The Conqueror smirked then teased, "That's because the first one you tried you ate the skin with it on."

Gabrielle laughed but she blushed at her mishap from that day. "I didn't realize you weren't suppose to eat that. I mean you eat apples, strawberries, and grapes without peeling anything off." She inwardly squirmed at the odd flavor of the banana that her friend had given her to try that day. "So mom made a bread with banana in it huh?"

"Mmmm… it's very good. I think you might like it though because she's added cinnamon to it."

The Amazon Queen considered this mix and she was a woman that would try any food at least once. "Yea but you love bananas."

"You have to try it," argued the ruler. "Mother is a great baker."

"She is that," agreed the bard hastily. "This lemon nutbread is the best."

The ruler chuckled and started to wrap the bread up. "When Summer Solstice is close then I'll be receiving shipments in from Chin on this other fruit that's my favorite."

The bard had a curious face. "What's that?"

"In Chin it is called míhóu táo."

Gabrielle chuckled and shook her head. "There's no way I'm going to try and say that word." She tilted her head then asked, "Does it translate into Greek at all?"

"Not exactly," argued the ruler. "It's an unusual fruit that Lao Ma said Chin developed recently."

"Really?" Gabrielle became intrigued it the idea of a fruit being made.

Xena grinned at her friend's curiosity. "There is one nickname I've heard for it. Lao Ma sometimes calls it a Chin gooseberry." She held up her right hand and made an oval shape by connecting her thumb and index finger. "It's about the size of a hen's egg but it has a brown skin and a hairy texture."

Gabrielle's face wrinkled instantly. "That doesn't sound pleasant, Xena."

The ruler chuckled and lowered her hand to her lap again. "Like the banana you don't eat the skin."

"Then what's inside of it?" inquired the bard. "Brown fruit? That doesn't sound very tasteful."

Another soft laugh escaped the ruler but she explained, "It's not a brown fruit inside but a green color with black seeds and white center. You cut the skin away and then eat it. The part you eat is soft like a banana but very juicy like a grape."

Gabrielle tilted her head and thought this new fruit out. "How do they taste? Like a grape?"

"Not at all," answered the ruler, "more like a cross between a banana and strawberry."

"When do you get them in from Chin?"

Xena shrugged then answered, "In a few moons. I think you'll like it." She got to her feet and stowed away the last half of the bread for tomorrow night. She then sifted through it to get the bedrolls and furs. Luckily the Amazon Nation had given their queen another set of furs and bedrolls for her since the ruler only came with a set for herself.

Gabrielle took the silent time to removed her other boot and set them off to her left side. She inspected her ankle and saw it was finished swelling and the bruising was proudly displayed. She sighed at it while setting the warmed waterskin aside. She lightly prodded her ankle to see how it felt.

The ruler glanced over when she heard the bard's sharp intake of air. "It's going to hurt for a few days."

"I know." Gabrielle head was drooped down, eyes set on the ankle. "Should I put more of this paste on it tonight?"

"Yes." The Conqueror caught Gabrielle's motions to get the paste filled bowl off to the left. She took the time to set her bedroll further from the fire while setting Gabrielle's closer to the fire so that she'd be warmer. "I'm going to check things out."

When the Amazon Queen lifted her head to say something her friend was already gone. She shook her head then muttered, "Just like a ghost. How's she do that?" She huffed then went back to rubbing the paste carefully into her skin. After she was finished, she set the bowl aside then noted the bedrolls' positions. She figured hers was closer to the fire plus it was quite far from the ruler's.

The Conqueror reappeared in the camp to find the bard just staring into the campfire. She came over and knelt beside her friend. "Are you tired?"

"A little," admitted the bard. "I think I'm still catching up on my rest." She sadly smiled at her friend. "Do you need to do anything else?"

"No, everything is set and it was quiet." The ruler took a seat claimed her seat beside the young woman. She observed Gabrielle's outstretched legs from afar. "Did you use the rest of the paste?"

"Yes… thank you." Gabrielle smiled at the ruler. "Thank you for saving my life back there. I didn't see that bandit at all." She shook her head. "That was my first time."

The Conqueror understood what Gabrielle meant by her last words. The situation was always much different when fighting in a real scenario versus from training because nobody could calculate life perfectly. "I will have to increase patrol in this area of Attica."

"I'm surprised they're around here with the legion and phalanx just in Artemisia."

"It doesn't matter," debated the ruler. "Once Artemisia begins heavy activity with a market then the roads will require security again."

Gabrielle thought this out then mentioned, "You do keep heavy patrols on the roads throughout Greece."

"It serves a dual purpose… the people are protected from thugs like that and the patrols have a better chance of giving out warnings of more serious problems."

"Like invasions," theorized the bard.

"Or rebellions."

Gabrielle released a sigh at her friend's words. "Do you think the realm will have any rebellions?"

The Conqueror glanced at her concerned friend. She often worried about those things in her waking candlemarks and they haunted her late at night. She knew her empire was the largest in the known-world however the problem was that she only had two sets of eyes, ears, and hands to deal with the numerous issues in the realm. When she was younger she never imagined all these hardships of being such a powerful ruler. Just maybe if she'd known at an earlier age it would have curved her hunger for power. Finally she answered the bard's question in the only way she felt necessary. "Don't lose any sleep over it, Gabrielle." She stared at the fire then murmured, "We're quite safe."

The bard quieted for awhile as she mulled over the entire empire and she wondered how such a large empire could fit on one woman's shoulders. "Do you sometimes think you bit off more than you can chew?"

The Conqueror was quiet.

Gabrielle didn't think her friend would respond because the question was overstepping but she didn't detect any tension coming from her friend. She was glad for that much.

"Some days I think so," softly confided the ruler, "especially more so these days."

The bard turned her head and studied the ruler's solemn face. "Well… you could sell the realm to the highest bidder but keep Crete. Then we can all move there, take the navy, and we'll just build paradise there." She grinned and further teased, "That way you still have a little kingdom and a navy so nobody can bother us."

Xena quietly laughed and it caused her to relax from the earlier conversation. "If there was a drachma for every time I've considered that idea I would be richer than the realm by now."

Gabrielle was remotely shocked the ruler admitted to having considered the idea in past times. "Do you really tire of the rulership?"

"I tire of being a ruler but I never tire of taking over."

The Amazon Queen carefully turned this idea over in her head and digested it. "You were a warrior before you were a ruler."

"Mmhmmm." Xena hated to admit it to her friend but she knew it was apart of who she was despite she rarely was able to partake in her warrior persona anymore. "There's nothing like the thrill of battle… figuring out your enemy's tactics, breaking them, and finally defeating them."

Gabrielle couldn't understand the desire behind it because she was only a bard. What she could appreciate was the fact it was apart of who Xena was no matter what. "There is nobody like you, Xena."

The ruler softly laughed and teased, "You're stroking my ego, Gabrielle."

"No, not really." Gabrielle shrugged. "I mean how many people have tried to accomplish what you've done? Not even Alexander the Great accomplished what you've done."

"Yet I'll be remembered as the Destroyer of Nations," clipped the ruler.

"You don't know that yet," argued the bard, "You still have so much time ahead of you to change all of that."

"Tyrants like me, Gabrielle do not live that long."

Gabrielle shook her head quickly. "You're not that tyrant anymore though and you're showing that to the people. Just give it time and the stories… titles will change. How goes the Conqueror so goes the realm."

The ruler grinned at the bard's analogy to a captain and his ship. She then lost her grin then seriously stated, "Let's get some rest. I want to be up early."

"Before or after the sunrise?"

The Conqueror heard Gabrielle's warning tone in the words so she carefully chose her response. "After sunrise."

Gabrielle laughed and nodded her head. "Good." She then sought help from her friend on getting up and slowly limping over to the bedroll. She was gradually lowered into the soft furs and she took the time to get most of extras off such as her soft gauntlets, arm bracers, and necklace.

The Conqueror brought her friend the staff and set it beside her bed. She then cleaned up the remnants from the mortar bowl then she tucked it away with her medical supplies. She then tossed the skin Gabrielle had been using back with the saddle. Finally, she fished out her sharpening stone then took a seat on the log this time.

Gabrielle had most of her gear off except for her leather top and skirt. She combed her fingers through her hair after just getting the mask off. She studied the ruler setting up to sharpen her sword. "Goodnight, Xena."

The Conqueror tapped the whet stone at the end of her horizontal blade in her lap. "Sleep well, Gabrielle." She listened to the Amazon wiggle under the furs then sigh contently. She fell into an old habit she use to do during her campaigns. Her whet stone ran down the blade then she lifted it back to the top and repeated the cycle. The rhythmic sound filtered down to her subconscious and soothed her greatly. She hadn't realized how much she missed this process until now.

About a candlemark after Gabrielle had fallen asleep, the Conqueror was finished with her sword by wiping it clean. She sheathed the blade at her back then balled up the dirty rag in her hands. Her attention was drawn by the muffled cries from the bard. She could only guess what nightmares were troubling her friend. She debated whether to wake Gabrielle or waited it out. Her decision was made for her when Gabrielle abruptly sat up with damp features.

The Amazon Queen threw her boiling furs aside then her head fell forward.

The Conqueror had a tilted head and she observed her friend from across the camp. "A bad nightmare huh?"

The bard wiped her brow of the sweat then she forced her legs to get her up. She slowly limped over to the ruler and sat on the log beside the ruler. "It's an old, repeating dream."

The Conqueror set the rag down beside her whetstone on the ground. "What's it about?"

Gabrielle sighed out her frustrations from the dream. "Just something from my childhood, I guess." She wrapped her arms against her body since her wet skin was now cooling against the night. She was hunched forward but she lifted her head and stared at the slightly cloud covered starry sky. "I'm… I'm funny about sleeping in the woods… or just being in the woods at night time." She scanned the dark forest that surrounded them since the crescent, low moon provided very little light. "I really hate when I hear wolf cries." She involuntarily shivered.

Several thoughts passed through the ruler but she quietly asked, "Why is that?"

"Its kind silly really," murmured the bard. She peered up at her friend, who was a feared ruler and here was Gabrielle confessing her fears to the ruler. It seemed so odd. She could tell that Xena was truly interested and deeper in those blue eyes she read the concern. "I don't remember everything from journey between Potidaea to Amphipolis when I escaped. I don't think I want to remember," she admitted. "What I do recall were a lot of wolf cries at night. I was so scared that they were hunting me because the cries kept getting closer to me. I traveled the road all night… I didn't stop until I made it to Amphipolis. The thing was I was scared if I traveled on the road that I'd be caught so I traveled in the woods but close to the road so that I knew I was headed in the right direction." Gabrielle stopped and her stare went deep into the fire. "I just remember how dark it was and how badly I hurt from the wounds… and the blood."

Xena's face was dark at the image drawn for her. She brought her left arm across the bard's shoulders and tugged her closer. She placed a kiss to the bard's sunny hair and murmured, "I'm sorry, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle slipped her right arm around the ruler's back and rested the side of her head against her friend's shoulder. "It was so long ago… I'm just glad I'm here now though." She felt the ruler's chin touched the top of her head and it gave her a bittersweet smile. "I'm glad we're here now." She then extracted herself from the ruler then ordered, "Come on. We both need to get some sleep. You're not staying up tonight."

"I didn't put out two bedrolls for you," jokingly reminded the ruler.

The Amazon Queen grumbled then pointed out, "That doesn't mean anything when it comes to you." She then carefully got to her feet without putting too much weight on her sprained ankle. She held out her hands then commanded, "Come on."

Xena's lips curled into a soft grin at her friend's demand. She then lost the grin as she absorbed the beautiful sculpting body that glowed from the firelight. She closed her eyes and turned her head away while saying, "Go on, Gabrielle… I'll get ready in a beat after I check the perimeter."

Gabrielle didn't like the instant mood change. She also knew the brush off was something else especially when she saw her friend's very consuming gaze on her. She knelt down in front of the ruler until she was on her knees and fairly eye level with Xena. "Hey." When she received no response, she placed her right palm against Xena's cheek and drew her face back to her. "You think I don't know what you're dealing with?"

The Conqueror clasped her friend's hand into hers and explained, "You wouldn't understand what this is, Gabrielle."

"I don't think you understand what this is either," rebuked the bard.

"Oh I think I do." Suddenly the agitated ruler got to her feet swiftly. "Now get back to bed." She began moving away while saying, "I'll be-"

"I don't think so." Gabrielle was on her feet but her weight on her good foot. She wrapped her strong hand around the ruler's gauntlet covered wrist. "We're not finished this conversation."

The ruler turned back and hotly snapped, "Yes we are finished." Again she tried to move away but the relentless bard jerked her back. "Gabrielle-"

"Stop," harshly ordered Gabrielle. She was steeled and her determination made the Conqueror's temper deflate. "You're not escaping this one, Xena."

"I'm not escaping it," argued the Conqueror, "I'm keeping myself from making a mistake."

"What mistake is that?" urged the Amazon Queen. "Taking me?"

The Conqueror turned her head away and wanted to free from the bard's grasp but she was rooted by the piercing green gaze set on her. "You don't understand this, Gabrielle."

"And like I said, I don't think you do either but you wouldn't know that unless you hear me out." Gabrielle saw the blue eyes open but Xena wouldn't look at her yet. "You know, my ankle is really hurting me like this. Can was just sit down and talk this out?"

The ruler agreed by moving back to the log with her friend. She was completely uneasy and kept a certain space from the bard.

"Usually when people agree to talk things out it requires both to speak," pointed out the bard.

Xena sighed but made no response.

Gabrielle wanted to growl in frustration at the gap between them. She knew sometimes her words were fairly fruitless against the ruler's armor. She decided the next best weapon was action and especially in the ruler's mindset. She quickly leaned forward and brought her lips against the Conqueror's.

The Conqueror's desire for Gabrielle instantly flared to life by the feel of Gabrielle's moist lips against hers. She moaned from the sensation then hungrily responded for the kiss to deepen.

Gabrielle firmed her lips against the ruler's and she found her mouth opening to invite the ruler. Her tongue soon met the Conqueror's and she whimpered from the amazing feeling. Her stomach quivered from excitement and she forgot much of the world around her.

The Conqueror slowly retreated from the kiss when her thoughts confronted her again. She withdrew then hoarsely whispered, "We can't do this, Gabrielle."

"Xena, we both want this." Gabrielle leaned her forehead against the fighting ruler. "I've seen how you look at me."

Xena had her eyes closed and her breathing was heavy from the battle between her emotions and feelings. She lifted her right hand and pressed her palm against the bard's cheek. "You can't understand this, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle lifted her head from the ruler's and opened her eyes. She met the ruler's now open eyes and she didn't refuse the ruler's hand on her cheek. "You don't think I haven't heard the stories about your sex life, Xena? Come on." She grabbed up Xena's hand into hers. "Sometimes I wonder if half that stuff isn't exaggerated."

"Some of it may be," admitted the ruler, "but not too much of it." She shook her head then stated, "I promised myself I wouldn't do this anymore."

"Do what?" argued the Amazon. "Have consenting sex?"

"I won't have sex out of lust, Gabrielle… or just to have it."

Gabrielle sweetly smiled at this resolution the ruler had resided herself to now. "Xena, that's really…." She decided it was safer not to finish that thought aloud and moved onto her tactic. "This isn't about lust."

The Conqueror withdrew further so she could gain better control of the situation.

Gabrielle didn't buy it as she moved on the log so that she straddled it and fully faced the Conqueror. "Don't do this, Xena. I know this isn't about lust… it something else and Hades if I know what it is because I'm not going to pull out my bardic tricks and whip something up. I don't completely understand what's between us but I know enough to know it isn't something as shallow as lust. Do you think I'd press this so hard if it was just about lust?"

