See Part 1 for disclaimers and a full description of this installment in the My Lord Conqueror series.
Special Note of thanks and acknowledgement: This part goes out to my Chief Muse Wrangler, the ever-inspiring and amusing Wacky Raven. You rock, girl! Keep up the great work wrangling those pesky muses and make sure you read all the way to the end of this part. Surprise!
To all my dedicated readers: Has it really been since the end of October since I actually posted the first part of this story? My apologies to you guys for the long delay. It couldn't be helped. But now I'm back and ready to continue the tale of our adventurous heroines. Thanks for sticking with me, guys! I really appreciate it. Now, on with the show!!!
“Friends! Romans! Countrymen! Lend me your ears!” The booming voice of Julius Caesar rang out across the huge arena of the Amphitheatrum Flavium, or Colosseum, in Rome.
The dark-eyed, dark-haired ruler waited patiently for the murmur of the crowd to die down to a hush of silence, as all heads turned his way. A knowing smirk crossed his features, as he felt the rush of power wash over him at the instant attention his words received. He loved the power. He savored it like a rich wine. It was intoxicating and made every fiber of his being tingle with anticipation as the crowd hung on his every word.
“We are here today to pay tribute to those who have forged ahead and created a clear path for a brilliant future!” He continued in a clear voice. “We are here to witness the power and might of Rome!”
A loud roar filled the Colosseum as the crowd cheered. Caesar basked in the glory of the crowd's adoration. He soaked it in and let it flow through his veins. But he hated them all. He hated their gluttonous expectations and vile pompacity. He hated the political scheming that went on behind the scenes—behind his back. He knew the Senate was secretly planning his downfall. He knew he could trust no one, not even his closest advisors. Even his best friend Brutus could not be trusted. And he knew he, alone, would have the last laugh when all was said and done.
He was so close to his ultimate goal. His election to the Triumverate was only the beginning. Now that Crassus was dead and Pompeii had been brought to heel, everything was in place for the final step in his ultimate destiny. He only had to let the Senate believe they had a say in the decision to crown him Emperor over the entire Roman Empire. They only had to think they were acting in the best interests of the empire. And he was so close to making it happen.
Word from Greece was that Pompeii was successful in his campaign to unseat their puppet ruler and create a power vacuum throughout the country. Athens was onboard as a protectorate and their pitiful council was in the hands of a traitor to Greece by the name of Toris. In good faith, he even sent a shipment of able-bodied hoplites across the Aegean to add to Rome's legions.
Caesar himself had recently signed the order to divert those Greek ships to the campaigns in Britannia, Franconia and Gaul. Dividing them up was for the best and would keep the Greeks firmly in the grasp of the mighty Roman Legions. They were mere sheep destined for slaughter.
Caesar knew their sacrifice at the front lines would provide his own legions with the motivation and determination they needed to forge ahead and conquer the lands Caesar had his eyes on. The Greeks were mere pawns in a much greater game, as the legions of Rome expanded the empire and paved the way for Caesar's destiny to become firmly cemented in history. He was so close, in fact, that he could almost taste victory. He could almost feel the glory in his very bones, as he watched his destiny unfold.
“For the glory of Rome, let the games—BEGIN!!!” He shouted and raised a bejeweled fist high into the air, as the crowd cheered even louder and a stream of animals, slaves, chariateers and gladiators poured into the arena for the initial spectacle that would later give way to the much-anticipated and bloodier combats between the greatest gladiators in Rome.
Caesar stood apart from the few guests he had invited to join him in his spacious viewing area. He wanted another moment to bask in the glory of his creation. He wanted to feel the surge of emotion from the crowd, as the games began. He needed to smell the blood and sweat, hear the grunts and groans of the dying, taste the sweet flavor of victory on the tongues of the triumphant.
A body slave touched the hem of his toga, as one of the servers approached him with a tray of his favorite wine. He poured himself a generous gobletful of the rich, red wine and downed the entire cupful. He then poured himself another and downed that, too. He waited for the effects to take effect, as the crowd cheered loudly. He then closed his eyes and imagined that their cheers were for him and him alone.
The body slave, one of his favorites, slipped her delicate hand beneath the folds of his toga and gently caressed his inner thigh. He instantly felt his manhood react to her touch with an insistent surge. The crowd cheered again and Caesar let the noise flow through him, as the slave moved even higher until she found him fully engorged and ready for her.
But Julius Caesar had learned, early on, to curb his lusty nature, especially in public. Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, he opened his eyes and gave her a look that made her instantly stop and back away. He then turned his attention the arena laid out before him.
There was already more blood and gore on the sandy arena floor than he'd imagined. A tiger had a dead slave in its grasp and was feasting on the bloody entrails, while two painted warriors clashed just below him. The two men hacked, jabbed and swung at each other until blood ran from a myriad of wounds on both of them. Then the taller of the two—the one who bore the mark of a familiar ludus Caesar recognized—found an opening and severed his opponent's head from his shoulders with one quick swing of his bloody blade. The head rolled and the victor raised his arms high into the air in triumph.
Caesar spared the man a quick smile, before finally sitting down on the bed of velvet pillows behind him. His favorite body slave was instantly right there at his feet, waiting for him to acknowledge her and issue a silent command. But Caesar was patient and would wait until the games were finished to appease his appetite for her luscious flesh. He glanced down and saw her breasts outlined beneath the sheer fabric of her skimpy overtunic. The neckline dipped low to reveal her cleavage. Nothing was left to the imagination and he felt his manhood swell almost painfully again. He wanted her, but he was patient. He would have her when the time was right.
“Does Caesar require anything?” A male voice to his right brought him back to the matter at hand. He glanced at his richly-attired companion and noticed the gleam of appreciation in the man's dark eyes. “Grapes or dates, perhaps?”
A golden tray of red and green grapes surrounded by plump dates suddenly appeared. Caesar grabbed a bunch of green grapes and handed them to his body slave with a knowing look.
“Thank you, my friend,” Caesar said with his customary reserved smile. “It is a fine day for these games.”
“As if the gods themselves smile down upon us from the heavens,” the man nodded his dark head. “My priests say it is an omen of glorious things to come for all of Rome, great Caesar!” He continued and raised his goblet in salute. “To your continued health and the glory of Rome!”
“To destiny!” Caesar raised his own goblet and then only sipped its contents. “What news, Aurelius? Is the Senate ready for a vote?”
Marcus Exetus Aurelius was a shrewd politician and knew exactly how to walk the fine between his duty to Rome and his capacity as advisor to the powerful man seated beside him. Sometimes that line was blurred. Other times it disappeared completely. He knew Caesar would never be satisfied until his lust for power and his belief in his destiny were completely realized. He also knew there were those who would give their lives to never see Caesar's dreams become reality.
Caesar's rise to power was too swift and murky for anyone to accept comfortably. Many of the senators were strongly opposed to Caesar becoming anything more than a puppet ruler and military tactician. But Aurelius knew the truth of Caesar's desires. He also knew the secret lusts and weaknesses of the man who sometimes placed a golden laurel crown on his head in private, when he thought no one was watching.
Aurelius knew that Caesar would eventually declare himself Emperor, even if the Senate strongly opposed. But Aurelius would never let that particular secret out. It wasn't obligation or a sense of honor that kept his lips sealed. No, it was something much deeper—much darker. Marcus Exetus Aurelius wanted absolutely nothing in his life, except to be second to the Emperor himself and to harbor a secret desire for the man known as Julius Caesar.
But Aurelius also knew Caesar would never debase himself to take a male lover—not when he could have any woman he desired and had done so on numerous occasions. So, Aurelius satisfied his lust for one man with a stable full of male body slaves who did his bidding without question or protest.
He was also married to the daughter of one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in all of the provinces. She was a trophy wife who gave him three sons to carry on his name, while her family provided the wealth and status he needed to influence the most powerful man in Rome. And Aurelius had used every influence of his wife's family to be where he was right at that moment.
“The Senate bides their time, Caesar,” Aurelius sat back and pretended to watch the activity in the arena. “They scheme and they gossip like a bunch of old women. ‘Tis nothing to fret over. They know you have the upper hand, as long as you hold favor over the legions of Rome and the people continue to adore you. Nothing shall come of their endless pratter while the army continues to conquer more and more territories for Rome's glory, Caesar. Your great destiny shall come to fruition, soon enough, I wager.”
“I trust you're right, Aurelius,” Caesar agreed. “A messenger arrived from Pompeii in Athens just this morning. It seems we have much to celebrate today.” He raised his goblet in salute. “Greece is ours and promises to add a great deal of wealth to our coffers.”
“May it be so,” Aurelius joined in the salute. “What say you, Brutus? Are you ready for your trip to Gaul? I hear those barbarians are particularly brutal when faced with defeat at Roman hands. Are you up for the challenge?”
Brutus leaned forward on the stone bench he occupied and clasped his hands in front of him. “The Gauls are no match for the superior might of Rome's legions, Aurelius. Barbarians or not, they will run screaming in terror when faced with Rome's finest.”
“Here, here!” Aurelius raised his goblet and downed it.
“Well, gentlemen,” Caesar said, as he stood up to leave them and motioned for his body slave to follow suit. “I bid you enjoy my hospitality for a while in my absence, but there are some duties that I must attend to before the final challenges, later this afternoon.”
He gave them a curt nod, before striding purposefully through the arched doorway and descending the stairs into the private rooms set up just for him. He ducked through a side door with his personal guard close on his heels and the slave a step behind him. He then strode toward a private chamber within. As he stepped through the doorway, he turned to the guard closest to him.
“Guard the door,” he ordered. “No one is to disturb me until I give the word. Understood?”
The guard nodded and put his fist to his chest in salute. “Yes, Caesar.”
Caesar shut the door and turned around. The small chamber was richly appointed and well-lit with torches in walls sconces and candles in every corner that gave it a warm glow. A canopied bed was the centerpiece of the room, but there were also piles of plush pillows scattered around the stone floor. Caesar's lustful tastes ran the gamut and there was no telling what he would crave on any given day.
