We left Greece on our state visit to Rome only days after I was appointed Advisor for Civilian Affairs. Xena barely had enough time to make the appointment, much less fill me in on what my duties would be, other than her vague reference to "keeping the civilians pacified". So, as soon as we returned from Rome, I threw myself into the task of figuring out just what an Advisor for Civilian Affairs was supposed to do.
One evening I was in the library, lost behind a mountain of scrolls.
Xena's voice startled me, and I nearly knocked a pile of scrolls onto the floor. "Oh, Your Highness." I rose and accorded her proper respect, "I didn’t hear you come in."
With a somewhat stern look, she said, "it’s not wise for a newly promoted advisor to keep her empress waiting."
I glanced out a nearby window to find the sun already set and the palace illuminated by torches. "Oh, sorry, Highness. I didn’t realise it was so late. I got busy. I lost track of time. I—"
"Calm down, Gabrielle. I'm not going to have you thrown into the dungeon. And, if I'm not mistaken, we're alone."
"Uh?" I got flustered, unsure what she meant by "we're alone..."
"Xena…." She cocked her head and gave me a knowing look.
"Oh. Right. Xena."
"That's better." She winked. "Now, what was so important that it kept you from dining with me this evening?"
"I was going through the latest batch of petitions. I can’t believe how many I get in a day. I’m going to need a staff to help me sort through them all."
"And an office, by the look of things. What are all these piles?" The Empress thumbed through the stacks of parchments sitting neatly on the table.
I pointed to each stack as I explained. "These are requesting exemptions from various taxes, and these are land disputes. This pile contains more...er, interesting requests."
"Oh, like what?" Xena warily asked.
"Like, several petitions to have Ares replaced with Cupid as patron god of Corinth, a few offers to father my children, and one or two to father yours."
Xena cocked her left eyebrow in response, which made me chuckle.
"Then, there is this one." I became serious again and reached for a scroll. "It's cryptic and a bit disturbing."
"Is it some kind of veiled threat?" Xena asked soberly.
"No, it's more like a prediction or a warning."
"What does it say?"
I unrolled the scroll and read it aloud. "On the Ides plus one, one will have won and one will have none."
When I finished reading the scroll I looked up at Xena. I couldn't tell what she was thinking from her impassive expression, but her mood definitely changed.
"Xena, what does it mean?" There was no response, just a far away look. "Xena?"
She took the scroll from my hand and read it herself. "Nothing," Xena finally responded. She held it over a candle and watched it burn. "It doesn't mean anything."
I discovered later the scroll did mean something: Xena had just become more powerful than ever.
Overseeing civic improvements in Corinth was another project I took on. Some areas were quite shabby and still bore the scars of the battle in which the city fell to Xena the Conqueror. The houses of one particular street were badly maintained with an assortment of poor patch jobs, and I assigned a work crew to do a proper job on them. I had the families who lived there temporarily relocated to a nearby temple until the renovations were completed. Checking on the progress gave me an excuse to go to the temple daily and visit with the children. The families were poor and couldn't afford to send their children to school, so I told them stories and taught them how to read and write the alphabet. It made me realise that if the empire was to prosper we needed schools.
I picked a night when Xena was in a good mood to broach the subject of creating schools. We were relaxing in her private quarters after the evening meal. I waited until Xena had her after-dinner port. That was when she was most relaxed and not distracted by other matters. Xena chose to sit in a large, straight-backed chair near the fire. The chair was covered in black leather and looked severe and foreboding with top of the back rising above her head. However, I knew the chair was very comfortable to sit in. I sat on a two-seat couch opposite the chair with my legs tucked up under me.
"Xena, may I ask you something?"
"Of course. What is it?" She looked up from her empty glass.
"Would it be alright with you if I, we — the government that is — build a permanent school in Corinth and open it to both boys and girls? If it's successful, we could build schools throughout the empire so every child could get an education."
"Why do we need schools? I need soldiers, not philosophers."