The Conqueror knew it was true what Gabrielle spoke but it was hard to accept in her position. "I do want you, Gabrielle." She steadied her gaze on the concerned bard. "Whatever is between us I just don't trust because you're right that we don't understand what it is."

Gabrielle scooted closer to her friend and gathered the larger hands into hers. "I know you don't trust it, Xena and I understand but if you don't trust it then trust me." She tried to bring Xena down closer by tugging her. "I really do want to be with you and on several levels. I don't want to go back there." She freed a hand and pointed in the direction of Artemisia. "I don't want to be that far from you." She lowered her hand. "I thought I did because I thought I could find some meaning with the Amazons. I only realized I lost that meaning when we separated and I don't want to do that again."

"This won't be simple, Gabrielle."

"Gods forbid it was too," rebuked the bard. "I don't mind complications in my life when it's something I want so bad." She squeezed the ruler's hands. "And I want you… I want to find out what this is… together."

"I don't want you to end up hurt in this," confessed the Conqueror. She leaned closer to Gabrielle finally. "Not again."

"Well I can pretty much guarantee we're both going to hurt each other," reminded the bard. "Just comes with the territory but its different when it's done with intent."

Xena agreed with Gabrielle's words. She sighed but said nothing as she read the determination painted in Gabrielle's eyes and across her face.

Gabrielle took the offense by straightening for some height and leaned in again. She captured the Conqueror in a soft, tender kiss in hopes it'd draw her out. She pulled back with her fingertips grazing over Xena's cheek. "Please, Xena."

The Conqueror closed her eyes and whispered, "If we're together then there can't be anybody else for either of us so long as we're together."

Gabrielle softy smiled because she knew it was more Xena's declaration than anything else. She then discovered intent blue eyes reading her.

"Promise me if this gets too much for you, Gabrielle that you tell me?"

"I will," promised the bard. "I trust you."

The Conqueror finally responded by leaning in for a kiss that started soft then pressed harder. Gabrielle easily met her back and she moaned at the end of the feverish kiss. She then grinned at the bard's darkened features after the kiss but as excited as she was to be with Gabrielle she couldn't hide from the nervousness. Never had anybody in her life made her nervous but this younger woman and that fact reeked havoc on her thoughts now. Xena was hard press to set her fears aside about how this would go between them. She tried to remain focused on her coursing sensations while helping Gabrielle sit in her lap.

Gabrielle enjoyed her advantage from straddling the ruler's lap. She grasped Xena's broad, padded shoulders and leaned in for another kiss. She was excited by the sensations and her skin meeting the ruler's skin or her leathers. She tried to remain balance in Xena's lap but her focus was diverted by the searing kiss.

An alarming realization about being with Gabrielle came to mind at the end of the kiss. The Conqueror unexpectedly broke the kiss, which caused Gabrielle to lose her equilibrium then without warning the pair lost their narrow stability on the log. The Conqueror landed flat on her back off the log then the air was shot out of by the bard's body slamming against hers.

Gabrielle remained still then unexpectedly she started to laugh and she buried her tear streaked face into the ruler's neck. "Oh… my gods," she rasped between the fit of laughter.

Xena didn't know what else to do beside join in at the unpredictable moment. She wrapped her arms around the small woman on top of her and tried to untangle their legs as not to hurt the bard's ankle.

Gabrielle tried to settle down but the fact that they just had such a terrible episode was beyond her. Here she was about to sleep with the rumored ruler, who was known for her sexual appetite that matched a predator and yet they ended up falling off a log. It would take her awhile to figure out why it'd happened.

Xena breathed deeply then quietly asked, "Are you okay?"

"I'm great," muttered the giggling bard. She lifted her head then her amused features met the ruler's. "We better not tell anybody about this one, my liege."

The Conqueror sighed and rolled her eyes. "Let's try the bedrolls."

"Maybe that would be safer," joked the bard.

"Don't ruin my reputation, bard," teased the Conqueror.

Gabrielle got to her feet carefully with her friend's help. She then was slowly led to the bedrolls and she let the Conqueror moved them together for a more comfortable situation.

Xena straightened up but came closer to the bard.

Gabrielle read the underlying tension in the Conqueror's body. She slipped her arms around Xena's waist and whispered, "You're nervous."

The ruler knew it was a keen observation but she couldn't admit it out loud.

Gabrielle softly smiled at how precious she found that about the Conqueror. "I'm nervous too," she admitted in hopes it'd ease Xena on some level. "Come on, turn around." She kept her weight on her other foot while she helped with the armor after getting the sheathed sword off.

Xena dropped her heavy armor away from the bedroll but in her left hand was her sword. She quickly placed her sword and chakram then breast dagger close by the bedrolls yet not in a dangerous spot. She saw that Gabrielle sat down on the bedrolls, which gave her an opportunity to remove her boots and greaves. She put those aside with her armor then finally sat on the bedroll beside the bard. "You're sure about this?"

"Very sure," answered the nearing bard. Gabrielle lured the ruler in for another kiss to warm them back up. She sensed the tension streaming through the Conqueror but she was set to work it out of her. "Come on," she whispered after the kiss, "I know you can't normally be like this."

"I'm not," agreed the ruler. "I just…."

Gabrielle stroked the Conqueror's cheek and smiled warmly. "It's okay. It's just us and it's not perfect but… it is to me." She leaned in for another kiss to persuade the ruler.

Xena's response grew as she let go of the control. Gabrielle's words having helped settle her self arguing. She warmed up by the third kiss and was pushing Gabrielle down on her back. She lay on top of the bard but kept her weight off of her mostly.

The bard smiled up at the now calmer ruler. "Xena?"

The Conqueror raised an eyebrow but her eyes were rather smoldering.

"Not to… um…." Gabrielle started to blush. "Not to add any pressure to this situation but I thought this deserves warning."

The Conqueror's eyebrow hiked up even further if it was possible. "Gaaabrielle," she drew out in a sultry tone.

The bard shivered at the tone but she sheepishly smiled then muttered, "I know I'm the Amazon Queen and all but I haven't really…." She waved her hand at their current position and situation. "I've just never…."

The Conqueror audibly groaned, her eyes now closed and her head slumped. "Don't tell me you could still join Hestia, Gabrielle?"

"Yes," squeaked the bard. "I always told Perdicus we were going to wait until he and I were married. I… uh…." She stopped and just groaned with her eyes shutting.

Xena lifted her head and gazed at the distraught bard below her. She lowered her head and kissed the bard lightly while whispering, "I don't want me to be your first experience, Gabrielle. You deserve-"

"Let me decide that," cut off the bard. "It is my choice and I've made it." She waited a beat then pulled out her trumpet card. "Please, Xena I want it to be with you."

The Conqueror couldn't help a soft laugh at the ego stroking technique. "You're relentless, Gabrielle."

"I like to have my way when it comes to you."

"You're very good at it too," admitted the ruler.

"I'll keep it a secret between us," teased the bard. She then was kept quiet by a light kiss. Then she tensed up sharply when Xena's lips lowered to her neck. She wasn't a hundred percent sure what to expect tonight but she was educated enough to know the general process. She wasn't an expert on male-female sex and two women, well that was slightly beyond her but she had to guess it would be somewhat similar.

The Conqueror came back up to capture Gabrielle's lips in a longer kiss. At the end of the kiss, she softly instructed, "Relax, Gabrielle."

The bard nodded but she was still somewhat tense.

The Conqueror could understand why and she didn't take it personal. She would go slow so it would ease Gabrielle into everything. She also had no idea what Gabrielle would enjoy so she began testing the waters. After a kiss, she tried the bard's left ear, which made the bard respond well.

Gabrielle's moans filtered in the air and her left hand dug into the furs while her right arm was around the ruler's back.

Xena moved and tried the bard's right ear with the same repeating patterns with her tongue and sucking.

Gabrielle couldn't help her reaction and she started to giggle. When Xena slightly pulled back she quietly explained, "It tickles… don't ask me why."

The Conqueror's frame shook from a silent laugh but she decided to bring back the mood swiftly. She gently nipped the bard's ear knowing that wouldn't tickle a bit.

Gabrielle sucked in her breath and her nails dug into the ruler's back.

Xena still sensed the tension in the younger woman but she continued to work at it. She came to Gabrielle's neck and placed a few soft kisses in calculated spots. She then took bites more to the sides, which brought moans out of the bard.

The bard felt her body burn all over but it was centered between her legs and her desire heightened. Xena's hot lips left her upper chest then suddenly appeared against her bare stomach. She softly moaned and her back somewhat arched into Xena's kisses. Then Xena's hand was sliding up the outside of her thigh, which enticed the bard.

The Conqueror brought her lips brushing over the bard's navel then her tongue lightly touched over the soft skin. She didn't expect the light giggle from the bard again. She lifted her head and smirked when Gabrielle lifted her flushed face. "Another ticklish spot?"

The Amazon Queen showed a coy smile and groaned while dropping her head down. She threaded her hands through Xena's hair and managed to pull the cascading raven hair back so that it would tickle her stomach as badly.

The Conqueror moved back up to Gabrielle to steal a kiss. She sensed Gabrielle's hands going to the back of her neck instead. She lifted up some to study Gabrielle's passionate face and it made her grin. She huskily whispered, "Sit up for me." Xena rocked back some until she was more upright.

Gabrielle sat up then captured Xena's lips for another kiss.

The Conqueror busied her hands behind Gabrielle's back. She tried to work the leather halter's clasp in the back but wasn't succeeding. She ended the kiss.

Gabrielle determined the agitated features of the ruler because of the top. "Wait." Her imagination already predicted the ruler going for her dagger to solve the problem of the disagreeing top. "There's a trick to it." She reached behind and her fingers mixed with Xena's around the metal clasp.

The Conqueror bared her teeth and growled from frustration. "This is ridiculous." She was surprisingly breathing heavily.

The bard helped Xena get the clasp but she noted something interesting; Xena's hands were shaking. "You're still nervous?" Her features showed her compassion and she thought it was enduring of the ruler.

"I'm not," lied the ruler. She released an annoyed sigh when the clasp freed and she was able to slip the top off Gabrielle. Together they set the top aside and Xena lowered Gabrielle back down.

Gabrielle closed her eyes then she took a sharp intake of air when Xena's leather brushed over her hardening nipples. She was entranced by another searching kiss. Then her breathing escalated as Xena's lips made the slow journey down her neck, across her chest, and pausing beside her right nipple. Her muscle tightened against her skin around her arms and legs when Xena's hot hand slid up her left side and closer to her other breast but not too close.

Xena toyed with Gabrielle by running the tip of her tongue around the tanned ring of the nipple but never touching. She nipped just beside, which caused Gabrielle to growl between frustration and desire. Then finally her tongue lightly grazed across the waiting nipple but she lifted her head and lightly blew across the moist nipple.

Gabrielle followed her instincts to correct the torment. She arched her back and was pleased by the silky lips going around her throbbing nipple. She groaned while she clung to her partner's stronger body.

The Conqueror tested the bard's pleasures by first rolling her tongue over the nipple then flickering it. She was met by digging nails on her back followed by moans. She then pulled back slightly so that her teeth clamped the nipple then she increased the bite. She tensed at the extra sharp hiss from the bard and she knew it was too hard. Xena eased her pressure and brought her tongue back over the nipple to sooth any previous pain.

The bard freed her left hand and placed it over Xena's right hand by her other breast. She urged Xena's hand closer to her breast then overtop.

The Conqueror grinned at Gabrielle's silent instruction to knead her other breast. She did so while Gabrielle's hand stayed on top of hers. She kept her lips over the other nipple and her tongue working it. After several more heartbeats, Xena paused and freed from the left breast. She came back up for a kiss.

Gabrielle opened her eyes at the end of the kiss. "Don't stop this."

"I'm not… just switching sides," murmured the grinning ruler. True to her word, she kissed her way down to the other breast and repeated much of what she discovered Gabrielle enjoyed. Xena kept moving slowly through the rhythms and at first it was increasing awkward as she didn't know Gabrielle's body. The slow pleasure led her to certain conclusions about what Gabrielle really enjoyed, somewhat enjoyed, and what was her limitations. She even discovered yet another ticklish spot just at the lowest point of her abdomen and Gabrielle almost squirmed right out of the bedrolls.

This first time together wasn't perfect as most poetic bards would write as each move was new and unknown for the couple. The Conqueror had never once been nervous during sex but tonight was different when she discovered Gabrielle's body. She was slow, cautious, and for the first time she felt pleased by giving to her partner and that new experience was precious to the ruler. Gabrielle, at a few moments, felt rather embarrassed by all her ticklish spots that came to light between them. She then was convinced that Xena would rip the Amazon skirt apart when another clasp refused to agree but Gabrielle hastily solved the problem.

Xena then demonstrated how easily her leathers slipped free. Then when her skin met Gabrielle's, their moans of pleasure and desire mixed in the air. Gabrielle felt amazed by the feeling of her moist skin gliding across Xena's but she grew tense when Xena's fingers came closer to her center.

The Conqueror was resting partially on her left side, next to Gabrielle, but her legs tangled with the bard's right. She observed how Gabrielle had her legs open in anticipation yet the strain coursing through the small body was evident. She somewhat lifted her body up by her left arm and gently gazed into Gabrielle's nervous face. "If you relax it'll be easier."

Gabrielle nodded then lifted her head some for a soft kiss. The kiss kept her attention and coaxed her while Xena traced her fingers through Gabrielle's moist, warm folds. She deeply inhaled at the end of the kiss but peered up into the dark blue eyes above her.

Xena offered a smile to settle the bard. She lowered her head and whispered, "Are you sure?"

"More than anything," assured Gabrielle. She received a quick kiss but when Xena lifted away some she felt the longer fingers slowly ease into her. Gabrielle slowly lowered back down into the furs but her gaze kept on Xena's watching face.

The Conqueror carefully moved her fingers forward and observed Gabrielle's face for any indication of pain. She then paused when there was an abrupt stopping point so she lowered her head closer to Gabrielle's. "You truly are beautiful, Gabrielle… thank you."

Gabrielle instantly had a smile and her eyes burned but she laced her fingers through Xena's tresses when Xena's fingers moved forward. Her eyes closed and a brief display of pain flashed past followed by a sharp breath. Her body tensed all over but she didn't tighten her grip on Xena.

The Conqueror watched intently but stayed her movements for a beat. She let her younger lover get use to the sensations because Gabrielle was extremely stiff and any sudden moving could worsen it. She lowered her head and gave slow kisses to ease the bard.

Gabrielle settled against the furs and her shoulders lowered back down. She left fingers didn't dig into the furs as much while her right hand massaged the ruler's neck. Her stomach muscle hid back under her skin and her body focused on the beautiful feeling of Xena inside of her.

Gradually Xena pulled her fingers back closer to the entrance, paused for a beat, and moved them back deeper. She kept the slow pace and was relieved to detect Gabrielle's inside muscles accepting her better.

Gabrielle partially opened her eyes but they were heavy from desire again. She smirked and huskily whispered, "I'm repeating myself but… does this thing go faster?"

The Conqueror chuckled and grinned at the smart remark. She kept her slow tempo just to frustrate her partner; her vibrating voice asked, "What's it worth to you?"

The bard figured she could play too as she quipped, "What's it worth to you later?" She quickly received an answer when the rhythm doubled and her thought process shattered by pleasure.

Xena grew smug at seeing Gabrielle lifted her hips into the motions. She enjoyed seeing the bard widening her legs in a demand. Xena took an advantage by capturing the nearby nipple and teasing it.

