Disclaimers

The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess™ and all others associated with the television series of the same name are owned by Renaissance Pictures and Studios USA. This is a work of fan fiction and no copyright infringement is intended.

Sexual Content: Oh yeah. It’s in there <G>. We’ve got graphic heterosexual as well as lesbian couplings. Okay, it’s probably okay to say ‘sex’ in the sexual disclaimer. We won’t be nearly so modest later. So cover up your eyes, kiddies and grannies. Actually, if you’re under 18, move on. But grannies are welcome to pull up a chair and enjoy. This story is intended for an adult audience only.

Violence: Yes, this is a Conqueror story so there is violence. Some of it is graphic. Callisto is also not very nice to a little boy in this story. She doesn’t hurt him physically, but she says some pretty mean things to him.

Videotape: We just slipped this one in to see if you were paying attention. But hey, don’t we wish<G>?

Language: Lots of foul language in this one folks. Be warned.

Drugs/Alcohol: And we’re not talking about all the beer TN and Advocate consumed while writing this tale. Heck, we’re not even talking about all the beer TN and Advocate drank while reading each other’s work on this story. To be clear, there is alcohol consumption in the story.

Acknowledgements: To Zoinks, who gave TN the original idea – a big thank you. To our beta readers, Barbara Davies and Chris – your assistance was invaluable! And, of course, we had a blast working together. But we won’t bore you with our mutual admiration.

Comments/Feedback to: TN and Advocate

 

Soul Searching

By T.Novan & Advocate

With Zoinks

Chapter Two: Simple Truths

Xena reached out and tousled Jarrod’s hair, as the boy and Palaemon rode next to her and Gabrielle. The boy rode in front of the soldier, and his mother rode snuggled behind the Conqueror, gripping her armor with what Xena half-teasingly considered deadly intent. Gabrielle did not appear to enjoy horses. Jarrod, on the other hand, was having a delightful time. Palaemon even allowed the boy to hold the horse’s reins while his own hands rested on his thighs.

"Did Palaemon give you a nice tour of the camp?"

"Very nice, My Lord." Jarrod grinned at the tall woman. "And he let me look at his sword, too."

"He did?" Xena glanced at the young man, who grinned back with a little shrug. "And I suppose now you want one of your own?"

"Someday it would be nice. Especially if I’m going to fight in your army like my father and Palaemon."

Xena felt Gabrielle stiffen, but the boy’s mother held her tongue. "We have lots of time for that, Jarrod. Besides, at your age there are far more important lessons to be learned. Mathematics for instance." She laughed when he dropped his head and groaned. "Yes, I felt the same way, but anyone who is going to reside in my court must have a proper education." She raised a challenging eyebrow. "Any problem with that, Tiger?"

"No, My Lord."

"Good. Good. I’m sure you will be a fine student."

"I’m sure His Highness will, My Lord. He asks a lot of questions," Palaemon offered with a slight laugh.

"I’ll just bet he does." Xena chuckled then sobered. "I’m guessing you spoke with Callisto?"

"As you commanded, My Lord," Palaemon answered.

"Good. How was her attitude today?"

"My Lord, the General is always..." he paused trying desperately to find the right word.

"Capricious?"

"I would never say anything like that about your second in command, My Lord."

"No, but I would. Let’s see what else I can come up with." Xena looked into the trees while she considered her words. "Obstinate. Devious. Nefarious. Cynical. Cruel. A one of a kind bi..." She was about to go on, when she felt Gabrielle give her a little nudge. "Yes?"

"Eventually, Jarrod will know the meaning of those words. Does he need to learn them all now?"

"Ahh… but Gabrielle, if you’re going to deal with Callisto, you need to know all kinds of words," the Conqueror insisted with a grin, urging her horse to a faster pace.

*****

Gabrielle was amazed how quickly Xena’s troops set up camp that evening. Their late departure had made it necessary for them to stop for another night. Gabrielle and Jarrod sat together under a tree, watching Xena command her troops.

She was indeed a magnificent sight to behold. She rode through the camp making sure it was coming together to her liking. She had ordered a small private tent set up near her own for Palaemon and Jarrod.

Gabrielle actually liked the eager soldier chosen to look after her son. He had already taken two breaks from his duties to make sure they were both all right and not in need of anything.

Once Xena’s tent had been raised and everything placed inside, Gabrielle decided to try and find something to do in there. She didn’t like the fact that she wasn’t assisting in any way. She entered the tent, quickly dismissing the slaves, telling them that she would see to the Conqueror’s comfort in the tent from now on. They bowed and made their respectful exits.

"Mama?"

"Yes, Jarrod?" Gabrielle stood in the center of the tent, deciding to start with making the bed.

"Should I take my bedding furs over to my tent?"

She turned to her son, who had a huge, happy smile on his face. "Yes, I suppose that will be all right. But you stay out of the way. Don’t go anywhere else and don’t get into anything that doesn’t concern you. That would most certainly upset Xena."

"Yes, Ma’am." Jarrod rolled up the first of the furs to be moved and half carried, half dragged it from the tent.

The blonde laughed a little, shaking her head slightly as she watched him go. By the time he returned for another fur, she had the bed made and was carefully placing the table off to the side.

"Xena said she will be sparring with her troops for the next two marks," he told her as he rolled another fur. "She said you should have someone prepare a hot bath for her and to get the water as hot as possible."

Gabrielle sighed. "Okay, that means I’ll need to figure out what she uses for a tub."

He laughed a little.

"All right, my little rat!" She scooped him up in her arms, tickling him. "What’s so funny?"

"Mama!" he yelped, twisting in her arms, giggling madly as he squirmed.

"Tell me! Tell me what’s so funny."

"You."

"Me? Why am I so funny?" She stopped tickling him and just held him. He was getting so big. Gabrielle wondered how many more years like this she had left with her son, vowing to cherish each and every moment.

At a time when most boys were pulling away from their mothers, Gabrielle and Jarrod truly enjoyed spending time together, neither one making apologies for a bond they each seemed to draw both strength and comfort from. But as deep as that ran, Gabrielle knew it wouldn’t last forever. Especially with Jarrod being exposed to strong men like Palaemon, who would help guide the boy into manhood.

And Xena. Gabrielle mentally rolled her eyes. She was an influence all her own....

Jarrod wrapped his legs around her waist. "Uff," she playfully groaned under his weight.

"You don’t have to figure out what Xena uses for a tub. You just need to tell someone to bring one to the tent."

"How’d you get so smart?"

"Palaemon told me. Xena keeps servants and slaves to do the hard work. You don’t have to do the hard work anymore, Mama. You have people to do it for you now."

"You’re right, I do. I guess I’ll have to start thinking a little differently, now won’t I?" She rested her forehead against his.

"Uh huh." He nodded. "You should be thinking like the Conqueror’s consort."

She pulled back from her son. "Where did you hear that word?"

"Palaemon told me. He said that if I was to be considered a Prince then you must be the Conqueror’s consort."

"My, my, aren’t you just full of information, Little Prince. Don’t let that go to your head, by the way. Conqueror or not, I’m still your mother and I still reserve the right to tan your backside if I need to." But a wink took the sting out of her words.

"Oh yes, ma’am. I know that."

"Good." She put him down. "Now finish moving your things over to your tent." She gave him a little swat on his backside to send him on his way.

Gabrielle stepped outside. Immediately her eyes were drawn to the area where Xena was sparring. She was fighting four men at the same time, while others stood around waiting for their chance to join the fray. Xena wasn’t holding back. Men were dropping to the grounds with real wounds. Granted, the wounds didn’t appear to be life threatening, but they were wounds, nonetheless. Each man got up from the ground, and was tended to right away. When one finished, at least two more took his place.

Gabrielle watched the sparring match until she felt a hand on her arm. "My Lady, is there something you desire?"

She found herself addressing a small, elderly woman with kind eyes. The woman was fairly well dressed for a slave. Gabrielle decided this woman must be considered a servant. Slaves wore collars and she woman didn’t have one. "Yes, thank you. I require a hot bath to be prepared for Our Lord Conqueror."

The woman glanced over to the Conqueror sparring. "Yes, My Lady." A falling soldier covered the Conqueror in mud. "I would say a very hot bath."

"Agreed," Gabrielle laughed. "See to it, please."

"Of course, My Lady."

*****

Xena entered her tent. She smiled at the food on the table and the hot, steaming bath that waited for her. She was also pleased to find Gabrielle dressed in a long, green dressing gown. The sleeves and the hem had been taken in so the garment didn’t hang on her.

"Well done, Gabrielle. Where’s Jarrod?"

"He asked to eat with Palaemon and the other soldiers tonight. Is that all right?"

Xena took a deep breath, dropping her sword and scabbard on the chest at the side of the tent. "For tonight, and since you already told him he could, it will be fine, but from now on I prefer my family with me during the evening meal."

"Yes, Xena." She approached the tall woman, trying not to show her surprise at the use of the word ‘family’. "May I help you out of your armor?"

"Yes."

The Conqueror stood still while Gabrielle unbuckled and removed her armor and then began unlacing her leathers. Before long, Xena found herself immersed in the tub of hot water, enjoying it immensely.

"How did you manage to keep it so hot, Gabrielle?"

"I kept it covered until I heard you coming." She poured a cup of wine, then handed it down to the darker woman.

Xena took the cup, drinking deeply from it. "Join me?" She gestured, indicating in the bath.

Gabrielle nodded, untying the gown and allowing it to drop to the floor. Xena quirked a brow when she took in the sight of the nude woman. "No sleeping shift?"

