Resistance Part 2 - By Della Street


Maybe she hadn't deciphered the message correctly. She never had been very good at word games. From beneath a faded shawl, Xena secretly scanned the street again, appearing to any who cared to notice her as a tired old woman resting on a convenient bench.

'By all the gods' leave'; didn't that mean the pantheon? She ran alternative interpretations through her mind until a familiar stride caught her eye.

Gods, even her walk is exciting, Xena reflected. Much more of this and to Hades with caution--she would carry Gabrielle back to the castle and immerse herself in the scribe until neither of them could see straight.

She tensed slightly; Gabrielle had spotted her, favoring her with a quick smile without breaking stride. Warm blue eyes followed the blonde woman to the stoop of a nice two-story brownstone in the middle of the block, where she fished around in her bag and drew out a metal key. She slid it into the lock and disappeared inside, leaving the door slightly ajar.

Xena accepted the invitation, springing from her perch and reaching the stoop in half a dozen brisk strides. No sooner had she crossed the threshold than a compact body flew at her, arms and legs twining around her, lips crushing hers. Xena reached behind her to shut the door, but Gabrielle beat her to it, slamming it shut with her boot.

"I swore I was going to take it slow," Gabrielle gasped, "but I can't."

Xena knew the feeling.

Mouths still pressed together, she carried her precious cargo down the hall, her brain intermittently trying to focus on where to go. The scribe's hand unwrapped from around her neck and grabbed at a doorway. "In here," Gabrielle said against her lips. "Guest room."

Xena lowered both of them to the bed and proceeded to live her most exquisite dream, stroking and tasting and revelling in Gabrielle's magnificence. Knowledgeable hands caressed Gabrielle's breasts through her blouse, then without any barrier as Xena unhooked the garment and explored the skin beneath.

Gabrielle's initial impatience had transformed into sensuous delight, her body responding eloquently to every touch. She watched through heavy-lidded eyes as Xena straightened and removed her clothing, then brought her hands to the waistband on Gabrielle's skirt and drew off the last obstacle to a sea of smooth skin for her consumption.

Arms wrapped around each other, the women moved together, passion alternately surging and receding as Xena controlled their ascent. Savoring another sumptuous kiss, she slid a hand down the inside of Gabrielle's thigh. Gabrielle yielded to the gentle pressure, sighing in anticipation, and then she gave Xena everything.

Later, Xena did the same for her.


"Whose place is this?" Xena asked, more to hear the scribe's voice than out of burning curiosity.

Gabrielle smiled at the vibrations from Xena's chest against her ear. "Francia, my friend's uncle. He's in Athens with his mother."

"How'd you get the key? And more important, how long's he going to be gone?" Xena's mind was already processing a number of compelling scenarios.

"My mother's been tending his plants," Gabrielle replied to the first part of Xena's question, hesitating an instant before answering the second. "They've been gone about a month." She placed a hand on Xena's breast to keep her from shooting straight up. "I didn't know about it until yesterday," she explained, kicking herself having been so oblivious. Gods, she and Xena could have been-- No. No sense beating herself up for something she couldn't do anything about now. "I told Mother I'd be in this area anyway today--"

"For one of your plotting sessions?" Xena smiled.

"--so I could take care of it for her," Gabrielle continued, ignoring the interruption. "They're expected back tomorrow."

Damn. Still, the one day they had been given would be forever burned into Xena's memory.

"Francia's an old skinflint," Gabrielle said, tracing a finger across Xena's breast.

"Mm?" Xena's attention was slightly more tuned into the scribe's wandering hand than the absent homeowner's stinginess. "How's that?"

"He leaves his mother home alone all day. She's older than my grandmother."

"How old's your grandmother?"

"Actually, she's dead." Xena tensed, and Gabrielle kissed her shoulder. "She died ten years ago," she said, nuzzling her way to Xena's throat. "I meant that she's older than my grandmother was when she died."

"This place isn't cheap," Xena observed.

"No, but he is. Francia has plenty of money; he just doesn't like to part with it." Gabrielle ran her fingertips over a particularly sensitive area of Xena's torso, enjoying the sensation and the answering moan. "Of course, he doesn't have as much as you do."

Xena shifted on the bed, Gabrielle's seductive motions threatening to derail her train of thought. "I use it to buy favors," she said, waggling her eyebrows to make clear just what kind of favors she had in mind.

Gabrielle moved slightly so that more of her body covered the taller woman. "You mean I could have charged for this?" she asked.

"What makes you think I would have paid?" Xena's smile vanished as a flicker of doubt crossed her young lover's face, and she ran a palm down the smooth skin of Gabrielle's back. "I don't have enough money to pay what you're worth," she said, rewarded with a happy smile from the scribe. "Guess I'll have to raise taxes. 'People of Corinth,'" she rehearsed, "this is for a good cause." Her hand continued down past Gabrielle's lower back, squeezing deliciously round flesh. "Make that two good causes," she amended. She flipped Gabrielle onto her back, bringing her lips to the other woman's breast. "Mmm. Three . . . ."

She made it to seven before losing count.


Gabrielle nestled her face into Xena's throat. "We've challenged you to a debate," she said.

Xena stroked her hair. "I thought we weren't going to talk politics tonight."

"Mm. I know. I'm just warning you."

Xena smiled. "You know I can't do it," she said.

Gabrielle inhaled the scent of her lover. "I know." Her eyes drifted open as she thought about it. "Why not?"

Because agreeing to a debate would be a sign of weakness, Xena thought. "Verbal persuasion isn't my strong suit."

"Oh, I don't know. Your lips have me totally swayed."

"Really," Xena purred, having been thoroughly won over by Gabrielle's oral skills herself. "Are you sure you don't need a little more convincing?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Wellll, I may start to have doubts a little later," she said, "when I've recovered."

"So, what's with the joke?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle's brow furrowed. "The joke?"

"'How were the ruins of Chalis created?'" she paraphrased. "'Xena took a pleasure trip.'"

"Oh." Gabrielle grinned sheepishly. "Saw that, did you? How'd you get hold of one of our newsletters?"

"I'm interested in everything you write," Xena answered, "and no changing the subject."

"We thought a little humor might help make people less intimidated of you," Gabrielle said, and more likely to speak out.

Xena tightened her arms around her scribe. "You're going to get me killed," she mumbled, making herself comfortable for a little nap.

Gabrielle's eyes remained open long after her lover had dozed off. Going to get her killed? Would making Xena seem more human also make her seem more vulnerable? Curled up in the warrior's strong arms, Gabrielle thought about what she was doing.


"Gabrielle, what are you doing?"

"Hm?" Gabrielle looked up from the second page of her text.

Timmor pointed. "What's this?"

"Telling people about the tax change."

"'The Warrior Princess gave us a glimpse of mercy at the last Proclamation Day,'" he read aloud, "declaring that those over seventy years of age who do not possess their own source of income are now exempt from taxation.'" Others in the group walked over to them, curious.

Gabrielle raised her eyebrows. "What's wrong with it?"

"Why are you putting that in?"

"I thought people would want to know."


"Why?" Gabrielle spread her hands. "Because Xena implemented one of the reforms we've been advocating."

"Hardly," Timmor retorted. "Seventy? How many reach that age?"

"It's a start," Gabrielle said. "There used to be no exemption."

"That's not the point." Timmor held up the scroll. "This represents the voice of protest; why are we singing the Conqueror's praises in it?"

"It's hardly singing her praises," she said. "Don't you want people to hear both sides? I thought that's what we've been complaining about."

"She has plenty of opportunities to tell her version of things; we don't. We can't spare the room for this. There's too much more they need to hear about the Conqueror's heavy hand."

"It's one sentence long," Gabrielle said slowly. "I think there's room." It is my parchment, she was tempted to add, but that would just raise more questions. She had convinced them without much effort that a wealthy benefactor had bestowed the gift upon her, which was technically true -- "you'll be safer if you write more and speak less," Xena had insisted -- but the scribe's story wouldn't withstand close scrutiny. Xena is providing us with the means of inciting her people against her, the scribe thought resentfully, and you don't want to give her even a single sentence of credit?

Timmor opened his mouth to offer another rebuttal, and Gabrielle slammed down her quill. "People who pursue their own agendas without acknowledging contrary evidence lose credibility," she said. "If we acknowledge when Xena does something positive for the people, it enhances our position in questioning her policies in other areas. Otherwise, we appear as rigid as we accuse her of being."

Timmor rolled his eyes. He knew better than to argue with Gabrielle, and they needed her to write the rest of the letter, so he supposed they'd have to put up with this latest idiosyncracy. One of these days, though, he was certain that Gabrielle's trusting nature would come back to haunt her.


No . . . .

Gabrielle slid her hand up to Xena's shoulder and squeezed it lightly to get the Warrior Princess's attention, which at the moment was focused entirely on the mind-searing kiss they had been sharing for long minutes now.

Gabrielle reluctantly drew her mouth away. "Xena . . . ."

She closed her eyes as she felt warm lips take up new residence on her throat.

"Xena . . . ," she tried again, this time shoving a little to encourage voluntary compliance, well aware that she would not be able to move the bigger woman off her if Xena insisted on staying put. "I need to get the door."

"Let it go." Xena had waited nearly two weeks for this opportunity to be alone with her little scribe; she wasn't going to let a minute be wasted by some uninvited visitor, who, like a cow, was too dumb to stay out of the rain. She kept Gabrielle's body pinned gently beneath hers.

