See disclaimers in part 1
Some mornings I'd wake up and pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming, because I had much more than anyone dared hope for in life. I lived in a splendid palace, had more responsibility and power to do good than I had every thought possible, and I was in love with the Empress of Greece.
Though being in a relationship with the most powerful woman in the known world was a little like riding a stallion: exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Not that I knew much about riding a horse.
It wasn't that I disliked horses; they're beautiful, majestic creatures. It's just that I never had very good luck with them. When I was a young girl, I had a pony named Timpani. The first time I tried to ride him, he got spooked by the dog and reared up. I fell hard and fractured my pelvis. That's the kind of luck I've had with horses, and that's why I'd kept away from horseback riding – that was until Xena decided she was going to teach me how to ride a horse.
Maybe it was Xena's skill as a teacher, or my willingness not to disappoint her, but the lessons became easier and enjoyable. Once Xena was satisfied I had mastered the basics well enough to have my very own horse, she presented me with a fine chestnut gelding. During one of my lessons I had named him Daisy much to Xena's amusement and bafflement.
I beamed a grateful smile at Xena and took the reins from her. With practiced ease, I climbed into the saddle atop Daisy and patted his long neck while we trotted around the paddock a few times. I pulled Daisy up near Xena and started to dismount, but she stopped me.
"Whoa, stay up there. I've got another surprise for you."
"You have?" I asked.
Xena briefly disappeared into the stables and came out leading her horse, the blonde and white mare I had named Argo, which according to Xena was 'a more acceptable name for a horse, if a horse had to have a name'.
She mounted up and revealed her next surprise. "We're taking the day and going for a ride, just the two of us."
"But what about your planning meetings with General Darnell? And I have a thousand things to do before the Amazons arrive."
"I had both our schedules cleared." She winked and added, "I can do that, you know."
We left the business of the day behind and rode at an easy gait heading west towards the Philus Valley. Xena led us off the main road and along a rocky herding path that meandered up the slope of the Acrocorinth. I had only had a few riding lessons and was a little nervous about staying in the saddle up the hilly terrain. Thankfully Daisy was surefooted.
The sun was overhead when Xena finally came to a stop near a mountain stream. I was grateful for the opportunity to dismount and stretch my legs.
"This is a good place to stop and let the horses rest," Xena said.
"It's a good place to stop and let your bedfellow rest," I groused as I rubbed my tingling backside.
Xena chuckled and came over to me. "Here, allow me." She drew me to her chest and then reached around and gently massaged my bottom.
As her hands kneaded my cheeks, a more pleasant tingling started. "If you keep that up, you're going to have to massage more than my backside."
"That's the plan," Xena replied in a sensual whisper. "But first, another surprise." She headed over to Argo and retrieved a leather bag and wineskin. "A picnic!"
Xena spread out the blanket and we settled down on it with our backs against a cliff face. Xena poured the wine while I laid out a dish of olives, goat cheese, bread and dates. We stretched out on the blanket and enjoyed our picnic in comfortable silence, taking in the magnificent view and relishing the time spent together alone. Of course, I was never one to remain silent for long.
"Do you ever wonder what life would've been like if we hadn't met? That I had never walked into your army camp?"
"I wouldn't be sitting here having a picnic—"
"Be serious," I chided her.
"I am being serious, you didn't let me finish."
"Sorry, go ahead."
"What I was going to say was if we had never met, I wouldn't be sitting here having a picnic and feeling as contented as I do now."
I beamed. "That's nice."
Xena turned towards me, her soft blue eyes meeting my gaze. "If we had never met, I would never have trusted my heart."
I knew what Xena meant, how hard it was for her to yield control and give herself over to the openness, vulnerability, and trust that Love required. I was so moved it nearly brought me to tears.
Xena cupped my cheek. I closed my eyes, feeling the warmth of her hand penetrate my skin. She leaned in and ever so lightly kissed away a single tear that had trickled down my cheek. Then she gently pressed her lips to mine. I was taken with the lingering taste of salt from my own tear mixed with the sweetness of the dates she had eaten.
"Come, I have something to show you," Xena said, releasing me.
"You are full of surprises, aren't you?"
"You have no idea."
Xena grabbed the blanket, took my hand in hers and guided me along a footpath that led further up the mountain – up beyond the lush grassy fields of wildflowers and scrub trees – until we reached a narrow crevice between a gigantic boulder and the mountainside.
