Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. The characters in this story: Xena, Gabrielle, Eve or Livia (and any mention to characters from the television show Hercules: The Legendary Journeys)are the property of Renaissance Pictures and Universal MCA. This story is not meant to infringe upon their rights or the rights of the actors who portray them. Also, no part of the story entitled Growing up "Livia" is to be copied, whole or in part, without the author's permission. It is not to be copied for public use or for profit by any person or organization.

************************************************************************************************************

Growing Up "Livia"

Chapter Three

Written by: Caina Q. Fuller

Email me.

 

"Livia!"

 

Livia looked up from her bloody sword and the body of the woman she'd just killed to find Cadmus riding toward her. Behind him his wife Jara was riding her own horse, her belly swollen with child. Livia had taken Ares' advice and allowed the good-hearted soldier to marry the former harlot. The god of War had sworn it would go a long way to keep his loyalty and to make him believe she was a friend. Now they were barely a month away from their first child, and Livia was filled with disgust at the glances of gushy love they were constantly casting one another.

 

"Cadmus," she said, her voice as dull and lifeless as her soul. Cadmus dismounted, a look of concern covering his face. He seemed to be looking at her a lot like that lately, and Livia didn't like it. Not one bit.

 

Cadmus was studying the body of the slave woman on the ground, a disturbed look on his face. "What happened here?"

 

"Does it matter? What do you want?"

 

She was being sharp with him and unable to care. She had been feeling particularly restless lately, and that feeling only worsened as they neared Rome. Cadmus led her away from the body, and his pregnant wife, into the grassy fields in the distance.

 

"I'll be right back Jara."

 

"I'll be waiting husband."

 

Once they were out of earshot Livia stopped biting her tongue. "You were soft before Cadmus, but she's making it worse. How long do you think you will stay in the service of Caesar with a child waiting for you in Rome?"

 

Cadmus sighed. They'd had this conversation a million times already. "You know I cannot leave the military without Caesar's approval."

 

"I also know you've already applied."

 

His secret was out, and she could tell from the look on his face this worried him. Just how closely did Livia have her eye on him? "How do you know that?"

 

"Keep your friends close Cadmus, and your enemies closer."

 

"I'm not your enemy Livia. I'm your most loyal soldier and-"

 

"If you're so loyal why are you beating your head against a wall to get away from me?" She was screaming at him now and this made him flinch away from her. Rightly so, as no one wanted to be the object of this woman's wrath. What was wrong with her lately anyway?

 

The answer came to him, quietly and with a surety like none he'd ever known. "You're afraid to return to Rome aren't you?"

 

Damn him! Livia thought to herself, turning away. Damn him for knowing me so well. Damn him for his disgusting sense of humanity. Damn me for needing him. He was her compass. He was the one she always went to when she needed to size up the enemy as the remaining five thousand men of the Alpha legion made their way back to civilization.

 

"Livia, you saved us. Had it not been for you we would have all surely died. Now look at us! We're returning to Caesar with the good news that we have crushed a resistance movement from one of her most persistent enemies. Gaul. We're returning with over three thousand slaves for Caesar."

 

"I'm also still a condemned woman. I killed two commanders-"

 

"For the good of the legion. For the good of Rome."

 

Livia appreciated his efforts to comfort her, but she was still apprehensive. "How is Caesar going to receive me?"

"What are you talking about? You're his favorite."

 

"When I was six years old yeah. I haven't seen him since. I haven't even sent him a scroll in two years. Caesar and I are stranger's Cadmus."

 

Cadmus squeezed her shoulder and she was disturbed by the warm feeling of÷something she dare not put a name to, flooded her gut. "That will only make him happier to see you again. You know what my grandmother used to always say?"

 

No, and I couldn't care less, Livia thought. Instead of mouthing those words she only shook her head in the negative. "Absence makes the heart warm for loved ones away. He will receive you with open arms. The question is: Will you run a dagger through his heart when he does?"

 

Thinking his comment incredibly funny Cadmus laughed and began to make his way back to his pregnant wife. Livia watched him recede and not for the first time since she allowed them to marry, she wished it were her he was returning to every night from battle.

 

Just why is that? She asked herself, going back to her horse. She rode to the head of the line where Lycus was leading the men, thoughts of her true motives for the emotions storming within her warring for victory in her mind. Was it because he was out of her reach? No, she thought, I could have him if I wanted him.

 

Perhaps, she continued to think, as she drew up beside Lycus, it was that same humanity she often claimed was making him too soft to be a Roman soldier. Perhaps it was the love that was alive in his heart. When he looked at her she saw a soul behind his eyes. A soul that was good and gentle. A soul she wished she possessed for herself. Livia wondered, not for the first time, if she would ever feel again. If she would ever know what it was to love like she did as a child when Ann would wrap her in her arms, or when Brigid would brush her hair and tell her scary stories of strange gods and monsters from lands far away÷

 

"Livia?"

 

From the tone of his voice Livia could tell he'd called her name more than once already, and he was looking at her with confusion all over his face.

 

"Something wrong Lycus?"

 

"That's just what I was about to ask you."

 

"I'm fine." Her sharp vision noted an approaching rider. "Did you send out a scout?"

 

Lycus shook his head, as confused by this as Livia was. "No. I have no idea who that is. I'll go meet him."

 

"Don't bother. I'll do it."

 

Livia kicked her horse into a full gallop until she was close enough to see who was riding toward her. He was Roman but she didn't recognize him, and a tickle of anxiety stirred in her gut. Who was he and what did he want?

 

He came to a stop before her and sized her up, not with a little lust in his eyes. He disgusted her immediately, though his facial features were somewhat handsome. "Who are you?" She questioned.

 

"I am Cenon," he answered immediately. "Judging by your commanders uniform, you must be Livia."

 

"I am."

 

"Your reputation precedes you Livia. Caesar has sent me."

 

*****************************************************************************************************************************

In the quiet of the morning the guards standing duty outside Caesar's chambers could hear the faint strains of passion coming from within. They cast each other slightly embarrassed glances but said nothing against their lord.

Inside the chambers, Caesar and his lover Ghita moved together in perfect union, sharing their passion with an eagerness neither of them had ever known before they'd become lovers. They fulfilled each other in every way except emotionally. He didn't love her, and she loved no one but herself.

 

They climaxed, and then separated with one last passionate kiss. Caesar stared at the ceiling of his lavish chambers, feeling his body relax into the soft sheets of his bed. His pounding heart slowed, his breathing came under his control again, and the burning muscles in his back and hips relaxed until he could feel himself sinking into the sweet afterglow of their latest love making session.

 

Ghita planted soft kisses over his chest, running a hand over his still muscled stomach. She remembered how she'd wanted him in their younger years, but he'd always been out of her reach. Her father had had a political arrangement with one of the many Senator's and this had led to her marriage to Damen, a man she'd despised from the moment she'd met him.

 

Fortunately for her, Damen hadn't cared much for her either, and he'd spent as little time as possible at home with her. They'd done their duty and produced three sons to carry on the line, but they'd never loved one another. Instead, he'd become a soldier for Rome and had risen to the respectable position of Commander of the Alpha legion with dreams of the title of Rome's Champion in his stubborn head.

 

While he was off fighting wars Ghita did more than raise their children and play the perfect wife. She'd made her rounds in the Senate, gathering favors that she'd used wisely to get her close to Caesar. It had taken her years of hard work and effort, but she'd finally succeeded in winning a spot in Augustus' favor, and his bed. He rewarded her with riches and her sons received an education and "lucky" breaks their father never could have provided.

 

Her only problem, up until nine months ago, was the fact she was a married woman. She'd pleaded with Augustus to get rid of him so they could marry, but he'd refused, making her wonder just how important, or rather, unimportant she really was to the mighty Augustus Caesar.

 

Now Livia, her lover's charge, had taken care of her little problem for her. Damen was dead, the child-warrior had managed to wrest control of her dead husbands precious Alpha Legion away from the fool Acastus, and had used those men to squash the Gaul resistance that had become Rome's latest annoyance. The people were cheering her name and Augustus was in high spirits to hear of her return to Rome. Perhaps now that he was in a good mood, she would be able to plead her case to him once more. Perhaps after the kind of sex they'd just had, he'd be in the mood to discuss another deal: Marriage.

 

"Every Caesar should have a wife. Wouldn't you agree my Lord?"

 

Augustus sighed, then began to chuckle with amusement. "Damen is dead and you want to re-marry before a year has passed? What would people think?"

 

"Who cares? They have their minds on Livia now. You need a wife."

 

"For what?"

 

She reached beneath the silk sheets that covered their naked bodies and caressed his man-hood gently. "Isn't it obvious? You need an heir and I can still bear children. You've never been married Augustus. People wonder if perhaps you're perverted."

 

This made Caesar laugh uproariously. "Really? If only they could see us together. Perhaps I should take you in the middle of the next Gladiator games and put their minds at rest."

 

She bit his ear, playfully but hard. "Don't think I wouldn't love it." After they sobered from their amusement, she turned his face to her. "Seriously Augustus. I love you."

 

"You love only three things Ghita: Yourself, money and your sons. That's all."