A side door on the far side of the room led to another chamber, where several more slaves awaited Caesar's bidding. He strode to the door, opened it and issued several quiet orders. A moment later, several scantily-clad women entered the chamber carrying various dishes and platters with enough food to satisfy his appetite. They set their burdens on a side table, as Caesar settled himself in one corner of the room on a bed of pillows.
His body slave was instantly at his feet with her head bowed and her clothing removed. And before any of the others could make good on a hasty retreat, he motioned for them to join him. They, too, quickly removed their clothing, as he looked on with lust shining in his eyes.
He was particularly aroused and knew he would not be satisfied with the taking of just one of them. He wanted them all and needed the release before he could return to watch the last of the games. It wouldn't do for him to stand before the crowd with an erection and give his enemies fodder for the coming days. He needed release to show them that he was in control and ready to lead them into a new and glorious age.
A blond with breasts the size of ripe melons knelt next to the other slave and gently lifted the body slave's chin. She then leaned in and placed a gentle kiss on the woman's full lips. The dark-haired body slave moaned softly, as the kiss deepened and suddenly ignited her own desire. She was a slave—a nameless face in the hands of a powerful man—yet she couldn't help but feel suddenly alive when her blond companion touched her. A thumb stroked her breast and she moaned again. And then she was pushed down on her face and entered roughly from behind.
Caesar's thrusts were quick and sure, as he took the body slave with no regard for her thoughts or feelings. The blond with the enormous breasts quickly moved behind him and pressed herself against his back, keeping time with his motions and wrapping herself around him. She knew the drill. Soft sighs of pleasure escaped her and added to his own, as he thrust himself deeper and deeper into the body slave. Soon the rest joined in, until they all appeared to be one flesh.
As he continued his steady rhythm, Caesar felt the rush of his impending release overtake him. But Caesar wanted control. He wanted his release to come in his time and at his bidding. So, he quickly removed himself from the slave's wet folds and growled, as his engorged member protested painfully. But the pain only intensified the senstation and added to his enjoyment. He wanted to feel more pain and turned to the slave nearest him.
She was a redhead with bright green eyes and a fiery nature. He seemed to recall she was one of the more recent additions to the slaves he owned. She was a gift from one of his generals serving in Britannia.
“Bite me, here,” he pointed to his chest and watched as she did his bidding.
Her teeth sank into his flesh, but didn't pierce the surface. She knew better than to leave a permanent mark. It would mean her instant death. The pain her actions caused went straight to his groin, as he closed his eyes and savored the feel of her mouth on him. Her lips replaced her teeth and soon she was trailing licks and kisses down his well-muscled body.
He let her push him to his back, while she continued her ministrations. But he wanted more. Grabbing another slave, he pulled her down and roughly kissed her lips until they were swollen and bruised. When he felt a tear slip down her cheek and touch his lips, he pushed her away and replaced her with another.
Several hands stroked him and petted him, as she continued to savor the crushing kisses he delivered. But Caesar wasn't one to allow his slaves to have the upper hand. He knew his engorged member was beyond ready to finish what he had started. So he sat up and selected the blond with her wide hips and luscious curves. His mouth found one of her breasts and he took it like a man starving for food. His teeth found her taut nipple and he bit down, eliciting a breathless cry from her that made him all the more ready to ride her like a prized mare.
With his body slick with sweat and his member hard and ready for release, Caesar shoved her to her back and thrust himself so deep that he made her cry out again. But she was more than ready for him. He felt her slick folds wrap around him and welcome him to her. He pushed deeper, until he thought he would actually tear her flesh. She cried out loudly, adding to the soft groans and whispers he could hear at the edges of his consciousness. But Caesar wasn't listening to any of it. His intent was clear and he could feel the pressure building to a fevered pitch with each powerful thrust.
Sweat poured from his brow and stung his eyes. His breath came in harsh gasps, as he continued his rhythmic thrusts. He knew she was a mere vessel, a place to spill his seed. Her mewling cries of pain as he slammed his body into hers fell on deaf ears. One of the others took pity on her and actually silenced her cries with kisses. But Caesar was oblivious to it all.
And then came his final thrust, as he felt the rush of his seed and the subsequent shudders that followed his release. He buried his member so deep inside her that he felt her flesh tear. She didn't cry out this time, because the redhead swallowed her cries for him. They all knew any sign of weakness would mean her death.
Caesar let his own lungs expel an enormous breath in the form of a loud groan of release, as he spilled his seed and let the shudders wash over him. It was primal. It was instinct. He was powerful and strong and no one could challenge his sexual prowess. He was Caesar. The world was his for the taking.
And then it was done. He collapsed to one side, unconsciously sparing the broken slave from bearing his full weight. He panted from his exertions and tried to bring his wildly-beating heart back under control. He felt a warm, wet cloth against his skin, as someone cleaned him. Then a clean, dry silk cloth was drape over his flaccid member and he just lay there, basking in the aftermath of his success.
The room stilled and not a whisper was heard, as the women waited with bated breath. They knew he required total obedience and submission. They knew he would only give them direction when he was ready and able.
Even the blond, who could feel a trickle of blood seeping from her and wanted nothing more than to cry bitter tears from the burning pain between her legs, didn't make a sound. She lay there and tried not to think about the bruises to her tender flesh or the aches and pains throughout her entire body. She just remained still and waited for Caesar to recover enough to let his wishes be known.
“Take her and clean her up,” he finally looked directly at the redhead and said. “Take her to my personal physician and see that she is treated. And make sure he sees to my seed. I do not want her growing heavy with my offspring.”
The redhead made no reply. She merely bowed her head and helped the blond to her feet. Together, they made their escape from his presence, leaving their sisters to face whatever further services he required. The chamber remained silent, as Caesar slowly recovered from the weakness that always plagued and frustrated him after his lusty exertions
He put the time to good use, as he always did. While his body recovered, his mind raced with plots and schemes to keep his enemies at bay and make his alliances stronger. He knew who his friends were and also knew who he could trust to watch his back. Did he trust them? No. But he knew how to manipulate them into doing his will. That's all that mattered.
And there were those in the Senate who were powerful enemies. He had dealt with a few of the more outspoken ones. They were either killed by his hired assassins or imprisoned in some dank hole far away from Rome. But he couldn't get rid of them all without raising suspicions. That he knew for sure. And so did his enemies. The trick to dealing with them was to make them think he was oblivious to their schemes, while putting his own plans into action against them.
And then there were the alliances with neighboring lands. He was already courting Egypt through his trusted friend, Marc Antony. Caesar wanted to use the Egyptian fleet for his own purposes. But he had to go through Cleopatra and gain her trust. Enter Marc Antony. The man was one of the best warriors in all of Rome. He was also a favorite of the ladies. Caesar hoped Marc Antony would succeed in winning over Cleopatra, whatever the cost.
And what about the Persians? Caesar knew they would be a far more difficult challenge than Egypt. Egypt's weakness was their dedication to and love for their female ruler. Persia, on the other hand, was ruled by a powerful family of ruthless warriors. It was rumored that their army was more than a hundred thousand strong and could defeat Rome's finest with little effort.
Every emissary that Caesar sent to Persia disappeared without a trace. And there wasn't a spy to be found in all of Rome who would accept even a king's ransom to infiltrate the Persian court and report back to Caesar. Every spy he had already used, thus far, came back to him in a box—or at least their head did. Who knew what the Persians did with the bodies?
But that didn't stop Caesar from continuing his efforts to bring both Egypt and Persia into an alliance. He wanted what was best for Rome, but he also knew his destiny could not be fulfilled if they were forever breathing down his neck and threatening to ruin his plans for the expansion of the empire. And now that Greece was well in hand, all that was left for him to do was declare himself Emperor and take his rightful place in history.
Julius Caesar smiled slyly, as he thought of the destiny that was spoken of to him all those years ago. He had been a mere soldier in the Roman army at the time, with only his wits to save him from a band of pirates who captured him so they could ransom him back to Rome. A shadow of regret crossed his features, as he remembered a pair of seductive blue eyes in the face of a goddess. He felt his groin come alive again, as he remembered her beautiful body. Her well-muscled torso and luscious curves beneath the billowing silks of her pirate garb…
“Xena,” he uttered on a breathless whisper.
And then he smirked. She had betrayed him and he had dealt with her. He ordered his men to crucify her and break her legs—those long, shapely legs that made her nearly as tall as any man. It was a pity, really.
It was unfortunate that they had crossed paths so early in his ambitious career. He so enjoyed her intelligence, her ambition and the way she manipulated him into surrendering to her. She might actually have made the perfect empress and complimented his rise to power. She was one of only a handful of adversaries he truly admired and respected.
But she was dead. He was sure of it. Her body had rotted or been picked clean by the carrion long ago on that distant shore. No one survived crucifixion with their legs broken. No one.
Besides, he continued with a wide grin, there was no room in Rome for two ruthless and ambitious rulers. They would have betrayed each other eventually. Caesar wasn't one to share the glory with anyone—especially a woman.
After a few more rounds with his slaves, Caesar was finally ready to return to the arena and watch the rest of the spectacle. He climbed the remaining steps up to his personal box and listened to the cheers of the crowd. For a moment he stopped to imagine that the cheers were actually for him.
Then he stepped past a column and noticed his box was completely empty, except for a familiar blond man in blue standing at the railing with his back to Caesar. He knew the man instantly and kept his expression neutral for a moment. He then walked up to the man with a friendly smile of greeting
“Pompeii, my friend,” Caesar said, as the crowd roared again.
Pompeii Magnus turned toward the white-clad Julius Caesar with an outstretched arm. He already had a goblet of Caesar's best wine in one hand and downed it quickly as he stepped forward.
“Caesar,” Pompeii grasped the dark-haired man's arm and shook it firmly. “It's good to be home.”
“It's good to have you back in Rome,” Caesar said with a hint of suspicion in his dark eyes. “We didn't expect you so soon.”
