See disclaimers in part 1
In diplomacy, as in war, success comes from knowing your enemy's strength and exploiting their weakness. Though the Amazons were not, in the strictest terms, my enemy, they certainly were not allies. Amazons were fiercely independent, suspicious of outsiders, and protective of their territory.Their weakness was their numbers. They were once a great nation, but now the Amazons counted fewer than three thousand warriors among a handful of scattered tribes. The threat of invasion by superior forces, the Persian army or mine, brought the Queen of the Amazons to the negotiating table and that gave me the upper hand.
The Amazons were not ones for a lot of chitchat. At least on that point, we agreed. We had a brief ceremony to welcome them and then got right down to business. The treaty negotiations had got underway by mid-morning. With Darnell and Ephiny determined to argue every point, however, the meeting dragged on well into the afternoon and we were only a quarter of the way through the agenda.
With a hard look and a low gruff voice, Darnell said, "The amount of venison that must be supplied to the imperial army is not negotiable."
"Then we're wasting our time," Ephiny growled back as she all but launched out of her seat.
"What my sister means is," said Terreis, pausing to cast a subtle glance at Ephiny. Once the quarrelsome blonde sat back in her chair, Terreis continued her explanation. "If we supply that much venison to your troops, it will seriously deplete the herds of deer in Amazon forests and make it very difficult to feed our own people."
I added nothing to the discourse. I was content to let Darnell and Ephiny continue their verbal thrust and parry.
"We are here to sign the treaty, not to debate every point," Darnell insisted.
"And why should the Amazons pay for Greek imperialism?" Ephiny countered.
Gabrielle stepped in before tempers boiled over. "We've been at it a while. Why don't we take a short break and have some refreshments?" She signalled for the attendants to refill everyone's wine goblet.
The Amazon Queen sat forward, contemplatively folded her hands and then spoke. "I must confess when we were approached about a treaty with the Empress of Greece, my advisors were very much against it. 'After all,' they said, 'why would Xena the Conqueror offer a peace treaty?' But I saw the possibilities in such an agreement, and I was willing to chance coming here. Now that I've met with you and your advisors face to face, I know you are sincere and I commend you for this bold initiative—"
"—But," I interjected, anticipating the 'but.'
Terreis spoke directly to me across the table. "But…I came here to negotiate a fair and mutually beneficial treaty. I will not sign away my sisters' birthright. So, if we cannot find a compromise on even this one minor point, then perhaps we should conclude this meeting to reconsider our positions."
Damn, she is good, I thought. With one amiable swipe, the Amazon Queen had outmanoeuvred me. I could no longer use strong-arm tactics on Terreis after she had just commended me on my sincerity and a 'bold initiative.' At that moment, I was beginning to regret not having taken Darnell's advice and just annexed Ionia, and Amazon territory with it.
Again, Gabrielle spoke up. "Empress, if I may."
Inwardly, I was pleased to see Gabrielle take charge of the meeting. She was a natural-born diplomat. I was very proud of her, though I didn't show it, because I had to maintain my game face.
With my nod of approval, Gabrielle proposed a compromise. "Your Highness, the quota of meat has been carefully calculated to sustain the army for three months while supplies are being stockpiled. Perhaps if you were to supplement the venison with fish or other wild game, this would meet the needs of our army without jeopardising your food sources. I'm certain the Empress would be willing to consider it."
Simultaneously Darnell and Ephiny objected.
"My soldiers need red meat, not fish cakes!" Darnell groused.
"We're warriors, not fishermen!" Ephiny countered.
It suited my purpose to have them play the antagonists; however, it was plain from the way they were glaring at each other that Darnell and Ephiny were a sword-width away from coming to blows. I did the first thing that came into my head. I pounded my goblet down on the table. The loud clunk made everyone jump.
"It is late," I declared as I stood up. "We will meet again tomorrow. Come with your proposals and I will consider them. But come prepared to sign the treaty."
Terreis didn't seem the least flustered by the tone of the meeting. The Amazon Queen calmly stood up and replied, "Yes, it has been a long day. We should all come tomorrow well-rested and ready to negotiate."
There was an awkward silence as Terreis and I sized each other up.