The blonde slipped into the tub across from the Conqueror. "You were sparring, fighting. I thought you might have certain desires that you would want attended to. I assumed a shift would be a waste of your time." She offered her explanation while she lathered a rag. She gave the Conqueror a sly little grin. "Was I wrong?"

"No." And you know it. The tall woman smiled back. "Not in the least."

"Somehow, I didn’t think I would be." She motioned for Xena to move closer, which she did. As she began running the rag over the Conqueror’s dirty skin, she dropped several soft kisses on Xena’s lips and chin. "I’ve actually been looking forward to this," Gabrielle admitted.

"Hmm, I can tell." The Conqueror nodded as she spoke; her eyes were closed as she savored Gabrielle’s kisses and tender touch.

The rapping on the post outside the flap of the tent truly annoyed the tall woman. She whirled around in the tub, blocking Gabrielle from view. "Come!"

Callisto entered, stopping dead in her tracks at the sight before her. "My Lord…"

"Callisto, this had better be very important." The tone of Xena’s voice and icy look in her eyes left no doubt as to her sincerity.

"Umm, we’ve caught a thief. Stealing weapons and food."

"And you disturbed my bath for that? What do you normally do when you catch a thief?

"Execute him."

"Then do it!"

"As you wish, Lord Conqueror."

"Callisto. I think this was a very feeble attempt on you part to find out what was going on in my quarters, so let me make everything quite clear for you. Gabrielle and I are going to finish bathing, have our evening meal, and go to bed, where we will make love long into the night." The Conqueror stood up, leaning against the rim of the tub, staring at the skinny woman before her while the water dripped from her own body. "Any further details you’d like to have? Or would you like to leave now, before I decide to leave my bath and beat you half way around this camp for disturbing me?"

Callisto bowed and backed out of the tent, her blood boiling.

Xena settled back into the water. Resting against Gabrielle, she closed her eyes again. "Would you please continue? That felt really good."

*****

"Mama, look!" Jarrod pointed excitedly at the palace as they rode over the ridge. Its tall towers could be seen rising above the huge stone walls that protected the stronghold.

"I see." Gabrielle tried to sound unimpressed from her position behind Xena. But she knew she had failed when she heard the Conqueror chuckle a bit. "What?" She gave a playful slap to the firm stomach that she had her arms wrapped around.

"Nothing." Xena clicked her tongue, moving her horse into a trot.

Palaemon was quick to keep up with the Conqueror while holding onto his little charge. The boy laughed, gripping the saddle horn tighter. As they gained on the Conqueror and Gabrielle, the dark woman glanced over her shoulder. With a grin, she squinted down at Jarrod. "You wanna race me, Tiger?"

"Yes!"

"Xena!" Gabrielle yelped, as both horses broke for the gates of the stronghold. She tightened her hold on the leather clad waist, deciding immediately that, if the Conqueror and her son were going to start playing these little games, she was going to ask for, and get, her own horse when they traveled. A slow, short horse. Preferably a nag that barely moved at all.

Gabrielle watched as best she could, deciding to close her eyes and just hang on when she saw the gates coming closer and closer. She hoped they would open the gates before both horses crashed into them headfirst.

Her relief was palpable when the gates were indeed pulled open in the nick of time. Xena pulled back hard, reining in her huffing gelding and letting him prance around the main square in an effort to cool down.

*****

Gabrielle carefully eyed the people inside the palace grounds. They either bowed or saluted when Xena walked by. She strode at least three paces behind the Conqueror, mindful of her position while in public with her.

"Welcome home, My Lord." A tall, thin man in rich, blue robes approached, lowering his head in a respectful manner.

"Thank you, Malaius. What news is there for me to tend to?"

"We have received confirmation from all of your satraps. They will be arriving for the annual meeting and festival, all before the next full moon."

The Conqueror drew a deep breath, releasing it slowly. "Who will be representing Rome this time?"

"Why, Brutus, of course, My Lord."

"So Brutus hasn’t lost his head yet? I was sure Mark Antony would have killed him by now."

Malaius allowed a tiny smile to cross his thin lips. "Actually, My Lord. It is rumored that Mark Antony has found solace in the arms of Egypt."

Gabrielle watched as Xena tossed her head back, laughing loudly. "Haven’t we all? Cleopatra has charms that can’t be denied. Why do you think I allowed her to keep Egypt?" She cringed when she realized that Gabrielle had heard everything she just said, but couldn’t suck the words back in. So she ignored them. "Send word to Rome and Egypt that I won’t tolerate any bickering when they arrive. Especially if Queen Cleopatra intends to bring Antony with her."

"As you command, My Lord. Are there any instructions for Chin or the Amazon nation."

"No. Empress Lao Ma and Queen Melosa are always properly respectful when they arrive."

"What of Britannia, My Lord?"

"Ah, yes, Queen Boadicea. She can be quite the troublemaker when she chooses to be. Send word that her army will camp outside the walls of the palace. Her soldiers are wild and untamed, and always manage to fight among themselves and drink too much while they’re here. I won’t tolerate that type of behavior within the palace walls. Let them kill each other out there." Xena pointed beyond the gates. "I wouldn’t want to taint my boots with the blood of a Briton." Xena took another deep breath, releasing it slowly. "Anything else?"

"Only that you have court later today."

Blue eyes rolled. Gods. "How many?"

"Eight, My Lord."

She chuckled. "It’s been a slow week. What are the charges?"

"Mostly theft. But there is one case of assault and one charge of murder."

"Murder?"

"Yes, My Lord."

Xena sighed, nodding her head. "All right. In the meantime, Malaius, Gabrielle requires an advisor to prepare her in the ways of court, and a seamstress to see about a proper wardrobe for her and her son.

The tall man finally looked past the Conqueror to the younger woman behind her. "As you command, My Lord. Shall I escort her to the servants’ quarters?"

Turning back, Xena held a beckoning hand out to Gabrielle. She spoke as much for the green-eyed beauty as her servant. "No, Malaius. She is not a servant. She is my…" the brunette cocked her head, trying to find a word that fit. "Well, until I decide on a title for her, let’s just say she is my companion and that she is to be taken to my personal apartment. Words coming from her mouth have the same power as those that fall from my own lips. Understood?"

"Yes, My Lord. Of course." Malaius bowed, bestowing an envious smile on the somewhat awestruck blonde. "Right this way, My Lady." He gestured down the corridor with a pointy chin.

Gabrielle looked at Xena. She was hesitant to be away from the Conqueror’s side in this strange place. A dark brow arched in response to her unasked question.

But Gabrielle steeled herself, taking a calming breath. She smiled at Xena and spoke softly. "Have a good day, My Lord."

The Conqueror nodded once, her lips mirroring Gabrielle’s. "Thank you, Gabrielle. Same to you."

*****

The Conqueror strode across the parade ground. As she made her way, she looked up and drew in a deep breath, noticing for the first time in seasons what a magnificent blue the sky was. And how sweet and crisp the autumn air tasted in the back of her throat. The shadows that had fallen over the palace in recent times felt as though they where melting away.

Suddenly she shivered. "What do you want?" she asked, without breaking her stride.

"My, my you’re arrogant," the God of War stated, making his appearance right next to her and falling into step. And Zeus knows I love that!

"If I am, it’s your fault. You made me," Xena said flatly, still not looking at the charismatic God.

"So I did." He chuckled and stroked his beard. "You are one of my finest creations."

"Cut the crap Ares. I am your finest creation. I rule the world in your name." With my will. Xena made a sharp turn to the left, causing the war God to overstep and have to backtrack a bit.

"And you do a damn fine job of it, too."

"Thanks. Now what do you want?"

"I want you to tell me about this little blonde that has caught your eye."

"You’re a God. Figure it out for yourself."

"Do you intend to keep her around, or is she a plaything?"

"Why does it matter?" Don’t you have better things to do that bother me?

"Because you belong to me." And despite what you may think, Xena, my time with you is always well spent.

Xena stopped and turn slowly to face Ares. "I belong to you? I think not," she sneered. "You shaped who I am Ares. But I’m not your pet or your possession."

"You are mine, Xena." Ares crossed his muscular arms over his chest. Using his height to his advantage, he cocked his head to the side and leveled a dark stare at his Chosen. "Who do you think gave you the power to accomplish all that you have?"

"Ares, you trained me. And with that training I gathered armies. And I made something out of them." Blue eyes flashed. "Never once did you turn a battle in my favor! Never once did you use your powers to assist me! Everything I did, I did on my own." Her voice dropped to a low growl. "I have never belonged to you. And I never will."

"Xena, Xena, Xena," Ares stopped walking and shook his head. His fingers twitched against the hilt of his sword.

Xena’s gaze never left his, but she didn’t miss the movement that caused her own hand to travel slowly to her blade.

Ares opened his arms wide. "Play with your new toy as long as you like," he encouraged benevolently. "As long as it’s not too long." His grin flashed from smug to cold in an instant. "Don’t get any ideas about keeping her around."

Xena’s sword was drawn and at his throat before he could blink. "Don’t interfere with Gabrielle and me, Ares. Or I swear you’ll regret it," she whispered, her face only inches from his, close enough for her to get an intoxicating whiff of the supple leather covering his broad chest.

He glanced down at the tip of the sword, distracted by her proximity. He pushed the blade away, doing his best to produce a cocky smirk. "And exactly how will I regret it?"

The Conqueror lowered her sword and leaned in just a bit closer, until their lips were only a hairsbreadth apart. Her mouth shaped a sultry grin and she watched his eyes darken with arousal.

Ares licked his lips, his tongue almost... almost touching her.... He doubled over when she landed a firm fist in the center of his gut. "I’ll figure something out," Xena growled, before walking away, leaving Ares gasping for air.