“Oh, didn't you?” Pompeii let Caesar's arm go and turned back to the spectacle in the arena. “And here I thought all this was in my honor, Caesar!”
A servant quickly stepped forward to offer Caesar a goblet of wine and refill Pompeii's. The two men then raised their goblets in a mutual toast, as the servant quickly retreated.
“To Rome!” Pompeii smiled broadly and held his goblet high. “And to the further expansion of the Empire!”
“To Rome,” Caesar said with far less enthusiasm. “So, what brings you back here with such haste? Did you completely eliminate the problem in Greece?”
“All is well in Greece, Caesar,” Pompeii couldn't keep the grin from shining in his eyes. “Everything went according to plan. You were right, of course. I just had to find the right people willing to betray their ruler, so I could then set our plans into motion. Couldn't have asked for a better outcome, either. Did you not receive my messages?”
“I did,” Caesar nodded, as he sipped his wine. “So tell me about this conquering ruler of theirs. Was he difficult to overthrow?”
“Not at all,” Pompeii scoffed. “And he wasn't a he at all. He was a she.”
Caesar stepped up to the rail and glanced at his blond companion. “Oh?”
“Didn't see that one coming, did you, my friend?” Pompeii shot Caesar a smug grin. “Neither did I, actually. I went there expecting to go up against some smelly barbarian Greek imbecile warlord. Imagine my surprise when my spies confirmed that the infamous Conqueror was, indeed, a woman.”
Caesar's eyes narrowed. “Did you happen to catch this woman's name?”
“Xena,” Pompeii downed his wine and completely missed the look of surprise on Caesar's face.
Caesar quickly hid his surprise behind a scowl. Xena? How could she still be alive? The questions began whirling around in his mind, but he put them aside in the presence of a man he already knew could not be completely trusted. Pompeii had his own ambitions and was not averse to using a weakness to his advantage.
“And what became of this Xena the Conqueror, my friend?” Caesar slapped a hand on Pompeii's shoulder and felt the leather armor beneath his fingers. “Did you take care of her, once and for all?”
Pompeii nodded. “She tried to run with her tail tucked between her legs.”
“Run?” Caesar shot him a raised-brow glare. “You didn't kill her?”
“Once I caught her, I turned her over to another warlord named Draco,” Pompeii waved a negligent hand. “He put her in a dungeon for a time and kept her out of the way until he could take control.”
Pompeii set his empty goblet on the tray of a passing servant and grabbed a bunch of grapes. He watched the activity in the arena below with fascination, as Caesar stewed.
“So?” Caesar finally prodded the silent man beside him. “What happened to her?”
“She escaped and raised an army to fight against Draco,” Pompeii answered absently. “I believe there were centaurs and Amazons involved in the final battle. Draco was killed. Last I heard, Xena was headed to Corinth to lick her wounds.”
Caesar released an exasperated sigh. “You had her in your grasp and you didn't kill her? Why?”
“I followed the plan, Caesar,” Pompeii turned to face the man. “You said we needed to create an atmosphere of mistrust and let them fight amongst themselves. What did you call it?” Pompeii pretended to think for a moment. “Oh, yes. Divide and conquer, I believe is what you wanted me to do. Let them fight each other until only one side is left standing. Then swoop in and claim victory.”
“But you didn't kill Xena!” Caesar hissed. “You had her and you let her go.”
“No,” Pompeii let the hint of a Cheshire grin show. “I did us one better. My spies discovered a few little bits and pieces of information that I found quite useful.” He returned his attention to the arena and leaned both hands on the rail as he watched a mock battle play out in front of him. “Is that Carthage?”
Caesar absently glanced at the arena. “Yes,” he answered shortly. “So what information did you uncover, Pompeii? And why is it important to Rome?”
“Oh, dear Caesar.” It was Pompeii's turn to put a hand on Caesar's shoulder. He then grinned. “Did you know your nemesis has an older brother?”
Surprise flashed in Caesar's eyes and Pompeii caught it this time. His grin widened.
“I know that you tried to have her executed once, Caesar,” Pompeii continued with a knowing look. “My spies learned all kinds of valuable information about Greece's infamous ruler. You almost succeeded, except for a minor miscalculation.” He crossed his arms over his chest and raised a finger to his lips. “Someone helped her escape. She didn't die on that beach, as you'd hoped. She disappeared for a time and returned as the Conqueror.”
Caesar seethed. Not only did he fail to kill Xena, but now Pompeii was actually gloating over his failure. He turned away from the man's smug expression and concentrated on the battle below. It took him a few moments, but eventually he had his features composed into a stoic mask.
“And her older brother?” Caesar said in a tone devoid of emotion.
“He has the ear of the Athenian Council and has successfully convinced them to side with us,” Pompeii answered. “He's the one who betrayed her and stole her army. He's the one who willingly sent his own countrymen to us for the greater good of the Empire. Apparently there's bad blood between the two siblings. Toris hates Xena about as much as you do, my friend.”
Pompeii grinned. Caesar scowled.
“Tread lightly, Pompeii,” Caesar growled low. “You never know when your enemies will flush out one of your many weaknesses and use it against you.”
Pompeii popped several grapes into his mouth and chewed with childlike relish. Then a speculative look crossed his features.
“Is that a threat, Caesar?” Pompeii's expression hardened.
“A warning, my friend,” Caesar companionably slapped Pompeii's shoulder. “There are many waiting in the wings to watch the mighty fall from grace.” He looked around to emphasize his point, then returned his attention to the arena. “And the mighty do fall, Pompeii.”
The last of the defenders in the arena was cornered. The gladiator wore a steel helmet and had a lance in one hand and a shield in the other. Blood covered him from head to toe. He was massive, but there were more than a dozen opposing warriors closing in for the kill.
Caesar watched as the massive gladiator twirled the lance over his head in a show of might. He yelled at the top of his lungs and lunged toward those approaching. Several of them attacked him at once from all angles. The numbers were overwhelming and soon he was bleeding from several open wounds.
“The mighty do fall,” Pompeii agreed, as he watched the huge gladiator go down on one knee. He popped several more grapes into his mouth and chewed. “Everyone has a weakness. You just have to find out what that weakness is and exploit it.”
Caesar glanced at his companion, who appeared to be engrossed in the action below.
“Somehow I don't think we're talking about our friend down there,” Caesar said.
Pompeii watched the gladiator take a mortal slice to the chest before the man looked directly up at them. Everything stopped, as those in the Colosseum waited for a verdict.
Taking his queue, Caesar raised an arm and held his fist out toward the arena. He extended his thumb and let the anticipation slowly grow until he could almost feel it. A heavy hush hung over the entire place, as Caesar held the man's life in that one hand. A dark brow rose on his features.
“And sometimes you just give the order and watch the mighty fall,” Caesar glanced at Pompeii with a smirk.
He turned his thumb down and the crowd roared. The gladiator's head was quickly separated from his shoulders a moment later. And Caesar turned to fully face Pompeii. He put a hand on Pompeii's shoulder and held it there.
“I trust you found Xena's weakness,” he stared intently into Pompeii's blue-green eyes.
“Oh, I did,” Pompeii nodded with a grin.
Pompeii knew how to play this particular game. He held the winning hand in a dangerous game. He also knew Caesar wasn't playing games anymore. Pompeii could see it in the dark eyes gazing intently back at him. Did he dare let his hand show? Or did he only give Caesar a glimpse?
Slapping his own hand on Caesar's shoulder, Pompeii leaned in close enough that he was nose-to-nose with the man who would one day proclaim himself emperor. Pompeii knew it was Caesar's destiny. He also knew he would not live to see that day come to pass. His destiny was to die in battle. The prophets had already spoken.
“She has a son,” Pompeii whispered loud enough that he could be heard above the noise of the crowd. “That is her weakness, Caesar.” He then looked out over the arena. “And her weakness is right here in our midst.”
A dark brow. “Xena's son is in Rome? You brought him to us?”
“Yes,” Pompeii grinned and slapped Caesar's shoulder, then stepped back. “What better way to bring her to you, Caesar?” He held his hands out to his sides and chuckled at the look on Caesar's face. “My spies tell me she was already preparing for a trip to Rome. This will just guarantee that she doesn't disappoint.”
“And did your spies tell you when she'll arrive?” Caesar downed his wine in one gulp.
“No,” Pompeii's chuckles turned into a full-fledged laugh. “Hail, Caesar!” He finished with a mock salute, then turned and left.
Caesar stood there staring at nothing in particular as his mind whirled with the possibilities. Xena was alive. She had a son. Her son was in Rome. And she was probably headed to Rome. He wondered what her game was. He also wondered what game Pompeii was playing that he would bring Xena's son to Rome. Caesar then decided it was time for his own spies to do some deep digging of their own.
It was time to set his destiny into motion, once and for all.
It was time. Xena looked around the quiet village and sighed. The place was almost too quiet after all the partying that took place the night before. She was more a little tired of the Amazons and their insistence that every night be a celebration. This particular celebration, however, had nothing to do with anything important, as far as she was concerned. It was one of those howling-at-the-moon festivals, as she liked to call them.
She chuckled to herself. It always irritated some Amazon or another when she called them that. And, just to rub it in, she always asked the same question: “Why are you guys dancing around the bonfire naked and howling at the full moon, again? Is it another fertility rite?”
Her partner was particularly fun to tweak. Gabrielle hated getting all dressed up in her queenly regalia, just so they—as in Ephiny and the elders—could strip her down and paint her from head to toe, then make her dance around with the others and wave her arms in the air while chanting in a voice that was better suited to telling stories than carrying a tune.
Xena cringed at the mere thought of hearing Gabrielle's singing voice. She'd heard it only a handful of times, mainly when they were traveling and Gabrielle was bored. She would then start humming some jaunty tune, which would eventually lead to the addition of words to said tune. And suddenly Gabrielle was belting out a song at the top of her lungs—except that she had absolutely no ear for music whatsoever. Gabrielle couldn't carry a tune to save her life and Xena was sure those within a league would never be able to recover.