"Oh gods," whimpered the excited bard. She clawed her right hand into the furs while her left hand slipped to Xena's shoulder and her nails dug into muscles.

The Conqueror's pace grew faster and faster to match the bard's hungry desire. She pulled back from teasing the nipple, which allowed Gabrielle to lift her head. Xena enjoyed seeing how Gabrielle actually watched Xena thrust her fingers in and out. Xena realized it seemed to bring Gabrielle an extra wave of pleasure. Together, she and Gabrielle watched Xena pump the bard faster and harder.

Then one of the deep thrusts sent Gabrielle past her highest point. She gave a cry and Xena's fingers stilled inside of her from the sudden tightness. Gabrielle slumped into the hot furs while her body flashed with more than she currently understood. Her mind was blank of thoughts and her emotions quiet for several heartbeats.

The Conqueror very carefully withdrew her fingers so that nothing would hurt. She knew Gabrielle may be sore later but right now that wasn't something Gabrielle felt in this moment. She felt both of Gabrielle's legs tangling with hers then short arms coming around her waist.

Nothing at first seemed perfect during their first time but it was beautiful as Xena learned Gabrielle's innocence and Gabrielle experienced Xena's most hidden side. It wasn't until Gabrielle felt Xena completely in her that her tension had faded away and something else passed into her, which she didn't understand yet but she knew it was beautiful. The bard couldn't imagine any other experience being so perfect to her; it was her sweet memory for life.

The Conqueror held tight to the fact this felt like her first time because she found pleasure by giving it. It was her personal secret. Yet it showed because she normal would separate from her sex partners after being with them and instead she pulled Gabrielle into her body.

Gabrielle's breathing started to regulate and she nuzzled her face into her lover's sticky neck. She turned onto her right side and was able to snuggle deeper. "Thank you, Xena."

The Conqueror ran her fingertips up and down Gabrielle's back lightly just to soothe her. "Thank you too, Gabrielle." She closed her eyes as the words, you don't know how thankful either, passed through her head.

It wasn't long before the couple faded into sleep. Xena was amazed she was fairly spent like Gabrielle because typically afterwards she found herself more energized and needy. It seemed like a mystery to the ruler but she accepted it happily as a few candlemarks claimed her. She was awaken by nimble fingers playing with certain parts of her body.

Gabrielle followed her partner's earlier demonstrations yet she realized Xena's enjoyments were different compared to hers. Where Gabrielle would prefer lighter nips Xena found pleasure in harder ones. The bard was quite intrigued that her lover seemed to find gratification from having her stomach given attention. Gabrielle also counted at least a dozen various scars of different lengths, depths, and widths from old battles and she made notes to ask later. She also slowed on the newer scar on the ruler's left side, made by Alti, and she kissed it in gratification for it healing.

When Gabrielle came close to entering Xena, she moved more on top of the ruler. She sought Xena's support on how to please her properly and at first she was uneasy in being able to do it. Under the Conqueror's confidence, Gabrielle quickly learned the right pace and somehow Xena showed her how to use her thumb over her clit. Gabrielle grinned wildly at the immediate response this technique brought out of the ruler.  

The Conqueror fell silent in her instructions when she couldn't possible think anymore. Gabrielle's quick fingers stroked her well while her clit was being rolled. A few moments Xena grew closer to the top but when Gabrielle's thumb lost position it made her growl out of frustration.

Gabrielle steady her self frustration from what she thought was messing up. She calmed her lover by kissing her then centered her focus on Xena's moving hips. She followed the consistent beat and learned it quickly. She returned to the faster pace and she found her grin again when Xena moaned in pleasure. The Conqueror's pleasure set Gabrielle forward and she tried faster.

The Conqueror released her right hand from the furs and laced her fingers through Gabrielle's freehand. She opened her eyes and locked on the beautiful features of the bard above her.

Gabrielle's earlier grin was coaxed into a smile because of Xena's exposed emotions. She read the mix of emotions clearly slipping through the ruler's brilliant eyes. It made Gabrielle feel incredible to see the real Xena before her.

Xena bit her lower lip, her eyes shutting, and her body arching ever higher. She didn't overly squeeze Gabrielle's hand but held tight while her passions over threw her senses. She was shocked by one last jolt from Gabrielle's unexpected thrust then it all calmed. Her breath held for a few beats then her chest fell quickly as her labored breathing returned.

Gabrielle mimicked Xena's earlier administrations of removing her fingers from the tight swell of Xena's center. She then kissed Xena's cheek and rubbed her cheek against Xena's in an affectionate manner.

The Conqueror combed her left hand through the bard's hair and turned her head to place a kiss on Gabrielle's temple. She then murmured, "Thank you."

Gabrielle nervously asked, "It was okay?" She then started to toy with the Conqueror's Gaelic necklace.

Xena slightly grinned at the worries. The sex she'd had in her life had always been the same but this was different than all of it. It was that difference that brought her to a more satisfying climax than previous times. "Very okay."

The bard rested her face against the ruler's so that they couldn't see each other but their lips were a brush away from their ears. "I've heard it gets better when the partners get to know each other's bodies….?"

"Mmmm." The Conqueror slipped her left hand across the bard's back while Gabrielle's hand clung to her shoulder. They still held hands at her right side. "It does over time… as we learn more."

Gabrielle gently chuckled and whispered, "I learned a lot tonight."

"You're a quick study too," teased the Conqueror.

Gabrielle kissed the side of Xena's neck then remarked, "It’s a bard thing… being good with my hands."

Xena heartedly laughed after she twisted her head away. She turned back when Gabrielle lifted her head.

The bard mirrored the smile that showed on her lover's face. "I like this."

"What's that?"

Gabrielle shrugged and answered, "You and me… nothing and nobody else here."

"Ah." The Conqueror understood what her young partner meant, her features slightly dark at the thought of returning to the duties of the realm.

"I know," muttered the bard, "duty will call soon." She tilted her head then decided on a certain truth. "That's what made this so special… to me."

Xena completely agreed. She ran circles over the bard's bare back. "To me too." She then freed both her hands and reached around for the furs to cover them. With a quick glance to the fire, she decided it would last the rest of the night and the now warming furs would keep them warm tonight. Her cooling skin warmed back up from her body heat and Gabrielle's trapped under the furs.

Gabrielle curled up against her lover and rested her head against the broad shoulder. "It's okay?"

The Conqueror understood the Amazon's underlying question since they were snuggled up together. "Yes. Go to sleep because dawn will be here soon."

Gabrielle yawned some then settled in comfortably then sleepily muttered, "Sleep well… my liege."

The Conqueror's lips thinned from her consideration at how the bard said her title. She tasted a very different tone in the title as if it was more of an endearment than just her title. Her response was a kiss to Gabrielle's head then she quieted down until her dreamscape came for her.

Helios's wakening wasn't too far away from when the new lovers fell asleep. Apollo mounted his chariot and started his daily journey across the sky. The sun's rays streamed through the darkness and chased Artemis's moon away. The gentle red hues washed over the new lovers curled up under the furs and beside an almost dead fire.

The Conqueror, of her great realm, carefully slipped out from the tangle of arms and legs. She silently put on her leathers, boots, and greaves but she left the rest for later. She ran her fingers through her messy hair while unknowingly smiling down at her younger lover. She actually felt stumped by all the changes her life had seen in these past moons but she welcomed them all. She decided Gabrielle would sleep for awhile longer and this gave her time to prepare a quick breakfast and warm up water in the renewed fire.

Gabrielle slowly sat up but her right arm clamped the fur over her bare chest. She blinked a few times so that the fuzziness worked out of her eyes. She tilted her head at seeing the Conqueror knelt beside the fire and pouring steaming water into mugs.

Xena slightly grinned at the young woman then greeted, "Good morning." She got to her feet with the brewing mugs and took a seat on the furs beside Gabrielle.

The Amazon Queen just bit back her yawn then she grinned. "Good morning too." She accepted the very warm mug from her lover. She happily groaned at the tea flavor.

The ruler sat cross legged and quietly sipping on her Chin tea. She cupped her mug with both hands when she settled it into her lap. "How's your ankle feel?"

Gabrielle stared down at her fur covered ankle in question. She wiggled her foot under the fur and it didn't bother her yet she knew it could be a different story once she stood on it. "It doesn't hurt to move it around."

"That's a good sign," agreed the ruler. She then set her mind when she stated, "You're going to ride Argo today."

"Ugh," grumbled the Amazon. "And I can't complain my way out of that one either."

Xena chuckled but lost her amusement. "Afraid not, bard."

Gabrielle peered up into vivid blue eyes that were more alive than Gabrielle could ever recall. She went still in the moment and Gabrielle enjoyed how her lover called her a bard in an affectionate manner. She sighed contently then asked, "Will we make it to Corinth tonight?"

The Conqueror considered the question as her eyebrow slowly climbed up. "We can be."

The bard's lips puckered as she carefully calculated what was being said to her. She sipped on her tea to give her an extra beat then she asked, "We don't need to rush back, do we? Or do you have to be back for… something?"

The ruler took another swallow of her warm tea before answering, "I just have scrollwork waiting me and it's not going anywhere." She saw that hope written in the bard's eyes so she made her decision. "We'll get there tomorrow morning or so."

Gabrielle agreed by her smile. She then wiggled out of the furs to get dressed.

The Conqueror passed the time by getting the breakfast together and she quickly ate with Gabrielle. Afterwards she hastily walked down to the stream to clean the dishes. She knelt beside the shore and submerged the mugs in the chilled water.

The water was slowly moving through the stream but it rippled when the mugs broke the surface. When the mugs came back out the ripples faded away.

The Conqueror instincts heightened abruptly and she saw the smiling face reflecting in the water. She jumped to her feet with the mugs forgotten on the bank. She held up her hands in defense but she visibly relaxed and murmured, "M'Lila?"

M'Lila's smile brightened and she silently stepped closer to her friend. "How are you, my friend?"

The Conqueror was dumbfounded but she stepped closer as her hands went back to her sides. "I'm well. Why are you here? How are you here?"

The Gaelic warrior signaled the necklace around the ruler's neck.

Xena peered down and saw that it was glowing much like it had against Alti. She returned her focus to her friend. "What kind of magic is this?"

M'Lila stepped closer then quietly answered, "It is not magic, Xena but power from the earth mother."

"You mean Danu?" At M'Lila's nod, Xena stated, "You knew the emblem would protect me from Alti."

"I could not let you face her completely alone," urged the Gaelic. "You and Alti would have killed each other if you had no protection against her shamanism."

The Conqueror was solemnly but she sincerely offered, "Thank you, M'Lila… I owe you my life again."

M'Lila felt her friend's compassion and she instinctively reached out to touch Xena but her hand passed through the ruler's shoulder.

Xena saw it and the even sadder expression on M'Lila's face afterwards. "Why did you come?"

"I came to thank you," answered the Gaelic. At seeing Xena's perplexed features she explained everything. "Borias, Chuang, and I have been rejudged because you defeated Alti. Originally Hades had been furious we helped you escape but when Alti was defeated the souls she'd taken were released. Hades and the judges decided that our motives in saving you were good and just."

The Conqueror became stunned but she was relieved too. "Where are you now?"

M'Lila softly smiled and answered, "We have been moved to the meadows. It will not be long before our karmas will be granted life again."

"What of Lyceus?"

"Lyceus has found peace in Elysia now… I hear he spends time with Gabrielle's family." M'Lila enjoyed her friend's further shocked features. "Lyceus visits me on occasions and tells me such."

A thought occurred to the ruler so she hastily asked, "Did Lyceus mention which of Gabrielle's family members he sees?"

"Her mother and father," replied the Gaelic.

The Conqueror felt hope for Gabrielle's sister at that point but she wouldn't rest faith in it yet.

"I have heard your thoughts often," mentioned M'Lila, "I am happy you have found Gabrielle."

Xena glanced back towards the camp then to her friend. "So am I."

M'Lila tilted her head then observed a hidden aspect about the ruler. "It has been a long time since you've been this scared, my friend."

The Conqueror's head drooped but she rose it up again. "I have so much I could lose now, M'Lila… and I don't want to risk it."

"You will find your balance, Xena… and Gabrielle will help you do such." The Gaelic read the tension softening in the ruler.

The Conqueror's attention snapped to the left when she heard somebody approaching.

M'Lila turned her head to the right and her smile showed at seeing the young, small blond only several paces away.

Gabrielle stopped and stared very confusing at the darkly tanned woman standing next to her lover. "I… I was concerned… when you didn't return sooner." She adjusted her staff in her right hand but her eyes flickered between Xena and the stranger.

Xena signaled for the bard to come closer and when she stood beside her she held out her hand to M'Lila. "Gabrielle, this is M'Lila."

The Amazon Queen smiled warmly and out of habit she held up her right hand. "I've heard so much about you. I'm sorry we didn't get to meet before you were… killed… you're dead."

M'Lila's smile went into an amused grin. She saw the outstretched hand that went back to the bard's side so she peered up at her tall friend. "You did not mention she was so cute, Xena?"

The bard's mouth was wide and she glimpsed up at her lover for help. That's when Gabrielle first noticed that the Gaelic necklace was quite lively by a golden aura.

The Conqueror lifted her right hand and rested it on Gabrielle's closest shoulder. "M'Lila came to tell me that she, Borias, Chuang, and my brother have been rejudged for better afterlives."

"By the gods," murmured the Amazon, who returned her attention to the Gaelic. "Why?"

M'Lila rested her hands on her hips. "It is because Xena has defeated Alti for the Greater Good."

"You were rewarded for helping then," concluded the bard. After M'Lila's nod Gabrielle's anxiety eased about the ghost of M'Lila being here. "That's wonderful."

M'Lila smiled at those simple words. "I owe you as well, Gabrielle for standing beside Xena when she was at her darkest." Her focus was on Gabrielle but she felt Xena watching her. "Xena has been lost much of her life but you have guided her back."

Gabrielle shook her head then claimed, "I only pointed her in the right direction… Xena found her way home." Her shoulder was squeezed gently so she peered up at her partner.

"I didn't do it alone," murmured the ruler.

"You never will have to," quietly promised the bard.

M'Lila sadly smiled at the growing bond between the women. She'd always hoped to create such a bond with her friend yet she was happy seeing her friend discover her life again. "I must return to meadows, my friend." She tilted her head then spoke to the bard. "It was a pleasure to finally meet you, Gabrielle."

"You as well, M'Lila." The Amazon Queen flashed a smile.

M'Lila nodded then gave Xena a tender smile. "Stay well, my friend… our paths will cross again." She held up her left hand.

The Conqueror lifted her right hand and she almost felt her palm touch M'Lila's but then her fingers passed through M'Lila's smaller fingers. Then she sadly watched as the smiling Gaelic vanished like steam. "Goodbye, my friend," she emotionally murmured.

Gabrielle watched the ruler's arm lower then she slowly turned around. "You okay?"

The Conqueror's chest no longer radiated yellow from the necklace but she tried to smile. "Yes. We need to break camp."

"Right behind you," promised the bard, who leaned onto her good ankle.

It wasn't long before the pair found themselves about to depart the now empty camp. Gabrielle was already on Argo and she was about to slip her boots into the stirrups but then she felt a solid hand on her thigh.

"Keep your feet out of the stirrups."

"I'll fall out," argued the bard.

The Conqueror faintly grinned but patted the warm thigh under her hand. It only took her three beats to haul her armored body into the saddle, behind the smaller woman.

"Oh," murmured the bard.

The ruler's grin widened as she settled into the saddle. "Comfortable?"

