The palace was huge. Far bigger than either Xena or Gabrielle had imagined.
"Pretty ritzy, dont'ya think?" said Aphrodite, revelling in the opulence.
"No!" the warrior and the bard said in unison. Aphrodite scoffed at their obvious small-mindedness.
"This Xena knows how to make a statement."
"Yeah, she's an overblown idiot," snorted Xena.
"Hey, it's your sister you're talking about, Warrior Babe."
"She is not my sister!"
"How are we going to find Psyche in all this, without being discovered?" asked the bard. They were in one of the many empty bedrooms that the goddess had scouted out earlier as being a good place to beam into unobserved.
"You two stay here and I'll go have a quick look," Aphrodite said, disappearing in a flash of sparkles.
"Wait... too late," grumbled Xena. "I wish, just for once, she'd confer before she just buzzes off like that."
"I don't think she's the conferring type."
"So I've noticed."
Gabrielle went and sat on the bed, testing it for comfort. "Might as well be comfortable while we wait."
"Yeah, I guess," agreed Xena, who, now that she thought about it, was pretty tired herself. She lay next to Gabrielle on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. "I wonder what this ceiling could tell us if it could only talk?"
"You've been living with a bard too long, Xena. You're starting to get odd notions."
"Odd notions, huh?"
"Yeah, odd notions."
"Well, we wouldn't want that now, would we? Next you'll be turning into the warrior of the outfit, and I'll be the one writing stories."
"I am a warrior!"
"I guess... sort of."
"What do you mean 'sort of'?" Gabrielle got up on one elbow and jabbed Xena in the stomach.
"I mean, shorty, that you'll do... at a pinch," replied Xena, jabbing Gabrielle in return.
"Oh, really. We'll see, Warrior Princess, who's the best," launching a full-out tickling war. Xena responded in kind and soon the pair of them were rolling about the bed, shrieking with laughter.
"Uh-hem, ladies... if you don't mind." Neither of them had seen the goddess return. "We have Psyche to find, Cupid to corner, and the world to save. Now is not the time to be rolling around in bed together."
Xena let go of the bard and rolled off the bed, silently landing on her feet. "What'd you find?"
"I didn't find Psyche, but I did find out that neither of you are here at the moment, and no one seems to know where you are."
"What are you talking about, Aphrodite?"
"Duh, now's your chance to play Conqueror. Just walk out there and demand that someone fetch you the lady Psyche. They'll all fall over themselves trying to obey your every whim."
Xena turned to Gabrielle. "Did I bang my head just now, or did that actually make some sort of sense?"
Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders. "It's a better plan than sneaking around a couple of thousand rooms in the shadows."
"Would my Amazon Queen care to accompany me to the throne room?" asked Xena, holding out her elbow.
"I'd be delighted," said the bard, grinning from ear to ear, clambering off the bed.
"Should we let her come along?" Xena said, nodding her head towards the goddess.
"Yeah, it adds an air of divinity to our royalty to have a god accompany you into the throne room, don't you think?"
"Don't push it, Warrior Babe, don't push it."
"Um, Xena, do you know the way?" asked the bard.
"Haven't the slightest idea."
"Dite, would you beam us all there, please?"
"For you, Little One, anything." Xena and Aphrodite exchanged glares.
A deathly silence descended on the throne room as Xena, Gabrielle and Aphrodite appeared in front of the throne. Courtiers, civil servants, guards, and other hangers-on immediately dropped to their knees at the Conqueror's return. Being materialised out of thin air by a goddess was spectacular even by her high standards. A collective gasp could still be heard echoing around the huge chamber.
Xena looked down and sighed. Aphrodite had changed her outfit mid-transport.
"Is this strictly necessary?" she whispered to the goddess. Xena found herself dressed in a shiny red oriental style gown with a golden sunburst crown on her head. Gabrielle wore a matching outfit in metallic green but with a silver crown.
"You should know better than anyone that appearance counts for a lot in a leader," Aphrodite whispered back. "Besides, I've always wanted to play warrior babe dress up." Xena's eyes narrowed to menacing slits, but they soon opened wide when she looked at Gabrielle, who was starring at her with her in open-mouthed adoration.
"By the gods, Xena, you look magnificent!" the bard gushed. Xena was about to reply but Aphrodite spoke first.
"Ladies, we've got a world to run, save the mutual admiration society for later."
Xena snapped out of her trance. "Yes, you're right." Xena squared her shoulders and strode forcefully to the front of the raised dais the throne was on. "Report!" she bellowed.
A man got up from his knee and rushed over to stand in front of her, panting in agitation.
"We... we weren't expecting you back from the campaign quite so soon, My Lady. I trust it was successful?"
"It still proceeds. Now what has been happening here in my absence?" The man looked around for support, but everyone else was firmly keeping their heads down.
"It's... it's only been a day since you left. Not much has changed. All the Amazons have left for their homelands... or so I thought," he said, spying Queen Gabrielle behind the Conqueror. "Does this, um, er... mean the wedding is back on, Your Highness?"
"Wedding? Of course, it's still on!" Xena boomed, knowing that people were a lot less likely to question anything if the were sufficiently cowed.
"Very good, Milady, I'll have the royal dressmaker attend to Queen Gabrielle for a fitting immediately."
"Gabrielle's getting married?" Xena couldn't help shouting out.
"Yes, Milady, to... you... I thought," he stammered. This wasn't going well at all. Some days he just hating being a personal secretary to the Conqueror.
Xena's mouth opened and closed two or three times, but nothing came out. She looked helplessly to Gabrielle for support, but Gabrielle was as astonished as Xena.
"Now don't tell me you're getting cold feet, Conqueror, after you specially asked me to attend your wedding, an' all?" said Aphrodite, stepping forward, taking both of them by the hand and bringing them together. Xena's eyes narrowed to slits. "Payback's a bitch!" she whispered to the goddess, who was grinning evilly.
Xena turned back to the secretary. "Of course we're to be married. And to mark the day it will be forever a public holiday, where the Goddess of Love will offer free personal consultations to all those seeking guidance in matters of the heart." A loud cheer went up around the room, mostly from the men. Aphrodite's grin transformed in to a scowl for a brief moment, but turned back to a beaming smile as she turned back to face the crowd and nodded.
"That was cruel," Gabrielle whispered to Xena.
"She started it, with this stupid marriage nonsense!" Gabrielle abruptly pulled her hand from Xena's and pursed her lips.
"What do you mean 'nonsense'? Aren't I worthy of being married?" she hissed.
"Now, now, Gabrielle. This is not the time to get all hissy and blow our cover," replied Xena and she carefully backed away from one angry bard.
Deciding to change the subject, Xena waved to the secretary. "Fetch me the lady Psyche, I wish to have a word with her in my private chambers."
"Yes, Milady, straight away, Milady." He scurried off to do her bidding.
Xena looked out to the crowd of still kneeling men and women. No one had told them they could rise yet, so there they still remained.
"You people, get up and... carry on doing... whatever it was you were doing." They slowly rose to their feet and looked at each other furtively. The Conqueror was in a funny mood today, and it didn't pay to stand out from the crowd and attract her attention.
"Come, my Queen, I wish to retire," Xena said, taking Gabrielle by the elbow and marching her off the dais. She pointed to a guard. "You, lead the way to my chambers and don't look back!"
"Yes, Milady, this way." He saluted and marched off.
"Very smooth," Aphrodite whispered, disappearing in a shower of sparkles.
They walked imperiously through the room, down a long corridor and up a flight of steps. The guard bowed then stood to attention outside a large imposing oak door.
"S... sorry, Milady, it's been a long time since any of us regulars did this. The Amazons have done it for so long, we're a bit rusty." He tried to smile, hoping the Conqueror was in an understanding mood, stepping forward and opening the door.
"Don't get too comfortable, the Amazons will be back," Gabrielle assured him.
"Of course Milady." He stepped back and stood rigidly to attention.
"What's your name, soldier?"
"See that no one disturbs us, Temecula."
Xena ushered the bard through the open door and closed it behind them. A big grin spread across her face. Power like this was intoxicating. Her grin dropped away when she saw Gabrielle's expression. 'Oh brother, now I'm gonna get it', she thought gloomily.
* * *
"Are you finished?"
Xena was leaning up against a tree with the queen resting against her, both watching a family of swans glide effortlessly by on a nearby stream. Food, lovemaking and tranquillity were a great way to relax, Xena decided. She should make an effort to see that they both had more of it in future. A relaxed monarch was good for everyone.
"I suppose we should be getting back to work, but it's so easy just to stay here."
"We can you know, Xena, we rule the world, we can do what we like."
"'We', my Queen?" Xena replied, with a smile hovering about her lips.
"Sure." the queen said. "You belong to me, so what's yours is mine. Ipso facto, I inherit the earth."
"I see. And what do you propose to do with it, now that you've got it?"
"Oh, I leave all the boring stuff to my partner. She's much better at it than I am, she's been doing it longer."
"What if she doesn't want it anymore? What if sitting by a stream in the sunshine seems much more inviting?"
"I'd kick her lazy butt and tell her to get on with it, and leave the serious relaxing to me!"
"That hardly seems fair."
"Hey, life's a bitch, and then you die."
"It seems like you get all the fun, while she get all the pain."
"It's not my fault that I fell for a woman who when she told me she'd give me the world she was actually in a position to deliver."
"Teach her to fall in love then, I guess, won't it."
"Sure will. They'll be no more of that for you, you're mine for all eternity."
"You seem so sure."
"I can see the future, in my dreams, Aphrodite came to me and told me that I must give up my position as Queen of the Amazons and move on to higher things."
