The view was exquisite from the Conqueror's palace as it afforded a view of Athens proper. Eighty years prior to the Conqueror's reign the draftsmen and architects were certain they built the temples on the tallest acropolis in the area. Then, they were right. When the Conqueror came and saw the situation she merely had the army make another hill taller, the Hill of Nymphs. It took five years to build but the result was spectacular. The palace was magnificent. Thirty-eight rooms on five levels-including kitchens, baths, libraries, luxury suites, small courtyards, and gardens-it out-shined everything else for miles. The elaborate system that brought fresh water up the hill was manned daily by forty mules and sixty men. The palace was made from the best marble found around Palestine and Anatolia and its wooden structures from the finest cedars in Lebanon.
Xena Akolastos, the Conqueror and Founder of the Hellenic Empire, stepped out to her private porch and overlooked the city below her. She was a beautiful woman with black hair and eyes that shone the same color as the bluest sky. She was wearing a thick linen chiton, more masculine than feminine, that reached to just above her knees, not quite covering her boots. On her chest she wore a golden breastplate with an image of the sun god Helios etched on it. It was said that when the Conqueror stood on her porch the people in the city below could see her easily, as she shined almost as brilliantly as the sun. On her head she wore a thin, gold laurel crown and on her back her sword.
The dark woman walked to the edge of the porch-a terrace that did not have a railing-and let the warm spring air blow through her raven tresses. The earth was fragrant with the aromas of oregano and thyme, and just a little hint of eucalyptus. The limestone porch held a reflecting pool of soft rippling water and was surrounded by shrubbery. Two chaises for lounging stood near the door that led out to it. Beyond the stone porch the earth stretched out to perhaps two feet then it dropped suddenly at a forty-five degree angle for several hundred feet. The fall would kill anyone. Without fear, Xena stepped to the edge and gazed at the city below, mindless of the lack of railing.
No barriers between my people and me.
The Conqueror smiled. "Hello, Palaimon."
The Captain of the Guard shook his head and stepped out farther from the open doors, not quite bold enough to stand side by side with the dark woman. He was the only person in the Empire who could enter the Conqueror's private chambers, except for a small cleaning crew. "I still don't know how you do it, my Lord."
"How I do what?"
"Hear me coming when no one else can."
Xena turned to him, a mere inches from a plunge that could kill her. "Its more than practice that allows me my skills and that's all I'm going to say about it."
Palaimon frowned, keenly aware of how close she was to the edge. "Would you like to go over the daily correspondence, my Empress?"
The dark woman stepped away from the edge and took a seat on the nearest chaise. "No, not right now." She motioned for her Captain to take a seat opposite her.
The Conqueror regarded her Captain. He was just a little shorter than she was with sandy blonde hair that he kept immaculately trimmed. He did not keep a beard, like most of her advisors, and his features could have been called feminine, had he not kept an extremely muscular physique. Most of all, he was intelligent, and well on his way to surpassing her brightest generals in military strategy. But he preferred the Royal Guard duty instead of the regular army.
"What of the small uprising in Crete, Captain?" She was testing him.
"Governor Dikaiapolis is beginning to be a problem, yes." He pulled a scroll from his tunic and scanned its contents. "Those loyal to the Empire claim he has a small navy of four warships at Salmone, and perhaps twelve garrisons of greedy mercenaries-and, most unfortunately, about a hundred and forty soldiers, formerly loyal to the Empire. The Council has declared him a traitor, my Lord, and has called for an immediate ostracism." He turned his head and frowned.
"Merely banishing him won't solve the situation, will it, Captain?"
"No it won't, my liege."
Xena saw the expression on his face. "Go ahead, my friend, tell me your thoughts."
"He can't be organizing this thing by himself, my Lord, he's only a politician with no military experience. Before his current appointment he was a minor official at Korinthos, mostly charged with keeping public statistics. As far as our intelligence is concerned he doesn't have any political friends and hasn't made any close alliances with anyone."
The Conqueror smiled. "You're becoming adept at intelligence gathering, my friend."
Friend? "I live to serve the Empire, my Lord."
Hmmm?I am the Empire.
Xena shook her head. "Palaimon, when we are alone you don't have to be so formal. How many years have we known each other? No, no don't answer. I'll tell you-twenty years, since I was twenty-five. For twenty years you have been my loyal subject, a friend of the Empire, and, if I may, my friend. I would like to consider you my friend, Palaimon." The dark woman frowned slightly. "Am I right in doing this?"
The Captain swallowed the lump in his throat. "If I may be so bold, my?Xena, I have always considered you my best friend."
The Conqueror turned away briefly, momentarily uncomfortable with the intimacy between them. She changed the subject. "Were you at the Council meeting this morning, Palaimon?"
"No, Conqueror-I mean Xena-I wasn't. I'm sorry I wasn't there but other duties took my time."
Xena eyed her Captain. "I hear our representatives from both Crete and Rhodes were curiously absent this morning. I find this very interesting, don't you, Palaimon?"
The blonde man thought for a moment then shook his head. "Pheidios of Rhodes-that rat bastard-he's with Dikaiapolis?"
The Conqueror clapped her Captain on the back. "So you see the beginning of a conspiracy, I see. Very good, Palaimon, very good."
The Captain jumped to his feet. "Your orders, then, my Lord."
The dark woman rose to her feet. "First things first, Captain. It is obvious that someone in intelligence is keeping certain facts from reaching the palace, from reaching me. Someone who is loyal to whoever is backing Crete and Rhodes." Xena chuckled at the look on her Captain's face. "A greater force than a combined Crete and Rhodes is trying to manipulate the Empire, Palaimon, and I just can't let that happen."
"How long have you known this, my Lord?"
"For three months now. Ever since that fool Dikaiapolis made an unnecessary trip to Rhodes. All governors, ambassadors, diplomats, generals and admirals must keep a log of their travel expenses so the Imperial accountants can balance the budget at year's end. The imbecile actually turned in an expense report for that superfluous trip."
"He can't be that stupid, can he?"
"Or he wants us to think he is." Xena glanced at the sundial. Almost time for afternoon petitions.
The Conqueror glanced back over she shoulder. The splendid view beckoned her back to her musings but she had an Empire to rule. Her brief moment of peace was now gone, and when she turned back to face her Captain her face had become cold and devoid of emotion. "We have a web to weave."
After departing from her Captain Xena retrieved her horse from the palace stable and took the mount down the wide road that crisscrossed its way down the hill. The daily activity of people going up and down moved out of her way as she rode. After about a minute she steered the horse down a smaller pathway that led to her private temple to Athene Nike. The marble temple was no bigger than a small house and on it's outside it resembled the larger Parthenon on the acropolis. A smaller structure sat behind the temple and the lone priestess dwelt there, although she was rarely seen by anyone, even the Conqueror. Two palace guards stood at either side of the temple entrance, their spears crossed.
Xena nodded to the guards and they bowed deeply at the waist. One of them came to take the reins from the dark woman and the other turned and entered the trees. After a few moments he returned with a spring lamb tucked under his arm.
The Conqueror took the animal from the guard and slowly entered the temple, she sighed as the fragrant odor of the temple assaulted her senses-spices, oils, incense, and the aroma of recent burnt offerings. Four oil lamps hung from the ceiling at its corners. A fire pit sat in the center of the room; a censor stood off to the side of it and was burning incense. The altar was near the back of the room. Xena walked languidly toward the altar while stroking the lamb as if it was a pet. She cooed at the beast while slowly reaching for the dagger hidden under her cape. She smiled as she plunged the knife into the lamb's throat and cut it cleanly.
"I give to you, mighty Athene, goddess of war, the blood of this spring lamb as a token of my honor to you."
She quickly brought her hand up and closed it around the animal's neck, making the blood ooze slowly from the cut. The Conqueror walked around the altar and spread the blood all over it; enough of it ran over the sides and spilled on the warrior's boots. "Total victory is nearly at hand, and all of Hellas will belong to me-and you, my goddess."
She dripped the blood on the incense censor and it crackled and spat out making a sickening sound. The disgusting vapors rose to the ceiling, making the room smell like a meat vat. When all the blood left the lamb the Conqueror casually dropped the animal into the fire pit and listened with delight as the flesh sizzled.
"I will rule always by your wisdom and the strength of my own hands." The dark woman unsheathed her sword and plunged it into the heart of the burnt offering. "When all of Hellas is mine, it is yours."
The Conqueror smirked when the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She turned to see the full glory of Athene Nike as the goddess moved to the altar, letting the aroma of the burnt offering fill her immortal nostrils.
"A sweet smell, indeed, Conqueror." The goddess looked to the dark woman. "This little mess with Dikaiapolis and Pheidios isn't serious, is it?"
"They're dogs I'll kick into submission real soon."
Athene moved slowly around the altar, letting her hands glide over its bloody surface. "They are amateurs, after all."
Xena fought desperately to keep her voice steady. Athene exuded pure sensuality and this was not lost on the dark woman. "Yes, they are."
"My lowly brother is watching this situation very intently, Conqueror. He thinks you'll slip up one of these days and finally come crawling to him."
The Conqueror chuckled. "Ares? He's another dog. In case you haven't noticed I prefer cats-graceful, exotic cats."
Athene sauntered over to the dark woman. "Really?"
Xena swallowed. "Really."
They faced each other only inches apart. The goddess stood at least one foot taller than the Conqueror. She smiled down at the muscular woman. "And what present would I give to you when this tiny, little rebellion is repelled?"
The Conqueror bowed slightly, her eyes level with the goddess' breasts. "There is nothing in this world I could possibly want other than more victories in your name."
Athene raised her bloody hand and traced a smooth line down the Conqueror's cheek. "Are you sure?"
The dark woman's jaw tightened, and her hands curled up into fists, but her eyes held fast to the goddess'. "Very sure, my goddess."
The goddess backed away slightly and nodded her head. "Too bad your interests lie only in the arts of war, Conqueror, we could have celebrated-deliciously."
When Athene Nike was gone Xena released her breath and brought her hand up to her cheek. She stared at the crimson smear. Blood, always blood?
Xena strode to the entrance and dunked her arms to the elbows in the fresh water her guards brought to her. She thoroughly washed her face and hands. Afterwards, she took a towel from the nearest guard and quickly dried herself. "Take the water into the temple and douse the offering. I want that pit cleaned immediately."
When the Conqueror mounted her horse she turned back to the guards. "And see to it the whole temple is cleaned and scrubbed. It smells like my horses ass!"
When the dark woman was gone the two guards turned to each other.
Ekhemos rubbed a hand over his brow. "What's wrong with her? A bit testy today, isn't she?"
Nessos glared at the younger man. "Do you want your head on the block, boy? Never talk about the Conqueror behind her back again!"
"As if she could hear me."
"Her spies are everywhere, fool!" The older man glanced over his shoulder and shook his head. "That could have been a close call."
Salmakis hurried along through the agora, passing along the south side of the Hephaisteion, pushing at people who were in his way, on his way to the Bouleuterion. "Make way, make way!" His skinny frame made it easy for him to squeeze through the crowd.
A few young boys and girls were playing with a toy discus, which they threw and passed between them among the throng of people. The youngest boy aimed to throw but lost his footing on a stone and the discus hit Salmakis in the head, making him stumble. The children and some of the nearby shoppers and merchants laughed at the lanky man as he tried to get to his feet.
A rough hand grabbed the scribe by the scruff of his next and he howled while being shoved to his feet.
The Captain of the Guard glowered at the snickering crowd and drew his sword. "Anyone else interested in laughing at the Conqueror's chief scribe?"
Without missing a beat almost everyone turned away and went about their business, all except the children, who merely smiled at the Captain and held out their hands.
Palaimon, still holding the scribe by the neck, sheathed his sword and turned to the children, grinning. "All right, kids, how much is it going to cost me this time?"
A girl clapped her hands gleefully. "Two dinars."
The Captain shook his head. "Okay, not bad."
A small boy cleared his throat and stood to his full height. "Two dinars each."
Palaimon laughed and opened his pouch. "Lets see?three?ten?oh, here, have the entire amount." His tossed his purse to the children and they excitedly grabbed it up and bounced away.
The Captain turned to the scribe. He opened the bag at the scribe's hip and glanced at its contents. "Are you stupid, old man? These are the Conqueror's personal diaries?what are you doing with them out here in public?"
Salmakis glared at the Captain. "I'm just transferring them to the official Hall of Records-the Metroon!"
"Next time you decide to do something like this bring a guardsmen with you! These could have been stolen and that would bad for you, trust me!"
The scribe adjusted the bag at his hip. "I'm stronger than I look, and I'm not stupid."
"Be quick about it, its almost time for the Conqueror to hear the afternoon petitions."
"Yeah, yeah. Now get out of my way!"
The Captain stared after the scribe even as he disappeared from view. He realized he would have to report the incident to the dark woman and his heart sank. It would not bode well for Salmakis.
Xena's council chamber, the Bouleuterion, was an impressive structure. The outside marble walls were two feet thick in order to protect it from any attack. The exterior walls were carved in base relief and showed depictions of the Conqueror fighting many battles-ridding the land of petty warlords, unscrupulous archons and kings. Executions were also depicted as a warning to those who would still oppose the dark warrior's reign. To those who still opposed the unification of the various city-states the Conqueror was a demon that crushed all those who objected to her plans. But to those who suffered under the ruthless tyranny of others, the Conqueror's rule was a blessing.
The interior was just as imposing. The walls, in high relief, were decorated with scenes of the Conqueror signing treaties, pardoning prisoners, and meting out justice to the entire Empire. Her councilors were seated in a semicircular series of limestone benches that rose up ten rows towards the ceiling, and at this point, were filled with her five hundred advisors from the tribes in and around Attica. They talked quietly among themselves until the blast of the trumpet announced the dark warrior's approach.
The Captain of the Guard stood quietly by the Conqueror's golden throne and watched as she entered the chamber, flanked by four royal guards, the scribe followed the procession at a respectable distance. The throne itself had a dome over it supported by four Doric columns. Its shine was amplified by the actual rays of the sun, which came through an open-air cupola on the ceiling directly above it.
A herald stepped up and made the appropriate announcement. "All rise! I present to you Xena Akolastos, the Conqueror-defender of the weak, scourge of tyrants, enemy of rebels and keeper of the land!"
The guards moved off to the side of the throne as Xena strode the few steps up to it. She withdrew her sword from its sheath and removed the chakram from her side and placed both items on a small table by the marble seat. When she turned to face her councilors her personal page approached her and offered her a chalice of wine for the customary salute.
The dark woman lifted the chalice and presented it to the crowd. "I drink to you, my trusted advisors!" She downed the libation in one gulp as the people cheered. Everyone sat down when she did.
Salmakis stood at the podium and began the proceedings. "The 300th council petitions in the twenty-fifth year of the realm of Xena Akolastos will begin. We will begin with the roll calls and then all those who have business before the throne of justice will approach. Beginning with?"
Xena muted a yawn as the roll began and glanced about the room. Let's see?Crete?Rhodes?and now Miletus?a web to weave?
Finally her eyes fell on Palaimon, who was looking rather perturbed. "What is it, Captain?" she whispered.
Palaimon lowered his voice. "I lost my purse, again, my Lord."
"Have you been threatening your sword near children during peacetime, again?" Xena snickered. "Oh well, you know the rules. Weapons and children don't mix well, don't you agree?"
"Yes, my Lord. But they take so much pleasure from it."
A small chuckle escaped the dark woman's lips. She quickly covered her action with a stern look and turned back to the proceedings.
A Thracian flagship sailed just ahead of the small fleet that set out from Thessalonika. It took four ships to contain the entire tribute from the provinces of Thrace, including the levy from Poteidaia in the Chalcidice. A blonde woman, whose short hair was blowing in the wind, strode to the front of the ship and gazed out to the rapidly approaching land. She grabbed some ropes to steady herself. The drumbeat that kept the oarsmen in time drifted up from below her feet. She glanced over her shoulder to see if the young man had followed her. He did, and the blonde woman smiled up at him.
Perdikas grinned. "I thought you'd still be puking up lunch."
"Those herbs your mom gave me finally worked. I feel fine now." She pulled a shawl around her shoulders. "Looks like it won't be much longer."
"Good, I'm tired of having to put up with that idiot Captain."
"He's not an idiot, Perdikas. That man has my father's complete confidence."
The young man briefly glanced at the older man. "Why?"
"He saved my sister from drowning on our last voyage. My father showed his gratitude by freeing his family from debt slavery."
Perdikas frowned. "Who owned them?"
Gabrielle sighed. "The Conqueror did. The thought of meeting her scares me a little."
Perdikas rubbed his chin, as was his habit when thinking. "Well I wouldn't worry too much about the Conqueror. I hear she rarely visits Piraeus and lets her underlings do all the negotiations. We probably won't see her at all."
"I hope so. Have I thanked you lately for making this trip with me?"
The young man blushed slightly. "About a dozen times, already. Don't worry about it, Gabs."
The small blonde slipped her arm around Perdikas's waist and watched as the port city of Piraeus quickly came into view. Both jumped slightly when a horn blast announced the fast approaching land.
Hours later, Xena rose from her throne and nodded to the herald. The man acknowledged her and then stepped up to the podium. "This meeting is officially over. All rise!" As the assembly rose to their feet the Conqueror was already half way to her conference room, an antechamber on the west side of the Bouleuterion. Her Chief General, Admiral, the Archon of Athens, Palaimon, and her personal Scribe close at her heels.
The dark woman threw her cloak on a chair and went to pour herself a glass of wine. "Was that meeting helpful to you, gentlemen?"
Naurachos Laodameia, her best admiral, cleared her throat. Xena looked her way and waved her hand. "?and ladies?"
The Conqueror motioned for the others to sit and then picked up the small amphora of wine and placed it beside her. She looked at each in turn, and her patience eroded when they remained silent. Then her gaze fell on her Archon, who was looking rather nervous. "Anything on your mind, Leukippos?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"Well, what is it?"
"Two things, Lord Xena. First of all, some minor priests have been annoyed with Your Highness. I heard them complaining that you haven't been to the morning sacrifices at the Altar of the Twelve Gods in a long time."
Xena smiled. "Is that all? I thought you were going to tell me that some of your staff members were thinking of rebelling, or something like that."
The Archon's eyes widened. "No, no! My people are loyal to Your Highness!"
"Excuse me, my Lord-your priests."
Xena poured herself a cup of wine. "What's the other thing?"
Leukippos cleared his throat. "One more thing, Conqueror. One of the five boys convicted this morning of defacing the boundary stones and herm in the agora was my youngest son, Glaukon. I beg you, my Lord, for mercy on his behalf."
The Conqueror turned to her Captain. "What were the sentences, Palaimon?"
"Twofold, my Lord. Their families and tribes were levied with the proper fines and each boy was given two months public service. I believe they will be put on street cleaning duty after school."
Xena turned to the Archon. "You have a problem with that?"
"My Lord, I am the Archon of Athens! What will people think of my family seeing my son clean up horse shit on the streets?"
"Yes, Leukippos, you are an influential member of the government and well respected by my people. Maybe they will think that your children ought to know better. Shouldn't they know better, Archon? Doesn't this disgrace say more about your influence on your children more than anything? I think you are more worried about yourself and not Glaukon."
The dark woman sat back in her seat and coldly regarded the older man. After a few tense moments she spoke. "Maybe we can find him more suitable duties in the palace? What do you think, Captain?"
Palaimon smirked at the older man. "Well, my Conqueror, I am in need of a temporary assistant-a messenger to run in-house correspondence. My current messenger, Areion, is sick."
Xena frowned. 'That doesn't seem like it will teach the young man a proper lesson, though. Ah, I think I have a solution." She downed another mouthful of wine. "Captain, after the boy's studies in the morning he will report to you at the Poikile at midday. You will take him into the stoa and show him the painted panels and instruct him in the history of each representation-each battle, each struggle-he will learn the history of our great land and hopefully learn to love it as I do. Maybe then he will gladly see to the clean up of it? After that you can bring him to the palace as your assistant."
Palaimon continued to glare at the Archon. "An excellent idea, Conqueror."
The Archon bowed his head. "Thank you, Lord Xena. I am forever in your debt."
The Conqueror frowned. "You can tell your staff I'll be at the Altar of the Twelve Gods at midweek. My time is my own and nobody demands of it, understood?"
"Yes, my liege."
An edge of fear rode up the general's spine at the coldness in the Conqueror's voice. He had been holding back and did not want to deliver his news. "There is some new development that I think might be dangerous to the Empire. Our spies in Rome tell us of whispers of political unrest. The Republic is in danger of falling to an upstart general who wants to do away with the Senate. The Republic could become a Dictatorship, my Lord."
The Conqueror sat up and her hand clenched around her cup. Some other part of her, below her stomach, reacted as well. It has been such a long time. We do need a glorious battle, don't we? "Who is this general?"
"Gaius Julius Caesar, my Lord."
"This Caesar could be dangerous to us? Is that what you're saying, General?"