"Xena." Gabrielle dodged the impending kiss. "They can see the candle through the window. If I don't answer, they'll think something's wrong."

Her lover's dark hair cascaded down to the pillow, creating a luxurious curtain around their faces. Xena pressed her forehead against Gabrielle's, then rolled off her. "Make it fast," she said.

"I will," Gabrielle promised. She slipped into the silk robe Xena had given her -- highly touchable, as Xena characterized it, but plain in design so as not to attract too much attention -- cinched the curtain around the bed, and tied the belt of her robe into a loose knot. "Don't start without me," she whispered through the curtain, laughing at Xena's growled reply.

"Don't count on it."

Still smiling, Gabrielle opened the door. Even with his raincoat on, she instantly recognized Raubert's wayward curls. "Celice said your mother is tending hers tonight," he said. "I thought maybe we could talk."

Gabrielle's mouth opened, but her mind had gone blank.

The young man jerked a thumb over his shoulder and laughed self-consciously. "It's really pouring," he said. "Can I come in?" He began to step across the threshold.

Gabrielle pressed a hand gently against his chest. "No, Raubert. I'm sorry."

The smile left his face. "Why not?"

"Raubert, I'm . . . ." She couldn't think of any way out of it. ". . . with someone."

Even as his mind struggled with denial, he saw hanging on a peg near the fire a long, dark cloak, much too large to belong the woman standing before him. His eyes travelled to the curtained area concealing Gabrielle's bed. "Who is it?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "That's not important, Raubert."

"Not important?" He stared at her in disbelief. How could Gabrielle think that anything about her wasn't important, especially the name of the man who had stolen her affections? Not important? "I demand to know who is here with you," he said.

The Warrior Princess's sharp hearing easily picked up every word, and Xena slipped out of bed.

"Raubert, please don't do this," Gabrielle said softly.

"I'm not the one doing this," he said. "You are. Why have you never said anything?"

"There was no need," she replied. "My private life does not affect our work. You know that's important to me."

Crossing her arms, Xena shifted her weight from her right leg to the left. She was growing tired of this dialogue. Send him packing, Gabrielle, she silently urged. They had better things to do.

"But I love you, Gabrielle."

Oh, Hades. Xena was tempted to peek out through the cloth. How would Gabrielle handle an admission like that? She edged closer to the curtain, concerned by the scribe's silence.

"I'm sorry, Raubert. My heart--" The golden voice paused, and Xena cocked her head, wondering what was running through that blonde head of hers. "My heart is not for you," Gabrielle finally said. "Raubert, please go. We can talk about this tomorrow." Silence. "Please."

Reluctantly, her rejected suitor retreated back into the downpour, and Gabrielle returned to bed.

"You know he'll wait outside to see who leaves," Xena said.

Gabrielle nodded. "Can you stay a while longer?" she asked.

"Well, yeah, I thought we --" The scribe rolled over to face her, and Xena realized that her amorous aspirations for the evening had been dashed. The young woman was too upset, her heart breaking over someone else's broken heart.

Damn. Their opportunities to be together were rare, and to have a wonderful evening interrupted by the misdirected romantic wailings of a little boy irritated her. Xena pictured a few of her options if she did indeed encounter loverboy waiting outside when she left.

She extended an arm and Gabrielle scooted over to her, resting her face in the soft indentation near the taller woman's shoulder. Her arm slid across Xena's waist, and the two women gradually drifted off into restless slumber.

When Xena awoke, it was to find herself wrapped along the length of Gabrielle's smaller body, one arm across the other woman's stomach, another beneath her neck, a leg draped across her thigh. Her face lay against the back of Gabrielle's shoulder, and she fought the temptation to bite into that soft flesh. Instead, she compressed all her limbs, trying to draw the other woman further into her, loving the sound of Gabrielle's contented sighs.

An hour before the sun would rise, Xena peered down at a man sleeping in the alcove across from Gabrielle's door. His curly brown head was propped invitingly against the rock wall, and Xena reflected on how easy it would be just to reach down and . . . .

After a short indulgence in her fantasy, she grudgingly continued her silent journey home.


Half a dozen guards burst into the spacious quarters, forgetting in their exuberance the inadvisability of bursting in on the Warrior Princess without warning. The pointy end of a sword pierced the skin of the first man's throat.

"Princess . . .," he begged, rigid where he stood.

No danger here, Xena concluded, except that one of the fools might hurt himself. Rats. "What is it?" she demanded.

Another soldier, wrists bound, was forced to his knees before her.

"A traitor, Highness. He was working with the dissenters."

She recognized him, of course; Xena made it a practice to be somewhat familiar with all members of her guard, although Closso was not one of those with whom she had been most familiar. She had long suspected that Gabrielle and her friends had a source in the castle, and from the propaganda she had read, Xena had narrowed the field in her own mind to a member of her guard. She congratulated herself on her deductive skills--now, what to do about it?

The guard closed his eyes, hoping desperately that he could retain sufficient dignity to keep from relieving himself on the Conqueror's floor. He was a veteran of the bloody northern region campaigns, but no man in Xena's Guard feared mere battle as much as the Conqueror's fury.

"I'll interrogate him myself," Xena said, to the delight of her bloodthirsty guards. "Wait outside."

Their grins faded. "But, Princess--"

"Do you have a hearing problem?"

Anxious to assure her that they did not, the six men made a hasty exit, and Xena scrutinized the man who had betrayed her.

"Who have you been working with?" she asked.


Xena pressed her sword into his chest. "Answer the question or I'll cut your heart out right here."

The guard's clenched jaw was beginning to ache, but he didn't care.

"Actually, I think I'll have you tied to the post first," she said, wondering if the specter of forty lashes would loosen his tongue. "Do you have a family, Closso?" She circled around him. "Perhaps I should bind your mother to the post. You know I'll do it," she hissed.

He uttered a strangled sound, blood trickling down his chin from where his teeth had punctured his lower lip.

A dark boot caught him squarely in the ribs. "Is it worth your miserable life to refuse me what I want to know?"

He nodded slowly.

"All right. In that case, stand up."

He rose, prepared to be dealt the fatal blow. At the same moment, the doors opened and Ennaus stormed into the room and up to her prisoner.

"Come in, Ennaus," she said sarcastically. "You may join us," she called to the other guards, and they filed in, glaring at the condemned man's back.

"I'm pleased that you uncovered a traitor within the castle," Xena commended them. "Closso has indeed been working with the underground movement for some months now." She paused. "At my instruction."

"What?" Ennaus erupted.

Closso froze, not sure he was hearing what he was hearing, and not sure why he was hearing it if he was.

"Several months ago I asked Closso to infiltrate the resistance," Xena said. "He has done well," she said, smiling at the man who still faced the far wall. "I have learned much valuable information from him, but I assume it was a public arrest."

The guards nodded nervously.

"That's fine," she assured them. "It just makes it more convincing."

"Princess, I must protest!" The vein in Ennaus' neck was bulging precariously. "You should not have engaged in this operation without my knowledge!"

Xena swung her head around to fix a steely blue gaze on him.

"Are you telling me what I can and cannot do?" she asked in a dangerously low voice.

Ennaus bit his tongue, his outrage not completely overriding his self-preservation instincts. "No, of course not, Highness," he said. "It's just that it would be helpful to me in providing for your security to know of such operations."

She cut the ropes binding Closso's wrists and then circled around to face the informer, who gaped at her with confused gratitude. "You know you can't remain in my service now," she said. He nodded. "Give him some money," she said over her shoulder, "enough to make a fresh start." She stared meaningfully into the soldier's brown eyes. "Somewhere besides this city, I would suggest." He paled, the unspoken message received loud and clear.

She placed an arm around Closso's shoulders, seemingly escorting him from the room with genuine affection. "Mycra," she called, "why don't you help Closso get his things, and see that he leaves the castle safely."

"Yes, Princess."

Xena brought her lips close to Closso's ear. "Tell your friends: The next one dies."


"Why'd she let him go?" Marcas demanded again.

Gabrielle threw up her hands. "For the tenth time, who knows? She was in a good mood. She didn't want a public scandal. We may never know." She exhaled loudly in frustration. "Whatever the reason, Closso is still the same man we've known all along, and he can still be a valuable member of this group, if he's willing to risk it."

Timmor shook his head. "No. We can't trust him now."

"What are you talking about?" Gabrielle shouted. She glanced over at the former guard, who leaned forlornly against a far wall, looking as run down as the abandoned structure in which the emergency meeting had been convened. "Closso has risked his life for us time and time again," she said, lowering her voice. "Why should we banish him for a simple act of humanity by Xena?"

"For that very reason," Marcas said. "Xena's not human. If she spared him, it was for a reason."

"What are you suggesting? That Closso is going to betray us?" This was unbelievable. "If he was going to do that, he could have handed us over at any time over the past months."

"He wasn't beholden to her then," Timmor said. "And how do we know this wasn't part of some scheme of hers?"

"Closso has been lying to us the whole time?" Gabrielle asked incredulously.

"Maybe not," Timmor conceded, "but he may not have known he was being used. Maybe she knew of his involvement all along and planned this to fool us into keeping him around."

"I agree," Raubert said.