 

Caesar pulled on a robe and went over to the door. As usual, he'd worked up an appetite with his lover, so he'd ordered ahead of time. When he leaned out, one of his many servants was already wheeling in a feast fit for a man of his station toward his chambers. After he ate, he planned to meet with his advisors and plan the ceremony for Livia's return to Rome.

 

He had mixed feelings about this. Word had spread of that she'd killed the two top-ranking officers in the Alpha legion in order to take command. He knew she wouldn't have been so bold had she not had his favor. Or would she? He hadn't seen Livia since he'd÷allowed an innocent child to die in her place eleven years before. The image of that girls innocent, tear-stained face as she'd seen her death come filled his vision. The silent pleas to him for help that had filled her impossibly large eyes still haunted his dreams. He'd risked his life and his peace of mind to honor a promise to a woman he'd barely known then. Would he do the same now?

 

"Augustus?"

 

Ghita, Augustus thought. Sometimes she could be so demanding of his attentions. It was becoming more and more irritating as time went by, especially now that her husband was dead and she was pressing him for marriage. What kind of Empress would Ghita make? He found himself asking that question more and more often as each day passed by. He wasn't sure he liked the image of giving her such power in his beloved Rome.

 

"What?"

 

"You look a million miles away. Is there anything wrong?"

 

"Other than your incessant proposals for marriage? I swear Ghita, sometimes I feel like your proposing a business deal more than a lifetime of commitment born in love."

 

Ghita gave him one of his favorite smiles. It was a look that transformed her aging face into something more devious and youthful. He loved that look and she used it almost as a weapon to cut down his resolve a little more as each day passed by.

 

"Augustus," she purred, licking his ear and neck in just the right places. "You know I only want to support you."

 

"The baths," he said, almost breathless with new desire. He didn't have time for this so he extricated himself from her arms. "I have business to tend to Ghita. I will you see you in two days at the ceremony for Livia's return."

 

He'd thought he'd managed to escape any more questions from her, but he was wrong. She had one more for him. "Augustus, why would you plan a banquet for a condemned woman?"

 

"Who said she was condemned?"

 

Augustus found the shock that claimed Ghita's face almost comical, but he refused to allow a smile to creep onto his face. This was, after all, a serious issue to the woman who was making plans to become Rome's empress.

 

"The law says she's condemned!" Augustus watched her move her still firm body across the room to him with determination to have her way powering every step she took closer to him. "Two things you should remember Augustus. She's a woman who has committed the crime of murder against a man. That alone earns her a place on the cross. Not to mention the fact that she was in service in the military and killed a superior officer."

 

"Ghita-"

 

"No! One of the men she murdered was my husband!"

 

Now it was impossible for him not to laugh. Who did this woman think she was kidding? "You must think me a fool Ghita. We both know that means nothing to you."

 

"You're going to pardon that insolent little-"

 

Augustus' hand snaked out before he was even really aware what was happening. She fell back onto the bed from the force of the blow, her words cut off before they could part from her lips. He bent over her, using his larger body to remind her of who was the superior in their little arrangement.

 

"Don't you even think of insulting Livia, Ghita. Do you understand me?"

 

Ghita, back in her place, touched her stinging cheek. She was so angry tears were welling up in her eyes, and she knew Augustus believed she was afraid of him. If that is what he believed, he wasn't completely off base. However, she wasn't just another whore in his harem. She did carry some weight, and she was already preparing ways in which she would throw it to get what she wanted.

 

"Just what is this girl to you Augustus?"

 

"She's the daughter of a friend who saved my life years ago. I sacrificed things you could never imagine, or appreciate, to keep her÷" Realizing he was giving away too much, Augustus allowed his words to trail off and he stepped away from his lover. "She's more to me than anyone in this Empire."

 

Ghita didn't like where this was going. At all. "More than anyone?"

He looked her in the eye, driving his point home. "More than even you. Now what do you have to say about that?"

 

Ghita wasn't about to answer that question within range of his hearing. She decided the best way to assuage his wrath and still have at least some of his favor, was to go along with him. She took his right hand and kissed the Imperial Ring.

 

"I say, ŽHail Caesar'."

 

Satisfied with her answer, Augustus left the room for his baths. He never heard the words that really came from Ghita's heart.

 

"She won't be in your favor for long Caesar. Not as long as I have anything to say about it."

 

*****************************************************************************************************************************

 

The city of Rome sat glittering like precious gems in beautiful velvet under the heavens that mirrored her. Livia took in the site of the city she had pledged her loyalty to from the moment she'd been old enough to really understand such things. She hadn't even seen this place since she was six years old, but as she looked at her now her heart swelled with loyalty. Since she'd been away from here she'd felt incomplete, but now that she was back she was whole again.

 

What was even more difficult for her to believe was that somewhere in that great city waited an Emperor that welcomed her. Try as she might, Livia was unable to remember the face of the man who'd taken her from that despiteful bitch Delphia and placed her in the waiting arms of the only real family she felt in her heart she would ever know.

"I wish you could see this now Brigid," she whispered, her words were carried away from her lips by the driving wind, but not before Cadmus heard them.

 

"Who's Brigid?"

 

The larger Warrior was walking toward her now with a warm fur-lined cloak. He was always thinking of her it seemed, and ways in which he could please her and make her more comfortable. How, Livia wondered, could he do these things and not be in love with me? He either wants something or÷ She turned away from him but allowed him to wrap the cloak around her, and she was grateful for the warmth it brought.

 

"No one." She didn't want to share with Cadmus her tragic history and she didn't want put up with the feelings of exhilaration at his touch. Jara, Livia decided, was one hell of a lucky woman to have this man loving her. If only Livia could get rid of her somehow, then maybe she could win Cadmus over.

 

No, that's not what she wanted. Cadmus was too soft inside. He felt too much and cared too much. He'd only make her as soft as he was, and she'd vowed the day she lost Brigid she would never allow herself to love again. She didn't need him in her life or her bed, distracting her with his constant speeches on mercy and love.

 

"Alright. Are you excited?"

Livia offered him a derisive snort. "Only fools and children allow themselves to become excited from little things like this."

 

"Mmmm," he said, nodding his head in agreement. "Then when can a real woman allow herself to become excited?"

 

Cadmus turned her to face him and began to tie the cloak shut to keep the wind out. As he did this, the roaring breeze carried his scent to her and with each breath she took he seemed to be invading her physically. Her heart began to race again, especially as his fingers played over her breasts as they worked to fasten the cloak. He was so masculine and hard at times. That combined with his loving heart made Livia's knees literally become weak with desire. The fact that he was totally unaware of the effect he was having on her only added to the effect.

 

"On the battlefield," she answered aloud, but quietly she had more to say. Or in bed.

 

When he'd finished with the cloak he slapped her roughly on the shoulders. "There you go. All done."

 

Of all the soldiers in the Alpha Legion Cadmus had been the only one to never come on to her or leer at her, and of all the soldiers in the Alpha Legion he was the only one she wanted to do those things. Like a fool she'd allowed him to marry Jara and now they were going to have a child. She'd thrown away any chance she'd ever had with winning him into her arms. He was an unfailingly loyal man and Livia knew he would never betray his wife.

 

"What?"

 

Damn! She thought, turning away from him. He'd caught her staring at him and now she was horribly embarrassed. She cursed herself for allowing that to happen, and she was ashamed she was allowing herself to play this childish game of crush-on-the-older-man. She was young but she was a warrior. She didn't have time for this foolishness.

 

"Nothing. Let's get going. It's late and I'm tired."

 

Livia pushed past Cadmus and mounted her horse. She had slaves to bring before her Emperor and the city of Rome waited to greet her.

 

The city of Rome never looked so beautiful as she did this night as Caesar had used his wealth to decorate her for Livia's return. He had ordered the streets lined with soldiers in full dress uniform standing at attention to salute Livia as she led the slaves into the city. The citizen's chanted her name and cheered, sounding like one living creature instead of the mass of mindless cattle they really were. At first sight of the soldiers and the screaming people Livia had assumed she was under arrest and expected to be taken into chains at any moment, dragged away and tacked to a cross right alongside the resistance fighters she was leading into the city.

 

Then her ears adjusted to the cacophony of sound and she realized the words they were screaming weren't for her blood at all. Louder and louder the men and women chanted "Welcome home Livia, Welcome home Livia."

 

Pity her soul was so dead she couldn't bring herself to be touched.

Sure she was relieved to find she was in no immediate danger of execution, and she could feel her heart swell with its usual arrogance, but there was no joy to the loving welcome she was receiving from the citizens of the most powerful country the world had ever known.

Cadmus and Jara rode up to her with smiles covering their perfectly handsome faces. She knew Cadmus would be happy for her, but after some of the things she'd said to Jara, she was only bewildered with confusion at the look of selfless joy on the woman's face on her behalf. This only worsened when Jara mouthed the word Žcongratulations' at her, knowing her voice would never reach Livia's ears over the din of the crowd.

 

Livia and her officers followed the only clear path through the streets decorated with beautiful flowers, expensive tapestries and gilded torches until they arrived at the destination they'd been trying to reach since they'd defeated their enemies almost a year before: the palace of Caesar.