"Like ruling the world?"
"I see. What else did Aphrodite tell you?"
"She said someone tall, dark and beautiful would cross my path and put me on the highest pedestal in the land."
"She said that?"
"Well, in so many words."
"Why do I get the feeling that this battle tactic was more Amazon than divine?"
"I never go into anything blind. I make it my job to have all the angles covered right from the start."
"So, I was a campaign to you?"
"Sure, but really, it was a forgone conclusion. There could only be one solution to the problem, and that ultimate victory would always be mine."
"It's a good job you've stolen my heart, my Queen, otherwise I might be forced to make an example of such insolence."
"Ladies, before this ends in bloodshed, perhaps you'd like me assist in sorting out some of the kinks my brother has put into the smooth running of the empire?"
"Athena, I'm so glad you've returned. Another few minutes and I might have had to give my fiancee a stern lecture."
"Yeah, right!" snorted Gabrielle.
"At your convenience, Conqueror." Athena said, bowing her head slightly. Xena gave the goddess her best glare, annoyed at her patronising tone.
"The queen and I would like to see her northern sisters. Please take us to their village on the steppes."
"As you wish."
* * *
Gabrielle was ready to wind herself up for a third tirade of precisely why she'd make a damn fine wife, and that Xena would be truly lucky to consider herself worthy of such a partner, when she was interrupted by a knocking on the door.
Xena sighed in relief and hurried over to the door.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Beggin' pardon, Milady, but the Lady Psyche is here as you requested. Shall I send her in?"
"Yes, yes send her in, we need to talk."
Psyche nervously entered the room, noticeably jerking when Xena closed the door.
"Relax, no one's gonna hurt you. You're safe here with us."
"Of course, Milady" she said, bowing deeply, but still keeping her eyes pointed steadfastly at the floor.
"Hey, it's okay," Gabrielle said gently, touching the trembling woman's arm. Psyche jumped at the touch, in spite of herself.
"I'm s... sorry, Milady. I... I'm not used to being in the presence of the Conqueror on my own. I wonder what it is that I have done to displease either of you?"
"Nothing, nothing at all, I assure you."
There was another knock. "What now?" Xena stomped over to the door and flung it open. "This had better be good!"
"Sorry, Conqueror, I thought you'd like to know that the god Cupid has just entered the palace and is asking after the Lady Psyche." He gulped and closed his eyes waiting for the blow that would surely come from the irate Conqueror. Instead the door slammed shut and he breathed a sigh of relief. It would be someone else's problem about what to do with a wandering god.
"Damn it to hell, we've run out of time. Gabrielle, where's Aphrodite?"
"I dunno, she never came with us. I haven't seen her since the throne room."
"Oh, that's just... peachy!"
"What's wrong, Xena?"
"Cupid's here and we're not ready for him, that's what's wrong! Where's Aphrodite when you need her?"
"Did someone call my name?" said the goddess appearing in a shower of sparkles right in front of Psyche. The woman near jumped out of her skin and fainted dead away on the spot.
"You did that deliberately!" accused Xena.
"Yeah, well, I owed her one."
"She stole my son, my little Cupie, away from me," the goddess said defensively.
"Oh for the love of Eli, we don't have time for this. We needed her on our side and ready to loosen Cupid's tongue."
"Hey, that's my Cupie you're talking about. I don't wanna be reminded about what these two get up to in their spare time."
"I'm talking about finding out where he went in time, you... you--" Xena hands came up into a throttling grip as she advanced on the goddess.
"Xena! Stop that at once. We need to think, not act!" Gabrielle demanded, getting in between the warrior and Aphrodite.
"Look, it's easy. I beam her out of here and take her place," said the goddess, transforming into an exact replica of Psyche. "Now, the question is, where do I send her?"
"Hey, this could work!" grinned Xena, her eyes lighting up at a plan that could get them what they wanted. "You know, for an air-head, you can be quite clever at times."
"Oh, don't strain yourself, Warrior Babe. Wouldn't want to force you into saying something you'd regret."
"Xena, don't be mean," Gabrielle quietly admonished. For a moment Xena looked sulky.
"Okay, okay, it's a good plan... thank you, Aphrodite."
"My pleasure," she said, blowing Xena a kiss. Xena's top lip twitched into a sneer.
"We still don't know where to send Psyche," said Gabrielle looking down at the unconscious woman.
"You know her better than anyone, or at least you know our Psyche better than anyone here. So what did she like to do?"
"Gods, I don't know, I hardly talked to her, you know. She was a mortal, what did she have to talk about that could possibly interest me?"
Both Xena and Gabrielle raised their eyebrows at the comment.
"Oh, you guys are different. I don't even think of you as mortals."
"I don't know if I'm flattered or angry," whispered Gabrielle.
"Who cares?" whispered Xena back. Aphrodite gave the warrior a withering stare.
"She did say once how she admired the Amazons and how they could climb trees so easily, if that's of any help."
"Fine, beam us both to some forest somewhere safe and I'll sit with her till she comes round. But don't forget where you send us, and don't be long. I don't want to have to sit and explain too much to Psyche," warned Gabrielle.
"I don't like us splitting up," argued Xena.
"Relax, I'll keep an eye on them."
"It'll be okay, Xena. I mean, what more could possibly go wrong?" said Gabrielle.
Aphrodite waved her arm and Gabrielle and Psyche disappeared. Xena opened the door and told the guard to fetch Cupid here, the Lady Psyche would see him now.
* * *
"Brrrr, it's cold up here!" said Gabrielle. The Queen, Xena and Athena stood high up on a heavily wooded hillside, overlooking the Amazon village.
"Have you never visited the northern tribe before?"
"No, never," said Gabrielle, shivering in her normal Greek Amazon attire. Athena waved her hand and both Xena and Gabrielle were clothed in furs and padded deerskin.
"Hmm, that's better."
"And I thought Amazons were tough!" scoffed Xena.
"Well, you can always take your nice new warm clothes off, if you want to impress everyone with your natural stoicism."
"Nah, I like the look. Antlers are so becoming, don't you think. In fact I think I'll insist on everyone wearing this sort of stuff back home."
"I'm glad you find potential civil war so amusing, Xena."
Xena stared at the goddess for a moment. "You could follow my lead and take some lessons from the Queen here, and lighten up a little. Or didn't Zeus see fit to give you a sense of humour, along with the wisdom and knitting?"
"I have a sense of humour. But I make it a policy to laugh only when something is funny."
"Count yourself lucky that you are my chosen's intended, Queen Gabrielle. Insolence from one mortal is bad enough, without you making it two."
"Can we get on with this?"
"As you wish, Conqueror. What would you have me do?"
"I'm trying to decide if Cyane will be more impressed if I arrive on horseback at the head of an army, or if I just appear in the centre of the village with a god and Amazon queen at my side."
"Gods are so much more impressive that armies, don't you think?"
"I guess. Okay, can you put on a good show, lots of sparkles, flashes, smoke, that kind of thing?"
Athena sighed. "This isn't a circus you know, and I refuse to do cheap, gaudy sparkles like my tramp of a sister."
"Soft yellow glow it is then," said Xena winking to her intended and waving her hand behind the goddess's back. Gabrielle laughed in response. Athena wasn't amused.
* * *
Psyche groaned and opened her eyes. Staring down at her was the Amazon Queen. She yelped, covering her mouth with her hand, stifling the threatened scream.
"Hey, it's okay. You're safe, you... felt faint a moment ago and passed out."
"Where am I?"
"Yes, but where's here?"
"That's a very good question."
"It's... somewhere nice. I believe you've always wanted to be able to climb trees, um, like the Amazons."
"I don't understand any of this," Psyche groaned.
"It's... complicated. I could explain it all, but I doubt you'd believe it."
"You could try explaining it to me," a deep female voice said from behind. Gabrielle spun round to see five Amazon warriors standing in a semicircle their ropes trailing back up into the trees. She immediately raised her arms in a salute of friendship.
The lead warrior raised her mask. "Is that you, Gabrielle?"
"Chilapa!" exclaimed the happy bard. "Gods, I haven't seen you in such a long time!" she continued, rushing over and giving the startled warrior a big hug. The remaining four masked Amazons immediately dropped to one knee and bowed to their queen.
"Well, it has been... nearly three days, my queen." Gabrielle could only smile lamely.
"I... missed you all..." she trailed away in embarrassed silence. If she could have found a hole to crawl into she would have gladly done so.
The warrior coughed and took a deep breath. "I didn't recognise you in the green stuff and the silly crown." Gabrielle looked up and frowned, realising she was still wearing the regal finery that Aphrodite had dressed her in.
"Oh this, this is... um, my wedding dress," she gulped as that particular memory flooded back to her.
"So why exactly are you wearing it out here, and... why's the Lady Psyche lying on the ground moaning?" Chilapa said. There were some sniggers from behind the masks of the kneeling Amazons.
"It's a long story, and cut that out. That's the Lady Psyche from the Conqueror's court. She wanted some lessons in Amazon tree climbing techniques. So, being the only Amazon left in the court I... offered my services."
"So you thought you'd bring her all the way to the edge of the Amazon lands to climb a tree?"
"Oooh, Aphrodite, I owe you one!" The bard stamped her foot in anger.
"Aphrodite? But you were last seen leaving with Artemis from the Royal Lodge, or at least that's what the regent says."
"Er, yes, well we went to Olympus and I met up with Aphrodite, who took me back to Xen... The Conqueror at the palace."
"So, Xena's back in Corinth. What about the civil war with the northern Amazons?"