He watched her powerful gait and the smooth, rolling motion of her hips as she walked, thankful that she hadn’t directed her aim a little lower. "I do love that woman."

*****

Gabrielle listened intently to the advisor. She nodded occasionally when the short, balding man would look to her.

"Wouldn’t it…" Gabrielle began, even as she looked around the room at the numerous scrolls. These must be her archives. "Wouldn’t it just be easier if there was some way for me to read all of this information?" She graced the man with a smile. "I mean, you could talk for weeks and barely scrape the surface of what I need to learn."

"Do you read?" the advisor asked doubtfully, his tone indicating he wouldn’t believe her if she said she did.

"I read and write. Thank you very much. In two different languages." Gods be damned! The blonde always hated it when she was treated like an ignorant fool because of her social status.

"And you learned these skills where?"

Gabrielle advanced on the man; standing face to face with him, she placed her hands defiantly on her hips. "Well, since I’m Greek I assume that I learned that from my parents. I learned Latin from the Roman soldiers who joined Our Lord Conqueror’s army after their defeat in Rome. Many of them were exiled to the further regions. But I’m sure you knew that already."

The laughter from the door was unmistakable. It belonged to the Conqueror. Two angry faces turned toward the chuckling woman. Quickly smothering her mirth, Xena marched into the room. "She has a valid point, doesn’t she, Gragous."

The man dropped his gaze to his shoes. "Yes, My Lord."

"So, since it’s apparent that Gabrielle is better educated than most of the people in the palace, perhaps even you, do you think you can give her a reasonable answer to her question without being condescending?" It wasn’t a question.

"Yes, My Lord." The man raised his eyes to look to Gabrielle. "The rules of the palace and the court have never been recorded, My Lady."

"Well, why not?" The blonde woman arched a brow at the man who looked at the Conqueror for an answer."

"Yeah, why not?" Xena scowled a bit just to make the man shake.

"Umm…I…You have never requested it, My Lord."

"I thought that I had you so I wouldn’t have to see to every detail myself," she reminded the perspiring man.

Gragous paled, and Gabrielle fought hard not to laugh.

"Well... well... I... I..."

"Fine," Xena interrupted his blithering. "Let’s remedy my," she arched a menacing eyebrow, "oversight right now, shall we? I order you to record all the rules of the palace and the court for the archives, Gragous."

"Yes, My Lord. I’ll set the scribes to it right away."

"No, you don’t understand." Grabbing the lapel of his jacket, she drew closer to him, growling in his face, "I want you to do it. Then I want you to present them to Gabrielle for her approval." Xena uncurled her fists, allowing Gragous to stumble back a step and smoothe his rumpled jacket. The Conqueror extended a hand to Gabrielle.

"Yes, My Lord." He watched as the pair walked arm in arm toward the door.

Xena stopped, glanced at Gabrielle, then turned to the advisor. "And, Gragous?"

"Yes, My Lord."

"Do it in Greek and Latin."

*****

Jarrod ran across the courtyard towards the Conqueror and his mother at breakneck speed. A huge smile broke across Xena’s face when she saw the boy charging across the cobblestones. As soon as he had taken his final step towards her, she scooped him into her arms. He laughed even harder when, without a word, she settled him on her shoulder, his legs dangling down her front of her. Despite being short for his age, Jarrod felt like the tallest person on the world, perched atop a broad shoulder of the Conqueror.

Gabrielle studied them affectionately, shaking her head in amazement. Gods, Xena, do you know how appealing that is? How it makes me feel to see you treat him like that.

The people in the courtyard stood slack-jawed at the sight before them.

"How has your day been, Tiger?"

"Wonderful, My Lord!" the boy giggled. "Palaemon gave me my own pony today and showed me how to care for it. We’re going riding together every morning." He stopped and took a deep breath, looking back and forth between Xena and his mother. He wasn’t sure who he should be asking. Unable to decide, he blurted out to both of them, "If that’s all right with you."

Xena patted his leg. "Of course it’s all right! You..." she stopped mid-sentence, realizing what she had done.

Gabrielle smiled indulgently. The Conqueror wasn’t used to waiting for someone else to give permission. With an almost imperceptible nod, Gabrielle told Xena it was all right for her to continue.

Xena blew out a relieved breath. "You will need to learn to ride, lad." She gave his leg a pat. "Have you been given a tutor yet?"

"No, My Lord. Palaemon hasn’t found one that he likes."

The tall woman snorted, glancing to Gabrielle. "Seems my young guard has taken his duties very seriously."

"So it would seem, My Lord. I am grateful."

"Well now, shall we have a meal before I have to attend court this afternoon?" The Conqueror stared at Gabrielle. More pointedly, she stared at her stomach and gave the body part in question a little pat. Speaking to it alone, she asked, "Are you hungry?"

Twinkling green eyes rolled in mock annoyance. "I hadn’t thought about it until now, but yes, I could be persuaded to have a little something. If you insist," she teased.

"And what about you, Tiger?"

"I’m starved. Getting to know the palace has made me very hungry." His tone was so serious, Xena laughed again.

"I’ll just bet it has."

*****

Gabrielle gazed into the polished metal at her reflection. She seemed pleased with her appearance. The Conqueror’s clothiers were, indeed, very talented and had fashioned three new gowns for her in just over a few marks. They assured her that her new wardrobe, along with Jarrod’s, would be ready in a few short days.

"Do you think Our Lord Conqueror will be pleased, My Lady?" the aged seamstress inquired, all the time continuing to make minor adjustments to the garment.

Gabrielle lifted her arm to give the woman better access to her waist. "I think she will be very pleased. I know I am. You are indeed very talented, Morgaine."

"Thank you, My Lady. It is a pleasure to make garments for a woman as beautiful as yourself." Ancient eyes danced with merriment. "It’s easy to see why Our Lord Conqueror has taken a shine to you. Eyes as green as spring grass and hair as golden as the sun. My Lord has needed a breath of freshness and light in her life for a long time."

The blonde blushed and smiled, not only at the sweet compliments, but at the ease with which the older woman spoke about Xena. There was a current of genuine affection in her words that Gabrielle hadn’t heard from another soul since she arrived at the palace. "How long have you served Our Lord?"

"Oh, for more winters than I care to remember, My Lady. I have been with the Conqueror for a very long time. I’ll warrant she was few seasons younger than you are now, when I came under her employ. My own hand stitches all of the Conqueror’s formal attire. My husband makes her armor and weapons."

"Then you knew her when…" Gabrielle began awkwardly.

Before she could finish her sentence, the older woman nodded. "Yes. I have seen the Conqueror at her absolute worst." She smiled up at the young woman. "But I pray that is all in the past, child. And that I will be seeing her at her absolute best from now on."

Gabrielle frowned. "Why are people making so much out of my mere presence? I’m simply a woman from a small village…"

"Forgive me, My Lady, but I believe everything happens for a reason. There was a reason that Our Lord found you. There is a reason that you two have been brought together, child. In time you will see that. You will both see that.

"Do you have the gift of prophecy?" Gabrielle leaned closer; oracles had always fascinated her.

The old woman laughed. Climbing to her feet, she began tending to the garments that lay on the workbench. "Hardly, My Lady. I have merely lived a long life and seen many things." Gray eyes regarded Gabrielle seriously. "And never, since I have been in service to Our Lord, have I ever been asked to make clothes for anyone but her."

Gabrielle’s hand slid down the fabric one more time as she considered the seamstress’ words. She had never felt anything quite like the cool cloth beneath her fingertips. "What is this?"

"Oh that, My Lady, is the finest silk from Chin. It just arrived this morning as part of the tribute paid by Empress Lao Ma for the annual meeting."

"Shouldn’t Our Lord have had the first clothes from the tribute?"

The woman chuckled. "Our Lord’s wardrobe is so large now she has robes and tunics that she hasn’t yet touched. In fact, most of the time she insists on wearing her favorites and ignoring the rest. I’m sure she’ll be pleased that your wardrobe will differ from hers. I’ll see to it that they are complementary." Like the two of you. No, no mistake about it. She cocked her head to the side, and scratched a deep crease in her cheek. "I may be mistaken. But," she grinned broadly, "I don’t think so."

The blonde settled on a bench next to the seamstress. "Can you tell me something about Our Lord’s past if I promise that I shall hold your answer in the strictest confidence?" Gabrielle asked carefully, knowing just how bold her request was.

The older woman thought carefully for a moment before softly answering, "If I know the answer, My Lady, you shall know it as well."

"What do you know of Solan?"

"Only rumors, My Lady. It was, one time, rumored that Our Lord had a son by that name. It was right before I came into service."

"I see." Gabrielle worried her lower lip. "Is there anyone here who would know?"

"The only person who would know for certain is Our Lord," the seamstress said gravely.

Gabrielle nodded. "Yes, she has already mentioned him to me."

"Then you are fortunate, indeed. It is forbidden to mention that particular rumor in the Conqueror’s presence. Those who have been unfortunate enough to do so, didn’t live long enough to regret their stupid action."

"Thank you for your candor then."

The seamstress nodded and quickly moved on to a more appropriate topic. She folded the other two garments. "My Lady, the gown you are wearing now is for daywear. There is a robe here for eveningwear and then a sleeping gown. I will have others ready for you tomorrow, and your entire wardrobe will be complete in a few days. My best assistant is taking care of your son’s needs. But is there anything special that you think he will require?"

Gabrielle picked up the clothes, impressed by their quality and fine craftsmanship. "No. I trust your judgment. You have been in service to Our Lord much longer than I."

