~ Forever ~
||The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Argo and all the other characters associated with the Warrior Princess belong to Renpic and Universal. I have borrowed them for this piece of fun fanfiction and unfortunately can make no money from these two beautiful women.
||If offended by the idea of two women in love you better keeping browsing.
||This is a story about the Conqueror so you can expect a little of this stuff.
||This is the final part of an on-going series which I started on a lark. It was only supposed to be a short three part series but the story seemed to take on a life of its own. For all those who have been waiting, sorry for the long delay but sometimes real life intrudes on our hobbies and pleasures. It is my sincerest hope that the wait was worthwhile. For everyone else, in order to best understand this it is important to read the other stories. beginning with If this Had Been the Beginning before reading this part. Comments are appreciated firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy.
Complete Series order: If ...This Had Been the Beginning, and was followed by Home Again, Surrender, The Promise of Tomorrow, and Family.
The sound of chirping birds rousted the dark haired Empress from her slumber. She wanted to stretch the clinks out of her body but she was unwilling to disturb the warm weight that was pinning her to the bed.
A smile came automatically to her lips as she opened her eyes to find her blonde haired companion sprawled across her body. She could smell the unique scent of her lover and for a moment she burrowed her face into the soft tresses of hair, reveling in the knowledge that this small woman loved and believed in her. Not for the first time did she wonder what God had given her the gift of this woman. She had not deserved it.
Xena would have been content to spend the rest of the day in bed cuddling her companion but there were duties of office to attend. There were invitations to be sent and after that it would not be long before foreign guests and dignitaries from all around her Empire would start arriving in the Capital to help celebrate her marriage to the bard. Though she would have liked to focus entirely on the wedding she knew that the business of her Empire would not stop just because she was taking a bride.
With a sigh, she carefully extracted herself from the smaller woman's embrace and rolled out of bed. Half a candle mark later, she was strolling through the Palace corridors towards the throne room, the sound of her boots echoing loudly against the polished tiling of the marble floors. It was early, even too early in the morning for most of the servants to be moving about.
It felt good to be home; to be back in familiar territory. A smile graced her normally stoic features as she thought about her companion. Gabrielle had been more than a little excited to be back in Corinth and had made no hesitation in showing that fact. It was the bard's pleasure that gave her the greatest happiness and she looked forward to doing whatever she could do to make her companion happy.
Xena rounded the corner and stepped in through the open door of the throne room where Archius was already busy at work. The small balding man glanced up at the sound of footsteps and then bowed his head respectfully. In spite of the prominence of his position and his own power he was careful to show the Empress the proper respect. The Conqueror had changed and grown softer in many ways, but he knew that the monster that had brought her to power still existed.
"My Conqueror, it is a pleasure to see you again," the aide was genuine.
"Thank you Archius, it is good to be home," the Empress acknowledged feeling a particularly soft spot for the man who had been loyal to her since the beginning. She stopped next to him and glanced rather contemptuously at the paperwork that was spread out across the table. As much as she delighted in being back at the Palace she also acknowledged the distaste she felt for the governmental problems that awaited her rulings. "I assume that you have handled everything with your usual efficiency."
"I try to do my best," the man bowed aware that in her own way the Empress was giving him praise. The fact that the woman left the running of her Empire in his hands spoke of the high regard she held for his talent as a bureaucrat and his loyalty to her person. "But there are matters that need your direct handling. I have also arranged for a public day three weeks hence. I am afraid there are still those who wish to speak with you personally."
Xena snorted. There were many in the capital and the countryside who assumed they were too important to deal with anyone other than the Empress herself. She glanced at the stack of scrolls neatly arranged on the desk. Most of the issues that were brought to her attention were mundane matters, stuff that her aide could resolve given the chance.
"Before we start into all this stuff," Xena waved her hand at the paperwork dismissing it without another thought. "I wish to discuss with you several matters of much more importance."
"Certainly," Archius smiled knowing instinctively what the Empress wished to speak. "You wish to know how the arrangements for the joining ceremony are coming."
The Conqueror allowed her lips to twitch into a slight grin. "Am I so obvious?"
"In matters concerning Queen Gabrielle you are rather transparent," the man replied honestly and the tall woman frowned, her dark eyes bunching together thoughtfully.
"I'm not sure I like that," the woman admitted. She knew that Gabrielle was her Achilles heel and because of that she had tried not to allow her true feelings to show but it was obvious that she had been unsuccessful.
"Do not fear My Conqueror," the small man hastened to add aware how concerned the Empress was that her affection for the bard would get the Queen into trouble with her enemies. "If there is one thing that your people know, it is that the Queen is untouchable. Only the most foolish of individuals would dare even think of attempting to bringing harm to Gabrielle. Everyone knows how important she is to you and no one in their right mind would wish to face that kind of wrath."
There was silence as the woman looked at the smaller man for a brief instant. A frown had settled over her dour features. It was an odd look and one that the man normally did not associate with the stoic Empress.
"Do the people still regard me with such disdain?" she wondered out loud. The aide was startled by the question. For just a brief instant he saw something flicker in the intense blue eyes and he was surprised. He knew than that the woman was not as hard as the front she projected. He always suspected there was a softer side to the woman; a side that the tall Conqueror had buried deep inside herself, a side that had been brought back to life by the bard.
"It is hard for people to forget the past," Archius said choosing his words carefully. "Your reign of terror affected many lives and there will be those who will never forgive."
"I don't want forgiveness," the tall dark haired woman scoffed impatiently and despite her adamant denial the small man sensed something different. The quick way she switched the topic of discussion only confirmed his belief. "How are the arrangements for the joining ceremony coming along?"
"The dais is being built even as we speak," the aide relayed the information glad to be discussing a different subject. "Invitations and public announcements were sent out and already emissaries have been arriving with the replies. Dignitaries from all over your Kingdom will be attending."
"Probably out of fear as to what I might do if they didn't attend," Xena snorted without amusement acknowledging the truth that most of her regional rulers would be to afraid not to accept the invitation. "I want you to make certain that extra security is posted all through the city. If anyone wishes to attempt anything they will no doubt want to do so in the most public places in the most public of ways."
"I already thought of that," the small man acknowledged. "I have requested that various commanders send troops from the different armies to add to the local militia. I have left Captain Xenon in charge."
"Good," the Conqueror sighed. It was still many nights before she was to fulfill her commitment to the bard and make public her feelings for all her constituents to see. The public announcements posted throughout the nation declared the day a public holiday and extra celebrations were being prepared. "What of the fireworks?"
"I contacted a trader in the marketplace," Archius confirmed. "It appears that he is a friend of the Queen. His name is Salmoneous and when he heard for whom and what this was for he was most eager to apply his connections. He assured me that he would be able to secure the biggest and the best fireworks display that anyone in the Empire will ever have witnessed."
Xena nodded, vaguely remembering a rather rotund gentleman who had dared to accost her in the marketplace one day. She remembered the trinket she had purchased from the man and how much the bard had enjoyed the gift. It seemed that the merchant's affectation for her lover was genuine and for that she was grateful. She wanted Gabrielle to have the best celebration that she could supply.
"What of the gowns are they being prepared?"
"The material arrived from Chin earlier and the dressmakers were just waiting for the Queen and you to return to the Palace to begin their work."
