The campaign to conquer Attica was short, my plan simple: overwhelm Athens with superior forces and the rest of the region would be defenceless. The Athenians were citizen-soldiers, poets and philosophers at heart — no match for my battle-hardened army. Their king was a snivelling fool and no fit adversary to challenge my skills on the battlefield. Without the Athenian army to protect them, the rest of Attica capitulated without so much as a skirmish.
My senior officers and I celebrated our victory over Athens in the palace of King Hippias, who had formally surrendered to me earlier in the day. I must admit I wasn't really in the mood to celebrate, but the men had earned it.
Gabrielle joined us at the banquet. She sat between Darphus and Braextus, who had come from Thessalia to take part in the victory celebrations. It pleased me to see Gabrielle enjoying herself, and for a while at least, I enjoyed myself too.
After the obligatory toasts, I excused myself and left the banquet. Gabrielle followed me out of the banquet hall, but I kept walking toward my temporary living quarters in the palace.
My tenacious assistant wouldn't give up the chase, so I finally stopped and turned to face her. "What do you want?" I didn't mean to sound peevish, but I wanted to be alone, or so I told myself.
"I wanted to see if you needed me."
I could tell she asked as a friend, not an assistant. "No. You return to the party," I replied softly.
"I'm not really in a party mood," Gabrielle said. It was as though she had read my mind.
"Nor am I. It’s strange, huh? I should be happy, but I somehow feel—"
"A sense of anticlimax?" Gabrielle finished my sentence.
"Possibly," was my response, but Gabrielle was right. With the capture of Athens, all of Greece was finally mine. I had been fighting for this moment for so long that I never really considered how I'd feel when my goal was finally realised.
Now that Gabrielle had put a name to it, I understood why, when the banquet table of triumph was spread out before me, I had no appetite. I had come to the end of my days as "Xena the Conqueror." I had fought the battles and had won the prize: Greece. There was bound to be a letdown.
I studied Gabrielle's face as she looked up at me with empathetic, caring eyes. It was then I realised that Gabrielle was not merely an efficient assistant or someone with whom I could get a fresh perspective on battle strategies. She had reached into my jumbled up emotions and homed in on exactly what I was feeling. Looking back, this was when Gabrielle ceased to be my young and chatty assistant and became my friend, my confidante.
I invited her back to my quarters for one of our evening chats. We sat next to each other on a divan as if we were old friends. Gabrielle seemed perfectly at ease but for some reason I felt uncomfortable. Perhaps it was because of this unease, that for once, I did most of the talking, and the more I talked, the more energized I felt. I stood at the threshold of my destiny. I didn't want to dwell on what had just ended. I needed to focus instead on my future as ruler of an empire. I talked about how our lives would change. I talked about my plans for establishing a government and expanding the army. I talked about moving to Corinth once Athens was secured. Gabrielle seemed a bit disappointed that we weren't going to stay in Athens, but I explained why Corinth was strategically a better choice for a capital city.
Jokingly, I told her that since I would be royalty in the morning, she should practice using my new title.
"Yes, My Liege," she replied with a playful emphasis that made her green eyes twinkle.
These were the moments I had come to cherish. With Gabrielle, I could let my guard down and just be "Xena" and not "the Conqueror."
I almost became lost in her eyes and forced myself to think of something else. I got up, opened a chest near the bed, and retrieved the sceptre I had made with the large green gem from King Quallas. "I want to show you something. It’ll be a perfect symbol for my power."
"It's lovely, My Liege." Her tone was polite but not effusive. I forgot she wasn't all that impressed by the trappings of wealth. That's one of the things I liked about her — her unpretentious nature. It also meant that she couldn't be swayed to betray me with promises of riches.
I wrapped it back up in its covering and returned it to the chest. "The coronation will take place immediately following the executions of Hippias and his supporters and—" I turned and saw this troubled look on Gabrielle's face. "What’s wrong?"