"Mmm," agreed Gabrielle. She then was about to lean into her partner but she stopped. "Can you tie this to the saddlebags?" she questioned as she removed her mask.

The Conqueror did so without hesitation. She then twisted back in the saddle, gathered up the reins, and gave Argo the signal to begin the walk towards the road. "We'll camp about two candlemarks south of Corinth."

Gabrielle mutely agreed. She grasped the saddle to anchor her but then she caught sight of the ruler jumbling up the reins into her right hand. Next she felt the ruler's strong arm snake across her waist and hold her tightly. It made a smile shape her lips. "You know, we should just not go to Corinth."

The Conqueror could tell her lover was playing the bard; a wistful dream was on the horizon and she decided to indulge it. "Oh?"

"Melinda told me that you and I were partners in her world… that we fought for the Greater Good." The bard tilted her head and she spotted the road not far away. "We just roamed the countryside and helped people."

Xena tilted her head and was provided with a profile view of the younger woman. "So I was a do-gooder huh?"

The Amazon Queen tasted the witticism in the ruler's voice. "Not exactly… she mentioned that Xena, in her world, followed much of the same path as you did here."

"Oh?" Xena straightened up in the saddle. "What changed me?"

"Who changed you," corrected the bard, "some man by the name of Hercules." She noted her lover's quietness so she filled the air again. "We could do a lot of good."

"And have we not already?" countered the ruler.

Gabrielle smiled at the memories of her and the Conqueror working together back at the fortress during those moons. "We have already… its just different." She shook her head then mentioned, "In Corinth we must adhere to certain rules. We are watched there. We have deadlines to maintain." She shook her head. "To be on the road is to be…."

"Free," finished the Conqueror in a low voice. "A long time ago I realized my throne to the realm meant my life long servitude. I am a slave to the polis."

"Do you really see it as such?" argued the queen.

"Sometimes." Xena went silent as she carefully considered it more. Unknowingly she ran her thumb up and down her lover's taut stomach in sync to her thoughts. "I am bound to the polis by my throne but I am committed to Greece by my will."

A thought occurred to the bard and she gently asked, "If you could descend the throne, knowing it would go in good hands, would you do it?"

The Conqueror was quiet for some time.

Gabrielle waited patiently as she knew she'd receive an answer. She gazed down the road they'd just rode onto and it was fairly quiet.

"No," definitely answered the ruler.

The Amazon Queen twisted and peered up into her friend's determined features. "The power?"

"At one point in my life, yes." Xena saw the confusion written in her lover so she finally answered, "The peace."

"But if the realm is left in capable-"

"You can't know how the enemies are, Gabrielle," softly reminded the ruler. "You cannot trade one ruler for another and not expect change either within the realm or outside of it."

Gabrielle shook her head then she challenged, "If it's about the peace then… then why the Norselands?"

The Conqueror knew the bard was questioning her motives and typically she wouldn't allow such from anybody. She wasn't prickled or defensive by the question because Gabriele clearly was trying to understand her. "I plan to move my legions to the east… there are invasions from the Germanics."

"You're not taking the Norselands?"

"No," murmured the ruler, "and I want peace from the Germanics but it won't happen anytime soon."

"What changed your mind?"

Xena sensed the bard relaxing into her body, which she took as a good sign. "You changed my mind."

Gabrielle was stunned by the honest confession. She rested her hand on the top of the saddle horn and she let out a long exhale.

"I am only one woman, Gabrielle… I cannot rule the entire known-world from my throne in Corinth."

"Then what do you mean to do?"

The Conqueror wasn't sure her route yet but she knew she'd find a new way to do it. "I don't know yet but… I could use your help on it."

The Amazon Queen was silent for awhile. She sensed the ruler tensing against her because she was taking so long to reply to the offer. She moved her hand off the saddle horn and covered Xena's with hers. "As your advisor of state?"

The ruler conceded that it would be the best starting point for them. "Yes." She lowered her head then whispered, "I cannot speak for all of the realm's future but I can speak for Greece's. Greece will remain in internal peace so long as I stay in power."

"You love Greece," whispered the bard.

"How can I not?" argued the ruler. "I will not abandon my Grecian polis. I will not allow Greece to fall under the plunder of petty kings and warlords." She shook her head then promised, "Nor will I allow the tyrant to return."

Gabrielle squeezed her lover's hand. "When we return from Egypt I will return as your state advisor… my liege."

Xena lowered her head then placed a grateful kiss to her lover's shoulder. She felt a smile touch her. "Thank you." Her smile grew as she felt how Gabrielle had made an endearment of her title compared to anybody else that spoke it.

The day quietly passed without any trouble on the roads. Xena made sure to divert from any populated areas as she knew that may prove the opportunity for her to be identify. When they were roughly two candlemarks from Corinth she veered Argo off the road and stopped only when she discovered a nice clearing. The rest of the late afternoon kept the ruler busy as she prepared camp. Gabrielle tried to help as much as she could but her ankle kept her slow moving. The pain had subsided quite a bit however she was too fearful it'd be easy to encourage it to heal slower if she wasn't careful.

When they finally settled down for dinner, they shared gentle banter and remained relax compared to what many would expect from the Conqueror. After cleaning up from dinner, Gabrielle happily reclined beside her lover in the furs and together they star gazed for the first time. The bard recalled doing this as a child with her sister much like Xena recalled doing this with her brother. Now they shared stars together.

"Look, it’s a dipper there, Xena." The Amazon Queen extended her right arm and drew the constellations together with her index finger. "See?"

The Conqueror chuckled and replied, "What the Hades is a dipper?"

The bard dropped her arm to her stomach. "Yeah, you know, like one of those cups you use to draw water out of a bucket."

Xena's features crinkled together. "It looks like a bear to me."

"A bear?" Gabrielle turned her head to her lover. "Where do you get a bear?"

The ruler sighed, lifted her left arm, and carefully traced the stars to form the bear she saw up there. "There's the body." She stopped and moved her hand further. "See its little ears?"

The bard's lips puckered. "No." Her imagination just wasn't capturing this bear in the heavens. Abruptly she laughed but tried to weakly get out, "I'm the bard and I can't even see this bear."

The Conqueror sighed as her arm went back over her leather clad stomach. She was bare of her armor and weapons plus her boots were already off. She'd just taken her gauntlets off but she kept her arm bracers on for now. "I see a bear." She glowered at her friend. "Tomato… Tamoto."

Gabrielle went into a fit of giggles again and shook her head. She covered her reddened faced with her right hand then whispered, "And you said 'little ears'. By the gods." Her body was racked by more giggles.

"I think I may go sleep on the other side of the fire." Xena started to sit up then was working to get onto her feet. Just as she suspected a small hand shot out and yanked her back onto the furs.

"I'm sorry." Gabrielle's tone though showed she was far from serious.

"Nope… that's okay," protested the ruler. She tried again to get up. "I try to be imaginative and I get poked at."

The bard giggled again but not as much. She still held her lover's wrist but she needed to act quickly. She used her best card and sweetly asked, "You're not going to make me get up on my bad ankle to stop you, are you?"

"You're rotten, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle smiled innocently.

The Conqueror was stern as her eyes narrowed. She relented after a deep sigh then she sunk back into the bedroll and furs. "Happy now?"

"Very." The bard had her head turn to her partner. Her eyes glowed brightly.

The Conqueror softly smiled at the younger woman beside her. Gabrielle's small hand still held her wrist but slowly moved up and their fingers laced together. But then it was Gabrielle's longing in her eyes that made her worry. "What is it?" She squeezed the bard's hand.

The Amazon Queen drove away her deep thoughts. "I guess… I… what are we… what we doing, Xena?" She signaled their linked hands by lifting them. "I'm not complaining or anything but… I mean I want to be with you but when we hit Corinth…."

Xena slowly exhaled because she'd been considering the same things. "We're going to take it a day at a time, Gabrielle."

The bard's lips creased into a smile. "I know we will." She turned back to the starry sky and softly spoke again. "I still have to be the Amazon Queen… I have to balance this along with being your state advisor."

"Are you up to it?" carefully asked the ruler. "It will be a lot of work."

"Just keep your current advisor until we get back from Egypt," urged the bard.

"I will try," teased the Conqueror.

Gabrielle chuckled but went sober again. "I want to do this… together."

Xena turned her head and showed a smile. "We can do this together."

"There's so much we can do," murmured the bard, "together we'll be unlimited."

"It won't be easy, Gabrielle." The Conqueror grew serious and held the listening bard's gaze. "You will have many enemies… people will challenge you and the changes will take time."

"It's my choice," reminded the bard, "and it's what I want." She then rolled onto her right side so that her body faced the ruler. "Besides I know you'll be there by my side just like I will be at yours."

Xena studied the young woman that held so much faith in her and the dreams. She felt as if she was hearing Lyceus all over again as he'd spoken of doing such things together. Again Xena found the stakes high but she found herself repeating what she told Lyceus so long ago. "We'll make a stand, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle squeezed her lover's hand tightly and her smile broadened.

Xena mirrored the smile back. Her mind knew this dangerous game from her past but she believed this time she was better prepared for what trials may lie ahead. Her heart wanted this too much to refuse it. She hadn't felt this alive since her days with her brother and by the gods she wasn't going to lose this.

Gabrielle rolled onto her stomach, which brought her partially on the ruler.

Xena met her halfway and drew the bard's soft lips down for a warm kiss. The passions from last night were burning again and she would have Gabrielle again tonight. She couldn't be sure if every time they were together would be as tender as tonight and last night were but she tried to keep it that way. Xena knew though that her ravaging passions were only lurking below and the right occasion would bring it out; she just hoped it would be something her and Gabrielle could work out.

Tonight though the couple found themselves in another passionate night and they didn't feel as awkward as the first night. Gabrielle was still slightly nervous while Xena had worked past that point. Gabrielle was better familiar with her lover's body but she continued to test and added more to the list. Xena, for her part, couldn't recall having such a long night full of pleasure considering most of her sex partners barely lasted in her bed for two candlemarks. It wasn't until about two candlemarks before dawn that Xena found herself with her worn lover wrapped around her body. Her body was able to cool off, her breathing regulating, and the exhaustion filled her but it was a beautiful night. She fell asleep with a smile.

The road to Corinth grew closer as it went from a dirt road into a cobblestone road with every bump included. A tall mare carried her master and a sleeping blond in the front of the saddle. The Conqueror felt a smile tug at her lips at returning to Corinth with Gabrielle not only with her but in her arms. Also just beyond the city gates waited her mother and even little Melpomene, who favored her greatly now.

Gabrielle stirred when the constant swaying stopped. She groaned and rubbed her face with her hand. "Are we… 'ere?" she asked groggily.

The ruler shifted in the saddle some. "Yes but on the ridge. I want you to see something before we go into the city."

The bard tried to rid of her sleep then she nodded. She was carefully helped off the horse and her sore ankle didn't overly both her.

Xena pulled the reins over Argo's face then tied them to a nearby tree. She then started forward while offering, "This way."

The Amazon Queen slowly followed while tugging her jacket closer to her body to keep her warm. She ducked under a low branch and came out onto the ledge that overlooked the beautiful city surrounded by two seas. "Gods," she whispered.

The Conqueror rested her hands on her hips while she scanned her capitol. "Come here… you can see it better from this spot." She held out her left hand receptively.

The bard limped over and Xena's hand went to the small of her back. The Conqueror then pointed for her towards the direction she should be observing. Her eyes widened then she breathless whispered, "By the gods."

"No," argued the ruler, "by the Conqueror."

Gabrielle blinked and peered up at her lover then the joke sunk in with her. She laughed and shook her head. "Xena, that's amazing… you accomplished it after so many could not do it."

"I didn't do much," debated the ruler, "a few hundred slaves did the work. I just signed the contract."

"Still." Gabrielle shook her head but she remained dazzled by the great canal being complete. The two seas now mixed together in the Corinth Canal that would become legendary in much of the known-world. She then noted a particular. "It looks like you're finishing the bridges?"

"Yes," agreed Xena, "the project isn't fully complete. We have to finish the three bridges but the temporary bridges have sufficed for now."

"When do you think you'll have the bridges complete?"

"I'd say in a moon or two… that's why I don't plan to rush off to Egypt."

Gabrielle smirked and teased, "Oh is that why? I thought you were just trying to irritate Queen Cleopatra more… you've only been making her wait for several moons."

"The realm comes first then my allies," whispered the ruler. "When we come back from Egypt I will hold the Isthmian Games to celebrate the canal." She then turned her attention to the bard. "I plan to free the slaves that completed this canal."

The Amazon Queen went still but she locks eyes with her lover. She exhaled sharply then whispered, "You're serious?"

"Yes," answered the Conqueror. She turned back to the canal. "They have worked hard to build the canal for the realm. The project was not simple and many risked their lives for it." She held her chin up. "They've more than earned their freedom. I plan to give them all offers to work for the realm as constructors if they wish to continue." She already had her next construction plan in mind and it would require a lot of man power.

"Gods," rasped the bard. She touched her forehead to make sure this was real. "That's…" She shook her head. "I don't know what to say." She smiled as her hand lowered to her side. "That's a wonderful thing you're giving them."

"It’s the least I or the realm could do," murmured the ruler. She then pulled away from her thoughts. "We should go." She then pulled her hand away from Gabrielle's back and started for Argo.

Gabrielle remained still at her spot and stared at the canal. She saw the hard working slaves on the three bridges and she smiled at thinking about them being free soon. She could no longer misjudge her faith that she'd been resting in Xena.

The Conqueror sensed the bard coming back. She partially turned and saw the contentment surrounding the bard. She held out her hand to Gabrielle. "We'll walk into Corinth… together."

The bard stretched out her hand and she locked it with Xena's. "Are we making a statement?"

Xena chuckled then grinned. "The Conqueror making a statement… impossible." She tugged on Argo's reins to draw her head up from the grass. She and Gabrielle marched through the woods back to the main road; her mare was in tow.

The Conqueror and the Amazon Queen slowly traveled down the busy road that led into Corinth. The citizens that passed by the dual rulers were either trying to pretend not to notice them or couldn't help but stare. The Corinthians were very familiar with their ruler as well as the former rebel leader but what they did not know was that the rebel had become an Amazon Queen. Then what made each citizen gape were the lock hands between the former enemies.

Gabrielle, for her part, had become beat red all the way into the marketplace. She couldn't believe she was doing this but when she studied Xena's stoic features she wondered how the ruler could be so calm. They were silently announcing the true nature of their relationship to anybody that passed them and it wasn't easy for Gabrielle not to grow shy. Where she found her resolve was in Xena's ability to ignore the stares and whispers that floated around them. And if Gabrielle knew better she could easily win a wager that within three candlemarks everybody in Corinth would know about her and the Conqueror.

"I want to make a quick stop," prompted the ruler.

Gabrielle kept searching the faces in the marketplace. She heard her lover so she followed off to the right when Xena targeted a particular stall.

The Conqueror slyly grinned when the man behind the stall blanched at seeing her.

"Ooo proud empress!" gushed the merchant.

"Salmoneus," sharply greeted the ruler. She released her lover's hand but brought her closer by touching her back in a hidden signal.

Salmoneus was instantly drawn to the petite blond beside the formable ruler. "By the gods… is this… no," he breathed and brought his sly grin to the ruler. "I guess I won the wager after all."

"What wager?" coldly questioned the ruler.

The merchant froze for a beat then quickly came out of it. "Just that… errr… well you see, my liege…."

Gabrielle decided it was best to save the poor man. "I hear you helped solve the mystery man," she interrupted.

