Copyright: Yes, I do not own the Xena concept and certain characters but the plot is all mine.

Violence: There is violence.

Subtext: I really dislike this disclaimer.

Feedback: I love it because it is so rare these days. redhope@redhope.net

Homepage: http://www.redhope.net

Write a Review: http://www.redhope.net/xena/review/stranger-form.html

Dedication: The epilogue is for Nancy G. Thank you!

Started: September 23, 2006

Ended: January 31, 2007

Other Fanfictions                      Story Number: 66

Stranger in a Strange Time

by Red Hope

The Extra Long Epilogue – Beauty and the Beast

The Conqueror remained rigid in her throne while she listened to the tail end of the advisor's report. "Then the canal will be complete in four moons?"

The advisor nodded then replied, "Yes, my liege as we are ahead of schedule due to your promotion of keeping the slaves' healthy."

The ruler made no visible reaction to the advisor's praises. "See that things stay on track so that the Isthmian Games will celebrate the completion of the canal."

"Of course, my liege. The Isthmian Games and the Corinth Canal will be a testament to your rein and the realm's power." Cyd bowed to the Conqueror to show he'd completed his speech.

The Conqueror's eyes scanned the masses of her court when nobody else stepped forward to bring up a political issue. She then felt inwardly disappointed at one particular possibility. "There is nothing from my advisor of state?"

Gabrielle, the new advisor of state, sifted through the masses until she was in the front. She bowed her head then lifted it again and replied, "I am only saving the best for last, my liege."

The ruler's lips curled into a pleased grin. "What do you have for the realm this new moon, Gabrielle?" She waved for the new advisor of three moons to speak to her. How she'd come to enjoy the court now that her friend proudly took the position as advisor of state. She looked forward to the ideas and debates she held with the former rebel leader and especially because she and Gabrielle would pretend to get into heated fights, which made the court squirm.  

The bard observed her friend regally poised in her throne and dressed in her leathers, armor, greaves, and cape cascading over the chair. The shining chakram always fascinated the bard the most. She knew that meant the Conqueror had been training the squads this morning. "My liege, I believe the realm could do with a major social overhaul."

"Oh?" prompted the ruler.

"Yes." Gabrielle mentally unfiled her reasons then swiftly claimed, "The polis should require that every citizen in the realm to have a second name or rather a family name."

The Conqueror had seen this before so she questioned, "Like the Roman naming convention?" Her eyes narrowed in warning at the advisor.

Gabrielle didn't back away from the threat since she knew better. She could tell the air in the court though grew thick. She lifted her chin then she carefully chose her next words. "Similar, my liege however the Greeks, under your rein, always surpass anything the Romans fumble to do." She stopped and listened to the silence ringing back in her ears but she held the ruler's powerful stare.

The Conqueror's hard face abruptly broke by a grin. "Tell me why I should bother with such an endeavor, Gabrielle."

"Well, my liege," began the bard, her hands moving with her words. "How many Hectors would you guess reside here in Corinth?"

The Conqueror pretended to calculate then with a wave of her hand she guessed, "At least six."

"Try a dozen," remarked the bard, "And not to mention seven in Sparta then would you believe there are twenty-one in Thebes?" She cocked her head as she could see her friend was waiting for her point. "A little confusing isn't it?" She then turned on her boot's heels and called, "Jericho, do you receive complaints from your collectors about keeping these Hectors straight?"

The advisor of finance stepped forward some as he knew Gabrielle meant his tax collectors. "Yes, actually… it's rather frustrating."

Gabrielle faced the ruler then continued her explanation. "My liege, if the realm was to require the citizens to have a second name then a lot of things will run smoother in the systems." She lifted her left hand and grabbed one finger as she verbally ticked off the list, "The military's conscription and pays, the taxation, the deeds of land ownership, crime will lower, and we'll be able to take a proper census." Gabrielle saw the ruler's resolve was starting to waver as the ruler reverted to her thinking position where her right elbow rest on the chair arm and her chin in her palm.

"This will be exceedingly costly, my liege" spoke up an advisor.

The Conqueror's ice eyes flickered to the advisor. Recently she'd disclosed to her advisors that they may now speak out during court and it took awhile for the advisors to grow accustom to this new freedom. Of course they unknowingly owed this new freedom to the advisor of state, who'd privately suggested to the Conqueror to open the floor. Sometimes the Conqueror wondered if Gabrielle had suggested it just so Gabrielle could debate with the other advisors and wipe the marble floor with them. It was rare that any advisor bested the state advisor when she had such bardic skills for her armor and weaponry.

"Yes, this would be quite costly," agreed the Conqueror, her statement falling on the state advisor. She waited for Gabrielle's expected retaliation.

"It would be definitely," agreed the bard, "but think how costly it is to the realm right now without a second name? This is causing such trouble for the realm that there's some unrest… especially in the cities where there are more people with same names."

"My liege," spoke up the advisor of finance, "because we cannot properly identify who is who my collectors become frustrated and improperly tax the people. We do not know what lands they own, the family size, or their income because they can easily dodge us. Our records are poor."

"Why have you not corrected those records, Jericho?" questioned the annoyed ruler.

"My liege, you have not authorized the proper funds to take on such an undertaking. My collectors do not have the manpower or resource to correct this."

Gabrielle bit back her grin as the financial advisor easily supported her points. "My liege, the poor are being taxed like they are the rich while the rich dodge the proper taxes for their income level. Much of this derives from the fact that the polis has kept improper records and that we cannot discern who is who." She lifted her hands and factually stated, "And the realm is growing? How am I or the other departments to keep up with this?" Her hands fell to her side.

The Conqueror drummed her fingers on her chair arm's edge. She straightened up from leaning against her other arm. "Commander Meleager, this unrest that Gabrielle speaks of have you heard of it?"

The commander stood out from the rest of the court due to his silver plated chest, black leathers, and his helmet while the rest of the court wore togas, except for Gabrielle. He respectively removed his traditional Greek helmet then answered, "Yes, my liege. There is some unrest across the realm but it is only minor… nothing to cause alarm."

"Yet unrest has a way of growing into rebellions," reminded the Conqueror.

The commander said nothing but dipped his head in agreement to the truth.

The Conqueror studied her advisor of state while she considered this incredibly endeavor that Gabrielle was asking of her and the realm. She knew that Gabrielle's solution may just calm this aged unrest going on in her realm because she knew that her old use of fear wouldn't work here. "And have you already selected a second name, Gabrielle?"

The state advisor's eyes glinted and her lips showed a faint grin. "My liege, I would only select such a second name after you have chosen yours."

The Conqueror's hard expression broke by an amused grin at how the bard could stroke her ego. By the gods she hadn't realized how well Gabrielle had come to know her. Her expectations and hopes of Gabrielle being a decent advisor had been far exceeded. "And I assume you have written the proposal?"

"My liege, would I do any less?" Gabrielle placed her hands behind her back. She stood straight with her brown skirt slightly fluttering and her blue peasant top made her blond hair stand out along with her rich green eyes. She'd claimed her traditional clothes despite the court masses wore togas but she liked representing her stock plus she loved annoying the masses by not fitting in.

"I will further consider this after I've read your proposal, Gabrielle. See that you bring it to my office." The Conqueror straightened up in her throne while her hands rested on the arms of her chair. "I will say that I am pleased with this concept."

"Thank you, my liege." Gabrielle bowed while promising, "I will bring it by this afternoon." She straightened up then stepped away from the base of the dais.

The Conqueror glimpsed over her court and loudly questioned, "Is there anything else?" When nobody answered her call she stood up and stated, "Then we are dismissed until the full moon."

The masses broke apart and the courtroom filled with the din of chatter. Groups of people pocketed into various spots around the huge courtroom.

The Conqueror descended her dais and was greeted by her advisor of state.

"How were the squads this morning?" inquired the bard.

The Conqueror slid her arms back so that her hands rested between her backside and cape. "They were lacking," she complained.

"I'm sure you corrected them," remarked the grinning bard.

The Conqueror displayed a half grin. "Walk with me to the stables… I have riding lessons with Melpomene today."

Gabrielle chuckled and mentioned, "So I heard. Melpomene has been looking forward to this since you offered." She and the Conqueror easily passed through the busy courtroom as the people moved out of the way for them.

"So I can't interest you in joining us?" tormented the ruler.

The bard grinned at their growing, friendly banter in recent moons. "Oooh no… I leave that to you and Melpomene." She chuckled and joked, "They don't make those things low enough for me to ride."

"Then perhaps this spring I will purchase a pony for your birthday."

Gabrielle scowled at the smug ruler. "Oh yeah I can see that now. The galloping pony will fall several Roman miles behind a trotting horse." She then did a mental image of herself mounted on a pony, which brought on a fit of giggles.

The Conqueror was amused too but she went a bit serious at a thought. "What are you doing tonight?" She let Gabrielle walk through the partially opened entrance doors then followed.

Gabrielle paused just outside the doors until her friend was beside her again. "I'm actually going over to Cyrene's taverna. Are you free tonight to come?" She quickly added, "I think mom wants me to do the bard thing tonight so she promised a free dinner." She then smirked and teased, "I'm sure I can convince her to thrown one in for you."

The Conqueror's body shook with a silent laugh while she went down the steps to the grounds. "Seeing as I couldn't afford it otherwise?"

"Well with this new proposal of mine," jested the bard, "you'll need every drachma you can get."

"I believe so." The Conqueror sighed dramatically then turned to her left to head to the stables that were attached to the barrack.

"So, about dinner?" tried the bard.

The Conqueror walked closer to the bard and quietly answered, "I'd love to join you. What time are you going?"

Gabrielle's eyes were lit up happily as she smiled at the ruler. "Whenever you're free… Cyrene didn't have a set time."

"A candlemark after sunset?" prompted the ruler. "Melpomene and I should be finished by then."

The state advisor nodded her head then quickly asked, "Just meet me there?" She came to a stop just outside the entrance of the stables.

The Conqueror nodded then rested her hands on her hips. "Be sure to drop your proposal off in my office."

"I'll put it on your desk," agreed the bard, who was one of two people authorized to enter the ruler's office.

"You will lose face among the aristos kratein," mentioned the ruler. She knew that lately Gabrielle had been gaining favor by the court then the two lower classes approved immensely that the Conqueror appointed the rebel leader as the state advisor. The two upper classes however were weary of the rebel leader filling the position but they held their breath.

"Screw them," muttered the bard, "if they paid their taxes properly to the polis then we wouldn't be here." She huffed but she noted that amused look on the ruler's face. Both she and the Conqueror knew how disgusted the bard could get with the aristocracy of the realm especially since the Romans influenced the division of classes. "It shouldn't take you long to read it and approve it."

"If I approve it," reminded the ruler.

Gabrielle mocked glare at her friend then folded her arms over her chest in a defiant stance. "If you don't then you can find yourself another state advisor and good luck finding somebody as good as me."

"Is that blackmail, Gabrielle?"

The former rebel leader let her nose crinkle up to give her that innocent look. "Never, my liege." She then dropped her arms and started to walk off while saying, "I'll see you tonight."

The Conqueror was left shaking her head and watching the bard stroll off. She certainly had come to realize that Gabrielle's punishment for being the rebel leader was truly her bittersweet punishment. She thoroughly enjoyed working along side the bard despite at times it was very frustrating when they truly had opposite views.

The Conqueror was soon met by Melpomene in the stables and she spent the first candlemark showing the child how to tack up a horse properly. Then her next lessons were how to mount the horse and what commands a rider could give a horse.

Gabrielle however returned to the fortress and went to her office. She was the state advisor and running the polis required her to have her own office. Her office was by no means the size of the Conqueror's however it was on the same floor as the Conqueror's and only a few doors away. The only other allowed offices on this level was the commander and the Conqueror's assistant, Galen, who Gabrielle had become rather fond of lately. Galen would often lend a hand to the bard and he especially did when Gabrielle first started her position.

Gabrielle picked up her proposal first from her office and dropped it off in the Conqueror's. She then returned to her office to work out her proposal for the next court meeting as she would push it along side her last name proposal. She had a feeling though that this proposal would get shot down; she was actually expecting it to however she hoped it would at least plant a seed and cause a stir in the court.

Just after sunset, Gabrielle finished off her scrollwork that was regularly required of her from moon to moon for the daily activities of the polis. She put her quill into the inkwell then she picked up her wool and leather cloak from the back of her chair. After she shrugged on her long cloak, she blew out the few candles in the room and silently left to head to Cyrene's taverna.

While Gabrielle worked her way out of the fortress, she checked to make sure she had her Amazon dagger that Terreis had given her. She never liked carrying it but that was one of the dire arguments that her and the Conqueror hit only a moon and half ago. The Conqueror insisted on some small form of protection and when Gabrielle refused to have sentry shadows then the Conqueror told her to carry a small weapon. Finally the bard realized if she didn't conceal a dagger on her body then the Conqueror would put the sentries on her heels whether she liked it or not.

Finally the bard made it across the city and stepped into Cyrene's taverna that she was the proprietor of for two moons now. Cyrene didn't own the taverna or its small square land it was built on but she ran the show and paid rent. Cyrene's business had started out slow in the city then she became well established for her amazing food and atmosphere. Also Gabrielle's occasional drop ins and story telling helped to promote the business.

Cyrene peered up from wiping her bar clean of some spilled wine. She smiled at seeing the blond beauty come through the door. She set her rag down and came around her bar then hugged her adopted daughter. "How was your day?"

Gabrielle pulled back and smiled at the older woman. "Well I took the proposal before the court and Xena."

"How'd she handle it?" Cyrene raised an eyebrow much like her daughter would have done.

"Really well," answered the amazed bard. "I think she's figured out I'm hard to tell no."

Cyrene laughed then nodded her head. "It only took me twelve moons… hopefully she's quicker to figure it out." She then saw her barmaid coming to her with an order already spewing from her lips. She promised the barmaid to get the drink order and the hastily told the bard, "Eat first or story first?"

"Xena is coming so I'll sit down and have dinner with her first."

Cyrene smiled at the idea of her daughter coming tonight. "There's a small table over in the corner." She then started to go around the bar while saying, "I'll have Sara bring the drinks over."

"Thanks, mom." Gabrielle smiled then weaved through the busy taverna to the table indicated. She chuckled because Cyrene knew how the Conqueror preferred the tables in corners so that she could not only hide from prying eyes but also keep an eye out for trouble. The bard took the seat that faced the wall instead of the taverna but she turned her chair around some. She got her cloak off then sat comfortably in the chair. She then tilted her head when the taverna's patrons went silent as a tall, dark woman entered. Suddenly the chatter picked up after the woman walked into the taverna more.

Cyrene greeted her daughter quickly then pointed at Gabrielle waiting for her.

The Conqueror quickly came through the tables, chairs, and people to sit with her friend. "Were you waiting long?"

"No, not at all." Gabrielle smiled at the ruler. "How was the ride with Melpomene?"

"She's a fast learner," admitted the ruler. "She seems to have knack for it."

"Hmmm," muttered the bard, "sounds like somebody else I know."

The Conqueror grunted but she peered up when the barmaid dropped off their drinks then left. She shook her head because the mug was filled with the special port her mother made.

"Your mother is a mind reader, I swear." Gabrielle had cider as she didn't need any alcoholic drinks before her story telling. "I'm not sure what she's making tonight."

"It'll be good either way," murmured the ruler, who adored her mother's home cooking.

Gabrielle fell into idle conversation with her friend and as normal Gabrielle had the longer sentences while the Conqueror had shorter words but meaningful ones. Eventually the bard took her position in front of the patrons and reeled into a story about the god, Zeus, coming to the mortal world dressed as a mere mortal and stole away in a woman's bed for one night. Then a demi-god was born, who was named Alcides and his first summers of growth included discovery of his strength that matched ten men. It was an ongoing saga that Gabrielle had composed with her muses and she'd only recently started writing the tales down about this young demi-god. She planned to expand it into his adulthood and the trials he faced to help mankind. 

After the bard finished her tale of the young demi-god she bowed and absorbed the loud praises and applauds. Her eyes though settled on the Conqueror, who she always wondered whether or not listened to her stories. She knew the Conqueror read her reforms, satirical play, and poetries back when she was the rebel leader but this was truly a bardic right. And honestly, the bard was amazed that the Conqueror even allowed her to do this in Cyrene's taverna as the ruler long ago demolished the Athens Academy of Performing Bards just to stop stories such as this.

The Conqueror had her chair leaning back against the wall and the mug of port in her lap. She settled the chair's front legs onto the floor when her friend sat back down with her after fending off her loyal fans. She didn't mention how much she enjoyed the story about this fictional demi-god however she did mention, "You've acquired quite a fan base, Gabrielle."

The bard slightly blushed but first she stole a drink to ease her parched throat. She set the mug down after having a few beats to compose her response. "The only reason I do is because there are no other bards."

The ruler slightly grinned. "Don't fool yourself because I certainly don't… there are other bards out there despite my laws."

Gabrielle knew this was a dangerous topic to tread with the ruler but she thought she'd try for once. "I use to be apart of the underground theatre society.

The Conqueror didn't respond but finished off her port first. She set the mug down. "Yes, if I recall correctly you almost were caught for that play you tried to put on."

