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Invitations - Part 1
by Gin

Disclaimer: Most of the characters depicted in this story belong to the people at MCA/Universal, (You know which one's they are) however the ones you don't recognize are mine. This story was written for enjoyment for myself and the readers and is not intended for profit.

Sex: This story contains scenes of two women in love in intimate situations but there is nothing <grin> Kissing, hugging and such. You know No Big Whoop. Still, if this offends you, or if it is illegal at your age in the place you live, please don't read my story (I would consider moving as well...but that's just me). There are plenty of other stories to choose from.

Violence: It is fairly tame actually. Yes. People get beat up, smacked across the face, beheaded, etc. but no more than a typical beat em up type episode. Nothing especially graphic.

Language: Nothing more than what you would hear on ... oh let's say that Comedy channel.. around 9:00 or 10:00 on Wednesday night.

NOTE: This story picks up a few days after the events in my second story Complications. I strongly suggest reading my first story Negotiations and it's sequel Complications before you begin this one. There are several references that will make much more sense if you do.

ANOTHER NOTE: In my Xenaverse, Callisto succeeded in her mission to kill Hercules' mother. Thus paving the way for Xena to become The Conqueror as seen in the episode Armegeddon Now. However, in my 'verse, Iolaus ALSO succeeded in his mission to kill the Goddess Callisto when he followed her to Cirra. What happens to the characters after that is up to them and I'll do my best to write it all down for you.

SPECIAL REMINDER!!: The Iolaus described in this story is NOT Hercules' friend. This Iolaus has never even heard of Hercules and so has a VERY different personality than the Iolaus we are used to seeing fighting alongside the big guy..... okay?

As always, to the Goddess of Spelling I offer my humblest apologies if I have offended her in any way.

The Goddess of Grammar, however, can Bite Me!

Special thanks to Wanda and T for their inspiration and encouragement. To Wendy who I know will always give me her honest opinion. To Janet, Kym, and all my readers for Beta Reading so quickly. Their encouragement, suggestions and ramblings really helped. Hi Wolfie!

Feedback: Yes please. I am an email junkie. All comments are welcome.  Nice ones will be responded to and nasty ones will be thoroughly laughed at before being trashed. <<I really have no tolerance for intolerant people! HA!>>


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by Gin

Part 1

The organizer held perfectly still, his rasping breath echoed off the walls of the large throne room. He knew that many times in the past it was luck alone that kept him from death and he thought facing Hades himself would be less traumatic than an interview with Xena, especially now. During the few days since she had been back, The Conqueror had taken to wearing the black leather outfit that she had worn during her days of pillaging. Everybody knew that was a bad sign and someone had actually suggested canceling the Festival due to Xena's mood. At the time he thought they were joking but now he wasn't so sure. Concentrating on quieting his breathing and hoping not to make her angry, he prayed to any God listening that his luck held out.

Xena looked again at the message. The elegant script was unmistakable.

We humbly accept your gracious invitation to join you during your Winter Festival.

Lao Ma and Ming T'ien

Sighing, she thought. 'This is going to complicate everything.'  She knew how Lao Ma felt toward her and recalled their final parting with a shudder. Xena had been secretly relieved when she didn't have to make the trip to Chin in order to settle the spice trader dispute.  Since Gabrielle had entered her life she wasn't sure how to deal with her former lover.

The organizer was getting nervous at her silence but she didn't care.   'This is all your fault you know.' The Conqueror's accusation would have caused violent protest from The Warrior Princess if it hadn't been true. I know.' Quiet acceptance of blame drifted through Xena's head. 'I should have just put the Amazon Queen on the list instead of ordering all the leaders to be invited.' Looking at the parchment again, pulled another sigh from her. 'But who would have thought Lao Ma would make the trip from Chin just for a Festival?'  The portly organizer cleared his throat, shuffled the stack of parchments in his hands and spoke softly.

"Empress, forgive my intrusion on your thoughts but I wanted to tell you that on his way here the messenger found four highwaymen dead....."  His nervous voice trailed off, the messenger's description of his find had been gruesome. As chief planner and organizer, he had little to do with actual safety measures, Iolaus handled that, but it still concerned him.

"Yes... I disposed of them." She smiled her most feral smile at his shock. "They attacked a merchant's caravan and murdered my traveling companions."   She nearly laughed at his expression, not really surprised that Iolaus hadn't told him. Soldiers didn't think much of bureaucrats.  She knew what he was thinking. 'Where are their heads?' Preferring to let his imagination guide him on that question she ignored the question in his eyes and addressed his concerns. "I have doubled the patrols in the area so the visiting Royalty and leaders can feel a little safer."

"You are most wise, Empress." He bobbed his head a few times and then stood completely still.

"Hmmm...." She looked at the balding head and asked. "Who else will be attending?"

"King Gregor and Queen Pandora have sent their regrets....." He jumped as Xena's palm connected with the arm of the throne.

"I didn't ask who WASN'T going to be here!" Exasperation filled her voice. Then curiosity got the better of her. "Why aren't they coming?"

"Their son is sick." He was nervous about telling her this. The Conqueror was not known to take rejection kindly. Sentiment over a sick child was not the norm for their leader so he was pleasantly surprised at her response.

"Send my sympathies and offer the services of the Imperial Healers, if they want it." The Warrior Princess looked at the man's stunned expression for a long moment before The Conqueror growled. "Are you going to answer my question or do I have to get another organizer?" She could tell he had forgotten the original question and sighed. 'Just ask.' The Warrior Princess advised. 'It's not like we are going to keep it a secret once she gets here.' The Conqueror agreed. 'No. That would be way too much for any of us.' Looking back at the man she asked. "Has there been a response from the Amazons?" She narrowed her eyes at his trembling reaction.

"Only their acceptance, nothing more." He looked through the stack of parchments he was holding and nervously handed her one.

Handwriting just as flowing and elegant as Lao Ma's graced the page.

We accept your invitation to attend the Winter Festival at Corinth.

No humblys or graciouslys, just 'we accept'; we will be there, as if having the Amazons here was an honor bestowed on her. 'It is.' She thought. The reason for her party planner's nervousness was now obvious.  The message was arrogant and almost rude to the point of insult.  It would have gotten any other ruler a personal visit from the Conqueror and a whole lot of trouble. At the very least the messenger would be in a world of hurt. This particular message, however, had a name at the bottom, Gabrielle, and next to that was a seal, exactly like the one on the Amazon treaty only smaller, so she knew the messenger was long gone. Wondering about that briefly, she started to hand it over the fanning motion sent a wave of lilac/leather/Gabrielle to her senses.  She smiled with pleasure and drawled. "I think I'll hold on to this one."  Her lips took on a feral curl. "I think the Amazon Queen and I are going to have a little talk when she arrives." She watched him swallow convulsively then dismissed him with a wave of her hand. "That will be all."

"Yes your majesty, as you wish." He straightened the parchments in his hands and left quickly,
muttering to himself. "Salmoneous, one of these days she's gonna kill you." Lost in his thoughts, he barely heard her belated orders but part of his mind wondered why she wanted a carpenter, that particular man's name caused him to shudder. 'Nevermind.' He thought. 'I don't wanna know.'

'It's too much.' Gabrielle looked at the array of clothing and supplies that were strewn across her bed. 'I can't take all this but...'She searched the piles again for something she could leave behind but everything seemed necessary. A knock on the door interrupted her evaluation. "ENTER!"

A head full of blonde curls tentatively poked through the door.  "Uhmmm... if you're busy I can come back......."

"Ephiny! Come in. Maybe you can help me." Gabrielle rushed to the door and nearly dragged her friend over to the bed. "I need to figure out what I can leave behind when we go to Corinth."

The Regent looked at the collection and widened her eyes slightly.  It was an impressive assortment of Amazon goods and clothing. Shaking her head she laughed. "Why do you have to leave any of it?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. "Staff work does build muscles..." She flexed her biceps for Ephiny's benefit. "..but I can't carry all that."  She indicated the mountain of belongings.

Holding on to her Queen's arm more for support than to test the muscles there, Ephiny laughed louder and wiped a tear from her eye.   "Gabrielle.... there are a THOUSAND Amazons out there who would gladly carry three times this much to Corinth AND BACK just for the honor of  sweating in your shadow." The Regent saw that her Queen was not amused by that suggestion.

"Amazons are not pack horses Ephiny.... I'll not have my warriors...."  Gabrielle was just getting on a roll when Ephinys laughter stopped abruptly and she interrupted her Queen's train of thought.

"That's right. YOUR warriors.... Gabrielle..." Ephiny tilted her head in a half bow. "My Queen. This is not a secretive trip to deliver a message... this is a trip, by Royal Invitation, to Corinth for a festival."  She saw the slow grin beginning to spread across Gabrielle's face and continued. "On this trip, your attendants will cater to your every whim. This time......"