"I don't believe this." Gabrielle glared at him, then appealed to the others. "Are you buying this? Would you do this if it was Timmor? Or Raubert?" Or me? She closed her eyes, recognizing defeat in their silence.

She sat silently on the dusty floorboards as Raubert and Timmor walked over to Closso. Overcoming her cowardly instincts, she forced herself to meet her friend's gaze before he was led outside to hear their decision.

"OK, we change the message system," Marcas said. "The meetings will now be posted on the fifth day of the week, rather than the second, and at . . . ." He held up his hands. "Any suggestions?"

"The castle wall?" Celice offered, drawing laughs from several in the group.

"That'd be great," Marcas said. "Right under the bitch's nose."

Gabrielle had had enough. "I've got to go," she said.

"Wait! We have to choose a place."

The scribe was on her feet now. "You choose," she said. I don't want to have anything to do with you people right now. "I'll get word later."


Xena groaned and pressed Gabrielle harder against the bricks, covering the smaller woman almost entirely within the folds of her cloak.

Gabrielle's hands clutched at her back as she breathed into Xena's chest. "Xena . . . ."

Xena rested her cheek on Gabrielle's hair, kissing the top of the scribe's head as her own breathing calmed. She closed her eyes. This couldn't go on. Making love to Gabrielle against a wall in a squalid city alleyway as if she were a common prostitute. This wasn't how Xena had wanted to bid her lover goodbye before her upcoming trip to Akkad.

At times, she almost regretted reuniting Gabrielle with her mother. The older woman rarely felt the need to leave the scribe's small quarters for any extended period of time, which virtually eliminated any chance the lovers had of spending time alone there.

The narrow bed, when they had use of it, was a haven for them. The Conqueror was too well known to sneak into an inn anywhere in Corinth, and they hadn't figured out a way to get Gabrielle safely outside the city limits. They had talked once about a trip to Athens -- "in a covered carriage," Xena had suggested, with lascivious intent.

"Great -- just you, me, and a dozen guards," Gabrielle had observed dryly, and neither of them had broached the depressing subject again.

"Gabrielle . . . ?" Xena whispered into her lover's hair.

"Mmm . . . ." Gabrielle clung tightly to her, partly from a desire for closeness, partly from a lack of strength in her legs. Her hands slid down to Xena's hips.

"Would you care if I sent your mother back to Duche?"

Gabrielle drew back and looked up at her.


"Teres says she hadn't expected to be gone that long," Marcas reported. "More than two months."

"Seven weeks three days," Gabrielle corrected absently. She dipped a quill into dark magenta ink, her tongue playing along an incisor as she contemplated her choices. Tyrannical? No, too harsh. The Xena she knew wasn't tyrannical. Oppressive? She grimaced, noting with some frustration that becoming intimate with Xena had ruined some of her best words.

"She'll not be out much til the weekend," Marcas said.

The weekend. Gabrielle smiled. Surely Xena could slip away by then. The gods had smiled on them while Xena was on her trip, and Hecuba now served as a live-in companion to Francia and his mother. The old miser had managed to trip over a one-armed almsman on the stoop outside his house, and would be recovering for some time from a broken arm and leg. A true misfortune, Gabrielle had agreed, but one which would cost him very little and, more importantly, would allow the scribe to test the durability of her old bed and the Warrior Princess again.

"She's busy preparing for the wedding," Marcas continued.

All heads turned toward him. "Wedding?" Gabrielle asked.

He nodded. "Xena is to marry Phillip of Akkad. He returned with her."

Gabrielle stood motionless, quill in hand, staring at her associate as if he had transformed into a hydra.

"Yeah, I know," he said, misreading her expression. "It'll reinforce her stranglehold over that territory, and add sixty thousand new troops to her army."

"Marry?" Gabrielle said weakly, a little slow in processing the information.

Marcas shrugged. "He doesn't seem any improvement over her," he said, "but--"

"Marry?" Gabrielle repeated.

She appeared to be addressing him, sort of, and the dark head nodded again. "Teres says they've been together every night since she returned."

Gabrielle felt around with a hand for something to sit on, then decided rather abruptly to make do with the floor. Xena getting married. Xena spending every night with this man. Gabrielle felt ill.

Long minutes later, she reached for the parchment. Tyrannical, she penned carefully.


"A visitor, your Highness."

"Who is it?" Xena reclined against the back of her sofa. Not that oaf again, she hoped. The man acted as though he'd never had a woman before.

"The mystic you sent for, Highness."

Xena sat up. She hadn't sent for any mystic. "Let me see that." She unfolded the note, and worked to keep a smile from her face. Perfect. "About time," she said. "Send her up."

The guard reappeared a few minutes later with a veiled guest, who entered the room and bowed to the Warrior Princess.

"That will be all," Xena said, tapping her foot impatiently while the moronic guard took forever getting the door shut. When she heard the latch click, Xena moved.

Before Gabrielle knew what was happening, she lay naked on the thick fur rug in front of the fire with Xena kneeling above her. Xena untied the belt of her robe to reveal that she wore nothing underneath, having taken advantage of the few minutes it took the guard to fetch her visitor in order to save a few minutes after her arrival.

She lowered herself onto the scribe, and brought her teeth to the soft flesh of Gabrielle's neck, her body beginning gentle but urgent motions. There would be time later for the seamless, passionate kisses that Gabrielle thrived on, Xena promised silently; at the moment, she couldn't wait.

"No." Gabrielle placed the palm of a hand on Xena's face.


"Xena, no!" The smaller woman pushed against her chest.

Xena drew back. What . . .? "What's the matter?" she rasped.

"We need to talk."

For a single instant, Xena considered her position. Gabrielle lay beneath her, helpless against her strength. She could simply take what she wanted . . . .

She gazed down into the trusting eyes looking up at her. Oh, Hades, what was she thinking? Not with Gabrielle. Never with Gabrielle. She rolled off the smaller woman and sighed.

Gabrielle had seen the conflicting emotions cross Xena's face, but let it pass. Nothing mattered right now except-- "Are you going to marry Phillip of Akkad?"

Xena stared up at the ceiling. This is what Gabrielle wanted to talk about, now of all times? "Yes," she replied, wondering how much discussion Gabrielle had in mind for this visit, and how much other things. Surely she had missed it as well . . . .

This couldn't be happening. What an idiot, Gabrielle thought, crossing her forearms over her head. She should have known that Xena didn't-- Didn't what? Didn't love me, she admitted.

Xena propped her head on an elbow, which afforded her an excellent view of her lover's luscious body. "Gabrielle, what's this about?" she asked.

"Have you been with him since you returned?"

"Yeah." Xena rolled her eyes. "And that idiot attache of his."

Gabrielle stared at her. "Both of them?"

"Yeah, most of the time . . . ." Where was this going?

"You've been to bed with both of them?" Gabrielle asked in disbelief.

"To bed?" Xena repeated, laughing. "Hardly. Didn't your mother ever warn you about buying a cow when you can get the milk for free?" She smiled. "I find men more malleable" -- well, that might not be the right word, she thought with a smirk -- "when they're desperate."

"Are you going to sleep with him when you're married?"

"That's usually part of the bargain," Xena said. She scooted a little closer to the other woman, whose nakedness was continuing to give Xena's own body ideas. "But that's just business. It won't keep us from enjoying ourselves." She trailed a finger down Gabrielle's side.

"Yes, it will," Gabrielle said, capturing the stray finger in her hand and returning it to its owner.

"What are you talking about?"

Gabrielle couldn't believe that Xena didn't see it. Didn't see any problem at all, apparently. She would just be married and bedding this man every night, tossing Gabrielle a crumb now and then, but hey, no big deal.

It is no big deal to her, she acknowledged, because she's not in love with you. Gabrielle had been in denial for all these months, refusing to examine how she felt about Xena, trying to tell herself to live for the moment, that she liked Xena's company and Xena liked hers, and that was all that mattered. The time of reconciliation was at hand, though, and one thing had become horribly clear: She was deeply in love with the Warrior Princess.

"I can't . . . be intimate with someone who's married," she said.

Xena bit back a groan. Gods, did Gabrielle have to be an idealist about everything?

"Gabrielle, you're not being reasonable," she said. "Akkad is one of the largest and best armed territories in the Realm. There have been rumors that they were considering breaking ties with us. That would mean war."

"I understand that."

Xena raised a hand into the air, allowing it to drop to the floor. "Then you see how crucial this alliance is."

Gabrielle nodded again.

"So . . . ?"

So, I'm in love with you, and I can't stand sharing you with anyone else, business or no business, Gabrielle thought. "So, nothing," she replied. "I just can't deal with this situation."

"What situation exactly?"

"You married, sleeping in a man's bed."

"Actually, he'll be sleeping in my bed," Xena said. "Except when we're in Akkad."

"Gods!" Gabrielle slammed her hands down on the rug.


Gabrielle sat up and scanned the room for the clothes she'd been wearing when she arrived. "Nothing. Nothing at all. Just forget it, OK?"

If forgetting it meant getting on with their reunion, Xena was all for it. However, judging by the fact that Gabrielle was now picking up pieces of her clothing, things didn't look promising along those lines. "I don't want to forget it," she said. "I want to understand what's bothering you."

Gabrielle stepped into her skirt and adjusted the belt. "I can't handle--" She tried to figure out how to put this so that Xena wouldn't laugh at her. "I can't handle being compared to this guy."

