Chapter 22: Homecoming

Gabrielle cast a glance at her sister through the window of the Royal carriage, idly wondering if Minya might not need a break from Lila's persistent questions and endless babble. Not particularly surprising to anyone, Lila had requested she be allowed to ride with Minya instead of in the carriage with Xena and Gabrielle, and Xena had agreed. At least for a while, since they didn't want to strain Minya's horse too much, and so Gabrielle listened distractedly to Lila's cheerfully bright voice as she asked the Royal Guards an unending stream of questions about Corinth.

Xena had been quiet ever since she received Meleager's message, rarely speaking when not issuing a few curt orders, and her eyes were fixed on something far away. Gabrielle was glad that she had some privacy with Xena in the carriage, and tried to think of a subtle way to reach through to Xena. This silence was just to unnerving.

She finally gave up on subtlety and tried the direct approach. "Xena?" She kept her voice down so that it would not reach out through the open windows. Xena didn't appear to have heard her at first, then blinked slowly and refocused on Gabrielle's face.

"Yes?" An eyebrow arched in question, and Gabrielle felt so relieved to see the unconscious gesture change the stony expression Xena held even if it was but a tiny alteration.

"I… didn't want to ask in front of the others, but… Was there anything else in that note?" Gabrielle looked away from Xena's steady gaze and fiddled awkwardly with the hem of her dress. "I mean, I feel terrible for poor Jace, loosing his brother like that, and a murder is such an awful thing, and of course whoever is guilty must be found and all, but…" Gabrielle babbled a bit before tapering off uncertainly.

Xena waited patiently, and after a moment Gabrielle looked back up at her. "I just wouldn't have thought you'd react so strongly hearing that someone who tried to kill you has died."

Xena's expression softened, and she pulled Gabrielle closer, tucking the woman she loved so dearly comfortably into her arms. "It is not really about Jett's death, or even that someone whom I value as highly as Jace will be devastated by this." She sighed a little and absently stroked Gabrielle's hair.

"It is that there is someone or someone's out there that are intent on killing me, and who would think nothing of using those I love to do it. And the only lead I had to those people have now been effectively silenced."

Xena looked seriously at Gabrielle. "I don't mean to frighten you, my sweet, and I assure you that I will take every precaution ensuring that you, our baby and Lila will be safe." She kissed Gabrielle's forehead gently. "I will make sure nothing threatens any one of you."

She was quiet for a moment, while Gabrielle thought about what Xena had said. It filled her with a sense of wonder. Those Xena love… their baby was not due to be born for quite some time yet, still Xena loved it already. The knowledge sent a wave of affection through Gabrielle, and with a tiny sigh she settled in even closer to her lover.

As Xena spoke up again her voice was even more quiet, but Gabrielle heard her clearly. "I… What bothers me most is that whoever murdered Jett managed to enter a room with no window and only one door, a door guarded at all times by at least two palace guards." She hesitated. "If it truly is the room that I believe, then there is one other way in that no-one should know about… The castle that our home was built upon had myriads of secret passages built into it, and most of those remain today. But I should be the only one alive that knows of their existence, much less where they lead."

"If the people who are trying to hurt you knows about them…" Gabrielle began with alarm, but Xena cut her off, gently. "Yes. If someone who wants to kill me have access to those passageways… then things just turned a bit more tricky."

The rest of the journey back to Corinth was subdued, even Lila's cheerfulness abated slightly as the day went on and she had to travel in the carriage with Xena and Gabrielle. The return to the palace was also a rather dampened affair, although young Lila's reaction upon seeing the palace that was now to be her home tower up in front of her in all it's splendour brought a smile even to Xena's lips. It was a fleeting thing, however, as Meleager met them just inside the palace gates.

Xena forestalled any discussion in the hallways, and so the party moved in silence towards the royal chambers. Lila appeared to be a bit intimidated by her new surroundings, and the graveness of the people around her, so Xena pulled both sisters to her as they walked down the corridors. It proved strangely rewarding for the warrior as she walked the last part of the way to her personal chambers with her lover wrapped around one side and her young ward clinging to her hand on the other as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

The time that followed were hectic. Xena's suspicions regarding the room were confirmed, although that particular piece of information went no further than Meleager. Now they were three that knew of the secret passages within the Conqueror's stronghold, aside from their unknown adversary, and Gabrielle and Meleager merely knew of their existence, not where any paths might lead.

It was, of course, at this time that the remaining satraps began arriving, starting with Cleopatra and Melosa on the same day, and ending with Lao Ma nearly a week later. Investigations was, by necessity, forced to be held discreetly, and greatly impeded by the general chaos that the gathering of satraps always brought. Indeed, within two days the entourage from Briton had managed to greatly affront not only the Egyptian entourage, but also a fair share of the amazons Melosa brought. Privately Xena seethed at having to spend precious time and energy smoothing ruffled feathers and avoiding escalations of the petty squabbles, time she could have used better hunting down this potential threat to her happiness.