The dark woman downed another cup of wine. "What do you think, Laodameia?"
"Our intelligence tells us he has been appointing some of his distant relatives to minor positions within the Republic. They say he's charming and has won favor with both men and women within the aristocracy. His wife, Calpurnia, is extremely loyal to him and has won him allegiance by her own charms. I hear he has successfully wooed Egypt into a plan against us, as well." The admiral got up and poured her own wine. "He wants to conquer the world, my Lord, and that includes Hellas."
"Leukippos, what do you think?" Xena asked.
The Archon turned to the dark woman. "Perhaps we should invite Gaius Julius to Athens, my Lord? You know, under the auspices of signing a mutual non-aggression pact?"
Eteokles, obviously annoyed, shook his head. "What, and tip him off we know what he's up to? That's not real smart!"
"General!" Xena stood and grabbed the general by the neck. "I did ask for his opinion, didn't I?"
The general waited for the blow but it didn't come. "A thousand pardons, my Lord, I spoke without thinking."
The dark warrior shoved Eteokles back into his chair. Her voice was cold. "Next time I will forgo my restraint, General Eteokles." As she returned to her chair she reached into her tunic. The dagger flew from her hand so fast no one had time to react. It imbedded into the general's chair just above his head. "Have I made my point?"
Palaimon almost laughed at the pun but chose not to. The general could only nod his head.
"Good." Xena took another drink. "I like your idea, Leukippos, but I think we'll invite his wife instead. I have my own way of getting the information I want out of wom-people."
This time the Captain of the Guard did smile, well aware of his leader's appetites. "An excellent idea, my Conqueror."
Oh, sweet lust?we do need a battle don't we? "We'll have to watch this situation carefully. General, I want you to increase the number of spies in Rome and its' environs." The dark woman poured another cup. "Its been a long time since we were at war, hasn't it?"
Palaimon nodded. "Almost sixteen years, my Lord."
"So this Caesar wants to be a conqueror of Hellas." The Conqueror's laugh was devoid of mirth. "Foolish and arrogant! I want the army to begin training exercises, General. Not the normal ones, either. The drills for our campaign in Carthage should do well. Also, I want the elite forces from Korinthos brought to Athens as soon as possible. They can encamp on the northwest side of the Kolonos Agoraios, near the city wall. Will you see to it, General Eteokles?"
"At once, my Lord."
"The last ships to bring the quarterly tribute, my Lord, are due to arrive any time now. Thrace is, as usual, late and will be penalized accordingly, Conqueror."
"I want to speak to that ass, Herodotus, as soon as he arrives." Xena drank another cup of wine but it failed to sooth her aggravation.
The admiral shrank back a bit; the Conqueror's fury was notorious. "I'm afraid he won't be coming, my Lord. He is sending his oldest daughter and his assistant as his liaisons."
Xena remained silent while her teeth clenched, willing away the explosion that was threatening to send her into a murderous ire. "He's sending a girl to my court instead of himself! Out! Everyone get the hades out of here!"
Without question all those in the room did as the Conqueror commanded. Palaimon glanced over his shoulder before closing the door. The Conqueror was rubbing her temples, trying to hold back the impending headache.
The Captain sighed and stood vigil by the closed door. Salmakis came up to him while stuffing scrolls into his bag. "We didn't discuss my business, Captain."
"What do you want, scribe?"
The lanky man pointed to the door. "She's got another one of her headaches, doesn't she?"
Palaimon grabbed the scribe by the neck. "Watch your tongue, Salmakis. You talk any louder and I'll gut you myself."
Salmakis grinned. "You don't like me, do you?"
"I tolerate you, at best. But I know something about you the Conqueror doesn't." He released the detested man.
"What is that, fool?"
The Captain merely smiled and stood by the door, not bothering to answer the question.
"You'll regret your insolence, guard. Mark my words."
Palaimon watched as the scribe left the Hall, disturbed that her had not protected the privacy of his Conqueror as much as he thought he had. Her headaches?so, scribe, you have tipped your hand after all. Too bad?
The Conqueror emerged from the antechamber to find the Captain and the four palace guards standing near the door and talking quietly among themselves. She sighed and straightened out her clothing. "Captain?"
The guards turned at the sound of her voice and bowed. Palaimon spoke, "Your bidding, my Lord. "
"How much longer until the ships arrive?"
The Captain looked to the water clock near the podium. "They could be here right now, lord Xena."
"I think I'd like to greet them myself. Have the guards bring the horses to the Panathenaic way at once and then come in. I think we'll ride to the docks." She shut the door.
After the Captain saw to the Conqueror's wishes he paused at the door to the dark warrior's antechamber, somewhat chagrined at what he had to tell her.
The dark woman turned to the Captain as he entered, immediately knowing something was wrong. "I always know when something is bothering you, Palaimon, so tell me right now-what is it?"
The Captain sighed heavily. "It's Salmakis, my Lord. He knows about your headaches."
Xena 's eyes widened. "How does he know?"
"I am sorry, Conqueror, I don't know."
Xena frowned and nodded. "That is most unfortunate for him, don't you think?"
"Yes it is, my Lord."
"When we return from the port I think I'll have a personal talk with him." I am slipping, someone was watching me closely and I did not know it?my headaches?
About one hour after the Conqueror's party returned from the docks her personal scribe was found murdered in his home, along with most of his servants. His wife and children, not home at the time, were spared. After the customary time had passed his household received its pension from the Empire, duly noting its sorrow over such a fine civil servant. His young assistant, Telemakhos, escaped the Conqueror's wrath and became her new personal scribe.
Athens' port city, Piraeus, never shut down. Ships from all over the Empire arrived from dawn until dusk in order for the business of the Sovereignty to flourish and prosper. The Empire traded in jewels, produce, metals, animals, grains, technology and a myriad of other commerce. Twenty massive, concrete warehouses stood in the water with wood and metal piers supporting them. The port could easily moor forty ships, along with the navy ships, with room to spare. An entire military unit was stationed at Piraeus, at permanent barracks just northwest of the city gates.
Kodos yawned as he paced in front of the soldier's station near the city entrance. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and leaned heavily on his spear. He glanced back to the guardhouse then yawned again, feeling the weight of the warm spring afternoon. I'm bored?nobody would notice if I snuck off to get a drink or two?
The man was just about to sneak away when a sharp cry startled him. He turned to the road and stared. Amongst the throng of people and carts on their way to the Piraeus gates were six horsemen, approaching at startling speed as they dodged between the people. The horses and riders seemed to be flying down the road towards him. The soldier peered intently at the riders as they approached the port entrance and then put a hand over his eyes to shade them from the sun.
"Oh, my Briarios!"
A sleepy soldier emerged from the guardhouse rubbing his eyes. "Yeah, yeah-what's up your ass now?"
"The Conqueror's coming, you idiot! Blast the trumpet!"
Briarios turned and saw the fast approaching horses. He grabbed the horn from his side and blew it as loudly as he could.
"The Conqueror approaches! The Conqueror approaches! The Conqueror is coming?"
The news traveled fast, as people shouted to those far away. Several heads turned at the nearest docks, and the Commander of Piraeus ran out of his office, his assistant close on his heels. "What the-"
The Commander stopped a midshipman as he was running and swung him around. "What's going on here, boy?"
"The Conqueror is almost here, now let me go!" The young man pulled away from the commander's grip and ran towards his ship.
Commander Koios turned and backhanded his lieutenant. "Why didn't you tell me she was coming?"
Lykomedes rubbed his cheek and glared at the older man. "I didn't know!"
The Commander grabbed his horse's reins and mounted. "Send word down the wharves and be quick about it! If this is your screw up I'll whip you myself!"
The Conqueror flashed Palaimon a wicked grin as she flew past him. She guided her horse to an abrupt halt at Piraeus' gate. The Captain and the four guards ended up about thirty yards behind their leader. They gave a triumphal yell and swung their swords in honor of the dark warrior.
Briarios and Kodos adjusted their spears and stood at attention. The Conqueror gave them a cool look while trying to hold back a chuckle. She pointed to the younger soldier. "How old are you, soldier?"
"Eighteen years old, my Lord."
Xena looked sharply at her Captain. "I thought only the most seasoned of soldiers were posted here?"
"I'm sorry, my Lord, but this is not my area of expertise." He dismounted and ordered the guards to surround their leader.
The Conqueror looked up as several soldiers and sailors ran up to the small party. Xena recognized Commander Koios at once as he dismounted and knelt before her.
"Lord Conqueror, how may I be of service to you?" He faltered slightly then looked up. "I did not know you were coming." Maybe it will be a quick execution?
Without dismounting, Xena unsheathed her sword and aimed it at the man's head. "Am I not allowed surprise inspections, Commander?"
"I didn't?inspections? Of course, of course, my Lord!" "Koios rose and gestured to a number of soldiers. They immediately came forward and joined the guards in a protective stance around the Conqueror.
The dark woman re-sheathed her sword and offered the Commander a cold smile. "Well, that's better, isn't it? I expect the monthly report to be on time from now on, Commander. Which piers are the Thracian ships supposed to be at? I hope, for your sake, you answer correctly."
"Pier eight, my Lord."
"Good, Commander. I want you to disperse these men accordingly. I want ten sailors with me and my party-not the soldiers. Oh, and Commander?I want you to have your assistant send to the palace a complete listing of all soldiers stationed here. Include birthdays and where they were born. Is that understood?"
"As you wish, Conqueror." Koios bowed.
Xena turned to Palaimon. "Mount your horse, Captain. You will ride at my side." She wondered if the Commander felt the sting of her disdain.
The Conqueror led her small contingent towards pier eight. "Palaimon?"
The Captain steered his horse closer to hers. "Yes, my Lord?"
"Tell me your thoughts about what happened in my office this afternoon."
"About what Eteokles and Laodameia told you?" The Captain hesitated. "May I speak freely, my Conqueror?"
Xena smiled. "Always."
"You already knew about that renegade Roman, didn't you, my Lord?"
"Excuse me, my Lord, but why the deception? Why give them the impression that they knew something you didn't? Doesn't that give them a sense of power?"
"Yes it does, Captain. You witnessed the first stage in weaving the web-give your underlings a false sense of power. That type of thinking will be their undoing. I'll leave stage two for you to figure out on your own. But you only have a few days. I do expect you to report to me when you do, understood?"
"Yes, my Lord."
The harbor was busy with the loading and unloading of various ships. Merchants disputed with each other on the prices of all different types of goods. Soldiers were inspecting invoices and arguing with dockworkers over discrepancies. Animals could be heard whining in their cages and the smells were enough to overload the senses. Yet, despite all this, the Conqueror was basking in the attention of her people. They wanted to touch her or her horse, and the guards around her had difficulty keeping them away. With a wave of her hand the Conqueror ordered the guards to stand aside. She allowed the crowd to touch her hands, cape or the horse she rode on. The dark warrior's smile was infectious, as those who walked away appeared deeply touched by her presence.
The guards and midshipmen fidgeted and fought with the instinct to push the people aside. Yet the Conqueror was in her element. A young woman pushed her way to the front of the crowd. Xena noticed this and was about to draw her dagger when the woman raised her infant to the Conqueror. Xena took the baby into her arms and smiled down at the small bundle.
Palaimon noticed the look on his Lord's face and smiled to himself. Very interesting.
The Conqueror kissed the baby's forehead and leaned down to give the small thing back to the young woman. Her hand faltered slightly but she managed to catch herself before anyone could notice. When she looked to her Captain she noticed his gaze was somewhere else so she turned to see what had captured his attention. That was when she noticed the Thracian flagship at port. She frowned when she realized the Captain's attention was not on the ship but on a young woman who was walking down the gangplank.
"Shall we go and meet our guests, Captain?"
Palaimon turned at the sudden coolness in the Conqueror's voice. "Yes, of course, my Lord."
The dark woman dismounted and handed her reins to the nearest guard. When the rest of the guards surrounded her she strode toward the docked ship. The sailors managed to keep most of her followers at bay as the Conqueror stopped ten feet away from the gangplank.
The Captain of the Guard stopped by her side. "All listen and beware! You are in the presence of Xena the Conqueror-so show respect!"
All those around bowed to the dark warrior, except for a young man who stood at the top of the gangplank. He merely lowered his head and nodded, his eyes never leaving the tall dark ruler.
The Conqueror noticed immediately. "Palaimon, we seem to have an act of insubordination before us."
The Captain drew his sword. "Let me teach him a lesson, my Lord."
Xena put a hand on his shoulder. "Maybe later, Captain. You, up there?what is your name?"
The young man made his way down the plank. "Perdikas of Poteidaia, my Lord, Conqueror. I'm sorry for not bowing to your Highness but my back has been hurting-a war injury, I think."
Xena didn't believe it for a second. "Your contrition becomes you, Perdikas of Poteidaia. Come, you and your company are welcomed in Athens as my guests. Palaimon?"
"Yes, my Lord?"
"See to it that they are comfortable-what the?" The Conqueror whirled and grabbed the small hand just as it touched her shoulder. In less than a second her breast dagger was at the young woman's throat. Her quick reaction momentarily startled the guards, who immediately drew their swords.
"Who do you think??" The Conqueror's voiced trailed off when she found herself staring into sea green eyes. Several things seemed to happen at once. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the young man, Perdikas, coming to the young woman's aid. Half the guards turned to him while the others rushed to her side. Without thinking she reflexively tightened her hold on Gabrielle, bringing their bodies together, to shield her from the guards. "Palaimon!"
The Captain had already anticipated his Lord's intention and grabbed Perdikas, keeping him safe from the guards who had intended to kill him.
The Conqueror continued to stare at the young woman in her arms; the top of the blonde's head only reached to just above her chin. Xena blinked, but quickly recovered herself. "I could have killed you."
Gabrielle's eyes slowly lost their fright. "I'm so sorry for touching you, Lord Xena. I wasn't thinking-I just wanted to introduce myself."
Xena lowered the dagger and waved at her contingent. They backed off and re-sheathed their swords. The dark woman tightened her hold on the blonde when Perdikas broke free from the Captain and took two steps toward them. He stopped at the look in the dark warrior's eyes.
Gabrielle shivered slightly; painfully aware of just how close to death she had come. She gently tried to pull herself free from the Conqueror's embrace, but continued to be held tightly. "I ask for your forgiveness, Conqueror?I?I?" The young woman's voice trailed off as she found herself staring up at the beautiful, blue-eyed woman, momentarily at a loss for words.
For a few brief moments the Conqueror and the young woman were aware only of each other. Then the moment was over as Xena looked up and saw the amused look on Palaimon's face.
The Conqueror smoothly released the young woman from her arms. She was surprised at the tingling sensation left by the smaller body's absence. "What is your name?"
"Gabrielle of Poteidaia, daughter of Herodotus, in the Chalcidice. My father sent me in his place." She looked steadily at the dark warrior. "I am the leader of this company of Thracians, not Perdikas, my Lord."
The Conqueror sneered at the young woman's insolence. She reached around her and grabbed Perdikas, sending him to the ground with a solid punch. He landed at Gabrielle's feet.
"You're lucky I usually don't hit woman, Gabrielle of Poteidaia. Your skills at negotiations better exceed your impertinent tongue, little girl. Captain!"
Palaimon briefly glanced at the young woman before turning his attention to his leader. "Your wishes, my Lord."
"Send a warning to the agora I'll be at the old orchestra this afternoon, and have them send for the wolves. Be quick about it!" Xena spun on her heel and, in one fluid motion, mounted her horse. "And see to the comfort of our guests. Perhaps a reception tonight is in order?" She rode off at a maddening pace.
When the guards turned to follow the Captain waved them off. "No, don't follow." Palaimon pointed at a nearby guard. "You, Daedemos, do the Conqueror's bidding and ride to the agora at once."
He turned to Gabrielle, her beauty was not lost on him, and noticing the dark warrior's reactions, it was not lost on her, either. "Gabrielle, its not wise to get on her bad side."
"I didn't mean to get her mad." She bent down and helped Perdikas to his feet.
"Sure you did. I saw the look on your face when the Conqueror deferred to that boy instead of you." He grinned at her. "I think you knew exactly what you were doing."
Perdikas cradled his jaw and looked up to the Captain. "I'm not a boy." His voice was slurry and the young woman put an arm around him to steady him.
The Captain returned to his horse and settled himself in the saddle. "Guards, you escort them to the Palace. Put Perdikas and those lackeys on level four guest quarters." He regarded Gabrielle. "And put the feisty one in the guest suite on level one. I'll follow shortly."
When the Captain was gone Gabrielle led Perdikas to the carriage that a guard had just returned with. A porter held the door open and they climbed inside. The rest of their entourage was led to other carts for transportation, along with the entire luggage.
Perdikas leaned back in the seat and eyed Gabrielle. "That was stupid, Gabs. She looked like she wanted to kill you."
Gabrielle turned away from him and gazed out the window. "Funny thing is, she may have looked like that, but, well, I don't know." She closed her eyes momentarily at the memory of those strong arms around her. She cleared her throat and smiled at the young man. "I'm glad you're not really hurt."
"So am I."
Xena rode the beast along the shores of Piraeus, kicking up sand, then guided the animal into the chilly surf to cool them both down. Her blood was still racing through her veins and she let herself fall into the rage that was building within her. She rose up on the stirrups and lifted her arms to the heavens.
I let that girl get to me, and in front of my subjects?fool, Xena?
The dark woman wiped at the sweat pouring from her brow. She planted her feet firmly in the stirrups and un-sheathed her sword. The warrior began an intricate set of drills that had terrified the citizens of Carthage when she had razed their city.
The Conqueror was not without her detractors. Several small mercenary armies had tried, over the years, to disrupt the peace the Conqueror's rule had brought. They focused on trying to ruin the economy by burning fields, raiding trade caravans, killing her governors, and had even managed to sink a few of the Conqueror's ships that were bringing tariffs to the Empire. To these people the Conqueror was merciless. Executions were swift and often went without trial or hearing. The dark warrior's vengeance was precise and exacting, sometimes at a terrible price. Over the years many had met their destruction after miscalculating the Conqueror's resolve to unite all of Hellas. First the Persians, Egyptians, then Carthage, who foolishly thought they were superior to the lowly Greeks. But Xena had proven, through her skill at battle and diplomacy, her superiority over everything and everyone.
It wasn't long before the Captain caught up to the small caravan as it made its way up the hill to the Conqueror's palace. He guided his horse to fall in step with the main carriage, peaking inside and startling Gabrielle. "Hello. What do I call you, Gabrielle? You're not a princess or head of state-so how do I address you?"
Gabrielle poked her head out of the window and smiled. "Gabrielle will do just fine, soldier."
Palaimon took off his helm in a flourish and bowed at the waist. "Palaimon Khrsippos Apollanaris-Captain of the Guard, Friend of the Empire-at your service, my lady. How's your husband?"
Gabrielle chuckled. "He's not my husband."
Palaimon grinned. "Lover?"
The blonde woman rolled her eyes. "No!"
The Captain caught her glance. "So, how do you like our fair city?"
Gabrielle looked down to the agora below them and then to the temples on the acropolis. "Athens is beautiful for sure, but it smells down there."
A hearty laugh followed from the Captain. "Blame it on the fish mongers and dirty brothels."
The young woman found herself liking the handsome man. "Will you help me out of this box, Captain, its stuffy in here."
The young woman began squeezing out of the carriage window. "Help me, please."
The Captain caught the girl before she fell. He supported her waist as she climbed up-and got a good look at her backside. He cleared his throat. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah?you can let go of me now."
Palaimon quickly removed his hands from her thighs. He turned his head so the blonde woman wouldn't see his blush. "May I get you anything, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle ran her hands through her short blonde locks. "Got any wine, Captain?"
Palaimon rummaged through his saddlebag. He pulled out a jar and handed it up to the young woman. "Here, drink this. I think you'll find it lovely."
Gabrielle tipped the jar and downed a mouthful of the sweet nectar. "Oh, this is nice. Is it from the Conqueror's vineyards?"
The Captain smiled. "No, from my own."
Palaimon slowed his horse slightly so he could watch Gabrielle without her seeing him. He watched as she brazenly sat on top of the carriage, a jar of his best wine in her hands, and her face turned up to the sun. He wondered if life could become any more sweet-or complicated.
Gabrielle's pack fell to the floor without her really being aware of it. She reached behind her and closed the door to her guest suite without taking her eyes off the spectacular room.
It was an entire suite of rooms located next to the Conqueror's on the highest level of the palace. The main room held two massive chaises for lounging, each pushed against two opposite walls, with small tables in front of each. Two marble slabs were hung on the wall behind each chaise, each depicting the Conqueror carved in high relief. One wall was completely missing, facing south, and was supported by six Doric columns. Fine white linen drapes hung between the columns and were now swaying slightly to the warm breeze. The walls of this main room were decorated with frescoes and mosaics depicting pastoral scenes. Oil lamps hung from the corners. Smaller lamps were on each table and were burning brightly. Smaller doors were located next to each of the couches.