The Conqueror nodded grudgingly accepted the explanation. "And the rings?"
"The blacksmith is just putting on the finishing touches," Archius was happy to report. "You might like to stop by and see for yourself to ensure that the design is just as you wished."
"Yes, I will do that," the Empress nodded. "What about the food?"
"All the exotic dishes you requested are being brought in and Cleopatra has sent out her best hunters to capture the animals for your delight."
For a moment the Empress' thoughts were diverted as she glanced sharply at the small aide. "You contacted Cleopatra?"
"Yes," the man nodded. "According to my spies, her time in Rome with Caesar was not what she expected and she returned to Alexandria sooner than scheduled."
The Empress nodded and then dismissed all thoughts of the Egyptian ruler. "I personally issued Gabrielle's family an invitation and left word with the Commander of the Regional Army that if they needed assistance in coming to the capital than he was to offer everything in his power. I would like to know the moment any response from them is heard."
"Yes, My Empress," the aide nodded aware that the Conqueror was not thinking about herself but about her companion. He knew that the bard would like her parents to be there to help her celebrate the occasion. Family was important to the Queen. "Was there anything else you wished me to attend too?"
"No," the Empress shook her head. She had a few things that needed to be taken care of but she would do that herself. She turned her gaze and met the man's gaze. "However there is some news which I have to impart on you, though I know that because the Amazon's already know then I presume that everyone else will as well." The Conqueror paused to take a deep breath. "We will need some redecorating done to our personal quarters."
"Does something about your quarters displease the Queen?" Archius asked with some confusion.
"No," Xena shook her head and then smiled shyly. It was an unusual look for the woman and it caught the aide by surprise. "We will need a cradle and all the things that accompany a baby. The Queen is with child."
The small man's jaw dropped in surprise. "Miss Gabrielle is pregnant?" He didn't know whether to be happy or upset over the news, but one look at the Conqueror and he knew that it was a cause for celebration.
"But...?" the startled question remained unasked as the man fused with colour and was unable to meet the woman's piercing gaze. The Conqueror laughed heartily aware of the reason that the man was embarrassed.
"Believe it or not my friend but the child is mine," the Empress confided once she had sobered and the man glanced at her in surprise. He could see that she was serious. "It seems that the Gods worked some magic and created the child."
"You believe that?" Archius couldn't hide his distrust thinking about how the Empress had attempted to use Jason, a member of the Royal guard to get the bard pregnant.
"I did not believe it at first, but then I realized the truth. Gabrielle would never lie to me and she assured me that she had been with no one but me," the Conqueror said in a serious voice. "In my heart I know the child is mine even though I can not explain it."
"Than I am most happy for you," the man smiled and was grateful when he received a corresponding grin from a now sheepish Conqueror.
"I imagine this will change my image even more than the bard has already done," the Conqueror mused.
"Indeed, it will do only positive things for your image," the man agreed.
"I don't know if that is a good or bad thing," Xena said as she slipped into the chair behind her desk.
"Anything concerning Gabrielle is good," Archius responded in all honesty.
"Yes," a hint of a smile crossed the stoic woman's lips as she thought of her lover. The smile soon faded as she thought of someone else with blond hair and familiar features. "Archius I brought a young lad back to the Palace from the countryside. He was training with the Regional Army near Amphipolis even though he is too young to fight. I would like you to arrange for him to be seen by the best tutors in all aspects of learning."
"Yes, My Lord," the aide nodded a frown on his brow. "It is none of my concern as to the reasons why the Empress wishes for the boy to be educated."
"No, it is not your concern but as a friend you deserve the truth," the Conqueror sighed. "The boys name is Solan and he is my son; the child that I bore while I was with Borias."
"Does he know?" The aide was startled by this unexpected revelation.
"No, and I would prefer to keep that secret between us," Xena knew that she could trust her aide. She looked at the man, a bleak expression in her blue orbs. "He hates me. He believes that I killed his family and made him an orphan."
"Many children have been influenced by the lies of the elders who raised them," Archius said in an attempt to ease the woman's mind.
"Unfortunately they are not lies," Xena sighed, her shoulders slumping. "I did kill Borias."
"You were defending yourself," Archius reminded softly. "He had turned against you and wanted to take over both your armies. There was nothing else you could do."
Xena wanted to believe that and at the time it had eased her conscious, but now in hindsight she wondered about the true motives for killing her ex-lover. She shook her head, dismissing those thoughts. It was all in the past and she could not undo what had been done. She turned her attention to the scrolls spread out on her desk.
"What matter is of the most importance?"
Archius knew by the change of subject that it was time to focus on the business at hand. He did what every good aide was trained to do and plucked the most urgent piece of business out of the pile.
When Gabrielle woke later in the morning she knew immediately that she was alone. She could feel the absence of the warmth of her companion yet she laid for a long moment going over in her mind the events of the last season. A smile curved her delicate features as her hand went to the swelling roundness of her stomach. She had believed in Xena and their love and she had been rewarded. She was happier than she believed was possible.
She sprang out of bed, mindful that her added weight hindered her once agile movements. A quick inventory of their personal supplies and she knew that a trip to the market place was in order. After a leisurely bath she dressed and went in search of her personal guard.
Jason had remained behind on their last adventure out of the Capital. It had been her decision to give the soldier a leave of absence so that he could go home to help his family with the harvest. The man had been at the Palace the previous evening when they had returned. Gabrielle was pleased to the see the young man for she truly enjoyed his company.
"Jason I feel the need for a trip into town," she said with a smile and the soldier nodded. "I think we should invite Solari of the Amazon's and that young soldier that returned with us from Amphipolis, his name is Solan."
"Yes, My Queen, I will fetch them immediately."
"Meet me in the front courtyard, I wish to see the Conqueror before I depart."
The soldier nodded and turned to do as the small woman requested. He had been left behind at the Palace the last time the Conqueror and the bard had departed the Capital and he had worried that he had fallen out of favour because of his inability to seduce the Queen. He was pleased now to know that had not been the case.
Solan had been given quarters in the Palace with the rest of the Royal Guards. He had woken with the others and after breakfast had wandered down to the stables to groom his horse while he waited for the formal instructions on what his duties at the Palace would be. Though he had been presented with an official military uniform he had been told in no uncertain terms by the Captain of the Royal Guards that it was only an honorary gesture by the Empress and that he was too young to be a fighting member of her army.
So he waited for someone of importance to come around and tell him what he was supposed to do. In the meantime he tried to keep himself occupied as he discreetly listened too all the gossip that floated around the Palace amid its servants. He quickly learned that it was not always a bad thing to come to the Conquerors attention.
He was more than surprised when a fellow guardsman by the name of Jason came to fetch him. According to the older man they were to accompany the Queen to the market place to protect her while she did her shopping. The request surprised the boy for he assumed that servants attended to all the Conquerors royal needs. But than he surmised that the Queen was little more then a bed slave for the Empress.
The boy could not help wonder about this small blonde woman who appeared to be the Conquerors companion. She had seemed friendly and on the journey back to Corinth she had welcomed him more than once to join the Conqueror and her at their campfire. He had been unable to refuse and against his best laid plans he unwillingly began to like the blond woman. There was something infectious in her nature that made it impossible for anyone to dislike her. He quickly adjusted his uniform and followed the other guardsman into the front courtyard to wait the arrival of the Queen.