"Yes, but not everyone can be a soldier. An army may conquer an empire, but it is the philosophers, mathematicians, artisans, and playwrights who build a civilisation. Besides, you need soldiers now. I'm talking of children, of the future. A future when hopefully there won't be the need to have so many soldiers."
From her facial expression, I could tell that Xena agreed with the logic of my argument, but she had more important matters to concern her. Finally she yielded.
"How much will it cost?"
"I don't know. I hadn't thought that far." This lack of preparation embarrassed me. Xena knew all the angles of any military operation before she undertook it. I suppose the same would apply to any civic operation. I felt as though I had let her down with my lack of forethought.
"You must have some idea."
"A building, a teacher or two," I mumbled.
"Work out a proposal and submit it to my Chancellor, and he'll determine if there are funds available."
I had expected Xena to just say yes. It hadn't occurred to me that she might not. But I realised that even as her friend, I couldn't expect to just ask for something and get it. This was the real world where politics and budgets constrained everyone, even Xena. Still, I felt a little wounded.
"Education is important to you, isn't it?" Xena must have seen the disappointed look on my face.
"It's important for everyone. To waste a child's potential by not giving them the opportunity to learn is a crime. And just think of the benefit to the empire if it's producing educated people. One of those children could invent something that revolutionises the way we live." As I talked I sat up straighter.
"Or a better weapon," Xena countered.
"Or a better weapon," I concurred reluctantly.
"There are plenty of buildings around. I'm sure you must have seen a few when supervising your city improvements. What have you been using as your temporary classroom?" Xena stood and walked over to the drinks table against the wall to refill her glass.
"I've been using the temple to Artemis."
"Artemis? Does she have followers in Corinth?" She turned her head to look over her shoulder at me.
"Take over the temple then," she said, turning back to her task of pouring the drink. "If people want to worship Artemis they can find somewhere else."
"I'm not going to throw people out of their place of worship."
"You want a school, don't you?" Xena returned to her seat and faced me.
"Yes, of course, but—"
"Well, then you have to decide what is more important, a temple or a school. Leadership is about making the hard choices and then acting boldly. So, which is it going to be?"
Xena gave me a challenging look. She was testing me, seeing how I handled making tough decisions.
"A school." I slumped back in the couch. I felt defeated, not because I made the decision Xena wanted, but because it was the only decision.
"There, then that's settled. Just submit your proposal to my Chancellor, as I said. There shouldn't be a problem."
"Thank you." I was about to add 'my liege' then remembered what she had said on our trip to Rome about not patronising her when we were alone. "You know, you could show a bit more enthusiasm for the school."
"I think it's a good idea," Xena said with a feigned smile. "And I'm more than happy to leave it in your capable hands. The Chancellor will give you the money, and if he doesn't… I'll get a new Chancellor."
I shook my head. "You haven't quite grasped this enthusiasm thing, have you?"
"What I needed to know, I learned at the hilt end of a sword." Realising she came on too strong, Xena sighed and said, "I never had much use for schools, but it makes me happy that you're happy about it. I get 'enthusiastic' about other things."
She turned to face the fire, a blank expression masking her features. Few people, if any, knew Xena as well as I did. Sometimes her expression could be worth a thousand words, but even in these unguarded moments Xena's façade could suddenly turn unreadable.
I was about to try and get her to open up to me when there was a knock at the door. It brought Xena out of her pensive mood.
"That's Darnell," Xena whispered to me.
"How can you tell?"
"He's the only person I know who can knock with an attitude. Listen when he knocks again."
We waited and the knock came again. I don't know if I heard the attitude, or imagined it at Xena's suggestion, but there was something different about the knock. I chuckled quietly and brought a hand up to cover my mouth so he couldn't hear me. Xena had no reservations and chuckled loudly. She was still chuckling when she opened the door.
"General Darnell, come in," she said in a voice tinged with amusement.
"Your Highness, I was informed you wanted to see me as soon as I returned." Darnell entered and saluted. "Oh." He barely concealed a scowl when he noticed me. "I hope I'm not disturbing something." Darnell placed a knowing emphasis on "something".