"This time..." Gabrielle jumped in and finished the thought in a commanding voice that was as Imperious as anyone's who had been born to the throne. "...... it won't be a simple storyteller with a few traveling companions standing before the Empress Xena....." She drew herself up to full height. "It will be The Amazon Queen and a FULL contingent of warriors."

Ephiny chuckled and ran her fingers through her curls. "Corinth is going to think it's an invasion."
Gabrielle grabbing the Regent’s arm halted further comment.

"Ephiny!..." Gabrielle looked at the Amazon's wrist with delight. "Is that a promise bracelet?"

"Yeah..." Hazel eyes turned misty, as she looked at her own wrist. "Poni surprised me with it when we were celebrating Micha's adoption." She looked at Gabrielle shyly. "I guess we are going to make it official."

Gabrielle's excitement dampened a little. "When?"

"We figured the Joining Ceremony during our Festival would be fine."  Ephiny shrugged. "It's just a formality really......" The look in Gabrielle's eyes forced her thoughts in a new direction. "What?"

"There is NO WAY I'm going to let my Regent be joined in an informal ceremony!" The Queen was indignant at the thought and determined to make up for the fact that she hadn't noticed the bracelet before  now. "I’ll postpone the trip. We won't leave for several days..... we can have the ceremony before I go...." A sudden thought occurred to her. ".... unless you don't want me..." Her doubts were assuaged by the gleaming in Ephiny's eyes.

"No... We do... It's just that we knew you were busy and we didn't want to bother...." Ephiny wanted it to be clear that Gabrielle was in no way obligated to perform the ceremony.

"BOTHER?... Ephiny..." Gabrielle hugged the blushing woman tightly.  "Aside from Xena you are my best friend.... You're my son's guardian....and The Regent Queen for Zeus' sake.....there is nothing I would rather do."  She ushered her friend toward the door. "Now go on... I know you have things to do and so do I."

Ephiny chuckled as she left the hut and heard the excited Queen talking to herself. 'That is going to get her in trouble one of these days.' The Regent thought. With a lighter heart she walked across the village to tell her love that the Queen herself would Join them.


Xena's boots echoed loudly through the stone corridor. Pushing open the large iron reinforced door revealed her quarters, pleasantly warmed by a roaring fire. Silence pervaded the room save for the crackling fire and quiet sobs of the blonde woman sitting at the desk. Xena wanted nothing more than to comfort the crying woman but found herself unable to move. Rooted to the spot she could only watch helpless as Gabrielle turned page after page of the journal, reading about her horrible past. She tried to cry out. 'No please, stop....'  but no sound escaped her. Without a word Gabrielle rose from the desk and walked toward the warrior. Xena opened her arms wide to embrace the crying woman but Gabrielle walked through her and out the door without a backward glance. The door swinging shut behind her resounded with a loud echoing BOOM!


Xena sat straight up in bed. Sweat covered her and she shook off the nightmare as the storm outside let loose another volley of thunder.  Lightning crackled outside the window and the earthshaking BOOM sounded again. Calming her pounding heart The Warrior Princess scrubbed her face. 'It was just a dream... ' The Conqueror snorted and countered. 'It was a nightmare.' The thought of Gabrielle actually leaving them was too much to take and she reassured herself. 'It won't happen.  She won't leave us.' The Conqueror's growl was for The Warrior Princess only. 'She had better not... if she does I'll kill you.' Within her the dark sleeper, stirred. Lightning crackled close to the Palace and The Warrior Princess tried to distract the upset Conqueror.   'Let's go check on Argo.'

Gabrielle had just finished sealing a message when she heard a timid knock on the door. Since everyone was preparing for the trip to Corinth and The Regent's joining she had told Karis guards were unnecessary during the preparations. Except for the stalker situation, guards were mostly a formality anyway.  She placed the wax sealed parchment next to a similar message and rose to answer the knock when the door opened slowly, matching the hesitancy of the rapping. "Hello?" She reflexively reached for the staff leaning against her desk.

"Queen Gabrielle...." The child poked her head in the door. "Can I talk to you?"

"Micha?" Gabrielle took her hand off the staff. "Come in."  She met the girl as she entered the hut and draped her arm around the small shoulders. "What's up?"

"I shouldn't have bothered you." Micha eyed the messages on the desk. "You’re busy."

Gabrielle smiled at the child and led her to sit next to the fire. "I'm nearly done." She retrieved the messages. "All I have to do is send these off."

Micha jumped up. "Do you want me to get a messenger... I think Bekka is on runner duty........" Gabrielle's chuckling cut off her enthusiasm.

"No need." She smiled and held the messages up over her head and called. "Hermes." Winking at the wide-eyed child, she lowered her now empty hand.

The astonished girl whispered. "The messenger of the Gods?" She was awed by the power her Queen wielded.

Chuckling at the child's expression she explained. "Only for the VERY important ones." Sitting cross-legged in front of the fire she urged Micha back to a sitting position as well. "Now. What's on your mind."

Micha was a little flustered to have the Queen's undivided attention.  "Well.. I .. It's just... When Ephiny and Poni are Joined I don't know what to do..."

"You mean for the ceremony?" Gabrielle thought the girl was too nervous to just be worried about the ceremony.

"Yeah." The little blonde head hung sadly. "And after.... where will I go?" She felt strong fingers under her chin and swallowed nervously as troubled green eyes searched her face.

"Don't you want to stay with Eph and Poni?" Gabrielle wasn't sure why there would be a question on this matter.

"Gosh yes.... but after they are joined, with Phantes away so much, they will want to be alone and....." Micha almost whispered the next part of her thought not really wanting to vocalize it. "...they will forget about me. Just like..." She couldn't finish.

Gabrielle finished in her mind. 'Just like Brenin.' She took a deep breath and gathered the child in her arms. "Let me tell you a  story........" It was a shortened version but Micha was treated to all the facts regarding her Mother and the twins. When it was finished the little girl's eyes glimmered in the firelight.

"She saved them from the flood, and from the bad man?" Micha was a little jealous of the children who had so much attention from a woman she had once called mother. "And she signed the parchment because...."

"Because she loves you and wants you to be happy." Gabrielle saw disbelief on the child's face and continued. "And because she knows that Ephiny and Eponin love you and will take care of you." Gabrielle saw a quiet desperation in the child's expression, she wanted so much to believe what her Queen was telling her. Taking a deep breath she spoke very quietly to the child in her arms. "Eponin cried when I gave Ephiny the parchment."  The girl's wide-eyed reaction made the Queen smile. "She tried to hide it but I saw the tear..... she loves you very much, so does Ephiny."

"I love them too." Micha was happy that she wouldn't have to leave the couple. "But I still don't know what to do at the ceremony."

Gabrielle laughed at the child's plight. "The same thing you will do for them, for the rest of your life.... you will be there and you will love them." She paused and heard a bell tinkling. Two messages hitting her desk caused a brilliant smile to cross her face. "Does that answer your questions?"

"Yes." Micha looked up at her Queen in adoration. "Thank you.  I know you are busy." She peeked around Gabrielle's shoulder at the desk and the newly delivered messages, wondering exactly how fast Hermes actually moved.

"I am never too busy for a question from an Amazon." She tapped the child's nose. "But you are right... no matter how much I would love to sit and tell you some more stories I do have some things to take care of."  She stood, gave Micha a gentle push toward the door and walked over to her desk, picking up one message and setting it aside in favor of the other.

Micha looked back as she left to see the most wistful look on Gabrielle's face she had ever seen. 'That's what love looks like.' She thought and exited the hut with a happy heart.

Xena lit a candle on the stable foreman's desk, hung her cloak on a peg next to Argo's stall, and hoped it would dry before she went back out into the deluge. Argo snorted nervously and tossed her head at the rumbling thunder. "Shhh.... It's all right girl... It's just a little thunder."  She patted the wide golden nose and smiled as the mare slowly calmed down.  "Good girl." Xena reached into the pocket of her cloak and pulled out a carrot treat. Patting the horse indulgently she sensed someone watching from the shadows.

"She likes apples better." The familiar voice from the darkness didn't surprise her.

Looking directly at the appearing form she smiled. "Hey Bennett."

"Hey." He smiled and held out a small apple. "I know she gets nervous in storms....thought this might calm her down."

"That's very good of you. Thank you. I didn't have time to grab a apple from the kitchen." The Warrior Princess waved the boy closer. "Go ahead.... give it to her." She watched the boy feed Argo the apple and asked. "How's your Mom?"

"She's's a little worried though." The boy pushed a lock of curly black hair from his eyes. "You see, there's this man that came in a few days ago and well...."

"He says he's your father?" Xena finished for the tongue tied boy and smiled at his nod.