"Nothing, General." She avoided looking at me.
"Tell me, Gabrielle. If you have something to say, then say it." I suspected it had something to do with the executions, and it did.
"Couldn't you spare the lives of some of the King's lower ranking staff and servants?"
All the reasons I had for executing Hippias and his followers crumbled at Gabrielle’s simple plea. I recalled the time I had the Thessalian boy executed. Gabrielle had tried to change my mind, but I had stopped her protests without listening to her side. Since then, however, I had come to respect her opinion, and this time I let myself be swayed by her arguments.
I signalled my capitulation with a warm smile. "Hmm, I suppose. Yes, it might work to my advantage."
Once again, Gabrielle proved her wisdom and her loyalty to me, and that was more precious to me than any jewelled sceptre.
By the next morning, whatever ambivalence I felt was gone. I was to be crowned Empress of the Greek Empire. That was my destiny, and I was ready to seize it and bend it to my will.
After a quick breakfast, I tracked down my second-in-command. "Darnell, I need to speak to you. This way." I gestured for him to follow me.
"What is it?" he asked as he fell into step just behind and to my right.
We walked out into a small quadrangle. The sun was not high and it was pleasantly cool in the shade.
"First things first. I want to give you this." I handed him a scroll. "Your promotion."
"General, thank you." He unrolled the parchment and read it.
"You've earned it, General." I clapped him on the back.
He allowed himself a slight smile. "Does this bring new responsibilities?"
"Naturally. You will have overall command of the army, as well as being my chief military advisor. And you will continue to be my right-hand man, of course."
Darnell stood taller with my compliment and smiled. When Darnell smiled his whole face changed, even the crooked scar above his left eye — from one of our sparring sessions, not battle — smoothed out and almost disappeared. Though the rest of him looked all man, with his bulging biceps and his sleeveless, black leather uniform, he had an almost boyish quality when he smiled.
I looked over Darnell's shoulder as Gabrielle arrived. "Ah, here's my assistant." I signalled her to approach.
"My Liege. General," she said.
I smiled at her gaff, because technically I would not be royalty for another few hours. "I'm still 'General' at the moment," I corrected her lightly.
"Sorry, General," she abashedly replied.
She placed some scrolls in my outstretched hand, which I took and handed to Darnell. "These are the execution orders for Hippias and his family," I said. "Also, there are orders to execute all prisoners above the rank of commander."
Darnell took the scrolls with a frown. "What about the other prisoners? The lower ranking officers, the soldiers, and the palace staff?"
"Those are covered in the orders, too. All officers of commander and below are to be given a choice: die with their king or swear an oath of allegiance to me. All common soldiers will be conscripted into the imperial army. The household staff will be released once I've left the city."
The corners of the Darnell's mouth twitched. "You're joking."
I glared at his impertinence. "Do I look like I'm joking?"
"No, but it is not how—"
"Are you questioning my orders?" I leaned toward him, invading his space and pinning him with an unyielding glare.
"No, General." Darnell backed down.
"Then see to my orders. I'll witness the executions in one hour."
Darnell saluted and marched out of the quadrangle. I knew my rather unorthodox orders would not sit well with him. To be honest, they didn't sit well with me either, but Gabrielle could be very persuasive. Despite my misgivings, I couldn't be seen as wavering. I maintained my "Conqueror" posture until Darnell was well out of sight.
"I suppose we should get ready for the executions," Gabrielle said sadly.
"You…um…" Instinctively, I reached out and straightened a lock of hair tucked inside her collar. My hand lingered on the side of her face, and she looked up at me with such tenderness.
Before I did something I'd regret, I said the first thing that came into my head. "There's a library in the south wing of the palace. I'd like you to check through the scrolls and decide which ones you think we need to take to Corinth." It was a pointless errand, but it would keep her away from the executions, which I knew she'd find upsetting.
"Thank you," Gabrielle said with an appreciative smile.