"Er... Oh that! Well, that was all just a misunderstanding. It's all sorted now."
"We must tell Ephiny and find out when we are to return to Corinth."
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle exclaimed excitedly. "Ephiny's here?"
Chilapa frowned. "Of course she is, she's the regent."
* * *
The centre of the village came to a standstill moments after Athena appeared in a flash on the central platform, usually reserved for the queen. Despite what she'd said to Xena, she had turned up the level of her appearance in order to create a more dazzling than usual entrance.
"Amazons, hear me. Athena, goddess of Wisdom, requests an audience with your Queen Cyane." Her voiced boomed across the village. The Amazons remained where they stood. No god had ever appeared in the centre of their village before.
Cyane heard Athena and strode out of the royal hut. She had to push gaping Amazons aside to stand before the imposing goddess.
She bowed her head briefly. "Goddess Athena, welcome to our humble village. Though our allegiance is to Artemis, we honour and respect her sister greatly. How may we be of service?"
"I seek to put right a wrong perpetrated by my unthinking brother, Ares."
"Ares? What has the God of War done to us?"
"He has deceived you into turning on your true ally, the Conqueror."
"How do I know that she and Ares aren't in this together? She is his chosen," she said, not unreasonably.
Athena smiled. "Things change, Cyane."
"Xena is now my chosen. Ares is seeking... solace elsewhere."
"Forgive me, Goddess, but what has all this to do with me and my Amazons?"
"As you wish." The Queen bowed again. "Please, let us retire to my hut for a drink and some warmth."
"One moment." The goddess waved her arm, causing another exaggerated flash of yellow light. Xena and Gabrielle joined her on the stage.
"You've got a nerve coming here, unprotected."
Xena turned her most intimidating stare on the hapless queen. "I am never unprotected, Cyane, you know that." Faster than anyone could blink Xena leapt from the stage, chakram in hand and thrust it up under the queen's chin.
Standing on tiptoes to avoid the razor sharp weapon from cutting her neck, the queen glared back at Xena. She held up her hand to forestall any retaliatory action from the dozens of Amazon warriors surrounding them. "I apologise, Conqueror, no offence was intended, I assure you."
Xena glared at her for a few moments more then looked all around, daring any of the surrounding warriors to mount any objections. None of them would meet her gaze.
"Good, I'm in a bad enough mood as it is. Here, you look after this now that I know I won't be needing it," Xena said, placing her chakram in Cyane's hand. "Now, where is the food, I'm hungry." She swept past an astonished queen, pushing some Amazons aside, making for the food hall.
"You'll catch flies that way, Cyane," smirked Gabrielle, walking past the still rooted queen. Cyane snapped her mouth shut and looked down at the deadly ring in her hand. Looking up at the swiftly departing Conqueror, she could only shake her head in wonder. In less than two minutes Xena had stamped her supreme authority on all those present, oddly enough without spilling a single drop of blood. Which, when she thought about it, was most unlike the Conqueror.
"I wouldn't try it, if I were you. It will only work properly for those whom Ares has cast his gifts upon." Cyane swung back to look at the smiling goddess. She was in no mood to play riddles with Athena, sister or no to her goddess of choice, Artemis.
"Here, you keep it for Xena. I have no use for trinkets." She tossed the chakram at the goddess, who caught it cleanly. It glowed for a second and disappeared, appearing a split second later on Xena's belt.
Cyane scowled and jogged off to catch up with the Conqueror and her queen.
* * *
"Ephiny!" Gabrielle shrieked and ran across the Royal hut to the regent, grasping her in a tight and loving hug. "Gods, it's been too long."
Ephiny could barely speak in surprise. She gently pushed Gabrielle away and stepped back. "It has only been less than a day, my Queen. And it was less than cordial when we last met, or have you forgotten?"
"Oh, please, Ephiny, tell me we're not true friends and sisters?"
"Hardly," the regent scoffed. "You accused me of plotting to kill you and take the throne."
"Were you?" Gabrielle said, bringing her hand up to cup her mouth in shock.
Ephiny was about to make a sarcastic comment when she saw the pain in those green eyes. And there was more. This woman in front of her radiated love and friendship, not the callous disdain she was used to.
"Chilapa said you were brought here by Aphrodite. Has she... done something to you?"
"No, why do you ask?"
"Well, you're different from when you left. You're not the Gabrielle that I remember."
"I... I've been shown a new path."
"Obviously. What has that air-head of a goddess done to you?"
"No, no it's not like that. This has nothing to do with Aphrodite. It's just that... I now realise that love is the way."
"Yes, that's it. Love is the way. It's like Eli said all along," said Gabrielle sinking fast and grabbing desperately at straws that weren't there to begin with.
"And who is Eli?"
"Um, doesn't matter. The point is I've decided I want to stop the killing and make it so that everyone lives in peace and harmony."
"This is a trick, isn't it?" the regent scowled.
"No, no, I promise. No more killing." Ephiny appraised the queen, but either she was the best liar she'd ever known, or she was telling the truth. On the other hand, Gabrielle had always been a master tactician, and this wouldn't be beyond her.
"Does this mean that you intend to keep the Queen's mask, or have you got your sights set even higher than that?" she said nodding towards Gabrielle's elaborate silver crown.
Gabrielle dropped to one knee and bowed her head. "Ephiny, you were always a better choice for queen than I. You deserve it, too. I never did, it was all an accident anyway. I, Gabrielle of Potiadeia, formally step down as queen and offer it to you, Ephiny, Amazon Warrior and Regent." Ephiny sat back and frowned.
"Who are you and what have you done with Gabrielle?"
"Nothing, I swear," the bard said standing abruptly and trying to hide her blush.
"Relax, Gabs, it was a joke!" the regent said, breaking into a big grin. Whatever it was that had turned the vicious Gabrielle into this sweet and charming Gabrielle was fine by her.
"Of course you were. I knew that... I was just going along with it--"
"Gabs, you're gabbling. Now let's go and break the news to the nation. I think they'd like to see you kneel before me on the royal dais."
"If that's what you want," Gabrielle said with a smile. Ephiny just shook her head and pulled the plainly mad ex-queen with her towards the door.
* * *
"So, you're telling me that the note was a forgery, by Ares?"
"Yep, never wrote that, never dictated it, never saw it before in my life." Xena tossed the royal parchment back on the table in front of her plate.
"Well, how was I supposed to know," said an embarrassed General Marmax, who'd been brought from the Amazon's jail to join them for dinner.
"I think that's the point," said Xena, testily.
"But it had your seal and it was your writing, I recognised it," he whined.
"Are you calling me a liar?"
"No, Conqueror! I would never do such a thing." Gabrielle snickered, and even Cyane smiled at the General's obvious discomfort.
"What's so funny, Cyane? There's still the small matter of loss of one of my cavalry regiments, not to mention all that equipment and armour, that I bet found it's way into your Amazon coffers." Cyane's smile disappeared. 'Damn, how she can so easily make everyone feel subservient, apparently without even trying.'
"Of course, Conqueror. Now that this unfortunate business has been cleared up we can go back to the way things were. We never wanted any sort of confrontation with the crown. We are happy to serve as part of the great Empire."
"That goes without saying. I'm still trying to decide what to do with a leader of one of my best armies who decides trying to blackmail me is the best way forward. What say you, my Queen?"
Gabrielle finished her mouthful and shrugged. "Seems pretty treasonable to me. What do you reckon, Athena, turn her into a lap dog for Xena?"
The goddess had remained quiet through the meal, food not being an essential requirement for her, just a pleasure to partake in if she felt like it.
"That seems a bit... extreme to me. I think perhaps a transfer to the palace as head of security. Now that the job has been vacated, I presume?" she said, raising her eyebrows questioningly to Gabrielle.
"Oh yeah, I think being the wife to the Conqueror means I don't have to get my hands dirty, do you?" she said sweetly, staring at Cyane.
"That's an excellent suggestion, Athena." Xena said. Turning to one of the Amazon guards in attendance she summoned her over with a flick of her fingers. "Go and get that shamaness of yours and bring her here."
"You have more than one shamaness?"
"No, Conqueror." The poor woman blushed deeply. Cyane waved her away. "Well, go get her!" she ordered. The warrior scurried off, her tail firmly between her legs.
"I hope they'll be sharper than that."
"The fifty warriors that accompany you back to Corinth. I only want the best guarding me and my family."
"Of course, Milady."
Otere strolled into the food hall and stood before the queen's table, determined not to be intimidated by the Conqueror.
Xena ignored her, concentrating instead on her meal. After a minute of silence she looked up, wiping her mouth with the back of hand.
"You're the one who wants to be the new queen around here, I understand."
"I am loyal to Cyane," a hint of insolence in her voice.
"Yeah, but the important thing is, are you loyal to me?" Xena growled, slowly standing up and leaning her weight forward, her hands resting on the table.
Despite herself Otere could feel her knees tremble slightly and any bravado she felt a moment ago drained from her body under the piercing gaze of the awesome woman in front of her.
"I... I... Yes," was all she could manage.
"Good. Well, you've got the job of regent. Cyane will be leaving in the morning for Corinth. She is to take up the role of head of palace security, recently vacated by my fiancee here. I have decided that I will rotate my Amazon guards from all the tribes on a more frequent basis. Just make sure I don't have to come up here and sort out any more messes like this one, understand?"
"Yes, Conqueror. I understand."
"Good, now I want to talk to you about how we go about quelling the barbarians in northern Britannia. The original point of my order to Marmax."