"My Lady, that is where your thinking is wrong. You and Jarrod may be the only people in the stronghold not in the service of another." The seamstress brought a gnarled hand up and fingered a lock of thick, fair hair, garnering Gabrielle’s undivided attention. "Even Our Lord Conqueror is in service to the God of War."

"Ares," Gabrielle said under her breath, a chill running down her spine at the thought of the dark, powerful God. It was hard for her to imagine anyone with enough strength of body and will to truly have a hold over Xena. And yet, if anyone could, Ares seemed a fitting candidate.

*****

Gabrielle held Jarrod’s hand as they made their way across the palace grounds. She wanted some private time with her son. Somehow, even in the leanest of times when she had worked from dawn to darkness, Gabrielle had managed to find some special time each day to reserve for Jarrod alone. Certainly, now that they resided with Xena, this task would be easier.

One thing she missed already, however, was the pond near the apple orchard. It was their special place. And had only been shared with one other. Ever.

"We need to find a new spot for our story time." She smiled down at her son, giving his hand a little tug. "I know you’ve been exploring today. Have you found anywhere that you might like to go?"

"The gardens?"

Green eyes flickered around the grounds. "There are gardens here?"

"Yes, Mama. Right through that arch." He pointed a small finger. "Palaemon showed them to me today."

"You really like him, don’t you, son?"

"Oh yes, Mama." His face scrunched into a happy grin. "He’s so much fun and he doesn’t treat me like a child."

The blonde could only raise her eyebrows and chuckle. It seemed she had instilled in her son the same desire not to be underestimated, whether it be because of age or social station. As she watched him now, in his spanking new clothes, she knew she would never have to worry about that again.

Jarrod led his mother into the Conqueror’s gardens. Trees, shrubs, and a multitude of flowers surrounded statues and fountains, which were fed by artesian wells. Gabrielle stared with wide eyes at trees and plants, the likes of which she had never seen. She was certain they had come from far off, exotic places Xena had traveled. Low wooden benches with ivy-covered sides lined the winding footpaths.

Finally pulling her gaze from her surroundings, Gabrielle focused on her son. "So, Your Highness," she teased him by using his new title. And the boy did, at least, have the good grace to blush. "Are you too big for a story from your Mama?"

He tugged on her hand, leading her to a spot under a tall tree, covertly glancing around to confirm that they were alone. "No, Ma’am."

Gabrielle caught his quick examination and smiled wistfully. They settled down together under the tree, breathing in the sweet smell of fall flowers and wet wood. Half expecting to be rebuked, the blonde offered Jarrod a spot on her lap. But to her delight, he immediately snuggled down as the story began.

From the battlement, a pair of amused, hazel eyes watched his little charge. He remembered a simpler time, when the comfort of his own mother’s lap and a story were all he needed to make his life complete. Turning, he allowed the family its privacy.

From a watchtower, a pair of decidedly unamused, hard brown eyes took in the touching scene with nothing but disgust for the bitch and her little brat. Xena had the choice of all the women of the world, and this is what she picked? What could this whore give to the Conqueror that she couldn’t?

From a balcony, a pair of contented, sky blue eyes softened, as the owner’s heart melted once again at the sight of this simple village woman and her son. They were together. She knew that with a rock solid certainty that grounded her even as it allowed her spirit to soar.

And from the darkest recesses, hidden by many shadows, a pair of black eyes watched, trying to decide the best way to utilize this new twist in the Conqueror’s life.

*****

After the evening meal, Jarrod was sent off to spend some time getting to know his new tutor. Palaemon had finally settled on one of the palace scribes that he thought would make a fine teacher for his young charge. After a brief meeting with the Conqueror and Gabrielle for final approval, where the soldier gave all the details of the scribe's education and abilities, they allowed the boy to go have the first meeting. With Gabrielle reminding her son to be properly respectful to his instructor.

Xena leaned against the wall after sending them on their way, watching for a few moments as Gabrielle began gathering dishes from their table. The Conqueror smiled and quietly sauntered up behind the young woman, whispering in her ear, "What do you think you’re doing?"

The dish in her hand clattered to the table, when she went weak in the knees at the feel of warm breath on her neck. She had to actually steady herself against the table when fingers brushed the hair back from her neck and lips found their way to bare skin.

"I ask again. What are you doing?"

"I…I forget…" Gabrielle murmured, closing her eyes as a shiver ran down her spine.

"Good. Because, Gabrielle, I don’t ever want to see you clearing another table. You have an entire palace of servants to do that for you now. I’ll call Callisto up here to do it for you if you like."

The blonde laughed out loud, then caught herself. "Xena, I think General Callisto would rather throw herself on her sword." And wouldn’t I love to see that happen, Gabrielle privately seethed. She didn’t care how militarily useful Callisto was. That bitch had kidnapped her son.

"Well now," the Conqueror turned the blonde in her arms, "should I decide I no longer require her services, I’ll keep that in mind." Xena leaned forward and ducked her head, ever so slowly inching her face toward Gabrielle’s soft lips.

Green eyes fluttered shut again, and Gabrielle swallowed hard. She nodded her response to Xena, drawing in a deep breath through flaring nostrils. The warrior’s warmth was seeping through the tunics between them, heating Gabrielle’s skin as though it was near a flame. The smaller woman ran her hands along strong, sinewy muscled arms; threading her fingers together tightly behind Xena’s neck, she raised herself up on tipped toes... and waited.

"Would you like to take a walk with me, Gabrielle? Perhaps the gardens?" She smiled at the woman, watching her closely, running a thumb tenderly over her lips. "You may as well say yes, because I have no intention of kissing you."

Gabrielle’s eyes snapped open. "What? I…I…wasn’t expecting you to…"

The Conqueror threw her head back, laughing hard. "Oh yes, you were."

"I was not." The young woman pulled away from the Conqueror; it was a playful action and it was taken as such by the tall woman.

"Oh, you do indignant very well, Gabrielle," Xena teased. She held out an inviting hand. "Come. Walk with me."

*****

Palaemon remained on his back, with just a hint of a smile on his face. She might be a crazy bitch, and she might be the second most terrifying person in the known world, but she was also damned good in the sack.

Callisto returned to the bed with two cups of wine. She placed his on the table next to the bed, then straddled his waist. His eyes wandered over her naked form. He wanted to smile, but knew better.

"So tell me, Palaemon." She tipped her cup spilling a drop of the sweet wine on his chest. "Does your time with me make you happy?"

"General, I live to serve." He shivered slightly as the cool liquid tickled his skin. "I hope my time with you pleases you."

Callisto laughed, then leaned over and licked the wine from his chest, rolling her tongue over his skin. "You should be a diplomat."

He placed tentative hands on her back, stroking the skin gently.

"But you’re not a diplomat, are you, Palaemon?"

"No, General."

"Right now you’re not even a soldier." She gave a slightly painful bite to his left nipple. "You’re a glorified baby sitter."

The young man knew there was no right answer. But he certainly felt like more than a baby sitter to the young man. And the Conqueror herself had given him charge of the lad. But to argue with this woman might very well mean that Jarrod would be without his guidance in the morning.

"Tell me about him, Palaemon. Tell me about the young ‘Prince’," she hissed into his ear, raking her nails down his chest and stomach.

"He is very bright," he ground out, finding it hard to follow the thread of the conversation with Callisto’s naked body pressed tightly against his. "He’s very eager. And Our Lord is extremely fond of him." He hoped that would help save both his and Jarrod’s skin.

"Hmm…yes…she…is…" Callisto growled. With a slight shift of her body, she thrust her hips down sharply and began taking her frustrations at the Conqueror out on the strong body beneath her. Not that the strong, young body beneath her was complaining.

Palaemon closed his eyes and stifled a groan.

*****

Xena watched Gabrielle stroll just ahead of her in the garden. "You’re quiet tonight, Gabrielle. What’s wrong?"

"Nothing really." She turned, offering her hand to the Conqueror, which was immediately accepted. "It occurred to me that everything happened so quickly I didn’t really have time to send word to my mother and sister. They must be worried sick."

Xena chuckled although she didn’t really mean to. She had visions of this poor girl’s mother fainting dead away when the rumor reached her that her daughter and grandson had been carried off by the Conqueror. "Well we can remedy that quickly enough. Compose a letter to your family and I’ll dispatch a messenger with it as soon as you’re finished writing it."

"Thank you." Gabrielle nodded but continued looking at her feet as they strolled through the gardens.

"Is there something more, Gabrielle?" Xena wrapped her arm around the small waist. The blonde wasted no time in melding into the tall body next to her. "Well, is there?" She gave her a little shake, letting her know she was serious.

"No, Xena, there’s not."

The Conqueror stopped and turned Gabrielle to face her. "You don’t lie very well. Tell me what’s wrong."

Gabrielle debated with herself before sighing. "It’s just that my mother depended on some of my wages from the inn to help make ends meet."

Xena mentally blew out a relieved breath. This was exceedingly easy to fix. "I see. How much did you contribute?"

Gabrielle found herself reluctant to answer. How could the Conqueror understand what such a paltry amount could mean to her family? But the intent eyes boring into hers would not be denied. "Whatever I could afford. Maybe four or five dinars a week. Mostly just copper."

"So, if I were to order an allowance of, say, ten gold per month to your mother and sister, that would keep them in good food and shelter?"

Gods! That was a fortune compared to what Gabrielle had been able to contribute. Even during the inn’s busiest season. "I didn’t mean to make it sound like…" The words rushed forward. "I was just worried…" She felt fingers gently fall on her lips, silencing her.

Xena sighed. "Just nod if ten gold a month are enough."

A smile crossed the digit covered lips and she nodded.