Salmoneus beamed at the small woman's interjection. "Yes, I actually did… didn't I?"

The Conqueror rolled her eyes then sighed. "Salmoneus," dangerously drew out the ruler, "I brought Queen Gabrielle here so that you could meet her." She stepped closer to the stall and informed, "It seems that the queen will be retaking her position as the state advisor."

Salmoneus's eyes flickered between the ruler and Amazon Queen. "She did such a fine job last time too, my liege."

"She did," agreed the Conqueror. "I do, however, believe that Queen Gabrielle may require your assistance later down the road."

Gabrielle curiously peered up at her lover as she wondered where this would go.

The merchant leaned over his stall at this news. "Assistance with?" He looked between the bard and ruler.

"In a couple of moons or so the realm will be issuing a new decree and Queen Gabrielle will be handling this decree. She'll need somebody to help her get this decree… publicized so to speak." The Conqueror leaned closer to the merchant and sensual whispered, "I believe your… resources could be of assistance to my state advisor."

Salmoneus smiled broadly at the ruler. "Indeed it could be, my liege." He then showed more of a devilish grin. "Are we talking employment to the realm?"

"Perhaps," granted the ruler. "Maybe we can strike a deal."

Salmoneus jumped back with his hands up. "That last deal almost cost me my life! Noooo thank you."

The Conqueror bit her lower lip at the deal that Melinda Pappas had struck with the merchant so long ago. "This one wouldn't be so sensitive."

Salmoneus narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

"Maybe some exclusive marketing rights would be more to your liking, Salmoneus," suggested the ruler and she saw the merchant was clearly interested. "Just come by the fortress soon." She stepped back to her spot beside her quiet lover.

"You said queen," prompted the Salmoneus but his attention went to the bard.

Gabrielle grinned and solved the riddle for the merchant. "I am a queen of the Amazons."

"Amazons?" Salmoneus stared stupidly at the bard. "I heard they were extinct."

The Amazon Queen held out her arms in demonstration. "You heard wrong." She dropped her arms to her side then peered up at her lover. "Ready, my liege?" She held out her hand.

The Conqueror's eyes glowed warmly and she took the bard's hand. She walked off while calling to Salmoneus. "Don't forget to stop in, Sal."

The merchant grew offended and he yelled, "That's Salmoneus, my liege!" Then it struck him that the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen were holding hands as they walked off together. "By the gods… I could market this… the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen…." He eyes grew larger from an onslaught of marketing ideas. "I can see it now… tales of beauty and the beast!"

Finally the couple was welcomed into the fortress grounds and the Conqueror went to the stables to care for Argo. She wouldn't allow many others touch her horse. Gabrielle decided to follow because she wasn't completely comfortable with entering the fortress without her lover at her side. She remained quiet as she watched the Conqueror deal with untacking the mare. She was tempted to ask Xena about her intent with Salmoneus but she fell short when a voice floated through the stables to them.

"Welcome back to Corinth, my liege."

The Conqueror offered her assistant a warm smile. "Hello, Galen."

Galena dipped his head respectfully to the ruler then he smiled at the bard. "It is great to see you again, Gabrielle."

The Amazon Queen smiled warmly at Galen because she was always fond of him and his warm disposition around her. "How have you been, Galen?"

"Excellent and yourself?"

Gabrielle glanced at her lover's back then to the assistant. "I'm well, Galen."

The Conqueror came over to the closed stall door and dropped her saddlebags there. "Is everything the way I left it, Galen?"

"Of course, my liege." Galen's eyes showed no deception otherwise. "You have been missed."

The ruler grunted and returned to her mare. "Now that is a lie, Galen."

"It is not," argued the assistant, "Melpomene has inquired each day about your return."

"Oh?" prompted the ruler.

"She wishes to continue her lessons."

The Conqueror chuckled as she listened to her assistant. "I'm sure she does."

"Your mother stopped in just yesterday to hear of your arrival or not."

"How was she?" questioned the Conqueror.

Galen waited a beat then truthfully replied, "I believe she is worn from her hard work at the taverna."

That made sense to the ruler as she knew her mother had been working towards buying the taverna from the current owner. "She was fine otherwise?"

"Yes, as well as can be." Galen put his hands behind his back then turned back the bard. "Will you be staying here, Gabrielle or with Cyrene?"

Gabrielle wasn't expecting the question so she turned her gaze to the Conqueror for assistance.

The Conqueror noted the prolonged silence and she knew it was meant for her. She filled the void with her final statement. "The choice is up to Queen Gabrielle, Galen."

Galen's lips puckered at hearing the title then he assessed the attire that Gabrielle wore now. He bowed his head then stated, "I apologize, Queen Gabrielle."

The former rebel sighed and her hands found their way to her hips. "Don't even start, Galen because you know I prefer my name."

Galen's lips curled into a grin but he knew he couldn't step over the lines with his ruler here. "Of course, Queen Gabrielle."

The bard rolled her eyes as her hands fell to her side again.

"And your answer, Queen Gabrielle?"

"I'll be staying with Cyrene, Galen." Gabrielle glanced over at her lover so that she could decipher something but she couldn't from the passive features.

The Conqueror came out of the stall with the saddlebags on her shoulder now. She stopped in front of Galen, glanced at Gabrielle, and back to Galen. "Queen Gabrielle will most likely be spending… late nights in the fortress."

Galen bowed his head, which helped him get rid of his knowing smirk then he washed it away with a serious look when he lifted his head again. "Of course, my liege… I'll be sure to pass word onto the tetrarchès."

"See that you do." The Conqueror then slipped between the pair and headed for the exit of the stables.

The Amazon Queen stared oddly at the ruler's receding back then she looked to Galen.

Galen chuckled at the still stunned bard. "The Conqueror walks with a bounce now, Gabrielle… it is obvious to anybody that's been around her long enough." Without another word he slipped out of the stables to find the ruler.

Gabrielle glanced to her right and saw that her lover had propped her Amazon staff against the stall door. She chuckled, grabbed it, and slowly limped out of the stable.

The moon slowly passed as the Conqueror prepared to ready for the trip to Egypt. Gabrielle had been given a temporary space for work in the Conqueror's office. She hadn't imagine sharing the office with her lover and at first didn't think it would work out but it was easy for them to find a certain rhythm like many other things in their life. The bard had written out the decree for the family name convention that would take immediate affect when she and the Conqueror returned from Egypt. After Gabrielle had written the decree she spent time working out a plan on how to begin this long winded process with few bumps as possible. Gabrielle continually teased the Conqueror by asking if she'd selected a last name yet. The Conqueror's consistent response was that she was waiting for the decree to be proclaimed and for Gabrielle to ask her then. Gabrielle knew though that her lover had most likely selected a last name by now and maybe even plotted it out with Cyrene since she'd be taking the same family name.

Gabrielle remained slumped over her desk, her head propped up by her hand, and her eyes scanning over the scroll in front of her. She sighed deeply while stretching her legs under the desk. Her attention was drawn away when she sensed the tall form of her partner beside her. Then large hands came over her shoulders and massaged her tension away. Gabrielle let out a low groan, dropped her head back into a leather stomach, and smiled up at the ruler.

Xena smiled down at the younger woman but kept kneading. "How about you come down to the sparring grounds soon and we'll work out some of that stress?"

The bard thoughtfully considered. "You have to train the patrols?"

"Mmmhmmm." The Conqueror glanced at what Gabrielle was working on but she decided it was too much for even her right now. "The plans for the family name convention?"

"Yes," sighed out the Amazon Queen. "I think I was spoiled with all that grunt work I was doing in Artemisia." She waved her hand at the ink covered scroll. "This is just too much." Then she felt the ruler's tickling tresses brushing her shoulders and Xena's warm breath by her right ear.

"Take a break and come spar with me," sensually whispered the ruler.

Gabrielle's eyes closed and she murmured, "Start with the patrols… I'll be down soon."

Xena leaned in closer and her teeth touched the bard's outer earlobe. "Promise?"

The bard groaned but managed her words. "Yes, my liege."

The Conqueror grinned then pulled back from her lover.

Gabrielle's eyes fluttered open from the receding ruler. "Xena, we need to talk to Cyrene about us." She heard the Conqueror's chuckle so she twisted her head up.

"I'll bet you a drachma she already knows about us."

"You think so?" Gabrielle had a wrinkled up face.

The Conqueror slid her hands down Gabrielle's arms and over her Amazon arm bracers as she leaned back down again. She uttered, "How can she not when you return home late at night or not at all?"

"Good point," agreed the bard. "She never questions me about it."

The Conqueror softly laughed then she brought her lips down and against her lover's neck. "She knows." She gently nipped the lush skin under her lips. "We'll tell her… soon."

"Xena," warned the bard, "if you keep this up then you're not going to make it to the drills."

The Conqueror chuckled and purred, "I'm just getting my juices flowing for the drills."

Gabrielle responded with a laugh. "Go before you get mine started."

The Conqueror was quite smug as she withdrew and teasing, "As you wish, Queen Gabrielle." She headed for her office door and she noted that her lover was watching her with a smoldering expression.

Gabrielle sighed after her lover left. She returned back to her parchment with a frustrated expression and not so much from the parchment but more so because of her body's desires for the Conqueror. "Come on, Gabrielle… it's been over two moons that you've been in her bed… you should be past this point." She kidded herself because she knew as time passed and she discovered not only Xena's body but her amazing mind and spirit she was falling deeper. She kept that as her personal secret and she'd never discussed it with the ruler because she was too afraid it was one-sided.

The Conqueror crossed the short distance over the fortress grounds to the sparring field. She spotted her tetrarchès already there along with one of the files. Relief filled her at finally seeing the tetrarchès after so long from when he was sent off on his mission. "Welcome back, Iolaus."

The tetrarchès bowed then clapped his right fist across his chest. "Thank you, my liege. I see you're in excellent spirits."

The Conqueror dared him with a dangerous look.

The tetrarchès chuckled because he was all use to it but he decided to get to the topic at hand. "I have much to report, my liege."

"Did you find her?"

Iolaus knew his ruler always cut to the chase. "Yes, my liege… she is alive."

The Conqueror exhaled a weight from her. "Where is she?"

Iolaus stepped closer to the ruler then quietly answered, "That part is a bit disheartening." He tilted his head, which caused his wavy blond hair to move. "Do you recall the raider Gurkhan?"

The Conqueror darkened and she hotly whispered, "I remember. He has her?"

"Yes, he purchased her from another slaver about twelve moons ago."

"Gurkhan escaped to Mogador," she murmured, "when I ascended the throne."

"And he's still there too," confirmed the tetrarchès. "My liege, I'm afraid this will be risky getting her back. I understand your… close relations to the Amazon Queen but this could endanger your relations with the Phoenicians."

The Conqueror knew that her tetrarchès had a point because her realm held key trade relations with the Phoenicians. "Let me worry about that, Iolaus."

"Perhaps you can buy her from Gurkhan with a handsome price," suggested the soldier.

"No." The Conqueror steeled and reminded, "If Gurkhan pieces together he has something I want then he'll use that as leverage. See that word doesn't spread about Queen Gabrielle's sister being his slave."

"I have not spoken of it," agreed Iolaus. "However my liege, there is one… detail I haven't mentioned." At seeing the ruler's arched eyebrow he nervously explained, "There is no solid confirmation but I have heard that Lila is Gurkhan's first wife."

The Conqueror cursed under her breath. She glanced at the waiting squad but she collapsed the small man's shoulder tightly. "Do not speak about this… especially to Queen Gabrielle."

"I understand, my liege." Iolaus stepped closer then carefully questioned, "Will you discuss it with her?"

The Conqueror released her grasp then let out a heavy sigh. "When it is time, yes." She paused then gratefully stated, "Thank you, Iolaus."

The tetrarchès warmly smiled at his leader's praise. "Do you wish the spies to continue their work?"

"Yes, see that two of them take an extended trip to Mogador."

"I will have them do so," agreed the tetrarchès, "as I know you'll be inclined to have word of Gurkhan while you're in Egypt."

"Yes." The Conqueror considered it then grinned. "A detour to Mogador may be required." She then started to move away while saying, "See to it, Iolaus."

The tetrarchès grinned but didn't answer as he hurried off to take care of his new orders.

The Conqueror approached the waiting squad and her evil grin shaped when she saw that the dekarchos was Najara. She loved sparring with Najara second to her partner. She spent the next half candlemark working with the squad and Najara before she took on the second squad. It wasn't until the third squad that the Amazon Queen showed up with her staff in hand and her sword hanging from her back.

The Amazon Queen took her spot beside the Conqueror and she casually leaned against her staff. She listened to her lover brief the third squad about what today's practice would be. She made mental notes as she would work along side her lover to train them.

The Conqueror finished her orders then turned to the small Amazon. "Ready?"

Gabrielle had a glowing aurora as she hefted her staff to show she was prepared. "Five-five or six-four?"

The ruler tilted her head spun her sword then replied, "Five-five?" Her right eyebrow gradually lifted.

"You're on," agreed the queen but she grinned and teased, "Just watch my back."

"Always," promised the ruler, who winked then turned back to the waiting squad. "Let's begin!"

Gabrielle stepped back once, slightly bent her knees, and lifted her staff as the squad swarmed her and the Conqueror. Her grin widened as she knew this would be a good training day not only for her and the Conqueror but for the squads. Together the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen were a team to be reckoned and every squad soldier knew it.

The drills eventually wound down to just the Conqueror and Gabrielle sparring together. The Conqueror continually was training the Amazon Queen with better techniques, defense, and offense. She found it increasingly important since Gabrielle kept refusing to submit to any security from the realm. The Conqueror couldn't force the security on her lover considering Gabrielle wasn't an official yet and she didn't want to anger her lover. The Conqueror was fairly confident though that Gabrielle had excellent staff skills and she calculated that in six to nine moons Gabrielle will have mostly mastered the art.

Gabrielle jumped back but kept her staff up at seeing her lover's leering features. She knew that look quite well now; it meant the Conqueror was toying with her.

"Come on, Gabrielle," taunted the ruler. She stretched out her hand and tapped her blade against the bard's staff.

The bard growled and hastily shoved the ruler's blade away with her stuff push. "How are those juices now?"

The Conqueror laughed quite deeply. "Very… hot," she drew out in a husky voice.

The Amazon Queen shook her head then challenged, "Don't know what to do with all those juices?"

The ruler smirked. "I can think of something." She suddenly lunged for her partner.

Gabrielle parried the rapid attacks away but she started to back step because of the rush. She ducked just as the blade passed over her head then she hastily back peddled to give herself some space from her opponent.

The Conqueror spun her sword then tormented, "Is it too much for you, Queen Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle shot a dangerous look but she paced over to her right. She abruptly cried out and rushed her lover. She slammed the end of her staff into the dirt, lifted her body up, and stretched out her right leg for a perfect kick.

The Conqueror, completely surprised, took the blow and was knocked harshly onto her back and slid a ways.

Gabrielle fell to her feet and lifted her staff while she remained crouched. Her smugness was quite visible but then she lost it when her lover flipped onto her feet with a furious expression. "Oooh… Hades," muttered the worried bard. Again she was suddenly rushed by her lover, who was in an attack rage. Gabrielle fully trusted her partner not to harm her but she knew this would be a lesson and a half.

Every part of the Conqueror was alive and she was beautiful as her dangerous attacks were blocked by the bard. The Conqueror doubled her speed, which she'd never shown to the bard and she easily broke the bard's defenses.

Gabrielle gasped when her staff was slammed from her hands and it sailed a few paces away. She stepped back once but held her defiant gaze against her opponent.