"Why bother with them?" asked Gabrielle. "They're not worth the effort surely. Can't you leave it to the Romans?"
Xena shrugged. "I like turning my maps a nice shade of purple to indicate the land is mine. And besides, they keep raiding into my territories, stealing from me. I will not have it!" Xena said, smacking a fist down on the table for emphasis.
"Why not just build a wall across the country to keep them out?"
Everyone turned to look at the smirking goddess.
* * *
Gabrielle stood up, having repeated her handing-over-the-reins-of-power statement to Ephiny, but publicly this time. The gathered Amazons had cheered the new queen, but there was much sadness at the stepping down of Queen Gabrielle, who had led them to their present prosperity and position of power within the empire of the Conqueror. It would have been nice to be completely independent, but their feisty queen had steered a clever path between bowing to another ruler, and maintaining the near autonomy of the Greek Amazons.
"I didn't think you'd do it, Gabrielle," the newly masked queen whispered.
"Why ever not?"
"I figured you were up to something."
"Not me. I'm happy for you. I know you'll make a wonderful queen. My only word of advice, as departing queen, is stay away from Romans."
"Trust me, they're bad news."
"But they're part of the Empire. How am I supposed to avoid them?"
"They are?... of course they are. Um, well, just do your best, I know you'll manage it. You always do."
Ephiny shook her head again. Gabrielle was becoming increasingly strange.
"I wonder what Artemis will say?"
"Say? About what?"
"You weren't supposed to step down for six months, she was going to bless the ceremony."
"Oh, well, I'm sure we can have another one, just for her benefit."
Ephiny laughed. "You know, Gabs, I think I could get to like this new you." Gabrielle gave her a heart-warming smile.
"I would like that... very much." Ephiny was surprised by the sincerity in the small blonde's voice. She turned away, suddenly feeling guilty about all the schemes she'd been a part of to oust the former queen.
"I... don't know what to say."
"Nothing to say. Just be a good queen and look after the nation. They're the best."
"Yes, they are." The two women shared a moment of silence. It was interrupted by the rather surprising sight of the god Cupid swooping down into the village centre, carrying the long-lost warrior Solari.
"Oh, gods, where's Psyche?" asked a panicking Gabrielle.
"Psyche... what's she got to do with this?" responded a slightly flustered queen.
"Oh, it's so complicated," groaned Gabrielle, holding her head in her hands.
* * *
"I'm so sorry, my love, I did something stupid and it's robbed you of your immortality." Cupid wrung his hands in anguish, looking forlornly at his beloved Psyche. Xena had left them alone in the royal apartments, after a stern warning to Cupid that he must throw himself upon Psyche's mercy and beg for her forgiveness.
"I forgive you... now what did you do exactly?"
"Oh, it doesn't matter, but I'll make it up to you I promise. I'll fly you to Olympus and get my mom to get you some ambrosia again," the distraught god said, trying to hug Psyche. She neatly ducked underneath his arms and skipped around the other side of a nearby sofa.
"Ambrosia, really?" she said, carefully trying to keep her son on the other side of the strategically placed piece of furniture, without trying to make it look too obvious.
"I know this doesn't make much sense to you, Psyche, but we were made for each other, believe me."
"What makes you say that?"
"We were in love, and even my interfering mother couldn't keep us apart."
"Hey, how was I to know that it was for real!" said Aphrodite, momentarily forgetting her disguise.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Um, nothing. Now, what was that about flying me to Olympus?"
"Oh yeah... my mom can make you immortal and we can be together for eternity."
"Why should she do that, I hear she's a busy lady."
"Oh, I can deal with my mom, don't you worry about that."
"Is that so!" she said, frowning and putting her hands on her hips.
"Yeah, round my little finger," replied Cupid, totally failing to notice the mounting anger of the woman standing in front of him. She marched round the sofa and grabbed him by the ear, pulling his face to within in inch of her's.
"Round your little finger, huh?"
"Ow, that hurts! Cut it out, willya, Psyche."
"Psyche... right. Sorry there, Cupid. I don't know what came over me."
"I do, you had to get close and touch me," he said smiling endearingly, and grabbed her into an unexpected hug.
"Yeah, right. I had to touch you," she said, blowing an errant feather away from her face.
"I know this is all a bit short notice for you, but I promise we were meant for each other, you'll see," he whispered in her ear.
The goddess extracted herself from his powerful grip and gently pushed him away. "Okay, I'll think about it. But first I want you to tell me all about it. Start at the beginning and leave nothing out."
"Can't I tell you on the way?"
Aphrodite furiously tried to think of a good reason why that would be a bad idea.
"I'm... hungry, yes, that's it. Can't we have something to eat before we go?"
"Pretty soon you won't need to eat, you'll be immortal."
"Yeah, well, I ain't there yet, so park those tight little buns of yours and take a load off. I'll get some food sent up."
"Oh, well, if you must. I guess another hour or two won't make much of a difference, one way or the other."
"Ata boy," she said, pinching his cheek affectionately and using her best smile, which dropped from her face the moment he turned his back, only to snap back into place when he turned back to look at her adoringly.
"Don't be long, my darling."
"I won't, Sugar Plum," she said, rolling her eyes when she turned and made for the door. Xena was pacing about in the corridor outside, having dismissed the guard.
"What did he say?" she rounded on the goddess as soon as she emerged.
"Nothing yet, I'm still working on it."
"Whad'ya mean you're still working on it!" she demanded in a barely contained whisper.
"He wants to fly me to Olympus and feed me some ambrosia. I told him I was hungry and said I needed to eat first."
"Then I'll have to think of something else."
"I could always put the pinch on him!"
"That won't work, he's a god, for Zeus' sake."
"This is driving me insane!" Xena fumed, running her hands vigorously through her hair, dislodging her sunburst crown. It clattered loudly to the floor. "Oh, that's just... wonderful!"
The door opened and cupid looked out. "Is everything all right, Psyche?"
"Yes, darling, me n'Xena were just deciding what to have for dinner."
"I thought we were eating alone," he said, petulantly.
"We are, Cupie."
"Don't call me that. My mom calls me Cupie and I hate it!"
"Yeah, she treats me like a kid, even now."
"Aw, honey, I'm sorry," she said running to the god and embracing him."
"It's not your fault."
"Hah!" snorted Xena, rolling her eyes and kicking the crown down the corridor.
"Come inside, baby. Wait for your food in here." Aphrodite shrugged at Xena. Putting her hand up she waved with her fingers, mouthing a 'bye bye' before disappearing through the door, which Cupid firmly shut behind her.
'I really am gonna kill someone soon!' Xena silently growled to herself, her hands clasping involuntarily into fists.
* * *
Gabrielle ran through the gathering Amazons, furiously looking for Psyche. She spotted her by the stables, deep in conversation with Chilapa. 'Don't like the look of that,' she thought, hurrying to meet them.
"There she is!" a deep voice boomed out across the village. 'Oh, thank you very much, Solari!' she groaned, speeding up her pace.
"No time to explain," she shouted, pushing Chilapa to one side and grabbing Psyche's wrist, hauling the startled woman behind her. They had just rounded the corner of the stable block when a dark shadow fell across their path as Cupid, his wings full spread, touched down in front of them.
"Afternoon, ladies," he said smiling and retracting his wings. Gabrielle pushed Psyche behind her protectively.
"Cupid, how nice to see you. I was just taking Psyche for a... walk."
"That's nice." He stepped forward. Gabrielle took a step back, shoving Psyche as they went.
"Now, Cupid, I need to talk with Psyche before you do. It's real important."
"Well, I'm sure... Psyche, is it?" he said, looking round Gabrielle to the woman cowering behind the ex-queen. "I'm sure you won't mind if I steal the Queen away for a short while first."
"No, you don't understand I need-- what!"
"I want to talk with you, Gabrielle. I love you!"
"I love you. I've known from the first moment I saw you in mom's scrying bowl."
"You mean you've not come to see Psyche?"
"Never met the woman. Why would I want to speak to her? No offence, Ma'am."
"None taken," a small voice squeaked out from behind Gabrielle.
"It's me you want?" Gabrielle gulped and pulled a shocked Psyche from behind, placing her between herself and the advancing god.
"Now, Cupid, how could you love me, I'm... I'm a horrible person. I do terrible things. I kill people for fun."
Gabrielle shoved the wretched Psyche into the arms of Cupid and turned and ran.
Ephiny and Solari stood on the royal dais, watching in amazement as the former queen ran at full tilt across the village square, a winged god in hot pursuit, calling for her to wait at the top of his voice.
"You know, when I woke up this morning my world seemed quite normal. Now look at it."
Solari regarded at her new queen, sourly. "What's she got that I haven't? I spent nearly a whole day in his arms, and first chance he gets, he literally drops me for her. I don't get it," she grumbled.
"Why, Solari, I do believe you're smitten. And with a male god at that. Can this day get any stranger?"
At that moment a large crack of thunder shook the village, heralding the appearance of Zeus and Aphrodite, directly in the path of the speeding Gabrielle.
* * *
"So, you allowed Ares to send you back in time on a secret mission. This was to alter history and prevent the birth of Xena's daughter?"
"Yeah, I know it sounds kinda dumb now, when you put it like that."
"How was this supposed to happen?"
"I had to get some low-life called Darphus to fall in love with Xena and prevent him throwing her out of her own army."
"How did you know that would stop Xena having a daughter? I can't imagine Xena allowing anyone to throw her out of her own army."
