Disclaimer & Notices

Copyright: I do not own the Xena concept and certain characters but the plot is all mine.

Violence: There is violence.

Subtext: Yes, this where subtext is maintext.

Summary: The sequel to A Stranger in my Family andA Strange Interlude: I Had a Strange Dream. The Conqueror's dreams about her time in Chin, Japa, and India suddenly play an important role in freeing a heroic warrior's locked soul. Meanwhile the realm wages deeper into war against the Britanni, but Gabrielle stumbles across information that the rebellion may be a diversion for something far more evil. Time becomes increasingly precious though, and the Conqueror must find the answers before everything is undone.

Website: www . redhope . net

Started: June 25, 2007

Series 8: I, Stranger – Story #4

The Stranger of My Heart

by Red Hope

Chapter 5 – The Phoenix Queen

The bard continued to shove her few belongings into the leather pack. She had an annoyed look on her face, but she continued to get ready to go to Artemisia. She picked up two scrolls and roughly rammed them. Then surprisingly her wrist was gently gripped.

"What is it?" the warrior carefully tried.

Gabrielle sighed softly and straightened up. She faced the tall warrior and easily read the concern in those blue eyes. "I just don't like leaving you here on your own."

Xena relinquished her hold then let out a soft sigh. "I'll be fine."

"You're in an alternate world," the former rebel leader debated. "You don't know how different things are here."

"I'm getting a handle on it." Xena tilted her head then reminded, "Besides, if you don't go then people will suspect something is up."

"They'll suspect more if they catch wind that you're really not the Conqueror."

The Warrior Princess lifted her hand and gently touched a soft cheek. "You're right that I don't know all the ins and outs, but I'll be okay." She tried a smile in hopes it'd settle the bard. "It'll go quickly, and you'll be back here soon enough."

Gabrielle couldn't argue that point. She'd already made Ephiny promise her that the ceremony wouldn't take long. She slightly dropped her shoulders in defeat. "Just promise me you'll send word if something goes wrong."

"I will," the warrior agreed. "Now come on." She moved away and continued to help Gabrielle get ready for the journey.

The Amazon Queen finished packing with the warrior's help. She then collected her staff and headed out of the bedchambers with the warrior at her side. She remained fairly quiet because she was thinking about the sudden turn arounds. She really hoped her lover was doing okay with her counterpart. This had been easier last time when it was Janice and Melinda. Now the switches seemed to affect her more personally.

They came outside of the fortress and onto the grounds. Gabrielle spotted Ephiny coming out of the stables with the other Amazons and horses. She handed off her pack to Ephiny, who promptly tied it to her saddlebags. Gabrielle then turned to the warrior and curiously peered up at her.

Xena fell into her role as the ruler. She stepped closer to Gabrielle, and she kept a passive expression. "Be careful," she softly ordered.

"I will," the bard promised.

Xena glanced at the Amazons, who were mounting their horses. She focused back on the petite blond. "Send word if you run late."

Gabrielle nodded, and it was obvious she didn't want to leave.

Xena hoped she could ebb the bard's fears. She leaned down and placed a gentle kiss to her right cheek. "I'll see you soon," she murmured then straightened up. "Go on."

Gabrielle was surprised by the gesture, and she sadly smiled. She had no words now, and she went to Ephiny.

The regent held down her hand then hefted the queen into the saddle behind her. She sensed Gabrielle's one arm around her waist in a comfortable manner. She then called orders for everybody to leave the fortress through the gates.

Xena stood rooted. She observed them going and just before Gabrielle disappeared out of the gates, Gabrielle gave a quick wave to her. Xena held up her hand briefly then finally went back into the fortress once they were out of sight.

Ephiny shifted in the saddle slightly, but she became situated. She glanced at the bard's staff and offered, "I can tie that, Gabrielle."

"Once we get out of the city," the queen replied. She was concerned about the spies that were nestled about the city. She hoped she was only overreacting.

Ephiny nodded and focused back on the ride through the street. She kept her horse in the middle of the street and easily moved through the flow of people. She was thankful that the fortress was close to the city's walls. She noted ahead the open gates.

The Amazon party exited the busy city and started down the cobble stone road that led east. Sonata had slightly fallen behind because she was engrossed by the local area. She recalled her younger days when she'd passed through Corinth, and the open fields were littered by crucified, nameless people. Today they were completely gone plus it seemed the fields were now sprouting new vegetation.

Ephiny decided to strike up a conversation with her quiet friend. She already knew something was bothering the bard. "The ceremony will only take a day."

Gabrielle softly sighed because she knew what Ephiny was trying. "I know, Ephiny. I'm just a little edgy lately. I'm sorry."

The regent considered the words then inquired, "It's okay." She carefully mapped out her next words though. "You mentioned there are spies in Corinth. Does it have something to do with the rebellion in Britannia?"

"We think so," the queen replied. "Xena had bee trying hard to capture these spies, but she can't seem to catch them."

Ephiny was slightly surprised. "I always thought the Conqueror was more resourceful than that."

"She is." Gabrielle adjusted the staff in her right hand. She was almost ready to lash it down, but she wanted to wait a bit longer. "She's been pretty frustrated that she can't get them. Everytime she's close to finding them, they just disappear. It's a mystery."

"Well if that's going on then I can't believe she let you leave the city."

Gabrielle twisted in the saddle and finally tied her staff tightly against the sadllebags. She spoke while she made the knot. "She's careful, but she also doesn't want either of us to be paranoid. Besides..." She turned back in the saddle once she finished with the staff. "She trusts you to watch after me... especially after you watched over her so well in the cell hut."

Ephiny chuckled and shook her head. "I didn't do the best job." She smirked then teased, "I kept letting you into the cell."

The Amazon Queen laughed and patted her friend's side. "I'm always an exception to the rule."

The bemused regent gave a deep sigh and shook from a silent laugh. She hoped the talk helped her friend settle down some. She took it as a good sign that the bard tied her staff down.

Sonata caught up to the group, and she slowed once she was by Ephiny and Gabrielle. She casually smiled at the queen and nonchalantly asked, "So do you think the Conqueror will miss you?" Her smile shifted into a devilish grin.