Gabrielle opened one of these doors and found herself in a rather large bathroom. A large step down bath was located in the center of the room and was filled with steaming water. A sink was against one wall with a large mirror in front of it. An area closed off by a curtain hid the commode from view. As with the main room, one wall was missing and supported by the similar columns. The young woman smiled at the sight, tempted to take off her clothes and splash into the water right away. Instead, she left the room and entered the one opposite. This was the bedroom. A large bed was against one wall and was piled high with pillows. A large wooden wardrobe was placed on the opposite wall with two freestanding oil lamps on each side of it. Four statues of what appeared to be a goddess graced the four corners of the room.
The blonde woman jumped when she heard the door to her chambers open. She peered into the main room. "Yes, who is it?"
A young servant woman stood in the doorway, carrying a tray laden with food and drink. "Hello, miss. I was told to bring you some refreshments."
Gabrielle smiled and took the tray from the girl. "Thank you."
The girl paused at the door. "Miss?"
"The young man, Perdikas, wants to see you."
"Can't you just send him up?"
The servant's eyes widened and she shook her head. "No, miss. No one is allowed on this floor without permission, either the Conqueror or the Captain of the Guard has to give it."
"All right then, tell him I'll be down after I freshen up."
When the girl nodded and closed the door Gabrielle turned to the tray before her. Her stomach growled at the sight. On the tray were cheese, flat bread with oil, dates with honey, grapes, pickled olives, and a jar of wine. Her smile turned into a grin as she picked up the tray and headed for the bathroom.
Gabrielle popped another grape into her mouth and settled deeper into the steaming water. Half of the tray's contents were gone plus a good deal of the wine. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, sighing deeply.
"Well, hello there."
Gabrielle's eyes flew open and she whirled around to face the door. It was open and a woman was standing there, it was not the Conqueror. She quickly raised her hands to cover her breasts. "Who are you?"
Naurachos Laodameia smiled and bowed at the waist. "Chief Admiral Laodameia, at your service. And who, may I ask, are you?"
"Gabrielle of Poteidaia-what are you doing in my suite?" She moved over to the side of the large bath, attempting to hide her body.
The Admiral moved into the room and slowly circled the sunken bath. "Well, when I'm in Athens these are usually my rooms. Which makes you a guest in my suite. Are you a gift from the Conqueror?"
Gabrielle blinked. The admiral was, perhaps, a little shorter than the Conqueror and had reddish brown hair cut shoulder length. Her eyes were a deep chocolate brown and now they regarded Gabrielle with great interest. Her uniform was similar to the Conqueror's but she wore chain mail instead of a breastplate and her chiton was red. Her helm was tucked under her arm.
Gabrielle became angry. "Of course not. Do you think I'm some sort of prostitute?"
"You wouldn't be the first." Laodameia paused at the columns and moved the drapery aside, letting the sun in. "Of Poteidaia you say? You must be part of the Thracian contingent. I heard a little girl made the Conqueror so angry this afternoon that she beheaded the dock master." The admiral bent down on one knee and grinned at the blonde. "Was that you?"
"She did no such thing! And for your information the Captain, Palaimon, gave me these rooms?so get out!"
The Naurachos laughed and made her way to the door. "You are a spirited one, Gabrielle of Poteidaia. Perhaps I will see you tonight at the reception? Good day."
When she was gone Gabrielle threw herself head first into the water. When she surfaced she exited quickly to dry off.
Xena entered the agora from the southwest road that passed in front of a shrine dedicated to Artemis Eukleia and steered her horse slightly to the left. After a short period she turned right at the southwest fountain house and led the steed eastward. She passed by the Heliaia, her law courts, to her left, and followed the path for about two hundred feet and stopped at the southeast fountain house. The small rectangular building was made of limestone set in a polygonal style and was fed by a main line and overflow pipes leading out of small chambers at either end of the building. Several people, who were about to enter the structure, saw the look on the Conqueror's face and immediately turned around and left. The ones who were in the process of exiting the building quickened their paces and left the area.
The dark warrior dismounted and tied the horse's reins to a nearby herm. She entered the east chamber and ran her arms under the spout. She splashed the cold water on her face but it wasn't enough. She leaned in farther and dunked her whole head into the shallow pool. After awhile she brought her head up abruptly and inhaled deeply, shaking the water off her. She repeated this process three times before finally stepping back and sitting on a marble slab.
I don't want to do this?why did I have Palaimon send for the wolves?
The Conqueror sighed and exited the building heading north. After passing by the mint on her right she proceeded up the Street of the Panathenaia and entered the square. The area, formerly an orchestra, was actually more triangular than square. The area was first used, many years before the reign of Xena, as a place to hold dramatic and musical performances, before the Theatre of Dionysus was built. All such structures were long gone, replaced by finely manicured grassy areas, shrubbery, and park benches. The Shrine to the Eponymous Heroes was at her left and the Altar of the Twelve Gods was perhaps three hundred feet, angled northeastward, ahead of her. The Middle Stoa was at her back.
Xena noticed that the Captain had had the area prepared for her. A guard was standing in the middle of the square, in an area where the shrubbery had been cleared, next to a cheetah that was tied to a wooden stake. Several people, who had witnessed this before, were already standing on the boundaries of the square and awaited the entrance of their leader.
Palaimon unclasped his cloak from his shoulders and threw it over a chair. The Captain's office was spartan compared to the rest of the palace. It was on the third level of the Conqueror's palace with a view that overlooked the agora, especially the Stoa of Zeus. The room held an oak desk that was pushed up against one wall. On the opposite wall stood a massive bookcase containing scrolls and ledgers that documented every aspect of the running of the palace household. Wooden chairs sat on opposite sides of the bookcase. On the Captain's desk stood a small statue of Phoibos Apollo, a single oil lamp, and a small amphora of wine and matching cup. Other than these things the room was devoid of any ornamentation.
The Captain poured himself a cup of wine and sat down at his desk. He sighed and closed his eyes, wishing away the tension he could feel in his shoulders.
"Are you the Captain of the Guard?"
Palaimon turned around. The man standing at the door was young. "Who's asking?"
The young man smiled and extended his hand. "Hello, I'm Telemakhos, the Conqueror's new chief scribe."
"Really? I thought you'd be much older." Palaimon stood and shook the man's hand.
Telemakhos rolled his eyes. "Most people do, it's really annoying."
"When did you find out about your promotion?"
The young scribe fidgeted. "Well, not too long ago. Someone from the administrative offices at the Pnyx stopped by my apartment."
"I don't know. I was reading the decree and didn't really pay much attention to him."
"That's a bit unusual, don't you think? Why would someone from the assembly hall give you the news, and not an official messenger from the palace or the Strategeion?"
"How should I know?"
The two men were about the same height but whereas the Captain's complexion was fair, the scribe's features were dark. He had black hair, an olive complexion, and hazel eyes. The two eyed each other, each trying to take in the others measure.
The Captain turned back to his desk. "What can I do for you, scribe?"
"Nothing, I just wanted to introduce myself. My wife suggested I get to know the palace staff better."
Palaimon bristled. "I am not a staff member. I am Captain of the Guard and in charge of the palace, see the difference, boy?"
"Ah, yes?excuse me for my assumptions. I'll catch up with you later." Telemakhos nodded then left the room.
The Captain poured himself another cup of wine and sat down at his desk. He was irritable and just wished the day was over. As he downed his first swallow he heard a noise behind him. This time, he didn't bother to turn around.
Palaimon noticed the icy chill in the Naurachos' voice immediately. He rose to his feet and slowly turned around. "Yes, how may I help you, Admiral?"
"Imagine my annoyance at finding a stranger in my suite. Got any ideas on how she got there?"
The admiral frowned. "That's my suite, Captain."
"Those are not your personal rooms, Laodameia. I have sole discretion on whom to assign the suite to. So if you have a problem with that I suggest you take it up with the Conqueror."
The admiral forced a smile. "She must have made quite an impression on you, Captain. I wonder what the Conqueror will think about that?"
"What do you mean?"
"I heard about the little incident at the docks this afternoon, Captain. It seems you are not the only one to have noticed the little blonde one."
The Captain took a step towards the Naurachos. "I don't know what you think you know, but I can guarantee you its wrong. I wouldn't make idle threats, either. Who do you think the Conqueror would believe, you or me? If you think it's the former you are delusional. The Conqueror trusts me without question. Got that, Admiral?"
"Are you threatening me?"
"Oh, no, admiral?I don't make threats, I make promises."
The Naurachos closed the distance between them. "Idle threats? You are about to find out how threatening I can be?"
As Palaimon raised his fist both he and the admiral whirled around at the sound of someone clearing their throat.
"Am I interrupting?"
Laodameia stepped away from the Captain. "No, you're not." She glared at the guard. "Our discussion isn't over, Captain." She turned abruptly and marched out of the room.
The Captain stepped up to his desk and poured another cup of wine. He downed it in one swallow. "What do you want, Perdikas?"
Perdikas entered the office and looked about the room. Finally his eyes settled on the Captain. "I was wondering why I couldn't go to the upper level to visit my friend. Some servant told me only you or the Conqueror can give permission so if you'll just let me?"
Perdikas stopped at mid-sentence. "Excuse me?"
"I said 'no.' What part of that didn't you understand?"
"Why can't I go up to Gabrielle's suite? What right do you have?"
Palaimon glared at the young man. "I have every right to decide who goes up to the Conqueror's personal wing and you're not allowed. End of discussion?so why don't you go and visit the agora or something? May I suggest the Poikile Stoa for starters, or a brothel, maybe?"
"I don't want to go to the marketplace!"
"You can always go help out the poor at the Hephaisteion."
Perdikas began to pace. "I want to see Gabrielle."
The young man froze at the Captain's cold stare. "Yes?"
Palaimon watched as the young man seemed to wrestle with his emotions. Finally, he simply just nodded and left without another word. The Captain sighed again and downed some more wine, yet if failed to sooth him. He opened up a drawer and took out a scroll and began writing down the day's events. After a long while he tensed when another noise at his door broke his concentration.
"Who is it this time?"
Palaimon jumped up at the sound of Gabrielle's voice. "Yes, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle smiled at him. "Are you all right, Captain?"
"I'm sorry for sounding like a beast but I've just had three annoying visitors in a row-one of them was your friend-and I'm about ready to hit something."
The blonde laughed. "Or someone?"
"The only thing that really helps is sparing with the Conqueror."
"That must be quite a sight, Captain."
"No one has ever bested her, Gabrielle. She is the finest warrior the land has ever known."
Gabrielle looked away at the look on Palaimon's face. "Will you spar with Lord Xena today?"
"Unfortunately, she has other plans." The Captain paused and regarded the young woman for a moment. "Gabrielle, would you care to accompany me to the terrace right now? It overlooks the agora."
The Captain led the blonde woman through a series of passages and led to an open-air terrace on the northeast side of the palace. There was a fountain in the middle of the terrace and several couches placed strategically around it. Statutes of various gods, small shrubs and trees completed the arrangement. The edge of the terrace did not have a railing but a series of Ionic columns spaced about five feet apart and adorned with garlands. The flooring was a colorful mosaic depicting various flora and fauna.
Gabrielle looked around. "Oh, its lovely out here."
"Gabrielle, will you excuse me for a moment? I'll be right back."
The young woman moved to stand at the edge of the terrace and overlooked the city below her. After a few moments she heard voices and turned to see Perdikas and another young man enter the terrace. She waved over to them and they joined her at the railing.
Perdikas gestured to his companion. "Gabs, I'd like you to meet Telemakhos, I ran into him during my explorations."
The blonde woman glanced at Perdikas before turning to the young man. "Hi, my name's Gabrielle. Perdikas knows I hate being called 'Gabs' but does it just to annoy me."
Perdikas put his arm around the blonde's waist. "Annoy you? Never."
Telemakhos took Gabrielle's hand and bent to kiss it. "Nice to meet you, Gabrielle."
The young woman smiled and tactfully removed her hand from his. "So what do you do for the Conqueror, Telemakhos?"
"Just recently appointed to Chief Scribe." The scribe smirked at the look on Gabrielle's face. "I know what you're thinking, I'm too young for the post, right? I was just selected this afternoon?no kidding just past midday."
"Yeah, they came and told me Salmakis, my old boss, killed his-."
All three turned to see the Captain of the Guard coming toward them. Several servants, some carrying small tables and others carrying food and drink to put on those tables followed him. The Captain gestured for the servants to place their wares off to one side of the terrace and moved to the small party.
"I don't think our guests are interested in the details of your promotion, Telemakhos."
"What does it matter? I was just making conversation."
"Why wasn't I invited to this party?"
All eyes turned to the door the find the Naurachos Laodameia standing there. She moved aside to the let the servants leave and then she turned to the amphora of wine. "We can't have a party without good wine, can we, Captain?"
Palaimon stiffened slightly. "It appears not."
The admiral poured another cup and handed it to Gabrielle. "So we meet again, fair one."
The older woman didn't intimidate Gabrielle; she accepted the cup and looked the admiral straight in the eye. "Thank you."
Perdikas looked at each woman in turn. "Fair one? What are you talking about?"
The Captain put a hand on Perdikas's shoulder. "Perdikas, now's not the time?"
All conversation stopped as the blast of a trumpet was heard in the agora just northeast of them. All eyes turned to see that the area of the former orchestra was gradually filling up with spectators.
Gabrielle shielded her eyes from the sun and peered below. "What's going on down there?"
Telemakhos moved to Gabrielle's side and followed her gaze. "Wait just a few minutes and you'll see."
"What is that guard standing by? Is that a cat of some kind?"
The Naurachos grabbed a plate full of sautéed olives and peered at the site. "She really likes to show off, doesn't she, Captain?"
All of them watched as a lone figure walked up to the guard in the middle of the square. He saluted the dark woman and left the field. The Conqueror bent down and petted the chained animal before her.
Gabrielle gasped. "Why doesn't the cheetah attack her?'
"The animal is her pet, Gabrielle."
Another trumpet blast announced the arrival of what everyone was waiting for. Two large crates were brought to the side of the square loaded on a cart. Several soldiers came forward with their swords drawn and some of them had spears. The Conqueror nodded to the men and moved away from the chained cat. A soldier opened the crates and eight wolves bounced down to the field. Each growled in turn as the soldiers surrounded them and drove them towards the chained animal. The cheetah sprung to its feet and tried to back away from the growling canines, but the chain kept it from fleeing.
"Here's where the fun begins."
All eyes turned and looked at the admiral before turning back to the scene below them. As the wolves advanced toward the chained animal the soldiers backed away from them. The scene was too far away for them to hear sounds but Gabrielle was sure the wolves were growling from their stance. As the first of them, probably the alpha male, sprang forward the Conqueror closed the distance between herself and the chained beast and deflected the animals charge with a swipe of her sword. She ducked as a second wolf sprang toward her and she deftly brought her chakram up and swiped it across the animal's throat. It fell near her feet and she jumped over it and ran toward two advancing animals. She jumped and kicked one away and twirled her body sideways to impale the other wolf with her sword. It yelped and fell dead. Its mate lunged at Xena and she kicked it away again as the alpha male advanced on the cheetah again. The Conqueror let her chakram fly and it hit the animal's back, severing its spine. It collapsed and began whining in pain. Three other animals advanced on Xena and she brought out her breast dagger, to use along with her sword, and with some intricate movements dispatched them without much effort.
The Captain glanced over to Gabrielle and saw that the woman's complexion had turned white and she had one hand over her mouth. He cringed inside at the sight.
The Conqueror gave out a wild yell, which was loud enough to be heard by all and beheaded the downed alpha male. She threw the head to her cheetah and it began to eat at the flesh. The animal that she had previously kicked twice limped away but Xena would have none of it. The crowd cheered as she followed the animal and grabbed it by the neck. Her powerful arms lifted the animal easily and she plunged her breast dagger in its neck. Simultaneously she used her sword to impale another wolf that was coming at her to her right. She kicked away both dead animals and it wasn't much longer until all the wolves were dead. The ground, along with the Conqueror, was covered in blood and torn animal flesh. The Conqueror lifted her arms high and yelled to the heavens. The soldiers moved to her and two of them lifted the Conqueror to their shoulders and began parading around the crowd. The ecstatic crowd cheered and threw flowers in her direction.
Gabrielle backed away from the scene and slowly shook her head. "Oh, gods, oh, gods?"
Perdikas turned a stunned face towards the Captain. "Why?"
Gabrielle turned and ran from the terrace. Perdikas attempted to follow but the Captain grabbed his arm. "Let her go, please."
Telemakhos put a hand on Perdikas's shoulder and led him towards the food tables. "I think you need a drink."
Perdikas took the cup of wine that the scribe gave him and downed it in one gulp. He quickly poured another and did the same. Telemakhos joined him and filled his own cup.
The admiral put her plate down. "I think I'll go and see to the young woman's comfort."
The Captain stared her down. "I'm afraid you're not allowed on that floor this time, admiral. If you have a problem with that than take it up with the Conqueror. If you even step one foot on level one I'll have you arrested."
"As I said before, Captain, this conversation is far from over. You've been warned."
Palaimon didn't bother to reply as he was already making his way up to the level one-guest quarters. He slowed his pace and stopped at the door. He turned the handle slowly and peered into the room. "Gabrielle?"
When there was no answer he stepped inside and looked around. The door to the bathing chamber was open so he moved to it and peered inside. He found Gabrielle standing between two columns and looking at the countryside below her.
"I'm the cause of that slaughter, aren't I, Captain?' Her voice was strained.
"Gabrielle, I'm sorry."
The young woman turned to face the Captain. "I made her so mad?then she said something about wolves?she was so angry?"
"You can't blame yourself for what happened."
"Gabrielle, the Conqueror does what she wishes. No one makes her do anything she does."
"But I was the one that made her angry."
The Captain knew he was on shaky ground. But he knew he needed to be completely honest with the young woman. "May I tell you something in complete confidence?"
Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, Captain, of course."
"Gabrielle, the Conqueror tests her strength against fierce animals all the time. She does this to spare the lives of people."
"I don't understand."
"The Conqueror doesn't go around and arbitrarily kill people, Gabrielle. She has never done that, not even in wartime. Please believe me. Yes, you said some things and then she became angry. But she is responsible for her own feelings and reactions, Gabrielle. When I first met Xena she was so consumed with purifying the land that sometimes she made bad decisions concerning people, and they died." He paused, wondering about the decision concerning Salmakis. "But she has never directly taken a human life out of spite or anger. Instead of killing people she takes out her frustrations on animals. Can't you see the difference?"
The young woman slowly nodded and wiped at her tears. "I guess so. I must apologize to her, though. Will you take me to see her?"
"Gabrielle you won't see the Conqueror until the reception tonight. Trust me, you don't want to see her right now."
The Captain squeezed her shoulder. "Yes?"
"I would like to be alone. Do you mind?"
Palaimon smiled. "Of course not. I'll see you tonight, okay?"
The Captain nodded and backed out of the room. When he was gone the young woman stripped off her clothes and settled back into the steaming water. After a few short moments she cradled her head in her hands and let the tears flow freely.
The Captain of the Guard arranged to have the night's reception in the Tholos, a circular building on the west side of the agora, just slightly north of the Strategeion. The Tholos was the place were the Conqueror's councilors met for their afternoon and evening meals and was better equipped to hold a major banquet rather than the dining facilities in the Palace. Chaises were pushed up to the walls of the building and small tables were placed in front of each. On each table was placed the evening's meal-chicken, lamb, cheese, flat bread with oil, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. Large amphora was placed on each table and contained wine from the Conqueror's finest vineyards. The musicians were placed in the center of the room. There was an especially large chaise in the room that was reserved for the Conqueror.
Several of the invited guests had already arrived and were standing next to their assigned couches and were talking among themselves. Although all knew that they could not start eating until the Conqueror had arrived.
The Conqueror turned to the Captain as they both dismounted their horses in front of the Tholos. "You have been awfully quiet this evening, Palaimon. Is there something I should know?"
"Several things, actually, my Lord."
Xena adjusted her dress uniform. She was wearing a purple chiton with a black leather belt around her waist. A black cape was pinned to her shoulders by two golden clasps. She wore her golden laurel crown. "Well?"
"That new scribe said something this afternoon that's been on my mind. He told me that someone from the Pnyx came to him and delivered the decree of his promotion. It doesn't make any sense."
The Conqueror smiled to herself. "Why is that, Captain?"
The Captain swallowed. "I am assuming one of the first things you did after leaving the docks this afternoon was kill Salmakis and his slaves, my Conqueror."
"Your assumption would be correct, my friend."
"My Lord, who else but you and me knew you was planning on doing that? We were alone in the Bouleuterion when we talked about Salmakis."
The dark warrior took her sword and chakram and attached them to her saddle. "Obviously not as alone as we thought. Someone who works at both the Pnyx and the Bouleuterion, who was hiding at the time? Think, Captain, who services me at both?"
The Captain pondered for a moment then his eyes widened. "No, my Lord, I don't believe it!"