"I don't know, Ares just said it would," said the embarrassed god. "The Xena you know, the Conqueror, is not the same Xena I know. Oh, they're both cut from the same cloth, but yours is somehow more... more Xena-like." 'More Xena than Xena. Ooh, can't wait to tell the Warrior Babe that one!' she thought, grinning maliciously.
"When did you go back to, and how were you supposed to get back to the present?"
"Ares gave me this ring," he said, reaching into his pouch and pulling out an empty gold band. "Said I was to break the stone and I would come back to the Halls of War wherever, and whenever, I was. I was to break it once I'd got Darphus to fall for Xena."
"Wow, that's quite a story." Aphrodite handed the god a goblet of wine. "When did all this happen?"
"Couple of days ago."
"No, I mean when did the Darphus thing happen?"
"You ask a lot of question, Psyche. Haven't you had enough food yet?" grumbled the impatient god.
* * *
Gabrielle's mounting panic went off the scale at the appearance of the two gods in front of her. She tried skidding to a halt, but her momentum caused her legs to fold underneath her and she tumbled to an undignified halt at the feet of the king of the gods. Cupid wasn't so lucky. He tripped over her and barrelled head-long into his mother, taking them both down in a ball of flailing legs, arms, wings and shrieks.
Zeus contemplated the pile of bodies around him and sighed. Gabrielle stood up, rubbing her arm. Cupid had given it a fair clip when he fell over her.
"Zeus, Aphrodite, it's a pleasure to meet you," she squeaked, slowly backing away.
"You, halt!" Zeus said, holding out his hand sending out a beam of light that held Gabrielle rigid. He brought her towards him, until she was face to face. He looked into her eyes and into her mind.
"So, you're not the Conqueror's right hand thug and plaything. You're from another timeline."
"Gods be damned, I knew it!" shouted Ephiny. "She was just too nice to be the real Gabrielle."
Zeus turned his withering gaze upon the outspoken queen.
"Sorry," she said, blushing and looking down at the floor.
Aphrodite and Cupid had managed to stand up and brush themselves down, trying to be as nonchalant as the situation allowed for.
"Boy, are you ever grounded, Junior!" the goddess hissed between clenched teeth.
"It seems you were right, my dear. Your interfering brother has been playing on a grand scale this time. He will have a lot of explaining to do when he gets back from the North Pole. Come, we must take her and return to Olympus and find out all we can." He waved his arm and all three gods plus Gabrielle disappeared in a flash of light.
"Hey what about me?" shrieked Psyche.
"I guess you get to stay and keep us company," grinned Solari.
* * *
"Oh, I don't know, it was some nowhere, nobody village in the northwest Parthos peninsula in Macedonia. Darphus had just ransacked the place. It was horrid, flames, dead bodies n'stuff everywhere. Women and children cut to ribbons, it was a nightmare. Urgghh!" he grimaced at the memory.
"You sure about that, Cupie?"
"Yeah, how could I forget?" the troubled god said, staring into his goblet of wine. "Xena came striding up to the guy, demanding to know what in Tartarus did he think he was doing. I thought she was gonna off the guy then and there, an' save me the bother of having to shoot him with my arrow. But for some reason she didn't, got distracted by a baby crying somewhere. That's when I shot him. Waited around long enough to see him throw himself down on his knees and beg forgiveness. He proclaimed his undying eternal love to Xena. I broke the stone and came back. Ares was there to greet me. Told me that he'd kept you company while I was gone. Don't remember much after that. Next thing I know is I'm free again and I had to find you, and, well, here I am."
"Aw, that's so sweet. I do so love you, Cupie, even if you're dafter than a chocolate teapot."
Cupid frowned and looked up from his wine goblet. "Um, sorry, what was that?"
"Never mind, Junior. Trust me, mom knows best." she reached over and touched his head. His eyes flickered shut and his head lolled forward. Aphrodite caught the falling goblet as she changed back to her normal form. Gently picking up the sleeping god she laid him out on the sofa, placing his goblet back on the table. She clicked her fingers and Xena appeared mid-pace next to her. She looked around slightly bewildered for a split-second, frowning at the goddess.
"I wish you wouldn't do that, Aphrodite. I was only outside the door, you know!"
"Cool it, Long Shanks, I know where, and I know when. Am I not the one and only? Ta da!" she said flinging her arms out in an exaggerated display of self-approval.
"Yeah, you're just terrific. What's with him?" she said pointing at the slumbering god on the sofa.
"Oh, nothing to worry about. I just put him to sleep. He won't wake up till I let him."
"Fine, now bring back Gabrielle and let's get out of here."
"Sure thing." She clicked her fingers. Nothing happened. She frowned and clicked again. Still nothing.
"Nothing, I'm sure. I guess I'm... a little tired."
"Well do it again." Aphrodite pursed her lips, concentrating hard and clicked her fingers again. Still nothing.
"If you're telling me you've lost Gabrielle... "
"I have done no such thing!" she said indignantly.
"Then where the hell is she?"
"Well, I... she should be here, damn it."
"I know that! Where on earth did you send her?"
"Well, Psyche said she liked to climb trees."
"Where did you send her... exactly," Xena all but shouted, advancing on the goddess, anger blazing from her eyes.
"Where else, but the Amazons."
"You did what!"
"Don't sweat it, babes, she'll be safe there."
"Psycho Gabrielle will be there, you nitwit!" Xena growled, barely suppressing her boiling rage. Her soulmate was in terrible danger; she could feel it in her bones.
"I... oops." was all the goddess could say. She finished it with a pallid smile. Xena threw her hands up in the air and howled in frustration.
"We have to go to the Amazon village and find her, that's all there is to it."
"It's not that simple. I can only think of a couple of reasons why I can't bring her back."
"Well, you're not going to like the first reason a whole lot."
"I refuse to believe she's dead. Not after all we've been through!"
"Okay, but I don't think you're going to like the second reason, either."
"She's being held prisoner by another god, and seeing as I can't get a lock on her, so I don't know where she is even, my guess would be on Olympus." She finished and scrunched up her face expecting a tidal wave of wrath from the Warrior Princess.
Against all expectations Xena breathed a large sigh of relief. "That I can live with. It just means we have to go and rescue her. I can do that, I've had enough practice at it, after all." She even smiled.
Aphrodite also breathed a sigh of relief at Xena's change from frustrated ogre to focused, rational problem-solver again.
"Hey, I have an idea. We've got a star witness we can interrogate." She clicked her fingers and Psyche appeared in the room. She was standing, one hand on hip, her other hand reaching to touch something.
"So, what is that you Amazons do for entertainment on an evenin... g" she tailed off, slowly looking around the room. "Gods, this is getting so tiresome," she frowned.
"Hi Psyche, how'ya doing, Gorgeous?"
"I wish I knew. I seem to be having a very strange dream that I can't wake up from. Now I'm standing in a room with the Goddess of Love, the Conqueror, and..." she looked over to the relaxed form on the couch "a sleeping Cupid. You tell me."
"You're doing just fine, Sweetie," Aphrodite said, wrapping her arm around the tormented woman's shoulders. "Now, Xena's got a question or two for you. Do you think you could answer them for her?"
"I... I'll try."
"Good, she's all yours, Warrior Babe."
* * *
"Will you be accompanying us to Corinth, Conqueror?"
"No thank you, Cyane, I have... other means of transport at my disposal at the moment." Xena replied, smirking at Athena.
"Don't think this is a permanent arrangement, Conqueror. You may be my chosen, but I am not your personal taxi service."
"I'm aware of that, Athena," Xena snapped. Cyane smiled inwardly at the subtle power play the goddess and the Conqueror seemed to be perpetually involved in.
"And Queen Gabrielle?"
"Where I go, she goes." Xena said, staring at Athena. The goddess nodded, her face remaining a mask.
"I trust the joining of the Greek Amazons with the Conqueror at a more... intimate level will not push the rest of us into the background, in your affections, Milady?"
"Why do you think I've decided to rotate my Royal guard from all the Amazon nations, and not just the Greeks?"
"Ah, good point. As ever, you are one step ahead of the rest of us."
"Only one?" Xena said, her eyebrows raising.
"You take large strides, Milady," Cyane said, smiling and bowing her head slightly in recognition of Xena's absolute rule and dominance.
"See that you don't forget that next time you feel obliged to try and keep up," Xena responded, tersely.
"Hey, Athena, how about you take me and Xena back to the fields for another picnic before going home?" jumped in Gabrielle, hoping to lighten the mood a bit.
"How about I take you for a guided tour of my palace on Olympus instead?"
"Whad'ya reckon, Xena, should we lower our sights a bit and look over Olympus?" she said, a wicked grin spreading across her face. Xena sighed. Normally she wouldn't have given it a second thought, dismissing the idea, but seeing her own little wolf-in-sheep's-clothing seemed so taken with it, she could hardly refuse.
"I hate to think what problems my council has managed to create in my absence, but as it's for you, my little hellion, I suppose so." She grinned her winning smile and flicked Gabrielle on the nose.
'Oh spare me, please,' thought Cyane, her face a fixed smile. Athena watched Gabrielle. 'Behind every throne...' she thought.
* * *
"Now before we go high-tailing it off to Olympus, let me run this one by you, 'kay?"
"All right, but be quick, time's wasting."
"If I send you back in time and stop my stupid son messing with Darphus, when you get back everything will be back the way it was, and you and Gabrielle will be back to enjoying a little picnic near Amphipolis. So, no need to go rescuing the bard at all."
Xena stopped and considered the proposal. "Are you sure about this?"
"Oh, I just knew you were gonna ask that," she grimaced.
"No, I'm not sure. Happy now?"
"Well, why did you suggest it then?"
