents Pompey has brought with him. I suspect he is arrogant enough not to have destroyed anything incriminating. Find me something that connects Pompey to Suren in this conspiracy.”

Brutus took a moment to consider my request.

“Very well,” said Brutus. “I will help you uncover the truth about Pompey’s treachery – for the good of Rome.”

“Of course,” I acknowledged, although we both knew it had less to do about the good of Rome and more about self-preservation and self-interest. Brutus was nothing if not pragmatic.

“Bring the evidence to me before the reception this evening.”

I then turned to Darnell. “General, I want you to stay close to the Emperor today. He will need some diversion after his long voyage.”

My implied request was clear to the General. I wanted Pompey otherwise occupied to give Brutus time to find me the evidence I sought.

“It would be my pleasure – and his.”

“Now that is settled, we had better get on. We would not want to keep the Roman Emperor waiting.”

We boarded the chariot and pulled around to the courtyard on the other side of the stables. Already waiting were Gabrielle, Lieutenant Commander Galates, a squad of my Imperial Palace Guards, and the carriage that I ordered to take Gabrielle and me to the harbour.

I helped Gabrielle up into the carriage, climbed in after her, and signalled to Galates, who was at the head of the procession, that we were ready to go.

“Company!” he yelled. “Forward—”

A voice called out, “Wait!”

Everyone looked around the courtyard to see where the voice had come from.

Seemingly from out of nowhere, Ephiny appeared in front of the carriage. “My Queen wishes to accompany you to greet the Emperor of Rome,” Ephiny announced, doing nothing to hide her dislike of the idea.

I glanced towards the palace doorway and saw Queen Terreis being escorted by N’Gila and four Amazon warriors.

“Fine,” I said. “No rush.”

Ephiny scowled at me. She must have wanted me to say no.

When Terreis approached the carriage, I stepped down to greet her.

“Empress, may I join you this morning?” the leader of the Amazons asked. “I could do with some fresh air and change of scenery.”

“By all means,” I replied.

As Terreis was being helped into the carriage, Lila and Iolaus showed up as well.

“We’d like to come too, if that’s all right?” Lila asked her sister.

“Well, uh, I don’t know…” Gabrielle looked to me for approval.

“Why not? The bigger the crowd, the better for Pompey’s ego.”

~~~~~

I had hoped the late additions to the welcoming committee would have delayed us enough to keep Pompey waiting, but sadly we arrived just as Pompey’s ship passed the breakwater and lowered its sails.

I took this opportunity to pull Gabrielle aside and ask her to officially welcome Pompey.

I wanted the first face Pompey saw, as he stepped onto Greek soil, to be Gabrielle’s face. I was not above shoving his nose in the dung of his own incompetence and failure. Of course, I was not going to admit that to Gabrielle. I still had not told her about Pompey’s part in her kidnapping, nor was there any reason to tell her, not now – maybe never.

“Being greeted by the soon-to-be ‘Imperial Consort of the Empress of Greece’ is a great honour.”

“I’m not sure Pompey will see it that way,” Gabrielle countered.

“Well, he better get used to it,” I replied.

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and saw Pompey’s ship manoeuvring into its berth. She offered no further debate; she merely sighed, nodded her head ‘yes’, and took up her position next to Brutus for the obligatory Welcoming ceremony.

Once its lines were tied off, a ramp was lowered and there stood Pompey the so-called ‘Magnus’, dressed in some garishly ornate armour, looking every inch the peacock he was. Ten elite Praetorian Guards, all of them in similarly ornate dress uniforms, flanked him along the gunwale.

I marvelled at the arrogance of the man. Pompey must have assumed he could not be linked to Gabrielle’s kidnapping; otherwise, he would not have stepped foot in my capital city without an army.

Herald trumpeters played a fanfare to signal the beginning of the ceremony. My Imperial Palace Guards marched into position on the right side of the plank and snapped to attention. Pompey’s honour guard then filed down the gangway and formed up on the left side of the plank.

Pompey waited for his big entrance, and when the trumpeters played again, he strode down the gangway. As he stepped foot on the wharf, Pompey looked around rather disdainfully at the meagre crowd that had gathered, gave a forced smile, and waved.

I made a show of my disinterest in the whole affair by lounging against the carriage, casting the occasional glance out into the Gulf of Corinth.

Ambassador Brutus stepped forward to greet the Roman Emperor first. “Welcome to Greece, Your High—”

“Yes, yes.” Pompey dismissed his emissary as though swatting away an annoying fly.

Next it was Gabrielle’s turn to greet Rome’s Emperor. She stepped forward and greeted Pompey like a seasoned diplomat. “On behalf of Empress Xena and the people of Greece, welcome to Corinth, Emperor Pompey.”

I watched with a great deal of pride as my betrothed officially greeted the Roman Emperor, and I admit it gave me great satisfaction to see Pompey’s ego smart a bit.

“It’s not much of a welcome,” Pompey groused as he brushed past Gabrielle. Lila caught his eye and the corners of his mouth curled into a lascivious smirk. “Unless are you my welcoming gift?”

I heard a sharp intake of breath from Lila. It amused me to think Lila was about to tear a strip off this worm for insulting her, Roman Emperor or not.

Pompey ignored any reaction to his loutish behaviour and looked around the small gathering. “Where is the Empress?”

Pompey finally spotted me leaning against the carriage, feigning boredom.

“Ah, there you are.” He pushed past the wall of Amazons guarding their queen, who had remained in the carriage, and came over to me.

As he approached I stood to my full height, which immediately gave me an edge over Pompey, who was of average height for a man. “I have long awaited this day, Pompey.”

“So have I,” he said, “but I am insulted that you did not greet me yourself, as befitting such an important state affair.”

“That honour went to Gabrielle, who is about to become my consort.”

“Your what?”

“My consort,” I repeated. “In fact, you have just arrived in time to attend the wedding.”

It was obvious from Pompey’s shocked look that his intelligence gathering had failed him and news of my impending nuptials had not reached him.

Pompey gathered his wits. He deliberated glanced at Gabrielle, then back at me. “There is something I do not understand.”

I knew better than to ask, but I did anyway. “Oh, what is that?”

“Why purchase the cow when you are already getting the milk for free?” Pompey glanced at Gabrielle and smirked.

It took all my effort not to rise to his baiting, but, I was not going to give him the satisfaction of thinking he could provoke me.

We stood there staring each other down like two gladiators in the arena, waiting to see which one was going to blink first.

Pompey blinked first.

Eying the open carriage, he moved away from me and proceeded to insult the Amazon Queen.

He sidled up to where Terreis was seated. “Is it true you Amazons are as fierce in bed as you are in battle?”

Pompey’s swagger quickly ebbed when Ephiny jumped out of the carriage and held a dagger to his throat.

Ephiny said, “Now I don’t care if you are the Roman Emperor, no one insults the Queen of the Amazons and lives. Apologise, or die where you stand.”

The Amazon warrior ignored Gabrielle’s plea to put the dagger down and held her ground even as weapons were being drawn all around her.

Gabrielle looked to me beseechingly to do something, but I knew that an Amazon warrior would defend her queen’s honour no matter what. Besides, I was inclined to let Pompey sweat it a while. I had superior numbers, so it was not going to get out of hand.

The crowd held its collective breath to see which one was going to stand down first, the Amazon Nation or Rome. Again it was Pompey who backed down.

Pompey put his hands up, “My sincere apologies.”

He didn’t sound sincere, but it was enough to ease the tension.

“Where were we?” Pompey walked back towards his Praetorian Guards and Brutus as if nothing had happened. “Ah yes. I believe I am to have a parade through the city so the good citizens of Corinth can welcome me.”

Brutus opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again when he realised Pompey would not like what he was about to say. To Brutus’ relief, Gabrielle stepped in and explained that the wedding had been moved up to tomorrow, so the parade and banquet Pompey was expecting had been cancelled and a wedding reception was going to be held this evening instead.

Pompey could barely contain his outrage. “What?” the Emperor bellowed. “This is an affront to the Citizens of Rome to have their Emperor treated in such a manner!” Pompey’s face exploded in a burst of crimson indignation.

Secretly I enjoyed watching Pompey’s reaction to the news that our wedding was upstaging his welcome, though I recognised it was at Gabrielle’s expense. Still, she did a commendable job of trying to appease Pompey’s fragile ego.

“You misunderstand, Your Highness,” Gabrielle continued. “We meant no disrespect. Matters of State required we move the date of the wedding up. I am sure you understand.”

Pompey glared at me, but I offered no face-saving compromise.

Pompey was enough of a politician to know when to make the best of a losing situation. “Very well, I will go straight to the Embassy now, but I will expect Greece to accord Rome the proper courtesy when I arrive at the palace this evening.”

~~~~~

As the appointed time for the reception neared, I was sequestered in my changing chamber – a small room between the throne room and the council chamber that was my private sanctuary. Gabrielle joined me here so we could steal a few private moments together before the night was given over to public ceremony and celebration.

When Gabrielle entered the room, the first words out of her mouth were ‘You look amazing!’ Her reaction was so spontaneous it both pleased and amused me; however, I was the one captivated by how amazingly beautiful she looked.

Gabrielle wore an ivory white floor-length chiton, which was cinched at the waist with gold ribbon and one draped shoulder. In her hair, she wore a tiara of pale yellow daisies. By tomorrow, one bejewelled in precious stones would replace that crown of daisies, I thought. But not even precious gems could outshine the gold flecks in her green eyes that sparkled as she smiled at me.

“I have never seen you look more beautiful,” I said.

“I wasn’t fishing for compliments,” she replied.

“Gabrielle, even if you were wearing a horse-hair sack, you would still be beautiful.” I leaned in and gave her an admiring kiss.

As I continued to get ready, Gabrielle had an unusual request of me. She asked me not to bring my weapons to the reception.

When I asked her why, she said, “I just don’t think bringing weapons to a wedding sends the right message.”

“Weapons are the great leveller,” I pointed out. “If everyone is equally armed, then no one has the advantage.”

She implored me, and I conceded – agreeing to leave my weapons behind. After all, how could I deny her anything on our wedding day? I thought. Besides, no one would dare start trouble in a palace full of armed guards.

As I returned my weapons belt to the peg, we were interrupted by a knock on the door.

I cursed the ill-timed intrusion. It was Vidalis, the Protocol Minister, who needed to go over some necessary but irksome details about the reception: order of Announcements, when Iolaus should tell his story, when the marriage ceremony would take place, and the like.

I could not wait for him to leave. The reception would be starting soon, and Gabrielle and I had some unfinished business.

“I want you to close your eyes and hold out your hands.”

“Is this some form of prank?” Gabrielle asked warily.

“No,” I assured her. “Trust me.”

Gabrielle obeyed, and I gently placed a small leather pouch into her cupped hands.

“Open your eyes.”

Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked inside the bag. She immediately recognised its contents. It was the necklace I had given her that day we rode our horses to the top of the Acrocorinth.

At first she appeared puzzled, and then her eyes widened in recognition. She took it out and held it in her hand. “I thought I had lost it. Where did you find it?”

I struggled to find the words to answer her. I did not want to ruin the moment by explaining that I had received the necklace with a ransom note.

As if understanding my thoughts, Gabrielle returned her attention to the miniature sceptre on its chain. She moved to a nearby mirror and tried pinching the clasp to open it.

I had instructed the goldsmith to reinforce the clasp so it could not come off easily, but it also made it harder to open. I took the necklace from her. “Here, let me help you.”

Gabrielle tilted her head slightly to one side while I placed the necklace around her neck and closed the clasp.

“There.” We both admired how it looked on her. “I had the goldsmith shorten the chain. I want the world to see it and know that you are my consort.”

“I will cherish it and wear it proudly as your consort.”

I was pleased that this time Gabrielle seemed to genuinely like the necklace. Perhaps it was the deeper meaning it held for the two of us after all that had happened.

Gabrielle turned around – in her eyes an invitation. And this time I was not going to resist. I guided her lips to mine. Our eyes closed. Our lips met. I did not rush. I wanted to savour the soft contours of her mouth reverently, unhurriedly. I wanted her to feel all my love, my desire, and my promise of a lifetime together.

Tenderness soon gave way to deeper, more determined kisses. Our bodies pulled closer, our breathing more deliberate. All our pent up longing for each other was awakened and hungry.

“I wish…we didn’t…have…to go…just…yet.”

“Who says we do?” I whispered in a warm breathy tone.

“Our guests are already arriving,” Gabrielle protested unconvincingly.

“Let them wait.” My hand found its way beneath her dress and wandered up her bare leg, slowly but deliberately, seeking the treasure that for weeks had been deprived me. The closer I got, the more urgent my arousal.

Another few moments and I would have abandoned our guests for an hour or so, but another knock on the door banished the thought from my mind.

It was Brutus and Darnell and they did not come empty handed.

The flush on Gabrielle’s face did not escape Darnell’s keen observation. “Pardon our intrusion, but we have come on that urgent matter we had discussed this morning.”

“Ah, yes.” I glanced at Gabrielle, which she knew was her cue to leave. Her discretion was just one of the things I admired about her.

“If you will excuse me, Your Highness, General, Ambassador.”

I walked her to the door. We both reached for the door handle at the same time. I could still feel the heat between us, but that would have to wait. “We will continue this later.”

“I will hold you to it,” Gabrielle said knowingly.

I opened the door for her, but before Gabrielle left, she turned and politely reminded me to bring my Sceptre for the ceremony and Brutus and Darnell not to be late. She said, “We don’t want to further insult Emperor Pompey by not being there to greet him when he arrives for the reception.”

I mumbled something about Pompey getting the reception he so richly deserved as I watched Gabrielle leave my changing chamber and disappear into the throng of guests.

When I turned back to Darnell and Brutus who regarded me with beaming smiles.

With a menacing arched eyebrow, I asked, “What are you two smiling about?”

“You could not ask for a better consort than Gabrielle,” Brutus offered.

I glanced at the door through which she had just left. “Yes, the Fates have blessed me,” I replied.

“Yes, well, I am man enough to admit that I was wrong about her. Gabrielle is not your weakness; she is good for you,” Darnell said.

It pleased me to hear that my Chief Military Advisor finally understood what I have known all along.

“There is no better wedding gift than for you to tell Gabrielle that yourself.”

“I will.”

“Good.”

