See disclaimers in part 1
A large oak table dominated the council chambers; on it was a new map of the world with Greece at its centre. As I studied it, I thought about how much the map and my life had changed in the past year. A year ago, I was Xena the Conqueror, commanding general of a six thousand-man army and yet I was alone. Then one day, an audacious young village girl with sparkling green eyes and strawberry-blonde hair walked into my camp and boldly declared that she was fated to help me unite Greece. I should have cuffed her and sent her packing, but there was something about Gabrielle that made me want to know her better. She talked me into allowing her to join my army as my personal assistant and soon proved her worth to me. Gabrielle became one of my most trusted advisors, a loyal friend, and so much more. I was not sure when the change occurred. I only know I fell in love with her and found the courage to risk my heart.
As Empress of Greece, I ruled the territory between the eastern shores of the Ionian Sea and the western shores of the Aegean Sea. For lesser mortals, their ambition would have been sated, but I craved more. I knew that one day my empire would stretch west from the islands of Britannia to the islands of Japan in the east. After consolidating my dominion over Greece, I started planning the conquest of Asia Minor and the Persian Empire. Not since Alexander the Great had a Greek emperor ruled the entire peninsula of Anatolia, and I was going to use any means necessary to make that happen.
"The Persians control the lands east of Mysia. We can easily annex the western coastal territories of Lycia, Caria, and Aeolis – here, here, and here." General Darnell pointed at the map of the Anatolian Peninsula. "Once we establish permanent supply depots there, we'll move eastward in a three-pronged offensive and engage General Suren's forces here in the Halys valley in central Anatolia."
"Excellent," I said. "But first we will have to secure Amazon Territory in Ionia to safeguard our supply lines." I pointed to the area around Ephesus on the map. "This might prove problematic."
"The Amazons? They are no threat. Two battalions are more than enough to deal with them," Darnell boasted.
"Have you ever fought the Amazons?" I asked with a disapproving tone.
"Well, no," Darnell admitted.
"The Amazons are formidable when threatened. Their forces, though small, could inflict great damage to ours, and we cannot afford to waste time or resources."
"With all due respect, Your Highness, the Greek Imperial Army is the best trained, best equipped fighting force in the world," Darnell countered. "The Amazons are but a few scattered tribes. I'm confident we can conquer all of Ionia within a fortnight."
"Never underestimate the Amazons' resolve to defend their homeland, General."
Darnell grumbled but ceased to debate the issue with me.
After studying the map a while longer, I came up with a strategy. "If we sweep down from Smyrna in the north and up from Miletus in the south, we could engage the Amazons on two fronts and split their defences."
"Excellent!" Darnell agreed.
"Ahem." Gabrielle coughed to get my attention. Up until then, she had remained quiet.
"Gabrielle, you have something to contribute?"
"Yes, My Liege. I think—"
"Hold on," the General protested. "This is a military strategy meeting, not a council meeting. I hardly think it's appropriate for the Civilian Affairs Advisor to comment. I'm not even sure why she is here," he added under his breath.
I had hoped after all this time Darnell would have recognised the value of Gabrielle's contributions and accorded her the respect she was due. Instead, my top military advisor continued to treat my senior civilian advisor as a jumped up scribe. As much as it irritated me, Gabrielle wanted to deal with Darnell in her own way, so I tried not to interfere. It was hard sometimes, though, because little did he know, when he insulted Gabrielle, he was insulting the woman I loved.
I took a deep breath and released it when the urge to knock him across the room had passed. After all, I had not shared that information with Darnell, so how could I fault him?
"She is here because we can benefit from Gabrielle's intuitive ability to bypass convention for the creative, and we will need to be creative to conquer the Persians."
Wisely, Darnell left it at that.
"Gabrielle, continue," I said.
"Thank you, Your Highness. From what I've read and the stories I've heard, the Amazons are an indomitable warrior race that will fight to the last to maintain their independence from the rule of others. Is it not better to preserve your manpower and resources for your campaign against the Persians rather than being distracted by insurgency to your rear?"
"Hmmm, good point. What do you propose, then?" I asked.
"I propose a treaty with the Amazons,"
"A treaty?" Darnell snorted derisively.
Gabrielle remained poised, refusing to rise to the bait. "Yes, General, a treaty."