"Very well. You will tell your mother that it is my tribute to her for bringing such a beautiful and intelligent woman into the world." The tall woman leaned forward and whispered sincerely, "You’re adorable when you blush."

*****

Xena couldn’t help but smile as Gabrielle dealt with the servants who tried to prepare the bathing chamber. The Conqueror sat in a chair, watching Gabrielle, her amused features hidden behind her hand.

Seemingly the blonde had no qualms about the servants preparing a hot bath for the Conqueror, but she was decidedly against having the young, scantily dressed handmaidens attending to Xena during the bath itself.

"I’ll tend to her. You are dismissed." Gabrielle all but pushed the two young women out the door.

"Yes, My Lady." After exchanging confused looks, the women bowed then backed out of Xena’s private chambers.

Gabrielle wanted to slam the door, but somehow managed to close it quietly before heading for the bathing chamber, grumbling all the way. Xena was sure she heard something to the effect of ‘Not while I’m around’ and ‘Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.’

The Conqueror cleared her throat and, doing her best to regain her regal composure, headed for the bathing chamber. Gabrielle poured softly scented oils into the hot water, mixing them in with her hand.

"So, do you intend to undress me too?" the Conqueror teased a bit, taking a seat next to the tub and propping up her booted foot right next to Gabrielle. "That was part of their job." But not the best part, she thought roguishly.

The smaller woman shifted slightly to peer at Xena out of the corner of one eye. "You put your boots on by yourself in the morning. You can’t take them off by yourself at night?"

Xena laughed. Her new companion was losing her fear and becoming more forthright. While a part of her bristled... a bigger part cheered. Gabrielle has to be comfortable if she’s ever to grow to love me. "At night I’m tired. It’s hard being the Conqueror," Xena joked, wiggling her booted foot.

Gabrielle relented, but not before gracing Xena with a full fledged scowl. Taking the booted foot in question into her lap, she began working on the laces. She was angry and it confused her. Gabrielle knew her behavior was inappropriate but couldn’t seem to stop herself. I sound like some nagging harpy. Those are only Xena’s normal attendants. Unwilling to consider her feelings further, she allowed her temper to flare anew.

"Yes, I imagine it’s terribly difficult getting through the day with everyone constantly bowing, scrambling out of your way, and stammering, ‘Good morning, My Lord’, ‘How are you today, My Lord?’" Gabrielle nearly broke the laces with a sharp tug. She continued speaking as if oblivious to Xena’s presence.

"And I’ll bet you break into a terrible sweat while listening to your advisors informing you of the goings-on in court. It’s probably all you can do to lift your hand to your mouth to sip your wine." Gabrielle twisted the leather. "Why must these boots fit so tight?" she grunted. The first boot finally worked free; she pulled the second into her lap.

Xena actually had to shift and steady herself with both hands to keep from losing her balance. "My, my, aren’t we grumpy?" she continued to torment. You sound like a jealous lover. Are you Gabrielle? Are you jealous? Or are you still just pretending?

Once the second boot was removed, Xena stood and began working the hooks on her tunic.

"Oh, allow me, My Lord," Gabrielle continued with the banter, her voice losing its edge. "Wouldn’t want you to strain anything." Gabrielle made the mistake of looking up into playful pale eyes that looked more gray than blue in the firelight. Her frustration began to melt away.

"No, we wouldn’t now, would we?" A dark brow arched. "Especially since I have plans for you later."

"Is that a fact?" Gabrielle muttered softly, unable to remain grouchy in the face of such a lovely expanse of warm, bare skin. She allowed her hand to slide up Xena’s back, digging her fingers deeply into the muscles that lay just beneath the silky surface. "What kind of plans?"

Xena let loose a sexy chuckle that tickled Gabrielle’s eardrums and caused goosebumps to erupt across her arms and chest. "Let’s just say..." Xena smiled wickedly, "we’re both going to be glad that the walls of the palace are very thick."

*****

Gabrielle stretched in the big bed, arching her back in an almost a feline manner. This was by far the most fantastic, most luxurious thing she had ever slept in. She wondered briefly if the silk sheets they slept on had come from Chin. She grinned helplessly, completely unable to fight the feeling coursing through her body like a potent liquor. It was a combination of total contentment, from being warm and safe, and the absolutely delightful feeling of being truly satiated.

Xena was a wonderful lover. She took Gabrielle to places that she had never been to before and touched her in ways that she hadn’t imagined were possible. The blonde rolled over, gazing at the bright sunrise and listening to the deep, even breathing of the Conqueror, who still slumbered beside her.

Gentle fingers reached out, brushing back a lock of dark hair for an unobstructed view of the woman face. She’s so beautiful. So peaceful in sleep. Xena fussed a bit, twitching under Gabrielle’s tender touches. A small smile crossed the younger woman’s lips as she snuggled closer to her companion. Without waking, Xena immediately took Gabrielle into her arms, and, with a fuzzy murmur, dropped a soft kiss on her forehead.

Gabrielle continued to watch Xena sleep for several moments, studying long, thick lashes and smooth, tanned skin. When every fine hair, every faint crease and line, had finally come under Gabrielle’s intense scrutiny, her own eyelids fluttered closed and she inhaled deeply. Letting it out slowly, she realized with a start that she wasn’t feeling gratitude or obligation. It was something different. Something new. A little tingling in her stomach almost made her queasy. But it was a good kind of queasy, she decided.

Xena groaned and shifted. Gabrielle smiled; kissing the shoulder her head rested on. She recognized the, ‘I’m waking up’ groan. "Morning," she whispered, hoping to wake the tall woman gently.

Strong arms tightened around her. "Good morning." Xena allowed the correction to slip past her lips before licking them and humming into a morning stretch. "Sleep well?" she inquired without opening her eyes.

"Like a baby." Gabrielle snuggled even closer. "Your relaxation techniques are truly astounding. And you?"

"I haven’t sleep this well in so long, I had genuinely forgotten what it’s like. I really don’t want to get up."

Gabrielle sighed. "But duty calls, does it not?"

Xena sigh mirrored her lover’s. "Yes, I’m afraid it does. There are a lot of preparations to be made before the satraps arrive." She rolled over to face Gabrielle. "Speaking of which," she took a deep breath, "please don’t take this the wrong way, but there will be several formal occasions while they’re here…"

Gabrielle stiffened just a bit, waiting for the part where Xena would say that she and Jarrod should stay in the private apartment. Hidden out of sight.

"So," Xena continued quickly, sensing the blonde’s unease, "I think we need to have a few ‘rehearsal’ dinners just to make sure that you and Jarrod have been properly trained in the ways of court. He’s going to have a lot to learn before everyone arrives, and I think it’ll be easier if we teach him together."

That Xena wanted her and Jarrod to participate in this important State function wasn’t lost on Gabrielle. "I promise, we’ll make you proud." She placed a tender kiss on Xena’s nose. Before her lips left the tip of that nose, her soul and perhaps her heart called for her to move her lips lower. Allowing the smile she’d been fighting back free rein, she lowered her mouth for a proper good morning kiss.

*****

For the first time in several days, Xena managed to find a break in the preparations for the Annual Meeting, and she was anxious to find Gabrielle and spend some time with her. The time they’d shared recently consisted of little more than tucking Jarrod into bed, then falling gracelessly into bed themselves.

She crossed the courtyard with a purposeful stride, her boots scattering the dried autumn leaves that covered the ground. She was intent on finding Gabrielle and hopefully Jarrod. Looking up into the sky to gauge the time of day, she knew that if she were very lucky she would find them in the garden.

Xena found Jarrod first. He was seated on a bench at the edge of the training grounds, watching Palaemon spar. His brow was furrowed as if in deep thought, and his normally bright smile was notably absent. She approached slowly and took a seat next to him, crossing her long legs and watching the soldiers spar as she spoke. "Something wrong, Tiger?"

"No, My Lord." He sighed.

"Hmmm…you don’t sound very convincing. Are you sure there’s nothing wrong?"

"It’s nothing, My Lord."

She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Jarrod, you don’t fib very well." Just like your mother. "Now tell me what’s wrong. Has Palaemon done something wrong?"

"Oh, no, My Lord! He’s my best friend." His head dropped a bit and his shoulders slouched forward.

"Is this a bad thing?"

"No, Ma’am."

"Then what is it? Tell me," she repeated.

"Well, I tried to make some new friends. Palaemon thought I should have other kids my own age to play with."

Xena nodded. "And?"

"They were afraid to play with me," he admitted quietly.

Xena’s brows came together. Jarrod was an exceptionally mild-mannered boy. Why would children fear him? "Do you know why?"

"I guess, since my Mama and I live with you, that scares them a little bit."

Ahh... This she understood. Everyone feared her and until very recently she had felt utterly and completely alone.

"I’m sorry, Jarrod."

The boy shrugged and did his best not to look miserable. Kicking a pebble with the toe of his boot, he earnestly said, "It’s not your fault."

"Yes, it is." She squeezed his shoulder encouragingly. "Let’s go find your mother and see if we can find a way to remedy this, shall we?"

His mood brightened immediately, his mossy green eyes twinkling. "Really?"

Xena recognized saw Gabrielle in the boy’s face and smiled wistfully. "Yes, really. I’ve discovered that having at least one true friend is the most important thing in the world."

"Who’s your friend, My Lord?"

"Well, you see, I’m lucky Jarrod. I have two friends."

"Who?"

"You and your mother, of course." She stood, offering her hand to the boy. "Let’s go find her. I’m sure she’ll have the answer to this." She whistled to Palaemon, and, with a nod of her chin, indicated she would be taking Jarrod with her.