Xena laughed. So much for that idea, Gabrielle thought crisply. She slid an arm into the sleeve of her blouse.

"Gabrielle, I'm not going to be comparing you with anyone. Phillip is a bore, and I doubt if I'll recall any encounter a minute after it's over."

"That's what you think, but you won't be able to help it. You'll leave my bed and go to his, and I just can't compete."

"Oh, you can compete, Gabrielle," Xena grinned. "You're way ahead of the pack."

Gabrielle continued to dress, and Xena knew she would have to do something more; she just couldn't figure out what.

"What do you want me to do, Gabrielle?" she asked, extending a hand toward the other woman, who was now lacing her short boots.

Gabrielle looked at her. "Nothing, Xena," she said sadly. "You have to do what you have to do." And so do I. She reached for the white wraparound garment that would complete her disguise.

"Wait." Xena rose. "Please. I don't know what you want. We've talked about this. It's not safe for people to know about us."

Gabrielle nodded in acknowledgement.

"Your life would be in danger, from my enemies, maybe your own allies--"

"My friends would never harm me."

I wouldn't be so sure, Xena thought. She had known more friends who had turned on each other than she hoped Gabrielle would see in her lifetime. "They're not all your friends," she said. "You don't know every unhappy person in this City, but they would all know you." Xena decided against mentioning the potential risks to her own life if she were viewed as weak, if she were to ally herself officially with someone who offered no army, no strength, no iron hand.

"So what are we going to do?" What are you going to do, Gabrielle? Xena heard no reply, and she held out a hand. "Don't leave just yet, Gabrielle. I've missed you."

"I've missed you, too." Gabrielle could not look up; there would be too much written on her face, she knew.

"Stay with me a while, Gabrielle. Talk to me." Tell me everything.

Gabrielle stared at the floor for a long moment, thinking about everything Xena had said. Finally, she looked up at her. "Is it really that impersonal?"


"No feelings, no desire? Just like checking something off a shopping list?"

"It really is." Xena laid her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders. "It doesn't occupy your mind at all. It's like relieving yourself."

Gabrielle chewed on her lip, and finally nodded. "I guess I can do it," she said to herself.

Xena beamed. "I know you can." Her eyes wandered down to Gabrielle's lips, wondering if she was ready for a kiss.

"Mother has been living at Francia's while he's down with a broken leg," Gabrielle said. "After next week, I'll be with her there."

"You're moving?" Xena asked, confused. Why would she do that, when they would finally have the scribe's quarters to themselves?

Gabrielle nodded. "Francia has offered to keep Mother on after he's recovered."

Xena pressed her lips together. Apparently, the scribe didn't quite grasp the concept: Mother gone, bed free. "That's nice, Gabrielle, but there's hardly room for both of you in that guest room. Besides,--"

"I'm not staying in the guest room," Gabrielle said, seemingly intent on examining her fingernails. "I . . . Francia wants a companion."

"A companion?" Xena drew her hands back.

"For him."

"What kind of companion?"

A corner of Gabrielle's mouth turned up. "Oh, gee, for checkers, I think."

Her audience was was not amused. "Gabrielle, if this is--" The blonde woman raised her head, and Xena was startled by the look in her eyes. She couldn't be serious.

"I told Francia no last week," Gabrielle said, "but if you're right about this, I can separate the act from the emotion." She sighed. "I needed to get realistic about things anyway."

Xena was not prepared for this development. "I thought you said he's twice your age."

"Yeah," Gabrielle nodded. "That's why we won't be getting married."

"Excuse me?"

"Francia thinks it would be unseemly for him to marry someone my age."

"And it's more seemly just to--" Xena remembered they were talking about Gabrielle here "--carry on with her?"

Gabrielle's shoulders moved up and down. "He's worried that his friends'll think I'm just after his money if he married me."

"You are just after his money."

"Well, yeah, but they don't know that."

"He wants a trophy to show off."

"I don't care." The scribe walked over to the refreshments table and poured herself some water. "He's promised me, and I believe he'll keep his word."

Xena took a deep, calming breath. "Gabrielle, he'll probably keep your mother on after he's back on his feet anyway. He'll be used to being waited on. It's hard to go back. I know."

"And then what?" Gabrielle asked, raising her hands. "My mother's not a young woman. You know I don't make any money; who'll take care of her later on? She'll need a place to live, money for medical services, to live on--"

"I'll buy you a house," Xena interrupted. "Two houses. And provide for her care and her support."

Gabrielle shook her head. "I can't count on that. Who knows where you'll be in a year?"

"Oh, thanks," Xena said. "Do you think I'll make it to my bed tonight?"

"I don't mean that you'll be dead or anything. I mean who knows where we'll be? We may not be seeing each other any more at that point."

Where in Hades did that come from? "Why wouldn't we be?" Xena asked.

"We have other pressures, other commitments. We'll both be married or living with someone else by then. You may have tired of me . . . ." Before Xena could interject, she added, "I really don't want to leech off of you anyway, Xena."

"Gabrielle, a lifetime's support for you and your mother wouldn't put a nick in my vaults. You of all people should know that."

"I'm not going to take money from you," the scribe repeated.

Xena raised her hands. "Why not?" This was absurd.

"It's a matter of pride. You can understand that."

"So instead you're going to earn it on your back from this Francia clown? His own private little concubine?"

"It won't be just that," Gabrielle said stiffly. "My mother and I will tend his house, and he may let me help with his business."

"And you'll lie down for him."


Xena crossed her arms. "I won't allow it."

Silence, then, "I'm going to assume you didn't mean to say that."

"You're not whoring yourself to some two-dinar swine when there is no need." Xena marched over to a small chest and pulled out a sizeable purse. "This is more than enough to take care of both of you. Take it."

Gabrielle shook her head.

Xena threw the bag across the room, and strode angrily to the window. "I'll gut him, Gabrielle," she said.


"Why? Because I'm not having his hands on you." Xena yanked the curtain aside.

"You have no claim on me."

"I have a claim on everyone within my Realm."

"Oh, well, as long as I know whose property I am," Gabrielle fumed. "I guess I can lie under the Conqueror and stare at the ceiling as easily as I can with Francia."

Xena clutched at the window sill. She didn't want to be having this argument. She just wanted to sit on the couch with Gabrielle in her arms. She remembered lying wrapped around Gabrielle on a rainy night, doing nothing but holding her while she slept, and feeling a sense of peacefulness she had thought was long dead. Why couldn't things just be like that again? "Don't do this, Gabrielle."

"Why not? It's just business."

Hearing her own words thrown back at her, Xena sighed. "You can't compare us, Gabrielle. I've used my body for years to get things I wanted. You haven't."

"I'll get used to it. It's meaningless, right? I've made up my mind, Xena; I'm going to accept Francia's offer."

"No, you're not," Xena said. If Gabrielle thought she was kidding about having the man killed, she was gravely in error. He wouldn't make it past his front door tonight.

Gabrielle studied her lover's back for a moment, then said quietly, "Xena, I want you to picture me in bed with Francia."

What in Hades did she think she'd been doing for the last ten minutes? Another vision of some sweaty bastard on top of Gabrielle, grunting and panting, flashed into Xena's head, and she tightened her grip on the wooden slats.

"Think about me lying there, under him," Gabrielle continued. "I'm not enjoying myself, I'm not loving him, I'm just lying there while he does what he wants. I'm only doing it because he'll take care of my mother."

She wished that Gabrielle's voice, and the sickening images it was invoking, would stop.

"Is it meaningless to you, Xena?"

She shook her head.

"Will it be meaningless to me when you're lying beneath your husband?"

Xena closed her eyes. "I have no choice, Gabrielle. I have to do what I believe is best. I've devoted my life to creating and maintaining this Realm. It's the only thing that matters. Don't ask me to choose between you."

"I love you, Xena."

Don't do this. "I can't change who I am, Gabrielle."

"I know that," Gabrielle said. "But who are you, Xena?"

The Conqueror gazed out at thousands of low lights, torchlight, firelight, and moonlight all merging to radiate a faint glow over Corinth. Her City. The Capitol, the seat of government and commerce for the thousands of leagues under her rule. All the battles, all the killing, all the sacrifice in her life had been to one end, which lay stretched before her as far as the eye could see.

Behind her, Xena knew, she would not see the symbols of her reign, or a star-lit sky that blanketed all she ruled. She would see one woman with blonde hair and green eyes who expected Xena to place her above all she had coveted for many years.

The silence deepened as Xena stared out into the dark.


"Hey, lighten up, Gabrielle--always remember that things can't get any worse," Timmor joked.

Gabrielle brought both hands to her forehead and massaged her temples.

"It's only Proclamation Day, you know, not--"

"I know what day it is." The day that Xena would announce her alliance with Akkad. The end of Gabrielle's life as she knew it.

"Are you feeling all right?" Hecuba took her daughter's hand.

"I . . . ." Gabrielle swallowed, but the lump in her throat continued to grow. She should tell her. "Mother . . . ."

"Hey, gang!"

"Evan!" The men clasped the newcomer's forearm. "Long time no see. You going to the square?"

"Oh, yeah. I'd hate to miss whatever policy she's going to announce that I'm going to violate."

"No policy," Timmor said. "She's announcing her marriage."