My changing chamber was the perfect place for the three of us to meet. The windowless room had thick stone walls, so I knew we would not be heard or disturbed. Still, I took no chances. I had us gather in the centre of the room, lest anyone was listening at the door.

“So tell me, what did you find?” I asked in a low voice.

Brutus took a scroll out from under his cloak and handed it to me. I unrolled it and read it.

The message was to Pompey from the Commanding General of the Persian Army. In it, Suren gives Pompey a dressing down for Pompey’s failure to raise the money he needed to hire a mercenary army. He agrees to send Pompey twenty-five thousand dinars. Suren brags about ‘conquering the Conqueror’ with Pompey’s help.

“Suren, I knew that Persian swine was behind all this.” I angrily waved the parchment at Darnell. “Have you read this?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” the General replied. “I cannot tell if Pompey is stupid or crazy.”

I re-read the message. “Suren has greater ambitions than I gave him credit for. Well he is going to regret that. Until now, my plans for Anatolia were merely political, but now they are personal.” I punctuated my ire by slamming the scroll down on the chest that stored my sceptre and crown.

“Our offensive lost some momentum with the kidnapping,” said Darnell. “And even if their plan wasn’t a complete success, Suren has bought himself some time to reinforce his defences.”

“He has bought himself a slow painful death, that is all. Nothing is going to stop me from crushing him and anyone that aligns themselves with him.”

“And I will be by your side when you do,” Darnell declared.

I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “No my friend, your place is with Brutus in Rome.”

I glanced at the Ambassador, who was smiling, and recalled the day I went to inspect the 1st Corinthian Army before it left for Anatolia. Brutus was at the camp with Darnell, wanting to discuss ‘the Roman Matter.’

“And something else for you to consider,” he said. “When I return to Rome, I’ll need an accomplished senior advisor— someone whom you and I can both trust. I thought General Darnell would be a very good candidate.”

Now I understood more fully why Brutus made that suggestion, and I could not fault him for wanting the person he loved by his side.

I turned to the Ambassador, and said with a serious tone, “Rome’s days as an empire in its own right are over. It is now part of my empire.” I got into his face and said menacingly, “You can oppose me and suffer the consequences.” Relaxing my posture, I continued, “or you can become Governor General of Rome and administer the territory for me. What say you?”

For a moment Brutus looked conflicted, but then he gave his answer. “Yes, Empress. I accept. But with all due respect, I am not sure the people of Rome will accept your rule quite so readily.”

“They will. The streets of Rome have become very dangerous of late – lots of thievery and lawlessness. Why it is unsafe for a Roman citizen to walk the streets.” I allowed a self-satisfied smile to curl my lips. “My agitators have seen to that. And with the crushing taxes Pompey has imposed to pay for his mercenary army, the citizens of Rome are ripe for change. With you installed as Governor General and the support of the Roman legions, the people will accept my rule.”

“Even so, there will be strong opposition from the Senate.”

“You are a smart man, Brutus. I am certain you can sell the idea to them. After all, you were a persuasive force in getting the Senate to assassinate Caesar.” And I persuaded you, I silently recalled.

I purposefully crossed to a side table and casually popped a grape into my mouth. “One conqueror is like another to those old buzzards. As long as they can keep their titles, their land… and their lives… they will accept me as their Empress.”

“What am I to do?” asked Darnell. “I am a soldier, not a politician.”

“Pompey was more than Emperor, he was supreme commander of the Roman Army. Brutus will take over the Emperor’s political duties, so you will take over command of the Roman legions loyal to Brutus, and bring the rest of the Roman Army under my banner.”

“And you trust me to administer Rome for you?” Brutus seemed somewhat suspicious.

“I trust Darnell and he trusts you.”

Darnell stood taller hearing my trust in him acknowledged.

“And like it or not, Brutus, you are not an ambitious man,” I said.

He stiffened like a bristly barb, but held back while I explained what I meant.

“If you wanted to rule as Emperor, you would not have come to Greece as Rome’s Ambassador. You would have killed Pompey yourself. You play by the rules.”

Brutus acknowledged the truth of what I said with a nod.

The sound of herald trumpets signalling the guests to take their seats could be heard through the closed door. I knew the next trumpet flourish would be to announce me. So I quickly unlocked the chest that held my sceptre and crown.

“So, what do you want to do about Pompey?” he asked.

“Say the word, and I will take a unit of soldiers and arrest the double-crossing bastard,” Darnell said.

“No,” I replied. “I do not want anything to spoil this evening for Gabrielle.” I handed the scroll back to Brutus. “Put this back where you found it. Let Pompey think he is above suspicion – for now. But rest assured, he will answer for his treachery when the time is ripe.”

~~~~~~~~
Chapter 9
~~~~~~~~

‘Yes’ – such a simple word.

My father said ‘yes’ when Perdicus asked for my hand in marriage. I had no say in the matter. Instead of looking forward to my wedding day as most maidens would, I was filled with doubt and frustration. For a dowry of a few sheep and a goat, I was being sentenced to a life of drudgery as a farmer’s wife, however agreeable Perdicus might have been.

This time it was I who said ‘yes’ when Xena asked me to become her consort. And there was no doubt over this marriage. I was living the life I was meant to live and marrying the person I was meant to love.

~~~~~

At the appointed time, the herald trumpets played a fanfare to mark the entrances of Empress Xena, Emperor Pompey, and Queen Terreis. When it was his time, Emperor Pompey entered the throne room and marched up the aisle to the front row of seats. Protocol would have normally had him seated to Xena’s right; however, that place of honour was reserved for Queen Terreis. And as the betrothed consort of the Empress, Vidalis made it clear that I was to sit to Xena’s immediate left from now on. So, when Pompey found me standing next to Xena, the tight-jawed Roman Emperor glared at me as if he were trying to melt ice. I took no heed of it and curtseyed respectfully. Finally he took the empty seat to my left, next to Ambassador Brutus, and a crisis of protocol was averted.

The trumpets sounded a third time and the Queen of the Amazon nation entered through the main doors, flanked by an escort of Amazon warriors, all wearing their ceremonial masks and clad in a treasure trove of Amazon finery: colourful feathers, beads, shells and fine tooled leather wrapped skirts and tops. They were the embodiment of Artemis, their patron goddess: sensually feminine and fearsomely strong. The throne room echoed with the low whispers of Corinth’s social elite, many who had never seen an Amazon before this night.

As soon as Queen Terreis, Ephiny, and the other Amazons found their seats, Xena made a move to sit down. Everyone in the hall, including Pompey, followed the Empress’ lead and settled into their seats.

A hush fell over the room and I suddenly felt a little queasy. I shouldn’t have pinched that fig and goat cheese tart from the refreshment table, I silently chided. But it wasn’t just the fig tart. A vision of a white-tailed eagle falling dead at my feet had filled my mind’s eye; this ability to tap into the realm of the gods was more curse than gift. I tried to shake off the feeling of dread that soured my stomach.

Thinking it was a touch of stage fright, Xena leaned over and whispered, “Remember? It is just like learning to ride a horse.”

I chuckled inwardly when I recalled the last time she gave me that same advice. It was the first day of the treaty negotiations, and I remembered having that same knot in my stomach. “Yeah, I know, show them who is boss,” I replied.

I rose from my seat and climbed the steps of the dais. Xena’s throne had been removed from the raised platform for this evening, and in its place stood a wooden table. On it were two pristine white quills, two inkwells, and two copies of the treaty, opened and ready to sign.

I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. “On behalf of Empress Xena and myself, we thank you all for coming on such short notice. I then gestured towards Rome’s Emperor. “And we especially want to thank Emperor Pompey for so graciously foregoing an official welcoming banquet so we may gather tonight to celebrate our wedding.”

Pompey grudgingly acknowledged the applause.

“Before we start the festivities, we have some official business to conduct. I am pleased to announce that there has been an agreement struck between the Empress of Greece and the Queen of the Amazons for mutual security and friendship. If I could have Empress Xena and Queen Terreis join me on the dais, we will now witness the signing of the treaty.”

Xena took Terries’ arm and helped the Queen up the few steps. The two heads of state took their positions behind the table, each holding the symbol of their power and authority: for Xena it was her Sceptre; for Terreis the Queen’s Mask. Solemnly, they placed the objects on the table in front of them for all to see.

Briefly I explained the general provisions of the treaty to the audience and that the Queen of the Amazons was to sign first.

Terreis came forward and picked up the quill. Just as Terreis was about to make her mark on the parchment, however, Ephiny jumped up and disrupted the proceedings.

“Wait, don’t sign that treaty!”

“Ephiny, the treaty has already been approved.” I exclaimed. “Why are you objecting now?”

From where she stood, the blonde haired warrior made clear her objection. “Queen Terreis has no authority to sign that treaty, because when she was injured she gave me her Right of Caste and made me Regent.”

N’Gila, who was seated next to Ephiny, rose and addressed us directly. “What Ephiny says is true. According to Amazon Law if the Queen is incapable of carrying out her duties, she can name another to act as Regent. The Regent will have all the rights and privileges of the leader of the Amazons until such time as the Queen is able and willing to resume her duties, at which time the Regent must relinquish her authority.”

While N’Gila was explaining Amazon Law, Queen Terreis made her way down the steps, with the aid of Eponin, who along with the other Amazon warriors, had closed ranks around Ephiny. Once Terreis had steady footing on the marble floor, Eponin stepped back and joined her sisters, leaving the Queen and the Regent to face each other. In the meantime, guests in the first few rows got up and moved off to give the Amazons more room, while Xena and I remained on the dais.

Ever the responsible older sibling, I instinctively looked for my sister, who had been sitting in the second row behind my seat. Thankfully Galates had ushered Lila out of harms’ way and they were standing near the Council chambers doors. Emperor Pompey too stood off to the side with Brutus and Darnell. He seemed bored by it all.

Once the room settled, the shamaness continued. “If the Regent chooses not to relinquish her authority, she has the right to issue a Royal Challenge. The Queen must accept a Royal Challenge.”

“A Royal challenge is fight to the death,” N’Gila added.

Gasps rose up from the assemblage.

“To the death?” I cried. “Xena, do something!”

“This is an Amazon matter. I cannot interfere,” Xena replied dispassionately.

N’Gila spoke again. “Ephiny, do you claim the right to challenge Queen Terreis for the Queen’s Mask?”

Without uttering a word, Ephiny unsheathed her sword. The sight of a drawn weapon had all the guests abandoning their seats and retreating to a relatively safe distance in the event fighting broke out.

There in the centre of it all stood Terreis, every inch the queen that she was, composedly waiting for Ephiny to declare her intentions. In contrast, I watched with my breath held and my heart beating in my chest – fearing for my friend Terreis who was about to face a third battle to the death in as many weeks. It would not be a fair fight because Terreis is not strong enough, I thought, and if Xena is not going to do anything, then it’s up to me to stop it before someone got hurt.

Just as I was about to protest, Ephiny offered her sword to her Queen and said, “I choose to relinquish the Regency and return your Right of Caste,” Ephiny began. “You bestowed both honours upon me in a time of crisis. I gladly return both to you now, and pledge my allegiance and my love for you, My Queen.”

I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and I was elated to hear Ephiny declare her love for Terreis.

“Did Ephiny just say ‘love’?” Xena whispered to me.

“Yes! Shhh.” I hushed her.

Terreis placed her right hand on top of Ephiny’s sword. “Ephiny, you have the gratitude of the Amazon Nation and its Queen.” But then Terreis did something quite unexpected. She pushed the blade back towards Ephiny and said, “However, I cannot accept your resignation as Regent.”

“What?” Ephiny was taken aback at Terreis’ refusal.

Terreis smiled at Ephiny and explained. “I cannot accept it, because I want you to keep my Right of Caste. I love you, and if you will have me, I want us to be joined. Will you consider and consent to be my consort?”

“Terreis, do you know what you’re saying?” Ephiny asked disbelievingly.

Terreis took Ephiny’s sword from her hand and returned it to its scabbard, and then she took that same hand and held it. “Yes, I do Ephiny. I have loved you for so long and you loved me too – once. And if any of this has taught us anything it is when two people are fated to be together, they shouldn’t let regrets and obligations rule their hearts. What breaks my heart is I almost died without letting you know how I feel. And I don’t want to waste another moment—”

“And neither do we,” Xena interjected. “So, what is your answer, Ephiny?”

“Yes! Oh, Terreis, that is all I have ever wanted and dared not hope.” Ephiny and Terreis shared a spontaneous kiss.

The audience started applauding – all except Emperor Pompey.

“So who is signing this thing?” Xena said.

“She is!” Terreis and Ephiny replied in unison.

And with that, Queen Terreis and her consort-to-be returned to the dais and signed the treaty.

Then Xena stepped forward and put her mark on the two parchments. Once the ink dried, she rolled them up and affixed her imperial seal.

“Now, with that bit of official business concluded,” Xena said, “We can get on with the festivities.”

By this time, Vidalis had joined us on the dais. “Indeed, Your Highness, he replied, “as soon as this is cleared away.” The Protocol Minister explained to the guests, “‘The Festivities will begin with a story from the renowned Bard, Iolaus, after which there will be a period for refreshment, and the evening will end with the marriage ceremony itself.” He took possession of the signed treaties, as well as the Sceptre and Queen’s Mask, and went to secure everything in Xena’s changing chamber. The only thing left on the table when Vidalis had finished was a large glass of crystal clear water.

Xena, Terreis, and Ephiny took their seats again while I welcomed Iolaus onto the dais. Vidalis met me at the bottom of the steps. With a nod, he let me know that everything had been securely locked in Xena’s wardrobe and then discreetly returned the key to me, which I slipped into the folds of my dress for safekeeping.

While I got settled in my seat, Iolaus made an effort to tame his curly blond hair and smoothe out his blue tunic. He looked out at the audience, smiled warmly and began his story.

“I sing a story about friendship and love,” he said in a voice that was clear and melodious.

“It is a story about a brave warrior woman who in her youth had led her village against a petty warlord and won, but for her efforts she was an outcast in the very village she had defended. Alone and bitter, she herself became a merciless warlord: fighting for fighting’s sake, revelling to see the fear and despair in the faces of innocent people whose villages she had pillaged and destroyed.”

“Does this warlord have a name?” someone called out.

Iolaus paused thoughtfully and looked directly at the Empress. “Her name was Lysia.” He focussed his attention back to the audience and continued.

“One day, Lysia met a great hero called Hercules – a man like no other. Born of a mortal woman, but fathered by Zeus, King of the Gods, Hercules possessed a strength the world had never seen, a strength surpassed only by the power of his heart…”

Xena leaned towards me and whispered, “If this Lysia falls in love with Hercules I am going to puke.”

I gave her a nudge to be quiet.

“…Hercules was intent on stopping Lysia and her army from raiding any more villages, preferably by reasoning with her, but he was prepared to stop her by force if it came to that. The warlord Lysia learned of Hercules’ plans, and she set out to defeat Hercules by tricking his best friend, whose name coincidently is ‘Iolaus’, into killing Hercules himself.”

“Yeah, what a coincidence,” Galates observed teasingly.

Iolaus glanced down at him and winked.

“Lysia seduced Iolaus and convinced him to turn against Hercules. At Lysia’s urging, Iolaus challenged Hercules to a fight to the death. And her evil plan almost worked.

“However, Lysia had not counted on the one thing she could not control: the love between Hercules and Iolaus. It was a love born of friendship. A love forged from years of comradeship in battle. It was a love that could not be broken by the treachery of one who did not understand such a bond. In the end, Iolaus and Hercules realised they should never allow a woman to come between them.

“Her plan thwarted, Lysia ordered her soldiers to kill them both, but however well-trained her army was, they were no match for the demi-god Hercules and his friend Iolaus.

“Defeated, Lysia jumped on her horse and fled with the remnants of her army, shouting, ‘You haven’t heard the last me, Hercules!'”

Iolaus delivered this line with his fist in the air.

“Lysia soon continued her campaign of death and destruction in the Parthian province. Yet something had happened. Her encounter with Hercules and Iolaus had tempered Lysia’s aggression. She no longer rampaged from one village to the next. She planned carefully. She issued warnings in the hope that villages would surrender before fighting. She ordered women and children to be spared.

“But don’t for one moment forget she was still a bloodthirsty warlord. Hercules had deflected her destiny, but it was to take more than that to change Lysia. It would take betrayal.

“To Lysia it was a simple act. An innocent baby posed no threat, so she stopped one of her soldiers from killing it. To her lieutenant, Kamaros, it was an act of weakness. Kamaros was hungry for power and had long harboured thoughts of leading Lysia’s army himself, but did not have the strength to defeat her in combat. He sowed the seeds of mutiny among the army, and when he had the support of the men, he ousted Lysia. She was forced to leave her army the only way a warrior could…”

He paused for dramatic effect.

“The Gauntlet.”

A low murmur filled the throne room.

“Ah, I see by the looks on most of your faces you know what that is. For those that do not, it is just another name for an execution. The disgraced leader must walk without weapon and armour between two lines of soldiers… armed soldiers.

“But this is a joyous occasion, so I will not spoil it with a detailed description of Lysia’s brutal experience. Suffice it to say that against all odds, she survived. Her anger at Kamaros’ betrayal and her near super-human strength got her through.”

Iolaus took a sip of water.

“The Gauntlet had put Lysia on the path of right. She directed her anger into defeating Kamaros, but for that she needed help. And that help came from an unexpected source: Hercules and Iolaus.

“With their help, Lysia defeated Kamaros. She saw her former army disbanded, and the world was made a little safer.

“When Hercules and Lysia parted, she vowed to make amends for her past, to walk the warrior’s path like Hercules, to fight for those that could not fight for themselves, to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves.

“Hercules had taught Lysia about fighting for the greater good, and together Hercules and Iolaus had taught Lysia the meaning of friendship and love. However, the true meaning of friendship and love would only come to her later, when Lysia came to the aid of another young woman who bravely stood up to a warlord for her village.”

Iolaus fixed his gaze on me and smiled.

“Her name was Deianeira.

“To the rest of the world, Deianeira seemed an unlikely hero; she was better with a quill than a sword. However, Lysia looked into the heart and soul of this tenacious and headstrong girl and saw the bravest, most courageous person she had ever met, including Hercules. Deianeira was someone who put others before herself with no thought of her own safety, simply because it was the right thing to do.

“Deianeira joined Lysia in her travels, and together the Warrior and the Bard travelled throughout Greece fighting for the greater good – helping the weak, the poor, and the downtrodden fight against evil and oppression. In Deianeira, Lysia had found a travelling companion, a friend, a kindred spirit. She had found the true meaning of friendship and love, and Lysia knew she didn’t have to walk the warrior’s path alone.”

When he had finished, I jumped to my feet and joined others in giving Iolaus a standing ovation. Xena seemed less enthusiastic about the “evil warlord” part, but I thought his story had just the right balance of drama, action, and romance – everything an epic tale should have. It was the perfect start to the evening’s celebration.

“Shall we go over and congratulate Iolaus?” I asked Xena.

Frown lines suddenly appeared on her brow. I thought it was because of my suggestion, but it was something – or I should say, someone else.

“I need to have a word with you,” Pompey said to Xena. It was plain to see he was very agitated.

“I am afraid it will have to wait,” Xena replied. “Gabrielle and I were just about to congratulate Iolaus on his captivating story.”

“Not even married yet and already brought to heel, eh Xena?” Pompey mocked.

It didn’t take an oracle to realise there must be some bad blood between Xena and Pompey, because there had been an undertow of antagonism running beneath the surface of their conversations ever since he had arrived. But I couldn’t explain his antagonism towards me.

With a politician’s practised smile, Emperor Pompey said, “Congratulations, my dear. You have finally achieved the pinnacle of ambition. You must be pleased.” His meaning was subtle, yet transparent.

“If by ‘pinnacle’, you mean I am about to marry the person I love, then yes I am very pleased,” I replied cordially.

“Well, I hope you are up to the job. Xena’s appetite for ‘conquest’ is insatiable. I should know.”

Xena bristled and wanted to say something.
“Please, Xena. Don’t let him have the satisfaction of spoiling the mood of our special evening.”

“You are right,” she replied.

Xena maintained her piercing glare in Pompey’s direction, and I, too, was engrossed in watching Pompey being guided by Brutus to a patrician from Corinth’s aristocracy who wanted to meet Rome’s Emperor and then to the Egyptian Ambassador.

“Shall we?” I prompted her.

“Hmm?” That brought her attention back to me, if only briefly. “Shall we what?”

“Go and congratulate Iolaus on a marvellous story,” I replied.

She looked past me again and said, “You go ahead. I need a drink first.”

And with that, Xena was gone.