 

Though she hadn't seen him since she was six years old and couldn't readily recall the face of the man who'd taken her from Rome and abandoned her in the provinces to be raised by the god of War, she recognized which of the many man was Augustus Caesar almost immediately. His eyes touched hers for the first time in twelve years, and the opportunistic bitch in Livia saw the lust in burning in them immediately. She didn't know what she had expected, but sexual desire was not it, and the same disgust that filled her when she had to deal with most men filled her belly once again.

 

Yet at the same time she knew that she could use this fools desires against him just as Ares had taught her from the moment she came into her incredible beauty only a couple of years before, and a smile that had struck fear into the hearts of hundreds of men and women as she prepared to send them into eternity graced her face. The sight of it took hold of Augustus' better senses and she knew it. She also knew that once she had full control of him, she would have both of her feet planted firmly on the road to her ultimate dream: The Empress of Rome.

 

********************************************************************************************

 

Augustus Caesar and his lover Ghita took up their position at the very top of the many steps leading into Caesar's palace. Though they kept a respectable distance from one another the Senators who were in the know shook their heads in disapproval. As far as they were concerned Ghita was nothing more than a snake in the grass, and they had every right to feel that way considering she'd stung enough of them to weasel her way into Caesar's bed. Some of them had even taken bets as to how long it would take her to wear their Emperor down and he was standing here on these same steps announcing their marriage.

 

A low, steady rumble that was the conversations of the people below them filled the cool night air. Augustus had made such a spectacle over her return from crushing a Gaul resistance and saving Rome's elite legion from the inept leadership of whom he'd called two complete fools that the people had gone overboard with their attempts to out-do one another in welcoming Livia home.

 

They'd spent money they didn't have to decorate their hovels and shops to please a woman they'd never even heard of six months before. Ghita was disgusted to say the very least. Though she hadn't loved her husband, she was angry that they had never honored Damen with such a grand welcome, especially considering he had dedicated more of his time and energy to Rome longer than Livia had even been alive. Without knowing, or perhaps knowing but simply not caring, Augustus had brought shame to her and her sons by this spectacle in Livia's name.

 

"Something wrong Ghita?"

 

Damn straight there's something wrong, she said to herself. Instead of voicing her real feelings Ghita only smiled and tilted her head to the side with a convincing look of innocence she'd never really possessed, even as a child. She was, after all, a consummate actress.

 

"Not a thing my lord."

 

He smiled in satisfaction and was about to speak again when it happened. The crowed began to roar in the distance with the chant Augustus had decreed the people were to use to welcome Livia home with. It came like a tidal wave in the night, rushing to Ghita's ears with frightening speed and making her heart race with anxiety. Over and over again the people cheered ŽWelcome home Livia', until it was a wall of sound that threatened to collapse in on her. She literally swooned on her feet for a moment, but the dizziness was broken by sheer resentment as she caught sight of Caesar's profile.

 

She'd seen that look before, directed at her, but now Augustus was directing it at someone new. That look was desire. Pure, hot desire, and when her gaze followed his to the woman riding in at the head of the army and caravan of slaves, she understood exactly how he could feel the way he did.

 

The girl was young true, but she possessed a beauty Ghita found almost as frightening as the wave of sound that had washed over them at her arrival. She was perfect in every way it seemed, and as Ghita watched Augustus burn with lust for the younger woman, she knew she was watching any chance she ever had of becoming empress go down with the sun. The jealousy and hatred that began to burn in her heart for Livia matched, if not exceeded, the lust that was so obviously burning in Augustus' eyes for the young warrior.

 

The girl has to die, Ghita decided, and soon.

 

"Enjoy her while you can Augustus," Ghita said, knowing Caesar could not hear her words for she couldn't hear them herself in the noise that was being generated by the crowd below. "You won't have her long."

 

 

 

A hush fell over the crowd as Augustus stepped forward and looked down at Livia. She'd dismounted from her horse and was waiting to see if the message she'd received from Cenon had indeed been accurate. Part of her still expected betrayal from a man who was a complete stranger to her, yet at the same time held the power of her life and death in his hands. At a moments notice she knew he could give the signal to have her taken into custody and imprisoned before she was publicly crucified for killing two superior officers.

 

An eternity passed by with nothing but a stare from Augustus. Finally, when she could stand it no longer he held out his right hand to present the imperial ring. Relief flooded through her guts, which were literally quivering with an anxiety like she'd never known before. This was a sign of acceptance on his behalf, and it meant she was safe, at least for a little while.

 

The crowd began to cheer as Livia ascended the steps to kiss the ring. She was receiving a welcome very few soldiers would ever have the honor of receiving. The people loved her and Caesar blessed her. Rome was quickly becoming hers.

 

Livia came to a stop before Augustus and bent to kiss the ring. "Hail Caesar," she said. To Augustus, who was the only one close enough to hear her in the din created by the crowd, her voice was deep and as smooth as oil. Her lips glistened in the light of the torches and he wanted nothing more than claim those lips in his own. She had grown from a beautiful child into an impossibly beautiful young warrior that inspired within him a desire he'd never known.

 

Livia kissed the ring and as she did her hair fell over his hand. This hid from the watching eyes of the Senators, and his lover Ghita, the way she seductively trailed her lower lip up his finger and took the ring in her lips, all the while holding his eyes with her own impossibly large ones. She heard the moan of desire that involuntarily escaped the Emperor but had more success than Augustus in hiding her own feelings of disgust. Men were all the same.

 

Augustus pulled her to him, and Livia caught for the first time the older woman who'd emerged with him from the palace. Livia didn't know who she was but she instinctively knew the older woman hated her with a passion. Livia pondered the identity of the woman, knowing that if she were Caesar's wife word would have been sent long before now. No matter, Livia thought to herself. I'll deal with her soon enough if she tries to get in my way of the throne.

 

Augustus turned her to face the cheering crowd then held his hand high in the air, calling for quiet. It took a while but the crowd finally calmed until once again there was silence.

 

"Many of you," Augustus said, his voice ringing out loud and clear, "are wondering who this young Warrior is to me. I will tell you. She is the daughter of a dear friend who died in battle to save me so many years ago. She has been gone from me all her life, but now she has returned. While she was gone she has proven herself in battle. She loves her Legion but most importantly she loves Rome!"

 

The crowd cheered and Livia offered them a smile she did not feel. Love, she thought bitterly. I haven't known love since I lost my family. She stood beside Caesar, playing her part and ignoring the pride in Cadmus and Lycus' eyes. She just wanted to be away from these people and alone to gather her thoughts.

 

Once Caesar calmed the crowd again, he continued with his speech. "Now that Livia has returned home, I am complete. Rome is complete. We will spend the next ninety days celebrating her return with Gladiator games. The very best from all the provinces have returned to die in her honor. Long live Livia! Long live Livia!"

 

The chant caught on like wild fire and it spread throughout the crowd. They cheered her name until their voice shook the ground itself. "Long live Livia!"

 

Augustus put an arm around her and led her inside to the relative quiet of the palace. Only Ghita and a few of Caesar's closest friends were allowed to follow inside as the heavy doors slammed shut, closing out the noise of the crowd.

 

************************************************************************************

 

Livia lay down her eating utensils as she finished her meal. The food was richer than anything she'd ever eaten, even at the academy, and she knew if she took another bite she would be ill. The food wasn't the only thing that turned her stomach as from the corner of her eye she watched Ghita watch Augustus stare at her every move. The longer she was around them the more she was convinced the woman was every bit as dangerous and conniving as Livia could hope to be.

 

I suppose she is, Livia thought, considering she has more years of experience manipulating men than I have years being alive. Ghita focused all her attention on Livia again, deciding to forget Augustus' shameful display of youthful lust.

 

Ghita studied the young warrior in the light of the dining hall in a way she hadn't been able to before. She'd thought Livia beautiful and perfect at a distance in the dark, but up close Livia far exceeded her earlier appraisal. The girls skin was bone white and without blemish. Her veins ran blue and delicate beneath her eyes and around her temples, and her eyes÷well. Her eyes were the most captivating feature she offered, next to her pouty lips.

 

Ghita had never been one for lusting after female flesh but even this girl aroused something deep within her that she dare not examine too closely. Were she a man she knew she would have killed just to have this girl spit on her. She was convinced now more than ever that she didn't stand a chance of marrying Augustus if she didn't rid Rome of Livia.

 

Having had enough of Ghita's staring, Livia turned to confront her in the guise of casual conversation. "Is there something wrong?"

 

"I beg your pardon?" Ghita said. She took note of the heavy timbre in the girls' voice. How easily that could be used to drive a man mad with desire if used as a whisper in his ear. This was a talent Ghita had never possessed herself, as her voice was pathetically high in pitch.

 

"You seem to be staring at me. I thought perhaps something was wrong."

 

"Perhaps, " Augustus said, interrupting what could possibly turn into an ugly argument, "Ghita is as captivated by your beauty as I am."

 

"Yes," Ghita said with a smile everyone in the room knew was false. "That's it exactly. You possess a beauty that is positively unearthly Livia. Tell me, however do you manage to keep your skin so soft and beautiful while you're out murdering your superior officers?"

 

"Ghita!" Augustus said, his mouth all but falling open in shock. The Senators had stopped eating and talking to watch the spectacle unfolding before them as Livia came back with her own biting words.