Xena ignored his innuendo. "No, you're not disturbing anything. Come. Have some port."
"Thank you, no My Liege. I am in need of a warm bath and a good night's sleep, but I came directly here when I arrived in Corinth. There is news from Rome." He cast a sideways look in my direction. "Perhaps I should come back at a more appropriate time."
"I'll leave you two to talk," I said as I stood up. "By your leave, Highness."
"No, Gabrielle. Stay. This won't take long." Xena turned to Darnell and motioned for him to follow her to the other side of the room.
They spoke in a loud whisper, so I couldn't help but overhear their conversation as Darnell made his report.
"Pompey's orders have reached the Roman garrisons in Illyria. The local governor was most receptive to them. I've ordered a detachment back east to strengthen the borders with the Amazon and Centaur territory. Hopefully, they haven't noticed we've been under strength there this past couple of seasons."
"Oh, they probably have," said Xena. "But they have their own problems to worry about. Continue."
"The latest reports from our spies in Egypt say that news of Caesar's assassination and Pompey's takeover has not yet reached there."
Darnell's statement puzzled me. When was Caesar assassinated and how could our spies in Egypt know of Caesar's death and Pompey's takeover if news had not reached there? Our communications were no faster than Roman communications.
"It must have reached there by now," said Xena. "I'll send a message to Cleopatra passing on the news and offering support should she want to seize the opportunity to break free of Roman rule. Any news from Gaul? I expected something from Vercinix."
"Nothing yet, Your Highness."
"Well, keep me informed. Anything else?"
"Yes. Brutus is on his way to Corinth now. He should be here in a few days."
"Excellent. Thank you, General." The Empress spoke in a normal tone of voice once again as she ushered the general toward the door. "Go take that warm bath. We'll talk in the morning."
Darnell saluted and made his departure, but not without giving me one last disapproving glance.
Xena returned to her chair by the fire. Her mood was decidedly upbeat.
"Xena, I couldn't help overhearing. Is it true? Has Julius Caesar been assassinated?"
"What do you mean? I thought you hated him."
"I mean it is a pity I didn't have the pleasure of killing him myself."
We both fell silent. During our voyage to Rome, Xena told me about her turbulent history with Julius Caesar. She hadn't gone into a lot of detail, but she did tell me that they had a love affair and that Caesar had her crucified and her legs broken. At the time I couldn't understand why she would risk going to Rome if she and Caesar were enemies. She had insisted that it was nothing more than just a social visit, but I knew, with Xena, nothing was as it appeared.
"What are you thinking?" she asked me.
"That you have more to do with the situation in Rome than you're letting on."
"What makes you think I had something to do with the situation in Rome?" She took a sip of port.
"General Darnell said that your spies in Egypt knew about Caesar and Pompey. I don't see how they could've known unless they had prior knowledge."
"That's what I like about you, Gabrielle, your mind is as devious as mine."
"Hmm, I don't know whether to take that as a compliment."
"It was meant as one." Xena flashed a sly grin.
"Well, did you?" I wasn't going to let her change the subject.
"Did I what?"
"Did you have something to do with Caesar's assassination and Pompey's takeover? Is that why we were in Rome?"
Xena became pensive again and stared into her empty cup.
Knowing when Xena wanted to talk and when it was prudent to keep quiet was one of the first lessons I had learned as her personal assistant. In this case, however, I pushed the point.
She stood up and in a stern tone said, "This is not a civil matter. I suggest you stick to building schools and leave affairs of state to me."
"I didn't mean to overstep my bounds. It's just that—"
Her tone softened. "Gabrielle, I know you are curious by nature, but when it comes to the Romans, I would rather you not ask questions. Can you trust me on this?"
"Yes, of course. I didn't mean to make you angry. I was more concerned for you. You took an awful chance going to Rome. Caesar could've easily had you killed. Instead he ends up being murdered and Pompey is now Emperor of Rome. What's to stop him from sending assassins to kill you?"
