There was this haze that came over a person sometimes. They'd be waking up and all they'd feel was the pleasure. They wouldn't feel the crusty sheets, the stickiness on their skin, or the sweaty bodies all pressed up against them. Just the loose limbed feeling in all their limbs. Then a bed partner would stir. Hands and lips and everything else would be pressed against them and they'd wake up.
Xena had woken up that way far too often in the last few months. She'd heard Vidalis mutter about her wanton ways a few times. She'd ignored it. He was the seneschal and she the empress.
Today there were two of them in her bed. Dancers who'd arrived the night before. After the entertainment she'd invited the two to her private chambers. Wine had flowed freely until the woman, lithe and pert, had draped herself over Xena. Then the man had joined in. Now the two of them were waking and trying to start up where they had left off.
She sighed and looked out her window. The sun was rising and she could hear the sound of soldiers drilling in the courtyard. A hand drifted low on her body and she resisted the moan that leapt to her lips. "Not now," she whispered into the ear closest to her lips. Her companion giggled. Another hand squirmed beneath her to lightly stroke her back.
A hand found her breast. Skin quickly tightened beneath curious fingers. She arched up.
A loud pounding at the door attempted to end any more play. Her new friends ignored it. Hands caressed and stroked and pinched.
The door opened suddenly. The male dancer, a man who had no right to be as well formed as he was, jerked up from where he'd been attending to Xena's lips with his own. "Excuse me?"
Xena caught his chin, "Never mind them."
More kissing and stroking.
Out the corner of her eye she watched as her seneschal oversaw the preparation of her bath. Clothes and food were laid out.
Heat pooled. Muscles tightened.
Vidalis, perhaps the worst seneschal she'd ever had the displeasure to employ, cleared his throat.
The handsome male dancer's hand pumped in and out. The pretty woman's tongue lapped at a nipple. Her breath quickened.
"Really Empress. You have an entire day ahead of you."
He added a third finger. She turned her attention to the other nipple. Everything turned taunt. Then the languid relaxation returned.
She quickly moved out from between the dancers and headed towards the bath that had just been drawn. As damp skin immersed itself in hot water she listened to Vidalis. He was so very good at seeing off her new friends. This time there was only a little shouting. The shock and anger was muted. She found it always was when she took more then one at a time. That sense that they were special wasn't quite as prevalent then.
Xena let herself sink further into the bath. Let the heat drain the ache away from muscles and joints. Her groan of relief was caught by the hot water and turned to bubbles that gently moved to the surface and disturbed the flower petals floating there.
Vidalis soon reappeared. His portly form distorted by the water. She pushed herself back up and took in a deep breath. She'd surfaced mid-sentence and Vidalis didn't bother to start his tirade again. "—And you know full well you've got too many things to do today to waste your entire morning in bed with a bunch of dancers."
"They're my loyal subjects Vidalis. What kind of an empress would I be if I didn't hear their grievances?"
"No, they're the loyal subjects of that Persian you seem so keen to keep on the throne. He was very upset with their absence this morning at breakfast."
She waved a hand dismissively and nodded to a servant. The girl curtsied quickly then dashed over to wash Xena's hair. "Slowly," she murmured. Then to Vidalis, "Darius will survive. At this point he's still grateful I let him live."
"And you're a fool if you think he'll stay indebted an eternity."
She twisted in the bath to stare at him, her pale eyes narrowing menacingly, "And your a fool to think you can speak to me that way."
Vidalis must have realized he'd taken liberty, his normally pallid skin grew a shade paler and he bowed nervously, "Apologies Empress."
"See that Darius is brought to my office in an hour's time. Push back the meeting with the ministry."
The seneschal quickly left the room, taking the majority of the servants with him. Only the young woman remained. Xena watched the girl as she ducked her head and continued her ministrations. She was a pretty thing with hair like spun sugar. She was dressed in the white and gold tunics all servants in the castle wore and her curves complimented the drape of the fabric well. She reached up to touch the girl's cheek then stopped herself. She did have a long day ahead of her and seducing the help would only make it longer.
"You're new," she said.
The girl took up a gold bowl, filled it with water then used it to rinse out Xena's hair.
"I've worked in the kitchen most of my time here."
She reached to fill the bowl again and Xena caught her hand then held it close to examine it. "These aren't the hands of a girl confined to the kitchens."
"I told stories," she confessed, "played songs."
"An entertainer? And what has you here now scrubbing the Empress's back?"
The girl blushed.
Xena smiled. "Serena usually attends to me in the morning. A favor owed?"
The girl bit her lip then looked up at Xena with eyes like a meadow in the summer. "I wanted to see you, Serena agreed to switch with me for the day."
Xena allowed herself to reach out and stroke the girl's cheek. She ducked her head and tried to fill the bowl again. Xena's hands stilled her. "Perhaps you'd do a better job if you joined me?"
The girl looked up and smiled.
Xena glanced at the sun light now streaming through the window. It would be close, but she had time.
Xena surprised herself when she managed to make it to her office on time. She'd taken a seat behind the large polished oak desk and was trying to look busy going over reports from a province in Chin when the doors swung open and Darius swept in. His perfume tickled her nose before he was even halfway across the long room.
She'd specifically had the office built that way—forcing her guests to cross the marble at a hurried pace to reach the chairs before her desk in a timely fashion. She delighted watching the skinny and fat alike run. Darius didn't move as quickly. He took his time. He eyed the tapestries, mosaics and the beautifully carved statues that lined the room. He seemed to take particular delight in the mosaic that made up the floor at the center of the room. Xena had to admit he had good taste. The tiles had been imported from Rome and arranged to show Xena receiving her chakram from Ares. The story had changed over the years and even she had started to believe that it was the action of a benevolent god choosing a new leader to unite Greece.
Darius toed the tile work a moment and Xena found herself almost standing to join him. Finally, pleased to have made the Empress wait he finished crossing the room and took a seat. Xena refused to allow herself to be goaded into irritation by the man. It was a daily trial when they were in each other's company.
"I hear you enjoyed the talents of my dancers last night?"
She looked for some pool of calm at her center.
"They were quite entertaining. Though they seemed too tire easily."
He smiled. "The rest of us are mere mortals Xena. You must remember this."
He wiped at his long nose and the multitude of gold bracelets on his arms jangled with the movement. She noticed that more gold appeared to have been weaved into the dark curls of his hair and beard. It reminded her of a few wigs she owned. They'd need to be rewoven, the braids made more intricate, for the next time she wore them. Wouldn't do to be out fashioned by a sycophant like Darius of Persia.
"Now we still must discuss these expectations you've saddled me with," he asserted.
"I have few expectations Darius. Really all I ask is that you maintain the terms of our treaty."
"And provide you with more then two thirds of my standing army."
"You should be pleased to have any army Darius. In Indus it's hoplites that ride the elephants." She said it all with a smile, her white teeth gnashing at the words.
He ignored what she said, "Every day you move my armies further from my borders. I don't have Egypt's navy Xena. And now I don't have much of an army."
"You think Egypt will invade?"
She leaned on her desk, steepling her fingers together, "Unlike you I have a cordial relationship with Cleopatra."
He raised an eyebrow. They were well groomed. She wondered if he plucked them. "As cordial as Rome's?"
He watched her, waiting for the sneer that always crossed her face at the mention of Rome. She resisted, lest she give the weasel more satisfaction. "I like to think so. Cleopatra is an old friend, and trade between our nations has always been forthright. She won't risk that for Persia."
"You're asking me to trust you Xena. I think we're both adult enough to admit that that's a silly request."
She broke the steeple created by her hands. Her knuckles popped loudly. "I've allowed you to keep your throne, and I've allowed you to keep some small part of your army, but be under no illusions Darius, Persia is mine. And Cleopatra knows that."
Darius was a tan man, his skin had a rich olive tone that darkened easily in the sun. Xena watched him calmly now as he flushed bright red. She thought she saw a vein briefly bulge on his brow. "You bitch," he finally spat out.
She clapped, the noise hollow in the expansive room, "I love your way with words Darius. The people of Persia must marvel at your cleverness."
He looked liked he wanted to lunge across the desk. Xena found herself hoping he would. But the King of Persia caught himself. His eyes, hateful and venomous, never left her own. She noted the way he glared and the way his hands gripped the chair, his knuckles white.
"You hubris will be your downfall." It was an attempt at a threat—or an insult—his way of attempting to unnerve her as she'd so viciously unnerved him.
She cocked her head, "As it was yours? Don't blame me for the crumbling of your empire. You had the army, the wealth. You were a fool and this—sitting here in my glorious presence? Think of it as your penance." There was no humor in her tone. Darius needed a lesson in humility and Xena, his empress, was obliged to teach him.
Suitably chastised Darius settled. Part of it irritated Xena. Their relationship had developed a predictable rhythm. Darius took things too far, Xena put him in his place, Darius bristled at the control she exerted, Xena sighed. Wait a month and then repeat. It would have been much more interesting to have just put the man to death when she'd won Persia. Set a governor on his throne and enjoyed the war that would have undoubtedly resulted.
But a puppet king brought peace. A puppet king bolstered her army and her coffers. Darius dealt with the rabble-rousers who remained in Persia and allowed Xena to focus her attention elsewhere. Like the borders she shared with Rome. Or Egypt. With Cleopatra as queen the nation had prospered. It could never rival the might or size of Greece or Rome, but it commanded the seas of the Mediterranean and worked as an excellent buffer, both between Greece and Rome and between Europe and the kingdoms of Africa and Arabia.
Darius finally left her office much more bitter and downtrodden then he'd arrived and Xena went to a meeting of her ministers. She listened to her foreign affairs minister argue with the military minister about Persia. The commerce minister and arts minister then had a huge blow up over a series of plays to be preformed in the capital next month. Apparently the plays chosen had some nasty things to say about the government and about the men and women who supported it financially. Her commerce man was terrified of what it would do to trade. Her arts man demanded freedom of speech.
Years ago when she'd marched into Corinth and claimed her first Grecian city-state she'd never anticipated just how boring statecraft could be. Waging war, humbling warlords and kings, outwitting generals; those were the things that quickened the beat of her heart and caused her blood to sing. Lecturing Darius and listening to well-dressed little men argue over plays? The stuff of Xena's nightmares.