"Let's just say I'm not bursting with joy about facing my family, with me on the wrong side. And I might even bump into myself. What a trip that would be," she said glumly.
"We're on the right side? They're in the wrong!"
"Yeah, yeah, but you knew what I meant."
"What's the worst that can happen, if I do just go back and stop Cupid?"
"Well, the best thing is that everything will reset same as it was before, with nobody any the wiser about what happened. Next best thing is that it will all reset, but the five of us will remember everything."
"Sure, some gods can hold grudges for a long time."
"Tell me about it!"
"Yeah, whatever. Anyways, the next best outcome would be for everything to reset but everyone will be left where they are at the time of the changeover. So you'd probably be back from where I sent you from, but Shorty would be left on Olympus, surrounded by some pretty hostile gods. Believe it or not, she's probably safer with this lot, who don't know anything about the Twilight stuff."
"I did consider that, and you're right, whatever happens we can't leave Gabrielle on Olympus."
"No I didn't think so."
"Don't we all have to get back together for you to protect us with the dome thing and keep the time change out?"
"No, this time we have to be a part of the time change, else they'll be two of all of us back in our own proper timeline. Not good."
"No, not good." Xena pondered it some more.
"What about if we go back to just a few minutes after we first left?"
"No good, Smarty Pants. We're trying to make it so that it doesn't happen. If we come back after we left, it's already happened, so no good."
Xena closed her eyes. "This is giving me a headache."
"Hah, you should try sitting through Clotho's--"
"Yeah, you said that already."
"Actually, talking of which, or should that be whom?"
"Just get on with it."
"I wonder if we can get the Fates to help us?"
"Why should they?"
"Hey, I'm popular. They'd do it out of love and respect."
"Somehow, I doubt that!"
"Well, if you're so perfect, Ms Warrior Princess, what are we gonna do?"
"We're going to Olympus, simple as that."
"Perfect, just perfect!" the goddess spat in contempt. "Don't blame me if Zeus fries your ass!"
"I'd like to see him try," Xena said darkly. Aphrodite raised her eyebrows. Xena was deadly serious.
* * *
Gabrielle paced about the huge hall, gesticulating wildly, acting out the story of their arrival in this timeline. Zeus had warned her that he would know if she were lying, so she'd shrugged and told them all she knew. There didn't seem any alternative.
"She's quite the bard, ain't she," whispered Aphrodite to Zeus, who was so captured by the brilliant storytelling that he hadn't heard the goddess's comment.
"Eh, what? Sssh, can't you see I'm listening? Now do be quiet while Gabrielle's talking," he whispered back tersely.
"Fine, forgive me for existing," the goddess harrumphed and disappeared; only to reappear closer to the stage where Gabrielle was telling her story.
Other gods had come in to the main throne room to hear this strange tale and were all listening intently, sometimes laughing at the antics of the bard on the stage, sometimes applauding as she came to the end of a scene.
"So, you were groping this Psyche gal when the Amazons showed up?" called out Discord from the edge of the stage.
Gabrielle stopped mid sentence and looked at the heckling goddess. "No, no... I said that I was holding her hand and trying to get her to come around from her faint. It was the Amazons who added two and two and got five. Now, where was I... Oh yes--"
"Five what?" Discord asked out loud. Gabrielle rolled her eyes.
"What do you mean 'five what'?" she asked patiently.
"You said the Amazons made five. I wanna know what they made five of."
Gabrielle was used to hecklers from her days as a travelling bard, back when that was all she could do to assist Xena, earning a few dinars in the inns and taverns they found themselves in. "You weren't at the front of the queue when it came to handing out brains, were you?" A small ripple of laughter spread through the divine audience. Discord scowled and turned on the other gods.
"What's so funny?" she demanded, indignantly, eliciting another round of laughs.
"Please continue, Gabrielle," Zeus commanded. She bowed, and launched back into the story.
"I don't understand, why didn't Cupid want to see Psyche," Discord asked loudly. A collective groan went through the audience. Gabrielle closed her eyes and counted to ten.
"Because it was the wrong Cupid?"
"What do you mean the wrong Cupid. How can Cupid be, well... wrong?"
"That's it. I've never forgiven you for what you did to my birthday party three years ago!" She pulled out one of her sais from her boot and threw it at the goddess.
"Hey!" Discord yelled, standing up suddenly, looking down at the sai buried in her chest up to the hilt. The audience burst out in spontaneous laughter, including Zeus, who stood up from his throne, applauding.
"Ah, Gabrielle, you don't know how often I've wanted to do that myself. Bravo!" he said, laughing uproariously.
Gabrielle blushed and grinned with embarrassment. By the gods, had she really done that? She couldn't believe it herself.
The outraged goddess growled, pulling the sai from her chest and getting up on the stage.
"Enough, Discord. Go to your room."
"But... but... "
"No buts, be gone, and give the sai back to Gabrielle before you go," ordered Zeus.
The goddess tossed the sai onto the stage and stomped off, muttering lurid death threats and painful retribution as she went.
"Please continue. Hopefully there will be no more interruptions. Have I made myself clear?" There was absolute silence. "Good." He sat down and waved the bard to continue.
* * *
Xena watched the enraged goddess pass by from her hiding place behind a particularly tasteless statue of Hestia doing something strange with a satyr.
"Pretty slick throw from the bardster, Warrior Babe," whispered Aphrodite, who was crouched next to her, hidden in the shadows.
"Damn straight!" Xena beamed with pride.
"Ooh, I wish I could have been closer to the stage and seen that obnoxious little runt's face when Gabs pinned the bitch dead centre."
"Pity she's immortal," Xena shrugged.
"Yeah, I guess." Xena looked away from Gabrielle's performance, over to the suddenly quiet goddess. "Aphrodite?"
"What's the matter? You suddenly look like you've just discovered someone's put itching powder on your saddle."
"Oh, it's nothing."
"It must be something. If it's gonna jeopardise this mission I need to know about it, now."
"It's nothing like that. It's just something you said. Don't worry about it. It's not important to getting Gabrielle back."
"Damn it, Aphrodite, don't go all coy on me now, spit it out!"
"When you said it was a pity that Discord was immortal... well, it reminded me that as soon as we get back to our timeline, then... well the Twilight's still in place. You and your daughter will be coming after all of us. And knowing you, you'll do your usual lethal best, and... and I don't know how many brothers and sisters I'll have left. Or even if you'll... you'll... " she couldn't continue, tears filling her eyes.
Xena gripped the arm of the goddess and pulled her close. "Aphrodite, please believe me when I say that my daughter is no threat to any of you. She's not even a year old for Zeus's sake! I promise you, if your family leaves us alone, we'll leave you and yours alone. I swear on my honour, and my daughter's life!"
Aphrodite's bottom lip trembled. "Swear it on... on the bard's life."
"Oh, for the love of... okay, okay, I swear it on Gabrielle's life. Which won't be worth a plugged dinar if we don't do something and get her out of there!" Aphrodite's biggest beaming smile snapped back into place.
"Now I believe you, Xena. Thank you."
"Think nothing of it. Now, are we ready to proceed?"
Aphrodite saluted. "At your command, General. What's the plan?"
"We need a diversion... and I think... we just got it," she said, turning to look at the far end of the corridor.
* * *
The door to the corridor leading to the main hall opened automatically at the presence of Athena, as she swept imperiously on, the Conqueror and the Amazon Queen trailing behind, marvelling at the sheer magnificence of the architecture of Olympus.
"I think I need to have words with my builders," Xena whispered to Gabrielle, who laughed. Athena smirked. 'Teach you to think you're above the gods, my arrogant little Conqueror.'
"Is it as good as you thought it might be, Xena?" the goddess asked.
"It's okay." Gabrielle grinned at Xena's casual reply.
"Yes, it is 'okay' isn't it. Somewhere to call home."
"For you, maybe, but I'm happy with Corinth."
The three of them reached the opening to the great hall. None of them were aware of the Goddess of Love and the Warrior Princess observing them from the shadows behind one of the dozens of immense statues that lined the corridor.
"Something seems to be going on, for so many of us to be gathered. Perhaps it's a show, Zeus does like his dancing girls," she sighed.
"Hera must be out of town," said a smirking Gabrielle. Athena turned sharply on the Queen, her eyes narrowed.
"The private lives of my family are not a subject for mortals to joke about!"
"Yeah, well try keeping them--"
"Quiet!" snapped Xena. "Do you see who's keeping the gods entertained?"
They both turned to look at the stage.
Gabrielle's hand shot to cover her mouth in shock. Even Athena's normal mask of stoicism had dropped for open-mouthed astonishment.
"What is the meaning of this!" roared the Conqueror. The room went deadly quiet as all eyes, including Gabrielle's on the stage, turned to the new disturbance standing in the entrance to the hall.
"You ain't seen nothing yet," said Xena in the ensuing silence, stepping out from behind the statue and throwing her chakram at the massive crystal chandelier hovering above the heads of the assembled gods.
Everyone ducked instinctively at the whining sound of the chakram tearing over their heads, with the exception of Athena, who had at least managed to close her mouth from the shock of two Gabrielles. In the second before the chakram struck its target the two Xenas locked eyes.
"Nice to finally meet'ya. I've heard so much about you, none of it good!" The sound of metal cutting through thick rope echoed around the room. Gods scattered in pandemonium as the colossal chandelier, complete with a thousand infinite candles, made its majestic way to the floor. Xena casually reached up and caught her returning chakram.