"Pompey? He doesn't have the balls. Besides, Pompey won't make a move while Brutus is here in Corinth. Brutus has the loyalty of at least half the Roman Army. So as long as Brutus is ambassador to our court, Pompey can't make a move on either one of us."
Sometimes it was hard to reconcile that the Xena I knew and cared about was also a cunning, calculating, and formidable ruler of a large and still growing empire. And even though we had become close, she still had secrets she didn't share with me.
Brutus arrived four days later, and his first order of business was to pay his respects to the Empress. Flanked by two Roman soldiers, Brutus strode into the throne room with an urgency that befitted his efficient manner. A quick dip of his head was the only mark of respect he showed to Xena.
"Empress," Brutus began, "I have been sent by Pompey the Magnus, Emperor of Rome, as his ambassador to the Greek Empire, in the hope of developing closer ties between our two great powers."
Xena was seated on an intricately carved, marble throne that dominated the room. She was dressed in her ceremonial robes made of the finest silk from Chin. On her head sat a crown of pure gold in the shape of a hawk's outstretched wings, and she held the sceptre fashioned from the stone given to her by King Quallas before the battle of Ambracia. Personally, I thought her outfit was a bit over the top and told her as much when she commissioned its design. If you want people to respect you and fear you, you must appear larger than life, was her explanation.
"Welcome, Ambassador. News of your appointment has preceded you. I have arranged for a suite of rooms here in the palace for you. If you wish to establish an embassy elsewhere in the city, my advisor," Xena gestured to me, "will be more than happy to help you find a suitable location."
Brutus looked at me with an unreadable expression.
"That would be acceptable," he said.
"In the meantime, you must be tired after your journey. I'll have you shown to your quarters. Your bodyguards are welcome to use the palace barracks."
As she spoke, Xena made a discreet hand gesture and a servant stepped forward to show the new ambassador to his suite.
"I hope you'll join me for dinner in my room this evening, where we can discuss business in an informal surrounding," she concluded.
"It would be my pleasure, Your Highness," Brutus said cordially.
With the welcoming ceremony over, Xena stood and walked out of the throne room as briskly as Brutus had entered it.
I went directly to the changing room off the main hall after the ceremony was over. When I entered, Xena was handing her attendants the sceptre and crown. I paused. I couldn't help but admire how regal she looked.
"You don't mind?"
"Uh, mind?" So taken by her splendour, I hadn't heard half of what Xena had said to me.
"Making other dinner plans this evening," Xena repeated as her attendants removed her ceremonial robe. "Brutus and I have business to discuss." She emphasised "business".
"No, that's fine," I replied with only a little enthusiasm.
Having shed the accoutrements of royalty, Xena was dressed in her usual simple black leather tunic and leggings.
"I'll get rid of him as soon as I can," she assured me, "then we can have our evening chat. There are some things that we need to talk about."
"Okay. I'll wait up for you."
"Good girl. I won't be too late."
Since Xena was busy, I was free that evening, so I used the time to catch up on my writing. It had been a while since I'd written for pleasure, but I couldn't concentrate. All I could think about was Xena alone in her quarters — with Brutus. I know it shouldn't have bothered me, but it did.
I put down my quill and walked to the window. Low clouds moved briskly on the wind, and rain could be seen in the distant gloom. I shivered and closed the shutters.
Suddenly, there was a knock on my door. I rushed to open it. "Oh, it's you."
"Well, that's a fine hello." Galates affected a hurtful look, but couldn't maintain it for long. "I hope you don't greet all your guests like that."
"I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else." I stepped back to allow him entry. "Can I get you a drink?"
"No thanks. I can't stay long."
"At least sit down." I gestured to the couch.
Galates eased himself onto the couch and I sat down next to him.
"So, what have you been doing this evening?"
"I've been trying to write."
I gave him a non-committal shrug. I always thought what I wrote was good — until I read it back. Besides, I didn't want to admit I hadn't written more than a few words.