Overall security was increased, especially the amount of Royal Guards that accompanied Gabrielle and Lila at all times. Minya and Mavican had both been assigned to Lila's own guard at least temporarily, along with a number of others, but in Minya's case it seemed more a thing of convenience than anything else, as she and Lila didn't stay apart for long even when Minya was officially off duty.

For the first few nights Lila was placed in the small room that was supposedly Gabrielle's, but a bit of ingenuity and hard work soon had another small suite attached to the hallway where the Royal Guards where posted outside the Royal chambers. Xena made certain Lila's chambers would be a safe as could get, and easily defended, until such time as she could see to it that new Royal Chambers were built to house her rapidly growing family.

It was, needless to say, a dilemma that the Conqueror had never had reason to give much thought before.

The strain of events were taking their toll on everyone. Jace was inconsolable, and unable to perform his duties for some time, much to Viceron's ill hidden satisfaction. Gabrielle, although the emotional upheaval of her visit in Poteidaia, coupled with her ongoing morning sickness, left her in dire need of rest, still took it upon herself to try and comfort her friend. And it nearly lead to disaster.

Xena, feeling the strain and the stress unusually keenly, had more trouble fighting her darker urges than she normally did. And when she accidentally walked in on her beloved Gabrielle as the younger woman was embracing and kissing Jace, she simply snapped.

If Xena had been slightly more clear-minded at the time, she would have seen that Gabrielle was merely hugging her friend to offer comfort in his grief, and that the kiss in question was a small and rather sisterly peck to his cheek. But Xena was very far from the state of mind that she could be so rational where Gabrielle was concerned, and if not for Gabrielle's quick acting Xena would have done something she would later have regretted most deeply. Jace himself would never know just how close he came to being murdered in his own chambers.

Gabrielle saw it in Xena's eyes though, and intercepted the warrior before things got out of hand. As easily as Xena's feelings for Gabrielle seemed to bring the dark madness in Xena to the surface at times, just as easily it seemed that Gabrielle was able to soothe Xena back to sanity. Even so, Gabrielle was hard pressed to deflect the ardour that replaced Xena's mad jealousy for long enough for them to move from the hallway outside Jace's quarters to the first small unoccupied room with a door that they could find.

Lila was trying her best to adapt to her new surroundings, despite the chaos around her. Until such time as Xena had located a few teachers she thought was trustworthy, Lila was in essence free to spend her time as she choose, meaning she followed Minya around for most part. She quickly endeared herself to the staff in the Royal kitchens, having a genuine love for cooking as well as seeing it as her duty to make sure Gabrielle would manage to eat. Unlike Gabrielle, Lila wasn't particularly fond of the libraries, even though she liked a good story, so she spent most of her time outside the Royal chambers either in the kitchens or watching Minya train with the other Royal Guards. It was while forcing Minya to listen to her reading from a book she had borrowed that she encountered some of the palace guests.

Sitting on the grass near the wall in the Royal Gardens with the book in her lap, while Minya lounged nearby with a long-suffering expression on her face, Lila suddenly felt something pelt her in the head. Picking up the small pebble, Lila testily considered throwing it at Minya, but the other girl looked so surprised at the change in Lila's expression that Lila decided it couldn't have been Minya who threw it at her. But Lila couldn't see anyone near them in the Gardens, the other Royal Guards where a fair distance away from them, guarding the entrance points to the area. Then she heard giggling.

"Hey there, pretty girl!" A voice whispered from above Lila. Minya was on her feet in no time.

Over the edge of the very tall wall peeked three faces. The voice belonged to a red-haired girl who was grinning and waving wildly from her perch. "What'cha doing down there?"

Lila blinked. "Reading… What are you doing up there? And how did you get up there, anyway?"

"We're amazons." A stocky-looking girl snorted, as if it explained everything. The third girl looked at the speaker chidingly, then turned a friendly smile on Lila and Minya. "We were exploring, sort of, and found this crawlspace that ends up behind this wall. It's pretty easy to climb up here since the walls are so close together."

"So…" Redhair spoke again. "can we come down there to you?"

Minya snapped to attention as soon as redhair flashed another smile at Lila, and signed for the other Guards. She felt fairly confident that she could take care of these three herself if they posed a threat to Lila, but she knew procedure well enough, and she took her responsibilities seriously.

Lila glanced at Minya and noticed her reaction before nodding to the three up on the wall. "Sure, come on down. But how will you get down here without hurting yourselves? Should I get a rope for you?"

"Naw" Redhair said as she swung herself over the side. "it's no problem."

Redhair dropped down and landed on her feet with moderate grace, but the stocky girl was less fortunate and ended up landing on her rear instead. The third girl had some difficulty manoeuvring around because of her rather bizarre head-dress, and wound up hanging from the edge of the wall with one arm, about to involuntarily drop at a dangerous angle. Minya saw this, and without really thinking dashed forward to catch the falling girl.