*****

Gabrielle rubbed her hands together and cleared her throat nervously. She smoothed the fabric of her new gown again. She was a little unsure of this garment. Xena had ordered it specifically made with a low cut bosom and a slit up the side that ran clear to the blonde’s hip. This gown was definitely designed to show off what Xena called ‘some of your best assets’. Gabrielle wasn’t sure she was comfortable showing off this many assets.

Morgaine chuckled softly. "My Lady, if you don’t wish your leg to become a pin cushion, you’ll hold still."

"Of course, I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable in this dress."

"Are you unhappy with the work, My Lady? Is there anything I can do…"

"Oh, no, Morgaine, that’s not what I meant at all." Gabrielle laid her hand on the seamstress’ arm. "Your work, as always, is excellent. It’s not you. It’s me. This dress just isn’t me. It’s uh…well…it’s…"

"Sexy." The aged woman laughed.

The blonde blushed. "Yes, it is. Very sexy."

"It’s you."

"I’ve never thought of myself that way. I’m... a... a little unnerved by it," she admitted.

"You’ll do just fine, My Lady. Our Lord is very happy with your quick adjustment and the way you are settling in here."

"Oh?" Gabrielle smiled. "And you would have this information how?" She understood very well that the castle staff knew all the latest gossip. It was just a matter of getting them to share.

Morgaine laughed softly. "From Our Lord’s own lips, My Lady. I fitted her for her new tunic yesterday. You’re all she spoke of."

Gabrielle felt that queasy feeling again. She cleared her throat and tilted her head slightly, feeling like a young girl with her first crush. "Umm... what else did she say?" she asked, never quite making eye contact with the aged seamstress.

Morgaine held back her smile and tugged on the hem of the new gown. "I don’t know if I should share the confidences of Our Lord."

"Morgaine!" Gabrielle practically stamped her foot in frustration causing the older woman to chuckle.

"Yes, My Lady?" she asked knowingly.

"Oooo... just never mind." The blonde was actually pouting now.

The seamstress laughed, the bold, hearty sound filling the small room. She hadn’t seen a bottom lip poked that far out in more seasons than she could count. "You love her," she stated flatly, getting up and adjusting the neckline on the gown.

"Do I?" The question was soft and directed at herself as much as Morgaine. Do I even know what that is? "I’ve never been in love before. I’ve done lots of things I’m not very proud of…"

"So has Our Lord." The aged woman moved behind the blonde. She pulled her hair up, twisting it a bit, placing a pin in it to hold it off her neck.

Gabrielle watched her reflection in the mirror. She saw the change that occurred with the gown and the simple act of rearranging her hair. In her eyes, she went from a simple peasant to someone strong, proud and beautiful. Someone quite capable of being at Xena’s side.

To the seamstress, Gabrielle had been those things all along. "But the one thing she has done that she’s very proud of," Morgaine whispered, smoothing the back of Gabrielle’s hair with wrinkled hands, "is bringing you and Jarrod here."

The old woman grasped Gabrielle’s shoulders and gently turned her until they were eye to eye. Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but paused when she saw that Morgaine wasn’t finished. "She believes that you don’t love her. She confessed that to me. But, child, the woman, not Our Lord, not the Conqueror, not the Destroyer of Nations, loves you. Xena’s heart is vulnerable for the first time in her life. You might not love the Conqueror, but you love Xena." Don’t fight what is so obviously fated, child. You are far stronger together than apart. And you will need every bit of that strength.

*****

"I think that is perfectly wonderful idea, Gabrielle." Xena nodded her agreement, sipping from her tea mug. She lifted a brow at Jarrod. "What do you think, Tiger?"

"It would be great fun!" The boy nodded enthusiastically while eating a fresh pastry. "Maybe then I could make some friends."

"Well, then, it’s settled. We’ll see about having a carnival of some type for the children during the annual meeting. Something that everyone in the palace can enjoy." Xena looked at Gabrielle with a mischievous grin. "Would you like to try and organize it? Surely you have some experience. Your village probably had festivals, didn’t it?"

"From time to time. I’m sure I can come up with something that will keep the children happy. Can I gather a small staff to help me?"

"Anything you need, Mama Bear."

"Mama Bear?" Gabrielle smiled at the endearment. "Where did that come from?"

Xena shrugged a bit. "Seems to fit. You have a protective streak a league wide and, I’ll bet, claws that reach from here to Rome. You remind me of a Mama Bear."

Jarrod sipped his milk, looking back and forth between his Mama and Xena. He wondered why they were staring at each other with those very silly grins on their faces. Grown ups could be just plain weird sometimes.

*****

They made their way into the banquet hall. All of the stand-ins for the satraps were already there and seated. This was a rehearsal dinner to help Gabrielle feel more at ease with the events that would be taking place when the real meetings began.

Xena stood before the doors of the banquet hall, which at the moment were closed. She closed her eyes and rolled her head in small circles. Gabrielle flinched a bit, listening to the cracking and popping taking place next to her.

The Conqueror squared her shoulders then gave a slight nod. The doors were opened, and she took her first step into the great hall, with Gabrielle at her side and Jarrod and Palaemon several paces behind them. All of the participants stood immediately, paying their respects silently as they entered. They walked toward the table side by side until they reached the end, then Xena went left and Gabrielle went right. They slowly walked the entire length of the table.

Gabrielle took her place at Xena’s left. She remained standing until Xena filed in at her side and at the head of the table.

Taking a deep breath through her nose and exhaling slowly, the Conqueror let a slight smile cross her lips. "Good evening."

Everyone answered in unison, "Good evening, My Lord."

"Before we begin this evening’s festivities, I would like to introduce to you Gabrielle, formerly of Poteidaia. I am pleased to say that she will be remaining here at the Capital. She is now a member of the royal court and is to be treated with the respect that position brings. Is that understood?" Xena had talked to Gabrielle earlier and thought it would be best to save Jarrod’s introduction for a later date and spare the boy’s nerves.

"Yes, My Lord." Everyone at the table except for one gave the answer. A certain general who had been placed some four seats away from the Conqueror was not a happy woman.

Gabrielle gave each face a nod and a smile. "Good evening to you all."

"Good evening, My Lady." This time two people at the table didn’t respond. Callisto continued to glare, while a young Captain, who had recently returned from a tour of duty in Rome, raised a brow when he got a good look at the woman who was now taking her seat.

*****

The meal was a pleasant enough experience. The conversation was casual, and the food was some of the best Gabrielle had ever eaten. She remained relatively quiet for most of the evening, preferring to listen to Xena talk to those present. Since these were not the royal guests that would be arriving over the course of the next few days, the conversation was centered on the palace and the happenings of the court.

Gabrielle had figured out very quickly, she could learn a lot just by sitting and listening. And on this night she had gotten an earful. Some of it she was delighted to know, like the fact that the Conqueror’s favorite color was deep green. Other things made her stomach churn. But she managed to maintain a smile, even after finding out that several days ago Xena had found a man guilty of murder and ordered him crucified.

"Shall we," the Conqueror began, even as a servant leaned over to refill the silver goblet at her hand, "adjourn to the gallery?"

Everyone waited, of course, until the Conqueror rose, then they followed suit. She did, however, pause and allow them to enter the gallery before her. She turned, offering her hand to Gabrielle. "Always keep your enemies in front of you," she whispered. "That was Caesar’s mistake. He let me get behind him."

Gabrielle was about to ask Xena why she would bother to invite her enemies to dinner, when she saw the decorations of the gallery. She bit back a smile, realizing that ‘gallery’ was a polite term for throne room. Placed regally on a small but exquisitely crafted platform was Xena’s throne. The rest of the room was filled with rich tapestries, and small statues and carvings from all over Xena’s realm. Weaponry of all kinds adorned the walls, but was placed well out of reach. There were also plush couches and chairs for guests to lounge upon. Some were covered in supple leather, others in a deep purple velvet.

Once again, a large staff waited patiently for the guests to settle before springing into action, keeping goblets filled and attending to the desires of everyone in the room. Instead of heading for the throne, the Conqueror took a seat on a nearby lounge chair, inviting Gabrielle to join her with a soft pat of her hand.

The blonde leaned in, whispering into Xena’s ear, "Actually, would it be all right if I said goodnight to Jarrod? He can barely keep his eyes open." The boy was waiting in the doorway with Palaemon at his side. Jarrod had done exceptionally well that evening, filling his mother with pride. But now it was his bedtime. "Then I’d like to move around a bit and speak with everyone."

The Conqueror smiled, enjoying Gabrielle’s warm, wine-scented breath on her ear and cheek. "Of course." She fought the urge to nuzzle the neck so close to hers.

"Thank you."

"But don’t blame me if there are young women around my chair when you get back," Xena teased, lifting a plump fig to her lips.

"You’re the Conqueror." Gabrielle nearly brought her hands to her hips, but fought the impulse. "Tell them to buzz off." Or I will. Don’t tempt me, Xena!

Every head in the room turned at the hearty outburst of laughter. Many of them had seen the Conqueror with this woman over the course of the last few weeks. But they still were still having a hard time reconciling the laughing woman with the Destroyer of Nations whom they had known for so long.

*****

"Our Lord does choose attractive concubines, doesn’t she?" Callisto appraised quietly, directing her words to the young Captain seated next to her.

"Concubine?" A puzzled looked crossed his pockmarked face. He reached up, and stroked his close cropped beard, unable to keep his eyes from roaming over Gabrielle’s lithe form. "But Our Lord said…"

Callisto stopped him with a curt gesture. "Yes, well, she wasn’t about to come down and say, ‘this is the whore I’m fucking,’ now was she?"