"Anyway," Galates continued, "I just came by to talk to you. I don't know if you've heard, but my unit is being sent to Thrace. We move out in a couple of days. I'll be gone at least half a year."
"Oh!" The last few weeks had been hectic for me and I hadn't seen much of Galates, but the thought that he might not be around suddenly left me feeling alone. "Who will I have to talk to?"
Galates chuckled. "I'm not your only friend."
"No, but you’re my best friend. The first friend I made after leaving home."
Galates looked embarrassed by my words. "I may be the first friend you made after leaving home, Gabrielle, but I'm not your best friend."
"What do you mean?"
"The Empress," he said.
"What are you talking about?" I asked with bemusement.
"It's obvious to me that you care deeply for the Empress."
"Of course." I stood up and stepped away from the couch keeping my back to Galates. I didn't want him to see how flustered the direction of the conversation was making me. "She is my sovereign and she's a friend."
I heard Galates stand and felt his right hand come to rest on my shoulder. "My dear Gabrielle, I too am your friend, but you do not look at me the same way you look at her."
"You care about her much more than just as a subject or a friend. You have feelings for her," Galates said gently.
"Whatever do you mean?" I moved away from his reach and tried to sound nonchalant, but inside I felt exposed.
"You love her."
"What?" I sounded genuinely shocked.
"Gabrielle, I've seen the way you look at her, the way you light up when she enters a room."
I felt my cheeks flush a burning crimson. "Is it that obvious?"
"Only to a good friend. And I am your friend, Gabrielle. You can trust me."
I turned around and gave his forearm a tender squeeze. "I'm lucky to have you for a friend." I walked away and stared out the window again. "What should I do?"
"Have you talked to the Empress — told her how you feel?"
"No, I couldn't…I wouldn't…I mean, I don't know what to say."
"Speak from your heart and tell her that you love her."
"I'm afraid I'd lose everything if I did."
"And you will gain nothing if you don't."
"But I'm just a village girl — she's the Empress! She could have anyone she desires. How can I compete with that?"
Galates tenderly lifted my chin. "Anyone would consider themselves very fortunate to have your love. Tell her. I think you'll be surprised at what she says." Galates flashed a hopeful smile. "Well, I have to go. I'm on duty soon."
I walked him to the door. Before he left, Galates turned to me and said, "Remember, if you ever need someone to talk to, I'm your man. No matter where I am."
We both beamed a big smile and then I gave him a hug and kiss on the cheek. "Thank you."
"You're welcome. Goodnight."
As soon as Galates left, I went directly to my desk and settled down to write. The scroll I had stared at blankly earlier on was now filling up with words and I lost track of time. The faint rumble of thunder punctuated the rain pattering against the shutters, but I barely paid attention to it as I wrote.
The knock at my door did draw my attention. I knew straight away it was Xena, and I felt a strange sense of anticipation as I rushed to open the door. Xena stepped inside as soon as I opened the door. As she did so, she shivered.
"It's cold in here." She looked at the glowing embers in the fireplace. "Let's get this thing going." She stirred the fire into life.
As the fire grew in the hearth and pushed heat into my room, I realised how cold it had become. It made me shiver.
Xena picked up a shawl, draped it around me and led me closer to the hearth. Her doting warmed me more than the fire or the shawl. I saw a flicker of love reflected in the warm blue eyes that held my gaze.
"You should be more careful," she cautioned me gently. "You could become ill sitting in the cold." Her fingers lingered on my shoulders and her touch ignited a fire inside me.
Only then did it hit me with a clarity that I never knew before. Galates was right. I was in love with Xena. And it seemed like the perfect moment to tell her how I felt. Just as I took a deep breath to prepare myself, she spoke.
"Gabrielle, I have something I need to talk to you about." She led me over to the couch. "Sit down." She patted the seat next to her.
"Good. There's something I need to talk to you about, too."
She waited until I was seated before continuing. "Before I forget, I told Brutus you would show him around the city tomorrow."