The boulder was so big, we couldn't see over it. It must've cleaved off the mountainside and formed the crevice we were passing through. One could tell by the jagged rocks along the trail that not many had passed this way before us.
When we emerged on the other side of the boulder, we were in a pocket where a massive slab of limestone had broken free and tumbled downhill, leaving a shelf about twelve feet by twelve feet and an overhang above jutting out about eight feet. The sight of the cerulean sky streaked with soft wispy clouds and the vast verdant green carpet below took my breath away.
"Oh, Xena. How did you ever find this place?" I broke away from her and raced over to the ledge to get a better look at the valley below. "Just look at this view!"
"Yes, the view is magnificent, but it's a long way down if you admire it too closely!" Xena took a firm grip of my hand again and led me away from the edge.
"I thought you were the adventurous type," I said, teasing her.
"You are all the adventure I want today." She brought my hand up to her lips, placing a soft and sensual kiss at the crease where my hand and wrist met. As her lips lingered there, it felt like a kiss of sunlight warming my skin.
Much to my disappointment, Xena let go of my hand. "But, first things first. Close your eyes," she ordered.
"Close your eyes and hold out your hand."
"Oh no," I protested.
"Please," she entreated. "Trust me."
How could I refuse her? So I closed my eyes and put out my hand.
"Okay, open your eyes."
I opened my eyes and saw the small package she had placed in my hand. "What is it?" I asked.
"Open it and find out," Xena replied.
I unwrapped the small rolled up cloth with the enthusiasm of a child opening a solstice gift. My eyes widened when I saw the contents. It was a delicate silver necklace holding a replica of Xena's sceptre. The pendant was about the length of my thumb, made from pure gold, and topped with a small green gemstone like the one that crowned the full-sized version.
"Oh Xena, it's beautiful." Her heartfelt gift nearly brought me to tears, because I understood its deeper meaning – the sentiment and commitment it meant to convey.
"It's something to remind you that you are the most dear thing in the world to me," Xena explained.
"I love it." I handed her the necklace and turned around. "Would you mind?" I asked.
"Sure." Xena draped the necklace around my neck and secured it in the back.
I turned around so Xena could see the necklace on me. She looked pleased, which pleased me greatly, however, I felt slightly conflicted as well.
"Aren’t you worried about what people might say if they see me wearing it?"
"No, I had the silversmith make the necklace long enough to ensure the pendant hangs out of sight when you wear it."
As if to test it, I tugged at my blouse and let the necklace fall between my bosoms. I put my hand over the place where the well-concealed pendant came to rest. "I will wear it close to my heart always." Xena seemed very touched by that. I gave her a grateful kiss. "Thank you."
"For what?" she asked.
"For the necklace, for the picnic, the day together," I replied.
"Well, it's not over yet," she said.
Xena first laid out the blanket, and then she drew me to her. She pressed her lips to mine in a soft lingering kiss, inviting my lips to part with just the barest suggestion of her tongue. It sent a pleasant shiver in all directions, which made me want to deepen the kiss, to touch every part of her – her lips, her tongue, her neck, her breasts. Soon the air between us was thick with urgency.
We fumbled with our clothes and hurriedly tossed them aside. I clasped the pendant in my hand, holding it out of the way, as Xena lowered herself on top of me. I loved the way it felt to have her silky skin brush against mine as she made a slow descent – her lips, her teeth, her tongue, roaming everywhere. The coolness of the mountain air and her warm exhalations converged and confounded my senses as her playful tongue parted the silken folds shielding my most intimate parts – circling, flicking, teasing the hooded pearl and stirring my deepest desire to feel connected and filled with her love.
When she entered me, it felt like a lightning strike finding the path of least resistance, sparking an intense longing at my very core. At that moment, the whole world narrowed to a pinpoint, where no sound was heard, no scent inhaled – nothing existed except us in this private refuge, with only the clouds to witness our joining.
Slowly Xena withdrew, leaving an emptiness that went much deeper than her touch could reach. But she did not forsake me for long. The long shaft of her fingers filled me, and the constricting muscles within my vagina clung tightly to their salvation.
With staccato gasps, I encouraged her to stroke me faster, harder – willing my body to dash headlong over the precipice, but over and over Xena brought me to the very edge, only to snatch me away at the last moment. When I thought I couldn't take anymore of her sweet torment, Xena let me go and my insides erupted with such explosive force that I gripped Xena's back to keep myself grounded to the earth.