"A treaty, eh? What did you have in mind?" I asked.
"You can't seriously consider a treaty with them, surely?" Darnell scoffed. He looked past Gabrielle and addressed me.
Unruffled by Darnell's rancour, Gabrielle elaborated on her idea. "The Amazons would agree to become a protectorate of the Greek Empire and provide support for your military campaign in Asia Minor. In return, they would be allowed to govern their own internal affairs."
Darnell was not swayed by the argument. "We don't need a treaty. We have superior forces. We could easily defeat them and take their lands," the General pointed out. "Besides, the Persians are at their borders, and you know what the Persians do to their prisoners – especially women. They'd be better off surrendering to us than the Persians."
"We'll let the Empress decide," Gabrielle concluded, giving me a self-assured smile.
While my two senior advisors waited for my decision, I contemplated my best course of action; and I didn't just mean whose advice I would follow. I felt like I was being asked to choose between my most loyal lieutenant and my lover. Normally, I would have gone with Darnell's advice without hesitation. However, while Gabrielle's ideas were unorthodox, I had learned to trust her instincts.
"Gabrielle, draft a treaty for the Amazons. I will send an emissary to Ephesus and invite the Queen of the Amazons to come to Corinth."
"Yes, Your Highness," Gabrielle replied. She allowed herself a triumphant smile and made sure Darnell saw it.
Darnell was already seething, so I knew he wouldn't abide Gabrielle's gloating. Sure enough his jaw tightened as he readied himself to respond.
"This is—" he started.
I cut off his protest. "General, I want you to come up with a contingency plan to conquer Amazon territory should they refuse to sign the treaty."
"As you command, Empress," Darnell replied. He relaxed slightly, but I could see he was still annoyed.
When the meeting concluded, Gabrielle left to go work on the treaty. Darnell lingered behind, his face barely concealing the anger he felt. "May I speak freely?" he asked pointedly.
A chiding from my military advisor was unavoidable, so I nodded with a resigned sigh.
The General walked away from the table and stood with his legs slightly apart and hands on his hips. It was a stance he took when he wanted to appear casual but knew he might have to react quickly.
"With all due respect, Your Highness, I am asking you to reconsider your decision. We can't afford to waste time on this so-called experiment," he said reprovingly.
"The Amazons could prove very useful. They know the terrain of Ionia and Lydia well. Amazon scouts could save us weeks of reconnaissance."
"With respect, Empress, we need to concentrate on recruitment and training for the Persian campaign. Negotiating a treaty with the Amazons will be an unnecessary diversion," Darnell said with deliberate restraint.
"Remember Thessalia?" I asked him. "How many good soldiers on both sides were killed taking Larissa?" My question was more rhetorical so I didn't wait for him to answer. "One seasoned soldier is worth five new recruits. Think of the ramifications to our campaign against the Persians if our ranks were filled with thousands of battle-hardened veterans instead of raw recruits."
"If that's the way you feel, why didn't you negotiate with the Thessalians?" he argued.
Darnell had a point, but I didn't want to admit that. I should have taken Gabrielle's advice and negotiated with the Thessalians for their surrender, but I was an army general bent on conquest, not an empress with an empire to build.
"Because I did not have the time then. I do now," I replied.
"The Amazons are not worth the effort for the handful of warriors they can provide." Darnell moved towards the table as if to reinforce his point. "It's because she suggested it," Darnell added, putting a derisive inflection on the word 'she'.
Again, his condescending attitude toward Gabrielle wound me up, but I did not want to lose my temper with him. He was just doing his job as my advisor, and I dare say a friend. Instead, I leaned heavily on the table, focussing on an area of the map and counted to ten until the urge to lash out at him subsided.
"Why do you dislike Gabrielle so much?" I asked quietly.
"I don't," he sighed. "I dislike what she does to you. Her influence is causing you to second-guess your own instincts, instincts that have served you well over the past several years. You have built an empire by being 'Xena the Conqueror', not 'Xena the Negotiator'." Darnell paused as if waiting for a reaction from me. I didn't give him one and he carried on. "Gabrielle's ideas, while creative and modestly successful in civic affairs, are not going to help you win battles or conquer new lands. It's just going to make you look weak to enemies and allies alike. Can't you see that?"