"Huh?" I wasn't expecting her to talk about Brutus.
"I told Brutus you would show him around the city tomorrow."
"Oh, okay." Brutus was the last thing I wanted to talk about.
"He said he'd feel more comfortable if he had an embassy separate from the palace. You can take him on a tour of possible sites."
"Was that what you wanted to talk to me about — Brutus?"
"No…well, yes. But that can wait. You wanted to talk to me, so what is it?"
I sighed. Clearly, it was not the time to talk to Xena about my feelings. "Nothing that can't wait. Was there something else you wanted to say about Brutus?"
"Yes. Brutus believes he is here to wait for Pompey to mess up in Rome, at which time, with my help, he'll go back and take control. However, he doesn't fully trust me and I don't fully trust him."
"Then why haven't you…?" I left the question hanging. I knew Xena had extreme methods of dealing with people, but I couldn't bring myself to say it.
"He may prove useful," she replied, knowing what I had left unsaid.
"But aren't you helping Pompey?" I queried, as our conversation of a few days previously came back to me.
"Pompey and I came to an agreement: he rules Rome for me and I let him have the glory of everyone thinking he's ruling for himself. And that includes Brutus."
"Why go to that bother?"
"Rome is a large empire and it would be hard to just take it over. I would rather have Pompey appear to be the ruler. That way, I get revenue from taxation without the expense of conquest."
"I can't believe Pompey would allow that. He seemed to me to be someone who'd want power all for himself."
"Quite right, and I'm counting on it," Xena said with a wicked glint in her eye. "He only agreed to be my puppet because I got Brutus out of the way and gave him the opportunity to take control. I know that once he feels his power base is secure, he will challenge me.
"I'm going to organise resistance in certain areas of Roman control that will force him to expend resources to put them down. Once Rome is weakened, Pompey will be out, and I will be able to step in and conquer Rome more easily."
"Xena, why are you telling me all this? I thought you didn't want me involved."
"I need your help with Britannia," Xena replied. "I need to convince their tribal leader, Boadicea, that now would be a good time to move against the Roman Army — with my help of course."
"And then after they help you defeat Rome, you'll turn on the Britons and conquer them," I concluded for her.
"Why do you say that?"
"Because, it's —"
"What I do." Xena finished my sentence. "You know me so well," she said with a cunning smile.
"I still don't understand what it is you want me to do exactly."
"I need you to draft a communiqué of conciliation and cooperation from me to Boadicea."
"Xena, I'm not qualified to help you in matters of foreign policy. You have advisors who are much more skilled at that sort of thing."
"I need your wisdom and your way with words."
"I paid a visit there many years ago and made some enemies, including Boadicea. I need to improve relations with her so they'll accept my help. You speak from the heart and I need it to sound sincere if I'm going to get Boadicea's help."
"I don't know Xena. I'm not sure I can help you in this situation."
"Well, I don't know…"
"I could order you to do it."
"So, are you saying you'll do it?"
I sat silently, unsure quite how to respond. As much as I didn't want to disappoint Xena, I didn't feel comfortable.
"Well?" Xena pressed me for an answer.
"I don't think I can, Xena. You're asking me to help you deceive Boadicea into thinking you are her ally, when in truth you plan to overthrow Pompey with her help and then repay her by conquering Britannia. I'm just not sure I can be a part of that."
I prepared for what I was certain would be a rebuke from Xena for defying her will — again.
"It was wrong of me to involve you," Xena said softly.
That was not the reaction I was expecting from Xena. I was stunned.
"I know my ways are not your ways," continued Xena. "I've led you on a path you weren't meant to take."
I took her hand in mine. "As you say, our ways may be different, but I believe we were meant to walk this path together, wherever it leads us."
"Hearing it from you, I almost believe it. If I do any good at all, it's because of you, Gabrielle."
Xena put her finger to my lips to hush me, and then she slowly leaned in. This was it — the moment I had longed for. My stomach felt like I had swallowed bats. I closed my eyes and held my breath as I waited for Xena's lips to touch mine.