"Whoa… Yakut! Yakut, are you alright?" Redhair was clearly worried. Minya carefully put the girl down, but kept a hold on her until the slightly dazed look left her eyes.

"Yes…" Yakut answered slowly. "I'm alright, really. I just haven't gotten used to this thing yet." Followed by an exasperated gesture to the thing on her head. "It's really stupid, I shouldn't be making mistakes like this!"

"Umm… excuse me, but who are you?" Lila asked politely as Minya came back to stand at her side, doing her best to look intimidating. Redhair grinned and slung one lanky arm around Yakut, gesturing with the other.

"She's Yakut, a shamaness, I'm Amarice, and that's Otere. Otere is a princess from the Northern tribe, but we're all here with Queen Melosa. So who are you two?"

Sighing to herself as she saw Lila begin to speak, Minya managed to answer first. "This is Her Royal Highness Lady Lila, ward of Our Lord Conqueror." Ignoring Lila's rolling eyes. "I'm Minya. Are either of you carrying any weapons?"

Amarice pouted while Yakut giggled softly. "No, we're not allowed to wear weapons." Yakut said softly without elaborating. Otere, on the other hand, smirked at Amarice and added "Yeah, Amarice and I aren't warriors yet so we're not allowed to carry swords, or anything like that. We'd be carrying our daggers and maybe a sling or two if the Queen didn't have to worry so much about Amarice attacking some helpless guy here… She really hates guys, don't you Amarice?"

"Well, I guess that you like guys enough for all three of us, don'tcha Otere?" Amarice ribbed the shorter girl right back, clearly not happy about the reminder.


"Now now…" Yakut stepped in to keep the two from starting a fight right there among strangers. "Peace, both of you."

Lila felt somewhat sympathetic to Yakut's dilemma, and did what she could to help distract the other amazons. She started babbling about Minya. "Minya is a warrior, you know? She doesn't wear a sword or anything as common as that, but she has this really big hammer thingy that looks soo cool, and…"

Minya was horrified, and the amazon girls looked slightly dazed.

"…you wouldn't believe how strong she is, and she's so brave too, and…" Lila was undaunted by the lack of response from her company as she warmed up to her subject. Instead she grabbed Minya's hand and had her sit down on the grass right next to herself.

"Cool, you're a Royal Guard." Amarice grinned at some point in Lila's story. "In the Amazon villages, the only warriors that get to be Royal Guards are those that are the best of the very best around. Everyone wants to be good enough to be a Royal Guard."

"Oh, that's what it's like here too!" Lila assured them enthusiastically, ignoring that Minya by now was red as a beet. "And Minya got picked out by Xena herself!"

Minya groaned. A quick glance affirmed that, yes, the other Guards were laughing, and they didn't even cover it particularly well, and no, Lila showed no sign of stopping. She really wished that she could come up with a reason to leave right away, but she couldn't. It wouldn't be right to leave Lila with people she just met, even if they seemed harmless enough, not as things were right now. So Minya had to stay and tough it out.

And the fact that Lila was still holding her hand had nothing to do with that decision, of course.


Chapter 23: Discrediting Love

Although officially the biannual meeting with the Satraps was supposed to occur once, at a set day, with all the Satraps and their respective chosen aides in a grand formal dinner that would occupy most of the day and evening to be followed exactly three days later with a huge celebration of Xena's Realm, the inofficial procedure was somewhat more lengthy. The Conqueror would have audiences with the various Satraps and their entourages for weeks, and then there would be numerous meetings with Xena and all the Satraps that were closed off to anyone else, not even allowing for servants to be present in case they would disturb the conversations pertaining to the Realm. It was during this lengthy process that the actual decisions were made, making the goings-on during the large, elaborate feast disguised as the meeting of the Satraps nothing more than a well rehearsed spectacle.

All in all it was very much work to be done, and with Xena's best aide disabled, an assassin on the loose, and wedding preparations to consider, Xena was forced to work everyone to their fullest capacity. That meant coaxing Gabrielle into performing some tasks that should otherwise not have been expected of her until after they had been married for some time. In short, she was required to meet the dignitaries in Xena's place.

Viceron was, at first, livid. But he knew well enough to keep his ire to himself, and as he carefully considered the situation, an opportunity seemed to present itself.

The Egyptian Satrap Cleopatra had brought her notoriously libidinous lover Marc Anthony to the palace. Viceron actually smiled.

It would all be… so easy.

It required surprisingly little effort to orchestrate a meeting between himself and the Roman noble, much thanks to Marc Anthony's own puffed-up sense of self-importance. No matter, Viceron was used to handling men of Anthony's kind, in fact he thrived on it. Learning Gabrielle's schedule for the day, as well as those of the Royal Guardsmen surrounding her, was a less enjoyable task. Still, with some manipulation Viceron managed to stage a perfect encounter.

