See disclaimers in part 1
Commanding armies, conquering kingdoms, controlling the lives of thousands. It is what the last twelve years of my life had been all about – my destiny fulfilled, or so I thought. The events of the past few days, however, made me realise that all I had achieved was built upon a foundation of sand, and whether by winds or by wearing away, my world was about to crumble.
It had been two miserable nights since I had last seen Gabrielle, but I could remember very little of it. Drinking large quantities of port had helped to blunt my anger, but it did nothing to dull the sting of Gabrielle's defiance or my monumentally stupid boasting to Ephiny. I do remember that my loyal and courageous Commander of the Guards had given his Empress a polite but firm dressing down. Galates reminded me that my will may be law but I could not impose my will on Gabrielle – and I should not try. He helped me to see what Gabrielle was trying to say. I finally got that she wanted to be her own person, that she had a different way of approaching things, that I should not try to control her or treat her the way I do soldiers or servants. He helped me realise that life without Gabrielle was no life at all.
After I had dispensed with regular morning briefings, I sent word to have my horse saddled immediately. I had resolved to swallow my pride again go back to the Amazon camp and get – no ask Gabrielle to come back.
As I strode across the courtyard, a soldier I didn't recognise approached me and gave me a crisp salute. He was not from the Palace Guards or the Corinth Garrison. This soldier was kitted out in full dress uniform and wore the colours of the Infantry.
"What is it, Sergeant…?"
"Timeas, ma'am. General Darnell sent me to let you know the transport ships have arrived and the forward element of the First Corinthian Infantry is ready to embark."
"And?" I knew there was something I was forgetting, but it wasn't coming to me.
Timeas' eyes registered surprise. He spoke deliberately and slowly as if to prompt my memory. "Uh, and the troops are assembled on the parade field." He paused. "General Darnell respectfully requests that you come now." He paused again. "We will lose the tide if we delay any longer."
It finally dawned on me what the sergeant was so tactfully trying to remind me. I felt like an idiot. The First Corinthian Infantry, two thousand soldiers strong, was being assembled east of the city, on the Aegean side of the isthmus. They were ready to set sail to Miletus in Ionia. From there, they would march north to Lydia and rendezvous with the Third Thracian Infantry, marching south from Thrace. The First Corinthian Infantry was to be the advance guard of a combined army that would begin the conquest of Anatolia. It was important for me, their Empress, to be there to give them a rousing send-off.
Silently I chided myself for becoming so distracted by personal matters that it had completely slipped my mind. "Yes, of course Sergeant. I was delayed by an urgent matter," I said trying to cover my having completely forgot about the ceremony. "Ride ahead and inform General Darnell that I will be there presently."
"Yes, ma'am," Timeas replied, seemingly relieved that I had remembered.
This was further proof that I needed to resolve matters with Gabrielle and soon, before these personal distractions became a public embarrassment.
Within fifteen minutes, I was ready, my horse was ready, and my honour guard was ready. With a sense of urgency, I mounted the mare Gabrielle had named 'Argo' and kicked her into motion. Once out of the palace gates, I spurred my horse into a gallop, leaving my escort scrambling to catch up. I even passed Sergeant Timeas beforehehad reached the outskirts of Corinth.
I pulled up outside the command tent, dismounted, and strode in before the guards outside had barely raised their hands in salute. I was surprised to find General Darnell casually sitting and drinking with Ambassador Brutus, but not as surprised as the two of them seemed to be that I had arrived unannounced.
"Am I interrupting?" I asked.
"Your Highness." Darnell quickly stood, straightened his uniform, and saluted. From the uncomfortable look on his face, it was obvious that my general did not want me to find him in conversation with the Roman Ambassador.
"Empress." Brutus stood as well and offered a slight bow of his head.
"Where's Sergeant Timeas?" asked Darnell, craning his neck to see around me. "I sent him—"
"I passed him on the road about ten minutes ago."
The General called for an aide. "I want to know as soon as Timeas returns."