Gabrielle stared in shock at the ruler because the ruler knew her half cocked play she tried to perform despite the risks. She'd tried to do it so many seasons ago and much to Cyrene's chagrin. "How do you know all this?"

The Conqueror was smug as she huskily declared, "I have many skills."

The bard glared but her face broke by a grin. "I think you were as obsessed about me as I was about you." She then realized that probably wasn't far from the truth either.

The ruler stretched her legs out then shrugged. "I know my enemy."

Gabrielle huffed then leaned back in her chair. "Can I ask you about something?" At the ruler's prompting eyebrow, she quietly added, "About Alti?"

The Conqueror discretely nodded for her friend to continue.

"You knew the entire time that Alti was going to betray you, didn't you? That's what she meant just before she died, right?"

The Conqueror inhaled then slowly released her breath. "Yes. I remembered from my childhood when Alti attacked me as a girl. When I grew older it struck me blindly that it was myself that saved…."

"Saved yourself," finished the bard with a silly grin. "That meant you already knew you'd stop Alti… otherwise none of us would be here already."

The Conqueror nodded her head. "When I first met Alti I decided it was safer to keep her closer to me than fight against her or lose sight of her."

"Keep your friends close but your enemies closer," whispered the bard, who brightened with understanding. "By the gods...." She shook her head and asked, "When did you realize what was going on?"

"I suspected it when Janice showed up in the fortress. It was impossible for you to have a twin unless something was fishy. Then you confirmed it when you told me what the Cronos Stone could do."

Gabrielle had carefully listened to the mouthful of words from the quiet ruler. She chuckled at how her friend was quite good at being able to step out of situations and figure out the overall picture. She composed another question but she stopped when somebody entering the tavern captivated her.

The Conqueror already had her head turned and straightened up in her chair as the dekarchos of a squad marched over to her and Gabrielle.

The dekarchos clapped her fist across her bare chest. "My liege, I bring news from the fortress."

Gabrielle leaned over the table to listen since she was the advisor of state. She'd come to admire the new dekarchos that the Conqueror had employed after Janice left a spot open.

"What is it, Najara?" questioned the ruler.

Najara rested her hands behind her back then answered, "Queen Terreis has arrived along with her escort."

"What?" piped up the bard, "She wasn't due here for another day or so."

Najara turned to the state advisor then informed, "It seems with this mild weather this winter they made it sooner."

Gabrielle shrugged but she agreed with the dekarchos. Her stare wandered over to the Conqueror to see what she'd say.

The Conqueror sighed at losing her quiet night but she met her friend's gaze. "Did you want to come back with me?" She then saw the bard's smile, which was answer enough. "When did they arrive?"

"Not long ago, my liege." Najara stepped back when the women stood up from the table. "I will escort you back."

The Conqueror decided not to argue even though she wanted to because lately she'd noticed the dekarchos's personal interest in Gabrielle. She knew that Gabrielle would want the dekarchos to escort them so she could talk to Najara on the way. At that thought, she side stepped the squad leader and hurried out of the taverna. She paused in the middle of the taverna and told her mother goodnight and thank you.

Cyrene said goodnight back to the ruler and the bard before they left.

"Go ahead, Gabrielle," insisted Najara with a warm smile.

The former rebel leader returned the smile as she put on her cloak and walked ahead of the dekarchos to leave the taverna. She caught up to the ruler however her focus was on the dekarchos. She considered Najara a rare creature because she was a female warrior not of the Amazon Nation. The only other like that, in the bard's eyes, was the Conqueror. Gabrielle had spent some time with the dekarchos and learned she was from Phoenicia, which was an eastern providence in the realm along the Mediterranean Sea. This seemed to explain Najara's unusual dress that consisted of thin light brown leather mixed with a blue shade, a belt with a buckle's design traditional to Phoenicia. She wore leather gloves of blue and brown then half arm bracers and carried her sheathed sword on her back. Yet what Gabrielle really liked about Najara's style was that she had short blond hair and that was viewed as unusual in Greek society. When Najara first arrived she wore a headdress that matched her outfit but Gabrielle convinced her to not wear it anymore and that revealed the silver hoop earrings.

It wasn't long before the Conqueror's strides carried her into the fortress then as she climbed the steps of the fortress, the sentries opened the doors. Right behind her was the chatting bard and dekarchos and they went quiet once they entered the courtroom.

Queen Terreis had been glancing over the courtroom until she heard the Conqueror's arrival. She smiled at seeing Gabrielle when she didn't expect to see her until tomorrow.

The Conqueror stepped up to the Amazon Queen and held out her arm. "Welcome to the Corinth, Queen Terreis."

The Amazon took the ruler's forearm in a firm grip. "Thank you, Conqueror." She released the ruler's arm then side stepped to introduce her escorts. "This is Eponin the Nation's weapons master."

The weapons master stepped up and held out her arm for a strong grip. She stepped back after meeting the ruler even though she'd seen her previously.

"And of course you remember Ephiny and Solari," mentioned the queen.

The Conqueror nodded but took arms and greeted the Amazons back to Corinth. She then allowed Gabrielle to greet the Amazon escorts while she talked to the queen. Gabrielle also made sure to introduce Najara to the Amazons as well. The Conqueror though could tell the Amazons were weary from their long trip down to Corinth. She interrupted her friend from the chatter to get her attention.

Gabrielle cocked her head at the ruler as she knew she was about to say something.

"Can you escort Queen Terreis and her Amazons up to the third level?"

The bard nodded and asked, "Which rooms, my liege?"

"The queen may take the Thessaly bedchambers," informed the ruler, "And the Amazons whichever rooms they'd like."

Gabrielle nodded and smiled at her friends. "Follow me." She guided the Amazons across the quiet, torch lit courtroom and through the side door near the throne.

The Conqueror turned to the dekarchos. "Did you instruct the stable hands to take care of their things?"

"Yes, my liege," answered Najara. "Is there anything else?"

The ruler slowly lifted her right eyebrow and her eyes slightly darkened. "Yes, actually."

As soon as Gabrielle was out of the courtroom with the door shut, she turned to the queen and enveloped her into a hug. She was happy she wasn't under political scrutiny now. "It's so great to see you, Terreis."

Terreis smiled when she pulled back in the hug and rested her hands on the bard's shoulders. "You look great, Gabrielle. Ephiny mentioned your legs had been healed." She tilted her head then asked, "You'll have to tell me…?"

"Definitely." The bard's nose crinkled up then she turned to Ephiny, Solari, and Eponin for hugs. She finally guided the Amazons through the fortress to the third level. She admitted she didn't know Eponin that well but maybe this would be a chance to do that. As they climbed through the fortress, she mentioned, "I think the Conqueror planned for the meeting when you arrived in a couple of days."

"Yes," agreed the queen, "the weather has been mild so we made it sooner than expected."

"It has been rather mild." Gabrielle shrugged at this as she strolled down the hallway lined with doors to bedchambers and at the end was the Conqueror's. "Most likely she'll make the meeting tomorrow." She stopped in front of one door but faced Terreis. "I'll be there too."

"The Conqueror mentioned that in her message." Queen Terreis tilted her head. "How is the position of state advisor?"

Gabrielle noted the other Amazons were carefully listening too. "It's a lot of work but I'm learning quite a bit."

Queen Terreis let it go there as she would pry later when they were in private.

"Oh this is your room." Gabrielle's cheeks flushed but she quickly opened the door. "This is the Thessaly bedchambers… the Conqueror reserves it only for her allied leaders."

Queen Terreis stepped into the room and scanned the large space. "I can see why. Impressive."

Eponin grunted then remarked, "The taxes at work."

Gabrielle sighed at the jab towards the ruler but she held her tongue because she was in a sticky position. "I'm sure your things will be up shortly, Terreis."

The queen nodded after facing the bard again. "Stop by before you leave, Gabrielle."

"I will," promised the state advisor. She then backed out of the room and shut the door. She escorted her friends to the other rooms that were smaller by comparison but still large. "Did you each want separate rooms… um…." She flushed.

Ephiny chuckled and informed the bard she and Solari would share, which said plenty to Gabrielle. Eponin took her own bedchambers though. Gabrielle told Ephiny to stop by tomorrow at her office for a visit. The bard then decided it was best to tell the ruler what rooms the Amazons took for security reasons. Repeatedly the bard received lectures from the ruler about how important security was in the fortress. She sometimes wondered if the Conqueror's security insecurities weren't prompted by Toris's infiltration.

The Conqueror held out the long scroll and scanned over the writing.

"I apologize for disturbing you so late, my liege." Galen set a rolled up scroll on the corner of the ruler's desk. "But I know you've been waiting on this for a moon now."

The ruler paused in her scrutiny of what was obviously a list. "No, Galen I'm glad you caught me." She lowered the long scroll and started to roll it up. "Did you hear how long it would take to compile the resources?"

Galen's lips puckered and his brown eyes fuzzed over from his thoughts. "I believe the timbers from Gaul will not take long. The transportation time is the lengthiest part."

The Conqueror set the scroll down beside the other one. "Legio IX in Eastern Gaul should make quick work of this."

"I agree, my liege however with the rainfall there it may make it a sticky situation to haul the timbers here." Galen shook his head then added, "The commander is quite irritated by your plans to build this."

The ruler grinned at this news. "Is he now?" She folded her arms over her armored chest. "What of Egypt?"

"Queen Cleopatra is prepared to begin query however…." The assistant peered up and saw the ruler's curious look so he sighed and informed, "Queen Cleopatra has only agreed to do this if you come to Egypt to inspect the limestone prior."

"By the gods," complained the ruler, "She is relentless."

"My liege, the project will not be successful without the limestone, hydraulic cement, granite-"

"Galen, I know." The Conqueror lowered her hand after silencing her assistant. "What about the Kingdom of Chin?"

"Lady Lao has agreed to send her resources."

The Conqueror nodded then asked, "And does she require a visit first?"

Galen actually grinned at the ruler's joke. "No, my liege." He was growing accustom to the ruler's bantering side that'd been developing lately. It was a welcomed change that made it easier to serve the ruler. "When will you order the resources to be allocated?"

"At least not for several moons," decided the Conqueror, "I expect the canal not to be completed for another four moons. Only one project at a time."

Galen thoroughly agreed but he was distracted by the knock at the door. He pivoted to his left when the Conqueror called the visitor in and he couldn't hide his thin smile at seeing the state advisor. "Good evening, Gabrielle."

The Conqueror briefly glanced down at the assistant and filed away the note about how he seemed to be taken with the bard. She was quickly realizing that Gabrielle had a profound affect on everybody; her included in that list.

"I stopped by to let you know that the Amazons took rooms three and five," offered the bard.

"Just two?" questioned the ruler, her right eyebrow going up and it went higher at Gabrielle's blush.

"Solari and Ephiny," merely elaborated the bard. She was glad when the Conqueror easily pieced it together.

"Are you going home now?"

"I think I'm going to visit with Queen Terreis." Gabrielle shrugged. "It's been awhile since we visited." She tied her fingers together in a nervous habit but her voice stayed strong when she spoke again. "Do you want me to…."

The ruler tilted her head. "Stop by my chambers before you go."

The bard gladly agreed and mostly because her friend understood her unfinished question. "Yes, my liege." She dipped her head in respect then quietly excused herself.

Gabrielle made her way back to Terreis's bedchambers and spent over a candlemark talking to her friend. She and the Amazon Queen traded stories about what'd been happened recently. Gabrielle had heard how Cyane stepped down from the throne and passed the queen's caste to Terreis. The news had surprised the bard however Cyane believed it was time for Terreis to take power so that the Nation could move forward. Cyane realized that the Amazons were entering a new era now that the Conqueror was changing and allying with the Nation. Or so everybody was hoping and why Queen Terreis journeyed to Corinth. Gabrielle was even stunned to learn that the Amazon Nation was recruiting new Amazons at an alarming rate due to word about their success against Darphus. Suddenly the Amazon Nation took on life again in the realm and they no longer were fantasy tales or a brief Greek history lesson.

After her visit, Gabrielle kept to her word and traveled down the hallway. She entered the Conqueror's bedchambers after she was called to enter. She spotted the ruler straightening up with a kettle that had steam rising from it.

"Perfect timing," mentioned the ruler. She stepped over to her small table and poured the hot water into tea cups.

Gabrielle neared her friend, who was only clothed in a silk robe. She admired how the Conqueror's hair was pulled up into a loose bun then a few strands in the front fell around her face. "What kind of tea?"

"The Jie tea," answered the ruler. She straightened up with the warm mugs in her hand.

Gabrielle was dubious because of her tea lessons with the ruler she knew this was an expensive tea from Chin. "Any particular reason?" She gratefully took the tea.

"Do I need a reason?" challenged the slightly grinning ruler. "Come out on the balcony with me." She glided across the bedchambers towards the balcony, which was already open of its heavy curtains.

The bard slowly followed because she was busy sipping the Jie tea, which was a green tea. She softly moaned at the pleasing taste that slid across her tongue and down her throat. The tea she made at home could never match what the Conqueror offered her.

The Conqueror arrived on the balcony and leaned against the marble rail with her arms stretched out and the mug wrapped between her hands. "How was Queen Terreis?"

The bard stood near her friend but not against the rail. "She was tired but we had plenty to talk about."

The Conqueror glimpsed at her friend and she had that entertained expression.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Just don't say it."

The Conqueror silenced her comments by taking a sip of her tea. Her eyes lowered to the fortress grounds when she heard the iron gates open and a file of soldiers marched in then towards the barrack. She knew it was time for some of the squads to rotate.

Gabrielle had spied the squad returning too, which was the topic of her next question. "Why do you have so many squads lately?" She tore away from the soldiers below and stared at her friend's profile.

The Conqueror peered into her mug then casually replied, "Security."

The bard shook her head at the simple answer and it engaged her into a rant. "Ever since Toris you've increased security by double. You had four squads and now you've double it. Plus you have them on duty around the clock, Xena." Gabrielle sighed and remarked, "I mean are you getting ready for some attack on the fortress? You're starting to make me paranoid." She went silent when she realized her friend was growing aggravated by the way the ruler's grip tightened on the mug then her jaw was set tightly. Gabrielle bit her lower lip when she considered she may have crossed a line here. She dipped her head then murmured, "I'm sorry, Xena."

The Conqueror's head turned and her ghostly expression settled on the bard.

Gabrielle's stomach sank and her heart pounded harder. "I guess I just don't understand why you've grown so concerned about security when you're… well you're you." She waved her hand up and down the tall woman's length. "You're the-"

"Destroyer of Nations?" cut in the ruler.

Gabrielle's hand fell to her side and she let out a sigh. "I was going to say the Warrior Princess."

The Conqueror turned her head away and stared at her capitol city. "It's not security for me."

"Then…." Gabrielle's features were pressed together by puzzlement then it struck her blindly. "It's about Cyrene, Melpomene…."

"And you," uttered the ruler.

The bard sighed but she stole a drink of her tea so she would have time to mull this over carefully. The tea warmed her body back up considering she was standing out in the chilly night. "I'm really sorry, Xena. I didn't mean to go on like that when you're trying to protect us."

"Its fine," brushed off the ruler. She took a long drink of her tea and almost finished it off.

Gabrielle leaned her side against the rail and watched her friend's dark profile. "Is it really that serious? I mean eight squads, who patrol day and night?"

"Yes," softly replied the ruler. "I have plenty of enemies and my family is a target for them." She finished tea and balanced the empty mug on the rail to her right.

Gabrielle body warmed more from the ruler's words than the tea could manage. She knew the ruler considered her family just as she considered the ruler her family yet it was different hearing the ruler say it. "I know you're doing this to protect us but… I have to say I can't walk around in fear like that, Xena." She moved her head with disagreement on her face. "I can't be scared about what lays ahead in the shadows or around the next block."

"I know," uttered the ruler, "and I wouldn't want you to live life like that."

"That's why you've strengthened the security," concluded the bard. The only response she received was the Conqueror's faint nod, which told the bard it was time to switch topics. "Thanks for coming out to dinner with me." She drank the last swallow of tea then also placed the mug on the rail but to her left.

The Conqueror's cold eyes flickered to her friend then back at the city. "Do you plan to scribe those stories about this demi-god Alcides?"

Gabrielle nervously nibbled on her lower lip but she knew to answer truthfully. "Yes, I've been planning to as soon as I get a break from my work with the polis." She tilted her head then dared to ask, "Is that okay?"


The bard quietly sighed but not out of relief but because something was going on in that ruler's head. She faced the view of the city then gently asked, "What's wrong?" She inhaled then she uttered, "And don't tell me there isn't anything."

The Conqueror glanced at her friend briefly before responding. "There are a lot of changes going on, Gabrielle."

The bard silently conceded but she waited to see if the ruler would say more or if she required prodding for this.

"And maybe too much change at once," murmured the ruler. She quickly noticed the bard grew slightly alarmed because something was wrong.

"But it's good change, right?" argued the concerned state advisor.

"Whether or not it is good," explained the ruler, "too much of it can be dangerous. Everything in life must have a balance."