Xena was just glad those moments were few and far between. But she was sure her partner was somehow getting back at her for the mere mention—the smallest suggestion she'd once made—that Gabrielle's voice was better suited to storytelling than singing. She was becoming more vocal during their lovemaking than even Xena was comfortable admitting. It was as if Gabrielle had to let her voice express every emotion, every feeling, she was experiencing. Or maybe Gabrielle just liked to watch Xena's reaction.
Speak of the devil, Xena thought with a wry grin.
“Hey,” she turned to find her other half standing behind her with a saucy and somewhat sleepy grin.
“Is there a reason you're standing out here, staring at the remains of last night's revelry, rather than keeping me company in our nice, warm bed?” Gabrielle asked with an irritated frown. “I thought we were going to catch up on some much-needed sleep.” She yawned.
“I was enjoying the peace and quiet,” Xena said, as Gabrielle stepped up next to her and rested her head against her arm. “Care to join me?”
“And miss a few extra candlemarks of sleep?” Gabrielle yawned again. “You do know we didn't get to bed until just a candlemark or so ago, right?”
“Sleep is highly overrated,” Xena shrugged.
“And apparently very hard to come by, these days,” Gabrielle added with another yawn. “Gods, Xe, when are we going to head back to Corinth and leave these women to their nightly celebrations? I'm beat. I need sleep. I don't function without it.” She shoved a hand through her disheveled hair. “I actually noticed dark circles under my eyes yesterday.”
Xena wrapped a protective arm around her shorter partner's shoulders and squeezed. “Ask your regent when she's going to let Eponin off the hook, why don't you?”
“Forget those two. They're hopeless,” Gabrielle felt her face slide down Xena's arm, as she literally started falling asleep on her feet. “I can't take this anymore!” She whined. “I have to sleep!”
“Then go back to bed, love,” Xena kissed the top of Gabrielle's head and tried pushing her upright. Gabrielle wasn't cooperating. “Go on.”
“Not so fast,” said Gabrielle. As Xena pushed her more insistently, Gabrielle grabbed onto the black leathers and tried dragging her partner with her. “Only if you come back to bed and let me use you as a pillow. I don't sleep well, otherwise. Those stupid nightmares always sneak up on me when I least expect them and then I'm wide awake again.”
Xena let herself be dragged along, until they were standing on the steps of the hut they shared. She didn't know why, but she could never force herself to call it ‘their' hut. It was the queen's hut and had been occupied by Melosa before Gabrielle became queen. It just didn't feel like it belonged to them.
“Gabrieeeeeeeelle,” Xena complained, as her blond partner continued to drag her up the stairs. “Come on. It's practically the middle of the day. I can't go back to bed with you. I have things to do, places to go, people to see.”
“Not listening,” Gabrielle groused, as she grabbed Xena's hand and pulled her inside the hut. “Want sleep.”
Once they were inside, Gabrielle quickly stripped out of her clothing and dove right back under the covers of the disheveled bed they shared. She then poked her head out and glared at Xena, who hadn't moved.
“Xeeeeeena,” Gabrielle growled before her lower lip jutted out in an endearing pout. “Pleeeeeease?”
Unable to stand the whiny tone, Xena quickly stripped out of her own clothing and climbed into bed with Gabrielle. She took her place in the center of the bed and waited for the inevitable. She didn't have long to wait. Gabrielle immediately curled up against her side and buried her face in the crook of Xena's arm.
Gabrielle was asleep almost instantly, leaving Xena to lay there with her eyes wide open and her mind whirling. She thought of the thousand and one things she could be doing at that moment, as her partner's soft snores broke the silence around them. Then she realized there was nothing for it but to accept her role as a human pillow and make the best of it. So, she pulled Gabrielle into her embrace and made a concerted effort to shut the world out for a while.
Ephiny walked out of the council chamber and sighed heavily. She stretched her aching muscles and worked a few kinks out of her neck and back, as she stood basking in the late-afternoon sunlight. It was another hot day and the weather didn't seem likely to change anytime soon.
She had a headache that would fell…well, almost anything. It pounded behind her eyes and threatened to blow her head wide open. All she wanted to do was dunk her head in a cool barrel of water or a brisk mountain stream. Maybe drown herself, if she was lucky. But the water barrel wasn't close at hand and there wasn't a stream anywhere near the village. She sighed again.
Her entire day consisted of listening to and arguing with the tribal elders. And she had one hades of a hangover, to boot. She wasn't happy. Not only that, but the queen had failed to make an appearance—again. Ephiny wondered where Gabrielle had escaped to. She was sure the elusive woman was avoiding her royal responsibilities on purpose. Unfortunately, Ephiny hadn't been able to pin Gabrielle down to confront her about it.
“Are we calling it a day, Eph?” Eponin put her hands against her lower back and arched it until several loud pops were heard. “Not that I'm complaining or anything, but this council stuff is really tedious and boring.”
“Go play with your warriors, Eponin,” Ephiny didn't bother to look at the woman. “Some of us have responsibilities…”
“Yeah, yeah,” Eponin shot back. “I know you're still sore about what happened. I get it. So when are you going to grow up and listen to me? I ain't had a drink since that night. Ain't touched a single drop. I've been really good about trading the night watch with some of the youngsters, so they can enjoy the revelry.” Her expression turned thoughtful for a moment. “Speaking of, what's the deal with all these nightly festivals and celebrations? We don't ususally have this many all at once.”
Ephiny pinched the bridge of her nose. “I really don't have time for this.”
Eponin grabbed Ephiny by the shoulders and turned her around.
“I know I screwed up,” Eponin said. “I know I never deserved to have you like, much less love, me. You're…” She stopped, dropped her hands when Ephiny looked up and glared at her. Eponin looked away. “I never told you how much…I…” She shoved a hand through her hair and sighed. “I love you, Ephiny. I love you with every fiber of my being, and I can't lose you like this. I made a mistake—a mistake that I promise to work really hard to never repeat. I just hope you can forgive me. I want to be joined with you and spend the rest of my life making you happy. I want to be with you, until death do us part.”
Ephiny was stunned. She stood there with her mouth slightly open and just stared at the warrior who seldom spoke more than a few words at a time. Now Eponin was expressing her undying love?
“You love me?” Ephiny put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes at Eponin.
“I do,” Eponin nodded. “I know I ain't the best choice for a mate. I know I totally screwed up. I know…”
Ephiny put a hand on Eponin's arm. “Stop.”
“No,” Ephiny held up her other hand and put her fingers to Eponin's lips. “Don't. Let me speak before you say anything more.” She waited for Eponin's nod and lowered her hand. “You are one of the most frustrating, exasperating, pig-headed and aggravating people I know,” she watched a frown cross Eponin's features. “You're a warrior and you tend to use actions first and words…” She shrugged. “Well, you don't really use words to get your point across. For you it's mostly about actions. That's why I know what you just said came straight from your heart.”
Ephiny let a small smile play at the corners of her mouth and watched Eponin's expression soften. So, she decided to throw caution to the wind. She took both of the warrior's calloused hands in hers and held them.
“I love you, too,” Ephiny finally said. “Don't ask me to explain it. I can't. I just know that I want to spend the rest of my life with you, too.”
Eponin's features suddenly shifted into a beaming smile.
And then Eponin's face fell. “But?”
Ephiny closed the distance between them until they were nose-to-nose. Her expression hardened and a gleam of anger flashed in her hazel eyes.
“If I ever catch you in the arms of another woman, or even a damned man,” Ephiny continued in warning. “I will kill you where you stand. I won't use words at all. My actions will speak volumes.”
Eponin stood with her wide eyes, as the regent's words slowly sank in. “Does that mean what I think it means?”
Ephiny didn't answer. She merely took Eponin's face in both hands and kissed her with all the pent up passion she'd been holding in for weeks. The kiss began with a few tentative pecks until Eponin pulled Ephiny to her and held on.
“Get a room, you two,” Gabrielle's voice suddenly intruded on the moment.
“Yeah,” Xena agreed.
Ephiny jumped back and Eponin could do nothing more than release her. They both turned guiltily to face the newcomers and were not surprised to find Gabrielle and Xena standing side by side a short distance away.
“Hey,” Eponin cleared her throat and tried to hide her embarrassment.
“So,” Gabrielle shot Ephiny a raised-browed look, as the regent put an arm around Eponin's waist and held her close. “Does this mean it's finally time for that joining ceremony? Xena and I really need to get back to Corinth. Things are happening as we speak and we're no closer to finding out what the Romans are up to.”
Ephiny glanced at Eponin and they exchanged quick nods.
“Yeah,” Ephiny answered for them both. “I think we're good now.”
“You sure about this, Eponin?” Xena asked in all seriousness. “This is a big step. You don't want to dive in and find out later that you're in over your head.”
“I'm sure,” Eponin nodded with confidence and put an arm around Ephiny's shoulders and squeezed.
“You don't want to think about it, maybe?” Ephiny glanced at Eponin. “Make sure this is really what you want?”
Eponin silently pulled the curly-haired blond into her arms and kissed her. Ephiny just went with it. She didn't try to fight against Eponin or pull away from her. Actually, just the opposite. She gave in and enjoyed the feel of Eponin's lips against hers. It sent a thrill of desire through her and left her breathless.
And then the kiss ended as abruptly as it began. As Eponin straightened, Ephiny's eyes fluttered open and she looked into smiling brown loving eyes gazing back at her.
“Does that answer your question?” Eponin teased. “Or d'ya think we gotta give ‘em another show?”
Ephiny blushed to her roots as she realized they still had an audience watching them. She glanced over Eponin's shoulder and caught the gleam of mischief in Gabrielle's eyes.
“Oh, don't mind us, Eph,” Gabrielle said.
“Yeah,” Xena added with a sly grin and a wave of her hand. “You two just go on and get it out of your systems.” She turned away and pulled Gabrielle with her. “We'll be here when you've kissed and made up. Just let us know when and where. We'll be there for you.”