Darnell's jaw muscles tightened whenever he struggled to control his anger, so I knew Darnell would have Timeas flogged for allowing me to get here before him. And from the tone of his voice, I suspected Darnell was going to do it personally.
"And what brings Rome's Ambassador to this camp?" I closed in on Brutus.
The Ambassador swallowed hard and cast a quick glance at Darnell. "I've come to... to wish your army success on its campaign."
I took mental note of Brutus' slight hesitation as he gave his explanation. Brutus was usually very glib – a pro at courtly one-upmanship. It wasn't like him to stumble for words.
"That is very kind of you." I wandered over to a side table and poured myself a cup of wine. I allowed a slight smile and raised my cup in a toast. "To a successful campaign, then."
Brutus and Darnell picked up their cups and echoed, "Success." The two men seemed to relax a bit after that, but there was still tension in the air.
"So, Brutus. What else brings you out here today?" I added casually.
Another quick glance passed between the two men, as though some secret code was being communicated. Brutus was usually the very definition of poised, but he seemed a bit nervous – on edge.
I had a feeling I knew what it was. "You are among friends. No need to be shy."
Brutus adjusted his tunic and stood up straighter. "Well, you have been so busy lately with the Amazons, there hasn't been much time to devote to the Roman matter?"
"'Roman matter?'" I enjoyed baiting him.
"Yes, you know – Pompey. You said he wouldn't last six months and that you would support my efforts to become Emperor. With your focus turning to the Persians, I wouldn't want you to forget about the situation in Rome."
I had to admire Brutus' bravery. It was very ballsy of him to broach that subject with me – brave almost to the point of suicide.
Darnell took a step forward, placing himself between Brutus and me. "If I may, Highness, Ambassador?"
I nodded for him to carry on.
"What the Ambassador is concerned about is that there might be too many things distracting your attention and Pompey might not be so easy to get rid of if your forces are tied up in Persia. I was reassuring him when you arrived that you were in control of the situation."
"Were you? Well done, General."
Hmm, that was interesting, I thought, my general also had a real pair on him, stepping in to defend Brutus like that. It made me wonder how much of my plans had Darnell revealed. Brutus was not naïve. He had to know by now I had no intention of making him Emperor of Rome, unless it was in name only. My plan had always been to wait until there was enough dissent against Pompey and then take control of Rome outright. Brutus would be lucky to walk away with his life when I had finished.
Brutus moved to Darnell's side. "Please don't think I'm trying to rush you in this matter. I merely wanted to remind you, with all due respect, to think strategically, globally."
A look passed between the Ambassador and Darnell that I couldn't read. "And something else for you to consider. When I return to Rome, I'll need an accomplished senior advisor— someone whom you and I can both trust. I thought General Darnell would be a very good candidate."
That was not something I had anticipated. My gut still told me that Darnell was loyal to me. Still there was that annoying itch at the back of my brain – something was up. There were too many private meetings between my senior military advisor and the Ambassador. Yet if they were plotting against me, I was disappointed. I thought I had trained Darnell better than to hold treasonous meetings where there was even the remotest possibility of discovery.
I studied Brutus. He looked tense, but in control. Darnell was clenching his jaw and looking like he would rather be anywhere else.
I decided to remain silent but watchful. "I will take it under consideration. Now, shall we go and review the troops?"
General Darnell, Ambassador Brutus, and I took our places on the dais and watched as each unit of the First Corinthian Infantry marched past us. I set aside my troubles for a few moments to appreciate the scene before me. The field was a sea of crisp white and blue tunics with highly polished armour gleaming so brightly as to rival the sun. Each unit carried their banners proudly as they passed in review. And as they marched before me, the order was given and every soldier presented their arms in a salute to me, their Empress.
Even in this magnificent setting, my thoughts turned to Gabrielle. I found myself wishing she had been there to share that glorious moment with me, although Gabrielle would not have shared the immense pride I felt for these splendid soldiers. It was something that only a soldier understood. Still, I thought, I would rather have Gabrielle beside me, sharing in my triumphs and my setbacks. I had to find a way to make things right between us.