Gabrielle didn't bother to knock before sweeping into the throne room where she knew her lover would be spending the day. Xena had made it plain that she would be occupied for the next few days sifting through the business of running her Empire. She knew that even though she would be interrupting she was certain that her stoic companion wouldn't mind.
Xena glanced up with a sour look as the door to the throne room was flung open. The frown immediately turned to a smile as she watched the bard enter, her hands laden with a tray of fruit, cheese, bread and a pitcher of ale.
"Good morning," Gabrielle greeted the pair. "How are you this morning Archius, it is wonderful to see you again?"
"It is a pleasure to have you back at the Palace," the aide was sincere.
"Have you come to help us wade through this pile of business?" Xena asked with a smile playing at the corners of her lips as she leaned back in her chair and motioned to the stack of scrolls on the desk.
"No," the bard shook her head trying not to shudder. She knew that before long her stoic companion would become bored with matters of the state and she didn't blame the woman. "I came to let you know that I am heading out to the market to restock our supplies."
"Ahh," the Empress said with a smirk. "Not back more then a few candle marks and already you are spending money from my treasury."
"Money I deserve for putting up with you," the bard snapped back aware that her companion would not be offended. The Empress was in a playful mood and she liked that in the tall woman.
"Than, what is this?" Xena smiled motioning to the tray.
"Well, as I will be out of the Palace I cannot be here to ensure that you give poor Archius a break for lunch," Gabrielle continued in the same mood setting the tray down on the desk. "So I decided to bring something to him before I left."
"You brought this all for Archius?" the Conqueror pretended to pout.
"Yes, but I am sure he will be kind enough to share the leftovers," the bard said blithely. "Now I need to get going. I have Jason and Solan waiting for me in the courtyard."
"Before you go," Xena turned serious for a moment. "I have asked Archius to arrange tutors for Solan. I fear his lack of learning and want him to be able to follow any career he chooses."
Gabrielle nodded, a thoughtful frown etching its way across her brow.
"Would it be alright if he were joined by Arron?" The bard hesitated. "It might be nice for him to have someone with him; someone closer to his age he could befriend."
Xena nodded remembering the small boy they had rescued from slavery. What Gabrielle suggested had merit. It never ceased to surprise her how her small lover considered all aspects of a situation.
"Thank you," Gabrielle flashed her smile.
With that the bard slipped around the desk to plant a firm kiss on her lover's lips before almost skipping to the door and out of sight. Archius could not stop smiling. He liked to watch the two women together for it never ceased to marvel him how the bard could bring the good nature out in the stoic woman.
"I fear I have lost my Empire to a woman who cares nothing about power," Xena snorted with an amused laugh that the aide joined in. She felt refreshed after the bard's brief visit and snatching an apple from off the tray she leaned forward once more. "Now let us get back to these tedious affairs."
Jason, Solari and Solan were waiting in the front courtyard as she had requested. After the latest attempt on her life, both the Conqueror and the Amazon's had insisted on having her accompanied by one of them at all times. She had protested adamantly and relented only when Xena had admitted the fear of losing their child. Gabrielle knew that she would suffer anything for her lover.
She glanced at the young lad who accompanied them. She could feel his dislike for the Empress in his very demeanor and she had given a lot of thought on how she could change his attitude. Inviting him along on this shopping expedition was the first step.
"How did you sleep?" she inquired, engaging him in conversation.
"Fine, my Queen," he was uncertain how to address the small woman.
"Was it more comfortable than your straw cot at the Army Camp near Amphipolis?" Gabrielle chuckled remembering the lumpy pallet that she had slept on while visiting the camp in her wandering bard years.
"Yes, ma'am," the lad tried but was unable to suppress the smile that came to his lips. In spite of himself, he could not prevent himself from liking the woman.
"So have you ever been to Corinth before?" she asked as they stepped through the Palace gates and into the city.
"No," the boy shook his head, his pale blue eyes scanning the street and the people bustling along the wide corridors. He had never entered the gates of any city until last night when they had arrived.
"I would like to say it is just a larger version of Amphipolis but that isn't really true," the small blond explained. "You have your typical merchants that sell fruits and vegetables and clothes, but there are also merchants that sell oils and scents and wares from all over the known world. They sell scrolls and coloured ink, silk from Chin, almost anything you can think off."
The boy said nothing. He had no money to spend, his clothing and meals provided for by the military. Maybe later he would begin to earn enough dinars for a mug of port at a local tavern.
"Is there something that you have always wanted to own?" Gabrielle asked prodding the boy.
"No," the lad shook his head. Kalipus had been a good father and as a child he had never lacked for anything.
"When I was a child the most favourite thing I owned was a small carving of a sheep," the bard recounted the memories of a special Solstice. "It a gift from my parents. I spent hours as a child wandering around with the little animal clutched in my hand."
"What happened to it?" the boy wanted to know hearing the wistfully sound of her voice.
"I lost it one day playing by the creek near our house," Gabrielle explained sadly and then flashed a smile that was becoming familiar to the lad. "I told Xena that story and she carved me this small wooden sheep for our first Solstice together."
The bard fell silent as she remembered that morning of Solstice. They had been on a campaign in the Northern part of the Empire battling Caesar's Roman Legionnaires, yet the Conqueror had taken time out of her busy schedule to carve her a small replica of the toy she had treasured as a child. She thought of the bashful way the Empress had presented the gift, as if she was scared it would be rejected. It hadn't been and it now held a special place among her few possessions.
Solan looked sideways at his companion when she fell silent, noticing the odd look on her face. It was a warm and tender expression with the edges of her lips dipped in a smile. He wondered about what she was thinking and it occurred to him that the only time he had seen that look was when the bard had looked at the Conqueror.
He had no more time to consider it as his attention was swallowed up by the crush of humanity that filled the market place. The Queen had been right, there were merchants selling all sorts of wares, and some things that Solan had never seen before.
He followed the Queen amazed at the way the crowd seemed to automatically part in front of her. He saw the smiles and the waves that various sellers threw at the small blond woman. He could never have imagined that anyone as closely associated with the Empress would be treated with such genuine friendliness and respect.
Gabrielle had made a mental list of things that they were in short supply of and she made her way to the merchant stalls where she could replenish her supplies. A candle mark later everyone was carrying a parcel of goods. It was late in the afternoon by the time the Queen was finished her shopping spree.
"Does everyone have everything they need?" the bard turned and looked at her companions. She knew that Jason and Solari had both purchased personal items but she hadn't noticed Solan buy anything.
"Yes your Highness," they responded in unison.
"Was there anything you needed?" Gabrielle turned her attention to the young man.
"No your Highness," the blond boy replied. He had precious few coins in his pocket and needed to save them until he really did need something.
"While I certainly can think of a few things you will need for your duties at the Palace," the Queen said. She turned her head, seeking out a stall before bouncing over towards it. In a matter of a quarter of a candle mark she had purchased, chalk and tablets which she handed to the tall boy, who looked at her with a perplexed expression.
"Your Highness, of what need do I have for these things, I am a soldier?" Solan asked.
"Because you are too young to serve as a foot soldier, the Conqueror has decided that you would better serve her if you were more educated."
"But I have no desire to be a scribe. I much more prefer working in the stables," the boy replied instantly.