"Be ready for my coronation, though," I said with feigned firmness.
"Yes, My Liege."
I had ordered the rebuilding of the old Dorian palace when I first gained Corinth. My decision to renovate rather than build a grander palace was both symbolic and practical. The palace was located on the southern end of Corinth, a few hundred feet up the northern slope of the Acrocorinth. This not only provided a spectacular view of the city centre below and the Sea of Corinth to the north, but strategically it was easily defended from attack by my fleet in the harbour and the fortress atop the summit.
One thing I hadn't planned on was returning to Corinth with a personal assistant, so no provisions had been made for suitable living quarters near mine for Gabrielle. I didn't want to house her with the servants, so I gave her a small suite of rooms in the guest wing.
"Do you like it?" I asked.
Gabrielle walked around the main room, wide-eyed, taking in every detail. She poked her head into an adjoining room then turned to look at me with a questioning expression as if to ask whether the other room was hers, too. I nodded to show that it was.
"It's wonderful, Your Highness. Thank you!" She gave me a spontaneous hug, and then continued with her explorations without realising the lapse in protocol. I didn't reprimand her, because to be honest, I enjoyed it.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with all this space," Gabrielle said as she examined the interior of a wardrobe. "My whole family never had enough clothes to fill this. And it's all for me?" She looked back at me for further confirmation.
"It's all yours."
The smile on her face widened even more. It was infectious; I had to control the grin that wanted to spread across my face.
"You'll need new clothes to fill the wardrobe. I'll instruct the seamstress to make some for you right away. You can send a servant down to the market to get whatever else you need. After all, you are the assistant to the Empress now." That was it; I couldn't contain my smile any longer.
"Oh, I can go to the market myself. I love to shop."
The thought of her wandering around Corinth alone made the grin on my face disappear. Being the Empress' Personal Assistant made her a potential target, and I wasn't about to risk her safety.
"No. If you leave the palace, you must take a guard with you," I said firmly.
She gave me a strange look. "Why?"
"It is too dangerous for you to go alone."
"I would think the Empress' capital city would be the safest place to be in the middle of the day."
Oh, no I thought, she was not going to out-manoeuvre me this time. "Then take a guard for the company and to carry what you buy."
She was quiet for a moment. I could see her mind churning, but she couldn't come up with a counter-argument. I was very pleased with my rare victory. Winning an argument with Gabrielle was never easy.
"Here, you'll need this." I tossed a money pouch at her.
Gabrielle caught it and looked inside. "I can't take this, it's too much," she protested and tried to hand it back.
I put my hand up to stop her. "No, now that you're the personal assistant to the Empress, you'll need to dress the part."
"But I'm a good haggler. I won't need this much money."
"Well, what you save you can keep or spend, as you desire."
"You mean that? Whatever I don't spend I can keep? Can I send it to my family in Potidaea?"
"Whatever you wish."
"Thank you, Highness!" Gabrielle started forward as if she was going to hug me again, then caught herself and bowed instead.
I expected all my subjects to show me the proper respect, yet when Gabrielle did, it somehow seemed wrong, especially in these private moments. Perhaps it was because I had started to think of her as a friend — more than a friend. I would've much preferred the hug.
A few hours later, I heard a commotion in the courtyard below my study's window. I walked out onto the balcony to find Gabrielle returning from the market. She and Lieutenant Galates were struggling under the weight of her purchases. They shared a joke as they crossed the courtyard and the faint sound of their laughter drifted up to the balcony on which I stood. I'd have wagered a thousand dinars that she would choose Galates to accompany her.
They had become good friends during my conquest of Greece. It pleased me to know that Galates cared about Gabrielle. What pleased me even more was that I knew they were not lovers.
Gabrielle looked up and beamed a cheerful smile at me. I was grateful that her arms were full; otherwise she probably would've waved at me.
I dipped my head to acknowledge her. Galates noticed that Gabrielle was looking elsewhere and followed her gaze.