She half hoped Rome would make a bid for her land or Lao Mao would try to take back the provinces Xena had claimed. Anything to end the monotony of the meetings that now made up Xena's day.
The ministry meeting final puttered to an end. Xena plastered the polite look of indifference on her face and thanked the men and women who'd gathered. She wondered if her Imperial Guard was still drilling. It was nearly noon and they'd soon be gathering for the midday meal, but if she quickened her pace she'd still arrive in time to spar for a bit.
Her steps were loud on the marble floor. Another set of footsteps caught her ear and she stopped and turned to see who was following her to the practice fields.
Marcus, the only general to regularly make his home in Corinth stopped short and bowed abruptly. "Apologies Empress." She frowned. Marcus was as old as friend as she had. The length and quality of their relationship was precisely why he was the only general stationed in the capital. It was irritating to hear him call her Empress and to watch him bow like one of the other sycophants in the palace.
"Marcus," she said, "Something the matter. I was just heading to the practice yard."
"I've just received some," he paused, "interesting news. I think we should discuss it in private."
She sighed. A sword fight with a dozen of her best trained soldiers would have to wait.
Back in her office Marcus had the courtesy to wait until Xena was settled behind her desk before he took a seat opposite her. Servants appeared and offered them food and wine but Marcus declined. Xena took a bite of cheese and waited for him to speak.
He did so, but only after he was certain the last servant had left. "I think we might have a problem."
Nothing good, if Marcus's insistence of privacy was anything to go by. "Rome?"
He shook his head, "Apollonia."
It was a province she'd taken from the Illyrians many years before. Rome constantly lusted after it and with good reason. It's wine and fig orchards were considered some of the finest in the known world and the harbor in Apollonia proper was one of the main ports of commerce between Greece and Rome.
"After Philemon died you never appointed a new governor."
"That's because Talmadeus hasn't had any trouble."
"And you know why," Marcus asked. She shrugged. "He's a clever man. He's been having Philemon's widow manage the province."
That…that was interesting. "Didn't know Philemon was married."
"Apparently they were wed about six months before he passed. She's been living in his home and running the entire province from it. It's quite an open secret."
"Then why has it taken this long to reach Corinth?"
Marcus shook his head, "I wish I knew. I suspect the two of them have reached some sort of arrangement. He takes the credit and keeps us out of her hair while she plays little lady queen in one of the richest provinces in Greece."
Xena leaned back in her seat, the leather and wood that made it up creaked with the movement. "I'm going to have to go up there and sort this out aren't I?"
"I was actually going to suggest I go. You've got the meeting of Congress in little more then a month. Wouldn't do for you to be out of the city."
No it wouldn't at all, but Xena desperately needed a change of pace and scenery. A trip to a province she's avoided for nearly five years was a good excuse, and dealing with Talmadeus and this widow would be an excellent diversion from the monotony she faced every day.
"No," she said, "I'll go. I'll leave in the morning in fact."
Marcus raised an eyebrow, "You sure that's wise?"
They were alone and so she let the veneer crack, let the old friend see the shadow she'd become. "Maybe not, but Marcus, if I don't get out of this city I'm afraid I'll kill someone at Congress next month."
"So you abandoning Corinth is for the good of the nation then?"
"The good of the world."
He allowed himself a small smile in his Empress's presence. Xena realized it had been years since she'd seen him smile. "I'll make the arrangements. You want company?"
"No. You stay here. I'll take a small contingent of Imperial Guard. Should be enough."
"Just be careful Xena. Talmadeus has a huge garrison there in Apollonia. If he snaps—"
Xena would have her first armed rebellion since taking Persia three years previously. Hopefully avoidable, but in her current mood it was far from regrettable.
"What about this woman? Anything on her beyond her capability of running an entire province in secret."
He took a deep breath that raised Xena's hackles. Marcus was preparing to give her news she wouldn't like. "That may be the bigger part of the problem. She's actually very popular, and not just in Apollonia. She had a play in Athens that nearly started a riot. Another one's supposed to go up here next month and it's been killing me to work out the security for it."
"She's a playwright. Gabrielle of Apollonia."
The trip from Corinth to Apollonia was uneventful, as were nearly all journeys now in Greece. While the guards she brought drilled up on deck and got in the way of the sailors Xena spent her time in her cabin, appropriated from the captain, and poured over the collective works of the playwright.
She seemed to be a good writer. She had a lot to say and apparently had a number of axes to grind. Some plays were clearly anti-monarchy, others anti-war. Xena preferred that ones that suggested that young Gabrielle had a hatred for Rome rivaled only by Xena's own.
But the politics were subtle. They weren't forced. Writers using their work as political soapboxes is what had led to her closing the Academy of Performing Bards in Athens. Xena didn't go to a play or bard performance to be lectured, but to be entertained. This Gabrielle seemed to do both with as deft a hand as Xena had ever seen.
She looked forward to meeting the clever little thing.
When they docked in Apollonia Xena was surprised to find no soldiers at the port waiting to greet them. The lighthouse on the rocks to the south of the harbor should have spotted her ship hours ago and Talmadeus, if not greeting her himself, should have sent an escort down to the docks to meet her. Things were definitely not right in Apollonia.
The dockmaster, a small greasy man dressed in a fine silk shirt and pants was the only remotely official person to meet her as she disembarked. He bowed quite a bit and sent his own men scattering to see that Xena's men and luggage were dealt with appropriately.
"Welcome to Apollonia," he grumbled, with a series of bows that had her looking at the top of his bald little head more then at his face.
She waved him off and took stock of the harbor. It was busy and crowded, but it looked to be well run. Customs agents moved from ship to ship with troops of soldiers following them and captains bowed and appeared to be amicable to the invasion of their vessels.
"Things seem to be running smoothly," she said.
"Oh of course Empress. From your lips to Captain Talmadeus's hand. The finest governor we've ever had."
"He calls himself that?"
The dockmaster looked puzzled, "Should he not? I know he let's Philamon's widow live in the governor's palace, but he is our lord and has been for nearly five years now."
She'd let things get out of hand here. She should have known better. Apollonia and the outlying country was prosperous and efficient and never seemed to want for men or money. She'd taken it for granted. Let Talmadeus get a big head on his shoulders. It was a mistake.
"Will you be traveling to the garrison this evening Empress?"
She looked out to the harbor. It faced west—towards the setting sun. The sky and water met in a blaze of orange and red light that reflected off the water and the sails of the ship in harbor. It almost looked like it was all aflame.
And it would be well past night fall before she'd arrive at the garrison. She needed something closer.
"The governor's palace? Where is it?" She should have known, a better empress would have known every tile and stone that built up the palace. She didn't even know where it lay in the city.
The dockmaster pointed northeast. "Outside to the northeast. Past the vineyards. Do you need a guide?"
"My men and I can find it."
The men were behind her, quickly pulling antsy horses off the ship and loading them with her luggage. It was a good and orderly group she brought with her. Draco, the leader of the Imperial Guard, had insisted on traveling with her despite her desire to keep the group small. He tightened the straps on her horse's saddle and led the tall palomino to Xena. "We're ready to leave Empress," he muttered quietly. Draco was always exceedingly polite. It probably had something to do with the nasty scar that traveled from his left temple and ended at the jawline on the right side of his face. A gift at the end of his career as a warlord and slaver. He'd run into Xena's army on the border between Macedonia and Thrace. It had been a choice between taking the scar and becoming her soldier or ending his career as a sightless head on a pike.
She took the reigns from him and smoothly mounted the horse. Draco followed suit and watched her for the subtle signal to move out. She nodded her head and he raised his fist. Behind her leather creaked and metal clanged as the soldiers in her retinue mounted their horses and brought them into line behind her.
Draco brought his own horse, a dark brown stallion, up beside Xena. She clicked her tongue, and spurred her horse into a canter. If they traveled quickly enough they'd be out of the city and to the governor's palace before nightfall.
She could see it in the distance, it's pale marble columns shimmering in the warm glow of the sunset. They were soon out of the busy confines of the city and into a countryside that looked almost unnaturally orderly. Row after row of fig trees lined the fields, their wide leaves casting dark shadows on the rocky ground beneath. Wind whispered through the trees and carried with it the scent of ripe figs. Harvest time was nearly upon them.
The few people on the road all stopped to gaze at her group. And they must have looked rather impressive, glossy horses ridden by soldiers in the finest armor Greece could manufacture. Plumes of horse hair, died a deep purple, sprung from the crest of their Corinthian style helmets. Though their trip was peaceful the men all wore their helmets down so that they covered their faces.
Xena wore armor as well. It was all leather and brass with impressive looking shoulder guards that held up a purple cloak the exact same shade as the purple her soldiers wore. It was the shade worn only by the Empress and her personal guard. Even here in Apollonia, days away from the capitol in Corinth, the people knew what that color meant.
The other travelers ducked their heads in respect and moved off the road to allow her to pass. She did with a smile. It was as genuine as she could muster and she hoped it made her look more like a benevolent ruler and less like the warlord who'd last passed through the area.
They came to the gates of the palace soon enough. Soldiers—Xena's soldiers—stood guard. There were two of them. Their Corinthian helmets were polished so brightly that they reflected her own image when she looked down. The color of their cloaks and plumes were a deep red. The shade worn by all Grecian soldiers permanently stationed in garrisons. They were Talmadeus's soldiers. Far away from the fort they should be manning.
They didn't even try to cross their heavy spears. Instead they leaned them against the wall and hurried to open the heavy wrought iron gate that blocked her path. "Empress," they murmured with steep bows as she passed.
The path from gate to palace was long and curved and uphill. She had time to study the structure as she rode up. It was nearly too impressive for the area it overlooked, but someone had spent quite a few dinars on landscaping that muted the austerity built into the structure. Tall, well pruned trees and brightly painted statues obfuscated most of the building on approach.
More then two dozens steps of carved marble led from the path up to the door of the main palace. A thin man stood at the bottom step, his head bowed. "Empress," he said as soon as she was within hearing distance, "we'd heard you had arrived in Apollonia. I apologize for having no one there to greet you."
"And you're," she asked.
He stood up straight. He was taller then he looked; attractive, if maybe a little haggard in appearance. "Diomedes, Empress. I'm the seneschal."
"Thank you for meeting us, however I've come to meet your mistress, Gabrielle."
