Within a few months of conquering Greece, I had a government in place and capable men like Braextus to oversee the provinces. General Darnell supervised the establishment of garrison cities to defend the borders and keep the peace. And I was presented with a rather unorthodox solution to the dissident problem: Gabrielle became my Advisor for Civilian Affairs. I was not proud of the circumstances under which I promoted Gabrielle; however, I was glad I did. Despite the misgivings of Darnell and others, my former assistant proved that she was up to the challenge. So, with the day-to-day affairs of government running smoothly, the borders well defended, and the citizenry pacified, I began to focus on plans for expanding my empire beyond the borders of Greece.
The Romans had carved out a large empire that stretched from Gaul in the west to the borders of my empire in the east. I knew it was just a matter of time before the Romans viewed me as a threat and waged war on Greece. My aim, therefore, was to conquer them first, but until my army was ready to face-off against Roman Legions on the battlefield, I would have to maintain cordial diplomatic relations with their Triumvirate and its leader, Julius Caesar.
Caesar was an ambitious man, and like me, he believed it was his destiny to rule the greatest empire the world had ever known. Since the world wasn't big enough for the two of us, I was going to make damn sure it was my destiny that would be fulfilled though destiny, it seemed, was subject to Fate's own cosmic timetable.
It had barely been a week since Gabrielle's promotion, when I awoke to a pounding on my bedchamber door. The guards knew better than to wake me in the middle of the night without a good reason, so I knew it had to be important.
"What is it?" I called as I slipped out of bed and picked up a robe.
"My Liege, a messenger has just arrived," came the voice of the night watch commander. "The scroll is sealed with your imperial mark."
"Have him brought to me immediately," I answered back.
I put on the robe and splashed some water on my face to freshen up. A few minutes later there was another knock on my door.
The night watch commander entered my chambers and saluted. "Your Highness, the messenger awaits you in your study."
"Very good, Lieutenant. I will be there presently."
The messenger stood awestruck as I entered the room. The two guards who had escorted him snapped to attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the guards poke the courier in the ribs and gesture for him to bow. Ignoring everyone, I picked up the scroll from where it lay on the table to examine the seal.
"Who gave you this?" I barked at the messenger.
"A-another courier, Your Worship," he stammered. "He was instructed not to tell me who sent it. Only that I was to deliver it directly to you."
Sending a scroll of such importance by commercial couriers was a last resort, and I couldn't allow it to be traced back to its source. I turned to one of the guards. "Have that messenger tracked down immediately and killed."
"Yes, My Liege." The soldier nodded and hurried out.
The messenger, who stood before me, started whimpering. He knew what was coming next. I turned to the other soldier. "Kill this one," I pushed the messenger toward him, "make it quick."
I broke the seal as the messenger's body hit the floor. A quick glance at the first word confirmed my fears. I turned, stepped over the corpse, and returned to my bedchambers.
The scroll was from my spy in Rome. He had orders to contact me only when circumstances demanded immediate action. The message conveyed news of Caesar's latest conquests. He had moved legions into Gaul and Britannia, making them part of the empire. With the ability to recruit warriors from these conquered territories, Caesar could put together a formidable army.
Yet it wasn't all bad news. Until the territories of Gaul and Britannia were completely subdued, the Romans would be preoccupied into diverting reinforcements there and away from the heart of Rome itself. The best news was my spy had heard from a reliable source that Caesar was planning to proclaim himself emperor. This would not sit well with the other members of the Triumvirate especially not after I sowed some seeds of dissent. I would take a page from Caesar's own scroll: divide and conquer.
I immediately dispatched a message informing the Triumvirate that I would be coming to Rome for a state visit.
Since this was a diplomatic visit, I had no need of my civilian affairs advisor in Rome; nevertheless, I asked Gabrielle to accompany me. I made up some plausible reason something about Roman civic improvements but to be honest, I couldn't imagine going without her.
Gabrielle looked a little unsettled as we sailed out of port. We stood near the gunwales forward of the main rigging and watched, as Corinth harbour became a dot on the horizon.