"Yeah...I think Mom is scared that he will try to take me away."  He looked at The Conqueror solemnly. It was funny to him all the bad things people said about her. He didn't believe that anyone who loved their horse as much as Xena loved Argo could be all bad and she had always been nice to him. "I might be a little worried too."

"Well, don't worry. I won't let him take you." She thought for a moment as she patted Argo's neck. "Tell him if he wants to stay in Corinth to come and see me." She heard a very faint bell tinkling and smiled.

"Okay sure." Bennett brightened and then looked puzzled. "Do you hear that?" He looked around to find the source of the bell.

"Yup. It means I've got a message coming." Xena held out her hand, palm up, and watched the boy's eyes widen as a message appeared as if by magic. Reading the message she frowned slightly and sighed. Retrieving a quill from the foreman's desk she wrote in the space at the bottom of the parchment and using her hidden stash of wax and her ring, resealed the message.

Bennett found his voice just as she was finished with her reply. "You get messages delivered by...."

Xena turned to look at the boy's astonished face and grinned, holding the message above her head she confirmed. "Hermes." Laughing loudly she lowered her now empty hand. She again wondered how Gabrielle had managed to aquire Hermes' services and made a mental note to ask her when she arrived. "Only the VERY important ones." She ruffled his hair. "It's late. The storm has passed and Argo is fine." She looked at him with almost affection. "Go home." She barely suppressed The Warrior Princess' urge to grin at the disappearing boy. 'What do we have to grin about?' The Conqueror asked, remembering the message. 'Gabrielle is going to be delayed.' Sighing The Warrior Princess agreed. 'I know but it is only for a few days.....Gabrielle has duties as Queen just like we do.' It seemed like forever since they had held Gabrielle. 'I would like to hold her in my arms tonight.' The Conqueror confessed. The Warrior Princess agreed quietly. 'Me too...but... Do you really want her around tomorrow?' She continued her logic hoping to placate the sullen Conqueror. 'Besides it will give Johnathan time to finish our surprise.' That did brighten her mood somewhat and Xena grabbed her cloak. 'Yeah... let's go see how that's coming along.' She headed out of the stables toward the carpenter's shop.

Solari gritted her teeth and knocked on the door to Karis' quarters.  After three and a half days of grueling travel she really wasn't in the mood to talk to her Queen's betrayer but she would get in serious trouble if she didn't report in. Knocking unwillingly, she resisted the urge to lean against the door and close her eyes. She pushed the door open at the 'Enter' command.

Karis looked up from the table that doubled for her desk. 'She pushed too hard to get here.' She thought, concerned for her best guard's health. "You must have set a new record. We weren't expecting you back until sometime tomorrow at least." Karis watched Solari sway slightly in her effort to remain standing. "You should get some sleep."

"The rules say guards coming off of duty outside the Nation have to report immediately." Solari nearly sneered at the irony of following such a petty rule when Karis was so obviously breaking a far more important one.

Karis pushed the parchment she was reading away and folded her hands on the table. Looking straight into the tired woman's eyes she spoke intently. "We should always follow the rules, especially the first one."  She thought Solari was tired enough to store that and think about it later. "You've reported in... so go get some sleep." She grinned. "Tomorrow is a big day.... Ephiny and Eponin's Joining ceremony will be tomorrow night and we will be leaving for Corinth the next morning."

Solari barely managed to stay upright at the shocking news. She knew that Eponin was crazy about The Regent but didn't figure they would ever make it official. Everyone knew how devastated Ephiny was after Phantes' death. The fact that Ephiny had agreed to a joining ceremony attested to the depth of her love for the weapons master. Karis' voice brought her out of her thoughts.

"I didn't plan for you to be here yet so I didn't schedule you for duty at the ceremony. I expect you to sleep yourself out." Karis watched the swaying woman make her way out of the hut and wondered if she would even be able to make it back to her own hut. She called after her. "I'll have a runner bring some food tomorrow." She didn't know if Solari heard her but would send some food anyway. "Time for me to get some sleep too." She spoke to herself as she banked the fire and blew out the candle on her desk. Moving through her moonlit room Karis quickly changed.into her soft sleeping shirt and relaxed in her comfy bed. She smiled as the quiet sound of feet hitting the floor reached her ear and the click of the window shutter being locked was followed by Solan's solid, warm body finding its place next to her. They had decided that it was best to keep their relationship sort of secret,  so they didn't confuse the guards. Bekka, Norin, and Jana knew of course but the juicier story always took precedence. The rumor mill didn't need to be muddled with the truth. She smiled as his breathing evened out and she let herself drift off.

Gabrielle lit a candle to replace the one that had nearly burned itself out and turned the page of Xena's childhood journal. She smiled at the entry knowing that it was about her. "It wasn't a stupid stick"  The Queen mumbled. Reading on, she finished the entries regarding her first stay in Amphipolis before she closed the journal and smiled.  She picked up the recently delivered message and reread it for the hundreth time. 'Oh Xena.... I wish I could be with you tonight. It seems like ages since we've been together.' She wondered what it would take to get Hermes to deliver her to Xena. She could smell the spicy sent that she had learned to associate with her love, a spicy/leather/Xena combination that had nearly left her breathless when the message was first opened. "I miss you my love." She whispered. Blowing out the candle Gabrielle crossed to the bed and laid the Xena scented message on the pillow. Not bothering to take off her favorite oversized tunic, Gabrielle laid down next to the message and allowed herself to drift into her dreams... knowing Xena would be there waiting for her.... as always.


Xena rode toward the large bonfire. The Amazon burial song beckoned her as surely as any Siren's song. She knew the leaders would be there and a surge of excitement gripped her. She smiled as she goaded them into a fight...... Alti wanted them dead. A simple thing in exchange for the power she promised. Killing was nothing to her and the traps she had set easily took care of them all. All except Cyan... she was different... no traps for her. She barely remembered the actual fight but Xena watched as the blonde leader was impaled on a tree limb. All the Amazon leaders dead for the power Alti promised. She looked closely at Cyan's face and felt her satisfaction turn into heart wrenching terror as the face changed to Gabrielle's.


"NO!" The scream was torn from her chest as Xena sat straight up in bed. Clutching her blanket to her heaving chest and letting her sweat soaked hair fall forward over her bare shoulders, Xena looked at the door and growled. "Get out."

The guards who had entered at the scream looked warily around the empty room and slowly backed out.

She pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them tightly, rocking slowly in the center of her large bed. The Warrior Princess quietly reassured her. 'She won't leave us.' The Conqueror continued rocking.  'She will hate us.' She sneered. 'It was a mistake to give her the journals.' She knew she was partially to blame. 'We didn't give them all to her.' The Warrior Princess calmly reminded her dark sister.  'Most of them are here. We don't have to give her that one.'  The Conquerer calmed her breathing and rested her forehead on her knees, considering that option. The door opening again prompted her to raise her head to see who would dare disturb her. She watched as the servant didn't even look at the bed but walked, silently, to the bathing room. Xena was grateful to hear the water begin to fill the large tiled pool.  She desperately wanted to wash away the memory of the nightmare.  She thought about how long the woman had been her personal servant and called her back into the main room. "Mirriam." She smiled as the woman instantly appeared in the doorway.

"Yes, your highness?" Mirriam was quite surprised. She had not noticed Xena was awake. Normally she simply drew the bath and left.  Then it was ready when Xena awoke. "Did I wake you?"

"No. I was already awake." Xena sneered. "Didn't the guards tell you?"

"No, your Excellency. They said you've been having trouble sleeping recently but nothing more." Mirriam didn't like this questioning.  She thought she knew what it meant and she wasn't happy about it.

Xena smiled as The Warrior Princess whispered to her.  'Highness....Excellency..'  The Conqueror understood and spoke to the nervous woman. "You have worked for me almost three years and you have never called me your Queen."  Xena stood and walked toward the woman, unconcerned that she was totally nude. "Why is that, Mirriam?"

Mirriam swallowed hard at the sight of Xena walking toward her.  As her personal servant, she had seen the warrior naked before, that was enough to cause her heart to beat rapidly, but she had never been the target of the controlled power The Conqueror exuded. It reminded the servant of the lions she had once seen, tawny skin and smooth flowing strides that seemed to become even more graceful, right before the kill. "I'm not sure what you mean, your highness." She backed into the bathing room again feeling like a mouse that was being ever so slowly stalked by the cat.

"There is a group of resistance fighters that believe I should not rule." Xena slowly circled her prey. "Perhaps you are one of them." She grinned at the shock in the woman's eyes and continued to close in on her victim. "So maybe, just maybe, I'm not your Queen." She smiled as that statement shocked her target into total stillness. Moving close enough to feel the heat from the woman on her bare skin Xena whispered in her ear. "Or maybe your Queen is my Queen too." The Conqueror smiled and stepped into the gently steaming water. Laughing, she looked at the stunned woman. "Thank you Mirriam. Amazons always know just how hot to make a bath."