He blanched, "Apologies Empress. I've sent word for her to come greet you. It can sometimes be difficult to get her attention. If you'll pardon me one moment—" He didn't wait for Xena to excuse him, instead turning and running up the stairs two at a time.
She glanced at Draco who ducked his head in amusement.
They all sat still on their horses. No one appeared. Not the seneschal, not Gabrielle, not even a boy from the stables to take their horses.
"This Gabrielle certainly has an efficient staff," Draco said, not bothering to cover the sarcastic tone in his voice.
Xena agreed, "I get the feeling she doesn't have visitors often."
Just then there was a scream. The high pitched keen of a child in mortal fear. Xena and her soldiers all jerked in their saddles, hands falling to swords as they looked around for the threat.
A girl, no more then five, came running around the corner of the palace at break neck speed. She was covered in dirt and filth and her bright blue eyes were alight with fear. Behind her followed a small blond woman, only slightly less filthy.
The girl stopped abruptly at the sight of Xena. The woman, not yet noticing the horses, continued to chase. She stopped too when she realized the girl was staring ahead. Her eyes caught Xena's and widened in surprise—but not fear. Odd.
Draco, still spooked by the girl's earlier scream, yanked at the reigns of his horse and approached the woman and child. "Does your mistress usually condone this sort of screaming when guests arrive?"
The woman's green eyes narrowed, "what the mistress of this house does or does not condone is none of your concern soldier. Or is Greece now a martial state, obliged to follow the rules of the man with the biggest sword."
Draco sneered, "You need a lesson in manners."
Xena had no idea if he was about to reach for his sword or whip. Neither would be good. She kicked the side of her horse and rode up next to him, grabbing his arm. "Perhaps you do as well Draco. Or do you often threaten to beat our host?"
She looked back to the blond woman. She'd tucked the child behind herself protectively and watched them both with the sort of arrogance just not found in a servant.
"Gabrielle of Apollonia I presume?"
The woman raised an eyebrow, then curtsied, "You presume correctly Empress. What gave me away? The filthy clothes, or the cutting remark."
"The unbridled arrogance. A common trait in most of your plays."
The woman's lips quirked up into something resembling a smile. "I had no idea I could count the Empress of Greece amongst my fans."
"I never said I was a fan."
The blond laughed suddenly. When she smiled again it was warm and almost polite.
Just then Diomedes came running back down the stairs two at a time. He looked from Xena to the blond woman and child. Then he quietly whispered a prayer to some god Xena doubt could hear.
"Diomedes, I see you finally arrived," Gabrielle said. The humor in her voice indicated that she knew full well the seneschal had been running through the palace looking for her. "If you could make sure the guest house is aired out? And that another place is set for dinner."
Diomedes nodded and then wordlessly headed back up the stairs.
Gabrielle turned her attention back to Xena. "I'm afraid I'll have to insist that you stay in the main house this evening. The guest house isn't nearly large enough for you and your guards. And I hope you'll join me for dinner?"
Xena found herself nodding despite finding the arrangements less then satisfactory. "Of course."
She quickly dismounted her own horse and handed the reigns to Draco. He leaned down in his saddle. "Should I send guards with you Empress?"
"That won't be necessary. Enjoy the guest house and get plenty of sleep. We'll be leaving before dawn in the morning."
Draco's dark eyes looked to where the playwright stood waiting, then back to Xena. He nodded. "As you wish Empress."
Draco righted himself in his saddle and raised his hand again. The guard quickly realigned itself behind him and followed him to the stables. Xena could just make the building out and saw an older man and young boy hurriedly moving toward Draco and her men.
"None of your soldiers are joining us?"
Xena tried not to jump. The little playwright was quiet. She hadn't even heard her footsteps on the gravel path. She turned and found the playwright and child watching her with nearly identical looks of curiosity. The girl must have been her daughter. They both had their heads cocked just so and their right hands both rested on their hips. But Gabrielle had green eyes, like the water at the shore's edge. The girl's were a brilliant blue with an openness not shared by her mother's.
"Draco thought I ought to have an escort, but we're in a palace usually reserved for governors I appoint. I told him I'd be safe."
"And you will be." Gabrielle clapped her hands together loudly, "Now, let's go inside and enjoy a feast. Your luggage will be brought to your room shortly." She turned to escort Xena up the stairs, the small girl trailed distantly behind her. The smaller woman took Xena's arm in her own and Xena, again, found herself surprised at the liberty being taken and at her own apathy regarding it. "I must apologize for how we were introduced," Gabrielle confided, "Eve has just reached that stage where baths are the stuff of nightmares."
"And you chased her down yourself?"
Gabrielle looked confused.
"Rather then a nanny?" Xena elaborated.
"Oh. No Eve doesn't have a nanny, just a tutor."
"Is that very common for women of you station," Xena ventured.
Gabrielle shook her head, "I wouldn't know. I just know I was raised without the benefits of nannies or servants and I'd like to see my daughter raised in a similar fashion."
Inside Gabrielle personally saw Xena to her rooms and departed with a deep bow. Xena noticed the way the younger woman's hair fell around her shoulders as she bowed. It was well kept hair, not a tangle in sight, and not a wig. It was rare to see a woman of Gabrielle's means with real hair. They all seemed to shave or bind it up and then went traipsing about with hair in unnaturally bright shades of red and yellow and black. Gabrielle's golden hair was like flax seed, warm and bright and natural. She stood back up to her full height, her head only coming up to Xena's shoulders. The woman's hair was long, and Xena thought it made her look much younger then the lines around her mouth and eyes suggested she was.
The woman's voice had gone up an octave or two since coming in the house. Xena wondered if it was the surroundings, or the absence of guards. "I look forward to sharing dinner with you Empress. Now if you'll excuse me," and like her seneschal before her she didn't actually wait for Xena to excuse her, she just shut the heavy, carved oak door and left Xena to a very large, tastefully decorated and empty room.
Just beyond the walls she heard the girl, Eve, screech again. And a smile spread on her face despite how unbecoming the child's screams should have been. It reminded her of her own childhood. She and Lyceus hiding in the barn for fear of the baths or chores their mother would inflict on them. She wondered if Gabrielle's hands were as coarse as her mother's. Did she have siblings? Parents she supported with her obvious wealth?
And why did Xena even care? What drove her to wonder about the slight playwright with the terrible manners and the poorly run home?
She settled onto a settee and closed her eyes. Her fingers ran across the exquisitely carved feet of the seat and her mind wandered. She was sleepy, she realized. Someone had set a large fire in the room to chase away the cool oncoming evening and the room was quiet, absent of the servants that usually bustled in and out of Xena's quarters in other palaces.
She'd forgotten how peaceful it was to be so alone.
She slept. If just for a little while.
Okay. It wasn't the way she'd planned to spend her evening. It certainly wasn't the way she'd planned to meet the ruler of her nation. Not that she'd ever actually planned to meet Xena, Destroyer of Nations. Xena the Conqueror. Xena, the woman she'd treated like an average traveler. Some woman who didn't travel with a huge retinue of well-armed and well-trained soldiers.
By the gods, Gabrielle had treated the Empress of Greece like a casual acquaintance!
How was she alive? How was her head on her shoulders and not on a pike outside the house's wall?
And she'd been dirty. She and Eve had spent the afternoon in the gardens and then they'd gone fishing and then they'd spent far too much time in the mud. And she'd gone up and taken the Empress of Greece's arm smelling like fish and coated in mud. How mortifying. How terribly embarrassing. If Euripides or Homer heard they'd never let her forget it. Their next read through would be full of wisecracks about the filthy Bard of Potidea. Doesn't even bother to tidy up when greeting royalty!
Gabrielle sunk low into her bath. She'd had it drawn as soon as she was out of the Empress's sight. Sure she'd first greeted the woman smelling like fish, but she was bound and determined to make a better second impression. She had nice clothes. She could do her hair in a fashion other then free and scraggly. She'd even wear makeup. Okay, Homer and Euripides might tease her about the makeup, but as soon as they sorted out that she'd worn it to dine with the Empress of Greece they'd get over it. And maybe they wouldn't know who they were dining with. Maybe Homer would show up in his underpants like he'd done three days previously. Or Euripides would come in so thoroughly drunk he'd vomit in the Empress's lap.
Gabrielle jerked up in the back, the warm, soapy water sloshing up over the side. That wouldn't do. She couldn't have her other guest's vomiting in the Empress's lap. Because that's the kind of thing that was hilarious amongst friends but absolutely mortifying out in public. They'd hear about it in Athens or Corinth and then all her work would be for nothing.
She heaved herself out of her bath and grabbed her robe, cinching the silk cord tightly around her waist.
She'd have to send Diomedes out to warn Euripides and Homer. And to see that the Empress's luggage actually got to the Empress. And she'd have to make sure Eve was clean herself. Diomedes was awful at handling her.
Hopefully Eve would realize a bath was in her best interest for the evening, but the way that girl had been acting lately she wouldn't be surprised if she was dancing naked in her room and howling like a monkey imported from Indus.
Shit. The Empress of Greece, Indus and Chin was staying in Gabrielle's house. This was not something she could have planned.
Somehow, by the mercies of the gods of Olympus, Eve had managed to take her bath without supervision. She'd cleaned her ears and washed her hair and was sitting patiently on her bed waiting for her mother. Gabrielle sighed with relief at the sight of her daughter all clean and fresh looking.
Although she wasn't wearing any clothes. That was a bit of a problem. Most nights she wouldn't have minded if Eve chose to avoid clothes, after all it wasn't Gabrielle's ass that would get stuck full of splinters, but tonight a bare-bottomed daughter at dinner wouldn't do.
"Come on Eve, how about this dress?"
Eve had her hands folded over her chest. She shook her dark head of hair vigorously. "No!"
"A toga? We can call you little Lord Alexander."
"Well what then? Because I'm not having you come to dinner in nothing but what the gods gave you."
Eve shot up off her bed and past her mother, tugging on a pair of pants. Gabrielle sighed. She snatched them away from her daughter.
"No," she mimicked perfectly.
"Why not? You wear pants."
"I'm also an adult. And I don't wear them when dining with one of the most powerful people in the entire world!"
"You said the Empress is just a greedy bully."
