Standard disclaimer: Except for Xenia, Eudaemon, Lodos, Minos, Athos and Decios, none of the characters, places, etc. in this story are mine, but instead are the property of Universal Studios and Renaissance Pictures. The sole No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story.

Author's note: This fic is one of several bits and pieces I wrote when I was in the middle of my "Destiny" series of fics. At the time, I intended these scraps primarily for background; I didn't really have any intention of posting them, since they didn't seem to fit with the primary story I was trying to tell in the "Destiny" series. However, when I was going back through my older files, I ran across some of these scraps again, and decided they might be worth posting after all. This particular piece is an AU to my (already AU) Destiny series, and describes a timeline in which Conqueror!Xena never met Gabrielle at all, but rose to rule the entire world with Caesar as her slave; it is a rough sketch of their lives together over almost their entire lifespan.

Just a couple further notes: The bits of Chinese in this fic are taken from "Firefly" *blushes*. I apologize in advance for what I'm sure is their horrendous inaccuracy. Also, when I was writing the character of Xenia in this fic, I always pictured her as being played by Morena Baccarin: that should give you an idea of what she looks like. Anyway, without further ado, on with the fic.


"One thing is clear: When historians the world over discuss the abrupt rise of the Empire of Xenopolis, in the year 40 A.X. [after Xena], they agree that one of the most enduring mysteries of the Dark Conqueror's reign revolves around the identity of the man known only as the 'slave with the broken legs.' Who this man is or what he was to the Destroyer of Nations is completely unknown, and even to this day there exists considerable disagreement as to the role he played in the early formation of Xena's empire. Some historians claim that he was no more than a prisoner, a slave or emblem of triumph of one of Xena's earlier campaigns, though if this is the case, then why a ruler with her capacity for cruelty bothered to keep him alive when so many of her earlier conquests were simply killed outright is a question that must be answered. Others, based on obscure references in letters written among Xena's three husbands, have concluded that he was Xena's pleasure slave or 'little whore,' as First Husband Minos is said to have referred to him—although some have argued that this is a mistranslation (see Papphas 2000). While Xena the First's carnal appetites were nearly as legendary as her appetite for conquest—her harem of blonde lovelies was famous across the length and breadth of her empire—it is not known that she tolerated physical imperfection among her women, and it is thus curious that she would do so among her men.

"Perhaps a more persuasive argument can be made for this slave being one of the Daughter of War's closest councilors, as we have records of him being involved with many matters of state in the later years of Xena's life, including the war with Ch'in and the suppression of the rebellion in the western provinces. The claim that the empire would have fallen apart after Xena's death if it were not for his influence is quite a stretch, as it greatly underestimates the considerable talents of Xena's daughter Xenia I and her First Husband Antony. Nevertheless, that this claim could be made at all is a testimony to the controversies this figure has aroused, as is the sensationalistic claim that he, not one of Xena's husbands, was Xenia's father—an assertion more worthy of a melodramatic television show than of a legitimate historian. Indeed, claims from the opposite end of the spectrum have also been made—that this man did not even exist, and was a creation of the admittedly vibrant bardic tradition of the time. However, the hypothesis that this man was a fictional character received a serious blow during the excavation of Xena's Tomb nearly a century ago, when Tlatoani Xenacoatl the Forty-Fourth sought to exhume the bones of this great and terrible woman for transport across the Xenaic Ocean, so that they could be interred under the Temple of the Sun at Tenochtitlan in time for the thirtieth anniversary of her coronation.

"During the exhumation and investigation of Xena's Tomb, a small side-chamber was discovered off the main burial chamber holding Xena's magnificent marble sarcophagus. In this small side-chamber were a number of elaborate grave goods and a gilded wooden coffin which proved to hold the body of an extremely senescent adult male; despite the notorious difficulty of aging adult specimens, it was suggested that this man must have been at least ninety years of age at his death and possibly even older than that—an almost unheard-of lifespan for that time period, comparable to the lifespan suggested for Xena the Conqueror herself. Recent re-examination by the forensic anthropologists at the University of Cuzco demonstrated that his lower legs had been broken at some point in his life and had never been reset. Considerable bony malformations would have caused this man great difficulty walking and been immediately apparent to those around him. Additional deformations in the bones of forearm and clavicle reminiscent of those found in the skeletons of long-term prisoners suggest that this man spent a long period of his life in shackles, which would be consistent with the status of slavery. Taken together, these pieces of forensic evidence clearly suggest that this is the enigmatic figure mentioned above. Additional mysteries include the puzzle of why a slave was buried with such markers of status as grave goods or a gilded coffin, and why he was permitted to be buried within the confines of Xena's Tomb—aside from the Daughter of War herself, his is the only body interred there, and even Xena's three husbands were not granted this honor, though they were given smaller secondary tombs adjacent to Xena's own. One thing is clear: these mysteries will not be solved any time soon, and indeed may never be solved. The carvings on the interior walls of Xena's Tomb, while they tell of many of Xena's great deeds such as the defeat of Callisto the Fiery and the exiling of the Crusader Najara, shed no light on the identity of this man, the 'slave with broken legs.' Not even his name has come down to us through the mists of time…."

--Covington, Janice. 2007. Xena: the Destroyer of Nations in Myth and History. University of New Potedaia Press, New Potedaia, pp. 86-88.

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"But Roman, remember you well

That your own arts are these others:

To govern the nations in power,

To dictate their rule in peace,

To raise up the peoples you conquer

And throw down the proud who resist…."

--Virgil, Aeneid



Caesar had sworn he would hate her forever. He had even meant it when he said it. But things often turn out more complicated than one might think.

During the first few years he did hate her; hated her with a sullen, frustrated hate, smoldering all the longer because he had no way to vent it; a hatred born of the days when she shattered his legs and burned his city to the ground, born of the nights when she summoned him to her bed, to force pleasure on him while she demonstrated all too clearly that nothing he could do could touch her. He lay, chained at the base of her throne, nursing his resentment and swearing silently that one day it would be he who chained her, he who kept her crippled and bound at the base of his own seat of power, savoring the thought of his eventual triumph. He knew it would come. It was his destiny.

So he followed Xena, wherever she went, dragged at her stirrup across the known world with her army. Wherever she went, he went too, included with the rest of Xena's possessions and equipment, chained by the neck to the base of that hideous, dragon-carved monstrosity she had brought back with her from Ch'in: he followed in her baggage train, from Africa to Egypt to Gaul to Britain to India to Ch'in all the way to Jappa, the mighty island at the edge of the world, and then all the way back again. He followed her, her nameless slave, her shadow, spending his days at the base of her throne, his nights, or part of them, wrapped in her furs, in her tent. He was in her entourage when she finally captured and killed Callisto; he knelt by her side when the Crusader was brought before her and sent into exile; he was one of the first to hear when she finally concluded the truce with Lao Ma, the ruler of Ch'in, for she would talk to him sometimes, at night in her furs after she had finished with him, before sending him back out into the cold and the dark. He followed her from triumph to triumph, victory to victory, and somewhere along the way it slowly became clear to him that his own day of triumph would never come: that this was his destiny, right here, these cold iron chains, the hot, hating nights, and that there was nothing else he would have to look forward to, forever.

He began to realize that somewhere on Xena's second or third journey back from India, that much he was sure of, but he could not have said when the hatred began to dim. Time and usage dulled many things, but he had never thought the bright flames of rancor he kept alive within his heart would fade…until they did. Perhaps it was north in the steppes, the night it had been so cold that the horses' breath froze over their nostrils, and Xena had allowed him to spend the entire night within the warmth of her tent…the first night she had allowed him to do so, but not the last. Perhaps it was during the days she had been trapped with a force of only five men while putting down a rebellion, and even her faithful second-in-command Dagnon thought she had been lost; she had come back from that adventure in high spirits, had gone straight to him, and kissed him—laughing when he tried to pull away—and taunted, "Did you miss me, slave?"

He had wiped his mouth and spat on the ground, then given a short, bitter laugh. "Hardly. I had hoped you'd been killed. Apparently, no such luck."

Smiling slightly, Xena had kicked him in the lower legs, and as he'd collapsed in agony, she'd hauled him up by the heavy iron collar. "You'll pay for that tonight, I think, slave," she'd said coolly, then dropped him and walked off, laughing. It was only later—much later—that he realized how his spirits had lifted at the approaching sound of her horse's hooves, that a nameless knot of unease had untied itself. Perhaps that had been the start of the end of the anger.

Whenever, however it happened, the hot fire of anger had dimmed to no more than sullen, smoldering coals by the time Xena gave up the life of a nomad, and began building her capital in India: a building with round marble columns, white stone floors, echoing halls, and pools of reflecting water. She was older by then, and so was he, in their early forties, both, and the torpor of advancing years was beginning to loom on the horizon; while Xena was still an unmatched fighter, she went out to battle less often now, preferring to leave more of the duties to her lieutenants. She was beginning to thicken just the slightest bit around the middle, and lines traced her features that had not been there earlier. As for his part, he found himself spending more of the day sleeping in whatever spots of sunlight reached the floor of the throne room, and his mangled lower legs ached more often and with greater intensity; his strength was slowly fading, too, probably from inactivity as much as age.

"Your hair's turning white, slave!" she had told him one night, frowning at him sharply. She sat up among the sleeping silks; when she had built her capital, Xenopolis, she had furnished it lavishly in the style of the Ch'in rulers to the north. "No one knows how to live like the Ch'in," she had said to her court, sitting in the middle of a throne room filled with red lacquered furniture and dragon-embossed wall hangings. "But I'm going to try, by all the gods!" She had laughed. After a pause that was just a shade too long, the rest of them had laughed with her.

Now she reached one hand out and ran it through his hair, laughing mockingly as he ducked away in anger. "See? Here. White. You'll have to stop that, or I'll get rid of you and find a new slave to torment."