~~~~~

Iolaus was surrounded by a small group of guests who were offering their congratulations. I waited patiently until the crowd drifted away, leaving only Lila and Galates.

“Didn’t I tell you he was wonderful?” Lila gushed.

“Yes,” I answered my sister brightly.

“Truly wonderful,” I said to Iolaus. “You really made your hero, Hercules, come to life. I especially liked how Hercules helped Lysia see that there was another way – the way of Love.”

“Thanks,” Iolaus replied. His cheeks, already flush from his dynamic performance, blushed even more from my compliment.

“Interesting that you would choose to name one of your characters, ‘Iolaus’. Perhaps Lieutenant Commander Galates is right, and Hercules is your ‘taller’ alter ego,” I joked.

We all chuckled except for Iolaus. The usually cheerful bard seemed almost melancholy.

I patted the blond man’s arm sympathetically. “Perhaps you can tell me more about Hercules.”

“Yes, I’d like to, in fact—”

Iolaus abruptly stopped talking and looked past me. I turned around to find a commanding figure looming over me.

“You and I need to have a chat – in private,” said General Darnell, his tone ominous, his eyes fixed, and his jaw squared. It was a look I had seen on his face before every war of words, so I prepared myself for another argument about the Civilian Protection Force, and what Larrius was not doing to the General’s liking.

“Do you mind?” Lila pushed herself between General Darnell and me. “This is an important night for my sister. She doesn’t need to concern herself with business this evening.”

“Young lady, do you know who I am?” the General asked in a haughty tone.

Unimpressed, Lila replied, “I know who you are General, and you are not going to bother my sister on her wedding day.”

“Gabrielle, tell this…” Darnell caught himself. “Please explain to ‘your sister’ that I am the Empress’ Chief Military Advisor, and I can speak with you anytime I like.”

“Gabrielle, please tell ‘the General’ that unless the palace is under attack, whatever he has to say can wait until tomorrow.”

Even as a child, Lila was outspoken and fearless and it got her into trouble more often than not. And while it amused me to see my little sister standing up for me, I could tell by the gritting of his teeth that Darnell was about to lose his patience.

I stepped around my sister to keep the two of them from coming to blows. “Lieutenant Commander Galates, would you be so kind as to introduce my sister and Iolaus to some of the other guests. I will join you presently.”

After watching my sister and Galates walking away arm in arm like two lovebirds, I turned my attention to the General. It struck me that Darnell was a fine figure of a man – tall and ruggedly handsome – yet, to my knowledge had no special someone in his life. Guess he’s married to his career, I thought.

The General showed me to a bench in a quiet corner of the room behind the dais, and we sat down.

“So, General what did you want to talk to me about?”

“Before you are wed to the Empress, there are a few things I want to get straight between us, so there is no misunderstanding as to where I stand.”

I wasn’t going to wait for the verbal volley from my chief adversary and critic. “I think I know what you’re going to say, General, and I—”

“No, I don’t think you do,” he interjected.

“Oh? You mean you weren’t about to tell me that I’m just a jumped-up scribe, a pretender, not worthy of the Empress?”

“No, on the contrary.”

“Huh?” I did not see that coming.

He chuckled at my reaction. “Gabrielle, I wanted to take a moment to admit that I was wrong and you were right – about a great many things.”

“You were? I was?” I was dumbfounded.

“Yes, and I am man enough to admit it. To begin with, you were right about the treaty with the Amazons. They are brave and honourable warriors, and I would be proud to fight alongside them in battle.”

I was a little embarrassed about getting the wrong end of the stick – an honest mistake considering Darnell’s past opinion of me.

“I also wanted to tell you that I was wrong about you as well,” he continued. “I have known the Empress, Xena, for a great many years. I probably knew her better than anyone else, except maybe Braextus.”

There was a long silence as we both thought of poor Braextus. He was a likeable man with a good sense of humour and a hearty appetite for life. I would not have wished him dead, despite his part in what happened to Lila.

Darnell cleared his throat, breaking the awful silence. “As I was saying, the Empress and I go back a long way, and I thought I knew her better than anyone else. And when you came into camp, I could tell right away you were going to be trouble.”

“Who me? How so?”

“Because I saw how she would look at you. I thought she would just bed you and be done with you…” He stopped and apologised. “Forgive me, I—”

“That’s all right, General.”

“Please, call me Darnell.”

That was going to take some getting used to, I thought.

“That’s all right, ‘Darnell’. I don’t blame for you thinking that. I know Xena’s reputation.”

“As I was saying,” Darnell continued. “You weren’t just a physical distraction. To be honest, I saw you as a threat.”

“Me a threat? A threat to what?”

“To her destiny.” Darnell shifted his position, which allowed his sword to hang at his side more freely.

“For as long as I had known the Empress and served beside her, there were three things of which I was certain: one, she could drink me under the table; two, she could kill a man a hundred different ways; and three she was destined to rule the world.”

“How did that make me a threat?”

“I thought your crazy ideas—”

“Like the Amazon Treaty,” I interjected.

“Yes, like the Amazon Treaty, the Civil Protection Force, inviting villagers to stay in the palace after an earthquake – I saw them as a huge distraction. I saw you as a huge distraction. The Empress was too busy ‘falling in love’ and worrying about you than she was about the Persians or the Romans or conspirators right under her nose. She was losing her focus, her edge.”

“Is that what you wanted to tell me – that you think Xena is making a huge mistake by marrying me?”

“No – in fact, quite the opposite,” he replied soberly.

My face must’ve clearly registered my confusion.

“Okay,” Darnell confessed, “at first I thought she was making a huge mistake, I admit. However, it is I who made the mistake in thinking you were anything short of the best thing that ever happened to her. You two were made for each other.”

“I-I don’t know what to say. I’m speechless, and you know how rare that is for me!” We both chuckled at that. “Can I ask you why—why the sudden change?”

“Let us say that I understand now what it means to love someone,” the General replied.

“You do? I didn’t know you were seeing someone.”

“You mean, the Empress did not tell you?” Now Darnell was the one with the confused look.

“No, she didn’t say a word to me about it,” I confirmed.

“Oh. Well…uh,” he stammered. He paused. “Can I trust your discretion?”

“Of course,” I replied.

“I am indeed in love. It happened so suddenly. There was this instant spark – an unmistakeable attraction. At first, I thought it would just be a physical thing, but before I knew it, I was in love.”

“So tell me. Who is it?”

“Brutus.”

My jaw dropped open. “You mean the Ambassador from Rome Brutus, that Brutus?”

“Yes.”

I wanted to throw my arms around him and squeal with delight at the news, but I didn’t want to draw attention to us. I simply smiled and said, “I am happy for you.”

Darnell thanked me, and then he stood up and straightened out his uniform. I took my cue from him and stood as well.

“Now, I have taken up enough of your time. I do not want to be the cause of you being absent from the reception.”

He leaned forward and gave me a peck on the cheek. “I truly do wish you and Xena much happiness.”