Gabrielle blinked then laughed at Sonata's bold question. "It's hard to say with the Conqueror."

Sonata nudged her horse closer to Ephiny's horse. She arched an eyebrow and a low pitch came over her voice. "From what I've heard in the past," she suggestively quipped, "I bet she will."

The queen couldn't help the faint blush that colored her cheeks.

Sonata evilly chuckled at her friend's blush. "My queen, that color does suit your cheeks."

"Sssonata," the bard hissed.

Sonata thoroughly enjoyed herself, but she went serious. "I'm glad you decided to come with us. We have a lot of catching up to do."

Gabrielle had a silly smile. "We do," she softly agreed.

Sonata didn't press anything. She went quiet and enjoyed the ride on the road.

Now that a silence carried, Gabrielle thought about the warrior, who she left back in Corinth. She truly hoped Xena could handle the situation by herself. She feared somehow Xena would slip up and be caught yet not many people would question her anyway since she was seen as the Conqueror. Still it was no absolute comfort. She wondered what Xena was doing now.

Xena, the Warrior Princess, lifted her head from her scrollwork when there were several knocks at the office door. She was relieved that somebody was interrupting her mundane work. She couldn't imagine how the real Conqueror managed to do this day in and day out.

"Come in," Xena loudly ordered. She lowered her eyes but carefully listened to the footfall that only came in three steps.

"My liege, the gentlemen that you requested here have arrived."

"Send them in, Galen," the warrior commanded. She finished reading over the scroll while the office filled with the din of boots moving across the stone floor. Then the door closed, but Xena kept reading. She heard a throat clear, which meant somebody was trying to get her attention. Xena ignored it though and finished her work first.

"Conqueror," called a male voice.

Xena held up her hand for silence. She was almost done so she removed her quill from the inkwell. She then signed the bottom of the scroll to confirm she'd read it and agreed. She returned the quill to its little holder on the side of the inkwell. She then lifted her head and counted the six men in the office.

Palaemon had spoken earlier, but he stiffened at the sight of the ruler's expression.

Xena slowly stood up from her chair then rounded the desk. She approached the silent men, and she only recognized two of them. They were the two that she trusted the most. She focused back on Palaemon and commented, "Thank you."

Palaemon slightly inclined his head. He held out his hand to the man next to him. "We are the six guards remaining from the former rebel faction. This is Joxer."

The warrior worked very hard to hold back her smile. Gods how she missed Joxer after what'd happened in her world. She could tell this Joxer was far different though, and he actually reminded Xena of the Joxer in the misconstrued world that Julius Caesar had made by changing the Fates' loom. She set her thoughts aside for now.

"This is Flavian." Palaemon continued down the row of people. "Christos." He came to the fifth person. "Damon."

Damon nodded at the ruler.

Xena nodded back, and then she shifted to the last person. She clearly stiffened.

"And this is Fl-"

"Flora," the warrior finished.

"Hello, Xena," Flora smugly greeted.

Well, make that five men and one woman, Xena mentally corrected.

Palaemon blinked and looked between Flora and the Conqueror. He already realized they had some history that he wasn't aware of prior.

"It's been a long time, Xena," Flora mentioned. She folded her arms over her chest.

Xena hastily became stoic so she didn't seem too caught off guard. "Yes, it has been." She mentally wandered back to childhood memories about Flora, who was a kid sister to her in Amphipolis. She debated whether that was the same history for the Conqueror and Flora. She suspected so because Aphrodite had said her past and the Conqueror's were quite parallel.

"So you were a guard for the rebel faction?" the warrior prompted.

Flora tilted her head and folded her arms. "I joined because I wanted to end you." She shook her head and the bitterness showed on her face. "You were right so long ago when you said the times change people."

Xena felt deja-vu strike her. She then murmured, "And people change the times." She understood that Flora most likely wanted to be one of the people that changed the times. "So why are you here now?"

"I swore to protect Gabrielle and Cyrene," Flora explained, "I see my job hasn't quite finished."

The Warrior Princess placed her hands on her hips. "No, it hasn't," she agreed after a bit of silence. "There's a new threat now." She hesitated but added, "Perhaps we can put our differences aside for their sake...?"

"That's why I'm here," Flora explained.

Xena nodded, turned, and took a few steps away. She faced the six volunteers and composed her words. "I asked Palaemon to bring me the six best guards from the former faction." She watched their faces and reactions carefully. "I chose you six because I know your allegiance will not rest with me first and foremost but with the people."

"What is it that you want us to do?" Joxer brought up.

Xena had a faint grin that twitched at the corner of her lips. She held it back. "Many of you have heard of the krypteia that were once in Sparta...?" After everybody nodded, she continued to talk about her plans. "Already there are krypteia in my realm, however, they're focused on spying on external threats more than internal." She folded her arms and continued to talk. "With this rebellion in Britannia, I've come to realize the need for not only a new type of krypteia but a new breed of elite guards."

"Similar to Persia's Immortals?" Palaemon suggested.

The Warrior Princess revealed a grin. "Yes, quite similar." She approached the group. "Imperial guards that not only guard the imperials but also the people."

"How is that possible?" Damon spoke up. "What if there is rebellion and the imperials are threatened? How are we to protect both parties?"

"You must decide," Xena explained, "which side is serving the greater good."

"It's not always so clear cut," Damon refuted.

"No, it is not." The warrior was quiet and studied the former guards. "However if such a serious rebellion were to occur, and the imperials fall then the people will need new guidance. I will expect these new elite guards to do such so that chaos doesn't reign instead."

"We are only six," Joxer pointed out.

Xena nodded. "And that's a fine start. The process to add new guards has to be selective."

"Are we to do internal spying?" Christos inquired.

"I would suggest so," the warrior replied. "You must know about all threats." She paused then made her choice to reveal the information more formally. "Currently, there are spies in Corinth that are far more dangerous than normal. I fear they may target somebody from my family... namely Gabrielle or Cyrene."

The six guards exchanged glances of worry.

"This would be your first test... to capture these ghost where I have failed." Xena placed her hands behind her back.

