The night that I discovered Lucius Cocles eyeing Gabrielle and me on the brink of our passion, I had a most unusual dream. I was wandering through a deep forest. I didn't know from where I came or where I was going. I was just wandering. After a few moments, Gabrielle appeared out of nowhere. She was dressed very strangely. The blue cloth trousers covering her legs seemed almost painted on and the top that she wore had a tapestry-like painting on it. She looked very sexy. A fairly large dog also accompanied her. "Where are you going?" she asked me. "What are you doing here?" I asked her. "Looking for you," she said. 'Where are we?" I asked. "What do you mean, 'where are we?' Why, we're home, silly. On our estate," she said. "Now come on back to the house before the roast burns."
That was all that I remembered.
When I awakened, I turned my head to find Gabrielle lying on her side, her head propped up on her hand, eyeing me. "Xena, how did you know that Cocles was watching us?" she asked.
"I can't explain it, Gabrielle," I responded. "I can just sense things like that."
"But not all of the time," she said.
"What do you mean?"
"Well," she said after a sigh, "you might be surprised to learn that, when I was your slave, Mia often peeked in your bedchamber to check up on me."
"I knew that," I confessed.
Gabrielle gasped. "You did?" she asked. "But... but... you never said anything. You never... punished her."
"Oh, don't think that I didn't come close to killing her for that, Gabrielle," I stated.
"What stopped you?"
I turned my body to face her and ran my fingers down her cheek. "Early on, after one of my evil episodes with you," I started, "after I dismissed you, I grabbed my boot dagger and entered her quarters from my bedchamber. She wasn't in the room. So I walked over to her other door, which was open, and found the two of you embracing in the corridor. You must have run to her right after being dismissed. You were crying hysterically and she was comforting you."
"I would have thought that seeing us together would have angered you even more, Xena?"
"Actually, seeing her comforting you spared her life," I admitted. "I went back to my own bedchamber and thought about what I had observed. I knew that you cared for Mia a great deal. Despite everything that I was to you then, I loved you and I knew that you needed someone in your life that could be there to nurture you when you needed it. Had I killed her for spying on us, I knew that would have hurt you."
"You weren't jealous, Xena?" Gabrielle asked. "Like you were with Seraphin?"
"I didn't know Seraphin, Gabrielle," I replied. "I know Mia. I know that her love for you is genuine and sisterly. She likes her men."
"Yes, she does," Gabrielle smirked.
I took her free hand into mine. "Your feelings for Demi spared his life as well."
Gabrielle gasped again. "I remember that, Xena!" she exclaimed. "You approached us in the palace gardens, with murder in your eyes, and ordered me to leave."
"I was so relieved that you didn't kill him," she said. "I never knew why you were going to. He never told me."
"Essentially for the same reason that I killed Priestess Jacinthia, Gabrielle."
"Because he figured out that you were in love with me?"
"But, Xena," she questioned, "he was my closest friend and yet, he never once indicated to me that he even suspected. Why do you suppose that he never told me?"
"Because he was waiting for me to tell you," I answered. "I'm just extremely sorry for waiting so long to do it." At that moment, Gabrielle narrowed the space between us and took me into a loving embrace.
We repositioned ourselves so that I was lying on my back and she was relaxed on top of me. She brought her lips to mine in a gentle kiss.
"I want to make love to you, Xena," she said seductively.
Gabrielle never has to demand more than once. "Okay," I eagerly replied.
After our lovemaking and our morning meal, I assembled our entourage in Cocles' main reception chamber.
"As some of you already know," I began, "Lucius Sabinus Cocles is large of nerve but deficient in intellect. Last night, I caught him spying on Gabrielle and me as we were attempting to... you know... engage in..."
"An act of consortium," Gabrielle chimed in.
The women looked at each other. I knew that they, especially the effervescent Bahri, were trying to contain laughter.
"Is he still alive, my Liege?" Palaemon asked.
"Yes," I said. "Commander Marius took him into custody."
Palaemon appeared somewhat offended that he was not called out to get involved. "It was rather late, Commander Palaemon," I said. "Everyone had retired and I didn't find it necessary to awaken all of my military personnel just to handle one man."
Palaemon nodded as I patted his shoulder. "Nonetheless, I have to deal with his offenses this morning," I added as I turned to Marius once again. "Commander, have the manor guards bring Cocles here."
"By your will, Conqueror," he said before exiting the reception chamber. He returned some moments later with a rather battered Cocles. Last night, I was so seething for what that man had done that I didn't really stop to notice the injuries that I had inflicted upon him. He was limping and holding his bandaged arm. A guard assisted him in walking. There was also a bandage around his head and both eyes were blackened. He had a bruise on his cheek and several on his arms and lower legs. As he was wearing a toga, I couldn't see the state of his midsection. After he was brought to me, I looked over at the women in our entourage. Their earlier urge to chuckle had evaporated. They looked upon this man with actual pity, I believed. Looking away from them, I turned my attention to my Gabrielle. It was her expression that tormented me the most.