"You don't see her as I do, Darnell. Gabrielle has a wisdom that belies her age and a passionate idealism I find refreshing. I have learnt to trust her and she has done nothing to suggest that I should not keep trusting her."
An awkward silence fell between us. Darnell knew how difficult it was to earn my trust. Was I giving away too much? Was Darnell thinking that the only way Gabrielle could have earned my trust so quickly was if I had fallen for her? I needed to fill the silence before Darnell asked a question I might have to lie to answer.
"She sees the world as it can be, not as it is. And she—" I stopped myself. I was going to say, she sees me as I can be, not as I am, but the last thing I wanted Darnell to think was that I was changing because of Gabrielle. My mind raced to cover my verbal stumble. "And she's not afraid to do something about it. It is a trait we have in common."
"But you want different things. You have different agendas."
"The only agenda Gabrielle has is serving me well and making me happy." I flinched inwardly at the word 'happy'. It revealed too much about my feelings for Gabrielle, but the words came out of my mouth before I could stop myself.
Darnell gave no response at first. His eyes narrowed to slits and his jaw clenched tightly shut. A few tension-filled seconds passed and then his mouth slowly relaxed into a wisp of a smile. "Remember that night in Parnassus when you asked me to be your second-in-command?"
I relaxed too and chuckled at the shared memory. "I remember you drank far too much ale. Braextus and I had to carry you back to camp."
"Do you remember what you said?"
It was a struggle to recall my words, because I had drunk too much ale that night, as well.
My worthy commander reminded me. "You said that I had earned my promotion, but more importantly, I had earned your trust."
Before I could respond,Darnell unsheathed his sword. By reflex my arm muscles tensed, but I knew this was not an attack.
Darnell flipped the sword around and held out the hilted end. "Here take it. If I no longer have your trust, then I must resign my command."
I took his sword. There was a slight resistance on his part as he relinquished it, but his countenance remained unchanged.
I took one step towards him. To his credit, he resisted taking a step back.
Slowly, I resheathed his sword and said, "That will not be necessary, General. You still have my trust."
Darnell stood taller.
"But, you must find a way to get along with Gabrielle. I am not asking you to like her, but recognise that she is a valued advisor and friend."
"As you wish, Empress. But you can't allow your feelings for that woman to cloud your judgement or it will surely bring you and your empire down. And I say that as a friend."
I watched Darnell as he walked away. He had been my loyal second-in-command during my conquest of Greece, and until Gabrielle, Darnell was as close to a friend as I had. Friendship is not something a soldier easily cultivates, because too many comrades fail to return to camp at the end of the day. A soldier must be on guard always, never showing the slightest vulnerability, or your enemy — be it an opposing army or your own emotions — will defeat you.
The Civil Protection Force deployment readiness report lay on my desk. I had picked it up several times during the course of the day. I think I may have read it more than once, but I had no idea what it said. I was too distracted. My mind was on Gabrielle, or to be more honest, my mind overflowed with dire scenarios of dangerous situations she might have got herself into.
I paced to the window and looked out toward the harbour at all the ships back lighted by a brilliant crimson sunset. Gabrielle had left the palace mid-afternoon to inspect the progress of a new school. It was being constructed in one of the poorer neighbourhoods in the city. Since coming to Corinth, Gabrielle had made it her mission to raise the standard of living for the lower classes. Through Gabrielle's civic improvements programmes, there were fewer areas in Corinth that were run-down and desperate.
Gabrielle had gone with only her assistant, Cerne, as she had done dozens of times before, insisting that having armed guards around her would hinder her ability to be accessible to 'the people'. This was a noble sentiment, but a foolhardy one. She was no longer a general's assistant. Gabrielle was now an advisor to the Empress. This put her in a position of power, and that made Gabrielle a target for any low-life with a cause or a grudge. And now that Gabrielle and I were lovers, it wouldn't be long before rumours spread and enemies plotted.
I had tried to explain the situation to her, but she had rejected my concerns as being overprotective. Though she did say she found it "endearing" that I cared so much.
Gabrielle had broken through the barriers I had built up over the years. Now that she was through, I was both glad and terrified: glad that I was no longer alone; terrified that she would be taken from me. I wanted to keep her by my side all day and night, but she and I had different responsibilities, and that meant we worked separately from time to time.