"At ease, Lieutenant," I called down before he dropped Gabrielle's belongings all over the flagstones trying to salute. I watched them continue on their way until they were out of sight.
"If you ever enter my presence without warning again, General Darnell, I'll assume you're trying to sneak up on me and I'll kill you." I turned around and walked into the room. Darnell snapped rigidly to attention, his cheeks reddening at my reprimand.
"You have heard of knocking, I presume?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
"Then do so in future." I nodded to let him know the matter of his intrusion was over.
Darnell had been one of my most trusted and loyal commanders, but he was overconfident at times and took liberties — like entering without knocking. I overlooked it sometimes, because he was an excellent second-in-command and had been the closest thing I had to a friend for a long time. That is, until Gabrielle.
He relaxed and almost stood at ease before remembering that I hadn't permitted him to do so. I took my time to walk over to a table that dominated the centre of the room, and studied the maps that were spread out on it.
"At ease, General."
He audibly released his breath and walked over to the table.
"How many battalions do we have on the border with Amazon territory?" I asked.
"Four. Enough to take it," he replied. "At your command," he quickly added.
"No. The Amazons are not our top priority right now. The main threat is Rome. Move three legions north and deploy them along the west coast of Epirus. I want that area heavily defended. We'll need to strengthen the territorial garrisons throughout the empire. It may take a year or so to build up the forces that I need to take Rome, but I want to be ready in case they attack before then."
"I'll issue the orders immediately."
"We'll need to build more ships, too. Any Roman invasion will be by sea as well as land."
The rest of the day and evening was spent studying maps and plans and talking with advisors. All pretty much the same as I had been doing during my conquests, only now the maps were bigger.
It was a brilliant spring morning. The weather was pleasant enough to put me into a relaxed mood, so I decided to cancel my morning meetings and go for a ride. Even an Empress needed time off now and again.
I had given orders for my horse to be made ready and was just leaving the palace for the stables when I thought of Gabrielle. I turned around and headed for her chambers. As anywhere else in my palace, I just walked into Gabrielle's room without knocking. She was still in bed asleep, lying on her back, one arm over her head. The sheet had slipped off just enough to expose a perfect white breast, its pale pink nipple standing erect in the chill of the morning air. Seeing her in such alluring repose threatened to overpower my reason. With much restraint, I slowly backed out of the room.
Once outside, I brought my libido under control, and then knocked on the door. I allowed myself a slight chuckle. Only yesterday, I had berated Darnell for not knocking, and here I was guilty of the same thing.
"Who is it?" Gabrielle sleepily called out.
"Empress Xena," I replied. I heard a startled gasp and the patter of feet, and then the door was pulled open.
"Good morning, Empress." Gabrielle curtsied holding a robe closed with one hand and running the other hand through her hair to make herself presentable. "I'm sorry. Did I oversleep? It won't happen again."
"You haven't overslept. I was wondering if you'd like to go for a ride with me."
"If you want me to, Your Highness."
"I would like you to, yes."
"I'll be ready as soon as I can," she said and hurried away.
"Yes, My Liege," she hurried back.
"I said I'd like you to come, but only if you want to. This isn't business. I just need a break and thought I'd take a short ride into the country. I would like your company, but if you have other plans—"
"No, no plans," she said enthusiastically, "I'd love to come!"
"Good. We'll leave as soon as you're ready. No rush." Those last words were wasted, as she was ready in double quick time.
We rode out together on my horse and headed west from the city, into the foothills outside Corinth. It was a warm and sunny day; only a few wisps of cirrus clouds streaked the cerulean blue sky. It felt good to put aside my duties for a few hours and just relax and enjoy myself. I was glad Gabrielle agreed to come along.
We stopped near a small pool fed by a waterfall and sat in the shade of a copse of cypress trees. Goats and sheep were grazing in the meadow nearby. I closed my eyes and drifted into a contented doze.