Once we were under full sails, I turned my attention to Gabrielle. Her usually bright demeanour was subdued and her complexion was ashen green.
"Are you alright?" I asked her.
"Yes," she said, mustering a wan smile. "It's just a bit of nerves."
I looked at her quizzically.
She answered my look. "I've never been on a ship before."
"Don't worry, there's nothing to it. You'll be fine once you get your sea legs."
"I'm not so sure about that, I" Suddenly, Gabrielle stopped talking, leaned over the rail and disgorged the contents of her stomach.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle groaned and lifted her head from over the railing. "It's the movement," she explained. "All that up and dow" She leaned over the side again to retch.
Nearby, soldiers and sailors quietly snickered. One look from me and they went about their business, but even I had to stifle a chuckle.
"Come here. I know a little trick that'll help you."
"You do?" Gabrielle said with a pained but hopeful look.
"Give me your arm."
She obeyed, and I applied some acupressure techniques.
"If the nausea comes back, just press here." I showed her where to press on her wrist.
"Thank you." She sighed. "I feel better already."
We were two days into our crossing. The sea was calm and we were making good time. After showing her the acupressure point to cure seasickness, Gabrielle couldn't get enough of life on the sea and spent much of the day on deck chatting with the crew. I, on the other hand, spent most of the day in my cabin with Darnell going over the agenda for our visit to Rome. Still, it was good to be onboard a ship again. The sounds and smells reminded me of my pirate days long before I became "Xena the Conqueror".
That was when I first encountered Julius Caesar. He was my first great passion and the only man that had ever bettered me. After Caesar, I had vowed never to open my heart completely to anyone again.
The voice and the question startled me. I turned to find Gabrielle standing in the cabin doorway. "Why what?" I asked warily, wondering if she had read my mind.
"Why conquer Rome?" She walked over to where I stood. "You already rule Greece and Macedonia."
"I'm just paying a state visit to a neighbour," I replied with feigned innocence. "Who said anything about conquering it?"
Gabrielle smiled and shook her head. "You!" She waved a piece of salt beef at me. "You said yourself, you're known as 'the Conqueror' because it's what you do."
"You got me there," I said with a slight chuckle.
Her smile faded and was replaced by a more serious expression. "Xena, Caesar is not some petty warlord. If you go up against him, you might very well lose everything."
"I won't lose," I responded defiantly.
"But to go up against the strongest empire in the world is foolhardy. Can't you be content with what you've got?" Her tone was a mixture of reproach and pleading.
"I'm doing it precisely because Rome is strong," I rumbled. "They're a threat to my empire, and I will not be threatened by anyone!"
"Yes, My Liege," she replied in that particularly apologetic tone I hated.
"Stop it!" I growled. "Don't 'yes, My Liege' me like that ever again!" I closed the distance between us.
Gabrielle stood as though her boots were nailed to the planks. She didn't flinch. Instead, she turned her head slightly and revealed the light yellow-purple shadow of the bruise on her cheek. The memory of it hit me with a similar ferocity.
"My Liege, you can't do that"
That's all I heard Gabrielle say. Without thinking, my hand lashed out and struck her face, hard. "Don't ever contradict me again!" I spat, my mind clouded by indignant rage.
Gabrielle, to her credit, did not cry out. She stood with her head bowed, but she couldn't hide the bright red mark that stood out in sharp contrast against her pale cheek.
What had I done? My soul screamed in agony when I realised I had just viciously slapped the one person who was most dear to me. All I wanted to do was draw her in my arms and beg her forgiveness, but my men were watching us. I couldn't show any sign of backing down in public.
Later I found her sitting by the carp pond in the inner courtyard gardens. I could tell she had been crying from the tear streaks running down her reddened cheek.
Facing twenty gladiators in the arena seemed preferable to facing Gabrielle, but I had never backed down from anything in my life. I knelt down and took her trembling hand. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle."
She pulled her hand away. "That will be the last time you ever hit me, Xena."