Finally I heard the guards greeting her outside my private chambers and all my worrying ceased. I quickly composed myself and picked up the report before Gabrielle reached my study.
"I'm back," she announced as she entered.
"Hmm? Oh right," I replied, trying to sound nonchalant.
"Did you miss me?"
"Yes," I answered instinctively.
"Ooh, that's sweet." She leaned over and placed a kiss on my cheek. "I bet you've been worrying about me this whole time, haven't you?"
"No. I have been busy." I indicated the report in my hand.
"Really?" She took the report from my hands. "I think you'll find it makes more sense if you read it the right way up." She turned the report around at put it back in my hands.
I gave her an embarrassed smile. "Sometimes you have to consider all the angles," I offered.
"Nothing's going to happen to me," she said. "No one would dare incur your wrath."
"I thought you didn't like my violent side."
She looked away and considered her response. "No. I don't like your violent side. But I love your strong side - your protective side." Gabrielle sat in my lap and put her arms around my neck.
I responded by dropping the report, putting my arms around her slender waist, and drawing her close. "And I want to protect you as much as possible. You understand that?"
"Yes, but no one is going to hurt me. Not while I'm under your protection."
"I can't protect you when we are not together. That is why you must have a bodygua—"
"No, Xena," she cut me off. "We've talked about this. I don't want soldiers following me around all day. I need to be approachable. People are not going to talk freely with me if I have a squad of soldiers surrounding me."
Every time we got to this point in the argument, I would give in. This time was no different.
"All right," I said softly. "How is the school coming along?"
"It's finished. A couple of teachers from Athens are coming to start lessons in six days time. I thought we should have some sort of opening ceremony."
She gave me a pointed look.
"You mean you want me to open it, don't you?"
She smiled and nodded.
"I think I'm busy." I lied.
Gabrielle made a tutting noise and shook her head. "Never, ever lie about having an appointment to someone who knows your daily schedule."
"Yes, ma'am," I replied with feigned contrition. "I will be honoured to open the school, Gabrielle. I know how much it means to you."
"Thank you." She gave me one of her adorable smiles that crinkled her eyes.
"Now you can do something for me," I said seriously.
"I have some free time tomorrow after my morning meeting with Darnell. Clear your morning calendar and come riding with me."
"That sounds like fun, but you haven't taken a day off in weeks. What's the special occasion?"
"I am going to teach you how to ride a horse." I knew Gabrielle was a bit nervous around horses, so I wanted to teach her myself.
"Me, ride?" Gabrielle blanched slightly.
"Yes. We can't have you riding double with me forever, no matter how much we both enjoy it."
"I'm not very good at this horse thing."
"Are you questioning my abilities to teach you?"
"No, I'd say you were the very best teacher." Gabrielle took my hand and urged me out of my chair. A smile spread across my face and her green eyes twinkled with a seductive invitation. "And I could use another lesson," she said as she led me towards the bedchambers.
The next morning Darnell and I met in the council chambers to discuss logistical preparations for our Persian campaign. I had given some thought to what he and I had discussed the previous day: trust. And even though I had reconfirmed my trust in Darnell, there were some disquieting concerns I had about my commanding General and the Roman Ambassador, Brutus.
"The Persian road network will be far superior to our own," Darnell commented. "That allows them to reinforce and re-supply a lot faster than we would be able to."
I hummed in agreement. "So while the main forces are landing in Ionia, have the Third Thracian Infantry march south across the Bosporus Strait, and establish a permanent fortification at the key junction of Nicomedia."
Darnell nodded. "A good plan, Your Highness."
"But?" I queried, sensing a note of concern in his voice.
"We can't move enough men and equipment along existing road systems fast enough to achieve that. Persian spies will be aware of our build up long before we're ready and they'll be able to engage us before we are fully deployed."
My general was right. Persia, like Rome, had an excellent road system, while Greco-Anatole territories in Asia Minor had little more than a meandering network of dirt tracks in comparison.
"What about getting some Roman engineers to supervise the building of roads to make it easier for us?" I ventured the idea to see what Darnell would say. I could have just made it an order, but I was learning that sometimes it paid to ask. I learned this from Gabrielle.
