It is said that the bitterness of betrayal is made sweeter by revenge. Julius Caesar was dead, and while his bloody corpse lay rotting in the earth, I ruled Greece and Rome. Revenge was sweet indeed. My only regret was that Caesar had died too quick a death for my liking, but at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that he was betrayed by those he trusted: that fool Pompey and the honourable Brutus. Honourable? A scheming swine was more like it.
I had arranged for Gabrielle to show Brutus around Corinth and help him find a suitable location for his embassy. I wasn't expecting her back for several hours, so I was surprised when she literally ran into me outside the throne room. She was a sight: her clothes and hair sopping wet from rain, her complexion pallid, her eyes dull, and her face streaked with tears. Obviously shaken, she fell into my arms and sobbed.
I felt my anger rise up like bile with every tear she shed. Gabrielle denied it, but I knew that bastard Brutus had something to do with it. As much as I wanted to find him and cut his heart out for causing her such distress, Gabrielle was my first priority.
The royal apartments were on the north side of the palace, on the top floor, directly above the throne room. Gabrielle's rooms, however, were at the other end of the east wing. Since my rooms were closer, I picked her up and carried her there. Somewhere halfway up the stairs, Gabrielle fell asleep in my arms. Guards stopped leaning on their lances and snapped to attention when they saw me coming down the hallway. The watch commander rushed over to help, but I waved him off. I didn't want Gabrielle wakened. As the doors to my private living quarters were opened, I brushed past the guards and headed directly toward my bedchamber.
"See to it that no one disturbs us for the rest of the night. Is that clear?" I said in a low whisper.
"Yes, My Liege," the watch commander responded. He and the guards saluted smartly and left, closing the massive wooden doors as quietly as they could manage.
Being careful not to wake her, I got Gabrielle out of her wet clothes and slipped her into my bed. I leaned down and touched her cheek; it felt warm.
One of my bedchamber attendants stepped forward. "Shall I fetch the healer?"
"No. Fetch me a cloth and a basin of cool water, and some herbal tea and a cup of hot water."
"Yes, Empress." She and another attendant scurried out of the room and came back a few minutes later with the items.
"Good, now leave us. I will call you if I need anything else."
The servants exited the room bowing and left me to minister to Gabrielle.
Gabrielle slept for more than two hours. I sat with her the whole time keeping a cool, dampened cloth on her fevered forehead. Finally, she awoke. I smiled at her, but I could feel the worry tug at the corners of my mouth. Had she felt better, I'm sure Gabrielle would've noticed how unconvincing it was.
"How are you feeling?" I asked.
Gabrielle was still a little disoriented. "What happened? How did I get here?"
"You were upset and soaked to the skin, so I brought you here to my chambers."
"How long have I been asleep?"
"About two hours."
"Two hours? Xena I—" She tried to get up, but I stopped her with a gentle hand against her shoulder.
"Stay put and rest," I said firmly.
"I wasn't planning on going anywhere," Gabrielle whispered solemnly and settled back against the pillows.
I removed the damp cloth from her forehead. "Here, drink this." I handed her the cup of warm tea I had made for her.
"What is it?" she asked, warming her hands on the side of the cup.
"Herbal tea. It'll help you relax."
Gabrielle took a few sips. "Mmm, good. Thank you."
"For what? A cup of tea?"
"Well, for that — and for caring."
If she only knew how much I cared, I thought. If only I had the courage to tell her. Instead I made light of it. "Well, I can't let my most trusted advisor get sick now, can I?"
Gabrielle managed a weak smile, and then took one last sip before handing me back the empty cup.
I put the teacup down on the end table before turning my attention back to her. "Now, tell me what happened. Why were you crying?"
"I..." she hesitated. "Things just got on top of me today." Her brooding look told me there was more to it than that, but I didn't want to press her to tell me until she was ready.
We sat for several interminable minutes, the silence punctuated only by the muted sounds of servants and soldiers going about the business of securing the palace for the night. Doing nothing was the worst kind of torture for me. I sorely wanted to find out what had happened. I wanted to make the responsible party pay for putting her in such a state.
Just as I was about to demand she talk to me, Gabrielle spoke.
"What makes you cry?" She blurted out.