"So's yours," he had retorted, stung. He had reached out with one hand, hearing the chain that joined his wrists clinking. In the early days, he had tried to strangle her with that chain, more than once, as she lay beside him afterwards. Tried. Eventually, he had stopped trying; it had never worked, and it wasn't worth what followed. Now he seized a handful of her long raven tresses and held it in front of her face, so that she could see the strands of white that threaded it. In earlier times, she would have struck him, and hard, for such insolence; now, though, she merely shoved him away.

"Well, that's great," she had said, pondering her hair. "Maybe I should dye it."

"Why bother?" he had asked derisively. "It won't make you any less tedious, or tiresome to be with."

She did strike him then, upside the head, hard enough to cause bright lights to burst across his vision. As the world reeled around him, she had risen from the silks, tightening the sash of her blue robe around her body; it was called a kimono, she had told him, and she had brought it back with her from Jappa. She went to the stone block in the corner where his chain was attached, and unlocked it. "All right, slave, time for you to go back," she had said, her blue eyes glinting with malice, and yanked the chain hard, pulling the iron collar against his throat and choking him; he raised his chained hands to claw at it, trying to ease the pressure against his neck. "You're getting cranky, and I don't feel like dealing with it tonight."

She had taken three husbands by that time, one after another, and installed them all in the east wing of her palace in rooms adjacent to each other. "Who will tell the Destroyer of Nations that she must limit herself to one husband?" she had asked when an advisor had protested—the next day, the advisor had ended up with his head on a stake, and no one else had said anything further--and she divided her time between them and the concubines she kept in the west wing: all female, all of them blonde with blue or green eyes. She sought out blondes for her harem as if she were obsessed, until he wondered to himself if she even knew what she was looking for. Between her husbands and her concubines, she no longer summoned him to her bed as regularly as she once had. Often he spent nights curled up on the marble floor of her opulent throne room, chain tucked under him, dozing fitfully; she never told him beforehand whether she would send for him or not that night. Still, he had worked it out once, and came to the conclusion that he got more of her time than any single one of her husbands or concubines, though not by much. Perhaps that proved something, he had thought to himself sardonically, though what, he wasn't sure. Her husbands were all of a piece, younger than she was by many years, pleasant to look at, pleased to be wed to the Queen of All The World as she styled herself now. Mostly, her men went their own ways; they were all empty-headed and content to spend their days in idle pursuits. Sometimes they chased the serving girls. Xena looked the other way at that. When one of them—it was Eudaemon, he thought—was found bothering her concubines, however, she had him beaten; the concubines were off limits to all, and she was gentle with them in a way she had never been with him. He might have been jealous, earlier.

Even before her palace was finished, Xena had moved in her husbands and set about getting herself an heir; she did this as ruthlessly and methodically as she did anything else, having three children one after another as quick as she possibly could. "Time's a-wastin'," she had said philosophically when her doctors had told her she might not want to overdo it. She did this in such a way that none of her husbands might know which man had fathered which child: she decreed that each man was to be considered the father of each child, so that all her children would have three fathers. From his position chained to her throne, it seemed to him that the first two—both sons—could have been anyone's child; both of them looked remarkably similar to all her husbands, with muddy, blue or green eyes, brownish hair, soft, inoffensive features. They took after her husbands in personality as well; the older one, Athos, could not follow any thought more complex than which hawk to take for hunting, and Decios cared about nothing more than playing his flute and chasing the kitchen wenches.

The third one was a daughter. Xena named her Xenia. Almost from birth, Xenia was different from her brothers; she took longer to be born, for one thing. No one told him anything; the staff of the castle rarely spoke to him at all, so all he had known was that Xena had disappeared into the birthing room one morning and didn't come out until the next. Caesar had waited, more worried than he cared to admit to himself, wondering what would happen to him if Xena were to die; she had always told him that she intended him to be thrown on her funeral pyre, so that along with the rest of her trophies, he could accompany her in death. Once or twice, he thought he had heard her cry out in pain; he had only heard Xena scream so once in his life, and that had been many, many years ago. Her husbands had not been with her for the birthing, and had seemed to evince no especial concern; indeed, Lodos had gone out hunting that day, while Eudaemon watched a dancing troupe and Minos gorged himself on a shipment of rare pheasant eggs that had come in earlier and slept till noon. But eventually, the middle-aged royal midwife had emerged from the natal chamber, holding a small bundle in her arms; she was glowing with as much pride as if she had had the baby herself. He had straightened laboriously and put himself in her path; she had looked at him, and smiled. She knew she wasn't supposed to talk to him, but had bent the rules that one day. "Our Queen at last has her heir. Say hello to little Xenia," she'd said, and held out the bundle so that he could see.

He'd looked down at the small thing within the wrappings with some interest, for the squashed-looking thing within bore little resemblance to Xena, or indeed to anything resembling a human being. The midwife, seeing his interest, glanced around quickly; seeing no one in sight, she gave a smile and offered him the bundle, beaming proudly. After a moment of hesitation, he accepted the child into his arms.

"Careful," the midwife told him. "Support her neck." He'd glanced at her, then looked back down at the child; he'd never held one this young before. She felt very light and fragile in his arms, and it occurred to him distantly that if he really wanted to hurt Xena, here was a perfect opportunity; but he pushed the thought aside. He didn't even want to think about what Xena would have done to him if he harmed her heir. Her eyes opened to reveal the dark no-color of infancy, and her face contorted into what might have been a smile. He'd held her briefly and somewhat awkwardly with his chained wrists; then the midwife had taken her back, looking around again to make sure they were not being observed.

"And the queen?" he had asked.

"Our queen is well," she had said, and passed on, leaving him slumped against the marble pillar by the throne, not sure whether he was relieved or not.

Where her brothers were fair, Xenia was dark, with hair as black as Xena's—or his own, come to think of it. Her skin was pale as milk, like her mother; her cheekbones were high, her nose straight and finely chiseled, like her mother; her lips full and ruby-red, also like her mother. Like her mother, she grew tall and strong; like her mother, she was an unsurpassed fighter on the field of battle, with the mind of a tactical and logistical genius. She was fiery and headstrong, full of anger and passion, often teasing and tormenting her brothers until they cried for mercy. In all things, she was like her mother, in fact, save one.

Her eyes. It was not till she was around five or so that he really noticed her eyes; they were not Xena's pale blue, nor the muddy, murky color of any of her three husbands. They were large and dark, slightly almond-shaped; familiar, somehow, and he had to stop and think—it had been so long since he had seen himself in any kind of mirror—before he realized. They looked like his own.

She's mine. That had been his first thought, and he had raised it at once with Xena, the next night in her chamber. "She's my daughter. Xenia. She is, isn't she?" he had asked, unable to suppress a smirk.

Xena had crushed his illusions quickly and without mercy; she stared at him for a moment, her eyes wide in surprise, and then had exploded into uncontrollable laughter. "You never quit, do you?" she had said, shaking her head, still grinning. "You just never quit. I thought I had beaten that ego out of you years ago, slave; I guess it runs deeper than I thought. No, slave," she had said, turning onto her side and pulling the silks tighter around her. "She is not yours, however much you might wish to believe it."

He had swallowed that in silence. "Then whose is she?" he had asked, unable to entirely keep the sullenness out of his voice.

Xena had looked over her shoulder. "Now, slave," she had said chidingly. "If I wouldn't tell that to any of my husbands, who have much more of a right to know, then why would I tell it to you? She's all of their children. And not yours; if she were yours," Xena had continued, her voice growing thicker as she sank down into sleep, "I would have strangled her at birth, if not sooner."

She had dropped off to sleep shortly after. He lay beside her, staring into the darkness, his body tight with anger; he hated her more, right then, than he had for a long time. Eventually he turned his back on her and closed his eyes. It took him a long time to sleep that night.

The anger didn't last long, however; soon it died back to ashes in the face of the facts of his existence. Years ago, with his chains newly on him, and the memory of what he had been fresh in his mind, his life as Xena's captive had been a torment; now, however, more than anything else, it was simply dull. His city had been utterly destroyed and all in it put to the sword, so none of his former subjects were yet living. Even if they had been, he was now at the other end of the world from his birthplace, in a land he had never dreamed of in his former life, surrounded by those who had never known Rome in all her glory…captive to a woman whose realm far surpassed his own empire at its greatest. No one around him remembered what he had been, or cared for him as anything other than Xena's slave; there were no reminders, save for Xena herself, and she rarely reminded him now. Her anger at him had dwindled to ashes over the years along with his for her; these days, she treated him with a sort of distant, superior amusement, as if he were a favored pet rather than the man who had betrayed her and broken her heart. On the days when Xena held audience in her throne room, he listened, idly and with half an ear; no longer did he treasure the idea that he might hear something, formulate a plan that would enable him to free himself. That time was long past him by now, and he had finally come to see it. On the days when there was no audience, he spent most of his time sleeping. Sometimes Xena would send for him in the evenings; sometimes she would not. When she did send for him, it was less and less to torment him as she had in the past; often—more often, as the years went by—she would simply talk, long, rambling soliloquies about the realm, about her children, about which prince she had had to behead, which city she had had to burn for rebelling, whether to raise taxes on the eastern provinces despite the drought, how much money she should allocate for road-building in the north. She was trying to build an empire now, he came to realize, rather than simply conquer one, and it was something that did not come naturally to her at all; her formidable talents were all those of a general, a warleader, not a stateswoman. Her god was Mars, not Minerva. He listened to her talk. Sometimes he talked back, offering her advice or suggestions; he never knew whether she took them or not. In an earlier time, he might have tried to use these sessions to undermine her, or to steer her toward ruin. Now, though, what was the point? Rome was long behind him. Bringing Xena down would not bring it back, and might only end up ensuring his own death. Freeing himself was no longer a possibility. So it came to him completely as a surprise when he did.