 

"That's the trick darling," Livia said in that soft, deadly voice. "Blood nourishes the skin. I recommend a good blood bath at least twice a week. It'll do wonders for those unsightly wrinkles that have taken hold around your eyes and the bridge of your nose."

 

Never had anyone insulted Ghita to her face and as the men around the table, Augustus included, laughed at Livia's insult she could feel her face turn red with shame. This had to be the worst moment of her life, and as the rage within her threatened to explode she vowed she would make this insolent bitch pay for humiliating her in front of Rome's most powerful men.

 

"I take it," Livia continued, enjoying her victory, "that from the way your face has lined you haven't done a lot of smiling in your life."

 

"Time will undoubtedly tell the same thing of you young woman." Augustus heard Ghita's voice shaking with rage and he knew this had gone too far. The woman he'd taken as his lover could be very dangerous, and he didn't want anything happening to Livia. Not when he'd just received her back into his life.

 

"That will be enough ladies."

 

"I have a question for my lord," Ghita said, leaning back in her chair. From the outside she seemed to be over her anger. "What about the matter of Livia's condemnation? I'm sure these fine gentlemen would love to hear what you plan to do. Wouldn't you gentlemen?"

 

Damn you Ghita! Augustus thought, looking at the discomfort on Livia's face. The Senators had all turned to Augustus, their food all but forgotten. This had been an issue since word of what Livia had done had arrived by rumor almost a year before. By his own decree, any woman who committed the crime of murder against a man was to be put to death without trial, and any soldier to lift a weapon against a superior officer was to be crucified with the sunset the following day. By killing Damen and Acastus Livia had committed those crimes twice. Even he couldn't simply pardon her for that.

 

Augustus sighed and folded his hands, putting on air of calm he was nowhere close to feeling. "Livia did what she did for the good of the Legion. Had she not killed Damen and Acastus they would have all perished."

 

"Actually," Ghita said, boring her eyes into Livia's. "She only followed Damen's plan of attack. Rumor has it you picked a fight with him in order to prove your fighting abilities. When he refused your demands to give you an assignment to ride with the cavalry you killed him."

 

"Where did you hear that?" Livia asked. She could hear the nervous undertone to her voice and she hated herself for it. Ghita had heard it too and was smiling triumphantly.

 

"I was married to Damen when you killed him. One of his most loyal friends sent word to me of what really happened that night. He'd witnessed the entire thing. Damen's second in command," Ghita said, turning to the Senators, "Acastus, took over and attempted to carry out the law. This÷girl worked with some dissident soldiers and overthrew him."

 

Livia had had enough of her slander, though it was all true. She stood from the table in anger and pounded her fist on the surface. Ghita flinched back in fear despite her best efforts to maintain a brave face.

 

"I had to overthrow Acastus or the Alpha Legion was doomed. He was a fool. So was your husband."

 

The Senators shook their head in disapproval of Livia's attitude and Augustus knew Livia was in trouble. They would, he knew, stand together to enforce the law against her. Not necessarily because they cared about justice, but they would do it out of spite for him. He could see Livia had a healthy sense of pride and if she didn't cool it she was going to get herself killed.

 

"Sit down Livia." Augustus' tone left no room for debated and she grudgingly complied. "The Senators are right. Do you admit to killing Damen and Acastus?"

 

Why is he asking me that? Livia wondered. She looked at the faces of the robed men around the table and she would be damned if she would go down lying like a coward. "I did."

 

"Then you are indeed condemned."

 

Livia looked at him with wide-eyed shock and Ghita laughed out loud, believing she'd won. However, Augustus wasn't quite finished and his next words wiped the smile right off the older woman's face and caused fresh hope to arise in Livia.

 

"I could have thrown into the dungeon until a cross with your name on it is erected in the public square, but I won't. I'm going to give you a chance to save yourself."

 

"You can't do that!" Ghita said, feeling her victory slip away like an eel in water.

 

"I am Caesar. I can do anything I want. Now sit back and shut up before I have you removed."

 

If looks could kill Augustus would have dropped dead from the daggers her eyes were throwing at him. "I announced the Gladiator games would be held for ninety days. If you can survive a round of the games, you win your freedom."

 

"That's hardly a fair challenge my lord," one of the Senators said from the far end of the table. "She's already killed two of Rome's finest warriors."

 

"One," Livia corrected him. "Damen wasn't much of a challenge." She knew this was a lie but the helpless rage she saw it inspired in Ghita was worth the shame of a lie.

 

"That is why," Augustus continued, "she will fight four of the best Gladiators in Rome's service."

 

This seemed to satisfy Ghita but it only served to stir up a feeling of panic in Livia. Four gladiators at the same time? "But÷"

 

"I have every confidence you can do it Livia," Augustus said. He rose from his chair and the rest of the room followed suit. "Dismissed. Except for you Livia."

 

The room quickly emptied and Ghita was the last one out of the door with an arrogant swagger. Once they were alone Augustus led Livia over to the window. In the distance the Coliseum was a black mass blocking out the glittering stars of the heavens. The streets were filled with the citizens of Rome celebrating Livia's return.

 

"They're all there, for you. Ah, it's been a long time Livia. You've changed so much since we last saw one another."

 

"As have you." Livia kept her tone neutral though she was urgent to talk about the fight he'd decreed.

 

"You're anxious about the fight?"

 

"You read me well. I don't know if I like that or not."

 

"Don't worry Livia. I'm sure you'll do just fine."

 

"Against two yes, but four? I'm not so sure about that my lord."

 

"If I thought you couldn't handle it I wouldn't have ordered it." He turned her to face him, the lust replaced with something softer and easier for Livia to stomach. She remembered the tender expression in his eyes the day he'd saved her as a child, and she wished he'd never taken her to the provinces to gain a family that she would only lose. She wished he'd taken her with him and raised her as a daughter. Perhaps she wouldn't be the cold-hearted monster she was now.

 

"Thank you for giving me a chance," she said, and she realized she was genuinely grateful to him for that. He could have been weak and given in to Ghita's wishes or the wishes of the Senate, but he hadn't. He'd stood up for and saved her life for the second time.

 

"Always. You may not understand it now, but I would kill for you."

 

Augustus's words came back to her about her father. Now was her chance to find something out about her family. She was filled with a sense of excitement she rarely knew since she lost Brigid and Ann. "You said I was the daughter of a warrior that saved your life. What was his name?"

 

Augustus grew silent, and then decided a lie was the best thing now. He could sense this girl had the tenacity of a bloodhound and he didn't want her to be too curious of her past. It could get her killed.

 

"His name was Xenas. He wasn't very well known, but he took an arrow to the chest that was meant for me. I promised him I would take care of you before he died."

 

"And you've done a fine job. What about my mother?"

 

"Her name was÷" he wracked his mind for names from the stories he'd heard out of Gabrielle's scrolls and finally pulled one out of the air. "Her name was Callisto. She died giving birth to you. So you see, I've taken care of you from birth. I'm sorry. I know you were probably hoping-"

 

"No. I have long since given up on such things as hope. Now if you don't mind, I'm very tired."

 

Augustus looked her body over and he wished he could take her to his bed, but he knew that would never happen. "I'll show you to your quarters. You need to rest for the games tomorrow."

 

******************************

 

Livia awoke the next morning to the smell of fresh fruits and vegetables and the sound of her new slaves preparing the outer rooms of her quarters. She arose, feeling oddly calm considering she might not be alive to return this luxurious suite the next morning.

 

"Good morning my lady."

 

Livia looked down on the petite raven-haired woman who'd been assigned to her. She had the look of a woman who'd spent her entire life working day in and day out to cater to the great Caesar. Livia wondered, not for the first time, what it would be like to be in her position, and not for the first time she was grateful to be exactly who she was.

 

"Good morning," she answered. Her voice as calm as she was feeling.

 

"I have a bath prepared for you." The woman seemed fidgety, as if she were afraid of Livia. Not that she shouldn't be.

 

"Leave me."

 

The slave scampered away and Livia began to undress. She'd fallen asleep in her uniform and now she wanted nothing more than to finally be rid of it. She'd spent the last year and a half of her life in that uniform, and now it seemed as if she might die in it.

 

She'd just allowed herself to relax in the water when the familiar voice of a man she hadn't heard from in almost a year spoke from behind her.

 

"Amazing. You actually made it."

 

Livia's lips curled into a feral grin. "All without you. I knew I wouldn't need your help÷Ares."

 

Ares appeared before her naked. He was the only man she'd ever been with and the site of his powerful body, whether it be in leather or nude, always made her feel as if she would go mad with desire and animalistic need. She literally began to salivate for him, and he enjoyed the site of her desire for him.

 

"Come here."

 

Ares rarely obeyed the wishes of a mortal, but this time he did as instructed. They met in the water in a passionate kiss and joined immediately. Neither of them had ever been one to "waste" time on foreplay. She was a get to the point personality every bit as much as he was.

When they were finished she eased away from him and reclined against the bath wall, staring at him. Were he a mortal she would have long since killed him for abandoning her. However, he was a god and he had promised her absolute power. She would give him time to live up to his end of the bargain.

 

"As long as you live up to yours."