“And I wish you and Brutus the same.”

~~~~~

As soon as Darnell and I returned to the reception, I looked for Xena. No one was more skilled at diplomacy than Xena, and no one was better at evasion either. Every time I looked for her, she was off in another corner of the room, maintaining her distance from Rome’s Emperor. Unfortunately, that meant she and I spent a good part of the evening apart – not the way I had hoped our wedding reception would go.

I wish this cat and mouse game between the two of them would end, I thought. I let out an audible sigh.

“Why the heavy sigh?”

I looked to see who had asked. It was Terreis, and with her was her newly betrothed, Ephiny.

I gestured towards the air by my side. “I haven’t spoken more than a few words with Xena all evening.”

They regarded me sympathetically but offered no verbal salve that would make me feel better.

“Never mind. How are you two doing?” I asked, changing the subject. “Have you set a date yet?”

“No,” Terreis said, “but when we do, please say you and the Empress will come to our joining ceremony.”

“Of course!” I said. “We would be honoured.”

“Yeah,” Ephiny added, “You better practise your dancing before then.”

We all laughed at the memory of the Amazon Feast and my clumsy attempt at dancing.

That is when Iolaus came towards us, his manner seemed anxious, distracted. Queen Terreis and Ephiny diplomatically drifted away, leaving Iolaus and me alone to talk.

“Iolaus, is something the matter?”

“You said if there was anything you could ever do, I had but to ask.”

“Yes, and I meant it,” I replied.

“Good,” he said furtively, “because I need your help. Is there somewhere more private that we can go to talk?”

“How about over there?” I pointed towards the secluded alcove the General and I had just occupied.

I took a seat on the bench and gestured to the empty space next to me.

Iolaus sat, but almost immediately jumped up and started pacing.

“Gabrielle, I have not been completely honest with you about who I am, where I come from, and why I am here.”

“Oh I see,” I said warily

He stopped pacing. “Please, let me explain.”

I gave him permission; I owed him that much at least.

Iolaus took a calming breath before speaking. “What I’m about to say might sound a little crazy… okay, it will sound a lot crazy, but I swear it’s all true.”

“What’s all true?”

“The story I just told – well, it wasn’t a story. It really happened.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Hercules, Lysia, and Deianeira – all of that is true… except the names. ‘Lysia’ is really Xena and ‘Deianeira’ is really you.”

His wild assertions were confounding. “You’re right, it sounds a lot crazy.”

“I know, but please, please hear me out,” he pleaded. “How can I explain?”

I suggested he start at the beginning, but Iolaus wasn’t listening. He closed his eyes, spread his arms, and made little circling motions with his hands, as if he was trying to organise what he was going to say.

“Wait! I’ve got it. You’re a writer…”

“Well, I like to write, but I’m no bard,” I replied.

“The ‘Gabrielle’ I know is.”

Before I could ask what he meant by that, he was offering me a convoluted explanation.

“Imagine you are writing a story with a cast of characters, but when you finish it, you think there’s something wrong – something’s missing. So you rewrite it. The same story, only this time you add another character in chapter two. Your old characters interact with the new one and the whole story changes because of this new character. Are you following me?”

“So far.”

“Great!” He ploughed on. “So you get one story with two different endings. Right? And the same would happen if you went back and took a character out: the story would change; the ending would be different. That’s what happened to… to…” He gestured around the room again. “All of this. To life: your life and Xena’s life and your sister’s life and everyone. A character has been removed from history and now everything has changed.”

“Which character?” I asked thinking this was madness and I shouldn’t be encouraging him.

“Hercules.”

“Hercules? I don’t understand. Hercules, the hero in your stories, was taken out of the story?”

“No. What I mean is Hercules is real. He exists – or did exist, but now he is gone and everything is different.”

“Hercules is a real person?”

“Yes. Hercules is my best friend, or was – he has been erased from history.”

He sounded like a madman or at least someone not in their right mind, but it wasn’t wine that dulled his humour or addled his brain. He was as sober as I was, or at least he seemed so. In either case I was going to play along with him until I found out what he wanted. “How can—”

He interrupted. “You’re going ask ‘how can this be possible?'”

I nodded.

He sat down next to me and calmly explained. “There is this evil goddess named Callisto, and she went back in time to kill Hercules’ mother, Alcmene, so that he wouldn’t be born. I was sent to stop her. Only I failed. The God Ares has given me a second chance to come back to this alternate reality and fix it.”

“Iolaus, it’s clear you believe the story you are telling me now, about evil goddesses and Sons of Zeus, but I don’t see what this has to do with me.”

“I need your help to stop Callisto and save Hercules!”

“How? How can I help?”

“I need—”

“There you are!”

Lila and Lieutenant Commander Galates came around the large marble column that had offered Iolaus and me some seclusion. To be honest, I welcomed the interruption. I needed some time to digest the improbable tale Iolaus was trying to tell me.

Iolaus stood and came on the other side of me. “Please, say nothing of what we were talking about – to anyone,” he whispered to me.

“We were beginning to wonder what happened to you,” my sister gently chided.

I answered Lila as I got to my feet. “Oh, Iolaus and I were just getting to know each other a bit better.”

“I think my sister has done enough talking for now,” Lila said. She turned to Galates.

“Why don’t the two of you go fetch us some wine? This is supposed to be a celebration.”

Iolaus gave me a pleading look, and before he left, I whispered an assurance to him that we would continue our talk soon.

My sister watched until the handsome Lieutenant Commander disappeared into the throng around the refreshment table, and then stood in front of me with her arms folded. “What did General Darnell want that was so important it couldn’t wait until tomorrow, after the ceremony?”

“Have you been keeping an eye on me the whole night?” I asked.

“Well, I am the maid of honour, and it’s my job to keep an eye on you,” she said with authority. “So what did he want?”

I certainly wasn’t going to discuss the details of my conversation with Darnell. Instead, I offered Lila the briefest of explanations. “The General wanted to wish the Empress and me much happiness.”

She gave me a suspicious look and then asked me what Iolaus and I were doing in the same secluded alcove.

“Oh, he was telling me another story about Hercules,” I replied enigmatically.

My sister’s whole demeanour changed, and she sat down next to me. “He makes Hercules almost come to life, doesn’t he? Lila gushed.

“Yes. Iolaus even had me almost believing that Hercules was real.”

Galates and Iolaus returned from the refreshment table holding our drinks and a plate of delicacies.

“Here, have something to eat,” Galates offered.

I put my hand up. “No thank you. I’m not hungry.”

“Nonsense, when was the last time you ate?” my sister asked.

“I don’t know. Breakfast I guess. No wait – I had some goat cheese and fig thing a little while ago.”

“That’s not proper nutrition,” Lila said, trying to sound like our mother when we tried to pinch a piece of nutbread before supper.

I looked more closely at the offerings she held out for me to taste. “What are they?” I asked.

Lila sniffed the plate. “Don’t know. They smell a bit fishy.”

“They’re crab balls,” Galates offered.

“A very rare delicacy,” said Iolaus. The blond man took one of the morsels off the plate and popped it into his mouth. “You only get two per crab.”

My sister and I chuckled at Iolaus’ clever inference to a male crab’s genitalia. Unfortunately for Galates, he was just taking a drink of wine and couldn’t contain his laughter. He snorted wine all down his front.

“Oh, Galates!” cried Lila around her laughter. “Look at you.” She tried brushing the liquid off his tunic. “We should put some water on that before it stains.”

Suddenly Galates’ eyes went wide and he snapped to attention.

“At ease, Commander.” It was the Empress. “Do you mind telling me what is so funny?” Xena’s left eyebrow arched, and she looked like she was in no mood for levity.

“Crab balls, Your Highness,” he replied.

Xena’s eyebrow arched even higher. “Crab balls, Commander?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” he said gaily, “you see, I was just telling everyone that crab balls are a delicacy and Iolaus said—.”

Iolaus pointed to the sizable breaded balls on the plate. “You only get two per crab.”

Try as the four of us might to stifle our laughter, it erupted forth like an active volcano. “Hahaha!”

Not even Xena could stifle a chuckle.

“Gabrielle, I need a moment,” she said, giving the others a look.

Everyone took it as their cue to give us some space.

I smiled at her, thinking she wanted to have a few moments with me before the marriage ceremony. I told her that Vidalis was almost finished setting up.

Xena didn’t return the smile; instead she told me that we needed to delay the marriage ceremony for ‘just a bit’.

I became concerned. “Is everything all right?”

Xena rolled her eyes and said, “It seems I cannot put off speaking with Pompey any longer.”

“Oh.” My disappointment was audible. “What is going on between you and Pompey anyway? You invited him to come to Greece and yet since he arrived, you have been doing everything you can to avoid talking with him. I don’t understand.”

Xena put her hand on my shoulder. “It is nothing for you to worry about.”

She may have been trying to spare me the details of their political intrigue, but it sounded like she was patronising me again, and I didn’t like it. “Meaning it is something to worry about – you just don’t want to share it with me.”

“No, that is not it. I just do not want anything to spoil the evening for us.”

I realised then that I had pushed as far as I could and I was not going to get a satisfactory answer, so it was better dropped – for now.

“Well, don’t let him keep you too long. It won’t be much of a wedding without the other bride,” I said.

Xena allowed a slight grin and kissed me on the cheek. “I promise.”

Xena crossed the room and followed Pompey out into the hallway, leaving a sea courtiers bowing behind her like a ship leaving a wake behind its rudder.

I was so preoccupied I didn’t notice that Iolaus had come up beside me and filled the empty space Xena had just occupied.

“I am running out of time,” he whispered. “We need to finish our talk now.”

Since Xena was off talking with Pompey, I knew there was no better time.

“All right.” I looked around the room at all the guests and said, “We had better find some place where we won’t be disturbed.”

This was not a conversation that could happen in so public a place as a reception. The alcove won’t do, I thought. It might have offered seclusion but not privacy. Then I remembered that I still had the key to Xena’s changing chamber tucked inside the waist of my dress.

“Follow me,” I said to him, and I led him to where I knew we would not be disturbed.

~~~~~

Once we were behind a closed door, Iolaus became anxious.

“Will you help me?”

“You haven’t told me what kind of help you need,” I replied.

“I need you to help me steal Xena’s Sceptre.”

I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. “Can you say that again? I thought you said you wanted me to help you ‘steal Xena’s Sceptre’.”

“Yes, I did,” he said earnestly. “I need your help to steal the Sceptre.”

“Why do you need to steal the Sceptre? Is it the money?”

“No!” he exclaimed.

“Then what could you possibly want with it, if not money?”

“It’s not the Sceptre I want, it’s the stone.”

“That ugly green stone? Why?”

“It’s hard to explain,” Iolaus replied. He began to pace. “I told you about Callisto, that she went back in time to kill Hercules’ mother so that he wouldn’t be born, and I was sent to stop her. Only I failed. But I’ve been given a second chance to come back to this alternate reality and retrieve the Kronos Stone.”

“The Kronos Stone?”

“Yes, the green jewel that sits atop the Sceptre. That’s the Kronos Stone.”

“I’ve heard stories, but that’s all they are. It’s not real.”

“It is real. And I need it to save my friend – to save the world.”

“If you take the stone,” I began slowly as I tried to make sense of his fantastic story. “You’ll use it to save Hercules.”

“Yes. The Kronos Stone will give me the ability to go back in time and stop the ‘warlord Xena’ from killing Callisto’s family and Callisto from killing Alcmene, Hercules’ mother, so Hercules will be born and things will go back to the way they were – the way they’re supposed to be.”

“Let me get this straight. You want me to help you steal Xena’s Sceptre so you can take the stone and use it to go back in time so Hercules will be born and history will be rewritten.”

“Yes. Only history has already been rewritten. This is the rewrite. I need to restore the original.”

“And when you do, this version of history will cease to exist. Is that right?”

Iolaus lowered his head and said nothing.

“What makes your so-called ‘original’ history better than this one?” I challenged him.

His lifted his head sharply. “Because it has Hercules in it. And any world with Hercules in it is better than one without him. If you knew him you’d know that. Which you do of course.”

“Do what?”

“Know Hercules.”

“And Xena? You’re telling me that Xena was—is an ‘evil warlord’ until Hercules somehow convinces her to give all that up and instead travel around Greece fighting for the greater good?”

“Yes, that’s right. In the ‘original history’, Xena becomes this… this ‘Warrior Princess’, a hero.”

“And I’m Xena’s sidekick in this reality of yours?”

“Yes. You’re best friends. You travel together. I told you, the story was about you and Xena.”

“Best friends? But only friends?”

Iolaus blushed. “I know that she loves you and you love her. But, it’s not the same love as you share here.” He gave a little laugh. “I mean you did get married to some guy called Perdicus after you met Xena.”

“I married Perdicus? Was I drugged?”

“No, you loved him. At least I think you did.”

Something in the way he said it sounded strange. “Wait, you said Xena and I travel together. So where does Perdicus fit into this? And you said ‘loved’, past tense.”

“Well, uh…” Iolaus hesitated. “Perdicus died – the day after you got married. I’m sorry.”

“Died?”

“Killed, actually – by Callisto.”

Iolaus said the name as though it had meaning to me. “Why would a goddess want to kill Perdicus?” I asked.

“It’s a long story,” he replied.

“And it better be a good one,” I admonished him.

“Callisto was just a normal teenage girl until Xena’s army raided her village. Xena’s men torched the village, and all of Callisto’s family were killed. She blamed Xena for the loss of her home, her family, and her innocence. She swore vengeance. Consumed by hatred, Callisto spent years training to be as good a fighter as Xena.

“By the time Callisto was ready to face Xena, the Warrior Princess had turned to fighting for good. But that didn’t matter to Callisto. She wanted Xena to suffer the pain that she had felt. Callisto killed Perdicus to make you suffer because you were best friends with Xena, and if you were suffering, then so would Xena.

“There was a final showdown between Xena and Callisto, and Xena killed Callisto. That should have been the end, but the Goddess Hera sent Callisto to kill Hercules with the promise that if she succeeded then Hera would give her the gift of immortality.”

“Wait a minute. Are you now saying that if I help you, and you succeed, I’ll be killing Perdicus?” I might not love him, but I wouldn’t wish him dead, I thought.

Suddenly the weight of it all struck me like a felled tree, and I could hardly breathe. “How many others?” I whispered. “How many more people will die if I help you? How many will I kill?”

“Gabrielle, you are not killing them. In my reality – the true reality, they are already dead. They were meant to die, but for the meddling actions of some vengeful gods that changed the timeline. Many more innocent lives will be saved. If sacrificing myself, or even sacrificing Hercules meant doing so for the greater good I would do it. ‘The Gabrielle’ that I know would.”

“But I’m not ‘the Gabrielle’ that you know!” I snapped. “I’m me. I’m not her.”

I realised I was almost starting to believe the madness he was spouting.

“I can’t. I’m sorry. You may be right and all this wasn’t meant to be. But it is real now. I can’t destroy it. I won’t betray Xena.”

“The Xena in my reality would understand. She would want you to help me.”

“No,” I protested, “I can’t listen to this right now.”

“Please,” Iolaus begged. “If you love Xena, you will help me. Without Hercules, Xena will not be saved.”

“Saved from what?”

“Saved from becoming a monster who only lives to destroy. She’s a killer, Gabrielle. She’s someone who would take a life for the most trivial of reasons.”

“That is not the Xena I know,” I protested. “She is an Empress; she’s not a monster.”

“I knew the evil Xena and I know the good Xena, and I am telling you, the Xena you know may not be crucifying innocent people right now, but it’s only a matter of time.”