It was entirely by accident, something unplanned. It had happened during an official visit from what was now a delegation of the province of Egypt. Xena had been closeted all day in private audience with one of the delegates—and with him; when the delegate, Ankh Ven-Haris, had protested, Xena had simply said, "Anything I can hear, he can hear. It's too much bother to move him for this." Ankh Ven-Haris had not been happy, but what could he do? Xena was Queen of the World. They had talked, for a while; Caesar had been about half-listening, but from what he could hear, it seemed to him that their conversation was oddly light and trivial, compared to the things usually discussed in a private audience, and he sensed distantly that Xena was confused and annoyed at what seemed a waste of her time. Eventually it had come to an end, and Xena had descended the steps of her Dragon Throne—no longer kicking him out of the way, as she had done in the past, but simply stepping around him. The delegate and his secretary had stood to one side respectfully to let Xena pass, and it took him completely by surprise when the secretary dropped his pen and pulled a knife from his robes.

Reaction had come quicker than thought; he had risen to his feet more quickly than he had for years. The next day, his legs would hurt so badly he could not walk, but for now it was almost as if he were whole again. The secretary was within his reach; he had kicked the lead chain out of the way, taken two steps forward, reached out, and wrapped the chain joining his wrists around the scribe's neck. "Xena!" he had cried in warning, as the delegate drew a sword from beneath his robes; he caught a glimpse of Xena turning just in time to evade a blow that would have cleft her from shoulder to groin. Xena was shouting commands; he could hear guards beating down the door, the clash of steel on steel, but he concentrated only on the scribe. His strength was no longer what it had been in his youth, but it was enough; he pulled the chain around the scribe's throat tighter and tighter, until the man gave the death rattle and hung limp in his arms.

He looked up from killing the assassin in time to see Xena and Xenia fighting side-by-side; Xenia looked so much like her mother when she had been younger—the same enthusiasm, the same fire, the same savage joy in fighting—that for a moment he had the strange sensation that time had turned back on itself, before he saw Xenia's wide black eyes. Overkill, he had time to think sardonically, before Xena decapitated Ankh Ven-Haris at the same time as Xenia ran him through.

The guards were awaiting orders, but two sets of eyes turned his way, black and pale blue, and he realized he still held the corpse of the dead scribe in his arms. He let the man fall to the ground like a sack of grain.

"You saved my life," Xena said.

"You saved Mother's life," Xenia said at almost the same moment. Xenia was looking as surprised as if she had just seen a dog standing on its hind legs—no wonder, he thought sourly; she had never taken the slightest bit of notice of him before as anything more important than a piece of furniture. Xena, on the other hand, was looking at him consideringly. His legs throbbed, and he leaned against a nearby pillar, hoping to take some of the weight off them.

"So I did," he replied, somehow surprised at himself as well. He stopped to catch his breath. "A momentary lapse in judgement. Rest assured, it won't happen again."

Xenia had turned away and begun giving orders to the guards—to remove the corpses, secure the area, find the rest of the Egyptian delegation—but for the moment, Xena did nothing; she only continued to look at him thoughtfully.

It was her night with Minos that night, but Xena passed it up; instead, she sent for him, that night, and was as gentle and tender as she had ever been. "Why?" he had asked her afterwards, as they lay side-by-side.

"Why do you think, Slave?" she had asked, stroking his shoulder gently. "I ought to be asking that of you."

He had turned onto his side, unable to give her an answer that he did not himself know.

A week or two had passed uneventfully, and then one day, a guard had come. Two, actually, one carrying a case under his arm. The other one unlocked his chain from the base of the Dragon Throne—empty that day; Xena was meeting with advisors from Ch'in—and led him, not to Xena's room, but out back, to a place he had never seen before: the palace stables. They were a complex almost unto themselves, and Caesar was grudgingly impressed at the organization displayed, with buildings, racetracks, and pastures, the stable compound was a palace in miniature. It had been years since he had been outside, and he blinked, squinting in the bright sunshine of the early morning, as the guard led him down a white stone path to a forge; the blacksmith there, a large, surly man, unceremoniously pushed him down near the anvil, and with no more fuss than that, struck off his chains, manacles first, then the collar. For one wild, thrilling, terrifying instant he thought he was being freed, but he was wrong. No sooner had the iron collar been removed than the guard with the case under his arm opened it, and drew forth a new one, a ring of what looked like solid gold. Thinner than the iron one and ornately twisted, it looked almost like a torque. "Solder it," the guard instructed, and the blacksmith did so, fitting it in place around his neck. It was lighter than the old one had been. His arms felt light too, without the weight of the manacles; he could see his wrists were scarred from where they had been.

The guards returned him to the palace, but instead of taking him back to the throne room, they led him down a side corridor—one he had often seen from his position at the base of the Dragon Throne, but had never known where it went. It led to a small but ornate room, a sleeping chamber, with glass windows that opened onto a garden, furnished with the sort of red lacquer furniture that adorned Xena's own bed-chamber; he was provided with clothing—a tunic and mantle in the Roman style; he wondered how she could remember after so many years—much finer than the ragged tunic he was wearing, and then left. Alone.

He dressed himself in the clothes she had given him, wondering where they had come from, and then went to look in the full-length mirror. It was the first he had done so since before she had captured him….since before she had put him in chains. Twenty-five years. It staggered him. He had been her prisoner for almost half his life, and now, he was freed. Or not. He touched the gold collar distantly, looking at himself in the glass; he barely recognized himself. He was shorter than he had been the last time he had looked in the mirror; he guessed the legs must have taken an inch or two off his height in their healing. He was thinner than he had been, it seemed to him; and his face was lined in ways it hadn't been before. His coal-black hair—of which he had always been intensely proud—had lightened, and was now iron-gray; the clothing hung well on him, flattering his form. If he clasped his hands behind his back, hiding the scarring on his wrists, he could have been the very image of a senator or an elder statesman—except for the collar. It felt cool against his throat.

"What do you think?"

Xena had come up behind him so suddenly he hadn't heard her; he half-turned, startled, only to have her push him back. "No. I want to see," she said quietly, and stepped up beside him. Her own hair had enough gray in it now that it looked like her head was lightly dusted with snow, and her face could have been that of a solid, middle-aged matrona, except that her bearing was far too military. She was wearing another one of the kimono she had brought back from Jappa; this one was solid black with the crest of a five-clawed dragon winding its way around her body from shoulder to hip. That, she had told him once, meant royalty. At her waist was a slender, curved blade—a katana, she had said it was called—and her chakram, of course, and her hair was up in one of the Jappa styles. They made a strange portrait, standing together like that: senator and samurai. She put one arm around his waist gently, and for a moment, neither of them said anything, watching their image in the mirror.

He turned and looked at her. "This?" he asked, touching the collar.

Her face had cooled. "You're still my slave, Slave," she had said, "and don't you forget it." The moment was broken, and she turned and left him standing there, tottering off on high, wooden shoes—another import from Jappa. He watched her go, then turned back to his own image in the mirror, wondering if it were all a dream, somehow.

Now that he was freed, after a fashion, Xena seemed to consider him an advisor, or something of the sort; she let him sit in on all her high-level meetings, even ones her husbands were not privileged to attend, and would openly consult with him on matters of state, as with any other advisor. He suspected he carried more influence on policy than her husbands did—not that they cared; they were settling into early middle age with the same sort of empty-headed idleness that they had shown their whole lives. Minos had become grossly fat; Lodos had discovered the wonderful world of opium—a drug Xena had picked up in Ch'in—and smoked as much of it as Xena permitted, and Eudaemon spent his time "chasing any female that stumbled across his double vision," as Xena put it once, indulgently. Xena visited them less frequently than she had earlier, choosing to spend more time among her pliant concubines. And with him, he suspected, though he didn't bother to figure out exactly how much; he had enough new problems to deal with. Xena seemed determined to put him to work. For a while, Xena set him to the problem of fortifying the border with Ch'in; while she had sworn repeatedly that she would never go to war with Ch'in while Lao Ma lived—there was some reason there that she never spoke about, not even to him—he wondered if she were looking ahead to the future, thinking about her daughter, maybe. Xenia was turning into quite the general; Xena was trusting her with more and more ambitious commands, and she was fulfilling them with enthusiasm.

After the border, she set him to work on the road system of the eastern provinces, improving it, upgrading it—"You Romans are good at building roads," she had told him, smiling—laying plans for new roads throughout inaccessible parts of her empire, and reinforcing older ones to be sure they could withstand the mudslides of the tumultuous monsoon seasons; then on increasing agricultural efficiency among the rice-growers of the southeast; this required a vast expansion of the irrigation systems already in place. At her command, he turned his attention to upgrading her taxation system; he helped her to introduce standardized weights and measures throughout the length and breadth of her empire; and guided the creation of an empire-wide court system that Xena was determined to institute. It was an odd pleasure to be working again, even on such mundane tasks, and there were times when he found himself taking a strange pride in what he managed to accomplish, even if it was in the name of the Queen of All the World rather than his own name.

Then the news came: the provinces in the west were in revolt, the old lands of Greece and Italy; a leader had arisen, a rebel, who went by the name of Antony. He had begun in Egypt, but did not remain there; he was spreading his unrest throughout Greece and Italy, all the way up to Gaul and Britain.

"Half the western provinces are in flames," Xena complained to him one night, "because of this Antony, or Antonius, or whatever in Tartarus he's calling himself." She shifted restlessly. "And I can't go to deal with it right now. The situation in the east is too unstable. If I leave to deal with the west, then I might lose the east as well." She ran her hands through her hair. "What am I going to do," she groused, shaking her head. "I swear, I never knew ruling the world would be this much trouble."