"Marriage? You're kidding. Who would have her?" The men thought about that for a minute. "I mean have her for a wife," Evan said, and they laughed.

"Someone who'd never met her before," Raubert said, as the group ambled toward the arena.

"Yeah," Marcas agreed. "If I saw her sitting on a log, and I didn't know who she was, I might consider her company for a couple of hours."

"If I saw her and didn't know who she was, she would be sitting on a log," Timmor said crudely.

The men laughed again and Gabrielle cringed, but their vulgarity gave her a convenient excuse to suggest that she and her mother let the others go on ahead. She shot a disapproving look at Raubert, then dropped back to walk beside the older woman.

They arrived in time to commandeer standing space at the base of the stage. "Gabrielle, up here!" Marcas waved her toward them. "Where's your mother?"

"What? Oh." Gabrielle shook her head. "She went back."

"Went back? What's the matter?"

"I told her . . . ."

"Told her what?"

Tears filled Gabrielle's eyes, and she swallowed painfully. You are not my daughter. The words, replayed in her head a dozen times now, had been like a fist to the scribe's gut.

She leaned against the platform, failing to notice the soldier from Xena's advance guard until his boot landed against the side of her skull. "Off the stage!" he barked.

She laid a hand against her head, fighting back more tears.

"Do you want to talk?" Raubert asked.

Gabrielle shook her head. She should, she knew, but she was too close to losing it already; she wouldn't get through it.

Trumpets blared, and the low buzz of conversation subsided as the assembly awaited the appearance of their leader.

"Gods . . . ." Timmor whispered appreciatively. Why did such a corrupt harpy have to be so incredibly good-looking?

It was true. Gabrielle's heart overflowed at the sight of the Warrior Princess dressed in shimmering robes of blue and purple and white intertwined to striking effect.

"People of Corinth," Xena shouted, "today is the beginning of a new era." She paused to allow her words to be echoed into the crowd by strategically placed criers, and motioned to a bearded man in a king's floor-length, dark purple robe standing behind her.

Their proximity gave Gabrielle her first glimpse of the man. He wasn't that tall, really, or athletic, and there wasn't much to look at, face-wise, except for that unruly beard. Perhaps Xena had been right, she thought, he didn't look like much competition.

"We have reached a valuable partnership with our rich and powerful ally to the south." Xena again gave the criers a few seconds to catch up. "The Realm has this day executed a mutual defense pact with the good people of Akkad. We have pledged our forces for the Akkadians' protection, and theirs to us." She clasped Phillip's hand and raised it above their heads. "Akkad remains a welcome and valued part of the Realm." She paused again, this time for applause from the crowd.

Ennaus waited, arms crossed, for the rest of the proclamation. Relations with Akkad had become a farce. What was the point of suddenly granting concession after concession to this little toad when the territories were to merge anyway?

From the corner of her eye, Xena spied her scribe standing near the stage, and made a silent inquiry. Gabrielle nodded, and Xena smiled.

"I have a second announcement," Xena shouted.

"A second announcement? Where was the first?" Raubert whispered. "What about the marriage?" The others met his question with a shrug, except for Gabrielle, whose gaze was riveted on the Warrior Princess.

Silence settled across the arena as Xena seemed to hesitate.

Ennaus eyed her suspiciously. What was going on here?

What was the matter? Gabrielle's heart raced. They had rehearsed this speech several times; surely Xena hadn't forgotten it?

"I have come to realize that there are those who desire greater input and insight into the workings of their leadership," Xena said, and Gabrielle let out her breath. "Along with this, I have learned many other things."

Xena paused for the criers to do their job, and Gabrielle's brow furrowed. These weren't the words they had written.

"I have learned to value those I would have struck down for speaking out, to appreciate the strength of those I would have considered weak, and . . . to love those I would have turned away."

Gabrielle brought a hand to her mouth. Gods.

"From this day," Xena resumed the prepared text, "no one within the Realm will be punished merely for speaking their beliefs." She waited, but, to a man, the criers stood motionless, their mouths hanging open. She sent the nearest one a pointed look, and he hastened to communicate her message to those behind him. "A Citizens' Committee, consisting of three individuals elected by the populace, will be invited to the castle once each month to relay public concerns. All policies of the Realm will be open to review."

Xena paused again. Almost done. She would rather face a dozen cyclopes than relive this experience, except for what was about to come.

Ennaus gaped at her. What was she doing? Did the Princess foolishly think this would somehow strengthen her rule? A gross miscalculation. Why had she not consulted him?

"This is incredible," Marcas gasped.

"We will embark on this new journey together," Xena shouted. "You" -- she gestured toward the crowd -- "me" -- she placed a hand on her chest -- "and the woman who has taught me these lessons." Striding to the edge of the stage, she held out a hand. Gabrielle placed her smaller hand in Xena's palm and allowed herself to be pulled up onto the stage. "Gabrielle of Potedaia."

Gabrielle nervously looked out at the mass of humanity packed into the arena, which was deathly quiet as the shock of Xena's announcements sank in. Xena placed a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently to reassure her lover. At almost the same instant, the crowd erupted, roaring their approval for the Conqueror's proclamation. Gabrielle ventured a glance at her companions, but they were nowhere to be seen.


Four women entered the busy market street, two younger blondes making a beeline for the exotic fruit stand, no cessation of their endless stream of chatter in sight, while their elders crossed to visit with the spice merchant. An easy-going guard hovered a reasonable distance behind, taking care not to wander within earshot.

"And some cinnamon, I think," Tova said.

"Really? That's a new one."

"The Conqueror's friend likes it."


Melba stiffened slightly at the woman's tone, wishing not for the first time that another spice merchant would set up shop in the market. "The cinnamon," she directed.

"Why bother?" Kohra knelt to retrieve a pouch from beneath the counter. "How long do you think it'll be before the Conqueror tires of the slag?" she shouted up.

"Watch your tongue," Melba said.

The merchant hauled herself back to her feet and waved a hand dismissively. "Pffh. Like you haven't said the same things." She sought confirmation of her perspective from the occupants of the neighboring stall, who nodded enthusiastically. "She warms the Conqueror's bed, doesn't she?"

As Gabrielle's personal servant -- "companion," Gabrielle had insisted -- Melba was well aware that the women did indeed share a bed. And from the occasional tell-tale marks on her mistress's body, as well as her own experience as a human being, Melba knew what they did in that bed. That much was true; the merchant's implication that that was all Gabrielle was to the Conqueror was not.

"I've heard all about it," Khora continued. "The girl ingratiated herself with our young men, and then turned on them."

"It's not true."

Melba spun around at the whispered protest, her heart breaking at the tears in Gabrielle's eyes. She hadn't heard them approaching. "Child--"

"Heard it straight from the horse's mouth," Khora insisted, wondering vaguely who the pretty new palace servant was. "'course, I always said those boys were foolish. They had no chance against Xena. Too naive. They should have suspected the girl from the beginning."

The scribe shook her head, unable to speak.

"Hell, her own mother won't have her."

Gabrielle turned and fled.

Tiron saw his charge running from the market as if Ares himself were after her, and he choked on the banana he had been enjoying, spitting out the rest of it as he bolted after her.

"Stupid woman!" Melba spat. She shoved the goods back across the counter and grabbed Tova's arm. They would do without before buying from such a vile creature.


"Two additional guests; yes, Highness, that won't be a problem," the cook's apprentice said. She chewed on her lip, wondering if she should mention the adjustment, and then wondering what would happen to her if she didn't. The Conqueror always seemed to notice everything. "There has been a slight change in tonight's menu, Highness," she said.


"Um, I believe that we are low on cayenne, Highness."

"The menu has been set for more than a week," Xena said. She didn't particularly care what they fed the minor dignitaries joining them for dinner tonight, but incompetence was inexcusable in any venue.

"Yes, Highness."

Xena raised her hands. "Well?"

"I . . . don't know, Highness. A misjudgment, perhaps. It's never happened before."

The girl -- Betta, Xena recalled -- was starting to perspire. What was going on here? "Send Tova to me."

"Highness," Esor said after the girl left. "If I may . . . ."


"I heard there was an incident at the market this morning. There may be a connection."

"What kind of incident?"

"I don't know. Tiron did not say."

"Tiron? That's Gabrielle's guard."

"Yes, Princess."

Xena rose slowly from her throne. "Gabrielle was at the market today?"


"And there was an incident?"


"Was she hurt?"

"Not to my knowledge, Highness." Esor was beginning to regret his intervention; the rage in the Conqueror's expression was intimidating, even if it wasn't directed at him. "But she was . . . upset, I believe."

Xena's lip curled. "I want Tova and Tiron in here now," she demanded. "And anyone else who was there."


Gabrielle poured more wine for their guests. "I'm sorry," she said again. "Xena's usually very prompt. I'm sure she'll be here any minute." She smiled again. As guests went, Belthor was one of Gabrielle's favorites. Grandfatherly in appearance, if not in temperament -- his rather fresh suggestion to her earlier came to mind -- he was charming, friendly, and just begging to have his cheeks pinched.

"No problem," he said. "From what I hear, it might be better to come by tomorrow anyway." He winked at her, but the girl seemed confused.

"What did you hear?"

"Just that Xena went berserk down at the market this afternoon." Three nods of agreement from his companions confirmed the statement.

The smile faded from Gabrielle's face. "Down at the market?"