Gabrielle carefully tossed the idea around in her head then she accepted it too. "Then is the last name proposal too much?"

"Yes and no," murmured the ruler. "It’s a needed change as far as the polis is concerned. When it comes to the people it will be too much."

"The aristocracy," muttered the realizing bard. "Will they react that badly? I mean the taxation system isn't fair on the lower classes and favoring the upper classes."

"Life isn't fair," reminded the ruler. "Money is power, Gabrielle and for them to lose that power… they won't take kindly to it."

"Xena, it's not the realm has a senate where they can buy politics and such." Gabrielle shook her head then argued, "We're not like Rome."

"The realm is what Rome would have become if I hadn't conquered it." The Conqueror now studied her curious friend. "Julius Caesar was well on his way to destroying the senate and taking full dictatorship." She then dropped her head to the left side some. "The upper classes can buy political power just not at this level. There are still the legions, the hoplites, cavalries, the polis positions, and so on for them to gain power in the polis."

"But highest authority, you, can't be tainted by that, which is important," debated the bard.

"To some degree," relented the ruler, "however my realm is only loyal as my most corrupt polis agent."

Gabrielle hadn't considered this and her head drooped then her right hand massaged her now aching eyes. "That means I need to weed out my corrupt agents, don't I?" She let out a heavy sigh then glanced at her friend. "I wouldn't even know where to begin, Xena."

"You start your way at the top and work your way down," suggested the ruler.

"Then what do I do if I find somebody that's taking bribery?"

The Conqueror smirked. "Tell me."

Gabrielle put her hands on her hips as she faced the ruler. "So let me get this right. I find out who's corrupt then run to you and tell you." She dropped her hands from her waist. "Now why does that sound like… maybe a tad-tail?" She leaned her side against the rail. "If I plan to be a respected state advisor I have to handle the corrupt agents myself." Her head dipped forward.

The Conqueror shifted on her feet silently then quietly asked, "Are you prepared to do that?" She turned her head and studied her friend's distant stare. "You'll make a lot of enemies and keep only a couple of friends."

"It's definitely not a popularity contest," sarcastically joked the bard. She turned and mimicked her friend's stance of leaning against the rail. Her thoughts wandered off to this major problem ahead of her. She truly wasn't sure if she was mentally prepared to weed out corruption in the realm then punish them because being harsh was never in her nature. Hades she didn't even know what that punishments could consist of for a particular corruption. Would she have to sentence somebody to death because of bribery?

The Conqueror could tell her friend was deep in dark thoughts, which she instantly disliked. She straightened up while saying, "Come on… it's late and we both have a long day tomorrow."

Gabrielle's thoughts broke apart and she returned to the present. She picked up her empty mug and headed into the bedchambers. She thanked her friend for the tea and the evening then made her way out of the fortress. Gabrielle knew that tomorrow would be extremely busy between her regular work plus her meeting between Queen Terreis and the Conqueror. That particular meeting did come and quite quickly as the Conqueror decided to do it a candlemark after Helios high. Gabrielle found herself tiredly sitting in a wood chair, next to Queen Terreis, and the Conqueror behind her desk in a formal mode.

Queen Terreis's head was down and she was scanning over an open scroll in her lap. She finished reading it, lifted her head, and shook it. Her face showed she was astonished and she rasped, "Is this real?" She glanced between the state advisor and the ruler because it seemed impossible.

"It's real," confirmed the Conqueror. She finally leaned back into her chair and laced her hands in her lap. "You need to read through all the details then we can come to a full agreement before signing it." She glanced at the bard, who'd remained silent but carefully watching and listening.

Queen Terreis's lowered her head, her right elbow now propped up on the chair arm, and her cheek sunk into her palm. She stared at the main highlights of the alliance between the Amazon Nation and the realm. "By Artemis," she uttered, "I don't know what to think much less say."

Gabrielle faintly smiled and her features softened. "It's a lot to take in, I agree." She crossed her legs at her ankles then gently offered, "I think it shows the realm is serious about this." When Terreis's amazed green eyes met Gabrielle's she promised, "The realm wants to join an alliance with the Amazon Nation… a real alliance."

The Conqueror tilted her head as she interrupted the Amazon Queen's reactions to this alliance.

The queen's fingertips grazed over one particular line as she questioned the words there. "All of former Athens's lands?" She glanced between the bard and the ruler.

"Yes," answered Gabrielle, "you said the Nation is growing… you'll need the land to develop on too."

"What about our current lands?" questioned the concerned queen.

"You may remain on them," answered the ruler, "however I do not wish the Amazons to keep it as their official capitol." She held out a hand to indicate the alliance scroll. "Athens will be rebuilt and it will be the Amazon Nation's capitol." She lowered her hand back to her lap. "In return for every five hundred Amazon warriors the realm reserves the right to take a hundred."

"And the port?" Queen Terreis noticed in the scroll that the port was also a highlight of this alliance.

The Conqueror inhaled slowly as she worked out her explanation for the port aspect of the treaty. "There is no major port city on the Attica peninsula and this is a way to correct that problem." The Conqueror didn't care to admit to her error about destroying the city of Athens so long ago however she figured this may pay off better than she hoped if the Amazon Nation agreed.

Queen Terreis was slowly piecing the plans together. "Isn't that the purpose of the Corinth Canal? So you can bolster the trade here?"

"Yes and no," answered Gabrielle. "It's also about a better naval port."

Queen Terreis read that the port would have to authorize the Greek and Egyptian navies in and out plus incorporate plans to build naval shipyards.

"Corinth has plenty of triremes however the distance from Corinth to the mouth of the Saronic Gulf is great. By having a naval port reestablished in Athens's location then this could prevent enemy attacks sooner." The Conqueror watched as Queen Terreis seemed to take in this information.

Queen Terreis's eyebrows furrowed and she theorized, "Plus it gives the realm a chance to produce shipyards that can push out a Roman style navy."

"The Byzantine navy as well," informed the ruler. She inwardly enjoyed the astonished features of the Amazon Queen.

"Greek fire," murmured the shocked queen, "you're after the Greek fire from the Byzantine Empire." She shook her head then dangerously asked, "Is the realm building a navy to surpass the Byzantine's?"

Gabrielle's eyes flickered to the ruler as she wondered if the Conqueror would honestly answer.

The Conqueror was quiet then she leaned to her left in the chair. "Yes." Her lips slightly puckered from her thoughts. "There is no shipyard in the realm that can construct all types of ships from the various parts of the realm." The Conqueror straightened up then spoke again. "The realm is also dependent on the Egyptian navy for further support."

Queen Terreis peered down at the alliance scroll then back up at the ruler. "So you plan to surpass both Egypt and Byzantine's navies?" She shook her head then asked, "Why the Amazons? Why wouldn't you do this yourself?"

"It's rather simple," replied the ruler, "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. If the Amazons make Athens their capitol then that gives me a better defense than any legio or phalanx could provide."

"We'll be more determined to protect our capital," agreed the Amazon.

The Conqueror slightly grinned at the queen's intelligence about this so far. "I will provide a legio and phalanx for a solid twelve moons to help the Amazons reconstruct the city. They will also provide protection until the Amazon Nation can support itself enough."

"What about laws?" inquired the queen.

"The Amazon Nation will act as its own internal polis," explained the ruler, "but must cooperate with the realm's polis. If the realm goes to war then so must the Amazon Nation. If the realm is in search of a traitor that resides in the Amazon Nation then they must hand them over. If the realm declares no trade with another empire then so must the Amazon Nation. And so on…."

"You'll be independent," promised Gabrielle, "but the cooperation of the Amazon Nation as well as the realm's will be essential. It's a co-dependent relationship."

Queen Terreis faintly nodded. "What about religion?"

Gabrielle glanced at the ruler, who took the question.

"The realm has always had a free religion policy. You may worship Artemis or...." The Conqueror held up her hands and stated, "Anubis." Her hands lowered. "You may even produce your own monetary system however I would advise it'll be expensive and most likely will not be as strong against the drachma."

Queen Terreis leaned back against her chair then mentioned, "Exactly how can the Amazon Nation afford to build this city?" She stared puzzled at the scroll and considered the size of city before it was demolished. "We don't have the money or the supplies to take on such an undertaking."

"The realm will provide resources and money," explained the bard. "I already have the financial advisor working out some numbers."

The Amazon Queen didn't hear any rebukes from the Conqueror so it must be true. She stared down at the scroll again as if it wasn't real then she lifted her gaze to the ruler. "Why are you doing this?" Her eyes narrowed because of her perplexity to understand this riddle. "You wanted to destroy the Amazons and now… this…." She signaled the alliance scroll.

The Conqueror was about to speak but then she was cut off by her state advisor.

"I know right? It's too good to be true," summarized the bard. "I kept wondering too what the Conqueror had up her gauntlets for this one… as if she hasn't toyed with the Amazon Nation enough." Gabrielle paused then glanced at the carefully listening ruler but she turned back to Queen Terreis. "Then I figure out something about this entire deal." She pointed at the scroll then honestly stated, "If the realm politically shows allegiance to the Conqueror's long time enemy, the Amazon Nation, then the other empires will follow suit."

Queen Terreis stared at the Conqueror and tried to read anything hidden behind those usually cold blue eyes yet she found nothing.

"I owe so much to the Amazons." The Conqueror held up her chin then declared, "I took so much from them. I took their lands, their people, and almost their faith. I want to return those things to the Amazons and the best place I can think of starting that is by giving them lands they can grow on and allying to the Amazon's polis."

Queen Terreis slowly inhaled as she tried to absorb all the surprises thrown at her.

Gabrielle noticed this so she carefully informed, "You have plenty of time to consider this, Terreis. I know it's a lot to take in."

"Carefully read over the scroll," ordered the ruler, "and stay here in Corinth as the realm's guests until you've decided."

Queen Terreis slowly rolled up the scroll while she spoke, "I will consider it." She nodded at the ruler then she stood up because she needed to get out of this office. She held out her hand when the Conqueror stood and sidestepped her desk.

The Conqueror firmly took the queen's arm and shook. "I'll have Galen check on you regularly to take care of your needs. Enjoy your afternoon, Queen Terreis."

The queen dipped her head then stated, "You as well, Conqueror." She then quickly left the office with scroll in hand.

"Well," murmured the bard, "that went...."

"Just as expected," finished the ruler. "She doesn't trust it."

Gabrielle folded her arms over her chest. "And can you blame her?" She shrugged. "How long have the Amazons and you been enemies? Now you're suddenly offering a chance in… history for them to either survive or lay in ruins." She sighed and uttered, "It’s a big decision… especially for Terreis."

"And had she agreed to it immediately I may have declined." The Conqueror went around her desk and took her seat.

"Huh," mumbled the thoughtful bard. She shook her head then decided to take her leave too. Gabrielle spent the rest of her day going through her scrollwork that was regularly required of her. Her late afternoon was happily disrupted by Ephiny coming in for a visit. She and Ephiny chatted for a solid candlemark and caught up on stories and life. Ephiny was surprised to hear how close the Conqueror and Gabriele were growing considering their history. Ephiny did wonder if maybe the Conqueror had changed because she never thought it was possible for the Conqueror and Gabrielle to get along much less become friends.

Gabrielle's last few candlemarks of work after sunset dragged past but she was relieved to go home and rest. Cyrene wasn't home yet but Melpomene was just finishing up with her tutor. The tutor had been hired by the Conqueror to provide the child with an education so that her future would open wider. Gabrielle had argued against the ruler paying for the tutor but she gave in when the ruler stated it was one of her few opportunities to give back the child something in her life that she'd taken. The bard could only wonder what other ideas the ruler had thought out to fix the things she'd done so wrong. Just maybe the ruler would allow the arts again in the realm however that still seemed like such a joke to the bard.

The following day Gabrielle was surprisingly visited by Queen Terreis, who seemed to have very concerned features. Gabrielle offered her friend a seat in front of her desk but Gabrielle got up and sat in the chair next to her friend. She wasn't much for staying behind her desk when it came to her friends.

"Gabrielle, I've thought a lot about the Conqueror's offer." The Amazon Queen remained rigid in her chair but slightly turned to face her friend. "I'm shocked by it but I really like the possibilities and opportunity for the Amazons. It’s a way for us to secure our future and with the realm there to protect us."

The bard however could tell there was some exception to this so she asked, "But what is it?"

"I just… I have one stipulation though before I could accept it." Terreis wavered as she debated whether to bring this up yet when she met the bard's caring gaze she knew she had to try this. "I will only accept it if you will take a caste as queen."

Gabrielle stared at the Amazon then her eyebrows slowly started to push inwards. "Terreis... I… but I…."

"I know." Terreis leaned closer to her friend. "Just hear me out first." She saw the bard's distraught nod so she reeled into her explanation. "If I accept this alliance then that means there'll essentially be two tribes on a very simplistic level. The capitol would rein while the current tribe would become more of a colony or outpost tribe." Terreis stopped so she could formulate her next words and take an inhale of air. "I believe if you take rein over the capitol that it would be very important to the Amazons' future. Not only because of your strong relations with the Conqueror but also because I can see that you're meant for this." Terreis grabbed up the bard's hands into hers. "It wasn't Cyane, it wasn't me,… not even my sister, Melosa, that made the Nation believe again that they were destined for so much more. It was you, Gabrielle."

"I just said 'believe'… that was all," argued the bard. "How does that make me the one to… to guide the Amazons forward?"

"Because when you told the Amazons to believe… they did without question and you were the outsider." Queen Terreis shook her head then quickly added, "You convinced Cyane to kidnap the Conqueror, you represented the Conqueror when none else would, and you convinced her to fight for us. And now…." Terreis squeezed the bard's hand and murmured, "And now because of you the Conqueror is giving us these lands."

"She wanted to do this though," argued the state advisor.

"Yet if it wasn't for you, she wouldn't even be at this point, Gabrielle." Queen Terreis smiled and declared, "You have been the Amazons' savior… whether or not you accept it. You are truly an Amazon." She released her right hand and touched the bard's cheek. "I think its time you finally joined the Amazons and took your place as queen."

Gabrielle suddenly jumped up from the chair and separated from her friend. She started to pace, muttered words spilling from her lips, and her head down.

Terreis climbed up to her feet and stopped her friend in her tracks. "Gabrielle?" She grasped the smaller shoulders in front of her and peered into perplexed green eyes.

"Terreis, this is… a lot." Gabrielle shook her head and reminded, "I just took my position as the Conqueror's advisor." She touched her forehead with her freehand. "I don't… I can't…."

"Gabrielle," murmured the Amazon Queen, "please?" She searched the bard's softening face. "You feel the draw to the Amazons too… don't you?"

Gabrielle's jaw was flexing then she hoarsely murmured, "Yes." And she did ever since her childhood, which was suddenly sparked to life again after her time in the Amazon Nation. She wanted more than anything to follow that mysterious feeling and discover where it would take her. Yet at the same time there were other influences in her life that she refused to lose and some she wanted to shake loose.

"What is here for you?" urged the queen. She half turned and pointed her left hand at the desk. "A desk and a chair… a mountain of scrollwork?" She shook her head. "I refuse to believe that this is you. You have such spirit, Gabrielle and anybody can fair as the Conqueror's advisor of state. They're a drachma a dozen, Gabrielle but you are not." She brought out her confident smile and declared, "You are meant for the Amazons."

"But… I wasn't even born Amazon," weakly argued the bard.

"And that doesn't matter, Gabrielle." Queen Terreis finally released her hold. "The first Amazon wasn't Amazon because she was born as such but her spirit was Amazon. There are some born Amazons that don't even have the Amazon spirit… like Velasca. Then there are Amazons, who aren't born Amazon and have the spirit." She nodded at Gabrielle's calming features. "And that, my friend is what makes you a real Amazon."

Gabrielle read the confident and proud face of her friend, who was a born Amazon and now the queen. Her gaze focused beyond the Amazon and locked on the desk covered in scrollwork. Could the Conqueror find another state advisor so easily? Yes, the Conqueror certainly could do just that within a few days' time. Then there were her ideas about the changes that the realm could make and from her discussion with the Conqueror the other night she'd come to realize maybe that they were too radical. Her next proposal in mind was to introduce the idea of abolishing slavery in the realm yet it would be ludicrous in the eyes of the court. Would she even be laughed at by the Conqueror considering the Conqueror kept slaves too? The realm's court wasn't meant for her and she wasn't meant for the realm's court because maybe a dreamy bard could find her niche in a Nation of women that demanded high hopes and dramatic changes.

Gabrielle shifted out of her deep thoughts and centered on the Amazon Queen. And then very slowly, Gabrielle of Potidaea nodded her head.

The next couple of days were agonizing for the bard as she worked along side Queen Terreis and the Conqueror. She helped with finalizing the details of the alliance between the Amazon Nation and the realm. When the final copy was written and read over, Gabrielle found relief to watch the Conqueror and Queen Terreis dip quills in ink and sign their names across the bottom. Then the last step was the seal of the realm and the seal of Amazon Nation pressed into the red wax blotch at the bottom.