Finding her voice, Mirriam spoke. "How long have you known?"

Xena found the soap that she liked and lathered her arms and chest. "Since you walked across the room this morning." She grinned at the puzzled woman's face. "Do all Amazons have the same trainer for that silent walk you do? It's very distinctive." She thought about that and not being called Queen. From those two clues alone she could think of five people off the top of her head that were also Amazon.  'All in strategic places too.' The Warrior Princess was impressed with her love's ability to send the right people.

"I guess you will want us to go back to the village now." Admitting there were others was not that big of a risk.

"No." The Conqueror never considered that. "You should all stay at your assigned jobs. Festival is crazy enough without my entire household being in shambles too." She ducked under the water and thoroughly wet her hair. She began to wash out the tangles with the foaming soap she loved. "Lay out my clothes for today." That had always been a duty Mirriam performed and so it was a kind of dismissal.

"Yes your highness." The servant's lips twitched. "The robe with the flame pattern?" She knew that was one she liked to wear on Judgement Day.

Pursing her lips, Xena responded. "No. I want my long black leather skirt and the top with the bead work." Iolaus had told her who was coming up for sentencing today but not why. She thought she ought to be dressed properly, just in case it wasn't possible to give him a way out.

Mirriam frowned at the choice. 'She has been wearing that one too much lately.' The thought was quickly dismissed as she hurried into the main room and crossed to the clothing storage area to retrieve the outfit required.

It was still quite early so after she finished washing, The Warrior Princess relaxed back against the tile and let the warmth of the water seep into her bones. Dreading the day to come, she couldn't help thinking how much better it would be if Gabrielle were there with her. 'No.' The Conqueror quietly protested. 'I don't want Gabrielle here for what I have to do today.'

Gabrielle eased back into the warm water. It was very early but this was going to be a busy day with lots to do. 'May as well get an early start.' She thought. She was a little worried about Xena too. Her dreams had started off peacefully but quickly turned dark and scary.  Scary enough to wake her, but not scary enough to remember, only a vague sense of terror and the strangest urge to take a warm bath. Strange only because she took a bath every morning so she didn't know why this morning would be so urgent. She leaned back against the wooden frame and let the warmth of the water seep into her bones.  Sighing, she couldn't help thinking how much better it would be if Xena were there with her.

Xena scanned the crowd with narrowed eyes. 'Not even dawn yet and they have already gathered.' The Conqueror took an amused satisfaction from that. 'Judgement Day always draws a crowd.' The Warrior Princess didn't think any of it was funny but remained silent. This was The Conqueror's domain. 'They are criminals.' The Conqueror declared. 'They get what they deserve.' The predawn breeze gently blew across the courtyard and she smoothed her hair back from her face. She settled into her seat on the platform and as the first rays of light broke the horizon, called for the first prisoner to be brought forth. She looked at the pathetic man that stood before her and narrowed her eyes. "What is his crime?"

"He was caught stealing horses from his neighbor." Iolaus watched her intently. Since she had returned he had been very careful to avoid her and when he did see her he tried not to say or do anything to upset her. Today, though, he wanted her in a really bad mood. His superiors in the Resistance wanted the sentencing to be harsh and maybe even a little brutal.

Usually petty criminals were simply sentenced by the judge at their trial, but this was the day that the more evil of the criminals were brought before Xena for sentencing. The first prisoner would set the pace for the rest of the day, and was usually put to death. There were several prisoners that he had been holding, waiting for her to return, this was one of them. Iolaus had planned on this man to be first, knowing he would probably be killed.

"Horse thief." The Conqueror sneered. She looked at the shackled man and was surprised when he spoke.

"Yeah... I took a few horses from him... I needed them... he has more than he needs anyway" The thief glared at a fat man in the crowd, hating him for his twinkling eyes and rich jewelry. "Look at him, all smug, he thinks he is so great just because he is so rich and owns so many horses and so much land." The condemned man was angry now, he shouldn't be here and he knew it. He should be in a prison, sentenced by the judge who pronounced him guilty, not standing before Xena, who in all likelihood was going to kill him. His anger got the best of him. He looked up at the darkening face of the Empress. "I don't know what the big deal is.... it's not like they were yours."

The Conqueror was angry now. She could feel the darkness spreading through her and for a moment relaxed into its embrace. For her it was like home. She knew Iolaus had been avoiding her since her return, and she knew this was a test of her mood. To bad for the unlucky thief, his death served her purposes. With this one extreme punishment the Resistance will be recruiting a lot of people. 'The influx of new members will make it easier for Karis to infiltrate them.' She thought. 'That and Festival will make them less organized for awhile.' The Warrior Princess remained silent as The Conqueror obliged Iolaus and the crowd with a glimpse of unbridled anger. "WRONG!" She stood and took two steps to the edge of the platform, barely registering that the entire crowd took a step away from her as she advanced and addressed them. "EVERYTHING you see, Everything you touch, Everything you THINK you own..... IS MINE." She looked at the cowering thief. "You thought you were stealing from him." She pointed to the fat man who no longer had a twinkle in his eye. "But you were really stealing from ME." She looked directly into the man's eyes and purred. "I sentence you to death." The crowd was silent at the proclamation so there was nothing to interfere with the sound of his screams as the guards led him to the chopping block.

The executioner had been preparing for Xena's return and had several sharpened axes ready for today. He waited for the man to be tied in position, raised the axe and looked toward the platform. At Xena's signal, the axe lowered and the man's screaming ended abruptly. The crowd remained silent, no one could quite believe that a man had just been put to death for stealing horses.

Iolaus was thrilled. 'She is in a terrible mood.' He thought. He was glad to see she had dressed in her old fighting leathers, too. Killing a man for simple horse theft was yet another event the Resistance could use against her. This day was going to advance their cause tremendously,  there were still many more prisoners to be sentenced, and he thought lecherously that the man's widow would need consoling tonight. Xena's voice calling for the next prisoner drew him out of his thoughts, he looked at the parchment he held to remind him of the man's crime and smiled to himself as he announced. "Defiler of women."

Xena only spared a moments glance at the man before she sneered at the lumpy, brute. "Death."

It took four guards to drag him to the executioner's block. Xena gave Iolaus her supremely bored look, raising an eyebrow she simultaneously signaled the axe to fall and sighed. "Next."

Gabrielle stepped out of her hut, leaned against her staff and took a deep breath. She smiled at the sky and watched the sun break over the horizon. It was surprising to see so many people moving this early. The drums had pounded late into the night spreading the news of the Regent's joining and she figured everyone would want to sleep in a bit. Chuckling to herself, she shook her head and thought. 'I should have known better.' She walked toward the Temple of Artemis.  That was where the ceremony was going to be held and she wanted to make sure everything was ready. She could hear the yelling from outside the Temple and muttered to herself about stubborn Amazons as she entered.

It only took a moment to identify the problem. While decorating for the ceremony someone had decided that streamers needed to be hung from the ceiling. 'Not a bad idea.' She thought. The problem was to do that they had tied the ribbons to the ends of arrows and shot them into the ceiling. The acolytes were furious. As soon as it rained there were going to be several very soggy worshipers, not to mention the fact that there was really no way of getting them down aside from climbing up to the ceiling and walking along a precariously thin rafter.

Everyone was so absorbed in her take on the situation, Gabrielle's entrance went unnoticed until the Queen's voice cut through the din. "Quiet."  She walked slowly toward the front of the Temple and smiled to herself as the crowd parted for her. Reaching the front she looked up at the arrows and pointed at them. "Who shot those arrows?"

Two of Eponin's students stepped forward. "We did your majesty."  They looked at the ground wondering what their punishment was going to be. Putting holes in the ceiling of Artemis' Temple had to rate something major. They were surprised at Gabrielle's laughter.

"Good shots. Although the fourth and fifth one's are slightly out of line." Gabrielle considered the arrows critically before returning her gaze to the stunned girl's faces and dealt them their punishment. "I do need archers to accompany me to Corinth. Poni has always said you are two of the best…." She watched them beam with pride and continued. "…. It's too bad you will be here fixing the roof, instead of joining us on the trip." She had to bite her lip to keep from grinning at their fallen faces. She turned to the watching crowd. "As for the rest of you….." She gave them all a significant look. "I don't want anymore fighting today. This is a day for peace and harmony." Grinning, she dropped her voice to a Xena like growl. "Anybody who has a problem with that can come and talk to me." Widening her smile she watched as everyone mumbled to themselves about not having a problem with that and went back to decorating.

The head priestess quickly approached her at her signal. "Yes, my Queen?"

Gabrielle draped her arm around the woman's shoulders and smiled. "I have a little surprise for Eph and Poni but I wanted you to be prepared……."  She led the priestess to the least occupied corner and told her about the guest she had invited.