"Ambassador Brutus commented about the state of our roads and suggested the same thing."
"Did he?" I focussed a stern look at the General. "And you didn't think to bring that to my attention."
"I, I," Darnell floundered for a moment. "He only mentioned it last-- um, yesterday. I wasn't paying that much attention to him at the time. It was only you mentioning it now that made me remember."
Darnell rushed his explanation and I knew immediately he was not telling me the whole truth.
"Perhaps you could ask the Ambassador if he can recommend anyone the next time you see him."
My statement appeared to unnerve him, as though he was expecting a stronger response from me. Was there more going on, as I suspected?
Darnell's discomfiture was interrupted by a knock at the door.
A guard entered and saluted. "My Liege."
"Yes? What is it?"
"Ambassador Brutus is here. He's requesting an audience with you."
"Then don't keep him waiting. Send him in."
The soldier saluted and rushed to comply. I turned to Darnell and gestured for him to clear away the maps from the table. Just as the General picked up the last map there was another knock on the door.
Ambassador Brutus strode in and gave a deferential bow of his head.
"Ambassador Brutus. It is good to see you, though it is not our regularly scheduled meeting. So what brings you here?" I asked, though I knew perfectly well why he was here.
With the assassination of Julius Caesar, the political landscape of the Greco-Roman world had changed. Pompey was crowned the Roman Empire's first Emperor. Few people knew, however, that it was I who had orchestrated Caesar's death and that Pompey was really my puppet. For the time being, allowing Pompey to administer Roman-occupied territories around the Mediterranean suited my purpose. It freed up my forces to take on the Persian Army for control of Asia Minor. But I wanted to remind him who was really in charge.
"I've just received word that Emperor Pompey plans a state visit to Corinth. I am to see to the preparations."
I smiled inwardly. I had sent word to Pompey demanding a visit, and true to form my puppet emperor had made it look like his idea. What his generals thought of him arranging a state visit to see me in the middle of his Gallic campaign, I could only guess at. Hopefully it would not be anything favourable, which is why I demanded to see him at that time. Anything to disrupt his progress and cast doubt on his leadership was a bonus for me. And just to make sure, I sent word for my agents to stir up dissension in Rome while he was here in Corinth. Thus, when the Roman population and army become desperate for a new leader, they will be more than ready to accept me.
"Then see to them," I instructed the Ambassador.
"Err…" Brutus hesitated.
"What is it?"
"Emperor Pompey has sent a list of demands… um, I mean requests, of what he'd like for his visit."
I had to admire Pompey; he was almost as much a showman as Caesar was. "And what 'demands… um, I mean requests' has Pompey made?"
Brutus squirmed at my mockery of his words. I noticed from the corner of my eye that Darnell was also not overly pleased with it either.
The Ambassador straightened his pose and pulled out a piece of parchment. He cleared his throat and spoke. "The Emperor would like his ship to be escorted into Corinth by your finest warship and for you to greet him at the harbour. He wishes for the population of Corinth to line the roads from the harbour to the palace so that they may witness you and him together – as an affirmation of the friendship that exists between our two great empires. He also wishes to stop at the Agora to address the people, and where he expects to receive a gift to commemorate his visit."
"A gift!" I laughed. "And what else would Emperor Pompey the Magnus desire?"
"These are only reques—"
"Don't give me that! What else is on that parchment?"
Brutus recovered his composure. "He, er, um... an official banquet with suitable entertainment. He particularly likes hearing stories of heroic tales. That's all, Empress."
"If he wants to make a speech in the Agora, he can. If my citizens wish to line the streets, they can - I am not going to order it. A banquet, fine. Entertainment, fine. I will have to think about the gift. When can I look forward to the pleasure of his company?"
"The Emperor is in Gaul at present, it will take him about two months to get here. He, er… has some business to finish off there first."
The bastard thought he could set his own timetable for my demand to see him. He was going to regret that. "Very well," I said. "Make the preparations for the banquet and Pompey's speech. But send word to your Emperor that I have a busy schedule and that I might be otherwise engaged when he arrives. I hope he won’t mind spending time in Corinth while he waits."