The real root of her frustrations and pure nervousness rested with her future explanation to the Conqueror about why she was going to drop her position as the state advisor. Most her nights were spent laying in bed with no sleep and several scenarios and words rolling across her mind's eye. Her muses berated her and her fears made her worry. She wanted to take on this challenge as the Amazon Queen and she found a great sense of meaning in bringing the Amazons forward. That meaning brought depth to her life and she believed purpose in life unlike what the state of advisor could provide her. From the start, Gabrielle was leery of the polis's position however she'd agreed upon it because she thought she could make a difference to the realm. Now those chances seemed rather slim and her ideals extreme. So what was left for her?

About two days after the signing of the treaty and alliance, Gabrielle decided it was the day to face the ruler… her friend. She wasn't getting any scrollwork done at her desk because her stomach kept knotting up. She put her quill in its inkwell then got to her feet and went out of her office. As she drew closer to the Conqueror's office she tried to silence her fears and she found strength in knowing she would find her place with the Amazons.

Gabrielle gently knocked on the Conqueror's office door and waited. She was finally called in so she slipped into the office to find the Conqueror speaking to the commander.

The Conqueror had one eyebrow lifted and her passive expression showing. "What is it, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle steadied her nerves and calmly replied, "I need to speak to you about a personal matter." She paused then added, "A family matter is some regards too."

The Conqueror's mannerism shifted enough for Gabrielle to notice it but not the commander. She switched back to Commander Meleager. "Will you excuse us, commander?"

"Of course, my liege." He crossed his chest with a fisted hand clap, slightly bowed, and turned on his heels. He stopped beside the state advisor. "How are you today, Gabrielle?"

"I'm fine, commander. Yourself?"

"Well," answered the commander with a smile. He then quietly left after a word of goodbye.

The Conqueror wandered behind her desk and sat down for her talk with Gabrielle. "What's going on, Gabrielle?"

The bard neared the ruler and decided it was best to sit too. She remained somewhat ridged in the chair, which was a giveaway about her anxiety. "Several days ago Terreis came to my office to talk to me." She hesitated and glanced at her friend, who was leaning back comfortably in her chair and carefully listening so she pressed forward. "She explained to me that she would only agree to the alliance with the realm under a certain condition."

The Conqueror straightened up at this as she hadn't heard anything of such. She prepared for it to be anything as her fast mind worked out the possibilities. "What was her stipulation?"

Gabrielle inwardly winced at the Conqueror using the same word that the Amazon Queen had used with her too. "Terreis asked me to become the Amazon Queen for the new capitol."

The Conqueror held her breath as she repeated the bard's words in her head. That possibility surely did not come to mind whatsoever and she was rather blind sided. She then realized a key factor to this since Queen Terreis accepted the alliance. "You took her offer."

Gabrielle's skin chilled by the Conqueror's cut tone that she hadn't heard is so long. "Yes, I accepted it. I plan to leave with the Amazons when they depart for the Nation."

The ruler sarcastically laughed then shook her head as a dark smile broke her angry expression. "Well you're not going, Gabrielle. You have your role as the advisor of state to uphold."

"I am going to resign," informed the bard.

"You misunderstood me." The Conqueror climbed to her feet, laid her hands flat on the desk, and leaned towards the prone, small woman. "You… are… not… going," dangerously ordered the ruler.

Gabrielle's anger instantly retaliated and she was swiftly on her feet to meet the Conqueror's furious glare. "I'm not a gods-be-demand prisoner here nor will I put up with such centaur shit."

The Conqueror's upper lip on the right side slightly lifted to show her clenched teeth. "You agreed to a term as my state advisor as your punishment for your rebel faction. If you can't uphold that agreement then I'll find another one that I can make you… uphold."

Gabrielle's mind flashed with the threat of the cross at how the ruler drew out her last word. She instantly reacted by coldly snapping, "With family like you, who the Hades needs enemies?" She quickly walked away from desk towards the door but she stopped and turned to the Conqueror again. "It's comforting to know that you truly see my role as a punishment. I thought maybe it really was my job that you offered me… I was pretty stupid to think otherwise." She held her hand out at the ruler. "Thank you for being that understanding friend… as if you really care." She turned and walked the rest of the way to the door but the Conqueror's voice made her stop.

The Conqueror was coldly cut by the bard's honest words yet she wouldn't show it. Her heartbeat was wild and almost frantic as if it was screaming at her but she shoved it all away. "Don't you turn your back on me, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle did just that and grabbed the door's handle. "Why?" She turned her head to the ruler. "I'm just returning the favor… my liege."

"If you walk out that door," menacingly threatened the ruler, "then keep going down that hallway. Don't stop until you walk out the gates of this fortress." The Conqueror waited for the bard to make her decision and every pulsing fiber in her wanted to grab Gabrielle, stop her and yet she forced her body to remain still. The only movement she made was her nails digging into her wood desk in hopes to still her raging and confusing emotions.

Gabrielle stared for longer than she knew at the strange woman that truly reverted back to the old ruler she stood against so long ago. She wondered if she'd fooled herself into thinking that the Conqueror had changed and yet this old ruler was back and attacking her again. She closed her eyes, pulled the door open, and made her legs carry her out. She silently closed the door and walked down the hallway in a complete daze. She didn't think about the Conqueror, about her life, or even her future but she just became hollow on her journey out of the fortress. She passed the staring sentries that were blank faces to her. She went out of the gates without ever realizing that the Conqueror was by the window and watching her leave until she was a speck in the city. Gabrielle just followed her body's habitual walk to her house.

Gabrielle was truly proud of herself that she made it all the way into her house before she broke apart. She just made it into the quiet house, closed the door, and leaned her back against the rough wood. She slid down it and her tears spilled because now everything felt so wrong in her. This change in her life had to be the right choice because for once she wanted to believe that she had a purpose in life.

The following moons passed by so swiftly for the bard. After her incident with the Conqueror, Cyrene first tried to convince her adopted daughter that the Conqueror would come around and to wait it out. Gabrielle refused to listen after what she'd heard from the Conqueror's lips and she wanted to move on with her life. It wasn't long before she left Corinth, packed, and with the Amazons to return to the Amazon Nation.

Queen Terreis announced the amazing alliance made with the realm. Gabrielle couldn't recall much during these moons however she recalled the party that took place after Queen Terreis's announcement. The celebration was gigantic and the Nation spared no wine for it. Gabrielle also recalled the pounding headache the next morning because of the wickedly strong wine she'd indulged for most the night.

It was only a moon after Gabrielle's departure from Corinth that she found herself ascending a dais very slowly in the Amazon Nation. Queen Terreis smiled proudly and held a newly made queen's mask that would be bestowed on the bard. Gabrielle though already wore a mask of hollow happiness when she received the beautiful mask from the queen. What was astonishing was the cheer from the Amazon Nation when Gabrielle accepted the mask and became the second queen of the Amazons since the days of Queen Melosa and Queen Cyane. Together with laced hands, Queen Terreis and Queen Gabrielle embraced the growing Amazon Nation and celebrated under Artemis's watchful eye the future of the Amazons.

Then it wasn't long after Solstice that Gabrielle found herself in a temporary hut in the Nation and writing a formal letter to the Conqueror. She put in the required request for the legion, phalanx, workers, tools, and money to aid her and her Amazons in the ruins of Athens. She wrote out a rough date of when her and her selected Amazons would arrive there to begin the rigorous work of building the Amazon capitol. Last, she signed her name with her royal title as an Amazon Queen and her signature bore the Amazon seal along side. 

Just before the heliacal rising of the Sirius star, Queen Gabrielle and Queen Terreis heavily debated with the council about what to name the Amazon capitol that would be built. After the heated debate and a selection, Queen Gabrielle was rounding up her split of the Amazons that would make up her Nation and she marched her Nation south to the capitol of Artemisia.

It was a solid seven days before Queen Gabrielle and her Nation arrived just at the ridge of the mountains that embraced what was once Athens. She and her second in command, Ephiny, climbed what was known as Mount Lykavittos in former Athens.

Gabrielle scanned the rubble of the former glorious city and tried to imagine what rage the Conqueror felt when she leveled the great city. This was a stark reminder to the bard about the Conqueror's dark side and it stared back at her in the setting sun.

Ephiny rested her hands on her hips and stared at the Acropolis hill that only bared the remains of what once were the temples to some famous goddesses such as Nike and Athena. She tilted her head at the crumbled pillars, jutting and broken walls, and then the disfigured yet weathered statues in the distance.

Gabrielle too was taking in the ruined Acropolis and she slightly turned to Ephiny. "The Sacred Rock will be the perfect place to erect a temple to Artemis."

Ephiny brightened in realization and her imagination widely built the temple on the Sacred Rock. How glorious would it demonstrate as the center piece of Artemisia. "We can reconstruct the Temple of Artemis from Ephesus," uttered the awestruck Amazon. "We still have the original design from the building of the temple."

Gabrielle smiled at this thought. "I think that would be perfect." She then went back to studying the ruined city.

Former Athens was nothing but half temple columns, cracked and burned homes, the theatres blown apart by siege weapons and then there were the walls or what was left of them.

"Where will we begin?" questioned the second in command, who stared at her new queen. She stole a silent moment to admire the Amazon Queen because she was beautiful garbed in her Amazon leathers that were a soft brown and golden, swirling pattern caught anybody's eye. Her feather necklace made of bronze reflected the sunset's rays and made her straightened blond hair glow. Gabrielle wore leather gauntlets and bracers that had matching designs to her leather top and skirt. Ephiny though tilted her head when Queen Gabrielle slowly leaned her head against the Amazon quarter staff in her left hand. The brightly colored feathers and straw of the Amazon mask on her head ruffled in protest.

"We'll start in the north portion of the city," softly spoke the bard, "and work south." She inhaled and let out her breath slowly while already working out her plans. "We need to remove the rubble." Gabrielle lifted her head off the staff that Ephiny had gifted her not too long ago when she took the new queen caste. The staff originally had a bird head on the top but under Ephiny's recommendation she'd removed it as it was for decoration purposes. Gabrielle usually had a wool cloak on, which she would need soon but since she didn't her Amazon sword at her left side was visible. She honestly couldn't use the weapon since her staff was her choice however the sword was carried out of tradition.

"Perhaps we can reuse the rubble," mentioned the Amazon. Ephiny felt her words were lost on the queen since Gabrielle didn't reply and kept staring sadly at the ruins.

Gabrielle swallowed and uttered, "Maybe she can't really change… it's just a temporary thing until something sets her off."

Ephiny grew solemn because she knew her friend had greatly struggled with the Conqueror and the friendship. At first Ephiny hadn't heard the details about how the Conqueror and the bard parted ways but one emotional night the bard caved in and told Ephiny everything. That was one of Ephiny's hardest nights yet she was grateful to be there beside her friend.

"It's so sad to see this," solemnly added the bard. "Athens was such a beautiful city and she… rolled across it like it was an ant hill."

"And yet she's giving us these lands, Gabrielle."

"For her benefit," reminded the queen.

"I don't know," murmured the second in command. Ephiny folded her arms against her chest and continued to make a point. "If she really wanted Athens rebuilt she would have done it herself and not trust her old enemies to do it." She then glanced at her friend. "Plus if she really was back to her old self then she would have renagged on her offer to the Nation." She shook her head then held out her hands at the dead city. "Yet here we are and we're going to rebuild it with all her money, supplies, and men."

Gabrielle really hadn't considered that perspective and maybe she didn't want to admit it. The old and ruthless Conqueror would have made the alliance null yet she hadn't and stood beside it despite their ugly argument. "Am I being too hard on her?"

"I think the question is how do you perceive her, Gabrielle?" Ephiny shook her head and asked, "Do you accept that she's changing? Can you accept that she's changing?" She tilted her head when Gabrielle had that longing look. "Just maybe you've seen her as the Conqueror for all your life that trying to perceive her any other way is almost impossible for you."

The Amazon Queen swallowed against her surging emotions and her stare floated off to the beautiful sunset. "I've dedicated my life to stop her and now…."

"Now there's nothing to stop," uttered the Amazon. "It would seem that she's not the only one that requires changes."

Gabrielle rested her head against the staff. Ephiny's words slipped deep into her mind and would heavily be considered for many candlemarks and days. "Ephiny, I think this is a new beginning… and not just for the Nation." She wouldn't look at her friend as she spoke her last words. "The ashes of Athens will bring life to the Amazon Nation… to Artemisia."

Ephiny lifted her eyes up to the heavens and mentally repeated the queen's words in a prayer to Artemis.

Gabrielle straightened up and touched her friend's forearm lightly. "Come on… we better get back." When she arrived back at the camp her hundred fifty Amazons had hastily built this afternoon she was happy to see everybody settling down.

"Queen Gabrielle!" called a rushing voice.

The Amazon Queen and her second in command turned to the running Amazon, who was Solari. "What is it, Solari?"

Solari stopped beside her superiors and gulped a deep breath then finally answered, "The Conqueror's phalanx is here… well the phalanx commander is here. He wishes to see you, my queen."

Gabrielle nodded her agreement and signaled Solari to lead the way. She and Ephiny followed Solari through the camp and to the other side where there was a heavily armored and regal hoplite dismounting a warhorse. Gabrielle was certainly able to tell that the hoplite was the commander of the phalanx because of his steel chest that reflected the last rays of sun. He also wore steel greaves, a bronze helmet with cheekplates, and his xiphos sword sheathed to his left side. When his sandaled feet hit the dirty his red cape swooped up then settled around his body. "Queen Gabrielle?" As he approached the Amazon Queen he removed his helmet to reveal his striking features. He tucked his helmet under his left arm and extended his right.

Queen Gabrielle smiled warmly and held out her right arm to take the hoplite's arm. "I am Queen Gabrielle." She briefly observed the two other hoplites dismounting horses along with another man that seemed to be a civilian.

"I am the hègemoon of Phalanx V from Thebes." The hègemoon clapped his fisted hand across his chest, bowed, and lifted his head again then declared, "Commander Nikolai at your service, Queen Gabrielle."

Queen Gabrielle had a warm smile then held out her hand to Ephiny. "This is my second in command Ephiny, commander."

The hègemoon instantly took the second in command's arm for a powerful grip.

"And this is my weapons master, Solari." Gabrielle directed to the proud Amazon to her left side.

Again the hègemoon repeated his arm clasp but with the weapons master. He then stepped back and waved the civilian man forward to stand beside him. "I would like for you to meet Eupalinos of Megara, Queen Gabrielle."

Eupalinos stepped forward with his sandals scrapping the dirt underneath. He took the bard's small hand into a proper handshake. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Queen Gabrielle." He released her hand then stepped back next to Commander Nikolai. "Your legend proceeds you."

The Amazon Queen was perplexed because she swore she'd heard the man's name somewhere but she couldn't place it yet. Instead she introduced Ephiny and Solari to Eupalinos then hoped the man would explain why he was here.

Eupalinos adjusted his wool cloak then informed, "I was hired by the Conqueror to help design the new capitol of the Amazon Nation." He formal put his hands behind his back. "I am a highly regarded engineer from Megara. I engineered the Corinth Canal."

Queen Gabrielle's eyes widened as she realized why his name was so familiar. "I apologize," she swiftly started, "I recognized your name however I wasn't sure where I had heard it."

Eupalinos dipped his head in understanding. "I am a legend in my own sector as you are in yours, Queen Gabrielle." He then tilted his head. "An architect will be joining us as well… his name is Polykleitos. Perhaps you know him, Queen Gabrielle as he once was a famous sculptor?"

The Amazon Queen had furrowed eyebrows then she softly questioned, "Polykleitos the Younger?" At the engineer's simple nod, her expression became somewhat dazzled because she knew Polykleitos had also designed the Tholos theatre in Epidauros many moons back before the Destroyer of Nations. "Um…." She tried to shake away her astonishment about receiving a highly regarded engineer and architect. "When is he due here?"

"Any day now," answered the phalanx commander.

Eupalinos nodded his agreement then focused back on the Amazon Queen. "When he arrives it would be best to begin the plans for your capitol."

"Of course," agreed the bard.

"Also," continued the engineer, "Commander Nikolai, his phalanx, and I have already begun construction of an aqueduct from Lake Vouliagmeni, which is only a quarter of a candlemark ride from here. The Conqueror recommended and authorized that the lake should be used to supply the capitol of its fresh water supply." The engineer slowly grinned then proclaimed, "The Conqueror is not an engineer however she is very worthy of being one. I expect the aqueduct to reach here in about a moon." He paused to take a breath then proclaimed, "We will also be able to incorporate the aqueduct into a sewer system for the capitol."

Gabrielle exhaled in an amazed breath as she stared at the engineer. "Well… I would say that is a start."

The engineer's grin grew and how dipped his head. "I apologize." He then straightened up again. "My life is guided by the Conqueror's dreams however my passion is engineering."

The Amazon Queen quickly concluded that Eupalinos had spent much time with the Conqueror. She could only guess what his relations were like with the Conqueror but obviously they were on excellent terms as the engineer thought highly of her. It wasn't much longer until she said goodbye to the phalanx commander and the engineer.

Within a few days after arriving at the capitol, she heard word that Legio VII from the Macedonia providence was marching south to former Athens. Gabrielle learned that Legio VII was bringing down supplies of hydraulic cement leftover from making the walls around Amphipolis. She couldn't imagine it being much however she discovered just how much when the Roman legion arrived.