Xena gazed across the courtyard. Cool blue eyes resting in turn on the executioner who was patiently laying aside another dulled axe, the pile of bodies waiting to be taken away, the crowd that was waiting to see more blood, and finally to the last prisoner. Standing before her he was the picture of health, in his prime, strong, handsome, defiant.  She remembered all the times they had together, keeping each other safe in battle, keeping each other warm at night and now he stood before her, a criminal. Even though their parting was not on the best of terms she still felt a small ache in her heart.  'Maybe we can pardon him.' The Warrior Princess offered hopefully and asked. "What is his crime?"

A savage grin crossed Iolaus' face. "Murder."

Xena's heart sank. 'I can't pardon a murderer.' She stood and walked toward the edge of the platform. Not hesitating a moment she jumped off the edge and executed a perfect flip, landing directly in front of the unflinching man. "Why did you do it, Marcus?"

"Two merchants were feuding over territorial rights. One wanted the other out of the way. He promised to give us free food for as long as he lived." He looked Xena straight in the eye. "Times are hard, Xena. I was only trying to provide for my wife and children."

Xena let the booing crowd fade away. The late afternoon breeze blew her hair in front of her face so that only her eyes were visible. "You could have come to me." She saw the flinch at the suggestion of charity and became a little angry. "Is that any worse than dying like this…" She taunted him louder. "Who will provide for your wife and children now?" She watched him close his eyes in defeat and brushed back her hair before she spoke again. "You were a valuable member of my army."  A half-smile appeared on her face as his eyes flew open at the commendation. "So I will give you, a choice." She turned her back on him and looked toward
the block and the last sharpened axe held at the ready. "You can choose the block." She whirled to face him. "Or you can choose to fight." She saw in his eyes he knew what she was offering and she knew he was going to take it.

He stood as straight as his shackles would let him. "I choose fight."

She smiled. "Unchain him, give him a weapon and stand back." She circled to a safe distance and watched as he got used to the weapon he was given.  "Do you want your own weapon?"

He looked at her, startled by the offer. "No this one will do."  He knew he was going to die no matter what weapon he chose but this was at least a dignified way to go.

Xena felt the shiver of excitement run through her as she unsheathed her sword, the sound nearly matching the feeling. Now they were locked in eye contact, her circling her prey, him watching her intently.  With a sudden lunge he forced her to block his sword and got a good hit to her face with the back of his hand.  Backing off, he watched as she tested her jaw and smiled. "Good one." He laughed, knowing that she probably let him get in the first hit. Years ago she had told him that a little bit of pain only made her fight better. Taking advantage of his lapse in attention, The Conqueror lunged in and cut his upper arm, forcing him to switch hands
on the sword. "You're getting slow in your old age." She taunted. The jibe hit it's mark and he sprang forward with a flurry of sword movements that only got his sword knocked out of his hand.  He felt the back of Xena's hand connect with the back of his head as she twirled to let him pass her. Sprawled face down in the dirt, he slowly picked himself up, counting heavily on the hope that she would not stab him in the back. As he picked up his sword and turned to face her, he saw a shadow pass over his head. Suddenly she was behind him and a blur of motion numbed his hand into dropping the sword. With her chakram at his throat, she held
his chin in her other hand and whispered in his ear. "You saved my life many times on the battlefield. I regret having to take yours now." The Warrior Princess could feel the man shaking and saw his eyes dart towards a woman's cry in the crowd. Looking over at the woman and the two children she continued her whisper. "I will provide for your wife and children." The Conqueror felt his tears on her fingertips as she quickly moved the chakram from one side of his neck to the other.  Slowly letting him fall she reassured him. "They will want for nothing." Stepping back she motioned for the woman to come forward and watched as her tears mingled
with his and his life's blood drained away.

Iolaus' voice rang through the crowd's cheers. "Put him in the pit with the others."

"NO!" Xena's voice silenced them all. "He will have a proper burial. As is fitting for a man of his courage." She looked at his wife's tear-stained face. "Tell them where he wanted to be buried and come to me if it isn't done right." She signaled the guards to take away the body and watched as the mourning woman and two solemn children followed close behind.

Gabrielle listened to the drums as she straightened her necklace, the feathers always tickled her but it was part of the formal outfit.  She looked down to make sure everything was in place and smiled at the expanse of skin on her exposed abdomen. "My mother would throw a fit if I was joined by someone dressed like this." She whirled at the soft chuckle to see her son's head poking in the door.

Solan continued into the hut. "I don't think you give grandmother enough credit." He walked over to his mother and kissed the top of her head. "Now grandfather, that's a different story." He reclined on the bed and nearly sent her into a fit of laughter as one eyebrow raised. "What?"

"Nothing. It's just that sometimes little things you do remind me of Xena." It still amazed her how much he had grown in the last four months. She guessed he was never going to have an awkward phase.  Practicing with the staff every day let him get used to his growing body nearly as fast as it grew. Taller than her now and nearly as tall as Xena, the wiry muscles he had acquired growing up in the Centaur village were becoming more pronounced but still not bulky. Odd that his right arm seemed slightly more developed than his left. Normally staff work built up the muscles fairly evenly.  And she knew, son or not, that he was devastatingly handsome in his Royal Ceremonial outfit. She bet that Karis had something to do with the outfit choice, noting that the dark pants were just tight enough to show off his newly forming muscles and the burgandy tunic fit well now but would soon be too small in the shoulders.

"Oh." He thought about reminding her of Xena. "Cool."   Examining his reflection in his boots and then playing nervously with his ring he asked. "Do you think I remind her of my father?"

Gabrielle sat down next to her not so little son and took a deep breath. "Yes, I think you remind her of Borias and also of her brother Lyceus."

He snorted. "I know I reminded grandmother of Lyceus. She stared at me all the time."

Bringing up his extended family made Gabrielle catch her breath. "Do you think you will go see her again?"

Solan considered that. "Possibly." He looked at her and smiled. "Not until after we get back from Corinth and I have to go North for awhile after that so…. It might be next Fall before I have time to go." He noticed her expression and tried to cheer her up. "Com'on. It won't be that bad."

"I know." Gabrielle tried to smile. "I will just miss you." She hated that he was going to be gone, and she admired how responsible he was, at so young an age. She heard the tempo of the drums change.

He heard them too. Adjusting his headband he stood, offered his hand to her, and smiled. "It's almost time. Shall we go?"

Gabrielle could feel the atmosphere charge as they approached the Temple.  The main entrance stood open as an invitation for all to be witness to their Regents Joining ceremony. The Queen had seen the decorations in progress but the interior of the temple took her breath away.  The acolytes had decided that chairs would limit the number of people that could attend so the floor was bare except for several pillars that stood in line to mark the walkway. Each was decorated in green ivy, with a large candle on top. The decorators had also replaced the torches along the walls with oil burning lamps. The far wall of the temple had been covered in greenery and flowers. Gabrielle smiled as she looked up at the streamers. In the early morning light they had been ordinary blue ribbons but the candlelight, sunset, a slight breeze and the backdrop of green and multi-hued flowers had transformed them into a waterfall. Gabrielle wished that her own joining would be as beautiful, then caught her breath. 'You're not likely to have one, Gabrielle.' She told herself sadly. 'I don't think Xena would want to be tied so formally.'  She saw the Solan
was watching her and smiled to reassure him. Patting his arm, she caught the reflection of her ring. 'Informally, yes.' She thought. 'but formally and openly...... I don't think so.'

Solan looked around the temple with quiet awe. He had never seen it decorated quite like this and was surprised that the simplistic elements became so elegant in the candlelight. From her quiet intake of breath at their entrance, he knew that Gabrielle was impressed as well. Something else in her expression worried him. She seemed sad for a moment before she patted his arm and they continued into the building.

Gabrielle spotted Karis immediately. The head guard was patiently assigning the others their posts. It wasn't truly necessary for guards to be here. No one would interrupt the Regent's ceremony but it was traditional and later at the festivities the partiers might get a little rowdy. For the most part what caught her eye was the stunning outfit the young woman was wearing, it was the same formal leathers as the other guards but instead of the usual tawny brown, Karis' was dyed a deep burgundy. Gabrielle smiled at the color, realizing it complimented her son's clothes perfectly, and sighed as the head priestess frantically gestured to her. She patted
Solan's arm again and released it. "Duty calls." She smiled as he made his way closer to Karis and couldn't help thinking what a handsome couple they made before turning to the approaching priestess. "What is it?"

"It's The Regent. She won't come out of the dressing room."  The woman wrung her hands nervously. "I think she is going to call off the ceremony."

Gabrielle rolled her eyes. She had officiated enough joinings to know that the participants always got nervous and many times threatened to call it off. She patted the worried woman on the back and smiled. "I'll talk to her." Waving off the stream of profuse thanks coming from the anxious priestess The Queen walked through the entrance to the back rooms and proceeded down the hall to the room Ephiny was in. It wasn't that hard to find since Eponin was knocking on the door and pleading with the Regent to open it so they could talk.