He managed to put Gabrielle in a situation where she could not find a graceful way to back out from having to, as Viceron put it, aid him in having an audience with Marc Anthony in the Royal Chambers. By making Marc Anthony seem more important than he was, as well as making the request for aid seem harmless, there was no way for Gabrielle to turn him down without causing offence to the Roman, even if she had sensed something foul with the arrangement.

It was no surprise to Viceron when Marc Anthony immediately assessed Gabrielle's beauty and showed interest, Viceron had after all counted on that very fact. A few words spoken to Anthony privately, while Gabrielle was giving orders to her guards, gave the Roman the impression that Gabrielle, while merely a body slave, was exclusively Xena's, and that the Conqueror allowed no other to touch her bedwarmer. Marc Anthony had tried for years to get inside Xena's bed himself, without success, something that rankled him to no end, so the information that Gabrielle was Xena's predictably made him nearly obsessed with the idea of taking her for himself.

When Viceron added that it was Xena's belief that no man had ever touched her property Anthony, like a good bloodhound given the scent, was firmly on the chase. Viceron would have clapped his hands with glee at the expression in the other man's eyes when Gabrielle rejoined them, but years of schooling kept his mask ever impeccable.

He would let the Roman warm himself to his subject, and then use his previously concocted excuse to leave them alone before Anthony committed himself too clearly in his seduction. And Anthony would not let a mere body slave refuse him, even should the peasant whore somehow be immune to the seduction that had felled numerous highborn ladies, ending in the same result; Xena's faith being betrayed with a man she absolutely despised, and in her very own chambers.

It was, simply put, perfect.

It was time to withdraw, he realised suddenly, as Gabrielle was showing subtle signs of becoming uncomfortable with Anthony's overly solicitous manner and veiled comments, so Viceron rose and told Gabrielle quietly that he would send someone to aid her very soon, but that he must now leave. It was part of his plan to indeed send a few aides to the Royal Chambers, but he intended to wait long enough for Anthony to have gotten Gabrielle in a compromising situation first. Pretending not to see the alarm in Gabrielle's eyes he bid them adieu.

It wasn't until much, much later that he would hear how his plan had failed.

After Viceron left, it didn't take long for Marc Anthony to turn more… aggressive. Gabrielle was not used to such blatant come-ons from strangers, as the fear of Xena's wrath kept most people at bay, and she was becoming quite frantic in keeping Marc Anthony at a proper distance from herself, both physically and verbally.

So when Mavican entered to ask Gabrielle what to do with another dignitary, an amazon woman whom Gabrielle of course did not know in the slightest, that had requested a short meeting with someone on a matter regarding the activities of the amazon children brought to Corinth, Gabrielle jumped at the chance.

Ephiny was quite shocked at being all but bodily dragged into the room and forced to socialise with this overly friendly woman, whom Ephiny worried might not be quite right in the head. But seeing Marc Anthony in the room, and easily catching the hormonal waves pouring off him, Ephiny took a closer look into Gabrielle's eyes.

So that is how it was. Ephiny did not mind in the slightest to ruin the insufferable Roman's fun, and what kind of amazon would she be if she wouldn't protect a fellow woman from the unwanted advances of a man? She plopped herself down in the couch and grinned insolently.

"Why Tony my boy, I didn't know you had been invited to our tea party." Oh Ephiny was actually going to have some fun here. "Me and…" She glanced at Gabrielle quickly and caught the younger woman mouthing her name to her. "…Gabrielle were planning to chat for a while about amazon traditions and practises, since it interests her so much." Ephiny put her feet up on the table and patted the seat next to her, a seat that would be completely cut off from Marc Anthony's lounge chair. "Come, Gabby, sit." The gratitude in Gabrielle's eyes brought a genuine smile to Ephiny's lips.

Then she grinned again and turned to Marc Anthony. "Did you know that there's no males allowed in the amazon village at all, not even animals?" A blatant lie, but Marc Anthony wouldn't know that. "Anything that is brought in, like horses for instance, first has to be… " She made a cutting motion with one hand, still grinning madly. "…snip snip."

"Oh really? Tell me more!" Gabrielle gasped with exaggerated wide-eyed interest that made Ephiny want to laugh. "How do you do that?"

Oh yeah, Ephiny thought, Gabrielle was pure evil. And Ephiny wholeheartedly approved. "Well, first there's these tongs…"

And Marc Anthony turned very pale.

It didn't take long before Marc Anthony, slightly green in countenance and glowering badly at Ephiny, excused himself from their company. As soon as the doors had closed behind him, Gabrielle and Ephiny burst out laughing. After the laughter died out, and Gabrielle had thanked Ephiny profusely, they sat companionably talking for real for quite some time.

They were still talking and laughing when Xena found them, nearly two candlemarks later.

At first Xena just blinked, too surprised to react even with the red-hot jealousy that undoubtedly otherwise would have consumed her at the thought of her beloved so greatly enjoying the company of another. That momentary paralysis most likely saved the amazon bodily harm at the very least.