"I know I didn't see her leave the proceedings, Captain. So I'm assuming she hid behind the draperies."
"The page, my Lord, she's only twelve years old!"
"It's not her I blame, Captain, so don't worry, I won't kill her. But someone has enlisted her to spy on me. It's actually quite brilliant, if you stop and think about it. Why would anyone suspect a child of espionage?"
"I know I wouldn't."
"Who do children trust, Captain, usually only their immediate families, close relatives and friends-not strangers. I want you to find out if there is anyone who works both in the Pnyx and the Strategeion. And then find out if that person is related to my page. Oh, and Captain, have you figured out the second phase of weaving the web?"
"Yes, I have, my Lord. Annoying people will usually make them so frustrated with you that they will drop their guard and say things they wouldn't normally do. It worked for me earlier, and I didn't even try that hard."
"Excellent, I'm sure you will tell me all about it. Shall we go and see to my guests, Palaimon?"
"Yes, my Lord."
The guards at the entrance to the Tholos immediately stood at attention when the Conqueror entered with her Captain. Those who were near stopped what they were doing and acknowledged the dark warrior. Xena nodded to them and was about to say something when laughter could be heard towards the other end of the building. Xena followed the sound with the Captain at her heels and noticed there was a woman lounging on her chaise. The woman was dressed in a thin white garment, golden sandals, and was holding a golden chalice. She was laughing almost hysterically while General Eteokles filled up her cup.
The General, still pouring the wine, glanced up at Xena then stopped what he was doing. "I'm sorry, my Lord."
Xena sighed and shook her head. "Aphrodite, what are you doing here?"
The goddess lifted up her chalice and saluted the dark woman. "Xena, how can you have a party without me?you big, bad naughty Conqueror."
Some people, who were near the goddess, snickered at Aphrodite's appraisal of the Conqueror. One look from the dark warrior shut them up, however.
A young man, who was similarly dressed as the goddess, except that he wore a golden crown, laughed rather loudly. "You throw the best parties, Xena!" He raised his arm and his glass of wine suddenly filled to the brim. He laughed at his own cleverness.
Xena noticed that Gabrielle and her party were standing a few chaises away from the immortals. When she noticed the look on the blonde's face she turned to the young god. "Eros, your mother is obviously drunk. Why don't you take her back to Olympos."
The young god only smiled at her. He rose to his feet and approached the Captain. "What a gorgeous specimen of manhood you are." As he raised his hand to the Captain's face he noticed the beautiful blonde nearby.
"Oh, and what lovely are you?" He pushed the Captain aside and sauntered over to Gabrielle.
The Conqueror took the god by the arm and led him to his mother. "Aphrodite, will you please leave?and take your inebriated son with you."
Aphrodite stood up and pouted. "You're a whole lot of no fun, Xena." She snapped her fingers and she and Eros disappeared in a golden shimmer.
The Captain shook his head and lowered his voice. "I've never disrespected a deity before but I was about ready to smack that jerk."
The dark warrior stepped up to her chaise and indicated for the musicians to stop playing. "My fellow Athenians and honored guests." She nodded to Gabrielle. "We are here tonight to welcome our emissaries from Thrace. Once again all the tribute collected this year indicates that my Empire flourishes and my lands are contented." She lifted her chalice and offered it to her guests. "Let's drink to the continued prosperity of the Hellenic Empire!"
All those in the Tholos cheered and drank along with the Conqueror. Everyone returned to their couches as the Conqueror sat and poured herself a cup from the second, smaller amphora on her table. As the musicians began playing a lyrical tune the Captain left Xena to join some friends at their table.
Perdikas put some pickled olives on flatbread then drizzled it with oil. He rolled the bread and put it in his mouth. "Hmmm?these are good, Gabs. You gotta try it."
Telemakhos, who had joined them, sank back on the couch and hummed as he devoured some figs dipped in honey. "I've never been to one of these things before. Food's not bad."
Gabrielle picked up some lamb meat wrapped in fig leaves. She smacked her lips as the delicious morsel hit her tongue. The blonde woman glanced over at the Conqueror and was surprised to find her dining alone.
She glanced over at the dark woman for a few minutes, while eating, before rising to her feet. "Will you two excuse me?"
Neither man got up as the young woman stood and slowly made her way to the Conqueror's table. As the dark woman dipped some bread into oil she noticed Gabrielle's approach. She put down her food and stood up.
Both women regarded each other for a moment, each at a loss on how to engage the other. Finally the dark warrior stepped back and indicated her chaise. "Will you dine with me, Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle smiled somewhat and sat down. "Yes, thank you, Lord Conqueror."
The Conqueror snapped her fingers and two servants brought more food and wine to the table.
Xena sat next to the blonde woman, but not too close. The subdued lamplight brought out the highlights in the blonde's hair and softened her beautiful features. After an awkward few moments the Conqueror poured a cup for Gabrielle from the second amphora. "Would you like to try something different, Gabrielle?"
The young woman took the cup offered then took a sip. She wrinkled her nose then looked up at the Conqueror. "It's kind of thick and somewhat bitter-but I like it. What is it, my Lord?"
"I import it from Egypt. Its called beer."
Gabrielle smiled and lowered her head. "I thought imports from Egypt were illegal these days?"
"One of the perks of being Conqueror is that I do what I wish, and get what I want." The Conqueror noticed that the blondes' hands were shaking slightly. "Are you okay, Gabrielle?"
The young woman sighed deeply. "I've never seen any of gods before, my Lord. It was a little unnerving."
"They pop up all over the place here in Athens-irritating me and the religious leaders. Aphrodite is especially aggravating. She wants me to build a temple for her to replace her small altar. Naturally I refuse to do it, she's done nothing to help the Empire."
Gabrielle glanced briefly at the dark woman before turning away. She wondered if the Conqueror's complaint was more personal in nature. Maybe she's done nothing for her?
The blonde looked at the food displayed before her. "Do you have such parties all the time, Conqueror?"
"In the beginning of my reign we used to hold banquets every week to celebrate my victories. But they became boring and tedious so it's a rarity these days."
Gabrielle drank more of the beer. "My dad gives parties all the time in our residence for the local merchants. He expects me to host them when my mother is away, which is often these days."
Xena eyed the young woman. "Is that why you're here in Athens and not him? Is Herodotus too preoccupied with revelry that he ignores his responsibilities?"
Gabrielle slowly put her cup on the table. "I'm sorry I said that, my Lord."
The Conqueror leaned back on her pillows. "Don't ever be sorry for telling the truth, Gabrielle. I respect that very much."
"Please don't think that my father is shirking his duties, my Lord. I was the one who insisted on coming this time." She drank more beer. "There's nothing for a single woman to do in Poteidaia, Conqueror. I help run the vineyards and write poetry-that's all. I just wanted more responsibility and my dad gave it gladly."
A single woman? "So you and Perdikas are not -together?"
"No, my Lord." Gabrielle looked up and caught the Conqueror's gaze. She looked away when the dark woman's eyes were too much to bear.
Xena turned away from the blonde woman for a moment, under the pretence of pouring more wine. Over the past, there had been many beautiful women to grace her court, but none of them had ever made her feel like this. Just one look from those verdant eyes made her insides lurch, dislodging her equilibrium: it delighted and disturbed her at the same time.
The blonde ate some chicken. "You said earlier, my Lord, that being Conqueror has its perks. It must be nice to have such freedom."
Xena poured another drink for the young woman. "Freedom? That's one word I would never use to describe it, Gabrielle. It does have its many obligations."
"What do you mean, my Lord?"
"I am the founder of a great and vast Empire, Gabrielle. I am solely responsible for it-no one else shares the burden. Even though I have regional governors, a council, and an assembly, I have final say over everything."
"How do you mean, Conqueror?"
"People look to me for anything and everything; from how to worship the gods properly to how to dress at a state function. As leader that is expected, so I'm not going to do anything that would jeopardize the confidence the people have in me. So you could say I'm really not as free to do just anything. I would never do anything to undermine the Empire, or bring disgrace to it."
Gabrielle's eyes lingered on the dark woman for a few moments. "May I say something, my Lord?"
Xena put down her cup. "What is it?"
"You are nothing like I expected, Lord Xena."
The Conqueror tried to hide a chuckle but couldn't. "I'm always doing that to people, you know-confounding people's expectations." She poured more beer into her cup. "Where you expecting a hydra maybe? Or a female minotaur?"
Gabrielle blushed. "No, no-that's not what I meant at all."
The dark warrior glanced up at the blonde, taking note of her deep blush. Is that apprehension I see there? "What did you mean?"
"Well, sometimes people listen to rumors they shouldn't."
A small smile touched the corners of Xena's mouth. "Ah, which people would that be, Gabrielle?"
"Me, my Lord."
"And what rumors have you been listening to?"
"The ones that paint you as some sort of tyrant, my Lord."
Xena was silent for a long moment, then her voice lowered dangerously. "I bet I can guess who has been saying such things?"
Gabrielle looked up in time to see a dark look in the Conqueror's eyes just before it vanished. "You can, my Lord?"
"Isn't your estate bordered on the north by an even bigger one, with a vineyard even larger than your family's?"
The blonde blinked. "Yes, it is."
"Owned by Eumaios of Olynthus?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "How did you know?"
"Just like I was saying before, Gabrielle, being ruler means that I must keep up on everything that happens in my Empire. Eumaios has been spewing out dissent for years, to anyone who will listen. He objects to my taxes, although I would wager he hasn't a clue as to where the money really goes. I let him keep his estate because he's just a complainer, albeit a very annoying one. If his activities ever ventured beyond just complaining then I would have to do something about it."
"What would you do, my Lord?"
"Have him arrested, charged with treason, and confiscate his land-among other things."
The Conqueror seemed lost in thought for a few moments before turning to face Gabrielle. "How did we get on such an unpleasant subject?"
The blonde took a large drink of beer, and then picked up her plate. "I suppose I was confessing to believing in rumors, Lord Xena."
Xena smiled. "What a foolish thing to do."
The young woman grinned, lowering her head. "Yes, it is, my Lord."
"Frankly, I've looked myself over in the mirror numerous times and I don't think I look like a hydra at all."
Gabrielle laughed and, just as easily, let the words slip off her tongue. "You're way too beautiful to be a hydra."
Beautiful? Xena let the words sink in; they warmed her to the core, and spread out until she felt the tingle work its way up her spine. "Likewise."
The word was barely a whisper, but Gabrielle heard it clearly. She looked up into the cobalt depths and found something there unexpected. You are not the woman I'd thought you'd be. The charged moment was fleeting, however, as the Conqueror turned away from her.
The blonde put down her plate. "I'm sorry, my Lord."
Xena turned to the young woman. "For what?"
"For earlier, Lord Conqueror."
Earlier? Xena put down her chalice and looked pointedly at the small woman. "Is there something on your mind, Gabrielle?"
"I wanted you talk with you earlier, lord Xena, but the Captain told me it wasn't a good idea."
The dark woman averted her eyes. "When was that?"
"We were up in the palace?on the terrace that over looks the agora, and we saw?we saw?" The young woman looked away and tried to compose herself.
Xena turned fully to the blonde woman and reached out to her, but drew her hand back abruptly when she realized what she was doing. "You saw me and the wolves?"
Gabrielle blinked back her tears. "Yes, my Lord."
"You said 'we.' Did someone take you out to the terrace just to see that?"
"I think so, my Lord."
Xena moved a little closer to the blonde. "Who? Who did, Gabrielle?"
"I don't want to get him into trouble, Conqueror."
The dark warrior stared for a moment before realization hit her. She clenched her fists then stood up abruptly. "Palaimon!"
The Captain's cup fell from his hand as he jumped to his feet. "Yes, my Lord?"
Everyone stood as the Conqueror rushed to the door, the Captain of the Guard close at her heels. Gabrielle hesitated only for a few moments before, she too, followed the Conqueror.
When they were outside the Conqueror whirled and grabbed her Captain and spun him around. "How could you do it, Captain? Why did you expose that young woman to my darkness?"
Gabrielle rushed up to them and grabbed the Conqueror's arm. "Please, lord Xena, it's not his fault!"
Palaimon choked, but he resisted the urge to push Xena away. "Please, Gabrielle, go inside. It's going to be all right."
"Don't lie to her, Captain!"
"Please, lord Xena, let him go, its not his fault. Its mine!"
Both Xena and the Captain turned to the young woman. Xena loosened her hold on Palaimon and pushed him away. He stumbled and almost fell to the ground. "Go inside, now, Captain! We will talk later."
The Conqueror turned puzzled eyes to the blonde. "How is what the Captain did your fault?"
Gabrielle finally broke down. "Don't you see? It's my fault?I made you mad this afternoon?I was angry that you thought Perdikas was my leader! I was the one that made you angry and I did it on purpose!" Without thinking, she threw her arms around the Conqueror's neck and sobbed.
There are few constants in the universe, precious few certainties. But Xena knew one assurance was her ability to handle any situation presented to her. Her ability to assess individual circumstances and then act appropriately was never an issue with her. Her instinct at this moment was to push the blonde away and to ignore her outburst. As she reached up to disengage the young woman's arms a part of her hesitated. She inhaled deeply as some of Gabrielle's tears slowly dripped between her breasts.
The blonde's close proximity caused a tingling sensation down her spine that spread outward to settle in her stomach. A hand absently found its way to the young woman's back, only to slowly travel upwards, reveling in the soft material, so unlike her own. That same hand pulled Gabrielle somewhat closer and she adjusted her stance to accommodate the small body. This moment was somehow different and she knew it, although at the time she could not have defined it. Xena sighed and lowered her head, feeling the center of her being shifted somehow, precariously on a new axis.
Xena slowly brought her arms around the young woman and held her. The blonde's anguish washed over her and left her feeling helpless. "Shh, shh?it's okay now."
Both women broke from the embrace and turned towards the Tholos' entrance. The Conqueror frowned and gently pushed Gabrielle behind her. The blonde blushed and turned away from the door. The Naurachos Laodameia stood there; from the way she looked she was obviously not pleased with what she had just interrupted.
The admiral took a drink from her cup then placed her hand on the wall to keep steady. She was drunk. "What do we have here? Have you found a new playmate, Conqueror? Am I not good enough for you anymore?"
Gabrielle gasped and looked up at Xena. The Conqueror briefly looked to her before turning a wrathful gaze on the admiral. "Watch your tongue, Laodameia!"
It was not too early in the evening for the entire agora to be closed. Some shops in the Stoa of Attalos were still open along with some taverns and brothels. Some people, who were in the vicinity of the Tholos, stopped what they were doing to watch the scene.
The admiral threw her cup to the ground. "Watch my tongue! You don't want that anymore, either?"
Xena advanced to the admiral and backhanded her. The Naurachos fell to the ground and moaned. "Palaimon!"
The Captain, who had followed the admiral to the door but had not gone outside, appeared. "Yes, my Lord?"
"Put her in the drunk tank. I'm sure a night in prison will sober her up sufficiently."
"As you wish, lord Conqueror." He looked to the growing crowd. "All right, everybody, the show is over so be on your way!" He summoned another guard, and the two of them dragged the woman away.
As the crowd dispersed Xena turned to the young woman. "Perhaps we had better go inside."
Gabrielle turned away from her. "I don't want to. They must have heard everything that vile woman was shouting."
"She is drunk, Gabrielle. I'm sure they know that as well."
The blonde hesitated. "I'm sorry for throwing myself at you, lord Xena."
I'm not. The Conqueror moved to Gabrielle and gently turned the young woman around. "I won't let anyone say anything negative about you, Gabrielle. I'll cut their tongue out before I let that happen."
"Thank you, Conqueror. I'm ready now?I think."
The dark warrior extended her arm and Gabrielle entwined her smaller one in it. As they entered the Tholos everyone stood and either bowed or nodded to the Conqueror. Xena led Gabrielle to her couch and when they sat down so did the rest in the room. As the musicians started to play again Xena lay back against the pillows and watched as Gabrielle piled her plate high with food.
The blonde noticed Xena's amused look and shrugged. "I'm hungry, okay?"
"Nothing wrong with having a healthy appetite."
Gabrielle smiled. "That's not what my mother would say. She tells me I'll never catch a local boy with my, so called, 'healthy appetite'."
"Is that important to you?"
Gabrielle rested her plate on her lap. "Is what important, my Lord?"
Xena leaned forward, a mischievous grin on her lips. "Catching a local boy?"
The blonde looked up, matching Xena's look. "No, no it isn't, my Empress."
"I didn't think so."
Gabrielle grinned. "Is that so, Conqueror?"
"You're far too much for any local boy to handle, aren't you?"
The blonde chuckled. "You have no idea?I haven't decided if it's a blessing or a curse, though."
Xena laughed and looked away, then poured herself another cup of beer. "Your friend doesn't look very happy."
Gabrielle followed the Conqueror's gaze and noticed that Perdikas was watching them intently while drinking cup after cup of wine. Telemakhos was settled on the same chaise and was too busy eating to notice that his companion was drinking too much.
When Perdikas got up and staggered toward them the Conqueror had already summoned a guard.
"What are you doing with her, Gabs?" The young man nearly fell just before the guard took hold of him.
"Put him with the other drunks, guard, and then tell the Captain to come back to the festivities."
"Yes, my Lord."
Gabrielle shook her head as the guard dragged Perdikas away. "He's harmless, Conqueror. Please don't put him in jail."
Xena wrapped some chicken and olives into the flatbread and ate it. "It's for his own good, Gabrielle. He'll be safer in there than wandering the streets, or anywhere else where his mouth might get him into trouble."
The young woman realized the Conqueror was right. She did not want a repeat of what happened just a short while ago with the admiral. "Thank you for your consideration, lord Xena."
"He and Laodameia can keep each other company in the morning. I probably won't have them released until the early afternoon."
"The admiral seems a bit arrogant, Lord Xena. This afternoon she found me in her usual suite and thought I was some sort of gift-a prostitute."
Xena laughed. "She is a younger version of me, Gabrielle. She reminds me of how I was about twenty years ago, before the wars were over."
"She doesn't appear as diplomatic as you, Conqueror."
The dark warrior ate another bite of cheese. "Don't take her at face value, Gabrielle. She is almost as smart as I am and her skill at claiming the seas is unparallel. See that man over there?"
The blonde woman followed Xena's gaze to a nearby chaise where a man and woman were dining. "Yes, my Lord?"
"That is General Eteokles. He's my Chief General and in charge of the army. He's very good at what he does but if you put him on a ship and told him to sail to Korinthos he'd run the ship into ground or sink it at sea. But place him on dry land and he will know how to out-flank his opponents every time. Sometimes he doesn't think before he opens his mouth just as the admiral does. You see, Gabrielle, I am well aware of the character flaws of my underlings because they are so much like myself. In that way it makes it easier for me to anticipate what they will do because I would do the same thing. I'm just a little older and wiser than they are-time has taught me that."
"You are a wise woman, Lord Xena."
"And you are a remarkable woman, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, do you know that?"
The blonde looked away. "I don't know what you mean, my Lord."
"You possess something that time has never taught me. Your compassion for others is genuine and without guile. I haven't met a lot of people who are like that. " Gabrielle blushed.
"I have my bad moments, too, lord Xena."
"I am certain they are few and far between."
"You flatter me, my lord."
The Conqueror leaned in and whispered in Gabrielle's ear. "I never flatter, Gabrielle. I only tell the truth as I see it."
As Xena turned to her meal Gabrielle watched her out of the corner of her eye. What a remarkable woman?
Xena paused at the door to the Captain's office and looked inside. It was dim because the Captain had only one oil lamp burning. Palaimon was at this desk writing on a parchment and humming a tune.
Palaimon looked up before standing. "Yes, my Lord?"
"You didn't come back to the party as I instructed."
"I know, my Lord."
The dark warrior noticed the pained look on her Captain's face. "Well, I'm sure one act of disobedience every twenty years is forgivable."
The Captain met the Conqueror's gaze. "Thank you, Xena."
The Conqueror nodded. "It was wrong of me to treat you as I did earlier, Palaimon, and I ask for your forgiveness. You are my friend, the only one who has remained loyal to me all these years. It is really not my place to question your judgment, because of that loyalty. But I am curious as to why Gabrielle had to witness that carnage this afternoon, my friend?"
"She is a smart woman, my Lord, and I felt it was necessary that she have no illusions as far as you are concerned."
Xena stepped into the office. "But, why?"
"Must I say it aloud, my Lord?"
The two looked at each other for a few moments before Xena turned away. "Yes, I see. Well, thank you Palaimon for your insightfulness. Goodnight, Captain."
Gabrielle stepped out of her bathroom into the warm spring night. To her right she could see the glimmering lights of the agora below her; they resembled the twinkling stars far above, and the night air was pungent with the perfume of jasmine and eucalyptus. The light from the bathroom and a few small oil lamps hanging from poles illuminated her porch. She wrapped the blanket around her and walked in the direction of the lights of the agora until her porch ended. She sighed deeply and let the beauteous evening calm her. It was then that she noticed she had an unobtrusive view to the Conqueror's private porch, which was about thirty feet away from her own, separated by a rock garden and shrubs.