Instead, she kissed my forehead, and then bade me goodnight.
I pushed the hood of my cloak back as I entered the building that had been the residence of the prime minister of the former king of Corinth.
Rain dripped onto the marbled floor from a crack in the ceiling. "That can be repaired," I said.
Brutus stepped around the leak and entered the large hall beyond the antechamber.
I followed him as he inspected the main hall. It was large enough to hold a good-sized banquet, the far side opened out into the gardens, beyond which the Sea of Corinth could be seen. There were several rooms off the hall that could be used as offices. The main staircase to the left of the hall led to the living quarters.
"Yes, this could do, " Brutus said as he looked around. " I'll have to check it thoroughly, though."
"Of course. Any repairs can be carried out easily, I believe. It just needs a good clean."
He nodded and ascended the staircase while I walked to the far end of the hall and stepped out into the courtyard to view the gardens.
"I'm curious," he called down. "The Empress told me about your plans for a school, and that you also write stories and plays. Perhaps you could read me one of your stories one evening. And we must arrange to have one of your plays performed at our first embassy banquet."
I was moved that Xena would speak of me. "I'd be honoured, Ambassador."
He disappeared into one of the upstairs rooms and I returned my attention back to the garden. The rain clouds appeared to be lifting and there was a chance that the sun would break through in the afternoon.
I was so engrossed in my thoughts that I didn't hear Brutus come downstairs and approach me until he stood beside me.
"The view will be lovely when the sun is out," he said.
From the corner of my eye, I noticed him turn to look at me.
"Just like you," he added in a seductive tone as he lightly brushed my forearm with the back of his hand.
I moved away from him and continued to admire the garden.
"If you'll forgive my impertinence, you don't seem like the Empress's type..." he paused for effect, "…of advisor."
I understood his inference, but I chose to ignore it. "The Empress must like what I do."
"Oh, I'm sure of it," he said suggestively.
"…As her advisor." I tried not to let his insinuations get to me.
"Beauty and brains. Xena is lucky to have you."
His meaning was clear and it struck a nerve. I looked him in the eyes and coolly said, "Ambassador, think of me how you wish, but be careful what you say to me, or about me. The Empress once had one of her senior officers flogged for making an improper suggestion to me. I would hate for you to suffer a similar fate."
"If you were my woman, I would've done the same."
"What do you mean by that?" I asked him tersely.
"Nothing. I was only passing a compliment on y—"
"I would rather you didn't," I interrupted him.
"My apologies." He turned away from my icy glare. "It was not my intention to make you uncomfortable. I will say no more on the subject."
"That would be best."
"I'll continue my inspection alone," Brutus said as if nothing had happened. "I'll send word if I have any questions."
I gave an abrupt nod, turned on my heel, and strode out. I couldn't wait to get out of there.
Once outside, I paused to try and compose myself, but Brutus' words kept repeating over and over in my mind: "If you were my woman…if you were my woman…if you were my woman…." I didn't want anyone to find me attractive, to think they could seduce me, or to be their woman — anyone, that is, except Xena.
The walk back to the palace was short, but I was so preoccupied with what Brutus had said to me that I didn't notice it had begun to rain again. I forgot to put my hood up, so by the time I reached the entrance, my hair was clinging limply to my head. But I couldn't have cared less about the state of my hair. All I cared about was finding Xena and telling her that I loved her.
Finding Xena wasn't easy. I checked her study. It was empty. Next, I checked the throne room. She wasn't there. I went back outside to the drill area. There were troops there but no Xena. She was not in the stables, though her horse was, which meant she must've been in the palace somewhere. I tried her quarters, but the cleaning servant said that the Empress hadn't been there all afternoon.
As I rushed down corridors my chest began to hurt. My need to talk to Xena had started to feel like a heavy weight, making it difficult to breathe. The more I searched and failed to find Xena, the heavier the weight became. I felt like I was in a nightmare: desperately searching the seemingly endless hallways and rooms, unable to breathe — unable to find Xena.