Upon seeing Xena, Ephiny sobered and stood to leave. She nodded formally at Xena, then turned and smiled at Gabrielle. "It is time for me to get going. I really enjoyed our little… chat, and I hope I get to see you again during my stay in Corinth."

Gabrielle positively beamed back. "I enjoyed it too, and I'm sure we'll get the chance to talk some more before your people leave the palace, Ephiny. Thank you so much for your help with…" Gabrielle waved her hand about vaguely.

"It was my pleasure, believe me." Ephiny grew serious. "But please be leery of that man, Gabrielle. I know he might not seem as much of anything, but he can be dangerous, and don't ever let him get you alone again." Ephiny had rather swiftly gotten fond of the sweetly dispositioned young woman.

"What… are you talking about?" Xena growled dangerously. Ephiny looked at Xena and nodded almost imperceptibly to herself.

"I was going to offer to take care of him if he was to cause any further problems for you, Gabrielle, but I think that perhaps you should just tell Lord Xena everything and let her decide what to do. The Lord Conqueror will put Marc Anthony in his place, I'm sure." Ephiny smiled briefly at Gabrielle again, sketched at slight bow towards Xena before heading out the door.

Xena turned to Gabrielle with a look so intense that it nearly burned. Gabrielle sighed a little and moved closer. "You see, it was like this…"

Xena was infuriated. It took quite some talking on Gabrielle's part to convince the taller woman she should not immediately chase down the insolent Roman and introduce his intestines to a red-hot poker or six. She also very much wanted to hold Viceron responsible for Gabrielle's predicament, but had to grudgingly agree that it did seem as if though he was without blame for once. Xena stewed in her dark thoughts for a moment.

"…and you should have seen how pale he turned after Ephiny said…" Gabrielle continued gleefully, not quite aware that Xena had been too distracted by her thoughts to listen.

So. She was now indebted to an amazon. It was not something Xena would have preferred if she had a choice in the matter, but still… she was grateful for Ephiny's aid, knowing things would have turned ugly for her love if the amazon had not intervened. Xena sighed inaudibly. It would have been better if it had at least been Melosa. Melosa and Xena shared a mutual respect and even a form of friendship that Xena appreciated, not so with the angry young warrior that was Melosa's adopted daughter, and whom bore a deep resentment for Xena.

She glanced at Gabrielle thoughtfully. She would have to express her gratitude to Ephiny somehow, and very soon. And it would be very genuine indeed, she thought, feeling a smile ghost past her lips.

"Gabrielle." She interrupted gently. "I am… glad that Ephiny was here for you. I am sorry that I was not." She pulled Gabrielle to her and murmured into red-gold hair. "I am so sorry, my sweet."

"Tonight we will hold the first of the Satrap meetings" And Xena thought to herself that she would deal with Mark Anthony there. "and I would like to announce our impending wedding to them during it, if you are willing." She hesitated for a moment. "Would you be willing, Gabrielle? Will you come to the meeting and let me introduce you to them as my bride?"

Gabrielle smiled at her so lovingly that Xena felt her chest constrict. Gabrielle then reached up and wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, leaning in for a kiss. Just before their lips met Gabrielle breathed her answer softly. "Of course I will, dearest."

And then all thoughts of Romans or amazons were swept away.

Evening came faster than Xena had expected. She managed to tear herself from the alluring warmth of Gabrielle and prepare for the meeting with some effort, as in truth she would have preferred to remain where she was and tell the Satraps to snipe at each other without her. But this particular meeting had incentive like no other ever had held, with Satraps or otherwise, she was after all about to declare her wedding plans. Not to mention that a certain Roman would get what was coming to him, and in spades if he wasn't very, very careful.

Xena arrived at the meeting late, leaving Gabrielle to get ready and join her a while later. Xena fully intended to have certain matters handled before Gabrielle joined them, so that her beautiful love would not have to witness any… unpleasantries before their declaration.

The Satraps were getting somewhat impatient by the time Xena joined them, although they hid their displeasure or, in some cases, amusement, well. Xena smirked at them.

Glaphyra was openly grinning at Xena from across the table, causing Xena to smile briefly as Glaphyra did a suggestive little eyebrow dance that quite frankly made her look ridiculous. Boadicea looked as if she was gnashing her teeth next to Glaphyra, which made the insolent Satrap of the Afrikaans roll her eyes and snort. Those two always bickered when given any opportunity. Next to Boadicea sat Lao Ma, serene as always, although Xena thought she could detect just the tiniest hint of curiosity in the black eyes of her one-time mentor. At the end of that side of the table sat Cleopatra and Marc Anthony, primping as usual.

Xena all but sneered at the man before forcing her attention at the other side of the table.