I raised my hand...and cupped her still-bruised cheek in my palm. "Please don't use that meek, disapproving tone against me. I need your friendship, Gabrielle, not your obedience."
Gabrielle instinctively leaned into the warmth of my hand as I gently stroked her cheek. "I'm sorry, Xena. Sometimes it's hard to know how to deal with your dark moods."
I knew I was falling in love with Gabrielle, but I couldn't let her know. I couldn't let anyone know. To love was to have a weakness an enemy could exploit, and Caesar most assuredly would exploit Gabrielle to checkmate me.
"I'm sorry for getting angry," I said as I lowered my hand. "But Caesar does that to me. This is not just a political move. It's personal." I turned away from her and sat down on my bunk.
She sat down on her bunk opposite me. We sat silently for what seemed like an age, and then Gabrielle spoke, "Tell me. It might help."
I looked across at her. She had such an open and compassionate expression on her face. I had resolved not to talk about my past with Caesar, but it was her next simple request that made me open up to her.
Memories of Caesar were still raw and piercing, and there were some memories I had to bury deep or risk discarding my destiny and giving in to blind hatred. With Gabrielle, however, I felt safe enough to expose some of it.
"Caesar was charming, handsome, charismatic, arrogant, self-centred, ruthless, cunning, and the most dangerous man I had ever met," I began. "I fell in love with him and he used me. I thought I was in control and knew what I was doing. I thought I could trust him that together we'd rule an empire. He betrayed me and had me crucified."
"Crucified!" Gabrielle gasped.
I nodded. "He had my legs broken for good measure."
"How did you survive?" She leaned forward, eager to hear what I had to say, but there was a look in her eyes that suggested she wasn't enjoying the story. It was as though she was suffering the hurt I had felt all those years ago, and she needed to feel it in order to understand me.
I lowered my eyes as I thought of M'Lila, the runaway slave who had rescued me from the cross, who had died protecting me from Caesar's soldiers. That was one memory I chose not to share. "I had help," I replied simply.
Gabrielle moved over to my bunk and laid a sympathetic hand on my left leg. Her fingers grazed the inside of my thigh, and I felt a sudden rush of desire at her touch. Having her this close and not acting on my feelings was driving me to distraction.
I got up from the bunk and started pacing the floor of the small cabin so I could refocus my mind on the task at hand. Gabrielle said nothing, but her sea-green eyes urged me to continue and after a bit more pacing, I did.
"I've spent many years waiting for an opportunity to get my revenge. And now that I have power equal to his, he'll do everything he can to neutralise me."
"If that's the case, won't he have you killed when you get to Rome?" Gabrielle sounded worried.
"No. Caesar is a showman. He won't try and kill me until he first parades me around like a sacrificial bull, and then he will make a spectacle of my death. Having power is not enough for him. He has to be seen as being the most powerful."
"He sounds a like a monster."
"On the contrary, he's a charming and delightful host. When you meet him, you'll find yourself drawn to him. He can make you say things you'd never dream of saying to anyone else. And then he'll casually order your death as he would a goblet of wine."
Gabrielle looked troubled.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Nothing," she evaded and forced a smile.
"Say it." I knew what she wanted to say.
"It's just that"
"It's just that the words I use to describe Caesar could just as easily describe me."
Gabrielle averted her gaze, so I knew I had correctly guessed her thoughts.
"Caesar has the same desires I do. We are both driven by our belief in our own destiny to rule a vast empire. When we met all those years ago, he recognised I could be a formidable rival. That was why he wanted me dead, and that is why there can be only one of us."
That first sight of him, in his ceremonial battle dress of red with gold trim and ornate gold plated armour, brought more memories flooding back. For a moment I found myself feeling the same attraction I had felt all those years ago.
"Xena! How nice to see you again."
To the casual observer, he sounded like he was greeting an old friend, but I detected the slight tone of condescension in his voice.
"I believe you meant to greet me as 'Your Highness,' did you not, Julius? I am, after all, an Empress."