The man nearly choked on his wine. "Yes, but General, why would she allow a common whore to dine with her?"

Callisto shrugged and did her best to look sincere. "Why does Our Lord do anything? It amused her to watch the wench." A coy smile teased her lips. "Besides, you know I’m telling you the truth, don’t you?" I can tell that you want her by the look on your disgusting face, pig. No... make that ‘sacrificial’ pig. "You know her."

The Captain’s eyes never left the blonde as he sipped from his cup. He nodded slowly then licked the wine from his lips, remembering his short but exceedingly pleasant stay in a little village called Poteidaia. "I thought it was her, but I wasn’t sure," he lied. She looked better fed, healthier maybe, but it was most definitely the same woman. "It was about two winters ago."

"Same whore. Different clothes. But I’ll bet they come off just as easily."

He raised both eyebrows. Lowering his glass to the table, he felt himself growing hard at the prospect. "Hmm, wonder if Our Lord is as free with her as she has been with the others?"

"She’s a whore," Callisto said flatly, as if that was an answer in and of itself. "Our Lord knows the uses of such a woman. Has she ever denied her finest officers?" she flattered, firmly commanding her eyes not to roll.

"Never." The young man grinned and shifted in his chair with a barely audible groan. He was suddenly finding it very difficult to get comfortable. "If I remember correctly, she is very good."

"You should go say hello," the General prodded. It was all she could do to keep from laughing. "I need to have a word with Our Lord."

*****

She shivered before turning around, instinctively knowing that the breath on her neck, and the hands on her shoulders, did not belong to Xena.

"Gabrielle, how have you been?" His voice was low and raspy, his face unmistakable.

A wave of nausea crashed over her. She brought her hand to her stomach. Oh Gods. "I’m fine." Not now. Not here. "How have you been since your transfer?"

"Very well." He smiled charmingly. "I received a promotion since the last time I saw you."

Her gaze drifted to his rank insignia. "I see that. Congratulations," she offered quickly, cursing the fates and their sick sense of humor. "Excuse me, won’t you?" She tried to move past the Captain, but he stepped in front of her, blocking her path.

"Wait a moment. Not so fast," he cooed gently. Thick fingers reached out and touched the very edges of her hair, even as she tried to escape his grasp. "Tell me, Gabrielle, do you still service common soldiers and junior officers?" His eyes raked over her proprietarily. "Are you as sweet as I remember, girl?" His mind flashed to a passion filled night where afterwards the woman had refused his dinars, instead exacting a promise that the soldiers under his command would stay far away from her and her small son. "Or has Our Lord ruined you for the rest of us?"

"Please…" Gabrielle could feel her skin crawling and stomach churning as her head swam with memories of her own. "I’m not…I’m not…" She clamped her mouth shut, unable to continue as she tried desperately to keep from throwing up.

The Captain took her by the arm. "Why don’t I make my excuses to Our Lord? Then we will go back to my quarters and…"

"No!" She pushed him back. Realizing the rise in her voice, she quickly lowered it again. "It’s not like that anymore. I don’t…"

"Of course you do," he laughed cruelly. "Why should it change? You may not require my services now, but I have other things to offer." His hand came to rest on his groin where he lewdly adjusted himself. Then he raised his fingers a few inches and jingled his money pouch. He leaned close to Gabrielle’s face and she turned away from the overpowering scent of garlic and port. "Maybe you just need to be reminded of how it feels to have a real man inside you?" he growled, his own words further exciting him. "You called out my name before, remember?"

Repulsed, Gabrielle craned her head farther away.

He scowled at her arrogant evasion, and his voice took on a harder edge. "Or is it that I’m no longer good enough for you? You may be the Conqueror’s whore, but you’re still a whore."

"No!" I’m not! "It was never like that, and you know it." She remembered this soldier with particular distaste. He had spent the better part of an evening staring at her over his mug of port before she finally made it clear that she wasn’t interested in any ‘social’ engagements. In a cruel bid to change her mind, he sent two soldiers to the inn one evening to ‘assist her’ in rethinking her position. After that, he had visited the inn several times during his short stay in Poteidaia so that Gabrielle could ‘thank’ him for his valuable protection.

Hot tears slipped down Gabrielle’s face, but they were born of anger more than fear. Anger at him, and anger at herself. "I did what I had to do to keep from being raped and beaten," she ground out, flinching as his hands tightened around her wrists. "I did these things to save my own life."

"Well now, it seems that you’ve hit the jackpot this time then, doesn’t it? Since Our Lord has taken you as a concubine…"

"She," the Conqueror’s voice roared, "IS NOT A CONCUBINE!"

The Destroyer of Nations grabbed the Captain by one shoulder and spun him around. Her eyes were icy with rage and the Captain nearly swallowed his tongue. "She is a Lady in my court, and you will apologize or be gutted where you stand!" Wrapping her hand around his throat, she forced him to face her terrified lover, who was desperately wiping tears from her face. "Do it! Apologize!"

"I’m…so…sorry," he managed to stammer before he was brutally jerked backwards.

He sailed through the air, crashing back first into a small oak table, demolishing it, and scattering splinters and platters of pheasant and goose to the floor. He had barely made it to his feet before the Conqueror began raining kicks and punches down on him. Mere instinct took over as he raised his arms; holding a serving tray, he used it to block the strike.

Everyone found themselves ducking for cover when the violence exploded, seeking shelter wherever they could. The Conqueror and Captain moved around the room hurling crystal decanters and priceless statues as easily as epithets while they exchanged vicious blows. As an officer of the Realm, the Captain had been trained in hand-to-hand combat by the Conqueror herself. And his skill showed as he fought off a fair number of Xena’s strikes, managing a few powerful hits himself. There were certain advantages to being taught by a legend.

A well-placed kick sent the man careening into a chair, shattering it. Tearing away a splintered hunk of wood, he shakily rose to his feet and, with a mighty yell, charged the Conqueror. He swung for her head but Xena ducked, the whizzing plank barely skimming the top of her inky hair. His second attempt was less coordinated, and she sidestepped it easily, luring her pray nearer and nearer to her throne.

Finally, he went for her knees, and she jumped straight into the air, causing the blur of wood to pass beneath her. Booted feet landed on the plank with a mighty thud, pinning the Captain’s hands to the ground with his own weapon. Her eyes never left his, and in a lightening fast move she reached behind her throne. Pulling out a long, gleaming sword, she raised it high above her head.

With a roar and a blazing down stroke, it was over. Hot crimson blood sprayed Xena’s face and neck, drowning her in dripping red.

Callisto looked down as the Captain’s head came to rest at her feet. "Idiot," she mumbled. Taking her last bit of pheasant, she tossed the greasy bone on the man’s body and drained her goblet of red wine.

*****

The Conqueror dropped the sword. "Somebody clean that up!" she barked. Taking a deep
breath, she tried in vain to calm her racing heart and the rage singing in her blood. Wild eyes darted around the room, desperate to land on Gabrielle. Finally, she saw the woman in an alcove, hiding among the shadows with tears coursing down her cheeks.

Taking a shaky step, Xena crossed the room slowly. She stopped an arm’s length from Gabrielle and consciously softened her voice. "Are you all right?"

Gabrielle was completely still as she took in the blood covered sight before her. Dragging her gaze upward she looked Xena in the eyes and shook her head.

Xena caught a faint sound of whimpering and stepped forward, wrapping her arms around the sobbing woman, forgetting about the blood drenching her clothes and skin. "Shh… it’s all right. I’ve got you." She held her tight, kissing the top of her head. "I’ve got you, Gabrielle." Please believe me, Gabrielle.

The rising noise level in the room began to irritate Xena. She glared over her shoulder and told the watching crowd, "Everyone out."

Within seconds they were alone. The Conqueror was torn between her own needs and Gabrielle’s. Her body still tingled from the fight, every nerve ending alive and pulsing. She tried, however, to be tender and gentle with the woman in her arms.

"I’m so sorry!" Gabrielle sobbed. "I should have known. I don’t belong here. I shouldn’t be at your side."

"Shh… You stop that right now. You’re here because I want you here," Xena soothed, running her hand down Gabrielle’s back. "You’re here because you want to be." Gabrielle flinched and Xena swore that her own heart had stopped beating. She swallowed hard several times before she was able to ask, "You do want to be here, don’t you?"

Gabrielle looked up into eyes that were the deepest of blues and at a face speckled in scarlet blood. "I… I… I…"

An overwhelming ache split the Conqueror’s chest, but she gave a quick nod, releasing the blonde woman. "Of course you don’t. I took you from your home." Her tone was flat and harsh. "I brought you here and you got a good look at the monster I really am." Despite herself, hot tears pooled in her eyes and she blinked them away. Gods, what was I thinking? I’m sorry, Gabrielle. Xena set her jaw. "I’ll have someone escort you home as soon as you’re ready to leave."

The Destroyer of Nations turned on her heels and left the gallery.

Standing well back in the shadows so she wouldn’t be seen, Callisto reveled in her victory, suppressing a gleeful cackle with her palm clamped firmly over her mouth.

Dark eyes followed Xena’s movements as she disappeared into the halls of the Castle, then turned to the fair-haired woman who stood completely motionless as Xena walked away.

*****

"Oooo, do I sense a little trouble in the Elysian Fields?" the God of War smirked. He stood with his arms across his chest, leaning against the cool stone walls of Xena’s bedchamber.

Xena stared into the water in her wash basin as it swirled red with the blood of that young captain. "Not now, Ares. I’m not in the mood." Her voice was bored, but Ares could hear the thrumming beat of her blood song as though it were his very own.