When I awoke, Gabrielle was just climbing from the pool after a swim. Wearing only a shift, she arched her back as she pushed the water from her long golden hair. This caused her hardened nipples to strain against the sodden material as her breasts thrust skyward. With her eyes closed, she spread her arms and turned around to soak up the sun.
With my eyes, I caressed her sculpted form. Every detail seemed perfect: her flat stomach, her supple legs, her well-defined arms, and her full, round breasts. The water droplets that clung to her made her sparkle in the sunshine like a goddess, and I felt an overwhelming desire to worship her, to offer myself as a sacrifice, body and soul. It was then and there I resolved to make her mine, but I recognised the need to take matters slowly or risk destroying the delicately balanced relationship we were developing.
Whether I made some noise or not, I don't know, but I suddenly noticed Gabrielle looking at me. She was aware of the attention I was paying her and quickly picked up her dress to cover herself.
To save her further embarrassment, I averted my eyes until she had dressed. "Enjoy your swim?" I asked as she sat down next to me.
"Yes, My Liege."
I was at a loss as to what to say next and started humming under my breath.
"Do you sing?" I asked her.
"You wish me to sing for you?" Gabrielle sounded a little apprehensive.
"No," I laughed. "Do you sing?"
"Not very well, My Liege."
"That's okay," I replied, "I like to sing." I sat up and started tapping a beat on my legs, then sang a song my mother had taught me when I was a little girl. The look of astonishment on Gabrielle's face made me stop singing.
"What is it?"
Gabrielle dipped her head to hide her amusement.
"I asked you a question," I said in a slightly impatient tone.
"My Liege, forgive me. I just never expected...what I mean is, I thought that you would…you know, sing something, er..."
"Something what?" I was getting annoyed.
"Um...more sort of...a battle song, perhaps, or something mournful. Not a happy folk tune!"
"Is that how you see me — a dark, sombre, violent person incapable of enjoyment?" Now I had become over-sensitive.
"No, that's not how I see you at all. You're beau…uh, you have a beautiful voice. Please sing another song. I promise not to interrupt again."
I saw the plaintive look in her pale green eyes. How could I stay mad?
"I can dance, if you wish?" she offered.
"Yes," I said as I felt the anger subside, "I'd like that."
While I sang and Gabrielle danced, I became aware that we were being watched. When I heard a twig snap, I leapt to my feet, startling Gabrielle. I reached out and put my hand over her mouth to silence her.
"Well, what do we have here?" a rough voice growled from behind me.
"Keep silent, and when I say so, get down as quickly as you can," I whispered to Gabrielle.
She nodded her understanding before I turned around. As I did so, I noticed two men where I had heard the noise. They were both armed with crossbows and had swords at their waists. As I turned further, I saw the man who had spoken. He stood apart from his cohorts, making it difficult to keep an eye on them all. I took him to be the leader of the trio.
"Is that your horse?" the head ruffian nodded at my mount. He was taller and broader than me. His muscles bulged from his short-sleeved tunic, and the crossbow he held looked like a child's toy in his large hand.
"Yes," I replied.
"Not anymore," he sneered.
Thieves were common across Greece — something I intended to rectify. This small band probably moved onto the peninsula to take advantage of my absence and hadn't heard that I had returned. Or, if they had, they didn't recognise me. I was only wearing a simple shirt and leather trousers and wore no emblem. At least I had my weapons with me — my sword and chakram lay on the grass a short distance away.
I knew I could take them, but Gabrielle's presence made it more difficult than if I had been alone. I needed to put them off guard for a moment.
"I need my horse," I said. I reached behind me and grabbed Gabrielle's arm. "But I don't need my slave. So, you take her and leave me the horse, and we'll call it even."
I risked a quick glance at Gabrielle. She knew what I was doing and gave me an imperceptible nod.
The two subordinates looked ready to accept the offer, but their leader wasn't.
"It's not negotiable," he said flatly. "We take your horse. We take your slave. And we take you."