Her question caught me completely off-guard. No one had ever asked me that question. I was nonplussed. My spine stiffened as my instincts took over. I found myself moving away and putting some distance between us. We sat in awkward silence while I wrestled with my instincts to mistrust people's motives. I reminded myself that this was Gabrielle. She had no hidden agenda. If she asked, it was out of genuine friendship and concern. Still, the walls I'd built to guard my emotions were thick and hard to breach.
Then it struck me. Only a moment before, I had been impatiently waiting for Gabrielle to open up to me, getting more irritated every second she didn't. Gabrielle, however, patiently waited for me to open up to her, neither pursuing me nor pressing me to answer. The irony of it made me pause and reflect: Gabrielle wasn't just asking me what made me cry, she was asking me to drop my defences and let her in.
All the while, I'd been wringing the life out of the damp cloth still gripped in my hands. I put down the cloth and thought about her question — really thought about it. After taking a deep breath, I made up my mind to open the fortress gate and admit what made me sad.
"Loneliness." My voice sounded timid and unsure. I suppose I was afraid to admit it even to myself.
Gabrielle sat up in the bed and reached out and took my hand in hers. "You're not alone."
The love reflected in her green eyes and in the warmth of her touch conveyed the deeper meaning of her words. That's when I knew I could trust Gabrielle with my heart. I wanted to gather her into my arms and thank the Fates for my good fortune. Instead, I sat there, holding her hand like a love-struck youth, searching for the courage to tell her how I felt.
In contrast, Gabrielle was bold and courageous. "Xena, there's something I've wanted to tell to you."
"Yes, Gabrielle, what is it?"
"I love you, Xena. I'm in love with you."
Her words hit me like a roundhouse kick. I was staggered. "You don't know what you're saying!" Again, I didn't react the way I wanted to. I wanted to shout I love you too, Gabrielle, instead I pulled my hand away and raved like a madwoman.
Gabrielle remained composed and undaunted. "Yes I do, Xena. I may not know much about the ways of love, but I do know what love is. And I know I love you."
"No, you don't! How could you? You're just a—"
"A what? A girl?"
"No, I..." My mouth was as dry as the deserts of Egypt. I needed a drink. I got up from the bed and retreated across the room to a table near the balcony. I poured a goblet of wine and gulped it down, and then poured another and gulped it down.
I felt a hand touch the small of my back. My muscles tensed, and I cursed myself inwardly for not sensing her approach. In battle, that would've been a costly mistake.
"Xena," Gabrielle said. "Did I somehow misinterpret your feelings for me?" Gabrielle had me cornered against the serving table, and there was no place left for me to run.
With one last gulp of wine for fortitude, I turned and faced her. "No, you didn't misinterpret my feelings for you. It's just..."
"It's just that you opened your heart once, to Caesar, and he betrayed you, so you're afraid to let someone get that close again. Is that it?"
"That's part of it," I admitted.
"And you're afraid you'll hurt me."
"You don't know what I'm capable of," I warned her. Suddenly, my mind conjured up images of that girl who resembled Gabrielle, Anteia, and how roughly I had treated her.
"Yes, I do. I know you are passionate, and your passion can sometimes erupt into anger, but you also have the capability to love just as passionately."
I didn't answer. My mind was still a tempest of conflicting emotions: love, disbelief, elation, uncertainty. She was right when she said about me being afraid of letting myself trust enough to love. I gave my heart to Caesar and he crucified my trust.
"Xena, do you trust me?"
"Huh?" Gabrielle had this unnerving ability to read my thoughts. "Yes, of course."
"Then trust that I love you, and I would never, ever betray you." Gabrielle had knocked down the last of my defences like a catapult.
"Gabrielle, I..." The words didn't come. I was finally ready to admit my feelings for her, but the words got stuck in my throat.
"I know, Xena."
Gabrielle tilted her head and leaned upward, gently touching her lips to mine. Again, I hesitated as my instincts sounded the alarm. But this time I ignored my head and gave into my heart. I took Gabrielle in my arms and kissed her back. The kiss was lingering and sweet. Drawing her closer still, we shared another tender kiss. And another that hinted at the passion I felt for her. I took my time, ever so lightly coaxing her lips to open and her tongue to move with mine. As our desire became more heated, our kisses became more passionate.