She was about to turn away when the dark warrior stepped out to her porch, a glass in hand, and moved to gaze at the city below her. There weren't any oil lamps on the Conqueror's porch, but the blonde could easily make her out by the light coming from the doorway. Mesmerized, Gabrielle could only watch as the woman unwound a blanket from her, and let it fall to the ground. What was underneath was practically see-through. She could easily make out the naked form of the powerful woman before her and the sight alone caused her mouth to go dry and her pulse to quicken. She had known arousal before, but it was never like this. Never this sudden, and never this intense.
Xena took another sip of wine then turned to go back inside when she noticed that she was being watched. The light from the porch beyond was muted, but she knew instantly who was watching her. She lowered the cup and turned to face her admirer, not knowing why she really did, only that if felt like the right thing to do. She saw the young woman take a deep breath, and then she saw her lower her blanket, exposing her naked shoulders, and the swelling of her breasts. The Conqueror froze, rooted to the spot by the sight before her. She felt the ache not only in her chest, but between her legs, as well. She was just about to step forward when she heard a knocking at her door. Reluctantly, she turned away from the scene before her and entered her rooms.
Gabrielle, not hearing the knock, lowered her head when the dark woman turned from her and entered her chamber. She turned around and went into her own set of rooms, the feeling of volatility now gone. When she was seated on her couch she let her mind wander, to what might have been, and suddenly, for the first time in her life, felt really alone.
Xena opened her door only to find a child standing there. All the frustration she had felt left her as she looked down on the small boy. "Hi."
The boy smiled back. "Hi. Mom sent me."
Xena lowered on one knee so she could be at eye level with the boy. "Who's your mom?"
"Your maid, silly."
The Conqueror looked around. "Where is she, now?"
"In her room below. She's sick. I suppose to give you 'dis." He handed her a small package.
She knew immediately what it was. Every night her maid, Callas, left a small box of candy by her bedside, an evening treat. Xena took the box and smiled again at the child. "Tell your mom, thanks. I'll check up on her tomorrow and see if she's feeling better, okay?"
The Conqueror reached into the box and produced a small piece of candy. "Would you like some?"
The boy snatched the morsel without speaking and bounced down the hall towards the stairs. The dark woman watched him for a few moments, a warm smile on her face, before turning into her suite. When she reached her patio she found that the blonde was gone. She watched the empty porch for a few minutes, feeling a sense of loss that was totally new; different from anything else she had ever felt in the past.
In the morning the Captain of the Guard stopped at the entrance to the Temple of Apollo Patroos, a small temple just north of the Metroon and next to the Stoa of Zeus, and lit some incense. He took it into the temple and put it at the foot of the statue of his patron god. He left his customary donation in the collection pot and stepped outside, almost running into the Archon.
"You are just the man I want to see."
"What can I do for you, Captain?"
"Just a few questions, really. Do you know of any administrator who is dually assigned to work in the Pnyx and the Strategeion?and maybe even the Bouleuterion?"
The Archon scratched his beard. "No, I can't think of anyone. I don't think the Conqueror would want to pay for such a high salary. The only people who work throughout the whole city are the gardeners and clean up crews."
The Captain smiled. "Thank you, Leukippos, you have eased my mind."
"Yes, I was rummaging through some records in the Metroon and came across one name, Lysias Demosthenes, and I thought I read that he was pulling two salaries."
"Oh no, Captain. Lysias was the junior administrator for the Bouleuterion about a month ago and was just recently assigned to the Strategeion. So he's only getting one salary."
"As I said before, thank you." The Captain nodded and headed north towards the Poikile.
Xena paused at Gabrielle's door and was about to knock when she heard a splashing sound. She opened the door slowly and stepped into the room. She heard sounds coming from the bathing chamber and, as quietly as she could, stepped to the door and looked inside. The blonde was floating lazily on top of the steaming water; eyes closed, twirling her hands slowly.
The Conqueror froze at the sight of the young woman's supple body. Her eyes followed every curve of the young woman's naked flesh and finally rested on the peaceful look on Gabrielle's face.
"I have your towels, miss."
Xena whirled as a servant entered the suite. When she saw the Conqueror she stopped abruptly and shrieked.
The dark woman reeled again at the sound of Gabrielle's scream and hit her head on the bathroom door. She cradled her aching forehead and stepped back. "Ouch?damn it!"
The blonde flew from the pool and was at Xena's side in an instance, she reached up and brushed away errant strands of hair to examine the injury. "Are you okay, Lord Xena?"
"Your towels!" The servant threw the towels on a couch and ran from the room.
Neither woman heard the servant's scream. Xena was rooted to the spot as Gabrielle's gentle exploration continued. She closed her eyes briefly, relishing the soft touch on flesh that was already heating as an unexpected wave of arousal crashed throughout her.
The Conqueror gasped, feeling the touch reach all the way down to her bones. She opened her eyes took a step backwards in her confusion, never breaking eye contact with the young woman.
Gabrielle's look of concern vanished as she looked down and suddenly realized she was naked before the Conqueror. Her eyes widened and she screamed again. "Turn around!"
Xena reluctantly turned, hoping that her reaction went unnoticed, and rubbed her forehead. "This is going to leave a bruise, I know it."
"A small price to pay for your voyeurism, lord Xena."
"How long were you standing there?"
"Don't talk to me in that tone, young woman!"
"How could you?"
Xena turned back to the blonde in indignation. "I'm not a voyeur!"
Gabrielle blinked, ire overwhelming modesty, and stormed up to the Conqueror. "Oh, really! So why are you still looking at me!"
The Conqueror put her hands on her hips. "I'm not!"
"You're still here and I'm still naked, so what am I missing?" Gabrielle's feeling of indignation flared for a few moments, then crumbled as searing cerulean eyes bore into her, causing her throat to constrict. A spark began in her stomach-a feeling of something exhilarating beyond anything else-then spread outwards, achingly, robbing her of her breath.
Xena lowered her arms when the young woman turned from her. "Look, Gabrielle, I'm sorry," she whispered.
The dark warrior turned and stepped to the door, she hesitated and glanced over her shoulder. She froze at the sight; the young woman had turned slightly and was eyeing her. She watched, almost helplessly, as the blonde's eyes traveled from her powerful thighs to the blush in her cheek. She knew that look; the shock of it registered like an inner quake, finding reciprocal heat in the other. She straightened to her full height.
Gabrielle's eyes roamed over the Conqueror, drinking in the vision of her. She looked magnificent standing there, her blue eyes sparkling like winter ice. She felt a stirring in her that was new, and a little disquieting. A part of her screamed at her to stop, that what she wanted to do at this minute was madness. She listened to that voice for only an instant, and then hesitated only a moment before fully turning back to the dark woman, exposing once again her nakedness.
They came together instantaneously-two unstoppable forces meeting on a field of attraction. The hug was fierce and the kiss brutal. There could be no mistaking this kiss as one two friends might share. The Conqueror demanded entry into the blonde's mouth and the young woman gave it willingly.
Both women broke apart after a short while and stared at each other. Gabrielle clutched at the fabric at Xena's shoulders and held her at bay, all the while trying to get her breathing under control.
The Conqueror fared no better, she brought shaking hands up to her collar and loosened her cape. When it fell she gasped for breath.
The blonde, panting slightly, watched the garment fall to the floor then looked back up to the dark woman, still holding her by the shoulders. "Oh, gods."
Xena's right hand wrapped around Gabrielle's neck and brought their mouths together again, the kiss was frenetic, searing their mouths together even as their bodies collided once again. She worked at her belt and managed to loosen it, it landed at her feet along with her cape.
Their breaths were coming in short gasps as they both struggled with the other, each grappling with her own desire. Finally, the young woman allowed herself to be drawn into a tight embrace. Xena's hands frantically ran up and down Gabrielle's back, and reaching around her left thigh, lifted the leg up. When the young woman wrapped it around the dark woman's hip, Xena groaned. This simple action spurred Xena on; she lifted the blonde higher and settled her on her hips.
Gabrielle threw her head back and gasped. She pulled at the Conqueror's clothes. "Off?take this off?"
Xena stumbled backwards as Gabrielle's hands tore at her clothes. She connected with the wall with a grunt. The dark woman slid against the wall until she bumped into a small table; she managed to disengage her hand from Gabrielle's breast long enough to sweep it across the tables surface, sending the bottles of soap and perfume crashing to the floor. When Gabrielle closed her eyes and parted her lips the Conqueror bent down and began to devour her mouth once again. They clutched at each other as hands and mouths frantically tried to bring the other pleasure.
Xena grabbed Gabrielle's hair and forced her head back. The blonde almost screamed when the dark woman bit into the flesh of her neck. She continued to hold her head back and rained kisses down on her neck, working her way down to the young woman's breasts.
The dark woman ground her pelvis into the blonde but she could not keep her balance. She turned them to the side and lowered Gabrielle onto the table, her own body following without breaking contact.
Xena lifted her mouth only slightly from the blonde's, panting into her mouth. "Gods, Gabrielle, you feel so good."
Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's powerful shoulders. "Harder, Xena, harder?"
The Conqueror lifted slightly, and with Gabrielle's help, managed to remove her crumpled chiton. She ran her hands down the young woman's silky thighs, savoring the softness as it brushed against her skin. She slipped a hand between their bodies and parted her nether lips, and adjusting her hips, brought her sex in contact with the blonde's. The sweet contact caused both women to moan.
Gabrielle groaned as Xena's breasts pressed into her own, taut nipples raking over already over-sensitized flesh. She felt her whole body tingle as slick flesh glided over flesh, creating a friction that was like nothing she had ever experienced.
Xena ground her hips against the blonde and pressed them tighter together; the sweet friction almost intolerable as heated flesh burned with desire. She ran her hands under Gabrielle's knees and lifted, bringing them to rest over her shoulders, and using her weight, crushed the blonde's body to her own.
The room reverberated with the sound of the their lovemaking; the table creaked rhythmically as it hit the wall in time with Xena's thrusts. There would be time later, maybe, for a gentler seduction. This coupling was raw, filling both women with an over-powering need for immediate release. The very air around them was charged, mingling sounds and scent into a cacophonous, unrelenting hunger.
Gabrielle reached the threshold first. "Oh, Xena?I'm going to come?oh gods, oh gods?" Her climax was like a million tiny stars suddenly exploding, flowing outward along her limbs, until her whole body shuddered with the impact.
Xena felt the blonde's release down to the core of her being, and followed her over the precipice into a burning sea.
Gabrielle clutched at Xena and attempted to get her breathing back to normal. Both women stared into each other's eyes as their breathing quieted.
Gabrielle finally closed her eyes and turned her head away from the Conqueror. Xena lifted from the young woman and staggered back until she hit the wall again; she reached out to touch Gabrielle's hand but the young woman drew her hand back. When Gabrielle refused to look at her she brought her hand around and gently turned the young woman's face around. "What is it? Is something wrong?"
The blonde broke away from the Conqueror's touch and picked up the towel and draped it around herself. She seemed confused and finally turned away from the dark woman. "Please go, Xena."
Xena wiped at the sweat on her brow. "What?"
What? Xena took a step closer to the blonde. "Why? Please, Gabrielle, tell me what's wrong."
"Go, now! Please?"
Xena shook her head in confusion but she did as Gabrielle wished. She grabbed another towel from the bed and abruptly ran from the room.
The Conqueror ran to her suite and slammed the door behind her. She leaned heavily on the wooden door and brought a shaking hand up to her mouth.
"What have I done?"
What have I done?oh, gods no?no?please no?
"No!" Xena slid down the door and crumbled to the floor.
A guard, who was climbing up the stairs at the other end of the hall, heard the woman cry out and ran to her door. He attempted to open the door but it was locked.
"My lord, are you okay?" He banged on the door but received no response.
The guard ran down the hall and took the stairs two at a time until he reached the second floor. He ran into another guard who was making his way up the stairs. "Ekhemos, you need to find the Captain, quick!"
"There is something wrong with the Conqueror. I heard a scream in her room but she won't open the door. Go find the Captain now! I'll go and get the Royal Physician?go now!"
Perdikas sat up and rubbed his temples. He turned bleary eyes around the room but could not get his bearing. He knew he wasn't in his own quarters because this room had bars on it where a wall should have been. He got up slowly and walked to the table in the corner. He poured himself a glass of water and drank it. After he had downed three cups he moved to the bars and peered out. There was a similar room opposite his and he saw a woman on her back apparently sleeping. She was snoring rather loudly.
He tilted his head and frowned. "Is that the admiral?"
His head screamed at him at the sound of his own voice and he staggered back to this cot. He collapsed on it and cradled his head in his hands.
The Captain paced back and forth on the steps of the painted stoa. The Poikile was perhaps one of Athens most lavish secular buildings and was maintained through private donations and not the royal coffers. The outside of the building was of the strict Doric design but the inside had rows of Ionic columns made of limestone with marble capitals. The inside of the building housed the large painted panels by some of Athens most renowned artists of the past-Polygnotos, Mikon, and Panainos.
Palaimon stopped his pacing and leaned against one of the columns. Several shoppers and merchants were walking in the vicinity and the Captain scanned the crowd looking for the boy. He walked to the southwest corner of the building and looked up and down the pathway in both directions. He spotted a wine merchant, who had set up a temporary stall next to the Altar of Aphrodite Ourania, which was about twenty feet west of the Poikile, and walked up to the man.
"How about a cup of your finest, merchant."
"Gladly, Captain. How are you today?"
"I'm fine." The Captain paid for his drink and was about to walk away when he turned back to the merchant. "Do you know any of the Archon's children, by any chance?"
"You must mean that scoundrel Glaukon."
"How do you know him?"
"He was here not too long ago. Tried to convince me he was old enough to drink in public but I knew better. He took one look at you and ran in the opposite direction."
"I think I'll teach that rascal a lesson."
Both men turned suddenly at the sound of the rapidly approaching horse. "Captain, you're needed immediately at the palace! An emergency!"
The Conqueror? "Give me your horse!"
The rider dismounted and handed the reins to the Captain who jumped on the beast and rode off quickly.
The Captain of the Guard inserted his key into the keyhole and unlocked the door. There were several guards standing behind him with their swords drawn, ready to come to their Lord's aid. The royal physician was fidgeting at his side as he slowly opened the door and looked inside.
He turned his head towards the nearby crowd. "Okay, you guards can leave. Physician, stay here by the door; I'll call you if you're needed."
The main room was in chaos. Several statues had been picked up and smashed on the floor. Tables and chairs were overturned and broken. The Captain made his way around the mess and entered the dark warrior's bedroom. He found the Conqueror sitting on the end of her large bed with a sizeable glass of wine in her hand. She appeared not to notice him and continued to stare off into space.
Palaimon glanced at the floor and noted three smashed wine jars on it. Since there wasn't any wine on the floor he assumed that the woman had drank all of it. "May I be of any assistance to you, my Lord?"
The Conqueror turned dark eyes toward him. If she was drunk she didn't show it. "Will you do something for me, my friend?"
Her voice was tight and devoid of any emotion. "Will you go and check and see if Gabrielle is all right? I raped her this afternoon, I think she may need a doctor."
Palaimon froze and his eyes widened. He felt his body go cold as he clenched his fists and stared at the Conqueror. "Excuse me, my Lord, but did I just hear you say?"
Xena sprang to her feet and threw the wineglass to the floor. It shattered and some of the glass bounced up to cut her cheek. "Go! Now!"
The Captain turned abruptly and quickened his pace when he heard something else crash. He beckoned the physician into the main room. "Go see to the Conqueror's injuries. Don't talk to her or ask her any questions. Under no circumstances are you to engage her in conversation. Do you understand me?"
Palaimon walked the few yards to Gabrielle's door and stopped. As he was about to knock he hesitated. The Captain placed his hands flat against the door and leaned his forehead against it. "No, gods, please. Please, let this not be true." A tear fell from his eye and he chocked back a sob.
The Captain straightened and knocked on the door. "Gabrielle?"
There were a few moments of silence, then the young woman's voice. "Come in."
Palaimon slowly opened the door and went inside, he closed the door behind him. The blonde came into the sitting room from the bedroom and eyed the Captain. She had a blanket wrapped around her and cup in her hand. If she was injured he couldn't see it. The Captain walked up to couch and sat on the end farthest from the young woman.
Palaimon noticed the slight strain in the blonde's voice. "Hi, I was wondering if I could do anything for you, Gabrielle."
Gabrielle looked away. "No."
"Is there anything you would like to share with me?'
The blonde sat on the couch and turned to face him. "No, why?"
The Captain cleared his throat. "In this Empire, Gabrielle, no one is above the law-not even the Conqueror herself. So I just need to know if you plan on filing any official charges."
Gabrielle frowned. "Against whom, and for what?"
"Gabrielle, the Conqueror told me about what happened this afternoon."
The young woman cringed, and then she lowered her head again and blushed. "It's so embarrassing."
What's going on? Palaimon's jaw dropped. "Embarrassing! Gabrielle, you should be outraged!"
"What are you talking about?"
"The Conqueror raped you!"
The blonde sprang to her feet. "What? No she didn't, why are you saying that?"
Palaimon jumped to his feet as well. "The Conqueror didn't rape you?"
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"That's what she told me!"
Gabrielle sank back to the couch and wrung her hands. "I can't believe this is happening?I've done it again?again! Is she distraught over me again?"
The Captain sat next to her and put a hand on her shoulder. "Will you tell me what's going on, Gabrielle?"
The blonde blushed and nodded. She spoke quietly. "It was really rather sudden. I mean I've never done anything like that before. Don't get me wrong, Palaimon, I've had my share of satyrs and nymphs-so to speak. But I've never done anything like I did earlier. One moment we were yelling at each other and the next we were?we were?"
"I see." He gently squeezed her shoulder.
"What has happened? Is Xena hurt?"
"No, Gabrielle, not really. But why would she think she raped you?"
"Because I reacted so badly afterwards."
Palaimon wondered if he really wanted to know. "What do you mean?"
"I've never had sex with someone I just met-leader of the known world or otherwise. And I totally freaked out afterwards?I practically screamed at her to get out of the room. She must have thought that I didn't want to but I did?oh, I really did?"
"I think you need to straighten out this mess right away. I won't see Xena hurt the way she is hurting now."
Gabrielle eyed the Captain then nodded. "You really care about her, don't you, Palaimon?"
You, too. "It's my job to look after her, yes."
Gabrielle reached out and took Palaimon's hand in hers. "I have a feeling it's more than just a job."
The Captain smiled sheepishly then nodded. "Yeah, you're right."
"Wait here while I dress."
Palaimon watched the young woman enter her bedroom. He sighed as he stood up and straightened out his clothing, his hand still tingling from the sweet, brief contact.
The dark woman looked up and bleary eyes coldly regarded the intruder into her private space. She sprang to her feet as Gabrielle entered her bedroom. The doctor was already gone. "What are you doing here?"
The blonde tried to ignore the venom in the dark warrior's voice. "Please, let me?"
The Conqueror reacted the only way she knew how when confronted with unwanted, unfamiliar emotions. She grabbed the young woman by the shoulders and shoved her away. "Haven't you've done enough?"
Gabrielle staggered backwards until she hit the wall. "Please, Lord Conqueror, let me explain."
When Xena didn't respond she continued in a small voice. "You didn't rape me, my Lord. I was caught up in the moment just as you were. I got confused afterwards and didn't know how to handle it."
The Conqueror sat back down again. "Confused?"
"Yes, my Lord. I handled it all wrong. I mean, I wanted you, too. I've just never let my desires take me like that before. It was very sudden and very erotic and I let myself be swept away." She lowered her head. "But I wanted you, my Conqueror, I really did?"
Xena exhaled a deep breath and looked down for a few moments. When she looked up the indignation was gone. "We seem to have started out rather badly, haven't we?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"Xena. Call me Xena."
The Conqueror stood and walked the few paces to the smaller woman. She lifted her hand and gently wiped at the single tear on Gabrielle's cheek. "Please don't cry." She drew the young woman to her and held her.
After awhile the Conqueror looked about the room. "I'm tired and I think I've had too much to drink."
Gabrielle looked up. "Would you like me to go?"
The Conqueror wound her arm around the blonde's waist. "No, I don't want you to leave?but this room's too messy to sleep in."
Gabrielle looked up and met the Conqueror's eyes. "Would you like to sleep in my bed?"
The dark woman chuckled despite herself. "If you promise to leave me alone." The Conqueror stopped at the hurt look on the young woman's face. "No, I didn't mean it like that. I mean-just to sleep, okay?"
Gabrielle smiled and took the dark woman's hand in hers and led the way to her suite. She was glad the corridor was empty because she didn't want any prying eyes, not even the Captains. When they were in her suite the Conqueror excused herself for a moment and went into the bathroom. Gabrielle opened the wardrobe and got out two thick blankets. She shed her clothes and hopped onto the large bed.