"Than that's what your job will be," Gabrielle decided. "But there are many candle marks in a day and the Conqueror does not want to see you waste it. Therefore starting on the morrow you and another lad by the name of Arron will be taking lessons from the Palace scribes. "
Solan was silent for a short while as he tried to figure out what was happening. He was aware of the green eyes that were boring into him and wondered if the small Queen and the Conqueror thought him ignorant.
"I had lessons when I lived with the Centaurs," the boy tried to explain.
"One can never have too many lessons," Gabrielle shook her head. "This is not only something that the Conqueror wishes, but something that is also dear to my heart."
A pair of blue eyes stared for a long instant at the small blonde woman. It was strange that he would be willing to reject the Conquerors request while this woman was someone whom he could not deny. He assented to the agreement with a mere nod of his head.
"Okay, now that is settled, than I suggest we head back to the Palace," the bard announced, satisfied with the day's adventure.
It was late, nearing the dinner hour when Xena finally called a break for the day. They had worked steadily on the large mount of paperwork that needed tending and had managed to wade through a great deal. There were requests and reports from every corner of her Empire and though things seemed peaceful she knew that she could not drop her guard. She had a nagging feeling that this solitude would not last. She did not trust Caesar.
Xena thought about her adversary as she made her way through the Palace corridors towards her private quarters. Caesar was an ambitious man and it was unlike him not to be plotting some scheme. Her spies in Rome had not reported anything unusual and the Legionnaires they had confronted and defeated in the North had retreated back behind the lines that separated the two Empires. She remembered what Archius had said. Her marriage was a public function and would be the ideal time for the Roman Ruler to launch another attack with most of her Regional Governors and military commanders away from their posts. She knew that she needed to prepare for any eventuality.
She dismissed all thoughts of her adversary as she reached her apartments. She had spent the day on government matters and it was time now to forget about her responsibilities to the Empire and do her duty towards her lover and companion. A smile broke across her face as she opened the door and felt the warmth of the room reach out to her.
Quietly she stepped into the apartment her blue eyes scanning the room and coming to rest on the dinner settings placed on the low table in front of the fireplace. She strolled further into the room noticing that a bottle of wine had been opened and left to breath. There was a tray laden with a variety of cheese and fruits. There were plates set out for the food that would be brought from the kitchen when they were ready to eat.
She turned on her heel and strolled through the suite into the sleeping area. It was here that she spotted her companion. Gabrielle was seated at the table next to the open window, her head bent over the parchment on which she was writing, her golden hair illuminated by the light of the candles burning nearby.
Xena paused. She loved to watch her lover when she was writing for the bard's brow would furrow in thought and her green eyes would stare off into a world which only she could see. When stumped the blond woman would chew on the quill she was using as her face puckered in thought.
At that moment the bard glanced up and caught sight of the tall dark haired Empress. Her face lit up at the vision and instantly she was on her feet and on her way across the room. Xena's arms were open by the time the smaller woman flung herself into them.
The Empress easily lifted the woman off the floor, drawing her up so that their lips could meet. The kiss was long and warm, and any one who observed the greeting would have imagined the two had been separated for months instead of candle marks. The Conqueror slowly let the smaller woman back onto her feet.
"I missed you," Xena's voice was husky, her blue eyes radiating the love she felt. The smile on the blonde's features grew to encompass her entire face.
"Did you get a lot of work done?" Gabrielle asked looping her arm through her companions and guiding them both into the adjoining suite where their meal was set out. She pulled on a rope that was attached to a bell in the kitchen. It was a summons to the staff to bring their meal.
"We managed to wade through some of it," Xena sighed helping her lover unto the couch before slipping down beside her. The tall woman wrapped her arm around the smaller woman's shoulders drawing her closer to her warmth. "In spite of Archius diligent work there are a lot of government matters to sort through. But that is what comes with being the ruler of an Empire. What did you do with your day?"
Gabrielle knew that her companion did not like talking about governmental affairs when they were alone and she could see the lines of weariness at the corner of the blue eyes. To indulge her companion she regaled her with events of her day. By the time she was finished the servants were there with their dinner of tender roasted lamb with cooked vegetables.
The two women spent the next few candle marks leisurely consuming their meal. While Xena washed it down with wine, Gabrielle stuck to goat's milk. Every once in a while the Empress would toss some more wood on the fire.
"So what were you working on, when I interrupted you?" Xena asked accepting a bit of food offered by her companion.
"I was writing about Lila's wedding and our adventure with Khafstar," the bard said. The Conqueror wasn't certain she wanted to be reminded of that episode in their lives. It was hard for her not to shudder with the memory of how she had almost lost her love and briefly she wondered about the blonde Amazon that had disappeared and how Ares had manipulated her.
Her thoughts turned briefly to the God of War. They had not seen evidence of any of the Deities from Mt. Olympus in the last moon, and she hoped that they would continue to stay out of their lives though she doubted that was possible.
"I notice that a dais is going up in the middle of the city," Gabrielle commented drawing the taller woman back to the present.
"Yes, plans for our wedding are coming along on schedule," the Empress nodded and for the next while they discussed their upcoming marriage. It was late into the night before the women finally moved from the living suite to the bed.
Xena had waited so long to hold her lover in the comfort of the palace bed that she found it hard to control the need to possess the smaller woman. Even though she wanted to take the blond hard and quickly she contained her desires aware of the child that was growing in the smaller woman.
They made love slowly, allowing their hands and lips to caress, their finger tips to tenderly trace familiar body lines and ridges. For a long time the Empress stared at the bulging belly of her lover, lovingly running the palm of her hand over it smooth surface. The love between the two women could not be denied and they finally came together, fulfilling the need to merge as one.
Afterwards the Conqueror lay on her back with the bard curled up against her side, her gentle warm breath caressing her naked skin. She reached down and ran her long fingers through the soft silky hair, breathing deeply the scent the woman had left on her skin. In the past the smell would have repulsed her and she would have risen from the bed to wash, but now she savoured the aroma, proud to be seen and associated with the woman that she would marry.
She closed her eyes, not wanting the day to end, afraid that she would go to sleep and than wake up to find that everything was a dream, and that she was alone, caught in a life that made her the hated and dreaded Conqueror. It was the soft gentle whisper of breath from her companion that finally lulled her to sleep.
The knock on the door rousted the dark haired man from his thoughts about the dark beauty that was sprawled on the couch next to him. He leaned negligently back against the pillows and waited for his visitors to announce their presence. It was late in the evening and he was loath to be disturbed. His dark eyes narrowed when the door opened to admit General Brutus and a tall unfamiliar blonde woman. His eyes gazed appreciatively over the slender well built form that was only partially concealed by the skimpy outfit of leather and feathers.
"This had better be important to disturb me at this hour," Caesar commented brusquely as he focused hard dark eyes on his military General.
"I believe it is," the man responded calmly, used to the Rome leader's moods. He motioned to the woman standing beside him. "This is Callisto and she is from the Amazon tribe in Greece. I think you should see what she has brought." With that the military man stepped forward holding out a parchment.
Caesar glanced arrogantly at the scroll for a long moment before leaning forward and snatching it out of the General's hand. He leaned back and scanned the paper, his dark eyes narrowing.
"So, the Conqueror is getting married," he could not help the scowl that formed on his lips as he tossed the announcement onto the floor as if it burned. "What do I care what Xena does?"