Brutus squirmed a little, which was my intent. "I shall inform the Emperor, Your Highness." He nodded and left, presumably to send that communiqué to Pompey.
When I turned back toward Darnell, he was giving me a strange look. "What is wrong?"
"You didn't seem surprised that Pompey has decided to visit."
This struck me as odd. Darnell knew my plans for conquering of Rome – that Pompey was merely a puppet ruler.
"I ordered Pompey to visit me in order to disrupt his Gallic campaign. Also, I have plans for my agents to start sowing the seeds of dissent in Rome while he is in Corinth."
Darnell nodded. "A clever strategy, My Liege."
"And one I do not want going beyond these walls."
Darnell stiffened at my reminder not to divulge the information.
"I've never betrayed your confidence in the past, and I will never betray it in the future."
Darnell's words were so convincing that I believed him – almost.
As a warrior, when I donned my greaves, breastplate, helmet, and sword I felt protected, but those are soul-less objects. When I rode my horse into battle, I was imbued with the raw power of his muscular stride and fierce bravery, and I felt unconquerable – immortal.
Now that I was Empress, I had few opportunities to ride into battle at the head of a large army. I left that to General Darnell and his lieutenants while I tended to policy and politics. So whenever I had the chance, I would go for a long ride on my horse – not to feel unconquerable but to feel liberated.
It was this feeling that I wanted to share with Gabrielle and it was the reason I wanted to teach her how to ride a horse. So after I had met with Darnell and settled a few other issues, I headed off to the stables to see to my horse and prepare him for our ride.
From my horse’s stall, where I was taking the girth down from the saddle and tightening it, I heard familiar voices coming from the other end of the stables. The voices, though muted were easily recognisable as Darnell and Brutus. Instinctively I crouched down, so they were not aware of my presence, and listened.
"She's losing focus," said Darnell with frustration.
"Don't let it trouble you," replied Brutus. "Whatever happens to her will happen. Her plans are not important. W—"
"They are important," Darnell interrupted. "Our future depends on her actions."
There was silence, and then Darnell spoke again.
"It's that village girl, Gabrielle. She's wormed her way into a position of power and has got Xena by the balls – so to speak."
They both chuckled while I silently fumed. Ooh, I so wanted to step out from behind the stall door and see who has got the balls, but I did not give myself away. I wanted to hear what more these two had to say.
Brutus continued, "Gabrielle could be useful to us."
"How, by undermining me and manipulating Xena? Something has to be done…"
By this point, I had been gripping the beam I had been leaning against so tightly that I felt the wood splinter beneath my finger. A large sliver broke off underneath my thumbnail. I cursed under my breath while I used my teeth to remove the splinter. Unfortunately, that distraction caused me to miss part of the conversation.
"…better," said Brutus. "You're too tense. You should take things easy."
"If only things were easy."
Their conversation continued in that vein for a few minutes longer before they left the stable area and were out of earshot. This was not the first time I had witnessed Darnell and Brutus off in a corner talking secretively. Their comments about me I could overlook, because Darnell was only carping and Brutus merely offered a sympathetic ear. It was what was said, or was not said, about Gabrielle that troubled me.
Finally, I was able to stand up and stretch my stiffened back muscles. While I finished saddling my horse, I mulled over what I had overheard. What plan were they hatching that I could not see? Had they discovered the truth about my relationship with Gabrielle? Perhaps I was just being paranoid.No, something was up, of that I was certain. And what did Brutus mean by 'Gabrielle could be useful' to them? Damn that splinter!
Gabrielle called for me from outside the stables, but I didn't answer right away. I was still trying to sort out what I had overheard. When all was said and done, there was no outright talk of betrayal, no plots revealed – nothing to confirm my suspicions about the two of them conspiring against Gabrielle or me.
"Everything okay?" she asked. "You look deep in thought."
"Yeah, everything's fine. Ready to go?"
"You bet!" Gabrielle exclaimed. "I had Helena pack us a nice lunch."
"Sounds good." I mustered a smile and tried to put Darnell and Brutus out of my mind. I wanted to enjoy my ride with Gabrielle more than I wanted to think about what my general and Rome's ambassador might be up to. It was only because of Darnell's past loyalty that I decided to proceed with caution. Anyone else would've been on a cross before they could blink.
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