Ephiny and Eponin exchanged a quick glance, as Xena and Gabrielle strode away.
“My place or yours?” Ephiny shrugged.
“Definitely yours,” Eponin answered and then unceremoniously picked up the regent and carried her toward Ephiny's hut.
A Villa Outside Rome
Pompeii entered the courtyard of the villa he had acquired upon his return to Rome. He glanced around at the opulence of the place with a satisfied grin. It fit his tastes perfectly. He walked over to a table against one marble wall and poured himself a cup of sweet wine. After a quick taste, he downed the entire cupful and sighed in satisfaction.
He then looked around again. The courtyard had a small pool in the center and it was open to the clear blue sky above. Sunlight streamed down onto the clear water of the pool and a light breeze made ripples dance on the surface. It had a calming effect on the man, but not enough to stop the worry completely.
Pompeii knew his time was near. There had already been one attempt on his life since his return a few days ago. He stuck a finger into his empty wine cup and sniffed the liquid that clung to it. Poison? He glanced over at the pitcher with a frown. He felt fine. No ill effects—yet.
After setting the cup back on the table, Pompeii strode back through the marble chamber behind him. It was cool inside the opulent room, despite the heat of the day. He continued on without paying much attention.
Taking the stairs two at a time to the lower level of the place, Pompeii reached a nondescript locked wooden door. A guard snapped to attention and saluted with a fist to his chest. Pompeii ignored the man.
Slipping a key from inside his breastplate, Pompeii quickly unlocked the door and pushed it open. The chamber beyond was dark. It smelled musty and he stifled the urge to sneeze as he entered. The room was the size of a small storage room. Pompeii's presence dominated the space.
“Hello, boy,” he said to the small figure huddled in one corner.
He approached the figure and noticed the boy was shivering—whether from cold or fear he didn't know. Pompeii didn't care about the lad at all. All he cared about was what the boy represented. And the young boy of no more than twelve summers with the pale blue eyes and sandy brown hair was a pawn in a much bigger game. Pompeii saw him as the key to unlocking a secret that Caesar would eventually pay dearly to get his hands on.
Pompeii saw power and wealth in that shivering young Greek welp conceived by a woman once known as the Conqueror of the Known World. Pompeii smiled humorlessly. Xena.
He squatted down to the boy's level and rested an arm on one knee, gazing intently at the shivering waif who refused to look at him. Fear. It had its uses. In this case, it kept the boy from attacking him.
Pompeii's smile widened when he thought of that fateful day when one of his commanders had dragged the kicking and screaming youth into his presence. The boy had used every threat he knew against his captor and then broke free of Athos' grip. Instead of running away, the boy did quite the opposite.
Pompeii was unprepared for the attack that came at him. The boy acted more like a wild animal than a civilized youth of twelve. Pompeii still bore the bite marks on his arm from the boy's teeth. They had faded during the voyage from Greece to Rome, but Pompeii could still see them.
But the cowering being before him was not that wild child anymore. No. Pompeii had beaten the fight right out of him. It took most of the journey from Greece to Rome for the boy to stop spouting off about his father and the rescue he felt would come.
Then Pompeii told the boy, point blank, that there would be no rescue. The man Solon had known as his father was dead. The village he had grown up in had been leveled by Pompeii's men. The life he'd known was gone.
Pompeii had watched with satisfaction as the fight left the boy and he collapsed to the deck of the ship. The light left those pale-blue eyes and the spark of defiance was gone. With nothing to fight for any longer, Solon was just a little boy with no hope—no chance of escape. Pompeii had turned to walk away, but then decided to add one more thing for the boy to ponder. He told Solon that he was none other than the son of the infamous Conqueror of Greece.
When the boy looked up at him in confusion, Pompeii smiled and confirmed what he'd said. Yes, the Conqueror was Solon's mother. She had abandoned him. The woman who had given him life didn't want him and had no intention of every returning for him.
But Pompeii didn't care about the boy at all. Solon was a pawn. He was a means to an end. He held the key to toppling Caesar, once and for all. All Pompeii had to do was stay alive for a little while longer, so he could put his plan into action. All he had to do was survive long enough for Xena to show up in Rome. When that happened—and he knew it would—then she would think that Caesar had finally done the unthinkable.
“Don't worry, young man,” he said to the huddled figure in the filthy corner. “It won't be long now. You will soon join your adopted father in the afterlife and I will have the power to eliminate my greatest enemy.” Pompeii clenched his fist and slammed it into his open palm. “Rome will finally have what it needs to expand its borders. And the mighty shall fall.” He chuckled and stood back up. “It won't be long now, boy. Your destiny will soon be fulfilled and mine will, too.”
A pair of pale blue eyes slowly turned and tracked up to meet Pompeii's gaze. “Rome will fall,” Solon said.
They came out barely above a whisper, but Pompeii heard every word. They didn't wipe the smile from his lips. He merely chuckled as he left the boy in the darkness of his tiny cell.
Xena was standing at the edge of a clearing. Several horses were being put through their paces by the Amazon trainers Xena was working with. Elys had a young mare on a tether and was working her in a circle. The mare kept tossing her head and wanted nothing more than to turn on the young woman and charge. But Elys kept a watchful eye and a firm grip on the lead line. She also used a long reed to occasionally crack behind the mare's flanks to spur her on.
“That's it, Elys,” Xena encouraged the woman. “Don't let her get the jump on you. Just keep on top of her and keep her moving.”
Xena then turned her attention to the young wrangler in front of her. Zea rode a big dappled gray gelding Xena had recently purchased from one of the local villages. The youth was doing an excellent job of keeping her seat, even though the gelding wanted to send his rider flying. He had already reared twice and tried to bolt once. But Zea was good. The young Amazon had gentle hands and a firm seat. She was also ready for just about anything the gelding dished out.
“You're doing great, Zea,” Xena complimented with a genuine smile. “Just keep those legs on him and make sure he knows who's in charge.”
The gelding suddenly kicked out with both hind legs and tried to bolt again. But Zea held firm and squeezed with her knees until he settled back down. He pinned his ears back and she noticed he was watching her.
“Easy, boy,” Zea said and used her hands and left knee to turn him in a tight circle that tucked his chin toward his chest. “Don't fight me on this. You're just gonna lose this battle.”
“Thata girl, Zea,” Xena nodded. “Show him who's boss and don't let him get away with his antics. Be firm with him and he'll eventually come around.”
Zea let the hint of a smile lift one corner of her lips as she soaked up the encouragement from her mentor. Xena was a great teacher. She was patient yet firm. And she never raised her voice if you made a mistake or if things got out of hand. She just told you what to do to correct the situation and continued to offer words of encouragement until the mistake was corrected. It was a far cry from some of the elders of the tribe who were tasked with teaching the younger women.
The only other person Zea actually respected as a teacher was Eponin. The weapons master was just as patient and encouraging as Xena. They both seemed to share a wisdom that went beyond their years and were willing to share it with those they felt deserved to learn. Zea was just glad she was one of Xena's pupils.
Xena's thoughts ran along the same lines as the horse wrangler's. She was proud of Zea for all she'd accomplished thus far with the dappled gray gelding. The animal had potential. But he had also been through some nasty abuse before Xena decided to purchase him. She knew he would require a lot of work. But she also knew his potential. He was damaged, but he also had a good temperament. He would weather through, as long as he had a gentle yet firm hand to guide him.
And Xena knew Zea was just the person to bring the gelding to heel. She was patient, yet firm. She also had a way with horses that reminded Xena a lot of herself when she was much younger. It took a certain personality to connect with the beasts. Zea was had it—despite the youthful enthusiasm that sometimes had to be curbed. But also Xena knew that youthful enthusiasm was sometimes what was needed when working with horses.
Xena instantly became aware of a presence behind her and turned to find a rider approaching. The man wore a stern expression as he slowed his mount to a walk. Xena briefly wondered how the man had gotten past the Amazon patrols, then shrugged it off. The man wore the clothing of a villager, but didn't look familiar.
She crossed her arms over her chest and waited for him to dismount and approach. When he stood in front of her, Xena eyed him with open suspicion.
“This better be important,” she said with a raised brow, then surveyed him from head to toe. “The Amazons don't take kindly to strangers on their lands.”
“You Xena?” He shot back with the same stern look on his scruffy features.
“Depends,” Xena returned. “Who's asking?”
“Name's Paulos,” he said with a nod of his dark head. “Been riding for days trying to find the former Conqueror what goes by the name Xena.”
Xena's eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“I got a message,” he said and reached inside his homespun tunic. “Was told to deliver it into her hands, personally.”
Xena glanced at the rolled parchment he held in one hand. “I'm Xena.”
His expression relaxed in relief. “Thank the gods I finally found ya.” He then handed over the scroll. “Was beginnin' ta think ye were dead.”
Xena took the scroll from him and unrolled it. She quickly scanned its contents and frowned. She slowly read it through a second time and then looked up at him. Anger flared in her eyes.
“Who gave this to you?” She moved like a flash and grabbed him by the throat. Lifting him off his feet, she held him and glared into his suddenly-wide eyes. “Who sent you to find me? And who gave you this to give to me?” She hissed.
“I—he—it—bu…” He stuttered as he found himself in a death grip.
Xena didn't loosen her grip on the man's throat, as Gabrielle and several others raced up to surround her. Xena merely glared at the man whose face was turning three shades of purple.
“Xena, let him go!” Gabrielle put a hand on the muscles bulging in Xena's arm. “Come on, Xena. Don't kill him. Let him answer your question.”
Xena immediately let him go. Paulos dropped to his feet, grabbed his bruised throat and gasped for air. He doubled over and tried to catch his breath, while Xena's anger seethed.
“You'd better start talking,” Xena bent toward him and waved the scroll in front of his face. “Tell me who sent you!”
Gabrielle got between her partner and the man. She gently pushed Xena back enough for the man to finish catching his breath.