In this verbal dual, I got in the first strike, and I could tell from his tightened jaw it had stung a bit. I smiled inwardly knowing how much it must have irked him to have to accord me proper respect.
We continued to stare each other down in a battle of wills. Caesar needed to find out the reason for my visit, and to do that, he would have to be the first to blink.
Although it would've given me pleasure to watch him swallow that bitter pill, it served my purpose to let him think he had won this round.
"Titles are not important," I said. "We are all friends here, are we not?"
"Yes, of course," Caesar said with a fake smile. Then he clapped his hands and two slaves one with a tray of drinks, the other with a tray of fruit stepped forward and offered me refreshment.
I took a reasonable gamble that Caesar wouldn't poison the wine at the first meeting and grabbed a goblet. Instinctively, I scanned the hall to scout my surroundings and identify the other members of the Triumvirate.
I recognised Pompey straight away. He was posing against the wall behind Caesar, a goblet of wine in one hand, the other on his hip. Tall and ruggedly handsome, he appeared disdainful of everything and everyone around him.
"So, what brings such a well-respected neighbour to our shores?" asked Caesar.
"Oh, you know how it is." I took a sip of wine, and then savoured the taste, allowing the Consul to become agitated waiting for my reply. "Very nice wine. And no poison, I must be an honoured guest."
Caesar flashed a hard smile at my refusal to answer his question directly. "Have some fruit, Your Highness," he offered cordially.
I reached out and grasped a grape between my thumb and forefinger. "Are these poisoned?" I asked Caesar with a wicked smile.
This comment provoked a chuckle from one of the men to my right. I glanced in that direction but didn't notice which one had made the sound.
Pompey had obviously had enough at this point. He pushed himself away from the wall with a melodramatic sigh. "So, the Great Xena deigns to pay us a visit. Are we all supposed to just stand around like background actors in a play while you and Caesar decide which of you can piss the farthest? Or are you going to tell us why you're really here?"
It seemed my information about him was correct: he was an arrogant little shit. I was going to enjoy controlling him, but wondered how long I could keep myself from having him killed. "You must be Pompey, the Magnus," I said, sounding like I was trying to control my awe. "It's an honour to meet you." I dipped my head slightly.
"You have heard of my prowess in battle," proclaimed Pompey as he swaggered towards me. The word 'battle' was emphasised with a discreet thrust of his pelvis.
"Oh, most definitely," I purred, and made sure he noticed my lingering look at his groin. "I'm sure no one is a match for you."
The pandering to his ego caused him to puff his chest out, and he gave Caesar a cocky smirk. Caesar, in turn, gave me a withering look. I simply smiled at Caesar as Pompey took my hand and brought it to his lips. Inside I felt revolted, but outwardly I appeared flattered. If it took getting between the sheets with this insect to get him to oust Caesar, I would.
Caesar cleared his throat. "Allow me to introduce you to the third member of the Triumvirate, Brutus."
"Brutus? What happened to Crassus?" I feigned surprise.
"Oh, your spies didn't tell you? Crassus, I'm afraid, is no longer with us. It seems he died in bed..." Caesar paused for effect, "...in bed with Senator Flavius's wife." Everyone in the room chuckled. Caesar continued, "The Senate has seen fit to appoint Brutus to take Crassus's place in the Triumvirate." Caesar raised his arm and gestured toward a short, rather plain-looking man making his way out from the assembly. "Empress Xena, may I present my good friend, Brutus."
"Empress," Brutus said as he bowed slightly. "I am honoured to make your acquaintance."
"As I am yours," I replied.
I did not bring a large entourage to this meeting just General Darnell, two senior aides, and a four-man honour guard. At my insistence, Gabrielle remained onboard ship with Lieutenant Galates. It was for her protection. I had no way of knowing for sure what kind of reception I would receive from Caesar, and I wanted to keep her out of harm's way.
I gestured for Darnell to step forward. "May I present General Darnell, my Chief of Staff."