"Magistrate Cocles," I queried, "do you realize your crimes?"
"Yes, Conqueror," he responded.
"What are they?"
"You want me to..."
"Tell everyone before you here this morning what you are guilty of doing," I demanded.
His normally sweaty forehead was saturating the cloth that bandaged it. "I... I set up a room adjoining my bedchamber so that I could look at guests engaging in sexual intimacy."
"What else?" I asked.
"I... I invited our Majesty and her Consort to retire to my bedchamber so that I could look at them engaging in sexual intimacy."
"What else?" I asked again. Cocles looked at me. "Spill it!"
He looked at his feet. "I... I, uh..."
"No, look at them and say it!" I demanded as I pointed to our group of friends.
Cocles looked at the women. "I pleasured myself as I watched the Conqueror and Lady Gabrielle."
"Is there anything else that you need to say, Magistrate?" I asked.
He looked at me and then at Gabrielle. "I'm sorry for disrespecting your privacy, Lady Gabrielle." He turned to me. "I am a disgrace to the Realm, Majesty."
"Yes, you are," I said. "Are you ready for your punishment?"
At that moment, Gabrielle instinctively grabbed my arm. She didn't know what I was about to do, but what I did do most likely shocked everyone in the room, although it shouldn't have. Just as I had done almost six months ago with the public judgments in Corinth and again with Niall and Callisto, I turned to my love. "What shall be his sentence, Gabrielle?" I asked.
She looked at me and then at Cocles before approaching him. "How badly are you hurt, Magistrate Cocles?" she asked.
He desperately tried to restrain tears as he answered. "My head aches and my arm is broken," he responded. "My healer had to reset my left knee. It was not in place."
"I see that you have two black eyes," Gabrielle said. "Did you know that?"
"No, my Lady," he responded. Gabrielle seemed to cringe at the honorific.
"Do you ache anywhere else?"
"My back and sides, my Lady."
Gabrielle turned to me and then to our friends. "Was watching us worth this, Magistrate?" she asked. "Your injuries? Your confession?"
"No, my Lady." Cocles was now crying.
"Very well," Gabrielle said. "For voyeurism and disrespect, your punishment will be the beating that you received from the Conqueror and your humiliating confession to this group of total strangers."
Six months ago, I would have wanted to choke Gabrielle for imposing such a sentence. But for some reason, for the very first time upon hearing it, the punishment seemed harsher than the crime. "By your will, Conqueror?" she asked.
"By my will, my Lady," I answered.
Our entourage left Cocles' manor shortly after his judgment. Gabrielle and I didn't say much to each other for most of our journey through outer Rome that day. I had many thoughts swirling through my mind. I wondered to myself if I had made the right decision in allowing Cocles to remain in his position as Magistrate. Other than his voyeurism, he had performed his duties as Magistrate in an exemplary manner. But what was to stop him from engaging in this behavior again? And then it dawned on me. My Gabrielle had once again chronicled the events of our most recent adventure. The famed Bard of Poteidaia had made fact what was once a rumor. Anyone visiting Magistrate Cocles' manor in the future would know full well of his actions and his humiliating punishment. That alone would likely deter him from misbehaving again.
By nightfall, we had reached the valley west of the Tiber River and south of the city of Volsinii. One of Rome's wealthiest men, Claudius Aulus Tacitus, owned a vast estate and vineyard in that valley. Tacitus was a strong ally of the Realm. During my battle against Caesar, he supplied arms and intelligence to my forces. I had believed that his contempt for Caesar, which most Romans of Etruscan heritage shared, was greater than any loyalty that he had for me at that time. But nonetheless, he had prospered under my rule.
Like many of my Etruscan allies, Tacitus was also a man of many eccentricities. His manor was beautiful and ornate, but he rarely spent time in it. He much preferred to stay in a tiny clay and terracotta shack that was adjacent to the larger dwelling. Explaining this and his other various quirks to Gabrielle was going to be thoroughly entertaining.
As we arrived at Tacitus' estate, Gabrielle gasped at the size and sheer beauty of the grounds. Tacitus' manor was made of the finest red brick and mortar. His doors were made of bronze and his windows accentuated with iron grilles. The land surrounding the manor was mostly olive groves and vineyards, but was quite majestic in its layout. "What a magnificent manor and landscape, Xena," she said. "This Tacitus gentleman must truly be a refined individual."
"Uh-huh," was all I could say without bursting out in laughter. My accompanying deviant smile was not lost on my love.