“Tell her what you know,” Eponin stepped forward and grabbed the man by the scruff of his tunic. “Tell her or I'll gut ya right here. No one charges past our guards and gets away with it. Shoulda put an arrow in ya when the watch saw ya galloping in here like your ass was on fire.”
“What's going on, here?” Ephiny pushed her way through the gathered crowd until she was standing next to Gabrielle.
“Xena?” Gabrielle took the scroll from Xena's limp fingers and read it through. “Oh, gods…” She looked into blue eyes swimming with unshed tears.
“Pompeii,” Xena hissed.
Ephiny glanced from one woman to the other. “What is going on, you two?”
“The Romans have…” Gabrielle stopped and looked to Xena.
“They took my son,” Xena finished through gritted teeth. “Pompeii found my son and dragged him off to Rome. He's now in the hands of one of my enemies.”
“What?” Ephiny couldn't believe her ears.
“You have a son?” Eponin put in.
Xena slapped a hand to her eyes and tried to stop the tears from falling. It was her worst nightmare, come true.
“Xena,” Gabrielle put a comforting hand on Xena's back.
“No, Gabrielle,” Xena moved a step away and let her anger push the tears away. She composed her expression into the Conqueror's stoic mask and set her posture to reflect the change in her demeanor. Xena was no longer Xena. She was the Conqueror, once again. “The bastard took my son and ran off to Rome. There's no telling what twisted plan Pompeii and Caesar are cooking up. But I intend to make them both pay for kidnapping my child. And I intend to bring Solon home, one way or another.”
“Okay,” Gabrielle nodded. She pushed her own hurt feelings at seeing Xena become the Conqueror right before her eyes down. Her feelings didn't matter. What mattered was finding Solon and rescuing him from the Romans. “Okay. But first we need a plan.”
“Easy,” Xena turned away and stared sightlessly into the distance. “Go to Rome, find Solon, rescue him, kill the bastards who took him and bring him home. How's that for a plan?” She turned back and glared. Then she closed the distance and grabbed Paulos by the front of his tunic and lifted him off his feet again. “Tell me when this happened? When did Pompeii leave Greece?”
“W-weeks a-ago,” Paulos answered. “H-he said he was sailing immediately for Rome. He then told me to look for you in Corinth. B-but you weren't there. They said you were with the Amazons. So, I set out to find you. When one of the local villagers in Taloisse told me where the Amazon village was, I rode here as f-fast as I could. I galloped right through their village gate in order to find you.”
Xena let him go and he stumbled back into several Amazons who kept him from collapsing to his knees. She then turned away and tried to think. Weeks. Pompeii was probably already in Rome and there was no telling what he was doing to her son. It was her greatest nightmare and it was happening just as she'd hoped it never would.
Xena felt a moment of deep despair wash over her, as she stood there and tried to figure out how Pompeii had discovered her secret. Who knew? There was only one other person besides the man who had adopted Solon who knew about her secret. But…
Xena turned a suspicious glare on Gabrielle.
“What?” Gabrielle caught the suspicion in Xena's eyes. “Why are you…”
Xena had Gabrielle's upper arms in an iron grip instantly. “Who did you tell?” She ground out angrily. “Who?” She shook Gabrielle hard.
“You're the only other one who knew!” Xena shook Gabrielle again.
“Xena?” Gabrielle couldn't believe the rage seething behind those ice-blue eyes gazing intently at her. She shook her head. “Why, in hades, are you…”
Chaos erupted an instant later, as Amazons descended on the two women. Gabrielle was torn from Xena's grasp and surrounded by several members of her royal guard, who then unceremoniously ushered her toward the queen's hut. She really had no choice in the matter as the women herded her away. She tried to look back but her view was blocked by the mass of bodies.
Xena, on the other hand, quickly found herself at the bottom of a pile of Amazons. She barely hit the ground when her fighting instincts kicked in and she was heaving the mass of bodies up and away from her.
But the Amazons weren't about to give up without a fight of their own. With their queen's well-being in mind, the remaining Amazons threw themselves at Xena like a pack of crazed wolves, until they took her down again. They punched. They kicked. Determined to get the upper hand against the woman their queen had named as champion and consort, they did whatever they had to do to immobilize her.
One Amazon managed to hold Xena's head down with a knee, while two others grabbed her arms. A third then jumped in with a rope and tied Xena's hands behind her back, while yet another did the same with her feet. It wasn't long before the fight left her. Xena lay sprawled face-down on the hard ground with several Amazons still on top of her.
“Enough!” Eponin's command carried over the group of women. “She ain't goin' nowhere.”
“We…” Margalene tried to explain.
“I don't wanna hear it,” Eponin put up a staying hand. “I know what happened. Just take her to the stockade and keep her there until her temper cools enough for her to act rationally.” She looked Margalene directly in the eye. “And don't argue with me or leave her alone without a guard. I don't want her going after the queen again. You got me? And when you have the Conqueror all squared away, get your ass back over to the queen's hut. Don't leave her side, Margalene.”
Eponin moved to stand over Xena, who was still sprawled on the ground with her hands and feet bound. She could see that Xena was still seething with anger. She didn't care.
“Pick her up,” she directed the Amazons hovering over the prone warrior. “Now!”
The three Amazons struggled with their burden until they had Xena on her feet in front of the weapons master. Xena glared daggers, but remained silent. Eponin glared back.
“You!” Eponin pointed an accusing finger in Xena's face. “You will go quietly with these women or, so help me, I will drag your sorry ass over to the stockade myself and do whatever it takes to keep you there. You got me, Xena?”
Xena continued to silently seethe. She wasn't giving the weapons master the satisfaction of hearing what she had to say. She wasn't giving anyone the satisfaction. The pain over the loss of her son was too fresh, too close to the surface, and she didn't know if she could keep it together long enough to get the words out.
She'd seen the fear in Gabrielle's eyes during that split second before chaos ensued. It was a look she'd never wanted to see in those eyes. She didn't want to hurt Gabrielle. She was just so angry and frustrated. And the pain of losing Solon was so intense. How? Who?
Gabrielle wasn't the one. Xena knew that. She'd seen it in the confusion reflected back at her in Gabrielle's eyes. But if Gabrielle wasn't the one then who could it be? How did Pompeii find out that she had a son? How did he find out about Solon? The only other person who knew her son existed was…
NO! She couldn't believe that Solon's adopted father, Kaleipus, was the one to let that secret slip. The centaur was beyond reproach. There was no way he would have revealed Solon's parentage to anyone, especially not the likes of Pompeii. The centaurs hated outsiders as much as the Amazons. Kaleipus wouldn't tell anyone about Solon, especially a Roman.
“Take her away,” Eponin's voice intruded on Xena's thoughts. “Lock her up until I say otherwise.”
“Yes, Eponin,” Margalene bowed slightly and waved Xena's guards to go on ahead of her.
“You did WHAT???” Gabrielle rounded on the curly-blond leaning casually in the doorway to her hut.
“Xena's cooling her heels in the stockade,” Ephiny said. “Eponin thought it best to leave her there for a while. We all saw how angry she was, Gabrielle. And she wasn't beyond directing that anger at you.”
Gabrielle paced a few steps away from the regent and stood with her back to the woman. She wanted to turn on Ephiny and strangle her, but thought better of it. It wasn't Ephiny's fault that Xena had gone berserk and grabbed her.
“And you thought it was a good idea to just lock her up?” Gabrielle's calm tone belied the seething anger she was actually feeling. She turned around to face the regent. “Did you even consider Xena's feelings in all this, Ephiny?”
“No, not really, Gabrielle,” Ephiny replied flatly. “Watching Xena grab you and leave those bruises on your arms took precedence over Xena's feelings, actually.”
Gabrielle glanced at the purpling bruises and winced. “Okay.” She swallowed down the fear that gripped her. “I get it.”
“You're damned right,” Ephiny responded. “We don't take kindly to anyone abusing our queen, Gabrielle. Not even the queen's own consort. You should know that by now.”
“She's…hurting, Ephiny,” Gabrielle couldn't keep the catch from her voice. “She needs me.”
“I don't think that's such a good idea, right now, Gabrielle,” Ephiny moved from the doorway and went to stand in front of her friend. “Let her temper cool down before you go over there to try and talk sense into her. Please?” She put a hand out and rubbed Gabrielle's arm. “I don't want to see her hurt you, my friend. She isn't the Xena we've all come to know. She's…different. That woman over there is the Conqueror. She's angry and unpredictable. And she hurt you.”
“She hurts, too,” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around herself and touched a hand to her forehead in agitation. “My bruises will heal, Ephiny. They will. But I don't know if Xena's pain will fade as quickly as these bruises will. She needs me.” She raised pleading green eyes to meet concerned hazel. “I need to be there for her, no matter who she is right now.”
“She needs a swift kick in the…”
“Ephiny, please,” Gabrielle interrupted. “Don't.”
“Okay, fine,” Ephiny conceded. “Just promise me you'll be careful. Xena has been known to act without thinking. That reputation of hers…”
“She won't hurt me, Ephiny,” Gabrielle said.
“She better not,” Ephiny gave Gabrielle a quick hug. “And just to make sure, I'm going with you.”
“No,” Gabrielle pulled back and gave the regent a stern glare. “I have to do this alone.”
“Gabrielle…” Ephiny began.
“No,” Gabrielle adamantly shook her head. “I appreciate what you're trying to do, Eph. I really do. But this is between Xena and me. She thinks I'm the one who exposed the secret about her son.”
Ephiny saw the pain surface in Gabrielle's eyes. “Gabrielle…”
“No,” Gabrielle shook off the unexpected emotions and turned away from the regent. “This isn't about me being queen of the Amazons, Ephiny. This is about my relationship with Xena. This is about trust. She thinks I broke that trust. I didn't. And hiding out over here in the queen's hut while she's in the stockade will just make her believe I was the one who got her son kidnapped.”
“Then the onus is on her,” Ephiny said. “She's the one who doesn't trust you enough to realize you would never do that to anyone, much less her.”