Queen Gabrielle, Ephiny, Solari, Eupalinos, Polykleitos, and the commanders from the phalanx and legion worked out plans for the first steps to cleaning up the city. Polykleitos and the engineer encouraged that they could recycle much of the leftover stones and materials from the city. What Eupalinos believed would take more time would be running the aqueduct and sewer system through Artemisia then dumping it into the Sardonic Gulf. The phalanx, legion, and Amazons worked hard to remove the rubble from the north end of the city and worked back to the gulf.

In the meantime, the Amazons also setup a temporary village just north of the city over the mountainous ridge that they trekked down each day and up each evening. The phalanx and legion also made temporary camps known as castra stativa where they would reside for the twelve moons. The castra stativa held barracks, a few public buildings, and a small stone wall.

By the early spring, Queen Gabrielle was excited to learn that within a moon to two moons they would be able to move into Artemisia at the north side. The first villas had been constructed and were hooked up to the aqueducts but not yet to the sewer system. The sewer system had been run through most of the city and was growing closer to the gulf. Despite the continuous work, Gabrielle often found her thoughts wandering off to the Conqueror. The only time her mind was at peace was when she was practicing her quarter staff with either Ephiny or Solari. Her practices were releases of frustrations as much as her thoughts because all her senses, her body, and her focus were centered on her opponent. Ephiny grew proud of her best friend's ability to learn the quarter staff so quickly.

When the queen was allowed some free time she usually spent it scribing and remembering the one part of her that'd never changed in her life. She kept up on messages to several important people in her life namely Cyrene and Melpomene then Queen Terreis. Gabrielle's sleep remained fairly restless though because of hydra thoughts that would make her toss and turn. She couldn't recall feeling this lonely yet she was surrounded constantly by friends and her Nation.

Then around the Spring Equinox, Ephiny caught up with the queen as they were climbing up the path that wrapped up the mountain to the village above. She could tell the queen was rather weary today and most likely not so much from the physical labor today but more from lack of sleep. She noted that the Amazons following behind or ahead were far enough yet she came closer. "We covered a lot today."

Gabrielle faintly smiled and nodded. "It won't be long before we can move into the city." She paused briefly and gazed over Artemisia, which was barren of the wreckage from the Conqueror's siege. The city's western edge harbored several piles of stone, cement, wood, and mix of metals that would be recycled in the construction of the new city. The soils were exposed and from a distant view one could see veins of disturbed soil running through the cleared lands, which were the underground aqueducts and sewer system. Down by the gulf, where the port once had been, there was much more heavy construction going on for the last piece of the sewage dumping into the gulf, which would wash it away into the sea.

"Just under a moon," softly agreed Ephiny. "We've worked so hard." She saw the queen's worn smile so she stepped closer and touched her midback. She and Gabrielle continued climbing the worn path up the ridge. "We will have to celebrate when we move."

Gabrielle laughed and shook her head, which caused her tired face to be broken by amusement. "I thought we were going to celebrate when the sewage system is dumping into the gulf…?"

"That too," agreed the Amazon.

The bard smirked and thoroughly teased, "Any excuse for a party, Eph."

"Now, Queen Gabby we do have traditions to keep up." Ephiny smirked at that dangerous glint in her friend's eyes because of the nickname. "All work and no play makes for a featherless Amazon."

The queen thoroughly laughed and shook her head. She slowly lost her grin then gently asked, "How are you and Solari doing?"

Ephiny smiled at her friend's caring question. "We're really well." She put her hands behind her back as she strolled up the incline. "You haven't found anybody yet huh?"

Gabrielle shrugged then tugged her cloak against her body for warmth. "No, Ephiny… you know me." She peered up into concern amber eyes. "I just...." She shook her head then mentioned, "For most my life I always thought I'd marry my friend, Perdicus." She frowned as her thoughts darkened. "I still can't believe he's gone."

"I'm sorry." Ephiny touched her friend's back and rubbed it for a few beats. "You loved him a lot huh?"

Gabrielle shrugged and replied, "It wasn't so much about love… honestly. I was betrothed to him when I was a child but when Potidaea was attacked that just changed everything." She came around the bend then started the next incline slope. "I guess because I spent most my childhood envisioning my life with him… I never thought about anybody else. He would have made a wonderful husband unlike most men."

"I didn't really get a chance to meet him," sadly admitted the Amazon.

"He was a gentle soul," softly admitted Gabrielle, "but I think the time in the Conqueror's army hardened him."

"The Conqueror has hardened many people," reminded the Amazon, "in many ways."

"Yes." The queen inhaled then slowly let the air trickle out with her chest falling.

"Have you spoken with her?" tried the second in command.

Gabrielle's head dipped after she shook it. "I send her messages to keep her updated on the city's production but… nothing personal."

"Does she respond?"

The Amazon Queen peered up to Ephiny.

Ephiny quickly figured out the response by Gabrielle's passive features and emotional eyes.

"No." Gabrielle turned her head away.

Ephiny remained silent for awhile as she watched her friend's profile. She'd come to admire Gabrielle for her strength and persistence in life then there were Gabrielle's beliefs like not taking a life, which she greatly admired. She understood now why Gabrielle had chosen the staff over the sword and despite it was a tightrope act Gabrielle seemed to balance well on it. "Have you tried writing a personal message to her?"

"I've tried a hundred times… and in a hundred different ways," uttered the bard, "but I just keep throwing my scrolls into the fireplace." She unknowingly walked closer to her friend. "I never know what to say... or where to start. I don't feel like I did anything wrong and she should answer to me." She stopped, shook her head, and murmured, "Then other times I feel that I betrayed her by walking out of her life like that." She studied Ephiny's features and emotionally asked, "How can I be of any help to her, Ephiny? She and I were enemies so that doesn't make any of it easy. All I've ever known was this ruthless, heartless woman and isn't that how I'm always going to see her?"

"Sometimes, Gabrielle your best friend was once your worst enemy." Ephiny came around the last bend and they were at the top. She glanced off to her right where the village was only several paces away. "I think maybe you're not moving forward because you've been too focused on her… on her evil image. You just need to let that go now then you'll find your answers."

"Do you think I betrayed her?" Gabrielle's head was hung down but she knew where she was walking, towards the village.

"I think you betrayed each other," admitted the second in command. "I don't think you'll have this resolved ever until you talk to her… face to face. You both have your paths to follow." Ephiny tilted her head so she could gaze at Gabrielle better. "Whether those paths are intertwined I couldn't tell you… I'm not one of the Fates but I think you two will be seeing a lot of each other. Mind you, you're sharing the same mother and brother now plus there are the politics."

"Just whether or not we'll keep our friendship," muttered the bard. She shook her head and softly admitted, "I know what she said to me that day and now I wonder if maybe she said those things for another reason."

Ephiny shrugged and offered, "Maybe she didn't want you to leave and her old habits of handling such a situation took over. The Conqueror isn't exactly the most emotional forthcoming person in the realm."

Gabrielle laughed yet she knew it was very true. She settled down then lifted her head up when she saw the dining hut up ahead. "I guess she's the only one that really knows that truth. I do wonder the same thing though. Cyrene I think was trying to explain that to me but I just… I couldn't listen to it. I was too worried believing that the Conqueror was still the Destroyer of Nations." She huffed and muttered, "And they say I'm so forgiving and understanding."

"You are," argued Ephiny, "but you're not perfect, my queen." She touched Gabrielle's shoulder, smiled, and strolled into the hut first.

Gabrielle paused in front of the open door, watching Ephiny's back recede, and she sighed rather contently. "I guess I have plenty to still learn too," she murmured to nobody but herself. She then followed suit into the dining hut because her appetite made itself apparent.

Queen Gabrielle remained in the dining hut for about a candlemark until she found herself saying goodnight to Ephiny, Solari, and Karis. She then strolled across the small village that was lit by torches tonight. She entered her dark hut except one candle was lit at her desk thanks to somebody stopping in to do that for her. She stopped after closing the hut's door and she worked her cloak off then hung it on the peg board to her left. As she ambled over to her desk, she lifted her sheathed sword from her back by lifting the strap across her chest. She set her sword down on the far left side of her desk and sat in her pulled out chair.

The bard glanced once at her staff that was propped up against the wall next to her desk yet her eyes switched to staring at the open scroll on her desk. It was a personal scroll to the Conqueror about her thoughts and feelings from the fight so many moons ago. She questioned whether the ruler would even clearly recall the heated fight or not.

Gabrielle lifted her hand and her fingertips grazed over her handwriting that was etched into the parchment. She felt the Conqueror's title at the start of the scroll then her fingertips followed several sentences but she stopped. Gabrielle propped her right elbow onto the desk and leaned the side of her head against her open palm. "Gods," she muttered. She shook her head and her eyes stung. She often hurt whenever she thought about the Conqueror and the recent memories they'd made together after they'd returned from the trial. She never realized just how much she gave up in Corinth until she made it to the Amazons. Her life tasted to sickening sweet because the Amazons provided her with meaning yet inside she felt so empty. How could this have happened?

Gabrielle closed her eyes against her dark emotions. Her lower lip quivered and her eyes stung harder however she refused to cry for the countless time again. Just for one night couldn't she have a peaceful night? She bit her lower lip then horsy murmured, "I don't know how much more of this I can take." She clenched her free hand into a tight ball but it remained in her lap. Then her memories with the Conqueror grew thicker and she heard the ruler's deep yet drawing voice speak to her again.

"I've been saying the same thing."

The bard's moist eyes gradually drew open then focused and from the corner of her left eye she saw a dark outline in the shadows of her hut. She instantly realized she really heard a voice in her hut so she abruptly shot up from her desk and faced the shadowy figure in the corner. Her eyebrows drew together tightly as her heart pounded wildly against her chest; her breathing heavy. "Conqueror?" Gabrielle's lips parted and her eyes grew more amazed over confused when the shadowy form stepped into the ring of the candlelight from the desk.

The cloaked silhouette shaped into a tall woman, who when she pulled her hood back her raven hair washed over her shoulders and her piercing ice eyes flickered the candlelight. "Hello, Gabrielle."

"Oh… my gods," uttered the shocked bard. She slightly trembled between being awestruck, shocked, and purely happy at seeing her friend. "How did you… when did youuu… why are…." She couldn't finish a single question and her right hand touched her forehead as if checking for reality.

"Through the hut's front door. About half a candlemark ago." The Conqueror tilted her head and then quietly added, "And because I needed to see you."

Gabrielle's hand fell to her side then she took a hesitant step forward, her left hand now rested on the back of the desk chair. She took a deep calming breath while still gaping at the ruler as if she were a dream. Then Gabrielle's marvel wore off and she didn't care anymore about titles, pasts, and fights. She hastily crossed the short distance then threw her arms around the ruler for an emotional hug.

The Conqueror now exchanged shocked features because she didn't expect such a warm welcome from her friend. She hesitated for a few beats then slowly her arms came up around the small woman and she drew Gabrielle in closer to her body. This was the first time she and Gabrielle had ever hugged and she secretly admitted it was beautiful to her.

Gabrielle soaked in the feeling of the Conqueror's strong presences against hers. Then the protective arms around her upper and lower back that held her solidly. She hadn't cared originally if the Conqueror had intended to refuse the hug but she was relieved that it was returned in full strength of need. Gabrielle closed her eyes then rested the side of her right head against the broad chest before her. Her emotions choked her throat up as she rasped, "I really missed you." Gabrielle didn't receive a verbal return of the sentiment yet instead she received a physical one from the ruler.

The Conqueror lifted her right arm and wrapped across the bard's shoulders. Then her left arm tightened to completely mold their bodies. Finally she lowered her head until her face just touched the soft blond hair below her.

Gabrielle remained unmoving from her position for a long time. She memorized the entire embrace to her memory. How the ruler's body felt against hers and the way the bronze armor that she'd barely seen earlier was now warming between them. Her right temple rested on top of the Gaelic necklace and she smiled from the old memories that charm brought to mind. And Gabrielle was surrounded by the intense smell of sandalwood and leather that made it feel so real. Yet what made Gabrielle feel alive was the constant heartbeat under her right ear that she'd never forgotten since first hearing it.

Very slowly, Gabrielle first drew from the long embraced and lifted her head however she didn't move out of the ruler's arms.

The Conqueror still had her head dipped down and she carefully studied the bard's face.

Gabrielle's eyes were intent and she waited for something that she could tell the Conqueror wanted to say. She kept her hands resting on the ruler's hips, which she gave a reassuring squeeze. Then she saw the Conqueror's ruler mask slowly crumble and those icy eyes were a crisp blue.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," whispered Xena; her features reflecting her turmoil.

Gabrielle's tears from tonight broke free but for an entirely different reason. "I'm sorry too, Xena… I really made a mess of everything."

Xena sighed and shook her head as she freed a hand from Gabrielle's back. She carefully wiped her friend's tears away while softly speaking. "We both did, I think and I want to fix it." She stole away the last tear then urged, "I need to fix this."

Gabrielle smiled through her tears and took her friend's hand into hers. "We will," she promised, "Together. That's what friends do."

Xena squeezed the small hand in hers as she mirrored the smile back. Her stomach unknotted after several days from when it first started, when she first left Corinth in pursuit of the bard.

"Did you ride here?" asked the Amazon Queen.

The Conqueror answered by nodding.

"Where's your horse?"

"I left Argo tried to a tree just outside the village. I need to get my gear off her."

Gabrielle had a lopsided grin and teased, "Is she as big as the ship Argo?"

Xena playfully glowered then gruffly replied, "Just as fast too."

Gabrielle chuckled then seriously spoke again. "We better get her and stable her up." She urged her body to move out of the embrace, which was hard to do but she eventually made it over to the door. She grabbed her heavy cloak, swung it on, and waited for her friend to come over. "Have you eaten?"

Xena inwardly grinned at the bard's endless care for her. "Yes at sunset I stopped for dinner." She didn't mention though that she could barely eat or keep it down from being so nervous at the thought of seeing the bard tonight. She followed Gabrielle out of the hut and into the torch lit village where there were only a few Amazons moving.

The Amazon Queen strolled closely to the ruler as if she feared her vanishing already. "I can't believe you're here."

"It was a long ride," admitted the ruler, "but worth it."

Gabrielle smiled up at her friend. She then considered where she would put the ruler for the nigh then it struck her blindly. "Oooh Hades… we don't have any guest huts built." She sheepishly peered up at the ruler. "Um… are you comfortable with staying in my hut? I mean if you're not, I can always find another Amazon that doesn't mind having me over. Or I could-"

"Gabrielle," cut in Xena, "I'll be fine staying with you."

"Uhhh… well we'll have to stay in the same bed," rambled on the bard. "It’s a big bed though… even for us both." She saw that arched eyebrow look coming from her friend so she flushed red hot. The old reference to big beds just didn't help her at all.

"Yes," agreed Xena, "I realize this." She quietly chuckled at the queen's increased flush. For a young woman, who stood against a ruthless tyrant now turned Amazon Queen, Gabrielle could be easily flustered under the right circumstances. She then threw her right arm across the bard's shoulders quite playfully. "You don't mind, do you?"

Gabrielle swallowed and smiled up at her friend. "Nope… plenty of room to spare."

"You're such an accommodating host, Queen Gabrielle," toyed the ruler, who had a sly grin.

Gabrielle shook her slumped head as her blush stayed rather fixed. She was guided out of the village and into the nearby woods where she spotted a large palomino not too far ahead. "You ride… that tall thing?" She then glanced up and down the ruler's lengthy as she made a decision. "Then again…." She shrugged.

The Conqueror chuckled yet she came up to her horse. She untied the reins, patted Argo's side, and led her back to the village. "I promised an apple when we got here, didn't I?"

Gabrielle walked along side but she had a perplexed look as she listened.

Argo whined and threw up her head.

The ruler smiled and promised, "As soon as I get you untucked, girl."

Gabrielle opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again then at last she was able to ask, "Do you always talk to Argo this much?"

The Conqueror darkly glanced at her friend yet her twitching grin at the corner of her lips gave her away. "She listens well."

"Hmmm." Queen Gabrielle's lips puckered and then she tried another poke. "So if I… just keep my mouth shut then you'll talk to me a lot too?"

"Theoretical speaking yes," agreed Xena, "however that's impossible for you to do, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle stopped, put her hands on her hips and watched the ruler take a few more paces away. When her friend slightly turned to her, she saw that smug expression on Xena's face. "I have you know I'm an excellent listener."

Xena shrugged. "I didn't argue that… I just agreed you couldn't keep your mouth shut." She smirked then continued walking while directing her next words to somebody else. "So girl, you want honey with those apples?"

Queen Gabrielle's jaw dropped and she was quite offended. She hastily marched up to her friend's side. "I think you came down here just to torment me, Xena."

"Possibly." The Conqueror's expression was teasing and her eyes soft. "It does make me feel better though."

Gabrielle was inwardly surprised by the off handish admission to the ruler's feelings. Although Gabrielle thoroughly agreed because she felt calmer but she knew they had plenty to discuss later when it was time. "I'm glad you came down."