Darnell snapped to attention and gave our Roman hosts a courtly nod.
"We are honoured, General." Ever the gracious host, Caesar greeted Darnell cordially.
"The honour is mine. I have long anticipated meeting Rome's greatest generals though I had expected it to be on the field of battle," Darnell replied with a sly smile.
Pompey was about to respond when we heard a commotion outside the door to the chamber.
"You cannot enter!" a guard's voice boomed.
"Do you know who I am?"
"Then how do you know I'm not allowed to enter?"
I felt a sudden jolt of adrenalin as I recognised the voice. It was Gabrielle.
Caesar strode over to the door and pulled it open. "Because only I say who is allowed to enter," he said sternly.
"And who are you?" my civilian affairs advisor queried.
"I am Caesar, Julius Caesar."
"Forgive me, Consul Caesar, but I have an urgent message for Empress Xena."
I stepped up behind Caesar to see Gabrielle offering a curtsey to him. Lieutenant Galates was with her, but that gave me little comfort.
Caesar turned to face me and sneered. "Your slave has a message for you."
"She is not a slave," I countered.
"Then I'll only have her flogged for disturbing this meeting. Guards"
Lieutenant Galates protectively stepped in front of Gabrielle and drew a dagger. Caesar's guards drew their weapons and stood ready. My guards did likewise.
"I think this is getting a little out of hand," Brutus said calmly. "Put your weapons away," he ordered.
The Roman guards hesitantly looked from Brutus to Caesar.
"Do as he says." Pompey bustled forward, not wanting to miss out on the action.
Pompey's command was enough for them, and the Roman guards sheathed their swords.
"Empress?" Pompey gestured at my guards.
I nodded once and my men stood down. "Lieutenant." I held my hand out to Galates. He lowered his knife and handed it to me.
While casually handling the dagger, I stepped right up to Caesar and whispered in his ear. "If you threaten a senior member of my advisory council ever again, it will be the last thing you do. Understand?"
A blink of his eyes and the tiniest head movement signalled his understanding.
I gave the dagger back to Galates and manoeuvred myself closer to Gabrielle.
"Now, I believe my advisor has an important message for me. I think it's best we withdraw for now to get settled before this evening's banquet."
"That would be acceptable," said Pompey.
Brutus nodded his agreement.
Caesar turned his back to me and waved a hand to dismiss everyone.
My entourage and I left the chamber. Once we had rounded a corner, I stopped and grabbed Gabrielle's arm, pulling her to one side of the corridor. A quick signal and the others moved away to give us some privacy and make sure we weren't disturbed. Galates lingered slightly, but then moved away as well once he saw the aggravated look on my face.
"What are you doing here?" I whispered sternly. "I told you it could be dangerous, and I ordered you to stay onboard the ship. You could've been killed!"
"I know, but a situation has developed," Gabrielle said gravely. "I thought it best I inform you."
"The ship's lookout spotted the mast of a Roman warship just around the headland in the next bay, and two more far out to sea. Plus, two units of soldiers have been positioned between here and the port. The ship's captain says there is no way he can outrun the warships. It looks like Caesar is intent on stopping you from leaving."
"Gabrielle, I appreciate you bringing me this news, but you took an awful risk. Why didn't you send a messenger instead of coming yourself?
"Because I-I was worried about you, Xena. I couldn't stay on that ship and do nothing not when you could be in trouble and I could help. Please don't be angry."
How could I be angry with her? Gabrielle had just risked her life to bring me this news. I released the grip I had on her arm and looked deeply into her anxious green eyes. Her concern for me was evident, but there was something else. I wondered if it was love I saw in her eyes, or was I only seeing the reflection of my own feelings? But it was not the time to explore that possibility. I needed to focus, or Caesar would surely get the better of me again.
We made our way back toward the ship. The two units that Gabrielle had mentioned were still ahead of us.
"They're stationed in the trees on that hill," she said as she pointed toward one of the seven hills that surrounded Rome.