Gabrielle felt the emotions well up again, as the truth of Ephiny's words hit her. It was true. Xena didn't trust in her enough to know that she would never let something like that slip from her lips. And she hadn't. It hurt so much to know that the one person she believed in and trusted with her life didn't feel the same. It broke her heart to even think it.
Xena sat on the stone floor of the cell they'd put her in and seethed with anger. She wanted to lash out. She wanted to tear something apart. She wanted to rage at the Fates for the betrayal that had taken her son from her.
But her hands and feet were still tied. Damned Amazons!
She'd tried to free herself, but the ropes were bound tightly around her wrists. Every attempt to break free only made the ropes constrict tighter. So she sat there with her forehead against her upraised knees and seethed.
And then she heard laughter. Male laughter.
“Oh, Xena,” Ares said. “It is just priceless to see you like this. The mighty Conqueror has truly fallen in more ways than one.”
Xena slowly raised her head and looked up to find him standing over her with his arms crossed over his leather-clad chest. An amused grin split his dark features, as he tilted his chin to the side and looked down at her, then shook his head. His expression turned to pity. It did nothing to ease the anger Xena felt.
“Go away,” Xena let her head drop again. “Leave me alone, you bastard.”
“And where would the fun be in that?” Ares continued, as he squatted down to her level. “The great Conqueror has been brought to heel by love. Such a pity. Such a waste.”
Xena raised her head again and glared at him. “What do you want, Ares? I'm not in the mood for your games.” Her expression hardened. “Actually, I'm never in the mood for your games, so you might as well just go back to that hole you crawled out of. Find some other poor sap to drown in your miserable power struggles. I ain't interested.”
“Yep,” he shook his head sadly. “I can see that. But I can also see the pain you're hiding behind all that bravado.” He reached out and gently caressed her cheek, not surprised when she instantly pulled away. “Your rage brought me here, Xena. I sensed it the instant you let it loose again. I felt you accept your destiny again.”
“Back off, Ares!” Xena hissed. “You know nothing about me.”
“I know you need to lash out at something—someone,” he met her gaze. “I know you, Xena.”
“You don't know anything, Ares,” she spat.
“Really?” He caressed her cheek again. “I know you don't deserve to be trussed up like a pig ready for slaughter. You deserve better. You deserve—power. You deserve the power I can give you.”
He snapped his fingers and the room changed instantly. Xena was no longer bound. She was wearing an elegant robe of fine blue silk that set off her eyes and was lounging in the middle of an elegant bed. Candles flickered throughout the opulent room. It was vaguely familiar and reminded her of her bedchamber at Surra.
“There. That's better,” Ares sat on the edge of the bed. “Only the best for the Conqueror of the Known World.”
“DON'T CALL ME THAT!!!” Xena lashed out at him.
Ares caught her wrists in an iron grip and held them firmly. Then he pulled her to him and kissed her passionately. Xena was powerless to stop him as he used his godly powers to turn her rage against her. Sexual desire suddenly burned through her at his touch and she couldn't stop herself from responding to him, no matter how hard her mind fought against his temptations.
His mouth bruised hers, as his kisses deepened and he yanked the collar of her robe off one shoulder. His lips trailed fiery kisses along her collarbone and down further. Her body responded to his touch all on its own, while her mind continued to rage against him.
The seductive power he used was so strong that Xena was barely aware of her surroundings. All she knew was that the fire raging through her body had to be quenched. Every fiber of her being was alive with sensation. It was too much.
“NO!” She forcefully pushed him away and scrambled off the other side of the bed.
Panting heavily from her exertions and from the insatiable fire still burning within her, Xena tried to bring her errant emotions under control. But her traitorous body was waging a battle against her confused mind and, so far, her body was winning.
And Ares chuckled.
“You can't fight me, Xena,” he said, as he stalked around the bed towards her. “You know you don't want to. You want this as much as I do. You need it. You need me.”
“No,” Xena felt the power of him grow stronger as he approached. She couldn't resist that awesome power anymore than she could control the rage that had come over her when she learned that Solon… “Solon…”
Ares saw her expression change and stopped. “What?”
“Gabrielle,” Xena continued with a shake of her head. She then felt a calm peace flow through her at the mere mention of her partners name on her lips. “I love Gabrielle.”
“No, you don't,” Ares countered, as he realized he was losing his hold over her. “You love power, Xena. You love the rage and darkness that lives within you.”
“No,” she shook her head again. “I love Gabrielle, Ares.” She smiled a knowing smile, as his hold on her suddenly dissipated as quickly as it had come over her. “And she loves me.”
He reacted in a flash. He struck her so hard that she flew across the room and hit the opposite wall. Sliding to the floor, Xena shook her head several times to clear it. She sat up and glared at him. Then she smiled.
“Your power over me is no more, Ares,” she said with a Cheshire grin. “When will you learn that I'm not yours to manipulate anymore? My heart belongs to Gabrielle. And my soul is my own.”
“You know I can't let that happen,” he said with a gleam of mischief in his dark eyes. “No one rejects me, Xena.”
Six burly men with sweaty bare chests suddenly appeared and the room changed. They were no longer standing in an opulent bedchamber. Now they were in what looked like a dungeon.
“You leave me no choice, Xena,” Ares said with a sad shake of his head. “I gave you every possible opportunity to return to me, but…” He shrugged.
Xena suddenly found herself hanging from the ceiling in nothing but filthy rags. The burly men converged on her and she knew she was in for a severe beating. The God of War hated losing.
“This changes nothing, Ares!” She shouted, as the first thug charged in.
Xena lifted her legs and wrapped them around his neck before he could attack her. She wasted no time in breaking his neck before the next attacker came at her. He dodged her kick and pounded a fist into her midsection. That only pissed her off even more.
With a growl, Xena grabbed the chain that she was dangling from the ceiling with. She unhooked herself by flipping backwards and then landed on her feet with a snarl. The five remaining thugs paused long enough to glance at the God of War for direction. Ares shrugged, raised his fingers and snapped them.
“She's all yours,” he said with a disappointed snarl, as he flashed out of sight.
And then they all charged in at once.
Xena was ready for them. The adrenaline kicked in and she felt the long-dormant battle lust surge through her. Her vision narrowed and her war-honed senses went on high alert. Everything faded into the background as she let her instincts take over. She took out the thug closest to her with a roundhouse kick to the head. She then wrapped the chain around the neck of the next guy and used him as a shield against the other three.
Her human shield struggled to free himself but was no match for her. She pulled the chain tighter around his neck until she felt him go limp against her. Then she threw him away from her and into the other three. The middle attacker went down under the dead weight, while the other two side-stepped the body and attacked.
Xena ducked below their combined attack and let their momentum carry them past her. She then rounded on the one to her right with a backward kick that sent him headfirst into the wall. The other guy got a bead on her and grabbed her from behind. He squeezed her tightly against his chest, his intention clear.
With her arms pinned to her sides, Xena was powerless to stop the thug from crushing her. But that didn't mean she was giving up attempting to break free. She used her powerful legs to push the man back until he slammed into the wall behind him. His hold on her loosened just enough for her to break one arm free.
She drove her elbow into his ribs and up into the side of his head. But she didn't see the other attacker charge toward her until it was too late. He slammed her into the wall and knocked the wind out of her.
And that's when Xena saw red.
The bloodlust surfaced like an enraged demon and she lost sight of everything around her. Blood pounded in her eyesight and she was no longer aware of her surroundings. All that mattered was that she destroy everything within reach.
With a feral snarl, Xena launched herself at the thug in front of her and pounded her fists into him with blinding speed. She was so intent on her task that she didn't hear the door to the cell open. She was unaware that the dungeon faded back into the cell the Amazons had put her in. She didn't even realize that the thug beneath her was no longer there.
It was pure instinct that drove Xena to her feet. She lashed out without thinking and had no idea who was in the cell with her. All she saw was red. Blood red. She felt her hands connect with something hard and unyielding. Pain shot down her arms. That pain was tantamount to being submerged in an icy mountain stream.
The bloodlust left her in the same instant. Her heart pounded wildly in her chest, as her mind registered that voice in the next instant. It wasn't Ares. It wasn't the thugs who had attacked her. It was…
A blond head came into focus. Wide green eyes stared back at her from a face gone pale from both surprise and shock.
“Gabrielle?” Xena couldn't believe what she'd just done. “What…”
“You almost hit me,” Gabrielle backed away from the woman standing a few paces away. “Xena, you hit the wall, instead. But you almost hit me.”
Xena looked down at her hands and saw the blood oozing from her knuckles. It then dawned on her that she'd attacked Gabrielle. But how…
“I didn't even think. I just reacted,” Gabrielle said, as if in answer to Xena's silent question.
Xena flexed her fists and winced in pain. Then she looked up and met Gabrielle's shocked gaze. There was still a hint of surprise behind the green eyes, but there was also something else.
“I'm sorry,” Xena said. “I don't know what came over me, Gabrielle.”
“If I hadn't ducked when I did I'd be lying on the floor at your feet, right now,” Gabrielle said. “I can't believe you tried to hit me. Why?”
“It's not what you think,” Xena was still slightly off-balance from Ares' shenanigans. Her mind whirled with everything that had just happened and she could barely think, much less process what she'd just done. “I wasn't trying…”
“Xena, I really don't want to hear your excuses,” Gabrielle held up a staying hand. “Just…stop.” She gathered her thoughts as silence fell between them. “I know you're hurting and I know you think I had something to do with Solon's disappearance…”
“That's just it, Gabrielle. I don't think that at all,” Xena interrupted.
“Seriously?” Gabrielle let the anger she felt show in her expression. “You grabbed me in front of the Amazons and left bruises on my arms...”
“I'm sorry about that, Gabrielle,” Xena tried to reach for her, but Gabrielle backed away toward the door of the cell. “I wasn't…”
“Xena, your behavior is…” She blew out a frustrated breath. “I don't understand what's going on inside your head right now. Why are you being like this?”