Needing to catch her breath, Gabrielle pulled back from my lips. "Wow," she dreamily exclaimed.
Wow is right, I thought. I had kissed many lovers passionately but felt no passion. Kissing Gabrielle left me quivering and tingling like I'd been hit me by a thunderbolt. With her standing so close to me, wearing only my red silk robe draped loosely over her petite body, it took all my willpower not to pull her down and make love to her right there on the floor.
Desperately clinging to my last grain of control, I released her and took a step back. Before we took this any further, I felt I needed to make a confession.
"Gabrielle—" "Xena—" We both spoke at the same time.
"You go first," I deferred.
"No, you go first." Gabrielle insisted.
So I did. "Remember that night in Thessalia, when I nearly forced — uh, when I kissed you?"
"Yes," she said. The sadness in her voice made me wince at the memory.
"Well, I wasn't that drunk. I was jealous. The thought of you with..." I paused.
"Galates," she offered.
"Yes," I admitted.
"Xena, I swear to you, Galates and I are just good friends."
"I know. My behaviour was inappropriate and I...regret it." I wasn't much good at apologies either.
"It's alright," she said, her fingertips brushing it against my cheek, "but thank you."
Guiding her hand to my lips, I placed soft kisses in her palm. Her body faintly shivered as the tip of my tongue lightly traced her lifelines. The effect this was having on Gabrielle had an effect on me. I felt a warmth that I knew didn't come from the wine.
I released her hand and brought the conversation back to her. "Now what were you going to say?"
"Well, I have a confession to make, too," she said.
"I'm not...I haven't...." Her cheeks flared scarlet as she stumbled through her confession.
I had assumed Gabrielle was a virgin and, admittedly, that thought had fuelled my fantasies. I'd had taken many lovers to my bed and thought little of it past my own sexual gratification. Suddenly I felt a twinge of guilt for having taken from others this precious gift Gabrielle was so freely giving to me.
"Nothing has to happen tonight, Gabrielle. We can take things as slow as you need to."
"No!" she exclaimed. "More than anything I want to be with you, to give myself to you. It's just that I don't have a lot of experience, and no amount of talking is going to help me bluff my way through this."
"Gabrielle, talking is the last thing I want you to do tonight," I joked. That got her to smile a little and relax.
Gabrielle took my hand and led me over to the bed. After she helped me undress, we lay in bed facing each other. Gabrielle looked at me with such love and longing. I can't ever remember seeing that look in a lover's face before. I wanted to etch this night into my memory: the warmth of her soft skin against mine, the lingering scent of olive oil and lavender in her hair, the faint taste of herbal tea on her tongue.
With the yielding shimmer of love in her soft green eyes, Gabrielle was the image of both innocence and seduction. I've never wanted someone as much as I wanted her at that moment. That's when the reality of what was happening finally sunk in. This was not just another night of carnal pleasure. Gabrielle and I were making love, and it was her first time and our first night together. Adrenalin coursed through my body in equal parts desire and fear.
I leaned over her, pressing my lips ever so softly against hers, waiting for my tongue to be given entry and then letting her set the pace. Our tongues moved in a slow, sensual dance, like two mermaids playing in the sea.
Gabrielle's hips began to move and her breathing quickened as I reverently kissed my way down to her breasts. Hearing Gabrielle moan sent a wave of empathic quivers down to my own groin. I had to be careful not to pinch or suck on her sensitive nipples too vigorously.
While my mouth roamed the landscape around her firm peaks, my hand made a slow descent, exploring the topography of Gabrielle's soft curves. When my fingers reached the very edge of her pubes, I paused one more time to gauge whether she really wanted this. I saw Gabrielle's answer in her eyes: her eyelids were half-closed, her irises had turned a deeper shade of green, and her pupils were wide with desire. My throbbing mons demanded attention, but her pleasure was all that mattered to me.
Gabrielle's pelvis rocked against my hand, wordlessly communicating her need to be touched. My fingers moved in small circles, applying just a little pressure as my hand inched closer to her clitoris. Her stifled moans sounded more like adorable little squeaks, but I knew she would soon be crying out my name. That was a potent aphrodisiac.