Gabrielle chimed in, attempting to lighten the atmosphere in the banquet hall. "Queen Terreis, rooms have been prepared for you and your staff."
"Thank you, Gabrielle," Terreis replied cordially, "however, we have set up camp in the woods outside of Corinth.
Gabrielle said, "But you've had a long journey and a full day, so you are welcome to stay here in the palace, at least tonight."
"We appreciate the offer," Terreis replied, "however, we Amazons are not used to all the luxuries of a fine palace. We prefer to sleep rough out in the forest."
"Of course whatever makes you most comfortable, Your Highness." Gabrielle sounded a little disappointed.
"Very well. My Imperial Guards will escort you back to your encampment," I said.
Terreis regarded me coolly. "That isn't necessary, I came with my own escort."
Amazon warriors were fully capable of defending their queen, so I did not insist. "As you wish. I will be expecting you tomorrow then."
"Yes, I look forward to our next meeting." Terreis was not looking at me when she said it. She was speaking directly to Gabrielle, as though they were the only two people in the room.
Gabrielle seemed quite taken with Terreis' charm, which made me all the more annoyed. Ephiny's back stiffened, and Darnell just looked annoyed but not for the same reason. He was oblivious to the flirtatious undercurrent of the conversation.
Once the Amazons had left, I dismissed everyone else from the room, except for Gabrielle and Darnell. I wanted to have a quick discussion about our first meeting with the Amazon Queen.
"With all due respect, General, what did you think you were doing?" Gabrielle asked with as much restraint as she could.
"What are you talking about?" He feigned ignorance.
"I'm talking about your obstinate refusal to compromise on the meat procurements. The Amazons very nearly walked out on the negotiations!"
"Nonsense. If the Amazons didn't need this treaty then they wouldn't be here in the first place."
Gabrielle didn't look impressed with his explanation. "I don't think Queen Terreis is interested in all that. She genuinely wants to make the treaty work for her people."
"Then she better muzzle her bulldog Ephiny!"
"Are you trying to sabotage the negotiations, General?" Gabrielle challenged Darnell.
"I don't need to sabotage the negotiations, the Amazons are doing a fine job of that all by themselves!" Darnell was very agitated.
My patience had been worn parchment thin from an entire afternoon of incessant talking and posturing, and their bickering was giving me a headache. "Okay, that is enough – both of you," I said sternly. "Darnell, you have made it abundantly clear you are not in favour of a treaty, but I have made my decision, so I expect you to support it. And that is 'not negotiable.'"
"I thought I was supporting it," he grumbled.
"Yes, yes, I'm sure you thought so," muttered Gabrielle.
That earned Gabrielle a chiding from me. "When I said both of you, I meant both of you."
With a cease-fire imposed, I continued. "If we want this treaty on our terms, we must show the Amazons a united front. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Empress," Gabrielle replied.
"As you command, Empress." Darnell grudgingly agreed.
"Good. Now that's settled, I would like to propose one more thing." They both looked at me with wary puzzlement.
"I propose we call it a day and negotiate a little rest and recreation. I have the feeling we are going to need it."
The next morning, Gabrielle and I were in my private study ploughing through some tedious, but necessary paperwork. The business of the empire didn't stop because the Amazons were in Corinth to sign a treaty. There was the Persian campaign, of course, and there was Gabrielle's other pet project: rebuilding the village of Philus after an earthquake and resulting fire had destroyed it.
The troubles of one small village were not a matter of great consequence, but in a moment of weakness I gave Gabrielle permission to have the citizens of Philus quartered here at the palace. So the sooner we helped them rebuild, the sooner things went back to normal.
"I need your seal on these work orders." Gabrielle placed two parchments on my desk in front of me.
"Aren't these your responsibility?" I asked. I had granted Gabrielle authority to sign orders that dealt with civil matters.
"With the rebuilding in Corinth there aren't enough civilian labourers to work in Philus, so we're drafting some soldiers into helping with the initial clear up and setting up temporary shelters in the village," Gabrielle explained.
"That's a good idea."
"That's why you thought of it," she replied with an impish grin.
"Then I guess I better sign them." I took the parchments, put my signature to them and affixed my imperial seal to the bottom.