"Send Xenia out to deal with it," he suggested after a moment.

Xena turned to look at him. "You think she could?"

He shrugged. She had taken dinner with him that evening, over a lacquered table with strange dishes from Ch'in, only about half of which he could identify: shark fins, birds' nest soup, a pale, light wine that was different from the wine he had been accustomed to. Xena was wearing a sari that night, of midnight blue traced with silver; it accentuated her still-graceful figure, and made her stand out against the red furnishings and wall hangings.

"If you're going to hand the empire over to her after your death, she should be prepared to deal with problems of this nature. It's a little larger-scale than anything she's dealt with before, but she should be ready for it."

Xena was quiet for a moment, eyes lowered in thought. "Maybe," she said slowly. "I just think she's a little young for this. I wish I had an advisor I could trust to send with her." She frowned, clearly going over her cabinet in her mind and not liking anything she was coming up with.

"Send me."

Immediately her head came up and she looked at him; her expression had chilled to the point where it could freeze water. "Send you," she said coldly. Suspicion was evident in her voice. "And why should I do that….Slave?"

Her clear distrust stung him. "I know the region," he answered, trying not to show his anger. "I've done things like this before." Long ago, he thought, but did not say. "And I know Xenia. Send me."

She looked at him for a long, long time. He waited. The silence in the room spun out. At last, she said, her eyes half-lidded, "Very well. I'll send you. But know this, Slave," she said coolly, "I will tell Xenia to kill you at the first sign of treachery."

Her eyes had lost none of their force over the years. He bit back the surge of anger he felt, and nodded. "Fair enough."

She sent Xenia out two weeks hence, after a formal leavetaking in front of the palace. "I have something for you, Xenia, my daughter," Xena had told her, and looked up at where Xenia sat on a golden mare, with white mane and tail—one of Argo's many daughters, Scylla, this horse was called. Caesar was beside her, on a white horse; despite Xena's obvious doubts regarding his intentions, she had provided generously for his travels.

Dressed in a long red qipao, Xena had lowered her hand to the sash around her waist, paused, and then slowly taken her chakram from her belt. "Here. You can borrow this. Carry this with you, Daughter," she had told her, stretching it out to Xenia. "She....She wants to be in action again, and it's wrong for me to keep her locked up here."

Xena controlled herself well, but Xenia was much more revealing of her emotions; her black eyes grew wet with tears as she reached down to take it from her mother's hand. "Thank you, mother," she had said, swallowing hard. "I understand how great an honor this is." She looked like she wanted to say more, but could not find the words.

"Bring her back to me," Xena had told her, and stood back. "Bring her back safe."

"I will, mother. I swear it," Xenia had said, and wheeled Scylla, and raced out of the courtyard with a cry reminiscent of Xena's battlecry. Caesar looked down at Xena for a moment. She smiled slightly. "And you take care of yourself too, Slave," she had said, and saluted—not the Roman salute, but close. After a moment, he responded, then turned his horse and ridden after Xenia, filled with grudging admiration for the Queen of All the World. He had thought, in a distant way, that perhaps away from Xenopolis he might find a way to turn Xenia against her mother, to divide them, and exploit that division—thought so, in the dreaming way of one who knows his dreams will never become reality, for Xenia was fanatically loyal to the Queen of All the World; she loved her mother deeply, and would never betray her though it meant her own life. Even had he, though, Xena had just spiked that wheel; Xenia had lusted after her mother's chakram from the time she was an infant, and the gift of such a deeply personal item would all on its own provide a bond with Xena that would be difficult to sever.

It was strange to be back in the west again, after spending so many years in the humid, languid and tropical east; strange as well, because the lands he rode through at Xenia's stirrup were familiar and not, at the same time. Mostly, they seemed smaller than he remembered, somehow, less grand, less impressive. A great many of the old monuments had been torn down and destroyed in the wars between Xena and Callisto and Najara, over thirty years ago—the temple of Diana at Ephesus, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Sphinx—and they had not been replaced. Some of the great cities that had been burned to the ground in the warfare were starting to be rebuilt, but he could see it would be years if not decades before they were anywhere near their former glory; Athens, for example, was barely any more than a collection of village huts, and what remained of Sparta had gone largely back to wilderness. When Xenia's route took her by the former site of Rome, Caesar could see that it was still as it had been after Xena departed, dragging him with his newly broken legs after her; nothing more than a plain of ashes, where not one stone stood on a stone. Nothing grew there; Xena had salted the ground thoroughly. He had watched her do it, chained by the neck to the base of Pompey's cross; the cross was still standing, along the Appian way. He stopped for a moment at the base of the statue she had made from the marble of the Forum: Xena, the Dark Conquerer, Daughter of War, Destroyer of Nations, Warrior Princess, has this day brought an end to the Eternal City. It was bitter to him, seeing what remained of Rome thus after so long; that night, he did not share the evening meal with Xenia and her generals, but retreated to the tent that had been given him, to lie on his narrow cot, rubbing his shattered legs and wondering what the Destroyer of Nations would have thought to see that her triumph remained unbroken after so long. In the end, he slept, to dream uneasily of Rome, and Xenopolis, and gray, ashed-out destruction.

Before his eyes, he saw Xenia proving every bit the equal of her mother on the field of battle; she rode hell-for-leather across the continent, hounding, harrying and scourging the rebels here, there and everywhere. She was growing into her mother's stature almost as he watched; she outfought, outmarched, and outgeneraled the enemy at every turn, it seemed; she chased them from Britain; she chased them through Gaul, down to Italy and Greece, across the Pelloponesian peninsula, through northeastern Africa until she ended up in Egypt, having chased Antony back where he began. It was there, having brought him to bay, that the messengers came: Antony was inviting Xenia, the daughter of Xena, to a truce at the ruined city of Alexandretta.

Caesar had warned her not to do it. "It's a trap," he told her, looking down at the map of the region on the map table.

Xenia raised her head and regarded him with one cool, dark eye. "How do you figure, Slave?"

"Look. It should be obvious. Do you see? The city is in a blind canyon; there's no way out. Once he's lured you in there, Antony has only to seal off the end of the canyon and he has you."

While Xenia loved her mother deeply, she had never had much use for him, Caesar knew; she listened to him with no expression, and when he had finished speaking, she gave a slight, scornful smile. "You think small, Slave. I wonder why Mother keeps you….Antony won't betray me," she said with total confidence. "He would never dare. I am the daughter of the Queen of All the World. To do so would be to seal his own fate. He has to know that—there's no way he cannot."

Caesar felt himself bristling at her dismissive tone. When he spoke, it was a struggle to keep his voice level. "You're a fool if you fall for a trap so obvious," he told her sharply, then added, probably unwisely, "Your mother would never fall for something like this—"

"My mother's not here, Slave," Xenia snapped. "And she told me to be wary of you. I am Xena's daughter. Antony can do me no harm. If you're too craven to take this offer, well, you're not in command here. I am. Pao Ssu!" she shouted to her second-in-command.

The woman of Ch'in stepped forward. "Yes, Lady?" she asked.

"Saddle up and take the first and second legions. You're going to Alexandretta."

"At once, Lady."

As Pao Ssu left the tent, Caesar trained his eyes on Xenia, frowning; something about her manner, that confidence, seemed almost familiar somehow, but he couldn't place it. Xenia caught him staring.

"Problem, Slave?"

"You should have listened to me," was all he said.

Xenia smiled again. "We'll see."

And they did. So it was that she sent two legions of her army, under the head of her second-in-command Pao Ssu, into the city. The results were exactly as Caesar had expected and warned her about: it had been a trap. No sooner had they gotten past the mouth of the canyon than Antony's men triggered a rockslide, sealing them off; Pao Ssu barely escaped with her life, and the legions were slaughtered.

It is because she is young, he thought, watching her fury when Pao Ssu came back with the news. For she was young; counting it out, he realized she was even younger than Xena had been when he had first met her, so very, very long ago. She was young, and not used to failure or to being deceived, and because of that, Xenia reacted to Antony's betrayal with towering rage; just like her mother, when crossed, Xena's daughter erupted into volcanic wrath. Even more so, he thought, because she was well aware that her mother would never have fallen for such a ruse, aware that she had been counseled against it, and she was deeply, exquisitely ashamed at being fooled so.

"I'll kill him. I'll kill that bastard! I'll flay him alive! Water torture! Splinters! Drawing and quartering, and then I'll send that son of a bitch to Lao Ma and we'll see how she'll—" Xenia had broken off there and started cursing in the language of Ch'in. "Ni ta ma de! Tian xia shuo yu de ren dou gai si! I'll send that chusheng za-jiao de zang huo all the way to shee-niou guay! Liou mahng! Liou mahng!" She spoke the Ch'in language fluently, even better than Xena, though her Greek was not so good and her Latin was nonexistent; he only knew a few Ch'in phrases, but he didn't need to know much to get the general idea. Her dark eyes were spitting fire. She was shouting so loudly she had made herself hoarse, and she had kicked over the map table in her tent, splitting it right down the middle. "He doesn't even realize who he's dealing with here! Does that ching-wah tsao duh liou mahng think he can get away with this? Does that wang bao dahn think he can get away with betraying the daughter of the Queen of All the World!??" She had swung on Pao Ssu. "Pao Ssu! Get my sword. Ready Scylla! I'm going to personally go out and kick his—"

"Stop it." He hadn't intended to speak and was somewhat surprised at himself for doing so; Xenia had no respect for him at all and never had, and she was so like her mother had been that it would be very easy for her to turn her wrath on any bystander….let alone one who attempted to come between her and the target of her rage. Nevertheless, he moved forward stiffly and placed himself between her and the door.

Xenia turned furious black eyes on him. "What are you doing?" she snarled.