"Yeah. Tore up a couple of stands. When we came through, they were still picking up the pieces." He shook his head admiringly at the Conqueror's thoroughness; the place looked as though a windstorm had ripped through it. "Do you know what it was about?"

Gabrielle closed her eyes. "I think I probably do."

The doors swung open to admit the Warrior Princess, a stunning figure in dark leathers and cape. Without preamble, she said, "Belthor, no offense, but I'm not in the mood for socializing tonight."

"None taken, Princess. I was just thinking the same thing." He tipped another wink at Gabrielle. What a little beauty, he thought. Might ask Xena if she's taken already . . . .

Xena crossed over and greeted the scribe with a familiar kiss.

Oops. Nevermind. Belthor and his entourage took their leave, unnoticed by either woman.

"I take it you heard."

Xena nodded.

"It was no big deal, really."

"Gabrielle." Xena placed her hands on the other woman's shoulders. "There's nothing I can do about hateful people. I would give anything to spare you from them, but they became part of your life when you became part of my life."

"It's not your--"

"Wait," Xena interrupted. "There is something I can do about what they say. When anyone suggests that you aren't the most important person in my life, that I only want you because you're incredible in bed--"

Gabrielle laughed.

"--and I do mean incredible," Xena whispered, leaning in to nibble her ear, "then I can do something about that."

"Yeah, smash up their booths, apparently."

"I mean to prevent it." She took Gabrielle's hands. "Marry me."

Gabrielle slid her arms behind Xena's neck and buried her face in the taller woman's chest. "I knew there was a reason I loved you," she said after a long silence.

"Do you remember what it was?" Xena grinned.

"No, not right off. That kind of thing tends to slip one's mind." Xena could feel Gabrielle's smile against her skin.

"Gabrielle, you know there isn't any one thing I love about you," she said solemnly.

Gabrielle looked up at her.

"There are two." Xena grabbed the scribe's breasts.

"Sex maniac."

"Oh, so you remember now."

"It's coming back to me." Gabrielle planted a soft kiss in the valley between Xena's breasts.


Xena didn't know how much Melba was paid, but after tonight it would be doubled. Gabrielle was simply breathtaking in a flowing green gown that accentuated her curves and the shimmering gold of her hair.

She followed the scribe's movements. The way that dress slid over her hips . . . . Gods. Xena wondered if Gabrielle would consider it tacky to take her on the altar before the ceremony got underway. Yeah, probably, even if this was only the private joining that would precede next week's highly public service in the coliseum.

She looked down skeptically at her own attire. Even thoroughly cleaned and oiled and shined, leathers and armor just couldn't match up to this. Maybe she should have--

"You look gorgeous," Gabrielle said. "You are more beautiful every day."

Xena opened and closed her mouth, desperately wanting to say the same and more to Gabrielle, but not able to put it into words.

"Thank you." Gabrielle smiled understandingly. "Oh, before I forget, I've invited everyone back to our quarters for an all-night celebration," she said.

Xena froze. "What?"

"I thought you'd enjoy it; some of your regional commanders are in town already for the ceremony, and those arms dealers from Alturis are still here, so I invited them, and--" Gabrielle paused at the dejected look on her lover's face. "And I'm kidding," she finished.

Xena ran her tongue along the inside of her cheek, then leaned over to whisper in Gabrielle's ear a single word, "paybacks." Gabrielle's eyes widened as her imagination played out several scenarios, all of which were rather appealing.

Xena's eyes flickered over the small group. "Your mother?"

Gabrielle shook her head. "She's not feeling well."

"Do you want to postpone this?"

"No," Gabrielle said. "I don't think she'll be feeling well for some time."

"I see. And your friends?"

"Not well either." Gabrielle smiled weakly. "I think there's something going around."

Xena nodded. She knew how it was not to have any friends, but the difference was that the Warrior Princess had never had any friends to lose, and had never cared. This was much harder on Gabrielle.

The priest placed his hands on the dais. "Are we ready to proceed?" He took a deep breath, and prepared to perform the sacred marriage rites for a merciless dictator whose reaction to a single slip up would likely be swift and fatal. He would have to remember to have a word with whichever gods had blessed him with being on duty at the temple when the Conqueror's guards came looking for a cleric.

"Yes," Xena said.

Melba sniffled, dabbing at her eyes with a small handkerchief. Later that evening, she seized the registrar's quaking hand -- "Give me that" -- and relieved him of his feathered quill. She dipped the quill into fresh ink and inscribed in clear and precise letters, "On Solstice Eve in the Fifth Year of the Reign of Xena, Gabrielle of Potedaia and Xena of Amphipolis were joined in the presence of Melba of Corinth, Achias of Athens, and Ennaus of Belzar." She wiped at a tear with her knuckle.


"Xena asked me to bring you here, Consort." Tiron bowed to indicate that he would not be joining her.

The scribe grinned. Wonder if Xena's in here with a surprise . . . . The Conqueror occasionally liked to live up to her title in unexpected locations. "Thank you, Tiron," she said. "Um . . . ," she reddened, "if Xena's in there, you probably won't need to stay . . . ." Tiron nodded, congratulating himself on maintaining the dignified expression that befitted the position of Consort's Guard.

Gabrielle stepped through the door, and was shocked to see a familiar figure seated in the center of the room. "Mother!" She ran to the older woman and grasped her hands, which jerked away from the touch. "Are you all right?"

"I was brought here against my will," Hecuba said.

Gabrielle sighed. "I'm sorry." She straightened, smiling unhappily. "Xena's idea of trying to be helpful."

"I'd expect as much from that creature."

"She's not a creature," Gabrielle said. "If you got to know her--"

"I know her. I've known her every day for the five years since she murdered my husband. Your father. And your sister."

How could Gabrielle explain that this wasn't the same Xena? She knew it in her heart. "I loved father," she began, "and Lila--"

"I used to believe that. I don't any more."

"Oh, gods." Gabrielle clutched at her chest. "How can you say that?"

"You've married the woman who killed them," Hecuba said, disgusted. "You speak for her. You've chosen her over your family."

"She's part of my family too, now. Mother, please, I can't stand this." Gabrielle began to cry. "Please don't leave me. Not when I just found you."

"She found me, you mean. Xena the Conqueror, my new owner. What was I, payment for your services? You make me so proud."

"It wasn't like that."

Hecuba rose. "Am I free to go?"

"Of course." Gabrielle nodded sadly. "But please don't."

Tiron opened the door at insistent pounding, surprised when the old woman stalked out. "Consort?"

"Take her wherever she wants to go," Gabrielle said in a hoarse voice. Tiron studied her uncertainly; the Consort was hunched over, her back to him . . . . Maybe he should go get Melba.

Tiron rounded the first corner, the old woman's arm in hand, only to run squarely into the Warrior Princess. Seeing Gabrielle hurrying down the hall, obviously crying, Xena motioned the guard to back away.

"Listen, you can hate me the rest of your life. I'm fine with that," she said. "You don't have to like me or even tolerate me. But Gabrielle is your daughter, the same little girl that you raised to be a beautiful, caring woman. Think about what you're doing to her."

She walked away, pausing as she passed the guard. "I understand the old woman's shoulder has been causing her pain," she said, grateful to Achias for the intelligence. "Have the healers see to it and then let her go."


Xena crossed her legs, and Gabrielle glanced at her. It appeared that the Conqueror had little interest in the topic of this conversation. Ennaus tapped his quill, annoyed that Xena had even deigned to allow the man to make his pitch. He shot a glare at the small blonde woman who was hovering over Xena. He suspected he knew who was responsible for this waste of time.

"We understand that the region is arid," Winton acknowledged. "But we believe we can build on it. We can enhance the value of some of the Realm's unused land." He looked up as the young woman poured him another glass of water with an encouraging smile.

"It would deplete the valuable resources of the Realm," Ennaus said.

The old man shook his head. "We do not ask--"

"If the area were colonized, soldiers of the Realm would be required to leave the border to oversee their activities," Ennaus said, this time to Xena. "The western region is vulnerable to overland attack. It's difficult enough to maintain our border guard there."

"That's true," Xena agreed.

"Winton, would any of your men be willing to sign up for the guard?"

Ennaus glowered at the Consort's question. She had now essentially made her wishes known to Xena, an obvious attempt to influence the decision.

"Yes, yes, that could be done," Winton assured them.

"A large colony would provide an extra layer between the border and Greece, wouldn't it?" Gabrielle asked.

"And extra problems," Ennaus countered.

Xena considered the aged petitioner, a finger pressed against her lips. "Fifty men, three years' service each; another fifty after that," she said. "Fair wages, board, and yearly visits home."

"Oh, yes, that would be quite satisfactory," Winton said eagerly.

"Highness--" Ennaus began.

"Write it up," Xena said.

An hour later, Gabrielle escorted the grateful gentleman down the corridor. "Thank you," he said, bringing her hand to his lips.

"Thank Xena," Gabrielle said. "It was her decision."

He met her gaze. "As you say, Consort."

She gave a final wave to the happy citizen and headed back up the hall. At the entrance to their quarters, three men stood next to Esor, and Gabrielle's eyes lit up.

"Raubert!" She laid a hand on her friend's arm. "Hi, Timmor." She didn't know the third man with them. They did not reply, and she drew back her hand. "Are you here to see Xena?"

"We are the Citizens' Committee," Raubert said.