 

"Stop that," Livia said. The words came out more like a bark than anything else. "I hate it when you read my mind. My thoughts are my own."

 

Ares had always allowed Livia a certain amount of freedom to express her wishes, however he wasn't going to allow her to disrespect him. He used his powers to jerk her to him, though his hands never left the rim of the bath.

 

"You'll do to watch your tone with me Livia. I am your god, and you will respect me."

 

"If you say so." She wasn't about to give now, considering she could be dead before the sun reached its Zenith that day.

 

Ares let go of her and she eased away from him. "You're worried about the competition today." He rose from the water and stepped from the tub. When his feet hit the floor he was dressed and dry. How she wished she could do that so easily.

 

She followed suit and began to towel off. "I'll do my best of course, but four gladiators are a lot different than four peasants or even four Roman soldiers. These men spend their lives fighting to the death every day. I just don't know÷"

 

"You'll do fine. I guarantee it."

 

The words should have brought her comfort, yet she felt only indignation that he planned to interfere in her fight. "Ares, this is my battle-"

 

"One you're going to lose if you don't have some help. Don't confuse my motives for helping you Livia. I have invested too much time and energy into you to allow you to die in the arena to satisfy a mob. You will succeed in battle today."

 

Livia stared him over. "Not because you love me."

He laughed. "I haven't loved anyone since÷Well that's not important. No, I'm not saving you out of love. I'm saving you out of an interest for my own well-being and the well-being of the gods of Olympus. I hate to admit it but each god serves a purpose to balance the other. If they die we all will eventually become weak and die out."

 

"What are you going to do?"

 

"You'll see."

 

With that Ares was gone and Livia quickly rushed to finish dressing.

 

******************************

 

In order to celebrate Livia's return to Rome Augustus Caesar ordered ninety days of Gladiator games. Livia would be the first warrior to fight in those games, against four opponents. Ghita had been somewhat satisfied with Augustus' challenge for the girl who was becoming a threat to her place in her lover's life until she saw the four men that had been chosen to fight her.

 

To say they were scrawny and weak would have been the understatement of the century. The men were short and underfed, and they stared back at her with empty, glazed eyes. She turned to the guard who'd escorted her to the bowels of the arena.

 

"Look at them. I could kill them in battle and I've never even touched a sword. This is ridiculous! Are you certain these are the men Augus-Caesar ordered to fight Livia?"

 

Her guard only nodded a yes. Well, Ghita thought, circling the men. Will he be in for a surprise.

 

"Fetch my maidservant. Now."

 

"Yes my lady."

 

The guard departed at her wish and Ghita made her way to the captain of the guard in charge of securing the gladiators and making certain none escaped. She found him emerging from his office and she was just able to make out the form of a naked woman in the back room. He was covered in sweat and reeked of sex.

 

"For the love of Athena man, have the decency to clean yourself up before you return to conducting business!"

He gave her wicked grin and slapped her on the rear before he continued on to a table laden with fruits and cold water. The day was unmercifully hot, especially with the crowded bodies of the fighters and the people pressed against the bars trying to gain a glimpse of their favorite gladiator. Had they not known one another so well, she would have had him executed for being so familiar with her.

 

"You've got some nerve touching me like that Pendar," Ghita said, watching him pour water over his sweat soaked head. He laughed and looked back at her.

 

"You've become Caesar's whore and now you think you have real power?"

 

His words made her burn with righteous indignation. "How dare you call me something like-"

 

"What do you want Ghita? I'm a busy man and I have a lot to do today."

 

She decided to let the slight pass and took a seat on the cleanest chair available. "I'm here to call in a favor."

 

"Well I do owe you. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you."

 

"Yes. You'd still be out in some back water province, slaving away as a farm hand."

 

"What do you want? For the second time?"

 

"I want four of your best warriors."

 

******************************

 

Augustus made his way to Livia's quarters but found her in the gardens instead. He watched her expert form as she practiced with her sword and threw kicks and punches. He had no doubt she would have those four slouches he'd ordered for her battle dead in seconds. Then this entire mess with her being a condemned woman would be over and he could begin working on replacing Ghita with her.

 

As he watched he was overcome with how seriously she dedicated herself to the practice. It almost seemed as if she were fighting an invisible foe. Livia suddenly stopped and looked back at him without actually turning her body. Once again he was taken with how incredibly beautiful she had become.

 

 

 

At Ares urging Livia turned to face Augustus who was watching her from the corridor.

 

"Now remember what I told you Livia. The old man is your ticket to the empire. Win his heart and the throne is yours."

 

"The last thing," Livia whispered as she turned from Augustus, "I want to do is sleep with him. He's supposed to be my father, not my lover."

 

"He's a stranger to you Livia. Not your father. If you want Rome you're going to have to make sacrifices. Besides, sleeping with someone that disgusts you isn't as difficult as you think."

 

With that Ares was gone, and she was alone in the garden with Augustus. His hands found her shoulders and it was all she could do not to pull away from him in disgust. She forced herself to remain lose to his touch. Stiffening up would only send out the wrong signals and push him away.

 

"Now that I've seen your skill with my own eyes," Augustus murmured in her ear, "I'm not nearly as concerned for you as I was before. You'll do fine in the arena today."

 

"I know I will." Her confidence pleased him and he turned her to face him.

 

"You've grown so much Livia."

 

She nodded and gave him a small smile. "I'm a woman now."

 

The innuendo in her words excited him. Was this an invitation for him to make the first move or was in merely an innocent statement? He pushed away the image of the child he once knew and eased her closer to him. If only he could taste her lips just once÷

 

She allowed him to pull her close and just as their lips were about to meet in their first kiss the familiar sound of Ghita's ingratiating voice interrupted from the passageway.

 

"My Lord, it is time to begin."

 

"I'll be there in a moment Ghita. Go on without me."

 

Ghita did as she was told but both Augustus and Livia could see she hated what she'd witnessed between them. "Livia, when this is all over, I want us to talk."

 

"About what?"

 

"About us."

 

Livia watched him leave the garden, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt the most powerful man in Rome was hers and hers alone.

 

Some warriors found the screaming of the crowd exhilarating, but Livia found it oddly unnerving. She wondered what kind of an effect it was going to have on her ability to concentrate, but she also wondered what it would feel like to be here in the center of the arena having them scream for her blood. As her eyes searched the faces of the strangers that believed she would one day come to rule, she couldn't help but feel somewhat disturbed by the bloodlust on their faces. They were here to see her kill and for some strange reason it was grating on her nerves.

 

What the hell is wrong with me? She wondered. She waved to the people as Augustus had instructed her, but this served only to increase the volume of the crowd. Livia could feel a headache beginning to throb at her temples, and she tried her best to take comfort in the knowledge that it would all be over soon. There was a strange comfort in the knowledge that when the sun set, she would be either dead or the most beloved warrior in Roman history.

 

She faced her emperor and bowed to him as she had been instructed, and Augustus stood to bow to her in return. The crowd fell mercifully silent in shock. Never before had the emperor paid a warrior such a high tribute by actually bowing in return to him. Now he was doing so for Livia.

 

A wicked grin came to her face. Yes, she thought. The emperor is definitely mine. Her eyes searched the crowd again and she found Ghita staring daggers at her. Knowing she was dethroning the old bitch was almost as pleasurable to Livia as sex with Ares.

 

"Are you ready?"

 

It was all Livia could do not to look over at the owner of the voice. She knew Ares was visible only to her, but if she started talking to thin air the people would think her insane. Not to mention Augustus.

 

"You can handle these men. I've seen to it you get the very worst Rome has to-"

 

The doors to the bowels of the arena where the Gladiators were corralled before their battles opened and her opponents walked out. As Livia turned to them the look of utter horror on Ares' face did nothing to help the situation. He'd informed her she'd be given four opponents that would be fairly simple for her to defeat, so why did he look so panicked?

The crowd began to boo as four incredibly large, well-muscled Gladiators exited the hold. Her eyes immediately found their way first to a stunned Augustus, then to Ghita. The woman was literally laughing at the shock on Livia's face, and the younger woman didn't doubt a bit Ghita had planned the entire thing. Livia's anger only increased when Ghita leaned forward in her chair and mouthed, "You lose" to her.

 

"Ares÷"

 

"Don't worry. I've got you covered."

 

He moved toward the men but she drew her sword instead. "Wait. I can do this."

 

"No you can't," Ares said matter-of-factly, still advancing toward the men.

 

Her wounded pride filled Livia with intense desperation and urgency. If she didn't defeat these men on her own then she would be noting more than a fraud. She had to know when she lay down that evening that she was alive by her own strength and skill, not because her lover and god Ares, or even her emperor Augustus did her fighting for her.

 

Knowing she couldn't stand there in the middle of the arena and debate the point with someone only visible to her eyes, Livia did the only thing she could. She gave her fiercest battle cry, ran toward the four approaching giants and flipped over Ares. She landed before her opponents and the battle was on.

 

******************************

 

Ares watched as Livia executed a perfect flip over him and landed before the four Gladiators, the crowd roaring with blood lust at her bravery. He didn't know whether he should feel irritated with her sudden refusal of help or proud. True, it was a noble quality he liked in his warriors, but she was Livia, not Xena. She had her limits, especially against men such as these.