“I think you better leave,” I said and pointed to the door.

Iolaus didn’t move. “Gabrielle, I know it must be hard to hear, but look deep into your heart and ask yourself is the Xena you know capable of killing without remorse, of going to any lengths to get what she craves most – power?”

I wanted to vehemently deny it, but I remembered back to her conquest of Thessalia and the boy who was captured with a letter and a map of Larissa. There wasn’t a shred of mercy or remorse when she had him executed as a spy. But Xena was not the same person she was then… or was she?

“In my reality it’s your love and friendship that keeps Xena on the path of the hero warrior. But it was Hercules who put her on that path to begin with. Without Hercules, many more people will die and Xena will not be redeemed. It is only a matter of time before ‘Empress’ Xena is no different to the ‘Warlord’ Xena in my reality.”

I still didn’t comprehend all that Iolaus was saying, but he had said enough to give me pause. “Before I’d agree to help you, I must know how many.”

“How many?” Iolaus shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

“You said Perdicus is dead in your reality. How many more will die if I help you?”

“I don’t know how many—”

“You must have some idea? Lila! What about Lila?”

“Gab—”

“Tell me!” I surprised even myself with the firmness of my plea.

“Lila is alive and well.”

“Galates?”

“I don’t know. I have never met him in my reality.”

“What about Queen Terreis?”

“Gabrielle, please. This won’t help.”

“I need to know who I’m sacrificing for the ‘greater good’.”

He hung his head. “Terreis is dead.”

“Oh,” I replied sadly. “Did I know her at all?”

“Yes, you and Xena met Terreis while passing through Amazon Territory. In fact, you tried to save her life when the warlord Krykus’ men attacked,” Iolaus offered. “Before she died, Terreis gave you her Right of Caste. You became Queen of the Amazons.”

“I became Queen? What about Ephiny?”

“She’s alive.”

“She must hate me because Terreis is dead and I am Queen.”

“On the contrary. She’s a good friend of yours. You made her Regent in your absence so you could continue travelling with Xena.”

“Mmm. And Darnell? Are you going to tell me I’m good friends with him too?”

“No. You met him once, I believe. From what you wrote in one of your scrolls, I think he had some grudging respect for you but was too stubborn to admit it.”

“That sounds familiar,” I muttered. “What am I saying? This is stupid. None of what you say can be real.”

“No, it is all this that isn’t real!” Iolaus gestured impatiently. He took a moment to calm his frustration. “There must be something I can tell you to prove that what I’m saying is true?” The blond haired storyteller wracked his brain for some way of convincing me.

I was about to call an end to this insane conversation, when Iolaus slapped the front of his forehead. “Yes!” he exclaimed. “Six! Six toes! You had six toes on your right foot when you were born! How could I know that if I didn’t know you in the real history?”

My jaw dropped open. “How could you know that?”

“I told you, I know you.”

“I wouldn’t tell you about that.”

“You did.”

“I haven’t told anyone; not even Lila knows that.”

This was impossible, I thought. Only my mother and grandmother knew I had been born with six toes. I wouldn’t even have known about it except I noticed a tiny scar on my right foot when I was eight years old. My mother warned me never to say a word to anyone about it lest I be branded a freak and cast out of the village. I had never told another living soul, not even Xena, so how could Iolaus have known that unless I told him in this other reality of his?

Iolaus went on to explain. “In the real history, you did. Of course, I was dying at the time. Hercules and Xena were trying to save Prometheus while you stayed behind to care for me. You’ve got to believe me!”

My head hung in resignation. “I believe you.”

“Great! So where does she keep the Sceptre?” Iolaus surveyed the room.

“Whoa, slow down. I need some time. I need to think.”

“No, there’s no time to waste!” He quickly apologised. “I’m sorry, but I am running out of time. I have to get the Kronos Stone and use it to save Hercules’ mother before the portal closes, which could be at any time.”

“Then you will have my answer shortly.”

~~~~~

I returned to find that the reception had turned into a gladiatorial street brawl. Guests were crammed into the hallway trying to get a better view of something going on in the courtyard. It was impossible to see over the heads of all the people, but I could hear the unmistakeable clashing of swords and angry grunting. I pushed my way through the crowd. It was Xena and Pompey.

I called out to her, but that was a mistake. It distracted Xena just long enough for Pompey to land a hard punch to her chin.

They brandished words as sharply as they brandished swords. At least I got them to stop fighting each other, if only for a moment, and then the fighting continued.

As the sound of metal striking metal echoed off the courtyard walls, I made my way over to where Darnell, Brutus, Lila, Galates, Iolaus, Terreis, and Ephiny were standing together, across from the carp pond.

“What happened? How did it start?” I asked the group of them.

Galates spoke up. “I am not clear on what started the fight. All I know is, I saw Emperor Pompey leave the reception and head towards the interior gardens. The Empress followed the Emperor outside, and then General Darnell followed Empress Xena, so I followed him. Before I knew it, swords were drawn.”

Ephiny was nearby. “All I know is if she doesn’t kill him, I will!”

“Why? What has Pompey done?” I asked.

“He is behind your kidnapping and the attack on Terreis,” Ephiny angrily replied.

“What?” I turned to Darnell. “General is this true?”

The General looked uncomfortable. “Yes.”

His answer took me aback. “But I thought Darphus was responsible for the kidnapping.”

“Your kidnapping was part of a larger conspiracy,” General Darnell replied.

“Did the Empress just find this out? Is that what started the fight?”

The fact that Darnell didn’t look me in the eye told me what I needed to know. “How long has she known?”

The General didn’t respond.

“How long? A day? A week? Did she know when she left for Larissa?”

Brutus offered an explanation in Darnell’s stead. “We were only able to confirm today that the conspiracy reached all the way to Pompey.”

Before I could get any further explanation from Brutus and Darnell, our attention was drawn back towards the combatants. Pompey looked all power and aggression; Xena by comparison was fluid and almost delicate in her movements. Neither one seemed to have the advantage. Then after another brief exchange of words, Xena struck with all her might, which had the Roman Emperor scrambling just to block.

It looked as though Xena had him cornered, but Pompey recovered and battled his way back to centre. After a few parries, Pompey lunged at Xena’s chest, the blade catching Xena’s ribs, drawing blood.

Suddenly, I had another vision – this time of Xena lying mortally wounded on the cobblestones.

“Stop this. Stop this now before someone gets seriously hurt!” I started towards her.

“Stay where you are, Gabrielle,” Xena yelled back.

Pompey mocked Xena and insulted me, which just added fuel to Xena’s rage.

Xena went after Pompey with a punishing volley of cuts and thrusts that had Pompey scrambling to block. She pressed her advantage with several downward cuts. Pompey kept his sword up to block but he was quickly losing strength.

With an almost feral delight, Xena drove Pompey to his knees. Once there, Xena was able to disarm him with one swoop of her blade. Pompey’s eyes followed his sword as it skittered across the stones.

He wasn’t prepared for Xena’s kick to his chest. I was close enough to hear the painful exhalation exploding from his lungs as he flew across the courtyard.

Guests scattered as Pompey landed in the carp pond with a tremendous splash. Xena did a leaping somersault and landed just in front of the drenched Roman Emperor as he stumbled out of the pond holding his ribs.

Xena wasn’t going to give him any chance to steady himself. “Hi-yah!” The heel of her right hand caught him under the jaw and sent him sprawling back into the water.

She twirled the sword above her head and grasped the hilt in both hands. Pompey’s hand came up to shield his face as Xena brought the sword down with all her might and fury.

“Xena, don’t!” I cried out.

Only Xena’s exceptional reflexes stayed the very tip of the sword from piercing Pompey’s heart.

“Please! Xena, please don’t do this.”

She turned and glared at me with fierce, almost blood-red eyes. I had seen that look before in Xena’s eyes, more like a ferocious beast than the magnificent woman I knew and loved. Still I wanted to prove to Iolaus that my Xena – us – our timeline was worthy of preserving.

With a deep breath for courage, I stepped into the lion’s lair to try and reason with her. “I know he has a lot to answer for, but not this way. Vengeance is not justice. Even he deserves a fair trial before judgement is passed.”

For what seemed an age, Xena stood motionless – not even to wipe the sweat from her brow.

“Please, Xena. For me.”

That got through to the part of Xena that I knew and loved.

Xena finally lowered her sword and started walking away from the beaten emperor. I thought it was all over when General Darnell called for Pompey’s arrest, but Pompey could not leave well enough alone.

As he raised himself out of the pond, Pompey called after Xena with one last insult. “You could’ve ruled the world with Caesar, but you prefer to be ruled by this wench who should be making a living on her bac—.”

Before he could finish, Xena had wheeled around, bringing her sword back as she turned, and in one fluid motion sliced through Pompey’s neck, severing his head in one clean cut.

There was a collective gasp from the crowd as Pompey’s head hit the ground and rolled away, coming to rest under some flowering shrub near the carp pond. No one moved a muscle or made a sound while we watched the grisly scene unfolding before us.

Xena bent down and wiped the blood-drenched sword clean with Pompey’s cloak. “No more living for you,” she growled.

Without even a downward glance, Xena stepped over the twitching corpse and handed the weapon to Darnell. “Your sword, General.”

The General took his sword and called for someone to come and remove the body.

I was in shock. In all my time with Xena, I had never witnessed her kill a man with such cold precision and walk away so casually. It made me question if she even had a soul, because she showed not even the slightest hint of pity for the man she had just cut down.

Just then a low tenor voice whispered in my ear.

“Is this the life you really want – to be the consort of a cutthroat conqueror?”

I turned to find Iolaus standing behind me.

“Or would you rather be the travelling companion and soulmate of ‘Xena Warrior Princess’?” he asked.

That’s when the words of the seer came back to me. She said that I was fated to help a great warrior. What if the seer was talking about this other Xena and Gabrielle? I thought. What if Iolaus was right? What if Xena and I go off and have adventures and do good deeds but are just friends in this other reality? Could I live with that? Could I turn my back on this life with Xena, betray her on our wedding day?

Iolaus continued his campaigning. “Pompey is just another in a line of corpses that stretches all the way to Thrace. How many more thousands will have to die in her quest to rule the world? You can stop the cycle of violence and hatred.”

“All right,” I whispered glumly.

“Does that mean you’ll help me?”

“Yes.”

Who knew such a simple word would have such considerable consequences?

~~~~~~~~
Chapter 10
~~~~~~~~

Years ago, my travels took me to the far off land of Chin where I met a woman who was as wise as she was beautiful. Her name was Lao Ma. From Lao Ma, I learned many skills in the art of war and the ways of the courtesan. But her greatest lesson was how to harness the power of one’s Life Force – called ‘Qi’ – and all I had to do was stop willing, stop desiring, stop hating. Easier said than done, because I was too wild, too angry – too vengeful to serve what I hated.

If only I had learned to master ‘The Way’, as Lao Ma called her philosophy. If I had learned to quiet my mind and empty it of all thought, then I could destroy my enemies with a feather as easily as a sword, for it is in that space between thoughts where real power exists.

~~~~~

The word had gone out to my senior advisors and government ministers, military commanders of high rank, the elite of Corinth’s upper class, and foreign ambassadors that their attendance was required at a reception to celebrate my nuptials. The only ones who were exempt from attending were provincial governors, because there was not enough time for them to make the journey.

When the guests were all assembled in the throne room, I stepped out of the changing chamber and took my place at the front of the room next to Gabrielle.

Ever the showman, Pompey had arrived fashionably late. It pleased me to see the displeasure on his face when Queen Terreis was heralded into the throne room last, as was the custom for the guest of honour.

When Terreis and her entourage were in their places, Gabrielle took the dais to officiate the treaty signing ceremony. She began by thanking everyone for coming, making a point of thanking Rome’s Emperor for ‘so graciously’ foregoing an official welcoming banquet.

I stifled the urge to ‘Ha!’ out loud at ‘graciously’, because Pompey was anything but gracious.

Gabrielle continued. “If I could have Empress Xena and Queen Terreis join me on the dais, we will now witness the signing of the treaty.”

The Amazon Queen and I took our positions on the dais and waited while Gabrielle read a brief summary of the general provisions of the treaty. Then it was time to sign.

As Terreis came forward and picked up the quill, Ephiny jumped out of her seat and stopped the proceedings.

“When she was injured,” Ephiny asserted, “Queen Terreis gave me her Right of Caste and made me her Regent. She no longer has the authority to sign that treaty.”

The Amazon healer, N’Gila, came forward and confirmed what the Amazon Regent was saying – that under Amazon Law Ephiny had the right to contest Terreis’ authority and to issue a Royal Challenge.

“A Royal Challenge is a fight to the death,” N’Gila added.

Gabrielle implored me to do something, but that was impossible. I knew enough about Amazon Law to know that once a Royal Challenge had been made, the combatants were duty bound to see it to its deadly conclusion.

“This is an Amazon matter. I cannot interfere,” I told her. This was not exactly true. I could have offered to stand as Terreis’ champion and fight in her stead, but I had a feeling it would not come to that.

N’Gila spoke again. “Ephiny, do you claim the right to challenge Queen Terreis for the Queen’s Mask?”

The Regent drew her weapon, but instead of issuing a ‘Royal Challenge’, Ephiny stated her intention to relinquish the Regency and Terreis’ Right of Caste.

“You bestowed both honours upon me in a time of crisis,” the Amazon Warrior said as she presented her sword. “I gladly return both to you now, and pledge my allegiance and my love for you, My Queen.”

“Did Ephiny just say ‘love’?” I asked Gabrielle in a loud whisper.

Gabrielle was beaming as she hushed me.

The Amazon Queen held her hand up, rejecting Ephiny’s sword. “I cannot accept your resignation as Regent.”

Clearly Ephiny was not expecting Terreis’ refusal.

“I cannot accept it,” Terreis continued with a smile, “because I want you to keep my Right of Caste. I love you, and if you will have me, I want us to be joined. Will you consider and consent to be my consort?”

“Terreis, do you know what you’re saying?”

“Yes, I do Ephiny.” Terreis took the sword from the warrior’s hand, returned it to its scabbard, and offered an explanation. “I have loved you for so long. And if any of this has taught me anything, it is when two people are fated to be together, they shouldn’t let regrets and obligations rule their hearts. What breaks my heart is I almost died without letting you know how I feel. And I don’t want to waste another moment—”

“And neither do we,” I said. “So, what is your answer, Ephiny?”