"If you couldn't catch them," Flavian argued, "how are we to do it?"

Xena grinned and shrugged. "You have different resources than I do. I also see different information than you do because I am who I am. You can move among the people where I cannot."

"Our priority will be protecting Gabrielle and Cyrene," Flora stated.

Xena nodded as she hoped it would be. She now walked in front of each of the guards and decided on an exact title for them. She came to Palaemon's side and stopped. She stared down at the line of guards then finally declared, "The Wolves." She revealed a dark grin. "You will be nicknamed the Wolves."

Flora slightly darkened at the title.

"To loyally guard the sheep," the warrior explained, "and to kill the ones that threaten order in the realm." She turned her head to Joxer, who was next to her. "You will be the leader."

Joxer slightly widened his eyes.

"The White Wolf," Xena explained. "You're vow is to the imperials." She walked down the line then faced Flora. "You will be the second leader... the Black Wolf. You will be for the people." She then strolled away slowly and spoke too. "I and only my tetrarchès, Iolaus, and Gabrielle will know of your names and positions. You will report to him or Gabrielle if I am ever indisposed."

Flora shifted her hand to rest on her empty sheath. She'd had to hand over her sword before she entered the fortress grounds. "Are we following orders or do we freely do as we please?"

"It's a combination really." Xena kept her back to them and considered her next words. "You are to answer to me, Iolaus, or Gabrielle." She turned and faced them. "However if for some reason I return to the tyranny then I shall hope you know what to do."

"I suggest we come up with a hand scroll for different courses of action for particular situations," Flora suggested.

"I leave that to you and Joxer," Xena agreed. "I'd like to look it over and have Gabrielle and Iolaus do the same." She came back to the new guards. "Then do I have your word and honor to form this new elite guard?"

Palaemon didn't hesitate. "Yes, Conqueror."

The other four men repeated the same remark. Then it came down to Flora's agreement, and she stayed quiet but eyed the ruler.

Xena came over to Flora. She softly mentioned, "I need you on this more than anything else, Flora."

Flora suspiciously peered up at the Conqueror. She kept her reply low. "I'm not doing this for you."

"I don't want you to."

Flora raised an eyebrow like Xena would have done. She'd actually learned the trick from her childhood friend. "Alright, I'll do this. But don't think this settles anything between us."

The warrior nodded, then she moved away. "You six should get started then. There is much to be done." She went behind her desk and stood by her chair. "Go see Iolaus first. He'll update you on what we already know about these spies in the city."

The six guards, now nicknamed the Wolves, filed out of the office one by one. Flora was the last, and she briefly glanced at the Conqueror. She said nothing though and finally disappeared out of the door.

Xena, the Warrior Princess, strolled over to the tall, open window that gazed out over the city. She stood in front of it and first studied the foot soldiers that marched in and out of the gates. She could make out their voices, yet she ignored it and lifted her eyes up. She watched the city and the people that wandered through the streets. She considered how many countless hours Xena, the Conqueror, had spent in front of this window. Probably too many in the warrior's opinion.

Gradually Xena began to taken in her entire problem that laid ahead of her. She was, without a doubt, in a serious bind if her soulmate and the Conqueror couldn't work together. She would refuse to return to her world if it meant trapping the souls of Higuchi, again. If her lover couldn't fix what's gone wrong, then she would have to stay here and become the Conqueror. But would the real Conqueror be willing to stay in her world to continue her legacy as the Warrior Princess? Could it be possible for the Conqueror to go from an impressive, feared ruler to a famous, heroic warrior? Xena had absolutely no answer and only a tight knot in her stomach.

"Warrior babe, you're giving me a headache," Aphrodite spoke up. She suddenly poofed up with pink sparkles all around her.

Xena didn't say anything. She just kept staring out of the window.

Aphrodite sighed and approached Xena's side. She observed the warrior's saddened profile, and she felt her heart ache. "Xena, you won't be trapped here."

The warrior bit her lower lip for a moment then whispered, "I already am."

The goddess had sinking shoulders. "Gabs is working on it. Trust me."

The warrior lowered her head some, and she quietly replied, "What if you're sending them on a wild goose chase?" She turned her head to Aphrodite. "Most likely there is nothing Gabrielle and the Conqueror can do. But instead they're going to risk their lives... and Gabrielle will face serious danger."

"Like you so would do the same thing, Xena."

"That's not the same," Xena snapped. She turned to the goddess. "Because of you Gabrielle will blindly charge into something she may not be able to fix."

"Woohooo!" Aphrodite held up her hands. "First, don't bite my head off, warrior babe." She dropped her hands. "Second, have a little more faith in Gabrielle." Then she pointed at the warrior. "And third, like get an attitude adjustment. This is so not cool because I'm just trying to help."

Xena stepped closer and threatened, "Everything was fine before you messed this up."

"What is it with you two? Are you and Gabs PMSing or somethin'?" Aphrodite snapped back for once. "Gabrielle gave me the same grief." She tossed her hands up in the air and walked away. "Like you try to help out your friends, and it so blows up in your face." She twirled around and glared at the Warrior Princess. "You call us gods petty, but you mortals are like so ungrateful." She lifted her hand over her head and a few pink sprinkles started to fall. "Like see if I ever help you out."

"Aphrodite," Xena fought. "Wait." She sighed once Aphrodite lowered her hand to her side again. "I'm sorry."

The Goddess of Love put her hands on her hips and stared coldly at the warrior. "As if that helps."

The warrior neared the goddess, and she did feel bad. "I am sorry. I just..." She glanced away but then back at the goddess. "I'm worried, Aphrodite." She clenched her jaw some then loosened. "For once... I'm... I'm actually scared."

Aphrodite dropped her hands from her hips. She was stunned by the admission from the brave warrior. She lost her agitated manner and came to Xena. "I can't imagine why."

"I'm scared for Gabrielle," Xena admitted. "She's doing this alone."

The goddess raised an eyebrow and had a doubtful look. "Like that's why the Conqueror is there."

"And she has no attachment to Gabrielle. There's no stakes for her." Xena shook her head. "She can still come back here no matter what the results are." She watched Aphrodite's changing expression. "Nor does she understand Gabrielle."