"Do you not want to see her defeated?" Callisto stepped forward, a sneer on her face. "Do you not want to possess her lands and rule the whole Known World?"
"Of course I do, but what concern of it is yours?"
"I also want to see the Conqueror brought to her knees," the woman said. "She destroyed my family when she destroyed Cirra and I want vengeance."
"Every one wants vengeance against the Conqueror," Caesar replied with boredom. "What makes you different than the rest of them?"
"Because I won't stop until she is dead," the blond woman promised, her eyes blazing with the desire for revenge.
The man was thoughtful. He had heard many similar offers from others with a grievance against the Conqueror but there was something about this woman and the expression in her eyes that appealed to him. She was crazy, he could see that and he was curious about how she planned to accomplish her mission of vengeance.
He turned to his female companion, the daughter of a servant, and arrogantly dismissed her. "Leave us."
The girl immediately did the man's bidding and Caesar waited only until she was gone before addressing the others. "How can you help me?"
"The Conqueror has returned to the Capital and is now wrapped up in plans for her marriage," Callisto said. "She will not be paying attention to what is happening around her. It would be so easy to sneak a small army of mercenaries into the capital and attack her at the most vulnerable moment. Can you imagine the splendour of killing the Conqueror and her beloved bard on their wedding day?"
Caesar was silent for a long moment as he imagined the scenario. The thought of destroying his enemy at the moment of her greatest happiness was appealing. He glanced at the woman wondering if he could trust her.
"What do you want from me?"
The long days of summer slowly passed, finally giving way to the cooler early days of fall. Xena had purposefully planned for their marriage ceremony to take place in the beginning of the fall season, aware that the summer heat would make the Queen uncomfortable in her condition. So she counted down the days, spending them dealing with the matters of state, while waiting for the preparations to be done.
Already she could feel a strange sense of excitement coursing through her body; an excitement that she had never experienced and it was an even greater anticipation than what she felt on the eve of a great battle. With it came a restlessness that made it hard for her to sit still for to long. While most days it was not a problem, it did present a concern on those occasions when she granted audiences to those minor officials and commoners who wished to petition the Empress herself.
Today was one such afternoon and glancing down the list of petitioners, Archius knew that the Conqueror's patience would be sorely tested. In order to get through the entire agenda before the Empress became bored would require that he ensure the officials were brief and to the point with their presentations. Though Xena had been remarkably calm, the last few weeks, he knew that she would not remain so forever. He feared for the poor individual who dared to stretch the Conqueror's patience beyond the breaking point.
Xena was in a remarkably good mood when she returned from an afternoon lunch with the Queen Gabrielle and the first few cases presented were dispensed with in quick fashion. In spite of the business going on around her the Empress was already thinking forward to the evening.
While the days were filled with the business of government, the nights were strictly reserved for the bard. If they weren't strolling together around the Palace grounds, they were riding through the countryside. More than once they had taken Argo for a ride to the shoreline, sitting at the edge of the water and watching as the day faded into the night. They would sit silently, their bodies wrapped together as they watched the silver moon rise in the dark sky, its brilliant light shimmering off the rippling waves of the water.
Her blue eyes wandered from the audience to the clear bright sky that showed through the window of the room and wondered how Gabrielle was spending her afternoon. After her initial trip to the market the morning after they had returned, the bard had remained near the Palace, working on a variety of stories and regaling the staff with tales of their adventures.
On other occasions the bard would attend the tutor sessions that had been set up to teach Solan and Arron lessons of history and math. Somehow the class had grown from the two boys to include a half dozen other children, each one being brought to class by a concerned bard who seemed to want to educate as many as possible.
An absent smile creased her lips as she thought of the Queen and the easy way she had with all the people she met. Even the local merchants were unable to deny the small blond and many found themselves in charge of trainees they had not otherwise intended on hiring. So immersed was she in her thoughts of her lover that she failed to realize when the government official making his petition had stopped speaking. It was the silence of the room that finally rousted her from her thoughts.
"My Conqueror what is your decision?" the man implored and Xena gazed at him for a long moment. There was a look of impatience on his face and none of the fear or nervousness that usually accompanied these requests. For some reason its absence annoyed her.
"What is your name?" she asked the man calmly.
"Teeis of Agra, Governor of the Province of Arcadia," the middle aged, rotund man replied.
"How long have you been governor?" the Conqueror asked in the same calm voice.
"Eleven seasons," the man proudly announced.
"Archius," the Empress motioned to her aide who immediately responded by producing a parchment filled with notes and numbers. The small man knew what his Empress wanted without having to be told.
Xena quietly glanced over the scroll. It was a record of the province that this official represented. She studied the numbers intently before negligently passing the scroll back to her aide.
"Teeis, our records show that Arcadia is a fertile province that produces some of the Empires finest fruits and vegetables," she fixed her gaze on the man. "How is it that you come to me now, begging for more money to sustain the social programs of your towns and villages?"
"The crops have been poor these last few years and the farms are not producing what they once did."
"Hmmm, that is interesting, I did not know that my people were suffering," Xena mused.
"Indeed we are my Empress," the man agreed trying to hide the smug smile that was threatening to encompass his features. He had heard that the Conqueror had grown soft and lax in governing her Empire and he had come to the Capital to see for himself. If that was the case than he would be able to pad his personal coffers more then he already was.
"That is most strange," the dark haired woman mused; all too aware of the game that the man was trying to play. "I receive monthly reports from the military Generals, and the one from your region, General Salas, reports that the farms are producing in abundance. Is he lying?"
It was a direct question and for a long moment blue eyes pierced into grey ones. The man saw the glint in the eyes and a bead of sweat broke out across his brow. He was in deep and he knew there was only two ways to get out of his situation. He chose one he was certain would give him time to get away from the Palace and hopefully to safety.
"I am certain he reports what he knows the Conqueror wishes to hear," the man replied with a hint of arrogance.
"No, Teeis of Agra, he reports the truth," Xena responded, her voice hardening. "Not six moons ago I passed through your Province and saw with my own eyes the abundance of crops that filled the fields." She paused, her eyes taking in the whole room, addressing all those who were now waiting on each of her words.
"Contrary to what you may have heard I have not gone soft or lost control of my Empire. Your feeble attempts to hide the truth from me will only serve to heighten the punishment that you will receive for your deception." There was another pause as she turned her pale eyes on the man still standing in front of her.
"Teeis, I have a complete report on you here, sent to me from my loyal servant General Salas," she snapped her fingers and Archius immediately handed her the parchment he was holding. Without glancing at the scroll Xena continued, her voice growing harsher. "He has been investigating you since the army paid for a shipment of grain and received a poor quality of cereal." She paused again and noticed that the man's face was beginning to grow pale. "It seems that you have been selling produce belonging to the Empire on the black market and keeping the returns for yourself."
"No," the man tried to defend himself.
"Yes!" Xena slapped her hand against the arm of her chair and stood up, towering over the man. "Were you so foolish to think that you could steal from me?"
"No," the feeble word barely managed to come out of the stricken man's throat.
"Than tell me why I should not have you executed now for your thievery?"
"I have a family," the man gasp dropping to his knees and beginning to beg for his life. "They would be destitute without me to support them."