"Really?" She beamed at him. "That's wonderful."

Timmor addressed the guard. "Please announce our presence to the Conqueror."

"Um . . .," Gabrielle tentatively held out a hand to him. "How is Celice?"

"We're here to see the Conqueror," Timmor said, "not her whore."

Gabrielle recoiled, and the men went on past her into the room.

"The Citizens' Committee," Esor announced to his queen. He showed the men to the long couch and indicated they should sit down.

"All right." Xena positioned herself comfortably in her throne. "I'm listening."

Some time later, she sneaked a look at the hourglass that still appeared to be half full, wondering if perhaps it had become clogged. Yes, perhaps the recent humidity had--

". . . and the tax collectors have taken it upon themselves," Raubert read from the prepared script.

She smothered a yawn. These were the grand orators? Gabrielle could lecture circles around these guys in her sleep. Which reminded her . . . . "Where's Gabrielle?"

"In the kitchen, I believe, Highness," Esor replied.

Xena smiled. "Would you ask her to join us?" She turned back to the trio. "Continue," she invited, wishing that Ennaus had stuck around for the meeting. His usual negative interjections would at least spice up this relentless monotone.

The guard returned shortly, bowing as he delivered his message. "The Consort says that she is in the middle of testing a recipe and would prefer to join you later, if that's all right."

"I see." Xena regarded her guests. Her attempt to break the stalemate between the two women from Potedaia had not gone well, and she had received a gentle but pointed lesson from Gabrielle about interfering. Still, Xena would not tolerate disrespect for her Consort any more than she would for herself.

"Tell her--" Xena shook her head and reached for a square of parchment instead, scrawling a short message for the guard to deliver. Xena leaned back and crossed her arms, studying the newly constituted Citizens' Committee, a committee that she created, that she permitted to exist . . . .

"Let me tell you something," she said. "Gabrielle stood with you and fought beside you and was a good friend to you for years. She did nothing to betray you, even when she thought it would mean her own death." Steely blue eyes burned into theirs. "But if friendship and loyalty mean so little to you, then remember this: She's the best chance you've got with me. I trust her judgment, and she's a lot more likely to see your perspective than I am." She leaned forward in her throne. "So I would suggest you weigh how you treat her against what you hope to accomplish."

"So, now you've summoned her for us to grovel, is that it?" Timmor asked.

Xena smiled. "No one 'summons' Gabrielle," she said. "I've asked her to join us because I like her company, and I refuse to be without it simply because my guests are uncivilized."

A moment later, Gabrielle glided into the room and over to the throne, leaning down for a chaste kiss from her lover. Perched on the arm of the ruler's throne, the scribe spent the rest of the meeting listening carefully to the Committee's grievances, recognizing most of them, not trusting her voice sufficiently to offer any comments of her own. She would give Xena her perspective later.

After the delegation departed, Xena slid an arm around her waist. "Thanks for coming back," she said.

Gabrielle smiled. "I'd have to have ice in my blood to resist someone telling me she needs me by her side," she said.

"Mm hmm." Xena tugged her onto her lap. "And I know for a fact that you don't," she said, drawing her lover's head down. There was nothing chaste about this kiss.


"Oh, gods . . . Xena . . . ."

Ennaus stared at the two of them, together, on Xena's throne. The younger woman knelt, straddling Xena's thighs, her blouse lying crumpled on the floor. Xena's left hand was circled around her back, the right not immediately visible. Ennaus could make out the dark hair of Xena's head over the scribe's shoulder. The entire scene was repulsive.

Xena's head jerked up, and she stilled her motions. "Out."

Her face was flushed, Ennaus noticed, and not from anger. So that was what the Warrior Princess looked like while taking her pleasure. He looked at the scribe's stiff back. Embarrassed, was she? As well she should be.

"Get out," Xena repeated. "Now." As the aide reached the door, she added, "Knock next time."


The Realm is Everything.

The Conqueror had dictated and enforced that philosophy for many years, and Ennaus believed with all his being that she was right. A threat to the Realm must be eliminated at all costs, and a threat to Xena was a threat to the Realm.

But this time the Conqueror could not see the threat, even though it was right before her.

On her lap.

The scribe, as Xena called her, was the clearest danger the Realm had faced through all of Ennaus' years of service, six long, wonderful years as the Conqueror's aide de camp, privy to all matters of state, the Conqueror's ears and eyes and voice. There were no secrets between them.

Knock next time.

Since the other woman's entrance upon the scene, Xena had shown increasing signs of susceptibility to her consort's will; her judgment was no longer reliable. Allowing the woman's friends and others to criticize the Realm openly put them at risk from their allies and enemies alike, as well as their own citizenry. It was only a matter of time.

He bore no ill will toward the Consort.

Oh, gods . . . Xena . . . .

But the Realm was Everything.


"No, this is really nice," Gabrielle said, still a little surprised at the aide's suggestion of a walk together. She forced herself to smile at him, trying to put behind her the awkward scene he had witnessed the other day and concentrate on the lovely day instead.

"I'm pleased," Ennaus said. "In many ways, we have the same goals, you and I."

Gabrielle thought about it. "I suppose so. We both want what's best for Xena and her people."

For Xena, Ennaus amended. "There is a difference between us, though," he said.

"And what's that?" Gabrielle asked. They rounded a corner, their guard escorts following a discreet distance behind.

"I know what's best for Xena, and you don't."

Gabrielle wasn't quite sure if she was hearing correctly. "Um, I'm sure you have your opinions, and of course many of them are valid, but I'm not sure if that's entirely true."

"I'm afraid that it is," Ennaus said, "and it's a very serious matter. Your influence over Xena is unhealthy."

Gabrielle stopped. She hated to pull rank, but did Ennaus think she wasn't going to tell Xena what he said?

"Frankly, I don't know what your motives are," Ennaus continued, his smooth voice far from soothing to the scribe. "But I do know that if the situation were allowed to continue, it would inevitably bring about the downfall of a glorious regime. Ultimately, it would mean the death of Xena, and I can't allow that."

Gabrielle shook her head. What . . . ? Looking around, she realized to her distress that they had wandered onto a deserted street, but at least the guards were within shouting distance.

"I just wanted you to know why I have to do this," Ennaus said. At his signal, the guards converged on them. "You know what to do," he said. "Then kill her." One of the men nodded, and slammed the hilt of his sword into Ennaus' jaw.


Xena raced up the stairs and through Ennaus' open door. "What happened?" she demanded. "Where is she?"

The aide shook his head. "I don't know, Highness. I'm sorry."

"What happened?" she repeated.

"There were eight or nine of them. My guards were only a few yards behind, but they were on us without warning. They took her and ran." Ennaus held a wet cloth to his jaw. "I recognized two of them from the prison."

"The prison?" Xena repeated. "They were with Gabrielle?"

He nodded. "Dissenters. They believe she betrayed them."

"I know."

"I'm truly sorry, Princess."

Xena sighed. "It's not your fault, Ennaus. I should have seen it coming." She clasped his shoulder. "She'll be all right."

"Of course, Princess."

Outside in the hall, she advanced on Tiron. "Why the hell weren't you with her?"

The guard paled. "I'm sorry, Highness. She was with Ennaus and his guards; I thought my presence would be unnecessary."

"You are never to leave her side," Xena said furiously. "I should have your head."

"Yes, Highness." A painful knot formed in the guard's throat. She was right; he had failed the Consort.

"Round up a hundred peasants and take them to the square," Xena ordered.

"Do you want--"

"I want the first hundred you see. I don't give a damn who they are."

Palace guards scrambled to execute her directive, and within minutes the Conqueror stood on a platform looking out at a hundred captives and twice as many spectators, the two groups separated by a ring of soldiers.

"My Consort has been attacked," she declared, confirming rumors that were already spreading through the city. Her eyes swept across the crowd, pausing when they fell upon Gabrielle's mother. Was she here out of concern, or to gloat?

"Someone must pay for this crime." Xena sensed anxiety building in the crowd, which gave her some undefined surge of satisfaction. "For every hour that I am without my Consort, a hundred Corinthians will die," she shouted. "Men -- women -- children."

Screams rose from the crowd, and the Conqueror's troops tightened their half-circle around the captives.

Xena scanned the people cowering before her, and her gaze landed again on the woman from Potedaia who had the same eyes as her lover.

No. Awareness struck her with almost physical force. If Gabrielle was still alive, she would never forgive the measures Xena had taken to get her back. And if she wasn't -- Xena's gut seized -- this could not be Gabrielle's memoriam. Tears filled her eyes, and she sank to her knees. She could no longer make out any of the faces in the square, but it didn't matter.

The crowd stilled as the Conqueror bowed her head, and watched as a one-armed figure climbed onto the platform and laid his hand on her shoulder.

"She wouldn't want this, Achias," Xena whispered.

"No, she wouldn't."

"I don't know what to do." Xena knew no other way way to communicate with these people.

"What would she want you to do?"

Achias was about to ask the question again when he heard Xena's soft answer, "Ask for help."

He could imagine how lost the Conqueror felt; this was a trial that neither of them had ever faced before. Achias stepped toward the end of the stage. "The Conqueror has rescinded her previous order," he called. "You will not be harmed."

The guards eyed each other; even as close as the two were known to be, Achias could not override Xena's clear directive. They stayed their ground.