 

I should have made her immortal, Ares thought as he watched the men draw their swords and move to surround her. From the corner of his eye he could see Augustus Caesar standing to halt the battle, and of course Livia would hear nothing of it.

 

"Its my fight," she whispered to him. "Don't interfere. Don't let him interfere."

 

Ares sighed. She was right of course. This was her fight. Had it been Xena in the ring he would sit back and watch what he knew would be a quick and ugly death for these men. However, this wasn't Xena. Hell, she wasn't even mad Callisto. Could she do this? He'd invested so many years into training her to think as well as fight. Should he allow her to even try?

 

He knew she'd resent him forever if he interfered so he decided he would watch, wait and see. If she got into too much trouble he'd intervene. Otherwise he'd give her a chance. With a wave of his hand he halted any objections about to spill from Augustus' lips and the emperor sat back down with a nervous frown on his aging face.

 

******************************

 

Livia's Battle

 

The four giants surrounded Livia's smaller frame until she was completely hidden from the crowd in an ever-shrinking circle between them. The four men seemed to have experience in fighting like a pack of dogs, but Livia had experience in outsmarting animals such as these. She allowed them to get close to her, and as they raised their swords to slice her to pieces, thereby exposing their the vulnerable flesh of their well-muscled abdomen's she spun on her right heel attempting to gut every one of them in one fatal swipe of her blade.

 

Three of the warriors had reflexes sharp enough to jump back, but one man wasn't so lucky. The sharp edge of her blade cut deeply into his body and his guts literally spilled out to the dirt. He was dead before his massive frame hit the dirt, much to the delight of her screaming audience.

 

Livia took advantage of her new door and bolted out to the deafening cheers of the crowd surrounding her. How she wished they'd just shut up so she could concentrate.

 

Once outside and with room to maneuver she relaxed as well as regained her bearings in time to see the remaining three warriors trying to gather around her again.

 

If that's the way they want it, Livia thought. A wicked grin spread across her beautiful face as her instincts prepared another attack.

 

This time the men placed a large amount of their weight on the balls of their feet and primed their bodies to jump in any direction at once. They had underestimated her once before, but they would not do so again.

 

Ghita watched the girl as she had squirmed with fright at the first glimpse of the gladiator's when they'd come through the entrance of the arena floor. The astonishment of the sheer size of the men had been entertaining, but then something had changed. Livia had gradually and quite visibly steeled herself with a quiet determination to survive and had already surpassed Ghita's expectations for survival. Ghita had believed not one of the men would die at Livia's hands, but she'd been proven wrong within seconds of the game.

 

Now Ghita's eyes floated to Augustus to find the emperor sitting on the edge of his chair. He was all but biting his perfectly manicured nails as he watched his prize plaything prepare to cut down yet another of the finest gladiators Rome had to offer. He clearly had developed quite the crush on little Livia, and the older woman could feel her grip on his loyalties slipping with each passing moment Livia lived. This girl had to die before Augustus had her put out to pasture.

 

Ghita turned to her most trusted maidservant, an Amazon captured in her youth as a feisty twelve year old girl but had served in her home for the past ten years.

 

"Shiria my dear."

 

Shiria leaned forward in order to hear Ghita's voice more clearly in the din created by the audience as Livia wounded the leg of a second gladiator. This would make it at least more difficult for him to fight with the distraction the pain of his wound caused, and therefore easier for Livia to handle.

 

"Yes my lady?"

 

"Do you remember when you came to me? You were a frightened child longing to return your Amazon tribe?"

 

Old resentment flared up in Shiria's eyes but not with the same heat as it had when she'd first been captured. "Yes my lady. How could I forget?"

 

"If Livia defeats her opponents-" Ghita began, but The crowd began cheering again as Livia put a nasty cut on a third gladiator's sword arm then executed a flip over the last healthy opponent. As she flew over his head she deflected his sword, landed behind him and ran him through. He fell to his knees to die a slow and painful death as the crowd begged her for more blood and death. The uneasy feeling at the pit of Ghita's stomach that Livia might survive was growing by the second. It was time for her back up plan.

 

Ghita was hesitant to increase her volume too much for fear someone might overhear, but Ghita pushed away those concerns now. She pressed her lips against Shiria's ear and barked her commands along with a promise she knew the slave wouldn't be able to refuse.

 

"I will give you your freedom and return you to your mother and sisters if you will give me your word as an Amazon you'll take this message to General Capaneus for me. You will most likely find him in the Greek quarter at one of those bordello's. Hurry now, and I will write up your papers for release."

 

Shiria obviously didn't trust or believe Ghita, but as far as she could tell there was no real reason not to do as told. After all, what could it possibly hurt?

 

As soon as she was away from Ghita's sight she unrolled the miniature scroll to find only a few words in Ghita's perfect penmanship. It is time to return the favor old friend.

 

Not certain what to make of the message and not really caring as long as she could finally return home after a ten year absence, Shiria hurried to the Greek quarter to give the message to General Capaneus.

 

******************************

 

Ares watched with admiration as Livia pulled herself up from the dirt of the arena floor and face off with her opponents once again despite the small but deep gash one of the men had managed to place on her left leg. He had taught her to be equally skilled from both sides of her body but Livia had an annoying habit of resting her weight on her left leg to throw her deadliest kicks with her right. Now she could do neither as the wound continued to gush blood with each step she took.

 

"Come on÷come one," he urged her silently. He was ready to step in at any moment and use his powers to turn the battle in her direction. Not because she was asking for it but because she didn't want his help. That was a sign of a truly great warrior, and only then was he willing to lend aid to any of his pets.

 

Besides that he'd invested too much time and energy into training not just her sword hand but also her mind. He'd trained her to look at life as if she were at constant war with the world and everyone in it. Except for him everyone was her enemy and in order to ensure success she had to subdue anyone within her reach. Therefore she would have to be a brilliant tactician and prepare herself to conquer and kill anyone who even remotely opposed her.

 

He'd taken her from an innocent child the day Alec had raided the academy in hopes of using her against Augustus Caesar, and turned her from the typically weak-willed little girl the cold-hearted murderous warrior she was today. With the exception of the long-dead Xena she was his finest work of black art, and he wasn't about to allow her to kill herself for some sense of misplaced honor.

 

Now Livia was down to two gladiators and every man and woman in the crowd was leaning as far into the arena as they possibly could without toppling themselves over and falling in. They were growing to love Livia with each passing second and they impatiently cheered for her to spill her enemies' blood as quickly as she possibly could. Their lust for death at this moment matched Livia's; the god of War was finding it rather intoxicating. Images of the victory celebration he would share with Livia were already dancing through his conniving mind.

 

He pulled his thoughts back to reality and though he hated to admit it, he knew that Livia would not be celebrating with him this evening. When this was over Livia would go to be with Augustus. As he'd always believed, a woman's strength in this world was as much in the beauty of her body as it was in her mind and the lust that filled the aging emperor's eyes every time he took in the sight of young Livia was obvious to the point of being embarrassing. Ares had taught Livia how to turn a man's lust into a weapon that would bring him under her control. Now that she had Augustus wanting her more and more with each moment that passed, all she really had to do now was sit back and enjoy the ride to the throne.

 

******************************

 

Livia forced her mind past the pain in her left leg and put some distance between herself and her remaining opponents, both of whom were wounded as she was. The pain didn't seem to be distracting them as much as it did her, and she found herself wondering how much of that was act. Had they truly built up a tolerance for pain that exceeded even her own? Before today she wouldn't have thought it possible.

 

The two men charged her at once, though not clumsily like the villagers she always witnessed in the raids Ares had ordered carried out with her plans during her training sessions as she'd grown up. She remembered the hours he'd take her away at night to draw up attack plans for his armies as experiments to see how well she'd learned from the plans Xena had drawn up during the time Xena had been in training with him in her youth as well. Livia's were never as good of course, but they were brilliant in their own right. Now the question on Livia's mind was if she would be able to defeat all four these men without help from the god of War?

 

She allowed her opponents to get close then executed another flip. Her goal was to land behind them and cut them both down with one fatal swing of her blade, but one of the men was prepared for the move. She managed to cut one of the men down and he lay on the ground screaming in agony as his kidneys nearly hung from his back, but the other man brought his foot up, kicking her sword from her hand. He caught it as it came back to earth, and began to swing both blades with lightning speed. He advanced on her and Livia knew if he got to close he would be able to churn her to pieces.

 

However his attack plan was not what she expected. Instead of trying to get close to cut her, he let go of one of swords and it flew at her like an arrow. She managed to dodge the unexpected projectile but not before it tore another nasty gash on her left leg, this time on her hip.

 

Livia collapsed to the ground and her opponent came to stand over her. His head blotted out the sun but left a brilliant halo around his head, making him look like a god of death. As she stared into his steel gray eyes, wondering if perhaps her end had finally come, she realized the crowd had fallen deathly silent.

 

"You," he said with a thick German accent, "have been a worthy opponent. I will never forget you as long as I live."

 

His eyes were full of pride for her skill as he raised his blade. This left his entire body exposed but she didn't need his entire body. Only his most prized possession.