On the other side of Glaphyra sat Melosa, Ephiny and, for some odd reason, Lao Ma's son Ming T'ien. Xena had been aware that the boy was going to be present, as Lao Ma was readying him for greater responsibilities in governing Chin, but she would have expected him to be seated next to his mother. No matter, the sullen youth had no doubt had another round of angry words with, or rather at, his placid mother, and sat as far away from her as he could in a juvenile attempt at punishing her. Xena really couldn't care less.

She did, however, notice Ephiny glaring at Marc Anthony, and frowned.

Xena greeted them all, and briefly told them that their usual discussions were going to have to wait just a little while as there were more pressing matters to attend to first. Ignoring the grunts from Boadicea and the impatient mutterings of Ming T'ien, Xena called Marc Anthony to stand up next to the table.

She took notice of the fact that Cleopatra seemed surprised as she exchanged chairs with her lover, which assured Xena that the Egyptian had no idea about his indiscretions for once. Usually, these two would brag about their various conquests and discuss them together, but Xena wanted to think that Cleopatra would know better than to actively pursue someone that Xena had claimed. Flirting, yes, but more than that? She hoped not, Cleopatra should be intelligent enough to know better.

Marc Anthony was smirking as he stood up, and Xena wondered idly what in the world the man thought she was going to do to him had he succeeded in seducing her lover. No matter, it was not going to happen, she decided firmly, not noticing the low growl that escaped her lips.

She dressed him down, harshly, in just about every way she could that would hurt his ego. It was, after all, his most prized possession, and short of hurting him physically, it was the best she could do. By the end of her scathing delivery, Xena turned to the rest of the surprised Satraps and looked at them as she addressed Marc Anthony.

"Antony, you are an unmitigated fool. To covet what is mine is one thing, but to pursue it, to try to steal from me, is sheer idiocy." The glance she threw in Anthony's direction was menacing. "Know that you will not be allowed within twenty paces of my Gabrielle again unless I am present to kill you myself. Also… tread carefully now, Anthony, another slip up and I will strip you of all that you have, and leave you but another faceless, worthless pauper in the gutters of Rome."

Xena sat back down, grinning evilly as she watched Marc Anthony struggle, red-faced, with his temper. The second he lost control of it and tried to attack her, he would be dead, but he was almost to angry to care at this point. Fortunately for the pompous Roman, his lover had her wits about her, and Cleopatra pulled him down in his seat and all but sat on him, hissing quietly at him to calm down.

Xena took a long draught of wine as she idly noticed that several faces in the room looked pleased that Marc Anthony had been called on the carpet. Well, she was rather pleased herself, having settled matters before her gentle lover would arrive.

As if summoned by Xena's thoughts, a light knock on the ornate doors revealed that Gabrielle had arrived.


Chapter 24: The Fall of a Satrap

For a long moment after Gabrielle had been led inside by Royal Guards and placed in an ornate chair next to Xena's own at the head of the table, Xena merely sat staring at her lover. She was, simply put, mesmerized.

The cream-coloured dress was of an deceptively simple cut, but made from the finest of materials, and held intricate but elegant tooling in silver around the waist, neckline and cuffs. It was also a splendid complement to Xena's own choice of dark clothing with identical silver tooling, fitting them together quite nicely. Xena had to remember to do something nice for Myra sometime, she decided.

Gabrielle warmly but discreetly greeted Ephiny and Glaphyra as she sat down, waiting for Xena to make the official introductions or at the very least tell her what to do. Xena shook herself slightly to return from the pleasant love-struck gazing that she had indulged in, hopefully before the other people in the room noticed.

By the raised eyebrows and speculating looks on display, Xena failed that attempt somewhat. Fighting down a surprising impulse to blush, Xena forged on with the introductions.

The room fairly teemed with curiosity as Xena introduced "Lady" Gabrielle, but neglected to inform the Satraps why Gabrielle was present at this very exclusive meeting, and who the young woman really was. Only Glaphyra knew the truth, and she was beaming a pleased, if smug, smile at the others that managed to dent the passive armour of Lao Ma ever so slightly… Lao Ma narrowed her eyes speculatively at both Glaphyra and Gabrielle. Xena of course noticed, and while slightly amused by how well Glaphyra knew to push Lao Ma's hidden buttons, she couldn't have cared less. The silently glowering Marc Anthony was a greater cause for concern, just in case he decided to open his mouth at an inopportune moment. But no matter, Xena wanted them to deal with the business part of the evening's meeting before making her announcement, and besides, keeping the Satraps itching with curiosity was rather amusing.

For most part, Gabrielle sat quietly listening and observing the proceedings of a Satrap meeting. It turned out to be quite less formal than she would have expected, but still, there were some rules to be respected and she'd rather learn about them before disturbing anyone. She exchanged some quiet words with Ephiny, who sat close by, and even tried to speak to the unresponsive boy on her immediate left. Ming Ti'en ignored her attempts at a conversation, but kept staring at her. It made Gabrielle feel rather uncomfortable, but she chose to ignore him altogether.