"Let me try." Gabrielle smiled at the harried woman and knocked softly on the door. "Eph.... it's Gabrielle.......can I come in?" She smiled as the lock clicked and the door opened slowly. Turning to Eponin she reassured the weapon's master. "I'll talk to her." Patting the woman on the arm she continued. "You go check on Phantes and Micha." She watched Eponin slowly walk away before she entered the room.

Ephiny was sitting on the small couch, doubled over, with her head resting on her knees. Gabrielle could see the bracelet the Regent held between her hands and quietly sat down beside the distraught woman. She spent a moment listening to the labored breathing before she spoke softly. "The head priestess says you are going to call off the ceremony." Brushing her friend's dark blonde curls back over her ear, she continued. "What's up with that?"

The familiar phrase drew a short burst of hysterical laughter from Ephiny but no comment on the situation. Her only action was to examine every tiny detail of the bracelet in her hand.

Gabrielle tried a different approach. "Is that the bracelet you're going to give Poni for your joining?" When Ephiny only nodded, the Queen continued. "It's very beautiful." In a voice so low she could barely hear, Ephiny spoke.

"Do you know how long Poni and I have been friends?" She smiled at Gabrielle's puzzled look and answered her own question. "Forever." Ephiny saw that her friend was going to remain silent so she continued. "My first memory is of running in a field, playing with Eponin." She played with the clasp, a miniature eagle head just like the headpiece on her staff.  "I remember when Karis' mother first arrived, we were so excited to be in her classes together...." She began to examine the links, each one a tiny replica of the large medallion she always wore around her neck, her family crest. "When I married Phantes she was right by my side."  She closed her eyes at the memory of her best friend's tears that day and the gruff, 'I'm happy for you.' The Regent took a deep breath and continued. "She was there when little Phantes was born." A sadness tinged her eyes. "She was there when I heard of Phantes death at the raided village." Turning to look directly into her friend's concerned green eyes, Ephiny finally got the heart of her concerns. "If we do this... and it happens again.... I...." She examined the bracelet again and whispered. "I can't hurt like that again."

Now Gabrielle understood. When news of Phantes death reached the Nation, Ephiny had been devastated. It took a long time for her to recover and Gabrielle recalled how Eponin had been there every step of the way. She also knew the event that drew her friend out of her depression, and thought that was the driving force behind her friend's conflicting emotions. The Queen knew it was a very real fear, but it was also weak logic. "You have been together for a very long
time.... " She brushed an errant curl from her Regent's shoulder. "... and if that happens again.....joined or not.... you will hurt anyway."  No answer from the trembling woman prompted Gabrielle to ask the only question that meant anything at the moment. "Do you love her?" A smile tugged at the Spider Queen's lips at the immediate response.

"Yes." Ephiny looked at her smiling friend and sagged her shoulders in defeat. "You are good."

Gabrielle laughed and heard feet shuffling outside the door. "I think someone wants to talk to you." She raised her eyebrow. "You up for that?"

Taking a deep breath and pocketing the bracelet, Ephiny nodded yes.

Patting the soon to be bride's shoulder she rose and opened the door for the waiting weapon's master. "Come in."

Eponin was on her knee in front of Ephiny before Gabrielle could close the door. Grateful for a moment together before the ceremony Poni held Ephiny's hands and kissed her knuckles. "Are you all right?"  Not waiting for a response, she reached up to cup the side of her love's face and wipe away a tear with her thumb. "You know you had me worried for a moment there."

Ephiny let out a tiny laugh. "Just for a moment?"

Eponin smiled. "You know you mean the world to me, right?" She smiled at Ephiny's nod. "We don't have to do this if you aren't ready.  I'll call it off myself, if you want. Just say the word."

Ephiny was slightly startled at the offer. "You would do that? After all the time you've waited to make it formal? After all the trouble our friends have gone to? After Gabrielle actually postponed her trip?  You would call it off, just like that?"

The weapon's master chuckled and stood, pulling the Regent up with her. "My love, I will do anything that you want." She brushed the golden locks off the shoulders she loved and smiled. "Don't you know that by now?"  She leaned in to brush her lips against Ephiny's when the sound of Gabrielle clearing her throat reached them.

"Save it for the ceremony, huh?" Gabrielle grinned as they both turned to glare at her. "Hey, it's the rules. Partners are not allowed to be alone before the ceremony." Her eyes twinkled wickedly. "Of course if there isn't going to be a ceremony." Her had moved to the door handle. "I guess I could go."

"No." Ephiny smiled at her dark haired love. "There will be a ceremony......" She couldn't finish her thought due to Eponin grabbing her by the waist and swinging her around. It took several mock hits on her shoulders and a sound kiss before she was allowed to continue. "....IF I can get dressed properly." She looked down at her usual leathers and sighed.

Eponin caught her chin with two fingers and tilted her face up.  Looking deeply into the hazel eyes of her only love she smiled. "You look beautiful." Releasing her hold, she headed for the door.

"I look just like I always do." Ephiny's exasperated comment stopped the weapon's master at the door.

Looking back into the room, Eponin smiled at her soon to be official partner for life. "I know." Winking at Gabrielle, she continued out the door with a happy heart and the frantic realization that she needed to dress too.

Xena looked over the plans once more and nearly growled as Iolaus shifted his feet, again. 'He is anxious to get somewhere.' The Warrior Princess commented. The Conqueror nearly snorted at that remark. 'Of course he is... did you see the horse thief's wife? He will want to offer his condolences.... poor woman.' The Warrior Princess shuddered at the thought and snickered. 'We could thwart those plans.' The Conqueror thought about that and nearly laughed. 'Sometimes I like the way you think.'  She was about to order Iolaus himself to bring the woman to her when two guards approached the table. Anticipating the look on Iolaus' face when his immediate plans fell apart Xena was in a playful mood. Tormenting guards was always good for a laugh so she curled her lips back and snarled.  "What?"

One of the guards took a step back at the snarl and glanced at Iolaus.  The braver of the two spoke. "There is a man outside who claims you sent for him." His tone suggested disbelief.

She looked at them for a moment and when they didn't move, threw her arms up in exasperation. "Well bring him in...." She snarled to hide a smile at their flinch away from her arms and looked at Iolaus. "Where do you find these guys?"

He just rolled his eyes and grinned, happy that she was tormenting someone else for the moment. When he saw the man being escorted in, his grin faded. 'What in Hades....' Iolaus couldn't believe Spiros would just walk in like this. 'He said Xena sent for him.' For one panicked moment he thought his activities were exposed.  Spiros' next comment relieved him immensely.

"My son said to come and see you if I wanted to stay in Corinth."  He only glanced at Iolaus. "... and I'd like to stay."

Xena looked at the new arrival critically before pretending ignorance. "You must be Bennett's father." She looked at Iolaus. "You know, the little stable boy that takes such good care of Argo." Looking back at Spiros she continued. "Can you shoot a bow?" She remembered his callused hands from Amphipolis and knew he could.

"Yes, I am a good archer." The dark haired man looked at her puzzled. He wasn't sure how she knew that.

"We are preparing for a festival here in Corinth." She glanced at Iolaus. "Iolaus is in charge of the guards but we also need hunters to supply the Royal table during the festivities." She saw his eyes glimmer. "You may join the hunters for now. After the Festival, we can talk about a permanent placement." She looked at the braver of the two guards. "Show him where the hunters sleep and take him to the armory in the morning." She turned back to the waiting man. "Unless you have your own bow."

"No. It was broken recently and I haven't had a chance to make a new one." Spiros was thrilled he would get a bow from Xena's armory.  He had thought that breaking his weapon was bad luck, but now it seemed it may have been for the best.

"Well then, I guess that settles that." She turned back to the plans on the table, effectively dismissing the three men. Pointing to a weak spot in security she spoke to Iolaus. "I want guards posted here." Moving her hand she continued. "And here, and here."

"We don't have the men for that!" Iolaus couldn't imagine how she thought they could manage that formation.

"Sure you do......" She pointed to the map again. "Take some from here."

"But that will leave the Amazons unguarded." Iolaus protested.  He wasn't sure of their loyalties yet and had ordered extra guards around their quarters, most of which were members of the Resistance of course.

She dismissed his protest with a casual wave. "Amazons will bring their own guards." He was about to reply when she slapped him on the shoulder and pulled out another map. This one was the interior of the Palace. "Now lets talk some more about room assignments...."