The Conqueror grinned as she lowered her sword in respect. She casually sauntered the short distance to her lover then murmured, "Nice technique, Gabrielle."

The Amazon Queen inwardly sighed from the relief she felt. "I try to teach myself some tricks."

"Mmmm." The Conqueror closed the distance so that their bodies touched. "You're beautiful when you fight."

Gabrielle grinned but she was too entranced by the energy flowing off of her lover to make a comment. She discreetly pressed her hand against the hot leather stomach in front of her. She slipped her right hand around the Conqueror's neck then drew her down for a sensual kiss. Their public display was a rare scene.

The Conqueror ended the kiss by nipping at the bard's lower lip. She kept her head down and she breathed, "Go inside… I need some time to cool off." She started to back away but Gabrielle caught her by the hip.

"No," argued the Amazon Queen, "Come back inside with me."

"Gabrielle, I need-"

"Please," softly begged Gabrielle. "I trust you." She slid her hand down the taut stomach, which would send a thrill through her lover.

The Conqueror tried to clear out some of her battle lust. "Gabrielle, I could hurt you… it could be too much."

"I know the risks and I know you won't." Gabrielle lifted her head and met the hungry eyes above her. "Plus I'd be lying if I denied that this part of you didn't excite me on some level." She moved away, picked up her staff, and held out her hand. "My liege?"

The Conqueror took her partner's hand and followed her partner back to the fortress. She sheathed her sword when they came to the steps then she realized her and Gabrielle weren't going to the bedchambers but to their shared office. She didn't care at this point as she wanted the bard more than anything. Her passions won over her just as they reached the closed office doors.

Gabrielle hadn't expected it when she was spun around. She was transfixed by her lover's lust and ravaging blue eyes.

The Conqueror shoved her lover against the left door and her left hand came up to wrap around the staff. She pulled it from Gabrielle's hand and set it against the door, away from them. Her hips pressed hard against Gabrielle and she brought her head down. "If its too much then say my name. Do you understand me?"

Gabrielle moaned as her head fell against the door. She managed to whisper, "Yes." She closed her eyes just as her hands knotted through her lover's long tresses.

The Conqueror continued to bite deeply against her lover's neck and trailed down to her chest. She lifted her head and roughly kissed the bard.

Gabrielle pushed her lover back some at the end of the kiss in hopes it'd encourage her more so.

The Conqueror growled and pressed her body harder back against Gabrielle. "You want this, Gabrielle." She slammed her right hand against the door then her left hand was on Gabrielle's thigh.

The bard groaned because she realized it was true. She'd always been drawn to the ruler's darker side but she'd tried to ignore that aspect because she thought it was wrong. Now she speculated whether it could help their relationship grow because of her acceptance. She gave into that knowledge as she pulled Xena down for a passionate kiss. She then unexpectedly brought her legs around the ruler's waist.

The Conqueror moaned and slipped her left hand under the younger woman to hold her up. Gabrielle's hands wrapped around her neck and she knew the bard was safely held. She stepped back once then effectively kicked the right office door open and entered. She kicked it closed then she was drawn into a long kiss. She managed her way over to her desk.

Gabrielle now sat on the edge of the ruler's desk. She coaxed her lover's dominating side through her demanding kiss.

The Conqueror growled at the end of the kiss then she commanded her lover to open her legs.

Gabrielle easily followed then her Amazon skirt was pushed up. She quickly discovered how the Conqueror's lust could take not only her over but them both. Gabrielle's passions were excited and she matched her lover's every demand. Her thoughts were silent and she only felt what coursed in her body. After being taken once on the desk, the Conqueror lifted her off the desk and carried her to the sofa in the center of the office.

The Conqueror kept ravaging her young lover that accepted her this way. She stripped Gabrielle of her clothes finally but she didn't remove anything of hers.

Gabrielle clung to the ruler's broad shoulders, her skin burned, and her head was dropped back against the sofa. She felt the Conqueror owning her with each thrust. Her moans depended from the thrill of either the Conqueror's warm leathers touching her skin or the cold bronze. It was exhilarating. After Gabrielle reached her new height that was only sensations, she was soon laying down on the long sofa.

The Conqueror slowly removed her armor, boots, and leathers until she was bare. She softly moaned when her burning skin slide over Gabrielle's. She met Gabrielle for a tender kiss.

Gabrielle was gaining back some strength but her breathing remained labored. She could see the returned tenderness in her lover by how Xena's eyes could match the skies. She smiled and drew her lover back in for another kiss. She and Xena silenced the last of their passions through slow and gentle touches. Her climax reached the top just as Xena's did the same, their fingers stilling inside of each other.

The Conqueror kept her weight mostly off her lover. When she gained some composure again, she adjusted them so that she rested on the sofa with her back sunk in and Gabrielle resting on top of her.

The bard sighed contently and her moist skin slightly goose bumped from the chill in the air. It was a wonder earlier to her whether or not her body would be able to ever cool off again. She closed her eyes and listened to her lover's steady heartbeat. "I can't believe I just did that."

The Conqueror had distant grin but she started running her fingertips up and down her partner's back. "The commander most likely heard you."

The Amazon Queen flushed as it dawned on her that his office was just across from the Conqueror's. "Oh gods." She moaned and buried her face into her lover's neck. She laughed at the situation and mentioned, "He'll be jealous."

The Conqueror thoroughly laughed. She quickly kissed Gabrielle's nearby head. "Indeed."

Gabrielle smiled then she moved her right hand up. Her index finger started to trace the Gaelic necklace that rested on Xena's rising and falling chest. "I noticed you have two triremes down by the Aegean Port."

"It is for the trip to Egypt. They're starting to take on supplies for the trip."

Gabrielle adjusted her head then inquired, "We going to leave in ten days?"

"Around there," agreed the ruler. "We'll be traveling in a cargo ship though."

The bard paused from tracing the necklace. "Why is that?"

The Conqueror chuckled and replied, "Do you want to travel across the Mediterranean with all those oar men?"

Gabrielle considered it then laughed. "That could be interesting."

"This is a vacation," reminded the ruler.

"I thought it was a working vacation," teased the Amazon Queen. "I have trade relations to build while you have them to maintain."

"Mmmm," consented the ruler. "We seem to manage to mix pleasure and business together."

Gabrielle lifted her head at hearing the husky pitch from her lover. "We?" she challenged lightly then she teased, "You started this." She signaled their current situation.

"It takes two," coolly reminded the ruler.

Gabrielle smirked but didn't argue as she lowered her head again. She went back to following her fingertip over the necklace's design. "I need to return to Artemisia soon."

The Conqueror had suggested that her lover do such before they left for Egypt. She wanted Gabrielle to return with a handful of Amazons not to only protect their queen but also to display she was a serious queen in search of relations with Queen Cleopatra. Nor would it go well if Cleopatra thought that the Amazon Queen was under the Conqueror's full guidance and instructions. "Perhaps it'd be wise to go in a few days."

"I've already mentioned it to Joxer and Palamon."

The ruler sighed then carefully tried her next words. "I'd like it if you took a squad."

"Xena, I'll be fine with my faction guards going with me… they're more than capable and so am I."

"I don't argue that." The Conqueror sat up some on the sofa and peered down at her lover. "What you don't have though are enough numbers. Anything can happen to you on your trip down to Artemisia."

The bard sat up a bit. "You and I traveled together back from Artemisia… and you never had a problem with me going the last two times with my faction guards."

The Conqueror arched an eyebrow at her lover.

Gabrielle grumbled then relented, "Okay granted you're a walking armory but I was fine before. Why now?"

"I'm just concerned… each passing day, Gabrielle you become a bigger target." The Conqueror touched her lover's cheek and whispered, "Please do this."

The bard's eyes dropped and she stared at the Gaelic necklace. She slowly nodded. "Can I take Najara and her squad?"

The Conqueror tried not to visibly cringe but she knew she'd have to submit to the terms or else Gabrielle wouldn't agree to anything else. "Alright. I'll inform her." She then leaned forward to steal a kiss then she questioned, "You won't leave for Artemisia until after your birthday?"

The bard chuckled and teased, "Why? You have something big planned?"

"I don't but mother does," tormented the ruler.

"Oh gods." Gabrielle laughed as she lowered her head onto her partner's shoulder. Her right arm stretched across Xena's shoulders. "I'll leave the day after."

"Good," murmured, "because your pony should be here by then."

The Amazon Queen laughed and swatted her lover's stomach then returned her hand back to Xena's left shoulder. "I don't want any four-legged presents." She heard no response and she missed Xena's glowing features. She kissed Xena's chest then lifted her head to see now passive features. "We need to get moving… we both have a lot of scrollwork to do."

The ruler sighed as her thoughts about the realm returned. "I need to inspect the work on the bridges for the canal before sunset."

"And I need to complete my plans for this family name decree or else no trip to Egypt for me." Gabrielle patted the ruler's chest then moved about to get up onto her feet.

The Conqueror stood up but remained behind her lover. She slipped her arms around Gabrielle's waist, drew her in closely, and huskily whispered, "Thank you."

Gabrielle dropped her head back and smiled at the words that rarely came from the ruler yet held so much depth. She knew it meant that Xena was grateful for the acceptance and new dimension added to their relationship. "Thank you for trusting me," she murmured back then pulled Xena down for a warm kiss.

The next days swiftly passed before the eyes of the couple. Gabrielle though took a needed break when it was her birthday and mostly from the insistence from the Conqueror. The Conqueror was away most of the day and took care of various work that was required of her. This left Gabrielle to freely do things for herself all day. She started her relaxing morning by doing some needed writing; her scrolls had been sitting off to the wayside lately. She'd come home last night after spending a late night in the fortress with Xena but she wanted to be home that night. After she finished her writing, she wandered down stairs and realized Cyrene had already left to carry out her work at the taverna. Gabrielle was pleasantly surprised though to see that her adopted mother left her a prepared breakfast with a note about her birthday. Cyrene had planned out a small get together this evening in the taverna.

The bard smiled at the note, set it aside, and after her breakfast she dressed and decided to first visit somebody she missed greatly. She made a half of candlemark journey from her home to the graveyard where Perdicus now rested. She spent some time there, visiting his grave that was located in the common burial grounds. She knelt beside his grave and softly spoke to him despite she'd never receive a response. Gabrielle missed her childhood friend more than many suspected. She'd lost so many loved ones in her life and she had yet to understand why it had to be. After she said her prayers to her friend, she rose up and returned back to the city.

The rest of her day was relaxing and she eventually met up with the Conqueror just inside the empty courtroom. Sunset was fast approaching so she and the Conqueror made their way to Cyrene's taverna where many others were waiting for them. Cyrene had shut down her taverna early in the day in order to get the party together. She welcomed Gabrielle's friends that showed up then the entire group warmly received the bard when she entered the taverna.

The group mixed together and Gabrielle was dazzled that her former faction members and guards could so easily mix with the people from the fortress such as the Conqueror, Galen, and Najara. She was convinced there'd never be any peace between the groups but she realized she was the key link that brought the groups together now. The extreme sides were grateful that Gabrielle had eased the tension built up and ultimately changed the realm for the better. After the large meal and cake, Melpomene sweetly urged her aunt to tell a story. Gabrielle tried to ward off her adopted niece but she miserably failed when the Conqueror whispered to her to tell a story.

The bard took her usual front stage in the taverna then asked for any suggestions for a story. Finally everybody settled on something Gabrielle hadn't expected at all; the story about the Conqueror and her trial in the Amazon Nation. There were many known rumors about what'd happened over that moon back in the autumn but never had anybody heard the full story. Gabrielle was uneasy because she wasn't sure how her lover would feel about it.

The Conqueror gave a discreet nod to her partner followed by an assuring smile.

The Amazon Queen was relieved and inwardly surprised but she stole a beat to compose her story in her mind. She opened her story be telling about her descendant, who was kidnapped by a crazed shaman and had to battle the odds to seek help. Gabrielle didn't sugar coat the truth and the Conqueror's true form was revealed and she depicted the changes the Conqueror faced from when she first entered the Amazon Nation. Her audience was enthralled and many now understood what'd transcended not only in the realm but inside the Conqueror.

Gabrielle kept watch of her listener's faces. She caught sight of Cyrene's tears at some points. At other moments, Melpomene would gasp in excitement from the drama of the battle between Darphus and the Amazons. Then there was the Conqueror, who remained sitting in the back and intently listening to each word. When Gabrielle drew closer to the end of her story when Melinda and Janice would be sent home, she focused on her lover.

The Conqueror was drawn into Gabrielle's story. She saw it all happening again and she remembered why she was so determined to be this changed ruler for her realm. She then was taken away when Gabrielle's closing words seem to be focused solely for her.

"It was a small change at first then another soft bend and the Conqueror was unprepared while the rebel leader was slightly scared. Together they placed their faith into the changes just as the sun would rise every day. It was an unexpected tale for them. The truth was bittersweet but finding out they were wrong about each other was what bound them together. Now they face the sunrises just as ever sure that their faith will raise them above all the trials that lay ahead." Gabrielle lowered her hands to her side after having them up. She was met by a long silence then all her friends warmly clapped about the amazing story and Gabrielle's beautiful words.

Melpomene secretly slipped past the people, who were warmly receiving the bard after her story. She went through the tables until she was upon the Conqueror.

The Conqueror brushed back her bangs and sat up in her chair at seeing the girl. Her movements made her bronze armor flash from the torchlight and candlelight. She tried to subdue her emotions from the story and she smiled at the girl. "Come here." She was secretly grateful for Melpomene coming to her.

Melpomene mirrored the smile and she was warmly taken in to the ruler's lap. She often tried to tell people how caring the ruler was with her but few people believed her. She didn't care as she focused on the emotional ruler. "Auntie Gabby is a great story teller."

The Conqueror softly grinned and gently teased, "You think so huh?" She adjusted the child on her right leg. "I think you're right, Mel."

"Have you ever told Auntie Gabby that you like her stories?"

The Conqueror leaned closer then murmured, "What makes you think I do like them?"

Melpomene tilted her head; she'd often heard her aunt chatting with Cyrene about how the Conqueror never brought up the bard's stories. She knew it frustrated her aunt because her aunt had no clue whether or not the Conqueror was accepting of it. Melpomene though had figured out something by observing the Conqueror tonight. "You wouldn't let her perform the stories otherwise if you didn't want to hear them."

The Conqueror grinned at the observant girl. "What else do you know, Mel?"

Melpomene smirked, leaned closer, and teased, "I know what grandma thinks about you and Auntie Gabby."

"Do tell," encouraged the ruler.

Melpomene giggled and leaned even closer so that she could tell her secret. "Grandma knows you and Auntie Gabby are together."

The Conqueror smirked wildly at this news. "Oh? How do you know that?"

"Just the other day I heard grandma ranting on about how you two can fight like a married couple." The girl's lips thinned together as her lips pressed. "I asked grandma what that meant and all she told me was that you and Auntie Gabby are a tale old as time and a song old as rhyme."

The Conqueror sighed but dared to ask, "You know what that means?"

"Sure," answered the girl, "You and Auntie Gabby are a couple… like a husband and wife." She stopped then her nose crinkled up tightly.

The Conqueror speculated whether or not the child learned that habit from her aunt.

"Xena, are you and Auntie Gabby a wife and wife?"

The Conqueror paled slightly at the thought of the marriage titles that were far from her and Gabrielle. "Not quite, Mel but we're a couple." She glanced up to see that her lover was still swarmed by her chatting friends. She glimpsed back at the girl. "Are you okay with your aunt and I being together?"

Melpomene brightened up and she nodded. "I think it's so cool."

"Cool huh?" teased the ruler. "Where'd you learn that word?"