“Yes! Oh, Terreis, that is all I have ever wanted and dared not hope.”

The audience applauded as Ephiny and Terreis shared a spontaneous kiss.

Both Terreis and Ephiny stepped up to the table and signed the treaty, and then I signed.

“Now, with that bit of official business concluded,” I said, “We can get on with the festivities.”

~~~~~

With the treaty signing ceremony concluded, Iolaus took the stage to tell his story.

“I sing a story of friendship and love.”

Gabrielle squeezed my hand and smiled. I caught Pompey sneering out of the corner of my eye, but I ignored him and settled back to enjoy another of Iolaus’ epic tales.

“It is a story about a brave warrior woman who in her youth had led her village against a petty warlord and won, but for her efforts she was an outcast in the very village she had defended. Alone and bitter, she herself became a merciless warlord: fighting for fighting’s sake, revelling to see the fear and despair in the faces of innocent people whose villages she had pillaged and conquered.”

So far I did not care for the story. It sounded like Iolaus was describing a younger version of me. When someone asked the name of this ‘wild child’, Iolaus directed his gaze at me and said, ‘Lysia’ as though the name held some meaning for me – which it did not.

“One day,” Iolaus continued. “Lysia met a great hero named Hercules…”

I only half listened to Iolaus’ tale; instead I thought about spiders. A spider is a cunning predator, I mused. She does not go out to hunt her prey. She spins her web in the branches of a tree or in the corner of the stable door and waits patiently for her prey to come to her – to become entangled in the deadly threads, struggle, and die. It amused me to think that Pompey had no clue he was caught in my web.

I became more attentive when Iolaus introduced another character, a village girl called ‘Deianeira’. I found myself engaged in the story and wanted to hear what happened to Lysia and Deianeira.

“Deianeira joined Lysia in her travels, and together the Warrior Princess and the Bard travelled throughout Greece fighting for the greater good – helping the weak, the poor, and the downtrodden defend themselves against evil and oppression. In Deianeira, Lysia had found a travelling companion, a friend, a kindred spirit. She had found the true meaning of friendship and love, and Lysia knew she didn’t have to walk the warrior’s path alone.”

Gabrielle rose to her feet and applauded enthusiastically when the story ended. I stood and offered polite applause.

“Didn’t you like Iolaus’ story?” Gabrielle asked me.

“It was interesting,” I replied, “but for me the story hit a little too close to the mark when he spoke about Lysia, the ‘evil warlord’.”

“Oh, but didn’t you like the part where Lysia met Deianeira, and together they travelled all over Greece fighting for the greater good? In the end, Lysia became a hero – just like Hercules!”

I smiled. “Good point.”

Still, there was something about this bard’s story that I did not like. It seemed a little too personal, a little too familiar, which set off my intuitive alarms. Must I see conspiracy at every turn? I wondered. The answer that came back was ‘yes’.

~~~~~

Before Iolaus had finished taking his final bow, Pompey was on his feet, determined to corner me and demand an explanation.

Without even acknowledging Gabrielle’s presence, Pompey said, “I need to have a word with you – alone.”

I was just as determined to avoid speaking to him. I was not sure I could stop myself from putting the Pinch on him, and then standing back to watch as he struggled against the blood supply being cut off from his brain. It was not a painless death, but it was over in thirty seconds. He would not suffer nearly as much as he deserved to suffer. Tomorrow, I promise you, I thought, but not tonight. I wanted nothing to spoil this evening.

“I am afraid it will have to wait. Gabrielle and I were just about to go over and congratulate Iolaus.”

“Not even married yet and already brought to heal, eh Xena?” Pompey mocked.

I ignored his obvious attempt at poking me with a verbal stick. Rome’s Emperor was undeterred and tried a different tack: he turned towards Gabrielle and smiled like a cat that had cornered a mouse.

“I must offer my congratulations, my dear. You have finally achieved the pinnacle of ambition. You must be pleased.”

“If by ‘pinnacle’ you mean I am about to marry the person I love, then yes I am very pleased.”

Pompey maintained a smile, but it was most definitely forced. “Well, I hope you are up to the job. Xena’s appetite for ‘conquest’ is insatiable. I should know.”

After that shot, the Roman Emperor glided away like a warship sailing out of range of fixed cannons.

“Why that arrogant bastard,” I muttered. “He will apologise to you for that insult or by the gods he will pay.”

“Please, Xena. Don’t let him have the satisfaction of spoiling the mood of our special evening.”

“You are right.” I gave her a kiss on the cheek.

My eyes remained fixed on the back of Pompey’s head, as Brutus introduced his emperor to the Egyptian Ambassador. Too bad I was not there to hear Pompey extol his friendship with the Egyptians, I thought. Egypt was no friend of Rome; however, they will be mortal enemies come tomorrow, when I make public Pompey’s alliance with the Persians.

“Shall we?” Gabrielle asked.

“Shall we… what?”

“Go and congratulate Iolaus on a marvellous story.”

I really was not in the mood for small talk, so I begged off. Instead I went to get a glass of wine and find a quiet corner to have a moment to myself.

Gabrielle met up with Iolaus, her sister Lila, and Lieutenant Commander Galates. They stood beside a column adorned with candles and flowers and festive ribbon. The scene reminded me of Solstice Eve at home with my mother and brothers, in particular a Solstice Eve when I was eight.

My mother was seated at the table cutting vegetables for the Solstice dinner. My brothers and I were sitting on the floor laughing and playing with our gifts. I heard my mother push away the stool, and I noticed her slip quietly outside. After a couple of minutes I followed her to see what she was up to. I found her outside sitting on a log in the garden. She was crying.

“Mother, what’s wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing, little one,” she replied, as she dabbed a tear away. “I’m just being silly. I always get like this at Solstice, birthdays, and wedding celebrations.”

“Why?”

“I’m just so happy that everyone is enjoying themselves and it makes me a bit weepy. It’s a silly thing. Nothing to worry about.”

I suddenly found myself getting a little misty-eyed. Maybe it was hereditary.

The sound of footsteps coming up behind me banished all evidence of sentimentality. The footsteps did not belong to a friend.

“Ave, Pompey,” I said without turning around.

“Are you planning on avoiding me all night?”

Do not flatter yourself, I thought. “Avoid you? No. It is just that I have had other, more urgent priorities. It is my wedding after all.”

“You are not the only one with ‘urgent priorities’, but I honoured my commitment to come to Corinth – at your invitation, I might add.”

“Yes, you did. And I assure you that after tonight, you will have my full attention.” I stopped a servant carrying a tray of finger food and selected a tasty-looking morsel.

“Do try one,” I said. “I highly recommend this one in particular. It is made with shaved truffles – delicious.”

He selected one and popped it in his mouth. He seemed to like the taste of it.

“Had I been informed of your wedding ahead of time,” he said, “I would have brought truffles from Gaul. They are quite a delicacy.”

I forced a slight smile. “Perhaps, but Roman boars are careless when reaping the rewards.”

Pompey was reaching for another bite of food, but he suddenly let the morsel fall back onto the tray.

“All right, Xena. I tire of your games. I insist we talk – now – or I will leave this farce of a reception and Corinth immediately.”

At that point I realised that I could put it off no longer. I could not allow him to leave Corinth.

“Very well. Since you insist. I need to inform Gabrielle that the marriage ceremony will have to be delayed while you and I have a chat. Meet me near the carp pond in the inner courtyard gardens. I will be right there.”

“Oh, no! I was not born yesterday. I will wait right here.”

“Suit yourself,” I replied and left him standing there.

I found Gabrielle once again in the company of Lila, Galates, and Iolaus and they seemed very amused by something. Galates saw me approach and came to attention. I knew Pompey was impatiently waiting for me to return, but my curiosity was piqued. I asked Galates what was so funny.

In a soldierly tone, he said, “Crab balls, Your Highness.”

“Crab balls, Commander?”

While the others tried to hold in their laughter, Galates explained. “…I was just telling everyone that crab balls are a delicacy and Iolaus said—”

“You only get two per crab,” Iolaus offered.

They all erupted in laughter to hear the joke again, and I must admit, I found it amusing as well. But, I was not there to socialise.

“Gabrielle, I need a moment,” I said.

The others gave us some space.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “I think Vidalis is almost finished setting up the wedding altar.”

“We will have to delay the marriage ceremony just a bit.”

“Is everything all right?”

“It seems I cannot put off speaking with Pompey any longer.”

Gabrielle was understandably disappointed. She wanted to know what was going on between Pompey and me, but I told her it was nothing for her to worry about.

“Meaning it is something to worry about – you just don’t want to share it with me.”

“No, that is not it,” I tried to explain. “Some minor dispute that he insists must be settled now.”

Gabrielle regarded me warily. “Well, don’t let him keep you too long. It won’t be much of a wedding without the other bride,” she replied.

That earned a kiss and a promise that I would not be long. And one way or another, that was a promise I intended to keep.

~~~~~

I led the way to the centre of the inner courtyard gardens where Pompey and I could have a frank conversation without disrupting the festivities going on inside.

“No more excuses,” he began. “I want to know what is going on.”

“Is it not obvious?”

A puzzled look creased Pompey’s brow.

“My wedding.”

“That is not what I meant. You have gone out of your way to snub me at every opportunity since I arrived, and I demand to know why.”

“You tell me,” I replied cryptically.

“I am sure I do not know,” The Roman Emperor replied.

This was not the time and place I had planned to confront Pompey, but sometimes a girl just has to go with the moment. “Oh, I think you do.”

Pompey stared at me blankly, waiting for me to enlighten him. I was content to let him wriggle on the end of the hook.

In the meantime, Galates, and then Brutus and Darnell had come looking for us.

“No! No more interruptions. No more evasions,” Pompey said. “Send them away.”

I think not, I said to myself. It was good to have witnesses to what was about to be said.

“Gentlemen, please… remain.”

Pompey looked decidedly annoyed but gave no further objection. How could he after that?

“Now, where were we? Oh yes. You seem to be under the impression that I have been avoiding you. I wonder why that could be?” I struck a contemplative pose, with my head tilted and my finger tapping my temple. “Let me think.”

I lowered my hand and squared my shoulders. This was the moment. “Could it be because you are raising a mercenary army?”

Pompey blinked and his false smile got wider. “Mercenary army? That is ridiculous. Why would I want to raise a mercenary army?”

“Oh, my mistake. You wanted the money to get Gabrielle and me a wedding gift then.”

“Money? What money?”

“Allow me to refresh your memory,” I offered. “A fifty thousand dinar ransom demand can buy a lot of mercenaries.”

Pompey tried to maintain a look of surprise, but beads of sweat were forming on his forehead.

“And do not waste your breath denying it. I know it was you who was behind the plot to kidnap Gabrielle for ransom. Braextus confessed everything to me before he killed himself.”

Any pretence of innocence had vanished; Pompey knew the game was up. He drew his sword and took a step back.

I reached for my sword and cursed. At Gabrielle’s request I had left my weapons behind in my changing chamber.

Pompey laughed as he realised he was armed and I was not. “No weapon? Whose idea was that, Xena – the little woman?”

He lunged forward, but I had plenty of time to avoid his attack.

He whirled around and slashed at me – first right then left then right – in rapid succession. I managed to avoid the blade as it whistled past my ears.

“You play the ‘injured party’ here Xena, but you brought it all on yourself.”

“Oh, how so?” Now it was my turn to feign innocence.

“You are guilty of sedition and of conspiracy to overthrow the lawful government of Rome, namely its leader – me. Did you think your plots would go unanswered?”

“I did not think you were that smart.”

I am Pompey Magnus, Emperor of Rome – not some puppet that dances to your tune!”

He took another swipe at me, but I anticipated him and he completely missed, piercing a flowering bush instead.

I looked down at his groin. “More like Pompey, the ‘Mediocre’.”

“I am more man than you can handle – obviously,” he countered. He punctuated each word with a short jabbing thrust.

I backed up to stay clear of his sword point until my legs bumped against a short wall and I could go no further.

Pompey saw this and thought he had the advantage. I sidestepped his lunge, grabbed his arm, and used his momentum to launch him into the carp pond. As Pompey stood up and started to make his way out of the water, Darnell appeared by my side – his weapon drawn.

“General, it looks like the pleasure of killing Pompey will not be yours.”

I held my open palm out, and Darnell handed me his weapon.

“But it will be by your sword.”

~~~~~

Soon after the confrontation between Pompey and myself became heated, a growing throng of guests congregated around us in the courtyard. I had not intended to upset the reception, but I could not worry about that now. I had to focus on the task at hand – beating Pompey.

Pompey fought like he screwed: hard and fast and in short spurts. I knew if I kept coming at him from different directions with no discernable pattern, it would frustrate and tire him. So I kept moving around, deflecting his thrusts, switching sword hands, parrying behind my back just to show him up.

My strategy was working and I managed to keep him off balance. Still, Pompey was strong and fierce, and dangerous when provoked. So I could not let up on him or let down my guard.

Midway through the fight, when neither one of us could claim the advantage, I heard Lao Ma’s voice speak to me:

‘To conquer others is to wield power…to conquer ourselves is to know The Way.’

Sorry Lao Ma, I thought, but in the world I lived in, it is ‘conquer or be conquered’ – no time to meditate or contemplate ‘The Way’. I had to bring all my skill, all my wits – all my rage to defeat Pompey.

Suddenly I heard a familiar voice calling out to me from the crowd, but this was no spirit from my past. It was Gabrielle, and for a split second I was distracted, allowing Pompey to get in a punishing blow to my chin with his fist.

“Not now, Gabrielle,” I yelled as I struggled to keep my feet.

“What happened, Xena? Is your preference for pussy making you lose your edge?” Pompey taunted me.

“You are the only one who is losing, Pompey… losing your life!” I countered.

“If I’m dying here, you’re dying first,” he boasted.

We attacked each other again, and our swords clashed and locked. Neither one was gaining an advantage by shoving against the other, so it was time to try a verbal jab or two.

“You really think you can beat me? You are deluded,” I said disdainfully.

“I am deluded? You are the one who wants to rule the world.”

“That is not delusion, just ambition.”

I pushed him away to break us apart and went on the offensive. He was skilled, I will give him that, but I had him at a tactical disadvantage as I slowly manoeuvred him towards a large potted fig tree. He was cornered.