"No one in my Empire is destitute," the Conqueror retorted, her nostrils flaring in anger. "You are fortunate that I am in a good mood. You will not be executed; instead you will remain in the common jail until your family appears with all the money you stole. Only when it is placed in my hand will you be free to go."
With a nod of her head, two Palace guards hurried forward to take the man into custody. There was a deathly silence in the room as everyone watched the sobbing man being dragged from the Conquerors presence.
"I suggest that if anyone has come here in an attempt to hoodwink me, they best take a second thought," Xena snarled. "For the next one caught lying will not be as fortunate as your colleague."
Silence continued to reign, everyone afraid to speak or move. Xena inwardly smiled, aware that she still had the power to put the fear of the Gods into people. She looked at Archius who was as solemn as always, revealing none of his emotions.
"Archius I want a law to be set forth from this day forward," she announced. "From now on no one shall govern for more then eight seasons after which they will need to be re-elected by the people of their region, and no one shall serve their people for more then six summers without a break." She paused. "From now on you will no longer just be accountable to me but to the people with whom you represent."
There was a shocked silence from the audience, many of whom had served as governor or mayor of their region for more years then they could remember. They were not certain what to think of this new development.
"Who is next?" she demanded and Archius called out the name at the top of his list. A nervous man stepped forward and in a shaking voice hurriedly presented his petition.
The Empress' outburst had the desired effect for those who had sought to present trivial cases to the Conquerors attention, suddenly decided that they could do just as well with the advice they could get from other officials in the Palace court. Xena was barely able to hide a smile that threatened.
After the many candle marks that she spent listening to the complaints of her government officials, she longed only to sit in the calming presence of her friend and lover. As she had hoped, Gabrielle was in their private chambers.
"How are you this afternoon my love?" she greeted the smaller woman, watching as the bard slowly rose to her feet from the bench on which she was sitting. They met half way across the room and embraced each other.
"Tired," Gabrielle sighed with fatigue though she was unable to hide the smile that lit up her face. She kissed her Empress and then moved slightly out of her embrace to pat the bulge of her stomach. "Who would think something so tiny could wreck such havoc on my life."
Xena threw back her head and laughed. "That is a question I have been asking myself every day since I met you."
"Xennnnaaaa," the Queen moaned and playfully slapped the taller woman's arm. "My feelings are hurt."
"Ahh, than let me make it up to you," the Empress smiled and placed a melting kiss on her lover's lips before scooping the very pregnant woman into her arms and carrying her through the room to their bed. She gently lay the woman down before sliding down beside her.
"You are so beautiful," the older woman whispered in awe as she ran her hand over the swollen roundness of Gabrielle's belly. "You will make a wonderful mother."
"So will you," the bard replied and for a brief moment the rhythmic stroking hand paused as Xena thought of the blond haired boy that lived in the Palace military barracks. She pushed those thoughts away.
"What do you say to a picnic out on the beach?"
"I would love it!" The smaller woman exclaimed. She enjoyed the time they spent away from the Palace for it seemed that a change came over the Warrior. Away from the palace the Empress was more relaxed and playful; more carefree and patient. She was Xena the woman and not the Empress and Conqueror. "How about we bring Solan and Arron along?"
The smile on the Conquerors face slipped just faintly. She enjoyed being alone with the bard but she also knew that she had been neglecting her son. Since bringing him back to Corinth she had kept her distance, content to hear of his antics from her small companion who was doing her utmost to make him her friend. She rolled onto her back and stared up at the intricate carving in the ceiling.
Gabrielle knew that her lover had yet to speak with her son since bringing him back to the Palace. She understood that the Conqueror was not yet ready to develop a relationship with the boy. Perhaps it was still too soon. She told her companion as much.
"No," Xena sighed. She had been putting off the inevitable long enough. It was time for her to do what she feared the most. It was time for her to start building a relationship with her son. She sat up and looked down at her somber companion.
"No. If I put it off now I will keep putting it off," the Princess Warrior admitted looking anxiously at the other woman as she scratched the back of her neck. "I guess I am a little scared. He hates me."
"He doesn't know you," Gabrielle reminded the taller woman as she struggled into a sitting position. Her heart always trembled at the sight of her lover's vulnerability and it was pulsing now.
"What if he still hates me when he does know me?"
"How can you be so sure of that?" Xena wanted to know her blue eyes pleading for an answer that would assuage her fears.
"Because you are not the monster he thinks you are. Once he gets to know you and to see the person beyond the Conqueror of what he's heard, he will, like the rest of us come to like you."
"Gabrielle, the last time I looked, you were the only one who liked me."
"Than you haven't looked in a long time," the bard replied sincerely. "Do you think Archius or Xenon would still be here if they didn't like you? My love I think you would truly be surprised to know exactly how many people do like you."
Xena was silent aware that the bard had a way of taking away her fears with a few simple words. She felt an ache in her heart; an ache of love that she felt for the smaller woman. It was painful but so much more pleasurable.
"I love you," she said and the smile that she received in response warmed her heart even more.
"I know," Gabrielle giggled before scrambling out of bed as quickly as her growing body would allow. "If we are going on a picnic than I need to let the cooks know and our guests need to be invited." The Empress watched as the little blond whirlwind swept out of the room.
The ornately coloured boat that sailed into the harbour of the great city of Rome was accompanied by a half dozen ordinary looking junks, all of whose holds were filled with silks, perfumes and other trinkets from the Orient. While they laid anchor in the bay, the more elaborate vessel tied up to a dock on shore.
Almost immediately a royal carriage appeared on the wharf, coming to a halt next to the foreign ship. Moments later a slender, ornately clothed man descended down the gang plank. He was followed by a retinue of servants and ministers.
Only the man and two others climbed into the carriage which immediately took off towards the palace in which Caesar was ensconced. A pair of blue eyes watched from a short distance away, curious about this new arrival.
Callisto glanced to another area alongside the dock where a plain Persian vessel was tied. The Roman leader had listened attentively to her plan and then after a moments thought agreed to lend his support. Caesar would loan her the use of a fully stocked ship and thirty of his finest mercenary soldiers to assist in her endeavour and in a few days they would be sailing towards the Greek coast.
She knew that with this small force she would be able to get into Corinth and do more damage to the Empress than a full Legion of Rome's finest yet in spite of his agreement, the tall blond woman was just a little bit suspicious. The fact that the Leader of Rome had so willingly agreed to her plan made her wonder if she was to be some type of decoy. She had been manipulated once and would not allow that to happen again.
Following her instinct she trailed the newly arrived entourage, and though it was not greeted with any fanfare, the visitors were given immediate access to the palace. She was able to slip through the gates unnoticed by the Roman soldiers and hide behind a corner of a building. From there she watched as the small group dismounted from the carriage. They were greeted by General Brutus who escorted them into the Palace.
"You are the Amazon Callisto?"
The low voice caught the blond warrior by surprise and she whirled around, her sword raised, ready to strike the person who dared to approach her. Her blue eyes narrowed as she caught sight of a tall brown haired woman wrapped in dark robes. It was the black eyes that drew her attention for they seemed to bore right into her soul.
"Why do you ask?" a pair of blue eyes narrowed.
"I ask because I heard that you were arranging a mission against the Conqueror," the mysterious woman said and Callisto was immediately on her guard. She had only discussed her plans with Caesar.
"Did HE tell you that?" the Amazon hissed, fearing that her suspicious may have been correct.