Xena splashed into the water and quickly scrubbed herself clean. After drying she wrapped the towel around her and went back into the bedroom. When she arrived the small blonde was already asleep. The Conqueror paused at the foot of the bed and regarded Gabrielle. There was a contented look on her face. Xena dropped the towel and slowly moved onto the bed next to the small woman. She pulled the blanket onto her body and closed her eyes. The same look of peacefulness shone on her sleeping face.
Gabrielle awoke after a long sleep and stretched out her limps. She sighed and leaned back into the pillows. A smile spread across her face and she turned her head slowly. "Hello, Xena."
The Conqueror was lying on her side, her head propped up on her elbow. "Good afternoon, Gabrielle. I trust you slept well?"
"You know I did."
"Me, too." Xena smiled and lifted the covers from her body and threw them aside. "See anything you like?"
"That's not fair, Xena. You don't play fair."
"I didn't know we were playing."
The blonde mimicked Xena's position and tossed aside her own blankets. "Two can play at this game, don't you think?"
Xena scooted closer to the young woman. "Oh, yes."
Gabrielle rolled on her back and chuckled. "Oh, you are so bad. Maybe I'll have to throw you in jail with the rest of the miscreants."
Jail?? Xena's eyes widened and she sat up. "Damn, it's late."
"The admiral and your friend are still in the drunk tank." Xena got up and wrapped the blanket around her.
Gabrielle rubbed her eyes. "I forgot about them."
"I didn't leave an order for their release so I have to go discharge them myself. Want to come?"
"Oh, you are bad."
Xena threw a pillow over her shoulder at the blonde woman before leaving the room. It hit Gabrielle square in the face.
"Oh, will you just shut up!" Perdikas cradled his head and scooted back farther onto his cot.
The Admiral grabbed at the bars and sneered at the young man. "What's the matter, boy? Don't want to hear the truth?"
"You don't know what you're talking about!"
"Yes, I do. You didn't see them outside, but I did. They were?"
Both Perdikas and Laodameia turned at the sound of the Conqueror's voice. She was standing at the entrance, flanked by two guards, and looked imposing dressed in a black chiton with a brown leather cuirass and belt.
The admiral shrank back a bit and shot Perdikas a warning glance. She didn't want him to repeat what she had said. "It's about time," she mumbled.
Xena took two strides and glared hard at the other woman. "What did you say?"
"I said that I'm glad you're here."
Xena shoved the key into the lock at Perdikas's cell and opened the door. "You're free to go. Next time think twice about drinking too much in public-you nearly embarrassed Gabrielle."
The young man stumbled out of the cell and gave the admiral his own glare. "Thank you, Conqueror. I didn't mean to embarrass Gabrielle, I'm sorry."
"It's not me you need to apologize to. Go on, get out of here." She closed the door then turned to the other cell. "All right, you guards can leave." Xena watched them leave then turned steely eyes on the other woman. "That idiot may not apologize to Gabrielle but I expect you to-officially-got it?"
Xena sneered. "Your words offended the realm-me-and one of my guests, and in front of other people. I'm ordering an official censure in the morning, admiral, so get out of here and prepare for it."
The Conqueror watched as the admiral straightened out her clothing before leaving the cell. As she walked past Xena grabbed the smaller woman around the waist and pulled her against her body. She leaned down to whisper in the woman's ear. "Next time you want a good fuck come and ask me in private."
The dark woman felt the admiral tremble against her; she smiled into the woman's neck. "Now get out."
Xena left the cells and walked into the prison lobby to find Gabrielle talking quietly to the young man, Perdikas. She waited in the doorway for their conversation to end before approaching the young woman. The blonde smiled at the man and gently squeezed his shoulder before he turned to the door and left.
"Is everything okay, Gabrielle?'
The young woman smiled and walked up to the dark warrior. "Yes, he told me he was sorry for getting drunk."
"He was sorry for getting drunk but not for discomforting you?"
Gabrielle took hold of Xena's hand. "Hey, give him a break. He's not so good about admitting being wrong." She looked up into sky blue eyes. "Are you hungry, lord Xena? Because I'm starving."
"Sure, why not. There's an open air courtyard between the Middle Stoa and the Heliaia where they serve the best lamb in Athens, would you like to go there?"
"I would love to."
When they exited the prison the Conqueror led the small woman northeast on a small road until they came to the southwest fountain house. They washed there before proceeding east through the passage between the law courts and the middle stoa that led to the courtyard.
Gabrielle turned to the dark warrior and smiled. "I just love your city, Xena."
The rectangular courtyard was housed between the Middle Stoa on the north, the Heliaia on the west, the South Stoa on its southern border, and a series of small buildings on the east. Large canopies covered one end of the area where the dining couches were arranged. At the very center of the courtyard a large fountain stood and was decorated with nymphs and sprites. The ground consisted of large limestone slabs with grass growing between the stones. A man motioned for the pair to follow him and he led them to a rather large chaise on the southeast side of the courtyard.
When they were seated Gabrielle shook her head and turned to the dark warrior. "It's really amazing, Xena."
Xena leaned back on some pillows. "What is?"
"How you so easily move throughout the city without drawing much attention to yourself."
The Conqueror chuckled. "I've been here twenty years now. They got used to seeing me a long time ago."
Gabrielle waved her hand about her. "But look, this place is full of shoppers and diners. No one even looked up when we came into the courtyard. Does that casualness bother you at all?"
A man approached them then bowed. "How may I serve you, lord Xena?"
The Conqueror smiled at the man. "How's your lamb?"
"The best in the city, my liege."
"For two then, please."
The man turned and waved at some servers and they immediately brought over an amphora of wine plus a large tray full of hummus, various breads, cheeses, and a small saucer of oil. He excused himself and went into one of small east buildings.
This time Gabrielle poured the wine. When she handed Xena her cup their fingers touched and hot electricity passed between them. The blonde blushed and looked away for a moment while the Conqueror just merely lowered her eyes.
Xena took a large drink but her eyes never left the young woman. "I think I would be alarmed if the casualness were replaced by something else-like fear or apprehension."
Gabrielle looked up. "What?"
"I'm answering your question, Gabrielle. The people here are comfortable with me because they know here, at least, in Athens, that they're safe. They know I am here to protect them, not persecute them."
"Does that mean that the farther away from Athens someone gets the less safe he feels?"
"I know that some dissenters would like to think that's true but its not. I choose my governors well and I always make sure each major city is supplied with enough troops."
"I don't envy your position at all, lord Xena." Gabrielle lowered her head.
The Conqueror reached up and gently turned the young woman's head until their eyes met. "Please, Gabrielle, you can call me 'Xena.' Okay?"
"What did you mean by not envying me?"
"I don't think I'd have the patience to govern; too much politicking and stuff like that. I barely manage to run my dad's small winery."
"Yet you came here wanting more responsibility."
"You caught me, I confess. I didn't so much want the responsibility as I wanted to just to get away for awhile." Gabrielle took a long drink of her wine.
Xena's brow arched. "Are you serious?"
"Well?only half serious. I did ask him to send me, and I did prepare to negotiate-but I also wanted a vacation."
"I can think of better places to escape to. There's not much excitement here in Athens."
Gabrielle smiled wryly. "You underestimate yourself."
Xena smiled at the blonde. "Do I?"
The young woman's expression softened. "Oh, yes. Your ability to excite-well, that'd never be a issue with me."
The Conqueror saw something in the young woman's eyes she'd never seen before. At least not directed at her, at least she could not remember if it did. She was about to say something when someone called her name from the other side of the courtyard. It was Governor Learkhos of Phrygia.
The older man waved as he walked up to them. "Good afternoon, lord Conqueror. How are you today?"
The dark warrior nodded. "Nice to see you, Learkhos. I am well, as always."
The older man looked Xena over. "Then your doctors have cured your headaches, then, my Lord?"
Xena's outward expression remained neutral, but she suddenly went cold. "Who told you such a thing?"
"Salmakis, my Lord. I ran into him about two weeks ago. He said something about you having terrible headaches. Sorry to hear about his suicide, though. I hear he even took out his staff before he did himself in."
"We were all troubled by his demise." Xena nodded towards Gabrielle. "I'd like you meet Gabrielle of Poteidaia, Learkhos. She's representing Chalcidice at the negotiations this quarter."
The governor shook the blonde's hand. "Are you Herodotus's daughter?"
Gabrielle smiled up at the man. "Yeah, do you know my father?"
"Sure I do. I've been to a couple of his parties, but that was a long time ago. I haven't seen you since before you were a teenager." He turned to the Conqueror. "Used to raise hades this one did."
Xena caught Gabrielle's glance. "I have no doubt about that." She picked up her glass. "I wouldn't believe anything Salmakis said before his-untimely death. He was obviously a troubled man."
Learkhos nodded. "I hear you, my Lord. You're probably right."
"I am right."
The governor bowed slightly. "Of course, lord Xena. Well I'm off to the Pnyx, see you later then." He nodded to them then left.
Gabrielle turned to Xena but froze slightly at the look on her face as she watched the older man leave. "Are you alright, Xena?"
It took only a moment for Xena's expression to change before turning towards Gabrielle. "I'm fine."
Gabrielle sipped her wine. If looks could kill? "Are you really having bad headaches, Xena?'
The Conqueror hesitated. "Not really. People always exaggerate whatever happens to me. If I stub my toe it's a national disaster."
"Before I left Poteidaia, my lord, we heard some strange rumors about one of your other governors."
This caught Xena's immediate attention. She sat up slowly. "Oh, what were they?"
"A merchant told my father, at our last feast, that he had seen a build up of mercenaries at Salmone. My dad didn't believe it, he said Dikaiapolis would never allow such a thing."
"Your father knows Dikaiapolis of Crete?"
The blonde ate some of the cheese. "Yeah, they grew up together."
Xena leaned back into the pillows. "I didn't know that," she murmured.
Gabrielle turned her head at the strange sound in the Conqueror's voice. "Is there something wrong, Xena?"
The dark woman hesitated momentarily, then her features relaxed. "No, nothing is wrong."
Both women turned when the servers brought out their meal. Xena occasionally glanced at the blonde woman while they ate, wondering about this new revelation.
Palaimon pulled the cloak around him and leaned against the column. It was much easier for him to hide this time sine he was out of uniform. The number of visitors to the Poikile this afternoon was large and the Captain wondered if he could recognize Glaukon among the throng of people. Finally he noticed a hooded figure walking his way with a group of youths. The Captain smiled to himself as the group approached his hiding position. When they stopped to look around the Captain ran down the steps and pushed his way towards the hooded figure. The people around him stepped away when his cloak fell and they could see who it was.
Palaimon grabbed Glaukon by the shoulders and pulled off his hood. "Gotcha, boy."
"Let me go, you oaf."
Palaimon studied the face of his adversary. The boy had blonde curly hair and deep blue eyes, which at the moment were glaring at him. "Can't do that, boy."
The young man tried to pull away. "Do you know who my dad is, soldier?"
"Don't play games with me, boy. You know who I am and why we're here. Your father begged the Conqueror to show mercy on you and I'm it. So, shall we begin your first lesson?"
Glaukon's schoolmates laughed at him and pointed his way as they walked away. The youth glared at the Captain. "I don't want to."
The Captain grabbed the young man by the back of his neck and pushed him up the stairs. "Tough luck, boy. You're stuck with me until you can learn some respect."
Palaimon transferred his grip from the boy's neck to his arm as they entered the stoa. Enough natural light entered the building, because of the missing southern wall, so lamps were not necessary. But as they made their way down the corridor to their left oil lamps were placed along the way to illuminate the painted panels, which were hung along the walls.
The Captain stopped about halfway down the corridor and pointed out a series of small paintings. "Can you identify any of these images, Glaukon?"
"Yeah, that one shows the Athenians destroying the Amazons?so what?"
Palaimon signed, this assignment was going to harder than he thought. "No, not that one. This larger one over here." He pointed to a larger panel, which had two shields fastened to the wall below it.
Glaukon stared up at the image for a few moments before turning to the Captain. "Okay, I don't get it."
"That depicts the great battle on the island of Sphakteria, where the Athenians defeated the Lakedaimonians at Pylos. Those two shields you see are actually from the defeated Spartans. Why do you think the Conqueror would want to display this scene?"
"Who are the Lakedaimonians?"
"The Spartans-don't they teach you anything in school?"
"Nothing I'm interested in."
"Answer my question."
"Because Athenians kick ass?"
"No, wrong answer. This battle took place about four hundred years ago when the city-states were at war and the land was divided. She wants the people to understand how unity has brought prosperity and peace to the people."
Glaukon rubbed his nose. "Can I go home, now?"
The Captain let go of Glaukon's arm. "You meet me here tomorrow in the late afternoon, and I promise it's the last time we'll have to meet."
"You got a deal, mister."
Palaimon watched the boy leave then shook his head. He hurriedly made his way out of the stoa, already late for his afternoon's entertainment.
Gabrielle put down her plate and settled back into the pillows. "That was absolutely delicious, Xena."
"I'm glad you liked it."
The blonde looked up and eyed the merchant stalls in the south stoa. "Can we go over there?"
Xena looked to see what had captured the young woman's attention, and saw the throng of shoppers. "You want to go shopping?"
"Yeah, it could be fun."
The Conqueror blinked. "Shopping?"
Gabrielle laughed at the expression on the dark warrior's face. "Haven't you ever gone shopping before, Xena?"
"I've never had to go shopping before in my life. I sort of have everything provided for me."
Gabrielle smiled. "Then you've missed out on a lot of fun."
"Why do I have a feeling I'm not going to like this?"
The blonde reached over and took Xena's hand. "Will you trust me?"
Xena lost herself in the verdant depths. "Yes."
On the ground floor of the Conqueror's palace, opposite the small stables, was a communal bathing chamber. It was built so that the palace staff that lived there could attend to their personal needs. There were no private baths, however. The single large room consisted of a rather large bathing pool surrounded on all sides by a series of lockers and small changing rooms. The pool was constantly being drained and filled at the same time; it was necessary considering there was always someone, or a lot of people, in the pool.
Perdikas entered the bathing chamber and looked around. There were a few women on the other side of the bath but other than that the room was empty. His head still hurt and his stomach felt like he wanted to vomit, and not caring what the women would think or do, he stripped off his clothes and sank heavily into the water.
As he settled himself into the water a door to one of the changing rooms opened and Telemakhos step out, naked, and practically fell into the steaming water. He made his way over to Perdikas. "You disappeared last night, Perdikas. What happened to you?"
Perdikas opened one eye and looked at the scribe. "You didn't notice?"
"The Conqueror put me in prison for the night."
"Why, what did you do?"
"Didn't you notice I was drunk?" Perdikas turned when the door to the room Telemakhos had come from opened and another naked man stepped out. He raised his eyebrow and looked at the scribe.
Telemakhos shrugged. "Hey, we all have our little vices, don't we?" He waved for the other man to join them.
Perdikas considered his fondness for wine. "Yeah, I guess we do."
The man sank into the pool and waded over to the other men. "Just how many boyfriends do you have, Telemakhos?"
The scribe laughed. "Knock it off, will you. Perdikas, I like you to meet Lysias Demosthenes."
Perdikas shook the man's hand. "Nice to meet you."
The Stoa of Attalos, on the east side of the agora, was built about two hundred years before the reign of Xena Akolastos and was a gift from a foreign king to the demos of the Athenians. The colonnaded building, built of limestone and marble, rose two stories high and was almost four hundred feet long. Both Doric and Ionic columns were used throughout the building, but their capitals were more Egyptian than Hellenistic. Its forty-two rooms held various shops and food stalls.
The Conqueror led Gabrielle up the steps on the southern end of the building and then stopped and looked around. "I've got to confess to you I've never been in this building before, so I don't know what to show you."
Gabrielle chuckled. "You must really hate the idea of shopping, don't you?"
"I won't deny that."
As they made their way further down the corridor curious eyes followed them as they went. Gabrielle noticed this and smiled. She stopped at a stall that was near the entrance to one of the first floor rooms and admired the fabric. "Look at this pattern, Xena. Isn't it beautiful?"
The Conqueror held up the fabric. An intricate pattern of green and purple circles and triangles was interwoven with gold lace. "Yes, it is. Way too feminine for me, though."
Gabrielle took the cloth and held it up to the Conqueror. "This would look nice on you."
"An excellent choice, lord Conqueror." Both Xena and Gabrielle turned as the merchant held up another sample. "This would look good on you, too."
Gabrielle took the red fabric from the merchant and ran her hand over it. "Ooh, this is so soft-what is it?"
The merchant brought over more samples. "It comes to us from our trade caravans to the far east. I think they call it silk."
Xena nodded. "Yes, its silk. It comes to us from a country beyond the Indus River."
Gabrielle looked surprised. "The Indus River? The same river Alexander of Macedon led his army to?"
Xena smiled at the blonde. "You know your history, don't you?"
"Yeah, when I'm not writing poetry I love to read the old histories."
"Well, my Lord, would you like to have it?"
The Conqueror glanced from the merchant to Gabrielle and nodded. "Sure, why don't you send the both the red silk and the other one to the palace."
Gabrielle sighed. "Aw, come on, Xena. Half the fun comes from buying it and taking it home yourself."
"You mean use money?"
"Don't tell me you never use money?"
"Well, not usually. I have everything?"
""?provided for you. Yes, I know." Gabrielle reached into her tunic and brought out her small purse. "How much?"
"For friends of the Conqueror, how about only ten dinars."
Xena looked at the merchant and could tell from his clothing that business wasn't very good. "How much would it normally cost, merchant?"
The man rubbed a hand over his shirt. "Well, I would charge twenty each."
Gabrielle looked in her purse. "I don't have that much on me."
Xena stepped up to the merchant. "Are you going to be here tomorrow?"
"Yes, my Lord. I'm here every day."
"Good, tomorrow I'll send a runner from the palace with fifty dinars. Forty for the purchase and ten more because of your generosity."
"Thank you, Lord Xena." The merchant handed over the package to Gabrielle.
The blonde looked at the Conqueror in wonderment as they walked away. "That was very kind of you, Xena."
"Did you see that man's clothing? He looked liked his business wasn't very profitable."
"I wonder if his family has enough to eat."
Xena stopped and frowned. "That's a good question, Gabrielle. Remind me later to check out the merchant fees at the commercial stoas. If we're charging too much to rent out the space I want to know about it. I won't have people starve just to add to my coffers."
The blonde stepped up to Xena and placed a hand on her arm. "Can we check to see if his family has enough to eat?"
"Tomorrow I'll follow him when he closes for the afternoon and check out where he lives."
"You would do this for me?"
"Of course, my lo-Xena."
Xena's lips parted slightly as she looked down on the small woman. Was she going to say 'my lord' or 'my love?' The dark woman took Gabrielle's hand and led her into a small, unoccupied alcove that housed a statue of Hermes. She took the package from her and placed it on the ground. When Gabrielle shyly lowered her eyes Xena reached out and ran her hand down the young woman's cheek.
"Gabrielle?" Xena slowly lowered her head and brushed her lips across the young woman's.
"Excuse me, my Lord."
Xena stiffened then looked up to see two guards standing a few feet from her. She positioned her body to hide the young woman from their curious eyes. "Yes?"
The older of the two spoke first. "My Lord, you wanted to know when Governor Oreithyia of Lydia arrived."
"Is she here now?"
The younger guard nodded. "Yes, my Lord. She decided to stay at the gymnasion and not the palace."
"That's okay, send a messenger to her and let her know I want to see her in my offices at the Pnyx first thing in the morning. Got it?"
When the two guards bowed and left Xena sighed and turned back to Gabrielle. "I'm afraid our day of shopping will have to be cut short. Duty calls."
Gabrielle tried to hide her disappointment but couldn't. "That's okay, I understand."
"Gabrielle, did Palaimon talk to you about the censure tomorrow?"
"Not yet, Xena. Why don't I go find him and you go take care of business."
"It's his day off, so I don't know where he'll be."
"That's all right, Xena, I'll find him."
"Thank you, Gabrielle." Xena lightly brushed the blonde's cheek for turning and leaving.
The Conqueror left Gabrielle at the Stoa of Attalos and then went to the Strategeion, her military headquarters. When she walked into the building the guards who were seated at either side of entryway stood and saluted the dark woman. A clerk, who was sitting at a small desk, stood as well and addressed the Conqueror.
"Lord Xena, this a surprise. We were not expecting you today."
Xena didn't recognize the young woman. "I don't know you."
The young clerk straightened. 'My name is Agathyros, my Lord. I just graduated from the Academy a week ago."
"Really? What did you study?"
"Logic and rhetoric, my Lord."
Xena frowned slightly. "And they put you here as a clerk?"
"Yes, is there something wrong with that, my Lord?"
"No, not at all. But it seems that a young woman of your education ought to have a more suitable profession." Xena smiled when the young woman blushed slightly. "Would you be interested in a position at the palace?"
"At the palace, my Lord?"