"And I don't think you quite do either," the goddess fought. "You don't have any faith in her to handle the mission."

"It's too personal for her," Xena argued.

Aphrodite huffed and reminded, "As if it wasn't so personal for you, warrior babe. And you screwed up."

"I did not screw up," the warrior snarled.

The goddess held up her hands. "My facts say you did." She dropped her hands and enjoyed Xena's scowl. "Unlike some babes, I so did my homework." She crossed her arms and explained, "The katana is evil, and it's Lord Yodoshi's source of power." She frowned and concluded, "You didn't kill him... you made him stronger."

Xena had no reason to doubt Aphrodite. She was mad, and it clearly showed.

Aphrodite's earlier smug look faded away. "Akemi misled you, Xena." She started to frown again. "She used her sweet, innocent act and sob story to win you over."

Xena shook her head and brushed past the goddess. She didn't fully believe it.

The Goddess of Love turned around and argued, "The Conqueror had the same experience as you, but because of Lao Ma she was able to catch it sooner."

The warrior was back at the desk, but she gripped the edges of it and leaned forward. She kept her back to the goddess.

Aphrodite knew what she was telling the warrior was hard, yet it had to be done. She carefully neared Xena and softly explained. "And it's not just about Lord Yodoshi and Akemi. Your chakram has altered the qi."

The Warrior Princess lifted her head and looked over her shoulder. "What does my chakram have to do with the qi?"

"Like everything!" Aphrodite stood next to Xena again. "The two chakrams are like... they like monitor the qi, but after you combined them it's like screwed everything up." She sighed and touched her forehead. "Gabs has to separate them before the qi gets out of control."

"It's impossible to do," the warrior murmured.

"Actually Eve found out that there is a way to separate them."

Xena furrowed her eyebrows and straightened up. "How can they be separated?"

"Like I'm not totally sure, but Eve figured out that Gabs is the only one that can do it... just because she's your soulmate. How totally rad is that?" Aphrodite put her hands back on her hips. "And like Eve thinks that the chakrams have something to do with killing Lord Yodoshi. That's how the Conqueror killed him."

The warrior faintly shook her head and lowered it. She stared at the scrolls strewed across the desk. She realized that while her partner and the Conqueror worked out the details, she would have to sit here and wait it out. She could do nothing but listen to reports from Aphrodite.

The goddess shifted closer and gingerly touched Xena's padded shoulder. "Gabrielle can handle it, Xena."

The warrior shut her eyes and breathed deeply. "I've spent six years of my life with Gabrielle... doing what we do." She swallowed and opened her eyes. "Now I'm expected to wait around to hear how it works out. This isn't exactly what I do, Aphrodite."

Aphrodite sadly sighed and gently promised, "It'll work out, Xena. Like Gabrielle is the best next to you. You've trained her so well over the years."

Xena lifted her head and stared at the wall behind the desk. "She is a warrior now," Xena agreed. "But I will never stop worrying about her."

Aphrodite sadly smiled because she knew it was Xena's way of saying how much Xena loved her soulmate. "I'm keeping an eye on her."

"I know," Xena murmured. She lifted off the desk, but her eyes wandered over the desk. She thought about her position here and what she needed to do to keep up her image as the Conqueror. She then considered the bard, who was a younger yet insightful version of her soulmate. "Everything here that is familiar to me makes me feel like a stranger." She turned her head to the goddess. "Even my soulmate is a stranger to me."

The goddess felt her heart drop. And she would have hugged Xena if she thought she wouldn't get tossed across the room. "But she's still Gabrielle either way, Xena. And I can tell she cares about you even though you're not just like the Conqueror."

The warrior had a partial smile. "Yeah, I know." She took a deep breath but then something occurred to her. "You didn't use a vortex to get here...?"

Aphrodite tried to think of what Xena meant, then she laughed and waved her hand. "Oh like I totally have to if I want to come here." She then smiled brightly. "I was just snooping around my counterpart's temples. Like you so won't believe how few she has." She leaned in and mentioned, "There's more temples to Ares in this world than there are to Zeus." She rolled her eyes. "He so doesn't even appreciate 'em anyway."

Xena raised an eyebrow. She shouldn't have put it past Aphrodite to check out the alternate Aphrodite's temples.

"Anyway, I was just scopin' out the competition's temples." The goddess giggled and mentioned, "I'm way ahead of her." She grinned briefly but then seriously mentioned, "I should jet. Like don't get so down, warrior babe."

The Warrior Princess half smiled and promised, "I have enough to keep me busy."

"Totally." Aphrodite stepped back and pointed off to her right. She turned on the portal to go back home.

"Aphrodite?" Xena called over the wind.

The goddess was a few steps closer to it, yet she stopped and turned. She had to toss her hair out of the way first.

The warrior came over and requested, "Tell Gabrielle that I love her."

Aphrodite softened at the sweet gesture. "I will... promise." She winked, turned, and hopped through the dark portal. She then sealed it closed.

Xena went back to the open window and stared out of it. The sun had sunk into the western horizon and was starting its rapid descent. She found herself wondering how Gabrielle, the bard, was making out on her journey to Artemisia. She fully trusted the Amazons to care for the bard. She especially trusted Ephiny, who seemed to be consistent no matter what world.

Just after the rim of the sun sunk below the horizon, the Amazon party made it to former city of Athens that went by the name of Artemisia. There was clatter that rang up the valley from the last candlemark of work in the city. Little Artemisia, as it was nicknamed, had grown extensively over the season and slowly Amazons were migrating from the temporary housing to their permanent residents in the city.

On the outskirts of the city, the phalanxes and legios still resided in their temporary encampment known as a castra stativa. It was obvious that the soldiers had since made the castra stative a slightly more than temporary as the Conqueror ordered their stay to be extended for an entire Helical Rising. Gabrielle could still recall the brief argument with her lover a moon ago about doing such a thing. Gabrielle appreciated Xena's efforts to have Artemisia rebuilt, but she didn't want Xena doing it simply because they were lovers now. The Conqueror had finally won Gabrielle over once she explained to Gabrielle that it was about the realm and the Amazons. The Conqueror was dedicated to helping the Amazon Nation rebuild itself after she'd destroyed so much of it.