Gabrielle sighed again and pinched the bridge of her nose. Her daughter was deliberately being a brat. She knelt down so they were on the same level. "Okay, I know you've got plans for what you want to wear and what you want to eat and when you want to do it all, but tonight, for me, I need you to not be a little terror spawned from the depths of Tartarus. Can you do that?"
"Can I wear pants?"
Such an ass. "Fine. But one word about what I say about this country in the privacy of our home and I'll burn every pair of pants you own or will ever own. Got that?"
"Yes, mom." When did her five year old daughter become a surly teenager?
She pulled down a nice shirt to go with the pants, so that at least her daughter wouldn't look a thug from the back alleys of Apollonia. "Wear this shirt. And your clean boots. Clear?"
The girl, now getting exactly what she wanted, happily pulled out her boots and sat down on the carpet to brush them off.
One fire sorted, just a billion more before dinner to sort out.
Diomedes was waiting for her outside Eve's room.
"The Empress is here."
"The Empress of Greece. And Indus!"
"And Chin. Don't forget Chin Diomedes."
He put his hand to his chest, "Oh how could I. Did you know she was coming?"
"Of course not. Did you?"
"A few hours ago. I've had half the people in this house looking for you. Where'd you go?"
"That spring in the hills. Was teaching Eve how to fish."
"That explains the smell earlier. Do you think she noticed?"
Gabrielle shook her head, "I hope not." She took the seneschal's arm and pulled him close, "Can you do me a favor and tell Homer and Euripides. I need them on their best behavior tonight."
"Still remembering that incident with Euripides and the Roman Merchants Guild?"
Gabrielle made a sour face. "Who could forget? Best behavior Diomedes. And if they're already loused then just lock them in their rooms until morning."
Diomedes threw her a lazy mock salute, "My pleasure my lady." He bowed and walked away, carefully moving his bottom out of the way before she could kick it.
Things were starting to arrange themselves. Her child was clean and wearing clothes, her seneschal was off to make sure the dinner was prepared and the other guests in good order. And Gabrielle was still in her silk robe.
She jogged back to her own room, her bare feet slapping loudly against the polished tile.
Clothes. She needed something good looking. But not too ostentatious . The Empress had arrived with only about twenty soldiers and not a single servant. It wouldn't do for Gabrielle to dress nicer then her ruler.
And her hair. She reached her room and sat down in front of her mirror, tugging at the rapidly drying strands of blond hair. Should she put it up? Give it some curl? That was apparently popular in Athens. Or maybe wear it down so she didn't look like she was trying too hard? Or a compromise. A nice ponytail or bun. A ponytail. There was something youthful about the way it bobbed when she moved.
She peered at herself in the dim reflection of the mirror. The light from the lamps and fire place cast long shadows on her face. She looked old. Tired. Haggard. She poked and prodded at the skin, pulling it back and forth and watching the wrinkles appear and disappear. Not even thirty and already she looked old beyond her years. She reached for the powders and creams that were stacked near her mirror. They softened her skin, pulled years away from her face. The kohl around her eyes exaggerated the green of her irises. The red on her lips did the same.
By her own estimation she wasn't as pretty as the Empress. She never would be. They'd led wildly different lives, but she could at least look pretty fantastic when she wanted to. She selected a turquoise dress of some diaphanous material Talmadeus had given her once. Maybe not the most politically savvy idea, to wear a gift from the garrison commander, but she liked the way it hung on her sturdy figure.
Dressed and made up she shut the door to her room and headed back to her daughter's. She entered and found Eve standing near the fire place and hopping up and down as she tried to tug on a very clean looking boot. Gabrielle smiled and crossed the room, holding her daughter steady so she could pull on the boot easier.
"Don't you look very dapper this evening."
Eve looked up at her mother and gave her a toothless grin. Gabrielle frowned. "What happened to your front teeth?"
"I lost them!"
"Both? At the same time. In the span of twenty minutes?"
Eve nodded eagerly. "They just popped right out!" She ran over to her bedside and returned with two bloody little bits of bone. Gabrielle tried to look proud, but her daughter walking around with her teeth in her hand made her recoil just a bit. Eve seemed to pick up on her mother's distaste and started to pull back.
Gabrielle smiled weakly and knelt down. "Come on," she said, "let's have a look at them."
Eve came forward again, her tiny hand outstretched. Gabrielle took it and peered down at the teeth.
"Both of your front teeth. You're going to be stuck on soup for months."
"Euripides said he lost nearly all his teeth when he was my age. He just ate bread and wine."
"That would explain a lot about Euripides now," Gabrielle muttered. "You'll be skipping the wine, but your welcome to the bread." She closed her daughter's hand over the teeth, "Now, what should we do with these? Sew them into a rocky field and hope for undead soldiers?"
Eve's face brightened, "like dragon teeth!"
"Exactly. And we'll make Euripides do all the planting. How's that sound," Gabrielle asked, her voice dropping to a more conspiratorial level.
"Yeah!" Eve said, copying her mother's expression.
"Good, now go put those teeth away so we can go down to dinner."
Eve ran back over to her bedside and tucked the two teeth into a little pouch. "Is that really the Empress," she asked over her shoulder.
"I expect so. No one else would be riding around with a compliment of soldiers in purple."
"What's so special about purple?"
"It's the Empress's color. She only lets a few people in the whole world wear that shade."
Eve considered this, "So if I wore that purple she'd string me up on a cross and let the crows eat my entrails?"
Both of Gabrielle's eyebrows shot up in surprise, "where on earth did you get that idea?"
"Homer said that that's what the Empress does to people who disobey."
"I think Homer and I are going to have a talk about what's appropriate to tell a five year old girl."
Xena was surprised to find the dining hall completely empty. Sure there were lit fires and braziers, and a table set with expensive tableware. And she could definitely smell food cooking, but the dining hall itself was devoid of people.
No one responded. She slowly walked through the room and vaguely wished she'd brought a sword. An empty dining room at dinner time was an unnerving place to be. She approached the table and noticed the flagons of wine set out, and the number of places set. Five. She, her host, maybe the girl, but who were the other two?
The door she'd entered through burst open, swinging wide on it's hinges and slamming into the wall that held it. It shouldn't have startled her but it did. Fortunately Xena had spent years perfecting a gaze that could freeze the Mediterranean. She schooled her features into her best frigid gaze of disdain and turned.
The two who entered were not whom she'd expected to find. They were both men, and they both looked a little drunk. The little one had shaggy hair and an even shaggier beard and the good grace to look almost bashful when he saw Xena. His tall companion was classically attractive but seemed to possess an ego almost as large and as irritating as their host's. Maybe even larger. His face was flushed red, and judging by the way he sauntered towards Xena with a distinctive swagger in his narrow hips, it was definitely not from lust or embarrassment.
"What? Hark. Homer, do my eyes deceive me or have we been visited by a goddess?"
An ebony eyebrow raised.
The shaggy little man grinned and Xena realized he was just as drunk as his friend. "Maybe, or perhaps a nymph our host plucked from a spring on her journey."
The taller drunk clutched his hands over his heart, "Of course! A nymph. Those eyes sparkle like water at the shore's edge. That hair, black as darkest night. Those features, too beautiful to be mortal, and that smile, too warm to be that of a goddess. Tell me, what spring did Gabrielle pluck you from? Or did she even pluck you? Perhaps she just spoke. I know our host and her way with words. Euripides pales in comparison to her tongue. They say it was forged by silver stolen from Hephaestus himself."
"It's true," the shaggy one said, "her words come from some place beyond our world, gifted to her by the gods. Her stories so intricately woven that even the masterful works of Homer himself cannot compare."
The tall one pointed at himself, "Euripides marvels at her talent fair nymph."
The shaggy one bowed, "And Homer marvels at her guests. Please, spare us both this agony that's struck us nearly dumb. Pray. Give us a name that we might ascribe to your beauty nymph."
Xena heard a noise and looked up past the two idiots. Gabrielle stood at the doorway with Eve's hand clutched in her own. She looked…effervescent. Nothing like the hardy mother she'd met at the stairs, but more like the regal playwright whose plays Xena had spent her last few days reading.
Except for Gabrielle's face. The horror Xena saw there was unmistakable. Gabrielle started to intervene but Xena held up a hand and returned her attention to the drunks.
"Xena," she said matter of factly.
Homer stood back up straight and shared a look with Euripides, whose hands had fallen from his chest. They then turned back to her. She smiled, sweetly.
Then, to everyone's surprise, Euripides lurched forward and took her hand in his own smaller and smoother ones. "Xena. What misfortune has given you such a name," he asked with apparent concern, "to be saddled with such a name…how cruel could your parents be?"
Gabrielle had dropped her daughter's hand and tried to intervene again, "Euripides—"
Xena gripped one of the hands holding her own a bit more tightly and moved close, into the man's personal space. "Why is my name such a misfortune?"
He his overly dramatic concern shifted to humor, "Because all women who claim the name Xena pale beneath the bright light that is our Empress."
Behind him Gabrielle stopped, inert, though it looked like she was still mildly irritated with her other guests.
Euripides brought Xena's hand up to his lips and gently kissed it, "But I think it is not fortune that has given you your name, but fate."
Xena wanted to be thoroughly irritated with the drunk too, but she had to admit, "that's a wonderfully circuitous way of greeting your Empress."
The shaggy Homer smiled, "Apologies Empress, not for our performance, but for our somewhat inebriated state. We wanted to get into character."
"Mmm," Euripides said, his lips still attached to Xena's hand, he looked up, placed another gentle kiss on her knuckles and stood up straight, "We were trying our hand at being buffoonish guests intent on mortifying our host and charming her most esteemed guest."
Gabrielle slapped a hand down on the tall man's back. Xena hadn't even noticed the woman move the fifteen or so paces from the door to where she stood with Euripides.
"And you succeeded most admirably. Perhaps you should perform rather then write the plays," Gabrielle said rather churlishly, then to Xena, "Apologies Empress. I suppose this means I must introduce you. Euripides," the tall one bowed, "and Homer," the shaggy one followed suit, "guests and friends."
"And fellow artists," Euripides offered.
"Maybe better," Homer added, "though not nearly as wealthy."
"Or as successful," Gabrielle said with a smile.
Homer waved his hand dismissively, "semantics Gabrielle. Afforded the same opportunities as you Euripides and I would be giants of the creative forum."
"Giants," Euripides scoffed, "We would be titans. All other bards and playwrights and poets would cower before our literary might."