"Janice taught me that word," beamed the child then she persisted, "you and Auntie Gabby match really well. Auntie Gabby is very happy and so are you."

The Conqueror couldn't argue that point.

Melpomene tilted her head then quietly inquired, "Are you going to marry Auntie Gabby?"

The Conqueror heavily breathed as if she was briefly in labor. She touched the girl's knee then carefully answered, "It's too early to tell yet, Mel but time will see."

"Can you and Auntie Gabby marry though?" Melpomene seriously considered this perspective. "I've never heard of two women joining."

The ruler chuckled because of the child's serious thoughts. "I'm sure I can get it approved, Melpomene."

The girl giggled as she realized whose lap she was sitting on right now. "I sometimes forget you're the ruler of the realm."

"That's good," approved the ruler. She poked the small nose in front of her. She then saw that her partner was starting to break away from the mass of friends. She quickly brought Melpomene's attention back by quietly asking, "Did grandma say what she thought of me and your aunt being together?"

Melpomene brightly smiled then leaned in and whispered, "Grandma complained that it took 'Gabrielle and Xena too damn long to get over their stubbornness but better late than never '."

"Those exact words?"

The girl's bobbed and she crossed her heart with her right hand. "I swear it."

"Good," muttered the Conqueror, who lifted her head with a smile for a greeting to her partner.

Gabrielle smiled but her attention flickered to Melpomene. She touched the child's closest shoulder. "Are you practicing for next Solstice, Melpomene?"

The girl's quick wit caught the humor and she glanced at the Conqueror then to her aunt. "Well Xena is the Conqueror and I bet she can get me more presents than Senticles."

Gabrielle laughed at the swift remark from the brilliant child. "Well I think Xena has to get approval from grandma."

Melpomene paled and glanced at her grandmother behind the bar. "Really, Auntie Gabby?"

The bard brought on a fake frown and bent lower to the child. "Xena maybe the Conqueror but in this family Cyrene rules."

Melpomene's mouth hung open and she turned her had to the ruler for that confirmation of what her aunt just divulged.

The Conqueror shrugged and patted the child's knee. "Have you upset your grandma lately, Mel?"

"No," squeaked the child.

Gabrielle leaned closer into the huddle. "Are you sure, Mel?"

The girl glanced between Xena and Gabrielle then mumbled, "Maybe… um… I've missed a few chores around the house."

Xena gave a few clicks with her tongue.

Gabrielle murmured, "You better say you're sorry, Mel or else Xena can't give you any presents next Solstice."

The Conqueror's eyes glinted then she whispered, "When I was your age, Mel and I forget to do my chores around the house… mother use to turn me over on her knee."

Melpomene gawked at the ruler, who had recently become her idol. "Grandma did that?" She could even begin to imagine not only her idol being her age but Cyrene punishing her idol.

"Mmmhmmm," confirmed the ruler, "until my cheeks were red." She cocked her head to the side. "She hasn't done that to you?"

"N-n-no," stuttered the girl.

Gabrielle was biting her lower lip to stop her laughs because she knew Cyrene wouldn't have laid a hand on her children. It was a bunch of horse stuff that her partner was feeding to the child. "You're lucky, Mel." When the girl's wide, brown eyes returned to her she kept talking. "You better do your chores for now on or else grandma might start doing that to you too."

"And I might get less presents for Solstice too," added the worried girl.

The Conqueror had a thoughtful expression as she casually mentioned, "To think what a waste the new horse I've been training would be if you were bad until Solstice." She shook her head then frowned at Melpomene. "I may have to give the horse to another child, who's been good."

"No way," argued the girl, "I'll be good, Xena."

"Well," started the ruler, who poked the child's nose again, "there's a difference between saying it and doing it."

Melpomene nodded twice then declared, "Actions speak louder than words."

Xena smiled at her advice she'd passed onto Melpomene some time ago. "Exactly. So are you going to do your chores for now on?"

Melpomene nodded then added, "And all my homework that my tutor gives me."

Gabrielle smiled at this news. "Your education is important, Mel… we all want you to grow up smart." She pointed at the Conqueror. "Xena isn't smart because she slouched around."

"No?" inquired the child.

The Conqueror shook her head. "Nope."

Melpomene tilted her head then asked, "How'd you learn so much? You didn't have a tutor like me, did you?"

Xena leaned back in the chair some then finally answered, "I taught myself everything I know… I wasn't as lucky as you, Mel."

"Wow," gasped the girl, "and you know a lot too."

"She sure does, Mel so you have a lot to live up to," reminded the bard.

Melpomene blinked and turned away from her idol. "You're smart too, Auntie Gabby… I hear people in the taverna say you are because you’re the only state advisor that knows not only how to run the polis but the Conqueror too."

Gabrielle bit her lower lip then sweetly smiled at her lover.

Xena drummed her right fingers on her knee but she couldn't suppress her grin.

The Amazon cleared her throat then decided on another topic. "What'd you think of the story, Mel?"

"It was really cool, auntie," proclaimed the child.

"Cool?" repeated the confused bard.

"It means awesome," defined Melpomene, "Janice taught me that word."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes because she should have known that came from her descendant. She could only guess when Janice Covington found the time to teach Little Melpomene that word. "Why don't you go see if grandma needs your help huh?"

Melpomene nodded then slid off Xena's lap. When her feet connected with the floor she quickly pulled her aunt in for a hug. "Happy birthday again, Auntie Gabby."

The bard smiled as she wrapped her arms around the child. "Thank you, sweetie." She messed the child's hair up as she hurried off to help Cyrene. She then decided she'd take the girl's spot on the Conqueror's lap.

The Conqueror raised an eyebrow at Gabrielle's open display of their relationship.

"Come on," persisted the bard, "everybody knows already." She shrugged and leaned her side into the ruler with her arm going across the back of Xena's shoulders. "Besides you can't say no to the birthday girl."

Xena shook her head then she eased into it by teasing, "So what do you want for Solstice, Little Gabby?"

Gabrielle ran her tongue along the front of her teeth then she dangerously threatened, "I know what you won't get for Solstice, Little Xenny if you keep that up."

The Conqueror laughed but decided it was safer to say nothing else.

The bard brought her lips closer to the ruler's ear then whispered, "I know what I want for my birthday tonight."

"Oh?" prompted the ruler, her eyes darker. "Does that mean you'll be staying with me tonight?"

Gabrielle hummed for a beat then sensually whispered, "I thought you'd never ask."

"Hmmmm." The Conqueror sucked in her breath sharply when Gabrielle nipped her neck. She cleared her throat then reminded, "We're not in my bedchambers yet, Gabrielle."

"Well you better get us there soon," taunted the bard. She then hopped off her lover's lap and went back to mingling with her friends and family.

The Conqueror sighed between contentment and frustration. She smiled at feeling so easy with her partner lately. She noted her mother's carefully watching eye on her and she got up to talk to her. She leaned against the bar near her mother.

"So when were you planning to tell me?" brought up the mother.

Xena shyly smiled at her mother. "Soon."

Cyrene rolled her eyes then flopped her wet rag onto the bar. "That's like saying the weather is seasonal, daughter."

The Conqueror chuckled and slipped onto a bar stool but she lost her amusement. "Mother, Gabrielle and I are together."

Cyrene rested her hands on her hips and glared at her child.

"What?" Xena shrugged. "I told you."

"Sometimes I think I may have adopted you," teased the mother.

The ruler laughed then proudly reminded, "Oh no, mother you birthed me and I have your wicked streak to prove it."

"You already have." Cyrene grinned then she rested her arms on the bar and leaned against them. "She's very happy, Xena."

"I know," murmured the ruler.

"You're very happy," commented the mother.

"I am," agreed the ruler.

Cyrene smiled at this then stretched her right hand to collapse her daughter's. "And I couldn't be happier seeing you and Gabrielle together."

The ruler laced their hands neatly. "Are you?" She peered up at her mother.

Cyrene realized very little had changed between her and her daughter after all this time. She could still see her little girl seeking approval from her and it baffled her considering her daughter was the ruler of such a vast realm. "I am, Xena," she softly promised. "I was scared for some time that you two would end up dying because of your radical views and fights."

Xena's head dipped then she slowly nodded. "I know but that won't happen." She squeezed her mother's hand. "I… I don't think I am much without her. I wasn't before I opened up to her."

"Have you told her this?" murmured the mother.

Xena shook her head then turned her mother again after staring at her partner from across the room. "We've discussed it lightly back a couple of moons ago but nothing too serious." She thought it out more then mentioned, "We've just been taking it slowly and seeing how it goes."

"That's important," agreed Cyrene. "I know you've both faced a lot of changes pretty quickly."

"Mmm," softly murmured the ruler. "We're getting adjusted."

The tavern keeper smiled at this then squeezed her daughter's hand to get her attention back. "When do you leave for Egypt?"

"As soon as Gabrielle returns from Artemisia," answered the ruler.

"Gabrielle's very excited to go," mentioned the mother.

Xena chuckled. "Trust me I've heard enough about it too." She swept her hair back with her freehand. "She pretty much has every day planned out while we're there."

Cyrene laughed and declared, "You don't have to tell me either, Xena… I've heard the ongoings too."

The ruler smirked then patted her mother's hand that was locked with hers. "I better save her so we can get back to the fortress."

"I guess I won't expect her home tonight…?" Cyrene freed her hand from her daughter's.

"If she does show up then worry, mother." Then Xena was gone as she immersed into the people to seek her lover. She first went to Galen and quietly distracted him from his chitchat with a former rebel member. "Galen?"

"Yes, my liege?" The assistant smiled up at the ruler.

"Is everything prepared?"

Galen nodded once. "As you requested, my liege."

"Excellent." The Conqueror glanced at Gabrielle that wasn't too far away. "See that Najara comes back with you when you two are ready."

"You're leaving?"

"Yes," answered the ruler. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Have a good night, my liege."

The Conqueror bittersweetly smiled at her assistant. "The gods willing it goes right." She patted his shoulder then slipped away to collect her partner. After she and Gabrielle said goodnight to everybody they finally made their way through the quiet city.

Gabrielle walked closely to her partner. She slipped her hand into Xena's and received a warm squeeze for it.

"Did you enjoy the party?"

The bard smiled at the Conqueror. "It was really nice… nice of mom to put it together."

The Conqueror nodded her agreement.

"Did you enjoy it?" tried the bard despite she knew her partner wasn't always keen on socializing.

"I did," answered the ruler. "I'm impressed by the size of your faction."

Gabrielle softly laughed and nodded. "I guess I never did tell you about the members." She tilted her head from a thought. "They seemed pretty comfortable with you about halfway through."

"Thanks to your story," reminded the ruler.

"Not really," argued the bard, "It was prior to that." She stepped up onto the sidewalk when they crossed the street.

"I met Palamon," brought up the ruler. She then sensed Gabrielle's quipped curiosity. "I recall him being a hoplite during my campaign." She peered down at her lover. "What does he do now?"

"I was talking to him tonight about that. He's considered taking an apprenticeship as a blacksmith but he's not really sure." Gabrielle shrugged. "To be honest, I think he toys with the idea of rejoining your army especially now that you've changed so much."

The Conqueror filed this away for later consideration. She would have to mention this information to Iolaus. She then switched the topic around. "What'd you do today?"

"I relaxed mostly since you told me to do that." Gabrielle coyly smiled then shrugged. "It was nice." Her mood slightly darkened as she gently mentioned, "I did go to see Perdicus."

The Conqueror squeezed her lover's hand in assurance. "You were betrothed to him?"

Gabrielle ran her fingers through her bangs then replied, "Yes. We were betrothed as kids and I always accepted the fact him and I would marry when it was time."

"You never found that time?"

"No," admitted the Amazon Queen, "and I may have later in life but I know I would have married him out of convenience. Its not that I didn't love him because I do but it's just… different."

"Different how?" murmured the ruler.

Gabrielle gazed down then observed how she still held hands with her lover. She ran her thumb across Xena's then finally answered the hard question. "A lot of what I feel with you… between us was something I never had with Perdicus and I know I never would have." She was surprise when the Conqueror abruptly stopped.

Xena turned to her lover and drew her closer as a few people passed them. She lowered her head and ignored the people that watched them openly. She gently kissed Gabrielle then afterwards she sincerely murmured, "I understand."

Gabrielle smiled then tugged on her lover's hand. "Come on before these people pass out on the street."

The Conqueror laughed and joked, "My city… my rules."

The bard grinned up at Xena. "Come on, tiger you can rule me tonight."

"Gabrielle," hissed the Conqueror, "we don't need people overhearing stuff like that."

Gabrielle laughed but made no other comments as they approached the iron gates of the fortress.

The guards on duty easily recognized the couple and hurried to open the gates enough for them. After the Conqueror and Amazon Queen slipped through they pulled the squeaky gates shut.

Once the couple entered the low lit courtroom, the Conqueror stopped Gabrielle from going through the door that would take them to the bedchambers up on the third floor.

Gabrielle stopped and turned to her partner. "What is it?" She noted they were in the middle of the silent courtroom.

The Conqueror drew her lover in closer. "I have a gift for you but it's in a different spot."

"Xena, I told you I didn't want anything," argued the bard, "I have so much now. I have my family… the Amazons, a job." She stepped closer and touched her lover's closest cheek. "And you."

"I know," whispered the ruler. She pulled Gabrielle's hand from her cheek and linked their hands together. "This is something I've been wanting to give to you."

The Amazon knew her lover wanted to do this so she whispered, "Alright." She smiled softly then teased, "Just don't think this'll earn you nutbread points for tonight."

"Do I really need those for tonight?" jested the ruler.

"Now that you put it that way." Gabrielle grinned.

"Come on, bard." The Conqueror freed one hand but kept her right hand in Gabrielle's as she led the way.

Gabrielle curiosity was peeked and she kept up the fast pace of the ruler. She mused that Xena must be nervous to give whatever it was because their hands were growing slick from Xena's hand moistening. She couldn't imagine what this was. She then realized they were coming to the entrance of the dungeons and she bit the inside of her mouth. She often strayed from the dungeons because it wasn't the most pleasant place. She knew her partner had made a lot of reforms dealing with the punishment system and the dungeons were receiving a much needed overhaul. The dungeons were actually soon to be relabeled as the jail as it was transforming into such.

Xena sensed her lover's uneasiness so she coaxed, "Its okay." She walked slower when they came into the dungeons then she stopped when a guard approached her.

"My liege." The guard bowed his head and clapped his fist across his leather chest. "Is it time?"

"Yes, is it ready?"

"Yes, my liege under Galen's insistence." The guard stepped aside then offered, "Follow me." He turned and directed the couple down the newly altered jail cells there were double in size and now held bunk beds, bathroom facilities, and barred doors for better admittance of light. The soldier finally came to a stop by an often unnoticed door in the dungeon that remained locked as the only key was kept with the Conqueror. The door, for the first time in an unknown amount of moons, was unlocked and wide open.

The Conqueror let the guard go first but she turned to her partner. "Watch your step."

Gabrielle nodded; too fearful her words would betray her about this mystery. She eased down the steep steps that were wet from dampness of the rocks. She could tell that this descending corridor was directly carved out of the surrounding rock by the rough cutting and chiseling. She was grateful for the torchlight overhead that revealed mostly the steps.

The guard came to the bottom and stepped next to another open door. He held out his hand to the doorway that glowed yellow. "The men already await, my liege."

The ruler nodded then glanced at the bard slightly behind her. She squeezed the bard's hand then warmly asked, "Ready?"