"So beautiful," I murmured softly in her ear. Her mumbled response resonated deep inside my aching vagina, releasing a stream of wetness that coated my sex. It was sweet torture for me to deny my own demanding nature and focus instead on my desire to please Gabrielle.
Gabrielle’s hips lurched when my finger first grazed her clit. Gliding along her swollen folds, my finger gently explored just inside her vagina, coaxing it to release more of its musk rose nectar, while my thumb pressed against the hooded pearl of her clit. I was careful not to push too hard. I knew she was becoming very aroused, as was I, but I didn't want her to come just yet. I wanted this moment to last for the both of us.
On her next upward thrust, my finger broke through the delicate barrier. Gabrielle took a sharp breath as my finger settled inside her.
Soon her hips were undulating in rhythm with my gentle thrusts. Her chest rose and fell with heavy breaths. Her guttural moans urged me to quicken my pace.
When I sensed she was ready, I added a second finger and delicately stroked the silken walls of her vagina. I murmured my encouragement. "Come for me, Gabrielle."
"Ohhhh..." she cried as her back arched upward and her muscles tightened, "...Xena!"
I too felt a surge crest inside me as I held her juddering body close to my own, and we were joined as one in that exquisite moment of release.
When our bodies finally stilled, Gabrielle rested her head on my chest and curled into me, and I enfolded her. We held each other in contented bliss for several minutes.
Her speechless enthusiasm made me beam. I knew just how she felt, because I felt the same. I couldn't remember sex being anything other than a release for my frustrations, or a method of exercising my control over someone. With Gabrielle, it was a gift of love, one heart to another — a mating of body and soul. I didn't know I could be so moved. It was wondrous — indescribable really.
When Gabrielle was finally able to speak, she could only manage a word or two. "Xena that was... I felt...."
"That's what you're supposed to feel," I said, "and that's only the beginning."
"You mean there's more?"
My tongue lightly traced the outside of her ear, which brought forth another low moan from Gabrielle.
"Much more," I whispered seductively.
"I don't know if I can take any more!" She exclaimed.
I met her gaze with a knowing smile. "Trust me, you can, and you will love it."
We exhausted ourselves through the sheer intensity of the love we felt for each other. I had never experienced such power as when I made love with Gabrielle. Greece, Rome, the whole world, could not give me that power. One only gets that kind of power from surrendering to the unconquerable force of love.
I thought she had fallen asleep until I felt a tear fall onto my skin. "Why are you crying now?" I asked.
"Because I finally know where I belong — with you. I love you, Xena."
That night, I wanted to give her everything, show her everything. Instead, she showed me lovemaking at its most intimate and sensual. And finally I knew where I belonged — with Gabrielle.
"I love you, Gabrielle." I had finally found the words.
The next morning, I awoke with Gabrielle's soft skin pressed up against me. My whole world had changed because of the woman sleeping in my arms. Recalling how exquisite the previous night was, I felt like I had been reborn.
There was nothing I wanted more than to stay in bed all day and make love with Gabrielle, but affairs of state beckoned. I had an audience with Brutus before mid-day, and I didn't want to keep the new Ambassador from Rome waiting.
It was hard to get up. The warm, comfortable presence in my bed was something I wanted to savour for as long as possible. I looked at Gabrielle's peaceful face and the contented smile that graced it. I struggled to remember the last time I had seen anyone so relaxed, so comfortable, so at ease in my presence. I leaned over and kissed the tip of her nose. She groaned and one hand came up to rub where my lips had been.
The melody of bird song signalled the oncoming dawn and I climbed out of bed. I wrapped a robe around myself and stepped out onto the balcony. The courtyard below was slick with overnight rain, but the coming day promised to be dry. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the palace and the city waking up. After a few minutes, I heard the soft rustle of sheets being moved aside, then the gentle patter of feet, and finally I felt arms wrap around my waist and a cheek press against my back.
"Come back to bed," Gabrielle murmured, "it's cold."
I turned around in her embrace and looked down at her. "I'd love to, but I have some business to attend to before the audience with Brutus."
She looked back with a resigned smile.
"Don't worry," I continued, "I'm planning on keeping this afternoon free."
Her smile widened and an inviting twinkle appeared in her eyes. Suddenly, my morning plans didn't seem quite so urgent.