Gabrielle slung her arms over each man's shoulders and pulled them tightly against her, "And yet, it's my plays that cause riots of pleasure in Athens."
"I hear we'll be having a riot in Corinth soon enough," Xena said, reinserting herself into the conversation.
"I've heard similar Empress," Gabrielle responded.
"Can we please eat," the forgotten Eve moaned from the door.
Euripides and Homer shared another look over Gabrielle's head then slipped from her grasp and turned their attention to the child. They started describing their passion for the coming meal in the most flowery language Xena had ever heard. She watched with wide eyed surprise that was maybe a little unusual for the most powerful woman in the world.
"I really am sorry," Gabrielle said quietly, "but at least they're behaving."
"This is behaving?"
"No vomit or insults and they're not dueling each other with the flatware. They're being positively virtuous."
As soon as the last of the dinner party was seated a second door, receded into an alcove, opened and servants trekked in wordlessly carrying a variety of foods. They places the meal out over the table and left again, without even a glance to the guests or hosts.
"Please, eat," Gabrielle said, and Xena was surprised to notice that her two writer friends had actually waited for permission before they tore into the platters before them. Though Eve sat at Gabrielle's right it was Homer who helped serve her.
It was all very familiar and efficient.
"Empress," Gabrielle asked, pausing with her hand over some lamb that sat between them, "is everything all right?"
Xena looked down and realized she hadn't even begun to fill her own plate. "Yes," she tried to cover, "I was just trying to figure out what I should eat."
Euripides offered up his own preference, "the lamb can only be compared to ambrosia. I suspect it confers godhood on to all who sample it."
"The lamb then," Xena said with some finality, and she reached for the platter that Gabrielle was currently wrestling some meat off of.
Soon enough the conversation began to flow again, and dinner continued on amicably enough. Xena, used to being the center of attention, was almost relieved to find the opposite true at Gabrielle's table. It was the child, Eve, whom everyone seemed to focus on.
And the child responded with a wit and verve that was fairly uncommon for one so young. Xena found herself almost enchanted with the girl. And with her mother too. Gabrielle led the conversation easily enough, but whenever Xena turned to watch her she found those green eyes staring back. Attentive. Curious.
The final course eventually came, and when every last sweet pastry and bit of fruit had been devoured Homer leaned back in his seat and considered his table mates. "And what shall be our entertainment for the evening. A song. Some of Eve's poetry?" He nudged the girl who smiled back, "a play?"
Gabrielle leaned over her empty plate and reached for her wine, "Whatever it is I'm afraid I'll have to excuse myself."
"Moooooom," Eve moaned.
Gabrielle smiled affectionately and ran a hand over her daughter's dark hair, "I said I had to. You're welcome to join them. Nothing too ribald Homer."
"Please, do I look like Sappho?"
"Sappho," Xena asked.
Euripides used a bit of grape stem to pick at his teeth, "Our dear friend the Lyricist of Lesbos."
"She's brilliant," Gabrielle commented, "but a lot of her work isn't meant for little ears."
"Doesn't stop her though. When she coming back anyways?"
"Week after next I think," Gabrielle said immediately.
Her fellow playwrights shared a look that Xena didn't miss.
"You're close?" She shouldn't have asked.
"She's a dear friend." A cagey answer. How Xena would have answered. Her bright eyes narrowed in consideration.
Euripides, perhaps not as oblivious as his posture suggested looked to Eve, "I've finished a new play and I need some help reading through it. I hope you can help?"
"Not the Bacchae one," Homer moaned.
"No. This is a story about the strength of family. Eve, I need you to do something for me."
The girl nodded. Xena cast a glance at her mother and found those eyes again staring at her rather then following the conversation.
"I'm going to give you a line. Say it back." The girl nodded. Euripides gave her the line. Gabrielle sighed.
Eve submitted, for the pleasure of the table, the most malicious smile Xena had ever seen on someone who didn't have a weapon in their hand. "There is no benefit in the gifts of a bad man," the girl said. Her voice sounding awfully gravely like Alti's.
"Charming," Gabrielle said flatly. "Maybe don't have my daughter play Medea?"
Euripides stood up, "It is not my place to deny your daughter a role she so clearly desires."
"But it's my place to send you out of this house ass over tea kettle."
Homer gave out a short snort of laughter. Euripides looked positively derisive which only sent Homer into further peals of laughter. Eve contented herself with saying her line over again and again.
Xena had entered some sort of strange land apart from the one she ruled. Where children played murderous wives and people found it amusing and those of lesser station treated her like an equal rather then as their empress. And where a set of green eyes always seemed to find hers.
"All right," Homer said, wiping a few errant tears from his eyes, "No Medea. Maybe Helen of Troy. I'll play Menelaus and you can be the Egyptian."
Euripides took in a deep breath and considered it, "Very well, but only if I get to use the chariot."
"Both of you out," Gabrielle demanded.
Homer scooped Eve up and slung her over his shoulder. The girl squealed in response but didn't try to extricate herself. He came around the table and squatted so mother could kiss daughter goodnight and then both playwrights and the child left, leaving Xena alone with her fair haired host.
"So," Gabrielle leaned back in her chair, "perhaps we should discuss why you've come to my home with a retinue of your best soldiers."
The playwright certainly wasted no time. The door had barely closed behind her daughter. Xena's eyes narrowed. "Contrary to what you may have been told, this palace isn't yours."
A pale eyebrow lifted.
"I, and I alone decide who lives here," she continued.
"This was my husband's home," the playwright countered.
"He stayed in this palace because I appointed him governor. That is all."
"You'd have me leave?" The blond's head cocked to one side as she considered the Empress's words. At once Xena was reminded of the woman's daughter and the similarities between the two.
"Yes." The word came out in a much more confident tone then Xena had expected. She didn't feel nearly as controlled as she sounded.
It worked though. Gabrielle's face hardened.
"But first, let's continue discussing the liberties you've taken."
Xena looked past Gabrielle. There was a window behind the woman, and she could see the dark silhouette of hills in the night. "You live in this home as though you are Apollonia's governor. And now I hear you try to govern this land as well. Tell me Gabrielle, what gave you the right?"
The younger woman almost sneered, "You left Talmadeus in charge. He needed help. I helped. I've made no claims for the position you've purposely left vacant since my husband's death. Don't blame me for you own failures as a ruler."
It was Xena's turn to look surprised. She immediately covered it with a sneer of her own, "Talmadeus is a good solider. A trusted ally. Though perhaps too kind. He should have kicked you out as soon as your husband was in the ground."
"And this land would have suffered. Do you really think it was Talmadeus who took on my husband's duties in the last months of his life? He could barely talk, let alone govern a province. I've helped Talmadeus. And he's helped me."
"Given you a home that wasn't his to give. A province too."
Gabrielle sucked in a breath and seemed to fight with a rage that bubbled beneath the surface. "You abandoned Apollonious. No aid. No soldiers."
"I expect my provinces to be self sufficient." This woman was getting to her just as she clearly got to the women. She desperately needed to stop. To take stock. To be still. But Gabrielle had other things in mind.
"And through sweat and tears Talmadeus and I have done that. Don't you dare suggest I did this for any reason beyond the altruistic. We've made this land a gem. Rome, Athens, Alexandria. We now rival all of them in terms of wealth and trade. And with no help from you Empress."
Xena stood up suddenly, her chair clattered over, "Your tone is out of line playwright. I expect respect."
"And you've no doubt earned it in Corinth. But here you're little more then a face on our coins."
Xena found herself so close to the other woman she could see the flecks of blue and gold in her eyes. Gabrielle was breathing hard, but she didn't shy away. "Consider yourself fortunate. The senate only recently told me I couldn't crucify any longer." The smaller woman's nostrils flared. Anger? Fear?
Gabrielle's hands were flat against the table. She still sat in her seat, bracing herself against it. Xena, for the first time since their shouting had begun, noticed that she was towering over the woman. She knew, even in a fine gown meant for dining, that she cut an imposing figure.
Gabrielle, ever arrogant and obstinate, didn't shy away. But she didn't challenge Xena either. She stayed perfectly still. The knuckles of her hands and the tips of her fingers were white from the pressure she exerted on them. Forcing herself to stay perfectly still as the Empress of Greece and Chin and Indus lurked above her.
Xena was used to being the imposing one. Used to being in control. Used to seeing the backs of her enemies as they ran or were drug away. The playwright clearly had no intention to run. She waited. So it was Xena who abruptly turned and left, her long red gown flowing behind her.
She didn't see Gabrielle sag in her seat as soon as her back was turned.
Xena walked through the palace at as quick a pace as possible, nearly running when she spotted the door that led to the outside. She pushed it open and staggered out into the cool night air, sucking in deep breaths and grateful to hear that she was alone and had not been followed by the playwright.
She'd lost her temper, that much was clear. That woman. Her damned confidence. It had riled Xena. She'd actually threatened her with crucifixion! Who was she? Caesar? She took a few steps towards the guest house where her soldiers were and stopped. Her legs were shaky with adrenalin. She was shaky.
Expect respect. Who on earth said that? And that stupid woman was right. Xena had ignored the province. And the woman was good. Things prospered. And there was no glaring example of wealth. It wasn't like the woman had crowned herself governor.
Xena took another wobbly step then sat heavily on the stairs. She couldn't go back in. Couldn't spend the night and then a terribly uncomfortable breakfast in that woman's home.
She looked up to find Draco standing there with his helmet in his hand and looking very lost and confused. He started to approach. "Empress is everything all right."
The light was dim, but Draco's eyes and ears were keen. The fortifying breath she so desperately desired would have to wait.
The will that led her from shattered pirate on a cross to Empress allowed her to reign her emotions in then. To wrap them up tightly and bury them so that they might be considered at another more private time.
"Everything's fine Draco. I've just had a delicious meal and I got to thinking. Talmadeus probably knows we've arrived by now."
"I would suspect so."
"And he thinks we'll come riding up tomorrow morning to kick him off the little throne he's built himself and his girlfriend."
Draco smiled. He was handsome, but with that scar and his general disposition his smile didn't come across as very nice. "Yes ma'am."
"We'll leave tonight then. Don't want him getting too comfortable."
He shook his head. "No ma'am. We wouldn't want that."
She nodded and stood again. "Prep the horses. I expect to be ready to leave as soon as I've changed."