"What's so funny?"
"Oh, nothing, dear," I said.
As we approached the main gate to the manor, two heavily armed guards emerged to check our credentials. After I spoke with them, the head house servant escorted us to our accommodations for the evening. We walked down a vaulted corridor to a series of guest suites. Our bedchamber was beautiful from ceiling to floor. A brilliantly tiled mosaic swept across the ceiling. The walls were adorned with elaborate tapestries. The furnishings were of the finest material and the floor was made of large tiles of polished marble. A private sudatorium adjoined our guestroom. Thus, it was obvious that our particular bedchamber was also heated by an underground hypocaust. As we entered the room, Gabrielle and I immediately noticed the heat emanating from the floor. We would be warm, comfortable and pampered in our lodging that evening. No expense had been spared in making this manor the perfect home that it was.
Despite all of that, I was almost bursting at the seams in my desire to introduce Gabrielle to the oddball Tacitus.
We decided to experience the sudatorium first. Steam rooms are rare in Greece, so this was going to be a particularly exciting indulgence. Stripping ourselves nude, we padded over to the hot, steam-enveloped room and sat on a polished marble bench.
"You know that the Northern Amazons sometimes relax in a steam yurt, Xena," Gabrielle said.
"I know, sweetheart," I responded. "I experienced it myself when Borias and I were negotiating with them many years ago. They are unable to accomplish this level of steam, unfortunately."
"I'm sure," she said. "This is wonderful."
"You know, there's probably at least one laconicum in this manor as well."
"Laconicum? You mean a hot dry bath? A sauna?"
"Oh, Xena," Gabrielle inquired. "Are we in a hurry to get to Rome? I could really get into this place."
I laughed. "I bet that you could, Bard of Poteidaia."
After our steam bath, we washed and dressed to meet our host. Grabbing Gabrielle by her hand, I gathered up our friends and escorted them out of our stately lodging and to that simple little shack.
"Where are we going, Xena?" Gabrielle asked.
"To meet our refined host, Gabrielle," I responded. She had a perturbed expression on her face during the entire stroll. I was excited about what awaited her.
As we walked up to the shack entrance, the door flew open and Tacitus stepped out to greet us.
"Well, hell-oooo, Xena the Conqueror!" he said ever so enthusiastically as he raised his arms in greeting. Palaemon and Marius began to chuckle. Everyone else's mouth dropped. A short and fat man of about fifty years of age, Tacitus was dressed in one of his signature dingy togas. His wildly curly black hair flew about in the evening breeze. His long beard, patched with gray, also fluttered. His cheeks were crimson and his smile bright, although he was missing quite a few teeth.
He turned to Gabrielle. "This must be your Macedonian slave-turned-consort, eh?"
Before I could answer, he grabbed Gabrielle by her cheeks and pinched them. "Ouch!" she exclaimed.
"Chunky cheeks this girl has, Conqueror," he said. "But mighty pretty. Mighty pretty."
Before I could respond, he had moved on to his next victim. "And who is this?" he asked as he grabbed Bahri by her chin. "An Egyptian, no doubt. She's cute."
"Ouch!" Bahri exclaimed as Tacitus again moved on to his next victim. "Amazons, ooh! I like Amazons." But then his eyes fell upon Hadiya. "By the Gods!" he shouted. "Are you ever black!" At that moment, Hadiya, Stanislas and Bahri drew their swords.
"You got a problem with Africans, man?" Bahri charged.
I stepped in between them. "Sheathe your swords, Guardsmen," I said. "Tacitus meant no disrespect."
"Al, Conqueror, call me Al, remember?" he reminded me before returning his attention to the three angry women. "Hujambo!" he gleefully stated the Bantu word for "greetings" to Hadiya. "As a matter of fact, my first wife was a beauty from the great land south of the Sahara. Ajo Twi-Ashanti was her name, and she was a Bantu beauty if I ever saw one. She could cook, and what a lover! By the Gods!"
"First wife?" Bahri asked. "What happened to her?"
"She left me," Al responded. "She was the first of seven wives."
"Seven?" Bahri asked. "What happened to them?"
"They all left me," Al stated before turning back to Hadiya. "So, are you available?"
"Oh," he said before immediately returning his attention to Bahri. "What about you?"
"You've got to be kidding," Bahri retorted.
"Al," I chimed in, "both Bahri and Hadiya are accompanied by their life partners." I indicated Charicleia and Stanislas.
"Zeus," he quipped, "do any of you women like men?"
The three remaining women, Escritt, Darda and Amarice, took an immediately never-before seen interest in each other. "Oh, well," Al said before turning his attention to the very attractive Palaemon.
"Don't even think about it, buddy," Palaemon warned.