"And if I refuse?" I replied impassively.
"My finger pulls the trigger."
I locked my gaze on him, and he locked his gaze on me. He was clever, strong, and cool in a situation. He would've made a great commander in my army. It was a shame I had to kill him.
"Then I refuse." I pushed Gabrielle back behind me and out of the way.
The first crossbow bolt whistled over the top of my head as I dived for my weapons. The second bolt ricocheted off my sword as I lifted it in front of my face. The third bolt, fired by the leader, grazed the right side of my body as I stood up. If I hadn't moved, the bolt would've struck my neck. All this happened in the blink of an eye.
As I gained my feet, I heard a splash. Gabrielle hit the water from the force of my push. I could do nothing to help her other than hope she was alright — and smart enough to stay put.
A feral grin spread across my face as I twirled my sword and faced the leader. My left hand shot out, hurling my chakram at his subordinates. There was a brief clatter and a couple of cries that were cut short, and then the chakram was back in my hand.
The head bandit glanced over at his dead followers and then drew his sword. "Come on then," he growled.
I let loose with my war cry and sprang into the air. He met me halfway and our swords clashed. We landed and turned to face one another. I started circling slowly and he did likewise.
"You're good," I told him. "So good, that I'd hate to kill you without knowing your name."
"I was just thinking the same," he said, and launched an attack. His attack was designed to work my injured side, which told me he knew what to do in a fight. I guessed that he was an ex-mercenary who had found crime paid more than war. I eventually forced him to back off.
"I've decided I don't need to know your name to kill you. Besides, I wouldn't have heard of you anyway," I goaded.
"Ha! Brave words, but no one has bested the Great Palaemon and lived to brag."
He attacked once more. I deflected the blow with my chakram and followed through with my sword. Palaemon brought his sword down quickly to block and almost wrenched mine from my grasp. He followed the block with a kick to my wound. I gritted my teeth and stepped back. This was going to be tougher than I thought.
As the fight continued, the advantage was slightly in his favour. It was time to turn things around. At this point, Gabrielle was just climbing from the water. I allowed myself a quick glance to see if she was okay. My opponent noticed my distraction, pulled out a knife, and threw it at Gabrielle.
"Down!" I cried out. Gabrielle reacted immediately to my command and dived back into the water just as my chakram intercepted the knife above her head.
Now that my assailant was distracted, I launched my attack. Sparks flew from our swords as he blocked my first swipe. Palaemon was not prepared for my foot to connect with his groin. I jumped and twisted, and landed another kick to the side of his head as he doubled over. Palaemon hit the ground hard. With the wind knocked out of him, his sword flew out of his hand.
I pressed the tip of my sword to his throat. "I want you to know my name before you die. My name is Xena the Conqueror, Empress of the Greek Empire."
Palaemon's eyes went wide with horror and his pallor turned a ghostly grey.
"Tell your cohorts you were sent to Tartarus for being stupid!" With that, I drew back my sword and brought it straight across his neck, nearly severing his head.
Gabrielle climbed from the water a second time. "Hey," I called softly to distract her.
"Sorry about dumping you in the water." I offered her my hand and helped her out. She stared in mild shock at the body of the former "Great Palaemon."
"Don't look at him," I whispered as I gently directed her head toward me. "Go to the horse."
Gabrielle ignored my order and continued to look up at me. "You saved my life."
"You're a good assistant, I wouldn't want to lose you," I joked.
"Thank you," she said quietly, still holding my gaze.
Caught up in the moment, I started to lean down, intending to kiss her.
"You're hurt!" she cried as she noticed the blood staining my shirt. "Here, let me help you."
The moment passed.
"It's just a scratch. I'll be fine. Go to the horse and wait for me."
Gabrielle reluctantly obeyed. I bent down to retrieve my weapons and wipe the blood and bits of flesh off. I felt a bit faint. It was then I realised my wound was more than just a scratch. I told myself that I'd had worse and made my way back to the horse.