The Conqueror faintly smiled as she whispered, "Me too." She and Gabrielle steered into the small stables where she untacked her mare. She decided to brush Argo down tomorrow as she knew Argo's top priority was that apple then she put out some feed with water. After she hefted her saddlebags onto her right shoulder, she followed her small friend out of the stables and back to the hut. "How has the construction gone? From what I've been hearing it sounds like you're moving fast."

"Thanks to your legion and phalanx," admitted the bard.

"Hmmm." Xena shifted her saddlebags some then remarked, "For once they're building a city instead of destroying one."

Gabrielle peered up and knew that her friend was being sarcastic. "They seem to be enjoying the work… I don't know why though."

"Its good physical labor for them that doesn't involve risking their life and they still get paid." The Conqueror shrugged. "What's there not to like?"

"Hmmm… never considered that angle." Gabrielle pushed open the door and let Xena through before closing it up tight. "I need to get the matt over the window and the fireplace started." She slightly shivered from the thought of sleeping in a cold bed tonight.

"I'll get the fireplace," offered the ruler, "you take care of the windows and the candles."

"Deal." Gabrielle went to work while her friend took care of getting the fire going to warm the hut. It wasn't long before she found the chill down her back gone and she could take her cloak off.

The Conqueror mimicked the bard by taking her black cloak off and tossing it on top of her saddlebags by the fireplace. She crouched down beside the fireplace and let the growing flames warm her up. Her curious gaze though went over to the bard, who stood beside her desk.

Gabrielle was rolling up the scroll on her desk but staring at her Amazon sword.

Xena memorized her friend's newly shaped body that basked gold in the firelight. The fire's light flickered across Gabrielle's body and revealed her toning muscles over her stomach, arms, and her legs seemed to be solid muscle. Xena was amazed as she never envisioned the former rebel leader being anything other than a bard only outfitted with words. This was certainly a different woman before her and Xena enjoyed how the Amazon leathers accented the Amazon Queen's shaping body. Xena was abruptly shaken when she realized she'd been staring heatedly at her friend's attractive body. "So you carry a sword now?"

Gabrielle set her scroll down then pulled away from staring at the said sword. "Yes but I really don't use it." She sidestepped her desk, grabbed her Amazon staff gifted by Ephiny, and came over to the ruler. "I use the quarter staff actually."

The Conqueror climbed up to her feet and held out her hand in request for the weapon. When the wood entered her palm, she hoisted it some and felt the weight that would most certainly fit to Gabrielle. She held it by both hands at either end and gave it a hard bend so that the middle bowed out yet resisted from snapping. "It's a good staff for you." She returned it to her friend.

"I've been practicing since I received my right of caste as queen." Gabrielle tapped the staff on the floor but walked over to the wall it claimed as home when it wasn't in its owner's hands.

Xena did a hasty calculation and figured that Gabrielle most likely had developed some skills then. She made note to ask for a challenge tomorrow or so. "How do you enjoy being an Amazon Queen?" She knelt back down in front of the fire.

The Amazon Queen didn't answer right away but she came next to her friend and knelt down too. She stared into the fire for awhile then honestly replied, "I really enjoy it."

Xena could feel the hesitation in the words so she studied her friend's profile.

Slowly Gabrielle met her friend's gaze. "I just… I don't know how to explain it other than I feel really empty. It brings a lot of satisfaction and meaning into my life but it just doesn't stop this loneliness." She turned away and bit the inside of her mouth.

The ruler of the realm stretched out her hand and touched the bard's hand that rested on the small knee. "I know… I really know, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle swallowed and stopped nibbling on her lower lip. "Yeah… I guess you do huh?" She turned her hand up and squeezed the larger one. She was silent then eventually asked, "How about some tea?"

"You read my mind," murmured the ruler.

Gabrielle chuckled and released her friend's hand. She got to her feet and wondered into the washroom while rambling on about some things. "Normally I'd take a bath around now but it's so much hassle to get the water in here and out of here. Plus by this time I'm usually exhausted from all the hard work down in the city."

Xena chuckled at her friend's chatter and not just because of the topic but at the fact she knew she'd missed it. "So you take one in the morning huh?"

"Pretty much," agreed the bard. Gabrielle materialized out of the washroom with a kettle that had few droplets rolling down its side. She set it near the fireplace and let it hang by the small metal hook. "I only have some… well blah tea," she sadly admitted.

The Conqueror climbed to her feet and her bronze armor grew golden thanks to the fire. "I brought some of mine... if you'd like that instead."

The bard narrowed her eyes then questioned, "The Chin tea?"

"What else would I bring?" challenged the ruler.

Gabrielle laughed and asked, "What ones?"

"There was only one to bring," remarked Xena, who went to her saddlebags and weeded through her belongings. She came up with a small leather pouch of tea and held it open to her friend.

The bard squealed and declared, "My favorite… I missed this so much!" She plucked the pouch up and dashed into the washroom where she kept her clean mugs.

"I'll take that as a thank you," muttered the ruler, who chuckled and sat on the floor. Her left leg went flat on the floor while she propped up her right leg and leaned against it for support. "Don't tell me you forgot how much to put in there?"

"After that lecture you gave me," chided the bard from the washroom. She came back out with two mugs full of Chin green tea leaves and the small pouch. She set the mugs beside the tall woman then quickly stashed the tea pouch into the side of the saddlebag. Gabrielle crossed over to her dresser that was near her bed and she pulled out the bottom drawer. She soon came back with a fur in her hands and she unrolled it by the fire.

The Conqueror heard the sounding kettle so she stood up with the mugs.

Gabrielle grabbed for the kettle's wood handle and smiled at seeing Xena already up on her feet with the mugs. She poured the hot water for them then placed the kettle back on the floor near the fireplace.

Xena handed her friend a mug then together they sat on the fur and slowly enjoyed the Chin tea.

Gabrielle smiled happily as the green tea she'd missed filled her senses again. She absolutely loved this tea. She then turned her smile to her friend and mentioned, "You look good in that." Her eyes swept over the ruler's armor and leathers.

The Conqueror peered down at the attire in comment then grinned at the bard. "I thought a new look would be good."

"Its kind of the same… design as M'Lila's necklace." Gabrielle grew quite puzzled. "I just realized that."

"Mmmm." Xena finished sipping her tea then mentioned, "That's because it is." She knew Gabrielle would want more details so she explained, "M'Lila wore this top that had this exact design as my armor. I had the armor specially made a long time ago."

"I've never seen it… well since Melinda wore it that night in Corinth." The Amazon Queen shook her head while shifting around on the fur more comfortably. "It really gives you a different feel, I think than what you usually wear."

"Oh?" Xena further prompted her friend by arching an eyebrow.

"Yeah." Gabrielle nodded then waved her left hand between them. "A good feel. You have less of a… ruler thing going on." She watched that dark eyebrow's curve deepen and Xena's blue eyes glow. "Come on, you have to agree. You have no cape and your armor is bronze plus you're not flashy with all this gold."

The ruler snorted but went silent by drinking her tea. "I guess I'll have to show you my hoplite uniform one day."

Gabrielle laughed then slowly revealed a grin. "Hoplite uniform huh? Do you always play dress up?"

Xena's eyes slotted and she gave a dark warning. "You know the stories already from mother."

The bard bit the inside of her mouth because she just recalled those stories about Xena and Lyceus. She'd heard often how those two would dress up as soldiers and run around with wood swords. They would play hoplite against Roman or hoplite against Persian then at times Xena would pretend to be an Amazon Queen while Lyceus was a Greek king. Those were the stories Gabrielle adored about her friend and she believed them too where as before she'd wondered if they were just stories. "So do you have a Roman legion outfit too?"

"Ha. Ha." Xena ignored her friend by drinking her tea. "You wouldn't catch me dead in a Roman legion uniform… I'm not pig material."

"And yet you have how many Roman legions?" argued the bard.

The Conqueror sipped her tea as the number forty-seven passed through her thoughts.

"Isn't it almost fifty now?" Gabrielle heard no disagreement so she knew she was on target. "Plus all the phalanx units then the cavalry… ooo the naval league too."

"Is there a point to this?"

Gabrielle stopped now then grinned at the annoyed ruler. "I'm just… noticing how many ways you could… dress up."

The Conqueror rolled her eyes then muttered, "I'm so glad I came down." While she sipped on her tea Gabrielle bumped their shoulders together. When she lowered the mug, she saw that soft smile on Gabrielle's face and that settled her down.

"So…." Gabrielle faltered at her next words yet she mentally took a step forward for this pending conversation. She would have to ease into it carefully. "Mom in her last letter mentioned you're on your seventh advisor of state now." She played with her half full mug. "That's almost an advisor per moon."

"Mmm," simply agreed the ruler.

The bard second guessed herself about treading this topic but she would try because it was needed for them both. "What's the problem with them?"

"They're idiots," clipped the ruler.

Gabrielle cleared her throat quietly then scratched her nose to buy another few heartbeats. "Any… reason why?" She drank her warm tea then set it down on the floor. "I mean they must be doing something wrong to set you off."

Xena sighed and her head slightly lowered. "All of them so far have tried to press for your proposal to become null." She shrugged. "So I fire them."

The bard opened her mouth yet nothing was forthcoming. She slowly closed her mouth when the blue gaze came at her.

"Your family name proposal I approved a moon after you left," mentioned the ruler. "I plan to make it law in the polis near the Summer Solstice."

Gabrielle remained silent. She didn't believe it because she was convinced after the argument that the ruler would destroy any shape of Gabrielle's work. She couldn't understand why she felt that way about the situation yet here she was proved completely wrong. "Wow." She shook her head then stared into her mug.

"Do you really thing I'm that petty?"

The bard lifted her head to answer the question. She tasted no malice in the ruler's words and she knew Xena was truly asking her. "I guess some part of me did," she honestly replied. She saw the hurt deep in Xena's eyes and she spoke what she felt too. "Thank you for proving me wrong."

The Conqueror could only nod as she gracefully accepted that because she had little room to be angry. After as much as she'd done to Gabrielle, she knew it would still take time to earn the bard's complete trust.

"You really came here to see me?" urged the bard, who really needed to hear that.

Xena finished off her tea first then set the mug aside. "Yes." She leaned back on her hands then further mentioned, "I had excuses incase you wouldn't accept the reason."

That perked the bard's curiosity so she hastily finished off her tea and as she put the mug aside she asked, "What were the excuses?"

The ruler shrugged then casually went down the list in mind. "That I wanted to see Artemisia, check on the legion and phalanx, and ask you about going to Egypt with me."

"Oh." Gabrielle's head bobbed but she stopped and turned her head to the ruler. "Going to Egypt? What?"

Xena chuckled at grabbing the bard's attention. She slyly grinned when her friend demanded her to tell her more. She remained casually while she explained, "I have to go to Egypt for some foreign affairs." She shrugged then mentioned, "I thought maybe you haven't been there and you may want to meet Cleopatra."

The Amazon Queen gaped as her imagination tried to take her to Egypt however she had no idea what the magical lands were like. She'd always admired the Egyptian culture from what she'd heard and wanted to visit the lands but never seen it possible. "You're… joking right?" When Xena gave her that arched eyebrow she knew better. "I just… wow. I…."

"It would be an excellent opportunity to establish relations with Egypt," mentioned the ruler. "For trade when Artemisia's port is developed."

Queen Gabrielle tilted her head to show her consideration of the idea. "You think Cleopatra would really set up a trade agreement with the Amazon Nation?"

The Conqueror gradually felt a sly grin shape her lips. "I can guarantee it, Gabrielle."

"Huh." Gabrielle rested her hands on her knees since her legs were crossed. "I'm not sure I could leave Artemisia though. There's just so much work that has to be done and it wouldn't look right if the queen just shuffles off to the Egypt."

"For important foreign relations," reminded the ruler. "Besides I'm sure Ephiny could handle things perfectly fine."

The bard's lips were puckered and her eyes glossy from thoughts. She drummed her fingertips on her kneecap then stopped and decided, "I'll think about it."

Xena bit back her grin because she knew she pretty much won the bard over. "You do that." She uncrossed her legs and stretched them out, which made the soles of her boots pretty close to the fireplace. "We need to talk about what happened, Gabrielle."

The bard bit the side of her mouth but she knew her friend was right. She was surprised to hear Xena's persistence to go to the topic so she questioned herself about how hard she'd been on the ruler. "We do," she softly agreed.

The Conqueror quickly sat up straight and drew her legs back into her body. She slightly turned her body towards the smaller woman. "I was wrong to threaten you like I did, Gabrielle and you were right to walk out like that. You were right about everything you said that day."

Gabrielle's head drooped down because she'd never felt right about it. It made sense logically to her but it just never felt right to do it. "I just snapped when you said that you'd find a different agreement that I could uphold." She saw the ruler's flinch however she kept talking. "All I saw was that damn cross. I thought we were pass that point."

"We are pass that point," argued the ruler. She read the doubt in Gabrielle so she pressed forward. "I'm not going back to that place, Gabrielle but it doesn't mean I won't have my moments."

"What if one of those moments costs me heavily?"

Xena grimaced at the honest question. She didn't react angrily at the question because she wondered the same too.

Gabrielle studied her friend's revealing eyes and she whispered, "I recognize the fact now that inside of you that dark side still lurks. I accept that you'll always have a dark side about you and that at times you may even need it too. What I don't know that I can accept is that it won't turn on me… again."

"No," hotly whispered Xena. She pulled the bard's hands into hers then clutched them tightly. "You're right about my dark side. I will never lose it and at times it may be of use to me. What you don't realize is how you affect me."

"Xena," murmured the bard, "I can't be paranoid like this. I can't wonder what I may say or do will set you off. That's not how it should be." Gabrielle freed a hand and pressed her palm against the ruler's cheek. "I really like this woman you've become but I have the ability to provoke the wrong things from you. Call it old history between us but maybe we're olive oil and water."

Xena grabbed the bard's hand from her cheek and laced their fingers together. "No you listen to me for once, Gabrielle. The day you walked out of my office I wanted more than anything to tell you to stay because I needed you by my side. I couldn't say those words because I didn't know how so I reacted the only way I knew how to and for that I am sorry. It's taken me these four… five long moons to realize what'd happened because I thought too maybe I could never be anybody else but this monster. I made a promise… I won't break it."

Gabrielle had listened to each word carefully and understood what her friend was saying to her now. Never had she expected such a speech from the ruler but it made sense to her when she replayed that fight in her head. Her features tightened up from constricted emotions on the surface.

"Gabrielle, you're the only person that saw the good in me… don't tell me you don't see it anymore?" Xena's voice quaked and her need for any answer showed clearly.

And Gabrielle knew she'd almost betrayed her friend that day. Maybe she had done the right thing otherwise Xena may have never considered her reaction to the fight. Gabrielle's long guilt these past moons finally released from her as she started to cry. "I was scared I lost you that day." She shook her head then she hoarsely whispered, "I'll never stop believing in you, Xena."

Xena quickly pulled the small woman into her and held her in a long hug as the emotions swept through them both. She held onto Gabrielle while that emptiness that Gabrielle had spoken about earlier slowly faded away from the gut of her stomach and the recesses of her mind. She'd grown accustom to that feeling much her life and she didn't know it could be rid of until Gabrielle had gradually and unknowingly made it disappear. It'd only recently returned when Gabrielle walked out of her life back on that day.

Gabrielle emotions ebbed after some time and she eased out of the warm embrace. "Okay instead of me crying on you and getting your armor rusty we should get some sleep."

"Armor is easy to come by," reminded the ruler, "but sleep however…."

The bard sighed and poked the leather stomach between them. "I know… sleep keeps a bard telling stories."

"Particularly this bard," muttered the ruler. She extracted her body from Gabrielle's and got to her feet.

Gabrielle stood up too and gave a small stretch, which made her muscles strain against her skin and shine in the firelight.

Xena briefly observed then decided on a safer view by going to her saddlebags and hunting for her nightshift. She quietly sighed when the Amazon Queen was going into the washroom with the mugs. Could Xena really keep to herself tonight when this well developed woman would be resting beside her? She knew it'd been more moons than she cared to count since her last satisfaction in bed. It was one of her many personal resolutions she'd made to herself after a ruined night of trying to bed her slave, Nakia, after coming back from the Amazon Nation. She recalled that night quite well.

The Conqueror had found herself, one night, in the throws of unexpected lust just after the bard had left her bedchambers. She couldn't understand the source of it but she always understood the urgency of it so she called Nakia to her chambers. When the slave was stripped of her clothes and prone on the ruler's bed, the Conqueror had demandingly started the pursuit with a rough kiss. It had been Nakia's moans from the kiss that shattered her lust and she'd hotly ordered Nakia to dress and leave her.

The Conqueror's lust raged into anger because she couldn't correct it let alone understand it. She also hated how she'd been so willing to take Nakia because it was something she knew Gabrielle would have been disgusted by. It was the following morning that the ruler secretly promised not to indulge in sex for the satisfaction of lust and especially expecting her slave's agreement.