I studied Darphus as he walked across the floor of my study to where I was seated. He had a carefree, relaxed attitude to his stride. His scarred face carried an easy smile as he halted and saluted.
"You sent for me, My Liege?"
"Yes, Lieutenant. At ease."
He relaxed his posture at my command.
"I need a strong man, Darphus, but above all I need a loyal man."
A few yellowed teeth showed as his grin widened. "Me?"
"I'm always ready to serve you, My Empress."
I stood and walked with an authoritative gait over to the window. "Law and order are the cornerstones of a strong empire. I have neglected it slightly. With Gabrielle's appointment I thought it would be enough, but I need a force to ensure her orders are carried out. I want you to head that force."
The idea for this force had come from Larrius, the dissident that Gabrielle had sentenced. I didn't tell Darphus this, though I knew he would find out in time. Getting him to take the job would be easier if he assumed it was my idea.
"I'm not sure I understand." Darphus furrowed his brow.
"Law needs to be enforced. If someone breaks the law, there needs to be someone to bring him to justice. Likewise order. If something threatens the order of society, the people need to be protected."
"Isn't that already the job of the army?"
"I need my army to concentrate on external matters. I want you to co-ordinate with Gabrielle in setting up a civilian force. They won't be as highly trained as the regular army." I could see doubt on his face. "I'm not talking about a weak force, Darphus. I want them as loyal and strong as my army, but I want them to be trained to deal with crime, not war."
Darphus pondered my words for a few moments. "As head of this force, would I take my orders from you or Gabrielle?"
"Both of us, though Gabrielle will be your point of contact, in general. She'll convey all but the most important of my orders. She'll also be giving you her own orders. They'll be more directives than orders. I'm sure once things settle down you'll be able to run things with minimal guidance."
That easy demeanour Darphus had when he entered my study was gone. He looked pensive and said nothing for several minutes. I had anticipated having to convince him or even order him to take the job, so I added an incentive. "Of course, if you do a good job, it might mean a promotion."
"You mean, to Commander in the Imperial Army?"
"Perhaps. Let's see how well you do with the Civil Protection Force first."
That seemed to help him make the decision, before I had to make it for him. "I guess it'll be a challenge."
I ignored his lack of enthusiasm for his new position. "That's the spirit. I know I can count on you."
Darphus mumbled an acknowledgement and I dismissed him.
After attending to the important issue of the morning, I then had to deal with a more delicate matter.
Galates was in the barracks polishing his armour when I found him. He jumped to his feet, just catching the armour before it fell to the ground, and stood to attention.
I took my time to study the barracks before turning my attention on the handsome, young lieutenant. He was as eager as ever to please, but had lost that edge of nervousness he first had when he was promoted to my senior staff.
"Your unit is about to begin a tour of duty in Thrace, is it not?"
"Yes, My Liege." His reply was perfectly clipped, just like his stance.
"When do they leave?"
"Dawn tomorrow, My Liege."
"You won't be going with them." I saw him want to ask why, but he knew better than to question my words. "You're being transferred to the Palace Guards — with a promotion to Lieutenant Commander, of course."
Unlike Darphus, Galates seemed genuinely pleased with his new assignment. "Yes, My Liege. As you command, My Liege." He nearly fell over coming to attention and saluting me.
"At ease, Lieutenant Commander."
He stood at ease with the same precision he stood to attention with.
I had to consider my next words carefully. I knew what I wanted to say to him, I just didn't know how, or why.
"Gabrielle and I..." I reconsidered my words. "We... what I mean..." I closed my mouth hard. I was making myself look a fool in front of a subordinate. I shouldn't have to explain my sleeping arrangements with a soldier, but Gabrielle valued her friendship with Galates and I somehow felt I ought to tell him.
"Permission to speak, My Liege?"
"Granted," I said with some relief. It would allow me time to get the words right.
"Gabrielle has already spoken to me," he said, his cheeks reddening. "She told me... told me that... um." He cleared his throat.
"I think we both know what she said."
"Yes, My Liege."
"I know Gabrielle would miss you if you went away. But don't think that my decision to put you in charge of the palace guards is solely based on that, or that being her friend gives you any special privileges."
"No, My Liege."
"You earned this on merit, and if you fail me you'll suffer the same as anyone else who fails me. Is that understood?"
"Yes, My Liege."