Gabrielle stepped closer as she stared into the dark room beyond the next door. "I think so." She nervously wrapped her freehand around her lover's forearm, just above her wrist gauntlet.

The Conqueror smiled then turned and ducked into the room with her lover in tow.

Gabrielle followed and she stopped after a few paces into the dark room. Her eyes required adjusting then she glanced to her right where there were several soldiers with torches; they seemed to be waiting for her lover's commands. She quickly realized that this room wasn't damp compared to the stairwell they descended. It was actually slightly warm and dry, which baffled her.

The Conqueror waved at her men and ordered, "Go ahead."

Gabrielle moved closer to her lover but she was transfixed by the six soldiers, who split in half.

Three soldiers marched down either side of the walls of what was becoming a large room. They bore their torches in front of them to light their way then they came to a stop.

Gabrielle was surprised when the torchlight revealed a ladder on either side. She watched as two soldiers each climbed up the ladders on the right and left. She couldn't make out what in the middle of the room as it was far too dark.

The Conqueror observed the soldiers climbing the ladder then finally they came to their perspective points.

"My liege?" called a soldier.

"Light the torches," ordered the Conqueror.

The four soldiers on the ladders stretched out their torches to the left and the fire engulfed hidden torches that hung from the wall.

Suddenly the room started to light up from the newly lit torches.

The two soldiers remaining on the bottom each lit the wall torches last then stepped aside when their comrades came down carefully.

Gabrielle's eyebrows furrowed together as the light grew brighter and revealed the opposite wall to her. She was almost positive that the wall had small, square holes running up and down. She couldn't even count how many of these cubby holes that lined the wall. Then she squinted when she realized each square hole held a handful of scrolls. "Wha…." She shook her head and stepped forward but didn't move any further. She couldn't understand but her imagination was just going wild. She turned back to her partner.

The Conqueror smiled then offered, "Go look." She squeezed the bard's hand then released it.

Gabrielle was shy at first then after a few steps she crossed the short distance.

The Conqueror merely stayed planted in her spot. She folded her arms across her chest and watched her lover inspect the mystery. She glanced off to her right and observed her first, original wood trunk centered in the middle of the room that her lover obviously over sighted earlier.

When Gabrielle was close enough she realized that the columns of the holes had the first letter of the Greek alphabet placed in certain spots. Her fingertips touched a scroll but she didn't remove it. Her fingertips grazed over the scroll then the next and she walked down the columns with her hand touching many scrolls. She finally came to a stop by the Greek letter for Sigma. She touched a random scroll but glanced over her shoulder to her partner.

The Conqueror tilted her head then nodded her consent.

The Amazon Queen turned back to the scroll then gingerly pulled out the scroll. She untied the red ribbon and slowly unrolled the scroll that clearly had dust on it. She blew off the dust carefully then let the words on the parchment compose in the dim light. Her mouth drew open and she stared at the title at the top of the scroll then the very familiar name below it. "By… the gods."

Gabrielle began to tremble and the words on the parchment quivered. She shook her head then scanned further down the parchment. She then quietly read aloud, "I have not had one word from her. Frankly I wish I were dead when she left, she wept a great deal. She said to me, 'This parting must be endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly.' I said, 'Go and be happy but remember whom you leave shackled by love. If you forget me, think of our gifts to Aphrodite and all the loveliness that we shared….'" Gabrielle stopped as her emotions choked her voice.

Gabrielle removed her left hand from the bottom of the scroll. She covered her mouth and stared at the scroll that hung from her right hand. Her breath came out quaking and she carefully rolled up the scroll. She inserted it back into the slot but she couldn't completely believe this yet. She removed another scroll.

The Conqueror merely watched Gabrielle inspect the next scroll.

The Amazon Queen unrolled the next scroll part of the way then saw the title and the name below it. Her eyes watered and she proudly read, "Ismene, sister, mine own dear sister, knowest thou what ill there is, of all bequeathed by Oedipus, that Zeus fulfils not for us twain while we live? Nothing painful is there, nothing fraught with ruin, no shame, no dishonour, that I have not seen in thy woes and mine." She bit her lower lip then gingerly rolled up the scroll.

Gabrielle moved back down the columns until she was at the first column again. She withdrew a scroll, unrolled it, and saw the next name and that it was an anthology of works. She read the first fable. "Wolf, meeting with a Lamb astray from the fold, resolved not to lay violent hands on him, but to find some plea to justify to the Lamb the Wolf's right to eat him. He thus addressed him: 'Sirrah, last year you grossly insulted me.' 'Indeed,' bleated the Lamb in a mournful tone of voice, 'I was not then born.' Then said the Wolf, 'You feed in my pasture.' 'No, good sir,' replied the Lamb, 'I have not yet tasted grass.' Again said the Wolf, 'You drink of my well.' 'No,' exclaimed the Lamb, 'I never yet drank water, for as yet my mother's milk is both food and drink to me.' Upon which the Wolf seized him and ate him up, saying, 'Well! I won't remain supperless, even though you refute every one of my imputations.' The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny."

The Conqueror's head dropped at the very true fable. She was certainly living proof of such a tale.

Gabrielle realized what she'd read and she rolled the scroll back up. She inserted the scroll back under the alpha section then turned her confuse gaze to her partner.

The Conqueror crossed the distance to take Gabrielle's side. She held out a hand at the tall wall that was coated in cubby holes with countless scrolls. "Every scroll contains plays, poems, stories, and philosophy." She lowered her hand to her side.

Gabrielle swallowed the forming lump in her throat. "I thought…."

Xena turned her focus to her choking lover and she gently touched the bard's forearm.

Gabrielle licked her lips then hoarsely tried to speak again. "I thought you destroyed all of the literature?"

The Conqueror dipped her head then whispered, "I did except for what remains in here." She scanned the columns. "These are the last known copies of all the literature in the realm." She turned back to the bard. "I destroyed all the copies and all the originals except for these. These are the originals handwrote by each bard or philosopher. I've had them all categorized by the person's name… as you can see. When I moved here to Corinth I had this room carved out of the hillside then I had this room specially kept warm and dry so that these scrolls' lives would be prolonged."

Gabrielle shook her head as she tried to piece together the mystery before her. Her green eyes were dark and her face twisted by confusion. "Why did you keep the originals?"

Xena slowly inhaled then released her breath. "Remember, Gabrielle at the time I was bent on power and often that comes from knowledge." She paused and signaled the wall of scrolls. "This is knowledge… and now that they're the only remaining copies they are also money." She lowered her hand to her side again. "I may have been tyrant but I was smart tyrant." She then tilted her head at the bard. "I also adored the bards for their stories. Plenty of them came to mother's tavern when I was a child but I realized one key thing that the bards provided to their listeners."

"Dreams and hopes," murmured the bard.

"Exactly." The Conqueror frowned then honestly stated, "I didn't want the bards spreading that to the people."

Gabrielle raked her fingers through her hair. Her emotions surged to the top once she realized she was standing before the last collection of so many bards' and philosophers' life work. "Why are you showing this to me, Xena?" Her tears spilled down her cheeks. "Why now?"

Xena stepped closer then lowered her head to Gabrielle's. She freed one hand and wiped the tears away but they wouldn't stop. Her next words she chose carefully and answered, "I'm not showing them to you, Gabrielle… I'm giving them to you." She then pivoted on her right foot then pointed at the trunk in the middle of the room. "Let me show you something else."

Gabrielle let herself be guided over to the trunk in the center. She noted that two soldiers with torches stood several paces away on either side to provide more light. She then spotted a scroll on the top of the wood trunk.

The Conqueror picked up the scroll, kept it in her left hand, and knelt down beside the trunk. She reached into her cleavage and pulled out a key. She inserted the skeleton key into the trunk's small hole. She twisted the key, heard the familiar pop, and she lifted the lid as she stood up. She reached into the dark trunk and out materialized her hand with a scroll, which she held out to the bard.

The Amazon accepted it and slowly opened it. Her breathing went still when she saw her own handwriting before her eyes. "By the gods." She shook her head then leaned over the open trunk to see it was filled with scrolls. "You… you saved all my scrolls?" She peered up at partner.

The Conqueror folded her arms over her chest, the one scroll in her hand protruding out. "Yes but I actually keep two copies of your work. There's a set in my office desk then there's this set." She bit her lower lip then stared at the trunk. "I've read many bards in my lifetime… heard many too but you're the only bard that's captured my imagination."

Gabrielle thought she was in a dream as she glanced between the full trunk to her lover then back down. "I… Xena… I don't…." She touched her forehead and her tears returned. She shook her head. "I don't know what to say."

The Conqueror turned and took the scroll back. She carefully tucked it back in the trunk then lowered the lid, the lock resetting itself too. "It's okay, Gabrielle." She held out the last scroll in her hand and mentioned, "This is last piece to all of this." She unrolled the scroll and took a beat to lay the long scroll flat on the trunk's lid. "Come here." She brought her hand to Gabrielle's midback and urged her forward.

Gabrielle moved closer and stared down at what was obviously a drawing on the scroll; a blueprint. She bit her lower lip when she realized it was actually Polykleitos the Younger's work and then on the margins were notes in Eupalinos's handwriting. She bent over and carefully inspected what were blueprints for a very large building. Then the title at the bottom of the scroll was what finally grabbed her attention and she read it aloud, "The Corinth Academy of… Performing Bards."

The Conqueror moved quickly when she saw the bard sinking down. She caught Gabrielle around the waist and drew her closer to her body. She felt the bard trembling and her skin chilled from nervousness. She too felt the same way but she was able to easily steady her weakened partner.

Gabrielle held onto Xena's forearm and her watery eyes stared at the blueprints. "This isn't real."

"It is," softly argued the ruler. She placed her fingertips under the bard's chin and drew Gabrielle's attention to her. "It's very real and soon this building will be real." She pointed at the building plans on the trunk. "This is just the first step, Gabrielle. It’s the first phase."

"What do you mean?" urged the confused bard.

The Conqueror lowered her head closer. "After the Academy is built then the old theatres will be rebuilt throughout the providences in Greece. Then afterwards the rest of the realm will follow suit." She glanced back at the Academy's blueprints then explained, "Before I destroyed Athens I seized all of the city's blueprints from the municipal building… I happened to get the Academy's. This new Corinth Academy will be a duplicate of the Athens Academy including the Theatre of Dionysus except it'll be bigger."

Gabrielle could only listen as Xena explained it to her.

"There are certain additions such as a hall I want to dedicate to Melinda and Janice."

The bard tested her voice and asked, "To record our history?"

Xena smiled that her younger partner caught onto her idea. "Exactly." Her smiled grew tender as she continued talking. "There's another hall that will be dedicated to you and I would like for it to house all these bards' scrolls." She signaled the large wall but focused back on Gabrielle. "There's just one catch."

Gabrielle dared to ask despite she feared her voice failing her. "What is it?"

"The only way this Corinth Academy will be built or even for me to reform my laws on literature I am asking you to lead the project."

The Amazon Queen shook her head then rested her hands on the leather hips in front of her. "You want… you want me to direct the project?" She glimpsed down at the blueprints. "Building the Academy?"

"Yes," murmured the ruler, "there'll be plenty of help including myself."

"When… when did you plan to start this?" Gabrielle's red eyes lifted back up.

"Construction starts after the Summer Solstice but technically the plans begin when we arrive in Egypt." Xena saw the smaller woman's confusion and she elaborated. "Much of the resources are in Egypt and that's why Cleopatra has asked me to come down so that I can inspect the materials."

Everything was hastily adding up for the Amazon Queen. "Gods… this is…."

The Conqueror brushed back her partner's stray blond hair. "I know it's a lot."

The bard slowly inhaled to help her calm down. She breathed deeply then tried to figure out another aspect. "Why are you doing this, Xena? After so long? Why now?"

Xena swallowed as her emotions trickled to the top. She knew this question was coming from Gabrielle and plenty of times she's practiced her speech to give all the reasons. Yet when she gazed into Gabrielle's emotional, raw eyes she knew it wasn't so simple now. She inhaled a shaky breath then prayed her voice would stay steady.

Gabrielle moved her hand from her partner's hip and collapsed the ruler's arm. She conveyed her need to hear this out and that she was open.

"When I was a child, Gabrielle I spent my waking candlemarks playing with Lyceus. We role played every story you can think of and during the evenings we listened to the bards in mother's taverna. Then the next day we'd reenact those stories if we really loved them. Those were the happiest days of my life for the longest time then I lost everything." Xena felt Gabrielle's hand caressing her arm to assure her. "Anger doesn't even describe what I felt during my days as a warlord. I desecrated every memory of my brother by doing what I did as a warlord. I sealed it when I outlawed literature and philosophy from my realm. I didn't want to remember anything from my childhood or of Lyceus because I couldn't handle the grief and the rejection."

Gabrielle freed her hand and reached up to remove the few tears on her lover's face. She believed though that some part of the old Xena most likely didn't completely give up or else she would have never saved the original scrolls like this. Even if it was about power, as Xena told her, she bet the underlying reason was Xena's hidden memories linked to Lyceus through the bards.

"Then you came into my life, Gabrielle and I swore I would stop you." Xena shook her head and she saw Gabrielle's compassion for her. "It was as if I already knew the outcome would be us here, now and my hatred didn't want to let that happen. You challenged me and I craved it more than my darkness. Then in the Amazon Nation I realized you weren't trying to challenge me any longer but you were believing in me… because of the childhood stories that my mother told you. I thought I could easily chase you off by making you fear me yet your faith in me grew stronger. You're the first person that never feared me for who I was and now you're accepting me." She shook her head. "It doesn't make sense because somebody like me shouldn't have somebody like you, Gabrielle."

The bard unclenched her jaw then hotly argued, "Somebody like you needs somebody like me… just like I do with you."

Xena lowered her head and she didn't care about her men being here. She gently took Gabrielle into an emotional kiss and after the kiss their foreheads touched for awhile; their eyes remained closed. Xena pulled back some but her right hand touched her partner's cheek. "And I need you to help me fix this wrong I did, Gabrielle." She shook her head and her voice pitched deeper. "With you beside me, the bards will return from the shadows that I once casted them into and then the realm will find hopes and dreams again. The people should not fear their ruler but it should be me that fears them if I ever become a tyrant again."

"You won't go to that place again," rasped the bard.

"I made a promise," softly reminded the Conqueror.

Gabrielle sadly smiled and kissed Xena lightly before pulling back.

"If it wasn't for these bards, Gabrielle I would have never had the beautiful childhood I did with my brother." Xena cheeks burned from her returning tears; her breathing grew constricted. "If it wasn't for arts then you would have never been a bard and you would have never reminded me of what was so precious to me in my childhood. I am in debt to you, Gabrielle."

"No," murmured Gabrielle, "you gave me back so much of what I lost too, Xena." Gabrielle glanced at the endless scrolls in the carved wall. "And now you accept me completely… you accept my dreams and my hopes." She covered her pounding heart and breathed, "Thank you so much, Xena."

Xena drew Gabrielle in tightly to her body and held her. She lowered her head down so that her cheek brushed against Gabrielle's and their hot tears mixed together. Xena's heart opened more as she and Gabrielle grew closer. Xena knew no better faith than what she held in her relationship with Gabrielle.

Gabrielle's aged wounds started to close over and her past faded behind her. She wouldn't forget but she would no longer sit in the past memories or emotions. She was ready to move forward and especially with Xena now. She lifted her head and met Xena's lips in a conveying kiss.

At the end, Xena opened her glowing eyes and saw what lay ahead of her because of the beautiful smile on Gabrielle's face. Her smile matched Gabrielle's and she warmly whispered, "Happy Birthday, Gabrielle."

The End

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