I was running around the corner, on my way to check the throne room again, when I quite literally bumped into her. "Oof!"
She took hold of me by the arms to steady both of us. "What's the hurry?"
All my pent up emotions came to the surface. My confrontation with Brutus had left me unsettled. My search for Xena had been frustrating. I was so glad to have finally found her that I started to cry.
"Hey! What's the matter?" cooed Xena, pulling me into an embrace.
The sight of her and the feel of her hands supporting me never felt so good, but you couldn't have guessed from my reaction. I buried my face in her chest. I was so out of breath that my tears were accompanied by heaving sobs.
"It's okay, Gabrielle." She stroked my damp hair, gently entwining her fingers in my short locks. "Tell me what's wrong."
"Oh, Xena!" I managed to say between my sobs.
"Are you hurt?" She held me away from her and tilted my face up to hers. "Brutus! Did Brutus hurt you?"
I heard the rising anger in her voice and felt her body trembling.
"If he did, he's a dead man!"
"No! Brutus didn't hurt me, I just..." I couldn't say any more. I buried my head against her body and clung to her as if my life depended on it.
I don't know how long we stood in the corridor, but eventually Xena lifted me in her strong arms and carried me away. My sobbing eased and I fell asleep before we reached our destination.
I awoke to Xena's worried face peering down at me.
Xena gently mopped my face with a damp cloth. "How are you feeling?"
I closed my eyes as I recalled the tumultuous emotions that had boiled out of control in me. I felt confused, embarrassed, drained, and unsure of where I was or how I got there. Xena told me she had carried me up to her chambers where I had been sleeping for the better part of two hours.
I immediately tried to get up from the bed. "Two hours? Xena I—"
"Stay put and rest," she ordered.
I did what I was told and leaned back against the pillows. I studied her face. Her brow was creased with worry and concern, but she looked as beautiful as ever. And those amazing blue eyes, that could strike terror into even the most hardened soldier, were soft and comforting. She made me feel loved and protected.
"Here, drink this." Xena handed me a steaming cup of liquid.
The warmth of the cup felt good in my hand. I'd felt bone-chilled since leaving Brutus. "What is it?"
"Herbal tea. It'll help you relax."
I took a few sips. Her smile widened as I reached out and placed my palm against her cheek.
"Thank you," I whispered hoarsely.
"For what? A cup of tea?"
"For that, and for caring."
Her smile faded and she averted her eyes. She looked lost and afraid for a moment, as though she had discovered a situation she couldn't control. I wanted to tell her I was there to help her, as she was there to help me. But what help could I provide? Here was a woman with power second only to the gods, someone who held in her hands the lives, and deaths, of millions. She only needed to ask for something and it was hers. She didn't need help.
She needed love.
"Why were you crying?" Xena asked softly.
I took one last sip and handed back the empty cup. "Things just got on top of me today." I lied. I was afraid of what she might do to Brutus if I told her what had happened.
We sat in silence for a few minutes. I thought about her question about what made me cry. I had a sudden thought: I'd seen Xena smile and laugh, I'd seen her relax and sleep. I had seen her angry and murderous. One thing I had never seen her do was cry. I could remember moments when she stifled her emotions to stop tears from welling up, and times when her eyes were reddened as if she'd shed more than a few tears, but never once had I seen her cry.
"What makes you cry?" I asked without thinking.
She dropped her head, breaking contact with my hand, and moved back out of my reach. I thought for a moment she wasn't going to answer, but when she did it was in a barely audible whisper. To me, though, it was the loudest word she had ever spoken.
It was the final piece of the puzzle. This complex woman had been in my life for more than a year, and in that time I had been building a picture of who she was. As my feelings for her grew, I had been trying to gain as much insight into her as possible, trying to understand the whole person. And the piece that completed the puzzle was the one that had been right in front of me all the time — she was lonely.
I sat up and reached out to her. She brought her hands up and her long fingers linked with mine.
"You're not alone," I whispered.
GO TO CHAPTER 10