"And these supply requisitions." Gabrielle took the documents I had just signed and shoved a few more in front of me.
I signed those as well, but without much energy. The previous day had been long and wearisome, and Gabrielle and I had got up early to get this paperwork done before the next round of negotiations.
I let out a loud yawn. "Is that it?" I asked.
"Just one more, I promise," Gabrielle replied.
I looked at her with one eyebrow cocked. "What is it?"
"It's the funding approval for labour and supplies," Gabrielle's tone was almost apologetic.
Just as I was about to sign, a herald came in and announced that Solari, one of the Amazon lieutenants, had brought a message from Queen Terreis.
Timing is everything.
Grateful for the interruption, I told the herald to bring her through immediately. He soon returned with the buxom, dark brown-haired warrior and Lt. Commander Galates.
"Have you brought your queen's proposals?" I enquired.
"No, Empress," Solari answered.
"Well, then why are you here?" I asked impatiently.
"My Queen has sent me with an invitation for Advisor Gabrielle to visit the Amazon camp this afternoon," Solari replied.
I cast a sideways glance at Gabrielle; an eager glint replaced the work-dulled expression in her eyes. Yet, there was something about this invitation that didn't feel right. What was Terreis up to? I wondered.
"Tell your queen that she is negotiating with me." My reply was terse and sharp and by the puzzled look on the Amazon's face, not the response she had expected.
"You misunderstand, Empress," Solari replied. "My Queen wishes to work on proposed changes with your advisor before formally presenting them to you."
I was about to send Solari back to her queen with a resounding 'No!' when Gabrielle spoke up.
"Your Highness, perhaps I should meet with Queen Terreis and work out the minor points. Think of the time it would save if we didn't have to debate each point at the negotiating table."
Once again, it was hard to argue with Gabrielle's logic. And though I didn't trust the motive behind the Amazon Queen's invitation, I had put Gabrielle in charge of the treaty negotiations.
I stood up from behind my desk and looked firmly at Solari. "Very well, but Gabrielle will be escorted by a unit of guards."
Gabrielle knew better than to argue the point with me in public, but Solari had the temerity to object. "I'm afraid that will not be possible, Empress. Men are not permitted to enter Amazon territory –"
"This is not Amazon territory." I cut her off sharply. "You are in my empire and my soldiers will go wherever I send them."
"Queen Terreis suspected you would say something like that," Solari replied with an annoying smirk. "So she's willing to allow Advisor Gabrielle to be accompanied by a small female honour guard."
Gabrielle's eager green eyes petitioned me to let her go. So against my better judgement, I consented to the visit.
"Very well," I informed the Amazon. "Tell your queen to expect my advisor this afternoon."
I turned to Galates. "Commander, escort Solari to the palace gates and arrange an honour guard from our best female soldiers."
"At once, Empress," Galates replied.
Galates and Solari had barely left my study when Gabrielle's restrained excitement burst forth like a volcanic eruption. "Thank you, thank you!" She gave me a big hug and kiss. "I know this is business, but to visit an Amazon camp and see how they live will be so exciting!"
I didn't have the heart to dampen her enthusiasm. "I am happy that you are happy," I said with all the sincerity I could muster.
I put my hands on her shoulders to bring her back to earth and added, "Do not forget why you are there and watch yourself."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle expression changed from excited to bewildered.
"I do not trust Terreis."
"Why not? She seemed very gracious and sincere to me," Gabrielle replied.
"Yeah, that's why I do not trust her."
Gabrielle gave me a look to allay any doubts. "Then trust me."
While Gabrielle was away meeting with Queen Terreis, I went to my private study and tried to focus on other, more pressing business than treaties with Amazons: conquering Asia Minor was top on my list. However, army deployment plans held no interest for me – not when Gabrielle was all I thought about.
She had been gone for what seemed like hours. It left me feeling edgy and unable to settle. I tried to quash my misgivings, but I couldn't forget, even for a little while, that Gabrielle was in the camp of a potential enemy.
Finally I gave up trying to keep my mind occupied and decided instead to try a different approach. I ordered my servants to draw me a hot bath, hoping the steam would clear my head and ease the tension in my neck and shoulders.