After the last unit had marched by and was back in formation, Darnell and I went out onto the parade field and inspected the troops.
Poor Darnell had trouble keeping the customary six paces behind and to my left, because I was motivated to get through it as quickly as possible. It was already past midday by this time, and I was anxious to get to the Amazon camp.
My address to the troops was short and to the point, yet I still managed to make it inspirational.
"… Today we stand upon the stage of history…" Soldiers started cheering.
"… Not since the days of Alexander the Great has the world been witness to the terrible power and might of the Greek Imperial Army…" With that all of the soldiers cheered.
"…The First Corinthian Infantry will be the vanguard in this great endeavour." When I invoked the name of their unit. The entire corps started thumping their lances on their shields in unison.
"… And we will once again spread Greek culture and civilisation across the Anatolian peninsula and then to the rest of the world!"
I stood on the dais and waved to them as they chanted my name. "Xe-na! Xe-na! Xe-na!"
"…I will join you soon in Anatolia…until then, remember you are the soldiers of the Fighting First!"
My duties done, I needed to return to the palace to change, because the last thing I wanted was to send the wrong message to Gabrielle and the Amazons by turning up in full battle regalia. I begged off having drinks with the unit commanders and once again, I mounted Argo and spurred her into a gallop, leaving Darnell to oversee the embarkation.
By the time I had returned to the palace, it was already early afternoon. "So much for my plans," I muttered as I dismounted. I handed the reins to the stable lad. "Wipe her down, feed and water her. I want to leave the palace again within the hour. If she is not ready to go then I want another mount ready."
"Yes, My Liege." The stable boy bowed as he backed away towards the stable.
I ran back to the main building and up the stairs to my chambers. My armour crashed to the floor as soon as the door closed behind me. A servant hurried to pick it up.
"Pick it up later! Get me a goblet of water!"
Helena let the breastplate hit the floor again and rushed to a nearby side table. She poured the water as I struggled with a lace on my wrist guard.
"My Liege, allow me."
The servant handed me the goblet of water which I drank as she worked on the lace. As soon as it was loose enough I slipped it off, switched the goblet to my other hand and offered her my other arm. Once free of the other gauntlet I handed the goblet back to Helena. "Get me the black leather … And hurry!"
Having changed my clothes in record time, I set off for the stables. Unfortunately, I did not get too far.
"Not now, Galates. I am in a rush."
"There is someone wishing to speak to Gabrielle. He says it's urgent."
What did the gods have against me today? I wondered. "Who wants to see her?" I asked.
Larrius was one of three former dissidents Gabrielle had taken on to help her. Gabrielle credits him with the idea for the Civilian Protection Force.
"Where is Darphus?" I asked. "He should handle this if Gabrielle is not around."
"I couldn't find him, Empress."
"Then you handle it, Commander."
"I'm sorry, Highness. Larrius said it was 'for Advisor Gabrielle only.'"
All these infuriating delays had succeeded in putting me in a very surly mood, so if this 'urgent message' ended up being a colossal waste of my time, Larrius was going to feel the business end of my boot up his arse.
"Very well, I will speak to him," I told Galates.
"He's in Gabrielle's office."
I took a deep, frustrated breath and headed down the stairs. My patience was nearly spent by the time I entered the office. Larrius probably sensed my frustration, because when he saw me, his ruddy complexion turned decidedly pale.
"Your Highness," he gasped in surprise. "I-I-I was expecting Advisor Gabrielle."
"Well, she is not here. What is your message?"
"It's… um… I'm not sure… I…" His dithering really started to annoy me.
"Does Advisor Gabrielle not answer to me?" I barked.
Galates entered the office. His presence probably saved me from grabbing Larrius and beating him senseless.
Larrius lowered his head and trembled in his sandals. "Yes, Your Highness."
The irony was not lost on me that a few months ago this same man stood before me, condemned as a dissident. I was ready to crucify him for his treason, but Gabrielle was more lenient on the man and gave him a job in my government.
"Then tell me, and be quick about it."