When I could finally speak, I tried explaining how incredible she had made me feel. "I'm sure I felt the earth move."
"So did I, but it wasn't me," Xena replied. She looked more distracted than pleased.
"Huh?" That wasn't the response I expected.
Xena jumped to her feet.
Suddenly there was a booming crash, like a deafening clap of thunder directly overhead. I felt the once solid ground beneath my body heave and roll like angry waves during a winter squall. Before I could react, Xena scooped me up into her arms and leapt to the relative safety behind the boulder.
After what seemed an eon, the rumbling stopped, Xena slowly unwrapped her arms from around me.
I looked around at our surroundings especially at the place where we had been lying only moments before. It was littered with rocks and debris that had fallen from the hilltop above us.
"By the gods, Xena. If we had been… if you hadn't…"
"Are you okay?" she asked.
"I'm fine. Are you okay?"
The clipped way she responded sent off a warning in my head. "No you aren't, you're hurt."
"It's nothing. I'll be fine," she insisted.
"Don't go all heroic on me, Xena. If you're hurt, tell me."
"It's nothing. I bumped my shoulder when we landed."
"Let me see." My eyes took in the sight of my lover's naked body with deep concern. Thankfully she wasn't bleeding badly, but her left shoulder was scraped and bruised. I gently touched the area and was rewarded with a hiss from Xena.
"It's more than a 'bump', Xena."
"Don't look so worried. I've done worse falling off of tavern stools." Xena gave me a reassuring wink. "Come on, let's try and find our clothes and the horses and get away from here before the aftershocks send more of the hillside down on top of us."
With all the fallen branches and boulders blocking the road, it was late afternoon and we were still making our way down the mountain. Off to the north I noticed a large plume of black-grey smoke rising from the valley below. I pointed it out to Xena.
She shrugged her good shoulder. "Someone is burning something, that's all."
"You don't get that much smoke from a fire in someone's cottage."
"I'm sure the villagers have things well in hand. Besides, we are long overdue, and if we're not back by nightfall, Galates will mobilise the entire Imperial Guard!"
"But Xena, people could've been hurt in the earthquake. They may need help."
Xena acquiesced. "All right, we'll go and see if they need help." She kicked her horse into a hurried canter and headed towards the smoke. I followed closely behind trying to remember all the lessons Xena had taught me, especially how to keep from falling out of my saddle.
When we reached the village centre, I was shocked at the devastation. Villagers were frantically battling the blaze, trying to save the grain store, already engulfed in flames, before the fire spread to the stables.
A medium sized man with a mess of long brown hair detached himself from the group as we came to a halt.
"Thank you friends. We can use all the help we can get," he called.
We dismounted and approached him.
"Grab a bucket. The river is over there." He pointed at the watercourse.
Xena stiffened. I knew she was not used to being ordered about by a mere peasant.
I put a hand on her back. "Let's help put the fire out," I said gently. "That's the most important thing."
"Hurry!" the man barked and returned to directing the fire fighting.
Xena didn't move and her annoyance flared anew. "I will not tolerate such disrespect," she growled.
"I'm sure he meant no disrespect," I replied. "He doesn't recognise who you are. I mean look at us!" I pointed out our tattered clothing and dirty faces.
Xena's fiery temper died down once she realised how scruffy the two of us must've seemed. She grabbed a bucket and headed for the river.
It took the better part of two hours to finally extinguish all the fires. By then what buildings the earthquake hadn't destroyed were a steaming pile of ashes.
Xena walked slowly towards me and dropped her bucket on the ground. A smile curled her lips.
"What are you smiling at?" I asked.
"I was thinking how incredibly sexy you look with your hair and face all covered in soot."
"Yeah? You don't look so bad yourself."
Her smile immediately disappeared, when the man, who had met us when we arrived, approached Xena from behind and clapped her on the back. I thought surely he was a dead man as anger sparked in Xena's eyes. I gave her a pleading look not to hurt him just before she wheeled around.
Oblivious to the new danger he was facing, the man reached for Xena's forearm as if to shake it, but I quickly intercepted his hand. He very nearly shook my arm out of its socket with his enthusiasm, "Thank you so much for your help. My name's Eryx, I'm the mayor of Philus. I didn't catch your names."