"Your bath is ready, My Liege," said Helena, the newly promoted head servant of my privy chambers, thanks to Gabrielle.
I grunted an acknowledgement and pushed myself away from my desk, happy to abandon the mundane work and have some time to relax and unwind.
"Is there anything else you desire, My Liege?" Helena inquired.
"No, nothing," I replied as I left my study.
Helena followed me through the sitting room towards my dressing room and stood a discreet distance away while I undressed.
Wearing only a robe, I came out from behind the dressing screen.
"Shall I attend you, My Liege?" she asked.
"No, I would prefer to be alone."
"As you desire, My Liege. I shall be nearby, should you need anything."
I started walking through my bedroom towards the bathing chamber in the next room. But before Helena had reached the door, I quickly turned and added, "Helena, have someone fetch Lieutenant Commander Galates for me."
"Yes, My Liege," Helena replied. She bowed and left me to my bath.
As I entered my private bathing chamber, I stopped and my eyes scanned the empty room. I was looking for anything out of place or lurking in the shadows. Not that I needed to worry; my palace was well guarded. Still, my warrior instincts wouldn't allow me to even walk through my own living quarters without assessing any potential threat and securing my perimeter.
Satisfied that everything was as it should be, I approached the bathing pool, dropped my robe, and stepped into the water with both feet. The bathwater was so exquisitely hot that it hitched my breath – the immediate sensation was not unlike an orgasm: goose flesh, muscles tense, every fibre of my being hypersensitive.
I stood still for several moments until my skin got used to the temperature. It gave me time to take in my surroundings. When I looked around the room, I recalled bits and pieces of a conversation Gabrielle and I had after dinner one evening a few weeks ago.
Gabrielle had broached the subject of redecorating my bathing chamber. I did not understand the need to redecorate, because the room was functional and suited to its purpose. Gabrielle made some comment about me being just as happy bathing in a horse trough. I responded with my usual rapier wit, 'Oh, yeah?' or something equally as droll.
She ignored me and continued explaining her redecorating ideas to me. She painted the room so lavishly with her words, how could I say no. Gabrielle immediately set to work having the Dorian style columns painted sky blue with bright yellow on the capitals, the floor painted a deep blue like the ocean, and the walls adorned in richly coloured mosaic tiles, depicting scenes of exotic birds and aquatic life that made their home in and around the Aegean Sea.
Gabrielle had a poet's sensibility and eye for beauty. And now, as I looked around the room, I saw it through her eyes. The floor tiles were strewn with a garden full of rose petals of the deepest red. A flotilla of lily pads with burning candles floated on the water. Surface ripples reflected the flickering light all around the room. It gave the illusion of being under water swimming with the mosaic fish on the wall above my head.
Gabrielle should be here with me enjoying her vision come to life instead of being away talking about treaties, I lamented.
Finally I settled into the marble bathing pool and allowed the soothing water to wash over my body and drain my mind of any thoughts. As my muscles relaxed, my knees opened slightly and water rushed between my thighs like the incoming tide flowing into a sheltered cove. The movement of my legs caused eddies in the water that lapped at my fleshy folds like a lover's caress. It had been a while since I felt the need to pleasure myself, but thoughts of Gabrielle flooded my mind and sent a wave of longing right to my clit. My right hand slipped into the water and submerged beneath the surface seeking to satisfy my need. I closed my eyes and imagined Gabrielle sharing this bath with me – her naked skin glistening with water droplets, her blonde hair slicked back, her green eyes turned opalescent from the heat we are generating together in this steaming pool. It was Gabrielle's hard nipples that my fingertips were pinching. It was Gabrielle's gasps I heard as my breathing became more laboured. It was Gabrielle's well-washed slit I was stroking as my fingers found their rhythm. It was her pelvis rocking beneath my hand as my hips started arching upward. It was….
"You sent for me, Empress?" Galates called out as he came through my apartments towards the bathing chamber.
Timing was indeed everything.
I cursed the Galates' bad timing and quickly removed my hand from below the water. I reached for the goblet of wine and took a long slow swallow – hoping it would clear my voice of that low raspy tone I usually had after such intimate exertion. "Yes, Commander."