"Preventing you from making a serious mistake," he told her, then added, "Another one." He had been given a staff; his legs were aching, and he leaned on it heavily, but did not back down. "Clearly this is what Antony wants you to do. Charging off with your sword unsheathed is not the way to accomplish anything."

"Are you saying I should let this go-se pass?" Xenia had demanded incredulously. "Fei-hua. Bull-shit! I have to go after him. It's what Mother would do—" She had made as if to brush past him, but he had held his ground.

"No, in this instance it is not what your mother would do. I know her far better than you and I assure you, in this instance she would have better sense. Sit back down," he ordered her. Only to have her whirl on him with murder in her face.

"And why should I listen to you?" She raised her hands into a fighting stance. He realized in that moment he was closer to death or serious injury than he had been in years; Xenia had Xena's powerful, leashed deadliness, and like her mother was fully capable of killing with her bare hands. "Mother told me not to trust you. To kill you at the first sign of treachery. So tell me why I should listen to you now….Slave."

Back down from her now, lose with her forever. Her dark eyes held his face, trying to stare him down. He could sense the wildness in her, and the danger, and spared a moment to wonder if this was what Xena had been like, after his betrayal of her so long ago. Without so much as blinking, he replied evenly, "Because your mother has been listening to me since before you were born."

The moment spun itself out. Xenia stared at him, strung to the point of action, almost quivering with the need for it….then slowly lowered her hands. "Very well. So what course of action would you suggest then, slave?"

He relaxed, not realizing till that moment that he had been tense, but the danger point had passed. It took another beat before he realized what he had said, and why it passed; it caused him a certain grim amusement, thinking that he had convinced her to back down by using his familiarity with Xena. At least it worked.

At Caesar's suggestion, Xenia declined to follow Antony—Antonius, Caesar thought to himself, and wondered if he were a remaining Roman, somehow—into the canyon of Alexandretta, instead preferring to seal off the entrance and wait them out. It was difficult to convince her to do this; slow siege tactics did not come naturally to Xenia's fiery nature, any more than they had to her mother. She vastly preferred action; it was her major flaw as a general, it seemed to him. Watching her frustrated, smoldering rage during the two weeks it took for the rebels to crack, Caesar wondered for the first time if her father—still unknown—had been Mars, or Ares as the Greeks called him; it had long been rumored that Xena had a close relationship with the God of War, and Xenia's violent temperament and inability to tolerate frustration would accord well with the characteristics attributed to that deity. Although all accounts had it that the gods had been lying low for decades, since the days of the warring between Xena and Najara and Callisto.

Eventually they had cracked, however, and had come out fighting in a desperate and ultimately doomed attempt to break Xenia's grip, just as he had predicted to her. After the battle was over, she had had Antony brought to her. Caesar had thought she would execute him, but instead, as he lay bound at her feet, she sheathed her sword. "Load him onto one of the carts," she had ordered Pao Ssu. "We'll carry him back with us to Xenopolis."

"Will you not kill him?" he had asked her.

Xenia glanced over at him, considering whether or not to answer….whether or not he was worthy of answer, he realized. He felt only a momentary touch of anger. After a moment, she said, "This rebel defeated me once. Once, and only once, but he did do so. It would be good to kill him….but it would be better to get him to join me."

He frowned. "You think you can?"

"I can, and he will," Xenia said with utter and complete confidence. "No fears, slave. It will happen." So saying, she swung up onto Scylla and set off, leaving him behind her, pondering.

He had the strange sense of time doubling back on itself again, as Xenia set course back for the east, dragging the rebel Antony with her in her baggage train. The rest of the rebels she had killed outright, but this one she kept with her, much in the same way as Xena had kept him; he recognized the similarity, and did not like it. And so it was, when she and her army reached Xenopolis, all the way at the other end of the world, that Xenia came at a fast gallop into the front courtyard of Xena's palace, jerked Scylla to a halt, and reached back to push the bound prisoner off the back of her horse. She jumped off, raised one foot and planted it on the prisoner's back, and turned to Xena, who had been lying on a shaded couch with her head in the lap of one of her blonde concubines and smoking a hookah idly as she watched them come in. "Hello, mother!" she greeted calmly. She indicated Antony with a downward gesture. "I've found my future husband."

Xena sat up, taking the hookah stem out of her mouth and frowning. She had rearranged the folds of the green and gold brocade sari she was wearing, and turned to look at Caesar, brow furrowed. He had shrugged, indicating he knew as little as she did. Xena looked back at her daughter. Xenia had drawn her sword, bent down, and was busily engaged in cutting her prisoner free. She straightened, and smiled at the older woman. "Here you go, Mother," she had said, speaking with a sweetness she displayed only to her mother, and no one else. She tossed the chakram back at Xena, who snatched it out of the air expertly. "I brought her back safe for you, just like you told me to….Have the servants give him quarters and clean him up," she said, waving down at the limp form of the prisoner. "I'm off to see about Scylla."

Xena had summoned him to her bedchamber that night, and he had come; it had been two years since Xenia had left Xenopolis for the west, and thus since they had last seen each other. He entered in response to her call, and they stood there looking at each other for a moment, in the light from the hanging oil lanterns and scented candles. Some of those lanterns she had had with her in her tent long ago, back in her days as a nomad. Those days were thirty years and more gone by now, he realized.

Perhaps it was simply that he was seeing her with new eyes after such a long separation, but it seemed to him that Xena had aged since the last time he had seen her; the gray in her hair had advanced considerably, and her face was more lined than it had been. It seemed she was thicker about the waist than when he had last seen her. She was no longer the whipcord-thin fighting animal of years past; he could tell even beneath the red silk dressing gown she wore. She had had been doing calligraphy when he entered—writing was done differently in Ch'in and Jappa, with a brush, rather than a feather pen, and Xena had long been a student of the art—but she laid the scroll and brush and inkstone aside, and looked up at him with a strange, almost nostalgic expression in her pale eyes.

"You've aged, Slave," she said quietly.

"So have you."

"Sit," she said, and gestured beside her. He moved to comply. "I must say," she continued, "that I'm a little surprised to see you again. I wasn't entirely sure I expected you to come back."

"What did you think I would do?" Caesar was unable to keep the sudden irritation out of his voice.

"I wasn't sure what I thought you would do," she said coolly, raising one brow. "I'd never let you so far off the leash before. At least if you turned bad out there, Xenia would have made short work of you, Slave." She reached out to tug at the gold collar around his neck. The sheer casualness of the act was a humiliation, a deliberate slap in the face. He pushed her hand away, his irritation turning to anger.

"Do you really believe that of me?"

"Am I wrong? Tell me, Slave, tell me honestly—did you not have one thought of betraying me? You thought not once of trying to turn Xenia against me?" He looked away, his mouth tight. Xena studied his expression. "You see? That's what I thought," she said, and shrugged.

He said nothing. Xena sighed. "Well, never mind that," she said. "Talk to me. Tell me how Xenia did out there."

Caesar hesitated for a long moment, then grudgingly relented. "We both wrote to you. Pao Ssu as well."

"True, but I wish to hear it from you." She looked at him. "So, talk."

So he talked. He told her of Xenia's adventures in the western provinces, of the way she had so masterfully chased the rebels across the continent, of what he had seen of her skills on the battlefield; Xena particularly seemed to enjoy hearing of her daughter's prowess, and proclaimed her a "chip off the old block." She grew more serious when Caesar recounted Xenia's falling for Antony's deception, frowning in thought. "Not good," she commented. "She shouldn't be so naïve at this age."

"She most likely will not make that mistake again," he replied, relating Xenia's fury when the trick was uncovered and her vows of vengeance, and the way he had talked her out of it; Xena listened, frowning, then seemed to dismiss her worries with a shrug. "That caution will come to her in time." He continued to relate the story until he reached her defeat of Antony, and her claim that she would bring him to her side. Xena raised an eyebrow. "Clever girl," she murmured. "What do you know of this plan of hers to marry him?"

"This is the first I've heard of it."

"I'll have to talk to her about it," she mused, "and soon. Lao Ma is ill."

Caesar said nothing, but watched her for her reaction. Xena's expression did not change, but her eyes were shadowed. The idea was difficult to grasp; Lao Ma had been ruler of Ch'in for as long as he could remember.

"Serious?" he asked.

"She said so, in her last letter. Not fatal yet—it comes and goes—but she thinks in the end it will kill her eventually. She has asked about Xenia wedding her heir, Ming T'ien, and joining our two realms. Frankly, he doesn't sound that appealing—what did she call him, 'a spoiled boy-child who needs a firm hand,' or words to that effect—you have to understand, a little something was lost in translation—" she smiled slightly. "But if I can join Lao Ma's realm and mine by her will and with her blessing—without spilling a drop of blood—then I'll do it. Joining my daughter to a powerless, defeated rebel who brings not an acre of land or a single footsoldier with him—not so much. I don't know how serious she is, but Xenia's husband will be Ming T'ien. Not this Antony."

"Sorry, Mother," Xenia said blithely when Xena confronted her. "I'll take him for my second husband, certainly, should you wish it. But my first will be Antony."

Xena looked completely perplexed. "Why? He brings absolutely nothing to the table—and aside from that, he hates your guts with a passion—"

"I'll bring him around," Xenia said with utter confidence. "He has proved that he can almost be a match for me, mother. It would be wise to harness the talents of someone of that caliber."

Xena looked at her daughter for a long moment, blue eyes meeting black. Something shimmered in Xena's face, something that Caesar could not identify. "If you say so," she said at last. "Just be certain that he is not too much of a match for you, daughter. If he were, to marry him might be to give him too much power, and to create a serious rival."

"I'm not worried," Xenia said calmly.