"My name? My name is Xena," Xena replied. "Perhaps you have heard of me?" Her serpentine tone chilled my blood. It was like a cobra rising slowly and unfurling its hood, waiting for the moment to strike.
"Xena?" Judging from Eryx's oblivious expression, he still didn't realise just how dangerous was his predicament.
"Your Highness," I said trying to distract her attention away from Eryx, "It's been a very long day. Perhaps you'd like to freshen up before we return to the palace."
Xena finally looked away from Eryx and fixed her gaze on me. The venom drained from here eyes. "Yes. Meet me by the horses." With that, Xena walked away, saying nothing to the mayor.
"As you command, Your Highness." I made a show of bowing as Xena walked away.
Eryx's eyes widened and his soot-covered face turned ash-white. "You mean that was Empress Xena? I had no idea." He started to follow Xena. "I must beg forgiveness."
I took Eryx's arm before he could get too far and led him away. "The Empress understands the situation. You were preoccupied with saving your village and didn't recognise her."
"Y-yes, that's it. That's right!" Eryx said, quickly accepting my explanation. He cast a nervous glance over his shoulder in Xena's direction. "I meant no disrespect. I was preoccupied with putting out the fire. She understands that. Doesn't she?"
"Yes she does. However, it would be better if you didn't try to talk to her at the moment. She's tired and she has had a very long day. It's best to just leave her alone."
"Oh, yes, yes," Eryx nodded frantically. "I quite agree. And please tell her that I… the whole village, we are extremely grateful and honoured. And to show our gratitude, we promise to pay extra taxes this year."
I cringed inwardly at his words. His village was ruined and needed more money to rebuild than they could afford. Yet he was ready to pay more to spare Xena's wrath.
"That won't be necessary," I told him. "You've lost all your stored grain and need to rebuild your village. Empress Xena will waive your taxes this year so you can rebuild."
"She will?" asked a bewildered Eryx.
I was not looking forward to Xena's reaction when I told her, but I was caught up in the moment. "Yes. In fact she'll cover any shortfall from the loss of revenue while you rebuild. In the meantime there's not enough shelter here for all of you tonight. I suggest you send some people, particularly those that need medical treatment, up to Corinth. They can stay there until their homes are rebuilt."
"Oh, we can't afford to pay for accommodation in Corinth."
"That won't be a problem. When you arrive, come to the palace and ask for me. My name is Gabrielle. I'll have somewhere for you to stay, free of charge."
Eryx grabbed my hand and shook it briskly. "Thank you. Thank you very much."
"Not at all. And I'll organise a work crew to come back here to help with the clean up and rebuilding."
"You can do all that?"
"Yes, I'm the Empress' Advisor for Civilian Affairs. It's my job to care for her citizens as she would wish it."
"I…thank you. I-I mean we hear all sorts of tales about 'Xena the Conqueror'," he whispered conspiratorially.
"Don't believe everything you hear," I informed him. "The Empress has her people's best interest at heart."
"Well, please thank the Empress for me. I can't wait to tell the others what a kind and generous sovereign Empress Xena really is!"
With that, Eryx left to tell his villagers the news and I went to find the Empress before any more grateful villagers wanted to shake her hand.
Xena was at the village well washing the soot and grime of the day from her face. She looked up as I approached.
"Your Highness," I paused to check if we could be heard, there wasn't anyone within earshot, so I whispered.
"I said the villagers without shelter should go to Corinth. We can put them up in the barracks or the servants' quarters until they can return," I informed her.
"Should we wait and escort them ourselves?" Xena asked.
"If you think that's necessary," I replied. "Since your crackdown on roving bands of raiders the roads between here and Corinth are safe, so they shouldn't be in any danger."
"Then we will leave them to it."
"That's fine." I nodded in acceptance. "That was good by the way."
"Showing your caring side like that."
"It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be," Xena said with an impish smile, "but don't get used to it."
I looked proudly at my love. I knew she didn't like dealing with people, but I knew deep down she cared for them. She was just reticent about showing it. This small step was one in the right direction. I was determined to make her people love her as much as I did.
The next morning the palace bustled with activity. Servants scurried about getting the palace ready for the arrival of the Queen of the Amazons.
Since a treaty with the Amazons was my idea, Xena appointed me 'Special Ambassador' in charge of the treaty negotiations as well as overseeing the arrangements for the Amazons' visit. This was a daunting task considering I knew precious little about the Amazons or how to negotiate a treaty. However, I wasn't one to shy away from a challenge.