"Solari, I'm going to take Gabrielle to the overlook," Ephiny commented.

The second in command nodded at the regent. "I'll get everybody to the village."

"Thanks," the regent called. She clicked her tongue and steered her mare to the overlook for the city.

Gabrielle shifted in the saddle some. She realized she'd be extremely sore tonight. She hadn't ridden in some time, and she would pay for it later. "How are things looking?"

"I think you'll be satisfied," Ephiny replied. She freed a hand from the reins and rested it on her right knee. "I do have a small surprise for you."

"Really?" The queen was clearly intrigued. "What is it?"

The Amazon laughed. "It wouldn't be a surprise if I told you."

"You know I hate waiting," Gabrielle teased.

"That's why I said that." Ephiny slightly jumped when her friend smacked her side roughly. "Ow." She rubbed her side for extra effect.

"Please." Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. "If my Amazons are that easily hurt then we have a problem."

Ephiny grinned, but she slowed her horse once they came to the overlook. She slightly turned her mare to the right so her and Gabrielle could look off their shoulders. "Notice anything?"

Queen Gabrielle instantly lit up. "My gods." She suddenly smacked Ephiny hard against her leg. "Why didn't you tell me, Ephiny!"

The regent started to regret it too after her thigh was roughly hit. She rubbed the spot. "It slipped my mind."

The bard rolled her eyes, but she smiled anyway. "When did this start?"

"While you were away in Egypt."

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

Ephiny shrugged and casually replied, "I wanted you to see it first."

Gabrielle was silent finally. She just stared in amazement at the new, skeleton structure of the future Temple of Artemis on the Sacred Rock. "You found the old drafts of the original temple in Ephesus?"

"Yes, it took some work though." Ephiny studied the partial structure. "Terreis and Cyane couldn't find it at first, but Cyane luckily dug them up. We almost thought they were lost."

"Is Eupalinos heading it?"

Ephiny smiled at the Conqueror's favorite engineer. "Yes." She cocked her head and mentioned, "He wants to finish it by mid-summer." She furrowed her eyebrows. "He says he has to return to Corinth. There's some new structure that the Conqueror wants to begin and needs him to head the project."

Gabrielle had a twisted expression, but it suddenly hit her. "The Academy," she murmured.

"The what?"

The bard was dumbfounded when she realized she hadn't told Ephiny about the Academy. "I didn't tell you, did I?"

Ephiny twisted in her saddle and scowled the bard. "You don't keep me that up to date anymore."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "As if that's keeping me up to date." She indicated the half built Temple of Artemis.

"I could have swore I told you," the regent teased.

Gabrielle huffed. "Right."

Ephiny tapped her mare's sides and headed back for the village. "By the way, I thought we'd do the Queen Ceremony at the temple."

"Whaaat?" Gabrielle bellowed.

Ephiny smirked. Gods she loved to get Gabrielle's goad anymore. She always wanted payment for having to put up with Gabrielle's rebelious attitude back seasons ago when the Conqueror was under trial at the Nation. Ephiny sure loved getting even, now.

Gabrielle eventually wound up in her hut after a long talk with Ephiny. She learned that her Nation wanted to hold the Queen Ceremony in the unfinished Temple of Artemis. They thought it was most apprioprate because the unfinished temple was a symbol of a rebuilding Nation. And the Amazons believed so deeply in Gabrielle's legacy as the first Phoenix Queen. Gabrielle only gave into the idea once she realized how much it would mean to her Nation. She was hardly superstitious, yet she could tell it would make a difference to the Amazons.

The bard was relieved to find some peace and quiet in her small hut. She started a fire then cleaned up in the washroom so she could get the road grim off. She felt ready to embrace her Nation tonight at dinner despite she wanted to badly disappear into her bed. She instead called on her reserves, picked up her staff, and headed out of the hut. She went to the dining hut and was warmly greeted by countless Amazons, and many she did not know.

At dinner, Gabrielle chatted away with her closest friends in the Amazon Nation. She was glad to hear the true updates about Artemisia because she felt out of the loop. She chastised herself for falling so behind and being too focused on her duties as the Conqueror's polis advisor.

Ephiny tried to insist that it was okay. She realized that Gabrielle had gone through a lot of emtional stress in Egypt and trying to recover her younger sister and niece. Also Ephiny learned, during the ride back to Artemisia, about the rebellion up in Britannia. She'd heard plenty of news about it just from the grape vine, however, she hadn't heard the finer details until she spoke to Gabrielle. She fully understood what had been so heavy on Gabrielle's shoulders lately. Despite her insistance, Ephiny could tell Gabrielle was sitll bothered by her lack of presence within the Nation.

After dinner, Ephiny walked her friend to her hut. She kept the walk slow on purpose and quietly conversed and started to direct her questions to a more personal level. "How are you and the Conqueror?"

Gabrielle sadly smiled at the question. She wasn't sure about telling Ephiny the new dilemnia at hand. "We're doing well."

The regent slipped her hands behind her back. "Are things getting more serious?"

The bard smirked and leaned closer to Ephiny. "You know Xena and I are having sex, Ephiny."

Ephiny laughed then rolled her eyes. "Gabrielle." She shook her head and jested, "And here I thought you were too young for that stuff."

"Funny, funny." Gabrielle laughed with her friend, but she lost her amusement. "The relationship has gotten a bit more serious."

"How serious?" Ephiny tested.

The bard shrugged. "I moved into the fortress."

Ephiny became wide eye. "Into the fortress or into her bedchambers?" She smirked then thoroughly teased, "Or better yet into her bed?" She hissed when a sharp smack came to her bare stomach. "I'm going to be quite bruised by the time you leave."

The queen softly laughed. "Serves you right." She grinned but honestly replied, "It's now 'our' bedchambers."

Ephiny grinned. "So any mushy stuff yet?" She leaned in closer and wiggled her eyebrows. "You know, poetry and the 'I love you's'."