It seemed she was right not to worry, for it all happened just as Xenia had predicted. Three years later, almost to the day from which Xenia had brought him back to her mother's court, Xenia and Antony knelt before the Queen of All the World and exchanged three sips of rice wine from three different bowls, then rose to their feet. Xenia rose first, then lifted Antony up and kissed him lightly on the cheek, claiming him as her husband in sight of Xena's court, Xena's own husbands—all three of whom stood in as father for her, or in the case of Minos, sat in as father; Minos had long been too obese to stand for a long time at a stretch—and the assembled city of Xenopolis. The look of devotion on Antony's face was clear to all as Xenia embraced him, and won envious sighs from the wives of Xena's sons; Athos had been wed to a Jappa princess, while Xena had found an Egyptian beauty for Decios. Xena placed her hands on the shoulders of her daughter and her daughter's new husband, and smiled. "Now, give me a granddaughter as quick as you can," she told Xenia, "for I am not getting younger—" she was now in her sixties "—and would like to see my line continue before I die."

"We'll do our best, Mother," Xenia said, smiling at her new husband. Antony smiled back, clearly completely besotted with his new bride and his queen.

Xena had hoped to see Xenia take Ming T'ien as her second husband, joining the realms of Ch'in and Xenopolis, but that was not to be; Lao Ma had entered her final illness by that time, and passed away shortly after Xenia's wedding. "She was the linchpin holding Ch'in together," Xena confided to Caesar, drunk on sake the night after the messenger from Ch'in reached them. "There's no way that little weasel will be able to hold that vast realm by himself. Ming T'ien's not half the ruler his mother was. You watch, and see." And it all happened just as Xena had predicted. Ming T'ien first started by reneging on his promise to wed Xenia. Nor would he provide another male for her to take as a mate. Next, the dynasty of the Laos—the house of Lao, from which Lao Ma had drawn—broke from Ming T'ien's leadership, and raised up an army against him. Within little less than a year after Lao Ma's death, the flames of war had engulfed Ch'in, and threatened to spill over their borders, threatening Xena's realm.

It was Xenia who rode north to deal with it, with Antony faithfully by her side; Xena was almost sixty-five by that time, still a deadly and dedicated fighter and warrior, but not equal to the glory of her younger days, and she knew it. She stood in the courtyard in front of the palace, clad again in the red qipao she had worn when sending Xenia off to the west, and again handed her the chakram. "Bring her back to me," she said again.

"I will, Mother," Xenia promised, deeply moved. She wheeled her horse again, and galloped out of the gate, with Antony at her side. Xena's husbands were not there to watch their daughter go—by this time, Lodos lay wrapped in opium dreaming throughout the greater part of most days, despite Xena's frequent threats and outrage at the expense of it; Minos rarely stirred from his table save in the direst of emergencies, and Eudaemon had begun accumulating his own harem of concubines, constructing a whole complex for the beauties he brought together from the far reaches of the realm. Unlike Xena, Eudaemon did not limit himself to blondes. So only Caesar was there, along with Xena's favorite concubine, a young, fresh-looking girl who gazed up at the Queen of All the World as if she were completely enthralled, to watch Xenia's parting; it was only he who saw the slight sigh she gave, the way she gazed after Xenia's departure as if she wished she were going with her. She took the arm of her concubine and touched her face gently, then turned and with slow, dignified steps, left the courtyard. "Too old," he heard her murmuring. "I'm just too old."

He did not see her for the next few days; Xena retreated into her harem, spending most of her time with her concubines in the soothing atmosphere of her inner sanctum, being pampered and petted and entertained with harem dances and songs on the santoor and shamisen. When she at last emerged, she was quiet and withdrawn; she did not summon him to her bed for some time, nor did she visit her husbands, but remained wrapped in her own melancholy.

Xenia and Antony were in the north for many months, sending dispatches back to Xenopolis where Xena ruled alone. Their dispatches spoke of troop movements, burnings, raids and marches, narrow escapes and great victories. Xena received these dispatches with no outward expression, but something in her bearing indicated a deep sense of sadness that she was not with them, that she was trapped in Xenopolis far from the front lines by age and the duties of leadership. She shared none of this with him, nor did she share it, so far as he could see, with her husbands. But he could guess, because he had known her for so long. When, finally, over a year after setting out, they came riding back in triumphant—Xenia in the lead, Antony behind her—Xena was there to meet them.

Xenia leapt off her horse, went to Xena's feet, and bowed before her. "Ming T'ien is dead. Ch'in is yours, Mother," was the first thing she said.

Xena raised her daughter up and looked at her for a moment. She said nothing, but seemed to almost glow with pride. Xenia, seeming uncomfortable at Xena's intense regard, broke her mother's grip and held out the chakram, as she had done before. "I brought her back to you, Mother, just like I said. Just like I did last time."

Xena reached out to take it, then stopped. She closed her fingers around it, tightened her grip, and then pushed it back. "No, daughter," she told Xenia quietly. "You keep her. She's yours now."

Xenia held the chakram up before her eyes, turning it this way and that way, looking at it as if she couldn't believe it. Then she threw her arms around her mother, clasping her close in an exuberant embrace. "Thank you," she whispered, her eyes wet with emotion. Xena's own eyes were too bright; she started to speak, then simply held her daughter in return.

It was after the successful mission to Ch'in that Xena retreated from the day-to-day ruling of her empire, turning many of her duties over to Xenia and Antony. Her hair was solid silver by then, with only streaks of black visible in the bun she usually wore; her form had thickened about the waist, and while nowhere near the corpulence of Minos, she was far from the fighting figure of her youth. She had taken up hookah smoking in cold mornings, claiming it helped to alleviate the pains of arthritis in her limbs; while she was nowhere near as dependent on it as Lodos was, the opium slowed her a little, made her less alert, less quick on the uptake, although perhaps some of that was age. Caesar could feel time creeping up on him too; his hair was as silver as Xena's by this time, his body as slow and sluggish; and during the rainy monsoon season his shattered lower legs ached so badly that sometimes they would not bear him. Xena said nothing about this overtly, but sent two of her concubines to assist him during the rainy months, bearing a hookah of opium for him too. He understood the great favor she showed him by sending him concubines rather than simple servants, while at the same time finding it difficult to be grateful; after all, she had done this to him in the first place. But the resentment he felt toward her was ancient by then, the ashes of his anger having long since grown cold; mostly, he was just glad for the help. Many of the duties of running the empire devolved on him, strangely enough, as Xena increasingly lost interest in what she had had little interest in to begin with. He found himself acting as advisor to Xenia and the rest of Xena's court as well as handling tasks that Xena and Xenia assigned to him in his own right, and the concubines—especially those that could read and write, for his own eyes had begun failing him by then—were a welcome assistance. Sometimes he spared a moment to think about the irony of it all, thinking with amusement tinged with old bitterness that in a way, his destiny had been to rule the world after all, only not the way he had expected; as Xena's slave, the decisions he helped to make affected matters on a worldwide scale, far surpassing anything he could have done as emperor of Rome.

Xenia performed the tasks Xena set her willingly enough, but she was restless; Caesar sensed it, and he knew Xena did too. It could be seen in the way Xenia would stop, sometimes, in the middle of the palace courtyard, turning her black eyes to the far-off horizon; in the way that during a break in her duties, she would take Antony and go on hunting trips for weeks at a time, bringing back loads of tiger skins and lion pelts and rhino horns as trophies to lay at her mother's feet. She was very like her mother had been, and he guessed, watching her, that the duties of court life would not hold her attention, not at this age; it would be like caging a fledgling falcon, eager to try out her wings. A warrior of her caliber needed new lands to conquer, new realms to explore, and what was there to explore when Xena was Queen of All the World?

And so it was, for one day Xenia came before her mother in the throne room, with Antony at her side; she stood straight and tall before her, and said, "Mother, I have an idea."

Xena had glanced at Caesar, who was leaning on his staff by her side, and said, "What is it, child?"

"The sages say, both those of Ch'in and those of Greece, that the world is round like a ball. If it is so, then perhaps it might be possible that we can reach the provinces of the West by sailing to the East. My idea is this: that I and my husband seek to prove this is the case by leading an expedition to do just that." She had spoken calmly and resolutely, and had gone on to lay out the ways in which she would do it, the ships she felt she would need, and the numbers of men and supplies she would take with her. She had planned in detail for every contingency, with the meticulousness and cool precision necessary for a military operation. Caesar, listening to her, was impressed with the depth of thought put into her plans, and when he looked at Xena to check her reaction, he could tell at once that Xena would agree. And so she had, coming down from the Dragon Throne to embrace her daughter, looking at her with shining pride.

"What if she doesn't come back?" Caesar asked her, that night in Xena's bedchamber. "It's a long trip and there will be dangers she's never before encountered. If she doesn't survive, you'll have lost your only heir."

It was true. Neither Decios nor Athos showed the slightest interest in the reins of government; Athos spent most of his time at his hunting lodge up north, gleefully killing dangerous animals by the cartload, and Decios was engaged in constructing an ever-larger and more opulent palace to the south, on the coast. While Decios had actually produced a child with his Egyptian beauty, the child was a weak and sickly son of seven years, with nowhere near the fire and intensity of his grandmother. Xena barely bothered to acknowledge his existence.

"She'll come back."

"What makes you so sure of that?"

"She's my daughter." Calm assurance was in Xena's voice, and Caesar had to admit that she had a very good argument. And so it was that at the beginning of spring, Xenia launched triumphantly from Beijing, with twenty ships and over two thousand soldiers, waving a goodbye to her mother as Antony stood by her side. "Don't worry, Mother!" she called down to Xena, waiting on land. "We'll be back before you know it!"

She was gone for five years. During that time, Xena showed no sign of worry that Xenia had fallen or been lost; she carried on as she had done before, delegating authority more to him and to Pao Ssu, who had been left behind for a replacement for Xenia, while she retreated into semiretirement in her harem.