Draco clicked his heels together and turned back towards the guest house jogging and shouting to roust his men. Xena stretched and stood.
She re-entered the palace and wasn't the least bit to surprised to find Gabrielle waiting for her. Only Gabrielle looked nervous. Worried even.
"Empress," she started.
Xena moved to pass the smaller woman, "I think you've had your say."
The blond caught her arm and Xena turned. Her temper flared. She wanted to hit the woman. Smash her fist against the playwright's temple and relish the ache it set through her hand and arm. And those eyes, fiery in the light, caught hers and then she wanted to kiss her. Fully conquer the self-righteous woman. Completely possess her.
If Gabrielle saw the lust she didn't acknowledge it. "I've said the wrong thing." Was she apologizing? "Everything I said just now. How I said it. It was all wrong. And I worry that you're going to go and hurt Talmadeus because of my actions."
That was…unusual. "You want me to pardon Talmadeus."
"He was doing what he thought was best for Apollonia," she bowed her head in penitence, "for you. Please don't let my actions color your judgement of him."
"And what or your daughter?"
The playwright paled, "Eve?"
"What will she do without a mother?"
"I have family, in Potidea. Whatever you must do I only ask you not carry your judgements onto my child and family."
She placed her hand over the one that tightly grasped her arm. It was almost a comforting motion. "You have my word Gabrielle."
The woman bowed her head again. Was she about to cry?
Xena didn't need to see tears. She didn't need to think about the two drunk writers currently entertaining the charming little girl. The girl who was blameless in this all. She didn't need to think of the woman who would dare insult her and then ask for her to forgive others just as guilty.
Her steps were hurried as she made her way to the room Gabrielle had given her. The sooner she was changed and out of this palace the more right she would feel.
The garrison seemed to be in good repair, and was busy despite the late hour. She saw the torch light long before she crested the last hill. The soldiers manning the garrison were well trained. They saw the armor, saw the color of the men behind her wore and quickly called for the gate to open. There was no call for identity.
Talmadeus had most certainly been expecting her.
The man himself, big with bushy red hair streaked with gray, was waiting for her as her group rode into the center of the garrison. Sleepy eyed boys hurried to take the reign of her horse as she dismounted.
Talmadeus had the good grace not to grovel at the sight of his Empress riding into his garrison in the middle of the night. He certainly knew her visit wasn't social. That there was trouble a foot. He bowed and spoke in a gravely voice with a hint of an accent. "Empress."
If she remembered correctly Talmadeus tended to be wordy. He wasn't this time. He looked up and his watery eyes caught her own. As with Gabrielle after dinner Xena found herself faced with a person who knew exactly what they'd done, and who didn't appear to have the slightest bit of regret. It was almost refreshing after all the political toadies she was forced to deal with in Corinth.
"Inside," she growled. She didn't pause to acknowledge his lieutenant who was standing there oblivious, meaty hand extended in greeting. As if she'd greet a mere lieutenant with a handshake.
Talmadeus followed her. Behind them both she heard her own guard dismounting and following.
She'd only been to the garrison twice, but it was like many of the garrisons that she had sprinkled across her lands and she found the commander's office easily enough. She held the door open for Talmadeus then slammed it shut in Draco's face.
She turned around to watch Talmadeus. He was like a rat, caught out by a cat. "Empress," he croaked out.
Xena stood perfectly still, her temper had wained a bit after leaving the governor's palace, but standing here, staring at a man she trusted and watching his chastised expression she felt the anger coming back full forth.
She spoke with the smooth dulcet tones that had confused many a warlord, "Hello Talmadeus. You've been," she paused, for effect, "busy."
"Yes Empress. Expressing your will to the people."
"Is that a fact?"
He almost looked offended, "what are you suggesting."
"I went to the governor's palace. As no governor has been appointed I expected to find it empty. It wasn't Talmadeus."
"Yes Talmadeus." She could tell her repeated use of his name was getting to him. She felt her grin widen.
"I didn't…I didn't have the heart to cast her out. With a child…"
"And her husband's pension she would have been fine. You kept her around for your own purposes. Didn't you Talmadeus?"
He seemed to realize ignorance and politeness wouldn't help him. He gave her a knowing grin. "She's very beautiful Empress."
The idea of his sweaty, wrinkly old hide writhing of the playwright made Xena nauseous for all the wrong reasons. She curled her hands into fists to restrain herself. Talmadeus didn't notice.
Her smile was set on her face as though it'd been cast from stone. Her jaw was so clenched she could feel the muscles ache. Through gritted teeth, "That's not the only reason is it?"
"She's clever enough, and she was popular. Politically it was sound."
She crept closer, and the fool didn't even notice her movements, "Maybe. Certain it wasn't because it was easier to pawn off your duties onto some unknown civilian?"
There. A flare of anger in his eyes. "Empress," he growled. She wanted him angry. Wanted it to be smooth and easy. Wanted him to attack so she could jam her fingers into the bulging veins of his neck and watch him collapse and gasp like a fish removed from water. Her veins hummed with anticipation.
"What's the matter, upset I found out?"
She could see it in him, the anger. No doubt mad that a younger, craftier warlord now commanded him. Jealousy. Bitterness. She could smell it on him. But those watery eyes stilled. The bastard found some inner strength or something. "I follow only the edict you so often preached in the later campaigns. For the greater good Empress." It came out too smug. She didn't want to jam her fingers into his neck any longer. She wanted to take off his head. Her arms were at her side and she could feel the cool touch of her chakram against her right forearm. He was close, maybe too close. But it'd be fun to try.
"How exactly is she for the greater good?"
"As I said, she's clever. Wise almost. The people like her well enough and she handles the politics with aplomb."
He was right. She was good. Which left the question, "So why do I still need you?"
The smugness slipped, "Empress?"
Watching the realization dawn was as good as any orgasm she'd had in the last month. The disappointment, the shock, she almost wanted to close her eyes so that she could watch the moment again and again in her mind's eye. Instead, "you're released from duties Talmadeus. Effective immediately. I want you back in Corinth by the week's end."
She turned to leave. How amusing it had all turned. She felt a strong hand grip her arm. The second time someone had taken liberties with her person that night. Only Talmadeus wasn't nearly as pretty. She spun around, begging him to make an attempt, to let his own anger get the better of him. "Isn't this what you want Talmadeus," she urged, "All for the greater good. Leave the wise Gabrielle to manage Apollonia."
"She needs me. Apollonia needs me."
"You're just a name, as you've already told me, she's the real brain of this operation."
She surged forward, "What? What can't I do?"
She wanted to revel in that fury in his eyes. Delight in the pain she'd caused him with nothing but words. "She's not a soldier, she can't manage the garrison."
"Your lieutenant, Palaemon, I guess he's getting a promotion." She reached up and patted her hand against his cheek, "Get some rest Talmadeus. It's a long ride to Corinth."
Gabrielle didn't sleep. She made a few attempts. Laid out on her bed and closed her eyes and tried to clear her head, but nothing came of it. So she got out of bed, put on a dress that would hold up nicely in a dungeon and paced her office. Sometimes she'd stop pacing and look out the window towards the garrison. She hoped Talmadeus had better luck with Xena then she'd had.
Xena. Stupid, awful, terrible empress. She'd picked at Gabrielle's ego. It had only been a little pick, not even a scratch, and Gabrielle had gone off. She cupped her head in her hands. Idiot. She was an idiot. She'd gone and told the most powerful woman in the world that she was a terrible ruler.
She wasn't an oracle despite some claims she'd made a few times in her youth, but she could clearly see her future now. Guards would come for her and take her to a dungeon. Maybe the one at the garrison, or the jail in Apollonia. They'd beat her and laugh at her then string her up on some cross or post and let the birds and elements sort her out. Though…hadn't Xena said crucifixion was no longer allowed? So she'd be hanged. Or decapitated. Whatever would leave a more unpleasant looking corpse.
Such an idiot.
Even dumber because now she had the chance to run. The Empress had left. Taken her Imperial Guard with her. The few soldiers who usually manned the gate at Gabrielle's home were still down at their posts. She could take Eve, climb over the wall and make a break for a future with a less torturous execution.
But she didn't. She just kept pacing.
Then her eye caught some paperwork she'd laid aside.
So the Empress wanted to kill her? Wanted to punish her for allegedly usurping a position that wasn't rightfully hers? Whatever happened to her roads still had to be built, orphanages funded, docks maintained. Apollonia had to continue to function.
She sat down at her desk and buried herself in her work. If someone had asked why: why she didn't run or why she didn't spend those hours watching Eve sleep she would have claimed it was because she wanted to be remembered as an altruistic and noble woman, working for the people until the bitter end. Really she just had a feeling. The guards hadn't tried to arrest her when Xena left and though her creative mind was quick to imagine dozens of painful punishments the rational part of her suspected that she'd just be removed from the premises. She didn't watch her daughter sleep and consider her fate because she suspected the Empress didn't actually want to kill her. The threat had been made, but a decisive a woman as Xena would have followed through immediately if she'd meant it.
And Gabrielle liked to think of herself as a clever leader. Were she in Xena's position she'd have a hell of a time sorting it out without losing face. Killing off Gabrielle, a very public and well liked figure, would be political suicide—even for the Empress of half the known world.
Xena didn't sleep that night. She'd thought about it a few times, but dismissed the idea quickly. The garrison was hers and the men, ostensibly, loyal to her. Didn't mean she trusted them. She'd just kicked their leader out and she hadn't spent enough time in the garrison yet to ascertain just how liked Talmadeus was.
Yet another mistake she'd made since arriving in Apollonia.
Mistakes. That's all she'd been making. She should have sent Marcus but curiosity drove her to come herself. She should have killed the woman as soon as she saw her, but again curiosity stilled her hand. And she should have taken time when dismissing Talmadeus. Images of that woman, of the prosperous Apollonious—they'd filled her head and encouraged her to sack the man as soon as he'd opened his mouth.
It was a woman. Xena was never moved by love or lust. She'd learned with Borias that emotions could destroy her. Now this woman had gone and reminded her. Brought up all these feelings that couldn't simply be explained away with the excuse of "curiosity."
She liked the woman. Liked how she raised her daughter all on her own and played with the child and got dirty with her. How she was smart enough to manipulate Talmadeus. Clever enough to run all of Apollonious. She liked how soft her skin looked and how blond her hair was. And how the kohl was so expertly applied around those sparkling eyes.