It'd been a harder resolution at the start for the ruler but each day seemed to make it easier. She was too use to instantly getting and taking what she wanted to the action of being still when her sexual desires peaked was not simple. The Conqueror often tried pleasing herself such as when she took bathes but that often half worked yet it was enough to still the hunger for awhile.

Now though as the Conqueror rested in the bed beside her friend, she quickly recognized that mysterious lust that'd she'd felt on certain nights after the bard's visit. Gabrielle's revealed and changed body in those accenting Amazon leathers easily confirmed her suspicions. The Conqueror was unmistakably attracted to Gabrielle and Xena wasn't sure if she liked that about herself.

The following morning, Gabrielle and Xena found themselves in the sparring field by dawn and sparring together. Gabrielle typically sparred in the early mornings before she went to work on Artemisia because it was the best way to get herself awake and exhilarated for the day. She discovered though that she was more than exhilarated when she practicing with the Conqueror. The sparring had started off slow as they each picked out one another's movements then it became a dance form.

The Conqueror's sword could be heard echoing against the Amazon Queen's staff. Her known laugh of amusement rang in the field as she parried or dodged the bard's excellent attacks. She was quite impressed by Gabrielle's skills with the staff but she knew there was still much Gabrielle could learn.

"You know, I'm really… getting hungry," commented the heavily breathing queen.

The Conqueror smirked at the comment too. She back stepped after the staff just missed her. "Better think about other things than your stomach." She suddenly dropped and swept Gabrielle's feet out from under her.

The Amazon Queen yelped and went on her back with an audible moan. Her hand touched her forehead as her eyes refocused on the gloating face above her. "You think you're funny huh?"

"I know I am," tormented the ruler.

Gabrielle growled and unexpectedly swept her feet at the ruler's that were so near by. She realized she'd made a mistake as her friend came falling down towards her.

Xena had dropped her sword next to the bard as she fell. She hastily put her hands under her and her palms met the dirt first and her heavily armored body just hovered over the bard's. "I could have hurt you if I fell on you," she hotly reminded.

The bard crinkled up her nose innocently at the angry face only a hand length away from hers. "I knew you'd catch yourself… besides you need to think about other things than my body."

The Conqueror's eyes narrowed at being completely caught by the bard. How in Hades had Gabrielle known this? Just maybe the bard had grown experienced in other matters or else Gabrielle just knew her well enough these days.

Gabrielle seemed to sense the battle in the ruler so she smugly answered the internal debate. "I see how you keep staring at me. I might be naïve at times but I'm not blind."

The Conqueror kept her body from touching the bards because she wouldn't know what'd happen otherwise. Her body was already enjoying the fact she was over top of the bard but she refused to take advantage of it or Gabrielle. "Am I really that obvious?"

"Just to me," softly promised the bard. She then lost her smug expression as she played innocent again. "I'm really hungry… come on." She patted the broad shoulder in front of her.

Xena really debated whether Gabrielle was talking about food or not. She sighed then relented by standing up but she made sure to get her sword. "So you will give me a tour of Artemisia today?"

The Amazon Queen got up with her staff in hand. She patted the ruler's leather stomach and teased, "Would I do any less, my liege?" She started off in the direction of the food hut. She and Xena ate their breakfast without much incident until just at the end.

Ephiny had come casually strolling into the food hut, waved and smiled at Gabrielle, and called, "Good morning, my queen." She received the greeting back so she kept walking then something registered with her. She stopped then back peddled several paces and gawked at the queen's breakfast mate.

The Conqueror nudged her friend when she saw the Amazon coming over to them.

Gabrielle sweetly smiled at her second in command when she was upon her and Xena. "Yes, Ephiny?"

Ephiny snapped her jaw shut then pointed at the ruler. "When did she… how did she… why is she-"

"Last night, by horse, and to see me," hastily answered the bard. "Any other questions?"

Ephiny dropped her hand to her side then settled her perplexed face onto the ruler. "Well… you couldn't send word ahead of time?"

"I prefer surprise visits," clipped the Conqueror.

Ephiny grunted.

"She just wanted to skip the… royal stuff," waved off the bard with her hand. "So, care to join us?"

The second in command put her hands on her hips and despite she saw both women had already eaten she ordered, "Don't disappear on me." She quickly headed for the buffet table.

Gabrielle muffled a fit of giggles and grinned at her friend. "Boy am I going to hear it now."

"You obviously need to learn one thing about being queen," commented the ruler. When Gabrielle leaned closer she grinned and explained, "You're always right, Queen Gabrielle."

The Amazon Queen barked with laughter then nodded a few times. "I'll see what Ephiny's opinion is on that concept."

By late morning, the Conqueror received a tour of Artemisia that started at the top of the ridge so she could get the overview of the plans. Gabrielle then escorted her down into the valley of what would be the city and showed her the north end where most of the work had been done. The Conqueror was impressed by the progress but very pleased her legion and phalanx had been assisting so well. She then sought out her commanders of each army as well as the engineer and architect she'd hired for the project. She made sure to make the engineer, Eupalinos, sweat out his plans for the city because she knew if she didn't he'd get over zealous and especially with Queen Gabrielle.

When Helios sunk over the horizon, Queen Gabrielle entered her quiet hut and she stood still by the closed door; she stared with a lopsided grin at the Conqueror's saddelbags. She then considered when her friend would leave the Nation and it wasn't a comforting feeling either. The knock at her door jarred her from her thoughts so she opened the door to find the ruler filling her view. "Hey, you didn't need to knock just come in next time."

The Conqueror came in but didn't comment on the bard's words.

"How was your meeting with everybody?"

"It went well," answered Xena. "I'm pleased with their performance so far." She then went over to the made bed and sat on the foot of it. "You look like you've been thinking about something."

Gabrielle shook her head then came over to her friend. She sat next to Xena yet her focus was on her hands. "I was just thinking about you going back to Corinth."

"Ready to get rid of me huh?" teased the ruler but she quickly realized her joke didn't pay off. "What is it, Gabrielle?"

"It's not easy admitting your wrong, is it?" Gabrielle lifted her head and watched her friend's changing expression.

"No," softly agreed the ruler, "but it makes things easier."

The bard's head bobbed as she now stared mindlessly across the room. Her thoughts though were very centered. "I was wrong to walk out of your life like that… especially when I said I was a friend."

"If you hadn't done it, Gabrielle then it wouldn't have made me stop and think. I reacted instead of acting."

Gabrielle released a low sigh. "I could have handled it differently." She saw that Xena had been hurt by her actions because those beautiful blue eyes showed it to her. "I said I was going to be there for you but I failed. My excuse was that I figured you could go on without my help."

Xena jaw clenched then she relaxed her tension because she would take this step. "I'll tell you a secret, Gabrielle."

"Oh another secret?" gently bantered the bard, who fell silent and listened.

Xena leaned closer then whispered, "I may have the largest empire in the known-world, which makes me the most powerful ruler. The truth though is that around you, I feel absolutely powerless and… I really like that because it means I can be myself with you."

Gabrielle sadly smiled and stretched her hand up to lightly caress her friend's cheek. "I think we're both learning, Xena." She watched the flicker of emotions above her then she softly asked, "Can we learn together?"

"I couldn't think of a better way," softly agreed the ruler.

The bard's eyes brightened and her cheeks plumped thanks to her huge smile. "Is your offer to Egypt still good?"

The Conqueror nodded.

"When will you leave?"

"Not for another moon or so… I need to get a few things inline before I can leave." Xena tilted her head. "I could… use your help with the polis and getting your proposal more cemented before the Summer Solstice."

Gabrielle shook her head then questioned, "Can't your advisor do that now?"

"I'm sure he could," agreed Xena, "but he won't do it right. Its yours, Gabrielle and I'd prefer it set in motion by you." She hesitated then reminded, "If you have to decide though if you have time. I know you're busy here."

"Let me talk to Ephiny first," murmured the bard however she had a rather set feeling that she'd follow the ruler anywhere at this point. She knew she couldn't return to how she felt without her friend.

The ruler licked her lips as she turned her head away. "By the way…." She swallowed then quietly continued speaking. "I read your unfinished proposal about abolishing slavery." Gabrielle flinched at her words, which she somewhat expected. "It's not half bad really."

Gabrielle shook her head. "I think it's too radical… and too personal."

The Conqueror almost replied to that statement but she stopped and mulled over Gabrielle's use of personal. "Because of Lila."

"Yeah," whispered the bard, "I don't know where she is… who she is… Hades she could be dead."

The Conqueror had long ago considered the bard's younger sister. She'd also secretly ordered Iolaus to her office one day and set him off on a secret mission where he could use any means necessary to find the information she wanted. She just hoped it would pay off well for her… for Gabrielle. "I'm sorry for what happened that day, Gabrielle." Her anger for her past increased and crashed into her. "If I had known…." Old memories of her sword running through a soldier's stomach couldn't even ebb her anger.

"Known what?" Gabrielle huffed. "That we'd be here? Now? Today?" She worked her fingers through her bangs.

"That too," murmured the ruler.

The Amazon Queen lowered her hand back to her lap then throatily questioned, "Why did you kill Draco not long after he enslaved my village? I always heard how great of a warrior he was."

"He was a great warrior… and a terrible follower." Xena slipped off the bed while saying, "He disobeyed my orders at Potidaea." She ambled over to the left side of the fireplace, bent over, and loaded up some wood.

"What you mean?" urged the puzzled bard.

Xena was busy tossing the wood into the fireplace but she stopped and turned her head sidelong at her friend. "I ordered him to make an alliance with Potidaea… not ransack it and enslave it." She plucked the flint stones off the small mantle then bent over the fireplace. "By the time I received word about the women being sold to slavery it was too late for me to do anything." She angrily cracked the stones under the larger logs where the leaves and twigs were located. "I should have run him through sooner."

Gabrielle's face grew blank as her mind reeled at this news. She'd never known that the Conqueror had ordered the alliance and that it was Draco that chose to enslave Potidaea. It made sense to her though because no other Macedonian towns were enslaved besides Cirra and that happened to be done by Draco too. Towns like Amphipolis, Mani, Stagira, Therma and the like were all brought under the growing realm by alliances and pacts. Why hadn't she seen that earlier?

Xena stood up when the fire was lapping against the wood happily. She turned to see the distant bard far away in her thoughts. "Gabrielle?" When she received no answer, she came up to her friend and knelt beside her. "Gabrielle, no matter how you look at it I am still responsible for what happened that day. I put Draco in charge so that means I was responsible for whatever he did."

"That's what makes you a better leader too, Xena." Gabrielle sadly smiled but gently reminded, "He still made the final choice though."

The ruler patted her friend's knee and whispered, "Don't change too much on me, Gabrielle. How about dinner?"

Queen Gabrielle dropped her head then spoke to her belly. "How about it?"

Xena rolled her eyes yet a lopsided grin found her. She and her friend were soon migrating across the small village and enjoying a hot, delicious meal that was freshly caught from the gulf. Of course the Conqueror didn't forget to smartly remark that she hoped the fish wasn't caught by the sewer system's dumping area in the gulf. Gabrielle had let out a sigh and quickly reminded her friend that the sewer system wasn't active yet.

The next days move by rather swiftly Gabrielle concluded compared to her previous days before the Conqueror's surprise visit. The third day since the Conqueror's arrival, Gabrielle finally dragged her second in command away from prying eyes and well listening ears. She ended up in her friend's hut and was thankful Solari was rather busy.

"So what's going on?" urged Ephiny, who took a seat at her desk.

Gabrielle blew a deep breath straight up, which ruffled her bangs. "I'm not sure exactly."

"Don't give me that." Ephiny pointed at the chairs to the left and ordered, "Get a chair. Bring it here. And talk to me."

The Amazon Queen put her hands on her hips and saucily declared, "Yes, my second in command." She sashayed over to the table that had a couple of chairs. She grabbed one and plopped it down in front of her friend then she flopped into it. "I'm not sure what's going on, Ephiny… seriously." She dropped her head back and covered her face with her hands. "It's really confusing."

"Well what would you like to do if you could do anything?"

Gabrielle dropped her hands then stared dumbly at her friend. "You really want me to answer that?"

The Amazon held up a finger for silence. "Let me rephrase that then." She lowered her hand to her lap. "If you had no obligations right now, what would you do?"

"If I was just a regular ole Amazon instead of Queen Gabrielle of Artemisia?"

Ephiny nodded.

"Hmmm." Gabrielle patted her knee with her palm then fairly answered, "I'd run away to Corinth."

"Back to the Conqueror?"

"With the Conqueror," corrected the bard. "Remember, I was once a famous rebel leader… there's no back to the Conqueror for me."

Ephiny chuckled at her friend's attempt to ease the mood.

Gabrielle eased back into her seriousness after an audible exhale. "The Conqueror invited me to come with her to Egypt… to meet Queen Cleopatra. She seems to think it'll be an excellent way to setup trade relations for Artemisia."

"Especially when we have such a large port," mocked the Amazon.

The queen shrugged and reminded, "It's never too early to think about relations, Ephiny."

The second in command gave in because there was a lot of truth behind that fact. She sometimes figured that was the downfall of the Amazons because they never built outside relations so maybe it was a good idea. "Do you want to stay in Corinth?"

"I think so, honestly." Gabrielle licked her lips then her head was down for a beat. When she looked up again, her emotions shined in her eyes. "I enjoy being the queen and I want this but I also want to be beside her, Ephiny. I just don't know how to handle it."

"Why is she so special to you, Gabrielle?" Ephiny needed an answer yet she questioned whether Gabrielle had that answer for herself.

"I don't know yet why… but I need to find out, Ephiny. I feel like if I let her slip… that if I let whatever is between her and I slip then I'll be missing out on the greatest thing in my life." Gabrielle leaned closer to her friend. "It doesn't make sense does it?"

Ephiny dipped her head then quietly whispered, "It makes sense." She lifted her head. "I ignored Solari for the longest time because I was scared to try. I didn't really think about it until Janice was here and I saw her situation… how she may never make it home but she tried against the odds."

"She had a lot of faith," murmured the bard, "she demonstrated that to all of us." She sighed and quietly begged, "What should I do, Ephiny? I don't want to betray my Nation and I don't want to lose her."

"Who said you had to choose, Gabrielle?" Ephiny gathered up her friend's small hands into hers. "I think you can find a balance between both especially when the realm and the Nation are so integrated now. Maybe that's the key to the Amazons' success… because of your relationship to the Conqueror."

"Maybe," whispered the queen. "I don't want to disappoint the Nation… my Amazons. They believe so much in me and I can tell that they're so happy about the progress we've made so far with Artemisia."

"And they are." Ephiny smiled proudly to her queen then she steadily went serious. "Just remember this key factor about the Nation… how goes the queen so goes the Nation. If you're not happy then neither is your Nation."


"Don't even argue my point," cut off the Amazon. "I know you've been down and mostly due to what happened between you and the Conqueror. Can you honestly tell me how you'll be once she goes back to Corinth?"

Gabrielle nodded. "I understand what you're saying." She then emotionally smiled at her friend. "Where would I be without you, Ephiny?"

"You probably wouldn't be here because nobody else would have let you in the Conqueror's jail hut."

The Amazon Queen laughed and her emotions settled thanks to her friend's joke. She released her anxiety through a deep sigh. "What now?"

"Well," started the thoughtful second in command, "what size is your mask?" She thoroughly enjoyed the queen's shocked face.

The Conqueror patted her mare down then gingerly led her out of the stall. "You ready, girl? I promise we won't ride as fast as last time."

Argo threw up her head gratefully but she whined.

"Yes, the blond is coming too."

Argo inhaled until her girdle was tight then she exhaled very loudly but she still followed her master out of the stables. She then saw that little blond that she knew her master was growing fond of lately.

"Are you sure about this, Gabrielle?" questioned the Conqueror.

Gabrielle lifted her head after having it rested against her staff. "I'm positive." She had on a heavy leather and wool jacket, her regal Amazon leathers on, a pack on her back, mask on her head, and a hilt protruded from her back under her jacket. "The sooner we get out of here the sooner we can get to Corinth."

"My kind of woman," teased the ruler, who threw her arm around the bard and jerked her close. She guided her friend through the village towards the north side where a few Amazons waited. After Gabrielle had a chance to say goodbye to everybody she and Gabrielle continued the trek through the hilly terrain until they met the slightly overgrown road that led north out of the Attica Providence.

Xena eventually found herself astride Argo while her friend remained walking beside or sometimes ahead depending on whether they were talking or not. She'd offered Gabrielle a spot on Argo however the bard laughed and quickly picked up her pace as her refusal. She muttered something about beastly horse then passed by the huffing mare.

The Conqueror continued to sway to Argo's rhythmic motions yet her senses were always alive. She tasted the air, heard life far beyond the surrounding forest, and felt the world's movements around her. It wasn't until mid afternoon that something prickled her senses. "Gabrielle?" she called hastily.

The bard was slightly dazed but she broke away and stopped until the horse and rider were beside her. "What is it?" She read the urgency and tension rippling off her friend.

"We're about to have company," uttered the ruler, "so be ready."

"For what?" asked the perplexed bard.

The Conqueror had no time to explain when six armed bandits formed on the road. She freed one hand from Argo's reins.

"Well hello, ladies," greeted a smiling bandit in the front. "You happen to be using our little road and we have a tax for that too."