Pompey tried to feint to his left and gain the open ground, but I did not take the bait. He was forced to stand and muscle his way back to the centre. He lunged at my ribs. I managed to deflect his attack, but not before his blade cut below my shoulder guards. It had sliced across the unprotected part of my upper arm. I glanced at the wound. It bled, but it was not too serious.

My sword answered with multiple strikes to his left side below the waist, causing him to shift to a backhand parry to protect his legs. That allowed me a chance to come across and cut his left arm in the same area as he had mine – only I was more precise and his wound deeper.

Again, Gabrielle cried out, “Stop this. Stop this now before someone gets seriously hurt!”

She started taking a step towards me.

“Stay where you are, Gabrielle!”

“Yes, ‘stay where you are Gabrielle’. You should know your ‘position’,” Pompey sneered.

I was enraged. He can mock me, but he had crossed the line when he insulted my betrothed in front of our guests. He was going to pay for that.

“Ahh!” I yelled and charged him. He tried backing away but the crowd encircling us prevented any withdrawal.

Relentlessly, my sword came down. All he could do was block. It was as if with each blow I was driving him into the earth like a fence post.

Finally Pompey faltered, and his sword fell from his hand. I kicked out, hitting him in the chest and sending him again into the carp pond with a violent splash.

I tired of this game. It was time to end it.

“Aiyah!” I somersaulted into the air and came down at the water’s edge, well-within striking distance of Pompey.

Pompey looked up at me with that condescending smirk – as though he had won. And in a way he had won; he had beaten me at my own game. Pompey knew it and I knew it.

And that is why he had to die. But it was not enough just to kill him. I wanted to cut out his heart and feed it to him for what he had done to me and mine.

At that moment the din of the crowd was muted, and all I could hear was the thumping of my heart as it strained to pump blood to my arms. The blood lust had full control; only a kill could satisfy me now.

I inhaled, twirled the sword into the downward thrust position, and brought it down with all my might and muscle.

Suddenly the noise in the courtyard became audible, but indistinct, and then I heard a voice scream, “Xena, don’t!”

Gabrielle bravely moved beyond the crowd and drew closer.

I could have pretended not to hear her and run him through, but Gabrielle’s plaintive cry tore at my gut. My hand stopped short just before the blade tip punctured his neck.

“I know he has a lot to answer for, but not this way,” Gabrielle said with a calmness that was not evident in her eyes.

Gabrielle was right; a swift killing blow was too good for him. He deserved to suffer and scream and beg like a pathetic dog yelping not to be beaten.

“Please, Xena. For me.”

Her appeal cut me deeper than any blade could. More so than her words, it was her soulful expression that cut through my justifiable rage. My mind flashed back to the Amazon camp when Gabrielle made a similar plea to spare Terreis’ life. I died a little that day thinking I had lost Gabrielle’s love for the sake of pride. Did I want to tempt fate again? I thought.

Then I recalled something she had once said while drifting off to sleep in my arms, and suddenly, it was as if nothing else in the world mattered: there were no guests, no palace, and no cowering Roman in the carp pond – just Gabrielle and me.

“Can’t you see? My world is you, your world is me.”

My lust for revenge ebbed and I lowered the sword. “For you,” I whispered.

General Darnell stepped forward and called for Pompey’s arrest. Ambassador Brutus offered Pompey his hand, but Pompey waved off any help and pulled himself out of the water.

Instead of accepting his defeat, Pompey could not resist taking a stab at me with one final insult. “You could’ve ruled the world with Caesar…” he began.

I knew it was a desperate attempt at saving face. I should have ignored him and walked away, however one should never turn their back on a beaten dog – they can still bite.

“…But you prefer to be ruled by a wench who should be making a living on her bac—”

His lips mouthed the end of the word as his head flew off his shoulders.

He never saw it coming. I dispatched him with the speed and precision I had learned from the eastern katana masters. No wasted motion: one cut, one kill. It was over before he could blink. I lowered my sword as the rest of his body crumpled to the ground. Even to the last, Pompey underestimated me – a mistake he shared with Caesar, to their ruin.

A twinge of regret gave me pause – not for killing him, but for the way in which I did. In Chin and Japa, beheading an enemy was a sign of respect and honour. Pompey deserved neither.

“No more living for you,” I cursed and spat on his corpse.

As a final display of contempt, I bent down and wiped the blood off the sword with Pompey’s cloak and handed it back to Darnell.

“Your sword, General.”

~~~~~

Having been drawn into the courtyard to watch my fight with Pompey, the guests quickly dispersed once Pompey was dead. The only ones remaining in the courtyard were Gabrielle and Lila, Galates, Iolaus, Brutus and Darnell, and Queen Terreis and Ephiny. Amazon warriors had taken up defensive positions around the group while Palace Guards fanned out to protect the perimeter.

The reception was decidedly over.

Just as well, because time was of the essence. I had to act quickly to put my plans in place before the news of Pompey’s demise reached Rome. However, there were personal matters I could not ignore.

Gabrielle was with her sister Lila, who was bent over some shrubs relieving her stomach of its contents.

“Sorry, you had to see all that,” I offered.

“Thank you,” Lila replied weakly. “I’m just not used to all that blood.” Lila looked almost as ghostly white as Pompey’s corpse.

“Iolaus, will you take my sister inside and get her some water?”

Iolaus nodded and guided Lila back inside.

I could plainly see Gabrielle was very upset by the way things had turned out, but her first thoughts were of me. I wish I could have said the same.

“Your arm. You’ve been injured.”

I glanced down at my bleeding bicep. I had been so focussed in the moment I never noticed the pain. Now that it was over, my arm was beginning to smart.

“Let me see that wound.”

She tugged at my sleeve to get a closer look, but I pulled away.

“It is just a flesh wound.”

“It is worse than a flesh wound, Xena. You should have the physician look at—”

“I said it was fine!” I immediately regretted snapping at her. Gabrielle was just being true to her caring nature, but the last thing I wanted was to be mothered.

I put some distance between Gabrielle and me, and I called for Lieutenant Commander Galates. He had barely taken a step in my direction when Ephiny jumped in front of him and blocked his way.

Ephiny stood almost toe-to-toe with me, and she was flush with indignation. “You had no right to kill him! He should have faced Amazon Justice for his crimes.”

Of all people, a warrior like Ephiny should have known not to challenge me so soon after a fight. My reflexes were screaming at me to put the Pinch on her and leave her crumpled on the ground, next to Pompey’s corpse, gasping out her last breaths.

Instead, I suppressed the urge and ignored her. I saw no strategic advantage in making enemies of the Amazons.

I sidestepped Ephiny and called for the Commander of the Palace Guards again. This time Galates put himself between Ephiny and me. “Yes, Your Highness.”

“Commander, secure the palace. Round up Pompey’s Praetorian Guard and arrest them all. And I want a company of Garrison soldiers dispatched to the Roman Embassy and surround it. Only myself, General Darnell and Ambassador Brutus are allowed to enter or leave that building. Understood?”

“Yes, Empress.”

“Also dispatch another Garrison unit to the Harbour to guard Pompey’s flagship. Make sure it stays in port. No one is to board or leave that ship unless they have my seal.”

“It shall be done.” Galates saluted me and departed.

Ephiny was still on a tear. “How can we expect the Greek Empire to protect Amazon Territory when you can’t even protect the Amazon Queen in your own palace!”

Terreis stepped in and reasoned with her betrothed. “Ephiny, please. Now is not the time,” she said. “I would like to go lie down. Will you take me back to my room?”

“Yes, my Queen.”

Ephiny gave me one last, disapproving look, before she took Terreis’ arm and signalled for the rest of the Amazons to fall in behind them. Terreis paused to take her leave of Gabrielle and then withdrew from the courtyard.

I turned to Darnell and Brutus and gave no other thought to the Amazons. “Ambassador, with the treasonous actions of Rome’s Emperor exposed, I am asserting my authority over the city of Rome and all its provinces. I am hereby naming you my Imperial Governor of Rome.”

“Thank you for this honour, Highness. I hope to be worthy of your confidence.”

“See that you do.”

Next I addressed my military advisor. “And you, General Darnell.”

Darnell gave me his attention.

“You will take three hundred of your best men and accompany my new Governor to Rome. In the meantime, I will order the 14th Macedonian Army to march immediately for Rome in support. You will take over tactical command of all Roman Legions loyal to Brutus, as well as the 14th Macedonian and crush any opposition from the Legions loyal to Pompey. I want their senior commanders executed and replaced with ones who will pledge their loyalty to me.”

I paused for a moment’s reflection and then amended my orders. “On second thought, execute everyone in the command structure down to Senior Centurion. You will be more likely to persuade the Legions to pledge their allegiance to me if you promote their line officers.”

“As you command.”

“After that, you will remain in Rome as Imperial Military Commander of the combined Legions of Rome and Eastern Greece. Does that suit you?”

Darnell glanced at Brutus and said, “I live to serve you, my Empress.”

I called for a servant to bring me a leather bag. I leaned over Pompey’s headless torso – careful not to stand in the blood that had seeped into the cracks between the courtyard paving stones – and tore an unstained corner of his cloak. I then used the cloth to pick up his head by the blood-soaked hair and put it into the bag.

I handed the bag to Brutus. “Deliver this message to the Roman Senate for me, will you Governor? I expect them to declare me Empress of Rome forthwith.”

Brutus took the bag, “Yes, my Empress.”

“Now go, both of you. Be prepared to leave for Rome on the morning tide. See me before you go. I will give you your official orders with my seal.”

As Brutus and Darnell took their leave of Gabrielle, she gave them each a warm kiss on the cheek to say goodbye.

Helena came down the steps accompanied by four servants. The servants quickly went about the business of removing the body.

Helena had brought a dressing for my arm.

Gabrielle took the wrap and quickly bandaged the wound. This time I did not object.

“Is there anything I can get you, Your Highnesses?” Helena inquired.

Gabrielle was quick to correct Helena. “I am not royalty yet.”

“Pardon me. Is there anything you require, ma’am?”

“No, Helena. Thank you,” Gabrielle replied. “Could you make sure the Empress and I are not disturbed?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Finally, it was just Gabrielle and I – alone in the courtyard.

“Not exactly how we planned this evening to turn out – is it?” I offered.

“No, no it isn’t.”

Gabrielle surveyed the damaged foliage, koi flopping about on the ground, pond water splashed all over, and blood – plenty of blood. “Why, Xena? Why tonight of all nights? I don’t understand.”

“I had no choice.”

“There are always choices, Xena. And you chose to confront Pompey at our wedding reception. How could you?”

“I did not choose it, he did. It was Pompey who provoked an argument, and it was he who drew his sword first. I had no choice but to defend myself.”

“I saw the look on your face, Xena. You weren’t merely ‘defending’ yourself. You were relishing every bit of it.”

“So – I like a good fight.”

“‘A good fight’? How can you be so casual about killing a man? No, not killing – executing!”

“Must you be so melodramatic?”

“Me, melodramatic? I’m not the one who capped off the evening with a gruesome beheading!” Gabrielle looked down to the spot where Pompey’s headless corpse had lain.

“Believe me, he got better than he deserved.”

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing. Look, Gabrielle, I cannot go into all this right now. Pompey is dead and I am now Empress of a combined Greek and Roman Empire.”

“Empire, empire! Is that all that matters to you?”

“No. You matter to me.”

“That’s rich.”

“What does that mean?”

“Tell me, was this whole wedding thing just a ruse to goad Pompey into showing his hand?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You don’t have to deny it. I know he was the one behind my kidnapping.”
“Who told you?”
“That’s not important. What is important to me is that once again you didn’t see fit to trust me with the truth,” Gabrielle said angrily.
“I was trying to protect you,” I explained. “When I left for Larissa you were still traumatised. You were having nightmares. I did not want to add to your troubles. Besides, I did not know at the time that Pompey was behind your kidnapping.”
“Oh, I see… but why would Pompey want to kidnap me?”
“Your kidnapping was part of a larger conspiracy by Pompey to overthrow me. He needed the money to fund an army, so he came up with the plan to kidnap you knowing I would pay ransom.”
“And Braextus – was he involved with my kidnapping as well?”
“Pompey was behind your kidnapping. He recruited Braextus. Braextus recruited Darphus.”

“And you had them all killed just because they threatened me?”

“Yes. No. Darphus died during interrogation, and Braextus…” I paused as I remembered that likeable old sinner, “he chose to take his own life.”

“He chose to take his own life? Or did you give him no alternative?”

“Gabrielle, it was his choice. But choice or no, he got what he deserved. They all did.”

“No Xena, they all deserved to stand trial and have their actions fairly judged.”

“These men were not innocent of their crimes. Their guilt was a fact. A trial would only have been a waste of time.”

“Then let me ask you a question,” Gabrielle said. “What would you do if it were me?”

“What are you getting at?”

“What if I betrayed you somehow, like Braextus, or took something you held precious like Darphus, or plotted against you, like Pompey? What would you do to me – torture me until I begged for death, force me to commit suicide, chop my head off?”

I gave no immediate answer because the questions were too absurd to even consider.

“Or would you give me the benefit of the doubt, afford me the chance to plead my case – explain the circumstances and my motives – or gods forbid receive mercy from you.”

I waved my hands to dismiss the conversation. “This is pointless.” I started to move away. “The outcome would have been the same. Either way, Pompey would be dead. I just cut out the middleman.”

“Don’t be flippant!” Gabrielle grabbed my wrist to stop me. “If you only knew how important it was to me, to you – to your legacy.”

“My empire will be my legacy!”

“You would have your legacy built upon the corpses of hundreds, even thousands of innocent people. Is that what you want? Because if it is, I’m not sure I can live with it. You may be happy with their blood on your hands, but I’m not.”

“What innocent people?” I asked incredulously.

“All those Roman officers you just condemned to death for the crime of serving their Emperor, for a start.”

“They were loyal to Pompey – handpicked by him to command the legions loyal to him. Each and every one swore an oath of allegiance to Pompey. That makes them a threat to me. I need to remove that threat in order to consolidate my power over Rome. Believe me, if the tables were turned, it would be my head in a bag, and Darnell and Galates and you who would be killed. Is that what you want?”

“No, of course not.”

I thought Gabrielle understood that the world we lived in was not perfect, but I did not want to argue the point, because there was much to do before the sun rose.

I took her hand and gave it a loving squeeze. “I— I have—”

Gabrielle looked down at our hands. She ran her finger lightly over my knuckles before taking her hand away. “You have things to attend to…” She paused and glanced over my shoulder. “And so do I.”

I turned to follow her gaze. Iolaus stood in the doorway deliberately not looking at us.

“If for some…reason we don’t see each other—” Gabrielle began.

“—I promise I will come find you as soon as I can and we will talk about rescheduling the wedding.”

She drew near, stood on tiptoes, and pressed her lips to mine. “Please remember that no matter what happens, I love you.”

I watched as Gabrielle went back inside with Iolaus. The echo of her words still haunted me, ‘Why Xena? Why tonight of all nights?’

Now, amid the wreckage, I stood alone. Why indeed?