There was a lot riding on the success of this treaty: my credibility as a senior advisor to the Empress for a start. General Darnell would never let me live it down if the treaty failed, and Xena would be hard-pressed to take my advice over his ever again. More importantly, if a treaty with the Amazons failed, Darnell would invade Amazon territory and hundreds of Greek soldiers and Amazon warriors would die.
I saw to a few last minute details, and then I went upstairs to my chambers and got ready for the welcoming festivities. Since I was representing Xena in these negotiations, I was anxious to make a good first impression, so I had a new outfit made just for the occasion. It was a simple sleeveless tunic the same colour green as fresh spring grass, with delicate gold vines entwining it. Before leaving my room I put on the pendant Xena had given me – a tiny replica of her sceptre. I tucked it inside my tunic where it nestled near my heart.
When it was time for the Amazons to arrive, I left my rooms and walked towards the main staircase. I was expecting to meet Xena there and share a few private moments before the diplomacy got underway. And to be honest, I needed a few words of encouragement.
I was disappointed not to find Xena at the top of the stairs waiting for me. Instead, General Darnell and Ambassador Brutus were having a quiet conversation at the bottom. Darnell had his back to me, but Brutus saw me. The Ambassador nodded his head in my direction and Darnell turned to face me. General Darnell was the last person I wanted to see. They had seen me, however, so there was no retreating. I steeled myself for an inevitable confrontation and confidently descended the staircase.
The General touched Brutus on the arm, excused himself, and intercepted me before I reached the bottom step. As a result, I had the uncomfortable experience of being face to face with my daunting political rival. I was close enough to see his pupils constrict and the irises turn from a warm brown to a burnt umber colour as Darnell's mood darkened. Brutus excused himself and beat a hasty retreat.
The General began without preamble. "What in Hades' Realm do you think you're doing billeting those peasants in the palace garrison's barracks?"
A sudden rush of adrenalin jolted my chest as once again Darnell was verbally accosting me. I swallowed and cleared my throat before answering. "There was an earthquake yesterday and a subsequent fire destroyed their entire village. They had nowhere else to stay."
"That's their problem. I'm not having the efficiency of this military installation disrupted because of another one of your do-gooder missions!"
"I cleared it with the Commander of the Palace Guards."
"And I am Galates' superior officer. You didn't clear it with me."
"That wasn't necessary." I started to move around him, but he blocked my way.
"Not necessary?" he asked, his tone became more menacing. "I warned you before that you're out of your depth. I'm not going to be pushed around by a jumped up milkmaid. So you get those peasants out of there right now."
Darnell was beginning to scare me, but my mouth got ahead of my brain. "Or what?" I heard myself ask.
"Or I'll throw them out of there myself!" He snarled.
"The Empress wouldn't like that."
"Oh, I suppose you're going to tell me it was her idea," Darnell said sarcastically. Through gritted teeth he continued, "I'm onto you, missy. The Empress might be taken with your charms, but you're not fooling me." The General leaned in as close as he could without touching me "One day, she's going to see who you really are. You are a plague, a poison infecting her, making her weak." He whispered menacingly, "And I just may have the cure."
"Is there a problem?"
Darnell and I both jumped in surprise at Xena's voice suddenly coming from the landing above us.
My attention immediately swung from Darnell. I became mesmerised by the sight my love in all her finest military regalia.
She wore a skirt and tunic made of the finest Egyptian linen. The outfit was primarily a regal blue and garnet redbordered with embroidered piping made of spun gold. Her armour was made of leather dyed blue with red and gold ornamentation. The blue brought out the richness in her striking blue eyes. Her forehead was crowned with a red-plumed golden helmet. Resting on her left forearm was her sceptre, the symbol of her position and power. If it was Xena's intention to make a statement to the Amazons, then it was very effective.
Looking at her standing there, no one could doubt that being Empress of Greece was truly Xena's destiny. She wore her royalty as comfortably as I wore a cloak. It was as though she had been born into nobility rather than forging it through sweat and blood.
The Empress slowly descended the staircase. Both Darnell and I greeted her with a deep and reverent bow.
"No, Your Highness, no problem," I replied collectedly. "General Darnell and I were just discussing the villagers and how long they would be staying in the barracks."