"Caesar did not betray you."
"Than how do you know of my plans?"
A small smile came to the dark haired woman's red lips. "I have a special gift. A gift that can tell me what other people are thinking and special powers from the Underworld that can help you in your quest to defeat the Conqueror," the woman explained.
"How do you know that my mission is against the Conqueror?"
"Does not everyone have some grievance with the Warrior Princess?"
"What grievance do you have?" Blue eyes narrowed as they stared at the tall woman. It was not in her nature to trust anyone.
"I was once a courtesan in Queen Cleopatra's court," the strange woman explained. "We were visiting the Conqueror when her bed slave made a complaint against me. The Queen was most embarrassed and banished me from her presence and the Royal court where I welded much power. It has not been easy for me to adjust to my new circumstances."
"If it was a mere bed slave how was it that you did not take care of the matter yourself if you have such powers?" Callisto was disdainful and yet curious.
"Because that bed slave is the Queen of the Amazon's, the one whom the Conqueror protects and wishes to make her consort."
The blonde Amazon was silent for a moment as she continued to stare at this stranger. She could tell that this woman was not lying. She had heard the hatred in the tone of the taller woman's voice. She was not certain though that this stranger would be a help or a liability.
"What do you propose?"
"I already have an alliance with Caesar?" Callisto reminded the woman.
"He offers you only a small force of soldiers. You will not be able to defeat the Conqueror with them, nor can you defeat the Conqueror on your own," the woman said bluntly. "You are not strong enough nor a good enough swordsman to kill the Conqueror, but the two of us together would be more than a match for her, and with her dead, it would be easy for me to kill the one known as Gabrielle."
Callisto was silent as she contemplated the idea. She privately bristled at the woman's suggestion that she was not good enough to defeat the Conqueror on her own, but she was not stupid and knew that it would be smart to balance the odds in her favour.
"What if I don't agree?" the Amazon snarled, unnerved by this woman.
"Than I can make life miserable for you," the arrogant woman promised glancing over the scantily clad warrior. "By your appearance it would not be hard for me to make the Roman guards think that you were here to do harm to their beloved Caesar."
"And I would claim that you gave me assistance," Callisto snarled not to be outdone by this stranger.
The woman laughed, her dark eyes sparkling for a mere instant, impressed by the response. The smile left her face as quickly as it had appeared. "You will not be sorry."
"I hope not," the blonde Amazon snarled. "Are you are willing to follow my plans?"
"Than I am willing to accept your assistance," she finally spoke, and the taller woman bowed graciously in acceptance. "By what do you call yourself?"
"I am known to all as Altee," the strange woman replied, her dark eyes glimmering.
While the two women formed an alliance outside the palace walls, Brutus was inside the lavish palace escorting the new visitors in to see the Roman leader. Though he had once been Caesar's favourite General, he was no longer privy to the man's thoughts. Once a valued member of the man's inner circle he found himself slowly being pushed from a position of power. Caesar had all but accused him of treason for allowing Xena to win in the North, and as punishment he was slowly being banished from Rome.
Brutus glanced at the small man whom he led through the corridors of the Palace to the reception chamber where Caesar waited. The presence of the Prince from Chin in Rome made him uneasy. Chin was a land securely under the power of the Empress of Greece. He wondered about this man's appearance.
He announced the guest's arrival and stepped aside so that the visitors could move into the room. Caesar was alone with the exception of the guards and he immediately dismissed them, along with Brutus, whom he instructed to close the doors.
"It is so good of you to see us on such short notice," Ming Tien said bowing respectfully.
"How could I refuse a visit from someone such as yourself, a respected Prince of Chin," the Roman replied. "Though I am a little surprised, especially as I know you are a close and respected member of the Conquerors Empire."
"I am but a mere servant of the Conquerors," the small man replied ambiguously.
"A man of your statute should not be a servant to anyone, you are a Prince of Chin," Caesar countered his curiosity growing.
"Yes, but circumstances are such that I do not rule my own land," the Chin man replied in a mournful voice.
"That will change someday," the Roman aristocrat waved his arm negligently.
"On that we agree," Ming Tien answered.
"But perhaps you grow impatient waiting?" Caesar remarked slyly.
"Indeed, each day that passes is too long a wait, which is why I seek your advice?"
"What of Loa Moa? Surely, there is none better then one's own mother to dispense advice."
"My poor honoured mother met with an unfortunate accident just prior to my departure from Chin," Ming Tien replied. "The Conqueror has not yet been advised of her untimely passing, and I thought it in her best interest not to mention anything until after the Empress' wedding celebration."
Caesar allowed a sly smile to broaden across his face. He clapped his hands and then motioned to his guests to take a seat. A servant appeared from a corner of the room.
"My guests have had a long and hard journey," the Emperor said to the servant. "Bring us fresh drink and food immediately."
The maiden bowed her head and hurried from the room as Caesar himself sprawled out onto a nearby couch. It would be a long afternoon and he would show his guests respect by making available to them the finest food and drink from his cellars. It was the least that he could do in response to this unexpected visit.
"Now, my friend, what advice do you wish?"
By the time the bard was finished, the intimate picnic for two that Xena had imagined had turned into a party of eight. Besides Solan and Arron, Gabrielle invited Archius, Xenon, Solari and Eponin.
After collecting the food from the kitchen staff they met in the courtyard before riding together through the city and out towards the small beach area that Xena and Gabrielle had claimed as their own special place.
Gabrielle was seated on Argo in front of her beloved Conqueror, with Xena's arms wrapped tightly around her swollen belly. The bard enjoyed the arrangement for she was able to lean back into the curving warmth of her companion's body. For Xena, she was comforted in the knowledge that she was protecting her love and their child.
It was a beautiful afternoon. It was breezy yet the wind was warm and soothing, carrying the refreshing scent of the sea across the land. After leaving the horses to graze in the tall grasses that skirted the dunes, they strolled in a group to the waters edge. The seas were calm, the waves small as they rolled leisurely onto the shore.
Gabrielle had thought long and hard on a way that she could get the tall warrior and her son alone together. The idea had finally come to her while she had been down in the kitchens collecting food for their excursion. A smile had come to her face as the idea grew into a plan which she carefully plotted and now was intent on implementing.
"All right, here's the deal," the small bard said when the group headed up the beach to where they had deposited the baskets and blankets that had been brought. "I decided for our meal tonight we would do something different."
Xena instinctively knew that she wasn't going to like what was coming and in the next few moments her suspicions were confirmed. She silently berated herself for giving the other woman such freedom to rule her life. It amazed her that a not many summers earlier they had been strangers, and she had been totally unaware of the dynamic woman who had swept into her life and claimed her heart.
"As you see there are nothing in the three baskets other then some skins of wine and some sweets," Gabrielle was clearly in her element and the smile on her face and the twinkle in her eye was genuine. "I have divided us up into teams of two. Each team will be given a basket and the challenge is for each team to go off and find us something to eat."
Xena grimaced aware that the Amazon's were fiercely competitive. She turned a blue gaze on the small blond woman and mimicked a snarl, showing her displeasure.
"What is the prize for the team who brings back the best fare?" Solari asked eagerly.
"The prize is a scroll, personally written by the bard especially for the winners." The Empress piped in before the Amazon Queen could speak and those in attendance were pleased by the offered reward.