Xena was well aware of Gabrielle's presence at her side, of the silent looks and quiet words shared with Ephiny, even though she was not really distracted from her work as such. The meeting carried on, although very haltingly for most of the Satraps, giving Glaphyra a much appreciated opportunity to voice the issues for her province before the others. The usual responses was sparked, although in a subdued fashion, and the meeting was well underway.

It wasn't until Xena noticed Glaphyra glaring across the table in Gabrielle's direction that she fully turned around to look at her lover. Gabrielle sat leaning slightly towards the table listening to something Ephiny was saying, and was not paying attention to Glaphyra. Xena realized that it was not Gabrielle Glaphyra was glaring at, but rather Ming Ti'en who was quite blatantly staring down into Gabrielle's cleavage while wearing a quite unbecoming leer.

The booming thud of Xena's large hand when it impacted with the tabletop as the Conqueror rose to her feet made the room go deathly silent. Everyone gave a start and stared at their scowling ruler. Xena turned her angry gaze at the youth.

"You." A rising eyebrow at the boy and a single finger moving in a curt motion towards Lao Ma. "Go sit by your mother. Now."

Ming Ti'en remained unmoving for a moment, undoubtedly too shocked to move, but Ephiny discreetly pulled out his chair and urged the boy to his feet. On the other side of the table, chairs were exchanged so that a space would be available by Lao Ma's side. It wasn't until Ming Ti'en took a tentative step or two that he seemed to snap out of his surprise enough to pout at the turn of events and give Xena a petulant look.

"What?" Marc Anthony snorted derisively. "You'll not take his eyes for staring at your whore?" Xena bared her teeth as she turned around to face Marc Anthony, but stayed the protests from others with a negligent hand. She waited a moment until she was certain she could speak without giving in to the darker impulses that were coursing through her at the moment, then cast a glance in Ming Ti'en's direction.

"No. He's a child that knows no better…" A glance at Lao Ma. "and I… respect his mother. He gets to keep his eyes for now." The eyes in question turned the size of saucers hearing this. Xena lowered her voice to one of it's more dangerous and growling registers as she added. "If he ever tries to commit such a crime against me again, however… he will know his punishment."

The youth from Chin scrambled to his mother's side, where he stared wide-eyed at his suddenly deadly surroundings. Cleopatra eyed Gabrielle with new appreciation while Boadicea snorted in contempt at the whole dramatic proceedings. Neither Xena nor Marc Anthony was quite done yet though, it would seem.

Xena placed herself behind Gabrielle's chair, with her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "Have a care with how you address my Gabrielle, Anthony… I will give you no more warnings."

A wiser man would have heard the danger in Xena's voice, and let self-preservation hold his tongue regardless of his opinions. Not so in the case of Marc Anthony, he shrugged and sneered in the direction of the other Satraps at his side as if looking for backing.

"A whore is a whore is a whore, Xena… despite your little illusions, she's had many before you, and will have many more once you've gotten tired of her… charms." He leered at Gabrielle, who at this point was trying hard not to cry.

The growl emanating from Xena's throat sounded as if it came from some large animal, perhaps the lion that she was so often compared to, for nothing in it seemed even remotely human. As loud as it was, it was the snap when one of Xena's large hands reflexively tore off one armrest from Gabrielle's gilded chair that should have warned Marc Anthony of what was coming next. If he had the time to notice it, that is.

In one smooth, instantaneous motion Xena spun in his direction and swung the wooden piece of armrest in a deceptively negligent one-handed blow… that hit the Roman's face with enough force to send both him and his chair sprawling on the floor, split his lip and leave an angry red welt across the side of his face.

Xena was visibly shaking from struggling with herself, and to the amazement of the Satraps, Gabrielle gently touched her arm in a soothing manner to calm her. And it seemed to work, somewhat. Xena clasped Gabrielle's hand within her own and lifted it to her lips for a brief kiss.

"It was my intention…" Xena said quietly, still with some difficulty, and completely ignoring Marc Anthony as he dazedly moved around on the floor. "to wait until our business meeting was over for this evening before making the announcement."

"It was my intention to invite you all" A brief pause emphasized that the invitation no longer would include all present, for obvious reasons. "…to my wedding."

The room went so still that it almost seemed a palpable thing. Xena met the astonished eyes of each of the people sitting at the table as she swept her gaze over them.

"I am wedding my Gabrielle in a month hence. And she will be your Queen."

Silence reigned for a long moment in the room, as Xena gave the Satraps a moment to digest the no doubt startling news. She exchanged a tender look with her still rather pale young betrothed, placing another kiss in the palm of Gabrielle's hand.

"You" Marc Anthony spoke unsteadily from the floor where he was straightening himself out, gingerly wiping some blood off his face as he got to his knees. "…are saying you'd marry your slave?" The incredulousness in his voice seemed genuine, and the comment caused Gabrielle to flinch slightly.