Livia drove her good foot up and into his crotch with all the strength she had and he doubled over, crying out in pain. The sword dropped to the ground as both of his hands went to cradle his aching crotch. He was also unknowingly leaving himself open for attack being doubled over with his chest so close to her reach.

 

"One of us has to die," she whispered, her voice hard and deadly. "It's not going to be me. You've had you time in the sun. It's my turn to shine."

 

Livia mustered the last of her strength and drove her fist forward. With a strength born of focus and years of training from Ares, Livia's fist punched through his chest plate and her hand found his most vital organ: His heart. In a split second she had it ripped from his chest. Her opponent stared at it in shock for only a moment before his life drained away. She barely had time to roll out of the way before he fell atop her, dead.

 

The crowd went predictably wild at her victory. Livia had overcome incredible odds by defeating four gladiators, and the mob that was Rome began chanting her name over and over until it was a wall of sound that threatened to drive her mad. As she stood there in the center of her four dead opponents she found Ghita's eyes. The younger woman held the mans now dead heart up to the one who was really her deadliest enemy squeezed, causing blood to gush from the organ. Ghita's face went so pale Livia literally expected the old bird to faint with fear.

 

Livia had no doubts Augustus' lover had everything to do with the change in her opponents' size and skill, and in some small way she thanked Ghita for it. She had come out before the citizens of Rome and slaughtered four of their greatest professional warriors. Ghita had given both the citizens and Augustus reasons to love and respect her. Her plan to get rid of Livia had blow up in her face.

 

Livia's victory here today would be the only thing on the lips of the people for months to come, and they would be drunk with their love for her. Livia planned to use that for as long as it took to secure her position in Augustus' empire.

 

Now it was Livia's turn to mouth a couple of words to her enemy. "You lose," Livia whispered before turning back to the crowd, but not before she saw the pure hatred on Ghita's face. Despite the fact that the older woman could still pose a real threat to her life, Livia still loved the intensity of emotion she was able to spark into other people, and for the first time since she'd stepped into the arena, she found herself enjoying the roar of the mob that was the heart of Rome.

 

******************************

 

 

Livia entered her quarters to find a fresh bath waiting for her. Her maidservants stripped her blood/dirt caked uniform from her body and washed the grime from her creamy skin. The hot water soothed her aching muscles and refreshed her, but she was still ready for a nap.

 

When she was clean the women raised her from the water and began to oil her skin until every inch of her was smooth as silk. "Livia?"

The sound of Augustus' voice was the last thing she wanted to hear right now. She wanted rest but her instincts told her it would be unwise to deny her lord the pleasure of her company. Besides, she could just hear Ares whining about how she passed up a golden opportunity to soften the emperor's heart toward her.

 

The maidservants hurriedly wrapped her in a robe just as Caesar entered the room. "Oh, I'm so sorry. You should have told me not to come in."

 

Livia offered him an innocent grin. "That would mean telling you no. I could never do that my lord."

 

Her voice was as silky as her skin as she slid past him to go into her bedchamber, and she was rewarded with a playful grin from Augustus. He followed her but stopped a respectable distance into the room to watch her climb up into the bed and lay back. She knew the effect the sight of her robe sliding open up the length of her leg was having on him, and she played up to it by reclining on her right arm and allowing her robe to almost completely expose one large but supple breast.

 

Augustus fought back a gulp as hot desire flooded his loins. He couldn't think of anything he'd rather do at that moment than rush to the bed and take her, but he knew it was too soon. She was young, her eighteenth birthday coming up in a few months. It wouldn't be right for a man his age to spoil her chastity.

 

"My lord?" Livia purred. She ran a hand along her newly healed left leg. Her god had done such a fabulous job there wouldn't even be a scar. Had Augustus noticed her miraculous recovery? If he had, he was saying nothing and keeping his eyes glued to her body.

 

"Hmmm?" Augustus hated how weak his own voice came out sounding.

 

"Is something the matter?"

 

Augustus studied her innocence, believing she was unaware of the desire the sight of her mile-long legs inspired within him. Then he remembered the way she had kissed the ring on his finger when she arrived in Rome the night before, and he wondered if perhaps there was more to this girl than met the eye.

 

"No my dear. Nothing. I just wanted to congratulate you on your victory. The people of Rome now have reason to love you as much as I do."

 

She shrugged and turned away from him, sadness suddenly replacing the youthful innocence he'd seen in her eyes before. "I suppose."

 

"What?" Augustus asked. He made his way over to the bed, and for the first time in a long time his maternal instincts replaced his more basic urges÷for the most part anyway. He was more confused than anything else by her sudden change in attitude. "What's bothering you?"

 

Livia looked up to the ceiling, her face a mask of anguish that touched his heart and reminded him of the little girl he'd left behind in the provinces over a decade ago. He reached for her and pulled her close, and she eased into him. This girl had never had a father and perhaps that was what she needed now, more than a lover. He just hated to give up the possibility he would never get to know her in every sense of the word.

 

"Come now. You can tell me anything."

 

"It's what happened today."

 

"I see. I don't know what happened Livia. Those were not the Gladiators I ordered for your battle."

 

"They weren't?" She put all the child-like innocence she could muster into her voice. Though she knew she was using him for her own personal gain, she couldn't deny that she enjoyed the feel of his arms around her in a fatherly manner instead of as a man wanting to use her body for his pleasure. She hadn't known this kind of love since she was a child in Ann's arms, and part of her cold heart was relieved at how quickly she could remember this type of love.

 

"Of course not," Augustus continued. I had ordered less formidable men for your battle. I was going to call it off but you jumped them and÷well, you jumped them and won. You're so good and I'm so proud of you Livia."

 

Before Livia was really aware it was happening, her heart broke and tears came pouring forth in an uncontrollable flood. What made it so frightening for her was she was helpless to stop it. She was wrapped in the arms of the first person to ever have shown her kindness as a child. Now that same man was giving her the parental love she'd longed for since her mother's death, and he was telling her he was proud of her. No one had said that to her since Ann.

 

Perhaps it was the fact that he didn't care about any of the horrible things that had happened to her as she'd grown up. He didn't care that she'd spilled innocent blood to soothe the rage that had taken root in her soul from the moment she lost her sister. He was caring for her and holding her and for the first time since she was a child, she felt safe and special. She felt loved.

 

Augustus held tightly onto her, guiding her through the storm of these sudden emotions, and she could tell from the feel of his hands stroking her hair that he didn't think any less of her as a person. She could feel her heart responding to that, even as her tired body and soul pulled her down into the first restful sleep she'd had in years.

 

******************************

 

The night wind was unseasonably cool as Cadmus and his wife Jara made their way through the streets of Rome toward Caesar's palace for Livia's victory celebration. Though his parents and one brother had long since died at the hands of over-zealous tax collectors, Cadmus had kept up the home he'd grown up in.

 

He also didn't want to leave his wife behind, but Cadmus and Jara agreed that she couldn't remain with him after the baby was born. Hopefully his request for release would be heard and he would be able to return to run his own blacksmith's shop and raise his children. Leaving the army and settling down with a good woman was the life he'd been dreaming of since he'd made his way through the military and into the Alpha Legion.

 

Now he was home. At least for a little while at any rate. Livia was the talk of Rome and her mind was away from him. He was relieved for this. Though she'd never come right out and said anything, his instincts could feel her attraction to him, and this scared him more than it amused him. If Livia ever made the decision she wanted him exclusively for herself then Jara and his child would be in very real danger. He had seen first hand that Livia not only killed those who stood between her and what she wanted; he'd seen that she enjoyed it immensely.

 

"Is something wrong love?" Jara asked, looking up at him with her lovely dark eyes.

 

"Nothing dear. Why would you ask?"

 

She lifted one bare shoulder and her creamy skin seemed to glow in the light of the torches that illuminated the city streets. Rome was indeed a jewel to be cherished, but Jara was so much more beautiful and precious to him. She was more than his wife; she was his great hope that he could re-deem himself of the wrongs he'd done. He loved her with all his heart and soul and sometimes, when the thought of living without her crossed his mind his heart would pound with real panic. Never before had he given himself to someone so completely. He didn't know what he would do if he ever lost her.

 

"You look so pensive," she said, tracing his lips with her fingers.

 

"I'm fine love. I have you and our child. I have a good life to look forward to. I couldn't be happier. I love you."

 

"And I love you Cadmus. More than life itself."

 

He took her in his arms and held her close, though not as tightly as he would have liked for fear of hurting his child. Their lips met in one of their frequent kisses. It was soft and slow. Cadmus was never rough with her, and when she wanted him to be, it took some coaxing to get it. He was the perfect man, and she loved him more than she loved anyone or anything on this earth. She would die for him.

 

******************************

 

The main dining hall of Caesar's Palace was adorned as it had never been before. The richest, and oldest tapestries covered every square inch of wall space within safe distance of the torches that lit the room. Every piece of furniture was inlaid with gold and silver so that the light of the candles and torches reflected from its perfectly polished surfaces and magnified the light of the few torches on the walls. It was a dazzling site to behold.

 

None of this mattered to Livia. What mattered to her was that the very same Roman elite that predicted her death along with Ghita now bowed to her as she entered the chamber on Caesars arm. As per her request, her top two officers were also here in full dress uniform. Lycus wore his usual stern expression and Cadmus, along with his wife Jara, applauded her victory the loudest.