"Not in the mood? Oh, please!" He opened his arms wide and raised challenging eyebrows. "I can smell the battle lust in the air." He winked cockily, then made a show of sniffing. "Nothing like the smell of wet leather and blood in the fall. You were dynamic out there, Xena!" He had to give the warrior her due. "You do remember how to take a man’s head off."

Xena whirled around, placing a small dagger at his crotch. "Yeah, want me to make it two for two?"

Ares stepped back, knowing from the look in her eyes that she just might try it. Even a God didn’t like to have his manhood threatened. Some types of pain were universal.

Ares chuckled at the conflicting feelings radiating from his finest warrior. "Xena, did you really think that part of you was gone?" That little blonde must be one hell of a lay. "Your dark side is so strong. It’s a force of nature. You won’t be tamed," he whispered condescendingly.

Blue eyes fluttered closed at the sound of Ares’ low, rhythmic voice. Its seductive darkness wrapped around her heart and called to her spirit. She promptly ignored it. Xena used a rough cloth to dry her face, neck, and arms, careful to remove the last traces of blood from her body. She would need a bath, but right now she just wanted to curl up into a ball. She didn’t want to think about the fact that the best thing in her life was no doubt over, because of the monster that lived inside her. No it’s not the monster. It’s my lack of control over the monster.

"You’re right," she quietly admitted to Ares and herself. "I wish…" She stopped mid-sentence and shook her head in frustration, throwing the cloth onto the table and padding angrily further into her bedchamber. She began stripping off the bloodstained tunic. "You make one smart ass remark about bedding me, and I swear I’ll make it two for two," she warned the handsome God, even as she peeled off her snug fitting leather trousers, leaving her naked before him.

He snapped his fingers, producing a cup of rich, fragrant wine, and drained in one long swallow, watching every move she made as she slipped into a clean, fresh smelling robe. "Can I tell you how beautiful you are?"

"No," she growled.

"Okay, I won’t."

Finally snapping under the strain of her impending loss, Xena’s turned on the God and hissed, "Get out! Let me enjoy my misery in peace and silence, you bastard! You got what you wanted. Gabrielle is leaving me. Now you leave me alone, too!"

*****

Gabrielle didn’t know where else to go. Nervously shifting from one foot to the other, she lifted her hand several times to knock before she got the courage to actually go through with it. Finally gathering her wits, she rapped on the door, praying to the Gods that she would be welcome.

Morgaine pulled the door open to find the blonde trying to clear her face of its obvious distress. "Child, what’s happened? Come in." Without hesitation, she grabbed the younger woman by the hand and tugged her inside the dark room, stopping quickly to light a candle.

Shaking, Gabrielle entered the seamstress’ quarters. "I’m sorry it’s so late. I need… I need…" Her gaze darted wildly around the room.

"What you need is some tea," Morgaine supplied in a calm voice that immediately called to mind Gabrielle’s own grandmother. "Come, sit down. Tell me what’s happened."

"Who’s out there, old woman?" a grouchy male voice called from a back room.

"It’s Lady Gabrielle, you old fool," she groused. "Go back to sleep."

Gabrielle started for the door. "I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have…"

"Nonsense, child." The aged woman took her by the hand again "Sit. Let me fix you some tea. He’s not upset." She tilted her chin back toward the room. "He’s just naturally grumpy and cantankerous. That’s what happens when you live for such a long time." She took a moment to look at the young woman, doing her best not to appear shocked at the blood staining the front of Gabrielle’s garment. "I’ll find you a change of clothes."

Gabrielle sat at the table trying to calm her heart and clear her head. She didn’t know how much time had passed when she felt a little nudge against her shoulder and was presented with a clean tunic.

"Thank you," she said softly, but made no move to put it on.

"She did something barbaric tonight, didn’t she?" the seamstress asked as she prepared the tea. She frightened you. But not so badly that you’re running away.

"Yes. No. I … I’m not sure." Gabrielle laughed a bit hysterically; knowing full well there was nothing funny about what had happened this evening. She wiped her eyes to clear them of sparkling tears. "Xena killed a man." She stopped and frowned for a moment before continuing, "But he was fighting her and I think... I think she thought she was defending my honor. Or at least hers." Gabrielle turned watery eyes on the old seamstress. "Is that really that barbaric?"

Morgaine shrugged noncommittally but offered a kind smile. "That’s a question you have to ask yourself, child. What I think really isn’t important." She sat two steaming mugs of tea on the table and slowly eased herself into a padded wooden chair across from her guest. "But the real question is, can you love her anyway?" Search your soul for the truth, Gabrielle. The answer is there for you, if you’ll only go looking.

Gabrielle wrapped her hands around the warm ceramic mug, staring at the murky liquid as the light scent of mint filled the air. "Can I love her anyway?" She brought the mug to her lips and blew gently, sending a wafting cloud of steam billowing upward. "You presume too much, Morgaine."

Morgaine grumbled but her kind eyes twinkled. This one was every bit as stubborn as the Conqueror herself. Serves Xena right. "Sounds like she had reason to fight," she finally offered after a long but comfortable silence.

The pale head nodded. "She did, I think." But Gods! "And she didn’t." Gabrielle shrugged one shoulder and took another drink, starting to feel a bit more like herself as the comforting liquid slid down her throat. "It was a stupid fight. He um... he said some things..."

"About you?"

"Mmm..." Gabrielle agreed unhappily. "But... well, it’s not like the things he said weren’t at least partially true." She drew in a ragged breath, and her eyes misted over again.

"Why don’t you change, child?" Morgaine patted her hand gently and poked at the clean tunic. "I’ll get us some cookies to go with our tea and talk." It looked as though they would be there a while.

****

Xena sat by the fire trying to drown her sorrows, and more primal urges, with the strongest wine in her cellar.

She winced as the potent liquid burned a fiery path down her gullet, settling heavily in her belly. She clamped her eyes tightly shut. Gods! It had happened. Just like she knew it would. One look at that man with Gabrielle, touching her, calling her a whore, and her anger had exploded, robbing her of all reason and moderation. Her self control had lasted for all of ten seconds before the beast inside her burst free and snuffed out that Gods be damned Captain’s life as though he was a worthless bug. Which, of course, he was.

She hated the way that it had happened. She hated that Gabrielle had seen it. She hated that she wasn’t the least bit sorry the bastard was dead. And most of all, she hated what her actions had cost her.

A knocking outside her chamber reluctantly roused her to her feet. The wine rushed to her head, and Xena staggered for a step or two as she padded to the door where a young servant was waiting. "What?!"

"Forgive me, My Lord." The girl immediately bowed her head. "You called for someone to remove some soiled garments?"

"Yes, yes, of course." Xena stepped out of the girl’s way. "Do it and get out!"

"Yes, My Lord." The servant scampered in and began collecting the bloodstained clothing and anything else that appeared to be dirty.

Xena leaned back against the door, closing it with her weight. Before the girl was even finished, someone else began knocking.

"Who do I have to kill to be alone?!" Xena yelled, yanking the door open. Her jaw dropped when she saw Gabrielle. "I… I… I…" Her mouth worked but nothing intelligible came out.

"Xena, can we talk?" the blonde woman asked quietly.

The Conqueror nodded furiously and cleared her throat. "Y... yeah." Oh Gods! She wants to talk. She’s leaving me right now. She’s not even waiting until morning! "Come in, please."

Gabrielle stepped inside. She scowled when she saw the young woman, her temper flaring anew. Storming across the room, she grabbed the servant by the arm and escorted her to the door. "Out!" She shoved the young woman through the door, slamming with all her might. When she turned to the taller woman, she wasn’t talking to the Destroyer of Nations. She was talking to her lover. And any sense of fear or restraint or decorum melted away like ice in the springtime.

"Okay, let’s get a few things straight!" Gabrielle marched over to the wide-eyed warrior. "I love you! I don’t understand it…" She began poking Xena in the chest and the older woman began backing up. "I don’t want to understand it. I just want to do it. And I intend to do it for a long time." She was on a roll and showed no signs of stopping. "I intend to love you with everything I am. But if I’m gonna stay here with you…" she continued to back the speechless Conqueror, "we have to come to a understanding right now! These are my chambers too and I don’t want any woman under the age of sixty in here!"

Xena felt the bed pressing against the back of her legs and tried to figure out where else she could go. She was stunned by what she was hearing. Her head was spinning from the wine and Gabrielle’s close presence, and she had no clue as to how to reply. Before she had the chance, Gabrielle pushed her firmly back onto the feather-filled mattress. The blonde straddled her waist and stared down at her with flashing green eyes. "I mean it, Xena! There will be no more half-naked young women tending to you, unless that half-naked woman is me! You got it?"

Xena blinked stupidly but managed to nod. She knew her mouth was hanging open, but was powerless to stop it.

"Good." Gabrielle took a deep breath, her first since beginning her tirade. Her voice dropped to a whisper and Xena could see the anger and frustration behind her eyes shift to something else. Tucking a strand of fair hair behind her ear, she looked Xena directly in the eyes. In for a dinar... "The question is, do you want to share your life with a woman that some people consider nothing more than a common whore?"

Xena immediately nodded again. She began to dispute the use of the word when Gabrielle stopped her with a finger against her lips.

"Good. And do you promise to at least try not to kill every stupid bastard who makes that assumption?"

A third nod.

"Good." A beautiful smile spread across Gabrielle’s face and she removed her fingers from Xena’s soft lips. "Now that we have an understanding, is there anything you would like to add?"

Xena’s smile mirrored Gabrielle’s. There was really only one thing she could say. "I love you, too."

They sealed their declarations with a kiss.

Continued - Part 3


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