Two years after Xenia had left, Xena became ill, a serious illness which it was thought she would not survive. The capital held its breath; trade and commerce came to a halt, and the government suspended its activities, waiting. It was known only too well that Xena's chosen heir was gone, and speculation as to what would happen if Xena died was rampant. Athos and Decios came in from their country estates, looking pale and scared; they both suspected that if Xena died, one of them would be chosen to take the Dragon Throne, and neither one of them wanted it. "Ruling would put a serious dent in my hunting time," was Athos's only comment on his mother's deathly illness, while Decios said flatly that he would not be King and could not be forced to take the throne. Neither of them showed any particular concern for their mother's welfare. Of Xena's husbands, only Minos managed to disgorge himself from his table long enough to waddle to her side, where he slobbered over her in a sickly-sweet way, demonstrating in the most obvious fashion that he was hoping she would provide for him handsomely after her death; to be fair, Lodos was so lost in opium daze that he did not even know the year anymore, while Eudaemon locked himself down in his harem, waiting it out.

After Minos's visit, Xena, who had taken to her own harem, summoned Caesar to her side. He entered her harem, leaning heavily on his staff, with the assistance of the two concubines Xena had provided him, and was conducted across the patterned tile floors to her side. Her women were seated about the harem, by fountains, on secluded benches, talking quietly or embroidering; the atmosphere was solemn, even sad. Every face was shadowed. Caesar had to admit to himself, he sensed more real concern here, from these young concubines, than he had from any of Xena's husbands or even her two sons.

Xena lay in the harem's innermost chamber, being tended by her three favored girls. Her lined face was pale as ivory, except for two flushed patches on either cheek; her gray hair hung in sweaty straggles about her face, and a sheen of sweat glistened on her brow. She turned her head as he approached.

"Slave."

"I'm here," he told her, waiting. He wondered how ill she was; she looked sicker than he had imagined.

"Minos was in here." Her voice was a harsh whisper. One of the concubines held a glass of water to her lips, and she swallowed.

"He was."

"Don't let him in here anymore." She coughed. "In fact, don't let any of them in here anymore. I don't have the strength to deal with their whining."

"All right," he promised.

She was silent for a while, the only sound that of her tortured breathing. He thought she was finished, and was about to turn and leave, when Xena opened her eyes. They glittered bright with fever, roaming the marble and gold walls of the harem, the hanging plants and ferns, until they settled on him.

"Promise me something."

"What is it?" he asked, looking down at her. He wondered, for the first time in years, what would happen to him if she died; while he no longer believed that she would have him thrown on her funeral pyre, he was quite aware that everything he had came only by association with her.

"Promise me…." She closed her eyes, gathering her strength, then continued. "If I die….you must take the empire."

"What?"

"Take the empire. Hold it for Xenia. Until she comes back. Athos…can't do it. Decios won't. And my husbands….useless. Useless. You'll have to do it, Slave. You're the only one. I've told Pao Ssu….she'll tell the rest of the court. But it has to be you. There's no one else. I want you to hold it for Xenia." She reached out one clawlike hand and closed it over his wrist. "Promise me. Promise me—"

"I promise," Caesar said. He pulled himself free, more unnerved than he cared to admit by her deathlike appearance and the intensity of her request. "I promise," he said again, then under the glittering stare of those fever-bright eyes, he repeated, "If you die I will hold the empire for Xenia, until she comes back." He paused, then couldn't help adding somewhat dubiously, "If she comes back."

"She will." Xena's eyes closed; her voice weakened. For a moment she was silent, then whispered, in a voice so soft he could barely hear it, "About Xenia…."

"What about her?" he asked, leaning close.

"Xenia….she…." Xena gave a long sigh. She did not answer, having slipped off into sleep again. If it had not been for the slight rise and fall of her chest, he might have thought she was dead. The concubines around her stepped forward and gently but firmly showed him out.

Xena survived that time; her innate toughness was still with her, and served her in good stead. Two weeks after her request to him, she rose from her bed and, accompanied by her concubines, tottered weakly outside the walls of her harem. She was thin and weak, still pale, and her hands shook; while she slowly did regain the ground she had lost over the course of the next few months, the illness had been a profoundly humbling experience and had left her with a deeper outlook on life. For the first time, she seemed to set to the task of planning for her death. She summoned architects and builders, and began laying out plans for a mausoleum on the grounds of Xenopolis, constructed of white marble with a long reflecting pool in front of it and surmounted by a vast gleaming dome at the top of a tower—not of the kind that Caesar had known from Rome; this dome was shaped like an onion, with a spire at the pinnacle, extending its height even further. Four subsidiary towers stood to the cardinal directions, gleaming white and slender; Xena told him they were called minarets. Behind this, she planned three smaller tombs, one for each of her husbands, also out of marble and surrounded by greenery. Inside, her mausoleum was to be a labyrinth of shrines, passages, and altars, almost a maze, leading to the interior where her sarcophagus was to be placed. The sarcophagus she had carved for herself contained several interior coffins, nested one inside the other, the outermost one of marble with interior coffins of gilded wood, with a solid gold funeral mask detailed in lapis lazuli. She brought painters from Egypt to detail the interior of her mausoleum with elaborate frescoes, depicting scenes of triumph from her life, and had accompanying text painted and carved, in hieroglyphics, Greek text, the Sumerian script, and Ch'in characters, so that anyone literate should be able to read the works of her life.

"What's this?" he asked one day, while they were going over the plans together. Xena was in fine fury about the cost the suppliers were charging for marble, and had retreated to her desk to work it out for herself, scratching away with her stylus and cursing under her breath.

"What's what?" She scowled down at her calculations. "Fifty million?! That can't be right…." She glared up at him. "These stupid numerals of yours aren't working, Slave. They're way too complicated."

"If you don't like them, then use something else," he replied without looking up from the plans.

"There is nothing else. Nothing better, anyway." She ran her hands through her hair, which was in the process of lightening still further, from silver to white. "There needs to be a number or a symbol that represents the concept of not having anything. Like….a placeholder or something."

"A placeholder?"

"Sure. We could use a circle and call it, oh, I don't know….zero."

He glanced up. "That doesn't make any sense. A number that represents nothing?"

"Says you. I'm going to try it….What were you saying?"

"This small chamber here, off your burial chamber. What's it for?"

She didn't answer right away. He raised his head to see her watching him. "What?" he asked.

She looked at him for a moment longer, without saying anything; her answer took him by surprise. "That's for you, Slave," she said quietly, then paused, studying his expression. "I mean, after your death, whenever it occurs." she clarified, with the ghost of a smile. As he still was silent, not sure what to say, she continued, still quiet, "I told you I would take you with me, Slave. Did you think I would forget?"

She returned to her calculations, and he dropped his gaze back to the architectural plans, turning over what she had said in his mind; he was strangely touched, though of course he did not show it. While what would happen to his body after he died was the least of his worries, it was still an odd relief to know that he was provided for. That he would be buried in Xena's Tomb….

The new building was well underway by the time messages started coming in from the coast; the watchtowers along the eastern shoreline sent in riders saying that the outer islands had spotted the sails of Xenia's ships. It was five years after her leaving, but Xena only shrugged as if she had known it all along. "Told you so," she said matter-of-factly to those advisors who had expressed their disbelief—in a very roundabout way to be sure. "She's my daughter." Athos and Decios managed to put in an appearance at court to express their profound relief that their sister had apparently made it back in one piece; the underlying message being that they would no longer be in danger of having to inherit the throne.

It was the end of the monsoon season in Xenopolis, and the world was green and wet and humid; despite the dampness, which caused Xena's arthritic pains to flare up, and his own shattered legs to throb and ache, he had always thought this was one of the most beautiful times of year in India. The seasons of this land, the land where he had come to realize he would almost certainly die, were so different from the land of his birth that it had taken him years to appreciate them. Both of them were in their seventies by then, old by any standard, although Xena at least seemed to be as healthy and vigorous as a woman twenty years her junior. It was late morning in Xena's open, airy sunroom, and Xena was attempting—again—to show him a ritual she had picked up in Jappa many years before.

"It's called a 'tea ceremony,' Slave," she said, pouring a green and frothy drink into a thin ceramic cup. He regarded it skeptically.

"And why is this supposed to be better than wine?"

"It's not supposed to be better, just different," she chided. Her hair was solid white by now—as was his—and she had it wound up in a bun on the back of her head and pinned with ivory hair ornaments; she was clad in a pale-green silk kimono depicting silver raindrops falling into water. Spring Rain, she had told him it was named; it had been a gift many years ago from Toshima, the Empress of Jappa, and Tomoe Gozen, the woman samurai who was her shogun and, so it was said, her love. It made her faded eyes look greener. Her solid gold hookah stood to one side of the low table, and from time to time she would take a drag on the pipe with hands that trembled slightly with age. He wore an unadorned Roman-style tunic and mantle, as was his habit, and not for the first time he spared a moment to think what a strange picture the two of them must make—Rome and Jappa, West and East. Now she looked up at him in exasperation. "At least give it a try."

"I've tried this multiple times before and I never liked it then; what makes you think this time will be any different?"

"Just give it a chance, willya?"

"All right," Caesar said grudgingly. He reached out and lifted the cup from the inlaid wood surface—carefully; his own hands were not as steady as they used to be. It was of a type of ceramic Xena called porcelain, so thin that he could feel the heat of the warm liquid through the wall; there were very intricate designs painted on it, blue on a clean white surface. They appeared to be of dragons, but his eyes were not what they had been and he couldn't make out the fine details. He tasted it dubiously.

"What do you think?"

"Still don't like it," he said curtly, setting the cup back down. Xena sighed heavily.