 

As she passed by, Cadmus and Lycus saluted her and spoke in unison. "Hail Livia! Champion of Rome's honor!"

 

This greatly pleased Augustus and he too applauded with a hearty laugh. The Senate followed suit, not out of genuine respect at her amazing victory, but out of fear of their emperor Augustus Caesar.

 

Ghita was the first to rest from the applause and took her place at Augustus' left hand, all but shoving Livia out of the way.

 

"Ghita÷" Augustus said quietly. "This is Livia's moment. Don't spoil it for her."

 

"I very seriously doubt I could spoil anything for that girl. She seems to have some kind of power over you Augustus."

 

"Maybe she does. She is my charge after all. Unlike you."

 

He extricated himself from Ghita' grasp and moved ahead to his place at the head of the table. Livia sauntered past Ghita, an irritating smirk on her lovely young face as she moved toward the table.

 

Ghita's anger cooled quickly as she took comfort in the thought that her torment would soon be over. Her eyes went to the goblet Livia would drink from that evening and a wicked grin came to her face. It would all be over soon indeed.

 

Jara sat next to Livia, much to Livia's dislike. She'd planned for Cadmus to sit next to her this evening so they could discuss where she would like to take the Alpha legion next. Now that would have to wait.

 

"Livia, what a lovely goblet you have."

 

Livia examined the goblet that had been placed before her. Unlike the other silver goblets around the table, hers was gold and somewhat gaudy. As a matter of fact, Livia considered the image of the snarling lion to be downright ugly.

 

"You like this?" Livia asked, frowning at the monstrosity that had been given to her to drink from that evening.

 

"I like anything with Lions on it. Don't you remember?"

 

Indeed Livia did. She offered Cadmus' pride and joy a false grin. "I'll trade you then."

 

"You don't have to do that Livia."

 

"I insist. As a matter of fact, you can have it to keep. A gift÷for your baby. It's expensive so who knows how handy it may come down the line."

 

Jara was genuinely touched by Livia's kind act and she planted a kiss on the young warrior's cheek before Livia could stop her. Livia forced another grin to her face and traded the goblet. Ghita watched the exchange, a feeling of intense disappointment pulling at her guts. She didn't know or want to hurt the pregnant peasant woman about to die in Livia's place, yet she couldn't very well say anything without giving herself away either.

 

"Livia. There was a reason I gave you the lions head goblet," Ghita barked from across the table. This earned her a weary sigh from Augustus.

 

"I know," Livia said. "It's the ugliest in the room. That's your reason."

 

"Ladies. Not now, please." Augustus sounded tired to his core of their constant bickering, but neither woman seemed to care, even as they bowed their heads to Augustus as a sign of respect. The slaves served the drinks, and once everyone's goblet was full of the choicest wine Augustus stood to propose a toast.

 

"May I have your attention please, ladies and gentlemen?" The room went silent, the only sounds being the whisper of the torches and the distant sound of the slaves as they quietly prepared to serve the guests a sumptuous meal fit for Augustus' station.

 

"Today is a day for everyone in this room to remember, for today is the day that Livia has redeemed herself in the eyes of Rome. She faced four of Her greatest gladiators and emerged victorious. She has earned not only our respect, but also the respect of the greatest nation this world will ever see. As her officers so correctly saluted her as she entered this evening, so shall I salute her now. All hail Livia! Champion of Rome's honor!"

 

The guests around the table lifted their goblets in salute. "All hail Livia! Champion of Rome's honor!"

 

Ghita's eyes were glued to the woman who had only seconds left to live. Unfortunately, that woman was not Livia.

 

******************************

 

Jara had barely set her goblet down when the strangest sensations began to flood her chest. This sensation of warmth only intensified until her blood felt as if it was on fire and her throat clamped shut. She clawed at her neck, trying desperately to breath but her lungs refused to pull in air. As she began to panic, so did her baby within her womb begin to kick and struggle. What was happening to her?

 

"Jara?" Cadmus asked, fear flooding his own chest in a hot wave as his wife clawed at her throat so hard she drew blood. He pulled her hands away as she began to convulse.

 

"What's happening? What's happening to my wife?"

 

Livia watched as Jara's normally rosy lips turned an ugly purple and the light that filled her eyes began to fade. "She's been poisoned!" Livia exclaimed. Though she couldn't explain it she felt a sense of urgency to save the child. "We have to get the baby out, now!"

 

The other members of the Senate looked at their own goblets in suspicion and put them down, as if the wine within them had turned to poisonous snakes. Cadmus pulled his wife from the chair and lay her on the floor. If he could just get her some air÷

 

By the time she was evenly laid out on the floor she was gone. She was completely limp and her eyes looked up not at the ceiling, but into eternity. Her husband stared down at her in shock, unable to fully grasp that his worst nightmare had come true.

 

"Jara? Our baby! What about-"

 

"Move!" Livia shouted, shoving him out of the way.

 

Livia pulled her dagger and wasted no time in splitting Jara open to find the child inside, squirming uselessly to breathe. She pulled the baby free, cut the umbilical cord and cleared its breathing passages as best she could. With a slap to his rear the child began screaming, much to her own surprising relief.

 

Cadmus collapsed on his knees beside Livia and took in the site of his prematurely delivered baby in Livia's arm's as his beloved wife lay on the floor, dead. In seconds he'd lost the only woman he'd ever really loved, and gained a child in the whole tragic process.

 

"It's a boy," Livia said, pulling her cloak off and wrapping the screaming infant. "The poison didn't get to him."

 

"My wife."

 

Livia had believed her heart was too dead and cold to feel anything but hate and anger anymore, but now she found herself feeling pity for Cadmus. She'd seen him with Jara, and she had an idea that he'd loved the woman every bit as much as she hated the world that had robbed her of the only family she'd ever known.

 

She quickly put the matter aside and stood to find Ghita clinging to Augustus' arm. "You."

 

Ghita feigned ignorance and this only served to increase Livia's anger. "What?" Ghita asked, clenching her lover's arm even more tightly.

"Don't you play innocent!" Livia said coldly. She could feel her grip tighten on the dagger in her right hand and the memory of killing Odessa in Ares temple so many years before flashed before her mind now. How she would love to cut this conniving bitches throat this second.

 

"Livia?" Augustus asked, stepping between Livia and Ghita. "What's the matter?"

 

"Don't you get it?" Livia said, bewildered by her emperor's dull mind. "This dinner was planned by Ghita. She chose the goblets that would be placed on the table but mine was the only one different. Didn't you notice that? I was supposed to drink from the golden goblet, only Jara-"

 

Cadmus stood next to her, holding his child. His face was oddly pale, most likely from the shock of losing the woman he loved. "-Liked Livia's goblet because she loved lions. They traded."

 

Now everyone in the room had their eyes glued to Ghita. "I don't know what you're insinuating-" the older woman began to stutter, but Livia would have none of it.

 

"I'm not insinuating anything," Livia said, talking over Ghita. "I'm saying it out right. That goblet was meant for me. You either had someone poison it or you laced it yourself. Chances are you did it yourself."

 

"I did no such thing!"

 

Cadmus shoved his son into Livia's arms and before anyone could stop him he was on Ghita in a second, his massive hands wrapped around her throat and squeezing the life out of her.

 

"Cadmus!" Livia shouted. "I order you to stop!"

 

Livia wasn't surprised when Cadmus ignored her. She placed the child in Augustus' arms and used a pressure point Ares had taught her on each of his wrists to force him to loosen his grip. She intervened not because she wanted Ghita to live, but because she wanted her to die a long and horrible death÷on a cross as revenge for trying to kill her in the arena. It wouldn't hurt if she tricked Cadmus into believing she was thinking only of his vengeance.

 

"Lycus, find Cadmus a room here in the palace while I tend to Ghita."

 

Lycus nodded his understanding and moved to carry out his orders. Livia knelt beside Ghita and whispered so only she could hear. "You've tried to kill me twice now. I'm going to make you regret that for the rest of your life. Believe me. That won't be for very long."

 

As the guards led Ghita away her eyes implored Augustus for help. "Caesar. Surely you're not going to allow her to÷"

 

This was Augustus' one chance to be rid of Ghita forever. With both parents dead he felt obligated to continue helping her sons because he genuinely liked them, but if she were out of the picture forever then he would no longer have to worry about revenge tactics from her when he finally moved in on Livia.

 

If he moved in on her. He remembered the way she'd broken down into tears in an unusual display of emotion and his natural response had been paternal, not sexual. It was at that moment that she had melted into him to receive that fatherly love. Perhaps that was what she needed. As he looked over to Livia's hard smile he wondered if perhaps it was too late for her to accept a father figure in her life. A General she could handle (without ruling out assassination), but a father?

 

"I will look after your sons Ghita."

 

"Augustus, no! No!"

 

He gave a nod to the guards and they hauled her away, kicking and screaming to the dungeon. With Ghita out of the way, Augustus found himself at a loss as to which direction he would take with Livia now that he had choices.

 

Friends or lovers?

 

 

The End of Chapter 3

Return to main page