"Yes, I'm in need of a competent junior speech writer, would you be interested?"
The young woman's eyes went wide. "Yes, my Lord, I would."
"Good, report to the palace the day after tomorrow in the morning and see Captain Palaimon. But right now I need two things. First of all, send for Admiral Isokrates-is he here in Athens?"
"Yes, my Lord, he's probably out to eat right now."
"When he gets back tell him I want him to meet me at my office in the Bouleuterion later this evening. I should be there sometime after dinner. Secondly, has General Eteokles summoned my forces from Korinthos?"
"Yes he did, lord Conqueror, I processed the order myself. A royal escort left this morning-they should be here in less than a week."
The Conqueror nodded. "Good, where is the General now?"
"He's in his office, my Lord. Do you want me to get him?"
"No, but tell him I want to see him as well. Have both men come to my office after dinner."
"As you wish, my Lord."
"I'll be in my office if you need me."
Gabrielle wandered the stoa for a while, enjoying the sense of freedom that she felt since coming to the city. She needn't have wondered if this feeling had anything to do with the Conqueror, it obviously did, and that was the biggest surprise so far. She realized all her preconceived ideas concerning the dark ruler were unfounded. She found the woman to be gracious, engaging, and a pleasure to be around. Nothing like she expected. She rounded a corner that led to a staircase to the second floor then proceeded up the stairs. The way was dimly lit and when the stairs veered to the left she nearly ran into two men coming down.
"Excuse me, please."
The blonde looked up into the handsome face of the Captain of the Guard. "Palaimon, I was just looking for you."
"Who's your friend, Palaimon?"
The Captain glanced at Gabrielle before gesturing towards the other man he was with. "Koios, I'd like you to meet Gabrielle of Poteidaia."
"Pleasure's all mine." The man took the blonde's hand and shook it vigorously, and then he put his arm around Palaimon's shoulders. "How do you know my boy, here?"
It was then that Gabrielle noticed that the Captain was out of uniform, and that the two of them seemed to be wavering slightly. "Have you been drinking, Palaimon?"
The Captain smiled awkwardly. "Maybe just a little. It's all right, it's my day off."
Koios put his other arm around Gabrielle's shoulders and bent down so that his face was level with hers. "Care to join us in a little carousing, young lady?"
Palaimon pulled the man away from Gabrielle. "Leave her alone, you wretch."
The Commander gesticulated with an exaggerated flourish. "Can't I have a little fun?" He pretended to whisper in Palaimon's ear while pointing at Gabrielle. "Play your cards right, man, and maybe we'll both get lucky."
The blonde backed off a bit and raised her hands. "Oh, no. No getting lucky here?sorry."
"I know that, Gabrielle." Palaimon smiled down at her and lightly brushed his hand through her hair.
Gabrielle took hold of his hand. "Maybe you ought to let me walk you home?"
Koios waved them off while walking away. "Go ahead, buddy. I'm off to get fucked."
Palaimon cringed, then glanced at the small blonde. "Sorry 'bout that. The man's a cad."
"Don't worry about it, Palaimon. But I don't want the Conqueror to see you like this; you know how she feels about public drunkenness. Is there someplace we can go and talk, outside of the palace?"
The Captain scratched his head. "Let me think. Yeah, I know the owner to one of the brothels on the northwest road next to the Hephaisteion."
Gabrielle smiled. "A brothel, Captain?"
Palaimon entwined his fingers with hers. "Yeah, if you don't mind?"
"Not at all, lead the way."
As they walked the Panathenaic way towards the Hephaisteion neither noticed as a lone figure stopped abruptly while exiting the Strategeion. A pair of startled blue eyes watched as the two walked hand in hand down the road.
There were two roads that ran northwest from the Poikile. The wider of the two led to the Dipylon gate while the narrower one went directly past the Hephaisteion and the Arsenal to its left, on its way to the Sacred Gate. The Captain led Gabrielle down the narrower road for perhaps fifty yards, past the Sanctuary of Demos and Graces, to a series of one-storey buildings on the north slope of the Kolonos Agoraios. He paused at a building at the very end of a row, which had a rather large phallus on the lintel of the doorway, and led the young woman inside.
The darkened parlor held a series of low couches that were currently empty. A woman entered the room from a dimly lit doorway. She noticed and recognized the Captain immediately. "Have you brought your own entertainment for the day, Palaimon? My girls not good enough?"
The Captain laughed and gestured toward Gabrielle. "Naw, she's just a friend. I was kind of hoping we could have the upper suite, just for a little while?"
The woman looked Gabrielle over then she smirked at the Captain. "Are you sure you just want a little while with this one? She's beautiful."
Gabrielle rolled her eyes and let go of Palaimon's hand. "We've come here just to rest, okay?"
"Sure you did. Go ahead, but I get half the fee for the afternoon, alright?"
Palaimon glanced back over his shoulder as he led Gabrielle through the door. "You got a deal."
When they entered the upper suite Gabrielle knew immediately why the Captain brought her there. The room was settled a little higher on the slope of the hill and opened up to a beauteous view of a glade beyond, with a small stream flowing past.
Gabrielle opened up the large doors that led to a patio on the edge of the glade then turned back to the Captain. "Do you come here often, Palaimon?"
The man sat heavily on the large bed and then rubbed at his temples. "Sometimes." He looked up and admired the vision before him. "You are beautiful, Gabrielle."
The blonde sat on nearby chair and then offered the Captain a compassionate smile. "Thank you."
"But you're already spoken for, aren't you?"
"Didn't I tell you that Perdikas and I are not together?"
Palaimon smiled weakly. "Not talking 'bout that boy."
Gabrielle lowered her head. "Oh. I'm sorry."
"Don't be, she's beautiful, too."
Gabrielle moved to the bed and sat beside the Captain. "May I ask you something, Palaimon?"
"Are you lonely?"
The handsome man was silent for so long that Gabrielle thought he wouldn't answer. Finally he turned his head to look at her. "Kinda been too busy helping Xena to really notice."
"What about now? We're alone; no one's around to demand of your time. Are you lonely?"
Palaimon turned at the waist and, using his left hand, brought his mouth into contact with the blonde's. At first the kiss was gentle, then became more urgent as he used his weight to lower them both to the bed.
For a brief moment, Gabrielle responded, and hooked her arm around the blonde man's neck. Then the reality of the moment hit her and she broke the kiss. "Palaimon, please?"
The Captain moved on top of Gabrielle. "Yes?"
The blonde took Palaimon's face gently in both hands. "Captain?"
The man faltered for an instant, then his face went white. "Oh, gods?I'm so sorry?" He rolled off of her and collapsed on the bed.
Gabrielle stood and went to the patio to cool off. She didn't know how long she stood out there. She willed her heartbeat to return to normal before turning back to the room. But when she finally went inside she found that the guard was passed out on the bed.
She sank heavily on the chair and then rubbed at her forehead, feeling a headache coming on. "Oh, gods...this is a mess." When she finally looked up the sun was already setting on the horizon. We didn't talk about the censure?
Xena's private dining chamber in the palace was sparsely decorated, much like her Captain's office. It contained a small oak dining table with only one chair. A small cabinet next to the table housed a small collection of bronze statues of various gods and goddess'. A large oil lamp hung from the ceiling directly above the table.
Xena entered her dining room to find that her meal was already there. As she had done numerous times before, she sat down to eat. But when she did this time a new feeling hit her rather suddenly-a feeling that began in the pit of her stomach and spread outwards. She put down her fork and stared at the food before her. Her cook had made her favorite evening meal-a vegetable omelet with cheese and flat bread on the side. But tonight it looked especially unappealing. She let out a breath and sat back in her chair. What's going on? She waited for the internal reply, but it didn't come. Even the rather large glass of wine seemed disagreeable.
What's wrong with me tonight?
If she had been less tired, the answer may have come to her. But weariness settled on her suddenly, and she just wanted to be left alone.
No, not left alone. If not alone, then what?
She had dined in the room, over the years, hundreds of times, alone, but this was the first time she had ever felt that aloneness. It was a cold feeling, unnerving in its intensity, and the shock of it almost made her reel.
Frustrated, the Conqueror rose abruptly and pushed her chair aside. She grabbed the amphora of wine and slammed the door shut behind her.
Xena put down her wine glass and brought the document closer to her. A knock at her office door momentarily startled her and she stood up. "Come in."
Admiral Isokrates, a rather handsome younger man with brown hair and hazel eyes, stepped into the office first and was closely followed by the older General Eteokles.
Xena smiled and indicated the table she was sitting at. "Have a seat, gentlemen."
Both men sat opposite the Conqueror. Admiral Isokrates spoke first. "Good evening, lord Conqueror."
"Good to see you, Admiral, its been awhile, hasn't it?"
"Yes it has, my Lord. Almost three months."
"You look well, my Lord."
Xena pulled out a map from a scroll case and unfolded it. "Thank you, General. I hope you two are well because I have an important job for you both."
The General exchanged a quick glance with the Admiral. "Anything for you, lord Xena."
Xena pointed to the map and both men leaned forward to get a better view. "I'm sending both of you to Salmone to fetch Governor Dikaiapolis. General Eteokles, will you fill the Admiral in on what's happening in Crete?"
"Of course, my Lord. Governor Dikaiapolis is trying to organize a rebellion against the Empire. He has ships, a few Imperial soldiers, and mercenaries. Although we can't figure out where he's getting the money to do all this."
The admiral rubbed his chin. "I thought those were just rumors. Its really true, then?"
The dark woman shook her head. "Unfortunately, yes, its true. How many warships do we have at Piraeus, Admiral?"
"About twenty-four, my Lord."
"I want you to take fifteen of them to Crete at once and bring back the governor. I also want you to bring back to Athens all the Imperial soldiers he managed to buy off-we know of only one-hundred forty but there may be more. I don't want you to take the normal sea route there but this one." She moved her finger over the map. "First go to Andros, then Tenos, then Mykonos by the westward route. Then it's a straight line down, directly south, to Naxos and Ios and Thera. Pick up as many other warships at these ports as you think you might need. Do you know why I want you to take this route, Admiral?"
Isokrates studied the map, after awhile he nodded. "Yes, my Lord. If we take this route they will have little time to rally against us."
"Yes, I want all of Crete to see I mean business and I won't tolerate dissent. General, you are to go with him. I need you take sailors with you that are experienced in hand to hand combat, as well-and are good with a sword. I want you to kill as many mercenaries as you can, and in front of the local populace. If Dikaiapolis and his followers offer any resistance tell them I've summoned my elite forces from Korinthos and will dispatch them to Crete if necessary. Admiral, how long will it take to get my plan going?"
"Well, we could set sail within two weeks, but I would have to start selecting my sailors right away. That will take at least five days work. Excuse me, my Lord, but isn't Admiral Laodameia a better choice for this mission? She has a lot more experience than I do."
"I have another assignment for her that will involve her particular skills. Don't worry, I trust you, Isokrates."
"Thank you, my Lord."
"What will my role in this mission be?"
"Admiral Isokrates is good with the sea but I need you to handle things when you reach land. You are to lead the sailors in the capture of the governor and our own soldiers. I trust in you, too, general."
"Thank you, my Lord." Eteokles reached over and clasped the Admiral's shoulder. "We won't fail you."
Isokrates grinned. "We'll be victorious."
Xena leaned back in her chair and smiled. "I know we will. Be sure to offer the proper sacrifices to Poseidon all week long for a successful voyage, and make the customary offerings to Athene at the Altar of the Twelve Gods. I want to guarantee our success."
Xena sat at her desk in her office at the Pnyx and waited for the governor to arrive. Her office at the Pnyx was larger and more colorful than the one in the Bouleuterion. Its walls were frescoed depicting pastoral scenes and the mosaic floor was an intricate pattern of geometric figures.
The knock at her door brought a small smile to her face. "Come in."
Governor Oreithyia of Lydia, an older woman of dark skin and black hair, entered and bowed to the Conqueror. "My Conqueror."
Xena stood and picked up an amphora of wine from a shelf and moved over to the other end of the room. She sat on one of the couches. "Good to see you, Oreithyia, come and sit down."
The governor sat on the couch opposite Xena. "You're looking good as always, my Lord."
"You've never been once to mince words, have you?"
"Me? Never, my Lord." The governor took the glass of wine Xena offered her.
"How have you been, my friend?"
"I am good, although the trip here could have been more comfortable."
"How are the kids?"
"Well, Daidalos wants to be a soldier when he grows up and Galateia wants to be a Hestian Virgin-I'm not even going to mention the others."
"What does your husband think?"
"He worries, naturally."
"I bet they all grow up to be fine citizens, just like their mother." Xena smiled then took a long swallow. "How was your trip to Egypt?"
Oreithyia put down her cup. "How do you know I went to Egypt?"
"There's not much that goes on in my Empire that I don't know."
"Look, I know that Egypt is off limits but?"
Xena held up her hand. "Relax, Oreithyia, I know you and Cleopatra are lovers, so don't bother to deny it. Don't worry; this isn't an interrogation. We're just two friends catching up on things, okay?"
The governor visibly relaxed. "Okay, my Lord."
"How long were you there?"
"About one month."
"Did Cleopatra happen to mention anything about Gaius Julius Caesar?"
"The guy from Rome? Only that he's one of her many lovers."
"Anything else? Did she happen to say anything about forming a military alliance with Rome? Because my intelligence tells me they did."
The governor frowned. "No, she never mentioned anything like that."
"Did you meet Gaius Julius?"
"No, but she did tell me all about him. From what she said he seems like an arrogant bastard."
"That's my impression, too."
"If I stayed just three more days I would have run into him. Sorry that my timing was bad."
"Hmm." Xena took a long drink of her wine. "I'm thinking about sending the Naurachos Laodameia there to make an official inquiry."
Oreithyia snorted. "Laodameia's a bitch."
"Ah, but a very competent bitch."
"One thing I know about Cleopatra is that she doesn't take lovers unless they can be of some use to her. If she has designs with Caesar I don't know about it. Don't underestimate her, my Lord, she is as smart as she is beautiful-and she always uses that to her advantage."
"Thank you, Oreithyia, you have helped me make up my mind."
The Naurachos Laodameia arrived at the Shrine to the Eponymous Heroes at midday, according to the custom, and waited for the official party to arrive.
The Shrine was the oldest monument in Athens and dated back to the time when Kleisthenes abolished the four, old Ionian Boule. He set up ten tribes in its place from the environs of Attica and from this beginning Xena created the Hellenic Empire. The Shrine itself was a rather long statue base that carried on it the ten bronze statues representing the ancient heroes. Two tripods stood at either end of the structure, erected on high pedestals. Any announcements concerning the tribes were written on stone and put under the statue, on the stone base, of the appropriate hero.
The bustle of noon pedestrian traffic around the monument had thinned out a bit when the representatives from the ten tribes arrived in procession with the Conqueror, with the Captain at her side, and four royal guards at their heels; she was followed by Gabrielle and the scribe, Telemakhos.
When the elders took up their usual positions around the Shrine Xena nodded to her scribe and he stepped forward. "An official censure against the tribe of the Naurachos Laodameia has been given. All tribes step forward."
As the elders took one step forward the Conqueror announced them to all gathered. "Hippothontis, Antiochis, Aiantis, Leontis, Erechtheis, Aigeis, Oineis, Akamantis, Kekropis, and Pandionis. Are all tribes in agreement?"
When the elders voiced their agreements the Conqueror nodded again at Telemakhos. He unrolled the parchment he was carrying. "On this day in the Reign of Xena Akolastos, the Conqueror, and Founder of the Great Hellenic Empire, an official censure is recorded against the tribe of the Naurachos Laodameia of Hippotomadai. The guilty step forward."
The admiral and her reluctant representative took two steps forward. Gabrielle watched as the admiral removed her helm and tucked it under her arm. The Conqueror removed her own helm and fixed her gaze on the admiral. "What do you say, Laodameia of Hippotomadai?"
"I am guilty of offending the good people of this great Empire."
A small smirk touched the corners of Xena's mouth. "How are you guilty?"
"I caused the Conqueror's guests shame and embarrassment by demeaning the character of the Conqueror in public."
Xena nodded her approval at the Naurachos' words. "Do you wish to make an official apology?"
Laodameia glanced at Gabrielle and then turned to the dark warrior. When Xena nodded she stepped up to the blonde woman. "Gabrielle of Poteidaia, on the night before yesterday I brought shame to you-and everyone else in this great land-by making lewd comments in front of you about our sovereign lord. I humbly ask for your forgiveness and pardon."
Gabrielle's eyes went wide when the admiral knelt on one knee before her. She looked up to Xena but the dark woman's expression remained neutral, as it had to be in this official moment. She looked again to the admiral and offered her a small smile. "I accept your apology, Naurachos Laodameia." Then she offered the kneeling woman her hand.
Xena's brow arched high as the admiral accepted the hand being offered; the woman rose to her feet and then bent down to kiss it. "May I ask something of you, Gabrielle?"
The blonde nodded. "Sure...go ahead."
"Will you allow me a private act of contrition, as is my right according to the law?"
Gabrielle turned questioning eyes towards the Conqueror. Xena stood mute for a few moments, the audacity of the admiral's request robbing her of her voice.
Palaimon noticed immediately his lord's distress and took a step towards Gabrielle. "Under the law, Gabrielle, as the party to whom the offence was towards you have the right to choose if the admiral makes a public or private act of atonement."
"What if I choose a public one?"
Xena glared at the admiral as she realized what the woman was trying to do. "She gets ten lashes and her tribe is fined."
Gabrielle gasped and took a step backwards; she didn't want that on her conscience. "I don't think I could do that."
Xena slowly turned towards the young woman; she realized that the blonde wasn't grasping the importance of this decision. "Are you sure?" Don't you see what's she's doing??
Gabrielle frowned. "Of course I'm sure, Xena. I will not have her beaten because of me."
Only Palaimon, because of years of practice, could see that the Conqueror was seething under her mask of indifference. She stared at Gabrielle for a few moments before turning to the small assembly. "So be it. Gabrielle of Poteidaia will decide what private act of contrition she will accept. A stele shall be erected here, under the statue of Laodameia's tribe, describing her offence and the appropriate punishment and will stand for one month. Oh, and admiral?"
The admiral turned to the Conqueror and bowed at the waist, although her eyes never left those of the dark woman's. "Yes, my lord?
Only Xena could detect the small smirk meant only for her, but at this moment, under the law, she was powerless to do anything about it. "Your tribe is fined ten thousand gold dinarai. It better be in the treasury by end of week, understood?"
"Yes, my Lord."
Telemakhos stepped up to Gabrielle. "We need to talk about the admiral's punishment. I need to know what to have written on the stele."
Gabrielle saw that all eyes were watching her, waiting to see what she would do. "I don't know right now. Can I think about it for awhile?"
"You have until tomorrow to come up with something. Is that understood?"
The blonde turned stunned eyes toward the Conqueror, startled by the coldness in her voice. "I understand, Xena."
The blonde lowered her head. "Yes, lord Xena."
"Good, I'd hate to have to repeat myself." Xena spun on her heel and left the shrine, the elders following her back to the Bouleuterion.
The blonde tore her eyes away from the procession. "I don't really feel like talking right now, admiral."
Laodameia put her helm back on and adjusted her uniform. "I just wanted to tell you I'm really sorry for being drunk the other night."
"You already did that. Isn't that what that ceremony was all about?"
"Yeah, but I got the feeling you didn't really believe me."
The blonde took a step closer to the other woman and squeezed her arm. "Hey, I did-I do believe you."
Laodameia smiled down at the small blonde. "Will you do me a favor?"
"If I can."
"Will you accompany me to the theatre tonight?"
"Yes, tonight begins our theatre season. I think Aeschylus' Oresteian Trilogy is on the menu for the season."
"Why something so dark and dramatic?"
"We trade off each year; one year we do comedies, the next year tragedies."
"Just my luck to arrive on a shadowy year."
"Would you like to go with me tonight?"
Why didn't Xena invite me? Gabrielle sighed. "Sure, do you want to meet me at my suite?"
"The Captain banned me from that level of the palace so why don't you meet me at the west entrance to the Stoa of Eumenes after dinner, okay?"
"I'll be there."
Xena threw her cloak on her chair and poured herself a large helping of wine. The Captain had noticed the tension in her since the ceremony at the Shrine and wondered what could have put her in such a foul mood. Palaimon cleared his throat and stood at attention near the office door.
The Conqueror sighed and glanced at the Captain. "That could have gone better, couldn't it have?"
"The admiral did pull a fast one, yes."
"I thought you were going to talk to Gabrielle about the censure."
Palaimon hesitated before answering. "I didn't get a chance to, my Lord."
The Conqueror eyed her Captain. "Didn't you tell me you ran into her yesterday?"
"Yes I did, Conqueror."
The dark woman felt another headache coming on. "Well?"
"We just didn't the chance to talk about it, my liege. Don't worry, Gabrielle will come up with an appropriate punishment."