Gabrielle stood on the raised area in the front of the temple, directly under the blue ribbon waterfall. She looked out at the sea of faces and smiled to see Solari, still a bit bleary eyed from the trip, standing nearly at the front of the temple. Noting the direction of the guard's gaze the Queen realized. 'She's not here for the ceremony. She's here to watch Karis.' Looking over at the head guard Gabrielle smiled.  Karis looked a bit lost without Solan standing next to her until
the most beautiful smile crossed the young woman's face. Following the guard's gaze she could feel a smile appear on her face as well.

Micha waited for the musicians to start before she walked slowly down the path defined by the pillars. It had been decided that the daughter of the Regent and the Weapon's Master should be dressed in warrior leathers. Gabrielle couldn't help grinning at the sight of such a small child dressed in formal leathers. The reason for Karis' smile walked directly behind the little girl. Gabrielle found herself lost in a flood of memories as Solan walked the pathway, glancing once at Karis before moving to his designated spot for the ceremony. Phantes was next and looked surprisingly bigger dressed in formal Centaur attire. There was a wave of murmurs that Gabrielle couldn't quite make out and then the music stopped as everyone looked at the doorway and gasped.

Ephiny and Eponin stood in the entrance, arm in arm. They were both dressed in ceremonial leathers but no one could believe the color.  'White.' Gabrielle was astounded. 'How did they do that!?' Working with leather was difficult enough and even dying it darker colors was a challenge. She watched as the couple walked down the path, together now as they would be for the rest of their lives. The deeply tanned skin of both Amazons stood in stark contrast to the white of the leather they wore. A large sea shell clip held Eponin's long dark hair back and Ephiny's shorter curls were held by a headband of the same white leather, interwoven with small shells and gems.

The Queen smiled at the couple as they stopped their journey in front of her. Green eyes twinkled as she raised her hands to silence the appreciatively murmuring crowd. "This is normally the time I use to remind the couple before me of their duties and responsibilities to each other." She winked at Micha and continued. "But today the couple before me have decided to speak for themselves." She looked at the dark haired warrior and raised an eyebrow. "Eponin..." Using Rayna's signals she indicated the woman should proceed.

Eponin cleared her throat. "Ephiny, we have known each other for a long time." The fearless warrior swallowed hard and continued. "And during that time I have loved you, as a friend, as a sister Amazon, as a lover and now it will be my pleasure and privilege to love you as wife."  She turned to Solan and he handed her a bracelet. Turning back to Ephiny she took the Regent's outstretched hand and fastened the bracelet securely.  "I will never leave you. I will love you forever."

Ephiny looked at the sparkling bracelet and let the words echo through her head. 'I will never leave you.' It was an unexpected addition to their agreed upon words. She could feel the tear making it's way down her cheek and cleared her throat, still only able to manage a whisper. "We have known each other for a long time." She looked into the deep brown eyes of her love and continued. "And during that time I have loved your friendly smile, your strength and your tenderness. You have been my best friend, my sister Amazon, my lover, and now, you will be my wife." She turned to Phantes who handed her a bracelet. Turning back to Eponin she closed the eaglehead clasp with trembling hands and whispered. "I will never leave you. I will love you forever." Ephiny held on to the trembling hands of her love and knew that if she let go her knees would not support her.

Gabrielle cleared her throat and smiled. "I guess there is nothing else to say......" Her green eyes twinkled. "Oh yes..." She grinned and raised her hands. "If there is anyone here who doesn't think these two should be joined speak now." She only waited a moment before continuing. "Then as Queen of the Amazons, in the name of our patron Goddess Artemis. I.."

"HOLD!" The temple shook with the order and Gabrielle stepped to the right as a bright light briefly bathed them all. When they could see again none other than Artemis herself stood next to their Queen.  Immediately the crowd knelt before the embodiment of their Goddess, including Ephiny and Eponin but not including Gabrielle or Solan. Artemis raised an eyebrow at Solan and turned to Gabrielle. "I cannot allow this ceremony to proceed." She raised a hand to forestall any protest from the crowd and smiled. "I haven't blessed the couple yet." Signaling them to rise, and stepping down from the raised alter, the Goddess put her hands over the couple's tightly clasped hands. "Go with my blessing into your future together." Lightly kissing each woman on the cheek she stepped back up to Gabrielle's side and informed the Queen. "Now you may continue."

Gabrielle grinned and raised her hands again, starting exactly where she had left off. "…. declare that Ephiny and Eponin are now joined."  She lowered her arms. The entire crowd held it's breath and watched as the couple were drawn together.

Ephiny raised a trembling hand to brush a tear of happiness from her wife's cheek. The watching crowd faded from her consciousness and it was impossible to resist the pull of her heart. She stepped in to meet Eponin, tilting her head to look up at the slightly taller weapon's master.  The Regent closed her eyes and felt the light brush of soft lips on her own. It was the softest kiss she had ever felt. Sliding her hand around Eponin's neck, she pulled the dark head down for a solid, passionate kiss and felt strong fingers tangling in her hair to increase the pressure.  Only when the hoots, cheers and yells of the crowd penetrated their little world did they break apart.

The musicians took that as their cue and began to play a raucous tune.  The newlywed couple smiled at each other giddily and began a dance that quickly spread to the crowd in a potentially destructive frenzy.

"HOLD!" Instant stillness and complete silence fell at Artemis' order. All eyes turned to the smiling Goddess. "Amazons are my favorite people..... but if you would please take this outside..... I'd rather my temple not be destroyed any further." She looked up to the arrows in the ceiling.

Gabrielle grinned and watched the two young archers shrink back into the silent crowd. She gratefully heard the whoosh of the bonfire being lit outside. It was cold tonight. Gabrielle watched the couple grin at each other and took a deep satisfied breath. Smiling, she identified the flowers, the smell of burning oil, hot candle wax, and something else that prompted her next statement. "Let the feast begin!"

Xena looked over the reports on her desk and sighed. Since the guard patrols had been set and room assignments were taken care of it was time for other Realm business. Laying aside a stack of reports regarding minor squabbles she briefly glanced at an update on the fighting between Britannia and Gaul.

Shaking her head she picked up a message from the south, Egypt was becoming more and more unstable. She thought about the situation there.  It was a civil conflict, brother against sister. She really didn't want to take sides, and wouldn't unless the situation got worse.  Getting involved in a country's problems only meant that from then on she would be expected to deal with all the problems. It was better to let them work things out for themselves.

Barely glancing at the reports of all the new cults springing up in various countries. Xena sighed again and stood. She hated this part of running the world and at times wished she hadn't succeeded so well.  The cults didn't bother her as long as they weren't too violent.  The Egyptian one that poured hot wax on the live girl was a little much so that one was disbanded, but for the most part she just didn't care. People could believe what they wanted as long as they paid their taxes and didn't tick her off. Speaking of taxes, she looked quickly at the accountant's report, a healthy balance was showing at the bottom and she didn't look any farther. Tossing the parchment back on the desk, she walked out of her room toward the kitchen.

Pacing down the hallway she wasn't surprised to see the Palace busier than usual. Opening ceremonies for the Festival were only seven days away and everything had to be in order before the invited leaders began arriving.

Entering the kitchen her senses were immediately assaulted by the sounds and smells of the evening meal preparation. This was not even close to the frenzy that Festival would cause but her mood lately had been bad enough to cause everyone to be on their toes. Searching the ordered chaos she spotted the head cook, Peggy, near the spice cabinet and headed over to talk to her. Suppressing a smirk at the wave of silence that followed her progress across the kitchen, she made it to her destination just in time for Peggy to look up from measuring the expensive herbs.  She did raise an eyebrow at the cook’s gruff comment at the workers.

"Ach... Get back to lazy lot." She waited for the clamor to resume before carefully putting the spice container back in the cabinet and locking it securely. Spices were too expensive and rare to run the risk of accidental spillage or theft. Having finished her task she turned to the waiting Empress. "I suppose you'll be wantin’ to talk about the Festival."

A bit of a smile tugged at the corners of Xena's mouth. Peggy was probably the only person in the Palace who could keep her waiting and talk to her like that without at least losing their job, at worst losing their head. "Not exactly..... " She looked around and gestured for the woman to follow her to the fairly secluded hearth. "I just wanted to let you know that when the Amazons arrive they may send their own cooks down to help." She saw the bristle at the implication of
incompetence and quickly explained. "It's just that their Queen... well she has a rather large appetite and from what I've seen you really don't have the people to prepare food for her and the rest of the guests as well." Pausing for a moment to let that reality sink in, Xena continued slowly. "I believe that I will be sharing most of my meals with the Amazons so their cooks will prepare my food too." Having said that she crossed her arms and waited for the reaction to that admission of trust.  She was almost unprepared for the quick acceptance.

"For the life of me, you can have anyone you want makin' yur meals....But don't come a runnin' to me if'n you get poisoned." She grinned up at the wide blue eyes. Sensing outrage at the suggestion Peggy took a chance. "Spider Queen trapped you good, did she?" Xena was caught off guard by the intuitive question and smiled at the use of Gabrielle's trader given title. Peggy watched the look and the smile pass across the Empress' face before a smile of her own appeared. "Oh yeah... " She chuckled. "She got you."