Gabrielle turned away, diving for the back of the stage hoping desperately to escape from the impending explosion of glass and flame that was about to engulf the hall. She hit the ground, rolling into a ball, expecting to be cut to ribbons at any second. Instead a gentle, but tingling hand touched her back, making her jerk in surprise.
"Hey, Little One, let's get outta here," said Aphrodite. The next thing the bard knew she was behind a statue of Hestia.
"Wow!" she said, momentarily mesmerised by the antics of the Satyr. She flinched instinctively as an immense explosion erupted from the room next door.
The Conqueror ignored the chaos going on around her and drew her sword. "So, that's your plan, Athena, trick Gabrielle and me into coming to Olympus so that you can swap us for puppets of your own!" she seethed, holding the sword tip under the chin of the goddess.
"Don't be ridiculous, I've never seen these two impostors before in my life. This is the work of Ares, it must be," she snapped back, trying to pull her chin off the point of Xena's sword, but for each step back she took, Xena advanced one to match it.
Xena watched Xena turn on Athena. 'You go, girl!' she thought happily, but was jerked away from the enjoyable spectacle by Aphrodite pulling her back into the shadows.
"Now is not the time to admire your handiwork, now is the time to run away very fast!" she told the still grinning warrior.
"Right... ya got Gabrielle?"
"In the flesh," she said, putting her arm around a still slightly shell-shocked bard.
"Then let's go!"
"I'm on it, Baby." The three of them disappeared in a flash of sparkles.
Zeus stood up from behind his glass-peppered throne, dusting himself off, more than a little embarrassed that, like everyone else, he'd dived for cover too. With as much dignity as he could muster he waved his hand, causing the millions of fragments of shattered chandelier to recombine and float back up to the ceiling.
"Would somebody mind telling me what that was all about?" he rumbled menacingly. Aphrodite waved her hand across herself, restoring her normally immaculate appearance from its dishevelled self.
"The bard's gone. I'd say the other Xena, the one the bard was talking about just crashed the party."
"Gods preserve us," groaned Zeus, looking skyward. Athena and Aphrodite followed their fathers gaze and looked up also.
"What's up there, Pops?" asked Aphrodite, puzzled.
Zeus closed his eyes and sighed, allowing his head to drop onto his chest. "Doesn't matter," he mumbled.
He looked up, turning to the Conqueror. "Do you have anything to add? And would you mind putting that sword away, please."
"Hey, don't look at me, I just got here." Xena reluctantly sheathed her sword.
"And you?" the god said, turning his piercing gaze to Gabrielle. She just shook her head. It wasn't every day that even an Amazon queen had a conversation with the king of the gods.
He turned back to the assembled gods. "Anyone... anyone at all?" There was silence.
"I see. Perfect. Just wonderful!" he said, sitting heavily on the throne, with an exaggerated sigh
"Maybe, you ought to think about having another word with Ares and Artemis. I think they're up to their necks in this," said Aphrodite.
"I agree," chipped in Athena.
"Ares, what's he been up to now?" scowled the Conqueror.
"That's what we're all about to find out, my dear." Xena's eyes narrowed at Zeus. He held up his hand. "My apologies, Conqueror. Forgive the foibles of an old man, raised in a different age. I meant nothing by it." Xena's only response was a low, throaty growl and a disdainful curl of her top lip.
* * *
"It was the second time I met Hercules. Just before that we were getting supplies from the villages in the Parthos peninsula. I'd gone north to scout the villages there. The ones to the west had such poor pickings; they could hardly supply themselves, let alone my army. Not that that mattered to Darphus." Xena went silent, lost in her bitter memories. Aphrodite had brought them all back, even the still sleeping Cupid, to the lake outside of Amphipolis.
Gabrielle held Xena's hand. "It's all right, Xena, what you did then was terrible, but you're not the same person now that you were then."
Xena lowered her head. It was clear that she didn't believe it for a moment.
"We're on a mission, remember. It won't take long for Zeus to piece it all together and come after us. He won't sit around waiting to disappear in a puff of wrong timeline smoke."
"You're right. So how do we do this?"
"Well, I can send you back in time and place to stop Cupid. But now here's the problem. I don't have a fancy Cronos stone ring to bring you back when you're done. I can set a time limit and bring you back here, but who knows when will be the right time?"
"I'm kinda hoping you will."
"Don't look at me, Warrior Babe. Your guess is as good as mine as to when would be the right time to return."
"Forgetting the return problem for a moment, what's to stop them going back in time and having another go, and maybe stop Xena stopping Cupid?" asked a frowning bard.
"Won't happen, Sweet Pea, once we set the timeline back where it should be, they simply won't exist to mount a counter-attack."
"But what's to stop Ares doing it again?"
"One problem at a time, huh," said a frustrated warrior. She loved the bard dearly, but by the gods did she over-analyse things sometimes.
"As I see it, then, I've got to go back and not only stop Cupid, but also steal his ring and come back to the Halls of War. That should surprise Ares!" she said with an evil grin.
"That means as soon as I see that time's back the way it should be, I've got to hotfoot it over to bro's hideously decorated home and get you outta there and back to the Little One's lovin' arms, here."
Gabrielle blushed. "Aphrodite!" she hissed through clenched teeth.
"What... what'd I say?"
"Can we get on with this?" snapped the warrior.
"As soon as you tell me exactly when and where," she said, holding her hand up in the air, ready to cast a spell. "Oh, and you'll need this." She handed Xena a small pouch. Xena started to open the bag. "Don't! Not till you're ready. It's sleeping dust. I thought it would come in handy dealing with my son." Xena nodded and tucked the pouch into her belt.
"Hey, what about me?" They both turned to look at Gabrielle.
"What about you?"
"I'm not staying here while you go gallivanting off through space and time. What if I'm left here all on my own?"
"No!" shouted Xena. Coughing, she lowered her voice. "I mean, it's the best place for you." She tried to smile, but it came out more like a grimace.
"Oh no, Warrior Princess, not this time. Where you go, I go!"
"That's... not possible. We don't know if the ring will support three people."
"Sure. I can't leave Cupid there, can I? He's got to return too." Gabrielle pursed her lips, her nose wrinkling in a scowl.
She turned to Aphrodite. "Is that true?"
"'Fraid so, Cupcake."
"You'd better come back, Xena, or I'm going to hunt you down and make your old age hell!"
Xena pulled herself up to her full six feet and squared her shoulders. "I'll be back."
* * *
"Look, godsdamnit! If I hadn't done what I did, you'd still be dead!" Ares roared. He was sick and tired of all of this. Three days at the North Pole had done little to dampen his anger. Having been summoned back to Olympus and been forced to tell them all he knew, he was thoroughly sick of the whole plan, and just wished it would end.
Zeus sat back on his throne. On the one hand, Ares was right, he wouldn't now be in existence if it wasn't for his meddling. On the other, this Ares had cynically, and against all the rules, played with all their fates. Not to mention murdered himself without compunction. What a mess.
"Look, Old Man, whatever we do, we've got to do it fast. At any moment we could all just wink out of existence, if Xena can get to Cupid in time. And I wouldn't bet a damned thing against her doing it!"
"Yes, yes, you're right." Zeus stood up. "I think we need to fight fire with fire. You, my dear, er, Conqueror," he said pointing at Xena. "Are going back in time to prevent your other self from stopping Cupid from changing the time line. Is that clear?"
"If she's going, I'm going too!" demanded Gabrielle. Zeus threw his hands up in the air.
"Of course, why ever in Tartarus not! Hades, we've broken just about every rule of time travel the Fates set us already, so why not another one!" his voice rising to a shout as he finished.
"Testy, isn't he?" whispered Gabrielle to Xena.
"I heard that," the king of the gods growled. Gabrielle stepped sideways behind Xena, looking back at Zeus over her broad shoulder, giving him a weak smile.
* * *
Xena put her hand over her mouth to smother a moan. Her eyes closed involuntarily, sudden tears threatening to steal her sight. Her worst nightmares of the burning of Cirra and this village came sharply back into focus; for a moment she thought she was going to be sick.
She couldn't even remember the name of the village, that her army had so utterly destroyed. Bloody corpses of men, women and children lay all around. She had to lean up against a wall to regain her composure. The warrior was deeply thankful that Gabrielle had agreed to stay behind. She couldn't bear to see the look of disgust in those green eyes. 'I swear when this is over I will return to this place and try to make some small amends,' she promised herself.
Straightening herself, she shook her shoulders and rotated her head, her neck clicking. Focussed again, she crept forward, looking through a window at the soldiers, led by Darphus, gathering in the village square. Flames still danced into the night all around them, threatening to reduce the whole village to nothing but ashes.
A sound in the house next door caught her attention. Somebody was moving about in there. At any moment she would see herself ride into the village across the square and confront Darphus. This was the moment when Cupid would intervene and alter the timeline. She wasn't sure where the god would appear from, or even if he'd be visible. She'd forgotten to discuss that possibility with Aphrodite before she left. Kicking herself mentally, she sighed and rubbed her face with her hands. 'Have to worry about that when the time comes.'
The noise continued next door. It could be Cupid, for all she knew, but she doubted that the god would be that clumsy. Whoever they were, they weren't making any attempt to conceal themselves. Pulling one of her boot daggers out, she carefully circled around the back to get a better look into the next hut.
A soldier, one she didn't recognise, was rummaging through what remained of the contents. He flipped an overturned table out of the way and stepped back in surprise. Staring back up at the soldier was a small infant in a cradle. A woman's corpse half covered it, apparantly having died trying to protect the baby. The soldier muttereed angrily and pulled the woman's body off the cradle, drawing his sword.