I knew Caesar wanted me neutralised, but I couldn't believe he'd be so clumsy as to let any trap of his be noticed. That meant the soldiers must be loyal to Pompey or Brutus.
I looked up at the position of the sun. We had plenty of time to get to the ship and return for the banquet, but would the soldiers on the hill know we were not trying to leave Rome? I had to make a decision and make it quick. I had Darnell return to the ship, send the ten best soldiers back to meet me here, and order the captain to leave port.
I had a job for Lieutenant Galates. "I want you to go back to the city and deliver a message to Pompey."
"Yes, My Liege. What is it?"
"Tell him to meet me at the west portico of the Coliseum at dawn tomorrow."
Galates saluted and headed back toward Rome. Gabrielle watched him go and then turned to face me.
"So how do we get out of this?"
"Out of what?" I feigned ignorance.
"You've sent the ship away and stranded us in Rome."
"Oh, that. Don't worry, Gabrielle, you'll be perfectly safe," I replied nonchalantly.
"It's not me I'm worried about. I'm worried about you. I couldn't bear it if something were to happen to you, Xena."
I gave her a reassuring smile. "Nothing is going to happen to me, I promise."
After returning to the city with an additional squad of soldiers for security, I sent a message to Brutus to arrange a private meeting. And, as I suspected, he readily agreed. The place he chose for the meeting was the house of a merchant friend of his.
When I arrived, Brutus was there, waiting for me. I casually paced the room and examined some of the artwork and trinkets that adorned it before I acknowledged him. His diplomatic skills were in evidence when he didn't press me as to why I had asked for a meeting. That impressed me.
I picked up a jade figurine that had come from Chin. "Do you want to rule Rome?" I asked in a conversational tone as I examined the figurine in detail.
"I already do," he replied.
"In part," I corrected him and put the jade piece back down.
"Part is good enough for me."
I faced him for the first time and gave him a disbelieving look.
"Caesar is a dangerous man dangerous because he is ambitious," I said. "He believes it is his destiny to rule the world as Emperor of Rome. But you know that. That's why you agreed to meet me."
"You're wrong about Caesar. He wants to restore the Republic. Your perception of Caesar is tainted by your hatred for him."
"And your faith in Caesar is misplaced. I have it on good authority that Caesar plans to proclaim himself emperor on the Ides of March. And then you will have to choose between Caesar and Ro"
"No, Caesar would never do that," he protested. "I'm his friend. He would never betray me like that."
"Yes, he calls you his 'friend.' Well, Crassus was a good friend...and I was once a very good friend." I sat down on a fine upholstered Persian chair. "And once he's rid of Pompey, how long do you think it will take for him to be rid of his 'good friend' Brutus, eh?"
Brutus took a moment to digest what I had said. "Go on." He nodded at me to continue.
"You, Brutus, are an honourable man. If Caesar were removed from power before he consolidated his support in the Senate and the army, you would see Rome returned to its former greatness as a democracy."
Brutus nodded slowly. "So, you want to support me in a coup against Caesar and help me take control," he said with certainty.
"No," I replied.
"No?" Brutus sounded surprised.
"No," I reiterated. "Whoever takes singular control of Rome after Caesar will be faced with the monumental task of reorganising the government. The people will face hardship initially and will not look favourably upon their new ruler.
"On the other hand, the second ruler..." I let the sentence trail.
Understanding dawned on his face. "You think I should let Pompey rule?"
"Who better to make a complete mess of it? He's a more than competent military leader, I'll grant you, but ruler of Rome? No."
"And what's in it for you?"
"We'd both have a powerful ally and friend."
"And you'd be rid of Caesar."
I shrugged. "Call it benefit of the circumstances."
Brutus pondered the proposal I'd made for a minute or two. "Sounds like an intriguing proposition."
"Think about it," I said and stood up to leave. I paused by the door. "Of course, it would benefit you if you distanced yourself from Pompey's rule. A diplomatic posting to Corinth would be far enough away to avoid sharing the blame for Pompey's mistakes, but close enough to come back quickly and take control."