Queen Gabrielle rested her left hand on her hip while she leaned against her staff. "I didn't realize the Conqueror was now collecting road tax."

The same bandit smile to show his yellow and missing teeth. "Well she's a little clueless at times."

The Conqueror's right eyebrow arched up at this remark. Oh yeah she would have fun with this particular bandit out of the six.

"You really don't want to start this," warned the bard because she knew what was about to happen but hey it was worth a try to give them a notice.

"Oh yes they do," drew out the ruler in a seductive tone.

Gabrielle sighed and lifted her staff. She sent a prayer to whatever god would protect these poor fools.

The leader bandit unsheathed his sword and he was about to order his men to attack. He hesitated when the tall woman on the mare gave a piercing cry and went flying into the air.

The Conqueror vaulted from her horse, spun, and landed on her boots in front of the bandits. Somehow she'd magical unsheathed her sword during her jump. "Come and get some, boys," she hissed and bent her knees.

The Amazon Queen shook her head when all the bandits lunged at her friend. "I almost pity them but they asked for it," she commented to Argo.

The horse huffed and nodded.

Gabrielle then spotted two men breaking away from the fight so she hurried past Argo and met the pair. She mentally prepared for her first real fight against an opponent and it charged her body. Gabrielle parried away the first sword swipe as the second enemy came at her with his mace. She dodged him then came back at her first enemy.

The Conqueror easily manipulated her enemies and managed to get one bandit to accidentally skewer one of his comrades. She set her sights on the leader bandit, who was rather persistent on his attacks. She gave a resounding kick to one bandit and knocked him out against a nearby tree. She then refocused on her last two opponents with a sneering expression and anticipation to have them.

The Amazon Queen took her right opponent's feet out from under him, which disorientated him. She then came at her remaining opponent with renewed effort. She managed to land a snapping hit to the bandit's hand and his mace hit the ground. Gabrielle lifted her staff higher and gave a furious glare since she'd been taught that half the battle was intimidation.

The bandit back stepped once, then twice when the compact woman advance on him, and he turned and ran off into the woods.

Gabrielle sighed in relief then lowered her staff to her side. She studied her friend just finishing off her last opponent, who happened to be the leader.

The Conqueror gave her warcry and swiftly flipped over the bandit. She brought her blade around yet at the last beat before her blade would have met the bandit's throat, she rammed her hilt into his head. She completely turned around and stared disgustedly at the unconscious bandit at her feet. She kicked him in the side, which caused him to moan. "I should kill you for this, pig." She knew why she wasn't though as her gaze met her friend's.

Gabrielle smiled proudly at the ruler's ability to resist the urge to kill. She knew it wasn't easy for Xena but it was doable when the ruler set her mind to it.

Then Xena's calmer expression grew fearful without reason and she surged towards Gabrielle.

The Amazon Queen already heard the bandit getting up to his feet and his sword scraping across the dirt. She raised her staff for any attack while she turned to him.

The bandit was wild with anger as he lunged for Gabrielle.

Gabrielle's scream when she was slammed so hard. She fell onto her back and lost her staff but the bandit hadn't lost his sword because his blade was across her throat. Before the bandit could cut through her skin she spotted the furious Conqueror over them.

The Conqueror was so swift in her motions. Her hands blurredly came down and clenched the bandit's hand. There was a load snap then she watched in satisfaction as he slumped lifelessly before he could harm his friend. She then grabbed the dead bandit by his clothes, lifted him up, and tossed him off the small woman.

Gabrielle groaned and slowly opened her eyes to find Xena's face a mix of anger and fear. The adrenaline rush from nearness of death still quaked the bard's body but she tried to focus. Then it felt like so many hands were on her body at once as the Conqueror hastily checked over her.

"Are you okay?" Xena's hand finally came down to Gabrielle's legs where she was squeezing every spot. When she got the bard's right ankle there was an audible hiss.

"My ankle… I think I twisted it." The Amazon Queen bit her lower lip to stop the welding tears from the pain. She now tried to sit up and inspect her leg not that her boots allowed her to see much.

"Damn." Xena acted quickly by untying the boot then loosening the laces. She opened the flap of the boot and peered around where the developing color was forming.

"You know, this really figures," complained the bard. She was irate about how blind she'd been to that bandit's movements.

"Let's just worry about this right now." Xena scanned around the road and saw there were two bandits that would most likely be up soon. She didn't feel too keen on fighting them and protecting the bard. "Let's get out of here first. Just stay right here." She grabbed the bard's staff while whistling for Argo.

The mare trotted over, stopped and waited while her master tied the staff to the saddlebags.

The Conqueror came back over and knelt beside her friend; she then worked her arms under the bard.

Gabrielle yelped when she was airborne then adjusted comfortably in her friend's arms. "Wow… you really can see a lot up here."

"Glad to see you didn't lose your sense of humor." Xena clicked her tongue to get Argo's attention then she walked towards the forest with her cargo in her arms.

Argo followed behind, her head bobbing up and down then side to side. She wanted badly to grab some grass but she knew her master was worried about that silly blond in her arms so she followed behind.

Gabrielle rested her head against her friend's shoulders and mumbled, "What is it with me and my legs?"

"What is it with you and trouble?" chided the ruler, who at last spotted a clearing.

"You think those bandits will follow us?"

"No." The Conqueror entered the clearing and lowered her friend beside a log. "Let me get the medical kit."

The bard could only imagine what the Conqueror had that could help with swelling.

"Can you get your boot off?"

Gabrielle bent forward and loosened her laces better. She then tried to work her boot off but it was very pain staking; she was just barely able to hold in her hisses between clenched teeth.

Xena slowly came over while mixing something in a small bowl with a pestle. She bent down next to the bard's outstretched leg and settled the bowl nearby. She dipped her fingers into the slightly green tainted paste then carefully tried to work it over the bruising and swelling ankle.

The bard dug her nails into the ground, her eyes closed.

The Conqueror listened to the labored breathing from her friend and she tried to keep her touch gentle. "Almost finished." She'd used most of the paste but left enough for tomorrow morning. "There's a stream nearby… it should have cold water." She left the mortar and pestle by the bard, went to Argo, and unlashed the staff and grabbed a waterskin. She returned the weapon to her friend while saying, "Stay here. Yell if you need me." Before Gabrielle could say a word, Xena was gone through the woods.

Gabrielle unclenched her hand and tried to asses her ankle that was darkening. Then she considered how the Conqueror left the camp with so much tension written in her mannerism. She decided she'd have to work it out of the ruler in hopes to keep the mood light tonight.

The Conqueror hurried back into the camp and came to a kneeling position beside her friend. Her chilled hands pressed the cold waterskin against her friend's sprained ankle in hopes the cold water would calm the swelling. "Keep it there. I'm going to get the camp setup."

The bard let her friend go. She watched her friend quickly setup the camp with such ease but occasionally she checked her ankle to see the swelling was stalling. The bruising however was another story that didn't bolster well. It wasn't long before the bard grew warm from the intensifying fire beside her that the Conqueror had started. She was grateful for it considering the red sun rays in the western horizon.

The Conqueror was almost finished brushing her mare down, her back to the bard. "Do you feel like rabbit or quail tonight?"

Very slowly Gabrielle had a wicked grin. "I was hoping for fish from the stream." She carefully watched how her friend's brush stopped on Argo's rump. She knew despite the Conqueror couldn't see her smirk that it was laced in her tone.

The Conqueror turned her head sidelong then retorted, "At that rate you won't be eating tonight." There wasn't any common sense reason she could think of to go into that freezing stream to fish out dinner.

"You don't want to see me when I miss a meal," joked the bard. She became happy when she saw that faint grin spread over the ruler's features and break apart the sour mood from earlier. "There's that grin."

The Conqueror shook her head then finished up with Argo. She patted her horse's side while whispering only something the horse could hear. She then strolled over to the sitting, prone woman by the fire. She rested her hands on her hips and inquired. "This is your last chance… quail or rabbit?"

The bard thoughtfully stared up at her friend. She drummed her right fingers on her kneecap. "Such a wide variety to choose from here… it's like dining in Cyrene's taverna."

The Conqueror rolled her eyes, turned, and marched off into the darkening woods.

"Surprise me!" called the Amazon Queen but the only response she received was a hoot from an owl. "Tough nut to crack, sheesh." She settled her view on the mare. "How do you put up with her, Argo?"

The mare turned her head to the chatty blond then she flicked her tail and huffed. She lowered her head and munched on the nearby grass.

The bard sighed then peered down at her ankle. "Damn bandit." She shook her head but she kept her annoyance away since she decided it wouldn't do her any good to be moody like the ruler. Two wrongs never make a right, she mentally reminded herself, or is that two grumpy asses never make a party?

Gabrielle then received the largest scare when the ruler suddenly materialized in the camp. After her gasp, she was raggedly breathing and touched her chest with her freed left hand. "Gods… do you have to do that?" She then caught the smug features of her friend so she glowered at her. "Yes you do, don't you?"

The ruler said nothing as she went to the supplies she'd back for this trip. In her left hand she had a skinned rabbit that was quite plumped and she knew it'd feed them both. She worked on getting some herbs spread over the bloody meat then she pushed a skewer through the rabbit for the fire.

Gabrielle intently observed the ruler setting up a small spit over the fire, which kept the rabbit high enough above the fire put low enough to cook right. She was inwardly stunned. "So, did mom teach you how to cook?"

The Conqueror glanced at her friend and arched a questioning eyebrow.

The bard smirked. "I guess not."

The ruler returned her attention to the cooking rabbit and she gave the rabbit a turn over the fire. "I learned while in the army." She was kneeling so she stood up and went to her saddlebags. She washed her hands with clean water from a waterskin, dried them, and fished out for some other food items.

The Amazon Queen was pleasantly surprised when her friend came over with a small wood board that held bread and feta cheese. She tried so hard not to chuckle at the small bowl of herbed olive oil for dipping the bread into it but she failed.

The ruler sighed and set the wood plate beside her friend. She then went back to the spit and gave it a turn. She returned to the munching bard's side and sat beside her. She placed the board on her lap then broke a piece of bread free.

"I didn't think you could be such a hostess," teased the bard.

The Conqueror had slightly slotted eyes. "Is this pick on the Conqueror night?"

Gabrielle's gloating features broke apart by her compassion for the ruler. "I'm sorry… it's just that…." She held out her freehand to the cooking rabbit over the fire. "I would have never guessed you could cook."

"When you're surviving on your own you learn quickly and how to make the food taste half decent." The ruler picked up a small cube of feta and popped it into her mouth.

"I don't know how to cook," secretly admitted the bard. "I never learned because Cyrene always cooked for me."

The Conqueror softly laughed and nodded her head. "I know exactly what you mean. I never learned because mother cooked all my meals and she didn't have the time to teach me." She shrugged. "Plus I was always playing around with Lyceus so I doubt I would have taken interest in it anyway."

Gabrielle's head was bobbing before she spoke again. "Mother was getting ready to teach me but of course with Draco and everything it never happened." She tilted her head and muttered, "I'll have to ask Cyrene to teach me although that could be dangerous." She noted her friend's perplexed look. "If I know how to cook I may be my own best customer." She enjoyed the grin playing the ruler's lips now.

"How do you like your rabbit?" inquired the ruler. "Cooked all the way through?"

"Mmmm yeah… I don't want it hopping out of my stomach tonight." Gabrielle giggled at the ruler's quick disgusted features. "This is really good feta." She shot a cube into her mouth. "Is it from the fortress?"

The Conqueror smirked. "You can take the Conqueror out of Corinth but you can't take Corinth's food out of the Conqueror."

"I bet you'd hire mom to be your cook if you could."

The Conqueror gave a knowing smirk but she set the board aside and got up. She checked on the rabbit then came back over to her spot beside her friend.

Gabrielle broke more flatbread apart and dipped it into the herb oil. "How is Cyrene and Melpomene?"

"They're well," answered the ruler. She swirled a piece of flatbread in the oil but held it still over the wood bowl as she spoke. "I'm sure you haven't heard yet but mother plans to buy the taverna she's been renting these past moons."

"Really?" Gabrielle grew ecstatic. "I didn't hear. When did she decide this?"

"Only a few days ago," answered the ruler, "She's been saving up money from working the taverna. She seems to think she'll have enough soon to buy it from the owner." She swallowed the small morsel of bread. "I tried to offer her money but…."

"Trust me, I know how your mother is," agreed the bard. "The olive didn't fall far from the tree," she admitted.

"Sometimes I think it did," argued the ruler, "I think the olive rolled down a hill."

The bard touched her friend's nearby knee that protruded from under the smooth board. "I've been around your mother long enough to know her qualities. I see a lot of the same ones in you too."

Xena turned her head to her friend. "Sometimes I see it and sometimes I don't at all."

"And that's exactly true," agreed the bard. "I don't know your father but I think you're a mix of the two of them."

The ruler silently agreed because she knew her father and her mother so she had her days when she was more like her mother and others when she was like her father. She wasn't perfect but she certainly was a blend of them. She often considered Lyceus mostly like mother while Toris... well he was just an odd ball most the time. She had yet to figure out where her eldest brother fit into the family. She broke away from her thinking and set the board down between them while saying, "Let me get the rabbit ready so finish up the cheese."

Gabrielle peered down at the board and grinned at the two cubes left. She took one and swirled it around in the last bit of olive oil. She happily moaned at the flavor as she ate it. It wasn't long though before she was dining with her friend on a nicely cooked rabbit that had a thyme flavor. She complimented her friend at the excellent flavor.

The Conqueror realized she enjoyed the compliment coming from her friend. She and Gabrielle quietly ate their meals but at the end she mentioned she had a surprise for the bard. After cleaning things up, she came to a squatting position beside the Amazon Queen and in her right hand she presented a clothed wrapped item.

Gabrielle eyed the ruler but she slowly grinned while she pulled the cloth away. She beamed at the loaf of nutbread.

"Mother sent it," mentioned the Conqueror.

"Oh my gods," breathed the excited bard. "I have been dying for some of her nutbread."

The ruler softly laughed and set the bread into the bard's hungry care. She retrieved a knife, came back over, and sat with the loaf now in her possession. She sliced up a piece and handed it to the bard. She amusingly watched as the bard became a wolf with the bread.

Gabrielle paused after her first bite and asked, "What is that?" She'd broken a piece off so she looked at the whole slice that rested in her palm. "I've never tasted that."

The Conqueror shrugged and noticed that the loaf's swirled filling held poppyseeds. "Poppyseeds?"

The Amazon Queen shook her head and inspected the slice better but Hades if she could figure out anything in the firelight. "No, taste it." She broke a piece free and slipped it between the ruler's lips. She drew her fingers away after they were moistened by the ruler's lips. She was surprised to receive a shock of excitement from the ruler's touch.  She cleared her throat and hoarsely asked, "Do you taste that like… sharp sour-ish  flavor?"

The Conqueror's eyes brightened from enjoyment of the flavor. "Lemon."

"Lemon?" asked the puzzled bard. "What's lemon?"

The ruler softly laughed and explained, "It's a yellow fruit from the Chin Empire. It’s a very tart taste like most citrus fruits."

"You mean like those oranges you have in your bedchambers?" tried the bard. At the ruler's nod, she brightened and inspected the remains of her slice as she finally noticed the slightly yellow tint to the bread. "No wonder," she muttered. She broke another piece off and popped it into her mouth but this time she hummed happily as the lemon flavor mixed with the poppyseed. After her true tasting of the new fruit, she decided it was a delicious mix of tart, poppy, and dough all in one. "This is really good. Where would mom get the idea to use this fruit?" She shook her head while the ruler was cutting her another slice. "You can't just pick up lemons anywhere."

"No, you can't," agreed the ruler. She held out the next slice to her friend.

Gabrielle carefully considered her friend's words then it dawned on her. She hastily swallowed down her morsel and accused the ruler, "You gave her the lemons!"

The Conqueror shrugged and remained passive.

"You did, didn't you?" urged the shocked Amazon Queen. "Admit it."

"It was a lucky guess that you'd like it," informed Xena, who had a glint in her eyes.

The bard warmed at the ruler's consideration for the idea for a new flavor in the bread. "Thank you." She finished off her slice then asked, "You're not having any?"

"Mother made it for you." The Conqueror had just finished cutting another slice, which she guessed would probably be her friend's last slice considering how heavy the nutbread was but then there was Gabrielle's bottomless appetite.

The bard broke a piece off then grinned as she lifted to the ruler's lips. "And I can share."

The Conqueror accepted the nutbread being fed to her, which she wasn't accustomed to having done. The nutbread's lemon flavor erupted in her mouth then her lips were brushed by the bard's nimble, soft fingertips.

The Amazon Queen couldn't hide her grin as her face was lit up by the warm fire. She pulled back and ate more of the nutbread herself. The lemon flavor was truly growing on her. "Has mom done any other new baking?"

"Mmmm." The ruler leaned back against the log comfortably. "You remember those bananas you don't like?"

The former rebel let her nose crinkle up as she recalled the odd flavor of that yellow fruit. "I just couldn't get into that taste."

part bReturn to the Academy