Larrius took a deep breath. "I've just come back from Thessalia. Advisor Gabrielle had sent me there on a secret mission. She wanted me to report to her immediately if I found problems."
"Problems? What sort of problems?"
Gabrielle's agent seemed reluctant to say at first, but he was forthcoming when I fixed him with a stare that said 'tell me now or be in pain'.
"We had received reports of slave traders conducting raids outside of Larissa," Larrius replied.
"The local garrisons should be taking care of it until one of those Civilian Protection Forces can be organised."
"That's just it, I think the Garrison Commander is being paid to look the other way."
"Did you inform Governor Braextus of this?"
"No, My Liege. I didn't speak to him."
"I only had my suspicions, no real evidence, so I thought I had better discuss it with Advisor Gabrielle first."
"What are your suspicions exactly?"
"I witnessed slavers moving about fifty people along the road to Peliós.Then I saw a patrol led by the Garrison Commander coming from the other direction. There was no way he could have missed the slavers."
My anger had been on a slow boil all day. It had been delay, after delay, after delay, and this hapless functionary was bringing me news about slavers and corrupt commanders!
I counted to ten before I answered so I didn't take my frustrations out on Gabrielle's assistant. "If this commander is corrupt then I consider it a military matter and I will deal with it. I will make sure Advisor Gabrielle knows of your report."
"Yes, My Liege. Thank you."
"Say nothing to anyone else about this. No one. Do you understand?"
"Yes, My Liege."
It was obvious that Larrius was not schooled in court etiquette, because he continued to stand there when that was his cue to leave. If I didn't know better, I would swear I was in the third level of Tartarus. "That is your cue to leave," I said.
"Oh," he replied and then simply turned and walked out of the room.
Galates' eyes grew wide. No one, other than another head of state of equal rank, would dare turn their back to me and walk out of the room. Clearly this man did not know what he was doing, because if he did, he would be running for his life right about now.
"I don't think he meant any disrespect, Your Highness," the Lt. Commander said, trying to appease me. "I'll go and bring him back in here."
"No, leave it for now," I replied.
"What are you going to do?" asked Galates, "—about the situation in Larissa, I mean."
"Nothing, at least for the moment. Right now all I want to think about is getting out of here and bringing Gabrielle home. And the gods help the next person who delays me!"
Once again I started towards the stables, and once again I did not get very far.
A guard approached me in the corridor outside Gabrielle's office. "My Liege, I—"
"If you value your life, Sergeant, I strongly suggest you take it to your immediate superior, because short of full scale invasion, I am unavailable!"
From down the hallway, Galates saw the guard talking to me and quickly came to intervene.
"What is it, Briarus?" Commander Galates asked.
"There is someone here with an urgent message for the Empress, Commander." He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb where two other guards flanked a young man.
The wiry young man was explaining to his escorts, "I have to see the Empress. I was told to deliver the message to her, personally." He looked at me, then dipped his head and started muttering under his breath.
"Bring him," Galates commanded.
The youth was around twenty years old, his hair was little more than stubble, and from the dull expression on his pockmarked face I could tell he was not the sharpest weapon in the arsenal.
"You have a message for me," I growled impatiently.
He held out a sealed scroll. Galates moved in front of me and intercepted the scroll and after a cursory check, he handed it to me.
I broke the seal. Something fell out as I unrolled it and I caught whatever it was by reflex before it hit the floor. Since it did not bite, sting, or cut me, I ignored it and continued reading.
The note on the parchment was short and to the point.
You have until dawn tomorrow to deliver fifty thousand dinars to a fishing boat moored in slip number 8. When we have the money, you will get Gabrielle. If you are late, she dies. If the boat is seized or anything happens to the captain, she dies. If you attempt rescue, she dies. Fail in any way to follow these instructions and Gabrielle dies.
I could not believe what I was reading, so I read it again. I thought it must have been some sort of sick joke until I looked at the object that had fallen from the scroll. It was a thin silver chain that looked like a thousand other thin silver chains, however the miniature gold sceptre tipped with a green gem was unique. The clasp on the chain was broken where it had been ripped from around Gabrielle's neck.