I could no longer contain myself. I broke out laughing. "Al, why don't you show your guests your special place here?" I finally suggested after several moments of exhilarating laughter.
"Yes, yes... come in, come in, come in."
We entered the shack. It was small, cluttered with pottery, rather filthy and very musky smelling. "What is that smell?" Gabrielle asked as she pinched her nose.
"Ah, my mustelidae, Bard of Poteidaia," Al replied.
"Your what?" she asked.
"His weasels, Gabrielle," I said. "Al keeps them as pets."
"They're night creatures, you know," Al stepped up. "There are about thirty of them lurking about in and out of here, but they're very friendly when they're not spraying their stink on you. They'll surely come to play with you lovely people when the sun sets."
Everyone began anxiously looking around the room. I laughed again. "You're enjoying this, Xena, aren't you?" Gabrielle irately asked.
"Yes, Gabrielle," I said, "as a matter of fact, I am."
As we left the shack, Gabrielle took in a deep breath to capture the freshness of the outdoor air. "So, Gabrielle," I said as I placed my arm around her shoulder and guided her back to the comfort of the manor, "can you still get into this place?"
"Very funny, Xena. Ha-ha-ha."
I kissed her forehead. "We're going to have to bathe again to get the weasel smell off of us." I said. "I think that the little bastards sprayed me at least ten times."
"What can I say," she said. "You do exude animal magnetism, Xena." Now it was Gabrielle who was laughing at my expense.
We spent quite a bit of time washing weasel stink off ourselves. To make things interesting, Gabrielle and I decided that we would bathe each other. Gabrielle washed me first. Facing me in the bathing tub, she first created a rich lather in my hair. She sensuously massaged my head as she washed my hair before taking a flagon of scented water and rinsing it. She then began to sponge my body. She gently worked the sponge on my face before rubbing it more vigorously on my shoulders, back, arms, breasts and belly.
"Lean back," she ordered and when I did, she began to sponge my hips, legs and feet. She then straddled one of my thighs and ran the sponge around my rear and then between my legs.
"Uh, I don't think that the weasels got that close, Gabrielle," I advised as a moan escaped me.
"Are you protesting, Warrior Princess?" she asked.
"No, not at all," I replied. "Just making an observation."
Gabrielle brought her lips to mine as she continued to stroke me between my legs with the sponge. Not surprisingly, I climaxed at the combination of erotic sensations.
"Your turn," I said as I took the sponge and began bathing her. I washed her entire body with the sponge and then lathered and washed her hair. When I finished, I leaned her body back flush with the bath water so that I could rinse the lather out of her hair. She then relaxed, resting her head at the edge of the tub. I lifted her thighs and took her sex into my mouth. She tasted so sweet. After her thunderous release, we both exited the bath and dried off using only one towel. I then lifted her and carried her over to the bed. Many more intimate touches followed that evening.
Gabrielle and I both groaned at being awakened so early, but we managed to find our way to the stately reception chamber for mealtime. Our equally groggy friends were there too.
"Good morning, guests!" Al greeted as he entered, looking very exuberant in that same dingy toga. "Please, sit, sit, sit, sit, sit."
We plopped down on our respective stools to await our impending feast. Shortly thereafter, a group of chambermaids brought in several plates and mugs of steaming food. Each one of us received one plate, one mug and a goblet of white wine.
"It looks and smells delicious, Lord Al," Gabrielle said. "What is it?"
"Punjabi aloo and fennel soup, Lady Gabrielle," he responded.
"Punjabi aloo?" she asked.
"My fourth wife, Alka Bhargava, was a Hindu princess from the Deccan subcontinent. She introduced me to the rich and exotic foods and spices of that land."
We began eating. "This is excellent, Lord Al," Gabrielle said. "What's in it?"
"Red potatoes, garlic cloves, chopped onions, oil, ginger and garam masala."
"What's garam masala?" she asked.
"Powdered curry, Lady," he responded. "A special Indian spice."
"There's no weasel meat in this food, I hope," Bahri spoke up.
"Eat a mustelidae?" Al said. "That's blasphemy!"
I almost lost what was in my mouth from an outburst of laughter.
We departed from the comedy that was our visit with Claudius Aulus Tacitus by the noon candlemark. He stood out in front of his entrance, frantically waving at us.
"Good-bye! Safe journey!" he called out, and specifically to Hadiya, the Bantu word for good-bye, "Quoi-hede! If you ever decide that you like men, come back and see me!"
It took Gabrielle awhile, but soon she was laughing along with me at the spectacle. There would be no more stops between Rome and us. As we neared the city, my heart began beating faster. I was anticipating my joust with Callisto in the Colloseum.
That was going to be entertaining as well.
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