Xena had a crush.
Xena didn't have crushes. She saw and she conquered. That was all.
But no, this one time, in all her years, she had to have a crush and had to cock up a very simple expedition and had to be stuck all by her lonesome and try and sort it out.
Damn it all to Tartarus.
They left the garrison just as the sun was rising up over the hills to the east. It shown on their backs all the way back to the palace. Made her guards sweaty beneath armor they'd been forced to wear nearly twenty four hours straight. Xena had changed clothes, but even she felt a little fatigue nipping at her senses.
Once again, red-cloaked guards opened the gates and bowed. Once more the wiry seneschal stood at the base of the stairs waiting for them.
"Where is she," she growled.
He guided her through the palace, and was wise enough not to speak.
They stopped at a door far from where the bed chambers were. He knocked once, heavily, on the wood of the door, and then opened it. She stepped through into a brightly lit office. A fire, built sometime in the night, was now only embers. It idly popped and sizzled.
Gabrielle, still dressed in her gown from dinner, sat at a desk covered in papers and scrolls. The kohl had smudged all around her eyes and her bangs stuck straight up and out giving her the appearance of a rather startled raccoon.
She looked up wearily and her sea green eyes widened at the sight of her Empress so early in the morning. She stood suddenly.
"Save it." She pushed herself across the room and towards the smaller woman. A breeze swept through the room. Her purple robes shivered.
Gabrielle sat back down in her chair. She sighed heavily, as if she were Atlas just given a respite. But she still watched Xena with those captivating eyes. It was just like the gaze of all-seeing Helios. Hot and without end.
Xena chose not to sit. She'd been sitting or riding for what felt like days. She needed to stand, and standing made her tower over the other woman. Gave her a sense of power she suspected she could never have with regards to the playwright.
"I've just come from the garrison," she said. Gabrielle looked away. Nodded. Was she preparing for news? Waiting to hear of the promotion she surely knew she now had? "Talmadeus has been relieved of command. He'll return to Corinth in a few days time."
Those eyes looked up at her in surprise. Had she not expected it? She continued, "You've done such a good job, I expect you to do even better now that it's your own name's on the line." She continued to stare. "I need people like you." Who questioned authority and caused Xena trouble. Sure. "I need people who will still my hand. Question me." Liar. "Who will help me protect this nation, even if it means calling me out." Big fat liar who's only giving the goddess a job for— "I need you, Gabrielle of Apollonia."
"I called you an idiot."
"Something I hope you'll refrain from in the future."
"You're not going to kill me?" Had she misjudged the woman? Given her too much credit?
Irritation took hold. Gripping the smaller woman's feature and turning her look sour. "You were planning this when you left last night?"
"You threatened me with crucifixion."
"We outlawed it months ago."
"Threatened to make my daughter an orphan."
Oh right. "I needed to see that temper flare. Your response was a good example of your character." Nice save Empress of the known world.
Gabrielle stood. Ran tanned hands through her hair. Those bangs of hers stuck up even further. "I spent the entire night waiting. Waiting for you to come and kill me."
She had misjudged her. "You struck me as clever. I thought you knew it was a joke." Something like a smile was on Xena's face, but it was sinister. Almost angry. Disappointed.
Gabrielle regarded her again. Opened her mouth to speak. Closed it. She turned away to look out the window. Xena followed her gaze. It was the same view as from the dining room. Hills and stones and at the edges of sight the sea. Gabrielle didn't turn back when she spoke. Maybe it was safer for her to stare at rocks. "I'm no one."
"Not what they say in Athens. Or Corinth."
She laughed. It was bitter sounding. Made the younger woman sound too old. "A playwright. The people I host here have more talent. I've just had fortune." She took a breath. Turned. Held Xena's gaze. So few people looked her in the eyes. And never were they as honest as Gabrielle. "Why should I have thought it was a joke? When I am only here by luck?"
Xena wanted to come around the desk and take the smaller woman in her arms. And it wasn't desire that tried to move her feet. But compassion. Something she usually kept chained up deep inside.
She settled on soft words instead of a softer touch. Her tone would have been out of place in public. Even Marcus would have raised a brow at it. "I'm sorry." Xena never apologized. More words escaped her.
"And Talmadeus? He was the smart one. He was the one using available resources to help the people. He was the one who gave me kindness when I deserved none."
And then Xena found herself around the desk and standing before Gabrielle. Her feet had carried her without her conscious self knowing. She wanted to touch the woman still. Take her by the chin and force her to look at Xena. She didn't. Gabrielle struck her as someone who didn't like to be touched.
"Gabrielle," words would have to do what hands could not. The woman finally raised her head. "You've mistaken kindness for altruism. It's easy with someone as clever as Talmadeus." Her voice took on the flinty quality of command, "but don't do it again."
"And are you not doing the same? Misjudging my purpose?"
She looked down at the surface of the desk. It was covered in scrolls and papers. A knife to sharpen quills rested by the ink pot. Gabrielle had one hand on on a scroll and she could see the nails of it stained black with ink. She looked back at the woman. "You thought I'd come here to kill you and yet I find you calmly at your desk governing a province. It's a rare person that would do such a thing."
"Only the best. Or the nastiest. How can you be so sure I'm the former?"
She didn't give a damn. That look on Gabrielle's face. How she cocked her head when she leveled her question. She was beautiful. Xena ignored all reason and logic and leaned in. A kiss? Simple closeness? She wasn't even sure what she wanted. Wasn't sure of consequences. Just certain she needed it.
Gabrielle reflexively leaned back and away.
Most people would have suffered through the beat. Realized how awkward things would and could be. Let Gabrielle see that she'd gone in for a kiss. But Xena was quick, she covered it with words as she moved closer still. Not to lips that beckoned her, but to the beautiful ear that flushed with Xena's proximity. "You begged."
She pulled back and found Gabrielle's face awash with confusion.
"Your daughter. Your family. Talmadeus. You begged for their lives when you thought yours was to be taken. The nasty would beg only for themselves."
"If you trust me Xena, you're a fool." It was almost a whisper from the writer's lips.
Xena smiled, "Words like that only make me more trusting." She reached out. She'd been denied a kiss, and any touch really, she would not be denied this. Her hand was fast. She'd noticed with Gabrielle all her movements had to be quicker. The little playwright was deceptively fast herself. Xena enjoyed the feeling of the writer's cheek against her palm. The look of confusion in the writer's eyes though? That only served to illuminate Xena's own. She pushed it back. It could wait until she was alone on her boat.
"I need honesty Gabrielle. You're the first I've found in many years to give me that."
Gabrielle, a woman Xena knew to be loquacious, was silent. Her eyes were calm and focused and her lips pressed together tightly. A cipher was Xena's new governor.
"I should go. I've made Palaemon the new leader of the garrison. You know him?"
"Good. Work with him. Continue to make this province great. Next month my governors will attend me in Corinth. I look forward to your presence."
A flash of something. Irritation. Gabrielle did not like commands, even those guised as invitations. But she bowed anyways. "It will be my honor Empress."
She already missed the way the other woman said her name. She walked away and refused to look back. Draco was silent too. It would be a short ride to the docks. Energy, both violent and sexual, coiled in the pit of Xena. A short ride to the docks and a long trip via boat would have her in a foul mood by the next day.
"Draco." He road up next to her.
"Send a man down to the docks. Have them meet us in Orikos."
He looked puzzled, "Empress?"
If she heard her title one more time she'd slaughter her entire guard with a fling of her chakram. "The horses need a good ride, as do I. Now send the man!"
He nodded and a purple cloaked guard rode away at break neck speed. She and the other men turned south towards Orikos. She looked back briefly and was surprised to see her newest governor watching her from her office.
The ride would do her good, because her actions since arriving in Apollonia were awfully idiotic. That silly writer with those gorgeous eyes and that funny way of talking in a throaty whisper was trying to kill her with nothing more then her own nature.
She spurred her horse and let the wind and well maintained roads take her south.
That had been…unexpected. Gabrielle paced because what she really wanted to do was cheer and shout and run off every ounce of energy bottled up in her compact frame. Pacing would have to do.
She was a governor. She'd expected death or imprisonment or at least a dismissal from her home, but instead she was the governor of Apollonia.
Oh yeah, there was a little concern. She was in the Empress's sights now. And poor Talmadeus had gotten the boot. But their heads were still attached and they weren't under lock and key so something had to be good and right.
She couldn't help it. She whooped. It was loud and echoed off the marble, but it felt good.
"Mom." The whooping had also brought Eve out of whatever hiding place she'd been in all morning. It was still early and Homer and Euripides would be sleeping off all the alcohol they'd imbibed the night before, but Eve, trying to prove she wasn't her mother's daughter, was always an early riser.
"Eve!" Gabrielle leapt across the room and took her daughter up in her arms, swinging the dark haired girl around and around. She ignored her daughter's startled expression and just held the child close. The glee, the excitement, it bubbled up in her veins.
Eve lightly patted her mother's back with a tiny hand. Gabrielle ducked her head down and rested her nose in her Eve's hair. "You okay," the child asked.
"Perfect." She leaned back so she could look at her daughter's face. Eve watched her carefully. "I've got some work to do, but what say we go up to that spring again today? Maybe have dinner there?"
Eve was too young to wonder why her mother was pacing her office or swinging her about or offering night time picnics. Her mind went straight to, "Can Homer and Euripides come? Euripides said he'd have more of the play done tonight!"
"They can come. We'll all do a reading together." She set the child down and stretched. Her back popped pleasantly.
"And the Empress? Will she be back?"
She stroked Eve's hair. Delighting in how the fine dark brown strands of it sifted through her fingers. "No," she said softly, "not if I do things right."
It was only an hour later when Diomedes darted into her office to announce the arrival of the new leader of the garrison. Palaemon stood behind him in his shiny armor and red cloak with his helmet cradled in his arm.
Gabrielle waved him over to a desk shoved against the wall where a variety of maps were stacked. "Palaemon you're just in time. I've got to deal with some of the Empress's fields in the north. They've been fallow since my husband died, and I think now is the perfect time to put them to use."
Palaemon didn't respond immediately, which was unusual for the man. He tended to be talkative. Not quite like Gabrielle herself, or Euripides, but for a soldier the man ran his mouth quite a bit.