"Oh please." Gabrielle laughed and shook her head a few times. "The Conqueror is not a love sick puppy." She didn't dare expose her lover's seeminyly sprouted romantic side. Gabrielle wanted to keep the rosa to her private enjoyement.

"I bet," Ephiny argued, "if she loosens up she could be quite the romantic."

The bard shrugged and peered up at her friend. "Does it really matter?"

"To you... yes." The regent had a sly grin. "You are a bard."

"And what does that have to do with anything?"

Ephiny chuckled and replied, "You bards have all sorts of romantic notions in your head."

"I'm a bit more realistic than that, Eph." Gabrielle scowled her friend for it. "I have seen the darker aspects of life."

The regent knew that already, but she still believed Gabrielle could be a classic romantic bard. "So how's the sex?"

Gabrielle blinked once then peered up in surprise at her friend. "Ephiny," she hissed.

"Oh come on, it's girl talk," Ephiny egged. "Don't tell me you've been hanging around her that much that you can't girl talk anymore." She leaned closer and teased, "I bet it's damn good. Everybody has heard of the Conqueror's appetite." She then noticed the bright blush that crawled over Gabrielle's face.

The bard cleared her throat then tried to be casual. "I've heard about that too." She nodded her head.

"Uh huh."

Gabrielle sighed because she could tell she wasn't going to get out of this one. "Alright, fine." She held up her hand for a beat. "It's good, Ephiny."

"How good?" the regent teased.

The bard spotted her hut just ahead, which was a relief. She peered up and suddenly smirked. She was more than ready to turn this back on Ephiny. "A lot better than what you're probably getting with Solari."

Ephiny's jaw dropped, and she stopped walking too.

Gabrielle though kept going, and she called back over her shoulder, "Goodnight, Eph." She sashayed the rest of the way and disappeared into her hut. That should teach Ephiny to ever pry again.

The regent snapped her jaw shut. "Well... I've never." She huffed, turned on her boots, and marched off.

Gabrielle had just made out Ephiny's words, which made her chuckle. She happily came into her warm hut, and she first propped her staff near the door. Next she covered the open window with a mat then decided to work on her scrolls that she'd neglected for some time. She tried to stay focused, yet she found her thoughts trailing off. She kept thinking about her lover. Gods why couldn't she just focus for even a candlemark without thinking about Xena?

The bard grew frustrated and rolled up her scroll. She tucked it back in the satchel then climbed to her feet. She decided to just get ready for bed. Soon enough, she was crawling under the cool sheets and tried to get comfortable. She called back on her memories on that night when the Conqueror had snuck into her hut and surprised her. That had been one of Gabrielle's fondest memories because it was like the Conqueror knew Gabrielle needed to see her. It'd also been the start of serious changes to their friendship.

Gabrielle did a lot of tossing and turning in her bed. It took several candlemarks for her to finally fade into some dreamscape. The sleep wasn't exactly restful either. Gabrielle had too many worries on her mind to keep the dreams pleasant. The bard rested until the sun was a candlemark above the eastern horizon. She felt somewhat weary, but a little better than yesterday.

For the following days, Gabrielle spent several long candlemarks with Ephiny. They went over the updates to the city and the future plans. Gabrielle discovered just how hard Ephiny had been managing the projects, and she appreciated that Ephiny was here. Ephiny suspected that the entire Nation could move into the city by the end of the summer to the late fall. The villas were well underway and after building so many, everybody had a fair idea of how to construct them efficiently. Also the Conqueror's engineer had been working out preliminary plans for the port, but it would have to wait about a Helical Rising. There were more important structures to consider like a market, a few barracks, walls, and governmental buildings.

On the fourth day of Gabrielle's stay, she and Ephiny went over the proceedings and customs for the Queen Ceremony, which would be held tomorrow. Gabrielle was dazzled by what the Nation had in mind because she didn't expect it to be that elaborate. Ephiny also gave Gabrielle a thorough tour of the partially constructed temple. Then Ephiny went over the ceremony in better detail because it would be held at the temple.

Gabrielle was exhausted by the time she and Ephiny made the trek back to the village. She mentioned to Ephiny that she was going to just go lay down and skip dinner. Ephiny showed concern, but she let the bard go. She could tell her friend wasn't sleeping well, and she had a lot on her mind. Ephiny wanted to corner her friend and figure out what was wrong, but she just hadn't had the chance. To Ephiny, it seemed strange that anything would be wrong since Gabrielle seemed fairly confident that the Conqueror was dealing with the problems in Corinth fine. There was something else going on that Ephiny didn't know about, yet.

In the morning, Gabrielle awoke to several knocks at her door. She gave a yawn on her walk from the bed to the door. She cracked open the door and found Ephiny's glowing face. She groaned and asked, "Yes?"

The regent smirked and reminded, "Ceremony day, my queen."

"Check back in a candlemark," the queen grumbled.

Ephiny ignored it and pushed the door open. She entered the warm hut and ordered, "Time to get ready."

Gabrielle ran her fingers through her shoulder length hair and played with her long bangs.

The regent toyed with Gabrielle's bangs and mentioned, "You need to trim these before the ceremony."

The bard swatted her friend's hand away. "I'm growing them out." She brushed them aside then walked away.

"Come on, you need to get in your royal attire." Ephiny went over to the desk, pulled out the chair, and plopped into it.

"You're not leaving until I'm dressed huh?" Gabrielle saw Ephiny's smirk, and Gabrielle sighed. She decided she mind as well get prepared. She collected her formal leathers and went into the washroom to clean up and change out of her nightshift.

"How did you sleep?" Ephiny called and there was concern in her words.

"Alright." Gabrielle was working her leather top on correctly. She wasn't use to wearing these leathers that often anymore.

The regent tilted her head and stared at the doorway to the washroom. "I've noticed you've been pretty tired lately." She wasn't getting any response so she added, "Any reason why?"

The bard came back out and was fussing with the right clasp. "Can you get this, Ephiny?"

The regent popped out of the chair and came over to assist. She worked the stubborn shoulder clasp. "So?"

Gabrielle peered up then recalled Ephiny's question. She sighed. "I just have a lot on my mind."