"What if Pompey has other ideas?"
"I'm a powerful neighbour that he'd want to keep happy. I think I can persuade him that you would make an excellent ambassador to Corinth."
I bid him farewell and was almost out of the door when he spoke.
"And if Pompey should be reluctant to leave power..."
"Without the support of the Roman people, he would have no choice," I replied simply.
The meeting had gone better than expected. Brutus had seemed genuinely sold on the idea of leaving Pompey in charge and coming back to Corinth with me. However, I didn't allow myself to get cocky. I remembered that Brutus was not to be underestimated.
Gabrielle accompanied me to the banquet Caesar held in my honour. I felt more at ease knowing she was with me. She seemed quite relaxed, despite the events of earlier in the day, and attacked the array of food with gusto.
I stood back from the table and enjoyed the sight of my advisor getting her fill of delicacies. A few guests engaged her in conversation, and judging from their reactions, she charmed them immensely. When Caesar approached her, I felt a tightening in my stomach and moved closer.
"I apologise for suggesting you be flogged earlier on," he said to her in his most charming voice.
"I apologise for disturbing the meeting," replied Gabrielle.
"So, what is it you do for Xena?"
"I am her civilian affairs advisor."
"Oh really. It's hard to believe you hold such a high position within Xena's court."
"Why do you say that?"
Caesar smiled. "I would have thought a young woman like yourself would have been crushed by Xena's"
Caesar's smile froze as he noticed me step up behind Gabrielle.
"Crushed by my what?" I challenged.
"By your beauty, of course," he replied with feigned charm. "Though it might be you who is crushed by her..." The consul allowed himself a lecherous look up and down Gabrielle's body, "...fragile beauty."
He moved past Gabrielle and paused to whisper in my ear. "Remember how much it hurts to be betrayed by the one you love?"
If I thought I could have got away with it, I'd have strangled him with my bare hands right then and there. Instead, I watched in angry silence as he walked away to circulate with the other guests.
"What did he say to you?"
I turned to face her. She had a spot of sauce on the corner of her mouth that was just begging to be kissed away. I resisted and used my thumb instead.
"It doesn't look good when my advisor speaks to a member of the Triumvirate with food all over her face," I joked.
"Sorry," she ducked her head as her cheeks reddened.
"It's alright." I lifted her chin and smiled. "Just be careful around Caesar."
"I will. You were right, there is something about him. Some sort of...I don't know...it just pulls you in."
"Yes," I replied. Just like you, I thought.
Her eyes widened as a slave girl walked by with a tray. Gabrielle breathed in deeply. "Was that nut bread?" she asked excitedly, and hurried off after the tray.
Gabrielle had just cornered the slave when Pompey came up to me. Even before he spoke, I knew he was going to request a new time and place for our meeting. He needed to show his control of the situation.
"I have chambers in the North wing," he whispered. "I'll see you there after this banquet. Come alone or, better yet, bring your advisor. I'm sure she would be very entertaining."
As much as I would have enjoyed teaching Pompey some manners, I let his lewd insinuation about Gabrielle go. He was trying to bait me, and I couldn't allow myself to rise to it.
When I was shown into the room, I found Pompey lounging on a couch near the fire with a large goblet of wine in his hand. He seemed a bit disappointed that I had turned up alone.
"You didn't bring your advisor with you. Pity." He gestured for me to join him on the couch. "Never mind," he said, as I moved towards him, "I'd prepared for that eventuality."
He snapped his fingers, and a slave stepped out from behind a curtain. The slave was six feet tall, well muscled, and exquisitely handsome.
"He's a fine specimen," I said to Pompey, "but I want you all to myself tonight."
A hopeful look spread across his face, and he gestured for the slave to leave. I settled on the arm of the couch and ran my fingers through his hair. Pompey pulled his head away.
"I think we both know why you're here," he confidently declared. "You want Caesar dead." He put his goblet on a nearby table.
"And for you to govern Rome for me," I added.