She looked up from her maps. "Palaemon?"
He was looking nervous—no, not nervous. He was looking worried. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead and his eyes were screwed up in a look of concern.
Gabrielle straightened up and watched him curiously, waiting for a response.
"Talmadeus left." He finally said.
"The Empress said as much this morning. What's wrong?"
"He was angry Gabrielle."
Oh. Talmadeus had a bit of a temper. Gabrielle had once seen him beat a soldier for mishandling a sword. It was one of his least savory aspects, and something Gabrielle had worked hard to ignore when she dealt with him.
"When did he leave?"
"Not long ago."
She glanced out the window. She could see the sails of Xena's ship in the distance. "The Empress's ship is far enough away. Send some men to collect him in town. I'll speak with him."
"I would, but the Empress didn't travel by sea."
Palaemon sighed, "She sent the ship ahead to Orikos. She and her men are traveling by road."
"And Talmadeus is traveling alone and with purpose."
He'd gone and put Gabrielle in a spot. If she didn't act, didn't send someone to stop him then Xena might hold her responsible for whatever foolish plan Talmadeus tried to enact. But if she did send someone to warn the Empress, or to stop Talmadeus, then she'd certainly be accused of arrogance again.
Damn it all and damn Xena—"Get after the Empress Palaemon. See if you can stop Talmadeus before he gets to her. If need be warn her. And do it quickly."
Palaemon clicked his heels together and bowed, "Yes Governor."
When he looked up he was smiling, pleased with the title he'd been allowed to speak. Gabrielle grinned back, "That'll take some time to get used to."
"Don't let it ma'am. You've earned that title a thousand times over."
"And you, Palaemon, need to know that flattery will get you everywhere in life. Now hurry. I'd rather not have to hear about Talmadeus being accused of assasination."
The soldier's eyes narrowed in contempt at the idea. He nodded again, curtly, and bound out of the room, his dark red cloak billowing dramatically after him.
"Diomedes?" Her voice wasn't loud and she resisted the tremor that came naturally. Diomedes heard her through the door. Heard the tremor that wasn't there.
"Is everything all right?"
Nothing was all right. Talmadeus was on the move and only trouble could come of it. "I was going to take Eve to the spring. Can you do it?"
He frowned, "Eve isn't particularly fond of my company."
"So take Homer and Euripides as well."
He watched her. Looked for the tremor to express itself in an unsteady hand or a tremulous sigh. Nothing came. Gabrielle was taunt. Focused. Her sea green eyes watching the hills beyond the palace.
"Gabrielle. What's happened?"
"Hopefully nothing. Hopefully I'm just a bit nervous about being made governor."
"And if not."
She turned her eyes to him. She lacked the unnerving glint of the empress, but there was a bit of steel in her eyes. "Take them to the spring. Enjoy a good meal. Return after nightfall."
He nodded and disappeared out the door again—leaving Gabrielle alone once more.
She returned her attention to the hills. Talmadeus would be out there somewhere. But where was he headed? To assassinate an empress? Or something worse?
Xena would never have outright said she'd made a mistake. She was Empress of the most of the known world and could decapitate a man a town away with a flick of her wrist. She'd conquered Darius and his Immortals and stayed the hand of Rome and Egypt. She was as close to a god on earth as one could get without godly powers.
But she was hotter than the depths of Tartarus.
The sun was beating down on her and Draco's men with a ferocity that made her wonder what she'd done to irk Apollo so. Sweat made the seat of her saddle slick and the breeze that blew through the fig trees lining the roads was too warm to provide comfort.
Draco was hot too. His face was red and he'd tipped his helmet up so it rested on the cap of his head. The bits of his undershirt she could see were dark with sweat and he took a few more sips from his canteen then necessary.
She considered saying something smart but these weren't normal troops. She didn't need to ingratiate herself with these men. Didn't need to commiserate about the heat. She needed to be tall and strong and sweat free. So she held her tongue.
She heard the beats of the horse on the hard backed road well before her soldiers. Draco gave her the queerest look he could muster without rebuke as she pulled tight on the reigns and spun her horse around.
"Ma'am," Draco managed to ask.
"Rider, coming fast."
She knew he couldn't hear the rider yet and he was more likely to see the person before he heard him. But all he needed was her word to have the soldiers spinning around and readying spears and javelins.
She raised her hand to halt any violent action and rode down the column towards the fast approaching rider. Draco silently followed.
She could see him now, his bright armor shimmering in the sun and his cloak billowing behind him and as read as his face probably was. A man from a garrison—from the Apollonia garrison.
"Talmadeus," Draco asked.
"I don't think so, but be prepared."
Draco nodded and used his spear to tilt his helmet back down onto his head.
The rider was pushing his horse too hard in the heat. She could see the white foam around the horse's mouth from a distance and see the frantic breaths that had the horse's sides moving in and out.
She heeled her own horse into a canter to meet the rider faster. Draco and his men followed silently.
When he was close enough the rider pulled to a stop kicking up dust and pulling a strangled whinny from the beast he rode on. Close enough now she could see it was her new garrison leader, Palaemon.
"And here I thought I left you to command a garrison."
The man nodded and tried to rub sweat from his face, but his helmet was in the way so he settled for drying his neck instead. "You did ma'am, but the new governor set me with a task."
"To wear a horse to death on the road?"
"To find you."
"Why," Draco growled from behind her.
Palaemon kept his focus on Xena. Smart man. "She was concerned ma'am, with how quickly Talmadeus fled the garrison."
Xena narrowed her eyes, "She thinks he's coming after me?"
He shook his head, "She couldn't be sure. So she sent me to find you."
"And why would she send her garrison commander when a scout would have been so much cheaper and faster?"
He flashed her a cheeky and youthful grin, "No one faster on horseback in the garrison ma'am."
But there was a problem. The head of the garrison was sweating on a horse in front of her. The rest of the garrison, including those left to guard the governor's mansion, were no doubt excellent soldiers. But they wouldn't be wary of Talmadeus. Wouldn't anticipate foul play from the bastard. Not like Xena and Draco had.
Not like that new governor apparently had.
"Did she give any other order before sending you after me Palaemon?"
"And did you, give any orders Palaemon?"
She saw something dawn in those pretty eyes of his. Some realization that he'd made a mistake. "No ma'am," he ventured. "Should I have?"
"A murderous general is on the loose eager to harm those he felt betrayed him Palaemon. That means me. You for taking his post. And her. And you've left her surrounded by men who'd have no reason to stop him."
His hot red blush dissipated all too quickly and his skin turned pale. He opened his mouth. Maybe to apologize or express horror, but Xena didn't care, she was already spurring her horse into a gallop and leaning forward in the saddle.
That damn governor and her nobility was going to get one of them killed.
When twilight had cast it's dark hue across the hills the day before Gabrielle had been nervously preparing to entertain her empress. Now she stood at her window as an official governor.
And somewhere deep in the hills at a well hidden spring her daughter was enjoying a meal with some of Gabrielle's closest friends.
And somewhere far to the east Palaemon had hopefully found the empress and was safe in her care.
Which just left Gabrielle alone in her office with a very angry general.
He stood just inside the doorway. He was completely still. He'd changed from his shiny garrison armor to some worn looking leather armor. Made him darker in the night and quieter too.
His sword was gone. Just a wicked long knife clutched in his hand. She'd heard him open the door and step inside, but she didn't turn to face him, and he seemed reluctant to move forward.
So she and Talmadeus stood there quietly.
She tried to listen to the sounds beyond the house. Or even those within. To the cook in the kitchen. Or the old man in the stable. Or maybe to Homer and Euripides who would soon be guiding Diomedes and Eve back through the darkness with silly songs.
But it was dead silent. Only the breath in her chest and the gentle creaking of Talmadeus's armor.
"What was it about me," she finally said, her voice throaty from disuse, "that made you come here?"
"Palaemon wasn't at the garrison. And Xena's long gone."
"So I picked the short straw?"
He approached and made no effort to mask the sound. She turned to face him and found that outside the change in armor he looked very much the same. She's expected desperation or a crazed look in his eyes. Maybe some sweat gleaming on his brow. But he was focused, the only concession to his murderous mania the way he fiddled with his knife.
"I gave you Apollonia Gabrielle. Gave you this palace. I let you live when many would have slit your throat. And as soon as she waltzes in you've betrayed me. For what?"
"It wasn't my intention. Ever."
"But you didn't turn her down did you?"
He threw his head back and laughed. In the firelight, with his red hair and beard, it was like watching a lion. And sure enough when the humor had moved through him he returned to his approach. Like the beast stalking it's prey.
"That's what I've always loved about you Gabrielle. The honesty. I love how it masks that ruthless little soul of yours."
He was coming slowly around her desk now. She spied the knife she used for trimming quills. He followed her look.
"Thinking of picking it up?"
"It had crossed my mind."
"Gabrielle," he couldn't have looked more patronizing if he tried, "I was winning wars before you were born. All I've known is the battlefield. You're a clever little girl who married well. What have you known of battle? Of anything?"
A farm in Potidaea. The love of a sister. Cold nights in the north and long days in humid forests. Sleeping at the alter of a goddess and pain so brilliant it would stay with her an eternity. And Eve. The reason her eyes flicked back to the knife.
"We can both walk away. You can disappear with quite a few dinars and a good horse. Leave me here."
He took another step. "You've heard of how I came to be in this army?"
No one liked to talk about the bitter defeat he'd suffered at the Empress's hand. She made him weep and beg in front of a thousand soldiers. Made him fight at her side. Given him a sword and laughed as she easily rebuffed his every attack. She'd cut him and whipped him and broken him. Then she'd put him out here with nothing but fear of her to motivate him.
"She needs to know I'm no longer scared."
"You weren't the only one she hurt Talmadeus."
He smiled, "No. And when they see she could not cow me how will they react?"
Her face betrayed her thoughts. Revolution. War. If she was fast she'd have the knife in her hand before he could thrust. If she wasn't fast she'd find her self skewered with his sour breath filling her nose.
Either way she had to lunge. Had to reach for the knife on the desk. This man would incite a rebellion and as much as she hated the Empress's despotic tendencies they were infinitely preferable to a land ruled by warlords and slavers.
Gabrielle pushed forward, steel flashed, and the door slammed open.