"Not just a slave, either, but your body slave? A whore you scraped off from a brothel is supposed to become the Queen of the world?" His laughter turned into a wheezing cough as he bent over his upturned chair as if to pull it up with him. "Surely you're not that desperate. So unless Aphrodite herself taught her the profession, I'd say she has a hold on you… I wonder what it is?"

Several things happened at once.

A tear escaped Gabrielle's downturned eyes and made a solitary journey down one cheek as she unconsciously cupped the invisible swell of her belly. Cleopatra all but climbed into Lao Ma's lap in her attempts to put distance between herself and her obviously self-destructive lover, while the enraged Glaphyra climbed up on the large table in her attempts at crossing it to give the insufferable man a good proper beating. Ephiny and Melosa both stood and stepped closer to Gabrielle, then Ephiny gently pulled Gabrielle out of her chair and protectively put her behind herself.

Marc Anthony spun around in his position on the floor, revealing the broken armrest in his hand, and charged Xena with it. Xena… lost control.

It didn't take long for Meleager and the Royal Guards outside the room to come rushing in and separate the two combatants, but it was enough time for Xena to have done quite a number on the Roman's face. Restraining the Roman was a simple task for the guardsmen, but making Xena calm down proved a bit more challenging. Fortunately Meleager had, after all, known Xena for many years now.

The Roman glared futilely at the woman now standing partially behind one of the Amazons. Ephiny noticed the look and crossed her arms in silent challenge, but Marc Anthony didn't notice. Instead he saw, even with one of his eyes slowly swelling shut, the way one of Gabrielle's hands still rested on her abdomen.

If his laughter before had been a wheezing cough, then the sound he made now was quite unrecognisable as anything at all except just plain being ugly.

"S-she…" He wheezed. "she's p-p-pr…"

If Meleager had not managed to grab Xena before she reached the Roman as she spun around at the sound of his voice, she would have simply reached out and snapped his neck. As it was, the firm grip of the Captain of her Royal Guard reminded Xena of her surroundings again.

"Pregnant?" Her voice was dangerously smooth. "Yes. The child of my love she carries."

Xena may have been far too angry and too preoccupied to notice how Gabrielle's eyes grew wide and luminous at her words, but a few of the Satraps bore witness to the look that passed over the young woman's features instead. Ephiny and Melosa shared a look of silent communication.

"Lord Xena?"

Xena turned to the grim-faced Amazon princess, a little surprised to find her providing a protective human shield for Gabrielle, and even more surprised to find herself met by an Amazon warrior greeting. She looked at the young Amazon quizzically.

"May I suggest turning him over to Amazon justice?" Ephiny met her gaze unblinkingly. "Our laws are very clear, and very strict, especially when it comes to transgressions against children or those carrying new life."

"In Afrikaans we do this delightfully evil thing with ants…" Glaphyra piped up from where she was gingerly climbing down from the table, careful to avoid destroying any more of the delicate cutlery.

"Tongs. Red-hot tongs and water…" Ming Ti'en spoke up unexpectedly and with surprising enthusiasm, immediately falling silent after receiving several odd looks, the most stifling being the look from his mother.

"No." Xena looked absolutely evil as she stood in front of Marc Anthony and the Royal Guards holding him. "Have him branded, then send him gift-wrapped to Brutus."

Marc Anthony paled visibly.

"I'll decide on whom I wish to bestow all his wealth, titles and property later… Perhaps Octavian should be given a little something, as Brutus gets his favourite plaything?"

Marc Anthony spluttered as the guards began to drag him away, but managed to resist them for long enough to throw a last taunt at Xena before they would drag him to whatever dungeon or slave pit that Xena would have them use as she destroyed his life.

"So whose is the bastard then, Xena? Is it her former owner's, or maybe a customer's?" One of the guards holding him cuffed him in the mouth to keep him from saying anything else about their adored Lady.

"Oh, and Meleager?" Xena tossed over her shoulder as Marc Anthony was dragged away. "Have them neuter him first, Brutus won't mind." Her smile at the Roman's choked gasp at her words was, once again, truly evil.

The evil look faded away with the last of the guards that left the room, and instead Xena looked tired as she looked at her lover. Silently she opened her arms wide, and immediately Gabrielle moved out from behind Ephiny and hurled herself into them.

Holding Gabrielle close and burying her face in the red-gold hair, Xena spoke softly, disregarding anyone else present "I am sorry, my sweet… this was not how I had intended this to go."

Xena sighed deeply and tightened her embrace, kissing Gabrielle gently on her head.

"I know, dearest… I know." Gabrielle's voice was muffled against Xena's chest and still somewhat choked with tears, but as long as Xena was holding her, she felt she would be alright.

After a good long moment of silence, Melosa cleared her throat somewhat awkwardly. "Well then, I guess that congratulations are in order."

Affirmative noises and phrases came from the other Satraps, although with different levels of enthusiasm. Xena accepted the well-wishes as amiably as she could, given the situation. And she certainly was not about to let go of her beloved anytime soon.

to be continued...

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