Darnell cast me a sideways glance before addressing Xena. "I should've been consulted before—"
Xena held up a hand to silence him. "I hardly think I need to consult you before inviting guests to stay in my palace, do you General?" Xena spoke in a neutral voice, but her message was clear.
Darnell replied with equal civility. "No, Your Highness. But wouldn't your 'guests' be more comfortable in the servants' quarters?"
"No. The soldiers are used to bivouacking, so it is not putting them out. Besides, it's only for a few nights. Now, if there are no other decisions of mine you'd like me to explain to you, General, you may go ahead and take your place for welcoming ceremony. On the left side, General."
Darnell opened his mouth to speak, but prudently held his tongue. He saluted curtly, executed an about-face, and headed towards the west portico – still seething, no doubt.
As I watched the General walk away, I couldn't help but feel a bit like a rabbit saved from the lion's mouth by the talons of the hawk.
"Thank you for once again taking my side with Darnell. I'm not sure it's such a good idea to goad him though. He hates me enough already; and to be honest, he scares me a little." I didn't want to tell her what he really said to me, that I was like a poison making Xena sick and weak.
"I know you haven't won Darnell over as easily as you have me," she said with a subtle smile.
"I'm not sure I'll ever win him over. He doesn't hold me in very high regard."
"Darnell has led a soldier's life, a life of order and certainty. Your rather unorthodox ideas challenge his more conventional approach," Xena explained, "but give it time, you will." Xena put a reassuring hand on the small of my back.
"I hope so, for all our sakes. By the way, can I say how incredible you look?"
"So do you," Xena replied.
There was a pause and affectionate glance while we shared one last private moment before what we knew would be several days of tough negotiations.
Xena finally broke the sexual tension. "Are you ready to meet the Amazons?"
"Would you do me a favour, Gabrielle?"
"Greet them for me. I won't be too long, but there is some business I need to take care of first."
"What business is that?" I tried to sound casual, hoping to mask a twinge of anxiety her words caused. Was she thinking of going after Darnell and having it out with him? I wondered.
"I need to see a man about a horse."
I dipped my head and stifled the urge to laugh at myself for jumping to the wrong conclusion. "We could always wait for you to finish."
"No, we cannot have the Queen of the Amazons being kept waiting on the front steps while the Empress of Greece has an imperial pee. It might cause an international incident," she said with a mischievous gleam.
As I waited for our honoured guests to arrive, I thought back to when I was young and the tales I had heard about the Amazons. The old men of my village talked about the Amazons' legendary fighting skills and bragged how in their day, they single-handedly saved their village from the fearsome she-demons. And mothers would frighten their young daughters by saying the Amazons would come and take them away if they didn't behave. One of my dreams was for them to steal me, to take me away from Potidaea and make me one of them. The Fates had other plans for me.
The Amazon delegation of five warriors entered through the west Portico in a loose formation, their hands gripped firmly on their weapons. Two columns of Imperial Palace Guards lined the route from the palace ramparts to the main steps.
Their dress was simple and functional. There was none of the elaborate armour worn by the Romans or the Greeks. They wore short leather skirts and tops, greaves, wrist and arm protection, and boots. The only splash of colour was on the masks they wore. The masks themselves were very ornate in comparison to their clothing. They were fashioned like the face of a wild bird-like creature right out of one's nightmare, with sharp beaks, huge eyes, and horns. Each was adorned with plumage and raffia. And upon closer inspection, I noticed that each mask was unique – no two alike.
Even with their masks pulled over their faces, it wasn't hard for me to tell which one was their queen. She was the one standing in the middle of the formation. Her mask was the most elaborate of them all, with vibrantly hued yellow, red, and green plumage.
I bowed respectfully and greeted them, "Your Highness, on behalf of Empress Xena, welcome to Corinth. We hope your journey was uneventful." Not being able to see their faces was disconcerting, but I continued my greeting. "My name is Gabrielle. I am the Empress' Civilian Affairs Adv—"
One of the Amazons, who stood at the head of the group, pulled up her mask and retorted, "The Queen of the Amazons comes to Corinth at the request of the Empress, and she sends a glorified scribe to welcome us? This is an insult!"
Part of me wanted to defend myself – after all, I was no low-level official, I was a trusted advisor to Empress Xena. And so much more, I thought, but I couldn't very well say to the Amazon Queen that she was talking to the Empress' lover. I swallowed my indignation.