"Just try for once in your life to expand your horizons, Slave," she said, shaking her head in disappointment. Her hair ornaments swung with the movement.

"I did. I tried it, and didn't like it. What more do you want?"

"Never mind. Just never mind," she said, rolling her eyes.

As Xena bent to the implements with which she had prepared the tea, cleaning and arranging them, he watched her. Fifty years, Caesar realized slowly. It had been…yes, it had been a little over fifty years since they had first met; slightly more than forty-five since she had made him her captive. Fifty years, he thought again. It seemed unreal, somehow. He had known her for by far the greatest part of his life. Her hair was white now, as was his own, but if he looked he could still see her: the young warrior he had known when he had been a young warlord, years ago when the world had been new and all horizons open. Was that all I was back then? he wondered distantly. Just another warlord with dreams of greatness? Looking back now, from the distance of half a century and the entire world, the ambitions he had treasured seemed faintly ridiculous, his ideas and plans nothing more than grandiose dreams which had never had a chance of becoming reality. His hand rose, almost of its own accord, and he felt the gold collar he still bore around his neck. And what would have become of me if I hadn't met her?

Xena looked up and their eyes met. She seemed to know his thoughts; she gave a faint, almost reflective smile, and asked quietly, "Is this how you thought your life would turn out, Slave?"

"Not at all." Once, such a question would have aroused venomous rancor; now there was only a wisp of long-faded bitterness. "Not at all. You?"

Xena raised an eyebrow. "To be honest, Slave," she said with a crooked grin, "I never thought I would live this long." She looked around her, at the marble walls of her sun room, at the lush Indian vegetation outside, still dripping with early morning mist, at the statues of her on the lawn beyond the glass windows. "Or come so far," she said quietly. "I never imagined."

He nodded, and dropped his gaze. The scars on his wrists, though not gone, were faded with age. Xena took another pull on her hookah, as water dripped outside.

"Think, Slave," she murmured. "There are more days behind us than there are ahead of us, have you realized that?"

Caesar nodded. "I have," he replied quietly. Silence fell, as the two of them contemplated that sobering fact.

In the sudden quiet, the door to the solarium opened. One of Xena's concubines, the only ones—besides himself and Xenia—who were allowed access to her inner apartments—entered, carrying a leather envelope. She handed it to Xena, who smiled at her warmly, and then departed.

"What is it?" Caesar asked, as the concubine's tinkling footsteps faded in the distance. Xena opened it, and pulled out a piece of parchment. Her eyes were sharp where his were not; she scanned it, frowning, then stopped. A slow smile spread across her lips.

"It's from Xenia. She's made landfall, and should be here in under a week."

"Xenia—" He straightened, ignoring the protest of his lower legs. "What does she say?"

Xena's smile did not fade. "Here. I'll read it." She shook out the parchment.

"Dear Mother: I have made landfall near the coast of Xenopolis. By the time this reaches you, I should be less than a week away. I return to you in triumph; while I have not reached the Western Provinces, I have found something better: a New World. To relate all that has happened since I bade you farewell five years ago would be a long tale; I will simply state that we made landfall on the coast of an undiscovered country, rife with great nations—the warlike Azteca at Tenochtitlan, the Mayans in their jungle fastnesses, the conquering Inca in their mountain capital of Cuzco. We bring back many trade goods we obtained from these civilizations, including gold, cloth, livestock and plants of a kind never seen before in our world, and a strange powder known as xocoatl, which comes from trees. It can be mixed into a drink and is much valued by the inhabitants of those far-off lands; the beans from which it comes are used as currency by those inhabitants. We also bring back a slave who was given us when we first reached the shore of that strange new world: a woman, an auyani, named Malintzin. She was of utmost importance to us; she served as guide and interpreter, and has proven her worth and her loyalty to us many times over. She has many ideas for future contact between our nations, and was most eager to return with us and meet with you. I bring someone else back with us too, someone I am sure you will be interested to meet: your granddaughter, Xenacoatl. Your loving daughter, Xenia."

There was silence for a moment after Xena finished the last line, then Caesar said, "You have a granddaughter."

Xena looked up at him. There was something strange in her blue eyes. "I do," she said. "A granddaughter." She was looking at him as if she had never seen him before. He shifted under her gaze.

"It sounds," he said after a moment, "as if Xenia has done you proud."

"She has," Xena murmured. "She's a daughter any parent would be proud of." She did not take her eyes off him, nor did she change her expression.

"What is it?" he asked her, wondering at her look.

Xena didn't answer at first. She set the scroll down. After a moment, she said quietly, "She's yours."

Caesar looked at her, startled. "What?"

She glanced at him. "Oh, come on," she said with some irritation. "You think I would trust any of those losers—" she jerked a shoulder in the direction of her husbands' apartments "—to sire my heir? Xenia's your daughter."

Caesar could only stare at her, unable to take it in. "My daughter?" he managed at last.

She snorted derisively. "Think about it. I was extremely careful in my choice of husbands, to marry men who would not be competitors. I had enough to do on the battlefield without opening a second front in my own home. I took husbands who would be docile and placid, and that's exactly what I got. Minos is a glutton; Lodos is an addict and a sluggard, and Eudaemon is a wencher. Look at the sons they produced: Athos can barely write his own name, and Decios can't keep a single thought in his head for more than ten seconds at a time." She sighed, then, and brushed a strand of white hair back from her forehead; her hand was gnarled with old age. "My heir will need to be strong," she said quietly. "Already the first cracks are showing in the empire; the northern provinces were never fully tamed, and the eastern provinces will bolt the second my eye turns elsewhere. You know it; you've told me so yourself more than once. If the whole thing is not to fall into pieces on my death, as happened to Sargon of Akkad, my heir will have to be as strong as I was—stronger—to hold it all. When I saw what my husbands produced…." She gave a mirthless laugh, and turned to look at him. He could only look back at her, still stunned. Something in his expression must have touched her; she reached out, and put a hand on his shoulder. "Surely you must have guessed."

"I thought…" He could only falter. "I thought perhaps she was the daughter of a god…of Mars—what do you Greeks call him? Ares…"

Xena thought that was quite funny; she laughed uproariously. "So if Xenia's father's not you, then he must be a god? Even after all these years, you still have that ego, Slave….No," she said when she settled down. "She's yours. You were the only man who ever defeated me," she told him seriously. "Granted, it was many years ago, and much has happened since then, but still….you did manage to do it. But it's not just that," she continued, looking at him with eyes that were faded with time, but still as sharp as ever. "It's not just that you beat me in a fight—you got lucky, more than anything else, and I was stupid, I'll freely admit; stupid and naïve. There's something else. I'm a better warleader than you are by a considerable distance—" She said that without a trace of modesty, he observed, though he held his peace; after all, he thought with a sour inward shrug, she had proved her assertion true many years before "—but—somehow—that's not enough. Being good with the troops, being good on a battlefield, that's enough to win an empire, but not--somehow it doesn't seem to be enough to hold it…." She trailed off, and then looked at him seriously. "There's something else," she told him. "You've got something else, something you have that I don't—maybe it's something all you Romans had, something they trained into you, I don't know. Your rival had it too, what was his name, Poppy—"

"Pompey," he supplied, watching her with fascination.

"Yeah, that's it. That blonde guy. Whoa, was he a nonstarter," she said, raising her eyebrows.

"You were the one that bedded him," he pointed out.

"Yeah, and I bedded you, so that just proves how smart I am," she said. There was not even a ghost of rancor in her voice, not anymore. "He had it too," she said, returning to her original topic, "though I think not so much as you do. Something you have that I don't," she repeated. "I don't know what it is, can't put my finger on it…something to do with….with how you know what to do about laws, and taxes, and roads, and water canals….all that boring stuff." With a casual wave of the hand, she dismissed the architecture of empire. "I can conquer, but I'm not so good at ruling," she said with a grimace. "Our daughter will need to do both, if the empire is to last. I can hold the realm for my lifetime," she said quietly, "but when I am gone, it will all start to crumble. Since I cannot help Xenia from beyond the grave, I felt," she continued, "that I had to give my daughter—our daughter—the best chance I could. The best chance." Her smile softened into something almost fond. "That meant you."

She reached out and touched his face. For his part, he was still turning the information over in his mind. Xenia was his daughter—his—Something inside him loosened, a knot that he hadn't even known was there. Of course, he realized dizzily. It all makes sense…. He'd recognized those eyes years ago, even if Xena had told him differently; he recognized that supreme confidence she'd displayed when laying out her plan to cross the ocean—that was all his as well….My daughter. She's mine. Not the same as the son he'd planned for so long ago….but in this new world, this world Xena had made, a daughter might do even better. My line will go on. My family will not die out…. My daughter will be Queen of All the World.

Scarcely aware of what he was doing, he did something he had not done once in over fifty years—he pulled Xena to him, and kissed her. When he let her go, Xena sat back, surprised. "Well," she said, smiling a little. "What was that for, Slave?"

"My daughter," he murmured, only half in answer. "She's mine."

A realization came over him then, as he sat back, running his gaze over the sunroom walls. Something that he had never thought before, but that struck a chord in him. Right here. My destiny—it's right here. Maybe it always was…. By her throne, helping her rule—by the side of the Queen of All the World. He'd even said it to her once, so long ago, that she was a part of his destiny even as he was a part of hers. That wasn't how he'd envisioned it at all when he was younger; if someone had told him, so long ago, he never would have believed it….

….but it was. And, in the end, he admitted, maybe—maybe, he thought, as he looked back over fifty years and thousands of miles, as he thought of his daughter who had crossed the ocean and found a new world, his daughter who would go on to take Xena's place on her death, as he thought of how far he'd come at Xena's side....maybe, he thought grudgingly, maybe it turned out to be not so very bad after all.

Finis.