He saluted me and stood at attention, not daring to look anywhere but straight ahead.
"Has Gabrielle returned from the Amazon camp yet?" I knew she hadn't, because Galates would have sent word as soon as she had reached the gate. That did not stop me asking.
"Not yet, Your Highness. It's only been a half hour since you, er…inquired after her," the Lt. Commander tried to tactfully manoeuvre around my increasing impatience. He hastened to add; "I assure Your Highness, I have spotters on all the ramparts. The minute she returns, you will be the first to know."
My attendants had followed Galates into the room, so there was no resuming my self-gratifying fantasies of Gabrielle. I started to pull myself out of the bath.
Ever the gentleman, Galates averted his eyes while my servants swiftly covered me with a towel. I chuckled inwardly. Modesty is the first casualty in the life of a soldier. Still I thought it was very gallant.
"Permission to speak freely, Your Highness?" Galates asked.
"Permission granted as long as you do not mind me getting dressed." Just to have a bit of fun with my humble commander, I purposely dropped my towel.
Galates turned redder than the rose petals and did an immediate about face before the towel even hit the floor.
"At ease, Commander. I don't have anything you have not already seen, I am sure."
The poor man sputtered and stammered his profuse apologies while I put on a fresh robe.
"You were saying?" I said, prompting him to turn around.
He hesitated to face me until he could see I was decent. "I, uh, was going to say you don't need to worry about Gabrielle. She's got a good head on her shoulders and she can hold her own with the Amazons."
"You are right." I took a deep breath to relieve some of the tension built up in my shoulders. "You are a good friend to us…uh, Gabrielle."
A bashful smile threatened to crack his soldierly deportment. "My sword and my life are yours – and Gabrielle's."
We stood in awkward silence for a moment. Vulnerability did not come easily to soldiers. It usually got you killed. So this 'showing my softer side' as Gabrielle called it was something that hung on me like an ill-fitting tunic. It was going to take some tailoring before I wore it well. Finally I changed the subject.
"I think I will take a walk and stretch my legs a bit."
"That sounds like a champion idea, Your Highness. Shall I escort you?" Galates asked.
"No, you have duties to perform. Have someone come find me the minute Gabrielle gets back."
The Commander of the Palace Guards presented a crisp salute, did an about face, and left me to get dressed.
Before leaving, I went back into my bath chamber and selected a big golden apple from the platter of fruit to take to my favourite horse – the one Gabrielle had named Argo.
I never made it to the stables. Instead, I made my way down to the lower level of the palace where small windows high up on the walls let in very little light – only about the top two feet of the storey was above ground. Oblivious to the shocked stares of the staff, I walked into the kitchen. It was warm and the air was filled with a wonderful mix of aromas. It reminded me of the kitchen in my mother's tavern – only in this kitchen I could pinch a biscuit fresh out of the oven without fear of having my knuckles rapped.
"Your Highness!" The head chef looked aghast at my presence in his domain. He hurried over to where I stood and bowed. "Is there a problem?"
"No. I was just…" I caught myself. I did not see the need to explain myself to a servant. In fact, there was only one person in my empire I felt any compunction to explain myself to, and she was not here. "…Just carry on with whatever you were doing."
"Very well, Your Highness." He went back to stirring the contents of a big iron pot suspended over a cooking fire.
I peeked over his shoulder to see what he was cooking. He stepped aside to let me have a good whiff.
"Mmmm, not bad," I said, "but it needs just a pinch more rosemary."
The sceptical head chef took the spoon and dipped it into the simmering liquid. His eyes widened, as he tasted for himself.
"You are right, Highness. And I will have a word with my soup chef about it."
With the head chef berating the hapless assistant, I left the kitchen and climbed the narrow staircase to the main level.
I tried to convince myself it was by happenstance rather than design that I found myself in front of the door to Gabrielle's quarters – a half-eaten apple core in my hand.
When we had first arrived in Corinth, the palace was very run down and in need of major renovating. There was no room suitable for Gabrielle in the servants' quarters, so I had given her a small suite of two rooms in the guest wing, much to her delight.
When the nature of our relationship changed, Gabrielle spent most nights in my quarters. Gabrielle had wanted to move in permanently, but I had insisted she keep her own rooms – if only for appearances.