Achias recognized the situation immediately. "You'll have to tell them," he said.

Xena took a deep breath and got to her feet. "I am asking for your help," she shouted. "Gabrielle is a caring and compassionate woman who has long fought for the good of others, heedless of the danger to herself. Whatever your feelings for me, she doesn't deserve this." She closed her eyes. "Anyone who can help me . . . you may name your price."

She held up a hand. "Release them."

She stood motionless, deep in thought, while the relieved Corinthians scrambled to safety. After a few minutes, she looked at her friend and said quietly, "Achias, I don't think I've been looking at this the right way."


Rows of Xena's Guard stood rigidly at attention, waiting to be addressed. The Conqueror had lost it on the square, they'd heard. A few of the more bold among them even claimed that Xena had cried, but the seniors closed their ears to such slander. That kind of talk could get one's tongue removed.

Not a single head among the well-trained troops moved at the sound of the castle door opening. The Conqueror, looking magnificent as usual in her now-customary leathers, strode to the center of the common.

"You know what happened this morning," she said deliberately, walking from one end of the first row to the other. "Your job is to find my Consort." Her voice was low and even, but her men had no difficulty hearing every word. "I want to explain what will happen if she does not return to me alive." Making slow progress, she met the gaze of each man in turn. "I will devote every resource of this Realm to hunting down the men who took her." Mid-way through the second tier now, she resumed her monologue in the same deadly tone. "I will find them, and I will exact a punishment upon them that reflects the cost they have inflicted on me."

Several of the men blanched. They remembered stories, sworn to be true, of three men drawn and quartered merely for injuring a tavernkeeper in Amphipolis, although no one ever knew her connection to the Conqueror, and Xena had not even visited the woman's establishment when she passed through Thrace.

"And on their families," Xena continued. "I will see their mothers" -- meeting another soldier's eyes -- "their wives" -- another -- "their children" -- and another -- "hanging from the cross."


"Man, Xena is totally gone on this." Achias sat, cross-legged, next to the young guard. He detached a canteen from his belt and offered the other man a drink, but the soldier declined.

Achias stretched his legs out on the grass. "Ifram, isn't it? This your search quadrant?" Not many places to hide a young woman in this barren patch of land, he noted.

"I finished mine; I'm just catching my breath."

"No luck, huh? Same here. We've torn the city apart, but it's like they're a step ahead of us. Hey, maybe one of us has her." Achias laughed. The guard didn't respond. "It's gonna be one hell of a mess when Xena gets hold of 'em," he continued. "Ought to draw a good crowd." He studied the youth. "You don't look so good, son."

Ifram swallowed. "Xena . . . when she spoke to us . . . it's like she's seeing right inside you." He looked over, and discovered for the first time exactly who the man was seated beside him. Achias. The Conqueror's friend.

An extended silence passed, and then Ifram spoke again. "What do you think would happen if . . . if someone told Xena where to find the girl? Would she still kill him? And his family?"

Achias shrugged. "Don't know. Depends, I guess." He spoke the next word casually. "Alive?"

"I don't know. I mean, I wouldn't--"

"Where is she?" Achias towered over him.

Ifram buried his head in his hands. "Oh, gods."

"Is she still alive?"

"I don't know. We were . . . ." He shook his head. "We were too afraid that Xena would . . . . But if Ennaus finds out she's still alive . . . . We don't know what to do."

"I can answer that question," said a low voice behind him.


"Where is she?"

The guard's jaw moved, unable to utter any sounds.

"Tell me where she is," Xena demanded, dragging the man up by his shirt. "If she's still alive, I may let you live." Or I may not, she thought. Another silence followed, and she backhanded him. "Tell me now, you son of a bitch, or I'll tear you limb from limb right here." She struck him again. And again.




"Could I--" Gabrielle cleared her throat. "Could I please have some water?"

Muted footfalls sounded, and Xena pressed herself against the side of the cave. She motioned silently, and two men eased forward until they were next to her. Navigating in almost total darkness until they could see the reflection of flames on the opposite wall, the three readied themselves.

"Thank you." It was Gabrielle's voice again, and Xena tried to calm herself. "Could I stand up? Please? I can't feel my legs."

Her self-restraint evaporated, and Xena charged around the corner.

"Plan B," Achias whispered, and he and Tiron followed her lead. "Oh, Hades," he said disgustedly, seeing Xena surrounded by half a dozen of Ennaus' henchmen. He resheathed his sword and sat in front of a small hollow in the cave wall.

"What are you doing?" Tiron yelled.

Achias patted the ground beside him. "Watch and learn, son."

Tiron hesitated, confused, but the man's absolute confidence persuaded him to have a seat, and together they took in the show. "Heads up!" Achias called, and they leaned away from each other to dodge a stray . . . limb of some sort, Tiron decided. He watched, mouth open, as the Conqueror utterly decimated the men who held her lover captive.

"Are you sure it's safe for us to be in here?" he asked.

"Oh, sure--" Achias began, only to be startled by a shrill battle cry from the Warrior Princess. The two soldiers looked at each other, but before they could make a strategic retreat, Xena had driven her sword through the last of her prey and dropped to her knees beside Gabrielle.

She hurriedly untied the other woman's hands and feet and drew Gabrielle to her, stroking her face, sobbing into dusty blonde hair. "Gabrielle . . . ."

Achias tapped Tiron on the shoulder, and they slipped away to buy each other a drink.


Ennaus entered Xena's chambers, a little surprised to find her indoors while the manhunt continued. She had neither eaten nor slept since removal of her consort, further evidence of the detrimental effect the younger woman had.

Xena clutched at the arms of her throne, two strong instincts -- satisfying her desire for revenge, and fulfilling her promise to Gabrielle that she wouldn't kill the traitor where he stood -- warring for control.

"Hello, Ennaus," she said. "I'm glad you're here. I have something to show you."

The curtain to her bedchamber moved, and Achias emerged, followed by--

Moving faster than Xena had thought him capable of, Ennaus bolted out the doorway, past surprised guards who were uncertain whether to stop the Conqueror's aide or assist him.

"Let him go," Xena shouted.

Gabrielle laid a hand on her shoulder. "Thank you. I just don't think I can take any more violence right now."

"I know," Xena replied. She slid her arm around Gabrielle's waist. Over the scribe's shoulder, Xena met the inquiring gaze of her old friend.

Achias nodded, and drifted out the door.


"What are you doing this morning?" Xena picked up a bracer from the seat of her throne and slid it over her forearm.

"I'm going to see Mother."

"Ah." That explained the hours of dedicated scribbling in bed last night while Xena twiddled her thumbs.

Xena exchanged glances with the guard. Another fun-filled escapade in which Gabrielle would arrive at the brownstone, the door would open, she would get a few syllables out to her ancestor, and the door would slam shut again.

Gabrielle had taken to writing out her thoughts now in lengthy missives, the first of which had been torn in two by the old woman, Tiron reported. The following week, Hecuba had again closed the door to her daughter, but had held it open long enough for Gabrielle to toss her letter inside, which led the glowing scribe to speculate for much of the evening that she might have read it. Yes, she might have, Xena agreed.

"Will you be back before they leave?" Gabrielle asked. She tied a ribbon around the thick stack of parchment and walked over to stand beside Xena.

"I hadn't planned on it," Xena said, "unless you want me to."

"Nah, I'll be fine. You have a good time kicking soldiers' butts."

"Training," Xena corrected. "I'm just helping Belile with a little arms training. It's not a competition or anything."

"Uh huh." Gabrielle remembered the last time Xena had returned from "helping out" with a training exercise, sheets and towels flying everywhere when Gabrielle was tackled unexpectedly from behind by an overheated Warrior Princess. She turned up her face for a quick peck, which her lover provided.

"If Tarouf gives you any grief," Xena hooked the buttons of her cape, "tell him that he'll return home to nothing but scorched earth."

Gabrielle remained silent.

"Gabrielle . . . ."

"I will convey the level of your displeasure to him."

"Gabrielle, you have to be willing to use the threat of force, especially with someone like Tarouf. He's already ignored the polite note someone suggested I send asking him to pretty please get his men off of Daron's land."

Gabrielle pursed her lips. "Oh, yeah? Well, I seem to remember that 'pretty please' has worked for you before."

"Yeah, but I had more to gain," Xena replied, smiling.

"OK, I think I can handle it." Gabrielle thrust an index finger forward. "Capitulate, Tarouf, or Xena the Conqueror will seduce your wife, hack your limbs off an inch at a time, and strangle you with your own intestines."

"That's more like it." Xena arched an eyebrow. "Tarouf's wife, huh? Wonder if she's any good."

"I'll let you know."

Xena grinned. "Awfully confident about our negotiating skills, aren't we?" She sheathed her sword. "Tell you what; you get Tarouf to agree to withdraw his men within thirty days, no conditions, no threats, and I'll let you have your way with me tonight."

Gabrielle crossed her arms. "Tonight and tomorrow night."

Xena sighed. "Oh, all right." She gazed at her little blonde spitfire. "You drive a hard bargain, scribe. Tarouf doesn't stand a chance."

And he didn't. The defiant king might smirk initially upon hearing that the Consort would be handling the negotiations instead of the Conqueror, but ultimately he would emerge from the room, stunned, lucky to have retained the clothing on his back. It was a thing of beauty. Xena smiled. As was life.


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