I took the time to study Galates and discovered why Gabrielle considered him a good friend. He exuded an air of trust. I got the feeling that he was incapable of duplicity, that he was willing to give without expecting to receive, and that he would protect me by laying down his own life without a second thought. Just like Gabrielle.
So why had Gabrielle chosen me and not Galates? I wondered.
Some would say diplomacy is like a play, with actors dressing up in costumes and saying the right words on cue. Others might call it a game, where pawns are moved about the board according to a set of rules. To me, diplomacy is a battle: words are used to outflank the opponent instead of soldiers.
Diplomacy demanded that Brutus receive an official reception. His brief appearance in my throne room a few days previously had been nothing more than a simple hello. A proper audience was required where he would declare his ambassadorial credentials and I would offer him the usual range of diplomatic privileges. Several of my regional governors had arrived to witness the occasion. Braextus was one of them. I hadn't seen the governor of Thessalia since I had conquered Athens.
"Empress." He bowed respectfully. His face broke into a friendly smile when he saw me.
"Governor." I extended my hand and he clasped it in his own. "It's good to see you again. I've been meaning to pay you a visit."
"There's nothing wrong is there?" A moment of doubt flickered in his eyes. "I mean, you're always welcome, but I hope I'm doing a good job for you."
"You're doing fine." I eased his worries. The fact that he was worried piqued my curiosity. I made a mental note to find out why. I stepped back and looked him up and down. "Though you've put on a bit of weight by the looks." I laughed and patted his stomach.
He returned my laugh. "You know how it is, too much paperwork and not enough action."
"You need to get an assistant," I advised him.
"Speaking of which, what did you do with yours? Is she still around?"
At the mention of Gabrielle, my thoughts turned to the previous night. I must have spent too long thinking because Braextus prompted me.
"Hmm? Yes, she's still around. In fact, I promoted her."
"Promoted? To what?"
"Gabrielle is now my Advisor for Civilian Affairs."
Braextus chuckled. "You getting soft in your old age?"
"The people are important, Braextus. Without them I wouldn't have an empire to rule. It makes sense to keep them placated."
"I thought you were all for ruling through fear."
"Oh I am. The people fear my justice, but by seeming to care for them they are less likely to cause trouble. And the less effort I devote to dealing with internal unrest, the more I can devote to conquering other territories."
"What is this Brutus like?" he asked.
"Clever. Possibly dangerous," I said.
I glanced around the room, noticing a few more arrivals. Among them was Gabrielle. She was chatting to Darphus, but she turned to look at me as my eyes fell on her. She gave me a tiny nod and returned her attention back to the commander.
I excused myself to Braextus and circulated around the other guests. I had instructed everyone to arrive before Brutus, and at my signal they lined up either side of the aisle.
"Come with me, Gabrielle." I took hold of her arm and led her to my throne. Darnell was already standing there. "Move over," I ordered him.
There was a pause of several heartbeats before the general took a couple of paces to his right. I took my seat and left Gabrielle standing to my immediate right. I could hear the muttering from the crowd as they took notice of the position I put Gabrielle in. I picked up my sceptre and tapped the arm of the throne. Silence descended.
Satisfied that everything was in order, I counted to twenty, and then nodded at the guards near the doors. The two soldiers took hold of the massive brass door handles and pulled the doors open, revealing Brutus and his honour guard.
I watched the Roman ambassador march slowly up the aisle. His eyes flicked to Gabrielle at my side. I wondered what he was thinking. Despite Gabrielle's insistence to the contrary, I knew Brutus was responsible for the state I found her in the evening before. As he approached, I pondered what the correct protocol was for killing an ambassador at his official reception.
Brutus paused at the foot of the steps that led up to my throne and bowed.
"Your Highness," he intoned cautiously.
I waited in silence for him to look up. He flinched momentarily when he saw the glare I had fixed on him. At that moment, it would have been so easy to strike him down. But a presence on my right held me back.
Brutus recovered and cleared his throat. "May I present my credentials along with a letter from Pompey the Magnus, Emperor of the Imperial Roman Empire." He gestured for one of the guards to step forward. The soldier held out a couple of scrolls to Brutus. He thought about taking them before sending the soldier up the steps to hand me the parchments.