~~~~~

“Ah, there you are Highness. I have been looking for you.” Lieutenant Commander Galates came into the gardens from the other side.

My back was to him.

“Are you feeling all right?”

I offered no reply. To be honest, I did not know how to answer him. I was feeling the weariness that comes after physical combat. I was feeling the pain of my injury. And I was feeling a let down that comes just after one achieves a long sought-after goal.

I took a determined breath to muster up some reserves of energy. “Yes, I am fine, Commander. Report.”

“The harbour has been closed, and Pompey’s ship seized, as ordered, Your Highness. The palace gates have been closed and all the Romans rounded up and disarmed. They have been taken into custody, awaiting your orders.”

“Good. The Praetorian Guards – give them a choice: suicide or crucifixion. The Roman civilians – hold them for now. I cannot take the chance of news getting back to Rome ahead of Brutus and Darnell.”

“Yes, Empress. I will see to it,” Galates replied.

Instead of saluting and leaving to carry out my orders, Galates lingered. I knew what he wanted to talk about.

“I imagine you are wondering how Gabrielle and her sister Lila are doing?”

“Yes, Your Highness. How are they?”

“Understandably upset, but fine. Lila did not react too well to all the blood. Gabrielle is probably with her. You may want to stop in and check on them.”

“Yes, Your Highness, I shall as soon as I am done.”

He saluted me and headed back the way he came – in the direction of the dungeons – and I headed towards my changing chamber. I needed to change my blood stained clothing and retrieve my weapons. There would be no sleeping tonight. Now that my empire included all of Rome, it was time to plan my response to Pompey’s co-conspirator and my true enemy, General Suren of the Persian Empire.

~~~~~

The scene in the throne room was markedly different from when I had left it with Pompey just a short time ago. Benches and flowerpots were overturned, wine and food spilled amidst the shards of broken plates and glasses scattered on the floor.

Where there had been a crowd filling the large hall, there were only Palace Guards posted at the doors and the Protocol Minister, Vidalis, who had a look on his face that was not unlike a villager after their town had been sacked.

“Should I have the wedding altar and banners removed, Your Highness?” he asked.

“No, leave it. We can still have the wedding; it will just be a smaller, more private ceremony,” I replied.

“Do you want me to cancel the public celebrations scheduled for tomorrow?”

I had not stopped to consider the complications my confrontation with Pompey would cause. Gabrielle and Vidalis had put all their efforts into making this evening successful. I would have to find a way to make it up to Gabrielle somehow, and I could start by doing a better job of apologising when next I saw her.

“Yes, cancel the public celebrations for tomorrow.”

“Very good, Your Highness.”

“Then Vidalis, take the rest of the night off, but have the servants clean up, so Gabrielle does not have to see it like this in the morning.”

“Yes, Highness.”

I told him the three of us would meet in a day or two to talk about the wedding, but right then I had important things I needed to do.

I crossed the room, sidestepping crushed crab balls and upturned furniture, and headed straight for my changing chamber to change and collect my weapons. It dawned on me that I had given the key to Gabrielle. Inconvenient, but I kept another key hidden nearby.

As I got closer, I heard voices coming from inside. It reminded me of the Ambassador’s reception and overhearing Darnell and Brutus engaging in what I thought was a secret meeting to plot against me. As I had recently come to find out, they were meeting in secret for quite a different reason. Happily, I was wrong then, but this time, the hushed voices I heard were definitely conspiring against me.

“Are you sure?” The male voice asked.

“Yes,” the female voice replied.

“If Xena finds out—”

“I can handle Xena. Besides, if what you say is true, it won’t matter.”

“Thank you, Gabrielle. You are making the right choice,” Iolaus said with relief.

I threw the door open and stepped into the room. “And what choice is that?”

“Xena!” Gabrielle turned around to face me with a look like she had just been caught stealing coins from her mother’s purse.

Iolaus took a step away from Gabrielle and I could see he was holding something – something precious.

“What are you doing my sceptre?” Anger surged through my body.

“Xena! Please!” Gabrielle stepped forward, putting herself between Iolaus and me.

“Out of my way Gabrielle,” I growled.

Iolaus retreated to one corner of the room – a tactical mistake.

“He’s not stealing it, Xena. I gave it to him.”

“You what?”

“Iolaus said he needed the stone. He said it is the Kronos Stone and he needs it go back in time to bring his friend Hercules back to life.”

“And you believed him?”

“Yes,” she said emphatically. “I know it sounds crazy, but the story about Hercules, and Lysia and Deianeira – it was true. It really happened – except you are ‘Lysia’ and I am ‘Deianeira’.”

“What kind of nonsense has he filled your head with?”

“It’s not nonsense,” she replied. “Iolaus explained it all to me. This reality – the one where you are Empress – isn’t the real reality. Somehow history was altered so Hercules was never born, and because of that you become ‘Xena the Conqueror’ instead of ‘Xena Warrior Princess’ – saving lives and fighting for the greater good.”

“Gabrielle, how can you be so naïve? He is a storyteller. He made all that up to get you to help him steal my sceptre.” I glared at the thieving liar. “I knew there was something not right about him.”

“I swear, it is the truth,” Iolaus replied. “This is not the way history was supposed to be. Hercules did exist, he was my friend, he saved you from your rebellious army, and you do become a hero in your own right.”

“I do not believe one word of it, but even if it were true, I care nothing for you, Hercules, or this heroic version of ‘Xena’. Now, hand me back my sceptre and I will banish you from my empire never to return, or I will kill you where you stand. Either way, you are not leaving here with the sceptre.”

Gabrielle stepped in front of me and held her hand up. “Xena leave him alone!”

Putting herself between Iolaus and me was gutsy, but her defiance in defence of this thieving bard made my blood boil. How dare she! Where was her loyalty?

“I will deal with you later. Get out of my way,” I said through gritted teeth.

I tried to move around her, but Gabrielle stubbornly held her ground.

“Please listen to me,” she entreated. “I know he’s telling the truth.”

“He tells stories for a living,” I scoffed.

“He knew things about me that no one could possibly know.”

“Oh, like what?”

She lowered her voice. “He knows that I was born with six toes on my right foot.”

I had wondered what that small scar on her right foot was from, but that was hardly proof. “Lila probably told him that.”

“No, Lila never knew that. My father never knew. The only ones who knew were my mother and grandmother who delivered me.”

What Gabrielle had just told me was intriguing enough that I took a step back and eased my posture. I was going to test Iolaus myself.

“Okay, if what you say is true, then prove it,” I challenged him. “Tell me something about myself that no one else would know.”

“You have a birthmark on your inner—”

“That is not proof. Any number of people could have told you that, including Gabrielle,” I replied.

Iolaus glanced at Gabrielle. “Uh…” He struggled to come up with more ‘proof’. I gave him a few moments, but the glib storyteller could not come up with anything.

“Guar—”

“Wait!” he exclaimed. “Uh, I know you have a son. His name is Solan.”

I was completely taken aback. “Solan? No one knows about Solan. Who told you?”

“You did.”

I could not believe what I was hearing. How could he know about Solan? I wondered. No one living knows I gave birth to a son.

“Xena?” Gabrielle’s face registered the shock of this revelation. “Xena, what is he talking about? You never told me you had a son.”

“Not now, Gabrielle.” I shoved her aside a little harder than I intended, but I felt rage boiling inside me like Greek Fire. It was no longer about the sceptre Iolaus was holding in his grasp. He held a far more precious thing than gold or magical stones. He held the fate of my son, so he could never leave this room alive.

“Let me tell your future – your death is not far away and it involves a great deal of pain.”

I took another deliberate step towards Iolaus pushing him further back into the corner. My eyes searched the chambers for my sword and chakram. Then I remembered that I had left them on a peg in my wardrobe – too far away. He would escape before I could reach them. Still, I knew a hundred ways to kill without a weapon. For the second time I cursed the decision to leave my weapons behind.

Again, Gabrielle positioned herself between Iolaus and me. “Xena please. For my sake and for yours, let him go.”

“Gabrielle I am warning you, get out of the way, or I will—”

“You’ll what? Kill me, like you kill everyone else that gets in your way?” she said defiantly.

I was so close to backhanding her, but I remembered the promise I had made, and instead balled my hand in a fist and kept it at my side.

I faced her and took my eyes off Iolaus for a moment. “No, but you are sorely trying my pat—”

Suddenly, a flash of light brighter than the midday sun filled the room, forcing us both to avert our eyes.

When it dimmed, Iolaus was gone and the sceptre with him!

I spun around looking for him in all four corners of the room. There was no sign of him. He just vanished!

“Where did he go? He was there a moment ago.” I pointed to the corner where Iolaus had been standing. “He could not have got by me.”

Gabrielle looked around slowly and then looked at me, begging my pardon with her eyes.

I was about to tear into her for betraying me, when the floor began to rumble under our feet like the aftershock of an earthquake. Her eyes grew wide and the colour drained from her face.

I immediately forgot my anger and took her in my arms. “If this is to be our end, then let us see it out together.”

The mosaics on all four walls started to fade like washed out watercolour paint. Gabrielle took a deep breath. “This is it,” she whispered. “Please forgive me, Xena. Always remember I love you.”

I opened my mouth to speak and the world turned black.

~~~~~~~~
Epilogue
~~~~~~~~

It’s hard to describe what happened next. Neither one of us actually saw Iolaus disappear. There was a blinding flash of light. The floor began to roll under our feet like the aftershock of an earthquake. Then everything went black. It was as though the ground opened up and swallowed us.

When we came to, there was no sign of anything having happened, other than the queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. Xena and I were still dressed in the clothes we wore to the reception. We were still in the palace in Corinth. We were still ‘Us’.

“What happened?” Xena gasped.

“I don’t know.” I replied breathlessly. It was a struggle to speak. My mind and body felt shattered.

“Was that…?”

“…Reality changing?” I finished the sentence that Xena appeared reluctant to finish.

“That is not possible!”

“You felt it!”

“Everything looks the same. Everything feels the same.” Xena looked around. “I thought Iolaus told you everything would change?”

“He did.”

“Then maybe he failed.”

“No. You saw him vanish just like I did.”

“Then why are we still here?” Xena asked harshly. She regretted snapping and continued in a softer tone. “Other than feeling like I have been run over by a speeding chariot, everything seems as it was.”

“Perhaps all this is meant to be. Iolaus described it like a play being rewritten with a character taken out. If a new reality is created because you never met Hercules and made different choices in life, then maybe a new reality is created for every choice we make.”

“So there could be a reality where you never chose to betray me,” she said scornfully.

“I didn’t betray you. I tried to save you.”

“Save me? From what?”

“Your blind ambition,” I replied.

Xena looked at me expressionlessly, so I decided come right out and tell her how I felt.

“You are going down a path I can’t follow, Xena. I thought you had changed for the better, but after tonight, I see that you haven’t – and you probably never will. You still see power as an end in itself and will use any means to get it.”

The gravity of my words wounded Xena, and she slumped down on a nearby bench.

“My gods. Do you really hate me that much?” she asked.

“No! Of course I don’t hate you. I love you, Xena. I love you more than anything in the world. That is why I had to let Iolaus take the sceptre. Don’t you see? I had to because you were destined to become a warrior hero not a power-hungry tyrant!”

“You were prepared to give up all of this?”

“If you really knew me, you wouldn’t have to ask that question,” I replied.

“I am sorry.” Xena sounded genuine.

“So am I,” I said sincerely. “I thought I was doing the right thing by helping Iolaus – that his reality was supposed to be the life I was meant to live.”

“Huh?”

“You know, that prediction a travelling seer made about me being ‘fated to help a great warrior’.

“Why do you believe in what that seer said? Your Fate is what you make it. And you have ‘helped a great warrior’… become a better ruler. Does that not count for something?”

“I suppose so. I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

We sat in silence, each to our own thoughts.

“So now what?” Xena asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess that is up to you. Are you going to have me arrested?”

“Arrested? For what?”

“For plotting against you with Iolaus; for helping him steal your sceptre, and for helping him escape.”

“Oh, that. Well, as you are so fond of pointing out, it was just an ‘ugly green stone’.”

“Does that mean you forgive me?”

“If you forgive me.”

“Forgive you? For what?”

“For everything – for ruining our wedding day; for not being the ‘hero in your story’.”

“Well, I guess we’re stuck here and we will just have to live with this reality.”

It was meant to be a joke, but Xena didn’t take it that way.

“Maybe not. There is this.”

Before I could react, Xena had stood up and her hand had snatched the necklace from around my neck.

“My necklace!”

She held it up. Light glinted in the green stone of the tiny replica of her sceptre. “This stone is part of the sceptre. Could that be enough to keep this reality going?”

“I have no idea.”

“Then I will destroy it and we will find out.” Xena picked up her chakram and aimed it at the necklace.

“No!” I tried to grab the necklace from her.

“Why not? You want all this to end, right?”

“No! Do you?” I asked.

“No.” Xena slowly let the necklace fall from her grasp into my outstretched hand.

“Then we will keep the necklace safe. We’ll carry on… if you want.”

There was an agonising pause before Xena replied.

“Yes. I do not want to lose you, Gabrielle. If I knew to what lengths you would go to—”

I stopped her with a kiss.

“The ‘Xena and Gabrielle’ Iolaus told me about deserve their chance at happiness, and so do we,” I said. “Maybe now they’ll have the chance to fall in love. Like us.”

“Like us.”

~ The End ~

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One thought on “The Conqueror: Sceptre Of Fate Part III: In the Hands of Fate by Harpy & HkdonXetG

  1. I like the story. But I think it is conceded to think either reality is better. This reality no threatening warlords or Rome or warring factions of grace. Both are still bloody. But I think this story is a lot safer for the general populace with no more fear of out of control forces.

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