Twinkling green eyes turned to the taller woman, the smile on the bards face growing wider. She loved the idea of the reward and equally pleased that her love had suggested it.
"Okay," she turned her attention to the group and began the job of placing them in teams. Xena was not surprised when she was paired with Solan. She knew that the bard had planned this from the start, and while she accepted what the small woman was attempting to do she wasn't certain the boy was as accepting.
Solan wasn't very pleased to be paired with the Empress and the expression on his young face reflected his feelings, but he said nothing, accepting the basket that was held out to him.
The pairs headed off in different directions leaving Gabrielle and Archius behind to set out the blankets and to prepare a fire. Xena growled one last time before turning and following the blond boy who was already trudging up the nearby sand dune.
The Empress knew that her lover's intentions were good, but she was less certain that this was the way to make the two of them speak with each other. She didn't know how to start a conversation and was quietly mulling over several opening lines when the boy saved her that problem.
"Where do you think we can find anything edible?" Solan had been taught by Kalipus to live off the land but the vegetation here was different then the plant life that was found in the forest and mountainous regions where the Centaur village was located.
"There is food all around us," Xena replied in a crisp voice and then realized how harsh it might sound to the boy. She softened her tones when she spoke again. "You just have to look for it. The land is rich with everything needed to survive."
"I know," the boy replied somewhat shortly bristling at the idea that this woman thought that he was ignorant of the land. "Kalipus, my father, showed me the different plants that would not be poisonous to eat."
"Yes, but the regions around Amphipolis and the Centaur village are very different than here," Xena said, pausing in her stride to drop to her hunches. Solan paused and looked down at the dark haired woman, watching as she pushed aside a green mat of grass and plucked a different green coloured leaf root from the ground. She rubbed the dirt off and held it up for the boy to see.
"This is a black root," she explained, finding it easy to converse with the lad when they were discussing a subject to which she knew. She was pleased to see that the boy was paying attention. "It isn't very tasty unless you roast it with meat but it will defeat any hungry you might be feeling."
Solan nodded forgetting for a moment that he was listening to the Conqueror. He was always interested in gaining knowledge especially when it came to Mother Nature and for the next half candle mark they wandered around the small plain and nearby forest, momentarily forgetting the purpose of their adventure.
"How do you like living at the Palace?" Xena finally screwed up her courage and asked the boy the one question that had been upper most in her mind.
"It's okay," Solan was non-committal.
"The stable master is quite pleased with your work," the Empress continued, encouraged that the lad's response wasn't filled with the usual anger. "He says that you have a natural talent with the animals. Perhaps that is because of your upbringing."
"The Centaurs are not animals," Solan bristled at the comparison.
"No they aren't, I apologize for the suggestion," the Empress immediately recognized her mistake and did the only thing she could think of. She did not realize how proud her bard would have been of her. "What I meant was that you probably understand better then the rest of us their needs in making them comfortable and keeping them healthy."
The argument that Solan was forming in his head died on his lips. He was barely able to hide his astonishment at the fact that the Conqueror had actually apologized. Not only had she apologized but she had done so to someone as lowly as him. This confused him, for in his mind he had come to believe that the Empress apologized to no one.
"Well, yeah, I guess so," he managed to mumble.
"And your lessons are you enjoying them?" Xena asked pleased by how well the conversation was going. Perhaps this would be easier than she imagined. She would have to thank the small bard later when they were finally alone.
"Yes," the boy nodded his blond head. "I am learning much about the Empire and the lands beyond the borders."
"The scribes are teaching you numbers as well." It was more of a statement than a question.
"Yes, but I do not have a head for numbers," the lad confessed ruefully. "The scribes are very frustrated by my inability to learn their concepts."
Xena laughed. "You must have inherited that from m........." Almost too late she caught herself, aware that she was about to reveal a secret that she was not yet ready for the world to know. "I had no head for numbers either. It caused my mother no end of frustration."
"It's not like I need to know anything more than the count of currency," the boy continued with a shrug of his broad shoulders. "I am a soldier. I have no need for numbers."
"That's where you are wrong," the Empress countered. "Everyone should know how to count and keep count."
"Why?" the lad turned to look at the tall woman.
"To count your pay, for one."
"Isn't that what scribes are for?"
"Yes, but how will you know that your scribe isn't cheating you?" Xena asked curiously. "Besides, what will you do if you are hurt in a battle and can no longer be a soldier? You will need numbers for anything you do."
Solan remained silent. He didn't want to acknowledge that the Conqueror was right. What she said was the same thing that Kalipus always used to tell him when he fussed about going to lessons.
Xena seemed to sense that the boy was thinking about something deep. She decided that she had reached the limit of her sensitive chats.
"We have been gone a long while," she said changing the subject. "I think the others may be waiting for us."
Solan glanced at the contents of the basket. "We only found roots and berries; we have no meat to roast."
"I don't think we will have to worry," the Conqueror snorted. "One thing you will learn around the Amazons, they are very competitive and take each challenge seriously. If there is any meat to be had around the area, the Amazons will have already found it."
The boy nodded. He had not been around the Palace very long but already he had seen evidence of the Amazon's spirited nature. More then once he had been witness to a challenge between the Amazon's and the Royal Palace Guards.
As the Conqueror had intimidated, the Amazon's won the challenge, having captured several small rabbits, plus roots and berries. Xena remained behind while Gabrielle sent the others off for an evening swim. They worked silently together putting the boar on a spit over the fire that was now a mount of glowing coals and embers. Only once the food was set to cook in the fire did they sit down. In the distance they could see the others splashing in the surf, their laughter and voices carrying through the evening air.
"Ask I know you are dying to."
"Ask what?" Gabrielle pretended not to understand what the tall woman was referring too.
Xena snorted in disbelief and the bard knew that the Conqueror would not make it easy on her.
She sighed, giving in as she always did.
"Okay, how did it go with Solan?"
"Okay I guess," the dark haired woman shrugged, looking at the blond innocently. "No blood was shed."
"Xena," Gabrielle whined rolling her green eyes, slapping her companion's thigh.
"Okay, okay, don't get physical," the Conqueror smiled, grabbing the small hands and holding them tightly between her own larger callused ones. "We just talked. I asked him about how he was doing, and if he was enjoying his stay at the Palace. I decided it was best to keep our conversation general."
"Wise move," the Queen agreed, a smile decorating her face. "And does he enjoy living at the Palace?"
"I suppose, though he did not have an understanding of why he needed to learn numbers," the Conqueror replied.
"What answer did you give?"
"I told him so that I wouldn't cheat him out of his proper pay," Xena shrugged and the bard rolled her eyes.
Gabrielle did not press her companion for more information, aware that the Conqueror was not one for intimate chats. Instead when she spoke again it was on a different subject.
It was late when the group finally returned to the palace and the weary individuals where more than happy to retire to their beds. Gabrielle had fallen asleep on the ride back to the city and her companion lovingly carried her to bed, taking care to disrobe the small bard before pulling the bed sheets over the woman.
For a long time Xena sat on the edge of the bed and stared at the smaller woman, her fingers unconsciously stroking the blonde's cheek. She loved the bard, and did not know what she would do if she ever lost the woman. With a sigh she rose and prepared for bed, hoping that she would never have to find out the answer to that thought.
Continued in part two