"Please, My Liege, let me dress that wound," she begged. I nodded my assent.
"I have some dressings in the saddle bag." I opened a flap and pulled out a cloak. "Put this on, Gabrielle. You shouldn't stand around in wet clothes. Not even on a warm day like this."
She took the cloak. "I should treat your injury first."
"I'm not going to bleed to death in the time it takes you to put it on."
"And I'm not going to catch a chill in the time it takes me to treat you."
"It seems we're both going to die before you let good sense override your stubbornness," I said.
"I was thinking exactly the same thing, My Liege."
I gritted my teeth as the pain flared. I grumbled under my breath and begrudgingly handed Gabrielle the medicine bag. She worked quickly and gently to clean and dress the wound.
"There. That should slow the bleeding. But you better let your healer look at that when you get back."
"I will. Now will you get out of those wet clothes, please?"
"Yes, My Liege."
We both chuckled knowing Gabrielle had won that battle.
My healer looked at the wound and declared that I would live, though he suggested I avoid weapons practise for a few days. Gabrielle, on the other hand, was given a dose of medicine and sent straight to a warm bed with instructions not to leave it until the following morning.
"I'm fine," she protested as I escorted her to her chambers.
"Healer's orders come second only to mine," I said, "and I'm backing his orders on this one."
"Yes, ma'am," she sulked.
I helped her to the bed and made her comfortable. She was already sniffling and sneezing. I had a servant bring a bowl of hot broth and stayed while she drank it down. When she had finished, I took the bowl from her. My hand brushed against hers. It sent a shiver through my body and made me forget the ache in my side for a moment.
"Gabrielle, you put my well-being before your own today. I won't forget that. Thank you." My praise raised a smile and a blush from her.
"It's my duty, My Liege," she finally said.
"There's duty, and then there's duty."
"The soldiers in my army perform their duty for pay, as do my servants. They do their best because they fear my wrath. I'm sure that if given the chance, they would let me bleed to death and save themselves. But not you, Gabrielle. You tended me first, because you believe in your duty."
"Your need was greater than my own," she explained. "Besides, it wasn't that serious."
"It's only a matter of scale," I said. "You would put others first in any situation."
"It's all about the greater good," she spoke with a distant tone to her voice. "You can do so much more than me. If I can help you in any way, I will, even if it means sacrificing myself."
I was in awe at how truly selfless Gabrielle was, but I suddenly felt an inexplicable sense of foreboding. I knew she would make any sacrifice for the greater good, and I silently vowed never to let that happen, because she was too important to me. Greater good be damned.
With Gabrielle ensconced in her bed, I returned to my own quarters. Just as I sat down, there was a knock at the door.
Lieutenant Galates entered and saluted.
"What is it, Lieutenant?"
"I have some reports, Your Highness." He held out a small bag bulging with scrolls.
"Bring them over," I beckoned him. He did as ordered and I relieved him of his burden. He saluted once more and turned to leave.
"Wait a minute!"
"My Liege?" He halted and turned around.
"Gabrielle has been sent to bed under the healer's instruction."
"Is it serious?" The concern in his voice was evident.
"No, merely a precaution. She could do with some company, I suspect. Why don't you stop by and see her?"
"I don't get off duty until midnight, My Liege."
"Consider it a direct order from me." I smiled at him. He hesitated, unsure if I was being serious. "I could order someone else," I continued, "but I trust her to be safe in your company."
"Yes, Your Highness." His face became pensive at my insinuation, and I sensed he wanted to say something.
"If you wish to say something, Lieutenant, you have my permission to speak freely."
He swallowed hard. He knew what a rare privilege he had been granted. He also knew it was not a complete guarantee of safety if he should say something to upset me.
"I…Gabrielle and I are just friends, My Liege."
"I know that."
"We…I look on her as a sister."
"You mean she wants you to look on her as a sister?"