I smiled inwardly at his reaction. He was smart enough not to get too close at that moment. I took the offered scrolls and handed the soldier one of my own.
"This scroll," I announced, "confirms your ambassadorial status and grants you all privileges that the position accords." I frowned. I wasn't sure I remembered that bit correctly. I waved my hand. "Or whatever," I added.
"Thank you, Empress Xena." He took my scroll from his guard. "May this exchange be a positive step in the relationship between our two great nations."
"Indeed. I look forward to forging closer ties with Rome."
With a nod I signalled the end of the formal acceptance of Brutus as ambassador. A ripple of applause spread through the gathered guests.
"Time for the banquet," I declared.
A rumble of conversation started as the guests broke line and headed out of the throne room toward the banquet hall. I stood up and gestured for Gabrielle to precede me down the steps. Brutus was waiting for us. He bowed his head in Gabrielle's direction.
"You seemed upset about something, Your Highness," Brutus said to me. "I hope I haven't inadvertently done anything to cause that."
I shot a quick glance at Gabrielle before answering him. "I had a very good night last night, and was hoping to continue my good fortune today. Unfortunately I had to come and play politics with you." I allowed a smile to form on my lips.
"Then I apologise for spoiling your day."
We followed the crowd into the banquet hall where a buffet had been laid on. The guests were waiting for me to select my food first. I directed Brutus to go first and followed him. During the meal, Brutus and I circulated in different directions as we talked to the various guests. By the time I had exhausted my limited repertoire of small talk, a few guests, including Brutus, had already left. I decided to take my leave and escort Gabrielle back to my chamber and carry on from where we left off that morning.
"Are you ready to go?" I asked her.
"If it is your wish, My Liege."
I smiled as she played the dutiful courtier in front of the guests.
"It is my wish," I replied.
We left the banquet hall and headed for my chambers. As we passed the throne room, I remembered that I had left my sceptre on the throne.
"You carry on," I told Gabrielle. "I'll be there shortly."
Gabrielle headed for my chambers and I returned to the throne room. As I entered the anteroom, I could hear voices holding a whispered conversation. I recognised the voices as belonging to Brutus and Darnell. Why the ambassador and my general were holding a private talk in my throne room intrigued me. I silently crept closer and ducked into an alcove. From there I could see them and just about make out what they were saying.
"It's good to know who I can trust. Good allies are hard to find."
"To strong allies," said Brutus and held out his right arm.
Darnell grasped the offered forearm. "To strong allies," he repeated.
Brutus nodded and they went their separate ways, Brutus returning to the banquet hall via the connecting door and Darnell heading to the Council room. I didn't for one moment think they were celebrating Brutus' appointment. The only other explanation was that I would have to watch my back very carefully. I could've made my move then and there and had the pair executed, but I decided to wait and see what games they were going to play. As long as I was aware of their treachery, I had the upper hand.
I retrieved my sceptre and returned to my room to be greeted by the sight of Gabrielle lying by the fire drinking a goblet of wine. She looked at me and smiled.
"Does that feature in any of the plans you have for this afternoon?" asked Gabrielle.
I was baffled by her question. "What?"
She nodded at the sceptre in my hand. "That thing."
Gabrielle climbed to her feet and approached me. "Then why did you go and get it?" She took the sceptre from my hand and studied it. "It's still an ugly rock," she whispered and tossed it lightly on a nearby chair.
My eyes followed the sceptre: it was the symbol I had chosen to represent my power and she had tossed it aside like it was a piece of worthless junk. Deep inside I heard a distant voice cry out that she should be punished for such disrespect, but I'd long since learnt to ignore that voice where Gabrielle was concerned. I knew that she loved me, not the accoutrements of my power.
I felt her hand on my face and turned from the sceptre to look at her.
"You don't need it." She moved her hand and placed it over my heart. "This is where your power lies. And it's a beautiful thing."
My mind wandered back to the first day Gabrielle entered my camp and my life. Her spirit and enthusiasm captivated me even then. Over time, I came to rely on her simple wisdom, her honesty, and her love. As I had conquered Greece, she had conquered my heart. That first day she claimed we were fated to be together. I, however, believed that just like ruling the world, she was my destiny.
END OF PART I
BACK TO MAIN PAGE OF SOF