The palace was mine. Corinth was mine. Greece was mine. But these were Gabrielle's rooms – her special haven where she went to do her writing. These rooms were the only place that I did not enter without knocking first.
Without thinking I reached out and opened the door. Only as I stepped into the suite did I realise what I was doing, but the stubborn part of my brain overruled my conscience.
I tossed the remains of the apple out of the window and wandered around the room. I remembered how Gabrielle had walked around the room when I first showed it to her. She had examined every inch, touching the walls and furniture with a look of wonder and disbelief that she was going to live in such splendour.
The room had changed a lot since that first day. Gabrielle's possessions filled the drawers and cupboards; the walls were adorned with brightly coloured mosaics. Her personality had been well and truly impressed upon the surroundings.
I stopped by her writing table. Several scrolls were scattered about the surface and I picked one up at random. As I read I first thought it might be some sort of diary as Gabrielle detailed my coronation in Athens, but the language used was more dramatic and dynamic than one would use to document a day's events.
'I felt my heart soar as Xena's first action on being crowned Empress was to look in my direction and smile. I was so proud to have played a part in her victory and was honoured that she chose that moment to recognise me.'
I searched my memory to try and recall that moment, but all I could remember of my coronation was the satisfaction of having achieved the first of my goals. It was good to read Gabrielle's account of my coronation day, though it seemed more a work of fiction than the facts as I remembered them. It was almost as if she was writing it as part of an epic story. 'Glorious', 'beautiful', 'magnificent' and 'regal' were just some of the words she used to describe me. Was that how she really saw me? I wondered. Did she really see me as some kind of hero? I dismissed the idea as poetic license and continued reading.
Suddenly, a sense of urgency pervaded the palace. I heard the faint sound of a guard barking out orders and rapid footsteps echoing along the corridors. I cocked my head to listen. I recognised Galates' voice and then a softer voice, which accompanied his. It was Gabrielle.
Realising I was in her quarters, I felt a momentary clench of guilt – as if I was invading her privacy.
"…See the Empress tell her I'll be—" Gabrielle was speaking as she opened the door. "Oh!" She jumped when she saw me.
"Gabrielle!" Galates pushed his way past her and entered the room, sword at the ready.
I made my presence known. "It's only me, Commander."
The stunned soldier pulled up when he recognised me and resheathed his sword.
"Return to duty," I said.
"Huh? Oh, yes, Your Highness." Galates saluted then beat a hasty retreat out of the room.
I looked at Gabrielle and then down at the scroll in my hands. "I, uh…I didn't mean to pry."
"No, that's fine. I've wanted to show them to you, I just didn't know whether you'd be interested. So, what did you think?" Gabrielle said, crossing over to the table.
"It was good."
"But?" Gabrielle must have sensed the uncertainty in my voice.
"I don't remember it happening quite that way," I replied.
Gabrielle smiled sheepishly. "Well… perhaps I used a bit of artistic licence to make some parts a little more epic."
"I didn't say I didn't like it," I said sincerely. "It was very good."
I wanted to say more, but discussing the finer points of prose was not my strong suit, so I changed subject.
"What took you so long?" I asked.
"Sorry, I stayed for a meal. Terreis offered and it seemed rude to refuse."
"Right. I was… how did it go with the treaty?"
"Slowly. We managed some progress," Gabrielle replied distantly.
"Do you think the Queen will sign?" I pressed.
"Yes—" Gabrielle paused as if there was something more she wanted to tell me before she confirmed she thought Terreis would sign.
My instincts about Terreis were probably on the mark, because I could tell when Gabrielle was withholding something, but now was not the time to press Gabrielle for details. She had been gone too long and I all I wanted to do was take her to bed and show her how much she was missed.
"Come on," I said. "Let's go back to my rooms."
"I'll be along in a soon. There are few things I must attend to first." She raised herself on the tips of her toes to give me a kiss. "I won't be too long. Promise."
"I will hold you to that." I leant down and gave her kiss.
I made my way back to my suite via the kitchen. Gabrielle may have eaten at the Amazons' camp, but all I'd had was an apple.
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