"Yes, My Liege." He sounded a little disappointed.
"And you respect her choice in the matter?"
"Of course." Galates sounded offended that I should doubt his honour.
"Then you truly are a good friend to her, Lieutenant, and she deserves good friends. You've also proved to me that you're a man of honour, courage, and honesty. I know I can trust you to never let me down."
"My sword and my life are yours to command, My Liege."
"Then I command you to go and cheer up Gabrielle." I gave him a sly smile.
"Yes, Your Highness." Galates' saluted with a new sense of pride and his feet barely touched the floor as he marched out.
The next day, I sat in my war room with Darnell discussing Palaemon's attack. We argued over what measure to take to capture and arrest any other marauders within a day's ride of Corinth. Having been given permission by the healer to return to her duties, Gabrielle was seated at a desk in the corner of the room taking notes and trying not to sniffle too loudly.
"You'll always have lawbreakers and raiders," Darnell said. "It's impossible to ferret out every would-be criminal. Swift and harsh punishment will act as a deterrent for all but the very lawless."
"I agree," I replied, "but I cannot allow thugs like Palaemon and his friends to prey on the citizens of my empire. Random, unprovoked raids will give the villagers an incentive to turn in these criminals before they commit crimes."
"It's a waste of manpower," Darnell protested.
"It's my manpower to waste," I reminded him.
"But it will alienate the villagers."
"If the job is done correctly, they'll be all too happy to cooperate." I raised my voice.
Darnell didn't reply, but the vein bulging from his neck told me he was having trouble keeping his own anger in check.
"Being tough with those you catch is one thing, but if you don't have anyone to catch, how will you let the raiders know you mean business?" I asked.
"But how does turning neighbour against neighbour accomplish that? Next thing you know, you'll be ordering random executions," he said sarcastically.
"Hmm, that's not a bad idea," I retorted.
I heard a very quiet gasp from Gabrielle.
"It was a joke," I explained to her.
She almost said something, but thought better of it.
Darnell sneered at my assistant for her misunderstanding. I wanted to smack that sneer off his face.
"Very well, Darnell. Have Darphus send out spies to gather intelligence. We'll conduct pinpoint raids at any locations where these marauders are located. Once we have the problem of raiders under control in Corinth, I will want expand it to the entire empire."
Darnell nodded once.
"Yes, My Liege."
"Draft a notice, to be posted throughout the empire, instructing citizens to be on the look out for marauders and to report them to their local garrison commander."
"Yes, My Liege," she replied.
"Oh, and include that a reward is being offered for information resulting in their capture," I added. "Fifty... no, make it a hundred... no, leave it at fifty dinars."
"As you wish, My Liege."
"Good idea, Your Highness," said Darnell.
I smiled to let him know his sycophantic compliment was noted, if not appreciated.
"Have Darphus report his progress to me tomorrow."
"My Liege." Darnell stood up, saluted, and left.
I looked over at Gabrielle, who was busy writing in a scroll. She was sitting in a shaft of sunlight coming through the window. It caught the dust floating in the air about her, making her seem as if she was separate from the rest of the room. It made a wonderful sight and I couldn't help but stare. Gabrielle must have sensed me watching and looked up with a questioning expression.
I felt compelled to offer some sort of explanation as to why I was staring, but what could I say? Instead, I said the first thing that popped into my head. "You wanted to say something about my joke?"
She looked back down at the scroll and scowled. "It wasn't very funny."
"I'll try harder next time," I replied with a smirk. "Can I leave you to finish the notice?"
Gabrielle nodded and returned to her writing. I stood up and walked towards the door.
I was almost out of the door when she spoke. "Thank you for sending Lieutenant Galates to keep me company last night."
I stopped and turned to face her. "He wanted to do it."
"Yes, but it was your idea. Thank you, Highness," she said warmly.
"It was my pleasure," I replied softly, and then walked out of the room, leaving her to her work.
GO TO CHAPTER 7