Xena shrugged and ran a hand through her hair. “It's hard to explain…”
“Then just give me the basics,” Gabrielle countered. “What is going on? And stop being evasive, because you're starting to scare me.”
Xena glanced down at the floor and noticed the discarded ropes that had bound her hands and feet earlier. They'd been tossed aside as if she had freed herself. She hadn't.
“Ares was here,” Xena said with a cool expression that belied the turmoil she was still feeling. “He sensed my anger and paid me a visit.”
“Oh, for the love of the gods, Xena,” Gabrielle threw up her hands in exasperation. “Is this the excuse you're going to use every time you suddenly decide to act like a deranged psychopath?”
Xena turned away. “I'm telling the truth, Gabrielle. Ares was here.” She walked over, picked up the ropes, turned and held them out to Gabrielle. “How do you think I got free? Do you think I untied myself?”
“Truth be told, Xena,” Gabrielle eyed the ropes dangling from her partner's hand. “I really don't know what to believe anymore. You're not acting like the same person who took care of me at Cyrene's. This,” she motioned toward Xena, “isn't the woman I pledged to spend the rest of my life with. Ephiny didn't want me to come here alone. She was afraid you might hurt me. I guess she had cause for concern.”
“I know,” Xena let her chin drop to her chest and her hand drop to her side. “This is what happens when I let Ares get to me.” She turned away in frustration. “I was just so angry that I let my temper get out of control. It's how he knows to make an appearance. He uses the anger as a weakness against me.”
Gabrielle thought about her next move, as she gazed at the back of the woman she loved. She wasn't afraid of Xena, but she didn't quite know what to do. She could see Xena was hurting. She could see it in the lack of confidence the dark-haired woman exuded. The slumped shoulders were only one indication that the Conqueror's demeanor was a façade meant to hide Xena's true feelings. The trick for Gabrielle was getting past that façade to the pain hiding underneath.
“He sees your anger as a vulnerability that he can exploit,” Gabrielle said, as she stepped up behind Xena and put a hand on her back. “He sees it as a means to an end and uses it to gain a foothold into your inner vulnerabilities. He's a god, Xena. He doesn't care about anything except his own selfish agenda.”
“He doesn't take no for an answer,” Xena said. “He wants me back. It's as simple as that. And when I told him no, this time, he had muscle standing by to beat some sense into me.” She glanced at her bleeding knuckles again. “I thought you were one of the thugs he sent to attack me.”
Gabrielle glanced around the empty space. She couldn't imagine that anyone had been there. There were no signs of struggle. The only thing out of place was Xena. She was somehow free from the bonds the Amazons had secured her with.
“Xena, there was no one here when the guards opened the door,” Gabrielle said. “Where did Ares' men go?”
“He must have sensed you and used his powers to make them disappear,” Xena angrily threw the ropes aside. “He's been messing with me ever since that night on the hill with the crosses, when he killed Draco. Don't you see?” She turned pleading eyes on Gabrielle. “He wants me back and will stop at nothing short of driving me insane in order to get what he wants.”
Gabrielle wasn't buying it. But she was convinced Xena wasn't lying, either. So what was the real explanation? Why had Xena attacked her? Was the God of War really behind Xena's erratic behavior? Or was there another explanation?
She decided to take a step onto shaky ground and plunge ahead.
“Or maybe you're having second thoughts about us,” Gabrielle tried to keep the hurt from showing as she crossed her arms over her chest. “Maybe Solon's kidnapping is just the excuse you needed to end our relationship.”
“What?” Xena couldn't believe what she was hearing. “Gabrielle, you can't possibly…”
“Xena, I really don't know what to believe anymore,” Gabrielle repeated her earlier words. “I thought our love was strong enough to weather anything that the world or the gods could possibly throw at us. I mean, look at all we've been through over the past few moons. But this—” she motioned toward Xena again. “The way you're acting. This isn't rational behavior. The gods don't care enough about us to make personal appearances in our lives, Xena. And people don't throw punches without good reason.”
“What are you saying, Gabrielle?”
“I'm saying that there's probably a better explanation for why you tried to hit me,” Gabrielle blurted uncomfortably. “I'm saying you…Xena, you're angry because you think I'm the one who revealed the secret about your son.”
“No,” Xena's brow furrowed. “That's not it at all. I know you weren't the one, Gabrielle. I just don't know how Pompeii found out about Solon. It just doesn't make sense that Kaleipus would tell anyone.”
“The centaur who adopted my son,” Xena answered.
“Wait,” Gabrielle tried to wrap her mind around this latest revelation. “You gave your son to the centaurs to be raised as one of their own?”
“Yes,” Xena replied. “Why?”
“Maybe that's the answer,” Gabrielle said. “That very well might be how the Romans found out he was your son.”
“I trusted Kaleipus with my son's life, Gabrielle.” It was Xena's turn to look skeptical. “He wouldn't tell anyone.”
“Would he tell Solon?”
“No,” Xena shook her head. “I gave Kaleipus strict orders not to tell Solon who his parents were—are.”
“So maybe Solon figured it out on his own, then,” Gabrielle continued. “After all, he had to realize he wasn't like the other centaur kids his age. I'm sure,” she shot Xena a knowing grin, “knowing his mother like I do, that the apple didn't fall far from the proverbial tree, in Solon's case. He has to be a fairly smart young man. He probably guessed that this Kaleipus wasn't his real father. Maybe he convinced your centaur friend to tell him who his real parents were—are. Or maybe he just did some digging on his own. Maybe he talked to people and those people were the ones who told the Romans what Pompeii wanted to know.”
Xena stopped to think about that for a moment. What Gabrielle was saying actually made sense. It made a lot more sense than Kaleipus' betrayal.
“You might actually have something there,” Xena conceded. “It makes a lot more sense than anything I've come up with, so far.”
“I have my moments,” Gabrielle couldn't keep the half-grin from showing.
Xena closed the distance between them and took Gabrielle in a warm hug. The move surprised Gabrielle, whose first reaction was to pull away. But then she wrapped her own arms around Xena and just reveled in the contact.
“I'm really sorry, Gabrielle,” Xena mumbled into her shorter partner's hair. “I am so deeply sorry for putting you through all this.” She kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. “I never want to hurt you. I love you too much for that.”
Gabrielle lifted her head and looked up into Xena's face. “I love you, too, Xena,” she said. “And I'm here for you when you need me. Just, please, try to control your temper. Maybe you can find a way to channel it somehow, so it doesn't come back to bite us both.” She lifted Xena's hands into hers and kissed the backs of the bruised and scraped knuckles. “I really don't want to go off to Rome to rescue your son, only to fight with you during the entire journey. You need to tell me when something is bothering you. You need to open up to me, so we can find a way to work through things together. That's what being a couple is all about.” She looked up and met Xena's gaze. “We're more than just lovers. We're partners. That means we share everything, even the stuff that's hard to share.”
Xena lifted a hand and brushed the hair behind one of Gabrielle's ears. “How did you get so smart?”
“I learned from the best,” Gabrielle smiled genuinely.
They just stood there in companionable silence for a few moments and looked at each other. Neither wanted to move. Both wanted to just let that moment remain frozen in time for however long the Fates would allow. Forever came to both their minds. But it was a short-lived moment.
“Is it safe to come in now?” Ephiny's voice finally broke the silence.
Gabrielle glanced up at Xena with a questioning look and received a nod. “We're good,” Gabrielle turned and wrapped an arm around Xena's waist. “We have it all squared away. Xena is ready to get your joining ceremony underway—we both are. It's time for us to return to Corinth and prepare for our trip to Rome.”
Ephiny eyed the two women, as Xena put a possessive arm around Gabrielle's shoulders. The regent wasn't sure things were completely cleared up between the two women, but she couldn't argue that Xena looked noticeably calmer than she'd been before.
“Good, ‘cause it's time,” Ephiny said. “I've gathered the entire tribe and they're all waiting for you in the village center.”
Gabrielle nodded. “We'll be right there, Eph,” she said dismissively. “I just need another moment here with Xena and we'll be right behind you.” She watched the regent turn to leave. “Oh, and Eph?”
“Yes?” Ephiny turned with a look of expectancy.
“I'm turning the queen's mask over to you tonight after the joining ceremony,” Gabrielle watched the woman's eyes widen in surprise. “I can't be in two places at once, and Xena needs me to help her run things in Corinth. It's not fair for me to hang onto the queen's mask and leave you as regent. You need to have full authority over the tribe. That way you can do what needs to be done for the benefit of all the tribes and the nation as a whole.”
“Bwa…” Ephiny shook her head to clear the confusion. “Are you sure, Gabrielle? I mean…”
“Positive,” Gabrielle walked over and placed a hand on Ephiny's shoulder. “The Amazons need a strong queen right here to lead them. I can't be here, so I'm turning over my right of caste to you. I know you're just the person these women need to guide them into a brighter future.”
Ephiny smiled. “Thank you, Gabrielle.” She then pulled Gabrielle into a tight hug. “I promise not to let you down.”
Xena took that opportunity to step up behind Gabrielle and place her hands on her partner's shoulders. “And as your first official act as the Thracian queen, you're invited to Corinth to witness the coronation of Greece's newest monarch. It's high time the Conqueror returns to the throne in grand style. And it's time I made our joining a public affair, so all of Greece can bare witness to our union.” She pulled Gabrielle back into her arms and held her. “Greece will be much stronger with two clear heads ruling than just one.” She then kissed the top of Gabrielle's head.
Gabrielle tilted her head back and looked at Xena in open disbelief, while Ephiny glanced from one woman to the other and shook her head.
“You two are priceless,” Ephiny snickered. “I can't believe it was just a few short candlemarks ago that Xena's temper almost got the best of both of you.”
Gabrielle clasped Xena's hands in hers and met Ephiny's gaze. “Love conquers all, my friend. You of all people should know that, by now.”
“Couldn't have said it better myself,” Xena squeezed the hands in hers.
Continued in Part 4
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