Xena stiffened at the young woman's name. "Maybe."
The dark warrior smiled somewhat. "Yes, my friend?"
"Has something happened?"
Oh gods, does she know?? "My Lord?"
Xena poured herself another glass of wine. "When I was having the afternoon meal with Gabrielle yesterday she mentioned that her father knows Dikaiapolis."
Palaimon waited for more information but the Conqueror remained silent. "Excuse me, my Lord, but...well, is that a bad thing?"
The Conqueror downed the beverage in a few quick gulps. "Then she spares the admiral from any real punishment. It just got me thinking?"
Palaimon took a few steps closer to the dark woman. "And you think that makes her suspect?"
Xena's eyes narrowed at the sound in her Captain's voice. "Palaimon?"
"Xena, that woman is without guile!"
"No, listen to me, my Lord. She's a honest and descent young woman?she's definitely not involved in any plots against you or the Empire!"
The Conqueror took a few steps towards Palaimon and her hand moved to grasp her sword. "How would you know?"
The Captain's jaw dropped slightly at the obvious threatening gesture. "My Lord, you can't be serious!"
Xena's hand dropped and she sighed deeply. After a few moments she stepped back and leaned against her desk. "What is happening to me, Palaimon? First I get these terrible headaches and now I'm getting really paranoid about everything?something is wrong, this is not like me."
"Can I convince you to go see your physician today, Xena?"
"I can't. The negotiations with Cappadocia start today and I need to be there. Can I promise you tomorrow?"
"Will you make time between the negotiations to go?"
"Of course I will."
The Captain approached his Lord and lightly grasped her shoulder. "Thank you, Xena. May I ask another small favor from you?"
"What is it?"
"It's about young Glaukon?"
Gabrielle sat on the steps of the Stoa of Attalos and watched as the merchant went about attending to his stall. It didn't take long to realize that the Conqueror's observations from the day before were accurate. He sold only a few parcels before the customary closing time for the afternoon meal. The blonde watched as the man tied a tarp around his merchandise then folded himself in a loose cape and walked down the few steps and proceeded southwest.
The blonde woman followed the man at a respectable distance, hiding among the throng of people, not wanting to draw too much attention to herself. After a few minutes they were following a small road that passed the west side of the prison and came upon the boundary stone of the agora. The neatly arranged stone road disappeared, became coarser, and now had grass growing abundantly between the sparsely placed stones. Bushes and trees replaced buildings as the road curved southeastward, past the Areopagus on the east, toward a section of small apartments that hugged the road on both sides, about four hundred feet past the boundary stone. From this place one could see the Pnyx on a hill to the southwest. Most of the pedestrian traffic was headed toward the agora, on their way to inns, so Gabrielle slowed her pace even more, not wanting to look like she was following the man.
The man turned east down a small alley and then entered a small dwelling to his right. A curtain was drawn aside as the man entered the building. Gabrielle stopped by a eucalyptus tree and leaned against it. She took a fig from her pocket and made the pretense of eating it, all the while watching the building. From what she could see from the outside they looked well kept. The two storey series of apartments were made of limestone bricks and had wooden porches and doors.
The blonde finished the eating the fruit and casually walked down the same path the man did, and when no one was watching, drew close to the building and peered inside the window. From her vantage point see could see simple wooden furniture covered with some sort of cloth. That was not what captured her attention, though. It was the conversation she overheard.
"Is that all you've made so far today?"
"I know, I know. I'll try to do better this afternoon, I promise."
"Kadmos, the children are hungry."
What? Gabrielle heard the sound of cloth being ripped opened and leaned in closer.
"It's just day old bread and cheese, go on and feed the kids. I'll go back now and see if I can earn a few more dinars before dinner time."
"But you haven't eaten?"
"The kids are more important than I am, Keto."
The children are hungry? The blonde thought she heard a small catch in the woman's voice.
"Don't you ever say that again, Kadmos, you are my husband. Isn't there anyone you can talk to about that new tax?"
"Kimon thinks we merchants ought to get a petition going. I don't know about that, though. I don't want to be one to face the Conqueror about this."
"Something has to be done, we can't go on like this."
"Look, it's only been a month since it started. Maybe business will pick up. It should with the theatre season bringing more people into the agora?"
Gabrielle saw some people heading her way so she crept to the path and headed back to the agora. She was stunned by what she heard. A new tax?this doesn't make any sense?Xena told me she wouldn't let people go hungry just to make her rich?maybe something else is going on here?The blonde quickened her pace. She wanted answers, and she wanted them now.
Glaukon arrived at the Poikile in the late afternoon and looked around for the Captain. He found the guard inside the north side of the stoa looking at a rather large painting of the Conqueror. The light in this part of the stoa came by oil lamp alone so the light was diffused and there were areas of dark shadows. The young man smirked and walked up to the guard.
"I showed up, just like I said I would."
Palaimon turned slowly and smiled at the youth. "Glad you came. Remember how I said this is the last time we'd have to meet?"
"Why do you think I showed up?"
"Would you like to see why?"
The Captain stepped aside so he was in the shadows and when he disappeared the Conqueror stepped into the light. "Hello, Glaukon."
Glaukon's jaw dropped as the dark woman made her way over to him. "Uhhh?"
Xena slipped her arm around the youth's shoulders and slowly walked down the hall, bringing the stunned young man with her. "This place has the best artwork I've ever seen. Don't you agree, Glaukon?"
When he remained silent Xena glanced over her shoulder and winked at the Captain. She brought her hand up and snapped her fingers in the young man's face. "Anybody in there? I believe our young friend here is speechless, Palaimon?"
The Captain smirked. "Do you think he's been struck dumb with awe, my Lord?"
"I think you may be right, you know, about the dumb part. But is it the artwork-or me?" Xena knelt in front of Glaukon and forced him to look her in the eye. "Which one is it?"
Glaukon's voice was barely a croak. 'You, Lord Conqueror, my Lord."
"That's not the answer I wanted." She made a point of throwing her cloak to one side and revealing her sword. "You got two choices, young man. You can meet me here every day and learn about each individual painting and take a test on what you've learned. Or you can meet the Captain here only three days a week and learn some good things from him. What will it be, boy?"
"I think I'd go with the Captain, my Lord, lord Conqueror."
Xena stood up. "You made a good decision, young Glaukon. Don't make me regret my decision to let the Captain enlighten you. Go on, now. Don't forget to meet the Captain here tomorrow at the same time."
"Thank you, Lord Xena!" The youth ran from the stoa.
Palaimon laughed so hard he had to put a hand against the wall to steady himself. "That was priceless, Xena. I thought he was going to soil himself right in front of you."
Xena chuckled and readjusted her cape. "You think he's been sufficiently scared?"
"Oh, yeah. He'll be here tomorrow."
The dark woman rubbed her temples. "Damn, another headache's coming on."
"Why don't you take the rest of the day, my Lord."
"Can't. I've got to negotiate this afternoon with those stubborn Cappadocians."
"Will you still go to the theatre tonight, my Lord?"
"Wouldn't miss it for the world, you know that. I'd like to invite Gabrielle but I kind of acted like an ass to her earlier."
"I bet she's already gotten over it."
"Yes, but I haven't. Will you go and find her, my friend, and extend my invitation? Tell her I'm sorry and will make it up to her. I'm late for my appointment."
"Of course, Xena."
"What do you mean she's not available?" Gabrielle's brow furrowed as she stared down at the clerk.
Agathyros put aside the scroll she was working on and folded her hands on the desk. "The Conqueror is busy with Cappadocia this afternoon and won't be available until this evening."
"But she was expecting me."
"I'm sorry but the negotiations can't be interrupted once they start, it's the rules."
Gabrielle blew out a frustrated breath. "But, can't you make an exception this time?"
"I thought I saw you come in here."
Both women turned as Perdikas entered the building. "Damn, you're a hard woman to find these days."
The blonde tried to hide her annoyance. "But I need to see the Conqueror."
The clerk stood up. "I'm sorry but I just can't do it."
Perdikas placed his hand on Gabrielle's arm. "Come on, Gabrielle, you can see the Conqueror later, okay?"
The blonde looked from the young man to the clerk then finally nodded. "Alright, let's go."
They walked outside to a warm spring afternoon. The agora was especially crowded, so they proceeded northward towards the Poikile.
"What would like to do, Gabs?"
Gabrielle stopped. "Would you do me a favor, Perdikas?"
"Anything, you know that."
"Stop calling me 'Gabs', okay? Didn't you hate it when I called you 'Perdy'?"
The young man cringed. "Yeah, I did. Sorry, old habits, you know?"
Gabrielle took hold of his hand then continued down the street. "What would you like to do?"
Perdikas rubbed his chin. "Have you been to the gymnasion?"
"No, not yet."
"Care to go for a swim?"
Gabrielle's eyes lit up. "Let's go."
The Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, at the southern end of the acropolis, was built to celebrate the cult of Dionysus when it moved from Eleutherae to Athens, about four hundred years before the reign of Xena Akolastos. Grand dramatic contests were held there during the festival of the Great Dionysia, celebrating the ancient rites.
The Empire also celebrated the arrival of spring each year by dedicating its theatre season to the goddess Demeter, and hosted both comedies and tragedies. The area consisted of a permanent round stage surrounded by a semi-circular series of stone seats that rose up on the southern hill of the acropolis at three levels. The Temenos of Dionysus, the sacred building the housed the statue of the god, was at its southeastern end. Directly west of the theatre stood the Stoa of Eumenes. It stretched out for about one hundred twenty yards along the southern face of the acropolis and was connected to the Panathenaic Way by a path on its western end. The Sanctuary of Asclepius, Apollo's son, was on its northeastern border.
The Conqueror arrived at the path leading to the Stoa of Eumenes with her entourage in tow. She dismounted from her horse, along with her four guards, and handed the reins to a porter who led the horse away. Her guests for the night, General Eteokles and his wife Penthesileia, and Admiral Isokrates, all exited from a carriage and talked among themselves as they waited for Captain Palaimon to arrive.
After a short while he came riding up on his horse and dismounted near the Conqueror. "I'm sorry, my Lord, but I couldn't find her anywhere."
Xena frowned. "Did you check her rooms?"
"Yes, my Lord, and the agora-everywhere. I don't understand why I couldn't find her."
"Well, we don't want to be late, let's go."
The Captain handed his horse over to a porter and walked beside the Conqueror as the entourage entered the Stoa of Eumenes. The Conqueror's guests and the four guards followed them. Most theatregoers walked through the stoa, instead of the small path next to it, on the way to the theatre to buy wine and foodstuffs to take with them and eat before the performances. The Conqueror and her guests entered the colonnaded building and were immediately assaulted by the aromas of cooking meats, breads, and vegetables.
Xena chuckled when she heard Palaimon's stomach growl. "Are you hungry, Captain?"
"Well, maybe just a little."
Penthesileia put an arm around her husband's waist. "What shall we get tonight, my husband?"
Eteokles smiled at her. "Anything you want."
Isokrates was already sampling s skewer of fish and vegetables. "How about some of these?"
The dark warrior ate a sample then nodded. "An excellent choice, Admiral. Merchant, we'll take the fish skewers, bread, and an amphora of your best wine." She wiped her hands on a towel. "Captain."
Palaimon pulled out his purse and paid for the goods. "Hey, you over there?"
A boy, who was sitting on a stool behind the merchant, stood up. "Yes, sir?"
"How about you help out with the wine."
The boy lifted the amphora and placed it on a small cart. He strapped it down with some leather straps. "Ready, sir."
"Good, let's go."
All followed the Conqueror as she led the way down the long stoa. After a few moments she slowed a bit and walked beside her Captain. "Any news about the page, Palaimon?"
The Captain lowered his voice. "Yes, my Lord. Her father is Lysias Demosthenes."
"Why am I not surprised?"
"Do you know him personally, my Lord?"
"Only by reputation. He's known as quite a paramour-of both women and men."
"He's that 'Luscious Lysias'?"
Xena chuckled. "I hear he's got a lot of other nicknames. It's quite a clever disguise, don't you think? He's a traitor who hides in plain sight by having a lot of well-known, public affairs. He draws a lot attention to himself as a cad, yet he's secretly a collaborator among us."
"You'll never guess who his sister is, my Lord?"
The dark warrior smiled. "Governor Alkyone of Miletus, right?"
"How long have you known, Xena?"
"I just now made the connection. In the morning, Palaimon, after you've met Agathyros, I want you to go to the Strategeion and arrange to have Miletus and Rhodes summoned to Athens at once. It's time to snare in our suspects."
"Yes, Lord Xena."
"You'll find out." Xena slowed her pace again until she was beside Eteokles. "I have a question, General."
The General let go of his wife's hand. "Yes, my Lord?"
"Of all your Lieutenants, who do you trust the most?"
"Who do I trust the most, or who is the most competent, my Lord?"
"Periklymenos, my Lord."
"Have him report to me in the morning at the palace, General, after mealtime."
"Yes, Lord Xena."
A trumpet blast announced to all that the Conqueror had arrived at the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus. When Xena entered the theatre everyone stopped what they were doing and stood. The dark warrior walked up the stairs to her reserved section of seats, in the middle of the theatre, and waited for her guests to follow. Palaimon retrieved the amphora of wine and carried it up to the Conqueror's seats.
The Captain poured a cup for everyone then finally handed Xena her chalice. "For the blessing, my Lord."
"Thank you, Palaimon." The Conqueror lifted her chalice and turned to all assembled. "Spring is here and once again Demeter has blessed us. We ask you, holy Demeter, to sanctify us again this year with a fruitful harvest and your many blessings. To Demeter!"
All in the theatre cheered when Xena drank from her chalice and they followed with their own cheers and salutes to the goddess. All were expecting it, so no one was surprised when the goddess appeared on the stage along with her daughter, Persephone.
The Conqueror bowed deeply at the waist. "Blessed Demeter and Honored Persephone, welcome."
Demeter held up her own chalice. "To you, Conqueror, for your continued tribute to me. I drink to you!"
The crowd cheered again when both goddesses' drank to the dark warrior. Palaimon watched as Xena basked in the honor the people bestowed on her. When the crowd quieted the goddess' disappeared for only a moment then reappeared at their usual seats in the front row of the theatre, they were immediately attended to by pages.
Penthesileia opened the basket and began to distribute their meal. When the Conqueror sat she handed her a plate. "My Conqueror."
Xena took the food offered and smiled. "Thanks, Penthesileia. How long until the performance begins?"
Palaimon sat next to the Conqueror. "Not for awhile, we have plenty of time, my Lord."
Xena settled into her chair then turned to accept more wine from the Captain. When she did she spotted something out of the corner of eye, at stage level, that caught her attention. She looked down and saw the Naurachos Laodameia with?
Only the Captain heard the strained whisper from the dark warrior. He looked down and saw Gabrielle enter with the admiral at one of the entrances at stage level. Several people who were near the entrance seemed surprised as well. People who went through the official process of censorship usually didn't show their faces in public the same day, and especially not at an event such as this. His eyes went wide when he saw Laodameia walk up to Demeter and introduce the blonde to her.
Xena's fists clenched as she slowly rose to her feet. A myriad of emotions rose up for dominion in the dark woman as she watched Gabrielle with the admiral-anger, jealousy, disbelief, disgust-all warred within the warrior as her heart beat double time within her, causing a deep inhalation that froze her to the spot.
"No, Xena...no?" The Captain desperately whispered for his lord to sit down. His pleadings fell on deaf ears.
Eteokles and the rest of the Conqueror's party looked up when the dark warrior rose to her feet. In confusion, they stood as well, discarding their plates on their seats. Several people, who where sitting near, stood out of respect to the Conqueror, even though they didn't know what was going on. It didn't take long for the whole theatre to rise and stand along with the dark warrior.
Misinterpreting Xena's move, Demeter turned in the direction of the Conqueror and raised her chalice again. The theatre, once again, cheered and lifted their own glasses in another salute to the dark women.
Gabrielle looked up and saw the gaze directed towards her and the admiral. But Xena was too far away for an easy interpretation. "What's going on, Laodameia?"
The admiral quickly covered up a smirk. "Oh, nothing; the Conqueror's only acknowledging our presence."
The blonde woman frowned. "Are you sure?"
The Naurachos Laodameia smiled down at the blonde. "Sure. Why don't we sit down?"
The Captain watched as the admiral led the blonde to her reserved seats. When they were seated porters brought them some wine. He knew that the Conqueror could have easily called the Admiral out for her act of impropriety, but in doing so she would have had to implicate Gabrielle as well. He realized Xena would never do such a thing to the young woman.
Palaimon touched Xena's arm. "My Conqueror, we need to sit down."
Xena's head whirled in his direction and her eyes locked with the Captains. Her emotions were still raw and too near the surface, but she held Palaimon's stare and his presence calmed her somewhat. She saw the concern in her Captain's eyes and her features relaxed to some extent. "Thank you, Palaimon."
The rest of the theatre sat when Xena once again was seated. Penthesileia briefly glanced at her husband before returning the dark woman's meal to her. The Conqueror accepted it without word and an uneasy silence ensued while they began their meal.
Palaimon watched Xena closely, somewhat nervous that the dark warrior might do something to upset the evening's revels. He was angry with the Admiral as well, but knew there would be another time to deal with her treachery later.
After a short while another trumpet blast, albeit a more subdued one, directed the people's attention to the stage. A lone figure, dressed in the robes of an aristocrat, slowly walked to the front of the stage and bowed.
"What, O Athens, does precede the mercy of the gods?"
There was a long pause, and then a chorus offstage answered his somewhat rhetorical question. "The righteousness of the Furies!"
The man nodded his approval at the answer. "And what defined their justice?"
"Sweet vengeance whether delivered by god or man, O Great Athenians. The Furies gave us retribution for three major sins. What are they?" He paused, and then called over his shoulder. "Our audience doesn't know."
Laughter could be heard offstage before the man raised his hand and it ceased. "Blasphemy!" The chorus cheered. "Deceitfulness to guests!" More cheers from offstage. "Spilling your kinsmen's blood!" A riotous laughter.
The cheering stopped when the man raised both of his arms. "These sins are an affront to our noble society, my friends, and we will see them in all their wretched glory tonight and all season long. Let the drama begin!"
The oil lamps that were scattered along the sides of the theatre were extinguished and then a solitary lamp lit up the top of a platform, on the stage, on which a Watchman stood. He stood up from the mattress he was sitting on and, facing the façade of a palace, with statues of Zeus, Apollo, and Hermes in front of it, began to speak.
"'O gods! grant me release from this long weary watch.
Release, O gods, Twelve full moons now, night after night
Dog-like I lie here, keeping guard from this high roof
On Atreus' palace. The nightly conference of stars,
Resplendent rulers, bringing heat and cold in turn,
Studding the sky with beauty-I know them all, and watch
Setting and rising; but the one light I long to see
Is a new star, the promised sign, and beacon-flare
To speak from Troy and utter one word, victory'? "
Xena sat back in her chair and let her mind wander, not really interested in the festivities for the night. Her glance kept returning to the seats far below her, to watch Gabrielle. She knew that her Captain was watching her, making sure nothing else happened, but that did not concern her, her interest in the play was dead, and she just wanted to leave.
O gods, grant me release from this long weary watch?
The Conqueror felt those words resonate deep within her.
Is this all that my life really is, a long watch, looking-seeking for-something startlingly elusive?
She continued to watch the play before her, not really hearing the words, only feeling the great tide of emptiness settle within her. After a short period, Xena turned to the Captain and whispered in his ear. "I'm going, please don't follow."
The Conqueror rose slowly from her seat and ducked her head as she made her way down the stairs, not wanting to draw attention to herself. She needn't have worried. All eyes were riveted to the stage, and the unfolding drama. All except for a small blonde, who kept glancing over her shoulder to the middle of the theatre. She felt a growing uneasiness.
The Stoa of Eumenes was already empty as she made he way down the long corridor. Only the occasional guard passed her on this journey, and they only acknowledged her presence by the occasion nod. When she reached the end of the building she saw the porters waiting outside with the horses and carriages, waiting for the performance to be over. A surprised guard handed her the reins to her horse and she rode off without a word to anyone.
Xena considered taking a prostitute, but the thought of it left her feeling hollow. It was once enough-casual, indiscriminate sex-but not now. The Empire-it was once enough, as well, but not now.
How many nights have I rested in complete contentment, knowing that the land was at ease because I was? How many nights have I relaxed in my bed, after a glass of wine with my Captain, knowing-really knowing-that there was nothing more I needed? Me and the land-the people-we are one?
There were, perhaps, hundreds of those nights. When all she needed was the companionship of a good friend, the taste of good wine, and the knowledge that her people were free to live their lives. In less than a week her life had been completely turned around-by a compassionate smile, a gentle disposition, and verdant eyes that sparkled with lovely, good humor. If the past few days were evidence of anything, it was just how empty her life really was.
A few days, and I feel like I'll never be happy again?
A few days?
That's all the time it took for Xena Akolastos, the Conqueror, to fall in love.