Ignoring the tall, curly blonde haired woman who was so put out, I continued my welcoming speech. "The Empress was unavoidably detained, but she instructed me to see to your comfort. If you would follow me, you may wait in the throne room. We ha—"
"Wait? We've been travelling a long time. Why are we being made to wait?" Again the blonde Amazon cut me off with a retort.
"Ephiny." A smaller, more full-figured Amazon stepped out from behind the stone-face blonde and removed her mask. The taller blonde stepped back but kept her up her menacing glare. "You must forgive Ephiny, she's a bit – overprotective," she said to me.
This Amazon had flaming red hair and a pleasant smile. "I am Terreis, Queen of the Amazons. My second-in-command, Ephiny, you've already met," she said. Terreis gave a nod and the others complied by taking off their masks.
I felt like such an idiot. My first diplomatic assignment and I insulted our guest, Queen Terreis, and no doubt the entire Amazon nation.
Terreis moved away from her Amazon guards and stepped closer to me. She greeted me with a friendly smile. "Thank you for your warm welcome and hospitality, Advisor Gabrielle. Since the Empress has been unavoidably detained, we will wait where ever you say."
"Very well, Your Highness. Please follow me."
I escorted the warriors into the throne room. I gestured for a servant to come forward. Ephiny and the other Amazons tensed at my gesture until they were sure that I hadn't ordered an ambush. "Would you like something to drink while you wait? Water, wine, ale?"
"Water will be fine, thank you," replied the queen.
I signalled the servant to fetch the water, he returned immediately with a pitcher and another servant held a tray of goblets. The servant poured water into one of the goblets and I handed it to the Queen.
"Your Majesty," I said as I offered it.
"Thank you," she said to the servant before taking the proffered goblet. "Thank you," she said to me.
I was impressed that the Queen had thanked the servant, I knew from experience how rare that was. The servant moved away to serve the other Amazons.
I was about to speak when I felt a strange prickling on the back of my neck. I turned to face the throne and there was Xena, seated on the throne with her sceptre lying casually across her lap. She had somehow slipped in unnoticed.
Queen Terreis smiled with a slight hint of condescension; as if she had witnessed a child perform a particular act that they should've outgrown. Xena ignored her.
Xena stood up abruptly and leapt gracefully down the steps and landed in front of Terreis.
"I trust your journey was uneventful and my soldiers who accompanied you from the border behaved themselves?" Xena asked with a less than sincere tone.
I sighed inwardly. Maybe Xena would allow me to take control of the negotiations, but how to suggest it without undermining her authority was going to be difficult. I would have to take it one step at a time.
"You know your men behaved themselves," replied Terreis. "Otherwise they wouldn't be in one piece."
Xena laughed heartily, an act that surprised the Amazons judging by the looks on their faces. "Would you like to sign the treaty now, or later?"
"There are points we need to discuss before I sign."
Xena nodded. "I thought as much. We can go into the banquet room and talk." She gestured to the doors at the far end of the throne room. "Go and tell General Darnell that his attendance is required," she ordered the nearest soldier.
The soldier snapped a salute and started to leave. Before he reached the door Darnell entered. The soldier tried to tell Darnell he was needed, but the General waved his hand to silence him.
"My Liege," Darnell saluted Xena.
"General Darnell, this is Terreis, Queen of the Amazons."
Darnell saluted Terreis. The Queen nodded at the General.
"We're going to have a chat about the treaty," Xena said to Darnell. "I would like you to join us."
"As you wish."
Xena headed towards the council chambers, the Amazons followed and the soldiers followed the Amazons.
"My Liege?" I requested permission to speak.
"I think it would be less intimidating for our guests if we didn't have so many of our soldiers with us in the talks. Might I suggest we keep the numbers equal – five of us, five of them?"
Xena considered my words for a few seconds, and then nodded. "You two with us," she pointed at the two nearest soldiers, "the rest of you back to barracks."
Xena gestured for her guests to enter the council chambers. She and I held back and waited for everyone else to enter first. I took the moment to collect my thoughts and rein in my emotions. Then it hit me – that same feeling of dread I felt when I rode my horse Daisy for the first time. I realised that the Amazons were here to discuss a treaty because of me. I felt a burst of pride at my achievement and then a clench of dread.
"Come on. It's just like learning to ride a horse. You have to show them who is boss." Xena said reassuringly.
"Yeah and when I fall flat on my arse, you'll know it isn't me!"
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