Pompey sat upright and looked at me. "What? What makes you think I can't govern Rome for myself?" he asked incredulously.
"You wouldn't have positioned your men to protect me if you didn't need my help." I picked up the goblet Pompey had placed on the table and made a show of drinking from it.
He smiled coyly. "Okay, so I need your help. But I still want Rome."
I stood up and walked towards the fireplace. "You're a soldier, Pompey, not a politician. I'll allow you a certain amount of autonomy, and I'll even let the people of Rome think you're their ruler. But you'll rule for me."
"And if I don't accept your terms?"
"There are other members of the Triumvirate who could rule."
There was a burst of sarcastic laughter from Pompey.
"Did I say something funny?" I fixed him with an icy stare.
"Brutus is a jumped-up scribe and nothing more."
"He's a damn-sight better politician than you'll ever be."
Pompey pouted at my reproach.
"If you try to rule Rome without my help, you'll fail, and then Brutus will be your most likely successor."
"Not if I kill him first."
I grabbed a candlestick from the mantelpiece and hurled it at Pompey. It ruffled his hair as it sailed passed his ear. I had aimed to miss. He stared back at me in stunned silence.
"Do I have your attention now?" I asked him bluntly.
He nodded slowly.
"Good! I've had plenty of opportunity to kill all three of you today, and the only reason I haven't is you are more useful to me alive than dead."
I moved towards a table laden with fruits and wine. I plucked a grape and slowly took it into my mouth with my tongue. "If you kill Caesar, great! You've eliminated your main rival for power, but he has the loyal support of ten legions that fought for him in Gaul. If you kill Brutus too, you're going to have his supporters in the Senate to deal with, as well as his supporters within the army. If you do the mathematics, you'll find your reign will be short-lived."
"So what do you propose I do?" He scowled slightly as he was starting to accept he needed my help.
"You enlist Brutus's help in getting rid of Caesar. Faced with united opposition, Caesar's supporters will switch allegiance or flee."
"What if they switch allegiance to Brutus?"
"You have greater respect among the army than Brutus. You're recognised as arguably the greatest military commander Rome has ever had. You have charisma and presence, all the qualities that Brutus is lacking. Whom do you think the army is going to favour?"
As before, when his ego was stroked, Pompey became nauseatingly prissy. His chest puffed out, a smug smile curled his lips, and his eyes wandered to the nearest reflective surface to catch a glimpse of himself. It was stomach turning to witness, but in that state he would believe anything he was told.
"Brutus may provide a useful ally," I continued. "I'm sure you can convince him you're the better man to pacify the army and take over the leadership of Rome."
"Yes, I can do that." He hesitated a moment. "But won't Brutus realise you're in control?"
At last he had accepted that I would be in control.
"Offer him a post. You'll need an ambassador in Corinth. If I keep him close to me, he can be kept in the dark about my true involvement. If he becomes suspicious or troublesome, then an accident could be arranged."
Pompey climbed to his feet. "What help do I get from you, exactly?"
"Once Caesar is out of the way, you will have my full support. I will have Brutus in Corinth and an invasion army on the border to persuade the Senate to name you Rome's new ruler. I will appoint my own people as your political advisors to handle imperial matters, but you will be the figurehead.
"You expect me to just stand on balconies and wave at the people?"
"Think of it as a similar situation to that in Egypt. Cleopatra sits on her throne being worshipped by her people as if she was a god incarnate, but we both know who holds the real power. In this case, that would be me. And to show my faith in your abilities, you can follow through with Caesar's plan to subjugate Gaul and Britannia. I may as well have them while I'm about it."
"You just want me to fight your wars," he said with more than a hint of petulance.
"It's what you're good at," I snapped back. "You won't hold ultimate power in Rome, but I'm allowing you to have the next best thing: the glory."
He was sold; I could see it in his eyes. Great conquests awaited him, even if they were ultimately in my name. If he succeeded in removing Caesar, and I had no doubt that he would, then I'd let him have his moments of glory, but not too many and not for long.
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