Angry that she had been caught off guard Xena snapped. "Send Mirriam with my meal, later.” She stomped out of the kitchen shoving a few people out of the way.

Peggy watched her go and smiling began to think about Xena’s favorite dishes and decided on several to make up for causing the Empress anger. Then she thought about the true cause and was glad Xena had found someone.   'Good for you....' She thought. 'It's about time.'

Gabrielle looked out at the partygoers from her seat on the raised platform and smiled sadly. ‘If only Xena were here.’ She thought.  It was quite a sight. None of the dancers were even close to exhausted yet but she knew they would continue well into the night, as long as the musicians could play and by morning they would probably be sleeping where they collapsed. The Regent’s wedding was a cause for great celebration, Ephiny was nearly as well liked as Gabrielle so the Queen expected this party to last nearly all night. She spotted Karis in the crowd and motioned for her to come over. It was a signal that the guard quickly complied with.

Karis had seen the sad smile and was concerned. “Yes my Queen?”  The guard was very formal, she was after all on duty.

“I’ve noticed that the guards are not celebrating whole-heartedly.”  She thought she knew why but let Karis voice the reason.

“No my Queen. I have ordered the guards to limit their ‘celebrating’ to one drink and those off duty will be required to go to their quarters soon.” She saw another sad smile pass over her Queen’s face. “We need to be clear headed if we want to start for Corinth in the morning.”

Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. “Tell the guards to enjoy themselves….” She looked into Karis’ widening brown eyes and continued. “…. You too.”  Leaning back into her seat, Gabrielle continued. “We won’t leave for Corinth tomorrow. The next day will be soon enough.”

Karis knew how much Gabrielle missed Xena and realized what a huge concession the Queen was making for the sake of the guards in question. “Yes my Queen.” She respectfully bowed before going to spread the word among the guards.

Tilting her head to acknowledge the grateful looks as the guards heard the news, Gabrielle sighed and rested her chin in her palm. It barely registered when Artemis appeared beside her.

“Gabrielle? You are much too sad for a wedding celebration.”  The Goddess studied her Chosen carefully. “What can I do to help?”

Gabrielle glanced at the concerned Goddess. Returning her eyes to the celebration, she saw Ephiny and Eponin slip away from the crowd and sighed again. “Nothing. I just miss Xena.” She wasn’t quite prepared for what happened next.

Karis looked up at the Queen’s platform just in time to see Gabrielle and Artemis disappear in a flash of light. “Well at least I don’t have to worry about her being safe.” She mumbled and finished her drink.  It was only her second and she didn’t intend on having a third.

“Here.” Solan thrust a full cup under her nose. “Drink up, Karis… this is a party!” He grinned rakishly at her and downed the drink in his hand before grabbing another full mug from a passing tray.

“I’ve had enough.” She said quietly and sat her drink on the table behind her. Reaching for the mug in his hand continued. “I think you have too.”

“NO!” He turned to keep the drink out of her reach. “You can’t tell me what to do…..” Suddenly his legs gave out and he would have fallen if Karis hadn’t been there for support.

Rolling her eyes at the nearest guard, she tried to steady the very unsteady young man. “I’m going to escort the Prince back to his quarters….”  She tried to make that sound like a chore. She acknowledged the okay sign with a sharp nod and shifting her hold once more on the drunken Prince started walking toward his quarters. To her surprise, he protested the destination.

“I don’t wanna go to my hut!” He looked into the deep brown eyes he loved to drown in and whispered. “I wanna go to yours.”

For one brief moment she thought she would melt and then logic took over. She didn’t want to make a scene and since she had never seen him drunk before she didn’t know how loud he would get if he didn’t get his way. “Okay.” She complied and turned toward her own hut. ‘It’s not like I’m gonna be sleeping tonight anyway.’The sound of music and cheers coming from the Village Square confirmed that thought in her mind.

Arriving at her hut it was easy to get him to lie down but then he grabbed her arm. “Stay with me.” His patented puppy dog look overruled her good sense and she let him pull her down to the soft blanket.

It was impossible for her not to feel the strength in him as she stretched out next to him, the hard muscles flowing just below his soft tan skin.  She swallowed hard and tried to get up but was unable to release herself from the embrace. “Solan, Let me go.”

“No!” He was petulant at her request. “I won’t. I want you to stay.” He knew what he wanted and it only took one look in his eyes for Karis to know too.

“No… Solan… We can’t.” Now she knew this was a mistake.  She had to leave now or risk doing something they would both regret.

“Why not?” He sobered for a moment. “Don’t you want me?”

Karis groaned at the surge of desire that question caused. “Of course I do……” Both hands flat on his chest barely stopped him from kissing her. “…but not like this.” She looked into his sad brown eyes and felt her heart arguing with her brain. Luckily for her her brain won. “I don’t want our first time to be like this.” She pushed his bangs out of his eyes with her fingertips. “Do you understand?” She could feel his grip relaxing and smiled.

“Yes.” He yawned and smiled. “I love you too.”

She watched his eyes close and gently disengaged herself from his arms.  She covered him up with a spare blanket and took just a moment to study his relaxed face before leaning in to brush her lips against his.  This had been a close one. Closer than any of the others but still the thought of Xena’s face and the unspoken command. ‘Sleep only’ was enough to keep her brain on the winning side. She hoped that Xena would understand when the day came for her heart to win. No longer in the mood to party, Karis sighed mightily and left to relieve someone, anyone of duty. ‘No sense in everyone missing the fun.’ Distracted by thoughts of Solan she didn’t notice Solari moving away from the open window of her hut.

Xena didn't pay attention to the guard's strange looks as she passed them in the hall. Muttering to herself about nosy cooks she let herself into her quarters and stopped dead in the doorway, all the anger and tension she experienced a moment before melted away. Shaking her head she closed the door, looked back at the bed and thought. 'How?' She didn't really care. All she cared about at the moment was that Gabrielle was sitting in the middle of her bed. The sight of her love waiting for her was enough to leave her breathless. She devoured every curve, every detail with her eyes. Although it had only been a short time it seemed like forever since she had seen her. The Amazon's long hair seemed longer. It cascaded over her shoulders and down her front contrasting with the white silk of her robe and the tan expanse of skin showing through the gap. The small fire in the fireplace brought out the red highlights and Gabrielle seemed to glow in the dim firelight. Hardly breathing, not wanting to disturb this image Xena slowly crossed the room. Reaching the bed and tentatively stretching her hand out to touch the image, she let out a ragged sob when she felt the soft silk and the warm body beneath it. "You're here." The wonderment in her voice brought a brilliant smile to her lover's face.

"Yes Xena." She leaned into the strong hand's caress and reassured her. "I'm here."

Xena pulled back from the touch and quickly removed her armor and weapons.  Letting them fall haphazardly to the floor she climbed onto the bed, sitting on her knees, facing Gabrielle she reached out her shaking hands and gently tugged on the belt of the robe. She thought her heart would explode as the robe fell open. She closed her eyes. "Gabrielle...."  She didn't know if she could control the desire spreading through her.

"Xena..." Gabrielle stopped a tear traveling down the warrior's cheek and waited for the darkened blue eyes to open.

Xena opened her eyes, stared into pure green desire and whispered. "Gods..."

Gabrielle looked out the window at the rising moon and smiled. "One Goddess to be precise..." She chuckled and slid one strap of Xena's leathers off of the warrior shoulder kissing the exposed skin lightly.

"Artemis brought you?" The Empress was impressed by the favor granted to her love.

"Yes..." The other strap was now out of the way. "She said I was too sad for wedding festivities and asked me how she could help."  She leaned forward to smell the spicy/leather/Xena combination and to kiss the newly exposed shoulder before continuing. "When I told I missed you..... I found myself here" She traced the strong jawline with her fingertips before giving in to her own desire and capturing the warrior's slightly parted lips. Groaning at the contact, they both moved closer each craving the other with a hunger that could no longer be denied.

Breaking off the kiss, Xena quickly removed her leathers. Pushing the robe away from Gabrielle's shoulders, she gently lowered her back onto the bed. Covering the smaller body with her own she captured the Amazon's lips reveling in their softness, her tongue accepting the royal invitation. This time it was Gabrielle who moaned and suddenly Xena found herself under the very determined Amazon Queen.

The warrior reached up to circle Gabrielle in her arms, pressing her closer. She could feel the entire length of the little Amazon pressed against her and still it wasn't enough.  "I can't get close enough to you."

Gabrielle whispered. "You have until the moon sets, to try." She could barely send a coherent thank you to Artemis as Xena realized her allotted time was short, rolled to pin the younger woman under her and began her quest to become one with her love.


To be continued in Part 2

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