Xena acted instinctively. The soldier stumbled back across the room, his hands desperately clawing at his neck. He fell to the floor, frothy blood welling up with his last gasp. Xena crept forward and pulled her knife from his throat.
'So much for not interfering with history,' thought the warrior, wiping the blade clean. Xena reguarded the infant, noting the birthmark on its leg. She frowned. 'This is really weird... '
So wrapped up in her thoughts about the oddities of time travel, she was totally unprepared for the charge of the Amazon queen that took her crashing to the ground. The blow loosened her grip on her dagger, making it skitter across the floor. Her breath was knocked from her by the fall, leaving her defencless as the blonde rained blow after heavy blow onto her face and body.
"I always wanted to know who was best," Gabrielle seethed, punching Xena in the face as hard as she could.
The stunned warrior rolled her head left and right trying to avoid the blows, but Gabrielle was fast and efficient, keeping the warrior's arms trapped by her side. Through the pain and fogginess Xena managed to knee the Amazon in the back, knocking her forward enough to pull a hand free and jabb her fingers into the blonde's ribs.
The Amazon screamed, the whole of her left side burning with excruciating pain, her arm dropping uselessly by her side.
"Damn your pressure points, you cheating bitch!" she choked out, as Xena thankfully pushed the crippled queen off her. Xena rolled over, spitting out blood from her battered mouth, shaking her head, trying desperately to clear her stunned senses. She crawled away from the queen, panting and gulping in great lungfuls of air. The warrior knew she was in trouble. Wherever this Gabrielle was, the other Xena wouldn't be far away. Xena knew she was now so weakened from the surprise attack of the queen's, she very much doubted she could take on herself and win.
"You... you pack quite a wallop," she gasped.
"Screw you!" retorted a furious Gabrielle.
"Charming," Xena grunted, still out of breath, blood running from her mouth and nose, her left eye swelling almost closed.
"I can't let you kill my entire world, damn you!" Gabrielle ground out, dragging herself upright against a wall. Pulling a sai from her boot with her working hand, she staggered towards the warrior.
"Gabrielle, please... please don't do this." Xena cringed at the painful sight of someone she loved more than life itself limping towards her, the queens's face drawn into a leering rictus of pain and fury.
The enraged Amazon launched herself at Xena in one last desperate lunge. Xena half-wheeled out of the way, catching Gabrielle's wrist, trying desperately to stop the deadly thrust of the sai plunging towards her neck.
They both fell awkwardly across an overturned chair, crashing noisily to the ground. Gabrielle gasped in shocked surprise. Their eyes met for a moment, both of them seeing the deep connection they intimately shared, despite differing timelines. Gabrielle blinked and tried to say something, but no sound came out. Xena felt a warmth spreading down across her hands.
"Oh, Gabrielle, no... please no," moaned Xena.
She let go of Gabrielle's wrist and gently pushed the queen away from her. The sai had turned back during the fall, burying itself in the Amazon's chest.
Xena laid the queen gently to the floor. "I'm so sorry, Gabrielle, I never meant for this to happen," Xena whispered in a daze of pain and guilt.
A hand grabbed the warrior by her hair and yanked her effortlessly to her feet. The two Xenas stared at each other for an instant, the strangeness of the moment holding them both in place.
"She gave me no choice," Xena said, her eyes beginning to water.
"No... my Queen never would," the Conqueror replied, her voice cracking slightly.
She roughly pushed Xena to one side and knelt by the fallen Amazon. "Gabrielle," she said softly. The queen's eyes flickered open. "Xena, is that you. The real you, I mean?"
"Yes, my love, it's me."
"It looks..." she coughed an unpleasant gurgling noise. "As... as if you really were the best between us. I... I can't even beat... the..." she coughed again, her eyes flickered shut as her chest settled in one last ragged breath.
Xena tugged the sai from her queen, throwing it away in disgust. She pulled the dead Amazon up into her arms and kissed her gently, tears rolling silently down her cheeks.
"Oh, my precious queen, you couldn't wait, could you? Now look at you."
Xena stood to one side, not exactly sure what to do. She knew she should kill the Conqueror kneeling defencelessly before her. The warrior also knew she couldn't bring herself to do it.
"I'm so sorry, I really didn't want it to come to this," was all she managed to say, a lump forming thickly in her throat. Seeing Gabrielle on the floor, dead by her own hand, was almost more than she could bear.
The Conqueror looked up at her twin. "Just go; get away from here. Find Cupid and take him back to your time."
"You're not going to try and stop me?"
"What do I want with a world without my Gabrielle?" she rasped out, her jaw muscles flexing, grinding her teeth in anguish. "You go back to your Gabrielle and guard her with your life. Love her for me... please."
"That, I can promise.".
She held out her hand to the Conqueror. They clasped in a warrior's grip.
Xena recovered her dropped knife and offered it, hilt first, to the kneeling woman, who shook her head. "I have my own, thank you."
* * *
"How much longer is this supposed to take, damnit!" demanded Gabrielle for the tenth time in as many minutes.
"Relax, Little One, that's the beauty of time travel. Xena's got all the time in the world." It wasn't true, but she couldn't think of anything else to say that might calm the bard.
Gabrielle was about to respond when a huge distortion swept across the landscape towards them, faster than the bard could react. Everything seemed to shift through ninety degrees for a split-second before righting itself. She staggered a bit, sitting down on the ground with a sigh.
"Whoa, that was... intense," the bard mumbled.
Aphrodite grinned and stood up. "Never bet against the Warrior Princess!" she announced, pointing towards the nearby tree. Gabrielle shook her head to clear it, and followed the goddess's finger. Argo looked up mid-munch of some grass and whinnied, waggling her ears at the two of them. Gabrielle whooped with joy.
"Be back in a mo, Kiddo, gotta go fetch our hero." She vanished in a shower of sparkles.
* * *
Aphrodite appeared in the Halls of War next to an angry Xena.
"You didn't tell me that stuff you gave me was going to kill him, for Zeus' sake!" hissed Xena, holding up an empty pouch in one hand and a broken ring in the other. The goddess zapped the pouch into oblivion.
"Careful, Princess, that stuff may only make you sneeze, but powdered Hind's blood won't do me any good at all. Besides, Warrior Babe, do you really think the world needs two Cupids? My Cupie is still sleeping like a baby back at the picnic. Gabs is looking after him, along with a big ol' war-horse."
"Yup, she's back. And if you can manage to get over killing a surplus god, I suggest we get back to your bard." Aphrodite touched Xena's battered face. "Did my son do all this to you?"
"Really, then who?"
"Let's just say I ran into a very angry Amazon, and leave it at that."
"Whatever you say, Warrior Babe. Now, shall we?"
"Sure, I'm not fond of this place, even without Ares being here."
Aphrodite grinned "Me neither!" and waved her arm.
* * *
"My gods, Xena, what happened to your face, it's covered in cuts and bruises," asked a concerned bard, running to her soulmate and giving her a great hug.
"Oh, nothing much, you should see the other guy," Xena grinned. Gabrielle caught the sudden pain in Xena's eyes but said nothing.
"I'm just glad you're here and everything's back the way it was."
"Me too, my love, me too."
"How about I take you two to your mom's inn and see if a cute little bundle of joy is back there waiting for her two mommies," said the goddess.
"Sure, I can throw in a horse. One moment though." She knelt beside the slumbering Cupid and touched his forehead. A glow of magical power ran up and down his body. He sat up and yawned, looking around slightly puzzled.
"Hi mom. Must've dozed off there. Boy did I have a weird dream."
"You'll have to tell me about it one day. In the meantime, I think you've got a wife and child to get back to."
"Yeah, you're right. Er, thanks for the picnic," he said to Gabrielle.
"You're welcome," the bard grinned. Still slightly befuddled, the god took off and headed for home.
"Nice boy, but he sure don't take after his mama in the brains department."
"I've been wondering about that, Aphrodite. Where exactly does he get those wings from?"
"It's a long story, Sweet Pea, but right now, we've got to get you two home."
A moment later they were all standing in front of Cyrene's inn. Xena rushed through the door just in time to see her mother walkin in from the kitchen, carrying Eve in her arms.
"Xena, I didn't expect you back so soon."
"Mother, how long have we been away?"
"You only left about hour ago. And what's happened to your face?"
"Never mind that, just give me my baby to cuddle. I think I really need one right now," she said, holding out her arms.
"Aw, ain't that cute," cooed Aphrodite.
"Yeah, sure is," replied a smiling Gabrielle. They both watched as Xena gazed adoringly down at her baby daughter.
"What do you think happened to Ares?"
"I expect he found himself on Olympus with no idea how he got there."
"Think he'll remember any of this?"
"Hard to say. Maybe, maybe not."
"What will you do now?"
"Oh, I will go back to aggravating Discord down by the docks in Amphipolis. I was just dealing with the last pirate when Psyche called me."
Gabrielle groaned. Aphrodite turned to look at what had caused the bard's sudden change of mood. Joxer was shambling up the street towards them.
"You know, I get a really bad feeling that our next adventure is going to be just awful."
"You never can tell, Sweet Thing," the goddess said, leaning down and giving Gabrielle a quick kiss on the forehead. "Later," she said, disappearing in a cloud of sparkles.
"Joxer, how nice to see you," Gabrielle said, smiling, walking towards her friend.
My sincere thanks to my long-suffering girlfriend for her help and encouragement. I'd also like to thank Stacia Seaman from the Bards' Village (formerly the Ex-Gaurds) for her outstanding proofreading. Any faults that are there are almost certainly from my further twiddling after her sterling work.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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