"With the rebellion?" the regent probed.

The bard nibbled on her lip then shrugged. "There's some other things going on too."

The regent walked away and picked up the accessories that matched the outfit. "With your sister and niece?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "No, they seem to be doing well. It was a rough start, but they've adjusted really well." She lifted her hand when Ephiny slipped a gauntlet on her arm.

"Are you and the Conqueror having problems?"

The bard sharply lifted her gaze to her friend. "No, why?"

Ephiny sighed and honestly answered, "You seem rather distracted and off balance. I've just been worried." She readied the right gauntlet.

The bard lifted her right arm and helped Ephiny slip it on properly. "There's some problems... but not between the Conqueror and I."

"Then what is it?" Ephiny tried.

Gabrielle slightly frowned because she could tell there was not getting out of this. She lowered her arm after the gauntlet was snuggly in place. "It's nothing serious, Ephiny."

"Centaur shit." The regent grabbed the bard's shoulders. "I haven't seen you like this since you and the Conqueror were fighting back in the winter and early spring." She searched the bard's eyes then tried, "What's wrong?"

Gabrielle knew she couldn't fight Ephiny's keen perception. She took a deep breath then honestly replied, "The Conqueror is gone."

Ephiny furrowed her eyebrows and oddly stared at Gabrielle. "She was just in..."

"I know." Gabrielle huffed, but she explained, "It's a bit complicated but... that wasn't the Conqueror you saw the other day."

Epiny opened her mouth, but words failed her.

Gabrielle bit her lower lip for a heartbeat. "The Conqueror was switched with an alternate version of herself." She tilted her head then thought back on Janice Covington. "You remember Janice telling us about Xena being a hero?"

Ephiny closed her mouth finally and thought back on Janice's crazy stories. She shook her head and whispered, "They were real?"

"Apparently." Gabrielle laughed but there was no amusement to it. "The Conqueror was switched with this alternate Xena."

"By Artemis... how?" Ephiny was clearly dumbfounded by the events. "When? Why?"

"Like I said, it's complicated." Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest. "This'll sound crazy, but the Goddess of Love switched them."

"Goddess of Love?" Ephiny tried, "As in Aphrodite?"

"Yes, but not the Aphrodite here in our world but from the alternate world."

Ephiny groaned and shook her head. "I shouldn't have asked."

The bard slightly grinned, but she became saddened.

Ephiny saw the look so she tried to press forward in hopes the talk would help. "Why were they switched?"

Gabrielle gave a faint sigh, but she explained the entire ordeal. By the time she'd explained it all and answered Ephiny's questions, she really just wanted to go back to Corinth and see to Xena.

Ephiny ensured Gabrielle that everything would work out okay. She cringed after her words because Gabrielle seemed to light up like a fire and raved about how the rebellion in Britannia required the Conqueror's action, not the Warrior Princess's. Ephiny agreed that some people may find the Warrior Princess suspicious faster because of how she does or doesn't handle the rebellion. Yet Ephiny believed because the Warrior Princess looked exactly like the Conqueror that it would work out.

Gabrielle decided not to argue anymore about it. She and Ephiny needed to make the trek up the Sacred Rock and to the temple. She finished getting ready and collected her staff, but Gabrielle made sure to reattach the bird's head on the top of the staff. Finally ready, Ephiny and Gabrielle left the hut and headed for the city. When they made it to the temple there were hundreds of Amazons already there and preparing for the ceremony.

"Speed it up," Solari hollered at the Amazon, who was racing off. She then turned and greeted Ephiny and Gabrielle. "Good morning."

"Are we almost ready?" Ephiny inquired.

"If we're not then the moon certainly will be." Solari pointed behind the regent.

Ephiny gazed back and saw that the moon was within close proximity to the sun. "How much longer?"

"Give us a quarter of a candlemark," Solari promised.

Ephiny nodded. "Where is the shaman?"

"My queen," greeted a new voice.

The bard turned her head to the right and smiled at the formally dressed shaman. "Yakut." She smiled even more and pulled her friend into a warm hug. "How are you?"

"I'm well." Yakut pulled out of the hug. "How have you been?"

Gabrielle hadn't seen the shaman since her right of caste ceremony up in Queen Terreis's Nation. "I've been well."

"How was your trip to Egypt?" Yakut tilted her head. "I heard you recovered your sister and niece."

"Yes." The bard smiled sadly. "The Conqueror helped get them safely out of Gurkhan's palace."

"I'm glad to hear it."

Gabrielle tilted her head some. She held a note of surprise in her next words. "You came down here? To perform the Queen Ceremony?"

"Of course." Yakut smiled. "I wouldn't miss it." She partially turned and eyed the unfinished temple. "I certainly didn't want to miss being the first shaman or priestess in the Temple of Artemis."

Gabrielle softly laughed and touched her friend's arm. "I suppose not."

"Are you prepared?" Ephiny cut in.

Yakut nodded at the question. "I have been ready for moons for this day." She smiled at the queen. "It will be an honor to declare the first Phoenix Queen in Amazonian history."

The bard sighed and argued, "I'm just another queen."

"Hardly," Yakut debated. She then glimpsed past the Amazons and focused on the clear sky. "We must hurry."

"I'll help you," Solari insisted. She and Yakut parted from Ephiny and Gabrielle to get everything finalized.

"Ephiny?"

"Hmmmm?"

The queen peered up at her friend. "I'm really nervous now."

The regent softly laughed and teased, "I thought it was just a silly ceremony, my queen."

Gabrielle huffed and rolled her eyes. "Tell me again what I need to do."

Ephiny grinned because she hadn't seen Gabrielle this nervous. It surprised her considering Gabrielle now stood in the Conqueror's court twice a moon and had stood up to the tyranny. She and Gabrielle quickly went over the proceedings again and made sure they had it down pat. She felt confident that Gabrielle would do well. Then she noticed Solari was returning.

"We're ready," the second in command insisted.

Ephiny reclined her neck and studied the sun and moon. "We best get started so Yakut isn't rushed." She took Gabrielle's hand and towed her to the front steps of the unfinished temple.