All day the gods had conspired to keep me from going to the Amazon camp. And now my worst fears had been realised – someone had kidnapped Gabrielle!
White-hot rage roiled throughout my body like a river of lava. I crumpled the parchment and let it fall to the ground.
"What is it? What did it say?" asked Galates. He picked up the crumpled parchment and read it.
I didn't answer – I could not. All I could manage was an anguished, angry cry. And like a bolt of lightning, my hands flashed out and put the 'pinch' on the unfortunate messenger.
The lad immediately grabbed at his throat and blood trickled from both nostrils. As he started to sag, I heaved him off his feet by his leather tunic and pinned him to the wall of the passage.
"I have just cut off the flow of blood to your brain, so you better start talking or I promise you, you will die quickly and very painfully. You now have twenty seconds to tell me where she is!"
The lad was petrified. Punctuated by the occasional sob, his mouth opened and closed as he gasped for breath and swore that he didn't know. His fear was so great that he even soiled himself as I held him. "Don't—know—nothing!" he blubbered.
With a mere eight seconds left, Galates intervened and pleaded for the boy's life. Only because of the trust I had in Galates, I released the 'pinch' and let the boy slip to the floor, where he clutched his neck and struggled to catch his breath.
"Empress, I know Samon. He's a simple lad. He might resort to the odd bit of petty theft but he's not stupid enough to get involved in kidnapping."
"He is involved. He brought that note."
"I was give it. I was give it," cried Samon as he wiped away the blood that seeped from his nose. "I didn't kiddinap no one. Please. I didn't. Don't kill me. Please."
"If you are lying—"
"I's not lying! No. I wouldn't. I never lies. Me dad would skin me alive if I lied. No ma'am. I's not lying."
Galates stepped in and took over the interrogation while I took the note and re-read it, hoping I would find some clue as to whom the kidnappers were and where they might have taken Gabrielle.
"Who gave you that note?" the commander asked.
"I's don't know. 'E wore a cloak. Covered 'is 'ead it did. I didn't see 'im. No. Please. I didn't."
"It was a man?" The commander continued his questioning.
"Aye. A man. I knows that. 'e paid me two dinars to deliver the message to the palace. That's what I did. That's all. I swear."
"Did you read the note?" Galates asked.
Samon immediately denied it. "No. No. I's can't read. No. I didn't do nothing. Please."
Finally my boiling rage ebbed away and turned to stony resolve.
"Commander, have Samon here cleaned up and fed. Persuade him to remember every last detail about the man who gave him the note. Use whatever means necessary."
Galates ordered Sergeant Briarus to see to it and Samon was led off, muttering anew that he didn't know anything, while I continued to coolly issue orders.
"Galates, I want you to stay here and coordinate the rescue efforts. I want everyone – and I mean everyone – looking for her. I want every house and building in Corinth searched. Send a messenger to General Darnell and have him organise the search. I want every last soldier within a day's ride looking for her. I am going to ride to the Amazon camp and get some answers. No one rests until Gabrielle is found, safe and sound, and her kidnappers were rotting in Tartarus!"
Galates accompanied me to the stables. As I prepared to mount my horse, a fleeting expression of shared concern passed between Galates and me. He broke the silence with tender reassurance. "Don't worry, Highness. I'm sure she's all right."
"I wish I were as certain." I fought to maintain a stoic façade against the floodwaters of grief and guilt that threatened to breech my defences. "I couldn't stand the darkness that would follow if anything has happened…" My voice trailed off as though giving voice to my fears was a curse.
"Nothing has happened to her," Galates replied, attempting to reassure us both, it seemed.
With that, I hurried to the stables, mounted my horse and galloped off as though my life depended on it, because it did.
A long time ago I accepted the consequences of the life I had chosen, convinced I had to go through life alone; to do otherwise was a sign of weakness. These last few days I experienced what it was like to be without Gabrielle in my life. I finally realised that living alone was the greater weakness and love was worth the struggle. I just prayed it was not too late.
END OF PART II
Return to the Academy