Gabrielle stood beside her regent at the bottom of the steps. She gazed through the erected columns that currently reached to the skies but did not hold up any roof.

Solari rushed past them and bounded up the steps. She entered the temple and called for the music to begin. She then took her position behind the alter. She signaled for the Amazon dancers to begin their traditional dance and song around the temple in a circular motion.

Yakut appeared from her hidden spot, and she pause in front of the moving line of dancers. The line broke and waited for her to pass. In her hands she held a silver candle stick holder, which in turn proudly displayed a lit red candle. She slowly walked down the center of the temple and approached the newly installed stone alter. She went up the three steps behind the alter then stood behind the alter. She was in position.

"That's your cue," Ephiny murmured. She escorted the queen up the flights of steps to the entrance of the temple.

Gabrielle had her arm locked in Ephiny's. She wanted to check her mask over her head, but she held back from doing it. She and Ephiny came to the line of dancers, who broke an opening only wide enough for one person.

Ephiny released the queen and whispered, "You'll do well."

The bard slipped through the opening and came to the center of the temple. She felt the warmth of the sun on her back because of the lack of a roof. She slowly crossed the distance to the alter, and she watched her shadow that followed her across the white marble floor.

Queen Gabrielle now was only a few steps from the alter. She stopped in front of a ring tube that'd been placed on the floor. It contained the main ingredient to make Greek fire.

Yakut said nothing and merely held out her hand to the alter.

Gabrielle bowed her head slightly, but she straightened up. Suddenly the Amazons' singing grew louder and faster. Gabrielle stepped over the ring then sat on the large and long alter. She then laid down on the cold stone surface and positioned her staff vertical against her body. She finally closed her eyes.

The shaman went down each step one by one. She now stood in front of the alter and the queen. She tilted her head back and gazed up at the sun and moon, which were touching edges at sun high. She listened to the singing stop so she inhaled deeply and called, "Artemis, today we celebrate another of your Summer Solstices."

The dancers now stopped moving around the temple. They sung again but at a gentle hum, which echoed off the countless gigantic columns.

Yakut tilted her head back and looked up at the moon, which had just started to creep across the sun and cause a black sliver over the sun. "Your Amazons have been tested through a long and bloody war that lasted for a score. Your Nations were slowly wiped from existence, and your Amazons' blood soaked the lands."

The dancers' hum died, and each Amazon knelt and bowed their head.

"But our faith never faltered and our hopes never died. And you, Artemis, gave us the gift of rebirth." Yakut now raised the burning candle to the moon, which had almost completely covered the sun. "You've given us a Phoenix Queen from the spring!" She saw the shadow that was about to fall over the temple so she knelt down and lowered the candle to the metal ring. She tilted the candle forward until the flame met the Greek fire.

Gabrielle took a deep breath when the sound of fire flared up around her. She could smell the intense fumes, but she knew it was her time. She opened her eyes, removed her staff from her body with her right hand, and she sat up.

All the kneeling Amazons watched their queen climb to her feet on the alter. They dropped their heads back because it was the only way to see the queen's full position along with the almost complete solar eclipse.

The queen lifted her eyes to the solar eclipse above her. She saw that the moon was almost fully over the sun. She breathed deeply, gripped her staff with her right hand tightly, and she suddenly thrust her staff up and towards the solar eclipse. She then gave a powerful yell that became a roar. Suddenly the shadow of the eclipse fell over her, but she did not stop her yell.

Queen Gabrielle was an impressive sight in her Amazon leathers and staff raised at the eclipse. Her newly shaped muscles stood out against her tan. The colorful straw of her mask flowed behind her back and slightly fluttered on the breeze. The ring of flames stretched up tall as the alter. And the few rays of sunlight that exploded around the eclipse mirrored the alter flames.

The Amazons were stunned by the volume their queen's roar reached, but they all had grins. Once the queen's powerful yell faded out, they each began to give their own battle cry. One by one each Amazon stood back up, and they simultaneously unsheathed their swords which caused a ringing of metal. They then mimicked their queen's position by raising their swords to the eclipse, and in unison the Amazons gave battle cries.

Gabrielle observed the moon's creeping motion off of the sun. She kept her staff above her, and she timed her next cry perfectly. Once her Amazons' cries died out, she began her powerful yell again at the finishing eclipse. Now the sunlight grew again and warmed Gabrielle's face. Her roar only died after the moon had moved off the sun.

The dancers sheathed swords and continued the last of the dance. They sung again but louder than last time.

Queen Gabrielle stayed poised on the stone alter, but she'd lowered her staff to her side. She stood proud and statues before her Nation.

Yakut walked around the ring of fire and stood in front of the alter. She still held the candle between her hands, and she slowly walked down the center of the temple towards the entrance. She came to the circle of dancers, who instantly stopped. She stepped through the opening made for her then she passed through the pillars and headed out of the temple.

The dancers now became a marching file of two lines. They proudly filed out of the temple in the two lines.

Gabrielle stood still and observed her Amazons flowing out of the temple. She remained unchanging and silent. Once all the Amazons left the temple, she knew it was her turn. She peered down at the ring of fire below the alter that was very much alive. She counted the beats of her heart and hoped Ephiny was right.

Suddenly the flames seemed to be sucked back into the tube. They were extinguished and smoke gradually twirled upwards around the alter.

The queen didn't climb down. She jumped off the alter and landed neatly on her feet past the ring tube. She paused and straightened up then she walked down through the silent, lonely temple. Her footfall and staff's gentle tapping echoed off the pillars, but she came to the entrance and slipped through the pillars to come outside. Gabrielle stopped at the edge of the top step and smiled at the sea of Amazons that waited for her at the bottom of the temple's steps.

The Nation instantly gave out a cheer at seeing their queen. They yelled and screamed but two words that were clear was "Phoenix Queen".

Queen Gabrielle had a brighter smile at seeing her Nation's acceptance and happiness. She couldn't believe how well she'd been accepted into the Nation because she was an outsider. But it was obvious the Amazons would follow her to Hades and back if she asked it of them. She just prayed such a trial would never be set before her and her Nation.

To be continued.